Thursday, November 3, 2016

The New Steed (Again!?)

"Hmm, there's definitely more chassis than engine here."

After a few months of wheeling my new Ford Fusion during the daily grind, this is the statement that defines the driving experience. There's a solid platform underneath the car's attractive body but merely adequate engine to keep it moving. But wait a second, what happened to that black Lexus IS300 Sportcross? What's with the blue Ford? Let's get to it.

After a few months of Lexus ownership the IS300, unfortunately, started showing the effects of a prolonged stint on the dealer lot. You have to remember that in this wagon-averse country we live, an IS300 Sportcross gets quickly overlooked for the crossover/SUV sitting next to it. To count the number of repairs I've had to do over those months, I was understandably hyper vigilant to any weird noises and cues the car would make during any drive. One example was stretching its legs on a road trip to Orlando for a family event. Having completed replacement of the timing belt, water pump, thermostat and getting the OK from my repair shop on the belts and hoses, I felt pretty good that all the IS300's demons had been exorcised. Stopping at a rest area just short of my destination for a unscheduled bathroom break, I popped the hood to check the internals were still tied together. Turns out the car was STILL leaking coolant and from my quick inspection, the radiator (which was replaced the same day the car was bought) had a small leak. We did eventually make it to Orlando (having bought two bottles of coolant as an assurance) and on the return trip I tried a dollop of radiator leak sealant as a quick fix to get the car home.

T'was good while it lasted 

Needless to say, my outlook on a long term affair with the Sportcross was rocky at best. Visual coolant and general engine checks became a familiar morning routine before starting my commutes. The last straw came while doing one of these checks that I noticed brown, mayonnaise-like goo underneath the radiator cap. At first I thought nothing of it but after seeing the goo pop up repeatedly, I started to become worried. Online searches indicated what I feared most, the very early beginnings of a head gasket failure. Normally this substance would be found under the oil cap but the IS300 showed no sign of this in that location and the oil was clean. Befuddled, I took the car to the repair shop where Frank (really great guy, look up his repair shop here) pretty much confirmed it as very minor head gasket leak. Yup, it's clear, the car's gotta go. Premature? Maybe, but noticing how my anxiety level rose ever so slightly while driving it, I felt justified. My good intentions of buying a low mileage, older car with such a rare quality ultimately backfired. Not even the prospect of upgrading the car's systems deterred my decision to sell it. So, I sold it and I have to say, I didn't lose too much (obviously the funds I sank into its tumultuous maintenance are lost).

Now, on to the new STEED.

Two days after selling the ill-fated Lexus, I welcomed my very first American-branded car to the garage. After browsing the usual used car websites and listings, I came upon this 2013 Ford Fusion SE located in Stuart, just over an hour away. Having had no luck the day before and almost falling victim to predatory salesmen and finance people (koff-HGREG-koff), I figured I didn't have much to lose by venturing outside my locale. The car had relatively low miles, the Carfax and Autocheck websites reported a clean and meticulously maintained history and while it may not be the ultra luxurious Titanium model, it was otherwise well equipped. Reading and watching reviews on the Fusion alluded to a Euro-designed Ford with attractive sheetmetal, a solid chassis with pseudo-sporting intentions and great fuel economy. While I was lukewarm to the MyFord Touch infotainment system based on previous cars reviewed, I applauded the placement of volume and tuning knobs. The other gives-me-pause moment came from the engine bay. This particular SE came equipped with the Ecoboost 1.6L turbocharged four cylinder and while it got good reviews for excellent fuel economy and having satisfactory power for the mainstream buyer, you, my readers, know I'm anything but mainstream. I was hoping to bag the more powerful 240 hp turbocharged 2.0L but I figured I'd be OK with the 179 hp/184 lb-ft of the 1.6L. Wouldn't know until I drove the thing.

And drove it I did.

The Fusion demonstrated admirably road manners. The platform was rock solid, almost Germanic in its stout and planted feel. My girlfriend came along for the test drive and she gave thumbs up for the ride quality. Taking some backroads, the Fusion wasn't as dive-for-the-corners maneuverable as the Sportcross (or even the Mazda6) but it never lost its footing. There would be an initial body heave when diving for a corner but then the SE's slightly starchier suspension would settle, enabling the Fusion to stay planted all the way through. Quick left-right movements of the steering indicated notable room for improvement and the 18" wheels and tires never protested, even as terminal understeer approached. That said, the weakest link in the Fusion's excellent chassis would have to be the engine. There just isn't enough oomph available to take advantage of the Fusion's good road manners. Making a comparison, getting the Lexus IS300 to accelerate at speed required the 5 speed auto to hold a town hall meeting before deciding on the correct gear before the engine came into play. On the other hand, the Fusion's newer 6 speed automatic was a willing partner, offering decently quick downshifts, if only the engine could muster more power. Getting the 1.6L anywhere above 4500rpm results in more noise than forward motion. This results in not being able to squirt into holes in traffic I could most certainly get into with the Mazda (and to an extent, the Lexus). By the time the engine gets up to give me power, the hole would disappear and I'm left letting off gas, the Fusion suddenly lurching in protest.

Perhaps the one thing I praise about the Fusion, other than its ride quality is fuel economy. Sit back, relax and be in no hurry to get to your destination and +28mpg is relatively easy to accomplish. On regular gas. The interior is comfortable, nicely appointed and soft-touch nearly everywhere (a notable exception being the door grab handle, hard, HARD plastic). The MyFord Touch system is actually quite easy to use once you get used to the touchscreen interface. What makes it easy in this particular SE model is the absence of the uplevel Sony sound system with its touch interface surfaces. The stock radio has actually knobs for volume and tuning. To be frank, I hardly use them as the radio presets are just a touch (or two) away on the screen, not to mention the secondary controls on the steering wheel. About that steering wheel, the gauge cluster is populated by two other LCD screens flanking the speedometer, themselves being manipulated by control pads on the 9 and 3 o' clock positions on the steering wheel. These screens are able to display loads of data such as fuel economy (instant or average), vehicle health, entertainment options and phone status. I've found this to be very helpful and as such, I've almost never had to use the touch screen.

