Toyota Corolla XLE Review

The theory of evolution as applied to small Japanese cars:

Today's Corolla is nicer than yesterday's Camry.

Especially the top-of-the-line XLE sedan. Base price $17,550...buying as standard equipment what used to be Lexus-type options (six-speaker stereo, power everything). The tester I had added an upgraded audio system with Bluetooth, 8 speakers and steering wheel controls, an all-weather package and a set of floor and trunk mats. Price with delivery charges: Still under $20,000. The EPA says 27 city/35 highway, which vaults it into TireKicker's Top Ten Fuel Savers.

If you're trading a six-year old (or older) Camry, this Corolla will feel like you're trading up nicely.

Kia Sportage EX 4X4 Review

They grow up so fast.

Yes, the phrase is usually associated with children, but in this case, I'm talking about small SUVs in general and the Kia Sportage in particular.

Not too long ago, the Sportage looked like a pretty risky purchase...a step or two up the evolutionary ladder from such mini-SUV forerunners as the Suzuki Samurai.

But time and Kia's constant quest for improvement has made the Sportage look like a sensible choice. Lay down $23,205 for a top of the line EX 4X4 (2 wheel drive LXs with manual transmissions start at a mere $16,360) and you get a 2.7 liter V6 engine, four wheel drive, a four-speed automatic, power four-wheel disc anti-lock brakes, air conditioning, a sunroof, power windows, doors and mirrors, a six-speaker AM/FM/CD audio system (with a cassette player...one of the few cars where you still have that option), trip computer and bunches more.

The tester I sampled for a week had one lone option...a $1,300 Luxury Package which added leather, heated front seats, automatic headlamps and an auto-dimming inside mirror. Oh, yeah...and a subwoofer for the audio system. Bottom line: Under $25,000. And that's for a vehicle that seats five reasonably, gets five-star crash ratings in all categories (four stars for rollover) and manages a respectable 17 city/21 highway in the EPA test (go bare-bones with the 4-cylinder and that jumps to 20 city/25 highway).

If your concept of a Kia Sportage is based on the original, take a look and a drive in an '09.


Chevrolet Malibu LTZ Review

One week.

300-plus miles.

Ten or more hours of total seat time.

I confess.

I thought it was a V6.

Imagine my surprise, then, when breaking out my notes and the window sticker from GM to find that the more-than-adequate acceleration and creamy smoothness I loved so much in the Chevrolet Malibu LTZ...was from a four-cylinder engine.

The 2.4 liter DOHC Ecotec is nothing short of a revelation...and puts Malibu in the same ballpark as the Honda Accord (most of which are sold with fours).

But wait! There's more! Teamed (as the test car was) with a six-speed automatic transmission, the Malibu gets an EPA estimated 22 city/33 highway miles per gallon...which is 2 MPG better in both city and highway than the four-cylinder Honda and gets it a place on the TireKicker Top Ten Fuel Savers list. Or did, until it was bumped off by the Toyota Corolla XLE Sedan.

The LTZ brings a lot of features to the party...18 inch wheels, touring tires, chrome exhaust tip, automatic climate control, a premium audio system, XM Satellite Radio, Bluetooth and more. Base price: $27,550. Price as tested (with two options, the Rear Power Package...great for laptop or game-toting passengers...and Red Jewel Tintcoat paint): $28,745. And in my book, every bit a match for the Accord (which I love). And then there's the five-star crash ratings (four stars for rollover).

So which would I choose? Hey, if GM can build a family sedan this good, this satisfying, this right on the mark, I wouldn't penalize them (especially now, when their survival is at stake) by buying the competition. They've earned every dollar they can make on the Malibu.

Nissan Altima Coupe 3.5 SE Review

Always admired the rakish good looks of the Infiniti G37 Coupe but wished the price were a little lower?

Nissan's been listening. The Nissan Altima Coupe has a lot of the same attitude and style for a chunk less change. Yes, you give up 60 horsepower, but only 12 pounds per feet of torque, so the off-the-line thrills are in the ballpark. And let's be honest...270 horsepower in a car this size is nothing to sneeze at. And there's a bunch of good stuff in the SE trim level...18 inch alumnium wheels, 8-way power driver's seat, a power moonroof, an AM/FM/CD audio system with six speakers and a bunch more for a starting price of $26,390...nine grand less than the Infiniti G Coupe.

In fact, the Altima Coupe SE is so complete the one I tested had only two options...floor and trunk mats ($175) and Vehicle Dynamic Control ($600). Total price, including destination charges, $27,780. Not too shabby. Mileage is decent, too...EPA says 19 city, 26 highway. Very much worth a look and a test drive.


Kia Sedona EX Review

I've got to hand it to Kia. While they're rapidly improving every single product they make, they made sure that their biggest achievement would be right in the heart of the market.

Kia benchmarked the best minivans in the business (Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna, Chrysler Town & Country) when designing the current Sedona...and it shows. The Sedona hits virtually every target, delivering 9/10ths of what Honda and Toyota do and arguably tying Chrysler, for a much lower price.

