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: 2014 Acura RLX

He kept taunting me from the rearview mirror, daring me to bury the needle even further, to more aggressively attack the relentless twists and turns ahead of me, to see just how far I could push this beast of a car I was driving. The motorcycle driver behind me had an advantage, of course, being able to take the hairpin curves of the road at a higher speed than I could, and he also seemed to know the area intimately, weaving his way around each bend in the road with confidence, no matter how severe, as if he knew each was coming miles ahead of time. I too had an advantage, however, specifically the 310-HP V6 engine under the hood of the all-new 2014 Acura RLX I was driving through a winding road in Napa Valley. The biker may have had the upper hand on the curves, but I owned the rest of the road. He’d inch closer when I slowed down ahead of a particularly sharp corner, but the RLX left him in the dust when the road opened up ahead of us again, effortlessly accelerating as I watched the biker shrink in my mirror. Unfortunately, the RLX handled the curves on our route much better than my wife’s stomach did, so I wisely chose marital peace with my white-knuckled passenger over my inflated ego and eventually let the biker pass. But he knew. And I knew he knew.

PERFORMANCE

Clearly, Acura’s new luxury sedan is a blast to drive, which is why they invited us out to Solage Calistoga in Napa Valley to drive the RLX. The twists and turns in the surrounding roads were the perfect setting to test the limits of this direct-injection 3.5L V6 sedan, whose Precision All-Wheel Steer (P-AWS) system offered instantaneous and precise control through even the tightest of corners during our test drive. While my wife would argue that I took the turns too fast, the precision the P-AWS system offers assured me that I was only scratching the surface. My biker friend got off easy!

During our time at Solage, Acura talked about the three pillars of their Smart Luxury approach, the first of which is sustainability. The four-door RLX drives and responds like a sports car, displaying impressive agility through the winding roads with instantaneous acceleration, particularly when Sport Mode is enabled. And yet, those 310 horses deliver class-leading economy with 24 combined MPG, including 31 MPG on the highway.

acura_rlx_09

We also really enjoyed the Adaptive Cruise Control with Low-Speed Follow, which is easily activated from the steering wheel. As someone who relies on cruise control during long drives, I loved how easily this system works, and just how responsive it is. Just set the speed as you normally would with cruise control, then set your desired distance from the car in front of you. The RLX will then speed up and slow down based on how fast or slow the car in front of you is driving. If they come to a stop at a stop sign, you’ll stop too. But, as Acura warned us when we buckled up for our test drive, if that car rolls through the stop sign, you’ll roll right with them! Combined with the Lane Keeping Assist system, this Adaptive Cruise Control speaks to the second pillar in Acura’s Smart Luxury approach: Time is luxury.

INTERIOR

Acura aimed for customization, ease of use and intuitive controls with the RLX. Mission accomplished. Most notable is the debut of the next-generation AcuraLink connected car system, a cloud-based application that allows drivers to access information like near real-time surface street traffic information and media feeds from sources like Twitter and Facebook while providing a Pandora interface, Bluetooth connectivity, text-to-voice SMS texting and much more, all without taking your eyes off the road or even picking up your phone. The RLX also comes standard with a beautiful seven-inch On-Demand Multi-Use Display with audible and tactile feedback, and audiophiles will want to upgrade to the Acura/ELS Studio Premium Audio System, a 14-speaker marvel that was developed with the help of Grammy winning producer and engineer Elliot Scheiner. This system must be heard to be believed.

Gadgets and gizmos aside, the interior of the RLX exudes luxury, with its heated 12-way adjustable seats and the stitched leather on the steering wheel, console and instrument panel, which looked even more impressive all lit up at night. In fact, after our initial late-afternoon test drive, we hopped back into the RLX with a couple of our fellow testers and headed to nearby Cade Winery for an amazing dinner, and the panel was quite a sight. Additionally, the RLX boasts the most spacious five-passenger seating in its class, which our backseat passengers most definitely appreciated on our way to dinner that night.

EXTERIOR

The RLX is quite an impressive piece of machinery, inside and out, with a look that will surely help it stand out in this crowded class. Most striking are the Jewel Eye headlights, a set of 10 LEDs stacked in two rows which give the RLX a distinctive appearance while providing improved brightness, distribution and down-the-road illumination on our drive to Cade Winery.

acura_rlx_10

While the RLX doesn’t necessarily break any new design ground, it clearly is an improvement over its predecessor, the RL. Most impressive is the RLX’s ability to appeal to those looking for the room of a full-sized sedan while still maintaining the look and feel of a mid-sized sedan with its wide, athletic stance that just begs you to see what’s under the hood.

CONCLUSION

The final pillar of Acura’s Smart Luxury approach is value, and with a base of around $48,000, the RLX has an advantage over competitors like the Lexus GS, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, BMW 5 Series and Audi A6. Those are some heavy hitters, to be sure, but with the RLX representing improvement by leaps and bounds over the RL, and with a truly impressive set of features that enhances the driving experience, Acura is ready to do some heavy hitting of its own with its new flagship sedan.

  

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