New Car Review: 2012 Jeep Wrangler

Front 3/4 view of blue 2012 Jeep Wrangler in mountains
The 2012 Jeep Wrangler.
Regular TireKicker readers know of my fondness for purposeful, iconic design. Well, right up there with the Porsche 911 (but one heck of a lot less expensive) is the Jeep Wrangler.

Remarkably, I've never owned one. This, despite spending 16 years of my life in the High Sierras and 27 in the Desert Southwest. Came close once, in Reno in 1978. But the CJ (as it was then known) was crude, thirsty and expensive. I bought a Toyota Corolla instead.

Now, though, the Jeep Wrangler appears to be in a sweet spot...having acquired comfort, practicality and everyday usefulness (well, some of those things, anyway) without sacrificing its rugged go-anywhere capabilities.


New Car Review: 2012 Mazda 6

Front 3/4 view of 2012 Mazda 6 being driven on country road
The 2012 Mazda 6.

There are great mysteries in automotive journalism, as in life itself. The one I've been pondering lately is why you don't see more of the car pictured above on streets all over America.

The car is the 2012 Mazda 6, and as we've been telling everyone who'll listen for years, if you're shopping for a family sedan, this car absolutely needs to be on your test drive list.  Not only does it hold its own in every comparison with Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion and Chevy Malibu, it's arguably a more satisfying car to drive.


New Car Review: 2012 Porsche Cayman R

Front view of green 2012 Porsche Cayman R parked at night
The 2012 Porsche Cayman R.

Purity meets sheer, unbridled lust.

The purity in this case is purity of purpose, purity of design and purity of intent. What was once the beginning, middle and end of what it meant to build cars at Porsche. And while the brand now also includes such things as hybrid SUVs and four-door GTs, anyone who doubts that Porsche still can build a pure sports car need only spend some time behind the wheel of the 2012 Porsche Cayman R.

We were fortunate. We got six days.


New Car Review: 2011 Kia Optima Turbo

Front 3/4 view of blue 2011 Kia Optima Turbo
The 2011 Kia Optima Turbo.

It occurs to me I don't know the Korean word for "hat-trick". Or the one for "three-peat".
It's just never come up.

Until now.

If the face above looks familiar to regular TireKicker readers, that's because it is. It's the Kia Optima Turbo. On September 10, we reviewed the base Optima, on October 11, the Optima Hybrid, and now, on November 19, it's the Turbo's turn.


New Car Review: 2012 Audi A6

Side view of dark gray 2012 Audi A6
The 2012 Audi A6.

Thirty years ago, Audi changed the automotive world with the styling of the Audi 5000. A design so pure, so fundamentally right, that it essentially survives today...just refined and improved as time, and technologies change.

For a lot of people (and a lot of rival automakers) the Audi A6 is a benchmark for five-passenger family sedans. The only reason you don't see one in every driveway is that they don't come cheap...$41,700 is as low as they go (for the A6 Premium 2.0 TFSI). And the prices get higher along with the engine displacement, the number of cylinders and the number of wheels driven.


New Car Review: 2012 Toyota Yaris

Front view of red 2012 Toyota Yaris
The 2012 Toyota Yaris 5-Door front view.

As unloved as the last-generation Toyota Yaris was, this new one will surprise a lot of people. We were among the Yaris' few fans here at TireKicker...considering it a perfectly good sedan in its class...but with a lot of competition at its price-point. It wasn't helped, among automotive journalists or buyers, by the fact that it wasn't an especially attractive car.

Well, Toyota has fixed that, with a 5-door Yaris design for 2012 that pictures don't do justice to. It is an utterly contemporary small car, with clean, crisp lines. It just plain looks good as you walk up to it.


New Car Review: 2012 Volkswagen Beetle

Front 3/4 view of black 2012 Volkswagen Beetle Turbo
The 2012 Volkswagen Beetle.

13 years ago, a local Volkswagen dealer tossed me the keys to one of the first New Beetles. It wasn't set to go on sale for about a month. To say I got attention would be an understatement. People raced up behind, beside and in front of me to get a look. People stopped me to talk about it. People leaned out of the windows of moving cars to snap pictures with their disposable film cameras and 1 megapixel digitals.

Every last one of them was female. From that moment on, the New Beetle and the pejorative "chick car" were inextricably linked.

Rear roof detail of black 2012 Volkswagen Beetle Turbo
The 2012 Volkswagen Beetle roof, spoiler and taillamp.

In re-doing the car, VW had to somehow make the car more appealing to male drivers. They were also fighting the fact that most people, including some fans, had gotten mighty bored. The New Beetle was....very, very old, with only the most superficial of freshenings in its 13-year run.

The 2012 Volkswagen Beetle side view.

They did it.


New Car Review: 2012 Acura TL

Front 3/4 view of 2012 Acura TL on road
The 2012 Acura TL front view.

I am not a fan of plastic surgery. Too many botched jobs out there reminding us every day that the nose wasn't really that big or other bits weren't really that small. In the case of the 2012 Acura TL, however, I'm prepared to say that sometimes a nose job is really what the patient needed.

In case you don't remember the 2009, 2010 and 2011 TL, here's the "before" picture:

The 2009-2011 Acura TL front view.

If you think it's not so wonderful in pictures, trust me...that's a flattering angle. A change was needed...and now, we have one. The TL is, as it was before 2009, a conventionally handsome sport sedan.


New Car Review: 2011 Chrysler 300

Front 3/4 view of black 2011 Chrysler 300 driving on mountain road
The 2011 Chrysler 300.

This is the second 2011 Chrysler 300 the press fleet folks have sent our way in the past few months. I wrote about the first one for High Gear Media's Carnewser.com a couple of weeks back.  That first car came option-free...sporting a price tag $7590 less than the 2011 Dodge Charger reviewed here on TireKicker in late September.

