Passat Gets Sportier

By Derek Price

It’s easy to imagine many of Volkswagen’s cars on the streets of their close-to-home markets in Europe. That’s part of their charm.
The compact Golf, zippy Jetta and nostalgic Beetle have global appeal but seem to unabashedly draw their spirit from German roots.
The big Passat, in contrast — with its gigantic cabin, syrupy ride and wide-swinging doors — feels like it’s built not just for Americans, but for an outsized caricature of Americans with our Big Gulp drinks, cowboy hats and beer bellies.
It’s interesting, then, to see that after collecting new data from actual Americans — not cartoon stereotypes of us — Volkswagen is delivering a Passat that looks and feels more like its Europe-focused models.
The special-edition Passat GT was designed in Tennessee “based on extensive feedback from U.S. customers and dealers,” VW says.

A lowered suspension, blacked-out trim, black roof and GTI-like red stripe make the new Passat GT stand out visually.

And what did we Americans demand? Basically, a roomier version of the Golf GTI.
With a lowered suspension, V6 power and aggressive body styling including a blacked-out roof, mirrors and trim, plus bright red accents ripped straight from the GTI history books, the GT feels like the most German flavor yet wrought from the current, highly Americanized generation of Passat.
The Passat GT starts with the sporty R-Line trim and takes it a step further. It includes standard LED headlights, a honeycomb grille and low-slung stance that makes it look much leaner and meaner than the ordinary Passat.
Inside, it continues the sporty, blacked-out theme. A shiny piano black center stack, black headliner, aluminum badges and carbon-style trim give it a cool, contemporary feel.
My favorite thing about driving it for a week was the engine. With a 280-horsepower V6 under the hood — something becoming rare these days as sedans, including luxury models, switch to turbocharged four-cylinder power plants — the Passat GT feels potent at all times, whether launching from a full stop or passing on the freeway.

The Passat feels luxuriously spacious inside, especially for the money. It starts around $25,000 and offers ample hip, knee and head room.

My least favorite thing? Realizing how spectacular this car could be, but isn’t.
Years ago, the Passat felt like a slightly toned-down Audi, complete with a supple cabin and engaging, sparkling handling. Even with the GT’s suspension improvements, it never handles like a true sports sedan, and its cabin is minimalistic to the point of being dull. Straight horizontal lines and so-so materials make it feel like a roomy VW instead of the pseudo-Audi that it could be.
Then again, a pseudo-Audi would almost certainly have to be more expensive than this. The Passat starts around $25,000, and my tester — with its handsome looks, roomy cabin, V6 power, 6.3-inch touchscreen, blind-spot sensors and autonomous emergency braking — still rang up under $30,000. It’s a whole lot of car for the money.
Volkswagen sweetens the value proposition even further with its standard warranty. It offers what it calls “America’s best bumper-to-bumper new vehicle limited warranty” for six years or 72,000 miles.

At A Glance

What was tested? 2018 Volkswagen Passat GT V6 ($29,145). Options: None. Price as tested (including $850 destination charge): $29,995
Wheelbase: 110.4 in.
Length: 191.9 in.
Width: 72.2 in.
Height: 58.5 in.
Engine: 3.6-liter V6 (280 hp, 258 ft. lbs.)
Transmission: Six-speed DSG automatic
Fuel economy: 19 city, 28 highway

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

Why buy it? 
A roomy trunk and spacious cabin make the Passat impressively practical. A new GT trim adds a more European look and feel to the equation. It’s a lot of car for the money.

Posted in Volkswagen

Envision Sweetens the Deal

By Derek Price
The Buick Envision launched without much fanfare in 2016, but it’s quickly grown into one of the brand’s top sellers.
That’s no surprise considering the Envision is a midsize crossover, the kind of practical but stylish vehicle with enough popularity to put sedans on the endangered-species list.
It also means buyers have nothing but good choices in this space. Car companies are engaging in a Wrestlemania-style smackdown by pouring development and content dollars into what has long been the fastest-growing segment of new-car sales.
The Envision delivers a one-two punch for 2019.
Like many of its competitors, it’s adding new features and upgrades for the new model year with a noticeable refresh. A better available drivetrain tops the upgrade list by offering a thoroughly modern nine-speed automatic transmission and more powerful turbocharged engine.

Revised styling and upgraded content keeps the Buick Envision looking sharp for another model year. Pricing is also lower, including a $2,000 drop on the base trim.

Unlike most of its competitors, though, it’s also lowering the price. The 2019 Envision base trim is a whopping $2,000 lower than the 2018 version, and the discounts continue at the higher trim levels, too. Whether that’s correcting a pricing error, trying to aggressively increase its market share or preparing for possible Trump-era tariffs is up to interpretation and debate.
The Envision is assembled in China and potentially could be affected by political trade winds.
Whatever the reason, the combination of a price cut and more features makes the Envision more appealing than ever.
Styling changes are subtle. A revised grille and new fascias in front and back look more sculpted, keeping it fresh without losing its identity.
The differences are bigger under the skin, though, starting with that spectacular new drivetrain.
I haven’t driven the base Envision, powered by a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that makes less than 200 horsepower, something I’d guess is underwhelming.
The version I drove was fitted with the better engine — a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder — that makes a much more palatable 252 horsepower and downright impressive 295 pound-feet of torque. Mated to the nine-speed automatic, it feels like a perfect fit for the premium as-tested price around $48,000.
Not surprisingly for a Buick, handling is adjusted more for isolation and comfort than excitement. Personally, I love crossover vehicles that are silent and compliant like this one, but people who prefer a livelier ride can find it elsewhere.

The Envision’s cabin feels roomy and upscale. With Buick’s distinctive smooth, quiet ride, it’s an ideal space for soaking up miles of highway pavement.

Much like a hybrid car, the Envision’s engine shuts down when it comes to a complete stop to save fuel. Its smooth restart doesn’t bother me, but pickier drivers will be pleased to learn Buick added an on-off switch for this feature. It also adds a switch to let drivers choose between old-fashioned cruise control and the newfangled adaptive cruise that adjusts the vehicle’s speed automatically in traffic.
I also like the little details Buick improves this year. A new brake booster upgrades both performance and feel at the pedal; the rear-view camera has a better picture; heated seats warm up faster than before; the wireless charger offers more wattage and compatibility with more phones, including the new iPhone 8 and X; and an air ionizer helps the cabin smell clean and fresh.
Individually, the changes are minor. Taken as a whole package, though — especially when coupled with the price drop — the latest Envision is noticeably more compelling.
Pricing starts at $31,995 for the base front-wheel-drive model and ranges up to $44,795 for the Premium II level with all-wheel drive and a long list of luxury features, including heated and cooled seats and a heads-up display.

At A Glance

What was tested?
2019 Buick Envision AWD Premium II ($43,600). Options: Driver confidence package ($1,545), panoramic moonroof ($1,495), bronze alloy metallic paint ($395). Price as tested (including $995 destination charge): $48,030
Wheelbase: 108.3 in.
Length: 183.7 in.
Width: 72.4 in.
Height: 66.8 in.
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged four cylinder (252 hp, 295 ft. lbs.)
Transmission: Nine-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 20 city, 25 highway

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

Why buy it? 
Already a popular choice for Buick buyers, the midsize Envision gets a lower price and more features for the 2019 model year. It offers a serene highway experience and better performance with an upgraded engine and transmission.

Posted in Buick

A Goldilocks Pickup

By Derek Price

Nissan’s Titan XD remains in many ways the Goldilocks of hard-working pickups.
Designed to have more capability than a half-ton truck but without the overkill, cost and drawbacks of a heavy-duty, three-quarter-ton pickup, the XD is uniquely slotted in the marketplace.
It’s designed to be “just right” for a certain type of truck buyer, a person who tows or hauls more than more than what a light-duty model can handle but doesn’t want the stiff ride, thirsty consumption and stratospheric sticker prices of domestic-brand heavy-duty pickups.
After spending a week driving the Titan XD, I think it fits that mission perfectly. It’s noticeably harsher over the road than any contemporary half-ton truck — especially when fitted with the Pro-4X off-road suspension and tires on my tester — but also vastly more capable.
Properly equipped, the Titan XD can tow 12,310 pounds or carry a payload of 2,080 pounds. While the federal government doesn’t issue fuel-economy ratings for heavy-duty trucks, my real-world experience at the fuel pump made it cheaper to drive than I expected.

The Nissan Titan XD is designed to offer more capability than a light-duty pickup truck. It has a beefed-up frame, brakes and suspension engineered to haul heavier loads.

Two powertrains are available in the Titan XD. One, a 5.6-liter gasoline V8, routes 390 horsepower and 394 pound-feet of torque through a seven-speed automatic transmission.
The other is a 5.0-liter Cummins diesel fitted to a six-speed Aisin automatic. It makes 310 horsepower and, more importantly, 555 pound-feet of torque that helps dramatically when pulling heavy trailers from a dead stop.
While the Titan XD looks fairly similar to the half-ton Titan, much of the guts underneath the body have been beefed up to handle heavier loads, and you can feel it from behind the wheel. A heavier frame, gigantic brakes, stout suspension and tough axle and differential give it a heftier, more purposeful driving feel than the light-duty Titan.
Cabin materials and construction no longer stand out compared to the recently redesigned domestic competitors, but the overall design and functionality of this truck remain top-notch. I especially like its innovative Utili-track tie-down system with rails and movable cleats in the bed.
The lockable, weatherproof Titan Box is another cool, well-designed option. Accessible from inside the bed, it keeps things hidden from street level, can be used as a cooler for tailgating, and is removable for those times when you need the full width of the bed for hauling cargo.

The Titan XD’s cabin is spacious and intelligently designed. Smart storage features both in the cabin and in the bed make it useful and durable.

Changes to the Titan XD for 2018 are minimal. A new Midnight Edition package offers a custom look with black mirrors, darkened headlamps, dark badges, 20-inch black wheels and body-color bumpers. It has the sinister, blacked-out look that’s increasingly popular on everything from sports cars to SUVs.
For 2019, the Titan is available with a spectacular Fender audio system that I got to experience at the Texas Truck Rodeo in October. It delivers crisp highs and punchy bass that would sound impressive in a luxury car and are downright surprising in a hard-working pickup like this.
Pricing starts at $32,040 for the base, single-cab S grade with the gasoline engine. The popular Crew Cab starts at $37,240 with the gas V8 or $42,490 with the diesel.
If you’re looking for a luxury experience, the sticker price tops out at $63,610 for the Platinum crew cab with the Cummins engine — a downright steal compared to the dizzying heights some upper-echelon truck prices are reaching these days.

At A Glance

What was tested?
2018 Nissan Titan XD Pro-4X 4×4 ($50,940). Options: Pro-4X utility package ($1,445), Pro-4X convenience package ($3,295), premium package ($1,545), premium paint ($395). Price as tested (including $1,295 destination charge): $58,915
Wheelbase: 151.6 in.
Length: 243.6 in.
Width: 80.7 in.
Height: 78.4 in.
Engine: 5.0-liter diesel V8 (310 hp, 555 ft. lbs.)
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy: Not rated

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

Why buy it? 
The Titan XD offers serious capability, a smart utilitarian design and excellent powertrain and platform for towing, all without the expense and drawbacks of a full-blown, heavy-duty truck.

Posted in Nissan