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  • 2008 Kia Sorento EX 4X4

    Mid-sized sport-utility vehicle with full off-road capability
    By Nina Russin

    2008 Kia Sorento

    2008 Kia Sorento

    Though it’s one of the older models in Kia’s stable, the mid-sized Sorento is a good choice for families with active lifestyles. First introduced in 2002 as an ’03 model, the Sorento is a value-priced alternative to the luxury Borrego.

    Its durable body-on-frame chassis tows up to five thousand pounds, and when equipped with four-wheel drive, has the ability to negotiate serious off-road trails.

    The four-wheel drive Sorento comes in two grades: the base LX and upscale EX (tested). Last year Kia introduced a new, more powerful V-6 engine for the LX. The EX retains the 3.8-liter block from former models.

    Paired up with a standard five-speed automatic transmission, the larger V-6 provides good power and a smooth ride. It lacks the fuel economy of competitive offerings with six-speed automatic transmissions, especially on four-wheel drive models. Average fuel economy for the test car is seventeen miles-per-gallon.

    Engineered for off-road durability

    Body-on-frame construction has the advantage of durability when compared to unibody vehicles, although that can come at the expense of a rougher ride. The ladder frame that the Sorento is assembled on is rigid enough to withstand the kind of torsional stress that occurs on off-road trails. The ladder frame also makes it better suited for towing.

    Having taken the Sorento on some nasty off-road trails, I can vouch for the model’s off-road capability. Standard underbody skid plates protect sensitive parts of the chassis from rock damage.

    A full-sized spare adds a little weight, but also gives drivers the security of having a real tire should they get a puncture. A standard hitch makes the Sorrento trailer-ready out of the box.

    Viable commuter car

    With the exception of its rather poor gas mileage, the Sorento is a viable everyday car for urban commuters. A luxury package on the test car replaces the standard part-time four-wheel drive with a full-time torque-on-demand system ($3000).

    The same option upgrades the standard cloth seats to leather and adds seat heaters, a sunroof, a premium audio system, and alloy wheels. The option includes a lot of content for the money, but it isn’t necessary for people who can live with the simpler interior.

    The low gear range on the part-time four-wheel drive system provides the low gears and torque for true off-road driving. Buyers who live in areas with bad winter weather will benefit most from the full-time system: an on-board computer detects wheel slippage and automatically transfers engine power to the axle with the best traction.

    The Sorento has an independent front suspension and solid rear axle: the five-link rear end gives the driver better control when towing. Although some solid axle trucks have a rough ride, I find the Sorento’s suspension quite compliant.

    Power rack-and-pinion steering is responsive at all speeds. The Sorento’s thirty-five foot turning radius makes it fairly easy to do the occasional U-turn.

    A thick C-pillar makes for a rather large blind spot towards the rear. The rear wheel restricts access and egress to the second-row seats, which could be an issue for larger families.

    Curb weight on the EX 4X4 is almost 4300 pounds: the four-wheel drive mechanism adds about two hundred pounds to the truck. Its weight makes the Sorento feel heavy on the highway. The engine seems a little anemic during hard acceleration into highway traffic, or when passing other vehicles at speed.

    Four-wheel disc brakes with four-channel antilock braking stop the Sorento in a firm, linear fashion without being grabby. As with all of its current models, engineers made safety a priority. The Sorento comes with standard electronic stability and traction control as well as side curtain airbags.

    Well configured interior

    Kia did a great job of giving us active types the features we need inside a car: multiple powerpoints, a compass and ambient temperature display, cupholders big enough for water bottles, and enough small storage bins to stash books and maps.

    An eight-way power driver’s seat has plenty of lower back support to make the Sorento comfortable on longer trips. Keyless entry, air conditioning, power windows and door locks are standard on the EX grade.

    The second-row seats have enough legroom in the outboard positions for average adults, though taller people may feel cramped. The center console restricts legroom in the center position, especially if passengers are using the cupholders that flip out in back.

    The rear seat folds flat to extend the cargo floor. To fold the seatbacks flat, the driver must first flip the seat bottoms forward and remove the headrests. It’s not a difficult operation, but the extra steps add a measure of time that may bother some owners.

    A storage area under the cargo floor is a great place to hide valuables at the trailhead. Tie-down hooks in the cargo area make it easier to secure large items. a standard tonneau cover keeps items in back away from prying eyes.

    Flip-up glass on the liftgate allows the driver to load in smaller items easily. Standard roof rails make it easy to add a bike rack or external luggage carrier. There’s a rubber step pad on the rear bumper to make it easier to reach the roof.

    Industry leading warranty

    Kia continue to offer buyers its ten-year/100,00 mile warranty that includes five years of roadside assistance. The Sorento received five-star federal safety ratings for frontal and side-impact protection, and a four-star rating for rollovers.

    Base price on the test car is $26,195, not including a $700 destination charge. The Sorento is on display at Kia dealerships nationwide.

    Likes: A mid-sized sport-utility vehicle with true off-road capability and towing up to 5000 pounds. The Sorento is one of the best values in the mid-sized sport-utility segment. It received excellent scores in federal safety tests, and comes standard with side-curtain airbags and electronic stability control.

    Dislikes: Fuel economy for the four-wheel drive model is not very good. The second-row seats are time consuming to fold flat, since the operation requires flipping the seat bottoms forward and removing the headrests.

    Quick facts:

    Make: Kia
    Model: Sorento EX 4X4
    Year: 2008
    Base price: $26,195
    As tested: $30,095
    Horsepower: 262 Hp @ 6000 rpm
    Torque: 260 lbs.-ft. @ 4500 rpm
    Zero-to-sixty: N/A
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: N/A
    Bicycle-friendly: Yes
    Towing: Yes
    Off-road: Yes
    Fuel economy: 15/20 mpg city/highway
    Comments: Base price does not include a $700 destination charge.

  • 2008 Nissan Altima Hybrid

    By Nina Russin

    nissan_altima_hybridLast year, Nissan rolled out a hybrid version of its Altima sport sedan. The hybrid, one of three Altima models, uses an electric motor to boost fuel economy and enhance power from the car’s four-cylinder engine. A nickel metal hydride battery recharges on the go using heat from the brakes, so the hybrid never needs to be plugged in.

    While sustainability is always an admirable goal, some hybrids are better than others. In the hybrid universe, the Altima is definitely a top third contender. Its power is as good if not better than the other Altima models, and fuel economy is significantly greater: about 34 miles per gallon on average.

    Engineers substituted an electric air conditioning compressor for a mechanical one. Since the compressor runs independently of the engine, it keeps the car cool when the engine cuts out at traffic lights. Kudos to Nissan for doing heat soak tests in Phoenix, where car interiors reach about 135 degrees in mid-July.

    Maintaining and driving the car is virtually identical to the gas-powered Altima, except with fewer stops for fuel. Estimated range for the twenty gallon gas tank is seven hundred miles. The low compression engine runs just fine on 87 octane gas.

    Starts with a whisper

    One thing I love about hybrids is that they can run solely on electric power. Since I like to hit the trailhead super early to avoid the summer heat, it’s nice to know that I’m not waking up the neighbors when I turn on the ignition.

    The Altima runs in electric vehicle mode during idle and at low speeds. When the driver accelerates beyond parking lot speeds, the gasoline engine takes over, and the electric motor shuts off. The electric motor restarts when power demands are high, such as accelerating onto a freeway, or powering up a steep hill.

    Since electric motors develop peak torque at extremely low speeds, the Altima hybrid can accelerate extremely hard: a boon coming out of a crowded tollbooth. A power display in the gauge cluster tells the driver the status of the electric motors and battery charge.

