Affordable, Cute Rides

August 31st, 2020

By Don Armstrong

Even COVID-19 cannot stop Bay Area car buyers from shopping sensibly priced transportation. We recently drove a couple of contenders, a cute, small SUV and sedan, both attractive players in extremely competitive categories.

Fiat 500X

Off-roadable is all the rage these days, but did you know the Fiat 500X is an all-wheel drive off-roader too? Just to be perfectly clear, the 500X is a first cousin to the Jeep Renegade, yep, a Jeep, so you know that rock crawling and beach running are in its DNA.

The 500X competes in the sub-compact arena of 4-door SUVs, but it wins hands down in the “cuteness” category. Like most vehicles from FCA, options define the brand and this Fiat is no different. Paint color can make or break a car and the new black roof paint option is one to check out. It is available on all trim levels; Pop, Trekking, Sport and Trekking Plus.

No matter which trim you choose, the interior is inviting and well thought out. Seating is comfortable and supportive and there are plenty of storage nooks and crannies. Technology is abundant too.

A 9-speed automatic transmission manages power from its 1.3-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine. A disconnecting rear axle helps fuel economy.

Fiat 500 X pricing starts at $24,590.

Nissan Versa

Completely redesigned for 2020, the Nissan Versa may be the best bargain in the sub-compact sedan category. Even though this new rendition is $2,000 more than the outgoing model, a $14,830 starting price still rings our bell.

The Versa is lower, longer, and wider than before and bears a striking resemblance to its larger sibling, Altima. Trunk space is much larger than you’d expect and with the rear seats folded down you can sneak a bunch of friends into the drive-in.

The interior has grown up too, with more pizzazz in design and contrasting color options. The infotainment system is intuitive, making it easy to use. Front collision warning with emergency braking, automatic headlights, rear view camera and Bluetooth is standard. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are available.

The 1.6-liter engine ekes out a mere 122-horsepower through a manual transmission, but an optional continuously variable automatic is the best we’ve driven, and helps return a 35-MPG average fuel economy rating.

About 20-large will get a nicely equipped, top-of-the-line SR version.


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.

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.

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.

Bay Area Houston Magazine