2011 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport Review

Front 3/4 view of 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport

Mitsubishi. The word may as well be Japanese for "how the mighty have fallen."  70 years ago, they made fearsome fighter planes that flew in World War II. 35 years ago, they had a pretty good name in the field of home electronics.  And 30 years ago, they managed to crank out some fairly desirable sporty cars for their low-compression, emissions-control-choked time.

But they've never been able to break through to mass success in America, and with each passing year of subpar sales, the coffers get smaller, no doubt hurting research and development that might produce exciting new vehicles.

That's the only explanation I can manage for how Mitsu managed to be more than a decade late to the small SUV (think Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Ford Escape) party and show up with a car that might have been competitive when the party started ten years back.

Rear 3/4 view of 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander sport driving on city street

Simply put, it's slow, with a 2-liter four cylinder engine and a continuously variable transmission. It's noisy by contemporary standards and rough, too.

The arguments in its favor? Price...a base price of $22,995 for the all-wheel drive SE model we drove...$18,495 for the 2-wheel drive ES model (which comes with a 5-speed manual that might cure a lot of our problems with power and drivability...every step up comes with the CVT)...and mileage (the EPA says 24 city, 29 highway. We saw 24.5 in a mix of city street and freeway driving over 420 miles in one week)...and Mitsu's warranty package (10 years/100,000 miles powertrain, 7 years/70,000 miles anti-corrosion/perforation, 5 years/60,000 miles bumper-to-bumper and 5 years/unlimited mileage roadside assistance.

Instrument panel of 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport

The interior? Hey, it's 2001 again! Hard, black, shiny plastic as far as the eye can see. Yeah, there are updates (keyless entry, pushbutton start, a full complement oof airbags, Bluetooth), but it's definitely old-school. And it's up against vehicles like the RAV4 that started here 10 years ago and have had a decade worth of refinement.

But there is the price thing. Our SE, with a Premium Package (panoramic glass roof with LED illumination...is this "Cash Cab"?, roof rails, an upgrade to a 710-watt Rockford Fosgate audio system with 6-disc in-dash changer and Sirius satellite radio) priced at $1,800, topped out at $25,575.  Show some restraint on the options list at the Toyota store and you can get a RAV4 close to that...but it'll be  2 wheel drive and more of a stripper.  Drop to 2 wheel drive and a base vehicle with the Mitsu and you're nearly $7,000 cheaper.

In tough times, you can't rule out price as a motivator. But the Outlander Sport will probably be cross-shopped against three-year old RAV4s, CR-Vs and Escapes rather than new ones.


2011 Chevrolet Cruze LTZ Review

Front 3/4 view of red 2011 Chevrolet Cruze parked on rooftop garage

It's been 35 years since the famous "Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet" ad campaign. But the basic principle is evident in the new Chevrolet Cruze.

If you've heard or read that the Cruze is a quantum leap beyond the car it replaces, the Cobalt, you've heard or read right. This is a thoroughly modern, no-apologies small sedan...ready for battle in an intensely competitive segment.

What's fascinating is how, in the same year, both Chevy and Ford get serious about building very good small cars, and yet, come up with very different solutions. The new Focus is Ford acknowledging that they've been building the good stuff for Europe all these years and finally letting us get some...it's essentially a German sedan.

The Cruze is, in its own way, every bit as good as the Focus...but it's all-American. More like a smaller, tigther, more responsive Malibu (click the link to see that we're not damning with faint praise...we like the Malibu a lot).

Rear 3/4 view of 2011 Chevrolet Cruze

The Cruze we had for a week was the top of the line LTZ model, loaded at a base price of $21,975 (the Focus Titanium sedan starts at $22,270, so they're competitive) with a 1.4 liter turbo four-cylinder, six speed automatic transmission, sport tuned suspension, a full complement of airbags, Stabilitrak stability and traction control, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, power door locks, theft alarm, remote keyless entry, rear parking assist, six months of OnStar, and tire pressure monitoring.  There are also power adjustable heated outside mirrors, variable wipers, a rear defogger (not a given in small sedans) and 18 inch alloy wheels.

