Archive for the ‘Vehicle Spotlights’ Category

Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet Review

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

What’s wrong with this picture?  I’m in an SUV, but the roof is missing. At the same time, I’m in a convertible, but I’m really high off the ground. Weird.

Indeed, the 2011 Nissan Murano Cross-Cabriolet is a weird car.  It’s a two-door Murano SUV with a ragtop and a coupe-like trunk.  This radical concept comes from the same folks at Nissan who brought us the Cube and the Juke.  Of course, Nissan has also designed some of the best sports cars, like the Z and the GT-R, as well as solid sedans like the Altima and the Maxima.   Either the Nissan design team is schizophrenic, or they have a mad scientist division made up of engineers who have watched too many episodes of Top Gear while stoned.

That being said, the CrossCab is not a bad car.  It’s actually quite comfortable.  You won’t find this much legroom in the backseat of any other convertible except the half-million dollar Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe.  The doors are ginormous, making it easy to get in and out of the vehicle – except in the grocery store parking lot.  The truck is comparable to that of a medium-sized sedan, even with the top down, so you should be able to squeeze in a couple of sets of golf clubs.  You also get that commanding view of the road that is a top selling point of SUVs.  It’s also very well equipped, with luxury options like leather, heated seats, a backup camera and navigation as standard features.

Unfortunately, it also comes standard with a $47,000 sticker price.  With only one trim level, you also get automatic xenon headlights, foglights, heated mirrors, a fully powered soft top and keyless ignition/entry, automatic dual-zone climate control, cruise control, power/memory seats, Bluetooth, and a seven-speaker Bose sound system with an iPod interface, CD player, satellite radio and 9.3GB of digital music storage space.  You are also stuck with the ridiculous 20” rims and the mostly pointless AWD.

The 2011 Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet is powered by a 3.5-liter V6 that produces 265 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque.  This means that despite it’s heavier weight, the CrossCab has just about as much “umph” as the regular Murano, and Nissan’s CVT transmission does a good job of keeping you in the ideal powerband.  We clocked a naught to 60 time in just over 8 seconds, which isn’t too shabby for an SUV.  The CrossCab also stopped from 60 mph in less than 130 feet, which is also respectable.

Handling is very similar to that of the regular Murano, with appropriately tight steering and decent feedback to the driver.  The reinforced structure of the topless CrossCab combined with the overkill 20” rims make for a slightly bumpier ride.  Yet, despite the stiffer suspension, the CrossCab corners with the grace and elegance of an inebriated elephant.  And you certainly won’t be taking it off-road.

Safety-wise, the as-yet-unrated CrossCab comes standard with antilock brakes, traction and stability control, pop-up roll bars, and a cocoon of airbags mounted in every nook and crannie.   Fuel economy is unsurprisingly mediocre at 17 mpg city/22 mpg highway, and it drinks premium gas.

The new Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet is definitely different.  If you want a convertible, but you still need to haul four adults and two golf bags, then buy this car.  If you want the neighbors to gaze into your driveway and say, “what the #$%&?”, then go for it.  It’s a nice car, pleasant to drive, and certainly the most practical convertible on the market.  But, should a convertible be practical?  Isn’t that the point of having a mid-life crisis?  Nissan is trying to do too much with one vehicle and at too high a price point.  For $50,000, you can buy a small SUV AND a nice, used convertible.  Nissan doesn’t break out the Cross-Cab sales from its overall Murano sales numbers, so we don’t know how many have sold so far.  The fact that Nissan has dropped the sticker price by nearly $2,000 for the 2012 model year tells us that they are not exactly flying off the lots.  And what happens when the novelty wears off?  Well, ask Chevy about their short-lived SSR convertible pickup truck idea.

2012 Beetle: Complete Flop or Complete Turnaround?

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

By Joe Petchonka, Nexteppe (guest author)

The Volkswagen Beetle has always been a cute, little icon and was always a gas-sipping marvel as well, with an exterior and interior that matched or exceeded the quality of its competitors’ vehicles every step of the way.  But with the positives came glaring faults, most notably with the mechanical components.   Consumer Reports included the Beetle in its “Worst of the Worst” list due to below-average reliability, and Consumer Guide Automotive listed seven of the components on the Beetle that were commonly faulty, which were often more expensive parts like the transmission and heater core.

With this is mind, does the 2012 Volkswagen Beetle step its game up?  Featuring a completely redesigned exterior and interior, Volkswagen has done its best to reface the defiled but historic name of the Beetle.

Exterior
While the appearance of the Beetle has been given a facelift to appeal to a greater range of customers, the heart of the Beetle still beats strong. “Experience tells automakers that women will buy a ‘guy’s car,’ but men are less likely to buy what still is called in the business ‘a chick’s car,’ or ‘a girl’s car,’ said James R. Healey of USA Today.  And according to TruCar.com, women were registered owners of 60.6 percent of Volkswagen Beetles last year, so the revamped exterior was done to entice more male buyers.   That said, the Beetle has never looked better.  Anyone who purchases this car because of how it looks cannot go wrong, whether female or male.

Mechanical
The previous Beetle had a 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine that put out a modest 150 hp, but the 2012 model uses a modified version of that engine to put out a more manageable 170 hp.   In addition, Volkswagen is also offering a 2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that puts out 200 hp for customers looking for a bit more power than the average buyer.

What many may or may not like about the new Beetle is the very “average” gas mileage that it gets. With an automatic transmission, the Beetle achieves a high of 29 mpg highway and 31 mpg highway with a manual transmission. While not entirely abysmal, the gas mileage is nothing to marvel at, because rivals have already developed vehicles that are venturing into 40 mpg territory.

Interior
The cabin was expanded to give occupants more room, which should be most exciting for larger drivers and passengers alike because of how uncomfortable the previous model was.   And although legroom in the rear was cut slightly, Volkswagen repositioned the backseats to increase comfort, so passengers have little to complain about with this change.

The minimalistic instrument cluster and dashboard might turn off some, but it actually fits well with the overall appearance of the vehicle. The large and easy-to-read instruments are pleasant to look at, and the radio interface and climate controls at the center are easy to reach and use.   Plus one to Volkswagen with their efforts in refining the interior.

We’ve come to expect Volkswagen to churn out Beetles that come off as mediocre examples of how vehicles should be produced.  They’ve been putting out Beetles that fall apart after a few years and leave people scratching their heads and spouting curse words to the heavens as they sit on the side of the road waiting for tow trucks.  It comes as a pleasant surprise, then, that the new Volkswagen Beetle seems to be trying to shed its image as a mechanical disaster and become a consumer-friendly vehicle.   While nobody knows how the 2012 Beetle will stand up to previous reliability woes due to its infancy on the market, the details seem promising.

Keep a lookout for this one.  Things are looking up for the Beetle.

2012 Fiat 500 Review (by The Car Chick)

Friday, September 23rd, 2011
2012 Fiat 500

2012 Fiat 500 (Image courtesy of Chrysler Group LLC)

The all-new 2012 Fiat 500 marks the return of the Fiat brand to North America.  Fiat previously fled the US market with its tail between its legs in early 1980s due to “rust and reliability issues”, earning the moniker, “Fix It Again, Tony”.  So, why should we be excited about the return of this Italian automaker to American soil?   Because the 2012 Fiat 500 is a whole new animal – a cute little sub-compact that looks like a mouse but has the heart of a lion.

According to Fiat’s Chief Executive, Sergio Marchionne, the new 500 underwent “quality and refinement adaptations” for their re-entry to the US market.  With Fiat’s purchase of Chrysler last year, the Italian automaker is better positioned to manufacturer and service Fiat vehicles in North America.  Will Sergio’s efforts be enough to re-write Fiat’s sketchy history?  Chrysler delivered over 3000 of the little cars in August alone.  It’s a good start.

The 2012 Fiat 500 is considered a two-door subcompact hatchback, and is the smallest car sold in the US other than the SMART Fortwo.  It is available as a hardtop or a “cabrio”, which is Italian for “large fabric sunroof that completely eliminates rear visibility when lowered”.  Compared to a Mini Cooper, the Fiat 500 is 6 inches shorter in overall length and 2 inches narrower.  It’s also $3,000 cheaper.

The Fiat 500 may be inexpensive, but it is far from cheap.  The well-apportioned “Pop” starts at just $16,000 even and includes 15-inch steel wheels and, keyless entry, power windows/locks/seats, heated mirrors, air-conditioning, cruise control, tilt steering, a height-adjustable driver seat, a trip computer and a six-speaker sound system with a CD player and auxiliary audio jack.   The Convenience package adds a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, Bluetooth phone connectivity and an iPod/USB audio interface.   The Bose Premium Audio package adds satellite radio along with an ear-splitting six-speaker BOSE sound system and subwoofer.

