First Drive: 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid

Fans of the wildly popular Honda Accord now have another option with the all-new Accord Hybrid. Car buyers looking for hybrids and/or high gas mileage cars now have another excellent option as well. I traveled to central Ohio for the opportunity to drive this new vehicle and also for a tour of the Marysville, Ohio plant where the Accord Hybrid is built.

Exterior

The styling for the Accord has remained elegant through this ninth generation without becoming boring. The vehicle has been a force in the midsized market for so long that the bar is set very high, and the current Accord upholds that standard. The Accord Hybrid has a number of design accents that set it apart from the gas version, including a blue-accented upper grille on the front end along with blue-accented headlights, blue-accented LED taillights and a trunk lid spoiler that helps reduce aerodynamic drag. Along with various hybrid badges it’s enough to give the Accord Hybrid a distinctive look. It also comes with 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels with a sharp design that’s unique to the Hybrid.

Interior

The Accord Hybrid interior is very similar to other Accord models with a level of comfort and upscale accents that will please most buyers in this segment. It’s roomy and comfortable and all of the instruments are laid out nicely for easy usage. The Hybrid’s interior is distinguished by a black steering wheel and the unique hybrid instrumentation and has features like dual-zone climate control.

Performance

When you drive the Accord Hybrid, it drives differently than the regular gas model, so there will be an adjustment period as drivers get used to it. It’s not really better or worse – it just feels different. For example, gas cars typically coast when you let up on the gas, while here with the Hybrid you’ll feel some drag as it’s designed to charge the battery in these instances. Also, drivers can monitor mileage and battery usage vs gas usage in real time, so driving efficiently becomes a game if you’re inclined to play. I suspect most buyers will embrace these differences.

Still, the acceleration is fine and the overall driving experience is excellent. I drove the Accord Hybrid on a wide variety of roads and found the vehicle to be very responsive. In one of the city setting we were challenged to try to get the highest gas mileage along a prepared route. Once you get the hang of how the Hybrid works you can achieve some very impressive mileage numbers in slow traffic areas.

The Accord Hybrid achieves impressive fuel economy ratings with 50 MPG city, 45 MPG highway and 47 MPG combined by using a two-motor hybrid system called Intelligent Multi-Mode Drive (i-MMD) that continuously cycles between three different modes (EV drive, hybrid drive and engine drive) to maximize fuel efficiency. The gas engine powers a generator in most driving conditions which then provides energy to charge the hybrid battery and/or for the electric motor to power the wheels. The i-MMD can also operate on gasoline engine power only, usually during medium- to high-speed cruising.

Overview

Pricing for the Accord Hybrid ranges from $29,155 for the base Hybrid, $31,905 for the Hybrid EX-L and $34,905 for the Hybrid Touring. An Accord plug-in hybrid is also available which has a smaller battery. If you’re thinking about buying an Accord or if you’re in the market for a hybrid, I strongly recommend driving the new Accord Hybrid and having a sales representative spend some time with you explaining all the features.

  

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First Drive: 2014 Toyota Corolla

The Toyota Corolla has earned a reputation for reliability over the years, making it one of the most successful vehicles in Toyota’s lineup. But the Corolla was also known for pretty conservative styling, and in today’s competitive car market Toyota listened to its customers and made it a priority to improve the exterior and interior styling. The result is a radically different front end for the all-new 2014 Corolla that sets the tone for the new model. The Corolla lineup also features sport model (the S) that has an even more aggressive look.

Exterior

Just take one look at the new front end of the Corolla and your impression of the vehicle will change immediately. It’s much more expressive with a large, trapezoidal grille under the LED headlights giving the Corolla a more memorable look (see first two images above). In the S model the grille shape is flipped to set it apart from the L, LE and LE Eco models, giving consumers an interesting set of choices (see images 3 and 4 above). The S model also has beautiful 17-inch alloy wheels that help the overall look of the car. The exterior dimensions have also changed a bit from the previous model as the new Corolla is a little longer and wider and also a little shorter.

Interior

The interior of the Corolla has also been revamped with a horizontal design across the dashboard. The seats and materials have been improved and the overall driving experience was very comfortable. It’s pretty amazing how far these compact cars have come over the years. The steering wheel had a sporty feel to it and the addition of more soft touch materials made a difference in overall comfort.

Performance

I had plenty of drive time with several of the Corolla models as Toyota prepared a number of routes in the Minneapolis area on a beautiful fall day. I started with the S as I wanted to see how the sportier model would drive and I came away impressed with the acceleration and handling. I’ve mentioned many times that I prefer vehicles that offer a separate sport mode and here drivers can choose between sport and eco settings. The Corolla felt more nimble and quick in sport mode which made it fun to drive, and still performed adequately in eco mode. Toyota offers a new Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) that it calls the CVTi-S which has been designed to give a driving experience more similar to a traditional automatic transmission with the gear changes. The transmission has the feel of seven “gears” or shift points, and in the S model drivers can use paddle shifters to manually control the shift points. The S model does not offer a more powerful engine so buyers looking for small performance cars won’t be looking at this model, but the transmission and suspension changes improve the driving experience enough for many consumers.

The LE Eco model was a very pleasant surprise as it performed well in both eco and sport modes. The Corolla offers a 1.8 liter engine that is rated at 132 horsepower, but the LE Eco has a 1.8-liter engine with Toyota’s “Valvematic” system which produces 42 miles-per-gallon on the highway and 140 horsepower. At the moment Toyota is projecting roughly 10% product mix for the LE Eco with 40% for each the S and LE, and capacity restraints will prevent that from going much higher in the short term. Still, it will be interesting to see if demand for this 42 MPG option causes the company to adjust its plans over time.

Overview

The compact car segment has seen much more aggressive and interesting designs in recent years, so the new Corolla design should help get the attention of younger buyers. Overall this is an impressive vehicle. It’s always been a big seller, but the new design should attract plenty of new buyers considering the various options in this segment.

  

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.

8 2014-Chevrolet-Corvette-019

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

  

First Drive: 2014 Toyota Tundra

The styling of the Toyota Tundra has been completely updated both inside and out for the 2014 model year which you’ll notice right away with the more muscular and chiseled front grille. Sales in the full-sized pickup truck market are booming this year and Toyota expects to grab its share of that market with the redesigned half-ton, full-size pickup truck. The 2014 Tundra will be available in 5 grades – SR, SR5, Limited, Platinum and a special 1794 Edition, which reflects a western lifestyle theme as a tribute to the ranch, founded in 1794, on which the Tundra plant is located in San Antonio. I traveled out to Knoxville, Tennessee for an up-close look at the new truck and a chance to drive it on a variety of roads.

Exterior

The redesign and the new front grille definitely enhance the look of the Tundra. It’s a great-looking truck as you can see from the photos above with the bold and powerful look that buyers expect in this segment. The Platinum version has a little less chrome and I liked that one the best, but buyers will have plenty of choices with the multiple trim levels. I liked the feature of having “TUNDRA” stamped into the sheet metal on the rear, and along with the new tail lamps the vehicle looks great from this angle. Toyota listened to customers who explained how they used the truck in rugged settings, so both the front and rear bumpers have been changed from one piece to three for lower replacement costs. Three cab styles are offered with the two-door Regular Cab, four-door Double Cab, and the super-sized four-door CrewMax. The Regular Cab and Double Cab models are offered in standard bed (78.7-inch) or long bed (97.6-inch) configurations and the CrewMax comes with a 66.7-inch bed, with all beds being 22.2-inches deep.

Interior

Many upgrades were made to the interior to make it more refined. The interior is very spacious and comfortable, and in the Limited, Platinum and 1794 editions buyers will find the luxury items you expect in higher end vehicles. I liked the leather seats and leather accents on the dash, particularly in the Platinum edition which featured perforated, diamond pleated premium leather seats, door and instrument panel inserts. The center stack screen and controls were laid out nicely and easy to use. The upgraded Entune audio system and app suite is easy to use with some nice customization features.

The rear seats in the CrewMax edition offer plenty of space for passengers and can now be folded up for additional cargo carrying capability as well.

Performance

The engine options remain the same on the new Tundra, as Toyota executives explained that drivers would not see any real-world mileage gains with a turbo V6 offered by competitors. Toyota’s most popular engine is the 5.7-liter, DOHC i-Force V8 which generates 381 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 401 foot-pounds of peak torque at 3,600 rpm with a six-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission. Fuel efficiency on 4×2 models is 13 mpg city, 18 mpg highway and 16 mpg combined while the 4×4 achieves 13 mpg city/17 mpg highway/15 mpg combined. My test vehicles featured this engine and it performed nicely on roads that varied from winding hills at various speeds and inclines to highway driving. The Tundra was a pleasure to drive and it handled well.

Toyota also offers a 4.6-liter, DOHC i-Force V8 offers 310 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 327 foot-pounds of peak torque at 3,400rpm that gets slightly better fuel mileage.

Buyers can also choose a 4.0-liter Dual Overhead Cam (DOHC) V6 which is standard on Tundra Regular and Double Cab models and produces 270 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 278 foot-pounds of peak torque at 4,400 rpm. It is paired with a five-speed automatic transmission with uphill/downhill shift logic. EPA-estimated fuel economy is 16 mpg city, 20 mpg highway and 17 mpg combined.

Drivers can control the driving experience to adapt to road surfaces or driving conditions. In “normal” mode, Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), Traction Control (TRAC) and Automatic Limited-Slip Differential (Auto-LSD) all function to help enable traction and control capability. These modes can then be turned off to adjust to various conditions.

Overview

Toyota executives are stressing the “American-born” nature of the new Tundra which should play well with buyers in this segment. The redesigned Tundra was once again engineered by Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor and the design was created by Calty Design Research centers in Newport Beach and Ann Arbor. The Tundra is assembled in San Antonio and its V6 and V8 engines are built in Alabama while transmissions are built in North Carolina.

The large truck segment is very competitive with excellent products, but it’s also growing like crazy as the economy improves. The new Tundra will definitely catch the eye of buyers and we recommend test driving it if you’re looking for a big truck. Toyota has a well-deserved reputation for durability and reliability which is important if you’re looking for a workhorse.

  

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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