Monday, February 25, 2013

BMW 3 Series - The Original Sports Sedan

The BMW 3 Series has become so identified with its role as "the" sports sedan (or coupe or wagon) that it defines the segment. Automotive buff magazines routinely rate the car in their "top ten" favorite lists, year after year. So what do you do when you redesign it for the sixth time?

In the case of the sixth generation car, which came out as a 2012 model, you make it slightly larger and a bit more fuel efficient. For size, the sedan now sits 3.66 inches longer and has a wider track (1.46 inches front, 1.85 inches rear). And the car looks larger now, too, thanks to horizontal lines and tricks like having the flattened twin-kidney grille link up with a chrome bridge to the headlamp pods. Despite casting a larger shadow, the new car is almost 100 pounds lighter, thanks to some thoughtful touches in design and materials.

The body still reads 3 Series, with the Hofmeister kink in the rear side window, quad headlamps, and the familiar proportions of the well-loved classic. The styling excesses of the Chris Bangle design era never completely altered the 3 Series--BMW's biggest seller--and the latest car, while sharper edged and  more energetic, is not as tied to flame surfacing and odd juxtopositions.

To make the 3 Series more fuel efficient, BMW gave it a four-cylinder engine option, after many years of selling only the inline six. This latest model uses Twin-Power Turbo technology to get 240 horsepower and 260 lb.-ft. of torque out of just 2.0 liters of displacement in the 328i. The 320i model offers 180 horsepower from the same displacement. In the old nomenclature, a 328i model name would indicate a 2.8-liter engine, probably a six, but today it's just a number. The 335i gets the inline six today.  With a 5.7-second zero-to-sixty time, the four is absolutely no slouch. It just sounds less like a BMW.

With either engine, you can have a standard six-speed manual or a remarkable eight-speed automatic. The manual, in my personal opinion, is the fun and sportier way to go, but here in the United States, the automatic is king. Eight gears allows some precise and efficient gear selection. For an extra $500, the Sport version of the eights-speed automatic provides handsome steering wheel paddles for racecar style quick shifts.

The manual transmission is upgraded with carbon friction linings in the sychromesh, one of  many ways of making sure the shifts are smooth and fast.

The xDrive models give you a shot at a 3 Series with all-wheel-drive traction. Choose it in any model. Or, opt for a convertible, for a refreshing open-air experience.

The EPA awards the four-cylinder 328i with automatic an average of 26 miles per gallon (23 City, 33 Highway). In my Alpine White test car, I achieved 25.7 mpg--essentially matching the EPA for a change. The car with the manual shifter gives up one mile per gallon in the city but gains it back on the highway--earning the same 26 mpg. The Green numbers are pretty good, at 7 for Greenhouse Gas and a 6 or an 8 (depending) for Smog.

Driving a 3 is always fun, even on the freeway, but hours of commute traffic make it feel like it's all cooped up. You really want to move along in this car. I got onto a favorite back road and it stretched out and ran. The carefully tuned independent suspension provides quick reflexes and sufficient comfort, while the floating-caliper disc brakes on all four wheels stop the car in a hurry. As a BMW, it flaunts an ideal 50/50 front/rear balance, and it uses rear-wheel drive--a fairly rare but highly touted way of building a sports sedan.

You can customize your experience on the fly by using Driving Dynamics Control to select one of four settings. You can leave the car in the fine "normal" setting or set it more like a real sports car with the Sport or Sport + setting. Or, choose ECO PRO and the car will tailor the throttle mapping to burn less fuel. My tester actually shut down at lights to save gas--an unexpected sensation--especially in a BMW.

BMWs have often seemed a little plan inside, for their price. The newest 3 Series cars have more curves, trim pieces and richness than their predecessors. My tester featured leather buckets in Dakota Coral red and black. You can actually select from four trim levels in the 3 Sedan: Sport, Luxury, Modern and M Sport. Think rich black trim for the Sport, chrome for the Luxury, and satin aluminum trim for the Modern. The M Sport gives even more, including especially nice 19-inch wheels.

