AUTO: Seek and you shall find

Nissan’s modern-family-friendly Quest: Finally a minivan that’s (almost) cool

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LIVE LIKE A DUNPHEY | Driver’s seat styling doesn’t take a backseat in the Quest LE ... though the backseat, with built-in DVD player, may be too good for the kids. (Photo courtesy Nissan)

CASEY WILLIAMS  | Auto Reviewer
crwauto@aol.com

Whenever my partner and I watch Modern Family, we see too much of ourselves in Mitchell and Cam’s relationship. We debate which of us most resembles the characters — my partner would be the one to present our baby as The Lion King,  and I can completely queen out over something trivial. However, it’s another star of the show that would be welcomed by double daddies.

Nissan’s product placement of the all-new Quest mini-van was uber-smart. Although driven by Claire in the show, it’s easy to imagine two dads and their adopted offspring heading off to a fabulous vacation in that sleek bus. The streamlined toaster’s distinguished wrap-around rear glass sits atop creased bodysides, 18-in. alloys and a chrome grille that could part wind for an Infiniti or two flaming queens.

As big as the Quest is — and it is huge — it comes off as a much smaller vehicle until you creep upon it.

Nobody thinks minivans are cool nowadays … not that they ever did. But the joy of owning one sneaks up on you. The Quest’s interior is absolutely dance-club spacious with seating enough for seven. If little ones are in your future, six of your nearest and dearest friends will love going anywhere with you. Point the nose in any direction and slide aboard.

Friends slip through the power sliding rear doors, open either of the dual sunroofs (rear riders get their own), and climate control their individual zones. You could throw Manny in the back and never hear his adolescent pontifications again. Front passengers have heated seats and ride in thrones that smell like cow butter and are more luxurious than those in a Gulfstream jet; rear seats fold flat to throw in bicycles, a Nelson credenza or enough regalia for a production of La Boheme.

Play a CD of the opera through the van’s 13-speaker Bose audio system, recline your seat and pretend you’re there. Or put in a DVD to see it on the roof-mounted flatscreen. In-dash navigation, rear camera, blind spot warning system, Bluetooth phone connections, USB input for MP3 players and XM Satellite Radio bring you back to the current time with a full suite of toys.

My sister, who has three kids, was impressed with the Quest. Under the rear floor is a deep well to store valuables out of sight. Wide pockets in the doors are big enough for baby gear and have places to hold water bottles. Consoles between the front and middle-row seats hold drinks, iPads or anything else a modern family carries. If you can carry it, this van will haul it.auto-02

When Claire needs to make a quick get-away from another awkward situation, they’ll throttle down on the standard 260hp 3.5-liter DOHC V6 engine, connected to the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Most CVTs reel up and down their gear ratios maintaining a shrill somewhere between a Weed Eater and a screaming cat. Not so the Quest’s. It’s quiet, smooth and enables excellent 19/24-MPG city/hwy. ratings — not bad for a 4,500-lb. truck.

“Quiet” describes the overall experience. Large mirrors are separated from the body to minimize wind noise as the aero body slips through air without causing a stir. The chassis absorbs bumps without drama, steering is tight and power is always at the ready. Cruising beyond 80mph was easy. I even took down a pickup truck on a hilly two-lane. Four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, electronic brake force distribution, brake assist, and electronic stability control quiets the mind’s fears.

Like Jay and Gloria’s house on Modern Family, the overall sense of the Quest is understated quality. The seats feel and smell like they could be in a Bentley, padded materials cover even the rear doors, the leather-wrapped steering wheel feels expensive, and the woodgrain and silver finishes on the center dashboard are nicely styled. My partner and I found ourselves really enjoying a long drive, ready to head out into the vastness of America to find ourselves again, knowing full-well at any time we could stop, flip the seats, and find ourselves finding ourselves.

As everything about the Quest is tech-laden and high quality, it comes with a price tag that only a loaded modernist can afford.

Base prices start at $27,750, but our well-equipped test model came to $43,715. Still, you won’t find a luxury SUV so well equipped with half the interior space for less. Minivans aren’t cool, but the Quest is a fab choice for any alternative family.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 17, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas

Regal bearing

Buick’s sassy GS is ‘Regal’ enough for speed queens, styled for a princess

2012-Buick-Regal-GS

COUPE’D UP | With the continental styling of a German coupe and the muscles of a Corvette, Buick’s GS take on the Regal provides unexpected power inside an elegant framework.

CASEY WILLIAMS  | Auto Reviewer
crwauto@aol.com

Who knows what “GS” really stands for in the Buick lexicon? An educated guess would be “Grand Sport,” but I’m voting for “Goes Sonic.” Of course, it’s all relative: A turbocharged four-cylinder engine is only so sonic, but when attached to an expertly-developed European sport sedan, it invigorates the luxury-loving soul. Or something. It’s cool.

