With a jolt of electricity, the Smart Fortwo can become relevant—and refreshingly different.
Further to the point, our surprising conclusion after a couple of hours behind the wheel of the new Smart Electric Drive is that, the Fortwo feels like a more appealing, fully realized package as an electric vehicle—more so than in its gasoline form.
Putting electric drive in the little two-seat Fortwo seems like a no-brainer as it's well suited for dense urban areas or low-speed commutes. After all, the gasoline Fortwo never has been a lot of fun outside of those low-speed commute conditions. Take it out on the highway and it turns into a noisy, pitchy driving experience and the Fortwo's lane-squeezing maneuverability succumbs to vulnerability in the face of semis and Suburbans.
Electric Drive feels way more refined
Then of course there's the gasoline Fortwo's powertrain; with the Mitsubishi three-banger thrumming just behind and below you and an automated manual transmission that works fine but is a little unpredictable, it's hardly a refined or responsive experience. While the existing ForTwo's under-the-cargo-floor engine emits lots of vibration, its automated manual gearbox is unpredictable unless you call the shifts for yourself (and have the optional paddle shifters), and the ride is a bit harsh, climb into the Electric Drive and it's like night and day. Turn the ignition key on and shift to drive, and there's the eerie silence that we've grown accustomed to with electric cars. Step on the gas, and it surges forward, with only a gentle whine.
From a standing start, the ED feels very sprightly. With up to 89 pound-feet delivered pretty right off the bat, the Smart electric drive is very quick from stoplights, with surrounding drivers (including the ever-pesky cargo-van drivers in urban Brooklyn streets) obviously surprised with the ED's quickness. Floor the throttle above 40 km/h (25 mpg or so) and the response is still good; but by 60 km/h a full throttle brings just a tepid response. Things really peter out above that, and the ED's top speed is about 62 mph.
'Kickdown Mode' gives extra juice
The motor produces up to 20 kW in normal driving, but there's a 30-kW "kickdown mode" wherein the smart gets a very noticeable spurt of oomph.
The battery is just 16.5 kWh and is good for an official range of 83 miles. After one test car has been driven aggressively for about 12 miles, we noticed range had dropped to about 80 percent. A 3.3-kW charger and J1772 charge connector are included with the package and with a dryer-type 220-volt outlet it can be charged from 20 to 80 percent in three to four hours, or from completely dead to 100 percent in about eight hours.
With the help of an iPhone app specially designed by Mercedes-Benz and Daimler, owners will be able to keep tabs on the current state of charge of their vehicles, how much time is remaining until the battery is fully charged, or the location of the nearest charging station.
Sometimes the best vehicles for a particular purpose elude easy classification. Take the Mercedes-Benz R-Class; ever since the first time we encountered this vehicle, we've called it one of the best long-distance luxury cruisers on the market, and one of our top choices for keeping fatigue at bay when you have adult-size passengers and hundreds of miles to go before you sleep.
But despite the road-trip kudos, the R-Class's ambiguity has gotten in the way of success. With a silhouette that lands somewhere between a tall wagon, an SUV, and yes, a minivan, plus a very people-oriented interior with space to sprawl, the R should be a sales success—especially in the suburbs.
But the R-Class isn't a big seller; however nice the package, we suspect it also has left shoppers scratching their heads a bit. Is it Mercedes' minivan, or an exceptionally passenger-friendly utility vehicle?
Brawnier look curbs an existential crisis
To bring this luxury people-mover a little more up-to-date and take it just a little bit more, stylistically, in the direction of a utility vehicle, Mercedes-Benz has given the 2011 R-Class a slightly more upright front end, with a higher, arrow-edged hoodline and a higher, more prominent grille that's now a lot closer in appearance to those used in the M-Class and GL-Class utes. It's flanked with flowing headlamps that, to this reviewer's eyes, look like they have eyelids and are a little more organic, while the rear fascia has been changed and taillamps are lifted slightly. Inside, the dash top gets a new look, bright trim accents brighten it up a bit, and some of the other materials and color combinations are new. The optional Panorama sunroof remains a nice touch that lends a light, airy feel, too. Overall, it looks a little more buff on the outside, a little more smartly dressed inside.
