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  • 2009 Porsche Boxster

    PDK transmission gives Porsche’s roadster extra boost

    By Nina Russin

    2009 Porsche Boxster

    2009 Porsche Boxster

    The Porsche Boxster parked in our driveway conjures up images of James Dean as photographed by Sanford Roth, at the wheel of his Porsche 550 Spyder: the one he called the “Little Bastard.” The famous actor undoubtedly knew of the car’s reputation in Europe, where it had just come off winning performances at LeMans.

    The name, Boxster, refers to Porsche’s horizontally-opposed six-cylinder engine: its configuration resembles a boxer. The original Boxster, released in the late 1990s,was the first Porsche since the Spyder designed specifically as a roadster. It was also Porsche’s most affordable sports car: the Boxster drew legions of fans who couldn’t afford the pricier 911, into the showroom.

    Porsche introduced the second-generation Boxster in 2008 for the ’09 model year. The new car remains true to its original mission: powered by a 255-horsepower flat six-cylinder engine. The engine’s midship placement gives the pint-sized roadster a surprising amount of cargo space: with storage areas to the front and rear of the passenger compartment. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2009 Lexus LS 600h L

    Hybrid technology gives flagship sedan a performance edge

    By Nina Russin

    2009 Lexus LS 600h L Sedan

    2009 Lexus LS 600h L Sedan

    Two years ago, Lexus introduced the LS 600h: a hybrid version of its flagship LS sedan. The technology is similar to the hybrid synergy drive in the Toyota Prius. But whereas Prius engineers focused exclusively on fuel economy, the Lexus team was more concerned with boosting power.

    The hybrid powertrain in the Lexus 600h combines a 5-liter V-8 gasoline engine with two motor generators, yielding 438 system horsepower. The Lexus 600h accelerates from zero-to-sixty miles-per-hour in 5.5 seconds. A nickel-metal hydride battery pack recharges the electric motors.

    Standard all-wheel drive automatically transfers engine power to the wheels with the best traction, enhancing the sedan’s four-season performance. The sedan has a 40/60 front-to-rear power split under normal conditions, mimicking rear-wheel drive. When the driver pushes the car, a limited slip differential can transfer up to seventy percent of engine power to the rear axle.

    Three driving modes fine-tune the car’s performance for the driver’s needs. The hybrid mode maximizes fuel economy, while a power mode enhances acceleration. A snow mode minimizes wheel slippage on wet roads. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2009 Lexus GS 450h Sedan

    Hot performance hybrid

    By Nina Russin

    2009 Lexus GS 450h

    2009 Lexus GS 450h

    Some hybrids are green; others are candy apple. The Lexus GS 450h sedan is a candy apple red hybrid: utilizing electric motors to boost power rather than fuel economy.

    The hybrid powertrain includes a gasoline engine and two electric motors: one that controls engine speed, and the other which drives the rear wheels. Together the electric motors give the 3.5-liter V-6 the power of a 4.5-liter V8. It’s hard to argue with a five-second, zero-to-sixty acceleration time.

    Because electric motors develop peak torque at very low speeds, the GS 450h is the king of the entrance ramp. Very few cars will beat it off the line, or in the 30-to-50 mile-per-hour acceleration range. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2009 Toyota RAV4 Sport 4X4

    Compact sport-utility vehicle with an active focus

    By Nina Russin

    2009 Toyota RAV4

    2009 Toyota RAV4

    Twenty-five years ago, Toyota introduced a pint-sized sport-utility vehicle with a big mission: to meld the fuel economy of a passenger car with the cargo capability of a light-duty truck. RAV4 stands for Recreational Active Vehicle with four-wheel drive. As the name suggests, the RAV was one of the first cars designed specifically for urban athletes.

    The original RAV debuted in Japan in 1994: it came to the US two years later. The first RAV4 was essentially an all-wheel drive Camry with two-box architecture. While the ’96 RAV got mixed reviews from automotive enthusiast magazines, it was a hit among its intended buyers. The four-cylinder RAV was thrifty at the fuel pump, small enough to parallel park, and had enough room in the cargo area for a road bike.

    While the current RAV4 is slightly larger than the original, it remains one of the smallest sport-utility vehicles on the market. The Sport grade tested is positioned between the base and upscale Limited models. Read the rest of this entry »

  • ALV Award at San Diego Auto Show

    Ed Witt and Jim Woodman

    Ed Witt and Jim Woodman

    The sixth annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year program concluded this week with an awards presentation at the San Diego Auto Show. ALV co-founder and juror, Jim Woodman, presented the award for best luxury on-road vehicle to Ed Witt, owner of Witt Lincoln Mercury. Witt was accepting the award for the 2010 Lincoln MKT.

    Athletes who drove the MKT were impressed by the performance of Ford’s new EcoBoost engine, innovative safety features such as blind spot warning and cross traffic alert, as well as the vehicle’s versatile interior.

    The Active Network Inc., one of two program sponsors, has hosted the athlete’s ride-and-drive event at its San Diego campus for the past five years.

    “We were honored to host the 2010 Active Lifestyle Vehicle Awards,” said Jon Belmonte, chief operating officer of The Active Network. “This event has had great success in connecting auto manufacturers with active consumers.”

    The San Diego Auto Show runs through January 3 at the San Diego Convention Center.

  • My Three Thousand Mile Year

    Running shoes

    Running shoes

    Actually, it was 2970 miles. A slight calf pull at the beginning of December kept me from running the sixty-plus mile weeks that I needed to reach 3000 by January 1.

    If one were to string the past 52 weeks worth of runs end to end, it would be the equivalent of running across America. It makes me wonder what it would be like to run or bicycle across this country: to watch the terrain change from hardwood forests to the grasslands, the desert, and eventually the Mediterranean climate of southern California.

    While I have contemplated such a journey, it has never been a goal of mine, any more than running the equivalent mileage was. Looking back at my diary, my goals for 2009 were to stay healthy, enjoy running, and jump into a half marathon or two. Read the rest of this entry »

  • Winter Tires Add Traction in Extreme Weather

    By Nina Russin

    Winter Tire Test at Tire Rack

    Winter Tire Test at Tire Rack

    When I was a kid, using winter tires was common practice. Before the days of front and all-wheel drive, winter tires were the only way drivers could give their cars better traction for driving on ice and snow.

    While technologies such as electronic stability and traction control enhance a car’s all-season performance, winter tires add an important measure of protection. Rubber compounds are temperature sensitive. Summer performance tires work best in temperatures above freezing. All-season tires maintain traction over a wider range of temperatures, but still don’t perform as well as winter tires in extreme cold weather.

    Tread patterns on winter tires are designed to move moisture away from the surface, so the tires maintain their contact patches with the ground. If the tires lose traction and the car hydroplanes, none of its other safety systems can bring the vehicle back under control. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2009 Dodge Challenger R/T

    Modern-day muscle car takes no prisoners

    By Nina Russin

    2009 Dodge Challenger R/T

    2009 Dodge Challenger R/T

    The Dodge Challenger is not a car for everyone. Based on the classic Mopar of the 1970s, the Challenger is a large, brash, noisy hunk of Detroit iron. The front end has the demeanor of a defensive tackle: a wide, grinning grille with beady round headlamps, flared fenders and huge tires. The large hood scoop takes a periscope to see over. The 376-horsepower hemi engine is very big, very loud, and has enough low end torque to strip pavement off the highway.

    The Challenger reminds me of the cars I grew up with more than anything else on the road today. I love its pistol grip shift lever, chrome gas cap and dual exhausts. I love the fact that it stands out in a crowd. In a world of cars designed by committee, the Challenger’s bold design is a breath of fresh air.

    Options on the test car upgrade the standard 18-inch rims to 20-inch chrome wheels, and add the R/T hood-to-fender stripes. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2009 Los Angeles Auto Show

    Eco-friendly cars pave the way to economic recovery

    By Nina Russin

    2011 Chevrolet Cruze

    2011 Chevrolet Cruze

    Los Angeles has become known as the green auto show: a hot bed for sustainable technology. Since LA is the first major North American auto show of the season, it also sets the tenor for those that follow. While the 2009 show lacked some of the bells and whistles of more prosperous times, automakers had a more optimistic outlook than they did the year before.

    Fuel-thrifty compacts

    Chevrolet kicked off the media preview with the North American debut of the Cruze: a compact sedan that replaces the Cobalt. The Cruze is already on sale in Europe; it rolls into North American dealerships for the 2011 model year. A 1.4-liter turbo-diesel engine and six-speed automatic transmission give the Cruze superior fuel economy: up to 40 miles-per-gallon on the highway. All grades come with antilock brakes, electronic stability and traction control, ten standard airbags and GM’s Onstar telematics system. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2009 Toyota Corolla Matrix S

    Compact hatchback has an active lifestyle focus

    By Nina Russin

    The Matrix is the five-door version of the Toyota Corolla, combining the sedan’s positive fuel economy with a larger, more versatile cargo area.

    Every time I drive the Matrix, I find a new reason to love

    2009 Toyota Matrix

    2009 Toyota Matrix

     the car. The hatchback averages 29 miles-per-gallon on the highway, has a standard 115-volt outlet in the center stack, and can hold my mountain bike without removing the front wheel.

    Tracks in the cargo floor hold tie-down hooks to secure large cargo.  A cargo light illuminates the back of the car, making it easier to load up at night.

    For this test drive, I have the mid-level S grade, with a 158-horsepower, four-cylinder engine and five-speed automatic transmission. The S adds a couple of important features over the base model: the 115-volt outlet, and a fold-flat front passenger seat. A hard seatback surface serves as a work table. Read the rest of this entry »