Friday, February 17, 2017

2017 Ford Fusion Platinum - Road Test

Further proof that full-size sedan shoppers remain spoiled for choice.

Ask anyone in the automotive journalism industry about family sedan deathwatch and they’ll know instantly what you’re talking about. As crossovers (the immensely popular child of the SUV and minivan that can also trace its genetic roots to the station wagon) continue to break sales records in North America and abroad, the once-dominant family sedan finds itself playing second fiddle for the first time in…ever. As a result, automakers are putting more of their resources into crossovers while family sedans find themselves battling for the attention of an ever-shrinking client base.

Once content to blend in, the sedan has found itself forced to evolve rapidly in order to survive and by doing so, many have become aggressively styled while offering high-tech equipment. Toyota has claimed there will be ‘no more boring cars’ in their lineup and the new Camry appears desperate to prove itself worthy of your consideration by its looks alone. But meanwhile, in Dearborn’s stable, the second generation Ford Fusion has been one step ahead of the curve since it debuted in 2012 as a 2013 model. Carrying a front end highly reminiscent of recent Aston Martins, the Fusion has managed to not only stand out but also age gracefully, a tricky combination to accomplish. The Fusion is attractive and unique but not so radical that it will look dated before its ‘sell-by’ date. Snowbelt residents will be overjoyed that there is an all-wheel drive option; one of the few AWD family sedans available that isn’t a Subaru.

While on the east coast for business, the lady at the rental car counter rattled off a list of cars that I could get for the class size I had reserved. The Chrysler 200 had been mine once before, the Chevy Malibu didn’t interest me much and I would honestly rather have walked from Baltimore to Harrisburg than drive a Nissan Altima so the Ford Fusion it was. While walking up the row, looking for space A22, I spotted it immediately. Dressed in white pearl paint and sporting 18” chrome wheels, I knew right away that the Fusion I’d received was not some pedestrian SE or even a Titanium; it was the mack-daddy Platinum. Reveling in my good fortune, I shoveled my suitcase and laptop bag into the cavernous trunk, paired my iPhone to the SYNC system and requested the car's help in guiding me along on the hundred-mile trek north to my hotel in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

The Platinum trim comes handsomely equipped with LED headlights and fog lights, adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, rain-sensing wipers, blind spot monitoring and a host of other technology that makes getting where you need to be just a little bit easier. It’ll even park itself, a feature sure to wow your friends but one that proves a bit clunky in the real world.

Inside, the seats and door panels are trimmed in quilted leather in a color Ford calls ‘Medium Soft Ceramic’. Let’s not fool ourselves here. It’s ivory…borderline white with cocoa brown piping that matches the dashboard. Speaking of which, the dash top on Platinum models is also leather wrapped and stitched and it looks and feels amazingly high-class. It’s a little slice of the Rolls-Royce life for a tenth of the price. Navigation, blind spot monitoring, an amazing stereo, heated and ventilated front seats and a heated steering wheel are all standard, as well. Pretty much the only option boxes you can check for a Platinum model are for inflatable rear seatbelts at $190 and three color options (Burgundy Velvet, Ruby Red or White Platinum) that add $395 for the privilege.

The Fusion’s looks have aged quite nicely and given the nip-tuck that the surgeons at Ford performed for the 2017 model, they should continue to look fresh for a good while longer. Inside, the Fusion is a lovely place to spend time and as I was doing a ton of driving for work, it was the place where I’d be seated most often. The doors open and close with a reassuring and almost Germanic ‘whump’, the seats cradle you in multi-way adjustment and even the headrests are nicely padded. Once behind the wheel, you’ll find it power adjusts for reach and rake and contains more buttons than an Xbox One controller. Instrumentation is clear and, once you let your thumbs do the walking over the five-way buttons flanking each side of the steering wheel, easy to figure out. The analog speedometer sits dead center and is flanked on either side by two high-definition LCD displays. The screen on the left can be configured to show the tachometer, fuel level and engine temperature gauges in any combination thereof and also displays trip information, distance to empty, tire pressures and engine oil life. You can also customize the Fusion to your every wish, including enabling or disabling many of the convenience features. I disabled the automatic high beams and stand by my opinion that the technology, while neat, still hasn’t hit full maturity yet. The screen on the right can display phone, navigation or entertainment information and after a few hours behind the wheel, I found myself leaving it on showing the radio so the massive Sync 3 screen could use the full extent of its real estate to display the navigation map. I have a feeling that I’ll be missing the radio info in the gauges once I get back into my 2012 Hyundai Elantra.
The rest of the interior is a meeting point of common sense and ergonomic efficiency. While there are a decent number of identically sized round buttons for the climate controls, you find that you don’t use most of them if you leave the system on automatic. Or you can bypass them entirely by using the voice commands or the screen. The radio knob is dead center in the dash, flanked by a pair of tuning and seek switches. Presets are accessed via the 8” touch screen. Down on the console there is enough space to be featured in an episode of ‘Storage Wars’, dual cup holders and a dual-tier console with a second USB port and 12V socket. The 6-speed automatic transmission is summoned by a rotary dial on the console flanked by controls for the electronic parking brake and park assist systems. As for that rotary dial, I find its placement much more ergonomic than the one in the Chrysler 200 but still would prefer a standard shift knob and not on any moral grounds. I have no issue with how the rotary dial shifter works; I just don’t like how it feels. Most people naturally rest their free hand on the shifter and in the Fusion, your right hand is perpetually bored, searching in vain for a place to sit. After a day or two I found my fingers absent-mindedly twirling around on the knurling on the knob almost to the point where I began to annoy myself.

Over the next four days, I added a whopping 1,300 miles to the Fusion’s odometer, bouncing from western and central Pennsylvania to New Jersey and back again. It’s a perfectly serviceable steed in town but on the highway, the Fusion slips into its role as a superb long-distance cruiser. While not endowed with the 200’s almost supernatural ability to track a straight line with almost no steering input, the Fusion is composed and comfortable even at speeds of over 80 mph. It’s also quiet…eerily quiet. You can thank the liberal use of sound-deadening and even double-paned (!) side windows for that. Road noise is wonderfully muted with wind noise only whispering at you around the A-pillars at speeds above 70. Expansion joints make themselves heard only distantly and potholes might as well not exist. The adaptive cruise control is as smart as they come, even beginning to accelerate slightly when you signal for an overtaking maneuver. This is so it doesn’t fall flat when you jump into the passing lane and wait for the car to figure out that the Prius that was in front of it is no longer there and that warp speed can now resume. The front seats are a little narrow and I found my wallet digging into my backside after about an hour but if I tossed that into the massive storage bin beneath the navigation screen, the issue went away. The footwells are wide and should give even the broadest occupants room to stretch out. My only other complaint is that the dead pedal’s angle is a bit too steep and to be comfortable for much more than thirty minutes or so at a go. Rear seat occupants are unlikely to complain, either with their own cup holders and 12V and 110V outlets. Leg and headroom are plentiful and I was able to catch a 90-minute nap in the Fusion’s rear seat on one of the PA Turnpike’s service plazas and come out feeling rested on the other side.

Take it off the turnpike and onto back roads and the Fusion has no qualms in reminding you that this is not its preferred environment. Although it never feels out of control, it does not pretend to enjoy twisty two-lanes, throwing its heft into corners, keeling over like an ocean liner in heavy seas and making sure you feel every ounce of its 3700 pound curb weight as if to discourage you from ever trying such silliness again. The 2.0-liter EcoBoost engine does provide sufficient get-up-and-go and though you’ll never be wanting for power when merging, it never causes one to utter a ‘whoa’ when the right pedal is planted. Like the suspension, it makes sure you understand that it does not approve of such behavior. Power does come on in a linear fashion and turbo lag is minimal but the engine is hesitant to rev, requiring an aggressive stab of the throttle to achieve the desired result and it revs with a groan similar to that of a high school student trying to get out of bed. Shifts are normally butter smooth but put the transmission in sport mode and it becomes almost sarcastically sharp and aggressive as if trying to say, “Oh, you want to drive sportily? Is this sporty enough for you? While you think about what you’ve done, let me break your spine with this 3-4 shift.” Although the Fusion is far from having the dynamics of a 1978 LTD, it will never be confused with an Accord or a Mazda 6. Buyers with even a modicum of interest in spirited motoring are highly advised to look elsewhere.

While the Fusion didn’t rattle or squeak, there were a few build quality concerns that I spotted. The chrome belt line trim on the doors didn’t line up, the trunk lid always looked slightly ajar even when securely latched and a plastic trim piece on the top of the dash was already curling up at the edges. Additionally, the front seat heaters and ventilators claimed to work and the indicators lit up when their respective were prodded but no warmth was ever delivered. I was quite annoyed by this considering how chilly it was while I was in Pennsylvania. The heated steering wheel did work but never really seemed to get as warm as one might expect it should. Also, it felt like it was heating very unevenly so I would end up chasing the warm spots around the wheel.

Fuel mileage was merely average but considering the temperatures ranging from the low-20s to the high-30s and the speeds at which I was usually driving, I’ll take the 28-29 MPG that the Fusion delivered. I’d imagine that with warmer temps and lower speeds, mid-30s aren’t out of the question. However those seeking superior distance for their liquefied dinosaurs should turn their eyes toward the Hybrid and ‘Energi’ plug-in hybrid models.

Little niggles and quality concerns aside, the Fusion is a superbly capable automobile provided you don’t plan on autocrossing your daily driver on the weekends. If you’re looking to keep the miles off your BRZ or don’t want to daily your MX-5, the Fusion might just be the right vehicle to fill the second stall in your garage.

What’s Hot: Still a looker in middle age, librarian-approved interior noise levels, SYNC finally works, interior trimmings look priced well above the tag on the window, tons of room, gargantuan trunk, available AWD, top-notch cruise control.

What’s Not: Vehemently opposed to the mere idea of fun, a few lapses in quality, obnoxious dead pedal angle.

What It’s All About: A well-engineered vehicle that is good at many things but sadly remains largely forgettable once you’ve gotten out.

Others Like It: Buick LaCrosse, Chevrolet Impala, Hyundai Sonata, Toyota Avalon, Volkswagen Passat

Available Trim Levels: S, SE, Titanium, Platinum
Price Range*: $22,995 - $36,660**
Vehicle Tested: Fusion Platinum; no options or accessories
Price as Tested: $36,470
Engine: 2.0 liter turbo I-4 (245 hp / 275 lb. ft. torque)
Transmissions / Drive: 6-speed automatic with manual shift paddles / front wheel drive
Wheelbase: 112.2"
Overall Length: 191.8"
Overall Width: 72.9" (excluding mirrors)
Overall Height: 58.2"
Curb Weight: 3,680 lbs.***
Fuel Capacity: 16.5 gallons (FWD), 18 gallons (AWD)
EPA Fuel Economy Rating: 21 mpg city / 31 mpg highway / 25 mpg combined
Seating Capacity: 5
Location of Final Assembly: Hermosillio, Mexico
Basic: 3 years / 36,000 miles
Powertrain: 5 years / 60,000 miles
Body Corrosion: 5 years / unlimited miles

*Prices shown reflect manufacturer's suggested retail price at the time of publication. Top end of price range is for vehicle equipped with all available factory-installed options and does not include tax, title, registration fees or any accessories. Final prices may be higher.

** Range is representative of gas-powered vehicles only. Hybrid and plug-in models will vary.

*** Applies to Platinum model as equipped

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid - Road Test

Has Hyundai built a hybrid for everybody?

Whether we like it or not, the kind of car you drive can say a lot about you, even if those things aren’t true. If you drive a minivan, the world around you is immediately left under the impression that you and your significant other breed with Catholic proficiency while owners of pickup trucks are oft mistaken for rednecks and those for whom the radio dial has never left the local country station. Then there are hybrids. Thanks to the Prius, if you drive a hybrid, the entire world believes you eat granola, recycle everything, get your news from MSNBC and can’t wait to get that ‘Bernie – 2016’ bumper sticker. But like every other product for sale in our world, hybrids get sold to everybody so is the new Sonata Hybrid one for the masses?

This most recent Sonata is the company’s sixth generation in the United States but only the second round for the hybrid. Not as flamboyant or beautiful as the outgoing generation, the latest Sonata is more sedately styled thanks to conservative tastes in the Korean home market but it is still easily recognizable as a Hyundai. The 2016 Sonata Hybrid was released early to fleets and rental car companies with a plug-in version coming before the end of the year. This is how the keys to Graphite Blue SE crossed my palms during a 36 hour whirlwind trip to Los Angeles for a friend’s wedding. Armed with a full tank of gas and a driving range of 600 miles claimed by the trip computer, we loaded up the Sonata Hybrid with three people and their luggage and headed south towards Long Beach from LAX in the thick of LA’s notorious rush hour traffic.

My first two hours with Sonata Hybrid, or HSH as its fans and owners like to call it were spent on California Highway 1 where it runs along Sepulveda Boulevard right out of LAX and turns into the Pacific Coast Highway somewhere near Manhattan Beach. Progress was slow for the first 10 miles or so with an average speed of only 15 mph and use of the air conditioning under the beating California sun but despite this, the Sonata was turning in a highly respectably 39 MPG and spent most stops and low-speed crawls in EV mode. Once free of the traffic and with a lucky run of green lights, the HSH began to come into its own as I learned how to get it to do my bidding, staying in EV mode as long as possible when starting from a stop, coasting to red lights from a distance and trying to stay moving at all costs. I find this driving behavior obnoxious in normal cars but when you’re behind the wheel of a hybrid, it suddenly feels like a game and for the right minds, it can actually be fun. Maybe all those Prius drivers I get stuck behind aren’t as crazy as I once thought. By the time we hit the 105 freeway, the HSH was happily returning a stout 40.7 MPG despite an average speed of only 16.

