Category Archive:

2014 Fiat 500L – Whelming

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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.


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2014 Acura MDX: The No Shame Crossover

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Acura’s MDX has been the shining star in their lineup for years now.  Having invented the three-row crossover, Acura has polished that shining star in their lineup for the 2014 model year with an all-new model.

I know, it really doesn’t look all that new.  Trust me, it is.  I’ve seen it from the inside out.  Everything you can’t see is new and even the exterior (YES, it is!) is new.  The MDX is a formula not to be messed with and Acura knows this quite well.  So, they made an all-new MDX but modernized the exterior a bit and significantly improved the interior.  The MDX is one of the few crossovers that has enough cojones that men of all types need not fear that it looks like they are driving a glorified minivan.


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2014 Mercedes-Benz E-Class Coupe and Cabriolet

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Very Nicely Done “Front and Rear Six” The 2014 Mercedes-Benz E-Class is a dramatic mid-cycle update that takes a relatively milquetoast car and gives it a striking personality make over.  The major change is a much more aggressive front end appearance including all-LED headlamps with integral running lamps.  The lower front fascia includes larger scoops and is accented by a chrome strip at the leading edge of the front air dam.  Given these are the sporty models of the E-Class, the coupe and cabriolet include Mercedes’ bold three pointed star in the grille opening.  All-in-all, the front appearance change practically makes the E-Class coupe and cabriolet look like all-new cars.


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2013 Fiat 500e

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Some naysayers are already preparing their eulogies for the electric car. They say that have failed. They say that consumers don’t want them. They say the market’s not ready for them. Our view?  To date, they’ve been a tough sell, but there’s some real progress being made. We’re not ready to start cuing Mozart’s Requiem just yet.

Consider if you will the new Fiat 500e, the Italian brand’s new entry into the electric car segment.  It’s great to look at. It’s fun to drive. It’s quick. It’s well equipped with lots of features. And the whole package incorporates some very convincing and innovative motivators to consider one.

From our point of view, there are two major reasons why electric cars haven’t taken off yet. One is price. Electric cars cost far more than their gasoline powered counterparts. The other is range anxiety. Consumers are (rightly) concerned that electric cars won’t get them where they need to go and that they could be left stranded, with no backup in sight.


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2013 Taurus SEL – Veiling Glare Disaster

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The setting is a brightly sunny day in Southern California with a new 2013 Ford Taurus SEL.  The Taurus has a tilted center screen and bright instrument panel applique in front of the passenger seat.  Additionally, there is a bright “racetrack” around the instrument cluster in front of the driver.  Frankly, in high ambient light load conditions, this is a disaster of veiling glare.  This is when the interior materials reflect the sunlight and either distract the driver or temporarily blind them.

Ford’s MyFordTouch system uses a touchscreen center screen.  This is good, but it shows finger prints and with the way the screen is situated in the Taurus it is particularly objectionable.  When reversing and trying to use the back-up camera, the sun washed out the backup image and the fingerprints further obscured the view.

In Googling “Veiling Glare”, I found an SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) paper titled “Fundamental Issues of Automotive Veiling Glare” written by Ford Engineers in conjunction with the University of Florida back in 1997.  Clearly, they understand the issue, but did not use their own institutional knowledge when launching this model of the Taurus SEL.

Veiling glare is a situation mostly missed by European manufacturers developing cars in gloomy, overcast conditions.  American manufacturers, even those developing their products in the Mid-West, usually don’t miss this. 

Smaller EcoBoost 4-Cylinder Transforms Taurus into a Much More Nimble Product While glare is more than a nitpick issue with the SEL, the car powered by the 2.0L gasoline direct injection turbocharged 4-cylinder engine with EcoBoost giving 240HP and 270 lb-ft of torque was very nimble.  Much moreso than the Taurus with the 3.5L V6 – even in 3.5L V6 EcoBoost form.  The car still suffers from an interior too small for the exterior size of the car, but it is good looking and well-appointed.


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2014 Lexus IS Ready to Take on the Germans?

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Almost There – IS350 F-Sport Nears 335i Performance Feel The all new 3rd Generation Lexus IS is a near luxury sport sedan to be launched during June 2013 as a 2014 model year entry (the 2013 IS C hardtop convertible based on the 2nd Gen IS continues for another year selling along side the 4-door sedan) .  The major question is whether it is ready to take on the Germans in its class.  To answer that question, Lexus served up three IS350 F-Sports, a BMW 335i and Mercedes C350 and a nice little track outside Austin, Texas – Driveway Austin Motorsports.  You could drive each car for two laps per outing as many times as you wanted or time allowed.  The conclusion is that the BMW retains the Ultimate Driving Machine crown, the IS350 F-Sport is very, very civilized and competitive, and the C350 approaches land barge category.  The 335i is very sporty, very precise and tuned for performance.  The IS achieves its competitive position only when you opt for the IS350 with the F-Sport package giving the car upgraded suspension and steering.  The more mundane IS models – IS250 and IS350 – are softer and more tuned to the casual driver.  But, the F-Sport is a gas to drive. Unfortunately, an Audi A4 was not available for the track exercise.  It would have provided an interesting comparison.

So, with the excitement of the track experience out of the way, we were able to drive the IS on the great Texas Hill Country roads around the area.


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2014 Mitsubishi Outlander Goes Mainstream

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The 3rd generation Mitsubishi Outlander will be introduced in mid-2013 as a 2014 model year product.  The new Outlander is based on carryover architecture, but has all new sheetmetal giving it a much more mainstream look.  Where its predecessor has a very distinctive front end theme – admittedly controversial because of its “shark nose” style – the new Outlander goes decidedly mainstream.  This is an example of Mitsu taking a very conservative approach and attempting to sell a style that no one will find controversial.

Viewed from a lower angle, the lower grille opening reminds some of Lightning McQueen in Disney/Pixar’s Cars movies.  The key distinguishing feature for the new exterior style other than the toned-down front six inches is the deep character line stretching from the front fender through the doors and ending at the rear quarter. There is a horizontal bright trim piece on the liftgate stretching between the taillamps that looks like a bit of an afterthought.

Overall, the new Outlander is not displeasing, it just doesn’t grab you with its styling.  For a vehicle Mitsubishi hopes will be a strong seller, the Outlander blends in rather than stand out.  One way to make a statement is through pricing and it appears that Mitsubishi will drop the base price of the Outlander while adding equipment providing a stronger value statement.


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2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Upgraded… Great Gets Greater

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Award Winner Gets Major Changes After Only Three Years The 2012 Grand Cherokee has been arguably the best affordable “real” SUV on the market since the latest generation was launched for the 2011 model year.  The Grand Cherokee was so good that its owners rated it higher enough against its competition to win AutoPacific’s Vehicle Satisfaction Award in 2011 and 2012 AND AutoPacific’s Ideal Vehicle Award in 2011 and 2012!  This sweep in these tough-to-win owner awards is testament to the excellence of the Grand Cherokee.

Developed in Time of Hardship The 2011 Grand Cherokee was developed during the dark days of the reign of Cerberus Capital Management.   Their ownership of Chrysler steered the firm to the bankruptcy courts and a bailout by the U.S. and Canadian government, UAW and CAW.  Ultimately, Fiat took control of Chrysler and Jeep and the firm is now prospering.  It is surprising that under the eyes of Cerberus, the 2011 Grand Cherokee turned out to be such a good vehicle.

Best Gets Better Like other Chrysler products (Chrysler 300, Chrysler 200, Dodge Charger, Ram 1500), Jeep’s product team has reinvigorated the vehicle but mostly under the skin.  The front fascia is new.  Taillamps are new.  A couple of wheel designs are new.  And the interiors are new and much more upscale.  Grand Cherokee gets Chrysler’s latest iteration of its excellent and easy to use UConnect system.  Gone is the 5-speed automatic transmission replaced by a silky smooth 8-speed unit.  A 240HP 3.0L V6 diesel is available for the first time.  So, the Grand Cherokee is a substantially upgraded version of the 2011 vehicle.  And it works!


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Audi S8 – $126,000 Hot Rod

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A large sedan with a 4.0L 520-horsepower twin turbocharged V8, the Audi S8 provides a compelling package for a quick blast from Orange County to Laughlin, Nevada swapping Interstates for surface roads and Route 66 – the “Main Street of America”.  Think of this as a familiarization trip to get fully acquainted with the interactive technologies of the S8.  Most of it has to do with the multi-media interface (MMI) with navigation, audio, phone and even seat adjustments shown on the center screen.  Audi’s NAV system includes a Google Earth view that lost its terrain view data over the desert, but that was not Audi’s fault, just that the Google folks have not gotten around to mapping uninhabited terrain much.  BTW, the S8 is rated at 15-mpg in the City and 26-mpg on the highway.  Returning from Laughlin resulted in 24-mpg.  Not bad at 75-mph cruising speeds.

Adaptive Cruise Control with Stop and Go Really Works Spending more time on Interstates on the return, the S8’s adaptive cruise control system really came into its own.  Even in very heavy traffic descending the Cajon Pass in San Bernardino County the cruise maintained speed and distance.  The spacing was a bit long and a few times someone would slip into the space causing the Audi to brake to adjust the distance again.  When traffic slowed to a stop, so did the S8.  This trip made me a believer in these advanced cruise control systems.

Two-Laners a Snap Admittedly, Route 66 is pretty deserted these days, even on a Saturday, but there are usually double yellow lines preventing passing.  When passing is allowed, inevitably there is a car approaching too soon.  Or is it?  A car with 520-horsepower gives you the confidence to punch it and go.  In the auto industry, there is a measurement called TED – Time Exposed to Danger.  This is usually the time to accelerate from 50-mph to 70-mph.  Well in the Audi, TED is very short almost feeling instantaneous from 50-mph to 80-mph.  Going to full throttle in the S8 generates an outstanding grumble from the exhaust.  I bet the cars passed by the S8 at full throttle were impressed when it flashed by.  Yeehaw!

Comfort Seats are the Ticket If you read the VehicleVoice reviews of the S7 written last week, you’ll remember that we were not particularly impressed with the sport seats in the car and noted that comfort seats were available as a $1,950 option.  Well, they are standard in the S8 and come with 22-way adjustment.  With these seats you can back off the bolsters to provide more spacious seating and get a massage at the same time.  When you are adjusting either front seat from the side-of-the-seat controls, a graphic appears on the center display showing you what adjustments you are making.  Nice.

Ride Quality Suffers With Aggressive Tires The S8, being the performance package for the S8, is set up for spirited driving with very aggressive 21-inch 35 aspect ratio Continental summer tires.  Even selecting the “Comfort” (rather than “Auto” or “Dynamic”) setting on the vehicle dynamics system resulted in a busy choppy ride at low speeds.  At higher speeds – lets admit to ten or fifteen mph over the speed limit at times – the car felt much more at home absorbing irregularities with ease.


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Audi S7 Beautiful, but Difficult to Drive Smoothly

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We began this year with a string of new high performance Audi sedans – S6, S7 and S8.  We have not gotten to the S8 yet, but the S6 and S7 are pretty similar cars so lets concentrate on the S7 fastback.  Think of the A7/S7 as Audi’s answer to the Mercedes CLS and the BMW 6-Series Grand Coupe.  The S7 is a four-door coupe with a very fast backlite and large rear hatch.  Opening the rear hatch reveals a huge rear cargo area.  While the S7 has a very sporty profile, its design has sacrificed ingress/egress in the front and especially rear seats.  The style limits rear seat headroom and the legroom in the rear is also down a bit from the three box S6 sedan.

Interior Par for the course, the S7’s sport interior is special with great attention to detail, great fit and finish and a very upscale ambiance.

No Fingerprints, Please Audi ‘s multi media interface (MMI) continues with controls on the center console not a touchscreen.  The Audi MMI is easy to use and somewhat intuitive once you have used it a few times, but it would fail the rental car test (unfamiliar car in a rental car lot at midnight in the driving rain).  Unlike its brethren Volkswagen and Porsche that now use touchscreens, Audi has stayed away from them because fingerprints on the screen are unsightly.

Get the Comfort Seat Package In the S7, the black and lunar silver interior is tasteful, but the seat bolsters are too aggressive for casual driving.  At this price, the seats in the S7 should have power adjustable cushion and back bolsters so you can have either a very supportive seat that you fit snugly in or a wide open seat that lets you move around however you want to.  Sure the “S cars” are sport performance models, but at $94,570 for the S7, there should be loads of comfort as well.  Recognizing this, Audi offers a comfort seat option for $1,950 that provide heating, cooling, massage and memory functions.  Unfortunately, the comfort seats are available only in black Valcona leather not the silver/white leather in the evaluation S7.

Featherlight Toe on the Accelerator But the sport seats weren’t the only thing that presented a problem.  The S-Cars are powered by a 420-horsepower 4.0L V8 with twin turbochargers and cylinder on demand.  Mated to a 7-speed automatic transmission and Audi’s great Quattro all wheel drive system, this car should be a real pleasure to drive.  Lots of horsepower and torque.  Effortless V8 with turbos!  Wow.  But it isn’t a pleasure to drive.  Tip-in the accelerator and there is a hesitation that makes you shy about merging into traffic from a stop unless you stomp on it.  Maybe it’s the performance setting in the MMI?  Comfort?  The same.  Auto?  The same.  Dynamic?  The same… even worse.  Once you get the S7 rolling, it is delightful.  The throaty rumble of the engine is joyous.  But getting up to speed takes a featherlight touch of the toe to do smoothly.

So, the S7 is really for a person who wants upscale coupe styling and a lot of power.  It’s not for a person who needs to provide rear seat space or comfort.  The S7 is a car that turns heads and likes to be driven at speed, but it is a touchy low speed cruiser.


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