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Most Satisfying Auto Brands For 2016 – Tesla on Top

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This article was first published on Forbes.com on June 9, 2016

AutoPacVSAlogo450Tesla Tops Auto Brand Satisfaction for Second Year in a Row  Tesla owners are the most satisfied overall among all car and light truck owners according to the results of AutoPacific‘s 2016 Vehicle Satisfaction Award research.  The annual study includes over 65,000 respondents for 2016 and covers 273 vehicles sold in the United States.

Tesla owners are almost unanimous in agreeing the Tesla is fun to drive, powerful, eco-friendly, upscale, safe, distinctive and expensive.  These are not people who are really looking for the greenest car around, they want a car that makes a statement and can tear away from almost every other car when the light turns green.  The fact that Tesla has been the top-ranking brand in AutoPacific’s research two years in a row is testament not only to how much Tesla buyers like their product, but at how well the brand has been positioned.  Of course, Tesla today is a one-car brand and that one car has really resonated with its owners.  Things may be different when data for the Model X and Model 3 are included in the years to come.

Other luxury brands trail Tesla.  Cadillac, Lexus and Lincoln are next in satisfaction, then comes a surprise.

Kia Top Ranked Popular Brand  Kia is ranked fifth overall and is the top popular brand in the research.  This is quite a feat for a Korean brand that was just an asterisk fifteen years ago.  Clearly, Kia products are capable of competing with the best.  The Kia Optima mid-size sedan was third overall behind the Cadillac Escalade Luxury SUV and the Mercedes S-Class Luxury Car.  These cost about three times what the Optima would cost.  Kia owners see their vehicles as safe, fun to drive, comforting, a good value from a trusted brand.  While these attributes are above the results for the industry as a whole, they bear little resemblance to the magnitude of the Tesla results.

 Here are the top ten most satisfying brands:
    1.   Tesla
    2.   Cadillac
    3.   Lexus
    4.   Lincoln
    5.   Kia
    6.   Infiniti
    7.   Volvo
    8.   BMW
    9.   Acura
    10.   Mercedes-Benz

 

 


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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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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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“Trucks” to Continue to Outsell Cars – XSUV Segment

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500 wide Car Truck Sales 1987-2021500 wide Car Truck Mix 1987-2021AutoPacific, an automotive specialist research and product planning consultancy, forecasts that trucks, including XSUVs will be about 60% of the market for the foreseeable future.  In fact, reading the crystal ball for the next five years, this percentage of the mix may be low.  The charts above detail how cars and truck sales and market penetration have evolved since 1987 and the forecast for the future.

The hottest product segment in the American light vehicle market is the crossover SUV (XSUV).  A crossover SUV can be as large as a Chevrolet Traverse or as small as a Chevrolet Trax.  There are dozens of XSUVs in between.  And there will be more.

The XSUV segment has become so hot because this type of vehicle corrects the criticisms buyers had of traditional SUVs which sold very well, but were not optimal.  Buyers wanted products that were not hard-core off-roaders, but more civilized and city friendly.  The SUV market exploded in the early 1990s with the introduction of the Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee.  It wasn’t until 1996 that the crossover SUV began slipping into the marketplace.  First the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V appeared.  They were followed by the luxury crossover RX300.  Clearly the manufacturers were listening and reacting.

Here are just a few of the things we know about the evolution of the SUV market over the next five years…

Cadillac  Cadillac states that it has too few XSUVs (one, the upcoming XT5) and wants to add two or three more to its lineup while adding one more car as a range topper between now and 2020.

Buick  Buick is adding the small Envision XSUV to its lineup this Spring.  Envision is assembled in China.

FCA Drops Cars to Add XSUV and Pickup Capacity  Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is dropping its Chrysler 200 and Dodge Dart in favor of more capacity for XSUVs and pickups.  The Ram pickup will take over the FCA Sterling Heights, Michigan Plant when the Chrysler 200 is dropped.  FCA’s huge Belvidere, Ilinois plant will be populated by XSUVs when the Jeep Compass and Patriot plus the Dodge Dart fade away.

Toyota Pushing RAV4  Toyota Motor Sales has stated that they would not be surprised if the RAV4 XSUV overtook the Camry mid-size car as its best selling product.  Camry was the best selling car in the USA in 2015.

Lexus will add a 3-row XSUV above the RX350 in the next few years.500 wide SUV XSUV Sales 1987-2021500 wide SUV XSUV Mix of SUV 1987-2021

 

The charts above show the impact of crossover SUVs on the light truck market.  Huge volume increase and market share increase.

Hyundai Aggressively Adding XSUV Capacity  Hyundai is replacing 50,000 units of car capacity in its Montgomery, Alabama assembly plant with the Santa Fe Sport.  That drops capacity for the Hyundai Sonata and Elantra from 400,000 to 350,000 units per year.  Hyundai admits that they underestimated the demand for XSUVs years ago.  This capacity move reacts to market demand and dealer pressure to get Hyundai dealers more XSUVs that are easier to sell and require less incentives and discounting.

