Luxury Summer Tow

July 2nd, 2019

By Don Armstrong

Towing a boat and trailer is second nature to many in the Bay Area but the right vehicle can make all the difference on the easiness scale. We recently drove a couple of contenders that would be a welcome addition to any skipper’s fleet.

Lexus GX460
The body-on-frame Lexus GX 460 hits the right notes when conducting the luxury and towing symphony. This player touts a somewhat subdued interior that feels rich, without being over the top. Quality fit and finish, combined with high-end leather and real wood accents, remind us of Uncle Jimmy’s library.

As with most SUV’s with 3-rows of seating, the last row should be relegated to the kids as leg room and seat bottom height will cripple most adults on all but short jaunts.
Powering the full-time all-wheel drive system is a 301-horsepower, 4.6-liter V-8. While some manufacturers offer 10-speed automatic transmissions, Lexus soldiers on with a 6-speed. That combination gets a 15 MPG-city and 18-highway rating from the EPA.

The GX460 is equipped with an air suspension that smooths most road bumps, but don’t expect car-like or crossover smoothness. Despite its heft, however, store parking lots that require tight maneuvering are easier than you’d think.

We recommend shopping the high-end Luxury trim level that is $11,500 more than the $53,505 entry model price.

Chevrolet Tahoe
When we think of luxury, Chevrolet doesn’t typically fall into that category, but we recently drove a loaded-up 4-wheel drive, top of the line, Premier Plus Edition that we’ll put up against almost any competitor in the luxo class.

First, let’s talk price. The entry-level Tahoe starts at $46,800. The Premier 4WD jumps up to $65,600, while our test Tahoe stickers for $78,565. You’re probably thinking, “wait, this is a Chevrolet?” Yes, and this one definitely separates the men from the boys.

As you might expect, everything but the kitchen sink is on board, including the new, optional 6.2-liter V-8 that hums out 420-horsepower, more than enough to haul 8 humans and tow up to 8,400 pounds. The 10-speed automatic transmission is smooth as silk, but fuel mileage is on par with most others in the body-on-frame class, 14-city and 22-highway.
The Tahoe Premier Plus also comes with Chevy’s Magnetic Ride Control that dampens bumps like no other suspension gizmo. Those auto-folding running boards make climbing into our football-brown leather interior a breeze.

Truck Paradise

May 1st, 2019

By Don Armstrong

The midsize truck market is on fire and with two more manufacturers joining the segment, there’s going to be an all-out war. Bay Area Houston Magazine had the chance to drive a couple of contenders and it appears the gloves are coming off.

Toyota Tacoma
Dominating the midsize segment for more than a decade, the Toyota Tacoma is finally feeling the heat from competitors.

The 2020 Tacoma made its appearance at the recent Chicago Auto Show and at first glance, not many changes. But digging a little deeper, Toyota heard owner grumblings and is now offering a 10-way adjustable driver’s seat along with tech goodies that include Apple Car Play, Android Auto and Amazon Alexa voice.

There are no changes in the powertrain, you choose from a 4-cylinder – for the not too serious tucker – or the V-6, which we recommend. A 6-speed transmission, manual or automatic, is available, depending on the trim level you select, of which there are no fewer than 6.

The Toyota Tacoma has earned a great reputation so to pick the nits would be silly, and with a “Built in Texas” sticker on the window, what Bay Area Texan wouldn’t be proud to own one.

2019 pricing starts at $25,550. The 2020 won’t be available until the last quarter of this year.

Ford Ranger
It’s back and looking better than ever, albeit much larger than the old one, last built in 2011.

The 2019 Ford Ranger is all-new, kind of. Think of it as the Americanized version of the Australian Ranger, a very capable midsize built since 2015.

If you’re a Ford fanatic, the new Ranger might check all the boxes on your wish list including the ability to fit in the garage.

The Ranger’s shape is modern and attractive including its hexagonal grille. And, depending on the trim level you choose, a nice set of factory wheels that strike a chord with your design tastes are readily available.

There is only one engine assigned to it, the 2.3-liter turbocharged, inline 4-cylinder that delivers 270-horsepower. It’s mated to a 10-speed automatic transmission. We averaged almost 23-MPG during our 400-mile test week.

Who would have ever thought a little 4-banger would be up to towing 7,500-lbs and hauling 1,860-lbs.? That’s impressive.

Pricing starts at $24,300, add a few extras and it will run you closer to $40,000.

