Highlander gets upscale overhaul


By Derek Price
Automotive Writer

Every once in a while I drive a Toyota that seems like it has the wrong badge on the hood.
That’s what happened this week while checking out the new Highlander, which was equipped — at least on my test car — with so many gadgets, so much high-end trim, and such a soft, smooth ride that I’d swear it was a Lexus.
Granted, my tester came with a very Lexus-like price of more than $50,000 for the exclusive sounding Hybrid Limited Platinum version. It costs a whopping $20,000 more than the base Highlander, and at that price, it darn well better feel like a luxury car.
Fortunately, it does. With supple, beautifully stitched trim on the dash, more leather and wood than a Scottish pub, and more electronics than an Intel factory, it looks and feels like something that belongs in a luxury-brand showroom.
It also comes with a hybrid drivetrain to save on fuel. It’s rated for 28 mpg on the highway and an impressive 27 mpg in city driving, making it the most fuel efficient three-row SUV in its class.

The family-friendly Toyota Highlander gets a fresh design for 2014. The body has a sleek, modern look, while the interior gets a more premium feel and new standard features.

The family-friendly Toyota Highlander gets a fresh design for 2014. The body has a sleek, modern look, while the interior gets a more premium feel and new standard features.

Still, I think there are two things that ought to be improved on the hybrid version. The biggest is its braking feel, which seems a bit awkward and grabby, making it hard to slow down smoothly as the electric generator engages at low speeds. This is a common issue in hybrid cars, but it seems slightly more pronounced in the Highlander Hybrid than most.
I also wish Toyota offered a hybrid-powered Highlander at lower trim levels. The Highlander starts at $29,215 for the base LE trim, but you can’t get the hybrid drivetrain unless you pony up $47,300 for the fancy Limited trim level, which defeats the purpose of buying a hybrid to save on fuel costs.
Still, for people who can afford it — and who want a luxury SUV that gets respectable gas mileage, which most don’t — this one is spectacular. Between the electric motors and V6 engine, it makes 280 horsepower, enough to make it quietly, quickly rocket away from stoplights.
While my test car happened to be a loaded hybrid model, the entire Highlander lineup is new inside and out for 2014. It comes with a fresh design and more premium feel throughout the trim range.
Inside, it gets plenty of standard equipment including an LCD digital display in the gauge cluster, a touchscreen sound system, a Bluetooth wireless connection for your phone and a rear-view camera.
And the changes on the outside are just as dramatic, which is surprising from a typically conservative company like Toyota. Its swept-back headlights and bulging taillights give it a sleek, distinctive look, yet it still has some tough-guy swagger that fits its SUV roots.

The high-end Limited Platinum version of the Highlander emphasizes craftsmanship with wood accents and beautifully stitched leather.

The high-end Limited Platinum version of the Highlander emphasizes craftsmanship with wood accents and beautifully stitched leather.

The base Highlander comes with a 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine, but you don’t want it. It makes just 185 horsepower and doesn’t get very impressive gas mileage.
The engine you’ll want is the 3.5-liter V6 that makes 270 horses and is rated for roughly the same gas mileage as the four-banger — just 1 mpg worse in city driving and the exact same rating on the highway — which makes me wonder why Toyota even offers the smaller engine. You can get a V6-powered Highlander starting at $30,520, making it the no-brainer choice in my opinion.
As a whole, the new-for-2014 Highlander is a big improvement over the old one, which was already one of my favorite family-friendly SUVs.
I just hope the guy who accidentally glued the wrong logo on the hood can keep his job.

At a Glance

What was tested?
2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited Platinum ($49,790). Options: Carpet floor mats and cargo mat ($225). Price as tested (including $860 destination charge): $50,875
Wheelbase: 109.8 in.
Length: 191.1 in.
Width: 75.8 in.
Height: 68.1 in.
Engine: 3.5-liter, six-cylinder, double-overhead cam, 24-valve with Dual VVT-i (270 horsepower, 248 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: 6-speed ECT automatic
Estimated Mileage: 28 highway, 27 city

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

Video Review:
2014 Toyota Highlander
http://bit.ly/newhighlander

Why buy it? 
With great fuel efficiency, a sumptuous cabin and a stylish new body, the Hybrid Limited Platinum version of the 2014 Highlander makes a compelling case for luxury SUV shoppers.

Posted in Toyota

Luxury with distinction


By Derek Price
Automotive Writer

Many of today’s luxury cars seem to carry a look of understated elegance, which — at least in some cases — is another way to say “boring.”
But I don’t get a hint of boredom when I look at this car, the Lincoln MKZ.
Perhaps it’s the natural result of years of government cutbacks, austerity measures and class-warfare criticism of the wealthy in some political circles, but many of the MKZ’s competitors have gotten sheepish with their body styling. It’s almost like they’re embarrassed to be luxury cars.
This sedan, though, is unabashedly glamorous with its long, swept-back, Hollywood-chic nose, taut rear end and fender lines that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Bentley.
The styling is so dramatic, in fact, that you can hardly tell somewhere underneath all that pretty sheetmetal lie the bones of its Ford cousin, the Fusion.
The days of badge engineering are evidently over for Ford because I have a hard time seeing much of the Fusion underneath the thick layer of Lincoln varnish on this car. Even though the Fusion is a stunningly beautiful sedan in its own right, often called Aston Martin’s doppelgänger, having a Lincoln version that looks and feels so different is a refreshing choice for buyers.
Other than the appearance, one thing that surprises me about the MKZ is just how heavy and solid it feels. Its doors close with the granite “thud” of a high-end luxury car, not the hollowed-out “thunk” of an entry level model.
Inside, the cabin is nice but not exactly groundbreaking in this segment. You get all the requisite wood, leather and electronics you expect, but I can’t help but wish the overall cabin styling — especially color choices — were more daring to match the MKZ’s adventurous body.
The Lincoln MKZ evokes classic Hollywood glamour with its highly styled body. Its pricing starts slightly over $34,000.

The Lincoln MKZ evokes classic Hollywood glamour with its highly styled body. Its pricing starts slightly over $34,000.

One nifty touch is the push-button shifter that eliminates the clunky stick found in most cars, which frees up a bit of room in the cabin.
Still, I thought the MKZ’s cabin felt cozy. It doesn’t seem cramped, but it also doesn’t seem as spacious as I expected from the outside. Maybe that’s a function of all the big-car styling cues on this mid-size Lincoln.
My test car came with the base engine, a 2.0-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder that makes a healthy 240 horsepower. I like it for the same reasons that Ford’s EcoBoost technology is proving so popular across the spectrum from pickup trucks to compact cars: a nice mix of power and efficiency, with a fuel economy rating up to 33 mpg on the highway in the MKZ.
You can also opt for a 300-horsepower V6 that drops the highway economy down to 28 mpg, which isn’t too bad a penalty for the extra 60 horses to play with. The MKZ is also available with all-wheel drive for buyers who want better control in challenging weather conditions.
Pricing starts at $34,190, making it nicely competitive among luxury brands, especially for the level of equipment you get. It comes with a lot of standard features that are exclusive to its class, including LED headlamps, a 10.1-inch LCD instrument pod, Active Noise Control and a capless fuel filler.

A push-button gear shifter and available panoramic sunroof make the MKZ’s cabin stand out. It uses leather and wood to create an air of traditional Lincoln luxury with a more modern design twist.

A push-button gear shifter and available panoramic sunroof make the MKZ’s cabin stand out. It uses leather and wood to create an air of traditional Lincoln luxury with a more modern design twist.

Still, now that the Fusion is available in sumptuous Titanium trim for $30,600 — and is one of the best looking and driving sedans on the road, in my opinion — I’d be taking a close look at the MKZ’s cousin on the Ford lot for comparison.
Finally, one of my favorite things on my test car was the whopping size of its panoramic sunroof. At 15.2 square feet, there was so much glass up there and such a wide opening that this almost felt like a convertible at times, letting me enjoy an open-feeling cockpit while still surrounded in a comfortable, amenity-filled Lincoln cocoon.

At a Glance

What was tested?
2014 Linclon MKZ AWD ($38,080). Options: Preferred equipment group ($5,375), smoke quartz tricoat paint ($495), technology package ($2,250), panoramic roof ($2,995), rear inflatable seat belts ($195). Price as tested (including $895 destination charge): $50,285
Wheelbase: 112.2 in.
Length: 194.1 in.
Width: 83.3 in.
Height: 58.2 in.
Engine: 2.0-liter EcoBoost I-4 (240 horsepower, 270 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Electronic six-speed with SelectShift
Estimated Mileage: 33 highway, 22 city

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

Video Review:
2014 Lincoln MKZ
http://bit.ly/2014mkz

Why buy it? 
It’s got a distinctive look and offers a lot of equipment for the money, especially at the base level. Its panoramic sunroof is spectacularly large.

 

Posted in Lincoln

Full-size European value

By Derek Price
Automotive Writer

The Germans know how to make great cars, but what about providing a great value?
Just this morning I looked up what it would cost to buy a fully loaded BMW 3-Series. It rang up around $65,000 once you check every option box on their online configurator.
Granted, few buyers will go that crazy with the option list, and the 3-Series is one of the very best cars in the world — but it’s hard to argue that their well-equipped models are designed for penny pinchers.
That’s where Volkswagen comes in.
I spent a week testing the VW Passat, and my biggest takeaway is that this is the best bang-for-your-buck German car on the market today.
No, it’s not as fancy as a Mercedes or BMW. It doesn’t have all those wow-factor gadgets and a cabin that’s as quiet as a chapel.
It does offer a lot of space and comfort for the money, though, along with just enough of a Teutonic driving feel to give it the personality that most American, Korean and Japanese cars lack.
Unlike the tossable, zippy Volkswagen Jetta, the Passat drives with the grace and sensibility of a full-size car. A roomy back seat, spacious trunk and comfortable highway ride don’t make for exciting headlines, but they do stand out at the Passat’s $20,995 base price. It feels like an awful lot of car you’re getting for that little dough.

New to the Passat lineup in 2014 is the Sport model, shown here, which has athletic styling touches both inside and out. It also comes with paddle shifters behind the steering wheel.

New to the Passat lineup in 2014 is the Sport model, shown here, which has athletic styling touches both inside and out. It also comes with paddle shifters behind the steering wheel.

The big news for the Passat in 2014 is that Volkswagen has dumped its quirky five-cylinder engine in favor of a 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that makes the same horsepower and just a pinch more torque.
It’s a logical decision, giving the Passat stronger acceleration and better gas mileage at the same time. It’s rated for 24 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway now, which is 3 mpg better than last year.
Another change is the addition of the Passat Sport this year. It’s a trim package designed for people who want a more athletic look both inside and out, with contrasting mirror caps, steel door sills, carbon trim accents, aluminum pedals and paddle shifters behind the steering wheel.
The most notable and unusual change on the Sport model, though, is its black painted roof. It looks almost like those trendy luxury cars with their full-length, panoramic glass sunroofs, but it’s not. It’s just painted black to look cool.
In addition to the 1.8T engine and Sport model, there’s one more small change this year: Volkswagen is making the Passat a better value by adding a standard rear-view camera on SE and higher trim levels.
My favorite part of the Passat lineup, though, isn’t new. It’s the TDI Clean Diesel model that’s rated for 43 mpg on the highway and has a range of almost 800 miles, making it an economical and comfortable car for road trips. Other cars with that kind of mileage rating are typically either tiny, cramped compact cars or much more expensive hybrid models, so the diesel engine helps the comfy Passat fill the wide gap between tin-can cars and luxury hybrids.

The Passat Sport’s interior uses aluminum, steel and carbon accent trim to evoke a more youthful vibe.

The Passat Sport’s interior uses aluminum, steel and carbon accent trim to evoke a more youthful vibe.

Finally, there’s one more thing to like about the Passat: it’s built right here in America at a factory in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Providing American manufacturing jobs by building a European-feeling car in the South is some delicious icing on this German chocolate cake.

At a Glance

What was tested?
2014 Volkswagen Passat Sport ($27,675). Options: None. Price as tested (including $820 destination charge): $28,495
Wheelbase: 110.4 in.
Length: 191.6 in.
Width: 72.2 in.
Height: 58.5 in.
Engine: 1.8-liter four-cylinder (170 horsepower, 184 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Estimated Mileage: 35 highway, 24 city

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

Video Review:
2014 Volkswagen Passat
http://bit.ly/2014passat

Why buy it? 
If you’re looking for a German-engineered, value-oriented car, this is it. It offers full-size comfort at a starting price under $21,000, and it’s assembled here in America.

Posted in Volkswagen

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