The Carnewser.com piece focused on my trying (and failing) to understand why Chrysler, working to set itself apart as an upscale brand would build and sell such reasonably priced examples of their flagship, the 300.

Since then, though, word has come that Chrysler's dropping the ax on the Dodge Grand Caravan. Come 2013, they'll only be selling the Chrysler Town and Country, setting off speculation that once Fiats, Alfa Romeos and Lancia-sourced Chryslers begin appearing in showrooms, the product mix between those brands, Dodge and Jeep may be very different from what we see now.

So let's assume a plan is in the works and assess the 300 on its own merits, absent percieved price crowding with its cousin, the Dodge Charger.


New Car Review: 2011 GMC Terrain

Front 3/4 view of white 2011 GMC Terrain
The 2011 GMC Terrain.

As easy as it is to take potshots at badge engineering (taking one vehicle, putting a different grille, taillights and nameplate on it and calling it something else), think about what it must be like to be a corporate cousin of a big volume brand like Chevrolet. You need product or your brand won't survive, and the fact, even prior to the great recession and Carpocalypse, is that the bucks aren't there to build unique vehicles for each brand. Platform sharing...and the more blatant badge engineering...are the only way to go.


New Car Review: 2011 Kia Optima Hybrid

Front 3/4 view of white 2011 Kia Optima Hybrid
The 2011 Kia Optima Hybrid.

As impressed as we were with the 2011 Kia Optima just a month ago, nothing could have prepared us for the Kia Optima Hybrid.

Here's the recipe: Take everything that makes the Optima a winner, and add a hybrid powerplant. But make it a hybrid powerplant that delivers the mileage. 24 mpg city/34 highway in the gasoline Optima becomes 35 city/40 highway in the Optima Hybrid...good enough to vault into 7th place on TireKicker's Top 10 Fuel Savers, ahead of smaller, lesser-performing cars like the Honda CR-Z and Lexus HS 250h.


New Car Review: 2012 Fiat 500C

Rear view from above of 2012 Fiat 500C driving on a narrow road at dusk with the roof retracted
The 2012 Fiat 500C.

Regular TireKicker readers know I am hype-averse. The more something gets promoted, plugged, built-up, the more skeptical I am about it.

So, a dumb commercial featuring J. Lo and the Fiat 500C is a great way to turn me all the way off:


New Car Review: 2011 Hyundai Elantra

Front 3/4 view of blue 2011 Hyundai Elantra on rooftop parking garage
The 2011 Hyundai Elantra.

It's the one-two punch the Japanese have been dreading.

A little over two months ago, we reviewed the 2011 Hyundai Sonata...the upshot being that Hyundai, for 20 years the Korean underdog, had now built a credible competitor to the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord (and everything else in the family sedan segment too...Focus, Malibu, Passat...).

Well, just as Accord has Civic and Camry has Corolla...Sonata has Elantra...but it's better than that. The Elantra, the smaller of the two, is as good in its class as the Sonata in its and maybe better. It's reminiscent of the days when Accord and Civic were so good you couldn't begin to come up with a reason to buy anything else.


New Car Review: 2012 Chevrolet Cruze ECO

Front 3/4 view of blue 2012 Chevrolet Cruze ECO
The 2012 Chevrolet Cruze ECO.

Comes now our third test of a Chevrolet Cruze in the past five months. Each one has been a different flavor. We started out with the loaded Chevrolet Cruze LTZ. Loved it, but for $24,000 and change as tested, we'd better have.

Then just about two months ago, it was almost the opposite end of the spectrum...the Chevrolet Cruze 1LT (one level up from the base Cruze).  Also a thumbs-up, and at a more reasonable $18,995.

Now it's the Chevrolet Cruze ECO. What makes an ECO an ECO? Well, mostly it's the 1.4 liter ECOTEC engine mated to a six-speed manual transmission with ECO overdrive. But to tell it apart from the other Cruzes in traffic, you'll probably have to look at the trunklid.


New Car Review: 2011 Dodge Charger

Red 2011 Dodge Charger
The 2011 Dodge Charger.

I'll admit it. I was among those who thought naming a four-door sedan "Charger" was an act of sacrilege and doomed to failure. After all, the real Dodge Charger was a two-door.

Well, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, "foolish consistency sucks" (or something like that). Fact is, Dodge has built a very good sedan and calling it "Coronet" (the four-door the original Charger was based on) would have been a far worse idea.

New Car Review: 2011 Mazda MX-5 Miata

Silver 2011 Mazda MX-5 Miata Grand Touring PRHT driving shot
The 2011 Mazda MX-5 Miata Grand Touring PRHT.

A sure-fire smile inducer at TireKicker is to toss us the keys to a Mazda MX-5 Miata. Tight, quick, fun...everything the MGs, Triumphs and Healys of the 60s were aiming for, but could never quite get that quality thing down.

It's been about a year and a half since Mazda put one in the press fleet, and it's a scientific fact that your body never outgrows its need for a week in a primal roots sporting machine, so we borrowed one from Chapman Mazda in Phoenix. And the one we got was the least primal of the bunch...the Grand Touring PRHT.


New Car Review: 2012 Infiniti M Hybrid

Rear view of white 2012 Infiniti M Hybrid
The 2012 Infiniti M Hybrid rear view.

In a break with (sometime) TireKicker tradition, we're showing you the rear view of the Infiniti M Hybrid first, because it is how you will most likely see one. You see, just yesterday (9/21/11), no less than an adjucator from the Guiness Book of World's Records and the UK's CAR Magazine certified the M Hybrid as the world's fastest full hybrid.

Now, its 0-60 time of 5.0 seconds is plenty impressive, but CAR decided real speed is best measured in quarter-miles, and there, the M Hybrid did it in an average of 13.9 seconds...tying the 1/4 mile performance of a 1982 Lamborghini Countach, coming within a tenth of a second of the 1998 BMW M3 and within three-tenths of a second of the 2007 Aston Martin Volante and the 2007 Porsche 911 Carerra.

That's gonna sell some cars.

New Car Review: 2011 Jeep Patriot

Front 3/4 view of black 2011 Jeep Patriot in rural setting
The 2011 Jeep Patriot

It was easy to dismiss the Jeep Patriot when it first hit the streets (and trails) a couple of years back. Part of it was guilt by association, having been introduced to the public at the same time as the first-ever non-Trail Rated Jeep, the almost identically-sized Jeep Compass.

But while the Compass was (and is, despite some upgrades) a Jeeped-up Dodge, the Patriot was (and is) a real Jeep. In many ways, it's the spiritual successor to the 1984 Jeep Cherokee.

Blue 1984 Jeep Cherokee
1984 Jeep Cherokee

Yes, if you dial the wayback machine 28 model years in reverse, you'll find people wondering what was up with this very small Jeep, which replaced the huge (in retrospect) Cherokee (itself a cut-down version of the 1963 Wagoneer).

The Patriot's like that. First impression is it's too small to be a Jeep, having been exposed to Grand Cherokees, Commanders and even Libertys.  But drive it a few minutes and you'll find it's the back-to-basics vehicle that Jeep's been needing.

Our tester was the Patriot Latitude 4X4, but the window sticker shows that it was optioned up to Latitude level from a base Sport model. 

We'll break that down for you. Jeep Patriot Sport 4X4. Starting at $17,695, it's only $1,700 more than the Sport 2-wheel drive model. Stepping up to the 4X4 gives you the 2.4 liter DOHC 16-valve engine and 165 horsepower instead of the stock 2.0 liter, 141 horsepower four.

You also get three transmission choices: A Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), a CVT with AutoStick, or a five-speed manual. Personally, I'd go with the stick, but the Jeep press fleet chose the CVT with an off-road crawl rate. And, honestly, it was a very good, very smooth CVT. I had to be reminded that was how the Patriot was equipped, which means it felt natural...like the best (Nissan, Subaru) CVTs.

2011 Jeep Patriot interior
2011 Jeep Patriot Interior

The standard equipment list also includes a full complement of airbags, electronic stability control, anti-lock four-wheel disc brakes, hill start assist, brake assist, speed control, Security Key Theft Deterrent System, a removable/rechargable LED flashlight, rear window defroster, wiper and washer, tire pressure monitoring, an AM;/FM/CD/MP3 audio system with audio jack, and a center floor console.

All in all, that's a cut above the basics in a very competent little Jeep for only $17,695. I'd buy one like that.


It hadn't occurred to me in a long, long time...especially living in Arizona, but there are cars for sale in this country (not many) where air conditioning is an extra-cost option. And the Jeep Patriot is one.

So our Patriot came with Customer Preferred Package 28B, which gives you air conditioning as well as an upgrade to 17-inch aluminum wheels, power heated manual fold away mirrors, body color door handles and liftgate applique', height adjustable drivers' seat, power windows, speed-sensitive power door locks, remote keyless entry, illuminated entry, steering wheel mounted audio controls, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, rear 60/40 reclining and folding seat backs, a fold-flat front passenger seatback, heated front seats and a 115 volt power outlet.

That package is $3,700. Making the price (so far) $21,395. Which is actually a few bucks cheaper than starting with the Latitude 4X4.

But the option list goes on...another $3,400 worth, give or take. The Security and Convenience Group gets you supplemental front seat-mounted side airbags, a security alarm, auto-dimming rear-view mirror with microphone, electronic vehicle information center, universal garage door opener, adjustable roof rail crossbars and a soft tonneau cover for $750. All nice stuff to have.

Then there's the Freedom Drive II Off-Road Group: All-Terrain tires, brake lock differential, hill descent control, a full-size spare, skid plates for the transmission, oil pan and fuel tank, tow hooks, an engine oil cooler, trailer towing wiring harness, all-season front and rear floor mats and a "Trail Rated" badge for $500. Those are essentials. I'd absolutely check that option box.

The CVT with off-road crawl ratio? That's an extra $1,000. Again, I'd go with the manual if it was my money.

Ours also came with the Media Center 430, which adds a 30 gig hard drive that can hold 6,700 of your favorite songs (depending on length...depending on Ramones or Rachmaninoff, your storage capacity may vary), and a 6.5 inch touch screen display. That's $640.  As with nav systems, odds are your phone can do this.

And finally, $375 for the Uconnect Voice Command with Bluetooth. It adds a USB port for mobile devices, and Sirius Satellite Radio with a 1-year subscription. I'm a huge believer in hands-free mobile when driving...I'd probably say yes for the Bluetooth alone.

With $700 destination charge, the bottom line winds up at $25,410. And that's a long way from the $17,695 we started at. But it's not unreasonable. It is far less expensive than the average SUV, which doesn't have the Patriot's capabilities (as equipped), and it's actually less expensive than the average family sedan today.   And we'd knock a grand off that sticker by shifting it ourselves.

2011 Jeep Patriot

Base price: $17,695

As tested:   $25,410

EPA estimate: 20 mpg city/23 mpg highway

Likes: Compact size, low base price, real Jeep capability, fuel economy, dramatically improved interior.

Dislikes: Air conditioning and Bluetooth should be standard.


