Toyota Tundra excels in tough conditions

This review first appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

2017 Toyota Tundra exterior

Besides its 4WD system, with two-speed transfer case, the TRD Pro runs a set of sticky Michelin all-terrain (not all-season) tires and includes an off-road-ready suspension.

For weeks, the winding, downhill dirt road between our house and the highway has been an ice sheet.

It’s treacherous enough that leaving home invokes a three-step ritual: 1) engage the lowest gear available in whatever rig we’re driving; 2) take a deep breath; and 3) point rig downhill.

There’s a tried-and-true technique for driving downhill in slippery conditions: brake as little as possible — braking can cause traction loss — and let engine compression slow the vehicle instead.

Inside, there’s leather upholstery with the TRD logo and red stitching, an eight-way power driver seat, a four-way power front passenger seat, an upgraded 7-inch touchscreen and navigation.

Engine compression is the force that slows your car when you lift your foot from the brake; the lower the gear, the greater the compression. As opposed to cars and crossovers, which use a single set of gears, trucks and SUVs with 4WD have a second set of low-range gears.

Hence, more compression and more braking action.

Which means today’s tester was a godsend; the 2017 Toyota Tundra is a full-size pickup with available 4WD. It’s available in six trim levels, one of which is the off-road ready TRD Pro.

In addition to its 4WD system, with two-speed transfer case, the TRD Pro runs a set of sticky Michelin all-terrain (not all-season) tires and includes an off-road-ready suspension. Its purpose-built, heavy-duty shock absorbers feature three-stage compression damping, internal hydraulic bump stops and external reservoirs.

Extra-long wheel-travel eases the TRD Pro over boulders and downed trees and underbody skid plates protect the fragile bits below.

At the top of our improvised luge run, I’d engage 4-low and, with the transmission in first gear, let the truck crawl down the icy surface, sans brakes.

The TRD Pro is available in five- or six-passenger double- and crew-cab body styles and features a unique grille, TRD Pro bed-panel stamping, matte black badges and black headlight bezels. Inside, there’s leather upholstery with the TRD logo and red stitching, an eight-way power driver seat, a four-way power front passenger seat, an upgraded 7-inch touchscreen and navigation.

It’s powered by the larger of Tundra’s two available V-8 engines, a 5.7-liter iForce eight that makes 381 horsepower and 400 pound-feet of torque and will tow up to 10,600 pounds.

The base engine is a 4.6-liter V-8 that produces 310 horsepower and 327 pound feet of torque and can tow as much as 6,800 pounds.

All Tundras drive like trucks — i.e., no cushy ride or car-like handling — and, with its lifted suspension and long wheel-travel, the TRD Pro exaggerates the truckiness. An empty bed spells a fair amount of bounce and body lean in corners.

Vague steering-feel and the absence of a solid on-center groove require a certain amount of course correction to stay in-lane.

Tundra is sturdy, strong and capable, but lacks the finesse and the cutting-edge tech of its competitors. A blind-spot monitoring system, rear cross-traffic alert and parking sensors are available on other trims, but not TRD Pro. A rearview camera is standard.

Tundra’s appeal may be less wide-ranging than its competitors’, but few are more capable.

2017 Toyota Tundra TRD Pro
Vehicle base price: $30,500
Trim level base price: $42,445
Options: The TRD Pro is a fully equipped trim; our tester came with no options.
Tow rating: 6,800/10,600 pounds
EPA rating: 15 combined/13 city/17 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Dodge Durango: RWD outlier in a world of FWD crossovers

This review first appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

2017 Dodge Durango

Durango’s rear-drive orientation contributes to exceptional tow ratings and enables Durango to carry a big V-8.

Consider the Dodge Durango, a rear-wheel outlier in a world of front-wheel crossovers.

Like the Jeep Grand Cherokee, whose platform it shares, the Durango uses a crossover-style unibody rather than a truck’s heavier body-on-frame platform. Both rigs shun the crossover’s front-wheel-drive convention, employing rear-wheel-drive instead.

This RWD orientation produces two major benefits: It contributes to Durango’s exceptional tow ratings, and it moves more weight rearward, which allows the use of a hefty V-8.

The unibody, of course, gives the seven-passenger Durango ($31,685, including destination) a crossover’s comfortable ride and capable handling

2017 Dodge Durango interior

The latest version of Chryslers’ uConnect connectivity suite is present — and can be had with a class-leading 9-inch touchscreen.

The Durango is more than a big workhorse, though. Though it’s grown a bit long in the tooth in its current third-generation form, interior materials quality and fit-and-finish remain quite good. The latest version of Chryslers’ uConnect connectivity suite is present — and can be had with a class-leading 9-inch touchscreen. High-end audio and infotainment systems are available and upper trims can be equipped with the latest safety and driver-assist technology.

Durango is not the most spacious of the three-row crossovers, but it’s one of a handful whose third row is roomy enough for adults. Large rear doors ease ingress and egress and a flip-and-folding second-row seat allows easy third-row access.

Changes for the 2017 model year include a new V-6-powered GT trim ($41,090) that underscores Durango’s burly looks with body-color exterior trim, dual exhaust tips, LED running lights and 20-inch rims.

Also included is a rearview camera, which is upgraded this year to allow the driver to watch the towed object through the driver-programmable Uconnect touchscreen, even as the Durango is rolling down the road.

All Durangos but the top R/T trim are powered by a 3.6-liter V-6 that makes 290 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. The R/T ($43,090) gets a 5.7-liter V-8 that makes 360 hp and 390 lb-ft of torque. An eight-speed automatic is standard on both counts.

Properly equipped, the V-6 Durango can tow 6,200 pounds. The R/T is tow-rated to 7,400 pounds.

All-wheel-drive R/Ts get a low-range transfer case, which can be a driver’s best friend on a slippery boat launch or when easing a heavy load down a steep decline. A neutral gearbox setting allows V-8 Durangos to be flat-towed.

The R/T trim also fetches upgraded steering system, a sport-tuned suspension with lowered ride-height, red accent stitching and a Beats audio system. Think of it as the Durango with verve; it runs the 0-60 sprint in 6.2 seconds, while Six-cylinder trims slip into the 7-second range and feel strained under heavy acceleration.

At 5,000-pound-plus, the Durango is a heavyweight among full-size crossovers and feels it, with a firmly planted feel at highway speeds and a smooth ride. It carries a lot of bulk, though, and lacks the more agile responses of lighter competitors.

But buyers looking to lug big loads have weightier concerns than a rig’s athleticism; they want strong and sturdy and Durango fills that bill.

2017 Dodge Durango GT AWD
Vehicle base price: $29,995
Trim level base price: $40,095
As tested: $49,065
Options included 8.4-inch uConnect with GPS navigation; Beats audio; power liftgate; sunroof; rear entertainment center; trailer tow package; automatic high-beam headlamps and headlamp leveling; blind-spot and cross-path detection; power tilt-and-telescoping steering; rain-sensitive wipers; second-row tilt-and-tumble captains chairs; second-row console with armrest and storage.
Tow rating: 6,200 pounds (7,400 lb optional)
EPA rating: 21 combined/18 city/25 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Mazda CX-9: New AWD system and great tires take winter’s measure

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

Mazda CX-9 interior

Since we lasted tested the three-row CX-9, two things happened; winter arrived and Car and Driver magazine named it the country’s best midsize crossover.

Bad weather in the mountains forced a schedule change, bringing us a Mazda CX-9 for review and not the Genesis G90 we’d expected.

The Seattle vendor that delivers our test vehicles thought better of driving a 420-horsepower, rear-wheel-drive luxury sedan over snow-hammered Snoqualmie Pass.

It was a fortuitous swap. Since we lasted tested the three-row CX-9, two things happened; winter arrived and Car and Driver magazine named it the country’s best midsize crossover.

“Mazda has created a trailblazing alternative to the status quo,” wrote C&D’s Annie White.

C&D praised the CX-9’s exterior design, its well-sorted cabin, its fuel efficiency and its $32,450 price tag. But, in the end, it was the drive that won over the C&D staff.

“Highway on-ramps and winding back roads aren’t just easily dealt with,” White wrote, “but become opportunities that can be reveled in.”

To he honest, with our roads buried beneath sheets of ice and frozen mounds of snow, I was more interested in traction than performance. Here, we were in good stead.

For the 2016 model year, Mazda completely redesigned the CX-9, which grew lighter, roomier and more efficient. Virtually no element was left untouched — including the i-ACTIV all-wheel-drive system.

Redesigned to harvest data originally intended for other purposes, i-ACTIV anticipates — and instantly responds to — imminent traction loss. Two hundred times per second, i-ACTIV samples 27 distinct data streams — including ambient temperature, wheel speed, engine dynamics, G-forces, driver inputs to the steering and braking systems, windshield-wiper activity,— and feeds it into the algorithms responsible for allocating power to the front and rear axles.

The electromagnetic clutch that controls rear-wheel engagement is preloaded with a small amount of torque, allowing instantaneous responses.

The clutch also reduces friction losses and improves fuel efficiency. The CX-9’s EPA-estimated 23 mpg combined/21 city/27 highway leads the midsize crossover segment.

My tester had another edge in the battle for traction; it was equipped with a set of Bridgestone Blizzaks winter tires. Quality winter tires (as opposed to the all-season and the studded varieties) provide superior grip in snow and on firmly packed and icy surfaces. Our steep and winding dirt road has resembled a luge run this winter, but the Blizzaks and i-ACTIV system made ascents and (especially) descents trauma-free.

All CX-9s are powered by a turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 250 horsepower on 93 octane gas and 227 hp on 87 octane. In Washington, our 91-octane fuel registers somewhere between and motivates the CX-9 from zero to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds.

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 of all infotainment systems. Its Head Up display minimizes distraction by placing key information in the driver’s line of sight.

Finally, though, like Car and Driver, there’s a good chance you’ll decide there’s no better reason to own a CX-9 than for the pure pleasure of driving it.

Errata: Acura’s Super Handling All-Wheel Drive debuted on the MDX crossover in 2006, not 2001, as we stated Jan. 21.

2016 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring AWD
Vehicle base price: $31,520
Trim level base price: $41,970
As tested: $43,170
Options: Cargo mat; Snowflake White Mica paint
Tow rating: 3,500 pounds
EPA rating: 29 combined/27 city/32 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Chevy Cruze hatch: Are 5 doors better than 4?

This review first appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

Chevy Cruz hatchback exterior

The hatch is a better-looking car than its sedan sib, with an extended roofline and beefy rear quarter panels that give it a hunkered-down solidity.

Reversing years of resistance, Americans are finally buying into hatchbacks.

They have good reason. Hatchbacks offer more utility than the sedans they’re based on, and they’re more economical to own and operate than crossovers.

Hatchbacks account for a small fraction of US sales, but their numbers have nearly doubled in the past decade and experts expect the trend to continue.

Chevrolet Cruze hatchback interior

Every Cruze gets a 7-inch MyLink Radio touchscreen, with Bluetooth connectivity and smartphone integration (Apple CarPlay/Adroid Auto).

Duly noted, says Chevrolet, which this year debuts a five-door hatch based on the Cruze compact four-door.

Most hatches tend to emphasize price or performance, but the 2017 Cruz hatch ($22,115, including destination) has a different aim. It targets a largely male, 30-something buyer who seeks comfort and tech to go along with the utility.

The five-door Cruze offers capacious cargo capacity — and room for four 6-footers — while retaining the sedan’s compelling interior design and robust standard-features list. And, though Chevy doesn’t explain how, it has subdued the road noise to which hatchbacks, with their resonating cargo areas, are prone.

The Cruz’s sculpted-and-scalloped dash corrals the primary front-of-cabin elements — gauge panel, instrument control panel, glovebox — into discrete sections.

Every Cruze gets a 7-inch MyLink Radio touchscreen, with Bluetooth connectivity and smartphone integration (Apple CarPlay/Adroid Auto). The standard OnStar communications system can be optioned with subscription-based 4G LTE connectivity and WiFi hotspot.

Standard equipment includes automatic headlights, remote locking and unlocking, A/C, a height-adjustable driver seat, tilt-and-telescoping steering, a four-speaker audio system with USB port and a rearview camera.

Available features include a heated steering wheel, heated front and rear seats, leather seats, French stitching and halogen projector-beam headlamps with LED signature lighting.

A pair of Driver Confidence packages add rear parking sensors; blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert; automatic high-beam headlights; forward-collision warning, and lane-departure warning and intervention.

A new Teen Driver mode allows parents to limit certain vehicle features and prevent specific safety systems from being switched off.

To these eyes, the hatch is a better-looking car than the sedan, with an extended roofline and beefy rear quarter panels that give it a hunkered-down solidity. It rides on the same 106-inch wheelbase as the sedan but is a few inches shorter in overall length, so it’s easier to park and more maneuverable in crowded parking lots.

A turbocharged, 153-horsepower four-cylinder engine powers the front-wheel-drive hatch. A six-speed manual transmission is standard, a six-speed automatic is available.

Our well-equipped tester, with automatic, accelerated smoothly but at a leisurely pace — 0-60 comes up in the mid-9 second range — and EPA-estimated efficiency is excellent, though in real-world conditions Cruze struggles to match the expected 31 mpg combined/28 city/37 highway results.

Ride quality was quite good, despite our tester’s 18-inch rims. Road conditions mandated cautious driving, but in quick corners our tester tracked well, and with minimal body lean. Steering is nicely weighted and has good on-center feel, but little communication makes its way from the road surface to the driver’s hands.

The hatchback movement is not exactly a bandwagon, but it has momentum and Chevy’s newest deserves a look.

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

2017 Chevrolet Cruze Hatchback Premier
Vehicle base price: $21,240
Trim level base price: $23,945
As tested: $29,860
Options included sunroof; navigation; Bose premium audio; RS body kit, 18-inch wheels, fog lamps, rear spoiler; power windows with one-touch driver’s window; automatic A/C; Qi wireless charging; heated outboard rear seats; automatic high-beam headlights; rear park-assist; forward-collision alert; rear cross-traffic alert; lane-keep assist; blind-spot alert; tint-coat paint.
EPA rating: 31 mpg combined; 28 city/37 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Acura MDX attacks winter with world-class AWD

This review first appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

A facelift brings MDX a new grille and headlights. New standard features include a capless fuel-filler port, an electronic parking brake and automatic high beams.

I first experienced Acura’s Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive (SH-AWD) system piloting an MDX across Snoqualmie Pass in a blinding snowstorm.

The torque-vectoring system transformed a white-knuckle drive into a revelation. As snow deepened and other drivers slowed, I fought the urge to speed up. The faster I drove, it seemed, the more tenacious the MDX grew.

Even the best tires have adhesion limits and driving quickly on snow-covered roads is not recommended. Still, SH-AWD works so well — not only in responding to traction loss, but also in anticipating it — that a driver might be forgiven for thinking he’s invincible.

2017 Acura MDX interior

Though less elegant than some others, the MDX cabin is quiet and comfortable.

Torque-vectoring is car-speak for directing engine power to a specific wheel(s). SH-AWD is a front-wheel-drive system by default, but it can send up to 70 percent of the engine’s 267 pound-feet of torque to the rear wheels — and as much of that as needed to the wheel that needs it most.

A network of sensors feeds a flow of information — vehicle speed, steering-wheel angle, throttle declination and more — to the system’s control unit, enabling it to be proactive. In normal conditions, SH-AWD improves handling by defeating understeer; in snow, it can keep both ends of the rig heading in the same direction.

It’s been a staple on the three-row, midsize MDX crossover since 2001.

This spring, more AWD innovation comes to MDX. The company’s new Sport Hybrid SH-AWD system incorporates three electric motors. One functions like a conventional hybrid engine, boosting power output and fuel efficiency, while the other two power each of the rear wheels.

Sport Hybrid SH-AWD debuted last year on the RLX sedan and is the world’s first all-electric AWD system.

A 290-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 powers the conventional MDX. It’s mated to a nine-speed automatic whose 2016 debut was marred by drivability issues that seem common to nine-speed boxes. Firmware updates have resolved the concerns and our tester’s gearbox never stumbled.

The Sport Hybrid makes 325 hp and employs a seven-speed, dual-clutch automated manual transmission.

At 4,400 pounds, the MDX is a lightweight among midsize crossovers and feels svelte and nimble underway. It’s quick, too, running the 0-60 sprint in 6.5 seconds

The MDX sails into 2017 as Acura’s best-selling car. A facelift this year brings a new grille and new headlights. New standard features include a capless fuel-filler port, an electronic parking brake and automatic high beams.

The AcuraWatch driver-assistance suite — it includes forward-collision warning, with automatic emergency braking; lane- and road-departure warning and mitigation; and adaptive cruise control — is now standard.

Though less elegant than some others, the MDX cabin is quiet and comfortable. Seat comfort, materials quality and fit-and-finish are first-rate. The third-row bench seat is more accommodating than most.

Acura’s twin-screen touchscreen control interface can be managed via a rotary knob mounted in the center console, but the system is too complicated and its graphics are dated.

I drove the MDX over the mountains again last week. The roads were bare and dry but I drove with the confidence of a guy with access to one of the world’s great AWD systems.

2017 Acura MDX AWD Advance
Vehicle base price: $43,950
Trim level base price: $56,400
As tested: $57,340
Options: the MDX AWD Advance is fully equipped; our tester included no options
EPA ratings: 22 combined/19 city/26 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Kia Forte: Living large in the compact sedan segment

This review first appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

2017 Forte Sedan interior

The Forte rides well, handles well and is as quiet inside as can be expected of a 2,800-pound car. I

Who can argue with the crossover’s growing popularity? Crossovers are roomy, utilitarian and, with the easy availability of all-wheel-drive, enormously practical in snowy climes.
In our rush to crossovers, though, let’s not forget the humble four-door sedan. Sedans are more affordable than crossovers, they’re more efficient and they’re less costly to maintain and insure.

Typically, they offer more bang for the buck than comparably priced crossovers.

Its cabin is roomy enough to handle four six-footers.

Consider this week’s tester, the 2017 Kia Forte, a compact, five-passenger sedan. As with most modern sedans, its computer-designed chassis is built of lightweight, high-strength steel. It’s strong enough to protect occupants and rigid enough to allow precise suspension tuning.

The Forte rides well, handles well and is as quiet inside as can be expected of a 2,800-pound car. Its cabin is roomy enough to handle four six-footers and its split folding rear seatbacks boost the cargo capacity of its generously sized trunk.

The Forte ($17,340, including destination) is well-equipped in its base trim and can be ordered with a variety upscale options — including several life-saving driver-assist features — without breaking the bank.

The base Forte LX includes heated mirrors, air-conditioning and full power accessories. There’s Bluetooth and USB connectivity and a four-speaker sound system, with CD player and an auxiliary audio jack

With its tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel and height-adjustable driver’s seat, the Forte comfortably accommodates nearly every driver. Long-legged ones, especially, will appreciate the lengthy bottom seat cushion. High-quality interior materials and, on upper trims, infotainment controls are consistently user-friendly.

Bluetooth, and a four-speaker sound system with a CD player, satellite radio, USB connectivity and an auxiliary audio jack are standard.

Although it’s only midway through its current lifecycle, the Forte gets a new and more efficient base engine this year and adds a sporty new trim level.

The 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine makes 147, which is sent to the front wheels via a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic.

With the automatic, combined fuel economy climbs from 31 to 32 mpg and city mileage from 26 to 29 mpg.

The same engine also powers the new S trim ($20,500), which gets a sport-tuned suspension, decklid spoiler and chrome exhaust tips — but not the manual gearbox. Its marker lamps are LEDs and its steering wheel and shift knob are leather-wrapped.

The S is eligible for a $1,491 Technology package that adds autonomous emergency braking, with pedestrian detection; blind-spot detection; lane-change assist, lane-departure warning and lane-keeping assist, which automatically keeps the Forte in its lane.

All that’s missing is adaptive cruise control, which is not yet available on Forte.

Kia currently offers the S, with Technology package, for $19,900, a low-cost entry into the driver-assist market.

The topmost EX trim ($22,050) gets a 164-hp 2.0-liter engine that’s paired with the automatic and returns an EPA-estimated 28/25/33. It adds leather seats, keyless entry and ignition, dual-zone automatic climate control, heated seats and more. A $4,500 Premium Plus package adds the driver-assistance bundle and expands Forte’s infotainment offerings.

At $26,835, it’s a good reminder that lots of life remains in the compact sedan segment.

2017 Kia Forte EX
Vehicle base price: $16,490
Trim level base price: $21,200
As tested: $26,835
Options included navigation, autonomous emergency braking, forward-collision warning, blind-spot detection, lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist, rear cross-traffic alert, ventilated front seats, power driver’s seat with memory, xenon HID headlights, sunroof
EPA rating: 28 combined/25 city/33 highway
regular unleaded fuel specified

Kia Sorento: So many options you might need a spreadsheet

This review first appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

The Sorento is available in a dizzying array of configurations. The $20,000 spread that separates the base L trim and the topmost SX Limited merely suggests the range it aims to cover.

Should your crossover shopping lead you to the 2017 Kia Sorento, I’d advise taking along a spreadsheet.

The midsize Sorento is available in a dizzying array of configurations. The $20,000 spread that separates the base L trim ($26,295) and the topmost SX Limited ($46,595) merely suggests the range it aims to cover.

We tested a full-zoot SX Limited (also designated SXL) on a holiday visit to the Midwest, where the chill wind blows and the roads lie straight and true. Redolent of fine Nappa leather, our tester bore such finery as a leather-and-wood-trimmed steering wheel, heated outboard second-row seats and a bundle of driver-assist features (adaptive cruise, with automatic emergency braking; lane-departure alert; blind-spot monitor, with rear cross-traffic alert).

Its 360-degree surround-view camera helped me ease into and out of tight parking spots. Its heated steering wheel earned its keep when the wind-chill slid beyond zero. With its adjustable lumbar support and extendable thigh cushion, the driver’s seat offered all the comfort I needed.

Sound-deadening measures turn upper-trim cabins into sanctums of serenity — all the better, we discovered, to appreciate the SXL’s Infinity surround-sound audio system.

Certainly, our tester teased the ambiguous divide that separates conventional high-end rigs from those bearing luxury nameplates.

Not every Sorento is so lavishly outfitted, of course, but all are built atop the same rigid, lightweight platform that debuted last year. At highway speeds, the Sorento feels stable and planted. Not even the winds that buffeted southern Wisconsin during our visit could upset its steady demeanor.

You can order your Sorento with one of three engine choices: a naturally aspirated 185-hp four powers L, LX ($27,595) and EX ($32,395) trims; the same four, but turbocharged and rated at 240 hp, is optional on LX and EX); a 290-hp V-6 is optional on LX and EX and standard on SX and SXL.

All employ the same six-speed automatic transmission — there’s not a CVT in the bunch — and all but the front-drive L can be had in front- or all-wheel-drive configurations. Four-cylinder trims seat five; six-cylinder trims seat seven.

Leather seating surfaces are standard or optional on all trims but the fabric-seated L. The SXL gets Nappa leather standard.

Lower trims are outfitted with a full range of basic safety gear (antilock brakes, traction and stability control, front side airbags, and front- and second-row side curtain airbags). All but the L and LX are equipped with a rearview camera.

The nifty surround-view camera is only available on the SXL, where it is standard.

Soft-touch surfaces dominate in Sorento’s attractively designed cabin. Its touchscreen control system is build around large virtual buttons and easily navigated menus. Aspects of the optional navigation system could use refinement, but it flawlessly helped us negotiate unfamiliar territory.

Others in its class offer somewhat more cargo space, but first- and second-row passengers enjoy abundant legroom and headroom. Second row seats slide, recline and fold flat. Predictably, third-row seating is best reserved for children.

You could see all the choices Sorento presents as a challenge. Or as a great way to find the exactly right rig. You choose.

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

2017 Kia Sorento SXL AWD
Vehicle base price: $25,400
Trim level base price: $45,700
As tested: $46,990
Options: The AWD SX Limited is a fully loaded trim; our tester’s only option was its Snow White Pearl paint.
Maximum tow rating: 3,000 pounds
EPA rating: 19 combined/17 city/23 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Volvo’s new S90 flagship pays a winter visit

This review first appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

Volvo S90 exterior

Volvo’s new flagship, the midsize S90 reflects Volvo virtues, both traditional and contemporary. It is sinfully comfortable, elegantly designed and a paradigm of safety.

Like an emissary from the Land of the Midnight Sun, Volvo’s new S90 sedan stopped by for our first real taste of winter.

Of course, Volvo knows winter. The rigors of Swedish winters gave rise to its focus on stout construction and safety innovation.

Volvo’s new flagship, the midsize S90 reflects Volvo virtues, both traditional and contemporary. It is sinfully comfortable, elegantly designed and, above all, a paradigm of safety.

Volvo S90 interior

Metal inlays and wood trim finish the leather-lined cabin.

Metal inlays and wood trim finish its leather-lined five-passenger cabins. Its deeply bolstered seats are some of the best in the business and its tablet-style control interface — it manages, audio, A/C and navigation — sets the standard for touchscreen systems.

Most important, though, is Volvo’s commitment to build cars so safe that, by 2020, “ … no one should be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo car.”

The S90 and its SC90 crossover counterpart are the first mass-market cars to include as standard gear a full suite of safety and semi-autonomous driving technologies. At highway speeds (up to 80 mph, various accident-avoidance systems allow near hands-free operation.

Adaptive cruise control allows the driver to maintain a constant distance from vehicles ahead and automatic braking can bring the S60 to a full, emergency. The S90 can center itself in its lane and, should the car drift onto the shoulder of the road, it attempts to steer itself back to safety.

If the S90 does leave the road at speed, airbags built into the seatbacks deploy to safeguard occupants’ spines.

In town, the system detects to and responds pedestrians and cyclists and this year adds large-animal detection, with automatic braking. Volvo says its accident-prevention systems reduce the chances of rear-ending another vehicle by 41 percent.

Other measures include lane-departure warning, road-sign recognition and a drowsy-driver alert. Inexplicably, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert are options.

The S90 is available in front-wheel-drive (T5) and all-wheel-drive (T6) configurations. A turbocharged 250-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine powers T5 trims. On T6 trims, an added supercharger boosts output to 316 hp.

An eight-speed automatic transmission is standard. T5 models are rated at 27 mpg combined (23 city/34 highway); T6s are good for 25/22/31.

All S90s are equipped with dual-zone automatic climate control, navigation, a 9-inch Sensus infotainment display, 10-way power front seats, a 10-speaker audio system, LED headlights and foglights, a sunroof, keyless entry and ignition.

The topmost Inscription trim (available on T5 and T6 models) brings, adaptive LED headlights, headlight washers, Nappa leather upholstery, upgraded front seats with both heating and cooling, a leather-wrapped dash panel, walnut trim accents, four-zone climate control, a 12-inch instrument display and Apple CarPlay integration.

For all that it is, the S90 is not a sport sedan. Its chassis lacks the locked-in feel that the Germans own. Its electrically assisted steering system is unnaturally and heavily weighted and, on occasion, our T6 tester’s 20-inch wheels failed to filter out the impact of a rough road surface.

In consideration of the S90’s manifest virtues, though, these complaints register as a small price to pay. This Scandinavian visitor is always welcome in our driveway.

2017 Volvo S90 T6 AWD Inscription
Vehicle base price: $46,950
Trim level base price: $52,950
As tested: $66,105
Options included active bending LED headlights; walnut inlays; Nappa leather; ventilated front seats; heated rear seats; leather dashboard and door panels; power seat bolsters; laminated side windows; 360-degree surround-view camera; blind-spot monitoring and cross-traffic alert; heated washer nozzles; Bowers & Wilkins premium sound; 20-inch wheels; metallic paint; more.
EPA rating: 25 combined/22 city/31 highway
Premium unleaded fuel required

Kia acts quickly to boost Cadenza’s fortunes

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

2017 Kia Cadenza

The Cadenza, a large, front-wheel-drive near-luxury sedan, debuted here in 2013. Now, just three years later, the second-generation model has arrived.

With the 2017 Cadenza sedan, Kia fast-tracks its North American learning curve.

Kia made its name here selling well-equipped, value-priced small cars and crossovers and covering them with the industry’s best warranty. Now, it aims to repeat that success in larger, more luxurious segments.

Quickly.

2017 Cadenza interior

The redesigned cabin adds upscale materials and updated electronics.

The Cadenza, a large, front-wheel-drive near-luxury sedan, debuted here in 2013. Now, just three years later, the second-generation model has arrived. The upgrades are more evolutionary than revolutionary, but they bolster Cadenza’s competitive position.

The 2017 Cadenza is built on a lighter, stiffer platform. It’s roomier, more refined and more efficient.

Outside, clean lines, dynamic proportions and a flowing, coupe-like silhouette make for a strong presence, with a hint of European sophistication. The redesigned cabin adds upscale materials and updated electronics.

A new head-up display shows key information — vehicle speed, turn-by-turn navigation directions, etc — on the windshield ahead of the driver. The high-resolution rearview camera now includes adaptive guidelines that take the guesswork out of backing into tight spaces.

Sound-mitigation measures cut cabin noise levels and the front seats provide a lower — ie, “sportier” — seating position and accommodate a wider range of body types. There’s abundant rear-seat legroom, though tall passengers may find headroom is compromised.

There are plenty of storage cubbies and cupholders. The trunk is about average in size, but the rear seatbacks don’t fold, limiting its functionality. A Smart Trunk feature opens the lid automatically if the sensor detects the key fob for longer than 3 seconds.

The Cadenza can be had with adaptive cruise control that includes stop-and-go functionality; forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking; and lane-departure warning. A new blind-spot detection system can prevent an inattentive driver from drifting in to an adjacent vehicle.

A 3.3-liter, 290-horsepower V-6 powers all Cadenzas. In the interest of economy, it’s down slightly on power this year. The eight-speed gearbox that replaces last year’s six-speed box is similarly frugal. Upshifts are executed smoothly, but lazily, and throttle-induced downshifts — during freeway merges, for example, or when passing on a two-lane road — can cause it to hesitate while hunting the correct gear.

The new Cadenza is about a half-second slower (6.7 seconds) from 0-60 than last year’s model. EPA ratings improve 1 mpg in city (20) and combined (23) driving, and holds steady at 28 mpg on the highway.

Suspension tweaks reduce Cadenza’s propensity to lean in fast corners. Redesigned shock absorbers reduce harshness on rough surfaces. A 32-bit electronic control unit (ECU) replaces last year’s 16-bit unit, improving steering responses.

It’s an impressive effort, but if the Cadenza is to be faulted, it’s for a failure to engage. On a six-plus-hour drive to Portland, our $45,000 tester revealed itself to be capable, quiet and comfortable, but not memorable.

That’s an auto writer’s complaint, though. In real life, the Cadenza does everything required of a full-size, near-luxury sedan. Time will tell if American drivers will warm to it as they have its smaller siblings.

One thing is certain; Kia won’t let the grass grow between its toes waiting to find out.

2017 Kia Cadenza Limited
Vehicle base price: $30,345
Trim level base price: $44,390
As tested: $45,290
Options: Our Limited tester included no options.
EPA rating: 23 combined/ 20 city/28 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Audi Q7 transcends the sum of its parts

 

Audi Q7 exterior

Fresh off a year-long hiatus, the 7-passenger crossover returns to the fray lighter, more engaging and better equipped than before.

A whiff of alchemy attends the creation of every great car, a bit of magic that allows it to transcend the sum of its parts.

The 2017 Audi Q7 is such a car. Fresh off a year-long hiatus, the large crossover returns to the fray lighter, more engaging and better equipped than before. A dramatic new grille keys exterior updates and the redesigned cabin coddles as many as seven in sumptuous and tech-rich comfort.

Materials quality is first-rate and controls are logically, attractively and ergonomically arrayed. Exterior dimensions are largely unchanged, but crafty packaging produces big gains in headroom, legroom and shoulder room in the second- and third-row seating areas.

Underneath, a new platform employs big doses of aluminum and high-strength steel, helping cut vehicle weight by up to 700 pounds. A redesigned suspension also includes gobs of aluminum, reducing so-called “unsprung” weight to boost handling and ride quality.

Power is by a turbocharged, 333-horsepower six-cylinder engine that urges the Q7 from zero-to-60 in a seemingly effortless 5.5 seconds and can tow up to 7,700 pounds.

This week, Audi announced the availability of a new engine, a turbocharged, 2.0-liter four that makes 252 hp and is tow-rated to 4,400 pounds. It drops the Q7 base price (including destination) from $55,750 to $49,950.

Both engines are mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission that, paired with the six in our tester, was quick and certain in its selection the proper gear.

The Q7 is available with Audi’s programmable “virtual cockpit,” which integrates Google Earth into the high-resolution map display, turning the cockpit into a rolling theater of the immediate environment (especially impressive out in the channeled scablands). Upon ignition, the tablet-size, high-resolution display lifts out of the dash top.

The Multi-Media Interface (MMI) stitches switches, buttons, a rotary knob and, optionally, a finger-tip handwriting pad into one of the more intuitive systems extant. A suite of safety and driver-assist systems — including lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control and forward-looking cameras — portend the driverless future.

The adaptive cruise control system is tightly integrated with the navigation system and Google Maps. Left to its own devices, it can brake for an upcoming corner and accelerate out of it. Simultaneously, the lane-keeping system keeps the big Audi between the lines.

An available Active Chassis package ($4,000) adds an adaptive air suspension that frosts the ride-quality cake and virtually eliminates body lean during aggressive cornering. The package includes rear-wheel steering, which boosts the immediacy, precision and stability of the Q7’s handling package.

All 2017 Q7s include Audi pre sense city, an emergency braking system that brings the Q7 to a stop from speeds of up to 52.8 mph when it detects a pedestrian or stopped vehicle ahead.

Good luck isolating the source(s) of the magic in a vehicle this complex. The lion’s share of the credit goes to the new chassis and suspension, which make all else possible. Elaborate electronics add nuance to the mechanicals and extend their capabilities. Beautiful cabin design elevates the experience.

It may not be real magic, but it’s close enough for me.

2017 Audi Q7 3.0T Premium Plus
Vehicle base price: $54,800
Trim level base price: $58,800
As tested: $68,925
Key options included adaptive cruise control; active lane-assist; automatic high beams; traffic-sign recognition; Audi virtual cockpit; LED headlights; 360-degree top-view camera system; four-zone automatic climate control; ventilated front seats with power lumbar; Bose 3D Surround Sound audio; heated steering wheel; heated rear seats; 20-inch 10-spoke bi-color wheels.
Tow rating: 7,700 pounds
EPA ratings: 21 combined/19 city/25 highway
Premium unleaded fuel required