With Pontiac rising less like a phoenix and having burned down more like wood structures in a lava flow, Buick had a wider road on which to needle some adrenaline. A high-output Ecotec 2.0L turbo-four, pumping 270hp and 295 lb.-ft. of torque, stirs cravings. Choose a six-speed manual transmission (believe that!) or2012-Buick-Regal-GS-interior six-speed automatic with Driver Shift control. 0-60mph occurs in 6.7 seconds; you can run all day at speeds that will put you behind bars. Just bring a healthy debit card because the GS rates 19/27-MPG city/hwy. I averaged closer to 24-MPG — appreciably lower than some similarly-sized and comparably-powered, but less pudgy, competitors.

Put that in perspective. The oh-holy Buick Grand National’s 3.8-liter Turbo V6 delivered an “official” 245hp. Its speedier sibling, the GNX, squashed contemporary Corvettes with an underrated 276hp. The Regal GS is playing in the same league with two fewer cylinders, about half the displacement, and two additional doors for family and friends. Imagine what a V6 and AWD would do! Now, that would be Super Sonic (I’ll let Chevrolet borrow that).

Whereas in the old days you’d find a solid rear axle with enough wheel hop to plop your pop, the Regal GS’s chassis is a technical wonder. GS comes standard with Interactive Drive Control, a three-mode system that changes suspension and steering settings for more aggressive driving. “Standard” maintains comfort on rough roads or open Interstates. “Sport” stiffens the suspension and steering for better control. This is my favorite mode for everyday driving and Interstate travel. GS is for enthusiasts who are presumably headed for a smooth track – visit your dentist before pressing that button. To give fair warning, the instruments change from ice blue to white when GS mode is engaged.

All of this wizardry is attached to an incredibly stiff body structure that allows the four-wheel independent suspension and Brembo disc brakes, with four-piston front calipers and high performance linings, to stop the car as if clipped by a freight train. As in other mid-size GM sedans, engineers conjured up the HiPer Strut front suspension to reduce torque steer and improve cornering grip. That’s great, because loading up the front wheels with 270hp is usually like holding the reins of a speeding stallion. Available 200-in. polished alloys with low-profile tires play horse whisperer to tame the turbo’s torque.

Personally I prefer the Regal GS’s spiced up continental style to the muscle boy Grand National’s black brick attire. The body shell is shared with the German-built Opel Insignia. Stamped from what was apparently a solid piece of very elegant Black Forest granite, the Regal’s coupelike design is quite handsome from its chrome Buick grille to large headlights with sinister-angle running lamps, C-slash body surfacing, and sculpted rear deck with spoiler. It looks expensive. Twin exhaust outlets through the bumper and snarling fangs of chrome up front tell fat daddies to back off.

A cabin fit for Fittipaldi awaits sporty gents (and gals). Interior style is very businesslike with controls intelligently placed, but surrounded by lots of high-quality black plastic. Forget woodgrain, much less real wood. Deeply-sculpted heated black leather seats blow the chill off winter while the thick flat-bottom leather-wrapped steering wheel encourages you to heat things up. Audi couldn’t do better.

Controlled through either faceplate buttons and knobs or the console joy wheel, the car’s in-dash navigation gets you anywhere. Audiophiles will exfoliate their ears with the standard 336-watt Harman/kardon 5.1 Matrix Surround Sound system with nine speakers. Go old-school with a CD, stream Pandora Internet Radio, or summon satellites with XM. Bluetooth or USB connect driver’s smart phones to the full-color 7-in. touch screen. Blind spot warnings and rear parking assist keep you from calling Flo.

A friend and I flew the “Goes Sonic” to Detroit for the North American International Auto Show. Even after many hours on the road, the seats, steering, and suspension kept us in good kit. There was always plenty of power to jet past mini-vans and pickup trucks. On the first evening, we attended the premiere of the first-ever Cadillac ATS compact sedan. After the festivities, we handed the valet our claim slip. Two Regals pulled up before ours. Even among Cadillacs, the sporty Buick cuts a swath.

If you don’t like the turbo, Regal also comes in 182hp four-cylinder and 36-MPG eAssist variants. But, that’s for babies. Go Sonic and learn why you won’t soon forget GS.

Price as tested came to $38,155.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 3, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas

Butch vs. Femme

How fit does your ride need to be? We compare the elegant efficiency of the Toyota Prius V with the ballsy bravado of the Subaru Impreza

CASEY WILLIAMS  | Auto Reviewer

There are two ways to achieve fitness: Either become a gym queen and work your sweet little ass off on the stair climber, or go full nerd and starve yourself to thin. Depending on my mood, I can use a good aerobic workout and look buff for my hubby… or I just savor the grilled chicken salad (or veggie burger), kick off the sneaks with a book about a geeky car, and ponder Our Creation.

In the world of five-door compacts, the recently re-designed 2012 Subaru Impreza likes to be worked over hard while the new Prius V thinks its way to saving green.

Impreza

GYM RAT OR DIETER? | The hybrid Prius V, above, is surprisingly roomy and powerful.

Family heritage
Impreza: Generations of rally champs.
Prius: Golf cart, Previa mini-van.
Alter ego
Impreza: General Lee.
Prius: KITT.
Gay persona
Impreza: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
Prius: Michael Kors, Queen of Project Runway

Horsepower
Impreza: 148.
Prius: 134 (gas) + 80 (electric).

Number of driving modes
Impreza: 2 — Fast and Furious.
Prius: 4 – Standard, Eco, EV and Power.

Drag coefficient
Impreza: Sexy in satin.
Prius: 0.29, you tart.

Favorite toy
Impreza: Wiper de-icer.
Prius: Pandora radio.

Distance on electricity
Impreza: (insert favorite bodily sound)?
Prius: If we’re measuring, about a mile.

How to get dinner
Impreza: Run it down, stick it in the trunk; use Bluetooth
to call a meat processor to butcher it for ya.
Prius: Politely ask the Entune System’s OpenTable app for suggestions and NAV to plot a course.

Claims to fame
Impreza: Daddy of the wicked WRX; most fuel-efficient AWD in America.
Prius: More Prius, more petrol; most complicated small crossover ever created.

Celebrity most likely to drive car
Impreza: Crocodile Dundee.
Prius: Kardashian stepdad Bruce Jenner.

Power to the wheels
Impreza: Symmetrical AWD.
Prius: It depends on how much power needs to be transferred to the front wheels. It could come from the battery pack via an electric motor or from the gasoline engine with a continuously-variable transmission that has no set gears, but an infinite range of ratios. Hell, just forget it — bitch is complicated.

Price
Impreza: $19,000 — agile and sexy, doesn’t ask
for much.
Prius: $26,500 — a sophisticated lightweight that takes
all night to get drunk.

Prius

The Impreza has bearish sex appeal.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 13, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas

Bargain beauties

In a tight economy, previously owned cars can be a godsend to your bank account. Here are great deals on late-model winners

Pontiac-Solstice-GM

APPRECIATION WITHOUT DEPRECIATION | A used Pontiac Solstice, top, is hot and affordable, while a Mitsubishi Eclipse, below — also from 2007 — is one sexy sedan.

CASEY WILLIAMS  | Auto Reviewer
crwauto@aol.com

I get it: The economy stinks. We all feel pain at the pump and wonder how we’re going to pay all of the bills. But we still need to get where we’re going.

Eclipse-MitsuMany of us may soon be shopping for a late model car that should be dependable and hold up over what will surely be a plethora of miles. What to do? Just for conversation’s sake, let’s look for cars that are less than four years old, have less than 30,000 miles, and cost under $15,000. That should put us on the right road.

A quick trip to Cars.com summons a long list of vehicles that fit the above criteria. Boring is definitely on the menu, and that’s OK. Some sporty cars pop up, too. Don’t expect to find many Toyotas and Hondas —everybody on the planet knows they hold up well over time. But there are many great cars that people may overlook.

For instance, Pontiac G6 and Saturn Aura sedans are available by the dozens with prices under $15K. A 2007 Aura with 24,000 miles was listed for $14,999; a 2008 G6 with 29,000 miles went for a flat 15 thou, while a two-year older G6 with 16,000 miles was priced at $14,999.

The G6 and Aura are essentially the same vehicle as the current Malibu, look sporty, and get decent gas mileage. If you want something larger, a Chevy Impala is not exciting, but is a well-made car with 25,000 miles and $14,995 price. It achieves around 30-MPG Hwy.

There are a couple of Corollas I could highly recommend. A 2009 Corolla S with 18,978 miles was offered for $14,995, as was a 2010 with 23,500 miles. Here’s a secret for those who really want Corolla but can’t find one: The Pontiac Vibe was essentially a clone of the Corolla-based Toyota Matrix. Being a Pontiac, people don’t always know the lineage. A 2009 Vibe listed for $15K with only 26,000 miles is a great compromise; it also gets very good mileage and has tons of interior space.

Don’t overlook Korean cars. Hyundai and Kia both offer 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranties. While not as exciting as the current Sonata, a 2007 edition with 25,000 miles was listed for $13,988. A 2009 Sonata with 23,610 miles went for $14,988, while a 2010 Hyundai Accent and Elantra were listed for $14,995 with about 25,000 miles. I’d have no hesitation buying any of these.

If a sedan is not your thing, hang tough. I found a 2007 Pontiac Solstice roadster with 17,000 miles for $14,995. A 2007 Mitsubishi Eclipse GS, with the four-cylinder engine and 22,000 miles, was listed for $13,700. A Subaru Impreza with AWD hit the page with 23,495 miles and $14,995.

If fuel cost doesn’t matter, buying an SUV or pick-up truck can be bargains. Trucks last forever, are simple to maintain and are dropping in price. Choose a V6 instead of the up-level V8 to save money and fuel; or go for a baby crossover like the Nissan Cube, Kia Soul or Scion xB to get below $15,000 with 20,000 miles. My best friend bought a pre-owned xB and loves it.

Those cars are built by world-class manufacturers, get great gas mileage, and have cavernous interiors: All prime attributes for a used car on a budget.

…………………..

SHOPPING GUIDE

Kia-SoulYour search for a good used car should start by visiting a website like Cars.com or Edmunds.com. That will give you a good idea of prices, typical mileage and available vehicles in your area. (I have issues with Consumer Reports’ testing procedures, but the publication provides another data point.) Check owner reviews on the search sites above to get real-world feedback.

Given that, keep a few guidelines in mind:

• Go for the base engine. It may not be as sexy, but will cost less up front and generally turns in better fuel economy.

• Discontinued brands like Pontiac, Saturn and Mercury offer great used cars that can be serviced indefinitely by their manufacturers.

• Hyundai and Kia offer 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranties – great peace of mind as the miles pile on.

• Boring sedans can be great used car values. So can sports cars, but they are harder to find.

• Pickups last forever and are cheap to own. Keep in mind high fuel consumption.

• The baby cubes from Scion, Nissan and Kia, pictured, offer a lot of bang for the buck.

— C.W.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 23, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Showing its Range

Rover’s Sport edition adds maneuverability to its already legendary luxuriousness

Land-Rover

CITY SLICKER | A spacious SUV with a limber profile, the Range Rover Sport has power and styling to spare, but it also has a graceful way down a tight city street. (Photo courtesy Land Rover)

CASEY WILLIAMS  | Auto Reviewer
crwauto@aol.com

Driving the Land Rover Range Rover puts you among the queens of all hair heights, but the big gal’s size can make you wince at the idea of hustling her through curves and tight city streets. The SUV’s off-road capability and all-road luxury are legendary. What Land Rover needed was a vehicle that combined all of the Range Rover’s excellence in a slightly more compressed package.
Shimmy up to the Range Rover Sport.

Its size is an illusion. Parked next to most SUVs, the RR Sport looks imposing. It’s only when you roll it up next to an Escalade or Navigator do you sense its more maneuverable proportions. Even so, it was much easier on narrow urban streets and while parking near my inner-city house. A long hood, elevated ride height and sloping rear window comply with tradition, but aero-affected edges succumb to style trends and fuel prices; 19-in. alloys looked hot under the slab of body.

Of course, saving fuel is relative. You can option the RR Sport with a 510-hp supercharged engine, but the standard 375-hp aluminum 5.0-liter V8 in our test car was plenty adequate. It tossed the wagon down the Interstate and off the line, but it will eat your wallet for 13/18-MPG city/hwy. Four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, electronic stability control, and traction control are calibrated for high-end running. A four-wheel independent air suspension system can be lowered for highways, raised for off-roading and kneel for graceful entry.

At the slower end of the RR’s performance envelope is an array of sophisticated traction devices. Hill descent control and hill hold control let the RR creep down steepers or hold a brief moment while the driver lifts from brake to throttle. Land Rover’s pioneering terrain response system can be dialed for conditions like sand, mud, gravel, grass, snow or rocks. Permanent four-wheel- drive back up the Range Rover’s name with mountain goat capability.

All that, and you’ll still be treated like you own a country estate. Leather, carpets and dash materials are of the highest grade; seats are all-day comfy, and rear passengers can peer over their land while front seat surveyors look down at a wide hood. In-dash navigation, 240-watt Harman-Kardon audio, USB iPod integration, Bluetooth phone connection, rain sensing wipers, park distance control, backing camera and dual zone climate control load the chariot.

Seats, mirrors, and steering wheels are all heated — perfect for an upcoming mid-winter’s romp.

More playful than weighful, the Range Rover Sport shows that you can have your luxury SUV and hustle, too. For my use, I prefer the Sport to its larger sibling. It is accomplished off-road — maybe more so with its tighter wheelbase — and it is noticeably more athletic on the open road or when curves play on asphalt. I love the Range Rover, but could more easily live with a Range Rover Sport in my ‘hood.

With a base price of $60,500, it is anything but cheap. Compared to the $80,000 Range Rover, it is a royal bargain.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 9, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Papa bears

Gays love a big softie — tough but tender. These kick-ass cars have muscles over gentle souls

CASEY WILLIAMS  | Auto Reviewer
crwauto@aol.com

In one of my favorite movies, Latter Days, the character Christian describes getting hypothermia and being rescued by a big warm guy holding him naked in a sleeping bag. He felt loved, warm in the arms of a big ol’ papa bear.
Like the ranger, these muscular mighties will hold you safe, but also respect a little nature along the trail.


VW Touareg.
At the recent media launch for the VW Passat in Chattanooga, Tenn., the P.R. team had journalists riding in the back of VW Touaregs. Getting onto the freeway, our driver put the big SUV into a sweeping uphill curve at high speed with confidence rarely seen off of a racetrack. I was in awe of his driving skills and the Touareg’s ability to carve up Appalachian highways. Turns out, the driver was a state trooper working part-time. I never felt safer.

This SUV flaunts a cabin built to Bentley standards, but flexes a range of powertrains. Base models offer a 280hp 3.6-liter V6 that achieves 16/23-MPG city/hwy., but the tree hugger in our beefy driver was a big fan of diesels and hybrids. VW’s turbo diesel generates 225hp and 19/28-MPG. The supercharged hybrid manages 380hp and 20/24-MPG.

Prices range from $44,500 for a V6, $48,000 for the diesel and $61,000 for a hybrid.

CUDDLE MONSTERS  |  VW’s Touareg, opposite page, boasts Bentley-quality styling and a powerful hybrid engine; Ford’s F-150 with Eco Boost, left, treats the environment well; GM’s Arlington-built Yukon Denali, above, puts a bit of Alaska inside Texas. (Photos courtesy VW, Ford, GMC)

CUDDLE MONSTERS | VW’s Touareg, opposite page, boasts Bentley-quality styling and a powerful hybrid engine; Ford’s F-150 with Eco Boost, left, treats the environment well; GM’s Arlington-built Yukon Denali, above, puts a bit of Alaska inside Texas. (Photos courtesy VW, Ford, GMC)

GMC Yukon Denali Hybrid. GMC. Yukon. Denali. Just the name sounds tough, doesn’t it? But Hybrid? Sounds like a Muscle Mary — where do we go with this? Probably to a good place. Despite an interior that spoils with heated leather seats, Bluetooth, DVD player, sunroof and a YMCA locker-sized center console, the full-size SUV achieves 20/23-MPG city/hwy. — comparable to a mid-size sedan.

Without diminishing its gleaming Denali looks, engineers coerced some hard engineering out of this softie. The core of its professional grade persona is a 332hp 6.0-liter V8 that can shut down four cylinders during cruise. There’s also a battery pack two-mode transmission that can vary depending on workload.

Yukon can drive up to 30mph on electricity alone for very short distances. Revised air dams, running boards and rear body enhance aero. Best yet, the Yukon Denali Hybrid is a local boy, built here in Arlington. You’ll have to bring at least $59,000 to play.

Ford F-150 EcoBoost. This F-150 is kinda like that furry bear who started jogging, lost a little pudge and trimmed the foliage: He’s still tough, but has taken a liking to more contemporary expectations.
EcoBoost, in Ford speak, means smaller engines with turbos for maximum fuel economy and power. In fact, the turbo V6 in the F-150 generates 365hp – more than the base V8. It is as smooth as a twink’s legs as it eases itself around town and steps up briskly when hitting the freeway. Low-end throbbing from the turbos is an absolute joy.

It’s also pretty sexy. A big chrome grille flashes bling like diamonds while the interior is industrial chic with silver panels, leather seats, SYNC voice-activated infotainment and space for friends. (If you like the engine, but want a more compact ride, the EcoBoost V6 is also found in the Taurus SHO, Flex, Lincoln MKS and Lincoln MKT; four-cylinder EcoBoost engines will soon be in the Ford Explorer, Edge and Focus.) Life in Turboland is pretty snug. Want more proof? The Texas Auto Writers Association just named the F-150 “Truck of Texas” at its annual Truck Rodeo.

This F-150 starts just under $30,000.

Honda Ridgeline. Nothing is more papa bear than a hard-working pickup that is soft at its soul. Based on the popular Pilot, but with a reinforced under-frame, the Ridgeline is essentially a fuel-efficient crossover with a bed. It is the only pickup with an independent rear suspension for the best of rides. An in-bed truck is large enough to hold a cooler of your favorite inebriation or energy drink.

Moving the marbles is a 250hp 3.5-liter V6. AWD is standard. Authentically capable, the Ridgeline also looks handsome with its chiseled, integrated bodysides, beefy front profile, flying buttress sail panels and off-road rubber. Inside, navigation, 115v outlet, 160-watt audio, moonroof, Bluetooth and back-up camera satisfy. Honda isn’t exactly blowing Ridgelines out the door, but that’s only an opportunity to end up in the arms of a very loving truck without a lot of guilt. Prices start under $30,000.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 25, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

DRIVE!: Now we’re cookin’!

Fiery under the hood and on the road, these sporty rides know how to burn rubber

CASEY WILLIAMS | Auto Reviewer

I love Hell’s Kitchen: Watching Gordon Ramsey make snarky remarks as he collects aprons at the end of each culinary challenge brings joy to my sarcastic self — I like it when they cry. I also imagine the displaced wannabe tearing out of the parking lot in a fog of burning rubber.

But being accomplished chefs, they would probably choose some refined conveyance — like one of these.

Dodge Charger SRT8. Dodge conjured its magic from a chassis donated by a two-generations-old Mercedes E-Class. However, those leftovers are like Emeril Lagasse sending home his signature dish in sealed china. You won’t complain. The re-designed sedan’s heathen-eating high-gloss black grille, hood with functional black air exhauster, slammed roofline, 164 LEDs in the taillamps, and 4-in. round dual exhaust tips are but an appetizer.

A performance driver’s favorite table includes a heated flat bottom steering wheel with paddle shifters, aluminum trim, aggressive seat bolstering, heated/cooled front buckets and heated rear seats. Hands-free texting comes with compatible Bluetooth devices while safety is enhanced by Blind Spot Monitoring, Forward Collision Warning and Rear Cross Path detection. The 19-speaker Harman/Kardon audio system cranks 900 watts.

Spicy heat comes from under the hood. A 470hp 6.4-liter HEMI V8 chucks the car from 0-60mph in the “high 4-second range” and delivers 23-MPG hwy thanks to cylinder deactivation during cruise and other technologies. A two-mode adaptive suspension system monitors driver inputs to automatically optimize performance. For a little coaching, owners receive one day of instruction from the Richard Petty Driving Experience. Prices start just under $47,000.

 

SEEING RED  |  You can have devilish fun with the high-powered sex appeal of the Mercedes AMG Coupe, top, or the muscle-car testosterone of the Dodge Charger, above. (Photos courtesy of Mercedes-Benz and Dodge)

SEEING RED | You can have devilish fun with the high-powered sex appeal of the Mercedes AMG Coupe, top, or the muscle-car testosterone of the Dodge Charger, above. (Photos courtesy of Mercedes-Benz and Dodge)

Mercedes C63 AMG Black Series Coupe. Let’s just start by saying Ramsey is the only chef in Hell’s Kitchen that will be in the market for this car. It’s all that and a perfectly-seared scallop, but comes with a sticker that puts the fear of Gordon in most shoppers.

The C63 AMG Black Series takes the steamy new C-Class Coupe and turns it into a heinously-aggressive street car. Aerodynamic enhancements, adjustable carbon fiber rear spoiler, winglets and an aluminum hood are not just for show. Nor, are the 2.2-inch wider front fenders, 3.3-in wider rear fenders, or 19-in. wheels. The air vents in front of rear wheels and large 6.3 badges add frivolous flash. There’s no rear seat, but Microfiber is everywhere.

As the most powerful C-Class of all time, the car runs with a 510hp 6.3-liter V8 engine connected to Mercedes’ SPEEDSHIFT MCT 7-speed sports gearbox with four shifting modes, rev-matching function and stellar reaction times. One only needs 4.2s to move from naught to 60. Electronic stability modes and the sports suspension can be adjusted for more spirited shenanigans on a proper track. The C63 AMG starts just over $64,000.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 11, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

DRIVE!: Little pleasures

‘Everything’s bigger in Texas’ doesn’t have to include your gasoline bill. Try one of these fun little numbers

LOOK SMART  |  Fashionistas will swoon for the Gucci-fied Fiat 500C, above; buying the Scion iQ, below, shows off your intelligence. (Photos courtesy FIat and Scion)

LOOK SMART | Fashionistas will swoon for the Gucci-fied Fiat 500C, above; buying the Scion iQ, below, shows off your intelligence. (Photos courtesy FIat and Scion)

CASEY WILLIAMS  | Auto Reviewer

It’s not the size of your car that matters, but the pleasure you derive from it. Some of those big, bulky motor tools may look sexy, but once you get a fill of their piggish appetites, they can be a turn-off. If your dreams are set on complete satisfaction, we suggest these fun little numbers.

Chevrolet Sonic. Chevy’s latest Detroit-built sub-compact is about to hit competitors with a boom. The Aveo  it is not! Sonic is refined, stylish and loaded with fun features like a digital speedometer, Bluetooth, USB, remote start and a 138hp turbo engine. Check the sheets for heated leather seats. Expect 29/40-MPG city/hwy. A base price of $13,735 keeps GM’s smallest member from being laughed out of the locker room.
Volkswagen Beetle. VW wouldn’t be dressed without a Beetle, and with the 2012 re-design, it should attract more than mall chicks and club queens. Look close and you’ll notice a longer roof, beefier fenders, LED running lamps and optional 19-in. wheels. Gone is the sky dome, but there’s more room to stretch. Get it with a 170hp five-cylinder or 200hp Turbo that moves 22/30-MPG city/hwy. Optional Fender audio deserves a B.J. Prices start under $20k.

Toyota Yaris. Completely redesigned with lovable puggy looks — and 2.9-in. longer to boot — the Yaris offers a more solid ride. You’ll love the flat bottom steering wheel, nine airbags and comfy interior. The 106hp engine, connected to a four-speed auto or five-speed manual trans. delivers efficiency — up to 30/38-MPG city/hwy. You can still get three- and five-door hatchbacks. Given a base price just over $14,000, hordes will be zipping about.

Scion iQ. It’s always the smart ones that turn tail undercovers and become wild animals. However, with just 93hp, this tiny city car will have to impress with 11 standard airbags, standard Bluetooth and HD Radio, and “3+1” seating. Thump yourself happy with available Pioneer speakers and subwoofer. A brake override and stability control are standard, as is 37MPG fuel efficiency. Prices will start just over $15,000 when sales begin nationwide in early 2012.

Nissan Versa. Let’s just start with the name: “Versa” implies all kinds of uses, but the best one for this re-designed Nissan is getting to work or school and back — all the more pleasurable with Bluetooth, NAV, USB and large interior. The 109hp engine delivers 30/38-MPG city/hwy with an automatic. For an incredibly low starting price of $10,990, you shouldn’t expect much more than a durable transport tool. Pay more and get the good stuff.

Fiat 500C. Fiat can drop its top. The 500C is efficient, fun and revs its 101 horses through a hunky Italian five-speed to deliver 38-MPG hwy. Click the Sport button for a quick rise. Packages like Pop and Lounge, 14 exterior colors and 12-seat designs express. It’s even a Top Safety Pick. If a queen wants her 500C, she should go full handbag and get J. Lo’s Guccified edition. Prices start at $19,500 (or $27,500 for the famous green and red stripes).

CAR-NIVALE  |  At less than $14K, the Kia Rio is an affordably sporty ride. (Photo courtesy Kia)

CAR-NIVALE | At less than $14K, the Kia Rio is an affordably sporty ride. (Photo courtesy Kia)

Kia Rio 5-Door. The name hints at Brazil, but the car is from South Korea with German, Audi-inspired styling. Available UVO by Microsoft voice-activated infotainment, rear camera, LED accent lights, USB and dual chrome exhaust tips are upscale. Slid under the hood is a 138hp engine with start/stop technology that enables 30/40-MPG city/hwy with a six-speed transmission. Including a 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty, prices start under $14,000.

Hyundai Veloster. Three-door-plus-hatchback styling reminds a little of Saturn, but the funky-cool package and split-cowl dash are pure Hyundai. A 138hp four-cylinder with paddle-shifted automatic turns in 40-MPG hwy — better than a Honda CR-Z Hybrid. Blue Link enables voice text messaging, music selection, and a back-up camera. Expect to pay at least $17,300, including Hyundai’s 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty and trade-in value guarantee.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 11, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

DRIVE!: Out of drag

Aerodynamic cars are sexy and fuel efficient — as Detroit has long known


CASEY WILLIAMS  | Auto Reviewer

My stylishly fabulous friend from Paris once said, “These are the most uncomfortable shoes ever, but they are Prada.” My partner and I, on the other hand, have become patrons of Cole Haan, purveyor of kicks that are well-made and beautiful but as comfortable as sneakers. With or without a label, style and functionality can go together — especially with automobiles.

Chrysler built a wind tunnel by 1930 and enlisted the help of Orville Wright to explore shapes that would slip through the air more easily. They discovered cars of the time would have gone through the air more easily driving backwards. The result of their work was the Airflow, from 1934 to 1937 an art deco masterpiece that employed streamlining and elegant curves not fully appreciated until the Ford Taurus debuted in the mid-‘80s.

Given the abysmal sales of the Airflow, American automakers wanted no part of engineered styling, choosing instead to splash on chrome and fins. However Germany learned. The VW Beetle and Porsche 356 were influenced by the Airflow’s underlying engineering, and the Audi 5000 and Mercedes from the late ‘70s and ‘80s relied heavily on wind tunnel testing, giving them a timeless style that still doesn’t look dated. Recently, the quest for better gas mileage and battery range pushed aerodynamics forward.

Bugatti’s million-dollar Veyron supercar is one gorgeous hunk of carbon fiber and stays grounded at 268mph with the help of a rear spoiler that raises and pivots automatically. Active aero should be expected on a car of this pedigree, but it is also becoming commonplace on fuel sippers from America, Japan and Korea.

AIR APPARENT  |  Engineered cars allowing wind to move in a path or least resistance have been hallmarks of Mercedes-Benz, above, for decades, and make the million-dollar Bugatti Veyron, top, road candy for the eye.

AIR APPARENT | Engineered cars allowing wind to move in a path or least resistance have been hallmarks of Mercedes-Benz, above, for decades, and make the million-dollar Bugatti Veyron, top, road candy for the eye.

Designers focus on how the car greets new air, where the air flows around and under the chassis and the amount of turbulence-causing drag occurring as wind soars over the rear of the vehicle. A sleek front, smooth undersides, streamlined mirrors and clean break at the tail optimize efficiency. That’s why you are now seeing flat edging at the rear of vehicles, smaller spoilers, fluid mirrors and very tall decklids. The look is most extreme on the Chevy Volt and Toyota Prius.

Cars do not need as much grille cooling the engine at higher speeds. To help cars slip through the air, and get the 40 miles of electricity-only driving some promise, automatic shutters close and divert air around the vehicle. They are included on the Kia Optima Hybrid, Ford Focus SFE, Toyota Camry Hybrid, Chevy Cruze Eco, Volt and Malibu Eco. It works: Cruze Eco achieves 44-MPG in highway driving without a hybrid system; the “lightly electrified” 2013 Malibu Eco will achieve 38-MPG. It’s safe to say no cars since the Airflow were fussed over so thoroughly to both look good and go smoothly through the air.

You can easily see the attention to aero on a sedan like the Camry, but the Camaro ZL-1 is special. GM’s Tom Peters and his team went overboard to make sure the hood vents increased downforce, but were also sculpted out of carbon fiber. Ground affects and a subtle rear spoiler were engineered for performance, but styled to be beautiful, like a linebacker who stays tan and smooth with sharp attire.

Any aerodynamicist worth their smoke wand can make cars slippery. Real talent comes from designers who can also make them beautiful. Cars of all types and prices prove designers can pen shapes that are sexy out of drag.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 11, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

EurAsian excellence

Korean-born but European-bred, Kia’s Optima EX has luxury and speed at a bargain price

CASEY WILLIAMS  | Auto Reviewer
crwauto@aol.com

……………………….

’11 OPTIMA EX
Kia. 200 horsepower, 2.4 liter Inline-4 24/34-MPG city/hwy. As-tested price: $27,440

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The low point of Kia design was not the Sephia or Spectra — it was the Amati, which looked like some Saturday morning cartoon thought it would be cool to get a TownCar to cohabitate with an Accord and act out their affection upon America. It was a good car, but for prayer’s sake, somebody needed to get Kia’s design department drawing in the right direction.

That person turned out to be Peter Schreyer, who became chief design officer in 2006. Schreyer’s resume includes some stunners, including the 1996 Audi A3, the 1998 Audi TT, the 1998 Audi A6 and the 2006 VW Eos. That’s just what he gets credit for before landing at Kia. Since then, his team sculpted the beautiful 2010 Forte, 2010 Sportage, and this Optima. Who says good design has to be expensive? Like Michael Graves for Target, Schreyer graced masterful styling upon the masses while teaching Kia to speak with a European accent.

You can tell an expertly designed car by the attention to detail. The Optima’s design starts with a fairly conservative sedan with arched roofline, but designers spent considerable time sculpting the ridges on either side of the hood and fitting in a cool chrome band that runs from the base of the A-pillar, through the roof and into the top edge of the C-pillar.

INSIDE AND OUT | Kia’s signature pinched grille, top, remains intact, but the stylishly redesigned interior, above, harkens to the finest and most user-friendly of Euro roadsters, like the Saab.

Kia’s trademark pinched grille dominates the front, but makes friends with angled headlamps that give the car an aggressive face. A strong shoulderline anchors the bottom half of the car and helps break up the tall body. Tail lamps have dimension and resemble those on the new VW Passat.

I admire the exterior, but the inside is even better. A Saab-style wrap-around dashboard puts controls readily at hand and is enhanced with stitched sections on either side of the instrument cluster. No other mid-size sedan has a more perfectly-sized heated leather-wrapped steering wheel that also contains the Bluetooth phone controls. Heated and cooled leather front buckets are all-day comfortable; outboard rear passengers soak in the heat.

Nobody makes an easier-to-use touchscreen for the navigation, XM Satellite radio and USB-connected MP3 player. A panoramic sunroof only makes it easier to see the elegant bluish woodgrain on the doors and console. Schreyer apparently remembered the perfectly weighted gear selector from his Audi days, because the Optima gets its own.

So, what happens when an international designer meets world-class engineers? They create cars that not only look European, but drive that way, too. In fact, the front-drive Optima behaves like the last Saab 9-5, a personal favorite. Steering is nicely weighted and precise while the suspension is compliant, but firm. The chassis two-steps over rough pavement with nary a shudder, absorbing potholes without going weepy, while settling down for a long, quiet drive. You can feel the steering purring in your hands, telling you what the car’s thinking. Four-wheel anti-lock brakes, traction control, electronic stability control, and hill-start assist control aid the driver with his or her duties.

I thumped the Optima hard on a one-day road trip of more than 600 miles. Kia’s 200-HP 2.4-liter direct-injection four-cylinder engine, connected to a 6-speed Sportmatic transmission, is pretty sweet. The torquey little lump of motivation feels mightier than its sword suggests. Step on it at 80 mph, and the six-speed transmission clips down a couple of cogs, sending the car off to wherever you point it.

Running at least 10 mph over the legal limit most of the way, it returned nearly 33-MPG. (The EPA claims 24/34-MPG city/hwy.) There are some just re-designed competitors from big-name automakers that would die to have this powertrain. Kia owners will barely notice the fuel bill or any noise from under the hood.

It used to be that people bought Kias because they apparently liked being jokes of the neighborhood. Those days left to the heap of old school thinking like respect for Charlie Sheen. The Ashton Kutcher era brings us an entire line of Kias that you’ll choose because you fall in love with them, like Korean Volkswagens. This, come to think of it, might be exactly Schreyer’s point.

Not that the Optima needs it, but it comes standard with Kia’s 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty. Sans NAV, panoramic roof, and all of the heating and cooling for seats and steering wheels, the Optima EX starts at just $22,495. As equipped as a Swedish treat, expect to pay $27,440 -— a freakin’ steal for this dreamy ride. You’ll just have to wrench the keys from my warm knurled fingers. Speaking European won’t help your cause.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 16, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens