Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A Mazda by any other name: 2017 Toyota Yaris iA

Photo from Toyota.com
  These days, it is pretty easy to find a subcompact car that is affordable and fuel efficent. However, what if you wanted one that is packed full of features and decently fun to drive? Then the 2017 Toyota Yaris iA might be an option for you.

     The car that is the Yaris iA has lived something of a traveler's life. The first 2 years the car was on the market, it was the Scion iA. In actuality, it is a Mazda 2. Last year, Toyota canned the Scion brand, and brought the iA over to Toyota.

      The 2017 Toyota Yaris iA is a compact sedan that is only offered in one pretty well equipped trim level. Standard features include 16-inch alloy wheels, keyless ignition and entry, cruise control, a low-speed forward collision warning system with emergency braking, full power accessories, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, 60/40 split folding rear seats, and a/c.

Photo from Toyota.com
     On the technology front, you get a rear vision camera, 7-inch touchscreen, Bluetooth, and a six speaker audio system. A navigation system is one of the few options you can get, however.

     The 2017 Yaris iA employs a 1.5 liter 4-cylinder engine that should in theory produce the same 106 horsepower and 103 lb.-ft of torque that the Scion iA did. Power is sent to the front wheels only, and is routed through a standard 6-speed manual transmission. You can get a 6-speed automatic for an extra cost, if that interests you.

     According to the EPA, the auto-equipped Yaris iA should be good for 35 mpg combined, with the manual clocking in at 34 mpg combined.

     Standard safety features include antilock brakes(however the rears are drums,) stability control, front-seat side airbags, full length curtain airbags, as well as traction control. A low speed collision warning system with automatic braking is standard, which is rare in this class, even as an option.

    Yaris iA bucks that trend and earns higher marks for comfort and thoughtful design. Materials used in the cabin are similar to those found in more expensive vehicles, and the touchscreen infotainment system with the redundant rotary knob is the same way. The 7-inch touchscreen is placed in such a way that the sharp graphics can be read at a quick glance.
Photo from Toyota.com
 To be honest, you can't really expect much in the way of interior refinement in this class, but the

     The front seats only have the most basic of adjustments, but average or shorter people will find these seats perfect for longer trips. Taller drivers might have to compromise however, as the short extension of the tilt and telescoping steering wheel could force you to sit closer to the steering wheel than they might like. A arm rest doesn't come standard, but you can order one from the dealer as an extra cost option.

     Rear seats are normal for this class, meaning that for average and shorter people, they are perfect. For the taller folk, head and leg room might be an issue. The tall door panels and smallish windows tend to make the space feel even smaller than it is. On the good side, the trunk comes in at a large for the class 13.5 cubic feet of space. The folding rear seats will make that number grow even larger.

Photo from Toyota.com
     With modest power coming from the 4-cylinder engine, the 2017 Toyota Yaris iA will take some time and space to get up to the faster highway speeds. A tap of the sport button on models that are equipped with the 6-speed auto transmission sharpens the throttle response, but you still might need to floor it to merge with traffic or make that pass.

     Thanks to the Mazda underpinnings, the Yaris iA feels surprisingly sharp and athletic on winding roads. It should deliver a smooth and compliant ride, without much noise or fanfare to deal with.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016 Toyota Tacoma TRD Offroad Double Cab

Photo from Toyota.com
   For more than 20 years now, the Toyota Tacoma has been a very popular alternative for shoppers who feel regular full-size trucks are just too big or too expensive. It's no surprise, then, that the redesigned 2016 Toyota Tacoma hasn't drifted far from the proven formula. If you liked the long-running previous-generation Tacoma, you're going to like this one, too. But Toyota has also made some notable improvements that burnish the latest version's appeal.

     One thing you won't find in the 2016 Tacoma lineup is the venerable handyman special, a.k.a. the regular-cab 4x2 stripper with dinky steel wheels. Regular cabs were ousted last year, leaving only the extended cab and crew cab body styles on the roster, and for 2016, all rear-drive Tacomas share the raised suspension and ground clearance with their 4x4 brethren. Capable off-road performance is still part of the 4x4 Tacoma's repertoire, though, as the TRD Off-Road model (with the automatic transmission) inherits the Crawl Control system from the 4Runner and Land Cruiser. All Tacomas even get an integrated GoPro mount so owners can record their adventures (and misadventures). Other additions for 2016 include a revamped interior design with Toyota's latest touchscreen interfaces, a standard lockable damped tailgate and an available tri-fold hard tonneau cover.

     Under the hood, the outgoing Tacoma's base 2.7 liter four-cylinder engine carries over unchanged, but the noisy and somewhat coarse 4.0-liter V6 has been replaced by a smoother and more fuel-efficient V6. Derived from the 3.5-liter V6 found in many Toyota products, the Tacoma's version boasts 42 more horsepower than last year's V6. Both engines are offered with a new six-speed automatic transmission, and 4x4s are available with a manual gearbox as well. Tacoma 4x4s also get a redesigned transfer case and a beefier rear axle.
     Put it all together and you're looking at a pretty desirable choice for a midsize pickup. That said, you should still take a look at the vastly improved General Motors twins, the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon. For taller drivers, they're likely more comfortable to drive, and V6 performance is stronger, though the Colorado and Canyon aren't as capable off-road as the Tacoma. The General will also be adding a diesel option to both trucks for 2016, which should give them a huge advantage in fuel economy. There's also the Nissan Frontier to consider, but it's overdue for a redesign and brings up the rear in terms of refinement.
Photo from Toyota.com

     The Toyota Tacoma is a midsize pickup truck available with two cabs: the extended Access Cab (with small rear-hinged back doors) and the Double Cab (a larger crew cab). Access Cab models come exclusively with a 127.8-inch wheelbase and a 73.7-inch long bed. Double Cab models are offered in short- (127.4-inch) and long- (141-inch) wheelbase versions, the former with a 60.5-inch short bed and the latter with the long bed.

