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  • 2017 Toyota 86

    Sport coupe gets retuned for improved performance

    By Nina Russin

    2017 Toyota 86

    2017 Toyota 86

    The 86 is one of several former Scion models moving under the Toyota umbrella for 2017. This year the 86, formerly Scion FR-S, gets retuned for more aggressive performance, with more power and suspension upgrades to improve high-speed handling.

    Inspiration for the original FR-S came from Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda, grandson of the company founder and a life-long driving enthusiast. Toyoda, whose made it his personal mission to infuse the company with his passion for performance, wanted to create a vehicle celebrating the spirit of the Corolla Levin, also called AE86. The sporty two-seater was favored among early drift racing competitors including the legendary Keiichi Tsuchiya.

    While the 86 isn’t a car for everyone, it is, for the right buyer, one of the best values on the planet. Co-developed with Subaru (the Subaru version is the BRZ), the Toyota 86 is a beautifully balanced true sports car priced well below $30,000. Final MSRP for the test car with the six-speed manual transmission is $27,120. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2017 Kia Forte EX

    Compact sedan with refreshed styling

    By Nina Russin

    2017 Kia Forte Sedan EX

    2017 Kia Forte Sedan EX

    The Kia Forte’s heritage dates back to 2010 when it replaced the Spectra: one of the most popular models produced by the South Korean automaker at that time. More affordable than its competitors from Honda and Toyota, the Spectra was a big hit among compact sports car enthusiasts, with some pretty cool customizing options.

    The Forte is more of a mainstream offering, taking many of its styling cues from the larger Optima sedan. The 2017 Forte features refreshed exterior styling and a new, more powerful base engine. Buyers can choose between three trim levels of which the EX model tested is the most upscale.

    2017 Kia Forte Sedan

    2017 Kia Forte Sedan

    Pricing for the EX starts at $21,200, excluding the $850 destination charge. Options on the test car include a Premium plus package that includes navigation, autonomous emergency braking, forward collision warning, blind spot monitoring, lane keeping assist, rearview camera, power driver’s seat, ventilated front seats, Xenon headlamps and a power sunroof ($4490), bringing the final MSRP to $26,540. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2017 Kia Sportage SX FWD

    Compact crossover for driving enthusiasts

    By Nina Russin

    2017 Kia Sportage SX Turbo

    2017 Kia Sportage SX Turbo

    The Sportage was one of the first vehicles Kia imported to the United States in the early 1990s: a small, simple but robust sport-utility vehicle. I still see first-generation Sportages tooling around Phoenix, all showing scars from years of off-road driving. It’s a badge of honor.

    When Kia introduced the third-generation Sportage six years ago, the car’s focus shifted from sport-utility to crossover, appealing to buyers who might want four-season capability, but also required better road handling for the daily commute. While the Sportage did all of that well, it seemed to lack the character of the first two generation vehicles.

    The most recent Sportage introduced late last year is a much more complete product, with more appealing styling and a confident drivetrain that includes a SX grade for driving enthusiasts. While the car maintains a front-wheel drive bias, owners in all-season climates can opt for an all-wheel drive system that transfers power to the rear wheels when traction demands it.

    Base price for the front-wheel drive car tested is $32,500 excluding an $895 destination charge. Final MSRP is $33,395. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2017 Subaru Outback 2.5 Limited

    Sport-utility wagon is the perfect training partner

    By Nina Russin

    2017 Subaru Outback

    2017 Subaru Outback

    Riding my bicycle through an unexpected monsoonal rainstorm this morning, I was thinking about the Subaru Outback test car parked in our driveway, specifically the relationship between the brand and endurance athletes going back over four decades. Long before other brands saw outdoor lifestyles as a marketing asset, Subaru embraced the idea, sponsoring the US Ski team.

    A unique carburetor design that compensated for oxygen loss at altitude made Subaru’s early four-cylinder engines the only small engines that ran well in mountainous areas. Along with that came standard all-wheel drive throughout the lineup. To this day, the only Subaru that comes without AWD is the track-oriented BRZ.

    But there’s a deeper reason why Subaru’s vehicles resonate with athletes. They are perfect training partners: up for any adventure and never complaining about the weather, always willing to pitch in when there’s work to be done and not afraid of getting dirty. They are durable, versatile workhorses that always come through in a pinch.

    Subaru isn’t afraid to call the Outback a wagon because that’s what it is: a very functional gear hauler with the ability to go through almost anything, including mud, deep snow, water, sleet and ice.

