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  • 2015 Toyota 4Runner Trail Edition

    Fifth-generation SUV appeals to active families

    By Nina Russin

    2015 Toyota 4Runner

    2015 Toyota 4Runner

    In the close to thirty years I’ve been writing about cars, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what differentiates a good vehicle from a bad one. These days, there are very few bad cars thanks to improvements in on-board computers and better construction materials such as high strength steel. So why do some vehicles stand out as truly great while others migrate to the middle of the pack’

    I think the answer has to do with a sense of purpose. Great cars have it; not-so-great ones don’t. The Toyota 4Runner remains true to its mission of off-road capability three decades and five generations after the original model debuted.

    The body-on-frame sport-utility vehicle isn’t for everyone, nor is it intended to be. While the truck-based 4Runner can’t compete against unibody crossovers for ride comfort, it is more durable off-road, and can tow up to 4500 pounds. A new crawl feature on the Trail edition gives drivers more control over extremely uneven trails, while an optional slide-out cargo floor on five-passenger models holds up to 400 pounds, making it much easier to load heavy items in back.

    An available third row of seating sets the 4Runner apart from products such as the Jeep Grand Cherokee that max out at five passengers. Active families will also like standard safety features such as roll-sensing side curtain airbags that protect all three rows of occupants.

    Power comes from a 270-horsepower V-6 engine and five-speed automatic transmission. Because the transmission lacks a second overdrive gear, fuel economy isn’t particularly great: 18 miles-per-gallon on average according to the EPA.

    Base price for the 4X4 Trail Premium model is $38,655 excluding the $885 destination charge. Options on the test car include the sliding cargo floor and the kinetic dynamic suspension system that disconnects the axles when the car is driven off-road to provide more suspension travel. Final MSRP is $40,890. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2014 Chevrolet Silverado High Country 4WD Crew Cab

    Engineered to overachieve and styled to stand out

    By Nina Russin

    2014 Chevrolet Silverado High Country

    2014 Chevrolet Silverado High Country

    There’s a reason that the Silverado has been a consistent best seller for Chevrolet since the model launched fifteen years back. It’s a really good truck, with the ability to haul, tow and crawl through muck. The 2014 model also handles very much like a passenger car: a difficult challenge to fulfill with a single product.

    The High Country is a premium version of the base model, with unique exterior and interior trim. With a base MSRP of $47,380, the Silverado High Country targets the heart of the luxury market. Although its four-wheel drive system makes it capable of serious off-road terrain, I doubt many owners will want to tackle the Rubicon trail with twenty-inch chrome rims.

    Entrepreneurs needing a prestigious yet versatile vehicle for their businesses should find a lot to love in the new premium model. Payload capacity is 1957 pounds, and the Silverado can tow up to 9800 pounds. The optional 6.2-liter V-8 engine has 460 foot-pounds of peak torque: an important component for off-the-line performance. Basically, it’s a Corvette engine in a light-duty truck.

    To enhance fuel economy, engineers added a cylinder deactivation feature when engine loads are light. Direct injection delivers gasoline directly into the engine cylinders to improve throttle response and reduce parasitic fuel loss. Despite having a relatively high compression ratio (11:1), the engine does not require premium gasoline.

    Options on the test truck include the 6.2-liter engine, special exterior paint, a premium package that includes forward collision alert and lane departure warning, a heated steering wheel, power adjustable pedals, trailer brake controller, running boards and cargo box LED lighting. Final MSRP, including the $995 destination charge, is $53,075. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2014 Toyota Tundra Crewmax 4X4 Limited

    Full-sized pickup gets new styling, suspension and infotainment

    By Nina Russin

    2014 Toyota Tundra Family

    2014 Toyota Tundra Family

    The Tundra is Toyota’s full-sized half-ton pickup truck that goes head-to-head against Ram, Ford, Chevrolet, GMC and Nissan offerings in an increasingly competitive market. As the segment grows, so do the demands of buyers, who range from construction workers and farmers to entrepreneurs and small business owners that also use their trucks as family vehicles.

    Although Toyota maintains a stronghold on the midsize truck segment with the Tacoma, competing in the full-sized market has been more of a challenge.

    Full-sized pickups are the only segment that favors Detroit’s Big Three automakers. Although brand loyalty has diminished industry-wide, truck owners remain loyal to OEMs for decades: even a lifetime. It would be safe to say that Toyota has had to work harder to conquest customers for its full-sized trucks than for any other type of vehicle it manufactures.

    Although the automaker’s market share remains relatively small, the Tundra is a strong competitor. Engineers for the all-new 2014 model have stayed the course, relying on the brand’s core attributes of safety, durability and reliability. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2014 Ford Explorer Sport 4WD

    A performance and styling boost for the midsize SUV

    By Bob Golfen 

    The Ford Explorer Sport gets 365 turbocharged horsepower. (Ford)

    The Ford Explorer Sport boasts 365 turbocharged horsepower. (Ford)

    Ford Explorer gets a powerful dose of style and performance for 2014 with the Explorer Sport, a new take on an old name that does for the midsize SUV what the SHO did for the Taurus sedan.

