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Jason Fogelson

Coupe Love Affair with the 2020 Lexus RC F

by Jason Fogelson

Looking back on my history of car ownership, I realize I have ping-ponged between trucks/SUVs and coupes. I’ve owned very few sedans, and I haven’t kept them for long. I’m definitely in touch with why I love trucks and SUVs – it’s the utility. It’s the belt and suspenders part of my personality, the part that wants to be ready for anything, anytime. My love of coupes, though, has demanded more introspection. 

Luckily, I got a chance to spend a week behind the wheel of a 2020 Lexus RC F 2-Door Coupe recently, and I think I figured it out.

Let’s jump right in. 

RC F has great lines, with a sporty, elegant profile and an assertive stance, and the car is poised like a sprinter in the starting blocks. The wheel arches are filled with staggered width 19-inch wheels. Up front, the big, open “spindle” grille serves as a gaping mouth, while the bi-LED headlamps underlined by LED DRL. The roofline is fast, with a quick finish to a short decklid, housing a speed-activated rear wing which (thankfully, for the shy driver) defaults to a flush docked position. Quad chrome tips poke out of the lower rear fascia, ready to burble exhaust notes. 

Much of the front fascia seems devoted to aerodynamics and managing air flow. There are no external bumpers, per se, though you can see the structure behind the grille. I’d be really careful parking the RC F – a low-speed collision with a pole or garage wall could result in a very costly repair. The rear fascia is a little less detailed, and appears a little less fragile.

Coupe critics complain about coupe doors, which are generally six or more inches longer than sedan doors on comparably sized vehicles. You need more space to open coupe doors fully. Coupe doors are bigger and heavier than sedan doors, which puts more stress on hinges. Despite their greater length, coupe doors still require second-row passengers to squeeze in past the door frame and front seat. 

While I confirm the coupe critics’ complaints, I counter with compliments. 

A bigger front door makes it easier for the driver and front-seat passenger to enter and exit the vehicle. The weight of RC F’s doors is manageable and well-balanced, and there’s no obvious strain on the hinges. Getting in and out of the second row is mildly inconvenient, but at six-feet two-inches tall with creaky joints and size 14 barges for feet, I had no problem getting in and out without an assist (or a crane). Headroom was fine, though I could have used more legroom for a long ride. I rarely carry second-row passengers – maybe two or three times a year, at most — so the tradeoffs would be worth it to me. Call me a selfish aesthete, but the ease of entry and exit along with a gorgeous, genuine coupe silhouette make the two-door my car of choice.

Inside, RC F also hits the mark. It has a crisply tailored cockpit, with a beautifully trimmed dashboard and center console. I particularly like the perfectly aligned HVAC vents, which combine looks, function and location to break up the visual field of the dashboard. My test RC F came with an expensive ($11,400) yet stunning Performance Package, which included a host of carbon fiber trim and aero pieces on the exterior and interior, and after some heavy math (seven years of ownership = 2,555 days x $4.46/day = $11,400 more or less = less than $5/day to have the cool carbon fiber = sold?), I think I’d order that feature. 

Another option that required no math for me was the $2,725 Navigation System with Mark Levinson Audio. The 17-speaker, 835-watt sound system is one of the best car audio systems I’ve ever heard. I’m not a fan of the remote touchpad in the center console, which I can only ever get good results from when the RC F is at a complete stop. I suspect that time and practice would improve my interactions, but a week wasn’t long enough to make me a competent operator.

The biggest joy of the RC F, though, is the driving experience. A 472-hp, 5.0-liter V8 gasoline engine lurks beneath the long hood, ready to pump 395 lb-ft of torque to the rear wheels through an eight-speed automatic transmission. The powertrain comes as a pleasant surprise in the tidy RC F, as it sounds and feels like it belongs in a muscle car, not a Japanese luxury coupe. Which is not to imply that it’s unruly or sloppy – I’d have to describe it as lusty. That’s a compliment.

Driving around in the RC F is a blast. It corners like a shark, accelerates like a charging bull, and romps like a stallion. I had to keep a close eye on the speedometer, because RC F can cruise smoothly at deceptive speeds. 

There are other performance luxury coupes on the market that match up well with the Lexus RC F. The Mercedes-AMG C 63 Coupe, BMW M4 Coupe, Infiniti Q60 Red Sport 400 and Audi RS 5 Coupe are good examples. I’d also include non-luxury Dodge Challenger and Ford Mustang, lusty V8 muscle cars, in my coupe comparison. 

The 2020 Lexus RC F starts at $64,900 ($89,654 as tested). 

Does my preference for a coupe make me a selfish person, since I’d rather have everyday comfort and convenience as a driver than occasional comfort and convenience for my passengers? Does it make me shallow, since I value appearance over practicality? I don’t know.  I appreciate the coupe for its honesty. It’s not pretending to be a car for all people, for all purposes. And that makes sense to me. So does the RC F.

Disclaimer: The manufacturer provided the vehicle used to conduct this test drive and review.

Photos (c) Lexus

Drive After Drive in the 2020 Acura MDX

by Jason Fogelson

I have a friend whose sister Amy recently bought her fourth Acura MDX in a row. She owned a first-generation (2001 – 2006); a second-generation (2007 – 2013); and a third-generation (2014 – present) MDX, and just upgraded to a 2020 Acura MDX AWD A-Spec – just like the one that I spent a week test-driving recently. Amy is a medical professional in California, so she’s quite busy with serious business right now. But she did take the time to tell me what she loved about MDX, and why she’s stuck with the model over the past two decades.

Her family had always been luxury car buyers – her dad favored Mercedes-Benz vehicles, while her mom was a Jaguar driver. Her brother (my friend) has rarely been without a Porsche 911. When Amy started a family, she wanted to get a three-row SUV to accommodate her children. While she was accustomed to luxury vehicles, she didn’t want to fall into the European pattern that the rest of her family had followed, and stumbled across the MDX. She appreciated the build quality, the V6 engine, the standard all-wheel drive and the roomy interior of the MDX, and claims that each generation has built on the original’s promise. 

I’ve driven each generation of MDX, and I have to agree with Amy. And the latest iteration of the third generation is even better. 

Though MDX is bigger and roomier than before, it is also lighter and more powerful – which means that it performs and handles better. First- and second-generation MDX models weighed in at about 4,600 lbs, while the 2020 MDX AWD A-Spec (list price $54,900) comes in between 4239 – 4264 (depending on equipment). Its naturally aspirated (non-turbo) gasoline 3.5-liter V6 engine pumps out 290 hp and 267 lb-ft of torque through a nine-speed automatic transmission, and is rated to achieve 19 mpg city/25 mpg highway/21 mpg combined. 

The A-Spec package ($3,500) is a 2020 first for MDX. It includes A-Spec styling, sport seats with Alcantara inserts and contrast stitching, sport pedals, ventilated seats, 20-inch alloy wheels with all-season tires, and LED fog lights. Selecting the A-Spec package automatically includes the Technology package ($5,000), a comprehensive group of upgrades including navigation with voice recognition, AcuraLink Communication System, Acura ELS Studio Premium Audio System with 10 speakers, HD Radio, Blind Spot Information, remote engine start, rain-sensing wipers, power-folding side mirrors, LED puddle lights, rear cross-traffic monitor, and front and rear parking sensors. Add $400 for the premium exterior color (Apex Blue Pearl, worth every penny) and $995 for Destination and Handling, and the as-tested price for my 2020 MDX AWD A-Spec came out to $56,295. That’s substantially more than the average transaction price for a car in the United States right now, which hovers around $35,000, but actually a competitive price measured against other three-row luxury SUVs on the market right now, like the Lexus RX-L, Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class, BMW X5, Infiniti QX60, Audi Q7, Cadillac XT6 and Volvo XC90. MDX is also available in a front-wheel drive variant starting at $44,500, using the same V6 engine as the AWD version, and as an MDX Sport Hybrid Super Handling All-Wheel Drive starting at $53,000, using a 3.0-liter V6 and three electric motors.

Driving the MDX, I really appreciated the comfortable, yet sporty and nimble ride. The nine-speed automatic transmission is seamless, and does a great job of downshifting multiple gears when needed. The Integrated Dynamics System allowed me to easily select Comfort, Normal or Sport mode, shaping throttle response, shift mapping, AWD settings, steering response and Active Sound Control (noise cancelling) all at once for the desired effect. I wish I could have tested an MDX with the new Active Damper System, but that’s part of the Advance Package, not A-Spec. I always enjoy driving an Acura with SH-AWD (Super Handing All-Wheel Drive), which includes torque vectoring. Torque vectoring sharpens turn-in by directing power to the outside wheels in a turn, and Acura’s system is one of the best in its class.

Each MDX includes AcuraWatch active safety features. On A-Spec, the list includes Adaptive Cruise Control, Collision Mitigation Braking, Road Departure Mitigation, Forward Collison Warning, Lane Departure Warning, and Lane Keeping Assist System. For long drives on the (now wide-open) freeways, this combination of features and functions takes you part of the way toward autonomous driving. Set the cruise, keep your hands on the wheel, and AcuraWatch will help keep you between the lines. It makes a nice drive very relaxing. 

I know that my friend’s sister Amy appreciates all the relaxation she can get right now, and I hope that her new 2020 Acura MDX is helping. 

Disclaimer: The manufacturer provided the vehicle used to conduct this test drive and review.

Photos (c) Acura

Driving at a Social Distance in the 2020 Audi Q3

by Jason Fogelson

Driving has become one of my calming tools during the COVID-19 pandemic. I am quite familiar with the social isolation we’ve all been experiencing, since I work by myself in my home office in the suburbs of Detroit. But still, there’s a big difference between working at home and sheltering in place. Every so often, the walls begin to close in, and I’ve got to get out. When I’ve got a special new crossover vehicle like the 2020 Audi Q3 S line 45 TFSI quattro in the driveway, the temptation to escape is even greater than usual.

My wife works in the public schools, so she’s been here at home this month as well. We’ve holed up in our respective corners of the house, each accompanied by a dog to keep us company. I always invite her to go for a ride with me – she’s very smart about cars, and often notices things from the passenger’s seat that I miss as a driver.

Right off the bat, we both admire the new exterior of the Q3, which has just entered its second generation of production. Q3 is now slightly bigger than before, and more crisply edged than before, giving it a more grown-up, executive feel that ties in nicely with the rest of the Audi lineup. Our test vehicle wears a striking coat of Turbo Blue paint, a bold choice that works well. 

Inside, Audi’s well-deserved reputation for classy interior design is on display. The dash is layered, with strong horizontal lines that help the cabin feel wide and expansive. All of the materials are precisely fit and of high quality. There’s a unity of design that matches the feel of the outside of the Q3. Our Q3 is a top-of-the-line example, fitted with the $6,900 Prestige package and the $500 Sport Interior package of options. The Prestige package includes technology upgrades galore: Alarm; HomeLink garage door opener; three-months of SiriusXM; Audi advanced key; Audi side assist with rear cross-traffic alert; Audi parking system plus; Lane departure warning; Aluminum inlays; wireless phone charging; full LED headlights; adaptive cruise control with stop & go; park steering assist; top-view camera; LED interior lighting plus package; stainless steel trunk sill and more.

Perhaps most significantly for the new Q3, the Prestige package includes the latest version of the Audi MMI touch response system with a 10.1-inch touchscreen (up from the standard 8.8-inch unit) and the 12.3-inch Audi virtual cockpit (up from the standard 10.25 inches). Virtual cockpit has been a marvel since it was released in the flagship Audi models several years ago, and is no less remarkable now that it has trickled down to the compact Q3. From a simple layout of tachometer and speedometer to a live Google Maps satellite view, the virtual cockpit is customizable and flexible. It works in coordination with the MMI and voice control for infotainment and telematics.

The new MMI now incorporates a haptic touchscreen. That means that you get tangible feedback when you use the touchscreen, as it seems to push back against your fingertip when you change settings or make selections. Executing functions and changing settings is very intuitive, especially to smartphone users (isn’t that just about everybody by now?). You can also trace letters and numbers with your fingers on the screen in certain situations, making for another easy way to interact with the system. I spent several hours in the driveway exploring the system, putting it through its paces and getting comfortable with its operation – a very rewarding distraction. I also spent time listening to the excellent Bang & Olufsen 3D surround sound system with 680 watts of amplification and 15 speakers. 

How about actually driving? Yes, I did that, too. Q3 uses a small displacement (2.0-liter) turbocharged four-cylinder gasoline engine that produces 228 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, which Audi says can get it from 0 – 60 mph in 7.0 seconds, which feels right. It uses a quick-shifting Tiptronic automatic transmission with eight speeds, and quattro all-wheel drive is standard. The EPA estimates fuel economy at 19 mpg city/27 mpg highway/22 mpg combined. Suspension is five-link independent front and rear. Audi doesn’t make a big deal out of it, but Q3 handles well, with a low center of gravity and a direct steering feel. The quattro system enhances cornering in all road conditions. Solid build quality and ample sound deadening control makes for a serene ride on the highway, and an all-around big-car ride quality for such a small crossover vehicle. 

Both my wife and I were pleasantly surprised at how much we enjoyed spending time in the Q3, and at how much we found to admire about its interior over time. 

This compact luxury crossover category has gotten crowded with great choices in the past few years, attracting more downsizing sedan and SUV owners than expected as car makers make high-end features available across lineups. Compare Q3 to the BMW X1, Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class, Lexus NX, Infiniti QX50, Cadillac XT4, Volvo XC40, Land Rover Range Rover Evoque and others. 

Starting at $34,700 ($44,745 as tested), the 2020 Audi Q3 has what it takes to compete in the big leagues – and is a great way to get out of the house without violating any social distancing guidelines. 

Disclaimer: The manufacturer provided the vehicle used to conduct this test drive and review.

Photos (c) Audi

What Would 1986 Think of the 2020 Hyundai Elantra?

by Jason Fogelson

I wish I had a time machine. Not so that I could go back in time, but so I could bring a car enthusiast from the past into our present and show them the 2020 Hyundai Elantra Limited. 

Imagine plucking some guy from 1986, the year that Hyundai began selling the Excel in the United States. Imagine this guy with his pleated pants, Hawaiian shirt with the collar popped, and the sleeves of his white linen jacket pushed up his forearms like Don Johnson on Miami Vice. He’s laughing at the Excel in a Hyundai showroom, giggling at the idea that any self-respecting car guy would be caught dead in a Korean car. Suddenly, a beam of light from above captures this guy – let’s call him Chad – and rearranges his molecules through space and time, reconstructing him in the driver’s seat of a 2020 Elantra.

Once the nausea from time travel wears off, Chad looks around the cabin of the Elantra Limited. He’s sure that he’s in a luxury car. I assure him that he’s in a Hyundai Elantra Limited with a list price of $22,800. He whistles at how expensive that is – until I tell him that the average transaction price on a new car in the United States right now is above $35,000, so this is quite clearly an economy car. (In 1986 where Chad is from, the average transaction price for a new car is around $12,500.)  Even with the options on our 2020 Elantra Limited ($3,350 Ultimate Package; $135 Carpeted Floor Mats; $930 Inland Freight and Handling), the as-tested price of the car he’s sitting in is $27,215 – way below average.

Chad nods, looks around and starts touching things. He’s impressed with the design, which is simple and elegant to his eyes. He’s impressed with the eight-inch infotainment touchscreen, and once I explain all of the technology that it gives access to, he nods as if he understands (he really doesn’t, because he’s from 1986). He loves the fact that there’s no key to insert or turn, just a button to push, because he thinks that a key fob will work better in his linen jacket pocket than some jangly keys. He’s thrilled with the controls available on the steering wheel, and when I describe some of the SmartSense safety systems that come with the Limited’s Ultimate Package – Smart Cruise Control, Forward Collision Avoidance Assist with Pedestrian Detection, Safe Exist Assist and Blind Spot Collision Warning with Rear Cross Traffic Alert and Lane Change Assist – he’s amazed and enthralled. It seems like science fiction, but I assure him that it’s science fact. 

As a car guy, he can’t wait to get a look under the hood. He’s a little disappointed by the engine’s size, a 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder gasoline unit. But when I tell him that the little 2.0 can produce 147 hp and 132 lb-ft of torque while achieving 30 mpg city/40 mpg highway/34 mpg combined, he’s ready to take a drive.

Elantra’s Intelligent Variable Transmission (IVT), a new Hyundai take on the continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), is transparent in operation for Chad, just like a conventional geared automatic transmission, but he’s a little flummoxed by the slightly sluggish performance in “D” mode. I reach over and push the gear selector lever in “S,” and the 2.0 engine perks up immediately, holding gear ratios longer, and livening up performance. Chad pushes the Elantra into curves, tries out the brakes, and puts the car through its paces, a wide grin breaking out on his face. Chad declares the Elantra a winner over all of the economy cars and most of the luxury cars of 1986 – and it’s even comfortable and quiet on the road. 

I have to agree with Chad (after all, I made him up for this story). But how does the Elantra stand up to the competition in 2020? Measure it against the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra, Mazda3 and Volkswagen Jetta to get an idea. I’d put it near the top rung for value and overall quality, in the lower end for overall driving experience. I prefer the Mazda3 and Jetta for pure driving enjoyment, but I like the Elantra’s packaging and available safety features a lot. 

If you, like Chad, have not experienced the current state of the art in economy/commuter cars, I encourage you to explore the landscape before buying. You’ll be wise to include the 2020 Hyundai Elantra Limited on your list for consideration.

Disclaimer: The manufacturer provided the vehicle used to conduct this test drive and review.

Photos (c) Hyundai

2020 Toyota Prius is the Proto-Hybrid

by Jason Fogelson

As the automotive industry does its best to catch up, the 2020 Toyota Prius posts incremental improvements and additions. Prius has been the poster child for hybrid cars for over 20 years now, a beacon that identifies its owners as green and woke (and maybe a little self-congratulatory). Say what you will about image and perception, it’s hard to criticize the roomy, efficient Prius when it comes with an EPA rating of 52 mpg city/48 mpg highway/50 mpg combined when equipped with newly available (as of 2019) all-wheel drive.

Front 3q Left Blue

For 2020, Toyota has added more standard features to Prius, sweetening the pot. On the audio front, Apple CarPlay and Amazon Alexa have been added to the system’s capability. This is particularly welcome for users who find the Scout GPS app that links with Toyota’s Entune system lacking (I do), because they can now connect an Apple iPhone via a USB cable and have the Apple Maps app operate through the Prius’ infotainment screen. This works way better than Scout, in my experience, and lets you get a quick link between other information in your smartphone and your mapping program. Amazon Alexa functionality is great, too, if you’re willing to take the time to set up Alexa skills in the Alexa app. If you have iOT devices at home – smart lightbulbs, a smart thermostat, etc. – this can be very convenient and fun. These are the kind of tech upgrades that Prius should get – the kind that help integrate the vehicle into owners’ (users’) lives beyond transportation.

Front 3q Right

The other big area of upgrade to Prius for 2020 is in standard safety systems. Toyota Safety Connect is now standard (with a free three-year trial subscription) on all Prius grades, including Emergency Assistance, Stolen Vehicle Locator, Roadside Assistance and Automatic Collison Notification. Similar to the tech upgrades in the audio area, this connectivity is also a smart, appropriate addition for Prius and its connected owners.

Dash

Beyond those upgrades, the 2020 Prius is pretty much a carryover model, very similar to the 2019 Toyota Prius XLE AWD-e model that I reviewed last year for Forbes. This year’s test car had an optional feature that I very much appreciated: the $800 Advanced Technology Package that included a Head-Up Display (HUD). This bright, color projection above the steering wheel solved the slight unease that I feel with the Prius’ center-mounted instrument panel. With the HUD, I was able to keep my head straight, my eyes on the road, and still have visual access to my car’s speed and the activity of the hybrid system. I’m a big fan of a well-executed HUD in the first place, and on Prius I would consider it an essential feature, not an extra.

Engine

My test vehicle, a 2020 Toyota Prius XLE AWD-e, came with a base price of $29,250. With options, including the HUD, $259 Carpeted Floor Mats, $299 Illuminated Door Sills, $125 Door Edge Guards, $69 Rear Bumper Applique, and $955 Delivery Processing and Handling Fee, the as-tested price was $31,757. Bracketed in the Toyota lineup by the new 2020 Corolla Hybrid (starting at $23,100) and 2020 Camry Hybrid (starting at $28,430), it’s not the only smart choice in the Toyota lineup – just the most visible.

Disclaimer: The manufacturer provided the vehicle used to conduct this test drive and review.

Rear 3q Right

Photos (c) Toyota

Don’t Ignore the 2020 Acura RDX

by Jason Fogelson

Ignoring Acura is a mistake. While the brand has had its ups and downs in terms of awareness and popularity, its cars have never lacked in quality and passion. As the luxury brand of the Honda universe, Acura has a tall order to fulfil. Honda’s reputation for dependability, efficiency and competence is well-established, and Acura shares in that regard. If Honda and Acura share a deficit, it might be excitement. Even when the brands come up with an exciting vehicle, like the Honda Civic Type R or the Acura NSX, the limelight seems to fade quickly after launch. Blame a fickle audience; blame the marketing department; blame the shock of the new; it doesn’t matter. The fact is that most of us buy or lease our vehicles for a long-term relationship, and we’d be wise to consider factors beyond popularity and infatuation before making a commitment.

Advance Action

If you’re in the market for a compact luxury crossover, I’m going to point you in the direction of the 2020 Acura RDX SH-AWD Advance. I might be behind the curve on this, as RDX has sold over 450,000 examples over three generations since its launch in 2006.

RDX was all-new for 2019, the first Acura vehicle to be designed and engineered in the United States. It rides on an Acura platform, rather than a shared Honda platform as previous generations did. RDX is built in East Liberty, Ohio.

In a sea of automotive sameness, there are a few cool features that help RDX stand out in the crowd of compact luxury crossover SUVs.

Advance Beauty & Details

For drivers, there’s a completely transparent feature called “Torque Vectoring Super Handling All-Wheel Drive.” Torque vectoring is not new, but when properly executed (as it is on RDX), it can be a revelation. Simply explained, torque vectoring directs the twisting force on the wheels to the outside wheels on a turn, which can enhance control and turn-in. You probably realize that the inside and outside wheels rotate at different speeds during a turning maneuver. This is managed by a differential, which allows the wheels to spin as needed. A torque vectoring system takes this one step further – pushing the power toward the outside wheels during a turn. This can be done passively, by applying brake pressure to the inside wheel, or actively. RDX’s SH-AWD system can send up to 70% of the available power to the rear wheels, and up to 100% of that power to the side that needs it. In practical terms, what that means is that when you mash the throttle from a standstill while turning the front wheel, perhaps trying to make a right turn at a red light and merging into cross-traffic, RDX simply bites in, applying the power just how you need it, and you get a smooth, powerful merge, not a scary, out-of-control power slide. It’s very impressive, and compelling enough that you’ll want to try it over and over again. Torque vectoring is usually very challenging to explain and demonstrate – not in the RDX. The benefits are apparent at every corner.

Advance Interior

In another cool feature, Acura has taken an evolutionary approach to its infotainment system with the True Touchpad Interface. Everything operates intuitively, and as expected. The cool evolution is how easy it is to customize the system, and how it expands the widely used concept of favorites from the confines of individual apps to the whole system operation. There are eight primary “tiles” on the home screen that can be moved around to the user’s preference, and programmed individually with a firm press for specific actions across multiple functions. For instance, you can program a tile to start navigation to your home; another to dial a frequently called phone number; another to play music from a favorite SiriusXM channel; another to set climate control to your preferred function. Place the tiles so that your most frequently used functions are at the corners, and you’ve got quick, no-look access. It’s smart, easy to use, and best of all, easy to set up – no programming degree required.

Advance Beauty & Details

Not everything is perfect in the RDX. While I liked the character of its turbocharged 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder direct-injected gasoline engine (272 hp/280 lb-ft of torque), I found that I needed to select Sport mode in order to wake up its lagging acceleration. Left in “D” mode, the ten-speed automatic transmission simply took too long to respond to an insistent application of throttle.

I had no complaints about the comfort or fit and finish of the RDX, which I found to be exemplary all around. Acura’s paint quality is always great, and my test car’s Fathom Blue Pearl was particularly stunning.

Advance Beauty & Details

The 2020 Acura RDX SH-AWD Advance carried a list price of $47,700. Including a Destination and Handling fee of $995, my test vehicle had an as-tested price of $47,695, right in line with its stated competitive set of BMW X3, Mercedes-Benz GLC-Class, Audi Q5 and Volvo XC60. Tough to make a bad decision in that group. The only mistake would be to leave RDX out of consideration before making your decision.

Disclaimer: The manufacturer provided the vehicle used to conduct this test drive and review.

Advance Beauty & Details

Photos (c) Acura

Avalon Hybrid Generates Grins

by Jason Fogelson

Through five generations of production since the 1995 model year, Avalon has been the flagship of the Toyota lineup in the United States. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it has been given a lot of respect or attention on the sales floor. Though it shares a platform, TNGA (Toyota New Global Architecture), with sibling Camry, Avalon sales in 2019 were one-tenth the number of Camry sales. Looking at Avalon Hybrid sales versus Camry Hybrid sales reveals a different balance. In 2019, Toyota sold 26,043 Camry Hybrid sedans, while selling 6,552 Avalon Hybrid sedans, about a 4:1 ratio – much closer than the overall numbers. What’s going on here?

Front 3q Left

I decided to take the 2020 Toyota Avalon Hybrid for a week-long test drive to see if I could figure it out.

My test vehicle was a Limited trim level with a list price of $43,150. With options ($1,150 Advanced Safety Package; $259 Carpet Mat Package) and a $950 Delivery Processing and Handling Fee, my Parisian Night Pearl Avalon Hybrid carried an as-tested price of $45,489.

Front

Avalon spent its first four generations cloaked in blandness, but the new generation, which launched with the 2019 model year, is much more interesting and attractive. Sharper lines, a bolder snout, and, dare I say, sportiness to the exterior have livened up the big sedan. Still on the conservative end of the spectrum, but much better than before.

Inside, Avalon manages to achieve Lexus levels of luxury, but with a flair that matches Avalon’s newly spruced exterior design. I particularly like the way that the center stack is set off from the dashboard, putting the standard nine-inch touchscreen display at the top. My Limited model also included a 10-inch head-up display, which beamed information into my line of sight in the driver’s windshield – a very desirable safety feature, well-executed.

Dash

Avalon is roomy and comfortable, notably so in the second row. The flexible TNGA platform has allowed engineers and designers to stretch the wheelbase by two inches over Camry, and to put that additional space to use in the second row of the Avalon, almost to executive sedan level.

Under the hood, Avalon Hybrid uses a 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder gasoline engine (176 hp/163 lb-ft of torque) and a pair of electric motors. One motor operates as a generator, engine starter and hybrid battery charger, while the other drives the front wheels and captures braking energy during regeneration. The drive motor has a maximum output of 118 hp. A continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) directs power to the front wheels, with a net system horsepower rating of 215. The hybrid battery pack is a sealed Nickel-Metal Hydride (Ni-MH) type with a nominal voltage of 244.8. Systems that are designed to deliver extensive EV-only range have mostly switched over to Lithium Ion battery packs, which are more energy-dense (and more expensive) than Ni-MH. Avalon Hybrid is engineered for overall fuel efficiency, not pure electric range or operation – Toyota doesn’t even provide information on EV range, though there is an EV button on the center console. In practice, I found that it was nearly impossible to keep the Avalon Hybrid in EV mode, as the faintest push on the accelerator pedal kicked the car back into hybrid operation. In any event, Avalon Hybrid Limited is rated to achieve 43 mpg city/43 mpg highway/43 mpg combined – very impressive for a roomy five-passenger sedan with a 16.09 cubic-foot trunk and a 3,715-lb curb weight.

Center StackThe TNGA platform reaps big benefits for Avalon Hybrid when it comes to handling. While Avalon Hybrid isn’t exactly sporty, it is a sharp-handling, connected car that responds precisely to inputs, turns in sharply, and delivers a comfortable, controlled ride. Past generations of Avalon have been correctly criticized for being a little too floaty and cushioned, but those are voices of the past. While enthusiastic drivers will wish for quicker acceleration (get the gas-only V6 for that), few will complain at Avalon’s overall competence and comfort.

The big reveal for the Avalon Hybrid, and maybe its secret weapon, is the fact that choosing the Hybrid over the gasoline-only Avalon only adds $1,000 to the suggested retail price.

Second Row

The competition for a vehicle this size with a hybrid gasoline-electric powertrain is thin in this price range, from $37,000 for Avalon Hybrid XLE to $39,500 for Avalon Hybrid XSE to $43,300 for the 2020 Toyota Avalon Hybrid Limited.

I’d be very comfortable recommending the Avalon Hybrid to anyone who is looking for an efficient, luxurious, pleasant to drive and relatively affordable five-passenger sedan.

Disclaimer: The manufacturer provided the vehicle used to conduct this test drive and review.

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Photos (c) Toyota

Attracting Xennials in the 2020 Lexus UX 250h

by Jason Fogelson

I still find it difficult to think about a $40,000 vehicle as “entry level,” but the 2020 Lexus UX 250h is actually that – a doorway into the Lexus family. Lexus says that “UX” stands for “Urban Crossover,” and that the UX was designed to attract a micro-generation of Americans that they call “Xennials.” Xennials were born in the mid-1980s (putting them in their mid-30s now). They were born before the proliferation of smart phones and the internet, but they have come to adulthood in a digital culture. The 25 million American Xennials are connected, and comfortable with tech – so their cars have to be, too.

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UX comes with Apple CarPlay, Lexus+Alexa, Google Assistant, Voice Command and Siri Eyes Free. It gets a seven-inch full color display as standard equipment, upgradable to 10.3 inches when factory navigation is selected. The Lexus Enform Remote app is standard with a three-year trial period, easily loaded on iOS and Android smartphones for access to vehicle information and control functionality. A three-month trial of Lexus Enform Wi-Fi is included. Four USB ports are standard in the cabin, and a QI wireless charging pad is available for just $75. That’s a load of tech, and up-to-the-minute.

When I first explored the UX during a launch event for the 2019 model, I got caught up in the distinction between a crossover and a hatchback. Ultimately, I’ve decided that there is no hard line, and it doesn’t really matter – it’s more marketing talk than it is an actual set of rules or measurements. I’ve always liked hatchbacks better than notchbacks anyway, and I have come to appreciate crossovers more and more as they’ve gotten better to drive and less tied to their SUV roots. UX isn’t concerned with looking rugged, or pretending that it can go off-roading with a flock of Jeeps. It’s right there in the name: Urban Crossover. UX is sized and shaped for the city. It is compact, yet roomy, with 17.1 cubic feet of storage space behind its second row of seats.

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The interior is luxurious, but not overstuffed. It is tasteful, neatly tailored and still comfortable, with a nice material selection and great (Lexus-level) fit and finish. It’s got a Dwell flavor to it, rather than Architectural Digest – younger, more athletic and appropriate to a Xennial audience without pandering or losing the Lexus identity.

As a commuter/urban runaround, UX hybrid has the right powertrain and driving character. First of all, the EPA estimates that the crossover can achieve 41 mpg city/38 mpg highway/39 mpg combined – very respectable. It uses a 2.0- liter four-cylinder naturally aspirated (non-turbo) gasoline engine mated to an electric motor for a combined 181 hp, sent to the front wheels via a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) for maximum efficiency. Lexus estimates 0-60 mph times at 8.6 seconds, which will keep the UX 250h running with traffic, not ahead of it. The CVT can be a little monotonous and drone on the highway, but in everyday driving, it’s fine. Suspension and steering are similarly middle of the road, neither remarkably good nor bad. I wouldn’t want to take a long trip in the UX 250h, but that’s not what it’s built for. On a daily basis, it delivers exactly what it promises – a luxurious, pleasant, connected experience in a stylish, attractive conveyance.

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My test car was a 2020 Lexus UX 250h Luxury Hybrid with a suggested retail price of $39,550 ($43,625 as tested). That’s about 25% higher than the average price of a new car these days. The competition in the luxury compact crossover includes the BMW X2, Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class, Audi Q3, Volvo XC40, Acura RDX, Infiniti QX30, Cadillac XT4, and Land Rover Range Rover Evoque – none of which are hybrids. You also have to include the gasoline-only Lexus UX 200 as a competitor, running about $2,000 less than a similarly equipped UX hybrid.

Will the UX 250h draw Xennials the way Lexus hopes? Possibly. But low fuel prices on one side and increasing availability of EVs on the other side may put the squeeze on this urban contender.

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Disclaimer: The manufacturer provided the vehicle used to conduct this test drive and review.

Photos (c) Lexus

 

Palisade: The New Three-Row SUV from Hyundai

by Jason Fogelson

The 2020 Hyundai Palisade is an all-new three-row SUV, replacing the Santa Fe XL with a bigger, more powerful, more luxurious SUV. The new name is intended to connote strength, stability and style in a very competitive segment of the marketplace.

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Built in South Korea for the North American market, the Palisade rides on a new platform, and is longer, wider and taller by about three inches in each dimension than the Santa Fe XL that it replaces, and rides on a 114.2-inch wheelbase (four inches longer than Santa Fe XL). It uses a bigger, more powerful V6 engine and an eight-speed automatic transmission, adding two speeds to Santa Fe XL’s capability. Palisade’s interior is more spacious, including 4.5 additional cubic feet behind the third row and an additional inch of third-row legroom. Hyundai has simplified its packaging for Palisade, with a well-equipped base SE model and loaded Limited model bracketing a more configurable mid-trim SEL model, designed to address both value and aspirational buying trends.

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My top-of-the-line Limited model test vehicle came a dual sunroof, heated and ventilated captain’s seats in the second row (no bench option), premium Nappa leather seating surfaces, a 630-watt Harmon Kardon premium audio system with 12 speakers, QuantumLogic Surround and Clari-Fi Music Restoration Technology, a 12.3-inch full digital display instrument cluster, a head-up display, surround-view monitor, blind-view monitor, and ambient lighting – all standard equipment on the Limited trim level, in addition to the arm-length list of other standard features and the Hyundai SmartSense safety suite. This sucker was loaded – and all of the features, except for an optional ($160) set of carpeted floor mats.

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Palisade soaks up miles with ease, remaining composed over rough surfaces and cruising nicely when the roads get twisty. Selectable driving modes include Smart, Normal, Sport, and Snow, adjusting front and rear torque distribution, throttle and shift patterns at the turn of a center-console mounted knob. A heavy foot on the gas pedal induces some thrashy noises from the V6, which is otherwise quiet and smooth. Handling is smooth and composed, and Palisade exuded competence in all situations it faced. It’s really a pleasure to drive, and would make a great family road trip vehicle.

Engine

All Palisade models come with a naturally aspirated (non-turbo) 3.8-liter V6 engine with gasoline direct injection and four valves per cylinder with variable valve timing. Running on the Atkinson Cycle, the V6 puts out 291 hp and 262 lb-ft of torque. An eight-speed shift-by-wire automatic transmission with front-wheel drive or available all-wheel drive puts the power to the ground. Front-wheel drive examples of Palisade are rated to achieve 19 mpg city/26 mpg highway/22 mpg combined, while my all-wheel drive model was rated to achieve 19 mpg city/24 mpg highway/21 mpg combined.

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Palisade is available in three trim levels: SE (starting at $31,550 with FWD, $33,250 with AWD); SEL (starting at $33,500 with FWD, $35,200 with AWD); and Limited (starting at $44,700, $46,400 with AWD). Add $1,045 to each for freight charges. A $2,200 Convenience Package and a $2,400 Performance Package can be added to SEL models, along with some standalone options. My test vehicle was a 2020 Palisade Limited AWD with a list price of $46,400, and an as-tested sticker price of $47,605.

Second RowThe three-row crossover SUV category is very well-stocked right now, including fresh entries like the Ford Explorer, Subaru Ascent, Volkswagen Atlas, and Toyota Highlander. The Mazda CX-9, Honda Pilot, Nissan Pathfinder, GMC Acadia, Chevrolet Traverse, Buick Enclave are also worth consideration. And don’t forget the Kia Telluride, which shares a platform (but no sheet metal) with the Palisade.

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The 2020 Hyundai Palisade is an elegant, competent, mid-size three-row crossover SUV that is a worthy successor to the Santa Fe XL. If you’re in the market for a new family vehicle, add the Palisade to your list for consideration.

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Disclaimer: The manufacturer provided the vehicle used to conduct this test drive and review.

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Photos (c) Hyundai

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