     The Tacoma is offered in five trim levels: SR, SR5, TRD Sport, TRD Off-Road and Limited.
     The SR model comes standard with 16-inch steel wheels, a cargo bed rail system with fixed and adjustable tie-downs, a bedliner, a sliding rear window, full power accessories (windows, locks and mirrors), air-conditioning, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel with audio controls, a GoPro windshield mount, a rearview camera, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, voice controls, Siri Eyes Free (for Apple phones), a 6.1-inch touchscreen interface and a six-speaker audio system with a CD player, a USB port and an auxiliary audio jack.
     Options specific to the SR include the SR Convenience package, which includes cruise control and remote keyless entry. If you spring for that package, 16-inch black alloy wheels can be added as well. Four-cylinder Access Cab models offer a Utility package, which deletes the rear seat and sliding rear window, removes the two rear speakers (reducing the total to four) and replaces the standard body-color door handles, bumpers and mirror caps with black plastic pieces.
     The SR5 model adds the SR Convenience package's items plus foglights, chrome exterior accents, variable intermittent wipers, rear privacy glass, a color trip computer, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with phone and audio controls, satellite radio and the Scout GPS Link navigation app (requires a compatible smartphone).
     SR5 options include the SR5 Appearance package, which bundles 16-inch silver alloy wheels, body-color over-fenders and an auto-dimming rearview mirror (V6 models only). An expanded version of the Appearance package adds rear parking sensors and an upgraded infotainment bundle with a 7-inch touchscreen, the Entune App Suite, HD radio and an integrated navigation system.
Photo from Toyota.com
 The TRD Sport model adds LED daytime running lights, unique exterior trim (including a hood scoop), 17-inch alloy wheels, sport-tuned shock absorbers, a bed-mounted 120-volt power outlet, keyless entry and ignition (automatic transmission only), a wireless phone charger, a leather-trimmed shift lever, special upholstery (shared with the TRD Off-Road), the auto-dimming rearview mirror and the SR5's optional upgraded infotainment bundle.
     TRD Sport options include a Premium and Technology package that adds automatic headlights, a sunroof (Double Cab only), dual-zone climate control, heated front seats, rear parking sensors and a blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert. On Double Cab models with the automatic transmission, this package can be ordered in conjunction with an upgraded JBL stereo with a subwoofer.
     Next up is the TRD Off-Road model, which adds its own rugged body trim (without the TRD Sport's hood scoop), special 16-inch alloy wheels, Bilstein shock absorbers and chin-spoiler delete (to improve the truck's off-road ability). All TRD Off-Road Tacomas share an electronic locking rear differential, and the Crawl Control system (essentially cruise control for off-road maneuvers between 1 and 5 mph) is further added if you select the automatic transmission. Options mirror those of the TRD Sport.
     At the top of the line is the Limited model, which comes exclusively as a Double Cab. It gets 18-inch alloy wheels, unique exterior and interior trim, leather upholstery and the contents of TRD twins' optional Premium and Technology package (including the JBL stereo).
     A hard lockable tonneau cover and a towing package (V6 models only) are offered as stand-alone options for all trim levels.

