Power and Technology

By Derek Price

You’ll need to take a deep breath before you say the name of the car I’m driving this week, the 2018 Infiniti Q50 Red Sport 400.
What it lacks in brevity, though, it makes up for in two key areas: technology and thrills.
Stomp on the gas pedal and its 400-horsepower, twin-turbo V6 very loudly reminds you that Infiniti knows how to get drivers’ hearts pumping just like the tuned Germans. And while I wouldn’t call it a direct competitor to the pricey M and AMG monster cars from BMW and Mercedes-Benz, the quick Q50 puts a unique twist on the performance-luxury segment with its own personality.
How so?
First, it lets technology take center stage, perhaps even more so than its snarling engine.
Fine-tuning the driving feel of this car isn’t something done by mechanics turning wrenches in the wheel wells but instead by the driver on a digital screen, whenever they like. Choosing your preferred driving feel is almost like playing a video game.
Want the steering to feel different? With the optional Direct Adaptive Steering — part of the $2,700 “proactive package” on my test car — you can adjust the steering feel and feedback because the entire system is electronic. This steer-by-wire system feels different from most cars as it lacks a direct mechanical connection to the front wheels, and you can sense that. It can also reduce the amount of vibration the driver feels from the road, something Infiniti says can help cut down on driver fatigue.

Infiniti’s Q50 Red Sport 400 lets drivers dial in their preferred driving feel from the electric steering and adjustable suspension stiffness, among other settings.

Whether that’s good or bad, though, depends on how much of a purist you are. Personally, I like those steering vibrations. I enjoy feeling connected to the front tires, especially on a performance car like this. Perhaps that’s why Infiniti keeps the electric steering as an option even on high-end models.
Infiniti also offers an adjustable Dynamic Digital Suspension, which lets the driver tweak the ride from soft and compliant to stiff and aggressive in Sport+ mode. Driving in a straight line, the differences feel subtle. But when flinging the car through corners, the Sport+ setting keeps the vehicle dramatically flatter as the weight shifts, making it feel like a much more nimble, sporty car than it does in the comfort setting. Body roll is all but eliminated.
With all the digital toys, plus semi-autonomous driving features that help it follow the speed of traffic and stay centered in the lane, at times the Q50 feels like you’re along for the ride instead of fully in control.
One example: Infiniti’s Distance Control Assist feature gently reminds you, the driver, when you’re doing something stupid like following too close to the vehicle in front of you. It feels like a tailgating hall monitor constantly watching your habits.

A curvilinear motif makes Infiniti’s contemporary cabins stand out. Quilted trim on the seats adds to the high-end look and feel.

If you’re riding someone’s bumper, the car will pull back on the accelerator pedal as if telling you, “Back off, buddy. Don’t get too aggressive.” You feel it in your shoes. And however smart it is, having a machine giving you tactile feedback on your bad driving habits can be disconcerting.
As a whole, though, the Q50 Red Sport 400 feels unusually smooth and light for this class of car. It lacks the Teutonic heft of the Germans, or even the built-from-stone sensations you get from a Lexus GS. Instead, it seems to be aiming for performance that’s more about crisp handling than prodigious lumps of power.
Not that the twin-turbo V6 is a slouch. This feels and sounds like one of the quickest cars I’ve driven this year.
Also, just like with the newly designed QX30 I tested a few weeks ago, I love how Infiniti is avoiding the follow-the-pack mentality that pervades many interior styling departments. The Q50s cabin is truly unique, with interesting, swoopy creases and curved lines that stand out amid a sea of bland, minimalist interiors that somehow pass as “luxurious” these days.
Pricing starts at $34,200 for the Q50 2.0t and ranges all the way to $53,000 for the — again, take a deep breath — Q50 Red Sport 400 AWD.

At A Glance

What was tested?
2018 Infiniti Q50 Red Sport 400 ($51,000). Options: Sensory package ($2,650), proactive package ($2,700), illuminated kick plates ($465), radiant grille emblem ($400), carbon fiber package ($1,500). Price as tested (including $995 destination charge): $60,510
Wheelbase: 112.2 in.
Length: 189.6 in.
Width: 71.8 in.
Height: 56.8 in.
Engine: 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 (400 hp, 350 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: 7-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 20 city, 26 highway

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

Why buy it?
It’s a performance car that shows off not just with raw performance numbers but also with cutting-edge technology. It offers a uniquely styled and engineered twist on the classic sports-sedan formula.

Posted in Infiniti

Chrysler Electrifies Pacifica

By Derek Price

There are a lot of reasons I think the Chrysler Pacifica is the best minivan on the market right now. It offers more amenities than the aging Toyota Sienna and a quieter, smoother ride than even the newly redesigned Honda Odyssey.
This year, though, the Pacifica is pole-vaulting straight over the Japanese competition by rolling out something new and innovative: a plug-in electric hybrid powertrain.
As I see it, the fact that a vehicle like this exists at all is a modern miracle.
It can drive on electric power for up to 33 miles before the gasoline engine turns on. Considering minivans are used so often for daily school and grocery runs, it means many families can do most of their driving on battery power instead of burning gas.
If you install a 240-volt charging system in your garage, the battery can completely recharge in as little as two hours, Chrysler claims.
It also retains the same smooth, silent road manners and family-friendly cabin amenities that make the regular Pacifica so appealing for highway trips.

Chrysler’s impressive Pacifica minivan adds a plug-in hybrid model this year with an estimated electric range of 33 miles. A V6 gasoline engine can extend the range, just like a normal van, once the battery power runs low.

But what I find most interesting about this vehicle isn’t the gee-whiz engineering and the strength of the product itself.
It’s the statement Chrysler is making by creating this machine.
For years, the Chrysler Town & Country seemed stagnant as the Honda and Toyota vans crept steadily higher, both in market share and in quality. By the end of its life, it was hard to argue that the Town & Country was superior, despite some incredibly nifty features like Stow ’N Go seats that magically disappear into a well in the floor.
With the introduction of the Pacifica van, which replaced the Town & Country in 2016, Chrysler improved the drive quality and feature set so dramatically that the Japanese products were suddenly on defense for the first time in a decade, if not longer.
Now this plug-in electric version — the first ever in a minivan — pushes it even further ahead. Chrysler is throwing down the gauntlet with this product.

The Pacifica’s cabin is built for family entertainment. Ample USB power plugs and brilliantly designed digital toys can keep kids and adults happy on road trips.

Some of my notes from driving the Pacific Hybrid:
— The ride is phenomenal. It’s the smoothest, quietest van I’ve ever driven, and the transition from electric to gasoline mode is almost imperceptible.
— My real-world electric range was less than 30 miles. It’s not quite up to Chrysler’s 33-mile estimate, but also not bad given my lead-foot habits.
— The acceleration is amazing and feels almost too good to be true. I loved out-accelerating other drivers at stoplights because it was hilarious to pull away and think, “You just got beat by a hybrid and a minivan!”
— The digital toys in this van are impressive. With HDMI inputs on the LCD screens in back, along with lots of built-in games and entertainment choices, the options for keeping kids happy are almost limitless.
There is one tradeoff for people who buy the hybrid version compared to the gasoline Pacifica. Because the battery is located under the floor, those wonderful Stow ’N Go seats are not available as an option.
Also, the Pacifica’s long-term resale value remains a question mark. The Odyssey and Sienna both command shockingly high prices on used-car lots thanks to their reputation for durability. The Pacifica, being new on the market, hasn’t had time to earn its reputation yet, for better or worse.
For peace of mind, Chrysler offers a five-year or 60,000-mile warranty on the powertrain and a 10-year or 100,000-mile warranty on the hybrid system, including its high-voltage battery.

At A Glance

What was tested?
2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid Platinum ($44,995). Options: Customer preferred package ($1,795). Price as tested (including $1,095 destination charge): $47,885
Wheelbase: 121.6 in.
Length: 203.8 in.
Width: 79.6 in.
Height: 69.9 in.
Engine: 3.6-liter V6 and two electric motors
Transmission: eFlite EVT
Fuel economy: 84 MPG equivalent

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

Why buy it?
It’s the most innovative and refined minivan on the market today. A quiet highway ride, enthralling in-cabin features and an available plug-in hybrid drivetrain make it stand out.

Posted in Chrysler

Jetta Line Simplified

By Derek Price

The Jetta has long been Volkswagen’s most popular car, and this year VW makes the process of picking one a bit simpler.
For 2017, the Jetta is available in just four trim levels — S, SE, SEL and GLI — ranging from around $18,000 to $29,000. The flavor you pick will depend on how fast you want to go and how comfortably you want to arrive.
At the bottom end, the S trim offers basic but spunky-to-drive transportation, powered by a 1.4-liter, 150-horsepower engine. It’s the best pick for fuel misers, with an EPA rating of 40 mpg on the highway.
The mid-grade SE, priced at $21,995 with an automatic transmission, adds some of today’s most popular features, including a smartphone connectivity system, keyless access, push-button start, and a blind-spot monitoring system with sensors that detect cross traffic when in reverse.
For a more luxury oriented experience, the SEL adds a bigger engine — 170 horsepower from a 1.8-liter, four-cylinder powerplant — along with a power driver’s seat, chrome trim, automatic dual-zone climate control, navigation and adaptive cruise control. It’s priced a hair under $25,000.

Clean lines give the Volkswagen Jetta an unassuming but contemporary look on the outside. The Jetta is now available in a simplified lineup with four trim levels: S, SE, SEL and GLI.

The version I tested, though, is the cream of Jetta’s crop: the sporty and powerful GLI with its 2.0-liter, 210-horsepower engine, 18-inch wheels and a long list of amenities.
I have no complaints about the drivetrain in the GLI. It offers plenty of torque, muscular acceleration both from stoplights and at highway speeds, and quick, precise shifts from its six-speed automatic transmission — something at which German cars always seem to excel.
There are two things I’ve love to see VW improve on this car, though.
One is the styling, both inside and out. While I like the subtle red accents on the GLI trim, it’s one of the few distinctive things that set this car apart from, say, a Hyundai or a Honda. I’d love to see it become more unique and creative, which is something I say about most sedans, to be fair.
And two, it seems to have lost some of the zippy personality that defined the Jetta for many years. By the numbers, in terms of power and fuel economy, it’s the best Jetta ever. It checks all the right boxes and, especially in the GLI guise, is a blast for the driver. But it lacks something very difficult to pin down that previous generations of this car had in abundance: endearingly peculiar panache.

The Jetta’s cabin mirrors its European style body, with straight lines and a clean, modern layout that borders on minimalism.

Aside from those admittedly subjective gripes, the Jetta gets all the basics right, which is why it’s such a perennially popular car.
Ample knee and hip room, generous trunk space, well-placed controls and a reasonably quiet cabin make it a practical and enjoyable way to drive around.
Another plus worth mentioning is my tester’s Fender-branded audio system, jointly developed with Panasonic, that blasts 400 watts of power through nine speakers and a subwoofer in the trunk that generate clear, clean, potent sound even at high volumes. It’s a great sound system to crank up loud.
Finally, the 2017 Jetta was rated a Top Safety Pick+ by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety when it’s equipped with the optional forward collision warning and autonomous emergency braking. That’s peace of mind for any buyers who prefer to continue living.

At A Glance

What was tested?
2018 Volkswagen Jetta 2.0T GLI ($28,995). Options: None. Price as tested (including $820 destination charge): $29,815
Wheelbase: 104.4 in.
Length: 183.3 in.
Width: 70 in.
Height: 57.2 in.
Engine: 2.0-liter four cylinder (210 hp, 207 ft. lbs.)
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 24 city, 33 highway


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

Why buy it?
It’s Volkswagen’s top-selling vehicle for a good reason. It offers practical, comfortable transportation at a value-oriented price point.

Posted in Volkswagen