News: Every Breath You Take: OnStar's Watching You (Even If You Cancel)

New privacy policy at OnStar: Starting in December, they're tracking your car and your speed even if you cancel your subscription. And they reserve the right to sell the data. Story from Wired Magazine.


New Car Review: 2012 Mazda 3

Front 3/4 view of blue Mazda 3 crossing bridge
The 2012 Mazda 3.
A truly great small car is a wonderful thing. For a long, long time, my vote for best ever went to the 1984 Honda Civic I bought brand new and kept for 14 years and 144,000 trouble-free miles.

But some time back, the old Civic got passed by a small car with all of its virtues (compact size, good interior space, fuel economy and a bigger dose of fun-to-drive than anything else in the class) and all the improvements more than a quarter-century can bring: The Mazda 3.

We've driven and raved about Mazda 3s before. In fact, the 2008 Mazda 3 was one of the first TireKicker reviews, on our third day of existence.  And a little over a year and a half ago, we sampled the new-gen 2010

But a year and a half is a long time not to be driving and talking about one of the best buys in all autodom, so we arranged with Chapman Mazda in Phoenix to borrow a just-arrived 2012 Mazda 3 for a week.

Rear view of blue 2012 Mazda 3
Rear view of the 2012 Mazda 3 5-Door
This time, we drew the Mazda 3 S 5-Door Touring model. There are only two flavors of the Mazda 3 5-door...Touring and Grand Touring. The difference between the two cars? $1,570, which buys a power moonroof, dual-zone automatic climate control, leather-trimmed sport seats, heated front seats with 5 settings, an 8-way power driver's seat and a 6-CD, 10-speaker Bose Centerpoint Surround Sound system.

Which is one serious value for $1,570.

But sticking with the S is by no means roughing it. Both cars have the same 2.5 liter DOHC 4 with 167 horsepower that feels like a good 90 more. Both come standard with a 6-speed manual transmission and an EPA mileage estimate of 20 city/28 highway.

Ours had the 5-speed automatic, and in testament to how good the computer progamming behind modern automatics has become, the automatic gets better mileage than the stick...bumping up to 22 city/29 highway.

The automatic was the only option...putting the base price at $22,000 even, plus $795 delivery, processing and handling. So $22,795. For that  you get 4-wheel disc brakes, electronic power assisted rack and pinion steering, front and rear stabilizer bars, 17 inch alloy wheels, and the most fun you've had while driving in a long, long time.

Simply put (and we've said this before), Mazdas love to run. They're happy machines. The smiley face front ends are no coincidence. They handle like they're on rails. They live up to the corporate motto "Always The Soul of a Sports Car".

2012 Mazda 3 interior
2012 Mazda 3 interior
Look at the instrument panel in the picture above. Everything simple, direct and right where your hand expects it to be. Not to mention tastefully designed and of very good materials and craftsmanship...way beyond what $22,000 normally buys.

The Mazda 3 spent many months on the TireKicker Top 10 Cars (So Far) list early on. With the 2012 Mazda 3, it's back. If you're looking for a small car that you'll love to drive, you've just found it.

UPDATE: If the five-door is so good, how's the 2012 Mazda 3 four-door?

The 2012 Mazda 3 4-Door Sport.

Surprisingly good. Now, you may wonder why there'd be a surprise when all that's different is the number of doors...but that's the thing...the Mazda 3 5-door and 4-door have three big differences beyond the roofline.

One, the Mazda 3 i Sport 4-door (also borrowed from Chapman Mazda in Phoenix)  packs a bit less power...148 horses instead of the 167 in the 5-door (you can get the hotter engine by stepping up to the S model four-door).

Two...that difference in power makes a significant difference in mileage: The EPA says the 4-door should get 24 city/33 highway as opposed to the 22/29 in the five-door (both those figures are for the automatic versions...the stick in the four-door bumps it up to 25/33).

And three...price. The Mazda 3 i Sport 4-door starts at $17,555 with the automatic transmission, $2,445 less than the 5-door tested above. Want one for even less? Go with the stick and the base price for the 4-door drops to $16,845.  And, if you live in a place where you can live without air conditioning and an outside temperature display, there's the Mazda 3 i SV 4-door at a mere $15,200.

Apart from those three things, everything we said about the 5-door goes for the 4-door. It's a truly terrific small sedan. Once again, we got one without options and the final cost (including delivery) was $18,350...making it the second lowest-priced (as tested) car we've driven this year. The lowest? The 3's baby brother...the Mazda 2.


2011 Lincoln Navigator Review

Silver 2011 Lincoln Navigator front 3/4 view driving on city street at night
The 2011 Lincoln Navigator.
Want a big, full-lux SUV and insist on buying American? Your ride is ready.

It helps to be a bit of a traditionalist, as well, since the 2011 Lincoln Navigator is year five of the Gen 3 Navigator (and 2012's changes are minimal, so it's going into year six).  But familiarity can breed contentment...and the Navigator is like an old friend.

The downturn of the economy and upturn in gas prices has driven the amateurs out of the fullsize and luxury SUV market. It's back to the people who really want, need and appreciate them. And as a former pre-soccer mom era Suburban owner, I can tell you, the 2011 Navigator is a sweet ride.

Side view of white 2011 Lincoln Navigator
Side view of the 2011 Lincoln Navigator L

As with the now-discontinued Lincoln Town Car,  Ford hasn't been peppering the press fleets with Navigators, so we borrowed one from Fiesta Lincoln in Mesa, Arizona for a week. They put us not just in a Navigator, but the extended-length Navigator L...three rows of seats and room for a bunch of cargo, luggage, groceries, you name it, in the back.

Frankly, the Navigator looks better as the Navigator L. It's a tall beast and the 14.9 inches of extra length makes it look less blocky. And it may be me, but I think it rides considerably better in L form as well.

Our tester was also a 4X4 model, so the starting price was $62,695. For that, you get a 5.4 liter, 310 horsepower V8 with a six-speed automatic transmission, power liftgate, power folding, heated memory outside mirrors, power running boards, HID headlamps, SYNC, THX audio, heated and cooled front seats, heated 2nd row seats and power fold-flat 3rd row seats.

There's also dual-zone climate control, rear auxilary climate control, voice-activated navigation (hey, a Navigator should have nav standard), 4-wheel disc brakes with ABS, forward and reverse sensing system, rain-sensing wipers, power adjustable pedals (a great thing for families whose drivers are of different heights and leg lengths. I'm 6'0". Mrs. TireKicker is 5'1".) a trailer towing package, a full complement of airbacks, Advance Trac with RSC and the Securilock anti-theft system.

Dove gray leather Lincoln Navigator interior with wood trim
The 2011 Lincoln Navigator interior.
Inside, it's leather and wood as far as the eye can see (and the interior is so spacious "as far as the eye can see" is really an issue here).  In the Navigator, standard is loaded...and yet, this one was loaded just a bit more. From the options list came Rapid Spec 101A, the monochrome limited edition package, turning a lot of normally chrome bits the body color (White Platinum Metallic Tri-Coat) and adding a power moonroof for $1,645.

That White Platinum Metallic Tri-Coat was extra cost, as well...$595.  An upgrade to 20 inch polished aluminum wheels cost $1,310, and all-weather floor mats were $75. $925 for destination and delivery brings the grand total to $66,320. Given that you can load a half-ton Chevy Suburban to $65,000 and change and cracking $70K in luxury SUVs isn't difficult, that's a very good value. Just be prepared at the pump...the EPA says the Navigator L 4X4 should get 13 miles per gallon in the city, 18 on the highway. Your mileage may vary. Ours did. In a 60/40 city street/urban freeway mix, we managed 12.6 mpg.

Still, it's a nice machine with tons of presence and a lot of usefulness. Lincoln's likely to either completely re-do or do away with the Navigator after 2012. If this is for you, I'd act now.


2011 Kia Optima Review

Front 3/4 view of silver 2011 Kia Optima
The 2011 Kia Optima. Yes, Kia Optima.

The progress made by Korean automakers Kia and Hyundai the past few years has been nothing less than remarkable. It's the same basic story as how Toyota, Nissan (then Datsun) and Honda went from footnotes to mainstream best-sellers, but with a much steeper curve, negotiated much more quickly.

But even the rapid rise to respectability couldn't prepare us for the giant leap that is the 2011 Kia Optima. Until now a generic-looking sedan that fit right in as a rental car, the Optima now is gorgeous (if not absolutely, then certainly by family sedan standards), stylish and has bypassed contemporary for futuristic.

Rear view of silver 2011 Kia Optima
Rear view of the 2011 Kia Optima.

That particular "F" word, "futuristic",  is fraught with peril for manufacturers on that side of the Pacific, who have produced some designs that look like mutant insects from a 1950s sci-fi flick. But not the new Optima. The future here is one that's within sight from the present...where other manufacturers have been heading, but won't arrive for another move or two, that's where the 2011 Kia Optima is now.

The Optima starts at a very reasonable $19,200 for the LX with a manual transmission. Our tester was the EX with an automatic...boosting the price of entry to $22,495. You keep the same 2.4 liter four cylinder engine (200 horsepower), but step up to 17" wheels from 16s, and you get chrome accent door handles, clear-lens projector headlights, front fog lights, dual body-color heated power mirrors, Smart Key & pushbutton start, dual zone automatic climate control, the passenger gets an auto-down feature for the power window, door mood lamps and rear reading lamps, auto-dimming rearview mirror with HomeLink and compass, an 8-way power driver's seat, leather seat trim and aluminum interior trim. That's a lot of upgrades for $3,295.

Interior of 2011 Kia Optima
2011 Kia Optima Interior.

And then there's the interior. And I'll be honest. At first, I felt let down. The surfaces and materials felt cheap to me. I finally figured it out...they're exactly right and maybe a bit better than they need to be for this segment and this price point....but the car gives the impression of being a much more expensive piece...my brain was thinking $40,000 when I slid behind the wheel. Again, the reality is $22,495.

That, of course, is before options, and the Kia press fleet folks added two...the Technology Package (a navigation system with backup camera and Sirius Traffic plus an upgraded Infinity audio system with 8 speakers) for $2,000...and the EX Premium Package (Panoramic sunroof, power front passenger seat, driver seat memory, heated and cooled front seats, heated outboard rear seats and a heated steering wheel) for $2,250.

Regular TireKicker readers know our mantra when it comes to $2,000 factory nav systems ("Your phone does that"), but the Infinity audio system sounds mighty nice, so maybe that's only a grand worth of nav.

With those two options and a $695 freight and handling charge, the sticker price on the 2011 Kia Optima we drove was $27,440. Slick, smooth, clean, quiet...EPA estimates of 24 city/34 highway and Kia's 10 year/100,000 mile limited powertrain warranty, 5 year/60,000 mile limited basic warranty and 5 year/60,000 mile roadside assistance. Hard to go wrong.

And there's a hybrid version for 2012 that will be in our hands in early October.

Camry, Accord, Altima, Mazda 6, Sonata, Fusion and Malibu, move over. There's a new contender you have to share the stage with.


2011 Ford Explorer Review

Front 3/4 view of a red 2011 Ford Explorer driving on a wet winding road
The 2011 Ford Explorer.
Once upon a time, there was a vehicle that seemingly everyone bought. You saw it everywhere. The time was the 1990s and the vehicle was the Ford Explorer.

Then bad things started to happen...blowouts and rollovers...the tires were to blame (along with people who didn't know how to respond to a blowout...I was in three such instances in Explorer TV news units, and thanks to calm, cool photographer/drivers, there was little drama involved), but the Explorer's halo took a hit, and so did sales.

Well, that might be a good thing in the long run, because those declining sales prompted Ford to completely re-think the Explorer and what it should be for 2011 and the foreseeable future beyond.
The new Explorer moves from truck-based to car-based but still keeps the rugged good looks of more traditional mid-size SUVs.

Rear 3/4 view of red 2011 Ford Explorer with Chicago skyline in background
Rear 3/4 view of the 2011 Ford Explorer.

In a vacuum, this would be a big-time home run. But the competition (namely Jeep) chose 2011 to re-do its Grand Cherokee, complete with a quantum leap in interior quality.  So the Explorer can take nothing for granted. And it doesn't. It drives well, rides better and there's a sense of solidity, security and quality that is a new high for the Explorer nameplate.

The price is right...starting at $28,360 for the 2-wheel drive base Explorer. Ours was the 4WD XLT...same 283 horsepower 3.5 liter V6 engine and six-speed automatic transmission, same EPA fuel economy rating of 17 city/25 highway. But you add Sirius Satellite Radio, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with cruise control, secondary audio and other controls, front unique cloth bucket seats, the SecuriCode keyless entry keypad, a reverse sensing system, and powered/heated folding outside mirrors with led turn signals and security approach lamps. And the price goes up to $33,190.

Still not too shabby.

Interior view of 2011 Ford Explorer
The 2011 Ford Explorer interior.
The Ford press fleet people kept the options list short, too...Rapid Spec package 201A was the big ticket...adding MyFord Touch, SYNC, a rear view camera, dual zone climate control and a premium audio upgrade for $1,750. There was also a trailer tow package ($570), $395 for the special Red Candy Metallic Tint paintjob and $795 for the voice-activated navigation system (when the price gets that much below the typical $2,000 for a factory nav system, we won't argue against it).

Tack on $805 for destination and delivery, and the Explorer bottom-lined at $37,505...exactly $580 below the Jeep Grand Cherokee we reviewed last month.  But watch those options choices...open the 2012 Explorer page on the Ford website and you'll see these sobering words:

"$28,170 starting MSRP (yep, a price cut from 2011). As shown $46,370."

Yes, kids, you can add darn near 20-grand to the sticker price of your Explorer if you get carried away.

But back to ours...a solid, strong choice at $37,505 as equipped. That $580 price advantage over the Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo is nothing for Ford to get comfy over, though...as terrific as the Explorer's new interior is, Jeep (and all of Chrysler) is swinging for the bleachers in that area...and with the Grand Cherokee, succeeding...and if you're thinking of indulging in some off-roading, the Jeep reputation is tough to beat.

Nonetheless, after years of decline, the Explorer is back...and it's by far the best Ford Explorer ever.


2011 Lincoln MKS Review

Rear 3/4 from above of silver 2011 Lincoln MKS sedan on winding road
The 2011 Lincoln MKS.

Stock shots from car manufacturers are usually well lit, nicely shot and extremely flattering. At a minimum, they're in focus. Rarely do they tell a story. But the one above does. This year, after two seasons running behind the big dog Lincoln Town Car, the Lincoln MKS has a new role. It's the company's flagship. The road ahead is wide open. It's up to the MKS to conquer the drivers along the way. And having recently done a farewell review for the Town Car, I thought it was time to re-visit the MKS, so we borrowed one from Fiesta Lincoln in Mesa, Arizona.

As I wrote three years ago, I initally underestimated the MKS when I saw it on a stand at a 2007 auto show. And then I drove it.

Instrument panel of 2011 Lincoln MKS
The 2011 Lincoln MKS instrument panel.

Lincoln got the MKS very, very right. There's an elegance to the cockpit that impresses at first encounter and then slowly reveals deeper and deeper layers as you spend more time at the wheel.

And unlike other manufacturers, Lincoln has found a way to make technology a big part of the car's appeal without it being overbearing. SYNC is a brilliant interface for phone and portable music. Getting a Bluetooth connection on the first try is a given (it isn't with a lot of cars I drive)...ten seconds and done. And from that point on, it can all be handled by voice command. It's tech doing what tech should be doing....reducing driver distraction, not adding to it.

The standard THX audio system is terrific. The step up to 5.1 surround (600 watts and 16 speakers) is well worth the price of admission. 

Regular readers know I'm not a huge fan of factory in-dash nav systems. The MKS gives you a choice. There's a voice-activated navigation system with traffic, directions and information standard...and there's also an optional full satellite navigation system with an 8-inch full-color touch screen. It's the best I've seen so far, and it's bundled with Sirius satellite radio, Sirius traffic (showing current conditions on the nav map), and Sirius Travel Link with an introductory six-month subscription. Up-to-the-second weather, gas prices and gas station location, live sports scores, movie times and theatre locations are part of Travel Link.  I'd be renewing early.

Front 3/4 view of off-white 2011 Lincoln MKS
Front view of the 2011 Lincoln MKS.

And then there's the tech that's involved in the actual driving. The MKS ranks with the Volvo S60 T6 as one of only two cars so far that I've driven where I actually trust the adaptive cruise control to maintain a safe following distance when there's a car in front of me and not throw up a false alarm and throw on the brakes when there's not.

Interior shot of 2011 Lincoln MKS with cream leather interior and sunroof

And while you're enjoying seat time behind the wheel, your passengers will be happy, too...luxurious accomodations include a sunroof up front and a fixed-glass moonroof (both with powered shades) in the rear.

Starting price is $41,500. Our tester from Fiesta (we're now thisclose to rejected lyrics for Steve Miller's "Take The Money and Run") added Rapid Spec package 102A. That's the voice-activated nav system, the THX 5.1 surround sound system, a rear view camera, dual panel moonroof and wood door trim package ($4,500). It also had the adaptive cruise control mentioned above and paired with a collision warning system ($1,295) and beautiful White Platinum Metallic Tri-Coat paint ($595).

Bottom line, with $875 for destination and delivery: $48,765. That's less than $500 above the Town Car we tested last week. You trade room for six for room for five, you pick up one mile per gallon in the  EPA city mileage estimate and stay flat on the highway (17 city and 24 highway, which is very strong for a luxury sedan), and a world of current and cutting-edge technology simply not available on the Town Car opens up to you, both in standard equipment and on the option list.

The Town Car was deservedly a hero of the limousine and executive sedan fleet owners. The MKS isn't meant to replace it there (though I'd be interested in seeing a mild stretch of the MKS...an MKS-L...with five or six more inches of wheelbase). But as fond as we are of the Town Car, as a top-of-the-line Lincoln that you drive yourself, the MKS represents a massive leap forward, and Lincoln has been all too quiet about its virtues.

2011 Land Rover LR 4 Review

Front 3/4 view of bronze 2011 Land Rover LR4 at the beach
The 2011 Land Rover LR 4.

Younger TireKicker readers may be shocked to learn that the Sport Utility Vehicle pre-dates the Starbucks-wielding soccer mom.

Back in the day, they were fairly utilitarian beasts, these Chevrolet and GMC Suburbans, International Travelalls,  Toyota Land Cruisers and Land Rovers. But the first of these to appeal to an upscale clientele struck gold. And that was Land Rover.

Anywhere on this earth where the pavement ended, a Land Rover was the answer to the question "how do we get there?".  And that covers not just Bureau of Land Management cattle trails, but vast uncharted swaths of rugged mountains, thick jungles and deep deserts.

Land Rover was the perfect platform from which to go luxo, because the question of "can it make it?" was never an issue. And it's still not.

One of my favorite David E. Davis, Jr. lines was "It'll climb a tree if you're brave enough". And that applies as much as ever to the Land Rover LR4. Want to go to the ends of the earth? Places your GPS doesn't know about? Your ride is here.

Rear 3/4 view of bronze 2011 Land Rover LR4 on dirt trail above mountains with fog and clouds
Rear view (and then some) of the 2011 Land Rover LR 4.

To prove the point, Land Rover sent along a very-nearly-base version of the LR4 (the vehicle once known as the Land Rover Discovery). Ours came with just three options...black lacquer finish trim ($350), the Climate Comfort Pack (heated seats and steering wheel plus heated front windshield and washer jets for $1,500) and the Rear Seat & Climate Package (including a 3rd row seat with curtain airbags, split-folding second-row and rear climate control, accessory socket and map lamps for $1,150). All worthwhile options, especially given the altitudes at which you might be driving your LR4.

Which means that the rest of what you get for your $47,650 is standard equipment. And that includes the best terrain response system on the market...allowing you, with a simple dial, to tell the LR4 that it needs to deal with snow, mud, sand, rocks or...dry pavement (hey, it'll happen sometime).

There's also a 375 horsepower, 375 pounds per foot of torque 5-liter V8 engine with direct fuel injection mated to a six-speed automatic transmission (which itself has normal, sport and manual shift modes), permanent four-wheel drive with Traction Control, a two-speed electronic transfer gearbox with variable locking center differential, 19 by 8" aluminum alloy wheels, four-wheel ventilated disc brakes with ABS, all-terrain dynamic stability control, Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, Cornering Brake Control, Hill Descent Control, Emergency Brake Assist, four-corner electronic air suspension and a six-airbag supplemental restraint system all wrapped in a body and frame that feels infinitely more solid than anything else on the road.
Instrument panel of 2011 Land Rover LR4
2011 Land Rover LR4 interior.

So is it all rugged utilitarianism? Well, no...and yes.

No, because this is a luxury vehicle and you will be as comfortable in it as the term "luxury" implies.

Yes, because it's a different kind of luxury. One absent fragility. Everything in the Land Rover LR 4, from the seats to the switchgear, feels and is substantial. The seats are some of the best we've ever been in...conjuring up thoughts of turning a run to the store into a thousand mile journey just to see where the road (or lack of it) goes. And the modern amenities (dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth, cruise control, power seats, windows and sunroof, a 240-watt, 9-speaker AM/FM/CD audio system with auxilary input, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel iwth audio controls mounted on it, leather and wood throughout) are all there.

The result: A strong, secure SUV that never puts a foot wrong. An environment that not only exudes luxury worth $47,650...but also value, a feeling that you've bought something that will do its job for a long, long time.

Downsides? Just two. The EPA estimate of 12 city/17 highway is sobering...especially on those weeks when you're doing mostly city driving. And the sunshades over the power sunroof and fixed alpine roof let a bit too much light and heat through. But remember...we drove it in Phoenix during the hottest August on record. Your temperature may vary.

Bottom line: The LR 4 is proof that brilliantly engineered, purpose-built (and built to last) machines are still out there. And it's proof that "rugged luxury" isn't an oxymoron.


2011 Lincoln Town Car Review

Front 3/4 view of silver 2011 Lincoln Town Car driving with lights on
The 2011 Lincoln Town Car. The end of the line, the end of an era.
The end of the year clearance sales are on. 2011s are leaving the lot to make room for the 2012s.

Except for the Lincoln Town Car. When the last one is gone, that's it. There will be no more. It's been years since Ford bothered to put one in the press fleet in TireKicker's hometown, so we arranged with Fiesta Lincoln in Mesa, Arizona to drive one for a week.

