The Review Garage

Rating the best and worst in cars, SUVs, trucks, motorcycles, tools and accessories.


New for 2016

2016 Dodge Challenger SRT 392 Test Drive and Review

by Tod Mesirow

America has a lot of big, open, long, largely empty highways.  Thank you Cold War and President Eisenhower.   The national interstate highway system with the instantly recognizable curved sign, with a number in white on a blue background and the word “INTERSTATE” in white letters on a red background at the top – that’s only 50 years old.   June 29, 1956 is when President Eisenhower signed the law that created the system because of what was felt at the time the strategic necessity of having a coast to coast system of quality roadways – to move troops and equipment in case of war.   The bill actually uses the words “in case of atomic attack.”

Lucky for us the atomic war hasn’t happened yet.  And lucky for us that we have cars like the Dodge Challenger SRT 392 with a 485-hp HEMI V8 and a 6-speed manual transmission driving power to 20-inch wheels controlled through deceleration via Brembo brakes.   With red calipers.   Because the red ones look cool.

dsc_2518-cropped-challengerBut it’s not the stopping that gets our hearts racing.  It’s the going fast.  And the best use of those strategic assets we call “highways” is to go fast in American muscle.

There is the Mustang, and the Camaro, and the Challenger.  Always a little beefier, broader in the shoulders and more imposing in design, the latest iteration of the Challenger was reborn in 2008 after dying in 1974.  After eight years, refinements have been made so that the brawn remains. Yet through some modern technology and effective engineering, there’s a surprising amount bit of nimbleness on hand in the 2016 version.

For me, the really interesting thing about driving this brand new 2016 Challenger SRT 392 is that back in 2013 when I was the Executive Producer of “Joe Rogan Questions Everything” for A. Smith & Co. on SyFy, my friends at FCA loaned us a current (2013) model Challenger SRT with a manual transmission for Joe to drive as his hero car. Which meant (of course) that when Joe wasn’t driving the car, the production department took care of it.  That afforded me a reasonable amount of time behind the wheel.

Powerful?  Yes.  Smooth, responsive, well-mannered?  No.  Out on the Eisenhower highways? Look out.  Roll into some tight turns, switchbacks and two-lane awesomeness? Not so much.

dsc_2502-crop-challengerFast-forward to this August, 2016, when the new 2016 Challenger showed up for me to drive to Monterey Car Week, and then up in to the Sierra Mountains for a few days, I had the perfect opportunity to see and feel for myself if the new upgrades – like the “Bilstein Adaptive Dampening System with an independent front short- and long-arm design and multilink rear design,” according to Dodge promotional materials – had the kind of impact I could feel.

After hundreds of miles, and roads as varied as eight-lane interstate highways to two-lane mountain roads – from the long, flat and straight to the constantly curving, ever-changing in both camber and elevation – the Challenger consistently performed beyond expectations.

dsc_2514-challengerForward visibility is perfect, with the large sweep of windshield glass.  Side-to-side view is fine.  Looking over one’s shoulder is pretty useless – the rear sightlines are limited, and the two best places to look are in the rear-view mirrors or the back-up camera, which catch pretty much everything.  This is an instance of an effective application of modern technology combined with old-school reflection.

Back seat space is minimal.  Like most sports cars, even the ones with 2+2 in their title, it really means the two seats in the back fit one person sitting sideways.  In that configuration most cars of this ilk are effective as three seaters.  The only time four makes sense is when the rear passengers are young, or stars of a TLC little people series. (No offense meant to little people of course.)

dsc_2507-challengerFor long distance driving, the front seats were unexpectedly comfortable.  Controls of all sorts were sensibly placed and well labeled.  The large screen used to control the various systems and the display for the back-up camera is happily touch screen.  (Something Mercedes can’t seem to figure out, in some semblance of obstinacy or feigned Teutonic superiority. But really.  As the control mechanism, the knob is dead. Come on, Mercedes — embrace the touch screen.)

dsc_2509-cropped-challengerDriving the Challenger is a pleasure.  The sonic feedback from the engine has been dialed in just right.  Noise level in the cabin is better than expected. While the engine revs and shifts, the sounds are as tactile as they are auditory in their pleasure.  Diving in and out of curves on a two-lane mountain road in the Sierras, I was able to stay on my side of the road, experience a bit of the thrill of hitting the apex just right, without the sensation of being thrown around in the cabin.  The new suspension set up worked admirably.  For a vehicle with a 4,200-lb curb weight, the thing moved with an unexpected nimbleness.  The hood scoop is functional – air does flow in.  There is no mistaking where the gasoline goes in to the car – the oversized hinged circle says “FUEL” on it in great no-nonsense “here-I-am” fashion – kind of like the car itself.

dsc_2510-cropped-challengerSome cars I get to drive are perfect opportunities to explore a specific type of vehicle, and I’m fine returning them to the manufacturer.  Others stand out as cars that – if I had unlimited funds – would be welcome additions to my stable.  The Dodge Challenger SRT 392 Hemi six-speed definitely fits in that latter class.  I miss it.


  • Model: 2016 Dodge Challenger SRT 392
  • Price: $50,195 ($52,775 as tested)
  • EPA Fuel Economy: 14 mpg city/23 mpg highway/17 mpg combined
  • Engine: 485 horsepower, 6.4 liter, 392 cubic inch V8 engine
  • Transmission: 6-speed manual
  • Warranty: 3-year/36,000-mile basic; 5-year/60,000-mile powertrain

See Tod’s video review of the 2016 Dodge Challenger SRT 392 here.

dsc_2499-challengerPhotos (c) Tod Mesirow.


2016 MINI Cooper S Clubman: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

Finally, a MINI Cooper that’s not so MINI: the 2016 MINI Cooper S Clubman, which should satisfy fans yearning to be free of cramped quarters.

The previous generation Clubman, one of a variety of models spun from the modern tiny two-door MINI, came with a third door on the right side, hinged at the rear, to ease access to the back seat. But it still had the MINI’s characteristic back seat incarceration.

P90214168-highResThe new version, at 14 feet, is more than a foot longer than its predecessor. It also has an additional five inches of wheelbase — the measurement between the centers of the front and rear wheels.

That stretching shows up in plentiful passenger and cargo space. It also gives the Clubman an elegant profile — something like the former Dodge Magnum or a shrunken version of the huge Ford Flex, which itself was accused of copying MINI Cooper styling.

The Clubman’s 93 cubic feet of passenger space and 16 cubic feet of cargo area behind the second row qualifies it as a midsize car according to the U.S. government’s standards. (Its garage mate, the taller crossover SUV MINI Countryman, is classified as a compact).

There’s plentiful head and knee room for six footers in the Clubman’s outboard rear seats. Even the center rear seat can accommodate, barely and uncomfortably, an average-sized skinny adult, who must splay her feet beside a large floor hump. The rear seatbacks fold nearly flat to expand the cargo carrying area to 48 cubic feet.

P90187678_highResAs many enthusiasts know, the MINI started as a tiny, two-door, front-drive runabout in Great Britain in 1959. It was revived at the turn of the millennium as the MINI Cooper after Germany’s BMW acquired the company.

Not surprisingly, the new Clubman displays BMW characteristics, including an emphasis on high performance and quality — as well as a stiff price. The tested Clubman S started at $28,500, which included such items as automatic climate control and sport seats with thigh extenders. But when the options were added, the sticker came to $40,800, including the destination charge.

P90187485_highResExtras included classy blue “Chesterfield Indigo” leather upholstery, eight-speed automatic transmission, a technology package with navigation, panoramic glass sunroof, premium audio system, power front seats and satellite radio.

It also inherited a few BMW annoyances, including the two-step process it takes to shut down. One press of the start-stop toggle switch turns off the engine. Another touch is needed to turn off everything else.

Though the Clubman is no Austin or Morris — its former United Kingdom names — it retains a dollop of British quirkiness. There are toggle switches everywhere. Even the start-stop switch is a toggle. The big circle in the middle of the dash, which formerly contained a huge speedometer, houses the multi-function screen and audio controls.

Two side-hinged doors provide access to the cargo area. Their frames split the rear window vertically, partially obstructing the view.

P90187495_highResThe front-wheel drive Clubman feels like a BMW with weighted steering, precise handling and eager performance. Power comes from a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that delivers 189 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque. Its 0-60 mph time was 6.6 seconds in a test by Car and Driver magazine.

It might be a bit quicker and more economical but for its weight. At 3,352 pounds, it is about 400 pounds heavier than the previous generation Clubman. EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption is rated at 24/34/27 mpg.

The engine is mated to a quick shifting eight-speed automatic transmission with a manual shift mode controlled by the shift lever or paddles mounted on the steering wheel.

P90214161-highResThere are three drive modes: sport, mid and green. The sport and green settings can be programmed for transmission shift points, shock absorber settings, and even coasting and climate control. For a bit of added entertainment, a ring of light changes colors from red to green and in between around the center screen.

Most enthusiasts likely will leave the setting in “sport.” But they will give up some ride comfort because the Clubman comes with standard run flat tires. The advantage is extra storage space because there’s no spare wheel.

But the combination of the hard tires, stiffer sport suspension setting and sharply responsive steering sometimes results in a feeling that the front wheels are pecking at the pavement. The impression goes away in the mid and green settings. In any of them, however, the Clubman is a joy on a twisting mountain road.


  • Model: 2016 MINI Cooper S Clubman four-door station wagon.
  • Engine:0-liter four cylinder, turbocharged, 189 hp, 207 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Eight-speed automatic with manual shift mode and front-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 14 feet.
  • EPA passenger/cargo volume: 93/18 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 3,352 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 24/34/27 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $28,500.
  • Price as tested: $40,800.

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

Photos (c) MINI

2016 Mazda CX-9 Signature: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

History repeats itself with the 2016 Mazda CX-9 crossover sport utility vehicle.

It’s not the CX-9 itself, which has been around since 2006. It’s Mazda’s subtle foray into the luxury car class, which it tried back in 1992 with a car called the Amati.

That effort never came to fruition and the Japanese company proceeded to build solid and inventive cars for the middle class—even a highly-praised sports car with the two-seat MX-5 Miata.

The only leftover from the Amati effort was the Mazda Millenia, which was scaled back from luxury and sold from 1993 to 2003 as a mid-priced sedan in the Mazda lineup. It stood out because it used a Miller-cycle V6 engine, supercharged with a unique combustion cycle to deliver enhanced power with improved fuel economy.

At the time, Mazda was alone in trying out diverse power plants, including the Wankel rotary engine that powered its RX-7 and RX-8 sports cars.

MY16 Mazda CX-9
MY16 Mazda CX-9

Over the years, the company gradually eschewed experimentation in favor of steady improvement of existing models. That led to its SkyActiv design philosophy, which is a holistic approach that examines every facet of a given car or crossover—from redesigning transmissions to taking a couple of ounces out of a rear view mirror as part of overall weight reduction.

With the late arrival of the 2016 CX-9, Mazda has completed the process of applying SkyActiv to all of its models. At the same time, without explicitly saying so, it has again ventured into luxury territory, saying that it expects “more affluent and aspirational customers” to gravitate toward the CX-9,

From the outside, the new CX-9 presents handsome, integrated styling that flows from a prominent five bar grille over a long hood and sculptured body—what the company calls its “Kodo” design philosophy. It is augmented by a palette of custom colors, including a new Machine Gray, designed to look like a blemish free steel ingot.

But it was the interior that drew the thumbs-up comments at the national introduction. Test vehicles were all top-line Signature models with interior design and materials that would do justice to an Audi, Cadillac or Mercedes-Benz.

MG_4901-151026-1-1Ingredients included genuine Japanese Rosewood that looked as if it had been hand rubbed, real aluminum trim and fine Nappa leather. They flowed together in contrasting colors and textures to deliver lavish accommodations and comfort.

The CX-9 is a midsize crossover SUV with three rows of seats to carry up to seven passengers. It competes against the new GMC Acadia, Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, Ford Explorer, Kia Sorento and Hyundai Santa Fe.

There are seven versions: Sport, Touring and Grand Touring with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive and the Signature, which comes only with all-wheel drive. All are powered by a new 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that delivers 227 hp on regular grade gasoline and 250 hp on premium fuel.

Passengers get 133 cubic feet of space with plenty up front. However, the second row seat must be adjusted to divvy up the knee room between it and the third row. Cargo space behind the third row is 14 cubic feet, about what you find in a compact car, but expands to 38 cubic feet if the third row is folded flat and 71 cubic feet if both the second and third rows are folded.

2016 Mazda CX-9
2016 Mazda CX-9

A single lever tilts the outboard right second row seat for access to the third row but does so in a way that a child seat need not be removed. Climbing into the third row, however, takes agility. Although they will accommodate middling to smaller adults, the two third-row seats are suitable mostly for kids and teens.

On the road, the CX-9 is a comfortable cocoon for long distances. The designers incorporated 53 pounds of sound deadening materials between the floor pan and carpet, which nearly eliminates road noise. Engine and wind noise are similarly subdued.

In cruising and passing, the turbo engine delivers steady and strong power through the six-speed automatic transmission, which shifts smoothly and unobtrusively. City/highway/combined fuel consumption in all-wheel drive models is rated by the EPA at 21/27/23 mpg.

Prices start at $32,420 for the front-drive Sport model and range up to $44,915 for the tested all-wheel drive Signature version, which carries a full suite of safety and connectivity features.

Combine all that with the unabashed luxury orientation, especially with the Signature trim, and the new CX-9 looks hard to resist.

MY16 Mazda CX-9
MY16 Mazda CX-9


  • Model: 2016 Mazda CX-9 Signature four door crossover sport utility vehicle.
  • Engine:5-liter four-cylinder, turbocharged, 227/250 hp, 310 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Six-speed automatic with all-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 16 feet 7 inches.
  • EPA passenger/cargo volume: 133/14 cubic feet (38, 71)
  • Weight: 4,301 pounds.
  • Towing capability: 3,500 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 21/27/23 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $44,915.
  • Price as tested: $44,915.

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

Photos (c) Mazda

2016 Buick Cascada: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer Kaminski

The all-new 2016 Buick Cascada may be a cause for celebration—though maybe not sales—among Polish Americans. It is manufactured in the motherland, but it’s a convertible and most of them live in the snow belt.

The four U.S. cities with the highest Polish-American percentages are New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Milwaukee. Of those, Milwaukee leads with 9.6% of the population. Warm, convertible-friendly Los Angeles has but 1.5%.

Probably not many people buy a car based on ethnic origin, though anecdotal evidence suggests, for example, that any number of Korean Americans tilt toward Hyundai and Kia.

The Cascada is the latest entry in the resurgence of Buick, the General Motors brand once considered the domain of conservative country doctors and other professionals who could afford premium cars but eschewed Cadillac ostentation.

2016 Buick Cascada Convertible
2016 Buick Cascada Convertible

Now Buick has become the go-to American luxury nameplate in the world’s biggest car market, China, and the company even is building a new crossover SUV there: the Envision, a vehicle planned for world-wide distribution.

But the Cascada, Buick’s first convertible in 25 years, stands out as an unusual automotive intersection: a unique vehicle for the USA derived from an existing European car and built in a General Motors plant in Gliwice, in southern Poland.

Whatever, it is a high quality, four-passenger premium ragtop with no apologies and solid modern credentials. It is in a class by itself because competing convertibles have abandoned the US market. They include the Volkswagen Eos, Volvo C60 and Chrysler 200.

The Cascada is derived from a European car of the same name sold on the Continent as an Opel and in Great Britain as a Vauxhall. The handsome styling stayed mostly the same but Buick’s engineers redesigned the suspension system and other features to conform to American driving preferences.

One imperative was new 20-inch alloy wheels, which are standard equipment and available in two designs. They fill the wheel cutouts and give the Cascada the appearance of a sleek Hot Wheels miniature racer.

Because of its unusual width of more than six feet, marketers could even co-opt the old Pontiac “wide track” slogan.

The Cascada shares little with any other Buick—or, for that matter, any other General Motors car sold in the US. It is powered by a 200-hp, turbocharged1.6-liter four-cylinder engine with 207 lb-ft of torque.

Power passes to the front wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission with shifts that are nearly imperceptible. Though there are no paddle shifters on the steering wheel, the transmission can be shifted manually with the console-mounted shift lever.

The Cascada’s orientation is toward luxury and serene motoring. With a fabric top that has three layers of acoustic and thermal insulation, the Cascada with the top up is nearly as quiet as a fixed roof coupe, with little intrusion of mechanical, road or wind noise.

There are two Cascada models. The base car, at $33,990 including the destination charge, comes with a long list of standard equipment: Buick IntelliLink communications with a seven-inch touch screen, navigation and a backup camera; dual-zone climate control; GM OnStar 4G LTE with a Wi-Fi hotspot; satellite radio, leather upholstery, heated front seats with power lumbar support, and rear parking assist.

2016 Buick Cascada Convertible
2016 Buick Cascada Convertible

Driven for this review was the Premium 1SP version, with a sticker price of $36,990. It adds lane departure warning, forward collision alert, automatic headlights, front and rear parking assist, rain-sensing windshield wipers, and front and rear air deflectors.

The Cascada betrays its European roots with a couple of misses. Unlike most modern premium cars, it does not have pushbutton starting. It uses a traditional ignition key, which actually is preferred by some people. And the narrow sun visors do not slide on their support rods to adequately block sun from the sides.

Inside, there’s just enough room for four average-sized adults, and easy access to the two back seats. The motorized front seats move back and forth automatically, and cleverly stop and move forward slightly when they bump against a rear passenger’s knees.

Imaginative packaging delivers a trunk of 13 cubic feet with the top up and 10 cubic feet with the top down. Rear seatbacks fold to expand the cargo space to double the cargo capacity to 26 cubic feet.

Top down or up, the Cascada delivers a comfortable, pleasant and stress-free driving experience around town or cruising on a freeway. The ride is supple, and handling is accurate and secure. Polish-American country doctors will be pleased, even if they can only put the top down during the Brewers’ season.

2016 Buick Cascada Convertible
2016 Buick Cascada Convertible


  • Model: 2016 Buick Cascada 1SP two-door, four-passenger convertible.
  • Engine:6-liter turbo four cylinder, 200 hp, 207 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Six-speed automatic with manual shift mode.
  • Overall length: 15 feet 3 inches.
  • EPA passenger/trunk volume: 82/13 top up; 82/10 top down.
  • Weight: 3,979 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 20/27/22 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $36,990.
  • Price as tested: $36,990.

Photos (c) General Motors

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