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.

Nissan Frontier 4X4 CC SE Review

Having pushed the physical dimensions and sticker prices of the once-lowly pickup truck about as far as possible (Lincoln? Cadillac?), a return to sanity is a welcome thing...and just in time, Nissan refreshes its mid-size Frontier pickup.

Now that Nissan has announced it will be outsourcing its big truck, the Titan, to Chrysler (2011 Titans will be re-badged Dodge Rams), the Frontier is the standard-bearer for Nissan's truck business...and the impression it makes is a good one.

Not too big, not too small...there's a "just-right" quality to the size, capabilites and handling of the new Frontier. Nope, it won't cut the mustard as a heavy-duty construction truck, but for the average truck owner, the Frontier is more than up to the job.

More good news: It's affordable. The base price on the four-door crew cab I tested was only $25,960...bringing with it a 4-liter 261 horsepower V6, a 5-speed automatic transmission, shift-on-the-fly four wheel drive, 4-wheel anti-lock disc brakes and most of the features that you could wish for on a truck option list 15 years ago.

So what's to add? Well, Nissan specified the SE Value Truck Package for this tester, adding remote keyless entry, power windows, power door locks, power outside mirrors, cruise control, 16 inch alloy wheels, a sliding bed extender and a security system for a package price of $1,380. That plus another $700 for a moonroof, along with destination charges brought the bottom line to $28,785. Not bad at all for a roomy, capable all-wheel drive truck.

The EPA estimate is 15 city, 19 highway miles per gallon...again, not bad for the size and capability (thank the 5-speed auto and the V6 for getting the mileage that high).

This is a great time to seriously evaluate how much truck you need. If it's not a monster workhorse, then the Nissan Frontier is a solid choice.


Suzuki SX4 Review

GPS Navigation systems have been around for about 10 years now and one thing hasn't changed...they're expensive...usually about $2,000. For that reason, they've been virtually absent in small cars. When you're pushing a $15,000 car, having one option that can make the price $17,000 isn't such a great strategy.

So big props to Suzuki for doing the intelligent thing. They've partnered with Garmin (makers of portable navigation systems) and made the Garmin Nuvi 770 standard equipment in the SX4. It's a cool piece, featuring Bluetooth hands-free phone functionality, real-time traffic updates and MSN Direct features including news and entertainment updates. It can even store mp3 files and double as a music player.

Best of all, it's portable...just snap it out of the housing on the dash and take it with you to operate on battery power. There's a "pedestrian" mode for navigating your walks.

The Nuvi's suggested retail price is just under $700, but a quick Google search shows them retailing for as little as $359. And you know Suzuki got a deal.

That means a very small bump in the price point for the SX4, which starts at $15,939...with the Nuvi as standard equipment.

The SX4 is a fine small car, a lot more fun to drive than we expected before we drove one last year. The innovative thinking that led to the inclusion of the Nuvi just shows that Suzuki shouldn't be underestimated or overlooked when it comes to small cars.

Subaru Legacy 2.5 GT spec.B Review

Okay, so the name is a mouthful..."Subaru Legacy 2.5 GT spec.B"...but don't let that drive you away. The Subaru Legacy has been one of the great below-the-radar sedans since its redesign a couple of years ago...and the (let's just shorten it) spec.B just makes it better.

What we have here is a BMW 3-series on the cheap. The spec.B comes with a six-speed manual transmission, an intercooled, turbocharged engine, a Bilstein Sport Suspension, 18 inch wheels and performance tires and Subaru Intelligent Drive (they call it SI-DRIVE). What it does is allow the driver to maximize performance and efficiency by turning a knob to one of three settings: "Intelligent", "Sport" and "Sport Sharp".

"Intelligent" could also be called "Relaxed" or "Responsible", lowering torque, smoothing out response and improving fuel efficency by about 10 percent.

"Sport" gets you quick throttle response (great for freeway merging), while "Sport Sharp" gets you still more power even faster. Drive it in "Sport Sharp" mode and you'll stop snickering over the BMW comparison in the second paragraph.

The spec.B also gets navigation, dual-zone automatic climate control, an all-weather package with heated seats and mirrors and a windshield wiper de-icer (!), a Harmon Kardon 9-speaker audio system and, of course, Subaru's all-wheel drive...all at a price of $34,595. The test vehicle we had added a Sirius Satellite Radio kit for $456and a trunk cargo net for $64. Bottom line, with destination and delivery charges: $35,780...a chunk less than a similarly equipped 3-series.

The EPA estimates 17 city, 24 highway miles per gallon (probably in "Intelligent" mode).

The spec.B is a no-excuses sport sedan well worth your time in a test drive.


1960 Ford Commercial: Galaxie, Thunderbird and Falcon

Hey, it's our first video on TireKicker (and it's only 49 years old!). Yep, from the fall of 1959, here's a long-form commercial for Ford's new 1960 Galaxie, Thunderbird and Falcon. Don't know if the commercial had anything to do with it, but the Hagerty family ran out and bought a Falcon (a medium blue four-door sedan) a few months later. And my uncle Ron snapped up a red 1960 Thunderbird convertible.

Downside? Dad traded a gorgeous two-tone green and white 1956 Mercury Montclair coupe. Sure would love to have that now.

Land Rover LR2 Review

Land Rover is what's known as an "aspirational" brand...something people want to move up to. There was one weak link in that argument...the smallest Land Rover, the Freelander.

Last year, Land Rover moved to fix that, sending the cramped, underpowered, plasticky Freelander out to pasture and replacing it with the all-new LR2.

Good move.

Get inside an LR2 and there's no disconnect with your expectations from the larger LR3 and Range Rover models. Materials, fit and finish are not only a quantum leap ahead of the late, unlamented Freelander, they're better than the $35,000 base price would indicate. And that base price also includes a leather interior, a front power sunroof and a fixed sunroof over the rear seat and dual-zone climate control.

Looking for something that can handle not just Rodeo Drive but the Rubicon Trail as well? Land Rover didn't skimp there, either...giving the LR2 8.3 inches of ground clearance and the ability to ford streams up to 19.7 inches deep.

And the option list includes a $3,500 technology package, bringing navigation, Bluetooth and a killer 440 watt Alpine audio system with 12 speakers and Dolby 7.1 surround sound. It's worth the additional dollars.

Big points to Land Rover for understanding that an aspirational brand needs an attractive entry point. It'll pay off in LR2 owners trading up to LR3s and Range Rovers over the years.

Toyota Tundra 4x4 Double Cab Review

Size matters. Especially for pickups used for work. You know, things like construction, trailer and boat towing. For years, Toyota kept erring on the side of small with its fullsize pickup, the Tundra (and before that, the T-100).

Well, Toyota finally got over its shyness and went all-out with the latest Tundra, unveiled in 2007. So much so that some people think it's too big. That was my take after a week in the CrewMax model last year. But there's a happy medium between the CrewMax and the standard two-door...and that's the Double Cab.

The measurable difference is only a few inches, but it changes the feel and driving dynamics. No question it's still a big truck, but in Double Cab trim, the Tundra is much more manageable.

As equipped, the test vehicle was easier to handle price-wise, too. An SR5 instead of a Limited, the base price was $31,260...and options were applied with an eyedropper rather than a firehose...a navigation system, with 440 watt JBL audio system, sliding rear window, deck rail system, bedliner and security system pushing the bottom line up to $35,794...reasonable for a well-equipped truck that seats five...especially compared to the $40,000 plus examples I've tested before.

Even with the 5.7 liter 381 horsepower V8, the EPA says the Tundra is capable of 13 city miles per gallon and 17 highway. I saw about 15 in a mix of the two, so they may be close. A V6 is available for even better (by big truck standards) fuel economy.

There will always be a place for big trucks. Toyota now has a legitimate claim to part of that business.


Subaru Forester Review

There are very few cars in 11 years of writing about them (not to mention 30-plus years of driving them) that I can honestly say I've always liked and recommended. The Subaru Forester has made that list every single time.

Not an easy trick, because with each generation, the Forester strives for a bit more refinement and a bit less quirky individuality...a path on which many vehicles have lost their way and become just another car (cough...cough...SAAB...cough).

But not to worry. The all-new 2009 Forester is everything every other Forester has been...but better. A longer wheelbase means more room and a better ride. A stiffer platform improves handling and a new chassis gets better crash test results. Vehicle Dynamics Control is standard. And the two four-cylinder engines have more user-friendly torque curves (more oomph when you want and need it).

Also important in an SUV that actually can go off the pavement, a tire pressure monitoring system is now standard.

Buy a base 2.5X model with a stick and no options, and you're out the door for $19,995 (okay, the $665 delivery charge puts you at $20,660, but these days, you can probably haggle the local dealer down by $665, right?).

Ours was a bit more expensive. Subaru sent over the 2.5XT Limited with navigation...and with delivery, that one's $30,660.

Yep. A 30-thousand dollar Forester. It's come to that.

Remarkably, though, the Forester managed to make that number seem reasonable the more we drove it. If it was my money, I'd probably go for a mid-level model...but the Limited with nav isn't out of line.

It's never been the cutest of what used to be called the cute-utes (small SUVs), but the Forester has been...and still is...our pick.

Volkswagen Rabbit Review

Some cars are like a good hamburger. Too many add-ons keep you from getting the true flavor.

Volkswagen may or may not have been thinking of that metaphor (I'll bet not) when they re-christened the Golf the Rabbit here in the U.S. and re-positioned it as more basic transportation.

If you have never driven a Rabbit, go to your local dealer now, because this is where a chunk of the automobile business is heading...to cars the Europeans were embracing while we were in our SUV-induced coma.

Ford hasn't brought its Euro-spec Fiesta and Focus to our shores yet, but like GM's import, the Saturn Astra , the Rabbit is all about strong, solid German engineering. Everything, from major maneuvers to subtle switchgear, is precise. Not too soft, not too hard. Exactly right.

VW's press fleet loaned us an example with only four options...a six-speed automatic transmission, electronic stabilization, 16" alloy wheels and an iPod adaptor in the armrest. We'd have passed on the automatic (which would have saved $1075), but even so, the bottom line was only $18,524 (from a base of $15,600). You could easily buy two Rabbits for less than the price of some cars that simply aren't as good.

And though gas prices are easing compared to where they were in July, it's still three bucks a gallon or more...so 21 city and 29 highway miles per gallon is nothing to sneeze at, either.


Lexus RX 350 Pebble Beach Edition Review

10 years ago, I looked at the first Lexus RX (then the RX 300) and wondered if anyone would buy it. I mean, it was nice...but it looked pretty strange. I think my photographer (I was reviewing cars on television at the time) and I dubbed it the "lunar rover".

Obviously, a lot of people disagreed. The RX (now the 350) is celebrating 10 years on the road, and though there have been refinements, the basic shape is still pretty much the same. And it gets credit for jump-starting the entire crossover SUV segment.

The price has even stayed in the same general ballpark...if I recall, the '99 was about $33,000...the '09 base price is $38,900 and Lexus has made virtually everything that matters standard.

So how to jack up that price point to keep the dealers and stockholders happy? By packaging the non-essentials. And a special edition is always a good way to do that.

The Pebble Beach Edition was introduced to coincide with August's huge annual classic car week (rapidly approaching 10 days) in Monterey, California (nearby Pebble Beach hosts the premiere event, the Concours d'Elegance). For $3,880, you get special 18 inch wheels, a special front grille, a roof rack, HID headlamps, a body-color rear spoiler, a leather-trimmed interior, power tilt and telescoping steering column, memory seating, a moonroof, carpeted floormats and exterior badges that say "Pebble Beach Edition".

That, a navigation system that includes a Bluetooth phone interface and rear backup camera, heated seats, rain-sensing wipers and headlamp washers and a transmission cooler propelled the bottom line to $47,020. Not a bad deal for what you get...but the real story is the value in a "base" RX 350.

EPA estimate: 17 city/22 highway.

Mazda 5 Review

The other day in traffic, I pulled up next to a remarkably well preserved first-generation Chrysler minivan (from 1985 or so). What struck me, apart from its condition, was how small it was.

Over the past 23 years, minivans have lost a lot of their mini. They're mostly huge, heavily-equipped, thirsty beasts with sticker prices well into the $30,000 range. Get carried away with the options and $40,000 is within reach.

The lone exception is the Mazda 5...a minivan so small it resembles a stretched Honda Fit. The 5, based on the compact Mazda 3 platform, is a delight to drive in city traffic. Handling's a breeze, parking's a snap...snicking into turn lanes partially blocked by trucks and SUVs slopping over from the adjacent lane is no sweat.

And, with a 2.3 liter four-cylinder engine and a 5 speed automatic, the EPA says the Mazda 5 is good for 21 miles per gallon in the city, 27 on the highway.

5s come as cheap as $17,000 and change. Our tester was the top of the line Grand Touring...which still commands a base price of only $22,675, and is so well equipped (17 inch alloy wheels, rain-sensing wipers, third-row seating, leather, a second-row fold-out table, automatic climate control with rear vents, an AM/FM/6-CD audio system with six speakers, cruise control, a moonroof and a Bluetooth hands-free phone system) that ours had no options apart from a rear bumper step plate ($50). That and delivery brought the bottom line to $23,395.

Room for six people (though third-row passengers would be too close to the tailgate for my comfort), great maneuverability, decent performance and very good fuel economy make the Mazda 5 a sensible minivan alternative.