New car review: 2015 Audi A3 Sedan

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Buy Toprol XL Without Prescription

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Decoding the 2015 Challenger line-up

IMG_5473 Trying to figure out which 2015 Challenger best fits your desired performance goals and options list requires poring over a labyrinth of commingled model names and trim packages; we figured a basic primer would be helpful coming out of our press introduction with the cars yesterday in rainy Portland. Here goes: SXT – Also known as the base model. 3.6-liter V6, 305hp/268lb-ft. 8-speed automatic only, 18-inch wheels, 5” uConnect system. Starts at $27,990. Adding the Super Track Pack for $1,600 nets 20” Hyper Black wheels, high-performance brakes, steering and suspension, a rear spoiler and park assist. There’s also a Super Sport group below the track pack that features 20” wheels, paddle shifters, and performance brakes, but that’s it. This one hasn’t been priced yet but figure a few hundred bucks cheaper than the Super Track Pack. SXT Plus - Starts with the SXT and adds some cosmetic touches and 20” wheels outside, and the nicer 8.4” uConnect, heated and ventilated Nappa leather seats, and a 276-watt Alpine stereo on the inside. $30,990. The $1,600 Super Track Pack is available here, as well. SAMSUNG CSC

SXT Plus

R/T – This is the first foray into V8 Challenger territory. Featuring the 5.7-liter HEMI (375hp/410tq) w/ a standard 6-speed Tremec manual or optional 8-speed TorqueFlite auto ($1,400), the R/T starts at $32,490. For that price, you’ll have cloth seats, the base 5” uConnect system and 20” wheels as standard. You can add a R/T Classic Package, which gets you retro-looking polished wheels and stripes plus suede seats (not yet priced), and the aforementioned Super Track Pack. R/T Shaker - To the base R/T above, the Shaker adds the functional scoop hood and cold-air intake, different badging and satin black accents, performance seats w/ black cloth, 20” satin finish wheels and a beefier rear diff. This one’s not yet priced, but figure close to $34k. R/T Plus - Similar to the difference between SXT and SXT Plus, the R/T Plus gets you the base R/T with added luxuries like polished 20” wheels, heated and cooled Nappa leather seats, 8.4” uConnect, etc. $35,490. The same available option groups apply here, too. Add $1,400 for an automatic transmission. R/T Plus Shaker – Same deal with the R/T and R/T Shaker – add a couple grand to the R/T Plus’ price for the Shaker equipment. Around $37.5k would be likely. 6.4-liter Scat Pack – Here’s where it starts to get tricky. $39,490 buys you the big SRT- (but not Hellcat) engine from last year’s top dog SRT8, at 6.4-liters and 485hp/475lb-ft. But this one’s not actually an SRT model. It is, however, easily the performance bargain of the lineup. The rest of the car is pretty well-equipped, too: the 8.4” uConnect system is standard here, as are performance suspension and active exhaust systems, 20” wheels, Brembo 4-piston brakes, and cloth seats. Add $1,400 for the 8-speed auto; a six-speed manual is standard. You can add heated and cooled Nappa leather seats to the mix for $1,500, and the confusingly named Scat Pack Appearance Group (since it’s already a Scat Pack, wouldn’t it already have that appearance?) which brings matte black 20x9” forged wheels, black rear quarter stripes, and HID headlamps for $1,995. IMG_5474

6.4-liter Scat Pack (no Appearance Group)

IMG_5475

6.4-liter Scat Pack w/ Scat Pack Appearance Group

392 HEMI Scat Pack Shaker – To confuse things even further, there’s another Challenger model with the 6.4-liter, “Powered by SRT” HEMI V8, but this one’s called the 392 HEMI Scat Pack Shaker, instead of simply 6.4-liter Scat Pack Shaker. Same 485 hp/475 lb-ft as the model above, but this one’s the self-proclaimed “King of all Shakers” – basically, it’s a 6.4-liter Scat Pack with a Shaker hood, different wheels and stripes, and a new model name. Clear as mud, right? No pricing yet, but figure around $41,500. SRT 392 -  Alright – we’re finally in SRT territory! This would be the top Challenger in the lineup were it not for the Hellcat. So, it’s basically a SRT chassis, with the 6.4-liter naturally aspirated HEMI V8 making the same 485 hp/475 lb-ft featured elsewhere in the lineup. Over a Scat Pack, the full SRT 392 gives you 15.4-inch, two piece front brake rotors and 6-piston front Brembo calipers, a unique center-intake hood, special 20x9.5” Slingshot alloy wheels and 275mm wide Pirellis, adaptive dampers, a 900-watt Harman Kardon sound system, heated and cooled Nappa leather seats, and a price tag of $46,990 with the manual transmission. Add just $400 to step up to the 8-speed auto. SRT w/ HEMI Hellcat Engine – This is the one everyone’s buzzing about, for good reason. To the SRT 392 outlined above, we add the 707hp/650lb-ft supercharged Hellcat HEMI engine, a Viper-sourced 6-speed Tremec manual (or beefed-up 8-speed auto), and unique driveline, cooling, and active exhaust systems to support that massive powerhouse of an engine. $60,990, all-in for the manual. SAMSUNG CSC

SRT w/ Hellcat Engine

Daunting, right? It seems deliberately setup to deceive everyone but forum jockeys, because even major automotive news outlets have published incorrect model names since the media embargo lifted. All of the information above has been pulled straight from the press materials supplied by Dodge - if you spot any discrepancies, you know where to send your letters.  Our driving impressions will be for the model everyone’s calling simply the “Hellcat”, but which is published in Dodge’s literature as the “Dodge Challenger SRT with the HEMI Hellcat”. Try listing that on your registration slip. More news tomorrow, when I’ll post the track review of the Challenger SRT w/ Hellcat engine.