The Fiat 500 Sport model starts at $18,000 and includes all of the options from the Convenience and Bose Premium packages (with the exception of Satellite radio, which is available as a separate option).  In addition, the Sport gives you 16-inch alloy wheels, a firmer suspension and steering, a tiny little roof spoiler, fog lamps, sport seats, and cloth or vinyl sport upholstery.  Heated seats and automatic climate control are available options, but only on the automatic, for some bizarre reason.

The top-level “Lounge” starts at a modest $20,000.  It doesn’t have the Sport’s more entertaining suspension and steering, but it does include all the other bells & whistles and gives you the option of rear parking sensors, heated front seats, and leather upholstery worthy of the finest Italian designers.  A small sunroof and an integrated TomTom navigation system are optional on both the Sport and the Lounge.

Like Mini and Scion, Fiat offers dealer-installed accessories that allow you to customize your vehicle with fun and useless things like interior ambient lighting, snowboard carriers, racing stripes and other “go fast” graphics and decals.  You can even get a microscopic spare tire that mounts underneath the car.

Most importantly, the stylish Fiat 500 comes in 14 designer colors including Mocha Latte, Espresso, Giallo, Azzurro and 3 different shades of Rosso.  The special “Gucci Edition” even comes with a matching purse.

The Fun Factor

The 2012 Fiat 500 is powered by a 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 101 hp and 98 pound-feet of torque.  In our test, the Sport model did 0-60mph in a disappointing 11 seconds.  That’s a good 2 ½ seconds slower than the base Mini, and closer to the snooze-worthy Toyota Yaris.  Fortunately, Fiat expects to release either the twin-turbo 2 cylinder or the special edition Abarth model (both currently available in Europe) in early 2012.  The 500 topped out around 97 mph with a stern warning message that we had “exceeded the allowable speed limit”.

The 500 is front-wheel drive and comes with either a 5 speed manual or a 6-speed automatic transmission.  Both versions are reasonable feisty in the curves, despite the limitations of a fixed rear axel and absent sway bars.  The manual is plagued with a squishy clutch that catches high, poorly spaced gear ratios, and the inability to pass anything faster than a Kia Rio on the freeway.  The 6-speed automatic, on the other hand, has more consistent gear ratios and is downright peppy.   The optional, manual shift mode is the most responsive that I’ve ever driven, topping even the tiptronic transmission from Porsche.

The 500 suffers from the typical factory-installed understeer and has quite a bit of body roll.  It does with a magic “Sport” button that tightens the steering and shortens the gear ratios, rendering the “normal” mode completely irrelevant.  The electronic stability control system was surprisingly unobtrusive.  While flooring the Fiat around a traffic circle, the ESC automatically modulated the power to keep the car under control without putting a damper on the tire-smoking fun.

Where the 500 really shines is in the ride quality.  The ergonomic cockpit is astonishingly quiet and comfortable, with just enough easy-to-use buttons and knobs.  Most sub-compacts are stiff at best (like the Mini), and spine-jarring at the worst (like the Ford Focus).  The little Fiat, on the other hand, seems to have taken driving lessons from Lexus, gliding down the road with the poise of a luxury sedan.  Impressive for a vehicle the size of a roller skate.

The Practical Stuff

The 2012 Fiat 500 comes standard with stability and traction control, antilock disc brakes, a driver knee airbag, front side airbags and side curtain airbags.   The 500 got the top European safety rating of four stars.  The US safety ratings have yet to be released, but Fiat expects to hit the five star mark.

EPA-estimated fuel economy is 30 mpg city/38 mpg highway and 33 mpg combined with the manual transmission. This drops to 27 mpg city/34 mpg highway with the automatic.  Still thrifty, but slightly worse than almost every competitor.

The 500 is brand new, so no quality and reliability data yet exists.  Fiat is confident in its new manufacturing processes and offers a 4 year / 50k comprehensive warranty, a 3 year / 36k mile free maintenance program, and 4 year / unlimited mileage roadside assistance, trip interruption coverage, and car rental.

The Bottom Line

The new 2012 Fiat 500 is chic, comfortable and fun to drive.  It is also a good value, offering higher quality and more features than one might expect for its economy price tag.  You won’t be able to haul a large posse or a ton of cargo, but you will get to where you are going and arrive in style.  Especially if you get the matching Gucci purse.

2009 Kia Soul

Monday, June 15th, 2009

2009 Kia SoulKia is known for producing inexpensive cars with long warranties. That has been the basis of their success in the United States for 15 years. Producing exciting cars has not. Until now. Enter the 2010 Kia Soul, a fun, four-door boxy hatchback that is clearly designed to compete with the slightly larger Scion xB.

Taking a complete 180 from its traditional boring style, Kia makes the funky new Soul in wacky colors such as Java, Molten and Alien. Interiors are available in two-tone, houndstooth and even glow-in-the-dark upholstery. The interior space is quite impressive, given the Soul’s overall small size. High-mounted seats and a tall roofline offer even tall passengers sufficient head and legroom. Cargo room is significantly less than its Japanese competitors, but the Soul’s boxy shape can still haul reasonably large items.

The 2010 Kia Soul is available in four ridiculously named trim levels – Base, +, ! and Sport. The base model comes decently equipped with 15-inch steel wheels, rear drum brakes, air-conditioning, full power accessories, tilt steering, a 60/40-split rear seat and a four-speaker stereo with CD/MP3 player, satellite radio, USB and auxiliary audio jacks. The Soul + has a larger engine, 16-inch alloy wheels, rear disc brakes, cruise control, keyless entry, tinted rear windows, a height-adjustable driver seat, Bluetooth, and steering-wheel-mounted audio controls. The Soul ! adds 18-inch wheels and two-tone upholstery. The top level Soul Sport has an upgraded audio system, a sport-tuned suspension, red-black two-tone interior and special exterior trim. A sunroof is optional on the ! and the Sport. Standard safety equipment includes antilock brakes, stability control, front side airbags and side curtain airbags.

The quirky Soul is equally fun to drive, staying reasonably tight and planted in the corners. The ride is comfortable at “tooling around town” speeds, but can get a bit choppy on the highway. The based Soul offers a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that puts out 122 horsepower and 115 pound-feet of torque. The +, ! and Sport trim levels get a 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 142 hp and 137 lb-ft of torque. The base model is available only in a five-speed manual, but the upgraded trims offer a four-speed automatic. The 5-speed manual Soul Sport reportedly goes from zero to 60 mph in 8.8 seconds. Not too shabby for a lunch box on wheels.

(Photo courtesy of Kia Motors.)

2009 Subaru Forester

Monday, April 6th, 2009

2009 Subaru ForesterRedesigned for 2009, the Subaru Forester has become more like an SUV, but it still retains much of the charm of the old, beloved wagon.  Still based on the same platform as the compct Impreza, the 2009 Forester has a slightly longer wheelbase, is an inch taller, and has more ground clearance than last year’s model.  It still has its car-like handling, but with more legroom and cargo space.

The new Forester is powered by a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 170 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque. A turbocharged version is also available that puts out 224 hp and 226 lb-ft of torque.  Most Foresters come with an automatic transmission, but some trims are available with a 5-speed manual.   The Forester comes standard with Subaru’s famous AWD, and it gets an estimated 20 mpg city/26 mpg highway (19 city/24 highway for the turbo).  The Forester also keeps your family safe with standard antilock brakes with brake assist, traction/stability control, front seat side airbags as well as front and rear side curtain airbags.

The 2009 Subaru Forester is available in five trim levels: 2.5X, 2.5X Premium, 2.5X Limited, 2.5XT and 2.5XT Limited. The base 2.5X is comes standard with 16-inch steel wheels, keyless entry, cruise control, power windows/locks and a four-speaker CD audio system with an auxiliary audio jack. The Premium package adds 17-inch alloy wheels, roof rails, a power sunroof and a reclining rear seatback.  The 2.5XT model gives you 17-inch alloy wheels, a sunroof and rear spoiler, fog lights, roof rails, a telescoping steering wheel with audio controls, reclining rear seats and a six-speaker / six-CD audio system. The 2.5XT Limited adds heated mirrors, automatic climate control, a power driver seat, heated front seats, and full leather.  A navigation system is optional on both Limited models.

The improvements to the Subaru Forester earned it the 2009 Motor Trend SUV of the Year award.  Combine that with Subaru’s solid reliability history and commitment to “green” manufacturing practices, and you have truly a unique and special family vehicle.

2009 Toyota Venza

Monday, March 9th, 2009

Is it an SUV or a wagon?  Yes… sort of.  The new Toyota Venza is a new breed of vehicle – a true crossover between an SUV and a wagon.  (On Toyota’s website, it is classified as a car.)  The brand new, five passenger Venza falls somewhere between the Camry and the Highlander in size and shares mechanical components from both.  The Venza is based on the Camry platform, but it is nearly 6 inches taller than the sedan and boasts slightly more interior room.   The Venza shares the width and ride height of the Highlander, but lacks the third row seating and extensive cargo capacity of the SUV.  

The Venza also shares the Highlander’s 2.7 liter 4 cylinder and 3.5 liter V6 engines, although with slightly less horsepower (182 hp for the 4 cylinder and 268 hp for the V6.)  Both engines are married to a six-speed automatic transmission, and front- and all-wheel drive models are available.  Fuel economy falls nicely between the Camry and the Highlander at 21/29 mpg for the smaller engine and 19/26 mpg for the V6.  (All-wheel drive yields 1 mpg less on both.)

The 2009 Venza is available in just two trim levels, which correspond to the two engine sizes.  The four cylinder Venza starts at $26,695 and features standard 19 inch alloy wheels, auto on/off headlights, dual-zone climate control, rear privacy glass, a power driver seat, a 60/40 split rear seat (that reclines!), a universal garage door opener, cruise control with trip computer, and a six-speaker stereo system with six CD changer and auxiliary audio jack.  The V6 Venza starts at $28,520 and adds 20 inch alloy wheels.  A fully loaded, all-wheel drive model will set you back about 40 grand.

Most options on the Venza are grouped into packages and vary slightly by region.  Premium Package 1 includes the “Smart Key” system with push button start, a power closing rear door, chrome-accented door handles, HID headlights with automatic high beam, leather trimmed seats, shift knob and steering wheel, mahogany wood grain-style interior trim, 4-way power front passenger seat with lumbar support, anti-theft alarm, engine immobilizer and a rear backup camera.  Premium Package 2 adds multi-level heated front seats, heated power exterior mirrors and a windshield de-icer.  Other options include a panoramic sunroof, JBL premium stereo system, satellite radio, Bluetooth, DVD-based navigation and a rear entertainment system.

The best thing about the new Venza is its interior design and upgraded materials.  The ergonomic center console features a high-mounted shifter, which frees up space for a series of nifty storage bins designed to hold everything from Big Gulps to Blackberries.  The rear cargo space can hold up to 70 cubic feet of stuff with the rear seats folded down (nearly 35 with them up).   The Venza’s driving experience is far from sporty, but it is quite comfortable and responsive.  And, for a vehicle its size, the Venza is relatively easy to maneuver through a grocery store parking lot.  Families looking for a stylish, versatile alternative to the tired old SUV, Minivan or wagon may find a perfect fit with the new Venza.

2009 Hyundai Genesis

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

Most people have trouble thinking of a Hyundai as a luxury car. Other critics complain that the styling of the Genesis too closely resembles Mercedes and Lexus. In my opinion, Hyundai took the best features of its rivals and created a true luxury vehicle that is as comfortable and fun to drive as it is beautiful.

The brand new Hyundai Genesis hit the market last summer and quickly became the 2009 North American Car of the Year. The full-size Genesis is available in just two trim levels, which correspond to the engine size. The 3.8 liter V6 model produces 290 hp and comes with 17 inch alloy wheels, heated power front seats, full leather, dual climate controls, cruise control, and a 7-speaker stereo system with a CD player, MP3 jack and satellite radio.

The more powerful 4.8 liter V8 makes an impressive 375 hp and upgrades to 18 inch wheels, chrome accents, rain sensing wipers, a wood and leather trimmed steering wheel, power rear sun shade, and a premium audio system with six CD changer. (A Premium Package makes most of these options available on the V6 version.) Both models offer a Technology Package that includes xenon headlights, a trip computer, front and rear park assist, a cooled driver seat (V8 model only), a surround-sound audio system, a hard-drive-based navigation system with real-time traffic, a rearview camera and Bluetooth.

The rear-wheel-drive Genesis is surprisingly quick, for a large luxury sedan. The V8 model takes just 5.9 seconds to go from 0-60-mph and still gets a very respectible 17 mpg city / 25 mpg highway. The V6 is a little slower off the line, but gets 18 mpg city/27 mpg highway. Although safety test ratings are not yet available, the Genesis comes standard with anti-lock breaks, stability/traction control, active front head restraints, and a full compliment of airbags. 

Where the Genesis does not complete with Lexus, Mercedes or BMW is on price. The V6 model starts at $33,000, and a fully load V8 will only set you back $42,000. And, through the Genesis Forest Project, Hyundai will offset the carbon footprint of every 2009 Genesis produced by planting 3000 acres of trees in the Brazilian rain forest. Financially smart and environmentally friendly – the Genesis is truly the luxury car for the 21st century.

(Photo courtsey of Hyundai Motors.)

2008 Auto Show Report: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

The Charlotte International Auto Show is not the largest or the flashiest car show in the world.  Most of the auto makers don’t show off the wacky concept cars and space age technologies that comprise the centerpieces of the big shows in Detroit, Los Angeles and Paris.  You won’t even find many exotic cars except for a single Ferrari, one Aston Martin, and a couple of Maseratis tucked back in the far corner surrounded by velvet ropes and large “DO NOT TOUCH” signs.  In fact, the highlight of the Charlotte Auto Show is usually Santa Claus and Chubby Checker.  However, they do have nearly every mainstream production car currently on the market that the average person can afford. 

The Car Chick spent 3 days crawling through every car, truck and minivan to identify the good, the bad and the ugly for 2009.  (Click the links for pictures from the manufacturers!)

THE GOOD

2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid:  Although labeled a 2010 model, the redesigned Fusion Hybrid will start showing up on dealer lots in spring of 2009.  Ford boasts that the new Fusion has better fuel economy than the Toyota Camry Hybrid (by 5 mpg in the city) and can go up to 47 mph in all-electric mode, thanks to a more powerful lithium-ion batter.  (Most hybrids kick into gas mode at 35 mph.)   Cutting edge hybrid technology combined with the latest and greatest techno-gadgets – I think Ford has a winner here!  (Did I mention the eco-friendly seats made from 100% recycled materials?)

2009 Volkswagen CCVR6 Sport:  Strange name, beautiful car.  It’s hard to believe that this sleek, sexy sport sedan is actually a Passat that has undergone an extreme makeover.  With its radically sloped roofline and luxurious, two-toned leather interior, this car could easily be confused with the popular Mercedes CLS – until you look at the price tag (think 50% off)!

2009 Hyundai Genesis:   This amazing new car came in a close second for my Pick of the Show this year.  Featuring the roominess of a BMW 7-series or a Mercedes S-Class ($100,00 cars) and the styling and comfort of a Lexus GS or Infiniti M ($50,000 cars), the Hyundai Genesis is a champagne car for a beer budget ($30,000 – 40,000).  In fact, the only thing “Hyundai” about this rear-wheel drive luxury sedan is the “H” badge on the grill and trunk.  (It doesn’t actually say “Hyundai” anywhere on the car.)  This is the luxury car for the post-financial crisis, when function, safety, and the bottom line are more important than status and image.  Hyundai will also offset the carbon footprint of every 2009 Genesis by planting 150,000 trees in Brazil.  Frugal and green! 

2009 Infiniti G37 Convertible:  Ever since I bought my G35 sport coupe in 2005, I have been saying that Infiniti needed to turn it into a drop top (like it’s cousin, the Nissan 350Z).  They finally listened to me!  Although they didn’t actually have one at the Charlotte show, the Infiniti rep assured me that the G37 convertible will hit the showrooms this spring.  The 2 + 2 seater convertible will feature a 3-piece retractable hard top, and will offer active rear steering, all wheel drive and a 7-speed automatic transmission.  The bad news?  This much fun will run you 60 grand.

THE BAD

2009 Nissan Xterra and Pathfinder: These cars aren’t new (or even redesigned for 2009), but I had never noticed just how small the rear doors are.  To make things worse, the door opening is partially blocked by the rear wheel well, making it difficult for even the skinniest person to get in and out without bruising a hip.   Only Chinese acrobats have access to the 3rd row.

