Sunday, February 22, 2009

Ford Taurus: Not a bad ride, not a bad value

We expected the 2009 Ford Taurus to be a pleasant, practical sedan.
What we didn't expect was to enjoy its ride and handling.
After all, when you think performance driving, you don't necessarily think about many products in the Ford lineup, save for maybe the Mustang.
But the Taurus actually knows how to have a little fun.
On the road, the Taurus provided engaging feedback to the wheel, informing the driver about what was going on with the tires. The Taurus's compliant suspension aided its ability to allow spirited driving, yet wasn't plagued by harshness that can make long trips unpleasant.
Drive the Taurus into a turn, give some throttle, and the car responds with a little bit of gusto, even if you might not normally put a Taurus through such performance paces.
On the highway, passengers are treated to a comfortably smooth ride.
The engine and transmission in the Taurus are a great pair.
The engine is a 3.5-liter V-6, and the tranny is six-speed automatic.
The engine is extremely quiet and smooth at idle, and Ford says it uses a pendulum mounting system that effectively separates its motions and vibrations from the rest of the car.
It sounds healthy, powerful and smooth at full throttle, making the car plenty quick in acceleration and passing situations, and settling into a nice background hum in sixth gear, as you might expect.
At highway speeds, the Taurus is amazingly quiet inside.
We were very impressed with the way this car accelerates from rest and brakes from high speeds.
With traction control and optional AdvanceTrac electronic stability control, the computers take over whenever you get a little crazy, keeping the car flat and stable.
The ride is soft and compliant, with some body roll in the fast corners and a noticeable upward pitch of the front end on hard acceleration.
As for practicality, the Taurus has nearly as much usable space in it, if you include the trunk, as many crossovers.
Its interior and exterior size are notable, as is its height.
But that can be a good thing, because it adds to the comfort factor.
Styling for the 2009 Taurus hasn't changed from the 2008 edition, but a new trim level has been added.
The Taurus is available in base SE, SEL and Limited trim levels, with the SE being the new level.
The exterior styling boasts such features as attractive head and taillights and a sporty grille.
The front fender chrome side vents also are appealing.
On the dash, the Taurus has simple, clear gauges, and its climate and audio control buttons aren't too hard to figure out.
But the electronic displays don't exactly jump out at you, and taller drivers especially might find themselves straining to look down to see them.
The Limited model we drove had wood trim that gave the interior a bit more classiness.
Ford recently unveiled a Super High Output (SHO) edition of the Taurus for model year 2010.
The Taurus SHO will have a 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6, which delivers an estimated 365 horsepower.
It will feature an enhanced SelectShift six-speed automatic transmission with control paddles mounted on the steering wheel, all-wheel drive system, a sportier interior and subtle exterior design cues.
Ford says the Taurus SHO will be available this summer, starting at $37,995.
While we enjoyed the Honda Accord a bit more in a recent test drive of a rival sedan, the Taurus still is an excellent value, and we wouldn't hesitate recommending one to a buyer in this category.Our tester had a sticker price of $32,520.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Suzuki SX4: A car that makes good economic sense

If you're a commuter on a tight budget (and who isn't these days?), the 2009 Suzuki SX4 crossover provides an inexpensive, versatile vehicle that goes easy on gas.
This five-door hatchback comes with either front-wheel or all-wheel drive, which presumably allows it to be included in the ever-expanding crossover category, even if it looks more like a compact wagon.
Our tester had front-wheel drive and a 2.0-liter 16-valve, four-cylinder engine that made 143 horsepower and 136 pounds-feet of torque.
It was mated to a five-speed manual transmission; a four-speed automatic tranny is optional.
Gas mileage is listed at 22 mpg city, 29 highway, according to EPA.
On the all-wheel-drive models, there are three modes available with the flip of the console-mounted switch: front-wheel drive, for dry pavement; auto mode, which distributes power according to traction; and lock mode, which sends power to all four wheels for slow going in snow or mud.
The squat SX4, with 16-inch wheels, provides a surprisingly solid ride for a subcompact.
You won't feel the buffeting of the wind as tractor-trailers pass by you.
And the engine lets you keep pace with most traffic.
To add to its compelling value proposition, the SX4 is the first car in America with a sticker price that starts under $16,000 with a navigation system as standard equipment.
While standard nav systems are becoming more common in a number of models, you really can't get them in economy cars without paying a hefty premium.
The SX4 also comes with electronic stability control with traction control, nine-speaker sound system, keyless entry and start system, cruise control and leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls.
You might not expect to find an interior as sharp and clean as this one on an economy car.
Seating for up to five passengers is adequate, and the dashboard controls are neatly placed and easy to comprehend.
Six air bags are standard on the SX4, including side curtain air bags for front and rear passengers.
Also standard: power windows, locks and mirrors, remote keyless entry and a tire pressure monitoring system.
The covered cargo area in the hatchback has 9.5 cubic feet.
The rear seats fold and flip to provide a total of 22 cubic feet of cargo space.
Suzuki offers a 100,000-mile, seven-year limited warranty on the powertrain, along with what the company calls "24/7/365 roadside assistance."
The overall design of the SX4 really grew on us the longer we had it.
Like most crossovers, its tailgate opens to fold-down rear seats that provide additional cargo space.
From front to rear, the lines seem to form some sort of wedge, but that look is somewhat offset by its tall greenhouse.
The sizable windshield descends toward the hood, which has a bit of a curved shape that extends to the front fenders.
The triangular windows at the front end of the front doors are distinctive, but also functional, because they enhance visibility ever so slightly.
The driving experience was quite pleasant, despite a fair amount of engine noise at highway speeds.
The gearshift throws on the manual transmission were very well placed.
Sometimes at high speeds, we wished there were a sixth gear, and we couldn't help but wonder if that might have improved fuel economy just a bit.
Suzuki says the SX4 goes from zero to 60 mph in about 8.3 seconds.
While that's not blazing speed, it is surely enough to give you the right amount of push to merge onto busy freeways.
The sticker price for our tester was $16,373.
For all that you get, that's quite a value.
The SX4 is an economy car that makes sense, even in an economic environment in which little else does.

Body style: Five-door hatchback
Price: $16,373
Drive: Front-wheel; all-wheel optional
Seating: Two in front, three in rear
Engine: 2-liter inline four-cylinder
Transmission: Five-speed manual; four-speed automatic
Miles per gallon of fuel: EPA estimate 22 city / 29 highway

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Toyota has unveiled battery electric vehicle concept

At the 2009 North American International Auto Show in Detroit last month, Toyota gave the world its first look at its FT-EV, a battery electric vehicle (BEV) concept.

Toyota says it's the right place, right time, right vehicle.
And the company says it is maintaining its pace for developing advanced technologies and exploring many technology options for future mobility.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Toyota Sequoia: Larger than life

Fuel efficient?


Lightweight and nimble?

Not so much.

While those descriptors cannot be used for the Toyota Sequoia, one thing that can be said of it is that it is big, as in "gi-normous."

It also rides very smoothly and is full of luxury.

Toyota, which introduced the Sequoia in 2001, is known for doing so many things right.

Its vehicles are among the industry standard-bearers when it comes to reliability, fuel efficiency, intelligent design and value.

So to those who know Toyota, it may seem a little surprising that the company continues to make big, expensive SUVs such as this one, which have seen their popularity plummet in recent years.

But in truth, there is still a market for these vehicles, albeit a shrinking one.

When I had my test-drive model Sequoia for several days recently, I was hit with pretty much the same two questions from anyone who inquired about the vehicle.

1) How much is that thing?

2) What kind of gas mileage does it get?

So it makes sense to dispense with those issues.

The sticker price on the tester, which was a fully loaded Platinum model, was $58,654.

The EPA ratings are 13 mpg city, 18 highway.

We got about 14 mpg in combined driving.

Largely because of those factors, Sequoias aren't particularly brisk sellers right now, which can likewise be said of so many other large SUVs on the market today.

In fact, Toyota is offering nearly $4,000 cash back as it attempts to purge its inventory of 2008 model year Sequoias.

And it took a timeout from producing some of the vehicles as it responds to market conditions.

Toyota has scheduled more halts in production days at several North American manufacturing plants over the next few months as it deals with high inventory levels caused by falling sales.

The number of days without production varies by assembly line and model.
For instance, this month, Toyota's plant in Huntsville, Ala., will close for two days and for 16 days in March for the 4.7-liter V-8 engine.
It also won't make the 5.7-liter V-8 engine one day this month and five days next month.
"Since we're an engine supplier to vehicle assembly plants, we have to take their production schedules into account to determine our local volume," Stephanie Deemer, spokeswoman for Toyota, told reporters.
The Huntsville plant halted production of V-8s for about three months starting in August, which came on the heels of Toyota's production hiatus of Tundras and Sequoias.
But all that aside, this is still a very nice machine for those who need or desire something in this category.

The thirsty V-8 engine provides plenty of power.

The interior is extremely comfortable.

And it's attractive, inside and out.

This version of the Sequoia has a wheelbase of about 122 inches and weighs around three tons.
Toyota says it lowered the back floor of the vehicle to make it more user friendly by making the rear suspension more compact.

And I must admit, I found this a bit more convenient when loading groceries or other gear back there.

Toyota also touts Sequoia's increased towing capacity, which now hits about 10,000 pounds -- in the same ballpark with its pickup-truck sibling, the Tundra.

The Sequoia is available in SR5, Limited and Platinum trim levels.

It's more of a luxury, family-hauling vehicle than an off-road rock climber.

But it does have full-time four-wheel drive with a low gear range in case you're inclined to head for the hills.

Toyota says Sequoia's central-locking mechanism sends torque to the wheel that has the most traction.

There are two engines available: a 4.7-liter, 276 horsepower V-8 and 5.7-liter, 381 horsepower V-8.

Toyota says the Sequoia can sprint from 0-60 mph in 6.5 seconds.

But it's in the comfort and convenience department that the Sequoia really shines.

The second and third rows of seats are cavernous and comfortable for passengers of any size.
Our tester had a rear-seat DVD entertainment system and a 14-speaker premium audio system.

A backup camera and navigation system also were equipped.

I spied quite a few game ports, too, which would come in handy for kids.

Overall, while the time might not be right for it, the Sequoia delivers luxury, comfort and power in a package as pretty as anything else of its kind on the market.