AutoPacific’s Vice President of Industry Analysis, Ed Kim, has always had an affinity for small cars with a performance personality and a load of equipment. Our recent week-long evaluation of the 2014 Kia Forte5 SX seems to fit his requirements. The Forte5 SX is a front wheel drive five-door hatchback that provides a lot of utility for a small family. Its useful interior package is wrapped in a very nice looking and sporty skin.
Technology Laden Interior Standard The interior is full of Kia’s latest technology. Standard are heated outside mirrors with mirror head mounted turn signal indicators, automatic light control, projector headlamps, LED fog lamps, LED positioning lights. LED taillamps, 18-inch alloy wheels. Comfort and convenience features abound in the interior with standard AM/FM/CD/MP3/SiriusXM audio, UVO eServices Infotainment System, rear camera, Bluetooth wireless connectivity, cruise control, steering wheel controls, paddle shifters with automatic transmission, tilt and telescoping steering column, power windows/locks, air conditioning, leather wrapped steering wheel, the list goes on.
Advanced Powerful Engine The Forte5 SX is powered by a 1.6L Turbocharged DOHC 4-cylinder engine with dual continuous variable valve timing and gasoline direct injection. These engine specs place the SX model at the forefront of today’s advanced gasoline engine technology. Given these engine specs, the SX has 201-horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque driving through the front wheels.
So, without any options, the Kia Forte5 with a six-speed automatic transmission goes for $20,900.
More Goodies Can be Added If you want to spring for more technology, Kia has option packages that can provide it. For an additional $2,200, a premium package is available that includes a sunroof, auto dimming rear view mirror with Homelink, leather seat trim, power driver’s seat, heat and ventilated front seats, heated rear seats and heated steering wheel. Once you’ve popped for the Premium Package yo can decide to add the Technology Package that includes HID headlamps, 4.2-inch display in the instrument cluster between the tach and speedometer, dual zone air conditioning and a navigation system. That adds another $1,800 to the price. Destination charges are another $800.
Fully Loaded – <$26,000 So for less than $26,000 you can get a fully loaded Forte5 SX.
Spirited, Pleasant to Drive OK, we’ve talked about the impressive equipment level and powertrain under the hood, but would the Forte5 SX live up to Ed Kim’s driving requirements. Absolutely. This is a fun to drive small car with “spritely” performance. It rides well, has more-than-adequate power and acceleration and gets good fuel economy (21mpg city/29mpg highway). Not bad at all.
How could this car be improved? First, the interior is available only in black, so the tone of the environment is a bit dour. There should be a light grey leather seat option with door trim panels to accent the seats. The headliner should be light. These changes would open up the interior to make the car seem more spacious. That’s about it. Upgrade the interior here and there and the Kia Forte5 SX is an even bigger winner than it already is.
Audi A8 in a Smaller Platform For a car that is slightly smaller than the Honda Civic sedan and the Ford Focus sedan, the designed-for-America (and China) 2015 Audi A3 sedan comes across as a premium piece. The A3 previously was a slow selling hatchback. Now adding the three-box notchback with a trunk bodystyle Audi can substantially broaden its appeal in the USA. For decades, American buyers have perceived hatchbacks to have less safety (less rear crash protection – a perception) and less security (from bad guys seeing into the cargo area and stealing what is there). The sedan clears those negative perceptions and gives Audi a strong platform to build the bottom end of its brand.
GM’s 2015MY Full Size SUVs General Motors has launched its new-for-2015MY full size SUVs. While you might wonder why they care about launching these behemoths when the segment has fallen at the hands of expensive gasoline, these are mighty profit generators for the General even at relatively low volumes. Last year, GM launched the pickups upon which these SUVs are based – the Chevrolet Silverado and the GMC Sierra. When they were launched these pickups were criticized because their styling was so evolutionary from their GMT900 predecessors. But, it turns out that GM planners and engineers really know their stuff and the pickups have won kudos for their capability. The Silverado was named the North American Truck of the Year.
We at AutoPacific have just completed a week’s worth of driving the Thailand-built Mitsubishi Mirage. Now we know what drivers in a third world country experience when they drive locally assembled cars. And we don’t like it much.
Volvo Growth Strategy: Tony Nicolosi, new President and CEO of Volvo Cars of North America says 90% of the senior management of VCNA is new since he took over in October 2013. Volvo’s marketing strategy is also going to change with the arrival in January of Bodil Eriksson as executive vice president of marketing and new advertising agency Grey London starting in March. Nicolosi says Volvo will return to its roots emphasizing safety, the environment and the family. The marketing budget for 2014 is bigger by about 50% but its emphasis will shift away from television to digital messaging.
Prior to becoming head of VCNA, Nicolosi was head of Volvo Finance in the USA, so he is very familiar with the leasing game. About 42% of Volvos are leased, well short of the leasing penetration of Audi, BMW or Mercedes. Going forward, Volvo’s lease penetration should increase with more concentration on more car for the payment and regular replacement. This will give Volvo dealers the first shot at putting off-lease customers into a new Volvo.
Don’t Call it a “Crossover” Like Ford and other makers, Toyota has largely abandoned the distinction between “traditional” and “crossover” sport utility vehicles. “It was confusing our customers,” said Bill Fay, Group Vice President of the Toyota Brand. Now, Toyota refers to both under the “mid-size sport utility vehicle umbrella”. This might seem to be a small thing, but for decades (at least since 1997 when unibody “crossovers” began appearing) automakers have been making this distinction. The customers largely did not know or care about the difference, they just bought the emerging crossovers in droves.
Toyota’s Two-Tier Mid-Size SUV Strategy With the introduction of the 2014 Toyota Highlander, Toyota continues with a two tier mid-size SUV strategy. The unibody 8-pasenger Highlander goes into its third generation with the 2014 model year entry in production since early December, 2013. The body-on-frame 4Runner appeals to the traditional SUV buyer needing more off-road capability and towing ability. Fay says, “these are totally different buyers and the 4Runner and Highlander are seldom cross-shopped with each other.
For 2014, the Highlander gets more aggressive styling, a more upscale interior and a price bump of about $1,500. A lot of that price increase is offset by the Highlander having more standard equipment.
Interior Moves Upscale Toyota’s designers and engineers clearly devoted a lot of attention to the instrument panel. It is a neat piece of automotive sculpture with the most up to date technology. The base vehicle comes with a 6.1-inch touch screen. When you get to the XLE and Limited models an 8-inch touchscreen is fitted.
A “why didn’t I think of that?” design feature is a shelf running beneath the center stack and below the glove box. This padded shelf is the perfect place to set your smartphone while driving. There is a slot in the shelf that allows a cord to be connected to the USB port to power the phone and connect it to the Toyota Entune app system.
The seat trim is typical Toyota. In leather versions
The feature availability on the Highlander is impressive. Features like adaptive cruise control, cross traffic warning, dynamic grid lines in the rear camera are just a few examples of Highlander (and many other middle- and low-market vehicles) offering features once found only on luxury entries.
Comprehensive Model Offerings There are three basic powertrain offerings for the Highlander. The price-leader LE (about $29,200) 185-horsepower 2.7L DOHC 4-cyinder is perfectly adequate for around town driving in the Sun Belt. If you do not need all wheel drive and don’t need to tow, the 4-cylinder would suffice, but you probably won’t find one at your Toyota store. It will be 5% to 10% of the available Highlanders.
The bread-and-butter Highlander is powered by a 3.5L DOHC V6 making 270-horsepower. This is the engine that about 90% of Highlanders will get. It works sell in front wheel drive (with a good amount of torque steer under full throttle) and is required with all wheel drive (about of 60% of Highlanders will be AWD). The 3.5L DOHC V6 is available on the base LE model for an additional $1,305. Add all wheel drive to the V6 version and you increase the price by another $1,460.
The middle of the lineup includes the LE Plus for $32,740 for the front wheel drive version. The front drive XLE model goes for $36,040 and the Limited goes for $39,640.
Hybrid Tops the Lineup At the top of the line is the Highlander Hybrid making 280-horsepower with its Atkinson cycle 3.5L DOHC V6. The Hybrid is available in the Limited trim level and is priced at $47,300. Driving the Hybrid on the hilly roads around Carmel, California we saw about 30mpg – in line with its rated fuel economy. The throttle effort on the Hybrid was high making it difficult to accelerate with traffic without really getting into it. Maybe that is because Toyota wants you to drive the Hybrid like you have an egg between your foot and the accelerator pedal.
Evolutionary Improvements Meet Competition All-in-all, the 3rd gen Highlander is an evolutionary, but substantial, improvement over its predecessor. Toyota describes the Highlander as “Beyond Hero” in the SUV segment meaning it overachieves when compared to competition. They also describe its development as “without compromise”. It does not meet those lofty phrases, and although there are no WOW factors (with the exception of an absolutely gargantuan front seat center console), it will be a steady seller filling an important slot in Toyota’s lineup. Toyota expects to sell about 140,000 units a year in the USA from its Princeton, Indiana assembly plant while sending another 10,000 to 15,000 overseas to another 20 countries.
Early in its life, Acura was a brilliant attempt to establish an upscale Japanese brand that was a smart buying decision. The Acura Legend and Acura Integra carried the brand at first with the Legend being a very rational buying desicion vs. a Mercedes 300 or BMW 525.
Unfortunately, Acura lost its way when it went further upscale and changed from using names for its vehicles to alphanumeric nomenclature. This was a move that Honda insiders once admitted cost $1.5 billion in lost sales revenue and damaged the Acura image immeasurably. At the same time the third generation of the Acura range topper was launched replacing the well-liked Legend. This was the RL. It had boring style, was heavy, slow and expensive. It had completely abandoned the Legend’s Unique Selling Proposition. Wags called it the “Ruined Legend”.
The RL never caught on except with buyers heavily engaged in technology. Adding the Super Handling All Wheel Drive System as an optional drive package helped handling, but was very heavy. The engine did not have the oomph to handle all the weight. RL sales slumped into the range of hundreds per month – an unsustainable level.
Now we come to the introduction of the Acura RLX Sport Hybrid in Spring, 2014. The front wheel drive RLX was launched in early 2013 as a 2014 model. The RLX is arguably better styled than the RL it replaces. However, it is still a very heavy car (3,933 lbs base) and with its standard 310-horsepower 3.5L V6 it is a lot of weight to push around. The solution? Add a Sport Hybrid model as the new top-of-the-line RLX – the Sport Hybrid system adds 350-lbs to the weight of the car, but the power of the hybrid powertrain more than offsets the weight gain..
Officially, the hybrid is a mouthful – Sport Hybrid – Super Handling All Wheel Drive. The hybrid absolutely transforms the car.
With one of the most technologically advanced powertrains in the industry, the RLX hybrid puts out a combined 377 horsepower. Impressive. We won’t go into the details of the technology much beyond the fact that it has Honda’s Earth Dreams Three Motor Hybrid System combining the RLX’ 310-horsepower 3.5L V6 with one 47-horsepower and two 36-horsepower rear electric motors. The resulting 377-horsepower combined with the 7-speed Dual Clutch Transmission makes the car into a dancer.
Think of Disney’s Fantasia. The front drive RLX can be the dancing hippos in tutus. The Sport Hybrid with SH-AWD plus DCT in sport mode becomes a completely different car. A star. The transmission downshifts in the blink of an eye anticipating what you want it to do. Fantastic!
The Sport Hybrid adds equipment not available on the front wheel drive car: larger front brakes, electric air conditioning, power distribution monitor added to the 8-inch color display, head-up display, Chestnut wood trim, premium audio system with 14 speakers, electronic gear selector, unique wheels, smoked chrome plating for grill.
The front wheel drive base car gets 20/31/24 (City/Highway/Combined) mpg with a city range of 370 miles and highway range of 575 miles from its 18.5 gallon fuel tank. The hybrid is rated at 28/32/30 mpg giving city range of 425 mile and highway range of 475 miles from its 15.1 gallon tank. While the hybrid does get much better city fuel economy, its smaller fuel tank hurts its maximum range. Clearly the hybrid in the RLX is about technology and performance, not maximum range.
While Acura has not released pricing the the hybrid, the 2014 RLX with the top of the line Advance Package is priced at $60,450, $12,000 higher than the base RLX. Given this price range it’s reasonable to expect a price of between $65,000 and $70,000 for the RLX Sport Hybrid. Given the dynamic improvement the hybrid system gives the car, this may be worth every penny.
The new 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid joins the mid-size sedan hybrid wars with a two-motor hybrid that achieves 50mpg in the city (50 city/45 highway/47 combined). As one of the top selling cars in the USA, the Accord Hybrid has the potential to unseat the present leader Toyota Camry Hybrid (followed by the Ford Fusion Hybrid and Hyundai Sonata Hybrid in sales so far in 2013). Accord’s bragging rights are for city fuel economy – highest in the mid-size class at 50mpg. Fusion gets 47mpg in the city (and highway). The best-selling is down on mpg compared with Fusion and Accord – Camry gets 43mpg in the city and 39 on the highway.
About 20 American journalists and analysts had a chance to drive the Volkswagen XL1 at the Autostadt near Volkswagen headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany. Only 20 of the planned 250 vehicles have been completed to date and five were on hand for our drives. A Volkswagen engineer guided each drive through Wolfsburg and even included a short autobahn blast hitting the car’s top speed limited to 160kmh (about 99mph).
261 MPG! The XL1 is very special. First, it looks totally cool and highly aerodynamic. Volkswagen has been developing a car to achieve the European objective of 1 liter of fuel consumed per 100 kilometers driven for over a decade now. This equates to 238mpg using United States gallons. The XL1 actually beats this. It gets 0.9L/100km fuel efficiency (about 261mpg!). With its 10L (2.6-gallons) fuel tank this translates to a cruising range of over 600-miles on a tank of diesel.
How does it do this? A combination of small size, great aerodynamics (Cd=0.189), plug-in-hybrid 2-cylinder turbo-diesel powertrain and a carbon fiber body that weighs only 197lbs. To save weight, VW forgoes an on-board charger – at least for the first 50 in their production run. Adding an on-board charger (which would allow the car to be charged at a public charge station rather than a dedicated charger likely in someone’s garage) would add 8kg (about 18lbs) to the weight of the car. VW is considering adding a charger to the last 200 of the vehicles.
Staggered Seating The seating package uses a trick out of the smart fortwo design. The seat in the two passenger car are staggered with the passenger seated slightly to the rear of the driver so shoulders won’t touch. The XL1 certainly is not spacious, but for a hyper-miler it may be just the ticket. Seeing the XL1 out in traffic reinforces just how small the car has to get to achieve such great fuel consumption. It is tiny. It is about an inch lower than a Lamborghini – and those come up about to your waist. In traffic, it is dwarfed by other cars – even the small VW Polo and Lupo models driving around Wolfsburg. To its credit, and for better aerodynamics, the rear of the body is lengthened and yields a trunk of 4.2 cubic feet – about twice the size of the first generation Mazda Miata.
Advanced Powertrain The XL1 is a rear engine, rear wheel drive car. The diesel is hard-mounted just behind the passenger compartment. Given that location it is very obvious when the diesel kicks in. At least in the early models, NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) is sacrificed to achieve a total weight of 1723 pounds. The diesel is relatively noisy and with only two cylinders it vibrates quite a bit. The 5.5kw battery pack is mounted in front of the driver and on electric-only power the car will go 31 miles. XL1 uses a DSG (automatic) transmission from VW’s new MQB platform. If you really step on it, the XL1 will achieve a 0-60mph time of 12.7 seconds. With no power steering, the rear engined car is a bit heavy feeling but not objectionable.
Rear View Cameras – a Bit Uncomfortable Probably the most uncomfortable part of driving XL1 is rear visibility. VW has received an exemption from the EU to use rear view cameras instead of outside rear view mirrors. The viewing screens are mounted in the door trim panels just forward of the armrests. You have to look down left or right to see the traffic behind you. Takes a bit to get used to the design. You never really know where the traffic is in your blind spot.
The 2014 Fiat 500L is on sale now. Fiat unloaded the first boatload of 500Ls in Baltimore early June and by mid-June they had begun arriving at nearby Fiat Studios. Adding this larger four door vehicle to the Fiat line-up is very welcome to Fiat dealers who have been limited to the Fiat 500 albeit with two bodystyles and a multitude of models. The 500L is based on Fiat’s new “Small Wide” platform and shares nothing with the smaller 500 except for the “500” nomenclature and its engine. Like the 500, the 500L strives to be very emotional in its styling with cab-forward proportions and a long floating roof that is usually in contrasting colors to the body. Early on, it will turn heads.
For those who have not been paying attention, the 500L competes with the Kia Soul, Nissan Cube and MINI Countryman. It is available with dark tinted rear windows meaning it is classified as a truck. It is front wheel drive and powered with Fiat’s 1.4L Multi-Air Turbocharged 4-cylinder engine found in the 500 Abarth mated to either a six-speed manual transmission or Euro Twin Clutch automatic – a full automatic will be available in the first half of 2014. The 160-horsepower 4-cylinder has 184 lb-ft of torque. But the vehicle is much bigger and heavier than the minuscule Abarth and does not have near the performance. But that’s another story we’ll address later.
Big Car Room in Micro Car Footprint The real story about the 500L is its size. Think of it as a B-Segment four-door hatchback with a large car sized interior. It has panoramic view windows for great visibility. The seating position is upright and the seat is positioned so you can just slide into it. No climbing to get up into the seat. Once you are in, there is generous headroom and adequate shoulder room even for the largest drivers and passengers. The steering wheel has a squarish inner diameter so the instrument cluster can be viewed without obstructions. The ergonomics are good with controls easy to reach and operate. Fiat claims the 500L has best-in-class headroom, legroom, interior volume and cargo space.
Four Models – Pop-Easy-Trekking-Lounge The four models range in price from $19,900 (with destination included) for the Pop to $24,995 for the top of the line Lounge. The more aggressive USA-only Trekking model – shown above with the kayak mounted on the roof – is a step down from the Lounge at $21,995. While Fiat describes the 500L as the “Anti-SUV”, the SUV-like cues on the Trekking model are certainly a nod in that direction with more aggressive cladding and even a unique front fascia. While the Trekking model is USA-only now, Fiat says other markets like the model and are asking that it be added to their line-ups as well. The interiors are differentiated by material usage – hard and soft trim – and color. But each interior attempts to be a bit playful and engaging. Attention to detail is very good.