Full Luxury Experience

By Derek Price

When you build a mid-sized, mid-priced car, there are two ways to go about it.
One is stretching and adding content to your cheaper models. The other is shrinking and taking content away from your more expensive cars.
Volvo took the second route when completely redesigning the S60 for 2019, although it broke from automotive tradition by keeping its content almost identical to the large and luxurious S90.
The new S60 actually shares its underpinnings with Volvo’s 90-series sedan, wagon and SUV cousins. It’s built on the brand’s Scalable Product Architecture that’s been the magic behind some of the most forward-thinking cars I’ve driven in the past three years.
If you need an odd fact to see just how forward-thinking it is, consider this: the new S60 is the first Volvo car to be sold without a diesel engine. That might not mean much here in America, where  diesel sedans are as common as pink geckos, but it’s a big deal globally.
Volvo thinks the future involves a shift toward electrification and away from internal combustion, and this car is the proof. It offers not one but two different plug-in hybrid powertrains, letting you choose between 340- and 400-horsepower versions depending on how fast you want to go while feeling like you’re saving the planet.

Volvo’s mid-size S60 sedan gets a completely new design for 2019, including swept-back styling with the brand’s now-common “Thor’s Hammer” LED headlight design up front.

My tester, the sleek R-Design trim with the more conventional T6 engine, didn’t have any electric power but did have the panache of a bigger, pricier car. With a sticker price over $55,000, it’s not cheap, but it also looks and drives like something that would cost even more than that if it were sitting on a German or Japanese luxury dealer’s lot.
I’m a huge fan of the styling, which is sleek and modern but not as off-putting as Lexus’ contemporary gaping grilles can be. It pulls from the best of Volvo’s history — a bizarre mix of heritage ranging from unadorned boxes to sublime sports coupes — to create something that’s not quite like anything else on the road, past or present.
The S60 shares its gigantic, iPad-like Sensus digital interface with the S90, which is a great thing. If you want a better one, the only cars that come close are in Tesla showrooms. Volvo’s system is far enough ahead of the competition that even several years after its introduction on the XC90, it remains the best in the industry.
Inside, it mashes together a potential train wreck of a horizontal dash, vertical air vents and that massive touchscreen in a way that miraculously comes across as serene, peaceful and almost minimalistic. Material choices are likewise spectacular — leaning toward earthy colors and natural textures — but it’s the visual design and sculptural quality to the switches and touchpoints that impress the most.

Attention to detail is evident in the S60’s well-designed cabin, which shares the vast majority of its materials, style and content with the pricier S90.

Driving the new S60 isn’t as serene as sitting in it. The T6 powertrain delivers prodigious power, although this car’s overall feel splits the difference between a sports sedan and a soft-riding luxury cruiser. I prefer cars that pick a direction and go all-in, but this one seems lukewarm — neither supple enough for Grandma’s squishy ride nor hard-edged enough to be taken seriously at a track day.
If you do have track-day aspirations, Volvo will be selling the performance flavor of this car soon, called the T8 Polestar Engineered.
Pricing for the base Momentum trim starts at $35,800. The sport-leaning R-Design starts at $41,900, while the luxury-oriented Inscription is priced from $42,900.

At A Glance

What was tested? 2019 Volvo S60 T6 AWD R-Design ($47,045). Options: Advanced package ($2,500), heated rear seats and heated steering wheel ($750), metallic paint ($645), Bowers & Wilkins premium audio ($3,200), Park Assist Pilot ($200), 18-inch R-Design alloy wheels ($800). Price as tested (including $695 destination charge): $55,490
Wheelbase: 113 in.
Length: 187.4 in.
Width: 80.3 in.
Height: 56.3 in.
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged four cylinder (316 hp, 295 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 21 city, 32 highway

Style: 9
Performance: 9
Price: 7
Handling: 6
Ride: 6
Comfort: 8
Quality: 9
Overall: 9

Why buy it? 
It delivers a full-luxury experience for a mid-luxury price, starting under $36,000. An all-new design with sleek looks, powerful engines and a peaceful, amenity-filled cabin makes it stand out.

