2011 Kia Sorento Review

Front 3/4 view of silver 2011 Kia Sorento
The 2011 Kia Sorento.

It's deja vu all over again.

Those of us of a certain age can remember when Honda found the magic dust and began sprinkling it liberally over their product portfolio. They went from an interesting, quirky also-ran to a company that could do no wrong and whose products you couldn't afford to ignore come car-shopping time.

Well here we are three decades later, and that's what's happening with Kia, which before they were an interesting, quirky also-ran, weren't all that interesting...so the achievement curve here is actually higher than it was for Honda.

About a month ago, we extolled the virtues of the Kia Sportage, now a fine, no-excuses small SUV. But what if you need something a touch bigger?

Well, that's where the Kia Sorento comes in. It's roomier but gets very close to the same mileage as the Sportage (21 city/29 highway to the Sportage's 22/31).

Our tester was the mid-level EX front wheel drive (all three, LX, EX and SX are available in all-wheel-drive as well), starting at $24,795. And that gets you a very well-equipped machine: DOHC 4, 6-speed automatic transmission, 18-inch alloy wheels, ABS, airbags and curtains all around, Electronic Stability Control, Traction Control, tire pressure monitoring, downhill brake control and hill assist control, dual-zone automatic climate control, power windows, door locks, and outside mirrors, an AM/FM/CD/mp3 audio system with SiriusXM satellite radio, USB and auxiliary jacks and Bluetooth.

Interior shot of 2011 Kia Sorento
The interior of the 2011 Kia Sorento.

Also standard in the EX are a multi-adjustable driver's seat with lumbar support, 60/40 split folding and reclining second row seats, pushbutton start with smart key, cruise control, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, auto light control, tilt and telescoping steering column, illuminated vanity mirrors, rear privacy glass and fog lamps.That's a nice package for less than 25 large. And the Kia people added three options to it:

The Limited package (Navigation with traffic data, backup camera, Infinity Audio system with 10 speakers, 18-inch mirror-finish alloy wheels and interior accent illumination)...$2,000.

Premium Package 1 (Leather seat trim in the first and second row, heated front seats and an auto-dimming mirror with display for the backup camera)...$1,500.

And a mirror with Compass and Homelink for $250.

Regular TireKicker readers know I'd almost always pass on factory nav systems (your phone can do most of what those do), but the added safety of the backup camera is a good idea in almost any vehicle...especially SUVs...and the Infinity Audio system rocked...so I'd actually go this way with my own dime....which would give us a grand total after delivery charges of $29,340.

It drives well, it handles well, it gets good mileage, and nicely equipped, you're coming in just a shade below the competition on price. Plus there's the 10 year/100,000 mile limited powertrain warranty and the 5 year/60,000 mile roadside assistance. Hard to go wrong...unless you don't test drive one.


2011 Mazda CX-9 Review

Front 3/4 view of silver 2011 Mazda CX-9 parked in front of home
The 2011 Mazda CX-9. Crossover or sport sedan with a whole lotta cargo space?

Oh, man, am I glad we made this editorial decision. Upon returning the Mazda CX-7 we liked so much we asked Chapman Mazda in Phoenix if we could do a review of its bigger brother, the CX-9. They graciously agreed.

It's been a while since we've been in a CX-9, and the memory cells were saying "like the CX-7, just bigger". That's how most small crossover/large crossover teams usually work out, and the CX-7 is so good, that wouldn't be a bad thing.

But driving the CX-9 immediately after the CX-7 revealed that we are talking about two entirely different vehicles here...in ways that go beyond size and price.

Rear 3/4 view of silver 2011 Mazda CX-9 in front of home
The 2011 Mazda CX-9. Strong, chiseled good looks.

All Mazdas are driver's cars. Handling, balance and acceleration are always a big part of the package (the company's motto is "Always the Soul of a Sports Car"), and the CX-9 is no exception. What's remarkable is how present they are in a large crossover...it's a trick the competition hasn't pulled off yet.

In truth, the CX-9 is a fast, comfortable, brilliant-handling sports sedan that just happens to seat seven.  And what you get for your money is simply amazing.

The "base" CX-9 is the Sport. MSRP is $29,135, and for that you get a 3.7-liter V6 with 273 horsepower and 270 pounds per foot of torque connected to a six-speed sport automatic transmission with a manual mode. There are also halogen headlights, power side mirrors, 18-inch aluminum-alloy wheels, a three-zone (driver, front passenger and rear) climate control system, power windows and door locks, remote keyless entry, cloth-trimmed seats, an AM/FM/CD/mp3 audio system with 6 speakers, Bluetooth, front side-impact airbags and side-impact air curtains with rollover protection, Dynamic Stability Control and the Traction Control System.

Interior shot of 2011 Mazda CX-9
The stylish and comfortable 2011 Mazda CX-9 interior.

Step up one level and you're in the one Chapman Mazda lent us for the week, the CX-9 Touring. Base price goes up to $31,055 and you get all the goodies in the Sport plus leather seating in the first two rows, heated front seats and side mirrors, an 8-way power driver's seat with adjustable lumbar support , a 4-way power passenger seat and auto-off headlights (ours didn't have the nav system pictured above...in fact, it had no factory options whatsoever...and I'd call it brilliantly equipped).

And you can go one step further with the CX-9 Grand Touring....everything the Touring has plus Xenon HID low-beam headlights, halogen fog lights, rain-sensing windshield wipers, power side mirrors with turn-signal lights, 20-inch aluminum alloy wheels, driver's seat memory, Mazda's advanced keyless entry and start system, an auto-dimming rear view mirror with HomeLink, dark silver and wood-tone interior trim, electroluminescent gauges, a blind spot monitoring system and an anti-theft alarm system. And that's $33,145.

Any of the three trim levels qualifies for bargain of the year. The Touring model we drove topped out at $31,850 with delivery charges. Load up any of the directly competing crossovers and you're past $35,000 minimum and might even get within walking distance of $40,000. And you won't have the performance and the handling you get in the CX-9.

EPA mileage estimate: 17 city/24 highway.


2011 Corvette GS Convertible Review

Front 3/4 view of blue 2011 Corvette GS parked with top down
The 2011 Corvette GS Convertible.

Gotta hand it to Chevrolet. They know how to keep things interesting. Even as the current generation Corvette ages and the buff books begin trotting out artists' renderings of what the next one is likely to look like, the bowtie boys find ways to keep you from sitting it out until then.

Case in point: The Corvette GS Convertible.

We'll get right to the stuff that matters. It's the LS3 V8...6.2 liters and 430 horsepower with a six-speed manual transmission. Same basic setup as the standard Corvette Convertible. But instead of 4.2 seconds to 60, the GS gets it done in 3.95 and will pull 1 g on the skidpad. The price? Five grand more than the standard model.

Rear 3/4 view of 2011 Corvette GS Convertible driving with top up
The 2011 Corvette GS Convertible looks good even with the top up.

That, by the way, works out to a base price of $59,045. So what's the difference? Bigger brakes, a dry-sump oiling system, differential cooler and a rear-mounted battery. All of which works together for that fractional improvement in the standing-start run to 60 and the improved handling.

Not a bad package for a shade under $60K. But the option list beckons...and it can bite you big-time. Chevy's press-fleet folks loaded our tester up by clicking just seven little boxes on the order form...and added $16,255 to the bottom line...which wound up reading $76,245.

Interior of 2011 Corvette GS Convertible
The (improved through options) 2011 Corvette GS Convertible interior.

What'd they do? Well, there was the 4LT Premium Equipment Group: Custom leather-wrapped interior (which was nice, given that the inside is still the 'Vette's Achilles Heel), a Bose Premium 7-speaker audio system (helpful with the top down), an extra 9 months on the SiriusXM satellite subscription, heads-up display (hmmm...), power telescoping steering wheel, heated seats, a memory package, universal home remote, adjustable sport bucket seats with perforated leather inserts, power passenger seat, a cargo net, Bluetooth and a power convertible top.

That package alone was $9,700 of the damage. If you could do it a la carte, I'd say yes to the interior upgrade (maybe...depending on the price), the audio upgrade, the telescoping wheel, the adjustable seats and Bluetooth.

We could save $1,250 right away because GM made this one a six-speed automatic. I'll shift it myself, thanks. That also eliminates $270 for "automatic transmission pedal covers".

$1,195 for "dual-mode performance exhaust"? What part of the 0.25 second improvement in the 0-60 runs is that responsbile for? Not enough for five bucks shy of 12-hundred. Pass.

That pretty blue is called "Jetstream Blue Metallic Tintcoat". It's $850. I'm sure I can find a no-extra-cost color I like just as much.

$1,795 for a nav system. Regular TireKicker readers know what comes next. Guys: It's 2011. My GPS system is in my pocket (no, I'm not talking dirty)...there's an app (or 20) for that.

And finally, $1,195 for the Grand Sport Heritage Package. Two-tone leather seats, GS logos embroidered into the headrests and the fender stripe hash mark design (applied by the dealer). That one I'd actually go for. This is a special edition...the first GS since the C4 Corvette. That means some level of collectibility is at least possible, and any feature that is exclusive and relevant to the GS is worthwhile.

Unfortunately, true a la carte isn't possible. There's 1LT, 2LT, 3LT and 4LT. And what I would want is scattered throughout. Not selecting 4LT loses you the interior upgrade. The better audio system and the telescoping steering wheel are a part of 3LT.

The sport buckets (which I'd like) and Bluetooth (which I think is mandatory) are a part of 2LT...but you have to swallow the power passenger seat (which adds weight), power top (ditto) and cargo net (which I'm okay with).  But it adds $3,190 to the price tag. Cave in and get 3LT for the audio system and scoping steering wheel and it's $6,200 more than the base GS Convertible.

Still, either of those would get the 'Vette in under $70K...and that's a bargain for this level of performance.

EPA estimate: 15 city/25 highway.

2011 Hyundai Sonata Review

Front 3/4 view from above of red 2011 Hyundai Sonata

Imagine this showing up on your doorstep. If you're a driver, it's a treat.

If you're Toyota or Honda, it's the nightmare that's been coming a long, long time.

This is the 2011 Hyundai Sonata SE...the blip that's been getting bigger in the Toyota and Honda rear-view mirrors for years now. Now, as with many Korean automobiles, it's arrived. The kinks and cultural disconnects that relegated Korean vehicles to second-tier status when compared to their Japanese and American competition have been banished. This is the real deal...what the Koreans can build with no excuses.

And it's good. Very, very good.

Hyundai proved that by putting one in the test fleet with exactly one option...floor mats, which added $100 to the MSRP of $22,595 (freight and handling adds another $720 for a final tab of $23,415).

Rear 3/4 view of 2011 Hyundai Sonata parked in front of house

Does that look like a $23,000 Korean car? Nope. Not to us, either. And the styling is the first revelation. It's simply stunning...it looks like a much more expensive automobile. In the week we had the test vehicle, the sight of people walking through parking lots, seeing it, admiring it, checking the nameplate and doing a double-take became a common one. Forget (for a moment) the Japanese. If Hyundai can keep the momentum, the Germans will have to worry soon, at least when it comes to styling.

And the Sonata doesn't fall down in motion, with a more-than-adequate 2.4 liter 4-cylinder mated to a six-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters (EPA mileage estimate: 22 city/35 highway).

Package that with Electronic Stability Control, ABS with Electronic Brake Force Distribution and Brake Assist, four-wheel disc brakes, sport-tuned suspension and steering and 18-inch alloy wheels (all of this standard for that $22,595 base price), and the car is a delight to drive...quick, light and responsive.

Interior shot of 2011 Hyundai Sonata

And yes, the above picture is the interior of the new Hyundai Sonata. Not only is it not bargain-basement rental car fodder, it appears the interior and exterior design teams talked to each other, got along and worked together to create a flowing design inside and out. Far more involving than most vehicles, without going into the button and gadget overload that Honda has fallen into in recent years.

And this is where the rest of your standard equipment comes in. Ready? Remote entry, power windows, locks and mirrors, sport seats with leather bolsters and cloth inserts, power driver's seat with power lumbar support, 60/40 folding rear seat, metalgrain interior accents, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, steering wheel mounted cruise, audio and phone controls, air conditioning, an AM/FM/SiriusXM/CD/mp3 audio system with 6 speakers, iPod USB and auxilary input jacks, Bluetooth, an advanced trip computer....and a full tank of gas.

And Hyundai's still backing it all up with a 5 year/60,000 mile new vehicle warrant, 10 year/10,000 mile powertrain warranty, a 7 year/unlimited mile anti-perforation warranty and 5 year/unlimited mile roadside assistance.

It wasn't many years ago that I could have given you a reason other than a low price and a big warranty to even think about a Hyundai. Now, with the new Sonata, I can't think of a reason it shouldn't be on your short list when shopping for a new family sedan.


2011 Mercedes-Benz E350 Cabriolet Review

Front 3/4 view of white 2011 Mercedes-Benz E350 Cabriolet parked with top down

Exclusivity. It's a fabulous thing, really. A certain something, often built of superior craftsmanship, sometimes of smoke and mirrors, that makes your product special, enables you to sell it for a premium and ensures that your customers won't feel like one of the herd.

For a long, long time, Mercedes-Benz had that in spades. And it was built of superior craftsmanship. Those of us of a certain age can remember when Mercedes-Benzes weren't especially pretty (the stunning 300SL Gullwing a notable exception), and weren't especially fast (again excepting the 300SL), but sold to discriminating buyers for about two and a half times the sticker price of a domestic sedan or convertible in its size class because they weren't simply engineered, they were over-engineered. This was a thing of value, likely to last far more than two and a half times longer than the domestic.

And as they became prettier and faster, and more expensive, a generation of car buyers became like little kids with their noses pressed against the showroom window pane...."someday...someday..."

And that's when the MBA's (or Germany's equivalent) spoke up. "Imagine if we could sell all those people the car of their dreams. We'd have to move into size and price classes we don't currently compete in, but we could do that by cutting out some of the unnecessary engineering. The materials don't have to be that good...they just have to be good enough. The price tags will be lower for some cars, but think of what we'll make in volume."

And thus began, in the mid to late 90s, Mercedes-Benz's pursuit of market share. They went from building the best car possible to building as many cars as possible. Loyal buyers noticed and began shopping elsewhere. New buyers, confronted with lesser and cheaper while looking down the hood at the three-pointed star began to wonder what all the shouting was about.

Well, lately, Mercedes has begun to show signs of finding the way back...building cars that look and feel like something special...and the E350 Cabriolet is one of those. Larger and more useful than the SLK roadster and significantly less expensive than the two-seat SL, the E350 is user-friendly and imparts a sense of premium goods from the moment you slide behind the wheel.

Interior shot of 2011 Mercedes-Benz E350 Cabriolet

Pictures don't do the interior justice. And the no-cost option of burl walnut wood trim goes a long way to adding warmth. But every surface, every control, has a premium feel.

Starting at $56,850, the E350 Cabriolet commes with a 3.5 liter, 24-valve aluminum V8 that makes 268 horsepower. Not a shocking amount, but it's good enough for 0-60 in 6.4 seconds and an electronically limited top speed of 130. The power is routed through a 7-speed driver-adaptive automatic transmission with sport and economy shift modes. As with most new cars, the extra gears pay off in fuel economy, with the EPA estimating 17 city and 25 highway miles per gallon.

The list of standard equipment is so long, we're simply going to link to Mercedes' website to fill in the details. Suffice it to say that the MBUSA press fleet folks believed only two options were needed on the test car...Diamond White paint for $1,515 (it is gorgeous) and a Premium Package (40GB hard drive GPS navigation, real-time traffic data, voice control, a 6GB Music Register, the Harmon/Kardon LOGIC7 Surround Sound System with Dolby Digital 5.1, HD Radio and SiriusXM satellite radio, iPod/mp3 interfaces and cables, heated front seats, AIRSCARF...a heater built into the headrest for your neck...and a rear-view camera) for $4,000.

All this for $63,240 with destination and delivery charges. Having driven a lot of 30 and 40-something thousand dollar cars, I have to say the E350 Cabriolet is worth its price sticker if those others are worth theirs. It's a special car. And it's nice to know Mercedes-Benz is back in the business of building those.

2011 Ford F-350 Review

Front 3/4 view of 2011 Ford F-350 towing a trailer

Remember when a "work truck" and a luxury car were on opposite ends of the vehicular spectrum? Well, those days are long gone...and the ultimate example of that is right up there above this paragraph...the Ford F-350 Super Duty.

When lines get blurred...especially lines that far apart, it's usually because something...often core principles and competencies. But not in this case. Somehow, this is all work truck and all luxury vehicle.

It starts closer to its work roots. At the base price of $49,410 for the 4X4 Crew Cab in Lariat trim, you get a rock-solid truck capable of towing 12,500 pounds.  And it comes with a nice, large, but somewhat plain interior:

Standard interior of 2011 Ford F-350

As trucks go, that's not too shabby. But the tester Ford sent our way was loaded. It had the King Ranch package. Which means the interior looked like this:

2011 Ford F-350 King Ranch interior

They also slid the 6.7 liter V8 diesel engine under the hood...which makes 800 pounds per foot of torque. 800!  Between the engine upgrade, the King Ranch leather and chrome, the six-speed automatic transmission, the electronic locking axle, moonroof, navigation, satellite radio, and a few other goodies, the bottom line of this Ford truck was....


Are you sitting down?


If I'm not mistaken, it's the most expensive factory-built Ford I've ever heard of. Certainly the most expensive I've ever driven.

And the thing is, it really doesn't make any compromises. Okay, sure, there are things you wouldn't do in a $64,770 "work truck" that you might in a less expensive one. But if you're talking about towing horse trailers, or race cars, this is like doing it with a luxury car. And in terms of luxury, no corners are cut because it's a truck. In fact, there hasn't been this kind of room in a luxury sedan in I don't know how long. About the only compromise on luxury is mastering graceful entrances and exits in evening wear.

It's not for everyone. But, contrary to the opinions of people who suggested "no one" needs a truck like this, there is a market. It's a really nice truck, and if you've got a healthy bank account and a half dozen thoroughbreds, this is your ride. The only downside I can think of is parking it (an issue that pops up for me with the HD versions of Ram, Chevy and GMC trucks, too)...but I'm guessing that's something you get used to.  There are worse problems to have.

2011 Mazda CX-7 Review

Front 3/4 view of blue 2011 Mazda CX-7

The crossover segment is so thick with vehicles that it's all becoming a blur. Time for a drive in one that breaks through the clutter and clears the head...the Mazda CX-7.

Loyal TireKicker readers know we've driven...and raved about...the CX-7 before. It's always been a great way to move 5 people in comfort and economy for not a lot of money but with a substantial amount of fun for the lucky driver behind the wheel.

As with all Mazdas, the focus is on driving...and the CX-7 Sport model we just finished a week in (courtesy Chapman Mazda in Phoenix) bears that out.

Rear 3/4 view of blue 2011 Mazda CX-7

For $22, 795, you get a 2.5-liter DOHC 16-valve four cylinder making 161 horsepower and a 5-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode...all more than enough to move the CX-7 with some urgency. You also have front and rear stabilizer bars, 17-inch alloy wheels, power mirrors, rear privacy glass, ventilated 4-wheel disc brakes, dynamic stability control and traction control system.

Interior shot of 2011 Mazda CX-7

Inside?  It's all good there, too, with crisp design, logical layout and comfortable seats. And the standard equipment list includes a tilt/telescoping steering column, power locks and windows, a six-way adjustable manual driver's seat, air conditioning, Bluetooth, an AM/FM/CD/mp3 audio system and remote keyless entry.

Again, that's all standard at $22,795. The one we drove had two factory options: Wheel locks for $50 and a convenience package (heated front seats, power moonroof with sunshade, a color multi-information display with rear camera, power driver seat and automatic climate control) for $1,750.

That takes the bottom line to $24,595 plus $795 delivery charge for a grand total of $25,390.

And that is an amazing bargain for any vehicle in its class...much less with the level of equipment and the sheer driving fun that Mazda bakes into every vehicle they make.

Mileage? The good news continues there, too...EPA estimate 20 city/28 highway.  This is a must-drive if you're in the market for a crossover or even a small to midsize sedan. The CX-7 is that good.


2011 Ford Fusion Review

Front 3/4 view of red 2011 Ford Fusion

These have to be sweet days for Ford. Not only did they spare themselves the bankruptcies GM and Chrysler went through (by mortgaging the famous Blue Oval logo), they're making and selling cars.

That probably sounds like a no-brainer...I mean, Ford's a car company, right? But the fact is that Ford and the other domestics spent most of the last two decades selling trucks and SUVs. Sure, they made cars, but they weren't the company's prime focus (way more profit in the trucks and SUVs) and consumers had long since put Toyota and Honda on the top of their family sedan shopping lists.

Well, that's all changing...and three weeks (yep, an extended test) in a Ford Fusion SE (courtesy Bell Ford in Phoenix, Arizona) goes a long way toward explaining why.

We've said it before, we'll say it again: Want to know how good a car is? Get as close to the base model as possible. In this case, the tester was one level up...the four-cylinder SE. A base price of $22,830 buys a six-speed automatic transmission, 8-way power driver's seat, an AM/FM/SiriusXM Satellite Radio with CD, mp3 capability and six speakers, automatic headlamps, foglamps, floormats and 17" alloy wheels.

Interior view of 2011 Ford Fusion

Loaded?  No. Nicely equipped? Absolutely.  Cloth seats breathe nicely in the summertime, so the lack of leather was actually a plus. And the interior design...the placement of all the controls...is so intuitive, so logical, that the Fusion went from a pleasant ride in its first few days to being an extension of the driver as the days and weeks went on.

As an automotive journalist used to a week at a time, multiplying the test window could expose serious flaws or at least niggling shortcomings, but not with the Fusion. It held up. I could see living with this car for the length of a 5-year car loan. Especially when you consider that the bottom line of this one is right at about $23,500 with delivery charges.

EPA estimates: 23 city/33 highway. Camry and Accord are still strong choices, but they can no longer take for granted that it's all theirs.


2011 Kia Sportage Review

Front 3/4 view of orange 2011 Kia Sportage

This year's list of nominees for "most improved" wouldn't be complete without this potential winner of the award...the all-new Kia Sportage.

The nameplate has been around since 1997, when it was the grimmest little conveyance imaginable...underpowered, undersized and possessed of the kind of materials and craftsmanship that gave Korean automobiles a reputation they're still trying to live down.

But, as we've been saying here at TireKicker for the past three years, the Koreans are making quantum leaps with each generation of automobiles. And the Sportage is an excellent example of that.

Rear 3/4 view of orange 2011 Kia Sportage

Even in more recent years, the best thing Kia had going for it was price and warranty, but the Sportage is now a no-excuses, fully competitive small SUV. In fact, it's leapt ahead of some of the older competitors with a DOHC four and a six-speed automatic transmission standard in all but the base model, which gets a six-speed manual.

That base model starts at a reasonable, but no longer bargain-basement, $18,295. Our tester was the next-to-the-top EX model (the SX is a screamer, with 260 horsepower instead of the 178 in the base through EX models).  Base price: $23,295. That gets you the engine and transmission detailed above, plus power steering, power four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, traction control, electronic stability control, donhill brake and hill-start assist, tire pressure monitoring, dual-zone climate control, power locks and windows, keyless entry, an AM/FM/CD/mp3 audio system with USB and auxilary inputs, cruise control, a trip computer, tilt steering wheel, Bluetooth, a 12-volt power outlet, intermittent wipers and a leather-wrapped shift knob and steering wheel.

Interior shot of 2011 Kia Sportage

All that adds up to a very pleasant environment in which to do your driving. And the one Kia sent over for a week included navigation with Sirius Traffic and a backup camera,  a premium audio system including a subwoofer, heated front seats, pushbutton start, a panoramic sunroof, rear sonar, heated outside mirrors and a cargo cover.

Bottom line: $27,990 with destination charges. Which is right in the zone for this type of small SUV with that type of equipment.  And the combination of the four-cylinder with a six-speed automatic pays off with excellent gas mileage...22 city/31 highway. It's well worth a test drive.