2009 Kia Borrego:  Kia calls the newest vehicle in their lineup “a new kind of luxury SUV”.  Kia has certainly put more effort into the Borrego in the areas of performance, styling and even fuel ecomomy, I’ll give them that, but no one is going to confusing this vehicle with a Lexus any time soon.  While decent looking on the surface, a closer look at the Borrego reveals cheap-feeling interior materials that undoubtedly keep the price tag down.  The seats are hard and uncomfortable on the bum, and the rear storage space (with 3rd row seat option) is non-existent.  Oh, and I did I mention that it comes in “metallic pumpkin”.  Where’s a fairy godmother when you need one?

Chrysler, Dodge and Chevy:  Although they brought some hot muscle cars and monster pickup trucks to the show that impressed the locals, it is painfully obvious why these American auto makers are in trouble.  Particularly disappointing were the Dodge Journey and the Chevy Traverse SUVs.  (Chrysler brought a minimal inventory and looked like they already had one foot out the door.)  The Journey has a boxy, plastic interior that seems to be a significant step down from the Chrysler Pacifica it replaced last year.  The Chevy Traverse does have some nice features like blind spot mirrors and good 2nd and 3rd row legroom, but the interior materials still felt cheap and certainly not worth the $42,000 price tag.  If the bailout goes through, maybe these guys can spend some of it to make a vehicle that I would actually like to sit in.

2009 BMW 1-Series:  The 1-Series is supposed to be an entry level vehicle for BMW, priced and sized between the Mini Cooper and the popular 3-Series.  So, you can imagine my shock when I saw a $50,000 price tag on the 1-Series at the auto show.  What happened to “entry level”?  Granted, this particular vehicle was tricked out with every performance and luxury option in BMW’s arsenal, but I was appalled nonetheless.  Perhaps they should have slapped an “M” badge on it instead.  I think I’ll stick with my Mini.

THE UGLY

2009 Saab 9-5 Aero:  I have always found Saabs fun to drive, but both the styling is more bland than iceberg lettuce.  In fact, GM hasn’t given the 9-5 (or any other Saab) much more than a mild face lift since 1998!  The spartan interior has no distinctive design accents or trims, a set of boring controls that are angled towards the driver, and a single cup holder that hangs lifelessly from the dash.  The only “distinctive” feature is the ignition – it’s down by the gearshift!  I realize that Saabs are designed by aircraft engineers, but I had hoped that they would take their styling cues from first class instead of coach.

2009 Saturn Aura XR:  Don’t get me wrong – the Saturn Aura is a reasonably attractive and well-appointed sedan that I normally like quite well.  However, the particular vehicle they selected for the auto show had an orangish-brown, two tone leather interior that looked like a beat up, “leatherhead” football helmet, circa 1920.  If George Clooney had been sitting in the car, I might have been able to stomach it.

Ford Airstream Concept Car:  Ford’s latest idea for the future of crossover vehicles looks more like a cross between the space shuttle and a 1930s motor home.  But, then again, concept cars are supposed to be bizarre, and this one is actually so ugly it’s cute.  The aluminum exterior features asymmetrical, orange trimmed windows, and the interior sports pod-shaped, swiveling captains chairs in bold red fabric.  On a more serous note, the Airstream prototype is powered by a new plug-in hybrid fuel cell technology that is half the weight and cost of today’s systems.  It operates under electric power at all times and delivers 41 mpg.  While the funky styling may not make it to production, Ford promises that the technology will.  And soon.

[Disclaimer:  This review of the 2008 Charlotte International Auto Show and the vehicles displayed there is merely the opinion of the Car Chick and not reflective of Women’s Automotive Solutions as a whole.  If I have bashed your favorite car or heralded the accolades of one you despise, please do not take offense.  Again, these statements are just my independent thoughts and ramblings offered in the spirit of keeping my audience both informed and entertained.]

2008 Auto Show Honorable Mentions

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

These vehicles also tickled my fancy at the 2008 Charlotte Auto Show and merit an “honorable mention”.   (Click the links to see pictures of these vehicles.)

Nissan GT-R:  Known in Japan for decades as the Skyline, the much-anticipated GT-R is finally for sale in the US market.  With a mind blowing zero-60 time of 3.3 seconds, full time AWD and a price tag in the $70s, the GT-R is a supercar in every way except the bottom line.  And, after all, we came here to drool.

2010 Ford Mustang:  A lightly refreshed design and a much improved interior that no longer screams “Rent me!”  The Chevy Camaro may have more power, but falls short on the quality.

2010 Mercedes GLK Class:  Built in Germany on the new C-Class platform, this entry level SUV looks sports an angular dash, brushed nickel with chrome accents and a square exhaust.  It’s luxury with a modern twist and an attractive price. 

2009 Buick Enclave:  Tiger Woods must have had input on the design of this SUV.  It features very easy 3rd row access, lots of 2nd and 3rd row legroom and good rear storage space.  Combine that with comfy seats, large windows and skylights, and it’s the perfect vehicle for you and your golf buddies.

2009 Subaru Forester:  Subaru redesigned it’s quaint little eco-wagon into a seriously competitive crossover, winning the 2009 Motor Trend SUV of the Year award in the process.  The Forester is now the size of a Toyota RAV4 or Honda CRV, but it only gained 66 pounds, keeping it fuel efficient and nimble.

2009 Mazda CX-9 (My Pick of the 2008 Charlotte Auto Show)

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

My “Pick of the Show” for the 2008 Charlotte International Auto Show is the 2009 Mazda CX-9.  Believe me, I was as surprised as you are.  The CX-9 hasn’t changed much since its introduction in 2007, so don’t ask me how I missed it last year.  Mazdas, in general, have always been solid cars (with a few exceptions), but they have never held my attention for more than a few seconds.   Yet, this year, I found myself enthralled with their sleek, sporty designs and impressive interior styling. 

The CX-9 is a large, 7-passenger crossover SUV that looks like it wants to be a luxury sports car when it grows up, and it is truly fun to drive.  As nimble as a vehicle this size can be, the CX-9 is powered by a 3.7-liter V6 with 273 hp, 270 lb-ft  of torque, and a respectable zero to 60 time of 7.4 seconds. A six-speed automatic transmission is standard, and all trim levels are available in either front- or all-wheel drive.   A stiff suspension system makes for tight handling, which is considered sporty by some, but can be construed as uncomfortable by others.  Estimated fuel economy is 16 mpg city/22 mpg highway, which is average for the class.

All 2009 CX-9s come standard with antilock disc brakes with brake assist, stability control with a rollover sensor, front-seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags. (A blind-spot warning system is standard on the Grand Touring model.) The CX-9 aced the front and side crash tests administered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration testing, scoring five out of five stars.

The CX-9 also boasts excellent build quality inside and out.  Available with beautiful two-tone leather, red and blue instrument lighting, brushed nickel-look accents and elegant piano black or wood trim, the CX-9’s interior boasts a sporty style that easily competes with many luxury SUVs.  The cockpit hugs the driver, lending to the sports-car feel, and most of the controls are ergonomically friendly and easy to use. My only complaint is that the CX-9 doesn’t have many useful cubby holes for storage.  At least there is a decent amount of storage space (about 17 square feet) behind the third row.

Speaking of the third-row, it’s one of the roomiest you’ll find, and is quite suitable for two, normal-sized adults.  This third row is easily assessable for those two adults, thanks to large rear-door openings and fold-and-slide second row seats.  (The long rear doors can be hard to open in tight parking spaces, but I wouldn’t want to park this beauty anywhere near door-dingers and shopping carts anyway!) 

The 2009 Mazda CX-9 is available in three trim levels. The entry-level Sport starts around $30,000 and comes standard with 18-inch alloy wheels, air-conditioning, full power accessories, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel with audio and cruise controls, a trip computer, Bluetooth phone connectivity, a CD player and an auxiliary audio jack. The more upscale Touring model adds heated mirrors, two-tone leather seating and heated, powered front seats for around $32,000. The $34,000 Grand Touring boasts 20-inch wheels, xenon headlights, rain-sensing wipers, keyless ignition/entry, memory driver seats, interior wood accents, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, funky blue cabin illumination, and a blind spot warning system.   Available options (on most trim levels) include a surround-sound Bose audio system with a six-CD changer, a sunroof, a power rear liftgate, a navigation system with a rearview camera, a stand-alone rearview camera (with rearview mirror display), satellite radio, remote engine start, video game docking station and a rear-seat DVD entertainment system. 

For all you moms (and dads) who need to haul around kids but still want to have fun and look good doing it (without breaking the bank) – this is the one to buy!  Zoom Zoom, indeed.