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First Drive: 2013 Toyota RAV4

The original “cute ute” gets a major overhaul and redesign.

by on Dec.18, 2012

The original "cute-ute" is back in a more sophisticated form.

Over the years, the RAV4 has been one of Toyota’s great successes. The original “cute ute,” it was one of the first crossover vehicles to connect with American customers at a time when traditional SUVs dominated the market.

But the market has changed substantially in the nearly two decades since the original Toyota RAV4 came to market and cheap and cheerful is no longer an acceptable formula.  Competitors such as the latest Honda CR-V and Ford’s radically redesigned Escape have turned up the heat on Toyota by delivering much more lavish features and sophisticated design.

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But during a drive of the 2013 RAV4 remake, Toyota officials – backed by the vehicle itself – made clear there’s no interest in ceding the market. “We introduced RAV4 to the U.S. market in 1995… and since then, we’ve sold more than 1.7 million with 80% still on the road today, which is a true testament to its quality and durability,” observed Toyota Division general manager Bill Fay.

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New Toyota RAV4 Grows Up

Big changes in a little package.

by on Nov.29, 2012

Toyota's new RAV4 adopts a more expressive design - and a number of other changes.

Toyota helped define the “cute-ute” segment with its original RAV4. And it is hoping that the all-new crossover making its debut at this year’s LA Auto Show will help redefine the increasingly popular compact CUV segment.

But there’s no question that competition is getting tougher – no surprise – as sales soar to record levels.  Americans have purchased 1.7 million compact crossovers since the 1994 RAV4 debut, and a flood of new models has been entering the market, including an all-new version of the Ford Escape that has been transformed from classic, truck-based design to a car-based crossover for 2013.

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The basic design is likely to catch eyes and reflects a new emphasis on styling at Toyota, which has long been faulted for its plain vanilla approach.

The new Toyota is roomier, sportier and offers more luxury than its predecessor. According to Bill Faye, Group vice president and general manager Toyota Motor Sales, the RAV4 also is at the forefront with respect to handling, equipment, ergonomics and cost of ownership.

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First Look: 2012 Honda CR-V

Updated cute-ute delayed by Japanese shortages.

by on Jul.25, 2011

A new look for the 2012 Honda CR-V.

Honda’s “cute-ute” is getting a new look.  The ever-popular CR-V will take a distinctly different design direction when it makes its debut in the U.S. market by the end of the year, the company has revealed with the first formal shot of the fourth-generation crossover-utility vehicle.

Routinely a best-seller in the compact crossover market, the 2012 Honda CR-V will feature a more buff and sculpted appearance, with less visual emphasis on the cute and more on the ute.  Overall, the image suggests a slightly larger vehicle with headlights more smoothly integrated into the fenders and a new take on the three-bar grille.

The higher bumper and built-in skid plate would suggest Honda has integrated some SUV-like off-road capabilities.

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Officially declared a “concept,” the photo is expected to be quite close to the look of the actual 2012 Honda CR-V, the third best-selling product line for American Honda, so a critical addition to the line-up.  And a much-delayed one, the launch pushed back due to the problems created by the March 11 Japanese earthquake and tsunami.  The 2012 CR-V was originally expected closer to the launch of the upcoming model-year.

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First Drive: 2011 Kia Sportage SX

Forget the “cute ute.”

by on Mar.11, 2011

Kia's focus on distinctive styling shows through with the 2011 Sportage SX.

When it first appeared last year, the Kia Sportage crossover got generally good marks – and plenty of attention to its distinctive design.  The Korean maker has made a high priority of styling, as models like the all-new Optima demonstrate, and so, the Sportage took a distinctive route one might call the antithesis of the “cute-ute” styling repeated, as nauseum, by so many competitors.

That doesn’t mean it’s got a face only an owner could love.  This is no Pontiac Aztek.  The 2011 Sportage looks nice, whether parked or driving up in your rearview mirror.

Add to that a comfortable interior, excellent overall packaging and utility and with a substantial amount of standard equipment at a highly competitive price point and what you get is a surprisingly solid offering making its push into one of the most hotly contested segments in the car business.

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There was one frequent complaint raised, or at least whispered, by the car jocks who thought it was a bit under-powered out there on the great American highway.

Not anymore.  The new Kia Sportage SX blows away the perception that the vehicle’s innards are somehow compromised. Indeed, the turbocharged SX blows the doors off most of the cute utes without sacrificing the features that the Korean carmaker first introduced last year.

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First Drive: 2011 Kia Sportage

A more expressive design and a new all-wheel-drive system for the longest-running Kia nameplate in the U.S. market.

by on Jul.21, 2010

Covering Kia value basics, while adding spice, Sportage can now reach a $30,000 sticker price.

In an automotive world where the term “all-new” is frequently abused, the description actually applies to the 2011 version of Kia’s Sportage sport utility vehicle.

This sub-compact “cute ute” has been around for three iterations going all the way back to 1995. Then Sportage was a somewhat crude, body-on-frame five-passenger truck with a meager 94-horsepower 2.0-liter four-banger engine.

A switch to unit-body construction eight years ago vastly improved the Korean-built entry in what by then had become a serious class of vehicles dominated by the Toyota RAV4, Honda CRV, Nissan Rogue and the Ford Escape, to name but a few of the big league players.

The Gen 4 Sportage debuting this August continues the refinement trend evident as the whole class evolves. Sportage is also an attempt by Kia to move away from the “value for money” positioning that is still at the heart of all its entries by substituting more aggressive styling and more sophsiticated features to  make it more of an “emotional” buy for the young families that are its target market.

To accomplish this Sportage takes its design cues from the “Kue” concept that debuted during the 2007 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit. So here comes the production version - a longer, lower, sleeker Sportage, at just under 175 inches and overall length. The three additional inches added are used behind the spilt-folding second row of seats to add some badly needed cargo room, which along with a new rear suspension allows for an SAE rated capacity of 56 cubic feet.

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Cute Utes!

Still built on a unit-body frame, Sportage has MacPherson struts in the front and with new “side-load” coil springs to reduce friction. An all-new, multi-link rear suspension system is used in conjunction with new dampers and coil springs mounted separately to minimize intrusion into the space behind the split-folding second row seat.

More upscale items are available to complement the new look, including a segment first air-cooled driver’s seat, keyless entry with a start stop button, and later this year, the next generation of Microsoft Sync technology – dubbed UVO, which simplifies voice commands to speed operation of the phone, am/fm or satellite radio and cd player.

“Sportage offers Kia the opportunity to attract an entirely new and more sophisticated customer,” Michael Sprague, vice president marketing & communications, Kia Motors America (KMA) told TDB. Maybe, but there are many existing owners who will be natural prospects, too.

Power will come from a 2.4-liter, DOHC four-cylinder engine rated at 176 horsepower, which is three more than the now discontinued 173 hp 2.7-liter V6 engine. It’s smooth, and peppy, particularly in front-wheel-drive versions (70% of sales projected) although it’s still noisy at higher operating speeds.  When mated with the corporate six-speed automatic transmission shared with Hyundai, which also has versions of the Theta II four-cylinder, as the new engine is called, EPA ratings of 22 city and 31 highway are posted – more than the old V6 engine delivered.

A day of test-driving top of the line EX models in both front-drive and all-wheel drive configurations south of San Francisco, showed that real world economy ranging between 19 mpg to 25 mpg is possible.

All-wheel drive in this class is mostly a marketing ploy, but a new Magna supplied system paired to either a six-speed manual transmission (Base) or a six-speed automatic transmission actually increases the rated towing capacity by 500 pounds to 2,000. (The six-speed manual is also a marketing ploy with only a couple of percent of customers expected to actually buy one.)

Dubbed the Dynamax AWD system, it was co-developed by Kia Motors Corporation and Magna International. Dynamax monitors driving conditions and “anticipates” AWD system requirements, according to KIA, which only react to conditions after they occur.  This offers drivers the benefits of improved lateral stability while cornering, as well as the removal of unintended over- and under-steering by reducing traction to the front and rear axles to adjust for what a computer thinks is the driver’s intent.

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