Tuesday, July 31, 2018


First impressions more often than not turn out to be accurate, at least according to my cursory research on the subject.

For instance, my first take on the new Nissan Kicks when it was introduced at a media preview in late June was that of all the small hatchbacks that the Japanese automaker had come up with in recent years (Cube, Juke, Versa Note) this one was the best of the lot.

But it also lacked power and was shackled to a CVT (continuously variable transmission), two things that might give second thoughts to the young millennials who are seen as prospective buyers.

They, like me, might want a little more in the way of a fun driving experience.

Now that I have had a slightly longer stint with it, I find no reason to change my mind. It just needs more punch. (For more details on my first drive experience, check my June blog.)

The 1.4-liter, 4-cylinder engine with its peak 125 horsepower and 115 pound-feet of torque just doesn’t offer much in the way of throttle response, though its good fuel economy numbers (31 mpg city, 36 highway, 33 combined) mitigate that somewhat.

But the low power and good fuel numbers, plus its styling, also plays in its favor. It would make the Kicks an ideal choice for a teen’s first new car.

It is a bargain in that it starts at well under $20,000 and doesn’t rise high above that mark while offering a slew of features often absent from that price range, and in an attractive package as well.

It is strong, very strong, on styling, the result of a collaboration between the company’s design studios in Brazil and San Diego. The Kicks Concept was shown at the Sao Paulo Motor Show in 2014, and marketers push its Rio-Carnival heritage.

Yet its looks are not as out-of-the-box as the aforementioned Cube and Juke models.

Probably the funkiest thing about the Kicks are the five two-tone exterior color combinations that are offered along with seven other exterior colors. Three utilize a black roof with white, orange or red body. A fourth pairs an orange roof with a gray body, a fifth a white top and blue body.

But that’s not where the color styles end.

You can also personalize your kicks by choosing from among five colors for accessory items such as the front lip finisher, rear spoiler, door handle covers, etc. for the exterior and rearview mirror cover, door sill protector, air vent rings, and floor mats for the interior.

Finally, you have a choice of stand-alone black 10-spoke, 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels or black 10-spoke 17-inch aluminum-alloy wheel with color inserts on SV and SR trims.

That’s a lot of options in color alone.

Speaking of options, the Kicks come with a pretty good array of standard equipment, reducing the need to add many that would jack up the cost.

Even the base S trim gets such niceties as a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, automatic headlights, hill start assist, automatic emergency braking, cruise control, air conditioning, a height-adjustable driver's seat, Bluetooth, a 7-inch touchscreen, Siri Eyes Free integration, three USB ports, a rearview camera and a six-speaker audio system.

The SV and SR models add safety features like a blind-spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert as well as NisscanConnect with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard. The two upper trips ride on 17-inch wheels, the S on 16s.

Most of the options offered are available only on the top dog SR model with the big ticket item being a Premium Package that features an 8-speaker Bose sound system, Prima Tex leather-appointed seats, heated front seats and a security system.

The Kicks starts at $17,990 for the base S model (plus the $975 destination and delivery charge). The SV checks in at $19,690, the SR $20,290. The SR Premium Package adds $1,000, and selected paint combinations can add from $150 to $545 for premium paint.

What I liked about the 2018 Nissan Kicks: Nissan has made available a lot of premium content that you don’t find in a vehicle in this price range, some of it standard on upper trim levels. Even the base S model gets emergency braking as standard. A surround-view camera also is standard on the SR trim. It offers nice cargo room (25.3 cubic feet) without the need to lower the second-row seats.

What I didn’t like about the 2018 Nissan Kicks: It could use a bit more grunt (actually quite a bit more). Lack of a manual transmission takes away from the ability to get more fun out of it. It is offered in front-wheel drive only.

Would I buy the 2018 Nissan Kicks? For a second car, yes, especially if I faced doing a lot of driving in an urban environment. Its styling also might make it an ideal choice for a young driver.

Sunday, July 22, 2018


You’ve no doubt heard the term “sports sedan” used to describe regular family cars that have enhanced performance characteristics, but did you know that the genre dates as far back as the 1930s?

I confess I didn’t until I did a “Google” search (Is there any other kind?) and found it was first used in the 1930s to describe “sports saloon” versions of British-made Rover cars. In the 1960s, manufacturers began using the term to describe special versions of their products that allowed them to enter production cars into auto races.

In the U.S., the term first was applied to imports from companies like Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz that rated performance high among their priorities while U.S. luxury manufacturers like Cadillac and Lincoln leaned toward comfort with their vehicles.

That has begun to evolve in recent years to include a number of other performance-oriented sedans (like Cadillac’s V series), and you also can find some vehicles that have had little done to them other than a few cosmetic touches that include an “S” logo on the rear trunk lid in an attempt to lure in buyers. (It isn’t working. Automotive News predicts a 60-year low for sedan sales this year.)

But if you want a possibly the best example of what a “sports sedan” is today you need look no further than BMW’s M5, the current version of which is the fastest and most technologically advanced M-vehicle yet, according to BMW publicists.

All-new for 2018, the M5 earned recognition last spring from an international panel of judges as the World Performance Car Award at the New York International Auto Show, beating out two other finalists from the original field of 11 nominees, the Honda Civic Type R and the Lexus LC 500.

Under the hood of the sixth generation of the 2018 M5 is a 4.4-liter twin-turbo V8 engine that propels its 4,370 pounds from zero-to-60 mph in just 3.2 seconds. It is rated at 600 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 553 pound-feet of torque in a range from 1800 to 5860 rpm and is capable of a sprinting from zero-to-124 mph in just 11.1 seconds with a top speed of 189 mph when equipped with the optional M Driver’s Package.

That enough performance for you?

The 2018 M5 is the first with BMW’s all-wheel-drive xDrive system, though power can be routed to the rear wheels only by changing driving modes.

It’s also the first without a manual gearbox, and BMW has made some puzzling changes to the path for the gear shifter for the 8-speed automatic.

It seems to be designed to accommodate manual shifts via the console lever, but that would seem to be a task more suited to the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

That and the usual complexities of the infotainment system are about the only complaints one might have with the M5.

Even with the emphasis on performance, the M5 comes in a stylish, sophisticated package that offers occupants comfortable seats and a quiet ride (how quiet depends on if you set the dual quad exhaust to let its throaty roar escape).

Set the suspension in Comfort mode and it smoothly sails along as a six-figure luxury vehicle should. You’ll get no complaints from riders.

Base MSRP for the 2018 BMW M5 is $102,600. That gets you adaptive LED headlights, signature M grille, M rear spoiler, adaptive M suspension, 20-way power M function front seats, Harmon Kardon surround sound system, iDrive 5.0 system with touchscreen and gesture control, and keyless entry.

Among other included no-charge items are active blind-spot detection and lane-departure warning, heated steering wheel, power trunk opener, and navigation.

Big-ticket option items like Aragon brown full-merino leather, carbon ceramic brakes, 20-inch M wheels, a Bowers & Wilkins Sound System, Executive Package (soft-close doors, rear sunshade, front ventilated seats, etc.) and the M Driver’s Package can run the total to nearly $130,000 — $129,795 to be exact including the $1,000 gas guzzler tax (EPA ratings are 15 miles-per-gallon city, 21 highway) and the $995 destination and delivery charge.

What I liked about the 2018 BMW M5: This is a fun car to drive and doesn’t beat its passengers to death in its performance. The ability to adjust driving modes (Comfort, Sport, Sport-plus, etc.) lets you set the car to your own personal preferences. Seats are comfortable, and high-grade materials permeate the cabin, as expected for a luxury vehicle. The trunk is big (18.7 cubic feet).

What I didn’t like about the 2018 BMW M5: Techno features are fussy and require extra steps to perform the simplest of functions. BMW has dumbed down iDrive some since its introduction in 2001, but it still isn’t the most user-friendly of infotainment features. Apparently, android phones don’t connect through Bluetooth as Apple CarPlay is a $300 option. The manual transmission is no more, and the shifter for the automatic has a weird path that can put you in manual mode instead of automatic if you’re not careful. The button to push for Park is on the base of the shifter, not at the top as logic might suggest. Why?

Would I buy the 2018 BMW M5? The iDrive system is a turnoff, but the performance goes a long way in making up for that. So yes, if a six-figure MSRP doesn’t deter you, it’s a great performing car that offers room for backseat passengers.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018


While most manufacturers try to squeeze as many miles they can out of the batteries of their electric vehicles, Mercedes-Benz has taken a different approach with the C350e.

This plug-in hybrid offers little in the way of electric-only drive, but packs a punch that rivals even AMG-tuned versions of the company’s fleet.

Consider, the 2.0-liter turbo 4-cylinder engine and electric motor propels the C350e from zero-to-60 mph in just 5.8 seconds, according to Mercedes-Benz clockers.

That’s the same as the C300 that traditionally has serveed as the entry point to the company’s luxury fleet and only 1.2 behind that for the AMG C43.

In fact, at 443 pound-feet (combined gas and electric) the C350e’s torque number is actually better than the 384 lb.-ft. offered by the AMG C43 and not all that short of the 479 the the 4.0-liter, biturbo V8 delivers to the AMG C63.

Plug-in hybrid indeed!

But about that electric-only driving. Though Mercedes-Benz touted a range of up to 20 miles of all-electric driving with the debut of the 2016 C350e, that figure has been tempered in bit. Cut in half, actually.

The spec sheet reports a range of 0-8 miles for the 2018 C350e, which isn’t going to take you far in run silent mode. But mileage ratings for electric-gas combined driving are 51 MPGe and gas-only 30 mpg, and you get a modicum of recharging while driving on gas as well. So it’s not all bad.

For the most part, you get the same classy cabin and features in the C350e that you do in other C-Class models with one notable exception.

The C350e sticks with a 7-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters while the C300 and C300 4MATIC get a new 9-speed tranny.

Among standard equipment included in the 47,900 base MSRP for the C350e or are no-charge items are LED headlights (new for 2018), LED tail lamps, 18-inch wheels, dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth connectivity, power tilt-and-sliding sunroof, rain-sensing windshield wipers, rear-view camera, Collision Prevention Assist Plus that uses radar to monitor vehicles around you, natural grain wood trim, and black fabric headliner.

The outlet to plug in the cord is at the rear bumper, a change from the customary spot up front on most other plug-in vehicles.

Dynamic Select lets you change driving modes to Sport or Sport-plus with Comfort as the default setting by flipping a switch on the console.

Adding such optional items and packages, like leather seating and thigh support for the drive’s seat, navigation with an 8.4-inch high-definition monitor, blind-spot and lane-keeping assist, and cross-traffic assist can run the total price up to $61,785 with the $995 destination and delivery cost included.

Yes, that’s a pretty big jump over the starting price of $40,250 for the C300, a bit more than the base price for the C43, and near the starting price for the C63. But you may be eligible for tax credits that will bring the cost down.

What I liked about the 2018 Mercedes-Benz C350e: This may be the liveliest hybrid on the market today. Throttle response makes you forget you’re driving a hybrid. The cabin is impeccable with high quality materials throughout.

What I didn’t like about the 2018 Mercedes-Benz C350e: The COMAND System for infotainment features, though simplified from the original version, still demands too much of the driver’s attention to perform functions. And the display monitor sticks up in the middle of the dash like a misplaced iPad. Watch your head when getting in, especially on the passenger side.

Would I buy the 2018 Mercedes-Benz C350e? Probably not, because I’m not a fan of plug-in hybrids. The extra $7,000-plus it costs over the base C300 could cause you some hesitation as well, though tax credits for buying a hybrid will cut down on that difference. Other than the drivetrain, the C350e is every bit high in quality as you would expect from the company.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018


Infiiniti’s switch to a new naming system for its products four years ago was intended to simplify things, making Nissan’s luxury portfolio easier for customers to understand.

