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  • Green Cars Take Center Stage at the 2007 LA Auto Show

    By Nina Russin

    Honda FCX Clarity makes its debut at the LA Auto Show

    Honda FCX Clarity makes its debut at the LA Auto Show

    What’s good for the environment is good for the economy. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Southern California: where financial solvency is directly linked to sustainable energy. To paraphrase the Missing Persons song, nobody drives in LA, and few take public transportation.

    As the price of crude oil nears a hundred dollars a barrel and gas in one Northern California town reaches five dollars a gallon, automakers are beating each other up for seats on the green car bandwagon. At the recent LA auto show, all had something to say about the best way to power the cars of the future.

    Production fuel cell car

    The Honda Clarity, a production fuel cell car that rolls out next summer, is proof that zero emissions cars can live in the real world. The car’s development dates back to 1999, when Honda unveiled the first FCX concept.

    In the past seven years, Honda engineers have reduced the size of the fuel cell stack to a fifth of its original size, with half the parts. As a result, it’s less expensive to produce and easier to package in a small sedan. Lithium ion batteries used in the FCX Clarity are smaller and lighter than the nickel-metal hydride batteries used in many of today’s production hybrid vehicles.

    The FCX Clarity’s V Flow stack combines a battery pack and hydrogen storage tank to power the electric motor. Hydrogen mixes with oxygen in the air to propel the car. The vehicle’s only emission is water. The car can go about 270 miles before refueling. The FCX Clarity can operate in temperatures as low as minus twenty-two degrees Fahrenheit as well as extreme heat.

    Initially, the car will be available only in Southern California, due to proximity of fueling stations in Santa Monica, Torrance and Irvine. Honda is leasing the cars on a 3-year program for $600 per month. The automaker is also working on a home refueling station that will allow owners to refuel their cars on the home’s natural gas supply.

    Toyota installed its experimental fuel cell hybrid powertrain in the popular Highlander crossover vehicle for testing in Japan and North America. After driving the vehicle from Osaka to Tokyo on a single tank of hydrogen, engineers decided to tackle the Alcan highway, to test the vehicle’s cold-weather capabilities.

    That 2300-mile trek began in Fairbanks, Alaska and ended in Vancouver, British Columbia. Most of the drive took place in Canada, since that country allows mobile high-pressure refueling along its highways: the United States does not. Linde, A German company based in the United States provided the hydrogen; Canadian-based Powertech Labs supplied the mobile refueling station.

    The seven-day drive came off without a hitch. Still Toyota is taking its time bringing the fuel cell Highlander to market. One reason is that the company is developing the fuel cell system internally, with no help from outside engineers or suppliers. The automaker used the same approach for the Hybrid Synergy Drive system in the current Prius. While it’s a slower process, the company has better control over the final product, and the opportunity for higher profits once the car goes into production.

    In the meantime, Toyota’s Highlander hybrid rolls out this year. Toyota expects to sell over a quarter million hybrid vehicles by the end of 2007, and at least 285,000 Prius, Camry and Highlander hybrids in 2008.

    Global approach to sustainable energy

    Both Ford and General Motors are taking a global approach to sustainable energy, depending less on a single type of technology than improvements in overall efficiency and renewed focus on smaller vehicles.

    “We are focusing on sustainable technology solutions that can be used not for hundreds or thousands of cars- but for millions of cars, because that is how Ford can make a difference,” said Ford Motor Company CEO, Alan Mulally in his keynote address to the Motor Press Guild.

    Ford’s short-term plan is to introduce turbo-charged direct injection gasoline engines into small vehicles: the first is the 2009 Lincoln MKS luxury sedan that launches in the summer of 2008. According to Mulally, Ford will refresh seventy percent of its current products by 2009, and a hundred percent by the following year.

    Although the automaker is researching alternative technologies including fuel cells, electric powertrains and biofuels, Mulally sees the greatest immediate benefit in improving the efficiency of traditional gas-powered engines and reducing vehicle weight.

    “Substantial vehicle weight reductions will enable us to use smaller displacement engines that provide secondary efficiencies, such as lighter chassis and suspension components,” he said. “We can do this for millions of customers in high quality products they want and value…”  Mulally’s plan is to return Ford to profitability by 2009, by matching production to real demand for the company’s products.

    The automaker plans to make fifty percent of its internal combustion vehicles flex-fuel capable by 2012. Stateside, Ford is negotiating for access to the power grid in off-peak hours for recharging electric cars. By the end of the decade, the full-sized F150 pickup and Ford’s large sport-utility vehicles will be available with a clean diesel engine.

    General Motors is also leveraging its global assets, according to vice chairman of global product development, Bob Lutz.

    “There is no silver bullet to solve our energy and environmental problems overnight,” said Lutz. General Motors’ solution is to address the challenges from many different angles, including introducing sixteen hybrid vehicles over the next four years.

    General Motors unveiled a stage fuel of alternative fuel vehicles in LA, ranging from the Chevy Volt concept and Equinox electric fuel cell vehicle to the Silverado hybrid production car. Chevrolet is introducing an E-85 compatible Impala, and hybrid version of the new Malibu sedan.

    The Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon full-sized hybrids utilize a two-mode technology developed in conjunction with Chrysler and BMW. The 2008 Tahoe Hybrid won the Green Car Journal’s Green Car of the Year award. The Tahoe seats up to eight passengers and can tow up to 6,200 pounds.

    Fuel economy for the two-wheel drive version is 21/22 mpg city/highway, a fifty percent improvement over the 5.3-liter gasoline engine. The Tahoe can go up to thirty miles-per-hour on electric power alone. A six-liter V-8 engine operates on four cylinders when possible to save gas. While this active fuel management system is available on other gas-powered cars, the hybrid’s electric motor allows the engine to stay in the four-cylinder mode for longer periods. A nickel-metal hydride battery pack recharges on the go using regenerative energy from the brakes.

    Clean diesel

    European automakers including Volkswagen, Audi, and BMW are bringing more clean diesel models to the United States, now that the low sulfur fuel is available in all fifty states. New diesel technology offers performance comparable to gasoline engines with much better fuel economy and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

    Stefan Jacobi, CEO for Volkswagen North America, expects that the automaker will become the front runner for clean diesel in the States.

    Volkswagen will introduce a turbo-diesel Jetta in the United States next year. Powered by new common-rail diesel engine, the TDI Jetta meets emissions requirements in all fifty states. The SCCA is adding a spec racing class for the new Jetta.

    Volkswagen also unveiled its GX3 crossover: a three wheel hybrid of race car and motorcycle. Developed in California by Volkswagen and Moonraker, the two-seater accelerates from zero-to-sixty in 5.7 seconds, and averages 46 miles-per-gallon. Pricing will start around $17,000.

    The space up! blue is Volkswagen’s fuel cell concept car based on the legendary Samba Bus. Range is 65 miles on the lithium ion battery, or 220 miles on a single energy charge for the high-temperature fuel cell. Despite its relatively small footprint, the space up! blue has the interior space of a much larger vehicle. It is almost as tall as it is wide. The electric motor and battery pack are located in the back of the vehicle: the high-temperature fuel cell is packaged up front. Top speed is 75 miles-per-hour, with zero-to-sixty acceleration of just over 13 seconds.

    Audi is also expanding its range of clean diesel offerings in the United States for 2008, to include turbo-diesel versions of its Q7 crossover and A4 sedan. The new 3-liter TDI engine delivers 240 horsepower, and meets California’s LEV II Bin 5 standards. A recent real world test of the A8 luxury sedan with clean diesel engine produced average highway fuel economy figures over 30 miles-per-gallon.

    Audi’s Cross Cabriolet Quattro concept car  combines all-terrain capability with passenger car performance and open air fun. Engineers stiffened the underbody to give the concept car the same torsional stiffness as a sport-utility vehicle. Two spring-loaded roll bars behind the rear seats deploy automatically if the sensor system determines that a rollover is imminent.

    Designed to run on the same 3-liter TDI engine, it accelerates from zero-to-sixty in just over seven seconds. Top speed is 150 miles-per-hour.

    BMW is rolling out a bi-turbo diesel late next year, that promises a thirty percent fuel economy gain over gas-powered engines. In the meantime, the automaker rides on its small car laurels: the fuel-efficient Mini has reduced corporate greenhouse gas emissions by twelve percent, according to a survey by the not-for-profit group, Environmental Defense. At the same time, overall fuel economy is up fourteen percent.

    “If Hollywood stands for filmmaking, BMW stands for powerful engines in compact packages,” said Tom Purves, president and CEO of BMW North America. This year, BMW rolls out the 1 Series coupe, available in two grades: 128i and 135i. Based on the legendary 2002, the coupe rides on a 3-liter inline six turbocharged engine that produces 300 horsepower and 300 foot-pounds of torque. Zero-to-sixty acceleration is just over five seconds; top speed is 155 miles-per-hour. Pricing begins just under $30,000 for the 128i.

    BMW expands its sports activity vehicle offerings, with the concept X6 and X6 hybrid edging towards production. The M3 coupe and sedan arrive in the States next spring. Their 414 horsepower V8 engine may not be green, but with a zero-to-sixty time of 4.7 seconds, it probably won’t spend much time idling in traffic.

    Chrysler’s full-sized hybrid trucks, based on the same two-mode technology as the Chevy Tahoe, roll out in 2009. The Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen hybrids have hemi engines rated at 385 horsepower, with 6000 pound towing capacity. The hybrid powertrain has 25 percent better fuel economy than the gasoline engines it replaces.

    This year, buyers can test drive clean diesel versions of the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Laredo.

    The 2009 Dodge Journey, based on the Avenger platform, will come with an available flex-fuel V6: one of three engine packages.

    The Journey combines minivan interior features with the all-terrain capability of a SUV. It has seating for five or seven passengers. Innovative storage features include two removable bins behind the front seats, and an available fold flat front passenger space with storage underneath. There is also storage under the rear cargo floor. There are four power outlets and a chill zone for cold beverages.

    The second-row seat slides fore and aft, and comes with available child booster seats. Buyers can opt for YES essentials stain resistant fabric, and a rear seat DVD system. Drivers who want to go off the beaten path can opt for an all-wheel drive model.

    Smart car

    The Mercedes-Benz smart brand makes it to America this January. The pint sized two-seater is already a fixture in Europe. Mercedes-Benz has sold 770,000 vehicles in 36 countries since the vehicle’s introduction.

    The smart fortwo will be available at seventy dealerships nationwide: the Penske Group is the official distributor. Cost is $11,590 for the base model; $13,590 for the upscale smart fortwo passion, and $16,590 for the convertible.

    The car’s three-cylinder engine runs on premium fuel but uses it sparingly, averaging 33/40 miles-per-gallon city/highway according to 2008 EPA standards. The car is 8.8 feet long: two will fit in an average parking space.

    Since the smart shares the road with much larger cars, engineers beefed up the chassis for US models: the American version has a wider front bumper, larger crash boxes, and two high-strength steel crash boxes in the rear. All cars come with standard front and side airbags, antilock brakes, electronic stability program, hill start assist and a child restraint system. Top speed is 90 miles per hour.

    Fast cars

    Nissan brings it GTR supercar to the states next June. With a starting price of $69,850, it may be the world’s cheapest race car. Riding on a handbuilt 418-horsepower six cylinder engine, the GTR accelerates from zero-to-sixty in 3.5 seconds, and goes back to zero in under 120 feet. Drivers can use on-board telemetry to monitor their skills on the track. The GTR will be available at select Nissan dealers that pass a special certification process.

    The Hyundai Genesis concept coupe goes into production for the 2009 model year, the rear-wheel drive 2 + 2 rides on a 3.8-liter V6 engine rated at over 300 horsepower, with zero-to-sixty acceleration of under six seconds. The Genesis will be available with either a six-speed manual or automatic transmission, has standard twenty-inch wheels and Brembo brakes. Hyundai hopes buyers will see the Genesis as an affordable alternative to luxury sports cars such as the Infiniti G37.

    Jaguar’s XF sedan combines the practicality of a grand tourer with the styling of a sports car according to Design Director, Ian Callum. Available with a naturally aspirated or supercharged V8, it features styling inspired by the XJ6 of the late 1960s. Pricing begins at $49,000 for the naturally aspirated car and $63,000 for the supercharged version.

    Safety first

    The third-generation V70 promises to be Volvo’s safest station wagon. Using the same engine as the automaker’s S80 luxury sedan, it also shares innovative safety offerings, including driver alert control, lane departure warning and collision warning with autobrake.

    A redesigned cargo area has aluminum rails in the cargo floor for securing large items, and a lockable storage area under the floor. Buyers can opt for a power tailgate. Pricing begins at $32,465. The advanced safety package costs $1695.

    Volvo’s C30 plug-in hybrid concept recharges uses a standard wall socket. Range is sixty miles in pure electric mode. The car has an electric motor at each wheel. When the electric power is seventy percent used up, a bioethanol engine takes over to extend the car’s range.

    The LA Auto Show runs through November 25 at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

  • 2007 Jaguar XKR Convertible

    Jaguar’s 420-horsepower drop top takes no prisoners.
    By Nina Russin

    2007 Jaguar XKR Convertible

    2007 Jaguar XKR Convertible

    The jaguar is the biggest cat indigenous to North America. The Jaguar XKR convertible is the automaker’s most powerful leaper: its supercharged V8 engine produces 420 horsepower, and accelerates from zero-to-sixty in five seconds.

    Like its namesake, the XKR is the ultimate predator: stealthy, and supremely powerful. It is both the most civilized convertible on the roads, and when the driver demands, the most untamed.

    Styling hearkens back to the Jaguar C, D and E Types of the 1950s and 60s: a long, bulbous front end, with an oval grille and teardrop shaped headlamps that punctuate the front fender swells. Based on the XK sports car introduced in late 2005, the XKR exterior is distinguished by a vented hood, aluminum blades on the quarter panels, special wheels and badging.

    On the inside, the two-plus-two roadster is pure European luxury: leather trim, burl veneer, and a state-of-the-art sound system. Since rear visibility on a convertible is poor with the top in place, there’s an obstacle warning system that sends an audible alarm when it detects objects to the car’s sides and rear.

    The second-row seat is for insurance purposes only. It will hold a dachshund, some golf clubs, or a duffle bag: a human being of any size is out of the question.

    Keyless ignition is standard. So is a touchscreen navigation system, dual automatic climate control, ten-way power front seats and seat heaters. The standard audio system includes an in-dash six-CD changer, but it doesn’t include satellite radio. That surprised me in a car with a base price of ninety-one thousand dollars.

    The top retracts by depressing a button at the top of the windshield. The windows lower automatically, and the top folds into the rear boot. The whole operation takes less than a minute. I put the top down after a run on a cooler-than average morning. No problem: the automatic temperature control quickly bumped up the heat, raising the air temperature to a balmy seventy-five degrees. This is a car I could easily learn to live with.

    Race-inspired performance

    The XKR chassis reflects Jaguar’s racing heritage. Engineers used aluminum body panels to keep the curb weight light: the convertible weighs 220 pounds less than the outgoing model. Standard nineteen-inch wheels with low profile Pirelli tires give the chassis a wide stable footprint: fourteen-inch vented disc brakes in front and 12.8-inch rotors in the rear provide exceptional stopping power.

    An active suspension system automatically adjusts shock damping to speed and road conditions. Dynamic stability control and traction control are standard. Speed-sensitive rack-and pinion steering is light enough to make parking easy, but has enough effort for good on-center response at high speeds.

    While it’s a lovely car to drive around town, the XKR begs to go fast. It has a sweet spot between ninety and a hundred miles per hour, at which the power feels effortless, the suspension and steering buttery smooth. Driving through a series of sweepers en route to Arizona’s high country was pure exhilaration. I didn’t dare go faster, since I didn’t want to share my seat time with the local authorities.

    The supercharged V-8 engine has excellent fuel economy: averaging about 21 miles-per-gallon for city and highway driving. Supercharging pushes air through the engine to make it breathe better: it also reduces the amount of uncombusted fuel, and hence emissions.

    Superchargers have been around for years, but modern fuel injection makes a big difference in their performance. There’s a slight surge when the boost kicks in: it feels like mild shift shock. But unlike the good old days, the engine never shudders because fuel delivery can’t keep up with the blower.

    Superchargers are driven off the engine, unlike turbo chargers that work off the exhaust. Because of that, there’s no lag time when the driver opens the throttle on a supercharged car. The problem with superchargers is packaging: they’re harder to squeeze under a low profile hood than turbos, which are smaller. Kudos to the engineering team for accomplishing the difficult: the supercharger is invisible with the hood shut, save an extra air vent.

    Paddle shifting

    The driver can use the J-shifter to change between regular and sport modes. The sport mode makes the six-speed automatic transmission hold onto low gears longer on hills for better acceleration. Paddles on the steering wheel are similar to those used in Formula-One racing: the driver uses the paddles to upshift or downshift. Redundant audio controls on the front of the wheel allow the driver to change channels or volume without taking his eyes off the road.

    Not bicycle friendly

    The XKR has a tiny trunk. With the top in place, I was barely able to squeeze an overnight suitcase, gear bag and small cooler inside. While it won’t hold passengers, the back seat is useful for carrying additional cargo.

    I suppose it’s possible to stuff a bicycle behind the front seat with the top down and the bike’s front wheel removed. Better yet, get a second vehicle more suited for the job, with less expensive upholstery to tear.

    It should go without saying that it’s also not a car for driving off-road. With low profile tires, it doesn’t take much to bend a rim. I did drive on a graded dirt road up in the high country, but I’d recommend keeping the speed low and the distance short.