    A continuously variable transmission eliminates shift shock, providing seamless performance at any speed. One of the nicest things about the Altima hybrid is how pleasant it is to drive: it is as quiet and responsive as many more expensive sport sedans.

    Engineers did an excellent job of balancing off the extra weight of the battery pack in the rear: front to rear weight balance feels identical to a gas powered car. The four-wheel independent suspension is compliant without feeling mushy, and the four-wheel disc brakes stop the car in a smooth, linear fashion.

    Ground clearance is just over five inches, enhancing the Altima’s high-speed highway performance, but making the car unsuitable for off-road driving. A smooth graded dirt road is as far off the beaten path as I’d want to take it.
    Although the Altima is a front-wheel drive car, it shows very little tendency to oversteer. Response from the rack-and-pinion steering is excellent at all speeds, as is the car’s on-center feel.

    The Altima suffers from the same thick rear pillar that plagues many current models. The side mirrors do a good job of compensating when the car is moving forwards, but the rear pillars create a unnecessarily large blind spot when backing into a parking spot.

    Well equipped interior

    The Altima comes with most of the features its buyers will want, and a few they might not expect. Keyless ignition is standard. The driver can unlock and start the car without removing the key fob from his pocket.

    A tilt and telescopic steering column allows small drivers to maintain a safe distance from the front airbags. There are two, twelve-volt power points, and enough cup and bottle holders to drown an army of triathletes. Both rows of passengers get overhead reading lamps. Dual-zone climate controls keep both front passengers comfortable.

    The glovebox is large enough to stash a purse or small pack. There are two other large storage bins up front: a two-piece bin in the center console, and a covered bin for storing compact discs at the base of the center stack.

    A premium package on the test car adds leather trim, heated front seats, a six-way power driver’s seat, satellite radio, MP3 and Bluetooth compatibility, redundant steering wheel audio controls, rear air conditioning vents, automatic headlamps, heated side mirrors, and speed-sensitive volume ($4400). Base price on the hyrbid is $25,070. Options and delivery charges bring the sticker on the test car to $30,375.

    I was impressed with the amount of head, shoulder and legroom in the second-row seats. Though the tunnel through the floor limits legroom in the center position, tall men should be quite comfortable in the outboard seats. Though the lumbar isn’t adjustable, I found both the front and outboard rear seats to have excellent lower back support.

    Very small cargo area

    The Altima’s cargo area is its Achilles heel. While the gasoline models have a huge trunk with a pass-through for extending the floor, the hybrid has a barely adequate trunk. Because of the battery placement, the trunk has ten cubic feet of cargo space: enough to hold a couple of average sized pieces of luggage or some groceries. Needless to say, it does not meet our bicycle friendly standards. Towing capacity is a thousand pounds: well below our ALV minimum.

    Standard safety

    The Altima hybrid received five-star frontal and side impact crash test ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Standard safety features include front, side and side impact airbags, front head restraints, four-channel antilock brakes, vehicle dynamic control and traction control.

    The Altima Hybrid is currently rolling off the lines at Nissan’s Smyrna, Tennessee assembly plant.

    Likes: A spacious sport sedan with seamless performance and excellent fuel economy. Driving range on a tank of gas is about 700 miles.

    Dislikes: Trunk is too small for many buyers with active lifestyles.

    Quick facts

    Make: Nissan
    Model: Altima Hybrid
    Year: 2008
    Base price: $25,070
    As tested: $30,375
    Horsepower: 158 Hp @ 5200 rpm
    Torque: 162 lbs.-ft. @ 4800 rpm
    0-60 mph: N/A
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: N/A
    Bicycle friendly: No
    Off-road: No
    Towing: No
    Fuel economy: 35/33 mpg city/highway
    Comments: Base price does not include a $625 delivery charge.

  • Eight Ideas That Transformed the Auto Industry in 2008

    By Nina Russin

    Refueling the Honda FCX Clarity

    Refueling the Honda FCX Clarity

    I like to think that difficult times bring out the best in people. Although 2008 was the toughest year the automotive industry experienced in decades, it was also an opportunity for engineers and designers to change the way we think about and drive cars. From alternative fuels to a car that stops itself, here are my top picks for the best new technologies of 2008.

    1. The Car That Runs on Air

    Although hydrogen fuel cells are nothing new, a fuel cell-powered production car is revolutionary. The Honda FCX Clarity runs on air, emits only water, and has three times the fuel efficiency of a modern, gas-powered hybrid car.

    Power comes from an electric motor that runs on electricity generated in a hydrogen fuel cell.

    The production model is the second-generation FCX: the original car was the first fuel cell-powered vehicle to meet all federal safety regulations, and to start and operate in sub-freezing temperatures.

    Honda plans to lease about two hundred vehicles to customers in Southern California over the next three years. The biggest challenge to widespread distribution of fuel cell vehicles is infrastructure: the only FCX Clarity refueling stations and service facilities are in the Los Angeles area.
    Honda is currently working on a home refueling station Plug Power Inc. The FCX Clarity has a range of 280 miles between fill-ups.

    2. The Car That Stops Itself

    The Volvo XC60 doesn’t roll out until 2009, but I had a chance to experience its innovative city safety technology at the manufacturer’s desert proving grounds in Phoenix, Arizona last summer.

    The purpose of the technology is to prevent low-speed accidents. It will automatically apply the brakes at speeds up to nineteen miles-per-hour, if a collision is imminent and the driver fails to take action.

    A laser sensor on the top of the windshield monitors objects and vehicles up front: it can detect objects within thirteen feet of the XC60’s front bumper. If the car’s on-board the computer determines that the driver is not responding, it automatically takes action.

    The laser sensor works in both daylight and at night. Engineers expect that city safety will drastically reduce the number of low-speed collisions.

    3. Wake-up Call

    The driver monitor system on the Lexus 600h hybrid sedan prevents drivers from falling asleep at the wheel.

    The system uses three cameras: two in front of the car that work with a radar sensor to monitor vehicles and objects ahead, and one in the steering wheel that monitors the driver’s face.

    If the system detects that the driver has not looked ahead for a few seconds and there is a vehicle or object ahead, it alerts the driver with an audible alarm and flashing light. As the car gets closer to the object, the system can gently apply the brakes.

    The on-board computer also reprograms the car’s power steering ratio, making it more aggressive, so the driver can steer around the obstacle.

    4. Better Night Vision

    Adaptive bi-xenon headlamps available on the Audi Q7 sport-utility vehicle help the driver see into unlit corners of the road at night. The system responds to steering wheel inputs: it sends a beam of light to the side of the road that the driver is turning towards.

    Not only does adaptive lighting make it easier for drivers to navigate winding roads at night; they also protect pedestrians at intersections, who wouldn’t be seen with conventional headlamps.

    5. No More Blind Spots

    Both Audi and Volvo have introduced blind spot warning systems that help to prevent lane-change accidents. Audi’s side assist feature on the Q7 uses two radar sensors in the vehicle’s rear bumper: the sensors monitor vehicles within sixteen feet of blind spots to the sides and back of the vehicle.

    If another car moves into this area, yellow LEDs in the sideview mirror illuminate. If despite this, the driver signals to change lanes, the LEDs become brighter and start to flash.

    6. Clean diesel

    Clean diesel isn’t a new concept in Europe, but it is in the United States, following federal legislation mandating its availability beginning in the fall of 2007. The reduced sulphur diesel produces fewer carbon dioxide emissions that gasoline, and offers a twenty-five to thirty percent increase in overall fuel economy.

