2011 Mazda CX-9 Review

Front 3/4 view of 2011 Mazda CX-9 parked in front of house
As the tide turns from traditional truck-based SUVs, a lot of people are discovering the larger crossovers (sport-utes based on car, rather than truck, platforms). It's turning into a crowded field (including four from General Motors alone)...but there are standouts, and one is the Mazda CX-9.

As noted in previous entries here at TireKicker, Mazda doesn't make bad cars. And the CX-9, based on the very good previous-generation Mazda 6, is a strong contender.

The CX-9 is big enough for three rows of seats accomodating seven passengers. The weight of the vehicle, people and stuff is pulled (yep, front-wheel drive) along by a 273 horsepower 3.7 liter V6 with a six-speed automatic transmission. The six speed helps nudge the EPA estimated mileage into respectable territory...16 city, 22 highway.
Interior view of 2011 Mazda CX-9

Ordered in Grand Touring trim, as the test vehicle I drove was, the CX-9 shows up with 20-inch aluminum alloy wheels, automatic Xenon headlights, leather-trimmed seats (including an 8-way power heated driver's seat), Bluetooth hands-free capability for your cell phone, a three-zone climate control and a six-speaker AM/FM/CD audio system. Price: $33,355.

Options on the tester included Sirius Satellite Radio, a blind spot monitoring system, a package including a moonroof and a 277-watt, 10-speaker Bose surround sound sytem with a six-disc changer in the dash, a towing package and a GT Assist package...including navigation, rear view camera and power rear hatch. That propels the bottom line (with delivery charges) to $39,405. ..which puts it right in the hunt with a similarly loaded GMC Acadia.

Safety's a plus here, too, with the CX-9 getting a five-star rating from the government for frontal and side crashes for the driver and passenger, and a four-star rollover rating.
As a smaller manufacturer, Mazda often gets overlooked. In this case, that would be a big mistake.

UPDATE: Just finishing a week and a few days in the base-level CX-9 Sport...one without any options whatsoever. And it's brilliant. How? Because the basic goodness of the CX-9 as above is there...but the lower standard equipment level (not lower by much) and lack of options keeps the price just a nick under $30,000 as tested. That's ten grand below the sticker price above....for the same basic vehicle. Go. Drive. One. Now.


2011 Volkswagen CC Sport Review

Side view of silver 2011 Volkswagen CC Sport
I wonder if Volkswagen appreciates the irony of the new CC.

Six years ago, the company introduced the Phaeton, a big luxury sedan with a price tag starting around $65,000 and running all the way up to $95,000 (a hundred grand with tax) for a 12-cylinder model.

It was a monumental flop, yanked summarily from the U.S. market after only a couple of seasons (it is still sold in Europe and is on the verge of a third facelift for 2011 that has die-hard fans hoping for a return to America)

Part of the problem was that for all that money, it looked like a Passat, only bigger. And from a block away, with no perspective to judge size, it looked like a Passat, period.

So now, VW creates a truly desirable car...and it really is a Passat...but with a sleek roofline and some other styling tricks.

Front 3/4 view of 2011 Volkswagen CC SportRear 3/4 view of 2011 Volkswagen CC Sport

And...here's the good part...it carries a price tag lower than the Passat...base price for the Sport model I drove is $27,100...$1,200 below the least-expensive Passat.

The current-generation Passat is a bit of an awkward child...not Teutonically purposeful as the ones before, but without actually achieving elegance or desirability. Attempts to soften the Passat have resulted in it coming off as lukewarm.

But the CC turns up the heat by appealing to the emotions with fluid, sensuous lines.

Interior view of 2011 Volkswagen CC Sport

And the best part is that, through artful use of colors, details and materials, Volkswagen makes the CC's interior feel special, too...giving you the impression that you're driving something a rung or two above the Passat.

The CC gets these impressions so right that driving the base model (the Sport), with only two options (a six-speed automatic transmission and Sirius Satellite radio), feels like the lap of luxury...and keeps the price tag, including destination charges, under $30,000.

You can go hog-wild with the VR6 4Motion and break $40,000 without a sweat....but why, when the Sport is so good?

EPA estimate (with automatic): 19 city/29 highway. Manual transmission 21 city/31 highway.

UPDATE: Just ended a week in another CC Sport. Everything above applies...apart from a base price increase to $27,760. Still, this one bottom-lined at $29,660...with the only option being a six-speed automatic.

And about that...the gas mileage estimate improves to 22 city/31 highway. In my even mix of city streets and freeways, I got 24 for the week...and the range estimate when I took delivery of 450 miles seems plausible. I handed it back this morning with just under half a tank of gas remaining.


2011 Toyota Sienna LE, SE and Limited

All too often, advertising is better than the product.

The advertising is great. I love the whole "Swagger Wagon", "Mommy Like" and "Daddy Like" thing.

The product is better.

Front 3/4 view of 2011 Toyota Sienna

You see, to me, minivan haters have it wrong. At least from a standpoint of timing. 15 years ago, minivans were dreadful. The original Chrysler, Dodge and Plymouth vans were expanding...and not gracefully. GM and Ford didn't have a clue and the Japanese were trying to be unique...and succeeding all too well. That would have been the time to rebel against them.

But now? There are some very, very good minivans out there. And the new Sienna is at the top of the list.

I had three different trim levels of Sienna over the summer. There are five. But the Swagger Wagons on loan to TireKicker were the one-step-up-from-base LE, the next-step SE and the top-of-the-line Limited.

The Limited? Well, let's just say that exposure to it caused one die-hard minivan-hater I know to go into a spasm of "Oh my God"s...and in a good way. Reclining captains chairs with footrests in the second row with which to enjoy the split screen entertainment system will do that to you. And the Limited is decked out very nicely. It's the Lexus of minivans. And ours had the $4,025 LTD Premium package. 

Base price? $39,770. As tested? $45,890.

Yeah...that's a lot for a minivan. But it's good enough that if I was looking at family vehicles (SUVs, wagons, minivans) with a max budget of $50,000 (have you priced vehicles that seat seven lately), I'd pop for the Sienna Limited in a heartbeat.

But if you listen to your inner CPA, stepping down to the SE is by no means trading riches for rags. It's a wonderfully solid piece, with the same engine and transmission as the Limited, but less weight, resulting in a boost from 16 miles per gallon city, 22 highway to 18/24. And it's hard to argue with the savings...base price drops to $30,550 and our tester topped out at $33,518.

However, my favorite (no surprise to regular TireKicker readers) was the second-from-base LE. The 3.5 liter V6 is replaced by a 2.7 liter 4-cylinder which is more than adequate and bumps the EPA numbers up to 19/24. Base price drops down to $25,345 (ours had the LE Preferred Package, adding power sliding doors and driver's seat, backup camera, sunshades, upgraded audio system and Bluetooth) and the as-tested was $29,703.

Well-equipped minivans under $30K are not everyday things. But then, neither is the Sienna. I'd happily make the LE my daily driver.

2011 Dodge Charger SRT-8

Front 3/4 view of 2011 Dodge Charger SRT-8

Never underestimate the power of something that looks this mean.

It's kinda easy to do, given that the Dodge Charger has been with us for 5 years now and a new one's on the way. We've seen it too many times in airport car rental lots and giggled as Mark Harmon and the gang on NCIS make the 6-cylinder ones they drive try to look menacing.

But five minutes in a Charger SRT-8 is enough to wipe that smirk right off my face...and replace it with a great big ear-to-ear grin.

                              Rear 3/4 view of red 2011 Dodge Charger SRT-8

Tromp on the pedal of an SRT-8 and the rear of the car is what everyone else on the road is going to see.

Yes, it has a Hemi. 6.1 liters worth, putting out 425 horsepower with 420 pounds of torque. The 5-speed "AutoStick" automatic transmission is up to the task, though a real six-speed manual would be ideal.  Whatever...the point is brute strength and the Charger SRT-8 delivers big time.

According to the window sticker that came with our tester, it's the official passenger car of NASCAR, which makes perfect sense. This is what NASCAR used to be. Take a big standard car, stuff the hairiest engine possible under the hood and hang on.




No...but a big barrel of fun for a reasonable price. Base is $38,180. Yeah, that is awfully close to $40K. Find me this much performance for less than this money and maybe I'll change my mind.

Of course, you can load these up and that's just what the Dodge PR people did. This one had the SRT Option Groups II and III, roughly $2,800 worth of options including an upgraded radio, 13 high performance speakers, a 322-watt amplifier, a 200-watt subwoofer, surround sound, Uconnect, iPod control, a security alarm and a nav system.

Throw in the power sunroof ($950), HID headlamps ($695), performance tire and wheel upgrade ($250), rear seat video system (in a sedan?) ($1,480) and the inevitable gas guzzler tax (13 city/19 highway) of $1,700 and your bottom line after $750 destination charge is $46,850.

If your heart and your bank balance say yes, there's a lot of fun to be had here.

2011 Subaru Legacy 2.5 i and 3.6R Limited Review

Front 3/4 view of 2011 Subaru Legacy

Rear 3/4 view of 2011 Subaru Legacy
Subaru has made its place in the automotive world the past 35 years or so by being the Japanese SAAB. Quirky, yet loveable...attracting a small but devoted following.

Attempting to go mainstream is part of what very nearly killed SAAB, so there's precedent for concern every time Subaru gets a bit more normal.

Except that Subaru's managed it quite well...first with the Outback, then the Forester, and now with the Legacy.

The Legacy is stepping up in size and refinement, becoming for the first time a logical and direct alternative to Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.

Interior of 2011 Subaru Legacy

And to show just how good the basic product is, Subaru sent us a no-frills Legacy 2.5i. Not a single option (but with 17-inch alloy wheels, 4-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, air conditioning, AM/FM/CD, an auxilary audio jack, XM/Sirius capability, a multifunction trip computer, an outside temperature gauge, cruise control, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, power windows, door locks and mirrors, a remote keyless entry system, and map and courtesy lights all standard, it's a complete package without any options).

Even though the Legacy is bigger now, it's lighter than the competition...handles better...and don't forget...it's a Subaru, so all-wheel drive is part of the deal.
And the power from the 2.5 liter engine (170 horsepower), teamed with a smooth 6-speed manual, is more than adequate.

That six-speed is a help for the fuel economy...the EPA says 19 city, 27 highway.

And the price?

Well, the price had me reminding myself to think Subaru for my next family sedan: $19,995.

Remember the deal about no options? That's right...apart from $695 delivery charge, $19,995 is the base and the bottom line. There's a Camry a few hundred bucks cheaper, but not as satisfying, and the least-expensive Accord is $21,055. That's compelling math for a car that no longer has to be explained. The Legacy has arrived.

Japanese TV viewers got this commerical, with Robert DeNiro at the wheel of the new Legacy:

UPDATE: I chose to repeat the above review because the base Subaru Legacy is just so darn good.  But recently, I had a week in the top-of-the-line 2011 Subaru Legacy 3.6R Limited.  And it, too was a revelation...just for different reasons.

Regular TireKicker readers know that I believe you can too easily goop up a good car with add-ons and lose the basic flavor. But Subaru swings for the bleachers with the 3.6R Limited and hits a home run.

First of all, the engine....the 170 horses of the base car jumps to 256 in all three flavors of the R (R, R Premium and R Limited)...which puts the performance of the Legacy into another league entirely. The six-speed manual gets swapped for a five-speed automatic, but the extra power, the lack of a clutch and one fewer gear end up extracting the smallest penalty...18 city, 25 highway (as opposed to 19/27 for the base model).

And then, the creature comforts: Dual-zone automatic climate control, Bluetooth, a 440-watt Harmon Kardon 9-speaker audio system, leather-trimmed seats (including a 10-way power adjustable driver's seat and a 4-way power adjustable one for the front passenger)....all standard. In fact, the only option on our car was a power moonroof ($995)...running the base price of $28,295 to an as-tested (with $725 delivery charge) $30,015.

There are absolute bargains. The 2.5i is that. There's no other way to describe that much car for under $20,000.

And then there are bargains based on the comparison of content and price. And that's where, for a shade more than 8 grand more, the 3.6 R Limited earns its bargain status. Subaru has built a car that can run with a significantly pricier pack..and, as with the 2.5i, if it were my money...it would be an immediate contender.