Author - John Kucek

Driven: 2015 Buick Regal GS

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Having spent a bit of time in Europe, I recall the new Opel Insignia I rented once from an airport counter a few years back. That car was an “estate”, a body style we’re not fortunate enough to get here, for obvious sales reasons. Still, the brief encounter with that station wagon was a pleasant one, and a driving experience immediately drawn to mind during my week with the Insignia’s American stepsister, the Buick Regal. I don’t think I’m wrong in my belief that it’s the most European car GM sells in this country. SAMSUNG CSC Describing something as being or feeling “European” or “continental”, at least when used outside the context of manufacturing location, has always struck me as a bit marketing-y in the past. After all, how could something assembled in Canada, made from parts of predominantly North American origin, be European? Even the nameplate, Buick Regal, is about as ‘Murican as it gets in this day and age. But the Regal truly is European. It was designed by Opel, GM’s German subsidiary, for European drivers, their roads and their tastes. After deciding to introduce the car to Americans as the Regal, GM’s initial production run was pulled from German assembly lines. SAMSUNG CSC As a result, the Regal GS feels decidedly continental (there’s that word again) in its movements. The ride and handling balance displays such a well thought out level of compromise that the E39 5-series immediately springs to mind. Is that praise too bold for a front-wheel drive platform? I don’t think so. So many manufacturers these days, sometimes even German ones, fall victim to the consumer belief that a hard ride = sporty handling. The GS proves otherwise. The ride is unperturbed over nearly any road surface, the cabin remains quiet and rattle-free, and yet when you throw it into a corner, it doesn’t fall apart. Roll is kept nicely in check, and while our GS AWD model’s nearly 4,000 pounds keep it from feeling what you might call “playful”, it is nevertheless a competent chassis that is willing to be hustled if you demand. SAMSUNG CSC Similar things can be said about the powertrain. Refinement is the name of the game here – outright power junkies won’t be blown away by the 2.0-liter turbo’s 259 horsepower under full throttle, but part throttle openings are rewarded with a broad plateau of the four-cylinder’s 295 lb-ft of torque between 2,500 and 4,000 RPM, and more than 80% of that is available as low as 1,800 RPM. Unlike some blown fours, the 2-liter Ecotec’s power delivery is never lumpy, surgy, or any other descriptor that could be associated with the seven dwarves. The six-speed automatic fitted as standard to the AWD GS (a six-speed manual is available on FWD GSs) shifts smoothly and remains pretty much transparent in all conditions. Considering the curb weight and the all-wheel drive system, our 25.4 mpg observed average fuel economy was impressive, though some of that can be attributed to a highway-heavy test week. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC The Regal, particularly in GS guise, strikes me as one of GM’s better styled offerings currently on the market. Sure, the Camaro and Corvette are flashier and more suggestive. Caddy’s offerings are also not without their well-proportioned charms, particularly the ATS – though there is a bit more glitziness to be found there. This Buick, meanwhile, is fairly toned down. GM did well by keeping chrome flair to a minimum, though some pieces can still be found on the hood and around the windows. Still, most of the exterior brightwork is of the matte aluminized type rather than polished chrome. I might even go a bit further with a color-matched monochromatic look, but even as it sits, the influence is obviously European. Oops - that word. Moving on…. SAMSUNG CSC Inside, the Regal has benefitted from some updates over the years to help it match new car buyer’s expectations from a technology standpoint. To that end, a broad touchscreen, touch-sensitive climate controls, a slew of radar- and camera-based safety features and additional ancillary steering wheel controls have been added. GM also saw fit to add class-exclusive 4G LTE capability and a Wi-Fi hotspot, in addition to a fully electronic center gauge panel with a multi-configurable display akin to the one found in the C7 Corvette. The Wi-Fi was a boon for my passenger during a long road trip, but less helpful was the gauge cluster’s tendency to go on the fritz from time to time, leaving me without a speedometer. I tried to use this as a get-out-of-jail-free card for potential speed tickets, but alas, no troopers took notice of the GS, despite its ability to cruise at extralegal speeds with ease. cq5dam.web.1280.1280 (3) cq5dam.web.1280.1280 (1) The Regal is an easy car to like. The GS even more so. It’s not an obvious choice within its field, probably for the reason that it’s tough to line up against a direct competitor. A Subaru WRX STI is similar money and brings more speed to the table, but it’s hard-edged and not as well-equipped. Plus, it sends the wrong message for corporate-ladder types. Audi’s upcoming S3 will offer boosted all-wheel-drive performance at a similar base price, but won’t be anywhere near as well-equipped as the Buick, and offers less space inside. The GS is better than the CLA250 I drove last week in just about every way, though few people will be cross-shopping the two. The Regal is an out-of-the-box thinker’s choice for sure; similar to the way a performance Saab or Volvo might have been a couple of decades ago. And it’s a better car for it. SAMSUNG CSC   [gallery ids="11024,11006,11023,11022,11021,11020,11019,11018,11017,11016,11015,11014,11013,11012,11011,11010,11009,11008,11007,11005"] 2015 Buick Regal GS AWD Base price: $40,585 Price as tested: $43,820 Options on test car:  Adaptive cruise control & automatic collision prevention ($1,195), Forward collision alert, blind zone assist, lane departure warning, memory package and rear cross-traffic alert ($1,040), Power sunroof ($1,000) Powertrain: 2.0-liter turbocharged four cylinder engine, 6-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel-drive – 259 horsepower, 295 lb-ft torque S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 25.4 mpg Buick provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the author (exterior) and manufacturer (interior).

Driven: 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250

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Much has been made of the German Big Three’s move toward the mainstream in terms of price; at no time in history has one of these luxury marques been more attainable by the non-wealthy (in the US at least). But most of the opinions voiced in the press have been somewhat negative, at least from a purist’s perspective. “What’s the point of an aspirational brand if any middle management type can afford one”, they argue. We spent a week with the CLA250 in the hopes we could separate the editorial banter from the car underneath. SAMSUNG CSC Looking around the CLA, it’s not immediately apparent that this is the inexpensive model in Mercedes-Benz’s lineup. It’s got the fastback styling and frameless side windows of the upmarket CLS after which it’s modelled, and although car guys and gals will be quick to point out the nose-biased, front wheel drive proportions, to the person on the street it’ll simply look like a stylish Mercedes product. I think it’s pretty handsome, and found the greenhouse and rear-three-quarter view to be mildly reminiscent of the old “Ponton” W120/121 cars of the 50s and 60s. SAMSUNG CSC Inside, the story is much the same. The design is evocative of something much more expensive, and it holds up well against its near-luxury rivals. There’s a varied mix of surfaces here that seek to emulate the upmarket leathers, woods and brushed metals from its bigger Benz brothers, which forms a nice alternative to the typical monotone black interiors so common at this price point. As such, the CLA’s overall cabin aesthetic easily gets the better of its main rivals, the Audi A3 and BMW 320i (a front-wheel-drive 1 series sedan that lines up directly against the CLA is imminent), though panel fit and finish on the A3 seem a smidge better. SAMSUNG CSC Like its German rivals, feature content is somewhat of a mixed bag; our car had assorted niceties like a panoramic sunroof, standard wheel-mounted paddle shifters (you’ll pay extra for those on the BMW and Audi), a Harman Kardon stereo and heated seats. Conversely, things like a backup camera or navigation with a larger, 7-inch display require a further cash outlay beyond our car’s $36,700 as-tested price. Those two items, along with a few other goodies, come bundled in a $2,370 Multimedia package – though there is an available standalone Becker navigation upgrade for the base 5.8-inch screen, for a more reasonable $800. The CLA really needs that backup camera, though – due to the curvy proportions and smallish greenhouse, rearward visibility can be tricky. Equipped as it was, our car was a bit of an odd duck – you’re far more likely to find CLAs on dealer lots with the optional extras listed above than you would a scantily-clad model like this one. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC The “baby” Benz lives up to its title when it comes to size – its abbreviated length makes it a doddle to park in town, though you pay for that wieldy-ness with limited rear legroom. Granted, this author is taller than most at 6’4”, but I was unable to sit behind myself without splayed legs. If you’re going to be regularly transporting 6-plus footers in the back seat, it’d be worth your while to step up to a C-class. However, it’s unlikely the CLA’s target audience will be using the back seats to transport anything much larger than a French Bulldog. M-B’s adoption of a “coupe” descriptor for the CLA model line further reinforces that point. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC Mercedes’ traditional on-road demeanor has hewed closer to the comfortable, luxurious end of the spectrum (aside from its sportier AMG models, of course) but this CLA was apparently tuned to deliver an overt impression of sportiness. As a result, body motions are tightened down to a minimum, and even hard cornering reveals low levels of body roll. The steering weight is on the heavy side, but it’s geared quick enough to point the nose into corners eagerly. SAMSUNG CSC The price to be paid for athletic responses is usually ride comfort, and on optional 18” wheels and low-profile rubber, our car’s ride was firm to the point of being harsh. Road imperfections rattle the driver’s teeth and the interior panels in equal measure, and large potholes were best avoided. In creating the US-market CLA, Mercedes specified the harder of the two available suspension setups offered in Europe - a move that seems like an odd choice for a vehicle whose mission is not sporting in nature, especially for use in a country with less-than-pristine road surfaces. It’s likely that the 17” wheel and tire package that comes standard on the CLA250 would improve the ride quality, and even though you might sacrifice a bit of style, the 17s would be my personal choice. That, or an imported set of softer Euro-market springs. SAMSUNG CSC The powertrain here is a rapidly becoming the industry de facto – a 2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder hooked to a dual-clutch automatic transmission. In the CLA’s case, that transmission is a seven-speed unit controlled by paddles on the wheel or an electronic column-mounted stalk that can be found elsewhere in the Mercedes lineup. The transmission can be cycled between three modes - Eco, Sport and Manual - and I found Eco to be the most agreeable and transparent in day-to-day driving. The 2-liter four-cylinder churns out 208 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, which is enough to tote around the CLA’s 3,262 pounds with ease. Besides, hardcore speed duties are carried out by the CLA45 AMG and its mega 360-hp four-pot, so the CLA250 can occupy the middle ground. To put it in perspective against its rivals, the 250 feels quicker than a 320i or A3 1.8T, but not quite as quick as the 328i or A3 2.0T Quattro, both of which have higher base prices. SAMSUNG CSC To the average new car shopper, it’s easy to see the appeal of the CLA. What we enthusiasts might view as a bit of a compromise, dynamically, is just as likely to be interpreted as “sporty” by the general market. Its wieldy size and high fuel economy numbers make it a boon for urban commuting. There’s more style on offer, inside and out, than its close competitors, and while another competent sedan from a non-luxury brand like a Mazda 6, Buick Regal or Volkswagen CC might offer more space and content for less money, they certainly don’t offer the luxury dealership experience included as part of the Mercedes brand, or perhaps most importantly, the three-pointed star on the trunk. This, apparently, can make all the difference. SAMSUNG CSC [gallery ids="10978,10979,10980,10981,10982,10983,10984,10985,10986,10987,10988,10989,10990,10991,10992,10993,10994,10995,10996,10997,10998"]   2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 Base price: $30,825 Price as tested: $36,700 Options on test car:  Metallic paint ($720), Burl Walnut wood trim ($325), 18-inch wheels ($500), Blind Spot Assist ($550), Panorama sunroof ($1,480), Premium Package ($2,300) Powertrain: 2.0-liter turbocharged four cylinder engine, 7-speed dual clutch automatic transmission, front-wheel drive – 208 horsepower, 258 lb-ft torque S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 28.6 mpg Mercedes-Benz provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the author.