Beginning in 2014, Infiniti designated its sedans, coupes, and convertibles“Q” while crossovers and SUVs were given “QX” badging. The number in the alpha-numeric nomenclature no longer reflected engine size but where the vehicle stood in the portfolio’s hierarchy.

Thus the Q50 and Q60 replaced the G37 sedan and coupe and the M sedan became the Q70 while QX50, 60, 70, and 80 replaced the myriad number of the company’s crossovers/SUVs.

Reaction to then-president Johan de Nysschen’s idea, however, was slightly less than enthusiastic. Sales took an immediate dip, though part of the reason for that likely was a failure to update the models along with the rebadging. (Sales showed an increase of 10.9 percent for 2017 over 2016, but are down 8.8 percent so far in 2018, though the QX50 crossover had its best month ever this past June.)

Something seemed to be lost in the transition, though, especially with the relabeling of the G37 to QX50 (sedan) and QX60 (coupe). Red Sport models jazzed things up a bit, but one reviewer’s comment that it was “still tough to get excited about the new 2017 Infiniti Q60” seemed to be a prevailing thought.

That may be no more.

The 2018 Infiniti Q60 S Red Sport has the verve and charm of the old G37 coupe. It’s beautiful inside and out, and it packs a 400 horsepower punch from its 3.0-liter V6 engine (350 pound-feet of torque), a boost of 100 hp over the V6 in other trims.

A 2.0-liter 4-cylinder is the other engine choice, and both it and the V6 are mated with a 7-speed automatic transmission with a manual shift mode. It is available in either rear-wheel or all-wheel drive.

Fuel mileage isn’t that great, 20 miles-per-gallon city, 27 highway, and 22 combined for the V6 Red Sport, 22/30/25 for the 4-banger, and premium fuel is recommended. Why would you not want to put the good stuff in? Just asking.

The 2017 model moved the Q60 into its third generation. Few changes were made for 2018. Infiniti adapted its global nomenclature (Pure, Luxe, Sport, and Red Sport 400) for its trim levels, and the Red Sport 400 now gets 20-inch wheels over the previous 19s.

The 2018 model also is lower and wider than its predecessors, and its bold design gives it an aggressive appearance befitting a sports coupe. Car & Driver called the Q60 Infiniti’s best-looking car to date, which is saying something considering the company’s portfolio is filled with refined, sharp-looking vehicles.

The inside has the usual assortment of niceties, though you will play extra for such functions as Infiniti’s InTouch infotainment system that includes navigation, blind-spot warning and cross-traffic alert, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure prevention, and high-beam assist.

The interior features comfortable, sport-type leather-appointed seats with a manual thigh extension and lumbar support for the driver, an 8-way adjustable passenger seat, a dual-display system with navigation on one screen and audio and other functions on another, and carbon-fiber trim throughout the cabin.

Though it still has the inconvenience of access to the backseat typical of a coupe, it offers 32.4 inches of legroom in the back and a spacious 43.1 in the front. You lose about a half-inch of headroom in front to 37.4 inches if you opt for the sunroof.

Pricing for the Q60 starts at just under $41,000 when the $995 destination and delivery charge is tacked on to the base MSRP of $39,950 for the Q60 2.0t PURE trim. RWD Red Sport starts at $52,995 with AWD adding another $2,000.

Loading it up, however, can put a well-equipped Red Sport at nearly $64,000.

What I liked about the 2018 Infiniti Q60 Red Sport: Frankly, just about everything. I liked being able to select to my preferred driving mode (Standard, Sport, Sport-plus, Personal) and the response I got when changing from Standard to Sport-plus. Technology was very easy to operate, and the dual screen lets you adjust many functions without the need to switch from the navigation system’s large display.

What I didn’t like about the 2018 Infiniti Q60 Red Sport: Headroom in the back was limited (34.5 inches). Just about anybody taller than 6-feet likely would have a real issue. Trunk volume is only 8.7 cubic feet, small even for a coupe.

Would I buy the 2018 Infiniti Q60S Red Sport? Yes. Its stunning looks and sporty performance make it a winner in just about every aspect.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018


The midsize family sedan may be a dying breed with the public’s infatuation with crossovers and smaller SUVs at least putting it on life support, but, with the exception of Ford, apparently that doesn’t mean automakers are giving up on the genre.

In fact, of the seven vehicles U.S. News & World Report lists as the “most improved” cars of 2018, four are sedans, including traditional midsize leaders Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

So maybe there’s a bit of hyperbole when it comes to calling it the “death” of the midsize sedan, but there is no doubt sedan sales are ailing a bit. Of the top 10 selling midsize sedans for 2018, nine showed a decline in sales through May.

This included my recent ride, Volkswagen’s venerable Passat.

Passat sales also were down for June with 3,793 sold for the month, a drop of 28 percent from the 5,267 that were old in June 2017. Year-to-date numbers were even worse. Through the first six months of 2018, VW sold 22,356 Passats, a drop of 36.4 percent from the 35,137 sold in the first six months of 2017.

In addition to the disenchantment with sedans in general, another factor in Passat’s decline could be that VW has made few changes, certainly nothing major, to the Passat’s looks in recent years.

It has tweaked the headlight/foglight treatments a bit and given the 2018 model a sexier rear end, but overall you might have a hard time distinguishing the new Passat from an older one.

This can lead to a false impression that the Passat doesn’t have anything going in its favor and results in the word “aging” appearing in several current reviews.

But its roomy, comfortable cabin, smooth ride, and large trunk give it the kind of attributes many are looking for when shopping in the segment. The dash has a nice, clean look about itAnd if you are seeking something sportier, the GT trim comes with more horsepower and a more aggressive appearance.

The Passat was designed with an American audience in mind, resulting in a more spacious passenger room and a good-size trunk, and the car itself is put together in the company’s assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

U.S. and Canadian sources account for nearly as much content (30 percent) as does that from Germany (36 percent), though both the engine and transmission come from the home country.

The 2018 Passat features two engine options: a new turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder with 174 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque and a 3.6-liter V6 rated at 280 hp and 258 lb.ft. of torque.

Both run on regular unleaded fuel, though peak power on the V6 is achieved with premium. Each gets a 6-speed automatic transmission with GT and top-of-the-line SEL Premium models getting paddle shifters for manual gear selection.

In fuel economy, the 4-banger is rated at 25 miles-per-gallon city, 36 highway while the V6 gets numbers of 19/28.

In addition to the GT and SEL models, the Passat comes in four other trims — S, R-Line, SE, and SE with Technology starting at just under $23,000. My ride for the week, the SEL Premium, carried a base price of $34,650. 

With a long laundry list of standard features that included navigation, 18-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights, LED daytime running lights, rain-sensing wipers, power tilting and sliding moonroof, dual-zone automatic climate control, heated front and rear leather seats, rear-view camera, blind-spot monitor, lane-keeping assist, Bluetooth connectivity, and Fender premium audio, the only additional cost was the $850 destination and delivery fee for a total of $35,000.

The company also has improved the warranty. As with most other 2018 VW models sold in the U.S., the Passat comes with the People First Warranty, a six-year or 72,000-mile (whichever occurs first) bumper-to-bumper New Vehicle Limited Warranty that can be transferred to subsequent owners throughout its duration.

What I liked about the 2018 Volkswagen Passat SEL Premium: It’s easy to get comfortable in this car. Controls for techno features are intuitive and simple to operate. The long list of standard features pretty much eliminates the need for costly options. And the trunk (15.9 cubic feet) is very spacious, especially for the segment.

What I didn’t like about the 2018 Volkswagen Passat SEL Premium: The navigation screen is on the small side, though to be fair it is very clear and easy to see at a glance. I’d like to see a bit better fuel mileage with the V6, but you’ve got to sacrifice something for the extra power.

Would I buy the 2018 Volkswagen Passat SEL Premium? Yes. The sedan segment may be shrinking, but this is a good alternative to a crossover or SUV.