Category - Reviews and Road Tests

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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.

Driven: 2015 Corvette Stingray

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It’s hard to have a bad time when you’re staring down eight days with a brand new Corvette. SAMSUNG CSC It’s Tuesday, the start of a beautiful fall week in Florida, prime weather to remove the targa top and stow it behind the seats, but I’m too eager to hit the road to spare even the 20 seconds that maneuver takes. The traffic on the way home is “slow and go”, as the local newscasters have taken to calling it, but I can still scarcely contain the excitement the Corvette in Sport mode provokes - even at a brisk walking pace. At idle, the C7’s entire structure shivers with what feel like the reverberations of a lumpy aftermarket cam – but make no mistake, it’s been left there intentionally. GM’s engineers know what separates the unique Corvette experience from other sports cars – the interior’s hand-laid fiberglass “yacht” smell that greets you on warm days is another throwback. In every other way, the Corvette is thoroughly modern. SAMSUNG CSC After arriving home, my fiancé bursts through the door minutes later; “oh my god, is THAT the car!?” she asks, motioning outside to the Vette. She’s never this excited for my press cars. Especially American press cars, despite my efforts to convert her. But the sight of a Victory Yellow C7 provokes a biological response. It’s one that will be repeated throughout the week. The Stingray looks exotic. Though I feel some of the comparisons of its shape to Ferrari’s front-engined offerings might be stretching the case just a bit, it is nonetheless a form that would look at home draped atop much more expensive machinery. It certainly looks fetching in brash, bright colors like our tester – all the better to accentuate the black aero bits and daring lines. The site of this car in my parking spot each day never fails to elicit a smile. SAMSUNG CSC It’s tough to keep a low profile in the Stingray. Every young gun wants to race for forum bragging rights, speed up for a better look, or just ask you about the car and which option boxes were ticked. “Is that the new Z06?” The yellow and black color combination of that new model in press photos is probably prompting the comparison. “That thing got the Z51 package?” Actually, no – it’s just the ZF1 appearance package, which has the Z51’s wheels, sticky tires and rear wing. “Can you take my picture with it?” Of course, miss. Bystanders must fail to appreciate the semi-attainable nature of the Stingray. It rings in at twice the price of the average new car, but the attention it garners suggests the factor is closer to ten times the price. SAMSUNG CSC The weekend’s almost here. It’s been a long week made longer by the restraint I’ve been forced to show while commuting in the Corvette. Actually, that’s not fair. The thing is brilliant to commute in. On the standard suspension, bumps are smothered out and road noise is mostly mute aside from a bit of tire roar from the big Pilot Super Sports. It’s a comfortable thing, too, and surprisingly easy to see out of, considering the daring proportions and bodywork. The standard-issue seats are finally a non-issue, being both comfortable over long durations and bolstered enough to keep you in place in corners. More sculpted competition pieces are optional. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC The new eight-speed automatic and five driving modes make the Corvette a true dual character car. Being a traditional torque converter unit, in “drive” the gearbox just goes about its business. You wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between this and a V6 Impala in character - if you never dipped your toe into the throttle, that is. Stick it in “Track” driving mode and full manual shift mode, and it’ll burst through gearshifts quicker than Porsche’s sublime PDK units, without any of the low-speed stumbling some dual clutch units can exhibit. All while emitting a delicious “braappp!” on full-throttle upshifts. SAMSUNG CSC It’s Saturday and sunny, so Track/Manual mode it is. We head, if not for the hills, then at least for the most sparsely populated area of sprawl available within central Florida’s confines. The Corvette makes you feel like a superstar on slithering, open back roads – it flatters the talented as well as the amateur willing to work a bit but it certainly won't suffer fools. This is still a car light enough and endowed with enough power and torque to neutralize anyone who doesn’t respect it in short order. But it’s not scary – the limits are approachable, crossable. It’s eerily and shockingly fast – how can a car go this fiercely, stop so predictably and corner so adeptly, while also looking and sounding this fantastic at a price starting in the  mid-$50s? It’s sometimes hard to wrap your head around the bargain this car represents, and despite growing weary of articles and reviews espousing the C7’s virtues over and over again, when you spend time with one it’s easy to see that every ounce of praise is justified. SAMSUNG CSC It’s now Tuesday, my last free night with the car. We’ve just come from seeing Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in Nightcrawler play second star to the bright red Challenger SRT being flung all over the screen for much of the film. As we pull out of the garage, I can’t help but think the lithe, yellow Corvette would have been a better vehicle choice for the main character to drive than the pounding, somewhat ponderous Dodge muscle car. It’s unseasonably chilly out tonight, close to freezing; a gentle prod of the throttle catches the rear summer tires slightly off guard and coaxes the Corvette’s tail into a small slip angle while the front end remains pinned straight ahead. I smile – this car would have been much better in the starring role. SAMSUNG CSC As I write this on Wednesday, I've reached the realization that GM is going to want their car back soon. I would be perfectly willing to give it a good home, but alas, it’s not mine to keep. “Car’s going back tomorrow,” I text the better half, “it was fun while it lasted.” “Yeah, I’m gonna miss her” comes the reply. She’s not usually one to anthropomorphize my loaner cars. In this case, it’s completely justified. SAMSUNG CSC [gallery ids="11184,11185,11186,11187,11188,11189,11190,11191,11192,11193,11194,11201,11202,11203,11195,11196,11197,11204,11200,11199,11198"]   2015 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray Coupe Base price: $53,995 Price as tested: $67,445 Options on test car:  2LT Package ($4,160), ZF1 Appearance Package ($1,995), Performance Data and Video Recorder, incl. Navigation ($1,795), 8-speed paddle-shift auto transmission ($1,725), Multi-mode Performance Exhaust ($1,195), Velocity Yellow paint ($995), Yellow brake calipers ($595), Black painted alloy wheels ($495), Sueded Microfiber seat inserts ($395), Carbon flash painted spoiler and mirrors ($100) Powertrain: 6.2-liter V8 engine, eight-speed automatic transmission, rear-wheel-drive – 460 horsepower, 465 lb-ft torque S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 20.6 mpg Chevy provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the author.

Driven: 2015 Chrysler 200C

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Pity the designer or engineer that has to come up with a midsize sedan that isn’t an Accord or Camry. It’s gotta be tough work. Not only do you have to create a car that does it all for the American driver – aces safety tests, fits five people and their stuff in maximum comfort, sips fuel, is reasonably priced and holds its value, has a solid warranty, and oh yeah – stops, goes, handles, feels and looks great – but you have to do it year after year without faltering. SAMSUNG CSC It certainly isn’t easy work. But the payoff is huge – hence the reason there are no fewer than 11 new models from as many distinct manufacturers competing for shopper dollars. And it’s probably also the reason Fiat-Chrysler decided to consolidate their efforts by eliminating the Dodge brand’s midsize contender – the Avenger – in order to move full steam ahead with the redesign of the new 200. SAMSUNG CSC And new it is. New styling, a new interior, a new four-cylinder/automatic transmission powertrain (by far the most popular configuration in this class) and a newly available all-wheel drive option conspire to kick the previous Sebring-rehash 200 fully out the door. This 200’s updated silhouette is modern but not completely revolutionary – the racy coupe-like roofline echoes the VW CC a bit in form. It’s a pleasant shape, and if the view from behind is a bit plain, then at least the front end’s a bit more boldly sculpted. Available 19” wheels on high-end models do the sedan’s new shape particular justice, but even on our 200C tester’s standard 17” alloys, it’s a handsome sedan. SAMSUNG CSC Similar things can be said about the interior – it looks fresh, drastically improved compared to the previous 200, but it will still be familiar enough to anyone who’s spent time in a current 300 or Dart. Materials are par for the course but nothing more. The user-friendly 8.4-inch Uconnect touchscreen system is back in action here, optionally, and a 5.0-inch touchscreen comes standard on all but the base LX trim level. The 8.4-inch remains intuitive and visually pleasant, so consider it worth the $1,395 cost of entry, which also gets you navigation, a better sound system and the like. Adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring, lane departure and forward collision warnings are newly available features that come bundled in a $1,295 safety package, also probably worth the relatively modest outlay. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC There are thoughtful touches scattered throughout the 200's interior that make it clear Chrysler sweat over the small stuff on this car. The sloped center stack allows your hand to fall readily to commonly used controls. I loved this setup the first time I tried it on the current Lexus IS, which sports a similar layout, and it’s no less useful here. There’s a deep storage well hidden underneath a sliding cup holder tray in the center console, perfect for hiding the valuables you probably shouldn’t be keeping in your car anyway. The bin also has a cable pass-through that allows charging access to yet another storage space located below the dash. The heated seats and steering wheel are Detroit industrial-strength, and proved far too effective even on Florida’s “chilliest” fall days. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC The 2.4-liter SOHC Tigershark four-cylinder is a thoroughly revamped version of last year’s venerable World Engine four-banger, which benefits from a MultiAir II variable valve timing- and lift-equipped cylinder head, bringing horsepower up from 173 to 184, and torque from 166 lb-ft to 173. This is mated to the nine-speed ZF automatic transmission that first saw action in the Jeep Cherokee. The optional Pentastar V6 is available to those in need of a bit more grunt, and brings 295 horsepower (highest in the midsize class) and 262 lb-ft to the table, mated again to the nine-speed auto. All-wheel drive is available, but only with the V6. 2015 Chrysler 200 2.4-liter MultiAir2 Tigershark I-4 engine Our car was what you’d consider the ‘popular’ model – a well-equipped 200C with front-wheel drive and a four-cylinder rather than the V6. This is the version that sells in spades to fleets and retail customers alike. How does it drive? Pretty well, actually. The nine-speed auto seems to have benefitted from the software updates that were implemented on the Cherokee - shift action has been noticeably smoothed and gear changes feel more decisive. It also finds its way into ninth gear more often, something I didn’t witness during my time with the Cherokee. The four-cylinder isn’t overtly powerful, but it’s probably the more prudent choice and returned a respectable 26.5 miles per gallon during a week of mixed conditions driving. SAMSUNG CSC Handling and ride characteristics on our 200C land at the softer, comfort-based end of the spectrum – a firmer, more dynamic setup exists in the 200S. Road noise is hushed and impacts are well-damped. It’s an able highway cruiser, this 200, especially once the nine-speed finds top gear and loafs along at low revs, achieving mid-30s fuel economy numbers in the process. Your passengers won't find much to complain about on long road trips, either. Front and rear cabin space is stretch-out comfy, and trunk space is solid. About the only sticking point comes from that sloping rear roofline, which clips rear headroom for taller passengers on ingress and egress. Aside from that minor gripe, the 200 hauls four adults (five in a pinch) in as much comfort as anything else in the class. SAMSUNG CSC Put all of that together, and where do we land? Somewhere in the middle of the road, actually. The 200 is a standout is no single subjective category but doesn't fall down in any of them, either. Our 200C wasn't particularly sporty, but that's not to say the V6 200S doesn't fit that role. The 200C's focus is clearly comfort and content, areas it was measurably stronger in than many competitors, and for many folks, the fact that it's not an Accord or Camry will be enough reason to wander down to the showroom to take a look. Many others will be drawn in by the looks, which are quite successful in person. Honestly though, the 200C is now a good enough car to stand up to scrutiny on its own, and certainly worth a test drive if you're shopping in its class. It should be more than capable of taking a formidable slice of the midsize sedan sales pie. [gallery ids="11156,11157,11167,11166,11165,11164,11163,11162,11161,11159,11155,11154,11160,11158,11169"] 2015 Chrysler 200C Base price: $26,990 Price as tested: $31,470 Options on test car:  Safety Package 28N ($1,295), Premium Group ($995), Navigation and Sound Group ($1,395), Premium Lighting Group ($795) Powertrain: 2.4-liter four cylinder engine, nine-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel-drive – 184 horsepower, 173 lb-ft torque S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 26.5 mpg Chrysler provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the author.

Driven: 2015 Dodge Charger SRT 392 & Hellcat

2015 Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat
Though my ownership punch card skews heavily in favor of the import, I’m a documented fan of the American car as a species. I owned and loved a 5-liter 2011 Mustang GT. I find the current Corvette to be an absolutely fantastic specimen (though the Camaro leaves me a little cold). And though it’s been only a short while, I can consider myself an honest Mopar fan thanks to the Hellcat – specifically, the Challenger Hellcat I spent some time with over the summer. And now the newest variant to receive the monster 6.2-liter supercharged Hellcat powertrain – the 2015 Charger - looks set to bring my budding domestic love affair to a full boil. 2015 Dodge Charger SRT HellcatIf there’s one thing this car proves, perhaps in defiance of our hipster culture that suggests otherwise, it’s that it is actually possible for something to be both genuine and ironic. Witness the way the supercharged monster under the Charger Hellcat’s hood seems to flout convention – 707 horsepower? Why even attempt such a thing in a post-CAFE world? Dodge’s answer appears to be twofold: “because we could, and because we could do it well”. They’ve created a motor that can bully around an otherwise comfortable and composed 4,575-pound sedan in serious fashion, and then be dialed back down, dropped into 8th gear and left to plod home on the highway achieving mid-20 MPGs. I’m not sure there’s ever been a sedan so dichotomous of character – let alone at this price point, or by an American brand. 2015 Dodge Charger SRT HellcatWhat it adds up to is a pure riot for the driver – especially when the Charger is being flogged around a racetrack, which is precisely what I did during my time with the car. Summit Point Raceway in West Virginia was the venue, a small course with a long straightaway perfect for exploiting the Hellcat’s prodigious power, punctuated by rolling hills and switchbacks. As demonstrated during the Challenger drive event at Portland International Raceway, a closed course is the best, nay, the only place to truly exploit Hellcat’s capabilities. And just like its two door brother, the Charger doesn’t disappoint. The power is mind-bending; it’s hard to imagine ever becoming jaded about its potency. There’s been much said about the competence of the new breed of traditional torque-converter automatics, especially the 8-speeds associated with ZF. I won’t belabor the point, but suffice it to say, the Charger’s sole transmission (aforementioned 8-speed) is equally happy loafing around in Drive or performing full-throttle upshifts firm enough to jostle hairdos. [caption id="attachment_11125" align="aligncenter" width="600"]SAMSUNG CSC SRT 392[/caption] Thing is, the car that stole my heart wasn’t the Hellcat. It was the “tamer” of the two SRT Charger offerings, the 392. That car, with its 485-horsepower naturally-aspirated 6.4-liter HEMI, is certainly no slouch. But its acceleration doesn’t elicit fear in the hearts of men the way the Hellcat’s does…merely those of young children and the elderly. It’s simply “fast” whereas the Charger Hellcat is “stupid fast”. That much is noticeable on the track. But on the street, where we mere mortals play most of the time, the difference is academic – either is capable of adding points to your license in short order. And most of the SRT 392’s low-speed acceleration doesn’t dissipate so quickly into tire dust the way the Hellcat’s does. As a result, it feels nearly as fast – because it’s more usable, more of the time. [caption id="attachment_11128" align="aligncenter" width="600"]SAMSUNG CSC SRT 392[/caption] The rest of the SRT 392 package is just as impressive as the Hellcat. It’s got the same massive 