First Drive: 2014 Corvette Stingray

The buzz around the 2014 Corvette Stingray has been intense since the all-new seventh generation (C7) was unveiled earlier this year in Detroit and I couldn’t wait to get behind the wheel. I got my chance recently when Chevrolet invited me out to California to test drive this incredible new version of the iconic sports car. I drove the new Vette on long stretches of remote roads near Monterey and Carmel that offered winding paths, tight turns and inviting straightaways, and then we had the opportunity to push it even further on an autocross coarse set up for us by the Corvette team. The experience blew me away.

Exterior

The executives at Chevrolet wanted to make a statement with the design of the new C7 and they obviously succeeded. The new design generated rave reviews from the moment is was unveiled as the designers created a completely new vehicle as opposed to the more incremental styling changes we saw with the C5 and C6. The Corvette team provided us with a Corvette from each of the previous six generations so we could see up close the design changes over the years.

The bold new design also moved the brand team to revive the iconic Stingray name with the new Corvette, and I certainly agree that this new model lives up to that legacy without relying on a retro design. The new design is stunning and the Corvette looks beautiful from all angles.

The most controversial design change involved the rear tail lights with a departure from the classic, rounded lights in favor of new angular lights. Some Corvette purists were disappointed, but the designers wanted a bold, new look and the result looks fantastic. The designers came up with a new look for the tail lights that work for this Corvette design, and that’s why the entire package looks so good.

The designers explained that function helped drive the design process and that the team was heavily inspired by the Corvette racing team. Every vent on the new Corvette has an important cooling function, and the beautiful curves of the new car serve important aerodynamic functions. The new Corvette Stingray shares only two parts with the previous-generation Corvette, incorporating an all-new frame structure and chassis and a new powertrain and supporting technologies.

Interior

The designers of the new Corvette made the interior a priority as well. The goal was to provide a more upscale interior to go with the bold exterior design and to enhance the driver’s connection to the Corvette. The result is a high-tech, cockpit feel coupled with a much more luxurious experience where every surface is covered with premium, soft-touch materials such as hand-wrapped leather with elegant stitching. Other highlights include carbon fiber and aluminum trim, two high-definition, configurable screens and a smaller steering wheel.

Buyers can also choose between two seating choices: a GT seat for all-around comfort and a Competition Sport seat with more aggressive side bolstering for more support on the track. By observing high-performance driving experiences, designers included a steel-reinforced grab bar on the center console for the passenger and soft-touch materials on the edge of the console where the driver naturally braces during high-load cornering.

I was in the Corvette practically all day and the level of comfort is impressive for a sports car, whether you’re cruising on the highway or powering through a tight corner. For the driver, everything is laid out nicely and the center console screen is angled towards the driver, and the driver displays vary depending on the driver mode selected.

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Performance

For years the Corvette has set the standard for performance as it could stack up to exotic sports cars that cost much more. In its price range nothing has come close for years, and the new C7 continues that tradition by setting the bar even higher.

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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 Nissan Sentra

I traveled out to wine country near San Francisco courtesy of Nissan to test drive the all-new 2013 Nissan Sentra. I was on hand in Dallas earlier this year when Nissan unveiled the redesigned Sentra and the new design looked impressive, but now I was getting a chance to drive it as well.

Exterior

The new Sentra features an elegant design that helps it stand out in the compact car category. Some competitors in the segment have gone with edgier designs, so the more refined look of the Sentra offers a nice alternative for consumers. The new Nissan front grille fits nicely on this vehicle and the rest of the design points flow naturally. Details like LED accented headlamps and tail lamps add to the overall look of the car. As you can see from the photos I took, the Sentra looks great from all angles.

Interior

The interior of the Sentra features upgraded soft-touch materials that set it apart from other options in the compact segment. The overall feel of the interior is stylish and upscale yet understated, so it fits well the exterior. It’s also very roomy for a smaller car. The overall comfort level in all of the seats was excellent.

Like the new Altima, the 2013 Sentra offers an all-new version of the Nissan Navigation system as an option with all sorts of features. NissanConnect with Navigation includes a Hands-Free Text Messaging Assistant that reads incoming text messages and allows drivers to reply without taking their hands off of the steering wheel. In addition, it also offers Pandora, 5.8-inch touch-screen display and Google Send-to-Car functions. Other tech options include RearView Monitor and Nissan Intelligent Key with illuminated push-button ignition switch and the Tire Pressure Monitoring System with Easy Fill Tire Alert feature.

Performance

The new Sentra is 150 pounds lighter than the previous model but also has slightly larger overall dimensions and more interior room. With a lighter vehicle Sentra also has an all-new and more fuel-efficient 1.8-liter engine with a generation Xtronic CVT. Fuel economy is rated at 30 miles per gallon city, 39 miles per gallon highway and a class-leading 34 miles per gallon combined.

The Sentra features both Sport and Eco mode options, which makes the driving experience much more enjoyable. In Sport mode the Sentra accelerates nicely and zips around curves no problem. It has solid acceleration and is fun to drive. The Eco mode is a great option for slow or casual city driving. The overall driving experience was impressive for a car of this size.

Overview

Overall, the new Sentra remains an excellent option in the compact car segment. It’s very competitive on features and gas mileage, and the look of the car will definitely attract a wide variety of buyers. Pricing for the Sentra starts at $15,990 with the fully equipped SL priced at $19,760.

  

Cadillac introduces innovative CUE system

Carmakers have been racing to bring our connected lifestyle to the automobile. As more features and capabilities are added to our phones and other devices, consumers want the same functionality available to them in their cars.

This poses challenges, however, as carmakers naturally need to consider safety when deciding which features are appropriate for drivers and how they can be accessed while driving. Additionally, long lead times and engineering constraints make the addition of new features even more challenging. You can add features, but you need to be conscious of the overall driving experience.

Last week Cadillac introduced their new CUE service to the media in San Diego and we were invited to attend. CUE which stands for Cadillac User Experience, and the CUE team had a fully-functional test system available to us. Based on what we saw, CUE represents a great leap forward in the race to bring the digital lifestyle to the automobile. New innovations like tactile feedback on your finger when you touch the 8-inch center stack screen and proximity sensing that has control buttons pop up on the screen as you hand approaches make this system very user friendly, and the customization features make CUE a very powerful system that greatly enhances the driver experience.

The industry-first proximity sensing feature was the most impressive innovation. The CUE team wanted the screen layout to be clean and uncluttered so that the driver would only see the information the driver needs at a particular time. They didn’t want to clutter the screen with unnecessary icons for example while the driver was in the navigation system or the media area. On the other hand, you want to have all important options available in the form of icons without putting more buttons on the center console. The solution they came up with was proximity sensing. Additional icons to carry out commands, including your favorite presets and the controls for the app you’re in would show up in two bands across the bottom of the screen as your hand approaches the screen, and then the icons go away as your hand pulls back. You can see examples of the icons in photos #1 and #5 above. With this innovation, drivers get the best of both worlds – an uncluttered screen and multiple options when needed.

The customization features make CUE very powerful and easy to use. The most frequently used applications like your nav, phone and radio are available along the top of every screen in the system in an “app tray.” This app tray can then be customized, as users can drag any icon from the home page to the top of the screen. You can also set up to 60 presets and they can be from any app. The first six will show up along the bottom bar when your hand approaches (you swipe the screen to see the rest), and they can include your favorite radio stations or Pandora stations, favorite playlists and nav routes like Home. You can set a preset at any time, but customization and altering the order can only be done when you are parked. The key here is that you can avoid going through menus every day and have your most commonly used apps and services in your favorites. You can also set your screen to display 15 favorites at once. The result is also fewer buttons on the center stack, as only critical commands are needed offering a much simpler and elegant arrangement.

The CUE system goes beyond the center stack, however, to include the gauge cluster immediately in front of the steering wheel. The 12.3-inch reconfigurable LCD gauge cluster will be available on select models and can be customized into one of four screen layouts, with information options including traditional vehicle data such as readouts for fuel levels and speed along with navigation, phone and entertainment information. The ability to put navigation information in this gauge area is my favorite feature, as you don’t need to turn your head at all to visually follow the instructions.

These features are just some of the capabilities built into CUE. The center stack display works like today’s smart phones with swiping capability to move around the icons, and Cadillac developed a natural speech recognition system (which we couldn’t realistically test here). I also liked the single line destination entry for navigation.

CUE will debut in 2012 in the Cadillac XTS and ATS luxury sedans and SRX luxury crossover and will be presented at the 2011 LA Auto Show. The technology and media experiences are becoming critical factors for consumers, and CUE looks like it can be a huge hit for Cadillac.

  

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