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 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.

  

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.

  

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