10th-gen Civic makes strong case for class leadership

This review first appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

2016 Honda Civic Coupe interior

The new Civic’s aggressive styling and redesigned cabin — it’s roomier, quieter and better-equipped — make a compelling bid for class leadership.

This winter, Honda dropped the first installment in the year-long launch of its 10th-generation, 2016 Civic.

The sedan debuted in November. A coupe came in March and a five-door hatchback arrives this summer. A pair of coupe variants — the youth-oriented Si and the high-performance Type R — will follow.

2016 Honda Civic Coupe interior

Honda equips every new Civic with automatic climate control, automatic headlights, cruise control, LED daytime running lights and taillights and full power accessories.

During its development, Honda benchmarked small cars from Audi and BMW. The resulting car makes a strong case for automotive upward mobility.

The new Civic’s aggressive styling and redesigned cabin — it’s roomier, quieter and better-equipped — make a compelling bid for class leadership. Its multilink rear suspension, hydraulic shock bushings and ultra-light and ultra-stiff platform lay the foundation for outstanding ride and handling.

Suspension settings are Euro-taut, but hydraulic bushings brush aside pothole-induced jolts. Steering feel is lively and communicative. Turn-in is quick and accurate. When entering a corner, Honda’s Agile Handling Assist applies braking power to the front inside wheel, improving cornering attitude, stability and precision.

Civic’s wheelbase grows three inches and the body by nearly two inches. Interior space grows by 8.4 cubic feet and rear legroom is up by more than five inches.

The coupe, which we tested, is an inch lower than the sedan and 5.5 inches shorter.

Honda equips every new Civic with automatic climate control, automatic headlights, cruise control, LED daytime running lights and taillights and full power accessories. Cabin electronics include a 5-inch central display screen, a rearview camera, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity and a four-speaker stereo with USB port and Pandora radio.

Civic is available with one of the industry’s most advanced safety and driver-assistance packages. Standard on the top-level Touring and optional on lower trims, Honda Sensing adds adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, lane-departure intervention and forward-collision alert with automatic emergency braking.

The Civic also debuts Honda’s first U.S.-market turbocharged engine. The 1.5-liter four makes 174 horsepower and delivers up to 42 mpg highway and 35 mpg combined. Its broad torque band is well suited to the continuously variable transmission (CVT) it’s paired with (a six-speed manual gearbox is expected by fall). The sedan runs the 0-60 sprint in a segment-busting 6.7 seconds.

A 158-hp, 2.0-liter four powers lower trims and can be mated with the CVT or a six-speed manual.

Sheet-metal updates include thinner A pillars that enhance sight lines and contribute to the cabin’s open and airy feel. A simple and understated dashboard layout replaces last generation’s two-tier dash. Abundant storage options include a deep center-console bin.

All trims but the base LX get a 7-inch touchscreen and an infotainment system that now includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. On the downside, the system can be slow to respond and is less user-friendly than competitive efforts.

The adaptive cruise control system also disappoints. It slows the Civic prematurely as it approaches slower traffic and, when able, only reluctantly returns to the preset speed.

Wrinkles aside, the new Civic delights on every level — and still to come are the new six-speed gearbox, the hatch and the performance coupes.

It’s shaping up as a great year for Civic enthusiasts.

2016 Honda Civic 1.5T 2D Touring
Vehicle base price: $19,050
Trim level base price: $26,125
As tested: $26,960
Options: The Touring is a fully equipped trim; our tester included no options.
EPA ratings: 35 combined/31 city/41 highway
Unleaded regular fuel specified

Mazda CX-9 loses weight, grows roomier, more sophisticated

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

2016 Mazda CX-9 interior

The three-row CX-9 is roomier than before, despite having lost an inch of overall length. It’s quieter and better equipped, more dynamic and less thirsty.

Since 2011, every car and crossover in Mazda’s lineup has submitted itself to a scalpel called SkyActiv.

SkyActiv is Mazda’s efficiency initiative. It targets excess weight, parasitic mechanical losses and other built-in inefficiencies. Ambitious and far-reaching, it’s largely responsible for the company’s engaging and thrifty fleet, which ranges from the MX-5 Miata roadster to the midsize CX-5 crossover.

mazda_cx-9_int_3

The CX-9’s Head Up display minimizes distraction by placing key information in the driver’s line of sight.

Now arrives the final installment of the SkyActiv transition, the 2016 CX-9, a 7-passenger crossover. Since shoppers in the segment tend not to prioritize performance, what should we expect from Mazda’s remade flagship?

For starters, the second-gen three-row CX-9 is roomier than before, despite having lost an inch of overall length. It’s quieter and better equipped, more dynamic and less thirsty.

It is, says Mazda, the most fuel-efficient three-row crossover.

It’s also one of the quietest. Mazda trimmed enough weight from the CX-9 — FWD models drop almost 200 pounds and AWD models lose nearly 290 pounds — that it could add 53 pounds of insulation mats and thicker window glass, without impacting performance or economy.

At highway speeds, interior sound levels drop 12 percent.

Cabin comfort is first-rate. Soft-touch surfaces abound and layout and design are ergonomic and attractive. With its rotary controller, Mazda’s Connect system is among the most user-friendly infotainment systems. Its Head Up display minimizes distraction by placing key information in the driver’s line of sight.

The Active Driving Display — projected on the windshield ahead of the driver — displays navigation directions, lane guidance, street names, prevailing speed limits, blind spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control and braking warnings.

First and second-row seats are comfortable and supportive, while the third row is best suited for children.

In the way-back, a flat load floor maximizes cargo space. Both passenger space and cargo room trail the class leaders, though.

Mazda built a new engine to power the CX-9. The 2.5-liter turbocharged four makes 227 horsepower on regular gasoline and 250 hp on premium. Torque is the same either way — a class-leading 310 pound-feet.

To reduce turbo lag, Mazda reimagined the turbocharger. The industry’s only turbo to be responsive to engine speed, its Dynamic Pressure Turbo routes exhaust gases at low rpm through small ports, creating gobs of boost (up to 17 psi) on demand.

By producing abundant power at low engine speeds, Mazda sharpens the CX-9’s responses in traffic. The big crossover also achieves highway speeds without fuss and makes quick passes. The six-speed automatic shifts quickly and smooth and eagerly kicks down to lower gears.

Steering is well weighted and has good on-center feel. Compliant suspension settings allow for more body lean than is typical for Mazda, a trade-off that produces excellent ride quality.

Mazda’s i-ACTIV AWD system is updated this year. grows more sophisticated this year, as it harvests information originally intended for other purposes. Ambient temperature, steering wheel angle, longitudinal grip, brake fluid pressure, windshield wiper action and other factors now inform calculations that predict traction loss.

Every automaker has some version of Mazda’s SkyActiv scalpel, but few have wielded it as organically or convincingly. Consider the CX-9 the Mazda of three-row crossovers.

2016 Mazda CX-9 Signature AWD
Vehicle base price: $29,833
Trim level base price: $44,015
As tested: $45,215
Options: the CX-9 Signature is a fully loaded trim; the test vehicle’s only option was Machine Gray paint.
Tow rating: 3,500 pounds
EPA ratings: 23 combined/21 city/27 highway

Honda’s HR-V aims to please the sober-minded

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

2015 Honda HR-V interior

Based on the Fit hatchback and touched by engineering innovation, the HR-V delivers comfort, efficiency and the segment’s most purposeful interior.

Ignore Myers-Briggs. Forget the Rorschach inkblot test. Your truest self is best revealed by the cars you buy.

Say you’re shopping subcompact crossovers. Do you pick the funky Nissan Juke or the wicked-cute Fiat 500X? The fun-to-drive Mazda CX-3 or the off-road-ready Jeep Renegade?

Or is yours the practical pick, Honda’s clever HR-V?

Based on the Fit hatchback and touched by engineering innovation, the HR-V delivers comfort, efficiency and the segment’s most purposeful interior. It’s stable, confident and quiet at highway speeds and nimble enough for the thrust-and-parry of the daily commute.

The HR-V carts four adults in a quiet cabin done up in top-shelf materials and boasting unimpeachable fit-and-finish. Large buttons and excellent ergonomics reflect Honda’s business-like attitude.

Rear-seat legroom measures a more-than-generous 39.3 inches.

The HR-V is well equipped. Standard features include full power accessories, cruise control, tilt-and-telescoping steering, height-adjustable driver seat, display screen, rearview camera and Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity.

Its 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine makes a marginal but sufficient 141 horsepower. A six-speed manual gearbox is standard, with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) optional. The CVT is standard on AWD models and on the top-most EX-L trim.

With the CVT, FWD models deliver 31 mpg combined (28 city/35 highway); AWD is good for 29/27/32. The six-speed drops efficiency to 28/25/34, but cuts the cost of admission by $800, which, at current prices, buys a lot of fuel.

Honda HR-V magic seat

The Magic Seat’s 60/40-split seatback folds flat in conventional fashion to open up its oversized cargo hold. But, uniquely, its bottom cushions can be flipped upright, which creates a well behind the front seats deep enough to hold a bike, say, or a tall plant.

Honda’s genius for rethinking the fundamentals produces the HR-V’s signature versatility. Moving the gas tank from its traditional home beneath the cargo floor to a well-protected location under the front seats, yields a massive, flat-floored cargo hold and sets the stage for the piece de resistance, the second-row “Magic Seat.”

The Magic Seat’s 60/40-split seatback folds flat in conventional fashion to open up its oversized cargo hold. But, uniquely, its bottom cushions can be flipped upright, which creates a well behind the front seats deep enough to hold a bike, say, or a tall plant.

The front passenger seatback folds flat to make room for long, narrow loads.

Casual-storage options throughout the cabin are scant, however.

The drivers sits high in the saddle and enjoys excellent outward visibility. The tilt-and-telescoping steering column and height-adjustable front seat help all but the tables drivers find a comfortable driving position. Six-footers will want to avoid the rear seat due to limited headroom.

On the road, the HR-V is refined and composed. Wind and road noise are muted. Heavy throttle products the expected CVT drone, but the paddle shifters can be used to subdue its most annoying qualities.

The HR-V’s sturdy platform and wide stance create a stable feel that might be described as sporty were it not for sluggish steering and a lack of car-to-driver communication.

The HR-V epitomizes practicality. It doesn’t take a shrink to know its owners are sober-minded consumers who value quality, longevity and versatility. It’s as simple as that.

Contact Don at don@dadair.com, or visit www.dadair.com.

2016 Honda HR-V AWD EX-L Navi
Vehicle base price: $19,125
Trim level base price: $25,840
As tested: $26,720
Options: The HR-V AWD EX-L with navigation is a fully equipped trim. Our tester included no options.
EPA ratings: 29 combined/27 city/32 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Sportage survives own past, thrives in tough segment

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

Kia Sportage exterior

The fourth-generation 2017 Sportage lands with a roomier cabin, a stiffer unibody, a new suspension and a look bold enough to worry the competition. 

Kia’s Sportage compact crossover is a survivor.

It survived its own build-quality issues (one generation was recalled twice for its tendency to shed its rear wheels). It survived the collapse of Kia, which led to its absorption by Hyundai. And it survived a two-year hiatus during which it morphed from truck-based SUV to sedan-based crossover.

Kia Sportage interior

Sportage is quieter, sturdier and better-riding than ever.

The Sportage debuted in 1993 but didn’t become a serious competitor until 2011. Now, the fourth-generation 2017 Sportage lands with a roomier cabin, a stiffer unibody, a new suspension and a look bold enough to worry the competition.

The new look packs an unruly number of creases and curves into the Sportage’s compact frame. Swept-back headlights flank a sharply contoured hood. The front fascia grows deeper to improve engine-bay cooling and accommodate oversized fog lamp housings. In the top SX Turbo trim, a quartet of “ice cube” LED fog lamps glower like machine-gun ports.

Other updates include new driver-assistance systems, seriously improved interior materials and the latest generation of Kia’s UVO telematics and infotainment system, which adds Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.

If there were a most-improved award, Sportage would be a contender.

High-strength steel comprises 51 percent of its unibody, up from 18 percent. Torsional rigidity jumps 39 percent. A host of sound-deadening measures — thicker side-window glass, soundproofing in the doors and wheel arches and new rear suspension bushings — work magic inside.

Sportage is quieter, sturdier and better-riding than ever.
It has also grown some. Overall length is up 1.6 inches and the wheelbase is longer by 1.2 inches. These changes boost headroom and legroom for passengers in both rows. Second-row seating has been tweaked for improved headroom and a more comfortable seating position.

Last year’s engine choices return. The base engine is a normally aspirated 2.4-liter four that makes 181 horsepower and has been retuned for improved fuel efficiency. The optional 2.0-liter turbocharged four makes 240 hp in FWD trim and 237 hp with AWD and is tuned for improved mid-range torque.

Both engines are paired with a six-speed automatic that goes about its work in a work-a-day fashion. It’s not especially quick nor intuitive, but it’s nearly always in the right gear for the situation.

Name aside, there’s not much sport to the Sportage. Heavier in its fourth-gen guise than before, it’s also more softly suspended and is clearly tuned for comfort. Buyers seeking off-road chops should look elsewhere, as well; the “metal-look” skid plates on my top-of-the-line SX Turbo tester would faint dead at the first sign of rocks.

