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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.

Rear 3q Left

Photos (c) Toyota

2020 Hyundai Sonata Limited: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

With midsize car manufacturers parachuting out of sedans altogether, South Korea’s Hyundai reckons it can reach new heights with its redesigned 2020 Sonata.

Though holding its own, the Sonata is aiming to fly higher. In 2018, for example, it ranked sixth among the top 10 popular-priced midsize sedans with 105,118 sales or 7.1 percent of the total.

Large-39713-2020SonataLimitedThat lagged behind the top-dog Toyota Camry, with 343,439 sales, or 23 percent. In the first three quarters of 2019, Sonata ranked seventh with 68,368 sales, or 6.5 percent, while the Camry totaled 258,456 sales, or 24.5 percent.

The goal is to peel off some of the sales from the top three Toyota, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima while also capturing customers from  others as they eliminate sedans.

Based on a drive of early production models, the Sonata looks as competitive as any. It’s an attractively styled vehicle inside and out, longer, wider and lower than its predecessor with wheels pushed out to the corners and shorter body overhangs.

Large-39708-2020SonataLimitedThe exterior sports striking styling elements, including front and rear LED light treatments and side body trim highlighted by an inch-wide chrome strip that runs from the headlights up and over the hood and window frames.

Inside, the Sonata Limited driven for this review displayed quality materials and workmanship with appealing and thoughtful design elements. For example, it had a unique blind-spot warning system. Instead of warning lights in the outside mirrors, it used cameras to show the left and right areas behind the car.

Click the left or right turn signal for a lane change, and either the tachometer or speedometer disappears and the display shows the blind spot area. The system is similar to one offered by Honda, but Honda’s only shows the right-rear area on the center screen.

Large-39693-2020SonataLimitedHowever, as wonderful as some drivers will find the Sonata blind-spot system, it would not be needed if motorists took the time and effort to correctly adjust the outside mirrors. Set properly with the inside mirror, the driver gets a 180-degree view to the rear.

The Sonata designers demonstrated imagination by designing the front-door armrests to double as storage areas for smart phones and other small objects. The Limited Sonata also came with a head-up display, wireless smart phone charging and an overhead surround-view rear camera.

Another Sonata feature that is likely to win converts is Hyundai’s  “remote smart parking assist.” It allows the driver to step out and, using the key fob, back the car into a parking spot so narrow that none but a snake or lizard could squeeze inside or leave. It would be particularly useful in crowded apartment garages or shopping center parking lots.

Large-39725-2020SonataLimitedThere’s also a so-called “digital key,” which allows an owner to operate the Sonata from a smart phone. So far, however, the system only works with Android phones.

The Sonata comes standard with a full suite of safety equipment: automatic emergency braking, blind-spot and parking collision avoidance, smart cruise control with stop-and-go and lane following assist, rear cross-traffic alert, driver attention warning and headlight high beam assist.

Two power trains are offered over four trim levels: SE, SEL, SEL Plus and the tested Limited. SE and SEL come with Hyundai’s 2.5-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine that makes 191 hp and 181 lb-ft of torque.

The SEL Plus and Limited get their power from a 180-hp, 1.6-liter four-banger that delivers 195 lb-ft of torque and EPA fuel consumption of 28/37/31 mpg. Power with either engine gets to the front wheels via an eight-speed automatic transmission.

Large-39733-2020SonataLimitedOn the road, the tested Limited was a commendably quiet cruiser, aided by acoustic glass, sound-deadening insulation, and window and door sealing.  However, there was some unavoidable intrusion of tire noise prompted by rough road surfaces. Handling was crisp, acceleration was brisk, and passing on two-lane highways without anxiety.

During long-distance cruising, seats were supportive and comfortable up front and for outboard passengers in back. As usual, any center-rear passenger gets disrespected by a hard cushion, large floor hump and intrusion of the center console. The large trunk is compromised by C-hinges that are not isolated and could damage contents.

Prices were finalized after the national press introduction in Montgomery, Alabama, where the Sonata is manufactured in Hyundai’s sprawling plant in near-by Hope Hull.  The base SE model starts at $24,330, including the destination charge. The tested Limited came with  a bottom-line suggested delivered price of $34,365.

Large-39748-2020SonataLimitedSpecifications

  • Model: 2020 Hyundai Sonata Limited four-door sedan.
  • Engine: 1.6-liter four-cylinder, turbocharged; 180 hp, 195 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Eight-speed automatic with front-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 16 feet 1 inch.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/trunk volume: 101/16 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 3,336 pounds
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 27/36/31 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $34,230.
  • Price as tested: Est. $34,365.

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

Large-39696-2020SonataLimitedPhotos (c) Hyundai

2019 Volkswagen Arteon SEL Premium: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

Volkswagen’s 2019 Arteon exudes streamlined styling and comes with an attribute that could entice customers attracted to the increasingly popular crossover sport utility vehicles.

Though it doesn’t look the part, the Arteon is a hatchback sedan with a cargo area of 27 cubic feet, which rivals that of many crossovers.  It also has passenger space of 98 cubic feet. Together, the total 125 cubic feet qualify it as a large car by the federal government’s definition.

2019_Arteon_SEL_Premium_R-Line-Large-9794Yet the dimensions and handling feel are those of a midsize car. In concept, it resembles — and can compete with — the smaller A5 and larger A7 Sportbacks from Audi, Volkswagen’s luxury division. They too are low-slung and sleek but more expensive hatchback sedans.

The Arteon resembles the acclaimed Kia Stinger, which also is a fastback sedan with a hatch. Both are powered by turbocharged, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engines with eight-speed automatic transmissions and available all-wheel drive. Horsepower is similar at 268 for the Arteon and 255 for the Stinger with zero to 60 mph acceleration times of about six seconds.

At 15 feet 11 inches, the Arteon is an inch longer than the Stinger and weighs 185 pounds more. With eight cubic feet less of interior space, the Stinger is classified as a midsize car. Its base price is about $4,000 less than the Arteon’s. (The Stinger also is available with a 365-hp, twin-turbo, 3.3-liter V6 engine; the Arteon has only the 2.0-liter four-cylinder).

2019_Arteon_SEL_Premium_R-Line-Large-9779But when it comes to luxury appointments, the Arteon — now VW’s flagship sedan — does not slouch. Though popularly priced, starting at $36,840 for the base SE version, the top trim level — the $45,940 SEL Premium 4Motion all-wheel drive model driven for this review — has plenty of luxurious accouterments as well as a full suite of safety enhancements.

Equipment includes automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane-keeping assist, blind spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control with stop and go, overhead view rear camera, and VW’s intelligent crash response system. In an accident the system unlocks doors, shuts off the engine, disables electronics and turns on lights.

2019_Arteon-Large-7924Inside features include navigation, three-zone automatic climate control, Nappa leather upholstery, heated and ventilated front seats, driver’s seat with massage and memory functions, heated outboard rear seats, AM/FM/HD and SXM satellite radio, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Bluetooth connectivity and a panoramic glass sunroof.

Mimicking a current cliché in European luxury cars, the sunshade for the Arteon’s sunroof was made of a perforated cloth that admitted sunlight and heat. Sunshades should be opaque.

The Arteon name incorporates “art” and “eon,” evoking a sort of timeless staying power. It is a descendant of the Volkswagen’s former CC model, so-called because VW christened it as a “comfort coupe” — that is, a sedan with a coupe profile. It was based on the VW Passat sedan and lasted nine years until it was axed after the 2017 model year.

2019_Arteon_SEL_Premium_R-Line-Large-9788Despite its striking low profile, the Arteon has plenty of head and legroom inside, both in the front and the rear outboard seats. As with almost every vehicle these days, the center-rear passenger gets punished with a hard cushion and a floor hump, and on the Arteon does not get a heated seat.     The rear seatbacks fold almost flat to expand the cargo carrying capability to 55 cubic feet.

On the road, the tested SEL 4Motion model is an amiable companion. Belying its $45,460 price tag, its ambiance is that of a luxury cruiser with little intrusion of mechanical or wind noise. In this era of lousy surfaces, however, it’s impossible to eliminate tire noise unless you’re driving on newly-paved asphalt.

2019_Arteon_SEL_Premium_R-Line-Large-9790Though it is turbocharged, the 2.0-liter engine is smooth and quiet with little turbo lag setting off from rest. The eight-speed automatic transmission is unobtrusive in around-town motoring but also snaps off rapid shifts under hard acceleration. On the tested SEL Premium 4Motion, there were steering-wheel mounted paddles for manual shifting.

Five drive modes are available: Eco, Normal, Comfort, Sport and Custom. They, too, are mostly unobtrusive except for the Sport setting, which delays upshifts to higher rpms than the other settings. Custom allows the driver to tailor personal preferences.

The front seats are supportive and comfortable, and with the Arteon’s adaptive shock absorbers, the ride is controlled and serene for the most part. Handling is confident with responsive, weighted steering.

German luxury cars are notoriously expensive. The Arteon delivers much of that amenity at a middle-class price.

2019_Arteon_SEL_Premium_R-Line-Large-9800Specifications

  • Model: 2019 Volkswagen Arteon SEL Premium 4Motion four-door hatchback sedan.
  • Engine: 2.0-liter four-cylinder; 268 hp, 258 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Eight-speed automatic with manual shifting mode and all-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 15 feet 11 inches.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/cargo volume: 98/27 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 3,835 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 20/27/23 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $45,490.
  • Price as tested: $45,940.

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

2019_Arteon_SEL_Premium_R-Line-Large-9774Photos: Volkswagen

2019 Mercedes-Benz A220 4MATIC: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

The Mercedes-Benz A220 4MATIC sedan, an all-new entry-level model from the German luxury manufacturer, turns heads and invites comments attesting to its striking styling.

It’s as if this small car, only a couple of inches shorter than the new economy-model Nissan Versa and with less interior room, surprises onlookers with its presence.

Mercedes-Benz A-Klasse Limousine, V 177, 2018 // Mercedes-Benz A-Class Sedan, V177, 2018Well, it should, if for nothing else than its price tag. While you can buy a satisfactory top-line Versa SR for about 20 grand, the A220 has a starting price of $35,495. With the customary European luxury-car list of expensive options, the test car checked the boxes with a sticker of $49,785. You can save $2,000 by skipping the 4MATIC all-wheel drive.

Though marketed as subcompacts, both cars barely sneak into the compact class by the U.S. government’s definition: a car with interior space of 100 to 109 cubic feet, including the trunk. The A220 4MATIC has 102, with 93 cubic feet for passengers and shy of nine cubic feet in the trunk. The Versa has 104 cubic feet, divided at 89 for people with a large trunk of 15 cubic feet.

But enough of size comparisons. The A220 and the Versa do not circulate in the same company. Though either will get you to where you are going, the valets who park the Mercedes will expect a way bigger tip. Versa owners likely will self-park or seek out a street space.

Mercedes-Benz A-Klasse Limousine, V 177, 2018 // Mercedes-Benz A-Class Sedan, V177, 2018Of course, few Mercedes customers would even deign to look at a Versa, much less drive one, and it’s likely most Versa customers would not have pockets deep enough to venture into a Mercedes showroom.

The new A220 should not be confused with the CLA, another compact sedan that Mercedes calls a “four-door coupe.” Though both cars are built off the same front-drive architecture, the CLA is three inches longer and boasts sleeker down-low styling with slightly less passenger space — 91.5 cubic feet compared to 93 for the A220. However, it has a larger trunk of 13 cubic feet versus nine cubic feet in the A-220.

Sophisticatedly motivating the A220 is a 188-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 221 lb-ft of torque, or twisting force. It gets the power to the pavement via a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, which delivers instant shifts up or down and can be manually shifted with paddles on the steering wheel.

Mercedes-Benz A-Klasse Limousine, V 177, 2018 // Mercedes-Benz A-Class Sedan, V177, 2018However you choose to do it, the engine-transmission combination will slingshot the A220 4MATIC to 60 mph in about six seconds. It does that with a remarkable lack of any dreaded turbo hesitation.

Despite its size and relatively light weight of 3,417 lbs, the A220 feels like a Mercedes-Benz, with handling responsive to the weighted steering. It tracks steadily in a straight line, cruises quietly, brakes smartly and its optional adaptive damping suspension system and tires mostly absorb the damnable road irregularities that increasingly plague U.S. roads.

So if nothing else, it’s a good thing for a car like the A220 to have  robust, quality underpinnings. At its price point, it also has many other desirable qualities, along with a few fluffs.

Mercedes-Benz A-Klasse Limousine, V 177, 2018 // Mercedes-Benz A-Class Sedan, V177, 2018Much of the desirable stuff comes with an additional price tag on the options list, including the comprehensive safety equipment: Distronic adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency stopping, lane-keeping and emergency steering assist, and blind-spot warning.

Also optional: combined digital instruments/center-screen cluster, head-up display, Burmester premium surround audio, navigation system, parking assist, surround-view rear camera, SXM satellite radio, heated front seats, auto-dimming inside and outside rear-view mirrors, and inductive smart phone charging

Mercedes-Benz A-Klasse Limousine, V 177, 2018 // Mercedes-Benz A-Class Sedan, V177, 2018

The head-up display is unusual in that it has a readout that displays the distance between the A220 and the car ahead, up to 300 feet. However, although it shows the speed of the car, it does not indicate the speed limit. For that, you have to glance down at the dashboard instruments.

The test car also had a curious intervention. On some cars, when you shut down the engine and open the door, the driver’s seat automatically moves back to facilitate exit and entry. On the A220, it does the opposite. The seatback pushes forward, as if to squash your chest into the steering wheel. It does not, fortunately.

Other fluffs: the shade for the panoramic sunroof is not opaque but made from a flimsy material that admits heat and sunlight. Sun visors do not slide to block sun from the sides. And there were no inside assist handles — only coat hooks combined with reading lights.

Mercedes-Benz A-Klasse Limousine, V 177, 2018 // Mercedes-Benz A-Class Sedan, V177, 2018

Specifications

  • Model: 2019 Mercedes-Benz A220 4MATIC four-door sedan.
  • Engine: 2.0-liter four-cylinder, turbocharged; 188 hp, 221 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Seven-speed twin-clutch automatic with manual shift mode and all-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 14 feet 11 inches.
  • EPA passenger/trunk volume: 93/9 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 3,417 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 25/33/28 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $35,495.
  • Price as tested: $49,785.

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

Mercedes-Benz A-Klasse Limousine, V 177, 2018 // Mercedes-Benz A-Class Sedan, V177, 2018Photos:  Mercedes-Benz

2019 Hyundai Elantra Limited: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

As other manufacturers have done, Hyundai has designed its compact Elantra to bridge the divide between buyers looking for economy with comfort and those more focused on entertainment and sport.

The former is represented quite capably with the 2019 Elantra Limited four-door sedan and the latter by the 2019 Elantra GT N-Line four-door hatchback.

Large-34143-2019ElantraFor reference, think of the Volkswagen Golf and Volkswagen GTI. Or the Honda Civic and Civic Si or R-Type. In both cases, the base cars are oriented toward economy and everyday duty, while the others promise excitement.

Usually, the base cars come with less powerful engines and automatic transmissions while the performance variants are equipped with manual gearboxes exclusively or a choice of automatic or manual.

Both Elantra versions were driven for this review at the annual Spring Rally of the Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA) at the Road America racetrack in Elkhart Lake, Wis. Manufacturers provided 80 cars and light trucks for driving by about 100 automotive journalists. Some vehicles were designated for track use and autocross; others for street driving and off-roading.

Large-34144-2019ElantraThe Hyundai Elantra Limited four-door is powered by a 147-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with 136 lb-ft of torque. It acquitted itself well as an economical and comfortable tourer that never felt short of passing power. Quiet on smooth asphalt highways, road noise intruded on rougher surfaces. It rode comfortably but needed frequent steering corrections.

Averaging 43.8 mpg of regular gasoline over 140 miles of highway driving at speeds up to 75 mph, the tester beat its EPA city/highway/combined fuel economy rating of 28/37/32 mpg.

It had a base price of $23,485, including the destination charge. The price included forward collision and blind spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert and lane keeping assist, as well as dual-zone automatic climate control, SXM satellite radio, Android Auto and Apple Car Play, power driver’s seat with lumbar support, leather upholstery with heated front seats and hands-free trunk opening.

Large-33684-2019ElantraThe tester also came with a $3,350 option package that included adaptive cruise control, navigation system, collision avoidance with pedestrian detection, motorized sunroof, and memory settings for outside mirrors and driver’s seat. All that brought the bottom-line tested price to $26,960, or about $10,000 less than the current average price of a new car.

Though marketed as a compact, the Elantra sedan qualifies as a midsize according to the EPA’s definition, though just barely. The back seat is a bit tight but can accommodate two average-sized adults. However, the center-rear fifth passenger sits on a cramped and uncomfortable perch.

At the other end of the Elantra spectrum is the N-line. Hyundai has chosen N as the designation for its line of high-performance variants, not unlike BMW’s M vehicles or the AMG models from Mercedes-Benz. The N badge comes from Hyundai’s research and development facility in Namyang, South Korea, and also refers to its testing at the famed Nürburgring track in Germany.

Large-33665-2019ElantraAs a four-door hatchback, the 2019 Elantra N-Line is nine inches shorter than the sedan but has more room inside: 97 cubic feet for passengers and 25 cubic feet for cargo under the hatch, compared to 96 cubic feet for passengers and a trunk of 14 cubic feet in the sedan.

The N-Line also has a smaller 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine, more powerful than the base 2.0-liter at 201 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque because it is turbocharged. It comes standard with a slick, easy-shifting six-speed manual gearbox, though a dual-clutch automatic is optional.

Equipped with full basic safety equipment but few of the frills on the Limited sedan, the Elantra N had a bottom-line sticker price of $24,195, or $2,775 lower than the Limited. For any enthusiast, what’s not to like?

Large-33966-2019ElantraThe base price included heated sport seats upholstered in sturdy cloth that hold the torso in place in hard cornering, pushbutton starting, dual-zone automatic climate control, 18-inch alloy wheels with summer performance tires, Apple Car Play and Android Auto, LED headlights and taillights, audio system with SXM satellite radio, and Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity.

Some estimates put the number of U.S. drivers who know how to shift for themselves at something like 2%. It’s a shame because that other 98% would not experience the joy of driving the Elantra GT N-Line or, for that matter, a stick-shift Mazda3, Volkswagen GTI or Honda Civic Si.

The shift linkage of the Elantra N-Line’s six-speed gearbox and clutch action are so easy-going that shifts up and down seem to happen almost by thought control.

Large-33686-2019ElantraSpecifications

  • Model: 2019 Hyundai Elantra Limited four-door sedan.
  • Engine: 2.0-liter four-cylinder; 147 hp, 136 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Six-speed automatic.
  • Overall length: 15 feet 2 inches.
  • EPA passenger/trunk volume: 96/14 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 2,844 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 28/37/32 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $23,485.
  • Price as tested: $26,960.

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

Large-34119-2019ElantraPhotos (c) Hyundai

2019 Nissan Maxima and Murano: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

Even when you are fundamentally healthy like Nissan’s 2019 Maxima sedan and Murano crossover SUV, it never hurts to add some bling to enhance your appeal.

Usually it happens midway through a model run. In the automobile biz, they call it a refresh — changes that present a new face and personality to prospective customers.

2019 Nissan Maxima-7Both the sport- and luxury-oriented Maxima sedan and the Murano midsize crossover are marketed by Nissan as top-of-the line flagships. Though they do not compete in the luxury segment — that’s the job of the company’s Infiniti brand — the 2019 designs nudge them closer. They are intended to appeal to buyers who want luxury content without big price tags.

Of the two, the Maxima needs the most help. Reflecting the nation-wide trend among buyers toward crossovers and away from sedans, the Maxima’s sales have dropped precipitously in 2018. The Murano, on the other hand, is on a path to increase sales.

MikeDitzPhoto.com

The Maxima competes in the near-luxury, large car class, although like Toyota’s Avalon, it actually is classified by the government as a midsize car.

From a performance standpoint, the Maxima doesn’t need a thing. It is powered by a 300-hp, 3.5-liter V6 engine with 261 lb-ft of torque delivered to the front wheels through Nissan’s Xtronic continuously-variable automatic transmission (CVT). The combination earns a city/highway/combined fuel economy of 20/30/24 mpg.

Some critics deride CVTs, which have no shift points, as noisy and sluggish. But Nissan arguably has more experience with them than any manufacturer and it shows on the Maxima. Throttle response is quick, smooth and powerful. Also, the Maxima handles curving roads like a sports sedan. Straight-line cruising is quiet and effortless with few steering corrections needed.

2019 Nissan Maxima-16The new appeal is mostly about appearances, especially on the tested top-line Maxima Platinum with the Reserve package, though there are safety enhancements as well. With a bottom-line sticker of $43,835, it was loaded with the full 2019 package of safety and luxury enhancements.

One is Nissan’s new rear door alert. The system notes if you open a rear door to stash a package — or a child — in the back seat. At the end of the trip, if you leave without re-opening the back door, it will sound the horn.

Other freshening included Nissan’s V-Motion styling, which sends body lines flowing from the distinctive grille up and over the body. LED headlights and taillights punctuate the styling and augment interior color schemes and accents. The taillights give the impression of width and streamlining.

2019 Nissan Maxima-13The Maxima’s Reserve package, with a $1,140 price tag, includes heated rear seats, 19-inch aluminum alloy wheels, “Rakuda tan” leather upholstery with diamond-quilted seating areas, two-tone leather covered steering wheel, charcoal headliner and pillars, and satin bronze interior trim.

Similarly, the Murano moves closer to luxury territory with new colors like its rusty-shiny “Sunset Drift Chromaflair.”  Along with the Maxima, it also incorporates the company’s Safety Shield 360, which includes automatic emergency braking, rear braking, lane-departure warning, rear cross-traffic alert and blind-sport warning. One apparent shortcoming: there’s no mention of lane-departure assist.

2019 Nissan Murano_F1-10Though not as powerful as its sibling Maxima, the Murano contains enough oomph to avoid embarrassment in the stoplight sprints or on the freeways. Its 3.5-liter V6 engine makes 260 hp with 240 lb-ft of torque, delivered to the front wheels or all four wheels through the Xtronic CVT.

The version tested for this review was the mid-priced SV trim level with front-wheel drive. It had a base price of $35,485 and, with a modest list of options, checked in at $39,230. Add $1,600 if you want all-wheel drive. Fuel economy is rated by the EPA at 20/28/23 mpg.

2019 Nissan Murano_F1-24Handling, of course, is not as crisp as the Maxima’s but the Murano acquits itself well, with little body roll, on twisting mountain roads. Its forte, however, is more attuned to quiet, straight-line cruising with the audio cranked up and the kids on their video games with earphones.

The SV trim eschews leather upholstery in favor of a sturdy embossed cloth, which to some people — including this critic — is more comfortable over a wide range of temperatures than leather. On the Murano, the cloth covers a supportive seat structure that takes the fatigue out of long-distance cruising.

A nearly flat floor should enhance comfort in the center-rear seating position. Unfortunately, the cushion is high and hard, and knee room is compromised by intrusion of the center console.

2019 Nissan Murano_F1-11Specifications

  • Model: 2019 Nissan Maxima Platinum Reserve four-door sedan.
  • Engine: 3.5-liter V6; 300 hp, 261 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Xtronic continuously-variable automatic with manual-shift mode and front-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 16 feet 1 inch.
  • EPA passenger/trunk volume: 96/14 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 3,676 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 20/30/24 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $42,335.
  • Price as tested: $43,835.

*   *   *

  • Model: 2019 Nissan Murano SV four-door crossover sport utility vehicle.
  • Engine: 3.5-liter V6; 260 hp, 240 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Xtronic continuously-variable automatic with front-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 16 feet 1 inch.
  • EPA passenger/cargo volume: 103/31 cubic feet. (65)
  • Weight: 3,837 pounds.
  • Towing capability: 1,500 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 20/28/23 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $35,485
  • Price as tested: $39,230.

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

2019 Nissan Murano_F1-5Photos (c) Nissan

2019 Volvo S60 T6 AWD R-Design: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

Now rounding out its lineup with the 2019 Volvo S60 sedan and V60 station wagon, the Swedish manufacturer likely has never seen an era when its name was more appropriate. In Latin, the word “volvo” means “I roll.”

Starting with its full-size XC90 three-seat crossover sport utility vehicle in 2016, Volvo is nearing completion of its plan to field a full line of new sedans, station wagons, crossover SUVs and hybrid models. There are now 10, from compact through midsize and large, plus different trim levels.

S60R-Design05The company also has set a goal of selling one million electrified vehicles by 2025. With the S60, it means all-wheel-drive T8 plug-in hybrid models with gasoline engines up front and electric motors at the rear wheels. As with all of its other vehicles, Volvo is sticking with 2.0-liter gasoline engines in various tunes with turbochargers and turbo/supercharger combinations.

Volvo also is among a few manufacturers that are bravely bucking the American aversion to station wagons and preference for tall crossover SUVs. The V60 is a wagon version of the S60 that, for now, still is built in Sweden.

The S60, now in its third generation, marks a milestone. It is the first Volvo ever built in the United States, in a new plant in Ridgeville, South Carolina, near Charleston. With 2.3 million square feet of space on a 1,600-acre campus, it represents a $1.8 billion investment and can produce up to 150,000 cars a year.

S60R-Design04As a premium brand, the S60 competes with the compact BMW 3-Series, Infiniti Q50, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Lexus IS and Audi A4. The starting price of the base front-drive T5 Momentum model is $36,795.

Its turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine makes 250 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, delivered through an eight-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift mode. Volvo says it will accelerate to 60 mph in 6.3 seconds and deliver city/highway/combined fuel economy of 24/36/28 mpg on premium gasoline.

It is equipped with full modern safety equipment — a Volvo tradition — including oncoming lane collision and run-off road mitigation, automatic braking with pedestrian, cyclist and animal detection, and lane-keeping assist.

S60R-DesignInterior05Like all S60 sedans, the Momentum model comes with a panoramic sunroof as standard equipment, along with leatherette upholstery, audio system with SXM satellite radio, automatic climate control, power front seats and power-folding rear-seat headrests.

However, there are a couple of imperatives that Volvo has not adopted. The sun visors on the S60 and other Volvo models do not slide on their support rods to adequately block sunlight from the sides. And the sunshade for the panoramic sunroof, following a current cliché on luxury vehicles, is made of a flimsy perforated cheesecloth-like material that admits too much sunlight onto passengers’ heads. Sunshades should be opaque.

If your need or preference points toward all-wheel drive, add $4,500 to the price equation. The T6 Momentum AWD model starts at $41,295. The other two trim levels are the R-Design and Inscription.

S60R-DesignInterior08Driven for this review were two S60 sedans: T6 R-Design with all-wheel drive and T8 all-wheel drive Polestar. Also available was the V60 T6 Momentum all-wheel drive station wagon.

The first, the T6 all-wheel drive R-Design, came with a supercharged and turbocharged 316-hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that made 295 lb-ft of torque. That’s good for a zero-to-60 acceleration time of 5.3 seconds and 21/32/25 mpg on premium gasoline. It started at $47,395 and, with options, had a $49,895 sticker.

Polestar Engineered is Volvo’s moniker for high performance machinery — in this case a hybrid gasoline/electric power train that includes the 2.0-liter four-banger, supercharged and turbocharged, with 328 hp and 317 lb-ft of torque, mated to an electric motor at the rear wheels.

New Volvo V60 exteriorTogether, they deliver 417 hp with a zero-to-60 acceleration time of 4.3 seconds, according to Volvo, with city/highway/combined fuel economy of 27/34/30 mpg. Also, as a plug-in hybrid, the Polestar Engineered S60 can run up to 21 miles on electric power alone.

The new Volvo S60 sedans and V60 wagons present an almost dizzying array of choices. What all three of those tested have in common are a solid, flex-free chassis and a supple, sporting suspension system for fuss-free cornering, and plenty of power to go wheel-to-wheel with their premium competitors.

Oh, make sure to check out the “city weave” seat covering in Momentum models. It’s a comfortable, classy cloth that, to this reviewer, is preferable to leather.

S60R-Design005Specifications

  • Model: 2019 Volvo S60 T6 R-Design AWD four-door sedan.
  • Engine: 2.0-liter four-cylinder, turbocharged and supercharged; 316 hp, 295 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Eight-speed automatic with manual-shift mode and all-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 15 feet 7 inches.
  • EPA passenger/cargo volume: 94/16 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 3,780 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 21/32/25 mpg. Premium fuel required.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $47,395.
  • Price as tested: $49,895.

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

S60R-Design002Photos (c) Volvo

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 Mazda6 Signature: A DriveWays Review…

by Frank A. Aukofer

Some cars deliver instant gratification the first time you get behind the wheel. The 2018 Mazda6 Signature is such a machine.

Barely a quarter of a mile underway, you already experience the palpable feedback from well-weighted steering, quick turn-in, supple suspension system, responsive throttle and solid brakes.

Mazda6_38There are many midsize sedans, most aimed at providing family transportation and at least a measure of performance. From its inception in 2002, the Mazda6 has been viewed as a sports sedan, not unlike some of its more expensive road companions from Acura, Cadillac, Infiniti and Lexus.

Though it won’t turn heads because it doesn’t look much different from its predecessor, the re-engineered 6 exhibits the currently fashionable near-fastback style that resembles cars like the Kia Stinger and Audi A5.

Despite the sleek roofline, there’s plenty of headroom front and back, as well as outboard back seats that can accommodate six-foot-plus humans. Unfortunately, as in most cars, the center-rear passenger is shortchanged with a high, hard cushion and large floor hump.

New_Mazda6_08The headline news for 2018 is the addition of a new powerplant for the 6. It is a 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that was lifted from Mazda’s flagship CX-9 crossover sport utility vehicle. It runs on regular gasoline and makes 227 hp with 310 lb-ft of torque. Fill it with 93-octane premium and the horsepower jumps to 250.

Power makes its way to the front wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission that can be manually shifted with paddles on the steering wheel. Shifts are crisp and rapid up or down and the 6 Signature exhibited no front-drive torque steer, that dreaded jerk of the steering wheel when you punch the pedal while turning.

The transmission came with a switchable Sport mode that changed the shift mapping to keep the engine at higher rpms in each gear. That’s the one you want when you want to grab the advantage in stoplight sprints.

2018_Mazda6-7It was the setup in the tested top-of-the-line Signature model, which, given the equipment and features, came with a reasonable base price of $33,860, including the inescapable destination charge. With a few minor options, the bottom-line sticker came to $36,040, which is only a bit more than the average price of a new car these days.

There are five trim levels, starting with the Sport model, stickered at $22,480 with a six-speed manual gearbox. It is the only manual-transmission model, which will disappoint enthusiasts who would appreciate it on the 2.5-liter turbo versions. Though the manual was not tested for this review, if it’s anything like its predecessors it is a pleasure to manipulate.

The difference is that the base Sport and Touring versions come with Mazda’s 187-hp non-turbo 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, which delivers 186 lb-ft of torque. City/highway/combined fuel consumption is rated by the EPA at 24/33/27 mpg for the manual and 26/35/29 for the automatic. The 2.5-liter turbo, which is designed for cylinder deactivation when cruising, gets 23/31/26 mpg.

Mazda6_28In addition to the tactile performance sensations in the cut and thrust of daily driving, the Mazda6 Signature delivers long-distance cruising comfort. The front seats, upholstered in perforated Nappa leather, with heat and cooling, coddle the lower back with welcome adjustable lumbar support, though the seatback bolsters are a bit truncated. Radar cruise control operates to a stop.

The Signature came with a full suite of safety equipment, including lane departure warning and lane-keeping assist, rear cross-traffic alert, a comprehensive head-up display with traffic-sign recognition, radar cruise control, blind-spot warning and a 360-degree rear camera.

It also came equipped with features one might expect on a luxury or near-luxury car, including dual-zone-climate control, Bose premium audio, navigation, motorized glass sunroof, eight-way power driver’s seat with two memory settings, six-way power front passenger seat, rain-sensing windshield wipers, heated outside mirrors, and pushbutton starting with keyless entry.

Mazda6_30There’s an eight-inch center screen that displays navigation and audio functions operated by a control knob on the console, right next to the volume button for the audio system. The control takes a bit of learning but can be operated without looking, though the driver must still look at the screen. No system is completely eyes-free.

Out back, there’s a well-shaped and finished trunk that can accommodate 15 cubic feet of cargo. The trunk lid has C-shaped hinges  fully isolated from the contents.

Bottom line: If you seek sport driving as well as midsize family accommodations, the Mazda6 is worth serious consideration.

Mazda6_9Specifications

  • Model: 2018 Mazda6 Signature four-door sedan.
  • Engine: 2.5-liter four-cylinder, turbocharged; 227 hp, 310 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Six-speed automatic with manual-shift mode and front-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 16 feet.
  • EPA passenger/trunk volume: 100/15 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 3,560 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 23/31/26 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $33,860.
  • Price as tested: $36,040.

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

2018_Mazda6-2Photos (c) Mazda

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