Hyundai Tucson: Catching up with the competition — and then some

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

2016 Hyundai Tucson
2016 Hyundai Tucson

Hyundai was one of three companies whose U.S. market share grew during the recession. Its fortunes have faltered since, however.

Its failing? Too many cars, not enough crossovers.

The compact crossover is the industry’s hot number. Segment sales are up 19 percent — mostly at the expense of sedans. Hyundai, whose stylish and affordable sedans ruled during the recession, wasn’t ready for the surge.

Its compact crossover, the Tucson, never stood out from the crowd. Even if it had, production constraints would have curtailed sales.

But this is the year Hyundai rights the ship. A made-over, third-generation 2016 Tucson ($23,595, including transportation) lands this month, and production capacities are doubled.

At a recent press preview, the new Tucson proved night-and-day better than the car it replaces. It’s larger, roomier, quieter and more sophisticated. Its engines are more efficient and its redesigned suspension balances ride comfort with body control.

Lightweight high-strength steel comprises more than 50 percent of the Tucson’s body structure (up from 18), boosting rigidity a remarkable 48 percent. Chassis improvements contribute to improved suspension tuning and reduce noise, vibration and harshness.

Hyundai says the Tucson’s cabin is the segment’s quietest. Our test on mixed surfaces — freeway, two-lane asphalt, city streets and gravel road — seemed to bear that out. Underway, the Tucson conveys a sense of competence, quietly rendered.

Hyundai pays attention to the little things that give a car stand-out qualities. Switchgear works with a new heft this year. Re-engineered door-latch mechanisms operate with less noise, pull-resistance and internal friction. Thanks to increased damping, they close with a big-car assurance.

A 5-inch color LCD touchscreen and rearview camera are standard and Apple’s Siri “Eyes Free” integration is available. Tucsons equipped with navigation fetch an 8-inch screen and the expected third-party apps.

A new engine option — a 167-hp turbocharged and direct-injected 1.6-liter four — pairs with a dual-clutch automated transmission to top the highway mileage of last year’s top trims by as much as 5 mpg.

The all-new seven-speed gearbox enhances both efficiency and acceleration. It makes quick and smooth shifts, with no hint of the “shock shift” to which automated manuals are prone.

The base engine, a 2.0-liter 164-hp direct-injected four, carries over from last year, but with a one-mpg gain in overall efficiency. It’s available only with a six-speed automatic transmission.

Base price is up about $1,000, but Hyundai argues its value proposition remains intact. Such features as automatic headlights, heated outside mirrors, satellite radio and alloy wheels are standard on the base SE, but either optional or not available on competitors’ base trims.

New safety measures, both standard and optional, align the Tucson with market expectations. Most notably, a new Lane Change Assist system measures the closing speed of a vehicle approaching from behind. If it’s closing too quickly the system will warn against changing lanes. I.e., no more inadvertent near misses as two drivers attempt to move into the same lane at the same time.

Playing catch-up in a rapidly evolving segment, Hyundai has produced a rig good enough to play with the class leaders. Welcome to the game.

2016 Hyundai Tucson Limited FWD
Price range: $23,595-$35,000 (approx.)
Tow rating: to 1,500 pounds
EPA ratings: 27 combined/25 city/30 highway
(1.6-liter engine/FWD)
Regular unleaded fuel specified

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Honda’s HR-V brings family virtues to micro-crossover segment

2016 Honda HR-V
The pint-sized, four-passenger HR-V packages traditional Honda virtues — rock-solid body structure; firm-but-compliant ride; quiet, comfortable cabin — into a small, efficient footprint.

This review originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review

After spending a week exploring the delights of Acura’s flagship MDX, we climbed into its diminutive new cousin, Honda’s HR-V micro-crossover.

The pint-sized, four-passenger HR-V packages traditional Honda virtues — rock-solid body structure; firm-but-compliant ride; quiet, comfortable cabin — into a small, efficient footprint.

The HR-V is a family affair. Built on the Fit’s front-drive platform, it’s powered by the Civic’s 141-horsepower four-cylinder engine. Build-quality feels first-rate, cabin fit-and-finish is excellent and so is materials quality. The spacious cabin accommodates four six-footers.

There’s room behind those 60/40-split second-row seats for a week’s worth of groceries. Fold them down and the flat-floored cargo hold will swallow enough gear for a Himalayan trek.

The cabin exudes a richness of design rare in the price range. Simplicity is the theme, in shape, color and function. The effect is underscored by the absence of buttons and knobs, which are replaced by a dash-mounted touchscreen.

2016 Honda HR-V
The cabin exudes a richness of design rare in the price range. Simplicity is the theme, in shape, color and function. The effect is underscored by the absence of buttons and knobs, which are replaced by a dash-mounted touchscreen.

Using a touchscreen while driving is tricky business. Here, redundant steering-wheel controls are a safe and convenient shortcut.

The HR-V cabin bristles with clever ideas. The passenger-side dash houses a long and remarkably effective three-segment vent; a rubberized cell-phone storage cubby nestles hidden in an open nook beneath the center console; miscellaneous small storage nooks are carved into or added onto a variety of surfaces.

In days past, entry-level Hondas scrimped on the extras. No longer. Even the base HR-V carries full power accessories, a rearview camera, Bluetooth phone connectivity, Pandora Internet radio and 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels.

2016 Honda HR-V
The HR-V cabin bristles with clever ideas. The passenger-side dash houses a long and remarkably effective three-segment vent; a rubberized cell-phone storage cubby nestles hidden in an open nook beneath the center console; miscellaneous small storage nooks are carved into or added onto a variety of surfaces.

My loaded EX-L ($26,720) brought the works — keyless entry and ignition, leather upholstery, sunroof, heated front seats, leather, satellite and HD radio, navigation — and included LaneWatch, a passenger-side blind-spot warning system. When the driver signals a right turn, a video image looking rearward along the right side appears in the display screen. In town, LaneWatch alerts the driver to the presence of bicyclists; in freeway traffic, distance markers signal when it’s safe to return to the right-hand lane after passing another vehicle.

A six-speed manual transmission is standard on front-drive trims, with an optional continuously variable transmission (CVT). The CVT is standard on AWD trims.

The HR-V’s torque curve brings out the less appealing aspects of CVT technology — i.e., the annoying rubber-band effect. However, the transmission has seven pre-programmed stops that simulate gears and a Sport mode that holds those ratios longer. When instant acceleration is needed, one selects “S” and uses the paddles to actuate shifts.

In tandem with the power-sapping CVT, the HR-V’s 141 ponies are insufficient to power it with authority. At 9.5 seconds, the 0-60 dash is more stroll than sprint.

Out on the road, the HR-V tracks straight and true, steering is direct and accurate and body roll is well-damped. Wind and road noise are subdued, making for a surprisingly serene cabin.

A wide gulf separates the HR-V and its upscale MDX cousin, but the family resemblance resonates all the way down to its bones.

2016 Honda HR-V AWD EX-L Navi
Vehicle base price: $19,115
Trim level base price: $25,840
As tested: $26,720
Options: Our AWD EX-L tester, with navigation, is a fully equipped trim and had no options.
EPA rating: 29 combined/27 city/32 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

2016 Acura MDX: lighter, safer and lots more fun

acura mdx
The MDX sheds weight, inherits Acura’s latest generation of safety and driver-assist technologies and receives assorted  new features, both standard and optional. It’s quicker, more responsive and, when equipped with Acura’s Super Handling All-Wheel Drive, more agile and more stable.

This post originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review

I don’t know about you, but I’d love to drop a few pounds and gain three new gears.

I’m pretty sure I’d be nimbler and feel more energetic. I’d be quicker and more efficient. I’d be just as comfortable and no less luxurious.

acura mdx
Acura’s dual-screen infotainment/navigation interface is one of the easiest systems of its type to understand and use.

And so it is with the 2016 Acura MDX, long the shining star in the firmament of Honda’s premium brand. It’s Acura’s best-selling vehicle and the country’s best-selling three-row, seven-passenger crossover.

This year, the MDX sheds weight, inherits Acura’s latest generation of safety and driver-assist technologies and receives an assortment of new features, both standard and optional. It’s quicker by a substantial amount, more responsive and, when equipped with Acura’s superb Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD), more agile and more stable.

Cabin updates are less extensive, but include an electronic push-button shift device that frees up space beneath the center console, a new easy-entry/exit driver’s seat and a new frameless rearview mirror. Also new is Siri Eyes Free voice controls for compatible Apple devices.

Acura’s dual-screen infotainment/navigation interface remains one of the easiest systems of its type to understand and use.

Leading this year’s changes is a nine-speed automatic transmission that replaces the previous six-speed — and is lighter by 66 pounds. It’s gear ratios are more closely spaced and Acura says shifts are 25 percent quicker. Zero-to-60 acceleration drops by a half-second, to a sports car-like 5.9 seconds, and fuel efficiency sees small gains.

acura mdx cabin
Cabin updates are less extensive, but include an electronic push-button shift device that frees up space beneath the center console, a new easy-entry/exit driver’s seat and a new frameless rearview mirror. Also new is Siri Eyes Free voice controls for compatible Apple devices.

The weight reduction also improves front-to-rear weight distribution for improved handling. All told, the MDX is one of the most fun and best-driving cars in the midsize crossover segment.

Automatic stop/start is now available on some trims, helping to boost efficiency.

Acura also updates SH-AWD with a new twin-clutch rear differential that’s lighter (by 19 pounds) and more responsive than its predecessor. Enhanced torque-vectoring delivers power more quickly to the appropriate wheels, boosting the MDX’s legendary sure-footedness.

I tested the system on my super-secret hilly, twisty and unpaved test track, where it proved nearly invincible. The instant one wheel loses traction, power is routed away from it and to a wheel that will counter the skid. No car can overcome the laws of physics, but SH-AWD gives it a good shot.

As before, the MDX is powered by a 290-horsepower V-6 that makes 267 pound-feet of torque. Properly equipped, it’s tow-rated to 5,000 pounds.

All trims can now be equipped with the AcuraWatch suite of safety and driver-assist technologies. Depending on trim, AcuraWatch includes Adaptive Cruise Control with Low-Speed Follow; Collision Mitigation Braking; Forward Collision Warning; Lane Departure Warning; Lane Keeping Assist; Road Departure Mitigation; Blind Spot Information; Multi-View Rear Camera with Dynamic Guidelines; and Rear Cross Traffic Monitor.

AcuraWatch fuses camera and radar technology to sense the roadway and objects within it, including other vehicles and pedestrians. It infuses the MDX with nearly matchless levels of safety — and its systems serve as precursor technologies to the self-driving car.

The MDX showcases Acura’s drive to wrap comfort, safety and performance in a web of top-shelf engineering. Consider the new lightness in its step an enviable bonus.

2016 Acura MDX Advanced w Entertainment
Vehicle base price: $42,685
Trim level base price: $57,080
As tested: $58,000
Options: The MDX Advanced trim, with Entertainment, is fully equipped; our tester included no options.
Tow rating: 5,000 lbs
EPA rating: 22 combined/19 city/26 highway
Premium unleaded fuel required

No CD player for Golf?

In the wake of the Chrysler 330S CD Surprise, I was once again surprised to learn that a tester — this time, a 2015 VW Golf — had arrived sans CD player. Moreover, it appears that no Golf sold in the States can be had with a CD player. First, the Chrysler 300S, now it’s the Golf. Is this a thing? Both cars compensate by including a memory-card slot. And, since every cellphone is a mobile, connected jukebox, CDs may have outlived their usefulness. I’ve dropped a line to my guy at VW to see if I can get some insight about VW’s thinking.

Chrysler Surprise v.2

I spent more of Saturday than I should have researching the Chrysler Chrysler 300's Uconnect system doesn't include a CD player.300 CD mystery. In an earlier post, I mentioned my surprise that my Beats-equipped 300S tester didn’t have a CD player.

Other than this photo, downloaded from Chrysler’s media website, I could find nothing to suggest the 2015 300 can even be ordered with a CD player. I fired off an email query to Fiat-Chrysler’s West Coast media guy, who wrote back:

Wow, you are correct, no CD player for 300!

Chrysler substitutes a Media Hub that includes an SD card slot, a USB port and an auxiliary input.

Recent research suggests that buyers are growing increasingly features-aware. In its most recent evaluation of consumer behavior,  the automotive research and ratings firm J.D. Power, said, “New-vehicle buyers indicate they avoided a model because it lacked the latest technological features at a rate of 15% in 2015, up from 4% in 2014.”

Will Chrysler’s bold CD move influence buyers away from the brand? Or, is the company channeling Steve Jobs, who changed the computer industry when he effectively killed the floppy drive with the 1998 debut of the (floppy-free) iMac?

Another Chrysler surprise

Once I finished reading about the new Beats audio system in my 300s tester, with its trunk-mounted dual-voice coil subwoofer and 12-channel 552-watt amplifier, I grabbed my latest noisy acquisition and headed straight for the driver’s seat. Where I looked for the CD slot. And looked. And looked again. Ten minute’s of reportorial-style digging later, I’d learned only that Chrysler appears to be phasing out the CD player. None of the three available audio systems seems to include a CD player. Not even the 19-speaker H/K Logic7 system with its GreenEdge 900-watt amp and 32-volt Tracking Power Supply/(TPS). All that gear, with no CD player in sight, though I have seen one in photos. Look closely and you’ll set it just below the touch screen: 300-cd_player I’ve only seen this once before, in a 84-horsepower, $15,000 Chevy Spark, where both weight (7 lbs) and cost were a concern. Neither amounted for all that much in my $35,000 300S tester.

A Chrysler surprise

Ran into a friend downtown last night. He asked what I’d driven lately that had surprised me. It’s a great question that no one ever asks.

Also, it was a spectacular set-up. “This,” I said, and pointed to the 2015 Chrysler 300S parked next to us. I’d read good things, but hadn’t given them much thought. The 300 is a much more enjoyable car than I’d expected; it’s too large to be called lithe, but it’s plenty athletic for a big (4,300 lbs) fella.

2015 Chrysler 300S

Comfortable and good-looking, too. The new mesh grille with its “floating” logo work especially well, IMO.

Engine choices include the legendary 5.7-liter “Hemi” V-8 which makes 363 hp and 394 lb-ft of torque and a 3.0-liter six that makes 292 or 300 hp, depending on trim. Both engines are paired with a very good eight-speed automatic.

My tester had the six, which tromps the eight at the box office, if not the drag strip. The six-banger has been treated to a bit of engine-audio engineering and, under throttle, offers up a reasonable facsimile of the sound of a big eight.