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

Caught in the Spyder’s web

Mitsubishi’s sexy, curvaceous Eclipse was designed for Texas hotties

CASEY WILLIAMS  | Auto Reviewer

Life is good in Texas: Spring is here, summer is coming and love is in the air. To quote Cole Porter, “Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it.”

Of course, the best way to attract a warming romance is to peel off your top, party like the last decade never came, and promenade your favorite club. Not that, you crazy homo: We’re talkin’ ‘bout driving the Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder.

At one point, every gay boy has swooned over the Eclipse. It first debuted as one of the “Diamond-Star” cars built in Illinois as a joint-venture between Mitsubishi and Chrysler. You might also have coveted the similar Plymouth Laser or Eagle Talon.

Priced reasonably, the front-drive coupe was a bunch of fun and looked sexy with its curvy body.

We even stuck by it when the Eclipse went through a “geometric” phase as if it wanted to be a bargain-priced Testarossa. Now, we have the organic edition that is a little pudgy, but should make most of the original’s fans very happy.

Perhaps too much of a pretty boy with its curvaceous body and smooth face, the Eclipse designers recently blacked in an Evo-style face to give it more attitude. There was something beautiful about the original body-colored schnoz, but some will like the nastier butchness post-facelift.

To get low and dirty for both performance and style, engineers lowered the Spyder’s ride more than half an inch. This gives the car a more aggressive stance while improving aerodynamics and fuel economy. A hard tonneau cover hides the convertible top when retracted while High Intensity Discharge headlamps up front and a ring of LEDs behind clear lenses in the rear sparkle the view coming and going.02_11_Eclipse_Spyder

Designers continued with more curves inside, but were smart enough to stock the cabin full of pleasure-producing novelties. I love the ice-blue LED lighting in the instruments and controls for a swanky new-age club feel. To rock the joint, hit the 650-watt 6-disc/MP3 stereo with 9 speakers, 8-in. subwoofer, auxiliary input jack for iPods, and available Sirius/XM radio.

No techno-ride would be complete without the Eclipse Spyder’s Bluetooth hands-free phone connection, rearview backup camera, aluminum pedals, and bright entry sills. Slip your backside into the heated leather seats to take the sting out of cool spring days. Mitsubishi’s leather-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel dares to be caressed.

Imagine being able to choose between a hot-blooded lover and a gentle cuddler. That’s the choice you have when deciding what goes under the Eclipse’s covers. If fuel economy is a concern, Mitsubishi offers a 16-valve, 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine in the

Eclipse GS Sport that generates 162 horsepower. If you want something more passionate, tick the list for the Eclipse GT and its 3.8-liter V6 that produces a squeal-giggling 265 hp.

Four-cylinder models come with a four-speed automatic transmission while the V6 is connected to a 5-speed Sportronic transmission that can be left in full-auto or manually shifted to rock your rocks. Four-cylinders achieve 20/27-MPG; V6s allow 16/24-MPG.

I taught my partner to drive a stick shift one Christmas holiday in an Eclipse. Much has changed since I first let him row my gears a decade ago, but the Eclipse is still a joy to drive. Power comes on smoothly and is shifted through a precise transmission. Its tight little four-wheel independent suspension glides over rough pavement, but stiffens up nicely when excited. You can drop this toy’s top in 19 seconds, making it perfect for a drive to the park on a sunny afternoon or romp across the continent just for the hell of it.

Proving safe sex is better sex, Mitsubishi loaded the Spyder with all of the latest gear. Advanced front airbags inflate at two levels of intensity, depending on crash forces, and can sense seat position and occupant weight for the best protection. There are also side airbags, but no curtains because of the soft top.

If you want to experience the sexier side of Mitsubishi, move your ass and buy an Eclipse now as Mitsubishi’s future plans center on small crossovers and micro-compacts. Unlike some other tricks, this one won’t cost a queen’s ransom. The entry-level GS Sport package comes with a long menu of standard accoutrement. Leather seating, heated front seats, power driver’s seat, aluminum pedals and entrance sills, HID headlamps and 18-in. alloy wheels are all included for a base price of $28K. To get that and all of the GT’s power, expect to roll out at least $32,828. Either way, that’s a reasonable price for this view of heaven. So, go on and indulge in a little romance.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 13, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Auto Review: Infinity EX35

Don’t be jealous of its booty

Just don’t say this wagon has junk in the trunk — all of its features are top of the line

CASEY WILLIAMS  | Auto Reviewer

Like a great drag queen, Infiniti’s EX35 wagon is all about the booty. A big round rump is attached to a body that otherwise looks much like the handsome G37 sedan. It’s not really a crossover (the FX fills that role beautifully), and you wouldn’t call it a station wagon, either — no wood sides or long rear quarters here. Instead, it is a very clever extended sedan that provides a lot of utility in its nether region. A butt man who’s also a gearhear could stare at that steel-hard bubble for hours.

