Author - John Kucek

Driven: 2015 Chevy Trax

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When I drove the Buick Encore in 2013, it was a bit of a unique offering on American soil, owing to its subcompact roots; specifically, those of the Chevy Sonic. Besides the Mini Countryman and Nissan Juke, even up until last year there were few alternatives for those seeking a pipsqueak crossover. The B-segment crossover field is set to grow significantly in 2015, however, with manufacturers like Honda, Mazda, Jeep and Fiat each set to introduce their own variation on the theme. Chevy can also be counted among the fray, although much of their work on the Trax seen here had already been done with the Encore. SAMSUNG CSC What is it? Besides being Chevy’s new entry into the rapidly expanding small crossover field, it’s also a sister car to the Encore. That’s not to say it’s a rebadge job, exactly – the exteriors and interiors of each are unique. But they ride atop the same Sonic-based platform, and beneath their hoods lies the same beating heart – a 1.4-liter EcoTec turbocharged four-cylinder, mated to a six-speed automatic and either front- or all-wheel drive. Power and torque stand at 138 hp and 148 lb-ft, respectively. SAMSUNG CSC What works? At some level, the reason shoppers are eager to plunk down money for a subcompact crossover over a similarly-sized sedan or hatchback comes down to vanity. The virtues these vehicles tout – compact footprint, easy parking lot maneuverability, practicality galore, good fuel economy and decent value for money – are all virtues possessed by the car-shaped subcompacts they’re based on, only more so. So we can assume that the reason these crossovers are quickly becoming the hot-ticket showroom item is because to buyers, they just look cooler than their sedan and hatch counterparts. SAMSUNG CSC The Trax fares pretty well in this regard, being both fairly well-proportioned and possessed of some interesting styling details. Only in the side profile does a pronounced front-biased look present itself. Elsewhere, and especially in our tester’s bright orange paintwork, I can see potential customers calling the look “cute”, “quirky”, and “funky”. SAMSUNG CSC In all of the other aforementioned categories, the Trax also ticks the right boxes. It’s a breeze to wheel into tight spaces, there’s stretch-out room up front and decent space in the rear, allows umpteen configurations of seat folding positions (aided by a fold-flat front passenger seat), has seemingly hundreds of hidey-holes and storage bins scattered around, gets close to 30 miles per gallon in the real world and starts at just $21 grand, only cresting $25,000 when fully loaded (add $1,500 or so for all-wheel drive). SAMSUNG CSCSAMSUNG CSCDynamically, it also corners adroitly for such a tall, top-heavy type of vehicle, and the 1.4-liter turbo four with its 148 lb-ft of torque (which actually doesn’t sound like enough on paper) mostly just…works. It’s definitely not going to dust off any Camaros at the lights, but during highway passing maneuvers – typically a weak point among subcompacts – the broad torque plateau allows for just a single-gear downshift. Press gas, single gear drop, away you go (within reason, of course)…leagues better than the wheezy zing to redline you’ll get in most of the naturally-aspirated and/or CVT-equipped competition. SAMSUNG CSC What doesn’t? While that turbo four has enough poke to keep you out of trouble in most situations, it announces its presence loudly inside the cabin whenever the requested throttle opening exceeds 50%. I hadn’t noticed that trait in the Encore, so perhaps some sound deadening was left out in Chevy’s version. SAMSUNG CSC Another area the Trax kowtows to the Encore is in terms of interior design and materials. While the Trax, in the LTZ trim of our tester, has enough creature comforts to satisfy at the price (a simple touchscreen audio interface, heated leather seats, power driver’s seat, steering wheel audio controls, backup camera, and a Bose stereo) it surrenders the nicer interior design and more upscale materials of the Encore to offer a lower sticker price. A similarly equipped Encore FWD runs about $3,500 more than our uplevel Trax LTZ tester – buyers will need to decide if that price is worth it to them over the mechanically identical Chevy. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC Overall? Though not as early to the party as the Encore, Chevy’s entrant to the subcompact crossover market still beats the rest of the herd to showrooms, and is worth a look - especially for buyers with a fixed budget of $25k or less. If your wallet can stretch a little wider, though, we think the more upscale looks inside and out of the Trax’s Buick sister make a strong case for cross-shopping within GM’s own portfolio. [gallery ids="11336,11347,11348,11349,11350,11356,11355,11354,11352,11351,11353,11343,11344,11341,11340,11339,11338,11337,11345,11346,11357"] 2015 Chevy Trax LTZ FWD Base price: $25,905 Price as tested: $25,905 Options on test car: None Powertrain: 1.4-Liter Turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, 6-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel-drive – 138 horsepower, 148 lb-ft torque S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 29.1 mpg Chevy provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the author.

