RSS icon Home icon
  • 2006 Porsche Cayman S

    A Boxster S, and then some

    By Nina Russin

    2006 Porsche Cayman S

    2006 Porsche Cayman S

    Can the Porsche Cayman work as an active lifestyle vehicle? The sports coupe, based on the Boxster S chassis, has just enough room inside to hold two passengers and a few bags of groceries on a luggage shelf behind the seats.

    There are two “trunks” (one in the front of the car and one behind the rear-mounted engine): I wouldn’t recommend trying to shoe a bike into either one. The cupholders are classic Porsche: clever, but not very functional for people who like their beverage containers on the large side.

    On the other hand, those who think of driving as a sport rather than a necessary evil cannot help falling in love with the Cayman. Positioned between the Boxster and flagship 911 Carrera, the Cayman features a larger, more powerful six cylinder engine and six-speed manual transmission, fully independent suspension, gloriously large 19-inch rims with two-caliper brakes to match, and an all-steel body whose torsional rigidity nearly matches the 911.

    Enough stats, let’s drive

    One of the things that I love about driving Porsches is the tip off. Unlike cars that jump off the line and then slump through second gear, the Cayman has a perfect acceleration curve. There is no doubt, stepping on the gas, that this car could launch its passengers halfway to Pluto, but the feeling is even and controlled.

    So is the steering, thanks to a highly technical suspension that features separately mounted longitudinal and track control arms in front, and firmer rear springs than the Boxster. Variable ratio steering automatically adjusts the steering ratio based on the steering wheel angle, so the driver can literally feel the wheels and control them with incredible precision.

    The test car came with Porsche active suspension management: offering drivers separate suspension setups for normal and high-speed driving. At speed, the system lowers the ride height an extra 10 millimeters. That adjustment, combined with the down force generated by the speed-sensitive rear wing, makes the Cayman stick to the road like glue. It almost makes one revel in the glory of decreasing radius turns.

    Then there’s the brakes. One of the hallmarks of the Porsche 911 is that it stops every bit as fast as it accelerates. The same is true for the Cayman. Engineers put test cars through 25 consecutive cycles of braking from top speed (170) to 62, to make sure that the brakes didn’t fade.

    The six-speed manual transmission has been modified from the Boxster to accommodate the Cayman’s higher horsepower and torque. Triple synchros on the first and second gears and double synchros on the other four make it virtually bulletproof. In other words, a person who is not a particularly good driver can have a lot of fun behind the wheel without busting the gears. Just as important, the transmission shifts smoothly and precisely in all situations, with its signature short throw.

    A classic cockpit

    The standard leather seats (tested) come with six-way power adjustments for both driver and passenger. An optional 12-way adjustable seat has integrated four-way lumbar adjustment. But the standard seats do a great job of supporting the lower back. My only complaint was a noticeable offset of the steering wheel.

    Aside from the cupholders, the interior is both elegant and functional. The glove box is oversized, and there is a fairly large storage box in the center console, with a 12-volt power point inside. Both doors have integrated map pockets.

    While the sound of its engine is entertainment enough, the Cayman’s optional Bose surround-sound system on the test car is an impressive performer. With ten strategically positioned speakers and a seven-channel digital amplifier, it should give most audiofiles all that they’re looking for.

    Standard safety features include six airbags, antilock braking, stability and traction control. The test vehicle came with optional bi-xenon headlamps to make night driving easier, self dimming mirrors and a rain sensor.

    While the Cayman’s trunks are not well suited for large cargo, there is ample space to stash suitcases for the average road trip. Premium fuel is required, but the engine is efficient at burning it. The Cayman averages 20 m.p.g. around town and 28 on the highway: not bad for a car designed to cruise at twice the legal speed limit.

    Can it live in the real world?

    Living in the Cayman for a week was a treat, but as an everyday car, it probably wouldn’t suit my needs, or the needs of most athletes. For one thing, while it’s a drop-dead gorgeous car to look at, it’s also an attention getter. When a car like the Cayman gets parked at a trailhead, chances are good that it will attract a large circle of people. Depending on the location, that is not necessarily a good thing.

    I have driven a Boxster on unimproved roads and it handled them better than I anticipated, partly because the exhaust is plumbed out the center of the car, away from the wheels. I didn’t try it with the Cayman, but my guess is that the slightly longer, slightly lower chassis wouldn’t fare as well. And let’s face it: who wants to risk punching the hole in the aerodynamic underbelly of a $73,000 sports car?

    The Porsche Cayman is an unabashed road car in the best European tradition, designed to carry two people and not a lot of stuff. The rest has to go in something else: probably a little more durable and a little less flashy.

    Then again, if a person can afford to drop $70,000 and change on 2,900 pounds of automotive heaven, buying something else to haul the bike to the trailhead is not a big deal.

    Bottom line: the Porsche Cayman is an awesome car to drive. I loved every inch of its classic silver body, and I especially loved goosing the gas pedal. Rock on, Porsche.

    Likes: Powerful acceleration, precise steering, and exceptional torsional stiffness that keeps the coupe flat and in control at speed. The exterior design is classic Porsche, especially beautiful in silver.

    Dislikes: Slight offset of steering wheel.

    Quick facts:

    Base price: $58,900
    Price as tested: $73,050
    Horsepower: 295 @ 6,250 r.p.m.
    Torque: 251 lbs.-ft. @ 4,400- 6,000 r.p.m.
    0 to 60: 5.1 seconds
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: No 
    Towing: No
    Off-road: No
    Bicycle friendly: No
    Fuel economy: 20/28 m.p.g. city/highway

  • 2006 Honda Ridgeline

    A hidden trunk and so much more

    By Nina Russin

    2006 Honda Ridgeline

    2006 Honda Ridgeline

    Honda‘s new Ridgeline is the first pickup truck to feature a lockable trunk in the cargo bed.  The standard crew cab also has a storage area under the rear seats.  Standard four-wheel drive, and towing capability up to 5,000 pounds make the Ridgeline a great choice for families with active lifestyles.

    The Ridgeline has crisp, responsive handling, much like the manufacturer’s passenger sedans.  All models come with a  255-horsepower V-6 engine and 5-speed automatic transmission.  Standard vehicle stability assist integrates antilock braking and traction control systems.

     While the Ridgeline lacks the two-speed transfer case necessary for extreme off-road driving, it is well-suited for unimproved roads and moderate trails.  Standard four-wheel drive automatically transfers engine power to the wheels with the best traction.

     The powertrain has excellent low-end torque for merging into high speed traffic.  Visibility is excellent to the front and sides of the truck.  Standard heated windshield wipers should appeal to buyers living in the snow belt. 

     Two large pillars in the rear limit visibility , but well-designed side-view mirrors do a good job of minimizing the blind spots.  The Ridgeline is small enough to park in a standard parking spot.  Honda engineers focused on maximizing the vehicle’s torsional strength; as a result steering response is excellent. 

    Driving the Ridgeline around Phoenix for a week proved that the pickup is as practical as it is fun to drive. The standard center console has cup holders large enough for water bottles, and a bin that can hold a small tote bag.  A second storage tray on the floor is large enough for backpacks.  There is also a three-part storage tray on the passenger side above the glove box.

    Lumbar support for both front seating positions is excellent.  Rear seat passengers have better-than average legroom.   The 60/40 split rear seats also lift up to create a load space large enough to hold a mountain bike.  There are two, twelve-volt power outlets:  one in the instrument panel, and one in the rear.

