Anything But Dull

Cargazing
By Derek Price

After a complete redesign last year, Toyota did the one thing that could make its new midsize pickup even cooler: release a sweet looking, highly capable TRD Pro version for off-road enthusiasts.
Much more than an appearance package, the TRD Pro is built for people who take off-roading seriously. Its starting price of nearly $41,000 emphasizes the point, charging a serious premium over the base Tacoma’s $24,120 sticker.
What you get for that price, though, is virtually two trucks in one.
On the road, the TRD Pro doesn’t beat you up much more than the standard Tacoma. It benefits from the new platform’s quiet body and better refinement, making it surprisingly comfortable on the highway.
Leave the pavement, though, and you see exactly what you’re paying for in this pickup.
Long suspension travel, thick skid plates and tough, grippy tires let it easily power over terrain that would leave other stock trucks limping away with damage.

A blacked-out hood scoop and heritage-inspired “TOYOTA” front grille are part of the Tacoma TRD Pro’s aggressive look.

A blacked-out hood scoop and heritage-inspired “TOYOTA” front grille are part of the Tacoma TRD Pro’s aggressive look.

The hardware goodies include:
— Kevlar-reinforced Goodyear tires
— FOX Internal Bypass shocks
— A thick aluminum skid plate in front
— LED fog lights from Rigid Industries
— 16-inch black alloy wheels
— Specially tuned springs that give it a 1-inch lift
Overall, it feels like the kind of truck an enthusiast would build on their own, using some of the same aftermarket suppliers that are popular with hobbyists.
The difference, and the real benefit from buying it from the factory, is the engineering and tuning work that went into this truck. The TRD Pro feels so well-sorted from the factory, particular in its transition between off-road and on-road driving, that its decades of experience show through.
Toyota may be better known for its reliable Camry and Corolla cars, but it’s also built a lineage of hardcore off-roaders that rival the best in the world. If you see a truck in the deserts of Africa or the jungles of South America, there’s a good chance it’s going to have a Toyota badge.
Actually, make that a “TOYOTA” badge.
While most modern Toyotas use the brand’s planetary-looking logo, the TRD Pro spells it out in all caps just like those old-school trucks that enthusiasts love. It’s the kind of detail that shows the brand cares about the rabid 4Runner, Tacoma and Land Cruiser fans who notice that sort of thing.

Black leather seats, a special shift knob and unique floor mats are all touches that help the TRD Pro stand out on the inside, too.

Black leather seats, a special shift knob and unique floor mats are all touches that help the TRD Pro stand out on the inside, too.

Aside from the sheer capability of this machine, my favorite aspect of the TRD Pro is the way it looks. Yes, that’s superficial. But when you spend over $40,000 for a midsize pickup, you want it to look spectacular, and this truck does the part. It looks like it’s playing a role in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller.
And while I rarely mention the color of a vehicle, the Tacoma deserves an exception.
Gray is a hard color to get right. Try painting it on your walls, and you’ll see it usually ends up looking too blue or yellow or red. It’s not a simple color.
But somehow, Toyota absolutely nailed the right gray in a hue they call Concrete. It’s one of the best looking paint colors I’ve seen in years, and it’s only available on the TRD Pro for 2017.
Just like Toyota, you might be under the impression that Concrete gray is boring.
Just like the Tacoma TRD Pro, it’s not.

At a Glance

What was tested?
2017 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro ($42,760). Options: Paint protection film ($395), first aid kit ($30), emergency assistance kit ($59), bed mat ($120), deck rail camera mount ($56), mud guards ($129), mini tie down loop ($45), universal tablet holder ($99), glass  breakage sensor ($299), wheel locks ($80). Price as tested (including $940 destination charge): $45,012
Wheelbase: 127.4 in.
Length: 212.3 in.
Width: 74.4 in.
Height: 70.6 in.
Engine: 3.5-liter V6 (278 hp, 265 ft. lbs.)
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel Economy: 18 city, 23 highway

RATINGS

Style: 10
Performance: 10
Price: 8
Handling: 7
Ride: 6
Comfort: 6
Quality: 8
Overall: 9

Why buy it?
Its a highly capable off-road beast with the looks to match. It’s surprisingly refined on the road, too, as it benefits from the Tacoma lineup’s recent overhaul.

Posted in Toyota

From Trails to Highways

Cargazing
By Derek Price

In the past, I’ve tested the Jeep Renegade Trailhawk on the rugged, steep, rocky trails it’s designed to traverse.
This time, my schedule happened to require a different kind of test: mile after mile of straight highways — not exactly the Trailhawk’s strong point.
After a lot of interstate driving, I discovered that the tradeoffs required from an off-road mini Jeep aren’t all that extreme. The built-for-wilderness version of the Renegade is a bit rougher riding and transmits a hint more road noise than its siblings that are tuned for street use, but it’s still very livable, even on long road trips.
It’s the kind of vehicle you can drive to work every day and take to your favorite off-road adventure park on the weekends.
The best part about the Renegade is that it paves the way for Jeep to expand its appeal without losing its soul.
Most Renegades are built for people who want the Jeep look and daring reputation but don’t necessarily need true Jeep performance. I’d guess the vast majority of Renegade buyers fall into this class — people who regularly take their Jeep into very light off-roading, if anything.
Jeep’s soul, though, lies somewhere out on the Rubicon Trail where few of us can go.

With a unique sense of style, the Renegade looks like the Jeep of the future. It’s a global design, built in Italy, but retains the brand’s all-American sense of off-road adventure.

With a unique sense of style, the Renegade looks like the Jeep of the future. It’s a global design, built in Italy, but retains the brand’s all-American sense of off-road adventure.

Despite being very different from the classic idea of a Jeep — smaller, car-based, and built in Italy of all places — the Renegade wins back some purist points with its seriously designed, well-engineered Trailhawk version.
The Renegade Trailhawk comes standard with Jeep’s exclusive Active Drive Low with a 20-to-1 crawl ratio, the Selec-Terrain system that lets you easily configure it for different conditions including a rock-crawl mode, along with a number of hardware changes to beef it up.
It rides almost an inch higher than the regular Renegade and comes with skid plates, unique front and rear fascias to help it tackle steeper angles on trails, a suspension that allows more than 8 inches of wheel articulation, and tow hooks in front and back.
It’s looks the part, too.
Those tow hooks are painted red, for starters, a simple touch that I think is ridiculously cool. It’s like big red brake calipers on a Ferrari.
And the overall shape and styling on the Renegade is one of the most unique and innovative on the market. At a time when nearly all the small crossovers it competes against look pretty much the same — the automotive version of beige walls — it stands apart like a neon green sculpture. It’s stunningly, proudly different in a crossover market where everyone else just wants to blend in.
If I could change one thing about the Renegade it would be the base engine. The 2.4-liter Tigershark never feels as spunky as the vehicle looks, and I found myself wishing for more power on more than a few on-ramps.
On the bright side, its nine-speed automatic transmission feels impressively well sorted. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles struggled to make its nine-speeds feel refined when they were first introduced a few years ago, but it seems to get better with each passing year as they fine-tune the shift points and programming. On my Renegade tester, I hardly even noticed it shifting.

The Renegade’s cabin echoes its creative body design. It’s not only functional, with a well-thought-out design, but also packed with fun surprises and playful styling touches.

The Renegade’s cabin echoes its creative body design. It’s not only functional, with a well-thought-out design, but also packed with fun surprises and playful styling touches.

For 2017, Jeep is adding two new models to the Renegade lineup: Deserthawk and Altitude.
The Deserthawk comes with a high level of standard off-road equipment and unique styling inspired by arid climates, including painted black wheels, snazzy body decals and an exclusive color choice called Mojave Sand.
The Altitude matches the look of other Jeeps with this package, giving it an aggressive, blacked-out look. Lots of gloss black trim pieces, both inside and out, give it a sinister appearance.

At A Glance

What was tested?
2016 Jeep Renegade Trailhawk 4×4 ($26,495). Options: Premium Trailhawk Group ($1,545), passive keyless Enter N Go package ($125), safety and security group ($645), My Sky removable panels ($1,470), remote start system ($125). Price as tested (including $995 destination charge): $31,400
Wheelbase: 101.2 in.
Length: 166.6 in.
Width: 74.2 in.
Height: 66.5 in.
Engine: 2.4-liter four cylinder MultiAir (180 hp, 175 ft. lbs.)
Transmission: Nine-speed automatic
Fuel Economy: 21 city, 29 highway

RATINGS

Style: 8
Performance: 6
Price: 7
Handling: 5
Ride: 6
Comfort: 6
Quality: 6
Overall: 7

Why buy it?
It’s an efficient, compact crossover that, at least in the Trailhawk version, aggressively defends Jeep’s off-road reputation. It’s reasonably comfortable on the highway, too.

 

Posted in Jeep

Overflowing With Cuteness

Cargazing
By Derek Price

The Fiat 500 is just like my youngest daughter. It’s so cute, it gets away with stuff other cars couldn’t.
Its off-the-charts cuteness factor is undeniable. It’s an adorable, cuddly, giggly toddler of a car, one that wants nothing more than to start the day with playtime and a smile.
In fact, it’s been a long time since I’ve driven a vehicle that got more attention or made more people grin than this one, which is odd for a car that’s seen few noticeable changes since it was introduced to the U.S. market back in 2011 and starts well under $20 grand.
Most of the head-turners I drive are fresh, flashy and much more expensive.

The Fiat 500 1957 Edition, shown in the foreground, draws saying cues from its iconic Italian ancestors.

The Fiat 500 1957 Edition, shown in the foreground, draws saying cues from its iconic Italian ancestors.

This one, though, drew looks, thumbs up, comments and compliments all week long. I couldn’t stop for gas without people asking about it. A guy in the Home Depot parking lot chased me down to talk about it and ask if I knew any dealers that had a high-performance Abarth version in stock (I didn’t.)
I suspect part of the attention came from the fact that I was driving a 1957 Edition that cranks this car’s cuteness up to 11. It was painted a pastel green called “Verde Chiaro,” with matching color wheels, historic Fiat badges and a white roof and mirror covers that left it dripping with retro appeal.
Its over-the-top, huggable styling masks some serious drawbacks, though. With slow and loud acceleration, distracting highway noise, a cabin that feels cheapish in places, only so-so gas mileage for its size and very limited cargo space, this is a car whose top selling point by far is its Italian good looks.
Fiat is addressing these downsides in several ways.
One is growing the 500 lineup to include a family of vehicles that expand its utility and appeal. If you want more space inside, there’s the 500L. If you want four doors, a more practical, family-friendly vehicle and a more refined feel over the road, there’s the 500X.

The 500 line has a classically styled interior. It also is available with an open-air version with a top that slides to the rear, almost like a convertible, called the 500C.

The 500 line has a classically styled interior. It also is available with an open-air version with a top that slides to the rear, almost like a convertible, called the 500C.

Another change makes it more appealing to your pocketbook. In an unusual and dramatic move, Fiat is dropping the price of the 2017 500 by a whopping $2,000, bringing the cost of the basic Pop trim level under $15,000. Even better, the 2017 500 Pop adds more content at that price, including a digital gauge cluster, 15-inch wheels and chrome trim.
With that kind of abrupt change, buyers should expect big incentives for any 2016 models left on dealer lots.
Aside from the 2017 price plunge, perhaps the most surprising thing about this car is the appeal of its styling over time. To my eyes, it’s becoming even more attractive as the years go by, which is unusual for retro-look cars.
With the reborn Ford Thunderbird, for example, or the Chrysler PT Cruiser, it only took a year or two before the gimmick had run its course and they started to look a bit silly to me. Those cars aged like chain smokers.
The 500, though, seems to fall into a category of retro-styled cars that endure the test of time. Like the Ford Mustang and Volkswagen Beetle, the 500 has a timeless, iconic look that just needs to be updated occasionally, never completely going out of style.

At a Glance

What was tested?
2016 Fiat 500 1957 Edition ($20,395). Options: Customer Preferred Package ($900), GPS navigation ($700), six-speed automatic transmission ($1,350). Price as tested (including $995 destination charge): $24,340
Wheelbase: 90.6 in.
Length: 139.6 in.
Width: 64.1 in.
Height: 59.8 in.
Engine: 1.4-liter MultiAir four cylinder (101 hp, 97 ft. lbs.)
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel Economy: 27 city, 34 highway

RATINGS

Style: 10
Performance: 4
Price: 8
Handling: 6
Ride: 5
Comfort: 4
Quality: 5
Overall: 6

Why buy it?
There’s really one reason to buy this car: it’s adorable. The retro Italian styling makes it one of the cutest cars for sale today.

Posted in Fiat

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