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  • 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 »

  • 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 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 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 »

  • First Drive: 2015 Toyota Camry, Yaris and Sienna

    Toyota pumps up the style with three mid-cycle refreshes

    By Nina Russin

    2015 Toyota Camry

    2015 Toyota Camry

    The 2015 Toyota Camry doesn’t look like a mid-cycle refresh. All new sheet metal with the exception of the roof panel gives the Camry a dramatically different exterior. A new model called the XSE appeals to younger buyers with a unique grille, larger wheels and a sport-tuned suspension. Pricing for the four-cylinder LE starts at $22,970.

    The subcompact Yaris changes significantly as well. Styled at Toyota’s European Design Studio and produced in France, it stands poised to capture millennial buyers purchasing their first car. While value remains one of the Yaris’ key attributes with a starting price of $14,845, the new three and five-door hatchbacks are more than pretty faces, with restyled interiors and new technology including Entune infotainment, HD radio and Bluetooth interface.

    Changes to the Sienna are less dramatic, focusing on interior refinement. Designers revised the instrument panel using softer, more appealing materials and added a thin-film-transistor information display in the gauge cluster. Upholstery offerings have also been updated, and customers can opt for lounge-style second-row seating on upscale models. Pricing for the front-wheel drive base car starts at $28,600.

    Engineers enhanced torsional rigidity on all three models by increasing the number of spot welds throughout the bodies. New acoustic materials reduce NVH for quieter, more comfortable interiors.

    Although the drivetrains are carryover, retuned electric power steering systems, new wheel and tire combinations and retuned suspensions give the 2015 models sharper steering response and a firmer ride. Read the rest of this entry »