Sunday, October 27, 2013

Nissan JUKE NISMO - Affordable Little Piece of the Racetrack

The Nissan JUKE is a strange little animal. It's a sporty compact crossover, with wheels at the corners and a high window line. Its face is not pretty. But it's practical, seating four and carrying nearly 36 cubic feet of gear when the seats fold flat.

NISMO stands for NISsan MOtorsports (just like BEVMO stands for Beverages & More). For nearly 50 years, this engineering group within Nissan has been specially tuning cars for racing, including the GT-R sports car for Japan's Super GT series. By bring the special look and tuning of NISMO vehicles to the JUKE, it's now possible for car enthusiasts of modest means (young) to have fun out on the streets without breaking the bank.

The JUKE NISMO contains nearly 100 changed parts compared to the standard car. Notably, the body wears aerodynamic enhancements, including adjustments to the front fascia and grille and sweeping side skirts. The tail wears a body-colored liftgate spoiler and fascia diffuser. Red is applied strategically to make an impact--it's even in the O of NISMO.

The lightweight alloy wheels on the JUKE NISMO are 18-inchers -- an inch larger than the standard JUKE's, and their spokes are sprayed a two-tone gray to go with the three available body colors -- black, white and silver. This is a serious racer, so no pretty shades, although the deep Sapphire Black of my test car was handsome in a manly way.

Inside, everything is geared to giving the driver an in-control feeling. The deeply bolstered, suede-covered buckets hold you in place. They feature NISMO badging embroidered into the seatbacks and red stitching. The ceiling is black, and there are soft sueded door panels, and piano black accents on the dash. The panels themselves have a round, "inflated" look, so despite the appearance of intense racing, there's a pleasant, comfortable feel sitting there. And, of course, there are more red accents, including a red section at the top of the leather and alcantara-wrapped steering wheel--a racing tradition of showing "top dead center" at a glance to busy drivers.

My tester had the Navigation Package ($1,170), which included a small-screen Nav system that I was able to confuse for a while while descending a parking lot ramp. The Rockford Fosgate ecoPUNCH premium audio had plenty of bass response, thanks to a subwoofer, but working its small screen took some care. Once I had my favorite XM and FM stations programmed in, I controlled everything from the fully-featured wheel.

NISMO is a performance-driven organization, so there are some real enhancements to the JUKE wearing the NISMO badge. The suspension, steering and transmission are adjusted for a sportier feel. In addition, the I-CON system lets you select Normal, Sport or Eco settings. Normal is fine for all driving, but Sport adjusts the steering for quicker response, firms up the road feel and with the automatic, adjusts the shift feel. I found myself in Normal most of the time and even that setting is more sporty than a standard Juke.

The JUKE NISMO carries a 1.6-liter direct injected inline four-cylinder engine under its bulging hood. It puts out 197 horsepower and 184 lb.-ft. of torque for the NISMO, The standard JUKE has 188 and 177 respectively. Direct injection is a fuel delivery technology that enhance engine performance and is becoming more common in the auto industry today, as manufacturers look for ways to maximize performance of smaller engines, so they can use them raise fuel economy.

The NISMO folks lowered the car an inch -- it's not only more hunkered-down looking but that creates a tighter fit between the wheels and wheelwells, for better aerodynamics.

JUKE NISMOs come with either front-wheel drive and a six-speed manual (like my test car) or all-wheel drive and the XTronic continuously-variable automatic.Manual shifting is more fun, in my opinion, but, as always, it's a bit more of a chore in commute traffic. The lever moves precisely so I never caught the wrong gear.

Regarding fuel economy, the manual version is rated slightly higher than the AWD with auto (probably because of the additional weight of the automatic): 25 City, 31 Highway, and 27 Combined. I averaged 28.9 mpg during my test week. That is not the highest fuel economy a compact hatchback can deliver, but the JUKE NISMO is not your ordinary little car. The EPA gives it a 5 for Smog and 7 for Greenhouse Gas -- a little better than average.

It's fun to take this little car around. At just under a ton and a half, it stays pretty smooth on the freeway, despite its short 99.9-inch wheelbase. It sticks nicely in the turns, and hums along with the 1.6-liter on the boil. Even nicer, it's highly practical, too, and takes in a tall upright bass with no problem, sliding easily along its flat, carpeted cargo hold. In the FWD models, there's hidden storage under the cargo area, too.

