Category Archives: Reviews

2014 Green Car of the Year Finalists Named

Every year at the LA Auto Show, Green Car Journal bestows the laurel wreath of green-ness and car-ness on a notable vehicle. Pickings used to be slim for this award, but there are slew of contenders anymore. This year, the five finalists include diesels, hybrids, and even a couple of plain-old gas-powered cars that have technological tricks that up their fuel economy into hybrid-like numbers.

Here’s the short list:

  • Audi A6 TDI: diesel sports sedan with a 38 mpg highway rating and 240 hp
  • BMW 328d: diesel sedan with a 45 mpg highway rating and regenerative brakes
  • Honda Accord: makes the list for having an efficient gasoline engine, a hybrid, and a plug-in version
  • Mazda3: gasoline sedan that ekes out 41 mpg on the highway via tech improvements
  • Toyota Corolla: gasoline sedan gets 42 mpg when you push the Eco button

2014 Nissan 370Z NISMO Sez: “OMG, Let’s Go Already!”

I like the Nissan Z series. They’re fun, inexpensive-ish little sports cars. They come with a kneepad in the driver’s door so you can brace yourself as you speed around the bend. Super fun little guys, really, and they always have been.


Then I drove the NISMO version of the car on the twisty back roads of Oregon’s mountain passes. Oh, it loved it. “Shift up!” it screamed. “No, no shift down! Go around that car! Now shift up again! Yeaaaaaahhh!” Up hills, around tight bends, and back down, it was in heaven.

Then we got behind a normal car doing a normal speed. The NISMO was very much not happy.

“Oh NOES!” it whined. “Not a steady forty miles an hour! I will die! I WILL DIE!”

“You won’t die,” I told the 370Z. “Cars these days are really well made, and they rarely just die, especially 2014 models with a few hundred miles on the odometer. You’re revving really high. Maybe you should settle down.”

“NISMO does not settle down!” NISMO also does not speak without exclamation points, it seems. “Go faster! Do more! Do not settle for poking along behind this ten-year-old Camry or Taurus or whatever the hell this car is in my way! NISMO can’t tell the difference!”

Lucky for NISMO, there are lots of dotted white lines in mountain passes, and we made it safely around the perfectly fine, reliable car ahead of us. NISMO smiled and roared as I shifted up and down and up and down and matched revs and tore around corners. I’ll admit, I smiled too.

Good night, little NISMO.

Good night, little NISMO.

2014 Nissan 370Z NISMO

  • 18 mpg city/26 mpg highway
  • Optional equipment: Bose audio, in-mirror rearview monitor, etc.
  • Price as tested: $46,370

An Ode to the SRT Viper Cockpit

You know what I love? The driver’s seat in the SRT Viper. You know what no else can even tolerate? The driver’s seat in the SRT Viper. Let me make an argument, lonely though it may be, for this much-maligned bit of leather and instrumentation.

The SRT Viper, like the Dodge Viper before it, was built for one purpose: to provide the world with a dose of brutal American horsepower. This car has no finesse. It is not nice. Parallel parking would be a nightmare. But that long, low hood houses an 8.4-liter V10 engine that gets a totally shitty 12 mpg in the city and cranks out an ungodly 640 hp.

So pretty. So fast. So hardcore.

So pretty. So fast. So hardcore.

Piloting that much power requires focus. You don’t want to be too comfortable. Do fighter pilots laze around in Barcaloungers, flipping switches and throwing a leg over one arm of the chair? No, they do not. And Viper drivers should be as devoted to the task at hand as fighter pilots.

The driver’s seat is a purpose-built slot for taming the Viper. The Recaro seats are close-fitting but comfortable, and the steering wheel and pedals are adjustable. The drive shaft runs down the center of the car like a coffee table, and the engine is loud, making this the perfect car to drive when you don’t like your passenger or his conversation much. This new version of the Viper has a nicer stereo/nav system, but who really cares? If you need those things in this car, you have more money than sense.

Speaking of money, you’re going to have to shell out for a cockpit as fitted as this one. The Viper GTS that I drove on the Northwest Automotive Press Association‘s Run to the Sun event ran $120,000-plus, including a thousand bucks for the gorgeous blue paint.

Run to the Sun in the 2014 Corvette Stingray

Corvette people have been all aflutter in anticipation of the new Corvette, as they are with every new iteration of the iconic car. I mean, the Corvette has been around since 1953, the same year color TV started broadcasting. Do not fuck this up, Chevy.

The Stingray with its minder.

The Stingray with its minder.

The 2014 Corvette Stingray that I drove on the Northwest Automotive Press Association‘s Run to the Sun event on a sunny September day was not fucked up, but it toed that line. Really close. One more menacing flange, one more crisp fold in the bodywork, one more LED, and this car would be completely over the top. Gaudy. Too much. Trying to hard. Even the Chevy guy agreed — the Stingray flirts being too much to take in.

