Toyota 4Runner conquers winter like no other

This review first appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

Toyota 4Runner interior

Its truck underpinnings, solid rear axle and 9.6 inches of ground clearance are the platform on which Toyota layers manifold 4WD functions.

It’s tempting to call Toyota’s 4Runner the last of a dying breed.

In fact, it’s more like an extinct breed. You only need one hand to count the midsize, truck-based SUVs for sale in the US.

The SUV’s decline makes sense. Crossovers, which are built atop car platforms, are more comfortable, utilitarian and economical. Toyota’s midsize crossover, the Highlander, is a better fit for most families than the body-on-frame 4Runner.

Yet Toyota persists.

4Runner interior

Buckling oneself into an extravagantly capable vehicle is a comforting experience,

Count me among the fans of 4Runner ($35,170, including transportation). Buckling oneself into an extravagantly capable vehicle is a comforting experience, especially coming at the tag-end of a winter marked by berm-jammed city streets and toboggan-run back roads.

The 4Runner is bred for such conditions, and worse. Its truck underpinnings, solid rear axle and 9.6 inches of ground clearance are the platform on which Toyota layers manifold 4WD functions.

The basic, part-time 4×4 system has a two-speed transfer case that pairs a set of low-range gears for extreme conditions and a high range for normal driving.

To this can be added a locking rear differential — it forces the rear wheels to spin at the same rate, producing maximum low-speed traction — and Toyota’s computerized Crawl Control (CRAWL) feature.

CRAWL excels in technical situations, where its ability to modulate power to the wheels with traction — and withhold it from those without — permits progress in near-impossible conditions.

The top-level 4Runner, the Limited ($43,485), gets a full-time 4WD system that operates without driver intervention. Its “open” center differential automatically adjusts power fore and aft as conditions change.

All 4Runners get Hill-start Assist Control, which holds it in place on steep pitches as the driver moves her foot from the brake pedal to the gas pedal. Available Downhill Assist Control eases the 4Runner down steep slopes at a constant speed, preventing slides caused by wheel-lockup.

Our TRD Off-road Premium ($40,865) was equipped with Toyota’s Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS), which allows for extended wheel travel off-road and less body lean on.

The Limited’s unique X-REAS suspension instantaneously tweaks shock-absorber responses over rough surfaces and during cornering. It includes a central absorber that soaks up lateral weight transfer to reduce body lean in corners.

A 4Runners are powered by 4.0-liter V-6 (270 horsepower/278 pound-feet of torque) V-6, which is paired with a five-speed automatic transmission. 4Runner is tow-rated to 5,000 pounds and an integrated tow-hitch receiver and wiring harness are standard.

Most 4Runners seat five, the SR5 and Limited trims can be ordered with a third row. They are also the only trims available in either RWD or 4WD configurations.

SR5 standard features include cloth upholstery, underbody skid plates, foglights, a backup camera, keyless entry, five 12-volt power outlets and a 120-volt AC outlet.

The Limited fetches perforated leather seats, a sunroof, dual-zone climate control, parking alerts, a 15-speaker audio system and 20-inch wheels.

Toyota’s Entune infotainment interface appears in various iterations throughout the lineup.

In the end, no 4Runner is luxurious like a top-tier crossover is luxurious. Nevertheless, there is not another rig I’d rather drive when the going gets tough.

2017 Toyota 4Runner 4X4 Off-Road Premium
Vehicle base price: $31,473
Trim level base price: $39,295
As tested: $43,433
Options included sliding cargo deck w underfloor storage; Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System; moonroof; paint protection film; roof-rack cross bars; wheel locks; hitch ball mount; first aid kit.
Tow rating: 5,000 lb
EPA rating: 18 combined/17 city/20 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Hyundai’s new Genesis sub-brand goes all luxe

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

Genesis G90 interior

The G90 is a large luxury sedan with a restrained, yet muscular, presence and a confident, buttoned-down ride.

Last fall, Hyundai launched an assault on the luxury classes with the debut of a premium sub-brand it calls Genesis.

Having morphed from comedic fodder to mainstream mainstay, Hyundai now had the Germans in its sights.

Genesis G90 interior

The G90’s cabin is finished in supple leather and genuine wood and metallic trim.

We’ve recently driven the two sedans that comprise Genesis’s first strike, the flagship G90 and its smaller G80 counterpart. Both are exemplary and both raise the old question of value.

How much does a fancy nameplate matter, anyway?

We raise that question today in terms of the G90. In a few weeks, we’ll do a deeper dive into the G80.

The G90 is a large luxury sedan. It has a restrained, yet muscular, presence and a confident, buttoned-down ride. Its spacious cabin is finished in supple leather and genuine wood and metallic trim.

Standard gear includes scores of features and functions that are optional on the competition. By some calculations, you’d spend $100,000 to acquire a European sedan equipped like a $70,000 G90.

So fully equipped is the G90 that buyers choose only between a pair of interior color schemes, rear- and all-wheel-drive and six- and eight-cylinder powerplants. The base engine is a turbocharged, 365-horsepower V-6; a 420-hp V-8 is optional.

An abbreviated list of standard features includes adaptive automatic xenon headlights, tri-zone automatic climate control, soft-close doors, adaptive suspension, keyless entry and ignition and a hands-free power trunk lid. Standard driver-assist systems include adaptive cruise, forward-collision warning and mitigation with pedestrian detection, lane-keeping assist, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert and a drowsy-driver monitor.

The G90’s standard infotainment system brings a 12.3-inch touchscreen and a 17-speaker Lexicon stereo with Clarify digital processing. The knob-based infotainment system is based on user-friendly menus. A head-up display projects vehicle speed and other key information on the windshield ahead of the driver.

Eight-cylinder trims add ventilated and power-adjustable rear seats, with memory, and LED headlights.

Our V-6-powered RWD tester was a pleasant, if only slightly engaging, companion on an early spring outing along the lower Snake River. The 3.3-liter six moves the 4,630-pound sedan down the road in good order, and with minimal low-end turbo lag.

Ride-and-handling leans toward comfort. The G90 doesn’t wallow in the corners like an old-school American sedan, but it lacks the crisp precision of the European brands.

Steering is nicely weighted but provides little feedback. An on-center vagueness allows the G90 to meander in its lane absent minute driver inputs.

Seats are broad and flat, with minimal bolstering, but are comfortable and supportive. They slide on their tracks with an eerie smoothness.

Rearward vision is limited by thick C pillars and an elevated decklid, but not dangerously so

A few too many plastics, along with a handful of switchgear scavenged from the Hyundai parts bin, lightly lessen the G90’s cachet. Also, its performance envelope is less compelling those that of its better established rivals.

Still, luxury-oriented buyers for whom big savings outweigh a prestige nameplate could find themselves right at home in the new Korean flagship.

2017 Genesis G90 RWD 3.3T Premium
Vehicle base price: $68,100
Trim level base price: $68,100
As tested: $69,050
Options: The G90 is available in a single, fully equipped trim level; there are no available options.
EPA ratings: 20 combined/17 city/24 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Audi A4 reminds us that driving is its own reward

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

audi a4 interior

Its $35,000 base price is admittedly a bit stout for the average buyer, but the A4 is no average sedan.

If the sedan is truly dead, no one bothered to tell Audi.

Even as America’s crush on crossovers deepens, Audi’s sedan sales soar, led by the redesigned 2017 A4.

The reason why is no mystery. The compact A4 is the complete package. Its $38,250 base price is admittedly a bit stout for the average buyer but this is no average sedan. The A4 cabin exudes the kind of elegance Audi seems to spins off without effort, and its mechanicals draw heavily on the company’s performance heritage.

Audi A4 interior

A 12.3-inch LCD screen located ahead of the steering wheel optionally houses Audi’s beyond-cool Google Earth-based Virtual Cockpit.

The A4 is available in three well-equipped trims and with a choice of two engines. Most models are powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter four that makes 252 horsepower. A detuned version of the same engine makes 190 hp and appears in an efficiency-minded (31 combined/27 city/37 highway), special-order FWD trim called Ultra ($35,850).

The new A4 grows longer, lower and wider, attributes underscored by its strongly horizontal exterior presence. The theme continues inside, where a narrow band of A/C vents rims the dashboard’s silver-toned matte-finish lower half. A horizontally oriented display juts skyward from the dash and is easily scanned at a glance.

Audi’s knob and button-based MMI infotainment interface falls so easily to hand that, once mastered, it can be operated by feel.

A 12.3-inch LCD screen located ahead of the steering wheel optionally houses Audi’s beyond-cool Google Earth-based Virtual Cockpit.

Contoured and leather-wrapped seats coddle passengers and, if there’s a quieter compact sedan, we haven’t driven it; at highway speeds, the A4 is as tranquil as a Mercedes S-class.

Audi reasserts itself as a builder of driver-centric cars this year, with the addition of a six-speed manual transmission. It’s a no-cost alternative to the base gearbox, a quick and responsive double-clutch automated manual that replaces last year’s conventional eight-speed automatic.

The stick is available only when paired with Audi’s always-on quattro all-wheel-drive system. It will appeal to performance-oriented buyers who may also be drawn to one of a pair of suspension options:

An adaptive-damping suspension that lowers ride height by 0.4 inch and adds electronically adjustable dampers; or the stand-alone Sport package that drops ground clearance 0.9 inches and firms up suspension settings.

Add the manual transmission to the Sport package and you’re ready for some track time.

Our tester included the adaptive suspension, which includes three drive modes, though by my lights only the Auto mode is essential. It self-adjusts on the fly in response to the driver’s style and to external conditions.

On the daily commute, the A4 is a creamy pussycat. Head it into the twisties and it morphs into lively plaything. With fingertips triggering the steering-wheel shift-pulls, the manumatic clicks rapid-fire through the ratios, each shift landing the engine in the muscular heart of its power band.

The adaptive, electronically assisted steering system is quick, accurate and nicely weighted. Though numb and uncommunicative in normal conditions, it comes to life when pushed.

In a world crawling with practical but too often forgettable crossovers, it’s a pleasure to encounter a sedan that reminds us that driving is its own reward.

2017 Audi A4 2.0T quattro S tronic
Vehicle base price: $34,900
Trim level base price: $39,400
As tested: $54,275
Options included metallic paint; Bang & Olufsen surround sound audio; LED headlights; Audi virtual cockpit; MMI navigation w MMI touch; adaptive cruise control; active lane assist; high-beam assist; traffic sign recognition; adaptive damping suspension; heated rear seats; heated steering wheel.
EPA ratings: 27 combined/24 city/31 highway
Premium fuel required

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Ford F-350 Super Duty: Strong enough to tow your house?

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

Ford F-350 exterior

Ford’s new fully boxed truck frame is 24 times stiffer than before. Towing and hauling capacities benefit, as do ride and handling.

Let’s be clear.

You won’t be dragging your bungalow behind Ford’s monster F-350 pickup any time soon, though we talked to a fellow who suggested as much.

Pretty sure he was joking.

Ford F-350 exterior

Should you require more grunt, an optional 6.7-liter V-8 turbodiesel turns out 440 hp and 925 lb-ft.

Setting the stage: The made-over, 2017 F-350 Heavy Duty pickup is available with a choice of two engines. The base 6.2-liter gasoline V-8 makes 385 horsepower and 430 pound-feet of torque.

Should you require more grunt, an optional 6.7-liter V-8 turbodiesel turns out 440 hp and 925 lb-ft.

That’s some serious torque. And, since torque is the force that enables a rig to pull big loads, we asked two experts for perspective.

Gus Johnson, principal at Gus Johnson Ford, told us two kinds of buyers need power of that magnitude. Contractors and RVers.

A properly equipped turbodiesel F-350, with single rear wheels, can tow a conventional travel trailer weighing up to 18,000 pounds. Adding dual rear wheels bumps that to 21,000 lb. An integrated hitch receiver extends deeper into the frame this year, eliminating the need for a weight-distributing equalizer hitch when towing a conventional trailer.

Ford F-350 interior

Across the line, cabin materials are improved this year and available amenities elevate the high-end King Ranch ($56,930) and Platinum ($63,270) trims into the luxury classes.

One could tow a 27,500-lb. fifth-wheel. Or a gooseneck trailer — a close cousin to the fifth-wheel — weighing as much as 32,000 lb.

The turbodiesel makes more than enough power to tow the largest trailer carried by RnR RV Center, said RnR’s Mike Duncan.

It’s enough, he offered, that, “ … you could probably tow your house.”

He was kidding, of course, but the point is made; this is a big, strong truck. And, as we learned during our test, it’s also a good ride. Ford’s new fully boxed truck frame is 24 times stiffer than before. Towing and hauling capacities benefit, as do ride and handling, as rigid frames abet precise suspension tuning.

With 8.5 inches of ground clearance and a curb weight that ranges from 6,000-7,000 pounds, the F-350 carries considerable mass up high. Even so, the big truck feels buttoned down and under control even in the curves.

With an empty bed, over rough or undulating surfaces, a modicum of bounce is expected. But our turbodiesel tester never felt jittery or light on its feet.

The Ultimate Trailer Camera Package includes 7 cameras, including one mounted on the trailer.

The F-350 is available in Regular Cab ($35,000), Super Cab ($37,430) and Crew Cab ($38,600) body styles, and with a choice of 6.75- and 8-foot bed lengths

The turbodiesel is available as an $8,480 upgrade on all trims.

Ford’s big trucks grow roomier for 2017, and are skinned in military-grade aluminum alloy that Ford says resists dents and dings better than steel.

Across the line, cabin materials are improved this year and available amenities elevate the high-end King Ranch ($56,930) and Platinum ($63,270) trims into the luxury classes.

Our King Ranch tester brought fragrant and supple leather, automatic high-beams, rain-sensing wipers, keyless ignition and entry, heated and ventilated seats, a heated steering wheel and navigation.

Options included an industry-first adaptive cruise control system. It’s integrated with the trailer braking system and allows drivers to maintain a constant speed through mountainous terrain, without risking loss of control of truck or trailer.

2017 Ford F-350 King Ranch 4×4
Vehicle base price: $33,705
Trim level base price: $58,630
As tested: $77,760
Options included turbodiesel V-8 engine; electronic locking axle; power running board; twin-panel moonroof; quad-beam LED headlights; blind-spot monitor; tailgate step; adaptive cruise control; 7-camera Ultimate Trailer Tow Camera package; 20-inch chrome-wrapped aluminum wheels
Tow rating: up to 32,000 lb
EPA rating: heavy duty trucks not rated
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Jeep’s compact Cherokee crossover is a font of choice

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

Jeep Cherokee interior

The Cherokee is offered in five trim levels, ranging from the utilitarian Sport ($24,790, including destination) to the extravagant Overland ($35,990).

Should you wander into a Jeep showroom in search of a compact crossover, Jeep wants to make sure you won’t walk out for a lack of choice.

The crossover boom has been very good for Jeep, whose sales have exploded since the recession ended. In the super-heated compact segment, it fields the Cherokee, which is a regular font of choice.

The Cherokee is offered in five trim levels, ranging from the utilitarian Sport ($24,790, including destination) to the extravagant Overland ($35,990).

Jeep Cherokee interior

Cherokee’s attractive, ergonomically designed dash incorporates Chrysler’s user-friendly uConnect touchscreen infotainment system.

Along the way, there are the usual front- and all-wheel-drive configurations, a choice of two AWD systems and a pair of engine options.

In all its permutations, the Cherokee is quiet, smooth and roomy. Its cabin easily accommodates four six-footers and five in a pinch. Its attractive, ergonomically designed dash incorporates Chrysler’s user-friendly uConnect touchscreen infotainment system. And, this year, all Cherokees get high-output xenon headlights.

Our Latitude ($26,740) tester was equipped with the optional 271-horsepower V-6 powerplant, the Active Drive I AWD system and a raft of comfort, convenience and safety features. Total bill for the well-equipped package: $34,475.

The Latitude slots into the lineup between the Sport and the more luxuriant (leather, standard heated seats, keyless entry-and-ignition, and much more) Limited ($30,590) trims.

One step up, the trail-ready AWD-only Trailhawk ($32,290) features elevated ground clearance (8.8 vs. 8.2 inches), skid plates, tow hooks and off-road suspension tuning.

Key features of the new, have-it-all Overland include premium-leather seats that are heated and ventilated; leather dashboard-wrap; upgraded nine-speaker audio system, with subwoofer; navigation; and extra sound-deadening measures.

Trailhawk, Limited and Overland models can be ordered with adaptive cruise; a forward-collision warning and mitigation system, with automatic brake intervention; a lane-departure warning system; blind-spot monitoring; and rear cross-traffic alert.

Available engines include the standard 184-horsepower, 2.4-liter four and a 271-hp, 3.2-liter V-6 that makes 239 pound-feet of torque. A nine-speed automatic transmission is standard.

Equipped with the optional tow package, a four-cylinder Cherokee is tow-rated to 1,000 pounds. The 3.2-liter can tug a hefty 4,500-lb. load.

All trims can be fitted with either engine. With a curb weight starting at 3,600-pounds, though, the Cherokee is no featherweight. Heavier, AWD models may tax the four-cylinder engine.

Our six-cylinder, AWD tester accelerated quickly, with good strength in the engine’s low- and mid-ranges, and the nine-speed transmission made seamless shifts. I noticed none of the disarming low-speed indecision that plagued earlier versions of this gearbox. Its efficiency bias makes for sluggish downshifts, though.

At highway speeds, Cherokee’s weight lends it a stable, big-car feel. Its well-weighted steering system is suited to long drives, with a sturdy on-center groove that reduces the need for constant driver input.
The center console houses a spacious, two-tier storage bin but incidental storage is otherwise limited. Similarly, Jeep’s use of a full-size spare contributes to a smaller-than-average cargo hold.

In a segment teeming with options, Jeep’s Cherokee offers buyers a smorgasbord of great choices.

2017 Jeep Cherokee Latitude 4X4
Vehicle base price: $23,695
Trim level base price: $27,454
As tested: $34,475
Key Options: 3.2-liter V-6 engine; uConnect 8.4-inch touchscreen infotainment; remote start; keyless entry/ignition; heated seats/steering wheel; dual-zone automatic climate control; rear park assist; blind-spot and cross-path detection; SiriusXM satellite radio; 9-speaker sound system, with subwoofer; power liftgate.
Tow rating: 4,500 pounds
EPA rating: 23 combined/20 city/27 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

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