     The 2016 Toyota Tacoma comes with either a 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine (SR and SR5 only) or a 3.5 liter V6. Both rear-wheel-drive (4x2) and four-wheel-drive (4x4) configurations are available. All 4x2 Tacomas get a six-speed automatic transmission, while 4x4s can be had with the automatic or one of two manual transmissions (five speeds for the four-cylinder engine, six speeds for the V6).
Tacoma 4x4s have low-range gearing. Manual-transmission TRD Off-Road models also get a special mode that allows the truck to be started in gear without depressing the clutch, thus eliminating clutch slippage and rollback while stalled going uphill.
Photo from Toyota.com
     The 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine is rated at 159 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque. EPA fuel economy ratings are 21 mpg combined (19 city/23 highway) for the 4x2 automatic, 20 mpg combined (19/21) for the 4x4 manual and 20 mpg combined (19/22) for the 4x4 automatic.
The V6's output jumps up to 278 hp and 265 lb-ft of torque. EPA estimates for a V6 4x2 Tacoma (automatic) are 21 mpg combined (19/24). A V6 4x4 Tacoma returns 19 mpg combined (17/21) with the manual (18 mpg Double Cab) or 20 mpg combined (18/23) with the automatic. Four-cylinder Tacomas can tow a maximum of 3,500 pounds, while V6 models can handle between 6,400 and 6,800 pounds, depending on driveline and cab configuration.
     All Tacomas come with active front headrests, front-seat side airbags, driver and passenger knee airbags and full-length side curtain airbags, as well as traction and stability control and antilock brakes with brake assist. Unlike most pickup trucks, the Tacoma still uses drum brakes at the rear. A blind-spot warning system with rear cross-traffic alert is optional on TRD models and standard on the Tacoma Limited.
     After a remarkable 11 years on the market, the old Tacoma was certainly showing its age from behind the wheel, so we're pleased to see some contemporary design flair in the new truck's dashboard. As expected, most of the materials seem to have been selected with durability in mind, not luxury, but there are some inspired choices here and there, including trim-specific dash inserts ranging from rubber (TRD trims) to simulated leather (Limited). We're also happy that the user-friendly nature of the control layout hasn't changed. The very responsive touchscreen interface (measuring either 6.1 or 7.0 inches) sits front and center, with glove-friendly climate control knobs and secondary switches beneath.
Photo from Toyota.com
 The Tacoma's front seats are distinguished by their low mounting position and lack of height adjustability. Even if there were such adjustability, it wouldn't be very useful, as there's already limited headroom for taller occupants. Another unfortunate Tacoma trait is the comically short range of its telescoping steering wheel -- it seems to come out about an inch, which is a couple inches short of satisfactory for long-legged drivers.
     The Tacoma Access Cab's scant backseat space is best for children, but the Double Cab's rear quarters are adult-friendly, featuring adequate legroom and an agreeably angled seatback. Both cabs feature a folding rear seat, and the entry-level SR Access Cab can be ordered with a Utility package that deletes the backseat entirely. Out back, the Tacoma comes standard with a plastic-lined bed as well as four adjustable and four fixed tie-down cleats, with a handy bed-mounted power outlet available on some models. The tailgate is both removable and lockable, and if you open it and let go, it won't slam down; damped hinges lower it gently to bumper level.

     The Tacoma's 3.5-liter V6 engine is noticeably smoother and quieter than its 4.0-liter predecessor, and it feels sprightly enough in real-world driving, especially at higher rpm. In our acceleration tests, though, it trails the old V6 to 60 mph despite its extra 42 horses. We expect that testing the manual-transmission version will yield further insight, but for now, the numbers don't lie -- the V6-powered GM twins are significantly quicker from zero to 60. Also, the automatic transmission tends to hunt between gears on freeway inclines, making it more of a chore than expected to keep up with traffic.

     The 2016 Tacoma's cab is better insulated than ever before, giving the truck a more serene ride on a variety of surfaces. While the TRD Off-Road's suspension and 16-inch tires are optimized for rough terrain, we like the way it soaks up the bumps on pavement, too. On a brief drive, a Limited model felt noticeably firmer with its 18-inch tires and road-tuned suspension setup, though certainly not uncomfortable. Either way, we applaud the Tacoma's steering, which offers a pleasant build-up of effort and good centering. Off-road, the Tacoma is ready for just about anything with its 9.4 inches of ground clearance and 29- or 32-degree approach angle, far surpassing the GM twins' 8.4 inches and 18 degrees, respectively.

2016 Lexus RX 350 AWD

Photo from Lexus.com
 Let's get this out of the way right off the bat: The 2016 Lexus RX 350 has an extremely large grille. If that black expanse were any bigger, Stephen Hawking would probably have to be called in to investigate for the presence of a black hole. At the same time, the all-new RX also has enough creases and sharp edges to make one think that 
Lexus delegated the design phase to a sword-slashing samurai. For a midsize crossover that has been quite anodyne until now, this makeover is bound to be a bit shocking.

    More importantly, however, there are plenty of substantive changes that make this luxury crossover SUV more carlike and indeed better than ever before. For one thing, Lexus increased the 2016 RX 350's wheelbase and overall length to improve interior space for passengers, while simultaneously raising the ride height and slimming out the roof line. The result is a much sleeker and less SUV-like profile, yet there's still abundant head- and legroom in both seating rows.

     Up front, the dashboard is lower and the center control stack is more angled toward the driver (who also sits a bit lower), while the improved materials and construction are absolutely first-rate. Most RX models you'll find on a dealer lot will include the Navigation package with its colossal new 12.3-inch display, one of the largest you'll find this side of a Tesla. This display comes equipped with a revised, but still distracting-to-use Remote Touch controller that we think requires more driver attention than it should. In general, though, the new RX's infotainment features have been significantly updated to meet the expectations of tech-savvy shoppers.
Photo from Lexus.com
     For power, the RX 350 stays the course with its 3.5-liter V6, but now it makes 25 more horsepower (for a total of 295) and comes standard with an eight-speed automatic transmission that helps boost fuel economy slightly. Lexus has also retuned the suspension to provide better handling than prior RX models. The RX 350 F Sport, in particular, finally delivers the goods, boasting sharper steering than the standard version, plus an adaptive suspension that yields an impressively controlled, yet still comfortable ride. Ultimately, the F Sport is aimed more at mildly sporty competitors like the Acura MDX than at dedicated performance models, but it's a gratifying drive nonetheless.
     There are a few reasons to think twice about this new RX. The aforementioned Remote Touch controller is one, along with modest acceleration and limited cargo capacity compared to segment norms. Other choices like the BMW X5, Lincoln MKX, Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class, Volkswagen Touareg and Volvo XC90 are all worthy of a long look, and a few (including the MDX) offer optional third-row seating as well. But with its long list of improvements, the 2016 RX 350 brings a welcome dose of excitement and modernity while still maintaining the comfort and quality for which it's renowned. 

    The 2016 Lexus RX 350 is a five-passenger midsize crossover SUV available in two versions: regular and F Sport. 

     Standard equipment on the RX 350 includes 18-inch wheels, automatic LED headlights, LED foglights and running lights, rear privacy glass, a power liftgate, keyless ignition and entry, selectable drive mode settings (alter steering, gas pedal sensitivity and transmission shift program), dual-zone automatic climate control, eight-way power front seats (with two-way power lumbar adjustment), a power tilt-and-telescoping leather-wrapped steering wheel, a 40/20/40-split rear seat (reclines, slides and folds), and "NuLuxe" premium vinyl upholstery. You also get a rearview camera, "Safety Connect" emergency communications (see Safety section), Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, the Display Audio tech interface (with a knob controller and an 8-inch display) and a nine-speaker sound system with a CD player, satellite and HD radio, an auxiliary audio jack, two USB ports and a media player interface.

Photo from Lexus.com
 The F Sport is technically a package and includes sportier exterior styling, 20-inch wheels, adaptive suspension dampers, additional drive mode settings, an engine noise enhancer, transmission paddle shifters, special gauges, heated and ventilated sport seats, leather upholstery and special interior trim.
     Options are grouped into packages or are stand-alone items. The availability of both can often depend on where you live.
     The Premium package adds roof rails, automatic wipers, driver memory functions, leather upholstery, wood trim and a rear armrest storage compartment. The Navigation package adds, beyond the obvious, the Remote Touch electronics interface, a bigger 12.3-inch display, voice controls, the Lexus Enform App Suite and a 12-speaker sound system.
     The Luxury package includes the Premium package items and adds 20-inch wheels (with a choice of color inserts), heated and ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, rear door sunshades, upgraded leather upholstery, four-way front seat lumbar adjustment, heated rear seats and power operation for the folding and reclining rear seatbacks. The Luxury package can be enhanced with a rear seat entertainment system, which includes two 11.6-inch angle-adjustable screens, a DVD player, an HDMI port and a 120-volt household-style power outlet.
     Options that require the Premium, Luxury or F Sport packages include a blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert, a panoramic-view back-up camera and either a regular or panoramic sunroof. There's also a Lexus Safety System + package that consists of adaptive cruise control and accident avoidance features described in the Safety section below.
     Other options include front and rear parking sensors, a hands-free power liftgate, upgraded LED headlights (with 18 individual LED accent lights), a color head-up display, a heated steering wheel and a 15-speaker Mark Levinson sound system.
Photo from Lexus.com

     Every 2016 Lexus RX 350 is powered by a 3.5-liter V6 engine good for 295 hp and 267 pound-feet of torque. An eight-speed automatic transmission and front-wheel drive are standard. All-wheel drive is optional (standard with F Sport). Lexus expects EPA-estimated fuel economy to be 23 mpg combined (20 city/28 highway) with front-wheel drive, and 22 mpg combined (19/26) with all-wheel drive. 

     The 2016 Lexus RX 350 comes standard with antilock brakes, traction and stability control, front and rear side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags and front knee airbags. A rearview camera is also standard along with Lexus Enform Safety Connect, which includes automatic collision notification, an emergency assist button and a stolen vehicle locator.

     Optional safety features include a blind spot warning system bundled with rear-cross traffic alert. The Lexus Safety System + (requires Premium, Luxury or F Sport package) adds adaptive cruise control, a frontal collision warning and mitigation system with automatic braking and pedestrian detection, lane-departure warning and lane departure intervention.
     The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the RX the best possible rating of "Good" in its moderate-overlap and small-overlap frontal-offset impact tests, as well as a "Good" rating in the side-impact, roof strength and seat/head restraint (whiplash protection) tests.
     With its lower seating position and driver-focused dashboard design, the 2016 Lexus RX 350 is palpably more carlike than its predecessors. But rest assured, you still get that elevated view of the surroundings that makes crossovers so popular. The overall design is also visually appealing (especially in the available two-tone color schemes), while the quality of materials and construction has been elevated to the same level as most upper-crust competitors (and above that of the Acura MDX).
     There's plenty of headroom in the cabin despite the more radically raked roof line, even if some may find it a tad claustrophobic compared to some competitors (especially the airy Volvo XC90). The sliding and reclining backseat is wide and comfortable, with abundant legroom for even tall occupants, while further benefiting from optional power adjustment. The front seats seemed supportive during our initial test-drives, though larger drivers may find the F Sport model's sport seats too confining.
Photo from Lexus.com
     Cargo capacity leaves something to be desired. With that radically raked roof line, there's not much space above the cargo cover, meaning bulkier items are less likely to fit. Furthermore, the 40/20/40-split rear seatback doesn't quite fold flat. Listed cargo capacity is 18.4 cubic feet behind the second row and 56.3 cubic feet with the seats folded. Lexus has changed the way it measures total capacity, so these numbers aren't directly comparable to the previous RX, but suffice it to say that the new RX has less overall space than its competitors. There's also the fact that the MDX and XC90 have an extra row of seats.
     Another downside is the Remote Touch electronics interface. Its mini-joystick-like controller is superior to the irritating touchpad found in the Lexus NX and RC, but this interface still requires a distracting degree of dexterity and concentration to operate effectively. If there's a silver lining, it's that Lexus bundles Remote Touch with the upgraded and truly sharp and impressive-looking 12.3-inch display.
     Power is merely sufficient in the RX 350, whereas the acceleration of most competitors would be described as at least energetic. The nebulous response and inconsistent effort of the standard RX steering setup also leaves something to be desired, while the standard suspension tuning doesn't instill the same level of confidence and control provided by most rivals. This RX is dynamically better than before, and certainly plenty comfortable and supremely quiet, but that's about as far as the platitudes go.
     The exception, though, is the RX 350 F Sport. It doesn't do anything for the engine apart from piping extra noise into the cabin, but the rest of the dynamic package is greatly improved. The steering is more consistent in its weighting, even when switched into one of two Sport modes. It's the F Sport's adaptive suspension, though, that makes it the best of the RX bunch. Never mind the handling improvements. The main benefit is that the RX's body is more controlled when driving over bumps, yet the ride remains genuinely comfortable. We were surprised to find that it was perfectly pleasant even in the suspension's firmest, Sport S+ setting. Really, the F Sport feels "just right" and drives in a fashion similar to the MDX, if not quite the BMW X5.