    Diesel cars got a bad rep in the States during the 1970s and 80s, due to products that performed poorly and had poor service records. New high-pressure diesel systems have similar throttle response to gasoline engines, and lack the annoying diesel tick that characterized the earlier models.

    Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and Audi all offer clean diesel versions of their popular gasoline models for sale in the states. The Mercedes-Benz ML 320CDI with its BlueTec diesel engine was a finalist in our 2009 Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year green car competition. The M-Class might have won, were it not for another clean diesel product that took the honor: the Volkswagen Jetta TDI Sportwagen.

    7. Evolved Hybrids

    With the first generation of gasoline/electric cars behind them, automakers are introducing new models that are more affordable, have better batteries, and can run further on pure electric power.

    When Honda introduces the second-generation Insight next spring, it will make hybrid technology affordable to the budget-conscious buyer. While Honda hasn’t yet announced pricing, spokespersons promise that the five-passenger Insight will be its least expensive hybrid.

    An eco drive assist feature allows the driver to modify engine, transmission and air conditioning controls to improve gas mileage. It also schools the driver on fuel-saving habits. A colored background behind the speedometer turns green when the driver is saving fuel, and blue when he is driving too aggressively.

    The two-mode hybrid technology developed by General Motors, Chrysler and BMW gives big trucks the same fuel economy as small sedans in city driving. The system, that debuted on the 2008 Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid, runs on pure electric power at very low speeds.

    At speeds over 25 miles-per-hour, electric motors allow the truck’s V8 gas engine to run on four cylinders for extended periods of time. The Tahoe Hybrid has an EPA rating of 21 miles-per-gallon in city driving: a fifty percent increase over the gas-powered model.

    The 2010 Chevrolet Volt that goes on sale next fall is an extended-range electric car that runs up to forty miles on pure electric power. After that, a gas-powered generator recharges the lithium-ion battery pack on the go, giving the Volt a range of up to four hundred miles between fill-ups.

    8. Plug-in Mini

    The Mini E that debuted at the 2008 LA Auto Show has a range of up to 156 miles, and relatively short recharge time: about two hours.
    Power comes from a lightweight lithium-ion battery pack. The Mini E accelerates from zero-to-sixty miles-per-hour in 8.5 seconds.
    Mini will deliver the first 500 Mini E cars to customers in New York and Los Angeles, beginning in December.

  • 2008 Los Angeles Auto Show

    By Nina Russin

    Honda Press Conference

    Honda Press Conference

    Auto shows are as much about swagger as substance: a person could go blind from the proliferation of smoke and mirrors. This year’s LA auto show was lighter on bravado and heavier on news, as automakers faced what will at best be remembered as a challenging time in the business.

    General Motors pulled its press conference a week before press days. The rest of the media preview remained in tact, with a conspicuous absence of champagne and cheese cubes.

    Nissan president and CEO, Carlos Ghosn, expressed industry-wide concerns in his keynote speech to the Motor Press Guild Wednesday morning:

    “October was the worst month for US auto sales in twenty-five years,” he stated. “We are clearly in uncharted territory…”

    “Everyone is hoping that pent-up demand is building and consumers will soon start buying again, but we really don’t know when that will happen. We have to in the meantime adapt in function of these threatening circumstances, balance short- and long-term objectives in order to maintain viability and a future.”

    Greening of America

    Manufacturers seem to agree that environmentally-friendly vehicles that use sustainable fuels are driving the current market. Even though gas prices have dropped, customers haven’t forgotten the summer of four dollar-per-gallon fuel. As purse-strings tighten, buyers are looking beyond window stickers, to the long-term costs of owning a vehicle.

    As has been the trend, Japanese automakers are sticking with hybrid technology in the short term, and looking towards fuel cells within the decade. Europe believes clean diesel is the way to go, though BMW bucked the trend with its 7 Series hybrid concept.

    Honda and Toyota, both long-term advocates of hybrid powertrains, stayed the course. Honda unveiled the Insight concept: a compact car that offers many of the same features as the Civic hybrid, but with a lower sticker price.

    Honda’s FC Sport combines Formula One racing technology with the automaker’s next-generation fuel cells in a three-passenger sports car.
    The Lexus RX 450h is a more powerful, refined version of the sport-utility vehicle it replaces, with a 295-horsepower engine and 3500-pound towing capacity. An optional remote-touch navigation system includes a new causal language voice recognition feature.

    A wide-angle side view monitor uses a camera under the passenger side window to eliminate blind spots in that area. The newest Lexus will also feature Toyota’s pre-collision system that applies the brakes in the event of an imminent collision, and adaptive headlamps that follow the steering wheel to light corners in the road.

    Ford hopes to give the upstage the Honda Civic and Toyota Camry hybrids with its two newest alternative fuel midsize sedans: the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan hybrids. Both use an Atkinson cycle version of the new 2.5-liter four cylinder engine, and have a range of 700 city miles between fill-ups.

    Ford’s Sync system now includes a 911 alert, that automatically notified emergency medical personnel if the vehicle’s airbags deploy. Volvo’s blind spot information system comes to the new Fusion as well, alerting the driver about vehicles passing through blind spots to the rear of the car.

    Hyundai Goes Blue

    Hyundai joins the legion of alternative fuel brands with a full hybrid version of the next-generation Sonata. The 2010 Sonata uses a parallel hybrid drive system and lithium polymer battery technology.

    The Sonata hybrid is part of a new environmental initiative that Hyundai calls Blue Drive: the objective is a fleet average of thirty-five miles-per-gallon by the year 2015. Hyundai also unveiled a crossover concept powered by a turbocharged gasoline direct injection engine.

    Long-term Hyundai Blue Drive technology includes plug-in hybrids and fuel cell cars.

    Green Diesel

    The Green Car Journal awarded the Volkswagen Jetta TDI this year’s Green Car of the Year award. Readers may recall that the Jetta TDI Sportwagen was our pick for 2009 Green ALV.

    “Hybrids have dominated the discussion of environmentally positive vehicles in recent years,” said Ron Cogan, editor and publisher of Green Car Journal and editor of

    “The highly fuel efficient, 50 state emissions certified Jetta TDI shows that advanced clean diesel has arrived and is poised to change this dynamic. With its affordable price point, refined ride and handling, and high fuel economy, the Jetta TDI shows that hybrids now have a strong competitor in the marketplace.”

    Audi, which invented the turbo-diesel technology it shares with sibling-brand, Volkswagen, recapped its recent mileage marathon: a coast-to-coast drive in four of the automaker’s turbo-diesel models: the A3, A4, Q5 crossover, and Q7 sport-utility vehicle. A turbo-diesel version of the Q7 arrives stateside next April.

    Zoom-zoom With a Conscience

    The 2010 Mazda3 four-door sedan meets partial zero-emission vehicle standards with a 148-horsepower four-cylinder engine. The new engine utilizes variable valve timing to maximize fuel economy and performance.

    There are two front-wheel drive models: the four-door i, with a five-speed manual transmission, and the four-door s, with a six-speed manual.

    Buyers can opt for a five-speed automatic transmission instead. Both manual and automatic models average 33 miles-per-gallon on the highway.

    Mazda will roll out the five-door hatchback model closer to production.

    Smart Hot Rod

    Smart, which produces the only micro-car currently sold in the US, is adding a Brabus edition to its line-up. The German tuning specialist, best known for its work with Mercedes-Benz, is spicing up the smart fortwo exterior with special wheels and ground effects, special headlamps and dual exhausts.

    The Brabus smart has the same three-liter engine and five-speed automated manual transmission as the base model, but adds a sport-tuned suspension.