Big as You Want

April 1st, 2019

By Don Armstrong

The difference between a sport utility vehicle, SUV, and crossover utility vehicle, CUV, is capability. The body-on-frame SUV typically shares most of its underpinnings with a modified truck chassis, giving it more towing and hauling capacity. The CUV is more car-like, with its unibody construction. Each, however, has its own attributes.

Ford Expedition
Expedition is Ford’s version of the Chevy Suburban, a big, hulking, monster of a machine capable of hauling sacks of concrete, people and equipment, all while towing a loaded trailer. However, if you’re more into hauling the ball team and its equipment to the game, it makes the trip effortless, and in the luxury you can afford.

Ford’s infotainment system, Sync 3, provides all the tech connections you could ever want, while seating up to eight people. Air vents, controls and displays are located at your finger tip and easy to use.

Under the hood is a 375-horsepower, 3.5-liter, turbocharged V-6. A new 10-speed automatic transmission helps this beast achieve 17 MPG-city and 22-highway.

Ford researchers know the options most of us like on a do-all, like Expedition, and they package them in trim levels titled XLT, Limited and Platinum.

Pricing starts at $52,130.

Unless you are a Ford fanatic, you’ll also want to shop the Chevy Suburban, Toyota Sequoia and Nissan Armada.

Mazda CX-5
With a sportiness that attracts those who enjoy the art of driving, the Mazda CX-5 brings with it ‘the look’ that enthusiasts appreciate. The leading edge of its hood is thin and evokes a marathon runner’s svelte physique. The door skins have a sharp belt-line transition, giving it cutting-edge swagger.

The CX-5 has an inviting interior. The infotainment screen is perched atop the middle dash. Touch features are limited while the vehicle is in motion, but most can be accessed through a knob on the center console.

The 2019 model addresses the need for more grunt with an optional turbo version of Mazda’s 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine that delivers up to 250-horsepower through a 6-speed automatic transmission.

Its taut suspension fits the sporty nature of the brand. So, when there is an opportunity to carpet the throttle and zoom onto the freeway entry, you’ll do it with a smile.

The CX-5 starts at $24,350. You’ll have to get one of the top two trim levels to access the higher horsepower engine option.

Car Gifting for Grads

March 4th, 2019

By Don Armstrong

As parents or grandparents, we love all the hubbub graduation brings with it and the perfect gift may be at a nearby dealership right around the corner. In this edition of Bay Area Houston Magazine, we look at a couple of top “gifting” contenders.

Hyundai Elantra
Packaged in a nicely re-sculpted metal jacket, the 2019 Hyundai Elantra comes with a pretty good reputation for reliability. And let’s face it, we want our grads to get wherever they’re going without being stranded in the middle of nowhere in the old family hand-me-down.

Pricing, of course, plays a huge part in this selection process, so with a sticker starting at $17,200, we can already hear the bell ringing.

Even the base SE model has those the “must-have” features such as power mirrors, a rearview camera, height-adjustable front seats, Bluetooth, and a six-speaker sound system with a 5-inch display and USB port.

Under the hood is a 2.0-liter, 147-horsepower 4-cylinder engine that is rated at 29 MPG-city and 38-highway. I taught my 16-year old how to row the gears of a manual transmission so you may consider it too, it could come in handy someday. Add a few dollars to the base price and get the automatic transmission, if you must.

Another “persuader” is its warranty. The 2019 Elantra comes with a 5-year, 60,000-mile certificate.

2018 Mitsubishi Mirage G4

Mitsubishi Mirage G4
The new Mitsubishi Mirage compares nicely to the Elantra on many levels, including mileage, amenities and warranty, but in the affordability category, this Thailander wins hands-down. Starting at a mere $14,795, the G4 gets into pre-owned pricing territory. Do we have your attention?

The Mirage G4 – what Mitsubishians call the sedan – gets several upgrades in 2019, including a touchscreen interface, rear view camera and Bluetooth connectivity, all necessary items for our generation “Z”ers.

Powered by a tiny 1.2-liter 3-cylinder engine, the Mirage is rated at 35 MPG-city and 41-highway. A continuously variable transmission maximizes its lowly 78-horsepower output.
The interior is stark compared to what most of us are used to but think how it will be used and abused.

Safety should also be a major consideration and the Mirage passes in all 5 categories.

From someone with experience in “gifting” autos, don’t get anything other than the base model. Your grad won’t know the difference and you can spend the money you saved on a nice, little presentation party.

Size Matters

January 2nd, 2019

2019 Jeep® Renegade Limited

By Don Armstrong

Full-size, body-on-frame SUV’s were once all the rage. Even today, they sell well. But for many in the Bay Area, the frameless, car-like, unibody construction of a crossover, or CUV, offers what most are looking for, including better fuel mileage.

Jeep Renegade
When we think of Jeep, most tend to see themselves off-roading in the Hill Country, or at least the sandy dunes down the coast. If you fall into that category, then the Renegade Trailhawk may be a perfect fit.

There’s no mistaking its boxy shape and seven-slot grille for anything other than a Jeep.

The Trailhawk edition is equipped with the larger 2.4-liter engine, that we prefer, delivering its 180-horsepower through a nine-speed automatic transmission.

The interior is just plain fun, and the optional, larger 8.4-inch infotainment screen connects you to the world of Jeeping with ease. Seating is rugged yet comfortable. Second-row legroom may be a little tight for those over six feet but expect plenty of space in the cargo area. Removable MySky sunroof panels are a must option.

With the Renegade’s off-road suspension and bigger tires, the ride is a bit stiffer than the entry-level model. But isn’t this why you joined the posse?

Starting price for the Jeep Renegade is $18,445. The Trailhawk trim level, with a few options, is around $30,000.

2019 Buick Encore

Buick Encore
Playing on the near-luxury field puts the Buick Encore in a different class than the Renegade but is similar in size.

This GM brand is known for a quiet cabin and Encore delivers, thanks to Buick’s QuietTuning technology. Specially laminated glass along with sound deadening materials are among many items acoustical engineers employ to keep outside noise, outside.

The interior in our top-of-the-line trim, Essence, is very nice and comfortable, not over-the-top, but true quality throughout the cabin. Its infotainment system is well thought out and easy to use.

Powering our Encore is an optional 1.4-liter 4-cylinder engine that boasts a wee bit more horses than the base motor, 153 to be exact. We would like to see something closer to the Renegade’s output.

The ride quality is reassuring without being jittery at highway speeds. And that says a lot, considering Encore’s short wheelbase.

Pricing begins at $23,200.

No one manufacturer has an edge over another these days, so select the price range and type of sport ute that fits your needs and start exploring.

LUXE

November 1st, 2018

By Don Armstrong

Cadillac CT6

Cadillac CT6
Think American luxury sedans and chances are good that Cadillac comes to mind.

More than just another full-size luxury machine, the 2018 CT6 can now be equipped with Cadillac’s Super Cruise semi-autonomous driver control, that can take you down a road not experienced by many.

Cadillac’s Super Cruise uses multiple cameras and sensors that work in tandem to help keep the car traveling in the highway lane you put it in, alerting the driver and releasing control when it “sees” something that can get you in trouble. No, it’s not completely autonomous, yet, but it’s easy to see where Cadillac is heading.

The body of the CT6 is ultra-modern up front with sharp-cornered lighting that bookend’s the large Caddy emblem center grille. The rear fascia is ultra conservative. Somehow, it works.

Motivating this beauty is an optional 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged V-6 that delivers 404-horsepower to all four wheels. A turbo-4 is standard.

The conservatively designed interior is cutting edge with a large, easy-to-use infotainment screen. All of Cadillac’s latest and greatest techno is there too. Materials and workmanship are top notch.

Pricing starts $54,095. Our loaded CT6 with Premium trim was a touch over $100,000.

Lexus LS 500h
You are either a lover or hater of the Lexus “spindle” grills. Either way, it certainly makes a statement, and so goes the LS grille.

The Lexus LS is the brand’s full-size model and we think it’s a beauty, particularly the interior. And really, isn’t that what matters most?

This Lexus comes with sumptuous, perforated leather seating with reclining and massaging functions in back along with real wood trim and the optional 23-speaker Mark Levinson sound system.

The dash is very different with many shapes and forms coming together in a museum quality work of art. There’s even a backlit piece of eye candy for the front passenger to enjoy. If there is a drawback it would be the finger touch control pad for the infotainment screen. We could make-do though.

Lexus no longer offers a V-8 engine in the LS. Instead, you’ll get the naturally aspirated V-6 or the hybrid that whispers 354 horsepower through a continuously variable transmission to the rear wheels. All-wheel drive is available.

The ride is what you’d expect, like a cloud and worthy of at least 10-hours behind the wheel or as a lucky passenger.