Over the next day and a half, I spent 170 miles in the HSH running around Long Beach with a quick trip up to Pasadena to visit a friend. Most of my freeway driving was done at night so traffic was minimal, allowing the Sonata to stretch its legs and run free. I spent my time on the streets of Long Beach inadvertently irritating other drivers by starting out slowly enough to keep the green ‘EV’ light glowing on the dash and only once during my time with the car did my average fuel mileage drop below 40. Performance is decent although I refrained from punching it more than once or twice. I can say that in Sport mode and with your foot down, the HSH has more than enough oomph to chirp the tires on a full-throttle start. For the most part, electric-to-gas transitions are seamless and imperceptible but the HSH I drove would occasionally botch the transition with a rather noticeable jolt combined with a 'thud' that I chalked up to the speed (around 35 mph) at which the transition occurred. The Sonata rides comfortably enough with bumps being soaked up by a fully independent suspension and road noise is fairly well isolated. The chunky A-pillars do create some wind roar at freeway speeds, though, a fault that can be remedied by turning up the radio just a bit. Trunk space is impressive for a hybrid, swallowing up three suitcases, two backpacks and a laptop bag with room to spare.

Inside, the HSH offers more than enough space for four adults with five being acceptable for short periods provided they’re close friends and everybody took a shower that morning. The front seats in the example I drove are decently comfortable but the backrests are a little too soft for my tastes and I believe that adjustable lumbar support would do wonders to improve the situation here. Driver controls are clear and easy to understand for the most part but the automatic climate control panel is packed a dozen or so buttons that are all the same size and require an extended gaze to determine what’s what, a fault the steering wheel controls must also contend with. The touch-screen radio sounded merely average but often seemed unwilling to cooperate on first prod, instead requiring a firm and direct poke to achieve the desired result. Hard buttons for the presets would be greatly appreciated, as well but the Bluetooth connectivity was easy to use and easy to hear and be heard. Gauges are clear, easy to read and well laid out with one display offering a breakdown of your driving style in percentages and highlighting in real time how you’re driving. I managed to maintain 63% economical, 36% normal and 1% aggressive over my time with the HSH. One other neat feature that drivers unwilling to spring for the higher-end Limited model and its active blind spot monitoring are sure to appreciate is a built-in convex spot mirror on the driver’s side. Even with mirrors properly adjusted, it’s still a handy thing to have and is definitely helpful to keep an eye across multiple lanes of LA’s massive freeways.

Build quality was good overall but some minor parts of the interior felt cheap, mainly the Bluelink manual-dim mirror which seemed so thin and brittle that I suspect it will be broken within a year or so. Additionally, the range of available paint colors is so bland that I almost fell asleep looking at it although this seems to be an industry fault at this point in time so I’ll spare Hyundai the shame of being the sole party guilty of this sin.

All in all, the 2016 Sonata Hybrid is a good car but nothing groundbreaking or exceptional. The 41.4-MPG average I received over the course of the weekend is impressive for most but merely average for the hybrid crowd and certainly far from touching Prius territory. I believe the Fusion Hybrid to be better looking, the Camry Hybrid more established and Accord Plug-In more efficient for around-town use but for someone who must have a hybrid but doesn’t want to buy American or Japanese, it’s just what the doctor ordered.

The Good: Handy driver’s side blind spot mirror, smooth and quiet ride, decent performance all-around, good interior and trunk space, neat driving style monitor.

The Bad: Bland color pallet, occasionally rough EV to gas transitions, some cheap interior pieces, not as pretty as its older sister.

What It’s All About: Does most things well but few things exceptionally. It provides the rewards of a hybrid without the stigma.

Others Like It: Ford Fusion Hybrid / Energi, Honda Accord Hybrid, Kia Optima Hybrid, Toyota Camry Hybrid


Available Trim Levels: SE, Limited
Price Range: $26,835 - $35,435*
Vehicle Tested: Sonata Hyrbid SE; no options or accessories
Price as Tested: $26,835
Engine: 2.0 liter I-4 (154 hp / 140 lb. ft. torque) with 38kw electric motor (151 lb. ft. torque)
Transmissions / Drive: 6-speed automatic with manual shift function / front wheel drive
Wheelbase: 110.4"
Overall Length: 191.1"
Overall Width: 73.4" (excluding mirrors)
Overall Height: 57.9"
Curb Weight: 3,497 lbs.**
Fuel Capacity: 15.9 gallons
EPA Fuel Economy Rating: 40 mpg city / 44 mpg highway / 42 mpg mixed **
Seating Capacity: 5
Location of Final Assembly: Asan, South Korea
Basic: 5 years / 60,000 miles
Powertrain: 10 years / 100,000 miles
Corrosion: 7 years / unlimited miles
Hybrid System Components: 10 years / 100,000 miles
Hybrid Battery: Lifetime Warranty***

*Prices shown reflect manufacturer's suggested retail price at the time of publication. Top end of price range is for vehicle equipped with all available factory-installed options and does not include tax, title, registration fees or any accessories. Final prices may be higher.
** Figure is representative of test vehicle.
*** Applicable only to original owner.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Diesels Are Coming! The Diesels Are Coming!

Rudolf Diesel's engine has had a rough time gaining much more than limited commercial acceptance in America. Widely popular with trucking companies for their monstrous torque and million-mile durability and with railroads for their greater efficiency and less maintenance over steam, the clattery compression-ignition engine is viewed as a novelty to a majority of American motorists. Derided as smelly, noisy, and slow, diesel cars sold in America have never been very popular with the Volkswagen Golf and Jetta TDI often being the only diesel-equipped family cars, frequently sold without competition although the tides appear to be changing.

My current job maintains a fleet of some three hundred mini-buses, all of them diesels. The newest ones are a Chevrolet chassis motivated through life by GM's latest Duramax diesels while the older buses are Fords equipped with the venerable 6.0 liter Powerstroke. Although they are durable with many older examples showing close to 300,000 miles, the Powerstroke engine is exactly what the average American consumer thinks about when somebody utters the words 'diesel engine'. They're uncomfortably noisy when you're on the outside, even at idle, they smoke considerably when cold and take an eternity to come up to temperature when the thermometer drops. Finally they lack the oomph of a gas equivalent chassis. The Duramax, on the other hand, starts and runs like a gasoline engine and is so quiet that you can even hear the turbo spool up under throttle. I've yet to see one smoke thanks to the exhaust fluid after-treatment and even though they've been tasked with hauling a vehicle weighing around 20,000 pounds fully loaded, they're no slouch off the line. However, there are drawbacks. During a cold snap this past winter when we were starting buses in temperatures close to zero, the Chevys would require six or seven glow plug warming cycles before coming to life while the Fords were cranking over first time out albeit with a longer glow plug warming times (around ten seconds). Despite this, engines like the Duramax diesels powering our newest buses are the future of diesel engines.

While public perception and inherent flaws of the diesel engine kept all but the most astute stingy buyers away from the rare US market offerings, emissions regulations did the rest to keep the remainder from even reaching showrooms. As emissions standards grew increasingly strict, import manufacturers began to refrain from providing them at all as the size of the market would never allow them to recover the costs to bring them up to spec. As a result, the availability of diesels has been restricted to larger cars with higher profit margins such as the Mercedes E-Class with the exception of the aforementioned Golf and Jetta. Currently the only diesel car available for under $30,000 in the United States outside the VW family is the Chevrolet Cruze 2.0 TD.

