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2007 Lexus GS 450h – Seduced By The "Electric Turbocharger"

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We all know that until gas prices go up to somewhere over $4.50/gallon and stay there for a goodly bit of time, the wonder of gasoline/electric hybrid technology won’t deliver enough in fuel savings to pay off the incremental cost of most systems for the average driver. So the reasons for hybrid interest lie somewhere beyond economy. Honda, purveyors of the Civic Hybrid and the amusing but impractical Insight, decided that the concept of a performance hybrid might have some traction. The company teased us with the concept of a performance-based hybrid in the guise of the Accord Hybrid. But for several reasons, not the least of which was the combo of less-than-earth-shaking acceleration with a $30,000+ price tag, the anodyne hot-rod hybrid Honda has failed to perform in the market. In the case of America’s most popular hybrid vehicle, Toyota’s Prius, the obvious reason for its success and buzz is the car’s distinctive styling that makes the petit five-door hatchback stand out for the crowd. It all but screams “I’m making a statement.” And in the case of the Prius that statement is one of saving the environment.
Beyond the Prius and Insight, hybrids are far less distinctive on the road. Pretty much all that differs the majority of hybrids from their conventionally propelled sister vehicles are wheels, badging and, in one or two cases, a specific grille.

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Invisible Lexus GS 450h Tests Consumer Demand for Distinctive Hybrid Styling
So it is with the latest addition to the Toyota/Lexus lineup of Hybrids. Beyond a set of chrome-trimmed 18-inch wheels, a small “h” on the rear and an even smaller Hybrid badge in its lower-body moldings, the 2007 Lexus GS 450h could pass for the V8-powered GS 430.
Jim Hall, AutoPacific Vice President and VehicleVoice contributor had a recent opportunity to drive a GS 450h during one of his frequent trips to the mother ship in California. Impressed, he coined the term “electric turbocharger” to describe the impact of the Hybrid Synergy Drive on the performance of the GS.


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Pontiac Solstice: Its Style Gets in the Way

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Driven at Home and On the Road
At AutoPacific‘s Detroit office, we recently had the opportunity to drive the Pontiac Solstice, though the rainy Michigan weather precluded any top-down stick time. This Michigan experience supplemented an opportunity to drive the Solstice in Oregon last August, in ideal conditions far from the daily grind. The 300 miles or so spent driving in Oregon (on roads chosen in part for their ability to help the car shine) included wonderful, sweeping roads and perfect top-down weather. Sunny skies and warm temperatures meant the top only came up for about 50 of the Oregon miles, and then only out of obligation to test it that way.
You can also check out a VehicleVoice video podcast of initial reaction to the Solstice by VehicleVoice contributor George Peterson at the LA Auto Show. Jim Hopson, Pontiac-GMC Communications Manager gives us a walkaround introduction of the upcoming Solstice GXP.

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My Disappointment
As the co-owner of a 1997 Mazda MX-5 Miata and a 2002 Audi TT coupe, my automotive purchases seem to always prioritize fun and styling over practicality and interior space. Our household tends to choose style and fun over practicality and function. With no kids, two-seaters are just the right size for my husband and myself. Two-seat convertibles prioritize fun and style over function and space, and we fully embrace the idea. On paper, I’m the type of buyer who should have already put down a deposit for either Pontiac Solstice or Saturn Sky. And I wanted to like the Solstice and Sky enough to recommend them over the Mazda, to be genuinely excited about a homegrown product. But I find myself disappointed instead.
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Driving the Audi RS4 – California Dreaming

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Pasadena to Willow Springs
The line of RS4s was waiting behind the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel in Pasadena under a fine mist of heavy California “coastal haze”.

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Grabbing the keys for a stunning muted silver RS4 my co-driver twisted the key (thankfully no start button like in Europe) and the 420-horsepower V8 rumbled to life. Luckily he got to drive the first (lots of congestion) half of the route from Pasadena to the Hidden Springs Cafe on Angeles Crest Highway. As navigator, I listened to positive descriptions of shift quality and engine tractability. After all, with all that torque on demand, you could keep the RS4 in fifth and negotiate most of the winding mountain roads from leaving the Freeway to Hidden Springs.
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By the time we had reached Angeles Crest, the day had turned glorious and the Los Angeles funkiness was left far behind. Now… for Willow Springs and some real driving. Switching drivers at Hidden Springs, I got to drive the RS4.
The dynamics of the car are outstanding. It goes where pointed. The engine sound is thrilling under full throttle. The ride is very well controlled but just a bit harsh – not unexpected with an aggressive suspension set-up and 19-inch tires and wheels. Nice ride – puts a smile on your face.


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Dodge Durango to Getty Villa on Day Without an Immigrant

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You might have known that months ago we had picked the “Day Without an Immigrant” – May 1 – to visit the Getty Villa in Malibu. The visit required a trek from central Orange County through Los Angeles to get to the Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica and then up to the Villa. Those familiar with getting from here to there can imagine the stairstep of freeways – 57-91-605-105-405-10-PCH.

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We gave ourselves two hours for the trip, piled in a 2006 Dodge Durango and set out to brave a day that promised two massive demonstrations in Los Angeles and others in surrounding cities. The Durango was perfect for the trip quickly carrying four from The OC to Malibu. The HEMI gives the power to point and shoot the big SUV into openings in the traffic, but we didn’t need it. There was no traffic… didn’t have to slow down once. Within 45 minutes we have made a trip that usually would be well over an hour. No traffic. Folks were avoiding the freeway and all eyes were on the demonstrations. Whew. The nice folks at the Getty were kind enough to let us in more than an hour early.
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Apparently, the 11 o’clock demonstrations in downtown drew 250,000 people and the 4PM demonstrations along the Wilshire corridor drew 400,000 marchers. This was enough to nicely empty the freeways away from the march routes. As we drove along, we wondered how our friends at r/comnetworks were doing. They were invited to video the earlier march from the venue of a Los Angeles Fire Department hook and ladder staged to respond to the scene.


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2007 Nissan Quest: Do the Interior Improvements Make the Grade?

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With the 2007 model year, Nissan offers an improved Quest, introducing the model at the Chicago auto show. At the time, we posted a blog that detailed the changes, but now we’ve had the chance to drive it for ourselves and can report back on the results of Nissan’s most extensive mid-cycle change ever. Along with the Versa, AutoPacific and VehicleVoice correspondents had the chance to get behind the wheel of the Quest this week. While I drove the Versa to the Jack Daniel’s Distillery, I drove a Quest 3.5 SL back.
But First, the Counterpoint
How many times have we researched minivans and people who don’t drive them say they are for soccer moms to schlep their kids from activity to activity? How many times have SUV drivers, clearly with a family profile suited to a minivan, refused to consider a minivan because of their image? How many times have men been embarrassed to really like driving a minivan? These reactions happen just about every time we talk to USA consumers about minivans.
After driving the Quest from Nashville to Lynchburg, I came away with a renewed appreciation for how great a minivan really is. Easy to get into and out of. Great visibility. Flexible interior. The Quest is very pleasant to drive and the major interior upgrade for 2007 should help Quest achieve better sales performance against Honda and Toyota competition.
If it wasn’t a minivan, I could see a Quest in my driveway. It has all the attributes I am looking for in a vehicle… but it’s a minivan. Lots of people feel that way. What will it take to change their brains?–G. Peterson

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Improvements Bring Quest Nearer the Target
There is no doubt that the Quest improvements are significant and will result in a happier ownership experience and, hopefully, loyal and repeat buyers. What these changes do not do, however, is to bring the Quest to the head of the minivan pack. Improved as it is, Toyota and Honda are still the segment leaders, with Chrysler’s minivan products still the total segment leader in sales if not image. Quest offers a better, nicer package than the minivans from General Motors or Ford, but that was largely true before this update.


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Nissan Versa – an Engaging Small Entry

Nissan Versa will be the third of the new B-Segment subcompact cars introduced in the USA by major Japanese manufacturers for the 2007 model year. The first was the Toyota Yaris, followed by the Honda Fit and the Versa hatchback in summer and sedan in fall 2006.

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Intrepid Journalists get download on Versa from Nissan’s Senior Manager Orth Hedrick

AutoPacific had the chance to drive the Versa near Nissan’s new Nashville, Tennessee, headquarters. As many manufacturers have done, the drive route took us from downtown Nashville to the Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg. Nice drive. Great roads. Since Lynchburg is a dry county, there were no samples and everyone had to drive back stone cold sober. But that did not dampen the reaction to the car.
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Versa is powered by a 122HP four-cylinder engine from Nissan’s new MR family. The sample we were driving was teamed with a CVT – continuously variable transmission rather than the six-speed manual found on the base vehicle (a four-speed automatic also will be temporarily available until CVT capacity catches up with demand. Then CVT will be the only “automatic” choice.)
The Versa is big for a B-Class car. Nissan describes it as a “B-Plus.” It has a spacious interior with 60/40 fold down rear seat. Unfortunately, the Versa does not have a passenger side folding seat back that would improve the function of its otherwise well-thought-out interior.
Driving impressions were positive. The Versa rides very well over the smooth roads outside Nashville but crashes around a bit when encoutering the inevitable potholes surrounding new construction. Ride control is good through the twisties. Cruising, the Versa is superb, but seems to be let down by underachieving tires when pushed hard through a corner.
We’d Like More Punch, but for what Versa is Supposed to be, Versa is Stellar
On the “Small Car Scale” – whatever that is – the new Versa likely is a seven or eight out of ten. We’d like more power and that should come in the future possibly with an SE-R model. We’d like more aggressive tires. Probably on an SE-R. But for an around-town runabout used for commuting and errands, Versa is stellar.
Versa’s price has not yet been set, but the range should be between $12,000 and $16,000.
The question inside Nissan is going to be, “How much volume will Versa take from the more expensive only slightly larger Sentra?”
Counterpoint: 6MT Driven
For the most part, I agree with my fearless leader’s comments, though I drove a Versa equipped with the manual transmission. While wind noise was at a minimum, there seemed to be quite a bit of tire noise. And though Versa offers lots of headroom, legroom, and cargo space, it is a bit on the narrow side. The driver and front passenger seats basically touch the doors, requiring Nissan to put the manual seat adjustment pulls on the inside edge of the seat. The seats, revised from those found in Maxima, were very comfortable and the design in the cloth seats is attractive. There are lots of soft-touch materials where drivers and passengers will notice, though padding on the door armrest feels squishy. Couldn’t it be more firm and still be covered in a material pleasant to touch? The center console armrest is soft-touch as well, but not as squishy as the door armrest.
I was not impressed by the six-speed manual, which was the only drivetrain I got stick time in today. There is a satisfying feel when it settles into gear, but shifting was a bit vague and getting to the desired gear, particularly on downshift, was not as instinctive as some. On the other hand, the manual does offer short throws and avoids the rubberband feeling one could count on from entry-level cars not too long ago. The new small entry should fare well in today’s automotive landscape at the prices they are targeting.—S. Brinley


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Driving the Mazda CX-7 – Driving Zooms, Package Compromises

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Metropolitan Hawk
We’ve reported on the CX-7 several times previously. In fact Mazda’s Jeremy Barnes was featured in a walkaround of the CX-7 in our second-ever video cast. Now AutoPacific has driven it in the rolling Virginia countryside outside Washington DC.
Mazda compares the CX-7 with the likes of the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4. They also mention vehicles like the Nissan Murano. Certainly, CX-7 may have some similarities, but it is a very different type of vehicle.

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On the plus side, CX-7 has very distinctive styling. Mazda describes it as a combination of sports car and SUV. They say it has the image and driving performance of a sports car – or maybe a sports coupe – and the utilty and capability of an SUV. CX-7 certainly looks different from SUVs and sedans. And it is a useful piece – functional.
Shinsuke Kawasaki, head of the Mazda product development team for CX-7 used the descriptive term “Metropolitan Hawk” to convey the sense of what he wanted to his colleagues. Yes, CX-7 is an SUV, but an SUV for the city. CX-7’s targets were to 1) have advanced emotional styling, 2) have exceptional driving performance, and 3) to suport a user’s urban lifestyle. It is an SUV for a person wanting individualistic transportation, not necessarily a joiner.
Its off-road pretentions are mild (using essentially the same AWD system as on the MazdaSpeed6) and Mazda did not provide any opportunity for off-roading. Darn.
CX-7 Powered by Turbo 4-cylinder
Mazda’s conclusion going into development of the CX-7 is that SUVs over-deliver on family and under-deliver on performance. Matching Mazda’s Zoom-Zoom image, Mazda set out to make the CX-7 a different type of performer. Surprisingly, it is powered by a turbocharged 2.3L 4-cylinder with 244-horsepower. Now, a turbo four is not what is expected in an SUV (except that Acura is launching the RDX SUV with a turbo 4 at about the same time), but this engine does pretty well. Little turbo lag, spritely performance, little torque steer. At high RPMs it gets a bit raucous – does not have the sophistication and finesse of a Volkswagen 2.0L Turbo 4-cylinder for instance. We would have opted for a V6, but Mazda’s 2007 CX-9 7-passenger SUV gets Ford’s 3.5L DOHC V6 with 265-horsepower. The CX-7’s turbo four is a clear differentiator. Not bad, but unexpected.
But there are negatives. These are not killing points, but if Mazda had really heeded the input from folks who want a more useful sporty car and might consider an SUV, they wouldn’t have missed on some important points.


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2007 Ford Explorer Sport Trac

The First Sport-Utility with a Truck Bed is New for 2007
With the new-for-2001 Sport Trac, Ford was the first to put a short pickup bed on the back of an SUV passenger cabin, then based on the Ranger just as prior Explorers were. The shape has not taken off like gangbusters, but Sport Trac has managed to sell between 48,500 units and 83,600 units most years, with little marketing support behind it. And its owners are enthusiastic enough to have created a fan-based web site (www.mysporttrac.com) and an annual two-day rally in June (Ford will support one of the two days this year). Along with the annual Louisville meet, centered around the truck’s production location, there have been regional meets all over the country. Since its launch, sales have dropped below 40,000 units only twice, and in 2005 this was in part due to a short production year.

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Not only are there enough buyers who appreciate this combination and enough opportunity for sharing components for Ford to keep it alive and bring us the second generation Explorer Sport Trac for 2007, some in the competition have borrowed from the playbook. GM takes on this configuration compete amongst full-size crew-cab pickups, and include the Chevrolet Avalanche/Cadillac Escalade EXT and Hummer H2 SUT, though GM adds a mid-gate for hauling even longer loads. Honda’s Ridgeline goes most directly up against the latest Explorer Sport Trac. If Dodge’s Rampage concept (Chicago, 2006) is any indication, they are at least considering playing in this group. The GM products are based on full-size SUVs and Honda looked to the Pilot for a base, though the platform was substantially modified. For now, there aren’t many like the Sport Trac in the automotive landscape, and it competes most directly with four-door crew cab pickups, as do Avalanche, Escalade EXT, and Ridgeline.
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In late March 2006, AutoPacific and VehicleVoice correspondents got the opportunity to climb behind the wheel of the latest Explorer Sport Trac, reaching dealers as these words are being written. Here are our first thoughts.


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Wheeeeeez! 2006 Buick Lucerne – Hurt by Details

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AutoPacific staffers were all prepared to tout the new Buick Lucerne as one of the products that will revitalize Buick and help the brand regain its position as the thinking man’s Cadillac. In many ways, the Lucerne delivers, but it is held back by some fundamentals and too-obvious cost reductions.
On the positive side, the Lucerne looks good. While its styling does not turn heads, the car is pleasant to look at. The interior is very spacious and the trim is well-styled. Outward visibility is excellent to the front and sides but somewhat limited rearward due to Lucerne’s high rear deck.

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The trunk is gigantic. It looks capable of carrying a set of golf clubs for every occupant.
The ride of the Lucerne is well-controlled and supple at the same time. Cornering is flat when not pushed. As Jaguar describes it, they would probably admit the Buick rides with “aplomb”. Quietness is a forte of this big car – nice job on wind noise and road noise control.
Attractively Priced Big Buick for Mature Audience
The price is very attractive. While base pricing starts at about $26,000 for the base Lucerne (including freight), you can load one up to over $35,000. The $35,000 car includes a 4.6L Northstar V8 with 275HP. The car we had for evaluation was the mid-range V6 – a 3.8L V6 with 197 horsepower and a 4-speed automatic transmission – with a price point just shy of $30,000. All in all, this Lucerne is a pretty good value.


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Saab 9-5 – Promise Missed

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Our VehicleVoice colleague Jim Hossack posted a blog giving his brief comparison of the Dodge Charger R/T and the Saab 9-5 sedan. Hossack was impressed by the Charger and undrewhelmed by the 9-5.
Saab 9-5 Compared to a Dodge Charger R/T – Unfair!
The fact that the 9-5 is priced about $5,000 higher than the Charger R/T did not help. While the base price of the 9-5 is about $35,000, the as-equipped price of the 9-5 tested was just shy of $42,000. The Charger R/T price was about $37,000 – what a deal. The price of the 9-5 is even more embarrassing when you note it is powered by a 2.3L turbocharged 4-cylinder engine putting out 260-horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. Not too shabby, but when you compare the more pricey Saab against the brute 340HP 5.7L HEMI V8 with 390 lb-ft of torque, 9-5 is pretty tepid.
Sure, the Saab’s turbo puts out more than 100HP per liter – impressive if you are a Euro-fanatic – but the sheer horsepower of the HEMI feels better in its delivery.
Yep, it’s not a fair comparison. The 9-5 is supposed to be a highly finessed European sport sedan and the Charger is a blatantly American large, powerful sedan without sophistication. Yet, somehow, for $5,000 less, the Charger is an infinitely better deal. And with the Charger at about $37,000 you even get a rear seat DVD player.

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With these kinds of comparative relationship existing, the reason for the existence of the 9-5 really has to be called into question.


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