Driven: 2015 VW Jetta 1.8T SE

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Astute readers may recall that back in August, Volkswagen invited me to fly to Virginia to drive a smattering of their new and refreshed 2015 Jetta, Golf and GTI models. Well, one of those Jettas must have been really enamored with me, because it followed me back to Florida and showed up on my doorstep. Will a week with the Jetta do anything to dull the luster I saw in it over those Virginia hills? Read on to find out. SAMSUNG CSC As I reported a few weeks ago, the Jetta has once more become a pleasurable compact to drive. It carries itself like a larger, more upscale car, damping harsh bumps into distant memories before they ever hit the cabin, muting wind noise, and displaying a general smoothness and slickness that would justify a higher price tag than the Jetta demands. While this 2015 does sport slightly revised fascias front and rear, it doesn’t look noticeably different from the sedan that debuted four years ago. It’s still clean and handsome, though, and has aged remarkably well considering that visually, it still fits in with the rest of VW’s newer lineup. SAMSUNG CSC With nearly all of its former demons exorcised (rear drum brakes swapped for discs, torsion beam rear suspension ditched, thirsty 5-cylinder replaced), the remaining place VW needed to focus its attention was inside. This 2015 brings a soft-touch dash top and various chrome and piano black trim pieces that lift what was once a mostly coal-bin-black affair. SAMSUNG CSC Equipment levels have also been improved, and feature content on our mid-level SE w/ Connectivity tester ($23,145) is generous for this class. Heated leatherette seats, a power sunroof, remote entry with push-button start, a touchscreen stereo with Bluetooth audio streaming, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel are bundled with the turbocharged engine and 6-speed automatic to create a compelling, reasonably-priced package. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC The new 1.8T that Volkswagen started installing in the Jetta last year is a honey of an engine, feeling far more powerful and torquey than its on-paper stats suggest. It’s never wanting for poke, from essentially idle speed on up, and even at the top of the rev range it doesn’t feel out of breath. The fact that it’ll run happily on regular unleaded is an added bonus. SAMSUNG CSC If you didn’t know any better, you’d swear the 6-speed automatic hooked to the 1.8-liter EA888 was a dual-clutch unit – such is the way it’s programmed to shuffle smoothly between gears, though it does have a propensity to find 6th gear and stay there unless you’re hoofing it. The 1.8T has enough torque to cope with low revs in top gear, but if maximum forward thrust is desired, you’re better off leaving the transmission in the “S” setting or taking control manually. SAMSUNG CSC For the rare new car shopper that prefers to row their own gears, VW has added a tempting 1.8T Sport model to the 2015 lineup that includes 17” alloys (up one inch from our tester's), sport suspension, heated sport seats, navigation, fog lights, a black headliner, contrasting stitching on the seats, steering wheel, shifter and handbrake, and a rear spoiler – over and above the equipment already included on the SE w/ Connectivity. All of that comes at a price of $21,715 for a 5-speed manual or $22,815 for a 6-speed automatic – making the Sport the apparent bargain of the Jetta lineup for those willing to scour the option sheet for its existence. SAMSUNG CSC While the 1.8T Sport would be the trim level most likely to capture my dollars, it’s difficult to argue against our SE tester or indeed any of the 2015 1.8T and 2.0 TDI Jetta models. By offering more driving verve – and greater equipment levels – than the rest of the compact field, VW has righted its initial misstep and finally made the Mk6 the car it always deserved to be – a Jetta. SAMSUNG CSC [gallery ids="10943,10942,10940,10939,10938,10937,10936,10941,10944,10935,10934,10932,10931,10933,10929,10930,10927"]  2015 VW Jetta 1.8T SE w/ Connectivity Base price: $23,145 Price as tested: $23,145 Options on test car:  None Powertrain: 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, 6-speed automatic transmission, front wheel drive – 170 horsepower, 184 lb-ft torque EPA-estimated fuel economy: 25 mpg city/ 37 mpg highway Volkswagen provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the author.

Driven: 2014 Nissan 370Z NISMO

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

Driven: 2015 Cadillac Escalade ESV

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

Driven: 2015 Hyundai Sonata Limited

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