BMW X1: betrayal of heritage or just a damn fine crossover?

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

2016 bmx x1 exterior

In every way that matters, the all-new X1 compact crossover is a better car than its predecessor.

Some people would have you believe BMW has gone to the Dark Side.

The company, long a champion of rear-wheel-drive platforms, has betrayed that heritage, they say, by planting its latest U.S. model on a front-drive chassis.

Feel free to ignore them. In every way that matters, the all-new X1 compact crossover is a better car than its RWD predecessor. It’s roomier, lighter and more comfortable. Its cabin is quieter and more elegantly appointed. Second-row seating grows dramatically, as does cargo space.

Of course the purists have a point, and the limitations of the X1’s front-drive architecture appear in subtle ways. Hard cornering can induce mild understeer, felt as a “push” before the car begins its rotation. Exiting a corner under power can cause a momentary uncertainty — felt through the steering wheel as a faint squirminess — as the front tires fight for purchase.

BMW X1 interior

BMW’s iDrive knob-based infotainment interface grows more user-friendly with each iteration.

As sane folks would drive it, though, the X1 behaves like a small Bimmer ought. Its vault-solid chassis enables a firm-but-never-punishing ride, steering is quick and accurate (though not especially communicative) and the powertrain responds eagerly to the throttle.

The X1 is offered with a single powertrain, a turbocharged, 228-horsepower inline-four mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission. The twin-scroll turbo spools up quickly to minimize turbo lag, and the transmission snaps quickly through the gears. The X1 runs the 0-60 sprint in a click or two over 6 seconds. Fuel efficiency is a very good 26 mpg combined (22 city/32 highway).

BMW’s xDrive AWD system is standard on the X1. It powers the front wheels by default but, within 250 milliseconds of detecting slippage, can shift up to 100 percent of torque to the rear. Off-road, the X1 is arguably the most capable of all the compact crossovers.

The new X1 is taller than before, ground clearance is a hair higher and all occupants sit higher. None of this argues for greater performance, but it does promise comfort. Ride quality is improved, with less harshness, and the cabin is substantially quieter. The refined 2.0-liter engine makes only happy noises, even when being pushed hard.

Interior design is functional and appealing. Materials are noticeably improved over the previous generation. Gauges cant toward the driver and all controls are easy to reach and use. BMW’s iDrive knob-based infotainment interface grows more user-friendly with each iteration.

The seats are firm and supportive and, for the first time, the front seats receive standard power controls, with driver-side memory. Sight lines are excellent.

BMW’s efficiency initiative, EfficientDynamics, works on multiple fronts here. Broad use of advanced metals reduces weight and boosts structural strength and rigidity. Regenerative brakes capture heat normally lost during braking, feeding it to the on-board power supply. An ECO PRO drive mode slows throttle, steering and transmission responses and, when the driver lifts her foot at speeds between 30 and 100 mph, disengages the powertrain, allowing the X1 to coast.

Cool stuff aside, it was the Sport mode that put the biggest smile on my face. If this is dark, I don’t need no flashlight.

2016 BMW X1 xDrive28i
Vehicle base price: $34,800
Trim level base price: $34,800
As tested: $45,370
Major options included heated front seats; rearview camera; park distance control; keyless entry; LED headlights with cornering lamps; premium Harman Kardon audio; slide-and-recline rear seats; navigation; space-saver spare tire.
EPA ratings: 26 combined/22 city/32 highway
Premium fuel required

Highlander still leads class it helped create

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

Toyota Highlander exterior

Over the years, Highlander has grown in size, capacity and refinement. Today, it’s available in four trims, in seven- and eight-passenger configurations and with front- or all-wheel-drive.

It’s not much of a stretch to see Toyota’s Highlander as emblematic of today’s auto industry.

When it debuted in 2001, the five-passenger Highlander was the industry’s first midsize crossover. Over the years, it has grown in size, capacity and refinement. Today, it’s available in four trims, in seven- and eight-passenger configurations and with front- or all-wheel-drive. Buyers choose from among three powertrains — two gasoline and a gas-electric hybrid.

In the beginning, the top Highlander powerplant was a V-6 that made 220 hp, could tow up to 2000 pounds and earned EPA ratings of 16 mpg city/21 mpg highway. Today’s lineup includes a hybrid that makes 280 hp and is rated at 28 combined/27 city/28 highway.

Properly equipped, the 2016 Highlander can tow up to 5000 lbs. For 2016, all V-6 models get a towing package as standard gear.

toyota_highlander_int_2

Tastefully textured soft-touch surfaces, with stitched seams, have replaced the hard plastics of earlier years. A host of anti-noise measures — acoustical-glass windshield, thicker carpet, more body-cavity insulation — cut wind and road noise.

Cabin tech in that original Highlander amounted to an available navigation system. Now, Toyota’s smartphone-based Entune audio system, with a standard 6.1-inch display screen, is standard in Highlander. The optional Entune Plus brings an 8-inch screen and advanced graphics capabilities.

Bluetooth connectivity and a rearview camera are standard on today’s Highlander; neither was available in 2001.

Recently, a push for refinement has driven Highlander’s evolution. Tastefully textured soft-touch surfaces, with stitched seams, have replaced the hard plastics of earlier years. A host of anti-noise measures — acoustical-glass windshield, thicker carpet, more body-cavity insulation — cut wind and road noise. Hydraulic engine mounts and a heavily sealed body structure reduce vibration.

Highlander’s family orientation shows itself in an abundance of ways. Cupholders proliferate, a clever knick-knack shelf lines the lower dash and the center console/armrest conceals an oversized storage bin.

An available Driver Easy Speak feature lets front-seat occupants use their inside voices when addressing those in the rear, courtesy of a front-mounted microphone and the audio system’s rear speakers.

As its wheelbase has grown, so has Highlander’s ride quality. Compliant suspension settings smooth out rough road surfaces. And, though shoppers in this segment aren’t looking for performance thrills, the Highlander handles well for what it is.

Toyota’s AWD system splits torque front and rear. My AWD tester was equipped with Toyo Open Country all-season tires, which were reassuringly surefooted on roads made slick by hard-packed snow.

Highlander powerplants include a 185-horsepower, 2.7-liter four that’s paired with a six-speed automatic and can be had only with FWD. An optional 3.5-liter V-6 makes 270 and is mated with the automatic. The 280-hp Hybrid is the family’s most powerful — and fuel efficient — model. It comes only with AWD and a continuously variable transmission. The Hybrid is available only in the top-level Limited ($48,770) and Limited Platinum ($51,385) trims.

The Highlander is an easy car to live with. Excellent seats and ideal sight lines make for a comfortable, low-stress drive. User-friendly cabin tech simplifies advanced communications for everyday drivers. Even the CVT in our Hybrid tester was less annoying than most.

No car can stand in for an entire industry but, as much as any other rig, Highlander has tracked the changes..

2016 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited Platinum
Vehicle base price: $39,890
Trim level base price: $50,240
As tested: $53,726
Options included pre-collision system with dynamic radar cruise control; lane departure alert; automatic high-beam headlights; panoramic moonroof; heated steering wheel; heated second-row captain’s chairs; remote engine start; tow receiver hitch with wiring harness; running boards; rear bumper protector; four-seasons floor mat package; cargo cross bars
Tow rating: 5,000 lbs
EPA rating: 28 combined/27 city/28 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Lifted Volvo brings off-road competence to luxury sedan market

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

2016 Volvo S60 Cross Country

The S60 Cross Country T5 AWD has the elevated seating position many drivers like and its 7.9 inches of ground clearance rivals the typical crossover’s.

Volvo makes history this year with a long-wheelbase version of its compact S60 sedan. The 2016 S60 Signature is the first car to be built in China and sold in the U.S.

The S60 Signature was designed for the Chinese market, where affluent buyers shelter themselves in the back seats while the help drives. (And not for nothing; traffic in Chinese cities is beyond chaotic.) With its extra 2.9 inches of rear legroom, the Insignia appears to translate well into the upper end of the American mainstream.

We are here today not to consider global trade, though, but to check out another surprising S60 variant, one built in Belgium and of clear interest to snow-country drivers.

2016 Volvo S60 Cross Country interior

Subtly applied brightwork and wood trim accents complement heavily textured soft-touch surfaces and top-shelf materials.

The S60 Cross Country T5 AWD is a “lifted” all-wheel-drive sedan that integrates many of the features and function’s of the brand’s popular line of Cross Country wagons. It has the elevated seating position many drivers like and its 7.9 inches of ground clearance rivals the typical crossover’s.

And it’s not just show. Front and rear skid plates protect vulnerable under-body bits. Scuff plates defend lower body sills. Wheel wells are trimmed in rugged composite cladding and unique Cross Country alloy wheels resist abuse from boulders and curbs.

Design cues unique to the Cross Country include a honeycomb grille and glossy black window trim and mirror covers.

Off-road and on, the Cross Country’s torque-vectoring AWD system instantaneously reduces power to wheels that are slipping and transfers it to those with better traction. In corners on dry pavement, the system “overdrives” outer wheels to reduce understeer. In the snow, it instantly checks skids without killing momentum.

The Cross Country is offered in a single, well-equipped up-level trim and with a single powertrain. Its 250-horsepower turbocharged five-cylinder engine is mated to a driver-adaptive six-speed automatic transmission with Sport Mode.

The Cross Country is deeply equipped with safety and driver-assist technologies. Volvo’s hill-descent control and dynamic-stability and traction-control systems are uniquely capable. Its City Safety technology virtually eliminates the chances of clobbering another car from behind.

Volvo’s Pedestrian and Cyclist Detection system detects pedestrians ahead and warns the driver should one stray into its path. If the driver doesn’t react quickly enough, the system will hit the brakes.

The Cross Country’s five-passenger cabin casts a durable northern-clime vibe. Subtly applied brightwork and wood trim accents complement heavily textured soft-touch surfaces and top-shelf materials. An air of unaffected Scandinavian elegance prevails.

Rather than employing touchscreen technology, Volvo surrounds a 7-inch central display screen with an array of hard buttons. The setup is busy and initially confusing, but the controls ultimately sort themselves out in the driver’s mind.

Volvo seats are among the industry’s best. Rear-seat legroom is scant, but the standard — and very good — Harman Kardon stereo should sooth the savage beasts.

Designed for comfort, the Cross Country suspension tunes out the road’s rough edges. Even so, body control is very good and the tall sedan feels solid and planted at speed.

Even Volvo questions the market strength of its off-road sedan. Beyond question, though, is the Cross Country’s daring blend of competencies.

2016 Volvo S60 Cross Country T5 AWD
Vehicle base price: $35,450
Trim level base price: $43,500
As tested: $48,390
Options included heated front and rear seats, windshield, steering wheel and windshield washer nozzles; interior air quality system; blind-spot information system; cross-traffic alert; park assist; lane-change merge aid; speed-sensitive steering; wood inlays; 19-inch matte black wheels.
EPA ratings: 23 combined/20 city/28 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Audi A3: The littlest Audi shines brightly

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

A small jewel, the A3 distills all things Audi.

A small jewel, the A3 distills all things Audi.

We humans seem to be wired to believe bigger is better. Boats, burgers, diamond rings … size matters in countless ways.

When it comes to personal transportation, the compulsion makes some sense; the bigger the vehicle, the larger its potential payload.

Historically, size also has inferred quality. Aside from sports car owners and other iconoclasts, buyers traditionally have equated big with better.

But in these post-recessionary buyers have become receptive to a new kind of car; small cars with big-car features and comforts.

Audi A3 interior

Cabin design and quality fall into line with the baby Audi’s larger siblings.

Today’s tester, Audi’s subcompact A3, is one of the best. A small jewel, the A3 distills all things Audi. Rich in design and materials, its cabin boasts excellent seats and the latest version of Audi’s MMI infotainment system. In the German fashion, its ride is firm yet compliant. Handling is top-notch, steering is sharp and accurate and powertrains are responsive and economical.

I can vouch for the quality of quattro, Audi’s AWD system. The A3 and I faced a week of treacherous driving, from glare ice on the highway to hard-packed snow on the hilly road leading home. With quattro proactively distributing power between the axles and, with 35-series Dunlop SP Winter Sports wrapping the 19-inch alloys, the A3 stuck stubbornly to the road

The low-profile tires provided scant cushion against the jarring blow of a pothole, but sometimes that’s the price of a great ride.

Naturally, a car this size exacts other tolls, as well. Rear-seat legroom is tight (though a pair of adults can get comfortable back there) and the trunk is tiny.

Moreover, the littlest Audi bears an Audi-like price tag. Front-wheel-drive trims sticker at around $31,000, AWD at $37,00 and change. The A3 is available in sedan and convertible body styles.

The distinctions between FWD and AWD trims go deeper here than usual. FWD models are powered by a turbocharged 1.8-liter four that makes 170 horsepower. AWD trims run a turbocharged 220-hp 2.0-liter four. The sole transmission is a six-speed automated manual.

The A3 is quick enough to be fun and a judicious throttle foot can produce attractive EPA ratings. The 1.8T sedan is rated at 27 mpg combined/23 city/33 highway, the 2.0-liter sedan at 27/24/33. The convertibles are a bit thirstier.

Countering concerns that small cars are less safe than big ones, the A3 aces every one of the government and insurance-industry crash tests.

Cabin design and quality fall into line with the baby Audi’s larger siblings. Audi’s familiar, aircraft-inspired vents look cool and allow precise manipulation of airflow. Switchgear works with well-engineered heft and fluidity.

Like a little bit of magic, the MMI display screen rises automatically at ignition from a slot in the top of the dashboard. Like all modern input systems, MMI requires a learning curve but, with that hurdle crossed, it’s one of the most user-friendly controllers on the market.

One small misstep here, though: Audi equips the A3 with a dedicated iPod interface, though most of the industry has moved on to USB.

Nits aside, should you wonder whether big things come in small packages, you’ll find your answer at the nearest Audi store.

2016 Audi A3 2.0T quattro
Vehicle base price: $30,900
Trim level base price: $34,200
As tested: $45,600
Options: metallic paint; sport suspension; 19-inch titanium wheels; heated front seats with 4-way lumbar support; LED interior lighting; Bang & Olufsen audio; navigation; adaptive cruise control; active lane-assist; blind-spot alert; pre-collision prep; more.
EPA rating: 27 combined/ 24 city/33 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Honda’s tenth-generation Civic sets a high bar for competitors

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

2016 Honda Civic sedan

For the new Civic, Honda sought nothing less than a “dynamic rejuvenation.” The car it built is larger, roomier and more sophisticated. It’s also safer, more frugal and, yes, more responsive.

This is a reset year for the Honda Civic. A clean-sheet tenth-generation makeover blows out the cobwebs and sets the stage for the next round of product development.

Sales of the previous, ninth-generation model remained strong until the end — Civic was the country’s fifth-best-selling car last year — but age had softened some of its more endearing qualities. In particular, edges that made it a driver’s favorite had been scrubbed clean.

For the new Civic, Honda sought nothing less than a “dynamic rejuvenation.” The car it built is larger, roomier and more sophisticated. It’s also safer, more frugal and, yes, more responsive.

The new benchmark among compact sedans, its presence will cause the competitors to improve their game.

2016 Honda Civic interior

Inside, Honda replaces Civic’s oft-criticized two-tier dash for one of understated design. Top-shelf materials and tight panel tolerances convey an overriding sense of quality.

Inside, Honda replaces Civic’s oft-criticized two-tier dash for one of understated design. Top-shelf materials and tight panel tolerances convey an overriding sense of quality. All but the base LX receive Honda’s attractive and intuitive 7-inch touchscreen infotainment interface. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto add cellphone functionality.

By definition, a clean-sheet redesign revolves around a new platform. Here, Honda boosts the use of high- and ultra-high-strength steel alloys to reduce the Civic’s weight and boost rigidity. The redesigned all-independent suspension adds sway bars to control lean. A new multilink rear arrangement improves lateral stability.

Fluid-filled shock bushings, usually found on larger, more expensive cars, soften the impact of broken road surfaces and reduce transient body motions.

Civic’s wheelbase grows just over an inch, boosting ride quality and making room for generous rear seating. Interior volume and cargo space grow substantially, and the new Civic comfortably seats four six-footers.

Outside, a coupe-like roofline flows into a rear deck with the elevated lift of a hatchback. Bulging wheel wells, wrap-around headlights and upswept rear quarter panels promise vitality.

A dual-pinion electric power steering system is precise and responsive. A thicker and more rigid steering column calms vibrations before they reach the driver’s hands. There’s a numb spot on center, though, and the system fails to fully communicate the action down where tires meet the road. 

A 158-horsepower 2.0-liter four powers lower trims. It can be paired with either a six-speed manual or continuously variable transmission (CVT). With the CVT, the Civic returns an EPA-estimated 35 mpg combined (27 city/40 highway). The stick is good for 31/27/40.

An optional turbocharged 1.5-liter four makes 174 hp and is available only with the CVT.

The CVT is one of the better examples the breed, with six programmed stops that emulate gears and a Sport mode that bumps the engine speed in each “gear” by 100 RPM or so. Mileage is rated at 35/31/42.

The Honda Sensing safety package (standard on the top-level Touring trim and optional on others) adds adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, lane-departure intervention and forward-collision alert with automatic emergency braking.

The Civic distills force, agility, comfort and efficiency in a satisfying everyday package, while performance buffs await the upcoming Si and R-Type editions.

The 2016 Civic signals a bright future for Honda in the compact classes— and a big challenge for its competitors.

2016 Honda Civic 1.5T 4D Touring
Vehicle base price: $18,640
Trim level base price: $26,500
As tested: $27,335
Options: Our tester was a fully equipped model and included no options.
EPA rating: 35 combined/31 city/35 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Hyundai Veloster: Unconventional hatchback, raffish attitude

This review first appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

2016 Veloster Turbo

With its long list of standard features, available torque-vectoring front-wheel-drive and unique three-door design, the $18,000 hatchback makes a strong value case for itself.

Hyundai’s subcompact Veloster is crammed with clever ideas and useful tech.

With its long list of standard features, available torque-vectoring front-wheel-drive and unique three-door design, the $18,000 hatchback makes a strong value case for itself.

Veloster’s squat and assertive <em>kammback</em> profile was influenced by racing-motorcycle design, Hyundai says, and the raffish ‘tude carries on inside. Beefy grab bars and a game-inflected control panel establish a race-mode vibe. Controls are back-lit in glowing game-console colors. In some models, deeply bolstered sport seats are trimmed in bold, contrasting colors. 

The Veloster’s asymmetrical layout — two small passenger-side doors offset the single, large driver-side door — eases access to the rear seats. Or — with the rear seatbacks folded — to the rear cargo area.

Young families who wrestle with car seats will find the third door especially useful.

LED headlights and a rearview camera are standard across the board, as are heated mirrors, full power accessories, cruise control and A/C, a height-adjustable driver seat, cloth upholstery and a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel.

2016 Hyundai Veloster dashboar

Beefy grab bars and a game-inflected control panel establish a race-mode vibe.

All 2016 Velosters come with a 7-inch color touchscreen. Standard features include HD radio, “Eyes Free” Apple Siri integration and the latest generation of Hyundai’s Blue Link (Bluetooth) telematics.

Veloster is powered by a choice of two four-cylinder engines, one turbocharged and one naturally aspirated. Both use direct injection to maximize power and efficiency.

The base engine, a 1.6-liter four, makes 132 horsepower. Power is routed to the front wheels via a six-speed manual transmission or six-speed dual-clutch automated manual (DCT).

The same engine, with turbocharger, produces 201 horsepower and can be paired with the six-speed manual or a new seven-speed DCT.

In non-turbo Velosters, the DCT is calibrated for economy; in the turbos, it’s tuned for performance.  DCTs are a rarity in this segment and a welcome substitute for the ubiquitous continuously variable transmission (CVT).

Turbocharged models get a torque-vectoring system that brakes the inside front wheel in fast corners, redirecting its power to the outside wheel. The action effectively pivots the car on its axis and minimizes the potential for a skid.

We tested a Veloster R-Spec Turbo with manual transmission ($22,425). The R-Spec is the entry-level trim on the turbocharged side of the ledger. It gets unique body-side extensions, a sport-tuned suspension and sport-tuned steering.

The R-Spec’s sport seats grip one securely during fast corners and the B&M short-throw shifter makes good, sure shifts. Clutch take-up is finicky until the driver sorts it out.

But despite its raucous persona, the R-Spec is an unconvincing sports car. It’s limited by powerplants that are not quite powerful enough and a chassis better suited to gentler suspension settings.

Better, in my estimate, to save a few bucks and buy a naturally aspirated Veloster. Or spend a few more on the better-equipped and less aggressive Turbo trim ($23,435). A new limited-run Turbo Rally Edition ($24,775) adds leather seating surfaces, 18-inch wheels and more — including a suspension tweaked tighter than the R-Spec’s.

Veloster sales prove its appeal; here’s hoping the second-gen car expresses its potential.

2016 Hyundai Veloster R-Spec w Manual Transmission
Vehicle base price: $18,000
Trim level base price: $21,900
As tested: $22,570
Options included cargo net and mud guards.
EPA rating: 28 combined/25 city/33 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

New Mazda CX-3 stretches class limits

This review first appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

2016 Mazda CX-3

The CX-3 ($20,840, including destination) is a driver’s car. Its engaging dynamics and outstanding efficiency push the limits of the subcompact crossover class.

I was tempted to launch this piece with the less-is-more trope. After all, the all-new Mazda CX-3 essentially defines the term. It’s small, lightweight and fundamental in execution. It offers a single engine/transmission combination and features a refreshingly straightforward hierarchy of trim levels and options packages.

But the less-is-more construct oversimplifies the matter. Unless you’re counting cargo space (perhaps the CX-3’s single biggest failing) and fuel stops, there’s nothing lesser about it.

2016 Mazda CX-3 interior

Cabin design is exuberant and youthful.

The CX-3 ($20,840, including destination) is a driver’s car. Its engaging dynamics and outstanding efficiency push the limits of the subcompact crossover class. Zesty and curvaceous exterior styling sidesteps overstatement and cliche. Cabin design is exuberant and youthful, though the prevailing aesthetics are mature ones; comfort, ergonomics and attention to detail.

The front seats are supportive and comfortable. Back and thigh bolsters snug occupants into place during fast cornering. This is a small car, though, and even by class standards the back seats and cargo area are small.

The CX-3 is the fifth Mazda to fully employ Mazda’s SkyActiv efficiency suite. Under the SkyActiv rubric, engineers isolate and excise unnecessary weight. They look to minimize friction-caused energy loss and fashion drivetrains of tightly integrated and complementary components.

The six-speed automatic is engineered to match the specific characteristics of the CX-3’s 146-horsepower 2.0-liter four. The transmission is calibrated to keep the engine in the heart of its power band and makes smooth, quick shifts. In Sport mode, it executes the necessary downshifts as one slows for a corner.

The electrically assisted steering system has a light feel in city traffic and in parking lots, but firms up at speed. In corners, its action is progressive and communicative.

The CX-3 can run the 0-60 sprint in a quick-for-the-segment 8.1 seconds, yet front-drive trims return 31 mpg combined mileage (29 city/35 highway); AWD trims manage 29 mpg (27/32).

The base S trim is packed with goodies both expected and not. Standard gear includes push-button start, a 7-inch color touchscreen and Mazda Connect, one of the safest and most user-friendly infotainment control systems available. Besides Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, It offers audio text-message delivery and reply; voice command; and Aha/Stitcher/Pandora/HD radio connectivity.

Mazda Connect’s most valuable feature is its Commander control knob. The console-mounted rotary knob simplifies the process of menu- and screen-selection and reduces the time a driver’s eyes must leave the road.

Mazda’s predictive all-wheel-drive system ($1,250) is available on every trim level. It assimilates real-time data from various sources — including the onboard thermometer (the system takes ambient temperature into account) and the antilock braking and stability control systems — and maximizes traction by shunting power between the front and rear axles.

Upper trims can be outfitted with advanced safety technologies like lane-departure warning, rear cross-traffic alert, intelligent cruise control and forward collision-mitigation with automatic braking.

Mazda’s less-is-more strategy is anything but simple. The CX-3 is a sophisticated little piece whose apparent simplicity masks a big personality and deep-seated capabilities.

Contact Don at don@dadair.com, or visit www.dadair.com.

2016 Mazda CX-3 Touring AWD
Vehicle base price: $19,950
Trim level base price: $23,210
As tested: $26,050
Options included remote start; moonroof; tonneau cover; satellite radio; premium Bose audio; high-definition radio
EPA ratings: 29 combined/27 city/32 highway

 

Mid-cycle refresh keeps Honda Accord in its sweet spot

This story first appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

2016 Honda Accord Coupe exterior

Smaller and lighter than its predecessor, the 9th-generation Accord isroomier, more efficient and more refined. Ride and handling benefitted from a new suspension. Noise-reduction strategies quieted its notoriously noisy cabin.

In 2012, Honda dropped a landmark edition of its Accord into a midsize segment teaming with worthy competitors.

Smaller and lighter than its predecessor, the 9th-generation Accord nonetheless grew roomier, more efficient and more refined. Ride and handling benefitted from a new suspension. Noise-reduction strategies quieted its notoriously noisy cabin.

The 2013 Accord also incorporated such advanced driver-assistive features as Lane Departure Warning and Forward Collision Warning.

Apple CarPlay

Accord becomes an early adopter of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, smartphone-based connectivity systems access maps, audio streaming, voice-controlled SMS text messaging and more.

Now, the 2016 model year brings a mid-cycle refresh. There are exterior styling updates, revised suspension tuning, new interior trim and, on upper trims, a 7-inch touchscreen.

The advanced driver-assist technologies that debuted in 2012 morph this year into the Honda Sensing Package ($1,000), which is available on every new Accord. These systems — forward-collision warning and braking mitigation, adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, lane-departure warning and road-departure mitigation — elevate Accord’s already enviable safety profile and point to the autonomous-car future.

The tech advances continues inside, as well, as Accord becomes an early adopter of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, smartphone-based connectivity systems access maps, audio streaming, voice-controlled SMS text messaging and more.

The Accord’s touchscreen is backed by a knob-based controller. It’s one of the most user-friendly of the new infotainment interfaces.

I’ve recently driven two Accords, each bearing a unique stamp. The Accord V-6 Coupe ($31,745, including destination) is the only mass-production midsize two-door sold in the U.S, while the four-door, four-cylinder Sport trim ($24,985) attempts — and nearly pulls off — the unlikely feat of combining sporty reflexes with a continuously variable transmission (CVT).

The 278-horsepower coupe is quick, responsive and, yes, refined. Its front-drive configuration locates 61 percent of the curb weight over the front wheels, a deficit largely neutralized by the strut-based front suspension introduced in 2012.

The six can be matched with a six-speed manual or conventional six-speed automatic. The manual is Honda-good, with short fluid throws and excellent clutch take-up.

Despite the absence of two doors, the coupe is comfortable. The rear seat easily accommodates a pair of regulation-sized adults and the trunk is huge. The ride is supple and controlled and everything works with a creamy goodness.

I’d have like a bit more edge — more feel and feedback — but the coupe is a solid performer and a handsome, refined piece in the bargain.

My Sport tester gave up 89 horsepower to the six. However, less weight over the front wheels translates to tauter handling and a more neutral stance in the corners. Our tester was equipped with the CVT, whose performance is more linear and direct than that of most CVTs. Like all CVTs it can fall into drone mode under heavy acceleration, but programmed steps helpfully simulate shift points and a Sport mode helps keep the engine in its sweet spot.

The 4-banger, with CVT, produces an EPA-estimated 30 mpg combined/26 city/35 highway.

Sedan or coupe, six cylinders or four, and manual transmission, automatic or CVT, Accord sets standard in the midsize segment.

2016 Honda Accord 2-door EX-L V-6
Vehicle base price: $20,237
Trim level base price: $30,925
As tested: $31,745
Options: Our test vehicle included no optional equipment.
EPA ratings: 22 combined/18 city/28 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Honda’s Odyssey embodies family values

This review first appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

honda odyssey minivan

The front-wheel-drive (all-wheel-drive is not available) Odyssey is available in seven- and eight-passenger configurations. Each is powered by a 248-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 mated with a six-speed automatic transmission. EPA estimates are a very good 22 mpg combined (19 city/28 highway).

Let’s play word-association. It’s a simple game; just one, quick question:

I say minivan, you say: __________

And the answer the judges are looking for is … Kids, though they’ll also accept Children and Families and other variations on the theme.

A case for Honda and Odyssey could also be made. Honda’s Odyssey ($30,155, including transportation) regularly tops U.S. minivan sales, as it has for the last three years in a row.

2016 Honda Odyssey interior

Standard features include full power accessories, a rearview camera, two-zone manual air-conditioning, an eight-way power driver seat, a four-way power front-passenger seat, a 60/40-split folding third-row seat, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity and a seven-speaker audio system.

All of Honda’s products bristle with family friendly amenities. Conversation mirrors enable crucial parent/child eye contact. Cooling boxes chill the fruit juice; seats disappear into floors; vacuum cleaners pop out of cargo-compartment enclosures.

In fact, the vacuum makes its Odyssey debut this year. It’s a key element in a new value-priced SE ($34,255) trim, where it’s bundled with satellite radio and a rear entertainment system.

The front-wheel-drive (all-wheel-drive is not available) Odyssey is available in seven- and eight-passenger configurations. Each is powered by a 248-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 mated with a six-speed automatic transmission. EPA estimates are a very good 22 mpg combined (19 city/28 highway).

Standard features include full power accessories, a rearview camera, two-zone manual air-conditioning, an eight-way power driver seat, a four-way power front-passenger seat, a 60/40-split folding third-row seat, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity and a seven-speaker audio system.

Inside the removable center console includes a built-in flip-up trash bag holder. The chilled storage box makes its appearance (along with leather, a power liftgate and advanced safety tech) on EX-L ($36,805) trims and higher.

All trims but the base LX get an 8-inch touchscreen that provides access to audio-system features and serves as a rearview-camera display. Models with navigation get a second, 7-inch color display. Some find the two-screen setup confusing; paradoxically, though, it simplifies multiple controls.

The second-row seat can be adjusted to create a middle aisle or side aisle ease to third-row access. On higher trims, the center section slides forward more than 5 inches, putting it and its occupant within easy reach of the ‘rents. The outboard seats can be slid outward, making room for three car seats.

The downside? The second-row seats are heavy and not easily removed. Two people can do the job in 10 minutes; one person can do it, too, but with more bad language.

Besides the standard rearview camera, EX-L trims and above can be equipped with a multi-angle camera. Honda’s available LaneWatch blind-spot camera system is available on EX trims and higher but a conventional system replaces it the Touring Elite. Forward-collision and lane-departure warning systems are available, though the collision warning setup lacks auto-braking.

Word association follow-up; you’d be wrong if you answered <em>Boring</em>. Odyssey embodies a superior blend of efficiency, responsiveness and ride quality. Active-noise cancellation cuts wind and road noise to near-luxury levels, and ride and handling are so car-like I could forget I was driving a van.

You say minivan, I say Odyssey.

2016 Honda Odyssey SE
Vehicle base price: $29,
Trim level base price: $34,425
As tested: $33,375*
Tow capacity: 3,500 pounds
EPA ratings: 22 combined/19 city/28 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

*Reflects the $1,050 SE package (includes rear entertainment system; HondaVac; satellite radio) discount

Sedan or hatchback, Mazda’s compact 3 is high on appeal

This review appeared first in The Spokesman-Review.

2016 Mazda Mazda3

Mazda’s compact 3 is among the most frugal and exhilarating small cars built. This year, it also joins a short list of cars to experience a substantial price drop, the addition of new standard features notwithstanding.

When new cars offer themselves up for a test every week, they can drift from memory like the morning mist on a sunny lake.

Some linger, though, and leave traces of sense memory — the secure, bound-in feel of a well-bolstered seat; the quick sharp blip of an engine matching revs on a downshift; the tense grip of rubber on asphalt as tires fight for traction in a fast corner.

Obviously, I still have the 2016 Mazda 3 on my mind.

2016 Mazda Mazda3 interior

Have I mentioned the 3 is a blast to drive? If there’s another car that better marries efficiency, comfort, utility and affordability with a penchant for play, I want to drive it.

Mazda’s compact 3 is among the most frugal and exhilarating small cars built. This year, it also joins a short list of cars to experience a substantial price drop, the addition of new standard features notwithstanding.

Mazda sorts the 3 by body style — sedan or hatchback — and engine size. Mazda 3i trims are powered by a 155-horsepower four-cylinder engine; Mazda3s’s by a 185-hp 2.5-liter four.

This year, the base 3i Sport sedan adds an express driver’s window, power door locks, power folding exterior mirrors, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, air conditioning with pollen filter and 60/40-split folding rear seatbacks.

They join an already healthy standard-features list which includes remote keyless entry, cruise control, a 7-inch touchscreen with knob-based controller, map lights, six-speaker sound system and Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity with voice controls.

All Mazda 3s get a backup camera this year, and a $600 reduction cuts the price of the 3i Sport sedan to $17,845.

Mazda 3i buyers can also access a newly available Preferred Equipment group. It brings automatic on/off headlights, rain-sensing windshield wipers, sport seats, rear-seat armrest with cupholders, 16-inch alloy wheels, bright beltline trim, heated body-color rearview mirrors with integrated turn signal indicators, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert.

A loaded Grand Touring — leather, navigation, nine-speaker Bose sound system — tickles $30,000. My tester included the nifty-but-not-necessary Appearance Package and stickered at $30,270.

Some features — a head-up display, adaptive headlights and adaptive cruise control, for example — are unique in the segment.

Pair the smaller engine with the excellent six-speed automatic transmission, and the sedan returns exceptional EPA numbers; 34 mpg combined (29 city/40 highway). The six-speed stick draws down those numbers to 33/29/40.

My hatch ran the larger engine, with automatic, and was rated at 31/27/37.

Have I mentioned the 3 is a blast to drive? If there’s another car that better marries efficiency, comfort, utility and affordability with a penchant for play, I want to drive it.

And that applies to every 3 sold, not just a one-off, big-bucks trim. The 3 trades in solid fundamentals, instead; thrifty and eager powertrains, a driver-centric cabin and steering and suspension systems that are communicative and responsive.

Inside, high-quality materials, well-weighted switchgear and an intuitive knob-based control system are the equal of any in the class and superior to most.
From where I sit, the hatchback’s utility is particularly appealing, but sedan partisans will find plenty to like, as well. Especially savvy sedan buyers eager to save a buck or two.

Contact Don at don@dadair.com, or visit his website at www. donadair.com.

2016 Mazda 3 Five-door Grand Touring
Vehicle base price: $17,845
Trim level base price: $26,495
As tested: $30,270
Options included metallic paint; Mazda Mobile Start; door-sill trim plates; front bumper guard; front air dam; door mirror caps; rear hatch spoiler; rear bumper skirt; side sill extensions.
EPA rating: 31 combined/27 city/37 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified