Neo nostalgia

Nissan tinkered with near-perfection for its Murano redo, but the sleeker, high-powered sedan somehow seems less special

DRIVING IN THE SUNSET | The second generation of the Murano has edgier styling, but what was wrong with the original’s classic look? (Photos courtesy Nissan)

CASEY WILLIAMS  | Auto Reviewer

I was a big fan of the first-generation Nissan Murano when it debuted eight years ago. Styling inside and out looked like it rolled out of a design studio, took a quick pass through a show of concept cars and bee-lined for the Interstate. I drove one from Atlanta to Memphis one afternoon and fell in love with its comfy seats, aluminum trim panels, cool gauges and symphonic Bose audio system. The dashboard looked like an infinity pool as it dropped off towards the windshield. Even my grandmother loved it.

Sadly, the original is no more and we now are confronted with the re-designed gen-II edition. I miss the old one already.

Most people will probably like the current generation’s styling better. It is edgier, more detailed and a tastier feast. Murano’s beak is its most distinguishing feature, along with a chrome grille that pinches towards the bumper and appears to rest on top of the wide piercing high-intensity discharge headlamps. A wide, sculpted hood flows smoothly from grille to windshield and attaches to an arched roofline that looks more like that of a sport sedan than wagon.

IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT | The interior of the redesign is just as likeable as before, with Infiniti-like woodgrain and plush leather accents.

Standard 18-in. (or optional 20-in.) alloy wheels look great under the precision body and accentuate the vehicle’s aggressive attitude. The rear flaunts curved glass, roof spoiler, dual chrome exhausts and large LED taillamps that were revised for 2011.

Infiniti drivers should recognize much of the interior; up-level models have woodgrain on the center console. But I crave the aluminum panels on sportier models. A large LCD screen is controlled with buttons on the dash top while climate and audio have buttons and knobs in their typical location in the console. Big analog gauges are easily read through the leather-wrapped steering wheel. Seats look great in leather, less so in our cloth-clad test model. Rear passengers have plenty of space, even when seated behind tall drivers. I still don’t like the interior as well as the old Murano’s, but who asked me anyway? It’s nice, but somehow feels less special.

Beyond looking dapper, the Murano came loaded with goodies. USB ports, Bluetooth and in-dash CD player keep everybody connected and entertained. Navigation is optional, as are top-rate audio systems if you check the right boxes on the options sheet. Automatic climate control and auto up/down windows add convenience.

Whatever somebody thinks of the Murano, they will not likely criticize its powertrain. All versions are motivated by a 260-horsepower, 3.5-liter DOHC V6 engine connected to a continuously variable transmission (CVT). CVTs can sometimes make a car drive like a high-powered golf cart, as the transmission whirs away devilishly under the floor. Not this one: It was so quiet and smooth that it took several miles before I realized it wasn’t a regular automatic. AWD is available, but our test vehicle came in front-drive, allowing it to achieve 18/23-MPG city/highway. I clocked 21.5 MPG in mixed driving.

You won’t run to the Murano to solve your fuel economy woes — there are full-size SUVs that do better. But none of those giants are likely to handle as well as the sedan-based Murano. Based on the Altima/Maxima vehicle architecture, the original Murano put Nissan in the crossover game. It rode and drove like a Maxima wagon because that’s essentially what it was.

The same is true of the 2011 model for the same reason — it shares a ton of engineering with its sedan siblings. There’s a four-wheel independent suspension system, four-wheel ABS disc brakes, vehicle dynamic control (VDC) and traction control — all basically the same as an Altima’s.

There are a couple of things I don’t exactly love about the Murano. Our test vehicle came with a cloth interior harboring seats that felt like fur-covered blocks of foam. They were comfy enough, but didn’t quite rise to the vehicle’s price. Numb steering gives little feedback on the vehicle’s behavior. You drive a Murano with your eyes, not your fingertips or butt. For the enthusiasts among us, that’s not so much fun.

Apparently Nissan/Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn wasn’t satisfied with a deftly styled yet conventional five-passenger crossover. Nope: His mind conjured off the top while replacing four doors with two. What at first seems a little nutty is actually a roomy convertible loaded to the gunnels with rich leather, next-century style, and all of the intuitive controls that come in less breezy Muranos. A power cloth top with integral skylight over the rear seats is a nice touch.

