Sunday, November 24, 2013

500L - More Fiat for your Family

Big 500L looms behind 500
After a long absence, Fiat returned to our shores a couple of years ago with the cute little 500. About the size of a MINI Cooper hardtop, the pint-size retro two-door hatchback is cute and fun to drive, and has proven economical and reliable so far.

Fiat dealers complained that they had only one car to sell, despite offering different versions. What the revived brand needed was something bigger that still retained much of the appeal of the 500.

Well, for 2014, the new 500L offers four doors (plus the handy hatchback) and lots of room inside. It’s 27 inches longer and six inches taller than the regular 500 and contains 42 percent more space.
The 500L uses the 1.4-liter, 160-horsepower turbocharged engine from the sporty Abarth model of the 500. With its 184 lb.-ft. of torque, it pulls the 3,254-pound 500L down the road well, if not racily. The EPA awards the car with 24 City, 33 Highway, 27 Combined mileage figures; I averaged 24.5 mpg. The Green Vehicle scores are 5 for Smog and 7 for Greenhouse Gas.

My Blanco (white) sample with black interior was a Lounge model — the top of the line. Lounges come only with Fiat's twin-clutch automatic transmission, so if you want a manual, you'll have to pick the Pop or Easy model. The Pop is the entry 500L, while the Easy adds popular favorites, such as 16-inch alloy wheels, leather steering wheel and shift knob, and the option of the automatic gearbox. The Trekking iteration is geared for sportier living, with graphite (gray) body accents, upgraded 17-inch alloy wheels, and a unique interior color scheme.

As I drove around I was surprised that nobody was staring at me. Did they think it was a regular 500? Couldn't they tell it was much bigger? Maybe drivers are just jaded.

The 500L has unusual windshield pillars. These pillars have become tree trunks in recent cars to support the safety cages that protect you. The 500L splits them, with a generous slice of window in between, so you see more pillars but it ends up being quite panoramic and with the generous headroom, you feel like you're in a bigger car.

My car had an optional sunroof that took up nearly the entire top. The front section slides open for fresh air. It's like being on the observation car of the Santa Fe Super Chief. The dash features two gloveboxes, and is covered in what looked like Naugahyde. One hopes this covering will survive years of sun and not crack, like it did in cars of yore. The steering wheel, in leather, features a clever "squared circle" theme, accentuated by the shape of the leather folds and stitching. The presence of leather upgrades the interior significantly.

The automatic climate control system kept the car colder than I'd prefer, even when I set it up to 74 or 75 degrees. I also noticed a squeak — something I am not used to hearing. I don't know if the fact that the car is assembled in Kragujevac, Serbia means anything for quality control.

The small, but sharply rendered screen at center dash features the beautiful graphics that have proliferated across Chrysler/Fiat models. I was able to view and set audio, climate, and other information easily. The 500L has one of my favorites — steering wheel audio controls mounted on the back of the steering wheel spokes, so you can make adjustments in volume, media type and station/track selection without looking away from the road or moving your hands from the wheel.

The audio system, with six optional Beats Audio premium speakers plus subwoofer, pounded out some of the better sound I've heard in a car lately. The Bluetooth phone connection failed a couple of times, but was easy enough to hook up.

The rear cargo floor panel lifts and slides into a higher slot to make the load floor flat when you have the rear seats folded down. The lightweight cargo area cover, however, is balky and made dark marks on the interior surfaces when I attempted to position it.

Pricing starts at just $19,900 for the Pop, including shipping. The Easy begins at $20,995, the Trekking at $21,995, and the Lounge sits at the top at $24,995.

I thought that this car was a lot like a MINI Countryman in proportions and purpose, and it’s just slightly bigger than the big MINI. But you would need to drive both to decide if you’re a MINI maniac or a Fiat fanatic.

Now, with the 500L, you can enjoy fresh Italian styling and performance and bring along your friends and their gear, too. And, you’ll be a member of an exclusive club until these new cars proliferate.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Toyota RAV4 - First and Latest Compact SUV

The Toyota RAV4 seems to be in the perfect spot in the market. It's small enough to be agile, fun, and go anywhere, but large enough for a family of 5 and their gear. Over time, small crossovers have become more like tall cars, taking on much of the duties of midsize station wagons from years past.

The original compact crossover SUV showing up in 1995, it debuted its fourth iteration for 2013, heavily redone, but still hitting the mark.

Like all brands, Toyota wants to spread its current design scheme around, and this new RAV4 gets the narrow upper grille with large mouth behind it, sculpted flanks, and high, chiseled taillamps in back. There's a roof spoiler that extends the roof line jauntily, and presumably moves the air over the car more efficiently. 

There is one engine in today's RAV4 a 2.5-liter inline four putting out 176 horsepower and 172 lb.-ft. of torque. In the past, you could pick up the base RAV4 with a do-it-yourself shifter, but those days are gone. All models, from LE to XLE to Limited, get a six-speed automatic. As you'd expect, it was painless, and helped deliver an OK but hardly spectacular 23.1 miles per gallon. The EPA gives the car a 25 overall, with 22 City and 29 Highway. Smog is rated at 5, with Greenhouse gas at 6, per the EPA.

Choose front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. The AWD system is light and doesn't impact the weight as much as some systems. My AWD tester came in at 3585 lb., only 120 lbs. heavier than the FWD model.

SUVs came from pickup trucks, which were in themselves kind of rugged but spartan years ago. Of course, trucks are quite luxurious now, and SUVs, whether large or not so large, are much more comfortable today than you might have even imagined years ago. My XLE had a surprisingly carlike dash, for example, with a softly padded lower section, French stitching, handsome instruments with Clear Blue lighting, and other amenities. It contains a six-inch color touch screen, which is a little small, but still usable. I found the map graphics to be a little toy-like and hard to view in traffic, but the audio was fine, as was the Bluetooth phone connection.

Like so many Toyotas today, the RAV4 comes with a three-way setting for ECO, Sport and Normal. Eco is slower to react, but burns less fuel. Sport mode tightens up the steering and suspension. Normal is fine for everything.

This is a strong little car but is not designed, with all-wheel drive, for driving the Rubicon with the Jeep Wranglers. Luckily, no-one plans to do that with these cars. The all-wheel drive is a safety feature in rain, gravel or snow, none of which imposed themselves on yours truly in the early autumn of Northern California.

There isn't a stripped RAV4 anymore, but it's worth picking up the Limited model. My Barcelona Red Metallic tester was the popular midrange XLE, which shares the dual-zone climate control and power moonroof with the Limited, but the Limited has the extra goodies. Outside, there are 18-inch alloys instead of 17-inchers. There's a power liftgate (the sideways opening door is gone in this generation). You get seat heaters, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and premium audio in the Limited.

Pricing starts with the FWD LE model, at $24,145. Step up to the Limited and you're looking at $29,255. Neatly splitting the difference is the XLE, at $26,535 with all-wheel drive. My tester came to $27,565 thanks to the fancy audio system.

I've already seen lots of new RAV4s out on the road. It's an easy choice for a buyer to make, despite the wealth of competition these days. With its updated styling, increased power and real comfort inside, it will likely stay that way.