TireKicker Will Return Thursday, September 4

Look for new posts every Tuesday and Thursday beginning Thursday, September 4. Coming up: Well, the picture's a hint. Have a great (long) holiday weekend!

---Michael Hagerty


Chrysler PT Cruiser Review

There are very few vehicles that run as long on as few changes as the Chrysler PT Cruiser. For nearly a decade, this 7/10ths replica of a '37 Ford has been out there on the streets. The novelty of seeing them (people actually took pictures of the first tester I had) has long since worn off, and you wouldn't be blamed for asking why it's still around.

But drive one and the answers begin to reveal themselves. It's still economical, still reasonably energetic, and still a design offering a lot of room for people and things in a small package. And Chrysler's had long enough to get the bugs out of them...it was impossible to nit-pick during the week I had one last month.

After all this time, the people who are still buying them must love them (I'd love to see statistics on repeat business...how many 2001 PT Cruiser owners traded in for an '05 and are considering an '09). And while the PT Cruiser isn't sexy (or maybe not even all that cool), it delivers on its promise...and is a better car than it gets credit for.

Ford Flex Review

I'm really looking forward to comments on this one, because I want to see if you have the same reactions to the Ford Flex that I did. One moment I see a lowered Range Rover, the next a stretched and chopped Scion xB, and yet another, I got flashes of 1960s and 1970s Ford wagons.

If you haven't seen one on the street yet (and apart from the one I tested for a week, I haven't), your first surprise is likely to be how big the Flex is. Photos and video don't adequately capture that.

Once you get inside (easy because the Flex is so low...it's like stepping into a sedan), it seems even bigger. It's a long way back to the third row of seats...and there's a significant amount of cargo space beyond that.

Entertainment? Oh, yeah. Our tester had the optional SYNC system (AM/FM/CD/digital hard-drive jukebox/Sirius Satellite Radio/DVD) with Ford's navigation system including live weather radar, sports scores and movie listings (Goodbye, Mr. Moviefone!).

Keep checking the option boxes and not only do the front seats have a moonroof, but the rear seats each get their own.

The seats are comfortable, though the headrests tilt a bit too far forward, the instrument panel layout (carried over from the Taurus) is logical and attractive. The engine has adequate power. But given that gas prices were at their peak the week of my test, I wasn't asking for more engine (which brings lower mileage).

Prices start in the upper 20s, but pack one with all the neat stuff, and you're at $45,000 before you know it. Will people pay that for a Ford station wagon? Or, will it be like the 60s, where we saw more mid-line Country Sedans than fully loaded Country Squires leaving the lot? Time will tell.

Saab 9-3 Turbo X Sport Combi Review


What would Darth Vader drive?

From the right angle, the Saab 9-3 Turbo X Sport Combi looks a bit like Lord Vader, all-black and menacing.

What's the X for? It's Saab-speak for all-wheel drive. Saabs have been front wheel drive since....well, forever...but when you put enough, or too much, power through the front wheels, you get the phenomenon known as torque steer...the steering wheel going through some nasty motions as it tries to deal with all that oomph.

All-wheel drive balances that out nicely...applying the power equally to all four wheels. Tromp on it and it simply goes, no dramatics apart from the G-forces and the reactions of your passengers.

Saab is only sending 500 9-3 Turbo Xs to the United States. Only 100 of them will be Sport Combis and the majority of them will have automatic transmissions, which makes our manual tester a very rare example. Rarity has a price...ours stickered close to $47,000...which for a compact station wagon is pretty hefty. But the power, the lack of torque steer and the fact there will only be a handful sold here adjusts the value equation significantly.

If you've gotta have a wagon, but want to have some fun (and don't mind scaring the neighbors), the Saab 9-3 Turbo X Sport Combi might be just what you need.

Volkswagen Tiguan Review

Small sport-utility vehicles, or what used to be called "Cute-Utes" (think Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Subaru Forester and Ford Escape) weren't great candidates for the premium treatment at first. Their size and relative austerity kept the price tag significantly under $20,000 for years...making anything more expensive a losing proposition when it came to value.

But now the small SUVs have grown in size and refinement, and going a cut above no longer requires a huge leap from the heart of the segment. Which makes this the right time for the Volkswagen Tiguan.

Drivers who've found the VW Touraeg SUV to be too big, too expensive and too thirsty should wipe the memory bank clean and go for a test drive of the Tiguan. The proportions are perfect, the power-to-weight ratio dead-on, the handling so sweet that I can't bust VW's ad agency for making comparisons with the GTI.

And the Tiguan's interior has a freshness about it that sparkles. It is some of Volkswagen's best work.

If the exchange rate doesn't drive the Tiguan's price up, there's no reason this can't be a home run for VW. It's hard to imagine anyone who drives one not being impressed. If you want one, I'd recommend moving fast before there's a line.

Kia Rio 5 Review

As I noted in the Ford Escape Hybrid review, if you want to know how good a car really is, spend some time in the least-expensive base model with as few options as possible. That way, you're not being swayed by the add-ons.

The same holds true with entire car lines. Wanna get a good sense of how well company "A" builds cars? Drive the cheap one first.

Ever since its alliance with Hyundai, Kia has been on the most improved player list, with a really steep accomplishment curve. And while they deserve credit for the refinement they've put into ever-larger and more luxurious SUVs, minivans and sedans, the proof of how good Kia's getting comes in the small package called the Rio 5.

As the name suggests, it's a five door hatchback, and a small one. There aren't any frills (unless you count the now-expected air conditioning, power windows and power mirrors), but it's a solid, nicely put together subcompact. 10...even 5...years ago, a week in the budget Kia would have been more of a sentence than an offer. But I found a lot to like in the week I had the test Rio.

If we are, in fact, moving en masse to small cars now, vehicles like the Kia Rio 5 will make the transition a lot easier.

Toyota 4Runner Review

Well, 4Runner sure turned out to be a prophetic name, didn't it? The Toyota 4Runner was one of the earliest SUVs...little more than a 2-door pickup truck with an enclosed bed and a second row of seats at first, it morphed into the prototype for the SUV as we know it, and opened the gates for a flood of imitators.

As bigger and bigger and still bigger became better, the 4Runner got written off by a lot of SUV buyers as "small". Now, with the memory of $4.25 a gallon fresh in our minds, the 4Runner looks like a reasonably-sized machine.

A week in the newest 4Runner recently reinforces that view...suddenly, the 4Runner is right-sized...five people won't feel cramped, there's room for whatever you need to haul (within reason), and unlike dozens of soft-roaders, the 4Runner is the real deal...if you want to go off-roading, it's more than capable. Plus, you can load one up with all the options and still stay on this side of 40 grand.

As the amateurs and posers leave the SUV market, the people who truly need and use them will be making intelligent choices about what to buy...and the Toyota 4Runner makes a strong case for itself.


Volvo C30 Review

Now that the great wave of retro auto design (Chrysler PT Cruiser, Volkswagen New Beetle, Ford Mustang and the already gone Ford Thunderbird) has subsided (Dodge Challenger and the still-to-come Chevrolet Camaro excepted), we're starting to see modern cars with subtle reminders of the past...the automotive equalivalent of the kids or grandkids of people we knew and loved.
The Volvo C30 is a completely contemporary car, but the designers incorporated the large glass backlight from Volvo's previous sporty coupe, the late 60s-early 70s P-series. I always loved that car and its unique look (enough that I bought a '78 Toyota Corolla liftback, which was a not-quite-copy), so every time I approached the C30 from behind, I found myself smiling.
There's no attempt to recall the past inside, a good thing since the Ps were basic and black back then. Volvo's been on a roll with its interiors for a few years now, blending light colored leathers with blondish woods and constructing center stacks for audio and HVAC controls that are impossibly slim, allowing open air in front and behind them. It creates an ambience that makes you believe you're in a very special car that's worth every penny of the premium you paid. In fact, you're pretty sure you got a bargain.
That's more than reinforced in driving the C30. It's quick, tossable, quiet and comfortable...there doesn't seem to be a trade-off anywhere.
And there really isn't any competition for the C30...other compact hatchbacks are...well, compact hatchbacks...meant to be basic transportation....this is a premium compact, and one of the best fashion statements on four wheels.

Mazda 3 Review

One of the great mysteries in life is why Mazda isn't one of the top 5-selling automakers in the United States. There are no bad Mazdas and only one mediocre one (the B series pickup, a rebadged Ford Ranger from the previous millenium).

The great ones are really great. If you're of a certain age, you might remember that Mazda once sold a subcompact called the GLC, which the advertising told us stood for "Great Little Car". Well, the 2009 Mazda 3 is the direct descendant of the GLC and it is, more than any GLC or 3 before it, a great little car.

The five-door that leaves tomorrow after a week-long loan was roomy, smooth, quick, refined for its size class and handled like it was on rails. The quality of materials and the fit and finish are on a par with Mazda's more upscale models. If they can do it at this price, why can't every automaker?

Fluctating gas prices have made small cars and even hatchbacks an option for a huge number of American drivers in a short period of time. If you're one of them, a Mazda 3 5-door belongs near the top of your test drive list.

Infiniti FX50 Review

390 horsepower, 7-speed transmission, 21-inch wheels...0 to 60 in 5 seconds flat. What kind of SUV is this?

Infiniti calls the new FX50 a "luxury SUV with the heart of a sports car", which is probably as good a description as any. The luxury assertion can't be argued with: Quilted leather-appointed seats, hand-stained maple wood trim, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, XM NavTraffic, Around View Monitor, Voice Recognition, Advanced Climate Control, climate controlled front seats, moonroof, 8-way power front seats, an 11-speaker Bose audio system with two subwoofers, an interface for iPod, XM Satellite Radio, and a 9.3 gigabyte hard drive to store your traveling music. Oh, yeah...and a CD player, too. All standard.

In fact, in what might be a first for me in more than a decade of testing cars, the only option on the window sticker was for a functional safety package (Intelligent Brake Assist, Forward Collision Warning, Lane Departure Warning, Lane Departure Prevention System, Intelligent Cruise Control and rain sensing wipers) that added $2900 to the $56,700 base price.

As for the heart of a sports car part, well, there is that incredible power and neck-snapping acceleration. I wasn't inclined to push the handling, since my tester had suffered a tire failure the day before it was delievered to me and I was driving it with a full-size but still limited use (the big yellow sticker said to keep it under 50 and not go too far) spare tire.

If you've got to have the top of the line, the FX50 is a great piece. But if practicality matters, take a look at Infiniti's FX35...same vehicle, less engine, lower price, better gas mileage. I'll be posting about that one soon.


Ford Escape Hybrid Review

Q: What does Bill Cinton drive?

A: (bypassing any number of cheap jokes)A Ford Escape Hybrid.

Barack Obama, according to current campaign coverage, drives one too (though how much time either of those guys actually spends at the wheel is open to protracted debate).

Politics aside, the Escape Hybrid is a very strong candidate for hybrid shoppers. Ford was an early adopter, following the first-gen Toyota Prius and the now-discontinued Honda Insight. They picked the right package to go with...a small, but not toylike, SUV with enough room for most people and most of the things they need to carry on a regular basis.

Getting the gas mileage on even a small SUV past the 22 mpg mark isn't easy...the Escape Hybrid will break 25 without a sweat, and if I'm playing the mileage game (watching the dashboard display and using every eco-driving trick to squeeze out the maximum efficiency of each gallon), I've been able to average 30 miles per gallon in a week's worth of city street and freeway driving.

I've driven four or five Escape Hybrids since they've been on the market, but most recently, I tested one with the lowest trim level, cloth seats and only one option (Ford's innovative new Sync audio system upgraded to include live weather radar, sports scores, movie listings and more). It's easy to get seduced by a fully-loaded car. But when you say "I could own one of these" about a base vehicle, it means the car is, at its core, very, very good.

Audi A5/S5 Review

It's hard to remember now, but 20 years ago, Audi was on the ropes...its relatively unsexy image (think German Volvo) bludgeoned by the ham-handed crew at CBS' 60 Minutes, which breathlessly informed the world of a problem called "unintended acceleration"...where no matter how hard the hapless driver stood on the brakes, the car went roaring off...usually through the back wall of the garage.

Rational, sane and thorough investigation (not performed by 60 Minutes) revealed that the drivers were in fact standing on the accelerator.

The truth, of course, didn't make for a good screaming weeklong set of promos and a 17-minute lead story by Mike Wallace, so a proper retraction never happened...and Audi's reputation and desirability were severely and undeservedly hurt.

Well, the past decade has been decidedly sunnier for Audi (solid A4s and A6s, cute TTs, Benz S-Class-challenging A8s), but the good stuff just keeps getting better. Case in point, the new A5 and S5. They're coupes built on the A4 platform, but they're better than that simple description suggests. Sweet engines, precise handling, the finest interiors in all of autodom now are met with sleek and sensuous bodywork and an attitude that makes you want these cars.
I've driven 100 to 125 cars a year for 11 years now. I rarely look back over my shoulder after parking one (except maybe to remind myself what it is I've just parked), but two cars this year have had me doing that every single time. The Audi A5/S5 is one. The other? I'll tell you when I blog about it in the coming weeks.


BMW 128i Convertible Review

Post One on TireKicker...and the logical choice from the past few weeks of press vehicle loans is the One...officially known as the BMW 1 Series.

I had the best possible BMW baptism long ago...the first one I ever drove was a school friend's big brother's 2002tii back around '73 (we were sent up to South Lake, near Bishop, California, to retrieve his dad's friend's Benz S-Class, and since he was older, he got the flagship...but I got the sweeter ride).

The 2002tii was a revelation for a kid raised on Fords and Mercurys. Light, tight, responsive and quick,without being overpowered or nose-heavy. If this is what BMWs are about, I thought, then I need one.

By the time I started auto-journalising, though, BMW had entered into some major mission creep. The 2002's successor, the 3 Series, felt more like a midsize, the 5 was a fullsize and since 2002 (the year, not the BMW), the 7 has been a battleship. And then there are the XUV's (X3, X5). Do we need to discuss how those don't fit the first impression?

The all-new 1 Series is a great leap backward and forward simultaneously. Backward in that BMW has rediscovered compact proportions, lithe handling and speed generated by efficient power-to-weight ratios rather than just jacking up the horsepower. Forward in that this kind of backward is just what BMW and today's drivers need.

So, howzit? Fun. And it was the 128i Convertible with an automatic. BMW, send the 135i coupe (extra stiffness, don't ya know?)with a stick ASAP, please. The only downers: a slightly stubby profile and a price tag that gets too close to a 3 Series. But remember: Trading up for "more car" trades away the old-time BMW religion it's taken decades to bring back.