Lexus NX 200t: Cutie-pie or design-school refugee?

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

2016 Lexus NX 200t exterior

Lexus’ controversial spindle grille anchors a protuberant and many-faceted front fascia

Depending on your point of view, Lexus’s small crossover, the NX 200t, is either a cutie-pie or a refugee from design school.

I vote cutie-pie; your mileage may vary.

Unlike other makers, Lexus doesn’t have a fancy name for its current design theme. Its “spindle” grille sets the tone, though. Its hard-edged hourglass shape sweeps away decades of Lexus design. It is the tail that wags the Lexus dog.

On the NX, the controversial grille anchors a protuberant and many-faceted front fascia. The assembly includes a sweep of headlights (LED low beams; halogen highs), a swoop of LED driving lights and an outsized air dam packed with assorted planes, curves and folds.

Just as reducing a sauce heightens its flavors, the integration of this prominent fascia into a pint-size frame focuses its drama.

The NX 200t also houses Lexus’s first-ever turbocharged gas engine. The 235-horsepower 2.0-liter four uses some neat engineering to reduce turbo lag, while optimizing performance and efficiency.

The little engine makes 258 pound-feet of torque and is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. It earns an EPA-rated 24 mpg combined (22 city/27 highway) and can tow up to 2,000 pounds.

The powertrain is calibrated for dynamic throttle response at the expense of raw power. The 4,000-pound NX runs the 0-60 sprint in 6.9 seconds, without much left over for passing or other high-speed demands.

A dual exhaust system reduces back-pressure and exterior noise. In Sport mode, a three-mode drive system draws artificially generated engine noise into the cabin.

An available F Sport package delivers a more aggressively styled NX. The spindle grille and lower bumper take on a more menacing look. Interior upgrades include a pair of excellent sport seats and unique interior trim. Steering and suspension tweaks firm up the ride and sharpen the handling, though its perfunctory power output, front-drive platform and tallish dimensions undercut the NX’s performance potential.

The cozy cabin is thoughtfully designed, with excellent ergonomics and plenty of casual storage. Contrasting stitching highlights the abundant leather surfaces and padding on either side of the console cushions the knees of long-legged occupants.

A 7-inch tablet-style display sits upright atop the dash, its functions managed by a console-mounted touchpad. Although it can be fussy, the touchpad improves on the joystick it replaces.

Siri Eyes Free Mode provides iPhone users with phone and audio connectivity, turn-by-turn navigation and more.

Available safety and driver-assist technologies include Lexus’s Pre-Collision Safety System,

lane-departure alert, adaptive high-beam headlights and adaptive cruise control.

Lexus’s Dynamic Torque Control AWD system reads vehicle speed, steering angle and speed, throttle angle and yaw rates to manage the transfer of power between the front and rear wheels. Up to 50 percent of torque can be transferred to the rear wheels, while a pre-loaded front differential controls the torque split between the front wheels, helping ensure straight-line stability during acceleration.

You may regard it a handsome little devil or a face best forgotten; either way, the NX 200t will make an impression.

2016 Lexus NX 200t F Sport
Vehicle base price: $34,480
Trim level base price: $38,365
As tested: $44,805
Options included Qi-compatible wireless charger; power tilt-and-telescoping steering column; power 10-way driver’s seat; autodimming interior mirror; heated front seats; navigation system with Remote Touch interface and Lexus Enform telematics; premium sound system; intuitive park-assist; power back door; moonroof.
Tow capacity: 2,000 lbs
EPA ratings: 24 combined/22 city/27 highway
Premium fuel required

Infiniti QX60 stands out from crowd

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

Infiniti QX60 interior

Infiniti has comprehensively enhanced its versatile QX60 premium crossover for 2016, introducing a wide range of changes that improve the seven-seater’s exterior design and its driving dynamics, while showcasing new features and technologies that improve comfort, convenience and safety.

U.S. buyers shopping three-row crossovers face a rich supply of options, ranging from Mitsubishi’s $23,000 Outlander to the $113,00 Mercedes-Benz GLS63 AMG.

Camped between those extremes, the 2016 Infiniti QX60 ($42,600) distinguishes itself with an attitude-laced blend of luxury and tech. Having positioned itself as the performance leader among Asian luxury brands, Infiniti updates the QX60 this year with changes that align the big rig with defined brand values.

2016 Infiniti QX60 interior

Infiniti has comprehensively enhanced its versatile QX60 premium crossover for 2016, introducing a wide range of changes that improve the seven-seater’s exterior design and its driving dynamics, while showcasing new features and technologies that improve comfort, convenience and safety.

Of course, one expects athleticism from a 4,400-pound crossover the way one fancied great dodge-ball moves from the nearsighted kid in seventh-grade, but Infiniti takes its best shot.

The seven-passenger QX60 debuted in 2013 as the JX and, aside from the name change, has remained largely unchanged. Last year, it slipped into Infiniti’s No. One sales slot and now easily retains its lead.

An all-new QX is two or three years away and the competition isn’t going away, so Infiniti treats it this year to an extensive mid-cycle refresh.

A major facelift amplifies the attitude quotient. The QX60’s redesigned “double-arch” mesh grille is surrounded by with a large air-intake, bi-xenon headlights and LED driving lights and fog lamps.

Improved materials — including abundant soft-touch surfaces — boost interior ambience, while acoustic-glass side-windows reduce high-frequency sounds, including wind and tire noise. Already quiet, the QX60 grows quieter.

Standard leather seating includes a quilted seat base and graphite-weave accents. Contrasting stitching highlights the upper instrument panel and door panels. A new shift-lever reflects the piano-black-and-aluminum design theme of the instrument control panel. Three new USB ports attend to a family’s digital needs.

A round of chassis upgrades addresses complaints about too-soft suspension settings, with new shocks and springs that firm up the ride and enhance driving dynamics. The vehicle-speed-sensitive power steering system is retuned for quicker responses and greater feedback.

Some shoppers will deem the ride too firm — and road-surface imperfections do make their presence felt — but Infiniti loyalists will feel at home with the confidence imparted by the QX’s planted and sharp-edged feel.

A suite of available safety and driver-assist technologies comes aboard this year. Our tester included the $6,900 Deluxe Technology package that adds adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning and prevention and blind-spot intervention. Also included are a front-collision warning system and emergency braking with pedestrian detection.

The QX60 is available in front- and all-wheel-drive configurations. A 3.5-liter V-6 rated at 265 horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque powers the 4,400-pound rig, which can tow up to 5,000 pounds. The engine is buzzy under throttle and acceleration trails quicker entries. The standard continuously variable transmission (CVT) is well suited to the engine’s torque characteristics, though, minimizing the expected CVT drone.

A driver-selectable four-mode drive system –– alters throttle response and programmed “shift points” to optimize performance. Using a console-mounted rotary dial, the driver can select from among Standard, Sport, Eco and Snow settings.

Thirteen three-row crossovers are available to U.S. buyers and each is challenged to stand out from the crowd. Count the 2016 QX60 an unqualified success.

2016 Infiniti QX60 AWD
Vehicle base price: $42,600
Trim level base price: $44,400
As tested: $59,345
Options included pearl paint; adaptive cruise control; blind-spot warning; lane-departure warning and prevention; forward emergency braking with pedestrian detection; navigation; around-view monitor with moving-object detection; rain-sensing wipers; premium audio system; remote start, more.
Tow rating: 5,000 pounds
EPA ratings: 22 combined/19 city/26 highway

Innovative Volvo XC90 is beautifully rendered

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

2016 Volvo XC90 interior

Today’s Volvos are graceful and well-proportioned. They are also unafraid of drama; witness the protuberant grille of today’s tester and its “Thor’s Hammer” LED driving lights.

Not long ago, I wrote that Volvo, that longtime bastion of virtue, had begun building cars that might be described as “sexy and alluring.”

And it’s true; esthetically speaking, Volvo’s current fleet plays in the big leagues. In 2012, Volvo hired Volkswagen’s Thomas Ingenlath to head design. Ingenlath, who had led Volkswagen’s Potsdam Design Center, has nimbly updated Volvo’s design language. Today’s cars are graceful and well-proportioned. They are also unafraid of drama; witness the protuberant grille of today’s tester, the XC90 midsize crossover, and its “Thor’s Hammer” driving lights.

The Volvos I’ve driven have been beautifully designed, inside and out; exceptionally comfortable, with excellent seats, top-shelf materials and solid build quality.

Volvo also is proving itself an engineering innovator, leveraging advanced technologies in unexpected ways. Let today’s tester, the T8 Inscription Twin-Engine Plug-In Hybrid, be Example A.

The XC90 is a large crossover. It’s available in five-passenger and seven-passenger configurations, in three distinct trims and with a choice of three powertrains.

The XC90 embodies Scandinavian elegance. Soft-touch surfaces dominate and Volvo’s infotainment system is neatly integrated into the dash layout, with a horseshoe of hard buttons flanking the 9-inch vertically oriented touch screen.

Upper trims feature high-end leathers and distinctive wood or carbon fiber trim. The crystal shift knob on the high-end Inscription is provided by Orrefors. An available 19-speaker Bowers Wilkins audio system produces pristine audio.

Of course, all this is more or less expected from a car whose suggested retail price brushes against $45,000 and can tickle $85,000.

Less expected is Volvo’s reliance on four-cylinder powerplants to develop six- and eight-cylinder power.

The base engine is a 250-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter four. The midrange choice is a 316-hp 2.4-liter four, fitted with turbocharger <em>and</em> supercharger.

The 400-hp hybrid system integrates the 2.4-liter engine — super- and turbocharger intact — into a gas/electric hybrid system with two electric motors. One contributes power; the other drives the rear wheels.

The system produces a steady, invigorating blast of power and, paired with the XC90’s eight-speed automatic, runs the 0-60 sprint in a rapid 5.3 seconds.

The hybrid earns 25 mpg in combined driving and a 53MPGe hybrid rating. It can be driven up to 14 miles on electricity alone.

The system is powerful and efficient but betrays its piston count with a subtle four-cylinder buzz under full throttle. The automatic stop/start function also operates less smoothly than others in this class.

It also can be finicky; due to software glitch or operator error, the system discharged itself the first night in our possession and was finally trundled off to the dealership.

We tested two trims, one with 18-inch wheels, and the other with the optional ($1,800) air suspension and a set of 21-inchers. In both cases, the ride was firm and body motions controlled. But an orientation to comfort prevailed. The XC90 is not a slouch, though. Composed and confident, it has the feel and verve of a smaller car.

All the expected safety gear is onboard, of course, including a frontal-collision warning (including pedestrian/cyclist protection) and automatic braking.

2016 Volvo XC90 T8 Inscription
Vehicle base price: $41,313
Trim level base price: $68,100
As tested: $84,005
Options included Nappa leather; ventilated front seats with power side bolsters; walnut inlays; blind-spot warning; cross-traffic alert; 360-degree surround-view camera; heated rear seats; heated steering wheel; park assist; adaptive cruise control; lane-keeping assist; metallic paint; integrated 2nd-row booster seat; 21-inch alloy wheels; premium audio system; air suspension.
EPA rating: 25 mpg/53 MPGe
Regular unleaded fuel specified

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