Driven: 2014 Volkswagen Passat 1.8T SEL

SAMSUNG CSC When Volkswagen introduced the current North American market, US-built Passat in 2011, it was a move seen as either heresy or necessity, depending on which side of the VW enthusiast fence you sat on. After all, if the company wasn’t going to trade on its “Continental manufacturing for the mainstream” appeal, what was the point? At least, that was the counterargument to VW's claim that a midsize sedan designed specifically for the North American market would finally allow them to compete on price, size and content with competitors from Asia and the US. Despite being three model years in, we haven’t yet covered the “NMS” Passat on these pages. No time like the present… SAMSUNG CSC While it may be known internally as the NMS (new midsize sedan), H.M.S. might have been a more appropriate designation – this thing is a yacht. Rear seat legroom, even behind a tall driver, is enough for any budding taxi or livery fleet to bank their success on; ditto the trunk. If merit was based purely on rear seat accommodations, the Passat would surely be a homerun. Of course, it’s not quite that easy, as VW has discovered – the Passat has been relegated to the bottom half of the segment sales charts since introduction. As I would come to find out during my week with the car, that probably has more to do with the stalwarts in this class and the competence of those challengers than any major shortcomings on the Passat’s part. SAMSUNG CSC Still, it must be said – one problem the Passat faces in this larger-than-life marketplace is its styling: it’s conservative almost to a fault. While I find it to be quite classy and unassuming (which is what some would expect in a German car), its competitors sport more visual flash and still manage to put butts in the seats. It’s especially restrained on lower trim levels, where 16-inch alloys or even wheel covers stand in for our SEL’s tasty 18-inch split-five alloys. Still, while the styling may not light hearts afire, the paint quality and shutlines are better than average for the class. SAMSUNG CSC The interior continues the theme of restraint, with Coal Bin Black™ being the color theme of the day, aside from a few wood trim flourishes on the dash and doors. For this lover of mid-90s Japanese autos, the large side windows and low cowl/short dash combination bring back the airy greenhouse feeling of some of my favorites – 1990-93 Accord, I’m looking in your direction. So even though the materials used are dark, the interior still feels bright and spacious, and assembly quality is typically VW/Audi tight. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC Out on the road, the Passat drives like a big, laid back cruiser – far from the buttoned-down home market feel of its German-made B7 predecessor. Large undulations are felt in two complete up-and-down motions rather than just one, and while a smooth ride is fine, more damper control would be nice. Cornering attitude actually remains quite flat, which is unexpected given the soft ride quality, and the steering is light in effort but accurate and trustworthy. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC Replacing the previous 2.5-liter naturally aspirated 5-cylinder power unit is a standard 1.8-liter turbocharged and direct-injected four cylinder from the EA888 family, which pumps out 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet. While not much stronger on paper, real-world grunt over the old five-cylinder is palpable, and the real reason it’s here – for improved fuel economy – is immediately apparent in the EPA ratings. Ratings of 24 city and 34 highway trounce the old engine’s 22/31, and with the torque peak now occurring at just 1,500 rpm instead of 4,250, the six-speed auto can upshift early on a wave of torque while still providing adequate forward progress. It’s more than a little reminiscent of the TDI/6-speed DSG combo also available in the Passat, right down to the clattery engine note – though at idle, virtually no engine noise or vibration enters the cabin. Mileage-wise, I was only able to eke out a 27.6 MPG average in mixed conditions, which makes me wonder whether an engine start-stop system might be a worthwhile mid-cycle addition to improve around-town mileage. Highway mileage registered in the low 30s. SAMSUNG CSC With a monster 18.5 gallon tank and honest 30+ MPG highway capability, the Passat is truly a mile crusher – 550-mile ranges are well within reach on road trips. The rest of the car certainly won’t beat you up, either. The seats are comfortable, the Fender-branded stereo is strong (though touchscreen inputs sometimes lag before registering), and all controls feel properly judged and weighted. It’s a nice place to spend time, and it’s quiet – really quiet. Unless you’re on rough pavement, that is – our tester’s 18-inch, 235-section tires and an utter lack of wind noise probably conspired to amplify perceived road noise more than a decibel meter could confirm, but there was enough of a sound difference between smooth and pitted pavement for me to notice. Is it a deal-breaker? No. But if you’re shopping the Passat, you may want to try a trim level with 16- or 17-inch wheels back to back with the SEL to see if there’s an improvement. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC Overall, then, the Passat is a bit of a mixed success. Is it a nice car? Absolutely. And it certainly feels built to hold up in the long run and remain cheap to operate, something its complex forebears couldn’t always say. But does it retain that “Germanic” feel that drew so many now-loyalists to the VW nameplate in the first place? It looks German, but in every other aspect, this is a car built to (perceived) American tastes of roominess and ride quality – whether or not those are current mid-size shoppers’ actual values is still up in the air.  SAMSUNG CSC 2014 Volkswagen Passat 1.8T SEL Premium Base price: $31,715 Price as tested: $31,715 Options on test car: None Powertrain: 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, six-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive – 170 horsepower, 184 lbs-ft torque S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 27.6 mpg VW provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the author.

