Story by Joel Levin, New Jersey Newspaper Group
Automobile photos courtesy of the manufacturers
Buying a vehicle? What to think about.
The United States has started sinking into the oceans, not due to global warming, but because of SUVTNM. That's SUVs, The New Majority.
The sales numbers of these tall ships, ranging from mini-monsters to Godzillas, have overcome those of traditional cars, and the gap is widening. According to Joe Phillippi of AutoTrends Consulting, "their share of the market is expected to grow sharply over the next few years based on product plans of all of the automakers, especially in the premium through luxury segments. Customers appreciate their utility of course, but are also swayed by the availability of all-wheel drive, so handy in foul weather."
Also popular with consumers are pickups, led as usual by Ford's capable F-150 and followed by Chevy Colorado and the FCA (formerly known as Chrysler) Ram (formerly known as the oxymoronic Dodge Ram). But extrapolating from the preponderance of all these plus-size vehicles, it looks like larger garages, wider highways, and bigger profits for automakers are in store. But for most families, SUVs rule.
There are well over 100 SUVs, some built on truck bodies, and some, known as crossovers, closer to the pavement and built on car bodies. "The crossover numbers make a huge statement," says Phillippi, "especially considering what the manufacturers have in the pipeline. Crossover sales are three times greater than truck-based SUVs." Even Maserati and Bentley have jumped into the pool.
Obviously, the new majority of drivers want to upsize and gain flexible space and a higher king- and queen-of-the-road seating position. Major choices to consider are vehicle sizes, engines, accommodations, accessory packages, and towing capacity. Yes, today's four-cylinders with advanced tuning and computer controls can handily move tons of vehicle. And bear in mind that four-wheel-drive (meaning driver-selectable) or all-wheel drive are musts in regions that see only one snow storm per season. Yes, this can be a life-or-death option.
The popularity of SUVs in the suburbs where we are based shows in every parking lot and driveway. Traffic jams look like elephants on parade. And interiors are so car-like, and controlling even the behemoths is so easy, that owners never realize that they're piloting dressed-up trucks. A note of caution: The largest SUVs top three tons. Passengers and carry-on can easily add another half-ton, so as light as the controls may be, some drivers will not feel comfortable maneuvering that bulk, and could also have a hard time in tight traffic and in fitting into parking spaces.
The MKX is a true sister, not a cousin, to Ford's Edge which is priced at one-third less. Although prices start in the 40s, our test vehicle's sticker escalated to almost $64K equipped with some tasty options, so the 64-thousand-dollar question is "What is the value proposition"?
Passersby and friends said "I like your Lincoln." They never said "I like your car." They didn't even say "I like your McConaghey," although much credit for the Lincoln sales surge goes to the popular TV commercials. Hmm, could be that bringing back the split-wing grille of the '40s was not a bad idea as an instant identifier of FoMoCo's prestige brand.
Big sister is better-dressed in sumptuous leathers, wears heels (towering 21-inch wheels), is heftier but more refined (4500 pounds and speaks very quietly), thanks to hundreds of pounds of added soundproofing. She sports bigger hips and a sexier -- but less practical -- lowered roofline.
She's not a Navigator but unquestionably strikes a commanding stance outwardly, while inwardly cosseting occupants in un-Fordlike luxury. The engine, one of two V-6s (both also available in the Edge), is the step-up from the 3.7. At 2.7, one liter less than the base motor, it dramatically proves that size isn't everything, producing 335 hp and a huge 380 lb-ft of torque through the addition of two turbochargers.
It took my neighborhood’s notorious test bump at 45, better than any recent vehicle tested, and 20 greater than I can get with my sports sedan.
The innovative on-dash shifter with large pushbuttons creates space on the console, but also eliminates shift-by-touch since the driver is forced to shift his/her glance to the dashboard. For semi-manual up- and downshifting, there are stubby paddles, the only way to do this, since there is no stick on the console.
The massage function works, shiatsu-like, on one's entire back, plus butt and hamstrings. It's not a mere frill; it was something I left on as a matter of course because I suspected that it was preemptively preventing back strain. Its operation is firm and smooth, and stronger than that of Mercedes.
For $30K plus a mere $1300 options package, a CX-5 owner gets AWD, 19-inch wheels, two-way-adjustable steering wheel, heated mirrors, Bose audio, rear camera, two-zone HVAC, adaptive lights, heated seats, and a rich-looking interior. The only thing missing is a toaster oven. And outer styling gets sexier every year. This sizable mid-size drives like a car, and has a 155 hp 4 which feels more powerful because upshifts occur at redline if you keep the throttle on.
The full-time all-wheel drive is comforting and you never know it's on. Electric power steering is fine, and just firm enough, part of what makes the CX-5 a mechanical gem. It even has a thoughtful eyeglass depression above the dashboard. However, some other details are annoying. For example, tuning the radio requires several discrete operations, with no way to quickly change stations. Aaaaarrrggh. And thanks to the boon of keyless ignition, it's possible for the key fob to fall into that black NeverNeverland between seats.
Strikingly handsome for a small SUV, with many lines borrowed from Porsche Cayenne and a timid imitation of the Land Rover Evoq roofline, the Mitsui is a serious contender in the low-priced range. A walkaround discloses high ground clearance, so it LOOKS like a serious off-roader. It does nothing in spectacular fashion, but it does everything competently.Audi Q7's lines harmonize with the hills
Built around the long-proven Quattro traction system and a choice of two precision engines, you've got to love the largest of Audi's sport utilities. Our tester was powered by the 333 hp V-6 which we timed at an even 7 seconds 0-60. We also had the pleasure of maneuvering this big guy in a snow-covered field. It was impossible to get into trouble; it just went where we pointed it, and it didn't care if we mashed the gas to the floor or slammed on the brakes. Starting at $50K, you'll be surrounded by one of the best interiors in autodom and a host of luxury features.
And consider these SUVs:
Jaguar F-Pace, the first SUV from the maker of jungle cats, is something you have to try. My too-short drive in the entry-level (low 30s) version said s-o-l-i-d and q-u-a-l-i-t-y. The nameplate said J-a-g-u-a-r.
Nissan Rogue: See why the Rogue is now THE top-selling SUV. And look into the perennial best-selling Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, and Ford Escape and larger sibling Explorer. I cannot emphasize too much the value of a test drive. Reading all the reviews in the world will not tell you if you will prefer the smell, colors, sound system, and overall FEEL of one vehicle over another. I certainly can't tell you what will feel right for you, but I urge you to invest some seat time in all the models on your hit list.Jaguar's ferocious F-Type comes in two body styles and several drivetrains
Factor in some fun
When your cargo does not comprise the big dog and a week's worth of grocery bags, or precious small children and great-aunts -- and if you're the type that does not think of cars as appliances, go selfish. Try, for example, Jaguar's beautiful, well-appointed F-Type convertibles. We like the 340-hp V-6 with six-speed manual, but you can spend double and get a 550-hp V-8 screaming supercharged animal. All cars in the F-line, which includes coupes, are worthy successors to the marque's XK-badged performance sports cars of the '50s, '60s, and '70s. Buy it for the looks; stay for the performance. While quiet around town, the "open exhaust" feature bypasses the mufflers above 3500 rpm. Unrestrained, the twin pipes release visceral (loud) animal sounds that cannot possibly be described with words. Here's where a test drive will reveal a vehicle's strong personality. These cars have car-isma.
A somewhat similar two-seater is the long-running heartbeat of America, Chevrolet's Corvette in several potent V-8 flavors. A skillful driver can extract similar performance from the highly-tuned Jags and the thumping, throbbing Vettes. That means 0-60 runs of under four seconds, and top speeds approaching (yeah, who needs it?) 200. The British entries feel somewhat more athletic, while the Corvettes are more brutish and apparently a thriftier buy. If you are attracted to speed and handling, try both and compare features, seating comfort, exterior and interior styling, cargo (ha!) capacity, and ride quality. You won't make a wrong choice with an of these overachieving machines.
Although the much-improved exteriors don't quite trumpet it, the Cadillac ATS-V coupe and sedan and CTS-V sedan are really luxurious longer and higher Corvettes. What do you think of these numbers: 464-hp in the ATS-V and 640-hp for the CTS-V? Power specs yield hardly any real-world difference in real-world performance. On the track, both even feel like Corvettes, but only the Vette is available as a loud-roaring convertible. Ranging in price from the 60s to low 90s depending on options, both deliver astounding performance, with chassis and engine in perfect balance. I would give the edge to the A for its price. With what you save over the V, you can buy a new Miata, but if you need more space and are impressed by the deeper exhaust sounds (and don't need another Miata), go for the V.
For a quarter to a third of the admission price to Jaguar and Corvette, look to Mazda Miata MX-5, a true sports car in the traditional mold, and the country's most popular convertible, and Honda's Civic S, with handling and zip on a par with Miata's, with an edge in speed and a real roof. The Civic is so well-balanced that when driving in hero mode, you will never be scared...and never stop smiling. A dark horse is Hyundai's Elantra with manual transmission. This highly-evolved compact is a happy surprise. It always feels faster than what the speedo shows and is actually more sports car than sporty car. Cheap thrills, yeah!
More practical than fun
You can't go wrong acquiring something from the Prius line of four-door hatchbacks -- from the shrunken C model to the wagon-like V. America's favorite hybrids are 20 years old, believe it or not. Now that's staying power with the accent on reliability. But don't look for much power anywhere else. It's barely possible to break the 10-second mark for 0-60, but Priuses are peppy enough around town. Passing on a highway requires planning and good depth perception, but that's the price of getting 50 mpg in the hybrids and twice that from the plug-in hybrid.
Prius's strong points lie in practicality: quiet operation and enough cargo space for a family weekend trip. Toyota's engineers and designers always build in evolutionary improvements, but this year's models have been given a futuristic look with lots of sharply-folded sheet metal, like a modern-day work of steel origami. Seating is comfortable, but some controls are unfriendly or non-ergonomic. Still, as pointed out in the intro, you can't go wrong whether you choose the ever-popular electric/gas hybrid or the plug-in hybrid.
Study up. Enjoy the shopping experience.
With the astronomical permutations of vehicle models and configurations, there are three things to do to help with choosing:
1. Read all you can. Look over manufacturer's sites. For perspective, study a number of professional reviews so you can weigh differing opinions.
2. Ask friends about their favorite vehicles. Stop friendly-looking strangers in cars on your shopping list. Ask about what they are driving. This is obviously easier and safer in parking lots. That's what Targets and Home Depots are for.
3. When you've narrowed the choices, DRIVE. Dealers are almost always happy to put you behind the wheel. Insist on street and highway testing. Consider all the things you do in a vehicle: Sit, adjust seats and mirrors, grip the wheel, check placement of brake and gas pedals. Try using the nav system, audio, lighting, and glove compartment. Evaluate the ease of opening the trunk or cargo area and check on how to fold rear seats. Open and close the doors. Do all those and more.
If undecided after a number of tests of various vehicles, return for a confirming test drive. A number of Web sites have useful coaching on how to negotiate with a dealer. Some even show prices that dealers have paid for their inventory. Sit down and deal. Go with a car-savvy friend and be ready to stand up and walk out if anything doesn't smell right.
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