    A turbocharged 3.5-liter Ecoboost V6 provides the motivation for this more-aggressive Explorer, doling out 365 horsepower and adding vital spark to the workaday people hauler. Along with that comes all-wheel drive, a six-speed automatic with manual paddle shifters, stiffer suspension, quicker steering, meatier brakes and fat performance tires on 20-inch rims.

    Despite all that, the Explorer Sport turns out to be more about fast refinement than quick maneuverability. The size and weight are still formidable, and while the engine power succeeds in bringing this crossover up to speed, there is still an underlying cushiness that discourages back-road romps. Its core mission remains roomy, comfortable transportation, only now with some fun dialed in.

    Pricing starts at around $41,000, which gets you a well-equipped SUV with all that extra Sport equipment. The test vehicle included the full boat of electronic, power and safety gear including navigation and rear seatbelts equipped with airbags, bringing the bottom line to $47,390. That’s not bad considering the high level of performance and features. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2013 Toyota Tundra Limited CrewMax

    Full-sized pickup truck with seating for five passengers

    By Nina Russin

    2013 Toyota Tundra

    2013 Toyota Tundra

    Toyota’s history of truck models in North America dates back to the compact Hilux in the late 1960s. The Hilux, and the Tacoma that followed, quickly accrued a loyal fan base of owners who loved the brand’s value and reliability.

    Product planners expected the Tundra that replaced the midsized T100 for the 2000 model year, to meet with equal success. But the full-sized segment, dominated by Detroit’s Big Three automakers wasn’t particularly receptive to an Asian brand, despite Toyota’s long history of compact trucks.

    Twenty-thirteen is the final year for the second-generation Tundra, to be followed by an all-new truck in 2014. Although Toyota has yet to obtain a dominant share in the segment, the Tundra is a solidly built and extremely well engineered vehicle. Whether buyers prefer Toyota’s overhead valve 5.7-liter V-8 engine over the pushrod blocks of its competitors is a matter of personal taste.

    The 381-horsepower engine is built of an aluminum block and heads to shave weight under the hood. Its 401 foot-pounds of peak torque, available from 3,600 rpm, gives the Tundra 10,000 pound towing capability. A six-speed automatic transmission is standard on all models, although the available tow prep package changes the differential ratio.

    Base price on the Limited grade tested is $43,895, excluding the $995 destination charge. Options on the CrewMax test truck include a voice-activated touch screen DVD system, TRD off-road package, memory package, power moonroof and carpeted floor mats.

    The TRD off-road package is a bargain at $70. It includes off-road specific rims and tires, skid plates, Bilstein shocks and a retuned suspension. The reason for the low cost is that it’s a factory package, so the customer receives credit for product substitutions rather than being double dipped. Final MSRP for the test truck is $47,770. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2014 Ram 1500, 2500, 3500 and ProMaster

    New engines and suspensions make trucks more capable

    By Nina Russin

    2014 Ram

    Ram’s momentum continues into the 2014 model year with the introduction of a new EcoDiesel V-6 engine for 1500 models, a 6.4-liter Hemi V-8 and air suspension on heavy-duty models, and the ProMaster cargo van. Ram has gained almost eight market shares since splitting with Dodge in 2009. Product planners hope the new powertrain options and cargo van based on Fiat architecture will broaden appeal among buyers in underserved niches of the truck market.

    The EcoDiesel V-6 engine that debuts in the 2014 Ram 1500 is the same block available in the newest Jeep Grand Cherokee. Combined with a standard TorqueFlite eight-speed transmission, engineers expect highway fuel economy close to 30 mpg.

    VM Motori, a company that has supplied powertrain components to Chrysler since the early 90s, produces the 240-horsepower turbo-diesel engine. Peak torque is 420 foot-pounds, for enhanced low-end power. A compacted graphite iron block is lightweight but also extremely rigid to minimize NVH. Aluminum heads shave additional weight off the powertrain.

    A new air suspension system improves ride comfort as well as enabling auto-leveling while towing.

    Infotainment updates on the light-duty trucks include the newest version of Uconnect with a seven-inch display screen. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2014 Toyota Tundra Platinum 4 X4 CrewMax

    Third-generation full-sized pickup adds new luxury grades

    By Nina Russin

    2014 Toyota Tundra

    I’m looking through the floor-to-ceiling windows at Diamond Cross Ranch in Wyoming, at a field full of 2014 Toyota Tundra pickup trucks, with the Grand Tetons in the background. There has to be a metaphor here. This is, after all, a media preview, and a staging job such as this is not inexpensive.

    Perhaps the Tetons- rugged, distinctive and enduring- symbolize the values that have made Toyota a player in a market so long dominated by Detroit’s Big Three.

