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  • 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 Chevrolet Sonic

    Subcompact hatchback with big ideas

    By Nina Russin

    2014 Chevrolet Sonic

    2014 Chevrolet Sonic

    Small cars are the future of the automotive industry. There will always be a place on American highways for large trucks and sport-utility vehicles, but rising fuel costs and increasingly stringent C.A.F.E. standards dictate that small cars will dominate.

    This doesn’t necessarily resonate well with American drivers, who have traditionally seen small cars as a compromise in comfort and performance. The peppy turbocharged Chevrolet Sonic should convince these buyers otherwise. With the ability to carry four adult passengers and average 40 miles-per-gallon on the highway, the Sonic packs a powerful punch.

    This week, I had the opportunity to put the Sonic to the ultimate test, ferrying friends in town for the Rock ‘n ‘Roll marathon from the airport to their respective hotels and around Tempe, Arizona, where the influx of out-of-towners and road closures made traffic a nightmare. At the end of the experience, my respect for the Sonic had increased exponentially.

    The test car was the five-door LT, priced from $16,380 excluding delivery. Options on the car included sixteen-inch alloy wheels, the turbocharged 1.4-liter engine, an exterior appearance package, lane departure warning with forward collision alert, Chevrolet MyLink and a rear vision camera. Final MSRP was $20,405. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2009 Nissan cube 1.8S

    Does Nissan’s funky box fill the squares for active lifestyles?

    By Nina Russin

    2009 Nissan cube

    2009 Nissan cube

    The box-shaped crossover is to the new millennium what microbuses were to the 1960s. What made the microbus so popular, aside from its anti-establishment image, was its functionality. It was cheap, inexpensive to operate, and it held a lot of stuff: enough to function as a home away from home. The question is whether or not the new Nissan cube can do the same.

    The cube’s exterior design is simpatico with the Scion xB and Kia Soul. All three fly in the face of mainstream aerodynamic design, giving them a certain cache. Nissan’s model designation as a common rather than proper noun is a nod to text messaging: devoid of punctuation. Nissan’s marketing strategy focuses on non-traditional media as well, with a “mobile hub,” accessible via a “text to” number, and a unique iPhone application.

    Entertaining though they may be, these communications strategies aren’t enough to drive value-conscious customers into the showroom. But the cube’s base price of $13,990 is a good start. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2009 Scion xD

    Scion’s baby box is a super value

    By Nina Russin

    2009 Scion xD

    2009 Scion xD

    Last year, Scion replaced the subcompact xA with the xD, a car that looks very much like a scaled-down xB. After driving the 2008 model, I was struck by the night-and-day difference between the xD and the car it replaced. While the xA aspired towards buyers with active lifestyles, the xD embraced them.

    Not only does the xD have a more refined powertrain; its versatile, thoughtful interior is ideal for carrying large cargo. The xD incorporates all of the hot button features for millennial buyers, including iPod connectivity, available satellite radio and navigation.

    At the same time, the Scion brand carries forth Toyota’s reputation for quality and dependability. The factory warranty includes free scheduled maintenance for the 5000 and 10,000 mile intervals.

    Since the xD is a light car, it can run well on a relatively small engine and maintain good fuel economy. The four-speed automatic model tested averages 28 miles-per-gallon according to EPA estimates: my fuel economy for the test drive was slightly higher.

    Base price is $15,450, making the Scion xD an ALV super value. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2009 Scion xB

    Evolved box

    By Nina Russin

    2009 Scion xB

    2009 Scion xB

    Since I began writing about cars twenty years ago, I’ve seen more automakers use Toyotas in their brand B comparisons than any other marque. The Toyota guys love it, since aspiration is the greatest form of flattery.

    The Scion xB crossover vehicle is a perfect example. As Kia, Nissan and other manufacturers introduce box-shaped crossovers, they inevitably compare those cars to the xB. Scion’s parent company is Toyota.

    Scion’s ace-in-the-hole is experience. Having learned some important lessons from the original model, the second-generation xB is a better fit for its intended audience.

    The first xB was a revised version of a Japan market car; the current model was designed specifically for American buyers. It’s larger and more substantial than the model it replaces, with a more powerful engine, and larger wheels that perform better on the highway. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2010 Kia Forte EX

    All-new compact sedan is a value-packed offering

    By Nina Russin

    2010 Kia Forte

    2010 Kia Forte

    Compact sedans are Kia’s bread-and-butter. The all-new Forte, which replaces the Spectra, is the automaker’s volume leader: Kia expects to sell about 70,000 units per year. More than any other model, the new sedan reflects Kia’s dramatic evolution since arriving in the US sixteen years ago.

    Kia’s first US model was the Sephia: the predecessor to the Spectra. At the time, Kia’s ace-in-the hole was value pricing. Buyers who normally couldn’t afford a new car could buy a Sephia.

    The Sephia’s fit and finish couldn’t compete against comparable Toyota and Honda models; nor was it a particularly safe car. But since Sephia buyers couldn’t afford Toyota or Honda’s price of admission, they were happy to get behind the wheel of a new Kia.

