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First Drive: 2014 Toyota 4Runner

Subtle tweaks to the familiar formula.

by on Aug.01, 2013

The 2014 Toyota 4Runner retains its classic body-on-frame design.

Few companies have done a better job of shaking up the established order than Toyota over the last few decades. But when it comes to the new 2014 4Runner, the Japanese maker has chosen to let the world change around it, instead.

The midsize sport-utility vehicle has always been one of the maker’s more important products – even more than its sales numbers might suggest — because it helped convince a lot of Americans that Toyota knew how to build something other than small cars.

Since its introduction in 1984, the Toyota 4Runner has developed an impressive following. But the maker faced a significant question when setting out to develop the 2014 update: whether to stay with the conventional, truck-like design of generations past or adopt an all-new, car-like platform much as key competitors such as the Nissan Pathfinder and Ford Explorer have lately done.

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The decision was to maintain the 4Runner’s body-on-frame construction, which makes it’s a holdout in the midsize segment where it will now be the only remaining “truck-truck.”  That said, the 2014 Toyota 4Runner has been updated with a mid-cycle refresh gives the vehicle a fresh face up front that makes it look more rugged. There are also new rear and front bumpers as well as new projector headlights that accent the 2014 model’s grille.

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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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First Drive: 2013 Toyota Avalon

Toyota pumps some passion into its big sedan.

by on Oct.30, 2012

Toyota rethinks its design language with the new 2013 Avalon sedan.

This story has been updated to include pricing and other information.

For a brand long known for high quality but plain vanilla design, Toyota sent shock waves through the industry when it revealed an all-new version of the big Avalon sedan earlier this year.  The new, full-size sedan is perhaps the single best example yet that Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda was serious when he promised to put more “passion” into the brand.

The long-popular Avalon has been completely revamped for 2013 and is now the most “American” car the Japanese maker has ever developed, the striking new design emerging from Toyota’s styling center in Newport Beach, California, with the maker’s engineering center in Ann Arbor, Michigan taking lead on that end of the product.  Production will be U.S.-based, as well.

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Avalon is clearly part of Toyota’s quest for younger buyers, the 2013 remake boasting a fresh exterior design that moves away from the conservative and cautious approach that had characterized earlier versions of the big sedan. But looks aside, we set out to see if the 2013 Toyota Avalon really lives up to all the hype as we headed to California for our first test drive.

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First Drive: 2012 Toyota RAV4-EV

Great performance offset by cheap interior and an awful infotainment system.

by on Aug.07, 2012

Toyota turned to Tesla to help it develop the battery version of the RAV4.

No automaker has done a better job of surrounding itself with a green halo than Toyota.  Its Prius model has routinely generated half of all hybrid sales, a number now approaching two-thirds since the introduction of an entirely new Prius “family,” including the big V, compact C and the Prius plug-in.

The latter model was the first from the Japanese maker to opt for state-of-the-art lithium-ion batteries, rather than time-tested, if less powerful, nickel-metal hydride batteries. After running into some early development problems, Toyota has been reluctant to go with more advanced lithium – which partially explains why the Asian giant decided to reach outside for help when it laid out plans for its first pure battery-electric vehicle in two decades, the 2012 Toyota RAV4-EV.

The project pairs Toyota with Tesla Motors, the bold California start-up that just introduced its own new battery-electric vehicle, or BEV, the Model S sedan.  In fact, they share many of the same underlying components – which is why the 2012 Toyota RAV4-EV is likely to shock those used to the typically slow-as-a-snail battery car.

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The new Toyota battery car boasts great performance, and good range and handling – but echoes other recent entries from the Japanese maker by cutting corners on interior fit-and-finish.  And the new RAV4-EV introduces what may be the singularly most user-unfriendly infotainment system since the very first BMW iDrive hit the road.

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First Drive: Toyota Prius C

Compact, cheap, but will it connect?

by on Feb.17, 2012

Is that C as in "compact," "cheap," or both?

A recent survey found that the overwhelming majority of Millennial motorists would like to buy a hybrid.  The numbers aren’t all that much lower for Gen-X and Baby Boomers, either.  Yet desire doesn’t translate into action when it comes to the marketplace, it seems, where hybrids continue to commend barely 2% of the overall U.S. market.

The good news for Toyota is that its familiar Prius remains the nation’s best-selling hybrid, accounting for roughly half of all gas-electric vehicle sales in 2011.  So, it’s probably no surprise the maker would want to take advantage of the Prius name, Toyota in the midst of rolling out an entire family of hybrids sharing that popular badge.

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The first of those new entries, the bigger Prius V, hit market last year. Now comes the Prius C.  Compact? Yep.   Cheap?  True again, at least if you opt for the basic Prius C One.  So, will buyers connect with the smallest member of the growing family? That’s what we hoped to find out during our first chance to drive the 2012 Prius C around the environmentally friendly San Diego suburbs.

A close-up look at the Toyota Prius C powertrain.

The original Prius is nearly ubiquitous in Southern California, whether buyers there are truly hoping to save money while nurturing the planet or simply looking to show off their green bona fides.  While many of the more affluent members of the community can readily afford the premium for the original Prius, the maker is hoping to draw in plenty of additional customers – like the students at the University of California San Diego – with a price tag that starts at barely $19,000.

But there’s a big asterisk attached to that lowball entry point, one that leads us to offer a warning that the sticker you may actually see — once you add on some basic necessities and niceties like seat heaters – could run significantly higher than what Toyota will be promoting.

Like the other members of the Prius family, the C has an easily accessible hatchback.

The Prius C, despite Toyota’s claims to the contrary, is effectively a subcompact Yaris with a battery pack.  And a much smaller one than what you’ll find in the larger Prius hatchback and V models.  It weighs just 67 pounds and packs in a modest 0.87 kilowatt-hours of energy.  The entire Hybrid Synergy Drive system readily packages out of sight, and with those batteries tucked under the back seat there is surprisingly little compromise to cargo and passenger space.  The compromises come in the drive experience.

With an equally pint-sized 1.5-liter gasoline engine – which uses the efficient if anemic Atkinson Cycle – mated to the Hybrid Synergy Drive’s electric motor, the Prius C makes a modest 99 horsepower.  That’s routed through the front wheels through a gearbox that effectively operates like a CVT.

With just 99 hp, this isn't the sportiest subcompact.

So, expect to have the usual issues associated with a continuously variable transmission, notably that rubber band feeling as the engine revs up while the vehicle struggles to catch up.  And it will take a while to do so.  With a 0 to 60 time officially rated at around 11.5 seconds despite its relatively modest weight, the Prius C isn’t exactly a sports car, despite Toyota’s plan to pitch it as a sporty, affordable alternative.

As with the other Prius-badged models, the Prius C is capable of operating on battery power alone, we were told during an extensive background presentation, although the limited battery size means you won’t be able to get very far.  Or very fast.  Ostensibly, the top speed in EV mode is 26 mph.  Even with the battery fully charged we never came close.  And tipping in the throttle even slightly led to the gasoline engine immediately firing up and taking over.

The Prius C features built-in apps that give a driver a game-look way of improving their mileage.The original Prius C concept.

We didn’t get much opportunity to test out the handling of the new Prius C, never extending our drive as far as the challenging mountain passes to the east of San Diego.  But even the less challenging hill country nearer by made for a clear comparison to similarly sized products.  Like most entries in its segment, the Prius C features a MacPherson strut front suspension and torsion bar rear. But it simply doesn’t nudge into the fun-to-drive category like the new Chevrolet Sonic or the Nissan Versa.

Not unless your idea of fun is watching the creative applications Toyota has embedded into the vehicle showing you when you’re driving at peak efficiency and revealing just how much fuel and CO2 gases you’ve saved.  If fuel economy is your metric, here the Toyota Prius C scores big, at 53 mpg on the highway and 50 combined – which is the closest number to what you can expect in the real world.

That’s about 3 mpg more than the original Prius, which is actually a little bit less of a bump-up than we might expect, but for the money, it would seem a good deal.

Of course, size isn’t the only thing you’ll give up for that $19,000 price tag for the Toyota Prius C One.  This is not the classic “stripper.”  There’s a radio, air conditioning and power windows, among other features.  But what surprised us was what was not only offered as stock equipment but not even available as an option.  You have to go all the way up to the Prius C Four, the $23,990 top-line model, to get fog lights and seat heaters.

You can get the high-tech EnForm infotainment system and navigation in a lower-level model at $22,395.

We expect the lack of seat heaters,  even in option form, will prove a serious disconnect with buyers in climates colder than San Diego.  And it appears Toyota planners are rethinking that off decision, but an update likely wouldn’t be made until sometime in 2013, we were told.

Too bad.  While the 2012 Toyota Prius C is not our favorite driver’s car, it features a reasonably well-outfitted interior and simply amazing fuel economy.  It is likely to extend the appeal of the Prius nameplate, just as Toyota planned, as long as buyers don’t mind some genuinely strange omissions, like those seat heaters.

Toyota Prices Prius Plug-in at Unexpected $32,760

New model will receives significantly smaller tax incentives than Chevy Volt.

by on Sep.19, 2011

The new Toyota Prius Plug-in on display at the Frankfurt Motor Show.

Toyota delivered an unexpected surprise when it formally announced the launch of its new Prius Plug-in model, revealing it will be priced starting at $32,760, well above what the maker had initially signaled.

That’s a more than $9,000 premium for the lithium-ion-powered version of the Prius, which will be able to deliver up to about 15 miles in electric-only mode.  A fully loaded version of the Prius Plug-in, meanwhile, will go for $40,285.

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The new model will still be about $7,000 cheaper than the Chevrolet Volt – which is seeing its price cut by $1,005 to $39,995 for 2012, including delivery charges.  But that figure can be misleading.  The Volt will qualify for a full $7,500 tax credit under the federal government’s incentive program, while the new Prius Plug-in will receive only a third of that amount.

So the out-of-pocket difference between the Prius Plug-in and Volt will actually work out to only about $2,200.

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Toyota Pushes Up New Camry Launch

Maker anxious to introduce its most critical 2012 product line.

by on Sep.02, 2011

The 2012 Toyota Camry will now roll into showrooms by mid-September.

Anxious to rebuild demand after six months of product shortages, Toyota says it will launch its new 2012 Camry sedan in mid-September, about two weeks ahead of its original schedule.

Camry is just one of 10 product launches Toyota is scheduling over the next year, with a mix of crossovers, sedans and even its first plug-in hybrid on the calendar, but no single model is more important than Camry which has been the nation’s best-selling passenger car for the last nine years running – and 13 of the last 14 years.

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The decision to move up the on-sale date of the new midsize sedan — originally planned for October 3rd — was announced during a conference call with reporters discussing the maker’s weak August sales numbers.  Toyota posted a 13% decline for the month.  That was better than the 24% dip posted by its Japanese rival, Honda, but a sharp contrast with the double-digit increases in demand reported by Detroit’s Big Three – as well as the third member of the Japanese Big Three, Nissan.

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First Drive: 2012 Toyota Camry

Putting the brand on the line.

by on Aug.24, 2011

Toyota bills the 2012 Camry as a revolutionary redesign for the best-selling midsize sedan.

Few cars more clearly define a brand than Toyota’s midsize Camry sedan, a nameplate that has led the U.S. passenger car sales charts for 13 of the last 14 years.  And, arguably, no product is more important to Toyota as the maker struggles to emerge from a series of setbacks – including 2010’s safety recalls and this year’s earthquake-led production shortages.

Bringing a new car to market is a long and involved process, so it’s serendipitous that what Toyota is billing as “the reinvention of the Camry” will be ready to roll into showrooms for an October launch — just as the maker gets production at the last of its plants back up to speed.  The 25-year-old factory in Georgetown, Kentucky is already starting to build the first of the 2012 Toyota Camrys so we jumped at the chance to take the sedan for a spin through the challenging mountainous terrain in central Washington, a few hours east of Seattle.

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The Japanese giant is making some bold claims for the new 4-door, billing the 2012 Camry as essentially all-new — though that’s a matter of definition.  While the sedan still rides on the same platform as the outgoing model, the sheet metal has been completely redone for the new model-year, and 90% of the Camry’s parts have been “re-engineered.”

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Toyota Cutting Price on 2012 Camry

Maker bows to increasingly competitive market.

by on Aug.24, 2011

Toyota will cut $1,150 off the starting price of the new 2012 Camry LE Hybrid.

Today will cut the price on its updated 2012 Camry sedan by as much as $2,000, depending on the specific model – a move that reflects the increasingly competitive nature of the U.S. midsize car market, the maker acknowledged during the official launch of the new model.

That doesn’t reflect the recent run-up in Toyota’s rebates and other incentives. The maker has increased givebacks, in recent months, as it has struggled to reverse declining sales.

Few cars are as important as Camry to Toyota, the sedan topping the passenger car sales charts for the last nine years, and 13 of the last 14 years, but in recent months, demand for the Camry has been slumping, and Toyota doesn’t want to risk momentum as it begins one of its most important new product launches in years.

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“We expect Camry will continue to earn its position as America’s number-one selling passenger car,” said Toyota brand boss Bob Carter, speaking from Los Angeles at an event simulcast to media gathered in a number of cities around the country.

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Toyota Introduces Prius Performance Package

Mean and green?

by on Jun.30, 2011

With the introduction of the Prius Plus Performance Package Toyota aims to give a little "mean" to its familiar green machine.

Who says a green machine also has to be a stone pony?

A number of makers are out to prove that clean, high-mileage battery technology can also deliver surprising performance with products like the Audi etron concept and the Mercedes-Benz SLS e-Cell.  But now Toyota is weighing in, offering up the new Prius Plus Performance Package, an alliterative way of saying a more sporty version of the world’s best-selling hybrid-electric vehicle.

The limited-edition Prius was developed with the helping hand of Toyota’s performance and racing arm, TRD, which is an immediate sign that this is more than just an all-show-no-go offering.

“PLUS is an evolution of hybrid design, where fuel-efficiency co-exists with aggressive styling and performance handling,” the maker explains.

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In practical terms, the Prius Plus Performance Package – P4, if you’ll allow us to use shorthand – starts out where the already aerodynamic hybrid leaves off.  That means a seven-piece aero package including front and rear lower spoilers, side skirts and a rear diffuser that not only add a bit of aggressiveness to the base car’s insufferably smug appearance but also improve its drag coefficient.

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