Pricing begins at $79,510.

Sedans still have what it takes

October 1st, 2018

By Don Armstrong

Toyota Corolla
Perhaps not as popular as it once was, the Toyota Corolla still outsells most others in its segment. The 2019 however may be a little harder to move since the competition has elbowed its way into Corolla territory.

Toyota has decided that an oversized grille sets the Corolla apart from competitors, so that is the front-end treatment it receives. Other stylish but conservative sculpting falls by the wayside in comparison.

The interior is adequate for an entry-level sedan, but true satisfaction will be determined by the trim level you choose, and there are plenty of them. Even the base trim, L, comes with LED headlights, emergency braking and a touchscreen.

Power is derived from a 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine that whirs out 132-horsepower through a CVT transmission. However, we’d recommend the higher output eco motor. Fuel mileage is 28 MPG-city and 36-highway.

Don’t expect the Corolla to perform like a sport car but If you are looking for something to get you from point A to point B in relative comfort and reliability, then you may have chosen the right sedan.

Pricing starts at $18,700.

Volkswagen GTI
If you are looking to bump up the fun factor, then the VW GTI may be your car.

This 4-door sedan, or hot hatch as some call it, is a low-to-the-ground road rocket that has room in the back seat for up to 3 passengers and a smallish cargo area behind it. Flop the rear seat-backs down and a significant cargo area awaits gobs of groceries or camping equipment for 2.

Dash layout smacks of German engineering at it’s best; not over-thought but controls placed at just the right spot with intuitive functionality.

Under the hood is a turbocharged, 2.0-liter, 4-cylinder engine that delivers 220-horsepower to the front wheels. We had the manual transmission that multiplied the fun by six! An automatic is available too. Fuel mileage is a respectable 25-city and 33-highway.

The GTI’s revised suspension – tuned for going around corners fast – will have everyone squealing with delight. Oh, the ride quality is a little stiffer, but not to so much as to kill the deal. Our bet is you will love this thing.

Pricing begins at $26,415.

Listen to Don Armstrong’s In Wheel Time radio show LIVE each Saturday 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on the Sportsmap 94.1 FM mobile app.

Luxe Summer Rides

June 1st, 2018

By Don Armstrong

Cadillac CT6

Cadillac CT6
Meet the new flagship from Cadillac, the CT6 Sedan. Despite is lackluster name, the car is a masterpiece in the luxury market.

Its exterior design is both modern and conservative with vertical lighting fore and aft. Minimal chrome bits adorn vent openings up front while quad, chrome tipped exhaust tips flank the lower rear valance. A high beltline pays tribute to Cadillac’s enormous era.

The interior is purely Cadillac, American luxury can’t get any better. A slight rise in the upper leather dash covering marks its digital instrument cluster below. The centrally located touch screen is wide, easy to use and understand. A finger-touch pad control can be found just ahead of the shifter on the center console. Seating surfaces are top notch leather, firm yet comfortable with adjustments for every body type.

A highlight of the CT6 is its semi-autonomous driving feature called SuperCruise that allows you to let the car drive itself when highway conditions permit. For this reporter, it was a strange feeling releasing the wheel and letting the car do its thing. It worked amazingly well.

Power options include a 4-cylinder or one of two V-6 engines.

Pricing starts at an astonishingly low $54,490.

Audi S5

Audi S5
If you’re a lone commuter, perhaps a German Coupe would be a good fit. May we suggest the Audi S5?

Conservative exterior styling is the key note for the S5. Personally, we like the sleeper look this car exudes with its relatively straight lines, big, open-mouth grille and run-of-the-mill taillights. The quad exhaust tips can be a slight tipoff that something may be lurking under the hood.

The 3.0-liter V-6 delivers 354-horsepower to its full-time all-wheel drive system through an 8-speed automatic transmission. We thought it was a V-8 at first. Yes, its 369 lb.-ft. of torque hits you that hard.

The interior brings a lot to the table. Like the exterior, design is conservative – nothing swoopy here. But, the S5 has the latest techno-stuff to keep you as occupied as you want to be. Seating is comfortable but legroom for adults in the back could be an issue on long trips.

Like the Cadillac CT6, the S5 has a similar semi-autonomous driving feature available but engagement is accomplished a little differently than the American way.

There at two trim levels, the Premium Plus and Prestige, with pricing beginning at $54,600.

Beauty and the Beast

May 1st, 2018

By Don Armstrong

Each year, we get to drive dozens of new vehicles. However, it isn’t often we get excited enough to boast about a couple of all-new rides. This month we drive two, SUV’s that we think you’ll get excited about too after your test drives.

The 2018 Buick Enclave Avenir tows a boat Wednesday, July 19, 2017 in Milford, Michigan. (Photo by Jeffrey Sauger for Buick)

Buick Enclave Avenir
Used to be, Buick was a “near” luxury brand. No longer. The completely redesigned Enclave Avenir can now be considered full-on luxury and a “Beauty” to behold.

We recently drove the “Avenir,” an all-new trim name for top-of-the-line features that now place this Buick in direct competition with Lexus and Infiniti.

The Avenir includes an exclusive three-dimensional mesh grille paired with chrome wings inspired by Buick concept cars, as well as 20-inch wheels. Five premium exterior colors are available along with a Chestnut interior with Ebony piping on the seats and contrasting stitching. Avenir floor-mats; a wood-accented steering wheel and Avenir-scripted sill plates are just a few items you’ll want to point out to your now jealous next-door neighbors.
A smooth 3.6L V-6 engine delivers 310-horsepower to 2 or all-wheels. An imperceptible nine-speed automatic transmission is standard on all models.

A premium suspension system with continuously variable real-time damping is also available.

Starting price for the Enclave is $40,970. Add several thousand dollars for models sporting the Avenir emblem.

BMW X3 M40i
The venerable X3 has become one of BMW’s most popular models with seating for 5 and a mastery of ride quality and handling. The all-new M40i adds the “Beast” factor to an already capable factory do-all.

When we say “all-new” we mean from the ground up, but you’d be hard pressed to see any noticeable deviations from the outgoing model. Side-by-side though, the ’18 model is larger than the old, which translates into more interior room.

We love inline 6-cylinder engines and BMW makes one of the best. Add TwinPower turbocharging to its 3.0-liters and you’ll have 355-horses that get to a full gallop faster that you can say, “giddyap.”

Its 8-speed Steptronic Sport automatic transmission with Launch Control is a delight in either full-automatic mode or paddle-shifted intervention. The full-time all-wheel drive system is the only one available, as it should be.

BMW is typically at the cutting edge of in-car connectivity but in the X3, Apple Car Play is in, and Android Auto is out.

The X3 M40i starts at $64,045.

Different Shapes of Family Haulers

January 1st, 2018

By Don Armstrong

Whether you’re on a budget, or have a preferential shape or style, every manufacturer offers a variety of vehicles with hopes of winning your approval. This month, we look at the two most popular styles in the Bay Area, a minivan and a crossover.

Lexus NX 200 T
Known for quality workmanship and service that has set the new benchmark, Lexus offers a compact SUV that is perhaps the most stylized of all, the NX 200 T.

From its oversized, spindle-shaped grille and scalloped sides to edgy lighting fore and aft, the NX turns heads wherever it goes.

The outside-the-box design continues on the interior with its unique approach to controlling the infotainment system. The screen is set too far back on the dash for the driver to facilitate finger-touch control so a joystick-like pad is placed atop the center console, forward of the shifter, to move the invisible cursor with your finger. A slight vibration on your finger tip and a highlighted option on the screen’s menu indicates where you are. A press of the pad will select the desired function.

Cargo space behind the second-row seats is smaller than its competitors but you’ll have to decide its importance.

Our 200 T version of the NX includes a 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine that produces 235 horsepower.

Starts at $35,285.

Honda Odyssey
Will you ever use your SUV for true off-roading? Our guess is, probably not. So, why buy something that you’ll only use some of its capability? The minivan remains the ultimate people hauler and Honda has an all-new version of its reliable Odyssey.

Now in its fifth iteration, the Honda Odyssey is a solid contender in the minivan class. Its attractive, conservative shape will appeal to everyone. The hallmark of the minivan, of course, is its sliding, second-row passenger doors. And, yes, the popular, on-board vacuum system returns

New this year is a second row of seats that slide fore and aft, making it easier to get back to the third row of fold-in-the-floor seating. Honda also has a rear cabin camera system that allows mom to monitor the goings-on behind her without having to stop the vehicle and referee the misbehavior.

Thank you, Honda, for keeping the 3.5-liter V-6 engine that is now married to a nine or ten-speed automatic transmission. Plenty of horsepower for luggage, 6-kids and mom and dad.

Start planning the summer vacation starting at $30,965.