EYES ON THE ROAD … AND ALL AROUND | The Infiniti EX35 features the Around View Monitor to see where you can’t and a very sensitive warning system.

What the rump attaches to is also pretty good-looking. Infiniti’s wavy chrome-grass grille puts a bright face on sucking air and eating bugs. Rounded headlamps flow right into a sweeping body that gently curves from the bumper, over the hood and arching into the short tail. If you squint just right, the car looks like a tall Porsche — a 911 crossover. Burgundy metallic paint, dual chrome exhaust tips, satin metallic roof rails, corner-following adaptive front lighting, LED taillamps and 19-in. five-spoke Enkei wheels dress the EX to a tee.

Having a delicious exterior is only an invitation to know what’s inside. A raised ride height makes sliding into the heated leather seats little effort. A leather-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel, large analog gauges and leather-wrapped gear selector say it means business. Bose audio with USB input sounds like cherubs while concealable cupholders, fold-down rear seats and a large hatch provide plenty of room for all you plunder. Dark wood on the center console and doors adds ambience. You gotta love the cool flip-up hangar on the back of the headrests that are perfect for your purse, jacket or umbrella.

The Beautiful People — and Cars — still have to work occasionally. An advanced undercarriage gives the EX moves usually reserved for European sport sedans. Based on Nissan’s FM platform, which also underpins the Nissan Z and every Infiniti save the QX56 SUV, the EX35 comes from pedigreed breeding stock.
The body structure is solid while the four-wheel independent suspension system is tuned to be compliant on the highway, yet firm in the corners. Steering feel is spot-on, giving drivers a direct connection to the car’s every quiver and breath. Given a firm hand, the vehicle can do anything a rational person could ask and will do its best to please even the most irrational request.

There’s plenty of heart to energize the EX35’s svelte moves. Every EX35 scamps with a 3.5-liter V6 engine that generates 297 horses and 253 lb.-ft. of torque, routed to the extremities by a 5-speed automatic transmission and available all-wheel-drive. The clever transmission has a manual shift mode to provide crisp shifts at the driver’s behest. Fuel economy is rated 17/24-MPG city/hwy. Infiniti should consider putting the G Sedan’s smaller 6-cylinder engine on the options list to bump those results a few digits.

Equipped to play, the EX35 is also loaded with the latest safety tech. Front and rear ABS disc brakes with force distribution and brake assist technology ensure the car can stop as well as it goes. Electronic stability control, traction control, and full-range intelligent cruise control keep the car going where intended without hitting things unintended.

Around View Monitor with front and rear sonar, blind spot detectors and lane departure warnings can detect your girlfriend from three galaxies away. Protecting your ego, a rearview camera keeps the EX from making unintended friends.

I’m a big fan of cars that show their techno side, but too much makes a big ol’ nerd. The warning system is so sensitive that it constantly mouths off with beeps and blinky lights as anything passes in town or on the highway.

Note to Infiniti: The EX is a car, and as such, occasionally comes within a solar system of other cars. I don’t always need to be alerted to the occurrence. Try to cross a line on the highway with the system engaged and it brakes wheels to automatically nudge you back into your lane. No doubt, the systems are impressive, but at some point I would like to enjoy the superb handling without back seat nannies bantering about. Of course, I could just turn it off with the press of a button and quit complaining …

The hot thing you’re after can run with toned muscles, change course in a flash, wear the finest threads, and hover over an iPad waiting for the latest app. But, if said thing doesn’t have the perfect booty, then why bother? If you don’t like the shape of the EX35’s, try dating the Cadillac CTS Sport Wagon, Subaru Outback, Mini Countryman, or Acura ZDX.

Price as tested came to $48,605.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Feb. 4, 2011.

—  John Wright

DRIVE! 2010 • Crossover conundrum

A car, an SUV or something else entirely? These rides defy easy classification, but all combine roominess with style

CASEY WILLIAMS  | Auto Reviewer

Lincoln MKX
FORD VERSUS FORD | Having difficulty deciding between the Ford Edge and the similar Lincoln MKX, above? Both boast technological skill and a sense of luxury.