    The 2017 model adds some important upgrades: a new upscale Touring grade above the Limited, torque vectoring for better cornering, enhanced hill start-assist and hill descent control functions for better wet weather performance, a roomier cargo area, more active safety technology and infotainment features.

    Base price for the Limited model tested is $32,390 excluding the $875 destination charge. An optional convenience package adds navigation, Sirius XM travel and weather updates, steering responsive fog lamps, high intensity discharge headlamps, high beam assist and Subaru EyeSight: active safety technology including adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assist, pre-collision throttle control and pre-collision braking. Final MSRP is $35,260. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack SEL with 4Motion

    Active lifestyle wagon with German performance

    By Nina Russin

    2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack

    2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack

    Volkswagen’s new Golf Alltrack sport wagon is the masculine yang to the Subaru Outback’s more feminine yin. Athletic performance comes from a turbocharged 1.8-liter engine and available six-speed manual gearbox on all grades. Like its Subaru competitor, the Alltrack boasts a versatile easy-to-clean interior with a spacious cargo bay for larger gear, and enough ground clearance to clear the tea kettles on unimproved roads.

    VW product planners hope the Alltrack’s available panoramic sunroof and slightly lower roof height than the Outback will lure existing Subaru owners into its showrooms. Roof rails are standard on every Alltrack grade to facilitate overhead cargo carriers and roof racks.

    2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack

    2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack

    The Alltrack is based on Volkswagen’s popular Golf Sportwagen. Although its sibling is available with Volkswagen’s 4Motion all-wheel drive system, the Alltrack’s higher ground clearance makes it more capable on uneven trails. A drive-select mode system automatically engages downhill descent control when the driver chooses the off-road setting.

    The standard 1.8-liter turbocharged engine develops 170-horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque from engine speeds as low as 1600 rpm for excellent low-end acceleration. The DSG automatic model that launches in October starts at $26,950 excluding an $820 destination charge while the six-speed manual version available in January, 2017 is priced from $25,850. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2017 Fiat 124 Spider

    Iconic roadster returns for millennial driving enthusiasts

    By Nina Russin

    2017 Fiat 124 Spider and 1968 Fiat 124 Spider

    2017 Fiat 124 Spider and 1968 Fiat 124 Spider

    Is it possible for an Italian sports car to cost less than $25,000? Remarkably enough, it is. The new Fiat 124 Spider that rolls out as a 2017 model recalls the automaker’s best selling open-air car that debuted at the 1966 Turin Auto Show.

    As with the original, design inspiration came from Italy, but the underpinnings reflect a collaboration between Fiat and Mazda. Fiat incorporated chassis components from the current Mazda MX-5 Miata into its powertrain, but added its own 1.4-liter MultiAir turbocharged engine that delivers 164 horsepower. Buyers can choose between a six-speed manual gearbox or six-speed automatic transmission.

    Base price for the test car equipped with the six-speed manual is $24,995, sans the $995 destination charge. Options include an audio upgrade that adds Bluetooth streaming music, rearview camera and pearl white exterior, bringing the final MSRP to $27,880. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2016 Subaru Series HyperBlue

    Sports car’s beauty is more than skin deep

    By Nina Russin

    2016 Subaru BRZ

    2016 Subaru BRZ

    The BRZ two-plus-two is a bit of an anomaly for Subaru: the only rear-wheel drive car in its line-up, and one of two models focused specifically on racing. Unlike its closest sibling, the WRX/WRX STi, the BRZ is a track car in the traditional sense of the word. With its perfectly balanced boxer engine, low center of gravity and close ratio six-speed manual gearbox, the Subaru BRZ begs to take corners at speed: the more the better.

    Subaru developed the BRZ in conjunction with Scion, which calls its version the FR-S. While Toyota engineers took the reigns through much of the project, it’s important to point out that the engine, the heart of the car, is pure Subaru. Toyota wasn’t being charitable handing this very critical part of the chassis over to Subaru. The fact is, they couldn’t have done it better themselves. Subaru’s four-cylinder engine with identical bore and stroke dimensions is perfect as a high-revving block in a car designed to deliver short bursts of speed.

    Direct injection and a high compression ratio give the engine exceptional throttle response. When mated to the six-speed manual gearbox, the BRZ goes off the line like a rabbit. The car’s lightweight chassis, low center of gravity and excellent front-to-rear weight balance give it the nimble performance driving enthusiasts crave.

    For 2016, Subaru has produced a special edition called HyperBlue, with a unique exterior, leather and Alcantara seat surfaces, special wheels and badging. It’s a fearsome looking package inside and out. The fact that it goes as well as it shows and is affordable makes this BRZ the total package.

    Base price is $27,690, including all the aforementioned features on the limited-edition car. Final MSRP with destination is $28,485. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Touring

    Go-to family car reinvented

    By Nina Russin

    2017 Chrysler Pacifica Touring-L Plus

    2017 Chrysler Pacifica

    It’s no surprise the automaker that invented the minivan has introduced the most compelling new product in the segment. With the Dodge Grand Caravan discontinued, the all-new Pacifica becomes Chrysler’s only minivan offering. But it is more diverse, with a gasoline-powered version on sale now followed by a gasoline electric hybrid that rolls out later this summer.

    Exterior styling is more like a crossover, appealing to buyers turned off by the one-box minivan stigma. This idea isn’t unique to Chrysler: Kia took a similar approach with the current Sedona.

    2017 Chrysler Pacifica

    2017 Chrysler Pacifica

    Chrysler’s ace-in-the-hole is family-friendly features including chicklets on sliding side doors making them easier for kids to open, and built-in vacuum cleaner. Proprietary Stow ‘n Go seating folds second-row seats into the floor to create a capacious cargo area. Second-row seats can also tilt forward without removing child safety seats for better third-row access.

    The Touring grade tested appeals to value-focused buyers with a base price of $30,495 excluding the $995 destination charge. An optional power liftgate brings the final MSRP to $31,985. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2016 Nissan Altima SL

    Refreshed midsize sedan gains in style, safety and fuel economy

    By Nina Russin

    2016 Nissan Altima

    2016 Nissan Altima

    Since first coming on the scene in the early 1990s, the Nissan Altima has been a sporty alternative to the ever popular Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. Although the midsize sedan has changed significantly over the past quarter century, it maintains the original strategy of affordability, style and appealing performance.

    For 2016 Nissan significantly refreshed the current model with new exterior styling, a stand-alone sport grade and enhanced active safety features. Fuel economy has also improved to 39 miles-per-gallon on the 2.5-liter model tested.

    With the average transaction price for automobiles reaching $32,000, it’s refreshing to see a fully-loaded premium sedan costing significantly less: $28,570 for the test car equipped with leather upholstery, keyless entry and start, heated zero gravity front seats, Bose premium audio system with satellite radio and Bluetooth streaming audio, heated mirrors and 17-inch alloy rims.

    A technology package on the test car adds forward collision warning with emergency braking, blind spot monitoring, NissanConnect with navigation, stolen vehicle location and remote start via smartphone. Final MSRP including destination is $32,510. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2017 Fiat 124 Spider

    Classic drop-top reinvented for millennial buyers

    By Nina Russin

    2017 Fiat 124 Spider

    2017 Fiat 124 Spider

    Fiat has a talent for making what was once old new again, and just as important, relevant. Inspiration for the new 2017 Fiat Spider is the brand’s classic roadster that debuted at the 1966 Turin Auto show. Designed by Pininfarina and powered by a 1438 cc engine, the Spider was a more affordable alternative to the legendary Ferrari GTS. It became Fiat’s most successful effort in the United States, produced through the 1985 model year.

    The new 124 Spider shares chassis components with the current Mazda MX-5 Miata, but features a slightly larger body, different engine, styling and exhaust system than its Japanese counterpart.

    Power for all three grades comes from Fiat’s 160-horsepower 1.4-liter MultiAir intercooled and turbocharged engine. A quad exhaust on the upscale Abarth grade adds four horsepower. Buyers can choose between a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission with manual gear selection.

    2017 Fiat 124 Spider

    2017 Fiat 124 Spider

    At the beginning of production Fiat is issuing a Prima Edizione version of the midgrade Lusso, limited to 124 vehicles.

    Pricing for the base Classica model with manual gearbox starts at $24,995 ($26,345 with the automatic), the Lusso at $27,495 and performance-oriented Abarth at $28,195. Pricing does not include a $995 destination charge. Standard convenience features on the Classica include 16-inch alloy wheels, cloth seats, halogen headlamps, a rollbar and dual exhaust.

    The Lusso adds 17-inch wheels and leather seating, while the Abarth comes with Bilstein shocks, Brembo brakes, front strut tower brace, 17-inch alloy wheels, limited slip differential and quad exhaust. Read the rest of this entry »