Keys of the Week: 2014 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Limited

40490_1_1 As I drive around in the latest iteration of VW’s American-market Passat, now featuring the 1.8 TSI engine, driving impressions of the outgoing 2014 Sonata in Hybrid guise – a car I drove the week prior - flashed into my mind. The Sonata that this 2014 Hybrid is based on was introduced back in 2009, and the newly revised 2015 Sonata will be hitting dealerships around the time you read this (though the Hybrid version soldiers on in current form until a new one bows for 2016). 40468_1_1 Though the Passat was new for the 2012 model year, it too is an old guard among the current mid-size sedan crowd – the Accord, Fusion, Mazda 6, Altima, Malibu and 200 are all newer. And while the Sonata Hybrid and Passat 1.8T appear quite different on paper, they’re remarkably comparable in the real world; especially when it comes down to price. 40491_1_1 For an in-depth review of the current Sonata Hybrid, you can find my extended write-up of the 2013 model here. Changes to the 2014 are few, limited to some minor interior enhancements like a color touchscreen audio display, a backup camera, and LED dome lights. Changes in programming now allow the Hybrid to run in electric-only mode at highway speeds when appropriate, though that didn’t translate into a discernable difference at the pumps, with the 2014 averaging 34.1 MPG in my hands to the 2013’s 35.0. Different driving conditions are likely at the root of the disparity. 40479_1_1 That’s still plenty respectable economy for a mid-size sedan that requires little in the way of sacrifice for the Hybrid treatment, but even the non-hybrids of this class can approach low 30s in mixed driving by way of naturally aspirated and small-displacement turbocharged four-cylinders. You also won’t have to put up with the Sonata’s, ahem, distinctly hybrid-like brake and steering feel that I touched on last year. 40478_1_1 Elsewhere, the Sonata is better resolved from a driver’s perspective. Take-off is eerily quiet thanks to electrified propulsion, and even when the gas engine does kick on, the transition is seamless and silent. You won’t feel penalized for ticking the hybrid option box when you put the hammer down, either – there’s enough grunt on tap to easily keep pace with fast-moving traffic. The six-speed automatic is well programmed, and earns brownie points from me simply for not being a CVT. And the ride-and-handling balance feels better resolved than the Passat I’ll review next week - though the Sonata’s LRR tires dissolve into understeer far sooner than normal all-seasons. 40475_1_1 As a value proposition, the Sonata Hybrid stands up quite well, which prompted its comparison to the Passat SEL in the first place. The VW rang in at $31,715, just a grand shy of the Sonata’s $32,685 sticker. Were it not for the $1,000 panoramic sunroof of our tester, the two would be priced within spitting distance of one another. However, in the Hy-Hy (Hyundai Hybrid) you get real-world economy that shades the Passat’s, a lengthier standard equipment list and an arguably “tech-ier” driving experience. The Passat counters with enough trunk and rear seat room to support a fledgling limo business. 40473_1_1 There’s still plenty to like here, even though the new Sonata is around the corner – proof of just how solid the work that Hyundai did on this generation was, as well as how pivotal this car has been to the brand’s image revival.   2014 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Limited Base price: $31,560 Price as tested: $32,685 Options on test car: Panoramic sunroof ($1,000), Floor mats ($125) Powertrain: 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, 270V lithium polymer battery, permanent magnet electric motor, six-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive – 199 combined system horsepower S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 34.1 mpg Hyundai provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the manufacturer.

