8.30.2011

2011 Lincoln Town Car Review

Front 3/4 view of silver 2011 Lincoln Town Car driving with lights on
The 2011 Lincoln Town Car. The end of the line, the end of an era.
The end of the year clearance sales are on. 2011s are leaving the lot to make room for the 2012s.

Except for the Lincoln Town Car. When the last one is gone, that's it. There will be no more. It's been years since Ford bothered to put one in the press fleet in TireKicker's hometown, so we arranged with Fiesta Lincoln in Mesa, Arizona to drive one for a week.

The last Lincoln Town Car is a big deal because it's not just the end of a body style or a nameplate, but of a type of automobile. The Town Car is what American sedans were from World War II onward...big, comfortable, rear-wheel-drive, V8-powered machines that sat six adults in great comfort.

Interior of 2011 Lincoln Town Car
The 2011 Lincoln Town Car interior. You may have had smaller apartments.

See that armrest in the picture above? Fold it up, and you'll find a seat belt. There's no center console. The gear selector is sticking out of the steering column. 3 in the front, 3 in the back...and even given contemporary American bodily dimensions (within reason), nobody's crowded. There's 21 cubic feet of space in the trunk for all your things.

It's more comfortable than a large SUV, certainly has a better ride and arguably better handling, and it definitely gets better mileage (the EPA says 16 city/24 highway, and we saw 22.5 on a long stretch of urban freeway, with our weeklong city street/freeway mix never dropping below 19).

Our tester? Basic as it comes. The Signature model. $47,225. 4.6 liter single overhead cam flexible fuel V8, automatic transmission, halogen headlamps, heated power windows with memory, heated 8-way power front seats with lumbar, leather seating surfaces, leather and wood steering wheel with audio, cruise and climate controls, a dual-zone climate system, an AM/FM/6-CD changer premium audio system,  power adjustable pedals, rear park assist, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, traction contol and a security alarm. All that packaged with a 4 year/50,000 mile bumper-to-bumper warranty, a 6 year/70,000 mile powertrain warranty and 24 hour roadside assistance.

Complete enough that ours had only one option...whitewall tires ($125). Yes, whitewall tires. You can still get them. And, apparently, reasonably.

All told, with $945 for destination and delivery charges, the Town Car rang in at $48,295. And you know what? We loved it. It's the ultimate road trip car (I rented dozens, if not hundreds over the years as a traveling TV news reporter), and it's perfectly fine in city traffic as well. There is, in fact, nothing wrong with it that couldn't be fixed with some cosmetic and convenience updates, and driving the Town Car, I kept coming up with arguments why it should be saved.
But the Town Car got stuck with the label of "old peoples' car", and in an acutely image-conscious society thus was doomed to declining sales as its owner base aged, gave up drivers' licenses and, well, began dying off. Demand stayed strong in the limousine and executive sedan market, where the combined virtues of room, relative economy and near-bulletproof reliability (300,000 to 400,000 miles is not uncommon for a Town Car) are highly prized.



Rear 3/4 view of 2011 Lincoln Town Car driving on wet city street
The 2011 Lincoln Town Car. Off into the sunset.

Why don't civilian drivers who buy large (in some cases, huge) vehicles prize those qualities, too? Room for 6, more than respectable gas mileage, decent cargo space, epic safety ratings and legendary durability and reliability with a starting price under $50,000 would probably be a big draw...on paper..for a lot of buyers in their 40s and 50s.

Until you say the words "Lincoln Town Car".

So we walk away from something that works in favor of more stylish things that don't quite work as well. Our fault and our loss for that. There are a lot of people for whom a Lincoln Town Car would be just about perfect. If you have an open mind, Cars.com says there are 746 new Town Cars on dealer lots in the USA as I type this. That's 28 fewer than there were when I began writing this review a little less than an hour ago. 26.64 more hours like that and they're all gone.

TireKicker Time Machine: 1994 Acura Legend Coupe


Tyson Hugie's 1994 Acura Legend Coupe front view
Tyson Hugie's 1994 Acura Legend Coupe. Not your typical 18-year old car.

Confession: I've been neglecting the TireKicker Time Machine feature. Partly because it's 17 million degrees in Phoenix this summer but also because I'm looking for the exceptional.

Turns out I found it in the summer of 2009...and just needed reminding.

The picture above is of a 1994 Acura Legend 6-Speed Coupe belonging to a young man named Tyson Hugie. And it's a recent photo.


Tyson Hugie, Michael Hagerty and Tyson's 1994 Acura Legend Coupe in June 2009
Tyson Hugie, Michael Hagerty and Tyson's 1994 Acura Legend Coupe in 2009.
That's us, a little over two years ago, meeting for the first time when I was doing a story for television on people who keep their cars for 100,000  200,000 miles or more. Tyson more than qualified...his Legend had 378,000 miles..and was not only running...but virtually flawless. That was our only meeting. We've stayed in sporadic touch by e-mail since.


Tyson Hugie's 1994 Acura Legend Coupe rear view
Rear view of Tyson Hugie's 1994 Acura Legend Coupe.
Tyson's a huge believer in maintenance. Anything that breaks gets fixed fast, and there's so much attention to upkeep that nothing much breaks.

And if you think he keeps it nice by not driving it much...remember that mileage? 378,000 two summers ago? Here's the odometer from this past weekend:


Tyson Hugie's 1994 Acura Legend Coupe odometer
Tyson's 1994 Acura Legend Coupe odometer reading as of this weekend.

That's right...now closing in on half a million miles. Tyson has driven 113,774 miles in 26 months. That's 4,375 miles a month. Testing two cars a week, I do maybe 2,000...2,400 tops. How's he do it?

He drives places. Interesting, faraway places:



Tyson Hugie and his 1994 Acura Legend Coupe at the Alaskan border
Tyson and the 1994 Acura Legend at the Alaskan border.

