Car Review: 2017 Volvo S90

2017 Volvo S90
2017 Volvo S90

There’s no question in my mind that if The Saint ever needed a car for an elegant evening on the town, he would have chosen the 2017 Volvo S90.

2017 Volvo S90 T6 AWD
2017 Volvo S90 T6 AWD

OK, stick with me on this one.

The Saint was a TV show back in the 60s starring Roger Moore who played a thief who robbed from the really bad guys. He drove a Volvo P1800 which was a nice sporty-looking two-seater that, frankly, was more show than go. When The Saint was remade into a movie with Val Kilmer in 1997, he used a Volvo C70 coupe. Both great cars, but hardly something that would impress the valet at an upscale restaurant.

2017 Volvo S90
Simple and Elegant

The Volvo S90 could do just that. It’s brand new for 2017 and elegant from stem to stern. The clean body lines are only upstaged by the beautiful interior. Volvo claims it has invested $11 billion dollars over the last five years in developing its latest line of cars. One drive in the S90, and you’ll think it was money well spent.

Let’s start with the outside. It has clean, simple lines that just exude style. To be honest, the pictures you see don’t really even do the car justice. In person, it just looks better. The grille is typical Volvo styling flanked by a pair of headlights that Volvo refers to as “Thor’s Hammer”. The body has a slight rake that gives it just a hint of aggression. Volvo didn’t take the S90’s styling in a different direction than other luxury sedans, it just nailed the elegance of simplicity.

2017 Volvo S90 Interior
Did I mention how much I liked the interior?

I’m already gushing and I haven’t gotten to my favorite part: the interior. You’ll be hard pressed to find a more beautiful passenger compartment in any car. The top of the dash has a leather folio look with the perfect edge. My test car had wood trim on the dash and side panels. The seats were more than just comfortable, they were artistically sculpted. The center console is narrow without being too thin. It moves towards the dash where you’ll find a perfectly placed display interface.

Volvo S90 Dash and Display
Volvo S90 Dash and Display

That display is also interesting. It works like an iPad. You swipe between three screens. In the center is a list of your active apps, navigation and entertainment. Swipe to the left and you have all of the car’s functions, swipe to the right and you’ll find the audio controls. My test car had the Bowers and Wilkins sound system. It actually lets you choose what type of audio you’d like to hear. You can opt for studio, individual stage or concert hall. It really does make a difference. You can also  tune it to sound best for the driver, or all the passengers. Of course it’s a $2,650 option, but if you’re an audiophile you won’t be able to resist. To be totally honest, there were a few times when I found the display just a little glitchy. But overall it worked well.

Up-front in my test car was the 2.0 liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that delivers 316 horsepower. Think about that for a moment. Four cylinders in less than 122 cubic inches with more than 300 horses. It’s mated up to an 8-speed transmission. It uses it’s power carefully. You’re not going to squeal away from the curbs but you’ll definitely get up to speed quickly. You can also opt for a 250 horsepower engine if you want to save some money. A hybrid gas/electric engine combo coming later this year is supposed to pump out closer to 400 horses.

Volvo Animal Detection
Volvo Safety Suite Will Even Spot A Moose.

It’s probably not a surprise that Volvo is embracing the car’s safety features like adaptive cruise control and lane keeper assist that gently nudges you back into your lean. Volvo proudly calls the S90 “semi-autonomous”. Best of all, this suite of safety features is standard. You even get Volvo’s City Safety technology that detects and warns the driver not just about other vehicles, but pedestrians and bicycles the occasional large animal as well to avoid a collision.

My test car was the S90 T6 All Wheel Drive model. The sticker started at $52,950 and went out the door at $66,105. While it’s pricy, it’s not bad compared with BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz. It’s definitely a worthy option for anyone wanting something elegant that is also slightly different.

After all, if it’s good enough for The Saint, it will fit you just fine.


Car Review: 2017 Honda CR-V

2017 Honda CR-V
2017 Honda CR-V

Several years ago I wrote about the Honda CR-V saying that while it was a great SUV in just about every area, it was a hard car to love. That’s because it was too smooth, too good. It just didn’t evoke much emotion.

2017 Honda CR-V
2017 Honda CR-V

Enter the newly redesigned 2017 Honda CR-V. And while it hasn’t exactly gone off the emotional edge, it’s definitely reaching into the feelings zone. Everything about the CR-V is better and frankly it’s just a little more likable. That’s important because the last generation CR-V was already a big seller for Honda. In 2016 one-quarter of all Hondas sold in the US were CR-Vs. In fact, according to Honda, the CR-V has been the best-selling SUV in America for the past 20 years, with total U.S. sales of nearly 4 million units since it was introduced in 1997. So when contemplating changes the company brass was likely holding its collective breath. They can let it go. The new CR-V is just fine.

2017 Honda CR-V
New Design For 2017

Let’s start with the outside. Honda styling hasn’t exactly been cutting edge over the last 15 years. Attractive? Yes. Forward thinking? Not really. This latest version of the CR-V takes a solid step into the current generation of automotive design. You could argue that this body style may even be a few years late, but at least it’s finally here.

2016-2017 CR-V Comparison
2016 CR-V on Left, 2017 CR-V on Right

The new look isn’t a radical departure, just a fresh restyling. Up front CR-V owners will be very comfortable with the same upward-sweep of the headlights. What they’ll also see is more bling with more chrome in the grille. And if it’s bling they want, they’ll love the rear hatch. A chrome bar stretches across and connects nicely with the bolder taillights. The side of the CR-V has a little more contouring as well which gives it a nicer look. Once again, it’s not a whole new direction, just a great update. Incidentally, Honda says the new body is more aerodynamic which will likely help fuel mileage.

2017 Honda CR-V Interior
2017 Honda CR-V Interior

The interior is a nice upgrade as well. It’s funny how one little thing can make a big difference, but that’s the case with the CR-V’s new center arm-rest. There’s a reason most manufacturers build them this way, and it was nice to see Honda jump in with something that does what driver’s actually want.

I like the new instrument display. Unlike some displays on other types of cars, the CR-V’s readout is constant. But that’s fine. It does just about everything you’ll need. There’s also a video display mounted on the dash. While it’s not the best integration I’ve seen, it’s definitely well done. The new Honda interface controls are better than the older version. The usual cluster of climate control buttons are immediately below. There’s a standard mechanical shift underneath that. None of that fancy fly-by-wire electronic stuff.

2017 Honda CR-V Engine
2017 Honda CR-V Engine

Under the hood, the Honda has given the CR-V its first turbocharged engine. It’s a 1.5 liter direct fuel injection four-cylinder good for 190 horsepower. Your other option is a 2.4 liter non-turbo engine that actually delivers only 184 horsepower. The smaller turbo engine on the all-wheel-drive model gets 27 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the highway for a combined total of 30 mpg. The non-turbo gets slightly less. During my week with the CR-V I didn’t do quite that well, but then mine was strictly city driving.

The only downside for me is the continuously variable transmission. They work great, but they aren’t exactly fun. Stepping on the throttle doesn’t give you very much kick. Granted, it’s only 190 horsepower, but CVT trannies never seem to be very enjoyable. But then, most folks simply want transportation not hard-core performance and the CR-V will deliver just fine.

2016-2017 CR-V Rear Comparison
2016 CR-V on Left, 2017 CR-V on Right

The CR-V now also has the Honda Sensing suite of safety and driver-assisting technologies as standard equipment on EX and higher trims. High tech goodies like Road Departure Mitigation, Adaptive Cruise Control and Rear Cross Traffic Monitor will help keep you safe.

My test car was the Touring model with the 1.5 turbocharged engine. Nicely equipped, the final sticker price was $34,595.

The world of compact SUVs is very crowded. It’s impressive that the CR-V has dominated so well for so long. With a fresh look for 2017, it’s likely that Honda’s CR-V is poised to keep that string alive for years to come.


Car Review: 2017 Kia Cadenza

2017 Cadenza
2017 Cadenza

The 2017 Kia Cadenza is going to leave stuck between the rock and the hard place.

2017 Cadenza
2017 Cadenza

On one side is the rock. A newly redesigned upscale sedan that does a lot of things right including a price that won’t force you to mortgage your home.

The hard place is the name. It’s a Kia. That’s not going to impress the gang down at the country club. They’re into BMWs and Audis. Oh sure, they’ll tell you how nice it looks, but inside they’ll be dismissing the pedestrian roots.

So which way do you go?

2017 Cadenza
Straight from the Kia California Design Studio

Let me make the case for the Cadenza. First, your friends who don’t know cars will never know it’s a Kia until you tell them. The newly redesigned exterior is a product of Kia’s California design studio. Chief Designer Peter Schreyer’s likes what he calls “the simplicity of the straight line.” That means one design feature that goes the length of the car giving it a sleeker profile.

The grille is an evolutionary step from Kia’s “tiger nose” concept. There are actually two different grills. Lower trim models get what Kia calls the “Diamond Butterfly” pattern. Upper trim gets the “Intaglio” look with vertical blades.

The 2017 Cadenza has the same overall length last year’s model, but it’s slightly wider and lower in height.  The wheelbase is a little longer which gives a little extra legroom for passenger in the back seat.

2017 Cadenza Engine
290 Horsepower is Just Right

Under the hood is a 3.3 liter V6 engine that delivers 290 horsepower without a turbo. The result is instant power right when you need it. Connected to an eight-speed gearbox you’ll find it hard not to like its performance. Mileage is rated at 20 mpg in the city and 28 on the highway with a combined number of 23 mpg. In fact, that’s exactly what I got during my test week.

Kia touts the Cadenza’s stronger, lighter and more rigid body structure. They say it all adds up to a more enjoyable driving experience. Overall, that’s very true. Just don’t expect a sports sedan. If you love zipping through canyons, you’re probably going to need a true sporty vehicle. Having said that, the Cadenza does a great job of comfortably getting around town.

2017 Cadenza Interior
Simple Elegance Inside

Once your friends are inside, they won’t know it’s not a true luxury marque. After all, it has the official sign of all upscale cars: an analog clock on the dash. OK, it’s more than just the clock. My test car had white Nappa leather seats that are both heated and vented. Portions were quilted to give it just the right touch. It even has one of those shades that rises up to block that nasty sun from glaring through the rear window.

The dash has a nice clean layout with the Kia/Hyundai Uvo display that controls just about everything. I’ve said before I’m a fan of their system because it’s easy to understand and use. I liked that the backup monitor also uses a 360 degree view so you have no excuse if you hit that trash can in your driveway. There’s a great phone compartment at the front of the center console with a wireless charging pad.

2017 Cadenza SXL
Your Friends Will Like the Extra Leg Room in the Back

But let’s get straight to the best part. The Kia Cadenza starts with a base price of $31,990. If you want the full upscale experience, you’ll want the Cadenza Limited which starts at $44,390. Throw in all the options necessary to impress your friend and you’ll spend… $44,390. My test car $45,290 because it included a $900 freight and handling fee. Don’t forget Kia’s 5 year/60,000 miles basic warranty and 10 year/100,000 mile limited powertrain warranty.

You’re going to be pretty hard pressed to buy any of those fancier names in this size of car for anywhere near this price. That’s why you’re stuck. Do you want upscale value or do you want a prestige name that delivers more sporty performance?

Here’s an easy way to decide. Check out the prices and just imagine how much fun you can have with all the money you’d save buying the 2017 Kia Cadenza. So much for the hard place.






Car Review: 2017 Kia Soul Turbo

2017 Soul Turbo

You have to hand it to the Kia Soul. It’s a survivor.

2017 Soul Turbo
2017 Soul Turbo

Remember when boxy cars were the rage? You could get the Nissan Cube and the Scion xB. If you wanted more room Ford had the Flex. Here we are years later and the only boxy shape left in the daily commuter world is the Kia Soul. But it’s more than just surviving. Last year Kia sold almost 150,000 of the squared off bodies. That means it’s more than any other small crossover SUV.

So how do you keep a car that owns its niche growing? Add more power, of course.

Last year the Soul’s engine options maxed out at 160 horsepower. Adding a turbo moves the 1.6 liter four-cylinder engine up to 201 horses. We’re not talking fast, but the Soul has definitely moved into the peppy range. One morning I was pulling into traffic from a side street. It didn’t bother me to punch the throttle and zip into a little spot that opened up. The engine responded quickly and I didn’t have to worry about the oncoming car chasing me down.

2017 Soul Turbo
The Boxy Survivor

A 7-speed, dual-clutch transmission helps as well. Some reviewers have complained about the lack of paddle shifters given the additional power. I’m not one of them. I’m convinced very few people actually use the paddles after the first week. They’d rather save the money.

Increasing power usually means lower MPG numbers. That’s not the case. The efficient turbo actually gets better numbers than the normally aspirated versions. You can expect 26 MPG in the city and 31 MPG on the highway. During my week I averaged 30 MPG and I wasn’t gentle on the throttle.

I guess it’s important to point out that the Kia Soul Turbo is designed to peppier, not sportier. Kia only made slight tweaks to the suspension. But that’s OK, there are plenty of other options if you want to hit the parking lot slaloms.

2017 Soul Turbo Interior
Way Beyond Basic Inside

Inside the Soul is a long way from cheap, and not trying to be a wannabe luxo imposter. The front seats were a pleasant mix of leather and cloth with red baseball stitching. The dash has three prominent speakers that give it an old school boombox look. I think it works nicely. The Soul has the Kia/Hyundai UVO display interface. Frankly, it’s one of the best on the market. Everything works exactly the way you think it should. Having said that, the navigation is just OK. But then there aren’t many cars that do well in that department. The Soul does have Android Auto and Apple CarPlay so you can tap into your phone for better directions.

There’s a fair amount of room in the back. I hauled some passengers who called the rear seat roomy and reasonably comfortable, if a little on the firm side. Fold the seat down and you get 61 cubic feet of cargo space which is pretty impressive.

2017 Soul Turbo
Plenty of Room When the Seats Fold Down

Outside, the Soul turbo has gotten some minor body refreshing. It has slightly new styling front and rear and the side skirt has a red accent.

When you buy a Soul, you can get the Base, a model called “+” (which they creatively call “plus”) and the top of the line which is the “!” When you talk to your friends, just call it the “exclaim” and avoid trying to visualize the point with body movements

You can get a base Soul for $16,100. Step up to the “!” with the turbo and the price starts at $22,800. My test car came in near $28,000.

So the Kia Soul is a successful survivor that has given buyers yet another reason it should be considered. I guess you could call it a peppy, boxy-looking, small crossover. Now that’s a niche.

Car Review: 2017 Dodge Charger Scat Pack

Dodge Charger Scat pack
Dodge Charger Scat pack

To call the 2017 Dodge Charger R/T Scat Pack a classic muscle car is both totally right and totally wrong at the same time.

22017 Dodge Charger R/T Scat Pack
2017 Dodge Charger R/T Scat Pack

Back in the 60s Detroit automakers took all kinds of sedans and stuffed big engines under the hood. They had figured out that car owners like to go fast, and horsepower was the key. Fast forward to 2017 and that’s basically what you get with the Charger R/T Scat Pack. Under the hood is a 6.4 liter V8 that pumps out 485 horsepower.

Now, just take a moment to think about that number. The base Charger has a V6 that delivers 292 horsepower. Frankly, that’s all most people will ever need. So what’s it like when you throw on nearly 200 more horses? Let’s just say it’s enough fun to get you into a lot of trouble from your local law enforcement.

2017 Dodge Charger R/T Scat Pack
Sure the styling is getting dated, but at least it is different!

During the week I had my test car, Phoenix had a few of its rare rainy days. To be honest, I had to be careful launching from a dead stop. It way too easy to hit the throttle and start sliding as the rear wheels tried to hook up. I know that can be trouble with any car in the rain, but 485 horsepower made accelerating especially entertaining.

If you’re looking for great mileage, move along. Around town this Charger is rated at 15 MPG, while it should get about 25 MPG on the highway. The combined number is 18 MPG, which is exactly what I got during my test week. Not really great, until you factor in how much fun you had during that tank of gas.

So why is it totally not a classic muscle car? The 1960s sedans with big blocks were great in a straight line, but stopping and turning was always an adventure. Not so with the Charger R/T Scat Pack. It has big Brembo disc brakes with Bilstein sport suspension. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a sports car. But it has the tools necessary to do keep you out of trouble after you’ve done your best time in the quarter-mile.

2017 Dodge Charger R/T Interio
Interior is roomy and the Uconnect display is great.

Speaking of which, you need to check out the performance pages on the Charger’s Uconnect system. That’s the display interface which does all the usual stuff like control the audio, phone and navigation. Frankly, Chyrysler’s Uconnect is the best interface in the car business today. It just works great. Throw in the performance pages, and it’s even better. There are timer pages so you can track your best quarter-mile time (mine was 13.1 seconds) or how fast you get from 0-60 (4.8 seconds in my case). You can measure g-forces or watch how many of the 485 horses are being used at any one moment.

I always give Chrysler credit for not building cookie-cutter cars. They don’t look anything like what the rest of the car companies are building. Having said that, some of their designs are getting a little old. The Charger got a mild refresh last year and still looks nice, but I’m starting to wonder where they will go from here.

2017 Dodge Charger R/T Interior
The Scat Pack can scoot!

Base price on the Charger R/T Scat Pack is $39,995. Throw in a $995 destination charge and my test car stickered at $40,990. Frankly, that’s a lot of bang for your buck without any fancy options.

Sure, you can spend bigger bucks and get more power, but why? 485 horses will satisfy just about any adrenaline junkie. So if all you want is a thrill every time you hit the accelerator pedal, then you’ll be hard pressed to find a better package than the 2017 Charger R/T Scat Pack.

Car Review: 2017 Acura MDX


If I get a nose job will you love me more?

2017 Acura MDX
2017 Acura MDX

Apparently that’s what the folks at Acura were pondering when they were looking at styling options for the 2017 MDX. For years Acura used a signature grille that had a heavy beak-looking piece of brightwork. It has actually been getting smaller in recent years and for 2017 the beak disappeared completely. In its place is something significantly more traditional. I can only assume that focus groups somewhere decided that while the grille was distinctive, it wasn’t attractive. No sense in having a signature look if folks don’t like it. Personally, I like the new look (not that I was included in the focus group).

Oh, and don’t think you older MDX owners will be able to buy a new look insert. The grill has a different shape to go with the new styling.

2017 Acura MDX
Not Much Change Past the Nose

I know that’s a lot to say about a nose job, but frankly, it’s the biggest change from last year’s model. And that’s not a bad thing. The Acura MDX is a solid choice in the upscale world of three row SUVs. Its 3.5 liter V6 delivers 290 horsepower which is perfect for a vehicle this size. Oh sure, more would always be nice, but this engine won’t leave you feeling underwhelmed when you pull away from the light. Mated to a 9-speed transmission it gives the MDX a nice smooth run up to freeway speeds.  You can expect 19 MPG in town and 26 mpg on the highway with a combined total of 22 MPG.

2016 Acura MDX Engine
290 Horsepower is Just Right

MDX no longer has a traditional stick for changing gears, but I can’t say I’m thrilled with the replacement. It just requires too much thinking to go from park to drive to reverse. Unlike Chryslers which have a small hockey puck-looking device that you simply twist from one gear to the next, the MDX has a park button, a lever for going backwards and different buttons for drive and neutral. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not brain surgery and I’m sure owners will get used to the system. It just seems more complicated than it needs to be.

2017 Acura MDX Interior
Interior is Upscale, but not Flashy

The interior is nice, but it’s not an all-out luxury car. The seats are comfortable, both front and rear. The third row isn’t huge, but that’s fairly normal for similar SUVs. If you want a third row that will truly be comfortable for an adult, you’d better go for a full-sized SUV. One nice touch is that the second row seat can slide forward just a bit so the folks way in the back can get a little more leg room.

2017 Acura MDX Gear Selector
Slightly Over complicated Gear Selector

The Acura display interface and controls are so-so. They work OK, but like the gear selector, they require too many steps to get where you’re going. I’m really hoping that the Acura engineers kick it up a notch in the next generation.

Is it enough to avoid the MDX? Hardly. In fact, for full disclosure, we own a 2014 edition which is very similar (minus the nose job). It’s my wife’s daily driver and she absolutely loves it.

Base price for the 2017 MDX is $44,050. My test car which was an all-wheel drive model equipped with the Advanced option package came in at $57,340. Compare it to cars higher up the luxury food chain and it’s a pretty solid deal.

So let’s recap. Solid three row SUV with a few minor flaws gets a nose job. Works for me.

Car Review: 2017 Mercedes SL450


The 2017 Mercedes SL450 is a car that can proudly live up to its legacy.

2017 Mercedes SL450
2017 Mercedes SL450

That hasn’t always been the case in the SL world. Those two letters first came together for Mercedes back in 1952 with the W194 racing car. SL stood for “sport light”.  It gained fame with the iconic 300SL. Those were cars that were rooted in racing and performance. But other SLs haven’t always done the same. Shortly after the 300SL hit the streets, Mercedes introduced the 190SL. It was a beautiful car, but in reality it was neither sporty nor light.

As time marched on, the SL was known more as a sporty looking luxury cruiser. It owned that niche well, but it just wasn’t the same.

You can’t say the same for today’s SL450. Sure, it’s still a great luxury cruiser, but it’s honoring its sporty roots.

2017 Mercedes SL450 Engine
V6 Delivers 362 Horsepower

Let’s make it clear, the SL450 is a performance car. It has a 3.0 liter V6 engine that pumps out 362 horsepower through a new nine speed transmission. Push the throttle and you instantly feel the response. Want more? The SL550 delivers 449 horses and the AMG versions top out at 621 horsepower. More is nearly always better, but anyone buying the SL450 won’t be left disappointed. You can also use Dynamic Select to tweak the engine, transmission and suspension. I loved the fact that it had two different sport modes.  And while people buying this car aren’t likely to care an awful lot about fuel mileage, the SL450 delivers an impressive 20 mpg in the city and 28 mpg on the highway for a combined 23 mpg.

Mercedes changed the sheet metal on the 2017 SL models. From the front of the door forward has been redesigned. This wasn’t one of those “totally new direction” makeovers. It was a subtle revision of the old look. To be honest with you, while I like he looks of the car I wouldn’t say it qualifies as beautiful. Still, that’s all in the eye of the beholder. It’s definitely a strong sporty look that will get you recognized the moment you come into view.

2017 Mercedes SL450 roof
Convertible Hardtops Are Always Fun To Watch

The roadster is a hardtop convertible. Styling for these is always a compromise, but overall this Mercedes has a great look. And there are few things more fun than watching that top go down. The back of the car looks a little awkward, but again, it’s not bad. My test car had the $2500 magic sky roof. It darkens at the touch of a button. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go completely opaque. Living in Phoenix where we try to limit the amount of sun pounding down on us during the summer, I’m not sure that I’d really love it.

Inside the car is a wonderful experience. Plenty of luxury and sport. The seats do an awful lot. They massage you. They heat you. They cool you. They have all kinds of support. One great feature is something called the dynamic multicontour seat. Turn right or left at speed and the corresponding side bolsters gently push against you, working against the G-forces that will try to push you aside. Critical? No. Very cool? Yes.

2017 Mercedes SL450
Convertible Hardtops Just Look Better

Base price was for the SL450 is $86,950. My test car had options like the $5050 premium package (which includes the rearview camera, parking pilot, ventilated seats, multicontour seats and more. The final price as tested was $100,585. Not cheap, but at least you’re getting what you pay for. This is a luxurious sports roadster.

The 300SL established quite a legacy for Mercedes. It’s nice to know that the 2017 SL450 has answered the challenge.


Car Review: 2016 Mazda CX-9


I’m going to tell you right off the bat that I’m torn about the 2016 Mazda CX-9. In many ways the redesigned SUV is exactly what any family would want. Three rows of seats in a shapely body with a peppy engine that doesn’t guzzle gas.

2016 Mazda CX-9
2016 Mazda CX-9

Right about now you’re waiting for the “but”. The reality is that there are no huge issues, just little things that left me less than ecstatic. The reality is that different cars appeal to different people, and maybe I’m just not a CX-9 kind of guy.

Let’s start with the shapely body. Mazda has always done a great job of looking slightly better than the competition. This new sheet metal has a more elegant style. That is, until you look at the snout. Let’s just call it “bold”. It’s definitely noticeable and different than what other car makers are doing. Over the past 20 years manufacturers have worked hard to reduce the overhang. The idea is to keep as much of the weight between the wheels as possible. Mazda does that at the back of the CX-9, but decided that its signature grille should be a little more prominent. It’s very upright, and it definitely sticks farther out. Obviously, if you like that grille, you’ll probably love the new look. It was just more snout than I wanted.

2016 Mazda CX-9
That’s Quite a Nose

The good part is that behind that snout is a 250 horsepower, 2.5 liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Normally, I’m inclined to think that 250 horses is just barely enough for this kind of SUV. But Mazda has done a great job of tuning the engine so that you get a snappy feel when you first hit the gas. The company says it’s designed the engine to work well in the range where most people actually use it. Having said that, it’s definitely a different feeling than a higher horsepower V6 that you might find on more upscale SUVs. Mileage is very respectable with the two-wheel drive model getting 22 mpg in the city and 28 mpg on the highway with a combined number of 25 mpg. The all-wheel drive version has a combined number of 23 mpg.

2016 Mazda CX-9 Interior
Comfortable, but I’m not sure about the two-tone interior.

Moving inside, the interior has a pleasant upscale feel. The CX-9 has three rows of seats. I’m a big fan of having that third row. It just gives you more options. However, don’t expect to drive seven adults cross-country. Like a number of SUVs, that third row is best used for kids (or quick trips with short friends). Still, it’s a nice option to have when your crowd wants to go to dinner. My test car was the signature edition that came with a two toned black and chocolate-brown interior. I can’t say it appealed to me as I found it rather dark looking. Again, that’s a matter of personal taste. You might love it.

Regular readers will know that I’m not a fan of the Mazda display that controls things like the radio and navigation. First, it sits on top of the dash like someone forgot to include it in the design. Yes, it sits tall so you don’t have to lower your eyes significantly from the road to check the screen, but I’ve seen other cars achieve that without the added-on look. It has a controller that rests just behind the shift level. There’s nothing wrong with the controller, it’s more what you have to do with it. It takes way too many clicks to do the basics. Let’s just say that there are other carmakers that do it much better.

2016 Mazda CX-9
Great looking from the side

My test car was the top of the line Signature edition that stickered at $45,215. It came with Nappa leather and rosewood trim inside plus a Bose sound system. At this price point you have a big decision to make. Do you bump up another $5-10,000 and buy an upscale brand, or do you pat yourself on the back for getting plenty of luxury extras without a luxury price? To be honest, I think I’d feel better moving up the automotive food chain. On the other hand, if you’re buying a CX-9 in the low to mid-30s, you’re going to feel like you’re getting great value.

Is there anything wrong with the Mazda CX-9? Not really. It has a lot going for it. If you’re in the market for a three row SUV it’s definitely one you should test drive. Just make sure you really like that big grille and the quirky dash display.

Car Review: 2017 Fiat 124

2017 Fiat 124 Spider
2017 Fiat 124 Spider

You could say that the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider is simply a Mazda Miata in a nice Italian suit. While that’s close to reality, you’re really selling this two-seater sports car short if you don’t look a little closer.

2017 Fiat 124 Spider
2017 Fiat 124 Spider

We’ll start with a brief history lesson. The original 124 Spyder was built by Fiat starting in the late 60s and ending in 1980. It was a stylish little sports car with a lot of appeal. Of course those great looks had one minor drawback. Back in those days Fiats were not known for their reliability. As the hosts of Car Talk once proclaimed, the world would be a better place if everyone owned an old Fiat. That’s because we’d be forced to meet our neighbors when we needed to get a ride someplace because our car wouldn’t start.

Zoom forward to modern times and we find an interesting marriage between Fiat and Mazda. The Italian company formed a joint venture with the Japanese manufacturer to build Fiats in Asia. But why build something from scratch when you’ve got a great platform like the latest generation Miata? The result is the best of both worlds. Italian style and Japanese reliability. The Fiat version has different body styling, engine and some suspension tweaks, but any Miata owner will feel right at home. Frankly, it all works well.

2017 Fiat 124 Spider
Best of Both Worlds?

Let’s start with the car’s looks. This new body is a great tribute to the original Pininfarina design. The grille has angled corners that are a nice homage to the 1960s look. The headlights hold the same place on the front end but look very modern. Because of the styling changes, the 124 is slightly longer than the Miata. But the result is that you definitely won’t mistake it for its Japanese cousin.

2017 Fiat 124 Spider Engine
160 HP Turbo 4 Cylinder

In place of the Mazda 155 horsepower normally aspirated engine, Fiat has installed it’s 160 horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder. Normally, I’d call 160 horsepower pretty anemic, but it works very well in the 124. In fact, my test car had the automatic and I still found it entertaining (although I’d still probably go for the six-speed manual). There is a touch of turbo lag so you have to wait just a moment for the power to arrive, but once engaged, it gives you everything it’s got. While it has five more horsepower than the Miata, it’s also slightly heavier, so I can’t say it gains much of an advantage. If you want a little more performance you can bump up to the Abarth edition that gives you an extra four hoses, paddle shifters and suspension mods.

You can expect 30 mpg combined (26 city/35 highway) with the manual transmission, and 29 mpg combined (25 city/36 highway) for the automatic. I got 28 mpg during my test week and I was constantly pounding the throttle (because it’s just so much fun).

Which leads me to the 124’s handling. What a joy. I love the way the Miata drives, and the 124 is right there with it. It’s a little more comfortable, but that’s not a bad thing for the daily commuter. Still, you enjoy flinging it into any sequence of turns that you find free from traffic. Like the Miata, it’s a car you’ll that will put a smile on your face every day.

2017 Fiat 124 Spider Interior
Don’t call it cramped. Lets say “efficient”.

Of course, that assumes you fit. The 124 is not a big car. It has essentially the same cramped cabin as the Miata. I’m six feet tall and I thought it was just fine, but if your dimensions are a little larger, you’ll definitely want to try it on for size. Like the Miata, it has cup holders that are awkwardly placed at the back of the center console. It will carry your drink, but you won’t causally take a sip.

The 124 has a manual soft top that works incredibly well. It’s perfectly balanced and can fold down in just a few seconds with very little effort. It goes up just as easily. Don’t be reluctant to buy because it’s not motorized. It actually works better. Of course one thing you lose is trunk space. Don’t count on carrying anything large. It’s good for one carry-on suitcase and not much more. But then, this isn’t a car built for hauling stuff, it’s built for hauling you.

2017 Fiat 124 Spider Display
The weak link is Mazda’s Display Interface

If there is a weak point for the 124, it’s the display. It’s a standard Mazda unit and just doesn’t work as well as designs from other manufacturers. Whether it’s the radio or the other applications, it requires too many actions to get what you want.

My test car was the mid-range Lusso edition. Base price was $27,495. The optional automatic transmission and delivery charge totaled $29,840. Frankly, I’d save the money and stick with the manual transmission. There is a base model Classico that starts at $24,999, or you can bump up to the Abarth.

Right about now, I know what you’re thinking. Should you buy the Fiat 124 or stick with the Mazda Miata? If your priority is having fun while you drive, frankly, either choice is great. Personally, I think the looks of the Fiat give it an edge. I love the styling and the fact that you just don’t see as many of them on the road. It’s a great way to connect a classic design with modern mechanicals.

Besides, who wouldn’t want a nice Italian suit?


Truck Review: 2017 Honda Ridgeline

2017 Honda Ridgeline
2017 Honda Ridgeline

I’ve been a fan of the Honda Ridgeline since day one. Of course, maybe that’s because I’m not a traditional truck kind of guy. I use a trailer for hauling big stuff. That’s because most of the time I simply need a comfortable car to get me where I need to go. That’s why the 2017 Ridgeline is a perfect compromise. It’s both a great car and a solid truck.

2017 Honda Ridgeline
2017 Honda Ridgeline

Of course if you’re a true-blue worker bee who uses your truck every day to haul big stuff, then you don’t want the Ridgeline. You need a full-sized pickup with a full-sized bed. If you’re hauling a huge boat or trailer, you’ll want a pickup with a massive torque pulling engine. But I often tell people before they buy a vehicle to think about what they really want to accomplish. If you’re someone who does 98% of your driving to and from work, hauling kids, or running errands, then maybe a huge pickup isn’t the answer. Perhaps you have a horse and you need to haul all the assorted tack, or you sell things at craft fairs on the weekend. You have big stuff that just won’t fit into the hatch of your SUV. That’s exactly what the Ridgeline was born to do.

Pilot isn’t exactly the same, but close

Let’s start with the comfort side. The front part of the Ridgeline is basically a Honda Pilot. They don’t share the exact same looks, but underneath it’s essentially the same. The Ridgeline is built on a unibody chassis. That means its ride is less like a truck and more like a car. Having said that, Honda says it did a lot of work to strengthen the Ridgeline’s chassis so it’s ready for business. Inside, the interior is nearly identical to the Pilot. Again, that’s the good news. It’s both comfortable and comforting. It’s not a work environment or an imposing façade. It’s exactly what you need most of the time you’re out driving.

ridgeline-pilot-interior comparison
Which one is the Pilot and Which is the Ridgeline?

The Ridgeline has a 280 horsepower V6 engine. That’s 30 more horsepower than the first generation. Honda says it has about a 1500 pound payload (depending on which one you choose and up to 5,000-pound towing capacity. Once again, big trucks will give you more, but this will handle most of my needs. I found the acceleration just fine. The Honda Pilot does a little better, but then it also weighs nearly 200 pounds less (all that chassis strengthening has to cost something!). That 280 horsepower engine is your only option. If you want more in a mid-sized truck you’ll need to look at something like the Chevy Colorado. But for me, the V6 would be just fine. That engine gets 18 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway with a combined number of 21 mpg. I managed 20 mpg during my test week.

2017 Honda Ridgeline Rear Seats
I liked the extra storage when the seats flip-up

Back inside, I like the latest version of the Honda display interface that controls entertainment and so much more. Honda upgraded it last year and the changes made a big difference. I also liked the way the rear seats flip-up to give more storage space. Other mid-sized pickups have this feature, but they just don’t do it as well. About the only thing I didn’t like was the driver’s arm rest. Every time I put on my seat belt, I had to pull it up. That means adjusting it every single time. OK, it’s not a big deal, but I did find it annoying.

2017 Honda Ridgeline Truck Bed
Storage Compartment Is Ready for Work or Play

In the back, the truck bed is ready for either work or play. The tailgate can either swing down or open to the side. Ford invented this for its station wagons back in the late 1960s, and I’m surprised more trucks don’t do this. It simply makes it easier to load something heavy into the bad without pushing it across the tailgate. The Ridgeline has speakers embedded in the side walls so you can crank up your tunes wherever you stop. Another useful extra is a large lockable storage compartment under the bed. You could store lots of boring stuff, or you could fill it with ice and plenty of drinks for your tailgate party. It even has a drain plug at the bottom.

One thing Honda did was make the 2017 Ridgeline a little more traditional looking. Gone is the sloping C-pillar that extended from the cab down to the truck bed. Now it looks more like all the other trucks, which could help win over the folks who want the standard look.

2017 Honda Ridgeline
2017 Ridgeline Has More Traditional Truck Look.

The Ridgeline starts at $29,475. My test truck was the all-wheel-drive RTL-E. With plenty of options (including some great safety stuff like lane keeper assist and forward collision mitigation), it came in at $42,270.

Everyone who buys a truck does it for different reasons. If you need a big truck to do beefy work, there are plenty of options. But if you want a truck that will give you the best of both worlds, I think the latest version of the Honda Ridgeline is a great choice.