Now anyone over the age of fifty will likely remember what happened the last time GM tried to put a diesel engine in a passenger car in this country and is probably already cringing. For those who don't, it was such a disaster that it made the Titanic's maiden voyage look like a Hollywood success story. Rather than starting from scratch and constructing a purpose-built diesel engine, the general had what must have seemed like a great idea at the time and took the Oldsmobile 350 Rocket engine, made some tweaks and voila! Instant diesel power. What resulted was one of the most awful diesel engines ever made and served only to turn several generations off of diesel engines for good. As diesels operate off compression and not spark, their connecting rods, head bolts and studs associated with the big boom have to be considerably stronger but GM simply used the parts from the gas model with predictable results. Engines began warping heads, cracking head gaskets and causing hydrolock and when repaired like a gasoline engine, the problem went uncorrected for the rest of all time. Couple the atrocious reliability with acceleration times matching that of the average glacier (around 16-21 seconds to sixty for the worst offenders) and it's not hard to understand why older folks cringe and yell out, "WHY?!" when I tell them my friend just bought a Chevy Cruze with a diesel engine.

But there's no need to fear. The diesel engine in the Cruze is the real deal, straight out of GM Europe, a continent that knows a thing or two about diesel power. At idle it is a little clattery but certainly nothing like that of a 1980 Oldsmobile Cutlass Wagon Diesel which sounded a bit like that corner of a rest stop reserved for semi trucks of the same era. But once you're on the move, there's nothing to indicate what's going on under the hood. In addition to being quieter, the Cruze Diesel is quick at right around 8.5 seconds to 60 mph and gets amazing fuel economy. On a brief stint on US-26 with the cruise control set at 55, I saw a steady 64 MPG average over just a few miles. Now whether that could be maintained on a longer drive remains to be seen but one GM engineer claimed to have gotten over 900 miles out of a tank on a Cruze Diesel and I for one don't see any reason to believe he's lying. In terms of evolution, GM's 1970s diesels were the little amoebas found in pond slime while the two liter four pot in the Cruze is Scarlett Johansson. It's smart, pretty, ambitious and everybody is sure to want it when they find out their neighbor got one.

What allows the Cruze to meet stringent American (read: California) emissions standards is a small plastic tank that occupies the space in the trunk that would normally snuggle the spare tire. Contained within the tank is seven or eight gallons of a urea after-treatment (called Diesel Exhaust Fluid or DEF in the industry) sprayed into the exhaust at intervals to keep it squeaky clean. As of present, this system is only widely found in North America but is slowly finding its way around the world and as of 2018, European diesels will have to meet the same emissions requirements as the American ones. While DEF systems are not the only answer to meeting American standards (current VW and Audi TDI models sold here rely on whiz-bang German ingenuity), the making of equals means Americans longing for the diesels offered in Europe will finally begin to see them trickle across the Atlantic and into America's cities and suburbs. Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Nissan, Toyota, Volvo and more all offer cars with one or more diesel choices in Europe and though it's almost a guarantee we won't see all of them here, the diesel landscape is looking more promising now than it has in probably ever and I for one can't wait.


Passenger Cars and SUVs Currently Sold in the US with a Diesel Engine Option

Audi A6
Audi A7
Audi A8
Audi Q5
Audi Q7
BMW 3-Series
BMW 5-Series
BMW 7-Series
Chevrolet Cruze
Jeep Grand Cherokee
Mazda 6 (currently awaiting emissions approval)
Mercedes-Benz E-Class (sedan only)
Mercedes-Benz GL-Class
Mercedes-Benz GLK-Class
Mercedes-Benz M-Class
Porsche Cayenne
Volkswagen Golf
Volkswagen Jetta / Jetta Sportwagon
Volkswagen Touareg
Volkwagen Beetle (only diesel convertible available in the US)
Volkswagen Passat

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Why Autonomous Cars Can't and Won't Take Over the World…Yet

Google made a pretty big stink over its fully autonomous prototype car that was unveiled a few weeks ago. Completely devoid of so much as a steering wheel, any sort of pedals or styling, I have to say there are a list of things that I would do before I'd get into the Google Car and that includes a romantic, candle-lit dinner with Hannibal Lecter.

The Google Car is the ugliest thing to ever sit atop four wheels...ever...full stop. It makes the Pontiac Aztek look like Brooke Shields at nineteen and would cause even the most devout Edsel detractor to go scrambling for the keys to take a spin. But despite its cartoonishly dour appearance, the Google Car has attracted attention both positive and negative and people either can't wait to get the chance to buy one or are dreading the day they show up and that goes back to how certain people perceive driving.

For the majority of us, driving is a chore, a boring, tedious exercise that just has to be done to get where you need to be. I am firmly in the opposite camp that finds driving exciting, fun, and adventurous. For me, getting behind the wheel is the point of driving, not the destination but I can totally understand the appeal of being driven around the city, not having to worry about anything except what you'll do after work. But despite that, the Google Car brings a trickle of fear to my mind because I can now see the genesis of the time when our privilege to drive for ourselves will be selectively removed, likely "for our own good". Or will it?

A dated study (the only one I could find) from 1985 showed that a whopping 93% of vehicle crashes in Britain and the US were caused either partly or wholly by human factors. If anything, I'd wager this number has likely gone up in the intervening years due to the improvements in the performance and design of cars and the increasingly distracted nature of smart phone addicted drivers. There's no denying that autonomous cars hold the potential to greatly reduce traffic congestion and almost completely eliminate the human role in car crashes, especially in today's world but there's a part of this that hasn't been investigated thoroughly and in my opinion, until it has been, I wouldn't put any money on autonomous vehicles taking over the world just yet.

Consider this; with autonomous cars there would be no reckless driving, no speeding, no running of stop signs or red lights and no road rage. Pedestrians could cross the road safely, bicyclists would be given plenty of room and there's a solid chance that in the future, physical traffic control devices such as signs and signals would disappear from the landscape entirely as the autonomous vehicle network is built up and begins to communicate. Sounds like paradise, doesn't it? To you it might, but not to the elected and appointed officials that run our governments.

Per the National Motorist Association, anywhere between $4.5 and $6 billion is raised annually from traffic fines alone. Say that figure out loud slowly. Go ahead…I'll wait. SIX....BILLION.

No matter your political leaning, left, right, center, whatever, you have to realize that cities and states across the nation are not going to just let that cash cow out to pasture without one hell of a fight, especially with how much cash-strapped cities are now leaning on their police departments to bring in extra cheddar. Think about it; no more drivers means no more cell phone violations, no more red light running or rolling through stop signs, no speeding, no failure to signal and no improper lane changes. Zip…zilch…nada. The only thing left to squeeze out of autonomous cars would be parking tickets and expired tags. And the government will not be the only one to suffer from this sudden loss of income.

Insurance companies would be left insuring something that is virtually impossible to crash, will be very hard to steal and the only thing they'll likely be insuring it against is the odd chance that a tree happens to crush it in the middle of the night. It happens in insurance commercials but car-crushing trees are a fairly rare thing in the real world. Sure they'd be paying out far less but I'd bet a sizable chunk of my monthly premium that you wouldn't pay what you're paying now to cover a car you can't crash and that nobody else can hit. And the list of potential victims goes on; automotive body shops would vanish virtually overnight, companies that specialize in traffic control and signals as well as those involved in photo radar and red light cameras would become a mere memory, no more pizza delivery drivers to tip, and the enterprise that has built itself up around humans and the things we do, accidentally and intentionally, behind the wheel would almost completely cease to exist. Millions would find themselves out of work, billions of dollars would be lost, and an industry reduced to the bare minimum is the future in a world where cars aren't controlled by humans. I cannot conceive of a scenario where at least one person would go unaffected by a world without cars driven by people. I'm sure some of you are likely screaming at your computer screen right now, saying that somebody in 1915 was probably going on the same way about carriage makers and blacksmiths and you are right. The displaced millions would find other work but the difference is that horses remain very popular as a sport and hobby interest solely for the beauty of the animal and while the industry surrounding horses is a mere shadow of what it once was, billions in ticket revenue didn't ride on the back of a horse. And that's the bitter truth.

If the day comes that autonomous cars do take over our roads entirely, you can bet that a whole slough of fees will be attached to them (at purchase, annually, or both) to make up for the lost ticket revenue the average motorist provides Uncle Sam in any given year and like the frequency of traffic tickets, it would go up 'as needed'. You may be ready for autonomous cars but if you follow the money, you'll find that very few others are.

Friday, January 31, 2014

2014 Toyota Venza - Quick Drive

For once, a little truth in advertising.

In 2008, Toyota announced the Venza for the following model year and I remember being struck by its styling and how un-Toyota this vehicle appeared from the outside. It was the first Toyota product in many years that actually caught and held my attention for more than a few minutes but somehow, it escaped my test-drive list until now.

Lately I've been feeling the effects of an ailment I have affectionately dubbed AADD for Automotive Attention Deficit Disorder and despite loving my 2012 Hyundai Elantra, my AADD has had me ordering brochures and prowling the lots for the next shiny set of wheels to cross my path. Although I have no plans to replace my current car, I had to scratch my new-car itch just to get the urge out of my system so I located a Venza LE in Classic Silver Metallic and hit the road for a 24-hour quick test of this odd-man-out Toyota.

Despite disapproving strongly of Toyota's direction over the past decade or so (a point I made clear in my last post), what the Venza showed me right off the bat was not what I was expecting. Exterior fit and finish was very good with consistent panel gaps and a nice paint job low on orange-peel, an unappealing characteristic that has been the result of newer, environmentally friendly paints. The Venza's exterior has changed little since its introduction with only a minor refresh starting with the 2013 model year so the 14 I tested was a carryover with only minor changes. Up front, the broad satin-finish grille is flanked by smart-looking headlights with fog lamps set into gloss black housings placed low on the bumper. The Venza is much more the result of a minivan and station wagon mating than it is SUV and the low roofline and wide glass area are further proof of this fact. A clever pinch line along the bottoms of the doors is accented by a protective rub strip and adds enough flavor to keep it interesting without being ostentatious. Towards the rear, the Venza shows a dash of DNA from the SUV side of the family with a thick D-pillar and a fairly small rear window above angular yet handsome taillight clusters that mock the headlights up front, giving some continuity to a vehicle that is a mix of an SUV, crossover, and traditional station wagon. Set on 20" shadow gray five spoke wheels, the Venza carries an aggressive stance that is unique enough to stand out in a crowd but ambiguous enough to blend in when needed. It goes without saying the design has aged very well in the six years since its introduction.

Moving to the interior, the Venza continued to surprise me. My last Toyota test drive (not reviewed here) was a 2013 Prius and with acres of hard plastic, a myriad of rattles and unimpressive fabrics, its interior was far more early-90s GM than Toyota. The Venza could not have been more different. I found the seats firm but reasonably comfortable however the lumbar support protruded a bit too high for my liking and left my lower back woefully unsupported. The whole dash is trimmed in a nice, soft-touch material with a impressed design pattern that extends to the fabric seats that look and feel like they came out of a Subaru Outback, even sharing similar material design cues. Leather seats are available on XLE and Limited models and carry an elegant piping along the edges. The arm rests on the doors and console are trimmed in a vinyl that could almost pass for leather and the remainder of the console is fitted with a hard plastic that has a faux-aluminum look with a high gloss finish that looks and feels first-rate. All switches and stalks operate with a smoothness and precision that smacks more of a Lexus than a Toyota starting at less than thirty grand although I found a few small plastic pieces didn't line up quite like one would expect. But overall, the Venza is very well put together with excellent materials and leaves me wondering why all Toyota models aren't this well made.

Interior storage space is copious with a massive glovebox and wide, gaping door panels but it's the genius design of the center console that reminds me a bit of Chrysler's clever years during the 90s. The arm rest not only slides back
and forth but also opens to reveal a cavernous storage space, illuminated of course. But with the arm rest down, a quick touch of the chromed latch handle at the front of the console sends the cup holders sliding under the arm rest to reveal a second, individual storage space even larger than the first. This, too is illuminated and contains a power port and USB/AUX plug-ins for the audio system and a slot adjacent to the cup holders is just the right size to hold a smart phone. The only drawback of this layout is the cup holders are too shallow and too wide for a 20 ounce soda bottle with the rubber inserts removed and too skinny with them in. I found it best to use the dedicated bottle holders in the door pockets. Rear seat space borders on limousine style with dedicated air flow vents (but no controls), a fold-down arm rest and excellent forward and side vision. Cargo space is very good with the seats up and they can be folded quickly with a simple pull of a handle within the cargo area although they tend to get hung up on the seatbelts and operator intervention is often required. Despite this, the concept is sound and very practical.

Driver controls are simple at first glance with a handsome electroluminescent gauge cluster containing a tachometer, 140-mph speedometer as well as fuel and temperature gauges. My LE level tester (read: base model) came with a urethane steering wheel instead of the leather-wrapped rim found in higher end models but nevertheless, it contained controls for the audio, Bluetooth phone as well as Toyota's ubiquitous and idiot-proof cruise control stalk, the number of which produced to date must stretch into the billions. Set high on the dash is a simple three-row liquid crystal display containing the clock, outside temperature, automatic climate control status as well as a trip computer that shows average and instant fuel economy, range to empty and average speed. Thankfully, any of these functions can be reset individually from one another and are not tied into either Trip A or B functions in the gauge cluster odometer. Conversion to and from metric measurements is as simple as pushing a single button and this simplicity is a beautiful departure from some other vehicles that require a PhD in engineering just to set the clock. Complaints on the interior are few. I found some controls to be a bit of a stretch, especially the window controls which are set too far forward on the door panel, a location that required me to look or else guaranteed activation of the rear window instead of the front one I wanted. The power mirror control is also mounted far away from easy reach on the dash and is not illuminated at night.

 My test car came fitted with Toyota's optional Entune multimedia and navigation system that allows smartphone users to link up and download text messages and all sorts of information and stream Pandora, all provided you download the Entune app first. As the car had to be returned by 1:30 PM on Friday, I elected not to download the free app to my iPhone 5 which is already strewn with apps so I can't comment on how the two work together. The sound system itself offers as many choices as one could dream of. In addition to the standard AM/FM radio and single-CD player (does anybody even offer a CD changer anymore?), Entune provides XM Satellite Radio, HD radio on supported FM stations, Bluetooth streaming from your phone of choice as well as iPod connectivity and the ability to play music off a USB flash drive or a simple AUX cable. The sound that came from the system, despite not being the top-line JBL speakers, was very good. The bass hit low and hard and the highs came through nice and clear without being tinny although a bit more sound tweaking was required to perfect the sound while streaming through Bluetooth.