The last Lincoln Town Car is a big deal because it's not just the end of a body style or a nameplate, but of a type of automobile. The Town Car is what American sedans were from World War II onward...big, comfortable, rear-wheel-drive, V8-powered machines that sat six adults in great comfort.

Interior of 2011 Lincoln Town Car
The 2011 Lincoln Town Car interior. You may have had smaller apartments.

See that armrest in the picture above? Fold it up, and you'll find a seat belt. There's no center console. The gear selector is sticking out of the steering column. 3 in the front, 3 in the back...and even given contemporary American bodily dimensions (within reason), nobody's crowded. There's 21 cubic feet of space in the trunk for all your things.

It's more comfortable than a large SUV, certainly has a better ride and arguably better handling, and it definitely gets better mileage (the EPA says 16 city/24 highway, and we saw 22.5 on a long stretch of urban freeway, with our weeklong city street/freeway mix never dropping below 19).

Our tester? Basic as it comes. The Signature model. $47,225. 4.6 liter single overhead cam flexible fuel V8, automatic transmission, halogen headlamps, heated power windows with memory, heated 8-way power front seats with lumbar, leather seating surfaces, leather and wood steering wheel with audio, cruise and climate controls, a dual-zone climate system, an AM/FM/6-CD changer premium audio system,  power adjustable pedals, rear park assist, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, traction contol and a security alarm. All that packaged with a 4 year/50,000 mile bumper-to-bumper warranty, a 6 year/70,000 mile powertrain warranty and 24 hour roadside assistance.

Complete enough that ours had only one option...whitewall tires ($125). Yes, whitewall tires. You can still get them. And, apparently, reasonably.

All told, with $945 for destination and delivery charges, the Town Car rang in at $48,295. And you know what? We loved it. It's the ultimate road trip car (I rented dozens, if not hundreds over the years as a traveling TV news reporter), and it's perfectly fine in city traffic as well. There is, in fact, nothing wrong with it that couldn't be fixed with some cosmetic and convenience updates, and driving the Town Car, I kept coming up with arguments why it should be saved.
But the Town Car got stuck with the label of "old peoples' car", and in an acutely image-conscious society thus was doomed to declining sales as its owner base aged, gave up drivers' licenses and, well, began dying off. Demand stayed strong in the limousine and executive sedan market, where the combined virtues of room, relative economy and near-bulletproof reliability (300,000 to 400,000 miles is not uncommon for a Town Car) are highly prized.

Rear 3/4 view of 2011 Lincoln Town Car driving on wet city street
The 2011 Lincoln Town Car. Off into the sunset.

Why don't civilian drivers who buy large (in some cases, huge) vehicles prize those qualities, too? Room for 6, more than respectable gas mileage, decent cargo space, epic safety ratings and legendary durability and reliability with a starting price under $50,000 would probably be a big draw...on paper..for a lot of buyers in their 40s and 50s.

Until you say the words "Lincoln Town Car".

So we walk away from something that works in favor of more stylish things that don't quite work as well. Our fault and our loss for that. There are a lot of people for whom a Lincoln Town Car would be just about perfect. If you have an open mind, Cars.com says there are 746 new Town Cars on dealer lots in the USA as I type this. That's 28 fewer than there were when I began writing this review a little less than an hour ago. 26.64 more hours like that and they're all gone.

TireKicker Time Machine: 1994 Acura Legend Coupe

Tyson Hugie's 1994 Acura Legend Coupe front view
Tyson Hugie's 1994 Acura Legend Coupe. Not your typical 18-year old car.

Confession: I've been neglecting the TireKicker Time Machine feature. Partly because it's 17 million degrees in Phoenix this summer but also because I'm looking for the exceptional.

Turns out I found it in the summer of 2009...and just needed reminding.

The picture above is of a 1994 Acura Legend 6-Speed Coupe belonging to a young man named Tyson Hugie. And it's a recent photo.

Tyson Hugie, Michael Hagerty and Tyson's 1994 Acura Legend Coupe in June 2009
Tyson Hugie, Michael Hagerty and Tyson's 1994 Acura Legend Coupe in 2009.
That's us, a little over two years ago, meeting for the first time when I was doing a story for television on people who keep their cars for 100,000  200,000 miles or more. Tyson more than qualified...his Legend had 378,000 miles..and was not only running...but virtually flawless. That was our only meeting. We've stayed in sporadic touch by e-mail since.

Tyson Hugie's 1994 Acura Legend Coupe rear view
Rear view of Tyson Hugie's 1994 Acura Legend Coupe.
Tyson's a huge believer in maintenance. Anything that breaks gets fixed fast, and there's so much attention to upkeep that nothing much breaks.

And if you think he keeps it nice by not driving it much...remember that mileage? 378,000 two summers ago? Here's the odometer from this past weekend:

Tyson Hugie's 1994 Acura Legend Coupe odometer
Tyson's 1994 Acura Legend Coupe odometer reading as of this weekend.

That's right...now closing in on half a million miles. Tyson has driven 113,774 miles in 26 months. That's 4,375 miles a month. Testing two cars a week, I do maybe 2,000...2,400 tops. How's he do it?

He drives places. Interesting, faraway places:

Tyson Hugie and his 1994 Acura Legend Coupe at the Alaskan border
Tyson and the 1994 Acura Legend at the Alaskan border.

There are a lot of interesting adventures and insights wrapped up in getting a car to the 500,000 mile mark...and Tyson tells them best in his own blog devoted to getting there: DriveToFive (Legendary Quest for 500,000 Miles). He'll hit that milestone soon at this rate...so bookmark it now and start enjoying the ride.