    Kia has maintained its value pricing strategy: the Forte has an exceptionally high level of content for a $14,000 sedan. But unlike its predecessors, it’s also a very solid, safe automobile. The Forte offers equivalent power and performance to competitors such as the Corolla, Civic and Mazda3, and is expected to receive a five-star federal crash test rating. Standard safety features include antilock brakes , six standard airbags, electronic stability and traction control. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2009 Toyota Yaris

    Five-door liftback adds cargo versatility to Toyota’s value-priced subcompact

    By Nina Russin

    2009 Toyota Yaris 5-Door Liftback

    2009 Toyota Yaris 5-Door Liftback

    In 1994, I went to Japan to drive a Corvette between Tokyo and Kyoto for a magazine story. I wanted to see how the most iconic of American cars would perform in a culture vastly different than our own. While the Corvette turned plenty of heads, Tokyo’s narrow, traffic-filled streets were better suited for smaller cars.

    Driving the Toyota Yaris stateside, I feel as if the shoe is on the other foot. Despite Toyota’s popularity here, few of the models we see in the US reflect the automaker’s Japanese roots as faithfully as the Yaris.

    The Yaris’ diminutive scale is perfect for Japan’s two-lane rural roads, many of which are no wider than the average driveway.  Ditto for parking garages, where attendants use small cages to transport vehicles to the upper floors.

    High fuel prices are a fact of life in Japan: the average price of gas in 1994 was about five dollars per gallon. I would rather have filled up the Yaris than the thirsty Corvette that preferred premium.

    The Yaris interior reminds me of Japanese business hotels: designers make the most of its limited space with cleverly configured seats that fold and tumble, and small storage compartments around the passenger bay. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2010 Kia Soul Sport

    New crossover is a super-value for buyers with active lifestyles

    By Nina Russin

    2010 Kia Soul

    2010 Kia Soul

    The Soul is Kia’s newest five-passenger crossover vehicle, aimed at urban denizens with active lifestyles. Pricing for the base model starts at $13,300: well below the $16,000 cap for our super-value category.

    Kia is appealing to millennial buyers by positioning the car left of center. That’s wishful thinking. The Soul isn’t the first funky box to roll out on American roads, nor will it be the last.

    While it’s no trend setter, the Soul has a lot to offer the budget-minded buyer. All grades come with an unusually high level of standard safety features, including front, side and side curtain airbags, antilock brakes and vehicle stability control. Kia’s ten year/100,000 mile warranty is an industry leader, including five years or 60,000 miles of complimentary roadside assistance.

    Standard comfort and convenience features include an AM/FM/CD/MP3 compatible audio system, air conditioning, tilt steering column, power windows and door locks and a rear window defroster. All models but the base grade come with remote keyless entry. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2010 Kia Soul

    Hip to be square

    By Nina Russin

    2010 Kia Soul

    2010 Kia Soul

    Box-shaped crossovers seem to be on every automaker‘s short list. The Kia Soul is one of two such vehicles rolling out this spring: the other being the Nissan Cube. Kia is positioning the Soul as a value-packed alternative to the Cube and Scion xB. With a starting price of  $13,300 for the base model, the Soul appeals to young college grads who want an affordable vehicle with enough versatility for active lifestyles.

    The Soul progressed from the drawing board to the showroom quickly. Kia unveiled the prototype at the 2006 North American Auto Show in Detroit. Production models are currently rolling into dealerships.
    Read the rest of this entry »

  • All-new Honda Insight Starts Under $20,000

    Most Affordable New Hybrid Available in the U.S.

    10_honda_insightLooking for a five-passenger dedicated hybrid for under $20k? Check out the all-new 2010 Honda Insight, which goes on-sale March 24. At $19,800 for the Insight LX, you get 1.3-liter i-VTEC® gasoline engine and a 10-kilowatt electric motor that together contribute to an EPA-estimated city/highway fuel economy rating of 40/43 miles per gallon.

    “The all-new Honda Insight brings the cost of entry for hybrid technology within closer reach of an entirely new car-shopping audience,” said Dick Colliver, executive vice president of American Honda. “In addition to making good environmental sense, hybrid technology is now entering a new era where it can also make financial sense for a broader range of customers.”

    10_honda_insight_interiorA sleek exterior blends design elements from the original 2000 Insight’s highly aerodynamic side profile with a front-end design similar to the hydrogen-powered FCX Clarity, a marquee environmental product for Honda. The interior offers a roomy passenger environment with a configurable rear seating and cargo area that benefits from 60/40 split fold-down seats.

    Major features standard to the Insight LX include front, front-side and side-curtain airbags; an anti-lock braking system; a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT); Eco Assist; automatic climate control; tilt and telescope steering column; manual driver’s seat height adjustment; power windows; a four-speaker AM/FM audio system with CD player and auxiliary audio input for external digital music players; and much more.

    A more premium version is also available: The Insight EX, with a MSRP of $21,300. For complete details, visit the official site.