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.