15.4” front and 13.8” rear Brembo brakes capable of detaching retinas at full deceleration. Its sole transmission is still a capable, paddle-shifter-equipped 8-speed automatic. It even looks the same as the Hellcat, save for a couple of missing heat extractor vents in the hood and a couple of kitty badges on the fenders. Of course, you don’t have the pleasure of telling people you drive a Hellcat, but I have a feeling that disappointment would fade over time. 2015 Dodge Charger SRT HellcatAside from the addition of the Hellcat and enhanced powertrains across the rest of the range, the 2015 Charger has benefitted from an obvious facelift. That facelift is more than “face”-deep, however; the fascia’s been heavily revised and is more modern than the 2014’s throwback front end. Dodge is quick to point out that every body panel save the windows and roof has been re-sculpted, though the difference is tough to notice. What you might notice are the revised LED headlights and taillights. Minor interior touch-ups lift what was already a rationally laid-out, comfortable, and roomy place to spend time. 2015 Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat (shown in Ruby Red Alcantara sued 2015 Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat (shown in Ruby Red Alcantara suedThe 2014 Charger didn’t need much in the way of changes. And the 2015 remains essentially what that car was: a modern interpretation of a classic American big-engined sedan. The new revisions bring it in line with what little direct competition the SRT Charger has – namely the Chevy SS – in terms of refinement and available equipment levels. But the SRT 392 and Hellcat models, frankly, bring the Charger into a different league - a pure arms race where bragging rights are measured against the likes of Ferrari and Lamborghini. 2015 Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat   [gallery ids="11108,11114,11115,11116,11117,11118,11119,11120,11121,11128,11127,11126,11125,11124,11122,11113,11111,11110,11109,11112"] 2015 Dodge Charger SRT 392/Hellcat Base price – SRT 392: $47,385 Base price – SRT Hellcat: $63,995 Powertrain – SRT 392: 6.4-liter HEMI V8, 485 horsepower, 475 lb-ft torque, 8-speed automatic transmission Powertrain – SRT Hellcat: 6.2-liter supercharged HEMI V8, 707 horsepower, 650 lb-ft torque, 8-speed automatic transmission Dodge provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the manufacturer and author.

Driven: 2015 Toyota 4Runner Trail

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Perhaps unfathomable when the 4Runner first debuted on our shores was the idea that thirty years later, the same rough and tumble body-on-frame SUV could still exist in very similar fashion, even after all the competition had eventually morphed into soft-roading, sedan-based shadows of their former selves. We’re happy that the 4Runner still exists, and even if you’re not in the market for one, you should too. Read on to find out why.

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The 4Runner has been enjoying fantastic sales numbers so far in 2014, even at a time when the preponderance of car-based crossovers is at an all-time high. While it’s easy to speculate as to the cause, certainly some of it must be down to the fact that the 4Runner remains a good value proposition, especially when you factor running costs, reliability and resale value into the mix. But I doubt that’s all of it. There are probably buyers who would be better served by a more plebian car-based offering, even one within Toyota’s own portfolio, but are instead drawn to the 4Runner for its macho, go-anywhere cred. And who can blame them? It’s one of the few SUVs out there right now that can actually back up its looks with genuine off-road prowess.

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Witness our Trail model’s two-speed 4WD transfer case, featuring an honest-to-god low range. Coupled with standard CRAWL control (meaning hill speed control that can be used both up AND down hills), a locking rear differential and a Multi-Terrain Select system that electronically optimizes traction in various conditions, like Sand/Mud, Rocks, and Moguls – my personal favorite. The term “mogul” on the 4Runner’s headliner-mounted control panel apparently refers to wandering, uneven terrain like washed-out ditches and ruts, rather than successful film or recording execs – good to know. A unique, cut-away front fascia on the Trail allows for a greater approach angle than standard 4Runners (33 degrees compared to 30) and ground clearance is a brawny 9.6 inches.

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All of this kit, combined with our tester’s optional KDSS suspension (which allows for greater suspension articulation at rock-crawling speeds) makes the Trail a formidable force off-road. While it lacks the TRD Pro model’s (more on that later) knobby off-road tires, we’re guessing it’d take some pretty serious mud to sideline the Trail. An impromptu visit to a local vehicle-friendly beach allowed me to just barely scratch the surface of the Trail’s capabilities, thanks to some deep, washed-out ruts created by a heavy rain. They presented no challenge whatsoever, and while it would be nice to experience the Trail on some land that really allows its systems to be fully exploited, even our brief taste was enough to place us firmly in the believer camp.

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Still, we’d be remiss not to mention the 4Runner’s on-road demeanor, since that’s where about 99% (or 100% in many cases) of these trucks’ miles will be accumulated. The ride is soft and some body lean is noticeable in corners, though you’d expect that in a vehicle set up to do what the Trail can off-road. The KDSS suspension system actually allows for much thicker sway bars front and rear, which are decoupled off-road but keep body roll from being prohibitive on the street. It’s a trick system, and well worth the extra $1,750 for those planning to four-wheel their 4Runners. The only handling gripe came in the form of a grabby brake pedal that proved tough to modulate.

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This is a body-on-frame SUV, remember, so the durability of that setup also tends to impact the weight at the scales. As such, the 4.0-liter V6 and 5-speed automatic transmission have their work cut out for them to move the 4Runner around with gusto, but honestly, acceleration is good enough and in keeping with the truck’s mission. There’s plenty of torque on offer – enough to tow 4,700 pounds through the standard receiver hitch.

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The interior hews closely to the rugged off-roader image struck by the body; all mod cons are present and accounted for, but the layout is more like an FJ Cruiser’s than a Highlander’s. That’s a purposeful reminder made by Toyota to ensure buyers know what they’re getting into – this isn’t meant to be a “mall-rated” crossover. After all, you’d be hard pressed to find a version of the Highlander like the even harder-core 4Runner TRD Pro model. Starting with the Trail, the TRD Pro adds special TRD front springs and Bilstein shocks (the rears have remote reservoirs), knobbier Nitto off-road tires wrapped around unique black TRD 17” alloys, a front skid plate, a unique front grille and bumper accents, and an exclusive available paint option in the form of an orangey Inferno hue. Starting at $41,995, the TRD Pro is $2,490 dearer than an optionless Trail Premium model, but if the goal was to take my 4Runner ‘wheeling now and then (and if you’re considering a 4Runner, you’d be a fool not to), it’d be easy to spring for the stouter TRD Pro Series hardware and take the badder-ass looks as a free side benefit. I mean, just look at the thing. Marty McFly would certainly approve, especially in black.

[caption id="attachment_11084" align="aligncenter" width="700"]4Runner TRD Pro 4Runner TRD Pro[/caption]

Besides the Wrangler and the now-defunct FJ Cruiser, the 4Runner represents a shrinking island in a sea of car-based SUVs - that of an attainable off-roader that will also comfortably seat four to five people and all of their gear. The 4Runner’s popularity as a result of this limited market is no surprise, but a warning to those whose itch this truck might scratch – act now, because SUVs of this ilk may not be around forever.

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2015 Toyota 4Runner Trail Premium 4x4

Base price: $39,505

Price as tested: $40,855

Options on test car:  Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System ($1,750), Sliding rear cargo floor ($350), 30th Anniversary discount (-$750)

Powertrain: 4.0-liter V6 engine, 5-speed automatic transmission, part time four-wheel-drive – 270 horsepower, 278 lb-ft torque

S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 18.2 mpg

Toyota provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the author.