Sadly it seems all the R&D money on Entune was spent on the tunes and what remained (I don't know how many cents but it couldn't be many) was spent on the navigation system. The display is small by modern standards, only 6.1 inches and the resolution is nothing short of horrid. Street names are too small to read and the lack of contrast makes it difficult to make out any form of detail in day mode but at night when the screen turns black, it becomes so useless that it may as well turn off. The navigation feature itself is almost as bad, if not worse. While hunting down some ice cream, I asked the system to direct me to the nearest Baskin-Robbins and almost immediately, it directed me to "keep left" after exiting the freeway only to realize after making my turn it meant to say "keep right". Upon correcting my direction of travel, it instructed me to "Proceed to Hayden Island Drive and then turn left towards I-5." A left turn onto said street would have directed me away from I-5 so I cancelled the guidance and elected for an M&M McFlurry from a nearby McDonalds', the location of which I knew. I strongly suspect that there was something wrong internally with the unit on my test car so this may not reflect the system's capabilities but it left me convinced that Magellan himself could have found the mint chocolate chip on a sugar cone that I so desired faster than Entune could.

On the road, the Venza dashes any sort of hopes its potential driver may have had about being a sporty vehicle. Almost right away, I realized this is a car tuned for comfort, something I couldn't help but find ironic given the sporty appearance of its 20" wheels and aggressive, lowered stance. The steering has the communicational abilities of someone attempting to describe the Mona Lisa through Morse code and is horridly over-boosted and disconnected from the road at all times. Steering the Venza around freeway loop ramps and twisty roads feels a bit like turning a wheel on an arcade driving game in the sense that you judge your direction of travel based on where the hood is pointing and compensate accordingly but you never feel the turns. If the steering failed to inform you of the Venza's mission, the suspension will never let you forget it. Although it is to be commended for making the ride very good with the huge wheels and relatively low profile tires, any sort of aggressive input through the throttle, brakes or steering is grossly exaggerated. Quick direction changes result in immediate and concerning body lean and wallow and though it never approaches feeling unsafe, it is quite unsettling.

Venza power is provided by either a 2.7-liter four cylinder or a 3.5-liter V6, the latter of which was right at home between the engine mounts of my test car and pumped its 268 horsepower through a very smooth and refined six-speed automatic with a 'sport' shift manual mode, the irony such a name not being lost on this author. Short freeway merge ramps were of no concern to the V6 and it sounds good enough without being excessively harsh or loud but it asserts its power with a subdued roar. While ground clearance is decent, the overhangs are especially long and the front bumper sits low, precluding the Venza from any sort of heavy-duty off-road use. Dirt tracks and well-maintained forest service roads shouldn't be an issue but if your commute includes stretches of the Rubicon Trail, a 4Runner (or if you hurry, an FJ Cruiser) might be the better option.

My only real complaints about the Venza is its pinched rear window that impedes rearward visibility and a fuel tank that I can only assume is the size of a plastic Solo cup although Toyota claims it is 17.7 gallons, a figure I deem to be about three gallons too small for a vehicle of this size. Starting from full, the gauge was informing me I had just above 1/2 remaining after traveling just over 120 miles. But even after brimming the tank, the Venza had only taken 7.6 gallons and the needle had fallen from full after a mere 25 miles running all-highway at 65-70 mph. The Venza makes a great road trip car with its massive interior space and comfort but plan on stopping for gas frequently.

You may recall the Venza ad from a few years ago that featured a twenty-something female speaking to the camera and discussing her concern for her parents' lack of Facebook friends representing their being 'anti-social'. During her dialogue, it shows her parents taking their Venza out into the countryside with their mountain bikes and meeting up with other friends for a ride through what I assume is Northern California wine country on a beautiful, cloudless day. After a few hours in the Venza, this commercial came floating back from the depths of my memory and I came to the conclusion that the folks in that ad are exactly the kind of people Toyota is targeting with this car. It's for those who want the versatility of an SUV, the relative fuel efficiency of a crossover and the ride comfort of a traditional station wagon without the stigma or drawbacks of any and the Venza checks all those boxes beautifully. While it's never lit the sales charts on fire, the Venza has moved off dealers' lots in respectable numbers (usually between 30,000 and 40,000) each year since its introduction, easing Millennials' fears about their parents' social lives one sale at a time.


2014 Toyota Venza

The Good: Quiet and comfortable ride, good ergonomics, massive interior space for people and their things, handsome exterior styling, very good fit and finish inside and out.

The Bad: Small fuel tank, useless navigation system, back-up camera flummoxed by darkness, a few controls hard to reach.

The Verdict: A stylish and comfortable sensory isolation transportation chamber for the active lifestyle crowd.

Others Like It: Ford Edge, Honda Crosstour, Nissan Murano


Available Trim Levels: LE, XLE, Limited
Price Range: $27,950 - $40,825*
Vehicle Tested: LE V6 AWD with LE Preferred Package, door edge guards, carpeted floor mats and carpet cargo mat
Price as Tested: $35,429
Engines: 2.7-liter I-4 (181 hp / 182 lb. ft. torque) OR 3.5-liter V6 (268 hp / 246 lb. ft. torque)
Transmissions / Drive: 6-speed automatic with manual shift function / front or all-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 109.3"
Overall Length: 189.0"
Overall Width: 75.0"
Overall Height: 63.4"
Curb Weight: 4,045 lbs.**
Fuel Capacity: 17.7 gallons
Fuel Economy: 18 mpg city / 25 mpg highway**
Seating Capacity: 5
Location of Final Assembly: Georgetown, Kentucky
Basic: 3 years / 36,000 miles
Powertrain: 5 years / 60,000 miles
Corrosion: 5 years / unlimited miles

*Prices shown reflect manufacturer's suggested retail price at time of publication. Top end of price range is for vehicle equipped with all available factory-installed options and does not include any accessories. Final prices may be higher.
** Figure is representative of LE V6 AWD test vehicle.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

And so the Dying Phoenix Begins to Burn

          Mighty Toyota currently finds itself in an unenviable position and one that would have been unfathomable twenty years ago; the stigma of being branded with the image of an 'old person's' car. This image crisis has been years in the making and is symptomatic of a quandary very familiar in the car business, the fear of and outright refusal to evolve, innovate, and take risks. To look into why Toyota's brand image continues to decline, we must wind the clock back to the years following World War II and look at Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors.
          After the war ended and the troops came home, the economy boomed and people moved out of the cities and into the suburbs. Interstates were constructed and the United States changed as a whole, becoming a society that revolved around and depended increasingly on the automobile. It was an exciting time in the American automotive industry as the Big Three and other now-defunct brands battled it out to compete for business, making changes every model year to keep the offerings fresh and the customers coming in. Among the two most well-remembered attempts at innovation and customer retention were peddled by Ford and Chrysler in the mid-to-late 1950s when Ford introduced the Edsel brand and Chrysler pioneered the 'Forward Look', both seriously risky moves and both would ultimately have lasting consequences on the corporate culture on both sides.
         As we all know now, the Edsel was a colossal failure. Derided as ugly and irrelevant, the brand was priced too near similarly-equipped offerings from the Ford and Mercury lines to remain a competitive entry. Coupled with a nationwide recession, production of first-year 1958 Edsels only reached 63,107 units, well shy of the 200,000 units Ford was hoping to achieve. Sales continue to decline to just under 45,000 in 1959 and by 1960, only 2,846 Edsels were made before the brand was dropped entirely. Ford had gambled and lost.
          Chrysler's risk with the Forward Look was already internally tainted by the failed Airflow of the late 1930s but nevertheless, it succeeded at first. With modern styling and crisp lines, the Forward Look styling and revolutionary new features vaulted Chrysler to grab nearly a quarter of the American new car market by the end of the 1950s. Like the Edsel, though, the Forward Look was destined for failure. With so much revolutionary and untested equipment on the all-new models, many cars were rushed into production and as a result, quality control suffered enormously. The Forward Look models rusted out within two or three years, trim pieces fell off brand-new cars and the revolutionary styling risk that took Chrysler to the top was soon tainted by poor quality and tarnished the brand's image for decades to come.
          For the next twenty years or so, the Big Three retreated into a shell of conservatism and continued to make pretty much the same cars they had always made; large, thirsty whales with big engines and tiny fuel economy ratings. When the public clamored for small, fuel-efficient vehicles in the wake of the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, Detroit didn't listen. Henry Ford II took great pride in the size of his cars and once said, "Small cars, small profits." Not finding what they wanted at home, Americans began turning to the well-made, fuel efficient Japanese cars being offered by Toyota, Honda, and Datsun. They were the cars Americans wanted in a time of uncertainty about the price and availability of fuel. It would take a billion-dollar federal loan, the charisma and vision of Lee Iacocca, and Chrysler risking it all (literally) in the early 80s with the front wheel drive K-Cars and the all-new minivans to bring not one but two revolutionary offerings back to the American automobile marketplace. Not only that, but the two revolutionary designs managed to rescue Chrysler from the brink of complete dissolution, reteaching the company that in order to survive, sometimes you have to take risks and while nothing is guaranteed, in the world of the automobile especially, regardless of brand, you evolve or you die.

          For Toyota, its current troubles date back to the early 1990s when the company was on a hot streak. Toyota could do no wrong. The American car companies (GM in particular) had run through a majority of their great 1980s renaissance ideas and somewhat returned to tradition of just producing whatever they thought would sell. Toyota was still a fairly small power in the American game but had a diverse range of products to suit every consumer demographic known to man. The modern and aerodynamic Camry was the reliable, well-built alternative to the boxy GM offerings of the time while those looking for a bit more zest could always find themselves in a Supra Turbo. An F-150 it was not but Toyota even offered a pickup truck in the form of the T-100. All in all, Toyota's line-up had something for everyone; sedans, coupes, station wagons, sporty cars, a convertible and even a minivan. It didn't matter what you were in the market for; if you wanted something reliable, modern, and stylish, chances were good that your local Toyota dealer was the place to go for one-stop car shopping. Toyota also spent a majority of the 90s reveling in and tinkering with the success of its newly-born Lexus brand (a huge risk in itself) and glowed in the praise of the LS400. But then, in the late 1990s, a fundamental shift began to take place inside Toyota's corporate structure that seemed to omit anything resembling a fun car from the company's lineup.
          The first to hit the chopping block was the ludicrously powerful but lounge singer-svelte Supra which departed the US market after the 1998 model year. Next to go was the MR2 roadster that bowed out in 2005, followed shortly by the Celica coupe. No more convertibles, no more sports cars, Toyota was then left with a lineup of reliable but completely forgettable sedans and minivans in vanilla white and monotone beige interiors. For the two years prior to the departure of the Celica and MR2, Toyota had been pushing the Scion brand as an attempt to get younger generations into Toyota products. Now, ten years later and it's safe to say that the bet Toyota made on the Scion brand was likely not worth the risk and that boils down to what the cars are like. They're forgettable...completely and utterly bland.
          The Scion tC was intended to be the spiritual successor to the Celica but wound up being just another 2-door coupe with anonymous rental car styling and, thanks to aggressive teenage drivers wrapping them around trees on almost a daily basis, eye-wateringly steep insurance rates. Nobody could really work out what the small xA hatchback was for but meanwhile, the boxy little xB wormed its way into the hearts of a demographic completely the opposite of what Toyota had intended: retirees and the elderly. Honda faced a similar dilemma with the Element (also targeted towards the 20-something crowd) and before you knew it, both it and the xB soon found themselves in the handicapped spaces in front of the bingo parlor instead of the front spaces outside the Aura Night Club. It's not hard to see why the old crowd fell for the xB as hard as they did; it was a Toyota underneath so it meant it was reliable, it wasn't particularly fast, it got good fuel mileage and had a great deal of interior space. But the fundamental mistake Toyota made with Scion was pushing these products under a different brand name. Even though they're sold at Toyota dealers and have all-Toyota parts, the average consumer, much less a 17 year old, fails to understands this and if Toyota wanted to save their brand image as youthful, sporty, and fun, they'd have done the smart thing and marketed their Scion models as Toyotas.
          The company's risk with Scion, much like Chrysler's with the Airflow and Ford's with the Edsel, flopped. It missed the target so completely that Stevie Wonder might as well have been aiming the gun and in doing so, it engrained the idea that risk and revolution were dangerous ideas no longer to be meddled with at the Toyota Motor Corporation. As a result, Toyota has stopped innovating and risking almost completely. As far as I can tell, not one single news-worth innovation or bold new idea has come from the house that Kiichiro built for the last ten years or so. Every new Camry looks almost exactly like the one that came before and even the all-new 2014 Corolla will come standard with a 4-speed automatic transmission! Excuse me? A FOUR SPEED?!
          You may cry foul and ask me, "But Andrew, what about the Prius?" Bah. That car has little to offer the world in the grand scheme of things other than the fact it was the first mass-market hybrid and was also the first to crack 1,000,000 worldwide sales. Boo-hoo. Yes, it was revolutionary when it was introduced in Japan in 1997 but the world has moved on. Hybrids are not a viable long-term solution to our energy problems but are merely a stepping stone to the next energy revolution, involvement in which Toyota seems completely disinterested. They are very happy to continue riding along on technological advances from the last century and meanwhile, across the Sea of Japan, the Koreans have been advancing steadily on the market share that Toyota once held as its own, the younger generation now known as 'Millennials'.

          Hyundai and Kia have been slowly advancing on Toyota with lower prices, a superior warranty, and modern but handsome styling while the Japanese giant continues to march on, doing exactly what the Big Three did in the 1960s and 1970s. As others continue steal their market share, Toyota is building what they know they can build; bland, vanilla transportation appliances under the mistaken belief that Millennials will flock to Toyota showrooms simply because it's what their parents drove. Nobody ever thought that Toyota's quality would hurt them but in this case, it has because in many cases, the parents of the generation that Toyota is targeting are still driving their Toyotas and the last thing a young person wants to be seen in is the same beige Camry or Avalon their parents are driving to golf every Thursday.
          Kia has pushed the Soul as 'a new way to roll' for younger drivers and Hyundai is selling every single Elantra compact that it can make. In fact, over 200,000 of them found new homes in 2012 alone. Want something sporty? Hyundai can sell you a Genesis Coupe or a hot hatch Veloster Turbo while Kia can offer you an Optima with a turbocharged engine and more luxury and technology than an Avalon at a lower price without giving your neighbors the assumption you'll probably be putting plastic on your sofa any day now. Even the Americans are catching up to Toyota. Chevrolet has pushed the refresh of the Malibu forward after only year because they didn't feel the original look was competitive enough and the new Impala will not be sold to fleets to avoid the dreaded 'rental car' stigma. Ford's Focus and Fiesta compacts are the same award-winners that Europeans have been getting for years and Dodge's new Dart comes with that sublime Italian handling DNA with a superb value to boot. Hybrids are no longer only Toyota's game, either. Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Ford, Nissan and even Chevrolet currently offer or are planning hybrid models.
          In closing, Toyota is not the only kid on the block peddling a quality product anymore and those days of exclusivity are gone forever. The other brands that Toyota once marched past are now preparing to overtake again, offering a model for everyone, regardless of demographic while Toyota now only seems to sell cars to people who don't care about cars.

          What does the future hold for Toyota? We don't really know right now. But if one looks at the lifeline of an automotive brand, there is always the era of ugly cars, closed-minded thinking and out-of-touch management before the new blood comes in and the genius returns. There is brilliance inside every car company in the world today and that next great idea rests in the mind of a designer or an engineer who has the audacity to step forward and say, "We can do better." The mark of a truly great car company is management that listens to its people and takes great ideas seriously, even though they may be frightening and come with some risk. If you think of Toyota as a phoenix, the giant bird is now starting to catch fire and within five years or so, the flames will extinguish and a new life will arise from the ashes; a lighter, younger Toyota with fresh new ideas and a company that will help lead the world into the future of the automobile.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

2012 Acura TL - Quick Drive

Plastic surgery complete, is it still a good car underneath?

            The TL has always been a well-rounded alternative to the Accord for those who like their buttered bread lightly toasted. It shares the same platform with the Accord but unlike it, has offered a more luxurious feel and a dash of sporting flavor starting in 2002 with the Type-S trim that has vanished and resurfaced with the tides. This current TL first showed its face in late 2008 as an ’09 model and that face was immediately and widely criticized. The matte chrome ‘power plenum’ grille dominated the front end, spilling over onto the leading edges of the hood. The rear suffered from the same exaggerated genetics, sporting an enormous bumper resplendent with large reflectors and an edgy trunk lid flanked by tiny taillights. Some claimed the car looked like a pouting Transformer from the rear but viewed from the side, one could see handsome lines trying to be heard over the shouting extremities. Regardless of whether you were a fan or not, Acura heard the criticism loud and clear and tamed the edginess for the car’s mid-cycle refresh.

            No longer dominated by extravagant additions, the TL has been simplified and honed into a handsome package without managing to look like the smaller TSX. Acura hopes that this draws in those originally turned off by outward appearances to see what a fine car it really is. A TL with the Technology Package was mine for the evening so I took it out to see what it had to offer for its $40,330 asking price.

            Initial impressions were quite promising. Unlike many cars of today, the window line is actually very low and provides excellent sideways visibility. The windshield is similarly shaped and only the rear window suffers from the gun-slit syndrome. To assist in reversing maneuvers with that high decklid, a rear view camera is standard on all models with the Technology Package and above. The front seats are very comfortable and offer a wide range of power adjustments for both driver and passenger. Front seat heating is standard on Tech models while springing for the Advance Package will also give you ventilation for those hot summer days. Storage space also abounds with a large center console, a small cubby at the base of the console and a glove box is which is cavernous enough to be useful even with the owner’s manual booklet in there. Fit and finish is also spectacular with nice stitching touches on the leather wrapped around the steering wheel, shift knob and emergency brake handle. The navigation screen is a high-definition work of art, the nifty sliding power point cover is just plain cool and the gauges with their floating needles were very easy to read at a glance, even if they were a bit on the plain side. With almost 6,000 miles on the odometer, all the leather surfaces inside looked brand new, nothing rattled or squeaked and panel gap consistency was excellent, just what we’ve come to expect in an Acura.

            Gripes with the driving environment were few but present nevertheless. With the Technology Package, the reason why other manufacturers ball lots of functions into the navigation screen is made vividly clear. The TL reserves the navigation screen for essentially just that and as a result, the center stack alone is home to a whopping forty-five buttons not including the hazard lights and starter button. There are then another sixteen buttons on the steering wheel, only four being for the cruise control and many of which lack tactile identification, making them tough to operate without taking your eyes off the road. Although they are easy to get used to, having to learn all these buttons may be daunting prospect for some. Also, controls for the heated seats are placed directly in front of the cup holder so it’s only a matter of time before something fizzy and sugary is spilled on them. Despite these niggles, the TL’s interior is a wonderful place to spend time and may easily find itself the preferred family vacation cruiser.

            The TL’s bulk is propelled by Acura’s excellent 3.5 liter V6 producing 280 horsepower and 254 pound feet of torque in front wheel drive spec. Models equipped with the physics-defying Super Handling AWD (SH-AWD) receive a 3.7 liter version of the same V6 that bumps output to 305 horsepower and 273 pound feet of torque. Off-the-line acceleration is brisk and smooth with the expected torque steer very well tamed, something not likely to be said about the previous generation TL. The six-speed automatic has paddles on the steering wheel should you prefer to shift yourself but either way, it provides silky and seamless performance, even under heavy throttle applications. Stopping nearly two tons isn’t an easy task but the brakes fitted to the TL are superb and at full power, can quickly find a new place for anything in the interior that isn’t fastened down. Anti-lock control is excellent and pedal feedback is very good.

            The ride is very comfortable and controlled without being too hard and firm or soft and floaty. Pockmarked streets of downtown Portland weren’t able to faze the TL and it soaked up highway miles without complaint but upon heading into the hills, I found myself disappointed. Despite everything else that it has going for it, the TL’s steering is disparagingly and unforgivably numb. On-center feel is non-existent so don’t even bother looking for it and even driving briskly into a corner gives one reason for pause as the complete lack of feedback through the wheel provides the sensation that you’re losing grip even if that’s not the case. Even the larger RL offers superior steering response at speed but still suffers from the Novocain on-center sensation. Without an SH-AWD model to compare it with, I’d have to say that the steering in the TL is the only thing letting down an otherwise perfect car.

            There is a TL to fit every taste including, by the grace of the automotive gods, a six-speed manual version, an option virtually extinct in this class outside the BMW 3-Series. Prices for the TL start at just under $36,000 and with the AWD Advance Package, can get awfully close to $46,000. A BMW 335i xDrive starts at $44,800 and while that may sound appealing, it quickly passes the $50K mark without adding many options that the TL includes as standard fare. A fully-loaded example will easily get close to sixty grand, a tough pill to swallow.

 Although this was a quick drive, the TL left a very favorable impression in my mouth and if Acura only corrected the steering feel, this car would be about as good as those costing a third more.


What's Hot: Good visibility, luxury without the price, comfortable seats, compliant ride, excellent acceleration and brakes, butter-smooth power delivery, top-notch materials and fit and finish.

What's Not: Steering needs help with communication skills, button-loaded dashboard may prove confusing for some.

The Verdict: A handsome and proficient all-rounder let down by a single character flaw.

This car was graciously loaned to me courtesy of Martin Parr at Ron Tonkin Acura in Beaverton, Oregon.