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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 Subaru Forester

More than just another cute-ute.

by on Jan.25, 2013

The 2014 Subaru Forester delivers both on-road and off-, according to TDB's reviewer.

Subaru, long a favorite of drivers facing snow drifts and steep mountains, is beginning to catch on with motorists in other parts of the country and after driving the new 2014 Subaru Forester it’s easy to understand why.

The first crossover in the maker’s line-up, the Forester is back in all-new form for 2014, and the new model is versatile, nimble and quite capable. It delivers the kind of comfortable, stable ride on both pavement and dirt of gravel roads which other crossovers find hard to match.

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Carmakers like to claim their CUVs combine the attributes of a passenger car — with a nicely-tuned suspension and better mileage – with the off-road capabilities of a sport utility vehicle but few come as close as the 2014 Subaru Forester.  Subaru’s engineers have actually delivered a CUV that does handle like a compact sedan out on the highway while showing itself quite adept at moving off the pavement without losing its bearings or having the automotive equivalent of a hissy fit.

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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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First Drive: 2013 Nissan Pathfinder

Switch to crossover design yields plenty of advantages, few sacrifices.

by on Nov.01, 2012

The 2013 Nissan Pathfinder adopts a lighter, more fuel-efficient crossover platform that can still handle moderately rough trails.

Admittedly late to the party, can Nissan regain its place in a radically changed sport-utility market? That’s the big question the maker faces as it rolls out an all-new version of the long-running Pathfinder.

The new model is more than just a face-lift, in fact, more than the usual redesign.  The 2013 Nissan Pathfinder evolves from a classic, truck-based body-on-frame ute to a car-like unibody-based crossover.  The move has significant advantages, shaving about 500 pounds of mass to deliver a more nimble ride and fuel economy.

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But it also raises the possibility that classic SUV buyers might turn up their noses.  On the other hand, the market for classic, truck-like utes has all but vanished, so the bigger question is whether Nissan can regain the buyers who’ve migrated to competing products, such as the latest-generation Ford Explorer, that previously made the SUV to CUV migration.

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First Drive: 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe

No one-trick pony.

by on Sep.14, 2012

Hyundai remakes the Santa Fe crossover with its Fluidic Sculpture design language.

Hyundai has been on a roll of late. But like an eager new homeowner it is still looking to knock down some walls to enlarge a space that it believes holds additional promise — which is precisely where the new 2013 Santa Fe comes into the picture.

Small crossovers are hot in today’s fast-changing market and Hyundai executives believe they aren’t getting a fair share of what is one of the fastest-growing segments. Hence, the 2013 Santa Fe has been groomed and tailored to make it more appealing to buyers looking for a blend of practical utility and new technology while also delivering on some of the old school automotive fundamentals such as power and good handling.

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The 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe line-up is not a one-trick pony – and that means the updated line-up could be a bit confusing. There are actually two versions of the crossover-utility vehicles for 2013. The five-door Santa Fe Sport is the direct replacement for the outgoing model while the Santa Fe name — full stop — now goes onto a 3-row, 7-passenger offering that replaces the largely ignored Hyundai Veracruz.

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Nissan Going Crossover with Next Pathfinder

Shaving 500 pounds in the search for better mileage.

by on Jan.11, 2012

Nissan will reveal the production version of the new Pathfinder this spring.

Only a few years ago, many in the mainstream media seemed intent on writing the obituary for the SUV.  Those reports, like those of the death of Mark Twain, were “greatly exaggerated.” Well, maybe not. The traditional SUV definitely isn’t dead, but more and more manufacturers are migrating away from classic truck-based ute designs to lighter, more fuel-efficient car-based crossover-utilities.

The latest to do so is the newly-updated Nissan Pathfinder, the concept version making its debut this week at the 2012 Detroit Auto Show. A production version will reach showrooms later this year, following in the treadmarks of domestic competitors Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee.

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The alternative should have a big payoff, Nissan officials tell TheDetroitBureau, with the 2013 Pathfinder expected to yield about 25% better mileage than the outgoing, truck-based SUV.  While the maker declined to provide hard numbers for the new truck, the current offering gets about 16 mpg in the EPA Combined rating.

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First Drive: 2012 Honda CR-V

Aiming to gain the advantage.

by on Nov.16, 2011

Honda weighs in with the fourth-generation CR-V getting its official launch at the L.A. Auto Show.

The folks with the fancy MBAs like to call it the “first-mover advantage.”  Discover a need or niche and fill it before the competition does.  If your product resonates with consumers you’ll likely get a lock on the market.

And that’s precisely what happened when Honda introduced the original CR-V, 15 years ago, creating what is now one of the fastest-growing niches in the automotive market: the compact crossover.  The Honda CR-V has been the perennial favorite among American shoppers – though the king has tumbled down the hill in recent months as the result of production shortages caused by the earthquake and tsunami that struck northeast Japan last March.

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Now, as its plants slowly get back to normal, the Japanese maker is ready to roll out a fourth-generation of its compact CUV, but whether the 2012 Honda CR-V can regain its lead remains to be seen.  It has a lot going for it, like an easy-to-use, 1-touch system for folding down the rear seats. But the crossover also suffers from a few glaring flaws — notably a numb new steering system — that could provide an opening for the next-generation 2012 Ford Escape, the outgoing domestic model already outselling the CR-V.

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Ford Adds 2.0-liter EcoBoost to Edge, Explorer

Fuel economy jumps as high as 30 mpg.

by on Aug.29, 2011

Ford adds the new 2.0-liter EcoBoost engine to the 2012 Explorer line-up.

Domestic makers often get slammed for the poor fuel economy of their sport-utility vehicles and crossovers, but Ford hopes to win kudos – and new buyers – as it expands the use of its new EcoBoost powertrains, a new 2.0-liter version of its high-mileage engine going under the hood of its most popular SUV and CUV offerings for 2012.

The promise of Ford’s EcoBoost system is that through the use of turbocharging, direct-injection, and other technologies, smaller-displacement engines with reduced cylinder counts can make as much power as their bigger counterparts while improving fuel-economy. Ford has already applied the EcoBoost concept across much of its lineup, and the latest application is in the 2012 Ford Edge and 2012 Ford Explorer.

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Both models are now available with a 2.0-liter EcoBoost turbocharged four-cylinder direct-injection engine that makes 240 horsepower and 270 lb-ft of torque. Available only in front-wheel drive models, the engine promises 28 highway mpg in the seven-seat Explorer and 30 mpg in the Edge – while still delivering 2,000 pounds of towing capability.

Ford says the Edge is 80 pounds lighter and the Explorer 50 pounds lighter with these engines under hood, but neither the Edge nor Explorer is known for being light on its feet. Still, during our brief drive of each vehicle, we could tell the difference from the larger V-6 (V-6s, with the Edge).

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First Look: 2011 Jeep Compass

A Baby Grand Cherokee?

by on Dec.13, 2010

A Baby Grand Cherokee? The 2011 Jeep Compass.

It’s become conventional wisdom that Chrysler is sitting out the 2011 model-year, waiting until it can line up an assortment of new models with its Italian partner, Fiat.

While it’s true that some of the most significant launches, including all-new midsize and full-size sedans – many based on Fiat platforms – won’t debut until 2012 or ’13, it turns out the coming months will see a significant number of important updates from the various Chrysler brands.  That includes a revised Dodge Durango and the new Chrysler 200 (Click Here for a review.)

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Now add the redesigned 2011 Jeep Compass which, as they pictures illustrate, comes across as a Baby Grand Cherokee – the Jeep flagship which also went through a complete redesign for 2011.

While Jeep may be the benchmark for off-roadability it hasn’t done a great job of taking advantage of recent trends in the overlapping SUV and CUV markets.  Compass, in particular, failed to live up to initial expectations, whether due to the prior generation’s stodgy styling or less than exemplary manners, on and off-road.

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First Drive: 2011 Ford Explorer

Best-in-class?

by on Dec.13, 2010

The 2011 Ford Explorer aims to throw sand in the face of its competition.

Few products have dominated the market like the original Ford Explorer.  It was the poster child for the light truck boom of the ‘80s and ‘90s, as millions of Americans traded in their sedans, coupes, wagons — and later, their minivans — for sport-utility vehicles and pickups.

At its peak, the Explorer was racking up sales of as much as 445,000 a year, making it a single nameplate franchise bigger than brands like Subaru, Mazda and virtually every one of the German marques.  But for Ford, the good times couldn’t last.  And whether it was due to the Firestone/Explorer rollover debacle or simply shifting trends – as crossovers began to overtake classic SUVs – Explorer sales took a sharp tumble soon after the start of the new millennium.

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Through the end of November, Ford has sold just 51,000 copies of the outgoing Explorer.  But the maker is far from ready to write the old workhorse off.  Anything but.  The 2011 model is getting ready to roll into showrooms and it justifies the term “all-new” better than most launches we’ve seen in recent years.  It also offers the possibility that a new generation of buyers may soon discover the Explorer name – while past owners will be drawn to the showroom to check out what is arguably the best offering in its segment.

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