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.

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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.

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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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First Drive: 2014 Mazda6

Mazda invited us to the Texas Hill Country near Austin to test drive the completely redesigned Mazda6. Everything about this vehicle is new, including the platform, engine and transmission, all designed from scratch from the ground up to work together. The engineers at Mazda even had to create all-new manufacturing processes to enable the scaling of the hardware for different models. The result is a vehicle that should do well in the super-competitive mid-sized sedan market.

Exterior

Check out the slideshow above, and you’ll see that the new Mazda6 is a beautiful vehicle from all angles. The front face of the vehicle is less pronounced than previous Mazda designs, helping to create a more refined look while retaining the aggressive feel of the Mazda brand. I particularly like how the chrome under the front grille extends out to follow the upper curves of the headlights, and the obligatory LED accents are perfectly placed to help create the image of speed and power.

The designers at Mazda had some clear goals as the re-imagined this vehicle. The Mazda6 currently captures a youthful, sporty image, and they wanted to reposition the 2014 model with “a more sporty, sophisticated and premium image.” They also wanted to position it as clear step-up from the youthful Mazda3.

The design theme of “Kodo – Soul of Motion” permeates every decision made with the new vehicle, with an emphasis on proportion, stance, brand signature and aerodynamics. The muscular but fluid lines make the Mazda6 look like it’s ready to run. Overall, this new design is a head-turner that should generate significant buzz for the vehicle and the brand.

Interior

The goal of creating a more premium image led to significant upgrades to the interior of the Mazda6. The all-new seats were very comfortable, and both the standard interiors and the leather option definitely had a more luxurious and elegant feel. The leather in particular offers a combination of hidden and contrast stitching that adds to the beauty of the interior. They reduced the size of steering wheel a bit to give more of a racing feel to the vehicle as well.

The designers avoided a bulky center stack in favor of a more horizontal design across the dashboard, and the controls are presented in a manner that makes them very easy to use. The screen and TomTom navigation tools were adequate, but they won’t blow you away as the screen isn’t very large. Still, the overall design and comfort level of the interior will definitely attract a wide variety of consumers.

Performance

Mazda is all about building cars that are fun to drive, and they achieved that goal with the 2014 Mazda6. The rolling hills near Austin provided a great testing environment with plenty of tight curves along with rapid inclines and declines. The thought that struck with me the most was how agile the Mazda6 felt. The steering, handling and braking were all very impressive.

The Mazda6 we tested featured the all-new SKYACTIV-G 2.5L four-cylinder engine that is available now with the launch of the vehicle, and Mazda will be providing a SKYACTIV-D 2.2L Clean Diesel Engine for the second half of 2013. This will replace the option of a six-cylinder engine which may disappoint some buyers but may also help lead to a resurgence of diesel in the US market. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Six-cylinders are becoming much rarer in this mid-sized market, disappointing those of us who crave power. Still, Mazda went to great lengths to push the limits of performance and efficiency with its new SKYACTIV engine technology, and the efforts produced solid performance for the new engine. The engine generates 184 horsepower and 185 lb-ft of torque and the 6-speed automatic version offers up impressive fuel mileage at 26 MPG city and 38 MPG highway (30 mpg combined).

Mazda has also added some impressive technological features that make the vehicle more competitive in this segment, with Mazda Radar Cruise Control, Front Obstruction Warning, Lane Departure Warning, High Beam Control, Rear Cross Traffic Alert and Smart City Brake Support.

Overview

Mazda’s all-new flagship model will be priced competitively in this segment, with the Sport model starting at $20,880 and the Grand Touring version topping out at $29,495. Consumers can definitely save some money choosing the Mazda6 over much of the competition without sacrificing performance and styling. I suspect the eye-catching design will lure many consumers to give this vehicle a try, and like all Mazdas it’s fun to drive, so Mazda will likely have another hit on its hands.

  

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.

