Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Chevrolet Corvette Coupe and Convertible


Chevy’s mad scientists have been hard at work tweaking the C6 Corvette for its fourth model year, and the results are finally in. The most important figures: 6.2 liters of displacement, 430 hp, and 424 lb-ft of torque from its V-8 engine, which now carries the LS3 moniker. (For those without Corvette statistics tattooed to their brains, the C6’s previous LS2 V-8 displaced 6.0 liters and pumped out 400 ponies and 400 lb-ft of twist.)

Besides the bump in displacement—achieved through increasing the bore from 101.62mm to 103.25mm—the aluminum-block LS3 gets better-flowing, LS7-style heads; new cam and camshaft timing; and an easier-breathing intake. Updates to the valvetrain (bigger cylinders mean bigger valves), fuel injectors swiped directly from the 505-hp LS7 V-8, and revisions to the block for more strength round out the changes between the Vette’s shapely front fenders.

The LS3’s power and torque curves faithfully mirror those of the LS2, so power delivery is not much different, just more urgent. This is an engine that feels every bit like it has more torque at idle than many motors manage at their peaks. Chevy is predicting a drop from 12.6 seconds in the quarter-mile to 12.4, and we see no reason to disagree. 0-60 times should likewise drop from the LS2’s, but only a tenth or so. The best we’ve managed in a base C6 was 4.1 seconds. Could the LS3 propel the Vette into the threes? You’re dog gone right it’s a beautiful day, Bono.

Like before, you’ll get the same power figures from both coupe and convertible, but an extra 6 hp and 4 lb-ft can now be ordered up right from the factory in the form of the new, optional dual-mode exhaust. It’s a smaller-diameter version of the system bolted to the beastly Z06; where the hair-on-your-chest Vette is endowed with three-inch pipes, the “regular” models will make do with 2.5-inch-wide openings.


It works like this: Vacuum-controlled valves in the mufflers stay shut at lower rpm, limiting noise. Drop the hammer and they flip open, the resulting sonic mayhem scaring the crap out of small children—kids are sissies, after all—knocking birds from trees, and cracking the earth’s crust. (In what is undoubtedly one of mankind’s greatest achievements—ever—some owners have jerry-rigged switches to their Z06 to leave the valves open all the time.)

We’ve always liked the smooth, tympanic sound of the C6, so we were surprised when Chevrolet told us the exhaust tweaks were in direct response to customer requests. Of course, if you can pair a subdued cruising murmur with a trumpeting wide-open throttle roar, you might as well. And roar she does, a harsh, animal yowl at full throttle very different than the guttural hum of the 2007. Chalk us up as converts.

The rest of the ’08 mechanical updates are intended to make the Corvette better to drive. The standard six-speed manual has been fiddled with to deliver “more positive and direct feel,” according to Chevy. On our short drive, we only drove the six-speed automatic, which speeds up gear swaps through a host of software and hardware improvements. Even so, the Corvette’s tranny still lags behind the top sporting automatics out there.

Tolerances in the steering linkage have been tightened up to provide better feel, too. The new car is slightly more direct, but the improvement is very subtle, and really only noticeable in back-to-back driving with an ’07 car.

There are also some interior trim changes, and—aw, screw it. Who are we kidding? Forget some namby-pamby “Linen”-colored leather and frou-frou jetstream blue paint; the power’s where it’s at, baby, and the 2008 Vette’s got plenty. Who’s up for a burnout? (And maybe scaring the bejeezus out of a neighborhood kid or two?)

VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 2-passenger, 2-door coupe or roadster
ESTIMATED BASE PRICE: $44,500-$52,840
ENGINE TYPE: pushrod 16-valve V-8, aluminum block and heads, port fuel injection
Displacement: 376 cu in, 6162 cc
Power (SAE net): 430 bhp @ 5900 rpm
Torque (SAE net): 424 lb-ft @ 4600 rpm

TRANSMISSIONS: 6-speed manual, 6-speed automatic with manumatic shifting

DIMENSIONS:
Wheelbase: 105.7 in
Length: 174.6 in
Width: 72.6 in
Height: 49.0 in
Curb weight: 3250–3300 lb

Chevrolet Aveo

Small cars have been with us for five decades. But sooner or later - more likely sooner, if California and the greens have their way - we'll all be driving smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, whether we like them or not.

Fortunately, we're more enthusiastic about small cars at TheCarConnection.com than we have been in a long time, and that's thanks to a host of new vehicles in the class - vehicles from the MINI Cooper to the Chevrolet Aveo.

After a week of trying out a stick-shift Aveo four-door sedan for some 400 miles over every kind of driving Southern California offers, I came to a few conclusions - mostly Aveo-centered, since the MINI has a cultish following and the Aveo is arrowed right at the mainstream, nearly all cuteness excised.

My conclusions? Ford, which has announced it will offer a B-car in the U.S. within the next year, will have to hustle to come up with a car as good as the Aveo. If Chrysler expects to have a credible B-car entry here, it better work fast - and well.

That's because though not flawless, Chevrolet's Aveo is well-appointed, quiet, smooth riding, handles nimbly and most of all is fun to drive. Heck, its trunk can even swallow two and possibly four golf bags without indigestion. The Aveo is an incredible improvement over the three-cylinder Suzuki-supplied Chevy Metro of a few years ago, before GM took over the South Korean automaker Daewoo.


What's a B?

First, a little primer if you're still unsure as to what a B-car is. In the segment so far this year, Aveo sales of 19,944 are an uncontested second only to 26,418 for the Toyota Yaris. But you could argue that the Yaris is really is a "C-car" entry with its wheelbase slightly over 100 inches, and thusly that the Aveo is really the segment sales champ. That would make the second and third best sellers the Honda Fit at 12,795, and the Hyundai Accent at 11,190.

The top three sellers in the compact "C" segment are the Toyota Corolla (120,484), the Honda Civic (99,295), and the Ford Focus (56,463) with the Chevrolet Cobalt a hair behind in fourth place at 56,448. In any event, you can see that B-cars are puny sellers in the U.S. , in a total market of 5.2 million light vehicles for the first four months of 2007.

Regardless of the numbers, Americans have nothing to fear in "moving down" to a B-car except the sneers of their neighbors. Most of the rest of the world drive primarily B-cars and thrive on them. Yes, you could argue the laws of physics dictate that a 2500-pound car is less safe in a population of 3500-pound or more vehicles, but today's American-market Bs like the Aveo also are loaded with such amenities as front and side airbags, anti-lock brakes, and good crash-test "star" ratings from the NHTSA.

A far cry from the Beetles

B-car sedans carry base price stickers generally ranging from $11,000 to $13,000, while Cs typically run from $13,000 to $15,000. The Aveo is well-positioned at $11,950. Our test vehicle was stickered at $14,775 with options and delivery.

Unlike stripped entry-level cars of the past, you can get a lot for your money now - the Aveo has standard air conditioning, power steering, intermittent wipers, reclining seats, tilt column, and a remote trunk release. Optional on our test car were anti-lock brakes, cruise control, AM/FM/CD, remote-entry power locks, and aluminum wheels.

The Aveo trim level was noticeably high. Seats are upholstered in a hard-surface fabric that you can slide across as easily as over leather. Front seats sit high for excellent vision and caused not a crick on our road trip described below.

This is a far cry from the barren Beetles, Pintos, and Vegas that really got the subcompact market in the U.S. going some 37 years ago.
No complaints



Aside from buzzing happily around San Diego , a typical daily driving routine at which the canary yellow (labeled "summer yellow") Aveo excelled, a 250-mile mountain-and-desert road trip in this little car was noteworthy.



For my birthday, son Matt (a Navy doc recently returned from deployment with the Marines in Iraq ) presented me with a training lesson in a glider. The glider port is located at Warner Springs , some 60 miles northeast of San Diego over largely two-lane roads gradually climbing from sea level to 3000 feet. The Aveo's 1.6-liter 103-hp four-banger gobbled up this route with minimum downshifting.



I had an exhilarating glider ride on thermals up another 3000 feet to just below the cumulus puffs - you could almost reach out and touch them - and the first stick-and-rudder time I'd experienced in many years. Then we hit the road again, over the high desert east into the mountains and wound steeply down to the desert floor at Borego Springs, west of the below-sea-level Salton Sea . Needless to say, this was a great workout for the Aveo's civilized handling, but nothing to compare with the way back up the mountains on the return half of our loop. We ate up the 1750-ft Yaqui Pass , twisted through the Cuyumaca Rancho Park area ravaged by forest fires a few years ago, and ended our journey with a 40-mile stretch of Interstate 8.



This leg made me wish for a few more squirrels, or at least more energetic critters, to supplement the drop-downs from 5th to 4th to 3rd and even 2nd in order to maintain speed on the essing back-and-forth climb. In dashing commuter traffic, the 1.6-liter is fine, but it won't shine in drag racing or minimal-shift mountain climbs. But that's part of its fun. In an automatic or CVT, all this shifting would have been unnecessary - and the driving more boring.



Still, the Aveo handles in an entertaining way. Its shift lever is nicely positioned so that gears can be changed with a flick of the wrist while the driver's forearm rests on his right-side armrest. However, I confess to having some problems finding 3rd on downshifting, forcing a 4-2 shift two or three times in the mountains to avoid losing momentum.



My only other complaint about the Aveo is, for gosh sakes (as Rummy would say), the paucity and inadequacy of the cupholders. In the front compartment, there are only two flimsy holders which aren't deep enough to clutch a medium-sized water bottle safely, and too close to the instrument panel to hold a fat cup. And there are no bottle-slots in the front side-door map pockets, fairly common in American cars these days. Given the remake of the Aveo for '07, I was surprised at this apparent oversight.



This is perhaps a trivial gripe, but it's the "tremendous trifles" which can kill a sale and Americans are finicky about such things. Luckily, we can't find many of those in the well-executed Aveo, which goes to show you that Americans aren't by nature averse to a competent B-car. We just haven't had many to consider - or many reasons to consider them again - until now.




