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  • First Drive: 2019 Ram 1500

    Light-duty pickups focus on style and functionality

    By Nina Russin

    2019 Ram 1500 Rebel

    2019 Ram 1500 Rebel

    Since Ram split off from Dodge in 2009, the brand has experienced a major growth spurt, with annual sales jumping from 260,000 to 700,000 units last year. Product planners hope that the newest generation of light-duty pickups tagged for the 2019 model year will maintain the momentum, with increased towing and hauling capacity, new styling and upgraded interiors.

    Pricing for the base Tradesman work model starts at $31,695 excluding delivery, while the upscale Limited grade is priced from $53,890. Base MSRP for the off-road oriented Rebel is $43,995.

    Buyers can choose between the newest-generation Pentastar V-6 and Hemi V-8 engines. Mild hybrid technology improves fuel economy as well as the performance of the auto-stop feature. Read the rest of this entry »

  • First Drive: 2018 Jeep Wrangler

    Jeep’s familiar face becomes a radically different animal

    By Nina Russin

    All-new 2018 Jeep® Wrangler Rubicon, 1944 Jeep Willys-Overland MB and all-new 2018 Jeep Wrangler Sahara

    All-new 2018 Jeep® Wrangler Rubicon, 1944 Jeep Willys-Overland MB and all-new 2018 Jeep Wrangler Sahara

    To call the Jeep Wrangler the most iconic American car currently in production is no exaggeration. With roots dating back to the 1941 Willys-Overland MA/MB, the Jeep, with its toothy grille and round headlamps, is the face that launched a thousand ships to points once unreachable on four wheels. Every off-road vehicle produced since, from the Toyota FJ to the Land Rover, has somehow been influenced by the Jeep.

    For 2018 Jeep introduces an all-new model. While it retains its familiar face, there are some dramatic changes under the new Wrangler’s skin, as to the skin itself. In place of steel body panels one now finds aluminum and composite, making the car lighter and more fuel efficient. Glass areas are larger, the windshield more raked, and the rear-mounted spare moved lower to improve visibility out the back.

    The new Wrangler that rolls out in January comes with the second-generation Pentastar V-6 engine, with a two-liter turbo option coming several months later. Look for a diesel option in 2019. Buyers can choose between an eight-speed automatic transmission or six-speed manual gearbox.

    There are three models- Sport, Sahara Unlimited and Rubicon- with pricing for the two-door V-6 Sport starting at $26,995 excluding the $1,195 destination charge. The four-door Sahara starts at $37,345, while the Rubicon that offers extended off-road capability is priced from $36,995. Top-of-the-line four-door Rubicon starts at $40,495. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2018 Subaru Crosstrek 2.0i Limited

    Second-generation Crossover gets fresh design and enhanced performance
    By Nina Russin

    2018 Subaru Crosstrek

    2018 Subaru Crosstrek

    The Subaru Crosstrek is one of those right-size vehicles for buyers with active lifestyles: big enough on the inside to carry bicycles, skis and snowboards, but with a small footprint for good maneuverability and easy parking. The second-generation model that debuts for the 2018 model year is built on a new global platform that’s stiffer than the outgoing model. In plain English, this means better steering response and an overall more solid feel. Buyers who formerly shied away from Subaru due to interior noise and rattles will find none of that in the newest Crosstrek.

    The two-liter boxer engine is now direct injection for better throttle response. It is also slightly more powerful, delivering 152-horsepower as compared to 148 on the 2017 car. Torque remains the same: 145 pound-feet. Subaru replaced the standard five-speed manual transmission on the outgoing model with a six-speed gearbox on the 2018 cars, adding a taller overdrive gear for better fuel economy on the highway. The Limited model tested comes standard with a continuously variable automatic transmission.

    2018 Subaru Crosstrek

    2018 Subaru Crosstrek

    Standard convenience features on the Limited include steering-responsive headlamps, the newest version of Subaru’s Starlink multimedia system with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Aha, Pandora, iCloud apps, Bluetooth and satellite radio, keyless access with push-button start, leather upholstery, all-weather package, 18-inch alloy wheels and a six-way power driver’s seat.

    Base price is $26,295. Options on the test car include adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and lane keeping assist, power moonroof, high beam assist, automatic reverse braking, navigation and a Harman Kardon premium audio system. Final MSRP including the $915 delivery charge is $30,655.

