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First Drive: 2016 Mazda Miata

Forward into the past.

by on Jun.01, 2015

The 2016 Mazda Miata picks up the basic cues of the original MX-5 without any sense of retro.

As a child of the ‘60s, I grew up in an era when anyone looking to put a little fun in their driving had really just two choices: a Detroit muscle car or a British sports car. Either way, you knew you’d be spending plenty of weekends tinkering and tweaking to keep your wheels running. Friends with a Triumph Spitfire or MGB often would have two, one serving as a parts donor.

No surprise, then, that by the late 1980s those British 2-seaters had largely vanished from our shores, leaving a gap that was unexpectedly filled by a quirky little Japanese car company named Mazda. Best known for the rotary-powered RX-7 and an assortment of little economy cars, the Hiroshima-based automaker took a bold chance on trying something completely different, dubbing its new offering the Miata.

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These days, It’s known by the slightly longer name, the MX-5 Miata, but whatever you choose to call it, our first drive in the all-new 2016 roadster brings to mind the way we described the first Miata a quarter-century ago: the best British sports car the Japanese have ever built.

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First Drive: 2016 Honda HR-V

Honda delivers some big things in its small CUV package.

by on Apr.30, 2015

The 2016 Honda HR-V shares the basic architecture first introduced on the Fit hatchback.

Small, smaller, smallest. Like a growing number of its competitors, Honda has been both refreshing and fleshing out its utility vehicle line-up. And even as it prepares to launch an updated version of its biggest model, the Pilot, it’s entering an all-new segment with the pint-sized 2016 Honda HR-V.

What was once a modest niche is rapidly becoming one of the market’s hottest segments with new offerings such as the Chevrolet Trax, Jeep Renegade and Fiat 500X joining earlier entries like the Nissan Juke and Kia Soul. Honda, however, has big plans for the smallest of its utility vehicles, hoping to dominate the market much as it has with bigger offerings like the Pilot and mid-range CR-V.

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Sharing the same Mexican assembly line as the familiar Honda Fit, the 2016 HR-V also shares the same underlying platform as that latest-generation minicar. That’s good news for those who believe that good things come in small packages, yielding a flexible and roomy interior that will surprise those who expected a cramped interior with little space for either passengers or cargo.

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First Drive: 2015 Volkswagen Golf R

Taking things to the next level.

by on Feb.27, 2015

The 2015 Golf R adds another strong entry to the expanding Golf hatchback family.

What do you do when you’ve nabbed some of the industry’s top honors? How do you one-up yourself after being named both North American Car of the Year, as well as Motor Trend Car of the Year.  If you’re Volkswagen, you take things to the next level with the launch of the new Golf R.

With its turbocharged, 292-horsepower inline-four, a pavement grabbing all-wheel-drive system and an electronic differential lock designed to keep you always pointed in the right direction, the 2015 Volkswagen Golf R is more than just the sportiest member of the fast-growing Golf “family.” It’s also the sort of product the German maker needs to kick-start a brand that has been unable to take advantage of the overall recovery of the U.S. car market.

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If you think this is just a slightly upgraded version of the GTI, well, you need to spend a little time behind the wheel of the new Golf R. Preferably on some fast roads with plenty of aggressive corners. We were lucky enough to be handed a set of keys and a route map that took us into the winding mountain passes east of San Diego – with, of course, a stop for some pie in Julian, a pleasant little mountain town that time has virtually passed by.

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First Drive: 2015 Ford Mustang

Re-imagining an icon.

by on Sep.18, 2014

The new 2015 Ford Mustang GT maintains its basic design cues without looking retro.

“When you’re redoing an icon,” says Ford’s new CEO Mark Fields, you find yourself gripped by “a combination of a great honor and a great fear.” Just ask Dave Pericak, who was given the daunting job of redesigning one of those icons as the chief engineer for the 2015 Ford Mustang program.

It wasn’t just a new version of the classic pony car Pericak had to shepherd into production, but the creation of a vehicle worthy of being the 50th anniversary Mustang.  It had to be, as he is fond of saying, “the best Mustang ever.” No idle boast, but, after spending a few days watching a procession of automotive journalists get their first rides in the pony car, Pericak looked more than a bit relieved. As well he should.

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There are a few nits to pick, but they’re largely cosmetic, a few places Ford might have stretched a little further. But there’s little doubt that the coupe and convertible muscle cars Ford will be shipping to dealers around the world in the months ahead can far and away lay claim to being the best Mustang ever.

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First Drive: 2015 Hyundai Sonata

“An athlete in a tailored suit.”

by on Jul.10, 2014

The 2015 Hyundai Sonata's styling may be toned down, but it remains a striking entry in a segment that has typically emphasized bland design.

First introduced in 1985, the Hyundai Sonata was a largely overlooked entry into the crowded midsize market, but that all changed with the launch of the 2011 sedan which quickly put to rest all those bad jokes and nasty reviews the Korean maker earned – often deservedly – during its early year in the U.S. market.

The sixth-generation Sonata broke the rather restrictive mold carmakers used when designing the midsized sedans. Instead of a drab, boxy silhouette, the recession-era Sonata was sleek, curvy and nicely proportioned. And it marked Hyundai’s coming of age as a serious global player – suddenly a serious challenger to top-rated Japanese brands such as Toyota and Nissan.

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Now Hyundai is rolling out the Gen-7 Sonata for the 2015 model year, and while it has actually toned down the over-the-top styling that made the outgoing model a visual standout, the Korean carmaker intends to build on the value story that turned Sonata into a major hit for the company.

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Ford Aims to Edge Out the Competition with All-New 2015 Edge CUV

Crossover will target Europe for 1st time.

by on Jun.24, 2014

The new 2015 Ford Edge adopts the same C/D platform as the maker's Fusion sedan.

Ford hopes to maintain its Edge when it launches an all-new version of its midsize crossover later this year, the 2015 Ford Edge marking the nameplate’s debut in the European market.

The new crossover-utility vehicle, originally introduced for the 2007 model-year, the Edge quickly gained traction in the booming U.S. CUV market, and it has been a major factor in Ford’s rapid growth in China. Now, the maker hopes to repeat that success in Europe as it launches an all-new version of the Edge that it boasts is more refined, more powerful and more fuel efficient.

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The new Edge also serves as the latest example of retiring CEO Alan Mulally’s One Ford strategy, the 2015 crossover migrating to a new platform that it shares with a variety of other key Ford products including the midsize Fusion sedan, the 4-door European Mondeo and S-Max people-mover, as well as the latest version of the Lincoln MKZ.

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First Drive: 2015 Subaru Legacy

Aiming for the mainstream.

by on May.21, 2014

Subaru goes more mainstream with the 2015 Legacy.

Subaru has long been one of the best-kept secrets in the U.S. automotive market, a brand with a loyal but limited niche following. But with the launch of the all-new, sixth-generation Legacy sedan, the Japanese maker is taking aim at a more mainstream audience, and midsize buyers would be wise to put it on their radar screen.

When the new sedan was unveiled during last month’s New York Auto Show it marked the 25th anniversary of the Legacy nameplate. Like the rest of the Subaru line-up, it has long been popular in Snowbelt cities like Boston and Denver, and has developed an especially strong following among such targeted groups as young, active outdoor fans, nurses and even the gay and lesbian community.

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But while the 2015 Subaru Legacy maintains some of the basic features that have long appealed to its loyalists – such as the brand’s Symmetrical All-Wheel-Drive system – the latest-generation sedan adds plenty of other appealing attributes, including what is now one of the industry’s best CVT gearboxes, great fuel economy, and a roomy, well-appointed interior. The new Legacy also gets the latest update of Subaru’s camera-based EyeSight safety system.

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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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