Audi Q7 transcends the sum of its parts

 

Audi Q7 exterior

Fresh off a year-long hiatus, the 7-passenger crossover returns to the fray lighter, more engaging and better equipped than before.

A whiff of alchemy attends the creation of every great car, a bit of magic that allows it to transcend the sum of its parts.

The 2017 Audi Q7 is such a car. Fresh off a year-long hiatus, the large crossover returns to the fray lighter, more engaging and better equipped than before. A dramatic new grille keys exterior updates and the redesigned cabin coddles as many as seven in sumptuous and tech-rich comfort.

Materials quality is first-rate and controls are logically, attractively and ergonomically arrayed. Exterior dimensions are largely unchanged, but crafty packaging produces big gains in headroom, legroom and shoulder room in the second- and third-row seating areas.

Underneath, a new platform employs big doses of aluminum and high-strength steel, helping cut vehicle weight by up to 700 pounds. A redesigned suspension also includes gobs of aluminum, reducing so-called “unsprung” weight to boost handling and ride quality.

Power is by a turbocharged, 333-horsepower six-cylinder engine that urges the Q7 from zero-to-60 in a seemingly effortless 5.5 seconds and can tow up to 7,700 pounds.

This week, Audi announced the availability of a new engine, a turbocharged, 2.0-liter four that makes 252 hp and is tow-rated to 4,400 pounds. It drops the Q7 base price (including destination) from $55,750 to $49,950.

Both engines are mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission that, paired with the six in our tester, was quick and certain in its selection the proper gear.

The Q7 is available with Audi’s programmable “virtual cockpit,” which integrates Google Earth into the high-resolution map display, turning the cockpit into a rolling theater of the immediate environment (especially impressive out in the channeled scablands). Upon ignition, the tablet-size, high-resolution display lifts out of the dash top.

The Multi-Media Interface (MMI) stitches switches, buttons, a rotary knob and, optionally, a finger-tip handwriting pad into one of the more intuitive systems extant. A suite of safety and driver-assist systems — including lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control and forward-looking cameras — portend the driverless future.

The adaptive cruise control system is tightly integrated with the navigation system and Google Maps. Left to its own devices, it can brake for an upcoming corner and accelerate out of it. Simultaneously, the lane-keeping system keeps the big Audi between the lines.

An available Active Chassis package ($4,000) adds an adaptive air suspension that frosts the ride-quality cake and virtually eliminates body lean during aggressive cornering. The package includes rear-wheel steering, which boosts the immediacy, precision and stability of the Q7’s handling package.

All 2017 Q7s include Audi pre sense city, an emergency braking system that brings the Q7 to a stop from speeds of up to 52.8 mph when it detects a pedestrian or stopped vehicle ahead.

Good luck isolating the source(s) of the magic in a vehicle this complex. The lion’s share of the credit goes to the new chassis and suspension, which make all else possible. Elaborate electronics add nuance to the mechanicals and extend their capabilities. Beautiful cabin design elevates the experience.

It may not be real magic, but it’s close enough for me.

2017 Audi Q7 3.0T Premium Plus
Vehicle base price: $54,800
Trim level base price: $58,800
As tested: $68,925
Key options included adaptive cruise control; active lane-assist; automatic high beams; traffic-sign recognition; Audi virtual cockpit; LED headlights; 360-degree top-view camera system; four-zone automatic climate control; ventilated front seats with power lumbar; Bose 3D Surround Sound audio; heated steering wheel; heated rear seats; 20-inch 10-spoke bi-color wheels.
Tow rating: 7,700 pounds
EPA ratings: 21 combined/19 city/25 highway
Premium unleaded fuel required

Mazda3: compact hatch evokes Mazda’s driver-engagement DNA

Mazda Mazda3 interior

Like the MX-5 Miata sports car, the Mazda3 is quick and well balanced, its responses precise and go-kart quick.

Few brands do DNA better than Mazda does DNA.

A strong familial thread links the smallest Mazda with the largest. Across the board, exterior design is fluid and dramatic. Cabins share a breezy, high-touch/high-tech aesthetic. Suspensions are tuned to allow precise responses. Every model — even the three-row CX-9 crossover — rewards driver engagement.

That spirit is best expressed in the MX-5 Miata. Miata may not be Mazda’s flagship, but the little two-seater is its compass. Everything else falls into place on the heels of Miata.

That connection is no more evident than in the compact Mazda3. Like the Miata, the Mazda3 is quick and well balanced, its responses precise and go-kart quick. Because it’s a front-driver, its dynamics can’t match the rear-drive Miata’s, but the trade-offs are worthy; you can’t make much of a Costco run in a Miata.

The 3 is available as a sedan or hatchback. It’s thrifty at the pump, roomy enough to accommodate four adults and, in hatchback form, abundantly utilitarian.

Mazda Mazda3 interior

The standard Mazda Connect infotainment system includes a 7-inch tablet-style touchscreen.

