Fun Factory Performers

February 27th, 2020

By Don Armstrong

Main-stream automakers have been turning out performance vehicles since the 60’s but today’s factory racers are hotter than ever. Here are a couple examples that should get your blood pumping just looking at them.

Ford F-150 Raptor
Photo credit: NWAPA / Josh Mackey

Ford F-150 Raptor
The Baja 1000 is one example of extreme off-road racing and is where Ford’s F-150 Raptor was developed.

Power comes from a twin turbo, 450-horsepower V-6 engine. No, not a V-8. A new 10-speed automatic transmission handles the gear changes to its computer-controller 4-wheel/all-wheel drive system – when the tires are on terra firma. Controlling the Raptor’s rough and tumble suspension are Fox Racing shocks at all four corners, also adjusted electronically. Because of the extensive power and traction, tires tend to rotate on the wheels, so Ford has optional bead-lock rims available.

The interior gets special body-hugging seating, with Raptor Easter eggs throughout the cabin – in case you needed to be reminded that you are not in grampa’s old grocery getter.
The minute you climb up, strap-in, hit the ignition and put it in gear, you know you are in something like no other. The ride is solid and takes on big city potholes like they don’t exist. The power curve and transmission shifts are confidence-building adrenaline rushes.
Pricing starts at $53,205

Dodge Challenger R/T Scat Pack 392

Dodge Challenger R/T Scat Pack 392
It’s not the Hellcat, with 707 supercharged horsepower, but it does have 485-horses and it’s not nearly as expensive – $38,995. That’s $20,000 less than the Hellcat.

The naturally aspirated R/T Challenger 392 Scat pack comes with many of the same “bad boy” body cues as its more powerful Hellcat brother. And let’s face it, that’s just as important as horsepower. You know – walk-the-walk.

What really draws our attention is the options list. With no fewer than 11 colors, a Wide Body variation, choice of manual or automatic transmissions, myriad of graphics, wheels, tires, spoiler and more, so creating a Challenger 392 Scat Pack that is unique to you is a cinch.

The Uconnect Infotainment system is simply the best on the market and the “Performance Pages” within will have you selling your PlayStation.

Some may dismiss this car as an old heavy weight, but there is something to be said about feeling safe in this rocket ship. Owning a Scat Pack will not only satisfy your need for speed but will tell everyone else, “get out of my way.”

SMALL AND SMALLER SUVs

February 1st, 2020

By Don Armstrong

SUVs are all the rage and with manufacturers building every size and shape, choosing one that fits your style can be difficult. This month we look at a popular small one, and an even smaller one, that may be just what you were looking for to zip around our beautiful – and crowded – Bay Area.

Toyota RAV4
The Toyota RAV4 – Recreational Activity Vehicle: 4-wheel drive – was an instant hit when it originally went on sale in the U.S. in 1996. Even though today’s 5th generation RAV4 has come a long way, competition in this segment is everywhere you turn.

The 2020 grille gives the new RAV a more muscular, truck-like face, like the Tacoma pickup. The edgy rear hatch and accompanying lighting has a more modern touch.
The interior is a clean, straight forward design.

The infotainment screen sits high atop the dash, but within arm’s reach to facilitate touch control. Android and iPhone integration is finally included.

The 2020 RAV is available in both 2 and 4-wheel drive. The only power plant, a 2.5-liter I-4, produces 203 horsepower and 184-lb. ft. of torque and is connected to an 8-speed automatic transmission. It’s enough but the hybrid variant gets better mileage and has more grunt.

An all-new off-road RAV4 is just now hitting showrooms.

Pricing starts at $25,950.

Mazda 3 Hatch
Have small hatchbacks lost appeal? No, not at all. Cars in general have given way to crossovers and SUVs, but the versatility of a small hatchback bridges the gap between car and cross and we think that is a winner.

A complete redesign last year brings the Mazda 3 Hatch to the head of the class. Its smooth, sculpted sides, big, open-mouth grille and quick-back roofline give it an extra goose in design competition.

The interior is sporty, sleek and not your everyday run-of-the-mill rent car. Its clean lines, attention to detail, quality materials, fit and finish really got our attention. The Premium trim package, that includes leather and all the accoutrements, is the way to go.

On the road, the 3 Hatch has sportscar-like maneuverability that reminds us of the Mazda Miata sportscar.

Under the hood is a 2.5-liter I-4 engine that whirs out 186-horsepower. It’s connected to a 6-speed automatic transmission.

