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2014 Toyota Highlander Wins AutoPacific Ideal Vehicle Award

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The all new 2014 Toyota Highlander is the highest scoring Premium Mid-Size Crossover SUV in AutoPacific’s 2014 Ideal Vehicle Award research. Highlander’s designers, planners and engineers knew what consumers wanted and gave it to them. The Toyota Highlander leads its category against some big name vehicles such as the Ford Explorer, Honda Crosstour, Honda Pilot, Chevrolet Equinox, and the Subaru Outback.  The 2014 Toyota Highlander also had a convincing win in its category in AutoPacific’s 2014 Vehicle Satisfaction Award research.

Toyota Highlander owners are satisfied with their vehicle and did not want it much different. Of the fifteen categories in the Ideal Vehicle question battery, the Toyota Highlander led in one category and was within three percentage points of four categories.  This shows how close the results were.  Highlander edged out second place Ford Explorer by a nose.

The top five highest ratings by 2014 Toyota Highlander owners are: same wheels, same exterior size, same ride/handling, same passenger room, and same interior lighting as now.

No vehicle is perfect and although the Highlander led in its category there are several things owners would like to change. Owners would like better driver visibility, more advanced information and entertainment system, more interior storage, and more safety features.

AutoPacificIVA Feature copy


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2014 Toyota Highlander Wins AutoPacific Vehicle Satisfaction Award

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The all new 2014 Toyota Highlander is the highest scoring Premium Mid-Sized Crossover SUV in AutoPacific’s 2014 Vehicle Satisfaction Award research. The Highlander finished first against some impressive competitors. Behind the Highlander are the following: Hyundai Santa Fe, Ford Edge, Kia Sorento, Toyota Venza, and the Dodge Durango.  This is the second year in a row Highlander has won the VSA.  It also won in the last year of its previous model.  Not bad for a “mature” entry.

The 2014 Toyota Highlander leads its category with thirty-one wins and ties out of fifty attributes. The Highlander also is within one tenth of a rating point with ten other categories. This puts the Highlander at the top with forty-one of fifty satisfaction categories – over 80%.

The top ten highest ratings by Toyota Highlander owners are: the vehicle and brand reputation, the perception of reliability and dependability, fun to drive, seating capacity, ease of loading and unloading, durability, vehicle ride, braking, and feeling safe while driving.

AutoPacific’s opinion of the all new 2014 Toyota Highlander is that it is better in all ways than its predecessor, but it follows the Crossover SUV formula pretty closely and does not particularly break any new ground.  One innovative feature is a shelf below the instrument panel spanning the width from the driver’s area to the passenger door.  Also fun are Highlander TV ads featuring Sesame Street characters – a clear attempt to attract families with young children to the vehicle.  “Mom, let’s buy a Highlander!”

AutoPacific VSA Logo Feature


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AutoPacific 2014 Vehicle Satisfaction Awards Announced

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AutoPacVSAlogo blogOn Monday June 16, 2014, AutoPacific announced its 18th annual Vehicle Satisfaction Awards (VSA), identifying the most satisfying 2014 model year vehicles on the market.  Other automotive awards provide information on defects – things gone wrong.  AutoPacific’s research looks at the issue of vehicle ownership in a totally different way – how satisfied a new vehicle is to its owner.  While it’s important to know how well a vehicle is screwed together, it is even more important to learn how well buyers and drivers feel about their vehicle.

The AutoPacific 2014 Vehicle Satisfaction Awards objectively measure owner satisfaction with 50 separate attributes ranging from interior comfort and convenience to fuel economy and performance. “Vehicles that score highest in the Vehicle Satisfaction Awards are delivering value and satisfaction across a wide range of attributes,” says George Peterson, president of AutoPacific. “The winners perform well in 50 separate categories that objectively measure the ownership experience.” An industry benchmark for measuring how satisfied an owner is with his/her new vehicle, AutoPacific’s VSA are based on the results of responses from over 92,000 new vehicle owners.

For 2014, the most satisfying brands are Lincoln, Top Premium Brand and GMC, Top Popular Brand. The vehicle – car or truck – registering highest overall satisfaction is the new-for-2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class that also wins AutoPacific’s second President’s Award for achieving the highest VSA score ever.  The truck with the highest overall satisfaction score is the new BMW X5 Premium Luxury Crossover SUV.

“With the launch of each new car and truck, carmakers try to improve the product and increase the satisfaction of their buyers,” explains Peterson. “By surveying a substantial number of owners who have purchased a new 2014 model year vehicle, The AutoPacific’s 2014 Vehicle Satisfaction Awards provide an objective measurement of how well the makers are doing. More than one-third of new vehicle buyers are positively influenced by objective awards based on owner ratings when deciding on a new car or truck.”

The awards in 2014 are much more diverse than they have been in previous years, with no single brand dominating the results.  Multiple top-ranked award winners are:  Chevrolet with four winners; Lincoln with three winners; Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Kia, and GMC with two winners each.

The brands that improved their relative ranking positions in 2014 compared with 2013 are:  GMC moving from 17th to 8th position; Lincoln moving from 6th position to 1st position; Ford moving from 25th to 19th; Chevrolet moving from 21st to 16th.  Brands with the largest drop in position were Volkswagen moving from 16th to 28th position and Jaguar dropping from 7th to 17th.

From a manufacturer perspective, General Motors was tops with seven wins and Ford had four wins.

“AutoPacific 2014 Vehicle Satisfaction Awards help vehicle buyers sort through an increasingly complicated selection of brands and models.  For the 2014 model year, there are 274 models and 32 brands from which to choose a new vehicle.  The VSA clearly shows the buyers which vehicles are at the top of the class they are considering,” says Peterson.

Top 2014 model year performers are:

PRESIDENT’S AWARD FOR HIGHEST VSA SCORE EVER: Mercedes-Benz S-Class

HIGHEST SATISFACTION PREMIUM BRAND: Lincoln

HIGHEST SATISFACTION POPULAR BRAND: GMC

2014 PASSENGER CAR WINNERS:

Premium Luxury Car

Executive Luxury Car

Aspirational Luxury Car

Luxury Mid-Size Car

Large Car

Mid-Size Car

Premium Compact Car

Compact Car

Economy Car

Sports Car

Sporty Car

Hybrid Car/EV

Mercedes-Benz S-Class

Lincoln MKS

BMW 3-Series GT

Lincoln MKZ

Chevrolet Impala

Kia Optima

Mercedes-Benz CLA

Kia Soul

Chevrolet Sonic

Chevrolet Corvette

Chevrolet Camaro

Lincoln MKZ Hybrid

2014 LIGHT TRUCK WINNERS:

Heavy Duty Pickup

Light Duty Pickup

Luxury/Large SUV

Mid-Size SUV

Premium Luxury Crossover SUV

Luxury Crossover SUV

Large Crossover SUV

Premium Mid-Size Crossover SUV

Mid-Size Crossover SUV

Compact Crossover SUV

Minivan

Ford F-Series Super Duty

GMC Sierra

Infiniti QX80

Jeep Grand Cherokee

BMW X5

Cadillac SRX

GMC Acadia

Toyota Highlander

Nissan Rogue

Hyundai Tucson

Honda Odyssey


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Honda Insight Killed, CR-Z Next?

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2001 Honda Insight

2001 Honda Insight

2nd Generation Honda Insight Fails The Honda Insight began life as a hardcore hybrid with futuristic styling.  It was so revolutionary, different looking and so purpose-built it never sold in satisfactory volumes.  The first Insight was a pure commuter car with extremely slippery aerodynamics.  There was no rear seat and the body tapered off into a teardrop shape.  The rear wheels were covered bodywork to improve aerodynamics.  The Insight actually beat the Toyota Prius hybrid to the market, but once the Prius launched, the Insight was blown into the weeds.  The Prius was more practical, had better performance and got competitive fuel economy.  No wonder the Insight failed.  After a hiatus, Honda launched the second generation Insight in 2009 as a 2010 model vehicle.  While the 2nd generation Insight was a better attempt, its sales peaked at 21,000 units in 2009 and 2010 before dropping to below 5,000 units in 2013.  A key aspect of the Insight is how poorly it fared in AutoPacific’s Vehicle Satisfaction Award research.  The Insight was always in the bottom ten of the ratings out of more than 200 vehicles sold in the USA.  Low sales and poor satisfaction do not make for a viable business case.  The car simply did not meet buyers’  expectations and Honda dealers had a hard time moving them.


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2014 Toyota Highlander – Meeting Competition

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2014 Toyota Highlander F782014 Toyota Highlander R78Don’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.

2014 Toyota Highlander F-Seat2014 Toyota Highlander CockpitInterior 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.


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Honda Accord Hybrid – 50mpg City – A Halloween Treat

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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.

2014 Accord Hybrid F34


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AutoPacific’s 2013 Ideal Vehicle Award Results Are In – Cars

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Background of AutoPacific’s IVAs:  AutoPacific’s Ideal Vehicle Awards for 2o13 are given to brands and vehicles that best meet the expectations of their buyers.  The person driving the car does not want it to be bigger or more powerful or have better info/entertainment systems.  Based on the results of over 52,000 respondents, the IVAs are owner-based awards that can serve to give car and truck buyers an idea of how well manufacturers have designed vehicles with their customers in mind.

As you read through the brief descriptions of the winners’ results you will notice some similarities where owners of most vehicles want change. Visibility  Among all cars about 29% of owners want better driver’s seat visibility.  Too often visibility is sacrificed for swoopy styling.  Roominess  About 24% of car owners want more passenger roominess than now.  Of course, some people bought a vehicle that may be smaller than they like so they want something bigger, but many are also reacting because passenger roominess has been sacrificed for style. Power vs Fuel Economy  Even when talking about today’s high gas prices, owners want good power and acceleration.  About 26% want more power and acceleration and only 7% of the respondents would sacrifice power and acceleration for better fuel economy.  Ingress/Egress  Going with the basic package challenges like roof height vs styling and rear seat room vs styling there is also ease of getting in and out.  About 26% of all car owners want their vehicles to be easier to get in and out of.  Info/Entertainment Technology  Design of the info/entertainment technology is one of the most hotly contested areas of vehicle design today.  Some manufacturers have a good handle on this, but 25% of car owners want more info/entertainment technology than they have now.  These folks are offset by 13% who want their info/entertainment technology to be simpler and easier to use.

With that preamble in mind, here are the Ideal Vehicle Award winners for cars  for 2013…


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New York Auto Show – A3 and Cherokee Most Important

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The 2013 New York International Auto Show was full of important reveals this year… renewed crossovers –  Toyota Highlander, Acura MDX, an all new Range Rover Sport, the new BMW 335GT, freshened Dodge Durango, the all new Cadillac CTS and many more.  The most important, however, were the Audi A3 and the Jeep Cherokee.  Why?  Both vehicles are very important to their brands and have the potential to generate substantial sales.

Audi Takes the Safe Route with A3: The 2015 Audi A3 really was not at the New York Auto Show.  The A3 will be officially introduced at the Shanghai Auto Show in late April 2013, but there was a reveal for about 120 journalists the evening before the first press day.  It will be launched in the USA in early 2014.

The smaller Audi A3 has anchored the Audi lineup with a five-door hatchback (“Sportback”) that never had much sales potential in the USA.  American buyers continue to perceive liftback cars as cheaper, flimsier and less desirable.  In Europe, the five-door is the preferred bodystyle primarily because European car-owners do not have the American-style family fleets where there is a vehicle for every purpose. For a one vehicle family,  the hatchback can carry out a multitude of duties.

Recognizing that to really succeed in the USA market, the 2014 Audi A3 becomes a much more traditional three-box four-door sedan.   This gives Audi an opportunity to really step up sales in the face of the upcoming front wheel drive Mercedes-Benz CLA and the already-on-the-market BMW 1-Series.  Audi did not stray from its own winning formula.  Audi DNA is present in the exterior styling and the interior with an A8-like sweep at the front of the instrument panel.  Very nicely done, but not one obvious risk.

The A3 comes with four 4-cylinder engine choices – 170HP 1.8L turbo, 2.0L turbo (we’re guessing at about 230HP), 150HP 2.0L turbo diesel and high output 2.0L turbo (we’re guessing at about 275HP).  The high output goes in the S3 model.  The Sportback will return in the 2014 calendar year with e-tron plug-in hybrid technology.

The A3 will not be a Spartan A-Segment car.  Audi is positioning it as a fully-featured Audi – just smaller.  It will offer Audi’s MMI system, 4G LTE connectivity and even Audi’s Bang & Olufsen audio system.

One key takeaway from the A3 reveal is that the car is the same size as 1994 model year A4.  A very successful car with solid sales results, the A4 was key in establishing Audi as a very desirable premium brand in the USA.

Something tells us that the A3 will not be an inexpensive car with its impressive standard equipment load (leather seating, bluetooth, rain sensing wipers and panoramic moon roof standard).  With the slightly larger Mercedes CLA announced at a sub-$30,000 price we are wondering where the new A3 will be positioned?

Jeep Cherokee Returns While the Audi A3 is a low risk opportunity for volume growth, Jeep’s new Cherokee is at the polar opposite on the risk scale.  Jeep describes the Cherokee’s styling as “polarizing” and it certainly is.  Mike Manley, President of Jeep cautioned journalists in a December briefing before the Detroit Auto Show that “you might not understand” the vehicle.  This was somewhat reminiscent of Wayne Cherry’s (head of GM styling in the late ’90s) statement that “you are too old to understand the (Pontiac) Aztek.  In Manley’s defense, he describes the styling direction for the Cherokee as “something that will be fresh in 2019”.  So Jeep has not taken this path lightly.  It is a calculated step.

What is so polarizing about the Cherokee?  First, it takes the name of one of the most successful SUVs ever produced.  The 1980s Cherokee was the first high volume SUV to add a 4-door bodystyle to the lineup and soon proved that 4-doors, not 2-doors, were the way to go.  The Cherokee had the seven vertical slot grill that is part of Jeep’s DNA, but it had rectangular headlamps that, while modern for the time, broke away from the traditional round headlamps Jeep used.

While the new Cherokee is relatively conventional from the A-Pillar rearward, its front end design is the most surprising and, yes, controversial.  Instead of round headlamps, the Cherokee has horizontal units styled into the front fascia and fenders.  Cherokee still has the seven vertical slots in the front fascia – part of Jeep DNA since the beginning – but they now are bent in the center giving the vehicle a more aerodynamic appearance.  The story of the capability of the vehicle is being lost in the commentary about its front end styling.

Under the skin, the Cherokee uses the same Alfa/Fiat platform used by the new Dodge Dart.  It has a 9-speed automatic transmission and three advanced 4×4 systems.  The Trailhawk model is fully “Trail Rated”. Think of Trailhawk as the Cherokee Rubicon.  Powered by a 184HP 2.4L Multi-Air TigerShark 4-cylinder engine, Jeep claims a cruising range of up to 490 miles and highway fuel economy of 31mpg.  The optional 3.2L Pentastar V6 gets 271HP.

Cherokee has a full array of Chrysler’s latest features available from its UConnect information system with an 8.4-inch center screen and programmable instrument cluster, new steering wheel controls, parking assist systems, blind spot monitoring, cross path detection and adaptive cruise control with stop and go capability. These features are becoming the price of entry in mid-size vehicles and even some smaller entries.

When Bob Lutz was a Chrysler he once said (of the early 2000’s Peterbilt style Ram pickup), “I don’t care if people love it or hate it as long as 15% of them love it enough to buy it”.  That may be the case with the new Cherokee.  A Polarizing design will certainly get people talking and writers writing.  So far, it seems that the negatives are outweighing the positives on the Cherokee.  It won’t take long to tell if the vehicle is a sales success.  It begins production in April 2013.


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2013 Toyota Avalon Shifts to Youngsters

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OK, OK… the new 2013 Toyota Avalon will not be targeted at teenagers when it goes on sale in December, but the age of the more than 100,000 Avalon hand-raisers has been about 52 years down from 67 years of present Avalon owners.  Toyota has a monicker for these people – “Trail Boomers”.  Toyota plans to double Avalon sales to about 70,000 units per year.

No Longer a LARGE CAR – Now Avalon is a Premium Mid-Size Car The 4th generation car is slightly smaller with much more expressive styling.  It goes a long way in changing the perception of the vehicle.  Based on the Camry platform, the Avalon shares much under the skin with the Camry and Lexus ES350.  The Avalon is the product of Toyota’s Calty Design Research in Newport Beach, CA and the huge and growing Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  It is, of course, assembled in Georgetown, KY.

The body and exterior are unique to the Avalon.  The front of the car combines a strong T-Bar upper grille with center Toyota logo with a (2013) Fusion-esque lower grille giving the car kind of a gaping face.  In the side view, Avalon is much more aerodynamic than its predecessors.  The windshield is faster making ingress just a bit more difficult for the older edge of its traditional buyer base.  The backlite is much faster too, resulting in a relatively short decklid.  Toyota describes the feeling of the car to be “athletic, elegant, intelligent and powerful”.

The Avalon is a bit smaller than the 3rd generation car.  That car was described as a Large Car.  The new one is described as a Premium Mid-Size Car.  Riding on a 111.0-inch wheelbase – the same as its predecessor – Avalon’s overall length is cut by 2.2-inches.  It is one-inch lower and a half-inch narrower.  The result is that most interior dimensions have been squeezed a bit.  Front headroom is 1.3-inches less.  Front shoulder room is 1.2-inches less.  Front hip room is 0.7-inches less.  Only front legroom is a bit longer by 0.8-inches.  The formerly generous rear seat room has sacrificed the most:  1.7-inches less legroom, 1.5-inches less hip room, 1.2-inches less shoulder room. Only rear headroom is up slightly by 0.4-inches.


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2013 Ford C-Max Trounces Prius V

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2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid

During a brief drive from Hollywood to Malibu and back through the Hollywood Hills to Sunset Boulevard, the 2013 Ford C-Max showed what a small hybrid-powered people mover could be.  Ford, of course, touted the clear advantages of the C-Max over its designated competitor the Prius V.  C-Max has 50 more horsepower.  C-Max has 7-miles per gallon better fuel economy through its third generation hybrid powertrain.  And, C-Max is priced $1,300 lower than the Prius V.  While earlier Ford hybrids had used a similar hybrid system as Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive, Ford was clear to state that the C-Max lithium-ion batteries are an in-house development as is the all new CVT (continuously variable transmission).


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