Swift, succinct reviews of: 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, 2011 Jaguar Xj, 2011 Kia Sportage SX AWD, 2011 Mini Cooper Countryman S All4, 2011 Audi A7 Quattro, 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport.
2011 Jaguar Xj
My first impression of the Jaguar Xj, as my upward-sliding garage door revealed its gleaming mass in my driveway, was a simple ‘Wow!’ I was in the presence of a Presence. I smiled. I had a week to explore its promised wonders. Since ‚‘succinctly’ is in the name of this space let me get to my conclusion instantly: the more time I spent with the car the less ‘wow’ I was about it. The less endearing I found it to be and thus the more little annoyances gained importance.
I ended the week with a hand-rocking shrug in answer to: ‘So how do you like it?’
I go way back with Jaguar (my own was an XK140MC in the mid 50s) and I thus lay claim to a long association with that prized nuance called ‘Jaguarness’. To me this Xj is less a Jaguar and more like a Jaguar that has swallowed a Jaguar. It is brutish rather than elegant, swollen rather than sleek. I don’t mind that the beltline has been pulled high, like an old man’s trousers, but that the bulk left below weights the car visually leaving it aching for some lighten-ing gesture like sculpting or a character line. Instead the Xj kept looking more hippo-esque to me. The joy abated.
How often it is that something — a painting, a piece of furniture, a vase or a bracelet — that initially elicits a dramatically positive response in me loses that allure rather quickly. Indeed the objects that are a bit disquieting at first, intriguing but less openly lovely, are the ones whose appeal expands. I’ve found that to be true in judging cars at Pebble Beach and Amelia Island. Beware the too quickly impressive.
I asked for a style critique of the Xj from the owner of a fine XKE specimen who also has credentials as a designer. With no prompting from me he came to much the same conclusion I did about the lack of ‘Jaguarness’ and the puffed visual weight of the Xj.
But quickly I add our impressions appear to be in the minority, judging from the glowing reviews the car has received and online comments from delighted owners. ‘Well and good’, as a professor I once had said every other sentence. Probably nothing is more subjective than automotive styling, unless it’s the comfort and support of automotive seats.
Which brings me to the interior and thereafter to some driving.
By the way I liked the Jag’s seats. Except for one extremely important matter to me — the height to which the seats adjust. These don’t go high enough to suit me. Having lost some three inches to the annoying shrinkage of old age I find many so-called adjustable seats stop short of the height I want. I feel like a three-year-old in a bath tub. Just maybe this disgruntling fact could have darkened my entire experience with the Xj. Probably. I hate peering over a lumpy expanse of instrument panel to see the world. Just realize when you spot little old ladies peering through the steering wheel of a Jaguar they do so because designers/engineers deprived them of proper elevation. A pox on them all.
The interior. Comfortable enough. Not as cavernous as you might expect from the apparent size of the exterior. Some quibbles about the interior design: I like the subtle bling-bling of the bright-bright touches outlining the instruments or pointing up something here or there when parked! But underway a car moves through and in sunlight at varied angles. The quick glinting of reflected sun sends shards of light that are distracting.
And oddly I took a dislike to the deeply concave start button. Yep, the start button. I would prefer it to be convex. Maybe it was a petulant response to the overweight ‚‘key’ — a great lump of an object that would destroy the line - or lining - of any pocket.
Now to what I enjoyed. This massive-feeling Jag grows smaller as you drive it hard. It is smooth, precise of steering and though you can feel it is not a sports car it can afford you a right sporting drive. My up-mountain ‘test track’ to the ski area was certainly pleasurable. At this altitude (7000-9000 feet) the supercharger option is as necessary as sunglasses in a snowfield. I think the blower adds about $15,000 to the car with a basic V8 priced in the $70,000s. But only lowlanders should even consider doing without. Remember, this Jag has swallowed a second one.
Then came touring mode on I-25, another regular test run. Smooth as hot fudge on cold ice cream. But wait - what is that noise? And I differentiate between sound and noise. I welcome the sound of an engine, even the wind is allowed a hearing, but this was a noisy noise appearing to come from nearly underfoot. Road noise, but unlike anything I was familiar with. Imagine a bewitched road that growled in protest at your passing over it. Thankfully not in evidence at town speeds. (And perhaps only in this particular car?)
The Jaguar Xj comes in two lengths of wheelbase, regular and long, and for engines offers three variations on a V8 — without and with supercharger and one that’s close to the hot plant in the XFR. Horsepower numbers in ascending order: 385, 470 and 510. Prices go up too reaching about $130,000. (For details and technical information visit www.Jaguarplatinum.com. And check out full reviews on the web.)
I gather Jaguar’s intention with the Xj is to offer a choice to luxury car buyers. And this indeed is readily distinguishable from the usual suspects - Mercedes-Benz S-class, BMW 7 series and Audi A8. By all means consider it. If I you’re really keen on avoiding the popular three add the Porsche Panamera and a Maserati to your look-and-drive list, too. Can’t be anything but fun.
But my hand still rocks with ‘eh!’
2012 Kia Sportage SX AWD
Think of SX as the Kia version of AMG, M, S, R/T etc. — i.e. the performance version of the model so tagged. That means the compact sport-utility (a.k.a. crossover, ‘cute-ute’) Sportage can now be had in a decidedly athletic guise. The 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine as an SX is turbocharged with direct injection good for 260 horsepower. ‘Torques’ number 269 at a usefully low 1850 rpm. The gearbox is a smooth six-speed automatic with a manual mode. Suspension is usually stiffer in high-performance versions and so it is here. Though there are those who might find themselves loving the new engine but wishing for the softer suspension. But they cannot argue with the sporty handling and quickness of manner and the silly fun offered here.
Kia has majored in styling in its self-improvement courses throughout its model line and the strutting, smile-if-you-dare-say-cute Sportage is as eye-delighting as it is physically fit. This new version, succinctly, is a delight to be in, to use and to look at. And unless you go all check-check on the options (sunroof, fancy sound, nav etc) it’s pleasing in price. And definitely this SportAAJ (I like saying it that way) belongs on your look-try list.
Kia is no longer a comer; Kia has arrived.
2011 Mini Cooper Countryman S All4
From the start Mini got it right. From the day a decade ago when BMW introduced to the US its modern version of Britain’s favorite 1960s dart-about it looked right — just cute enough (closing on too). The promotion and advertising were just cute enough. The dealer body was just exclusive enough and just about right in number to start.
But that’s not what made the Mini the country’s first successful small luxury car — the very concept of ‘small’ and ‘luxury’ being essentially un-American. Americans were deep in the belief that cars, like ground beef, are priced by the pound. Luxury needed size. But enough buyers responded to the small, perky, clever Mini to keep it bubbling on. Why not? It was useful, safe, versatile, well-made, easy on fuel, stylish in a Gap Kids way and a barrel of monkeys to drive. And nothing low-rent about it. Value for money.
But that still isn’t why the Mini is a true success.
It is successful because the Mini folk have managed to sustain its original toothpaste freshness, introduce new models at the right interval and create a clubby feel for owners without appealing to snobbery. In short they keep doing it right. (Except for one thing which I’ll get to shortly.)
Each time I see the toastmaster silhouette of a Mini tootling about town or on the highway I’m reminded of my own Minis from the days when they were indeed mini. I had three or four over time including a Mini Moke, the one that looked like a runt-of-the-litter Jeep. Recall the old Mini, wave at the new. Santa Fe’s nearest dealer is some 65 miles down the pike in Albuquerque but we still have a busy Mini population — the S, the Convertible (yes, always open), the Clubman. And variations. Many with dashing custom touches.
And now Mini has come up with a model that might have been designed with Santa Fe in mind — the Countryman. First there’s the turbo, necessary at our 7000-foot altitude. And there’s the supersizing - we carry lots of stuff out to the country, into the hills. This is a maxi Mini for those who need more room, more ground clearance. The same general shape but larger. About 6” longer than the mini Mini yet still about 4” shorter than a VW Golf. Think of the Countryman as the eased-fit jeans version for those buyers just past lean. There are four doors for easier access to the rear seats. And like eased-fit jeans there’s more room in the seats. Nearly 8” more shoulder room than in the two-door Mini. A design conceit is a narrow bar/tray down the car’s center at seat height. Its main purpose seems to be to make quite clear that this is a four-seater. Four. No more than. But the little tray also holds things that holds things. A sunglasses holder, a phone holder, a drink holder. All slideable. Just cute enough.
And for Santa Fe’s mercurial winter weather and summertime’s rutted back roads the Countryman has All4 as an option, a unique four-wheel drive system. The good thing here is the front wheels are the chief propulsion with the rear wheels adding their traction only when needed. Quickly, too, torque can go 50-50. All4 being on call keeps the mpg in the sweet spot of 30, about five less than the mini-er Mini. (Oh, how that can be fixed — read on)
The Countryman comes with the right choices — you can have All4 or not, you can choose a six speed transmission either automatic or manual, you can choose from such an array of color and combinations. (Time out as the mind-boggles.) Some who were twenty-something when the Mini first arrived may, ten years after, now be ready for a leetle softer suspension. The fillings in the molars are appreciative. Still (the engineers are BMW you know) the road compliance is exemplary. The steering is keen. The body roll is maybe a tad more but it feels organic. Nonetheless here are the facts come pudding-proofing time: this baby can let it all hang out. Switch off the nanny stuff and storm a turn, wet or dry, in perfect balanced arcs just this far from whoops! (Or so I’ve heard of course.) But don’t fret it - the Mini Go-Kart DNA is intact. Driving can still be fun wearing jeans with elastic waistbands.
Seems to me I heard the crossover word when they first announced this car. Mini SUV or somet hing. Forget that. The terms have disappeared. But not the ability. This Mini can play a crossover is you want one. And convincingly. Carry stuff, climb the high roads, find the fishing creek, go up skiing, go over to the opera ... Four doors for four with all4. I’m for it.
And it can sport it up like its mini-er siblings when the asphalt gets curly.
Oh yes, the mistake Mini made. From the start they should have brought the diesel engine. Torque and range people! Perhaps the diesel wasn’t then ready to face America’s ignorance of its virtues. Anyway no diesel then. But now this Countryman is sobbing itself to sleep at night wanting a diesel. Poor lamb. The torque would be jelly dougnuts. And the range would certainly extend from the meager 300-some miles now.
Hold on children. I have on good authority that Mini will bring a diesel to the US in 2012. In what vehicle(s) my informant would/could not say. But I bet it’s the Countryman.
Oh frabjous day ... Turbo diesel, all4, easy to use, bigger enough but still small enough. Choose manual I think though this automatic is agile. And in traffic and off-road it beats a manual. Delicious dilemma. What color? Light for this climate! Maybe beige instead of white though. What about silver ... hmm? ...
2012 Audi A7 Quattro
Having gained renown in the even numbers — A4, A6, A8 — Audi is back-filling with the odds numbers. (I hear an A9 is coming too.) Looks as if the number gods will have to invent new ones.
We deal here with the A7, that anomaly of a coupe shape with four doors. But — breathe — do they do it beautifully! I thought the A5 was as handsome as a car might get but this one with the graceful sweep of a arched roof right to the back is so fine. (And the much touted new A6 comes with the fall of 2011. Listen for the overload beeper.)
I must admit to an affinity for Audis. Some drivers find the steering lighter than they like; it suits me to a TT. (That’s a little joke there.) I also like the way Audi set the standard for interior design and has kept that lead. (Would that GM’s guys, for one, could learn from it.)
In over-lunch discussions at Tuesday Car Table my favorite Audi usually emerges as something starting with the 4 in size (after toying with the 6 or 3) the Avant body and whatever engine goodies are new — like direct injection, supercharged etc.) But I’d be delighted with the A3 TDI.
The A7 was as smooth as I expect an Audi to be. It was as delightful to be in as I expect an Audi to be. But there was some unpopped corn in this bright bag that wasn’t so pleasing. Maybe the extremely low-profile tires weren’t up to some of Santa Fe’s more jarring roads but the A7’s suspension didn’t swallow sharp bumps as unobtrusively as others Audis. On the highway there was unpleasing road noise on some surfaces, too. Fine about town.
But what made me decide that 7 wasn’t my favorite Audi number was the way the car seemed to disconnect from the highway in the wind. What? I checked the trees. So those with leaves were rather agitated. The evergreens in motion too if you looked hard. Anything loose fled across the Interstate, but not notably scurrying. It seemed to me the car’s lack of directional integrity at 80 mph was unwarranted. It behaved more like a SUV. Maybe the lovely body shape wasn’t designed for New Mexico’s normal springtime air movements. Acted as petulant as a carefully coifed prom queen in a convertible.
So maybe the A7 is a city car for valet parkers to stage near the entrance. If that’s what you’re looking for, here it is.
2011 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport
This Outlander is sort of like serving a dinner for visiting relatives hoping that the kids will like the mac and cheese, the adults the coq au vin and Uncle Harry won’t notice anything after opening with industrial strength cocktails. An identity crisis, or at least confusion, characterizes this five-place version of the Outlander.
The good news: the things that are hard to fix don’t need fixing. Which means the chassis offers a good ride that’s neither too harsh not too soft and furnishes handling characteristics that make for some feel-good moments on the sort of roads that end at ski areas. The look is distinctive with a you’re-bait-and-I’m-hungry grille and a taut body that I found generally appealing. The interior is well organized with a smart layout. Good space with flexibility.
However. Drivers who might fall into the ‘enthusiast’ ranks will be less than enthusiastic about the CVT transmission. And the power-lacking 4 cylinder unassisted engine. Mere drivers on the other hand might center their attention on the odd luxury touches — keyless push button start, the huge sun roof outlined with limo rope lighting no less that pulses to the sound system, the F1-like shifting paddles (with a deficient CVT?).
That’s some of what they’ve tossed out there seeming to hope a variety of tastes will find some one thing appealing enough to sign some papers. Sigh. Actually it is a rather likable package and with more power, a better means of shifting gears and a little more money spent on this and that in the interior it would come highly recommended. If. If. A more cohesive approach please.
2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid
First, last and in between: If you’re looking at hybrids this hybrid must be on your look-at list. Must.
Now some details. The Korean car maker did not take an easy way to offering electric assist to a gasoline engine and thus earn the right to scribble ‘hybrid’ on the handsome flanks of its midsize award winner. No way. Lots of engineering savvy, innovation and collaboration between stylists and engineers have produced what I think is even a better looking Sonata and one that claims it can score 36-40 mpg.
(Parenthetically, my take on mileage figures: they’re to be treated as an index for casual comparison between cars. Altitude, weather and most of all the driver’s mind set and weight of right foot are among the variables that determine actual mileage.)
The engine, a 2.4 liter four-cylinder, converted as in most hybrids to the Atkinson cycle is joined by a 40 HP electric engine. The combination is good for some 200 HP and 193 ‚‘torques.’ A unique feature here — the engine and the motor are separated by a clutch so it is easier to drive on electric power only at higher speeds than in most hybrids.
The Sonata Hybrid, unlike its hybrid rivals on the market, uses a LiPo battery. Not a folkloric Asian princess that I like to fancy is in the trunk, but a lithium-polymer battery. That’s instead of the customary nickel metal hydride. Hyundai spent more and got more. LiPo is lighter, takes less space, and generates less heat. Still it deducts 5.7 cubic feet of trunk space from the 16.4 in the regular Sonata.
In my experience the hybrid version of an existing model has a frugality about it that reminds me of a maiden auntie’s apartment. Not so the Sonata. The admired interior is little different and the refreshed exterior is actually trimmer, sleeker and more aerodynamic (an impressive coefficient of drag of .25.) The new cave-dark hexagonal-shaped grille houses a working flap inside — at slow speeds open for cooling, at high speeds closed to reduce drag. I think the hybrid’s grille looks a ton more sophisticated than the bling-bling grin of the traditional Sonata. And the side sculpting and squarer tail section are winners too. And the handsome 17” wheels. (An option I think.)
How does it drive? First, sing along with me: “Praise be no CVT”. Although a continuously variable transmission may make economy points few delight the heart of driver-drivers. The six-speed automatic in the hybrid is fine, thanks. The steering feel is not my favorite with its ultra-strong centering force and other attributes of drive-by-wire systems I don’t find attractive. But I must have become used to it because it stopped bothering me. And other pleasant characteristics won me over.
The off-the-line torque of an electric assist is both grin producing and counterproductive, assuming economy is your intent. But, hey, why should jackrabbits have the fun starts? They say 0-60 is in the 9 second range but in the real world 0-30 is more important. And the perception of quickness will suffice, really. You’ll find that here.
I still prefer a diesel for my torque and range but I will be suggesting this hybrid to anyone seeking one. To see the Sonata Hybrid in motion try www.hyundaiusa.com/sonata-hybrid/. And read more detailed reviews on the web.
After reading your Mini Clubman and A7 reviews, my thoughts went back a month or so when I spent two weeks in Norway with an Audi A3 TDI, 5-speed manual. Why, oh, why don’t we see more diesels in the US? Yeah, I know, it’s essentially a Golf TDI, but this was one sweet ride. The 45 mpg I got - in mostly stop and go driving - was icing on the cake. If I could convince my wife to let go of our ‘04 XJ8, I’d buy one in a minute.
The subject today, dear drivers, is merging. Drivers on freeways or limited access highways do it many times a day. Merge, merge, merge. Given that fact the wonderment is why are so many drivers intimidated by the process and why are so many doing it ineptly?
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I’m going to invent a new steering wheel.
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Subaru conducted a survey a few years ago trying to discover the public perception of four-wheel drive. They found that most people thought 4WD was a good idea but that they didn’t need it themselves. Who needed it? Those who lived 100 miles farther north.
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