The Mazda 3 Hatch is priced right too, starting at $23,700.

Car Show Luxury Performers

December 31st, 2019

By Don Armstrong

Each January, we make the annual pilgrimage to the Houston Auto Show at NRG Center, and each year we’re amazed at what lies before us. In this issue of Bay Area Houston Magazine, we focus on a couple of high performing luxury models that must be on your look-see list at the 2020 show.

Lexus LC 500h
The Lexus LC is one of the most gorgeous coupes to grace our shores in recent memory. Its shape is art in-motion, a sleek arrow with oversized rear haunches that enhance its already aerodynamic styling. Even the Lexus signature, oversized “spindle” grille somehow seems to work with this car.

The interior is simply beautiful, with attention to detail befitting its $100,000 price tag. Front seats hug you like a premium pair of leather driving gloves, the rears, however, are uninhabitable. The LC 500’s infotainment screen is controlled by a center console touch pad that adds a layer of control for the sake of screen placement.

With a 471-horsepower V-8, the only thing it lacks is fuel mileage. Now comes the LC 500 “h,” or hybrid, that combines a V-6 gasoline engine with dual electric motors, delivering 30-MPG and 354-horsepower to the rear wheels.

A visit to the 2020 Houston Auto Show won’t be complete without a stop at the Lexus display to see the LC 500h.

M-B GLC 63 AMG
Mercedes calls the GLC a “coupe,” we call it an SUV, and it competes in the most competitive class of all, small to midsize. But this do-all becomes a head-of-class contender through its under-hood muscle.

The AMG wing of Mercedes turbocharged its V-8 to the tune of 469-horsepower and 479-lb. ft. torque. This Benz can be as tame as you want but can also blast its way to superhighway speeds in the blink of an eye.

If it weren’t for the GLC’s increased ground clearance, it could easily be a sexy, fastback sedan with its big, new Mercedes grille and in-your-face emblem. Huge wheels, big, trim-enhanced wheel well openings and faux front and rear skid plate embellishments proclaim, “here I am.”

The interior reflects all of this German company’s finest; high quality trim with impeccable fit and finish, including an updated infotainment system called MBUX.

The GLC starts at a reasonable $50,000, add the AMC 63 package and the price jumps to $100,000.

Elemental SUVs

December 1st, 2019

By Don Armstrong

SUVs now outsell cars and it’s no wonder, the versatility and size availability run the gamut. Could one of these make the perfect Christmas surprise? Pricing sure seems right.

2020 Soul GT-Line

Kia Soul
Kia has a new Soul, but, unfortunately, it doesn’t include the popular hamster commercials.

Larger and more refined, this 3rd generation Soul is all new from the ground up. Fitting for a tiny SUV that changed the way we look at small do-all’s.

The Soul’s new front facia could easily fit on a sports car, but Kia didn’t lose track of what made the hamster-mobile so popular; it’s boxy shape with a sloping roof. Taillights hug the rear hatch glass and make a 90-degree turn toward the license plate box.

The interior is attractive and comfortable with an easy-to-use infotainment system. Control functions are straight forward, and with the second row seats folded, you’d be surprised at the hauling capacity.

Under the hood is a 2.0-liter, 147 horsepower engine. A 6-speed manual transmission is standard, but we prefer the CVT automatic that accomplishes an average of 31.9 MPG.
Since the first Soul came to U.S. shores 10-years ago, we’ve always liked its sporty handling, and the 2020 model continues that fuzzy feeling. The all-new Kia Soul starts at $17,490.

VW Tiguan
Since its debut in 2007 the VW Tiguan has undergone only one makeover. That happened two years ago, and since then sales continue to grow. Size, options and VW dependability play a big part in its popularity but being in the right place at the right time certainly has its benefits too.

Like almost all makeovers, the Tiguan has grown, allowing for an optional third row of seating, even though it’s mostly a “kids-only zone.”

VW’s conservative styling plays well on the Tiguan and translates nicely to the interior with form and function throughout the dash. Seating is comfortable with plenty of adjustability and materials seem to be of the long-term type.

Under the hood is a 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine connected to an 8-speed automatic transmission. This combination plays well together and drives the front wheels with ease. 4-wheel drive is optional. Mileage is a respectable 21 MPG-city and 29-highway.

Even in small SUV form, the Tiguan retains that German feel no matter what the terrain, including pot-holed city streets, undulating toll roads and hill country climbs .
The Volkswagen Tiguan starts at $24,295.

Smallish Trucking

November 1st, 2019

By Don Armstrong

The names are from the past, but the 2019 Ford Ranger and 2020 Jeep Gladiator are completely new trucks that can be found in the mid-size category. We recently had a chance to drive both and found them nothing like their old namesakes, thank goodness.

Jeep Gladiator
Based on a lengthened Jeep Wrangler chassis, this mid-size truck combines all the off-road capability of the Wrangler with the added convenience of a pickup bed. Yes, the doors and top come off and the windshield folds down, just like the Wrangler. We like to think of it as the “Swiss Army Knife” of trucking since it is capable of off-roading like no others with its standard 4-wheel drive system.

Under the hood is a 3.6-liter V-6 that produces 285-horsepower and 260 lb.-ft of torque. A 6-speed manual transmission is standard while the 8-speed automatic is optional. This smooth and reliable power combo can tow up to 7,650 pounds, when equipped with the Max Tow Package, and haul up to 1,600 pounds.

Jeep’s Uconnect infotainment system is simply the best and, as you can imagine, options abound. The base Sport model starts at $33,545. The all-out Rubicon model adds an extra $10-grand.

The “look at me” factor is huge with the Gladiator so get your “thumbs-up” ready when you meet another Jeeper coming down the road.

FORD RANGER
Compared to the old Ranger, the all-new version is considerably larger, and to most, a notable improvement. Adding to its likability is a modern, albeit smaller, design interpretation of its big brother, the F-150.

Although the 2019 Ranger is “new” to the U.S. market, its bones originate in the 2015 Australian version, modernized and legalized for America. It has all the latest tech including Ford’s Sync 3 infotainment system.

Two different cabs and a 5 or 6-foot bed are offered, along with 3 trim levels – XL, XLT and Lariat. We tested the SuperCrew Lariat with the FX4 off-road package, and a dealer installed tonneau cover. This is a great combination, but the $45,750 sticker can be a bit of a shock.

Powering this “mini 150” is a peppy, no-lag, 2.3-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder EcoBoost engine that delivers 270-HP and 310 lb-ft of torque through a 10-speed automatic transmission. Towing is rated at 7,500 pounds, payload maximum is 1,860 lbs.

Pricing for the entry-level Ranger starts at $24,300.

Mileage Motoring

September 3rd, 2019

By Don Armstrong

Hybrid and all-electric markets continue to grow and so do showroom offerings. We recently had a chance to drive one of each and found a change of mindset was needed with one.

2019 Niro EV

Kia Niro EV
Pricing and range have kept most buyers of electric vehicles on the sideline, until now. With a starting price of $38,500, the Kia Niro EV becomes the “everyday guy’s” bargain, allowing the driver to never stop for gas. And with an average travel distance of 239-miles per charge, a day trip from Kemah to Brookshire and back is a piece of cake.

The Niro EV is classified as a small station wagon but looks more like a small SUV. The nicely appointed, entry level EX will be plenty for most and adding an extra $5,500 for the Premium version may be a bit too much for leather, LED lighting and a big audio system.

Driving the Niro EV is pleasant. It handles well and offers a quieter cabin than those SUV’s with gasoline power plants. There will always be wind and tire noise at highway speed, and, in that regard, this vehicle is not very different.

The caveat: Having to constantly use brain power to calculate the distance of your destination and having to allow at least a 30 minute charge for an additional 100 mile range .

Toyota Corolla Hybrid
We may have discovered the ultimate car: Modern, attractive interior and exterior, long history of quality and dependability, gets 53 miles per gallon-city, 52-highway and a base price of $23,100.

The 2020 Toyota Corolla Hybrid borrows the drivetrain from its stablemate, Prius, and we’re predicting this new mashup will serve its owners well, especially in MPG bragging circles.

Is it perfect? No. There is only one “entry-level” trim package, the LE. It does not offer Android Auto. You WILL get a choice of 7 attractive exterior colors and two interior fabrics.
The Corolla Hybrid is roomy for its size, has a smartly designed dash and an interior with just the right mix of materials and quality construction.

Under the hood of this mileage-maker is a 1.8-liter gasoline engine connected to two electric motor/generators that drive the front wheels through a CVT transmission. It has a long list of standard and safety features too.

You won’t have any regrets with the Corolla Hybrid. Test drive one and let us know what you think.

Luxury SUVs Defined

August 1st, 2019

By Don Armstrong

Do you define a luxury SUV by price, brand, content or a combination of all three? This month, Bay Area Houston Magazine takes a look at one all-new crossover and one that’s been around awhile, but they may blur your definition of luxury.

