Showing its Range

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

Electric slide

SHOCKING! | Of course the Volt is fuel-efficient; the fact it’s attractive and fun to drive is a bonus.

The Chevy Volt hybrid boasts green technology, but it’s also a blast to drive

CASEY WILLIAMS  | Auto Reviewer

After running errands one night, I drove my Chevrolet Volt electric car into my garage, plugged its charger into a standard outlet, connected the other end to a receptor on the side of the car and went inside for the night. According to the dash read-out, it would be fully charged before my first cup of coffee. Then, my mother texted me and invited me to lunch at their house — 50 miles away.

“If I go lightly on the throttle,” I think, “the Volt just might make it.”

I rarely go lightly on throttles and didn’t this morning, either. I rode gently through the Starbucks drive-through, but after that, I made myself giddy accelerating with whooshing abandon and

HYBRIDIZED | The display makes it clear when you’re driving on electric power and when you transition to gas.


cruising along at 70 mph.

Exactly 41 miles into my amusement, the battery pooped out. And I didn’t care. The car changed its display screen priority from battery range to a gas gauge, woke the 1.4 liter, four-cylinder engine, and kept whirring along. When other electric cars, including The Holy Tesla, run out of power, you walk or call for a flat bed. I click to Elvis Radio and enjoy a sunny drive. Welcome to the future.

Anybody of my generation who drives the Volt will instantly transport themselves to the ‘80s and the movie Back to the Future. In case you’ve lost track of time, the DeLorean is now as old as the ‘50s cars were then; we’re only four years from the future depicted in Part II. Wall-sized televisions have come, we can video chat anywhere and libraries are obsolete. If you could have told Marty McFly about the Internet, iPads, or this car, his head would have spun off. Volt looks the part of a sci-fi star.

No other General Motors product spent more time in a wind tunnel than the Volt, which explains its perfectly honed, streamlined shape. It may not be as sexy as the original 2007 concept car, but it is much roomier, persuades wind with Chevy’s trademark crossbar grille, looks sharp in its creases, rolls on 17-in. polished alloy wheels, and pays homage to the original concept with a black strip under the windows.

A front splitter, spoiler on the hatch, and motorized grille shutters divert air with a minimum of drag — all important when attempting to inch up electric range. Some call it ugly, but I think it is handsome.

On a continuum from pure electric vehicles like the ‘90s GM EV1 and Nissan Leaf to full gasoline models like the Corvette is a wide middle band. A Toyota Prius is towards the ‘Vette side since it is a gas vehicle, assisted by batteries. The Volt is on the other half of the middle: An electric car, backed by gasoline.

Charging the Volt’s lithium ion batteries is easy. Connect the included charger to a standard outlet, open the little portal near the driver’s door by key fob or door release, plug in, and wait about 10 hours. Or install a 240v charger and cut it to four hours. (The cost per charge is about $1.50.) Regenerative per-charge brakes put some juice back into the batteries during deceleration. Chevrolet claims an all-electric range of 35 to 50 miles, but total range including gas is about 380 miles — very sizeable.

In 100-degree Texas heat with and the A/C running at full blast constantly, expect less battery range. The EPA rates the Volt 93-MPGe on electricity and 37-MPG on gasoline. Expect 60-MPG on average and low-40s, burning fossils on the highway.

That’s all cool and stuff, but I’d buy a Volt just for the driving experience. Step on the forward motion activation pedal and the car accelerates eerily smoothly, with ample torque and no gear shifts, up to 100 mph. A Sport mode makes the throttle more responsive, but eats power. Outside of tire noise and faint motor whine, the car is silent. Even with the gas engine running, there is only a distant rumble from under the hood. Since the engine powers the electric system and virtually never drives the car directly, Volt remains an electric car. Steering feel is near perfect, the chassis likes to play, and the car feels tomb solid with its 3,781 lbs. of weight. It makes some big name hybrids feel like science projects by comparison.

