Toyota Avalon wins hearts and minds

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

Toyota Avalon exterior

In 2013, Toyota treated its flagship sedan to a clean-sheet makeover. The car that emerged was more dynamic, engaging and vigorous than its predecessor.

Can a car and its owner be soulmates?

I don’t mean that in the way some people name their cars. I mean it like the reader who called to tell me how much he loves his Toyota Avalon.

Toyota Avalon interior

Avalon’s layered dash incorporates a contoured control panel housing a 7-inch color touchscreen display.

This fellow’s love affair with his Avalon is deep and wide. For many years, he had been loyal to a certain full-size domestic sedan. He discovered Avalon only when his longtime favorite had been discontinued.

Now, he says about the Avalon, “Best car I’ve ever owned.” And at 80-plus, he’s owned a few.

In 2013, Toyota treated its flagship sedan to a clean-sheet makeover. Given my new friend’s age, it might seem ironic that the car that emerged was more dynamic, engaging and vigorous than its predecessor.

But my new friend still fires up his motorcycle when the weather turns nice, so it seems the Avalon tickled his living-large sweet spot.

Toyota sought to make a statement with the reborn Avalon ($34,184, including destination). Its flowing profile, bulging wheel wells and crisp character lines reflected the dynamism of a suspension tuned to deliver a vibrant, if not track-ready, drive and of its 268-horsepower V-6.

If its gaping grille was too strong a statement for some, it nonetheless signaled that a new Avalon had landed.

Avalon’s cabin picks up where its sheet metal leaves off. Its layered dash incorporates a contoured control panel housing a 7-inch color touchscreen display. An array of switches stand in for buttons and respond to the driver’s touch with a slight haptic bump.

A Portland road-trip confirmed my caller’s claim for the Avalon as a terrific road car. Large and supportive seats coddle their occupants. Automatic dual-zone climate control keeps everyone happily ventilated. At highway speeds, the cabin is whisper-quiet.

Old-school types may object to Avalon’s firm ride but the pay-off lies in minimal body lean in corners and in the absence of unwanted body motions.

Buyers seeking a sportier feel can turn to the Touring trim ($35,585), with its sport-tuned suspension, 18-inch wheels and LED headlights and taillights.

On our drive home, an icy wintery mix solidified into a crunchy slush that fouled our tester’s cruise-control sensors but couldn’t shake its planted big-car feel. It won’t be mistaken for an Audi or a Bimmer, but Avalon is a road warrior in its own right.

Every Avalon is nicely equipped, with standard gear that includes leather seats; heated front seats; dual-zone automatic climate control; an eight-way power-adjustable driver seat, with power lumbar; and a four-way power-adjustable front passenger seat.

Electronics include keyless ignition and entry, a rearview camera, Bluetooth connectivity, a 7-inch touchscreen with Toyota’s Entune interface with voice controls, and an eight-speaker audio system.

Toyota’s Safety Sense driver-assist suite becomes standard on Avalon this year. It includes adaptive cruise, lane-departure warning and intervention, forward-collision warning, automatic pre-collision braking and automatic high-beam headlights.

Whether it’s the flesh-and-blood variety or one made of metal and plastic, a soulmate should be celebrated. Here’s hoping fortune shines on you as it did my friend.

2017 Toyota Avalon Touring
Vehicle base price: $33,300
Trim level base price: $37,650
As tested: $39,134
Options included Blizzard Pearl paint, carpets and trunk mat.
EPA rating: 24 combined/21 city/30 highway
Regular unleaded gas specified

New engine choice, other updates keep Explorer fresh

This review first appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

2017 Ford Escape interior

Escape is Ford’s second-best-selling model, outstripping the brand’s combined sedan sales.

To grasp the impact of crossovers on sedan sales, we need look no further than Ford.

As it has for years, Ford’s full-size F-150 pickup easily tops brand sales. It’s been the country’s, best-selling vehicle for 36 years.

But the No. 2 vehicle in Ford’s stable? That would be the Escape compact crossover, which outsells all three of Ford’s sedans. Combined.

2017 Ford Escape interior

Dashboard layout and design is beginning to feel dated, but the Sync 3 touchscreen-based infotainment system is much improved.

It follows that Ford is heavily invested in its little bread-and-butter rig, and even in a mid-cycle year like this one, the Escape gets plenty of attention.

Engine-room upgrades lead the updates but a minor facelift also brings a new grille and taillights and a redesigned tailgate. Inside, a new electronic parking brake frees up additional storage room in the center console. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration are newly available on the Sync 3 infotainment system.

Ford leads the segment with three engine choices. A new turbocharged 1.5-liter EcoBoost four makes 179 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque and delivers EPA ratings of 24 combined/22 city/28 highway.

It’s sandwiched between the base engine, a naturally aspirated 168-hp 2.5-liter four, and the top-of-the-line 2.0-liter, 245-hp turbo-four.

The engines are mated with a six-speed automatic transmission and turbocharged models get paddle shifters and a fuel-wise automatic stop/start feature. In sequence, the engines are tow-rated to 1,500, 2,000 and 3,500 lbs.

We tested a mid-range Escape SE ($26,145) fitted with the new engine. Acceleration was smooth and linear, if not pulse-raising, with zero-to-60 coming up in the mid-9-second range. Owners hoping to pack their Escape with gear and still be able to pass slower traffic comfortably, should consider shelling out an additional $1,345 for the 2.0-liter engine.

Dashboard layout and design is beginning to feel dated, but the Sync 3 touchscreen-based infotainment system is much improved over earlier iterations. Its menus are more easily navigated, while a handful of physical switches augment onscreen controls.

Taut yet compliant suspension settings give Escape a planted, in-control feel without residual harshness. Despite wearing 19-inch wheels, our tester calmly absorbed broken road surfaces and railroad beds. Though it’s not communicative, Escape’s electrically assisted steering system is nicely weighted. It has a solid on-center groove that enables it to track true, without requiring constant driver inputs.

Escape’s cabin accommodates five, though some competitors are roomier. The rear seatbacks fold to create a flat cargo floor.

Escape’s three trim levels capture a wide spread of features, from the front-drive-only base S trim ($24,645, including destination) to the full-zoot Titanium $30,145). Standard gear includes automatic headlights, cruise control, air-conditioning, tilt-and-telescoping steering, a rearview camera, Bluetooth integration and AppLink smartphone integration.

SE and Titanium trims qualify for an extensive inventory of safety and driver-assist features, including the newly available lane-departure prevention, drowsy-driver warning and adaptive cruise with forward-collision alert.

Crossovers are the industry’s hot ticket and the competition is fierce. Escape faces newer and fresher challengers, yet Ford continues to insure that its underlying value remains intact.

2017 Ford Escape SE AWD
Vehicle base price: $23,750
Trim level base price: $26,850
As tested: $31,725
Options included Sync 3 touch-screen infotainment with voice-activated navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto; blind-spot warning with cross-traffic alert; halogen headlamps; 19-inch black premium painted wheels; power liftgate; SE Sport Appearance package; reverse sensing system; more
Tow rating: 2,000 lbs
EPA rating: 24 combined/22 city/28 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Mazda CX-3 a youthful crossover even a grandmother could love

This review first appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

2017 Mazda CX-3 exterior

The CX-3 is small, sporty and exuberantly designed. Its $20,000 price tag targets first-time buyers.

If you’d asked me last month to describe the typical Mazda CX-3 driver, school teachers would have made the cut. Grandmothers probably not.

The CX-3 is Mazda’s subcompact crossover. It’s small, sporty and exuberantly designed. Its $20,000 price tag targets first-time buyers — young professionals and educators, families just getting started.

But a few weeks ago, my sister-in-law Lori announce there would be a CX-3 in her future. A longtime schoolteacher, Lori satisfies one of our criteria. But she’s also a grandmother, which blows up our tidy categories.

2017 Mazda CX-3

The littlest Mazda’s Interior is contemporary and fresh.

Admittedly, I had to consider Lori’s news before the sense of it began to sink in; Her kids may be grown and gone, but she remains, as they say, young at heart.

On reflection, she and the CX-3 seemed a good fit.

Now in its second year of production, the CX-3 has carved out a unique niche. Lightweight and responsive, it’s one of the segment’s most enjoyable rides. Spot-on steering and crisp handling affirm Mazda’s Driving Matters tag line.

Yet, despite the CX-3’s short wheelbase and taut suspension, ride quality is very good and the cabin is surprisingly quiet even at highway speeds.

If I had to guess, I’d say design was a driver in Lori’s decision. Crisp and flowing character lines lace the CX-3’s tidy exterior. Interior design is contemporary and fresh, and top of-the-line models, like our Grand Touring tester, sport soft-touch surfaces, attractive materials and state-of-the-art infotainment options.

Mazda’s Head-up cockpit strategy places key information in the driver’s line of sight, minimizing eye-time away from the road. To further reduce distractions, most infotainment functions can be managed via a console-mounted knob, rather than a touchscreen.

On the downside, some functions are buried too deeply in onscreen menus.

The driver and front passenger sit high in the cabin. Narrow A and B pillars produce good forward and lateral sight lines but the sloping roofline and beefy C pillar impede rearward vision.

The rear seats are reasonably comfortable but limited legroom means this cabin is best suited to an adult or two and their offspring — or their belongings.

Indeed, only so much usable space can be carved out of such a small package. There’s scant room between the rear seatbacks and liftgate and, even with the seatbacks dropped, cargo space is might best be described as modest.

All CX-3s are powered by a 146-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. Front-wheel-drive is standard, with AWD available on all three trim levels.

The also efficient; AWD models clock in at 29 mpg combined/27 city/32 highway.

For 2017, Mazda drops the price of its iActivSense safety and driver assistance suite, which is available only on the top-level Grand Touring trim. iActivSense includes adaptive radar-based cruise control; forward-collision alert and automatic braking; lane-departure warning; automatic high-beams; rain-sensing wipers; and automatic ON/OFF headlights, and is now priced at $1,150, a drop of $750.

It’s a good system but — and all good grandmothers would agree — it should be made available to every CX-3 owner.

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

2017 Mazda CX-3 Grand Touring AWD
Vehicle base price: $19,960
Trim level base price: $24,240
As tested: $28,810
Options: rear bumper guard; roof rack with side rails; door sill trim plates; iActivSense driver-assist package.
Towing capacity: Not rated in US
EPA ratings: 29 combined/27 city/32 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Air of inevitability attends made-over Honda CR-V

This review first appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

Honda CR-V exterior

Last year’s CR-V sold at a record clip, but Honda turns up the wattage this year with a stem-to-stern makeover.

A whiff of inevitability attends today’s column.

There is for starters the inevitability — or at least the ubiquity — of its subject. In 1995, Honda’s CR-V pioneered the compact crossover segment and, since, nearly four million copies have been sold in the US alone.

Also inevitable, perhaps, is CR-V’s ($24,985, including transportation) long reign at the top of the sales charts. Honda is nothing if not tenacious and vigorously protects its franchise. Though last year’s CR-V sold at a record clip, Honda turns up the wattage this year with a stem-to-stern makeover.

Honda CR-V interior

Cabin updates include a crisply modern look, better materials quality and more soft-touch surfaces.

That makeover introduces its own set of inevitabilities: a new platform that improves ride and handling; a cabin that’s more spacious, comfortable and better equipped; a handsome new exterior; a wider array of safety and driver-assist features.

Honda even added an extra 1.5 inches of ground clearance. Not inevitable, perhaps, but certainly welcome.

There’s a definite inevitability in the CR-V’s new up-level powerplant. Supplementing the 184-horsepower four-cylinder base engine, the turbocharged 1.5-liter four makes 190 horsepower and 179 lb-ft of torque.

It’s not only more powerful than the base engine but also more efficient. The EPA rates AWD trims at 29 mpg combined/27 city/33 highway, numbers that trounce the competition — and not by tenths of a mile, as might be expected, but by miles.

Finally, it was probably inevitable that this writer’s resistance to the continuously variable transmission (CVT) would one day fade. CVTs are, in fact, inevitable. They’re more efficient than the traditional options — and, as is the way with all new tech, their performance improves over time.

The CR-V is available only with a CVT. Fortunately, Honda’s convincingly simulates the shift pattern of an automatic, minimizing the elastic feel and soaring engine note common to the breed. That the engine makes most of its power at lower RPMs makes it a good match for the CVT.

Acceleration is brisk and seamless, though high-end performance lags; passing safely in a CR-V packed with gear will require a long, straight stretch of roadway.

The CRV’s available AWD system is upgraded this year to increase the torque available to the rear wheels. A new step-less control system improves stability in less-than-optimal conditions.

Cabin updates include a crisply modern look, better materials quality and more soft-touch surfaces. The configurable center console includes multiple storage bins, shelves and cupholders. The digitized control panel adds a freestanding volume-control knob but the touchscreen controls are more complicated than necessary.

Rear-seat legroom and cargo space both grow substantially. Dropping the second-row seats into the flat-floored cargo area is simplified with the addition of a pair levers.

The base CR-V is equipped with automatic climate control, cruise control, an electronic parking brake and Bluetooth and USB connectivity.

The volume-leading EX ($27,635) gets the new engine, a long list of comfort and convenience extras and a suite of driver assist features that includes automatic high-beam headlights, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning and intervention, adaptive cruise and forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking.

Call it inevitable or just really good, the 2017 CR-V will satisfy the expectations of crossover shoppers.

2017 Honda CR-V AWD Touring
Vehicle base price: $24,045
Trim level base price: $33,695
As tested: $34,595
Options: The Touring AWD is a fully equipped trim. Our tester came with no extras.
Tow rating: 1,500 lbs
EPA ratings: 29 combined/27 city/33 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

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