Driven: 2015 Cadillac Escalade 4WD

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We at Speed:Sport:Life are truck fans, and we’ve spent a ton of time with the current spate of full-size light- and medium-duty GM pickups and sport utilities. GM’s now installed a new, 8-speed automatic to boost the fuel economy of these big beasts, and our first sample of it is in this 2015 Escalade. SAMSUNG CSC What is it? Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last couple decades, you’re probably pretty familiar with the Escalade. For those who have been living underground, this is Cadillac’s version of the newest GM body-on-frame truck platform (GMT K2XX) that has also birthed the Silverado/Sierra (including HD versions), Tahoe/Yukon and Suburban. SAMSUNG CSC This 2015 differs from the early-production-run 2015 I drove a few months ago in two significant ways – it’s a short-wheelbase model, as opposed to that two-foot-longer ESV, and it now features GM’s new 8-speed 8L90 automatic transmission, which is a mid-cycle update from the 6-speed automatic this truck was introduced with over the summer. SAMSUNG CSC What works? It’s a comfy place to spend time, the Escalade. I had the pleasure of taking a mini, 300-or-so mile road trip in it during the week I babysat it, and the Caddy ate up the miles with a spoon while returning north of 21 mpg on the highway in the process. The new 8-speed seems to have caused a noticeable uptick in real-world fuel economy (precisely the reason it was on-boarded for these trucks) with this 2015 returning a week-long mixed average of just under 18 miles per gallon in my hands, while “last year’s” 2015 (which is admittedly a heavier truck, owing to the longer body length, so take the comparison with a grain of salt) averaged only 15.5 mpg. That’s honestly impressive progress for a vehicle of this size and type, and coupled with the fact that GM hasn’t yet resorted to the optional next steps of engine downsizing or forced induction (we love the big, burly 6.2-liter V8 in the ‘Slade, but its days are probably numbered), it’s clear there’s plenty of headroom yet left in making these large SUVs even more efficient. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC Otherwise, this current model remains steadfast to the first Escalade’s concept, albeit in a much more refined, better-built package: it’s a feature-laden, supremely comfortable and suitably massive vehicle designed to carry six adults (seven in a pinch) in luxurious comfort. It’s probably a bit over the top as a school-run vehicle or an in-town errand runner, but it truly rewards on long highway stretches when passengers are able to take advantage of the significant elbow room. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC What doesn’t? Though GM’s engineers have performed wonders to make it appear otherwise, this is still a truck underneath, and as such, there are instances, like rough railroad crossings or tall speed bumps, where the truck roots come through in terms of the Escalade’s body motions. It never presents an actual issue, but it does strike a different character than the car-like isolation of something like, say, a Range Rover. I mention the RR only because the Caddy is now playing in a similar price arena – it’s never been a cheap vehicle, and that is the case now more than ever. Though in an age where loaded pickups can crest $60k, perhaps a $90,000 Escalade isn’t so out of scope. SAMSUNG CSC Lastly, while various software updates have greatly improved its functionality, the CUE system still occasionally obfuscates quick, commonly used inputs like stereo volume and A/C temperature changes with its touchscreen controls – in my opinion, there are a few places where normal knobs would certainly suffice. SAMSUNG CSC Overall? Though it is unabashedly truck-based at its core, the current Escalade is still near the top of the large luxury SUV heap, especially when measured by the segment’s most relevant yard-sticks: space, comfort and feature content. SAMSUNG CSC [gallery ids="11306,11307,11308,11309,11310,11311,11312,11325,11326,11327,11328,11329,11324,11323,11322,11321,11320,11319,11318,11317,11316,11315,11314,11313"] 2015 Cadillac Escalade Premium 4WD Base price: $85,065 Price as tested: $89,755 Options on test car: White Diamond Tri-Coat ($995), Kona Brown full leather seats ($2,000), Power-retractable side steps ($1,695) Powertrain: 6.2-liter V8 engine, 8-speed automatic transmission, four wheel drive – 420 horsepower, 460 lb-ft torque S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 17.9 mpg Cadillac provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the author.

Driven: 2015 Audi RS5 Cabriolet

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When Audi introduced the gorgeous S5 coupe to these shores in 2007, it was available in a single configuration – with a naturally-aspirated V8 engine powering all four wheels, controlled by a manual transmission. A Tiptronic transmission and other engine options soon followed, but the S5 manual was still the one to covet if you considered yourself an enthusiast. Sadly, Audi’s sexiest front-engine bodywork (in my humble opinion) can no longer be had draped over a V8 and a manual transmission – the S5 moved to supercharged six-cylinder power for 2013, and though there’s still a naturally-aspirated V8 in the lineup in the form of the RS5, no manual transmission is available for it. Luckily, the RS5 may just be compelling enough to overcome the lack of a third pedal… SAMSUNG CSC What is it? Equipped with a version of the potent, direct-injected 4.2-liter FSI V8 shared with the R8 and previous RS4, the RS5 is the crown jewel of the A4/A5 line. And while the rest of the world is treated to this gem of a powerplant in current RS4 sedan and wagon guise, in the US, the RS5 is our only opportunity to sample the naturally-aspirated FSI V8 with more than two seats. Despite sharing an engine, the RS5 differs from the R8 4.2 in that it is not a pure sports car. That shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone reading this, but it deserves being said. That doesn’t for a second mean it’s missed the mark – after all, a convertible with four real seats and all-wheel drive probably wouldn’t be someone’s first choice to fling around a racetrack anyway. Audi’s focused instead on making the RS5 a dual-character car - something that can play the grand touring role of a laid-back, stylish and fast cruiser capable of crushing the European continent in a single long-haul blow, but overlaying that with switchable powertrain and chassis settings that can be configured as stiff and sharp as the driver dares. Moreover, it’s a BMW M3 for those who think the M3 is just a bit too “been there, done that”. SAMSUNG CSC What works? That V8 engine is a beautiful thing when spinning to its 8,450 RPM redline, and it sounds absolutely gorgeous. Seriously, Audi deserves some praise for sticking with the naturally-aspirated V8 in this age of forced induction, because the exhaust and intake notes in the upper portion of the 4.2-liter’s rev range sound fantastic. The seven-speed S Tronic dual clutch is as slick and quick here as it is elsewhere VW/Audi universe, and it goes about its business in the RS with seamless precision. SAMSUNG CSC You’ll have more than just a gorgeous engine to stare at for your $85,000, though – the RS5 absolutely looks the business. In this muted shade of Daytona Grey Metallic, the styling is at once understated and aggressive, wholly symbolic of the great Quattro GMBH bruisers that have come before it, but somehow more lithe and elegant in person than I expected, as if the short, squat stature of the thing doesn’t quite come through in photos. It looks large, maybe even GTR-sized in images, but in person it seems quite a bit more compact than that. The matte-grey-finished alloys set the look off perfectly against the boxy fender flares, and matte aluminum trim serves as the icing on the cake. It’s a great looking thing, which is practically reason enough to justify one over the standard S5. SAMSUNG CSCSAMSUNG CSC Inside, the styling details show typical Audi restraint and everything feels designed and built to an exceptionally high standard. The cabin layout is little changed from the A5/S5’s 2008 debut, but it still looks modern. The RS5 comes standard with a 505-watt Bang & Olufsen sound system (optional on lesser models), which has no trouble hitting impressively clear high notes, even while top-down at 80 MPH – though at all speeds I drove, the cabin proved to be a remarkably draft-free and quiet place to sit with the removable plastic wind blocker in place. In fact, at speed it felt calmer than most fixed roof cars do with the windows down - impressive. SAMSUNG CSC The RS5 has all of the chassis and powertrain adjustments a buyer in this class could hope for, but I’m still of the belief that the car would be just fine with a single, “middle of the road”-type setting. There are four settings that allow electronic tweaking in the RS5 Cabrio – engine/transmission, differential, steering, and engine sound. Suspension damping adjustability is also possible on the RS5 Coupe. You can select between generalized auto, comfort or dynamic modes for all settings, or program a “favorite” that combines your preferred modes for each into one click. I found the car to be at its best in “dynamic” mode for the engine and transmission, meaning crisper shift programming and throttle response, and the active exhaust in its naughtiest setting. I left the rest of the settings in “auto” and went on about my business. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC Grip levels are high in steady-state cornering, and the RS5 seems happiest if you man-handle it a bit into corners. It’s got enough grip, thanks to 275-section Pirelli P Zero summer tires at all four corners, to sort out just about anything you throw at it, though eventually the front-biased weight distribution makes itself known with a tendency toward mild understeer at the limit . Although, any rational driver is unlikely to encounter those limits on the street. Strong braking comes courtesy of big 14.4” front and 12.8” rear ventilated discs, with red-painted calipers specced on our tester. Carbon-ceramic front rotors are also optional for those who need the utmost in fade resistance, meaning folks likely to regularly track their cars, or just those who want the bragging rights. SAMSUNG CSC What doesn’t? Well, it does weigh 4,420 pounds. That’s heavier than its direct competition, the M4 convertible, by over 300 pounds. This comparison is slightly unfair, given the RS5’s standard all-wheel drive (unavailable on the M4), but then the M4 has a hardtop versus the RS5’s cloth, which should help level the playing field. It’s not as if the Audi’s weight is completely out of the ballpark – after all, it’s now nearly impossible to make a modern high-performance, four-seat convertible that weighs less than two tons. For example – the Camaro ZL1 convertible? 4,374 pounds. The Mercedes-Benz E550 Cabriolet? 4,387 pounds. And BMW’s other 4-series, the all-wheel drive 435i xDrive convertible? 4,270 pounds. None of these cars are featherweights, but the Audi is still the least feathery of them all. SAMSUNG CSC The weight is, in part, made more noticeable thanks to that gorgeous, sweet-spinning V8. You see, the 4.2-liter is a bit light on torque. That statement might sound a bit hollow – I mean, it’s got 316 lb-ft of the stuff, after all. That’s more than double what my feeble FR-S manages to put down. How can one possibly accuse it of not being torquey? Well, the issue is that the torque lives all the way up the rev range; unless you’re on cam above 4,000 RPM, the V8 just doesn’t feel all that gutsy. Above 7k, it sings. It’s easy to want it both ways, of course – if you crave high revs and bags of character, turbocharging usually isn’t the way to go. And yet there’s something about the RS5’s laid-back demeanor that’s just begging for a pair of snails to be added to the V8. Don’t be surprised if the next generation (assuming there is one) gets forced induction. For now, you’ll have to live with the echoes-of-LeMans exhaust note and high strung nature of the V8. It’s a tough world. SAMSUNG CSC Overall? The RS5 is an impressive car in many ways, and manages to be both deeply lovable and deeply desirable. That’s not to say it’s without its flaws, and certainly, anyone looking for a German GT-R at a slight discount will probably come away disappointed – though, especially in Cabriolet form, comparisons between the two are apples to oranges. Perhaps it’s these flaws that make it so desirable – it’s perplexingly hard to drive and behold the RS5 without forgiving it completely and wanting a place for it in your own stable. But it’s also devilishly close to being one of the all-time great GTs – something a little more torque, a little less weight, and a touch more handling focus would surely solve. SAMSUNG CSC [gallery ids="11274,11275,11276,11277,11278,11279,11280,11281,11282,11283,11284,11285,11289,11288,11287,11286,11290,11291,11292,11293,11297,11296,11295,11294,11298,11299,11300,11301"]   2015 Audi RS5 Cabriolet Base price: $79,200 Price as tested: $85,900 Options on test car: Daytona Grey pearl effect paint ($550), 20” 5-arm-rotor design wheels with titanium finish ($1,000), Technology package ($2,900), Red brake package ($500), Matte Aluminum optic package ($750), Sports exhaust with black outlets ($1,000) Powertrain: 4.2-liter V8 engine, 7-speed dual-clutch automatic, all-wheel-drive – 450 horsepower, 316 lb-ft torque S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 20.1 mpg Audi provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the author.

