Monday, May 27, 2013

Kia Sorento - Clever Crossover Edges Closer to Audi

I recently spent a week with the heavily updated Kia Sorento crossover. Kia, one of the automotive success stories in the last several years, has given its five-passenger people and cargo hauler a thorough update.

The side body panels of the tall hauler look about the same as before, but the front and rear are updated. Kia is taking full advantage of the fact that its leader, Peter Schreyer, is the former head of Audi design. These cars, which not long ago looked like weak copies of mainstream Toyotas and Hondas, now have their own sophisticated look and feel. Up front, the tiger-nose grille (squeezed in the middle) has taken on a new smilier appearance as part of a sweep that includes the light pods. The lower panel shows another air intake and vertical fog lamps (if so equipped). The taillamps use LEDs so they glow prettily at night.

The interior is reshaped to accommodate a large eight-inch (diagonal) information screen. It displays a wealth of information, as expected in today's information-rich mobile environment. Kia calls it UVO, a "new generation of infotainment and telematics." Yes, you can talk to it and connect your devices at will.

Materials look substantial, despite some implausible wood trim. The convex curves on the dash give it a substantial feel, and the matte surfaces and satin silver trim convey poshness. There is subtle illumination along the door trim that is a surprise.

As before, there are three ascending levels -- LX, EX and SX -- names that sound the same as those for many other brands. The new SX Limited model is just coming out. It offers upscale amenities hardly imaginable in Kias of yore--such things as 19-inch chrome alloy wheels with jaunty red brake calipers outside and Nappa leather seats and a wood-trimmed steering wheel inside. Unlike Toyota, Nissan or Honda, Kia (and sister brand Hyundai) are not creating a a separate upscale brand, but are giving buyers a chance to acquire a super-fully-loaded version of an existing vehicle.

My Wave Blue test car was a mid-range EX model, with all-wheel drive. This system, like most on the market, is not for offroading but for safer on-roading, and works completely automatically. In the warm, dry week of my test it was not called to duty, as far as I could tell.

You can select two engines, depending on model, for the Sorento. There's a 2.4-liter. 191-horsepower inline four-cylinder or a new 3.3-liter direct injection V6. My tester had the V6, and with 290 horsepower and 252 lb.-ft. of torque on tap, it propelled the Sorento along seemingly effortlessly. The new electrically-powered steering is lighter and more efficient than the old hydraulic unit, and provides plenty of road feel.

Of course, when you boost engine size and power you step away a bit from fuel economy. My tester was rated at 20 mpg combined by the EPA (18 City, 24 Highway). I averaged 21.5 mpg on my commute traffic-heavy week of driving. The environmental ratings are 5 for Greenhouse Gas and Smog--dead center.

This Korean vehicle is manufactured in West Point, Georgia, alongside the Optima sedan. It's got 50 percent American parts, and the plant and its suppliers supply about 10,000 jobs. This continues to blur the line between American and "foreign" companies.

Having tested many Kias, including three recently, I continue to be amazed at the quality and driving enjoyment they provide, regardless of whether it's the compact Rio sedan or this five-passenger shuttle. The four colleagues I took to lunch in the Sorento had no complaints, and the road feel, steering response, and supple suspension made driving the car alone a very satisfying experience.

Kias are not cheap anymore. This one had a base price of $31,700, and on top of that, the $4,000 Touring Package added a host of desirable features, including a huge panoramic sunnroof, navigation system, Infinity audio system, blind-spot detection, power folding mirrors and liftgate. They even enhanced the driver's seat with ventilation in addition to the heat. Bottom line: $36,550. These cars are becoming Audis in more than just their design!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Castro Valley Orchestra -- Concert Preparation is a Big Job

Three bassists from our last concert.
The Castro Valley Chamber Orchestra plays three or four concerts a year, and has done it for more than a decade. What you hear is the result of months of rehearsals and practice. Here’s how it works.

Tuesday is the official weekly rehearsal night. As it approaches 7 p.m., cars begin to arrive at Creekside Middle School. The musicians carry, and sometimes roll, their instruments into the school and down the hall. On the right, the band room door is usually open and folks stream in and go to their customary places.

The band room, with its tall ceiling, lockers on all four sides, and whiteboards, is used by the middle school for its music programs. It’s already set up with chairs and stands, but they may not be arranged perfectly, so there is some scraping and carrying before instruments come out of their cases and tuning begins. Many of the musicians have been playing in the group for years together, so there is plenty of friendly banter and telling of jokes, including some hilarious musical ones that are the specialty of a certain clarinetist.

Normally, music director Josh Cohen is already there, and he gets ready, sometimes passing out music for new pieces the orchestra will work on later. However, slowly, he is training the group to use the Internet to download and print out the music at home before coming to rehearsal.

By 7:15 p.m., it’s time to start. The oboist plays a piercing “A” and the other musicians match it, bringing the group into tune. Then, with a wave of his slender baton, the orchestra’s seasoned leader gets the 30 to 40 musicians under way.

When you attend a concert, you hear the pieces in their entirety, one after the other, but that’s not how the orchestra rehearses them. There are frequent stops and lots of repetition to get the sound just right. And it takes a couple of months to do it. Luckily, the sheet music is marked with measure numbers or a rehearsal number or letter to make sure everyone starts in the same place.

Sometimes, just the strings will play, and the winds sit and listen, thinking about how their parts fit in. Then, it’s their turn to play and the strings listen. Sometimes one section plays. Normally, before moving on to another piece—or a movement within it—the group plays the section through from start to finish. Knowing what to play is important, but knowing how it relates to the entire orchestra is essential to having a good concert.

The group works on the tempo—how fast or slow it goes. There are frequent changes in dynamics—how loud or quiet it is. Dynamics are especially tricky. The entire orchestra may change volume level together or some instruments may play louder to stand out, for example, during a solo. The entire orchestra or sections can change volume slowly, too. It’s very important to have these changes learned by concert time.

Josh, with support from the advisory board, made up of several members of the orchestra, plans the programs in advance. It can take time, and often costs money, to borrow all of the sheet music to a piece of music. It can cost several hundred dollars if it’s not available in public domain.

At about the halfway point, Josh calls a break and people go back to chatting and heading down the hall to the restrooms. Then, it’s back to work. “Let’s hear the violins and cellos at measure 147,” says Josh, in his friendly tone. Although he controls the musicians, Josh doesn’t holler at or berate them. That’s part of why the musicians keep coming back for more each season. The group meets from September to May, echoing the school year. As a part of Castro Valley Adult and Career Education, that’s natural.

It’s important to practice your part to learn the nuances and get it smooth for the show. I keep my bass in a stand in my dining room, so I can pick it up every day and work on the concert pieces. There isn’t time in the group rehearsal to do this.

The upcoming concert on Sunday, May 26, 2013 at 2:00 p.m. features four works, including Reinecke’s Harp Concerto. It takes place at the Castro Valley Center for the Arts at 19501 Redwood Road, Castro Valley. Adult admission is $10, seniors and children 13-18 are $5 and kids 12 and under get in for free.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Acura ILX - Gateway to the Brand

It's natural that Acura, Honda's upscale division, would introduce the ILX for 2013. When they jettisoned the RSX after the 2006 model year, they eliminated the crucial entry point for folks to become Acura owners. Since day one of the brand, way back in 1986, there was always the Integra to attract folks for whom a plain Honda just wasn't enough. You can't ignore the Millennials. Now they've fixed that problem.

The car's meaningless alphanumeric names hide its personality, but the ILX, whose name starts with I (is it a coincidence?) has plenty to offer. Based on the always big-selling compact Honda Civic, it wears all the design cues that Acura has worked hard to build. Luckily for all of us, the division has chosen to soften up the shovel face that it inflicted on its cars recently. It's one thing to be distinctive and another to be homely, and the new cars are much easier to take.

The ton-and-a-half car will fit in nicely on today's roads with its overall styling. Interesting is the line that proceeds along the side and hops up over the rear wheel. A lot of creases meet there, creating an interesting and slightly mysterious tension. The ILX does not look much like a Civic, though.

Inside, the car gets the full Acura treatment, with boldly defined dash, doors and console. The sweeping exuberance of the  interior makes riding in the ILX feel energizing, and the tactile feeling of the controls adds perceived quality to the plastic.

The garden variety ILX, which I sampled last Summer, came with a perfectly OK 150-horsepower inline 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine that delivered good fuel economy through an automatic transmission. But this tester, in Silver Moon paint, grabbed the Civic Si's  mightier 201-horsepower 2.4-liter engine, and ran the 170 lb.-ft. of torque through a deeply satisfying six-speed manual. This is a different animal from the plain jane version, and was a hoot to zip along through traffic.

I got it out on some more exciting roads to see how well it would handle it, and it reminded me a little of my old 1986 Honda Civic Si in its taut, communicative steering and suspension and happy whir of its four-cylinder engine. My 90-horsepower Si had 50 percent more oomph than the standard 60-horsepower model. These numbers sound as silly as talking about four-cent first class postage.

The EPA gives the ILX an combined fuel economy rating of 25 miles per gallon (22 City, 31 Highway). I got an honest 27.5 mpg (premium gas). The environmental numbers are a pair of sixes - just above average. The non-turbo 2.0-liter, with its 7 for Greenhouse Gas, squeaks into the SmartWay category. I'm eager to do my part for the Earth, but the 2.4-liter with stick shift is just plain more fun.

There is a Hybrid version of the ILX, as there's one for the Civic, and you can expect 38 miles per gallon in place of 25 - a significant difference worth about $800 a year in gas.

The ILX is built in Greensburg, Indiana, using a Japanese transmission but an American-built engine. Honda has built cars in the U.S. for more than three decades, and most of its cars actually are from U.S. factories.

The performance and look of the ILX make it a worthy playmate, but the Premium Package adds more goodies. These include leather seats, an upgraded seven-speaker audio system, XM satellite radio, an eight-way power driver's seat, 17-inch alloy wheels, a rear-view camera and all the bragging rights. It does amount to a pretty loaded car.

Yes, it'll cost you. The regular ILX, with its standard automatic, starts at $26,795. My tester, with no options, came to $30,095.

There are a few compromises. My tester didn't have a navigation system, which is fine, but the screen in the center dash was pretty small for consulting the other features that run through it. The elegant stitching on the doors is not continued onto the dash, a cost-cutting move.

Acura has just released the 2014 version of the ILX, with a few extra standard features. This might be a fine time to pick up a '13 at a discount. Acura has stocked its showroom with a range of intriguing vehicles, so if they can hook up with you now, you will certainly find something you like later, when you need more doors or seats.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Kia Rio - Complete Sedan on a Small Scale

Kia has had 17 straight years of annual growth--an amazing record. Coming from nowhere (well, Korea actually), the expanding range of attractive and high-quality vehicles is one of the industry's success stores of the last several years of angst.

The Rio is Kia's entry-level car, but it is hardly plain or spartan. You can choose a five-door hatchback or a four-door sedan depending on your needs, and pick the entry LX, midrange EX or top SX level. I recently tested the SX sedan, and I drove the 2012 SX hatchback last year. My sedan tester, in Signal Red paint, got another upgrade, with the Premium Package, available only on the SX. Imagine, in the smallest car in the lineup, leather seats--heated in front--, power sunroof, push botton start with a smart key, and a well-equipped navigation system. It's mind-boggling how much Kia packs into the little car.

I call it little, but driving around in it is anything but confining. The 101.2-inch wheelbase helps make this smallest of Kias a compact, not a subcompact, ride. The trunk holds almost 14 cubic feet, which was plenty for groceries and bass amplifiers. The rear seats have room for real people, too. There isn't any feeling of sacrifice driving it.

The standard and only engine is a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that puts out 138 horsepower. You can order a  manual six-speed in the LX level only. The SX offers paddle shifters on the steering column, just like the expensive cars, for a higher entertainment value. I only used them for a minute and they work fine, but it's not the same as driving a true manual. In this case, the manual is on the LX, I think, to allow Kia to offer a car at a lower price point. Most American buyers won't go for it.

The Rio is the first non-hybrid vehicle outside the luxury segment to offer Idle Stop and Go (ISG) technology. I recently experienced this in a $120,000 BMW, and it's normal for cars like the Toyota Prius. The technology turns off the engine at stoplights, restarting automatically when the driver releases the brake. It can be disconcerting if you don't know it's there, but it saves gas.

The EPA gives the Rio with automatic economy ratings of 28 City, 36 Highway, 31 Combined. I averaged around 26 mpg. It was hard to run a long-term number since the car resets the fuel economy gauge with each gas fill-up, and you need to do these often as the tank is pretty small.

The car moves along fine in traffic, but if you need to accelerate on an incline, you'll hear the automatic downshift, and a lot more sound will emanate from beneath the hood. I was able to keep up with traffic under these conditions but not accelerate significantly. That's one place where the entry role of the Rio is apparent.

The interior, however, does not give an entry-level appearance. The materials are good and fit together well. There is some metallic-looking trim, and in the SX, you get metal pedals--a very sporty-looking feature. The steering wheel tilts and telescopes. In the attractive gauges, including a 140-mph speedometer, the needles do a dramatic sweep across their faces when you start up the car.

The seats are firm and flat, but I got used to them. The seat heaters work well. Placing your hands on a leather wheel and shift knob in this size and level of car truly upgrades the experience.

Price? The LX with manual transmission starts at just $14,400. The SX begins at $18,500. My test car, though, with the Premium Package and a couple of other small items, came to $21,340. Is that a lot for Kia's entry-level car? Considering the comfort, utility, perceived quality and attractive looks, it could be a deal. And don't forget about that 10-year, 100,000-mile limited powertrain warranty.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Honda Pilot - A USA-Built SUV for Americans

In the middle of the last century, families traveled in station wagons. I know my family had several. But in the 1990s, Ford  tapped into a new market with its Explorer. The tall, truck-based SUV grew to become America's station wagon.

The Honda Pilot owes its existence to this market. Honda began with tiny cars but today offers a three-row, eight-passenger highway cruiser that goes chrome-grilled nose-to-nose with the Explorer and any other SUV.

Today's favorite family car is actually the "crossover" type of SUV, which means, to you and me, that it's not based on a pickup truck. The unibody platform also means greater comfort on the road. The Pilot offers plenty. Tall, wide, box-shaped and thoughtfully designed, it should be ideal for transporting your brood. Even with all three seats up, the rear cargo area is as large as the trunk of a midsize car, so you don't have to leave the baby stroller at home. Second row passengers enjoy a video system with wireless headphones if your Pilot comes so equipped. Drivers and front passengers can use a drop-down wide-angle mirror to check on the rear passengers.

The Pilot comes in four levels, all typical of Honda nomenclature. The LX starts the lineup, with the EX above it, and the Touring at the top. The EX also comes as the EX-L, where L stands for "leather." Each model offers two- or four-wheel drive.

My Touring model was the absolute pinnacle of Pilot configurations. It was quite impressive in a stunning Obsidian Blue Pearl (a new color for 2013), with its chrome three-bar grille and special six-spoke 18-inch alloy wheels. Inside, with leather seating, steering wheel and shifter, it's all very top drawer. I thought that the interior design, while surprisingly straightforward and handsome, felt a little plain, and the matte-finish plastics reminded me just slightly of the sanitized reliability of Rubbermaid kitchen products.

You can tell this car is made for Americans. The massive and accommodating central console, complete with a roll top, exactly fits a standard McDonalds food bag and large soda. There's plenty more storage, with two levels of door pockets, a voluminous glovebox, and hidden storage below the rear cargo hold. If you need a little more cargo height, you can fold the cargo floor forward and attach it the seatback.

Every Pilot comes with a 250-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 engine running through a five-speed automatic. The EPA gives the four-wheel-drive model like my test car an average 20 miles per gallon (17 City, 34 Highway). I averaged 17.1 mpg. Both the Smog and Greenhouse Gas numbers are at chart center with 5 for each.

The auto industry doesn't really offer "stripped" cars anymore, and the Pilot is no exception. Even the lowliest LX two-wheel-drive model has three-zone automatic climate control and a high-resolution eight-inch view screen for audio, navigation and such. Power features are ubiquitous today in every car, and the Pilot goes further with today's increasingly common Bluetooth for your phone, a seven-speaker audio system, and lots more. The EX, EX-L and Touring introduce additional power features, better lighting, and leather, of course. The list is long.

The Pilot is loaded with safety features, from a multitude of airbags and the ACE body structure that absorbs crash energy and keep it out of the passenger compartment. In hopes of preventing a crash altogether, there's Vehicle Stability Assist to keep you headed where you intended and Electric Braking Distribution to make sure the wheels that can do the job best get a chance to stop the car. 

A vehicle with this much on it and in it doesn't come cheap. The entry price for a Pilot LX with two-wheel drive and no extras starts at $30,350 and the Touring, like my loaded tester, starts at $42,100. Price include shipping.

Where does that nearly $12,000 difference come from? Well, there's a full-fledged navigation system, upgraded audio with 10 speakers, DVD rear entertainment system, memory seats, and roof rails. The copy of the window sticker that came with my test car was crammed with tiny print.

Honda has studied its competition for decades and they know that including something like the pop-open glass rear window in the tailgate, which lets you drop in items without opening the entire hatch, could be the deciding factor in a purchase. 

The Pilot does a great job of hauling people and things around, but it felt a little silly for one guy to drive it back and forth to work. But if you're ferrying a load of kids or friends, they'll probably be glad you went for the Pilot.