Pilot Refreshed for 2019

By Derek Price

With crossover sales surging, any car manufacturer would be a fool to let its family-hauler lineup go long without a noticeable update.
Honda is no fool.
Despite being on the market for just three years, the new-generation Honda Pilot is already getting a significant refresh for 2019. Revised styling, a more refined driving feel and new technology — including, thank goodness, the return of an actual volume knob — add some more appeal to a vehicle that didn’t necessarily need it. America’s appetite for crossover vehicles seems so insatiable that Honda could sell boatloads of Pilots without updating a thing.
Still, Honda was eager to show off what its new three-row baby can do, so it handed me the keys for a day of playing in the dirt, driving on the street and towing a sweet race car around southern California.
My biggest surprise was just how capable a package this is.
Like most buyers, I think of the Pilot as living comfortably in the domain of sippy cups, booster seats and strip-mall parking lots. It certainly does that job well with a brilliantly designed cabin and impressively usable third-row seat.
Honda set up an off-road obstacle course, though, to highlight the Pilot’s wild alter ego over rocks, hills and sand. Its generous 7.3-inch ground clearance and adept all-wheel-drive traction control system made it more of a mountain goat than I expected.

A new front bumper, fascia and headlights hint at the changes underlying the 2019 Honda Pilot. It gets a meaningful update, including standard Honda Sensing on all models.

Its unusually versatile all-wheel-drive system is key to that capability. It uses an electronically controlled, hydraulic rear differential to do real torque vectoring — routing power to the front or back, left or right, on demand to whichever wheel has traction at the moment. This is extremely evident with one wheel hanging in the air while the others grapple for traction over sand or loose rocks, but in the real world it’s more likely to help over wet or icy roads.
To drive home the point, the Pilot is available with a decal package that makes it look more like an extreme off-roader.
While it’s based on a car-like unibody platform, it offers some truck-like towing capability of up to 5,000 pounds. I found it easily handled a 3,900-pound towing load with a trailer and Civic Si race car on hilly roads north of Los Angeles, with braking, acceleration and stability all more than competent.
Also noticeable is the update to Honda’s nine-speed automatic transmission, which comes on Touring and Elite trims at the top of the Pilot’s lineup. Hardware and software changes make it feel smoother and more predictable than before, never hunting for gears or making more shifts than are prudent, which can be a common problem in high-gear-count transmissions.

Part of the Pilot’s upgrade strategy is packing more standard features into various price points. Many of the features are accessed through an 8-inch touch screen on the center stack.

Honda wonks will immediately notice the styling changes, including a new bumper, front fascia, tail lights, LED headlights and chrome trim bits.
Really, though, this update is more about content than appearance.
Luddites everywhere will be shouting “hallelujah” now that the old-fashioned, easy-to-use volume knob has returned to the Pilot’s center stack. Its new 8-inch touchscreen is simple and quick to respond whether you’re using Apple CarPlay, Android Auto or tuning the satellite radio.
New technology features are extensive, including the HondaLink platform for connecting the car to your smartphone, CabinControl that lets your passengers remotely operate the entertainment system and CabinTalk that lets the driver communicate with back-seat passengers and live out all their subway announcer fantasies.
Its biggest selling point is likely to be the inclusion of Honda Sensing as standard equipment on all trim levels. This package includes collision mitigation braking, lane keeping assistance, adaptive cruise control and more. Taken together, they make the Pilot safer and more relaxing to drive on long trips.
Pricing starts at $31,450 for the base LX trim with two-wheel drive and a six-speed automatic transmission. It tops out at $48,020 for the all-wheel-drive Pilot Elite with the nine-speed automatic and monumental list of amenities.

At A Glance

What was tested?
2019 Honda Pilot AWD Elite ($48,020). Options: None. Price as tested (including $995 destination charge): $49,015
Wheelbase: 111 in.
Length: 196.5 in.
Width: 78.6 in.
Height: 70.6 in.
Engine: 3.5-liter V6 (280 hp, 262 ft. lbs.)
Transmission: Nine-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 19 city, 26 highway

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

Why buy it? 
Already a hot seller, the Honda Pilot gets thoughtful updates that add to its family-friendly appeal. It’s a roomy, capable and stylish way to travel.

Posted in Honda

Corolla Hatch is Back

By Derek Price

Toyota hasn’t offered a hatchback version of the Corolla since the 1990s, but that’s changing this year.
With the oh-so-creative name of Corolla Hatchback, this new 2019 model is smaller, sportier, different and much more interesting than the Corolla sedan that sells in mind-blowing numbers every year.
People who buy the Corolla sedan — and there are whole lot of you out there — do so for straightforward reasons: practicality, low ownership costs and an almost supernatural reputation for reliability. If you want cheap, dependable transportation, buying a Corolla sedan and driving it until the wheels rust off is your default choice.
The hatchback model seems to be built for someone slightly different, though.
It’s based on a completely separate platform, for starters. Being built around Toyota’s New Global Architecture — again, perhaps not the most original name — means the Corolla Hatchback is extremely rigid and lightweight, giving it a better road feel and more impressive fuel economy than most cars riding around on older platforms.

New for 2019, the Toyota Corolla Hatchback is built using a fresh architecture that makes it rigid and lightweight, ideal to improve both handling and gas mileage.

While I wouldn’t call it a driver’s car, it definitely sprinkles a bit more spice onto the driving experience, particularly from the way it handles. With McPherson struts up front and a multi-link suspension in back, it feels responsive and balanced in corners without being too harsh or loud in a straight line. It feels nicely tuned and noticeably sportier than most Toyota products.
To drive home the point, Toyota made the increasingly unusual decision to make a manual transmission available.
While my tester came with the boring but sensible CVT automatic, I love knowing a six-speed manual is available for drivers who like to feel more connected to the road. Making a shift-it-yourself transmission available for a small number of enthusiasts like me proves there’s more to its driving appeal than marketing jargon.
The Corolla Hatchback’s 2.0-liter engine makes 168 horsepower, enough for some fun but certainly not overkill. It’s more impressive for its highway fuel consumption of 42 mpg than its raw power output.
Styling is where things get really interesting. The look is arguably its best selling point.
The Corolla Hatchback has just the right dimensions to make Toyota’s current corporate face seem very fitting. An oversized mouth up front emphasizes its wide stance, while its crisscrossed tail lights, Xacto-knife styling cutouts and optional spoiler seem inspired by wild, heart-rate-raising custom compacts.

The Corolla Hatchback has a clean, modern cabin that matches its contemporary body. It makes technology easy to access, including Apple CarPlay and Amazon Alexa.

Interestingly, Toyota somehow resisted the industrywide urge to lift this car’s ride height, give it some ugly plastic fender covers and call it a “subcompact crossover.” To do so would have ruined its fun handling and contemporary, sleek but busy appearance.
The standard feature list on every Corolla Hatchback is long and impressive. Even the base model comes with an 8-inch touchscreen, Apple CarPlay and Amazon Alexa compatibility, seven airbags, and Toyota SafetySense 2.0, including radar cruise control and lane departure warning with steering assist.
It seems to be offering ample content value, not just value around the Corolla name that’s synonymous with dependability.
Pricing starts at $19,990, or roughly $1,000 more than the Corolla iM it replaces in the lineup. The more luxurious XSE trim starts at $24,090.

At A Glance

What was tested?
2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback XSE ($24,090). Options: None. Price as tested (including $955 destination charge): $25,045
Wheelbase: 103.9 in.
Length: 169.9 in.
Width: 69.9 in.
Height: 57.1 in.
Engine: 2.0-liter four cylinder (168 hp, 151 ft. lbs.)
Transmission: Continuously variable
Fuel economy: 32 city, 42 highway

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

Why buy it? 
It offers impressive gas mileage, a refined driving feel, the Corolla’s reputation for dependability along with a slightly sportier demeanor.

Posted in Toyota

Mazda6 Moves Up

By Derek Price

At a time when most manufacturers are pouring their development money into electric cars and endless iterations of crossover vehicles, Mazda still sees room to push the limits of what a four-door sedan can be.
Need proof? Take a drive in the heavily updated 2018 Mazda6.
This mid-size car was already one of my favorites thanks to the many things it does well: fuel efficiency, styling, cabin design and — above all else — driving dynamics that make it feel more like a pricey European sports sedan than an affordable family runabout.
Now it’s moving into two territories where family cars, especially ones at this price, rarely tread.
One is luxury, seen most clearly on the new Signature trim level I tested. With soft Nappa leather, supple UltraSuede inserts and gorgeous sen wood, a material used in Japanese drums, guitars and furniture because of its toughness and subtly beautiful grain, the top-end Mazda6 feels like it belongs in a luxury-brand showroom.

The Mazda6 gets a thorough update for 2018 with fresh technology, styling and trim levels, plus a potent turbocharged engine.

Of course, looking like a luxury product doesn’t matter if it doesn’t drive like one, too. The new Mazda6 has a long list of subtle changes that help to keep unwanted sounds and vibrations out of the cabin.
Thicker floor panels, smaller gaps in body panels, quieter tires and suspension tuning, laminated front glass and more carpeting and insulation all add up to a noticeably quieter highway ride. That fixes one of this car’s few weaknesses from last year.
The other new territory improves a strength: sporty handling.
Mazda, more than any other mainstream brand, aims to offer the same exciting, refined sensations you get from BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi cars, only at a more attainable price.
Last year’s model already offered sparkling steering, brake and suspension feel, but this year there is a new engine choice that makes everything feel a notch better. The 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder — very similar to the engine that powers Mazda’s big, three-row CX-9 crossover — is now available in the much smaller, lighter Mazda6.
This new engine generates 250 horsepower and, more critically, 310 pound-feet of torque to make it move with sports-car quickness.

Nappa leather, UltraSuede inserts and Japanese sen wood give the Mazda6’s new Signature trim an upscale atmosphere.

Refreshed technology keeps things interesting in the cabin. While I’m personally most excited about the availability of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto for connecting smartphones, other available changes include:
— A new Mazda Connect infotainment system with an eight-inch touchscreen display.
— Ventilated front seats to keep the surfaces cool in hot weather.
— A reconfigurable seven-inch display behind the steering wheel
— A 360-degree monitor that shows a bird’s eye view when parking.
— A full color Active Driving Display projected on the windshield instead of the awkward pop-up reflector in previous models.
Redesigned seats and a number of exterior changes make this a surprisingly thorough update for a vehicle that has already gotten two previous overhauls in the last five years.
Pricing starts at $21,950 for the Mazda6 Sport trim with a manual transmission or $23,000 with an automatic. It tops out with the luxurious Signature line at $34,750.

At A Glance

What was tested?
2018 Mazda6 Signature ($34,750). Options: Cargo mat ($75), Soul Red paint ($595), scuff plates ($125). Price as tested (including $890 destination charge): $36,435
Wheelbase: 111.4 in.
Length: 191.5 in.
Width: 72.4 in.
Height: 57.1 in.
Engine: 2.5-liter turbocharged four cylinder (250 hp, 310 ft. lbs.)
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 23 city, 31 highway

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

Why buy it? 
Updates for 2018 make an already strong sedan even better. Its new turbocharged engine and luxurious Signature trim level take it into new performance and luxury territories.

Posted in Mazda