Interior shot of 2011 Chevrolet Cruze LTZ

Inside, there's an AM/FM/CD 6 speaker audio system with Bluetooth, steering wheel controls, USB interface and auxilary jack, floor mats, a driver's 6-way power seat (8-way manual for the front passenger), acoustic insulation, automatic climate control, leather appointed seats and steering wheel, a driver information center, tilt and telescoping steering column, power windows, cruise control, and heated seats up front.

The Chevy PR folks loaded ours up further with a power sunroof ($850), a Pioneer premium audio system ($445), crystal red metallic tintcoat pain ($325) and a compact spare tire ($100). Add $720 for delivery and the bottom line comes to $24,415.

That's about $1300 more than the Focus we tested, and it was a five-door, which starts about $900 higher than the sedan. The Focus is more of a driver's car, manages better fuel economy despite a bigger engine (28 city/38 highway from a 2.0 liter to the Cruze's 24/36 from the 1.4 liter turbo), and seems a lot more like a driver's car...that European influence, no doubt.

So...a slam-dunk for the Focus? Not necessarily. On a lot of levels, the Cruze was more comfortable and easy to live with...and there's a huge segment of the intended audience that is not about performance...they're looking (especially at prices nudging $25K) for comfort and convenience they're used to from larger cars with small-car fuel economy.  It's really a matter of taste. And if it were me and my money I'd be wrestling with the decision a long time.



2012 Ford Focus Review

Front 3/4 view of red 2012 Ford Focus driving on city street

At last, Ford lets us have the good stuff! For a decade or so, we've been hearing how the American Ford Focus compared unfavorably if at all to the European model...and with each update, we've been hoping to get what they've had for so long.

Well, the 2012 Focus is here and now we can see what the shouting was all about. Not only is it a night-and-day difference from the previous U.S. Focus, it's also a completely different approach to small cars from its chief rival, the new Chevrolet Cruze (review coming soon here).

Rear 3/4 view of red 2012 Ford Focus driving on city street

The Focus rides, drives and handles like a German car that just happens to have the blue Ford oval attached to the front and back. The combination of the 2-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission gives it strong acceleration and very good fuel economy (28 city/38 highway is the EPA estimate and our weeklong experience of mixed city street and freeway driving suggests that's realistic).

Interior view of 2012 Ford Focus

Ford has done some of its best work with the Focus interior...contemporary and techno without being overwrought like the Honda Civic (another direct competitor). The seats are comfortable for hours at a time, controls are well-placed an fall easily to hand. And, unlike the Fiesta, the back seat has adequate room for people just a shade under six feet tall.

The SEL 5-Door Hatchback is well equipped, with 16-inch alloy wheels, halogen headlamps, fog lamps, a rear spoiler, an AM/FM/CD/mp3 audio system, ambient lighting, power windows and locks, a leather wrapped steering wheel with audio and cruise controls, climate control, illuminated entry, AdvanceTrac with electronic stability control, SYNC, 4-wheel disc brakes with ABS, a rear wiper/washer, power locks, keyless entry and tire pressure monitoring system standard at $21,065. As with the Fiesta, it's pricey for the class size historically, but both Ford and Chevy appear to be moving into the premium compact segment that the VW Jetta has abandoned this year (review coming soon on that, too).

Our tester added Rapid Spec package 301A (MyFord Touch audio/nav system with an upgraded Sony stereo, HD radio, Sirius and 10 speakers)for $995 and Red Candy Metallic Tinted paint for $395. Total price with destination charges: $23,180. Again, more than you'd pay for a Civic or Corolla, but reasonable Jetta money when Jettas were premium German compacts.  And, based on precision and driving pleasure, I'm willing to say the Focus is what the Jetta was...and maybe even more.

