Swedish Sophistication

By Derek Price

If Volvo wants to sell a lot more SUVs, I’ve got an idea.
Have a salesman take the front seats from the XC90, plop them down in public places — shopping malls, parks, downtown sidewalks — and just watch how fast people’s wallets open up after they have a seat.
You’re welcome, Volvo.
There are a lot of reasons to like the new generation XC90. It’s solid. It’s smooth riding. It’s luxurious and quiet. It’s beautifully designed, both inside and out.
But it’s the seats I keep coming back to after spending a week driving it.  Not only were they among the most comfortable I’ve ever sat in, with soft leather that’s heated and cooled to keep your backside at the perfect temperature, but they also somehow trapped a masseuse’s hands on the inside.
The XC90’s seats have an optional built-in massage function that you can customize in several ways. You can set the style, intensity and speed of the massage, so everywhere you drive feels like you’re sitting in a spa. It’s magical and incredibly relaxing.
In fact, this vehicle’s whole demeanor is spa-like.

Volvo’s XC90 has a premium driving feel and stunning Swedish design. Pricing starts at $45,750.

From the moment you step inside, you’re surrounded by spartan, elegant Swedish style. Open-pore wood, minimalist design and a gigantic sunroof make it feel more natural and organic than most cars, and the perception of quality is everywhere.
One example: The doors still feel solid.
Most vehicles today, including many expensive luxury cars, have doors that feel light and hollowed out, presumably the result of engineers trying to eke out every last drop of fuel economy by cutting down on mass. But when you close the doors in the XC90, it feels like you shut yourself inside a bank vault.
Other car companies should take notes. While they’re at it, they should follow Volvo’s lead on digital interface design, too.
A lot of luxury brands are experimenting with different ways of controlling the phalanx of computerized bells and whistles that get crammed onto their touchscreens. Many of them are frustrating failures, which is why I think most car companies should license the digital front end from Apple and Google. Let the experts handle it, I say.
The XC90 is a notable exception. With a large, crisp touchscreen that looks and operates a lot like an iPad, its system is instantly familiar and usable. Someone at Volvo obviously spent a lot of time thinking it through, and the result is a functional and visual masterpiece.
On the outside, this big crossover is handsome without being too flashy. I like the look of the “Thor’s hammer” headlights, if not their cheesy marketing name, along with the sculpted style of horizontal lines that make it seem chiseled and serious.
My tester, a very well-optioned Inscription model with around $20,000 in upgrades, was powered by an unusually small, 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine that gets boosted to 316 horsepower. It uses both turbocharging and supercharging to generate big power from the tiny displacement, an interesting way of arriving at the amount of force needed to scoot a heavy vehicle with authority.
And it did. Acceleration was more than adequate with this engine, labeled the T6. If you want to go faster, and get better fuel economy at the same time, you can upgrade to the T8 Plug-In Hybrid starting around $68,000.

The stunning Excellence model, starting over $100,000, shows just how far upmarket the XC90’s platform can be pushed. It’s designed around a luxurious back-seat experience for chauffeur-driven buyers.

For the ultimate upgrade, you can choose the Excellence model that starts at $104,900 and feels like it’s designed for Russian oligarchs. It comes with a built-in refrigerator and limo-like back seats that maybe, just maybe, could tempt buyers away from a Bentley or Rolls.
Even if you don’t deal in illicit oil, you’re in luck, too. The XC90 starts at $45,750 for the Momentum trim.

At A Glance

What was tested?
2017 Volvo XC90 T6 AWD ($51,600). Options: Inscription package ($5,600), vision package ($1,950), climate package ($1,950), convenience package ($1,800), luxury package ($2,900), Bowers & Wilkins premium sound ($2,650), metallic paint ($560), second row center booster ($250), 21-inch wheels ($750), four-corner air suspension ($1,800). Price as tested (including $995 destination charge): $72,805
Wheelbase: 117.5 in.
Length: 194.9 in.
Width: 84.3 in.
Height: 69.9 in.
Engine: 2.0-liter supercharged and turbocharged four-cylinder (316 hp, 295 ft. lbs.)
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 20 city, 25 highway

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

Why buy it?
It’s one of the best designed vehicles in the world, covering the gamut from upscale family hauler to full-blown luxury status symbol.

Posted in Volvo

Street-Legal Show Car

By Derek Price

If you’re a Hollywood starlet who just signed a major movie deal, you’re in luck. Lexus has just the car for you.
It’s called the LC, and it’s one of the most stunningly styled cars to be unveiled in years. Sleek, sexy and almost alien looking in profile, it’s a dramatic change from the rolling sleep aids that have plagued the luxury market for the past eight years.
After the great recession, high-end buyers seemed to shy away from cars that looked too flashy. Nobody wanted to catch the ire of Bernie Sanders and Occupy Wall Street, I suppose, which is why luxury models have more or less looked like regular family cars lately, perhaps with a slightly bigger grille and a bit more chrome.
But just look at this thing. It screams, “The recession is over, baby!”

Stunning from any angle, the new Lexus LC coupe looks sleek and futuristic. With a starting price over $90,000, it sits atop Lexus’ 2018 lineup and shows off the brand’s future direction.

That’s why if you just signed a multi-picture deal with 20th Century Fox — or want to look like you did — and have around $100,000 burning a hole in your designer-jeans pocket, you can buy this luxury coupe that actually turns heads.
To be clear, the LC is first and foremost about high fashion. It looks like a Lexus concept car built for the auto show circuit with a miles-long hood, unusual door handles that hide flush with the body, a wild back end and a sloping roofline that seems to levitate above the rest of the car.
The overall look absolutely works. It’s rolling sculpture. It’s pheromones stamped into steel.
The sculptural theme continues on the inside with carved-out armrests and a very contemporary layout that would look perfectly at home in an art museum. It’s modern and clean, almost Scandinavian in appearance.
Look deeper than the styling, though, and I start to have some concerns about it.
One is the way it drives. While my LC 500h tester is one of the most exhilarating hybrids I’ve ever piloted — mainly thanks to its new-generation Multi Stage Hybrid System that ingeniously gives the driver a faster throttle response — that’s a bit like saying I went to the best school in Mississippi. It’s not something people generally brag about.
The hybrid LC feels sterile and safe from the driver’s seat, which is not unusual for a Lexus but a bit disappointing for a car that looks so dangerous and thrilling on the outside. Even with augmented engine sounds pumping through the speakers and “Sport+” mode engaged, there’s only so much Lexus can do to make the 3.5-liter V6 feel different than it does in the Toyota Camry.
I have a feeling I’d enjoy driving the V8-powered LC 500 much more than my hybrid tester, which combines the V6 with electric motors to make a respectable 354 horsepower at a starting price over $96,000. The faster, 471-horsepower V8 version looks like a bargain in comparison at $92 grand.
I’m also concerned about Lexus’ next-generation digital interface in this car. It uses a touchpad to control a cursor on the screen as if it’s a 1996 Hewlett-Packard laptop. That’s difficult enough when you’re operating a computer while sitting still at home, so doing the same thing while driving over bumpy roads is absolutely maddening. I don’t understand how anyone at Lexus thought this could be a good idea.

Bulky hand grips are a fun — and sometimes useful — touch in the LC’s cabin. Much like its body, the interior of this car has a sculptural look with carved-out armrests and striking lines.

If you can look past the touchpad, the digital system itself is fine. It responds quickly to your inputs. The graphics are gorgeous. The screen is crisp and easy to read.
While the front passengers will be treated to luxurious leg room and spacious, supportive, easily adjustable seats, the back-seat passengers will have to tolerate second-class status. The sloping roofline that looks so gorgeous really eats into their head room and occasionally bumps their noggins.
That’s the price to pay, though, for driving a street-legal show car.

At A Glance

What was tested?
2018 Lexus LC 500h ($96,510). Options: Convenience package ($1,000), touring package ($1,790). Price as tested (including $995 destination charge): $100,295
Wheelbase: 113 in.
Length: 187.4 in.
Width: 75.6 in.
Height: 53 in.
Engine: 3.5-liter V6, plus electric motors (354 total system hp)
Transmission: Multi-stage hybrid
Fuel economy: 26 city, 35 highway

Style: 10
Performance: 7
Price: 6
Handling: 10
Ride: 8
Comfort: 9
Quality: 9
Overall: 8

Why buy it?
Not only is it one of the most head-turning new cars to hit the market, but it’s a showplace for Lexus’ latest technology and engineering. Its hybrid powertrain is one of the most responsive on the market.

Posted in Lexus, Uncategorized

Appeal and Practicality

By Derek Price

When automakers send a car to journalists for a test drive, they typically provide one of the highest priced, loaded-up trim levels.
Part of the reason is to show off the latest gadgets and gizmos, sure, but I think there’s a sneakier rationale at play. I call it option bribery. If you coddle writers in enough leather and car toys, they’re less likely to write mean things about you.
That’s why the subject of this week’s review, the Honda Civic Hatchback, is a bit surprising. Instead of sending me a fancy-pants Sport Touring model with a thumping 540-watt stereo and lots of touchscreen doodads, Honda dropped off the kind of Civic people are much more likely to actually buy: the basic Sport trim priced around $22,000.
And a model like this explains why the Civic remains a perennial hot seller. It’s not about the gizmos. It’s not about the luxuries.

A new generation of the Honda Civic bows for 2017, including a hatchback with much more aggressive styling and a turbocharged engine.

It’s about the raw appeal and practicality, two things this car has in abundance.
On the emotional side, this new generation Civic steals your heart with a more striking body than before, particularly in the hatchback version with its dramatic side swoops, in-your-face grille and ultramodern back end. It looks like the kind of car you want to drive, not the kind your budget forces you to drive.
The appeal spills over into the way it handles, too.
The Civic has always been a spirited car, one that feels more firm and connected to the road than its arch nemesis from Japan, the Toyota Corolla. That continues with this generation.
With a manual transmission, especially, the Civic is a blast to drive. While it sends power to the front wheels — not normally ideal for a sporty car — the steering, suspension and throttle all work in harmony to deliver an engaging, responsive sensation to the driver.
All the hatchback models are equipped with a 1.5-liter turbocharged engine that adds to its spirited feel. It makes 174 horsepower in the LX, EX and EX-L models, while Sport and Sport Touring trims crank out 180 horses thanks to their spectacular sounding dual exhaust systems.
There are a lot of little, logical things I like about it, too.
It has ample storage for a compact car, with smartly placed bins and nooks for stashing your stuff. There’s a decent amount of cargo space in back, rivaling some small crossovers. And Honda always seems to get the small details right, like gauges that look crisp and sporty with red accents and good lighting at night.
One downside: The manual transmission that I love so much in my $22,000 tester isn’t available on the high-end trims. If you want a fancier flavor with the best transmission, you’re out of luck, unfortunately.

The new Civic’s cabin offers generous space for its class, including 25.7 cubic feet of cargo capacity behind the rear seat.

Also, the same things I see as strengths — the firm ride, the aggressive exhaust note, the unusual styling — could be negatives depending on the kind of car you’re looking for. If you want to anonymously blend in and waft down the highway in buttery silence, this isn’t the best fit.
From a technology standpoint, the Civic checks all the right boxes for a 2017 vehicle, including an available suite of driving enhancements called Honda Sensing to help avoid collisions and make trips more relaxing. I’m a big fan of the adaptive cruise control and lane keeping features that combine to make it feel almost like an autonomous vehicle when on a well-marked highway.
I’m also glad Honda offers this package on the base LX model for a $1,000 premium, not only on the more luxury oriented trims.
Pricing starts at $19,700 for the LX hatchback with a manual gearbox or $20,500 with a continuously variable transmission. It tops out at $28,300 for the Sport Touring trim before adding options.

At A Glance

What was tested?
2017 Honda Civic Hatchback Sport ($21,300). Options: None. Price as tested (including $835 destination charge): $22,135
Wheelbase: 106.3 in.
Length: 177.9 in.
Width: 70.8 in.
Height: 56.3 in.
Engine: 1.5-liter turbocharged four cylinder (180 hp, 162 lbs-ft)
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel economy: 30 city, 39 highway

Style: 8
Performance: 7
Price: 10
Handling: 7
Ride: 6
Comfort: 6
Quality: 9
Overall: 8

Why buy it?
With an aggressive new look and a turbocharged engine under the hood, the Civic Hatchback is an engaging car to drive and look at.

Posted in Honda