Driven: Lexus LS460 F-Sport

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Though the F-segment luxury sedan class that the LS460 occupies is known for being chock-full of cutting edge technology and forward-leaning style, the car seen here has been around since 2007, more or less. Does that make it feel old? Surprisingly not, actually…quite the contrary. In fact, this current LS460 feels somewhat timeless – like the LS sedans that preceded it. Though the fascias and interior have been updated since then, the stoic build quality and wafty, laid back driving experience remain the same. But does it still have what it takes to bring the fight to updated rivals like the Mercedes S-Class? SAMSUNG CSC What is it? Lexus’ flagship sedan. An evolution of the model that started it all for the Japanese brand a quarter century ago, the LS400, the nameplate has since built itself a reputation based on stellar build quality, precision engineering, durability and comfort. The design has evolved to match the spindle grille theme that stretches across Lexus’ lineup, but the platform sticks to a V8, rear-wheel drive configuration. There have been a few notable tweaks along the way – an optional (and world-first) V8 hybrid powertrain, a long-wheelbase version and all-wheel drive became optionally available during the current generation’s tenure. SAMSUNG CSC The F-Sport package our tester carried was made available for the LS in 2013, and brings sport-tuned air suspension, 19” forged alloys, a Torsen LSD, Brembo 6-piston front brakes, paddle shifters, an Alcantara headliner, and a more aggressive front end treatment. SAMSUNG CSC What works? Quite a bit, actually. The legendary LS quality of cosseting isolation from road noise and broken pavement is still here, even in the sharper F-Sport trim, which lowers the ride height by half an inch but does little to disturb the pristine ride quality LS buyers demand. The suspension snuffs out bumps without ever feeling wallowy, and sound levels inside the cabin rarely rise above hushed, save for the few occasions when full power is summoned from the engine room - in which case you’ll hear a distant intake growl from the DOHC V8. Nevertheless, the interior remains the quietest in LS model history, according to Lexus, which must mean it also ranks fairly high on the “quietest interiors of all-time” list. SAMSUNG CSC Forward progress is decently swift, though against the newest generation of German twin-turbocharged V8s, you do have to wait a little longer for the torque to come on song. Still, the 4.6-liter’s 386 horsepower and 367 pound-feet are plenty to move you along in stately progress, even in a luxo barge of this size. Shifts from the Aisin 8-speed automatic are barely perceptible in full-auto mode, though you can take control via wheel-mounted paddle shifters in the F-Sport model, if you desire. The LS’s character is laid back enough that such red-mist moments rarely last very long. SAMSUNG CSC Although, like the exterior, the interior's design ethos closely echoes that of the rest of the current Lexus lineup, the construction quality is a noticeable step-up above those already well-assembled models. Everything operates with a certain indescribable, well-oiled precision, which manages to create an interior that feels sumptuous, expensive, and more special than the mere sum of its parts.  Our tester was a 2014 model, but changes to the 2015 are minor – limited to an updated multimedia/navigation system, the standard mobile app suite, and not much else. Included tech levels are already generous – features like a 12.3” in-dash LCD screen, 5.8” TFT info screen in the gauge cluster, Siri eyes-free mode for the navigation system and contact lists, an Intuitive Park Assist system and automatic door shuts are just a few of the items included gratis for the car’s $73,050 base price. While something like an S-class offers more in the way of bleeding-edge technology, it comes at a price – a similarly equipped S550 can easily toe deep into six figure territory, whereas our LS460 F-Sport was more or less loaded at its $85,130 sticker. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC What doesn’t? Well, it’s a Lexus LS, so honestly, everything works – and probably will continue to do so for the next 25 years. Though, if we’re being pressed, we suppose the LS460’s age versus most of the competition might come into question. Even though the last major generation change was back in 2007, a thorough reskinning in 2013 brought the styling in line with the rest of Lexus’ current lineup. We’d say it still commands enough respect at the valet stand to be parked next to newer entrants, but looks are of course subjective. The big Lex certainly doesn’t drive old, but the lack of some of the latest tech gizmos featured on other competitors might cause some shoppers to look elsewhere. SAMSUNG CSC Overall While the popularity of the traditional, large luxury sedan has waned slightly in recent years, thanks to the rise of the Tesla Model S, luxury 3-row SUVs and the general competence of the cars in the luxury classes beneath, the LS460 still manages to steal a significant cut of sales away from its German rivals, even in its eighth model year on the market. That speaks not only to the bulletproof reputation the LS has rightfully earned over the decades, but also the general competence of this current model. The fact that it does so many things well makes it a sound choice for buyers who choose their cars not for trendiness, but in anticipation of years of reliable service. SAMSUNG CSC [gallery ids="11249,11250,11251,11252,11253,11254,11255,11256,11257,11258,11259,11260,11261,11262,11263,11264,11265"] 2014 Lexus LS460 Base price: $73,050 Price as tested: $85,130 Options on test car:  F Sport package ($8,350), F Sport comfort package ($1,650), Mark Levinson 19-speaker sound system ($1,580), Blind spot monitoring ($500) Powertrain: 4.6-liter V8 engine, 8-speed automatic, rear-wheel-drive – 386 horsepower, 367 lb-ft torque S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 19.6 mpg Lexus provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the author.

Driven: Nissan Altima 2.5

2015 Nissan Altima
I’ve driven plenty of midsize sedans in my time, and if there’s one universal truth amongst all of midsize sedan-dom, it’s this: as a carmaker competing in this segment, you’re almost guaranteed to have a hit on your hands if you can manage to build a car that neither offends nor annoys in any single category. SAMSUNG CSC Nissan seems to have accomplished that with the current Altima. I spent a week in a mid-level 2.5 SL back in April during a California road trip, and just recently spent another two weeks with an identical car here at home, and in roughly 1,500 combined miles, I found no irksome qualities present in either sedan. These weren’t the spanking-new, pristine variety press cars that auto writers usually get, either. The first example had 8,500 miles on the clock, and the most recent more than 22,000, but neither car exhibited any of the squeaks or rattles that 30 thousand combined journalist miles usually root out. 2015 Nissan Altima   SAMSUNG CSC Sales are hard-earned in this class, so let’s go down the list as to why the Altima is consistently ranked among the strongest contenders. It’s decent-looking; it certainly won’t set anyone’s loins afire but neither does it blend into total anonymity or worse, ugliness. It’s roomy – there’s room for three abreast in the back without much complaining, and the trunk is truly cavernous. It’s economical – I averaged 32 miles per gallon in mixed conditions over a two-week period, and saw close to 40 on some occasions on the highway. Range on a full tank clocked in at over 500 miles. Those are some enviable real-world stats. SAMSUNG CSC My Altima’s powertrain was Nissan’s venerable QR25 2.5-liter four-cylinder hooked to a standard Xtronic CVT. A 3.5-liter V6 is also available, again with a CVT. Nissan’s been doing it this way for a while now in the midsize class, and it’s fair to say they’ve ironed out most of the kinks. Although Nissan was early to the CVT party, some major players (cough- Honda) are now starting to drop in, so they must have been on to something. Say what you will about CVTs versus traditional automatics, but they have their place in mainstream automobiles, especially when you take note of the fuel mileage the Altima ekes out. The 2.5’s 182 horsepower and 180 lb-ft are class-average, nothing more or less, but I never found myself wanting for power in typical city traffic and highway passing maneuvers. Power delivery is smooth and quiet, even under a heavy right foot. 2015 Nissan Altima A “sporty” ride-and-handling balance used to be the Altima’s trump card in a class full of (mostly) dull handlers, but now that the Accord and Mazda 6 have fully realized their potentials, the Altima has started to trend closer to the class norm rather than remain a sporty outlier. Nevertheless, it’s got a resolve that belies its modest underpinnings. German manufacturer ZF-Sachs was called upon to supply the shock assemblies – perhaps as a result, roll and dive are both well-controlled, yet the ride remains compliant, avoiding the floatiness of the Passat without being busy or harsh. Steering weight is a bit on the light side, which would be about the only gripe we could level at the chassis. SAMSUNG CSC The interior was comprehensively made over during the Altima’s 2013 model year redesign, so very little was needed to keep the 2014 current. A NissanConnect app system was added to enhance smartphone OS integration, and that’s about it. As it stands, it’s a nice place to spend time, and still feels upscale compared to competitors. The seats, in particular, earn praise – Nissan heavily touted the NASA research they used to design the front passenger seats when the latest Altima was introduced, and the “zero G” chairs that resulted are indeed quite comfortable and induced no fatigue even on my longest drives. A bit more lateral support wouldn’t go amiss, but given the Altima’s intentions, it’s probably fine that they skew more towards comfort than speed. 2015 Nissan Altima Changes for the 2015 model are few, again owing to a full redesign two model years ago. V6 models get enhanced equipment levels and some efficiency improvements, which garner 1 MPG increases in highway and combined EPA mileage ratings (22/32/26; the 2.5 is rated at 27/38/31). Besides some content shuffling among trim levels, little else has changed. Not that it needs to - the current Altima is a strong contender in a crowded ring, and is worthy of a look against the “Big 2” in the midsize arena.  2015 Nissan Altima 2014 Nissan Altima 2.5 SL Base price: $28,550 Price as tested: $30,625 Options on test car:  Moonroof package ($800), Technology package ($1,090), Floor & Trunk Mats ($185) Powertrain: 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, continuously variable transmission, front-wheel-drive – 182 horsepower, 180 lb-ft torque S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 32.1 mpg Nissan provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the author and manufacturer.

Speed Read: FIAT 500 Abarth

2014 Fiat 500 Abarth
My first encounter with the 500 Abarth was earlier this year, when I tried out the cabrio version for a week. I concluded that it was a plucky little city car with tons of character, and a few days in the hardtop Abarth did little to change that opinion. 2014 Fiat 500 Abarth 2014 Fiat 500 Abarth This week’s hardtop tester, like last summer’s cabrio, is a 2014 model. 2015 will bring a few simple but significant changes to the Abarth, the most talked-about being the availability of an automatic transmission for the first itme in the model’s run. The gearbox, a traditional 6-speed Aisin unit, has been uprated for duty in the torquey Abarth with additional heat-treated clutch plates, rev-matched downshift capability, fuel-cut upshifts and a more aggressive pedal mapping program.  Manual shifting duties will be handled by a detent on the shifter gate. Call us old fashioned, but we’ll stick with the Abarth’s standard gearbox, a slick 5-speed manual. Nevertheless, in today’s marketplace, an available automatic is likely to bring plenty of new suitors to the Abarth’s doorstep. [caption id="attachment_11221" align="aligncenter" width="700"]For 2015, the high-performance Fiat 500 Abarth and Abarth Cabrio 2015 model[/caption] Inside, Fiat has addressed one of our biggest foibles with the pre-2015 cars, the confusing gauge cluster. Though it looked cool, the 2014’s gauge-within-a-gauge setup was tough to read at a glance and was limited in the amount of information it could display. The 2015 model has a new 7” digital display setup, and though it resides in the same sized instrument binnacle, looks like it will be much easier to decipher quickly. We look forward to trying it. [caption id="attachment_11220" align="aligncenter" width="700"]FT015_009FH 2015 model[/caption] [caption id="attachment_11219" align="aligncenter" width="700"]For 2015, the high-performance Fiat 500 Abarth and Abarth Cabrio 2015 model[/caption] Elsewhere, our 2014 coupe was exactly the same as the cabrio, minus the alfresco treatment – light, small, fun to toss around and bound to put a smile on the faces of those behind the wheel, as well as passers-by. We’re fairly sure the 2015 will stick to the same formula. 2014 Fiat 500 Abarth 2014 Fiat 500 Abarth Base price: $22,995 Price as tested: $27,204 Options on test car:  Electronics Group ($609), Comfort/Convenience Group ($900), Black trimmed lights ($250), Gray mirror caps and body side stripe ($450), TomTom Navigation ($600), 17x7” forged wheels ($1,400) Powertrain: 1.4-liter turbocharged and intercooled four-cylinder engine, 5-speed manual transmission, front-wheel-drive – 160 horsepower, 183 lb-ft torque S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 29.6 mpg Fiat provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the manufacturer.