  

First Drive: 2013 Nissan Pathfinder

Nissan invited us out to wine country near San Francisco to test drive the all-new 2013 Nissan Pathfinder. Nissan has been a leader in the large SUV category for years with the Pathfinder, and the 2013 model represents the 4th generation of this vehicle. This segment has evolved through the years as the various manufacturers have moved from a body-on-frame truck design to a more carlike unibody construction. The result is a more comfortable driving experience, even for these large SUVs, and the Pathfinder is no exception.

Exterior

With the 4th generation Pathfinder comes an all-new exterior which represents a nice improvement over the previous model. The front end in particular offers a much cleaner design. The headlights are larger and the angled grille looks like it belongs on the vehicle. The lines on the front hood and near the fog lights accentuate the grille design as well. Overall, the vehicle retains enough of the rugged feel of earlier versions, yet also has a classy, upscale look as well.

Interior

The 7-passenger Pathfinder is loaded with interior features that will make drivers and passengers feel very comfortable. The new Pathfinder boasts best-in-class interior passenger volume and best-in-class front headroom and front legroom. It’s definitely roomy and you can load this vehicle up with adults and kids no problem.

You can get all of the comfort options you would expect, heated and cooled front seats, heated 2nd row seats, heated steering wheel, power tilt and telescoping steering wheel, push button start, multiple user memory settings and an advanced Bose Audio System with 13 speakers. The Pathfinder also features easy 3rd row access from the 60/40-split 2nd row with innovative technology that lets you access the 3rd row even when an empty child seat is still in the second row.

Buyers can also choose a Dual Panorama Moonroof, with sliding opening front panel and fixed rear glass panel which extends over the 2nd and 3rd rows. You should definitely check out this option.

Performance

I was able to push the Pathfinder pretty hard around some winding roads through Napa and Sonoma and was very impressed with the handling on this large vehicle. The Pathfinder gripped the road nicely even at higher speeds. The acceleration was also solid for this type of vehicle. The new Pathfinder is the only vehicle in this segment with a CVT transmission which helps provide a 30 % increase in combined fuel economy over the previous model. Fuel economy is rated at 26 mpg highway, 20 mpg city and 22 mpg combined for the 2WD model and 25 mpg highway, 19 mpg city and 21 mpg combined for the 4WD model. The CVT performed nicely as Nissan continues to perfect this technology. With gas mileage at a premium these days, the V8 is no longer an option.

I drove a model with the available intuitive four-wheel drive. Drivers can choose full-time 2WD for maximum fuel economy, auto mode to automatically monitor conditions and adjust the balance of power between front and rear wheels for best traction, or 4WD Lock mode when full-time 4WD is desired. It also features standard Hill Start Assist that helps add control when starting and driving away on a steep incline (both 4WD and 2WD models).

Overview

The Pathfinder remains an excellent option in the large SUV category. It’s perfect for families and for an active lifestyle. With best-in-class standard 5,000-pound towing capacity you can use the Pathfinder tow your boat, jet skis or trailer. It’s roomy and fun to drive so it should continue to be a hit for Nissan.

  

First Drive: 2013 Honda Accord

The Accord has always been an important vehicle to Honda. The Accord accounts for a huge chunk of production (and revenue) for the automotive giant. Because of this every introduction of a new generation of Accord is important in many ways.

2011 was a rough year for Japanese automakers in general. The Japan earthquake and the flood in Thailand seriously curtailed the number of vehicles produced for the model year. Suppliers had to rebuild, Honda scrambled to find alternative sources of parts and supplies.

Honda used this time to prepare for a ramp-up of output in the first quarter of the new year. Inventory increased 46,000 units and hasn’t looked back ever since. Accord sales alone are up nearly 28% since January, a huge turn-around from 2011.

The 2013 Accord represents the ninth generation of the famous brand, with its ancestry dating back to 1976. The Accord has a reputation for being a solid and reliable family car, able to haul a family and their gear throughout their day-to-day adventures. The sedan excels at fading into the background; becoming ubiquitous and unassuming. Not a bad thing for a people-hauler.

Lineup

The Accord comes in three body styles: the Sedan, the Coupe, and the Plug-in Hybrid Sedan. Each is based off the same chassis and shares a majority of components. The continuation of the Coupe is a bit of a surprise given that the segment seems to be shrinking.

There are a variety of engines available that also define the offerings. The base four-cylinder 2.4 liter i-VTEC DOHC engine is available in both the Coupe and the Sedan, while the more powerful 3.5 liter six-cylinder is an option. The Hybrid Accord comes equipped with a two-motor 2.0 liter powerplant, unique to that vehicle.

Interior

Honda has focused on designing their vehicles around the concept of maximizing space for the occupants while minimizing the overall size of the vehicle. To that end the car is developed from the inside out: the passenger cabin space is defined and the designers must create a body that fits around the occupants.

To that end the 2013 Accord Coupe, for example, has been shrunk by nearly two inches in overall length, while gaining about an inch of leg room and almost two cubic-feet of storage in the trunk.

Improved Materials

The interior of the new Accord is a great improvement over the outgoing model. Utilitarian plastic and vinyl have been replaced with higher quality materials. Brushed aluminum accent pieces on higher-end trim levels add to the feeling of an upscale vehicle.
Honda has replaced the multi-piece dash with a one-piece instrument panel designed in-house. The new dash reduces rattles and squeaks and feels very solid. The dash is the focus of the new car, with a split two-screen control system acting as navigation and stereo controls.

Rear-view cameras are now standard across all versions, which is a big selling point for those of us who fear backing over an errant tricycle. It worked well, as the screen is mounted high and centrally located, making it a snap to use.

The navigation system seemed adequate, as did the stereo. Honda is rolling out it’s HondaLink system with the new Accord, which offers smartphone app support through device tethering. We didn’t get to test the system ourselves, but after seeing a demo of it I’m looking forward to getting a better look.

Also available is a Lane Departure Warning (LDW) system that alerts you when you drift slightly while driving. By slightly I do mean slightly, as the system kept triggering at the slightest provocation. Simply merging from an off ramp into traffic would sometimes cause it to chirp. Half-way through the test drive we were looking for a way to disable it.

Exterior

As mentioned earlier, the new Accord is slightly smaller than the out-going model. But the change isn’t noticeable. The lines of the car feel more defined, more aggressive. Honda used a new and improved stamping process for the new car and it shows in the presence the car exudes.

An important feature of the new car is the addition of an external rear-facing camera mounted on the passenger side mirror. This camera aids the driver by showing in the center display an image of what’s in the car’s right-side blind spot. Flip on the right turn signal and get a bird’s eye view of what’s in the way. In practice this is an incredible feature. During our test drive it became an easy thing to grow accustomed to. It’s a serious tool for highway driving.

Performance

The 2.4L four-cylinder engine puts out 185 horsepower and 181 foot-pounds of torque. It’s peppy, but not exceptional. As with most entry-level engines the focus is on fuel economy, not performance. Still, it has enough oomph to get out of it’s own way

The 3.5L six-cylinder’s output is up 7 horsepower from last year’s engine, up to 278. It gives the Accord a more spirited drive, and actually wakes up the vehicle. The engine note on the sixer is raspier and more aggressive; stomp on the gas and you’ll hear it. For my money this is the engine of choice.

Overall

Pricing for the Accord ranges from $22,000 for an Accord LX to $33,000 for a well-optioned Touring model. Quite a range, but within the pricing horizon of its competitors.

The Accord Sedan will go on sale September 19 across the country, while the Coupe, which will start at $23,350, won’t be available until October 15.

The first impression of the 2013 Accord is one of a competent and solid car. Honda is a company led by engineers, and it shows. The amount of effort that has gone into refining this icon is impressive. I look forward to driving it long-term to see if that first impression holds up over time.

  

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