Two models, 3i and 3s, are keyed to engine size. A 155-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine powers 3i trims, and a 184-hp, 2.5-liter four powers the 3s’s. Either engine can be paired with a six-speed manual transmission or a six-speed automatic.

The stick shift isn’t a loss-leader; it’s the transmission the car deserves. It’s one of the better front-drive gearboxes extant and its well-spaced and clearly defined gates minimize blown shifts. Clutch take-up is smooth, linear and precise.

Got to have the automatic? No matter; it’s more frugal than the stick and makes good, quick shifts and rev-matched downshifts.

Like the Miata, the Mazda3 prioritizes balance over raw power. Both engines are happiest when being put through their paces. The 2.0-liter is a bit raspy under throttle but motivates the 3 from 0-60 in a quick-for-the-class 8 seconds, more or less.

The 2.5L is smoother and quieter and finds 60 mph in about 7.5 seconds.

Both engines are extremely frugal. The 2.0L returns about 33 mpg combined and the 2.5 about 30 mpg. 3i models return 40-plus highway mpg.

Suspension tuning rewards aggressive driving but doesn’t punish occupants. It’s taut but compliant; it doesn’t make potholes disappear, but it does eliminate their sting.

The front seats are supportive and moderately contoured. Rear seats are roomy enough for a pair of average-size adults. Materials quality throughout exceeds what’s expected of the segment.

The base 3i Sport is equipped with halogen headlights, push-button ignition and remote keyless entry. The standard Mazda Connect infotainment system includes a 7-inch tablet-style touchscreen and a knob-and-button-based control paradigm that puts many more-expensive systems to shame.

In a growing trend, small cars everywhere are incorporating luxury-car notes. For Mazda3 buyers, that means the availability of such upscale amenities as a small, transparent heads-up screen that places vehicle speed and navigation information in the driver’s line of sight; rain-sensing wipers; adaptive headlights and intelligent cruise control.

Tie up all that in a dynamic and fun-to-drive little package, and let the Mazda DNA shine through bright and clear.

2016 Mazda Mazda3 S 5-door Grand Touring

Vehicle base price: $18,945
Trim level base price: $25,445
As tested: $26,580
Options: The 5-door Grand Touring is a fully equipped trim. Our tester’s only option was its Soul Red metallic paint.
EPA rating: 29 combined/26 city/35 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Mitsubishi Mirage G4 defines basic transportation

This review first appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

Mitsubishi Mirage G4 interior

The all-new 2017 Mitsubishi Mirage G4 ($14,830, including destination) is one of the least expensive sedans available in the U.S.

Several years ago, a young couple hit me up for some car advice.

Following a long decline, their car had finally expired. Now they longed for the security of a new car and its warranty. They were living off what they could squeeze out of their small startup. Would it be wise, they wondered, to buy an entry-level car from a Korean builder with a sketchy reputation?

Said maker had invested billions in improving its products, so I urged them to go ahead.

Mitsubishi Mirage G4 interior

The Smart Phone Display package (a $210 ES option, standard on SE) adds Bluetooth, a 6.5-inch touchscreen and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, both of which include mapping functionality.

The new car was no Bentley, but the heater heated, the wipers wiped and the car demanded nothing more than routine service.

Years earlier, my wife and I had employed the same strategy. Our new car — our first new car — kept us warm and dry and always ran. Yes, we’d acquired a car payment, but we’d jettisoned unexpected repair costs and, with them, the anxiety of having to relying on an unreliable car.

Consider this a celebration of basic transportation.

The all-new 2017 Mitsubishi Mirage G4 ($14,830, including destination) is one of the least expensive sedans available in the U.S. It’s the four-door version of the Mirage hatchback ($13,830).

The Mirage defines basic transportation. It is underpowered but terrifically efficient. Its cabin is awash in hard plastics but, overall, interior materials pass muster; ride quality is decent; NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) are acceptable.

Front-seat legroom and headroom are quite good but the lack of a telescoping steering wheel may prevent you, as it did me, from finding a comfortable driving position. Back seats are best suited for kids. Teens and small adults are likely to find leg- and headroom tight, bottom cushions flat and inadequately cushioned.

A 10-year/100,000-mile warranty covers the Mirage powertrain, and the G4 earns reassuring safety ratings: In government tests, it receives four stars out of a possible five for frontal-impact safety, five stars for side-impact safety and four stars for overall crash protection.

Both Mirages are powered by a 78-horsepower, 1.2-liter three-cylinder engine. The base ES is available with a five-speed manual transmission or a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The SE trim ($15,680) can be had only with the CVT.

Either way, the G4 is a) very slow and b) very efficient. Floor the throttle from a standstill and 11-plus seconds later the speedo can be expected to at least be approaching the 60-mph neighborhood.

But, oh, those efficiency numbers: With the stick, estimated fuel economy is 35 mpg combined (33 city/40 highway), the CVT returns 37/35/42.

The standard-features roster includes automatic headlights, full power accessories and a four-speaker sound system with a CD player, a USB port and an auxiliary audio input.

The SE adds keyless entry and ignition; automatic climate control; a rearview camera; a leather-wrapped steering wheel with redundant audio controls; foglights; heated front seats and height-adjustable driver’s seat.

A navigation system is not available, but the Smart Phone Display package (a $210 ES option, standard on SE) adds Bluetooth, a 6.5-inch touchscreen and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, both of which include mapping functionality.

It’s not fancy, but the G4 will get you where you’re going. The heater heats, the wipers wipe and the miles roll by.

2017 Mitsubishi Mirage G4 SE
Vehicle base price: $13,995
Trim level base price: $16,995
As tested: $17,380
Options: Our tester included no options.
EPA ratings: 37 combined/35 city/42 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Kia K900 challenges the luxury status quo

Kia K900 interior


We’re driving a trim that’s new this year, the K900 Luxury V-6. The Luxury V-6 i powered by an all-new, 311-horsepower 3.8-liter V-6. The engine also powers a new base trim, the K900 Premium.

Leaving Chicago in a mid-day rainstorm, I power on the rain-sensing windshield wipers, activate the intelligent cruise control and settle in for a quick drive north.

We’re deeply ensconced in the leathery confines of the 2016 Kia K900, a full-size luxury sedan from — yes — from Kia. The Korean maker’s first luxury-class product, it sort-of competes with such luminaries as the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 7 Series.

Kia’s premise: Why spend $80,000 on that German car, when you can get the same neat stuff for $20,000 less?

And Kia does, indeed, serve up a nice dish.

2016 K900

Kia’s UVO connectivity system adds a Luxury Services feature that enables remote start/stop, remote climate control and remote lock/unlock.

Our tester’s cabin is finished in Nappa leather and real wood trim. Its old-school clubbiness is mediated only by a large (10.3-inch) infotainment touchscreen and associated hardware. The large and deeply cushioned front seats are heated and ventilated; subdued interior lighting and sound-deadening measures produce a serene environment.
An aluminum-sleeved shift lever lies at hand, just ahead of the knob and the buttons that manage the infotainment system. The optional 17-speaker Lexicon surround sound system pumps out crystal-clear audio.

We’re driving a trim that’s new this year, the K900 Luxury V-6 ($55,580, including destination). The Luxury V-6 i powered by an all-new, 311-horsepower 3.8-liter V-6. The engine also powers a new base trim, the K900 Premium ($49,950).

The previous engine, a 420-hp V-8, is now optional and powers the top K900 Luxury V-8 ($62,850) trim.

In all trims, a three-mode, eight-speed automatic transmission directs power to the rear wheels. Steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters are available on all trims.

Beyond the powertrain implant, the 2016 K900 also receives a mild facelift, a hands-free automatic power trunk and an emergency braking system that can bring the car to a complete halt sans driver intervention.

Kia’s UVO connectivity system adds a Luxury Services feature that enables remote start/stop, remote climate control and remote lock/unlock. Curfew, Speed and Geofence settings are now standard.

Any serious luxury-class entry must be well equipped. Accordingly, the Premium V-6 gets automatic xenon headlights, LED fog- and running lights, automatic wipers, panoramic sunroof, keyless ignition and entry, three-zone automatic climate control, leather upholstery, heated and ventilated front seats, driver-side memory functions, heated outboard rear seats and a power rear sunshade.

Luxury trims step up to Nappa leather, LED headlights and a surround-view parking camera.

World-class aspirations notwithstanding, Kia’s best doesn’t yet rival the competitions’. Lackluster suspension tuning neutralizes the promise of the rear-drive layout. The steering system, though nicely weighted, is vague on-center and requires small continuous adjustments.

Ride quality is very good and, aside from the occasional tendency to become choppy over rough surfaces, and the K900 is composed and relaxed at highway speeds.

Cabin materials would be well suited to a premium family sedan, but don’t exude the opulence the class demands.

The K900 represents a bold attempt to challenge the status quo. Sales have been underwhelming, but Kia doesn’t easily give up the fight. Who knows? The next-gen car could set the competition on its heels.

2016 Kia K900 Luxury V-6
Vehicle base price: $49,000
Trim level base price: $54,900
As tested: $60,850
Options included head-up display; autonomous emergency braking; blind-spot detection; lane-departure warning; intelligent cruise control; surround-view monitor; rear cross-traffic alert; power driver’s-seat thigh extension; power headrests; power passenger lumbar support; power reclining rear seats; ventilated outboard rear seats; lateral-adjusting rear headrests; rear-seat seat power lumbar support; premium headliner trim; soft-close power door latches.
EPA rating: 20 combined/17 city/26 highway

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