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Let's Talk Cars: Test Drives – Chevy HHR, Nissan Pathfinder, and 6-speed Volkswagen Passat

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Welcome to Let’s Talk Cars

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This week on Let’s Talk Cars, more from our slew of new car reviews, walk arounds and test drives – Chevrolet HHR, Nissan Pathfinder, and a base-model Volkswagen Passat with a peppy 6-speed manual transmission.

First, VehicleVoice correspondent David Barrett climbs inside Chevy’s take on the PT Cruiser. The HHR has a lot of great things going for it, including its fun, retro looks, but a lack of horsepower and some styling issues come up in our review.

Next, host Cameron Barrett brings you this week’s Rev It Up – with 90-seconds on the Nissan Pathfinder. This medium-sized SUV isn’t afraid to get its wheels dirty or its tow ring used.

And finally, we drive a base model Volkswagen Passat, one of the best values out there for your money. But the excellent 6-speed transmission causes some heartache because of its lack of availability in higher end models. The Passat won AutoPacific’s coveted 2006 Vehicle Satisfaction Award for Premium Mid-Size Cars.

Show Rundown
00:47 Chevrolet HHR: David Barrett, VehicleVoice contributor
10:05 Rev it Up: Nissan Pathfinder: Cameron Barrett, Let’s Talk Cars’ Host
11:22 Volkswagen Passat: David Barrett, VehicleVoice contributor


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2006 Chevrolet Impala SS – Delivers on its Name

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The 2006 Chevrolet Impala is a complete reskin from its dorky looking predecessor. It now looks very purposeful and almost modern. We have read many criticisms of its freshened styling, but, while not head-turning, the Impala is a huge improvement. The interior is ergonomically friendly and everything falls to hand easily.
So, what are the gripes. In an obvious cost-reduction, the bezel surrounding the console-mounted shifter in the Impala SS does not have P-R-N-D-L or anything else to tell you what gear you are in. The only indicator is on the instrument cluster where there is a LED read out. I don’t remember any car not having the gears shown near the shift lever. Probably saved a buck.

Excitement Reigns Under Full Throttle

In another obvious goof that many buff books have identified and I can confirm, torque steer is wild. Punch the 303-horsepower small-block V8 and things get exciting fast. It’s like you can’t figure out which way the car is going. Unlike many cars having fearsome torque steer (they usually turn hard right), the steering in the Impala SS under power seems almost omni-directional. If it consistently pulled right, you could anticipate it, but the SS seems to be everywhere.
Apparently, this is fixed on the Pontiac Grand Prix GXP with the same powertrain and platform but with larger tires up front. Chevy should spring for this fix. The Impala is a premium priced model and such obvious cost cuts should not be tolerated.
Impala Best Chevy Sedan since the old Impala SS
But, enough nit-picking. The Impala SS is truly the best non-Corvette car we have driven in a long time.


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Dodge Approves Challenger

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As if There Would Have Been Any Other Answer…
In the biggest non-surprise of the year, Dodge made it official: The Challenger concept will spawn a Challenger production coupe. The Challenger will go on sale in 2008, within two years of the concept’s introduction, as a 2008 model-year vehicle. The announcement was made in conjunction with the Pepsi 400 NASCAR race in Daytona, where the Dodge Charger is a competitor.

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Though the name was used a few times on non-muscle cars, the Challenger that is being revived had a five-year run (1970-1974) and saw sales about 188,600 units, coupe and convertible. Which begs the question: When is the convertible coming?
Chevrolet is expected to also follow its 2006 North American International Auto Show concept Camaro with a production version as well. But Dodge looks to be in position to get Challenger to market before Camaro, which could be huge in the image game. No one wants to be last.
All in all, Challenger has a solid platform to launch from and a nice set of powertrains to choose from, being based on Dodge Charger/Magnum and Chrysler 300, though a 500HP SRT Challenger would be helpful. Response to the concept car has been strong enough to get the green light. In 2008, we’ll find out if the enthusiasm translates to real-world purchases.
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(VehicleVoice and AutoPacific brought you news of the Challenger and Camaro back at auto show time; click here and here to revisit those stories.)