My only concern is quality control. While everything seems top-notch, our tester had a trim piece above the passenger front door window that kept coming loose and hanging down and once, the MyFord Touch system froze up completely and would do absolutely nothing...not even pushing the "off" button made a difference...until it decided it was time to re-boot itself...a total of 9 minutes. Could just be the one we had. But if Ford's going to convince Americans to pay $23K (and more...there's a "Titanium" level above the SEL) for a compact car, quality had better be job one.


2011 Ford Taurus SHO Review

Front 3/4 view of red 2011 Ford Taurus driving around a building

Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear...before (well okay, just as) midsize muscle cars were coming on the scene...when a big car with a big engine was the hot ticket.

In Ford's case, we're talking about 1965:

Period magazine ad for Ford Galaxie 427

Yes, they called it "The Velvet Brute"...a Galaxie 500 with a 425-horsepower 427 cubic inch V8 stuffed under the hood. You could even get it with a manual transmission. Well, full-size powerhouses didn't last much longer and if it hadn't been for Chrysler's 300C, Ford might never have tried the new Taurus SHO, but we're sure glad they did.

Oh, sure there were SHOs in the early 90s, but that was a smaller car...the Taurus' mission in life is to be the BIG Ford...so the SHO has a lot more in common with 7-Liter Galaxies in our book. And that's a good thing.

Rear 3/4 view of red 2011 Ford Taurus SHO driving around a building

The Taurus SHO looks and feels special. The 3.5 liter EcoBoost V6 is a serious engine...and the SHO keeps the serious stuff coming...with a six-speed automatic transmission (with paddle shifters), all-wheel drive, a sport tuned suspension, Advancetrac with electronic stability control, high intensity projector headlamps and more.

Interior shot of 2011 Ford Taurus SHO

And the interior kicks things up several notches too...possibly the best big American sedan interior I've been in for years, if not decades.

The SHO is even defensible on green grounds...getting an EPA estimated 17 city/25 highway miles per gallon...not that far off the base Taurus SE's 18/28.  And the safety aspect? Not to worry. Five-star crash ratings all around (four for rollover).

Where the difference comes in is the price tag. There's no question you get every penny's worth, but the still sobering fact is that the base price of a Taurus SHO ($38,020) is $12,600 more than the Taurus SE.  And when equipped like our tester (heated and cooled front seats, power moonroof, upgraded Sony audio system, heated rear seats, power sunshade, blind spot monitoring, rain sensing wipers and automatic high beam headlights, adjustable pedals, red candy metallic tinted paint, adaptive cruise control with collision warning, voice-activated navigation, multi-contoured seats and delivery charge), it'll crack $46,000 before package discounts (which whittles the tab down to about $45,600). You can't load an SE beyond $27,466 even if you check every single option box.

So, loaded, we're talking about an $18,000 difference in price tag. Don't get us wrong. We love the SHO. We'd gladly own one. We could even make the case for the price based on what you get. But this is America, where the "deal" moves cars more than merit or features...and where perceived value is a major factor, especially in a down economy.

Is there a sufficient market for a $45,000-plus Ford Taurus? Sure hope so, because it's one heckuva car.


2011 Lexus IS350 AWD Review

Front 3/4 view of 2011 Lexus IS350


That's probably the word that best describes most people's admiration of Lexus. They build high-quality luxury and near-luxury automobiles at a price below...often significantly below...that of the competition from Germany.

Desire isn't heard as often, largely because Lexus' "relentless pursuit of perfection" has sanded off a lot of the rough edges that enthusiasts find interesting and exciting.

But for every rule, there's an exception, and for Lexus, it's the IS350.

This is Lexus' drivers' car. And it comes in a variety of flavors. Our most recent run was in the all-wheel drive version.

Rear view of 2011 Lexus IS350

The IS's agressive styling (certainly by Lexus standards) hints that this is something special. And the 3.5 liter DOHC 24-valve V6 more than delivers on that, with 306 horsepower and 277 pounds per foot of torque. That power gets to the four driving wheels through a six-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission with intelligence...meaning it adapts to your driving style and the conditions you're driving in.

That all wheel drive is full-time AWD, by the way. So you're getting a consistent delivery of power to all four wheels. The IS350 is already a good-handling machine. All-wheel drive just makes it better...and an excellent companion in bad weather.
Well equipped? Well, yeah...and then some. The standard equipment list is a long one, including 17-inch alloy wheels, dual chrome exhaust tips, steering wheel-mounted shift paddles, Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management, anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution and Brake Assist Smart Stop technology, a full complement of airbags, Bi-Xenon high-intensity headlamps with LED daytime running lights, automatic collision notification, emergency assist, roadside assistance, tire pressure monitor, a first aid kit and a tool kit.

Interior shot of 2011 Lexus IS350

And then there are the creature comforts that come at no cost with the base price of $41,030....leather trim, a moonroof, dual-zone climate control, cruise control, a Lexus Premium Audio System with 13 speakers, in-dash 6 CD changer, Bluetooth, XM and a USB connection.

The Lexus folks pushed the envelope of our tester a bit further with the Luxury Plus Value Edition Package (heated and ventilated front seats, wood interior trim, perforated semi-aniline leather seats, power tilt and telescoping steering wheel, driver memory seat, illuminated scuff plate, power rear sunshade and rain-sensing wipers)...$2,795 worth of options ordered separately for $1,320. And they added a navigation system with Lexus Enform, XM NavTraffic, NavWeather, Sports & Stocks for $2,465.

$64 for a cargo net and $73 for a cargo mat plus $875 destination charges runs the bottom line up to $45,827...not bad for a car that easily runs with sedans that crack the $50K ceiling. And this one gets an EPA estimated 18 city/25 highway miles per gallon.

It's a wonderfully balanced sedan...hitting the sweet spot where performance and luxury meet. And it's well worth a test drive.


2011 Nissan Versa Hatchback Review

Front 3/4 view of red 2011 Nissan Versa driving

As the price tags of entry-level compacts go up, it's nice to see a car that remembers its basic mission...good, affordable, reliable, economical transportation.

The Nissan Versa isn't anybody's idea of a hot hatch. With only 122 horsepower and a CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission), it's not going to win any stoplight drag races. But it has more than adequate power for freeway merging and passing, it's very smooth and quiet for its class.

Side view of red 2011 Nissan Versa parked
The base price is $16,900 and for that, you get 15 inch alloy wheels, airbags, anti-lock brakes, Vehicle Dynamic Control, Traction Control system, a security system, air conditioning, a 6-way adjustable driver's seat, a six-speaker 180 watt Audio system with auxilary jack and an iPod interface, intermittent wipers front and rear, cruise control, power door locks and windows and keyless entry.

Interior shot of 2011 Nissan Versa

Skip the satellite and nav, though, and you're in the 17s, with an Ultra Low Emissions rating and an EPA estimated 28 city/ 34 highway miles per gallon rating.

We like the Nissan Versa. We like it even more because it isn't pretending to be something it's not...it lets its core virtues shine and reminds us that simple things done right can be very easy to live with.


2011 Toyota RAV4 Limited Review

Rear 3/4 view of black Toyota RAV4 driving

Longtime TireKicker readers know our struggles with the Toyota RAV4. On the one hand, it's a wonderful machine, one that has evolved and been refined well beyond its cute-ute roots and that, on extended exposure reveals itself to be a very nearly perfect small SUV.

On the other, the price tag, especially at the higher trim levels and with unbridled enthusiasm for options, can get a little steep. The RAV4 was the first small SUV we tested to break the $30,000 as-tested barrier.

But now, we have a new component to figure into all this: Gas prices. If we are, as they tell us, headed for $4.50 a gallon as the new normal, then there's going to be a market for premium vehicles with premium amenities that just happen to be smaller than we're used to, with the payoff being improved fuel economy.

And put in that context, the value argument for a loaded RAV4 Limited gets considerably stronger.