There are a lot of interesting adventures and insights wrapped up in getting a car to the 500,000 mile mark...and Tyson tells them best in his own blog devoted to getting there: DriveToFive (Legendary Quest for 500,000 Miles). He'll hit that milestone soon at this rate...so bookmark it now and start enjoying the ride.

8.29.2011

2011 Porsche Panamera Review


Rear 3/4 view of black 2011 Porsche Panamera parked on tarmac
The 2011 Porsche Panamera. "Controversial" doesn't begin to describe the styling.

The Nissan Juke. The Scion xB. Those are the two cars that have gotten the most negative comments about their styling while we were driving them. And by the most, I mean a 50/50 split on the xB, 60/40 negative/positive on the Juke.

The Porsche Panamera? 100% thumbs down.

Now, this is rare. Normally, when I roll up in a Porsche...any Porsche...even the Cayenne and especially the 911...there's a lot of oohing and aahing and "omigodiwantone" going on.

Not with the Panamera. "Looks like someone dropped a boulder on a 911" was the frequent review.


Front 3/4 view of black 2011 Porsche Panamera parked in rural setting
Approach the 2011 Porsche Panamera from the front the first few times. It'll help.

The good news is that, especially from the front, there is some family resemblance to the cars we've come to know and love from Porsche. And, while not blindingly fast, at least not in Panamera 4 all-wheel-drive form like our tester, it still is a very quick big sedan...0-60 in 5.8 seconds and a top speed of 159 miles per hour.

That performance is from the 3.6 liter V6, which cooks up 300 horsepower and 295 pounds per foot of torque. With a 7-speed automatic, the Panamera gets an EPA estimated 18 city/26 highway miles per gallon. Which, again, is very good for a big sedan. And it handles very, very well.


Tan leather and wood in 2011 Porsche Panamera interior
The four-seat interior of the 2011 Porsche Panamera.
Inside the car, you can't see what the car looks like on the outside, and you are in a very Porsche environment...at least a Porsche environment as defined by the Cayenne SUV. There's room for four, it's all very plush...but the Teutonic simplicity of the marque's best sports cars? No. Of course, you probably couldn't sell a luxury sedan equipped like that, but the Panamera went the exact opposite direction. There are forty-four buttons on the center console alone. Factor in window switches, audio system stuff and the rest, and the count throughout the cabin gets stratospheric.

The list of what comes with the car as standard equipment and what's optional is very long and highly dependent on whether you order the Panamera, Panamera S, Panamera 4, Panamera 4S, Panamera S Hybrid, Panamera Turbo or Panamera Turbo S, so we'll just let you surf over to Porsche's website to check it out for yourself.

As noted above, ours was the Panamera 4. Base price $79,800. And Porsche's press fleet folks added Basalt Black Metallic paint ($790), a ski bag ($405), auto dimming interior and exterior mirrors ($420), front heated seats ($525), heated steering wheel ($250), 19" Panamera Turbo wheels ($1,950), a Bose surround sound system ($1,440), SiriusXM radio ($750) and Porsche crest front headrests ($285). Bottom line including $975 destination charge: $87,590.

The only thing missing...at least to this Porschephile who's never met a 911 he didn't like? The roar of the engine. Porsche's sixes give off this wonderful wail when you tromp on the accelerator, but the Panamera V6 just gathers up speed silently. I wonder if the faster Panameras (the S hybrid makes 60 in 5.7 seconds with a top speed of 167, the S 5.2 and 175, the 4S 4.8 and 175, the Turbo 4.0 and 188 and the Turbo S 3.6 and 190) have any of that snarl or if it's all speed.  Hopefully Porsche will allow us to find out first-hand.

Again, you have to remember that the Panamera is new territory...Porsche's response to swoopy luxury sedans like the Mercedes-Benz CLS, Audi A7, Maserati Quattroporte and the Jaguar XJ. And by any objective measure, they've hit the target. 

2011 Infiniti G37 Coupe Review

Front 3/4 view of black 2011 Infiniti G37 in desert with tire tracks
The 2011 Infiniti G37 Coupe.


Just about three weeks ago, we sang the praises of the 2011 Infiniti G37 Sedan in a review here at TireKicker. Now it's the Infiniti G37 Coupe's turn.

The DNA is the same, there's just a level of style that the coupe brings (along with 2 more horsepower...a nice round 330).

Base price starts at $37,150, and as usual with Infiniti, you get a very complete car, should you wish to go no further: 18-inch aluminum alloy wheels, Intelligent Key, pushbutton start, leather-appointed seating, a 7-inch color display, a six-speaker AM/FM/CD/mp3/SiriusXM audio system, tilt/telescope steering column, a full complement of air bags, and a 7-speed automatic transmission, which helps reach the EPA mileage estimate of 19 city/27 highway.

Yep, the automatic is standard. If you want the six-speed stick, you need to specify the Sport 6MT trim level, which starts at $43,350, but throws in slicker wheels and standard satellite navigation. There's also an all-wheel-drive level, the G37x, which begins at $40,250.

Rear 3/4 view of blue 2011 Infiniti G37 Coupe parked in front of office building at night
Slick, sleek and shapely from the rear: The 2011 Infiniti G37 Coupe.

Our tester was the second level up, the Journey. It starts at $38,600 and adds a rear-view monitor, heated front seats and outside mirrors, dual-zone automatic climate control, Bluetooth and a USB connection to the audio system. All worthwhile things for a road-trip car, hence (I guess) the name Journey. Though how they manage that (or why they would want to) when Dodge has a model called Journey I'm not at all clear on.

Doesn't matter. The car drives like a dream. Five minutes at the wheel and you'll want one. And that's just the base coupe. As we said, the Journey adds things that make driving safer and more comfortable. And the Infiniti press fleet people added to that.


Interior of 2011 Infiniti G37 Coupe
The 2011 Infiniti G37 Coupe interior.

Not just a little....no, we're talking $8,450 worth of option packages.

There was the Technology Package ($1,200). Intelligent Cruise Control (maintains a set distance between you and the car in front of you...worked well...the first ones on the market 10 years ago didn't), rain-sensing windshield wipers, front pre-crash seat belts, advanced climate control system and brake assist with preview braking.

The Premium Package ($2,900). Power sliding tinted glass moonroof, rear parking sonar system, the Infiniti Studio on Wheels Premium Audio System by Bose, including a 2.0GB Music Box with 800MB storage, memory system for the driver's seat, which also gets power lumbar support, and the tilt/telescoping steering column gets powered. The audio system does sound great. The rest? $2,900 is a lot of money...and it was the most expensive option package.

The Sport Package ($1,900). Upgrade to the 19-inch aluminum alloy wheels with summer performance tires, add solid magnesium paddle shifters, a viscuous limited-slip differential, sport brakes with 4-piston front and 2-piston rear calipers, sport-tuned suspension and steering, a sport front fascia, 12-way driver and 8-way passenger sport seats with manual thigh extenders and aluminum pedals. Since most if not all of that actually goes into the driving experience of a very good sport coupe, I'd have no hesitation saying yes.

The Navigation Package ($1,850). A hard drive navigation system with DVD video playback, 3-D building graphics, Birdview, lane guidance, speed limit advisory, the Zagat Survey restaurant guide, voic recognition and an upgrade of the Music Box from 2.0GB to 9.3 gigs.

As we say when confronted with almost 2 grand for a nav system, "your phone does that".  Okay, maybe not the 3-D graphics and Birdview (which is just an effect that tips the map a bit so it looks like you're looking down on the city or wherever you are)...and not lane guidance or speed limit advisory (watch what lane you're in and read the street signs), but certainly maps and directions...and if you're even one generation behind the current iPhone and Android, there's a $9.99 app for Zagat and your phone probably can hold close to the 9.3 GB of music (the iPhone 4 comes in 16GB and 32GB models). Do you really need to drop $1,850?

And the final option: The Interior Accents Package ($600). High gloss maple interior accents. Looks nice. Purely a matter of taste and whether you think it's worth it.

With $875 for destination charges, our 2011 Infiniti G37 Coupe rang in at $46,975.  Lose the nav package and it's $45,125. Pass on the moonroof, sonar, Bose audio, memory driver's seat with lumbar and the electrified tilt/telescope steering column and it becomes $42,225.  And at that level, it's a wonderful car at a very fair price.

8.25.2011

2011 Chevrolet Camaro SS Convertible Review

Front 3/4 view of red 2011 Chevrolet Camaro SS Convertible parked with top down
The 2011 Chevrolet Camaro SS Convertible. Side effects may include elevated heart rate.
Go ahead, stare. I'll wait.

That, frankly, was the only thing that kept me from jumping in and twisting the key when they dropped off the 2011 Chevrolet Camaro SS Convertible. I had to look. For a long time. The thing was just incredibly gorgeous. A perfect blend of sensuality and menace.

Regular TireKicker readers know we haven't given a bad review to the re-born Camaro. We liked the SS coupe, and found that the 6-cylinder RS coupe was a big-time winner, as well. The only complaint we've ever had about the new Camaro was how dark the interior was...a combination of high doorsills, a low roof, minimal glass area and a sea of black plastic.

Rear 3/4 view of 2011 Chevrolet Camaro SS Convertible driving with top down
The 2011 Chevrolet Camaro SS Convertible from the rear. No, there is no bad angle.

Problem solved. Not only does the convertible allow light and visibility, with the top down, the Camaro looks slimmer, sleeker...and even more desirable.

My only complaint now? That Chevy remembered to come get it at the end of the week.

The tester was the Camaro 2SS Convertible. That takes the 426-horsepower 6.2 liter V8, 20-inch bright painted aluminum wheels, four-piston Brembo vented front disc brakes, SS front and rear styling treatment, seat embroidery and limited-slip differential and adds leather-appointed seats, a heads-up display, the four-gauge cluster on the console (just like the '67-'69), a Boston Acoustics 8-speaker premium audio system, Bluetooth and a USB port. Starting price: $39,650. Ours had just one option, the RS Package, which swapped out the wheels for 20X8s in the front and 20X9s in the rear, with a midnight silver finish, HID headlamps with a halo ring and RS taillamps. That's $1,200. Fold in $850 for destination charge, and the bottom line is $41.700.

Red and black leather interior of 2011 Chevrolet Camaro SS Convertible
The 2011 Chevrolet Camaro SS Convertible interior. Ahhh, much better.


So what's it like from behind the wheel? Fast. Like 4.8 to 60 and 13-second quarter miles. Furious...as in the engine note when you leave it in second and tromp on it (it makes great sounds in third and fourth, too). And then there's the other "F" word. Fun. Like little kids waving from inside the minivan in the next lane...teenagers doing 180s on their skateboards to look as you go by...pretty girls giving you looks (yes, it's the car...but you're IN it) you haven't seen in years.

And let's face it. There aren't many cars available today that can make all those things happen. There are some that can't make any of those things happen. And apart from a Mustang GT Convertible, there aren't any others who can make it happen for $41,700 as tested...and get an EPA estimated 16 city/24 highway in the process (the Mustang has 24 horsepower less, but is smaller, lighter and gets 17 city/26 highway).

When the ponycar and muscle car era of the late 60s came to a screeching halt in the early 70s, a lot of people thought the party was over for good. Well, it took a while, but not only are they back...they're better performers than they were 40-plus years ago.

Happy days are here again.

2011 Mazda RX-8 Review

Front 3/4 view of red 2011 Mazda RX-8 parked on racetrack
The 2011 Mazda RX-8. End of the line.

I plead coincidence. This review of the 2011 Mazda RX-8 was on my schedule for this week before Mazda's announcement on Tuesday that it was discontinuing production. So this is a review and a farewell.

For seven model years, the RX-8 has been something of an underachiever...never quite meeting expectations of performance set by its looks nor expectations of performance in sales.

Part of the problem was compromise. Staying true to a mission pays off in sporting machines (the Mazda MX-5 Miata being a textbook example), but the RX-8 came with two too many seats (the rear ones being virtually unusable) and two too many doors (though half-doors would be more a more accurate way to describe the openings used for rear-seat access). As a result, the immediate impression was one of awkwardness. A head-on competitor to the Nissan 370Z would have been more satisfying.

Beyond that, there were more issues: A small rotary engine (1.3 liters) with limited output (232 horsepower, 159 pounds per foot of torque) meant it felt slow off the line and needed to be revved high and driven hard to feel like a sporting machine. Which was a double-bind, because rotary engines aren't known for their fuel economy...and the best the EPA could come up with for an RX-8 estimate was 16 city/22 highway.  Put all that together with a vague shifter and (in early models) a startlingly touchy clutch (stall it at one light, chirp the tires at the next), and the recipe just wasn't there.

Rear 3/4 view of 2011 Mazda RX-8 driving
Rear view of the 2011 Mazda RX-8.
Well, Mazda fixed some of those things. I was surprised during my week in the 2011 Mazda RX-8 at how much better the car rode and handled (suspension upgrades), at how vastly improved the shifter and clutch were and how those improvements made the engine's power more accessible. It had been refined into a very enjoyable car, and for the price and equipment, not a bad choice in the segment.

Base price for the base model is $26,795. Our tester was the Grand Touring model, which begins at $32,260. And that's where ours stopped, too...no options, since the Grand Touring brings a huge list of standard features (18-inch aluminum alloy wheels, high performance tires, Xenon headlights, fog lights, automatic climate control, a 300-watt Bose AM/FM/SiriusXM/6-disc CD changer audio system with 9 speakers, power windows and locks, 8-way power driver's seat with 3 memory settings, leather-trimmed and heated front seats, leather-wrapped shift knob, leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio and cruise controls, and Bluetooth. Tack on the delivery charge and it's $33,055.



Interior shot of 2011 Mazda RX-8
The stylish and comfortable cabin of the 2011 Mazda RX-8.
So, the real story on the RX-8 is that it's ending just as it was getting good. If you want one, now's the time. Dealers are starting the clearance sales and Cars.com says that as of this writing, there are 216 left at U.S. dealers.

8.24.2011

TireKicker Turns Three!


blue balloon reading happy third birthday


On August 24, 2008, I sat down at a computer and prepared to type the first words that would be published under the TireKicker banner. Even though I'd been reviewing cars for eleven years at that point, I fought the urge to type "Is this thing on?", because I had no idea if anyone would ever see what I wrote.

Review #1 was a fairly straightforward (and very brief) review of the 2009 BMW 128i Convertible. Since then, hundreds more have followed. As have many thousands of readers.

This summer has been a time of huge growth for TireKicker: Inclusion in Technorati's Top 100 Auto Sites and an explosion in visitors and pageviews. Doing a quick check of the analytics today, I was happy to see that not only has the past month been another all-time record, but that, if we maintained the traffic levels we have today, it would only take us seven months to equal the total number of pageviews we've had in the first three years.

So, whether you're reading TireKicker for the first time or have been with us since the beginning, thank you. Please come back, feel free to use the comment button, and share with your friends using the handy e-mail, Blogger, Twitter, Facebook, Google Buzz and +1 tool at the bottom of each post.

Speaking of Facebook and Twitter, please take the time to "Like" TireKicker on Facebook. One of our next steps is unique content there that you won't want to miss. And please follow TireKicker on Twitter, too. Or for all that and more in one convienient package, download the free TireKicker Toolbar! It gives you one-click access and helps Alexa keep more accurate track of TireKicker's growth.

And finally, don't forget TireKicker Mobile...great for keeping tabs via your iPhone, Android or other smart phone.

Thanks again for your support!

8.23.2011

2011 Lincoln MKX Review

Front 3/4 view of dark red 2011 Lincoln MKX parked in front of brick building
The 2011 Lincoln MKX sports the new Lincoln grille.

Creativity works wonders. What you see above is the 2011 Lincoln MKX.  Under the skin, it's pretty much a Ford Edge, but skin matters, even (maybe especially) when that skin is sheetmetal. For while the MKX and the Edge look a lot alike from the front wheels back when viewed from the side,  the current Lincoln grille...meant to evoke the original pre-War (as in WWII) Continental...makes a big, bold impression.

It's certainly more contemporary (who knew?) than the first MKX grille, meant to evoke a Continental 20 years more recent. Our review of that MKX was almost three years ago, so it was time for a refresher run, arranged through Fiesta Lincoln in Mesa, Arizona, who let us have a week in one.

Rear 3/4 view of dark red 2011 Lincoln MKX parked in front of brick building
Rear view of the 2011 Lincoln MKX.
The good news is that the MKX has improved in every possible way since our last test drive. $39,415 is the starting point for the front-wheel drive model (all-wheel drive begins at $41,265) and that includes a 3.7 liter Variable Cam Timing V6 that makes 305 horsepower with a six-speed SelectShift automatic transmission. And the six-speed results in great fuel economy for the weight and the power...an EPA estimate of 19 city/26 highway (as they say in the commercials, your mileage may vary...we only managed 17.6 in a 60/40 mix of city streets and urban freeways).

And, like so many vehicles, base price buys you a nicely loaded machine. In fact, ours had no options on it whatsoever. The standard equipment? 18-inch premium painted aluminum wheels, fog lamps, heated power windows with memory and security approach lamps, a power liftgate, dual exhausts with chrome tips, leather seats (10-way power adjustable, heated and cooled for the driver and front passenger), the MyLincolnTouch system with AM/FM/Sirius/CD/mp3/SYNC audio, tilt/telescope steering column, 4-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, remote keyless entry and start, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, reverse sensing system, a full compliment of airbags, anti-theft and tire pressure monitoring.

Interior shot of 2011 Lincoln MKX
The 2011 Lincoln MKX interior.
The interior? Well, it looks and feels like a premium machine. The MKX has power and handling that puts it right in the hunt with segment leaders like the Lexus RX350. And Lincoln steps up with some attractive warranty and maintenance, too: 4 years/50,000 miles bumper to bumper, 6 years/70,000 miles powertrain and 4 years/50,000 miles complimentary scheduled maintenance.

The only thing that put the total MSRP over $40,000 was the $850 destination and delivery charge. Otherwise, the car began and ended at $39,415. A screaming deal in this class.

Yes, you can spend more. There's a Premium Package, an Elite Package, a Limited Edition Package, upgraded wheels, DVD systems, a trailer towing package, a wood package...you can break $50,000 without even checking the all-wheel-drive option. And if you do, you'll have all the bells and whistles.

But if you don't, if you just buy the base 2011 Lincoln MKX, you'll be getting a terrific luxury crossover for less than $40,000 (plus destination and delivery). And these days, that's gotta count for something.

2011 Chevrolet Equinox Review

Front 3/4 view of silver 2011 Chevrolet Equinox
The 2011 Chevrolet Equinox.

The same knee-jerk that put drivers into SUVs last decade is taking a lot of them out, and in a lot of cases that's an over-reaction, too. The answer for many isn't "no SUV", it's a smarter, right-sized SUV, which in most cases means a crossover.

It's been a while since we've done a review of a Chevrolet Equinox, so we borrowed one from Courtesy Chevrolet in Phoenix for a week.

Chevy's done a great job of covering a wide price range with the Equinox, which is its smallest crossover. The base model (LS) starts at $22,995 in front-wheel drive. There are three trim levels up from there (1LT, 2LT and LTZ) and all four are also available in all-wheel drive.

Ours was the front-wheel drive LTZ. Base price $28,570. That'll get you the 2.4 liter 4-cylinder ECOTEC engine with 182 horsepower hooked up to a 6-speed automatic transmission and some nice EPA fuel economy estimates: 22 city/32 highway. Also on the standard goodies list: Four wheel anti-lock disc brakes, Stabilitrak, remote keyless entry, OnStar, a rear-view camera, Ultrasonic parking assist, programmable power lifgate, heated power outside mirrors, 17-inch aluminum sheels, fog lamps, projector beam headlamps, and and exterior chrome package.

Interior shot of 2011 Chevrolet Equinox
Inside, the 2011 Chevrolet Equinox is comfortable and, in LTZ trim, loaded.
The standard equipment list for the interior is pretty long, too: Leather appointed seats with heated front buckets, 8-way power memory driver's seat and memory mirrors, sliding and reclining rear seats, automatic climate control, cargo net, cover and cross rails, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, cruise control, AM/FM/SiriusXM/CD 8-speaker Pioneer audio system, Bluetooth, outside temperature and compass, self-dimming rear view mirror and leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls.

Again, that's all part of the deal at $28,570. Not bad. In fact, very good. Good enough, in fact, that ours added only two options: 19-inch chrome-clad aluminum wheels ($1,250) and the 3.0 liter V6 engine ($1,500).

Rear 3/4 view of 2011 Chevrolet Equinox

About the engine...it's a big step up in power...to 264 horses. It's great. But it's also never going to get you anywhere near the mileage of the standard four. In fact, in 60% city street and 40% urban freeway driving, we averaged 16.5 miles per gallon (the EPA estimates 17 city/24 highway for the V6). If your driving includes mountain passes, that may be a trade worth making. If, on the other hand, you're mostly doing city-street commuting, seriously consider sticking with the ECOTEC four. 

With the V6, the Equinox's bottom line was $32,130. Stick with the four and stick with the stock 17-inch wheels, and she'd come in at $29,380.

Chevy says the Equinox's prime competition is the Toyota RAV4, the Honda CR-V and the Ford Escape, all three well into their product cycle. The Equinox is by far the freshest of the four and should be on your  list.

8.19.2011

2011 Ford Shelby GT500 Review


Front view of white 2011 Ford Shelby GT500 with red stripes and Cobra emblem in grille
The 2011 Ford Shelby GT500 grille fairly screams "power". It can back it up.
When you're a professional TireKicker (automotive journalist, car review writer), the keys to the dream machines come at you in random fashion, with no rhyme or reason. My second review vehicle ever, in my second week in the business, was a (then-new) 1998 Chevrolet Corvette. It only took a shade over two years for Rolls-Royce to call and ask "if I'd do them the favor" of reviewing the 2000 Rolls-Royce Corniche convertible (at the time one of only 7 on the North American continent). In less than 5, Bentley put a $430,000 Continental T in my care for a week.

But it's taken until now, three years into TireKicker (our 3rd anniversary is Wednesday, August 24), almost fourteen years of writing car reviews, and 46 years of staring, lusting and imagining, for a set of keys that fit a machine with the word "SHELBY" on it to make their way into my hands.

Good Lord, it was worth waiting for. Every bit as much as the 'Vette and the Bentley (the Rolls, sorry to say, was a disappointment...it drove like my mom's 1970 Mercury Monterey, if the Merc had weighed an extra ton, was dripping in the finest wood, leather and lamb's wool money can buy and had been hand-built on a bad day...gloveboxes should not take two people and ten minutes to open. The good news is that in the intervening eleven years, BMW has taken control and builds a magnificent Rolls-Royce).


Front wheel of white 2011 Ford Shelby GT 500 showing SVT logo on wheel, "GT500" on stripe and chrome Cobra badge
The business end of the 2011 Ford Shelby GT500. P255/40R19 tires, 14-inch Brembo vented disc brakes and the silver Cobra poised and ready to strike.

Is it the engine, the howling beast of a 5.4 liter supercharged V8, churning out 148 horsepower and 130 pounds per foot of torque more than the remarkable 2011 Ford Mustang GT?

Well, no question, the engine is incredible, as you would imagine 550 horsepower and a six-speed manual in a 3,820 pound Mustang body would be. But the real story, the big revelation for me, was how much of what's in the Shelby GT500 is dedicated to applying that power to the road,, making sure none of it gets wasted shaking the car and scaring the driver. Hey, it was a Shelby that scared the hell out of Bill Cosby:


But the 2011 Shelby GT500 is brilliantly engineered. A chunk of the $16,000 difference in MSRP between the Mustang GT and the Shelby GT500 is in tightening the Mustang up, sharpening its reflexes, making sure it's not overwhelmed by the horsepower. And it works.

Interior shot of 2011 Ford Shelby GT500
The 2011 Ford Shelby GT500 interior. "Drive", the voice in my head said. He didn't have to ask me twice.

From the moment you slide behind the wheel of the Shelby GT500, you're impressed by how much it improves on the Mustang. The 1965 Shelby GT350 was a more powerful but also much more crude 1965 Ford Mustang. The 2011 Shelby GT500 mixes in brute power with upgrades and refinements. It justifies its $48,645 base price with every corner you take at an ever-higher speed, with each burst of power in which you realize your kidneys aren't taking a beating and your fillings are staying in your teeth.

As you drive it and explore its performance capabilities, you begin to realize that this isn't an expensive Mustang, it's a bargain performance machine.

Incredibly, there are options, of which our tester had two: The Electronics Package (voice-activated navigation with Sirius Traffic and Sirius Travel Link, HD Radio and dual-zone electronic climate control) for $2,340 and the SVT Performance Package (upgrading to P265/40R19 front and P285/35R20 rear tires in place of the stock 19s front and rear, new 19 and 20 inch wheels, a decklid spoiler, a 3.73 limited slip axle, replacing the stock 3.55, side stripe and racing stripe) for $3,495.

Add the $850 for destination and delivery charges and the bottom line is $55,330.  Yeah, that's $18,000 more than a Mustang GT. It's also a chunk less than any other car with its performance capabilities.

EPA estimates (betcha thought I forgot): 15 city/23 highway. Thank the six-speed manual for that. And say hello to the newest entry on the list of TireKicker's Top 10 Cars (so far).

2011 Nissan Armada Review

Front 3/4 view of gray 2011 Nissan Armada in front of bare trees
The 2011 Nissan Armada.  A huge SUV in a changing automotive world.


It's always good to remember when reading (or writing) an auto review that of all the resources manufacturers have at their disposal, a crystal ball is not one of them. Work begins on the next generation of vehicles sometimes before the first hits the showroom floor, and designs and dimensions get locked in early. When the game changes, often the player has to remain the same.

That's pretty much the story of the Nissan Armada. It was designed when full-size SUVs like the Chevy Tahoe, Ford Expedition, Toyota Sequoia and GMC Yukon could do no wrong in the marketplace.

And then everything changed.

As a result, the Nissan Armada feels a bit like a time machine, something of a different age (though its competitors listed above are in exactly the same boat).

Side view of gray 2011 Nissan Armada in rural setting
The 2011 Nissan Armada. Room for 8 people and 28 gallons of gas.


Speaking of boats, my dad would have called something this big a "boat". But Nissan named this the Armada, which means "whole fleet of boats". It's really not significantly larger than any full-size SUV we've reviewed, but the packaging makes it feel like it is. It's long, wide and tall, seats 8, weighs 5,346 pounds (without the 8 people) and has a 317-horsepower 5.6 liter V8 to move all that.

All things considered, the engine does a good job moving the weight at a reasonable pace and the handling isn't bad, either. Not sporting, but not bad. That's most likely thanks to rack and pinion steering, 4-wheel independent suspension, and four-wheel disc brakes with ABS are an important part of the package...helping stop the kind of momentum that an Armada at speed has.

With a 5-speed automatic transmission and 634 pounds shy of three tons to move, however, gas mileage is not part of the good news. The EPA says 12 city/18 highway, and what we saw in our week at the wheel tells us that's probably about right. You'll get decent range out of a tank because it's a big tank...28 gallons. But at $3.50 a gallon, re-filling an empty tank will set you back $98.

Interior shot of 2011 Nissan Armada
2011 Nissan Armada: The view from the deck.
The Nissan Armada we drove was the SL 4X4, middle of the three trim levels (SV, SL and Platinum). At $2,450 above the SV 4X4's MSRP of $44,090, it adds some fairly serious towing capability (9,000 pounds), leather-appointed seats, 20-inch aluminum alloy wheels replace the SV's 18-inchers, plus fog lamps, heated front seats, a chrome grille, roof rack, power liftgate, side molding inserts and exhaust finisher, a rear-view camera, an upgrade to a Bose audio system with SiriusXM Satellite Radio, keyless entry, Bluetooth, a four-way power front passenger seat and a power flat-folding third row seat.

That strikes us as a fair deal. And if you want to go full-boat (sorry), the Platinum 4X4 will take $7,250 more of your money than the SL and add navigation, DVD, sonar, a moonroof and a bunch more goodies. But that's $53,790.

The Nissan Armada SL we had strikes me as the best choice at an MSRP of $45,640 and an as-tested sticker of $46,810 ($950 delivery charges and only one option...floor and cargo mats for $220).

But should you choose the Armada? Well, if you need a full-size four-wheel-drive SUV (and many folks truly do), yes. The fact is that the entire segment is made up of fully mature vehicles, closing in on either a major re-freshening, re-design or re-think. At this stage, the Nissan Armada isn't really any less advanced than the others. Choosing between them is really a matter of personal taste.

8.17.2011

New Car Review: 2012 Mazda 5 Sport

Front 3/4 view of blue 2012 Mazda 5 in motion
The 2012 Mazda 5. The last "mini" minivan?

You've probably noticed, but the "mini" has been gone from most minivans for a decade or more now. The Honda Odyssey is only 7 inches shorter than a 1964 Chevrolet Impala...and those were big cars.

Mazda's been bucking the trend all along...the vehicle once called the MPV and now the Mazda 5 has never suffered from mission creep. Sales, however, have suffered, as buyers shell out for the ever-bigger not-so-minivans.

For 2012, there's an all-new Mazda 5 and....Mazda's stuck to its guns. The 5 is 22 inches...almost two feet....shorter than the Odyssey...20 inches trimmer than the Toyota Sienna.

Blue 2012 Mazda 5 rear view in motion
The 2012 Mazda 5 has smoothly flowing lines that look even better in person.
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Now, don't get us wrong. We love the Sienna (the Odyssey? Beats us. Honda hasn't put one in our hands in three years of TireKicker). But not everybody needs that much minivan.

The 2012 Mazda 5 is about the size of the minivan as it's known in Europe. How well does that work here? Well, we arranged to borrow one for a week from Chapman Mazda in Phoenix so we could see for ourselves.

The answer? It's terrific. Small size and lighter weight help make the new 5 a joy to maneuver in city traffic...and Mazda's commitment to building vehicles that are fun to drive doesn't have an asterisk after it that says "except for minivans".

157 horsepower from a 16-valve DOHC four is more than adequate to move this lighter machine, and even with a 5-speed automatic (as opposed to 6 or more), the mileage estimates are very good for a minivan (EPA says 21 city/28 highway).

The styling? Love it. There's character, fluidity, a sense of playfulness merged with purpose that promises you will have fun driving it. Take a glance at the picture below. That's a six-speed manual gearbox sticking out of the console. Yes, a minivan with a manual.  Just order the Sport model. It'll cost you $1,000 less than the automatic.

Oh, yeah....price.

2012 Mazda 5 interior
The 2012 Mazda 5 minivan interior with 6-speed manual transmission.

The big minivans start within a stone's throw of $30,000. The top-of-the-line Sienna we tested last year topped out at $45,000 and change.

The Mazda 5 Sport?

$20,195. That's with the automatic. $19,195 with the six-speed.

That's for three rows of seats (two seats per row...total of six), 16-inch alloy wheels, power mirrors, halogen headlights, rear wiper with washer, captains chairs, a fold-out table for the second row, automatic climate control, a 6-speaker audio system, tilt & telescoping steering column, power windows and locks and remote keyless entry.

$795 for delivery and handling and the one we borrowed from Chapman rang in at $20,990. It was absolutely stock...zero options. And it was terrific. If it had been a stick, it would have stopped ten bucks shy of 20 grand.

There are people who need every inch of room in the sumo-class minivans. But you might not be one of them. The Mazda 5 is the first of a new wave of smaller minivans (Ford's on the way with the C-Max, though that will be sold in hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions only, and there will be others), but there's no need to wait. The 5 is here now and it's very, very good.

8.16.2011

2011 Toyota Venza Review

Front 3/4 view of brown 2011 Toyota Venza parked in front of building
The 2011 Toyota Venza. It's like the return of the Camry wagon, but better.

Mysteries abound in the automotive world, and one I've not been able to figure out the past couple of years is why the Toyota Venza isn't an off-the-charts success.

Introduced at the time when the SUV game shifted from trucks to crossovers, the Venza was positioned right in the sweet spot of that group. You can get it with a four-cylinder or six-cylinder engine. It's got clean looks, lots of space....what's not to like?

Rear 3/4 view of brown 2011 Toyota Venza
The 2011 Toyota Venza comes with 20-inch alloy wheels standard.
If you expected that I'd have the answer to that question after our most recent week in a Venza, well...I hate to disappoint you, but I don't. This thing screams "winner" to me.

The test vehicle from the Toyota fleet was a front-wheel drive six-cylinder (you can get both the four and the six in either front-wheel or all-wheel drive) and started with a base price of $28,300. The six in question is a 3.5 liter DOHC 24-valve V6 that makes 268 horsepower. It's coupled fo a six-speed automatic transmission, and as a result, gets more than respectable mileage for something in its size class (EPA estimate: 19 city/26 highway).

20-inch alloy wheels are part of the deal, as are electric power steering, four-wheel disc brakes, four-wheel independent suspension, stability control, traction control, anti-lock brakes with Smart Stop technology, tire pressure monitoring, projector-beam headlamps with integrated fog lights, variable intermittent windshield wipers, dual-zone climate control with air filter, an AM/FM/XM/CD/mp3 6-speaker audio system with USB, Bluetooth and an auxilary jack, a 3.5 inch multi-information display, 8-way power adjustable driver's seat, tilt/telescope steering wheel, auto-dimming rear view mirror, power windows, remote keyless entry and cruise control.

Now let me stop for a second and point something out, because this is the umpteenth car in a row that TireKicker's tested that had a standard equipment list that looks like a car loaded with options from just five years ago. And consider the price again: $28,300. With all that. And 19city/26 highway.  Can you explain to me why Toyota isn't selling at least as many of these as they do RAV4s (the last one of which we tested cost 2 grand more with not much more in the way of amenities and considerably less space)? If so, click the comments button.


Interior shot of 2011 Toyota Venza
The 2011 Toyota Venza interior. Tons of Lexus influence.

Of course, there are options available and the Toyota press fleet folks found $9,179 worth to put on our test vehicle:
  • A rear-seat DVD entertainment system with a 9-inch display and two wireless headphones for $1,680.
  • Premium Package #2 (leather-trimmed seating surfaces, 4-way power adjustable passenger seat with power lumbar support, multi-stage heated front seats, satin mahogany wood-grain style interior trim, leather-trimmed steering wheel and shift knob with satin mahogany wood-grain style inlay, High Intensity Discarhge headlamps with automatic high beams, Smart Key with pushbutton start and remote illuminated entry, power liftgate, chrome-accented door handles, backup camera, anti-theft alarm system, color-keyed power heated outside mirrors with folding feature and windshield wiper de-icer) for $4,345.
  • Voice-activated touch-screen DVD navigation system with an audio system upgrade including JBL amplifiers and 13 speakers, a four-disc CD changer and CD-text display function for $2,580.
  • The  tow prep package, with an engine oil cooler, larger radiator fan and heavy-duty alternator for $220.
  • Floormats and cargo mat for $269.
  • "Courtesy Deliver Veh/TMS/NFS" (huh?) for $85.
That and $760 for delivery add up to $38,239.

Bet you're waiting for me to say "buy the base car", huh?

Well, yes....and no. Absolutely buy the base car. It's loaded and a steal at a price that even with destination charges gives you almost a thousand dollars in change back from your $30,000 bill.

But if you want the luxury and have the money, load it up the way Toyota did ours and you've got a discount Lexus RX350. Which is yet one more market for the Venza, and one more way in which I can't understand why you don't see one at every stoplight every day of the week.

8.12.2011

2011 Porsche Cayenne Hybrid Review

Front 3/4 view from above of white 2011 Porsche Cayenne Hybrid parked next to water
The 2011 Porsche Cayenne Hybrid. Green with grins.

The very idea of a Porsche hybrid takes some big-time explaining for a lot of people. A $67,700 Porsche hybrid SUV even more so.

The Porsche Cayenne is the SUV in question, and to a lot of Porsche purists, it was the Porsche that wasn't supposed to be built anyway. It was counter to the marque's mission of building laser-focused sports cars with 2 doors and low centers of gravity.

But the Cayenne has been a success. Porsche builds a lot of them and has built market share squarely on its broad shoulders. And since powerful SUVs have taken the biggest hit when gas prices get squirrely, wouldn't they be the perfect place to employ a little hybrid technology?

Side view of white 2011 Porsche Cayenne Hybrid
The 2011 Porsche Cayenne Hybrid. A few extra MPG for a couple extra Gs.

Hybrid luxo-SUVs aren't new anyway...three years ago, when TireKicker was a toddler, we spent in a week in and then wrote about the Cadillac Escalade Hybrid...which, in 2008 was 5 grand more than this year's Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid.  The Porsche has the edge on performance (0-60 in 6.1 seconds), handling (elementary physics) and, as it turns out, gas mileage, though neither of them pump up the EPA estimates to Prius levels.

In fact, the Hybrid Cayenne S only gets about 2 miles more per gallon in the city and on the highway  (20/24) than the non-hybrid version. But Porsche only charges a couple of grand more to make the gas/electric leap.

Interior view of 2011 Porsche Cayenne Hybrid
The 2011 Porsche Cayenne Hybrid Interior. You could get used to this.

$67,700 might strike you as something of a bargain for the Cayenne S Hybrid...and you're right. For what you get, that's a fairly compelling base price. But with Porsche, the difference between base price and as-tested price often jumps by the price of a loaded Honda Fit once you get into the optional equipment. And that's what happened to our test vehicle. About $16,000 worth of options got poured onto and into the machine ($4520 of it for the Convenience Package alone), for an endgame (including destination charges of $84,950.

Yes, that's very different from $67,700, but it's not out of the territory for Porsche buyers...who, with the Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid, get arguably the best of all worlds: An SUV that saves a bit of gas and a bit of the planet because it's a hybrid, and is a Porsche.

Try as you might (and a lot of journalists have tried very hard the past few years to poke holes in the Cayenne), it's tough to find fault with the finished product. It works like an SUV, goes and handles like a Porsche (okay, the center of gravity does affect things...but there's no other SUV that can play in the twisties like this one) and the hybrid system is unobtrusive.  A dealer-accompanied half-hour test drive will have you wanting one. A week unsupervised (as we got) just makes it worse. If Porsche sent it back to us tomorrow, we'd be happy campers.

8.11.2011

2011 Nissan Juke SL FWD Review


Front 3/4 view of silver 2011 Nissan Juke
The 2011 Nissan Juke. Beauty is as....um....

So, if a Pontiac Aztek mated with a....

Let's just deal with the appearance issues surrounding the Nissan Juke right away, shall we?

It's an acquired taste. And I haven't acquired it yet. It looks to me like maybe Nissan's styling department has decided to pay tribute to the 1977 Datsun F-10. Don't remember that one? Here ya go:

Period photo of 1977 Datsun F-10
The 1977 Datsun F-10. No, kids, this isn't the Onion. It's real.

But while the F-10 had virtually nothing to recommend it 35 years ago, the Juke is a surprisingly entertaining drive.

Sitting where you can't see the styling, you press the gas pedal and a 188-horsepower 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder (with 177 pounds per foot of torque) takes off rightnow. You can shift it yourself, or as in the case of our tester, opt for the Continuously Variable Transmission, and, as we've noted before, Nissan makes the best CVTs on the market today.

The Juke backs up the go power with stopping power...vented front disc brakes and solid rear disc brakes. And for in between launch and landing, the handling is remarkably good too..with front wheel drive, speed-sensitive electric power steering, an independent front suspension, torsion beam rear suspension and front and rear stabilizer bars.

Rear view of silver 2011 Nissan Juke
The 2011 Nissan Juke's rear hints at the amount of junk that will fit in the trunk.

The tall and wide styling makes the Juke spacious for people and their things...and it's loaded with safety features like a full complement of air bags, active head restraints, seat belt pretensioners, anti-lock brakes, vehicle dynamic control with traction control system, electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist.

Interior of 2011 Nissan Juke

And the inside...well, stuff gets stylish (in a funky kind of way). The color accents brighten up what could be a drab cabin, and in SL trim, the Juke is very well-equipped with leather-appointed seats, steering wheel and shift knob, steering wheel controls for audio and cruise, a 6-speaker (plus Rockford Fosgate subwoofer and amplifier) AM/FM/Sirius XM/CD/mp3 audio system with USB connection and Bluetooth, navigation including XM NavTraffic with a 5-inch color screen, pushbutton start, power locks, windows and a power sliding moonroof. That's all standard for $23,050.

The test car we had for a week had only three options...stainless steel exhaust finish for $95, carpeted floormats and cargo mat for $175 and the rear roof spoiler for $390. Tack on the $750 destination charge and the bottom line is $24,455...which is a bargain for the fun-to-drive quotient. And it gets good mileage (EPA estimate 27 city/32 highway).

The question: Can you get past the looks long enough for a test drive? And if you agreed with my assessment of the car's capabilities, would you overlook its styling and buy it?  Click the comment button and let's discuss.