And for those who need to accommodate adults in comfort, the 2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class interior is downright smart. Those very long back doors allow easy access to the third row of this six- or seven-seater, and the standard arrangement in three rows of two bucket seats (with a middle seat available for the second row) makes sure everyone's taken care of. The second row slides fore and aft a few inches so that you can properly divvy out legroom between passengers, and the seatback in both rows adjusts for rake. The third row is a little smaller, a little flatter, but it's no punishment as there's still enough headroom (even, barely, for this 6'-6" beanpole). Getting in is a good deal easier than in some minivans as the second-row seats flip up and forward and the rear door openings are huge.
Unfortunately, those huge rear doors will still be a handicap for those who live in tighter city spaces. They're probably about 50 percent longer than the doors of most large sedans, and you won't be able to open them up all the way in most parallel-parking spots. With a rather stiff action, they also require a little too much muscle for smaller kids.
You should know better by now not to buckle up, buckle up your loved ones, and avoid texting while driving altogether.
But, increasingly, it's also the law. Last week, both Georgia and Vermont joined 26 other states in banning text messaging by all drivers. The Vermont rule went into effect June 1, while the new Georgia rule is effective July 1.
Georgia also recently passed a bill, signed into law last week by Governor Sonny Purdue, to remove an exemption that allowed pickup drivers to avoid buckling up. According to state estimates, at least 100 lives will be saved each year by the new rule.
Just this past week, Kansas Governor Mark Parkinson signed a bill into law that will permit police in the state to stop drivers who aren't wearing a seat belt. Previously, motorists could only be cited if the driver had been stopped for another violation.
A total of 31 states now have primary seat belt laws, while 18 states have secondary ones. New Hampshire stands alone in having no seat belt requirement for adults.
Colorado tightened its occupant restrains laws, too, by requiring that children seven years and younger (as opposed to five years old under the current law) be in a child restraint or booster seat. The new law goes into effect August 1.
This story originally appeared at The Car Connection
The 2010 Ford Taurus is definitely different enough to warrant another look if you've considered one in the past, or if you're in the market for a large sedan.
Although the mechanicals are basically the same as 2009 and before, the Taurus gets such a thorough reskin that you wouldn't be able to tell it. For all cosmetic considerations, the 2010 Taurus is an all-new car—a flashier-looking one.
The well-detailed grille and headlights, along with the creased hood, certainly bring a distinctive look, though the chromed side gills seemed a little gimmicky. From some angles, it's as if Ford has surrendered to the blocky, high-wasted look that Chrysler has been preaching with its 300C. To Ford's credit, the new Taurus has finally shed its frumpy side that it carried since when it was called the Five Hundred. The automaker has been attempting to frame the Taurus as its flagship model rather than the mainstream sedan the name referred to in the past (that's now the Fusion).
A couple inches off the top, a little tight inside
While the pre-2010 Taurus had a relatively high seating position, low beltline, and tall greenhouse—for an excellent view outward—the latest iteration of the Taurus could feel a little more secure—or a little claustrophobic, depending on the point of view. Two inches of roof height have been lost, and it's a difference you can feel.
All the styling changes that Ford made to the Taurus for 2010 altogether make it feel considerably tighter inside. The wide center console and curved instrument panel design leave the driver and front passenger with remarkably small areas, with those front seats seemingly wedged against the center console. The front seats themselves could be adjusted to an ideal position for a wide range of drivers, but the lower cushions felt unduly short, especially for a full-size car. The backseat area isn't so perfect, either; while wide and capable of holding three across, it's surprisingly tight for both legroom and headroom; the smaller Ford Fusion might be roomier, by some gauges. Overall, though the trunk is mammoth, there's a feeling that that some of this vast real estate could have been better spent.
We like the simple yet elegant look of the instrument panel, with brightly lit deep-dish gauges and a relatively simple layout. The only exception is that in looking down quickly, it's easy to get the four like-sized, like-feeling climate-control and audio knobs confused.
In the city, the Taurus rides and drives like a large vehicle, and the inability to see the front corners can be tough in tight spaces. The ride quality is a little odd—simultaneously jarring over potholes, pavement breaks, and the like, but also almost bouncy over the largest potholes or railroad crossings. We briefly had four aboard, and the Taurus' ride felt slightly more buttoned-down. For 2010, there have been extensive suspension changes, and to its credit the Taurus handles quite well for a more comfort-oriented large sedan.
Feels large in the city, just right on the highway
For those who do a lot of highway cruising, the story is quite different; then, the ride turns quite settled and composed, with road and wind noise kept to a minimum, and the steering has a nice weighting and reassuring on-center feel that won't wear on you.
The 263-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 in our Taurus had plenty of accessible torque, as well as higher-rev horsepower for passing, but it's a little too coarse-sounding when accelerating hard, and we didn't find the automatic transmission's shifts all that smooth compared to, say, the Toyota Avalon.
Fuel economy is about what you'd expect for a big 4,200-pound sedan with all-wheel drive. We saw about 18 mpg overall in a week and about 100 miles of mostly city driving. For only city driving, count on around 16 mpg; official EPA ratings stand at 17/25.
Standout safety and tech content
Safety remains one of the Taurus's strengths in the market. With top scores from the IIHS in all categories, including the new roof-strength test, it's a Top Safety Pick for 2010. Several more tech features, including Ford's updated Sync tools and MyKey system, have been added, too.
Here, Ford has traded off some functionality in the name of style. The Taurus still isn't a vehicle that you're going to fall in love with for its driving experience, but it is better-looking. Would you be buying a sedan for the look of it, or for the greater accommodations? That's your choice.
This story originally appeared at The Car Connection
The next time you need a new set of tires, consider this: Energy-saving low-rolling-resistance tires now cost about the same as other tires, and they could save you a lot in fuel expenses over the long run. That, and in many cases, they don't compromise performance.
It wasn't always this way. In the past, using low rolling resistance tires meant that you'd get slightly higher mileage, at the expense of many more noise, limited tread wear, and greatly compromised traction and grip in the wet.
But Consumer Reports, in its new July issue now hitting newsstands, tested low-rolling-resistance tires and confirmed that they offer much better performance than they used to—with all-around ratings for three-season use as good as those for many general all-weather tires.
Rolling resistance, which is due mostly to the flexing of tire sidewalls and the gripping action of the tread, accounts for about four percent of fuel use in the city and about seven percent on the highway, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
What makes the new ones different? In the past, says CR's tire program leader, Gene Petersen, rolling resistance was cut—literally—by shaving weight off the tire and using a slightly different, tread design that was also much shallower. "Unfortunately, when you develop a tire along those lines, tread life and wet grip are compromised," he said.
Better compounds make it possible
Petersen says that in newer tires, much of the improvement is in the compound; adding silica to the compound, in place of carbon black, is a start.
In the latest tests, the Michelin Energy Saver A/S had the lowest rolling resistance of any all-season tire evaluated by CR in recent years, yet it also earned "good" ratings for snow traction and ice braking and performed well in hydroplaning resistance and emergency handling. And with as long of an estimated tread life as most all-season radials, it's truly a greener choice.
Petersen says that the Goodyear Assurance Fuel Max and Cooper GFE are also among those that should rack up fuel-cost savings without compromising performance. The Cooper GFE was a surprisingly good tire for winter grip as well.
Green tires no longer just for green cars
The other change is that 'green' low-rolling-resistance tires are being delivered for the replacement market; they aren't only offered in just a few sizes that are intended only for hybrid or diesel models. "We're seeing them sized for most family vehicles today," he said. Before, they'd only been designed for specific original-equipment applications, where they helped to achieve slightly higher EPA ratings while sacrificing performance in some way.
Chrysler this week renewed its generous zero-interest financing and cash-back offers for the month of June.
The automaker had already strengthened its incentive offerings for May, with either no-interest financing on many of its models or up to $4,000 cash back. The sweet zero-percent financing deals were newly available through GMAC, which was formerly GM's captive finance arm but now caters to Chrysler as well.
The strategy appears to be working. Chrysler finished the month on a positive note, with its total May sales exceeding predicted levels. Compared to last May, when the company was in bankruptcy, Chrysler finished the month with 33-percent higher sales. While April has been Chrysler's best month to date since March 2009, its May numbers broke that and topped the 100,000-per-month mark for the first time since the bankruptcy. Those numbers are quite impressive considering that the automaker pledged to reduce cut-rate fleet sales.