It's hard to find complaints. My wife wasn't keen on having to climb into the deeply-bolstered passenger seat. The sunvisors are short when used on the side (and don't slide). The XM Radio listings are truncated so you can't see the year of most songs on the oldies channels. That's about it, though.

Pricing for NISMO-equipped JUKEs starts at $23,780 for the FWD/manual models, and $26,080 for the AWD/automatic version. Just for comparison, the base S model JUKE (which comes only with the CVT automatic) is $19,780.

In the highly-competitive auto industry, it's essential to distinguish your products from the others -- in the right way. Nissan has some "interesting" styling, and the JUKE NISMO has the fun factor dialed up high. You don't need to spend a lot to own a little piece of the racetrack, and get nearly 30 miles per gallon as you race around your neighborhood.

Read about the standard JUKE here.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Lexus ES 300h or Toyota Avalon -- Which Hybrid to Choose?

It's a well kept secret in the auto industry that many car are based on shared platforms For example, until recently, at GM, it was common for a Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Chevrolet to share what was under the slightly different sheet metal. Chrysler marketed separate Plymouth, Dodges and  Chrysler minivans. Today, even companies share, for example the recent Subaru BRZ and Toyota FR-S sports coupe collaboration.

In any case, one easy way to create a luxury car is to take a regular one and load it with extra features. The Lexus ES was one of the two original Lexus vehicles that debuted nearly a quarter century ago. It was a slightly nicer Toyota Camry. Today's sixth-generation ES is not a Camry sibling, but it does have a lot in common with Toyota's new flagship, the Avalon. I had the unusual opportunity of test driving them back-to-back, which made their differences and similarities stand out.

Lexus has earned its luxury credentials now, so my expectations were high. My Deep Sea Mica ES 300h arrived looking premium. The new grille design, known around the industry as the "spindle" look, gives the face a more aggressive appearance. This overt styling is helping to distinguish the brand, surely, putting memories of the old laid-back, restrained Lexus of yore into the dim past.

Over the last few years, Lexus has developed a look that's sleek and edgy, and now the ES floats in the center of this balance, and looks right. Without trying to sound like an advertising copywriter, it's beyond the ordinary. And that's just on the outside.

Inside, the ES is clean and subtle, with matte metallic trim, simple seams in the leather-wrapped chairs, and "wood" trim that looks thick and applied rather than integrated. It feels gracious as well as spacious. Sitting in there provides blessed isolation from other cars, sound, the road, and any unpleasantness. The steering wheel gives you wood at the top and lower sides, with leather where you grip, if you're using the proper 9 and 3 hand position.

It's all fully realized, including the two console cupholders that are both covered and out of sight until you need them. Even the way you handle information is genteel and understated. Down along the center console is a firm resting spot for your wrist, with a small joystick ahead of it. Use it to navigate the console-mounted screen. It's not a problem to seek out areas of interest, since the cursor tends to seek out and stick to different rectangles and squares on the screen. Once you get accustomed to it, it's easier than trying to reach out with an extended arm and touch a spot as you cruise along.

The hybrid version of the ES 300, the h model, shares its drivetrain with the Toyota Avalon Hybrid, despite a huge difference in styling and design. The two cars are very close in size and weight, both riding on the same 111-inch wheelbase, although the Lexus is 2.5 inches shorter nose to tail, half an inch narrower and .4 inches lower. Its luxury accommodations give it a 75-pound weight penalty. Its trunk is nearly two cubic feet smaller, too although I'm not sure why.

The real difference between these two cars may be philosophical. It certainly isn't financial. When all was said and done, these two highly comfortable, luxury-filled, premium sedans came out less than $1,000 apart. The Lexus cost $940 more. That's barely more than the shipping charge.

So, why pick one over the other? Toyota makes Corollas--the most popular car ever made. It's the car of the people--unpretentious, unspoiled, neither a slug or a rocket. Toyota makes pickup trucks. Toyota sells a lot of cars, to a lot of differenc kinds of people. Driving one says, I deserve a good car but I'm not a show-off.

Lexus has been competing with Mercedes-Benz since the day the LS full-size sedan arrived wearing the German maker's clothes. It was a Benz at a discount and a lot of people went for it, beginning the new brand that's a known quantity today.

Both of these hybrids take about 8 seconds zero to 60 with their matching hybrid powerplants. With official U.S. Government fuel economy numbers of 40 City, 39 Highway, and  39 overall, I got 37.1 miles per gallon in the Lexus. The week before, the Toyota Avalon delivered 37.9 mpg. That's close.

So, why buy a Lexus instead of a Toyota? You get to visit the Lexus dealership for service, probably a good thing. Keeps you from rubbing shoulders with those annoying owners of 20th-century hatchbacks. I don't know if service is more expensive, but I would expect it is. Surely they have finer coffee in their more richly-decorated waiting rooms, too. Neither Toyotas nor Lexi are known for needing much dealer attention, anyway.

Where the 300h goes soft and subtle, the Avalon blings. The Avalon dash features lots of plastic chrome trim, which can be challenging when the sun hits it. It's overtly styled, which gives Toyota something to get excited about, and also a way of being un Lexus like. The ride, handling, and quiet are remarkably even.

My test ES 300h came to $45,159, from a base price of $38,850. It had Blind Spot Monitoring, with Cross Traffic Alert, a worthwhile feature that it shares with, yes, the Avalon. It also had the navigation system package that upgraded the entire electronic interface. Hard to believe, but the heated front seats were an add-on--you'd think they'd be standard in a Lexus. Intuitive Parking assist helps you avoid hitting or scraping anything when you're forced to get close and personal with other drivers.

How would you choose between these two cars? Who are you trying to impress? Are you a shiny or a matte finish kind of person? How close is the Toyota or the Lexus dealership to you? Maybe you should just test both and then decide.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Toyota Avalon Hybrid - Luxury Plus High MPG

Millions of people drive Toyota Camrys, but what if you're looking for something a little more premium, but not quite a Lexus? Well, the Avalon has been around for nearly twenty years offering an alternative.

The 2013 model marks the fourth generation of Toyota's premium midsizer, and it is about as all-new as a car could be. Criticized for blandness, Toyota's designers now are seeking more evocative styling in all their products, so the new Avalon wears the corporate regalia in its entirety. The face has a slim band of chrome up top, sort of an eagle face, with a large mouth below to bring in the air needed to feed either a 3.5-liter V6 or a 2.5-liter 4 for the Hybrid model. The sides wear a definite ridge that grows out of the extended headlamp pods and proceeds all the way back to meet the slim taillamps. Nothing is flat or boring or subtle here. It's arguably the best looking Avalon ever.

Inside, you can't help but notice the significant serving of chrome-looking plastic that surrounds the dash screens. Compared to Lexus models, this is almost gaudy, but I'll have to admit that it grew on me during the week-long test of my Magnetic Gray Metallic test car, with its black interior. Almond and gray are alternative interior shades that are meant to evoke different moods (sounds a little like Audi).

Something new about this Avalon is the nearly button-free interior. That means that most functions on the center console are touch-sensitive spots rather than moving plastic rectangles or circles. I first noticed this trend in the Chevrolet Volt and  it's proliferating. It makes interacting with the car more like using a cell phone. As long as you tap the right spot, you're good. You still get good old-fashioned knobs for volume and tuning the sound system, although once you're used to the steering wheel controls you rarely use them.

You can pick the regular Avalon in four levels, or, to save significantly on fuel, the Hybrid. It comes in three levels: XLE Premium, XLE Touring, and Limited. My Hybrid Limited tester had everything a person could want, from a powerful JBL audio system to three-zone climate control (rear passengers can choose their own settings), to the premium leather seating that was soft in a good way and felt like an old Mercedes--plush but broken-in.

The real deal with hybrids is how they integrate a smaller engine with an electric motor. In this case, Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive system combines an Atkinson Cycle 156-horsepower four-cylinder engine with the motor to generate 200 total horsepower. The Atkinson Cycle postpones closure of the engine's intake valves, which delays the compression cycle, improving engine efficiency.

Compared to the Prius, which is purely a hybrid and is not meant as a luxury car, the Avalon is heavier (3,585 pounds) so you won't get 50 mpg. But, the EPA gives the car 40 City, 39 Highway, for 40 combined. I got 37.9 mpg during a busy week with lots of trips, so it's not that far off. The system reports your mileage for each trip when you turn off the car, so I noted commutes where I went over 40 mpg. It's nice to know that you can get to work using 3/4 gallon of gas.

The Avalon uses Toyotas sharp, colorful display screens, so I was able to track when the car was using the motor or the engine--or both. And, you can see when it's charging the battery, which a good hybrid always does when you slow down or brake. This kind of information helps you drive more efficiently.

You can select the ECO setting to enhance your fuel conservation, but it makes the accelerator pedal less responsive and reduces air conditioner cooling to do it. Conversely, select the Sport setting and throw economy to the wind and have fun. This setting even tightens up the steering response. I tended to leave it in the normal setting. Select EV Mode at low speeds and you may even drive full electric for up to a mile (great in parking lots).

Of course, the EPA likes Hybrids. The Avalon gets a 7 for Smog--that 2.5-liter gas engine does need to run at least part of the time--but the Greenhouse Gas score is a perfect 10.

The Avalon has been significantly upgraded in numerous ways this year to make it handle and feel better on the road. This includes things like a 12-percent stiffer unibody and improving the feel of the electronic steering system. The overall effect from the driver's seat is a very smooth, quiet and pleasant trip wherever you're going. From a non-technical point of view, the car simply goes where you point it and soon you forget about it.

The very enjoyable JBL sound system, easily accessed either though the touch screen or the steering wheel controls, keeps your mood up in the daily commute. When there's a break in traffic, you can get from zero to 60 in about 8 seconds--not bad for a car with a small engine and a motor.

The Avalon is packed with high-tech features, suiting its top tier position in Toyota's lineup. For example, it not only has a Blind Spot Monitor to let you know about cars you can't see in your mirrors, but it also features the Rear Cross Traffic Alert. The car warns you of other vehicles approaching from the side behind you. This is great when you're backing out of your driveway or leaving a parking spot in a public garage. I definitely heard  beeping when I was doing this--so it works.

Prices can be scary for hybrid vehicles, especially ones that are loaded with everything imaginable. They start at $36,350 for the XLE Premium and top out at $42,195 for the Limited (including shipping). My tester also included the Technology Package, which enhanced the already loaded vehicle with radar cruise control (follow the car in front), automatic high beams, and a pre-collision system. The latter warns you if you're approaching another car or object too quickly. Bottom line--$44,199 for my car.

It's great to see Toyotas get better looking and inclusive of every possible feature. However, you could shop the Lexus showroom too for $44,000. I tested a Lexus 300h Hybrid after the Toyota and, for about the same money, it offered a different experience, although it was a bit smaller. Toyota may be competing with itself here, but you win either way.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

MINI Paceman - Amazing but Be Careful With It

MINI has been a bit hit since its revival under the direction of owners BMW. The little retro hardtop, which arrived in the U.S. for the 2002 model year, pretty much created the premium small car segment here. Since then, the brand has expanded its range to a multiplicity of choices, the most recent being the Paceman.

This new three-door hatchback is based on the Countryman four-door small crossover SUV, which is a slightly larger-bodied car built in a different plant, in Graz, Austria, that supplements the regular MINI line. Other MINIs are built in England as they have been since the original microscopic hatchback that debuted in1959.

The Paceman drops two doors, and some practicality, as a sacrifice to style, although it does retain that handy hatchback. That rear door opens when you press and open up the MINI logo on the tailgate, in the same way the VW Beetle has done since its revival in 1998.

As a longtime MINI enthusiast, I've watched MINIs grow and proliferate, and have tested some of them along the way, including a plain hardtop last July. I hungered for my time in a Paceman, and finally got the opportunity for a week with a Starlight Blue example. I was very excited, and I snapped a photo of it as soon as the car arrived to use as my iPhone lock screen photo, to keep the beloved car near me (that's the photo I used here). However, my week with the car was not sheer bliss, as fine as the car is.

For one thing, despite its familiar MINI design cues, the car is significantly larger than the hardtop. It's 5.4 inches longer, 5.5 inches higher, and 4 inches wider, on a 5.1-inch larger wheelbase. Most telling, it weighs 400 pounds more, too. So, you can't expect as nimble handling as the original hatchback, and using the same engines, performance will not be as thrilling.

My tester had the turbocharged engine, as a Cooper S, so there were 181 horses on tap. My tester also had an automatic transmission, which, while working quickly and efficiently, was not the same as a clutch and manual, even with the steering-wheel-mounted paddles. These paddles, by the way, allowed up and down shifting on each side, rather than splitting it left/right. I think the 121-horsepower standard engine might be a bit overworked in this 2,940-pound vehicle.

The EPA gives the Paceman with turbo engine and automatic a rating of 23 City, 30 Highway, or 26 mpg overall. I averaged 25.2 mpg, which is about as close as I've gotten to the EPA's numbers recently. The green scores are 5 for Smog and 7 for Greenhouse Gas, or better than average, but not as good as the hardtop, which also boasts 6 for Smog and 8 for Greenhouse Gas, along with 29 City, 37 Highway, 32 Combined fuel economy with a manual.

I wasn't disappointed with the performance, certainly, as the flat cornering, quick steering and feeling of quickness and control were all there. I did find that there were a few annoyances, however, that surprised. me. For one thing, with its upright windshield, the normal sunvisor would cover just a fraction of the side window, so MINI supplies a special left side visor, which replaces the grab handle. However, the visor folds down and covers only about an extra inch or two of window. My face got baked on my morning and  afternoon commutes, and there was nothing I could do about it. I designed an extendible visor in my mind, and if I owned the car, would look into something like that.

Also bothersome is that I was unable to get the rear seats to fold flat. I used the car to take my bass to rehearsal, and it fit in there just fine, but if I were sliding boxes in it would be disappointing. I didn't see any way to make them fold flat, even consulting the owner's manual.

The MINI interiors are fanciful, fun to look at, seemingly well made, but sometimes frustrating to use. I do enjoy using the toggle buttons for things like the lights and sunroof, but in noticed that this car actually had door-mounted window switches--the first MINI I recall with them. However, the playful, Disney-inspired cockpit puts lots of tiny buttons low on the center panel, which makes you take your eyes off the road to use them.

There's a little joy stick controller in the floor-mounted center console for operating the dash-mounted information panel, and with some practice, I was able to do things like select radio stations or make climate control adjustments without looking. Funny that the huge 8-inch-diameter center-mounted speedometer, to accommodate this info panel, floats it awkwardly in the center of the gauge, making me think of "round peg, square hole." This may be addressed in the next generation cars.

I wished every road was a curving back road when I had this car. My time out there was bliss, and the car really shone. In commute traffic, being taller and bigger than a MINI hardtop gave the Paceman more comfort and road presence, so that was good, too. Flip the Sport button and the steering tightens up, the shifts are delayed, and you feel even more like you're piloting a sports car.

Another issue: I slammed my hand in the door one night, mysteriously. I later figured out that the door fools you. The window and interior panels are one size, but the door cut from the outside arcs around several inches, with a wide swath of two metal panels only. It tricked me. While entirely unnecessary and kind of phony, this door cut gives the right roundy, friendly MINI look -- but beware.

MINI's philosophy includes being "different" and it certainly is in so many ways. One feature is the ability to customize your car more widely than most other vehicles. Not only can you add things, but you can choose between options at no additional cost. So, besides picking between engines, transmissions, two- or all-wheel Drive and interior and exterior colors, you can choose different seat fabrics, order contrasting or body-color mirrors and roof, put the Union Jack on your mirrors, add chrome trim inside and/or outside, and even change the color of your turn signal lenses (see below).

My test car is a great example of what happens when you check a lot of boxes on the order sheet, and it's reflected in what would become my final complaint -- the price. As equipped, my MINI Paceman came to $39,800. How did it get to that astounding figure?

The base price of a Paceman is $24,000, including shipping. That seems pretty reasonable, especially with the smaller hardtop starting at $20,400. If you want the turbo S model, make that $27,800. Adding all-wheel drive pushes it to $29,300.

Yes, that leaves another $10,500, and here's how it adds up:
  • Starlight Blue paint                       $   500
  • Leather interior                               1,500
  • Cold Weather Package                      750
  • Navigation system/Bluetooth        1,500
  • Premium Package 2 (sunroof)      1,250
  • 19" alloy wheels                             1,750
  • Keyless entry                                     500
  • Xenon headlamps                               500
  • Satellite Radio/1 year sub.                250
  • Harmon/Kardon premium sound      750
  • White turn signal lenses                    100

There it is -- the $40,000 MINI Paceman.

My feelings about the car varied over the test week. It's so fun to drive, interesting to look at (with the latest MINI design cues, sure to proliferate into the new 2015 hardtop), and filled with interconnectivity and information. I really like the big P A C E M A N letters across the tail. I enjoy the feeling of being in a MINI on the road. But for $40,000, can't you buy a real BMW?

My Paceman (I'd still consider buying one, despite my affection for the smaller Clubman) would include the turbo engine (S level), Satellite Radio (a virtual necessity for commuters) and possibly the Navigation/Bluetooth. I'd skip the all-wheel drive. With those features only, I might be looking at a $30,000 MINI, which is much more like it. I really liked my tester's Starlight Blue paint, too, but Chili Red and Light White come without the $500 premium.

MINI is successful, and growing, and there's much fun to be had, but try to restrain yourself when you peruse the option list, and be careful when you close the door.