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  • Toyota 2017 Model Year Wrap-up

    New sports car, 50th anniversary Corolla, V-6 and hybrids enter showrooms

    By Nina Russin

    2017 Toyota 86

    2017 Toyota 86

    Toyota enters the 2017 model year with a significant birthday, expanded hybrid offerings for its Highlander crossover, refreshed Sienna minivan and a new sports car. With Scion closing its doors, Toyota is introducing a refreshed FR-S as the 2017 86, paying homage to the AE86, also known as the Corolla Levin.

    Core features remain the same: a two-liter boxer engine with available six-speed manual or automatic transmissions in a rear-wheel drive platform. The engine combines port and direct injection, the former for fuel efficiency when cruising around town and the latter for throttle response on the track.

    2017 Toyota 86

    2017 Toyota 86

    The retuned two-plus-two features new differential gearing for the manual transmission version for better launch characteristics. Redesigned intake and exhaust manifolds help the engine breathe better. Enhanced torsional rigidity from a stiffer transmission tunnel and thicker strut tower brace boosts steering response. Engineers also retuned the suspension.

    Styling is refreshed inside and out, with new 17-inch twisted spoke wheels and all-LED front and rear lighting. A smaller steering wheel with audio controls, Granlux shoulder pads on the seats and Granlux inserts in the doors reflect the interior’s driver focus. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid XLE

    Compact crossover has a green footprint

    By Nina Russin

    2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid

    2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid

    This year Toyota adds a hybrid model to its RAV4 lineup, utilizing the same gasoline/electric technology found in the newest Prius liftback. The RAV4 Hybrid comes in XLE and Limited grades: both with standard all-wheel drive.

    Base price for the XLE tested is $28,370 excluding the $900 destination charge. A convenience option package on the test car adds an Entune premium audio system with navigation, larger center stack screen, Bluetooth streaming audio, iPod compatibility, HD and satellite radio. Final MSRP is $29,795. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2016 Toyota Corolla S Plus

    Compact sedan celebrates 50 years

    By Nina Russin

    Toyota Corolla S

    Toyota Corolla S

    This year the Toyota Corolla, one of America’s best-loved compact sedans, turns fifty. Corolla’s widespread popularity wasn’t always a given. When early models landed stateside in the late 1960s Detroit iron ruled the road. It took the oil embargos of the 1970s to get Americans thinking differently about cars, specifically the idea of fuel efficiency.

    Since then, the Corolla has gone through many iterations, ranging from small station wagons to sporty coupes, including the sporty AE86 that inspired the current Scion FR-S. Today the model focuses on a core audience of budget and safety-conscious buyers wanting a reliable, well-built sedan with a bit of style.

    The most recent version introduced for the 2014 model year did away with the car’s conservative exterior in favor of a more youthful design. While I originally had mixed feelings about the aggressive grille, it’s grown on me over time, giving the sedan more road presence. The cloth upholstery is attractive and more practical than leather for denizens of warm weather climates such as the desert southwest.

    The newest model also adds rear legroom, making it a true four-passenger car. A new Eco model averages 42 mpg on the highway according to the manufacturer.

    Toyota Corolla S

    Toyota Corolla S

    The test car is the sporty S grade: in this writer’s opinion, the best of the bunch. What separates the Corolla S from the rest of the pack is components, specifically standard rear disc brakes versus drums on the other grades. Disc brakes are self-drying and easier to service. While the majority of braking on any front-wheel drive car takes place in front, disc brakes do have more linear performance than drums: something that could make a difference during a panic stop on wet roads.

    Base price is $19,995 excluding the $835 destination charge. A convenience option package ($1,510) adds keyless entry and start, Entune audio with navigation, a larger touchscreen, USB port with iPod connectivity, voice recognition, Bluetooth interface, satellite and HD radio, Siri Eyes Free. A power moonroof costs $850, bringing the final MSRP to $23,190. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2016 Toyota 4Runner 4X4

    Off-road SUV is the ultimate active lifestyle vehicle

    By Nina Russin

    2016 Toyota 4Runner

    2016 Toyota 4Runner

    Although Toyota continues to use the Land Cruiser nameplate on its most upscale SUV, the feisty 4Runner with available seating for seven comes closer in spirit to the FJ40s of the 1960s and 70s. Launched in 1984 as the smaller, more affordable sibling to the Land Cruiser, the 4Runner has grown over the years in size and capability. These days, it’s marketed as the off-road Yin to the seven-passenger Highlander’s Yang, the Highlander offering a more car-like ride and limited primarily to use on-road.

    Because the 4Runner is a purpose-built truck, engineers have the ability to incorporate the OEM’s most advanced off-road technology, one example of which is crawl control. Integrating the functions of hill start assist, antilock braking and hill descent control into a single function, crawl control allows the driver to select a speed with which to cover extreme grades and the truck does the rest.

    2016 Toyota 4Runner

    2016 Toyota 4Runner

    The system is proprietary to Toyota and unlike competitive products, utilizes a hydraulic system from the throttle to the wheels without a traditional vacuum-operated brake booster to interrupt the power flow.

    To be honest, this feature alone makes the 4Runner Trail Premium’s rather high base price of $39,095 worth every penny. Other off-road specific features on the test car include skid plates, two-speed transfer case with shift on the fly, locking differential, multi-terrain select system, off-road wheels and tires.

    An optional kinetic dynamic suspension system disconnects sway bars when the vehicle is off-road to increase wheel travel. The sway bars remain in place on paved roads to keep the chassis flat while cornering.

    Other options on the test truck include a sliding rear cargo deck and under-floor storage area. With the $900 destination charge, final MSRP is $41,345. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2016 Chicago Auto Show

    Year of the truck

    By Nina Russin

    Toyota TRD Pro Tacoma

    Toyota TRD Pro Tacoma

    The Chicago Auto Show held each February at the McCormick Place convention center on the shores of Lake Michigan is epic in every way: it has the biggest show floor and the best consumer attendance of any such show in the US. There’s something for everyone at Chicago, but this year it was the trucks that stole the show. From the world premier of the 2017 Nissan Armada that kicked off the media preview to Ram’s newest Power Wagon, Kia’s new hybrid utility vehicle and Toyota’s TRD Pro Tacoma, automakers unveiled their newest designs for adventurous travel. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2016 Toyota Tacoma Limited

    Best-selling midsize pickup truck improves power and performance

    By Nina Russin

    2016 Toyota Tacoma Limited

    2016 Toyota Tacoma Limited

    There’s a reason the Toyota Tacoma pickup tops sales in the United States in the midsize segment: it’s a great truck. And it just got better with an all-new 2016 model that incorporates more fuel-efficient powertrains, a roomier interior and some pretty amazing off-road driving technology.

    Buyers can choose between an inline four-cylinder and new Atkinson cycle V-6 engine. All models are available with a six-speed automatic transmission. A manual gearbox is still available for the off-road specific trucks.

    There are five trim levels that range from the work-focused SR to upscale Limited. Toyota eliminated two-seat models for this generation, offering a choice between access and double cabs.

    The TRD Off-Road grade features a terrain selection feature on automatic transmission trucks that adjust wheel spin and brake pressure according to the types of surfaces the truck is covering: in other words, no more spinning out in deep sand.

    2016 Toyota Tacoma Limited

    2016 Toyota Tacoma Limited

    Even more exciting is new crawl control technology that maintains a preset speed when the driver is ascending and descending steep grades. At a media event this summer outside Seattle, this writer used the crawl control to climb a 40-degree sheer rock face and descend an equally steep grade. With the truck controlling the throttle and braking, the only thing the driver needs to worry about is steering.

    The test truck is the upscale Limited grade priced from $37,820, excluding the $900 destination charge. Standard equipment on the double cab model includes the 278-horsepower V-6 engine, six-speed automatic transmission and four-wheel drive with a two-speed transfer case for driving over uneven trails.

    A standard rear backup camera and blind spot monitoring make it easier to back out of parking slots in crowded lots and weave through dense rush-hour traffic. Standard convenience features include keyless entry and push-button start, Entune with app suites and navigation, leather upholstery, power moonroof, satellite radio, Qi wireless charging, a tie-down deck rail system and dual-zone climate control.

    There are two options: a towing prep package and cargo box tonneau cover, bringing the final MSRP to $40,020. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2015 Toyota RAV4 Limited AWD

    Compact crossover gains refinement and style

    By Nina Russin

    2015 Toyota RAV4

    2015 Toyota RAV4

    Toyota’s Recreational Active Vehicle has changed a lot since its introduction in 1995. What began as a personal car based on the Camry platform has evolved into a larger, more substantial vehicle that works well for small families. The car’s mission remains the same: combining car-like ride and handling with a more versatile interior and available all-wheel drive for buyers with active lifestyles.

    The current model is essentially carry-over from 2013 when Toyota unveiled the fourth-generation car. Lava exterior paint on the test car is new for 2015.

    Base price for the Limited is $29,850 excluding the $885 destination charge. The upscale grade comes nicely equipped with convenience features including dual-zone climate control, Entune infotainment with navigation, satellite radio, leather wrapped steering wheel, heated front seats with driver’s seat memory settings, keyless entry and start, reclining and fold flat second-row seats, 18-inch alloy wheels, power moonroof, heated outside mirrors and power on/off headlamps.

    Options on the test car include a JBL premium audio system, blind spot monitoring with cross traffic alert, lane departure warning, automatic high beams, roof rack cross bars, remote start and carpeted floor mats. Final MSRP is $33,469. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2015 Toyota Avalon Hybrid Limited

    Full-size premium sedan is a Lexus in disguise

    By Nina Russin

    Toyota Avalon Hybrid

    Toyota Avalon Hybrid

    Over the past twenty years, the Toyota Avalon has evolved from a stretched-out version of the Camry into a league of its own, offering buyers similar ride and handling to more expensive Lexus models. The availability of a gasoline/electric hybrid is rather unusual in this segment that also includes the Ford Taurus and Buick LaCrosse.

    The 2015 model is basically carryover following a major redesign in 2013. Changes include an upgraded Entune multimedia system and paddle shifters on gasoline-powered cars.

    Base price for the Avalon Hybrid Limited is $41,700: on the high side for the segment. However buyers get their money’s worth with standard features that include remote keyless entry and start, tri-zone climate control, leather upholstery and steering wheel, power heated and cooled front seats, heated rear seats, Bluetooth interface, a rearview camera with cross traffic alert, blind spot monitoring and satellite radio.

    A technology package on the test car adds dynamic radar cruise control, automatic high beams, Qi wireless charging, and pre-collision system with pedestrian detection. Final MSRP is $44,475. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2015 Toyota Yaris Five-Door

    Subcompact hatchback is big on versatility

    By Nina Russin

    2015 Toyota Yaris

    2015 Toyota Yaris

    Let’s face it: Nobody really enjoys paying for gasoline. As a runner, I’m happy to spend whatever it takes for shoes and gear that give me the ergogenic edge, but I’ll shop around for the best deals on gas. Toyota’s newest subcompact Yaris, available as a three or five-door hatchback, minimizes pinch at the pump with 32 mile-per-gallon average fuel economy according to the EPA. Priced below $20,000, the versatile, peppy Yaris offers a lot to love for active urbanites for which long commutes and limited street parking are a way of life.

    For 2015, Toyota’s European design studio in the south of France did a major restyle, giving the pint-size Yaris a youthful face and refined interior. The car is slightly longer than the outgoing model. A retuned suspension and stiffer body structure contributes to a quieter, smoother ride.

    Power comes from a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine and four-speed automatic transmission. Base price for the five-door test car is $17,820. A cargo mat option and the delivery charge bring the final MSRP to $18,825. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2016 Toyota Tacoma

    All-new midsize truck is the king of the rock pile

    By Nina Russin

    2016 Toyota Tacoma

    2016 Toyota Tacoma

    I’m sitting behind the wheel of the 2016 Toyota Tacoma TRD pickup truck and all I can see is sky. The forty-degree grade the truck is climbing has me pinned back against the headrest, with no view of the horizon.

    As the name of the park we suggests, this is the Black Diamond of off-road driving: requiring a vehicle with exceptional capability and a certain amount of driving skill. Trails of this type can intimidate experienced drivers because of the risk of rollover. The old adage: ‘Go as slowly as possible and as fast as necessary,’ applies, since cresting the hill requires gunning that throttle at just the right time and then backing off to remain directional control at the summit.

    A new feature called crawl control on the 2016 midsize pickup takes the guesswork out of the scenario by using anti-slip regulation, throttle and antilock braking to maintain a preset speed.

    Think of it as downhill descent control, only better, because in this case the vehicle controls uphill speed as well. After selecting one of five speeds using controls on the truck’s overhead console, the driver eases off the gas pedal and lets the truck take over.

    The sheer rock face is one of several off-road exercises Toyota’s product team has devised to show off the new Tacoma’s off-road capability at a former coal-mining site outside Seattle. Others include a steep downhill called Wicked Hill that is about the same grade as the sheer rock uphill, but comprised of loose dirt and rocks. In this case, a multi-terrain select system that adjusts throttle, braking and suspension for a variety of surfaces ranging from rock to mud and ruts works in tandem with the crawl control to get the truck down the hill safely.

    Finally, there is a rock pile known as the Bone Yard to demonstrate wheel articulation and traction over that type of unstable surface. In each case, the newest Tacoma proves that it is a force to be reckoned with: a proud descendent of a heritage dating back to the end of the Second World War. Read the rest of this entry »