2007 Chevrolet Aveo

Base price: $11,950; as tested, $14,775
Engine: 1.6-liter four-cylinder, 103 hp/107 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 169.7 x 67.3 x 59.2 in
Wheelbase: 97.6 in
Curb weight: 2531 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 27/35 mpg
Major standard features: Air conditioning; AM/FM stereo with auxiliary jack; tilt steering; 60/40 split rear seat
Safety features: Six airbags
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

Ford Shelby GT500KR


If the regular 500-hp Ford Mustang GT 500 isn’t enticing enough for you, then maybe this very limited edition KR model will. The KR, you might remember, was the top-dog 1968 Mustang and a car that commands nearly $200,000 in pristine condition today.

Launching next spring, just 1000 units of the 2008 KR will be available. Its supercharged, 5.4-liter V8 gets a “Ford Racing Power Upgrade Pack,” which boosts horsepower to 540 for the KR. Whew! Sounds like good stuff to us.

The GT 500KR comes with a unique carbon composite hood with scoops and stainless steel hood pins. A lower front air dam with brake ducting helps cool 14-in. Brembo front brakes. Ford says the suspension has been modified as well to provide “race inspired handling.”

The new KR may well be the highest horsepower production Mustang of all time, and we can’t wait to slide behind the wheel.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Jeep Patriot



One year ago exactly, Chrysler introduced us to the first of three all-new compact crossovers intended to help DCX get back into the compact-car game. First was Dodge’s chunky Caliber, mildly impressing us with its unique styling and clever interior packaging, but losing us completely with its ho-hum road manners and stunningly awful interior materials. Next came the miserable Jeep Compass, which took the worst of the Caliber’s traits and wrapped them in styling to match. Now we have the Jeep Patriot, which, at a base price of just $14,985, will be even cheaper than the Compass by $1000. Needless to say, our expectations were low.

Fortunately, the Patriot’s not that bad; its inoffensive styling, real utility, and cheap price easily making it rise above the Caliber and Compass.
The Best of the Three

Now, saying that the Patriot is better than Caliber and Compass certainly isn’t saying much. But honestly, there’s plenty to praise about the newest and cheapest of Jeeps, and thus we think there’s reason to give it a chance. For starters, the Patriot has brand-correct styling; both the Caliber and Compass seem to have missed the memos regarding their respective school uniforms.

Click Here!

Furthermore, the Patriot backs up its trail-rated looks with at least some measure of trail-ratability in the form of an optional all-wheel drive/CVT combo that bestows more off-road capability than can be mustered by any Caliber or Compass. More on that later.

But alas, in spite of its clever features, the Patriot does share every bit of the interior shoddiness of the Compass and Caliber. Also like the others, it’s still more car than truck, which purists (and Jeep has nothing if not a purist following) correctly see as a dilution of the brand. But at least it looks like a Jeep.
Not Ugly

In contrast to the Compass, the Patriot isn’t ugly. Its T-square styling effectively recalls the old XJ Cherokee that Jeep sold for 18 of its 66 years in business. Its round lights, seven-slot grille, upright-ish windshield, and vertical windows are longstanding Jeep-isms, the latter two features also contributing to favorable outward vision and interior space.

The Patriot will be offered in two models. The Patriot Sport wears 16-inch wheels, body-color bumpers, black mirrors and door handles, and clear rear glass. Patriot Limited rides on 17-inch wheels and has body color accents while adding fog lamps and silver bumper appliqu├ęs.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

HYUNDAI ACCENT 4-DOOR


HIGHS
Quiet running with a cushy ride and plenty of attractive safety features.

LOWS
Rubber-band shifter, undisciplined shocks and struts make for a loose ride.


WHAT'S NEW
Sedan is mostly carry-over from ’06, but a three-door model joins the lineup.

BEHIND THE WHEEL
The Accent rides well, but without sporty intent. Fun is not the object here, and for a small package, there’s lots of refinement.


CAPSULE REVIEW
The third-generation Accent is roomier than the car it replaces and comes in GLS trim only. It has dual front airbags, seat-mounted side airbags, and side-curtain airbags, standard safety features that are usually unheard of in an economy car. And it has a great warranty.

HYUNDAI SANTA FE


The Santa Fe, which was introduced as a 2001 model, has been steadily updated over the years in both small ways—relocating the clock from an overhead position to the dashboard—and large ways such as fitting standard side-impact airbags.

This year, the Santa Fe adds a new Limited trim level, which includes leather upholstery, heated front seats, a power driver’s seat, automatic temperature control, an in-dash six-CD changer, automatic light control, and a trip computer. A new standard feature on the GLS 3.5 is an electrochromic auto-dimming rearview mirror with a HomeLink universal transceiver. Exterior design changes for the 2006 model year include a new all-black monochromatic color scheme available on the Limited.

The Santa Fe—which comes in GLS and Limited trim levels—can be equipped with a 170-hp, 2.7-liter V-6 or a 200-hp (219 lb-ft of torque), 3.5-liter DOHC V-6. Models with the big motor come with a five-speed automatic transmission, anti-lock brakes with traction control, an electronic four-wheel-drive system, and a suspension upgraded to handle the extra power.

The big V-6 engine puts the Santa Fe on a par with the higher-powered sport-utes in its class, but it is unlikely that the Hyundai will top them in performance since it is considerably heavier than most of its competition. For example, a well-equipped version scales in at about 3750 pounds, nearly a quarter-ton more than a Honda CR-V.

The Santa Fe’s chassis is a heavily revised Sonata unit-body platform, which puts it into the so-called crossover category of SUVs. As such, it makes no pretension of heavy-duty off-roading but is more of a tall station wagon with an SUV look that’s somewhat unconventional: From the cowl forward, the Santa Fe is more sports sedan than sport-ute, with a snouty grill and bubble fenders. The curvy motif extends to the interior, with its wraparound dashboard. The large, simply rendered instruments are logically located, and the central pod with its radio and climate controls is equally easy to use. The Santa Fe’s seats are as comfortable as anything else in the class, and there are sufficient storage spaces as well as lots of amenities such as cup holders and power points.



With a strut front suspension and a trailing-arm and multilink rear suspension, the Santa Fe provides a comfortable ride, and it steers and tracks well with no tendency toward wander or play in the wheel. On a rutted and bumpy off-road course with some steep climbs and tight turns, a four-wheel-drive Santa Fe performed admirably, using its 8.1-inch ground clearance to good advantage.

The Santa Fe has been steadily carving out a compelling presence in the diminutive end of the SUV market by hewing faithfully to Hyundai’s strategy of offering good-looking, well-equipped vehicles at a competitive price and backing them with a killer warranty (10 years/100,000 miles powertrain coverage).

How Anti-Lock Brakes Work

Stopping a car in a hurry on a slippery road can be very challenging. Anti-lock braking systems (ABS) take a lot of the challenge out of this sometimes nerve-wracking event. In fact, on slippery surfaces, even professional drivers can't stop as quickly without ABS as an average driver can with ABS.
In this article, the last in a six-part series on brakes, we'll learn all about anti-lock braking systems -- why you need them, what's in them, how they work, some of the common types and some associated problems.

Getting the ABS Concept
The theory behind anti-lock brakes is simple. A skidding wheel (where the tire contact patch is sliding relative to the road) has less traction than a non-skidding wheel. If you have been stuck on ice, you know that if your wheels are spinning you have no traction. This is because the contact patch is sliding relative to the ice (see Brakes: How Friction Works for more). By keeping the wheels from skidding while you slow down, anti-lock brakes benefit you in two ways: You'll stop faster, and you'll be able to steer while you stop.

There are four main components to an ABS system:

  • Speed sensors
  • Pump
  • Valves
  • Controller

Speed Sensors
The anti-lock braking system needs some way of knowing when a wheel is about to lock up. The speed sensors, which are located at each wheel, or in some cases in the differential, provide this information.

Valves
There is a valve in the brake line of each brake controlled by the ABS. On some systems, the valve has three positions:

  • In position one, the valve is open; pressure from the master cylinder is passed right through to the brake.
  • In position two, the valve blocks the line, isolating that brake from the master cylinder. This prevents the pressure from rising further should the driver push the brake pedal harder.
  • In position three, the valve releases some of the pressure from the brake.

Pump
Since the valve is able to release pressure from the brakes, there has to be some way to put that pressure back. That is what the pump does; when a valve reduces the pressure in a line, the pump is there to get the pressure back up.

Controller
The controller is a computer in the car. It watches the speed sensors and controls the valves.

ABS at Work
There are many different variations and control algorithms for ABS systems. We will discuss how one of the simpler systems works.

The controller monitors the speed sensors at all times. It is looking for decelerations in the wheel that are out of the ordinary. Right before a wheel locks up, it will experience a rapid deceleration. If left unchecked, the wheel would stop much more quickly than any car could. It might take a car five seconds to stop from 60 mph (96.6 kph) under ideal conditions, but a wheel that locks up could stop spinning in less than a second.

The ABS controller knows that such a rapid deceleration is impossible, so it reduces the pressure to that brake until it sees an acceleration, then it increases the pressure until it sees the deceleration again. It can do this very quickly, before the tire can actually significantly change speed. The result is that the tire slows down at the same rate as the car, with the brakes keeping the tires very near the point at which they will start to lock up. This gives the system maximum braking power.

When the ABS system is in operation you will feel a pulsing in the brake pedal; this comes from the rapid opening and closing of the valves. Some ABS systems can cycle up to 15 times per second.

Types of Anti-Lock Brakes
Anti-lock braking systems use different schemes depending on the type of brakes in use. We will refer to them by the number of channels -- that is, how many valves that are individually controlled -- and the number of speed sensors.

  • Four-channel, four-sensor ABS - This is the best scheme. There is a speed sensor on all four wheels and a separate valve for all four wheels. With this setup, the controller monitors each wheel individually to make sure it is achieving maximum braking force.

  • Three-channel, three-sensor ABS - This scheme, commonly found on pickup trucks with four-wheel ABS, has a speed sensor and a valve for each of the front wheels, with one valve and one sensor for both rear wheels. The speed sensor for the rear wheels is located in the rear axle.

    This system provides individual control of the front wheels, so they can both achieve maximum braking force. The rear wheels, however, are monitored together; they both have to start to lock up before the ABS will activate on the rear. With this system, it is possible that one of the rear wheels will lock during a stop, reducing brake effectiveness.

  • One-channel, one-sensor ABS - This system is commonly found on pickup trucks with rear-wheel ABS. It has one valve, which controls both rear wheels, and one speed sensor, located in the rear axle.

    This system operates the same as the rear end of a three-channel system. The rear wheels are monitored together and they both have to start to lock up before the ABS kicks in. In this system it is also possible that one of the rear wheels will lock, reducing brake effectiveness.

    This system is easy to identify. Usually there will be one brake line going through a T-fitting to both rear wheels. You can locate the speed sensor by looking for an electrical connection near the differential on the rear-axle housing.

ABS Questions

  • Should I pump the brake pedal when stopping in slippery conditions?
    You absolutely should not pump the brake pedal in a car with ABS. Pumping the brakes is a technique that is sometimes used in slippery conditions to allow the wheels to unlock so that the vehicle stays somewhat straight during a stop. In a car with ABS the wheels should never lock in the first place, so pumping the brakes will just make you take longer to stop.

    In an emergency stop in a car with ABS, you should apply the brake pedal firmly and hold it while the ABS does all the work. You will feel a pulsing in the pedal that may be quite violent, but this is normal so don't let off the brake.

  • Do anti-lock brakes really work?
    Anti-lock brakes really do help you stop better. They prevent wheels from locking up and provide the shortest stopping distance on slippery surfaces. But do they really prevent accidents? This is the true measure of the effectiveness of ABS systems.

    The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has conducted several studies trying to determine if cars equipped with ABS are involved in more or fewer fatal accidents. It turns out that in a 1996 study, vehicles equipped with ABS were overall no less likely to be involved in fatal accidents than vehicles without. The study actually stated that although cars with ABS were less likely to be involved in accidents fatal to the occupants of other cars, they are more likely to be involved in accidents fatal to the occupants of the ABS car, especially single-vehicle accidents.

    There is much speculation about the reason for this. Some people think that drivers of ABS-equipped cars use the ABS incorrectly, either by pumping the brakes or by releasing the brakes when they feel the system pulsing. Some people think that since ABS allows you to steer during a panic stop, more people run off the road and crash.

    Some more recent information may indicate that the accident rate for ABS cars is improving, but there is still no evidence to show that ABS improves overall safety.

For more information on anti-lock brakes and related topics, check out the links on the next page.


Volvo S80 to Get Turbocharged Inline-Six

Volvo S80 to Get Turbocharged Inline-SixVolvo S80 has announced that it will add a third member to the engine lineup of the latest S80 sedan—a 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-six. The all-new turbo six joins the naturally aspirated 3.2-liter inline-six as well as the Yamaha-sourced 4.4-liter V-8.

The previous-generation S80 was powered by a turbo six as well, but the latest engine uses a single, twin-scroll turbo as opposed to the previous car’s 2.9-liter twin-turbo setup, which produced 272 hp.

The new turbo motor has been downsized in displacement from the 3.2-liter I-6 by decreasing both bore and stroke, but it’s nevertheless good for 285 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque, increases of 50 hp and 56 lb-ft over the regular six-holer. The S80’s V-8 makes 311 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque.

Maximum twist is on tap from just 1500 rpm. The S80 T6 (V-8 AWD model pictured above and in photo gallery) will be exclusively all-wheel drive—"for now," says Volvo—when it goes on sale sometime this fall.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Suzuki Reno

When the Reno debuted as a 2005 model, Suzuki said its new crossover hatchback was aimed at "versatility-seeking buyers of all ages." Suzuki claimed the Reno delivered "the style and sportiness of a European sedan" with the functionality of a five-door hatchback.

Offered in a single trim level for 2007, the five-door, front-wheel-drive hatchback was designed by Italdesign in Italy. The Reno's option packages have been revised, and a tire pressure monitoring system and all-disc antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution are now standard.

Reno competitors include the Hyundai Elantra, Mazda3 and Toyota Matrix. Suzuki also stresses the Reno's customization potential.


Exterior
Compact in size, the Reno hatchback has almond-shaped headlights that flank a grille sporting the Suzuki logo. What Suzuki calls "muscular" wheel arches surround 15-inch steel wheels. Wraparound taillights bring up the rear.

Suzuki highlights the Reno's "gracefully rising style lines and athletically refined side profile." The door handles are color-keyed, and the car has protective bodyside moldings. Heated power mirrors are standard, and a power moonroof is available. Built on a 102.4-inch wheelbase, the Reno is 169.1 inches long overall and 56.9 inches tall.


Interior
Suzuki says the five-occupant Reno has more front and rear legroom than the Mazda3 or Matrix. Three head restraints are fitted to a 60/40-split, folding rear seat. Standard seating surfaces in the two-tone interior are cloth-upholstered.

Speed-sensitive power steering is standard, and the driver's seat has height and lumbar adjustments. Cargo capacity when the backseat is upright measures 8.8 cubic feet, expanding to a maximum of 45.4 cubic feet.

Standard equipment includes an eight-speaker cassette/CD stereo, air conditioning, a rear-window defroster, and power windows, locks and heated mirrors. Suzuki's Convenience Package adds a CD/MP3 stereo with steering-wheel controls, cruise control, remote keyless entry and a moonroof.


Under the Hood
Suzuki's 2.0-liter four-cylinder produces 127 horsepower and 131 pounds-feet of torque. Either a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual transmission can be installed.

Safety
All-disc antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution are now standard, as are seat-mounted side-impact airbags.

Driving Impressions
Manual-shift Renos provide spirited performance. Well-matched gear ratios and a mannerly clutch make smooth takeoffs easy.

Nimble around town, the Reno zips around corners with zest. The ride is surprisingly pleasant even on lumpy city streets. Other than very slight engine buzz when accelerating at low speeds, the Reno is quiet. The brakes have a spongy feel, and the gearshift is a bit rubbery.

Front-seat space is abundant. The outer rear seats are adequate but snug, and the center rear position is a high, hard perch — though it's not the worst in a small car. The gauges are simple but adequate, and the radio controls are hard to decipher. Head restraints partially block the rearward view. Cargo space is essentially a covered well.

Suzuki Forenza

The Forenza, which targets value-oriented buyers, was partially designed by Pininfarina in Italy. Its 2.0-liter four-cylinder is rated at 127 horsepower, and rivals include the Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra and Toyota Corolla.

Seat-mounted side-impact airbags we
re installed in all models for 2005. Fresh front-end styling, a new wheel design and a revised interior marked the 2006 Forenza. For 2007, a tire pressure monitoring system and warning light come standard, and remote keyless entry with remote trunk release is optional.

A Forenza Wagon joined the sedan for the 2005 model year.

Exterior
Suzuki touts the Forenza's "gracefully curved roofline and uniquely free-flowing silhouette," noting that it provides maximum visibility. Clear, oversized taillamps complement European-style dual cylindrical halogen headlights, and the side molding is color-keyed.

The Forenza features pull-out door handles, and fog lamps are available. Speed-sensitive power steering and all-disc brakes are installed. Measuring 177.2 inches long overall, the Forenza rides a 102.4-inch wheelbase and stands 56.9 inches tall. Steel or aluminum wheels hold 15-inch tires.


Interior
Up to five occupants can fit inside the Forenza. The instruments are rimmed with metallic silver accents, and the panel emits a jade-green glow for night driving. Equipped with three head restraints, the 60/40-split rear seats fold flat.

Height and lumbar support adjustments for the driver and a tilt steering wheel are included. The padded front center armrest contains a storage compartment. Trunk space totals 12.4 cubic feet.

Standard equipment includes air conditioning with micron air filtration, heated mirrors, and power windows and locks. A standard in-dash cassette/CD stereo system includes eight speakers. Suzuki's Premium Package adds cruise control, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, 15-inch alloy wheels, fog lamps and antilock brakes.

Under the Hood
The Forenza's 2.0-liter four-cylinder produces 127 hp at 5,600 rpm and 131 pounds-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. Either a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual transmission can be installed. A "hold" button for the automatic prevents gear hunting in hilly terrain.

Safety
Antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution are included in the Premium Package. Seat-mounted side-impact airbags are standard. Each rear occupant gets a three-point seat belt.

Forenza Wagon
Late in 2004, a Forenza Wagon joined the original sedan in Suzuki's lineup. Like the sedan, the wagon uses a 2.0-liter four-cylinder that develops 127 hp and 131 pounds-feet of torque. Cargo space totals 24.4 cubic feet.

All-disc brakes, side-impact airbags, roof rails, air conditioning, an eight-speaker cassette/CD stereo and a 60/40-split, folding rear seat are standard. Wagons can be equipped with the optional Premium Package.

Except for a couple of ergonomic annoyances, including the steering-wheel radio controls, the Forenza Wagon is enjoyable to drive. Performance with the automatic transmission is satisfactory — even a touch spirited — though acceleration yields typical small-car engine blare.

Ride comfort is quite nice and generally smooth even in the city, with few unpleasant motions. Steering and handling are typical compact-car, but visibility is excellent. The seats are comfortable, and there's plenty of space in the front. Backseat room isn't bad, either. Cargo space is ample, and items are easy to load
There's more to the story of the Suzuki Forenza -- a competent, attractive little sedan at a very affordable price -- than you might think.

You know Suzuki as a Japanese company, but you might not know that it's a partner of General Motors. And you likely remember Daewoo as a Korean company that went bankrupt. General Motors rescued Daewoo, and the company still builds cars in Korea, but they are sold here under different names, such as the Chevrolet Aveo. But since Chevrolet couldn't take all of Daewoo's production, GM leaned on Suzuki to take the compact Forenza, the larger Verona and the smaller Reno, which is sort of a hatchback version of the Forenza. The Verona is gone, but the Forenza remains.

That isn't quite all: The Forenza's Italian name isn't that much of a stretch, as well-regarded Italian design company Pininfaria did most of the Forenza's styling.

So we have a Korean car, with an Italian name, built by a company controlled by General Motors, sold by a Japanese brand. And did I mention the engine is from Australia?

Though the Forenza's passport may be more interesting than the Forenza itself, this is a nicely executed car, as it has been since it was introduced as a 2004 model. It received a mild update in 2006, though only members of the Forenza Fan Club could tell the difference, assuming there even is a Forenza Fan Club.

The test model was the Forenza sedan -- a wagon has been offered since 2005 -- with quite a bit of equipment, considering the sub-$16,000 sticker price. Standard features included air conditioning, disc brakes, side air bags, a good eight-speaker stereo with a CD player, a tilt steering wheel, heated mirrors, and power windows and locks. Remote keyless entry added $150, and cruise control cost $200. The transmission was a four-speed automatic.

The Forenza's only engine choice is a 2.0-liter, 127-horsepower four-cylinder, EPA-rated at 22 miles per gallon city, 31 mpg on the highway. If you are willing to shift for yourself, the Forenza is offered with a five-speed manual transmission for $1,000 less. With the automatic, cruise control, remote entry and shipping, the test Forenza listed for $15,944. Suzuki sweetens the deal with a limited seven-year, 100,000-mile warranty that is transferable, as well as roadside assistance and a loaner-car program.

The real appeal of the Forenza is the packaging. The cloth-covered front seats are more comfortable and supportive than you would expect in an inexpensive car. Rear seats are very roomy for a car this size -- four 6-foot adults fit pretty well in a Forenza, and taller rear-seat passengers will run out of headroom before they run out of legroom. The trunk is plenty big, too.

On the road, the Forenza's ride isn't as quiet as a Toyota Corolla's, but it's comparably smooth. Handling is limited by the smallish 15-inch tires. The engine and transmission aren't up to the best Japanese standards, but they aren't bad at all.

Given the price, and the likelihood that a Suzuki dealer might be more willing to deal on a Forenza than a Honda dealer will on a Civic, this is a nice car for a single person or a small family. It's large enough to feel like a real car on the highway, but they're small enough to get good fuel mileage. You could do much worse.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Suzuki SX4

The 2007 Suzuki SX4 takes over for the Suzuki Aerio SX as the most affordable all-wheel-drive car sold in the U.S. It derives from an established overseas model, the Swift, and boasts a generous list of standard safety features.

Exterior
Despite a roomy interior and good safety ratings, the quirky-looking Aerio SX four-door hatchback never caught on in the U.S. The SX4 is a less distinctive but more athletic looking little four-door, five-seat hatchback that should compete well with the current crop of subcompact and compact cars. Its 16-inch alloy wheels help the SX4 look like more than an econobox.

Interior
The SX4's interior improves somewhat over that of the Aerio, with more variation in the color pallet. The backseat is more than workable for an adult, both in headroom and legroom. The backseat is split, 60/40, and can be both folded flat and tumbled forward to free cargo space. Even with the backseat raised, the cargo volume is a respectable 9.5 cubic feet — 22 cubic feet with the seats folded.

Under the Hood
The SX4 uses a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with 143 horsepower. The standard transmission is a five-speed manual; a four-speed automatic is optional. All-wheel drive is standard with either gearbox. Suzuki estimates the gas mileage as 24/29 mpg (city/highway) with the manual transmission and 24/30 mpg with the automatic.

Safety
The SX4's safety feature complement includes four-wheel-disc antilock brakes; frontal, side impact and side curtain-type airbags; and, with the optional Premium package, an electronic stability system.
The 2007 Suzuki SX4 AWD is a small hatchback station wagon designed for urban commuting. But we also drove it long distances on the highway, where its performance was competent, but less than thrilling.

Still, my assistant, Ria Manglapus, and I gave it thumbs-up.

"It's a fun little car," said Ria, who was able to fit her two sons and mother into the SX4 without anyone complaining about comfort. "It just needs a sixth gear for highway driving."

She's right. In the top gear of the SX4's five-speed manual transmission, the wagon's two-liter, in-line four-cylinder, 143-horsepower engine whines at maximum legal speeds of 65 and 70 mph. But the car remains stable and always manages to change lanes safely. But highway running clearly is not its forte. The city is where the little SX4 shines.

At urban street speeds of 25 to 40 mph, it's zippy. It easily moves through city traffic. It is agile enough to stay out of the way of big delivery and construction trucks, even when the drivers of those behemoths seem intent on blocking the SX4's path and squishing it and everything else in its subcompact category.

As a result, city driving in the SX4 is enjoyable. At a base price of $14,999, the car is cheap enough to free you of the anxiety associated with driving high-end automobiles in downtown areas. Many of you know the feeling: "Stay away from my Lexus! You're too close to my Mercedes-Benz! If you scratch my Cadillac, if you bump my BMW, you're gonna pay."

In comparison, driving the SX4 is akin to strolling a boulevard sidewalk in a favorite pair of sneakers. They feel good, look good. You wouldn't deliberately scuff or muddy them. But you wouldn't have a heart attack if you did.

That does not mean the SX4 is a disposable car. In fact, it's rather classy -- probably the best-designed, best-built, best-looking automobile Suzuki has brought to America since it set up shop in this country in 1963.

Exterior design is cute, attractive enough to draw affectionate smiles. The interior is simple, yet elegant. And it's big enough -- as Ria so amply demonstrated with nuclear and extended family members -- to comfortably seat five people.

If Suzuki could add "best-engineered" to the SX4's commendable list of "bests," the car would be a solid, all-around winner.

Here's the problem: It's no big deal to lack a sixth gear if the vehicle in question is of suitable weight. The SX4's problem is that it's a little tank. At a factory weight of 2,904 pounds, it is almost as heavy as many mid-size automobiles, which is too heavy for a car in the subcompact class.

The excess fat is in the SX4's three-way all-wheel-drive system, which can be locked into full four-wheel-drive for better traction, adjusted for automatic wheel-to-wheel power shifts in all-wheel-drive, or allowed to operate in front-wheel-drive only. Choice is wonderful. But so much choice in a small economy car is unwarranted and harmful to something that really matters in this league -- fuel economy.

For example, running in full four-wheel-lock, the SX4 averages 23 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway. In front-wheel-drive only, it averages 24 mpg in the city and 30 on the highway. While those numbers would be acceptable, perhaps commendable in larger vehicles, they are decidedly subpar in a subcompact model.

Yet, the SX4 remains a worthy competitor in this segment. It is loaded with standard equipment -- four-wheel disc brakes with antilock protection, side air bags, front and rear head air bags, power windows and locks, a four-speaker MP3 audio system, and a transferable 100,000-mile or seven-year warranty to help support resale value. It is well-built and affordable. For many city dwellers, especially those living on tight budgets, it's a good deal.

Nuts & Bolts 2007 Suzuki SX4 AWD

Complaints: The little car is too heavy. A simple all-wheel-drive system in which power automatically shifts from slipping to gripping wheels would have been more suitable for this one.

Ride, acceleration and handling: The SX4 performs beautifully in all three categories in city driving. But it has the finesse of a little pig on the highway.

Head-turning quotient: Many positive nods towards this one. Someone at Suzuki finally has learned something about styling.

Vehicle design/layout: The SX4 is a front-engine, all-wheel-drive, subcompact economy wagon with four side doors and a rear hatch. The all-wheel-drive system can be adjusted three ways: full four-wheel-drive, automatic all-wheel-drive and front-wheel drive. There are two trim levels -- the tested Base model and the better-equipped Sport.

Engine/transmission: The SX4 comes with a standard two-liter, 16-valve, in-line four-cylinder engine that develops 143 horsepower at 5,600 revolutions per minute and 136 foot-pounds of torque at 3,500 rpm. The engine is linked to a five-speed manual transmission.

Capacities: There is seating for five. With rear seats up, cargo capacity is 38.1 cubic feet. With rear seats down, it's 54 cubic feet. The fuel tank holds 11 gallons of recommended regular unleaded gasoline.

Mileage: Our best highway mileage came in front-wheel-drive mode at 29 miles per gallon. Our worst was in full four-wheel-drive mode at 26 mpg.

Safety: Four-wheel antilock disc brakes. Front-passenger side air bags, and front and rear head air bags are standard.

Price: Base price on the tested Suzuki SX4 is $14,999. Dealer's invoice price on the base model is $14,399. Price as tested, including a $595 destination charge, is $15,594. Dealer's price as tested is $14,994. Prices supplied by Suzuki, http://www.edmunds.com, and http://www.cars.com, an affiliate of The Washington Post.

Purse-strings note: The Suzuki SX4 is the most affordable all-wheel-drive vehicle currently on sale in America. But in the overall subcompact car category, it's surrounded by tough competitors, including the Chevrolet Aveo, Ford Focus, Honda Fit, Hyundai Elantra, Nissan Versa, Toyota Yaris and Subaru Impreza.
Kia and Hyundai have loudly made inroads into the US auto market recently, but Suzuki also is attempting to establish a bigger presence.

Consider today's test car, the 2007 SX4. Parents sometimes ask what to buy for their kids. From now on, this will be one of the cars I suggest.

First, at $16,000, I can't find a less expensive all-wheel-drive car. Second, it is chock full of air bags. And third, the blend of modest performance and utility is just fine for driving in New England weather conditions.

The road suitability is mostly because the car comes equipped with a three-level system called i-AWD (intelligent all-wheel drive). The first level powers only the front wheels, appropriate for normal running and to save fuel. True full-time AWD systems use more gas.

But on a slippery highway or back road, click into AWD Auto. It monitors wheel slip and sends power where you need it most -- fore or aft -- and operates in front-wheel drive only under normal driving conditions.

If you need to slog through deeper snow or require traction in getting to a backroad venue -- or you just don't have time to shovel out in the morning before work -- there's another option: AWD Lock. It delivers 30 to 50 percent of the power to the rear, but all four wheels are always working. It cuts out at 36 miles per hour.

Even as I write about the SX4's features, I have to keep reminding myself that it's a $16,000 car. So it's got to be cheap, right? Not at all. True, the seats aren't leather, there's no voice announcing when to make a left turn, and if your steering wheel is cold, you wear gloves.

But the SX4 is roomy, particularly for four passengers, and with a high roofline it has the spacious feel of some far larger cars.

The textured dash slopes gently toward the driver's compartment and features a center control pod, with a brushed metal-look plastic that nicely hides any cost savings. The knobs and buttons for audio and climate control are easily manipulated. And a radio/CD player with MP3 capability is standard.

The car is powered by a 2.0-liter, inline 4-cylinder engine that produces 143 horsepower and 136 lb.-ft. of torque. Four-speed automatic and five-speed manual transmissions are also available. Understand that you are not going drag racing in this car, and you won't win the Mount Washington Auto Road climb. You will, however, roll just fine as long as you don't expect to beat a Subaru WRX Sti from a red light.

You will also need to anticipate when it's time to pass another car, because the SX4 tends to run out of oomph at somewhere just above 4,000 r.p.m. It is stiffly stable on the road and sits firm, owing largely to antiroll bars front and rear. There is a tendency to oversteer, but it's fairly benign.

Outside, the nose is short and raked backward rather aggressively so that the view from the inside reveals little of the hood. The windshield rises long and fast. From there, the SX4 turns into a small station wagon -- it has a flat roof with rails that lead to a rather sudden drop-off at a chopped rear gate.

Standard safety equipment includes ABS and driver and passenger front and side bags, and curtain bags front and rear. Move up to the SX4 Sport package to add electronic stability and traction control. It's $1,000 well spent, plus you get other goodies, such as an upgraded sound system with a six-CD changer.

Other standard gear includes a 60/40 split folding rear seat, power windows/locks/mirrors, 16-inch alloy wheels, and remote keyless entry. There's also a seven-year, 100,000-mile warranty.

The SX4 is a good buy.

Suzuki Grand Vitara

Suzuki calls its primary sport utility vehicle an "offroad athlete." The Grand Vitara is based on a purely Suzuki design, and competitors include the Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson and Toyota RAV4. Changes for 2007 are minimal.

The Grand Vitara was designed with nearly 50/50 weight distribution and a fully independent suspension. Full-time four-mode four-wheel drive is available on upper-end models. Six airbags and an Electronic Stability Program are standard.

Premium, XSport and Luxury Packages are available. Under the Grand Vitara's hood sits what is essentially an XL-7 engine, modified to increase its power bands and improve emissions. No four-cylinder version is available. Suzuki continues to produce the seven-passenger XL-7 flagship SUV.

For 2007, the Grand Vitara's trip computer displays average fuel economy and range functions. A hard-shell spare tire and a tire pressure monitoring system now come standard.


Exterior
Evolved from the Concept-X2 that Suzuki exhibited at the 2005 New York Auto Show, the Grand Vitara features accented, flared fenders and what chief engineer Koji Yamada calls a "single long window" look. Side sill garnishes embellish the hood. A tailgate-mounted spare tire is installed, and the 17-inch tires on upper-end models have wide treads. Base models ride on 16-inch rubber.

Basically unibodied in construction, the Grand Vitara has a built-in ladder frame. For off-roading, the approach angle is 29 degrees and the departure angle is 27 degrees. Measuring 176.0 inches long, the Grand Vitara rides on a 103.9-inch wheelbase. A moonroof is included with the Luxury edition.


Interior
Rear legroom in the five-passenger Grand Vitara increased by 4.7 inches over the 2005 model. Interior width also grew by 4.7 inches. The 60/40-split, folding rear seat offers fold-and-tumble operation.

"Self-luminous" triple-cylinder LED instruments are installed, and the wide console sweeps up into the dashboard. Steering-wheel audio controls and automatic climate control are standard, and the CD/MP3 player is XM Satellite Radio-ready. XSport and Luxury models include a six-CD changer. A SmartPass keyless start system, available for XSport and Luxury models, locks and unlocks the vehicle with the press of a button on the door.


Under the Hood
Suzuki's 2.7-liter V-6 produces 185 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 184 pounds-feet of torque at 4,500 rpm. Upper-end models have a five-speed automatic transmission, but a five-speed manual gearbox is standard in base models.

The four-mode four-wheel-drive system, an option for XSport and Luxury models, includes 4H, 4H Lock (slippery) and 4L Lock positions. A limited-slip center differential and rear-wheel drive come standard. A single-mode four-wheel-drive system is offered for base models.


Safety
Seat-mounted side-impact airbags and side curtain airbags are standard in all models. Four-channel antilock brakes incorporate electronic brake-force distribution.

Driving Impressions
Except for occasionally awkward, almost jerky, automatic-transmission operation — especially on upgrades — the Grand Vitara performs and behaves capably. Failure to upshift on upgrades can result in the engine revving rather high (and loudly) for a long period. On downgrades, the transmission sometimes downshifts with a slight clunk. Downshifts may arrive sooner than expected, suggesting a lack of power at certain engine speeds.

Acceleration is good but not stunning. The Grand Vitara's ride is well-controlled, comfortably smooth on good roads and doesn't transmit too much unpleasantness in rougher spots. In fact, it almost glides through smooth stretches more like a family sedan than an SUV. Very quick and controlled suspension reactions help make such ride comfort possible. You also get more confident, sure-footed handling than in some small SUVs.

The seat bottoms are short, but the Grand Vitara has good thigh and back support and snug side bolstering. Large gauges are easy to read. Quieter-running than some smaller SUVs, the Grand Vitara provides easy views in all directions.

A four-mode four-wheel-drive Grand Vitara performed impressively on a challenging offroad course, traversing lumpy surfaces and scads of rocks. Many times, scraping an obstacle seemed inevitable, but that didn't happen.
The small-SUV market is a tough league to play in, full of worthy contenders such as the Ford Escape, Toyota RAV-4, Honda CR-V, Mitsubishi Outlander, Jeep Compass and the Korean twins, the Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage.

Suzuki got a jump on all those manufacturers with the Samurai, introduced in the mid-1980s. The Samurai was a superb vehicle for what it was designed to do: traverse tight jungle trails. For life on the streets, though, it was slow as frozen molasses, rode like a buckboard, and its tipsy cornering earned it scorn from Consumer Reports that, though not entirely fair, was mostly deserved.

Still, with such an early start on building small SUVs, it's odd that it took Suzuki until last year to build one that is on par with the competition. With only minor changes for 2007, the Suzuki Grand Vitara is, as it was when it was introduced in 2006, an excellent vehicle; for the money, it's as good as any small SUV out there, including the Toyota and Honda.

The 2.7-liter, 185-horsepower V-6 is the only engine offered -- no four-cylinder. A five-speed manual transmission is standard, but our test model, a midlevel Xsport, had a five-speed automatic that works reasonably well but could use some re-programming to smooth out shifts. The engine has plenty of pep, but it's thirstier than some of the competition: EPA rating is 19 miles per gallon city, 24 mpg highway.

The test model was two-wheel drive; all-wheel drive would add $1,400. Unless you live in a climate that results in a lot of slick roads, or unless you plan to do regular off-roading -- and with beefy, trucklike frame rails, the Grand Vitara is ready -- you're OK with two-wheel drive. There are, after all, safety features such as electronic stability control, traction control, anti-lock brakes and side and side-curtain air bags standard.

On the road, the Grand Vitara rides well for its size, which is an overall length of 176 inches and a width of 71.3 inches, making it just a little larger than a Ford Escape. Handling is much better than you would expect. Inside, the cockpit is attractive and comfortable, with firm front bucket seats and adequate space in the back seat for adults. There's 23.8 cubic feet of luggage space with the rear seat in place, and 67.3 with it folded down.

The Grand Vitara starts at $19,379 for the base model. The top of the line is the Luxury, which starts at $23,399 and includes leather upholstery, heated seats and a few other features. Our Xsport had only one option -- a six-disc CD changer for $300 -- but it wasn't included in the overall price of $22,119 because of a promotion.

Cheap? No, but pretty reasonable, given the level of equipment. It has taken a while, but Suzuki is a finally a real player in the market it helped to create.

Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smith can be reached at scmsith@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5699.

Suzuki Aerio

Suzuki introduced a new four-door, front-wheel-drive sport sedan named the Aerio, along with a related Aerio SX hatchback, in March 2002. For 2007, the Suzuki Aerio SX hatchback has been discontinued, option packages have been revised and cruise control now comes standard. The Premium Package with all-wheel drive now features a standard automatic transmission.

All-wheel drive became available for the 2003 model year, and a new 2.3-liter four-cylinder that develops 155 horsepower was installed in 2004.

A mild face-lift for 2005 gave the Aerio a new front bumper, grille and fog lamps. A new analog instrument panel was installed, and audio and climate controls on the steering wheel were included. Side-impact airbags became standard.


Exterior
More upright than most small cars, Aerio sedans come in a single trim level, but a Premium Package is offered. Design features such as pronounced wheel flares and multireflector headlights enhance the Aerio's sporty image. A stubby, ground-hugging snout incorporates a body-colored bumper.

The sedan rides on a 97.6-inch wheelbase and measures 171.3 inches long overall. Large doors are intended to ease entry and exit. Heated mirrors are included on all-wheel-drive models.


Interior
Each Aerio seats up to five occupants on front buckets and a split, folding rear seat. The tall roofline allows a high seating position. The sedan's trunk holds up to 14.6 cubic feet of cargo.

Standard equipment includes automatic air conditioning, a tachometer, a tilt steering wheel with integrated audio controls, intermittent wipers, a MP3/six-CD changer audio system with seven speakers, air conditioning, remote keyless entry, and power windows, locks and mirrors.


Under the Hood
The Aerio's 2.3-liter four-cylinder generates 155 hp and 152 pounds-feet of torque and teams with a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual transmission. Front-wheel drive is standard, and Suzuki's QuadGrip all-wheel drive is available. All-wheel-drive models come only with the automatic.

Safety
Antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution, seat-mounted side-impact airbags, daytime running lights and child-safety seat tether anchors are standard.

Driving Impressions
In construction quality, performance and handling, the Aerio took a big step forward compared with Suzuki's old Esteem. It's more fun to drive than most small cars, and the Aerio easily whips around urban areas. Acceleration is satisfying, and the automatic transmission functions without harshness or undue delay. Engine noise is noticeable during acceleration.

The Aerio is easy to steer and control, and it breezes through corners and moderate curves. A light feel on the highway yields acceptable stability, but the Aerio doesn't feel quite as secure as some other compacts. Its ride quality is impressive even on patched urban pavement, but imperfect surfaces can produce harsh suspension reactions.

Visibility is very good. All seats are comfortable and snugly bolstered. Space in both the front and rear seats is abundant.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Lexus ES 330

Vehicle Overview
In recent years, the Lexus ES has been, by far, the company's most popular passenger car. For 2004, the installation of a new 3.3-liter V-6 transformed the ES 300 sedan into the ES 330. The ES 300 and ES 330 have been geared toward providing a passenger experience closer to that of the company's more costly LS 430. Burled walnut wood decorates the interior, which can be equipped with an optional DVD-based navigation system and a Mark Levinson stereo.

Freshened styling for 2005 featured a grille with more horizontal bars, new wheels, larger fog lamps and revised headlights with projector low beams. Steering wheels gained integrated controls, and the optional navigation system got voice activation. For 2006, the ES 330 remains largely unchanged. XM or Sirius Satellite Radio becomes available, and new Society of Automotive Engineers testing standards bring horsepower down slightly, though there's no decrease in performance.


Exterior
Sharp contour lines are evident up front, and chiseled character lines run down the bodyside panels. Optional high-intensity-discharge headlights are packaged with rain-sensing wipers.

Narrow body gaps add to the sedan's precision appearance. Riding a 107.1-inch wheelbase, the sedan measures 191.1 inches long overall. Aluminum-alloy wheels hold standard 16-inch tires, and a one-touch power moonroof is standard. An optional Adaptive Variable Suspension continuously changes shock absorber damping in response to road conditions, speed, steering, braking and vertical vehicle movement.


Interior
Five occupants should have ample space inside the ES 330. California walnut trim accents the center console and all four doors. Both front seats are power adjustable, and leather seat upholstery is standard.

Standard equipment includes auto-dimming heated power mirrors, automatic dual-zone climate control with air filtration, one-touch up/down power windows, a cassette/CD stereo and a HomeLink programmable garage-door opener. A powered rear sunshade, power-adjustable pedals, a wood and leather-trimmed steering wheel, heated and ventilated front seats, XM or Sirius Satellite Radio and a DVD-based navigation system with a three-position tilt screen are optional.


Under the Hood
A 218-hp, 3.3-liter V-6 produces 236 pounds-feet of torque and meets ULEV-II emissions standards. Those numbers are down slightly from the 2005 model's 225 hp and 240 pounds-feet of torque due to new SAE testing standards, though performance is identical. The engine teams with a five-speed-automatic transmission. The drive-by-wire throttle system was borrowed from the LS 430.

Safety
Antilock brakes, electronic brake-force distribution, side-impact airbags for the front seats, and front and rear side curtain-type airbags are standard. All seating positions have three-point seat belts. Lexus' electronic stability system, which controls wheel slippage to help stabilize the vehicle, is optional. The system includes a brake assist feature that applies full braking force in emergency stops if the driver fails to apply sufficient pedal pressure.

Lexus ES 250

The Toyota Lexus ES250 is a glorified Toyota Camry for a few grand more.

At least that`s what rival Honda Acura and Nissan Infiniti dealers tellprospective customers.

Considering the ES250 and Camry are built on the same platform and sharethe same engine, it would be difficult to dispute the charge.

This fall, the ES250 becomes the ES300, the name change signaling notonly new sheet metal but the unveiling of a 3-liter, 24-valve, twin-cam, 185horsepower V-6 engine to replace the current 2.5-liter V-6.

The ES300 will share the powerplant with the Camry, which also undergoesa styling change for the coming model year.

Sources say Toyota was well aware of the ES250-is-too-similar-to-the-Camry complaints; so styling on the `92 versions will be considerablydifferent, to avoid a repeat of the $30,000-Cadillac-looks-like-a-$20,000-Oldsfiasco that hampered General Motors.

The 3-liter in the ES300 won`t be the same as the new 3-liter engine tobe offered in the SC300 coupe, the coming six-cylinder version of the SC400coupe introduced this spring. The SC300 engine will be a 3-liter, 24-valve,twin-cam, 225-horsepower in-line six-cylinder, not a V-6, according toAutomotive Industries Insider, a trade publication.

But we digress. Glorified Camry or not, the ES250 is a pleasant machine,with loads of room and comfort, passenger and cargo-carrying capacity and morethan decent power from its 2.5-liter, 156-horsepower, 24-valve V-6 engine.

Driver`s-side air bag and antilock brakes are standard.

The ride is whisper quiet and befits a luxury car. Handling benefits from variable-effort and quick-response power steering, front and rear stabilizerbars, fully independent four-wheel suspension and 15-inch Goodyear GA radials. About the only shortcoming is the suspension seemed a bit mushy at timesin the so-called $22,000 entry-level model in the overall luxury Lexus lineup,which also includes the $37,500 SC400 coupe and the $40,000 LS400 sedan.

It`s nice to have a cushion over bumps in the road, but we`d rather dowithout the roll and sway in corners and turns. However, the problem may have been the result of the optional ($950) leather seats, which don`t hold thebody as well as cloth in sharp maneuvering. Because cloth is cooler in thesummer and warmer in the winter and easier to clean regardless of the season, save yourself $950 and forget the leather.

Base price is $22,050.

Perhaps the extent of the standard equipment is the reason thecompetition calls it a glorified Camry.

It includes power brakes and steering, four-speed automatic transmission, power locks/windows/mirrors, air conditioning, tinted glass, digital clock,AM/FM stereo, alloy wheels, color-coordinated lower bodyside cladding,intermittent wipers, rear-window defogger, remote-trunk and fuel-filler doorreleases, visor vanity mirrors, cruise control, first-aid kit and the ever-popular pullout cupholder.

In addition to leather seats, the car we tested added a power moonrooffor $700, power driver`s seat for $250, carpeted floor mats for $105 (when youexceed the $20,000 mark there`s no reason mats shouldn`t be standard) and atrunk mat (ditto) for $62.

ES250 sales have been somewhat spotty in 1991, in large part due to theit`s-a-ritzy-Camry flap. With the new engine for `92 and sheet metal sporting a few bends and twists different from the Camry, the ES300 should help Toyota settle into its own niche.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Lexus LS460 - All-new flagship packs more of everything

Lexus is about 100 years younger than Mercedes-Benz, but, after 20 years of hard work, it has already surpassed M-B and all the other luxury brands in terms of quality, durability, reliability, and desirability among American buyers, an astounding performance. The flagship sedan that started out as the LS 400 and then grew up as the LS 430 has been morphed into a completely new car, the LS 460, that challenges all comers as the best luxury sedan in the world. It competes with the Mercedes-Benz E- and S-Class, and BMW 5 Series and 7 Series.

In addition to the new LS 460, there will be a long-wheelbase version called the LS 460L with a limousine-like rear seat and a hybrid version called the LS 600h, which combines a 5.0-liter version of the V8 engine with a new version of the Lexus hybrid drive system.

The all-new 2007 Lexus LS models are bristling with technology. The LS 460 is the first car in the world with a computer-controlled eight-speed automatic transmission. An optional parking guidance system uses onboard cameras to help the driver parallel-park or park between cars, a system offered by no other manufacturer. The 460L offers reclining heated bucket seats, a cool box, dual-zone rear HVAC controls, a folding table, an ottoman, a shiatsu massager, and, of course, DVD with wireless headphones.

On the road, we found the LS 460 extremely quiet and extraordinarily smooth. Its 4.6-liter V8 can propel it from 0 to 60 mph in a mere 5.4 seconds, according to Lexus, yet it gets an EPA-rated 27 mpg Highway. The eight-speed automatic is super smooth and plays a big role in the fuel-economy story. The electrically powered steering system and adjusts according to speed. The ride quality and handling are exemplary, and an optional Touring package brings a new level of sportiness to the LS 460. The brakes have been improved, and now they are fully electronically controlled, working with all of the other computers on the car to determine how much brake force to put at each individual wheel, rain, snow or sunshine.

Line Up

The 2007 Lexus LS lineup includes the LS 460 ($61,000) and the longer LS 460L ($71,000). The hybrid-powered LS 600h will be introduced later in the model year.

Options include satellite navigation with Bluetooth, XM satellite radio with real-time traffic display, Mark Levinson 19-speaker, 450-watt sound system and 30-gigabyte hard drive, a pre-collision system, dynamic radar cruise control, advanced parking guidance system, Lexus Link, power trunk opener/closer, a Comfort Package, and a Comfort Plus Package. Four different rear-seat packages are available for the 460L.

Safety is a primary consideration for luxury car buyers, and the LS 460 fairly drips with safety equipment, from eight standard air bags to ABS (anti-lock brakes), electronic brake assist, ESP (electronic stability program), adaptive front lighting that turns corners, and tire pressure monitoring. With the optional two-seat rear compartment, there is an additional air bag in the mix, and there are more safety options, including a pre-collision system that moves seats to a neutral position, closes the windows and sunroof, and tightens belts when the computers detect an impending collision.

Walkaround

Lexus designers have given their latest three models a new look. The recently redesigned Lexus ES, IS, and GS feature a look designers refer to as L-finesse, with much more attention paid to aerodynamic considerations that ultimately lead to improved high-speed stability, quieter operation, and better highway fuel mileage.

As the flagship, the new, 2007 Lexus LS 460 gets the most finesse of any of the L-finesse designs thus far. Its lines flow smoothly from its amazingly complex, crystal-like headlamp units, under the car, up over the roof and around the mirrors, with a short trip over the tiny rear deck to the integrated rear spoiler. After all that detail work on the exterior, they gave the car a drag coefficient of 0.26, tied with the best in the industry for a four-door sedan.

Interior

To climb into the left front seat of the 2007 Lexus LS 460 is to climb into the future of luxury cars. The seats are gloriously comfortable, and they are 16-way adjustable for travel and rake and tilt (12-way on the passenger side), with a three-way memory system for each front seat. All models come with perforated leather seats, with the option of semi-aniline leather with the Luxury Package option. The seat bolsters are just wide enough to retain your torso without trapping your torso or intruding on comfort. The front seats are climate-controlled on the standard car, with heated rear seats added to the L version.

Optitron is the name used by Lexus to describe its electroluminescent gauges and displays, and they are lit by bright white LEDs for excellent readability, day or night. Almost all of the needles illuminate, dominated by the large tachometer and speedometer needles. Every single switch on the car is lighted for ultimate convenience. A new thin-film-transistor (TFT) multi-information color display delivers as many as 13 information and setting displays during driving.

New four-spoke tilt-and-telescope leather-and-wood steering wheels (heated on the uplevel versions) feature redundant controls for audio, information, cruise control, radar cruise control option, telephone, and a new brake-hold feature. To use the brake-hold feature, just come to a stop, push down the brake pedal, touch the button on the steering wheel, and the brakes stay on regardless of vehicle attitude until you touch the gas pedal.

The center stack of controls is beautifully integrated, as is every single piece of interior trim, and though there are lots of buttons, they are clearly marked in large type and lighted, so there will be little confusion after a couple of drives. The navigation display is large and bright, and the graphics are crisp and sharp. An auxiliary input is provided for MP3 players, such as the Apple iPod. The standard sound system is a 276-watt, 10-speaker system that sounds wonderful until you try the optional Mark Levinson system, which we think is the single best automotive sound system on the market.

The new Lexus LS is a big, roomy and comfortable luxury sedan, with generous interior dimension and 18 cubic feet of trunk space, enough for four sets of golf clubs.

The 460L version offers more room of course, and the option of a luxurious rear-seat setup with two reclining heated bucket seats, a cool box, sunshades, additional climate ducting, and dual-zone rear HVAC control. Yet another configuration, the executive class seating package, adds a folding table and a right rear seat with a built-in ottoman section, shiatsu massager, an extra air bag, and a rear roof-mounted 9-inch DVD screen and two sets of wireless headphones. No car manufacturer this side of a $350,000 Maybach offers this kind of rear-seat setup.

Lexus ES350-All-new, more powerful, more luxurious than before

The Lexus ES is all-new for 2007. Boasting a new 3.5-liter engine, the 2007 Lexus ES 350 is more powerful than last year's ES 330. In fact, the Lexus ES with this new engine is now a serious performer. We were impressed with it and found it quick and responsive. Lexus says it can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds, a solid performance from its 272-horsepower engine. Likewise, the steering and handling are much more responsive than with last year's model.

Still, the Lexus ES is a luxury sedan that celebrates smoothness, quietude and sophistication. It doesn't suffer the hard ride of a sports sedan. You can safely sip a cappuccino on the way to work. The ride is smooth, the engine is smooth, the transmission operation is flawless, and everything is quiet.

The Lexus ES has come a long way. When Toyota launched its Lexus brand of luxury cars in 1989, its entry-level car was the ES 250, a thinly disguised Camry chassis and powertrain with an upgraded body and interior. This car's role was to give the new dealers some sales volume to help support the big LS 400. With each of the succeeding four generations of ES, the car has better met the needs of the upper end of the entry-luxury segment, with more room, more space, more power and more standard equipment. And more safety features. The all-new 2007 ES 350 makes the greatest single leap in ES history.

The ES uses front-wheel drive, while the Lexus IS models are rear-wheel drive. In short, the ES is designed more for luxury and a smooth, comfortable ride, while the IS models are designed more for performance and handling.

The ES 350 will compete with the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, BMW 3 Series, Infiniti G35 and M35, Audi A6, Saab 9-3, Volvo S60 and a host of domestics in this popular class. Pricing for the 2007 ES 350 was not available at press time.

Line Up

The 2007 Lexus ES 350 comes as one model, but the buyer can opt for a huge range of equipment by selecting Premium, Premium Plus, Ultra Luxury, Pre-Collision, and Adaptive Cruise options packages. Freestanding options include park assist, a power rear sunshade, heated and ventilated front seats, a full-size spare tire, a wood and leather trim package, and DVD navigation with backup camera.

Optional equipment includes a navigation system, satellite radio (XM or Sirius), a 14-speaker Mark Levinson stereo system, Bluetooth wireless capability for cellphones, a panoramic glass roof, and radar-adaptive cruise control.

Safety features that come standard on the ES 350 include dual front airbags, a knee airbag, side-impact airbags (for torso protection), curtain airbags (for head protection), electronic stability control, traction control, antilock brakes (ABS), electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), and a tire-pressure monitor system. A new two-chamber passenger airbag is designed to stop your passenger's upper body and torso with minimal facial contact and neck stress on deployment.

The Pre-Collision package includes a radar-based cruise control system that automatically maintains a preset distance between the ES 350 and the car ahead. If the system senses an imminent collision, it retracts all the outboard seatbelts and triggers full panic-braking power at the pedal (but it doesn't close the windows and the sunroof like the Mercedes-Benz system).

Walkaround

The 2007 ES 350 featires the Lexus L-Finesse design scheme used on three concept cars and the GS and IS sedans, with everything emanating from the grille and flowing back over the car in hard lines. The new look brings a new level of slickness, only 0.28 coefficient of drag in the wind tunnel, making the ES 350 inherently quieter and more fuel-efficient than before.

The first thing that impressed us was the new look and more generous physical size of the car. The grille has been subdued, the headlamp units have been made smaller and less obtrusive, and the accent line along the side has been raised to yield more musculature under the skin. Now this car looks like it belongs in a Lexus showroom.

The new ES 350 was consciously upsized, to about where the original LS 400 flagship car was when it was introduced. The wheelbase is more than two inches longer at 109.25 inches, the body is wider by 0.4 inches, the track is wider by 1.2 inches, and the body has crisper, shorter overhangs along with a new front, side and rear appearance that's much more luxurious looking than any previous ES.

About the only exterior customizing you can do other than paint and wheels is a choice of lighting, from standard projector beam to optional high-intensity discharge headlamps to optional adaptive lighting, the latter of which swings the headlamps through an arc of up to 15 degrees when turning. There are 10 colors to choose from.

The ES 350 is about 110 pounds heavier than the ES 330 due to the addition of more safety features and standard equipment built into the price.

Interior

If there is any part of this car that could be called a quantum leap, it's the interior, which is much more together, more modern, and more fully equipped than any previous Lexus ES interior.

It starts with the standard SmartAccess key fob and push-button engine starting, a first for the ES, and goes from there. The instrument panel and center stack are completely new and much more driver-centered, engaging and involving that previous panels. The main instruments are deeply tunneled, using white LED lighting and the Optitron electroluminescent displays that are part of all Lexus models, with their eye-pleasing startup routine. The standard trip computer monitors a dozen functions. All of the real wood trim is from a matched set that is serial-numbered for future replacement, if necessary. The thick, fat steering wheel is a pleasure to use.

There's more space overall, within a few cubic feet of the original LS 400 V8 rear-drive sedan at 95.4 cubic feet, with more shoulder and leg room built in, and the rear floor is flat and can accommodate large American feet under the seats. There are three interiors to choose from in leather, perforated leather, or cloth, plus optional semi-aniline leather.

The new ES is insulated well. At cruising speeds, it's extremely quiet, in part due to a new acoustic-control laminated windshield.

The driving ambience is superb, with good sightlines, the hooded instruments and crisp graphics, a 10-way power seat and standard tilt/telescope steering wheel. Fit and finish inside are exemplary.

Lexus IS350- New packages enhance performance

The Lexus IS 250 and IS 350 sport sedans are quick, responsive and fun to drive. Designed to compete with BMW 3 Series sedans, the Lexus IS models are built on rear-wheel-drive chassis tuned for sporty handling. They stick in corners and stop with authority, aided by high-performance brakes and tires.

The IS 350 is propelled with authority as well, benefitting from a 306-hp V6. These are enjoyable and easy cars to drive. The IS 350's VDIM electronic stability control steps in very early to keep the driver out of trouble. The IS 250 AWD model's all-wheel drive makes it a good sports sedan for the Snow Belt. The automatic transmissions are responsive and feature paddle shifters for semi-manual control.

All of them look sporty, with bulging muscles and a purposeful stance. All come loaded with features and are trimmed well, with leather upholstery. A full complement of passive and active safety features comes standard.

New for 2007 is the X-Package, which combines a sports suspension and 18-inch alloy wheels with a bold front spoiler, sport pedals, and illuminated door scuff plates. Also, the electronic stability programs can be disabled by turning off the traction control. Lexus says this might be useful when trying to extricate the car from snow, and in other situations as well.

Line Up

The Lexus IS 250 ($30,255) is powered by a 2.5-liter V6, which sends 204 horsepower to the rear wheels through a six-speed manual transmission. The IS 250 is also available with a six-speed automatic with Formula 1 inspired paddle-shifters.

The IS 250 AWD ($34,285) comes with the automatic transmission and all-wheel drive.

The IS 350 ($35,705) powered by a 306-hp, 3.5-liter V6 with the six-speed automatic. More sophisticated braking and electronic stability systems augment its additional performance.

Leather is standard; the IS 250 AWD comes with special perforated leather and Bird?s eye maple accents. Standard features: dual-zone climate control; SmartAccess keyless entry with pushbutton engine start; and a 194-watt, 13-speaker stereo with a six-disc in-dash CD changer. The audio system features digital signal processing, an electronic crossover network and built-in theft deterrence. It's satellite-ready and includes an audio input jack that accepts external audio sources such as iPod, Walkman, etc.

Standard exterior items are fog lamps, projector beam headlamps, puddle lamps on the underside of the outside rearview mirrors (which are also heated), dual polished stainless steel exhaust pipes, infrared and ultraviolet reducing glass on all the windows, and a color-coordinated front air dam. Also standard are 17-inch aluminum five-spoke wheels fitted with low-profile high-performance radials. The IS 250 AWD comes with all-season 225/45VR17s at all four corners. The IS 250 and IS 350 come standard with all-season 225/45VR17 tires in front and wider 245/45VR17s in the rear, a staggered setup to increase grip under acceleration. Optional 18-inch wheels are available for the rear-drive models only, fitted with summer-only 225/40YR18 tires in front and 255/40YR18s in the rear.

Options include the AWD model's perforated leather trim, wood accents, and heated/ventilated seats. The Luxury Plus Package adds outside mirrors with electrochromic, memory and reverse tilt-down, illuminated scuff plates, a power rear sunshade, memory seats, HID headlamps with AFS (they steer with the front wheels), rain-sensing wipers, and a power tilt/telescope steering wheel with memory. The Sport Package ($2956) adds a sport suspension, 18-inch wheels, sport pedals, and metal scuff plates.

The navigation system ($2168) includes voice activation, a rear backup camera (a great safety feature), and Bluetooth wireless technology; buy it with or without the Mark Levinson audio, which employs advanced discrete amplifier technology with 300 watts, and 7.1 channel speaker architecture. The Pre-Collision System ($2280) with Dynamic Radar Cruise Control is optional.

Safety features for all IS models include driver and front-passenger knee airbags. The brakes are large and effective four-wheel discs, clamped at the front by aluminum four-piston calipers. Augmenting the big brakes are ABS, Electronic Brake-force Distribution, and Brake Assist. Vehicle Stability Control and traction control (TRAC) come with every IS 250, while the IS 350 gets TRAC as well as a more sophisticated stability program Lexus calls Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM).

Walkaround

The Lexus IS sport sedans look sporty, with a purposeful stance. The nose presents the fierce glare of a car that wants to be first in line. The steeply angled hood, made of weight-saving aluminum, is framed by the determined glower of projector beam headlamps and a deep front spoiler and large intake. It's unmistakably Lexus but visually fresh.

The IS slips through the air with quiet stability. In addition to the distinct aerodynamic wedge of the overall shape, a number of small details contribute to the exceptional coefficient of drag (0.28). A front underbody structure creates downforce between the front wheels, a small air kicker integrated in the taillamps helps separate turbulence from the rear corners and reduces drag, and a small trunklid spoiler increases rear downforce.

Interior

Lush with creature comfort, trimmed with upscale materials, and crackling with electronic wizardry, the interior environment of the IS sport sedans is pure Lexus. But the cabin is more sports car than family sedan.

A prominent central console clearly establishes the driver and front-passenger zones. The controls wrap around the driver with every gauge and switch within easy scrutiny or close reach. The Optitron gauges are large and easy to read, and their light-saber indicator needles and dynamic redline indication are cool modern. The keyless entry and pushbutton ignition is handy.

Leather upholstery comes standard on the IS 250 and IS 350 with metallic accents appropriately placed around the cabin. The IS 250 AWD comes with perforated leather trim and beautifully crafted bird's-eye maple accents. Each piece is hewn from a single chunk of wood to ensure a perfect match from panel to panel.

The heated and ventilated front seats are a must-have. They come standard on IS 250 AWD and are available on the other models. Once you've tried these seats, there's no going back.

The climate control system features a sophisticated temperature calculation system called Neural-Net, a humidity sensor, a micro dust and pollen filler and, in IS 350, a smog sensor that detects excessive hydrocarbons and automatically reverts to a special recirculation mode until the atmosphere clears.

Lexus GX470-Highly capable off road, with new entertainment features

The Lexus GX 470 is designed for active families with young children, balancing comfort and features with real off-road potential. Underneath, the GX 470 has body-on-frame construction like commercial or military trucks, with a solid rear axle and serious four-wheel drive features such as a locking center differential and dual-speed transfer case. Inside, the GX 470 is roomy, quiet and luxurious, with an optional third-row seat that expands capacity to eight. Its cabin is swathed in leather and bird's-eye maple. An overhead-cam V8 and smooth five-speed automatic transmission provide sufficient power for towing, trail-bashing, or carving corners on a coastal highway.

For 2007, Lexus has focused on the GX 470's information and entertainment options. Its state-of-the-art rear-seat DVD system is enhanced with a 9-inch, wide-format screen. Nearly all the infotainment hardware and software has been improved, for the edification of young and old. The optional navigation system adds voice activation and enhanced display features. An input jack for iPods and other audio devices is now standard, and the optional Mark Levinson Premium Audio now plays DVDs as well as conventional and MP3/WMA-formatted CDs. Everyone, rear-seat passengers and the driver, can watch a flick on one of the screens, including the nav screen, while the GX 470 is parked.

In the GX 470, rugged clearly does not mean outdated, and that goes beyond the entertainment choices. Its full-time four-wheel drive features electronic traction control (A-TRAC) and automatically dispatches torque to the tires with the best grip. An electronic system called Downhill Assist Control (DAC) helps the GX 470 safely negotiate slippery inclines, while Vehicle Stability Control helps steady the GX 470 in slippery turns. Based on the Toyota 4Runner, a Lexus GX 470 is highly capable off road and can go practically anywhere its driver is willing to point it.

Line Up

The 2007 Lexus GX 470 is offered in a single, well-equipped trim level ($46,635). Standard features include leather upholstery, power heated seats, a wood and leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, rain-sensing wipers, automatic dual climate control, HomeLink universal transmitter, an 11-speaker stereo with six-CD changer, rear-seat audio with remote control and headphones, a glass sunroof, illuminated running boards and a 115V AC power outlet in the cargo area.

Power is provided by a 4.7-liter V8, with 263 horsepower and a substantial 323 pound-feet of torque, with a five-speed automatic transmission. The GX 470 has the latest electronic control systems, including four-wheel traction control, Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), a Torsen limited-slip center differential and Adaptive Variable Suspension with adjustable height control. The standard wheels are 17-inch alloys with 265/65SR17 tires.

The optional Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System ($1,750) enhances on-road handling without compromising off-road capability. A Sport Package ($1,800) combines KDSS with smoked front and rear light bezels, a chromed exhaust tip and a dark graphite finish on the 17-inch alloy wheels and roof rack. Inside, dark graphite trim is added to the center console and instrument-panel, and the standard gold-toned wood trim is replaced with black.

The optional navigation system ($3,250) includes a Mark Levinson audio upgrade, Bluetooth wireless technology that links compatible cellular telephones to the GX for hands-free communication, and a reverse-camera system to help spot objects (and children) behind the vehicle.

Other options include a third-row seat with rear air conditioning ($2,030); a rear-seat entertainment system with two headphone sets ($1,650); tow-hitch receiver ($50); tow-hitch receiver with ball mount ($433); and a rear spoiler ($551).

Lexus Link ($900), which comes with a one-year subscription, combines GPS satellite and cellular phone technology to connect the driver to a concierge desk 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Roadside assistance, stolen vehicle tracking and remote door unlocking are among the services provided. The system automatically dispatches emergency services if you press a panic button or if the airbags are deployed and you fail to respond to the operator's call.

Safety features that come standard include advanced front airbags, side-impact airbags for the front seats (for torso protection in a side impact), and side-curtain airbags (for head protection in a side impact or rollover). Three-point seatbelts are provided for each seating position, and the front belts are equipped with pretensioners and force limiters to help minimize seatbelt-related injuries. A tire pressure monitoring system also comes standard.

Walkaround

The 2007 Lexus GX 470 looks big and brawny. It doesn't seem excessively long on the outside, but it does look tall, especially from the rear, in part because of the vertically oriented tail lamps and other design cues. From the rear it almost looks tippy, which is unfortunate because it's anything but.

The GX 470 shares its basic five-door body shell with the Toyota 4Runner. Unique rear quarters give the Lexus a different visual personality, however. It looks cleaner and more contemporary, a bit more like a tall station wagon compared to the carefully calculated rugged-truck look of the 4Runner. Unique grilles and bumpers distinguish the two vehicles and give them their respective Lexus and Toyota identities, but a more careful examination reveals that they are more alike than different.

Details add visual richness to the GX 470. These include its peaky hood and grille combination, along with its nicely integrated body-colored bumpers, fender flares and side moldings. Massive headlamps and those complex, high-mounted tail lamps define its corners.

Interior

The Lexus GX 470 interior is trimmed in rich leather and bird's-eye maple. It's roomy and well finished, with large, comfortable seats and lots of elbow room. The materials are excellent. Tall side windows afford a good view out, making the cabin seem airy.

In this sport-utility vehicle, everything seems to be where it's supposed to be, and everything is clearly labeled. All of the gauges and instruments are large and easy to read, with simple graphics shared by other Lexus products. Switches and controls are large, straightforward, elegantly designed and easy to operate.

The navigation system has been upgraded for 2007. This is the fifth-generation Lexus system, and it includes voice recognition that allows the driver to enter a destination by voice command. The screen now features a high-resolution, 800x480-pixel display in 32,000 colors. Maps and roads are shown with 3-D shadow effects, and the system can even display graphic representations of buildings in selected cities. System functions include multiple route calculation, route preview, simplified highway-junction graphics and a dual-map screen option. Spanish has been added to English and French text-display choices.

The 2007 navigation system integrates Bluetooth wireless technology. When using a compatible phone, Bluetooth allows the driver to transfer phone books to the nav system and make calls through its touch-screen panel or voice commands.

The backup camera displays what's directly behind the GX 470 on the seven-inch navigation screen when reverse is engaged. Beyond helping the driver to avoid backing over obstacles, such as a tricycle left in the driveway, it's also useful when parking in tight spaces.

The standard audio system now includes an auxiliary input jack. The Mark Levinson audio option turns the GX 470 into a concert hall on wheels, with 14 speakers and 240 watts of power. The Panasonic rear-seat entertainment system ranked highest in overall customer satisfaction in a 2005 J.D. Power and Associates study, and it's been upgraded for 2007 with a nine-inch, wide-screen display. The high-resolution screen lowers from the headliner. Front-seat passengers can also watch a DVD with the Mark Levinson audio system, but only when the vehicle is in Park. The video plays on the navigation screen.

The GX is a space-efficient vehicle. The second row bench seat is roomy, comfortable and easy to get into. It splits 60/40 for versatility and folds flat. A family of four with a big dog will feel right at home.

Order the optional third row and the GX 470 can seat eight, sort of. The third row is suitable for children, but it's nearly hopeless for adults. On the positive side, the rear air conditioning included with the third seat allows separate temperature adjustment for third-row kiddies and dogs.

Split 50/50, the third-row seat can be folded up out of the way or removed and stored. What starts as a 13 cubic-foot cargo bay can be expanded in steps to more than 77 cubic feet by folding or removing the lightweight rear seats and then folding the second row as well. At one time we would have said that this is not a lot of cargo space for a mid-size SUV. Now that some leaders in the field have sacrificed efficiency for style, however, the GX 470 doesn't look so bad by comparison. The Mercedes-Benz M-Class offers only 72.4 cubic feet, almost 10 feet less than the previous generation, BMW X5's offers just 62 cubic feet. Unfortunately, the GX 470's cargo door still opens from the left side. It might be great in right-hand-drive Japan, but it's awkward in the U.S., forcing you to walk around it when unloading curbside at the airport.