After four hours on the Interstate, using the cargo hold for actual cargo, and enough city traffic to choke a horse, I warmed up to the Murano. I’m a big fan of its style — even if it doesn’t have the concept car feel of the original.

Our car retailed for $34,000, making it competitive with the Toyota Venza, Ford Edge, Chevy Equinox and Honda Crosstour.

—  Kevin Thomas

Outside the box: The Volvo XC60 turns the Swedish icon from meatball to beefcake

CROSSOVER HIT | Volvo’s luxury interior design, below, perfectly suits its sexy new profile.

CASEY WILLIAMS  | Auto Reviewer

Safe. First of all, a Volvo must be safe. It doesn’t matter if the subject of the safety wand is a big sedan, compact wagon or mid-size crossover, which the XC60 is. Now gripped in Chinese automaker Geely’s chopsticks, the very-Swedish Volvo proves it has the spice and comfy rice that today’s youthful upscalers demand.

When Lexus, Acura and others began introducing luxury crossovers, cautious Volvo wasn’t too eager to hurry into anything. Its cars still looked like the boxes they came in, and the company was happy producing the turbocharged station wagons for which it was renowned.

Eventually, a jacked up V70 wagon became the Cross Country, the company’s first machine that could accomplish some semi-challenging off-roading (I once blitzed a power easement with aplomb). The XC90 three-row crossover, based on its large car platform, showed forevermore that Volvo could build crossovers without losing what made it a Volvo.

On a little smaller scale is the XC60. My partner nearly dribbled his dungarees and dropped his drawers when he saw the voluptuous Passion Red R-Design XC60 roll into our driveway.

That wasn’t because he was all a-gunk over its side curtain airbags — its mug and shoulders identify itself immediately as one of the Volvo pack, but dressed up with 20-in. alloy wheels, gray ground affects and taillamps that follow body curves from roof to bumper look as ready for the track or Manhattan club as a convention of corporate health and safety managers.

Some of Volvo’s classic design cues were melted for modern, but one can still recognize the XC60’s lineage from a continent away. For a couple of homos trying to adopt a baby, the red sleigh would be perfect.

Interior design continues themes set by the S40 and S80 — that is to say, very Swedish. Major controls are wrapped around the driver, a thin center control stack clears room behind it for small items, and the climate control can be adjusted with a clever “seated human” chrome accent. The 12-speaker Dolby audio system with 910-watts of drenching noise thumped the Glee version of “Teenage Dream” until my partner threatened to ban the show in our home. Navigation, USB iPod input, Bluetooth phone connectivity and stunningly beautiful blue analog gauges made travels easy; a full array of airbags also make them safe.

Mother Mary herself must have invented Volvo’s seats. Soft as Martha Stewart’s down pillows, they perfectly support the contours of your back while plushing your plushier regions.

They’re also designed to protect you in an accident with whiplash-reducing headrests. Heated cushions (front and rear) soothe in autumn and winter chills.

There’s also safety in performance. In our R-Design, the six-cylinder turbo engine stamps at the ground ready to storm off in a huff, only held back by the driver’s desire to avoid expensive paper from law enforcement. With the aid of a twin-scroll turbo, the powerplant generates 300-HP and 325 lb.-ft. of torque, enabling a 0–60 mph tear in 7.1 seconds on the way to a 130-MPH top speed.

A six-speed automatic transmission and torque-shifting all-wheel-drive put all of that energy straight to the pavement. Using all of the powertrain’s mighty force will yield somewhat less than the stated 16/21-MPG city/hwy.

In a crossover the size of the XC60, three centuries of equestrian gallop is more than adequate to get your heart pumping. Speed-sensitive steering, sport-tuned suspension and large disc brakes ensure the rest of the vehicle is up to the challenge laid down by its engine. At interstate speeds, the turbo is in its happy place, generating torque and thrust like the Fed prints IOUs.

