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  • 2011 Toyota Tacoma 4X4

    V-6 engine tows up to 6500 pounds

    By Nina Russin

    2011 Toyota Tacoma

    The Tacoma’s roots are in Toyota’s compact pickup trucks of the 1970s and 80s. Today, the Tacoma is a significantly larger vehicle, lining up behind the full-sized Tundra. New six-cylinder engine technology enables engineers to produce equivalent performance to what V-8 engines yielded a decade back. As a result, the V-6 Tacoma with 266 foot-pounds of torque qualifies as a real work horse, with the ability to carry heavy cargo.

    The advantage of the V-6 as compared to the eight cylinder engine is fuel economy. The Tacoma access cab 4X4 averages 20 miles-per-gallon on the highway, which is good for a two-ton truck. Out of the box, the Tacoma tows up to 3500 pounds, meeting our ALV standard. A towing prep package which adds a class 4 hitch, heavy duty battery, transmission and oil coolers boosts towing capacity to 6500 pounds, making the Tacoma capable of hauling large trailers.

    The access cab includes a small rear passenger space which can also be used for cargo. Dealerships can deactivate the front passenger airbag for child seats, since they won’t fit in back.

    Base price for the test car is $25,925 excluding the $810 delivery charge. A discounted TRD off-road package adds a locking rear differential, off-road suspension, Bilstein shocks, special wheels, tires and skid plates under the chassis, as well as a host of comfort and convenience features inside the car ($3085). Other options include daytime running lamps ($40), the towing prep package ($650), carpeted floor mats ($179), tie down loops ($40), special wheels, tires  and performance exhaust ($1699), bringing the price as tested to $33,168. Read the rest of this entry »

  • Winter Driving Tips from a Pro

    Thinking ahead is the key to maintaining control

    By Nina Russin

    Bridgestone Winter Driving School, Steamboat Springs, Colorado

    When I lived in Chicago, drivers prepared for winter, if for no other reason than its inevitability. In the southwestern United States where I now live, we celebrate not having to worry about snow and ice. The problem occurs when drivers who normally don’t encounter snow and ice decide to head for the mountains to enjoy some skiing or snowboarding over the winter break.

    What can an inexperienced driver do to ensure that his trip up to the mountains is a safe one? I asked Mark Cox, a professional race car driver and director of Bridgestone’s Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs, Colorado for some advice.

    “If you’re using good technique, front, rear and all-wheel drive cars all perform the same,” said Cox. “The idea that they don’t is an urban myth. However if you aren’t using good technique, they perform differently.”

    “You only have three ways to control a car,” Cox continued. Those controls are braking, steering and accelerating. According to Cox, the best way to maintain traction on ice and snow is by only using one control at a time. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2013 Dodge Dart

    Chrysler unveils Fiat-based compact with classic nameplate

    By Nina Russin

    2013 Dodge Dart

    Chrysler announced yesterday that it’s expanding the company’s small car offerings in North America with an all-new Dart compact sedan, to be unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit next month. The new Dart takes its name from Dodge’s midsized model of the late 1960s and early 70s, whose variants included some rather sedate four-door cars, but also the track-happy GTS.

    The new Dart follows on the heels of the Fiat 500: the Italian automaker’s first North American model in several decades. Based on the Alfa Romeo Guilietta, the 2013 Dart comes with a choice of three engines: the same 1.4-liter Fiat block which powers the 500, and two new four-cylinder blocks with 2 and 2.4-liter displacement respectively. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2011 Hyundai Genesis Coupe 3.8 R-Spec

    Performance-tuned coupe feels at home on road or track

    By Nina Russin

    Hyundai Genesis Coupe R-SpecFor 2011, Hyundai added two performance variants to the Genesis coupe family: one powered by a two-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, and a second based on the 3.8-liter V-6. Both cars transform the coupe’s personality from a premium road car into something much edgier and more youthful.

    The R-Spec coupes aren’t for everyone. The suspensions have stiffer spring rates, which can make for a bumpy ride on certain types of roads. Both models come exclusively with manual gearboxes. A limited slip differential is standard. In other words, the R-Spec coupes are Hyundai’s answer to Infiniti’s G coupes and Ford’s pony cars. Zero-to-sixty acceleration is 5.5 seconds: a pretty good number in any stable.

    For buyers who want to buy a track-ready car, the R-Spec packages are hard to resist. If one were to purchase standard components on the Genesis R-Spec coupes, including Brembo brakes, strut tower brace, track-tuned suspension, 19-inch wheels with performance tires and the close ratio ZF gearbox in the aftermarket, it would cost a lot more than the OEM package.

    On top of that, the buyer gets a sexy looking car loaded with comfort and convenience features such as Bluetooth and USB interface, satellite radio, bolstered sport seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, special badging and fog lamps.

    Hyundai’s ten-year/100,000 mile warranty covers any repair due to defects from the factory, and includes five years of roadside assistance.

