Monthly Archives: November 2011

The Highlander

Even if you are ill-informed about new cars, getting into the Highlander is a subliminal lesson on how to masterfully design a car-driver interface that works with intuitive ease.

The Highlander’s interior is a good example of how Toyota has become an undisputed powerhouse in the automobile industry. Behind the wheel, all it takes is one quick glance at the instrument cluster, radio, HVAC and other ancillary controls, and the driver feels right at home.

The clean centre stack is home to a set of large dials and switches for the sound system and HVAC – a godsend not only for bifocalled baby boomers, but for any driver new to the Highlander.

In addition to the typical steering wheel controls – radio, cruise and Bluetooth – Toyota has added another unusual but convenient feature – temperature and Off/Auto controls. The only irritants in the otherwise superb cabin of our test Highlander are the front-seat heater controls – two thin-post, spring-loaded rheostat controls that are frustratingly finicky to operate with heavy gloves. Otherwise, the interior is a comfortable and welcoming space.

Our demo vehicle (4WD V-6 with sport package) was equipped with a long list of features such as leather interior, heated front seats, three-zone climate control panoramic moon roof, power liftgate, 19-inch, five-spoke alloy wheels, third-row seating, voice-activated navigation and back-up camera. Driving the full-time all-wheel drive V-6 Highlander on snow-packed streets during a -20 C December cold snap demonstrated how good the Highlander is when the road are slick.

Fitted with Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires, the Highlander is confident. Further enhancing the winter driving capabilities of this mid-size crossover SUV is a Snow switch, mounted on the centre console, which when activated, minimizes tire slip by forcing the vehicle to start in second gear. (Other manufacturers, such as Mercedes-Benz and Volvo, offer similar automatic transmission-control traction aids.)

The Highlander’s permanent all-wheel drive system works seamlessly with its electronic traction control and vehicle stability control, and it takes a very sharp stab at the throttle and a jerk on the steering wheel (neither of which is recommended) in an icy corner to cause the Highlander to slip from its intended course.

Real-world testing on ice- and packed-snow covered streets reveals the Highlander’s well-tuned suspension, which soaks up winter ruts and potholes commendably. Appropriate for a family hauler, the suspension is tuned for comfort, and highway performance is very good as well. Unlike many vehicles we’ve tested recently, the Toyota insulates its occupants nicely from suspension thumps when hitting pavement expansion joints, and the cabin is quiet on the highway.

While overall handling is best described as solid and secure, the Highlander doesn’t qualify as a sport SUV by any stretch of the imagination. For starters, the electric power steering feels numb, and that blessedly refined suspension is too soft to tolerate sportscar antics.

Complementing the Highlander’s excellent packaging, fit and finish is Toyota’s excellent 3.5-litre DOHC V-6 engine mated to a smooth-shifting five-speed transmission. With 270 horsepower, this powertrain moves the Highlander effortlessly and its quite fuel-efficient, rated at a very good 12.6 L/100 km in the city and 8.7 on the highway. But this engine is no longer the class leader. Jeep’s new-for-2011 3.7-litre V-6 Pentastar engine is rated at 290 horsepower and achieves comparable fuel mileage.

Overall, it’s easy to understand why the Toyota Highlander is such a strong seller. It’s loaded with all the features that make it a stellar family hauler: It’s right-sized, neither too big nor too small, build quality, fit and finish are excellent, instrumentation and interior controls are intuitive and ergonomically correct, and it feels safe, secure and easy to drive.

With seating for seven (yes, the third row is tight and better suited for kids, but its there) and the carrying flexibility afforded by a completely flat cargo floor, its easy to recommend the 2011 Toyota Highlander 4WD V-6 as one of the top picks in the mid-size SUV class.

 

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The Volkswagen AG

Volkswagen AG, whose cars have been known to have nagging reliability problems, is hoping Passat sedans rolling out of its new $1-billion factory here won’t need a lift from the city’s historical hallmark – tow trucks.

Nearly a century after claiming its fame as the birthplace of the wrecker, Chattanooga is again in the automotive spotlight as VW looks to regain traction in the U.S.

“We know what we have to do here,” said Hans-Herbert Jagla, who heads human resources at the factory. “Everyone should know that the customer is expecting a perfect car.”

VW, the world’s third-largest automaker, is looking to triple U.S. sales over the next seven years. But to reach that goal, it needs to overcome a troubled history.

Its previous effort to manufacture cars in the U.S. was an admitted debacle. Quality problems and slumping sales prompted VW to close its first U.S. factory in Westmoreland County, Pa., more than two decades ago.

It was a huge setback for the company that brought the iconic Beetle across the Atlantic, making VW America’s first import darling.

VW has recovered some ground in recent years. The brand sold 256,830 vehicles last year, a 20-percent gain from 2009, according to Autodata Corp., but that was about half of what it sold during the boom years of the 1970s. Sales are up 17 percent through the first four months of this year.

VW continues to be plagued by quality problems, which is why Jagla said the automaker has been stressing high production standards to the 1,700 workers at the new factory. They are critical to the automaker’s growth plan, he said.

The VW nameplate ranked 29th out of 34 brands in the J.D. Power and Associates’ 2011 reliability rankings of cars after three years of ownership. It ranked 31st out of 33 brands on the Power’s 2010 initial quality survey of vehicles three months old.

“We have really tried to draw out lessons from the Westmoreland experience,” said Frank, chief executive of Volkswagen Group of America, Chattanooga Operations.

Built on a 1,400-acre complex east of town at the site of a former explosives factory, the plant opened this week with a different management structure than VW’s previous factory.

Managers of the failed Pennsylvania factory closeted themselves in Denver and were rarely present at the plant. This time, VW pulled in more than 200 company experts from operations around the world, including its high-end Audi and Bentley divisions, to work at the factory.

The Passat built in Chattanooga was designed specifically for the U.S. market and won’t be sold in Europe. It has an additional 3 inches of rear seat room. It also comes standard with options Americans expect, such as Bluetooth and dual-zone climate control.

The base European engine produces 122 horsepower, contrasted with the U.S. model, which starts at 170 horsepower, providing the type of merging and freeway acceleration American drivers often equate with a sense of safety and security.

The car, equipped with a manual transmission, will start at about US$20,000. Automatic transmission models and versions with larger engines, including a turbocharged diesel with expected highway fuel economy of 43 m.p.g. and a driving range of 800 miles, will start at about $26,000.

VW needs the vehicle to be a success. An earlier Passet was once the automaker’s star performer, selling more than 96,000 vehicles in 2002 and accounting for more than 28 percent of the company’s sales volume, according to auto information company Edmunds.com. Sales dwindled to less than 12,500 last year.

Initial plans call for the factory to produce about 56,000 vehicles during its first year of operation, although VW officials say the number could change.

Growing volume will be key for Volkswagen to meet its target for U.S. sales – including its Audi division – of more than 1 million vehicles per year by 2018. It wants to reach a U.S. market share of six percent in that time frame. Currently, the company, including Audi, has annual sales of 360,179, accounting for three percent of U.S. auto sales.

“This is VW’s first run at making cars tailored to the American tastes and at parity in price and size with the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, the cars that dominate that segment,” said Bill Visnic, an Edmunds.com analyst.

Early reviews of the Passat credit VW for increasing the size and reducing the price from previous versions. Visnic, however, said its conservative styling won’t draw much attention.

“The Passat is not a breakout car for VW, and somewhere along the line, they are going to need some breakout products if they are going to reach those sales goals, he said.

 

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The SH-AWD

So, in specific conditions – such as hard cornering on a slippery road – as much as 70 percent of the engine’s torque can be had at the outside rear wheel, precisely where you want it for optimum handling.

Indeed, we get to test the benefits of that vectoring at the Carolina Motorsport Park where, conveniently, for proof of concept, it’s pouring rain. True to billing, the TL’s SH-AWD system makes easy work of maintaining traction through the slippery curves. Hammer the gas on exit and there’s but a momentary hiccup as the car reacts and then the computers take over, easing the car out of the apex with minimal drama. One can’t actually feel all that torque vectoring between axles and wheels, but one does get a sense that whatever the system is doing, it’s doing it right.

The SH-AWD really does handle surprisingly well. The suspension is suitably firm, grip, even in the wet (and snow, says Acura) from the new 19-inch Goodyear Eagle RS-A radials is prodigious and the steering is quite communicative. The only issue for prospective owners is that the suspension’s compliance over small bumps is not cosseting – even minor creases in the road can be felt through the steering wheel, although it doesn’t seem to affect actual comfort very much.

Inside the cabin, the TL is largely unchanged except for superior materials and a bit more elegant trim. The front seats offer ventilation as well as heating and the cabin is noticeably quieter thanks to better NVH sealants.

There are technological enhancements such as voice recognition, blind-spot monitoring and superior Bluetooth capabilities (including a display of phone functions on the dashboard-mounted information screen). The on-board hard-drive has even more space to store music (and can be accessed by the aforementioned voice-recognition system), iPod and iPad menus are more easily navigated and, perhaps even more important for we the absent-minded, there’s a power management system that reduces the possibility of a rundown battery.

The big question for Acura is for all these small improvements, along with the styling refresh, are enough reverse the recent model’s slide. And I can’t give you a definitive answer and to whether the new one will fare better since, as I’ve said, I quite liked the latter one.

 

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The New 2012 Acura TL

I really like the look of the new 2012 Acura TL. It’s sharp and sleek with just a soupcon of sportiness – just what you’d expect from a Japanese luxury sedan with pretensions of elegance. The reason I hate to say it is because I actually liked the look of its predecessor – the one with the shark-like grille consumers hates so much TL sales dropped almost 50 percent – even better. I gave it a positive review when it was unveiled in 2009 and, just recently, congratulated Acura on its daring design despite the public resistance.

It’s a little wonder I am out of step with mainstream tastes. I have a long history of many would call, even by the most polite measure, oddball personal preferences. I think the greatest sitcom of all time was the short-lived Sledge Hammer, my favorite dramatic movie is the Razor’s Edge (the one Bill Murray movie almost universally panned) and, perhaps even more telling, I may be the only heterosexual male on the whole planet who finds Penelope Cruz unattractive.

So take my commendation of the new Acura’s shape with the same veracity as you would a profession of innocence from Bev Oda.

Whatever the case, Acura definitely had to revisit TL’s shape, especially that grille I liked so much. According to customer feedback, owners were perfectly satisfied with the car’s performance (save for the fuel economy) but absolutely loathed that front end. Longtime TL owners, the backbone of any car’s sales, were particularly turned off. Acura provides all manner of thoroughly researched reasoning behind this antipathy but the most logical conclusion one can make from the rejection of the outgoing model is that typical Asisn-luxury-car owners vote overwhelmingly Tory.

So the new one gets a smaller grille, a waterline across both front and rear bumpers (to break up the previously slab-sided haunches) and a bunch less chrome gaudy-ing up the exterior. The rear trunk lid has also been shortened and the car was slightly lowered, making the 2012 version look decidedly smaller than the 2011. Whether the changes will be enough to satiate Acura loyalists’ need for conservatism, only time will tell.

There are some notable performance improvements for 2012, the most dramatic being a marked improvement in fuel economy. Indeed, the base 3.5-litre TL consumes less than seven litres per 100 kilometres on the highway, an impressive feature for a car of this size with an impressive 280 horsepower under the hood. Acura touts changes to improved aerodynamics, moly-coated pistons and a new cold air intake system for the improvements, but the real advantage is the 2012′s new six-speed automatic transmission with its tall sixth gear, which keeps the engine purring below 3,000 r.p.m. at typical cruising speed.

The official figures for the 2012 are 10.4 L/100 km in the city and 6.8 on the highway compared with a rather profligate 13.1/9.0L/100 km for the previous version. Even the more powerful (305-h.p.) 3.7L in the top-of-the-line SH-AWD has seen dramatically improved fuel economy, now 11.4/7.6 versus the old gas-guzzler’s 13.8/9.4.

For those looking for the sportiest Acura, it’s worth trading up to the aforementioned SH-AWD, not so much for the 25-h.p. (and 19-pound-feet) boost but the handling advantages of the Super Handling All Wheel Drive package. Acura claims it’s one of the most sophisticated such systems in the biz because, while in normal circumstances it sends most of the engine’s toque to the front wheels, it can send as much as 70 percent to the rear wheels and, more importantly, said torque can be distributed (Acura calls the process vectoring) left to right at the rear axle.

 

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Ford Focus SE

This is the most radical car of the group for many reasons, mostly laudable, although one is loathsome. The Focus is a remarkably space-efficient package, very unusual for Detroit. It’s nine inches shorter than the Nissan, Hyundai, Mitsubishi, and Kia at the larger end, and more than three inches shorter than the next-up-the-ladder Suzuki. It’s not particularly tall, either. Yet it encloses more cabin space than all the others, most of it very usefully placed. We gave it top marks for two-passenger comfort in back (tied with the Corolla), although certain details intruded in such a way that it didn’t score as well in the space rating. Coach-class occupants will find a firm and proper cushion along with good knee and head clearance and excellent foot space under the front seats. Comfort for three across also shares top marks with the Toyota and Hyundai.

Too bad the driver gets such lousy accommodations. The seat-back has a rock-hard bar that runs across the very bottom. By dialing a crank on the front of the seat track, you can run the cushion up or down, thereby moving your back relative to the bar. So tolerant of human preference, this car. The bad news is, you’re going to feel it somewhere. Sorry, you can’t opt for a few hours of community service instead. Drive this car, take the punishment.

The Focus has a sit-up driving position with a good view out. The dash is busier than Congress on the last day of the session. There’s a fold-down center armrest that’s always in the way of the shifting arm no matter where it’s placed, which is a good reason to buy the automatic.

Staffers always comment, in these comparisons, on the Focus’s “Euro feel.” It has a resilient suspension that goes about its business with springy, long-excursion ups and downs. But it’s not tippy. And it passes over bumps with aplomb. Cornering roll angles are a bit nautical, but path control is very secure. Tire grip is impressive at 0.79 g.

The two-liter engine is on the loud side, and by most measures it’s weakest of the bunch. By small margins, the Focus is hindmost in the sprint to 60 and the quarter mile.

 

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Honda Civic LX

Highs: Great-fitting cockpit, slick shifter, good control layout, adept in the twisties.

Lows: Way too many rattles, way too many shades of metallic in the paint, harsh ride, numb path control on the interstate.

The Verdict: Something new from Honda – a loser.

Charts, 6 mpg better than the average of this group and 1 mpg better than the next – best Toyota. Places are reversed on the highway, where the Corolla, at 40 mpg slips one over the Civic, which still manages to beat the group average by 5 mpg. Such efficiency indicates shrewd engineering that lesser makers can’t match.

And Honda didn’t get molasses slow on us just to achieve superb mileage. This Civic accelerates to 60 mph in 9.3 seconds, 0.4 behind the class average but better than the Focus. Such commendable performance was achieved in the Honda way, from the smallest engine of the group – 1668cc – powering the lightest machine.

Still, it takes more than skillful engineering to create a great car. It takes quality control, which the test car, to our great surprise, lacked. It had some major rattles, and the metallic paint had more shady spots than the Coconino National Forest. We thought the panel gaps were rather wide, too, and certain details of the dash fit poorly.

Beyond fundamentals, great cars are also the result of pleasing choices. Maybe this Civic is trying too hard for sporty handling. It does very well on that score, but the ride has gotten harsh. Noisy, too. The engine, as well, is plenty loud in the high revs, and wind noise is apparent at speed. Moreover, path control on the freeway is nowhere near as sharp as Civics used to be.

Many details remain up to the usual Honda standards. The dash places the frequently used HVAC and sound-system controls up where you can easily see them. It’s a big-view car: The road ahead stays in sight even as it nears the front bumper. The clutch and shifter make a great team, and interior materials have a quality look and feel to them. The seat fits right. Ergonomics are top-notch.

This car has almost no tunnel running through the rear-passenger space, a boon for the center occupant (if there is one). For two, the seat cushion is low and firm, with poor support for the upper legs.

 

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Hyundai Elantra GLS

Highs: Gutsy performance; driver-friendly cockpit; satisfying responses from the machinery; and low, low price.

Lows: Stinky new-car smell, high-speed handling a little queasy.

The Verdict: If you can find a better portfolio of feels and features at this price, but it.

Sure, price counts. At $14,407 as tested, this is the lowest sticker of all, and the car is well-equipped, ranking just behind the Nissan on our features inventory.

But the Hyundai is more than merely a good deal. We enjoyed driving this car. It has a strong engine, just behind the speedy Corolla and Neon in go power. We fit nicely inside the wide, spacious cockpit. Steering effort around town is light, yet not overboosted at speed. The controls feed back good vibrations to the driver. And there’s an honest, no-monkey-business purposefulness about the way this Elantra moves.

Hyundai has the best driver’s-seat adjuster in the business. Two knobs on the left independently adjust front and rear height of the entire seat, not just the cushion relative to the backrest as the Japanese have routinely done for years; this way you can dial your preferred seat height and angle exactly, without moving your back out of the lumbar-support zone.

We also liked the cloth-covered and softly padded center armrest; the hard vinyl on most of the others beat up the editorial elbows after a few days on the road.

At 2886 pounds, the Hyundai is the beefiest of the group, but the weight is put to good use. The structure is solid, there’s good control of both powertrain and wind noise and none of the junky structural resonances over impacts that come with some of the others.

One criticism of the handling: In high-speed transitions, right where you change from straight to curve, there is a disconnected feel in the steering, causing you to grope a bit for the new arc.

Acceleration is third best, taking only 8.5 seconds for the rush to 60 mph. Given the weight burden, the engine is clearly a strong performer. It makes a disciplined yet lusty sound as it brings to the party plenty of low-speed energy to launch away from rest. It has big torque in the 2500-to-3500 range, too, so you needn’t stay hyperactive with the gear lever.

This car does the difficult: It satisfies on a broad list of requirements and slam-dunks the winning price.

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