But it looks straight-up cool. I checked with a twenty-something guy working the hotel desk where we stayed to make sure that was true. He was wandering the parking lot taking pictures of the twenty-some sports cars we’d driven into Sisters, Oregon, while most of the auto journalists were finishing their little peach cobblers and ordering another round of drinks. I was taking pictures too, because the light was good. This guy agreed that the car is close to being obnoxious, but as it sat in the parking lot, he couldn’t take his eyes off it. In a good way.

Oh, and it goes like stink, if you need to be reassured of that. It’s got 460 horsepower in its V8 engine. This car came with power everything, including heated mirrors, HD radio, vented seats (which were welcome on record-setting hot September days), and a heads-up display projected low on the windshield that showed not only the speedometer but also a g-meter so you’d know how hard you were being thrown around when you took corners at speed. I did my best, much to the Chevy guy’s chagrin. Chances are, if you see one of these in the near future, what you’ll see first are these:

It's no longer round, but it is cool.

It’s no longer round, but it is cool.

2014 Corvette Stingray

  • 17 mpg city/29 mpg highway
  • Additional equipment: LT Preferred package, with HD radio, premium audio, nav system, etc.
  • Price as tested: $77,515

2013 Ford C-MAX Hybrid: The Boringest Car I’ve Ever Loved

I needed to drive from Portland, Oregon, to Tacoma, Washington for work. Why not kill two work-related birds with one work-related stone and get a car to review on the way? So I contacted the car people and asked for a Corvette. There weren’t any to be had. So I asked for a modern muscle car, a Mustang or Challenger, say. No go. They offered a Ford C-MAX. Fine, I said. If I were a teenager, I would have huffed off to my room. Since I am a professional, I sulked in my studio. Because maturity.

They dropped off the C-MAX on a Thursday, and it was like a plain gray bean in my driveway. It had some swoopy bits on the body panels, but they weren’t fooling anyone. This car would be practical, not fun.

C-MAX Hybrid & C-MAX Energi

That is not my house. I forgot to take a picture of the car myself, so this is Ford’s photo.

Friday morning, I awoke bright and early and poured myself a cup of the fresh-brewed coffee I had for once remembered to set up for myself the night before. I situated myself in the C-MAX and began the trek to Tacoma, a not-so-great town, in this hybrid, a not-so-great car.

As the coffee worked its magic and the sun arose over the Cascades, a funny thing happened. The C-MAX grew on me. It was comfortable. It accelerated like crazy when I wanted to pass. It had a nice, big screen in the console for the navigation. The digital dashboard told me all kinds of cool information, like how much of my braking energy I recaptured and sent to the battery when I slowed down to a stop. I could talk to it via the Sync with MyFord Touch system. By the time I arrived in Tacoma — early for my appointment, mind you — I was flipping through the owner’s manual to find out what else I could do in the car. It turned out I could do lots — I hadn’t even linked my phone. So I did that.

Ford got some shit for overstating the C-MAX’s fuel economy. They said it got 47 mpg combined city-highway. I didn’t get that, but I thought it was because I wasn’t trying to hypermile or drive even at all carefully in a fuel-conscious way. It was all jackrabbit starts and overtaking on the highway for me. But the revised numbers that Ford sent out the day after my C-MAX was ripped from my hands say it will get a combined 43 mpg, which is pretty close to what I got. I was a bit low, since I spent so many of my miles on the freeway, and hybrids suffer a bit in that arena, but well within Ford’s revised range. And Ford did what I think is the right thing here and reimbursed folks who’d already bought a C-MAX hybrid $550 ($325 for lessees) to make up for the numbers snafu.

You probably noticed I used some pretty strong words there when I said they ripped the C-MAX from my hands. That’s because it went from being an ugly gray bean to being an eminently useful car painted a nice shade of Sterling Gray Metallic. When my six-four husband got in and pushed the passenger seat back, he had tons of knee room, and there was still room for someone behind him. The cargo space in the rear held about a thousand pounds of dog food and cat litter with room for the few things the people were allowed to buy themselves on that shopping trip.

So yeah, the C-MAX is not sexy. It comes in an even nerdier — yet more fuel-efficient — plug-in hybrid configuration. No one is every going to whip their head around and push their sunglasses down their nose for a better look as you drive by. But it is so amazingly practical and gets such good mileage without the driver having to try (even with the revised numbers) that I’d say it’s worth the nearly $30k you’ll pay for it. This is the kind of car you keep for a decade.

  • 2013 Ford C-MAX Hybrid
  • Base price: $28,200
  • Options: $2215 for nav, rear-view camera, power liftgate, hands-free tech
  • Price as tested: $31,210

2014 New Car Prices 8-26 thru 8-30

Conventional wisdom says you should buy a car in September because that’s when manufacturers are rolling out cars for the new model year. Conventional wisdom isn’t wrong. As the new cars roll out, so do their new prices. Here’s this week’s roundup, in case you’re getting ready to do some Labor Day Weekend shopping:

  • 2014 Kia Soul: The hamsters have redesigned their favorite wheel for 2014, with three trim levels: Base ($14,700), Plus ($18,200), and Exclaim ($20,300).
  • 2014 Nissan Maxima: The Japanese four-door sedan has two versions: S ($31,000) and SV ($34,090).
  • 2014 Subaru BRZ: The sporty crossover project with Toyota comes in Premium ($25,595) and Limited (stick shift $27,595; automatic $28,695).
  • 2014 Toyota Corolla: The longstanding little four-door comes in four trim levels: L, LE, LE Eco, and S; prices range from $16,800 for the L to $19,000 for the S.

The Most APEAL-ing Cars

For nearly two decades, J.D. Power has been releasing the Automotive Performance, Execution, and Layout Study, which asks owners to rate their car on 77 attributes using a 1000-point scale. I feel its safe to assume that the owners who fulfill this huge survey request are super persnickety, which might actually make the results more reliable.

The real-world result of this study for you, dear car buyer, is that cars with higher APEAL scores fly off the lot — and at higher prices. As the study says:

Owners of vehicles with an APEAL score of 100 points or higher than the segment average typically spend at least $1,800 more on their new vehicle than do owners of vehicles with a score of at least 100 points lower than the segment average.

This does not mean that dealerships are gouging buyers; it means that customers are willing to pay more for cars that rank highly according to the APEAL study. And dealerships know that, so your negotiating skills will need to be on fire if you want to knock a significant amount of money off an APEAL-ing car’s sticker price.

Unsurprisingly, the manufacturers with scores above the industry average of 795 (out of 1000, remember) are often luxury car builders. See for yourself.


Secrets Revealed! How We Get Cars to Test Drive

In seven years of having my cool and unusual job of being a freelance automotive journalist, I’ve noticed one nearly universal misconception: people think I get cars from local dealerships to test drive. I like to think they imagine me wandering about the lot, one hand on my chin, as I decide which car is worthy of my week-long attentions. Then I point with an imperious finger. “This one!” I say. “This Honda Fit shalt be my chariot for the next half-fortnight.” Probably they imagine that I just call up the Nissan place, or the Ferrari place, or the Ford place and ask for a car. Neither of these is true.

There are three ways I get cars to test drive and review, and none of them involve me being imperious. One of them involves me being really lazy.

  • They bring me a car. There are agencies all around the country, usually located near major airports for convenience’s sake, that manage what’s called the press fleet. These are the cars that the manufacturers release to journalists for a few months, and they make the rounds of being ridden hard and put away wet. We wreck brakes and clutches, we push all the buttons, we cram things in the trunk, we put our dogs in the passenger seats. We use them for a week the way we think the target buyer would use it. And then some.
  • My dog testing the passenger seat of a Jeep Wrangler

    My dog testing the passenger seat of a Jeep Wrangler

  • We go to association events. There are professional associations for automotive journalists all over the country. Some are huge, like the Motor Press Guild, and some are small, like the Northwest Automotive Press Association. But they all put on events where lots of cars from many manufacturers are in the same place and driven by all the journalists over a couple of days. NWAPA’s Drive Revolution event in July was one of these. Often, these events have a winner or three.
  • We get flown somewhere. Manufacturers will have launches for cars that are brand-new models or significantly changed models. They’ll take maybe a half-dozen cars or more to one place and invite journalists to fly in — on the manufacturer’s dime — and drive the car for a day. There are presentations on the new car and delicious meals and very nice hotel rooms, followed by a day on the streets or at the track. My recent trip to drive the Aston Martin Rapide S was a press launch.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each of these. Launches are swanky, but fast fly-in-fly-out affairs, meaning the jet lag is fierce. Getting a car from the fleet is convenient, but the cars all blend together after awhile if you’re not careful. That blending together is doubly true at association events, where I sometimes have to look at the emblem on the steering wheel to remind myself what car I just climbed into after a long day of driving, but being able to meet up with other journalists is priceless.

You’ve probably figured out that this isn’t any kind of sexy expose. If you ask any automotive journalist at a party how they get their cars, they’ll tell you the same thing. And the big car magazines just have press cars in the garage all the damn time for employees to try out and review. So it’s not a secret, but now that you know, the next time you see me at a party, you can jump right to the next most popular question: “What’s your favorite car?”

Alex Martin-Banzer Takes the Wheel

Just when you think the world is going to hell in a hand basket (carried by men who call the hand basket a “go bag” or some such euphemism), a new woman takes the wheel and gives us smart reviews.

I met Alex Martin-Banzer when I was managing editor at Sports Car Market and she was a kid stopping by the office to see her dad, the magazine’s publisher. Now she’s getting bylines in SCM, and from what I’ve seen so far, her writing is worth the nepotism. She’s been around cars of all vintages and tracks of all stripes her whole life. She is unafraid of downshifting or chirping the tires a bit, but at the same time she knows her demographic. Check out this quick take on the 2013 Fiat 500 Abarth to see what I mean. She’s also got a smart review of the 2014 BMW M6 in the September issue of SCM, if you want to check that out (no link yet).