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Car Reviews

Car Doc John Paul

Posted by Sanjay Salomon January 7, 2014 04:53 PM

JohnPaul-80-2__1239736084_1429.jpgJohn Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England and the "Car Doctor" columnist for The Boston Globe, Providence Journal, Worcester Telegram & Gazette, and AAA Horizons. A certified mechanic, Paul tests dozens of new cars each year and also hosts a radio show on AM 950.


 

Overdrives: Aston Martin V8 Vantage at Allandale Farms

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh September 28, 2012 03:50 PM

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Over the summer, I'd grown tired of the produce at my local Whole Foods. I wanted even fresher vegetables and fruit, but without having to trek to Haymarket or wait an entire week for the Allston Farmer's Market, open just hours at a time.

Allandale Farms in Brookline, the last working farm in the Boston metro area, is now my go-to shop for most everything delicious in season. First, it was the blood-red tomatoes. Then, the crisp, sweet cucumbers and squash. Now, it's the half-dozen varieties of apples I don't ever see at Whole Foods.

Allandale is open all week, has ample parking, and sits just 15 pretty minutes away from my home. Last week, I drove there in a 2013 Aston Martin V8 Vantage, a rare British sports car that makes the similar-looking Jaguar XK feel as common as farm equipment.

Thing is, it's not as fast as it looks. That could be good, since if I owned one, I'd be less likely to wreck it than if I had a Jaguar XKR-S, which has another 130 horsepower above the 420 found in the Aston's 4.7-liter V8. It's manly little car, too, with a heavy, spring-loaded racing clutch, heavy steering, a chunky shifter, and a stiff suspension. It's a workout to drive this car smoothly. And when you do, that XKR-S, for the same price, can beat your tail at a stop light. I'm not sure I'm OK with that.

Aston Martin offers a quicker fix: the 510-horsepower V12 Vantage. But that's even more expensive, and it's undoubtedly heavier and likely less nimble. For veggie runs, the V8 Vantage is all anyone really needs.

Check back later for a full review in the Sunday Globe.

2012 Hyundai Veloster: Autodom's daring future?

Posted by Gerry Miles March 30, 2012 06:43 PM

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(Front: Gerry Miles for The Boston Globe; Interior: Hyundai). Click photo for larger version.

I get the Veloster, I think. Or maybe I’ve spent too much time reading the Steve Jobs biography and Apple thinking has convinced me that great design takes great risks. The Hyundai Veloster’s polarizing design is certainly risky, but it’s also daring.

The Veloster is designed with an angle – purposely – to get drivers thinking about what fun they could have driving a Hyundai. How many times have you looked at a car recently that seemed really high-end only to be surprised that it’s a Sonata or Elantra?

To use some spring training lingo, consider the new Veloster as the set-up man for the upcoming closer–the Veloster Turbo. This car is the appetizing first serving of what promises to be a dramatic future.

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Carving Malibu Canyon in a C63 AMG

Posted by George Kennedy March 16, 2012 02:28 PM

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(All photos: Steve Davis/WheelsTV). Click photo for larger version.

LOS ANGELES—Refined excess may sound like a contradiction, but it's the simplest way to describe this city and the monster I'm driving, a 2012 Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG Coupe. A fair amount of Angelinos will buy this elegant luxury car, which only gives off subtle hints of its bone-crushing power and finely-tuned suspension.

AMG is the in-house performance wing of Mercedes-Benz, akin to BMW's M Division. Both are well known among car enthusiasts, but with the M3, only BMW had a true world-beating performance coupe. Until now.

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2012 Chevrolet Sonic, part 2: A cheap Chevy I don't hate

Posted by Craig Fitzgerald March 6, 2012 04:06 PM

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(All photos: General Motors). Click photo for larger version.

This is the 2011 Chevrolet Aveo, the last of the awful American subcompacts. Overseas, the Aveo name lives on as our US-market Sonic.

American manufacturers used to make horrible subcompact cars. Finally, that time came to an end when the last Chevy Aveo slithered off the assembly line. Chevy, in particular, had fundamental issues turning out a usable small car. From the Vega through the revived Nova years, and right on up to the Aveo (a rebadged Daewoo Lanos), Chevrolet seemed to treat subcompact consumers with outright hostility. That all changes with the Sonic. I spent a six-hour ride to Vermont and back in a Sonic LTZ Turbo. In the old days, when you drove an inexpensive Chevrolet, you felt as if the entire car was giving you the finger. Cardboard door panels, wind noise at 30 mph, lousy radio, flaccid handling. This uprated Sonic, on the other hand, features truly comfortable seats, a solid audio system with XM Satellite Radio and connections for every electronic device in your arsenal, a usable instrument panel, an extremely quiet interior and surprisingly good exterior aesthetics outside.

It's as if Chevrolet was attempting to build an actual car.

You won’t climb long hills in sixth gear – a subcompact Chevy with a six-speed? Will wonders never cease? – but downshifting past fifth is unnecessary under most conditions. Fuel mileage is outstanding, and filling a 10-gallon tank makes you look down your nose at drivers filling SUVs at the pump.

Complaints are exceedingly minor. I like the idea of the fold-down armrest for the driver, but it needs to offer a little bit more of a downward angle, especially in Sonics with a manual transmission. A leftward head-check over the shoulder when changing lanes results in a B-pillar that almost completely blocks your view. The cargo area is good for not much more than a knapsack and a pair of running shoes.

That’s it, though. In total, it was an honestly enjoyable car to drive on a long trip, which is a lot more than I can say for cars like the truly awful Geo Metro. Well done.

2012 Chevrolet Sonic: Shake off the bad and win

Posted by Keith Griffin March 6, 2012 03:45 PM

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(All photos: General Motors). Click photo for larger version.

About five years ago, an old friend got married. As a member of the wedding party, I was hoping I would have a cool car to drive to the ceremony. I ended up with a Chevrolet Aveo – a dismal subcompact that demonstrated everything wrong about America's subcompacts at the time: uninspired design, bad ride, and the inability to get out of its own way.

Fast forward to the Aveo’s replacement, the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic, which sat in my driveway for two weeks over the December holidays. Once again I was initially disappointed because I like to drive something a little bigger in December, especially (I shamelessly admit) to look good in the eyes of my relatives.

But then I get behind the wheel a couple days before Christmas and discover Santa Claus has delivered an early present. The Sonic hatchback with the turbocharged 1.4-liter engine is an absolute blast to drive in a small but comfortable package.

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Quick spin: 2012 BMW 3 Series

Posted by Keith Griffin March 6, 2012 03:13 PM

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(All photos: BMW). Click photo for larger version.

MONTERREY, Calif.—For its all-new 2012 3 Series sedan, BMW is thinking big and small: an 8-speed automatic transmission mated to a turbocharged four-cylinder engine. It's an interesting gamble to combine fuel efficiency with spirited driving.

There's also something unusual the German automaker is bringing: value. It’s a word product manager Oliver Ganser used over and over during the car’s media introduction in Monterrey.

Quick spin

Since when is the adjective “value” used to describe a BMW? If you’ve ever priced a 3 Series and wondered why you’re forced to pay $1,450 for leather in a $35,000 car, you know the answer. This is a car you want, not need, to drive.

Except, oddly enough, the 2012 3 Series sedan is a value, a weird thing to say for a car that competes against the Mercedes-Benz C-Class and the Audi A4. BMW has managed to make a competitive sedan that performs well, has lots of luxury, and yet manages to be well-priced among premium compact sedans.

What is this world coming to?

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2012 Dodge Charger: An old-school sedan with great marks

Posted by Bill Griffith March 2, 2012 10:32 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe). Click photo for larger version.

Sometimes driving is fun; other times, it’s a hoot. This is about one of those wonderful occasions.

We’re at the wheel of a 2012 Dodge Charger—a.k.a. the undercover police car—near the New Hampshire border. Our test car’s tungsten metallic paint job isn’t too far away from the N.H. state police cruisers’ color scheme.

So, when we manage a friendly wave at local police officers in their black and white Chargers, they wave back, not quite certain if we’re an unmarked member of the fraternity. Of course, we’re not part of their lodge, but we’re driving one of the neatest full-sized sedans around, one the law enforcement types like for its intimidating looks and power.

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Porsche Everyday? We slog a Boxster on snowy roads

Posted by Craig Fitzgerald March 2, 2012 11:07 AM

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(All photos: Craig Fitzgerald for Boston.com). Click photo for larger version.

I walked out of the garage with a snowbrush yesterday right as my plow guy, finishing his last pass of the driveway, stopped and called me over to his Ford pickup.

“You’re not taking that, are you?” he asked, his finger pointed at a bright red 2012 Porsche Boxster S.

Why wouldn’t I?

Since last year, Porsche has been running the “Porsche Everyday” campaign, pitching its line of cars – not just its SUVs and sedans – as everyday drivers, suitable for picking up the kids at school, hauling a couple of bags of Portland cement from the Home Depot, and yes, getting through the snow safely and securely.

For years now, I’ve been listening to New Englanders bellyache that you can’t get through winter without all-wheel drive. Utter nonsense. All-wheel drive is nice to have. It’s by no means mandatory.

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2012 Toyota Camry: Leading, like always

Posted by Bill Griffith February 10, 2012 02:38 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe). Click photo for larger version.

Today’s test car is the 2012 Toyota Camry, the best-selling car in the United States for the last 10 years (and counting) and 14 of the past 15 years.

The Camry has been totally redesigned for this model year and comes to market with a huge bulls-eye on its back.

Competition in the segment never has been so fierce. Traditionally, the Honda Accord is the Camry’s number one rival. However, Toyota’s seventh-generation Camry already is on the market and getting a running start with the redesigned Accord not due out until the middle of this year.

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Living with the natural gas Honda Civic

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh December 17, 2011 12:15 AM

Honda Civics sell in more varieties than supermarket apples. There’s the stripper DX without air conditioning, the step-up LX, the fuel-saving HF, the ultra-fuel-saving Hybrid, the well-equipped EX, the EX with leather, and the high-performance Si. There’s a choice of sedan or coupe, manual or automatic.

I can’t even buy my favorite Pink Lady apples all year. The Civic, however, is the fourth best-selling car in New England. It’s always in stock, despite inventory shortages due to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

I’ve driven three 2012 Civics this year and none felt alike. Like many reviewers, I wasn’t impressed with the Civic EX sedan. But when I tried a sleek blue Si coupe, it was entirely different. A 201-horsepower engine never hurts, yet the six-speed manual, upgraded seats and fabrics, and flattering curves went leaps beyond the mundane sedan.

Then there’s the GX, a Civic just as boring as the EX save for one exciting footnote: it runs on compressed natural gas.

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2012 Jeep Wrangler: Toy classic gets comfortable

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh December 16, 2011 12:52 PM

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(All photos: Chrysler). Click photo for larger version.

Whenever an icon gets updated, I pray it won’t be ruined. In the Jeep Wrangler’s case, I’m worried about the mirrors.

My girlfriend, Eliana, wants to smack me every time I complain about driving her 2002 Wrangler, and I want to show her that power heated mirrors do not make my test 2012 Wrangler a wuss.

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2012 Buick LaCrosse: Hush hybrid

Posted by Bill Griffith December 16, 2011 10:54 AM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe). Click photo for larger version.

There’s no way this review is going to start off with another of those “This is not your father’s Buick” lines. Anyway, that axiom now is so old it should be “This is not your grandfather’s Buick.”

Nope. Not today. Instead, Mrs. G is stepping up to say, “This is my Buick.”

It started when she spotted today’s test car, a 2012 Buick LaCrosse, in the driveway.

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Fighting scratches and swans with a Silverado pickup

Posted by Bill Griffith December 9, 2011 05:48 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe). Click photo for larger version.

In the end, I just couldn’t do it. I wasn’t about to put the first scratch on a brand-new truck bed.

The arrival of the 2012 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 4WD pickup truck seemingly was the answer to my prayers. After all, there was a pile of broken-up small branches, courtesy of the late October Nor’easter, plus 16 bags of leaves and garden debris awaiting transport to the local compost dump.

How often when confronted with such tasks had I lamented: “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a pickup truck this week?” That wish ranks up there with a “Where’s the traffic cop?” when someone blows by you at 95 on the highway or blatantly runs a red light. It’s oft-spoken, rarely seen.

This time, though, it happened. Here’s the truck. Here’s the cargo. What’s the problem?

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2012 Lexus CT 200h: Prius in a tighter suit

Posted by Gerry Miles December 9, 2011 05:10 PM

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(All photos except interior, Toyota: Gerry Miles for The Boston Globe). Click photo for larger version.

What do you get if you merge a four-door hatchback, an eco-friendly Prius engine, and radical styling?

Would you believe a Lexus hybrid?

Imagine a stretched version of the Scion xD or Toyota Matrix to provide the requisite number of doors and a hatch; toss a 1.8-liter four-cylinder gas motor and the current Toyota Prius mill under the hood, add a wide-stance and low slung body that’s but 4.6 feet tall, and you’ve got the 2011 Lexus CT 200h.

The resulting car more resembles the departed Dodge Magnum retrofit with aggressive, attractive styling not usually found on a Lexus. The look is more familiar in the Scion tC, on whose platform this offering is based. Remember, one of Scion’s original goals was to create a line for younger buyers who would remain loyal to the brand, matriculate to Toyota, and lounge in a Lexus in the latter years.

It seems the new Lexus and its boy-racer style is designed for the aging, conservative, energy-conscious driver who doesn’t like the Prius look or its pokey but highly economical output.

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2012 Range Rover Evoque: Smartened up, sized down

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh December 2, 2011 03:26 PM

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(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Globe Staff). Click photo for larger version.

A group of Range Rover Evoques take to the Vermont trails right after the freak October snowfall.

Everything you’ve heard about Range Rovers is true. They excel in the freakiest situations, say, when there’s a two-foot-deep rut on one side of the road and some raised rocks on the other, with utmost calm.

When the Ranges hug the highway, they’re as suave as SUVs go. But their air suspensions float on a different planet, a world even farther removed from four-car garages and suburbs like Wellesley. In cities where they’re seen most, Range Rovers feel clumsy, almost goofy, as they chuck nearly three tons on the street. Slow steering with the precision of mashed potatoes? True. Induced headaches from all the body wobble and dive? Also true. Not once have they averaged more than 13 mpg in our tests (when $75 Hess charges appear on my credit card, I remind myself it wasn’t theft, but a Range Rover).

Now, there’s a Range with all the comforts and nearly all the capability of the big brutes, but with the footprint of a compact hatch and a promised 28 mpg. But the zippy, little 2012 Evoque is not a concept. It’s Range Rover’s first model to make complete, rational sense. You know, for people living on this planet.

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2012 Hyundai Accent: Wow, they did it

Posted by Bill Griffith November 30, 2011 04:54 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe). Click photo for larger version.

There was no Miss Daisy riding in the back seat. Instead, there was Master Jack, my four-year-old grandson. Like Miss Daisy, he was a passenger with a wide range of demands and emotions.

As my sidekick, he helped color the review of today’s test car, a 2012 Hyundai Accent GLS. This is the four-door sedan version of the totally redesigned Accent subcompact lineup. The other two variants are five-door hatchbacks.

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King-size sedans: Audi A8, Mercedes S400, Hyundai Equus, Jaguar XJ

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh November 10, 2011 04:40 PM

Yes, there are times when the car guy doesn't want to get behind the wheel.

Immediately after the Bruins clinched the Stanley Cup, with a thousand chest-beating fans crowding the streets, I killed the urge to take our Porsche cabriolet downtown. Or last week, during that freakish first snowfall, I was positively hating my drive through Vermont’s desolate pitch-black roads, even in the heated confines of the new Range Rover Evoque.

But the worst has to be when I’m driving a full-size, 17-foot-long luxury sedan and never get to enjoy the back seat. It’s not that I’d rather watch a James Bond flick — any large family car can cough up a video screen — but I long to sink into the blissful, almost shameful, pampering of these big four-doors. Personal thermostats, power window shades, massagers, and a good half-acre of legroom make calling “shotgun” a fool’s wager in a Mercedes S-Class.

Still, getting behind the wheel of the Jaguar XJL, Audi A8, Mercedes S400 Hybrid, and Hyundai Equus Ultimate hasn’t been half bad. Our goal was to determine which car is the best executive express for the lucky rider in the back, and which earns highest honors for the actual driving experience? Tough assignment. Here they are from good to best.

[Ed. note: We haven't driven the BMW 7 Series or the Lexus LS in two years, so they're not included in this review]

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2012 Mazda 5: 'Mini-minivan' stays the lonely course

Posted by Keith Griffin November 10, 2011 01:35 PM

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(All photos: Mazda). Click photo for larger version.

Count me among the few automotive journalists who are truly excited to hear about the new 2012 Mazda 5.

While crossovers of all shapes and sizes flood American roads, compact minivans like the Mazda 5 don't exist here. In June, Ford canceled plans to import its European C-Max van, the only would-be competitor to the low-slung Mazda with the sliding doors.

From the moment I first set eyes on it six years ago, I have been a Mazda 5 fanboy, probably one of the few in existence. I looked at this mini-minivan (what Mazda prefers to call it) and instantly thought, "This is the right-size vehicle for a family of four."

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2012 Cadillac SRX: Catching up to the luxury CUVs

Posted by Bill Griffith November 4, 2011 05:25 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe). Click photo for larger version.

Cadillac’s transformation has been intriguing to watch.

These days, General Motors is working to expand the Cadillac brand as a global marque of excellence while at the same time distancing it from the Buick line. The distinction, if you’re wondering, is to have Buick as a more entry-level luxury car with Cadillac on the high end of the luxury segment.

Meanwhile, Cadillac continues to work on appealing to a younger buyer, a process that got rolling with the introduction of the Escalade and escalated with the CTS sedans, coupes, and wagons.

It’s easy to make a case that the Cadillac CTS-V coupes racing (and winning) in the Pirelli World Challenge Series are more “stock” than the brands (Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford, and Toyota) racing in NASCAR’s top Sprint Cup series. That may be a story for another day but it shows that Cadillac is succeeding in the performance arena.

When my son-in-law first saw today’s test car—a 2012 Cadillac SRX with all-wheel-drive—he had a common reaction. “THAT’s a Cadillac? It’s really nice looking.” And so it is as it competes strongly in a tough luxury segment with the likes of the Acura MDX, BMW X3 and X5, Lexus RX 350, Infiniti EX 35, and Volvo XC90.

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2011 BMW X3: Goodbye, growing pains

Posted by Bill Griffith November 4, 2011 04:46 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe). Click photo for larger version.

When BMW introduced its X5 SUV in 1999, I was mesmerized by the experience of driving an SUV that not only looked like a BMW but also performed like one.

That X5 was a vehicle that was out of both my needs and price range, but it had earned one of the “first love” spots in my heart. BMW got this one “right” from the beginning.

When this week’s test car, a BMW X3 compact SUV, hit my driveway, it sparked a déjà vu experience. While earlier versions of the X3 left something to be desired, this new model has grown up and been transformed from a not-so-perfect compact SUV into a swan-like, mid-sized SUV.

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Quick spin: Mercedes-Benz S350 BlueTEC

Posted by Bill Griffith November 2, 2011 03:10 PM

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(All photos: Mercedes-Benz). Click photo for larger version.

To some folks, putting a diesel engine into the latest generation of the iconic Mercedes-Benz S-Class is akin to having cell phones ringing at a funeral.

Quick spin

To others — and the Mercedes folks feel that will be between 5 and 10 percent of S-Class buyers — the reaction is, “It’s about time to have a diesel option.”

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Quick spin: 2012 Buick LaCrosse eAssist

Posted by Bill Griffith October 14, 2011 04:35 PM

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(Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe)

It's taken a decade, but I'm finally a convert and believer in hybrid technology.

That said, along comes Buick's eAssist technology, available now on the full-sized LaCrosse and coming soon to the Regal and 2013 Chevrolet Malibu. The folks at GM don't want to go "all in" and call it a hybrid anymore — the former Malibu Hybrid didn't sell well — instead choosing to call the innovation "light electrification."

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2012 Subaru Impreza: Now driven outside New England

Posted by Keith Griffin October 3, 2011 04:49 PM

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(All photos: Subaru). Click photo for larger version.

NEW YORK—Subaru is a manufacturer near and dear to New England's heart. It's almost as if they were designed solely for this region. As the old joke goes, the Subaru is the state bird of New Hampshire.

Quick spin

Fans — mostly New Englanders and anyone in the snow belt — have loved them for their distinctive design and tough all-wheel-drive systems, but in recent years Subaru has begun to homogenize its cars to make them more appealing to the rest of the country. Case in point: The 2012 Subaru Impreza.

At its launch to the media in Manhattan last month, company executives said the previous generation model was, to paraphrase, ugly. And like all Subarus, it consumed gas at a horrible rate for a small car.

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2012 Volkswagen Beetle: C'mon guys, I'm serious

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh September 24, 2011 06:12 PM

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(All photos: Volkswagen). Click photo for larger version.

Whatever Volkswagen says, no matter what steps it took to remove the flower vase and flatten the bubble roof, this is not a typical guy's car.

The 2012 Beetle — not to be confused with the old New Beetle — is the smiley-faced model's first redesign since I left middle school 13 years ago. In car years, the outgoing Beetle is as old a hippie as Susan Sarandon, and about as relevant a statement as her robo-calls urging Californians to legalize pot. Car buyers have tired of the Beetle's throw-it-to-the-wind vibe, and instead bought Mini Coopers and VW's cheaper, more practical Golf hatchback. During the frenzied early years, Beetle sales were five-and-a-half times those today.

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2012 Bentley Continental GT: Charming complacency

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh September 2, 2011 05:24 PM

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(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Globe Staff; Except interior: Bentley). Click photo for larger version.

Wealthy people haven't made it this far to watch their investments blow off course. Boost tax rates and cramp their inheritances, and they'll be sitting in the Cayman Islands swiping Swiss debit cards. Tweak their Bentleys too much, and heaven forbid, they may slide into a Mercedes 600 or Porsche Turbo. So like any classic luxury good, the 2012 Bentley Continental GT is very much as it arrived in 2003: a beautiful two-plus-two coupe with the most brutal, beat-it-up-in-your-face motor money can buy.

In eight years, Bentley has added two racier trims, the Speed and Supersports, yet only now has it paid the GT a proper mid-cycle refresh. When larger automakers take this long to update a best-selling model, sales drop and CEOs get fired. But since Bentley started with a coupe that's cushier than a five-star hotel, quicker than most pedigree sports cars, and more crash-worthy than a full-size SUV, what's there to add besides bigger headlamps?