Posted in Volvo

MINI Has Surprises

By Derek Price

The vehicle I’m driving this week offers two things I wasn’t expecting from a MINI Cooper: ample cabin space and part-time electric propulsion.
That’s because this version isn’t the ordinary flavor of the Cooper — now renamed the MINI Cooper Hardtop, with its two doors, diminutive size, roller-skate handling and adorable looks — but instead the Countryman, which is a different beast altogether.
The Countryman is significantly larger than the MINI most Americans are used to seeing on our roads. It also rides up higher, has four doors and is available with all-wheel drive, making it function more like a small SUV than a sports coupe.

The MINI Cooper Countryman looks a lot like the two-door MINI Cooper Hardtop in pictures, but its four-door layout and considerably bigger size add practicality for families.

Even more unusual, the Countryman I tested is the plug-in hybrid variant called the Cooper SE Countryman ALL4 PHEV. It still has a gasoline engine, but you also have the option of charging it for up to 12 miles of driving under pure electric power, according to federal government estimates.
After the gas engine kicks in, the overall driving range is 270 miles total, with a rated MPG equivalent of 65 miles per gallon.
What impresses me the most about driving it wasn’t the stingy gas mileage or the ability to drive a few miles under battery power. It’s the smoothness and speed under acceleration that blows me away.
Mash the gas pedal to the floor, and you’ll go from zero to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds. No, that’s not performance-car territory by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s lightning quick compared to most non-luxury hybrids I’ve driven. It’s fast and responsive, a key part of keeping this car feeling like a legitimate MINI from the driver’s seat.
Both the electric motor and gasoline engine combine to make 221 horsepower and 284 pound-feet of torque.
Handling is not as firm and flickable as the smaller MINIs, but that’s to be expected in a vehicle that carries considerably more heft. This MINI is meant to be more useful for families, with just a hint of the brand’s famous go-kart-like handling still apparent.
With full-size seats for five people and surprisingly generous headroom, the Countryman feels more spacious in real life than it looks in pictures. The familiar shape, cute hood and distinctive headlights can be deceiving.

The Countryman uses the same circular motif in its cabin as the smaller MINI models, giving it an unusual, funky appeal that helps it stand out from SUV and CUV competitors.

The Countryman is roughly 18 inches longer and 6 inches higher than the two-door MINI Cooper Hardtop, a drastic difference when you see them parked side by side.
It tries hard to carry the same spunky styling over from the smaller Cooper, though, including in the cabin. It uses the same quirky, circular motif on the center stack, gauges and even door handles, a decision that files in the face of contemporary dash design that favors minimalist horizontal — some would say “boring” — swaths of solid colors.
In fact, I think its stand-apart styling is the biggest reason to pick a Countryman over its many competent competitors. I’m not alone in complaining that today’s SUVs and CUVs all seem to be playing copycat, mimicking the same overall shapes as every other brand.
This one, though, is unmistakable as a MINI. It functions as practically and logically as the myriad of liftback, four-door, family-friendly cars that are flooding America’s roadways each year, but it looks like a lot more fun.
The Cooper Countryman starts at $26,900. All-wheel drive adds $2,000 to that price. The plug-in hybrid starts at $36,900, while the performance-oriented John Cooper Works version tops the lineup at $37,900.

At A Glance

What was tested? 2019 MINI Cooper SE Countryman ALL4 PHEV ($36,900). Options: PHEV Sport Edition ($2,900), touchscreen navigation package ($1,700), JCW appearance package ($2,000), exterior package ($275), PHEV Special Edition ($1,125). Price as tested (including $850 destination charge): $45,750
Wheelbase: 105.1 in.
Length: 169.8 in.
Width: 71.7 in.
Height: 61.3 in.
Engine: 1.5-liter three cylinder, plus electric motor (221 hp, 284 lbs.-ft. combined)
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy: Combined 65 MPGe (electric), combined 27 MPG (gasoline only)

Style: 9
Performance: 7
Price: 7
Handling: 8
Ride: 6
Comfort: 6
Quality: 7
Overall: 7

Why buy it? 
The Countryman combines the family-friendly appeal of a small CUV with the unmistakable style and a hint of go-kart-like handling from the MINI Cooper.

Posted in Cooper

Fresh and Rewarding

By Derek Price
Already a bold car — and a bit unusual — the Nissan Maxima gets bolder for 2019.
This premium, not-quite-luxury car performs and coddles its passengers well enough that it could easily be sold under the Infiniti banner rather than at the everyman Nissan dealer. It adds to its upscale appeal with several changes this year, starting with the looks.
Up front, the Maxima’s facelift includes a new grille and standard LED headlights, while a quad-tip exhaust and more LEDs freshen the rear. It’s not a visually jarring update, but it does take the Maxima’s now-familiar “V-motion” grille to a more intense level and keeps this handsome car looking thoroughly contemporary.
The most oddball aspect of this car — its continuously variable transmission — carries over for 2019. In a car that otherwise that seems deliciously tuned for excitement and driving feedback, including outstanding handling and perfectly weighted steering, installing the world’s numbest transmission type remains a head-scratching choice on Nissan’s part.

A new grille emphasizes the Nissan Maxima’s signature “V-motion” nose. It’s the most noticeable of several updates to the Maxima’s content and style for 2019.

That said, the engine’s smooth power delivery and reasonably quick throttle response from its 300-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 engine partially make up for it. It’s fast and rewarding to drive on winding roads.
It’s also impressively comfortable for a car with sports-sedan aspirations. Nissan’s Zero Gravity seats are some of the most comfy I’ve ever experienced in a car or SUV. They also look the part with optional diamond-quilted leather.
My Maxima tester came with a new interior treatment called Rakuda Tan. While I think a more accurate name for it would be “baseball glove brown,” this rich, earthy color choice adds a tasteful alternative to the standard beige-or-black limitations of most new cars.
This isn’t a cheap car, with an as-tested price over $45,000, but it also seems like a reasonable number when weighed against its competitors that wear luxury badges. If I were shopping for a Lexus GS, for example, with its base price of $46,710, an optioned-up Maxima with quilted leather starts to look like a bargain.

Quilted leather seats, shown here in the optional Rakuda Tan treatment, set the Maxima’s cabin apart from most modern cars that only offer beige or black interiors.

If the J.D. Power Initial Quality Study holds weight, it wouldn’t be sacrificing quality, either. On last year’s survey, the Maxima achieved a No. 1 ranking among large cars and No. 2 among all vehicles in the study.
Other changes for 2019 include standard Rear Door Alert, Traffic Sign Recognition and newfangled USB Type-C ports. New options include Nissan Safety Shield 360 with a whopping 10 air bags and a luxurious Premium Package for the SR grade and Reserve Package for the Platinum grade.
Pricing starts at $34,050 for the S model and ranges up to $42,680 for the Platinum Reserve.

At A Glance

What was tested? 2019 Nissan Maxima Platinum ($41,440). Options: Splash guards ($205), illuminated kick plates ($375), premium spoiler ($415), reserve package ($1,140), premium paint ($395), sport floor mats ($360). Price as tested (including $895 destination charge): $45,225
Wheelbase: 109.3 in.
Length: 192.8 in.
Width: 73.2 in.
Height: 56.5 in.
Engine: 3.5-liter V6 (300 hp, 261 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Continuously variable
Fuel economy: 20 city, 30 highway

Style: 9
Performance: 8
Price: 7
Handling: 8
Ride: 8
Comfort: 9
Quality: 9
Overall: 9

Why buy it? 
It has a premium feel in every aspect: power, handling, space and comfort. Its revised styling and inventive color palette keep it a notch above ordinary.

Posted in Nissan