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2020 Nissan Sentra SR Premium: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

Every so often, an automobile rolls onto the national stage and surprises the critics. The 2020 Nissan Sentra has done that — certainly in this reckoning.

It’s a compact sedan from the Japanese manufacturer that has been around for 32 years, usually undistinguished and an also-ran competing with the compact class leaders — the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla.

2020 Nissan Sentra_O-10-sourceBut the all-new version bears no resemblance to its predecessors. The step up is a good thing because Sentra sales have been dropping, mainly because of the surge in popularity of small crossover sport utility vehicles like Nissan’s own Rogue, Kicks and Rogue Sport. Between 2018 and 2019, the Sentra’s U.S. sales dropped by 28,428 to 184,618.

The 2020 model not only will have to overcome that but also will be hobbled by Nissan’s intention, reported in Automotive News, the industry Bible, that the company initially will not offer the Sentra for sales to rental car companies and other fleets.

It will have to stand on its own merits with the general buying public. Well, guess what? If you have any doubts, take a test drive, as we did.

2020 Nissan Sentra_O-12-sourceIt’s short of astounding but it is an eye opener. This new Sentra stands out as a desirable, roomy, well-performing compact sedan that  bunches of people can afford to buy and operate. Moreover, it has the bones to attract customers who could easily buy something more expensive.

Take the Sentra SR Premium tested here. The starting price, including the destination charge, is $22,355. Loaded with every option, the bottom-line sticker price came to $25,325. That’s somewhere around $12,000 less than what the average new car sells for these days.

The Sentra’s starting price for the base S version is $20,015. There’s also a midlevel SV version. Previous SR Turbo and performance Nismo models are not available — at least for now.

2020 Nissan Sentra_O_s-sourceLike all the 2020 Sentra models, the base S and SV come with full safety equipment, including automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, rear cross-traffic alert with automatic rear braking, lane-departure warning, blind-spot warning and tire pressure monitoring. In addition, all Sentra examples have rear-door alert to prevent a driver from forgetting a child or pet in the back seat.

The tested SR Premium also came with pushbutton starting and remote locking, leatherette seats (heated in front), a motorized glass sunroof, automatic climate control, six-way power driver’s seat with power lumbar adjustments, rear camera with around-view monitor, LED headlights and fog lights, heated steering wheel, 18-inch alloy wheels, rear trunk-mounted spoiler, premium Bose audio system, SXM satellite radio, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capability.

Besides the pleasantries on the pricing and equipment lists, the tested 2020 SR Premium presented itself well on the highway stage. With all-new styling, it had the signature Nissan V-Motion grille, which to the eyes of this viewer has a sort of sad-sack look.

2020 Nissan Sentra_O-3-sourceNever mind. The tester was done up in two-tone Monarch Orange and Super Black exterior colors, with the now familiar Nissan floating roof design. The color scheme would do justice to a BMW, Lexus or Audi.

According to the U.S. government, the Sentra straddles official size classes. With the sunroof, as on the tested SR, it is classified as a compact. But without that amenity, it creeps just barely into the midsize category.

Either way, there’s plenty of room and comfort for four, with good bolstering on the front seatbacks for spirited driving on curving roads. Rear seat head and knee room are adequate, though getting in and out of the back seat requires a bit of agility. Even the center-rear seat can carry a fifth passenger because the cushion is not too hard and the floor hump not too tall.

2020 Nissan Sentra_O-5-sourcePower gets delivered to the front wheels from an all-new 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 149 hp and 146 lb-ft of torque. That may not sound like much to hot rodders, but in everyday driving it’s plenty. With the responsive Xtronic continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), the Sentra is rapidly responsive to throttle inputs.

Some critics deride CVTs but Nissan has vast experience with the transmissions, which are buttery smooth without shift points except when you punch the pedal to pass. Then the Sentra’s kicks down like a standard passing gear.

Handling on twisting roads is flat with little body lean. The suspension system soaks up most road irregularities for a decent ride under most circumstances and the interior is reasonably quiet except for  tire noise that varies with road surfaces.

2020 Nissan Sentra_O-14-sourceSpecifications

  • Model: 2020 Nissan Sentra SR Premium four-door sedan.
  • Engine: 2.0-liter four-cylinder; 149 hp, 146 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Xtronic continuously variable automatic and front-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 15 feet 3 inches.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/trunk volume: 94/14 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 3,084 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 28/37/32 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $22,355.
  • Price as tested: $25,325.

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

2020 Nissan Sentra_O-13-sourcePhotos (c) Nissan

2020 Toyota Avalon TRD: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

Wait. Hold on. Toyota’s Racing Development team took the 2020 Avalon and massaged it for better performance? That Avalon? The one they used to call Toyota’s Buick?

Turns out it’s true. But they took the new Avalon TRD only part of the way. It has a host of suspension and tire modifications, as well as extra body braces, an earthy exhaust sound and lots of snazzy interior and exterior visual enhancements. But the engine and transmission are the same as in other Avalon models.

20_AvalonTRD_CelestialSilverMetallic_002That’s actually not shabby because the Avalon’s standard power plant is a 301-hp, 3.5-liter V6 that develops 267 lb-ft of torque, or twisting force, enough to propel it to 60 mph in about six seconds.

The Avalon has come a long way since its introduction in 1995 as Toyota’s flagship. For years, a main distinguishing characteristic was that it was one of the few sedans anywhere that could seat three adults comfortably in the back seat, thanks to a flat floor and a real center-row seat.

It was classified as a large car by the federal government, defined by the EPA as an automobile with 120 cubic feet or more of interior volume, which includes the passenger and trunk space.

20_AvalonTRD_CelestialSilverMetallic_001In 2013, the Avalon joined the masses when was downsized to its current state as a midsize car with a center-rear seat that featured a small, uncomfortable seat cushion and a big floor hump — pretty much like almost every other car, and even some SUVs, on the market. It continues in that configuration for 2020, now barely larger than its popular — and lower-priced — sibling, the Toyota Camry.

The 2020 Avalon TRD, with 119 cubic feet divided into 103 for passengers with a trunk of 16 cubic feet, misses the large car mark by just one cubic foot, though Toyota markets it as a full-size automobile. The Camry is close as well, with 114 cubic feet, divided into 99 for passengers and 15 cubic feet in the trunk.

20_AvalonTRD_SupersonicRed_002The TRD is not the most expensive Avalon. Its base price of $43,255, including the destination charge, slots it beneath the more luxury-oriented Touring trim line. The tested TRD, with options that included a navigation system and a high-performance JBL audio system with 14 speakers, checked in at $45,410.

Full safety equipment is standard, including pre-collision braking with pedestrian detection, adaptive radar cruise control, lane departure warning with steering assist, blind spot monitoring, automatic headlight high beams and rear cross-traffic alert.

It takes only a glance to discern the Avalon TRD’s intention to  advertise its performance personality. The grille is huge, black and menacing, and the lightweight 19-inch alloy wheels are painted black with red brake calipers showing through.

20_CamryTRD_Interior_005The theme carries through inside with black leather upholstery trimmed in bright red. There’s red stitching on the steering wheel, TRD emblems embossed on the headrests and the floor mats, and bright red seatbelts — standard equipment here but on some other sporting cars — a Porsche, say — would be an extra-cost option costing hundreds of dollars.

There are eight-way powered and heated front seats with lumbar support on the driver’s side; seat memory settings, automatic climate control, SXM satellite radio, hands-free Bluetooth connectivity, Apple CarPlay and wireless smart phone charging.

20_AvalonTRD_Interior_003Front seats are a bit flat, with little bolstering, but nevertheless are supportive and comfortable. The outboard back seats deliver ample head and knee room, with decent comfort, although that center-rear seat — well, you know.

Out back, the truck is large, and well-shaped and finished. One negative: The large, C-shaped trunk hinges are not isolated or protected and could damage contents in a fully loaded trunk.

20_AvalonTRD_Interior_001Despite the TRD’s lack of engine modifications, the Avalon TRD is a stellar performer. The horsepower, torque and braking are more than adequate in the push, pull and rapid lane-changing of modern clogged freeway traffic, and the eight-speed automatic responds quickly to throttle inputs. There are paddles to manually shift but not worth the bother in traffic. Better to save manual shifting to hold gears on twisting mountain roads.

Despite its midsize rating, the Avalon’s length of 16 feet 4 inches has the look of a big car. But it epitomizes the old adage that a small car should drive big and a big car drive small. Its strong suit is small-car quick handling.

Except for the intentional raucous exhaust sounds, especially under hard acceleration, the Avalon TRD cruises serenely with a somewhat stiff but supple ride.

20_AvalonTRD_SupersonicRed_001Specifications

  • Model: 2020 Toyota Avalon TRD four-door sedan.
  • Engine: 3.5-liter V6; 301 hp, 267 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Eight-speed automatic with manual shift mode and front-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 16 feet 4 inches.
  • EPA passenger/cargo volume: 103/16 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 3,700 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 22/31/25 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $43,255.
  • Price as tested: $45,410.

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

20_AvalonTRD_CelestialSilverMetallic_0031Photos (c) Toyota

 

2020 Infiniti Q60 Red Sport 400: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

If nothing else, the 2020 Infiniti Q60 Red Sport 400 qualifies as a beauty. It is one of those cars that invites unsolicited raves about its stylish lines from strangers and friends alike.

Yet this tidy coupe also shines as an adept performer that will not disappoint enthusiasts. However, some will fault it for not offering a manual gearbox to rely instead on a seven-speed automatic transmission that can be shifted manually with steering-wheel paddles. The transmission features automatic rev-matching on downshifts.

INFINITI Q60 RED SPORT 400

The Red Sport 400 is the high-performance version of the Q60 coupe from Infiniti, the luxury division of Japan’s Nissan. Its force surges from a 400-hp, 3.0-liter V6 engine with twin turbochargers that delivers 350 lb-ft of torque, the twisting force that boosts acceleration. Rear-wheel drive is standard with all-wheel drive optional for $2,000, as on the version tested for this review.

Though it sensuously stretches to 15 feet 4 inches long, the Q60 is a small two-door car with tight interior space and a small trunk. Classified as a subcompact by the Environmental Protection Agency, it has 85 cubic feet of passenger room and a trunk of just nine cubic feet — enough to hold a couple of roll-aboard suitcases and a few satchels.

However, if you don’t have to carry a couple of extra passengers, the back seat can hold a hefty load of cargo — a pile of gifts and other holiday or vacation stuff, for example. Loading all that is something of a chore, even with the passenger seatback as far forward as possible.

INFINITI Q60 RED SPORT 400

Inside, the appointments are stylish and the materials of high quality. The powered and heated front seats are comfortable and supportive, upholstered in soft leather, which also wraps the heated steering wheel. Also enhancing the environment: dual-zone automatic climate control, motorized glass sunroof, heated side-view mirrors with LED turn signal lights, and rain-sensing windshield wipers.