Nevertheless, Sportage offers real value in a segment that’s all about value. The competition includes a selection of the industry’s best-selling vehicles, but the Sportage is a survivor. And these days the wheels stay on.

Errata: In last week’s review of the Lincoln MKX, we mistakenly referred to a third row of seats. The MKX is a two-row midsize crossover, with room for five adults.

2017 Kia Sportage SX AWD
Vehicle base price: $22,990
Trim level base price: $34,000
As tested: $34,895
Options: The SX Turbo AWD is a fully loaded trim; our tester had no options.
Tow rating: 2,000 pounds
EPA rating: 21 combined/20 city/23 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Lincoln MKX mines its own heritage for inspiration

 

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

2016 Lincoln MKX exterior

The MKX is fully made-over. There are new bends in the sheet metal, a restyled cabin and newly available safety and driver-assistance features.

In Lincoln’s heyday, crossovers were not yet even a glint in the industry’s eye.

Much has changed in the past half-century, though, and now it appears a crossover could lead the brand back to relevance. The second-generation 2016 MKX launched last fall and immediately became Lincoln’s best seller.

The three-row MKX ($38,260, including transportation) is fully made-over. There are new bends in the sheet metal, a restyled cabin and newly available safety and driver-assistance features. A new 335-horsepower six-cylinder EcoBoost engine debuts and a focus on refinement produces a supremely quiet cabin.

Adaptive shock damping (driver-adjustable on AWD models) smooths out the ride and firms in the corners for confident handling. Steering is accurate and well weighted and, underway, the MKX feels lighter and nimbler than its size suggests.

The crossover grows slightly this year and debuts a refinement initiative called Quiet Luxury, “ … a new standard that combines thoughtful and elegant design with a safe, effortless ride and a warm, tailored experience.”

At night, the “experience” begins with the driver’s approach. At 9 feet out, exterior lighting gradually illuminates. Cabin lighting also comes on sequentially; from bottom to top and front to rear.

When backing, a 360-degree camera reveals objects within a 7-foot radius. The camera also enables an automatic parking function, which works in both parallel and perpendicular spaces.

The MKX is well equipped right out of the box. Highlights of a long standard-features list include automatic xenon headlights, keyless entry and ignition, remote engine start, rear parking sensors, active noise cancellation and a reclining, 60/40-split second-row seat with power-folding seatbacks.

Standard tech includes Bluetooth phone and audio, the voice-activated MyLincoln Touch infotainment system (with configurable 8-inch touchscreen) and a fully configured 10-speaker audio system. An optional Driver Assistance package adds lane-departure warning, lane-departure intervention, forward-collision warning, forward-collision mitigation with automatic braking (with pedestrian detection) and a driver drowsiness monitor.

The base engine is a 3.7-liter V-6 that makes 303 hp and 278 pound-feet of torque. The new up-level choice is a turbocharged 2.7-liter V-6 rated at 335 hp and 380 lb-ft of torque. Both are mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. A properly equipped MKX can tow up to 3,500 pounds.

Big-budget add-ons include 22-way multi-contour front seats with massage and a pair of up-level surround-sound Revel audio systems, one with 13 speakers, the other with 19.

There are missteps, of course. The dead pedal is useless, the plastics used on the console and on the push-button shifter look and feel low-budget and instead of Ford’s new Sync 3 infotainment system, the MKX is saddled with the final generation of MyLincoln Touch. In its defense, the incremental addition of knobs and buttons has made the system more user friendly by a wide margin.

In the final analysis, the MKX mines its own heritage for inspiration, rather than aping the performance-focused Europeans. It’s the Lincoln Lincoln would have built in 1970, if it could have.

2016 Lincoln MKX AWD
Vehicle base price: $38,260
Trim level base price: $47,650
As tested: $61,760
Options included 2.7-liter Ecoboost engine; cargo utility package and tonneau cover; lane-keeping system; adaptive cruise control; active braking; adaptive LED headlights; Revel Ultima audio; second-row inflatable seatbelt; 22-way power driver’s seat; enhanced security.
Tow rating: 3,500 pounds
EPA rating: 19 combined/17 city/24 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Dodge Dart narrowly misses greatness

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

Dodge Dart exterior

Dart’s aggressive stance and flowing lines make it a stand-out looker. Its roomy interior accommodates four adults.

The current Dodge Dart is likely to be remembered as a near-miss.

Broad-shouldered and narrow-waisted, Dart’s aggressive stance and flowing lines give it stand-out looks. Its silhouette reflects the character of a European sport coupe.

Its roomy interior accommodates four adults, its optional Uconnect infotainment interface is one of the industry’s best.

Dart’s platform feels sturdy and planted and its electrically assisted steering system is linear and well weighted. Good on-center feel helps Dart track steadily in its lane, without needing constant driver input.

2016 Dodge Dart interior

Dart’s cabin reminded me of late-era Pontiac, with large knobs, bold curvilinear surfaces and bright-red trim to brighten its boldly curved flat-black contours.

At 70 mph, reports Car and Driver, the Dart’s cabin is as quiet as the Mercedes-Benz C300’s. Dart is the only car in the segment with available park-assist. An optional Alpine audio system pairs with Uconnect to provide outstanding sound and a user-friendly interface.

The platform is wider than the compact standard, yielding generous hip and shoulder room. Rear-seat legroom is excellent and, despite the coupe-like profile, there’s enough headroom for most.

Dart’s cabin reminded me of late-era Pontiac, with large knobs, bold curvilinear surfaces and bright-red trim to brighten its boldly curved flat-black contours. Soft-touch surfaces abound and critical controls are within easy reach. Some interior plastics are dated, though, and the driver-information display has the ambience of a ‘70s-era video game.

These, and a handful of other shortcomings keep the Dart from greatness. It’s heavier than most compacts and none of its three engine options excite. Good as the platform is, the chassis doesn’t provide enough feedback to engage the driver.

The mid-level SXT, which I tested, is powered by a 184-horsepower, 2.4-liter four that’s paired with a six-speed automatic. It’s one of the segment’s strongest engines but acceleration and efficiency run mid-class.

The base engine is a 2.0-liter four that makes 160 hp. Powering upper trims is a turbocharged 1.4-liter four that makes 160 hp and as much torque — 184 pound-feet — as the thirstier 2.4L.

All three engines can be paired with a six-speed manual transmission (hooray for Dodge!). Alternatively, the normally aspirated engines are mated to automatics, the turbocharged 1.4L to a double-clutch automated manual.

My tester included a Rallye package that added great-looking wheels, a “touring” suspension and a rear stabilizer bar meant to flatten out the corners.The touring tune splits the difference between the softer base suspension and the GT’s “sport” tune, which most reviewers consider too harsh.

My tester’s ride was for the most part firm, pleasant and well-controlled, though broken road surfaces sometimes sent shudders through the cabin.

Dart’s seats are set high in the cabin, the tilt-and telescoping steering column has a limited range of motion and the minuscule dead pedal is minuscule — but most will find the layout agreeable.

Achieving greatness in a better-than-ever segment is not an easy thing to do. Unfortunately, Fiat Chrysler plans to sharpen its focus on its Jeep and truck portfolios, so Dart as we know it may not be around for long.

Too bad, because it’s this close.

2016 Dodge Dart SXT Rallye
Vehicle base price: $19,240
Trim level base price: $20,390
Options included 8.4-inch Uconnect screen; backup camera; iPod control; illuminated instrument-panel surround; 17-inch Granite Crystal aluminum wheels; touring suspension; rear stabilizer bar; fog lamps; dual exhaust tips; automatic transmission; sport-appearance hood; GPS navigation; Sirius XM radio, traffic and weather; compact spare tire.
EPA rating: 27 combined/23 city/35 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Altima battles back with mid-cycle updates

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

2016 Nissan Altima exterior

Altima gets a facelift and a sporty new SR trim. The top-level SL acquires a slate of available driver-assist technologies

The death of the family sedan has been greatly exaggerated.

Though crossovers have become the flavor of the day, competition remains fierce in the sedan segments — sufficiently fierce that Nissan felt moved to update its midsize Altima just three years following a full makeover.

Altima ($23,339, including destination) gets a significant facelift. A sporty new SR trim ($25,305) debuts and the top-level SL trim ($29,405), acquires a slate of optional driver-assist technologies. Chassis-level tweaks improve the driving experience.

2016 Nissan Altima interior

The 2.5 SR trim, which we tested, is a mid-level player powered by the smaller engine.

Over the past few months, Nissan has rolled out its new “energetic flow” design language, first on the Murano crossover, then on the full-size Maxima sedan. This year, Altima embraces the look, which focuses on Nissan’s new “V-motion” grille and includes a new bumper, new headlights and taillights and associated sheet-metal revisions.

The new look carries more muscle, especially the front fascia, with its brawny air dam and embedded fog lights. The hood and fenders are crisper, more tailored. Nissan’s signature boomerang-shaped LED lighting package — headlights, fog lights and daytime running lights — become available for the first time on Altima.

There are similar updates out back. A new bumper and fascia accommodate four-piece boomerang taillights, which are set lower and wider than before. The new SR trim adds an integrated decklid spoiler.

These revisions are about more than fashion. Each is calculated to enhance airflow and improve efficiency. Less obvious updates include active grille shutters (they cut wind resistance by opening and closing in response to vehicle speed); wind-cheating underbody add-ons; and a slippery new windshield design.

Together, these measures reduce Altima’s coefficient of drag — wind resistance — from 0.29 Cd to 0.26 Cd.

The effort pays off in efficiency. Two engines are available — a 2.5-liter four and a 3.5-liter six. The 183-horsepower four returns an EPA-estimated 31 mpg combined (27 city/39 highway), the 270-hp V-6 is rated at 26 mpg combined (22 city/32 highway). Both engines are paired with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) that routes the power to the front wheels.

The 2.5 SR trim, which we tested, is a mid-level player powered by the smaller engine. It inherits automatic headlights, cruise control, keyless ignition and entry and more from the 2.5 S trim ($23,735) and adds a sport-tuned suspension (thicker anti-roll bars, unique shock-damper settings), sport seats, foglights, a rear spoiler, shift paddles, 18-inch alloy wheels and more.

Nissan says the suspension tweaks reduce body roll by 21 percent and bolster the performance of Altima’s torque-vectoring traction-control system. During quick cornering it applies braking force to the inside front wheel, minimizing understeer and helping the car to pivot.

These upgrades produce a safer and more responsive ride but fail to elevate the Altima to sport-sedan standing. Nissan’s CVTs are among the best in the business but the technology dulls the driving experience.

I fondly remember Nissans of old, sans CVTs and with true performance potential (and let us not forget that the company still builds the estimable 370Z). On today’s family sedan battleground, though, other priorities — efficiency, comfort, cabin tech — hold sway.

In that world, the Altima provides ample evidence that the family sedan is thriving.

2016 Nissan Altima SV
Vehicle base price: $22,500
Trim level base price: $25,460
As tested: $28,425
Options included moonroof; rear passenger console; LED turn signals; HomeLink universal transceiver; 7-inch color audio display; touchscreen; voice-activated navigation and audio; Sirius XM Traffic; Sirius XM Travel Link; floor mats.
EPA ratings: 31 combined/27 city/39 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Explorer adds have-it-all Platinum trim and a frugal new four

 

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

 

Explorer interior

The new range-topping Platinum trim bundles a cascading set of features, technologies and powertrains from lesser trims into a neat have-it-all package.

With seven million units sold since its 1990 debut, Ford’s Explorer is the planet’s best-selling SUV-cum-crossover.

Which suggests Ford knows how to give buyers what they want. Even so, it appears there are some who want more. More power. More luxury. More more.

Happily, Ford has the answer: The new range-topping Platinum trim. The Platinum ($53,915, including destination) bundles a cascading set of features, technologies and powertrains from lesser trims into a neat have-it-all package.

Ford Explorer interior

Platinum upgrades include premier leather, quilted seat stitching, aluminum and wood cabin trim, a 500-watt Sony sound system, adaptive cruise, rain-sensing wipers, a dual-panel sunroof and LED foglights.

So fully equipped is the Platinum that the only significant options are a rear-seat entertainment system and second-row captain’s chairs, with power-fold assist.

But its engine is the true must-have item in the Platinum’s horn of plenty. It’s a turbocharged V-6 that makes 365 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque and can tow up to 5,000 pounds.

Last year, it was available only on the Sport ($44,445), which then was the pinnacle of the Explorer family. The Sport is strong and quick but its sport-tuned suspension and aggressive stye cues curb its appeal.

So this year, the Sport is joined by the buttoned-down Platinum, whose car-like ride and luxurious accommodations and standard AWD makes it a good bet for the trailering set.

Platinum upgrades include premier leather, quilted seat stitching, aluminum and wood cabin trim, a 500-watt Sony sound system, adaptive cruise, rain-sensing wipers, a dual-panel sunroof and LED foglights. Standard active park assist can dock the Explorer in perpendicular <em>and</em> parallel parking spots, and can exit the space as well.

This year, Explorer also adds a frugal four-cylinder engine as an option on lower trims. The 2.4-liter turbocharged four makes 280 hp and 310 lb-ft and delivers a class-leading 28 highway mpg (2WD). Unlike the 2.0-liter engine it replaces, the 2.4L can be paired with AWD and a towing package.

The standard engine is a 3.5-liter V-6 that makes 290 hp and 255 pound-feet of torque.

Both sixes can tow up to 5,000 pounds, the four is good for 3,000 pounds.

Explorer’s AWD system drives the front wheels by default, transferring torque rearward as needed. A driver-selectable four-mode Terrain Management System (normal, snow, sand and mud) optimizes engine, transmission, braking and AWD responses for the conditions.

At nearly 5,000 pounds, Explorer is a big rig and feels it; in parking lots, especially, maneuverability is limited. Thick pillars and a tall hood and dashboard hamper outward visibility and the dead pedal is uncomfortably small and poorly positioned.

Cabin materials are of generally high quality, especially in the higher trims. New door seals and, on most trims, acoustic windshield and front-window glass cuts cabin noise.

Front-seat occupants ride high in broad comfortable seats. Second-row seating is adult-friendly. Third-row legroom varies on whether second-row seating is a bench or captain’s chairs.

The Sync with MyFord Touch infotainment system remains awkward, but grows more user-friendly with each iteration. This year, physical buttons replace last year’s touch-sensitive audio and A/C controls.
Maybe you want it all. Or maybe what you want is a reliable, comfortable and utilitarian crossover. Either way, Explorer fits the bill.

2016 Ford Explorer Platinum
Vehicle base price: $29,421
Trim level base price: $49,659
Towing capacity: 5,000 lbs
Options: second-row captain’s chairs with power-fold assist; second-row console
EPA ratings: 18 combined/16 city/22 highway
Unleaded regular fuel specified

Euro-flavored Tucson satisfies on many levels

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

2016 Hyundai Tucson interior

The new Tucson is a bit larger this year. It’s quieter, has a longer wheelbase and feels more substantial. Its interior vibe is grown-up and purposeful.

It’s too early to call it a trend, but the 2016 Hyundai Tucson is a turning point of sorts in the global auto industry.

Besides being Hyundai’s entry in the U.S. compact crossover market, the all-new Tucson ($23,595, including destination) replaces a European Hyundai known as the ix35. The Continent’s mix of crowded cities, high-speed motorways and curvy country byways favors small, well-handling cars optimized to accommodate passengers and their possessions.

Cars just like the Tucson.

Meanwhile, our fixation with coffee means Europeans will get more cupholders.

Score: Tucson. On both counts.

There’s more, of course. The new Tucson is a bit larger this year. It’s quieter, has a longer wheelbase and feels more substantial. Its interior vibe is grown-up and purposeful. Its touchscreen infotainment controls are neatly integrated into a stylish and low-key dashboard layout.

A growth spurt (three inches in length, one in width) brings grown-up dimensions to Tucson’s second-row seats.

In all but the base SE trim, a new turbocharged and direct-injected four is paired with the segment’s first double-clutch automated manual transmission, a seven-speed unit. The little four makes 175 horsepower and a robust 195 lb.-ft. of torque. Last year’s 2.0-liter four (164-hp/151 lb.-ft.) powers the SE via a six-speed automatic.

Per Hyundai tradition, the 2016 Tucson is well-endowed. Standard-equipment highlights include automatic headlights, heated mirrors, privacy glass, A/C, full power accessories, cruise control, height-adjustable driver seat, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, a 5-inch touchscreen, a rearview camera and a six-speaker sound system with CD player, satellite radio and more.

Seventeen-inch alloys are standard.

Size-wise, Tucson splits the difference between the new subcompact crossovers (Honda’s HR-V, Mazda’s CX-3) and the true compacts (Ford Escape, Toyota RAV4).

Passenger space rivals the compacts but, despite an increase of nearly five cubic feet (from 25.7 to 31 cf) — Tucson’s cargo hold gives up several cf to its larger (and slightly more expensive) competitors.

A longer wheelbase and greater concentration of high-strength steel in the unibody boost ride quality and increase stability. Not-so-little extras, such as four-point bushing mounts and hydraulic transmission mounts, add to comfort levels and cut road noise.

Despite its 19-inch wheels, our top-of-the-line Limited ($30,795) tester rode smoothly and quite and felt nimble, if not overly athletic. Body lean in corners is well controlled and the steering system is nicely weighted, with good on-center feel, but offers minimal feedback. The 1.6-liter turbocharged engine develops more torque than the competition and spools it up quickly. With the DSC making clean, unobtrusive shifts, the Tucson accelerates from 0-60 in the mid-7-second range.

Comfortable and supportive seats and excellent ergonomics and sight-lines produce a pleasant driving experience. Storage caches (and cupholders) abound.
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Available safety features include lane-departure warning, blind-spot detection, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-change Assist, backup warning sensors and automatic emergency braking (AEB).
Unfortunately, first-year pricing reserves many of the most desirable features exclusively for the Limited.

Nevertheless, Hyundai nails it with its little bi-continental crossover. Here’s hoping the Europeans enjoy their cupholders; we’ll enjoy the ride.

2016 Hyundai Tucson Limited AWD
Vehicle base price: $22,700
Trim level base price: $31,300
As tested: $35,070
Options included panoramic sunroof; high-intensity discharge bending headlights; lane-departure warning; automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection; rear parking sensors; LED map lights; LCD electroluminescent gauge cluster; ventilated front seats; heated rear seats; carpeted floor mats.
EPA ratings: 26 combined/24 city/28 highway

GMC Sierra Denali: a strong and comfy workhorse

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

GMC Sierra Denali exterior

Whether your towing needs are modest or massive, GMC has a Sierra 1500 that’s likely to fit the bill.


Pickups are America’s best-selling vehicles
— and not just because every roofer, builder and landscaper in town has one.

Trucks are not just for work any more; ask any manufacturer cashing in on the RV boom. RV builders are selling every unit they can build and the majority are towables — travel trailers and fifth-wheels that require a serious tug.

2016 GMC Sierra Denali Ultimate

All Sierras include A/C, cruise control, power windows and door locks, tilting steering wheel and cloth upholstery. The four-speaker AM/FM sound system includes a 4-inch color display and USB and auxiliary inputs.e

Of course, well-heeled RVers expect their trucks to be strong, durable and comfortable. No vinyl seats, hand-cranked windows or unassisted manual steering for this crowd.

Checking in at $60,765 (including transportation), the top-of-the-line 2016 GMC Sierra 1500 Denali Crew Cab is a premier example. Its leather seats are heated and ventilated. Its steering wheel is heated, its dual-zone climate-control system is automated. Navigation, Bose audio, front and rear park-assist, and a wireless phone charger are standard, as are 20-inch wheels and a locking rear differential.

Denali’s standard engine is a 5.3-liter V-8 that makes 355 hp and 383 lb-ft of torque and can tow up to 11,200 pounds.

An optional 6.2-liter V-8 — it’s closely related to the engine in the Chevy Corvette — makes a class-leading 420 hp and 460 lb-ft of torque, and is tow-rated to 12,000 pounds.

The big eight can power the 7,700-pound Crew Cab from 0-to-60 in a mind-warping 5.4 seconds. An eight-speed automatic transmission replaces last year’s six-speed, boosting economy to an impressive 17 mpg combined (15 city/21 highway). Its narrower ratios also optimize towing efficiency.

For 2016, the eight-speed can also be had with the 5.3-liter engine.

Sierra’s cabs (regular, double and crew) are built of high-strength steel. Unique body mounts isolate cabs from beds, curbing cab movement and improving ride comfort. Double- and crew-cab models use hydraulic mounts for even greater isolation. Sierras running the 6.2-liter engine get active noise cancellation.

Denali’s magnetic ride control system features electronically controlled shock absorbers that monitor road conditions every millisecond and can alter damping characteristics every five milliseconds.

In the test truck, the system delivered a smooth ride, but allowed more body motion than a set of standard shocks would have, a disconcerting experience for a novice truck driver. The Denali’s 20-inch wheels hit potholes with a jarring thud that the suspension couldn’t mask.

Otherwise, the ride is quiet and tranquil. Excellent ergonomics pair up with large and supportive seats to promise outstanding long-distance comfort.

There are, of course, more modest Sierras. Compared with past generations, the base trim ($28,470, 2WD; $32,710, 4WD) is downright elegant, with first-rate cabin materials, build quality and overall comfort. All Sierras include A/C, cruise control, power windows and door locks, tilting steering wheel and cloth upholstery. The four-speaker AM/FM sound system includes a 4-inch color display and USB and auxiliary inputs.

The base engine, a 4.3-liter V-6 good for 285 horsepower and 305 lb-ft of torque, is tow-rated to a sufficient-for-most-drivers 7,200 lb.

Whether your towing needs are modest or massive, GMC has a Sierra 1500 that’s likely to fit the bill.

2016 GMC Sierra Denali 1500 4WD Crew Cab
Vehicle base price: $26,184
Trim level base price: $53,565
As tested: $60,765
Optional equipment included 6.2L V-8; power running boards with articulating bed step; sunroof; land-keeping assist; automatic high-beam headlights; forward-collision alert; metallic paint; 20-inch polished-aluminum wheels; trailer brake controller.
Tow capacity: 12,000 lb
EPA rating: 17 combined/15 city/21 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified