Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen - More Everything

Some cars are the "next" one in the test cycle, but others, you look forward to. The Jetta Sportwagen is one of the first kind.

This is a car ideally suited to my needs and my tastes. Compact, but with room for five people, it has more than 66 cubic feet of carrying capacity in back with the second row seats folded. It's lively and fun to drive--especially when you get it with the six-speed manual transmission. And, for commuting, the TDI Diesel version, which I tested, brags of 42 miles per gallon on the highway.

My tester arrived in Tempest Blue--a color I might actually order if I were buying one. The design is smooth and pleasant, without any sharp edges or trendy angles or styling quirks. Volkswagen has stayed away from extremes, with more of a Brooks Brothers look than the runway fashion trend of the day. This design is actually a few years old, and has a softer presentation than the tailored look of the newest Jetta and Passat.

As Jettas have been for years now, this car is built in Puebla, Mexico, but it has a German engine and transmission. The Puebla plant, birthplace of millions of Beetles, has lots of experience, and the quality of assembly and materials is just fine, thanks.

The car's interior is what you'd expect with a VW--rather conservative--but that's really a virtue in a car that you plan to spend time in. There's nothing to distract you from your tasks. The gauges are clear and uncluttered. I did find the climate dials to be small and hard to decipher in their low position on the center console, but after I studied the settings (while parked) I got the hang of it. The brushed metal trim is nice.

My car was happy to pair with my iPhone, but I got more than I expected, when Bluetooth attached itself to some downloaded music. I kept getting the same song playing a few seconds after the car started, while the phone was connecting. After a push--or two--on the Satellite Radio button I was hearing what I wanted again.

The Jetta Sportwagen comes with either a 2.5-liter in-line five-cylinder engine or the super-mileage 2.0-liter TDI Diesel. The veteran 2.5-liter offers 170 horsepower and 177 lb.-ft. of torque, and is a perfectly good engine for driving around a 3,300-pound sedan or wagon. But the TDI Diesel, although it has "just" 140 horsepower, as Diesels do offers much more torque--236 lb.-ft. in this application. That means that the car feels stronger than you might expect. Combining the small engine size with the efficiency of Diesel means that I was able to get 40.3 miles per gallon during my week of commuting and errand running.

Diesels are rare in the U.S., still, but are common in Europe. The advent of low sulfur fuel has taken almost all of the negative aroma factor out of the fuel. It was priced at the same level as mid-grade gasoline during my test week--just about $4.00 even, but with that kind of economy, it's a real deal. And, with its 14.5-gallon tank, you can get about 600 miles without stopping to refill. Go ahead and take that trip from San Francisco to San Diego. Speaking of fueling, there are plenty of places to buy Diesel fuel, but not every station carries it, so it's good to start looking when you hit the quarter tank mark.

My tester came with the panoramic sunroof, and it's a fine device for letting in light and air. However, you can buy this car without it, saving $1,800 (you do have to sacrifice the lovely 17-inch alloy wheels in the bargain, however).

The base Sportwagen is the S, which starts at $21,390, with the 2.5-liter gas engine and manual six-speed transmission. This is by no means stripped down. You still get leather on the steering wheel, air conditioning, cruise control, Bluetooth, heated seats, and more. You can step up to the SE and add the comfy leatherette seating, a stronger audio system, alloy wheels, chrome trim and leather on the shift knob.

The TDI then arrives. Get it with or without a sunroof and at the top, or with sunroof and navigation. Even at the pinnacle of Sportwagens you're still a little under $30,000. My tester, without navigation, was $28,390.

Some cars are more fun to drive than others. Some are more economical. Some are more practical. The Jetta Sportwagen is really more everything -- except expensive.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT - A Mighty Beast

The Jeep Grand Cherokee has been a popular choice for comfortable on- and off-road motoring for more than two decades. Built since day one in Detroit for American tastes, it has been refined and expanded over the years as one of Chrysler's big success stories.

I got a chance to spend a week with the uber-Grand Cherokee SRT recently. SRT, which stands for Street and Racing Technology, is a group within Chrysler that creates super versions of cars such as the Viper sports car and the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger.

In this case, the already formidably sized and shaped SUV receives a monster 6.4 liter Hemi V8 under the hood that grunts out a hefty 470 horsepower and 465 lb.-ft. of torque. Regular Grand Cherokees offer lesser powerplants, including the 3.6-liter V6 that's likely to be under the chiseled hood of most of them. It has "only" 290 horsepower.

The SRT shoots down the road like a rocket, and even comes with a Launch Control button and a set of Performance Pages on its 8.4-inch dash screen, so you can drive like a professional driver, bringing engine, transmission, driveline, stability control, and suspension in line for a launch worthy of a racetrack. I regret that I didn't get to using it in my week of commuting and errand running.

The 8.4-inch screen also gives you access to Uconnect Access Via Mobile, an all-new feature that lets you stream your favorite music into the car using Aha, iHeart, Pandora or Slacker. You also get access to Bing Internet searches and can even use voice texting – something that I didn't get a chance to try but can imagine is a big selling point for those who simply must communicate at every waking moment.

The SRT's instrument panel features a 180-mph speedometer, and this feels like a car that can use most of that. You can get readouts for ongoing miles-per-gallon and other trip information too.

The SRT is loaded with anything you'd want in a luxury high-performance vehicle. The interior has been upgraded for materials, design and access. The new three-spoke steering wheel has a flat bottom, and with fine materials and  textures, feels different when making turns. The leather seats are extra luxurious and comfortable and fully adjustable. I noted true carbon fiber trim--an expensive and exclusive material that is often replicated but rarely provided.

The T-handle shifter for the transmission is more muscular and retro-themed--and is attached, this year, to a new eight-speed automatic that uses all the brains in the car's computer to provide exactly the right gear for whatever conditions you're in. It considers such things as engine torque, kick-downs, longitudinal and lateral acceleration, grade changes, friction and downshifting to feel natural, despite its carefully-plotted perfection. If you want to manually shift using the redesigned steering column paddles, that's available too.

The body of this massive projectile has been tweaked for 2014 from an already highly esteemed design. I was surprised to see massive vents in the hood--it probably needs them--and the slimmed-down headlamps and taillamps are surrounded by black for a "floating" look. The roof spoiler has been reconfigured and helps to move the air out of the way. The entire effect is more burly and tough to go with the SRT designation. In Dark Cherry Red, with massive 20-inch alloy wheels wearing Pirelli PZero tires, you notice this one coming.

Naturally, with this large of an engine, the fuel economy is not something to brag about to your ecologically-minded neighbors, at 13 City, 19 Highway, 15 Combined. I achieved exactly 15 mpg during my week, and was glad to get it. The EPA's Smog score is a 5 but Greenhouse Gas is just a 2.

As a possible off-roader, the Grand Cherokee SRT comes with a refined version of the Selec-Track system, accessible with a console-mounted dial. There are five dynamic modes: Auto, Sport, Tow, Track, and Snow, and each shows a different image of the car on the view screen when you select it. It lets drivers choose the vehicle setting that most ideally meets their needs and road conditions.

The Parksense feature lets you know what's around you when you're navigating the urban jungle. With a car this big it's good to be extra aware. With screen images and sounds, you're much less likely to run into anything--or anyone--with this electronic assistant.

Prices for the Grand Cherokee SRT start at $63,990, including destination charges. My tester came to $69,470. The entry point for Grand Cherokee ownership is the two-wheel-drive Laredo, at $29,590, and it works its way up from there. There is a 3.0-liter EcoDiesel option now, that puts out 240 horsepower but an astounding 420 lb.-ft. of torque.

This car is a halo vehicle for the Jeep brand, and in that role, is a perfect blend of sports car and people/gear hauler, with all the trimmings. And it's got a Hemi! I'm not sure it would be my choice of a daily commuter with those mileage and price numbers, but there's no question that the Grand Cherokee SRT makes a big impression, and competes successfully with the heavy hitters, such as Mercedes-Benz and BMW, for the luxury SUV buyer.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Ford C-Max Energi - Partway to a Pure Electric Future

For numerous reasons, more new alternative fuel vehicles are arriving in the marketplace. I hope it's because we really are tired of (and worried about) burning fossil fuels and wrecking our planet, but some of it is because the manufacturers have to meet stricter U.S. Government standards. And, manufacturers are competing with each other.

Toyota has claimed the green mantle so far with its popular Prius hybrid. In fact, Toyota currently has two thirds of the market. Ford is second--way down at about 12 percent--but it's growing. And a major reason is its new hybrid C-Max models.

In the U.S., you can get the C-Max only as a hybrid or a plug-in hybrid. Designed in and for the European family minivan market, it is available as a normal petrol-powered car there, but here, Ford is creating a new specific model to go head-to-head with the Prius, while still offering the same engine/motor combination in the midsize Fusion sedan.

The plug-in hybrid is a step between an all-electric car, such as the Nissan Leaf, and a normal hybrid. Hybrids use a gasoline engine coupled with an electric motor and a larger battery. The battery, not associated with the 12-volt one used to start the engine or power your radio or air conditioner, generates all of its power by regenerating it whenever you use the brakes. This works well, because hybrids never require plugging in. The system uses computer brainpower to know when to use the engine or the motor--or both.

A pure electric vehicle is great, until you run out of juice. Charging stations are few, and it takes a while, normally hours, to recharge a depleted battery. So, you could end up stuck somewhere, or be forced to limit the use of your car. A plug-in hybrid allows you to charge up for a limited amount and then, when that battery is dry, you automatically switch to hybrid mode and keep going.

Charging is easy, but you have to spend a couple of minutes every night pulling out the cord and connecting your car to your home's power supply. The durable cord coils up onto a portable holder that is stashed neatly under the driver's seat. It's enough of a bother to put it back there that I left it out on the rear floor during the C-Max's stay, only returning it to its hidden home when I gave back the car.

On the left front fender, the round plastic door flips up and over and you plug in what looks like a gas nozzle without the tube into the socket. Then, a circle around the filler glows in a clockwise moving circle. As you charge the car, it displays, in  quarters, what percentage the battery has charged. When it's 100 percent charged, the light goes out. It worked overnight on 110 current; a 220-volt system would presumably be much faster.

The C-Max is a very pleasant car to drive, with responsive steering, a firm, but not harsh ride, and an airy and attractive interior. You sit high, almost like in a crossover SUV. And, the electric charge is effective--until it runs out. But the transition from smooth, silent electric to gas/electric is virtually undetectable.

I commute 30 miles to my office each day, so my real-world experience was that I enjoyed about 21 fuel-free miles, and at about 2/3 of the way there, the car became a regular hybrid. Even then, part of my driving, even on the freeway, was electric, so, the first day, I ended up driving 23.6 miles on pure electricity for a 29.4 mile trip. That's excellent. I verified a similar performance on subsequent days.

Of course, with no chance to charge, my trip home was simply as a hybrid, but even then, I had 13.5 miles in "EV" (electric vehicle) mode.

The ideal case for this car would be to have a shorter commute, with a charger at both ends. Then, perhaps, my commute would use no gas at all.

One weekend day, I ran several errands around town, to the dry cleaner, bank, pet food store, and realized when I pulled into my driveway that I had done it all on electricity alone. And that feels good.

The C-Max combines a 2.0-liter gasoline engine with a motor to get 188 horsepower combined. The engine accounts for 141 of that. The battery is a Lithium-ion type rather than the older style nickel-metal-hydride, which means it's more efficient and can be smaller. As it is, the plug-in model must steal several cubic feet of rear cargo space for the battery. I was still able to open the hatch and slide in a variety of substantial items. 

The C-Max's accommodations look just like today's Fords--lots of angles, nicely finished surfaces, and a a lot of activity combined with a strong, solid feel. You also live with Ford's SYNC system for attaching your phone and devices, including voice activated phone and navigation system commands. There is a learning curve, but after several cars like this, I know how to use the quartered home page screen and to touch the corner to open up that feature, such as Audio, Navigation or Climate.The voice commands are usable for dialing someone while you're underway.

The instrument panel features Ford MyTouch, which gives you the power to change what you see on the right and left sides of the simple round speedometer. The left side displays fuel economy information and gives you insight into which powerplant is working and how hard it's working. There are several different views, but I liked the one with a double rainbow of bars that at a glance told the story. Of course, there are numbers available--the average miles per gallon being the one I cared most about. And the left side automatically gives a report after each trip on how efficiently you drove.

The right side of the instrument panel shows entertainment and other features, but is most fun as the Efficiency Leaves display. Drive gently and electrically and you can add various-sized leaves to the plant. When you're stomping on the gas on the freeway, the leaves fall off and disappear. You begin to feel guilty about "killing" the plant. This strategy may work for some drivers.

How does the EPA calculate fuel economy on cars that sometimes drive without fuel? The agency issues an MPGe number that is an "equivalent" value. So, the numbers for the regular hybrid are 47 for City, Highway, and, naturally, Combined (although I and others have not achieved that in real world driving). The official figures for the Energi are 108 City, 92 Highway, and 100 Combined. That sounds spectacular, but it will vary greatly depending on your driving. Driving only about a third of my miles in pure electric mode, I averaged a still good 49.5 miles per gallon (equivalent) over the test week. If you kept your driving more local and stayed on battery power, then the number would be closer to 100 MPGe.

And that's part of what you need to consider when looking at the C-Max--or any other hybrid, plug-in, or electric car. Hybrids normally are most efficient in town, so if you drive primarily freeway miles, a very efficient standard gasoline car might make more sense, particularly considering the price premium for hybrids. Certain, the Energi is great to drive, but I always was a little disappointed when the three-dimensional representation of a battery morphed before my eyes into the two-dimensional battery-shaped image used by  the hybrid drivetrain. I wanted it to last longer.

Prices for the C-Max Energi start at $33,345; the regular hybrid begins at $25,200. That's a significant difference for what could turn out to be an incremental fuel savings. These numbers are competitive with the Prius, and especially with the Prius v, the more wagon-shaped version in Toyota showrooms. If budget is your top priority, a gas-powered Ford Fiesta subcompact gets up to 41 miles per gallon on the freeway and starts at just $14,000.

If you're interested, in a C-Max, drive it and the Prius back to back. The numbers are close, but the Ford feels more fun to drive and the Energi's pure-electric range is greater than the plug-in Prius. I expect, in the near future, to see an improved electric range in the Energi--and probably a C-Max all-electric vehicle in what is shaping up to be an epic battle for green buyers.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

MINI Cooper - For the Pure Fun of Driving

Today, I found myself driving behind a tiny black hatchback with the license plate, "REAL MNI." Yes, it was a tiny original Mini, with left-hand drive. It could have been 50 years old or 15, but it was not one of the new MINIs, which debuted in the U.S. for the 2002 model year, and which I have loved since their arrival.

The MINI experience, even in the new, larger, owned-by-BMW form, is about fun. But it's also about practicality and economy. The original cars really were tiny but today's car can fit four adults comfortably, carry an upright bass (if you leave two of those adults at home). I loaded in a week's worth of groceries with no trouble. And, with its 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine, it gives top fuel economy numbers.

I recently got my hands on a Chili Red MINI Cooper Hardtop. It's the familiar shape that has become a driver's dream in America. I think that Chili Red was available on the 2002, but I'm not sure. In any case, the MINI line has grown over the years, to include first a convertible, then the Clubman wagon, then the Countryman larger five-door (with four-wheel drive available). Then, we got a pair of cute two-seaters--a coupe and a roadster. Now, the Paceman, a beautiful, three-door hatchback version of the Countryman, has just arrived.

That means it's time for the Hardtop that started it all to get a redesign. The current model looks a lot like the original "new" MINI of 2002, but hasn't seen any significant changes for at least six years. It seems like a perfect time, then, to savor a 2013.

The shape is still perfect, with big, round "eyes" up front. As before, the headlights themselves are only a small part of that clear plastic oval. The traditional MINI grille makes the face spunky and ready for action. The windshield sits more upright than in any car sold today, and that means a lot of air between your head and the glass--making the small interior feel larger.

That upright window up front also means that normal sunvisors would be virtually worthless, so MINI gives the driver his or her own side visor, which folds down separately or in combination with the front visor to effectively block rays. The front passenger, without motoring responsibilities, gets a folding hand grip instead.

The interior, redone several years ago, features a large central speedometer, harking back to the original Mini, which used central instrumentation to keep assembly of a car meant for drivers on both sides of the road simple. The interior has been called cartoony and is not the absolutely most practical ever devised, but it is fun to look at and everything does work fine. The audio sits within the large central circle, and the buttons are a bit small to find while at speed, although there are some redundant buttons on the steering wheel. I like the sets of toggle switches, on the dash and on the ceiling, that, to stay legal, have loops of metal next to them protecting the unwary from injuring themselves.

Front and center in front of the driver is a tachometer, which in its center has a digital speed readout, so there's no excuse for speeding (except that it's just plain fun to do it). The three-spoke leather-wrapped wheel is a fine thing to grab while zipping along the scenic backroads that seem to make MINIs come to life. There is also a Sport button on the console, which, thanks to electronics, alters the steering and throttle for quicker reflexes when you need them.

Regarding speeding, it's less of a problem with the Cooper's standard 1.6-liter,121-horsepower inline four than it is with the turbocharged engine in the Cooper S. That model, with its 181 horsepower, is much quicker off the line, but in all honesty, the 121 horsepower, especially through the Getrag manual six-speed, with the big chrome ball shift knob, is fun to work through its paces, and delivers slightly better fuel economy (and costs less, too).

The EPA rates the MINI Cooper Hardtop with the standard 1.6-liter four at 32 Combined (29 City, 37 Highway). I got 32.5. The turbocharged Cooper S loses 2-3 miles per gallon for its extra achievement.

My tester was really pretty basic. The interior was mostly black, but didn't feel plain. I remember earlier cars had more silvery plastic trim. The standard car starts at $19,700 these days, plus $700 delivery charges. My tester had only the Sport Package on top of that, which  at $1,250, contributes 16-inch alloy wheels, sport seats, a rear spoiler, and dynamic traction control, which uses more of those electronics to keep you safe while you're rat racing. Bottom line? $21,650.

However, that includes a ton of standard features, including a decent CD audio system with Bluetooth and a USB port, remote keyless entry, power windows with one-touch down and up, and there's even  a three-year, 36,000-mile $0 Maintenance Program. Yep, no charge for oil service, belts, inspections, wiper blades, and brake disks, pads or fluid.

This 2013 MINI did not disappoint. It just feels good to step into a MINI. It feels close, but not claustrophobic. It feels like a party. And from the moment you slide in the flying-saucer key and push the start button, it's game on. The sound is sporty without being showy, the steering delivers plenty of feel (thanks to its BMW ancestry) and that shifter delivers the goods. I like being seen in a MINI because it feels like home.

There are other small cars out there. Some of them are even hatchbacks now, but the MINI experience is simply different and unique.The Coopers are built in Oxford, United Kingdom, so they are British, but they have a French Engine and a German transmission for an international flavor. It's the taste of European fun, on a budget.

You can customize your MINI Cooper in countless ways well  beyond model and color. There are different seat designs, wheel styles, door panels, trim patterns, and some of the choices are not just add-ons--they're alternatives. Have as much or as little as you want. And you can do all this choosing at MINI's amusing and informative website.

It's easy to feel good driving a MINI for environmental reasons. It gets a solid 8 out of 10 for Greenhouse Gas and a decent 5 for the Smog score. It's not as clean as a hybrid, but it doesn't drive like one, either. MINI fans all over the world know exactly what that means.