Minivans these days are $40,000 vehicles when you finish loading them up with the options. The Sedona EX I tested for a week started at $26,565...leaving a lot of room for a lot of options (The Luxury Package with leather, heated front seats, memory, adjustable pedals, three-zone climate control, sunroof, backup warning system, steering wheel audio controls and an engine immobilizer; The Premium Entertainment Package inlcuding a DVD player with 8-inch monitor, Infinity Audio system with mp3 and a CD changer and Infinity Surround Sound; The Power Package which means power sliding side doors and power liftgate; Cross bars and a tow hitch).

Bottom line for this loaded minivan? $33,000. A good five to seven grand less than the benchmarked competition. And the Sedona gets five stars in the frontal and side crash tests, four for rollover and packs an EPA estimated 16 city/23 highway mile per gallon estimate besides.

Minivans are bought on utility and value and the Kia Sedona aces both tests handily.

Dodge Avenger SXT Review

Looks aggressive, doesn't it? That's what Dodge was aiming for...to create a "Charger's Little Brother" image for the mid-size Avenger.

Unfortunately, the fun pretty much stops with the appearance. The Avenger's not a bad car by any means, but that's nowhere near enough in a segment where the competition includes the Honda Accord, the Chevy Malibu, the Ford Fusion, the Nissan Altima and the Toyota Camry.

Chrysler's mid-size offerings have been running behind this pack for years...and while the Avenger beats the old Dodge Stratus by a mile...it still comes up short in materials and refinement. The wrapper says "NASCAR"...the inside and the driving experience say "Rental Car".

There are upsides...a base price of $22,240, EPA fuel economy estimates of 19 city/27 highway and a five-star front seat side crash rating (four stars for the rear seat)...but unless you're shopping purely on price and don't care what else you could get for about the same money, there are just too many other choices.


Chevrolet Corvette Z06 Review

The second car I ever tested as a professional TireKicker 11 years ago was the 1998 Corvette. Zero to 60 was 5.3 seconds. Top speed was 171 miles per hour. Price tag: $45,000 as equipped.

It was the fastest, most incredible thing I'd ever driven.

Well, 11 years can change a lot. I've driven 1,375 cars since then, for starters. But the Corvette has changed too...especially when you step up to the Z06. Try zero to 60 in 3.7 seconds. Top speed 198 miles per hour. And the price tag? $82,065 as equipped.

As Carroll Shelby used to say, speed costs money.

Actually, the base price of a Z06 is $72,405...but the one GM sent me for a week had a $6,515 "3LZ Premium Equipment Group" (Upgraded Bose audio system, power telescoping steering wheel, heated seats, memory package, universal home remote, side impact airbags, a luggage shade and parcel net, Bluetooth, and a custom leather-wrapped interior). There was also $1,995 worth of Z06 Original Chrome Aluminum wheels and $300 for Atomic Orange Metallic paint (which looked stunning in direct sunlight).

I'd love to tell you what this car is like at wide open throttle, but c'mon...half throttle is enough to jeopardize your future of a licensed driver in less than the time it took to read this sentence. Way less. Let's just say that this is Chuck Yeager jet jockey X-15 rocket stuff. Brute strength in a candy-colored wrapper.

It's also surprisingly livable for what began essentially as the track version of the 'Vette (standard Corvettes still start around $46,000 base price, though it will take you 4.1 seconds to get to 60 and you surrender 8 miles per hour of top speed...can you live with only 190?).

And, the factoid that I love to use to shock people with: It gets great mileage. The EPA says 15 city/24 highway. If you can square that with 505 horsepower in less than ten seconds, congratulations...that piece of data alone can usually launch a ten minute argument.

Look, Corvettes not only aren't for everybody, they aren't for most people. That's the point. It's an exercise in awe...executed precisely because they (the engineers) can (or at least could).

I have only two questions: How much more incredible is the ZR1 (630 horsepower)? And will GM be making these (or any) cars much longer?

We should all hope so.

Toyota Corolla Matrix XRS/Pontiac Vibe GT Review

The above could probably make a pretty good puzzle. You know..."find at least x number of differences between these two pictures".

Well, I'll jump straight to the answers. The top picture is the Toyota Corolla Matrix and the bottom shot is the Pontiac Vibe GT. And, apart from some exterior styling cues, they are the same vehicle.

Wait...what? Toyota and Pontiac? The same car? Yep. This is the current fruit of a partnership between GM and Toyota going back to the 1980s, which produced the short-lived Geo. The cars are built here in the U.S. (the Toyotas in Detroit and the Pontiac in Fremont, California, near San Francisco), using 61% American parts and 39% Japanese.

Essentially, it's a five-door hatchback version of a Corolla (which is why that name is part of the Toyota version). If you need a competitor to help pigeonhole the Corolla Matrix/Vibe, the Chrysler PT Cruiser is probably the one to think of: We're talking small sedans made more versatile with the hatchback. And the Matrix/Vibe, especially the new for 2009 models, are more fun to drive.

The Pontiac gets the edge because of little things like OnStar, 3 months free of XM Satellite Radio and bigger things like a better warranty. But it's not likely to break and the Toyota is likely to have better resale value, for no reason other than brand prejudices. Dealers can sell used Toyotas better than used Pontiacs, even when they're the same car.

Pick either and you'll get an EPA estimated 21 city/29 highway miles per gallon with an automatic transmission (inexplicably, the number drops to 21/28 with a stick), the same standard features and the same options, more or less. Base prices are within a few hundred dollars of each other (the XRS and GT are the top of the line and start around $21,000...you can get the base models of Matrix/Vibe for the low $16,000s).

If you've driven the previous generation Matrix/Vibe, test drive the new '09...both are hugely improved.


Kia Sorento EX 4X4 Review

When the car buying market bounces back (and it will), look for smaller SUVs to be one red-hot segment. Utopian dreams of greenies notwithstanding, there are people...a lot of people...who not only want but need the utility and versatility of the SUV...just maybe not the super-size variety.

A few years ago, the Koreans weren't even in this game...but they are now and the Kia Sorento is worthy of some serious consideration.

Smaller than the new Borrego, but larger than the compact Sportage, the Sorento is right-sized for a lot of buyers...and follows the Kia formula of lots of features for relatively little money. Sorento promises to "Conquer The Road In Total Comfort" (according to Kia's website), and it does a remarkably good job.

A base 2-wheel drive Sorento starts at under $23,000...which is awfully close to dirt cheap in this arena. The tester was the top of the line 4-wheel drive EX...with a base price of $27,365. Even so, fully loaded (16 inch alloy wheels, sunroof, leather, heated front seats, dual zone climate control, automatic headlamps, premium audio system) the price tag barely cracks the $30,000 mark. And there's Kia's world-beating 10 year/100,000 mile warranty.

There are better choices for fuel economy (the Sorento's 3.8 liter V6 and 5-speed automatic are good for an EPA estimated 15 city/20 highway), but the safety test results are rock-solid...five stars for all four frontal and side crash categories and four for rollover.

We even got compliments about how nice the Sorento looked.

"The Power To Surprise", indeed.

Infiniti EX35 Review

Now this is more like it. After reviewing the drowning-in-too-much-tech FX35 and its gonzo-powered big sister, the FX50, the Infiniti EX35 is a comforting bowl of just right.

The EX35 is smaller (think Nissan Murano), making it a much more capable handling vehicle. Nimble is the right word here. And, it being an Infiniti, power is not in short supply. In fact, the 297 horsepower here is a better power-to-weight deal than the 303 in the FX35.

Luxury abounds in this smaller package, as well, with everything most people could ask for (automatic, ABS, moonroof, leather, power folding rear seats, an audio system with XM Satellite Radio and more) standard at just $35,450.

But this is an Infiniti...a car company all about shattering expectations. And with the EX, they manage not to cross the line into excess. The tester I drove had three options: A Premium Package (upgrading the audio to a Bose system with 11 speakers, dual-zone climate control, heated front seats and mirrors, rear air, memory seats and steering column and Bluetooth) for $2,150...the Luxe Style Package (trading the stock 17 inch wheels for 18s and an adaptive front lighting system) for $1,250 and the Navigation Package (navigation, a 9.3 gig music jukebox and a rear view camera and monitor) for $2,150.

Bottom line with delivery charges stays under $42,000...and mileage isn't too shabby, either...17 city/24 highway.

The EX is a strong package...and it belongs on your Christmas list.


Infiniti FX 35 AWD Review

Last week, my wife and kids and I went out for a burger. I hadn't eaten all day, so I was hungry and probably not thinking really clearly. I forgot to ask for cheese, and when the burger landed in front of me, I didn't even bother to put the condiments on...I just picked it up and ate.

Best thing I'd ever done. I could actually taste the burger. It was terrific...the meat itself, the seasonings, the smoky grill taste.

Afterwards, we walked outside and got in the Infiniti FX35. And I wished I could have ordered it plain. Somewhere under all the tech is probably a really good car.

The FX35 is the less-outrageous sister to the FX50 that I reviewed in August, packing only 303 horsepower (only?) through a seven-speed automatic transmission, and returning a reasonable (for this kind of vehicle) EPA estimated 16 city/21 highway miles per gallon.

It's rarely a good sign when the owner's manual for a car doesn't fit in the glove compartment. Infiniti had to create a special space for it on the inside right rear wheel well back in the cargo area. Stretch before you try to lift it. Some mental exercise (a crossword, maybe?) may be a good idea before you tackle all the acronyms within: IBA, FCW, LDW, LDP, DCA, AABS, VDC, TCS, BA, TPMS.....

Now, a lot of that tech is good stuff...but somehow, in the FX, it's obtrusive.

The base FX35 AWD is $42,350 and comes with everything you could want. But the tester took it up several notches. First, the Premium Package ($2,350), adding climate-controlled front seats, Bluetooth (that should have been standard) iPod interface, memory driver's seat, power tilt/telescope steering column, paddle shifters, quilted-leather seats, aluminum roof rails (bad for aerodynamics and mileage) and a cargo cover and cargo net.

But wait...there's more:

The Navigation Package ($2,850), with navigation (um..yeah), Around View Monitor (four cameras placed strategically around the car as a parking aid), voice recognition for audio and navigation, XM NavTraffic, a 9.3 gig hard-drive music jukebox, a single CD slot in the dash, and front and rear sonar.

And then...

The Technology Package (you mean we didn't have any already?), in which $2,900 buys Intelligent Brake Assist with Front Collision Warning System (keep your eyes on the road and push harder on the brake), Lane Departure Prevention System (in which the cameras on the sides of the car, underneath the outside mirrors, look for the white lines on the road and sound alarms if you get too close to them), Lane Departure Warning System (which warns you when cars are too close....like, oh, at any stop light)...pre-crash seat belts, intelligent cruise control with Distance Control Assist (always fun on a left curve when you're in the left lane and a semi 10 car-lengths ahead in the right lane begins the curve and your car thinks it's in your lane and begins braking hard) and rain-sensing front windshield wipers.

If you've lost count, the price is now $51,315...$9,000 more than when we started and only $5,000 less than the base price of an FX50, which has all but the Technology Package standard.

Like I said, somewhere under all that is probably a really good car. I'd like the next one plain, please.

Nissan Sentra 2.0 S Review

Reuglar readers of TireKicker will know that while I appreciate the awesome (see TireKicker's Top Ten cars), I also have a soft spot for simplicity.

After two and a half decades of being merely inexpensive, the new Nissan Sentra has achieved desirable elegant simplicity.

The S is the mid-level Sentra, delivering a 140 horsepower 2-liter four cylinder engine with continuously variable transmission (CVT), anti-lock brakes, 16-inch wheels, air conditioning, power windows, power door locks, a six-speaker AM/FM/CD audio system and more for $16,960.

The test car had three options...splash guards ($140), the Convenience Plus package (Bluetooth, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, overhead CD holder, Divide-N-Hide trunk system, cargo net and keyless entry and ignition for $850) and floor mats and a trunk mat ($165). Total price with delivery: $18,740.

The Sentra also comes with five-star frontal crash ratings for both driver and passenger and EPA mileage estimates of 25 city/33 highway.

All the good stuff, no needless fluff, and a reasonable price. So what's it like to drive?

Well, 140 horsepower isn't going to set the world on fire, but it's more than adequate...helped along by the CVT (so far, Nissan builds the best CVTs).

The styling is a matter of taste, and while there are prettier cars out there, that seemingly too-high roofline pays off big when you get inside.

The addition of the Versa at the bottom of the Nissan product line has freed up room for Sentra to grow. It's now a very good small sedan and very much worth a test drive.


Kia Borrego EX 4X4 Review

Time waits for no one. It also waits for no vehicle.

The Kia Borrego could have knocked the Ford Explorer a few rungs further down the sales charts (a process begun by the Firestone tire blowout/rollover scandal early in the decade)if it had come to market when the new Explorer did in 2006.

But this is model year 2009...and even before gas prices and the rest of the economy decided to see if we were paying attention, car-based crossovers had already started eating truck-based SUVs lunches.

That's probably good for the evolution of the automobile, the environment and several other things, but it's a shame for Kia, because (especially with the current uncertainty) a lot fewer people will even look at, much less test drive, the Borrego.

Those that do will be impressed and quite possibly amazed. Korean cars have been improving at a rapid rate, but always felt, on some level, like they were one generation back of state-of-the-art. Sometimes it was the plastics used, sometimes the shade of green of the instrument lighting...something was always not quite right...leaving the lower price and killer (10 years/100,000 mile) warranty to close the deal.

Not the Borrego. This time, Kia hit the target dead center. This is an SUV every bit as good as and quite possibly better than its direct competition. And the price ($29,995 base for the EX 4X4) and warranty become icing rather than inducement.

For the base price, you get a 3.8 liter, 24 valve DOHC V6 coupled to a 5-speed automatic transmission, four-wheel drive, Anti-lock brakes, dual-zone climate control, power windows, locks and heated outside mirrors, an AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system with 3 months of Sirius Satellite Radio for free, USB and auxiliary jacks for iPod, and a chunk more that would be great options...but they're standard.

The tester added 18-inch chrome wheels (replacing the stock 17s for $750), a premium package ($1,800 for a sunroof, an upgraded Infinity 10-speaker audio system), rear climate control and running boards, a navigation system ($1,500), and a luxury package ($1,500 buying leather seat trim, heated front seats, a power tilt and telescoping steering column and memory seats, mirrors and steering column). With handling costs, the total was $36,295. Any place else, that's an easy $40,000 worth of SUV.

Given the size and luxury, the EPA's estimated 16 city/21 highway isn't bad, either.

But the target has moved. There's still a market for this kind of vehicle (assuming there's actually a market for vehicles at all today)...but not what it was. Three years ago, the Borrego could have been a home-run. Now, through no fault of its own, Kia's got a solid double...and needs to swing this strongly with their next product. Their slogan "The Power To Surprise" has now led to expectations to be met.


Cadillac Escalade Hybrid Review

The temptation was huge to simply let the picture above be the review: A Cadillac Escalade, the ultimate Sumo-class luxury SUV, with the word "H Y B R I D" emblazoned on it.

That would be the easy way out, though. The Cadillac Escalade Hybrid deserves...heck, demands...some serious discussion. After all, the mass perception of hybrids revolves around cars like the Toyota Prius...small fuel-sipping machines that, while luxurious by the standards of even a decade ago, make a show of shunning wretched excess.

Sure, the movement has been to larger hybrid vehicles of late...from the Ford Escape Hybrid to the Nissan Altima Hybrid, but those haven't fully penetrated the public consciousness yet.

And yes, the Lexus LH600 L hybrid sedan, at $105,000 plus, is somewhat more of an apparent contradiction than the Escalade Hybrid, but it's largely invisible...looking like its gasoline-powered variant, the LS460, it slips through traffic unnoticed.

Not the Cadillac Escalade Hybrid. There are NINE...count them...NINE exterior badges proclaiming the word "H Y B R I D", prompting the inevitable questions from fellow motorists, who then have to deal with the answers:

A base price of $72,865.

A curb weight of 5,717 pounds.

403 horsepower from a 6.2 liter V8 gasoline engine.

0 to 60 in 6.8 seconds.

So what could the payoff possibly be? Where's the hybrid come in here? With an EPA estimated 20 miles per gallon city, 21 highway.

Now those aren't earth-shaking numbers, certainly not compared to misers like the Prius (which gets 48 city/45 highway). It misses the TireKicker Top Ten Fuel Saver list. But it is a 50% improvement in mileage compared to the gasoline-powered Escalade, which beats the 38% improvement GM's engineers got with the Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid (although the Chevy's raw mpg numbers are higher).

So, if you have to have a Cadillac Escalade, the Hybrid has its upside in gas savings. Which leaves the question: Do you? Have to have one, I mean?

Well, "have to" is a loaded phrase. As I walked around the Escalade Hybrid when it arrived, looking over the GM PR materials, I was thinking about what a tough sell this particular vehicle was likely to be.

Then I spent a week driving it.

Lord help me, I want one. If GM wants a "yes" vote on bailout money, they just need to send 100 of these to the Senate wing of the United States Capitol with notes saying "Return whenever...or not." The Escalade is luxury and refinement taken to a degree where I'd argue that it's the best car to wear a Cadillac badge in at least 40 years. It imparts a sense that you're not just driving any old thing...you're driving a Cadillac. And covering 150 miles while barely seeing the fuel gague needle move off "F" is a bonus.

Getting 20 miles per gallon in the city out of a three-ton, 400-plus horsepower SUV is something that I would have classified as "the dog riding the bicycle". It doesn't matter how well he does it, it's just that it can be done at all. But the Escalade blows that away by being a really great car that makes you want it. And if that's not proof that American car-building ingenuity is alive and well, then I don't know what is.

Mazda RX-8 Grand Touring Review

Time, development and refinement. Those are three things that can improve a car, and the Mazda RX-8 has benefited from all three.

Like most people, I was wowed by the look of the RX-8 when it first came out a few years back (making its screen debut in the "X-Men 2" movie)...but a bit underwhelmed when getting to know it in person. The suicide-style four door arrangement looked cool in photos, but was awkward in person. The body's proportions never looked just right from any given angle...and, frankly, it wasn't that fun to drive.

Well, the doors are still dorky (not much can save that but a restyling and possibly a return to two doors), but a bump up to 18 inch wheels has solved the proportion issue handsomely, and the engineers have obviously been working overtime to make the Zoom-Zoom a little zoomier.

The Grand Touring level comes standard with a six-speed manual transmission coupled to a 1.3 liter rotary engine making 232 horsepower. Not a monster, but more than adequate. You also get a sport-tuned suspension (which gets a lot of credit for the increased fun factor), high-performance tires (ditto), and nice stuff like a power moonroof, air conditioning, a 300-watt Bose audio AM/FM/6-disc CD changer audio system, Bluetooth, leather-trimmed seats, and a bunch more for a base price of $31,670.

The tester had only two options, Sirius Satellite Radio ($430)and a navigation system ($2,000), taking the price with delivery charges to just under $35,000, and making it prime competition for say, a loaded Nissan 350Z.

Mileage has never been a rotary engine strong suit...the RX-8's EPA estimate is 16 city/22 highway...which is midsize SUV mileage these days. Props, though for stellar safety ratings...four stars for the driver in a frontal crash, five for the passenger, as well as four stars for front seat and rear seat protection in a side crash and five stars for rollover.

The RX-8 isn't an instant must-have, but Mazda's been working hard to make sure that if you give it a chance, it will make a better than average case for itself.


Audi R8 Review

It's the question professional TireKickers (aka automotive journalists) get asked all the time:

"What's your favorite car?"

For 11 years, I had to answer the question with a question. What type? I mean, the Rolls-Royce Phantom is a great car...but so's the Honda Accord LX. I've never met a Porsche 911 I didn't like...but on the other hand, if you've got two or more kids and strollers, Pak-And-Plays and trips to Costco are part of your life, Chevy Suburbans just plain rock.

All those things still apply. But if you gave me a Venti Sodium Pentathol (half-caf, please) right now, I'd fess up:

The Audi R8 is my favorite car.

There have been a lot of cars over the years that I wouldn't have minded if the manufacturer forgot to come get at the end of a week's worth of testing. The R8 had me praying for mass amnesia at Audi of America.

Yes, this is the car I referred to in my review of the Audi A5/S5 as the car I'd look over my shoulder at after I parked it. Not that I'd ever walk very far. The R8 is a people magnet. Car people, non-car people...doesn't matter. They all want to know what it is...and most are shocked to hear it's an Audi (they were guessing Ferrari or Lamborghini).

The cockpit is tight, but supercar cockpits are, and the R8 is by far the most comfortable and user-friendly of the bunch. Fire up the engine and you know you've got something special. A 4.2 liter V8 with 420 horsepower gets the R8 from zero to 60 in 4.4 seconds. It does the quarter-mile in 12.7 seconds. Top speed is 187 (electronically limited because the tires couldn't take more). It handles like a slot car.

Gas mileage (are we really talking about this?) is amazingly good for this type of car...an EPA estimated 13 city/18 highway for the R-tronic manumatic...12 city/19 highway for the stock stick. With a 23.8 gallon tank, that means 425-plus miles worth of cruising range. Breakfast in Boston? Lunch in Laguna Beach? Dinner in Denver? Getting there in the R8 would be more than half the fun.

If you can find a dealer willing to sell you one at list price, figure on $125,000, give or take. It is so worth it.


Ford F-150 Harley Davidson Review

Upside to the current downturn in car (and especially truck) sales: There are still vehicles on dealer lots that should have been gone a long time ago...and you can get screaming deals.

Case in point: The 2008 Ford F-150 Harley Davidson. It's the most powerful factory-built F-series truck ever. Just how powerful is that? 450 horsepower and 500 lbs/ft of torque from a 5.4 liter supercharged V8 engine. And all that's wrapped in some of the baddest-looking truck on the road. What do you get? Let's just quote liberally from the Ford press release:

Unique chrome billet grille and lower front valance.

Body color bumper, mirror caps, ground effects, door and tailgate handles.

Blacked-out headlamps with black bulb shield and dark tinted, smoked-out taillamps.

Windshield with Bar & Shield logo dot pattern and Alliance logo.

New 22-inch polished forged-aluminum wheels with the Bar & Shield logo on center caps.

Forged aluminum "105th Anniversary Harley-Davidson F-150" Medallions on the fenders and tailgate.

Chrome dual exhaust tips and tie-down hooks.

Rubber bed mat with HARLEY-DAVIDSON Bar & Shield logo.

The Vintage Copper and Black color scheme is carried onto the interior that features Black/Dusted Copper leather-trimmed front captain's chairs and rear bench seat with die-cast Bar & Shield logos embedded in the leather. Other interior features are:

Two-tone leather shifter, console lid and steering wheel.

High-gloss piano black floor console and center stack with the Bar & Shield logos, as well as chrome vent rings and unique instrument cluster.

Serialized nickel plate displaying the production VIN and number.

Brushed stainless steel pedals.

The center stack, matching door-trim panels and lower part of the windshield feature numerous miniature Bar & Shield logos. In fact, the center stack panel was inspired by similar panels found on certain Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

We'll stop quoting the press release here and tell you that the week-long test of this truck was one long giggle. More fun than I usually have with cars and that's saying something. This one was a loaded 2-wheel drive model...$13,000 worth of options (pretty much everything available) running the final total up to a whopping $50,035.

Now remember, this is an '08. The all-new '09 F-150s are arriving at dealerships as you read this. The limited run of '08 Harley-Davidson editions should have been in happy owners' garages months ago. But you know what happened to truck sales. A quick search online as this is written shows a few examples languishing on dealer lots with price tags as much as $10,000 cheaper than MSRP. Now's your chance.

Kia Rondo EX Review

Three rows of seats. It's virtually a condition of purchase for SUV buyers these days...prompting a lot of manufacturers to shoehorn a third row into vehicles that really shouldn't have one.

The Kia Rondo is a small vehicle...one that makes a lot of sense in a time of uncertain gas prices and other economic issues. With a base price of $20,195 for the uplevel EX trim, an EPA estimated 18 miles per gallon city and 26 highway and five-star driver and passenger frontal crash test ratings (as well as five stars for front seat side crash and four stars for rear seat side crash and rollover), the Rondo jumps right onto the list of intelligent choices for people looking for the alternative to SUVs, crossovers and minivans.

All but for that third seat. Points go to Kia for making it an option ($500). Yes, two people can fit back there...and kids probably won't find it uncomfortable...but the seatbacks are just too close to the tailgate for my comfort.

Past that, the Rondo beats expectations at every turn. It's quicker, quieter and nicer than you'd expect from a vehicle at this size and price point. The tester had the $1,000 Leather Package, which includes heated front seats, and the $1,200 Premium Package (a power sunroof and an Infinity AM/FM/CD Changer audio system). That, the third row seat and destination charges brought the bottom line to $23,495. Leaving off the third row gets you under 23 grand. This could be a very smart move for a lot of small families.


Honda Accord LX Review

After absolutely loving the loaded V6 Honda Accord Coupe, I was wondering if there'd be some letdown in driving the 4-door, 4-cylinder LX Premium sedan.

What was I thinking?

If you've looked at the sales charts and wondered why, with a relatively economical V6 available, most Accords sold are 4-cylinders, this car answers the question. The six is fun, but the four is fine (172 horsepower is more than adequate for this car's weight)...and the mileage skyrockets!

Honda delivered the tester absolutely box stock...no options. And though at one time, LX was the top of the line (okay, I'm showing my age), it's now the base model, with LX Premium one notch above and EX and EX-L above that.

Now, "base" is a relative term here. The LX comes with air conditioning, steering wheel audio and cruise controls, anti-lock brakes a 160-watt audio system and a bunch more. LX Premium swaps the 16 inch steel wheels for alloys of the same size, adds a security system, chrome exhaust finisher, automatic front passenger and driver's windows, illuminated window switches and an 8-way power adjustment for the driver's seat...kicking the price tag up by $1,000.

Bottom line, with automatic transmission: $22,555 plus delivery. Honda's manuals are so silky smooth, you could knock $800 off the price by going with a stick and never regret it.

Oh, yes...the mileage. EPA says 21 city, 31 highway. I have a friend who bought one about three months ago. He says the EPA's being conservative.

In 11 years as a professional TireKicker, the Honda Accord is the one car I've never second-guessed as a recommendation. Take even a modicum of care of it and it'll run for 200,000 miles. And you'll have a very well-equipped family sedan with good power and great mileage for the low 20's. You can't go wrong.


Toyota Yaris Sedan Review

On the day the Toyota Yaris sedan was scheduled for delivery, I braced my self for an adventure in minicar-land. My last seat time in a Yaris was in the three-door hatchback (which resembles a rollerskate), and that's about the only Yari found roaming the streets in my neighborhood.

But when the four-door Yaris arrived it was a revelation: This is what we used to call a Corolla.

We probably won't see much more of it, but we've been living with "mission creep" for the last decade or more. Car manufacturers keep taking the cars up the ladder of size and luxury until humble Camrys are the size of Avalons, Corollas become what Camrys were and Yari (at least the 4-door sedan variety) take the place of the Corolla.

Which means the Avalon is probably somewhere between an E-Class and an S-Class these days.

Point is, the 4-door Yaris is actually a quite good conventional compact sedan. There's no sense of cutting-edge this or outside the box that (apart from that center-mounted speedometer, which mainly keeps costs low in building both left-hand and right-hand drive models).

Four people fit comfortably, it moves well and is reasonably quiet (considerably quieter than the more expensive Matrix). $13,765 gets you a 1.5 liter 4 cylinder engine, with a four-speed automatic transmission (five-speed manuals are available for less money), air conditioning, an "audio prep package" and the usual basics.

The test vehicle added $1500 to that for the Power Package (power door locks, power windows, power outside mirrors, a fold-down 60/40 rear seat, an AM/FM/CD/mp3 player with iPod jack, curise control, nicer interior trim, a rear window defroster and an upgrade to 15 inch wheels (14s are standard) with full wheel covers.

$150 worth of floor mats and cargo mats, $359 for a security system, $230 for remote keyless entry and $720 for delivery and the bottom line is:



Now the problem here is that for that money, you could probably step up to the Corolla or a Honda Civic. So why buy the Yaris?

Two reasons. One: Fuel economy (the EPA says 29 city, 35 highway). Two: Ratchet back the options list (blow your kids' minds by showing them manual window cranks) and you can get a basic but decently-equipped Yaris for $14,000 or so.

Truth is, there's a lot of competition at this price point and the Yaris is far from the hands-down winner. But if you're excluding it because you think it's too small, you should definitely test-drive the four-door.


Chevrolet Cobalt SS Sedan Review

Before the cries of "sacrilege!" begin over Chevrolet putting the legendary SS (Super Sport) badge on a lowly Cobalt begin...read this review. This is not another botched attempt by an American automaker to put a once-glorious name on a substandard product. This one's from the car guys at GM...not the accountants or marketing types.

Most agree that the Cobalt, in base form, is a huge improvement over the late, unlamented Cavalier, but that it's not a standout in the crowded field of compacts in 2009.

Drive the SS. You'll find yourself wondering what more anybody could ask.

The Cobalt SS comes with a 2-liter Turbo making 260 horsepower and 260 pounds-feet of torque at a nice, low 2,000 RPM. That's serious off-the-line power. Chevrolet went to Brembo for the brakes (four-piston calipers with performance rotors and pads), specified 18 inch wheels with performance tires and a performance handling suspension system.

Results? The Cobalt SS holds the lap record for a compact car at Germany's famed Nurburgring: 8:22.85. Meaning it's not only fast in a straight line, it handles.

A bare-bones racer? Nope. Bluetooth hands-free cellular capability is standard. So's a year of OnStar's Safe & Sound service, titanium-face sport gauges including an A-pillar mounted boost gauge, premium cloth GM Performance Division seats, a strong audio system with XM Satellite Radio and more.


You ready?




Nope. Not a typo. Twenty-three thousand, four hundred thirty five dollars.

Oh, and the EPA says 22 mpg city, 30 highway...and my experience over a week says that's close, if not dead on.

This is the performance bargain of our times. Here's hoping a lot of buyers make Chevrolet very, very happy that they let the car guys call the shots on this one.

Volvo C70 Review

They say the third time's a charm. Well, Volvo got it right in just two tries.

One of the first press events I attended as a professional TireKicker was 10 years ago and it was the launch of the first-generation Volvo C70 convertible. I was prepared to be impressed. A premium convertible with Volvo's legendary safety and structural integrity.

During the half-day drive through Central Arizona, I thought I must have gotten a bad one that slipped through. When we met for lunch at The Royal Palms Resort in Phoenix, 25 journalists compared notes on 25 identical test cars. Six words summed it up:

"It shakes like a wet dog."

Cowl shake is the common enemy of convertibles. Cut off the top of a car, and you give up a bunch of structural rigidity. It shows up in the cowl...the area where the windshield and the hood meet...and it telegraphs into the steering column. And the '99 C70, otherwise a very desirable car, had it bad.

Flash forward a decade and slide behind the wheel of the '09 C70. A lot of changes here. First of all, it's now a retractable hardtop, not a ragtop. Strong and shake-free. But the remarkable thing is how solid it is with the top down. Volvo knew what needed to be done and did it.

There's also ten years worth of tech improvements in this car, which goes faster, gets better mileage (18 city, 26 highway), possesses better-than-average handling and benefits from Volvo's huge leaps in interior design. Fine leather and real wood...Nordic Oak, no less.

The $39,240 base price gets you an exceptionally well-equipped vehicle, with a turbocharged 2.5 liter 5-cylinder engine good for 227 horsepower mated to a six-speed manual transmission. The test vehicle I drove stepped up the content with metallic paint ($475), the Dynaudio Package ($1,550 for 130 watts per channel of surround sound Dolby ProLogic II with subwoofer), an automatic transmission ($1,250, and given how good the manual was in the C30, I'd be temped to pass and shift it myself), and $750 worth of 18-inch alloy wheels.

Bottom line: $44,010. Not cheap, but in line for a premium convertible with style, substance and...solidity.


Jaguar XJ Super V8 Review

How do you make a Jaguar XJ, already one of the most luxurious sedans available, even more special? Well, Jaguar figured it out.

This is the Jaguar Super V8. Basically, they took an XJ, put in a more powerful supercharged and intercooled engine (400 horsepower), a six-speed automatic transmission and then made everything except Sirius Satellite radio (a $450 option) standard. That means adaptive cruise control, air suspension, a long-wheelbase alloy body, speed-sensitive steering, dynamic stability control, a 320 watt Alpine audio system, a four-zone climate control setup, Bluetooth, DVD, navigation, heated and cooled seats and inlaid walnut.


The really amazing thing is, it does make a difference. It is a noticeable and maybe even justifiable jump over the "plain" XJ. It needs to be, because it adds about 20 large to the sticker...the tester I drove had a bottom line reading $95,200. But the XJ has been one of my faves since its redesign six years ago...and the Super V8 actually makes a strong case for spending the extra money.

EPA estimates (if you care): 15 city/22 highway.


Mercedes-Benz SL550 Review

A lot of cars wind up on people's want lists....but only a handful inspire awe. For more than 50 years...all the way back to the original drop top version of the legendary 300 SL Gullwing, the Mercedes SL has been one of those cars.
It's difficult to imagine improving on any one of them, until the next one comes along. The jump from the 2008 SL500 to the 2009 SL550 gets you a much more aggressive front-end styling treatment, 382 horsepower (good for a 0-60 time of 5.3 seconds) a seven-speed automatic transmission, multilink suspension, a huge glass moonroof (taking up virtually the entire top surface) and a new COMAND audio/nav system with Bluetooth.
The SL550 rolls on 18-inchers now...and the experience of driving one is nearly as heady as the attention you get on the street, in parking lots....well, everywhere. Within hours, I was fielding (and fulfilling) requests for demonstrations of the retractable hardtop mechanism (very, very fun to watch)...and comforting the inadequate feelings of the lady who parked next to me in a New Beetle ("It's all German engineering", I said, hoping she bought it).
Nobody buys them for this, but I'll mention that the seven-speed automatic is a gas saver...I averaged 22 miles per gallon in a mix of city street and freeway driving over the course of a week...making it the most economical (in terms of fuel consumption) near-supercar I've ever tested.
Base price? Um...$96,775. Good luck getting one out the door for less than $100,000. But if you can...it's a car that lives up to the price tag.


Lincoln MKX Review

The 2009 Lincoln MKZ, with the 1961 Lincoln Continental grille front and center.

After years of attempts in show cars, Lincoln has finally put the 1961-65 Continental grille back into production...on a re-badged Ford Edge crossover.

Okay, that sounds harsh...but it's a fact. What needs to be said, though, is that like the Lincoln MKS, the platform sharing between Ford and Lincoln is resulting in some very good Lincolns.

Even though the Edge and the MKX are essentially the same vehicles, the MKX gets treatments that set it apart. 18-inch machined alumninum wheels are standard...as are quad halogen headlamps. The details...including the wood and leather...definitely say "Lincoln" instead of "Ford".

Short version: This is a serious contender for some of the business going to the Lexus RX 350.

Base price: $35,420. The tester I had for a week had heated and cooled front eats, dual-zone auto temp air conditioning, Microsoft's brilliant SYNC voice-activated entertainment system, and Lincoln's newly revamped (and very cool) entry keypad system. All standard.

The options? $495 for White Chocolate Tricoat paint (arguably worth it), $4,595 for the Elite Package (Panoramic Vista Roof, Voice Activated Navigation, and a killer THX audio system), $1,295 for the Ultimate Package (Adaptive headlamps, a power liftgate and the "Cargo Management System"...a molded insert below the cargo floor that keeps stuff out of sight and prevents it from slipping around, causing noise and damage) and another $1,095 for the Limited Edition Package (bumping us up to 20-inch chrome-clad alumnium wheels, carpeted floor mats and an auto-dimming rear view mirror with microphone for the voice-activated nav system).

All that sounds (and reads) like a ton of extra cost...but the bottom line, including delivery charge) is $43,575...right in the ballpark for a Lexus RX competitor.

And don't underestimate the cosmetics...there's something about that grille.