    Test drive in Southern Arizona

    2018 Subaru Crosstrek

    2018 Subaru Crosstrek

    Over the past week I put the newest Crosstrek through its paces in Phoenix, Arizona’s east valley as well as some rural areas south of town. Subaru’s standard all-wheel drive system is one reason the automaker has remained a top choice among outdoor enthusiasts. All-terrain capability adds the versatility these buyers are looking for, in Subaru’s case, at no additional cost. Subaru engineers have managed to minimize any negative effects on fuel economy, with the test car averaging 29 miles-per-gallon according-to the EPA.

    Unlike some competitive all-wheel drive systems, Subaru’s is almost as capable as some four-wheel drive competitors, even though it lacks a two-speed transfer case. Crawling over boulders, driving through loose dirt or deep snow are all in a day’s work. Engineers continue to pay attention to approach, break-over and departure angles, making the Crosstrek capable of climbing and descending steep grades. For 2018 models, Subaru made X-mode standard on the Crosstrek. When engaged the on-board computer controls and integrates engine, transmission, vehicle dynamics control and braking for better handling on challenging road surfaces. Hill descent control is also standard.

    2018 Subaru Crosstrek

    2018 Subaru Crosstrek

    During the work week, the Crosstrek is a willing partner on the 9-5 commute. While the two-liter engine’s acceleration off the line isn’t as robust as some turbocharged competitors, the Crosstrek has no problem merging onto the highway and cruising at the speed of traffic. There is plenty of power on the low end to accelerate off the line and on the high end to pass slower vehicles at speed.

    Given the option, this writer would opt for the six-speed manual transmission rather than the continuously variable automatic. The automatic transmission is not particularly sensitive to fluctuations in throttle position, making the driver feel somewhat disconnected from the wheels.

    An electric power steering system offers plenty of assist at slow speeds for maneuverability with a pleasantly heavy feel on the highway. On-center response is a bit soft, but drivers can easily manage emergency evasive maneuvers.

    Visibility around the car’s perimeter is good. Blind spot monitoring, standard on the test car, illuminates LED signals on the inside of the side mirrors when vehicles in adjacent lanes pass through the driver’s blind spots. The rearview camera projects a wide-angle view to the back of the car when the driver shifts into reverse: a handy feature when the Crosstrek is parked between two high profile vehicles.

    Its low roof height gives the Crosstrek several advantages over traditional SUVs: first, better aerodynamics and hence better fuel economy and second, easier access to a roof-mounted bike rack or cargo carrier.

    Engineers did an excellent job of minimizing noise intrusion to the interior: a quantum improvement over the 2017 model. Its roomy, quiet interior makes the newest Crosstrek a good choice for extended road trips, enabling both rows of occupants to converse or enjoy the audio system.

    Spacious interior

    Subaru Crosstrek Interior

    Subaru Crosstrek Interior

    The 2018 Subaru Crosstrek is slightly longer and wider than the 2017 model, giving second-row passengers more legroom and all occupants more-hip room. Access and egress to both rows is quite good.

    Keyless entry and start saves drivers from fumbling for the key fob after dark. I found the power driver’s seat easy to adjust for a clear forward view, with plenty of lower lumbar support.

    Infotainment controls are easy to reach from either front seating position and intuitive to operate. Subaru has significantly raised the bar on its gauge cluster displays: easier to read and thanks to a thin-film-transistor information display, more informative. The center stack screen is easy to read in bright sunlight and after dark.

    Second-row seats fold flat for loading in bicycles and other large cargo. Lift-over height is quite reasonable: an important consideration for smaller users.

    Standard safety

    The Subaru Crosstrek comes with all-wheel drive, six airbags, antilock brakes, vehicle dynamics control, hill start assist, hill descent control, rearview camera and tire pressure monitoring. The Limited model adds blind spot monitoring, lane keeping assist, rear cross traffic alert, fog lamps and tire pressure monitoring with individual wheel pressure display.

    The all-new Crosstrek is rolling into Subaru dealerships nationwide.

    Like: A versatile, stylish crossover with standard all-wheel drive, excellent fuel economy and a bicycle-friendly interior.

    Dislike: Soft on-center steering response.

    Quick facts:

    Make: Subaru
    Model: Crosstrek 2.0i Limited
    Year: 2018
    Base price: $26,295
    As tested: $30,655
    Horsepower: 152 HP @ 6000 rpm
    Torque: 145 lbs.-ft. @ 4000 rpm
    Zero-to-sixty: N/A
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: N/A
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Off-road: Yes
    Towing: No
    Fuel economy: 27/33 mpg city/highway

  • 2017 Jeep Compass Limited 4X4

    Compact crossover with off-road capability

    By Nina Russin

    2017 Jeep Compass Limited

    2017 Jeep Compass Limited

    For 2017, Jeep replaces the now defunct Patriot with an all-new Compass: combining the former model’s off-road capability with a more car-like appearance, ride and handling. In terms of size, the Compass sits between the smaller Jeep Renegade and larger Cherokee. Whereas Renegade styling veers more toward the Wrangler, the Compass bears greater similarity to the Cherokee and Grand Cherokee, with more rounded lines on the outside and a plush interior.

    The North American version is available exclusively with Jeep’s 2.4-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine (diesel is available in other global markets). Buyers who opt for the off-road capable 4X4 model can choose between a six-speed manual or nine-speed automatic transmission.

    The Limited is the most upscale trim level, appealing to buyers who want a premium feel and don’t need the expanded off-road capabilities of the Trailhawk version. Base MSRP is $28,995 excluding the $1095 destination charge.

    Options on the test car include two safety packages that add Xenon headlamps, lane departure warning, automatic high beams, brake assist, blind spot monitoring, rear part assist and rain sensitive wipers, navigation, Sirius XM Travel Link, a power liftgate, compact spare tire, nineteen-inch rims and all-season tires. Final MSRP is $34,260. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2017 Jeep Compass

    New compact crossover is a serious off-road machine

    By Nina Russin

    2017 Jeep® Compass Limited

    2017 Jeep® Compass Limited

    The 2017 Jeep Compass replaces the former Compass and Jeep Patriot no longer in production: positioned between the smaller Jeep Renegade and larger Cherokee.

    The newest member of the Jeep family is built on the automaker’s small wide 4X4 architecture, providing the unibody vehicle with a rigid platform for good steering response on-road and a minimal flex for off-road trails.

    There are four grades- Sport, Latitude, Trailhawk and Limited, with pricing starting at $20,995 for the two-wheel drive Sport. The off-road capable Trailhawk starts at $28,595, just below the upscale Limited priced from $28,995.

    The Compass shares a 2.4-liter Tigershark engine with the Jeep Renegade, and comes with three available transmissions: six-speed manual, six-speed automatic and nine-speed automatic. Read the rest of this entry »

  • First Drive: 2017 Nissan Titan, Armada and Pathfinder

    New truck line-up appeals to buyers with active lifestyles

    By Nina Russin

    2017 Nissan Armada

    2017 Nissan Armada

    Nissan has redesigned its core truck models for 2017, including all new Titan and Armada plus a significant refresh for the Pathfinder. In each case the automaker responded to buyer demands for enhanced active safety technology and more capable off-road performance.

    The 2017 Titan Crew Cab follows on the heels of the diesel-powered XD introduced earlier in the year: a slightly smaller more affordable offering with plenty of towing and payload capacity. There are five trim levels, including the off-road oriented PRO-4X.

    2017 Nissan Armada

    2017 Nissan Armada

    The full-size Armada sport-utility vehicle remains the brand’s flagship, with seating for up to eight passengers. Active safety features include intelligent cruise control with forward emergency braking, lane departure warning, backup collision intervention and an around-view monitor. Pricing starts at $44,000 plus destination for the base SV 2X4 model. The new Armada rolls out this month.

    The Pathfinder, produced at Nissan’s Smyrna, Tennessee assembly plant, competes against the Ford Explorer and Honda Pilot. Changes to the 2017 model include a redesigned exterior, new powertrain featuring a 3.5-liter direct injection V-6 engine, enhanced towing capability and more responsive handling on paved roads. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2016 GMC Canyon 4WD SLT Crew Cab

    Midsize pickup combines value and versatility

    By Nina Russin

    2016 GMC Canyon

    2016 GMC Canyon

    Buyers looking for versatility but not needing the towing capabilities of a full-size pickup truck should seriously consider the midsize GMC Canyon. The Canyon’s dimensions aren’t significantly different than that of the full-size Sierra. The Canyon’s wheelbase is about 13-inches shorter for the crew cab, and the truck is six-inches narrower.

    But there’s a significant difference in cost and fuel economy. Pricing for the Canyon starts at $21,880 as compared to $27,815 for the Sierra. The available Duramax turbo-diesel engine on the Canyon test truck averages 29 miles-per-gallon on the highway: seven MPG higher than the EcoTec V-6 available on the Sierra.

    2016 GMC Canyon SLT Diesel

    2016 GMC Canyon SLT Diesel

    The biggest reason for sizing up to the Sierra is its 12,000-pound towing capacity versus 7600 for the Canyon. Bottom line: if you’re planning to tow a travel trailer buy the Sierra, but if the most you’re planning to tow is a couple of jet skis, save some money and get the Canyon.

    Base price for the four-wheel drive test truck is $37,450 excluding the $925 destination charge. Options include the diesel engine that comes with a tow/haul trailer brake controller package, Bose premium audio system, eight-inch color touchscreen with navigation and Intellilink infotainment, spray-on bed liner and an active safety package including forward collision and lane departure warning. Final MSRP is $44,365. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2016 Toyota Tacoma

    All-new midsize truck is the king of the rock pile

    By Nina Russin

    2016 Toyota Tacoma

    2016 Toyota Tacoma

    I’m sitting behind the wheel of the 2016 Toyota Tacoma TRD pickup truck and all I can see is sky. The forty-degree grade the truck is climbing has me pinned back against the headrest, with no view of the horizon.

    As the name of the park we suggests, this is the Black Diamond of off-road driving: requiring a vehicle with exceptional capability and a certain amount of driving skill. Trails of this type can intimidate experienced drivers because of the risk of rollover. The old adage: ‘Go as slowly as possible and as fast as necessary,’ applies, since cresting the hill requires gunning that throttle at just the right time and then backing off to remain directional control at the summit.

    A new feature called crawl control on the 2016 midsize pickup takes the guesswork out of the scenario by using anti-slip regulation, throttle and antilock braking to maintain a preset speed.

    Think of it as downhill descent control, only better, because in this case the vehicle controls uphill speed as well. After selecting one of five speeds using controls on the truck’s overhead console, the driver eases off the gas pedal and lets the truck take over.

    The sheer rock face is one of several off-road exercises Toyota’s product team has devised to show off the new Tacoma’s off-road capability at a former coal-mining site outside Seattle. Others include a steep downhill called Wicked Hill that is about the same grade as the sheer rock uphill, but comprised of loose dirt and rocks. In this case, a multi-terrain select system that adjusts throttle, braking and suspension for a variety of surfaces ranging from rock to mud and ruts works in tandem with the crawl control to get the truck down the hill safely.

    Finally, there is a rock pile known as the Bone Yard to demonstrate wheel articulation and traction over that type of unstable surface. In each case, the newest Tacoma proves that it is a force to be reckoned with: a proud descendent of a heritage dating back to the end of the Second World War. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2015 Jeep Patriot Latitude 4X4

    Affordable off-road fun for growing families

    By Nina Russin

    2015 Jeep Patriot

    2015 Jeep Patriot

    The Jeep Patriot is for growing families what the Renegade is for urbanites: an affordable path to the road less traveled. Seating up to five passengers with a versatile cargo area that holds soup-to-nuts, the trail-rated Patriot Latitude 4X4 starts at $24,795 excluding the $995 destination charge.

    The Patriot is available with two four-wheel drive systems, of which one, the Freedom Drive II has a low gear range and carries the Jeep trail rating. New for 2015 is a High Altitude appearance package that adds leather seating, 17-inch alloy rims, power sunroof and manual lumbar adjustment.

    Other options on the test car include a digital information display in the gauge cluster, roof rail crossbars, tonneau cover, premium audio system with satellite radio, Uconnect infotainment center with voice command and Bluetooth interface and remote start. Final MSRP is $29,510. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2015 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

    Midsize truck is all business on-road and off

    By Nina Russin

    Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

    Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

    Toyota is the king of small trucks. While the Big Three automakers focused on full-size vehicles, Toyota built its reputation on small and midsize trucks, dating back to the first models following the Second World War.

    The Tacoma that debuted in 1995 grew out of the Hi-Lux: a vastly popular global platform that is still sold in other parts of the world. In the states it was simply called the compact Toyota pickup. The truck sold like hotcakes because it was cheap and unbelievably durable. We used to joke that the only way to stop the truck’s 22R engine was to take it out in the field and shoot it.

    The 2015 model year is the last for the current generation Tacoma: a new midsize model debuts next fall. Rather than treating the current model as a lame duck, product planners added a TRD Pro package that gives the truck the chops to blast across the Baja peninsula in style.

    Priced from $37,415 excluding destination, the Tacoma TRD Pro comes with 16-inch TRD wheels and off-road tires, Bilstein shocks with remote reservoirs to increase shock oil capacity, a modified suspension that adds 1.75 inches to the truck’s ride height and increases wheels travel and a cat-back exhaust. A unique blacked-out grille, inferno red exterior paint and special badging throughout give the Tacoma irresistible charisma for anyone with a love of off-road racing.

    The test car comes with a few additional options- a performance air filter, paint protection film, front skid plate, enhanced security system and bed mat, bringing the final MSRP to $39,579. Read the rest of this entry »