One of my favorite wines is Conundrum: California white grapes blended with hints of fruit and vanilla make you ask, “What is this wondrous stuff?” It’s light, complex and delicious to drink.

The following crossover vehicles will elicit a similar query — “Is it a car, an SUV or just a wacky take on the VW Microbus?” Just don’t drink and drive.

Kia Sportage
BIG THINGS IN LITTLE PACKAGES | A compact SUV? The newly styled Kia Sportage has the best of both worlds.

Kia Sportage

Riddle me this: What looks like an Audi Q5 that took a tour of Asia and came back looking as fine as an Alfa Romeo? Kia’s hot new Sportage. “Look at my fabulosity, then get in line to buy me!” it screams.

Crossovers may not mow down forests, but they are not wanting for on-road comfort or interior space. Engineered from the same bits as the popular Hyundai Tucson, Sportage announces the future with detailed styling, LED running lamps and electronic AWD. From behind the wheel, the tight steering and firm suspension remind you more of a sport sedan than tall wagon.

Kia UVO, co-developed with Microsoft, links audio, phone and navigation through a cool touch screen. Bluetooth and USB ports connect devices to the car’s controls with ease. Sportage achieves 22/31-MPG city/hwy from a 176-HP four-cylinder engine (a 2.0-liter turbo engine generates 270 horses!).

Prices start at $18,295, including a 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty, eliminating any questions about value.

Ford Edge/Lincoln MKX

One’s most perplexing challenge may be deciding between the updated 2011 Ford Edge or the equally-fresh and similar Lincoln MKX crossovers.

Ford’s Edge slips a handsome smooth body, but flaunts a bolder face and preppier attire. New for 2011, the Sport model rides on 22-in. wheels, models a tuxedo black grille and looks angrier from every angle. Spirits awaken to a 285-HP 3.5-liter V6 as standard or a 305-HP 3.7-liter V6 in Sport models. A 2.0-liter EcoBoost turbo four-cylinder engine comes later to settle the quandary of performance vs. fuel economy.

Edge and MKX are loaded with technology that includes radar-enabled adaptive cruise control, collision warning with automatic brake assist, blind spot warning with cross-traffic alert and touch interfaces for audio, navigation, climate and phone. It’s also the first vehicle to use iTunes Tagging, which allows passengers to “capture” a song they hear on the radio and download it later from Apple when their iPod is docked. Sweet.

MKX continues the glitzin’ with a new exterior that echoes the MKS large sedan with a split wing grille and sculpted front fenders. Interiors feel more expensive with a smooth dash and MyLincoln Touch that adjusts volume and fan speed with the wave of a hand.

Prices start at $27,220 for the Ford and $39,145 for the Lincoln. Equal parts car and SUV, the Edge and MKX are a fruity cocktail of sport and luxury.

Mercedes R350
TEUTONIC STATION  WAGON | Mercedes’ North American-assembled R350 is a wagon with Benz beauty.

Mercedes R350

It may be a mystery why Mercedes felt the need to introduce a domestically built mini-van, but it is butched up for 2011 with a new GL-style grille and manly paint colors. Given its German parentage and American assembly, the R-Class may be the furthest evolution of a species that began with VW’s original mini-van.

A flowing profile inspired by the CLS “moon car” shrouds interiors fitted with six seats as standard, seven optional — perfect for docking the tribe at your favorite club or musical tribute. A nuclear blast couldn’t take out the standard MBTex vinyl. Bluetooth, USB ports and Harman/Kardon audio keep all in a high state of glam. Pre-Safe technology anticipates accidents and adjusts safety systems in preparation.

American R350s come with a BlueTEC clean diesel V6 engine or 3.5-liter gas V6. The former generates 210-HP and 400 lb.-ft. of torque for easy cruising and EPA ratings of 18/24-MPG city/hwy. Gas V6 engines produce 268-HP and achieve 14/19-MPG city/hwy. All R-Class models come standard with 4MATIC AWD. Air suspension is optional.

The biggest conundrum of all is, “What the hell is the R-Class?” It has the profile of a large wagon, interiors comparable to a mini-van, and luxury cabin with more space than an S-Class — a crossover that is exactly what you want it to be. Still an enigma, the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place.

Prices start at $50,240.

This article appeared in Dallas Voice’s DRIVE! Supplement November 5, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens

DRIVE! 2010 • Volt ’n jive

Electric cars can finally claim excellent looks & genuine pick-up, making green the new black

CASEY WILLIAMS  | Auto Reviewer

Chevrolet Volt
PURE ELECTRIC | Chevrolet’s Volt, above, can be charged from a home outlet and go 40 miles on nothing but electrons; the Nissan Leaf, below, has a 100-mile radius but a simpler structure.

