Altima battles back with mid-cycle updates

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

2016 Nissan Altima exterior

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

The death of the family sedan has been greatly exaggerated.

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

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

2016 Nissan Altima interior

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

 

Explorer interior

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

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

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

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

Ford Explorer interior

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Euro-flavored Tucson satisfies on many levels

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

2016 Hyundai Tucson interior

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

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

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

Cars just like the Tucson.

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

Score: Tucson. On both counts.

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

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

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

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

Seventeen-inch alloys are standard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GMC Sierra Denali: a strong and comfy workhorse

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

GMC Sierra Denali exterior

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


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

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

2016 GMC Sierra Denali Ultimate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2016 Audi TT delivers peak experience

2016 Audi TT

The 2016 Audi TT can turn a trip to the dry cleaner into a privileged moment.

Certain French philosophers believed that our humdrum human lives are illuminated by moments of great clarity.

During these privileged moments, said one, “ … the mind takes in the world with a rare and strange intensity.”

Lucky me; I had one the other day. It took place out on SR 261, a winding two-lane that skirts the western edge of the Palouse, meandering alongside basalt outcroppings and spring-green wheat fields.

2016 Audi TT virtual cockpit

The TT debuts Audi’s “virtual cockpit,” a high-def dynamic display set in the dash directly ahead of the driver.

Its delights are available to any driver in any vehicle but that day it felt purpose-built for the 2016 Audi TT, a car that can turn a drive to the dry-cleaner into a privileged moment.

Coursing through the channeled scablands, the TT’s turbocharged four-cylinder engine made enough grunt (220 horsepower/258 pound-feet of torque at 1600 rpm) to keep things interesting. Its double-clutch automated transmission clicked off perfect shifts, each punctuated by a rev-matching, chassis-settling blip of the throttle. Its ideally weighted steering wheel passed along vital road-surface information. Its diamond-stitched leather sport seats firmly gripped my backside.

A transcendent man-and-machine moment.

The privileged moments came courtesy of a remarkable new cabin technology, in tandem with the miracle of Google Earth.

The TT debuts Audi’s “virtual cockpit,” a 12.3-inch, high-definition dynamic display set in the dash directly ahead of the driver. It incorporates the gauge clusters, along with a navigation screen that displays Google Earth. Scroll in for streets and landmarks; scroll out for panoramic vistas.

With Google Earth tracking my progress through dry-land wheat country, I saw evidence of the great Ice Age floods that scoured the terrain millennia ago.

From within half-mile-wide washes, I peered over basalt walls to view the landforms beyond. I saw water-carved mounds lining vast bluffs, so symmetrical they appeared manmade. Roller-coaster dips in the road were revealed to be remnant fingers of ancient channels.

I was transfixed but not distracted; the screen’s location and clarity allows it to be absorbed in a glance.

The virtual cockpit replaces a conventional center-of-the-dash display, and its functions can be operated via steering-wheel controls and the console-mounted knob that anchors Audi’s MMI interface.

HVAC controls are embedded within the trio of circular aircraft-style vents spread across the dash. Seat-warmer controls are embedded in a pair of vents located on either end of the cockpit.

It’s a startlingly unique and effective strategy.

Based on VW/Audi’s new modular platform, the TT has the shortest wheelbase of any of the company’s products. You wouldn’t know it from the quality of the ride, though. Despite our tester’s low-profile 19-inch wheels, the ride was firm but never harsh.

Quattro all-wheel-drive is standard. Front-to-rear torque distribution varies depending on driving conditions and a driver-selectable drive mode. Its control unit measures the coefficient of traction at all four wheels via 150 readings every 10 milliseconds.

Isn’t that just like a car guy, though? I’ve used my allotted space on cool tech, with scant word of creature comforts, fuel economy or the available convertible. Guess you’ll have to go try it yourself and experience your own privileged moments.

2016 Audi TT 2.0 quattro S tronic
Vehicle base price: $42,900
Trim level base price: $42,900
As tested: $50,600
Optional equipment included metallic paint; MMI Navigation Plus; Audi Connect w/online services; blind-spot alert; parking system w/rearview camera; 19-inch wheels w/summer tires; Nappa leather sport seats; Bang & Olufsen sound system.
EPA rating: 26 combined/23 city/30 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

The Affordable VW Tiguan

 

VW Tiguan exterior

Already the most affordable German-built car sold in the U.S., the base price of the compact crossover drops $1,400 this year.

Volkswagen just made it easier to own a Tiguan.

Already the most affordable German-built car sold in the U.S., the base price of the compact crossover drops $1,400 this year. Its standard features list grows and its infotainment system adds functionality.

Even the entry-level Tiguan S ($25,755, including destination) gains keyless entry and ignition, rain-sensing windshield wipers and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. The latest edition of VW’s touchscreen infotainment system climbs aboard, as does Bluetooth, a USB-multimedia interface with iPhone and iPod compatibility and new AUX-in and SD-card capabilities.

Big deal, skeptics counter; all that (and often more) is standard fare on less pricey Tiguan rivals.

VW Tiguan interior

Materials quality is very good and switch gear feels fluid and substantial.

VW loyalists see that as an apples-to-oranges comparison. In their world, bells and whistles take a back seat to more ineffable qualities: The driving experience; the cabin’s understated, premium appeal; the delight of owning a vehicle whose best attributes are baked in, not added on.

And, with a next-gen, clean-sheet Tiguan due next year, VW wanted to sweeten the pot while holding the fort.

VW also restructures the Tiguan lineup, moving the sporty R-Line trim from its perch near the top of the hierarchy to a lower spot. Though it loses some key features (leather seats, bi-xenon headlights, panoramic sunroof), the R-Line package still includes foglights; an expanded range of driver-seat adjustments, including power lumbar; a power-reclining front passenger seat; a 6.3-inch touchscreen; a sport-tuned suspension, R-Line style cues, a flat-bottomed sport steering wheel with paddle shifters; and 19-inch alloys.

R-Line pricing drops from last year’s $38,515 to a more affordable $29,565, where it’s positioned just below the mid-range SE ($32,255).

All Tiguans are powered by a 200-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. A six-speed automatic transmission and front-wheel drive are standard, with AWD a $1,900 option on all trims. The little VW is one of the quickest compact crossovers, running the 0-60 sprint in 7.5 seconds, and can tow up to 2,200 pounds.

EPA-estimated fuel economy is 23 mpg combined for FWD and AWD configurations. City and highway mileage diverge slightly, with FWD trims registering 21/26 and AWD at 20/26.

With its tidy dimensions — its wheelbase measures just 102.5 inches — and quick pick-up, the Tiguan is nimble in traffic and easy to manage in tight parking lots. Out on the open road, it has the secure and settled poise of a larger vehicle.

Ride quality is very good, with the smooth-yet-firmly-damped deportment typical of German cars.

Owners who enjoy that tall-in-the-saddle feeling will appreciate the upright and higher-than-average driving position. Headroom is excellent at all positions, though tall rear-seat passengers may wish for more legroom.

Materials quality is very good and switch gear feels fluid and substantial. The touchscreen and infotainment systems feel dated in light of class standards.

Perhaps the biggest knock on the Tiguan is its none-too-generous cargo hold. A few extra cubic feet behind the second-row seats would go a long way toward easing owner’s lives.

So America’s least expensive German-built car just got a little less expensive; how could that be anything but good?

2016 Volkswagen Tiguan SE 4Motion
Vehicle base price: $24,890
Trim level base price: $33,365
As tested: $35,050
Options included trailer hitch; tow & ball mount; 7-pin adaptor plug
EPA ratings: 23 combined/20 city/26 highway
Premium unleaded fuel recommended
.

Made-over Kia Optima is confident in own skin

2016 Kia Optima interior

Like most cars undergoing generational change, the Optima ($22,840, including destination) is a little larger this year.

Though you won’t notice it at a glance, Kia’s midsize Optima sedan is fully redesigned this year.

Like most cars undergoing generational change, the Optima ($22,840, including destination) is a little larger this year. Its cabin is roomier, quieter and more luxurious. Its cabin-tech array grows richer.

The Optima’s platform is lighter, stiffer and stronger. Myriad suspension tweaks — including a longer wheelbase — bring a new sense of refinement. A new turbocharged four-cylinder engine expands the powertrain lineup to three.

These are big changes; yet, aside from a nip here and a tuck there, there’s little to visually distinguish this car from its predecessor. Nothing screams “I’m new! Pick me!”.

2016 Kia Optima interior

As always, Kia raises the bar with abundant standard features and the availability of so-called “class-up” options.

The Optima has shed its previous bargain-basement aura and, with it, any need to prove itself. It’s not yet the equal of the segment’s best, but it holds its own in a very good field.

As always, Kia raises the bar with abundant standard features and the availability of so-called “class-up” options.

Every Optima includes full power accessories, cruise control, A/C, a six-way power driver seat (including power lumbar), a rearview camera, alloy wheels, a 5-inch central display, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity and a fully equipped six-speaker sound system.

Available driver-assist technologies include adaptive cruise, blind-spot detection with lane-change assist, rear cross-traffic alert, rear parking assist, front collision-warning, lane-departure warning and automatic emergency braking.

Also available: road-searing bi-xenon high-intensity-discharge headlights with automatic high beams and adaptive bending lamps.

The Optima is also the first Kia to offer Harman Kardon’s QuantumLogic surround sound. The 10-speaker, 630-watt system employs H/K’s Clarifi, a technology that reconstructs audio signals lost during digital compression.

A trio of four-cylinder engines brings the power. There’s a naturally aspirated 2.4-liter four that makes 185 horsepower; a 245-hp, turbocharged 2.0-liter four; and a new 1.6-liter four, also turbocharged, that makes 178-hp and 195 lb.-ft. of torque. The first pair are mated with a six-speed automatic, the third with a seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual.

Optima press materials nod to “athletic” and “sporty” but, though it’s composed and serene, the Optima lacks a sporty dynamic. Body control during cornering is very good and the suspension adjustments improve composure on rough surfaces. But, whether the drive mode is set to Sport or Normal, the Optima’s responses are measured. Its power-assisted steering system provides scant feedback, and turn-in is vague.

With its turbocharged, 245-hp mill, sport-tuned suspension and 18-inch alloys, my SX Turbo tester ($30,640) — the sportiest Optima — never provoked me into anything like road-play. Optima feels engineered to convey a sense of luxury-by-isolation, the kind of feel Lexus rode to popularity.

Accordingly, interior design is clean, simple and elegant. Simple design updates — a horizontal dashboard layout, wider console — lend a spacious, open feel. Controls are simplified, encouraging less reliance on the touchscreen and more on hard buttons, and ergonomics improved.

The infotainment system now includes Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.

The made-over Optima improves in all the ways it needs to; just don’t expect to see it all at a glance.

2016 Kia Optima SX Turbo
Vehicle base price: $21,990
Trim level base price: $29,690
As tested: $33,215
Options included panoramic sunroof; Harman Kardon OLS Premium Surround Sound; leather seat trim; premium headliner and pillar trim; power front passenger seat w/lumbar; heated and ventilated front seats; heated outboard rear seat cushions; blind-spot detection; rear cross-traffic alert; rear parking assist; 18” alloy wheels
EPA ratings: 25 combined/22 city/32 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Hyundai Sonata Hybrid plugs into the mainstream

 

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid exterior

Aside from the expected generational updates — roomier cabin, improved materials quality, new and improved electronics, better mileage — the seventh-generation2015 Sonata felt like a car that had arrived.

 

Substitute dogged for relentless in Lexus’s relentless-pursuit-of perfection tagline and you’ve described Hyundai’s passage into the mainstream.

It hasn’t always been pretty but Hyundai has battled through.

Last year, the Korean maker released the seventh-generation of its midsize Sonata, the very model whose 1988 U.S. debut had inspired faint praise: “The new Sonata is the ideal car for a family whose expectations don’t go much beyond decent transportation at a reasonable price,” opined Car and Driver.

2016 Sonata Plug-in Hybrid interior

This year, Hyundai ratchets up Sonata cabin tech. The base touchscreen is larger and easier to use, Hyundai’s Blue Link telematics system adds new functions and the infotainment system now includes Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.

Sub quality for decent and you’ve described the 2016 Sonata ($24,235, including transportation). Certainly, the family that acquires a 2016 Sonata 2.0T ($34,000) has heightened expectations: included on its standard-features list are such class-above features as adaptive cruise, automatic high-beams, heated steering wheel, heated and ventilated front seats, rear-window sunshades and a premium nine-speaker audio system.

Of course, Hyundai has built a career of loading otherwise decent cars with high-end features. The 2015 Sonata Sonata was a truly good car, though. Aside from the expected generational updates — roomier cabin, improved materials quality, new and improved electronics, better mileage — it felt like a car that had arrived.

Platform upgrades — a revised rear suspension, subframe tweaks — enhanced ride quality, handling and steering feel and accuracy. Sound-deadening measures cut cabin noise significantly. The two returning engines were retuned to deliver more power at lower engine speeds.

A new 178-horsepower 1.6-liter engine delivered high fuel economy and the lineup’s best performance.

Residual traces of flamboyance — the same flamboyance Hyundai had earlier used to draw attention to the Sonata — had evaporated.
Hyundai seems to have bet its future on affordability, efficiency and what’s known in the industry as above-class features and amenities. There’s room for improvement. The Sonata’s touchscreen controls require too much driver attention and the interiors of my two most recent testers felt cool — in the clinical sense — and uninviting. Your mileage may vary.

This year, Hyundai ratchets up Sonata cabin tech. The base touchscreen is larger and easier to use, Hyundai’s Blue Link telematics system adds new functions and the infotainment system now includes Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.

The Sonata Hybrid ($26,825) is substantially revised and a plug-in version comes aboard.

The Hybrid’s gas engine is 20 percent smaller, but is now direct-injected. A larger battery pack and more powerful electric motor compensate. Fuel efficiency is up, from 38 mpg combined (36 city/40 highway) to 41/39/43. Performance is unaffected — the 2015 and 2016 models each run the 0-60 sprint in 8.1 seconds.

With its even larger battery pack and more powerful electric motor, the Plug-in Hybrid ($35,435), offers 27 miles of pure EV range. It can recharge itself while underway and, when idle, can be recharged in just three hours, using a 240-volt power source.

Hyundai employs a conventional six-speed automatic in its hybrid system, rather than the more commonly used continuously variable transmission (CVT). Fuel economy seems to not suffer and drivability improves.

And such are the rewards of dogged pursuit; the 2016 Sonata offers buyers a high-value proposition in the mainstream midsize segment.

2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Limited
Vehicle base price: $21,750
Trim level base price: $30,100
As tested: $31,050
Options: Carpeted floor mats
EPA ratings: 41 combined/39 city/43 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Market’s most affordable AWD sedan adds standard features

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

Mitsubishi Lancer GT exterior

With its sport-tuned suspension, 18-inch wheels, spoiler and up-sized brakes, the FWD-only GT trim nods in the direction of sport. It can be had with the stick or the CVT and Mitsubishi throws in a sunroof for good measure.

Mitsubishi sweetens the pot this year for snow-country buyers on a budget.

2016 Lancer GT

Cabin amenities reflect Mitsubishi’s commitment to an appealing price-point. Hard plastics prevail and materials quality strikes an entry-level note.

This year, its compact Lancer — At $20,000, the most affordable AWD sedan in the U.S. — adds a host of new standard features. All Lancers are now equipped with automatic climate control, alloy wheels, foglights, infotainment system voice controls and a revised center console with USB port.

A new design for the front fascia incorporates LED daytime running lights, there are now disc brakes at all four corners and a new color driver-information display debuts.

These updates add to what was already a long list of standard features, including full power accessories, automatic on/off halogen headlights, heated mirrors with integrated turn signals, remote keyless entry, cruise control, a height-adjustable driver seat and Bluetooth connectivity.

The Lancer is available in front- and all-wheel-drive configurations. A continuously variable transmission (CVT) is standard on AWD models. It’s redesigned this year, for improved performance and efficiency.

The new year also brings a new trim. The AWD SEL trim gets leather upholstery, rain-sensing windshield wipers, automatic headlights and an auto-dimming rearview mirror.

The turbocharged Lancer Ralliart is discontinued this year but, with its sport-tuned suspension, 18-inch wheels, spoiler and up-sized brakes, the FWD-only GT trim nods in the direction of sport. It can be had with the stick or the CVT and Mitsubishi throws in a sunroof for good measure.

Let’s remember that the humble Lancer platform is sufficiently sophisticated and sturdy to have supported one of the era’s great performance cars. Though it’s now in its final year of production, the 300-horsepower AWD Lancer Evolution has long been the ultimate under-the-radar supercar.

It’s doubtful that Mitsu will ever again serve up a dish as sweet as the Evo. In the U.S., the company is placing its bets not on sedans, but on its crossovers. Both the Outlander and Outlander Sport easily outsell the Lancer.

Nevertheless, the Lancer platform — it’s now a full decade from inception — remains a good one. The Lancer isn’t a sport sedan, but it handles confidently, with acceptable amounts of body lean in corners. Ride quality is generally quite good.

Cabin amenities reflect Mitsubishi’s commitment to an appealing price-point. Hard plastics prevail and materials quality strikes an entry-level note. The infotainment interface — a 6.1-inch touchscreen system backed by Fuse voice controls — lacks the visual sophistication and intuitive operation of pricier options.

Seat quality is quite good, though tall drivers may find the cushions too short for adequate high support. The steering column tilts but doesn’t telescope. Back-seat passengers will enjoy excellent head- and legroom.

The Lancer’s base 148-horsepower 2.0-liter four can be paired with a five-speed stick or the CVT. The up-level choice, a 168-hp 2.4-liter four, is available with the manual gearbox on the GT trim, but otherwise teams with the CVT. The base engine gets the job done, though noisily; the quieter and smoother 2.4L is standard on AWD trims.

All-wheel-drive, a $2,400 option, brings the larger engine and the CVT.

Whether you regard AWD as requisite for wintertime driving, or simply a better-safe-than-sorry proposition, Mitsubishi’s Lancer offers an affordable response to the impulse.

2016 Mitsubishi Lancer 2.4 SEL AWC
Vehicle base price: $17,009
Trim level base price: $22,805
Optional equipment: Our SEL AWD tester came with no optional equipment.
EPA ratings: 26 combined/23 city/31 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Value-priced Honda CR-V Special Edition brings upscale features

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

2016 Honda CR-V exterior

For 2016, Honda tweaks the CR-V lineup, adding a new value-priced Special Edition (SE) trim that slots in just above the base LX ($24,645, including destination).

 

A few years ago, I helped a friend move across the country, from the Jersey Shore to Spokane.

We packed her Honda CR-V to its rafters, fired up the tunes and headed west.

You learn a lot about a car on a trip like that. When we landed in Spokane five days later, I’d gained a deeper respect for the little crossover. Besides its obvious utility, it had been a comfortable, reliable and economical companion.

Others agree. In 2015, the CR-V was the best-selling crossover in the U.S.

That car, the 2015 CR-V, had received significant updates. A new, more powerful, more efficient engine debuted. New projector-beam headlights improved night-time vision and LED running lamps added visual pizazz. Driver-assist and infotainment technologies received updates and the quality of interior materials went up.

2016 Honda CR-V interior

The SE ($25,445) incorporates the LX’s standard gear and adds a bundle of upper-trim extras — security system, privacy glass and two-tone 17-inch alloy wheels in place of the CRV’s standard 16-inchers.

For 2016, Honda tweaks the lineup, adding a new value-priced Special Edition (SE) trim that slots in just above the base LX ($24,645, including destination).

The SE ($25,445) incorporates the LX’s standard gear and adds a bundle of upper-trim extras — security system, privacy glass and two-tone 17-inch alloy wheels in place of the CRV’s standard 16-inchers.

Every 2016 CR-V is equipped with full power accessories, rearview camera, cruise control, air-conditioning, conversation mirror, text-message reader, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, and a four-speaker sound system with CD player, USB port, auxiliary audio jack and Pandora Internet radio.

Our tester, a top-level Touring ($32,995/$34,295), included the expected luxe upgrades — leather, dual-zone automatic climate control, premium audio, etc. — and frosted the cake with Honda Sensing, a suite of driver-assist technologies (Adaptive Cruise Control, Collision Mitigation Braking, Lane Departure Warning, Lane Keeping Assist) that prefigure the self-driving car.

The 185-horsepower four-cylinder engine that powers the CR-V is mated to a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The engine makes more power at lower engine speeds than its predecessor and is more lively in city driving.

Mimicking a conventional automatic, with pre-programmed “shift” points, the CVT initiates “gear changes” more quickly than can a regular transmission. The “rubber-band” effect common to CVTs comes into play only when the driver floors the throttle and holds it there.

A CVT-equipped CR-V runs the 0-60 sprint in 7.5 seconds, a second quicker than before, and returns strong EPA numbers — 29 mpg combined for FWD trims; 27 mpg combined for AWD.

On the road, the new CR-V feels more settled and mature than the one I drove cross-country. Its electrically assisted steering system delivers excellent on-center feel and progressively builds weight as speed increases. There’s body lean in faster corners but, overall, body control is excellent.

Honda’s infotainment controls are less intuitive than best-in-class examples. In (my) perfect world, Honda would emulate Mazda, as well as the majority of the world’s luxury builders, with a knob-based controller rather than the existing touchscreen. Short of that, I’d settle for knobs for functions like volume control and radio tuning.

In case you’re wondering, I’d drive a CR-V cross-country again in a heart beat. Given my druthers, though, I’ll take the new one.

2016 Honda CR-V AWD Touring
Vehicle base price: $22,203
Trim level base price: $33,245
As tested: $34,145
Options: The AWD Touring is a fully equipped trim; our tester came with no options.
EPA rating: 27 combined/31 highway/25 city
Regular unleaded fuel specified