Author - Byron Hurd

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: 2014 Kia Soul! “Giant Slayer” edition

Photography by Nicole Gagnon Ok, “Giant Slayer” is going a bit far, but when it comes time for my annual “what ridiculous thing can Byron try to beat Miatas with?” piece, the answer can’t always be “Crosstour.” This year, I found that the MSCW’s normal spring autocross happened to be within the Soul loan period. A week earlier, it would have been a Mazda3; one or two later, and I’d have been in a Cayman S. At least the hamster-mobile is yellow—the appropriate hue for making lemonade. Allow me to introduce the 2014 Soul!. To the eagle-eyed editors among you, I promise that’s properly punctuated. The “!” is the trim level, and if you must articulate it, Kia would prefer you say “Soul Exclaim” rather than embark on some Clarkson-esque quest to elongate it any further.  At this trim level, you get the 164hp, two-liter, GDI engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. To get a manual, you have to choose the “Base” trim (symbols being more expensive than words, apparently) and its 1.6L, 130hp engine. Some rodents are smaller than others. Since it’s silly to learn this naming convention for exactly one vehicle in the Kia lineup, just suffice it to say that “!” means this sucker’s loaded, complete with the “Sun & Sound” package (is there an automaker left who has not bundled a stereo upgrade and a moonroof thusly?) and, no foolin’, “The Whole Shabang” package. This brings the total MSRP up to $26,195, but you won’t be wanting for features. At that price, you’re getting navigation, HIDs, a full-LCD gauge cluster, heated and ventilated front leather seats, heated rear seats and light-up speakers. Yes, speakers. IMG_6432 Twenty-six grand for a Soul? Yeah, it sounds like a lot for what we conventionally think of as a subcompact, but consider this: Despite being smaller, lighter and cheaper than a VW Golf, the Soul matches it on feature content and offers more passenger and cargo room. The only compromise here is the driveline—VW’s 1.8L boasts more torque and less intrusive NVH. So, just how light is the Kia Soul? Try 2,800lbs with the “big” engine and the automatic. For a car this roomy, that’s phenomenal. In terms of power-to-weight, the Soul matches up with the likes of the MkIV GTI and the SVT Focus. Ten years ago, before the days of ubiquitous independent rear suspensions and turbocharged engines, the plucky Kia wouldn’t have been all that out-of-place in a sport compact comparison. Ten years ago, mind you. IMG_6476 What really jumps out about the new Soul is how much more competently it drives compared to the earlier model. The steering is good—not just adequate for the segment, mind you. It goes where you point it and it does it with a minimum of fuss. The body roll is well-controlled and the ride is quite smooth. The rear suspension is still a Torsion beam, but it rides remarkably well for a car with such a short wheelbase. The only fly in the ointment is the engine. It’s not lacking for power or anything as dramatic as that, but man, is it noisy.  It never feels inadequate, just unwilling.  It becomes loud and intrusive as it climbs beyond 3,000 RPM, and it never seems eager to go any higher. If I had to guess, I’d say Kia compromised a bit on engine isolation in the name of lower curb weight. Since the Soul’s box-like profile will never cut a particularly efficient hole in the air, the engineers have to gain mileage where they can. Even with those compromises, the Soul is only good for 23mpg in the city and 30 on the highway—and this isn’t some leftover boat-anchor of a drivetrain. It’s a black mark on an otherwise excellent experience, and one I certainly wouldn’t use to justify writing it off entirely. This is a great little car. IMG_6480 And what of my quest to not finish dead last against the endless swarms of Miatas? Well, the Soul acquitted itself fairly well. As usual, the day was broken into morning and afternoon events. In the morning, I finished 25th out of 34, and in the afternoon, 17th of 27, with my quickest time in the afternoon coming in roughly 9/10ths of a second better than my quickest in the morning. For those who prefer the fighter pilot style of kill tallying, I could have painted five Miatas, one Mazdaspeed3, one Mazda5, one Audi A3, one C5 Corvette, one Honda Accord, one TDI-powered Corrado, one E36 325i, one ’66 Corvair (no kidding), one RX-8, one Coyote Mustang,  one Volvo 850, one last-gen Taurus and one G35 on the Soul’s door. This was a slow and obscenely technical course (FTDs were 48.xx at a venue where I’ve seen 29-second layouts), and the tight turns did not flatter the Soul’s width, high center of gravity and all-season tires.  Maintaining the little Kia’s momentum was a challenge, and it struggled to put power down coming out of the tightest corners, costing significant time. The hard left immediately before the straightaway that led to the finish was by far the Kia’s weakest part of the course, requiring either a wide arc to keep both wheels turning or a near-stop braking effort followed by extremely judicious use of throttle to avoid peg-legging out of the turn. My kingdom for a limited-slip differential (a ridiculous request in this application, I know). So, is the Soul more than an appliance? I say yes. It’s a comfortable, practical, competent car with undeniable character and very few significant flaws. It’s not something I’d want to build for competitive motorsports at any level, but with some decent tires and maybe a little suspension work, it would do a respectable job chasing cones.

Kia provided the Soul and a free tank of gas for this review. Thanks as always to the Mazda Sportscar Club of Washington for putting on a safe, fun and educational event for local car enthusiasts.

Driven: 2014 Porsche Cayman S

Ahh, Porsche. I had nothing but praise for the HVAC-deficient Cayman R I drove a few years back. Despite the 100-plus-degree heat and Amazonian humidity, driving the stripped-down 987 was an absolute blast. This time around, our tester is “just” an S, but on paper, it’s every bit the performer that the 987 R proved to be. If anything, the R was a preview of this generation’s S. The R boasted 330hp and 273lb-ft of torque from a 3.4L flat-six. The new S? 325hp and 273lb-ft from the same displacement. The curb weights? Essentially identical. In fact, the only apparent differences are in the level of comfort and refinement. Make no mistake, the Cayman gives up quite a bit of both to the touring-oriented 911, but it manages to convey 90% of the feel of the old R without many of the compromises. This comes at a cost, of course. Despite being loaded up with performance features, the old R could be had for right around $70,000 the way we had it configured. This S, without nifty doo-dads like the R’s Sport Exhaust or its fantastically aggressive, track-ready seats, is already pushing $90k. Sure, the R didn’t come with the Burmeister surround sound or navigation (or, for that matter, air conditioning), but the price differential is still eye-opening. It seems ridiculous now, but part of me believed the R was a case study in paying more money for less car. In hindsight, it looks like a bargain. 2014 Cayman _16_shrunk On the bright side, the new Cayman performs about as well on the street as it should on paper. Road noise that was forgivable in the R is a bit more intrusive here. Our tester is equipped with 20” Carrera S wheels ($1,560) wrapped in Pirelli P-Zeroes (235/35 in the front and 265/35 in the rear). It’s worth noting that the 20” wheel/tire package does not appear to come in any wider than the standard 19-inch bundle (clad in 235/40 and 265/40, respectively). If you’re upsizing, it’s for looks, not for go-fast potential, but I have no doubt the larger wheels and thinner rubber contribute to the noise. The good news is, small wheels or big wheels, the Cayman scoots along exactly as you’d expect. It takes some serious gusto to break the back end loose on the street. A healthy left- or right-turn from a dead stop will have you counter-steering a bit even with the nannies on, but even then, the drama is minimal. This is no Alfa 4C. Composure is the name of the game. Sure, there’s some driveline lash when you’re just puttering around, and the (likely piped-in) engine noise is omnipresent, but you’re certainly not suffering. And like any modern Porsche sports car, it draws attention, for better or for worse. The blue on our loaner would be hard to miss even on a Vespa, so that’s not helping matters. Every loud exhaust or squealing tire is attributed to the Cayman regardless of culpability. At one point, a couple of “down-home” gentlemen in an older domestic pickup truck erroneously attribute the blatting revs of an obviously modified Mini Cooper to the Porsche, and attempt to rev their V8 in response, nearly rear-ending me at a stoplight when they forget how “Park” and “Neutral” work. At least nobody approaches me for cash at the gas pump. That happened in the 987. Twice. 2014 Cayman _18_shrunk As I mentioned when reviewing the 4C, this price bracket has no shortage of excellent enthusiast options. You have your pick of European sport sedans, supercharged pony cars and the Corvette, if horsepower is your thing. On this end of the spectrum, the Cayman sits more comfortably alongside the aforementioned Alfa. Both are small, relatively light (this is unfair to the truly lightweight 4C, but for the sake of argument, let’s go with it), and somewhat impractical. Now that Audi has vacated the segment, pickings are a bit slim, but at least the choice is simpler: Do you want loud, obnoxious and fun; or poised, refined and competent? If you prefer the former, the Alfa is for you. The latter, the Porsche. Drive them back-to-back. The instant you jump from the Alfa's unassisted, muscle-conditioning steering to the Porsche's two-fingers-will-do setup, you'll understand where I'm coming from. All told, Porsche has produced yet another excellent entry-level coupe. It may no longer be the default choice for those looking for a European two-seater for $65k, but Porsche can’t be blamed for the existence of competition, and we, as enthusiasts, are better off for it.

Porsche provided the Cayman, a full tank of gas and the photography for this review.

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. 

First Drive: 2015 Volkswagen Golf TSI and TDI


Such a feelin's comin' over me There is wonder in most everything I see Not a cloud in the sky, got the sun in my eyes And I won't be surprised if it's a dream

It’s 9:45 a.m., local time. I’m standing at one of what must be a hundred overlooks in Wildcat Canyon Park, looking down on, well, everything.  If you’ve never been to the Bay area (as I had not until this point), there’s no way for me to describe to you the view before me—one that photography has no hope of doing justice. There’s so much going on, yet it’s all encapsulated in a way. One could easily convince a child that the entire world exists within the geography visible from this vantage point. That goes a long way toward explaining the mindset of the average resident, I think. Twenty-four hours ago, I was boarding a plane in Baltimore. In another 24, I should be landing there again. Neither mind nor body has caught up to the change of venue (not to mention the change in time). No point in trying to adjust now, I suppose. “That car is hot,” remarks my co-driver, breaking my reverie. “Hmm?” “It’s hot. Can you smell it?” Indeed, the Golf smells strongly of friction material. Whether it’s from the brakes or the transmission, I can’t quite tell. But my companion has a point. We’ve only done maybe half a mile of non-abusive, uphill canyon driving to this point. There’s no reason for the car to be in any sort of distress. We both chew on the observation for another minute or two, try in vain to snap a smartphone picture that could do the view justice, and then hop back into the car. The new 1.8L Golf TSI may look like a baby GTI on paper. On the road, it’s a different story. Our tester is a four-door “S” model with the sunroof package and six-speed automatic. You have to upgrade to the “SE” trim for 17-inch alloys or “SEL” for 18-inchers. Consequently, our tester is a bit more prone to lean than some of the others may have been. The ride is still quite composed and the handling sharp enough for a little hustling, but the car likes to push and squeal a bit when the corners get tight.


On the inside, the 2015 is still 100% Golf. The layout is simple and attractive. The plastics are of reasonable quality and the aluminum (Aluminum? Aluminum-look? Alum-enough, regardless) trim is tasteful and judiciously applied. I have only two gripes here. First off, the knobs and other switchgear are still a bit so-so. The HVAC knobs and such don’t feel particularly robust, for example, and as the former owner of a fourth-generation Passat whose radio knob and center console lid lasted all of a month, such things draw my attention. Secondly, what does it take to get a simple USB port in a Volkswagen product? It’s also worth mentioning as well that VW’s competitors are rapidly catching up. The new Mazda3, for example, is easily the VW’s equal. It feels strange to say it, but that makes it no less true. The VW’s cabin is quieter, but the Mazda’s feedback more granular. A wash on paper, maybe, but that’s the sort of thing that can sway a buying decision, depending on the customer. On the bright side, the 1.8L TSI engine is an excellent companion. The small turbocharger means quick spools for excellent response all over the rev range, and since the engine isn’t spun very high, it pulls nicely pretty much all the way to redline. It’s a great package for a daily driver, and while those of us who prefer naturally aspirated engines may miss the character of the old inline-five, the new turbo mill delivers 20% better highway fuel economy without the ridiculously tall gearing of the most recent 2.5L-equipped cars. It’s hard to argue with gaining 6 mpg, especially if you’re in marketing.


After lunch, we grab a TDI for the drive back to the hotel. The route will take us across the Bay from Richmond to San Rafael, then south on 101, crossing the Golden Gate on the way back into town. Unlike the TSI, the TDI is just a new shell around the same driving experience. The new, two-liter engine is up 10 horsepower from the previous generation. Volkswagen claims it offers a one-mile-per-gallon improvement in both city and mixed driving, but the towering streets of downtown San Francisco are hardly the venue to substantiate that. The TDI is incredibly quiet, punchy and well-suited to highway slogs, and it’s the car to get if you’re the type to travel long distances at constant speeds. It’s no surprise to anybody that the new Golf lineup is stuffed with excellent vehicles; these cars have never suffered from negative critical reception. Where they typically suffer is in value proposition, and to their credit, Volkswagen has made an effort to rectify that.


Most significantly, the TDI now starts at $21,995. That’s a nice drop from its previous starting MSRP, but at the expense of options. You’ll have to jump up to the $25,495 TDI “SE” if you want a car equipped comparably to the entry-level MkVI. This is a strategy VW has seen success with in the Jetta lineup, and I expect it will do equally well here. On the TSI side, there are no dramatic price shifts, but some options have been re-bundled to make the lower-level trims a better value compared to their outgoing equivalents. It’s nothing earth-shattering, but it should help bring more eyes to the showroom, which is exactly what Volkswagen needs if they’re going to reverse the past year’s sales trends. The Golf’s a winner; that should be no surprise. Whether it’s enough to keep VW’s sales numbers afloat while they work to plug the holes in their lineup still remains to be seen.

Driven: Nissan Altima 2.5 SL Tech

2014 Nissan Altima
2014 Nissan Altima Photos courtesy of Nissan It’s hard to get worked up over a midsized sedan. Yes, I believe they make up the defining segment in the American automotive market, and from time to time I find one of them to be particularly satisfying to drive, but on the whole, they are just plain vanilla. When I scheduled the Altima, I wasn’t too enthused. Efficient, four-cylinder engine? Tech trim? SL package? Marketing speak for “slow,” “finicky” and “floaty. “ Or so I thought, anyway. It has been a while since I’ve reviewed a Nissan (for the pedantic among you, yes, I’ve reviewed a few Infiniti-branded vehicles in the interim), but in this case “a while” is still less than a full model cycle, and it’s impressive how much things have changed given how little time has really gone by. The 2011 Maxima I reviewed was a reasonably good car backed by an excellent powertrain. But I never could quite put my finger on the big Nissan’s hook.  It was nice, and it was quick enough, and the transmission worked surprisingly well with the meaty, 3.5L VQ V6 stuffed under the hood, but nothing about it said “buy this car.” 2014 Nissan Altima On paper, the Altima is competitive, but not a segment buster. When this generation debuted, it boasted the best four-cylinder fuel economy in the class, but that honor now belongs to the Mazda6 and its trick i-ELOOP setup, albeit by a narrow margin. At 182hp, the engine is no slouch, but gone are the days when it led the class in output.  And the CVT? Well, it’s a CVT. Look inside the Altima however, and it’s a different story. The interior in our tester is leaps and bounds ahead of anything we’ve seen from this nameplate. The materials are excellent and the layout superb. The seats are comfortable and reasonably supportive.  All the now-ubiquitous bells and whistles are accounted for with no glaring omissions. Our tester even included a feature that has only recently started creeping onto sub-luxury build sheets: a heated steering wheel. I firmly believe that the Altima deserves more praise than it receives when it comes to driving dynamics, and the new car only drives that point home further. The steering is light but communicative enough for the Altima’s mission, and as before the chassis is willing and responsive.  The only fly in the ointment here is the transmission. My advice? Drive the Altima if it otherwise suits your needs, and decide for yourself whether you can tolerate the CVT. You may love it. You may hate it. But at least you’ll know. 2014 Nissan Altima If you’re like me, you may decide that the rest of the car is good enough that you don’t miss stepped gears all that much. It was a surprise, but a pleasant and welcome one.  When I drove the Maxima, I believed the CVT’s future lay in being mated to big, luxury-oriented engines. Nissan’s commitment to the technology has paid dividends in refinement and efficiency no matter the power plant, and that really shows through here.

The Altima is not the enthusiast’s choice in this segment. If that’s what you’re looking for, check out the Accord or Mazda 6. As a competitor to the Camry, Sonata and Optima, however, the Nissan makes a very strong case for itself. After a week with this tester, I’d comfortably call it the frontrunner in that group of four. It’s more engaging than any of them without having too sharp of an edge, and you don’t have to compromise on comfort or tech to achieve that balance. That’s a win-win, in my book.

As it turns out, the Altima’s hook isn’t any one salient feature. Rather, this is the rare car that does jack-of-all-trades so well that it should be comfortable with that label. Stand-out features tend to be paired with proportional drawbacks in this group, but here you have neither. It’s the sort of car you can recommend to a friend or neighbor without feeling like you’re evangelizing. It’s just a good car.

Thanks to Nissan for loaning us the Altima for this review.