Accord Hybrid holds Honda’s future in its capable hands
Honda Accord Hybrid exterior

Honda’s clean-energy flagship is the 2017 Accord Hybrid, which returns to the market following a year-long sabbatical.

Faced by the twin pressures of competition and escalating efficiency standards, automakers find themselves forever falling into the future.

That crossover you bought last week? A team of engineers, designers and product planners is already working on its replacement.

The current crop of gas-electric hybrids is a case in point. With gas prices at historic lows, buyers struggle to justify the technology’s extra costs. Meanwhile, automakers face a future in which hybrids will be merely the starting place.

2017 Honda Accord Hybrid interior

The mid-level EX-L trim ($33,740) adds leather upholstery and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Honda expects that by 2030, two-thirds of its vehicles will be electrified, a category that includes pure EVs, gas-electric hybrids and plug-in hybrids. And that lineup doesn’t include alternatives like compressed natural gas (CNG) and hydrogen fuel cells.

The company built its first all-electric production vehicle in 1997, its first CNG-powered car in ’98 and its first fuel-cell car in 2008. Before the end of 2016, it will release the latest iteration of its Clarity fuel-cell vehicle. Next year, the Clarity family grows to include a new EV and a plug-in EV.

For now, Honda’s clean-energy flagship is the 2017 Accord Hybrid, which returns to the market following a year-long sabbatical.

The ’17 Accord Hybrid (from $30,344, including destination) carries a refined version of Honda’s two-motor hybrid powertrain, which marries a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with a pair of electric motors fed by a lithium-ion battery pack.

The system produces 212 horsepower, 16 more than the 2015 edition — and more than the competition — and delivers it to the front wheels via a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which only occasionally does that crazy CVT thing.

In the face of testing guidelines that have grown more rigorous, EPA-estimated mileage improves to 48 mpg combined/49 city/48 highway.

The hybrid is quick and silent off the line (0-60 comes up in a tick or two over 7 seconds), and can be driven on electricity alone for about a mile at just over 60 mph. Transitions between power sources are essentially transparent.

The trunk-mounted lithium-ion battery pack is smaller this year, boosting cargo capacity to a class-leading 13.5 cubic feet. However, the battery’s location precludes folding rear seatbacks or even a pass-through.

Honda markets the hybrid in three well-equipped trims. The base model runs about $3,000 more than a comparably equipped non-hybrid Accord EX. The mid-level EX-L trim ($33,740) adds leather upholstery and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and the top-level Touring ($36,790) gets navigation; LED headlights, with automatic high-beams; heated rear seats; front and rear parking sensors; and a sunroof.

All hybrids get Honda Sensing, a suite of safety and driver-assist technologies, including adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist and automated emergency braking. LaneWatch, Honda’s brilliant right-side blind-spot camera, is standard.

The EX-L and Touring come equipped with Honda’s needlessly complex twin-touchscreen infotainment interface.

Malcolm X once famously said, “The future belongs to those who prepare for it today.” He wasn’t talking cars but he nailed the automaker’s mission nonetheless. Honda clearly intends to be counted among the prepared.

2017 Honda Accord Hybrid Touring
Vehicle base price: $26,905
Trim level base price: $35,995
As tested: $36,790
Options: The Accord Hybrid Touring is a fully equipped trim; our tester included no options.
EPA ratings: 48 combined/49 city/47 highway

Little Hyundai crossover offers big value proposition

This review first appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

Hyundai Santa Fe Sport interior

The Santa Fe Sport receives engine-room tweaks that reduce total output of its up-level in favor of stronger low-end power and greater efficiency.

For purely selfish reasons, I wish Hyundai would revise its crossover naming strategy.

Just last weekend, I found myself trying to explain the differences between the Santa Fe and Santa Fe Sport. In a nutshell:

  • The midsize Santa Fe (from $31,695, including transportation) accommodates as many as seven in up to three rows of seats.
    The five-passenger Santa Fe Sport ($26,245) is smaller and more nimble than the Santa Fe, but not sportier in any meaningful sense.

The two rigs share platforms, production cycles and stylish looks. For 2017, each receives a mild facelift, infotainment system upgrades and newly available safety and driver-assist technology.

Hyundai Santa Fe Sport interior

A 5-inch touchscreen is standard on all Santa Fes, and new 7- and 8-inch screen are available. Traditional knobs and switches augment the user-friendly touchscreens.

The Sport also receives engine-room tweaks that reduce total output of its up-level in favor of stronger low-end power and greater efficiency. The turbocharged, 2.0-liter four makes 250 horsepower and 259 horsepower and 269 pound-feet of torque, down 19 and 9 respectively.

Acceleration falls, though the Sport is still quick off the line and moves out sharply in passing situations. Efficiency gains are marginal, with a 1-mpg uptick in combined driving (23 vs last year’s 22). The base engine, a 185-horsepower 2.4-liter four, loses 5 hp, and FWD trims register an estimated 24/21/27.

Many find that the Sport’s overall value proposition offsets its lackluster efficiency. No longer driven to compete on price exclusively, Hyundai offers abundant standard content — the Sport’s list includes automatic headlights, heated mirrors, rear privacy glass, air-conditioning, Bluetooth, rearview camera, windshield wiper deicer on AWD models, more — and makes available such upscale amenities as a hands-free power liftgate and adaptive cruise, with automatic emergency braking.

Moreover, those engines are mated to a conventional six-speed automatic and not a more efficient but less satisfying CVT. This year, the automatic adds three driver-selectable modes.

Ride and handling is a mixed bag. At highway speeds, the Sport is stable and its cabin quiet. Body lean during fast cornering is well controlled but cornering limits are modest. The electrically assisted power steering has good on-center feel and communicates more road-surface information than many competitive systems.

On irregular surfaces — little-used county roads, for example — the ride can grow choppy. Thick C-pillars inhibit over-the-shoulder visibility.

The Sport is a little larger than other compact crossovers, but not substantially roomier. Its front seats are comfortable and supportive and the rear seats offer class-appropriate leg- and headroom. Upper trims include slide-and-recline rear seats and rear side-window sunshades.

A 5-inch touchscreen is standard on all Santa Fes, and new 7- and 8-inch screen are available. Traditional knobs and switches augment the user-friendly touchscreens.

Our top-of-the-line tester, a Santa Fe Ultimate 2.0T AWD (from $37,395) brought the turbocharged four, high-intensity-discharge headlights and Hyundai’s full-zoot infotainment system.

A $1,550 Tech Package added adaptive cruise, emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane-departure warning and adaptive [”bending”] headlights with automatic high-beams.

An available 360-degree rear camera proves invaluable in confined spaces and high-traffic parking lots.

As for the pesky matter of nomenclature, just count the heads you plan to cart and it all sorts itself out.

2017 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport 2.0T Ultimate AWD
Vehicle base price: $25,350
Trim level base price: $38,250
As tested: $40,820
Optional equipment included intelligent cruise control; emergency braking with pedestrian detection; lane-departure warning; electronic parking brake with auto-hold; dynamic (“bending”) headlights; automatic high beams; auto-leveling headlights; carpeted floor mats.
Tow rating: 2,000 pounds
EPA rating: 21 combined/19 city/24 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Acura’s RDX hits its stride in 2nd generation

This review first appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

Acura RDX exterior

The RDX is Acura’s second-best-selling vehicle — and the best value in the luxury compact crossover segment.

Like many of my peers, I sang the praises of Acura’s RDX compact crossover when it launched in 2006.

That first-gen RDX took direct aim at enthusiasts. Its turbocharged four-cylinder engine (240 horsepower/260 pound-feet of torque) made power in pulse-quickening surges. Its rigid, lightweight platform underpinned a firm and pavement-gripping suspension. Its torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system stabilized the RDX in fast corners.

Acura RDX interior

Honda/Acura’s twin-screen control setup eliminates physical buttons and knobs, but is harder to negotiate than it ought to be.

But the RDX’s strengths translated less well to a luxury-minded market. Its ride was stiff and bouncy, its power delivery too peaky and aggressive. Fuel-efficiency — ostensibly the reason for equipping the RDX with four and not a six — registered a so-so 21 mpg combined/19 city/24 highway.

Things changed with the arrival in 2012 of the second-generation RDX. A naturally aspirated 3.5-liter V-6 (279-hp/252 lb-ft) took over engine-room duty, while a lighter and less complex AWD system was developed to hold down weight.

Acceleration remained vigorous — 0-60 comes up in the low 6-second range — and economy improved to 22/19/27. Revised suspension settings calmed the ride.

In sum, the new RDX had evolved into a better, if less engaging, car. It’s now Acura’s second-best-selling vehicle — and the best value in the luxury compact crossover segment.

The 2017 RDX ($36,310, including destination) is available in a single roomy and well-equipped trim. It’s available with front- or all-wheel-drive and with three major options packages. AccuraWatch, a $1,300 suite of safety and driver-assist systems (adaptive cruise, forward-collision warning and mitigation braking, lane-departure warning and lane-keeping assist) is standard with the top-level Advance package and can be ordered on all models.

Standard-features include automatic LED headlights, a rearview camera, keyless ignition and entry, power liftgate, sunroof, dual-zone automatic climate control, heated and powered front seats, 18-inch wheels, leather-wrapped tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, auto-dimming mirror, Bluetooth phone and audio and a decent seven-speaker sound system with satellite radio, et al.

Available tech includes blind-spot and rear cross-traffic warning systems, navigation, traffic information, GPS-linked climate control and a very good 10-speaker Acura/ELS sound system.

A fully loaded RDX falls just shy of $45,000 and fetches rain-sensing wipers, GPS-linked climate control, front fog lights, remote engine start, front and rear parking sensors and ventilated front seats.

Four large adults ride comfortably in the airy, tranquil cabin. Abundant rear-seat legroom accommodates six-footers, and generously sized cushions support our ample American physiques.

The seatbacks fold flat, yielding a cargo area that’s larger than the luxury-class norm.

The electrically assisted, variable-effort steering system is nicely weighted and has good on-center feel, but lacks precision and feedback. The gen-two suspension tweaks that softened the ride also allow body roll in the corners. Transient body motions, all but absent in the original, are present in the new setup, but not egregiously so.

On the tech front, Honda/Acura’s twin-screen control setup eliminates physical buttons and knobs, but is harder to negotiate than it ought to be.

Sounds like a third-gen update in the making.

2017 Acura RDX AWD Advance
Vehicle base price: $35,370
Trim level base price: $43,520
As tested: $44,460
Options included 18-inch black alloy wheels; roof rails; crossbars; running boards; rear bumper appliqué; illuminated door-sill trim; cargo tray
Tow rating: 1,500 pounds
EPA rating: 22 combined/19 city/27 highway
Premium unleaded fuel specified

Unconventional Honda Ridgeline stands out in pickup crowd

honda ridgeline exterior

Gains include more horsepower and better economy, a longer wheelbase and a larger bed. A front-wheel-drive version debuts and available tech now includes a full suite of driver-assist and safety systems.

Honda’s Ridgeline pickup just complete a two-year hiatus during which it did some soul-searching and realigned its priorities.

Now, the five-passenger, midsize pickup is back. And what it gained in the transition far overshadows what it lost. Gone for good are the flying-buttress C pillars, which Honda meant as a styling statement but which only served to reduce visibility and complicate access to the bed.

honda ridgeline interior

The rear seating area is large enough to comfortably accommodate three. The bottom cushions can be flipped up to create up a large storage area.

Gains include more horsepower and better economy, a longer wheelbase and a larger bed. A front-wheel-drive version debuts and available tech now includes a full suite of driver-assist and safety systems.

Unlike conventional trucks, which are built on sturdy steel frames, Ridgeline is built on a car-like unibody. Superior ride and handling result, but at the expense of some traditional truck capabilities. Ridgeline’s 5,000-pound towing capacity falls shy of its more robust competitors’. Its light-duty AWD system and 7.3 inches of ground clearance (down from the original’s 8.2 inches) limit its off-road prowess.

On the other hand, Ridgeline’s 1465-pound payload tops the segment. And its bed — formerly a stubby, squarish thing — grows longer and is now larger than the short beds offered by the competition.

The versatile, dent-resistant bed is wide enough to accommodate a 4×8 sheet of plywood and conceals a locking under-floor well, with drain plug. It can be used to store wet gear or filled with ice and used as a mobile cooler.

The tailgate swings open from the side to offer easy access to the trunk, or drops like a conventional truck’s. This year, the bed adds LED cargo lighting and a 115-volt two-prong power outlet.

The Ridgeline’s 3.5-liter V-6 makes 280 horsepower, up 30 from the previous model. Torque is up 47 pound-feet, from 200 to 267. Its automatic transmission gains a gear, going from five to six.

Ridgeline accelerates quickly and smoothly and the transmission makes good, sure shifts.

The AWD system includes driver-selectable terrain settings (Normal, Snow, Mud and Sand). By default, 100 percent of the torque is directed to the front wheels, with up to 70 percent available to the rear wheels as needed.

The system does not include a low-range transfer case — an essential for serious off-roading — but, at low speeds in deep mud or snow, the rear differential can be locked to maintain the front/rear power split.

Ridgeline’s cabin is roomier and quieter than its rivals’ and has a lower step-in height. Its seats are large and comfortable and the dashboard and control panel layouts are attractive and ergonomic. Fit-and-finish and materials quality are very good.

The rear seating area is large enough to comfortably accommodate three. The bottom cushions can be flipped up to create up a large storage area.

A rearview camera is standard and upper trims get Honda Sensing, Honda’s wide-ranging driver-assist package (adaptive cruise; forward-collision warning, with emergency braking; lane-departure warning, with lane-keeping assist and road-departure mitigation; more).

Honda brass believes this truck-that’s-not-a-truck is sufficiently utilitarian to entice buyers who need neither the capabilities or the liabilities of a traditional truck. I wouldn’t bet against them.

2017 Ridgeline AWD RTL-E
Vehicle base price: $29,475
Trim level base price: $41,370
Options: The Ridgeline AWD RTL-E is a fully equipped vehicle; our tester came with no additional options.
Tow capacity: 5,000 pounds
EPA ratings: 21 combined/18 city/25 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Little Jeep Renegade brims with personality

This review first appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

Jeep Renegade interior

An air of playfulness attends Renegade’s funky, upright stance.

In a category where cute counts, Jeep’s Renegade is a smash hit.

The little Renegade ($18,990, including destination) teems with visual delights. An air of playfulness attends its funky, upright stance. Inside, rounded surfaces play with brightly colored trim.

Lest you miss the point, Jeep scatters “Easter Eggs” throughout. Jeep’s iconic “Sarge grille” — seven vertical strokes flanked by a pair of round headlights — adorn headlamp lenses and speaker enclosures. Topographical maps hide in storage bins. A tiny Sasquatch scurries across the rear window.

Jeep Renegade interior

Inside, rounded surfaces play with brightly colored trim.

Jeep tradition appears in multiple images of the Willies-era “Jerry can” X. Less traditionally, a hidden spider hollers “Ciao Baby!” from inside the fuel-filler cap.

Señor Spider is a nod to the Renegade’s roots. Designed in the U.S. and assembled in Italy, it’s built on Fiat Chrysler’s new small-car platform and shares DNA with Alfa Romeo and Fiat. Mechanically, it’s a near-twin to the Fiat 500X we reviewed in July.

The Renegade brims with personality. It’s engaging, generally well-equipped (the base trim gets keyless entry but not air conditioning or cruise control) and roomy, as compact crossovers go. With 8.7 inches of ground clearance, skid plates and an enhanced AWD system, the Trailhawk trim ($27,490) offers segment-best off-road chops.

All Renegades but the AWD-only Trailhawk are available with front-wheel-drive or multi-mode (Auto, Mud, Snow, Sand) all-wheel-drive.

Renegade’s user-friendly touchscreens access a broad range of infotainment features. Up to 70 safety and security features include the segment’s first available adaptive forward-collision and lane-departure warning systems.

Rain-sensing wipers and a BeatsAudio system join the options list this year.

Drivetrain choices include a 160-horsepower turbocharged 1.4-liter four that’s mated to a six-speed manual transmission. The up-level 2.4-liter four is rated at 180 hp and pairs with a nine-speed automatic.

Both engines produce class-appropriate acceleration and fuel efficiency. Properly equipped, Renegade can tow up to 2,000 pounds.

Our tester’s 2.4L engine idled with a hint of roughness and grew buzzy under acceleration. The automatic transmission generally makes smooth shifts, but can be indecisive when choosing gears, causing the car to pause dramatically. This quirk bit me badly twice, once pulling onto a 45-mph country road from a dead stop, and once while merging in traffic onto I-90 from Hwy. 195. Some owners report using the manual-shift mode to avoid potentially dangerous flame-outs.

Renegade’s tall profile yields excellent headroom at all seating positions, but rear-seat legroom is tight. Ride quality is good — neither too soft nor too firm — and the all-independent suspension soaks up all but the nastiest road-surface bumps and bruises.

At speed, moderate levels of wind and tire noise make their way into the cabin. But out on the open road, the Renegade feels planted and stable. Steering is accurate and well-weighted, with good on-center feel. Factor in a set of comfortable seats and Jeep’s cute-ute promises to be a genial long-distance companion.

In cars, as in affairs of the heart, cute can be a tempting distraction. Fortunately, Renegade has the goods to back it up.

2016 Jeep Latitude AWD
Vehicle base price: $17,995
Trim level base price: $23,395
As tested: $28,755
Options included 2.4L engine/nine-speed automatic transmission; keyless entry/ignition; remote start; rain-sensing wipers; blind-spot and rear cross-path detection; 6.5-inch touchscreen; Uconnect Access; navigation; satellite radio; SiriusXM Traffic and Travel Link; HD radio; Beats premium audio.
Towing capacity: 2,000 lb
EPA ratings: 24 combined/21 city/29 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

S trims extend Camry’s boundaries

2016 Camry exterior

XSE and SE trims sport a unique front fascia with a piano-black mesh grille. Their headlights — either halogen or LED — are finished with dark-chrome coating.

The last time I drove Toyota’s Camry XSE, we were locked in winter’s grip. I wrote:

Eighteen-inch alloys wear beefy all-season tires designed to enhance efficiency and foul-weather grip. They proved themselves during my ice- and snowbound test week. The chassis and suspension upgrades lent the XSE a buttoned-down and well-damped character. Body lean is minimal and, though firm, ride quality is very good.

Flash forward to June, 2016. Bare and dry roads. Shod in low-profile tires, the sporty XSE retains its composed and well-damped demeanor.

2016 Camry interior

The S trims include sport seats and a leather-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel.

This time, the XSE is powered by Camry’s base engine, a 2.5-liter, 178-horsepower four-cylinder. This engine is lighter than the 268-hp V-6 we tested last year and, with less weight over the front wheels, the XSE enters corners with a more neutral stance.

18-inchers pass along

On the other hand, the XSE’s low-profile 18-inch tires pass road-surface jolts through the chassis and into the passenger compartment. And the four-cylinder engine lacks the resources it needs to energize the 3,300-pound sedan with the conviction of the six.

Camry (from $23,905, including destination) is available in five trims, including a new-for’16 Special Edition ($26,6500). It bundles a sunroof, 18-inch wheels, smoked taillights, keyless entry and ignition, unique interior trim and gauges, Qi wireless smartphone charging and Toyota’s Entune Audio Plus package with its upgraded 7-inch touchscreen, satellite radio and HD radio.

The sport-tuned SE ($24,675) and XSE ($32,205) target younger buyers. Both sport a unique front fascia with a piano-black mesh grille. Their headlights — either halogen or LED — are finished with dark-chrome coating. Each has its own suspension tuning and wheel-and-tire packages.

They have sport seats and a leather-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel. A multi-mode shifter includes an “S” mode that quickens shift times and rev-matches on downshifts.

The SE can only be had with the four, while the XSE runs either engine and brings such upgrades as machine-finish 18-inch alloy wheels, LED running lights, leather seating surfaces, heated front seats, a power passenger seat and dual-zone automatic climate control.

All Camrys are comfortable, quiet and well equipped. The base SE includes keyless entry, a rearview camera, automatic headlights, heated mirrors, cruise control, an eight-way power driver seat with adjustable lumbar support and a 6.1-inch Entune touchscreen electronics interface, voice controls, Bluetooth connectivity and Siri Eyes Free.

The available Entune Audio Plus package includes an App Suite, with such functions as Destination Search, iHeartRadio, MovieTickets.com, OpenTable, Pandora, Facebook Places, Yelp and Slacker Radio. Also included are real-time traffic, weather, fuel prices, sports and stocks.

All 2016 Camrys receive Connected Navigation Scout, which enables the integration of a smartphone navigation system into the car’s Entune display.

Camry’s infotainment and climate control interfaces are attractively designed and gratifyingly user-friendly. Par for the course at Toyota, whose common-sense approach has placed Camry at the top of the best-selling lists for what feels like forever.

And it matters little if the sport trims fall shy of enthusiasts’ hopes; Camry became America’s favorite midsize car answering the needs of American families. The S trims simply stretch the boundaries.

2016 Toyota Camry XSE
Vehicle base price: $23,070
Trim level base price: $26,310
As tested: $31,560
Key options: keyless entry and ignition; Entune Premium JBL Audio w/integrated navigation and app suite; Entune media bundle; blind-spot monitor w/rear cross-traffic alert; pre-collision system; lane-departure alert; dynamic radar cruise control; automatic high-beam headlights; moonroof; Qi wireless charging.
EPA rating: 28 combined/25 city/35 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Nissan Titan HD: splitting the big-truck difference

Nissan HD exterior

The XD is about the same size as the half-ton trucks, but its weight, wheelbase and powertrains align it more closely with the bigger rigs.

This year, Nissan debuts the all-new Titan XD, a pickup that splits the difference between the half-ton trucks and their heavy-duty, three-quarter-ton brethren.

Nissan Titan interior

The navigation and infotainment systems get the job done, but neither is as comprehensive or user-friendly as the industry’s best.

It’s about the same size as the half-ton trucks, but the XD’s weight, wheelbase and powertrains align it more closely with the bigger rigs. The EPA classifies it as a heavy-duty truck.

The XD is available only with a four-door crew cab and, due to heavy-duty segment stipulations, with only a 6.5-foot bed.

XD pricing occupies a between-segments middle ground. It’s available a plain-Jane work truck ($36,500, including destination), or it can be outfitted to the nines. Checking all the boxes brings a slew of comfort, convenience, driver-assist and safety features — and a $65,000 price tag.

Don’t confuse the XD with the half-ton Titan 1500, the latest version of which is due shortly. The sibs will share bodies, but the XD is built on a heavy-duty chassis adapted from Nissan’s line of commercial vehicles.

The entry-level engine is a 5.6-liter gasoline V-8 that makes 390 horsepower and 401 pound-feet of torque. The optional Cummins 5.0-liter turbodiesel is rated at 310 hp and 555 lb-ft. Gas-powered Titans are quicker than their diesel counterparts but the diesel’s abundant torque time it a 1,000-pound tow-rating advantage. The gas engine can tow up to 11,270 lb., the diesel 12,314 lb.

Among the half-ton trucks, only Ram offers a diesel. Its V-6 turbodiesel is tow-rated to 8,864 lb.

The three-quarter-ton diesels can tow between 14,000 and 17,000 lb. Nissan hopes to cash in on the differential.

Because it’s 700 lb. lighter than the diesel, the gas engine can handle larger payloads. Gas-powered XDs can haul up to 2,594 lb., about 500 lb. more than the diesel.

Heavy-duty trucks are exempt from federal fuel-efficiency standards, and neither Nissan nor the EPA publish mileage numbers.

We tested an off-road-ready, gas-powered Titan Pro-4X (from $47,165). The Pro-4X package includes Bilstein shocks, standard four-wheel-drive with a lockable rear differential, skid plates, hill descent control and dark-finished 18-inch wheels with all-terrain tires. There are also LED headlights, a spray-in bedliner, a towing package and navigation with voice controls

Even with its off-road suspension, the gasoline-powered XD was an exceptionally comfortable road-trip rig. With its 151-inch wheelbase and 7,000-lb. curb weight, it settled into its lane with substance and purpose. Even with empty bed, it was stable and well-planted. When I needed to pass, the eight responded with instant acceleration.

The heavily weight steering lacks a strong on-center feel, the XD tracks steadily without demanding constant driver input. However, its 53-foot turning circle puts one’s parking-lot skills to the test.

Some controls are a long reach from the driver’s seat. The navigation and infotainment systems get the job done, but neither is as comprehensive or user-friendly as the industry’s best.

With its comfortable ride, attractive price point and heavy-duty capabilities, the Titan XD is likely to find a home for itself in the growing towing community.

2016 Nissan Titan XD 5.6-liter V-8 4×4
Vehicle base price: $35,290
Trim level base price: $45,970
As tested: $53,085
Options included front-and-rear sonar; bed tie-down system; premium audio system; leather seating; heated steering wheel; heated front and rear seats; ventilated front seats; power tilt-and-telescoping steering; Nissan Connect services; Around View monitor with moving-object detection; Titan bed storage boxes and LED lighting; more
Tow rating: 12,314 lbs
EPA ratings: N/A
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Subaru Crosstrek maximizes shared-platform strategy

Subaru Crosstrek interior

The 2016 Crosstrek offers car-like ride and handling in an off-road-ready package.

No automaker has leveraged the shared-platform strategy better than Subaru.

Subaru knocked the industry tailpipe over teakettle in 1995, when it debuted the Legacy Outback. Built on the same platform as the midsize Legacy, the Outback sported standard all-wheel-drive, a raised suspension and lower-body cladding.

Almost singlehandedly, the Outback kickstarted the crossover craze.

Subaru followed that success with a downsized expression of the same formula. Based on the compact Impreza, the Outback Sport quickly became Subaru’s third best-selling vehicle, and has been rebadged Crosstrek.

Subaru Crosstrek interior

The Crosstrek’s five-passenger cabin sacrifices glitz for functionality.

Like its predecessors, the 2016 Crosstrek ($22,445, including transportation) offers car-like ride and handling in an off-road-ready package. With 8.7 inches of ground clearance, it rides higher than most crossovers and even some SUVs. A pair of AWD systems (they vary according to the transmission chosen) distribute torque.

For 2016, the Crosstrek receives a redesigned black grille with chrome accents, new headlights and new front bumper and fog-light covers.

Interior updates include expanded cloud-based news and information sources, plus the availability of emergency assistance, diagnostic assistance, remote lock-and-unlock and stolen-vehicle location service.

These follow on the heels of last year’s introduction of EyeSight, Subaru’s driver-assistance tech, which brings adaptive cruise control, pre-collision braking and vehicle lane-departure warning.

The Crosstrek’s five-passenger cabin sacrifices glitz for functionality. Subaru owners seem immune to the competitions’ near-luxury entreaties and, while interiors have gained ground over the years — soft-touch materials cover most surfaces — the focus is durability and practicality.

The small cabin is littered with casual storage opportunities. Time and temp are displayed in a hooded alcove above the instrument control panel, where they’re shielded from sunlight. The central control panel includes a 6.2-inch (7 inches in upper trims) gesture-control touchscreen.

Crosstrek is available in standard and hybrid ($27,245) versions. The base engine is a 2.0-liter four that makes 148 horsepower and 145 pound-feet of torque. The five-speed manual transmission that’s standard on lower trims is coupled to an all-wheel-drive system that distributes power evenly between the front and rear axles.

The up-level transmission, a CVT, is paired with an AWD system that under normal conditions sends most torque to the front wheels. This setup delivers an EPA-estimated 29 mpg combined/26 city/34 highway.

The hybrid uses the latter power train and adds an electric motor, boosting total output to 160 hp and 163 lb-ft of torque. At 31/30/34, the hybrid bests the standard model’s mileage by a narrow margin.

The Crosstrek is neither quick nor responsive, though its steering system is well weighted and has good on-center feel. Crosstrek has a lower center of gravity than any other crossover. Consequently, there’s little body lean in the corners.

The all-independent suspension damps out most road-surface irregularities, though certain conditions — highway speeds, an uneven road surface — can set up undulations that momentarily upset its composure.

One of the market’s smallest independent automakers, Subaru relies on a strategy that calls for doing more with less. Shared platforms is key to its future success and, by 2020, all its vehicles will be built on a common platform.

2016 Subaru Crosstrek 2.0i Premium
Vehicle base price: $21,595
Trim level base price: $22,395
As tested: $26,240
Options included SiriusXM satellite radio, Traffic and Travel Link; Eyesight Driver-Assist, including pre-collision throttle management and braking, lane-departure and lane-sway warning; blind-spot detection with rear cross-traffic alert and lane-change assist; continuously variable transmission (CVT).
EPA ratings: 29 combined/26 city/34 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

4th-gen Prius blends personality, reliability and efficiency

toyota prius exterior

There’s more to the new Prius than fuel efficiency; it’s a better car in every respect.

The 2016 Toyota Prius is everything Toyota promised it would be.

Already the poster child for fuel efficiency, the fourth-generation Prius ($25,035, including transportation) grows even more efficient. At 52 mpg combined/54 city/50 highway, it’s the most fuel-efficient of all non-plug-in hybrids.

Without really trying, we clocked 50-plus on a windy drive to Portland.

toyota prius interior

Assorted digital displays, a layered dash and body-colored trim coalesce into a techie ambience that’s casual yet tony.

There’s more to the new Prius than fuel efficiency, of course; it’s a better car in every respect. Planted on a new lightweight and high-strength platform, it grows longer, lower and wider. Passenger and cargo space grow. A new, fully independent suspension improves ride and handling and newly available safety and driver-assist technologies .

Prius is also evolving a lively personality. Outside, new metal-bending techniques produce a dramatic angles, creases and curves. Inside, assorted digital displays, a layered dash and body-colored trim coalesce into a techie ambience that’s casual yet tony.

To improve handling and boost headroom, the seating positions (along with the gas engine and electric motors) move lower in the chassis. Regulation-size adults now ride comfortably in the rear seats, on body-friendly contoured cushions.

Toyota’s Synergy Drive hybrid system continues its evolution, with components that are smaller, lighter and better integrated. The system combines the output of a 1.8-liter 4-cylinder gasoline engine and two electric motor/generators to produce 178 horsepower, which is routed to the front wheels via a continuously variable transmission.

In all but the base trim, a lithium-ion hybrid battery replaces last year’s nickel-metal hydride unit.

At highway speeds, the lightweight (3,000-pound) hybrid hunkers down to feel solid and well planted; not even the blustery Gorge winds ruffled its composure. The electric steering system is nicely weighted, though feel remains vague and non-communicative. The new trailing-arm rear suspension is tuned to cut road shock.

Prius’s low (0.24) coefficient of drag contributes to fuel efficiency and to a quieter cabin. Other noise-killing measures include a urethane-based headliner, thicker under-carpet floor mats and laminated windshield glass.

There’s more tech here than at the Apple store. To maximize efficiency, the automatic climate-control system directs airflow only to spots where occupants are seated. A wireless charging system fuels Qi-compatible devices. And Prius is one of the first Toyotas available with the company’s new Safety Sense (TSS) suite, which includes pre-collision braking, with pedestrian detection; lane-departure warning, with steering assist, radar-based intelligent cruise control and automatic high-beam headlights.

Every Prius is equipped with the Entune Multimedia Bundle, which includes a 6.1 in. touch-screen, AM/FM/CD player, six speakers, auxiliary audio jack, USB 2.0 port with iPod connectivity and Siri Eyes Free, advanced voice recognition, hands-free phone capability, phone book access and Bluetooth music streaming.

When operating at low speeds on battery power alone, the Prius emits a low tone that alerts pedestrians and cyclists to its presence.

Based on Consumer Reports’ reliability ratings, Forbes magazine includes Prius on its list of cars likely to still be running at 250,000 miles. With longterm ownership costs factored in, the Prius story grows even more compelling.

2016 Toyota Prius Three
Vehicle base price: $24,200
Trim level base price: $26,250
As tested: $30,117
Options included moonroof; color head-up display; pre-collision system, with pedestrian-detection; lane-departure warning, with steering assist; intelligent cruise control; automatic high beams; special color; paint-protection film; all-weather floor mats; cargo tray; rear bumper appliqué.
EPA ratings: 52 combined/54 city/50 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

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

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

2016 Lexus NX 200t exterior

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

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

I vote cutie-pie; your mileage may vary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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