Since last month, Chrysler has added the Charger to the finance deals; now customers can choose from either zero-percent financing for up to 72 months OR $3,000 Consumer Cash.
All of the following are good through June 30:
2010 Chrysler PT Cruiser, Chrysler Sebring, Chrysler Town & Country, Chrysler 300: Zero-percent financing for up to 60 months or 1.9-percent financing for 72 months OR up to $3,000 Consumer Cash
Jeep Commander, Jeep Grand Cherokee, or Jeep Liberty: Zero-percent financing for up to 60 months OR up to $4,000 Consumer Cash
Jeep Wrangler: $500 Mopar Bucks
Dodge Avenger, Dodge Grand Caravan, Dodge Nitro: Zero-percent financing for up to 60 months OR up to $2,000 Consumer Cash
Dodge Charger: Zero-percent financing for up to 72 months OR $3,000 Consumer Cash.
2010 Dodge Challenger: $2,000 Mopar Bucks
Dodge Journey, Dodge Caliber: Zero-percent financing for 36 months OR up to $1,500 Consumer Cash
Dodge Ram (2010 Ram): Zero-percent financing for up to 60 months OR $3,000 Consumer Cash
Dodge Dakota, Dodge Ram 1500 (Ram 1500): $1,000 GMAC Bonus Cash to those who use the factory-approved GMAC financing
This story originally appeared at The Car Connection
Depending on which utility vehicle you choose, you might be getting vastly different degrees of roof protection in the event of a rollover.
That's the surprising result of that a new round of tests from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) serves to highlight.
First, the good news: In a new round of roof-strength tests for mid-size utility vehicles, the 2010 Chevrolet Equinox and closely related 2010 GMC Terrain; the 2010 Jeep Liberty and closely related Dodge Nitro; the 2010 Toyota Highlander; and the 2010 Toyota Venza all earned top 'good' ratings. So did the 2010 Jeep Grand Cherokee and 2011 Kia Sorento.
The new test, which has been phased in this model year, measures protection in the event of a rollover by seeing how far the roof will deform inward when subjected to a constant pressure. To achieve the Institute's top 'good' rating, a roof must withstand the concentrated force of four times the vehicle's weight before a specific metal contact plate deforms the roof five inches inward.
The Toyota Highlander, Jeep Liberty, Toyota Venza, and 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee all did extremely well, withstanding nearly five times their respective weights.
Among this latest batch, the Chevy Equinox, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Toyota Highlander, Toyota Venza, and Kia Sorento all earned the Top Safety Pick designation, which requires top good scores in front, side, and rear tests along with the new rollover test.
The risk of serious or fatal injury in a rollover is about 50 percent lower for those with a 'good' roof strength rating than those without, according to the IIHS.
Five utility vehicles—the 2010 Honda Accord Crosstour, Honda Pilot, Mazda CX-7, Mitsubishi Endeavor, and Nissan Murano—earned only a 'marginal' score.
In the case of the Crosstour, a model that's all new for 2010, it's a more noteworthy disappointment.
"First results show that automakers are making progress in rollover protection, but it's disappointing that a new design like the Crosstour didn't perform better," said IIHS president Adrian Lund in an official release. Although many classify the Crosstour as a car, as most of its componentry is shared with the Accord Sedan, the IIHS classifies it as an SUV.
It was only able to withstand about 2.8 times its weight in the test. The Honda Pilot and Mitsubishi Endeavor only withstood about three times their respective weights. The current federal standard is just 1.5, but last April the federal government proposed to phase in a new standard—of effectively three times the vehicle's weight—by 2016.
The Honda Accord Sedan, earlier this year, had earned a slightly better score of 'acceptable.' Prior to the new test, the Accord had been a Top Safety Pick.
This story originally appeared at The Car Connection
The quality of domestic-brand vehicles is way up from where it was just a few years ago. We've seen it in the annual metrics from J.D. Power and Associates, AutoPacific, Strategic Vision, and others, and in annual reliability ratings from Consumer Reports.
