Sales Champ Overhauled

By Derek Price

When Toyota started its top-to-bottom redesign of America’s most popular car, the Camry, the goal could be summed up with one word: emotion.
That’s a dramatic change for a vehicle long known for being automotive vanilla. Its decades-long reputation is built on reliability and practicality more than style and feel, so the decision to inject some excitement into the Camry — even a little bit — is a big deal.
And if Toyota wants people to see this new-generation Camry as a break from the past, it’s working.
I just spent a week driving the all-new 2018 model, and people’s reaction was almost universally the same everywhere I took it.
“That’s a Camry?” folks would ask.
It certainly doesn’t look like your father’s Toyota. An aggressive front end with a gaping grille, sweeping character lines on the sides and an optional two-tone paint job with a blacked-out roof combine to make it look futuristic and even a bit, yes, sporty.
Granted, my tester was the most out-there looking version, the Camry XSE, which was intentionally designed to appear different from the regular Camry from as far as 200 yards away. Toyota’s stylists wanted the sport trim levels — perhaps the Camry’s biggest opportunity for sales growth — to be obviously, blatantly special.

The Toyota Camry’s new look marks a dramatic departure from the past, especially on the XSE sport trim with a black roof and aggressive lines.

Its new driving feel is similarly sporty, although no one will confuse it for a BMW. The version I tested felt more taut than any Camry I’ve driven before, with less body roll and a noticeably lower center of gravity that helps it hug the road.
The vast majority of buyers, though, will be looking for what this car is known for: a smooth, silent, solid-feeling ride.
Toyota borrowed ideas from its luxury models to help make the new Camry quieter, including more sound insulation under the hood and in the fenders, a thicker insulating mat in front of the firewall, more noise-proofing material in the ceiling and a new design for the rain gutters to cut down on wind noise.
While its roof height is an inch lower than before, something that helps its aerodynamics and contributes to that sporty new look, the interior feels just as spacious as ever. The hip points in both the front and back seats, hood height and glass area all dropped down about an inch, too, to keep visibility and roominess similar to the previous generation.
This car’s Achilles heel remains its infotainment system. Most new 2018 vehicles are offering today’s two best smartphone connection technologies that come from actual tech companies, not car manufacturers — Apple CarPlay and Android Auto — but Toyota stubbornly continues to do its own thing and not offer the Apple or Google systems.
Aside from that, it’s hard to find many complaints in this car. It’s an all-around solid product, as usual for a Camry.
Just as before, three engine choices are available: four cylinders, six cylinders or a hybrid drivetrain.
The 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine makes 206 horsepower and is rated for 41 mpg on the highway, a strong combination that will make most drivers happy.
A 3.5-liter V6 is better for people who want more performance, and I loved how it felt and sounded in my tester. It makes 301 horsepower and earns a still-respectable 32-mpg highway rating from the government.

Despite being an inch lower than before, the new-generation Camry has a cabin that feels just as spacious. It’s designed to look more engaging inside and out.

The hybrid version is rated for 51 mpg in city driving and 53 on the highway, a huge jump over the previous generation car.
Finally, there’s my favorite thing of all about the new Camry and what I think will move more of them on the showroom floor than anything else.
It comes standard — even the cheapest base model — with radar cruise control, lane departure alert with steering assist, blind spot monitors, rear cross traffic alert and sensors designed to prevent collisions, including sensing pedestrians who walk in front of the car.
The system is called Toyota Safety Sense-P, and Toyota deserves major kudos for making this a no-charge feature set on every model instead of an extra-cost upsell like most of its competitors.
Pricing starts at $23,495 for the base L trim and ranges up to $34,950 for the sporty and luxurious XSE with a V6 engine.

At A Glance

What was tested?
2018 Toyota Camry XSE V6 ($34,950). Options: Driver assist package ($1,050), navigation package ($940), two-tone body color ($500). Price as tested (including $885 destination charge): $38,325
Wheelbase: 111.2 in.
Length: 192.7 in.
Width: 72.4 in.
Height: 56.9 in.
Engine: 3.5-liter V6 (301 hp, 267 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 22 city, 32 highway

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

Why buy it?
A total redesign makes the Toyota Camry more eye-catching and engaging to drive than before, especially on its sporty trim levels. It’s an overall improvement to America’s best-selling car for the past 15 years.

Posted in Toyota

Worth the Wait

By Derek Price

Never in my life have I driven a car that got more attention than this one.
It’s a Honda with a sticker price under $35,000, but you couldn’t tell that from the enthusiastic reaction it got everywhere it went during my week behind the wheel.
The “car guy” crowd goes nuts every time they see it, even more so than with the exotic Italian cars and $300,000 Rolls-Royce I tested.
Why is that? Because it’s a Civic Type R, a car with an almost mythical reputation among people who know Japanese performance machines.
For those who don’t know its history, the Type R name dates back to the early 1990s as a way for Honda to denote its highest performance models, typically with reduced weight, extra power and crazy-looking aerodynamic improvements.
For more than 20 years, the Civic Type R has only been sold outside the United States, leaving its fans here to make do with pictures, video games and occasional gray-market imports to gawk at.

The Honda Civic Type R is covered with aerodynamic slits and winglets, and they’re not just decoration. Honda says they’re all designed to be functional, including its giant rear wing that reduces lift at high speeds.

Now, for the first time, Honda is making its coveted super-Civic available to American buyers.
And boy, was it worth the wait.
I’ve driven a lot of fast cars through the years — including a number of the Type R’s hot competitors, such as the Ford Focus RS and Volkswagen Golf R — and none of them quite match up to the mind-blowing experience you get in the Honda.
That’s because the Type R is about much more than raw power.
Like all performance compacts, its formula starts with a ridiculously powerful engine. Its 2.0-liter, four-cylinder, turbocharged powerplant makes  306 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque, both insanely high numbers for a car this light.
What sets the Type R apart, though, is how it sends all that power to the pavement.
It uses a six-speed manual transmission and helical limited-slip differential to route power to the front wheels, something that’s usually a recipe for torque steer — the tendency for the steering wheel to pull left or right when you mash the throttle.
Honda’s engineers figured out how to eliminate that problem better than any front-wheel-drive performance car I’ve ever driven, though. The Type R has a unique steering system, along with adaptive dampers and monster brakes, that combine to force you to recalibrate what you think you know about driving a fast car.
This car corners so fast, with so much grip, that it’s hard to wrap your brain around just what it can do.
But don’t take my word for it. Look at the lap records it’s setting.
The Civic Type R is the fastest front-wheel-drive production car ever to tackle the storied Nurburgring racetrack, setting a record of 7 minutes, 43.8 seconds on the 12.9-mile historic loop in Germany earlier this year.

Racing-style seats with high bolsters play an important role in a vehicle designed for track use. The Civic Type R is designed inside and out around one goal: speed.

A big reason for that is the aerodynamic package Honda designed for the Type R. It’s covered from top to bottom, front to back, in all kinds of crazy slits and winglets, all of which Honda swears are functional, not just for looks. They’re all designed to dissipate heat, reduce drag or add downforce.
In fact, with a price around $34,000, I like to joke that it’s a true bargain at $1 per winglet.
The wild-looking Type R takes on a surprisingly docile demeanor, though, when you switch its drive setting into comfort mode. It changes from a snarling, track-focused beast to a reasonably smooth-riding, easy-to-drive commuter car.
Still, my favorite thing to do with the Type R was keep it in its most aggressive setting — +R, they call it — and enjoy all the visceral sounds and feelings that come with its wailing engine and stupid-fast cornering capability.
Assuming you don’t mind its Fast-and-Furious looks and you can handle throngs of car geeks wanting to check it out in parking lots, it’s the perfect car for people looking for extreme performance on a realistic budget.

At A Glance

What was tested?
2017 Honda Civic Type R Touring ($33,900). Options: None. Price as tested (including $875 destination charge): $34,775
Wheelbase: 106.3 in.
Length: 179.4 in.
Width: 73.9 in.
Height: 56.5 in.
Engine: 2.0-liter turbo four cylinder (306 hp, 295 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel economy: 22 city, 28 highway

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

Why buy it?
It’s an incredible performance bargain, offering attention-getting, supercar-like looks and sensations with a sticker price under $35,000.

Posted in Honda

New Rio Makes Debut

By Derek Price

High-priced dream cars may get all the attention, but it’s cars like this — the affordably priced Kia Rio — that matter to a lot more Americans.
Heck, with a starting price under $14,000, a brand-new Rio is cheaper than a lot of the vehicles on used-car lots. The question, then, is how much drivers have to give up when they choose a new car off the bargain rack.
After a complete redesign for 2018, the answer for the Rio is “not much.”
Let’s start with a low point: the regrettable use of hard plastics throughout the interior.
While vehicles such as the Soul ($16,100) and Forte ($16,700) slightly higher in Kia’s lineup have done a good job transitioning to soft-touch materials in their cabins, the Rio continues along with its Little Tykes theme. Construction feels tight and precise, but you can feel the couple of grand in cost savings everywhere you touch.
Aside from that quibble — one weakness a lot of cars in this price class share, to be honest — there’s not a lot to complain about. Kia’s engineers did a good job massaging the new Rio into something that feels more supple and engaging over the road.
Its drivetrain is a clear high point. Its direct-injected gasoline engine is enhanced this year to improve the fuel economy, pushing it up to 37 mpg on the highway, and respond quicker to throttle input at the same time.

The affordably priced Kia Rio gets a new design for 2018 that makes it look sportier, including a European-inspired hatchback model.

With a six-speed automatic on my tester, the 130-horsepower engine accelerated better than I was expecting, particularly at low speeds when leaving stoplights. I imagine the six-speed manual would feel even better.
I also loved the technology in my tester. Its UVO3 entertainment system with a seven-inch touchscreen reminded me of the kind of digital toys I expect in pricier luxury cars like the $45,000 Kia Cadenza I drove earlier this year. Yeah, the Cadenza costs more than twice as much as a well-equipped Rio and targets a completely different, more upscale market, but their high-tech bells and whistles seem substantially identical.
A big reason for that is the introduction of Apple CarPlay, which makes interacting with my iPhone a breeze. A similar technology is available for Android phone users.
Anyone who’s driven subcompact cars in the past knows they can be noisy and feel rough on the highway, but the Rio’s fresh design continues the trend of making loud cars a thing of the past. It’s been getting more refined, quiet and comfortable with each generation, and this new one takes another big leap forward.
A major reason for that is the material it’s built from, using more high-strength steel blends to make the body more rigid and stiff, something that improves everything from crash-test results to the highway ride and handling in corners.
Kia also says “the Rio uses body sealing and bonding adhesives to dampen sound pathways throughout its construction,” something I noticed on my test drive. The noise and vibration at highway speed are dramatically reduced.

The Rio’s cabin was carefully redesigned to create more volume inside and have a more contemporary look. New front seats have added padding to make them more comfortable, too.

While the Rio’s dimensions keep it squarely in the subcompact category, the cabin feels roomier than most thanks to thoughtful sculpting of the dash, seat backs and door panels to create more interior volume. There’s more leg and shoulder room in both the front and back seats now.
The front seats also get an ingenious redesign this year that makes them thinner — contributing to the voluminous feeling in the cabin — but also with more cushioning and padding than before to make them more comfortable.
Pricing starts at $13,900 for the LX with a manual transmission and ranges to $18,400 for the more upscale EX trim.

At A Glance

What was tested?
2018 Kia Rio 5-Door LX ($14,200). Options: Automatic transmission ($1,090). Price as tested (including $895 destination charge): $16,185
Wheelbase: 101.6 in.
Length: 172.6 in.
Width: 67.9 in.
Height: 57.1 in.
Engine: 1.6-liter four cylinder (130 hp, 119 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 29 city, 37 highway

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

Why buy it?
It gets a complete redesign for 2018. The new generation Rio looks better, has a roomier cabin and a quieter, more refined ride, while still delivering a bargain price.

Posted in Kia