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  • 2015 Chrysler 300 Limited

    Flagship sedan is perfect for summer road trips

    By Nina Russin

    2015 Chrysler 300

    2015 Chrysler 300

    It’s the Fourth of July weekend and my husband and I are loading up a 2015 Chrysler 300 Limited sedan for the trip between Phoenix, Arizona and Durango, Colorado. Over the next four days we will log over 1,000 miles, taking in low and high desert, mountains, hundred-plus degree temperatures and monsoonal rain. Elevation gain between Phoenix at 1,200 feet and Hesperus, Colorado, the highest point of the drive, is about 7,000 feet.

    The 300 is Chrysler’s flagship: a full-size sedan that goes head-to-head with the Toyota Avalon and Ford Taurus. Available with rear or all-wheel drive, it shares chassis components with the four-door Dodge Charger, but the car’s styling and performance are geared towards an upscale market versus the Charger’s sportier focus.

    Power for the test car comes from the same Pentastar V-6 engine used in the Jeep Wrangler, Dodge Challenger and Charger. While the Jeep engine is tuned for low-end torque the 300 block gets an extra dose of horsepower. An eight-speed rotary shift automatic transmission utilizes large overdrive gears to extend fuel economy to 31 mpg on the highway.

    Base price for the Limited model is $31,570 excluding the $995 destination charge. Options on the test car include a convenience package that adds LED fog lights, rear backup camera, remote start and a universal garage door opener and a Uconnect option including navigation and HD radio, bringing the final MSRP to $35,255. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2015 Kia Forte5 SX

    Sporty hatch targets active urbanites

    By Nina Russin

    2015 Kia Forte5

    2015 Kia Forte5

    Although Kia’s product line has moved up-water with products such as the K900 and Cadenza, value remains the brand’s core attribute. In no case is that more apparent than in the compact Forte, available as a coupe, sedan and five-door hatchback.

    Although it shares chassis components with the Hyundai Elantra GT, the Forte5 SX appeals to driving enthusiasts with a 201-horsepower turbocharged engine as compared to the naturally-aspirated two-liter block in the Elantra rated at 173-horsepower.

    A six-speed manual gearbox is standard in the Forte5 SX, but buyers can opt to add a six-speed automatic with Formula-style paddle shifters. Base price is $21,890 excluding the destination charge. Eighteen-inch alloy wheels and a sport-tuned suspension come standard on the upscale model.

    Options on the test car include a premium package that adds leather seating with heated front seats and a ventilated driver’s seat, power sunroof, power driver’s seat and a heated steering wheel. A technology package adds navigation, xenon headlamps, HD radio and dual-zone climate control. Final MSRP is $27,100. Read the rest of this entry »

  • Heels and Wheels 2015

    Women’s automotive conference charts changes in the industry

    By Nina Russin

    Heels and Wheels 2015

    Heels and Wheels 2015

    It’s been a long time coming, but the automotive industry has finally realized that women think about cars differently. Since female buyers account for 50 percent of all new car purchases, understanding how their preferences impact purchase decisions significantly impacts automakers’ bottom lines.

    For the past five years, my colleague Christine Overstreet has assembled a group of female journalists, product specialists, market analysts and engineers for Heels and Wheels, a conference focused on the growing impact women have on car design, engineering, media coverage and automotive sales. This year’s conference that took place in Southern California included market analysts from Kelly Blue Book, engineers from General Motors and FCA, products specialists from GMC, Buick, Dodge, Jaguar, Land Rover, Lexus, Mitsubishi, Kia, Nissan, Infiniti, Mazda and Volkswagen.

    Two-dozen journalists covered the gamut from traditional outlets such as Cars.com and Autobytel to electronic media, travel writers and mommy bloggers. While earlier Heels and Wheels programs focused primarily on the dealership experience, the 2015 event had a broader base, looking at recent trends and giving journalists a chance to spend time with women who work for the automakers on product development teams. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2015 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

    Midsize truck is all business on-road and off

    By Nina Russin

    Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

    Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

    Toyota is the king of small trucks. While the Big Three automakers focused on full-size vehicles, Toyota built its reputation on small and midsize trucks, dating back to the first models following the Second World War.

