Refined Off-Roading

By Derek Price
Judging from how many I’ve seen prowling the rural roads of Northeast Texas in the past year, GMC has found a hit in the big, brawny Sierra AT4 pickup.
When I first heard about this AT4 package, I was skeptical. It’s designed to slot between a hardcore off-road screamer like the Ford F-150 Raptor and a frilly, comfy luxury truck like the Ram 1500 Limited.
While it’s neither as exciting as the best Baja-conquering trucks nor as plush as the top chrome-and-leather luxury pickups, the AT4 seems to hit enough high points on both ends of the truck spectrum. It’s turning out to be popular with buyers since its introduction last year as an important part of the all-new Sierra lineup.
Put in General Motors terminology, the AT4 basically is like driving a Denali Trail Boss. With a two-inch lift, rugged suspension and aggressive mud-flinging tires — coupled with the most important Denali goodies — it both looks and feels like something special.
Already a gargantuan truck, the two inches of extra height give the Sierra AT4 a hulk-like presence from all angles. Smoky exterior trim adds to the sinister look, while dual exhaust tips integrated into the rear bumper and red tow hooks add visual interest.

The GMC Sierra AT4 aims to hit two seemingly opposing extremes at the same time: luxury and off-road capability. Its rugged suspension and high-end, Denali-like amenities offer an intriguing combination.

Inside, while it has a lot of the same content as the luxurious Denali line, it feels much more functional. This is a truck for people who plan to use it like a truck, not just take it out for a date night, as evidenced by the washable rubber floor mats and purposeful storage built into the cabin.
Extra storage nooks hidden in surprising places — including the rear seat back — are useful for both travel and work. There are plenty of places to toss tools, papers and electronics.
Still, the interior feels dated in many places, a disappointment in a recently redesigned product. Materials and tightness in the cabin don’t seem to match the price point.
Fortunately, the 2020 version of this truck fixes an almost unfathomable omission from last year: the lack of adaptive cruise control as an option. That feature should be a no-brainer on a vehicle this expensive.
How pricey is it? A double cab AT4 starts at $52,595, while the crew cab starts at $55,295 with a standard box. That’s with the base 5.3-liter V8 engine, which would be my pick.
For around $2,500 more, buyers can opt for either a bigger, 6.2-liter V8 or a 3.0-liter, six-cylinder diesel engine. All send power to the wheels through a 10-speed automatic transmission.
I loved how confident my AT4 tester made me feel both on and off the road.

Digital gauges behind the steering wheel can be customized to the driver’s preferences. It results in a modern and functional feature set in the upscale off-road truck.

This is not the truck I’d want strictly for commuting or highway trips, but it’s great for what it’s designed to do: travel off pavement with ease. The firm Rancho shocks make it feel like no other truck for sale today, offering informative feedback over rocks and dirt without jostling you too much in regular driving.
Hill descent control makes it easy to crawl down rocky inclines. GMC’s Traction Select System adjusts the way the truck’s electronic brain tackles different terrain, and skid plates help protect it from damage. Best of all, those features are all standard on the AT4.
It also comes with GMC’s fantastic MultiPro tailgate, perhaps the best-designed way to access and load the bed on any truck for sale today. It’s ingenious, offering six different positions to help you load or secure various types of cargo.
While the enthusiast in me still wishes General Motors would directly address the spectacular, thrilling Raptor from its crosstown rival, a week in the AT4 shows GM is focused on something very different: a breed of off-road truck that’s as luxurious as it is capable.

At A Glance

What was tested? 2020 GMC Sierra AT4 Crew Cab ($53,700). Options: Red quartz tint coat paint ($595), AT4 Premium Package ($2,855). Price as tested (including $1,595 destination charge): $59,245
Wheelbase: 147.5 in.
Length: 231.7 in.
Width: 81.2 in.
Height: 75.4 in.
Engine: 5.3-liter V8 (355 hp, 383 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: 10-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 16 city, 21 highway

Style: 9
Performance: 9
Price: 5
Handling: 6
Ride: 6
Comfort: 7
Quality: 7
Overall: 8

Why buy it? 
It combines beastly off-road capability with the Denali’s famously opulent feature set.

Posted in GMC

Altima Innovative, Intriguing

By Derek Price

After a completely new design for 2019 — including its first-ever all-wheel-drive system — the Nissan Altima is expanding safety feature availability this year.
The changes are modest, which is not surprising for a car introduced just a year ago, and they keep the Altima one of the most impressive and advanced sedans for sale today.
At a time when many manufacturers are cutting back on their investment in traditional four-door cars, this new-generation Altima seems to be an exception. It offers several advancements that make it feel like it’s stepping ahead of ho-hum family cars.
One is its innovative, variable-compression-ratio engine, an optional upgrade that replaces the venerable 3.5-liter V6 in Altimas of the past.
The first of its kind in a mass-produced car, this unusual engine design can smoothly change its compression ratio from 8:1 to 14:1, depending on how much it wants to emphasize high performance versus high efficiency.
The end result is a small, 2.0-liter engine that offers the power output of a big V6 but with four-cylinder fuel economy. It makes 248 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque, Nissan claims, while earning a federal fuel economy rating of 34 mpg on the highway. That’s noticeably better than the V6.

After an all-new design debuted last year, the 2020 Nissan Altima makes its Safety Shield 360 package standard across the lineup, with the exception of the base S grade.

Nissan sweetens its content incentives for 2020 by making the Safety Shield 360 system — a package of sensors and automatic interventions including lane departure alerts, blind-spot monitoring, automatic emergency braking that can detect pedestrians and more — standard on the Altima SR trim. The only trim that lacks these features today is the base S.
Even more impressive is Nissan’s semi-self-driving ProPILOT Assist, which is standard on the SV, SL and Platinum models. It uses a camera, radar sensors and some smart software coding to reduce the driver’s workload in certain situations, keeping the car centered in its lane and flowing with the speed of traffic. I found it more intuitive to use than the similar systems on many of its competitors.
It’s also becoming the kind of feature I’d consider a “must have” on any 2020 car sold today. It’s becoming so ubiquitous, rolling out steadily on more affordable vehicles with each passing year, that cars without semi-autonomous driving modes will feel out-of-date very soon.
Aside from the all-important content offerings, how does the Altima stack up as, well, an actual car?
To me, it nails its goal of looking and driving like a premium vehicle at a reasonable price. It looks expensive, with heavily sculpted sheetmetal outside and plenty of soft-touch material and tasteful design inside.

Like its sleek body, the Altima’s cabin feels more expensive than it is. Its Zero Gravity seats are especially comfortable on long road trips.

From my perspective, its only glaring downside is the continued, stubborn use of a continuously variable transmission in an otherwise fun-to-drive car. The Altima’s CVT has gotten much better through the years, but it still leaves this car geek wondering how much better it would feel with a more visceral automatic or — we can dream — a manual gearbox for us weirdos who still prefer them.
Otherwise, the Altima blends fun and comfort perfectly, offering a nimble feeling in turns and a balanced highway ride. The Zero Gravity seats are especially nice, offering a soft-but-supportive feeling that makes long trips less taxing on the body. The seats are legit, much more than a marketing gimmick.
Pricing starts at $24,100 for the base S model, with all-wheel drive available for an extra $1,350. Once more common on pricey luxury cars, it’s great to see the benefits of AWD traction available on every single trim for people who live in cold or wet climates.
An Altima with the variable-compression engine starts at $29,750 and tops out at $35,180 for the near-luxury Platinum grade.

At A Glance

What was tested? 2020 Nissan Altima Platinum AWD ($33,530). Options: Carpeted floor and trunk mats ($300), interior accent lighting ($455). Price as tested (including $925 destination charge): $35,210
Wheelbase: 111.2 in.
Length: 192.9 in.
Width: 72.9 in.
Height: 57.4 in.
Engine: 2.5-liter four cylinder (188 hp, 180 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Continuously variable
Fuel economy: 39 city, 28 highway

Style: 9
Performance: 6
Price: 8
Handling: 7
Ride: 7
Comfort: 8
Quality: 8
Overall: 7
Why buy it? 
Handsome looks and an upscale cabin are just the start for this recently redesigned sedan. An innovative engine and refined semi-self-driving features help it stand out.

Posted in Nissan

Wrangler Adds a Diesel

By Derek Price
The first time I filled up this Jeep Wrangler with fuel, I had to double- and triple-check that I was using the right pump.
“Yep, green handle. Definitely diesel,” I thought.
And it felt so wrong, which is odd for an engine that feels so right in this off-road rig.
The reason for my trepidation was that I’d never filled up a Wrangler with diesel fuel in my entire life. Yet here I was driving a new Wrangler with a 3.0-liter, six-cylinder, turbocharged diesel under the hood.
It’s a bit surprising that Jeep hasn’t offered a diesel in its range-topping, all-conquering Wrangler in the United States before now. The same near-instant torque that makes diesels so useful in trucks and tractors seems ideal for crawling over boulders and sand bars, the kinds of Herculean tasks the Wrangler is built to tackle.
It also provides a dramatic boost to fuel economy, if you believe the federal government’s numbers. It’s rated for 29 miles per gallon on the highway, a figure I still associate with tiny economy cars from the 1990s.
Technology progresses, though, and diesel Wranglers are some of the biggest beneficiaries. The diesel Wrangler not only gets great fuel mileage but also generates a whopping 442 pound-feet of torque at just 1,400 RPM.
I have no complaints about the engine itself after spending a week driving it. It’s surprisingly silent, even under hard acceleration, and it provides a quick enough response at low speeds that it feels ideal for this vehicle’s mission: climbing trails.

The Jeep Wrangler is available with a diesel engine this year. The 3.0-liter, turbocharged, six-cylinder engine makes 442 pound-feet of torque.

At faster speeds, though, the eight-speed automatic in my tester felt like it was struggling to find the right gear at times. Part of that can be forgiven in a bulky vehicle designed for off-roading first and foremost, not just merging onto freeways, but I suspect part of it has to do with a brand-new powertrain needing a bit more massaging in the years to come.
The diesel is also a pricey upgrade, adding $4,000 to the cost of my tester. You can rationalize that by pointing out the higher resale value of diesels in the used-car market and the dramatically better gas mileage it gets.
Still, a loaded Wrangler diesel almost requires “dream car” thinking to justify it. You buy it simply because you want it and you can, not because it necessarily makes the most logical sense.
All-in, the four-door Wrangler Unlimited I tested rang up at $56,750.
Granted, the starting price is a more palatable $38,645 for the very capable Sahara Unlimited.
The Wrangler remains one of the most unusual and capable vehicles for sale today. In its newest iteration, released two years ago, it has the near-supernatural ability to transition between reasonably comfortable, quiet driving on the highway and extreme ability on the trails.

The Wrangler is built for extreme off-road capability. It’s also plenty of fun with a roof and doors that can be removed for true open-air driving when you want it.

People familiar with older Jeeps won’t believe how silent the new one is at 75 mph. No, it’s not as quiet as a regular car, but it’s lightyears ahead of its 10-year-old siblings in terms of refinement and everyday usability.
Pricing for the two-door Wrangler starts at $28,295, while the four-door Wrangler Unlimited starts at $31,795.
The Rubicon Recon version, with its incredibly capable off-road upgrades and unmistakable, form-follows-function appearance, tops the lineup at $46,380. It has red seats, heavy-duty rock rails and aggressive 33-inch mud tires, among many unique touches.

At A Glance

What was tested? 2020 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara 4×4 ($38,645). Options: Leather seats ($1,495), Customer Preferred Package 26G ($1,045), 8.4-inch Uconnect radio ($1,695), safety group ($895), advanced safety group ($795), cargo group with Trail Rail system ($195), 8-speed automatic transmission ($2,000), 3.0-liter turbo diesel engine ($4,000), remote proximity keyless entry ($495), Sky One-Touch power top ($3,995). Price as tested (including $1,495 destination charge): $56,750
Wheelbase: 118.3 in.
Length: 188.4 in.
Width: 73.8 in.
Height: 73.6 in.
Engine: 3.0-liter six-cylinder turbocharged diesel (260 hp, 442 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 22 city, 29 highway

Style: 10
Performance: 10
Price: 4
Handling: 5
Ride: 6
Comfort: 6
Quality: 7
Overall: 9

Why buy it? 
The benefits of a diesel engine — easily accessible torque, better fuel economy and strong resale value — are now available in the Wrangler. It feels like a great fit in this legendary off-roader.

Posted in Jeep