    The five-foot long cargo bed includes six tie-down cleats and four bed lights.  The lockable trunk  can stowe camping equipment, coolers and duffle bags.

     A dealer-installed roof rack with wheel-mounted bike attachment holds up to two bicycles.  Its cost, including installation is about $427. 
     The Ridgeline comes in three trim levels:  base prices range from $27,700 to $31,490, plus a $650 destination charge.

    Likes:  Lockable trunk in cargo bed holds secures items outside the crew cab.  Flip-up rear seats create a large enough space to hold a mountain bike.

    Dislikes:  Large rear pillars restrict visibility to the rear. 

    Quick Facts:

    Base price: $27,700
    Horsepower:  255 @ 5750 r.p.m.
    Torque:  252 lbs.-ft. @ 4500 r.p.m.
    0-60: N/A
    Fuel economy:16/21 mpg
    Side curtain airbags:Yes
    First aid kit:No
    Bicycle friendly:  Yes
    Towing:  Yes
    Fuel economy:16/21 mpg

  • 2006 Chevrolet HHR

    Sport tourer with retro styling

    By Nina Russin

    2006 Chevrolet HHR

    2006 Chevrolet HHR

    The Chevrolet HHR is a compact cross-utility vehicle that combines retro styling on the exterior with a spacious, cargo-friendly interior.

    The HHR is Chevrolet’s answer to the Chrysler PT Cruiser: a compact cross-utility vehicle with retro-styling on the outside, and a stylish, cargo-friendly interior within. The HHR is built on the same platform as the Chevy Cobalt: the sportier of the automaker’s two compact sedans.

    Pricing, including the $550 destination charge, starts at just under $17,000. A well-equipped model with cloth upholstery costs about $20,000.

    The test car came with the optional high-output 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine, five-speed manual transmission, and 17-inch wheels in place of the standard 16-inch rims. Other options included XM-satellite radio ($325), power sunroof  ($725), side curtain airbags ($395), roof rails $150), and an upgraded AM/FM/6-CD audio system with MP3 compatibility.

    Cargo-friendly interior

    The HHR’s cargo friendly interior is its biggest asset. Release latches on the second-row seatbacks are a snap to work. The seats fold flat in one easy movement, creating a load floor that will easily hold a road bike with the front wheel removed.

    The front passenger seat also folds flat to extend the floor up to 8 feet in length. A tray on the seatback functions as a desk top with the seat folded flat. There is a net map pocket on the back of the driver’s seat for extra storage.

    A unique feature is an auxiliary glove box located on top of the instrument panel. The lid pops up to hold an MP3 player, compact disks, cell phones or other small items.

    All four doors have map pockets. The center console incorporates two large cupholders for the front passengers that will easily accommodate water bottles, and a single large cupholder to the rear.

    Because of the vehicle’s high roof line, the second-row passengers have plenty of head room. The HHR is relatively narrow, so two adults will fit in back more comfortably than three. Leg and hip room are also excellent. The optional sunroof brings much-needed ambient light into the back of the car, since the side windows are relatively narrow.

    The seats are well-designed from an ergonomic stance and easy to adjust. Controls for the audio, heat and air conditioning are easy to reach from both front positions. The roof pillars on the HHR are thicker than normal, restricting the visibility to the sides and rear, but the side view mirrors do an adequate job of compensating.

    The base model comes well-equipped with comfort and convenience features, including air conditioning with filtration, a tilt steering wheel, power windows and door locks, remote keyless entry and cruise control.

    The preferred equipment group on the test car ($1,800) added the more powerful engine and sport-tuned suspension, a seven-speaker sound system,  redundant steering wheel controls, an-auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass, leather steering wheel and shift knob, fog lamps and anti-lock brakes.

    Above-average fuel economy

    With fuel prices being what they are, the HHR’s 22/30 m.p.g. city/highway fuel economy is very appealing. Unfortunately, that fuel economy comes at the cost of lackluster performance.

    While the car has adequate power to merge into high-speed traffic, its lack of low-end torque makes sharp grades and long hills a struggle. In running terms, the HHR lacks VO2 max.

    Steering feedback is also a problem, despite its speed-sensitive feature. There is far too much play in the steering wheel, enough for the driver to feel a disconnect between himself and the car.

    The brakes do a good job of stopping the car, but the suspension is soft, which doesn’t help in the corners. This is one case where different wheels and tires can make a big difference. It’s worth the money to get the 17-inch rims, to give the wheels a bigger footprint and better traction.

    Below-average maintenance costs

    To their credit, the engineers at GM made a conscious effort to minimize long term maintenance costs, with features such as an oil-life monitoring system and chain drive. The oil filter housing is cast into the engine assembly, eliminating the need to crawl under the car to change the oil, and the need for a separate oil filter can.

    The chain drive should appeal to buyers who plan to pack on the mileage, since a typical timing belt needs to be replaced at about 60,000 miles. A chain drive lasts the life of the vehicle. Balance shafts keep the four-cylinder engine vibration free, making for a more pleasant driving experience.

    Standard safety features on the HHT include dual-stage front airbags, three point safety belt harnesses in five seating positions, daytime running lamps and the LATCH child seat attachments.

    A good choice for city driving

    Its compact dimensions and good fuel economy make the HHR a good choice for drivers who plan to use the vehicle around town to commute and haul cargo. The HHR is relatively inexpensive to fuel and maintain, and its flexible interior makes it exceptionally adept at hauling odd-sized cargo. It has adequate power for the highway, and will work fine for the occasional road trip.

    But it’s not the best choice for those who plan to do a lot of driving on rural two-lane roads or unimproved roads. In those cases, a more powerful sport wagon or traditional sport-utility vehicle would be better options.

    Likes: A good value, the HHR offers a lot of standard comfort and convenience features. The interior can be configured to haul cargo up to eight feet in length. Retro exterior styling will appeal to buyers looking for something that stands out from the crowd, and the higher-than average fuel economy will appeal to anyone who would rather spend their money on gear than gasoline.

    Dislikes: A slightly underpowered engine makes the HHR a chore to drive on hilly roads. The steering is too loose, and there is not adequate feedback for the driver. The suspension is soft, which is especially noticeable at high speeds or when driving on a challenging course.

    Quick facts:

    Base price: $16,425
    Price as tested: $22,375
    Horsepower: 172 @ 6200 r.p.m.
    Torque: 162 @ 5000 r.p.m.
    0 to 60: 8.4 seconds
    Antilock brakes: Option
    Side curtain airbags: Option
    First aid kit: No 
    Towing: No
    Off-road: No
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Fuel economy: 22/30 m.p.g. city/highway 
    Comments: The Chevrolet HHR comes in two models, LS and LT. The upscale LT comes in two trim levels: 1LT and 2LT. A 2.2-liter 4-cylinder engine rated at 143-horsepower with a five-speed manual transmission is standard. All models are available with an optional four-speed automatic transmission. The Chevrolet HHR is built at GM’s plant in Ramos Arizpe, Mexico.

  • 2006 Volvo V70 R

    By Jim Woodman

    2006 Volvo V70 R

    2006 Volvo V70 R

    If you’re a parent, especially of young children, there inevitably comes that epiphany in which you realize it doesn’t matter how uncool you may look, it’s time to score a mini van. Sure, you could accomplish much the same with an SUV, but mini vans dial you into a whole lot of convenience and fuel efficiencies you don’t get with the large gas-guzzling behemoths.

    As a current minivan owner myself, I’m not suggesting minivan ownership dooms you to a life of car seats, spilled milk bottles and enough cookies and crumbs beneath the seats to open your own bakery. What I am saying is that there’s another option and it’s not what you may think.

    A station wagon? Yes, station wagons are not the boxy clunkers you remember from childhood, they can be rather cool and outrageously fast.

    The Volvo V70R “wagon” is one such vehicle. If you’re into speed, the V70R cranks out 0-60 mph in an eye-popping 5.6 seconds (6.5 for automatics) and its 2.5-liter, turbocharged and intercooled engine produces a heady 300 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque.

    I recently test drove the 2006 V70R and was pleasantly surprised at how much room we had in the rear cargo section. I must admit, traveling is now an ordeal – three children with as many car seats and booster, plus all their assorted paraphernalia, makes me wonder how I call this kind of traveling a “vacation.”

    Not only were we able to get all our suitcases and stroller into the rear cargo area, but we had plenty of room to put two car seats – and a booster seat between the two – in the second passenger row. That said, this configuration is not advisable because it’s squeezing every inch out of the rear seat for car seats and too difficult to buckle each child each time. Our solution was to raise our oldest child on a pillow (since he’s seven and a half and nearly 60-pounds) and leave the younger ones in their car seats at each window.

    Driving Dynamics

    Let’s get back to driving dynamics, because that’s the main reason you’ll purchase this Volvo, besides the fact you may want to sit lower and not be just like another mini van drone cruising your kid’s elementary school parking lot.

    A dynamic chassis allows you to switch to “Sport” and, when you give it some gas, the V70R comes to life. You’ll get a sports-car-like feel, especially if you’re inclined to dive into corners. Okay, admittedly, I did a little of this faster cornering when the kids weren’t in the car — all in the interest of testing this little rocket. Besides, my wife doesn’t read anything I write anyway.

    This Volvo is much faster than anything its size and shape has any right to be. I started to harbor illusions of racing young hot rods off the line who mistakenly took me for a conservative family man in a wagon.

    The standard transmission is a six-speed manual. Though my 2006 test model featured the new six-speed Geartronic automatic option with a manual mode that works by by slotting the lever into a separate channel. I never used the manual mode much as I’ve never been a fan of this kind of artificial manual transmission. Call me old school, but I still like to use a clutch if I’m going to shift manually. That said, you can have a lot of fun with the manual mode and it requires very little effort to engage.

    iPod Adapter

    One aspect I found very interesting about the R series is the iPod adapter in the center console. Volvo provided its own iPod, though you could easily slide in your own, that had a terrific variety of music that could be operated from the radio control panel. Slipping through separate albums was as easy as moving through separate CDs on a multiple CD changer, except faster. In fact, until I realized the V70R “CD” music was actually being powered from the iPod, I thought there was a multiple CD changer in the dash. To control the iPod from the Volvo radio, all I had to do was move between “CDs” since it treated each album stored on the iPod as a separate “CD.”

    If I’ve confused you enough there, just know being able to play all your iPod music through the Volvo’s premium 6-speaker in-dash sound system is very cool.

    Creature Comforts

    As with all Volvos, our V70R came equipped with all the creature comforts and bells and whistles you’d expect from the Swedish manufacturer: Driver and front-passenger 8-way power seats, lumbar support, dual zone electronic climate control and tilt and telescopic leather steering wheel. Our vehicle also came outfitted with the “convenience package” that boasted a grocery bag holder, power child locks, cargo area 12-volt outlet, rear parking assist alarm and sunglass holder. We also had a power moonroof option that gave you all the feel and style of a luxury sedan.

    In fact, if I didn’t look back and know there was more car than just the rear seat row, I’d never know, from highway driving, that I was driving a boxy wagon. Believe me, this car doesn’t even come close to looking like it’s as fast as it is.

    I was also able to borrow a friend’s 56 cm bicycle and easily place it in the rear cargo area, while the rear seats were in place, only have to remove its quick release front wheel.

    It also goes without saying that, safety-wise, you’ll get all Volvo’s famed safety heritage: unibody construction with integrated high strength steel, air bags all over the place and dynamic stability traction control to name a few of the more obvious.

    All in all, I walked away with a new found appreciation for a wagon, specifically Volvo. My only beef, and it’s a rather large beef, is the V70s horrific turning radius. I found it extremely agitating when, no matter what kind of single lane road or neighborhood I found myself in, making a simple U-turn was out of the question. The V70R ranks as one of the worst turning radius vehicles I’ve ever driven and is the biggest reason I’d steer (no pun intended) clear of purchasing this vehicle.

    But if you like speed, versatility and creature comforts, it’s hard to overlook a vehicle that prices in pretty loaded in the mid-40s. There are many vehicles you’d pay $60k to get the same kind of features and performance.

    Quick facts:

    Base price: $39,545
    Price as tested: $44,885
    Horsepower: 300 @ 5,500 rpm
    Torque: 295 lbs. ft. @ 1,950-5,250 rpm
    0 to 60: 5.6 seconds (6.5 secs automatic)
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: No
    Towing: No
    Off-road: No
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Fuel economy: 18 city / 25 highway

  • 2006 Hummer H3

    The “Baby” Hummer

    By Nina Russin

    2006 Hummer H3

    2006 Hummer H3

    In the world of Hummers, the term ,”little,” is relative. While the H3 or “baby Hummer” is significantly smaller and lighter than the H1, H2, and H2SUT, it’s still a big truck. It weighs 4,700 pounds, and is almost as long as a Honda Pilot. 

    However, unlike its larger siblings, the H3 will fit in a garage, and is much easier to maneuver into a standard parking space. Equally important is its fuel economy: 16/19 m.p.g. city/highway for the automatic version, as compared to 10-13 miles per gallon (city and highway average) for the H2.

    Designed for Extreme Off-Road Driving

    The H3 is a comfortable truck to drive around town, but it is really engineered as an off-road vehicle. In fact, the only good reason to buy any Hummer is if you plan to drive it off-road on a regular basis. 

    ALV juror, Sue Mead, recently joined a group of Hummer owners in an evacuation program for victims of Hurricane Katrina. The Hummers’ water-fording and off-road capabilities enabled these drivers to safely go into areas that would be off-limits to most cars and trucks.

    On a similar note, the H3 can navigate the sort of treacherous wilderness terrain that few other vehicles can handle. The H3 can ford up to 2 feet of water, climb a 60 percent grade and remain stable on a side slope of up to 40 degrees.

    It has a minimum ground clearance of 9 inches and gobs of wheel travel, which enables the Hummer to climb up steps and rocks 16-inches tall, and maneuver through deep sand.

    What makes the H3 unique is that it offers the off-road capability of its larger siblings, but in a more compact package. It has a tighter turning radius, a lower step-in height, a user-friendly interior, and a pretty functional cargo space.

    Unlike the H1 and H2, it is also short enough to fit inside the average garage, and narrow enough to allow room for a second full-sized vehicle.

    Driving the H3 on a busy highway during rush hour was a good test of its maneuverability.

    One pleasant surprise was the visibility to the side which is much better than on other Hummer models. This may be a result of the H3’s lower ride height (overall height is almost 7-inches shorter than the H2).  Track, the width between the wheels, is over 4-inches narrower, which makes a huge difference in the vehicle’s ability to navigate narrow city streets.

    The five-cylinder engine has plenty of pep, due to variable valve timing that also enhances fuel economy. The four-speed automatic transmission is one of GM’s best products: it is smooth shifting and extremely durable for those who want to tow heavy loads.

    The H3 is the least expensive model in the Hummer line-up. Pricing starts just under $30,000. The test truck which came with automatic transmission and a luxury interior package cost $38,210, including the destination and delivery charge.

    The Only Hummer with a Choice of Two Transmissions

    At the heart of the new Hummer is an inline 5-cylinder engine rated at 220 horsepower with 225 lbs-ft. of torque. The H3 is the only Hummer available with a choice of 5-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission.

    The H3 achieves its maximum fuel economy (up to 20 m.p.g. highway) with the manual gearbox. All models come an electronically-controlled four-wheel drive system, traction control and underbody shielding to protect the powertrain from rocks, roots and other protrusions.

     The automatic transmission models come with standard electronic stability control. An optional locking rear differential helps the driver to maintain traction and directional control on extremely uneven terrain.

    There are two available wheel and tire packages: a standard Goodyear 32-inch tire, and a Bridgestone 33-inch off-road tire that comes with an optional performance off-road package.

    User-Friendly Interior

    In addition to being much easier to step in and out of, the H3 is also a friendlier truck to live in. The front seats are comfortable for drivers of all sizes, and visibility is good all the way around the vehicle, despite relatively short windows and windshield.

    An eight-way adjustable driver’s seat with adjustable lumbar support and heated front seats on the test truck were part of the luxury package, priced at $3,125. A large electric sliding sunroof (also optional) lets ambient light into what might otherwise be a dark interior.

    There are plenty of bins and cubbies around the front seats to hold bottles and small packages. The center console includes two cupholders large enough for water bottles and a deep bin that will hold compact discs or a small pack. The doors have map pockets but not bottle holders.

    Temperature and audio controls are easy to reach from either the driver’s or front passenger seat and easy to figure out.

    The H3 is rated as a 5-passenger vehicle. The second-row seats fold completely flat to create a load floor up to 63-inches in length.

    While it is certainly long and wide enough to hold a goodly amount of luggage or a few road bikes with the front wheels removed, the cargo area is only 37 inches tall. Fortunately the H3 comes standard with roof rails and cross bars to mount oversized cargo.

    The baby Hummer can tow up to 4,500 pounds:  well in excess of our minimum ALV criteria.

    A Hummer for the Real World

    From both an economic and functional stance, the H3 is the most practical model in the Hummer line-up for most city dwellers. It is smaller and easier to drive, and gets much better gas mileage than the other Hummer models, while still offering the technology to give it exceptional off-road ability.

    Standard safety features on the H3 include antilock brakes and OnStar with automatic crash notification. Side curtain airbags, a rollover protection system and tire pressure monitoring system are available as options.

    Likes: The most maneuverable and fuel economical model in the Hummer line-up, the H3 is a viable truck for city-dwellers who like to venture far off the beaten path.

    Dislikes: Fuel economy, while much better than other Hummer models, is still relatively poor. By comparison, the VW V6 Touareg averages 21 m.p.g. on the highway with an automatic transmission. Cargo area is not tall enough to stow certain odd-shaped items. Doors do not have bottle openers. Power seats have manual rather than power seatback adjustments.

    Quick facts:

    Base price: $28,935
    Price as tested: $36,210
    Horsepower: 220 @ 5600 r.p.m.
    Torque: 225 @ 2800 r.p.m.
    0 to 60: 9.3 seconds
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Option
    First aid kit: No 
    Towing: Yes
    Off-road: Yes
    Bicycle friendly: Yes 
    Fuel economy: 16/19 m.p.g. city/highway
    Comments: The Hummer H3 is the first Hummer with a standard manual transmission. The roof rack with crossbows is part of a dealer-installed chrome appearance package that also includes chrome exterior mirror caps and door handles ($850).

  • 2006 Suzuki Grand Vitara X-Sport

    Suzuki’s flagship sport-utility vehicle combines great value and fuel economy.

    By Nina Russin

    2006 Suzuki Grand Vitara

    2006 Suzuki Grand Vitara

    Rising fuel prices are good news for Suzuki: a manufacturer known for small, peppy vehicles that get great gas mileage. Last fall, Suzuki unveiled the new Grand Vitara compact sport-utility vehicle,  with a new six cylinder engine, five-speed automatic transmission and available four-wheel drive.

    This year, a new X-Sport package offers buyers many of the comfort and convenience features included in the luxury model at a friendlier price. It includes automatic transmission, a six-disc in-dash CD changer with MP3 interface, XM satellite radio, keyless entry and start, power windows, doorlocks and heated side mirrors, roof rails, and privacy glass.

    The X-Sport lacks the leather seats, wood trim, sunroof and 17-inch wheels on the fully loaded model, but for $2000 less, that’s a sacrifice many buyers should be willing to make.


    The test car was the X-Sport model with five-passenger seating and four-wheel drive. The new 2.7-liter engine produces 185 horsepower and almost as much torque, making it ideal for merging into highway traffic and doing the quick lane-shifts often required in urban traffic.

    The five-speed automatic transmission comes with a gated shifter that allows the driver to downshift into two lower gears. It is buttery smooth and downshifts nicely to produce power when needed.

    It also enhances the engine’s fuel economy: the four-wheel drive version averages 19 miles-per-gallon around town and 23 on the highway. Steering is responsive at all speeds, and the fully-independent suspension provides a compliant ride.

    The available four-wheel drive system with a two-speed transfer case is capable of true off-road driving, which we tested last year in the mountains outside of Vancouver, Canada. However unlike some compact SUVs, the Grand Vitara feels solid at speed, with the ride and handling of a passenger car.

    Standard safety features include antilock brakes, traction control, electronic stability program, front, side and side curtain airbags.
    Redundant stereo and cruise controls on the steering wheel allow the driver to stay focused on the road.

    All five seating positions have supportive comfortable seats with enough hip and leg room for most adults. The standard cloth upholstery on the X-Sport is attractive and frankly, more practical for those of us who live in hot climates. The manual adjustments are easy to figure out and use. A standard tilt steering wheel makes it easier to enter and exit the driver’s seat.

    Plenty of cargo space fore and aft

    The center console includes two large cupholders , and a bin that can hold compact discs or small electronic devices. The lid of the bin is padded and slides forward to act as an armrest. There are two, 12/volt power outlets on either side of the gate shifter.

    The automatic temperature controls are easy to reach from either front seating position. Both front doors have standard map pockets with bottle holders. A lid on the rear of the armrest flips down to reveal two addition cupholders for the second-row passengers.

    The sixty-forty split rear seat has three-point seatbelt harnesses in all three seating positions. Both sections of the seat collapse and tumble forward. A lever on the seatback collapses the seat, while a loop at the base of the seat releases the latch that holds the bottom in place, allowing the seat to tumble. Both operations are simple and quick.

    The extended cargo area is easily large enough to hold a bike (possibly two) with the front wheels removed. There are four tie-down hooks on the cargo floor, and a there is a small storage bin under the floor as well. The jack for the spare is located in a panel to the left. There is a pocket in the rear door large enough to hold a first aid kit or more tools.

