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  • 2012 Chrysler Town & Country Limited

    Minivan’s inventor continues to define the segment

    By Nina Russin

    2012 Chrysler Town & Country

    Minivans aren’t chick magnets, according to my buddy, Ted. He reiterated this several times at the coffee shop today. I suppose he wanted to make sure that I understood his aversion to the Chrysler Town & Country I was driving wasn’t temporary.

    Ted’s a single guy, so any car that isn’t a chick magnet is, in his opinion, not worth owning. I mention this because there are a lot of Teds in the world who’ve given minivans a bum rap.

    A minivan’s true beauty lies beneath the skin: its ace-in-the-hole is versatility. My friend, Kathy Graham used a Dodge Caravan to haul her Harley Davidson around. She put her motorcycle inside the van. Can a SUV or crossover do that? I don’t think so.

    Minivans may be the most invisible models on the showroom floor, but the same doesn’t hold true for the open road. Since introducing the first Dodge Caravan in 1983, Chrysler has sold over 13 million minivans, and not just to soccer moms.

    In a sense, minivans are the ultimate active lifestyle vehicles because their owners can haul huge amounts of gear around by day, and camp out in the cargo area at night. They’re also a much more practical transportation solution for challenged athletes than full-sized vans, because they accommodate wheelchair ramps, adaptive controls and gear, while maintaining a relatively small footprint.

    The Town & Country is Chrysler’s luxury minivan model. The Limited grade comes standard with keyless entry and start, leather trim, heated steering wheel, front and second-row seats, surround-sound audio system, satellite radio, dual-screen DVD, navigation and a media center with a 404 gigabyte hard drive.

    Pricing starts at $38,995 excluding the $835 delivery charge. The test car has several convenience options, including a power sunroof, power folding third-row seats, height-adjustable and load leveling suspension, removable second-row bucket seats and Mopar’s Uconnect infotainment system. MSRP is $42,595. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2012 Buick Regal GS

    Turbocharging gives five-passenger sedan extra muscle

    By Nina Russin

    2012 Buick Regal GS in front of (left to right) a 1963 Riviera, 1970 GSX and 1987 GNX

    In 1965, Buick engineers shoehorned a 401-cubic inch “nailhead” engine under the hood of its midsized Skylark sedan, and designated the model “GS.” The engine was the same block Hollywood stunt car builder, Max Balchowsky, used for his Old Yeller race cars, some of which appear on the vintage circuit today.

    The Gran Sport was Buick’s answer to the Pontiac GTO and Chevrolet Chevelle SS. The GS developed a devoted following of car enthusiasts who loved its combination of elegance and power.

    The sedan’s popularity prompted product planners to continue the GS moniker through the mid-1970s. Shortly thereafter, Buick renamed its high-performance car the Grand National. The model, named for the Grand National NASCAR series, was the darling of the drag strip, with a turbocharged, intercooled V-6 engine which outperformed many V-8 competitors.

    Although the new Buick Regal GS takes its name from the 1960s muscle cars, its true roots are in the Grand Nationals of the mid-1980s. Turbocharging gives the Regal GS’ four-cylinder engine the highest specific output of any production engine in General Motors history. Equipped with a choice of six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmissions, the 2012 Buick Regal GS is a millennial muscle car for a new generation of drivers.

    Pricing for the Buick Regal GS begins at $34,835, excluding the $885 delivery charge. Twenty-inch alloy wheels on the test car add $700, bringing the MSRP to $36,420. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2012 Kia Rio SX Sedan

    Sporty subcompact priced under $20,000
    By Nina Russin

    2012 Kia Rio SX

    In 2000, at the height of the sport-utility boom, Kia rolled out a subcompact sedan called the Rio. Surrounded by full-sized trucks, the Rio looked like a Lilliputian who’d mistakenly landed in Brobdingnag.

    Kia product planners weren’t concerned. The Korean automaker which had started life as a bicycle manufacturer made its first inroads to the US market with two compact cars: the Sephia and the Sportage.

    Using a value pricing strategy, Kia created a new consumer base of former used car shoppers who discovered they could afford something new. The subcompact Rio became the least expensive model in Kia’s lineup, attracting first-time buyers on a budget into the family.

    The sub-$10,000 Rio was enough of a success to justify introducing a second-generation car five years later. The more substantial 2005 model targeted the same group of consumers, so the number of Rio devotees continued to grow.

    Unfortunately, the second Rio lacked finesse as compared to the Spectra5 and Optima, which Kia introduced at the same time. When product planners developed the third-generation Rio, they were determined to make Kia’s least expensive car a no-compromise package, with aggressive styling and an all-new two-liter gasoline direct injection engine that could keep up with the big boys. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2012 Porsche Cayenne S

    Five-passenger SUV with sports car performance

    By Nina Russin

    2012 Porsche Cayenne S

    Active families with the means to afford one can’t do better than the Porsche Cayenne: a five-passenger sport-utility vehicle whose performance rivals the automaker’s legendary sports cars. Twenty-twelve models are basically a carry-over from 2011 with three available grades: the base gasoline-powered V-6, upscale Cayenne S with a 400-horsepower V-8, and a gasoline-electric Cayenne S Hybrid. The test car is the Cayenne S with all-wheel drive, which enhances traction and wet weather performance.

    Base price is $65,000, excluding the $975 delivery charge. The test car has a bevy of options, including 21-inch wheels and special paint, 14-way power seats, upgraded audio system, trailer hitch, heated steering wheel and seats, rearview camera, navigation, bi-xenon headlamps, rearview camera, blind spot monitoring, and LED interior lights. Price as tested is $98,165.

    Direct injection and 12.5:1 compression give the aluminum V-8 engine exceptional throttle response. Zero-to-sixty acceleration, according to the manufacturer, is 5.6 seconds. To minimize the risk of detonation, Porsche requires the use of 91-octane unleaded gasoline.

    An eight-speed automatic transmission with manual gear selection extends gas mileage by keeping engine speeds extremely low. During my 150-mile test drive, engine speeds rarely exceeded 2000 rpm. Average cruising speeds on the highway were about 1500 rpm.

    On the flip side, the Cayenne is a heavy car, weighing 4553 pounds. While the EPA estimated 18 mile-per-gallon average fuel economy might not seem impressive, it’s a pretty hot number for an all-wheel drive sports car which can tow up to 7716 pounds, and get the trailer to the track faster than anything else on the road. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2012 Volvo C30 R-Design

    Polestar tuning gives three-door hatch a performance boost

    By Nina Russin

    Photo courtesy of Volvo Cars Corp.

    When I drove the first Volvo C30 in 2008, I liked the car so much that my husband and I decided to buy one. My husband, who is the primary driver, has used the C30 to commute across paved and dirt roads on the Gila River Indian reservation, through Phoenix summer monsoons, extreme heat and crazy dust storms.

    The turbocharged five-cylinder engine is as fuel efficient as it is powerful, with excellent performance at altitude. The six-speed manual gearbox shifts crisply, with a light clutch pedal which is easy to engage in stop-and-go traffic.

    Although the C30 is too small to hold a bicycle, the hatchback can easily accommodate some moderate-sized camping gear, luggage, skis and snowboards. I sat in the second row seats for short trips around town and found them quite comfortable. Access and egress is surprisingly good for a three-door car. After four years, we have yet to have any mechanical or electrical problems, and a modest amount of routine maintenance.

    This year, Volvo sweetens the C30 with two offerings: an R-Design package and Polestar performance tuning. The R-Design option dresses the exterior up with special alloy wheels, a unique grille, 3-1/2 inch dual exhaust tips, and a rear spoiler.

    Inside R-Design cars get special blue-faced gauges, two-tone leather upholstery, and a leather and aluminum steering wheel. The package also includes some chassis tuning, stiffening up the suspension and modifying steering response for aggressive driving.

    Volvo’s racing partner, Polestar, offers a re-flash for the onboard computer which adds 23 horsepower and 37 foot-pounds of torque to the five-cylinder engine. The tuning enhancement increases turbo boost and modifies the throttle map beginning at 3000 rpm. It also affects wide-open throttle, taking .3 seconds off the car’s zero-to-sixty time. The re-flash doesn’t affect emissions, nor does it decrease the C30’s 24 mile-per-gallon fuel economy.

    Base price for the 2012 test car with R-Design is $27,450, excluding the $875 delivery charge. A platinum package adds active bi-xenon headlamps, heated front seats, rain-sensing wipers and headlamps washers, electronic climate control, power moonroof, daytime running lamps, an audio upgrade with Sirius satellite radio and a cargo cover ($4400).  An interior air quality monitoring system costs $1700, which the Polestar performance enhancement adds $1295, bringing the price as tested to $35,720. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2012 Subaru Impreza 2.0i Premium

    Five-passenger wagon appeals to athletes on a budget

    By Nina Russin

    2012 Subaru Impreza

    Of all the products in Subaru’s model lineup, the Impreza wears the most hats, ranging from the fuel-efficient wagon which won our Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year award last year in the best value category, to the WRX STi, which dominates the World Rally Cup circuit. Subaru’s talent, and the secret to the company’s success, is its ability to develop loyal followings in niche markets.

    Subaru owners are almost religious in their love for their automobiles, because they seem to meet their needs in uncanny fashion. For example, the newest Impreza wagon features standard all-wheel drive and 36 mile-per-gallon fuel economy. Since all-wheel drive decreases gas mileage, it’s amazing that engineers boosted EPA figures by thirty percent compared to the outgoing model.

    Increasing the gas mileage for the fourth generation Impreza didn’t involve any particularly innovative technology. It was more a matter of being thrifty and paying attention to details. A new two-liter engine replaces the 2.5-liter block in the outgoing models. The new engine is lighter, with variable valve timing which improves its efficiency.

    Other weight-saving measures include replacing the hydraulic steering pump with an electric one, reducing the size of the fuel tank and using more high-strength steel in the chassis. Depending on the model, the new car weighs up to 165 pounds less than the one it replaces. Low rolling resistance tires and a continuously variable automatic transmission also boost gas mileage.

    Designers made the interior more spacious by pushing the wheels to the corners, lengthening the wheelbase. They added text messaging, Bluetooth streaming audio and XM real-time weather and traffic updates to the list of available options, giving owners the ability to stay connected on the road. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2012 Honda CR-V EX-L Nav

    Honda remakes its best-selling crossover

    By Nina Russin

    2012 Honda CR-V EX-L AWD

    Honda was one of the first automakers to break into the compact crossover segment in the 1990s with the CR-V. Buyers who wanted to stick with a brand they had come to know for reliability and good gas mileage could do so, and still meet the needs of their active lifestyles.

    Over time, Honda’s compact recreational vehicle has grown in size, responding to a general market trend as well as buyers who wanted more space for growing families. This continues with the newest CR-V, which Honda unveiled at the 2011 Los Angeles Auto Show.

    Product planners sought to give buyers access to new infotainment features and updated engine technology without seriously impacting the car’s sticker price. The top-of-the-line EX with leather upholstery, all-wheel drive and navigation costs less than $30,000.

    The most obvious compromise was using a five-speed automatic transmission in lieu of a six speed box with larger overdrive gears. I was able to get 29 miles-per-gallon on my 300-mile test drive, which included a road trip between Phoenix and Tucson. That number is significantly better than the EPA estimated average of 25 miles-per-gallon for combined city and highway driving.

    Part of the difference was due to the fact that most miles during the test drive were on the highway. I also used the “econ” setting, and a monitor in the gauge cluster which turns green when the driver is optimizing gas mileage. In these days of rising fuel costs, the energy monitor is a useful tool for containing cost of ownership. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2012 Buick Verano FWD

    Compact luxury sedan at a best value price

    By Nina Russin

    2012 Buick Verano

    As fuel prices rise and household budgets shrink, the bulk of the passenger car market is shifting from midsized sedans to compacts. Downsizing isn’t limited to the budget segment. Luxury automakers are jumping on the bandwagon as well, with both Acura and Buick rolling out new compact models this year.

    The Verano is initially available with a 2.4-liter naturally-aspirated gasoline engine, followed by a turbo. At this point, Buick hasn’t announced plans to add the eAssist feature which extends gas mileage on the Regal.

    Average fuel economy is 25 miles-per-gallon according to EPA estimates: slightly better than the base Regal, but not as good as the mid-sized sedan with eAssist. I did considerably better on my 150-mile test drive, during which the Verano averaged 29 miles-per-gallon.

    A six-speed automatic transmission with manual gear selection is standard. The new Verano comes well-equipped with standard convenience features, including keyless entry, dual-zone climate control, cruise control, auto-dimming rearview mirror and heated outside mirrors, tilt and telescoping steering wheel with audio and Bluetooth controls, an infotainment center which interfaces with the driver’s smart phone, and OnStar with a complimentary six-month subscription.

    While these features might not be surprising for a car costing $30,000, they’re exceptional for a vehicle priced under $25,000, including the delivery charge. MSRP on the test car is $24,670: six thousand dollars below today’s average vehicle transaction price, according to statistics from the research firm, TrueCar.com.

    Product planners didn’t skimp on safety features either, making ten airbags, antilock brakes, traction and stability control standard equipment. OnStar’s automatic crash notification service sends police and medical personnel to the scene if the vehicle is involved in a serious collision. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2012 Kia Optima SX

    GDI engine gives driving enthusiasts reason to smile

    By Nina Russin

    2012 Kia Optima SX

    The Kia Optima has gone sexy. What began twelve years ago as a mid-packer its segment has moved up front. With Blake Griffin doing slam dunks over the hood and Vince Neil singing the car’s praises, the Optima’s future looks very bright indeed.

    The sexiest model in the current Optima stable is undoubtedly the SX, powered by a direct injection, turbocharged two-liter engine rated at 274 horsepower. The model, priced from $26,500, comes with a six-speed automatic transmission, 18-inch alloy wheels, and high-intensity discharge headlamps.

    The test car has two option packages: a technology package which adds navigation with Sirius traffic updates ($1400), and a premium package which includes a panoramic sunroof, upgraded Infinity audio system, HD radio, rearview camera, driver’s seat memory, heated and cooled front seats and heated outboard rear seats ($2950). A cargo mat and net add $95 and $50 respectively. A $750 destination charge brings the price as tested to $31,745. Read the rest of this entry »

  • Extended drive: 2012 Fiat 500 Cabrio

    Open-air fun for four

    By Nina Russin

    2012 Fiat 500 Cabrio with 1962 Fiat 500

    The Fiat 500 Cabriolet is the yin to the Fiat 500 Abarth’s yang. Whereas the Abarth is all-business performance, the open-air version of the Cinquecento focuses on enjoying the moment. Pricing for the upscale lounge model starts at $23,500.

    Power comes from a 1.4-liter engine rated at 101 horsepower and six-speed automatic transmission. Because of its high compression ratio, Fiat recommends the use of 91 octane gasoline, although 87 is acceptable.

    The multi-air engine uses solenoids to open and shut the engine intake valves rather than camshaft lobes. The technology makes the engine faster at adjusting to air/fuel mixture needs.

    Manual gear selection enables the driver to change gears using the center console-mounted shift lever. A sport mode alters the throttle map and holds onto gears longer for more aggressive performance.

    EPA estimated fuel economy is 29 miles-per-gallon for city and highway driving. Fuel economy for my 100-mile test drive was just over 32 miles-per-gallon.

    There are four options on the test car: pearl white paint ($500), leather upholstery with heated front seats ($1250), TomTom navigation ($400) and 15-inch alloy wheels ($300). Adding the $500 delivery charge, MSRP as tested is $26,450. Read the rest of this entry »