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  • 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 Buick Verano Turbo FWD Premium

    Premium compact sedan combines substance and style

    By Nina Russin

    2015 Buick Verano

    2015 Buick Verano

    As a distance runner, I’m all about efficiency. Morning coffee chatter is as likely to be about the proper heart rate for building volume of oxygen uptake as Sunday’s football scores. This is the reason I like turbocharging: it makes the car run more efficiently.

    By increasing the amount of air passing through the engine with an exhaust-driven blower, a turbocharger makes the car capable of accelerating harder and performing better at altitude. It also enhances fuel economy.

    Turbocharging is the compact Buick Verano sedan’s ace-in-the-hole. While two liters of displacement might not seem like much, the addition of a turbocharger gives the Verano four-cylinder engine 250 horsepower and 260 foot-pounds of peak torque, available at 2000 rpm. Zero-to-sixty acceleration is 6.2 seconds.

    All models are available with a six-speed automatic transmission. A manual gear selection feature enables the driver to keep the revs up for more aggressive performance. The turbocharged model is also available with a six-speed manual gearbox.

    For 2015, standard OnStar adds 4G LTE, turning the sedan into a mobile hotspot.

    The premium model tested starts at $29,065 excluding the $925 destination charge. Standard safety features include blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning, forward collision alert, a rearview camera with cross traffic alert and automatic notification of police and emergency medical personnel in the event of a serious collision.

    The test car adds optional carbon black metallic paint, a power moonroof, premium audio system with navigation, splashguards, floor mats and wheel locks, bringing the final MSRP to $32,335. 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 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 »

  • 2013 Buick Encore

    Premium compact crossover

    By Nina Russin

    Buick Encore

    It wasn’t that long ago that Buick seemed destined to go the way of the Packard. Two things turned the company’s fortunes around. First, a talented group of designers revised the model lineup to include vehicles relevant to younger buyers. In addition, customers who prior to 2008 bought luxury brands saw the value in more competitively priced premium products.

    This put Buick back in the position it held in the 1960s, where its upscale cars filled the gap between the value-driven Chevrolet brand and Cadillac luxury. The 2013 Encore compact crossover is a poster child for the new Buick: stylish yet practical, offering exceptional fuel economy and a high level of standard convenience features for a $26,710 base MSRP. That’s almost $4500 less than the average transaction price of a new car according to the research and analytics firm, TrueCar Inc.

    Everything about the 2013 Buick Encore test car looks and feels premium, from its toothy chrome grille to the soft leather upholstery, large touchscreen with voice-activated infotainment, navigation and Bose audio system. Options include a power sunroof, navigation, satellite radio, the audio upgrade and IntelliLink, bringing the final MSRP to $29,650. Read the rest of this entry »

  • Heels and Wheels 2013

    Annual conference puts women in the driver’s seat

    By Nina Russin

    Aston Martin DB9

    I feel like the Queen: not the one with the Queen wave and frumpy clothes, but rather a Pussy Galore queen with Sean Connery by my side, oozing sex appeal and confidence. I don’t typically have Pussy Galore hallucinations, but I don’t usually get behind the wheel of an Aston Martin DB9 either. The experience was the highlight of my trip to the third annual Heels and Wheels women’s automotive conference in Bend, Oregon

    Of course, there was a more serious aspect to the event, its primary focus being the buying power of women, which currently accounts for at least 50 percent of all new car purchases and up to 80 percent of car buying decisions.

    According to Kelley Blue Book research Toyota, Honda, Ford, Chevrolet, Nissan, Hyundai, Kia, Subaru, Mazda and Volkswagen are the most popular brands among female buyers. Women tend to favor crossover vehicles and SUVs over sports cars and pickup trucks, with models such as the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 topping the popularity charts.

    The internet has become the most popular source of information among women shopping for a new car, due partly to the unease with which many women approach dealerships. KBB visitors typically research a vehicle for two months, take about three more months for the purchasing process and keep their cars between 8 and 10 years.

    Connectivity features are playing a larger role in purchase decisions, with Bluetooth and GPS both included among must-haves. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2013 Buick Verano 1ST

    Compact sedan for driving enthusiasts

    By Nina Russin

    2013 Buick Verano

    I’ll admit that I have a soft spot in my heart for Buicks. I took my first cross-country trip in my father’s ’66 triple black LeSabre, and learned to drive on my mother’s ’69 Skylark. I drove the Skylark until the ball joints gave way some time in the mid-1980s. Even though the wheels were falling off the car I was still able to sell it to a friend. The engine was still good.

    So I welcome Buick’s current renaissance with open arms, delighted to see its return to a rightful place among the world’s premium brands.

    The new Verano compact sedan reminds me in many ways of the Skylark I grew up with. Granted it’s a much smaller car, and the chassis is front-wheel drive as opposed to rear-wheel drive for the Skylark. What the two cars share is a similar product strategy: offering discriminating buyers the performance and luxury they desire at a remarkably affordable price.

    Pricing for the base model starts under $25,000. Base price on the test car is $29,105 excluding the $885 destination charge. The upscale grade comes loaded with convenience and safety features, including keyless entry and start, IntelliLink voice-activated infotainment system, satellite radio, leather seating, dual-zone automatic climate control, Bluetooth connectivity and streaming audio, a heated steering wheel with redundant controls and a premium audio system. Options including a power sunroof, navigation and special exterior paint bring the final MSRP to $32,180. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2012 Mitsubishi i MiEV SE

    Four-passenger, five-door pure electric car

    By Nina Russin

    2012 Mitsubishi i MiEV

    The Mitsubishi MiEV, which shares the same platform as the subcompact i, is one of a handful of pure electric cars available in the United States. Power comes from a 66-horsepower synchronous motor and a single, fixed gear transmission. The motor and lithium-ion battery pack are packaged in a watertight, stainless steel safety cell under the floor of the passenger compartment, where there is minimal intrusion to both car occupants and the rear cargo area.

    After testing the car in fleets, Mitsubishi began rolling out the MiEV last year at dealerships in California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii. This year, the i MiEV is available in all fifty states.

    There are two grades: the base model which starts at $29,125, and the upscale SE, priced from $31,125. Buyers qualify for a federal tax credit of up to $7500.

    The test car comes with a premium package that adds navigation, steering wheel mounted audio controls, rearview camera, a battery warning system and quick charge port. Adding in the $850 delivery charge, final MSRP for the test car is $34,765. 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 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 »