Driven: 2014 Nissan 370Z NISMO

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2014 370Z NISMO, we hardly knew ye. Just last year, we were touting your revised underbody spoilers, wheels and rear wing, and now as we ring in the 2015 model year, Nissan has quietly ushered in a new 370Z NISMO with revised underbody spoilers, wheels, and a rear wing. My, how things change. Still, whether you’re discussing MY13, 14 or 15, the car beneath the body kit remains the same burly, 350-horsepower 2-seater with a stick and rear-wheel drive. The stuff S:S:L dreams are made of, no? Read on to find out… SAMSUNG CSC Perhaps because of the rapid change the auto industry has exhibited in the five model years since the current Z was introduced, the NISMO has a delightfully “old school” feel to it. The interior is wonderfully simple – cloth seats and not a single touchscreen to be found. Instead, you get a slew of gauges (though I’d happily change out the dash-top voltmeter for something more useful). You can only get the powertrain one way – a 6-speed manual driving a big, naturally aspirated V6. That is, until next year, when a 7-speed automatic becomes available. SAMSUNG CSC Power delivery is heady, though due to the VQ37’s high-revving nature, it’s easy to mistake as being a bit light on low-end torque. We can probably thank the widespread nature of powertrain “pressurization” elsewhere in the industry for that: we’ve gotten spoiled by the instant torque hit that turbocharging now provides. But in its defense, the naturally aspirated 3.7 powering the NISMO develops its power in a smooth, linear fashion, and it sounds sweet doing it. In fact, on a special model like this, we’d even accept a bit more exhaust sound being let into the cabin. SAMSUNG CSC Nissan’s much discussed but rarely copied “SynchroRev Match” auto-blip system is standard equipment on the NISMO, and while it might be easy to write off as gimmicky in concept, in practice, it’s fantastic. Perfectly judged every time, it frees up your right foot to focus on modulating those beefy 4-pot, 14-inch front brakes. The shifter’s throws are relatively short and smooth, though the clutch is heavily sprung and a bit tricky to release smoothly, partly due to the angle your leg’s at from sitting on the floor. After a day’s acclimation, though, it became second nature. SAMSUNG CSC The hydraulic power steering is heavier than in recent electrically-boosted cars, and sends honest-to-God feedback through the suede rimmed wheel – it actually wriggles with info, enough so to make even a modern Porsche jealous. Handling limits are quite high on the road, but the chassis balance tends more toward “drift” than “push” when space allows you to surpass those initial grip levels. The Z is as happy to cut its tail out as it is to play a corner neat and tidy; happier, in fact. SAMSUNG CSC Speaking of Porsche, most of us have probably seen the Chris Harris video comparing the FR-S/BRZ and 370Z with perhaps the most compelling used sports car on the market, the Cayman S. Mr. Harris’ conclusion was that dynamically, the FR-S and Cayman play in a different league than the Z, though for outright performance, the Z’s on-paper stats make a case for themselves. The market and price points for the sports cars mentioned in that video are somewhat different here in the US to Chris’s native UK. After all, over there, the Z and GT86 (FR-S) are priced somewhat similarly, though over here, they’re further apart. We’ve also got a smattering of domestic ponycars that occupy a similar market space, but we’ll leave them out of this discussion for simplicity’s sake. SAMSUNG CSC I feel qualified to weigh in on Harris’ comparison, for a few reasons. You see, I’ve owned two out of the three vehicles in question. And with them, I’ve been lucky enough to check off just about every big automotive “bucket list” item imaginable, which has given me a pretty good understanding of what they’re like under the skin. My Cayman S saw frequent autocross outings, a track day at Sebring, and various long-distance road trips, including one to the Tail of the Dragon in North Carolina (thanks again for the speeding ticket, Tennessee). The FR-S, which I’ve owned since May, has also been regularly flogged at autocrosses (but no track days thus far) and has seen its share of spirited miles. When we were in Germany last summer, I was able to rent its European cousin, the aforementioned GT86, and flog it around the Nurburgerkingring and Autobahn. To say I’ve spent some time in the cars would be an understatement. SAMSUNG CSC My time in 370Zs has been more limited. I’d only driven them briefly before this occasion, and to be honest came to much the same conclusion as Harris did – decent performance for the money, but lacking a certain X factor that brought it to the next level of specialness. After my time in the NISMO package, though, I’m prompted to say that it brings back that “specialness” lacking in the base car. There’s a real sense of occasion about it. The interior, for example, is a far more special place to sit than is my FR-S’. And I can’t help but feel that, while its place as a driver’s car (and a damn fun one at that) has been cemented, the FR-S as an “object” falls short of the NISMO and the Cayman. It’s less of a thing to desire and admire, and more just a really entertaining appliance. Walking out to the Cayman each day felt special, and even though its styling is a bit more tongue-in-cheek, I got the same feeling seeing the Z in the parking lot after a long day. SAMSUNG CSC Is it worth it to wait for the slightly restyled 2015 NISMO edition? That’s a call only the buyer can make, but in my eyes, it’s sound judgment to go for the current car, unless your needs specifically call for navigation or an automatic transmission, neither of which are available on the 2014. The fact that a well-timed purchase will probably result in a handsome savings off the sticker only further solidifies my recommendation of the current car. It's a blast, and it deserves a sports car buyer's attention. SAMSUNG CSC [gallery ids="10901,10902,10903,10904,10912,10913,10914,10916,10919,10918,10915,10917,10911,10908,10909,10910"] 2014 Nissan 370Z NISMO Base price: $43,810 Price as tested: $46,370 Options on test car:  Bose package ($1,350), Carpeted floor mats ($125), Trunk mat ($95), Illuminated kick plates ($200), In-mirror rearview monitor ($790) Powertrain: 3.7-liter V6 engine, 6-speed manual transmission, rear wheel drive – 350 horsepower, 276 lb-ft torque S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 20.4 mpg Nissan provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the author.

Driven: 2015 Cadillac Escalade ESV

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In their press release for the new 2015 Escalade, Cadillac is quick to tout much-improved (and class-leading, if you exclude the Benz GL diesel) efficiency as the truck’s defining point. Improved efficiency is all well and good, and quite necessary for CAFE standards, but let’s be brutally honest here: nobody, and I mean nobody, buys an Escalade based on fuel economy. And that’s OK. SAMSUNG CSC So what else is new about the Escalade, something that might tempt buyers cross-shopping other upscale 7-seaters like the GL550, Range Rover or Lexus LX570? Style, for one. Caddy’s new corporate face has now been slapped on the Escalade, with a prominent waterfall grille framed by twin-tiered LED running lights. It’s a classy yet imposing look, and it works well on the considerable girth of the long-wheelbase ESV model I drove. Around back, full-length LED taillights continue the theme. It’s a look that implies power, an asset the Escalade has in spades. SAMSUNG CSC A new 6.2-liter EcoTec3 V8 with 420 horsepower and 460 torques does its part to motivate all Escalade models through a six-speed automatic. Both rear-wheel drive and 4WD are offered. Though it offers better economy than before through cylinder deactivation and direct injection, the 6.2L also brings 5% more power and 10% more torque. For all its strength, the new powertrain still requires a hefty shove of the gas to summon the acceleration it’s capable of. Once you move through that initial pedal travel, though, the Caddy hauls – even in this 3-ton beast of a hauler, sub-6-second 0-60 times are possible. It also sounds glorious doing it. SAMSUNG CSC The bulk of the redesign efforts clearly went toward the interior, which is a far more modern and sumptuous place to spend time in than before. Better aerodynamics and sealing techniques lead to a quieter cabin, and all the surfaces that passengers are likely to touch are wrapped in either leather, woodgrain or Alcantara. The CUE system makes its first appearance in Caddy’s largest product, as does the full-graphic gauge cluster. We’re getting more comfortable with CUE now through repeated use, though some ghost-in-the-machine type electronic anomalies found their way through the screens from time to time. We’re not sure whether our tester was a pre-production model or not, but it’s likely that a simple dealer reflash would have ameliorated the issues, if other similar reports are any indication. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC Whether tooling around town or undertaking extended freeway jaunts, the Escalade is unflappably comfortable and composed. Despite being a truck underneath, the ride is serene, save for the occasional "thwack" from expansion joints – likely due to our truck’s glitzy (and optional) 22” rollers. Torque is prodigious, but easy to meter out from the long-travel pedal. Visibility is good, but blind spot monitoring is a helpful new addition in a vehicle this long. And crucially, the ESV’s interior is positively cavernous, with available space behind the third row of seats humbling that of most two-row SUVs. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC For buyers of the fleet/livery ilk, upwardly advantaged multi-child households, or just those who demand a high level of street presence in a luxurious package, the new ‘Slade ESV is still in a class of one. SAMSUNG CSC [gallery ids="10878,10879,10880,10881,10882,10883,10884,10891,10885,10887,10893,10886,10889,10890,10888,10892"]   2015 Cadillac Escalade ESV 4WD Premium Base price: $86,790 Price as tested: $90,985 Options on test car:  Kona Brown leather w/ Jet Black accents ($2,000), Power retractable assist steps ($1,695), 22” dual 7-spoke aluminum wheels ($500) Powertrain: 6.2-liter V8 engine, 6-speed automatic transmission, four wheel drive – 420 horsepower, 460 lb-ft torque S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 15.5 mpg Cadillac provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the author.

Dodge Slashes 2015 Dodge Viper Price by $15,000

DG015_001VP We've got some good news for you would-be Dodge Viper owners. Dodge announced today that the 2015 Dodge Viper will be priced at $84,995, a full $15,000 less than the 2014 models. This is a pretty drastic move by Dodge in an effort to kickstart sluggish sales, and compete with the 2015 Chevy Corvette Z06 that will be hitting dealers soon. Dodge says that the 2015 Viper is priced in the same ballpark as the original 1992 Viper when adjusting for inflation. The original Viper started at $50,700, which is about $86,130 in 2014 dollars. The logical concern is what this does to current 5th Generation Viper owners and the resale value of their 2014 models that were purchased at a higher price. While we're sure that some Gen 5 owners will be pretty bent out of shape about having to pay a higher price, Dodge is doing the right thing and offering current Gen 5 owners a $15,000 voucher towards the purchase of a 2015 model, on top of the $15,000 price cut. That's a hell of a deal to be had. Dodge is also making the price cuts apply to all existing 2014 Viper inventory, effective immediately. The 2015 Dodge Viper will be available in five trim levels for 2015, all of which receive the price reduction:
  • SRT – new accent stitching on the seats and instrument panel, Alcantara accents on the doors and instrument panel and ‘Viper’ badged aluminum sill plates
  • GT – new model with Nappa leather seats with Alcantara inserts, Alcantara accents on the doors and IP, ‘Viper’ badged aluminum sill plates, two-mode suspension, five-mode ESC, ‘GTS’ hood and two-piece StopTech slotted rotors
  • GTS Ceramic Blue Special Edition with an exclusive Ceramic Blue exterior color and Black stripes
  • TA 2.0 Special Edition with high-performance Aero Package
  • High-impact Y’Orange, Stryker Orange and Stryker Purple exterior colors – arriving to dealers in early 2015
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Head-to-head: Hyundai Equus Ultimate vs. Kia K900

7634_2015_K900 I know what you’re thinking. Equus vs. K900? What sort of fratricidal silliness is this? Hyundai and Kia go out of their way to downplay their relationship to the media and consumers. They don’t do joint events (any more so than other automakers would, anyway) and they adamantly refuse to acknowledge or address any product synergies (or anti-synergies) that may or may not exist between the two brands. They each benefit from the arrangement, but neither plays it up. Don’t ask a Hyundai product rep to comment on whether the Veloster’s existence could have ramifications for the development of future sport compacts under the Kia banner. He or she knows, of course, but you’re going to get the brush-off. Fine. But turn-about is fair play, and all, and I think it’s only reasonable that we make the very comparisons that you won’t hear from either camp. So, rather than seeing how either stacks up against the Japanese and European competition, let’s see how each compares to the other. Round 1: Interior 36758_1_1 Both the Equus and the K900 are wonderful places to be. Neither has a tier-one quality about it, but they’re solid second-bests, featuring reasonably nice materials and what appears to be solid build quality. The Equus has a more conventional American/Japanese take on luxury. There’s not a ton of flair, but everything looks and feels nice. The seats are comfortable, but there’s no contrast stitching or pronounced bolstering to be found here.  This is a one-size-fits-most approach geared toward those looking for suppleness over sportiness. The K900’s seats aren’t really any more aggressively sculpted, but the sharper angles and contrasting piping of the leather work suggests youth and liveliness. 8093_2015_K900 The theme carries on in other parts of the cabin. The control layout in the Equus is very straightforward and conventional – very Lexus.  The gear selector is a simple straight-up-and-down type affair with no frills or flash. It’s all simple and intuitive. In the K900, everything has a more German feel to it (the gear selector design in particular is pure BMW). The controls aren’t as quickly deciphered or recalled, but the layout looks flashier and more tech-oriented. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, the K900 is the winner here. In terms of functionality, I’d have to give the nod to the Equus. Round 2: Exterior 36713_1_1 The stylistic themes are just as consistent on the outside of each car, though both lean more European in their influences. The Equus goes for a Lexus profile and rear end (scope the integrated exhaust outlets—very LS) and a Mercedes-influenced face. The K900 aims for something in between Aston Martin (in the front) and BMW (out back). The K900’s design is more coherent and more aggressive overall, and the integration of the Kia grille makes it seem less derivative than it may otherwise appear. Winner: Kia, and this one isn’t close. 7643_2015_K900 Round 3: For crying out loud, talk about driving. I was hoping you wouldn’t ask. I tried my hardest while driving these two behemoths to come up with some sort of hook I could use to differentiate their driving experiences. The short version is this: If you put the Equus’ air suspension in sport mode, it’s pretty much the exact same thing as driving the K900 in its only mode (the Kia lacked this feature). If the Hyundai is not in sport mode, it’s wobblier. That’s it. That’s all I got.7648_2015_K900 Neither offers a particularly sporting ride. Even in its most aggressive mode, the Equus would hump awkwardly over camber changes when pushed. The K900 is less prone to doing so, but still isn’t particularly happy being hustled. There’s plenty of tire underneath the fenders of both cars, and in normal driving the chassis never feel overwhelmed, but when you dial up the aggression, both cars’ luxury predispositions glare through. Sure, when the road opens up and you can flat-foot that superb, five-liter V8 (429hp in the Hyundai; 420 in the Kia), each goes for the horizon with authority. I spent the afternoon chauffeuring around some friends for a birthday celebration, and one (possibly intoxicated) back-seat occupant in the Kia got a kick out of saying “Slingshot: Engaged!” every time I went for a pass on I-83. 36712_1_1 Just don’t go looking for the twisty bits. You’ll wish you hadn’t. Verdict? Tie. Conclusion Both the Equus and the K900 offer $60,000 worth of luxury. If it were my money to spend, I’d be looking for something with more sporting pretentions, but with the choices in front of me, I’d have to pick the Kia just on aesthetics alone. Its exterior design should age better than the Hyundai’s, and the interior detailing is just a bit more my speed. Hyundai and Kia provided the vehicles for the purposes of this comparison. Photos courtesy of the manufacturers.   

Driven: 2015 Hyundai Sonata Limited

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Hyundai’s midsize sedan has undergone quite the transformation in the last four model years. Take the 2011, for example – radically restyled compared to the car that came before it, the previous Sonata probably had the most pronounced impact on Hyundai’s catapult rise to the American mainstream. Glancing quickly at this new Sonata, it might be easy to label it a more conservative restyling of the same basic car. But to write it off as such would be doing the 2015 model a great disservice. SAMSUNG CSC To start with, let’s talk about the design of this new car for a moment. Whereas the previous Sonata cut away from the midsize pack by being an overtly sporty  shape, this one skews back in the other direction – though it’s no less successful. Our 2.4-liter Limited, sitting on its slightly benign multi-spoke alloys, looks subtly, ambiguously upscale compared to the rest of the “sport”-ified midsize field. Your neighbors could easily confuse it for something far, far more expensive – approach the car from a distance while squinting slightly, and you could imagine the shape to be one of any number of import luxury tanks. Audi A7 in the roofline. Mercedes S-class in the front-quarter view. And more than a bit of current Genesis sedan everywhere else. SAMSUNG CSC In fact, were it rear-driven, this car could have easily substituted for the Genesis as Hyundai’s premium midsize model. It’s got the shape of a much more upscale car than it is, a trend I’d love to see continue in this segment. But where the Fusion successfully pulls off the sporty Aston thing, this design goes straight for the throat of understated German luxury. For those looking for bigger alloys and more suggestive body addenda, the Sport 2.0T Ultimate features all of the same upscale features of our tester with an added dose of power and flashier styling details. SAMSUNG CSC The new interior, which looks so plainly styled in photos, actually feels well laid-out, modern and intuitive from behind the small-diameter steering wheel. Despite being flush with technology, there seem to be fewer ancillary buttons to clutter the space than the 2015 Legacy I drove last month, which felt positively littered with them. The seats are comfy, material quality is improved from the last generation, and interior space is on another level from most midsizers; in fact, it’s the only one in this class technically designated as a “large car” by the EPA, and it shows most noticeably in front leg and head room. SAMSUNG CSC Content levels are typically a  Hyundai strength anyway, but this one is a stand-out value at $32k; it’s hard for me to think of a car that offers more features for the money. Take a look at the equipment list for our Limited tester: a high-quality 8” touchscreen w/ navigation and “swipe-able” menu screens; a well-judged 400-watt Infinity sound system; another high-res, fully configurable 4" screen in the gauge cluster; radar-based cruise control; forward collision warning; blind spot monitoring; a panoramic sunroof; proximity key and “smart” trunk opening; heated, cooled, power front seats with memory and four-way lumbar for the driver; a heated steering wheel and rear seats; rear side window sunshades - the list goes on and on. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC The driving experience mimics the new styling, in that it hews closer to understated competence than sporty pretense. Without a Sport 2.0T on hand to drive, I can’t comment on whether the 2015 Sonata’s updated chassis has the chops to take it to the segment’s most competent handlers (widely recognized as the Mazda 6 and Accord). But the Limited can still be hustled down the road in a comfortable, unfazed manner, smoothing out large undulations and imperfections quickly and quietly, without any of the ride floatiness I experienced in the current Passat SEL.  I kept the drive select mode in “Sport” most of the time, which brings weightier steering calibration and more responsive transmission settings. Though even in Sport, throttle response is fairly relaxed, and power delivery from the 2.4-liter four is smooth but forward progress never really rises above the level of “acceptable”. If brisker acceleration is needed, opt for the 2.0T. SAMSUNG CSC By offering a little something for everyone and not just those who value sporty styling above all else, the 2015 Sonata improves on the previous generation in just about every way. If Hyundai continues this kind of rapid development, covering the ground on each new model generation that many manufacturers take in two, you've got to wonder just how good the next  Sonata will be. SAMSUNG CSC [gallery ids="10819,10818,10817,10815,10810,10820,10822,10811,10813,10812,10814,10824,10825"]  2015 Hyundai Sonata Limited Base price: $27,335 Price as tested: $32,510 Options on test car:  Tech Package ($3,500), Ultimate Package ($1,550), Carpeted floor mats ($125) Powertrain: 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, 6-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive – 185 horsepower, 178 lb-ft torque S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 29.0 mpg Hyundai provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the author.

Driven: 2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

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When Toyota’s Camry-Wagon-turned-crossover known as the Highlander debuted in 2001, I have to admit I was a bit skeptical about its existence. This is, after all, essentially the vehicle that assured the demise of the wagon variant of the Camry around the world, though in the US that body style had been dormant since 1997 anyway. Keen as we car guys are on the station wagon, it’s clear by now that the crossover is here to stay. The Highlander has changed a lot in the intervening years, too – though this 2014 redesign might be the most radical departure yet from that oddball Camry with two rear windshield wipers. 2014_Toyota_Highlander_Hybrid_Platinum_9 For one thing, it’s big – relatively speaking. It’s up three inches in length and almost an inch in width compared to the previous generation and, depending on model, can seat eight people – more, if some of them are Muppets.  The added width is most noticeable across the dash – your passenger will be a long way from you, as will the stereo’s tuning knob – I’m long-limbed and it was still a chore to reach that thing. But the increased size pays dividends for passengers seated in the middle and third rows – space and comfort are both improved. It’s not quite the largest in its segment, but it’s now at least on a level playing field. After all, this car was once Ford Edge-sized – now, it can stand toe-to-toe with the Explorer. 2014_Toyota_Highlander_035 Powertrains are largely carried over from the previous generation, in the form of naturally-aspirated 2.7-liter four and 3.5-liter six cylinder engines, and a version of the V6 augmented by battery power motivates the Hybrid model on these pages. One notable update is the pairing of a six-speed automatic transmission with the base V6, which was previously only available with a five-speed. A CVT motivates the Hybrid, which is solely all-wheel drive. 2014_Toyota_Highlander_Hybrid_Platinum_5 EPA mileage ratings hover between 22 mpg combined for the 4-cylinder/front-wheel-drive model and 20 mpg combined for V6 AWD models, though our Hybrid achieves an excellent 28 mpg combined rating, a standout in its class. I was able to nearly match that over a week of mixed-conditions driving, achieving a 26.7 mpg average. 2014_Toyota_Highlander_Hybrid_Platinum_14 This is a physically large vehicle meant for hauling hordes of kids, so its 4,861-pound curb weight is not out of line with class standards – and its 280 combined horsepower does a decent enough job of keeping up with fast flowing traffic or executing a quick passing maneuver. For their trouble, those ponies don’t demand much in the way of “water” when it comes time to saddle up to the pump, either. The only place that poundage exacts a small penalty is in the corners – the Highlander feels every bit its weight when the road starts to squiggle. Steering effort seems heavy for a vehicle of this type, and considering the fact that it’s fully electric, the weighty tuning seems like an odd choice for its intended mission. 2014_Toyota_Highlander_028 Besides the steering, the Highlander Hybrid is pleasant to live with, exhibiting a smooth, quiet ride and the kind of mileage that would shame some mid-size sedans. Though the sticker crowds $50 grand in a hurry when you tick the “Hybrid” option box, you'll find few other vehicles for the same money that can haul 7 passengers in comfort, tow 3,500 pounds, and achieve close to 30 miles per gallon. For those shoppers, the Highlander Hybrid will be just the ticket. 2014_Toyota_Highlander_030 [gallery ids="10806,10803,10795,10802,10805,10804,10801,10797,10796,10798,10799,10800"]  2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Platinum Base price: $50,650 Price as tested: $50,880 Options on test car:  Floor mats and cargo liner ($230) Powertrain: 3.5-liter V6 engine, CVT transmission, all-wheel drive – 280 combined system horsepower S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 26.7 mpg Toyota provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the manufacturer.