I couldn’t resist blasting “Power of Love” by Huey Lewis and the News through the Bose audio system. Beyond sweet sounds, Volts come with options like heated leather seats, USB input for iPods, Bluetooth phone connectivity, automatic climate control, and front knee airbags. Navigation, audio, and climate are adjusted through a touch-sensitive center control panel. LCD screens display audio/NAV, MPH and a summary of energy usage during trips. It sounds complicated, but is as easy to use as an iPad.

Fold down rear seats and a big hatch makes it more practical than the Chevy Cruze with which it shares a basic architecture. A rear center console was necessitated by the battery pack, limiting passengers to four.

About 75 percent of us travel less than 40 miles per day, and in the Volt, we would never burn gasoline. However, if you want to drive to California, or just your parents’, fill up and go! Perhaps best of all, the Volt drives not like some cobbled-together prototype, but a fully-developed, completely-realized version of the future. This car is real, and it is a delight. To my dreadful sadness, the Volt has gone home and I am back from the future. But I know driving has forever changed.

Prices start under $35,000 after a $7,500 federal credit and include an 8-year/100,000-mile battery warranty. (Prius PLUS Performance Package, available on the Volt, is the first wave of PLUS-branded upgrades coming from Toyota in the coming months. Through relatively simple enhancements, drivers concerned about efficiency and ecology can also have a lot of fun driving their green rides. The PLUS package is priced at $3,699 for Prius Two, Three and Four models and $2,999 for Prius Five.)

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 22, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Femme vs. Butch

Does your car have an identity that mirrors yours? Or maybe it complements it? We parse the gender roles of the Jeep Compass and the Ford Raptor

CASEY WILLIAMS  | Auto Reviewer

Boys wear all kinds of swimwear: Cute little square-cut briefs are perfect for showing off around the pool, but manly men prefer board shorts when sail boarding or tubing the Guadalupe River. Some square cuts even have belts to look like real shorts.

While it might be sexy to imagine those little patches of Spandex being ripped off a ripped guy, most of us prefer a little more robust coverage when engaging in robust activities.

It’s the same for 4×4 vehicles. So we compared two: One a bit femme (the Jeep Compass) the other overtly butch (the Ford F-150 SVT Raptor). Like those swim trunks, they are cut from entirely different cloth. But you can still look damn good sporting them whatever you decide. Dare to compare.


Number of portals:
Compass: With 5, handily wins the “my doors are greater than yours” competition with prissy ease.
Raptor: 4. In manly fashion, takes the position that it’s not the number of doors you have, but what you do with them. Anyway, fewer places to enter is totally a guy thing.

Toughest journey:
Compass: Grandma’s garden.
Raptor: Baja 1000.

Claim to fame:
Compass: Trail Rated, like a preppie in Birkenstocks.
Raptor: Most powerful half-ton truck you can get, sporting studs.

Signature color:
Compass: Blackberry Pearl Coat —way too pretty to be a cowboy.
Raptor: The Ingot Silver Metallic with Molten Orange Interior spanks you until you hurt.

Tire diameter:
Compass: I’ve seen bigger.
Raptor: A ravaging 35 inches, baby!

Favorite “extra:”
Compass: Flip-down tailgate speakers for that all-night rave.
Raptor: Trailer brake controller helps give your toy a tug.

Towing capacity:
Compass: 2,000 lbs. — and look at those soft hands!
Raptor: Four tons — that’s 8,000 lbs., Mary.

Compass: A fuel-efficient 22/28-MPG, like a club queen thriving on lettuce.
Raptor: With a fuel-guzzling 12/16-MPG, this ride says, “Fork over the protein and keep it coming, beeyotch.”

Compass: 172 horses from an inline 4. But who’s counting?
Raptor: 411 from a V8 … because most men do.

Compass: 2006, and just got its first facelift.
Raptor: 1948 — fuzzy bears only look hotter with age.