    Standard safety

    I didn’t get a chance to test the XKR in rain or snow. While the chassis is rear-wheel drive, antilock braking and traction control should give drivers better directional control. Other standard features include a rollover protection system, tire pressure monitor, dynamic stability control, front and side airbags. Buyers can purchase an optional first aid kit.

    Bi-xenon headlamps that throw a long, bright beam of light are standard. So is adaptive lighting: it sends an extra beam of light to the side when the driver is cornering.

    Price on the test car is $94,600, including a luxury package and $665 delivery charge. While I can’t imagine buying a car that cost more than my house, driving the XKR for a week was a lovely experience. The XKR is as beautiful as any car I’ve seen, with handling and performance worthy of the leaper.

    Likes: Outstanding acceleration, steering response, and braking. The supercharged engine with six-speed automatic transmission is buttery smooth at any speed, combining the power of a race car with the manners of a luxury car.

    Dislikes: Very little cargo space, even with the top in place. The audio system on a car at this price should include standard satellite radio.

    Quick Facts:

    Make: Jaguar
    Model: XKR convertible
    Year: 2007
    Base price: $91,835
    As tested: $94,600
    Horsepower: 420 Hp @ 6000 rpm
    Torque: 413 lbs.-ft. @ 4000 rpm
    Zero-to-sixty: 5 seconds
    Bicycle friendly: No
    Off-road capability: No
    Towing: No
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Not available
    First aid kit: Available as an option
    Fuel economy: 17/25 m.p.g. city/highway
    Comments: Base price does not include a $665 transportation and handling fee.

  • 2007 Lincoln Navigator

    Lincoln’s flagship sport-utility vehicle features seating for up to eight passengers.
    By Nina Russin

    2007 Lincoln Navigator

    2007 Lincoln Navigator

    At this moment, I feel like biggest thing on the planet. I’m driving the 2007 Lincoln Navigator, a Titanic-sized sport-utility vehicle whose interior mimics a well-furnished yacht. From where I sit, people look like ants. Every vehicle on the road, except for the Hummer, seems diminutive by comparison. I think I might need a ladder to disembark, but fortunately, there’s a sideboard that deploys when I open the door. Still, I feel like a Lilliputian aboard the great ship Gulliver.

    With seating for up to eight passengers and a 135-foot cargo floor, the new Navigator is not a vehicle for the feint of heart. Curb weight on the four-by-four model is just over 6,000 pounds. Don’t even ask about fuel economy. There is none.

    But for those who can afford it, the Navigator is a very luxurious way to transport lots of people and their gear on or off the road. Despite its weight, the Navigator accelerates hard off the line, propelled by a 300 horsepower V8 engine, which delivers up to 365 lbs.-ft. of torque. The standard six-speed automatic transmission shifts seamlessly. I never noticed shift shock during my week-long test drive.

    Visibility around the truck is remarkably good. The ample side mirrors are easy to adjust, and feature side marker lights that flash with the turn signals, to make the vehicle more visible for cars to either side. While no vehicle with a 119-inch wheelbase turns on a dime, the rack and pinion steering system feels positive at all speeds. The test vehicle came with optional twenty-inch rims and low-profile tires ($1,495), providing a wider footprint than the standard eighteen-inch wheel package. The fully independent suspension is plush but not overly soft.

    Standard four-channel antilock brakes provide a margin of comfort for a vehicle with so much mass, especially for drivers living in winter climates. Roll stability control is also standard. Ford’s safety canopy with rollover sensing utilizes side-curtain airbags with tethers to hold all three rows of passengers in place in the event of a rollover.

    Standard high-intensity discharge headlamps provide a long, bright beam of light for night driving.

    Engineers reduced the noise-intrusion over the previous model by adding additional insulation to the headliner and dashboard. They also utilized additional padding in the carpeting to reduce road noise, and thicker side glass to minimize wind noise. The body of the current model has a stiffer chassis than the old model: that translates to less squeaks and rattles, and better handling characteristics. Finally, engineers tuned the side mirrors to minimize wind noise into the cabin.

    Luxurious, spacious interior

    The Navigator can seat up to eight passengers, with a 40/20/40 split second-row seat and 60/60 split third row seat. All passengers have plenty of cupholders to choose from: all big enough to hold water bottles. There are map pockets in all four doors as well as on the seatbacks of the first-row seats. Ten-way power front seats with seat heaters are standard. So are power-adjustable pedals for smaller drivers. The driver’s seat is easy to adjust for comfort and forward visibility, and is firm enough to provide good lower lumbar support.

    The center console up front has a large, deep storage compartment that’s big enough for a purse or small pack, a change dispenser and a MP3 jack. Both first and second-row passengers have access to a 12-volt power point. The second row seats fold and tumble to easy access to the third row.

    Buyers who regularly haul lots of gear will love the power folding rear seats. They deploy with a single button, folding flat into the floor. A single lever to the side of each second-row seat folds the seat flat as well, creating an exceptionally long, functional load floor. The Navigator will easily hold a couple of bikes inside with the third-row seats folded, assuming the front wheels are removed.

    Buyers looking for additional cargo space can upgrade to the extended-length, Navigator L model. The Navigator L’s wheelbase is twelve inches longer than the standard car, adding 25 feet of additional cargo space behind the third-row seat. However the standard car is quite long as it is: 208 inches end to end. The L model adds another fifteen inches, making it almost impossible to park in a standard garage, or fit comfortably in most driveways. 

    The test truck came with an elite option package ($5,450) that included satellite radio and a rear-seat DVD system. I didn’t test the DVD player, but the fourteen-speaker audio system delivered excellent sound throughout the vehicle. The option package also includes a free six-month subscription to Sirius satellite radio, an electro chromic dimming rear mirror and the power deploying running boards.

    Plenty of towing capacity

    The Navigator is a body-on-frame design, which is ideal for towing large loads. The four-by-four truck tested can tow up to 8750 pounds. The rear-wheel drive model adds another two hundred pounds of towing capacity, for buyers who don’t need the off-road capability.

    The Lincoln Navigator and Navigator L are produced in the United States, at Ford’s Michigan truck plant. They are currently available for test drives at Lincoln dealerships throughout the country.

    Likes: Excellent ride and handling characteristics, with above-average steering response for a vehicle of this size. Visibility is good all the way around the car. The interior is comfortable and versatile. The power folding third-row seat is a great feature.

    Dislikes: Poor fuel economy means relatively high maintenance costs. Those drivers living in urban areas where parking is limited should make sure that they can accommodate a vehicle of this size.

    Quick facts:

    Base price: $50,655
    Price as tested: $58,420
    Horsepower: 300 Hp @ 5000 r.p.m.
    Torque: 365 lbs.-ft. @ 3750 r.p.m.  
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: No
    Towing: Yes
    Off-road: Yes
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Fuel economy: N/A

  • 2007 Dodge Nitro

    A mid-sized sport-utility vehicle with stand-out styling
    By Nina Russin

    2007 Dodge Nitro

    2007 Dodge Nitro

    The folks at Chrysler have a reputation for introducing products that are as exciting to look at as they are to drive. The Nitro mid-sized sport-utility vehicle, turned heads at the 2005 Chicago Auto show, where the concept car was first unveiled. The production car that followed has the same distinctive front end and clever cargo features. One of this year’s finalists in the Active Lifestyle Vehicle Best Value On-Road, the mid-sized Nitro is a firecracker on wheels.

    Easy on the Wallet; Easy on Gas

    I tested the Nitro SLT four-by-four, that retails for just under $25,000. While four-wheel drive vehicles generally fall short on fuel economy, the Nitro averages a respectable 17 miles-per-gallon in the city, and 23 on the highway. The standard 3.7-liter V-6 engine (tested) is no barn-burner, but it has plenty of power for merging into and maneuvering through urban freeway traffic. Buyers who want more power can opt for the optional 4.0-liter V-6, that adds another 40 horsepower to the mix.

    The four-speed automatic transmission on the test car shifted seamlessly: there was relatively little shift shock when the transmission downshifted for power. The part-time four-wheel drive system was easy to use. The driver engages four-wheel drive by using a switch on the center console. There is no need to lock or unlock the axles.

    The standard suspension is an independent coil-spring setup in front, and solid axle in the rear. The solid-axle set-up enhances the Nitro’s towing capability, but unlike some cars, it doesn’t translate to wheel chatter on the highway.

    The test car came with 17-inch wheels: an upgrade from the standard 16-inch rims. Power rack-and-pinion steering makes it easy to maneuver the Nitro in tight spaces, without being overly loose at high speeds. The car has a good on-center feel, which is important if one has to avoid a dicey situation on the highway. The wheels feel like a natural extension of the steering wheel, and there is good visibility all the way around the car. A standard tire pressure monitoring system alerts the driver if air pressure drops at any of the wheels. That’s a useful feature here in the southwest where ambient temperatures vary up to 30 degrees, with corresponding changes in tire pressure.

    The standard cloth upholstery is comfortable and attractive. In hot climates, cloth can be a more practical alternative, because it doesn’t retain heat. The Nitro upholstery fabric is treated to be stain and odor-resistant. The seat controls allow drivers of most sizes to make themselves comfortable, as does the tilt steering column. The seats provide plenty of lower lumbar support, and the controls for the HVAC and audio systems are easy to reach.  All models are MP3 compatible. Instrument panel controls are easy to reach from both front seating positions, and there are redundant audio controls on the steering wheel.

    Styling Sets Nitro Apart from the Crowd

    Given the option, it’s more fun to have a cool looking car than a boring one. While there are many well-built, functional entries in the mid-sized sport-utility segment, Nitro’s styling is way ahead of the competition. From its distinctive front end with a bright chrome cross-hair grille, to the sculpted wheel wells and strong beltline, the Nitro doesn’t get lost in a parking lot full of cars. It looks fun and youthful: ready for the daily commute or weekend adventures. A standard roof rack with side rails makes it easy to load large cargo up top.

    But some of the Nitro’s best attributes are hidden inside: especially the cleverly configured rear cargo area. A sliding cargo floor holds up to 400 pounds. Slide the floor out and sit on it for a tailgate party (the cooler sits in a well underneath the floor), or to load large cargo. There are plenty of tie-down hooks to secure larger items, while the storage area under the sliding floor secures smaller items, and keeps them out of sight. The rear gate opens easily, with a wide access that makes it easy to load from a variety of angles.

    Both the second-row seats and front passenger seat fold flat to extend the cargo floor. It’s an easy operation for those who want to load a bike or two in the back, and the cargo floor material makes it easy to slide items forward, without hanging up. A compact spare tire isn’t my first choice for a four-wheel drive truck, but it does keep weight out of the car and maximize room in the rear.

    Dodge designers did a great job of surrounding the driver and front passenger with plenty of bins and cubbies for smaller items, and cupholders that hold bottles of water. A 115-volt power point up front and 12-volt power point in the rear come standard. The SLT grade comes with power folding heated side mirrors: a useful feature for drivers who live in cold climates, and who need to pull their vehicles in and out of the garage.

    Well-equipped with safety features.

    Traction control and electronic stability program come standard on all Nitro models, as well as antilock brakes. All models also come with front, side, and side curtain airbags that protect both rows of passengers.

    The Nitro comes with a 3-year, 36,000 miles bumper-to-bumper warranty that includes warranty assistance. It’s a great value for customers that want a reasonably priced sport-utility vehicle that looks sharp and has one of the most functional cargo areas of any vehicle in its competitive segment. The Nitro is currently available for test drives at Dodge dealerships nationwide.

    Likes: Sporty styling, inside and out, with an exceptionally practical cargo bay. The sliding rear cargo floor is a feature that most buyers will find many uses for. The Nitro is a fun car to drive, with lots of standard comfort, convenience and safety features.

    Dislikes: The undersized spare could be a problem for drivers who use the Nitro to do serious off-road driving.

    Quick facts:

    Price as Tested: $24,905
    Horsepower: 210 Hp @ 5,200 r.p.m.
    Torque: 235 lbs-ft. @ 4,000 r.p.m.
    0 to 60:  N/A
    ABS Brakes: Standard
    Side Curtain Airbags: Standard
    First-Aid Kit: No 
    Towing: Yes
    Off-Road: Yes
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Fuel economy: 17/23 m.p.g. city/highway 
    Comments: A full-time four-wheel drive system will be available later this year. At this point, Chrysler does not plan to bring a diesel version of the Nitro to the States.

  • 2007 Toyota Sienna XLE AWD

    Seven Passenger Luxury
    By Nina Russin

    2007 Toyota Sienna

    2007 Toyota Sienna

    Minivans are all about the passengers. They are the only cars that focus as much on the people in back as the person in the driver’s seat. Minivan passengers get it all: captain’s chairs, DVD players, cupholders, armrests, power points, and individual temperature controls. I’m not saying that power and performance aren’t important, but I don’t think you’ll find a minivan class on the Nextel circuit any time in the near future.

    Passengers are an essential part of any minivan road test: last August, Jim Woodman commandeered his family to road test the new Dodge Caravan on a trek up the California coast. This month, it was my turn. My husband and I flew to Ohio to celebrate my mother’s eightieth birthday, joining my eighty-seven year old aunt and uncle for the weekend.

    We picked up a 2007 Toyota Sienna all-wheel drive model at the Columbus, Ohio airport, and drove it to Cincinnati where my mother lives. Out test drive included some juicy Friday night rush-hour traffic through Columbus, and two days of driving around my hometown with the rest of the family.

    The last time I had driven the Sienna was during the new model introduction in 2003. Since then, Toyota has replaced the original V6 engine with a more powerful block, that delivers fifty more horsepower, and significantly more torque. Translated, it’s not afraid of the passing lane.

    The freeways in Ohio are relatively old: built before engineers realized that entrance and exit ramps should all go off the right lanes. Diamond lanes? Forget about it! Drivers who want to speed past traffic should think about buying a helicopter.

    The I-70 through Columbus looks like a skein of yarn after my cat’s had at it. In order to stay the course, I found myself weaving from one side of the road to the other, as random exits fed traffic onto other interstates going east and west. The navigation display on the Sienna warned me about the upcoming exits, but I still might have veered off course, had my husband not been there to make sense of the road signs.

    I appreciated the beefier V6 engine: I was able to change lanes quickly during very small breaks in the traffic. Elevated ride height is always helpful on today’s roads, since trucks represent over half the vehicles. The Sienna has excellent visibility all the way around: the side mirrors pretty much eliminate blind spots.

    While gasoline in Ohio isn’t as expensive as other parts of the country, it still costs more than it did two years ago. I appreciated the exceptional fuel economy that a minivan can offer. Try to find a seven passenger sport-utility vehicle that averages over twenty miles-per-gallon. I won’t say that such an animal doesn’t exist, but those models tend to ride on smaller chassis with less head and legroom for the passengers, and little left over for cargo.

    The Sienna made our drive to Cincinnati as stress-free as such a trip can be. Steering is responsive at all speeds, and the brakes are firm and linear. The suspension is comfortably soft, while allowing the car to corner flat at high speeds. All-wheel drive models come standard with 17-inch wheels and run-flat tires, so drivers don’t have to worry about being stranded on the side of the highway with a car full of kids, or in my case, octogenarians.

    Vehicle stability and traction control, standard on the test car, allow the driver to maintain directional control in wet weather and on uneven road surfaces. Front, side and side curtain airbags are standard. The side curtains extend to reach all three rows of passengers.

    The front seats have excellent lower lumbar support. Eight-way power adjustments on the driver’s seat with a tilt and telescoping steering wheel enables smaller drivers to maintain a safe distance from the front airbag. The passenger seat can fold flat to function as a work surface.

    Cupholders in the center console are large enough for bottles. The center bin holds compact discs or small electronic devices. Audio and temperature controls are easy to reach from either front seating position. Redundant audio controls on the steering wheel are standard on the XLE model.

    Parallel parking

    People who live in the Southwest don’t have to parallel park. In the Sonoran desert, there’s always room for another parking lot. The Midwest is a different story. Cities are older, and nobody wants to walk three hundred yards between buildings in the middle of January.

    The area around the University of Cincinnati where we were staying has very little off-street parking. Metered spots on the street are hard to find, and they’re not particularly large. Finding a spot to big enough for a seventeen foot-long car, and shoeing the car into it is a challenge.

    As big cars go, the Sienna is very maneuverable. With a 36.8-foot turning radius U-turns, even on a narrow street, are not a problem. The optional rear back-up camera on the test car projects a wide-angle view onto the navigation display whenever the driver shifts into reverse. I was able to slip into metered spaces with a minimum of corrections. My high school driving instructor would have been proud.

    Remember gas lamps? I don’t, but they’re part of Cincinnati history, and some urban planner with a death wish has decided to preserve them. Gas lamps worked fine back in the day because horse-drawn carriages don’t move very fast, and horses have an acute sense of self-preservation.

    The multi-reflector headlamps on the Sienna normally provide ample light for night driving, but in this case, I longed for a stronger bi-xenon beam. The navigation system was more useful, since the poor lighting renders street signs not obscured by foliage almost impossible to read.

    Family outing

    Kids can get in and out of any car. Octogenarians are another story. An innocent looking floor mat can become a death trap under shaky knees. A second-row pass-through large enough for the average ten year-old can be an insurmountable obstacle for a person with a cane. Loading my family into the back of the Sienna quickly pointed out the car’s strengths and weaknesses.

    The power sliding doors are a win-win. They’re easy to open and close using buttons on the remote key fob, so the passengers don’t have to reach outside the car to close the doors themselves. Sliding doors have the advantage over hinged doors of not restricting access and egress, especially when the car is parked in a narrow space.

    While the Sienna’s step-in height wouldn’t be a problem for most passengers, the older members of my family found the car difficult to enter. Although the captain’s chairs are more comfortable than bench seats, the bench seats are easier to slide across. The space between the two captain’s chairs was big enough for my husband fit through to get to the back seat, but the older members of the family found the maneuver impossible.

    Seat belt height was another problem. My mother and aunt are fairly petite. The front seatbelts are adjustable, but the second-row belts are not. They found the shoulder harnesses very uncomfortable because they were mounted too high.

    Three-zone climate controls come standard on the XLE grade: allowing passengers to adjust the temperature to their liking. Aside from the seatbelts, everyone felt comfortable once seated, with plenty of head and legroom. I could use the conversation mirror in the overhead console to make sure everyone was situated before I put the car in drive. Everyone had a good forward view of the road, with large side windows for sightseeing. The optional moonroof shed extra daylight into the second row.

    The Sienna has a large cargo area: it easily held our luggage, groceries and shopping bags. The third-row seats fold flat into the floor to extend the cargo bay making the Sienna bicycle friendly. Buyers who opt for the Limited grade can add power-folding third-row seats. A roof rack is standard on all grades except the base CE model. The Sienna tows up to 3500 pounds: our ALV minimum standard.

    All models come with three, 12-volt power points. The rear seat entertainment option on the test car includes two 115-volt inverters that are handy for plugging in a laptop computer.

    My husband and I appreciated the upgraded ten-speaker audio system with satellite radio. It made the two-hour drive between Cincinnati and Columbus pass more quickly, and the radio station I listened to as a teenager sound better than I remembered it.

    The Toyota Sienna is manufactured at the automaker’s Princeton, Indiana plant. The XLE is one of four available grades, with either front or all-wheel drive. Disabled drivers can add a mobility package that includes power lift-up seats with or without a ramp. The mobility seats are available through Braun Mobility Equipment Dealers, and qualify for a $1000 reimbursement from Toyota.

    Base price on the test car is $33,330, putting the Sienna XLE all-wheel drive model in our luxury category. The Sienna isn’t the newest minivan model on the market, but it remains a strong competitor, with excellent ride and handling, and a luxurious, functional interior. The Sienna faced some unusual challenges on our recent trip to the Midwest: all in all, it handled them pretty well.

    Likes: Excellent performance with a more powerful V6 engine, and exceptional fuel economy. The Sienna is a comfortable car for seven passengers, with plenty of interior space and a large, versatile cargo area.

    Dislikes: Second-row seatbelts are uncomfortable for shorter passengers.

    Base price: $33,330
    Price as tested: $40,989
    Horsepower: 266 Hp @ 6200 r.p.m.
    Torque: 245 lbs.-ft. @ 4700 r.p.m.
    0 to 60: N/A
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: No 
    Towing: Yes
    Off-road: No
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Fuel economy: 18/23 m.p.g. city/highway 
    Comments: Base price does not include a $645 destination charge.

  • 2007 Mazda3 S Touring

    Five doors, four passengers, and a dollop of boogie
    By Nina Russin

    2007 Mazda3 S Touring

    2007 Mazda3 S Touring

    Anything that costs close to a year’s salary should bring its owner more pleasure than the average appliance. The engineers at Mazda understand that. Even their least expensive cars are proof that practicality and fun are not mutually exclusive. The Mazda3 hatchback, priced from $17,580, holds four passengers, averages thirty miles-per-gallon, and gives the driver something to smile about.

    The model that debuted in 2003 got an update this year: better low-end power, fresh styling, and a more refined interior. The test car is the upscale S grade with one option: a moonroof and six-CD changer.

    The five-door Mazda3 comes standard with a 2.3-liter engine and five-speed manual transmission. Both four- and five-door models are front-wheel drive, with standard four-wheel disc brakes and independent suspension. Standard antilock brakes, dynamic stability control, side and side curtain airbags make Mazda’s best value a very safe car as well.

    Variable valve timing gives the four-cylinder engine exceptional gas mileage: about thirty miles-per-gallon. The updated engine also has great pickup: it’s especially noticeable accelerating onto the highway, and passing at speed. The manual transmission has a light clutch and wide-range gears for easier stop-and-go driving. It shifts smoothly, with no obvious gear lash.

    Seventeen-inch wheels provide a wide, stable footprint. The addition of front and rear stabilizer bars makes the car corner on rails. The 2007 models have a stiffer body structure that improves steering response at speed. Emergency maneuvers on the freeway feel completely safe. Independent four-wheel suspension gives both rows of passengers a comfortable ride.

    The Mazda3 has a low stance: ground clearance is under five inches. The low center of gravity improves the car’s high-speed handling, but makes it impractical off-road. Graded dirt roads should not be a problem, but anything more would be a reach.

    Engineers revised the front suspension to reduce understeer. I didn’t notice any pushing, even at high speeds. The weather throughout the test was dry, so I didn’t have a chance to drive the car on wet roads. A standard rear wiper improves rear visibility in rain and snow.

    Spacious cabin with a versatile cargo bay

    The Mazda3 holds four adults and their belongings: three across the back seat is a squeeze. Both front seats have manual adjustments. A standard tilt and telescoping steering wheel allows drivers of all sizes to find a comfortable position.

    I was happy to see center bolsters in the front seats. They hold the passengers in place without irritating pressure points as side bolsters do. The seatbacks in both rows have good lower back support. Standard cloth upholstery is attractive and more comfortable in the hot southwestern summer.

    Visibility is excellent all the way around the car. Power side mirrors do a good job of compensating for blind spots to the rear. The driver sits high enough to have good forward visibility. Redundant audio and cruise controls on the steering wheel minimize distraction.

    All cars come pre-wired for Sirius satellite radio: a feature I can’t say enough good things about. There are enough choices of commercial-free music, news, sports and weather to keep me occupied on a long road trip without adding my own music. Those who want to bring their own tunes can use the MP3 plug-in, located in a bin under the front armrest.

    The air conditioner cools the car down quickly, even in extreme heat. I started the car up several times in the hottest part of the day, with temperatures well above 110-degrees Fahrenheit: the car was comfortable within five minutes. The audio and climate controls are easy to reach from both front seats.

    The glovebox is exceptionally large and deep: it has enough room to hold a small purse or pack. The bin in the center console will also hold a small pack or compact discs. There is a small cubby to the side of the parking brake for putting a cell phone or PDA. There are two, twelve-volt power points up front: one in the center bin, and one at the base of the center stack.

    All four passengers have cup- and bottle holders: the bottle holders are in the doors, while cupholders are in the center console and rear armrest. The optional moonroof lets more ambient light into the back of the car.

    Bike-friendly cargo bay with a secret storage area

    The second-row seats are easy to fold flat using levers to the outside of the seatbacks. It is not necessary to take off the headrests or remove the seat cushions, so the Mazda3 easily meets out bike-friendly standards. A standard tonneau cover hides items in the rear. Four tie-down loops on the floor make large cargo easy to secure. Cargo nets and additional cargo trays are available as factory options.

    A light to the right to the right of the tailgate makes it easier to load up after dark. Smaller storage bins under the cargo floor are great for people who need to stash valuables at the trailhead.

    The tailgate release is located in a recess under the lower lip: a design change for the new model. Because the car is less than five feet tall, it’s also easy to load cargo up top. The Mazda3 doesn’t come with roof rails, nor are they available as an option. But cargo tracks on the rood should make it easy to install an aftermarket rack.

    The Mazda3’s sporty styling was a hit among runners at the shop. The angular front grille with standard halogen headlamps makes the car stand out around bigger vehicles. Redundant side signal lights protect the driver in dense traffic. Side sill extensions and a rear liftgate spoiler are standard on the S grade.

    Price on the test car is $20,340 including delivery charges, putting the Mazda 3 well under our $30,000 cap for best value vehicles. With its high level of standard comfort and safety features, the Mazda3 is a lot of car for the money. The sporty five-door model is stylish and fun to drive. Its small size makes it an ideal choice for city dwellers that like to head out on the trails over the weekend. The eco-friendly Mazda meets the federal PZEV super-low emissions standards.

    Likes: A great value, the Mazda3 combines sporty performance with a spacious interior, versatile cargo area and a high level of standard safety features. It has excellent ride and handling characteristics at all speeds, gets good fuel economy, and makes four passengers feel as if they’re riding in a much bigger car.

    Dislikes: Roof rails are not available as a factory option.

    Quick facts:

    Base price: $18,425
    Price as tested: $20,340
    Horsepower: 151 Hp @ 6500 r.p.m.*
    Torque: 149 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: No
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Fuel economy: 26/33 m.p.g. city/highway 
    Comments: *Engine specifications are for the PZEV low-emissions model.

  • 2007 Ford Explorer XLT 4×4

    Sport-Utility Classic

    By Nina Russin

    2007 Ford Explorer XLT

    2007 Ford Explorer XLT

    The Ford Explorer may not have been the original sport-utility vehicle, but it was the first to gain widespread popularity. Early SUVs appealed to driving enthusiasts looking to take their adventures off-road. The Explorer attracted Middle America. The first Explorer, introduced in 1990 as a ’91 model, combined the durability of a mid-sized pickup truck with the versatility of a minivan.

    Off-road capability allowed the Explorer to go where passenger cars feared to tread. For active families, it was a match made in heaven. By the mid-nineties, sport-utility vehicles had become the new family wagons: the Explorer leading the pack in sales. Despite some bumps in the road, the Explorer remains a popular choice among SUV buyers: familiarity breeds comfort.

    Over its seventeen-year history, Ford has refined the Explorer’s chassis to produce a more car-like ride, while maintaining the durability to tow trailers and go off-road. The new Explorers are loaded with creature comforts, have powerful engines, get better gas mileage, and feature a higher level of standard safety. In short, they’re twenty-first century cars.

    The 2007 models come with a choice of two engines, two or four-wheel drive, and five, six or seven-seat configurations. The test car is the XLT four-by-four model with seating for seven. Options include the Ironman trim and wheel package, safety canopy, trailer prep, navigation system, rear-seat DVD, power-folding third-row seats, plus two comfort and convenience packages that gussy up the interior.

    While base price on the XLT grade is $28,890, the options add another $10,000. With the $695 destination charge, MSRP is just under $40,000: well within our luxury category.

    Power to spare

    Ford is known for engineering exceptionally good V-8 engines, and the 4.6-liter block in the test car is no exception. Mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, it has a buttery smooth ride with a fat torque curve. Fuel economy isn’t great, but the V8 Explorer performs like a sport sedan, with excellent acceleration off the line, and in the critical twenty-to-fifty mile-per-hour range.

    Although the Explorer is a body-on frame truck, engineers have maximized torsional stiffness though a special frame design. A tube-through-tube configuration has the crossmembers pass through the frame rails, producing extremely stiff joints. As a result, the truck takes on some of the characteristics of a unit-body design, while it is durable enough to tow large trailers.

    Four-wheel independent suspension produces a compliant ride for all passengers. Rack-and-pinion steering has good feedback and on-center feel. The Ironman package includes eighteen-inch wheels: an upgrade from the standard sixteen-inch rims. The bigger wheels produce a wider, more stable footprint. Drivers should feel comfortable making the occasional emergency maneuver on the highway.

    Buttons on the instrument panel switch the vehicle between 4×4 auto, 4×4 high and 4×4 low settings. There’s no need to make adjustments at the axles. The automatic setting keeps the car in rear wheel drive for fuel economy, and shifts power to the front wheels when necessary. The low setting is for serious off-road driving, where the driver needs to crawl over extremely uneven terrain. Ground clearance is 8.2 inches. Approach and departure angles of 28.2 and 23.8 degrees respectively give the Explorer the ability to climb and descend steep hills.

    The standard keypad entry device is one of the greatest ideas Ford has ever had. Any passenger can enter a number code on the keypad and gain access to the interior. It saves the inevitable debate of who hangs on to the keys, if five people are using a car as base camp at the trailhead.

    All the comforts of home

    Inside, the new Explorer has all the amenities a twenty-first century family demands: satellite radio, navigation system, DVD player, and cupholders everywhere. Both first and second-row seats are spacious and comfortable for most adults, although the middle seat in the second row lacks some legroom. The third-row seats are adequate: kids will be more comfortable than adults.

    The test car has adjustable pedals, so shorter drivers can maintain a safe distance from the steering wheel and front airbag. Tilt steering wheel adjustment is standard. Cruise control settings on the steering wheel allow the driver to engage and disengage the function easily. A central touch screen controls the navigation and audio settings. There are redundant audio and climate control knobs on the instrument panel: all easy to reach from both front seats.

    There are two twelve-volt power points, and a MP3 jack at the front of the center console bin. The large bin also has a change holder. It is big enough to store CDs or small electronic devices. The glovebox is quite small: just big enough for an owner’s manual and a few documents.

    Both front doors have map pockets and bottle holders; rear doors have map pockets. Each row of seating has two cupholders: four are located in the center console, while two cupholders and trays on the C pillars service the third-row passengers. Air vents to the rear of the center console and in the headliner above the second row make sure all passengers have adequate ventilation.

    Ergonomics throughout the interior are excellent with one notable exception: the inside door handles. Chrome lifts at the end of the armrests fit under a person’s palms. To open the door, the passenger curls his fingers over the edge of the handle and lifts it up.

    The problem is that the chrome gets extremely hot in the summer. Here in Phoenix, it gets hot enough to cause third-degree burns. I had to use a towel to open the doors without burning my hands.

    The seats are easy to adjust, with good lower back support. I liked the fact that the seat cushions were relatively flat: not dished, or with large side bolsters that some designers love.

    Bicycle friendly

    The third-row seats collapse using two switches in the cargo area. While it is necessary to collapse the headrests using straps on top of the seat backs, the whole operation is quick and simple. There is very little cargo space with the third row seats in place, but folding them produces a good-sized cargo floor. The second-row seats collapse manually. After folding the headrests, a lever to the side of the seat cushions folds the seats flat.

    Hooks on the cargo floor make it easy to secure large items. The jack is located in a storage space under the cargo floor. There are garment hooks next to the second and third-row seats.

    The tailgate is easy to open and close: a handle at the bottom edge of the door allows shorter people to close the hatch without straining. The window glass can open separately for tossing small items in back.

    Side roof rails are standard on all models. The Ironman package adds crossbars. A towing prep package raises the towing capacity to 7040 pounds: well over our minimum ALV standards.

    Available safety canopy

    Ford’s safety canopy uses the side-curtain airbags to hold passengers in place during a rollover. Tethers keep the curtains in place longer than normal, so passengers are secure inside the car for the duration of a rollover. The safety canopy is optional on XLT models, and standard on the Explorer’s higher grades. It’s a worthy investment for families who regularly travel with passengers in the rear seats.

    Standard safety features include antilock brakes, traction control, roll stability control, and a tire pressure monitoring system.

    The 2007 Explorer is built at Ford’s assembly plant in Louisville, Kentucky.

    Likes: The Explorer has the ride and handling of a passenger car, with the durability and off-road capability of a pickup truck. Steering feedback and strong, linear braking make the vehicle feel like a much smaller car. The power-folding third row seats make it easy to convert the rear into a large, functional cargo area.

    Dislikes: Interior door handles that get scalding hot in the summer.

    Base price: $28,890
    Price as tested: $39,450
    Horsepower: 292 Hp @ 5750 r.p.m.
    Torque: 300 lbs.-ft. @ 3950 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
    Comments: Base price does not include a $695 delivery charge.

  • 2007 Mazda CX-9, Grand Touring

    Mazda’s long-wheelbase crossover vehicle seats seven and is bicycle-friendly.
    By Nina Russin

    2007 Mazda CX-9

    2007 Mazda CX-9

    The CX-9 is Mazda’s seven-passenger crossover: it straddles the murky waters between sport-utility vehicles and minivans. To me, the CX-9 seems more like a minivan. It’s front-wheel drive, has a unit-body construction, and drives like a passenger car.

    Styling is more like a minivan as well: perhaps a little sportier. The rear spoiler, high beltline, and narrow greenhouse give the car a muscular, planted look.

    It also has some accoutrements that many minivans don’t have, such as available all-wheel drive. The Grand Touring model (tested) comes with an optional navigation system that includes a rearview backup camera. It also has a power rear lift-gate: a godsend when carrying loads of heavy cargo to and from the vehicle.

    Mudguards are available as an option, but the CX-9 is not a car to take far off the beaten path. The 113-inch wheelbase is too long for serious off-road driving, and there isn’t enough ground clearance. Approach and departure angles of 17 and 21-inches respectively aren’t high enough for the CX-9 to move over extremely uneven terrain. Large boulders or roots in the road would also be a problem.

    The CX-9 has a different powertrain than Mazda’s five-passenger crossover: the CX-7. The CX-9’s standard 3.5-liter V6 engine produces 263 horsepower and 249 lbs.-ft. of torque: about 20 horsepower more than the four-cylinder engine in the CX-7. Despite a relatively high curb weight of 4300 pounds, the CX-9 has enough power to accelerate hard from a stop, and pass other cars on the freeway.

    Does it zoom?

    Mazda’s reputation is based on sporty performance across its vehicle line; what the manufacturer calls “zoom-zoom.” While the CX-9 doesn’t suffer from lack of power, it’s too big and heavy to have the light, nimble feel of a sports car.

    The car’s best attribute is its balance. The front-wheel drive test car doesn’t feel nose-heavy, as many such vehicles do. Perhaps that’s because the aluminum engine block keeps weight on the front end to a minimum. Nor does the car push in corners, or dive hard during braking. The average person can drive the CX-9 hard and make the occasional emergency maneuver, confident that he will be in complete control.

    Twenty-inch aluminum wheels, standard on the Grand Touring model, produce a large footprint, and keep the vehicle stable. I noticed very little roll on decreasing radius turns. A fully independent suspension smoothes out bumps in the road: stabilizer bars are standard front and rear. Engineers maximized torsional stiffness throughout the unit body for better steering response and a good on-center feel. Four-channel antilock brakes are standard on all models.

    Spacious interior

    The car’s long wheelbase translates to a larger interior, and more legroom for people in back. A lever on the second-row seatbacks releases the seats so they can move forward, making it easier for passengers to climb into the third row. The second-row seats also recline, and have separate climate controls. Head and legroom in the third row isn’t as generous as the second row, but kids and smaller adults shouldn’t have a problem.

    All three rows of seating get overhead reading lamps and power points. There are two, 12-volt points up front: in a bin in the center console, and on the center stack. A 115-volt inverter on the C-pillar allows rear passengers to plug in a computer or other electronic devices. There is also a 12-volt outlet in the cargo area, to the right of the liftgate.

    There isn’t much room for cargo behind the third-row seat: enough for some groceries, small boxes or duffle bags. But the seats are exceptionally easy to fold flat, by pulling on straps on the seatbacks. Bikes with the front wheels removed can fit in with the second-row seats in place.

    The second-row seats also fold flat without removing the seat cushions or headrests, producing an even longer cargo floor. There are tie-down hooks to either side of the cargo floor for securing larger items. There is also storage under the cargo floor behind the car jack.

    Map pockets in all four doors hold paperwork. The front two doors have molded bottle holders. The cupholders in the center console are large enough for big drinks or water bottles. There’s also a nice storage shelf behind the gated shifter, which is big enough for a cell phone or PDA.

    A power driver’s seat on the test car has three memory settings: a nice feature if two or more drivers are sharing the car. A tilt and telescoping steering wheel allows smaller drivers to maintain a safe distance from the front airbag. The steering wheel has cruise control settings and redundant audio controls.

    The front passenger seat also has power adjustments, and both front seats are heated. Dual temperature controls ensure that both front passengers ride comfortably.

    Keyless ignition is standard on the touring model (tested). In this case, the key is a credit card-like device that fits nicely inside a wallet. The driver turns the ignition switch to the “on” position, similar to a traditional system, but without inserting a key.

    An optional Bose stereo system comes with an in-dash 6-CD changer and Sirius satellite radio. The 5.1 surround sound produces excellent sound throughout the car. A MP3 jack in the center console bin allows passengers to download their own music libraries. The audio system is Bluetooth compatible.

    A rearview camera displays a wide-angle view in back of the car on the front navigation screen. It eliminates blind spots around the D pillars and below the rear window, making parallel parking and backing into smaller parking spots easier. The same option package comes with the power liftgate that operates by depressing a button the key fob.

    Standard safety

    All models come with front, side and side curtain airbags that protect all three rows of passengers. Antilock brakes, a tire pressure monitoring system, roll stability and traction control are also standard. The test car has side mirror markers and rain sensing wipers.

    Pricing for the front-wheel drive CX-9 begins at $29,035; $30,235 for the all-wheel drive model. The Grand Touring front-wheel drive model begins at $32,675. An available towing package ($450) boosts the car’s towing capacity to 3500 pounds: our ALV minimum standard. Buyers can also add a factory roof rack for $250.

    The CX-9 is on display at Mazda dealerships nationwide.

    Likes: Very spacious interior with a lot of head and legroom, especially in the second row. Despite its size, the CX-9 is a well-balanced car, with better-than average performance at speed.

    Dislikes: The car’s base price of $29,035 puts it out of range for many potential customers. The five-seat CX-7 is a much more affordable option.

    Quick facts:

    Base price: $32,675
    Price as tested: $38,760
    Horsepower: 263 Hp @ 6250 r.p.m.
    Torque: 249 Lbs.-ft. @ 4500 r.p.m.
    0 to 60:  N/A
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: No 
    Towing: Yes
    Off-road: No
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Fuel economy: 18/24 m.p.g. city/highway 
    Comments: Base price does not include a $595 destination charge.

  • 2008 Land Rover LR2 SE

    Compact sport-utility vehicle gets jiggy with the big boys.
    By Nina Russin

    2008 Land Rover LR2

    2008 Land Rover LR2

    The LR2 is Land Rover’s replacement for the Freelander: a compact sport-utility vehicle that rolled out in 1997. Like the Freelander, the LR2 is a unibody, all-wheel drive car: a departure from the body-on-frame trucks the automaker is known for.

    In contrast, the LR2 feels more solid and purposeful than the car it replaces. The body is stiffer, for better steering feedback, and the six-cylinder engine, plenty powerful. Zero-to-sixty acceleration is 8.4 seconds: fast enough to merge onto freeway, or win the occasional game of chicken out of the tollbooth.

    The 3.2-liter engine is an inline design, which I prefer to a V6. Inline engines are inherently balanced. Engineers can put sensitive electronic components on the cold end, where they’re less likely to fail from heat. In layman’s terms, inline six engines don’t vibrate, and they’re less likely to break down.

    A six-speed automatic transmission boosts power and fuel economy. Drivers can select either regular or sport modes. The sport mode keeps the car in a lower gear for better power delivery.

    Full-time all-wheel drive sends power to the wheels with the best traction. Traction and roll-stability control are standard. So is downhill descent control.

    Land Rover’s terrain response system, introduced on the LR3, is standard. A dial on the center console allows the driver to alter the vehicle’s suspension, traction and braking according to driving conditions. Did somebody say deep mud? Yummy!

    North to Sedona

    Arizona’s red rock country is the perfect place to test the LR2: a combination of paved and dirt roads, with a healthy dose of slick rock that’s legal to drive on. The stretch of Interstate 17 between Phoenix and Sedona is an uphill grade that climbs from 1500 to 4500 feet. It’s great for testing the car’s low-end torque and horsepower. As the altitude increases and the grade gets steeper, large semis slow to a crawl. Passing on an uphill grade is a quick way to gauge how much of the engine power is actually making it to the wheels.

    The intelligent all-wheel drive system automatically delivers power to the wheels that need it most. Power goes to the front wheels when the car is on dry pavement. But when traction needs change, as they do on winding uphill grades, the system can send almost all of the power to the rear axle. The design boosts fuel economy, while giving the LR2 the characteristics of an all-wheel or rear-wheel drive car.

    A long, flat torque curve helps as well. The engine produces up to 234 lbs.-ft. of torque at cruising speeds. As a result, the LR2 can pass vehicles on a steep grade without harsh downshifts.

    Unlike some off-road vehicles, the LR2 has a fully independent suspension, which produces a supple ride, not unlike a passenger car. Rack and pinion steering is very responsive, and four-wheel disc brakes are firm and linear.

    August is monsoon season in the southwest: afternoon thunderstorms in the high country are commonplace. The prospect of flooded roads and high winds make the drive north more enticing. Rain may depress people in the Midwest, but here in the desert, it’s cause for celebration.

    As we approach Prescott, we can see large thunderheads to the north. The winds pick up, and we realize that we we’re headed for a late afternoon thunder-boomer. The LR2 loves deep water.

    Front and rear wipers maintain good visibility all the way around the vehicle, while the all-wheel drive keeps the tires glued to the road. Despite its high profile, the truck feels stable at speed, even in wind. Ground clearance is about 8.7 inches, so water intrusion is never an issue.

    The LR2 can wade through water up to 19.7-inches without damaging the engine or interior. Except for getting dirt on the outside of the car, the LR2 comes through the storm with flying colors.

    The steep hills in and around Sedona are perfect for testing the hill descent control. The system uses antilock braking to maintain a slow downhill speed. The speed is never more than four miles-per-hour, but may be less, depending on the terrain response settings.

    A new gradient release control system works in tandem with the hill descent control. It maintains a certain amount of brake pressure after the driver takes his foot off the pedal so downhill acceleration remains in control.

    Since all of this engages automatically, the driver can spend more time enjoying the scenery. The hardest part is keeping one’s foot off the brake pedal, so the electronic controls can do their job.

    Theater-style seating

    Like the LR3, the LR2 has theater-style seating. Second-row passengers sit slightly higher than those in front for better forward visibility. There are two sunroofs: one for each row. Because of the car’s compact size, second-row passengers don’t have a ton of legroom. But it should be adequate for most adults. While three passengers can sit in back, two will be more comfortable.

    The rear seats fold flat to extend the cargo floor. It’s a fairly simple operation that entails flipping the seat cushions forward and then folding the seatbacks flat. It’s not necessary to remove the headrests, so the process takes about a minute. With the second-row seats folded, there is plenty of room in back for a couple of bikes with the front wheels removed, or a bunch of camping gear. Those of us who like to get dirty appreciate the reversible cargo floor: carpeted on one side, and a water-resistant material on the other. A removable tonneau hides items behind the rear seat.

    Power adjustable front seats and leather trim are standard. A tilt and telescoping steering wheel allows smaller drivers to find a comfortable seating position, and still maintain a safe distance from the front airbag. There are plenty of cupholders, as well as bottle holders in the doors. A small cubby in the center console easily holds a cell phone or PDA, and there are a couple of 12-volt power points, so the driver can recharge on the go.

    A new keyless start system may fix a long-time Land Rover problem: keys sticking in the ignition switch. The key fob inserts into a slot next to the steering wheel to power up the electronic components. A start/stop button above it turns the ignition on and off. The system certainly doesn’t simplify things, but it seems to be reliable.

    The terrain response dial at the front of the center console has four settings: general driving, grass/gravel/snow, mud/ruts, and sand. Each setting varies the way the stability, traction and hill descent control functions, to optimize traction and directional control. It also adjusts shock tuning and the center differential to keep passengers comfortable, but give the wheels enough power to go forward on uneven terrain.

    While the LR2 doesn’t have a two-speed transfer case, it has enough wheel articulation and low-end torque to take drivers through some fairly challenging trails. The advantage of all-wheel drive is that the driver doesn’t have to worry about changing settings. The car is always ready to respond to the unexpected snowstorm or flooded dirt road.

    All the comforts of home

    While the LR2 is Land Rover’s least expensive vehicle, it’s still a Land Rover. Base price is just under $34,000: the test car was just over $40,000. Luxury cars have luxury amenities. For example, the seats are similar to those found in the high-luxury Range Rover HSE: heaven for people with lower back problems.

    A technology option package adds Sirius satellite radio, navigation system, six-
    disc in-dash CD changer with Bluetooth connectivity and 7.1 surround sound. Other options on the car are heated front seats, a heated windshield, and a lighting package that adds bi-xenon headlamps, approach and puddle lamps on the side mirrors.

    Airbags everywhere

    Engineers took vehicle safety seriously for the LR2: even the most skillful driver can get in trouble off-road. There are seven standard airbags: two in front, one at the driver’s knees, side and side curtain. Antilock braking, traction and roll stability control are also standard.

    The LR2 is a good option for buyers who want the off-road capability and panache of a Land Rover at a more affordable price. It’s a stylish, nicely proportioned car that should be just the right size for one or two people and their gear.

    Fuel economy is a respectable 16/23 m.p.g. city/highway. The car’s relatively compact dimensions make it easy to park in most urban lots or garages. Ride and handling characteristics rival passenger cars, with the additional benefits of exceptional off-road capabilities. The LR2 can tow up to 3500 pounds.

    Land Rover LR2s are waiting to get dirty at dealerships nationwide.

    Likes: Excellent on and off-road performance, with all the luxury Land Rover is famous for. The LR2 makes foul-weather driving an adventure to look forward to. The cargo area is large enough to hold a couple of bicycles or some camping gear, and the reversible cargo floor is easy to keep clean. Stadium seating gives all passengers an unobstructed forward view.

    Dislikes: The new keyless ignition feature is more complicated than it should be. It takes longer to start the car than a traditional ignition system.

    Quick facts:

    Base price: $33,985
    Price as tested: $40,050
    Horsepower: 230 Hp @ 6300 r.p.m.
    Torque: 234 lbs.-ft. @ 3200 r.p.m.
    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: 16/23 m.p.g. city/highway

  • 2007 Toyota Camry Hybrid

    Toyota’s best-selling midsize sedan goes green

    By Nina Russin

    2007 Toyota Camry Hybrid

    2007 Toyota Camry Hybrid

    For years, the mid-sized Toyota Camry has been the go-to car for families seeking reliable, affordable transportation. The newest Camry, that debuts this year, adds a twist: availability of the same hybrid technology used in the Prius hatchback.

    However unlike the Prius, engineers focused on improved performance, particularly acceleration, by using the electric motor to enhance the Camry’s low-end torque. The four-cylinder engine in the hybrid, paired up with an electric motor, has similar power and performance to the 3.5-liter V6, with about thirty percent better fuel economy.

    While previous generations have been compared to the perfect breadbox, the newest Camry is a spirited performer, able to hold its own in the race from the entrance ramp to the left lane of the freeway.

    Pretty enough for Ojai, but tough enough for Phoenix

    I first drove the Camry hybrid last fall on the two-lane rural roads around Ojai, California. Those roads did a good job of showcasing the car’s nimble steering and refined suspension, which held the tight turns through the canyons.

    The 2007 models ride on bigger wheels and tires than the models they replace: the larger footprint translates to better traction and improved cornering. Engineers balanced off the package with larger disc brakes and a refined, independent suspension. While the new car rides on a longer wheelbase, engineers shortened the front and rear overhangs to reduce the car’s turning radius.

    Because the electric motor develops maximum torque at very low speeds, the hybrid has exceptional acceleration, which is most obvious climbing hills and merging into high speed traffic. Fuel economy is 43 miles-per-gallon in the city, and 37 on the highway, as opposed to the 22/31 mile-per-gallon ratings for the V6.

    The fuel economy improvement is greatest for those who commute through urban traffic, since the gas engine shuts off when the vehicle is idling. Heat from the brakes is used to recharge the vehicle’s nickel-metal hydride battery.

    Driving a car on rural roads for an hour is one thing: living in it for a week is another. I got back into the Camry in the middle of a particularly hot Phoenix summer.

    While summer used to be the time when Phoenix snowbirds flew the coop, the city’s year round population has made traffic a year-round problem. In the summer, the combination of congestion and scorching heat tests everybody’s patience.

    One of the things I love best about Toyota’s hybrid cars is that the air conditioning compressor is electrically controlled, so it works with the gas engine turned off. It doesn’t take long for heat inside a car to build up when the ambient temperature is 118 degrees. That’s why some hybrids don’t work here. The minute the car pulls up to a traffic light, the passenger compartment turns into an oven.

    The Camry’s cockpit maintains a constant temperature no matter how hot the sun is, or how long the car is stuck idling in rush-hour traffic.

    While the Camry’s styling is still conservative, it’s new exterior is more elegant than it is plain vanilla. A sweeping front grille rides between two long, swoopy headlamps. The profile is low and lean  Although the car is still geared towards value-conscious customers, designers have given them the impression of luxury, inside and out.

    A more spacious, versatile interior.

    The Camry’s interior seems almost as spacious as the larger Toyota Avalon. The front seats are comfortable and ergonomic. They incorporate the same whiplash lessening design as the seats in the Toyota Prius.

    Designers pushed the cowl forward to increase the size if the windshield. It adds to the air of spaciousness to the interior. The instrument panel wraps around the driver and front passenger.

    All models come with a tilt and telescoping steering wheel to make it easier for drivers of all sizes to feel comfortable. The center console incorporates a large storage console and good-sized cupholders. 

    The temperature controls on the hybrid model allow the driver and front passenger to have separate settings. Temperature and audio controls are easy to reach from both front seating positions. An optional navigational system adds an upgraded audio system that is Bluetooth compatible.

    The rear seats comfortably accommodate two adults, with plenty of shoulder, hip and legroom. The seats fold flat to increase the cargo floor length, making it large enough to hold a bicycle. While sedans aren’t as practical as station wagons and sport-utility vehicles for those who regularly haul large cargo, the Camry’s pass-through is uncomplicated and easy to use.

    The hybrid comes full-loaded with safety features, including antilock brakes, front, side and side curtain airbags. Daytime running lamps are a handy feature for those who live in climates with poor winter light.  Other standard features include a tire pressure monitoring system and heated side mirrors. The integrated vehicle dynamics management maintains directional control through the use of traction and stability control.

    A new sweet spot in the Toyota lineup

    The Camry hybrid is a reminder for those of us that get nostalgic for simpler times that technology, in the right hands, can dramatically improve our quality of life. Who would have dreamed of a car forty years ago that could go faster, and transport us more comfortably, using less fuel, and requiring no more maintenance than a traditional gas engine?

    The newest generation of Camrys are more stylish, more luxurious and perform better than the models they replaced. They’re not just a variation on an overplayed theme.

    Toyota’s hybrid synergy drive, continues to set the industry standard for efficiency and performance. The new hybrid is not your father’s Camry and that’s a good thing. Your father would have been jealous.

    The Camry hybrid is one of four available grades for 2007. Models include four and six-cylinder versions of the sedan: a sporty SE grade features specially tuned suspension and a lower center of gravity for enhanced handling at speed. All four models are currently available for test drives at area Toyota dealerships.

    Likes: Exceptional low-end power and fuel economy, stylish exterior, comfortable and ergonomic interior.

    Dislikes: Buyers pay about a $1500 premium for the hybrid model. Base price is $25,900, as opposed to $24,315 for the SE V6.

    Quick facts:

    Base price: $25,900
    Price as tested: $26,709
    Horsepower: 147 Hp @ 6000 r.p.m.*
    Torque: 137 lbs.-ft. @ 4,000 r.p.m.*  
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: No  
    Towing: No
    Off-Road: No
    Bicycle friendly: No
    Fuel economy: 40/38 m.p.g. city/highway  
    Comments: Horsepower and torque ratings are for the gas engine only. Toyota estimates net horsepower for the gas and electric motor combined at 192. Torque for the electric motor is 203 lbs.-ft. @ 1500 r.p.m. Base price does not include a $580 destination and delivery fee.