The tester came with sport brakes identified by red-painted calipers, 20-inch alloy wheels, and LED headlights, fog lights, turn signals and taillights.

All of that comes with the Red Zone 400 AWD’s $60,175 price tag, including the destination charge. Options included a $2,280 package of carbon-fiber enhancements of the rear deck lid spoiler, fender vents, outside mirror covers and fog lamps.

2020 INFINITI Q60 Edition 30

With options, the bottom-line suggested sticker price came to  $65,950. But curiously and unusual in a car in this price class, there was no adaptive cruise control or lane-departure mitigation. However, the standard equipment included forward collision warning and blind-spot monitoring.

Two people can sit in the back seat, but only if the driver and front passenger move their seats uncomfortably forward to produce knee room in back. Head room there also is in short supply, and entering and exiting the back seat requires athletic contortions.

But as a personal conveyance the Red Sport 400 is an amiable and adrenaline-inducing companion for an individual who doesn’t often need to haul passengers and cargo. There are plenty of sport utility vehicles and crossovers lined up for that duty.

2020 INFINITI Q60 Edition 30

Despite its stealthy profile and cozy interior, the Red Sport 400 is a comfortable long-distance cruiser. On the road, it is quiet to the point of snooze-inducing with a supple suspension system that adapts itself to road surfaces.

In straight-line freeway cruising the Red Sport feels like a larger car, fatigue-free with few steering corrections required. It validates the old adage that small cars should drive big and big cars should feel smaller. Its size, responsive steering and handling inspire confidence on fast curves. This is a driver’s car.

It’s also a point and shoot machine in urban driving, quick with athletic moves in traffic. Off the line, it can nail 60 mph in about 4.5 seconds, according to instrumented tests by Car and Drivermagazine.

2020 INFINITI Q60 Edition 30

Hammering it like that, however, will intrude on the Red Sport 400’s EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption rating of 20/27/22 mpg of premium fuel.

A switch on the console controls Infiniti’s drive mode selector, which provides settings that tailor engine, transmission, steering and suspension adjustments to the driver’s preferences. There are six: ECO, Snow, Standard, Sport, Sport + and Personal, as well as further settings within some of those choices.

The tested Red Sport came with a full suite of infotainment features, including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, SiriusXM satellite radio, navigation system, voice recognition, Wi-Fi hotspot and Bluetooth hands-free phone and text-messaging assistant.

INFINITI Q60 RED SPORT 400

Specifications

  • Model: 2020 Infiniti Q60 Red Sport 400 AWD two-door coupe.
  • Engine: 3.0-liter V6, twin turbochargers; 400 hp, 350 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Seven-speed automatic with manual shift mode and all-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 15 feet 4 inches.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/cargo volume: 85/9 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 3,862 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 20/27/22 mpg. Premium fuel recommended.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $60,175.
  • Price as tested: $65,950.

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

2019 INFINITI Q60

Photos (c) Infiniti

2020 Nissan Versa SR: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

Any modern vehicle manufacturer can produce a good automobile if price is no object. The trick is to build a decent, affordable small car like the 2020 Nissan Versa.

The Versa has been around for more than a dozen years as Nissan’s entry-level economy car. Marketed as a subcompact but usually with the interior room of a larger car, it was offered as a four-door sedan and a hatchback, recently called the Versa Note.

Versa MMP4a-sourceIt has been consistently popular and in 2018 was the best seller  against the Hyundai Accent, Honda Fit, Kia Rio, Toyota Yaris, Chevrolet Sonic and Spark, and Ford Fiesta.

For 2020, it may have a tougher uphill route because Nissan has axed the Note in favor of shunting shoppers toward its subcompact Kicks crossover sport utility vehicle, which some argue is more of a hatchback anyway because it does not offer all-wheel drive.

The 2020 Versa sedan is all-new, longer, lower and wider than its  frumpy predecessor, with more of a family resemblance to the midsize Altima. It even mimics European luxury brands by offering extra-cost exterior paint jobs.

One was the focus of this review, a top-line SR model done up in “Scarlett Ember,” one of eight colors. It cost an additional $395. Even at that, however, the test car had a bottom-line sticker of $20,040, about 15 grand less than the current average price of a new car.

Versa MMP10a-sourceBut if you have a tighter budget, you can order an entry-level Versa S with a base price of $15,625, including the destination charge. That’s with a five-speed manual gearbox. Add Nissan’s Xtronic continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) and the price jumps to $17,295.

That price covers full basic safety equipment plus automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, rear automatic braking, lane departure warning, rear-view camera (without line markers) and high-beam headlight assist. It also includes Siri eyes-free Google assistant with voice recognition. All Versa models come with pushbutton starting.

The cool thing about the S is that, like cars everywhere, it is equipped with the basics anybody would need, including the 122-hp 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine with 114 lb-ft of torque that delivers a government city/highway/combined fuel economy rating of  32/40/35 mpg with the CVT.

Versa MMP7a-sourceThat doesn’t sound like a hot car on paper and it is not. But the S and its sibling SV and SR trim levels are quite comfortable in any driving situation anyone is likely to encounter on American’s increasingly clogged streets and freeways.

You won’t win many stoplight drag races, but acceleration is strong enough for urban traffic, freeway merging and passing on two-lane roads as long as you allow enough space. The CVT transmission, which ordinarily has no shift points, is one of the better units of its kind, and Nissan incorporates a system called D-Step that adds a kick-down shift for more responsive passing power.

2020 Nissan Versa SV-1-sourceSurprisingly, the base S model rides comfortably and is nearly as quiet a highway cruiser as the SR test car, perhaps benefitting from smaller 15-inch steel wheels with plastic wheel covers and fatter tires than the 17-inch alloy wheels with skinnier sidewalls on the SR trim. There was little mechanical and wind noise, and the main intrusion — as on the top-line SR — came from the tires on the variety of irregular pavements found everywhere.

The tested top-line SR adds blind-spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert, as well as automatic climate control, SXM satellite radio, remote starting, leather-wrapped steering wheel and LED headlights.

2020 Nissan Versa SV-2-sourceIt also came with Nissan’s back-seat warning system, which could save the life of a child or pet left in a closed car on a hot summer day. The system activates when you open a rear door to place a child or something else in back. Later, when you shut down the engine and leave the car, visual and audio warnings are activated to remind you to check.

With 89 cubic feet of space for passengers, the Versa SR delivered supportive and comfortable so-called “zero gravity” seats up front, with upgraded cloth upholstery, and adequate head and knee room in the outboard back seats for average-sized humans. However, as in most cars, the center-rear passenger gets an uncomfortable perch with a floor hump and intrusion of the center console.

The trunk is uncommonly large for a compact car, at 15 cubic feet, and the rear seatbacks fold for additional cargo. However, the trunk lid’s C-hinges are not protected and could damage luggage and other contents.

2020 Nissan Versa

Specifications

  • Model: 2020 Nissan Versa SR four-door sedan.
  • Engine: 1.6-liter four-cylinder; 122 hp, 114 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: D-Step Xtronic continuously-variable automatic with front-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 14 feet 9 inches.
  • EPA passenger/trunk volume: 89/15 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 2,729 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 32/40/35 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $19,135.
  • Price as tested: $20,040.

Disclaimer: This test drive was conducted at a manufacturer-sponsored press event. The manufacturer provided travel, accommodations, vehicles, meals and fuel.

Versa MMP2a-sourcePhotos (c) Nissan

2019 Mazda3 Hatchback AWD: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

The 2019 Mazda3 Hatchback epitomizes the company’s goal of developing vehicles that punch above their weight.

This a slinky, stylish, fully-realized four-door for four (though there’s a seatbelt for a hapless soul in the cramped center-rear seat) that has the appointments and feel of luxury compacts costing thousands of dollars more.

2019-Mazda3-Hatchback_01It leans more in that direction and away from the so-called “hot hatch” category characterized by machines like the Hyundai Veloster N, and Volkswagen GTI and R models. But slotting between those two categories makes it more versatile for enthusiasts as well as people who value quality transportation that does not require a second mortgage.

The first impression is the styling. Nobody buys a car that is unattractive; something they would not want to be seen in. The Mazda3 is a beauty with artistic lines that belie its hatchback configuration.

2019-Mazda3-Hatchback_04That, of course, requires compromises — in the Mazda3 a low roofline that dictates a fanny-down seating position and limited headroom in the back seat. If you want something higher and airier for Uncle and Grandma, check out the Mazda CX-5 crossover.

The Mazda3 Hatchback AWD satisfies on multiple fronts: With 186 hp and 186 lb-ft of torque from its 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, operating through a snap-shifting six-speed automatic transmission, it can nail zero to 60 mph in whiff more than seven seconds, with a factory-limited top speed of 131 mph.

2019-Mazda3-Sedan_44That’s respectable these days but not outstanding. Nevertheless, it’s just one aspect of a car that handles effortlessly, delivers a comfortable ride over most surfaces and cruises quietly on smooth freeways (though defeated by the many pimple-faced roadways around the country). City/highway/combined fuel consumption is rated at 24/32/27 mpg.

A die-hard enthusiast might not choose the Mazda3 Hatchback with all-wheel drive because it comes only with the six-speed automatic transmission, although there are manual-shift paddles mounted on the steering wheel. If you’re one of those, you can save $1,400 by ordering the front-wheel drive model with the six-speed manual gearbox.

2019-Mazda3-Sedan_46The tested Mazda3 Hatchback AWD came with a Premium package incorporated in the base price of $29,920, including the destination charge. With options, the bottom-line sticker came to $31,245 — not inexpensive but about $5,000 less than the current U.S. average price of a new car.

This is the fourth generation Mazda3, which comes as a standard four-door sedan as well as the tested Hatchback. In both cases, Mazda has been concentrating on upgrades intended to transform the 3 into a premium compact.

14_Mazda3_5HB_INT_2The list of equipment, including standard and optional items, testifies to the effort. There’s hardly anything missing that you might find on more expensive European cars of a similar size.

Safety-related items on the tester included Mazda’s Smart Brake Support, which uses a laser sensor to detect the risk of a low-speed collision, prepares the system for maximum braking and, if the driver does not brake, automatically brakes and slows the engine.

Other safety equipment: rear cross-traffic alert, radar adaptive cruise control, blind-spot warning, lane departure warning and lane-keeping assist, rain-sensing windshield wipers, LED headlights and taillights, and tire-pressure monitoring.

2019-Mazda3-Hatchback_28Not to be outdone on the luxury front, the tested Mazda3 Hatchback came with “Polymetal Gray Mica” paint, red leather upholstery, heated front seats, power driver’s seat with lumbar support, memory settings for outside mirrors and driver’s seat, dual-zone automatic climate control, 18-inch black alloy wheels, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, Bose premium audio, SXM satellite and HD radio, and Bluetooth connectivity.

If you were new to the Mazda3 and had not been briefed, you’d likely be unaware that it is now available with all-wheel drive (front-wheel drive is standard). The system is unobtrusive in normal driving. However, dive at speed into a tight curve on a winding road and the tires take a bite with good steering feel. The all-wheel drive is biased slightly toward the rear wheels for improved cornering.

2019-Mazda3-Hatchback_15The Mazda3, as noted, also can be ordered as a standard four-door sedan. Of the two, however, the Hatchback is the choice here. Though it is four inches shorter than the sedan, it has a total interior volume of 111 cubic feet, with 20 of those for cargo and 91 for passengers. The sedan has a total of 108 cubic feet with 96 for passengers and a trunk of just 12 cubic feet.

Competitors include the hatchback versions of the Honda Civic, Subaru Impreza, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Toyota Corolla, Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Focus, as well as the Volkswagen Golf.

2019-Mazda3-Hatchback_05Specifications

  • Model: 2019 Mazda3 AWD w/Premium Package four-door hatchback.
  • Engine: 2.5-liter four-cylinder; 186 hp, 186 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Six-speed automatic with manual-shifting mode and all-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 14 feet 8 inches.
  • EPA passenger/cargo volume: 91/20 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 3,228 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 24/32/27 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $29,820.
  • Price as tested: $31,245.

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

2019-Mazda3-Hatchback_08Photos: Mazda

2020 Toyota Corolla Hybrid LE: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

When Toyota unveiled the redesigned 2020 Corolla sedan to a group of automotive journalists in November 2018, the shining examples showed like compact luxury cars.

Now that this all-new Corolla has arrived, the emphasis is not on luxury but economy. Instead of top-line trim levels, the spotlight is on the 2020 Corolla Hybrid LE, which among its other attributes gets 52 miles to the gallon of regular gasoline.

Corolla_Hybrid_013_E8752A42C66E156C23136C861E7A6BAF9B59801DMoreover, it has a base price of $23,880, including the destination charge. With a few minor options, the Corolla Hybrid tested for this review had a bottom-line sticker price of $24,524. Get one each for mom and pop.

Where the gasoline-engine model has six variants over five trim levels, the Hybrid comes one way: mid-level LE with a 1.8-liter gasoline engine and a 71-hp electric motor. Together, they make 121 hp and 105 lb-ft of torque transferred to the front wheels through a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT).

Gasoline-engine models are the base L, LE and XLE along with the more sporting SE and XSE. The SE can be ordered with the CVT or a six-speed manual gearbox for those who like to shift for themselves.

Corolla_Hybrid_016_F877FFF1D0CC1E9E62B2B38F35CDC86320654023With more than 43 million sales world-wide, the Corolla is the best-selling nameplate in history, although it has gone through many different versions, including multiple configurations with rear-wheel drive and front-wheel drive.

Throughout, however, it has maintained a reputation as among the more durable and reliable cars available. Now with its first hybrid version, it adds stellar fuel economy to the package.

Ironically, its main competitor is Toyota’s own Prius, the best-selling hybrid in the world. Unlike the Prius, with its funky controls and instrument displays, the Corolla comes across more like a regular car with familiar surroundings. Both use the same 121-hp hybrid power package and CVT, and compete in similar price brackets.

2020_Corolla_LE_Hybrid_BlueCrushMetallic_015_5FFD7C54695C1A21AE859CADDF038ABAB6B6B57AOther competitors are the Hyundai Ioniq, Honda Insight and Chevrolet Volt, as well as a number of hybrid crossover sport utility vehicles, including the Kia Niro, Hyundai Kona, Nissan Rogue and Toyota RAV4.

The U.S. government classifies cars by total interior volume, which includes the space for passengers and cargo. By that definition, the Prius is classified as midsize, bordering on full-size, while the Corolla is classified as a compact.

Much of that has to do with the Prius’s hatchback design, which gives it 27 cubic feet for cargo and 93 cubic feet for passengers. The Corolla is a standard sedan design with a trunk of 13 cubic feet and 89 cubic feet for passengers. If extra cargo space is needed, the split rear seatback folds 2/3 and 1/3.

2020_Corolla_LE_Hybrid_BlueCrushMetallic_037_6DFA2E153484B87955A00735E0FC37737A513E2CThe Corolla’s design delivers ample head, leg and knee room for four, though as usual in most vehicles, the center-rear passenger gets squished with limited room, a hard cushion and a big floor hump.  Seats are covered in an attractive, comfortable cloth that looks long-lasting — preferable, in this view, to leather or leatherette.

Equipment on the LE Hybrid — as noted the only trim level — covers full safety equipment, including collision mitigation with pedestrian detection, lane-departure alert with steering assist, adaptive radar cruise control and automatic high headlight beams.

Other equipment: stop-start idle system, pushbutton starting, automatic climate control, hill start assist, electronic parking brake, LED headlights and taillights, and power windows and outside mirrors.

2020_Corolla_LE_Hybrid_BlueCrushMetallic_039_B5761486DC80A4597CAB1C0917650157427F8CD3An eight-inch center touch screen provides access to the audio system and infotainment functions. However, it does not include SXM satellite radio, though it is compatible with Apple Car Play and Siri Eyes Up.

Given its modest power, the Corolla Hybrid gets a good jump off the line, boosted by the electric motor. The CVT has no shift points so delivers uninterrupted acceleration with little or none of that annoying sensation of slipping or roaring that are characteristic of some CVTs.

2020_Corolla_LE_Hybrid_BlueCrushMetallic_059_0198C3BB115B28B00655AF19B368D7D5EE2AF5ADHandling is competent and secure, and the Corolla tracks true in a straight line, requiring few steering corrections. The main downside is road noise. It could use additional sound-deadening insulation, which likely is included in higher trim levels with gasoline engines.

In this era of electrification, a standard hybrid is the best bet. Plug-in hybrids are more expensive with limited electric range, and pure electrics have no backup if batteries are depleted.

Then there’s the matter of money. The Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees fuel economy ratings, estimates that a Corolla Hybrid owner will save $3,500 in fuel costs over five years compared to the average new vehicle.

Corolla_Hybrid_008_C12A8DE2AAB24DFD329CCCFB6A2A6CFEEBA9A403Specifications

  • Model: 2020 Toyota Corolla Hybrid LE four-door sedan.
  • Engine/motor: 1.8-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine with 71 horsepower electric motor; total system 121 hp, 105 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Continuously-variable automatic.
  • Overall length: 15 feet 2 inches.
  • EPA passenger/cargo volume: 89/13 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 3,050 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 53/52/52 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $23,880.
  • Price as tested: $24,524.

Disclaimer: This test drive was conducted at a manufacturer-sponsored press event. The manufacturer provided travel, accommodations, vehicles, meals and fuel.

Corolla_Hybrid_009_7AB3C30F7FDDA2997F5A75013AC0E9623044E8D0Photos (c) Toyota

2019 Lexus RC300 F Sport: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

It was an arresting bright yellow. But the 2019 Lexus RC300 F Sport probably should have come in salmon orangey-pink because, like the tasty fish that battles to procreate, it is swimming upstream.

2019_Lexus_RC_F_019_404CDC473CF6D513DE13E0FF95A19B18EE03A8DEThis Lexus, from the upscale division of Japan’s Toyota, is a sports coupe outfitted like a luxury car. But it is a type that is falling out of favor in an era when almost every luxury manufacturer, Lexus included, is laser-focused on crossover sport utility vehicles. Bentley, with the Bentayga, and Rolls-Royce, with its Cullinan, sell crossovers. Aston-Martin has shown a concept.

Lexus markets a full lineup of crossovers and traditional SUVs from the subcompact UX to the big truck-like LX. Its best-seller is the RX crossover, which had 111,641 sales in 2018, up 3,334, or 3%, from 2017.

2019_Lexus_RC_F_001_1EF6549C8CB33C9C501FCC75E5E3AE748596D449In the same period, however, the RC models, which include the RC300 and RC350 in standard and F Sport versions, dropped 54% from 7,363 in 2017 to 3,358 in 2018. Lexus says the RC stands for “Radical Coupe.”

It’s not convincing. The RC300 F Sport is a pleasant conveyance but not what many would consider to be a high-performance car. Though other versions are available with a choice of two V6 engines of 260 and 306 hp, the test car came with the base turbocharged 241-hp four-cylinder engine with 258 lb-ft of torque.

2019_Lexus_RC_F_017_D59DD6ABAA91250F1B59659F1F178BFF8E968221Power gets to the rear wheels through an eight-speed automatic transmission. It’s enough to romp to 60 mph in the neighborhood of seven seconds so you won’t be embarrassed in the stoplight sprints. But it’s best to think of the RC300 F Sport as a comfortable boulevardier.

On the road, especially in the cut and thrust of commuter traffic and short spurts on freeways, the RC300 shines with a responsive throttle and comfortable ride, unexpected in a subcompact car. The steering is responsive with tactile feedback, and the adaptive suspension system keeps the wheels planted in cornering and straight-line cruising.

2019_Lexus_RC_F_012_4E77B19B9819AC67D4D848779D13B65537F952DCThough rear-wheel drive usually is the choice among enthusiasts for handling prowess, customers in areas with nasty weather might choose all-wheel drive. In the F Sport trim, that tacks on an extra $2,930 but it also includes the 260-hp V6 engine. However, the all-wheel drive version uses a six-speed automatic transmission in place of the eight-speed.

Though there are seats for four, the RC300 F Sport basically is what used to be called a plus-two — essentially a two-seat sports coupe with two vestigial back seats installed mainly to reduce insurance premiums.

2019_Lexus_RC_F_023_3DBBBC7D093AD433B91ED960B6F3BF8D9D8F83C3The RC300’s back seats look comfortable enough but there’s no space for knees and feet unless the front seats are adjusted full forward. But that, of course, wipes out any space for the folks in the front seats. Also, the fastback coupe styling results in a small trunk of just 10 cubic feet — again, probably enough for luggage for two. So think of the back seats as a convenient place to toss purses, small backpacks and cantaloupes.

Though it’s a relative youngster with just five years on the market, the RC300 shows some gray hairs. The test car had a base price of $48,885 and, with options, topped out at $53,580. Yet it still used an old-fashioned step-on parking brake instead of one of the new switch-controlled electronic brakes.

2019_Lexus_RC_F_026_65DC19AAC3465F43EC0317A0443CDE8358BD433CMoreover, the console-mounted touchpad, which controls infotainment and other functions displayed on the center screen, is imprecise and difficult to master. It’s not the sort of convenience that you want to be fiddling with while driving. Get the adjusting done before you drive off.

Despite its relatively tame power, the RC300 F Sport doesn’t  lack chops. It has the adaptive variable suspension system with a half-dozen driver selectable drive modes, ranging from Eco to Sport Plus, snow and custom. The front seats are supportive, heated and ventilated, and well-bolstered for spirited driving on curvy roads.

2019_Lexus_RC_F_025_0A0232B3FD2FC91300477E5F817579C41FE14AEBThere’s automatic pre-collision braking with pedestrian detection, adaptive radar cruise control, blind-spot monitor with rear cross traffic alert, power tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, and lane-keeping control. Also: memory setting for the driver’s seat, outside mirrors and steering wheel, Apple Car Play and Amazon Alexa, SXM satellite radio, and Siri Eyes Free and Google voice control.

Options on the test car included a voice-activated navigation system with premium Mark Levinson audio, triple-beam LED headlights, motorized glass sunroof, limited-slip rear differential, premium paint, and an all-weather package of headlight washers, windshield de-icer, water-repellent front door glass and a fast-response interior heater.

2019_Lexus_RC_F_022_530C508CD852890AD76D5354C6F0EC328EEF1CD2Specifications

  • Model: 2019 Lexus RC300 F Sport two-door coupe.
  • Engine: 2.0-liter four-cylinder, turbocharged; 241 hp, 258 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Eight-speed automatic with manual-shift mode and rear-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 15 feet 5 inches.
  • EPA passenger/trunk volume: 82/10 cubic feet.
  • Curb Weight: 3,748 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 21/30/24 mpg. Premium fuel recommended.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $48,885.
  • Price as tested: $53,580.

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

2019_Lexus_RC_F_006_569A8E436FB6584B4091E96293E06E544890B597Photos (c) Lexus.

2019 Nissan Altima SR VC-Turbo: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

With its groundbreaking new engine, all-wheel drive and other enhancements, the 2019 Nissan Altima bolsters the Big Three of Japan’s in-your-face challenge to the surging popularity of crossover sport utility vehicles.

Chevrolet, Ford and Fiat Chrysler of the USA are in the process of eliminating sedans from their lineups, betting on pickup trucks, sport utility vehicles, crossover SUVs and small numbers of sports cars as the wave of the future.

2019 Nissan Altima-1At the same time, Japan’s Toyota, Honda and Nissan are rolling out new and more desirable midsize sedans to continue offering full lines of vehicles. The Toyota Camry and Honda Accord were all-new for 2018 and now Nissan joins them with the 2019 Altima.

The company argues that sedans are far from becoming museum pieces. According to Nissan’s research, the annual U.S. market includes six million sedans, with two million of those midsize. That’s about 35% of the 17 million cars and light trucks sold in 2017.

Moreover, the company is targeting young professionals and calculates that 44% of generation Z customers (born between 1995 and 2010) intend to buy sedans while 18% will choose two-row SUVs and crossovers, and 11% will pick three-row crossovers and SUVs.

2019 Nissan Altima-11The numbers are different for generation Y millennial intenders (born between 1980 and the end of 1994), with 30% ripe to buy sedans, 27% two-row and 18% three-row SUVs and crossovers.

With such rosy assumptions, it’s no surprise that Nissan loaded the new Altima with its biggest investment in new basic architecture in the last 20 years and its highest-ever investment in a new powertrain, including two new engines.

The most radical, state-of-the art engine is the all-new 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with variable compression, called the VC-Turbo. It’s a world first in a production car. The technology continuously changes the engine’s compression ratio while underway anywhere from 8:1 for high performance and 14:1 for maximum efficiency.

2019 Nissan Altima-19The VC-Turbo makes 248 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque while delivering city/highway/combined fuel economy of 25/34/29 mpg on regular gasoline. Power gets to the front wheels via Nissan’s continuously-variable automatic transmission (CVT). The VC-Turbo replaces the Altima’s previous 3.5-liter V6 engine.

Though the VC-Turbo is the star, there’s a second new engine — a naturally aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinder that is expected to power the highest number of sales of the new Altima. With direct fuel injection, it makes 179 hp and 180 lb-ft of torque.

2019 Nissan Altima-20For the first time, the Altima will be offered with all-wheel drive for an extra $1,350, but for now only with the 2.5-liter engine. Nissan did not rule out all-wheel drive for the VC-Turbo but for the time being it will be equipped only with front-wheel drive.

Fuel economy varies depending on the engine and trim level. There are five trim levels with the 2.5-liter engine: S, SR, SV, SL and Platinum. With the VC-Turbo there are three: SR, Platinum and Edition One. The last is a special introductory model limited to 3,900 copies.

Driven for this review were an all-wheel drive 2.5-liter Platinum and the front-drive VC-Turbo SR, with the focus on the latter with its all-new variable compression technology. The 2.5-liter had an EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption rating of 25/35/31 mpg; the V-Turbo SR was rated at 25/34/29.

2019 Nissan Altima-22Both versions displayed robust acceleration and secure handling, though the 3.5-liter exhibited a bit of body roll in rapid cornering. The V-Turbo was quicker off the line with sharper moves on twisting roads. Both were quiet cruisers though the VC-Turbo engine was a bit raucous under hard acceleration.

Nissan’s Intelligent CVT exhibited little of the droning and feeling of slipping exhibited by other CVTs as engine revolutions build. For years, Nissan has focused intensely on CVT development and builds some of the better units.

2019 Nissan Altima-21With Nissan’s so-called zero gravity seats and a supple ride, the new Altima is a serene cruiser. Front seats are supportive and long-distance comfortable. Outboard rear seats have plenty of knee and headroom, and even the center-rear position is spacious with a truncated but resilient cushion.

The new Altima is longer, lower and wider by one inch than its predecessor, though the flowing styling does not affect interior space.

Nissan has made what it views as a rational choice by investing in the Altima. With sales of 5.7 million overall and 254,996 in 2017, it continues in the top three in sales of midsize sedans. You could call it the company’s bread, butter and jam.

2019 Nissan Altima-15Specifications

  • Model: 2019 Nissan Altima SR V-Turbo four-door sedan.
  • Engine: 2.0-liter variable-compression four-cylinder, turbocharged; 248 hp, 280 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Continuously variable automatic with manual-shift mode.
  • Overall length: 16 feet 1 inch.
  • EPA passenger/cargo volume: 101/15 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 3,418 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 25/34/29 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $30,045.
  • Price as tested: $30,045.

Disclaimer: This test drive was conducted at a manufacturer-sponsored press event. The manufacturer provided travel, accommodations, vehicles, meals and fuel.

2019 Nissan Altima-6Photos (c) Nissan

2018 Honda Accord 2.0T Touring: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

Like the proverbial cup that runneth over, the 2018 Honda Accord oozes newness in practically every molecule of its mechanical being. The company touts it as “the most radical redesign of the Accord ever.” That covers a lot of territory, given its 42 years on the American scene, during which Accord has sold 13 million hatchbacks, coupes, sedans and station wagons — 11 million of them manufactured in the USA.

All but the four-door sedan are now gone, so Honda is counting on this new Accord to hold up against the midsize competition, particularly its perennial nemesis, the Toyota Camry, which also has an all-new, driver-oriented entry for 2018.

Both have been nominated for the North American Car of the Year award from an independent jury of 60 automotive journalists from all over the country, including this reviewer.

2018 Honda Accord Sport 2.0T

The Camry has been the best-selling midsize car for 15 years, though Honda argues that the Accord does better in direct sales to consumers, without depending on fleet sales.

Whatever, it’s certain to be a dogfight, even facing the fact that both cars have been lagging against the smothering onslaught of crossover sport utility vehicles.

To catalog all of the Accord’s new features would overwhelm the space allotted to a review like this. It includes a host of improvements, including a lower center of gravity, lighter weight, stiffer structure, suspension and steering enhancements, streamlined wind-cheating bodywork, improved visibility, more comfortable and supportive seats, quieter interior, bigger passenger space and trunk, and excellent interior design and ergonomics that includes radio knobs instead of Honda’s recent infatuation with touch screens.

2018 Honda Accord Sport 2.0T

The Accord drives like a big car, which it is. It is marketed as a midsize but its interior volume, depending on the trim, hovers fractionally on both sides of the government’s large-car designation of a minimum of 120 cubic feet of interior room. On the tested Touring, that was divided into 103 for passengers and 17 cubic feet in the trunk.

Any car is only as good as its powerplants. For the first time, the Accord has gone all-turbo with its engines: a 192-hp, 1.5-liter four-cylinder with 192 lb-ft of torque and a 252-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 273 lb-ft of torque.

Last year, neither Accord engine featured turbocharging. One was a 2.4-liter four-cylinder and the upgrade was a 3.5-liter V6 engine. Not long ago, Honda avoided turbo engines, but since has embraced them for their computer-manipulated power and fuel economy.

2018 Honda Accord Sport 2.0T

Tested for this review was the fully-equipped Accord Touring with the 2.0-liter engine and either a 10-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift mode or a six-speed manual gearbox. There’s also a 2.0 Sport version with the same transmission choices. The manual likely will give the Accord an edge among enthusiasts who like to shift for themselves.

The stick shift also is available on the 1.5-liter Sport model, which also offers a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). With that combination, the Accord gets a city/highway/combined fuel economy rating from the EPA of 30/38/33 mpg.

Not surprisingly, the powerful tested Touring model came with a lower rating of 23/34/29. But this is package will appeal to customers who enjoy a shot of adrenaline when they accelerate from a stoplight or cruise at high speeds on deserted freeways.

2018 Honda Accord Sport 2.0T

The Accord handles superbly on twisting or straight roads. It is anvil steady and library quiet, although the turbo 2.0-liter engine announces itself rudely under rapid acceleration. There’s generous space for four with well-bolstered seats up front, though the center-rear seat is compromised by a hard cushion and a floor hump.

The Touring features Honda’s new gear selector. It uses pushbuttons for all functions except Reverse, which is a pull-up button. There also are selectable drive modes, one of which enhances fuel economy. But the preference here is for the Sport setting, which unleashes a stampede of the horses under the hood.

At $36,675, the 2.0 Touring sits at the top of the line, not a minor achievement given the fact that it is close to the current average transaction price for a new car in the U.S. Yet it is equipped as well as some luxury cars, including adaptive shock absorbers, leather upholstery, automatic climate control, navigation, memory driver’s seat, head-up display, LED headlights, wireless smart phone charging, ventilated front seats and heated back seats, and the new Honda Link driver assist system that includes Wi-Fi and remote engine starting.

2018 Honda Accord Sport 2.0T

Specifications

  • Model: 2018 Honda Accord 2.0T Touring four-door sedan.
  • Engine:0-liter four-cylinder, turbocharged, 252 hp, 273 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: 10-speed automatic with manual shift mode and front-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 16 feet.
  • EPA passenger/trunk volume: 103/17 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 3,428 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 23/34/29 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $36,675.
  • Price as tested: $36,675.

Disclaimer: This test drive was conducted at a manufacturer-sponsored press event. The manufacturer provided travel, accommodations, vehicles, meals and fuel.

2018 Honda Accord Sport 2.0T

Photos (c) Honda.

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