2019 Cadillac XT4 Sport

Cadillac XT4
The XT4 is an all-new, entry-level crossover from Cadillac and pricing alone will surely drive a lot of first-time buyers to this traditional American luxury brand.

Exterior styling mimics Cadillac’s other SUV’s, an edgy front fascia with creative lighting, conservative body side-sculpting and unique rear lighting that begins in the c-pillar and curves inward toward the center license plate cove.

The interior is spacious when compared to other small, 2-row crossovers, leather is Cadillac grade and the dash nicely carved. Two rows of horizontal HVAC buttons under the infotainment screen are easy to read and convenient for both driver and front passenger. The reconfigurable instrument cluster lets you display multiple info screens.

There’s only one engine and it should be plenty for most. The 2.0-liter turbo 4-cylinder delivers 237-horsepower, 258-lb.ft. torque and is connected to a 9-speed automatic transmission. It’s rated at 24 mpg-city and 30-highway. 4-wheel drive is available and may come in handy on slick boat ramps.

We recommend the nicely equipped mid-level trim, Premium Luxury. Pricing starts at $35,695.

2019 Jeep® Grand Cherokee Summit

Jeep Grand Cherokee
The current Jeep Grand Cherokee body style has been produced since 2011 and still remains the most awarded SUV ever. This is a rolling testament to the designers at Jeep that had a vision to create an SUV we love.

Starting at $31,945 – that can blossom to $54,955 – price alone will tell you that the Grand Cherokee is offered with so many options, you can have it built to fit your most detailed desire.

Around Bay Area streets, the V-6 with two-wheel drive may work just fine. A Hemi V-8 is also offered along with a diesel and the mind-warping SRT performance model along with 4-wheel drive.

Interiors range from cloth to high-end leather, heated and cooled seating, the nicely sorted Uconnect infotainment system, and the list goes on and on.

Jeep knows a thing or two about 4-wheel drive and the Cherokee ranks among the best at real off-roading capability, unlike many other manufacturer’s offerings.

Whether you’re shopping Land Rover, Lexus or Cadillac, the Jeep Grand Cherokee should be on your shopping list too.

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.

Road Trip SUVs: CHEVY BLAZER & FORD EDGE

June 1st, 2019

By Don Armstrong

Manufacturers just can’t seem to satisfy our appetite for SUV’s, and with summer vacations upon us, now may be the perfect time to shop for a new road trip ride.

Chevy Blazer
The name may be the familiar, but that’s all. The Chevrolet Blazer is all-new for 2019 and ready to hit the highway.

Slotted between the smaller Equinox and the larger, 3-row Traverse, the Blazer seats five and borrows some styling cues from the Camaro, believe it or not.

Mounted high on the front fascia are “squinty” headlights, with more vertical, ancillary lighting below. The grille, however, is so large, you may find it polarizing. Trendy, large wheels and accompanying openings give it the much sought-after off-road look. Tail light design is Camaro inspired.

Several interior design details come directly from the new Camaro also, including a standalone, center dash mounted touch screen, with multifunction air vents below. Seating is comfortable and stylish, especially with the optional leather.

The base engine is a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder that delivers 193-horsepower. We recommend the optional 3.6-liter V-6 with 300 horses. You’ll appreciate the extra passing power and it ensures a smoother shifting 9-speed automatic transmission.

We like the new Blazer enough that we think it should be on your shopping list.

Pricing starts at $28,800.

Ford Edge
This second-generation Edge was introduced in 2015 and has been nothing short of a true hit in the Ford SUV lineup.

For 2019, the Edge gets updated front and rear styling that really gives it a whole new, modern look.

Like the Blazer, the Edge comes standard with a 4-cylinder power plant. The optional 2.7-liter V-6 is what we recommend, but for the hot-rodder, Ford offers an ST version that ups the horsepower ante to 335. The kids will squeal with delight.

Taking the Edge for a test drive will reveal an unusually quiet cabin, especially at highway speeds. We appreciate the F-150 influence on the easy-to-use dash layout, it’s neat, clean and just makes sense. Seating is supportive and comfortable, especially on long trips. The recently reworked Sync infotainment system behaves a lot better that versions one and two.

The Edge’s wide body gives everyone a little more shoulder room and more storage behind the second row of seating.
Edge pricing begins at $29,995

Ford announces the return of a Ranger-based Bronco SUV in 2020. Stay tuned.

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.