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2011 BMW 335is: M3 fun for less

Posted by Gerry Miles September 2, 2011 05:10 PM

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(All photos: Gerry Miles for The Boston Globe). Click photo for larger version.

Many folks expect cars of a certain ilk — most of them foreign —to be superb. The reasons among them: price, performance and heritage.

Some meet that mythical standard. Some don't. Some shatter it.

Into the last column, I place the BMW 335is convertible. The 3-Series is a wonderful car with many shapes and sizes, all offering snappy and responsive motoring. I was not prepared for the surprise that the "s" provides on the 335is. It's more of an altered way of life than a letter.

The 335is is a sports car. It's a convertible. It's a relentless pursuer of pavement and a refined road car. Whatever effect you desire, it's dialed in and ready.

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2011 Nissan Quest: Among minivans, a suitable challenger

Posted by Gerry Miles August 26, 2011 06:43 PM

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(All photos: Gerry Miles for The Boston Globe). Click photo for larger version.

If you actually pay attention to the Nissan commercials — the ones that dare you to change, think, and imagine things differently — you might better understand the 2011 Nissan Quest.

This fourth generation Quest seems to have found its place among the more upstream contenders, like the Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey, offering style, creature comforts, luxury, and versatility.

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2011 Lexus RX 450h: Hybrid or not, it's plush all the way

Posted by Bill Griffith August 26, 2011 06:20 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe). Click photo for larger version.

Ms. Beth, my neighbor's lady friend, has me pegged.

"You're not a big fan of hybrids, are you?" she said (it wasn't really a question), on a recent Saturday afternoon. She was checking out today's test car, a 2011 Lexus RX 450h. That "h" stands for hybrid, and you also can add "crossover luxury SUV" to its name in describing it.

She's right, to a point. I admire the technology, reliability, and fuel economy of the current crop of hybrids, but I also figure that it will take quite a few years of savings at the pump to make up the $5,000 to $6,000 premium they command. For example, the base price for the all-wheel-drive 450h (including destination) is $47,200 compared to a similarly equipped gasoline-powered RX 350's $41,350.

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2011 Audi R8 Spyder: Why wait?

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh August 19, 2011 01:15 PM

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(Darren Durlach/Globe Staff)

Supercar shopping isn’t as easy as waving a certified check in the air. Thing is, if you just found out the Ferrari 458 Italia existed, you can’t buy one. You’ll probably wait a whole year or more. If you didn’t know the Mercedes SLS AMG was nearing completion in 2009, too bad. Nearly all of the 500-per-year allotment is taken through the 2012 model year. A new Porsche 911 GT2 RS is — nope, sorry, two of the four in this country are used.

And Warren Buffet says the rich have it too easy.

But thanks to Audi, they can go burn $172,000 in their checking accounts today. According to Cars.com, there are more than 200 R8s sitting at US dealers, waiting for Lamborghini buyers to cancel their Gallardo orders. Audi won’t recommend this (they own Lamborghini, which donated the Gallardo’s 5.2-liter V-10 engine), but dealers should smear every R8’s windshield in neon dry-erase marker. A LAMBO at $30,000 OFF! Why WAIT??

Two minor things. A Porsche 911 Turbo S is much, much faster than the R8 for the same money, and a Corvette ZR1 is faster for much less money. Who, exactly, cares? Next to the R8, both look like Amish buggies.

Click on the video below — you’ll get the idea.

2012 Hyundai Genesis R-Spec: Sleepiest sedan of all

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh August 10, 2011 03:57 PM

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(All photos: Hyundai). Click photo for larger version.

There are sedans, luxury sedans, sporty sedans, and a fourth kind known only to people who get on their hands and knees inspecting exhaust pipes. Enter the sleeper sedan.

Sleeper sedans are the wolves in country club polos. Sometimes, they're cloaked in the same Subaru, Ford, and BMW sheet metal you rent from Zipcar or Hertz. And like how investment bankers party at strip clubs and charge their firms for "miscellaneous sundry," sleeper sedans are very discreet about providing entertainment, legal or otherwise.

Remember the first Taurus SHO from 1989? It appeared to be the average family Ford, but with a fast-revving Yamaha V-6 and five-speed manual, it was no commuter ride. The new Mercedes E63 AMG, with its four exhaust tips and lowered springs, looks a hair sportier than the cushy E-Class. Then you switch to the left lane, the transmission drops three gears, and in a few eye blinks the needle slams to 140. It's so smooth and easy, my mom could still be playing Angry Birds in the backseat and never notice.

The sleeper sedan we're driving today isn't a $100,000 Mercedes. In fact, there's no hood emblem or logos to call it anything. It sort of looks like a Mercedes, with its curved headlamps and horizontal lines on the grill. But from the side, it could be a taller BMW 5 Series from the last model year. And from the rear quarters, we're wafting scents of Infiniti M56. It's sleek, squat, and wears incredibly large tires for what appears to be a humble luxury car.

This is the Hyundai Genesis R-Spec, the sleepiest four-door of them all.

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2011 Toyota Avalon: One Lexus, hold the snobbery

Posted by Keith Griffin July 15, 2011 11:04 AM

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(All photos: Toyota). Click photo for larger version.

A popular social icebreaker is the question, "If you were stranded on a desert island, what three things would you bring?" Let's posit that question in an automotive way. "If you could drive only one vehicle for the rest of your life, what would it be?"

The Toyota Avalon, the company's most upscale sedan short of a Lexus, would not be a disappointing answer. It has a high-level of practicality, comfort, luxury, and even fuel efficiency that make it a compelling vehicle for those not caught up in badge snobbery.

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2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid: Borderline excellent

Posted by Bill Griffith July 7, 2011 06:44 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe). Click photo for larger version.

It wasn't all that long ago that a new Hyundai model would arrive with the modest hopes of simply "getting on the radar" of potential purchasers.

How times have changed.

These days, the latest Hyundai models have moved to the top-level of their sedan and SUV segments. Now, along comes Hyundai's 2011 Sonata Hybrid, a vehicle that arrived with such glowing recommendations from colleagues that my expectations were raised to unrealistic levels.

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2011 Hyundai Elantra: Another great leap forward

Posted by Bill Griffith June 30, 2011 06:48 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe). Click photo for larger version.

One of my regular good-natured jabs at the auto industry is that every redesigned model tends to be a bit longer, wider, and more powerful than its predecessor while also returning incrementally better fuel economy.

When you extrapolate that trend out for a decade or more, you have a "growing" problem. That is, what was a compact car is now a mid-sized car and what was a mid-sized car is now a full-sized car. Enterprising manufacturers take advantage of this "growth strategy" by filling in new entry-level subcompact vehicles, like the Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa, and Honda Fit.

The rest of the lineup thus "moves up." Honda's Accord, long a leader of the mid-sized segment, now has a full-sized interior. Nissan's Maxima has been pushed into the full-sized category with the Altima moving up from compact to mid-sized, the Sentra to compact, and the Versa taking over the subcompact segment.

Meanwhile, Hyundai's redesigned Sonata (now classified by the EPA as a "large" car) has been receiving plenty of accolades. So what do we make of the vehicle behind it in Hyundai's lineup, the redesigned and already well-received compact 2011 Hyundai Elantra? Hyundai has maximized useful room by making this fifth-generation Elantra bigger and more fuel efficient than its predecessors.

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Why the 2012 Honda Civic should have tried harder

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh June 30, 2011 05:57 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe). Click photo for larger version.

Honda Civics are part of the American driver's lexicon. Save for the Toyota Corolla, no other car has branded our psyches as the go-to choice for cheap, fun, and utterly dependable transportation.

My high school track coach drove a 1970s-era Civic hatch (in the year 2002), young and old keep them past 200,000 miles, and there's no shortage of loud, street racer-type Civics crawling through every city. Thieves adore them, too. A friend at work had his Civic stolen, twice (the third time, all the seats went missing). These cars don't die.

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2011 Subaru WRX STI: Obnoxious fun

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh June 28, 2011 01:14 PM

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(Subaru). Click photo for larger version.

If I didn't know better, the Subaru WRX STI might just be the silliest gas hog of a little car there is. It's a cocky, pheromone-swilling show-off, with a hood scoop ready to inhale pigeons, a foot-tall rear wing, and all that booming, ear-splitting braaap from the four exhaust tips.

This is a car that acts like a frustrated teenage boy and is priced for a well-paid man in his 30s, albeit a single and slightly nerdy guy who likes a good deal. Because for all its tackiness — and this is after Subaru canceled the gold pimp wheels for 2011 — the man who buys a WRX STI does know better. He's getting a street-legal race car, and all the gut-wrenching performance of a Porsche 911 for half the price.

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2011 Mini Countryman: Standing tall and true to the brand

Posted by Bill Griffith June 21, 2011 03:53 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe). Click photo for larger version.

The jokes began immediately.

"Is that the 'big' Mini?"

"Oh, I see you're driving the Maxi Mini ... or is it the Mini Maxi?"

"Is that a Mini on steroids?"

Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

We are driving the biggest Mini, a 2011 Mini Cooper S Countryman ALL4. It is the largest of the four Mini family members, more than five inches longer and wider and 500 pounds heavier than the Clubman, the stretched-wheelbase Mini. For the record, the other Minis are the base Mini and Mini convertible. It's also the first Mini with four doors and an all-wheel-drive option.

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2011 Infiniti QX56: Big on everything but the mileage

Posted by Gerry Miles June 16, 2011 06:18 PM

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(All photos except interior: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com Staff). Click photo for larger version.

Admiration, not outrage. Awe, instead of "Ahh, its too big." Those are the responses I got while piloting a 2011 Infiniti QX56.

In a time of downsizing, high gas prices, and email signatures asking you not to print, I expected to be treated as an environmental evil while driving this large, luxury SUV.

Instead, the Infiniti nameplate invited exemplary exultations. "Oooh, Infiniti, that must be nice." Yes, it was, despite a price tag that's as large as the vehicle's size and fuel economy that doesn't match its proportions.

For its second-generation makeover, the QX56 hasn't really gone to boot camp. Standing 6.3 feet high, 6.7 feet wide (about an inch more than the last model), and measuring 17.3 feet tip-to-tip, this landlocked Leviathan weighs nearly three tons. There's nothing small about it. Never has been.

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2011 Ford Explorer: Reinventing the classic SUV

Posted by Bill Griffith May 31, 2011 12:12 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe). Click photo for larger version.

Ford started beating the drum for its "reinvented" 2011 Explorer more than a year ago. The company's latest and greatest SUV would have unibody construction, better driving dynamics, more economical engines, and be loaded with safety and entertainment technology.

The new Explorer does accomplish all of that, though we wound up using it for the same mundane chores that became easier when Ford first took the SUV segment mainstream with the 1991 model.

Good friends Helen and Ken had decided to become snowbirds, making their Tampa-area home their winter base and using their Lake Winnipesaukee condo for summer. "Could we send some boxes to your house and pick them up when we get settled in?" they asked a few months back.

"Of course," we'd replied.

So, every few days, a UPS truck would back up the driveway and another 40-pound box would be dropped off. It wasn't much of a chore to take the box downstairs and store it carefully in the basement — above the high-water mark for the two big spring floods in the past decade.

You've probably discerned that said boxes and today's test vehicle — a 2011 Ford Explorer XLT AWD — were destined to meet.

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2012 Fiat 500C: Spiffy top makes a truly smart car

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh May 30, 2011 07:40 PM

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(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com Staff). Click photo for larger version.

NEW YORK — Surprisingly few people noticed the flock of Fiat 500 Cabriolets buzzing through Manhattan's SoHo district during the car's media introduction this month. Blame it on the car-averse, seen-it-all nature of most New Yorkers. But take the cute 500 to any other American town and it'll stick out like a fire hydrant in the middle of the Antarctic. It's way out of its element, but you might end up wanting one.

Fiat thinks the 500 can lure a new generation of singles and young couples who lapped up Volkswagen New Beetles and Mini Coopers. After a 27-year absence, Fiat has barely carved a name here — the first of four Massachusetts dealers opened in March — but this stubby car has a good chance. While mammoth crossovers and SUVs pack our roads, Americans have always found a soft spot for European hatchbacks with mildly zany personalities, no matter the price of gas.

And before anyone gets smart on me, know that Fiat isn't repeating the American failure of the ForTwo microcar. Despite being less than 12 feet long and as wide as my arm span, the 500 sports another cylinder, two more seatbelts, and the actual semblance of an automobile.

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2012 Audi A7: Stunner sedan owns the boulevard

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh May 23, 2011 12:10 PM

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(All photos by the manufacturers) Click photo for larger version.

Before introducing the R8 supercar in 2008, Audi was the Necco wafer of luxury carmakers. Plain-looking, flat, and bland, most of Audi's lineup had never matured past the dressed-up Volkswagens they started with in the 1970s. That's not saying they weren't nice cars, or even better values against the Mercedes and BMWs of their time. My high school French teacher (circa 2000) drove a pearl white A4 quattro, and while it was by far the best car in the faculty lot, you could close your eyes and forget what it looked like.

Now, like Korean upstarts Hyundai and Kia, Audi is in the midst of a design renaissance, or rather, a domination. Those studded LED parking lamps that Lexus, Saab, and Chrysler have copied all came from Audi. The big-mouth grill that debuted on the once-homely A6 sedan is now a big trademark across the line (and has influenced the latest Chevrolets). But Audi doesn't want an artistic reputation — it wants to be the largest luxury automaker in the world. And to get there, it has given us stunning designs like the new A7.

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2011 Chevrolet Volt: Electric versatility

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh May 6, 2011 05:17 PM

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(Darren Durlach/Boston.com Staff). Click photo for larger version.

The Chevrolet Volt is the most advanced hybrid ever made. It's radical. Handsome. And no less than Automobile Magazine, Motor Trend, and the North American Car of the Year jury have crowned it "Car of the Year." But, uh, where can you buy one?

Since its December debut, Chevrolet has sold only 2,020 Volts in six states through April, including Connecticut and Washington, D.C. Massachusetts will get the honor this fall, and the entire country will be invited to buy in December. While Chevy can fill every Hertz lot in America with Impalas, they're barely making 10,000 Volts this year.

That's because this plug-in hybrid has a battery with 12 times the capacity of a Prius, and until now, no one's produced such a complex and large lithium-ion pack in high volume. Unlike a regular hybrid, where the electric motor provides a small assist to the gas engine, the Volt's electric motor is the primary source of power. The gas engine is secondary and spins the electric motor when the battery dies (and at higher speeds, it can power the wheels in tandem).

In short, the Volt is designed to be plugged in like a pure electric car, but it'll run all day and all week like a gasoline car. Anything else about the Volt's powertrain labyrinth is impossible to explain without an engineering doctorate, and that's why the car costs $41,000. That, and because GM would really like to recoup some of the money spent from four hard years of labor.

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2011 Nissan Leaf: Fear and charging in Boston

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh May 6, 2011 03:53 PM

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(Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com Staff). Click photo for larger version.

No fancy 240-volt charging station here, just a dusty 120-volt cord which charges the Leaf in about 25 hours.

First, a big bow to the 2011 Nissan Leaf, the newest all-electric car from a mainstream automaker in 11 years. Other than a few late-'90s debuts, most affordable electric cars have been glorified golf carts or hacked piecemeal from China.

Next, a gulp of aspirin for my pounding headache and shot nerves, courtesy of our creamy white electric test car. I hate to use GM's trademarked phrase, but I just came down with the worst case of "range anxiety."

Nissan wants its car back on a frigid April Fool's morning, and the Leaf's digital instrument panel is showing 16 miles left. So I divert my nine-mile commute to the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, which has the metro area's only public charging station. At 240 volts, the Leaf would fill up in about seven hours, leaving fleet manager Mike Brooks a full 100-mile range.

When I exit the highway, the range meter blanks out, there's a single bar on the charge gauge, and a barrage of warning lights, chimes, and voices politely tell me I'm going to be stranded. It's chilly and raining, and in a frantic energy-saving blitz, I switch off everything: headlamps, heater, LCD display — even the wipers. Then I switch the whole car off and panic. Am I going to be the guy who threw the first Leaf onto a wrecker?

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2011 Infiniti EX35: High-tech wagon serves luxury for two

Posted by Bill Griffith May 3, 2011 03:10 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe). Click photo for larger version.

One maneuver that always makes me a tad nervous is the challenge of parallel parking someone else's vehicle, being able to smoothly place the vehicle next to the curb without scuffing an alloy wheel on the curb or rub someone's bumper. Any time you have to hold up traffic while trying to accomplish the task doesn't help, either.

Just that situation arose soon after taking the wheel of today's test car, a 2011 Infiniti EX35 Journey. The most impressive feature was Infiniti's "Around View" monitor. It splits the seven-inch navigation screen into two images, one of which offers a standard rear view and the other which displays a bird's eye view of the vehicle and its surroundings. First-time viewers may wonder if it's some kind of satellite photo, but it's really a nifty composite of the vehicle's four on-board cameras.

Those views let me ease the EX into a downtown parking spot on one try. The system also protected the flower bed at the end of my own driveway — one I've been known to trample on occasion.

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2011 Nissan Juke: When weird attracts

Posted by Glenn Gould April 27, 2011 05:52 PM

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(All photos: Nissan) Click photo for larger version.

I'll admit I didn't know jack about the Nissan Juke. But with the 2011 Gun Metallic gray Juke SV sitting in the yard, I soon would.

I've noticed a few Jukes in passing traffic. That's not hard to do, as the Juke has a distinctive front-end style. Its headlamps are mounted low and wide on the nose. The accessory lighting pods, designed as clear plastic bubbles that rise above the fender, are the automotive version of bushy eyebrows. Then there's the pronounced grin on the Juke's grill.

Nissan says the Juke's front-end design pays homage to their rally cars (uh, don't see it). But I know being different can make marketing sense. Unusual looks can sell cars as long as they're not gimmicky, and there are several strange cars I admire, like the vintage Land Rover 88 (I've owned several of them) and the Hummer H1. Not pretty faces, but they get the job done.

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2011 Dodge Journey: So-so crossover gets a serious peppering

Posted by Dan Roth April 14, 2011 04:08 PM

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(All photos: Dan Roth for Boston.com; Except interior: Chrysler). Click photo for larger version.

Dodge might prefer you forget there was a Journey before the 2011 model year, when it was a rather below-average crossover introduced for 2009. The word "new" peppers every paragraph of Dodge's 742-word press release, and there's nary an area that wasn't touched or redone.

Always good-looking, the Journey's exterior is only mildly tweaked for 2011. A bolder grille echoes the "split crosshair" theme of the exceptional 2011 Charger. Since our Journey Crew featured the 3.6 liter Pentastar V6 (also new...) for hauling its all-wheel-drive backside, the lower portion of the front fascia had a Clark Kent-esque jutting chin. New wheels round out the most visible changes, and the results are handsome. Bottom line: There wasn't ever anything wrong with the Journey's styling, and that's still the case. FULL ENTRY

2011 Lexus IS 350: Sport sedan remains a work in progress

Posted by Bill Griffith April 8, 2011 06:10 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith/Boston.com). Click photo for larger version.

Sometimes, the whole exceeds the sum of its parts. Other times, the sum of those parts just overwhelms you.

That's the case in talking about today's test car, the 2011 Lexus IS 350 AWD sedan, a vehicle that's loaded with goodies and is an intriguing entry in the near-luxury market.

Let's start with the bullet-proof Lexus reliability. I've driven Toyota-Lexus products for nearly 15 years and more than 100,000 miles and haven't ever let a floor mat get free from its anchoring hooks and bunch up under the gas pedal. Do the scheduled maintenance on a Lexus, take action if something causes an out-of-the-ordinary vibration, and it should give you classy, comfortable, and consistent performance for a decade.

In the performance department, this model is equipped with a 3.5-liter V-6, producing 306 horsepower and 277 lb.-ft. of torque. Coupled with the 6-speed automatic transmission it will take you from 0-to-60 in less than six seconds.

The all-wheel-drive system sends 70 percent of the thrust to the rear wheels, making the car feel a bit like a rear-wheel-drive sports sedan during normal driving. That split can become 50-50 under worsening conditions. We didn't have a blizzard during its stay — a rare snow-free spell this winter — but the IS 350 did fine in a heavy rainstorm and on a day of slick highways.

In the area of luxury appointments, Lexus rarely disappoints. The styling and build quality (inside and out) were outstanding. Materials (leathers, plastics, metals) were all up to anyone's contemporary standards, and despite having a full array of technological goodies, controls were intuitive, well-positioned, and attractive.

So what's not to like?

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Our non-SAE compliant Chevy Volt charging station

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh April 5, 2011 04:26 PM

During a full week with everyone's favorite "Car of the Year," the Chevrolet Volt, there was little to do but rig another ridiculous home charging station as we did for the Prius Plug-in we tested in January. (Check it out in the video below at about 1:46.) This time, thankfully, there were no short circuits from the snow. We'll have a full story soon, but in short, we're in love with the car, and certainly not with the price and limited availability.

Special thanks to the Charles Hotel in Cambridge for providing the only high-voltage charger anywhere in the entire metro area.

2011 Kia Sportage: 'Cute ute' redo has the goods

Posted by Bill Griffith March 31, 2011 05:33 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith/Boston.com). Click photo for larger version.

We've a 2011 Kia Sportage backed up to a storage unit in Lynnfield. The second-row seats are folded flat to maximize cargo-carrying capacity. In goes a pole lamp followed by a good-sized rocking chair, a desk chair, several faux plants, a couple of milk crates, fishing pole, a plumbing snake, magazine rack, and assorted odds 'n ends.

Pretty impressive, all things considered. This trip was intended to empty my storage area, a task that always results in more "stuff" to be loaded than anticipated. The goods are headed to a Somerville apartment.

Unfortunately, after we're packed up, there is still a bicycle, several rolled up rugs, and a stack of folding chairs left over.

"Uh, we'll get those on the next trip and drop them at my old condo's storage area," says my son, the beneficiary of this cargo-carrying expedition. "Uh, I don't think so," I say. "That's too much driving. Let's drop them off first."

So out comes the cargo and in goes the other load of leftovers, heading for the secondary storage area, only a few miles away. That's accomplished in a quick roundtrip. Then the original cargo is re-loaded and taken to Somerville. There, we park half atop a snowbank — thanks to an 18-inch snowfall — and unload.

The point being is that this Sportage, called a CUV by Kia, is a flexible vehicle in a week that included a major snowstorm, messy roads, and the final stage of a family move. We came to appreciate the all-wheel-drive system, which performed admirably in the many days before our neighborhood roads got down to bare pavement. It's a setup that feeds power to the front wheels under normal conditions and adds drive to the rear wheels when needed.

One question is: What is a CUV? A compact utility vehicle? A crossover utility vehicle? A cute utility vehicle, the so-called Cute Ute? It's a fair question, and any of the descriptions could apply to this Sportage, which is totally redesigned for 2011.

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2011 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid: Buy the Ford

Posted by Keith Griffin March 28, 2011 12:12 PM

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(All photos: Ford). Click photo for larger version.

There is an inescapable ying and yang to the 2011 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid. Traditionally, Lincoln has been an aspirational brand for the upper set, but this car is simply a good deal among luxury cars.

Instead of its nameplate, the MKZ Hybrid gets you on price. It costs the exact same amount of money, $34,330, as the standard Lincoln MKZ with a conventional gas engine.

Perhaps I'd jump at the news if the regular MKZ was more exciting (like the Mercedes S400 hybrid versus its gas-engine counterpart). Except when I reviewed the regular MKZ last year, I wrote that it had "a vanilla feel to it in a class of cars where you start to expect more exciting flavors."

Then there's the major problem: It's only a slightly more luxurious Ford Fusion Hybrid. That hybrid costs about $5,000 less and gets the exact same fuel economy in the exact same-size vehicle. Both are rated at 41 mpg city and 36 mpg highway. Those are truly outstanding numbers that I never came close to hitting in the winter, but I still achieved almost 32 mpg combined.

That begs the question. Why buy the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid when you can order a Ford Fusion Hybrid with leather seats?

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2012 Acura TL: How do you like me now?

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh March 18, 2011 05:40 PM

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(All photos: Honda). Click photo for larger version.

Acura's "power plenum" schnoz got a decent nose job on the 2012 TL.

AUSTIN, Texas — No one likes admitting they look bad. But Acura's PR executives, jogging through a semi-awkward script and nearly 60 PowerPoint slides, actually had the bones to say it during a new car launch.

I'm paraphrasing, but for an hour it went something like this: "The 2012 Acura TL may look like the current car, but it's much less strange looking. When we redesigned the TL three years ago, we thought we were pushing the edge like Cadillac, except our harsh angles and that pointy, bulging snout weren't as attractive as we thought they were. Kind of ugly, really.

"So this mid-cycle update has lots of little design tweaks, not to mention better fuel economy and a new 6-speed automatic."

There, doesn't that feel better to let it all out?

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Up close with the 2011 Chrysler 300

Posted by Bill Griffith March 17, 2011 04:29 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith/Boston.com). Click photo for larger version.

Ask someone from Chrysler "What's new?" and the answer is "Everything."

There's new leadership, a new attitude, new vehicles in the showrooms, and plenty more coming down the pipeline. Most importantly, there's new hope for the future.

Instead of being a subsidiary, as the company was with Mercedes and Cerebus, there's been a total shift in corporate culture and a new joy of life with Fiat, including the attitude that "we'll either succeed or fail as an entity."

Chrysler brought three of its redesigned vehicles to the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline last week. Included were three versions of the Chrysler 200 (the successor to the Sebring) in a four-door sedan and two convertibles, both soft- and hardtops. Also in attendance were the 2011 Town & Country minivan and revised 2011 300 sedan.

Some things were immediately evident: There's now an emphasis on "product" at the company and "car people" are in charge. There's a clear focus now that Dodge should be the entry/mid-range brand and Chrysler the luxury brand. And there's a family identity. All three of the new Chryslers have the same seven-bladed grille, similarly flared wheel wells, and LED front lighting packages.

A small thing, you say? Not really, when you're trying to rebuild and identify a brand as battered as Chrysler.

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Volkswagen Routan: The also-ran van

Posted by Bill Griffith March 16, 2011 04:55 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith/Boston.com). Click photo for larger version.

Sometimes one finds the product of a blended family in the automotive world, and that's the case with today's test car, the 2010 Volkswagen Routan SEL Premium. [Scroll down to read the 2011 model's minor changes].

It's the progeny of a brief dalliance between the former owners of Chrysler (Daimler) and Volkswagen. They mated the estimable Chrysler minivan with the VW design department in order to give VW a "people-mover" for its lineup. The result: The Routan. Even the name suggests this unusual union.

When VW announced the Routan at the 2008 Chicago Auto Show, it said the newly coined name linked VW and America, melding the English word "Route" and the "-an" suffix appended to VW's European vans, the Touran and Sharan.

However, it doesn't connect the Routan with VW's venerable Vanagons and Eurovans. Also, any resemblance between the Routan and the original VW Microbus surely is wishful thinking.

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2011 Dodge Durango: Lost SUV returns as refined crossover

Posted by Gerry Miles March 16, 2011 03:03 PM

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(All photos: Gerry Miles for Boston.com; Except interior: Chrysler). Click photo for larger version.

There were few more comforting images from this snow-ridden winter than an SUV sitting in the driveway, which is why I found such pleasure in the 2011 Dodge Durango Crew AWD I had last month. When it first burst upon the scene in 1998, Dodge billed the Durango as the perfect mid-sized SUV, producing a press kit that loosely borrowed the "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" theme with Durango being "just right."

(For the launch, they even gave journalists a box of "Durangos" cereal, with then-Chrysler chairman Bob Eaton and product VP Bob Lutz holding a bowl of it. On the latest Durango launch, they just handed us a flash drive.)

A lot has changed since then, including a two-year hiatus when the production plant was closed and a short-lived hybrid model in 2009. Today's Durango sits upon the heralded unibody Jeep Grand Cherokee platform, has an improved interior, wheelbase (+5"), width (+4"), length (+6"), room (it seats 7 in real-world adult comfort), and offers a car-like ride. Did I say this car laughs at the cold? Equipped with the all-wheel-drive setup and the 5.7-liter Hemi engine, it could easily pull a bob house, skimobile trailer, or 5,000 pounds with a trailer hitch.

Dodge says it designed the Charger and Durango simultaneously, but it seems like a merger of the departed Magnum station wagon and the SUV, providing a lean, athletic, and muscular appearance. The backside is rounded like the Jeep. Dual exhaust pipes proclaim the power of the 5.7-liter V-8 under the hood. There are now five trim levels: Express, Heat, our midlevel Crew, the luxury Citadel, and sporty R/T.

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First Boston drive: 2011 Chevrolet Volt

Posted by Bill Griffith March 9, 2011 10:58 AM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith/Boston.com). Click photo for larger version.

We're driving in a Chevrolet Volt on the back roads of Middleborough, 45 minutes south of the city, with Tony Posawatz, vehicle line director for the Volt.

"Go ahead. Put your foot into it, throw it into a corner. It's a very drivable car," he says.

So it is. The driving experience is that of a high-quality compact sedan, which the Volt also is. Which leads to the question: "Who is the target buyer?"

"That's the $64 million question," says Posawatz.


The Volt was a fascinating vehicle when it first visited Boston as a concept car in the winter of 2007-2008. When it came back last week as a real car, it remained just as intriguing because it's the world's first mass-produced electric vehicle with extended range, in this case up to 379 miles.

And the big questions remain: Is the public ready to accept the change from gas-powered vehicles to other alternative propulsion systems? And will it appeal to a wide spectrum of buyers?

So far, Toyota's hybrid Prius remains the gold standard for such vehicles. It was the first to catch the public's attention — and acceptance — with its system that blends electric motors and gas engines, creating the widespread (mis)perception that hybrids and other alternative systems were strictly for economy.

Example: When Honda introduced a hybrid version of the V-6 Accord, it got better fuel economy than the regular gas engine version, but it also had amazing power. The buying public never figured that out or bought many hybrid Accords. So Honda went the economy route with the successful hybrid Civic.

Now it's time to consider electrics. "The 1908 Baker Electric was a premium car in its day," says Posawatz. "They sold 6,000 of them in 1912. It's taken 100 years but the Volt will break that record."

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Two for the home team: 2012 Ford Focus vs. 2011 Chevrolet Cruze

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh March 7, 2011 01:14 PM

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(All photos by manufacturers except Focus interior: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com Staff). Click photo for larger version.

Think how cheated you'd feel if the Red Sox saved their best performances for away games, leaving the home crowd with lukewarm, five-inning-long shows. Imagine baseball fans in Croatia with first baseline tickets to Fenway while native Bostonians, waiting and praying by Gate C, had only nosebleeds.

With that kind of treatment, how could anyone root for the home team?

I'm not a Sox fan — the sports section is all Croatian to me — but I know how it feels, year after year, to be disappointed with what you can't have. In the automotive arena, I've been crushed to find rally-spec, 300-horsepower Ford Focus hatchbacks in the United Kingdom, while the US is stuck with the previous generation model that's now 11 years old.

Then I'd croon for attractive family sedans from General Motors' popular European brands, Vauxhall and Opel, and find there were no American counterparts. When I visited the Geneva Auto Show three years ago this month, I nearly cried in a Ford Mondeo, the super-sporty four-door any average European can buy.

Home team, zero.

After years misjudging the nation's appetite for small cars, American automakers are making up to us. GM brought over those Vauxhalls and Opels as Saturns, and even after Saturn died in 2009, they continued the European bloodline with new Buicks like the 2011 Regal. Last year, Ford went so far to import its compact Transit Connect work van from Turkey, and handed Americans a truly likeable subcompact, the Fiesta. But two of the best new cars, the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze and 2012 Ford Focus, are their most heartfelt apologies to date.

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Grand Cherokee wins NEMPA winter test

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh February 28, 2011 05:15 PM

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(Chrysler) Click photo for larger version.

A year ago February, when the New England Motor Press Association (NEMPA) selected the best winter vehicles for 2010, I was dead bored over the lack of snow. For me, there's no point freezing your face off for four months without some beautiful, treacherous storms in return.

"Winter is supposed to be a challenge," I whined on this website, "but we're sitting here idling."

Boy, do words have a tendency to snowball.

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2011 Kia Optima EX: Slam-dunk sedan

Posted by Bill Griffith February 25, 2011 04:30 PM

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(Evan Gole/NBA Photos/Getty Images; All others: Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe). Click photo for larger version.

Call it "Product Placement," "Embedded Marketing," or simply being in the right place at the right time.

The Kia Optima, the official car of the National Basketball Association, was the beneficiary of all of the above last weekend for the climactic moment of the NBA's Slam Dunk Contest, one of the highlights of the league's All-Star Weekend.

After the car was rolled onto the court, a choir sang "I Believe I Can Fly", and Los Angeles Clippers rookie Blake Griffin took off for the basket, jumping over (not onto) the hood of the Optima, grabbing a pass through the sunroof from teammate Baron Davis (in the car), and slamming the ball through the basket.

The night's TV ratings say the program peaked at 10.4 million viewers during Griffin's historic shot, the kind of exposure that make Kia's marketing efforts look inspired. It was an appropriate coupling of car and event because, even as Kia is riding a wave of sales success, its all-new Optima could be a slam-dunk winner, too.

Coincidence had an Optima test car in my driveway the same night as Griffin's dunk.

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2011 Mercedes-Benz G550: Cold War relic kept relevant

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh February 20, 2011 09:00 AM

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(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com Staff; Except interior: Mercedes-Benz). Click photo for larger version.

Part of a man's Viagra-induced impulse to buy a sports car is that it just may distract a woman long enough from his imperfections. He might think, with sound reason, that red Corvettes make the ladies go vroom-vroom, or that a Porsche Boxster can drop two tops at once. And why not? James Dean didn't go unnoticed in his Porsche 550 Spyder, nor were NASA astronauts begging for dates in their Corvettes. Just look at what Jerry Seinfeld accomplished in a Saab.

There is no such thing with my girlfriend. I showed her my white Porsche Boxster Spyder last summer: "Looks like an egg. I hate low cars." Went to Whole Foods in a Mercedes-Benz CL550: "What is this ugly car?" Picked her up in a Corvette ZR1: "Ghetto."

Eliana was raised with Jeeps in south Texas, where pickups and SUVs stuff every strip mall parking lot to the Mexican border. She owns a 2002 Wrangler hardtop, her mother a white Commander, and her brother a four-door Wrangler Unlimited. Even Range Rovers are "too round."

To her, love is all rough edges and exposed hinges. That makes the Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen — the "G-Wagen" as she affectionately calls it — the most beautiful car in the world.

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2011 Acura TSX Sport Wagon: Like Honda used to make

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh February 17, 2011 11:35 AM

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(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com Staff). Click photo for larger version.

It took several attempts for the Acura TSX to find traction and pose for this photo. We blame the tires.

Honda hasn't brought Americans a station wagon since 1997. We quickly forgot about the slow-selling five-door Accord when the CR-V, a higher car-based SUV with all-wheel-drive and a collapsible picnic table, came out that same year. It's still one of Honda's most popular models, and one of the top-selling cars in the small crossover segment.

Toyota dropped their Camry wagon in 1996. Ford's venerable Taurus and Mercury Sable wagons disappeared in 2005. Its compact Focus wagon went in 2007, the hotrod Dodge Magnum and more practical Mazda 6 wagon in 2008. Saturn threw out the midsize L-Series, which included a wagon, in 2003. And the plastic wood-paneled Buick Roadmaster and Chevy Caprice wagons were last seen when gas was a dollar per gallon. That last part makes me weep.

Few automakers have remained faithful to wagons. Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, Saab, Volvo, Volkswagen, and Subaru have sold wagons every year in the US since the early 1990s, some for decades. There are roughly 100,000 sold each year, about 1 percent of the US market — that's less than the share of hybrids. Americans, apparently, have been happier with higher ground clearance and a few extra millimeters of headroom, despite the fact that most five-passenger crossovers and SUVs offer similar space and cargo capacity as a decent station wagon.

So has Acura taken a big risk by launching a luxury sport wagon in a small market of stubborn holdouts? No, Cadillac did. They brought a spanking new CTS Sport Wagon last year and the maniacal 556-horsepower CTS-V for 2011. Acura imported the European-market Honda Accord Tourer, flipped the "H" logo upside down, and called it a day.

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2011 Subaru Forester: Best seat all winter

Posted by Bill Griffith February 7, 2011 05:31 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe). Click photo for larger version.

Subaru originally launched the Forester back in the late 1990s. That vehicle had the look of a station wagon with an oversized and out-of-proportion "greenhouse," that is, the roof and windows. As out-of-kilter as that original Forester looked, its performance made me a believer in Subaru's all-wheel-drive system.

It was a summer-without-rain that had led to bans on outside watering and car-washing all over New England. The dry spell finally broke early on a Friday night. And it wasn't with a shower. Instead violent thunderstorms hit the area, creating what one a friend calls "Southern ice," — roads turned into a skid pad by the accumulated grease, oil, and dirt. We saw vehicles off the road, accidents and skids. That Forester, meanwhile, passed through it all as though it were on rails.

Fast forward a decade to the 2011 Forester we drove through recent heavy snow with the same feelings of security. It's the third year of the third generation of the Forester, a vehicle that has morphed into what we call either a crossover vehicle or small SUV these days.

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Supercars that make sense: 458 Italia

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh January 27, 2011 05:25 PM


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(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com Staff)


One in a three-part tour of the Porsche 911 Turbo S, Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, and Ferrari 458 Italia.

I'm lounging in the back of a Lincoln Town Car as my driver crosses the Golden Gate Bridge, en route to take delivery of a yellow 458 Italia at Ferrari of San Francisco. Granted, it's got a few thousand miles and is mine for only 24 hours, but I feel like a customer nonetheless.

The Ferrari experience goes like this: Wait two to three years for a new one, or pay well above sticker and drive away with a lightly used one. Unlike Chevy and Porsche franchises, a Ferrari dealer never keeps new cars. They're all built to order, and the production runs are so limited that more money isn't often a persuasion to cut the line — you've got to own one first to join the club.

With a $1 million Enzo in the showroom and a flock of Maseratis outside, this is quite the used car lot. I'm driving the same car I read about on the cover of Road & Track during the flight from Boston, so I know this model won't have navigation. Papers signed, I drop my luggage into the crevice of a trunk, stick a Garmin to the windshield, and I'm off. Gosh, that was easy.

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Supercars that make sense: Corvette ZR1

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh January 27, 2011 04:49 PM


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(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com Staff)

ZR1 cues are subtle: Plexiglass covers the blue-topped 6.2-liter V-8, and exposed carbon fiber adorns the splitter and several other parts.


One in a three-part tour of the Porsche 911 Turbo S, Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, and Ferrari 458 Italia.

I experienced tunnel vision for the first time a few months ago, in a tunnel, in a ZR1. I had a clear 700 feet ahead of me, and this little red Corvette humming patiently in second gear. What happened next is harder to remember.

I recall a battle between traction control and tires. The rear writhed and struggled to find ground. Dragon fire expelled from the open exhaust baffles, and the windshield became a pigeonhole, reducing my vision to a red-and-grey splotch of painted carbon fiber and cement. Third gear, slipping and spitting still. I was underground, but I think the ZR1 forced a total eclipse of the sun.

I hit the brakes a little too late, realizing the ZR1's surge had rushed me too close to the glob of cars ahead. Slowing, as the blood rushed back to my eyes, I upshifted to sixth at an indicated 20 miles per gallon. Like nothing happened.

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2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in: A modest route to the electric future

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh January 27, 2011 03:05 PM

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(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com Staff)

Plugging in an electric car by a city apartment is an extended challenge.

The hybrid's future has arrived, except it's frozen stuck in one of New England's more extreme winters.

I don't mean literally stuck, like when our 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in trapped itself in an inch of snow. Rather, the cold weather served a back-to-earth reminder that gas-electric hybrids — and their brainy powertrain computers — simply have to keep the engine running.

The Prius Plug-in is one of three new "Prii" (Toyota's taking votes for an official plural) set to go on sale late this year and early next. The average Prius can't go more than a half-mile on electric power, but our decaled prototype claims a 13-mile battery range and fuel economy of nearly 100 mpg on short trips. Except it's January, and those numbers aren't going to happen.

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Supercars that make sense: 911 Turbo S

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh January 26, 2011 05:05 PM

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(All photos: Phil Atiyeh for Boston.com)


One in a three-part tour of the Porsche 911 Turbo S, Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, and Ferrari 458 Italia.

Only one of these three-character nameplates — 911, 458, ZR1 — is iconic by itself. Ferrari's 458 is but a year old, and refers to the engine's 4.5-liter displacement and eight cylinders. The ZR1 is a '90s child. Then as now, it was the fastest, most technologically advanced Corvette ever made, but was named like an option package on the average Chevy. Although nothing more than a company project number, the 911 — originally 901, before Peugeot complained that Porsche infringed on its middle zeros — has lasted 47 years.

In essence, the 911 has always been a highly refined version of the company's first sports car, the 356, itself a modified Volkswagen Beetle. Hence the rear-engine layout, dramatic curved tail, and flat crankcase motors. Up until 1998, when Porsche switched to modern water cooling, most 911s sounded like lawnmowers, with rough idles and rattling revs. Just like Mexico City's yellow cab, the Beetle.

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Leveling with the modern supercar

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh January 26, 2011 03:08 PM


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(Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com Staff)

Engineers at SunPower, a San Jose, Calif. maker of solar panels, get down on their knees to inspect the exhaust baffles on the Ferrari 458.


This is a three-part review of the Porsche 911 Turbo S, Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, and Ferrari 458 Italia.

At first glance, supercars make as much sense as the national debt. You can stare at their numbers, decimal by decimal, and still not grasp what they mean in real terms. Not even the U.S. Treasury knows where $14 trillion starts and ends, let alone the amount of lifetimes required to pay it back. The same confusion applies to America's top sports car, the Corvette ZR1, which packs 638 supercharged horses and runs 205 miles per hour. The sums are incomprehensible.

Most of us deal with fractions of those amounts. We write four-figure mortgage checks to the bank each month and know how far our gray, 200-horsepower family sedans take us on a tank.

I deal with sensible numbers, too, except in my job as an automobile reviewer. I'll drive a $24,000 Chevy Cruze to work at 9 and leave with a $160,000 Porsche at 5. So I had to stop myself before writing this comparison of the Porsche 911 Turbo S, Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, and Ferrari 458 Italia. Because no normal person, even a rich normal person who just won this month's Powerball, is going to read a 2.9-second 0-to-60 time and say, "Yeah, that sounds about right."

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2011 Buick Regal: Ready for a hard sale

Posted by Dan Roth January 14, 2011 05:35 PM

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(Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com Staff)

Our 2011 Regal meets its last-generation predecessor on a Boston street.

The 2011 Buick Regal is a grappling hook thrown over the wall of sport sedan credibility, but there's still a tough climb ahead. The last Buick revered by enthusiasts was also a Regal, but a much different formula than the tidily-sized, well-mannered European-market Opel Insignia that Buick is now rebadging.

It wasn't supposed to be a Buick, but Saturn's lights went out before it could use the second-generation Aura. Stuck with a fully-developed car that's worth sharing, General Motors' Buick division carved out a niche below the LaCrosse and called the inherited goods Regal.

Within the burgeoning Buick lineup, the Regal is being positioned as a sports-sedan with European tuning. Buick identifies the Regal's most direct competition as the Acura TSX and the Volvo S60, an odd pair of bogeys. Other competitors include the Audi A4 and Volkswagen CC. As a premium sedan, the Regal competes well on the strength of its high level of equipment, $26,245 MSRP, and graceful ride and handling.

A problem arises when you expand your scope slightly to see what's available in the mainstream sedan marketplace, where a lot more space and plenty of luxury features are available for about the same money. Bigger isn't always better, but it's tough to argue for the Regal when a Kia Optima EX with Technology and Premium packages comes in just under $28,000 and offers a smoother, more powerful engine that gets significantly better fuel economy.

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2011 Audi Q7 TDI: Seven-seat overachiever

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh January 12, 2011 05:06 PM

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(All photos: Audi). Click photo for larger version.

Snowstorms are what we live for at the Globe. Our metro staff gets to ask travelers trapped at Logan Airport how their day is going. Our photographers snap people falling on ice, and if there's a Pats game, the sports writers watch it from heated, refreshment-filled box seats.

Over in the automotive section, we're out with the plows, trying to sort the wannabe winter cars and trucks (any Jaguar or unladen pickup) from the truly great ones (hint: they're not just Subarus).

My storm trooper during the day-after-Christmas blizzard was Audi's seven-passenger Q7, equipped in TDI trim with its 3.0-liter turbodiesel V-6. Ordinarily, it's a delightful car to slog through snow.

The quattro all-wheel-drive, paired with a hefty set of 20-inch winter Dunlops, routed power so seamlessly that sometimes I was unaware I was slipping in the first place. The 406 lb.-ft of torque got this rig to speed in no time, and the 8-speed automatic kept everything hush-hush. The front seats offered six levels of heat, and the four-zone climate control kept my parents and girlfriend comfortable while the wipers iced up from the freezing bursts of wind on I-91.

So what, with its stability and slick, Tron-like LED headlamp accents, kept the Q7 from being the easy foul-weather cruiser it should be?

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2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee: The Tom Brady of Jeeps

Posted by Bill Griffith December 24, 2010 09:00 AM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe). Click photo for larger version.

When we describe the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee as more sophisticated and refined than its predecessors, here's what we mean in pro football terms.

The old Grand Cherokee was Brett Favre-like — grizzled, country-boy tough, at home on dirt roads, preferred Wrangler-type jeans (a reference to both Jeeps and jeans), and was decidedly uncomfortable when its drivers were wearing a tuxedo.

The new Grand Cherokee is Tom Brady-like — Euro-grizzled, New England tough, equally at home on dirt roads or crashing in the Back Bay, and equally comfortable when its driver is wearing jeans, designer jeans, or a tux.

This was a huge product launch for Jeep, the first major one with the Chrysler family seeking to reestablish its identity after being separated from Daimler. Because it was the Grand Cherokee that first took the Jeep-tough brand upscale, that market share was at stake, too. Four million Grand Cherokees sold says there are a lot of loyal owners out there looking to see what the new model was all about.

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2011 Ford F-350: Bob-the-Builder gets a sturdy powertrain upgrade

Posted by Bill Griffith December 23, 2010 01:08 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe). Click photo for larger version.

The questions became predictable after people noticed (and it was hard to miss) today’s test truck, a 2011 Ford F-350 Super Duty crew cab.

  1. Does it use a lot of fuel?
  2. Is it hard to get in and out of the cab?
  3. Where do you park it?

Meanwhile, my question was much simpler. Namely, why doesn’t a test vehicle such as this come along when we have to haul something big, like cubic yards of crushed stone for the driveway or furniture when one of the kids is moving? The most we had to test its 11,500-pound GVWR (gross vehicle weight rating) was some heavy luggage and Thanksgiving leftovers, which frankly could have fit in the rear seat.

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2011 Volkswagen Jetta: Gaining size, losing some luster

Posted by Dan Roth December 23, 2010 12:38 PM

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(Dan Roth for Boston.com; all others Volkswagen). Click photo for larger version.

Many people have happily remained faithful to the Jetta, purchasing successive generations of Volkswagen's Wunderkind compact sedan, though you and your friends may be in for disappointment when taking a look at the 2011 model.

The Jetta's near-premium feel has usually been especially evident in the interior, but not this time around. All of the soft-touch, finely-crafted goodness that Jetta owners have raved about for years is gone from the 2011 Jetta. Instead, you get hard, shiny plastic that looks especially cheap in the bituminous Titan Black theme my Jetta SEL sampler had. Scuffs on the door panels might be less prominent with the tan interior theme instead.

What you get is a $15,995 base price slashed by $2,000 over the 2010 model's, along with a significantly larger car that packs a lot more cachet than other vehicles in that price range.

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Christmas cruisin' in a Bentley Mulsanne

Posted by Bill Griffith December 20, 2010 04:47 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe). Click photo for larger version.

RYE BEACH, N.H. — We swung the Bentley Mulsanne into the driveway outside the pro shop behind the Abenaqui Country Club on a sunny but unseasonably cold and windy December afternoon. Christmas definitely was in the air, from the sleigh and reindeer outside the clubhouse to the golf wear and equipment in the pro shop.

Pam Sheerin, proprietor and co-owner of the shop, ran out to us, saying, "Ohh, is my husband sending me this as a Christmas present? Are you going to put a bow on it?"

We had to let Pam down gently. Jim Sheerin, the PGA Master Golf Professional at the club, had nothing to do with this car. In truth, we were looking for an ideal spot to photograph this spectacular vehicle.

The Mulsanne is the new flagship of the Bentley line, replacing the Arnage. (Any time people asked me what I'd buy if I hit the lottery, "the Arnage" was my answer.) We were told our test ride was one of the first Mulsannes to arrive in the United States. It also came with a low-key warning.

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2011 Honda Accord SE: Pleasing predictability and tweaks

Posted by Bill Griffith December 17, 2010 04:50 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe). Click photo for larger version.

The automotive world often is predictable. A new model is introduced with a media campaign that typically includes TV, print and Internet advertising. Increasingly, that includes social media, hoping to get folks a-twitter over the new model. Newspapers, magazines, TV stations and websites review the model.

Then everyone moves on to the next newest-and-greatest vehicle, leaving the just-introduced model to the market's vicissitudes.

This is all by way of introducing today's test car, a 2011 Honda Accord SE (Special Edition), not an all-new model but rather a variation on the present generation of Accords, which happened to be introduced in the summer of 2008 in Boston. An all-new Accord is expected to bow for 2013.

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Chrysler's comeback cars: Charger, 200, T&C, Challenger, Durango

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh December 8, 2010 08:00 AM

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(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com Staff)

SAN FRANCISCO—Chrysler once wowed the market with its old-school car designs, but in the past three years, the company's just gotten old. Blame the divorce from Daimler in 2007, the clueless netherworld that ensued under Cerberus, and the shame of post-bankruptcy government bailouts from 2009 onward.

A surge in quality from Hyundai, Ford, and other large automakers left Chrysler embarrassed, and their near-silent PR team — which had nothing to introduce except new colors — had us convinced the company was finished.

Earlier this fall, a few months after the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee was unveiled, we were reassured at last: Eight brand-new or significantly-updated models have been rolled out this year, with more on the way in 2011. Nicer interiors, better engines, and new designs. We had to know if Chrysler was serious, or just mixing another batch of touch-up paint.

So last month, we flew to San Francisco to attend Chrysler's press launch (which we paid for). We had a few hours of seat time in each model, including high-speed laps at Infineon Raceway in Napa, and came back impressed and, sometimes, underwhelmed. Read on for our initial thoughts.

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2011 Volvo S60: Counterpoint

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh November 28, 2010 09:00 AM

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(Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe)

This story goes with Bill Griffith's take on the Volvo S60 - Ed.

I'm glad Volvo's "City Safety" auto-braking system worked as advertised for Bill. My S60 tester, a different car than Bill's, gave me several false positives.

On at least three occasions, while driving on curved onramps or switching lanes close to a Jersey barrier, the alarm sounded off and the red light flashed on the windshield as if there were an object or car directly in front of me. I continued driving and ignored the warnings, and thankfully, the brakes never engaged.

In July, I witnessed a demo car at Boston Volvo Village drive straight through a test dummy. Two months earlier in Sweden during a higher-speed demo, an S60 slammed into the back of a truck. All of these tests were within the system's 22-mph limit, but Volvo says there are a "number of variations" that can cause the car to react in these ways.

In my case of driving around the onramp — a rather tight, two-lane left-hander headed to I-93 from the Mass. Pike — the S60 somehow saw the looming wall as a threat, but wouldn't have braked until I was actually set to hit it, said spokesman James Hope.

In the case of the dummy, Hope said that because real people are more reflective than air-filled mannequins, the radar sensors can't "replicate the pedestrian detection with consistent regularity." I'll take Hope's word on that, because I'm not volunteering to stand in.

But what about the colossal crash in Sweden? That test car's battery was nearly depleted, which caused a fault code that disabled the safety system.

Volvo's technology is impressive — I've witnessed it function properly in a number of other tests — but these mishaps prove that no electronic system is fail-safe or without some imperfections. Soon, if it's not happening already, we'll be downloading software updates with every oil change.

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2011 Volvo S60: A driver's car that makes better drivers

Posted by Bill Griffith November 26, 2010 07:28 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe)

I can hear the words coming over the Public Address system now: This is NOT a test. This is a REAL emergency.

Unfortunately for me — or actually fortunately — the emergency alarm was sounding inside today's test car, a 2011 Volvo S60. There was no time to do anything but react by slamming on the brakes.

I'd glanced away from the road for a second, not texting or making a call but rather to make sure I had a transponder with me so I could use the Fast Lane over the Tobin Bridge.

Then, in one of those split-second happenings that seem endemic in Greater Boston driving, the two cars in front of me stopped abruptly on Rte. 1 in Revere. Why? I'll never know.

But I do know there was a strong chance I'd have rear-ended the Cadillac in front of me if the S60 hadn't been equipped with Volvo's advanced array of safety technologies, including:
  • Pedestrian Detection with Full Auto Brake
  • Adaptive Cruise Control that now operates at all speeds
  • Collision Warning with Full Auto Brake
  • Distance Alert
  • Driver Alert Control
  • Lane Departure Warning

It was No. 3 on that list, the collision warning system, which saved me from what could have been an airbag-deploying and embarrassing automotive encounter of the worst kind.

The alarm sounded as I glanced up to see the Caddy's looming tail lights. As I stabbed at the brake pedal, the Volvo beat me to that, too, locking the brakes in a tire-screaming panic stop.

The S60 slowed to an almost stop about eight feet short of an accident, just as the cars in front began to accelerate again. Would I have been able to do the same on my own? Maybe, but I doubt it.

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Luxury V-8 midsizers: BMW 550i vs. Infiniti M56 vs. Jaguar XF

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh November 17, 2010 01:30 PM

We compared three of the latest V-8 midsize luxury sedans for this test. We haven't yet tried the Mercedes-Benz E550, though a little word on pricing: the six-cylinder E350, which we have driven, costs as much as the V-8 Jag. Unlike their full-size siblings (save for the M56, which is the top-end Infiniti), price becomes a serious issue when simple options get piled on. Let's take a quick look at the volume leader, the BMW 550i, and head over to its improved competition.

2011 BMW 550i

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(BMW)

"I want to sleep in here," said my girlfriend Eliana, nestled in the BMW's cream leather seats.

Indeed, our 550i had the most comfortable chairs I've ever sat in, save for the same "multi-contour" seats in the bigger 7-Series. The two-tone, wood-swathed dashboard and silky twin-turbo V-8 that debuted in the 7 are also here, as is the "Dynamic Handling Package," a $4,900 choke collar that tenses and relaxes the car's muscles to great effect.

For $78,825 — a sky-high price for a midsize luxury sedan — BMW should include a real mattress. Yet not even the larger Audi A8 or the feather-sprung Mercedes S-Class coddle occupants like this BMW. And our car had a lot of silly trinkets, like soft-closing doors and a distracting night vision camera.

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If there's major failure, it's the exterior styling, to which BMW has sunk to near-vanilla lows. Save for the sweeping taillights and LED headlamp rings, the 550i — with its flat-nosed, shapeless front — is another generic sedan. The oddest feature has to be the regenerative braking system, something hybrid cars use to recharge their battery packs while coasting and stopping. At an observed 14 mpg, this 550i is no hybrid, and all the system does is make the car feel like it's dragging dead weight.

Maybe the older, lighter 5 Series cars are the ones to have, like the E39 540i sport with the six-speed manual. I've never tried them, so I can't compare. But I've never been so refreshed while sitting in traffic. And when the road opened up, I became the typical BMW show-off. Good to know the 5-Series will never bore its driver to sleep.

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2011 Ford Edge: Better as a crossover, less so a smartphone

Posted by Bill Griffith November 5, 2010 11:34 AM

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(Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe)

In the automotive marketing world, everyone's looking for an edge.

Ford, however, already owns the edge that starts with a capital 'E,' and the latest version of that 2011 Ford Edge crossover is notably better than its predecessor.

We wondered about the Edge name when Ford introduced this mid-sized SUV/crossover as a 2007 model. No more.

There's a reason why Alan Mulally, Ford's president and CEO, in January will be delivering a keynote address for the third consecutive year at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It's because he's committed to making Ford's vehicles cutting edge (that word again) "mobile devices."

Under Mulally's leadership, the company has done a remarkable job of upgrading the Ford brand. The Ford lineup includes new powertrains and fluid designs, plus the technological advances in the "MyFord Touch" system. If you're wondering why Ford eliminated its Mercury brand, you need look no further than this Ford lineup.

These new Fords left little room for any Mercurical maneuvering to upgrade the product; indeed, there's plenty of in-house work going on at FoMoCo to figure out how to attain enough degrees of separation between top-echelon Fords and the Lincoln brand.

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2010 Saab 9-5: Great underdog in the making

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh October 28, 2010 03:32 PM

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(All photos except interior, courtesy Saab: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com Staff)

If all had gone well for Saab, you'd be reading about the 9-5's turbo hybrid powerplant, a mid-cycle update to the company's flagship sedan. But, of course, it all didn't.

Instead, you're looking at the first new 9-5 in 12 years. That's double the industry average lifespan for a single car, as evidenced by the last model's floppy suspension, harsh engine, and ancient interior.

When the 9-5 was introduced in 1998, there were no hybrids, no threat to the body-on-frame SUV, and annual US auto sales were totaling nearly 16 million, just two years away from an all-time record. Ford was readying to buy rival Volvo for a staggering $6.45 billion.

General Motors, which had owned Saab since 2000, eliminated dozens of nameplates last year during its pitiful decline to bankruptcy and $50 billion federal bailout. Some had a bright future, like the Pontiac G8, while others, like the Hummer H2, were a relief to bid adieu. But when GM said in December that it would "wind down" Saab after failing to sell it, they couldn't issue another press release and walk away. Saab dealers had become used car lots as GM halted production. Saab loyalists were furious.

Through their rage in the media, protests at GM headquarters, and outpouring of support to local dealers, Saab fans convinced GM to allow a proper sale in January to Dutch-based Spyker Cars. Months earlier, The New York Times Co., in a similar cloud of debt and mismanagement, threatened to close this newspaper and its website. So while I'm not a Saab guy — my parents raised me in a pack of Volvo 240s — this passion to protect a longstanding name rang familiar.

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2010 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter: For the Gosselins, for you

Posted by Keith Griffin October 18, 2010 05:40 PM

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(Exterior photos: Keith Griffin for Boston.com; Interior: Mercedes-Benz)

After a seven-hour overseas flight through six time zones and a five-hour drive from JFK that should have taken three, my bed was beckoning. That all changed when I pulled into my driveway and was greeted by the 2010 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 2500.

After quickly unloading the luggage and kids, I volunteered for a quick run to the grocery store to get some basic rations in the cupboards after a two-week trip to Spain. Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Maseratis call out to other automotive journalists. My heart was had by a 12-seat passenger van aptly nicknamed the “Armadillo.”

The Sprinter, formerly sold by Dodge and now back in the Mercedes stable since the messy divorce, is most commonly associated with hauling freight (and in fact is also sold through the Freightliner network). Despite regular appearances as a family shuttle on "Jon and Kate Plus 8," it’s often overlooked as a great personal vehicle for large families. Honestly, if there are four children or more populating the homestead, this is your vehicle of choice.

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2011 Cadillac CTS Coupe: Two-door luxury redefined

Posted by Bill Griffith October 5, 2010 12:10 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith for Boston.com)

The normal routine is that you take your car someplace or, conversely, your car takes you places.

This week's test vehicle, the four-passenger 2011 Cadillac CTS Coupe took me many places — and did that in style — but it also sent me someplace unusual ... to the dictionary.

The word in question was dihedral. It's one of those words that sounds intriguing, promising an exotic mix of geometry and technology.

The context for its usage was in GM's description of the coupe's "center-outlet exhaust with twin dihedral-shaped tips that pass through the rear fascia."

It would have been easy to open a new window on the computer and visit Dictionary.com. However, I'm old school and prefer going to the good book of words, a Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. The definition wasn't particularly enlightening: "a figure formed by two intersecting planes."

Kind of disappointing, much like Cadillac's decision to abandon some of the industry's great names — DeVille, Seville, Fleetwood, and Eldorado — for its present alphabet soup (Escalade excluded) of CTS, DTS, SRX, STS, and XTS.

What's not disappointing is this CTS Coupe, especially its styling. The CTS is a "real" coupe with no B pillar behind the doors. There are hidden door latches that help accentuate its slab sides, raked windshield, and low roofline. The signature Cadillac grille, vertical LED taillights, and those dihedral exhaust tips complete a vehicle that begs you to "Give me a second look and admire me."

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2011 Porsche Cayenne Turbo: A sports car, seven years later

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh September 27, 2010 03:55 PM

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(Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com Staff)

The Cayenne Turbo takes a break in South Boston. No 21-inch wheels were hurt during the parking process of this photo.

To every person who bought a Porsche Cayenne in the last seven years, I've got two words for you: 911 Carrera.

For the same money, Cayenne owners could have bought Porsche's iconic 911 sports car, which can be ordered with all-wheel-drive and more than 500 horsepower. Instead, they chose top-heavy, nondescript boxes to hop curbs in shopping malls.

Since its 2003 debut, the Cayenne has lived up to its billing as a fast, surprisingly tough SUV. As a Porsche, it's been less successful.

First-generation Cayennes were barely disguised from the Volkswagen Touareg, a cheaper SUV that lent Porsche its basic structure, drab interior, and anemic V-6. To Porsche purists, the biggest blow came from seeing the company's infamous "turbo" nameplate slapped on a two-and-a-half-ton truck.

But for the last seven years, Porsche has sold nearly 90,000 of them in the US and more than a quarter million worldwide, a tremendous number for a small automaker in such short time.

Indeed, with the arrival of this second-generation model, Porsche sold 775 Cayennes in the US during August, more than the Boxster, Cayman, and 911 sports cars combined. The new Panamera sedan was only four units shy of outselling those three hardcore two-seaters.

After breaking in a brand-new 2011 Cayenne Turbo for a week, I finally see why. It's now built like a Porsche.

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2010 Audi S5 Cabriolet: Heavy head turner with a hefty price

Posted by Bill Griffith September 15, 2010 06:04 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith for Boston.com)

I'm sitting at the keyboard, waiting for the words to start flowing. And waiting…

The admonition "Don't say anything unless you can say something nice" comes to mind, but that's not quite right because there are plenty of nice things to say about today's test car, the 2010 Audi S5 Quattro Cabriolet.

In fact, "no expense was spared" and "the best of everything" also come to mind. So what's the problem, Griff? 

Well. Let's rate the car step by step, giving a grade of 1 to 5 for each category, and see where that takes us.

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2011 Honda Odyssey wants to woo minivan 'hesitators'

Posted by Bill Griffith September 10, 2010 12:15 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith for Boston.com)

IRVINGTON, N.Y.—The minivan is one of the great automotive innovations of the past 50 years.

It's been beloved, berated, embraced, and shunned since the Plymouth-Dodge-Chrysler version took the box-on-wheels design mainstream in the 1980s. And that's a good thing because the minivan takes a stand and makes a statement: "I can carry you and yours and your 'stuff' anyplace you want to go ... and do it in comfort." Now, as Honda introduces the fourth generation of Odyssey minivan, you can add "... and in style" to that statement. FULL ENTRY

Power quartet: Ferrari California, Bentley Supersports, Mercedes SL63, BMW M3

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh September 8, 2010 02:10 PM

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(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com Staff)

The Ferrari California would rather cruise than attack a track.

To Europeans, the summer vacation isn't a way to blow off work. It's a vital human right.

You may remember that in April, the European Union, which forces employers to give out four weeks minimum, considered offering subsidized vacations to countrymen who couldn't afford a holiday in Barcelona or a hiking trip in the Swiss Alps.

I haven't gone anywhere this summer, and probably couldn't afford it, either. So instead of watching a DVD box set of Rick Steves, I was subsidized with four of Europe's fastest convertibles: the Mercedes SL63 AMG, BMW M3, Ferrari California, and Bentley Continental Supersports.

This is the European summer I've always pictured: good weather, beautiful roads, and cars beyond reach of the middle class. Even Glenn Beck can't hate this brand of socialism.

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Doughnuts, drifting, and 130 mph in the Mercedes SLS AMG

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh August 16, 2010 01:36 PM

As I walk the corner onto Stuart Street toward my car, a slim, young guy wearing tight pants and Ray Charles sunglasses waves me over with a gloved red hand. It's 10 o'clock at night, and I know exactly what he wants.

He's pointing wildly at my car, which happens to be the 2011 Mercedes SLS AMG parked in front of the W Boston hotel. Soon we're trading exclamations and expletives like Benz fanboys on an Internet forum.

We agree the Mercedes SLR, the discontinued 206-mph coupe made by McLaren, is hot in varying degrees. But there's no question that the gullwinged SLS, for more than half the price of the SLR, blows that car apart.

The SLS, in fact, is so popular that the entire production run (roughly 5,000 per year) is spoken for until 2012, the year the world is supposed to end. The SLS driver cited for driving 180 mph in Switzerland last week claimed his Gullwing's speedometer was broken. He faces a fine in excess of $1 million.

Come December 2011, I predict there will be too many speeding tickets, lame excuses, and burnt-out Lamborghinis for authorities to deal with. There will be a Gumball 3000 every week. Swiss police will have to install 250-mph speed cameras to deal with the influx of Bugatti Veyrons taking their final breath on Earth.

So instead of levying obscene infractions, we should be understanding of car knuckleheads like the Swedish SLS owner. They're just enjoying their supercars before the clock stops.

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2011 BMW 328i: Short on luxury, 3 Series is hard to pass up

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh August 13, 2010 11:20 AM

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(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com Staff)

As BMW runs a war path with new model introductions — two gigantic, turtle-shaped crossovers a year, at this pace — they haven't forgotten where the profit margin lies. It's in the little 3 Series.

Even in the worst automotive sales climate in nearly two decades, more than 90,000 people in this country bought a 3 sedan, wagon, convertible, coupe or M last year. Young maverick-type men and attractive suburban women can't, for the life of themselves, stay away from this car. It's been like this for nearly two decades.

BMW is still up to its old à la carte tricks.

So BMW's getting generous. Price a new 328i like ours on their website and you'll see the "Value Package" pre-selected. It's a no-charge combo of 17-inch alloys, leather and iPod integration. In other words, BMW looked dumb selling a luxury car with 16-inchers, fake leather, and a $400 USB cable when Audi, Acura and even Mercedes do more for less.

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2011 Ford Mustang GT: Now with real V-8 power

Posted by Bill Griffith August 9, 2010 11:10 AM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith for the Boston Globe)

'Twas the first night of summer when my cellphone rang.

It was Mrs. G.

Her message was succinct. "I'm not sure what that car is, but you're putting the top down and taking me for a ride tonight," she said.

"Tonight" turned out to be a string of nights in a week's worth of joyriding with the accent on "joy." There's nothing quite like a convertible when the weather gods send a week of early-summer weather your way. And it's even more enjoyable when said convertible is a certified "head-turner."

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2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee: An American Range Rover at last?

Posted by Keith Griffin August 3, 2010 10:11 AM

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(All photos: Chrysler)

HOLLISTER HILLS, Calif.—It becomes clear while driving the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee around San Francisco, and to the south and east. This is the American Range Rover for those who can neither afford a Range Rover nor want to buy a foreign product. The new Jeep Grand Cherokee is really that good — at about half the price.

Quick Spin

One thing that has always been striking about Range Rover is its ability to deliver luxury in any situation, whether it's tooling down the Mass. Turnpike or humping over hill and dale to get to a log cabin in Vermont. The new Grand Cherokee can match anything thrown at it by Range Rover (as well as Toyota, Lexus, and Honda to name a few). That is more than amply demonstrated at the Hollister Hills State Recreation Vehicle Area. Heck, California may be broke, but you have to love a state that runs an off-road area as impressive as Hollister Hills.

The Grand Cherokee effortlessly climbs over rocks and boulders as it ascends what seems like a narrow path. An off-road instructor says to simply let the hill-descent control take over. And it does as we descend 600 feet at 2 mph. It's something a Range Rover can do, and now, so can a Grand Cherokee.

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2011 Mazda 2: Fresh appearance can't hide old powertrain

Posted by Keith Griffin July 20, 2010 02:53 PM

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(Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com Staff)

MONTREAL — It's the summer of the Bs — the B-segment, that is, in the automotive world. Manufacturers like Ford, Honda, Toyota, and Nissan have been furiously marketing these subcompact cars, a segment that's expected to double its US sales from 533,000 this year to 1.06 million by 2014. The latest to fly into the fray is the 2011 Mazda 2.

Quick Spin

Previous iterations of the Mazda 2 (not available here) were already light, but the new car shaves more weight for greater fuel efficiency and better acceleration. It tips the scales at an almost-svelte 2,306 pounds. The tiny Honda Fit is 183 pounds heavier.

Its petite size can't overcome the fact this Mazda is powered by a four-cylinder engine with 98 lb.-ft. of torque (double-digit torque numbers are never a good thing in an automobile). The 100-horsepower, 1.5-liter engine, while lacking much oomph, is suitable for urban and suburban driving conditions.

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2010 Tesla Roadster Sport: Barely better, still a future shock

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh July 14, 2010 04:23 PM

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(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com Staff)

I'm not an expert chef, but I've got a spice rack and know when someone's thrown a dash of rosemary on my pork chops. I'm part of the MP3 generation, but I'll hear if Miles Davis plays on iTunes. But when I felt the Tesla Roadster's surging speed and tried comparing it to the newer Roadster Sport, well, my senses failed.

On public roads, the Sport's extra torque, stickier tires, and two-tenths of a second advantage to 60 mph hardly registers. Like the regular Roadster, I've still got a strained neck, my forearms get that familiar tingle from pushing the manual steering, and the car's battery life meter is lying — again. Did I miss something, or was that $20,000 flying by?

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2010 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon: Drive to end of road, keep going, repeat

Posted by Bill Griffith July 13, 2010 10:25 AM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith for Boston.com)

A MILE PAST THE FIRST "PASS AT YOUR OWN RISK" SIGN, ELLINGTON, Conn.—The Wrangler Rubicon is in its element. We've gone from dirt road to rutted road to rocky road to just a grassy track. Then the road ends. Truly. There's a tree diagonally across the track, then a big mound of vegetation, including a lot of poison ivy. Nowhere to go, nowhere to turn. It's time to take a picture, then back out of there.

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Quick spin: 2011 Smart ForTwo Electric Drive

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh July 8, 2010 02:31 PM
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Electric Smart ForTwos have been zipping around Europe for three years, longer than the gas-powered Smart's tough life on US shores.

It hasn't been easy for Smart to compete here. When $4-per-gallon gas left the scene, so did sales. Safety fears, the anemic 3-cylinder engine, and high price for the Smart's sturdy body shell haven't disappeared. Even worse, small cars like the Ford Fiesta (or how about a year-old Prius?) can match or crush the Smart's 36-mpg combined fuel economy for the same price.

The ForTwo Electric Drive I drove Wednesday at the Herb Chambers dealership in Somerville may stop that chatter. After two years of road testing in England and Germany, Smart will bring 250 of these second-generation EVs to the US this October as part of a special four-year lease. Production models won't go on sale until 2012.

The lime green and white car I drove was a European model, so I easily hit 80 up and down the McGrath Highway. Smart says it'll do 0-60 in 6.5 seconds. And it did, right as the Chevy HHR tore past me in the left lane. What good are kilometers if you can't use 'em?

Turns out maximum speed is 60 miles per hour, so forget about taking it on a real highway. The steering is also slow and vague, regenerative braking makes the pedal feel like mush, and acceleration is smooth but weak — all the hallmark dynamics of the second-generation Prius. A little more twist and control tweaks and it'll make the Nissan Leaf wilt.

But from block to block, the electric Smart dominates other EVs. Faint murmurs from the 30-kilowatt motor fade into the quiet cabin. It's a comfortable cruise, upset only by a few bumps the short wheelbase can't absorb. In return, you're awarded a tight 28.7-foot turning circle, which transforms K-turns into U-turns, illegal or otherwise.

Short of a diesel, electricity makes the most sense in a Smart. Even with a 16.5 kWh battery under the floor, total curb weight is a Lotus-beating 1,958 pounds. Cargo space and interior volume are unaffected. It uses regular 110-volt and 220-volt plugs, as opposed to a pricey proprietary charging system. This is a seamless conversion from the regular ForTwo.

If Smart gets the price below $28,000 without tax credits (the lease runs $31,500) to better compete with the $32,000 Leaf, they'll have a much easier time in this country.

2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder: Speed and beauty, if you work at it

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh July 1, 2010 06:36 PM

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(Porsche)

I have to thank the Porsche Boxster. Not the company that fed me filet mignon at a Boxster press event a few weeks ago, although that was very nice. No, I'm talking about a particular silver-and-red roadster that, two years ago, helped sweet-talk my way into the crowd of established car journalists.

My first test car was a 2008 RS60, a limited-edition model that pushed the Boxster into a more serious position among its sports car peers. After my Boxster story ran in this newspaper and a video my dad shot from the passenger seat ran on Boston.com, I began thinking about auto journalism as an actual profession. Little did I realize that I'd have to drive nearly 70 more cars before I'd have a shot at another Porsche.

So here I am, two years later, seated again in the best Boxster money can buy. Where the RS60 started to nip at the 911's heels, the 2011 Spyder has the Carrera cabriolet defeated, as long as your spine's OK with absorbing all the bumps in the road. This is a no-compromise ride: The car comes standard without air conditioning or a radio, leaving alien voids in the center console. It even does away with cupholders and door storage bins, all for the athletic glory of losing weight and — with an extra 10 horsepower — beefing up.

But Porsche knows its customers, and not even cheap New Englanders with $62,000 to spend on a convertible would go without A/C and FM. So it wasn't surprising that all four Spyders Porsche brought to the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline came so readily equipped.

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2010 Ford Transit Connect: A smaller, sure-fire delivery

Posted by Dan Roth June 21, 2010 03:19 PM

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(Dan Roth for Boston.com)

An eight-year-old design built in Turkey and Romania doesn't stand a chance of winning the Truck of the Year award here in the States. Or so you'd think. The 2010 Ford Transit Connect was awarded the 2010 North American Truck of the Year award despite a raft of competing nominees that hadn't even been sketched until well into the Transit Connect's run. It's a rare case of a senior citizen out-batting the rookies, and the accolades bode well for Ford's gambit.

Why take an old product from the rest of the world and bring it to the U.S. market, especially something as "weird" as a delivery van that's designed for Europe? Fuel prices, while considerably higher in other parts of the globe, are a significant reason. Ford has noted that many businesses don't need a truck-based cargo van like its E-Series or GMC's Savana and their attendant thirsty powertrains. There's still a cargo-bashing minivan, the $23,000 Dodge Caravan CV, though it's got a lower roof and a less-efficient engine.

There is a small cargo option in the Chevrolet HHR Panel, but the Transit Connect takes the Chevy to school when it comes to execution. The high-roofed Ford stands tall on its compact footprint and the bones underpinning it all date back to the original Focus, highly praised when it debuted way back in 2000. The Transit Connect is plenty more maneuverable than the biggies and can easily fit into places where the giants fear to tread.

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First drive: 2011 Honda CR-Z wins on hybrid fun, not high mileage

Posted by Bill Griffith June 18, 2010 10:22 AM

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(Bill Griffith/Boston.com)

Both of these Hondas are fun to drive, but only one gets 50 mpg.

PETALUMA, Calif. — The road has taken us through hilly farmland north of San Francisco to a planned stop at a local landmark, the Marin French Cheese Company.

Parked in the shop's lot is something not at all "cheesy," a Honda CRX, one of the noted "Pocket Rockets" built in the 1980s and early '90s that attracted an almost cult-like following.

We pulled in alongside because we wanted to photograph it next to the new CR-Z we were driving as part of an introductory drive sponsored by Honda early this month.

Mission accomplished, even though the accompanying photo had to be taken with a smart-phone camera.

We missed chatting with the owner, who came out of the store and departed while we were using the rest room. I'd have been curious to know how long she'd owned her CRX, how many miles it had on the odometer, and what she thought of the new one.

We knew the driver was a "she" because a Honda rep witnessed her departure and told us she had given our CR-Z a "walk-around."

Honda starts selling the CR-Z this Aug. 24. It's a two-passenger, sporty hybrid hatchback, something that the CRX would have evolved into had production not ceased in 1991. Styling cues make the new CR-Z's heritage unmistakable with its low, wide stance and chopped rear.

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2010 Jaguar XF Supercharged: Making up on lost promises

Posted by Gerry Miles June 16, 2010 10:49 AM

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(All photos: Gerry Miles for Boston.com)

If I were walking the grounds at Castle Bromwich today, as I did 12 years ago, I'd hope to see the same excitement, pride, and unabashed enthusiasm that workers there displayed for the Jaguar S-Type upon its debut at the 1998 Birmingham Auto Show.

The S-Type harkened back to the styling of the 1963 Mark 2, reviving Jaguar's heritage during the company's open heart surgery from then-parent company Ford. The sleek sedan — crisply pressed for refined executives — was instantly recognized as a Jag, replete with the leaper springing from the bonnet's leading edge. Later models included an S-Type R supercharged edition, but the brand migrated and later morphed into seclusion with a small, unspectacular wagon.

The S-Type line left in 2008. Yet my trip to England will never dull the image of a British Spitfire symbol outside the plant I toured. There, pointed one man, is what we went through, what we're made of, and how far we've come back against insurmountable odds.

Today, the bones of Jaguar are held by an Indian firm, Tata, and the transformation, I imagine, might be the same if I were overseas today. The S-Type successor, the XF, is also instantly recognized as a Jag and everything the company stands for: athletic, aesthetic, and aspirational.

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2010 Subaru Outback: Going for the SUV illusion

Posted by Bill Griffith June 11, 2010 02:39 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith/Boston.com)

Drive around most towns in the Northeast and you'll see so many Subaru Outbacks you might think the company is giving them away.

The Outback has been "New England's car" for years; anyone looking to re-up will find Subaru has redesigned this cherished model for 2010, making roomier for passengers and cargo. This fourth generation Outback has been revamped to spread Subaru's appeal to the SUV-loving general public.

Subaru still calls it a wagon, but the lines are blurring. The car sure looks more like an SUV, maybe even more than the Toyota Venza, which figures to be among its main competitors.

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Supercar diary: Bringing home the 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh June 8, 2010 12:37 PM

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(Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com Staff)

Bring 'em out: Parents, neighbors, and friends join the SLS driveway party.

When I'm not driving a fleet of test cars, I'm usually daydreaming about driving. When I'm listening to Billboard hip-hop, I'm driving in my own money-drenched music video. I read automotive blogs and magazines while eating, and even go so far to match the food to the story (chocolate puts me in a luxury car mood, where a pizza is all performance). I've had to deal with this every day since my first Motor Trend subscription at age 9.

So it's no surprise — two weeks before being handed a $200,000 Mercedes for three days — I was searching YouTube videos for "sls exhaust" and replaying the same pixilated clips of random people revving the snot out of the 2011 SLS AMG. Try going to bed after hearing that.

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2010 Nissan Versa: Stripped-out $10K sedan leaves you alone in thought

Posted by Gerry Miles June 7, 2010 01:19 PM

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(Nissan)

One day, a friend once asked why he had to accept the mud flap on his new car. Demographics, I said. Most people want them, so you get them. Imagine a car in Florida without A/C? Who'd buy it?

However, there are still folks who don't want or need any accoutrements that are now accepted as standard fare for cars: power windows, power locks, and mirrors, for example. So, too, are radios, clocks, and external temperature gauges. Years ago New Hampshire received static by not ordering AM radios for state cars to save money.

Whether you called them "plain Janes" or "stripped" models, those cars failed to exist until recently when Nissan offered their Versa compact, sans bells and whistles. At $9,990, the Versa carries the second-lowest MSRP for an all-new car, besting even Kia.

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Spring Brake 2010: So many cars, so few hours

Posted by Bill Griffith June 1, 2010 12:37 PM

In the normal course of events, automakers host media events to promote their new vehicles. Generally, the only place to see all the models in one place is on the auto show circuit. The operative word is that you can see those cars, but not drive them.

Three years ago, the folks at the International Motor Press Association (IMPA) in New York came up with an idea for a spring picnic, with automakers and journalists invited.

IMPA would bring the food, the automakers would bring their cars, and journalists would bring cameras and notebooks and get to drive the cars.

This month, the groups convened for the third annual of these get-togethers, called the "Spring Brake," meeting again at Bear Mountain State Park, a 5,067-acre recreational area on the west bank of the Hudson River just south of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

The park offers a nice variety of twisty, hilly roads for testing cars ... and a potential field day for the New York State Troopers stationed nearby.

If there's a downside, it's the long ride down to New York before you start driving the array of vehicles followed by the long drive home after you spend the heart of the day driving.

Here are just five of the cars we tried that left an impression.

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Driving the SLS AMG our way

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh May 26, 2010 12:04 PM

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(Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com Staff)

After three days with 563 horsepower and a wallet full of premium fuel and curbside valet parking bills, we bring you this.

We didn't take an all-expense-paid press trip to Mexico that has been reprinted here, here, and here. We've got our own stories to tell about the 2011 Mercedes SLS AMG right here in New England. Complete freedom and a gullwing racer make a great, great thing.

Check back soon for updates.

2010 Mercedes-Benz S550: No need to be humble

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh May 24, 2010 12:35 PM

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(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com Staff)

These photos were taken in February, where we had the opportunity to do some light off-roading with this all-wheel-drive S-Class.

To fully represent the image of the 2010 Mercedes S-Class, I'm writing this review from a Mexican lakeside villa. I've got opera music wafting in the background and a view of the mountains ahead. One part of the mountain is on fire, but never mind that. This is the S-Class lifestyle you read about in dealer brochures — relaxed and richly appointed, yet subtle enough not to attract too much attention.

I'm on vacation, two hours west of Mexico City, next to some of the best back roads the world has to offer. I'm glad I don't have a car. Had I followed these roads back to la capital in a $107,000 Mercedes, I would have written "Carjack Me" on my forehead. Mercedes would tell you the same thing. In March, they paid the Mexican federal police to protect journalists driving a convoy of $200,000 SLS "Gullwings." Any luxury car, especially a huge one like our S550 tester, doesn't hide well here.

In the U.S., no one gets stirred up at the sight of an S-Class sedan. They're the anonymous black cars favored by Goldman Sachs executives and other big suits in need of a quick, private escape. Driving one, let alone riding in its bedroom of a back seat, lets you turn off reality. The actual world — sirens, trucks, the unemployed — is but a few millimeters of double-paned glass away, yet it stays outside. If you smothered your face with pillows and jammed in a pair of earplugs, you could achieve a similar effect in the Nissan Cube.

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2010 GMC Terrain: Covering the basics, earning a better rep

Posted by Bill Griffith May 17, 2010 04:03 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith/Boston.com)

OK class. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover today. However, instead of ground, let’s make that a lot of “terrain to cover,” as in the 2010 GMC Terrain crossover, today’s test vehicle.

The Terrain is the GMC version of the Chevrolet Equinox. Given the proliferation of new models and the fact GMC models are siblings of other General Motors, it takes time for new models to establish brand recognition.

This one is worth getting some of that recognition and should be on your “to consider” list if you’re in the market for a small SUV. Terrain stands out especially for its 4-cylinder “Ecotec” engine that returns an EPA estimated 32 miles per gallon (highway) in the front-wheel-drive version and 29 mpg in the all-wheel-drive version that we tested.

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2010 Volkswagen Golf TDI: Ignore at your low-mileage peril

Posted by Bill Griffith May 7, 2010 03:42 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe)

Automakers generally feel compelled to have an offering in every market segment. However, in the US, they've pretty much ignored the compact diesel department, a niche Volkswagen is only too happy to have to itself.

Today's test car, a 2010 Volkswagen Golf TDI, is testament to VW's perseverance to market a 50-state compliant diesel. To this driver, the surprise is that more Americans aren't coming home from their international travels and looking to buy the diesels they've experienced abroad.

The Golf is a car built for a day when gas prices climb above $3.50 a gallon and folks are looking for an upscale smaller car that can achieve 35 or more miles per gallon. Savvy buyers aren't waiting.

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First drive: 2011 Hyundai Sonata

Posted by Bill Griffith April 27, 2010 01:26 PM

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(Hyundai)

PHILADELPHIA—Hyundai executives invited the East Coast media to a mid-April coming-out party here for the 2011 Sonata mid-sized sedan.

The car is now arriving in dealer showrooms after a blitz of introductory advertising, including Super Bowl commercials.

Initial reviews are positive, but the Sonata will be entering a cutthroat marketplace in competing against the Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu, Honda Accord, Mazda 6, and the new Kia Optima.

Perhaps the Sonata’s most interesting feature is something it doesn’t offer: a V-6.

“It’s a changing world,” says Chris Hosford, Hyundai’s executive director of corporate communications. “We’re acutely aware of new technologies, the overall economy, and fuel usage.”

The trend that was notable with the outgoing Sonata. “When that model came out, 80 percent of buyers wanted a V-6,” says Hosford. “That dwindled to 10 percent at the end of the product cycle.”

This fall, Sonata buyers will have the option to buy either a 270 horsepower turbocharged version or a hybrid model. But for now, it’s the basic direct-injection four-cylinder which produces 198 hp or 200 hp in the sportier SE thanks to a dual exhaust. Projected fuel economy with the 6-speed automatic is 22 city and 35 highway.

Because the vehicle was designed strictly as a four-cylinder model, designers were able to snug up the engine compartment and provide more cabin and trunk space. The interior is up to contemporary standards with a flowing feel that reflects the curved “fluidic sculpture” exterior configuration. The new design is striking and, on the highway, eye-catching.

We had a 30-mile drive around Greater Philadelphia. It was enough to note that the SE has a much stiffer suspension than the base GLS and more refined (and expensive) Limited. Acceleration and engine performance seemed more than adequate. Price range will be from $19,195 for the base GLS (with a hard-to-find manual transmission) to $27,395 for a Limited with Navigation package.

Unlike some automakers, which view rental sales as a way to mask a model’s lack of demand, Hyundai embraces rental usage.

Michael Dietz, manager of product planning and the company’s midwife for the birth of the Sonata, says, “We found a third of the buyers of the prior Sonata had driven the vehicle as a rental.”

It’s a new model we look forward to reviewing in full later this summer.

2010 Nissan Maxima: Appreciated for luxury, not sport

Posted by Bill Griffith April 16, 2010 10:55 AM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith/Boston.com)

We always were taught not to make fun of people’s names. Somehow, I’ve always felt the same rule applied to cars.

However, when driving the 2010 Nissan Maxima SV recently, I realized what an appropriate name it has. To me, Maxima denotes something that’s the top of the line. (Just as Altima, the next in the Nissan line, denotes a vehicle that aspires to that top spot.) In contrast, I can’t even remember the name of Suzuki’s appealing new sedan, the Kizashi, much less intuitively get a message from it.

Years ago, just about the time I really started to appreciate the Maxima sedan, Nissan “promoted’’ it to, for lack of a better word, the executive level. The reason was to make room for the 2002 Altima, which had grown from a compact vehicle to a mid-sized car and was the rising star in the Nissan product lineup.

The strategy worked then and continues to work now. Nissan sold 203,568 Altimas in 2009, more than its two smaller sedans — the Versa and Sentra — combined.

But just because the Altima was so successful, Nissan saw no reason to drop its Maxima sedan. They decided that the larger car still had a place in its sales strategy.
Last year, Nissan introduced a total redesign of the Maxima as a 2009 model. That new Maxima sold 53,351 units. Those buyers made a good choice, and those who buy the tweaked and improved 2010 version also seem to be making a good purchase.

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2011 Kia Sorento: Morphing into a classy SUV

Posted by Glenn Gould March 29, 2010 11:46 AM

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(All photos: Kia)

No, the date in the headline is not a typo; in the world of Kia it is already 2011. Yet, for me, it's still winter 2010 and I'm testing my 2011 Kia Sorento in a rutted, icy, snow-covered field. The question is, will this front-wheel-drive Sorento get me back on the road or will AAA? I select Drive and steer toward the road. The Sorento bumps and slides a little over the frozen ruts, but in seconds we are on dry pavement.

The all-wheel-drive Sorento certainly would have done the same with a little less drama. But this 2011 Sorento, priced at $29,205 with destination, came equipped with a virtual alphabet soup of safety features. The ones that assisted in our extraction from the frozen field were the traction control system and electronic stability control.

Other standard safety features include electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist system, downhill brake control, and hill assist control. Don't worry, you won't be tested on this. The important thing to remember is that these systems work quietly and anonymously. Rarely do you even know they came into play.

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What to do with a dually?

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh March 19, 2010 04:11 PM

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(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com Staff)

The double-wide axle pickup, lovingly nicknamed "dually," is an American legend. They give horses a break and set bragging rights in the construction yard. They're the reason RV enthusiasts can watch football, grill, and pass out drunk on king-size beds in the middle of nowhere.

Most people without a commercial license won't ever drive a dually besides helping a friend move with a U-Haul. Short of an 18-wheel tanker, it's hard to think of any vehicle more manly to own or scary to motorists than a dually.

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The best cars to beat a boring winter

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh March 8, 2010 02:27 PM

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(Dan Roth/Autoblog.com)

The 2010 Ford Flex with EcoBoost took top honors as the Official Winter Vehicle of New England.

This winter has left enthusiast drivers in angst. New England's trademark two-foot snowstorms have escaped us this year, making sports car owners wonder, a bit nervously, if they could hit the back roads a little early.

Winter is supposed to be a challenge, but we're sitting here idling. Last year, I had the satisfaction of plowing a Hummer H3 through a blizzard and laughing at the spinning taxi cabs. Then the laugh was on me, when a Jaguar XF I had been driving became stuck in only two inches of snow. That's winter driving at its best — always a little miserable to start, yet fun once you get going (if you're like me and have nowhere important to go).

Instead we've gotten a few inches of powder, some light flurry-rain mixes, and 3,353 canceled parking tickets from Boston's no-snow emergency last month. Driving hasn't been all that difficult.

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2010 Land Rover LR4: Beneath this Starbucks shuttle, off-road chops shine

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh March 4, 2010 03:16 PM

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(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com)

On the Equinox Resort's private trails, the LR4 retains its plush comfort, even on three wheels.

Except for connecting their Blackberry phones, most Land Rover owners have no clue how their expensive SUVs work. They know their Rovers are special. Why else is there a dial thingy with snowflakes and cactuses right above the shifter, cool rocker switches with truck drawings, and an LCD screensaver of some sort (or is it a game?) with 3D graphics of gyrating tires? Whatever that stuff can do, it means other premium SUVs probably can't.

Since the media frenzy over global warming, you might believe Americans have repented for their unhealthy fetish for big vehicles, especially for ones that can't even crack 11 miles per gallon on our weeklong test drive. Yet, as buyers of thirsty, full-size SUVs have shifted to thirsty, full-size crossovers, Land Rover's prestige factor — despite the company's bottom-of-the-barrel J.D. Power rating — still carries enormous weight. In the case of the 2010 LR4 we drove, that prestige is a crushing 5,617 pounds.

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2010 Honda Accord Crosstour: Stylish wagon with some compromise

Posted by Bill Griffith February 19, 2010 02:05 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith/Boston.com)

See the photo of the 2010 Honda Accord Crosstour at the top of this page? The salt streaks show it has passed its winter semester in New England Highway Driving 101. Now take a moment and give that photo a second look. You'll notice the Crosstour is a vehicle that's different enough to draw second looks both on the highway and in parking lots.

It's a look that some will love, but it comes with a price, and that price isn't just the sticker, which ranges between $30,380 to $36,930, and which includes a tradeoff in decreased utility in terms of visibility and cargo space. Honda has taken a chance with the Crosstour, a new entry in the automotive world's "create a niche" sweepstakes. In that vein, Honda calls it a "premium CUV (crossover utility vehicle)"

Honda could have revived an Accord wagon. It also could have made the Crosstour a crossover in the more squared shape of rival Toyota's hot-selling Venza. Instead, they've gone in the sloped-back direction of Honda's corporate cousin, the new Acura ZDX, a look also featured on BMW's X6. It could have gone in a more economical direction, too, and offered a four-cylinder version as it does with the base Accord sedan. Instead, Honda has opted for power and amenities in this near-luxury vehicle.

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2010 Buick LaCrosse: A proper switch for Lexus baby boomers

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh February 17, 2010 04:24 PM

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(All photos: General Motors)

America's seniors are getting less and less attention from Detroit these days. They've had their bench seats, station wagons, and most of the large rear-wheel-drive sedans taken away, not to mention the storied brands of Oldsmobile, Pontiac, and Plymouth. The "Greatest Generation" that led the American auto industry out of World War II and into its seemingly unstoppable dominance in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s has now been written off.

Seniors aren't buying anymore. And when they do, it's not always from Detroit.

My grandfather, now 84, made a healthy habit of surprising his wife and kids at dinner with a new Dodge, Chevy, Ford, or a Buick. He toys with the idea of getting a pickup truck, but admits he probably won't buy another car. He's just fine cruising around town — in a Volvo.

Despite being chosen by General Motors as one of its four "core" brands, Buick, which has a median buyer age of nearly 70, is closer to outdated iron than a Detroit rebirth. Its famous discontinued models — Roadmaster, Park Avenue, Riviera — were as expansive and rich as the real estate they evoked. Its latest discontinued models — Rainer, Rendezvous, Terraza — sparked all the allure of a rebadged Chevy. So how is Buick going to attract today's entry-level luxury buyers, the younger, middle-aged Americans stuck on Lexus?

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Slicing (and some skating) in the 2010 Mazdaspeed 3

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh January 31, 2010 10:57 AM

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(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com)

In January, with Boston pinned under freezing temperatures and crusty layers of ice and slush lining the curbs, Mazda sent their cute 3 hatchback — the one with the big 18-inch wheels and big turbo — wearing summertime Dunlops (a writer in Colorado experienced similar surprise). I had driven the 2010 Mazdaspeed 3 last year in the Poconos and came away stricken by its power rush, close-ratio six-speed, and the ease of throwing it into fast corners without concern. Easy, that was, in the summer.

The smooth, uncharted bypasses of Pennsylvania had turned to bumpy Boston roads still slick after a week's worth of flurries and scant sunshine. The week prior I was named captain of the HMS Land Rover LR4, a 5,600-pound vessel that could muscle through a tornado and act like nothing's wrong. But the little Mazda noticed what was going on outside, and I can't blame it for being unhappy.

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2009 Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen TDI: The upscale, practical niche

Posted by Bill Griffith December 31, 2009 09:00 AM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith/Boston.com)


Over the winter last year I was interested in test driving - and likely purchasing - a 2009 Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen TDI. The TDI is the clean diesel engine that now has become legal to sell in all 50 states.

However, the dealer I contacted said there would be a wait because he had a waiting list and no demos.

Thus I abandoned plans to try and find that black SportWagen TDI with a saddle interior.

So what is today's test car? It's a black 2009 Jetta SportWagen TDI with a saddle interior. It even has the manual transmission I would have preferred. Sometimes it's strange how the fates treat us mortals. In this case, in addition to writing a review, I get a chance to write about "what might have been."

Let's jump to the bottom line: Would I have wound up buying this car? Most likely yes.

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2009 Volvo XC70: All-purpose Swede

Posted by Bill Griffith December 24, 2009 12:33 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith/Boston.com)

"One request. Don't take any pictures of this one."

That was a strange request to come along with a perfectly fine test car. It would have been understandable if there was a dent or body damage.

But this test car - a 2009 Volvo XC70 - did come with some excess signage in the form of a nautical motif. It was festooned with a decal package promoting the 2008-2009 Volvo Ocean Race.

This Volvo wagon obviously had been a courtesy car during the Boston stopover last spring in nine-month, 42,500-mile Volvo ocean race. And, as NBC sports reporter Bob Neumeier used to say in his Boston radio days on WEEI: "What's wrong with thhhat?"

Nothing is what.

The Volvo brand is pretty familiar to Boston sports fans with the company's name prominently displayed on a sign over the Green Monster seats (left field wall) at Fenway Park.

Meanwhile, for decades the Volvo wagon has been a symbol of safety, adding a bit of Swedish-built prestige for upscale families.

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2010 Suzuki Kizashi: Solid effort from an invisible brand

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh December 11, 2009 04:33 PM

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(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com)

Quick, name the last Suzuki you saw this week. Or this month. And it can't be a motorcycle or ATV.

What, you didn't know Suzuki made cars?

After two years of selling more than 100,000 cars in the US during 2006 and 2007 — mostly rebadged Korean-built Daewoos — Suzuki dropped to 85,000 in 2008. It'll be lucky if it finishes 2009 with half of that.

Suzuki's vigorous housekeeping during the past three years is a big part of its invisibility in the market. In 2007, it eliminated the Verona midsize sedan after just three model years. The compact Aerio four- and five-doors were next to go in 2008, replaced by the modern SX4. This year, Suzuki threw out the Reno and Forenza and didn't replace them at all (but added the Nissan-based Equator pickup). Even the General Motors-based XL7 SUV won't have an encore in 2010.

What we're left with is a compact SUV, a pickup truck, and a four- and five-door compact, all of which have raised Suzuki's profile from destitute to somewhat acceptable. But Suzuki's not done cleaning, nor is it happy with being the second-largest automaker in Japan and at the bottom of the barrel in America.

Their comeback model, after three concept cars bearing the same name, is the not-quite-compact, sort-of-midsize 2010 Kizashi. It's completely new, tuned at the Nürburgring, and Suzuki will pay you $100 if you test-drive it and then buy an Audi A4 or Acura TSX instead. For an automaker barely on most buyer's radars — let alone buyers willing to pony up $30,000-plus for a luxury car — sending $100 thank-yous is an ambitious stunt, but not altogether insane.

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The Globe's top drives of 2009

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh December 7, 2009 01:57 PM

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In a year that dragged two of the Big Three automakers into bankruptcy, destroyed three car brands, and left just about every automaker sweating pennies in an economic collapse, 2009 was a phenomenal showing of great cars.

The Boston Globe tested more than 60 cars, trucks, crossovers, and SUVs this year — nearly every new 2009 and 2010 model on the market — in real-world, day-to-day driving.

The seven cars we chose span a wide range of prices and vehicle segments, but all carry the same core traits: excellent performance, quality construction, fine details, and most of all, solid value.


2010 Audi S4: Easy to live with, obsess over, and forgive

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh November 17, 2009 12:50 PM

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(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com)

Everyone knows how this goes: you’re riding around western Massachusetts in a McLaren F1 — a few easy scoots to 140 miles per hour here and again — and when you finally clamber out in some parking lot to rejoin middle-class America, you come to the same conclusion. Every other car looks awful.

That goes for the electric blue Audi S4 I tell Herb Chambers to park next to at his latest BMW dealership in Sudbury. That also applies to Herb’s other McLaren, the last of the vaunted half-million-dollar Mercedes SLR roadsters, sitting nearby. His silver F1, which he graciously used to complete my entire life in a half-hour, is 14 years old. The Audi, a few months. “That’s a good car,” he said earlier about the S4, the air rushing through the McLaren’s roof intake to the snarling V-12 behind our backs.

The S4, with its silver-painted mirrors, decaled brake calipers, and curvy LEDs under the headlamps, was my smoking hot date before the F1 pulled alongside. Now I can’t take it seriously, and I’m trying not to mention its 200 m.p.h. speedometer to Herb. Clearly, Audi never imagined an encounter with (what was) the fastest production car on earth, a car that bolts to 240 in the time the S4 never hits 200. When the F1 is maxed out, the S4 is about to be tugged by an electronic leash at 155. Nice try.

This isn’t fair game, but things never are when you’re next to a McLaren. It’s like the cast of Twilight crashing a middle school dance as every guy in the cafeteria dances with himself. That’s what happens when there’s a choice.

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2010 Ford Taurus: Loving that butt, and most everything else

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh October 28, 2009 03:50 PM

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(All photos except interior: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com)

The Taurus poses in Litchfield, Conn. on a recent autumn weekend.

What a rump on this one. And, I can't deny, I like how big it is on Ford's new Taurus.

Rear-end sizes don't come up often in car reviews, and when they do, they're usually not complimentary. BMW, which deflected rant after scathing rant of its "Bangle Butt" design on the previous-generation 7 Series, knows that pretty well. Critics, of course, make a living by complaining, and their ideal car doesn't exist.

In hip-hop music, rear-end references are as frequent as boasts of self-wealth (and maybe even more popular than breasts, but that's another debate). Ever since Sir Mix-A-Lot, rappers have made healthy livings by paying tribute to equally healthy behinds in song. Drake, in a line from the modern love ballad "Every Girl," brags about how his ideal lady "took her half an hour just to get that belt to fasten."

The 2010 Taurus has an abnormally huge rear for a full-size sedan, so big it took me several fearsome minutes to squeeze into my parents' garage, which swallows my mom's Volvo S80 without a hitch. I swore the garage door would bend and swell from the Ford's bulbous back end. With some disbelief, it closed.

The trunk lid — covering 20 cubic feet of storage with a four-inch wide blue oval stamped in the center — towers nearly 4 feet off the ground and cuts a sharp angle toward the oversize bumper, giving the impression of a thick beef slab. The raked rear glass is farther away still as it flows to slim side glass openings, expansive B-pillars, and a chest-high shoulder line. The 19-inch wheels — could they be anything less? — complete the car's heavy, substantial stature.

While looking like it may burst a few inseams and buttons, the Taurus is physically impressive and thoroughly imposing, just what a flagship sedan should be.

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2009 Mazda MX-5 Miata: More tech, same original fun

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh October 16, 2009 05:01 PM

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(All photos: Gerry Miles/Boston.com)

If it's true that the more things change, the more they stay the same, then one might proffer the Mazda Miata as evidence that supports the cliché.

At first blush, they might be right. And then, again, they'd be wrong.

It's still a snappy, true two-seat drop-top decompression machine that often leaves as much of a grin on the faces of those admiring the ride as those behind the wheel.

It still has a trunk, tall-backed bucket seats, surprisingly good leg room, a spunky little 2.0-liter 167 horsepower I-4 mated to a slick, short-throw stick shift and a rewarding exhaust note that reminds us that having fun behind the wheel can be found at the posted limit, even with nowhere in particular to go.

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2010 Kia Forte: Dull execution, poor gearbox mar the value

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh September 28, 2009 05:29 PM

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(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com)

Like its parent Hyundai, Kia just gets more and more proud of itself. Its budget lineup undercuts nearly every segment by a few hundred to a few grand, offers lots of equipment, and stands by an industry-leading warranty. Kia's August sales of 40,198 — a whopping year-over-year increase of 60 percent — would have any manufacturer feeling cocky in a recession.

The company's confidence, months after hip, rollicking hamsters debuted the Korean challenge to Scion, the Soul, is obvious in commercials for its new Forte sedan. "The first of its kind," the company proclaims, in reference to the car's lengthy list of standard features. If that's true, then the four-speed automatic on our Forte 2.0 EX tester is most certainly the last.

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2009 Pontiac Solstice Coupe: Time's up for fun, awkward two-door

Posted by Bill Griffith September 4, 2009 05:22 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith/Boston.com)

We come to praise a Pontiac today, not to write its obituary.

The car in question is the 2009 Pontiac Solstice GXP, one of the most unique vehicles we've driven. It's a two-seat, rear-wheel drive coupe version (with removable roof) of the Solstice roadster. To say it has style is an understatement.

Add in a few facts of automotive life in 2009 and the GXP acquires more of a mystique:

  1. It's been discontinued, a victim of the worldwide auto crisis that claimed General Motors' Pontiac Division.
  2. Before production was stopped, only about 1,200 were built. That number, combined with the quality of the car and desirability of the coupe version, guarantees that this vehicle will become a collector's item.
  3. That's reaffirmed by the driving experience. The Solstice GXP rates a place on the list of certified "head-turners" we've driven. In addition, its 2.0 liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine has all the pop needed to make it a fun ride. Once, dual exhausts were a sign there was a V-8 under the hood. Now we have a set of polished exhaust tips on a four-banger. Have to say they sound nice, too.

We had the opportunity to drive the GXP both with a five-speed manual and five-speed automatic. Normally, I automatically opt for the manual (sorry about the bad pun). But the Solstice just works better with the automatic.

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2010 Chevrolet Equinox: Finally, a serious cute-ute contender

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh August 27, 2009 11:39 AM

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(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com)

Even with a backup camera and bumper sensors, would we really want to park the Equinox in Beacon Hill? No, thanks.

One look is all it takes to explain the weak sales of the first-generation Chevrolet Equinox. It's essentially a scaled-down version of Chevy's other tired workhorse, the Trailblazer, a larger truck that was popular when Circuit City sold CRT monitors. Circuit City subsequently went bankrupt and closed all its stores, but not because sleeker, widescreen LCD monitors became the industry standard. General Motors, it's fair to say, went bankrupt in a huge part by hanging on to outdated products like the Trailblazer and Equinox.

Even in futuristic hydrogen-powered fuel cell trim, the old Equinox was a weak competitor in the compact SUV segment, which had long adopted fresher faces, greater fuel efficiency, and higher-quality interiors.

Buyers have instead gravitated toward the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, and Ford Escape. Last year's Equinox sales of 67,447 were about 130,000 below the CR-V. The Escape, an 8-year-old model kept afloat with steady upgrades and a sophisticated hybrid, outsold the Chevy by more than double. If you'd like to be positive, Chevy was only 4,000 cars short of Toyota's SUV in 2008, as long you ignore RAV4 sales for the last six months of the year.

The 2010 Equinox has finally caught up, and in some areas, passed its competitors.

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2010 Mazda 3: A hatchback standout

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh August 13, 2009 11:57 AM

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(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com)

Sometimes, it takes a more expensive car to really know how good a less expensive one is.

The pricey car was the BMW 128i. Stretching only 172 inches, nearly 9 inches shorter than a 3 series coupe, the 128i by its stature looked bound to be tossable and lively. The near 50-50 weight distribution, rear-wheel drive, a grunting inline-six and creamy six-speed automatic confirmed that thought. BMW's obsession with fine-tuning its steering, suspension, and brakes really gave it the driver-centric polish that few other cars can match, and that's the real reason journalists rave about these cars. Few other companies really care to go that far.

But BMW is also concerned with positioning its cars above reach of average earners. And $41,000 for a teeny two-door, no matter how great it drives, is as comical as the 1's stubby exterior. Which explains why the 128i, as Bill Griffith noted in his April review, is a rare car on the road, even with around 6,500 cars sold in the US through July.

Meanwhile, for half that price, Mazda has sold roughly 24,000 of its newly redesigned 3 sedans and hatchbacks in the same time. Is it silly to compare a $21,000 Mazda to a BMW, especially when the Mazda isn't the racy RX-8 or Mazdaspeed 3? No, because the BMW's 10 percent higher fun factor — addictive as it is — isn't worth 100 percent more.

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Fusion Hybrid wins Globe comparison

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh August 8, 2009 04:00 PM

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A version of this story appears in the Sunday Globe's Business section. See the story and car-by-car comparisons here.

Queue the rolling green hills, fresh air, and people in flower costumes blooming on command. Enter a Toyota Prius, towing a cartoonish sun through rural farmland, again played by people pretending to be corn stalks. For 30 precious television seconds, it's a friendly Wizard of Oz reminder from the feel-good marketing folks of America's best-selling hybrid: gas prices may be down, but we're still saving the world.

Since its 2000 debut outside Japan, Toyota has sold more than one million Priuses in the US. But whether or not you believe their hybrid hype, the Prius is no longer the only efficient gas-electric car. The term "hybrid," for better or worse, is now under every new car buyer's skin, and prompts lots of questions. Should I pay more for better mileage? Do I want to be labeled as "green"? Is this car boring and slow?

Today's hybrids span a wide range of prices, engines, and body styles, many of which look exactly the same as their gas-only brethren. The Globe tested six of the latest hybrids, priced between $23,810 and $117,330, and pitted them all head-to-head: the 2010 Toyota Prius, 2010 Honda Insight, 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid, 2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid, 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid, and the 2008 Lexus LS600 hL (the 2009 model is the same).

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2010 Hyundai Genesis Coupe: On the upswing

Posted by Bill Griffith August 7, 2009 02:37 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith/Boston.com)

The plan was to make a legal U-turn in front of my house.

The street is so wide that I'm almost able to make the swing without backing up; unfortunately there's not quite enough room.

At this pivotal point - in both the turn and in getting used to today's test car, the 2010 Hyundai Genesis Coupe - I discover that it's not so easy finding reverse in the six-speed manual transmission. Oh, I know where reverse is but moving the gearshift lever through the spring-loaded gate, especially on this maiden trip, isn't so easy.

The Hyundai engineers must have had the same trouble because once reverse is found, the car reacts audibly, not with a crunch of gears but with a beep. The sound is much like the reverse alarm on a school bus or big dump truck.

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2009 Ford Focus SES: Between econobox and all-out sport

Posted by Bill Griffith July 28, 2009 02:30 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith/Boston.com)

Ford's Focus is one car I'm always happy to drive. It's also a model that seems to evolve nicely instead of being reinvented every few years. That said, it remains a competitive player in the small-car category with good things still to come.

RELATED COVERAGE

Today's test car is the 2009 Ford Focus SES coupe. This is the second year for the coupe version and this one had a nice combination of power, drivability and fuel economy.

An all-electric Focus is scheduled to join the lineup next year. To a generation attuned to plugging in iPhones and iPods to recharge each night, plugging in a zero emissions vehicle with a 100-mile range could be attractive.

Meanwhile, our current SES configuration is spiffed up with nicely styled 17-inch alloy wheels, upgraded tires, a firmer suspension, sports exhaust system, fog lights and cruise control to go with Ford's SYNC communications system.

All told, it's a nice package that fits a niche between econobox and all-out sports sedan. The car is nimble, handles well and there's enough oomph to justify the satisfying exhaust tone, and best of all still can deliver 30 miles per gallon in overall driving and 35-plus on the highway.

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2009 Dodge Viper SRT10: Saved, and respected still

Posted by Bill Griffith July 22, 2009 04:20 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith/Boston.com)

Colleague Cliff Atiyeh did a great job in catching the spirit of last Friday's convertible convention – a rare gathering of most all of the automotive industry's convertibles, their publicists, and the automotive media.

One of the most welcome vehicles in attendance was a 2009 Dodge Viper, shepherded by Lisa Barrow, Chrysler's East Region Communications manager.

"I thought I was bringing it to Boston for its swan song,'' she said, "Then we got word last week that we [Chrysler] were keeping it in production so this became a celebration."

Late in the afternoon I was asked, "Do you mind taking the Viper and driving Geno [Geno Effler, Volvo vice president of public affairs] to Peabody?"

Er, no. Actually, it would be my pleasure.

The Viper, to me, is the quintessential American muscle car – brute power, great looks and about as much tact as a grunge band crashing a cotillion. Driving it, I came to envy those with the wherewithal – money and necessary exhibitionist streak – needed to own one.

Meanwhile, we reveled in the envious looks the Viper got on the road, either parked or moving, and compiled 10 memories of a weekend in the driver's seat. FULL ENTRY

Ragtop Ramble: Mercedes SL63 AMG vs. Aston Martin DB9 vs. Bentley Azure T

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh July 21, 2009 10:30 AM

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An Aston Martin DB9 Volante, Mercedes SL63 AMG, and Bentley Azure T take in the sun in front of the Lars Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline. (All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com)

The scene was straight out of a little boy's dream: 20 convertibles perched on a dew-covered lawn, paint and chrome glistening, and keys to all of them in a crumpled, mildly greasy Dunkin' Donuts bag.

With strawberry frosted doughnut in hand, I headed to the far left side of the Lars Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline last Friday, where several dozen auto writers and PR heads gathered for a drive of exotic proportions: a romp to Kennebunkport and back to test 2009's latest convertibles.

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2009 Mazda 6 i Grand Touring: Value without a V-6

Posted by Bill Griffith July 3, 2009 02:47 PM

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LED taillamps and adjustable-level xenon headlamps spice up Mazda's new 6. (All photos: Bill Griffith/Boston.com)

It was one of those temporarily embarrassing moments at the wheel. I'd driven today's test car, the Mazda 6, across New Hampshire's Rte. 101 from Manchester Airport to the Hampton tollbooth. Cruising up to the tollbooth, the car lurched twice and stalled.

The toll-taker, after collecting the state's tribute, asked, "Is everything OK?"

"Oh yes, I just forgot this car has a clutch."

Oops.

The Mazda 6, redesigned for 2009, is a player in the crowded mid-sized sedan segment. And our tested version, the i Grand Touring edition, certainly qualifies as a near-luxury vehicle. On the highway, it ran as though it had a six-cylinder engine.

However, it was a 2.5 liter four-cylinder, six-speed manual transmission powertrain. It's a configuration I prefer with the caveat that most days I'm not committed to spending time in rush-hour traffic.

This Mazda was designed and built for the United States market. The company added 4.5 inches of wheelbase from the previous model (to 109.8 inches) and put that space to great use. There's more-than-ample legroom in the rear seat and a huge trunk. In addition, the rear seats fold down to allow for even more temporary carrying capacity.

One of the nicest things you can say about any car is that "It's a lot of value for the dollar or bang for the buck." The Mazda 6 delivers.

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2009 Hyundai Genesis 4.6: Shocking competence

Posted by Bill Griffith June 29, 2009 08:00 AM

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Hyundai's badge-less Genesis poses in downtown Newburyport. (All photos: Bill Griffith/Boston.com)

We were out taking some photos of the Hyundai Genesis early one morning. A woman passing by asked, “What kind of car is that? I don’t see a name badge on the front?”

My response was that, “It’s a Hyundai Genesis. They didn’t put a badge on front intentionally. They want you to see the car and do what you just did; that is, ask ‘What is it?’ “

Some of Hyundai’s earlier large-sedans bore resemblances to Jaguars (the XG 350), but the Genesis definitely causes you to pause a moment and notice resemblances to Lexus and Mercedes-Benz.

Hyundai designed the Genesis sedan to be in the image of BMW’s 5-Series, the Lexus GS, Infiniti M cars and Mercedes E-Class. However, it’s priced and sized to compete with Chrysler’s 300C, the Lexus ES, Cadillac CTS, and Mercedes C-Class.

There’s no question that today’s test car, the 2009 Hyundai Genesis 4.6, is an intriguing vehicle.

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2010 Volvo XC60 T6: Sporty, distinctly New England

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh June 26, 2009 08:12 AM

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A Lexus RX passes Volvo's distinctive new crossover on Beacon Street. (All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com)

If you’re a mainstream automaker and still don’t have at least two car-based crossovers in your lineup, you’re either sick with bankruptcy or making out like a bandit on just one. The progenitor of the luxury crossover segment, Lexus, is in the latter with its RX 350, now in its tenth year. Toyota didn’t need a Venza alongside its hot-selling RAV4 and Highlander models, but thought Camry buyers needed an alternative.

While Ford is axing the Taurus X, leaving us with the Edge and underappreciated Flex, BMW is so pumped it added a third, the unclassifiable X6, and is due for a fourth (X1) in 2010 or 2011. Chrysler, which once sold Pacificas by the barrel, is down to the Jeep Compass (and if you’re really stretching it, the Dodge Nitro and maybe the Jeep Patriot).

Saab has none at all, and its sad, tattered divorce with GM has made rival Volvo even happier to introduce the 2010 XC60, the compliment to its beefier car-based XC90. As a Volvo, even a 2010 Volvo, the XC60 isn’t tailored for Joe Mercedes. Even under a decade of Ford management, Volvo’s quirky and unconventional behavior hasn't rubbed off entirely, and that's exactly what the marque's rabid New England fan base desires.

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Quick take: BMW X6 is the dirty fun no one asked for

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh June 24, 2009 03:00 PM

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(All photos: Zane Merva/Autoinsane.com)

This never would have occurred to me if I hadn’t wound up idling next to one in traffic over the weekend: The X6 is BMW’s replacement for the late Pontiac Aztek! Same humpbacked silhouette, same tiptoes stance, same identity crisis — what is it? Only, guess what, BMW got it right. Or at least BMW made a vehicle that, whatever its mission may be, offers up terrific entertainment en route to defining that mission.

In the city, the mission was clear: Intimidate other traffic, fire off neck-snapping hole shots, and then hand it off to valet parking.

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2009 Jetta TDI, part 3: With cheaper diesel, it's a better buy

Posted by Bill Griffith June 19, 2009 03:50 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith/Boston.com)

Read our March reviews of the Jetta TDI here.

Sometimes life’s tosses coincidences your way.

These involve Volkswagen, diesels and Theresa Condict, a young race driver who is competing in this year’s nationwide Jetta TDI Cup series. She was the subject of a Globe story that ran Thursday, just before the June 19-21 TDI Cup races at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Coincidence No. 1: Condict, of Lexington, Mass., will be competing in those races located in Lexington … Ohio, that is.

Coincidence No. 2: This week’s test car is a 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI, the same model car Condict will be driving in the races.

Coincidence No. 3: Over the winter, the Jetta TDI was at the top of my want-to-buy list. I’d been waiting for years for it to be legal to buy new diesel-powered passenger cars in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, it was impossible to find the model Jetta I wanted – the TDI Sportwagen – over the winter.

So, for a lot of reasons, I was eager to get out on the road in this test Jetta.

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2010 Jaguar XKR Convertible: More power for this bipolar cat

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh June 19, 2009 10:52 AM

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Fans of fast cars, muscle cars, exotic cars, and inexpensive-but-exciting cars, don't get too worried that "the new CAFE laws are killing all the fun cars," as one reader wrote yesterday on this blog. When there's government, there are loopholes and exceptions, and where there are loopholes and exceptions — alongside the battle cry of millions of enthusiasts — there will be cars like the 2010 Jaguar XKR Convertible.

Mysterious forces brought this supercharged, 510 horsepower aluminum hot-rod to our parking lot this week, the latest update to Jaguar's brilliant XK range. As if 420 horsepower wasn't enough on last year's XKR, Jaguar bored the 4.2 liter V-8 to a full 5.0 liters, which more than makes up for the muted exhaust tone in the "standard" 2009 XK Coupe we had in March.

Around town, the XKR acts just as gentlemanly as the XK, but full throttle brings forth a brutal, deafening roar with a sprinkling of backfire pops when flicking the downshift paddle. It's everything that was missing from the normally-aspirated V-8, and is probably the best example of bipolarity there is in the automotive world. The XKR tricks passersby into believing it's a polite and quiet luxury car, and then it just rips a nasty one, with all the subtlety of a NASCAR stocker.

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A short-circuited Mini

Posted by Bill Griffith June 18, 2009 09:17 AM

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(Bill Griffith/Boston.com)

One of the most-anticipated rides I’ve taken was in Mini’s electric model, one of 500 prototypes being leased to select customers.

However, when it comes to driving an all-electric vehicle, Boston’s 1950s-era trolley cars were smoother.

Hit the gas and there was a lag before acceleration began. That’s disconcerting to anyone used to the always-perky Mini performance.

Hit the (regenerative) brakes and brace yourself. The computerized system is way off. The car stops so powerfully that you’re thrown against your seatbelt. Even just taking one’s foot off the accelerator winds up initiating a major braking event.

The suspicion here is that Mini tossed out some trial balloons and the revised versions will be fine.

And we’ll still be ready to line up for a test ride.

2009 Kia Borrego EX: Loaded and jolted

Posted by Bill Griffith June 12, 2009 08:39 AM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith/Boston.com)

This winter, the New England Motor Press Association (NEMPA) chose the Kia Borrego as its “Best-in-Class SUV ($25,000-$35,000)” as part of its annual Winter Vehicle Awards voting.

That Borrego was the six-cylinder version. It also appears to be the “combination of choice” in this model. We recently drove the V-8 version. It’s doubtful the voters would have treated this configuration so favorably in their balloting.

Yes, the V-8 had power aplenty, with 337 horsepower and 323 lb.-ft of torque. And the mileage (we averaged 18.7 miles per gallon) was good for a vehicle of this size and weight (4,621 pounds).

But there were trade-offs. For starters, the six-speed automatic transmission seemed to be “thinking” before downshifting. The gearing is set up for power off the line and economy in the top gears. It didn’t seem to fit our needs for more middle-range coasting, turning, and pickup. Handling was OK but a bit vague in the feel-of-the-road department.

But perhaps most jolting – literally – is the ride.

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Luxury Jeeps, part two: 2009 Commander Overland

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh June 10, 2009 09:00 AM

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(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com)

In the cheap muck that defines many Chrysler interiors – the dull, flimsy plastics, the '80s-inspired rectangular cutouts and build quality – Jeep has kept its head above the goo.

Climb into a Commander, a Grand Cherokee platform with an identical wheelbase but lengthened 1.8 inches and widened 0.6 inches in track, and you’re treated to Land Rover luxury without the Land Rover brittle plastics.

Burl wood trim surrounds the attractive center stack on our top-level $48,210 Overland, which also includes two-tone leather and microfiber seats (also known as Alcantara). Allen-head screws are at all corners, and the squarish, upright presentation matches the Commander’s instantly recognizable brick exterior.

You can tell on the outside – from the chrome 18-inch wheels, xenon headlamps, and D-pillar grab handles – that this is a luxury Jeep. You can’t tell it's from the same people who make the Dodge Durango.

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Luxury Jeeps, part one: 2009 Grand Cherokee Overland

Posted by Bill Griffith June 9, 2009 09:00 AM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith/Boston.com)

One of the big stories coming out of April’s New York Auto Show was the unveiling of Chrysler’s 2011 Grand Cherokee, scheduled to go on sale next spring.

The date may be pushed back now that Chrysler has filed for Chapter 11 protection as it reorganizes. But it’s an important coming event.

That Grand Cherokee launch is the biggest product event on the Chrysler horizon before it starts to introduce vehicles produced as part of its alliance with Fiat. Ironically, the new vehicle is built on a chassis shared with the Mercedes M-Class vehicles, a project that began in the Daimler-Chrysler days and will overlap the continuing ownership changes.

But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. For the present, the 2009 Jeep Grand Cherokee remains an interesting vehicle, one that carries the DNA of Jeep’s true off-road capabilities.
Of course there are negatives. Chief among them is that the Grand Cherokee is a gas guzzler (get 15 around town and you’re doing well; figure 19 at best on a trip).

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2009 Nissan 370Z Touring: Concours performance for the everyman

Posted by Bill Griffith June 5, 2009 10:30 AM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith/Boston.com)

As we were leaving the Newport Concours D’Elegance last Sunday, Mrs. G asked, “If you could have any car here, which would you choose?”

Hmmm. The question doesn’t really work because I’d need to have a garage first, and then get something worth garaging. Certainly a Ferrari, any of the many on display in Newport, would be nice. So would one of the museum-quality Duesenbergs or the Bugatti. But those deserve even better accommodations, something along the lines of climate-controlled secure storage.

These vehicles are worth more than my house – thus they don’t belong with me.

No. These concours cars were to be ogled but not owned. However, there was that better-than-new 1970 Datsun 240Z parked next to the 1965 Lincoln Presidential limo brought by John Lawlor of NPR’s “Car Talk.”

The ‘70 240Z still looks contemporary, and we’d have loved to be able to pull today’s test car – a 2009 Nissan 370Z Touring edition – alongside to show how the direct descendant takes its styling cues from the original, including its overall shape, its big rear window and hatchback and the vertical door handles.

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2009 Jaguar XK: Muted muscle

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh May 28, 2009 11:20 AM

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Aston Martin exotic style comes a whole lot cheaper on the Jaguar XK. (Photo illustration/All photos: Clifford Atiyeh)

All right, I admit it – I like looking at myself driving in the reflections of buildings, and get absolutely giddy when I’m behind the wheel of something flashy. It’s the sort of vanity guys at the gym indulge in, watching themselves do arm curls in T-shirts two sizes too small. “Yeah, that’s right, this is all mine,” they’re thinking. “You, babe, are gonna have to work for this.”

When I met my girlfriend four years ago, she didn’t exert much effort claiming what little upper body tone I had – and still have. She also didn’t meet me in a Jaguar XK, the graceful, debonair English coupe thoroughly laced with male pheromones. It’s the $81,000 automotive equivalent of that refreshed, endorphin-packed feeling body builders get after dropping a pair of dumbbells. They like how they feel. They know other people are watching them.

You’ll feel compelled, then, to trace the chrome trim outlining the pillarless side glass all the way to the coupe’s bulging rear fenders. Hot looks prompt stares and touches, even if most of the XK’s devoted audience – like the UPS driver opening his truck door to flash a thumbs-up, or the 8-year-old boy in the back of a Volkswagen craning his neck to get a glimpse – aren’t women.

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2009 Lincoln MKX: Chromed, cushy, in need of EcoBoost

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh May 21, 2009 02:47 PM

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The Lincoln MKX looks svelte by any measure — and like a sports car next to Globe delivery trucks. (All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com)

Two weeks ago I took the helm of an early 1990s Lincoln Town Car, the generation that sported a digital instrument panel atop a dashboard as wide as a trailer home. At only $500, the car had some 200,000 miles on it, reeked of mothballs, and the rear was almost dragging on the gravel lot at Helping Hands in Wrentham, a dealer that sells donated jalopies to low-income customers.

Even with those shortcomings, the neglected Town Car was undeniably a Lincoln. The V-8 still purred, the seats were La-Z-Boy cushy, the interior was massive and well-finished, and the ride — even while bottoming out — ate up ruts and bumps. The finger-touch steering required something like a dozen turns lock to lock. A Lincoln indeed.

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2009 Ford Edge Sport: A bit of kit, lots of convenience

Posted by Bill Griffith May 15, 2009 05:45 PM

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Oversize 22-inch wheels stuff the wells on the Edge Sport. (All photos: Bill Griffith/Boston.com)

Everyone, it seems, is looking for an edge in this life.

Ford, on the other hand, wants everyone to have an Edge – the company’s well-designed crossover vehicle. The Ford Edge is a five-passenger family hauler available in four trim levels (SE, SEL, Limited, Sport) and as either a front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive vehicle. Prices start at $26,635.

Our test car was a top-of-the-line Sport version with an MSRP of $35,605 and a final sticker number of $41,755. It was optioned with a Premium package ($1,995) that included a welcome automatic liftgate and auto temperature control along with memory seat presets, power heated mirrors, and a garage door opener. It also had a navigation system (another $1,995) and 22-inch polished aluminum wheels.

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2009 Subaru Forester X: Vanilla served up right

Posted by Bill Griffith May 7, 2009 11:11 AM

2009 Subaru Forester XThe 2009 Forester is bigger and higher than ever. (All photos: Bill Griffith/Boston.com)

My friend Ralph used to be the ice cream maker at a famous North Shore candy house and ice cream parlor.

Every time I’d tell him about a new favorite dairy bar – for example, the one on the UConn campus in Storrs, Conn. – he’d ignore my ravings about the Jonathan Supreme and Husky Tracks.

“Tell me about the vanilla,” he’d say.

“The vanilla? They’ve got all these great flavors.”

“I always try the vanilla first,” was his answer. “That’s the most important and the hardest to get right.”

Those words often come back to me.

We were looking at this week’s test car – a 2009 Subaru Forester. It’s the base X model equipped with the premium and all-weather packages. Those bumped the $19,995 base price to $24,590.

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2010 Kia Soul !: The kooky box that's almost perfect

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh May 5, 2009 01:08 PM

KiaSoul-side-BU.jpgThe Soul takes a break along the Charles River "beach" at Boston University. (All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com)

It’s quite hard these days for any automaker to elicit long, head-cocked stares at a boxy compact. Honda started the kooky look with the 2003 Element, an SUV-like square with suicide doors and an interior floor that could literally be hosed down. A year later, Toyota brought over one of its Japanese-market subcompacts and labeled it the Scion xB, a supposedly youth-oriented toaster with gobs of headroom. Not to be outdone, Ford stretched the idea into a seven-passenger crossover last year, replete with a glass-topped white-painted roof, huge wheels, and enough ruler-straight lines to make a geometry teacher proud.

While the Flex is still gushing from its 2008 debut, the Element and xB have become so mainstream they hardly get second glances any more. But the 2010 Nissan Cube and Kia Soul are adding more punch to the Asian storage bin category, and while we can’t vouch yet for the Cube, the Soul! (the exclamation is a trim level) was different enough to have Bostonians pointing and shouting at it.

Standing on the Kia’s door sills as I snapped photos through the sunroof of the glowing red interior – and the dozens of bright LEDs in the door speakers – I heard a kid yell “gay car!” Think about that, Mr. Boston College student. If the Soul were gay, wouldn’t Gaywheels.com stop lambasting Kia for denying domestic partner benefits to its gay employees? (Kia's PR head confirmed the company offers them, but Gaywheels.com is adamant that they're only for California). That's a tough call, but stepping further into this delusional, hormonal undergrad psyche reveals this: Girls are very curious about cars with big feet, and the Soul’s attractive 18-inchers couldn’t be more obvious.

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2009 BMW 128i: Rare and satisfying, except fuel economy

Posted by Bill Griffith April 29, 2009 01:45 PM

2009 BMW 128i(Bill Griffith/Globe Photo)

BMW has referred to its vehicles as the "ultimate driving machines" for so long the phrase has become as much a part of the company's identity as Mazda's "Zoom Zoom." We'll leave the "ultimate" claim as a debate for another day. It suffices to say that a BMW is almost always enjoyable to drive.

Today's featured vehicle – the BMW 128i – is all of that. The 128i is the smaller, engine-wise, of BMW's two 1 Series coupes. It produces "only" 230 horsepower and 200 lb-ft. of torque from the 3.0-liter inline six. The turbocharged 135i bumps both those figures to 300.

Our test car had a 6-speed Steptronic automatic with paddle shifters. It was fun to use the paddle shifters for a short bit, but just popping it in drive and listening to the exhaust tone quickly changing its tune with the crisp shifts was almost as satisfying. My preference would have been the 6-speed manual, but then I don't have to sit in commuter traffic on a daily basis, either.

So, the 128i has plenty of power. It looks great, hardly like the baby, entry-level BMW that it is. It handles great, with true near 50/50 front-engine, rear-wheel drive balance. Unlike the 3 Series, you don't see as many 1s on the road.

So what's not to like?

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2009 BMW 750Li: After eight years, a proper looking stunner

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh April 23, 2009 04:56 PM

750Li-front-34.jpg(Clifford Atiyeh/Globe Photo)

Part 1

Eight years. That’s how long it’s been since I enjoyed staring at a 7 Series. Two generations ago, the squarish 740i Sport looked like the genuine flagship sedan it was in 2001: wide, hunkered-down, and imposing, what with that model’s 18-inch wheels and piercing xenon headlamps. It still looked fantastic four years earlier, when Pierce Brosnan manhandled the 12-cylinder 750iL with his cell phone – from the backseat – in the 1997 Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies.

The 2002 7 Series brought the movie theatrics to life with iDrive, the computer system that controlled radio, climate, navigation, and vehicle settings via a multi-directional console dial. Among automotive electronics, it was unprecedented in its technical sophistication. In the press, iDrive was hated for its needless complexity. Simple tasks, such as switching a radio station, became multi-step processes with steep learning curves. BMW didn’t care, and apparently, neither did its customers.

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2009 Mini Cooper Convertible: Plenty of goofy, base-trim fun

Posted by Bill Griffith April 23, 2009 10:59 AM

2009 Mini Cooper Convertible(Bill Griffith/Globe Photo)

What's an "Openometer" gauge?

Answer: About the most useless item on a Mini Cooper convertible.

It's a gauge right in front of the driver that gives a truly useless bit of automotive driving feedback: The time you've been driving with the convertible top down. Sorry, we're not making this up.

We learned to love a convertible the old-fashioned way. If the sun's too hot, put the top up and turn on the A/C. (Hmmm. My '54 Ford Sunliner didn't have A/C, either). If it's too cold, put the top up and turn on the heat. If you're too windblown for your evening out, put up the top and use the visor mirror to brush your hair.

An Openometer? C'mon.

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Quick take: 2009 Nissan Frontier King Cab SE V6

Posted by Bill Griffith April 10, 2009 10:52 AM

2009 Nissan FrontierThe Nissan Frontier rests on a flooded road in Newbury after an early April storm. (Bill Griffith/Globe Photo)

Nissan’s Frontier compact pickup truck has been around a while now.

Nissan put the first-generation Frontier on the market in 1998, upgrading it to the present model in 2004. It would be fair to think that this truck’s cycle has run its course, but to drive one is to learn otherwise.