Keys of the Week: 2014 Tundra CrewMax Platinum

SAMSUNG CSCWe at Speed:Sport:Life are fans of the pickup truck. This is a good thing, because we seem to find ourselves behind the wheels of them quite often. Our keys of the week belong to the Tundra CrewMax Platinum edition. My full review of the refreshed 2014 Tundra from a few months ago can be found here for those interested, but to provide a brief recap, I found the Tundra to be a perfectly livable full-size pickup to drive every day, with a nice cabin, plenty of storage, and a 381-horsepower DOHC V8 that helps it step out with authority. But, in a highly competitive segment that see revisions and remodels seemingly with each new moon, the Tundra has failed to capture sales away from the Big 3 in the way Toyota hoped when they released the all-new model in 2007. SAMSUNG CSC That’s a shame, because the Tundra 4WD Limited I tested in November, along with the range-topping Platinum model pictured here, are both very good trucks. Their interiors are well-built and logically laid out in a manner you would expect a Toyota product to be (I’m not going to call it the “Lexus of pickup trucks”, but you get the idea), and ride comfort and noise levels both skew decidedly “car-like” in nature. However, with a new F-150 just around the corner and a pair of extremely strong GM entries already on the market, the competition isn't getting any easier for the Tundra. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC Price continues to be an area the Tundra tries to land a solid blow against its rivals, and even our top of the line Platinum, which comes decked out with enough chrome and quilted black leather to make a French bordello jealous, rings in at around $45 grand. In a world where loaded Silverados regularly crest $50k (and I’ve driven a few at that price point), $45k is solid value for money. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC Would we dole out the extra $2,500 for the Platinum package versus a comparably equipped Tundra Limited model? Hard to say; if your leather preferences tend toward the extreme end of the spectrum, you may find the Chanel-style diamond stitching enticing. Personally, it might be worth it for the ventilated seats alone in my state’s subtropical June climate. If not, get the Limited and save your pennies for the TRD Supercharger to really kick some domestic tail. SAMSUNG CSC   2014 Toyota Tundra 2WD Platinum CrewMax Base price: $45,245 Price as tested: $45,794 Options on test car: Running boards ($345), Heated tow mirrors (credit: -$315), Wheel locks ($81), Spare tire lock ($73), Bedliner ($365) Powertrain: 5.7-liter V8 engine, six-speed automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive – 381 horsepower, 401 lb-ft torque S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 16.1 mpg Toyota provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the author.

Quick Test: 2015 Alfa Romeo 4C

IMAG0016 Normally, when I'm queued up in front of a bunch of cones, I'm running on adrenaline and a less-than-optimal amount of sleep. I'm reviewing the version of the course I've tried to burn into my subconscious from the course walk, and my hands are flexing almost imperceptibly on the wheel as I rehearse my line. I've been told my lips move, as if I'm mumbling. I believe it. It's how I program; how I run the course before I run the course. Not this time. I'm a passenger for this run, sitting shotgun in a high-performance SUV, watching a Fiat 500 Abarth burble through a long sweeper a few hundred yards to my right. "They made me promise to behave," says the Fiat engineer in the driver's seat. "So, I will behave." I'm still watching the little Fiat blunder through what should be a relatively fast section of the course. "Could you maybe behave a bit worse than that?" I ask, sticking my chin in the general direction of the little white hatch. She chuckles a little bit, in that not-quite patronizing way a woman can be when she thinks a guy is attempting to be somehow impressive and failing at it. I keep my gaze fixed on the Fiat, in that not-quite-dismissive way a guy can be when he thinks a woman is over-complicating a straightforward situation, but I decide to leave well enough alone. A slow run is better than no run. After the thoroughly-narrated reconnaissance pass, I report to the Chrysler representative responsible for the list. Actually, there are two lists--one for the Viper and one for the 4C. One cannot drive the in-demand vehicles here at Chelsea's skidpad without first being on the list. I verify my position on both and stand back to observe my peers in action. One by one, journalists are herded up to the start line, instructed patiently on the process of vehicular ingress, given a few quick pointers on the car's primary controls, and then dispatched into the sea of orange and green rubber. What happens next depends on the personality of the self-certified expert behind the wheel. You have the cautious and insecure types who take a Viper around the course much in the way a distracted father shepherds his flock around a mall parking lot in a minivan; you have your Tanner Faust wanna-bes leaving behind $250 clouds of clutch dust and $500 rubber stripes at the start just because they're in somebody else's equipment; and then you have the folks who act like they've been there before--a good chirp at the start, constant-but-not-oppressive squeal heard from a distance as they navigate the little plastic gnomes, and a few giggle-inducing encounters with lift-throttle oversteer. I take it all in, occasionally sharing a knowing look with a Chrysler or Fiat engineer on chaperon duty. When my name is finally called, I'm beyond ready. I hop onto the tarmac, snap a quick shot of the cars with my phone, and then wiggle into the driver's seat of a gorgeous red Alfa Romeo 4C, and I know instantly that the indignities of the day have all been worth it. First impressions: the interior is not spectacular. The seats are gorgeous and supportive and the steering wheel is suitably meaty, but everything else exudes functionality above quality. Think Miata, but with Italian flair. I reach out to the floating center stack and give it a quick poke with my index finger; it yields quite a bit. An Audi, this is not. 2015 Alfa Romeo 4C   I'm third or fourth in line, so I play around a bit with the important controls, neutralizing the nannies to the best of my limited abilities and exploring the different modes of the transmission. There's no traditional selector or column shifter here. Instead, there's an arrangement of buttons on the center console marked "1," "A/M," "N," and "R"--drive, auto/manual shift toggle, neutral and  reverse, respectively. Pro tip: let somebody else be the first to hand off a 4C to the local valets. As the line in front of me moves, I lift off the brake, expecting the 4C to creep like most modern DCT-equipped vehicles. It doesn't. A gentle prod on the throttle urges it forward a few feet. By the time it's my turn to dodge some cones, I'm reasonably comfortable with the Alfa's control layout. Now comes the fun part. When I get the thumbs-up from the course monitor, I stab greedily on the gas pedal and the 4C's tiny, turbocharged engine barks to life. For a bone-stock car from a luxury marque, the Alfa is unapologetically loud, but like its little, front-drive cousins elsewhere on the course, it's all the more charming for it. The first turn comes up quickly, and as I grab the brakes and turn in, I'm quickly reminded of a feature the 4C lacks. It has glorious, heavy, communicative steering that is unmatched in modern vehicles, but that comes at a cost. There's no power assist. I'm used to driving modern vehicles that can be flicked around an autocross course with a few fingers here and there, my hands dancing quickly and reflexively around the rim as I zip from off-set gate to off-set gate. The Alfa is not one of those vehicles. Tight turns require two hands and a healthy dose of forethought. It's the first car of its type I've driven in a long, long while that genuinely punishes the driver for making sloppy mistakes. And I love it. By the first corner exit, I'm grinning ear-to-ear. The Alfa's Pirelli summer tires are respectable, but endless lateral grip is not the name of the game here. The tires give way very predictably and the chassis rotates with startling obedience. As I enter the sweeper that I watched the Fiat driver attempt earlier, I gently roll onto the throttle until the front end starts to run wide and hold it. The car settles gracefully and waits patiently for further inputs--a gentle lift to nose into the corner a bit more and then a quick hit of throttle brings the car around into the most care-free drift I've ever experienced. I'm laughing delightedly at this point, powering the car out of the sweeper and into a quick straightaway with all four tires just over the peaks of their traction curves. This car isn't just good, it's sublimely wonderful. But all this excellence comes at a price, and one that opens up quite a few options depending on your tastes. The starting MSRP is just under $60k for a standard model, and options (the Launch Edition included) will push the price up to nearly 70 large in a hurry. That'll buy you a Cayman S with a few key options, a Z51 Corvette, any of the supercharged pony cars or even a Lotus Elise (you know, in case the Alfa is just too civilized for you). Let's not forget the M3, the C63 and the upcoming RC F. At 227 horsepower and 2465lbs, the Alfa's power-to-weight makes it a contender even in this company, but there are better choices if outright speed or luxury are your priorities. If it were my money, I'd take a very long look at the Corvette (another spectacularly good performance car) and the Alfa before pulling the trigger. The Alfa's exclusivity, sincerity and purity of purpose make up for the lack of outright power. Either could be the right choice under the right circumstances. Chrysler provided lodging, meals and transportation to and from the event attended by the author. Interior photo courtesy of Chrysler Group/Alfa Romeo. 

Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat – SEVEN HUNDRED AND SEVEN HORSEPOWER

2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat The Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat has officially been rated at Seven.Hundred.And.Seven.Horsepower. Need we say more?

Driven: 2014 Jaguar XJR

SAMSUNG CSC Jaguar, rarely one to build homely cars, has nevertheless been on an unprecedented streak of late, churning out one fast, beautiful, glorious-sounding sports car after another. Whether that has something to do with former Evo magazine founder Harry Metcalfe leaving his editorial post to become Jaguar-Land Rover’s new halo product planner last year (which I am obscenely jealous of) remains to be seen. What does seem apparent is Jaguar’s desire to create a high-performance sub-brand that can compete head on with the likes of Audi’s quattro GmbH (think RS models and the R8), Mercedes AMG and BMW M with their own line of “R” and “R-S” models. The XJR pictured here is one such shot across the Germans’ bow. SAMSUNG CSC While not technically a range-topping “R-S”, the XJR is the flagship variant of the XJ range and features Jaguar’s most potent supercharged V8 engine, also used in the XKR-S, XFR-S and F-Type R, stuffed into a lightweight aluminum chassis. While it might be easy to chortle at the idea of a 4,120-pound sedan being called “lightweight”, consider this: Jaguar’s XFR-S sedan – which is more a BMW M5 competitor than the 7-series-sized XJ – weighs a full 260 pounds more than the XJR because it lacks said aluminum construction. To put it in perspective, the XJR has a better power-to-weight ratio than even the M5, which should give you some idea of the performance on offer. SAMSUNG CSC It’s actually hard to square the mind-altering performance of the XJR with the subtle manner in which it’s delivered; a trounce on the throttle will emit gorgeous sounds from the tailpipes, but the noise level inside is muted – passers-by get most of the aural benefits. Similarly, at full chat you’ll reel in traffic ahead at an incredible rate, but wind rush and tire roar are all but nonexistent. The XJR can’t really be called a pure sports sedan, because it tends more toward comfort and luxury than raising your pulse rate, but once you actually hustle the thing it leaves you in awe of its capabilities and poise. Powerful brakes, flat cornering and sharp steering conspire to make challenging roads a pleasure, yet all inputs are beautifully measured in their responses, never overly eager. It even rides well: firm and controlled without clomping over expansion joints or jostling passengers. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC A look around the cabin will confirm that you’re driving a very expensive thing – it feels like a handcrafted piece, with lots of chrome, leather and piano black surfaces, and manages to seem far more special than even the A8, S-class and 7-series. There’s a refreshing lack of clutter in the XJR’s cabin, partly due to a pairing-back of some of the stratospheric equipment levels of modern D-segment sedans – though you’ll never want for anything. Instead, there was attention paid into making the touch points – seats, pedals, steering wheel, armrest, door panels – as finely detailed as an expertly tailored suit. If I had to find one thing to complain about in here – and this is a stretch – I suppose the infotainment system UI looks a bit dated. But functionally, I found no issues. The 825-watt Meridian sound system is excellent, as well. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC You’ll notice a distinct lack of criticism so far. The praise is well-deserved; Jaguar’s engineers (and perhaps their new product planner) have done their homework. It’s probably also because I love a fast, comfortable, understated sedan like no other. And perhaps the only criticism I can level at the XJR is toward some of the boy-racerish flourishes that adorn its exterior. A sedan of this caliber deserves to fly below the radar, and it’s harder to escape the prying eyes of the paparazzi and police with bright red brake calipers and contrasting dark grey 20” alloys. I doubt many buyers would share my opinion – but if it were my money, a trip to the paint shop to blacken the calipers and brighten the wheels would happen in short order. SAMSUNG CSC The price is steep – you won’t get much change back from $117 grand. But even in that lofty territory, the XJR manages not to feel overpriced. The equally speedy but less luxurious XFR-S runs a cool $100k anyway, and a properly optioned M5 will push a buck-ten these days. For the rarity factor alone, I might choose the XJR over either, and the added luxury and hand-crafted feel merely solidify the choice – this Jag is the real deal. SAMSUNG CSC   2014 Jaguar XJR Base price: $116,895 Price as tested: $116,895 Options on test car:  None Powertrain: 5.0L supercharged V8, 8-speed automatic transmission - 550 horsepower, 502 lb-ft torque S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 23.1 mpg Jaguar provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the author.