However, there's another even stronger indicator that points to improved quality: warranty claims, those costs paid out to address repair issues that arise during (or sometimes after) the factory warranty. According to the Detroit News, warranty claims have fallen by more than 45 percent at GM and more than 40 percent on Ford Motor Co. (NYSE:F) vehicles from 2007 levels through last year. And over the past two years, Chrysler's warranty claims have dropped by 48 percent, to a record low, when looking at issues in the first 90 days of ownership.
Those are from raw numbers, of course. But even after adjusting for sales, which have dropped tremendously during this time, it's a sign that domestic-brand vehicles have fewer repair issues than before.
Beyond customers getting more trouble-free vehicles, there's a silver lining to this: It might help the domestic automakers become profitable once again. In GM's case, warranty payments have fallen by 10.5 percent.
GM has implemented a global database through which warranty claims can be seen in real time by engineers, so that issues can be spotted rapidly. For its upcoming 2011 Chevrolet Cruze, for instance, the automaker is using claims data from other countries and markets—where the sedan has already been launched—to help assure quality for the U.S. version that goes on sale this fall.
Nevertheless, customer perceptions lag reality and, as an annual survey conducted by residual-value experts ALG showed, Buick and Chevrolet still lag several other import brands that have been shown to have lower customer-service satisfaction or lower reliability, typically.
This story originally appeared at The Car Connection
While Mitsubishi has struggled to stay relevant with its larger vehicles—like the Mitsubishi Galant sedan and Endeavor SUV—it's managing to offer some excellent choices ranging from compact to mid-size. The automaker has infused its lineup of 2010 Mitsubishi Lancer and Outlander variants with a unique mix of sport and practicality.
And for 2010, Mitsubishi has injected just a little more high-performance character from the Lancer Evolution into its Outlander utility vehicle—without affecting its inherent practicality or comfort.
That was our take after driving the 2010 Mitsubishi Outlander GT for the first time earlier this year in the wide-open areas around Palm Springs. But a few weeks back we had the chance to take the Outlander GT on a follow-up drive in normal day-to-day city conditions, and came to admire this vehicle's size—just large enough to fit comfortable accommodations for five, and an abbreviated (very abbreviated) third row, but compact and maneuverable enough for feeling comfortable on tighter streets.
With rearward visibility the only remaining issue, the Outlander is very city-friendly, with a nice view outward from the front seats and, refreshingly, a beltline that won't make shorter drivers feel claustrophobic. Yet the front seats in the Outlander are more generously sized than most you'll find among compact crossovers, and feel great for taller drivers like this one—firm and supportive enough for a highway haul, yet bolstered just a little bit around the side to help out on the twisty stretches of road. The two-piece tailgate takes a bit of getting used to, but we see how it would ease loading for larger items. About the only thing missing, as we reported before, is a telescopic adjustment for the steering wheel.
The most significant change given to the new Outlander GT model—in addition to all the cosmetic changes like the most aggressive snout and air dam, redesigned fenders, chrome accents, and soft-touch surfaces inside—is the addition of the Evo's Super-All Wheel Control (S-AWC) all-wheel-drive system, with an active front differential and electronically controlled center diff, along with a slew of electronics that pair the system with the stability control system to ensure smooth delivery—and enable almost 100 percent of torque to be sent to the rear wheels when needed.
With a good set of winter tires, the Outlander GT should be one mean skiers' or snowboarders' vehicle.
Up in the mountains above Palm Springs we had dry, well-surfaced roads, but on a slightly damp steep stretch of road in the Oregon Cascades, we tried to upset the system's composure. Thanks to the tenacity of the grip and the fleet-footed nature of the system, that proved difficult even there. Leaving it in Tarmac mode and going deep into the accelerator just before mid-corner—as you're not supposed to do—the system very gently intervened, reapportioned torque to the wheels with more grip, and simply went where we pointed the steering wheel, with no sliding, no drama. Tap into the gas just out of the corner and the system will allow you the slightest bit of oversteer—a very unusual luxury for driving enthusiasts in a utility vehicle. All the while, its center of mass feels lower than it should be for such a tall vehicle—perhaps due to the aluminum roof and upper panels.