Sportage survives own past, thrives in tough segment

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

Kia Sportage exterior

The fourth-generation 2017 Sportage lands with a roomier cabin, a stiffer unibody, a new suspension and a look bold enough to worry the competition. 

Kia’s Sportage compact crossover is a survivor.

It survived its own build-quality issues (one generation was recalled twice for its tendency to shed its rear wheels). It survived the collapse of Kia, which led to its absorption by Hyundai. And it survived a two-year hiatus during which it morphed from truck-based SUV to sedan-based crossover.

Kia Sportage interior

Sportage is quieter, sturdier and better-riding than ever.

The Sportage debuted in 1993 but didn’t become a serious competitor until 2011. Now, the fourth-generation 2017 Sportage lands with a roomier cabin, a stiffer unibody, a new suspension and a look bold enough to worry the competition.

The new look packs an unruly number of creases and curves into the Sportage’s compact frame. Swept-back headlights flank a sharply contoured hood. The front fascia grows deeper to improve engine-bay cooling and accommodate oversized fog lamp housings. In the top SX Turbo trim, a quartet of “ice cube” LED fog lamps glower like machine-gun ports.

Other updates include new driver-assistance systems, seriously improved interior materials and the latest generation of Kia’s UVO telematics and infotainment system, which adds Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.

If there were a most-improved award, Sportage would be a contender.

High-strength steel comprises 51 percent of its unibody, up from 18 percent. Torsional rigidity jumps 39 percent. A host of sound-deadening measures — thicker side-window glass, soundproofing in the doors and wheel arches and new rear suspension bushings — work magic inside.

Sportage is quieter, sturdier and better-riding than ever.
It has also grown some. Overall length is up 1.6 inches and the wheelbase is longer by 1.2 inches. These changes boost headroom and legroom for passengers in both rows. Second-row seating has been tweaked for improved headroom and a more comfortable seating position.

Last year’s engine choices return. The base engine is a normally aspirated 2.4-liter four that makes 181 horsepower and has been retuned for improved fuel efficiency. The optional 2.0-liter turbocharged four makes 240 hp in FWD trim and 237 hp with AWD and is tuned for improved mid-range torque.

Both engines are paired with a six-speed automatic that goes about its work in a work-a-day fashion. It’s not especially quick nor intuitive, but it’s nearly always in the right gear for the situation.

Name aside, there’s not much sport to the Sportage. Heavier in its fourth-gen guise than before, it’s also more softly suspended and is clearly tuned for comfort. Buyers seeking off-road chops should look elsewhere, as well; the “metal-look” skid plates on my top-of-the-line SX Turbo tester would faint dead at the first sign of rocks.

Nevertheless, Sportage offers real value in a segment that’s all about value. The competition includes a selection of the industry’s best-selling vehicles, but the Sportage is a survivor. And these days the wheels stay on.

Errata: In last week’s review of the Lincoln MKX, we mistakenly referred to a third row of seats. The MKX is a two-row midsize crossover, with room for five adults.

2017 Kia Sportage SX AWD
Vehicle base price: $22,990
Trim level base price: $34,000
As tested: $34,895
Options: The SX Turbo AWD is a fully loaded trim; our tester had no options.
Tow rating: 2,000 pounds
EPA rating: 21 combined/20 city/23 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Lincoln MKX mines its own heritage for inspiration

 

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

2016 Lincoln MKX exterior

The MKX is fully made-over. There are new bends in the sheet metal, a restyled cabin and newly available safety and driver-assistance features.

In Lincoln’s heyday, crossovers were not yet even a glint in the industry’s eye.

Much has changed in the past half-century, though, and now it appears a crossover could lead the brand back to relevance. The second-generation 2016 MKX launched last fall and immediately became Lincoln’s best seller.

The three-row MKX ($38,260, including transportation) is fully made-over. There are new bends in the sheet metal, a restyled cabin and newly available safety and driver-assistance features. A new 335-horsepower six-cylinder EcoBoost engine debuts and a focus on refinement produces a supremely quiet cabin.

Adaptive shock damping (driver-adjustable on AWD models) smooths out the ride and firms in the corners for confident handling. Steering is accurate and well weighted and, underway, the MKX feels lighter and nimbler than its size suggests.

The crossover grows slightly this year and debuts a refinement initiative called Quiet Luxury, “ … a new standard that combines thoughtful and elegant design with a safe, effortless ride and a warm, tailored experience.”

At night, the “experience” begins with the driver’s approach. At 9 feet out, exterior lighting gradually illuminates. Cabin lighting also comes on sequentially; from bottom to top and front to rear.

When backing, a 360-degree camera reveals objects within a 7-foot radius. The camera also enables an automatic parking function, which works in both parallel and perpendicular spaces.

The MKX is well equipped right out of the box. Highlights of a long standard-features list include automatic xenon headlights, keyless entry and ignition, remote engine start, rear parking sensors, active noise cancellation and a reclining, 60/40-split second-row seat with power-folding seatbacks.

Standard tech includes Bluetooth phone and audio, the voice-activated MyLincoln Touch infotainment system (with configurable 8-inch touchscreen) and a fully configured 10-speaker audio system. An optional Driver Assistance package adds lane-departure warning, lane-departure intervention, forward-collision warning, forward-collision mitigation with automatic braking (with pedestrian detection) and a driver drowsiness monitor.

The base engine is a 3.7-liter V-6 that makes 303 hp and 278 pound-feet of torque. The new up-level choice is a turbocharged 2.7-liter V-6 rated at 335 hp and 380 lb-ft of torque. Both are mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. A properly equipped MKX can tow up to 3,500 pounds.

Big-budget add-ons include 22-way multi-contour front seats with massage and a pair of up-level surround-sound Revel audio systems, one with 13 speakers, the other with 19.

There are missteps, of course. The dead pedal is useless, the plastics used on the console and on the push-button shifter look and feel low-budget and instead of Ford’s new Sync 3 infotainment system, the MKX is saddled with the final generation of MyLincoln Touch. In its defense, the incremental addition of knobs and buttons has made the system more user friendly by a wide margin.

In the final analysis, the MKX mines its own heritage for inspiration, rather than aping the performance-focused Europeans. It’s the Lincoln Lincoln would have built in 1970, if it could have.

2016 Lincoln MKX AWD
Vehicle base price: $38,260
Trim level base price: $47,650
As tested: $61,760
Options included 2.7-liter Ecoboost engine; cargo utility package and tonneau cover; lane-keeping system; adaptive cruise control; active braking; adaptive LED headlights; Revel Ultima audio; second-row inflatable seatbelt; 22-way power driver’s seat; enhanced security.
Tow rating: 3,500 pounds
EPA rating: 19 combined/17 city/24 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Dodge Dart narrowly misses greatness

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

Dodge Dart exterior

Dart’s aggressive stance and flowing lines make it a stand-out looker. Its roomy interior accommodates four adults.

The current Dodge Dart is likely to be remembered as a near-miss.

Broad-shouldered and narrow-waisted, Dart’s aggressive stance and flowing lines give it stand-out looks. Its silhouette reflects the character of a European sport coupe.

Its roomy interior accommodates four adults, its optional Uconnect infotainment interface is one of the industry’s best.

Dart’s platform feels sturdy and planted and its electrically assisted steering system is linear and well weighted. Good on-center feel helps Dart track steadily in its lane, without needing constant driver input.

2016 Dodge Dart interior

Dart’s cabin reminded me of late-era Pontiac, with large knobs, bold curvilinear surfaces and bright-red trim to brighten its boldly curved flat-black contours.

At 70 mph, reports Car and Driver, the Dart’s cabin is as quiet as the Mercedes-Benz C300’s. Dart is the only car in the segment with available park-assist. An optional Alpine audio system pairs with Uconnect to provide outstanding sound and a user-friendly interface.

The platform is wider than the compact standard, yielding generous hip and shoulder room. Rear-seat legroom is excellent and, despite the coupe-like profile, there’s enough headroom for most.

Dart’s cabin reminded me of late-era Pontiac, with large knobs, bold curvilinear surfaces and bright-red trim to brighten its boldly curved flat-black contours. Soft-touch surfaces abound and critical controls are within easy reach. Some interior plastics are dated, though, and the driver-information display has the ambience of a ‘70s-era video game.

These, and a handful of other shortcomings keep the Dart from greatness. It’s heavier than most compacts and none of its three engine options excite. Good as the platform is, the chassis doesn’t provide enough feedback to engage the driver.

The mid-level SXT, which I tested, is powered by a 184-horsepower, 2.4-liter four that’s paired with a six-speed automatic. It’s one of the segment’s strongest engines but acceleration and efficiency run mid-class.

The base engine is a 2.0-liter four that makes 160 hp. Powering upper trims is a turbocharged 1.4-liter four that makes 160 hp and as much torque — 184 pound-feet — as the thirstier 2.4L.

All three engines can be paired with a six-speed manual transmission (hooray for Dodge!). Alternatively, the normally aspirated engines are mated to automatics, the turbocharged 1.4L to a double-clutch automated manual.

My tester included a Rallye package that added great-looking wheels, a “touring” suspension and a rear stabilizer bar meant to flatten out the corners.The touring tune splits the difference between the softer base suspension and the GT’s “sport” tune, which most reviewers consider too harsh.

My tester’s ride was for the most part firm, pleasant and well-controlled, though broken road surfaces sometimes sent shudders through the cabin.

Dart’s seats are set high in the cabin, the tilt-and telescoping steering column has a limited range of motion and the minuscule dead pedal is minuscule — but most will find the layout agreeable.

Achieving greatness in a better-than-ever segment is not an easy thing to do. Unfortunately, Fiat Chrysler plans to sharpen its focus on its Jeep and truck portfolios, so Dart as we know it may not be around for long.

Too bad, because it’s this close.

2016 Dodge Dart SXT Rallye
Vehicle base price: $19,240
Trim level base price: $20,390
Options included 8.4-inch Uconnect screen; backup camera; iPod control; illuminated instrument-panel surround; 17-inch Granite Crystal aluminum wheels; touring suspension; rear stabilizer bar; fog lamps; dual exhaust tips; automatic transmission; sport-appearance hood; GPS navigation; Sirius XM radio, traffic and weather; compact spare tire.
EPA rating: 27 combined/23 city/35 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

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
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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