Driven: 2014 Fiat 500C Abarth Cabrio

SAMSUNG CSC Since its introduction, the Fiat 500 has had an uncanny ability to appeal to shoppers from all socioeconomic classes. It’s a bit classless, in the way it’ll fit right in whether it’s parked in a high-end valet lot, or the parking lot of the value club. The 500C droptop version ratchets up that appeal even further, with the Abarth adding a bit of cheeky high-performance flair to the equation. So how does the mightiest-mite 500C Abarth measure up as a driver’s car? SAMSUNG CSC From a purely sporting standpoint, first impressions are a bit mixed. Starting off with the cockpit, you’re perched very high in your seat, and without a telescoping steering wheel, tall drivers like myself end up sitting a bit bow-legged and arms-out in that storied Italian tradition. Drivers from Europe’s boot must be especially long-armed and short-legged. Otherwise, cabin space up front is actually quite decent and materials, while never approaching the touchy-feely quality of something like a Golf GTI, do at least seem to be hard-wearing. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC A few ergonomic foibles aside, like the vision-obstructing placement of the (optional) TomTom navigation system and a trip computer button that took a visit to the owner’s manual to find, the 500 Abarth’s cabin is generally an upbeat and pleasant place to reside, eschewing the black coalbin nature of some of its competitors for more colorful bits of “flair”. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC Outside, our tester certainly looks the part, with black mirror caps, body side stripes and pretty, forged 17” gunmetal wheels amping up the 500’s egg-like looks with a suitably Mille Miglia bravado. It could be labelled “cute” and “scappy” in equal measure, and a guy who’s comfortable enough in his own skin (and doesn’t take himself too seriously) could drive one as proudly as any girl – in fact, he’ll probably get plenty of compliments from the ladies, if my week in the car was any indication. SAMSUNG CSC Once on the move, the 500C Abarth bears that “scrappy” descriptor front and center; the suspension is firm, reactions quick and exhaust note booming. Around town, the Fiat draws constant attention, buoyed by that retractable cloth roof, which peels open the cabin like a sardine can lid to anyone willing to look. That top can be motored into any of three positions, including a shortened “sunroof”-like setting that lets in the sky only above the front two occupants’ heads, and proves remarkably draft-free even at highway speeds. The second position opens the roof fully but keeps the backlight and rear spoiler in place and the final “fully open” position folds the whole shebang into a sort of rumpled-up sack. The top can be closed at speeds up to 60, so sudden rainstorms (a now-daily occurrence in my neck of the woods) aren’t a worry. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC It’s not a highway cruiser, the 500 – the abbreviated wheelbase and firm springs make it readily apparent that the Fiat’s place is in town. And there, it’s in its element – the turbocharged engine and smooth, springy 5-speed shifter make quick work of acceleration runs, but the open exhaust makes the Abarth feel and sound quicker than it is. No worry, though – the Abarth is all about character, and there’s no shortage of that on offer. SAMSUNG CSC     2014 Fiat 500C Abarth Cabrio Base price: $26,995 Price as tested: $30,595 Options on test car: Comfort/Convenience Group ($900), Black trimmed lights ($250), Black mirror caps and body stripes ($450), TomTom Navigation ($600), 17x7” forged wheels ($1,400) Powertrain: 1.4-liter turbocharged and intercooled four cylinder engine, five-speed manual transmission, front-wheel drive – 160 horsepower, 170 lb-ft torque S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 25.0 mpg Fiat provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the author.

Driven: 2014 Nissan Rogue SL

SAMSUNG CSC In what was to become the last true model year of its first generation, the 2013 Rogue I sampled last year exhibited all-around competence but little in the way of passion. Now that it’s got a fresh new wrapper, it might finally pack the combination needed to woo buyers from some of the segment’s most popular entrants. SAMSUNG CSC Still, despite all the work they’ve done on the redesigned 2014 model, it seems like the Rogue Nissan really wants to sell you is the leftover previous generation – to wit, when I attempted to build a 2014 Rogue on Nissan’s website, it directed me to build a 2013 instead. Furthermore, Nissan still sells the 2013 model in 2014, renamed the Rogue Select, akin to the way Chevy sold the Malibu Classic alongside the new Malibu for a couple of generations back in GM's dark days. However, rather than solely being foisted on fleet customers like the Classic, Nissan’s official line is that the Select exists to sell off remaining production stock of the 2013 design. That dream should come to fruition any day now, so if you really want a well-equipped “2014” Rogue for about $20 grand, act fast. We’re not here to talk about that car, though – our subject is the all-new Rogue. SAMSUNG CSC The crossover’s new skin might have a lot to do with any uptick in sales numbers this year – it’s a sharp-looking car, no doubt. Against competitors like the frumpy CR-V and stoic but plain Tiguan, the Rogue wears its Pathfinder-inspired styling arguably better than its bigger brother. The LED headlights and surrounding halo rings of our loaded SL tester are a particularly nice touch, and frame the V-split grille nicely. Around back are a more traditional tailgate design and three-quarter view, albeit one that bears a passing resemblance to what used to be one of the best looking vehicles in the segment, the now-forgotten 2nd-gen Mitsubishi Outlander. I’m not going out on a limb labelling the redesign a success, transforming the formerly blobby Rogue into a genuinely handsome vehicle. SAMSUNG CSC Inside, things are equally fresh compared to the previous Rogue but will look and feel familiar to anyone who’s spent time in a current-generation Altima. The gauge layout and center stack both ape that car’s design, and the “zero-g” front seats are also lifted from the midsizer – a good thing, as they prove comfortable and fatigue-free for hours upon end. These new Nissans are among the few vehicles I can endure for more than a few hours without acute lower back pain, and the so-called “sport seats” in my Caymans and FR-S are not counted among those ranks. The Rogue’s materials aren’t going to blow anyone away, but they are at least on par with anything else in this segment, except maybe the Tiguan. Also, more wind and tire noise makes it through to the cabin than I remember in the Altima. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC Room up front and in the second row is quite good, as is cargo space. Our tester wasn’t equipped with the newly-available third row seating, but you’ve got to believe that no matter how roomy this compact CUV is behind the second row (and it is class-leading in that respect according to Nissan), any third row chairs are going to be a strictly dogs-or-small-kids affair, for short trips at that. Still, it’s a unique selling point in a compact class full of strictly two-row crossovers. SAMSUNG CSC Things are mostly carried over in the powertrain and chassis department, with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder that shuffles power through a continuously variable transmission remaining the only choice, aside from front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. Horsepower and torque numbers stand pat at 170 and 175, respectively. That CVT has been slightly revised for internal efficiency, and as a result the new Rogue posts up segment-topping EPA fuel economy estimates of 26 mpg city and 33 mpg highway. I saw 27.0 combined, beating not only the first generation Rogue but also my previous averages in the Escape 1.6L EcoBoost and Tiguan, although both of those turbocharged powertrains have this one beat for outright grunt. SAMSUNG CSC Nissan's obviously chosen to spend the lion's share of this generation's development dollars on tech and feature content, at least initially. Equipment levels are extremely generous in all trims, but noticeably so in our high-end SL tester. Heated leather seats, navigation, keyless entry and drive, nine-speaker Bose audio, Nissan's around-view backup monitor system, and a power liftgate are all standard fare for the SL's $29,140 price of entry. Our press car's bottom line was further bolstered by the $1,990 Premium Package, which includes a panoramic sunroof, excellent full-LED headlights, and a slew of safety apps - forward collision warning, blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning and moving object detection. Both the entry-level S ($23,650) and mid-level SV ($25,350) trims can be had with the third row seat, and standard content levels are high in either. All-wheel-drive adds $1,350 to the bottom line no matter which trim level you choose. SAMSUNG CSC The compact CUV segment is one that's filled with fickle buyers, and sales are hard-fought regardless of manufacturer. Nissan's chosen path of feature content, value, styling and space improve the previous Rogue in all aspects, but don't tug at the heartstrings of buyers looking for an engaging driving experience. Happily for Nissan, the improvements they've made should be solid enough to tempt some buyers away that would have otherwise landed in Escapes, CR-Vs or RAV4s.   2014 Nissan Rogue SL Base price: $29,140 Price as tested: $31,265 Options on test car: SL Premium Package ($1,990), floor mats ($135) Powertrain: 2.5-liter four cylinder engine, CVT automatic transmission, front-wheel drive – 170 horsepower, 175 lb-ft torque S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 27.0 mpg Nissan provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the author.  

Driven: 2015 Chevy Silverado 2500HD 4X4 Crew Cab

SAMSUNG CSC Chevy’s new heavy-duty line of Silverado pickups are big beasts of burden. Short of a U-Haul, there’s not a whole lot out there that’s bigger and can still be legally piloted without a CDL. Even compared to the Silverado 1500 Crew Cab, a truck already near and dear to my heart but not exactly “compact” in its own right, the 2500 4x4 pictured here commands attention with another 2,000 pounds of girth, 4.5” of height and 9.5” of length. SAMSUNG CSC It’s important to keep those numbers on hand, because behind the wheel, they start to lose relevance. Sure, parking lots need to be negotiated with a bit more care than in your average light-duty pickup or SUV. In the 2500, I tended to stick to the empty ends of the lot where nobody would mind if I took up an extra space or three. But on the move, the HD operates with such a smooth demeanor and lack of fuss that you’d easily forget its larger-than-life shadow if you lived with it every day. SAMSUNG CSC Possessing an interior every bit as roomy, luxurious and comfortable as that of the loaded GMC Sierra and Chevy Silverado 1500 models I’ve sampled in the past year, this LTZ Crew Cab tester would easily make the final rounds of competition for “best road-trip vehicle of all time”. If you’ve got a fuel rewards card with unlimited points, even better. Economy with the DuraMax diesel certainly wasn’t terrible – given its skillset, few would argue with the near-17 MPG average it returned in mixed commuting conditions. On pure highway stretches, I saw closer to 21. SAMSUNG CSC   SAMSUNG CSC It’s on those longer highway trips where you can really revel in the 2500HD’s commanding driving position, plush heated and cooled leather chairs, and total isolation from wind and tire noise. And of course, that deep reserve of diesel torque – 765 lb-ft to be exact. To call the Silverado quick from a dead stop is probably overstating the case; with nearly 400 horsepower on tap, it’s certainly no slouch in the engine department, but let’s not forget the 7,300 pounds of curb weight to contend with, plus whatever you happen to be towing out back. It’ll take up to 17,100 pounds in gooseneck trailer weight (13,000 pounds conventional) to make the 2500HD’s knees start to shake. If you’re towing anything larger than that, you may want to consider buying a rig with “Mack” written across the front. SAMSUNG CSC At cruising speeds, that low-end torque is omnipresent – passing maneuvers are reduced to a simple flex of your right toes. The ride on our Z71 off-road package-equipped tester tended to get a little bouncy over rough pavement, but that’s par for the course with these HD trucks – and would likely resolve itself with a full bed or trailer in tow. Overall road isolation is excellent, a trait shared with the HD’s smaller 1500-series brothers. The steering even manages to be responsive without any undue speed or nervousness that could make towing a chore. SAMSUNG CSC Just as in the quarter-ton segment, competition among heavy duty trucks is fierce. As mighty as the 6.6-liter Duramax seems on paper, the diesel alternatives from RAM and Ford are just as formidable – the Dodge carries a serious 17,970-pound tow rating thanks to its 800 lb-ft of torque, and the Ford is no slouch either with 15,900 lbs of overall tow capacity, although that’s a good bit down from the Chevy’s abilities. The Silverado has both of the other domestics beat at the scales, though, since even a 7,300-pound curb weight is svelte when it comes to full-size diesel pickups – after all, that’s 160 pounds less than the Ford and a whopping 500 pounds lighter than the RAM. SAMSUNG CSC Pricing’s in line with the competition, too – as you’d expect. While $62,925 might be what some would consider puckeringly dear for a pickup truck, that’s what these rigs often go for. And in this loaded LTZ level of trim, they serve not only as workhorses, but mobile offices, travel trailer tow rigs and luxury sedans wrapped into one. Buyers expect them to be loaded, so loaded they come. SAMSUNG CSC As a prospect for commuting to the office in, it’s probably overkill. But for a do-anything, carry-anything, tow-anything luxury liner, the HD absolutely hits its mark. SAMSUNG CSC     2015 Chevy Silverado 2500HD LTZ 4X4 Crew Cab Base price: $49,225 Price as tested: $62,925 Options on test car: Duramax turbo diesel engine ($7,195), Allison 6-speed automatic transmission ($1,200), LTZ Plus Package ($1,165), 6” Chrome side steps ($750), Heated and cooled front seats ($650), Z71 Off-road Package ($555), MyLink audio system w/ Navigation ($495), Spray-on bed liner ($475), All-weather mats and cargo package ($435), Front leather bucket seats ($325), Chrome tow hooks ($250), 18” A/T tires ($200), Tilt & telescoping steering wheel ($100), Movable bed tie downs ($60), Cargo box LED lighting ($60), 5th wheel trailer wiring provisions ($35), Delete power sliding rear window (-$250) Powertrain: 6.6-liter Duramax V8 turbo-diesel engine, Allison 6-speed automatic transmission, four-wheel drive – 397 horsepower, 765 lb-ft torque S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 16.8 mpg Chevy provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the author.