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First Drive: 2014 Toyota Highlander

In the hunt.

by on Dec.20, 2013

The 2014 Toyota Highlander offers three different powertrains, including a hybrid option.

The Highlander doesn’t get the kind of attention lavished on the Toyota Prius or the Camry, which continues to anchor the Japanese automaker’s line-up as the best-selling passenger cars in the U.S.

However, the Toyota Highlander represents one of the Japanese giant’s more successful forays into the truck side of the business where, despite the enormous popularity of its brand, it has encountered some disappointments over the years, notably with the tepid response to the Tundra, its full size pickup truck.

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The Highlander came into the U.S. market in 2001 as Toyota was accelerating its ambitious plans to overtake General Motors as the world’s largest automaker.  It was Toyota’s entry into the fast growing-midsized utility markets and was one of the first SUVs constructed around a unibody, rather than truck-like body-on-frame, platform.  And it caught on, in part, because of the company’s reputation for building durable and reliable vehicles.

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First Drive: 2014 Nissan Rogue

Affordable, stylish, comfortable.

by on Nov.01, 2013

Nissan strives for segment design leadership with the launch of the 2014 Rogue.

Compact crossovers have become one of the U.S. market’s hottest segments right now. And as sales surge, a growing number of manufacturers are competing for buyers attention with new or restyled offerings.  Over the last year or so we’ve seen major remakes of the Toyota RAV4, the Honda CRV and the Ford Escape, to name a few.

Now, Nissan is weighing in with a redesigned version of the Rogue targeting a broad cross section of consumers, from older, empty nesters to young buyers just starting families.

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The second-largest Japanese maker is taking an unusual approach, however, launching a new 2014 Nissan Rogue while maintaining the old model as the budget-priced Nissan Rogue Select. Whether that strategy will work remains to be seen, especially if Nissan hopes to get buyers to shell out the several thousand additional dollars it takes to get into the newer model.

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First Drive: 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid

Tipping the Scales at 50 mpg.

by on Oct.18, 2013

After a short absence, the Honda Accord Hybrid is back for the 2014 model-year - with an all-new drivetrain.

While Toyota and its Prius hatchback have dominated the hybrid market in recent years there was a time when the Japanese giant was locked in battle with its Asian rival, Honda.  But the smaller maker’s original alternative, the quirky 2-seat Insight, as well as latter models, failed to generate near the following, in part due to shortfalls with the original Integrated Motor Assist, or IMA, hybrid drivetrain.

A dozen years after it got into the battery-electric market, Honda is making another big push, this time with a trio of alternative hybrid systems, including the lower-priced, single-motor technology introduced on the latest Civic. A high-performance, three-motor hybrid package will soon be introduced for Acura models including the MDX, RDX and reborn NSX supercar.  But perhaps the most promising system – at least on a mass-market scale, is the two-motor hybrid debuting on the 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid.

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We could probably sum up the biggest part of its appeal in four words, “50 miles per gallon.” That’s a hard number to argue with and comes within a hairsbreadth of the 54.5 mpg Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard that the Obama Administration has put in place for 2025.  But there are other reasons to be impressed with the new Accord Hybrid.  Unlike so many other mainstream gas-electric offerings it actually delivers a reasonable amount of performance. Add a well-appointed interior and Honda has a package that should appeal to those who want more than just a mileage miser.

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First Drive: 2014 Kia Soul

Subtle changes yield big improvements.

by on Oct.07, 2013

Kia's 2014 Soul remake delivers subtle visual tweaks but more significant interior changes and revisions to drive dynamics.

Few cars have done a better job of putting a relatively unknown brand on the radar for a broad swath of American car buyers.  The 2009 Kia Soul and the hip-hop hamsters who became its spokes, er, rodents have carved out a unique and enviable niche in the market. So, with the launch of the 2014 Soul, Kia faces both risk and opportunity.

Anyone who has watched TV or gone to the cinema in recent weeks probably knows the slimmed-down “Hamstars” are back, their latest, catchy spot, backed by Lady Gaga vocals, meant to draw attention to the launch of the updated urban crossover.  Their help is needed. The 2014 Kia Soul’s distinctive design undergoes evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, changes that might otherwise be missed by most buyers.

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That said, Kia’s priority was coming up with a more comfortable CUV that resolves some of the earlier model’s issues with driving dynamics and refinement. Our experience during a Minneapolis driving event suggests the Koreans have largely succeeded.

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First Drive: 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA

How low can luxury go?

by on Oct.02, 2013

The new 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 45 AMG becomes the lowest-priced performance model in the maker's AMG line-up.

What is the price of luxury? That might seem an intangible question to answer, but there’s no doubt the new 2014 Mercedes-Benz E550, at a starting price of $92,500, fits the bill. But what about the new Mercedes CLA, which is being advertised at its base price of $29,900?

It’s long been dogma that anything with the maker’s tri-star badge would be perceived as rising above the competition.  In this case, however, the competitors include not only traditional ones like BMW and Audi, but even more mainstream marques such as Ford – whose Fusion sedan in its Titanium edition trim comes in at almost $1,500 more than the new Mercedes CLA.

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Luxury carmakers have been rapidly expanding their line-ups lately — the Mercedes family is today an alphabetic mash-up – and in the process of filling every possible open niche, they’re moving down-market as well as up.  But that returns us to the basic question: is the 2014 Mercedes CLA a true luxury car? Indeed, would we consider it a real Mercedes if it weren’t adorned with that familiar and enviable tri-star?

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First Drive: 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray

Detroit gives Porsche a run for the money.

by on Sep.18, 2013

Chevrolet has begun shipping the first new 2014 Corvette Stingray coupes to dealers this week.

It’s long been known as “America’s sports car,” but despite having some fine attributes, the Chevrolet Corvette has long lagged that global sports car benchmark, the Porsche 911.  So, when we got our first look at the all-new, seventh-generation ‘Vette during a sneak preview in a well-guarded conference center last December, we were left wondering whether the folks at General Motors might have finally taken the challenge seriously and were set to give Porsche a run for the money.

True, from a financial standpoint, the 2014 Corvette Stingray wins hands-down.  You can get a fully-equipped Chevy for around $72,000, or barely two-thirds the price of a similarly well-contented Porsche Cayman, never mind the 911. But when it comes to sports car cred, price takes a back seat to other numbers like horsepower, power-to-weight ratios, cornering forces and the like.

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The good news, as we recently experienced during a long day’s run through the hills and dales of Central California, is that the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray stands up on every count.  No wonder the maker is finally confidant it can gain traction for the new 2-seater beyond our shores. The latest incarnation of America’s sports car is now good enough to be a global player that just also happens to be a good bargain.

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First Drive: 2014 Mercedes-Benz E250 BlueTec 4Matic

The mileage of an econocar, the look and feel of a Mercedes.

by on Sep.09, 2013

Mercedes intros a new four-cylinder diesel with the launch of the 2014 E250 BlueTec.

When it comes time to bring out an all-new version of the mid-range E-Class, the Mercedes-Benz product team doesn’t have much room for error, not when you consider the various sedans, coupes and wagons that make up the line account for a whopping 25% of the German maker’s U.S. volume.

The 2014 Mercedes E-Class is a deserving update, as we’ve previously reported, adding some welcome sporting touches to a nameplate traditional known as the more cushy of the midsize European luxury imports. With the addition of the E250, Mercedes goes a step further, proving that you can also deliver spirited performance out of a sedan that also manages to be surprisingly fuel-efficient, thanks to its new 2.1-liter inline-four BlueTec diesel.

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Better yet, with the addition of 4Matic all-wheel-drive, the new “oil burner” provides the sort of traction that not only grips the pavement firmly in snowy climes while also adding a bit more performance edge for those Sunbelt buyers likely to never see conditions worse than the occasional cloudburst.

Fire up the new diesel and what you notice – make that what you don’t notice – is the lack of the traditional clatter that has long haunted diesels, even at start-up or  when idling. On the open road you’d be hard-pressed to believe this is, in fact, a diesel.

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First Drive: 2014 Toyota Corolla

New sedan quietly delivers with more style and efficiency.

by on Aug.27, 2013

Toyota delivers an all-new and more exciting midsize option with the 2014 Corolla sedan.

By almost any measure, the Toyota Corolla is one of the most significant vehicles built over the past half century.  That’s certainly true if you’re going by sales, the compact sedan lagging only the bigger Toyota Camry on the passenger car charts.

That said, the outgoing Corolla has taken its share of criticism, even from within Toyota where senior officials have been promising to move away from the bland styling of the outgoing model.  They gave a hint of what they had in mind with the Furia Corolla concept unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show last winter. And while the production 2014 sedan has clearly been toned down, the new Corolla will likely disappoint few of its traditional fans.

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The only ones who might take pause are those few looking for something smaller. If anything, the 2014 Toyota Corolla has grown both longer and a bit wider than its immediate predecessor. The wheelbase has been extended by 3.5 inches – and the payoff is obvious for both those sitting up front and in back since most of those extra inches have been translated into interior space.

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First Drive: 2014 Infiniti Q50

Steering a new course.

by on Aug.05, 2013

The 2014 Infiniti Q50 is more than just an update of the old G - Series sedan.

There’s something a bit disconcerting lifting one’s hands off the steering wheel at freeway speeds, especially when your new Infiniti QX50 confidently maneuvers a high-speed curve without a moment’s hesitation – or drift.

With the launch of the new Q50, Infiniti is steering a new course – quite literally.  The new sedan, the replacement for the maker’s popular G series, is the first mass production automobile to use a steer-by-wire system, something Infiniti has dubbed Direct Adaptive Steering. But the sedan is also part of a figurative shift in direction by the Nissan luxury brand, after nearly a quarter century Infiniti now determined to move out of the second-tier ghetto to take on dominant luxury competitors like Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Lexus.

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Part of the strategy to get there involves an all-new alphanumeric naming system.  Forget G, M, FX and JX.  Going forward, all Infiniti passenger cars will begin with a “Q,” while all crossovers and light trucks will be badged “QX.” The 2014 Infiniti Q50 is the first model to adopt that new nomenclature.

Of course, simply planting a new name on an old G35 wouldn’t be enough to make the big jump that Infiniti aims for. But the 2014 QX50 is a lot more than just a modest model refresh.

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First Drive: 2014 Toyota Tundra

If at first you don’t succeed…

by on Jul.30, 2013

The 2014 Toyota Tundra family.

It’s been a big year for Detroit’s Big Three automakers, and while the overall upturn of the U.S. market has helped them score gains in everything from hybrid to compacts to midsize sedans, nothing has buoyed their market share and bottom line more than the revival of pickup truck demand.

No surprise, Toyota is eying that market with envious ambition. The Japanese maker has long dominated the compact truck market with its Tacoma model, but despite repeated attempts, Toyota has failed to crack the code on the bigger – and traditionally more domestic-loyal full-size pickup segment.

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It seemed to have a winner in hand when the Toyota Tundra went through a major redesign six years ago, but after an initial burst of growth sales collapsed.  To be fair, the entire full-size truck market collapsed, declining by roughly half during the depths of the Great Recession, but Toyota is now lagging the pickup rebound and is anxious to regain momentum with the Tundra redesign it’s bringing to market for the 2014 model-year.

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