Front 3/4 view of black 2011 Toyota RAV4 parked on a hill

Our tester this time around was the two wheel drive version, with a base price of $26,835. Not at all unreasonable for what you get: A 269 horsepower V6, 5-speed automatic transmission,  17 inch alloy wheels, stability control, traction control, anti-lock brakes, electronic brake force distribution and brake assist. Plus halogen headlamps, fog lamps, privacy glass, a roof rack, dual zone climate control, a 6-speaker AM/FM/6-disc CD changer, XM satellite radio, power windows and door locks, cruise control, Optitron gauges and more.

Stopping there, it's actually a bargain. And, thanks to an extra value package discount, there's even a case to be made for loading it up with options. A rear back-up camera is always a good idea. The RAV4 pairs it with an auto-dimming mirror for $475. Ours had Blizzard Pearl paint, a $220 option. The tow prep package (upgraded radiator, fan coupling and alternator) was $160. No, I wouldn't advocate towing anything with a RAV4, but those are worthwhile upgrades...especially for hot summertime trips. Floor and cargo mats are $199.

Interior shot of 2011 Toyota RAV4
The big ticket item was the Premium Plus Value Package. It upgrades the audio system to a JBL unit with nine speakers, adds hands-free Bluetooth capability, daytime running lights, a moonroof, leather-trimmed heated seats, a power driver's seat and a 120 volt power outlet. The tab for that? $3,480...but Toyota instantly discounts that $2,000...so the net cost is $1,480, which would be about right for the audio upgrade and moonroof alone.  The discount took a bottom line of $32,179 down to $30,179.

Yep, we're still talking about the smallest SUV Toyota makes, and a 2-wheel drive version at that, with a price tag over $30,000. But we're also talking about a well-built machine with significant amenities that gets an EPA estimated 19 city/ 27 highway miles per gallon.

If gas were cheap, that'd be one thing. But this is probably the new default SUV for most people. And if you're going small, you may as well be comfortable. As much as we try to pick apart the value equation every time we get a loaded RAV4, we end up enjoying the time we spend with it and hating to hand it back at the end of a week.

So our bottom line: Despite the psychological twitch that kicks in when we see the as-tested price crack 30 large, the RAV4 is worth it. And if you can't quite go there, a lower trim level and a modicum of restraint with the option boxes can get you in one closer to 25 than to 30.

2011 Suzuki Kizashi Review

Rear 3/4 view of silver 2011 Suzuki Kizashi driving on winding road

See that car with the European plate carving up that winding road?  Audi A4, maybe?

Well, unless you're oblivious to headlines, you know already that not only is that not an Audi or any German car, but a Suzuki.

The good news is that the Suzuki Kizashi is all the things no one ever thought about Suzuki. The bad news is the word needs to spread more. We'll start here.

Front view of silver 2011 Suzuki Kizashi parked on a city street

We got the chance to sample three different Kizashis and found them all to be good looking,  comfortable,  and fun bordering on truly sporty to drive.

The SE sedan came with a 180 horsepower four, a Continuously Variable Transmission, and a remarkable list of standard equipment (ABS, power steering, 8 airbags, tire pressure monitoring system, security system, keyless entry, premium cloth sport seats, dual zone climate control, rear passenger air vents, a 7-speaker AM./FM/CD/mp3 audio system with iPod and mp3 player USB port, steering wheel audio controls, a 10-way power driver's seat with memory, 17 inch alloy wheels and leather-trimmed steering wheel and shifter) for only $21,499.  The only options on that one were a premium floor mat set ($125) and premium metallic paint ($130), so the total (delivery charge is listed as zero) was $21,754. EPA estimated mileage is 23 city/30 highway.

Next step up was the SE All-Wheel-Drive. Base price ramps up to $22,749, but so does handling capability...it was a noticeable improvement over an already nimble machine. Standard equipment remains the same, so does the free delivery, and the EPA estimate drops to 22/29.

And then there was the Sport SLS. 5 more horsepower (185), no increase in torque (170 lb/ft) but some added standard equipment including fog lights, an upgraded 425 watt Rockford Fosgate audio system with 10 speakers, Bluetooth, a leather interior, sunroof, rear parking sensors, rain sensing wipers, automatic headlamps, an aero body kit, lightweight sport wheels and a sport design steering wheel. Price bumps to $24,699, the EPA estimate falls to 20 city/ 29 highway and this one had XM satellite radio on the option list, so the bottom line wound up at $25,304.

Interior shot of 2011 Suzuki Kizashi

Everything inside seems of high quality and craftsmanship and the overall vehicle is solid. In fact, the Kizashi gets five stars for frontal and side crash ratings...four for rollover.

The Kizashi represents a major breakthrough for Suzuki...a sporty sedan with styling and handling that you'd associate with other cars costing quite a bit more. At the price point (especially for the Sport SLS), there's certainly competition. But your shopping isn't thorough enough if you don't make time for a test drive of the Kizashi.

2011 Scion tC Review

Front 3/4 view of gray 2011 Scion tC parked

We've said it before, we'll say it again. If you want to know the basic goodness of a car, spend some time in one that is absolutely box stock, no options whatsoever. Last time around, Scion sent us a tC with about four grand worth of options that, in our opinion, did nothing for the car. 

Well, since then, the Scion tC has been re-done...and this time around, they shipped us one with only standard equipment. The only line on the sticker after base price is $720 for delivery.

Rear 3/4 view of parked silver 2011 Scion tC

Smart move, because it underscores just how complete a package the tC is.  For $18,995 ($19,275 if equipped with a six-speed automatic like our tester), you get a nimble, stylish 3-door liftback with a 180 horsepower 16 valve DOHC four-cylinder engine, power steering, 18 inch alloy wheels, vehicle stability control, traction control, anti-lock brakes, electronic brake force distribution and brake assist. There are also 10 aribags, a tire pressure monitoring system, a first aid kit, a panoramic glass moonroof with power tilt and slide, power windows and door locks, remote keyless entry, air conditioning, cruise control, a 300-watt Pioneer AM/FM/CD unit with 8 speakers, auxilary and USB ports and iPod connectivity and a leather-trimmed sport steering wheel with audio controls.

You read that right. That's all standard at a price under $19K if you shift it yourself.

Oh, and the tC just got awarded a 5-star overall crash rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration...remarkable for a car in this size class.

Interior shot of 2011 Scion tC

Every good thing about the tC, and we've always been a fan, has been made better in the new one. More power, better handling, and way more car for very little money. Oh, and mileage? 23 city/31 highway, according to the EPA.

We've entered an era where manufacturers are putting economy sedans on dealer lots with stickers of 23, 24, 25...even 26 thousand dollars. That's a hard value argument to make. It's way harder when there's something as deep-down good and well-equipped as the Scion tC for under 20.

2011 BMW Z4 Review

Front 3/4 view of white 2011 BMW Z4

Welcome to the gotta-have-it car of 2011. Men, women, kids....doesn't matter. Pull up in this and get ready for the questions:

Is it as wonderful to drive as it is to look at?

How fast is it?

Can you toss me the keys for an afternoon?

Here are the answers:



I promised the folks at Chapman BMW in Chandler, Arizona that I wouldn't do that. 

Longtime TireKicker followers know that I believe in BMW magic. TireKicker's first review (complete with the story of my first teenage encounter with a 2002tii) was of a BMW convertible (the 128i).

Rear 3/4 view of white 2011 BMW Z4

Well, the BMW magic has never been stronger than it is in the Z4. The styling re-defines the concept of animal magnetism (something like this can't possibly be just metal). The retractable hardtop gives you the best of both worlds...the practicality and security of a fixed-roof coupe and the wind in your hair and sun on your skin of a convertible.

And it's a magnificent melding of the contemporary and the relatively recent past, grabbing styling cues from the limited-production 2000-2003 Z8.

The Z4 comes in three levels, the sDrive30i, with 255 horsepower and a base price of $47,450; the sDrive35i at 300 horsepower and a base price of $51,900 and the sDrive35is...335 horsepower and a starting price of $62,500.  Our week was in the middle of the line sDrive35i.

If there is a more balanced driving machine, I can't remember driving it. The car is light and nimble, steering responses are rightnowquick and, despite a short wheelbase and overall length, the ride is smooth while still giving great feedback from the road.

Instrument panel shot of 2011 BMW Z4

And inside, where the driving gets done? Well, the Z4 is every good thing about BMW. Phenomenal ergonomics, top-quality materials, an unflinching devotion to quality workmanship. And an integrated group of electronics that actually help get distractions out of the driver's way rather than adding to them. It's all (even the more complex functions) simple, direct and intuitive.

Even optionless, the Z4 sDrive35i would be a fantastic car, but our tester had several key option boxes checked: Titanium Silver Metallic paint (which everyone we encountered remarked on as the most beautiful shade of silver they'd seen), $550; the Premium Package (universal garage door opener, power front seats, lumbar support and BMW Assist with Bluetooth), $2,500; the Premium Sound Package, which upgrades the audio system while adding an iPod and USB adapter and a 1-year satellite radio subscription; the Sport Package (an increased top-speed limiter, sport seats and adaptive M suspension) for $2,300 and a further bump-up to 19-inch alloy V-spoke wheels for $1,200.

But that's not all. The 7-speed double clutch transmission (which includes a sport steering wheel with paddles, Servotronic and a multi-function steering wheel) was also on the list for $1,575. Those extra gears pay off in improved fuel economy...EPA estimates 17 city/ 24 highway.

$400 for the anti-theft alarm system, $500 for Comfort Access keyless entry, $500 for heated front seats, $2,100 for an excellent navigation system and an $875 destination charge brought ours to a bottom line of $66,200.

And you know what? It's worth it. It's three things: A brilliant car for driving, a work of art to look at, and over the long haul, an investment. Mark my words...this is a classic in our time. A car that 30 years from now and beyond you'll look at and say "I wish I'd bought one".  Any one of those things would be enough to secure the Z4 a slot on TireKicker's Top 10 Cars (So Far). All three? It's a lock.


2011 Infiniti M37 Review

Front 3/4 view of 2011 Infiniti M37

It's all about the curves.

No, you haven't logged on to Playboy's home page by mistake. But words like "sexy" and "voluptuous" just might get used in the next few paragraphs. Infiniti, the near-luxury division of Nissan that originally tried to sell us cars by showing us pictures of trees and running water in its TV commercials (just no cars), has finally realized that cars, at their best, are tactile, emotional, exciting...and sent the stylists to the drawing board with just that in mind.

A great leap forward? Well, yeah. Click here for a reminder of what last year's Infiniti M looked like. We've gone from mildly upscale vanilla Japanese design to "somebody has a Maserati poster on their bedroom wall" in one model year.

Rear 3/4 view of 2011 Infiniti M37

What's great about it is that the beauty isn't only skin deep. If you read the review of last year's M35 linked above, you know we liked it a lot. But the M37 in its gorgeous new wrapper turns up the heat when in motion. Last year's 303 horsepower becomes 330. 262 pound-feet of torque becomes 270.

Wanna know the really hot part?

It's cheaper.

The fabulous curves, the big boost in power...is accompanied by a base price that's $1,700 lower than the last model.

And it gets better mileage. 16 city/22 highway is now 18/26.

Wanna talk more about curves? Fine. It handles them like a slot car. Like it's on rails. Find a twisting, turning road and you'll be grinning like an idiot.

You'll steal glances over your shoulder when you park it and walk away.

Your wife, girlfriend or both will be jealous of this car.

Yes, it's that good.

Instrument panel shot of 2011 Infiniti M37

Wherever Infiniti found the $1700 to cut, it wasn't the interior. Better than ever, with virtually everything standard at $46,250. Our tester had exactly four options: The trunk mat, trunk net and first aid kit ($195), illuminated kick plates ($350), the Sport package (which swaps the standard 18 inch alloys for 20-inchers, and adds sport suspension, sport brakes, paddle shifters, 4-wheel active steer, plus sport seats, steering wheel and shift knob) for $3,650, and the Premium Package (hard drive Nav sysstem, color touch-screen, XM NavTraffic and NavWeather, Zagat Survey restaurant reviews, voice recognition, an upgraded Bose 10-speaker audio system, with Bluetooth streaming audio and a 9.3 GB hard drive to store your music, climate controlled fron seats and a heated steering wheel) for $3,350. Add $865 for destination charges and the total is $54,660....$255 less than the similarly loaded (but less powerful and less beautiful) 2010 model.

Sure, the bottom line is a bargain only in relative terms. But drive it. Then tell me you don't want one.


2011 Lexus RX 350 Review

The shape is instantly recognizable. It's the vehicle that started the whole luxury-crossover segment more than a decade ago...looking much like it does today. 
Sure, there have been refinements. That's what's kept the Lexus RX 350 at the top of its game...but the fact that the basic design is within walking distance of what it was in the late 90s is testament to just how right Lexus got the RX.

Rear 3/4 view of 2011 Lexus RX350

RX 350s are everywhere. In traffic this afternoon, I was behind three of them, all white. But familiarity and popularity have done nothing to lessen the status. This is THE luxury crossover. A lot of people wouldn't drive anything else (note to self: a piece on people who're on their fourth or fifth RX might be very interesting).

A big factor in the RX's favor is price. Base is only $37,975. That gets you a 3.5 liter 275 horsepower V6, a 6 speed automatic transmission with "snow mode", 18" aluminum alloy wheels, a raft of safety features, a premium audio system with a six-disc in-dash CD changer, Bluetooth and a 90-day trial to XM Satellite Radio.

Ah, but we're not done. Also on the standard equipment list is an auto dual-zone climate control system with rear vents, a power tilt and telescope steering column, 10-way power driver's and front passenger's seats, height-adjustable headrests for all the seats, genuine wood trim and a bunch more.

Interior shot of 2011 Lexus RX350

And the cockpit is one of the nicest, most serene places you could spend your commutes and vacations in. If it sounds like you could stop with just the standard equipment and keep the tab under $40,000, you could. And you'd have a very nice piece. But the one we drove also had the Comfort Package (rain sensing wipers, High Intensity headlamps, Adaptive Front Lighting (the headlights turn with the front wheels, helping you see around corners), and heated and ventilated front seats. That's $1,950.

It also had the Luxury Package (semi-aniline leather trim, a moonroof, retractable outside mirrors, wood and leather steering wheel and shift knob, a wide-angle backup camera, an upgrade to 19" alloy wheels, a USB audio plug, power rear door, memory for the seats and mirrors, illuminated scuff plates and headlamp cleaners. Add $4,900.

That's not all, though. The Mark Levinson Premium Surround Sound system with a 6 disc DVD changer and 15 speakers was also on the list ($1,610). And then there's the navigation system with XM NavTraffic and NavWeather at $2,465.

Oh, and a cargo net for $59.00.

Tack on the delivery fee ($875) and you're at......

$49,834. Which (and you won't hear me say this too often) is actually reasonable for what you're getting. The quality of the vehicle itself and the upgrades makes the experience of driving an RX 350 equipped like this one exceed the sticker price. It feels like $60,000 (in fact, it feels better than some $60,000 vehicles we've driven) and it's a shade under $50,000. 

Not many cars can say that, and it's probably a huge chunk of the reason the RX 350 continues to be the leader in its segment.

EPA mileage estimates: 18 city/25 highway.

One more thing: Especially when buying a luxury vehicle, the dealership experience matters a lot. One of our recent RX350 vehicles came from Bell Lexus in Phoenix.  Sales Associate Anthony Covington spent half an hour acquainting me with the finer points of the vehicle before I left the lot...and pointed out things the Lexus PR department hadn't...like how finishing the insides of the wheel wells helps keep the exterior cleaner, the ride quieter and reduces the risk of long-term damage and/or corrosion. Or how, since the redesign, the edges of the doors extend all the way to the bottom of the body...protecting the doorsills, which means you don't get road grime on your trouser cuffs as you enter and exit the car. It's a pleasure to deal with people who know their product that well.