Hyundai will add 45,000 units to its Tucson compact XSUV volume this year.  Built in South Korea, Tucson has been limited because it is popular around the world and the vehicle was capacity constrained.

Hyundai also recognizes there is a hole at the bottom of their XSUV lineup and are adding a sub-compact B-Segment XSUV to fill that hole.  There is a possibility that a smaller A-Segment XSUV will replace the Hyundai Accent hatchback.


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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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Mazda’s Rotary Dreams – RX-Vision

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Heart of Mazda  The rotary engine is the “Heart of Mazda”, but unfortunately the company does not have a rotary engine in production now and may not in the future.  The last rotary engine was in the Mazda RX-8 which was dropped in 2012.  The rotary in that car could not meet the tougher emissions standards being adopted around the world, so the car and engine are history for the time being.  Today, a group of 50 Mazda engineers continue to try to break the code of rotary engine emissions, fuel economy and reliability – all very tough challenges.  With such a small group, likely with a limited budget, it seems like the hope for a rotary engine anytime in the future is dim.

Mazda executives mean it when they say the rotary is the “Heart of Mazda”.  Back in the late ’50s and early ’60s, the Japanese government was thinking of consolidating its automotive industry and Mazda was in the cross hairs.  Mazda likely would have been folded into Toyota or Nissan.  To demonstrate that Mazda deserved to remain independent the company bought the license for the rotary engine from NSU in West Germany in 1960.  Dozens of other companies licensed the technology as well, but Mazda was the only company to successfully bring the engine into production.11_RX-VISION_L15_RX-VISION_L

RX-Vision  That did not, however, prevent Mazda from displaying the RX-Vision concept car at the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show.  Widely considered to be the star of the show, the dramatically styled coupe  uses a rotary engine to achieve a very low hood height.  Using the latest evolution of Mazda’s KODO design language, the RX-Vision has an extremely long hood with the cabin positioned way to the rear. The proportions and scale are surprising from a company like Mazda.  In fact, the size and proportions hearken back to the days of the Japanese supercar race with the Toyota Supra, Nissan 350ZX, Mitsubishi 3000GT and the last Mazda RX-7.  That was an era when each Japanese company was trying to out-do the other with higher and higher spec sports cars.

The RX-Vision is a sculpture in “soul red” a paint developed to accentuate the flowing lines of the car.  Made to take advantage of shadow depth the color is vivid and head-turning.  The color also makes the car almost impossible to photograph and even the professional shots used here don’t do the RX-Vision justice.  It is a strikingly beautiful concept that likely will never see the light of day – at least in its present form.


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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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2016 Honda Accord Mid-Cycle Updates

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As Honda has done with the CR-V, the 2016 Honda Accord gets subtle, but important updates leading up to its August 19 debut for the sedan and August 26 launch of the coupe.  Adding the Honda Sensing suite of electronic features brings the Accord equal or superior to competition in terms of electronic driver’s aids.  Costing a mere $1,000 Honda Sensing is available on every model of the Accord.  Honda Sensing includes adaptive cruise control, Lane Keeping Assist, Road Departure Mitigation, Collision Mitigation Braking – all features that can one day be part of an autonomous car.2016 Honda Accord Touring F342016 Honda Accord Sedan R34

On the outside the Accord has new styling for its front and rear six inches.  The grille, front fascia and headlamps are new as are the taillamps.  This improves Accord’s slightly clumsy front and rear styling for the present car. Engines are unchanged with a 3.5L V6 and 2.4L I4, but the 4-cylinder highway fuel economy has improved by 1-mpg to 37mpg.  City and combined numbers are unchanged.  This improvement results from aerodynamics and friction improvements.  Overall, Honda has gone through the Accord finessing each system:  high performance shocks, better control for the electric power steering system, aluminum hood on the sedan, larger front disc brakes on the Sport and Touring models.

The interior has been upgraded with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto available in the Display Audio system.  The instrument panel has been upgraded with new gauges and accents.  The interior trim has upgraded materials and fabrics.  The center console has been redesigned to be more functional with today’s smartphones.2016 Honda Accord Cockpit

Because the 2016 Honda Accord is a high volume sedan and coupe, it can maintain pricing discipline.  The base LX model price remains the same at $22,925.  The top of the line Touring model is $35,400 including destination and with all boxes checked.

Just for fun, comparing the Accord Sedan to the Lexus GS350 yields a surprise.  The two cars are almost identical in size with the Lexus having a longer wheelbase for its rear wheel drive set-up.  Interior wise, the Accord is actually larger than the Lexus in several important dimensions.  Accord’s 3.5L V6 gets 28 fewer horsepower than the Lexus’ 3.5L V6, but it still feels good.  So saving about $23,000 getting a fully loaded Accord Touring versus a Lexus GS might make good sense.


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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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