Fort Knox probably has a patent on the super-thick Volvo doors, but it feels like a stinger missile wouldn’t faze the XC60 from the moment they close. Working to prevent accidents are blind spot warnings, rotating headlamps to follow curves, rearview camera, front and rear parking sensors, adaptive radar-enabled cruise control and electronic stability control. Volvo’s new City Safe crash avoidance technology uses a laser to detect slow moving traffic. Up to 19 MPH, the brakes are pre-charged when danger rears, and if you don’t respond the vehicle brakes automatically. Your mama loves you no more.

Though built by a Chinese-owned automaker, the XC60 is every inch a Volvo, ready for a more youthful and style-setting driver. And safe — don’t forget safe.

Price as tested came to a touch over $48,000, making it competitive with the Mercedes GLK, BMW X3, Cadillac SRX and Lincoln MKX.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 15, 2011.

—  John Wright

I hear a symphony

Hyundai Sonata’s power, price are music to the ears

CASEY WILLIAMS  | Auto Reviewer

AFFORDABLE SOUL  |  Sonata turns Hyundai’s upscale Genesis into a well-priced powerhouse with style.
AFFORDABLE SOUL | Sonata turns Hyundai’s upscale Genesis into a well-priced powerhouse with style.

If some of the major players in the mid-size sedan market don’t get it into gear quickly, they’re going to be looking at the tailpipes of a Korean juggernaut leaving them in a cloud of unhappiness. Hyundai is finished playing nice.

The 2010 Sonata takes all of Hyundai’s upscale Genesis sedan goodness and moves it down a rung for the rest of us. The car is beautiful, powerful and loaded with tech. Most important, it has soul. Get an earful of this symphony.

Mercedes pioneered fast-raked four-door sedans with coupe rooflines when it introduced the CLS, but the Sonata makes the fetching shape affordable. High doorsills, narrow window slits, and tapered trunk give the illusion of a tight coupe, but there’s plenty of space for four and a pinch inside.

A prominent chrome strip up the beltline is a little old-world Buick, but it looks as sharp here as it did on the Park Avenue in its day. A large chrome grille has a hint of Toyota Avalon; it and the hood look like they were shaped by water over centuries. Large 17-inch alloy wheels complete the car’s sporting character.

A surprise to some might be the Sonata is not available with a V6 engine. Truth is, it doesn’t need one. Twenty years ago, V8 engines barely made 200 horsepower. My 1989 Corvette, one of the fastest and most powerful cars of its day, generates 245-HP from a 5.7-liter V8. Ten years ago, V6 engines produced around 200 horses without turbos.

Now, the Hyundai Sonata’s direct-injected four-cylinder engine produces that much power. With a turbo, output jumps to 274-HP! You will not miss the extra cylinders, and will salivate over fuel economy ratings of 22/35-MPG city/hwy.

I’m not sure why everybody crinkles their noses up in high-snoot when I tell them there is no V6 option. Their unwillingness to look at four-cylinder cars completely cracks me up. It is a ridiculous position to take. Look at horsepower, torque, and performance by all means. But who cares how many cylinders are under the hood? It’s just stupid! There, I’ve said it; write letters.

Getting over cylinder envy is helped along by smooth power and a crisp six-speed manumatic transmission.

Back in the dark ages, it was hard to get power out of a four-cylinder engine because it was always over-revving or bogging down without enough transmission cogs. Today’s six-speed and higher transmissions shift seamlessly between gears to always find the right power band. As a result, cars like the Sonata rarely feel under-powered and cruise happily at Interstate speeds. Sonata comes with a six-speed automatic with manual shift mode so you can let the computer go about its business without interference or you can snap through the gears as you please.

Given the chassis’ willingness to play, you may want to. Sonatas are not Mustangs, so there are limits, but the four-wheel independent suspension soaks up bumps and backroads with aplomb. Steering feel is firm and communicative, with a very positive feel when it moves even a little off-center. Over rough pavement, nothing upsets the body structure or suspension.

There is a feeling of precision, with a healthy dose of soul that is lacking in many competitors. Building a solid car is one thing, but making one that is actually enjoyable to drive, is exhibited in Hyundai’s new level of maturity.

Designers gave the Sonata an interior worthy of its smooth exterior and spirited powertrain. Equal parts Star Trek and Corvette, the dash wraps around the driver and front passenger, enveloping them in luxury cocoons.

Combined with the high windowsills, you feel as if you are tucked down inside a high-performance sports car.

Large analog gauges, stylized four-spoke leather-wrapped steering wheel and comfy leather seats complete the illusion.

The test car came loaded with push-button starting, automatic climate control, heated seats, Bluetooth cell phone connectivity, USB port for MP3 players (allows them to be controlled through the car’s knobs and buttons), rear backing camera, navigation and XM Satellite Radio. Our car also had the deep burgundy interior package that colored the seats and steering wheel spokes to match. Black piano finish on the doors and center console flashed elegance.

Hyundai may be a Korean company, but the car is very American. It was designed in California, engineered in Ann Arbor, Mich., engines are produced in the U.S., and the car is assembled in Montgomery, Ala. The transition over the last decade from being purely Korean to significantly American coincides with the car’s popularity here, and its overall excellence. Hyundai means business and has invested billions on research, development, design and manufacturing to make the point. One drive in the Sonata and you will come to believe the investment was worth it. This should all be music to your ears.

Base Sonatas start at $19,195, and Limiteds begin at $25,295, but our loaded test model came to a very reasonable $28,215. Competitors include the Chevy Malibu, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Chrysler 300.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 8, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

Coupe de grace

Mercedes makes 2-doors way sexier than 4 with its E550

CASEY WILLIAMS  | Auto Reviewer

’10 E550 COUPE

Mercedes-Benz. 381 hp,
5.5 liter V8. 15/23-MPG city/hwy. As-tested price: $61,475


Since my grandmother bought her first one after my grandfather died 35 years ago, I have been a fan of Mercedes. Generation after generation, the cars are solidly-built, timelessly-styled and always at the top of their class. Grandma always purchased entry-level sedans: Two 280Es, a 190E and C220. She would drive them 170,000 miles and trade them off for the next generation — often without ever driving it. She just knew she would be pleased and was never disappointed.

Mercedes Benz E550
SPORTY COOL | The Mercedes Benz E550 offers the best of both worlds with nods to classic Mercedes builds and high tech interior features with a powerful engine that takes you from 0 to 60 in five seconds.

Mercedes coupes have always been more special than their sedans. I love the E Sedan as much as uninspiring professors probably liked the Ponton sedans in the ‘50s, but the more fabulous among us go for coupes: They’re sexy, but no less reliable, and will be the ones to covet decades from now. I still remember the new E-Coupe my doctor purchased in the late ‘80s. It looked great next to his red Mercedes 560SL!

Still sharing basic vehicle architecture with the C-Class, the latest E-Class Coupe takes a giant step upmarket in terms of styling and refinement. A more traditional Mercedes, the car feels as if a defiant Kim Jong Il couldn’t disturb it even if he went completely off the crazy train.

There are more traditional styling cues outside, but the design is wholly anchored in the next decade. A broad star-strewn grille shifts wind with twin lamellas running across, reaching to large headlamps with separate driving lamps between — a take from earlier Mercedes coupes with their large round headlamps and inset foglamps.

LED lamps in the lower facia step up to Audi’s challenge while AMG 18-in. alloy wheels could be on nothing other than a Mercedes. A tight arching roofline is ultra-sleek with the look of Mercedes’ CLS, but the accentuated rear fenders hearken back to the ‘50s. The E550 Coupe is a blend of Mercedes’ historic design cues, rendered in a new and fresh way.

If my doctor had to make a fast trip to the hospital (a continent away), the E550 would have been ready for the run. The car’s chiseled sloping hood shields a 5.5-liter 32-valve V8 engine that produces 382 horsepower and 391 lb.-ft. of torque. A standard 7-speed automatic transmission with steering wheel paddle shifters moves power to the rear wheels as smoothly as a tank trashing an ant. Step on the go pedal and the stout coupe scamps from 0–60 mph in about 5 seconds flat. Fuel economy is rated 15/23-MPG city/hwy.

INSIDE JOB | High tech options accent sleek lines.

Like the exterior, passenger space is a blend of tradition and contemporary elegance. You could step out of a 1975 Mercedes Coupe and be instantly familiar with the dash-mounted ignition switch, gated gear selector, left-dash light switch, and large center speedometer flanked by auxiliary gauges. Even the low turn stalk and upper left placement of the cruise control stick are exactly where your grandmother remembers them. Some may think these features are quaint and should be changed, but I have a healthy respect for tradition. So do Mercedes owners who really don’t care to have these things altered.

However, they are just fine with the onslaught of technology that invaded Mercedes cabins in recent years. Navigation, Bluetooth for phone connectivity, Sirius Satellite Radio, and heated/cooled leather seats keep owners art to the state. Radar cruise control maintains a set distance from vehicles in front on the highway. Technology or not, the brown dashtop is the perfect accent for hand-polished burl walnut on the dash, doors, and front and rear center consoles. What looks chrome, is. And, if it looks like timber, it could be ground to sawdust.

Mercedes’ renowned safety is accounted for in heaps. Of course, it has four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, traction control, electronic stability control, brake force distribution, and cornering control. Dual front, side, and side curtain airbags are standard. Our test car came with PRE-SAFE, a system that uses a radar unit behind the grille emblem to detect an impending accident, alert the driver, and even apply brakes automatically if he does not react quickly enough. Attention Assist detects drowsiness in the driver’s behavior from sensors in the steering and brake systems, and then illuminates a little coffee cup in the instrument cluster to wake him up.

Driving the E550 Coupe is a delight. Nothing upsets the car’s continuously variable damping system suspension. A car that feels incredibly heavy and stable at high speed turns into a lithe sport coupe when tossed about. It can drive 1,000-mile days as happily as attacking two-lane mountain passes.

The E550 Coupe is a stunning automobile, sure to make a scene wherever it rolls. Stunningly modern, it would still be recognized as a Mercedes on any planet. My grandmother would like it, but my doctor would love it. Go for the equally-impressive cabriolet and he could kick both the E320 and SL560 to the Classic Center and not miss either one. Base prices start at $54,650, but our test car came to $61,475.


BABY GOT BACK | The C30’s retro rear was a selling point for Cooper. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

Drivers seat

Name: Jon Cooper.

Occupation: Store operations support for Zales and part-time historical studies major at UTD.

Car: Volvo C30 T5.

Isn’t that the Twilight movie car? Are you Team Edward or Team Jacob? If someone mentions that movie one more time, I’m gouging their eyes out. Unless he’s hot.

The official color of your car is: Titanium grey metallic.

How long have you owned this car? A year and a half.

What was your last car? Ford Explorer Sport.

So why this one? After years of settling I finally decided to hell with it, I’m getting something nice!

It’s sporty — does it get good gas mileage? Not bad, 28 mpg combined.

Are you a faster driver now? Some have accused me of driving like a grandma, but the turbo is definitely turning me into a lead foot.

Best car memory: The first “Oh crap!” during a rain storm when all the safety features kicked in.

What’s playing in your music player? My iPod shuffles a mix from Keith Urban to Franz Ferdinand to Colton Ford with the occasional show tune.

What kind of maintenance do you do on your own? On this car? I ain’t touching anything!

What are the rules of your car? Be gentle and don’t screw with my seat settings.

How do you rate this car to previous ones? Considering my first car was a 1976 AMC Pacer, it’s definitely a step up.

This is a higher class car for you. Are you a power gay now? Definitely not.  An easy gay?  Yes.

Funniest road trip story? I did take it on a camping trip last spring.  I got a few raised eyebrows and head shakes from the hardcore SUV crowd.

What makes it sexy? Leather, baby!  Leath-uh!

Do the seats recline all the way for those special dates? Special what?

Where is one place you’d like to really drive your car? To my graduation ceremony next spring.

Would you put a Pride sticker on it? The only intelligent quote from The Real Housewives of New Jersey: “Would you put a bumper sticker on a Bentley?”  Maybe a Texas-shaped rainbow sticker on the license plate.

Foreign v. domestic? What are we talking about — guys or cars?

— Rich Lopez

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 17, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens

Korean Korvette

Genesis, Hyundai’s new pony car, gallops along with the big boys

IN THE BEGINNING… | Hyundai’s Genesis Coupe goes up against big-boy sports cars at a bargain price.

Hyundai migrated to North America in the ‘80s selling an atrocious little pot called the Pony. It was a total piece, based on an underachieving Mitsubishi, but it gave the Korean automaker a chance to improve its wares.

And boy has it ever. Over the past 25 years, Hyundai has gone from humble to hot, building some of the best cars sold in the U.S.

If you want a sport coupe that can humble a ‘90s Corvette and keep pace with America’s pony cars, check out the Genesis Coupe 3.8.

Especially when equipped with the available V6 engine and manual transmission, the Genesis Coupe very much is a Korean Corvette: A swoopy body with steering firmly connected to an athletic chassis. This is a car that embarrasses many world-class sports cars with a price that challenges mortal mid-size sedans.

A quick glance could convince you it’s a successor to the Tiburon or an aggressively-styled Eclipse competitor. Take it front-on and it looks as wide as a Ferrari Testarossa. The coupe shares its wide luxury car platform with the Genesis sedan, translating into a roomy cabin and athletic stance. At some angles, it could be an Infiniti G37 sport coupe, which I’m sure is no accident. From behind you get a breath of wing and wide butt familiar to drivers of lesser wheels.

Two-tier side surfacing and a “Z profile” windowline leave their impressions. Alloy wheels insure this exotic coupe lives up to its sexy looks.

You can get an efficient little 210-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder in the Genesis, but what’s the swag in that? Get the high-tech 306-HP 3.8-liter V6 and grow a set. In every one of the six manually-selected gears, the car growls and surges forward like an American muscle car.

Like in the Genesis sedan, power is sent to the rear wheels — proper in any real performance car. Fuel economy is rated 17/26-MPG city/hwy. You’ll burn more fuel than in a V6 domestic, but not much. If you’re that worried about it, go for the four-cylinder model and enjoy 21/30-MPG.

All you need is an iPhone (or similar device) to turn the Genesis into a Jetsons-era space coupe. Its twin-cockpit dash design is modern and sporty. Heated leather seats in contrasting brown leather looked great and gripped for fun. Automatic climate control, power sunroof and push button starting make the car easy to use.

Even with in-dash navigation and a thumpin’ 10-speaker Sirius-XM Infinity audio system, the car seems simple. Plug your iPhone into the USB port to access all of your music through the car’s controls (easy-to-use menus are intuitive). Bluetooth lets you make calls using the iPhone’s contact list and service by pressing buttons on the steering wheel. Add one little device and the car becomes as sophisticated as any. Best of all, you can take that tech to go.

Engineers went all out creating the Genesis sedan’s chassis. Its four-wheel independent suspension system, five-links in back, is as sophisticated as high-end German units. They had clear minds when they carried over a stiffened version for the Genesis Coupe. Compared to other cars in its class, Genesis feels better planted over rough pavement, but is lively enough to carve up backroads with vigor. Somehow, it still manages to provide a comfortable ride on the highway and isn’t overly harsh on rough city streets. The chassis is a first-class design, and Genesis is a first-class ride.

Safety was a key point of the design. Dual front, front-side and side curtain airbags tally off the people protectors. Four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, electronic stability control, traction control and electronic brake force distribution let the chassis contribute to avoid accidents in the first place. Active headrests help protect against whiplash in severe accidents.

I don’t have the heart to take a car and roast the tires off of it in a crazy testosterone-infused tear, but everybody tells me the Genesis is a riot among the drifting crowd. Its torquey rear-driven powertrain can spin the tires into liquid goo with a side of smoke; its precise suspension and steering let you put the car wherever you want it as if with thought alone. Amazingly, during a three-hour drive, the car was as mature and well behaved as any high-performance coupe I’ve driven recently.

If the Sedan heralded Hyundai’s arrival with an unapologetic luxury that can take on high-end German and Japanese models, then the Coupe is the sports car that puts the world’s pony cars on notice.
Genesis is giving the Mustang and Camaro their own brand of Asian hell while serving up a dish of burn for the Infiniti G37 and Nissan Z. An as-tested price of $29,425 rubs wasabi in the wounds.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 02, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas