Perfection Behind the Wheel

By Derek Price

For pure driving bliss, it’s hard to beat this car, the Mazda MX-5 Miata.
It’s easy to wax poetic about a two-seat sports car designed entirely around the emotions of driving. Everything about it is tailored to make drivers smile, from the sinckety-snick feel of its short-throw manual transmission to the classic burble of its exhaust.
To me, it’s absolute perfection. It’s one of the few cars on which I wouldn’t change a single nut or bolt because it feels like it was delivered from the driving gods in its ideal, pure, transcendent form.
You can look into the details to guess at why. Some of its basic elements are the best ever executed on any car at any price, like its manually operated cloth top that can be raised or lowered in one fast, easy, fluid motion with one arm. No other convertible comes anywhere close to that beautiful simplicity.

An optional cherry red top is the most eye-catching change to the MX-5 Mazda Miata for 2018.

You could say the same thing about its manual transmission. Its short, precise, mechanical throws feel like flipping a toggle switch on a vintage aircraft.
With a seating position barely above the ground, arm rests and the shifter knob exactly where your arms naturally lay, and a perfectly weighted steering wheel just above your lap, it’s not just a car you drive. It’s a car you wear. And it fits just right, like a tailored shirt.
There are people who complain about some aspects of the Miata. They say it’s too small, too noisy, too impractical and doesn’t have a glove box.
Let me be exceptionally clear: Those people are bad human beings. You shouldn’t spend time around them.
Those complaints entirely miss the point of this car. In fact, I think Mazda did an amazing job making the Miata an easy car to live with on a daily basis, considering all the “daily driver” tasks from trunk space to cup holders are secondary to its laser-focused mission of driving fun.
The Miata was brilliantly redesigned just two years ago, so it’s no surprise that the changes for 2018 are relatively minor.
You can get the soft top in a dark cherry color this year, something I thought looked different but still tasteful on my tester. An auburn Nappa leather interior is also available on the Grand Touring trim after being limited to the exclusive MX-5 RF Launch Edition last year.

The Miata’s cabin, like the rest of the vehicle, is focused on the driver. It’s a classic roadster designed for open-air enjoyment, something it delivers in abundance.

A revised infotainment system with a 7-inch touchscreen is now standard on all models, along with smart keyless entry.
While Mazda claims to have changed the rear suspension tuning and power steering this year, the difference feels subtle to me at best. It drives very similar to the 2017 model, perhaps with a bit less road noise infiltrating from the rear tires.
Mazda continues to sell the retractable hard-top version of the Miata, called the RF, with sleek fastback styling and a quieter highway experience. Priced at $31,910, it’s around a $7,000 premium over the base ragtop Miata.
For ease of use and matching the MX-5’s spiritual mission, I like the soft top better. My eyes feel drawn to the RF, though, with its stunningly beautiful, almost supercar-like back end.
Starting price for the soft-top Miata is $25,295, making it the best happiness-per-dollar bargain on the market today by a wide margin.

At A Glance

What was tested?
2018 Mazda Miata Club ($29,155). Options: None. Price as tested (including $890 destination charge): $30,045
Wheelbase: 90.9 in.
Length: 154.1 in.
Width: 58.9 in.
Height: 48.6 in.
Engine: 2.0-liter four cylinder (155 hp, 148 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel economy: 26 city, 35 highway

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

Why buy it?
It’s pure joy on four wheels. It’s a blast to drive at any speed, has a manual transmission that feels spectacular and a manual soft top with the best functionality in the history of cars.

Posted in Mazda

C-HR Spunky, Surprising

By Derek Price

There was a time when buying a Toyota — especially a small, affordable Toyota like this — meant you had no sense of automotive adventure.
This quintessential Japanese brand is making a dramatic shift, though, from cars that were dull and predictable to ones that are spunky and surprising, at least to the eye.
And no Toyota model illustrates that change better than this one, the new C-HR.
With a starting price of $22,500, this all-new compact crossover would seem to compete with Toyota’s traditional bread-and-butter sedans, the Corolla and Camry. Its base price falls smack dab between the two.
Nothing about the C-HR looks traditional, though.
Toyota says the acronym stands for “Coupe – High Rider,” which is an odd choice for a vehicle that is neither a coupe nor rides very high. It has four doors and drives like a zippy compact car, reasonably close to the ground.
It does look a bit coupe-like, though, with a sloping roofline and sleek silhouette that masks its practicality. Huge fender flares, dramatic sculptural lines and rear door handles mounted unusually high, near the top back corners where they’re barely visible, add up to a whimsical and outgoing sense of style.

The Toyota C-HR has an unusual design that mixes the layout of a crossover vehicle with the style of a coupe.

I love the color palette Toyota offers on this car. My tester came in mint green with a white roof, a combination that reminded my kids of toothpaste. I thought it looked more like classic 1950s American cars.
Step inside, and you’ll find a cabin that looks modern but nowhere near as unusual as the body. It’s a showplace for what most compact cars look like in 2018: a very horizontal dash, big touchscreen that dominates the center stack, eye-catching air vents and a steering wheel with lots of buttons. There’s also a sprinkling of soft-touch material and enough hard plastics to remind you it’s not a luxury car.
This cabin is more about content than design. Every trim level, including the base version, comes with a suite of active safety features called Toyota Safety Sense-P. That means it comes with adaptive cruise control, sensors that can detect pedestrians and brake automatically, and lane departure warning with steering assist that helps to keep the car centered in the lane.
An acoustic glass windshield and decent sound insulation make it quieter than many cars this size.
If I could change one thing about the C-HR, it would be to make its performance match the spunky looks. With a small, four-cylinder engine and continuously variable transmission, the reality of driving it just doesn’t fit the body’s boisterous hype. It’s begging for a turbocharger and manual transmission, but instead its only powertrain offering — a 144-horsepower engine paired to a CVT — is adequate but uninspiring.

The C-HR’s interior looks more conventional than its body. It comes standard with radar cruise control that changes the vehicle’s speed to flow with traffic.

The steering, brakes and suspension all feel nicely tuned for a compromise between sportiness and comfort.
While the base XLE model comes very well equipped for the price, Toyota also offers an XLE Premium trim that adds more features. A blind spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert, heated front seats and a Smart Key system with push-button start are all included on this higher trim, priced from $24,350.

At A Glance

What was tested?
2018 Toyota C-HR XLE ($22,500). Options: Color-keyed body with white roof and mirrors ($500). Price as tested (including $995 destination charge): $23,995
Wheelbase: 103.9 in.
Length: 171.2 in.
Width: 70.7 in.
Height: 61.6 in.
Engine: 2.0-liter four cylinder (144 hp, 139 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Continuously variable
Fuel economy: 27 city, 31 highway

Style: 10
Performance: 4
Price: 7
Handling: 6
Ride: 6
Comfort: 6
Quality: 8
Overall: 7

Why buy it?
It’s priced like a compact car but has a much more creative, inventive sense of design. Its crossover layout offers practical cargo and passenger space with a coupe-like profile.

Posted in Uncategorized

Enclave Steps Up

By Derek Price

There used to be a word for cars that were a bit nicer than a Buick. That word was “Cadillac.”
This year, though, Buick is launching a new sub-brand, Avenir, that represents a higher rung up the luxury ladder than regular ol’ Buicks.
It’s an interesting strategy, one that parent company General Motors has used elsewhere in its portfolio, the most successful example of which is the upmarket Denali trim that has grown into a popular and lucrative part of GMC’s truck and SUV strategy.
Before we discuss auto sales gameplay, though, let’s look into the first Avenir I’ve driven, the latest iteration of the Buick Enclave.
The Enclave has long been one of my favorites because it drives exactly like a mid-size crossover should, at least in my mind. My persnickety side gets annoyed with CUVs that try to be sporty or pretend to be performance oriented, popular as they may be in the marketplace.
I want a crossover that’s smooth and comfy riding for highway trips with my family, and I want a separate sports car sitting beside it in my garage. Those are two distinct roles that don’t have any business being mixed.

A distinctive grille and special badging sets the exterior of the Avenir luxury line apart on the all-new 2018 Buick Enclave.

The Enclave understands that. From the beginning, it’s been one of the most pleasant vehicles for quiet, relaxing driving, and the all-new version for 2018 continues in that vein.
Style wise, it looks like it went on a strict diet. It has a sleeker roofline now, giving the vehicle a more trim, fit appearance overall. And that’s deceiving, because this new generation has around 10 percent more interior volume than before, including storage spaces hidden under the floor for extra road-trip bliss.
What I like even more is how it cranks up the serenity.
New this year, electronic noise cancellation combines with outstanding sound insulation and attention to detail — something Buick calls QuietTuning in its marketing speak — to make the Enclave astoundingly silent over the road. It comes close to matching the surreal feeling you get in pricey, full-size luxury cars from Mercedes-Benz and Lexus.
The base Enclave is priced under $40,000, while the fancy Avenir version starts at $53,500.
For that extra money, the Avenir offers more premium content such as wireless device charging, a built-in navigation system and a huge dual moonroof.
More importantly, the materials and design in the cabin go a step beyond anything I’ve seen from Buick before. It has a real mahogany wood steering wheel, beautifully stitched leather and carefully coordinated colors that make it feel like an oh-so-trendy fashion accessory.
A unique, eye-catching Avenir grille, gorgeous 20-inch wheels and exclusive badges dress up the exterior.

The new Buick Enclave shows great attention to detail, especially with the silence of its cabin. It’s a serene space for racking up highway miles.

Back to Buick’s strategy, though.
As nice as this upscale Enclave is to drive, I’m skeptical about whether it’s going to end up a Denali-like sales hit. To me, one of the biggest selling points of driving a Buick — and the Enclave in particular — is its sumptuous driving experience without the higher price or snobbishness of a full-blown luxury brand like Cadillac, Lexus or Mercedes.
Buick does a great job of low-key luxury. I love that.
Add in all the showy bling, though, plus a considerably higher price — close to $60,000 for my heavily optioned Avenir tester — and there’s nothing low-key about it anymore. It’s suddenly all about flash, and a battle over flamboyance isn’t one I’d expect a Buick to win. Those buyers should politely be directed to the Cadillac lot.
For traditional Buick fans who want a bit more luxury, though, this new Avenir sub-brand could be a perfect fit.

At A Glance

What was tested?
2018 Buick Enclave Avenir FWD 1SP ($53,415). Options: Avenir technology package ($2,095), heavy duty cooling system ($650). Price as tested (including $975 destination charge): $57,135
Wheelbase: 120.9 in.
Length: 204.3 in.
Width: 78.8 in.
Height: 69.9 in.
Engine: 3.6-liter V6 (310 hp, 266 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Nine-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 18 city, 26 highway

Style: 9
Performance: 9
Price: 8
Handling: 5
Ride: 10
Comfort: 10
Quality: 8
Overall: 9

Why buy it?
If you want a silent, smooth-riding, family friendly vehicle, this is one of the best. A complete redesign for 2018 makes it roomier and more refined, while the Avenir sub-brand offers a new level of luxury.

Posted in Buick, Uncategorized