Fiat resurrects classic name


Cargazing
By Derek Price

If you love Italian sports cars, one name stands tall for affordable, simple, fun transportation: Fiat 124 Spider.
The original 124 was launched in the mid-1960s as a small roadster with a gorgeous body by Pininfarina, the design firm behind some of Ferrari’s most iconic models. It brought smiles and high style to the masses at a low price point.
Now Fiat is reviving the 124 Spider name to bring back a car that it hopes will be the spiritual successor to the original. And while it’s based on the Mazda MX-5 Miata and built in Hiroshima, Japan, Italian designers played a big role in giving it a more European look, sound and feel.
To be clear, starting with Miata bones is no sin. The MX-5 is one of the best roadsters ever made, so using its platform as a starting point for an Italian-styled sports car is a genius move on Fiat’s part.
Heck, German- and British-looking versions of the Miata would be awesome, too. The more Miata flavors, the better, as far as I’m concerned.
Fiat made enough changes to give this car its own distinct vibe, most noticeably by putting a Fiat turbocharged powerplant under the hood in place of the Miata’s normally aspirated, and slightly less powerful, Mazda engine. That gives it the “most affordable turbocharged sports car in America” crown.
And boy, is it fun to drive.

The new Fiat 124 Spider, left, is shown with its namesake from the 1960s. It aims to bring timeless Italian styling and a fun driving experience at a low price, just like the original.

The new Fiat 124 Spider, left, is shown with its namesake from the 1960s. It aims to bring timeless Italian styling and a fun driving experience at a low price, just like the original.

The 1.4-liter MultiAir Turbo is a hoot under acceleration, making 160 horsepower and emitting a resonant, politely snorting note from the tailpipe. Its suspension is tuned to allow for less body roll than its Miata cousin, giving you a firmer, flatter feel that’s more closely in line with what many drivers expect from a roadster.
You can order it with an automatic transmission, but if I were a dictator I’d send you to jail for doing that. Please don’t.
The much better fit for this car is the six-speed manual, offering short, direct, toggle-switch-like shifts that make you feel much more in control and engaged with the vehicle, which ought to be the reason you consider a car like this in the first place.
If you just want a cute little runabout, though, you’re in luck. The 124 has some of the nicest, most attractive styling you can buy today, especially for its starting price of $24,995. What other car lets you put on Ray-Bans and look like a Hollywood star for that kind of money?
That price will put you in the Spider Classica, the base model with 16-inch wheels and cloth seats that serves as a good starting point.
From there, you can move up to your choice of two models: the Lusso ($28,845) with a more luxurious atmosphere and driving experience, or the Abarth ($28,195) with a sportier, more aggressive personality.
Being a car-crazed automotive writer, my favorite of the three is the Abarth. No question. It’s brilliant fun with a harder suspension and slightly more power, and it’s available with firm Recaro sport seats and larger brakes from Brembo for an autocross-ready setup from the factory.

Fiat’s designers in Turin, Italy, put their stamp on the new 124, which is based on the Mazda MX-5 Miata platform and built in Japan.

Fiat’s designers in Turin, Italy, put their stamp on the new 124, which is based on the Mazda MX-5 Miata platform and built in Japan.

I wish the Abarth treatment went farther, though. Even though it’s got the same engine, it sounds and feels mild compared to the Fiat 500 Abarth, which comes with ridiculously loud wake-up-the-neighbors exhaust pipes. With only four extra horsepower and a slightly different exhaust note, I’d love to see the Abarth package get a bit crazier on the 124 — perhaps an Abarth Plus version for hardcore enthusiasts.
Designed in Turin, Italy, all versions of the new 124 have timeless styling cues that pay homage to the original. An elongated hood, neatly tucked rear and sleek character lines give it a low-slung, crouching pose that makes it look fun from every angle. It’s a car that makes you smile just staring at it.
And the smiles only get bigger once you start the engine, just like its sports-car forefathers.

At a Glance

What was tested?
2017 Fiat 124 Spider Lusso ($27,495). Options: None. Price as tested (including $995 destination charge): $28,490
Wheelbase: 90.9 in.
Length: 159.6 in.
Width: 68.5 in.
Height: 48.5 in.
Drivetrain: 1.4-liter turbocharged MultiAir (160 hp, 184 ft. lbs.)
Transmission: Six-speed manual

RATINGS

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

Video Review:
2017 Fiat 124 Spider
http://bit.ly/17spider

Why buy it?
It’s intended as the spiritual successor to one of the most beloved, affordable Italian sports cars of all time. It’s a blast to drive and is based on an outstanding, proven platform: the Mazda Miata.

Posted in Fiat

Civic raises the bar


Cargazing
By Derek Price

The Honda Civic has always been known, first and foremost, as an economy car that’s reliable and cheap to operate.
It’s interesting, then, that Honda didn’t just look at similar low-priced cars when benchmarking the all-new Civic that just arrived as a 2016 model. They also compared it against compact luxury cars that are considerably more expensive — think Mercedes-Benz C-Class or BMW 1-Series, presumably — and you can feel it in the end result.
From a driving perspective, it’s hard to tell much difference between the new Civic and those pricier cars, at least with their base engines. It’s so much quieter, solid feeling and refined with its road manners that I’d never guess it was a Civic if I was blindfolded.
With eyes open, you can see the difference. There’s more plastic than in a good luxury car, but I’m not sure it’s enough of a downgrade to justify the money you save with a Honda compared to, say, a small Lexus. The Civic Sedan starts at just $18,640 and feels like a steal at that price.
While I’ve driven both the two-door and four-door versions of this car in recent weeks — both of which are giant leaps over their predecessors, particularly in the sleek way they look — it’s the coupe I spent more time testing.

The Honda Civic has an all-new design for 2016 that makes it quieter and more refined without losing its sporty edges. Its new look will turn heads, particularly in the two-door coupe version shown here.

The Honda Civic has an all-new design for 2016 that makes it quieter and more refined without losing its sporty edges. Its new look will turn heads, particularly in the two-door coupe version shown here.

As usual with Honda products, it’s tough to find anything to complain about. The new Civic feels solidly built, comes with a lot of equipment for the money and drives with a shimmering vibrancy that has been missing from Honda products of recent vintage. A new, 1.5-liter turbocharged engine — the first factory turbo ever fitted to a Civic — is a big reason for the appeal, even if it’s mated to a less-than-sporty continuously variable transmission (CVT).
The steering, brakes and suspension all combine to give it the characteristic Civic-like snap when changing directions, which is a good thing, yet it somehow manages to calm down and float nicely — and almost silently — on the highway. That’s even better.
My usual wish for Hondas still rings true with this one. If I could wave my magic wand, I’d give it bigger, beefier buttons on the entertainment system to make it easier to operate. As it is, with small buttons next to the digital screen, I vastly prefer using the steering wheel controls to change settings.
A nifty switch on the steering wheel lets you adjust the radio volume by gently sliding your finger along it, which is nicer than on most cars. And all the switches have a tight, snickety feeling to them, one of those picky things that I usually look for in more expensive cars.
The digital gauges have a modern, almost futuristic design that remind me of my favorite Hondas from the 1980s. There’s a NASA vibe in the cabin that makes it fun to look at and enjoyable to drive.
And it’s available with my favorite must-have features on today’s cars: Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Being an iPhone fanboy, I can’t vouch for the Android version, but Apple CarPlay in the Civic works flawlessly, just like my Mac computers. You use a USB cord to plug in your phone and it works without delay, like magic. You can play music, listen to your text messages, see navigation from Apple Maps and more, all without having to take the time to pair your phone like you do with a Bluetooth connection.

The Civic’s interior has a space-age look to go with its nice quality and practical layout. It’s reminiscent of the futuristic cabins Honda used in the 1980s.

The Civic’s interior has a space-age look to go with its nice quality and practical layout. It’s reminiscent of the futuristic cabins Honda used in the 1980s.

Finally, there’s my favorite thing of all about the new Civic: the styling.
Compact cars are tough to get right. Make them too bland, and you end up yawning. Make them too wild, and you look like you belong in a “Fast and Furious” movie. But Honda nailed the styling on both the sporty coupe and the slightly more sedate sedan, adding lots of visual interest that too many compact cars lack.
If you want the “Fast and Furious” look, just order the Energy Green paint that coated my test car. It looks radioactive and makes it clear that you’re an extrovert.

At a Glance

What was tested?
2016 Honda Civic 1.5T 2D Touring ($26,125). Options: None. Price as tested (including $835 destination charge): $26,960
Wheelbase: 106.3 in.
Length: 176.9 in.
Width: 70.8 in.
Height: 54.9 in.
Drivetrain: 1.5-liter turbo I4 (174 hp, 162 ft. lbs.)
Transmission: Continuously variable transmission
Estimated Mileage: 31 city, 41 highway

RATINGS

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

Video Review:
2016 Honda Civic
http://bit.ly/16civic

Why buy it?
It’s a nice upgrade over the last generation Civic. It’s quieter now, and the new styling looks fantastic — handsome on the sedan and sporty on the coupe.

Posted in Honda

Prius has fewer tradeoffs


Cargazing
By Derek Price

It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly 20 years since Toyota started a hybrid-car revolution with its first Prius, which launched in 1997 in Japan.
A few years later it brought its eco ethos to the United States, where its funky styling and brilliant gas-electric drivetrain made efficient cars seem cool and trendy — perhaps for the first time in history.
There have been other innovative hybrids through the years, most notably the Honda Insight, but none have risen to the iconic green-car status of the Prius. It’s come to define what people think of hybrid cars, for better or worse.
The better? It’s always been one of the most fuel efficient cars you can buy, and its style has matched the fascinating technology that hides under the skin.
The worse? It’s traditionally been appallingly slow and irritatingly noisy, although that seems to be getting better with each passing generation.
And that brings us to the car I’m driving this week, a 2016 Prius that marks the start of an all-new fourth generation for this prototypical hybrid.
Yes, it’s still ultra-efficient. My test car was rated for 58 mpg in the city and 53 on the highway, making it the most efficient car you can buy without having to plug it into a charger. That’s no surprise.
The Toyota Prius gets an aggressive, futuristic and polarizing new look as it enters its fourth generation with an all-new 2016 model.

The Toyota Prius gets an aggressive, futuristic and polarizing new look as it enters its fourth generation with an all-new 2016 model.

The surprises come in two other areas, though: the lack of compromises and just how far Toyota is pushing the design envelope on this car.
The Prius has always been a vehicle that requires some tradeoffs. You sacrifice acceleration and luxury to get awesome gas mileage. Buyers get that.
But the tradeoffs in this new-generation Prius are fewer and less severe than ever. It certainly feels faster, with a better ability to get up to speed on the highway and sharper handling in turns. It won’t win stoplight drag races, but it won’t be embarrassing, either.
It’s also noticeably quieter than before. Toyota made all kinds of changes to reduce the noise that intrudes into the cabin, both from the hybrid drivetrain that tends to make otherworldly hums and buzzes and from road and wind noise generated at highway speeds.
Toyota used more high-strength materials for the frame, more acoustic laminated glass, more sound-deadening insulation and massaged the air conditioning pump, water pump, intake and exhaust systems to make less noise. The end result is a car that’s both aggressively tuned for fuel economy but also sublimely silent, a rare combination.
No one can argue with making a hybrid car faster and quieter, but the styling — that most subjective area of car buying — is up for more debate.
Personally, I love how Toyota has always made the Prius look so different from most cars. It will never have the timeless beauty of an Italian sports car, but that’s not the point. It looks unique on the outside because it’s reflecting the unique engineering that makes up the heart of this car, and I like that kind of honesty.
In fact, I’m convinced a big reason for the Prius’ success is that it looks so unusual. People notice it and can tell it’s different just from a glance at the car’s odd but endearingly quirky shape. It’s become a part of its personality.
And on the flip side, I think the biggest reason the Honda Civic Hybrid and Chevrolet Volt never became big sellers is because they just look too ordinary. People don’t notice them, at least not in the same way they do the cheese-wedge nose of a Prius.
Whatever you think of the Prius’ appearance, Toyota took it to a new extreme with this model. Raked-back triangular headlights and origami-like creases on the body make it a case study in striking, if polarizing, design.

Continuing the futuristic theme on the inside, the new Prius also is considerably quieter than before.

Continuing the futuristic theme on the inside, the new Prius also is considerably quieter than before.

It’s unfortunate timing for Toyota to be unveiling a car that pushes the envelope in futuristic design and gas-saving technology right now, a year when low gas prices mean many buyers aren’t putting MPG at the top of their shopping list.
But when, not if, fuel prices return to their historic norms, Toyota will be ready and waiting with a Prius that’s more comfortable, spacious, fast and efficient than it’s ever been before.

At a Glance
What was tested?
2016 Toyota Prius Two Eco ($24,700). Options: None. Price as tested (including $835 destination charge): $25,535
Wheelbase: 106.3 in.
Length: 178.7 in.
Width: 69.3 in.
Height: 58.1 in.
Drivetrain: 1.8-liter gas engine and 53 kW electric motor (121 combined system hp)
Transmission: Electronic continuously variable transmission
Estimated Mileage: 58 city, 53 highwayRATINGS

Style: 9
Performance: 6
Price: 8
Handling: 6
Ride: 7
Comfort: 8
Quality: 8
Overall: 9Video Review:
2016 Toyota Prius
http://bit.ly/16prius

Why buy it?
It’s the most efficient non-plug-in vehicle you can buy. It’s also surprisingly quiet, roomy and refined thanks to a new-generation design.

Posted in Toyota

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