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2017 Fiat 124 Spider – Japanese Roadster with Italian Flair

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2017 Fiat 124 Spider F34 450Fiat Turns to Mazda for Iconic Sports Car  About 50 years after first launching the Fiat 124 Spider in the United States, Fiat is launching a new Spider in Summer 2016.  The last time the Fiat 124 Spider was sold in the USA was in 1983.  To gain a desirable roadster without having to develop the car themselves, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) turned to Mazda.

Fiat wants the 124 Spider to re-establish the sporty image of the brand and communicate “fun, joyous and optimistic” motoring.

Basically, the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider is a reskinned Mazda Miata propelled by a Fiat MultiAir Turbo 4-cylinder engine.

Unique Exterior Styling  Take the outstanding Mazda MX-5 Miata and breathe Italian-ness on it and you have the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider.  With the rear wheel drive Mazda roadster platform as a base, Fiat has done an excellent job differentiating their little roadster from the Miata.   The proportions are definitely Miata, but the Fiat body is 5.5-inches longer with much of the length increase going to the trunk.  The exterior styling is different, maybe a bit more upscale looking.  The front end has a hexagonal grille with a honeycomb mesh flanked by styled headlamps.  It has a friendly face.  The rear has sharp horizontal LED taillamps.  Both the front and rear designs are reminiscent of the original 124 Spider.

Minor Interior Differentiation  The interior is lifted directly from the Miata with material upgrades here and there.  The seats are very comfortable and supportive with a unique sew style.  Two seat trim colors are available, black and saddle.  The saddle seat trim is very upscale looking and radio speakers in the headrests are a nice touch.  The interior has been optimized for quietness.  Being a roadster, wind buffeting can be a real problem, so care was taken in the windshield header and side window design to minimize buffeting at speed.  The top is one of the best features of the Fiat 124 Spider.  It can be opened or closed with one hand from either front seat.  Brilliant!

Unique Turbo Engine from Italy  The Fiat 124 Spider is powered by Fiat’s 1.4L MultiAir Turbo 4-cylinder engine with 160-horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque.  The engine block has been modified for longitudinal installation in the platform and to mate with Mazda’s excellent 6-speed manual transmission and 6-speed automatic transmission.

The suspension has been tuned a bit differently and the ride seems a bit more supple than on the Miata.  Handling is crisp as befits the short wheelbase.

Pricing Essentially Equivalent with Miata  There are three trim levels:  Classica, Lusso and Abarth.  There is also a 124 unit special edition car at launch – Prima Edizione Lusso (check all the boxes, unique blue color = $35,000).  The base Classica model is priced at $24,995 with the 6-speed manual transmission.  Destination charges are $995.  About 60% of the Fiat 124 Spider buyers are expected to opt for the automatic transmission that adds $1,350 to the price.  The volume model likely will be the $27,495 Lusso model that adds automatic headlamps, fog lamps, rain sensing wipers, automatic temperature control, leatherette and piano black instrument panel inserts, and 7-inch touch screen.  Selecting the sportiest Abarth model is $28,195.  When compared with the Miata, Lusso seems like a deal compared with the Miata Grand Touring ($31,270) except the Grand Touring Miata is fully loaded.  To get that level of equipment on the Fiat 124 Spider adds another $3,795 to the price putting the Fiat only $20 higher than the Miata (Fiat destination charge is $160 higher than Mazda – puts actual price difference at $180 higher than Miata).


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New CX-9 Is Key In Mazda’s Attempt To Be Premium Brand

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This article appeared in Forbes Auto:  May 23, 2016

Photo Credit: George Peterson

Photo Credit: George Peterson

Mazda has always been a brand different from most. It built its image on rotary engines that were fun to drive, but tough to make. Challenges from emissions and fuel economy regulations doomed the rotary early in the 21st century. Production ceased in 2012 with the demise of the Mazda RX-8 sports car. Mazda’s gorgeous Vision R coupe shown at the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show demonstrates Mazda hasn’t given up on the rotary, but admits only a small group of dedicated engineers are presently working on it. But the rotary engine is just part of the Mazda story.

The Ford Days to Independence  From 1979 through 2009, Ford Motor had an increasing equity stake in Mazda Motor. Starting with 7% stake in 1979, Ford increased its position in Mazda until it had effective control with 33.3% of the company. Mazda and Ford teamed up on several car platforms where Mazda’s design expertise opened the eyes of Ford engineers to new more efficient techniques.

As the Great Recession deepened and Ford was struggling for liquidity, Ford divested its shares in Mazda and the company became independent in 2009. The result was a stand-alone brand with good products, but low volumes. In 2011, Mazda raised $1.9 billion to guarantee its future viability and develop its SkyActiv platform now underpinning its cars and crossover SUVs. With the introduction of the Mazda CX-9 crossover SUV in mid-2016, the transition to SkyActiv is complete.

For Mazda’s 2016 Fiscal Year, the company sold a bit over 1.5 million vehicles world wide and had a net income of ¥134 billion (~$1 billion). Prospects are even better going forward as Mazda entered a technology sharing agreement with Toyota in May 2015.

Repositioning “Zoom Zoom” to “Driving Matters”  Now the stage is set for Mazda to reposition itself. In the United States, Mazda wants to be perceived as an upscale mainstream brand similar to Acura. Acura has always seemed like an upscale domestic brand (and not particularly successful), so this positioning may make sense.

One of the first things Mazda has done to facilitate this change is change its advertising tag line from “Zoom Zoom” to “Driving Matters.” “Zoom Zoom” has been around seemingly forever, since about 2000. At first, Mazda’s products did not live up to the “Zoom Zoom” tag line, so now that they do, the tag line is changed to a more mature “Driving Matters”. “Zoom Zoom” is still there, but in a secondary position to “Driving Matters”.

“Driving Matters” fits with the attitude that people who buy a Mazda product are more enthusiastic about driving than buyers of most other mainstream brands. Mazda does not want to sell an appliance – transportation from point A to point B – they want to sell a vehicle with an active, sporty driving experience that their owners embrace.

Mazda Vehicles Deliver More of a Premium Ambiance  Along with repositioning the message, Mazda’s products have been achieving higher transaction prices at their dealers. Much of this results from selling a richer mix of vehicles with about 50% of the CX-5 being the upper middle Grand Touring model and the CX-9 having a projected 40% being the Grand Touring model (then combined with the Touring model, Touring plus Grand Touring are expected to be 70% of the CX-9 mix). No longer wanting to be a “cheap and cheerful” brand, Mazda will not be the cheapest in any segment. It wants to be best. Simply, the brand is chasing a better quality of business.


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Lincoln Navigator Wows at New York Auto Show

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Photo Source: Lincoln Motor Company

Photo Source: Lincoln Motor Company

Navigator – First Luxury SUV  Lincoln launched the Luxury Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV) Market in 1997 when it launched the first generation of the Navigator.  Navigator was a derivative of the Ford Expedition Full Size SUV and proved to be an instant success.  Loaded with the appropriate amount of technology and bling for the time, Navigator hit a chord with upscale families that wanted something more than a minivan or full size SUV.  The first Navigator was somewhat tame by today’s standards, but provided the sophistication, size, power and price people coveting this kind of transportation.  It took Cadillac two years to respond with the Escalade – a quick-to-market response to Navigator.

A Battle of Bling Between Lincoln and Cadillac  The first generation Navigator was to last for five model years (1997 through 2002) when it was replaced by the 2003 Navigator which raised the bar in the American Luxury SUV category. It adopted independent rear suspension which allowed for the rear load floor to be dropped by 7-inches and for a commodious third row seat to be installed.  To this day, General Motors full size SUVs have not matched Lincoln’s third row seat package, much less Escalade.  Cadillac evolved into a bling-mobile (one Cadillac marketer described the vehicle as having seven layers of chrome).  Lincoln responded with a gaudy Navigator in 2007 that seemingly had chrome haphazardly thrown at every bodypanel.  While Escalade had a major refresh in 2015 incorporating Cadillac’s vertical LED light pipe daytime running lights in the front, Lincoln freshened the front styling of the Navigator incorporating the clumsy winged grille style that appeared on its vehicles during the decade.  Navigator also dropped its V8 powertrain replacing it with a more powerful EcoBoost V6.  The lower weight and higher power of the EcoBoost transformed the handling of the Navigator.

But that brings us to the future.

Photo Source: Lincoln Motor Company

Photo Source: Lincoln Motor Company

Style Evolution Yields a Range Rover Look-Alike  The next generation Lincoln Navigator concept has been shown at the 2016 New York Auto Show and it is an absolute WOW. Like Lincoln did in 2015 when they stealthily introduced the Continental concept at New York, the Navigator concept was kept very quiet until its initial reveal.  With this new Navigator, Lincoln takes a different tack towards elegance, sophistication and quietness – a Personal Santuary.  The new Navigator adopts new Lincoln styling cues like the strongly trapezoidal grille opening, Lincoln logo mesh grille, headlamps accented by LED running lights.  The front end is very strong looking.  The rear appearance adopts Lincoln’s horizontal full-width taillamp treatment.  The bodyside, however, comes across much like a Range Rover with similar accent lines and window graphics.  Different, but similar.  You might remember Bentley accused Lincoln of plagiarizing the style of its Flying Spur.  Might Range Rover make the same complaint with the new Navigator?

Lincoln says the new Navigator is its “most spacious ever”, but the exterior style seems to make it appear a bit less bulky.  This is good.

Photo Source: Lincoln Motor Company

Photo Source: Lincoln Motor Company

The concept is shown with gull-wing doors and “concertina” side steps for easier access.  These are certainly there for the concept reveal and will not appear in production.


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Infiniti Upgrades Mid-Size Vehicles Mid-Cycle

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Nissan’s luxury brand, Infiniti, is upgrading its two mid-size entries in the middle of their product cycle.  This is not unusual these days as carmakers attempt to keep up with new technologies and keep fresh products available to their buyers.  Infiniti’s one-two punch comes with new powertrains for the Q50 (nee G35/37) rear wheel drive mid-size sedan and freshened styling for the QX60 (nee JX35) front wheel drive/AWD mid-size crossover SUV.

The Q50 changes target enthusiasts and the QX60 changes target families.  Let’s talk about the Q50 first.

Infiniti Q50 models equipped with the 3.0-liter V6 twin-turbo 400 hp engine are designated as the Q50 Red Sport 400 and feature unique staggered 19-inch aluminum-alloy wheels and 245/40R19 front/265/35R19 rear summer performance run-flat tires, as well as unique exhaust tips. These changes help to assert the car’s performance credentials and add to its aggressive, confident aura.

Q50 Powertrain Updates  Infiniti positions the Q50 against the Lexus IS and the BMW 3-Series.  To us, it is closer to the Lexus GS350 in size and ambiance, but priced lower.  Q50 looks the same as before.  Its changes come in the form of new engines.  The top-of-the-line is the Infiniti Q50 Red Sport 400.  What does all that mean?  The “400” is for the 400-horsepower twin turbo 3.0L V6 engine.  “Red Sport” refers to the red “S” sport badge on the fenders and rear of the vehicle.  The Red Sport 400 is very flexible from easily lumping around town in stop and go traffic, to quickly running rural roads.  With several drive selections from Eco to Sport+ available, the personality of the car can transform dramatically.  In Sport + mode throwing the car around sharp curves over undulating terrain is a blast.  A fully loaded Q50 Red Sport 400 should set you back around $55,000 although pricing has not been finalized.  About 20%-25% of Q50 mix will be Red Sport 400 models.

Rounding out the new powertrain news for the Q50 is the high volume engine which is a de-tuned version of the Red Sport 400 – a twin turbo V6 with 300-horsepower.  This will be on 50%-60% of the volume.  The Infiniti Q50 2.0t is powered by an all-new base engine developed with Daimler – a turbo 2.0L 4-cylinder with 208-horsepower.  This will be on about 20%-25% of the Q50s sold.  The power output of the 4-cylinder seems pretty anemic.  Other 2.0L turbo 4s on offer today are more common with between 230 and 240-horsepower.  Some even have as much as 270-horsepower.  Infiniti says only the basic engine design is from Daimler.  All the accessories and systems engineering were by Nissan engineers.  The engine is produced in Infiniti’s Decherd, Tennessee Engine Plant.

2016 Infiniti QX60-550px

QX60 Freshening Moderately Extensive  The QX60 is Infiniti’s mid-market family hauler.  It is in the middle of an SUV lineup that includes the flagship QX80 (formerly QX56), the “urban gorilla” QX70 (nee FX35/45/50).  Below the QX60 is the QX50 (nee EX35) and the upcoming QX30 (based on a Mercedes 5-door bodystyle).

The 2016 QX60 looks pretty much the same as the 2016 model, but it does have new front and rear styling that evolves slightly from the 2015 version. The grille and headlamps are new and now de rigeur LED accent running lights are part of the headlamp design.  Outside mirror-mounted turn signals are standard. The taillamps and liftgate are new, but look similar to their predecessor.  Inside, the seat trim is new with more intricate sew styles.  The instrument panel upper is softer and looks more appropriate for luxury brand vehicle.  Driver assist technologies abound.

Responding to criticisms about ride control and handling, Nissan upgraded the suspension.  While ride comfort was excellent, body lean in cornering was excessive.  The update to the suspension yields a vehicle that is more confident feeling, more nimble and lighter on its feet.  This is a very positive move forward.

While these updates to Infiniti’s mid-market entries are not earth shaking, they keep the vehicles fresh and up-to-date.  The changes to the QX60 are more extensive, but the powertrain changes to the Q50 will get the most attention.  Both are good moves.


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New Hyundai Elantra Gets Timid

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Hyundai Elantra at CastleCheck most of the boxes needed to win in the highly competitive compact car segment and the 2017 Hyundai Elantra does not miss many chances to excel.  Following the mantra of “democratization of technology” Elantra has most of the high tech infotainment and technology features available.  When you pop for them all, the retail price is $26,750.  This is a lot for a compact car of a decade ago, but not bad for the fully loaded Limited model of the all new Elantra.  For those not wanting or needing the full equipment load, the starting price is around $17,000.

Good Ease of Use  For a person reasonably familiar with today’s cars, the Elantra is easy to figure out.  It might not pass the rental car test where you should be able to start the car, turn on the headlights, adjust the radio and air conditioning system on a stormy night at Hertz, but it comes close.  Easy to understand and use are the keynotes of Elantra design.

Created to provide a destination for buyers wanting to downsize, Elantra has all the features with the possible exceptions of cooled seats and adaptive cruise control that brings you to a full stop and then proceeds when traffic moves forward.  For buyers wanting to upgrade, everything is there.  For a price.

2017 ELANTRA SEDAN

2017 ELANTRA SEDAN

Easy to Drive  Elantra is quiet, solid, comfortable.  It handles very well on aggressive back-California roads.  It is acceptably fast.  It has an automatic 6-speed transmission with its base 147-horsepower 2.0L 4-cylinder engine.  (There is an eco model available with higher fuel economy powered by a 128-horsepower 1.4L 4-cylinder turbo mated to a 7-speed EcoShift dual clutch transmission with limited feature availability).

The interior package is similar to a mid-size car of the prior generation (it is rated mid-size by the EPA). In fact, Elantra has about the same interior size of a Cadillac CTS and is bigger than a BMW 3-Series or Audi A4.  Interior materials are a notch above what used to be expected in this class of car.  The upper surface of the instrument panel is soft, but adjacent materials are hard while pretending to be soft.  The trunk is large, but accessed through a small opening due to its relatively fastback design.

Comprehensive Feature Availability  There is a 4.5-inch multi-color display between the gauges in the instrument cluster.  In the center stack, there is either a 7-inch or 8-inch monitor depending on features selected.  Both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto interfaces are avaiilable.  To enhance the sound of your music there is Harman’s Clari-Fi Music Restoration Technology.  Nice… very comprehensively done.

No Longer Head-Turning  Elantra is good looking, but not head-turning like its predecessor.  In the rear view, Elantra gets lost in traffic.  Its distinctive front view is highlighted by its large trapezoidal grille opening and LED accents on higher trim models.  Functional outboard vents in the front fascia direct air over the front wheels and help aerodynamics.  Vertical LEDs accent the outboard vents in top of the line models.  But overall, like the larger Hyundai Sonata, Hyundai has become more timid with its new compact car entry.

Elantra GT Coming  Coming in Fall 2016 is the Elantra GT with a 200HP 4-cylinder turbo and distinctive front and rear styling and unique interior trim.  The GT model will have a DSG


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2017 Bentley Bentayga – The Bentley Boys are Busy

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Bentley Bentayga Dune RunningBentley Motors of Crewe, England has begun production of the 2017 Bentley Bentayga and vehicles will begin arriving in the United States in May, 2016.  Ho Hum, just another SUV for an overstuffed market, right?  Not so.  The Bentayga is a very, very special piece of work.

Meant to Be Expensive and Is  Based on the Audi Q7 platform that will also bring us the next generation Volkswagen Touareg and Porsche Cayenne, the Bentayga is the most expensive and most powerful SUV available.  Starting at $229,000 the Bentayga is fully loaded with all the comfort, convenience and safety features you could want.  If you want the bespoke Mulliner picnic set from Linley, it will set you back another $28,000.  For another $28,500, you can have carbon fiber body pieces like the rear spoiler and rear view mirror covers.  Contrasting piping on the seats is $2,110 and the rear seat entertainment system is a bit over $7,000.  A typical Bentayga will go out the door at around $275,000 with an adequate load of options.  During a drive experience in Palm Springs in early February, the highest priced version I drove was $307,000.

Technological Tour de Force  While the price of the Bentayga is what most people will be talking about, the vehicle itself is very, very high spec.  Powered by a new 6.0L twin turbo W12 engine, the horsepower is rated at 600HP, but the torque is huge at 663 lb-ft.  Mated to a ZF 8-speed automatic transmission, a 0-60 mph time of 4.0 seconds is achieved.  For those with no speed limits to worry about, top speed is 187 mph.  The full time all wheel drive system is mated with Bentley Dynamic Drive Control; a suspension system that has 4 settings as base or eight settings with the All Terrain Specification for any road or terrain condition.  The key to this dynamic system is a 48-volt electrical supply for the drive system’s electronics.  During a demonstration at the Chuckwalla Valley Raceway to the east of Palm Springs one lap using “comfort” was fast, but there was more body roll than desired and the throttle response was a bit anemic.  The next lap shifted to “sport” mode and the personality of the vehicle changed dramatically.  Throttle response was instantaneous and the suspension seemed to invite you to dive into the corners more aggressively.  After four laps (not enough), grins for all.

Dune running with the Bentayga at Imperial Dunes near Glamis, California and rock climbing at Cahuilla Creek, it was possible to experience what almost no Bentayga owners ever will.  The vehicle is supremely capable, but hugely expensive and not likely to be exposed to the kind of treatment off road in sand, mud, or rocks.   Repairing the all aluminum body would be a bit expensive.  But, it is clear the Bentayga can handle about anything that can be thrown at it on and off road.  A truism holds that a vehicle in this class will not be taken off-road until the third or fourth owner.Bentley Bentayga and Jet

Interior  The interior is available in 15 colors (the exterior color choices are 17 base paints expanding to 90 hues with extra cost), but of course it is a Bentley.  If you want to afford it, they’ll trim your interior in crocodile leather or rattlesnake skins.  The seats are trimmed in a traditional Bentley style with diamond quilted hide and smooth leather.  The seats are extremely comfortable and provide good support when cornering.  The seating position is more car-like than in many sport utilities.  You have to step up a bit higher and you are sitting a bit closer to the floor than in other SUVs that have a more command-of-the road seating position.  Not uncomfortable, just different.

Driving  Driving the Bentayga, it is not immediately obvious that there is 600HP under the hood.  The engine is smooth and silent.  It has a stop/start feature for improved fuel economy and cylinder deactivation when under light loads.  All of this is seamless except for the occasional shudder away from a stop.  On twisty roads the vehicle seems a bit ponderous and very heavy.  Using the “custom” setting in the driving mode selector you can select a lighter steering feel that should make the vehicle seem lighter on its feet.  All of its power and torque comes on immediately when passing.  Floor it, whoosh, you are by and the folks you passed are watching your taillights fade into the distance.

The Achilles Heel  One of the most critical areas in any new vehicle is the HMI or human machine interface.  AutoPacific’s research proves it is extremely difficult to get this right and more than often a manufacturer has gotten it wrong.  As part of the Volkswagen Group, it would be expected that the parts bin would have given Bentley access to state-of-the art navigation systems and interfaces.  Bentley’s director of whole vehicle engineering stated “Luxury should always be simple.”  We agree, but the Bentayga interface is very busy and confusing.  The 8-inch screen in the center stack is already a bit small and looks outdated for a 2017 model year vehicle.  The graphics are extremely busy and hard to decipher.  Changing radio stations is a several step process and includes using a graphic slide on the touch screen monitor to scroll for stations.  We were driving prototypes, so sometimes there are glitches, in the vehicle we were driving the navigation system had the direction icon wandering all over the screen except where we were.  The smaller screen between the speedometer and tachometer and head-up display saved the day.  They were on target.

Business  Bentayga promises to be Bentley’s top selling vehicle.  For the past three years, Bentley has sold just over 10,000 vehicles worldwide.  The $1.3 billion investment in Bentayga adds capacity for 5,000 more units annually.  The United States should get between 25% and 30% of the production or between 1,250 and 1,500 units per year.  Wolfgang Durheimer, CEO of Bentley, says he hopes to be able to expand that capacity in short order.  The order books for 2016 are already full and waiting times are six months to a year.

Next  Bentayga launches with top-of-the-line features.  Next comes a plug-in hybrid version mated to a 6-cylinder engine.  That is followed by a V8; likely the 500HP twin turbo V8 found elsewhere in the Bentley lineup.  There may be a 7-passenger interior in the works for families wanting more carrying capacity.  A fastback Bentayga (ala BMW X6) may be in the works as is a smaller 2-seat sports car.  The Bentley Boys are busy.


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2016 Nissan Titan XD is a Square Peg in a Round Hole That Fits

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2004 was the year Usher had some of his biggest hits in the music world. It was also the year 3 Doors Down had their hit “Here Without You”. If that doesn’t ring a bell for you, 2004 was also the year that the Nissan Titan came out. You probably forgot about that one though. 2004 was also the year where Ford had the 6.0L Powerstroke V8 diesel with 325 HP and 560 LB-FT of torque.

Fast forward to 2015 and the Biebs and Adele are rockin’ the charts and Nissan FINALLY has something Titan related to talk about. Unlike Bieber, Nissan wants you to remember this truck: The 2016 Titan XD. With 310 HP and 555 LB-FT of torque from a V8 Cummins, the 2016 Titan XD picks up where Detroit left off. The Titan XD should be pegged as the spiritual successor to the heavy duty pickups of 2004.

The arms race power between Ram and Ford has amounted to pickup trucks that can tow over 30,000 pounds. Besides the need for a CDL to tow that much, that is a lot more truck than most people need. What if Nissan took the best of 2004 and the best of 2015 to bring a pickup that isn’t overkill in the power department at a more reasonable price than that of a diesel Super Duty F-250 or Ram 2500? The Titan XD is the pickup equivalent of a square peg in a round hole. It just doesn’t match up with anything else out there. Not a bad problem to have in a hyper competitive market.


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2016 Honda Civic EPIC!

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2016 Honda Civic F34 VehicleVoice2016 Honda Civic R34 VehicleVoiceCheap and cheerful is gone.  The 2016 Honda Civic sedan has raised the bar for a compact car to new levels.  After realizing that the 9th generation 2012 Civic was a dud, and quickly adding band-aids for 2013, Honda has gotten very, very serious with the all new 10th generation Civic.  In fact, for awhile there the automotive analyst and journalist community was sensing Honda was losing its mojo.  After updates to the Accord, the new Pilot, the HR-V and now the New 2016 Honda Civic, it is clear Honda is back.  Honda’s development name for the new Civic is “EPIC” Civic and it fits.  To achieve this “epicness” Honda benchmarked not only the usual suspects, but also the C-Class entries from Audi, BMW and Mercedes.

For reference, the 2016 Honda Civic has 5 basic trim levels:  LX, EX, EX-T(urbo), EX/Leather, Touring.

More Expressive Styling:  While still quickly identified as a Honda, the new Civic is much more expressive than any Civic before it.  The car is larger with a 3.0-inch increase in overall length and a 1.2-inch increase in wheelbase.  The car is 0.8-inches lower and going back to an old Honda trick, its cowl is 1.6-inches lower giving better forward visibility.  The car is lower and wider to give it the look of a more premium car.  The Civic adopts its own version of Honda’s evolving face using an upscale looking grille.   Innovative front lighting gives  the car a unique look.  LED daytime running lights are standard.   The top-of-the-line Touring model has LED headlamps as well.  The bodyside is creased as is today’s fashion with a slight bulge over the front wheels leading to a upper body character line ending in a muscular bulge over the rear wheels.  The C-Pillar has a sharp crease separating the roof from the rear fender.  The standard LED taillamps are huge V-shaped affairs.

2016 Honda Civic Cockpit VehicleVoiceInterior Much, Much More Upscale:  The front edge of the instrument panel sweeps below the windshield in a smooth unbroken arc from A-Pillar to A-Pillar and continue down the door trim panel.  This adds a sense of width to the car.  The instrument panel pad feels very high quality and nowhere near the hard plastic some cars in this class had in the past.  The seats are very comfortable – at least in the EX-L trim level with leather interior – and trimmed in high quality leather.  The instrument cluster includes a digital speedometer surrounded by an analog tachometer.  Nicely done.  Honda has paid a lot of attention to the transformer-like center console.  The conventional shifter is where you would expect, but ahead of the shift lever is an area for your cell phone or iPad mini.  Next to the driver’s knee is the switch for the electronic parking brake.  There is a sliding lid that reveals cupholders and space to hold an iPad.  Since all Civics have keyless start, there is storage for the key in the console.

2016 Honda Civic Instrument Cluster2016 Honda Civic SpeedoTwo Engines – Both Upgrades to Predecessor – Honda’s First Turbo in USA:  The base engine for the 2016 Honda Civic is a 2.0L double overhead cam 4-cylinder with 158-horsepower (the old Civic had a single overhead cam 1.8L 4-cylinder with 143HP).  The upscale engine is Honda’s first turbo in the USA, a 1.5L double overhead cam 4-cylinder turbo with 174-horsepower.  The base engine is available with a 6-speed manual transmission or CVT.  The Turbo is available only with the CVT.   The 2.0L I4 has more power than Corolla, Elantra or Mazda3.  The base Ford Focus with a 2.0L 4-cylinder has 160-horsepower edging out the base Civic by a couple of ponies.  The Turbo is bested by entries like Ford’s 252HP EcoBoost 4-cylinder Turbo in the Focus ST (manual transmission only) and 350-horsepower in the Focus RS, but those are rarefied enthusiast entries, not mainstream like the Civic Turbo will be.

Joins Democratization of Technology Club:  As with many car lines down the price spectrum, Civic now comes with a long list of available technology features capping out with its Honda Sensing system that includes adaptive cruise control with low speed follow, lane keeping assist, road departure mitigation, forward collision warning, lane departure warning.  Honda Sensing is standard on the top of the line Touring model and optional for $1,000 on the lower spec models.  Even the base LX is pretty well equipped with automatic headlights, auto up/down power windows, ambient interior lighting. LCD color audio system, electronic parking brake and automatic climate control.  You get Lane Watch and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto when you move to the EX model.  When you go the EX-T you get the 174HP Turbo engine, heated seats XM and HD radio and dual zone automatic temperature control.  When you pop for leather, you get an 8-way power driver’s seat.  Touring gets the full package: Honda Sensing, rain sensing wipers, LED headlamps, power passenger seat, navigation.

Driving the Civic Turbo:  Honda is, after all, an engine company and the new 1.5L Turbo shows that.  It has good power to move the car easily.  It is smooth and nicely damped from the interior.  The engine is quiet even when outside the car.  The CVT, a usually reviled transmission type, has been developed to a point where you cannot really tell it’s a CVT. While you expect Honda to provide an outstanding powertrain, it is the solidity, ride, handling and braking that set this Civic apart from its predecessors and many other small cars out there today.  It appears that they implemented many of the lessons learned when benchmarking European luxury car competitors.  It is that good.  No complaints on the dynamics of the car at all.

Pricing:  The base price of the 2016 Honda Civic LX is $18,640 with $835 destination and delivery on top of that.  The top of the line Touring Edition comes in at $26,500 with $835 D&D.  Comparatively, a 2016 Ford Focus S starts at $17,225 with $875 D&D. The Focus S does not have the feature load of the Civic LX.  It lacks a 6-speed manual transmission, automatic climate control and one-touch windows all around.   The Focus Titanium with (almost) all the boxes checked comes in at $26,125 plus $875 D&D.  So from a MSRP standpoint, the two cars are pretty close and Ford dealers are more likely to go for the deal vs. a hot out of the box Civic.

Now for the Nitpicks:  There are, of course, no perfect cars even though Consumer Reports contends the Tesla Model S is better than perfect.  Here are my nits for the Civic.  1)  The steering column adjustment lever is a long reach under the instrument panel.  Even though you might not use it often, it is tough to get to.  2)  Radio volume control is a slide on the touch screen for the audio system.  Might not be too much of a problem once you figure it out, but it would fail the rental car test.  3)  Blind spot monitoring system with cross traffic alert is not available.  Honda contends this is not now appropriate for the Civic class of car even though several competitors offer it.  It appears that Honda is depending on Lane Watch to handle this important safety chore, but Lane Watch will not help you pull out from between two Suburbans in a parking lot and warn you of approaching traffic.  Honda used a similar rationale on the Accord where Blind Spot Monitoring is only available on the top of the line. 4)  Honda has lowered the front seats by about 1.5 inches.  This reduces the hip to floor distance, creates a more laid-back driving position and hampers ingress/egress.  The higher seat height in the previous car was better.

Overall:  Great Job on the EPIC Civic. 

 


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Expressive 2016 Lexus RX350 on the Way

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Lexus RX350 SnoutsLexus Spindle Grille Gets Even Bigger  You might have noticed that Lexus products are getting a bit more expressive as the brand tries to broaden its customer base.  A bit more expressive may be an understatement for the new RX350.  The now-trademark Lexus spindle grille goes to new lengths in the 2016 Lexus RX350.  The gaping snout is so large that it impinges on the approach angle of the crossover SUV.  It is gigantic!  This is the fourth generation RX350.  If you can remember back to 1998, the RX350 was the first premium brand crossover SUV.  It started a trend that almost every premium brand has since copied – car-based, unit body, good ride, maneuverable, fuel efficient, quiet, good performance.

The predecessor to the 2016 Lexus RX350 was clearly a derivative of the Toyota Camry/Lexus ES350.  In fact the instrument panel was so plain it looked like it was right out of a Camry.  The styling was essentially characterless, but it remained the top selling Lexus.Bouncy Castle Pentagon Princess buy

2016_Lexus_RX_350_SVNew RX350 Designed to Broaden Appeal  Lexus’ top engineer described the new RX as being derived from the Toyota Highlander, but contends it is dramatically different.  Compared with its predecessor, the new Lexus is about 5-inches longer with a 2-inch longer wheelbase.  The character of the vehicle has been moved up a notch and the 2016 Lexus RX350 looks like it will easily remain the top selling Lexus nameplate.  In addition to the grille, the exterior styling approaches “wild”.  It has a “floating roof” where a black glass panel crosses the D-Pillar to give the impression that the roof hovers above the rear quarters.  There are character lines swooping from the front fenders, the rear quarters, the rocker panels.  Busy, busy, busy.

All of this new “interest” is designed to broaden the appeal of the RX.  Previously, the RX was primarily a woman’s car.  It was a car that took kids to school and to soccer practice and was seen parked in front of the beauty salon.  But the new RX is designed to also appeal to younger males while not turning off the traditional RX buyer.  Brian Bolain, the Lexus Corporate Manager of Marketing, says that research conducted by Toyota Motor Sales confirms that they have met the objectives: 1) keep traditional buyers, 2) attract more males, 3) attract younger buyers, 4) and with the F-Sport attract buyers wanting a more sporty look that is different from the base vehicle.

2016 Lexus RX350 IPIts instrument panel looks like it is out of a Lexus GS350 rather than a Camry.  The ingress/egress is easy.  Visibility is pretty good.  The seats are comfortable.  The interior trim is upgraded compared with its predecessor.  All in all, the 2016 Lexus RX350 comes across as completely new crossover SUV with more distinction inside and out that should appeal to a wider range of buyers.

Power Upgraded  The base vehicle is powered by a 295-horsepower 3.5L V6 engine that operates on either Otto cycle or Atkinson cycle depending on engine loads.  The V6 is mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission.  The hybrid RX450h has 259-horsepower V6 that when combined with the hybrid motors yields a total 308-horsepower.  The sporty F-Sport package is available on both the RX350 and RX450h. The F-Sport has upgraded interior trip, sports seats, unique grille and exterior ornamentation.  The F-Sport chassis is upgraded and an optional adjustable suspension is available.

Mark Levinson Clari-Fi Premium Audio  As usual, Lexus has teamed with Harman Automotive’s Mark Levinson sound system team for a very high quality premium audio system.  Using Mark Levinson’s Clari-Fi technology, the system analyzes and improves the audio quality of all types of compressed, digital sources like SiriusXM radio or MP3 tracks.  The idea is to fill in the up-to-90% of the original audio content lost through compression.  The system works very well delivering clear, full music, but what would you expect from an 835 watt, 15 speaker/12 location, 10-channel system.

Dynamics – Seamless  Driving the 2016 Lexus RX350 is seamless.  The ride is smooth, handling flat.  Performance is adequate.  It is very quiet in the cabin except when some road surfaces excite the Michelin Ever Grip Technology tires.  Ergonomics are good.  Circling back around to performance.  The F-Sport package is a trim and chassis option only.  There is no performance upgrade with F-Sport.  To really appeal to the younger, more enthusiastic male buyer it would be appropriate for the F-Sport to have power output above the 308-horsepower hybrid.  A 10% power bump from 295 to 325-horsepower would be nice.

The one bitch several members of the media voiced was that a navigation system should be standard on any vehicle base priced over $30,000.  Optional on the 2016 Lexus RX350.

Base price for the 2016 Lexus RX350 will be below $45,000.  The vehicle is still assembled in Cambridge, Ontario.  It will be in dealerships beginning in November 2015.


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Cadillac CTS-V – Brilliant Brute

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2016 Cadillac CTS-V SVThe new 2016 Cadillac CTS-V is a gentle brute of a car.  Loaded with every available option and priced nearer $100,000 than I would like (jealous, you see), the CTS-V can do about everything well.  Lumping through the quiet village of Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, children did not cower, mothers did not scream and pull their tykes closer, dogs did not howl.  Pleasant drive, even showing 22mpg on the readout.

The 6.2L supercharged V8 has all boxes checked.  Cylinder de-activation.  Gasoline direct injection.  Electronics up the wazoo.  Mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission that is one of the crispest shifting on the planed, the powertrain is smooth and potent.  640-horsepower with 630 lb ft of torque.  There is an electronic limited slip differential that guarantees the power gets to the rear wheels (no all wheel drive available).

Now, I normally do not test drive cars on a track when they require wearing a helmet.  Head’s too big, big helmets hard to get into car.  Cannot hear wll with helmet on.  Cannot see well with helmet on.  Headrest interferes.  But the CTS-V is the exception. And another opportunity to drive Road America’s outstanding road course cannot be denied.

Man, you can do anything with this car.  Blow an apex and it does not matter.  Just point it where you want it.  Lead car wants you to give chase?  125mph in a snap.  Braking signs coming up, theh huge Brembos (with calipers in matching colors) bring the speed down effortlessly.  Wow!  What a fun car to drive!

There are those among us who will say the Dodge Hellcats are more worthy.  After all they have 707-horsepower.  They are certainly selling above expectations with FCA cancelling outstanding 2015 orders and doubling production of 2016 models (better profits from a higher price anyone?).  I submit, however, the CTS-V is more of a piece.  More solid.  More capable.  More trustworthy.  And better screwed together.

Just do not check the Recaro seat option box.  Go for everything else.  On dealer lots in mid-August 2015.


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