To say the last few months with the Fusion have been a hoot isn't entirely correct. I think this proves that Ford has a legitimate player in the mid-sized car segment and the Fusion compares very favorably with its competitors. Sure, it could definitely use more power (ahem, Ford Fusion Sport with the 325hp 2.7L V6 anyone?) but the 1.6L is just adequate and rewards a light foot (which I'm just about adjusting to, thank you). I already have plans for upgrades, such as installing LED lighting in place of halogens and maybe a trip through the Ford Performance catalog. We'll see what the next few years brings and I will definitely try to post updates as the journey continues. For now though, not going to the gas station every few days is quite the experience!

Special thanks to Maria Tamitis at Treasure Coast Toyota of Stuart for the amazing service! 

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Short Take - 2016 Nissan Versa SV

A lot of cars have passed through my hands in the many years this blog has been alive. Sports cars, family sedans, crossovers, pickups, you name it. However, the subject of this entry represents a first: the subcompact. In this category, which rose to prominence after America's first brush with $5/gallon gas sent its citizens scurrying for more efficient vehicles, sits the Nissan Versa. As a car that lays claim to the lowest new-car MSRP in the country, the Versa screams a good deal to anyone who wants a brand new set of wheels and not a lot of cash to spend. But just because something is the cheapest, is it really the better deal?

First, this Nissan Versa, redesigned in 2012 with a mild refresh for 2016, anchors the Nissan lineup at the entry point. Thus, it has to do battle with other subcompacts like the Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit and Chevy Sonic. Approaching the Versa, Nissan's design language is apparent, if overly done. With its mini-Altima-like appearance, the body is amusing in the sense that it looks one size larger than the wheels, almost as if it's on stilts. My mid-level SV came with a looks-tacked-on spoiler on the trunklid and 15" steel wheels wrapped in high profile rubber. With one of the longer wheelbases in the segment leads a few of the Versa's selling points: a cavernous interior and trunk. I had room enough in the front seat but it was difficult to get comfortable. Try as I might, I could never get my seat positioned where I could comfortably sit behind the wheel. This was exacerbated by the hard plastics that usually signifies cheapness. Pretty much every interior piece, save the carpet, seats and headliner was hewn from the industrial grade stuff that aggravates your skin when touched. I could never imagine taking this car on trip more than hour and if a 300 mile trip had to be done, frequent pit stops to stretch would be in order. The driver's gauges are legible with bright back-lit LED lighting and the dashboard controls are easy to reach and manipulate.

Get in the backseat, however and there is legroom for days. Three people can sit there comfortably without rubbing shoulders too much, even if the front seat occupants are over 6ft tall. That said though, I don't believe they'd be sitting there more than once. Aside from the plasticky interior, The Versa feels tinny and hollow in construction. The doors are light and have little heft to them, plus, when underway, the cabin is very noisy. It's as if in its bid to create the cheapest new car, Nissan decided that sound-deadening material would be too expensive. For the price, this would be tolerable except for one thing: the drivetrain. A 1.6L four cylinder powers the front wheels through Nissan's Xtronic CVT (continuously variable transmission). Producing 109hp and 107lb-ft of torque, don't expect to get anywhere in a hurry, or quietly for that matter. Despite the Versa weighing somewhere in the region of 2400lbs, getting up to highway speeds takes patience...and ear protection. Gunning the throttle makes the CVT peg the engine to 4800 rpm and it'll stay there until the vehicle hits your desired speed. It sounds thrashy and the droning wears on after awhile. A 30 mile highway stint had me pulling my curly hair in agony wanting to get out.

While the front struts/torsion beam suspension gave a compliant, almost big-car-like ride, you can forget about the Versa being any fun to drive. What's that saying, it's fun to drive a slow car fast? Not in this case. The otherwise soft suspension gets totally upset when the Versa is driven with gusto. In hard turns, the car leans waaaay over, the tires scrubbing away and squealing at early understeer. The steering is lifeless, overboosted and numb. Quick left-right actions gave the feeling of disjointedness. Flick the steering to the right and you can count one Mississippi before the front wheels react. On the highway, the Versa is at the mercy of winds (and anything larger than itself passing in the next lane), making it difficult to keep it tracking straight. At 75mph, the engine does settle down a bit but that only makes every other noise more apparent. Road and wind noise all find their way in and good luck using the stereo to drown it out. Turning the radio above the mid level makes the sound distorted, no matter what medium I was playing. Bluetooth is standard but there was always a disconnect between the volume of the radio and the calling feature. On the highway, the volume was turned all the way up just to hear the other person speaking and I repeatedly found myself shouting to be heard by the caller. Between the radio's cheapness, the loud interior and laughable steering, I think the Versa is better suited to urban settings.

Which is a shame because, like other cars in this segment, the littlest Nissan actually gets pretty good gas mileage. Equipped as mine was with the CVT, the EPA rates the Versa at 31 city/40 highway and my average hovered around 34mpg during my time. In that area, the CVT pays dividends by using an almost infinite set of ratios to achieve the best fuel economy. If you can't tolerate its weird but fruitless simulation of a automatic transmission and the moaning it succumbs the engine to, you can spring for a 5 speed manual or an ancient 4 speed automatic. Which, unless your desperate, you might not want to since you'll have to go to the bottom of the barrel where the plebian base S model resides (manual roll up windows anyone?). Sure, at an as-tested price of $16,595 (including $835 destination) the 2016 Nissan Versa SV may seem like a good buy but this where "shopping around" comes in. I say this because there are other competent cars occupying the segment for about the same wad of cash. The aforementioned Honda Fit and Ford Fiesta for example, drive better, have higher quality interiors and boast similar EPA figures. The Korean twins Hyundai Accent/Kia Rio boast more standard equipment for the price and have better warranties.

Nissan did a pretty good job in building the Nissan Versa at a (very cheap) price. However, while other automakers have sought to make their subcompacts more desirable by making them more comfortable and refined, the Versa didn't get the message. Against the competitive set, recommending the Versa is difficult based solely on price. Unless you're dead set on biting into Nissan's low hanging fruit, there are much better ways to spend $17,000.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The New(-ish) STEED

As you all know, I'm a huge car fanatic. It doesn't take much to get me started yapping about cars when someone asks, "What you think about *insert brand/make here*?" Also, as you may have found out (you didn't know? Catch up here) I've been without a car for a weeks now due to the negligence of distracted driver. My plan was to keep my personal car for a few more years before getting a car I really wanted but due to these circumstances, I've had to alter my plans a bit and go for a somewhat temporary stand-in. But what to buy?

My price cap was $10k and for that, my main focus (other than practicality and performance) was reliability. This car has to hold up for at least two years (more or less) to the rigors of my travels and beast-of-burden gigs while being relatively easy to work on myself. The 6 was virtually pain free for the DIY guy I am as most oil/fluid changes and tuneups were, though a bit arduous, mostly trouble free. I wasn't looking at SUVs/crossovers as most in my price range weren't my kind (I'm a wagon/hatchback lover). Sedans weren't frowned upon though they weren't my first choice either and even though I could've gotten another Mazda 6 (familiarity is a helluva thing) I figured I'd shake things up a bit. I found myself glued to websites such as, and Truecar and overtime, I narrowed my search down to two vehicles, the Ford Focus and Mazda3.

Let's look at the Focus. From 2012, Ford's compact runabout has been thoroughly redesigned and now is a virtual clone of it's Euro version. The styling is a hit and after reviewing one a few years ago, the fun to drive nature catapulted it to one of my favorites. The infotainment system may be a bit infuriating (read: MyFord Touch) but over time, I could get used to it. The hatchback was definitely the better looking version versus the sedan which just has a frumpy look. The only point of concern was Ford's new 6 speed, dual clutch auto. Initial response to this was lukewarm when the Focus debuted and since my purchase would be first-second year (before Ford's mid-cycle refresh of 2015) I wasn't sure I'd be up to dealing with its quirks and potential bugs. Searches turned up quite a few and there was one potential that I seriously considered. However, there were a few items the dealer was not willing to compromise on. Without going into detail, let's just say some items you expect to be common sense when a car is reconditioned for sale were not important enough for the dealer to do. As a result, that deal fell through. Other things such as cars being for sale online but mysteriously being sold hours later when I showed up for a test drive (a dealer trick I later learned) dried up my enthusiasm.

The other potential, the Mazda3 was also an early contender. Say what you want about Mazda's goofy design language from 2009-2013 but underneath all those lines was a solid vehicle. I've always extolled the virtues of Mazda vehicles for their almost singular focus on driving excitement while never losing sight of other important aspects such as efficiency, practicality and ease of ownership. While the fire breathing Mazdaspeed3 did tempt me, I decided to cool it and get something less toasty. A few Mazdas nearby were either high in mileage or weren't priced competitively. A few early propositions, just like the Focuses (Focii?), somehow disappeared from the lots despite being confirmed present by the various dealers. Towards the end of my search I started factoring in ease of maintenance and revised the list a bit. One night while doing a search, this off-the-wall option popped up.

I couldn't believe it.

2004 Lexus IS 300 Sportcross
Price: $7600
Mileage: 68,160

This has to be a joke. Can't be real. Not only was the first generation IS 300 a hallmark in Lexus history, being the first legitimate Lexus product sent to do battle with the BMW 3 Series in the early 2000s, it was also a car that I had really, REALLY wanted to drive. Despite not being turbocharged, the IS300 packed the 2J-GZE 3.0L inline six of the vaunted Toyota Surpa sports car. This legendary motor was bulletproof in its durability and longevity and, with the addition of Toyota's VVTI valve timing gear, was even better. But all that despite all that, what really captured my attention was that this particular car, is a rarity, being one of only 3,000 Sportcross models sold in the U.S. A quick check of Autocheck and CarFax brought up no issues and confirmed this being a one-owner car, pretty much stamp on the originality of those low miles. Here, I thought, was my chance to actually test Toyota's vaunted reliability claims and some fun while doing so. First off though, I had to see the vehicle in person.

The following Saturday, after testing yet another overpriced Ford Focus, I went down to the small dealership to see the Lexus. Normally I pause at visiting small dealerships, but I figured, if this car is the real deal I at least had to verify it. According to one website, the Lexus had been on the lot for around 6 months, the price falling to its current number, a good indicator that the dealer really wanted it off the lot. Walking through the tightly packed lot (I swear the little parking lot behind my office is twice as big) I spotted the black wagon sitting next to a late model Altima and an also-rare Chevy Malibu SS sedan. Pictures didn't do it justice. While time has had its way with  it, the wagon still sports a surprisingly athletic stance. The body showed no physical damage, a few small micro dents here and there but nothing outwardly visible as prior damage. Opening up the interior really tells he age of the first gen IS300. The dash looked worn and the plastic trim separating the upper and lower portions were heavily weathered with small scratches. sprinkled around. The plastic trim surrounding the 5 speed automatic transmission's gear leaver was even more weathered and the characteristic ball on top of the lever was missing (apparently these shiny balls are prime pieces). The leather on the steering wheel had portions peeled away but the seats were in surprisingly good condition despite the leather being polished to a smooth finish. Overall the interior was, despite its age, in very good condition. Even the Lexus brand first aid kit was still velcroed to its position in the cargo area, seemingly untouched. Early 2000s designs stood out: a cigarette lighter sat prominently in front of the gear shift lever, the small diameter 3 spoke steering wheel emphasized tastes of the time, the A pillars were thin and visibility was excellent front and rear. Compared to the GMC Terrain I had stepped out of minutes before, I had basically taken a trip back into time.

Mechanically, the car was sound (or so I thought, more on this later). The engine started right up and idled quietly and I could hear no untoward noises or indications of repairs needed. However, after idling for roughly 10 minutes one thing was apparent: the AC was not working, hot air spewing out the vents, Hmm, a major issue this being Florida and all, but a minor one the dealer was happy to sort out. A few of the things besides the AC not working: the radio antenna was broken (an expensive OEM repair I found out later), the radiator had a leak (also revealed later and repaired by the dealer), the brake rotors were warped, the clip that held the hood prop in place was broken and the 6 disc CD player didn't work (the cassette player, surprisingly, did). Oh, and apparently the dealer only had 1 key available. Hmm, almost a deal breaker but not enough to sway me. Test driving the car revealed the structure to be taut and rigid, no squeaks and rattles permeating the cabin and the transmission shifting comfortably and precisely. Sure, the 5 speed isn't as responsive as modern 6 and 8 speeds but at least it didn't fall all over itself and was one of the better transmissions of the day. It offered a manual shift function with buttons located on the front and rear steering wheel spokes. A "PWR" button sat next to the gearshift lever, a sort of Sport button that when pressed, switched the transmission's programming to change gears at higher rpms. The inline six engine still sounded turbine-smooth and balanced as any BMW six-pot. The ride was certainly firm, a tad firmer in fact than my departed Mazda but straight-line stability was even better. With the front wheels here unloaded of the engine's output, steering was sharper and more immediate. Plus, being hydraulically actuated (instead of the electro-steering of today), the wheel was rife with information, the texture and irregularities of the road feeding their way from the front tires to the driver's hands.

Back at the dealer, I analyzed the car again. The cargo space appeared to be roomy enough to haul all my gear for gigs and be comfortable enough for the long daily commutes I have. Plus, this being essentially a Toyota, with regular maintenance I'd be assured a relatively trouble-free ownership. Seeing this as an opportunity, I put down on the car and within a few days, it was mine. During the short week or two of ownership, several items need to be .

1) Doing any used car purchase, please, PLEASE have a certified mechanic do a thorough check on ANY car you're seriously interested in. I neglected this very important part of the purchase and I paid for it with a missed day of work and tow truck drive to a mechanic to have the radiator replaced (dealer warranty).

2) Newer cars are complicated and aren't as DIY friendly as older ones. Hence, I'd like to do as much DIY maintenance as I can and save some money. The 2J-GZE motor is a well known engine and, despite Lexus branding, parts are plentiful and affordable. Plus there's a solid knowledge base in the online IS community ready and willing to help with various information regarding maintenance, upkeep and possible upgrades (don't worry, I aim to keep the car stock where it counts). Oil changes may be a bit difficult (the oil filter is situated in a hard to reach area, meaning spills could be inevitable), spark plug changes will be a fight (just as they were in the Mazda) and this being a timing belt as opposed to a timing chain (look out 90k miles!) but at least this is stuff that's not outside my mechanical ability. I just need a garage to do it all in (heh).

3) As my brother has said, it's the little things that add up and it is certainly the truth here. While not everything has to be fixed up front, I've found little odd things that could be either fixed or upgraded overtime. One example is the interior lighting that, after owning the Mazda for the better part of 6 years along with stints in the Ram and Terrain, looks very austere and dim. Even at it's brightest setting, the interior still appears dark and the dome/map lights cast very poor lighting. An LED conversion will cure this and is currently in the works.

4) I'm a bit torn regarding the current stock radio. While the CD player isn't working and I'm about to put the cassette player to good use with an AUX cassette to play music from my phone (I at least have a dedicated 12V charger besides the cigarette lighter, praise Jah!) I'd like to upgrade it in some way. Having navigation isn't really an essential (that's what my phone is for) so that lowers the price point considerably and, of course, I'd be doing the installation myself.

Writing this marks a month since I've been driving around in the Lexus and I've gotta say, it's been fun. Some negatives? The inline six drinks premium gas and, while a strong motor, good gas mileage isn't its forte. It's going to take some getting used to seeing 18 mpg rather than the 24 mpg I'd regularly get in the Mazda. And the cabin is definitely a more, er, intimate space than the relatively spacious 6. But again, this serves as a test of Toyota's reliability and ownership experience I'll have with this rare car. Sure it might not have a manual transmission, but at least it's a hatchback and one I'm looking forward to many good memories with. Sorry tuners, no turbos or coilovers or beer-can exhaust systems here. This 2004 Lexus IS300 Sportcross is going to remain mostly stock.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Long(-ish) Term Review - 2016 GMC Terrain SLT V6

Here's a head-scratcher for you.

What does it mean when a vehicle strikes you as merely subpar? All flash and little substance? To be honest, I struggled to write this post on the 2016 GMC Terrain SLT V6 I'd been piloting for just over a week. Compared to most other crossovers I've been either driving or riding in, this one is an odd thing. Being on the market for six years with nothing but an exterior nip-and-tuck to keep fresh really doesn't do anything for its appeal. After the first few days, I wanted to like it. But as time passed, the more I thought I might find something that impressed, the more I found the negatives overshadowing what little positives there were. Let's take a look see.

As before, the the Terrain was introduced in 2009 as GMC's entry point into it's all truck/SUV lineup which previously, only consisted of the Sierra pickup and it's SUV Yukon brother. The full sized, three-row Acadia was launched in 2008 followed by it's midsized, brother Terrain. Bear in mind, all of GMC's products started life as a Chevy product at some point. Back in General Motor's bad ol' days, it was nothing to take a Chevy Silverado, replace the bow-tie badges with GMC logos, sprinkle some chrome on the exterior and interior and call it a new new product. Nowaday's GM has learned it ain't foolin' anybody and today's customers who buy GMC products want to make sure their extra cash gets them a product that, while it may have common platforms, looks nothing like the Chevy that's across the street. The same can be said of the Terrain. However, GMC might have gone a bit too far in my eyes to differentiate this small crossover from its Equinox brother. Where the Equinox has smooth curves and corners, the Terrain is blocky and straight-edged. In profile from the sides, its borderline handsome and I'll admit, the black paint does wonders to accent the acres of chrome slathered on the exterior (and this isn't even the top, chrome-out dog Denali trim!). But, looking head on, the styling can come off as a bit polarizing, especially from the front and rear where the chrome surrounding the lower fascia is akin to applying glitter lipstick to a pug. No one is going to call the Terrain pretty, overwrought maybe, but a beautiful thing this ain't.

Inside, my eyes were assaulted even more by the bright, shiny stuff dashed around the cabin. The front seats felt comfortable and easily provided support the long commutes I'm currently doing for work. But comfort couldn't make up for the amount of chrome that attacked my eyes during the bright Florida afternoons. Chrome surrounds the gearshift lever, the cup holders, even the top of the transmission had a thick bar of the bright stuff surrounding the edge. While striking at first, getting past the chrome trim reveals low quality material on the dash and area below the instrument panel. Even though the interior feel is a let down on quality, it is still very spacious. Loading up for a DJ gig, all my gear fit in the cargo area and the rear seats folded down to accommodate even more gear. The infotainment system's placement is angled such that in direct sunlight, you can look at it, but good luck making out the buttons for the climate control. The instrument panel was nicely done, simple to read but a bit odd in that to manipulate the trip information display between the main gauges (which looks like an 80s display next to the larger touchscreen), the controls are on the central stack rather than on, say, the steering wheel. Perhaps the most frustrating part of the interior was the 6-7 inch infotainment display. While bright and legible and using every available inch of real estate, the touchscreen's placement is deeply inset under an "eyebrow" and makes for difficult use. For example, supposing you want to get to the previous menu. On the screen, the back button is in the top left corner and, while in motion, takes too much aiming and concentration to place your finger accurately. Yes, there are some redundant controls on the steering wheel and just below the screen but, if you're going to give customers the option of using the screen, at least make it user friendly (see Chrysler's very intuitive UConnect system).

On the road, the Terrain is anything but dynamic. The steering is heavy and lifeless with no communication to the driver as to what the front wheels are doing. The six speed automatic is dimwitted, never confident about its gearing and always taking a few seconds to make up its mind as to whether my foot stomp on the go pedal really meant full throttle or half throttle. At least the 3.6L V6 makes the Terrain feel somewhat alive. Sending 301 hp and 272 lb-ft of torque to the front wheels, from a dead stop, the Terrain responds admirably. Until that is, its asked to pass slower traffic once underway. The transmission hesitates for a few seconds as if conducting a committee to analyze the placement of your foot on the throttle. Then once it confirms you really want full power and starts to feed it in, you've already let off the gas in dismay that the hole in traffic you were aiming for is now gone. While making good power, (way more than the gutless 3.0L it replaces), the 3.6L is quite thirsty: I averaged 18 mpg with most of my drives being on the highway. And lest you think this is the same sonorous sounding 3.6L Chevy drops in the Camaro, well, it ain't, sounding grainy and coarse past 4000 rpm. Once settled in cruise, the V6 quiets down and the transmission, eager to get to top gear, lopes the engine along at about 1500rpm at 70mph. In this state, the Terrain is a pretty good highway cruiser. Once off the highway however and the roads turn twisty, it's easy to make the front tires howl in understeering protest. Plus, at over 4100 lbs, it doesn't like being thrown around anyway and will remind you of that with its aggressive traction and stability control system in a "what's your rush?" sort of way.

Despite being GMC's second best selling model after the Sierra pickup, the Terrain is in need of a major redesign. Being on the market since 2009 only adds to how aged the design is, especially with every automaker now dipping their toes in the red hot crossover market these days. With newer crossovers coming to market from seemingly every corner, each more advanced in some way than the other, the little GMC is slowly being displaced as an also-ran. Nothing less than a complete overhaul of the Terrain's interior, dynamics and styling will do to ensure it stays relevant without the need for massive incentives to woo buyers into GMC's showroom. If you're looking for a roomy crossover with good power and loads of cash on the hood, GMC's entry crossover might be worth a look. But being far from the top of class (read mediocre) makes spending an as-tested $33,245.00 on a Terrain without eyeballing the competition seem like a sour deal. GMC likes to tout its products as being "Professional Grade", but in this class, GMC needs to literally apply some professional grade TLC to the Terrain.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Long(-ish) Term Review - 2016 Ram 1500 Big Horn Quad Cab

What happens when you take a strapping young fellow who's been driving sedans for the last 20 years and put him in a half-ton truck for a week?

I'll tell you what, he gains a new appreciation for those drivers who commute in these beasts on a daily basis.

Not that I've never driven a truck for a day or two before. Those times, the experience was um, hairy-chested feeling to say the least but, mercifully short when reality set in. This time around, an opportunity that was a bit negative at first, presented itself. Since my regular car, *ahem* the STEED, was totaled a few days prior and the rental car agency had no sedans available, I took a long look at a big Ram Quad Cab truck sitting in a corner and quietly whispered to myself, "YOLO!"

 I decided that, barring the progress made on finding a permanent vehicle replacement, the Ram would serve as the all-purpose vehicle for a week. Walking around the truck, I began to take in its sheer size. The big cross-hair grille is front and center in all is chromed and slatted glory. Flanked by angled headlights with a large lower bumper (also chromed out) integrating fog lights at the corners, the whole 'face' just forward slightly. See this face taking up your rear view mirror and you'll be instantly intimidated to move over. Hell, if this truck were doing one twenty on the German autobahn, I'm pretty even more exotic material wouldn't hesitate to get out of its way. Being a Quad Cab (in Ram-speak), this 1500 half-ton model has four doors, two regular sized (but surprisingly light) front doors and two smaller doors behind them. Don't be fooled, this isn't a true crewcab design, but the interior is surprisingly roomy. The truck bed measures 6'4" in length and was not equipped with a bedliner, but the big, bright dual exhaust tips are nice styling feature and call out to the brawn under the large hood. Taken as a whole, this Ram 1500 seems to the "trucker's pickup" compared to it's rivals from Chevy and Ford.

Inside, however, you could be fooled into thinking the cabin belonged to a full sized sedan. Material quality exceeds that of many cars I can think of and storage space is abundant. The front space is occupied by comfortable bucket seats with a large center cubby, useful for storing folders and big enough to stash a small laptop. Three cup holders adorn the front of the cubby, large enough for you 7 Eleven Big Gulp. When maximum seating is needed, it folds up to fit a sixth person, though he'd/she'd better be of small stature and not mind a 5-10 minute ride to the store. A bench occupies the rear of the cabin but even there, space is adequate and, when not in use, can be folded up to reveal yet more storage space underneath. The dashboard is feels richer than you'd think for a truck and panel gaps and nice and tight. With the amount of 'RAM" and "Big Horn" logos dotting the cabin, you'll never forget what brand truck you're in. Instead of the big 8.4" screen, this tester was fitted with the one-step down UConnect package consisting of a 5" touchscreen with integrated Bluetooth and voice command. A smaller LED screen sits between the speedometer and RPM gauge gives a variety of vehicle information. One curiosity is the electronic rotary gear selector placed just under and to the right of the steering wheel. In such a large vehicle that's meant to work, operating the selector feels rather dainty. P, R, N, D are your choices with manual gear selection available by using buttons mounted on the steering wheel. Shift paddles would be a better choice but in operation, I imagine an owner would only use these buttons when towing something.

Speaking of towing, this truck is certainly equipped for the job. The 5.7L HEMI V8 rumbles to life on startup, scaring a some squirrels a few times. With 390hp and 407lb-ft of torque, the roughly 5700lb Ram feels surprisingly light on its feet and power is but a throttle tap away. Doling out the power is a ZF eight-speed automatic which, when compared to the five speed unit attached to essentially the same engine in a Chrysler 300C I tested a few years ago, feels much quicker in response to throttle inputs and was vastly smoother in operation. The ride was also much better and less busy than a 2014 Chevy Silverado I drove briefly a few months ago. Credit Chrysler for turning the truck world on its head and fitting the Ram's rear suspension with coils rather than traditional leaf springs. Though still sporting a solid rear axle, coil springs give a vastly improved ride and better wheel control than leaf springs and Chrysler engineers managed to preserve the Ram's load carrying capability, now rated at 10,490lbs. Pretty much equal to what Ford and Chevy boast. As an option, the Ram can even be fitted with an air suspension but this was absent on my tester. Still I was pleasantly surprised at the truck's demeanor on the road. You don't forget that you're driving something big and heavy but at the same time, controlling it is easy. It's not hard to get into a comfortable driving position and the doing so gives you a clear view of the corners of the big hood, though you're always conscious of blind spots. Backing up would be easier is a rear-view camera was standard but as this was also absent, I had to proceed with caution. You can easily lose a compact car behind the tailgate if you're not careful.

The 390hp beast under the hood

No leaf springs here buddy

These dual bazookas give voice to the HEMI

On the highway, the Ram was relaxed and offered ample stability. Loafing along at 1400 rpm, I managed to get a constant 21 mpg on the instant fuel economy readout, the HEMI softly rumbling in the background. The 8 speed automatic certainly helps along with V8's standard cylinder deactivation system which shuts down four of the eight cylinders under light loads. The Ram would make an excellent road trip vehicle. In urban settings however, this 19 ft vehicle is a chore. A huge turning circle and a 140" wheelbase does not lead to a maneuverable machine. Not to mention running some in-city errands quickly dropped my fuel economy to around 12 mpg. Well, that an hearing the HEMI roar under full throttle is intoxicating, if not economical. (Yes, I have a heavy right foot). Despite, this in mixed driving over the course of a week, I managed to get 16 mpg. Not bad for a heavy, V8, four door truck. Sure the EPA rates this vehicle at 15 city/22 highway, but in the real world you'll probably get worse, especially if you use the Ram for its intended purpose.

At the end of the week, I asked myself if I could really live with this truck. Yes, I did have dreams of owning a boat one day and towing with a HEMI-powered truck to the docks. But honestly, this was a smidge too much truck for me. The 26 gallon fuel tank certainly helps to make fillups infrequent but still pricey and if your trips don't involve lots of highway travel and towing you're probably better with the standard Pentastar 3.6L V6. Sure it's no HEMI and it screams more than it rumbles, but rated at just over 300hp, it'll do 80% of what the uplevel V8 can. Plus it will get much better fuel economy doing so. In my week with the 2016 Ram 1500, while I enjoyed driving it, I also felt like I was doing it a disservice. This truck wants to work and my daily errands didn't offer much opportunity to really test the strength of this vehicle. That said, if you can afford the cost of driving it, it'll certainly do it's job well. And towing or hauling doesn't comprise much of your day it's all good. Just hearing that 390hp monster under hood will bring a smile to your face everyday. Hell, I'm still smiling.

As of this writing, the search for a new vehicle is still ongoing. In the meantime, I've got another vehicle reviewing and I hope to complete the search pretty soon. Thanks to Omar at Enterprise!

Friday, March 25, 2016

Long Term Update - Death of The Steed

In happier times

There comes a time in everyone's life when a car comes along. It doesn't matter if you're a lover of automobiles or if you see cars as just an object to fill transportation needs. Doesn't matter if it's your first car, or your fourth. There's a slight feeling of anxiety when you leave it in the shop for repairs, or  (heaven forbid) you lend it to a friend for use. Just driving from A to B is an experience that no other car can provide. That sense of fellowship, of oneness, of knowing that this isn't any ordinary car. This is your car. Your baby.

Car enthusiasts are a peculiar lot. We speak of our cars as if they are living, breathing organisms. Sentient beings that seem to communicate on a level that only their owners can understand. When something is amiss, the owner can instantly tell. "The steering doesn't feel quite right," an owner would say, his front seat passenger looking on with puzzled eyes. "She's not pulling away like she usually does." Later on, he parks in the garage and an open-hood, on-the-lift session commences. Sure enough after some poking and prodding he finds the culprit: a small, hole in one of the vacuum lines. To other drivers, this wouldn't be noticeable, but to a car enthusiast in tune with his vehicle, every unknown nuance is mentally noted.


This is a long-winded way of me saying that, as of March 24, 2016, my pride and joy, my baby, my 2006 Mazda 6s, affectionately known as the STEED, is no more. While stopped in traffic, a distracted driver speared into the back of the car, sending it into the rear of the car in front. Two huge impacts which left the STEED in a slightly accordion-ed state. Luckily she was still able to start up, despite a heavy coolant and oil leak, and move to an open lot where the emergency services did their thing. Surveying the severe damage, I anticipated my insurance deeming my baby a total loss and, a few days later that was exactly the result.

I had refinanced the loan to pay for my flight instructor course and had just over a year left, after which, I planned to keep her around till the wheels fell off. During the last 20k miles (she was at 137k at the time of the accident), I was mulling replacing her after the lien had run its course. However, I became so involved in her maintenance, doing everything myself, that I felt a sense of ownership with her. Other than some HID headlights installed a few years ago, I elected to keep her stock. No fancy wheels (though I did consider some nice 19" RX8 wheels), no suspension alterations, no engine upgrades, no kajillion-watt sound system or body kits. She was elegant enough in her black paint and tinted (legal) windows. The slight paint defects and chips only added to her character. Perhaps the crowning jewel in my affection was that she was a rarity: how many four door sedans today can you buy with a V6/stick shift combo? Maybe a few BMWs, the old Infiniti G37 (before it became the Q50) but that's it. Even then, you're talking upwards of $40k brand new. No one buys a manual transmission anymore. Not even the used car market is rife with may options. Sure you can find the odd 4 cylinder/stick shift combo in some compact/sub compact offerings, but in the mid-sized category? Fuggedaboutit.

Mazda did an excellent job in designing the first generation 6. Even today, the styling still looks sleek and purposeful despite the lack of detailing in the sheet metal compared to current mid-sized designs. Low on power compared to current engines, 215hp was plenty when I had a manual transmission to play with. Driven in anger, the 6 was alert, playful, composed and a joy to drive when twisty roads presented themselves. Freeway ramps were huge fun, the steering communicating just how much grip was left as I approached the adhesion limit of the tires. Once understeer showed itself, backing off the throttle tucks the nose back towards the corner. Mulling along in a typical commute, I could easily average around 27mpg on the highway, once I kept it at 70mph or below. While refinement wasn't a strong point compared to even its competitors of the day, the 6 was still enjoyable and comfortable enough on long freeway trips. Carrying loads? A breeze. I baffled many when they saw I didn't need a truck to transport my music equipment. It all fit in the 6.

I shall miss her. For now though, the search is on for another vehicle, though there will never be another like her. In this day and age when tiny turbocharged engines are starting to replace the V6 and manual transmissions struggle to find a place in even sport cars, pickings are slim. Credit to Mazda for sticking to its guns and keeping the manual transmission alive, although even they have shunned the V6 (see the new CX-9, its V6 jettisoned in favor of a turbocharged 4 cylinder). As it stands, Mazda is leading in the poll to be the next car although I may have to put my V6/manual dreams to bed. The Ford Focus is also under consideration (an ST would be perfect if the price is right) as well as the Mazda 3 (tight backseat not withstanding) and 2008-2013 Mazda 6. A hard price cap is in place so we'll see what the next week brings. I'll update once a decision is made.

In the meantime, I'm trundling around in a rented 2016 RAM 1500 Big Horn pickup. Call it instant gratification, but I feel like a big rig driver whenever I haul myself aboard. And the sound that 5.7L HEMI makes on startup is glorious, which sounds even more so when I bury the gas pedal. Of course the downside to all this is fuel economy that averages in the low teens. Currently I average anywhere from 14.5-16.1 mpg but only because I'm doing my best egg-between-my-foot-and-gas-pedal impression. Stay tuned for the full review to come soon.

If you're not a car enthusiast, I don't expect you to understand. As a matter of fact, I can see you raising your eyebrow in whimsical fashion after reading all of this. But that's ok. Keep driving your vanilla flavored Corollas in indifference to what us car guys know. There will always be THAT car.

Take a look back at the STEED's history here, here and here.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Short Take - 2017 Jaguar XE-S

Do you remember the X-Type? That supposedly premium clone of the European Ford Mondeo that Jaguar tried to market as a BMW 3 Series competitor? Yeah, no one really does either and Jaguar would prefer to keep it that way. Now with Tata Motors as its parent company (and one that is willing to spend the necessary cash without the look-over-your-shoulder mentality of previous suitor, Ford), Jaguar has decided to lob a second, more proper dart at the bulls-eye that is the BMW 3 Series and, dare I say, they might've succeeded.

At the Jaguar Audition event, I was introduced to the new 2017 XE, a car Jaguar will use to anchor its lineup at the more affordable end, giving the mid-sized XF some much needed breathing room to do battle with 5 Series/A6/CTS/E-Class. Gone is the jellybean, doughboy style of the X-Type, the XE adopting the look of the larger XJ and XF with sprinkled cues from the F-Type sports car. Walking in to the main hall, the entire lineup (including the new F-Pace crossover of which an intro review is upcoming) was presented and taking all cars into account, the familial styling is instantly recognized. To say the XE is as beautiful as the F-Type would be a stretch. After all, we are talking about a three-box shape on to which Jaguar chief designer, Ian Callum, has to make the XE stand out in a sea of BMW 3 Series, Audi A4s and Mercedes C Class sedans. However, with the previous XF as proof of his master craft, I'd say he pulled it off. The sheet metal is drawn taut over the aluminum-intensive chassis and features clean lines, leaving any sort of intricate detailing to its more expensive brothers. However, cues such as the rectangular grille and tail lights inspired by the F-Type and J-blade LED running lamps inset into sinister headlights give the car XE its own Jaguar look.

As before, the all new, modular platform makes extensive use of aluminum to cut down body weight, although on the scales, it doesn't really show. Weighing some 3700 lbs, the XE is right up there next to the 3 Series. As a matter of fact, the XE's dimensions closely mirror that of Bavaria's finest, coming within an inch or two in length, width and wheelbase. Under the hood, however, is where the differences end. While the 3 Series, specifically the 340i, employs a silky turbocharged inline six cylinder, the XE shares the supercharged 3.0L V6 from the F-Type. In my XE-S example, the V6 stomps out 340 hp and 332lb-ft of torque through either the rear wheels or optional all-wheel-drive (coming later in the model year). Looking at the engine, I was amazed at how large and long it was. Then I remembered its 90 degree cylinder spacing is the same as that of the larger 5.0L V8 in Jaguar's uplevel sedans. As a result, in order to cut costs, Jaguar made both engines to use the same engine mounts. While most other luxury compacts have migrated to front struts and simple multilink rear suspensions, Jaguar went its own way and developed a double wishbone front suspension with integral links anchoring the rear. The result is a car with a ride/handling balance that many, more expensive cars struggle to approach.

Inside, the XE presents a simple, clean layout of all controls and a premium-feeling cabin. You won't find the larger XF's robot air vents doing there dance whenever the vehicle is powered up or down. However, the gear shift continues to be a rotary unit which rises from the center console when you start the XE. Gimmicky at first but forgettable after a few uses. I didn't play with the infotainment screen much but I can report that the unit is clear and legible, responding quickly to inputs. I'd much rather have dedicated, hard controls for simple functions as radio tuning or volume control but steering wheel controls make that largely a non issue. Sitting in the backseat, there was enough space to get comfortable and not feel cramped. It may not be a full sized car, but it's less cramped than say, a Cadillac ATS backseat. The leather front seats though are gorgeous and what they lack in bolstering for track use, they make up in support and comfort. The cabin overall feels very airy and open thanks to the low cowl and huge sunroof.

Pressing the glowing start button, my ears were met with the howl of the big 3.0L (bigger in size than the one in my Mazda 6). One thing Jaguar engineers know how to do is tune a car's exhaust and intake noise and if the F-Type is any indication, they've done magic in the XE. Turning the rotary shifter to D, we roll out of the parking lot along Opa-Locka airport's B-roads in Eco, one of the four settings that changes the car's mood according to the driver's wishes. In this mode, the XE's throttle response is dumbed down, the exhaust goes silent and the ZF 8-speed transmission falls in love with the upper two gears. Approaching an empty stretch of arrow-straight road, I switched the transmission one notch over to S and instantly, the XE felt racier. The display between the speedometer and RPM dial turned red, now displaying the current gear, the exhaust baffles opened up to create that characteristic (some might say obnoxious) engine bark that Jaguar vehicles of recent are known for and the steering effort increased and stiffened considerably. Flooring the accelerator, the XE dropped from loafing in 8th gear down to 4th and surged ahead, the exhaust doing its best impression of a NASCAR racer. Within a few seconds, we had left 40 mph in the dust and were now cresting 75 mph. Seeing an intersection rapidly approaching, I lifted off the gas and simultaneously engaged the steering wheel-mounted paddles. The ZF transmission responded smartly to my commands, all the while my ears were treated to the aural pleasure of the exhaust popping and crackling. This supercharged V6 may not have the smooth, turbine sound of BMW's straight six motors, but it definitely trumps them in terms of exhaust tuning. I must say, through all the ruckus of the road drive, Jaguar did an excellent job in nearly silencing the characteristic whine of the supercharger. It's only heard in the very upper reaches of the RPM range and I struggled to hear it during normal driving.

Jaguar's intention for the XE is to anchor its lineup at the affordable end of the market: allowing the driver a sports sedan while still being civil enough to take the mother-in-law out to dinner. In this role, the XE is a pleasure to drive. While the ride is firmer than most, it isn't punishing. The structure is vault-like in feel and the suspension only allows the worst road imperfection to filter through to the occupants. Even then, you'll know you hit a pothole by hearing a "thump-thump" as opposed to feeling it through your rear end. Back at the airport, I was given the opportunity to put an XE-S through its paces at small autocross course. First would be a flat-out speed run, followed by a hard stomp on the brakes for a long sweeping left turn. That left turn would suddenly become a sharp 60-80 degree left, then an acceleration run up to a series of quick right-left-right corners followed by another hard braking section. Once given the signal, I floored the gas and the XE jumped off the line, the transmission smoothly selecting gears before abruptly jumping off the gas and on to the brakes. Those binders bit hard and the XE quickly shed speed for the upcoming corner, the transmission smartly anticipating the corner and downshifting to the proper gear. Steering feel was excellent and about mid turn, I was able to get the tail out slightly to help rotate the car. Yup, there's definitely a hit of F-Type in the way the tail-happy way the XE attacked corners. However, the slide was manageable and easily controlled. Through the tight, twisty section of the course and under acceleration, the XE never lost its poise, deftly threading the turns with just enough throttle steer to keep the nose pointed in the right direction before coming to the end of the course. The last car I had driven in anger this way was a 2015 BMW 320d and it was uncanny how similar the XE felt. While yes, the BMW was diesel powered and would've been trounced by the XE in a straight line, the sporty goodness was certainly there, although I'd give the nod to the XE in terms of sheer all around enjoyment. The steering feel was better in the XE and while the BMW had a very slight tendency to float before taking a set, the XE was more buttoned down and willing to rotate with very little body roll.

While the unloved X-Type was a very expensive lesson, the 2017 XE proves that Jaguar is a keen learner. The only way to take on the established set is to have a premium compact, luxury sedan of your own and build it from the ground up rather than using the metaphorical method of trying ti turn a goose into a swan. Here, I think Jaguar has hit the target squarely. It also helps that, in its chase for more sales and volume, BMW has dulled the 3 Series to appeal to more buyers, making its perch very unstable. While the 3.0L V6 is a very good engine, it also inherits some of the thirstiness exhibited by its larger V8 brother. For buyers sensitive about fuel economy, Jaguar will introduce a new line of four cylinder engines dubbed 'Ingenium'. A 2.0L four cylinder in the 240hp range will be the base model, followed by a diesel engine based on the 2.0L four. To tackle the likes of M, AMG and Quattro GmbH, you can be almost certain of an XE-R/RS/SVR model to follow a few years later. With some $3 billion dollars spent on its development, the XE needs to not just bring the fight to BMW and the other German rivals (not to mention the very good Cadillac ATS), but be a great vehicle in its own right. Jaguar has a lot riding on this platform, what with the XF sedan and F-Pace crossover following up. In this blogger's mind, the 2017 Jaguar XE could perhaps be the new king of the hill. Your move, BMW.

Special thanks to Jaguar for the invite and making this review possible. I tried out for a commercial featuring the new Jaguar XE and the video can be viewed here. I make no bones of being an actor but hey, it was fun!