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Buick Announces LaCrosse Super

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Buick announced today that it will launch a V8-powered version of the LaCrosse mid-size sedan in mid-2007 as a 2008 model. Powered by a 5.3L small block General Motors V8, the LaCrosse promises to be an excellent performer.
Shown to analysts for the first time at General Motors North Hollywood Design Studio, Buick resurrects the Super name for the higher performance LaCrosse. VehicleVoice and AutoPacific correspondants were on hand for the announcement as well as driving opportunities in Buick Lucerne V8s and the new Pontiac G6 Retractable Hardtop Convertible. Unfortunately, no photos of the LaCrosse Super were allowed at this event, but think of a tougher, beefier LaCrosse with all the bells and whistles.
With Pontiac having the Grand Prix GXP and Chevrolet having the Impala SS powered by the same engine, it was only a matter of time before Buick added a V8-powered Mid-Size model to its lineup.
Promising to be a relatively low-volume proposition, the Super will provide a halo for the LaCrosse and enhance Buick’s image for performance on demand.


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AutoPacific Vehicle Satisfaction Results – Japanese Brands On Top

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The AutoPacific 2006 Vehicle Satisfaction Awards honor products in nineteen categories or segments. Nine categories are cars and ten are trucks.
Overwhelming Win by Japanese Brands in Satisfaction by Vehicle Type
Overall, owners of Japanese brand vehicles rate their cars or trucks at the top of their category in ten of the nineteen categories. Owners of European brand vehicles rated their vehicle tops in two categories – Volkwagen Passat in the Premium Mid-Size Car Category and the MINI Cooper in the Image Compact Car class. The American Big Three had five wins… Lincoln Navigator won it all with the highest rating of any vehicle – car or truck; Cadillac CTS, Mercury Milan, Chevrolet Corvette, Chevrolet Silverado Heavy Duty. OK, that leaves two winners unaccounted for… those are from Hyundai.
The Hyundai Azera is the top rated car, even beating top class luxury cars like the Lexus LS430, jaguar XJ, BMW 7-Series and Mercedes-Benz S-Class. The Hyundai Santa Fe is the top rated Mid-Size SUV for the fifth time in its six year history… this win comes just months before it is replaced by an all new Santa Fe to be produced in America.
So…
Japanese Brands – 10 with Suzuki having its first ever win
American Brands – 5 with Chrysler Group having zero wins
European Brands – 2
Korean Brands – 2
Check http:/.vehiclevoice.com for the complete listings.


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Chevrolet Corvette Wins AutoPacific 2006 Vehicle Satisfaction Award for Sports Cars:

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Owners of the new C6 return the Chevrolet Corvette sports car to the top of the Sports Car category in the AutoPacific 2006 Vehicle Satisfaction Award with a decisive class-winning performance for 2006. The new Corvette is perhaps the best value in the entire Sports Car arena. The C6 Corvette is a more satisfying car than any previous Corvette – great styling, more finesse, super performance, great handling and a more supple ride. Still immediately identifiable as a Corvette, the C6 is clearly new across the board.


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Chevrolet Silverado Wins AutoPacific 2006 Vehicle Satisfaction Award for Heavy-Duty Pickup Trucks

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The Chevrolet Silverado Heavy Duty wins the AutoPacific Vehicle Satisfaction Award among Heavy Duty Large Pickups.

A workhorse near the end of its run, the Silverado HD nosed out Dodge Ram Heavy Duty and Ford F-Series Super Duty entries. Much of its win has to be credited to its up-graded Duramax diesel for the 2006 model year.


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Suzuki Reinvents the XL7 and Shows New Entry AWD SX4

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XL7 Was the Star, But SX4 Made U.S. Debut in New York
Suzuki‘s show stand at the New York auto show introduced two new entries for their 2007 model year lineup, one at the entry level and one to sit at the top of the range. The SX4 was officially introduced at Geneva in March and its small size means it will be a lower-volume vehicle for Suzuki, so the XL7 had top billing in New York. VehicleVoice and AutoPacific were there in the audience and got to take our first look at the new entries.
Has Suzuki Finally Solved the Equation for Success?
Point, Counterpoint… more Point: With these two new entries it appears that Suzuki may finally hit stride in the United States. Well styled and well priced, the concept for each of these new SUVs seems to be on target. No longer does Suzuki have to apologize for weirdly styled and packaged SUVs. These are mainstream and competitive – at least from a styling and package perspective. In the final analysis, it may be how well they drive.
SX4: AWD for $15,000
The SX4 is based on a European Suzuki product called the Swift, which is a small front-drive car. Suzuki is targeting the $15,000 to $18,000 price ladder for this entry product, though pricing will be finalized closer to launch. The powertrain is a 2.0L DOHC four-cylinder, standard with a five-speed manual or optional with a four-speed automatic. The SX4 slots in below the Grand Vitara and functionally takes the place of the Aerio all-wheel-drive wagon, which is being dropped. We covered the SX4 in a previous VehicleVoice blog entry.

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Suzuki’s First Mid-Size SUV Offers Real Room for Seven
The real news for Suzuki in New York was the XL7, which the company reinvented with help from GM, losing the small, truck-based package and gaining a product that seems just right for the market today. The XL7 takes advantage of Suzuki’s involvement in the joint GM-Suzuki CAMI plant in Ontario, Canada. The previous Grand Vitara was kicked out when GM started building the Theta-based Chevrolet Equinox at the facility. In the form of the XL7, Suzuki adds a variant of the Chevrolet Equinox, though the XL7 takes the package further and offers more seats and more power.
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With a new platform also comes a minor change to the name: The old, truck-based version was spelled XL-7. With the 2007MY, Suzuki dropped the dash and the model is now just XL7.
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Nissan GT-R On Its Way to Dealerships – Out of Video Games

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Nissan GT-R Comes to the States
Video racing games and word-of-mouth have elevated prior generations of the Nissan Skyline GT-R to iconic status, though the entry has not yet been offered in the States. This finally changes with the new GT-R. Though Nissan looked long and hard at bringing the GT-R to the States through the Infiniti channel, tradition won out. At the 2006 New York auto show, Nissan announced the 2009 Nissan GT-R will arrive in North American Nissan dealers in spring 2008. A concept version was shown at the 2005 Tokyo Motor Show. AutoPacific and VehicleVoice correspondents were there to see it, and here’s how it looked on Nissan’s home-turf stand.

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GT-R Was Almost an Infiniti
Before the announcement, speculation reported the car as both a Nissan and an Infiniti. The primary benefit for putting the car in the hands of Infiniti dealers was the luxury brand experience and that Infiniti dealers are better-equipped to deal with customers looking for a relatively expensive, high-end sports car. Nissan has the 350Z, which comes with a base price just above $40,000 when the convertible is selected. The production GT-R is likely to play in a price range closer to Chevrolet Corvette and Dodge Viper.
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Based on the same platform that spawned the Nissan 350Z, Infiniti G35, and Infiniti FX SUV, the GT-R promises to capable of taking on the likes of the Lexus SC430 and Cadillac XLR. Styling is distinct from the G35/Skyline to help enable dramatically different positioning.
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Let’s Talk Cars: Brand Consideration and the new Lexus GS450h

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Welcome to “Let’s Talk Cars”

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This week on Let’s Talk Cars, it’s all about consideration, brand consideration that is. AutoPacific founder and president George Peterson and VehicleVoice contributor Jim Hall have another go at polite conversation while tackling a new AutoPacific consumer survey that has American automotive manufacturers slipping, Mercedes tanking, and Toyota doing back flips, albeit in a deprivation tank.
And with 91 octane fuel going for well over $3 a gallon in California, we give you the Lexus GS450h – the newest hybrid from the luxury arm of Toyota. Worth the money? Hear what Jim and George have to say.
Show Rundown
01:52 Brand Consideration Research – VehicleVoice contributor Jim Hall and AutoPacific president and founder, George Peterson
16:00 Lexus GS450h – VehicleVoice contributor Jim Hall and AutoPacific president and founder, George Peterson


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