Base price:
Compass: At $19,295, doesn’t really perform, but it’s a cheap date.
Raptor: $38,515, because this trick don’t put out for nothing.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 17, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

Numbers game

CHANNELING STYLE | The Sebring 200 Limited goes from meh to marvelous. The body looks the same, but the nips and tucks include chrome for bling and LED lights to give it some high-tech glow.

Chrysler’s Sebring redo, the 200 Limited, melds style with speed

CASEY WILLIAMS  | Auto Reviewer

One of the most attention-grabbing commercials during this year’s Super Bowl was a Chrysler 200 spot that featured Eminem with the tagline, “Imported from Detroit.” Both the pitchman and car are Detroit natives — the former famously, the latter materially. It was all part of the creative re-branding of Chrysler as an uber-American purveyor of urban conveyances for the trendsetters … and all coming from Motor City. The question is this, “Will that strategy get people to buy a face-lifted Sebring that was not exactly one of Chrysler’s blockbusters?”

When designers whipped up the last-generation Sebring for 2007, they tried their best to create a roomy sedan with the classic style of a Crossfire coupe. An eggcrate grille, arching roofline, wrap-around taillamps and stylish Mercedes-inspired interior all worked together well, even if the theme didn’t translate perfectly from spankin’ sports car to buff sedan. If only the chassis, engine and transmission had lived up to the exterior’s promise.

Now under Fiat control, the less-successful Chrysler products are undergoing a thorough makeover.

Of all things the Chrysler 200 imports, style is its best asset. The body shell remains, but everything attached to it is new. Chrysler’s stylized chrome grille with revised winged logo dominates the front, 18-in. chrome alloys fill the fenders and wrap taillights grace the rear. Look closer and you’ll notice LED light pipes around the front projector beam headlamps and additional crisp LEDs in the center brake lights. A new hood is more delicately formed. All of this adds up to a design that is more cohesive, precise and upscale.

The drama continues inside. Our test car came with heated black leather seats, beefy steering wheel with the best-feeling leather outside of a BMW, piano black finish around the center controls, and the results of a determined effort to make the cabin seem as expensive as the exterior. I’m glad the Mercedes-inspired instrument cluster and gated gear selector remained; a small analog clock is appropriate in an aspiring luxury tourer.

DRIVER ON BOARD | Chrysler upped the game on its Sebring revamp with slickness and power.

In-dash navigation, dual-zone climate control and thumpin’ audio system with XM Satellite Radio and USB input for iPods satisfies everybody. It’s a place where you want to be and is no longer polluted by cheap materials that seem as though they were procured from a goat.

It’s also quiet. Forty-five new sound deadening treatments were added, like acoustic glass usually found in much more expensive vehicles. Vibrations throughout the vehicle were scrutinized and eliminated while a new three-point engine mount was adapted to the four-cylinder engine to tame its transgressions.

The Sebring had a willing chassis, but it clunked and bunked over rough pavement and only begrudgingly hit the curves. Engineers touched virtually every part. The track is an inch wider and the car has been lowered several millimeters for more stable handling. There’s less body roll, noticeably reduced suspension jitter over rough pavement, more precise-feeling steering. I wish engineers would have tuned in a little more weight to the steering, especially at speed, but it is pleasant enough for a near-luxury sedan.

Drivers will really appreciate the new powertrains. They could choose the base 173-HP 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine for the best fuel economy, but I’d cruise right on by that and opt for the 283-HP 3.6-liter Pentastar V6. Both engines are available with six-speed automatic transmissions, but to save a few bucks, a four-speed transmission can be matched with the smaller engine. Four-cylinders achieve 20/31-MPG city/hwy, while the powerful V6 delivers 19/29-MPG.

I liked the Sebring before, even if it wasn’t particularly exciting. Designers gave it their all and engineers tried their best, but the bean counters apparently had their way and insisted on us driving around with an interior that never quite made the cut. That’s all fixed — from the divine steering wheel to the quieter interior, improved powertrains and revised chassis. We’ll have to see if buyers respond, but this is one car that Detroit should be proud to export.

Sill, I wonder if Eminem really drives one…

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 27, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas