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SUV Choices – Infiniti QX50 and Chevy Traverse

February 1st, 2019

By Don Armstrong

Given the popularity of SUVs, there are lots of decisions to make when you buy; price, brand, size, trim level, to name a few. In this edition of Bay Area Houston Magazine, we compare a luxury brand to an American standard that might bring some shopper clarity.

Infiniti QX50

Nissan’s luxury label, Infiniti, has made its own mark among Japanese entries in the SUV market by winning over millions of buyers looking for style and quality.

The completely redesigned 2019 QX50 checks all the boxes in a world becoming crowded with SUVS. At first glance, you’re greeted with a large, open-mouth grille. Two, large ridges adorn the hood, adding to its forward aero design. A short sun shade spoiler overhangs the rear glass.

The QX50’s interior gets high marks too starting with a sophisticated dash layout, high zoot stitching and quality workmanship throughout. The infotainment screen is tilted back, away from the driver and tucked under the dash pad, requiring a mouse-like control knob on the center console. Front seats are comfortable and supportive. The second row slides, reclines and folds flat, with enough leg room for 3 full sized adults.

An all-new, 268 horsepower 4-cylinder engine powers this QX through a continuously variable transmission. That’s more power than the outgoing V-6. We were impressed.

Pricing starts at $36,550. Nicely equipped, about $55,000.

Chevrolet Traverse

Redesigned last year, the 2019 Traverse is Chevy’s largest 3-row crossover and compares nicely with the Suburban SUV, albeit lighter, more agile and easier on gas consumption.

The Traverse is packaged in an attractive, sleek, nicely balanced, yet conservative, design, unlike the boxy Suburban.

Its interior is very GM. That’s not a bad thing, just very utilitarian. Chevy does, however, offer contrasting trim options on the upper end badges that helps customize it to your taste. The infotainment touchscreen is easy to use and understand. It seats up to 8.

Under the hood is nestled the venerable 3.6-liter V-6 that delivers 310 horsepower through a 9-speed automatic transmission to the front wheels. A 4-cylinder engine and all-wheel drive are optional.

If you are looking for performance handling, ride, braking or performance, you’ll need to look elsewhere. Chevrolet’s Traverse however hits the sweet spot in price and utility and doesn’t pretend to be something it isn’t.

Pricing starts at just a tic under $30,000 but fully loaded swells the price to $53,000.

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.

2019 Ram 1500 Awarded Truck of Texas Title

December 1st, 2018

By Don Armstrong

Each October, dozens of automotive journalists from across the U.S. gather in the hills of central Texas to determine the best trucks and SUVs the industry has to offer. After two soggy days of evaluation, the prestigious 2019 Truck of Texas award was presented to FCA, builder of the all-new Ram 1500.

It is a sexy new grille that separates the Ram from all the rest, and this “new look” really sets the bar to an all new height. New badging ads to the hood décor just above the front wheel openings, while just the right amount of chrome lends to the overall appeal.

The trim level you choose will help determine the amount of bling that adorns your big rig, but we’ll use the highly popular Longhorn trim for this review.

Open the door and you’ll see one of the best interiors in the world. Ram’s dash design is modern and well thought-out with functionality you’d expect. An optional 12-inch infotainment display is breath-taking. The updated, fourth generation Uconnect system now includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Coupled with the rotary transmission control, and various other options, including 4-wheel drive, it won’t take long to learn where the controls are located. Did we mention dual glove boxes?

Our tester had cloth seat inserts. Now before you turn your nose up at the thought, think about the Bay Area’s extended summer season with blistering hot leather. The Ram interior design team selected fabric material that crosses the boundary between a night at the concert and weekday work duties.

The half-ton Ram can be equipped with the new eTorque system, a mild hybrid option that helps performance and fuel mileage. We got almost 20-MPG from the V-8 Hemi.
Ride quality is also a best in this half-ton category because of its coil suspension. If you want an even more car-like experience, air-ride is another option.

Towing and hauling capabilities have been increased on this new design too, utilizing lighter weight, higher strength steel and composites, reducing weight.

In a market where more trucks and SUVs are being sold than ever before, December is the perfect time to add one more item to your shopping list. Imagine a Christmas gift like this.

MSRP on our 2019 Ram Lone Star Crew Cab 4X4, with a few options, is $53,835.

Where do we sign?

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.

SUVs Rule the Bay

August 1st, 2018

By Don Armstrong

Ford Expedition MAX
Leaps and bounds better than the outgoing model, the all-new Ford Expedition MAX finally gives the GM brand some real competition in the standard SUV category.

When compared to the Chevrolet Suburban, the Expedition Max is only 2.5-inches shorter. But there is a laundry list of differences. First and foremost is technology and that includes engine, transmission, suspension and the new Sync 3 infotainment system.

This body-on-frame SUV, now with independent suspension, delivers a family friendly ride.

Gone is the gas-thirsty V-8 power plant. A new 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 delivers up to 400 hp and 480 lb.-ft. of torque, which should handle its 9,000-lb. towing capacity with ease.

There are three trim packages available, XLT, Limited and Platinum and there is a sizeable price difference between each, so we suggest doing your research and picking one that best suits your needs.

Three rows of seating hold up to 8 passengers with plenty of legroom, the dash is taken from the F-150 pickup, a popular design that is highly functional. After decades of real-world research, Ford has a handle on what works.

We encourage you to check out the new Ford Expedition MAX that starts at $51,790.

GMC Acadia
In the world of SUVs, the crossover is the most popular. Usually built on a car chassis, these pseudo high-riders offer most folks everything that a body on frame sport-ute does but without the weight. And they usually deliver much better fuel economy.

Fully redesigned last year, the 2018 GMC Acadia packages the things a true crossover shopper is looking for in one sharp-looking package. And it’s priced competitively.

Interiors, in-general, seem to be moving toward a more complex, artsy design level. Not the Acadia, and we feel it makes a good fit for those inclined to head for the simpler things in life.

We loved the cloth seats because they weren’t ugly and were very comfortable. We like the faux wood accents and dash layout. In fact, there wasn’t much we didn’t like about the passenger compartment. The infotainment system was intuitive and easy to use.

A 4-cylinder engine is standard, but we prefer the optional 310-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6 that gets 18 mpg-city and 25-highway. While others are going to a 10-speed automatic transmission, the GMC Acadia retains a six-speed.

The 2018 starting price hits the sweet spot at $29,995.

Beauty and the Beast

July 1st, 2018

By Don Armstrong

Cadillac Escalade ESV
The Cadillac brand has exemplified American luxury for over a century. Today, the Escalade ESV is its largest canvas. Some say it’s nothing more than an overpriced Chevy Suburban. It is not. Although built with similar body components and on the same chassis, that’s pretty much where it stops.

This gorgeous behemoth has a 130-inch wheel base while its body stretches over 18 ½-feet and weighs nearly 3 tons. To move this mountain of steel, Cadillac chose a 6.2-liter naturally aspirated V-8 that delivers 420-horsepower and 460-pound-feet of torque to two or four-wheels through an all-new 10-speed automatic transmission. It’s a perfectly matched combination.

Ride quality is enhanced with GM’s Magnetic Ride Control suspension up front and we have to say, this is one easy-to-maneuver monster, even in the grocery store parking lot.

Inside is where you’ll truly appreciate Cadillac’s attention to design and detail, not to mention the quality of materials, fit and finish. CUE, Cadillac’s sometimes maligned infotainment system, was easy to use and understand.

Pricing is what you’d expect for this “lap of luxury,” starting at $85,395.

Dodge Durango SRT
The Dodge brand has owned the enthusiast market for the past few years with high-horsepower beasts like the Viper, Hellcat and Demon. Now comes the Durango SRT for 2018, a 475-horsepower “family” SUV that really hauls the mail.

This all-wheel-drive, track-worthy, 3-row crossover is every dad’s dream. The ability to take the kids to soccer practice, or a weekend family outing at the lake and then make a 12.9 second run at the quarter-mile drag strip on Friday night, make the Durango SRT the perfect choice, not to mention its 8,700-pound towing capability.

The Durango SRT gets the Dodge wide-body treatment along with special hood ducting to let cool air in and vent the hot stuff. At the rear is a lower body fascia and big, 4-inch dual exhaust. It looks mean sitting still.

Inside you’ll find quality leather seating surfaces with the SRT logo embroidered in just the right places. The dash and infotainment system contain controls and displays similar to those in the Hellcat and Demon, including the famous “Performance Pages.” No fewer than seven drive modes help you keep all four wheels planted for maximum traction.

To help master all that the Durango SRT offers, Dodge includes a one-day performance driving school with purchase. Pricing begins at $62,995.

2018 Dodge Durango SRT

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.

Summer Ready: Toyota Tacoma & GMC Canyon

April 1st, 2018

By Don Armstrong

Trucks are all the rage. They move the kid’s dorm furnishings, go camping and make hauling a load of mulch a breeze, all while whisking the kids to soccer, baseball or softball. In this months review we focus on a couple of hot mid-size offerings.

Toyota Tacoma
You see them everywhere, and for a reason. The Toyota Tacoma not only looks good but has built a reputation for dependability. And with no fewer than 30 variations, how could you not find one that checks off every box on your want list?

The latest edition of the Tacoma was completely redesigned 3-years ago. 2018 updates include a revised grille and a new enhancement called Toyota Safety Sense P. This feature packages a pre-collision system with lane departure alert and sway warning, among others, that place the Tacoma ahead of the pack in safety.

A 4-cylinder engine is available, but we recommend the 3.5-liter V-6 and 6-speed automatic transmission. This combo increases the towing capability, gives you more oomph wherever you need it and power for passing.

Whether you are an off-road enthusiast or not, you’ll love the TRD Pro edition. This bad boy includes bigger springs, a 1-inch taller stance, Fox shocks, hefty skid plate and fog lights, among others, to enhance the Tacoma’s capability.

Entry level Toyota Tacoma pricing starts at $25,130.

2018 GMC Canyon Denali​

GMC Canyon
The GMC Canyon and its Chevy twin, Colorado, are the latest entries in the mid-size truck segment. But parent company General Motors has taken a “less is more” approach with packages and options. We count two beds and two cab configurations along with six trim levels. Like the Toyota, GMC offers a 4-cylinder and V-6, but for those that want to maximize capability there is even a diesel option, a 2.4-liter I-4 that can tow up to 7,700-pounds and get up to 30 MPG-highway.

The Canyon is offered in an off-road-inspired All Terrain package that includes the Z71 suspension, automatic locking rear differential and standard transfer case skid plate but if you want to step up to the TRD Pro level, you’ll have to head to the aftermarket.
As you would expect, the Denali version gets premium appointments.

GMC has one of the better performing infotainment systems on the market so whatever trim-level you decide on, get the 8-inch screen with all the bells and whistles.

Pricing starts at $22,095.