    The only accessories not included in the test car’s $26,750 MSRP are a cargo net, iPod cable and carpeted floor mats. Together they add $180 dollars to the price of the car. The MSRP includes delivery charges as well. In other words: no ups, no extras. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2011 Kia Optima Hybrid

    Mid-sized sedan gets a green connection

    By Nina Russin

    Kia Optima Hybrid

    It was exactly one year ago that Kia unveiled its first gasoline/electric hybrid at the Los Angeles Auto Show. I’m thinking back to the model reveal as I drive the Optima Hybrid sedan across the Sonoran desert between Phoenix and Los Angeles for the 2011 show.

    While other automakers struggle to tread water after the industry-wide implosion of 2008, Kia seems to be on a roll. Looking at the interior of the Optima Hybrid, it’s easy to understand why. Value has been core to Kia’s mission since arriving stateside in 1994 and remains so today. MSRP on the Optima Hybrid is $26,500, not including the $750 delivery charge.

    For the price of a mid-level sedan, Kia offers its premium grade, with Bluetooth interface, a rearview camera display and dual-zone climate control. Kia’s UVO infotainment system, developed in conjunction with Microsoft, is also standard.

    Power comes from a 2.4-liter Atkinson cycle four-cylinder engine, which works in concert with an electric motor. Kia partnered with LG Chem of South Korea to develop a lithium polymer battery, which is lighter and more compact than nickel metal-hydride units.

    A technology package on the test car adds navigation with Sirius traffic updates, an Infinity premium audio system, dual-pane panoramic sunroof, 17-inch alloy wheels, high-intensity discharge headlamps, leather seating, heated and cooled front seats, a heated steering wheel and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror with Homelink and a compass ($5000). Price as tested is $32,250. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2011 Los Angeles Auto Show

    Automakers focus on green cars and connectivity

    By Nina Russin

    Kia's GT Concept at the 2011 LA Auto Show

    The Los Angeles Auto Show’s star continues to rise, despite financial unease within the car industry. A continuing focus on green transportation solutions has piqued the interest of the international press, helping the show to attract numbers comparable to North America’s three other major shows: Detroit, Chicago and New York.

    While the focus on alternative and hybrid vehicles remains strong, automakers at the 2011 LA Auto Show seemed as, if not more concerned with user interfaces inside the vehicle. Cadillac’s new CUE system rolls out in the all-new XTS sedan, followed by the ATS and SRX later next year. Infiniti takes a personal touch in its new JX seven-passenger crossover, with a concierge service that provides 24-hour access to a live assistant.

    Hyundai and Kia continue to upgrade their proprietary infotainment systems- BlueLink and UVO- while Ford, which pioneered the field with Sync, introduces the next generation My Ford Touch system on the all-new Escape and refreshed Flex.

    At the conclusion of the two-day press preview, Ford captured Nielsen’s Green Marketer of the Year award, while the 2012 Green Car Journal Green Car of the Year went to the Honda Civic Natural Gas model. Read the rest of this entry »

  • Chevrolet Volt Roll-Out Expands to Arizona

    Extended range electric car now available in Phoenix dealerships

    2012 Chevrolet Volt

    Chevrolet is extending availability of the new Volt to include dealerships in Arizona, beginning with Phoenix. About 2500 of the brand’s 3000 US dealerships are signed up to participate in the Volt program. Cars are currently rolling into Phoenix stores. Tucson and other parts of the state will follow.

    The Volt combines an electric engine and gasoline motor, but in a different manner than hybrids currently on the market. The sedan will operate in pure electric mode at all speeds for up to 35 miles. When the charge from the lithium-ion battery pack gets low, the vehicle automatically switches over to gasoline power, extending the vehicle’s range by another 344 miles according to the manufacturer.

    Recharging time for the battery ranges from four hours utilizes 220-volt current to 10 hours if the vehicle is plugged into a 115 volt outlet. The cost of a recharge is about $1.50 regardless of the type of current used. The battery pack carries an eight-year/100,000 mile warranty.

    Chevrolet rates the car’s net horsepower at 149, with 273 foot-pounds of peak torque. Because electric motors develop peak torque at very low engine speeds, the sedan has excellent low-end acceleration: zero-to-sixty takes less than nine seconds.

    MSRP starts at $41,000. Buyers are eligible for a $7500 tax credit, and may be eligible for state tax incentives as well. Standard features include keyless ignition with push button start, a remote vehicle starter, Sirius XM radio, OnStar and eight airbags. Options include leather seating, a Bose audio upgrade, a rearview camera with park assist and two aluminum wheel options. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2011 Lexus CT 200h Premium

    Compact hybrid sedan is eco-friendly

    By Nina Russin

    2011 Lexus CT 200h

    The Lexus CT 200h is the second pure hybrid to enter the Lexus family, following the HS 250h. It is obvious from first glance that product planners were targeting a younger, more image conscious audience with the CT. Its edgy styling is reminiscent of some Scion models.

