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  • 2013 Mini John Cooper Works Roadster

    More performance, more fun for two-seat ragtop

    By Bob Golfen

    2013 Mini Roadster

    For the sixth model of its unique collection of small cars, Mini lopped the roof off its two-seat Coupe to create a two-seat ragtop, the Mini Roadster. The result is something akin to a proper little British sports car, with the emphasis on driving fun.

    The test car was the high-performance John Cooper Works model, named for the performance guru of the original Austin Minis who transformed the landmark front-wheel-drive minicar from tiny urban appliance to potent racing star. Modern JCW additions enhance the regular Mini S roadster with a unique appearance package and special performance equipment.

    These include a new 208-horsepower turbocharged engine, which is plenty when the car weighs less than 2,800 pounds; sport suspension; powerful Brembo brakes; dynamic stability- and traction-control systems; 17-inch alloy wheels; and aerodynamic styling cues.

    Base price for the Mini John Cooper Works Roadster starts at $35,700. The bottom line for the test Mini, including a package of navigation and connectivity, and the automatic transmission, came down to $39,845. The performance is great, but that seems like a lot. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2013 Jeep Wrangler Moab 4X4

    Special edition celebrates the Mecca of off-road adventure

    By Nina Russin

    2013 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Moab

    I suppose there’s a resident of Moab, Utah who doesn’t own a Jeep Wrangler, but I’ve never seen or heard of him. Nor can I imagine why anyone living among the red rocks would want to drive anything else. The synesthesia that occurs when a person drives the ultimate off-road vehicle on the ultimate off-road trails is pretty awesome.

    For 2013, Jeep celebrates Moab’s off-road heritage with a special edition of the Wrangler. On the base Sahara 4X4 test car, the Moab edition adds a heavy-duty front bumper and winch cable, heavy-duty rear bumper, a special hood and badging, 17-inch black wheels with Goodyear Silent Armor off-road tires and an available locking rear differential.

    Base price on the test car is $27,795 excluding the $995 destination charge. The Moab package adds $5200. Other options include a five-speed automatic transmission, the locking rear axle, and Uconnect infotainment with navigation, bringing the final MSRP to $37,650. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2014 Volkswagen Preview

    New engine, heritage styling and connectivity features spice up lineup

    By Nina Russin

    2014 Volkswagen models

    Riding on the wave of a 5.5 percent global sales increase, Volkswagen is adding a new engine, heritage Beetle model and Car-Net connectivity feature to its arsenal for 2014. A 1.8-liter direct injection turbocharged engine replaces the 2.5-liter block in the compact Jetta and midsized Passat sedans, offering more power and better fuel economy.

    All Beetles get a rear independent suspension instead of a solid axle. Turbo models are now designated R-Line, with 19-inch wheels, bi-xenon headlamps and leather seating on premium grades. A GSR coupe recalls the yellow and black racecar of the 1970s. The new 1.8-liter turbocharged engine replaces the 2.5-liter block in the middle of the 2014 model year.

    Car owners can access the Car-Net connectivity feature via an overhead console in the vehicle, mobile app or online. The system is similar to OnStar, including crash notification, remote lock and unlock, stolen vehicle location and parental controls. Owners can also use Car-Net to schedule service appointments. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2013 Chrysler 200 Limited Convertible

    Hardtop adds practicality to open-air fun

    By Nina Russin

    2013 Chrysler 200 Convertible

    I believe that everyone should own at least one convertible during his or her lifetime. Nothing, with the exception of a motorcycle, offers a comparable visceral experience. The problem for those living in extreme climates is insulation.

    The retractable hardtop option on the Chrysler 200 solves the problem, and adds an extra layer of sound deadening to boot. The 200 is Chrysler’s replacement for the Sebring midsized platform. The convertible is available with a choice of two engines: a 173-horsepower inline four-cylinder block or 283-horsepower V-6.

    The test car is the upscale Limited: one of three available trim options. Power comes from the 3.6-liter V-6 and six-speed automatic transmission. For 2013, engineers updated the 200’s suspension, making stabilizer bars beefier for better handling in the corners.

    Base price for the Limited is $32,320, excluding the $995 destination charge. The test car comes with a Uconnect package that also adds navigation and the retractable hardtop, bringing the final MSRP to $36,105. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2013 Chervolet Suburban

    The family wagon evolved

    By Nina Russin

    2013 Chevrolet Suburban

    People seem to have a love/hate relationship with the Chevrolet Suburban, which doesn’t make a lot of sense. Because of its size and corresponding fuel economy, the Suburban is not a car for everyone, nor was it every meant to be. For the right buyer, however, it’s an excellent choice due to the spacious passenger cabin, towing capability and surprisingly good handling.

    Buyers can choose between two and four-wheel drive versions in three trim levels. For those needing more than the half-ton Suburban’s 8100-pound towing capacity, a three-quarter ton version tows up to 9600 pounds. The half-ton model comes with a 5.3-liter V-8 engine rated at 320 horsepower, and longitudinally mounted six-speed automatic transmission.

    New for 2013, powertrain grade braking functions when the transmission is in regular mode, as opposed to tow/haul mode only. The feature uses engine torque to slow the Suburban down on steep descents, saving the brakes.

    Three rows of seating are standard for all models. Buyers can choose between captain’s chairs or a bench seat in the second row. Depending on the configuration, the suburban seats 7-8 passengers. Rear seats fold down in a 50/50 pattern and are removable.

    The test car is the upscale half-ton LTZ priced from $56,190, excluding the $995 destination charge. Options include a rear seat DVD entertainment system, power sunroof, trailering package that adds engine oil and transmission coolers, special exterior paint and a trailer brake controller, bringing the final MSRP to $60,195. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2013 Toyota RAV4 Limited

    Newest Recreational Activity Vehicle delivers the goods

    By Nina Russin

    2013 Toyota RAV4

    When Toyota introduced the first RAV4 almost 20 years ago a male colleague of mine called the compact crossover a ‘chick car.’ He was right. The Recreational Activity Vehicle based on the Camry platform offered women an appealing combination of car-like performance and versatility.

    In retrospect, being a chick car wasn’t such a bad thing, since women now account for 50 percent of new car buyers. For that and other reasons, the RAV4 has become one of Toyota’s biggest success stories, selling over 100,000 units of the new model since its January, 2013 introduction.

    Power for the fourth-generation RAV4 comes from a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission, offering better power and fuel economy than the outgoing model. A new liftgate design replaces the previous side-hinged tailgate. Other changes include more aggressive exterior styling and aerodynamic enhancements.

    Buyers can choose between three trim levels, beginning with the front-wheel drive LE, priced from $23,300. The test car is the upscale front-wheel drive Limited, with a $27,010 base MSRP. Options include an audio, Entune and navigation package ($1660) and blind spot monitoring ($500). Adding the $845 destination charge, final MSRP is $30,015. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2013 Lexus LS 460 F Sport

    The big luxury sedan gets a dose of sportiness

    By Bob Golfen

    2013 Lexus LS 460 F Sport

    With the European luxury-car makers tuning their opulent, full-size sedans for top performance and handling, Lexus follows suit with the F Sport version of its big flagship, the LS 460.

    The F Sport option is Lexus’s way of injecting a dose of driving edge to its stable of smooth, reliable but ultimately bland vehicles. We’ve sampled the package in the sport-compact IS, the midsize GS and even the RX crossover, with varying degrees of persuasion; it adds plenty of spark to the IS and GS, but it’s pretty much wasted on the cushy RX.

    This is F Sport’s first availability for the LS, now in its fifth generation, with the goal of turning the plush luxury liner into something akin to a sporting machine. But it’s up to the driver whether to enjoy the firmed-up ride and sharpened response or float along in the LS’s customary ultra-soft cocoon of splendid isolation.

    The key ingredient here is the standard dial mounted in the console that allows the driver to select from various driving modes: Eco, Normal or Sport. The F Sport version with its adjustable air suspension adds two more modes: Comfort and Sport+. The modes adjust the suspension firmness, steering response and the electronic mapping of the throttle and eight-speed transmission.

    Here’s the drill: Eco, Comfort and Normal deliver the same old LS ride, with just minor variations. Sport tightens things up, raising the level of handling and response for what Lexus calls a ‘more engaging driver experience.’ The transmission shifts more aggressively, and the steering feels quicker and firmer. Sport+ further raises the ante by firming up the steering and suspension even more. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2013 Hyundai Azera

    Premium five-passenger sedan

    By Nina Russin

    2013 Hyundai Azera

    The second-generation Azera raises Hyundai’s bar to new heights, rivaling high-end sedans such as the Lexus ES 350 and Lincoln MKS in style and performance. Since it lacks the luxury nameplate, the Azera is more often compared to with premium products including the Toyota Avalon and Buick LaCrosse.

    One thing is for sure: the Azera is a lot of car for the money, with a powerful direct injection V-6 engine, six-speed automatic transmission, a host of comfort and safety features, priced just over $32,000. Hyundai’s new assurance program that adds three years of Connected Care on top of the ten-year/100,000 mile warranty makes the sedan’s value hard to match.

    The test car comes with a technology package that adds 19-inch wheels, xenon headlamps, an Infinity premium sound system, driver’s seat cushion extender, driver’s seat memory, power rear sunshade, power tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel and ambient interior lighting. Carpeted floor mats and the $875 delivery charge bring the final MSRP to $37,225. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2013 Cadillac ATS 2.0 Luxury Collection

    Sport sedan raises Cadillac performance to a new level

    By Nina Russin

    2013 Cadillac ATS

    Cadillac’s compact ATS sport sedan combines performance comparable to the Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series with a high level of standard comfort, convenience and safety features. With a base price starting under $35,000, the ATS should be on driving enthusiasts’ short lists.

    Drivers can choose between a base 2.5-liter engine, turbocharged two-liter block and 3.6-liter V-6, all direct injected, with variable valve timing to enhance gas mileage. Premium fuel is recommended but not required for the turbocharged engine, due to its high compression ratio.

    There are two transmissions, a six-speed manual gearbox and six-speed automatic. Available all-wheel drive adds four-season capability.

    The test car is the premium version of the turbocharged rear-wheel drive model, priced from $39,395. The CUE system that includes voice-activated navigation and an upgraded Bose surround-sound system adds $1,295. Final MSRP, including the $895 destination charge is $41,585. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2013 Ram 1500 SLT Crew Cab 4X2

    New powertrain boosts gas mileage 20 percent

    By Nina Russin

    2013 Ram 1500

    What could be better than a truck that works harder and uses less fuel? The base powertrain on the newest Ram 1500 pickups does just that. The 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 engine is slightly smaller than the 3.7-liter block it replaces, and its aluminum construction minimizes weight. A new eight-speed automatic transmission has twice the number of gears on the former unit.

    An aluminum hood shaves additional weight off the body. Other fuel economizing measures include an active grille shutter system, low rolling resistance tires and aerodynamic improvements around the exterior. The result: 25 mile-per-gallon highway fuel economy according to the EPA.

    Since EPA figures can be soft, I wanted to experience this for myself. This week, I had the opportunity to do so, in the rear-wheel drive version of the Ram 1500 crew cab.

    Being the middle of July, I cranked the air conditioner and headed for the hills. Elevation gain was about 2000 feet. While the 90-mile test didn’t include a lot of stop-and-go driving, I did bury the throttle a few times, just for hoots. Average fuel economy, according to the car’s information pages, was just over 23 miles-per-gallon.

    Furthermore, the Ram didn’t feel the least bit anemic. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by the truck’s performance on steep grades, and its acceleration off the line. Read the rest of this entry »