    The Tacoma that debuted in 1995 grew out of the Hi-Lux: a vastly popular global platform that is still sold in other parts of the world. In the states it was simply called the compact Toyota pickup. The truck sold like hotcakes because it was cheap and unbelievably durable. We used to joke that the only way to stop the truck’s 22R engine was to take it out in the field and shoot it.

    The 2015 model year is the last for the current generation Tacoma: a new midsize model debuts next fall. Rather than treating the current model as a lame duck, product planners added a TRD Pro package that gives the truck the chops to blast across the Baja peninsula in style.

    Priced from $37,415 excluding destination, the Tacoma TRD Pro comes with 16-inch TRD wheels and off-road tires, Bilstein shocks with remote reservoirs to increase shock oil capacity, a modified suspension that adds 1.75 inches to the truck’s ride height and increases wheels travel and a cat-back exhaust. A unique blacked-out grille, inferno red exterior paint and special badging throughout give the Tacoma irresistible charisma for anyone with a love of off-road racing.

    The test car comes with a few additional options- a performance air filter, paint protection film, front skid plate, enhanced security system and bed mat, bringing the final MSRP to $39,579. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2015 Lexus NX 200t F Sport

    Compact crossover with the heart of a sports car

    By Nina Russin

    2015 Lexus NX F Sport

    2015 Lexus NX F Sport

    The newest member of Lexus’ crossover family, the compact NX, is a radical departure from cars such as the RX that preceded it. From its aggressively styled front end to the new turbocharged two-liter block under the hood, the NX is a more youthful, sporty alternative to conservative models it shares its badge with.

    Lexus’ first turbocharged engine develops up to 258 foot-pounds of peak torque as low as 1650 rpm for powerful acceleration off the line. Turbocharging vastly reduces parasitic power loss at altitude, making the NX a good choice for buyers living in mountainous regions of the country. The engine comes mated to a new six-speed automatic transmission with large overdrive gears to stretch gas mileage on the highway.

    The F Sport package adds a sport-tuned independent suspension, unique interior trim, a unique steering wheel with Formula-style paddle shifters, 18-inch rims with all-season tires, LED daytime running lamps and fog lamps.

    Base price is $37,980. Options include Qi wireless charging, navigation, power moonroof, blind spot monitoring, part assist, heated front seats and steering wheel, ten-way power driver’s seat and a power tailgate. Final MSRP including the $925 destination charge is $45,313. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2015 MAMA Spring Rally

    Two-day drive event attracts journalists from coast to coast

    By Nina Russin

    2016 Dodge Viper ACR

    2016 Dodge Viper ACR

    People from Wisconsin are fond of reminding out-of-towners that their weather can chance in the blink of an eye. In May, when MAMA hosts its annual Spring Rally at Road America in Elkhart Lake, the weather can vary between balmy sunshine and bitter cold depending on the day.

    This explains how I found myself standing in the middle of 25 mile-per-hour winds on a 45-degree day this past week, wondering which of the cars available for testing came with heated steering wheels.

    The Midwest Automotive Media Association has been coming to Wisconsin’s preeminent motorsports park for over a decade to hold the larger of its two annual driving events. The two-day program starts with a fish fry at the Lake Street Cafe, a local haunt popular among racing fans and concludes with a day of off-roading and autocross in the far reaches of Road America’s 640-acre facility.

    In between there is a day of hot laps on the track together with a city streets course during which the hundred journalists in attendance can literally drive their hearts out. Read the rest of this entry »

  • In Memoriam: Denise McCluggage

    By Nina Russin

    Denise McCluggage

    Denise McCluggage

    Yesterday we learned that our dear friend and colleague, Denise McCluggage had passed away. She was 88 years young.

    I had the honor of knowing McCluggage as a friend and mentor. She was part of our Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year jury panel from the get go, resigning her position on a more prestigious jury in the process because that program had requested exclusivity.

    “Nina needs me more,” she told them. She was right. While her reputation as a world-renowned race car driver, elite athlete and award-winning journalist were all feathers in our cap, McCluggage’s biggest contribution was the infectious enthusiasm she instilled in all of us.

    Denise McCluggage drank at life in big gulps. As an automotive journalist, she busted the glass ceiling for women working in the field and never looked back. Fear was not part of her vocabulary. She didn’t have time for it.