The Frontier is rugged, from its fully boxed frame to the optional bedliners. Our test vehicle was a four-wheel-drive 2009 King Cab SE V6 equipped with the Value Truck Package, which adds power windows, mirrors, locks, and other basic necessities totaling $26,500. It had plenty of power for routine hauling or towing with a 4.0 liter V-6 mated to a 5-speed automatic transmission. That combination gave us 17.1 miles per gallon on a five-day “weekend” trip.

It was comfortable and stable on the highway trip, and equally happy doing a weekend of local lugging for spring yardwork. We didn’t quite get it off-road, but did have to ford a flooded street in Newbury during an early-April storm and high tide.

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Polite, kid-friendly with a 2009 Ford F-150

Posted by Bill Griffith April 3, 2009 02:07 PM

When is a truck not a truck?

Griffith's grandson on a Ford F-150

The author's grandson, Jack, atop the unlined bed of the 2009 F-150. (Bill Griffith)

When it's a loaner that you can't use the way a truck should be used.

That was the case with this week's test vehicle, a Ford F-150 regular cab RWD pickup. It's the smallest cab size available and medium trim level among the almost limitless configurations for the company's signature vehicle. Sticker price, depending on options, would range from $25,000 to $30,000. Ours was $26,905.

There was plenty of yard debris to haul to the compost dump. There were several sections of old wooden fencing to cut up and dispose of and a trip to the fencing company for replacement posts and fencing.

However, the test truck didn't have a bed liner, and the decision was made to instead deliver a used child's train table to my grandson.

On the road, the F-150 offers car-like handling and a stable, comfortable ride. The on-board computer delivers trip mpg. We started out at 19.2 miles per gallon and by feathering the gas where possible got it up to 19.9 by the end of the 250-mile trip; however, we couldn't nudge it to 20.0.

The 4.6-liter V-8 (248 horsepower), mated to a 4-speed automatic transmission, was fine for our purposes, but those who do more hauling or towing likely would opt for the higher-output version (292 horsepower) or the available 5.4-liter (310 horsepower).

After a winter of driving by dealerships that seemed overstocked with trucks and SUVs, it was a pleasure to have a truck to drive. The only regret is that we were too polite to really put it through its hauling paces and scratch up the bed.

2009 Honda Fit Sport: Not what nature intended

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh April 1, 2009 06:33 PM

HOLDERNESS, N.H. - Picture an empty stretch of twisty, two-lane blacktop weaving through the New Hampshire woods and you'll immediately fantasize a hot-blooded sports car cutting through the crisp air at full song.

Route 113, which runs along Squam Lake, the second largest after Winnepesaukee, was that road on an early Sunday morning, neat and clear after a recent snowstorm. The 2009 Honda Fit Sport was that car - or at least an impression of a sports car. No Nissan GT-R, Lotus Exige, or Boxster S was in sight. That made the Fit, sitting low in Storm Silver Metallic, the unassuming supercar of Grafton County for a good, solid hour.

The Fit's stretched, bug-like face (Honda compares it so in commercials) and skinny body looked out of place next to the Subaru Outbacks, SUVs, and pickup trucks strolling through town. Inside, the trappings are much easier on the eye. Supportive seats, huge headroom, and a sporty trio of silver-painted gauges with orange needles and blue backlighting make a fine place to command the road. Hugging tight in every turn, the Fit Sport grips and goes, its 5-speed automatic hitting the rev-limiter at 6,800 r.p.m. as the engine winds up fast without harsh vibration.

When I sailed the Fit into a dip mid-corner, the outside tires hit the bump stops - normally a moment for sweating and cursing - and the car kept going as if nothing had happened. The steering wheel stayed tight in my palms, composed, and didn't jerk back. A second later, I flicked the right-hand paddle for a smooth upshift, the whine of the 1.5 liter four-cylinder engine strangely intoxicating. No drama, just a registered 28 miles per gallon in madman mode.

FULL ENTRY

2009 Toyota Yaris S: Snappy, roomy, but skips in-class basics

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh March 25, 2009 04:22 PM

2009 Toyota Yaris S five-doorThe Yaris would be a natural fit for a hybrid trim, but this model isn't as Fit as it could be. (Honda)

The spicy red 2009 Yaris S five-door I tested last week, with its wide, roof spoiler and snappy 1.5 liter four-cylinder, is every bit the competent economy car. It's typical Toyota-quiet, has a smooth suspension, excellent lateral seat support, and returned about 26 miles per gallon in my 195-mile test of mixed driving. But when compared to the sportier Honda Fit and the all-wheel-drive capable Suzuki SX4 Crossover, our top-level $17,515 Yaris is pricey for what it lacks.

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Brakes were disconnected, BG Automotive president says

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh March 24, 2009 10:17 AM

BG-front.jpg(Clifford Atiyeh/Globe Photo)

After my surprise drive of the BG C100 - a Chinese subcompact retrofitted with an electric powertrain that will be sold by a Philadelphia company - I wrote that the "very firm pedal felt as if the brakes were disconnected." Well, turns out they were, according to BG Automotive president Barry Bernsten.

"I called my engineers and they advised on where we can check for problems, and sure enough, I noticed a wire was disconnected that triggers the pump that controls the disc brakes," Bernsten wrote in an e-mail this morning. "I reconnected the wire, and the brakes worked like butter. The brakes worked perfectly and stopped dead when we slammed them on, unlike the slower stop when you test drove."

I asked the company about the issue after a reader posted a comment yesterday claiming the brakes were at fault, and that Bernsten had fixed them. This would make the C100 a lot safer than during my test, when the car had difficulty stopping from 10 miles per hour. Better for Bernsten to scare a writer in a parking lot, I'd say, than a customer who just wrote a $16,000 check.

Read the original review here.

Hypermiling in Brookline with the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid

Posted by Bill Griffith March 19, 2009 10:08 AM

Fusion-front-609.jpgThe Fusion Hybrid in front of the Larz Anderson Auto Museum, a former family estate that contains some of the rarest antique cars still in original condition. (Bill Griffith/Globe Photo)

Ford brought one of its 2010 Fusion Hybrids to the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline Wednesday, giving its marketing people a chance to show off the vehicle to the area's automotive media and fleet managers.

The vehicle, rated at 41 m.p.g. city and 36 m.p.g. highway, goes on sale later this spring. The price, for a well-equipped Fusion, will be $27,200, about $3,000 more than for a four-cylinder gasoline-powered version that, in its own right, delivers 23 city and 34 highway.

Many in attendance had the chance to drive the Fusion around a short loop through Brookline and Boston, trying to break the 50 mile-per-gallon mark on the vehicle's dashboard readout.

This driver – the first to head out on the circuit – didn't fare well, averaging about 37 m.p.g. The engine was cold when we started out, and I didn't have the right touch for feathering the throttle – even though the smart gauge on the dashboard would grow vines and leaves when I did.

Rick DeMeis of Automotive DesignLine.com, the second to drive the Fusion, managed 51.2 on the loop, topping the standard of 51.1 set by Ford's John Viera, director of sustainability business strategies. Viera and Praveen Cherian, project manager for the Fusion Hybrid, had lots to say about both the Fusion and Ford's plans for coming fuel-efficient vehicles.

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Exclusive drive: BG C100 brings Chinese electric car to life

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh March 17, 2009 06:31 PM

BG-rear.jpg(Clifford Atiyeh/Globe Photo)

UPDATE, 3/18: Thanks to an astute blogger at China Car Times, the BG C100's real identity has been revealed as the Chang'an Ben Ben, also known as the Chana Benni. That explains the logo on the steering wheel that I couldn't quite pin down.

Automaker CEOs don't make a habit of pulling up to The Boston Globe in a rental truck, dumping a prototype in the parking lot, and handing the keys to a writer. But that's exactly what happened Monday as BG Automotive president Barry Bernsten and a lime green hatchback made an impromptu visit as I returned with lunch. Usually food has a much higher priority than thoughts of obscure manufacturers and strange-looking concept cars, but this time, my chicken burrito lost.

Bernsten, a Philadelphia steel entrepreneur turned environmentalist, formed "Be Green" Automotive in 2005 to make low-cost electric cars "unlike Tesla or Fisker," the high-performance electric and plug-in hybrid models that sell for more than $80,000. Earlier in the day, Bernsten showed his C100 prototype to Massachusetts officials - including energy resources commissioner Philip Giudice - and is now in other New England states trying to drum up support for loans, including a proposed $150 million from the Department of Energy, according to a report from the Boston Herald.

"It's a very capital-intensive business," he said to the Globe. "If I finance it personally, we could put a hundred cars a month on the road. If we could get some public assistance and loan guarantees or low-interest loans ... then we could put 15,000."

Bernsten says he's on target for a May or June launch, but he hasn't figured out where he's going to build the car, which will sell from $16,000 to $18,000. The goal is to construct six $25 million plants, each with a capacity for 15,000 cars per month and a workforce of 400 to 500 people. The Globe reported last month that BG Automotive was looking to open its first plant in Massachusetts, but the company will likely go to whichever state opens its coffers first.

"We're looking to hire auto workers, while auto workers are going out of business in Ohio, in Michigan, in Illinois," he said. "We're trying to bring auto jobs."

But Bernsten, after investing more than $3 million of his money and churning out three prototypes, hasn't made a fully road-worthy car. His C100, which has a maximum speed of 45 miles per hour, is certified in 47 states as a "neighborhood electric vehicle," or NEV. That puts it in the same class as the high-end golf carts from Global Electric Motorcars, which are restricted to roads with posted speed limits of 25 to 45 miles per hour, depending on the state.

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2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI: Smiles, not smells, in this sporty four-door

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh March 12, 2009 11:06 AM

2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI(Clifford Atiyeh/Globe Photo)

Part 2

Read part 1 of our drive here.

After a full week of daily driving in our 2009 Jetta TDI, I began to forgive the DSG transmission for some of its jerky behavior. I learned to anticipate gear changes ahead of time, which made it much more tolerable (but still not acceptable, in my opinion).

Volkswagen fashioned the rest of the driving experience very well. You won't notice the diminished horsepower from the turbocharged 2.0 liter four-cylinder (at 140, it's down 30 from the base Jetta S, and another 60 from the SEL wagon). Normally this would be cause for complaint, but since the TDI sips diesel, there's a big grunt of torque (236 pound-feet, 29 more than the SEL wagon). In every situation short of passing acceleration, there's never a need to dip into the throttle as peak torque arrives at 1,750 r.p.m. Sport mode, with its higher-rev shifts, doesn't add any more excitement, just noise. Never has there been so much joy below the two-grand mark in a compact sedan.

FULL ENTRY

2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI: Tied-down and tempered, but DSG upsets the polish

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh March 10, 2009 02:00 AM

2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI(Clifford Atiyeh/Globe Photo)

Part 1


Right when I heard the solid ca-chunk of the driver door clamping shut and felt my bony rear wrapped in a firm, bolstered seat, I wasn't sure where all the negative talk of Volkswagen quality control was coming from. Issues with vibrations, rattles, and electrical problems – especially on VW's highest-selling models, the Rabbit and Jetta – have been well-documented in the industry. It's no secret Volkswagen hasn't been near the top of J.D. Power, but then again, part of those surveys involve people complaining about window switch locations, rather than answering if those switches actually work.

I like where the switches are on this white 2009 Jetta TDI, but more importantly, I like how this compact sedan drives like a much more expensive car. I’ve made a helpful seat-of-the-pants rule for all road tests: if a car can handle Boston’s potholes, crudely-filled patches, bumps, dips, and expansion joints without scraping the wheel wells and unsettling the occupants, then the suspension is truly well-sorted. Should the automakers need to cut back more of their R&D budgets, they can just drive here, where the wretched road conditions are far more abusive than any manufacturer proving ground.

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Buy a '97 Skylark, and ride that recession in style

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh February 12, 2009 10:20 AM

For most people in this economy, reviews on $60,000 Jaguars and new car sales pitches aren't as appetizing as they once were. But if you're like Globe reporter Geoff Edgers, a down economy hasn't changed any of your auto habits. Geoff drives a 1997 Buick Skylark Custom, cousin to the Pontiac Grand Am and long-forgotten Oldsmobile Achieva, which Canadian YouTube user ProjectAchieva will gladly show you.

Buick is down to only three models now, and it's all thanks to cars like the Skylark.

Read the full article, twelfth in the Globe's "Spending Smart" series, or go to boston.com/spendingsmart for more of Geoff's adventures on the cheap.

Fried chicken, 30 cars, and an award

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh February 10, 2009 11:55 AM

NEMPA Winter Car Test(Zane Merva/AutoInsane.com)

If you've ever wondered how car awards get decided, allow me to explain with a time-honored New England recipe:

1. Throw two dozen journalists into a garage filled with chili, doughnuts, and fried chicken.
2. Allow for lively banter and mild indigestion.
3. Add 30 gleaming new cars, turn up the gas, and stir vigorously for six hours.
4. Relax and inhale the vapors.

That's what actually happened last Saturday when members of the New England Motor Press Association gathered for their annual winter vehicle test. Besides reverting to little boys with Matchbox toys, the goal was to rank the best in-class winter cars and name an overall winner that fits the needs of the average New England motorist. The above photo, shot by fellow blogger Zane Merva of AutoInsane, only shows one-third of the parking lot.

Car Talk technical advisor John Lawlor, the man behind this escapade, owns Lyndon B. Johnson's presidential limousine and built an exact replica of a 1950s general store in his garage, replete with ice cream freezers. Oh, there's also a diner on cement blocks out front.

Your scribe, along with local celebrity "car doctor" John Paul and Globe auto writer Bill Griffith, whipped through back roads in a multitude of fine machinery, from a $17,000 Suzuki SX4 to the $80,000 Range Rover. Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Volkswagen, and Toyota each sent at least three models, including the new Venza, Passat CC, Lincoln MKS, and Infiniti FX45. Two samplings each from Subaru, Suzuki, Land Rover, Chrysler, Kia, and Mercedes were also on hand.

Noticeably absent: Honda, Mitsubishi, Volvo, and Porsche. Next year, perhaps?

Some highlights, in no particular order:

  • The ML320 BlueTec doesn't feel, sound, or smell like a diesel. Hats off to Mercedes for building a luxury SUV around a more fuel-efficient and torque-laden engine.
  • BMW's X6, equipped with very wide 20-inch tires and a 400 horsepower V-8, still is very fast despite its hefty weight.
  • Cheap dash plastic mars an otherwise well-crafted interior of the Audi A5.
  • Ditto for the Dodge Durango Hybrid, which was canceled after less than a year. It's a shame that the penny-pinchers at Cerberus are throwing away hybrid technology that's just as capable as GM's two-mode system on the Escalade and Tahoe.
  • The spring-wound Subaru WRX is a car I'd never like to have in traffic or on a bumpy road (OK, I flubbed the clutch a few times).
  • Sitting in the back of the four-seater Passat CC feels just like a Mercedes CLS - for half the price. The brakes are fantastic as well.
  • Never failing to raise eyebrows was Automobile Magazine columnist Ezra Dyer, who did something rather devilish to the Mercedes G500. Keep guessing.

Read more about the group's winter testing at Automotive DesignLine and AutoInsane. Awards will be announced next month.

Quick take: 2009 Jaguar XF

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh January 23, 2009 12:38 PM

When Boston.com named the Jaguar XF one of 2008's best new cars, we hadn't even driven it. But last week we got to sample the sexy Brit's quality, high performance and trick features when a $58,850 Premium Luxury model arrived - and no, the play of rotating vents and a rising gear selector didn't get old by the third act.

Maxima commands road, bigger wallet

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh January 7, 2009 04:37 PM

Maxima-Allston-609.jpgThe 2009 Nissan Maxima looks refined and stylish on an Allston corner. (Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com)

(For a short overview on the 2009 Maxima, click here to read our earlier post.)

Like Volkswagen, Nissan has crossed the double-yellow line into premium territory, the path where the company’s luxury Infiniti brand has, until now, held its own.

Let’s start with the areas the Maxima doesn’t cross. For one, it’s no “four-door sports car,” as the “4DSC” rear window stickers have indicated on Maximas since the 1990s. That moniker is for super sedans like the Maserati Quattroporte or the upcoming Porsche Panamera. Granted, there’s generous injections of curvy rooflines, 18-inch wheels, and styling cues straight from the 370Z and GT-R, but like the Doobie Brothers sang, “front-wheel drive don’t make no sports car.” At 15 miles per gallon in the city, it does suck fuel like one, but I’ll bet a base Corvette or 911 would both burn less gas than the Maxima after my initial 180 miles.

The Maxima is also no longer under $30,000. Our 3.5 SV tester, with cold weather package (heated front seats, mirrors and steering wheel), xenon headlamps, Bluetooth, and technology package (navigation, XM radio/traffic, voice recognition, iPod dock) rang in at just over $37,000. The smaller Infiniti G37 with similar equipment costs just under $40,000.

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When Hummers are heralded: 2009 H3T Alpha

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh December 23, 2008 09:38 AM

h3t-frontlow.jpg

If there's one brand General Motors has to ax in order to keep the lights on, it certainly isn't Hummer, one of the last automotive brands solely devoted to the truck-based SUV.

Under normal circumstances, this is a weak argument. For an automaker that bet so heavily on large SUVs instead of creating a competitive, diverse lineup, for a company that oversold to rental fleets and destroyed resale values with incentives, and (circle all that apply) the problems with the unions/economy/gas prices/environment, Hummer is the obvious red ink on GM's balance sheets.

Never mind Hummer's Congressional-level approval rating. Most people can't tolerate looking at this testosterone-fueled beast, let alone park next to it in a cramped lot. The drivers are often labeled idiotic, wasteful, and mean to mother earth. Anti-SUV zealots dump gas and throw matches. Regular drivers and pedestrians pray these absurd vehicles don't crush, chomp, and spit them out. None of this looks good for Hummer.

But when all hell rains and everyone else slips and gets stuck, the world gets a little kinder to the 2009 H3T Alpha. Envy replaces hate. Admiration drowns out contempt. People stop staring at the extraterrestrial pulling into a space (now covered with a foot of snow). The driver is suddenly practical, benevolent even, as he pushes a friend's Mazda with a light feathering of the gas. Such is the grace and power of a 9.5-inch ground clearance, 32-inch tires, and front and rear locking differentials. Such is GM's near-perfection in building heavy-duty trucks, a superiority that isn't worth selling.

FULL ENTRY

Quick take: 2009 Nissan Maxima

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh December 18, 2008 02:50 PM

Like Volkswagen did with the Passat, Nissan has morphed its Maxima from an Altima lookalike into a budding flagship - and that means more power, luxury, and a price that approaches $40,000 on our 3.5 SV. Check back for a full review.

Prius acceleration debate, part two

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh December 16, 2008 04:12 PM

In response to the overwhelming number of Prius owners who burned my last post at the stake, here's a few clarifications.

1. The car had about 9,000 miles, so it was well past the break-in point.

2. I don't consider myself a maniac, and with ample room to accelerate, the Prius works fine. But when faced with a short on-ramp or a quick lane change, the Prius runs out of juice. (Exiting to Storrow Drive from the left lane entrance of the I-93 North tunnel at Seaport Boulevard is just one example.)

3. The Prius excels as a city car, where high-speed acceleration isn't a factor.

4. Acceleration is relative. For drivers who are used to slower cars, or who don't live in areas like Boston where traffic runs too fast and there's little room to maneuver, the Prius will drive fine. I'm just not one of those people.

In the interest of fair comparisons, here are 0-60 m.p.h. times for several popular economy cars. (The Camry, as a few people mentioned, is too big for this classification, and I've included the Volvo S40 because its base price is about the same as the $26,000 Prius Touring I drove.)

2009 Toyota Corolla XRS 7.8
2008 Scion xB   7.8
2008 Ford Focus SES  8.3
2008 Volvo S40 8.4
2009 Honda Fit  8.5
2008 Mazda 3s Grand Touring 8.5
2008 Nissan Versa 1.8 S Sedan 9.0
2008 Honda Civic EX  9.4
2010 Toyota Prius 9.5 (est.)
2008 Toyota Prius 10.1 (mfr.)
2007 Hyundai Elantra SE 10.2
2007 Toyota Yaris 10.4
2007 Honda Fit Sport 11.9

(Sources: Motor Trend, Car and Driver, Road & Track)

UPDATE: Reader Paul Bowen suggested this editorial on "cradle-to-grave" energy usage for the Prius versus - of all cars - a Hummer.

Merge, Prius, merge! Acceleration from yesteryear

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh December 15, 2008 02:10 PM

Jumping into traffic in a Prius makes any regular car seem like a slingshot. Big, grateful tears stream down your cheek, the white-knuckle fear of 110 horsepower on a freeway entrance ramp gone. The Prius saves fuel like it's 2020, but drives like it came from 1987.

Acceleration numbers may seem like the quibbles of car enthusiasts, and for the most part they are. Without a stopwatch, no one can tell the difference between bombing to 60 miles per hour in 3.9 seconds versus 4.1, and everyday situations don't require a Bugatti Veyron to merge on the turnpike.

Prius drivers are too busy bragging about mileage and keeping up with the latest Barack Obama bumper stickers to be concerned about speed. But I'll bet their hearts pump faster when they're about to enter I-93 North during rush hour - as I did - with the pedal floored, the engine groaning like a lawnmower, and a train of cars rushing past as the lane ends right about NOW. That's not adrenaline kicking in - it's instinct telling you that zero to 60 in 10 seconds can be flat-out dangerous.

Now I know how my mother used to feel when she roared her 1987 Volvo 240 DL at full song, her body leaning forward as if she was coaxing a horse. That car boasted 114 horsepower and a 3,000-pound curb weight (about the same as a Prius), and couldn't keep up with traffic 10 years ago. (Read Car Lust's fantastic take on a 350,000-mile 240).

Today's economy cars get to sixty in around eight seconds, family sedans average in the sixes and sevens, and today's 65 m.p.h. speed limits require reaching highway speeds of 70 and 75 m.p.h. just to enter safely.

Indeed, the Prius is admirable as a city car. Even with my eager foot, I still averaged 40 miles per gallon around Boston, where its whisper-quiet operation helped it feel light on its feet. But there's no getting around a 1.5 liter gas engine in a car this size, even with electric assist. Toyota has promised more power for the next Prius, due late 2009. Surely buyers could sacrifice a few miles for greater driving confidence.

(For more Prius envy, check out this Globe video of the state's modified plug-in Prius that claims 100 miles per gallon).

About Boston Overdrive

Boston.com reports the latest trends, auto shows and wrings out the newest cars in our city's hellish maze — and across the great roads of New England.
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Contributors

Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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