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  • 2017 Chevrolet Volt Premier Hatchback

    Second-generation model adds style and versatility

    By Nina Russin

    Chevrolet Volt

    Chevrolet Volt

    The Chevrolet Volt is an electric car that doesn’t suffer from range anxiety, thanks to a gasoline engine that kicks in when the charge runs out. The second-generation model that debuted last year has more driving range than the original: up to 53 miles according to the manufacturer. Combined with its thrifty gasoline engine, owners can travel up to 1,000 miles without stopping to refuel.

    Engineers shaved weight off both the electric motor and battery pack to make the car more efficient. New exterior styling gives the Volt more presence on the road, while a redesigned interior is more luxurious and offers seating for up to five passengers.

    Base price for the upscale Premier model tested is $37,570 excluding the $875 delivery charge. Options on the test car add blind spot monitoring, lane departure alert, rear cross traffic alert, lane keep assist with automatic braking, intelligent headlamps, Chevrolet’s MyLink infotainment system with navigation. Final MSRP is $39,950. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2016 Lexus CT 200h F Sport

    Hybrid hatchback has power for the open road

    By Nina Russin

    Lexus CT 200h F Sport

    Lexus CT 200h F Sport

    Although Lexus offers six hybrid models, the CT 200h is the only one available solely with a gasoline/electric powertrain. With EPA average 42 mile-per-gallon fuel economy and its versatile hatchback body style, Lexus’ compact sport model gives buyers with active lifestyles a lot to love.

    Driving enthusiasts will appreciate the addition of a F Sport package that adds 17-inch alloy rims, a unique version of the spindle grille, special badging, interior trim and sport-tuned suspension.

    Power for all models comes from a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and electric motors, carrying a 134 net horsepower rating and continuously variable automatic transmission. Base price is $31,250 excluding destination.

    For 2016 buyers can opt to add Lexus Enform Remote that enables users to control certain car functions via smart phone apps. A power moonroof is available on 2016 models.

    The test car comes with Redline exterior self-healing paint, the F Sport package including LED headlamps, navigation with backup camera, Lexus Enform services, intuitive park assist and moonroof. Final MSRP is $41,860. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid XLE

    Compact crossover has a green footprint

    By Nina Russin

    2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid

    2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid

    This year Toyota adds a hybrid model to its RAV4 lineup, utilizing the same gasoline/electric technology found in the newest Prius liftback. The RAV4 Hybrid comes in XLE and Limited grades: both with standard all-wheel drive.

    Base price for the XLE tested is $28,370 excluding the $900 destination charge. A convenience option package on the test car adds an Entune premium audio system with navigation, larger center stack screen, Bluetooth streaming audio, iPod compatibility, HD and satellite radio. Final MSRP is $29,795. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2016 Chevrolet Volt Hatchback

    No range anxiety here

    By Nina Russin

    2016 Chevrolet Volt

    2016 Chevrolet Volt

    The Chevrolet Volt offers buyers who want an electric car but don’t want to be limited by driving range a more practical option. The second-generation car enables drivers to travel up to 54 miles between plug-ins: enough for the average commute. A complete recharge takes about 4-1/2 hours on 220 volt current: 13 hours using 120 volt.

    If the owner fails to recharge or needs to take an extended road trip, a traditional gasoline engine that takes over when the battery runs low extends that range to about 420 miles.

    Does the Volt have any advantages over gasoline-electric hybrids that today boast 50 mile-per-gallon fuel economy’ The answer is ‘Yes’ for the average driver who uses his or her car to drive to-and-from work during the week, with longer trips on the weekend.

    2016 Chevrolet Volt

    2016 Chevrolet Volt

    While plug-in hybrids enable drivers to go limited distances without using the gasoline engines, the Volt goes further. For example, the Ford C-Max Energi’s pure electric range of 20 miles came close to the original Volt, but can’t compete with the second-generation car.

    In addition to adding about thirty percent more range in pure electric mode over the original model, the 2016 Volt offers better acceleration off the line, improved interior quiet, a new braking system with more linear performance and a smaller, simpler charging port.

    Pricing for the upscale Premier model tested begins at $37,520 excluding the $825 destination charge. Standard convenience features include keyless entry and start, automatic climate control, ambient interior lighting, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, heated front and rear seats, heated steering wheel, Bose premium audio system, satellite radio, OnStar with navigation and a 4G LTE hotspot.

    Options on the test car include blind spot monitoring with lane departure alert, rear cross traffic alert, lane keep assist, intelligent high beams, forward collision warning with low-speed auto stop and Chevrolet MyLink radio with navigation. Final MSRP is $39,830. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Limited

    Green car meets sport sedan

    By Nina Russin

    2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

    2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

    It’s rare for environmentalists and car enthusiasts to see eye-to-eye on anything. But both with find a lot to love in Hyundai’s newest Sonata Hybrid sedan: a stylish package that delivers on all fronts without compromise.

    While hybrid sedans are nothing new, the Sonata is in a league of its own. Power comes from a fuel-efficient two-liter gasoline engine and electric motor with 195 combined horsepower. The sedan can run at speeds up to 75 miles-per-hour on pure electric power. Average fuel economy for our test drive was 42 miles-per-gallon: slightly higher than the EPA 41 mpg estimate.

    A compact lithium polymer battery is positioned under the trunk, so unlike most hybrid sedans, cargo space is the same as for gasoline-powered models. Buyers can also opt for 60/40 split folding rear seats to extend the cargo floor for larger items.

    Base price for the upscale Limited model is $30,100, excluding the $825 destination charge. Options on the test car include a panoramic sunroof, lane departure warning, forward collision warning, automatic high beam assist, , adaptive cruise control, navigation, satellite radio, high-definition radio, LED interior lamps and floor mats, bringing the final MSRP to $35,765. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2015 Toyota Avalon Hybrid Limited

    Full-size premium sedan is a Lexus in disguise

    By Nina Russin

    Toyota Avalon Hybrid

    Toyota Avalon Hybrid

    Over the past twenty years, the Toyota Avalon has evolved from a stretched-out version of the Camry into a league of its own, offering buyers similar ride and handling to more expensive Lexus models. The availability of a gasoline/electric hybrid is rather unusual in this segment that also includes the Ford Taurus and Buick LaCrosse.

    The 2015 model is basically carryover following a major redesign in 2013. Changes include an upgraded Entune multimedia system and paddle shifters on gasoline-powered cars.

    Base price for the Avalon Hybrid Limited is $41,700: on the high side for the segment. However buyers get their money’s worth with standard features that include remote keyless entry and start, tri-zone climate control, leather upholstery and steering wheel, power heated and cooled front seats, heated rear seats, Bluetooth interface, a rearview camera with cross traffic alert, blind spot monitoring and satellite radio.

    A technology package on the test car adds dynamic radar cruise control, automatic high beams, Qi wireless charging, and pre-collision system with pedestrian detection. Final MSRP is $44,475. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2015 Chevrolet Cruze Turbo Diesel

    Compact sedan is big on fuel economy

    By Nina Russin

    2015 Chevrolet Cruze Turbo Diesel

    2015 Chevrolet Cruze Turbo Diesel

    Twenty years ago, if somebody told me I could average 40 miles-per-gallon in a passenger car I’d have thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Thanks to new clean diesel technology, engineers are able to imbue today’s cars and trucks with fuel economy unimaginable in decades past.

    The newest member of Chevrolet’s compact Cruze sedan family is a perfect example, averaging 46 miles-per-gallon on the highway according to the EPA. During my 140-mile test drive that included surface streets as well as highways, I averaged 41.

    The Cruze was Chevrolet’s replacement for the Cobalt when it debuted in 2010. This year the automaker does a styling refresh on all models except the base LS and adds 4G LTE. Twenty-fifteen models are also pre-wired for Siri.

    Base price for the turbo-diesel car is $25,660 excluding the $825 destination charge. Standard comfort and convenience features include remote vehicle start, leather seating, heated front seats, 60/40 split folding second-row seat, air conditioning, a driver information display in the gauge cluster, tilt-and-telescoping steering column, air conditioning, OnStar, satellite radio and Chevrolet MyLink.

    The test car is equipped with several option packages adding a power sunroof, premium audio system, blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, rearview camera and heated outside mirrors, bringing the final MSRP to $29,430. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2015 Volkswagen Jetta TDI

    Compact sedan is fuel-thrifty and fun to drive

    By Nina Russin

    Volkswagen Jetta TDI

    Volkswagen Jetta TDI

    A smile crosses my face when I spot the Volkswagen Jetta TDI sedan parked in my driveway upon returning from the Chicago Auto Show. The Jetta stands out in a sea of plain vanilla competitors as the car that didn’t jump the shark. It doesn’t compromise: not in fuel economy, nor styling, nor performance. It is the total package.

    Average fuel economy for the turbo-diesel test car with the six-speed manual transmission is 36 mpg according to the EPA. If anything, that’s a conservative estimate. On my 100-mile test drive, I averaged closer to 40.

    Equally important is performance, which is true to the sedan’s German heritage of driver-focused automobiles. The Volkswagen Jetta lures drivers behind the wheel with promises of peppy acceleration, crisp shifting and a suspension equally at home on urban thoroughfares and winding two-lane roads, delivering on all fronts with aplomb.

    Base price for the SEL model tested is $26,410 excluding the $820 delivery charge. The driver assistance and lighting package on the test car adds blind spot monitoring, forward collision warning, rear traffic alert and park distance control, bringing the final MSRP to $28,920. Read the rest of this entry »

  • First Drive: 2015 Toyota Camry, Yaris and Sienna

    Toyota pumps up the style with three mid-cycle refreshes

    By Nina Russin

    2015 Toyota Camry

    2015 Toyota Camry

    The 2015 Toyota Camry doesn’t look like a mid-cycle refresh. All new sheet metal with the exception of the roof panel gives the Camry a dramatically different exterior. A new model called the XSE appeals to younger buyers with a unique grille, larger wheels and a sport-tuned suspension. Pricing for the four-cylinder LE starts at $22,970.

    The subcompact Yaris changes significantly as well. Styled at Toyota’s European Design Studio and produced in France, it stands poised to capture millennial buyers purchasing their first car. While value remains one of the Yaris’ key attributes with a starting price of $14,845, the new three and five-door hatchbacks are more than pretty faces, with restyled interiors and new technology including Entune infotainment, HD radio and Bluetooth interface.

    Changes to the Sienna are less dramatic, focusing on interior refinement. Designers revised the instrument panel using softer, more appealing materials and added a thin-film-transistor information display in the gauge cluster. Upholstery offerings have also been updated, and customers can opt for lounge-style second-row seating on upscale models. Pricing for the front-wheel drive base car starts at $28,600.

    Engineers enhanced torsional rigidity on all three models by increasing the number of spot welds throughout the bodies. New acoustic materials reduce NVH for quieter, more comfortable interiors.

    Although the drivetrains are carryover, retuned electric power steering systems, new wheel and tire combinations and retuned suspensions give the 2015 models sharper steering response and a firmer ride. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2014 Ford C-Max Hybrid SE

    Five-passenger hybrid focuses on versatility and value

    By Nina Russin

    Ford C-Max

    Ford C-Max

    There was a time when the premium cost of hybrid cars outweighed any cost benefits owners might get at the fuel pump. Then Ford introduced the C-Max and everything changed. Priced from $24,170, the C-Max offers buyers more space than the competing Prius liftback, with some compelling features for buyers with active lifestyles.

    Because the lithium-ion battery is packaged under the floor, second-row seats fold flat to extend the cargo floor. A hands-free liftgate makes it much easier to load up large cargo such as bicycles and kayaks. The door opens when the driver makes a gentle kicking motion under the back bumper with the key fob in his pocket.

    A 110-volt outlet comes in handy for weekends off the grid, to plug in a computer or exterior lighting. Ground clearance is about 5-1/2 inches: not enough for serious off-road trails but adequate for the occasional graded dirt road.

    Fuel economy lags behind the smaller Prius at 43 mpg, but it’s still a very good number: enough to produce a 550-mile driving range between fill-ups.

    But the best reason to take a look at the C-Max is its performance. On that one, Ford hit the ball out of the park. Read the rest of this entry »