    Everyone has his or her favorite McCluggage story. This is mine: Several years back Mercedes-Benz staged a fuel economy run as part of their media launch for the then brand new E-Class Diesel sedan.

    We knew prizes were involved so everyone drove the route as if they had eggshells under their feet, air conditioning off and tires overinflated. McCluggage was having none of it. Pedal to the metal, she sped through the course back to the staging area. For her efforts, she received the ‘Lead Foot’ award.

    Her response: “You can buy more fuel but you can’t buy more time”‘

    Bigger than life in life and forever in our hearts, Denise McCluggage you will be sorely missed.

  • 2015 Toyota Camry XLE Sedan

    Bold styling takes Toyota’s bestseller in a new direction

    By Nina Russin

    2015 Toyota Camry

    2015 Toyota Camry

    Shibui is a Japanese term that means tranquility derived from simplicity: an economy of form. For years, Toyota’s cars have embodied this quality and it’s worked well for the brand.

    But in the post-2008 economy, Toyota’s marketing strategy was losing its edge or rather it was losing because of styling that lacked edginess. Subtlety might be the greater part of valor but when it comes to selling cars in America, it’s not an asset.

    The 2014 Toyota Camry was a great car: well built, safe and dependable. But its conservative exterior paled aside competitors such as the Kia Optima, Mazda6 and Hyundai Sonata. So product planners decided to address the problem by completely restyling the car inside and out.

    This was not a simple refresh. The redesigned 2015 Toyota Camry has 2000 new parts. Only the roof remains the same as the outgoing model. The major redesign enabled engineers to stiffen up the body with new spot welds and increased use of high tensile strength steel to give the sedan better steering feedback.

    A new XSE model features bigger wheels and a blacked out grille with unique front fascia. The XSE combines attributes of the performance-oriented SE with the upscale XLE for drivers who want a little more luxury.

    Pricing for the XLE test car starts at $26,150 equipped with the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine: the smaller of two available blocks. A six-speed automatic transmission is standard. Large overdrive gears boost highway fuel economy to 35 miles-per-gallon according to the EPA estimate.

    Options on the test car include keyless entry and start, premium audio system with Entune infotainment and navigation, blind spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert, power moonroof, wireless charging, remote start and a rear spoiler. Final MSRP including the $825 destination charge is $31,278. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2015 Mercedes-Benz E400 Coupe

    Sleek sport coupe takes no prisoners

    By Nina Russin

    Mercedes-Benz E-Class Coupe

    Mercedes-Benz E-Class Coupe

    In the world of Mercedes-Benz, there are two ways to do things: the Mercedes way and the wrong way. It might sound a bit harsh, but the automaker’s internal rulebook is the reason behind its exceptionally well-engineered cars.

    The three-liter bi-turbo V-6 engine underneath the hood of the new E400 sedan is a case in point, providing the power and performance of a V-8 engine with better fuel economy. An automatic start/stop feature cuts the ignition when the car is idling, so the driver doesn’t waste gasoline in stop-and-go traffic.

    The standard seven-speed automatic transmission extends gas mileage even further with large overdrive gears, while the bi-turbo setup flattens out the torque curve so drivers can harness the engine’s 354 foot-pounds of peak torque with the tip of the throttle.

    The newest generation of Mercedes-Benz automobiles also raises the bar for styling, replacing bland exteriors on former models with an angular front end and aero profile. From the side, full wheel arches that emphasize the test car’s optional AMG five-spoke rims and performance tires give the coupe the personality of a panther waiting to pounce. In the automotive world, there is nothing more alluring than a predator on four wheels.

    The coupe is available with either rear-wheel or all-wheel drive, offering owners in four-season climates some extra traction. Those wanting additional power can opt for the E550 model with a 402-horsepower V-8 engine.

    Base price for the rear-wheel drive test car is $53,350 excluding the $925 destination charge. Options include a sport steering wheel with formula-style shift paddles, heated and ventilated front seats, keyless start, summer performance tires, a premium package that adds COMAND infotainment with navigation, Verizon telematics, Harman/Kardon surround-sound audio, rearview camera and power folding mirrors, adaptive headlamps, AMG wheels, sport pedals, blind spot monitoring, lane keep assist and parking assist. Final MSRP is $66,300. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 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 »