    Inside, the Brabus edition adds perforated gas and brake pedals, ambient lighting, a special shift and handbrake lever. The Brabus coupe starts at $17,990; pricing for the cabriolet begins at $20,990.

    Kia’s Got Soul

    The 2010 Kia Soul is a boxy crossover similar in feel to the Scion xB. Like the xB, the Soul encourages customization, with four available trim levels, ranging from a value-priced base model, to the sport grade, with eighteen-inch wheels and ground effects.

    There are two available engines: a 1.6-liter block rated at 120-horsepower, and a 140-horsepower two-liter block. Both cars come standard with a five-speed manual transmission. Buyers who chose the bigger block can opt for a four-speed automatic at no additional cost.

    Inside, the five-passenger Soul has fourteen storage zones, a state-of-the-art audio system with MP3, iPod, Bluetooth, and satellite radio capability. An optional audio upgrade adds a 315-watt external amplifier.

    Buyers can use a dedicated web site to order their cars, choosing from a variety of interior and exterior colors and options.

    Nissan Cube

    Nissan adds its take on the box with wheels in the 2009 Cube: a five passenger crossover with a small footprint and tall, square cargo bay. Powered by a 122-horsepower four-cylinder engine with either a six-speed manual or automatic transmission, the Cube is an environmentally friendly package with an estimated thirty mile-per-gallon fuel economy.

    The Cube comes in three grades, with a range of accessories for those who like to customize. A wrap-around rear window brings more ambient light inside the Cube, as compared to its Scion competitor.

    New Z

    Nissan also unveiled the newest Z sports car. The 370Z coupe rolls out in January, followed by the roadster for the 2010 model year. The new Z is slightly shorter than the outgoing model, with a more powerful V6 engine.

    Engineers enhanced the coupe’s torsional rigidity for better handling and performance, and took almost a hundred pounds out of its overall weight.

    Buyers can opt for a six-speed manual or new seven-speed automatic transmission with manual gear selection: both deliver slightly better fuel economy than the current model.

    As with its predecessors, the new Z is a driver-oriented car with a race-inspired cockpit, low center of gravity and extremely low coefficient of drag. Base price will be about $30,000, making the 370Z one of the best values in the sports car market.

  • Beating the Post-Warranty Blues

    By Nina Russin
    beating_the_post-warranty_bluesThe downturn in the economy has everybody thinking about ways to save money, including keeping their cars longer. In addition to saving on car payments, older cars cost less to insure and in some cases, less to license.

    The flip side of keeping a vehicle past the warranty period is containing repair costs. Since new car dealerships depend on their service departments as a primary source of income, the cost of service is generally higher than at independent shops.

    The question is: how does the car owner find a facility with qualified technicians and reliable service?

    Shopping for a Shop

    The best time to find a repair shop is before the car needs service. Look for a facility close to home or work: some shops may have shuttle services to help customers get to and from their jobs.

    If possible, try to get a recommendation from a friend or colleague who uses the shop. Call the service manager and schedule a time to meet. Avoid visiting the shop early in the morning or late afternoon, since technicians will be busy helping customers who are dropping off or picking up their vehicles.

    Find out what types of cars the shop specializes in, and how long it has been in business. Ask the service manager about the shop’s policy for giving customers estimates.

    A technician may not be able to anticipate all repair costs before he takes a look at the car. However the service manager should provide a written estimate for parts and service before starting the job.

    How Shops Determine Service Costs

    Shops use service manuals to determine costs for various services. The manual lists the amount of time it takes a skilled technician to perform a given repair. For example, a water pump replacement might take about forty-five minutes.

    Ask the service manager its hourly rate for service. Often, independent service facilities have a lower hourly service rate than new car dealerships. Find out how long the shop will guarantee a repair for, and what the shop will do for the customer if a repair fails.

    The mark-up on car parts is typically a hundred percent. A good technician should return any parts he or she has replaced, so the customer can see why the equipment on the car failed.

    Repair Tools

    New cars require specialized diagnostic equipment, including exhaust gas analyzers, scan tools that interface with on-board computers, oscilloscopes and sensitive digital-volt-ohm meters.

    Shops that do air conditioning service also need recycling equipment for the refrigerant. Tire and wheel specialists will need alignment racks, and diagnostic equipment for antilock brake systems.

    Make sure that the shop has all of the necessary tools and equipment for the types of service it performs. The service bays should be relatively clean, and the shop should have a ventilation system that cycles out toxic fumes from car exhausts.

    Hand tools are extremely expensive: a good technician will keep his tools clean and organized.

    ASE Certification

    The National Institute of Automotive Service Excellence, also called ASE, tests and certifies automotive technicians in various aspects of car repair. The purpose of these tests is to ensure that technicians have the education and experience necessary to work on new cars.

    In order to become ASE certified, a technician must have a minimum of two years experience working in his or her specialty, and be able to pass a written exam in that area. Tests cover a variety of repair topics, such as tune-ups, brakes, air conditioning, and body repair.

    ASE provides technicians with certificates listing the tests they have passed. Shops that employ ASE certified technicians usually display the ASE logo outside or in the customer service area.

    Ask the service manager which of the technicians are ASE certified, and find out their areas of specialization. Certificates from additional training programs indicate that technicians are current on emerging technology.

    Cleanliness Counts

    It doesn’t need to be fancy, but a customer waiting area should be clean. A dirty waiting room indicates that the shop doesn’t care about its customers, or perhaps its technicians as well.

    Putting It All Together

    Even if a repair shop meets all of these requirements, it’s a good idea to check online, and make sure that no customers have filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau or local chamber of commerce.

    If possible, schedule the car for a routine maintenance procedure such as a tune-up before bringing it in for a major repair. Did the shop perform the necessary repairs in a timely fashion, and was the written estimate provided accurate? Was the service staff courteous and professional? Was the service manager willing to explain the services performed, and answer any questions after the fact?

    Some shops wash customer cars before returning them from service. If the shop doesn’t have the resources to do this, the vehicle should be as clean when it comes back to the customer as it was going into the shop.

    A good repair shop helps customers get the most out of their cars by recommending periodic diagnostic work that detects small problems before they become big ones.

    Today, most new cars will run up to 100,000 miles with little to no service. But since loan payments last five years or more, buyers find it challenging to keep their vehicles after they are paid off.

    A good, independent service facility saves money on repairs, and keeps the car running reliably after the factory warranty period is over.

  • 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR

    Rally Cup performance for driving enthusiasts
    By Nina Russin

    2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evo

    2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evo

    The Evo is one of three Mitsubishi models based on the compact Lancer sedan. The Ralliart which I wrote about several weeks back bridges the gap between the GTS and Evo: more powerful than the base model, but a bunny hill compared to the Evolution.

    Powered by a 291-horsepower two-liter MIVEC engine, the compact Evo begs to be driven hard and put away wet. Engineered to meet the rigorous demands of World Rally Cup racing, it’s big on low-end torque, with exceptional steering response, and a super-rigid chassis that stays flat in the gnarliest of corners.

    The newest Evo, introduced for the ’08 model year, comes in two grades: GSR and MR. They share the same aluminum, turbocharged engine, but the newer MR features Mitsubishi’s twin-clutch, six-speed automatic transmission, compared to a five speed manual on the GSR.

    The six-speed automatic gets slightly better fuel economy than the five-speed manual transmission: seventeen miles-per-gallon in the city versus sixteen for the GSR. The driver can shift the six-speed manually using paddles on the back of the steering wheel, or a floor-mounted shift lever.

    Both grades offer a technology option that upgrades the standard audio system to a 650-watt Rockford-Fosgate package, but on-board navigation is only available on the MR. The MR also comes standard with a Bluetooth hands-free phone interface, that the driver can operate using controls on the steering wheel.