    Like the HS, there is a focus on sustainability which extends beyond the car’s fuel-thrifty powertrain. Eighty percent of the vehicle is recyclable. Recycle marks on the front, rear and tailgate trim make it easier to dismantle and recycle the car. A new interior fabric called NuLuxe resembles leather, but is actually made from recyclable materials.

    Power comes from a four-cylinder Atkinson cycle engine which operates in concert with two electric motors: an 80 horsepower drive motor and a second motor which triggers the engine starter and functions as a generator to recharge the battery pack. Together the gasoline engine and electric motors yield 134 horsepower. The CT 200h accelerates from zero-to-sixty miles-per-hour in 9.8 seconds.

    Buyers can choose between a standard and premium grade. Pricing for the premium grade (tested) begins at $30,900 excluding an $875 delivery fee. Options on the test car include a premium audio upgrade  which also adds an electro-chromic rearview mirror ($1125), LED headlamps ($1215), leather seating ($1330), a cargo net ($75) and illuminated door sills ($299), bringing the price as tested to $35,819. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2011 Lexus IS 250C

    Hardtop convertible for driving enthusiasts

    By Nina Russin

    2011 Lexus IS C

    The IS series began as Lexus’ tuner offering. Following its success, the automaker transformed the IS from a single car into a series, which ranged from entry luxury to more upscale performance models. The most recent IS models include two new hardtop convertibles, which take the place of the SC 430, discontinued in 2010. The high-performance IS F is the series flagship, competing against high luxury European sport coupes.

    The IS 250C is the less expensive of two open-air IS models. Pricing starts at $41,060, plus an $875 destination charge. Power comes from a 2.5-liter direct injection V-6 engine rated at 204 horsepower. Direct injection delivers gasoline into the engine cylinders without passing through the valves. This reduces parasitic loss for better gas mileage, and also provides a cooling effect which enabled engineers to apply a very high compression ratio: 12.0:1.

    The engine has excellent throttle response: zero-to-sixty acceleration is 8.4 seconds according to the manufacturer. The down side of the high compression engine is its premium fuel requirement. Running the car on regular unleaded fuel could produce detonation and engine damage.

    A six-speed automatic transmission includes formula-style shift paddles on the steering wheel. The paddles enable the driver to choose gears manually for more aggressive performance on challenging roads.

    The IS 250C runs on 17-inch alloy rims and all-season tires. The wheels are large enough to provide an ample footprint, but the tires have enough sidewall to offer a comfortable ride on uneven road surfaces.

    Options on the test car include a hard drive navigation system and Mark Levinson audio upgrade ($4015). Lexus Enform, which comes with the option, adds connection to a remote call center which can provide turn-by-turn directions.

    A cargo net and trunk mat add $64 and $73 respectively, bringing the price as tested to $46,087. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2011 Toyota RAV4 Limited

    Compact crossover vehicle seats up to seven passengers

    By Nina Russin

    2011 Toyota RAV4 Limited

    The RAV4 was one of the first vehicles to combine the versatility of a sport-utility vehicle with car-like ride and handling. The name stands for “recreational active vehicle:” a phrase which should resonate with readers of this web site. Buyers can choose between two or three rows of seating, depending on how many passengers they need to carry.

    The newest model is available with a choice of four-cylinder or V-6 engines and front or all-wheel drive. The six-cylinder engine costs a little more, but achieves fuel efficiency close to the four. Given the means to afford the premium, I’d recommend it for the extra power and performance it offers.

    The V-6 RAV4 comes with a five-speed automatic transmission, as opposed to a four-speed box with the four-cylinder model. This accounts for the larger engine’s enhanced fuel economy. In addition to adding a large overdrive gear, the five-speed automatic minimizes shift shock during hard acceleration.

    Buyers can choose from three grades: a base model, Sport, and upscale Limited. The front-wheel drive Limited starts at $26,835, not including an $810 delivery charge. The V-6 engine is standard, as are 17-inch alloy wheels with a full-sized spare. The spare tire is mounted on the rear door, where it’s easy to reach.

    Comfort and convenience features include a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel with redundant audio controls, dual-zone automatic climate control, a fold-flat feature for the second-row seats, satellite radio and keyless start.

    A premium option package on the test car adds leather upholstery, upgraded audio system, Bluetooth interface, heated front seats, power moonroof, eight-way power driver’s seat and a 120-volt power outlet ($3480). The test car also includes a towing prep package which I’d recommend against, since the RAC fails to meet the ALV minimum 3500-pound towing standard ($160). Carpeted floor mats cost $199, bringing the MSRP to $32,179.

    A new extra value package discount reduces the MSRP by $2000, bringing the price as tested to $30,179. Read the rest of this entry »