2016 Lexus NX 300h

Photo from Lexus.com
 If you're looking for a compact luxury crossover that's also a hybrid, you're almost out of luck. In fact, the 2016 Lexus NX 300h is practically the only game in town. There's exactly one other vehicle in this class with a hybrid powertrain, and that's the Audi Q5 Hybrid. We hope you like Lexus or Audi products; otherwise, you'll have to settle for a hybrid in a different body style or size class, at least for this year.
     Fortunately, there's a lot to be said in the 2016 NX 300h's favor, starting with its class-leading fuel economy and unmistakable styling. On second thought, you might find the styling unmistakably bizarre, so that's not necessarily a strong suit. But without a doubt, the NX 300h is one of the most distinctive vehicles ever to wear a Lexus badge, and in the luxury realm, distinctiveness tends to be desirable. You can also expect Lexus' customary levels of comfort, technology and build quality, though it's worth noting the NX 300h is considerably slower than its conventionally powered sibling, the NX 200t.
     As noted, the only other hybrid in the compact segment is the Audi Q5, which offers more cargo space and superior acceleration (it's actually even quicker than the regular NX 200t) but comes up 6-7 mpg short of the NX 300h in mixed driving, according to the EPA. Otherwise, as a consumption-conscious consumer, you're looking at either fuel-efficient diesel engines (the Q5 and the BMW X3 offer good ones) or generally less frugal four-cylinder gasoline engines like the one in the NX 200t. You might also consider the larger and more expensive Lexus RX 450h, which benefits from a full redesign for 2016.

Photo from Lexus.com
     The 2016 Lexus NX 300h is a five-passenger compact luxury crossover SUV. It is available in a single trim level. The non-hybrid NX 200t is reviewed separately. 

     Standard equipment includes 17-inch wheels, automatic LED headlights, LED foglights/running lights/taillights, rear privacy glass, heated mirrors, keyless ignition and entry, cruise control, dual-zone automatic climate control, eight-way power front seats (with two-way driver lumbar), 60/40-split-folding and reclining rear seats, "NuLuxe" premium vinyl upholstery, a power tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, rear climate vents, a cargo cover and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. Standard electronic features include a 7-inch central display screen, a rearview camera, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, Siri Eyes Free voice control for iPhones and an eight-speaker sound system with HD and satellite radio, a CD player, an auxiliary audio jack and a USB port. Also standard is Enform Service Connect, a service that provides remote vehicle status checks and maintenance alerts through a website or your smartphone.
     Other packages are also available, though availability can vary by region, so you'll want to check with your local dealer. The Premium package adds 18-inch wheels, auto-dimming exterior mirrors, a blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert, a sunroof, heated and ventilated front seats and driver memory settings. The Luxury package includes those items plus a power liftgate, automatic wipers, leather upholstery, a heated steering wheel and wood trim. A power-folding rear seat can be added to the Luxury package.
     The Navigation package includes a navigation system as well as the Remote Touch electronics interface, two additional speakers, voice controls and various Lexus Enform smartphone-integrated apps.
Photo from Lexus.com
 Stand-alone options include some of the above bundled items plus front and rear parking sensors, adaptive cruise control (includes a forward collision mitigation system), upgraded LED headlights and a wireless charging tray for Qi-compatible phones.

    The 2016 Lexus NX 300h features a gasoline-electric hybrid powertrain that combines a 2.5-liter four-cylinder with a pair of electric motors supplied by a nickel-metal hydride battery pack. Together, they produce a maximum output of 194 horsepower. Opting for all-wheel drive adds a third electric motor that sends power to the rear wheels for added all-weather traction and energy recuperation under braking. On the other hand, fuel economy is the best in the segment. EPA testing rates the NX 300h at 33 mpg combined(35 city/31 highway) with front-wheel drive and 32 mpg combined (33 city/30 highway) with all-wheel drive. 

    Every 2016 Lexus NX 300h comes standard with antilock brakes, traction and stability control, front side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags, a driver knee airbag and a front passenger cushion airbag that prevents occupants from submarining under the seatbelt and off the seat. A rearview camera is also standard, along with Lexus Enform Safety Connect telematics that includes automatic crash notification, stolen vehicle location and an emergency assist button.

     Optional features include a blind-spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert, as well as a frontal pre-collision system (included with adaptive cruise control) that warns of a possible collision and can automatically apply the brakes in the event of driver inaction.

Photo from Lexus.com
     In crash tests performed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the NX 300h earned a five-star rating overall, including four stars for total frontal protection and five stars for total side protection. The Insurance Institute for Highway awarded the 2016 Lexus NX a Top Safety Pick+, meaning it earned the highest possible rating of "Good" in each test and received an "Advanced" (three out of five) rating for front crash prevention.

     The NX's cabin isn't as polarizing as the exterior, but it nevertheless exudes a cool, modern vibe that ensures it won't be mistaken for anything else. Construction is absolutely top-notch, with materials that look and feel rich, especially in the available two-tone color schemes. Soft leather lines the seats and passenger-side dash, and we appreciate the padded areas that cushion the center console to keep your legs from whacking against a hard surface. Details like contrast stitching, wood trim and a modern analog clock are tastefully applied.

     The high-mounted climate controls are easy to reach and see, while other secondary controls are intuitive. The infotainment controls are less so, however. The standard Display Audio system utilizes a knob-and-screen interface similar to Mercedes' COMAND system. We haven't had a chance to try the NX 300h with Display Audio, but most NX models are likely to leave the dealer lot with navigation and thus a more elaborate control system called Remote Touch. Various menus and icons are selected with a console-mounted touchpad, much like a laptop's. There is haptic feedback through that pad when you click something, but in general, we find that using Remote Touch draws too much of your attention from the road.
     Moreover, tech-savvy users might be disappointed by the absence of Android Auto and Apple CarPlay support. Instead, Lexus offers smartphone integration on models equipped with navigation though an app called Enform. Owners must download the app to their phone to allow the NX access to other apps.
     Rear passengers in the NX should find a generous amount of space, at least compared with most other compact luxury crossovers. Cargo space is skimpy, however, even if the NX 300h avoids the typical hybrid problem of significantly reduced cargo capacity relative to the traditionally powered version. Its 53.7 cubic feet of total volume falls short of all competitors, and the raked liftgate seems to make it even less versatile than this modest number suggests. That's driven home by its 16.8 cubic feet with the seats raised, making it less spacious than even some subcompact crossovers.
Photo from Lexus.com

    The NX 300h retains the pleasing driving behavior of its turbocharged NX 200t stablemate, with responsive steering and good body control through corners and over bumps. But from there, the two diverge. While the 300h may be more fuel-efficient, its hybrid system also produces less power and weighs more, hampering acceleration.

     Instead of the NX 200t's punchy and smooth turbocharged torque, the NX 300h features the sort of hybrid driving experience that current owners of Toyota or Lexus hybrids should find familiar. That includes quiet, all-electric propulsion when accelerating gently from a stop or coasting, with the gasoline engine engaging seamlessly as more power is demanded. Hard acceleration produces loud droning noises and adequate pace, although most rival SUVs pack a bigger punch. But given the hybrid NX's superior fuel efficiency, it's a trade-off you may be happy to live with. 

2016 Mazda Mazda6 I Grand Touring

Photo from Mazda.com
 In the midsize sedan segment, the Mazda 6 has always been a bit of an outlier, typically not garnering the attention of consumers as readily as its more popular rivals. That's a shame, because the 2016 Mazda 6 can go tire-to-tire against the segment's best in terms of driving enjoyment, cabin refinement, fuel economy and features availability. Furthermore, the Mazda 6 arguably has one of the most attractive and distinctive designs to go along with its sporty demeanor on the road.

     One of the 6's most impressive qualities is its combination of fuel mileage and performance. Equipped with the available i-Eloop system (optional on the Grand Touring trim), the Mazda 6 earns an EPA-estimated 32 mpg in combined driving, which is right at the top among gasoline-fueled, non-hybrid midsize sedans. Even without i-Eloop, the Mazda rates 31 mpg combined, which is still a great number for a family car. Despite its meager appetite, the 6 manages to be quicker than most four-cylinder-powered rivals. Acceleration is more than adequate whether you're carving through city traffic or getting up to highway speeds. On top of that, the 6 boasts precise steering and relatively nimble handling that make it fun to hustle along on the occasional back road or circular highway on-ramp.

     Though this Mazda is a fantastic choice for driving enthusiasts, the price paid for this level of athleticism is a stiffer ride than you might expect in a midsize family sedan. Bumps and potholes are more noticeable in the 6 than in its more softly sprung competitors, especially if you get the 19-inch wheels. And while the Mazda 6 has one of the best base four-cylinder engines around, there's no option to upgrade to a more powerful turbocharged four-cylinder or V6 engine.
      The 2016 Mazda 6 is a five-passenger midsize sedan offered in three trim levels: Sport, Touring and Grand Touring.
Photo from Mazda.com
     Standard features on the base manual-transmission Sport include 17-inch alloy wheels, LED taillights, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, air-conditioning, cruise control, full power accessories, a height-adjustable driver seat, a 60/40-split rear seat, a multi-information display, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, and a six-speaker sound system with a CD player, an iPod /USB interface and an auxiliary audio jack. If equipped with the optional automatic transmission, the Sport also includes a 7-inch touchscreen, a rearview camera and audio upgrades (voice commands, HD radio, Internet radio apps, text message display function and automatic emergency notification).
     Stepping up to the Touring trim adds 19-inch alloy wheels, keyless ignition and entry, blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alerts, premium vinyl (leatherette) upholstery, dual-zone automatic climate control, rear air-conditioning vents, a sliding console armrest and a six-way power driver seat. For the 6 Touring with an automatic transmission, there's an option package that adds a sunroof, an upgraded 11-speaker Bose audio system and satellite radio. This package is required if you want to have the Touring Technology package, which adds unique front end styling, adaptive LED headlights, LED daytime running lights, automatic wipers, auto-dimming rearview and driver-side mirrors, heated side mirrors, heated front seats and a low-speed frontal collision mitigation system with automatic braking.
     The Grand Touring includes all of the above as standard, as well as different 19-inch wheels, LED foglights, a rear spoiler, leather upholstery, a navigation system, a head-up display, steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters, an eight-way power driver seat (with power lumbar support), a six-way power passenger seat and driver memory settings.
     Optional for the Grand Touring is the GT Technology package, which includes adaptive cruise control, a frontal collision warning/mitigation system with automatic braking, a lane departure warning system, automatic high-beam control and an energy capture system called i-Eloop ("intelligent energy loop") that improves mpg by storing energy captured during deceleration to a capacitor, which can then power air-conditioning, lighting and accessories for about a minute while the stop-start system shuts the engine down at a stoplight. Rear parking sensors are optional on any Mazda 6.
Photo from Mazda.com
 The front-wheel-drive 2016 Mazda 6 is powered by a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 184 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque. Sport and Touring models can be matched to either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission (with shift paddles on the steering wheel), while the Grand Touring comes only with the automatic.
     The 6's EPA fuel economy estimates are remarkable. They stand at 31 mpg combined (26 city/38 highway) for the automatic-transmission car and 29 mpg combined (25/37) with the manual. With the Grand Touring's optional i-Eloop feature, fuel economy rises to an impressive 32 mpg combined (28/40).
    Standard safety features for the Mazda 6 include antilock disc brakes, traction and stability control, front seat side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags and active front head restraints. Standard on all trims other than the manual-transmission Sport are a rearview camera and automatic emergency notification (in the event of a crash), while rear parking sensors are optional across the board. The Touring and Grand Touring trims additionally include blind spot and rear cross-traffic monitoring.
     On automatic-equipped cars, remote door locking is possible via the optional Mazda Mobile Start smartphone app service. Optional on the Touring and standard on the Grand Touring is Mazda's Smart City Brake Support, which is a frontal collision mitigation system that uses an infrared laser sensor at the top of the windshield to detect an imminent collision. It can automatically brake the car to a stop at low speeds if the driver doesn't react. The GT Technology package for the Grand Touring also bundles a forward collision warning system (which uses radar to detect your closing distance on vehicles ahead and then provides visual and audible alerts) with a lane departure warning system. 
Photo from Mazda.com
  In government crash tests, the Mazda 6 earned the top overall rating of five stars, with four stars for total frontal impact crash protection and five stars for total side impact protection. The 6 also earned the highest possible rating of "Good" in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's moderate overlap and small overlap frontal-offset impact tests, as well as a "Good" score for the side-impact, roof strength and whiplash protection (seats and head restraints) tests.
    With plentiful rear legroom, the Mazda 6's rear passengers will feel as if they've been given access to a first-class cabin rather than coach. There's also generous headroom, even for those taller than 6 feet, though the sedan's sloping rear roof line makes the rear windows smaller, resulting in a more claustrophobic feel than you'd get in an Accord or a Camry. There's decent luggage space, as the efficiently shaped trunk offers 14.8 cubic feet of capacity.
     In general, the 6's interior design is clean and functional. Polished aluminum trim accents the cabin, while the Grand Touring's leather upholstery features contrasting stitching. Materials quality and fit and finish are among the best in the class. In previous years, the 6's touchscreen interface was a letdown, suffering from a small screen, substandard navigation map details and occasional inability to get along with Apple products. The new 7-inch screen is considerably better. Its response times are quick, virtual buttons are large and the display is legible and easy to understand. The touchscreen also has a knob-type controller on the center console that provides a secondary way to interact with the screen. Our only complaint is that when the car is moving, the touchscreen functionality is disabled, leaving the controller as the only way to access infotainment functions.  
Photo from Mazda.com
 One standout characteristic of the 2016 Mazda 6 is its powertrain. The sedan's 2.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine produces quick acceleration and is smooth and surprisingly hushed. And although many of today's automatic transmissions quickly upshift to the highest gear possible and are reluctant to downshift (both strategies are used to boost mpg numbers), the Mazda 6's automatic is responsive to gas pedal inputs and never feels flat-footed when you're initiating highway passing maneuvers. Furthermore, Mazda is one of the few automakers that still offers a six-speed manual gearbox, which is fast becoming an endangered species in the midsize sedan class.
     This same light-on-its-feet character carries through when the topic turns to handling. With its communicative, precise steering and sporty chassis tuning, the 2016 Mazda 6 feels sharp-witted and willing when driven around turns. The flip side, however, is that the 6 rides a bit more stiffly than competitors, especially with the 19-inch wheels. Like many Mazdas, the 6 is a car for practical-minded buyers with enthusiast leanings.

Correction: This is my last Scion review; 2016 Scion FR-S

Photo from Toyota.com
The small sport coupe is a small niche in the U.S. car market, but for shoppers who want nimble handling, peppy performance and good looks in a small package -- and can't abide the thought of four doors -- Scion's updated 2016 FR-S remains one of the best choices available. It's a back-to-basics, lightweight sports car with rear-wheel drive, excellent balance and an affordable price.
     Driving characteristics are the main draw for the 2016 Scion FR-S (co-developed with Subaru, which offers a twin in the Subaru BRZ). The FR-S nimbly zips around turns, yet it's not intimidating to drive hard like a lot of high-horsepower, rear-drive coupes can be. The FR-S gets pretty respectable gas mileage, too: 28 mpg combined with the six-speed automatic transmission, 25 mpg with the six-speed manual.
     While it is quite entertaining to drive, there are some drawbacks with the 2016 FR-S. Its 200-horsepower four-cylinder engine is capable but lacks the low-end oomph that competitors with larger engines can offer. The FR-S can also feel a bit insubstantial in the way it responds to road impacts, and seems noisy during long highway drives. It's not the most practical thing, either. The trunk is relatively small and the rear seats are pretty much useless, even for small children. It's best to think of the FR-S as a functional two-seater.
     By offering a two-door body, 2+2 seating layout and sporty, rear-wheel-drive driving dynamics for a relatively low price, Scion plunks the 2016 FR-S into a segment with only a few direct rivals. Chief among them is its twin, the Subaru BRZ, which is nearly identical. If you desire stronger acceleration, the Nissan 370Z is an option, though it can be considerably more expensive. If practicality drives your decision-making, you can have a lot of fun in front-wheel-drive hatchbacks like the Ford Focus ST, Volkswagen GTI and Mini Cooper S. Whatever you compare it to, though, the 2016 Scion FR-S stands out as a stylish and elemental small sports car that gives you a great driving experience. It's definitely worth a look.
Photo from Toyota.com

     The 2016 Scion FR-S sport coupe comes in a single trim level. Standard equipment includes 17-inch alloy wheels, automatic headlights, air-conditioning, full power accessories, a height-adjustable driver seat, a tilt-and-telescoping leather-wrapped steering wheel, cruise control, a rearview camera, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, and an eight-speaker sound system with a 7-inch touchscreen, voice commands, HD radio, Aha radio, an auxiliary audio jack and a USB interface.
Other than exterior color and transmission choices, Scion doesn't offer any factory options for the FR-S. Instead, there's an array of dealer-installed accessories such as foglights, performance parts and a premium BeSpoke sound system with navigation, additional smartphone app integration and Internet radio.

    A 2.0-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine generating 200 hp and 151 pound-feet of torque is the only power plant for the 2016 Scion FR-S. You can mate it to either the standard six-speed manual transmission or the optional six-speed automatic with paddle shifters and rev-matched downshifts. The six-speed manual 2016 FR-S returns a respectable EPA estimate of 25 mpg combined (22 city/30 highway), while the automatic achieves an impressive 28 mpg combined (25/34).

    Standard safety features on the 2016 Scion FR-S include antilock brakes, traction and stability control, front seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags. In government crash tests, the Scion FR-S received five out of five stars for overall crash protection, with four stars for total frontal crash protection and five stars for total side impact safety. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded it the highest possible rating of "Good" in the moderate-overlap frontal-offset, side-impact, roof-strength and head restraint/seat (whiplash protection) tests. The Scion received the second-highest score of "Acceptable" in the small-overlap frontal-offset test.

Photo from Toyota.com
Scion has made few concessions to style or luxury in the 2016 FR-S cabin. It's an environment that emphasizes driving, punctuated only by a blend of Toyota and Subaru switchgear and materials. The FR-S's cockpit looks a little bare compared with other compact sports cars in its price range, yet it also feels like a genuine back-to-basics driver's car. Touches of silver-tone trim around the previously all-black interior help lighten up the 2016 FR-S a bit.

     The FR-S's front seats are comfortable for long-distance trips while providing firm support for hard driving. Drivers of just about any size can find a suitable driving position, and the low-profile hood allows an expansive view of the road ahead. Scion has updated the touchscreen-based audio system this year, so there's probably less of a reason this year to go for the upgraded BeSpoke system unless you really want navigation and smartphone app integration.
     In the backseat, legroom is next to nil, heads bob perilously close to the rear glass and the center tunnel impedes hiproom. Trunk space is minuscule at 6.9 cubic feet, although folding down the mostly useless rear seat expands cargo-carrying abilities considerably. 

    The 2016 Scion FR-S is not a car built for sizzling straight-line performance. Its moderately powered 2.0-liter engine revs willingly and lets out a nice snarl at high rpm, but we're still talking about outright acceleration that's no better than that of a modern V6 family sedan.

Photo from Toyota.com
     In Scion's defense, moderation is part of the car's design, anyway. It's light and nimble, so you look for excuses to take it for a spin and drive it a little farther or harder than you need to because it's so entertaining. The FR-S defines what sports car driving is all about.
     From a practical standpoint, the FR-S does a decent job in long-distance highway travel. It's not loud, exactly, but it certainly isn't serene at higher cruising speeds. Most drivers will be pleased with the compliant ride quality, but the car's lightweight nature means it can feel somewhat insubstantial compared to bigger and heavier sport coupes.