    Alpha-male performance

    There are plenty of compact sedans on the market with compliant suspensions and a quiet ride. The Evo isn’t one of them. Eighteen-inch rims with low-profile tires and Bilstein shocks make it ride like a buckboard, and produce a significant amount of road noise. I find all of this completely acceptable, considering what the car is designed for.

    In fact, I applaud Mitsubishi for staying the course: to compromise the Evo’s ride and handling would fly in the face of everything I love about the company.

    Mitsubishi is a small car company: unable to match the volume or model range that larger automakers have.  So the company focuses on its strength: niche cars with edgy styling and even edgier performance. The Evo is the epitome of that: it’s unlike anything else on the market.

    Rally cup racing is all about quick turns, and bursts of acceleration. The turbocharged, intercooled engine produces 300 foot-pounds of torque, and is durable enough to withstand the heat and contamination that occurs during lengthy races.

    An active center differential sends engine power to the wheels with the best traction, while front and rear limited-slip differentials help the driver to maintain directional control on slippery surfaces.

    A front strut tower brace, along with front and rear stabilizer bars give the chassis exceptional torsional rigidity. The Evo has as positive an on-center feel as anything I’ve driven.

    Forged aluminum control arms and wheels minimize unsprung weight. Curb weight for the MR is just under 3600 pounds, with front-to-rear weight balanced slightly biased towards the front. If the wheels come unglued, the Evo pushes hard in the corners: inexperienced drivers will find it difficult to resume directional control.

    Ground clearance is just over five inches. The Evo’s low center of gravity enhances its high-speed performance, but makes it impractical for driving in deep snow or on extreme off-road trails.

    Its large rear spoiler is a hallmark of Evo styling. It maximizes downforce to keep the tail end from breaking loose. The spoiler cuts the driver’s rear vision in half, but it doesn’t obstruct his range of vision.

    Race-inspired interior

    The Evo’s interior reflects World Rally Cup’s requirements to have a driver and navigator: neither of whom have any prior knowledge of the course. The navigator’s ability to direct the driver quickly and without error is crucial to the team’s success.

    Although hard buttons control the major audio and climate functions, a mouse on the passenger side operates the optional navigation system. An information screen in the gauge cluster gives the driver average fuel economy and distance to empty, altimeter, barometer, ambient temperature, and vehicle maintenance reminders. The driver controls the information screen using steering wheel-mounted controls.

    The optional Rockford-Fosgate audio system includes an in-dash six-CD changer, and downloadable hard drive. The system, which is iPod and MP3 compatible, displays playlists in the large screen at the top of the center stack. The audio upgrade adds Sirius satellite radio with six months of free service.

    The interior includes most of the comfort and convenience features buyers look for: a storage bin in the center console, cupholders in the floor console, and bottle holders and map pockets in the front doors. The glovebox is deep enough to hold map books or a small pack. A twelve-volt powerpoint at the base of the center console allows passengers to recharge portable electronic devices. 

    Second-row seats in the outboard position have adequate head and legroom. The center console and a floor tunnel restrict legroom in the middle. The Recaro seats up front obstruct visibility, making the second row less pleasant for longer trips.

    The trunk is large enough for a week’s worth of groceries or a moderate amount of luggage, but it’s not well suited for larger items. Buyers who want to carry bicycles or other large cargo might want to look at the Outlander: a crossover vehicle with a more versatile cargo bay.

    Standard safety

    The Evo comes with front, side, side curtain and a driver’s knee airbag, vehicle stability control and antilock brakes. Standard keyless entry allows the driver to enter and start the car using a remote fob. The Mitsubishi system has a mechanical backup key stored in the remote fob if the battery conks out. Since batteries die quickly in the Phoenix summer heat, I think it’s a nice safety feature.

    Base price is $38,290, not including a $650 destination charge. The technology option package that adds navigation and the Rockford Fosgate audio upgrade  costs $2550. The Lancer Evo MR is waiting for test drives at Mitsubishi dealerships nationwide.

    Likes: An exceptionally nimble sport sedan with excellent steering response and a lot of power.

    Dislike: Lack of rear cargo space.

    Quick facts:

    Make: Mitsubishi
    Model: Lancer Evolution MR
    Year: 2008
    Base price: $38,290
    As tested: $41,740
    Horsepower: 291 Hp @ 6500 rpm
    Torque: 300 lbs.-ft. @ 4400 rpm
    Zero-to-sixty: N/A
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: N/A
    Bicycle friendly: No
    Off-road: No
    Towing: No
    Fuel economy: 17/22 mpg city/highway

  • 2008 Lexus IS F Four-Door Sedan

    Sport sedan with race-inspired performance
    By Nina Russin

    2008 Lexus IS F

    2008 Lexus IS F

    The original IS sedan was Lexus’ answer to the tuner car, embracing millennial styling, with performance to match. Succeeding models were more upscale and slightly less youthful, appealing to customers who want something sportier than a GS, and competing against the likes of the Acura TSX, BMW 3 Series, and Audi S4.

    The IS F takes the concept further upscale, with enhanced performance to match. The “F” in the model designation stands for Fuji Speedway: the car’s home circuit.

    As the first production model to wear Lexus’ F marque, the IS F is a poster child for Formula 1-inspired technology. Power comes from a 416-horsepower eight cylinder engine and eight-speed automatic transmission.

    The IS F sits an inch lower than other IS models to enhance its high-speed performance. It rides on nineteen-inch wheels with extremely low-profile tires and stops on a dime, courtesy of fourteen-inch drilled Brembo rotors.

    It also employs the manufacturer’s cutting-edge safety technology, including adaptive cruise control, pre-collision warning system and park assist.

    All of this technology comes at a price: $56,000 for the base model, $3,300 for the enhanced safety features, and a $765 delivery charge.

    Designed for the driving enthusiast

    The IS F is an active lifestyle vehicle if the activity is driving for sport, or a sport which requires little to no gear. The smallish trunk has a pass-through to load in golf bags, but it won’t hold a bicycle. To mount a bike up top would mean destroying the aerodynamics that engineers took such pains to perfect.

    On the other hand, the IS F works well as a weekend race car with civilized enough manners to make it practical for everyday use. It has enough room in the back seat for two small adults.

    It also gets pretty good fuel economy for a car with a five liter engine. I averaged twenty-one miles per gallon in city and highway driving.

    The ride is rather harsh due to the big wheels and stiff suspension. But the interior is remarkably devoid of road noise, and the front two seating positions are quite comfortable on extended trips.

    Driver-focused cockpit

    Though it seats four, the IS F works best as a two-passenger car. The instrument panel wraps around the driver and front passenger similar to an airplane cockpit, with an attractive gauge cluster and intuitive comfort and convenience controls.

    Front seats have ten-way power adjustments with seat heaters for the cold weather. Side bolsters hold the driver and front passenger in place without restricting access and egress. Three memory settings allow several drivers to share the car.

    A tilt and telescoping steering wheel enables smaller drivers to maintain a safe distance from the front airbag, and position the wheel low enough to stay below their line of vision. Backlit gauges are easy to read, displaying oil temperature and voltmeter settings, as well as speed and tachometer.

    Standard keyless ignition allows the driver to enter and start the car without removing the ignition fob from his pocket. A start button on the instrument panel brings the engine to life. Paddles on the steering wheel let the driver shift manually, or he can opt for automatic mode, and let shift logic do the job for him.

    A large screen in the center stack displays a wide-angle view to the rear when the driver shifts into reverse: part of the park assist technology. The system also sounds audible warnings when the driver moves too close to an obstacle in one of the car’s blind spots.

    The rear backup camera is part of a navigation option package ($3990) that also includes an upgraded Mark Levinson audio system. Mark Levinson established its reputation for high-end home audio systems: the company has been a supplier to Lexus for many years.

    A screen in the center stack displays navigation system maps, audio and climate control settings. Separate knobs in the center stack allow the driver to adjust the temperature and fan settings without modifying the display.

    Bottle holders in the front doors and cup holders in the floor console hold enough beverage containers to keep front-row passengers happy.

    Begs to be driven hard

    I had the IS F for a week of driving in and around Phoenix. Since I hadn’t scheduled any track time, I headed south out of town to a deserted stretch of road where I could push the sedan’s performance envelope.

    The only way to truly appreciate what the IS F is capable of is to take some long sweeping turns at speed. Only then can the driver feel the wheels glued to the pavement, and the chassis hunker down as it moves through corners.

    The suspension which feels harsh in stop and go traffic keeps the car completely flat in the turns. Steering response is excellent: the driver can feel all four corners of the car.

    The brakes stop the car hard without being grabby. Jounce bumpers on the front and rear suspension keep the nose of the car from diving when the driver brakes hard.

    Passive safety features protect city drivers

    The IS F has an electric steering pump in place of a mechanical booster: a similar setup to the Toyota Prius. Engineers used the same vehicle dynamics management system that they do on their hybrids, integrating steering, vehicle stability control, traction control and antilock brakes. Together, these features help the driver maintain directional control on wet and uneven surfaces.

    Laser dynamic cruise control uses a laser sensor to determine the position of the vehicle ahead, and maintain a preset following distance. It’s a great technology whose only drawback is cost: I hope to see it trickle down to more affordable vehicles.

    A pre-collision system uses the same sensors to determine if a collision is imminent. After signaling the driver, it automatically applies the seatbelt pre-tensioners and primes the brakes to minimize the impact and the potential for injury.

    The IS F also comes standard with front, side, side curtain, and knee airbags for both front passengers. Standard bi-xenon headlamps emit a longer light beam that is brighter and closer in color to daylight than conventional beams.

    The sporty IS F is available for test drives at Lexus dealerships nationwide.

    Likes: Outstanding high-speed performance from a car that can double as a daily commuter. Innovative safety features such as dynamic cruise control and collision warning make the IS F as safe as it is fun to drive.

    Dislike: The stiff suspension and low-profile tires produce a ride that may be too harsh for some customers.

    Quick facts:

    Make: Lexus
    Model: IS F
    Year: 2008
    Base Price: $56,000
    As tested: $64,278
    Horsepower: 416 Hp @ 6600 rpm
    Torque: 371 lbs.-ft. @ 5200 rpm
    Zero-to-sixty: N/A
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: Standard
    Bicycle friendly: No
    Off-road: No
    Towing: No
    Fuel economy: 16/23 mpg city/highway

  • 2008 Saab 9-3 Turbo X SportCombi

    Updated sport wagon features available all-wheel drive
    By Nina Russin

    2008 Saab 9-3 SportCombi

    2008 Saab 9-3 SportCombi

    Three years ago, the Saab 9-3 SportCombi won our Active Lifestyle Vehicle award in the best value, on-road category. Athletes who test drove the Saab loved its sporty performance and ergonomic interior. Despite its small footprint, they were able to slip a road bike in back without removing either of the wheels.

    Recently, I had the opportunity to take a new 9-3 SportCombi Aero on a road trip to California’s central valley. The twelve-hundred mile route included a combination of urban freeways around Los Angeles, and winding two-lane roads through the mountains near Sequoia National Park.

    A late summer heat wave drove temperatures in the California desert over a hundred ten degrees, testing the car’s cooling and air conditioning systems. I also compared my average fuel economy with the EPA’s twenty-six mile-per-gallon estimate.

    Turbocharging and all-wheel drive enhance performance

    The upscale Aero grade comes with a turbocharged six-cylinder engine rated at 255 horsepower and a six-speed manual gearbox. Intelligent all-wheel drive is standard, improving traction on slippery roads.

    Eighteen-inch wheels with low-profile Pirelli tires are great for driving at speed, but not well suited for dirt roads where rocks and roots could bend the rims. An aggressive chin spoiler that seems to get hung up on every driveway would not survive long in the wilderness.

    Temperature changes of up to fifty degrees each day of the trip put the standard tire pressure monitoring system to the test: tires frequently fell below recommended inflation levels in the cooler morning air.

    The turbocharged six-cylinder engine has exceptional low end torque. For those readers not familiar with how turbocharging works, blowers driven off the exhaust stream enhance power by improving airflow through the engine.

    In the past, turbocharging got a bad rep for coking oil and reducing engine life. But modern turbochargers have more progressive boost patterns and better lubrication systems. Engineers have also eliminated the turbo-lag, that made for uneven acceleration.

    Big overdrive gears on the six-speed automatic transmission allowed me to maximize fuel economy on deserted stretches of highway between Phoenix and Los Angeles. By keeping the car in sixth gear and making liberal use of cruise control, I was able to average about twenty-five miles-per-gallon.

    Overdrive gears on manual transmissions can be anemic, but they’re not on the Saab. Because the turbocharger enhances the car’s low end torque, it’s possible to drive in sixth gear and maintain plenty of power for hills and passing. In fact, I was able to use the gear in most of the drive through the Angeles Crest mountains, while maintaining speeds of about eighty miles-per-hour.

    Chassis tuned for performance

    Driving the freeways in and around Los Angeles inevitably brings out the Mr. Hyde in me. It’s hard not to drive aggressively when surrounded by six lanes of traffic on a mission. The fact that I tend to forget which ramps exit to the left or right doesn’t help.

    Fortunately, the 9-3 SportCombi makes quick lane changes easy. The rack-and-pinion steering has a very positive feel at speed, and the sport-tuned independent suspension makes it all but impossible to break the wheels loose in a turn.

    Standard electronic stability program modifies wheel speed to prevent the driver from losing control due to excessive yaw. Standard four-wheel disc brakes with four-channel antilock braking help the sport wagon stop in linear fashion on a variety of road surfaces.

    Better night vision

    Xenon cornering headlamps, standard on the Aero grade, adjust horizontally in conjunction with the steering to improve visibility. A winding stretch of road near Three Rivers, California allowed me to put the feature to the test.

    Three Rivers, which is a couple miles east of the Sequoia National Forest, was the site of the wedding my husband and I were attending. At night, the two-lane road between Three Rivers and the nearby town of Visalia is dark and treacherous. The mountains provide plenty of blind corners and decreasing radius turns.

    Not wanting to blind drivers in the oncoming lane with high beams, I used the low beams for much of the drive. The headlamps provided a long and wide enough beam to safely negotiate the road while maintaining speeds of between fifty-five and sixty-five miles-per-hour.

    The intelligent all-wheel drive system automatically transfers torque to the wheels with the best traction. In combination with the low-profile tires, gives the SportCombi an especially stable footprint. Saab’s “reaxs” system adjusts the caster of the rear wheels to enhance rear axle stability.

    Good stalks, bad stalks

    When automakers first came up with the idea of using stalks off the steering wheel to combine a variety of accessories, it was an improvement over the myriad of buttons and knobs they replaced. Since then, new and better ways of doing the same thing have emerged: controls that mimic the function of a computer mouse, and better controls on the steering wheel itself are two examples.

    Though I usually like the way Saab designs driver controls, the stalks on the 9-3 are a big disappointment. The cruise control actuators are combined with the turn signals on one stalk. Every time I accelerated or decelerated using the cruise control, I mistakenly flashed the turn signals as well.

    A second stalk that controls the front and rear windshield wipers is equally frustrating: not at all intuitive, and hard to use properly without taking one’s eyes off the road. I know that Saab has featured computer-style controls on some of its concept cars. I’d love to see something along those lines replace the outdated stalks on the 9-3.

    Ergonomic interior

    With the exception of the steering wheel stalks, the SportCombi’s interior lives up to Saab’s people-friendly reputation. Simple knobs on the vents make them easy to adjust: dual-zone climate controls keep both the driver and front passenger comfortable.

    Eight-way power seats, standard on the Aero, are easy to adjust, and provide excellent lower lumbar control. As a runner whose had more than her share of back problems, any car I can sit comfortably in for five or six hours earns my respect.

    Redundant steering wheel controls allow the driver to adjust the standard satellite radio and other audio functions with a minimum of distraction. Audio and HVAC controls on the center stack are easy to reach from either front seating position.

    The rear seats have plenty of legroom for two adults: the center console makes the middle rear position a little cramped. The rear seats fold flat to create an even longer cargo floor that easily meets our bicycle-friendly standards.

    An airplane-shaped handle lifts up the cargo floor to reveal a small storage area underneath. The SportCombi’s low liftover height makes it easy to load large items in back.

    Standard safety

    The 9-3 SportCombi comes standard with front, side and side curtain airbags, and active head restraints. A cold weather package on the test car adds high pressure headlamp washers: a boon for drivers in snowy climates.

    Base price on the Aero grade is $42,565, not including a $745 delivery charge. The cold weather package and a touring package that adds rear park assist, driver’s seat memory and an automatic dimming rear-view mirror with compass adds $1445 to the sticker price.

    Saab builds the 9-3 SportCombi at its assembly plant in Trollhattan, Sweden.

    Likes: Outstanding performance makes Saab’s versatile wagon as much fun to drive as a sport sedan. Standard all-wheel drive improves traction on wet roads, while the sport-tuned suspension keeps the wheels glued to the ground in the corners. A large cargo bay with a low liftover height makes the SportCombi a great choice for active buyers.

    Dislikes: Stalks on the steering wheel are poorly designed and hard to use.

    Quick facts:

    Make: Saab
    Model: 9-3 Turbo X SportCombi
    Year: 2008
    Base price: $42,565
    As tested: $44,755
    Horsepower: 255 Hp @ 5500 rpm
    Torque: 258 lbs.-ft. @ 2000 rpm
    Zero-to-sixty: N/A
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: N/A
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Towing: No
    Off-road: No
    Fuel economy: 16/26 mpg city/highway

  • 2008 Hummer H3 SUV Alpha

    Hummer’s smallest sport-utility vehicle gets an extra shot of power.
    By Nina Russin

    2008 Hummer H3 Alpha

    2008 Hummer H3 Alpha

    I’m Hummering this week, in the H3 Alpha: a high-performance version of the brand’s smallest platform. The H3 combines the off-road capability Hummer is known for with a smaller footprint that’s easier to live with in the real world. It fits easily in a standard garage, and while average fuel economy of fourteen miles-per-gallon is nothing stellar, it’s considerably better than for the larger H1 and H2.

    The Alpha grade replaces the H3’s standard 3.7-liter inline five-cylinder engine with a 5.3-liter pushrod V8. In the world of engine builders, there are overhead cam guys and pushrod guys. General Motors has traditionally been of the pushrod camp: I’m glad to see the Alpha’s 300-horsepower block follow in this tradition.

    Pushrod engines tend to rev lower, which can have benefits on a vehicle like the H3. The block has a relatively low compression ratio, allowing it to run just fine on 87 octane fuel. The slower revving, low compression combination makes for good long-term durability, especially in a vehicle designed to go off-road and haul big loads.

    While some car aficionados consider pushrod engines to be “old school,” there’s nothing old fashioned about the Alpha powerplant. An aluminum block and cylinder heads minimize engine weight, and optimize the powertrain’s front-to-rear weight balance.

    Engineers mated the V8 to a 4L60 Hydramatic transmission: a longitudinal four-speed automatic that’s especially good for towing. An independent front suspension gives the Hummer a compliant ride, while a leaf-spring rear end keeps the truck more stable when a trailer is attached.

    Refined on-road performance

    Its smaller footprint is just one of the reasons that the H3 is the best Hummer choice for city dwellers. The powertrain, steering and suspension have much more of a passenger car feel. In order to maximize ground clearance, the Hummer sits taller than the average sport-utility vehicle.

    But unlike the larger H1 and H2, the H3 has a relatively low step-in height. As a five-foot, six-inch tall woman, I found it easy to slide into the driver’s seat, sans running boards. The tall wheels make for a higher liftover height in back, but most people should find the rear cargo area easy to load in.

    Curb weight is just over 5000 pounds. That, combined with the H3’s high profile, two box design means that the engine must work harder to accelerate from a stop. The 5.3-liter engine has sixty horsepower and eighty foot-pounds of torque more than the smaller block.

    The extra power makes it easy to merge into high-speed traffic, and weave around slower vehicles during rush hour. A throaty exhaust note is a nice touch, reminding the driver that this alpha male is all business.

    A thirty-seven foot turning radius makes it easy to maneuver the baby Hummer into the average parking spot. Power rack-and-pinion steering has a positive on-center feel at speed.

    A small back window creates some large blind spots to the rear of the car. An optional rearview camera, not on the test car, is a good idea for drivers who need to back into small parking spots, and especially for parents. The high rear sightline makes it almost impossible to see small children who might be playing in back of the truck

    Standard four-wheel discs with four-channel antilock brakes stop the truck in a firm, linear fashion. Sixteen-inch chrome wheels on the test car are equipped with optional Bridgestone on/off-road radials. The tires have bigger void areas to give the Hummer better off-road traction. Surprisingly, road noise is no greater than for the average four-season on-road radial.

    Serious off-road performance

    People who own Hummers owe it to themselves and their trucks to take the vehicles off-road, because that is where they excel. The H3 can Ford up to two feet of water at slow speeds without contaminating the engine compartment, and crawl up a sixty degree grade.

    For those who haven’t tried it, driving up a hill that steep is an act of faith. All the driver can see is sky: he has to trust that the vehicle will do its job, and the spotter at the top will help him avoid any obstacles over the crest.

    Nine inches of ground clearance protects the chassis against most rocks and roots on the trail, but the H3 has underbody cladding to protect sensitive components just in case. Approach and departure angles are substantial, so the front and rear bumper don’t hang up when the H3 goes on or off of a steep hill.

    The off-road suspension package on the test truck adds specially tuned shocks and a full-locking rear differential to provide extra traction on challenging trails and through sand. Full-time four-wheel drive sends traction to the wheels with the greatest grip, so the driver can maintain directional control when one or more wheels is off the ground.

    A electronic transfer case provides extremely low gearing, so the truck can crawl over challenging terrain. Front and rear recovery hooks allow Hummer drivers to rescue other vehicles that might be stuck, or to be rescued in the very unlikely event that they find a hole too big for the Hummer to crawl out of.

    Inside, all the comforts of home.

    The H3 Alpha comes standard with leather trim and heated, power front seats with adjustable lumbar. All models are Bluetooth compatible. An AM/FM radio with six-disc in-dash CD includes standard XM satellite radio. Satellite radio is a feature I can’t say enough good things about, especially for those who take long road trips.

    Both the driver and front passenger should find it easy to reach audio and HVAC controls in the center stack. The doors have map pockets but not bottle holders. Cupholders in the floor console are large enough for water bottles.

    Two 12-volt powerpoints allow the driver and front passenger to recharge electronic devices on the go. An optional power sunroof brings extra ambient light inside the rather dark black interior.

    The rear seats fold flat to create a cargo floor large enough to slide a bike in. Since the cargo area isn’t especially tall, buyers who plan to carry more than one bike on a regular basis should plan to install a roof rack.

    Standard safety

    All models come with four-channel antilock brakes, stability control, front and head curtain side airbags. Standard OnStar automatically notifies police and emergency medical personnel if the airbags deploy.

    Base price on the H3 Alpha is $38,645, not including a $615 destination charge. General Motors produces the H3 at its Shreveport, Louisiana assembly plant.

    Likes: V-8 engine offers exceptional power and performance, giving the H3 car-like ride and handling. Like all Hummers, the H3 has exceptional off-road capability. Towing up to 6000 pounds exceeds our ALV minimum standards.

    Dislike: Small rear window creates large blind spots to the back of the truck.

    Quick facts:

    Make: Hummer
    Model: H3 Alpha
    Year: 2008
    Base price: $38,645
    As tested: $42,270
    Horsepower: 300 Hp @ 5200 rpm
    Torque: 320 lbs.-ft. @ 4000 rpm
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: N/A
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Off-road: Yes
    Towing: Yes
    Fuel economy: 13/16 mpg city/highway

  • 2008 Toyota RAV4 Sport 4X4

    Compact sport-utility vehicle comes of age.
    By Nina Russin

    Toyota RAV4

    Toyota RAV4

    When Toyota rolled out the original RAV4 in 1996, compact sport-utility vehicles were a rarity. Since then, almost every automaker has introduced a competitor, ranging from the sporty BMW X3, to the budget friendly Suzuki Grand Vitara.

    But Toyota’s recreational active vehicle maintains a loyal fan base by combining the automaker’s legendary build quality with enhanced on and off-road performance. In addition to available four-wheel drive, new models feature hill descent control and ascent assist, that help drivers maintain directional control on extremely steep grades.

    The RAV4 has always been environmentally friendly: at one point, Toyota produced an all-electric model. The current model runs on traditional gasoline engines, optimized for fuel economy. Both the standard four-cylinder and available V6 engines meet federal ultra-low emissions vehicle standards. Average fuel economy for the V6 (tested) is twenty-one miles-per-gallon.

    New V-6 engine enhances power and towing capability

    The 269-horsepower V6 engine, mated to a five-speed automatic transmission, accelerates from zero-to-sixty miles-per-hour in under seven seconds. An optional towing package boosts the RAV’s towing capacity to 3500 pounds, meeting our minimum ALV standards.

    One of the biggest complaints about early RAV4s was their soft acceleration. Equipped with the V6, the RAV is a spirited performer. I was impressed by acceleration in the twenty-to-fifty range, which is critical for merging into high-speed traffic.

    I drove the RAV sport on a recent trip to Ohio, where most of the highways were built thirty or more years ago. Back then, left-side entrance ramps weren’t considered dangerous. Now that traffic loads have doubled , jumping into the passing lane is a challenge.

    Not only could the RAV accelerate hard enough to jump into dense traffic; the side mirrors provided enough visibility to see around cloverleafs covered with summer foliage.

    Electronic power steering reduces vehicle weight

    Toyota uses an electric power steering system on the RAV4 that’s similar to the unit on its hybrids. Unlike traditional power steering, the electronic system lacks a hydraulic power booster, saving weight, and eliminating a part that over time can degrade and leak.

    Steering response from the electronic system is excellent at all speeds, and produces a positive on-center feel on the highway. Toyota integrates vehicle stability and traction control in what it calls its star safety system. All of the controls share sensors, so the transition from one to another is less obvious to the driver.

    The sport grade comes with standard eighteen-inch alloy wheels: an upgrade from sixteen inch rims on the base model. A four-wheel independent suspension tuned for more aggressive driving keeps the RAV4 flat in the corners.

    Available four-wheel drive includes a locking mode for off-road driving

    Drivers who want enhanced traction can opt for four-wheel drive. On uneven or slippery roads, the system automatically transfers torque from the front to the rear wheels to maximize traction.

    A locking switch on the instrument panel maintains the rear bias when the car travels at 25 miles-per-hour or less. In addition, four-wheel drive models come with downhill descent control and hill-start assist: technologies introduced on the ’03 Lexus GX470 and Toyota 4Runner.

    A button on the dash activates the downhill descent control: it maintains a speed of under five miles-per-hour on steep grades, giving the driver better directional control than braking. Hill start assist prevents the car from sliding backwards when accelerating from a stop.

    While the RAV4’s off-road ability is much improved over previous models, it lacks a two-speed transfer case for extreme low gearing, and its 7.5-ich ground clearance may not be enough for very rough trails.

    Stylish, comfortable interior

    The test car has cloth upholstery: standard on the sport grade. I prefer cloth to leather in the southwest: it doesn’t get as hot in the summer, and it’s easier to clean. Although the manual seats in the test car don’t have lumbar adjustments, I found both the front driver’s and passenger seat comfortable on trips of two hours or more.

    Passengers have plenty of access to bottle and cupholders. All four doors have bottle holders. Cupholders in the floor console are big enough for water bottles, as are those in a fold-down armrest in back.

    Two twelve-volt plug-ins up front allow the driver and front passenger to recharge portable electronic devices. HVAC and audio controls on the center stack are easy to reach from either front seating position. A shelf at the base of the center stack holds six compact discs for the in-dash CD changer. The standard audio system is MP3 compatible.

    A two-piece glovebox has a small compartment for documents, and a larger bin beneath for maps and books. A large bin under the center armrest holds portable electronic devices or a small purse.

    The floor-mounted gate shifter helps the driver find low gears more easily. My only complaint about the interior design is the location of the side mirror adjustments on the front of the center console. It isn’t a very intuitive spot, and it’s hard to find if the driver needs to adjust the mirrors when the car is in motion.

    The second-row seats move fore and aft to give second-row passengers more legroom. The RAV is available with a third-row seat that tumbles into the floor, although I wouldn’t recommend it on such a small car.

    Cars without the third-row seat get two, under-floor storage bins for concealing valuables. Since most models have a rear-mounted full-sized spare, the tailgate is hinged to the side. I found the rear cargo area very easy to load: the liftover height is reasonable for a small person.

    Second-row seats fold flat to extend the cargo floor: the RAV4 meets our bicycle friendly standards. Tie-down loops help to secure larger items in back.

    An ALV best value

    Base price on the upscale sport grade is $25,990, not including a $685 destination charge. Options on the test car, including the towing prep package, power sunroof, tonneau cover and carpeted floor mats bring the MSRP to $28,473.

    The newest RAV4 is available for test drives at Toyota dealerships nationwide.

    Likes: A much more powerful engine than on previous models with excellent fuel economy. A four-wheel lock mode along with downhill descent control and hill start assist improve the RAV4’s off-road capability.

    Dislikes: Location of side mirror adjustment switches is hard to find.

    Quick facts:

    Make: Toyota
    Model: RAV4 Sport 4X4
    Year: 2008
    Base price: $25,990
    As tested: $28,473
    Horsepower: 269Hp @ 6200 rpm
    Torque: 246 lbs.-ft. @ 4700 rpm
    Zero-to-sixty: 7 seconds
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    First aid kit: N/A
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Off-road: Yes
    Towing: Yes, when equipped with optional towing-prep package.
    Comments: Base price does not include a $685 delivery charge.