I was amused at the car's hidden cup holders. There's a tray that fits over them, so if you want to be a German and say "nicht" to drinking and driving, leave the shelf in. If not, pop it out and store it in the glovebox. Another interesting act of hiding is the control for playing the satellite radio. You have to push the main controller to the left to expose the selection. You'd never see it on the dash.

Will the faithful go for this new and powerful four-cylinder engine? The sixth car I ever tested (and first BMW) was a 3 series with 1.8-liter four of its day, and it had a lighter touch than the more common six. 

Pricing for 3 Series cars starts at $33,445 for the 320i with automatic transmission and a 180-horse power of the inline four. My 2013 328i test car, with the 240-horsepower engine, top M Sport package, a dynamic handling package with the Cold Weather package, variable sport steering, came to $47,295.

I drove my first BMW 3 Series in 1992. It was a 318i, and put out just 113 horsepower. It still felt wonderful, and the 3 Series continues to please its constituency--it's just a little bigger now--in every way.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Nissan Sentra Steps Up

There are many compact cars on the market today. They are perfect for most automotive tasks. The differences are in how they look and feel--and what they cost.

The Sentra has been Nissan's compact competitor for three decades. It originated when the Datsun brand started being called Nissan--the company's real name--in the early 1980s. That naming convention remains with the Altima and Maxima, but there was a slightly larger Stanza around for a while, too.

The 2013 Sentra takes a step up, borrowing its looks, inside and out, from the brand new midsize Altima. That means the bold trapezoidal chrome grille that Nissan has decided is today's look, more sculpted sides, and the cut-out taillamps that grace not only these two cars but originate with the latest Z sports car. There are even LEDs added to the headlight and taillight pods--definitely an upscale touch. The goal is to give this modest vehicle some of the visual heft of a larger model--what Nissan dubs, "class-above style."

Part of the point of a compact car is to have enough room to do what you need but keep the size and weight down so you can use a smaller engine for greater fuel economy. Nissan was able to take 150 pounds out of the new car versus the last generation model, even though it has about a cubic foot more interior space. My little Magnetic Gray four-door test car had surprising knee room in back, and when I looked at the car in my driveway, it really did evoke the larger Altima, with whom I had recently spent a test week. The new car is a couple of inches longer, a half inch lower and about an inch and a half narrower than its predecessor.

Nissan uses a new 1.8-liter dual-overhead-cam inline four under the curvy new hood to power all Sentras. It puts out a class-competitlve 130 horsepower and 128 lb.-ft. of torque. Most Sentras come with a continuously-variable automatic--except for the base model, the S. I had an S, which means I got a taste of the bottom-of-the-line car--a rare experience. It was more than satisfactory. With the smooth-shifting six-speed manual, the 2,800-pound car felt spunky in traffic and had no trouble zooming into fast-moving freeway traffic. I'm not sure why the manual is with the base car only, except that it probably keeps the cost down.

The EPA gives the manual-equipped Sentra ratings of 27 City, 36 Highway and 30 Combined. I earned a pleasing 34.8 mpg overall--one of the better numbers I've generated lately. Only the electric, hybrids and turbodiesels have surpassed that figure. The green numbers, courtesy of, say 5 for Smog and 8 for Greenhouse Gas--enough for SmartWay status.

The Sentra not only looks more expensive than it is, but it feels that way inside, too. The dash and door styling includes some padded surfaces and the materials feel high-quality. Even though the steering wheel is plastic, it is grained and proportioned to look and feel good. The air vents for the standard air conditioning mimic the sweep of the grille--they are not just circles or rectangles cut out of the plastic.

The Sentra is definitely not a luxury car, particularly in S guise, but there is no sense of deprivation driving it. It sealed out road noise effectively, so I could hear the standard four-speaker AM/FM/CD sound system. The seats are well-proportioned and comfortable. The steering wheel is adjustable for  height and telescopes for a perfect placement. The Fine Vision gauges are attractively backlit.

Even base cars today offer things that were luxuries years ago. I flipped door-mounted levers for the power windows, locks and mirrors. What there was not in my base S was Bluetooth for the phone, seat heaters or Satellite Radio. But for a week, I enjoyed the FM radio instead, and it wasn't so cold that I could do without the bun warmers. Bluetooth, though, should probably be standard, to prevent hand-held phone use--something that's illegal in California (and a bad idea anywhere).

Above the S model, the SV adds cruise control, two additional speakers,  higher-quality interior cloth, steering wheel audio controls, and a security system. The SR adds sporty touches, including 17-inch alloy wheels, more aggressive front and rear fascias, and a different grille on the outside; inside, silvery trim and upgraded seats do their job to differentiate the SR. The SL is the luxury model, with extra-fancy alloy wheels, fog lamps, heated outside mirrors outside, and Bluetooth, a leather wrapped steering wheel, automatic climate control and more inside. There are also two FE+ versions of the S and SV that use clever technology to earn the holy grail of 40 mpg highway.

Testing the base car is always fun, because the price is so reasonable. My tester came to just $16,770. That's low by today's price standards. If you really want to get a car for less, the true entry point Nissan Versa starts at just $12,800. Sentra prices move up through the levels, with an SL coming in at $20,600.All prices include shipping.

It's good news for compact car buyers today. There is lots of selection, and the vehicles won't make you feel like you had to sacrifice looks, comfort or performance. With this compete redo, the Sentra is right in the thick of it.

Monday, February 11, 2013

VW Jetta - Now Available in Hybrid

I just had a chance to try the new Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid. That's right. Besides the standard gasoline and TDI Diesel models, there's now a gasoline/electric hybrid model, and it's very good indeed.

The Jetta is just about the perfect size of car for most people. It's a spacious sedan, but doesn't take up too much of the road. It is trim and sharp and was redone in 2011 with Americans in mind. It is built, conveniently, in Mexico, so the import taxes are less.

The Hybrid model is new for 2013. It comes in four ascending levels: Plain, SE, SEL, and SEL Premium. I was lucky enough to get the top level. If you want the plain version, you'll have to special order it.

The Hybrid looks like the "normal" Jetta, except for a few small items. It has a blue logo (blue is "green" in the automotive world, for some reason). It also has special badging and specific wheels and grille.

There are other things, though, under the skin, that make the Hybrid unique in the Jetta universe. The airflow is specially controlled for air coming under the hood. There are many aerodynamic changes, including a rear spoiler, front airdam, and, where you can't see them, various underbody devices to smooth the air around the car. This makes for a lower coefficient of drag (just .28), which is all part of improving miles per gallon.

The experience of driving a hybrid vehicle is pretty much the same everywhere. The car uses a gasoline engine and an electric motor to move down the road. The engine in the Volkswagen is much like that in a Toyota Prius, working much of the time but letting the electric motor take over when it's a good time to do it. Sometimes the engine and the motor work together, sometimes it's gasoline engine only. The car's computer controls it. Interesting that the electric motor, like the gas engine, is water cooled.

The driving experience is not diminished, as the 140-horsepower gas engine and the 27-horsepower motor are enoughto move the car along without struggle.

You can monitor your driving efficiency right on the dash. The left gauge in the Hybrid is configured to be a "Power Meter" rather than a tachometer. It starts out at zero, and then goes through a "green regenerator" section, followed by a zero, for when the gauge starts moving. There's a blue section after that showing the best times to be driving, using both gas and electricity. After that is a section of the gauge that shows engine activity only. At the far reaches of the gauge are the boost mode, when you're really high-tailing it and not worrying about efficiency.

This is a hybrid for turbo fans, as it says on the window sticker. One doesn't think of boost with a Prius, but the Jetta Hybrid offers some exciting performance potential. The small, single-spool turbocharger and intercooler are neatly integrated. The electric motor and clutch are partnered for efficiency, too. The car puts out a maximum of 170 horsepower and 184 lb.-ft. of torque at as low as 1,000 rpm when engine and motor are working. You get smooth acceleration.

To prove that the Jetta is no ordinary hybrid, VW took it to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah for testing. A modified car set a number of records last October, and holds the H/PS class record—for production-based cars with engines of less than 1.5 liters that use forced induction—at 186.313 mph, as well as the highest top speed ever recorded for a hybrid, at 187.607 mph.

Efficiency? How does an EPA average of 45 mpg sound? I averaged 40.1 mpg during my test week. Interesting that the TDI Diesel Jetta I tested a couple of years ago (and a recent TDI Beetle) earned just over that--42 mpg. VW has more than one way to tackle the fuel economy issue.

This is an extremely clean car--with a 9 for Smog and a 10 for Greenhouse Gas, it earns the SmartWay Elite status from the EPA. See for more detailed information on the Jetta Hybrid--and every other car you can buy today.

The Jetta sedan is VW's entry-level car in the U.S. market, but the Hybrid is not that model. The basic Jetta starts at $17,515. The special-order base Hybrid model begins at $25,790. My SEL Premium model came to $32,010. All prices include $795 for shipping.

The Jetta has changed over the years, but today's model is sharp looking, fun to drive, and offers various ways to drive efficiently--and have fun doing it.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Dodge Dart - Old Name, Brand New Car

2013 Dart - Best Dodge compact in decades.
In the early 1960s, American car companies decided to take on the imports, which were starting to sell more widely. The Big 3 introduced the Corvair (GM), the Falcon (Ford) and the Valiant (Chrysler). In 1963, Dodge got the Dart, based on the Valiant. It was the brand's first successful compact, and was sold through 1975, when it was replaced by the less successful Dodge Aspen.

Following the Dart, Chrysler Corporation compacts have ranged from the VW Rabbit-like Omni hatchback in the late 1970's, the  famous company-saving K cars (Dodge Aries) in the  1980s, the listless Spirit (early 1990s), two generations of Neons (1995 - 2005) and most recently, the ill-conceived and strangely proportioned Caliber.

Finally, Dodge has a credible compact sedan to offer in the 2013 Dart. Why the old name? Apparently it tested well in consumer research with both folks old enough to remember the old Dart fondly and with young millennials--the latter a likely source of fresh sales.

1965 Dart - Yes, I've driven this one, too.
The Dart is the first Chrysler product based on a Fiat platform, in this case the well-regarded Alfa Romeo Guilietta. This means it has something of a European driving feel, but the styling, inside and out, is definitely today's Chrysler. That, I'm glad to report, is a good thing.

The look is soft and smooth--something that's sometimes hard to pull off on a compact car. The front has a floating cross-hair grille to give it brand identity, and the first use of an active grille shutter system, which opens the lower louvers when required for ventilation and closes them when not needed, improving aerodynamics for better fuel economy. The tail can be had with a 152-indirect-glow full-width LED display that comes from the larger Charger. In between, sides flow, with short overhangs, for a planted look.

Inside, the surfaces flow from the doors over the dash, with a carved-out door panels and useful console with a "floating" panel. In my Redline Pearlcoat tester, the black and "Light Diesel Gray" interior wore sturdy cloth. The main dash panel is padded, but some of the other surfaces are grained, hard plastic that doesn't feel especially luxurious. There is a notable shortage of sharp edges and straight lines, which evoked for me a little of the feeling of mid 1990s Ford products. But the cabin felt very comfortable as I settled in and the fairly soft buckets, did a good job.

The Dart comes in five trim levels: SE, SXT, Rallye, Limited and R/T. This means, in plain English, entry level, midrange, luxury and sport. My tester was a Rallye, with about $6,000 in option packages that really upgraded it. I enjoyed using the 8.4-inch touch-screen panel in the center of the dash to control audio, climate, navigation, phone and other settings. With large enough touch areas, it was easy to use quickly, unlike some other electric screens.

Below the screen are basic knobs for audio and climate functions, but I noticed that you could control temperature and fan for the climate, but for deciding where to send the air, you needed the touch screen. It works out well over time. When the phone rings, a prominent spot on the screen makes it easy to answer without much distraction.

The gauges in the instrument panel have white dividers. The speedometer shows 10 mile-per-hour increments (up to a traditional 120 mph) and the tach also features widely spaced lines. I didn't realize that a red line winds its way around them giving five-mph increments--my minor color blindness hid that. The number design is very "Eurotech" for a clean look. A small screen offers fuel economy and other information, which you select using a steering-wheel-mounted button.

You can choose from three engines in the Dart--with a manual or choice of two automatic transmissions. The regular engine is a 160-horsepower 2.0-liter "Tigershark" inline four. My tester had the second choice - a 1.4-liter turbocharged four that also puts out 160 horsepower, and the racer of the bunch, an 184-horsepower 2.4-liter "Tigershark."

The 1.4- and 2.4-liter engines use Multi-Air technology, which delivers optimum combustion at any speed under all driving conditions by allowing direct and dynamic control of air intake and combustion. This means a 15 percent increase in low engine rpm torque and a 7.5 percent improvement in fuel efficiency.

The 1.4 liter turbo in my tester earns solid EPA numbers of 27 City, 37 Highway and 31 combined. I got 27.8 mpg in my driving. That's not extremely high, but the Dart, like its ancestor, is not an econobox, but a compact car with space for real passengers. EPA Green Vehicle Guide numbers are a fine 8 for Greenhouse Gas and a midrange 5 for Smog. This gives it SmartWay status.

The 1.4-liter is not silent in my tester. It had a little graininess, especially during acceleration, but this is not a car meant for serene cruises. It is engaging in a friendly way. I'd like to try a manual-transmission version with the other engines someday to see what the ideal Dart would be. I know that you have 12 color choices and 14 interior color and trim choices, so, like the old Burger King ad, have it your way.

The Dart may have Italian underpinnings, but it's built in Chrysler's Belvidere, Illinois assembly plant. Chrysler sold many Mitsubishi products in years past, but this car, like the Neon, is made in the U.S.

Pricing starts at just $16,790 and go up from there. My Rallye, with a collection of welcome options, came to $24,460, including shipping.

The new Dart is not much like the old one--it's probably better in every possible way. But, as it did 50 years ago, it offers a good choice when you want a comfortable sedan that's neither Spartan basic transportation nor a big car.

Ticket to Ride - Live Beatles Music in 2013

Chad waves his hand in encouragement.
Part of the joy of seeing and hearing a band like Ticket to Ride is that they can bring the music you grew up with to life. It's what I absorbed on my six-transistor radio first--and then played a million times on records, cassettes, CDs and now, my iPod.

There is more than one Beatles band in the San Francisco Bay Area--I've heard three good ones already. I had a chance to catch Ticket to Ride tonight in the Kensington Circus pub in Kensington. The place is a family restaurant and bar. It was full of families happily consuming their dinners when my friend Tony and I arrived tonight. The band was just setting up. Finally, halfway through my Vegan plate, they started.

Wow! These guys really work at authenticity. Lead singer and rhythm guitarist Chad Labrosse can hit the high notes that Paul McCartney nails--and only dogs hear. He also has a great stage presence--friendly, into the music. Bill Zupko can play all of George's great leads uncannily perfectly. He sings good backup too, and took a few solos. George Becker stands front and center with his Paul McCartney violin bass and holds down the fort. You need a strong bass to give Beatles songs their vitality and keep them honest. He also got in some fine backups during two and three part harmonies. Drummer Marty Ruiz is solid on the 4/4, conjuring Ringo through the evening. He got some nice solo work in, too. Half hidden behind a column tonight was keyboardist and singer Scott Beyer. Even if you couldn't always see him in his neat shirt and tie and John Lennon glasses, he not only hit the piano and organ parts, but produced electronic clapping, sitars, and whatever else was needed.

The guys did two sets. They started out with Something--a surprisingly subdued intro, in my opinion, but they were just warming us up. The evening moved along quickly, with the lads moving back and forth through the Beatles catalog. I heard music from Meet the Beatles, such as I Saw Her Standing There, through mid-period songs such as Norwegian Wood, for which Chad switched to his acoustic electric guitar. The guys pulled off When I'm 64 off Sgt. Pepper, with a complete clarinet part played exactly by Bill. They did a masterful job of The End - including Bill's sensational picking. It's the end of Abbey Road and also of the group.

A few surprises. They played, all of a sudden, I'm a Believer by the Monkees. Their "encore" and show closer was Journey's Lights, proving that they have the chops to do pretty much whatever they set their considerably talented minds to doing.

I'll definitely go find them  when they play elsewhere. The Kensington Circus gig is regular, so you can catch them there again on March 2.