I have a special affinity for electric cars, going all of the way back to the mid ‘90s, when I drove the infamous GM EV1. It was a wonderful car, fast and quiet, and did all that was promised. It didn’t use a drop of gasoline, traveled 75 miles on an overnight charge and kept pace with a Camaro Z28 in 0–60 acceleration.

But here’s the real jive: People were unwilling to part with Mercedes cash to have a car that would travel more like 40 miles with the A/C running, stereo blasting and power windows racing up and down to retrieve bean burritos when making a run for the border. EV1 died a quiet death until Ed Begley Jr., Ralph Nader and even Phyllis Diller virtually accused GM of propping up the oil companies unilaterally.

Well, no more. Stay tuned for a fleet of great greenies  — one of the best from GM.

Chevy Volt

Charged from a home outlet, the Chevy Volt can travel 40 miles on pure electricity — more than about three-quarters of us drive in a normal day. For that 40 miles, the Volt is every bit as green as a Tesla Roadster, Nissan Leaf or Smart Electric Drive. Unlike the others, the Volt can drive on another 300 miles after the battery tires by automatically alternating the gas “generator” on and off to recharge the batteries. Call it an extended-range electric.

Chevrolet drove one from Austin to New York City over the July 4th holiday to prove the point. You can see the USA in this Chevrolet.

Prices start at $41,000, minus a federal tax credit that brings it in around $33,500.

Nissan LeafNissan Leaf

You’re also going to bear a barrage of advertising and happy talk from Nissan about its new Leaf electric car. Range is limited to 100 miles, but that’s enough for a lengthy commute, and more than plenty for a city car. Less complex than the Volt, it comes with a $32,780 base price ($25,280 after tax credits). For that money, you’ll get a five-door, five-seat cabin, extra-terrestrial styling and an LCD dash display exquisitely designed to give you fair warning as electrons fly by. Production begins later this year in Tennessee.

Tesla Roadster/Model STesla Roadster/Model S

I once heard Ed Begley Jr. say if GM built cars like the Tesla Roadster, it wouldn’t have problems. Well, if everybody can afford a $109,000 back-to-basics two-seat electric car that goes 245 miles on a charge, he’s right. In the realm of battery-powered rides, that range is way off the grid. For the price, you get supercar performance of 0–60 mph in 3.7 seconds — on par with 636-HP Corvettes. Tesla is also working up a three-row sedan for about $50k that will be built in the formerNUMMI Toyota/GM joint-venture plant in California. Tesla’s technology is so well respected that it is powering the Smart Electric Drive, a product of Mercedes-Benz.

Smart Electric Drive

I love my Smart, but its herky-jerky transmission could use some work. Running Tesla technology, the electrified Smart is as smooth as your razored face and goes about 80 miles on a charge. The $599 lease and very limited production will weed out those not smart enough to get one.

Tesla Roadster/Model S

HIGH  END ECO-LOVE | The Tesla Roadster, left, is an authentic performance car with zero emissions — and a hefty price tag; Mercedes’ gullwing E-Cell, above, will have gearheads panting when it hits the streets in 2013.

Ford, Mercedes and all the rest

Books will be written about this little grounding of the auto industry and its flash to the future, but there is an entire breaker box of automakers going electric. Ford will launch battery versions of the Transit Connect delivery van and its Focus, the latter with a 100-mile range, in 2011. Mercedes will snazz competitors with the E-Cell Gullwing, an electrified version of the SLS by 2013.

Audi, Toyota, Honda, Fiat, Mitsubishi, Volkswagen, Chrysler and Fisker all have new electrics on the way. Even Chinese automaker Coda will launch a $41,000 electric sedan with a 100-mile range next year. Markets will be limited at first.

These cars are Jetsons-era dreamy, but are here today. They will change everything you think you know about driving an automobile. No performance-emasculated weenies, they are a jolt in the ass to drive. And that’s no jive.

This article appeared in Dallas Voice’s DRIVE! Supplement November 5, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens

DRIVE! 2010 • Gay adoption

Cross-cultural automaking combines American and foreign sensibilities for these mixed-parentage rides

CASEY WILLIAMS  | Auto Reviewer

PUSH BUTTON MIRACLE | GM almost nixed Saab, but when Spyker took over, they gave it a miraculous rebirth with this 9-5. The makers replaced the key insert with a push-button starter making the rest of the car all uphill.

My partner and I are planning to adopt a baby. For sure, there will be teething pains. As our lives go through Heavens and Hells, so too will those automakers that adopted domestic cast-offs. Time will tell if their adoptions are mired in poo or are truly gay.

These are the babies with the highest IQs. Gay parents adopting children from different cultures can cause moments of discomfort and domestic unrest. However, if these brands are loved and nurtured by their parents, happy world-changing children are ahead.

Saab 9-5

Saab aficionados, who are still puling GM’s parenting the past two decades, should love its latest 9-5 offspring. Over the years, the Swedish automaker has seemed more like a foster child than a truly loved son, but it is now in the crib of Dutch supercar builder Spyker. The multi-ethnic Swede has more than a little German DNA.

Designers cut a wide swath through IKEA and built a custom nursery for the new 9-5. Scandinavian luxury centers on plush leather seats, Saab’s traditional wrap-around cockpit, green instrument lighting, and a push button start button where God intended a key in the center console. A heads-up display continues the “Born from Jets” theme with Harman/Kardon audio and rear seat entertainment providing a respite from carriage duty.

Sharing genes with the German-engineered Buick Lacrosse and Regal, but looking suavely Saab, the sedan will rival the Audi A6 and Lincoln MKS. At birth, the car will scream with a 300-HP 2.8-liter turbo V6 and AWD. A 220-HP four-cylinder pops later. Very intelligent, DriveSense adjusts the suspension and throttle settings to give drivers very different dynamics on a whim. There’s still a lot of GM in there, but it’s all great stuff.
New parents Spyker and potential customers should rejoice at this big bundle of joy. Given how close GM came to liquidating Saab, it is truly a miracle baby. A more premium Saab eats $47,565 at once.

Volvo S60
OVERTHINKER | The Volvo S60 can adjust driving mode into comfort, sport or advanced suspensions while also detecting pedestrians with a full auto brake.

Volvo S60

Volvo was adopted in 1999 by Ford Motor Company and re-gifted to China’s Geely earlier this year. Geely had been preparing its nursery for Volvo for years, hoping upon hope that Ford would condone the adoption.

It would be hard to imagine Geely getting a better kid than the new S60 sedan. Its curvy rump, roof and fenders are beautiful with a family resemblance in the strong shoulders. Interior design is based on the S80 sedan, including a thin center controls stack, plush seats, and sporty steering wheel. Woodgrain blends with brushed aluminum and light colors. Bluetooth connectivity and voice control for audio and phone keep the middle child hip.

Being a Volvo, the S60’s pants are loaded with creamy tech. Power comes from a 300-HP 3.0-liter six cylinder engine with optional AWD. When equipped with the Four-C Active Chassis system, drivers can adjust the suspension through “comfort,” “sport” or “advanced” modes.

Safety, a Volvo hallmark, is enhanced by a pedestrian detection system with full auto brake that identifies people and stops the car from up to 22 mph. Adaptive cruise control, City Safe collision warning with full auto brake, distance alert and lane departure warning systems exploit the car’s radar system. Fees cost $37,700 plus toys.

Jaguar XJ75
OLDER IS BETTER | India’s Tata picked up where Ford left off with Jaguar. Commemorating its 75th anniversary, the Jaguar XJ75 has upgrade written all over it with voice activated controls and LCD virtual instruments.

Jaguar XJ (75th)

Whether you think beauty, or the ugliest bug since Capone busted the womb, the Jaguar XJ will not be ignored. Most design and engineering was completed under Ford custody, but that will not stop India’s Tata, which adopted Jaguar and Land Rover during 2008, from raising the new Jags into proper millennial gentlemen.

The XJ flaunts a flowing body with blacked-out C-pillars and optional panoramic roof that echoes the little brother XF. Bodies are constructed almost entirely of aluminum around a sumptuous cabin that is futuristic while outfitted with the finest leathers, carpets, and mirror-cut wood. An available 510-HP supercharged V8 toddles over a constantly-adapting suspension. Voice-activated controls, lights that illuminate with the wave of a hand, LCD “virtual instruments” and 1200-watt Bowers & Wilkins audio beguile passengers. $72,500 is but a start.

To commemorate Jaguar’s 75th anniversary, the company showed the XJ75 Platinum Concept. White paint, 22-in. wheels, diamond stitch suede seat inserts and softgrain leather are divine. A bespoke clock designed by Bremont Watch Company and 1,200-watt Bowers & Wilkins surround audio cuddle passengers.

This article appeared in Dallas Voice’s DRIVE! Supplement November 5, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens