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  • 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 »

  • 2014 Mazda MX-5 Miata Grand Touring

    Sports car for the real world

    By Nina Russin

    2014 Mazda MX-5 Miata

    2014 Mazda MX-5 Miata

    The Mazda Miata is not a particularly practical car for buyers with active lifestyles. It’s very small, even for a two-seater and has a cargo area that on a good day will hold a dachshund. Visibility in dense traffic is atrocious, not because of the car itself but rather the fact that every other vehicle on the road is taller. Although fuel economy is quite good, the fuel tank is rather small so driving range isn’t great.

    Despite that, I doubt any athlete who gets behind the wheel of a Miata will have a bad word to say about it. Why? Because the Miata is one of the most athletic cars on the market, and also one of the most affordable true sports cars. With its peppy two-liter engine and close-ratio six-speed manual gearbox, the Miata is stupidly fun to drive. It is the Paul Tergat of the automotive world.

    When Mazda chief designer, Tom Matano, and his team developed the original MX-5 a quarter century ago, their inspiration was the classic British sports cars of the 1960s. The Miata was to capture the spirit of those cars but in a more affordable and dare I say more reliable package. They nailed it.

    Although the audience for MGBs and Triumph Spitfires has waned a bit in the ensuing years, enthusiasm for the Miata has not. As long as there are people who love to drive, there will be those who have a passion for the Miata. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited AWD

    Newest eight-passenger crossover is family friendly

    By Nina Russin

    2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

    2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

    The Highlander crossover and its hybrid variant are among Toyota’s greatest success stories. Although the 2001 Highlander wasn’t the first crossover to hit the market, its combination of rock-solid reliability and versatility struck a chord with families needing a functional alternative to minivans and full-sized SUVs.

    Fifteen years later, Toyota has re-engineered the formula, making the Highlander a more spacious, quieter car, with some unique features such as driver easy speak that enables the driver to talk with kids in back using the microphone in the rearview mirror.

    The new car is longer and wider than the outgoing model and comes with a choice of four-cylinder, V-6 or hybrid V-6 powertrains. The hybrid model utilizes the same Hybrid Synergy Drive system as the Toyota Prius to boost gas mileage to 28 miles-per-gallon.

    Product planners expanded the number of trim levels, going to more of a monospec pricing strategy. Pricing for the front-wheel drive four-cylinder LE starts at $29,215. All grades are available with all-wheel drive, but only upscale grades come with three rows of seating.

    In keeping with tradition, the hybrid is only available as the fully loaded Limited and Limited Platinum, priced from $47,300 and $49,790 respectively. The platinum package adds pre-collision, dynamic radar cruise control, automatic high beam headlamps, a panoramic sunroof, heated steering wheel and heated second-row captain’s chairs. Other options on the test car include carpeted floor mats and a glass breakage sensor. Final MSRP, including the $860 delivery charge, is $51,174. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2014 Hyundai Azera Limited

    Premium sedan travels to the front of the pack

    By Nina Russin

    2014 Hyundai Azera

    2014 Hyundai Azera

    Since the economic downtick of 2008, car buyers have been veering on the side of caution, with those who formerly shopped luxury considering premium cars instead. The full-sized Hyundai Azera addresses this audience with a stylish exterior, powerful engine and segment-leading connectivity features.

    Buyers can choose between the base car priced from $31,000 and upscale Limited with a $34,750 MSRP. The Limited adds navigation, electroluminescent gauge cluster and power folding side mirrors to the list of standard convenience features.

    Power comes from a 3.3-liter direct injection V-6 engine rated at 293-horsepower and six-speed automatic transmission. Fuel economy isn’t quite as good as the Toyota Avalon the Azera competes against, but the Azera engine develops 25 more horsepower and seven more foot-pounds of peak torque.

    Options on the test car include a premium package that adds 19-inch alloy wheels, a panoramic sunroof, power rear sunshade, side sunshades and rear park assist as well as carpeted floor mats. Final MSRP including the $895 destination charge is $37,905. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2014 Buick Regal GS AWD

    Premium sedan melds performance and style

    By Nina Russin

    2014-Buick-RegalGS

    2014-Buick-RegalGS

    Early afternoon on a Monday in mid-August, the temperature in Phoenix, Arizona is a balmy 108 degrees. I’m sitting behind the wheel of the 2014 Buick Regal GS in a traffic jam that extends at least five miles down the I-10 interstate. Somehow a semi truck has jumped the median that separates the I-10 and the exit ramp to the I-60: it is blocking the entire exit ramp and two lanes of the 10.

    Drivers in surrounding cars are understandably irate. But I’m not, because life inside the GS is actually quite pleasant. I have the HD radio tuned to a jazz station that rivals legendary KLON Long Beach or the best satellite radio has to offer.

    General Motors is known for air conditioners that blow ice cubes and this one is no exception, maintaining the interior at a comfortable 74 degrees. Using the blind spot monitoring system I am able to safely maneuver into the best strategic position for getting through this mess in a reasonable amount of time.

    What all of this tells me is that Buick has successfully reinvented itself for the modern world without losing touch with its heritage. When I was a kid, Buicks were known as doctor’s cars because they were upscale and when the situation demanded, they went like spit. My father’s favorite car was his 1966 triple black LeSabre.

    The LeSabre’s expansive black hood and even more expansive 340 cubic inch V-8 underneath was even more so. The sedan made my father feel like king of the road. He drove it like a New York cabbie and was blissfully happy doing so.

    Although the midsized 2014 Buick LeSabre is considerably smaller than the full-sized sedans of the 1960s, it appeals to a similar audience, and for very much the same reasons. It offers luxury styling and features without a high luxury price tag, and adds some very appealing performance.

    The turbocharged two-liter engine develops 259 horsepower: more than the considerably larger engine in my dad’s ’66. Because of the turbocharger, 295 foot-pounds of peak torque is available at very low engine speeds for excellent acceleration off the line and on highway entrance ramps.

    Base price for the all-wheel drive test car is $39,270 excluding the $925 destination charge. Options include blind spot monitoring, forward collision alert, rear cross-traffic alert, memory driver and front passenger seat settings, adaptive cruise control, automatic collision preparation and a power sunroof. Final MSRP is $43,780. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2014 Volkswagen Beetle TDI

    Fun for the long run

    By Nina Russin

    Volkswagen Beetle TDI

    Volkswagen Beetle TDI

    As feel as if I have fallen down on the job. The purpose of doing an extended test drive is to put in some serious mileage: begin with a full tank of fuel and finish with the tank almost empty. However after a week and several hundred miles in the Volkswagen Beetle TDI, the fuel gauge shows the tank over half full.

    Anyone who has been in a car with me knows that I’m a right brain kind of driver. I have a bit of a lead foot. Emptying out a fuel tank is never a problem for me. So what happened’

    The culprit was the TDI’s 600-plus mile range, thanks its 41 mpg highway fuel economy. Add the engine’s 236 foot-pounds of torque available at 1750 rpm, and the Beetle becomes fun for the long run.

    Readers who want a greener alternative to traditional gasoline-powered cars and don’t want to pay the premium for hybrid technology should take a second look at diesel. The new generation of common rail diesel engines has reduced CO2 emissions as compared to gasoline, and average between 25 and 30 percent better fuel economy. That’s a statistic both sides of the brain can feel good about.

    Base price for the Beetle TDI test car is $27,495 excluding the $820 delivery charge. Volkswagen specs out its models to include popular convenience features- in this case a sunroof, Fender audio system and navigation- in the MSRP. It makes pricing easier for the consumer to understand and reduces haggling at the dealership.

    A carefree maintenance program adds two years of complimentary scheduled maintenance. Other standard convenience features include Bluetooth interface, air conditioning, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, split folding rear seat, keyless entry and start. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2014 Buick Verano FWD 1ST

    Turbocharged premium compact sedan

    By Nina Russin

    2014 Buick Verano Turbo

    2014 Buick Verano Turbo

    A couple months back, Buick contacted me about participating in Runs Worth the Drive: a co-promotion the automaker was planning to host with MapMyFitness. The idea was to inspire buyers with active lifestyles to consider the Verano compact sedan by inviting members of the media to drive the car to a destination of choice and log some runs there. Since this sort of program has my name all over it, it didn’t take much arm-twisting to get me to agree.

    This week, husband and I spent four days in the Verano, driving it from Phoenix to Flagstaff, Arizona where we each ran segments of the Urban Trail: a network of dirt and paved byways for pedestrians and cyclists.

    We chose Flagstaff for two reasons. First, the drive involves an elevation gain of 5500 feet, which would be a good test for the Verano’s turbocharged two-liter engine. Equally important, Flagstaff is a hot spot for elite runners, who use the benefits of high altitude training to become more competitive at sea level.

    The front-wheel drive test car with six-speed automatic transmission is priced from $29,065 excluding the $925 destination charge. Standard safety and convenience features include a rearview camera with cross traffic alert, blind spot monitoring, keyless entry and start, heated leather front seats, dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth interface, satellite radio, seven-inch color touchscreen in the center stack, premium Bose audio system and redundant steering wheel controls.

    The white diamond coat exterior paint is a $995 option, as are navigation ($795) and 18-inch alloy rims ($600), bringing the final MSRP to $32,380. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2014 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid

    Compact sedan is fuel thrifty and fun to drive

    By Nina Russin

    2014 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid

    2014 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid

    While there are a lot of hybrid passenger cars on the market, few meet the needs of driving enthusiasts. Volkswagen, a brand known for its driving dynamics, engineered the Jetta Hybrid to fill this square and give eco-conscious fans of the brand an alternative to clean diesel.

    The difference between the Jetta Hybrid and competitors in the compact segment is components. The Jetta has a turbocharged engine while others do not, and a dual-clutch seven-speed automatic transmission in lieu of the more common continuously variable unit. The suspension is independent front and rear as opposed to competitors with torsion beam rear axles.

    With a starting price of $25,560 excluding the $820 destination charge, it’s a lot of car for the money. Volkswagen throws in two years of complimentary scheduled maintenance and three years of roadside assistance as part of the factory warranty to sweeten the deal.

    The Jetta’s other ace-in-the hole is interior versatility. While it can’t match models such as the Toyota Prius liftback for cargo space, a 60/40 split fold-down rear seat is rare in a hybrid sedan. There’s a bump between the trunk and rear seat where the battery pack is located, but the driver has considerably more room to work with than in most competitive products.

    Standard comfort and convenience features include Bluetooth interface, dual-zone climate control, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, a rear spoiler and remote keyless entry. Read the rest of this entry »

  • Ram Introduces 2015 ProMaster City

    Class 1 cargo van combines fuel efficiency and versatility

    By Nina Russin

    2015 Ram ProMaster City

    2015 Ram ProMaster City

    Following on the success of its ProMaster cargo van launch this year, Ram introduces 2015 ProMaster City: a Class 1 cargo van designed to meet the needs of entrepreneurs in high-traffic urban areas. Available as either a windowless cargo van or five-passenger van, the ProMaster City arrives in dealerships at the end of 2014.

    Based on the Fiat Doblo architecture, the ProMaster City features a more compact footprint than the larger ProMaster, but offers the same ‘form follows function’ approach to design and engineering.

    Both cargo and passenger vans are available in Tradesman and SLT trim levels, all powered by a 178-horsepower 2.4-liter Tigershark engine and nine-speed automatic transmission. The front-wheel drive configuration minimizes curb weight and increases the cargo area by eliminating a floor tunnel and rear differential. Read the rest of this entry »

  • Dodge Brand Centennial

    A hundred years of challenges and triumph

    By Nina Russin

     

    1916 Dodge Assembly Plant

    1916 Dodge Assembly Plant

    On a hazy late June morning, several dozen journalists gather at Meadowbrook just outside Auburn Hills, Michigan for a program celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the Dodge brand. In addition to being close to the company’s corporate headquarters, Meadowbrook is the property on which the Dodge brothers built their first automobile in 1915.

    Born in nearby Niles, Michigan, the brothers began their careers in the bicycle business before becoming suppliers of engines, transmissions and axles to the burgeoning auto industry. Dodge was the first brand to produce an all-steel car, but is better known to the current generation of automotive enthusiasts for its performance products, particularly the Hemi engines, Scat Packs and Shakers of the muscle car era.

    For the media event, the public relations department has assembled a collection of historic models from the museum at Meadowbrook and offered journalists the unusual opportunity to get behind the wheel. I jump into one of the pre-War cars: a 35-horsepower cabriolet built in 1927. Read the rest of this entry »