    The cargo area houses a third 12-volt power point, located on the right wall. The spare is mounted on the rear gate under a hard cover. The gate opens sideways, making it easy for people of all heights to use. A standard tonneau cover conceals the cargo area when the second row seats are in place. Standard roof rails come in handy for carrying large cargo when there are more than two passengers.

    Nimble yet solid performance

    The X-Sport‘s arrival coincided with an early blast of heat: daytime temperatures averaged in the low hundreds for the week. Despite the black cloth interior, the climate control system cooled the vehicle off quickly. The vents are easy to direct to cool off all of the passengers.

    The arrival of summer heat here always makes drivers more aggressive. I was grateful for the Grand Vitara’s quick steering response and nimble cornering, especially when driving through rush-hour traffic. Visibility is excellent all the way around the vehicle. There are no obvious blind spots.
    Suzuki has made its 7-year warranty even more attractive to buyers by extending it up to 100,000 miles, and including 24-hour roadside assistance. Buyers receive free courtesy cars while vehicles are being repaired: the warranty is fully transferable.

    Buyers who are looking for a compact sport-utility vehicle that’s tough enough for the trails and comfortable enough to commute in should think about the Suzuki Grand Vitara. It’s a refined, peppy vehicle with a lot of luxury and safety packed between its walls. At just under $23,000, the Grand Vitara X-Sport is a great value for people with active lifestyles.

    Likes: Excellent fuel economy and performance, both on and off-road. Comfortable, well equipped interior with a spacious, versatile interior. The second row seats are easy to collapse and tumble out of the way.

    Dislikes: Cheesy graphics on the spare tire cover make the car look cheap. The keyless ignition system uses the same ignition lock as the standard system. A start button would have made the system easier to use.

    Base price: $19,199
    Price as tested: $22,699*
    Horsepower: 185 @ 6000 r.p.m.
    Torque: 184 lbs.-ft. @ 4500 r.p.m.
    0 to 60: N/A
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: No  
    Towing: No
    Off-road: Yes
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Fuel economy: 19/23 m.p.g. city/highway

  • 2006 Ford Explorer

    The newest Ford Explorer is bigger, more powerful, and has standard safety features never-before seen in a mid-sized sport-utility vehicle.

    By Nina Russin

    2006 Ford Explorer

    2006 Ford Explorer

    After fifteen years, the Ford Explorer remains one of the best selling sport-utility vehicles in the mid-sized segment. First introduced in 1990, the Explorer offers buyers with active lifestyles a “do-it-all” package that can tow, haul, and go off-road, with the ride and handling of a passenger car.

    The newest generation remains true to that heritage: a body-on-frame truck with available four-wheel drive, towing capacity up to 7,300 pounds, and seating for up to seven passengers.

    On the Road With Eddie Bauer

    The test vehicle was the four-wheel drive Eddie Bauer edition, equipped with the new 4.6-liter V8 engine and six-speed automatic transmission. The engine block is the same one that Ford uses in its current Mustang and F-150 pickup truck, producing 292 horsepower and 300 pounds of torque.

    The six-speed automatic transmission maximizes fuel economy by maintaining the ideal gear ratio over a wide range of speeds. The combination also enabled engineers to achieve extra-low emissions: low enough to meet California’s tough Low Emissions Vehicle II standards.

    The frame’s torsional rigidity has been improved significantly, giving the driver better feedback through the steering wheel. That, combined with a four-wheel independent suspension gives the body-on-frame truck excellent road manners, with a minimum amount of bouncing or roll on winding or uneven roads.

    The newest Explorer is also the safest ever, with standard safety features including front and side-impact airbags, antilock brakes, roll-stability control, seat belt retractors and force limiters. Thick foam blocks in the door panels protect passengers in the event of a side impact collision.

    Buyers can also opt for the safety canopy: a tether system that inflates a side curtain airbag and protects up to three rows of passengers. The safety canopy, first introduced on Ford’s minivans, stays inflated long enough to hold the passengers in place during a rollover.

    The Control Trac four-wheel drive system on the test truck  combines an automatic mode with low and high four-wheel drive. The automatic setting is best for roads.  It maintains full power at the rear axle unless the rear wheels begin to slip. On slippery roads, power is divided between the two axles for better traction.

    The four-wheel drive high mode locks  the center differential for a fifty/fifty front-to-rear power split that provides optimal traction on snow or ice-covered roads. Finally, the four-wheel drive low mode allows the driver to engage extremely low gears for off-road driving. The low setting also maximizes torque for towing a boat or trailer up a steep grade.

    Driving around town, the Explorer handles like a passenger car. It has excellent acceleration for merging into high-speed traffic, solid brakes, and remarkably nimble steering for a vehicle its size.

    The mirrors do a good job of maintaining visibility around the sides and rear of the vehicle.

    The reverse sensing system makes the Explorer easy to park in a tight spot. The keyless entry keypad that comes standard on the Eddie Bauer package is a great feature when traveling with multiple passengers. It gives everyone access to the interior by punching in a numeric code, eliminating the hassles of sharing one door key.

    A Comfortable Interior for Seven Adults

    The Eddie Bauer package comes standard with leather seats. The ten-way power driver’s eat is easy to adjust, and has good lower lumbar support. Optional adjustable pedals enable a shorter driver to position him or herself high enough to have good forward visibility , and far enough away from the driver’s side airbag to be safe in a collision.

    Optional redundant steering wheel controls enable the driver to control the temperature setting and audio system without losing focus on the road. Dual-zone temperature controls ensure that both front passengers can maintain the heat or air conditioning settings to their liking.

    Both first and second-row seats have plenty of head and legroom for adults. Controls on the instrument panel are easy to reach and adjust. The center console includes a couple of generous-sized cupholders that are large enough to hold water bottles. Door releases located at the ends of the arm-rest were attractive, but not necessarily intuitive for all passengers.

     The test vehicle came with the optional rear-seat DVD entertainment system ($1,295) that should appeal to families with children. A reverse sensing system ($255) alerts the driver when there is an object to the rear of the vehicle, that might be outside his or her vision. A power folding third row seat ($1,340) collapses into the floor with the push of a button making extra room for luggage or groceries.

    The second-row seat folds completely flat into the floor making it easy to load up the back with bikes or other large cargo. The rear glass can open separately from the lift gate which is handy for loading in small items.

    Unfortunately, a sensor on the test car would stick when the lift gate was opened and shut. It triggered an indicator light on the instrument panel, and kept the rest of the interior illuminated until slammed the glass shut several times to cut the signal off.

    The Explorer got pretty good gas mileage for a vehicle of its size: 14/20 m.p.g. city/highway. With a curb weight of over 4,600 pounds, the Explorer is not a particularly light truck.

    Nor is it cheap. Base price on the test car was $33,625, but the optional equipment plus a $645 delivery charge added close to $10,000. That puts the Explorer well into the luxury category, competing against the likes of the V6 Land Rover LR3 that won out Luxury off-road Active Lifestyle Vehicle Award last year.

    Which leads to the question: is the Explorer worth the money for athletes who lead truly active lifestyles? Certainly, it has the on and off-road capability, towing capacity, and interior versatility.

    But it lacks some of the features that readers of this web site would probably want. For example, the leather interior, while attractive, is not as easy to clean as the cloth in the LR3 or Nissan Xterra. Those of us who get dirty running and riding on trails want stain-resistant upholstery, and floors designed to be hosed out.

    Running boards make it easy to reach the roof from the sides of the vehicle, but it would be nice to have steps integrated into the rear bumper, to make it easier to secure bikes, kayaks, and other gear up top.

    Roof rails come standard with the Eddie Bauer package, but cross bars cost extra, and they can’t compete with the standard roof rack and gear basket on the current Nissan Xterra.

    In conclusion, the Explorer is a great choice for families that take frequent road trips, who want a luxurious, comfortable vehicle around town that they can also take camping on the weekends. The safety features on the new model are impressive, especially that standard roll-stability control.

    Ford has done a great job of refining an already good package, with a better engine and transmission, a quieter, vibration-free chassis, and the types of interior amenities that its core buyers are looking for. The 2006 Explorer is a good-looking truck with the robust body construction and powertrain features necessary for all-weather, all-terrain driving.

    Quick facts:

    Base price: $33,625
    Price as tested: $43,160
    Horsepower: 292 @ 5,750 r.p.m.
    Torque: 300 lbs.-fit. @ 3,950 r.p.m.  
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Option
    First aid kit: No 
    Towing: Yes
    Off-road: Yes
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Fuel economy: 14/20 m.p.g. city/highway

  • 2006 Range Rover

    Land Rover’s flagship now comes in three models

    By Nina Russin


    2006 Range Rover

    2006 Range Rover

    The new Range Rover is very much a twenty-first century car, with a technologically-advanced power train and a voice-activated navigational system that works on-road and off.  However it is also steeped in the Land Rover tradition:  engineered to transport its occupants in the most luxurious fashion to the most un-luxurious places.  If a person wanted to invite four of his closest friend to tea on the banks of the Amazon River, he could drive them there in a Range Rover.

     The 2006 Range Rover can ford streams up to 20 inches deep, maintain directional stability on two wheels, clear tree roots up to 10 inches tall, and climb the occasional Mayan ruin, thanks to all-terrain dynamic stability control.  A new supercharged engine accelerates from zero-to-sixty in just over seven seconds:  fast enough to outrun a cougar (at least after the first quarter mile). 

    Inside, the leather and wood interior is living room comfy, with a standard harman/kardon digital surround sound stereo, Bluetooth enabled telephone, and available rear DVD entertainment package.  The standard four-wheel independent air suspension with electronically controlled center differential isolates occupants from bumps in the road, so the tea cups won’t rattle.  The only remaining question is:  Earl Grey or Orange Pekoe?

    Refreshed exterior styling; more power under the hood

     There are three Range Rover models for 2006, two of which are refreshed versions of the 2002 platform.  An all-new Range Rover Sport, designed to compete against performance sport-utility vehicles such as the BMW X5, goes in sale this summer.  The two other models have revised exterior styling and two all-new engines:  a naturally-aspirated V8, and a supercharged V8.  Both are derived from Jaguar blocks, but are modified for better low-end torque and the ability to operate at extreme angles off-road.  An Eaton blower on the supercharged model boosts engine power about 100 horsepower during hard acceleration.  Two-caliper Brembo front brakes on that model give the standard 20-inch wheels exceptional stopping power.

     Both available engines come with a six-speed automatic transmission with manual gear select option.  High and low gear ranges make it possible to navigate challenging terrain at extremely slow speeds.  Adjustable ride height on the standard air suspension can raise the vehicle from its standard height of 8.9 inches, to 10.8 inches for driving off-road.  When the driver cuts the ignition, the vehicle automatically lowers down to make it easier to exit.

     On the outside, both models have a new grille design, new headlamps, tail lamps, and redesigned air vents.  Overall, the styling remains classic Range Rover:  clamshell hood, two box profile with “floating roof” (created by black roof pillars), and split tailgate.  Because it is intended as a luxury vehicle, the Range Rover does not come with a standard roof rack, although a variety of roof carriers are available as dealer-installed accessories.  A internal ski bag (integrated into the center arm rest) is part of an available heated accessories package, that also includes heated front seats and steering wheel.

    Command view of the road

     The seating positions give both rows of occupants a command view of the road.  This is particularly important for off-road driving, because the driver needs to see the area directly ahead of and around the wheels. Front and rear windshield washers and wipers with variable controls keep the glass surfaces free of water, snow and dirt, while a standard sunroof provides plenty of ambient light into the interior.  Available bi-xenon adaptive front lighting swivels the headlamps according to steering inputs, to light the corners better in rural areas.

     The available voice-activated navigation system functions on and off-road:  it includes a backup camera that provides a wide angle view to the rear.  The instrument panel controls are fairly intuitive and easy for both the driver and front passenger to reach. 

    Redundant steering wheel controls operate most comfort and convenience functions.  The glove box on the passenger side is large enough to hold large map books or a small bag.  A cubbie in front of the gear shift on the center console will hold cell phones or PDAs.  Five standard cup holders are large enough to hold bottles of water.

     The naturally aspirated model comes with a 12-way  power adjustable driver’s seat and 10-way power adjustable passenger seats.  An optional luxury interior package adds 16-way adjustable driver and passenger seats.  All seats have inflatable lumbar supports that work well.  The seats are firm enough to be comfortable on day-long drives.  All models come with leather trim only.

     Engineers reduced noise intrusion on the new models by putting a coating on the front A-pillars, and laminating the front side glass for better sound insulation.

     The second-row 60/40 split seats fold flat to extend the cargo load floor to a maximum length of 62.1 inches.  The cargo floor is 44.3-inches wide:  40.9 inches between the wheel arches.  A standard integrated towing hitch is rated for 7,716 pounds (braked trailer).
    Almost like driving a car

     The Range Rover is a heavy vehicle:  curb weight is about 5,500 pounds.  The electronic dynamic stability system does a good job of maintaining directional control on tight turns.  The extra power of the supercharger comes in handy when the driver needs to accelerate hard into freeway traffic, or from a stop.  The brakes are more than adequate on both models to stop the vehicle quickly:  antilock brakes come standard.

     Weeks of rain in northern California prevented the Range Rover folks from utilizing the off-road course that they had planned for the press preview.  Instead, journalists drove the cars on one and two-lane paved and dirt roads between Napa Valley and Bodega Bay.  While there are no mountains in the area, there are plenty of rolling hills. 

    Both models had plenty of power while climbing, excellent steering response on tight turns, and minimal braking distance.  Visibility was excellent all the way around the vehicle, and the redundant steering wheel controls minimized distractions for the driver.  Getting lost on the back roads was not a concern, thanks to the on-board navigation system.

     Commuting through bay area traffic provided a different kind of challenge.  The Range Rover was easy to maneuver through traffic on freeways and along narrow side streets in San Francisco.  The rack and pinion steering system and drive-by wire throttle control provided quick, accurate steering feedback and a good on-center feel at speed.  The rack and pinion system, new for ‘06, is robust enough to handle the bumps and jolts of off-road driving.

     Because the Range Rover is so heavy, gas mileage is not particularly good:  averaging 17.5 mpg on the supercharged car, and 18.3 mpg on the naturally aspirated model.  Both versions run on premium fuel.  Then again, someone who can afford a $75,000- $90,000 car probably doesn’t have to worry about the price of fill-ups.

    Dealer roll-out

     The 2006 Range Rover models roll into area dealerships this June.  Pricing for the naturally  aspirated model begins at $74,950; the supercharged model with standard upgraded suspension, larger brakes and 20-inch wheels begins at $89,950.  Range Rover expects the supercharged model to account for about 20 percent of annual sales.

    Likes:  The Range Rover is every bit as capable as it is luxurious, equally at home in the city or in remote areas of the wilderness.  Visibility is excellent:  the backup camera eliminates any blind spots to the rear.  Despite its relatively large size and weight, the Range Rover is almost as nimble as a passenger car, with excellent acceleration, braking and steering response.

    Dislikes:  A roof rack is not standard equipment.  Washable seat covers, which are available on the Land Rover LR3, are not available on the Range Rover. 

    Quick facts:

    Base price: $74,950
    Price as tested: N/A
    Horespower: 305 @ 5,750 r.p.m.
    Torque: 325 lbs.-ft @ 4,000 r.p.m.
    0 to 60: 8.3 seconds
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: No 
    Towing: Yes
    Off-road: Yes
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Fuel economy: N/A
    Comments: Price includes destination and delivery charges. The new Range Rover goes on sale this summer.

  • 2006 Mercedes-Benz ML 350

    By Jim Woodman

    Mercedes-Benz ML 350

    Mercedes-Benz ML 350

    I clearly recall my visit to the Mercedes M Class launch back in 1997. There was a buzz about this being the first Mercedes to be built in the United States in over 80 years. I assembled with many other auto writers in Charlottesville, Va. as we anxiously awaited our turns getting behind the wheel.

    Most of us were extremely impressed with the new M-Class and, as far as interior creature comforts, that first effort was 100% Mercedes luxury and the Tuscaloosa, Ala. plant had produced a German masterpiece right here in America.

    Now, nearly nine years later, I got to check out the second generation M-Class, an ML 350, with a 268 horsepower V6 that produces 258 lb.-ft. of Torque. Much had changed in nine years, both with the vehicle and my life.

    I was now married with three small children, making the task of getting two car seats and a booster seat in the back seat a challenge worthy of any seasoned parent. Never mind the fact when we were kids our parents just tossed us into the back seat and had no qualms about spreading five or six of us across the same seat. Today, it’s a whole different ball game.

    Traveling with Small Children

    Traveling with small children today is as logistically challenging as organizing a military operation in a foreign country. God forbid we should forget a car seat, stroller, backpack or portable crib. It’s easy to understand why so many minivans and large SUVs are purchased by families. The pain at the pump is completely outweighed by the hassle of trying to fit all your children’s paraphernalia into a smaller vehicle.

    Thus our foray into the second generation M Class was going to be a test of space and comfort as much as performance and safety. We picked up our vehicle in Seattle and were pleasantly surprised at the room in the rear cargo area. It’s definitely an improvement since the first M Class and allowed us to fit all our gear, including stroller and portable crib, for a family of five within that cargo area.

    Folding the 60/40 split rear seats down and back up was a snap and I could easily visualize loading and unloading my bicycle easily. If I left the rear seats in place, there was still plenty of room to load a standard road bicycle but it would certainly necessitate removing the two quick release wheels.

    While we were able to fit two car seats on the ends, for our five-year-old and 16-month-old, getting the booster seat for our seven-year-old to slide into the middle was a hassle. Since there was just enough room to line up these seats, we had to really wrestle with fitting the seat belt into its middle slot. That said, it did work and while everybody was safe and secure, this would not be the vehicle for three car seats.

    The big change for this second-generation M Class is its styling, which, while definitely M-Class Mercedes in shape, is much more in line with the company’s other offerings. It’s longer, wider, and roomier. But the most important difference is that the ML350 has gone from trucklike body-on-frame construction to a carlike unibody structure for improved rigidity with less weight.


    Okay, enough on the changes over the last nine years. I was most interested in what the ML 350 had under the hood. Would the six-cylinder be plenty adequate for freeway acceleration and steep hills?
    I’m happy to report that the six-cylinder — which boasts 36 more horsepower than the ’05 model — has more than enough pep to keep me happy. The factory claims it will run 0-60 mph in 8.4 seconds. And, as my wife will attest, I hate an underpowered vehicle. The seven-speed automatic transmission — that’s right seven speeds — delivers clean crisp shifts, even on many of Seattle’s challenging hills.

    And speaking of shifting, for those that haven’t been around Mercedes in a few years, you might spend a few minutes looking for a shift lever. Mercedes has increased interior space by providing a simple, electronic shifting lever off the steering column. The lever is no different than an ordinary windshield wiper or headlights lever, except that it controls the park, reverse and drive transmission through a simple push of a button or up and down flicking of the lever.

    For those that like manual shifting, the ML 350 has a set of buttons behind the steering wheel that allow you to shift manually. While this is pretty cool, it’s more gimmicky than necessary as the automatic transmission is geared to handle adverse situations.

    The full-time four-wheel-drive system splits torque evenly between the front and rear axles in most conditions. An electronic traction-control system helps control torque distribution to each wheel, and the engine, transmission, and antilock brake systems communicate with it for optimal traction control on or off pavement. I always felt solid, in control and comfortable on Seattle’s wet road conditions.

    If off-road driving is your gig, the Downhill Speed Regulation and Hill-Start Assist systems aid low-speed maneuvering on steep grades, particularly in loose conditions. While I didn’t take this vehicle off-road, I’m very impressed with what’s offered and would certainly feel safe in doing so.

    Comfort and Convenience

    From a comfort and convenience standpoint, our test vehicle was outfitted with 8-way power front bucket seats, DVD Navigation and Sirius Satellite radio to name a few. Being somewhat familiar with Seattle, we became very reliant on the Navigation system. While at times it directed us flawlessly, many times we found it wasn’t generating the quickest or best route.

    Navigation menus are controlled by context-sensitive buttons to the sides of the screen, while acceptance of commands and navigation of the map display is done by a small joystick button. It’s a little tricky getting used to but becomes almost second nature after using it a few days.

    That said, DVD Navigation is a lifesaver if you truly don’t know where you’re going or need to find the nearest gas station or restaurant. Whether you’re taking the most efficient route or not, you do know you’ll definitely reach your destination.

    While my current family needs exclude me from being a real potential M Class buyer, I came away from this drive very impressed with this newest generation M Class and would seriously consider this as our family vehicle as my kids graduate from car seats. No question that three adults would fit comfortably in the rear seat, with their own rear climate control and dual power outlets.

    And safety-conscious buyers can also rest assured that the M-Class delivers on all fronts. With a reinforced body cage and dual front air bags, including side window air bags for front and rear passengers, I felt pretty secure that my family was safe in a moderate collision.

    While it seems the price has slowly creeped up on the M Class since its 1997 introduction, at $48,825 with a sweet array of options, luxury class buyers will be satisfied with the fact the ML 350 is all Mercedes luxury and performance. It’s also nice to know the M Class is built entirely at the Tuscaloosa, Ala. plant in the United States.

    Quick facts:

    Base price: $39,750
    Price as tested: $48,825
    Horsepower: 268 @ 6000 rpm
    Torque: 258 lb-ft @ 2400 to 5000 rpm
    0 to 60: 8.4 seconds
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: No
    Towing: Yes
    Off-road: Yes
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Fuel economy: 16 city / 20 highway

  • 2006 Mercedes-Benz ML350

    Second-generation sport-utility vehicle is visibly improved.

    By Nina Russin

    2006 Mercedes-Benz ML350

    2006 Mercedes-Benz ML350

    The all-new Mercedes-Benz M-Class is a more stylish, more spacious vehicle, with enhanced on-road performance, and an off-road handling package available later this year.

    When Mercedes-Benz introduced the original M-Class in 1998, the mid-sized sport-utility vehicle was unique for its combination of silky on-road performance and off-road capabilities. But as other luxury manufacturers entered the segment, the M-Class lost its edge. Part of the problem was the styling:  the rear in particular bore unfortunate resemblance to a minivan. 

     The performance, while capable, couldn’t keep up with vehicles such as the X5 and FX45 (the AMG ML55 being the exception here), and new Land Rover entries such as the Freelander offered comparable off-road capabilities at a lower price.

    Never being a company to sit on its haunches and mope, Mercedes-Benz stepped up to the challenge with a new-generation M-Class that gives other automakers a new standard to chase. 

    From its swoopy aerodynamic profile to its all-new V6 engine and industry-first seven-speed automatic transmission, the 2006 Mercedes-Benz ML350 is a potent package. It’s roomier than the car it replaces, has a more ergonomic, more functional interior, redesigned suspension, and a higher level of safety.

    Out of the box, it can handle the off-road needs of almost all drivers. With the addition of an optional off-road handling package later this year, the 2006 M-Class should be able to handle virtually any terrain on the planet.

    A More Powerful Engine with Enhanced Fuel Economy

    A new 3.5-liter V6 aluminum engine utilizes variable valve timing and a two-stage intake manifold to boost power without sacrificing fuel economy.  The 268-horsepower engine develops 87 percent of its maximum torque at 1,500 r.p.m., allowing the M-Class to accelerate from zero-to-sixty miles-per-hour in just over eight seconds.

    An industry-first seven-speed automatic transmission boosts gas mileage by allowing for smaller increases in engine speed between shifts. The most noticeable difference to the driver may be the gear shift mechanism itself. 

    Gone is the mechanical stalk and gate shift. In its place is a small stalk to the right of the steering column that uses electronic controls to engage the gears. The driver can still manually select gears using buttons on the back of the steering wheel.

    As with the original, the new M-Class features a permanent four-wheel drive system that automatically sends engine power to the wheels with the best grip. Under dry road conditions, the torque is split 50/50 front-to-rear. A four-wheel drive version of Mercedes’ electronic traction control system can transfer up to 100 percent of the torque to one wheel to maintain directional control on wet or uneven surfaces.

    The M-Class has remarkable traction off-road: it can climb extremely steep hills and plow through mud slurry with ease. All cars come with standard hill descent control and a hill-holder feature that prevents the vehicle from sliding backwards when starting up on a steep hill.

    Optional air suspension allows the driver to change vehicle height, with maximum ground clearance topping ten inches. The off-road package available later this year adds a two-speed transfer case, so drivers can crawl over precipitous terrain at extremely slow speeds.

    On-Road Performance Like a Luxury Sedan

    Unit construction gives the M-Class a car-like ride. The test vehicle, equipped with the standard 17-inch wheels, felt solid and nimble driving through urban traffic. Because the standard rack-and-pinion steering system is not speed sensitive, it feels a little tighter at slow speeds than some systems on competitive products.

    Speed-sensitive steering is available as an option.  On the other hand, the brakes feel a touch soft, but they respond well and feel solid at all speeds.

    A redesigned fully-independent suspension provides a firm but compliant ride, similar in feel to Mercedes sedans. Engineers made significant strides in improving torsional rigidity; as a result, the vehicle has even better steering response than its predecessor.

    Visibility is good all the way around the car. Redundant turn signals on the side view mirrors make those signals easier for drivers on either side to see. Buyers can opt for bi-xenon curve-illuminating headlamps that change direction according to steering input, to light the corners on dark roads. Windshield and rear window wipers do a good job of keeping those surfaces free of water and dirt.

    Standard eight-way power driver’s seat and a tilt and telescopic steering wheel enable drivers of all sizes to feel comfortable. While the test car came with optional leather trim, cloth upholstery comes standard:  a feature that should appeal to buyers who use their cars to head to the trails. The test car came with optional heated seats: a nice feature for drivers who live in the snow belt.

    Both front and rear seats have great lumbar support and generous head and leg room. While the M-Class has seatbelts in three rear seating positions, the vehicle is only wide enough to hold two adults comfortably. The 60/40 split rear seats fold down easily with the flip of a latch, and will fold flat without removing the headrests.

    User-friendly Instrument Panel

    The redesigned instrument panel keeps knobs and buttons to a minimum. The center stack contains the controls for the dual-temperature heating and air conditioning controls, audio, and (optional) navigational system. The navigation screen flips down to reveal slots for loading in compact disks and the navigation digital disk.

    Buyers can upgrade to a 6-disk audio system with iPod capability. The driver makes iPod selections using controls on the steering wheel. Standard steering wheel controls include redundant volume and cruise control settings.

    Mercedes-Benz utilizes a cruise control stalk above the turn signal stalk on its cars. The M-Class also uses this system. It can be easy to confuse the two stalks, especially when driving in traffic. However the cruise control automatically disengages if the car is idling or below a certain speed.

    The center console has two, generous-sized cupholders that are large enough to hold a quart bottle of Gatorade: an appealing feature in the Phoenix summer. Equally appealing was the nicely designed two-bin cubby, that holds compact disks below and smaller items such as cell phones up above. Map pockets in the front doors are designed to hold bottles as well.

    Rear passengers get their own heating and air conditioning controls, as well as two, twelve-volt outlets, located in the rear of the center console. There are map pockets in back of both front seats. The optional sunroof brought additional sunlight into the second row.

    Athlete-friendly Cargo Area

    The rear hatch opens up a wide load-in space, making it easy to stow items in back. There’s a standard first aid kit in a storage area to the left, an additional twelve-volt outlet, and four tie-down rings on the floor. A full-sized spare beneath the cargo floor is easy to reach.

    The cargo bed will easily hold a couple of road bikes with front wheels removed, once the rear seats are folded flat. Roof rails are standard on all models.

    The test car came with the optional tow hitch. So equipped, the M-Class can haul up to 5,000 pounds.

    Safety from the Ground Up

    The new M-Class features crash boxes to the front and rear, that absorb impact and reduce the cost of repairs. High-strength steel throughout much of the body protects the passengers inside, as do standard front, side and side curtain airbags. A tire inflation monitor is standard. So are antilock brakes, traction control, and electronically controlled seat belt pretension and force limiters in all outboard positions.

    Two Available Grades

    The new M-Class is available in two grades to reflect two available engines: the ML350 with the 3.5-liter V6, and the ML500, with a 5-liter V8. Base prices range from  $39,750 for the ML350 to $49,275 for the ML500. Prices include a $775 destination and delivery charge.

    Quick facts:

    Base price: $40,525
    Price as tested: $48,825
    Horsepower: 268 @ 6,000 r.p.m.
    Torque: 258 lbs.-ft. @ 5,000 r.p.m.
    0 to 60: 8.2 second
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First-Aid Kit: Yes
    Towing: Yes
    Off-road: Yes
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Fuel economy: 16/20 m.p.g. city/highway