    Toyota is relative newcomer to the full-sized truck market, having introduced the first Tundra on the heels of the mid-sized T100 in 1999. The second generation that rolled out in 2007 set the precedent for the newest model by moving from the mid-sized to full-sized segment.

    Rather than reinventing the wheel for the all-new 2014 models, Toyota improved on the existing truck by adding new safety and technology features, and expanding the trim options from three to five. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2013 RAM 1500 Crew Cab

    Refined pickup claims gas-mileage bragging rights

    By Bob Golfen

    2013 Ram 1500

    Ram upped the ante this year in the full-size pickup-truck competition, adding best-in-class fuel economy to traditional worksite boasts about payload, towing capacity and durability.

    For 2013, Ram 1500 was fitted with Chrysler’s new 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 engine that generates 305 horsepower, and which helps the two-wheel-drive versions of the half-ton pickup hit an EPA-estimated 17 city and 25 highway.

    That’s quite a feat for a vehicle that weighs two-and-a-half tons and must punch a huge hole through the air at highway speeds. Towing capacity is also impressive at 6,500 pounds.

    The V6 engine doesn’t accomplish the mileage numbers completely on its own. Ram’s fuel efficiency is also boosted by a sophisticated eight-speed transmission, sleeker aerodynamics and a reduction in weight. The V6 is more efficient with improved fuel injection and a stop/start system, which turns off the engine when the truck is standing still instead of wastefully idling.

    Ram boasts that the new 3.6 liter has 42 percent more horsepower, 13 percent more torque and 20 percent better fuel economy than the old 3.7-liter V6 that it replaced.

    Ram still offers the 5.7-liter Hemi V8 with its booming 395 horsepower and 407 foot-pounds, which the truck maker says offers top fuel economy for V8-powered pickups, though significantly lower than its own V6 models. Naturally, four-wheel-drive versions with either engine get slightly lower fuel mileage.

    The base, regular-cab Ram 1500 starts off at $23,585, while the well-equipped SLT Crew Cab that I drove had a starting price of $33,820. With a premium interior, Uconnect audio/navigation/accessibility package and a few other safety and convenience options, the bottom line came out to $38,990. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2013 Lexus GX 460

    Seven-passenger SUV takes adventurers off the grid

    By Nina Russin

    Lexus GX 460

    The GX 460 sits between the full-sized LX and compact RX in Lexus’ sport-utility lineup. Because of its body-on-frame construction and full-time four-wheel drive system, the GX has ride and handling characteristics much closer to the LX.

    Although its tall, two-box profile isn’t great for gas mileage, it offers some significant benefits for buyers with active lifestyles. Friends of mine who ride mountain bikes installed a stand-up bike rack in the cargo area that can hold two bicycles. There are very few cargo areas with the vertical clearance to make that possible.

    The eight-cylinder engine is slightly smaller than the block on the first-generation model, yet offers better power. Engineers also made Lexus’ kinetic dynamic suspension standard. It decouples the sway bars on extreme uneven trails to maximize wheel travel.

    The driver can also change the height of the vehicle using controls on the center console, to maximize ground clearance when driving conditions call for it.

    Base price for the premium grade tested is $58,240, excluding the $895 destination charge. Options on the test car include hard drive navigation, a Mark Levinson premium audio system, intuitive park assist, pre-collision system, adaptive cruise control, rearview camera, intelligent high beam headlamps, crawl control and a cargo net, bringing the final MSRP to $66,799. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee/ Grand Cherokee SRT

    Mid-cycle refresh adds diesel engine, infotainment technology

    By Nina Russin

    2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee

    When Jeep launched the current Grand Cherokee two-and-a-half years ago, the new car redefined public perception of the brand. Jeep had long been known for its vehicles’ off-road capability, but suffered against competitors in terms of fit and finish.

    The 2012 Grand Cherokee maintained Jeep’s reputation for ruggedness, but added an interior rivaling premium brands. Athletes at the 2012 ALV of the Year program picked the Grand Cherokee over the Land Rover LR4.

    This year, Jeep refreshes the 2012 model with significant updates, adding a new V-6 diesel engine option with a 730-mile driving range between fill-ups. An eight-speed automatic transmission available across the line-up extends fuel economy, as well as improving the car’s launch characteristics.

    Engineers also enhanced the Grand Cherokee’s off-road capability with a speed control option that enables the driver to increase and decrease speeds by one kilometer increments for severe uphill and downhill grades.

    There are four trim levels, ranging from the base Laredo priced from $28,795 to the new Summit which sits above the Overland. Pricing for the volume-leading Limited model starts at $35,795, while the Overland is priced from $42,995. The new Summit grade starts at $47,995 for the rear-wheel drive car and $50,995 for the four-wheel drive version. Pricing does not include a $995 destination charge. Read the rest of this entry »