First Drive: 2014 Nissan Versa Note

After updating the 4-door Versa sedan, Nissan has now turned to the 5-door hatchback with the all-new 2014 Versa Note. While they share the Versa name, the vehicles hardly look like siblings, with the 4-door Versa having the new Nissan grille across their sedan lineup while the Versa Note has a completely different front fascia that’s much more appropriate for the hatchback design. Buyers in this segment thus have two options from Nissan depending on their style tastes and practical needs.

Exterior

Nissan is the leader in this segment with both versions of the Versa offering designs that appeal to a wider demographic. They aren’t going with “quirky” design concepts in an attempt to woe younger buyers. The target market includes practical buyers in their 30s, particularly couples without children, looking for “functionality, versatility and value” but still wanting a stylish vehicle. You can see from the photos that the design should appeal to this target market along with a wider demographic without turning anyone off with design elements that are too aggressive.

Interior

Nissan is emphasizing the roominess of the interior, and I was impressed when I sat in the back seat. There’s plenty of legroom and you don’t feel like you’re in a compact vehicle. The Versa Note offers a segment-leading 38.3 inches of back row legroom and 21.4 cubic feet of cargo space. The Versa Note also offers a Drive-N-Hide adjustable floor in the back so drivers can tuck away items like computers. The front seats also offered plenty of room so I never felt cramped in the Note.

They’re targeting buyers with an active lifestyle, so the functionality provided by the back hatch and fold-down back seats will be emphasized in their marketing plan, and you can see in the slideshow above a Versa Note that was loaded up with surfing gear for all of us to check out.

The interior design is more understated than what you’ll see in other vehicles in this segment, which is consistent with Nissan’s goals with the Versa. Nissan is offering a robust technology package with a 5.8” touch-screen. I particularly like the Google Send-to-Car feature that lets drivers send an address from Google Maps directly to the navigation system of the vehicle. The Around View Monitor is particularly impressive and makes parking much easier. Just recently a feature like this was a selling point for higher end luxury cars, and now buyers can get it in a much less expensive vehicle.

Performance

Fuel efficiency is another priority with the Versa Note, with 40 miles per gallon on the highway and a best-in-class 31 MPG city and 35 MPG combined. All the automakers are laser-focused on weight reduction, and Nissan was able to reduce the weight of the Note by over 300 pounds when compared to the previous hatchback model. Improvements to the CVT engine also helped to achieve these numbers.

With the emphasis on fuel economy, it’s no surprise that the Versa Note didn’t blow me away with its performance. Still, the Note handles very well and I did enjoy our test drive along the San Diego coastline. The vehicle does not have a Sport or Eco drive mode option which is becoming more popular in small and larger vehicles.

Overview

I like what Nissan has done with the new Versa and Versa Note, and they obviously know this segment as they’ve been the sales leader since 2008. They have two options with the four and five-dour versions that appeal to a wide variety of buyers. The vehicles are practical but stylish, and they’re not trying to be too cute with the designs. I’ll be surprised if this strategy doesn’t lead to continued success.

  

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First Drive: 2014 Lexus IS

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We love the opportunity to test drive brand new car models, and we like it even more when the test involves a day at the track. So naturally we were happy to join Lexus at Rockingham Speedway in North Carolina (“The Rock”) to test drive the all-new 2014 Lexus IS. We tested the IS 250 and IS 350, along with the F Sport version of the IS 350.

There’s nothing like accelerating from a banked turn, flooring it once you hit the straightaway, and then slamming on the brakes just as you approach 100 MPH as you prepare to make a 90 degree turn. You definitely get the feeling of what a car can handle on a track like this, and each model of the IS was a blast to drive.

Exterior

Lexus is emphasizing its new “obsession with design” and we can see the results as the company has rolled out its aggressive spindle grille across its model lineup. The new front end gives Lexus a new, bold look that sets the tone for all of the design elements. I always liked the look of Lexus cars, but now I love them.

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First Drive: 2014 Acura MDX

Acura practically invented the segment for luxury CUVs with three rows with the introduction of the first MDX in 2001, and now Acura is introducing the third generation of this vehicle with the 2014 model year with significant upgrades over the previous model. The market for 7-passenger luxury CUVs in now crowded with very healthy competition from other luxury brands, but Acura will remain very competitive with this all-new MDX. I had the opportunity to drive the new model and I came away very impressed.

Exterior

The changes to the exterior design of the MDX aren’t dramatic, as Acura sticks with its wedge-shaped grille for the front end, but the Jewel Eye LED headlights give the vehicle a much more modern look and feel as you can see from the photos above. The new headlights also provide superior road light and visibility as well. Acura slightly altered the size of vehicle, making it slightly narrower and longer. The new MDX is two inches longer with a 2.8-inch longer wheelbase which helps to enhance ride quality. Meanwhile, the vehicle width was reduced by 1.3 inches. The frontal area of the vehicle is also 2-percent smaller which helped to provide for greater aerodynamic efficiency. While the vehicle looks more modern with a number of refinements to the design, it retains the sporty essence that makes it an attractive option in this segment.

Interior

Acura strived to make significant improvements to the interior of the MDX with the goal of creating “synergy between man and machine.” The result was a very luxurious and practical driving experience that will appeal to buyers in this segment. The overall feel is modern and sophisticated and I experienced a very comfortable drive that will meet the expectations of the target market.

I particularly liked the improvements to the center stack. The center console storage area is large and well thought out with a handy slot for mobile phone storage. The sliding lid above the storage area and below the leather-trimmed top is equipped with rubber strips which prevents items like phones from sliding around.

Another feature that stood out for me was the turn-by-turn navigation feature in the main dashboard which compliments the main navigation system in the center stack, letting drivers see instructions in their direct line of site without needing to turn their heads to the main display panel in the center stack. The MDX also features a new 7-inch color On Demand Multi-Use Display touchscreen with haptic feedback which helped to reduce the number of hard buttons in the center stack from 41 to 9.

For the third row seats, Acura wanted to make it easier to get in and out, so they added a very convenient “one push” button in two different places for second row seats. With the longer wheelbase, the new MDX now has 4.5-inch wider foot entry point for third-row passengers along with a 1.8-inch lower floor height for easier step-in. With the new
Extended Slide second-row seats the process of getting into the third row is now much easier.

Performance

The new MDX is powered by a direct-injected 3.5-liter 24-valve V-6 engine, generating 290 horsepower at 6,200 rpm; 267 lb-ft at 4,500 rpm and 267 lb.-ft. of peak torque. The aluminumV-6 engine is paired with a reengineered 6-speed automatic transmission that provides reduced friction and smoother gear changes. I drove the all-wheel drive model and was very impressed with the responsiveness and acceleration. I’m partial to vehicles that offer different driving modes so I was happy to see that the MDX offers Sport, Normal and Comfort modes. You can really have fun with the Sport mode option and the paddle shifters, and when you’re stuck in slower traffic you can save more fuel with the Comfort mode. Speaking of fuel, the 2014 MDX also achieves best-in-class fuel economy with 18/27/21 MPG city/highway/combined for the AWD package.

Overview

The MDX is a family-friendly vehicle that also meets the expectations of luxury buyers. It’s a beautiful vehicle, inside and out, and it’s loaded with all the luxuries and amenities you’d expect from today’s luxury vehicles. Buyers with families will also appreciate all of the safety features as well. Prices range from roughly $42,290 for the base 2-wheel drive model to $56,505 range for the fully loaded SH-AWD model. If you’re in the market for a luxury CUV the MDX should be on your list.

  

First Drive: 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe GSL and Limited

Hyundai introduced a two-wheelbase strategy for the completely new Santa Fe for the 2013 model. I tested the 5-passenger Sport model last year, and then had the opportunity to test drive the 7-passenger Santa Fe GSL and the 6-passenger Santa Fe Limited recently in San Diego.

The Sport model has been a hit so far, which isn’t a surprise given how much I liked the vehicle. In the six full months since the new model launch, retail sales for the vehicle have increased over 37%. Now the larger version with three rows is hitting showrooms as well. The GSL fits seven passengers while the Limited features captain chairs in the second row with a capacity for six passengers.

Exterior

The GSL and Limited look very similar to the Sport model, with the major difference being the lines for the rear side windows being softened in the larger wheelbase models. As I noted in the Sport review, “Hyundai continues to implement its “Fluidic Sculpture” design principles that have given Hyundai vehicles a bold and distinctive look. Specifically, the Santa Fe features a new design concept called Storm Edge, which captures the strong and dynamic images created by nature during the formation of a storm.” I like the idea of keeping the Santa Fe name across both the compact and midsize CUV models, as the design work well across both platforms. I like the front end in particular, and the rest of the design flows nicely from there.

Interior

The choice of a bench seat for the second row and two captain’s chairs offers nice flexibility for consumers. The captain’s chair offer a comfortable and roomy experience in the second row. And while there’s adequate room in the third row, there isn’t a ton of headroom there for larger adults so that third row is best used for kids. The split-folding third row seats offer very nice cargo flexibility for families and for road trips. The second row captain’s chair also fold down and then the second row bench in the GSL offers a 40/20/40 split folding option. The overall versatility is excellent.

The comfort and styling of Hyundai’s interiors have been impressive and the Santa Fe is no exception. I liked the design of the center stack as it offers a unique twist on what we often see. Hyundai offers a wide variety of option packages, so you can certainly get a loaded version that satisfies all your needs, but even the base models are stylish and very comfortable. I also liked the panoramic sunroof and heated steering wheel options in the technology package.

Performance

The power of the V6 engine in the GSL and Limited Santa Fe will grab your attention right away. When I test the Sport model I was impressed with the 2.0L Turbo 4-cylender engine, but I liked the easy power of the V6 even better. The responsiveness and acceleration were excellent and this vehicle is very fun to drive. The larger vehicle also handles nicely around corners given its size, and the six-speed automatic transmission performed flawlessly.

The Lambda II 3.3-liter GDI V6 engine is rated at 290 horsepower which is tied with the Explorer for the midsize CUV segment, and it’s the only midsize CUV with a standard direct injection V6 engine. Fuel economy is competitive at 18 city, 25 highway and 21 combined. From a safety point of view, all Santa Fe models feature seven airbags, including side curtain airbags and a driver’s knee airbag along with rollover sensors for the side curtain airbags.

Overview

Hyundai continues to put out hit after hit, and the entire Santa Fe line from the Sport to the GSL and Limited will fit into the lineup very well. With the different wheelbases and seating options, Hyundai will address the needs of most consumers looking for a CUV. Put this one on your test drive list.

  

First Drive: 2013 Acura RDX

At first glance the new Acura RDX may not seem entirely new, but underneath the revised sheet metal lies an entirely new car. Not only is it new, but it has been reconfigured for the customers that actually bought the original one. The first RDX was meant for young, aggressive A-type personalities, but this one is meant for the aging boomers that actually bought the car. However, that doesn’t mean that this car is any worse for it.

Refined Looks

To attract the young go-getters, the first-gen RDX was chiseled and sharp. But older professionals aren’t known for their edgy styling and forward thinking outfits. Because of this, the new RDX has been softened all around. Gone are the chiseled shoulder lines and aggressive taillight treatments, and in their places are rounder, friendlier items. The result is a more refined, professional image that fits this compact CUV nicely. It no longer looks like it’s trying too hard to act tough.

The story stays the same in the interior. Material quality is the same as before, but the interior design has benefitted from a mellowing out. It also comes very well equipped at any trim package, but navigation is not standard. The upgrade is well worth it for the ESL stereo system though. Even if grandpa isn’t going to be blasting dubstep while out on errands, he will appreciate the low range punch and high range clarity of the upgraded system.

New Powerplant for a New Personality

The original RDX, to fit their target market, was a jittery mess. Its turbo four and SH-AWD system combined to make the car eager to chase apexes, but never settled down and enjoyed the ride. With a new motor, drivetrain, chassis and suspension, the RDX has been taken off Ritalin and finally learned to calm down. The major change is the switch to a V6 instead of the old turbo 4. This 3.5L unit delivers more power (273hp) but is smoother and more relaxing than the frantic old mill. The 6-speed transmission has also been revised to prioritize smoothness over quickness.

Read the rest of this entry »

  

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