Category archives: Driven

Driven: 2015 Dodge Charger SXT

Even the V6 version has an aggressive stance | Larry Edsall photos
Even the V6 version has an aggressive stance | Larry Edsall photos

OK, I’ll admit it. I was a little deflated when I realized the 2015 Dodge Charger I would be driving for a week wasn’t the one powered by the 707-horsepower Hellcat engine that enables your full-size, street-legal four-door family sedan to travel at super speedway speeds usually reserved for NASCAR stock cars.

In fact, the 2015 Dodge Charger SXT I’ve been driving doesn’t even have a Hemi in it.

The SXT is just one step up from the base SE model, which means that the powerplant beneath the hood has only six cylinders. Not only that, but there’s no leather on which to sit, no GPS with which to be guided, not even a backup camera with which to see what’s behind you.

SXT is a step above the base version but offers headed cloth seats
SXT is a step above the base version but offers headed cloth seats

Another admission: When I first sat behind the steering wheel of the gray-colored test car (Dodge calls it Billet Silver Metallic but that’s just a fancy name for gray), my thought was: rental-car special edition.

But now that I’ve been driving the SXT for a few days, I’ve changed my mind. Sure, we love Hemis, and that Hellcat must be awesome, but this Pentastar V6 pumps out a very eager 292 horsepower, and it moves it through a willing eight-speed TorqueFlite automatic transmission to the rear wheels — that’s right, the rear wheels where, well, if not God then at least where Henry Ford and Carroll Shelby and even Enzo Ferrari intended.

Although a full-size sedan with plenty of room inside for people, real adult people, or for bulky infant and toddler safety seats, and even with the V6, the SXT comes off the line nicely, gets up to speed quite sufficiently and is a calm and comfortable cruiser, EPA rated at 31 miles per gallon on the highway, though only at 19 mpg for city driving.

The Charger SE is the base model and starts at $27,995. The SXT version adds fog lamps, UConnect with an 8.4-inch touchscreen display, Alpine audio, heated front sport seats with 12-way power adjustment on the driver’s side, heated exterior mirrors, remote start, auto-dimming rearview mirror, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, dual-zone climate controls, overhead console with garage-door opener, 18-inch wheels and all-season performance tires (which seems an oxymoron — you have either all-season tires or performance tires), but at least our test example rode on Michelin Primacy mxm4 rubber.

Base price for the 2015 Dodge Charger SXT is $29,995. Ours included no options so the as-tested sticker was $30,990 with destination charges.

The 2015 model year brings a substantial makeover for Dodge’s full-size sedan. Nearly every body panel is new, and more refined, giving the Charger more of a luxury-car look without being less sporty or aggressive in appearance. The rear-wheel-drive architecture gets new electric power steering gear, new cast-aluminum axle housing, updated suspension tuning, new available electronic driver-assist technologies, the new touchscreen instrument-panel display, and front and rear LED  this lighting.

Speaking of lighting, the small curved front and rear side marker lights sculpted into the leading edge of the front wheel well and the trailing edge of the rear wheel well may be small, but they really enhance the car’s profile and separate it from more mundanely styled sedans.

Speaking of subtle but effective touches, the tray on the center console in which you might put your cell phone or change — or your car key since this car has a push-button starter — has a nice insert with the historic Dodge Brothers emblem and a note that this car was Designed in Detroit. (Well, actually, in the Detroit suburb of Auburn Hills, but that’s pretty close, and they can’t say Imported from Detroit for this one since the Charger is built in Brampton, a suburb of Toronto, Canada).

And don’t disdain the standard cloth-covered sport seats until you try them. They are comfortable and hold you nicely in place should you get a little aggressive at the wheel, and should you want such a thing, they heat up quickly on a chilly morning.

I may have been disappointed when the 2015 Dodge Charger SXT arrived in my driveway, but now I’m disappointed that it’s gone away after only one week.

Lights at wheel wells help set Charger apart from other big sedans
Lights at wheel wells help set Charger apart from other big sedans

2015 Dodge Charger SXT

Vehicle type: 5-passenger, four-door sedan, rear-wheel drive
Base price: $29,995  Price as tested: $30,990
Engine: 3.6-liter V6, 292-horsepower @ 6,350 rpm, 260 pound-feet of torque @ 4,800 rpm Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 120.2 inches  Overall length/width: 198.4 inches / 75.0 inches
Curb weight: 3,966 pounds
EPA mileage estimates: 19 city / 31 highway / 23 combined
Assembled in: Brampton, Ontario, Canada

Driven: 2015 Infiniti QX60

2015 Infiniti QX60 | Larry Edsall photos
2015 Infiniti QX60 | Larry Edsall photos

I’ll admit that I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I was informed I’d be allowed to spend a week in the 2015 Infiniti QX60. I blame my confusion on Infiniti’s vehicle naming system. Everything now is a Q-something. Cars are Q followed by numbers. And sometimes the numbers are followed by additional letters. Crossovers and SUVs get an X between the Q, plus the numbers.

I figured what was arriving in my driveway was some sort of crossover or SUV, but I wasn’t sure of its size. As I understand it, in Infiniti’s logic, the numbers are supposed to indicate the vehicle’s size. But is a QX80 twice as large as a Q40? And just how big is a Q40?

A year ago, I drove a Q60 convertible. Was I now getting a crossover wagon that was the same size yet somehow someone had found a way to jam three rows of seats into the vehicle?

Yes, there's a third row back there
Yes, there’s a third row back there

Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised when the doorbell rang and I was handed the keys to a nicely designed, what I’d call a mid-size crossover wagon that looked like the typical five-passenger setup, only to discover that there was a third row back there and you might actually put an adult or two in it because the second-row slides fore and aft to provide room for the knees of those stuck in the way-back seats.

The QX60 is basically a carryover from the 2014 model year, though the Hermosa Blue paint on and the Wheat interior in the one I’ve been driving are new-for-2015 features, as is the “enhanced D-step shift logic” that’s been added to the continuously variable transmission (CVT).

Sliding second row
Sliding second row

And the QX60 is now offered in four versions — 3.5, 3.5 AWD (all-wheel drive), Hybrid and Hybrid AWD. Our test version is the basic 3.5 with front-wheel drive.

But I use the term “basic” with reservation because this is very much a luxury vehicle, and more so in the case of this test car that’s packed with some $12,000 in options:

  • A $3,450 Deluxe Touring Package that includes 20-inch wheels, Bose Cabin Surround system, advanced climate control system, climate-controlled front seats, heated second-row seats (outboard positions only), power folding third-row seats, a moonroof with power sunshade over the second and third rows and maple interior trim.
  • A $3,000 Premium Plus Package that includes Infiniti Connection, hard-drive navigation, an 8-inch color touch-screen display, voice recognition, nav traffic and weather, around-view monitor with moving-object detection and front and rear sonar, streaming audio via Bluetooth, reverse tilt-down exterior mirror and rain-sensing wipers.
  • A $2,800 Technology Package that includes backup-collision intervention, intelligent-brake assist with forward-collision warning, blind-spot warning and intervention, lane-departure warning and prevention, intelligent cruise control and distance-control assist.
  • A $1,550 Premium Package that includes 13 Bose speakers, dual-occupant memory seats, two-way power lumbar adjustment in the driver’s seat, a heated steering wheel, enhanced intelligent key and remote engine start.
  • A $495 set of roof rails.

Add it all up, and add in $995 in destination charges, and a vehicle with a $42,400 base price costs $54,690 as tested.

The cockpit
The cockpit

So let’s go testing. What is this thing like to drive? Well, it is luxurious and comfortable and even with three rows of seating there’s room for cargo, not only on the cargo floor but beneath it in a surprisingly roomy covered compartment that also houses some of that optional Bose audio equipment.

Empowering our QX60 is a 265-horsepower 3.5-liter V6.

Our first impression of driving is that the car feels sort of heavy, but that’s heavy as in having heft, not being bulky. Heft is a good thing when it translates into having a secure presence on the road as you drive, and that’s the way the QX60 feels — sure and stable.

Actually, it’s a nice combination: The vehicle looks sleek and sporty in the driveway, but feels sure and stable as you actually drive.

And you can add a feeling of safety to those feelings of sure and stable because this QX60 seems to have every computerized driver aide imaginable without actually driving by itself.

Which in a way leads me to the one thing about the car that bothers me: All the switchgear. I counted 11 switches on the driver’s door arm rest, 7 on the overhead console, 5 or maybe it was 6 on the interior mirror, 3 on the center console, 3 on the passenger’s door, 12 on the steering wheel, plus the two steering column-mounted stalks, plus the usual airflow adjustments on the dash, a start/stop button, and 50 or more (I actually lost count) switches on the dashboard itself, oh, and three dials as well.

Storage room even with third row upright
Storage room even with third row upright

At one point I wanted to switch the radio from satellite to FM, glanced over at the array of buttons, thought about the dangers of distracted driving and waiting until I got to a stop light to figure out which button I needed to press to find the station I wanted.

If you’ve been a regular reader of my car reviews, you know I’m not a big fan of touch screen technology from the driver’s seat, but nearly 100 buttons and switches from which to select doesn’t seem to me to be the answer.

However, such an array might delight, not confuse the multi-tasking, multi-generational family likely to be thrilled with the QX60 ownership experience.

2015 Infiniti QX60 3.5

Vehicle type: 7-passenger crossover, front-wheel drive
Base price: $42,400 Price as tested: $54,690
Engine: 3.5-liter V6, 265-horsepower @ 6,400 rpm, 248 pound-feet of torque @ 4,400 rpm Transmission: Continuously variable
Wheelbase: 114.2 inches Overall length/width: 196.4 inches / 77.2 inches
Curb weight: 4,323 pounds
EPA mileage estimates: 20 city / 26 highway / 22 combined
Assembled in: Smyrna, Tennessee

Driven: 2015 Mazda3 Grand Touring

2015 Mazda3 is a compact sedan that zoom-zooms with a manual transmission | Larry Edsall photos
2015 Mazda3 is a compact sedan that zoom-zooms with a manual transmission | Larry Edsall photos

Two things I’ve found to be true about seemingly every Mazda I’ve ever driven:

  1. Mazdas are fun to drive.
  2. Wearing sunglasses while driving a Mazda can be a very frustrating experience.

I’ve just spent a week driving a 2015 Madza3, the top-of-the-line Grand Touring version, and once again, those statements have been proven true.

Mazda really has this zoom-zoom thing down, and especially when the Mazda you’re driving is equipped with a manual transmission that not only allows but seems to encourage the driver to truly experience the full range of the joyous dynamics Mazda engineers into its vehicles.

Many automakers talk about how they spread a DNA of a halo model throughout their vehicle line. Mazda does it. There is, indeed, a lot of Miata in seemingly every Mazda I’ve driven in the past 20 years.

OK, maybe not quite so much in the Tribute, which was actually a rebadged Ford Escape, or the Mazda Protege, but 626/Mazda6, 929, RX7, RX8, MX6, 323 — and especially the 323 GTX with its rally-ready turbocharged all-wheel drivetrain — and even the Millenia and original rear-drive MPV minivan all had some, if not quite a bit of, Miata spunk.

Come to think of it, another exception was the first Miata equipped with an automatic rather than a manual transmission. The car was created specifically for people who faced hours of stop-and-go commuter traffic on a daily basis and were willing to trade driving fun for at least looking good while they chatted with the people in the cars in the next lane.

But our focus isn’t on the exceptions. It’s on the newest Mazda3, which is available with either a 155-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine or a 184-hp, 2.5-liter four (standard with the Touring and Grand Touring models), and the buyer’s choice of six-speed manual or six-speed automatic.

Grand Touring version comes very well equipped
Grand Touring version comes very well equipped

Kudos for Mazda for offering the manual in all of its 3-series cars. The Grand Touring we’ve been driving has the larger engine and the manual, and its short-throw shifting lever let’s the driver exercise the engine while enjoying the dexterity of the car’s steering and suspension.

As a bonus, the Mazda3 Grand Touring comes with 18-inch wheels, leather-trimmed and heated sport seats with six-way power on the driver’s side, dual-zone climate controls, push-button starter, blind-spot mirrors, rear camera and cross-traffic alert, fog lamps, dynamic stability control, hill-launch assist, Bose audio, satellite radio, Bluetooth, Bi-Xenon headlamps, moonroof, head-up display screen and navigation technology. All that, well, actually more than that but it would take too long to list them all, for $25,045.

The car we’ve been driving also had a cargo mat, special paint and door sills, bringing the as-tested price, including destination fees, to $26,335.

The car also comes with five-star federal safety ratings.

That pretty much covers my earlier point No. 1, except to add that the car is rated at 25 miles per gallon in city driving and at 37 on the highway, and that it features Skyactiv technology (but for all we can tell Skyactiv is nearly a word someone at Mazda made up to make the work of its engineers appear to be different from that of other automakers’ engineering staffs).

Cockpit controls
Cockpit controls

Anyway, now for my earlier point No. 2: First of all, I need to salute Mazda’s engineers and designers and product planners because this Mazda3 is the first Mazda I’ve driven in quite a while with an instrument panel you actually can read while wearing sunglasses.

And not only that, but it now has a digital speedometer, a feature I believe should be mandatory in every new vehicle. (Hey, if it’s good enough for Porsches…)

I moved to Phoenix at the end of 1999 and the area isn’t called the Valley of the Sun without good reason. If the sun’s out — which it is pretty much every day of the year — drivers hereabouts are either wearing sunglasses or are way too eager to spend their time and money at eye doctors’ offices.

Anyway, this new Mazda3 is the first Mazda I remember driving in a very long time with instruments designed so they can be read while wearing sunglasses, even glare-reducing Polarized sunglasses such as the ones I prefer.

However, that statement applies only to the gauges in the cluster immediately ahead of the driver. The Mazda3 also has a 7-inch color touch-screen atop the center cluster of the dashboard with the navigation, radio and apparently other available information. At least that’s what I figured, because for the first few days I was driving while wearing sunglasses, whatever was showing on that screen was invisible to me.

I even read the owner’s manual and had a friend do the same thing to see if there was a way to brighten the display. Finally, a few days into the driving, I was so frustrated that I started pressing here and there on the screen and finally discovered a bar that could be used to brighten the nav-screen display.

I was so happy… at least for a few miles until, with no warning and seemingly no reason, the display reverted back to its cloak of invisibility.

Oh well, at least I could still read my speed and the rpm count, and see the gas gauge and other bits of vital information provided in the cluster behind the steering wheel. And fortunately, the screen remained bright for my ensuing drives.

Nonetheless, that brings me to another point I’d like to make: Why would anyone buy a new car with a factory-installed GPS system that typically adds as much as $2,000 to the car’s price when you can go to Costco or your favorite big-box store and buy a nice GPS unit for maybe a $150 and move it from vehicle to vehicle or even take it with you while hiking or biking or boating?

Hmmm, maybe factory-installed GPS appeals to the same folks who don’t wear sunglasses and would rather ruin their eyes squinting not only to see the instrument panel but the traffic around them as well.

2015 Mazda3 Grand Touring

Vehicle type: 5-passenger, 4-door sedan with front-wheel drive
Base price: $25,045  Price as tested: $26,335
Engine: 2.5-liter four cylinder, 185-horsepower @ 4,700 rpm, 185 pound-feet of torque @ 3,250 rpm Transmission: 6-speed manual
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches  Overall length/width: 180.3 inches / 70.7 inches
Curb weight: 2,957 pounds
EPA mileage estimates: 25 city / 37 highway / 29 combined
Assembled in: Hofu, Japan

Driven: 2015 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk

2015 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk shows its stuff on the 'highway' to Young, Arizona| Larry Edsall photos
2015 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk shows its stuff on the ‘highway’ to Young, Arizona| Larry Edsall photos

It is designated as Arizona 288, the Desert to Tall Pines Highway, and while it does climb high into the Sierra Ancha mountains northeast of Phoenix, only the southern portion of the road is paved. As the road climbs, it not only changes in composition but in width.

Pavement gives way to what appears to be years of oiled and now pavement-hard — if less-than-a-full-two-lanes-wide — roadway. But only for a short distance. Then that surface gives way to graded dirt that in places becomes a one-lane shelf road with no guard rails to keep you from spilling off the edge of the mountain.

For the fewer than 700 people who live in the historic community of Young, Arizona — site of the Pleasant Valley War between cattlemen and sheep ranchers that left nearly two dozen of them dead in the 1880s — this “highway” is the only route south, and thus the shortcut to Phoenix.

Mud doesn't stop Trailhawk on its way to lunch stop at the Antlers restaurant in Young
Mud doesn’t stop Trailhawk on its way to lunch at Antlers restaurant in Young

The road out of town to the north also is largely unpaved, though after some 20 miles you’re driving on a four lane of good pavement.

I can share these road-report details because I just did a roundtrip from Phoenix to Young in a 2015 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk, the “Trail Rated” version of the Jeep’s mid-size sport utility vehicle.

Jeep offers three different 4×4 capabilities in the Cherokee. The Trailhawk gets the top-of-the-line Jeep Active Drive Lock setup, which means that in addition to dialing in the powertrain, suspension and vehicle-control technology settings to deal with various conditions — snow, sport, sand/mud and rock, as well as an automatic setting that adjusts as the car sees it — you have the benefit of a locking rear differential for severe off-road situations.

And yet all the while the driver and other occupants are being coddled in comfy leather-covered seats, can see the route on the GPS screen and enjoy satellite radio even up in the mountains and away from regular AM/FM signals.

Dial in your road conditions and the Jeep responds
Dial in your road conditions and the Jeep responds

We did our drive on a rare (for this part of Arizona) cold and rainy weekend — and by the end of the day the rain turned to snow in the mountains. Although we didn’t do any rock-climbing, the systems all seemed to work just fine, though there were a few occasions when the rain-soaked dirt-road surface provided about as much traction as a sheet ice and made it feel as if the steering wheel had been taken out of our hands until we lowered our speed and regained the helm.

Off-road technology is a wonderful thing, but even with such amazing systems the driver still has to pay very close attention.

Pricing of the Trailhawk version of the 2015 Jeep Cherokee starts at $29,895 and includes a back-up camera (that works just fine, even providing an amazing wide-angle view, at least until you coat it with mud), numerous airbags (including a knee bag for the driver), off-road suspension, all sorts of vehicle-control systems, Connect infotainment connection with voice-controlled Bluetooth, a thick and leather-wrapped steering wheel, power everything and even Jeep’s Cargo Management System to keep your gear in the cargo area in its place.

The Cherokee also comes with a 5-year / 100,000-mile powertrain warranty and roadside assistance and a 3-year / 36,000-mile basic vehicle warranty.

As is typical with press-fleet vehicles, the Trailhawk we tested was loaded with options: blind-spot and cross-path detection, ParkSense rear-parking guide, power-adjusted and heated leather seats, remoter starter, dual-zone climate controls, GPS with satellite traffic and travel link, and a 3.2-liter V6 engine with start/stop technology, which means that when you stop, for example at a traffic signal, the engine shuts off to save fuel but all on-board systems continue to operate as if the engine was still running.

This was my second experience in the Cherokee, which Jeep introduced as a new model for 2014.

Nice touch: Since 1941 at bottom of steering wheel
Nice touch: Since 1941 at bottom of steering wheel

I was skeptical about bringing back the name of a vehicle that had proven itself to be amazingly capable off-road but much more comfortable on pavement than its cousin, the Wrangler. But it turned out that I liked the 2014 Cherokee Sport that I tested so much that I recommended it to my youngest daughter and her husband for their growing family.

Having now driven the Trailhawk version only underscores my appreciation for this capable but comfortable Jeep.

2015 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk 4×4
Vehicle type: 5-passenger sport utility vehicle, 4-wheel drive
Base price: $29,895 Price as tested: $37,415
Engine: 3.2-liter V6, 271-horsepower @ 6,500 rpm, 239 pound-feet of torque @ 4,400 rpm Transmission: 9-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 107 inches Overall length/width: 182 inches / 74.9 inches
Curb weight: 4,046 pounds
EPA mileage estimates: 19 city / 26 highway / 22 combined
Assembled in: Toledo, Ohio

Second opinion, by Bob Golfen

Cherokee poses at the Roosevelt Lake bridge
Cherokee poses at the Roosevelt Lake bridge

A compact SUV from an all-American brand with the chassis of an Italian sedan, Jeep Cherokee proves to be sporty and highly enjoyable.

The Cherokee’s styling, which roused quite a bit of controversy when it was first shown in media photos, looks much sharper in person and has grown on me. There is some underlying channeling of such things as Range Rover Evoque and Nissan Juke, but Cherokee stands on its own as a unique styling expression, even if .Jeep stalwarts still miss the boxy, rugged appeal of the original Cherokee.

On the road, the ride and handling are very nice, with the stiffened chassis imparting a feeling of confidence and security. Steering is quick and responsive, especially for an SUV. Off road, the 2014 model that I originally drove this summer felt stiff and buffeting, but the 2015 version I recently drove seems much better controlled over rocky terrain.

The standard four-cylinder engine provides decent power (184 hp), though it sounds like it’s working extra hard under acceleration. The automatic transmission, which now boasts an industry-leading nine gears, shifted well enough and generally felt refined, though occasionally there were harsh downshifts, such as when coming out of a corner.

The interior is very comfortable with a good-looking dashboard and plenty of stowage areas, including a clever hideaway cubby under the passenger seat. The fit and materials in this top-drawer model seemed first rate, with good-looking contrasting stitching on the dashboard and a solid feel throughout.

The compact SUV segment is the hottest piece of the new-car market these days, and Cherokee manages to stand out with unique styling and solid drivability, plus the bonus of a classic nameplate.

 

Driven: 2015 Toyota Yaris

Does Ya-ree rhyme with Pa-ree? | Larry Edsall photos
Does Ya-ree rhyme with Pa-ree? | Larry Edsall photos

Excluding the Bugatti Veyron — and its $1.2-plus million price tag — as best we can figure, a French car is being sold in the United States for the first time since 1991, the year Peugeot joined Renault and Citroen in finally withdrawing its cars from the American new-car market.

And what is this French car that is being sold in America?

Well, it’s not the product of any of the traditional French automakers. It’s the 2015 Ya-ree, which is how we think the French would pronounce the world “Yaris,” (rhymes with Paris, or with Pa-ree).

Wait a minute! Isn’t the Yaris a Toyota?

It is, indeed.

Yaris' hatch opens wide for your cargo
Yaris’ hatch opens wide for your cargo

But because the previous generation of the Yaris, a car imported from Japan, was less than a huge hit with American drivers, Toyota decided to see if a car with some European flair might be better received. Since 2005, Toyota has had a joint venture with Peugeot and Citroen to build a compact hatchback that Citroen sells as the C1, Peugeot as the 107 and Toyota as the Aygo (i-go).

The Toyota Aygo concept car was unveiled earlier this year at the Geneva Motor Show. We’ve written about how Toyota is marketing its newest Camry as the “bold” Camry, well, the tag line for the Aygo concept car video was “Go Fun Yourself.”

That concept was the basis for the 2015 Yaris now being sold at Toyota dealerships in the U.S. Though in consultation with Toyota’s U.S. operations, the car was designed by Toyota’s ED2 studio, which is located between Cannes and Nice in the south of France. The car is produced at a Toyota assembly plant near the French/Belgian border.

The Yaris is a compact hatchback available in 3- and 5-door versions. We’ve just spent a week in the 5-door SE. That’s SE as in sports edition.

“The SE turns the Yaris into an urban-cool sporty ride,” claims Toyota’s media materials, “with black headlight trim and special gloss black with machined spoke 16-inch alloy wheels with 195/50R16 tires. Behind the wheels are four-wheel disc brakes. A rear diffuser rounds out the package.

“Inside, the leather-trimmed tilt three-spoke steering wheel includes audio controls and standard cruise control.”

By the way, that leather-trimmed tilt three-spoke steering wheel has a racing-style flat bottom and nice, contrast-colored stitching, as do the seats.yaris7

And speaking of spokes, those wheels have 10 spokes with an unusual if very interesting black-and-silver color pattern.

The Yaris is available with a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual transmission. Unfortunately, the one we were offered for the week had the automatic. We’re confidence the manual would be much more fun and would better enable the driver to extract all the power possible from the car’s 106-horsepower, 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine.

But even with the automatic, the Yaris is spunky, thanks to the engine’s construction with double-overhead camshafts, variable valve timing and a torque curve that’s wide enough to let you make the best of the 103 pound-feet of power it produces.

The SE model rides on a stiffer suspension than the L or LE versions. It also gets 16-inch wheels with 195/50-aspect tires.

Other upgrades include projector-beam headlamps and LED light-bar accent, integrated fog lamps, black grilled and rear roof spoiler.

Switchgear is intuitive in its usage
SE steering wheel is flat-bottomed, as in a race car

Standard equipment includes nine airbags and Toyota’s Star safety technology, Entune audio, air conditioning, cruise control, remote entry, and power windows and mirrors and locks. Navigation is available.

Some might be surprised to see only one windshield wiper, but we drove through a rainstorm and can report that the wiper is efficient in doing its job and providing a clear view of the road ahead. However, we cannot say the same for the small wiper at the other end of the car; it clears only a portion of the rear window.

The only feature we really missed was a rear-view backup camera, which quickly is becoming part of the ante for all new vehicles sold in the U.S.

As we said, the car is spunky, very comfortable at freeway speeds, and oh-so-easy to park. All Yarises (or is it Yari?) are equipped with nicely responsive electronic rather than hydraulic power steering.

Interior comfort is aided by the presence of soft-touch surfaces. Cargo capacity is aided by the way the rear seats are split and fold-down easily to enlarge the cargo floor.

Pricing starts at $14,845 for the 3-door L model. The 5-door SE we drove had an as-tested price of $18,625.

Vive la France!

2015 Toyota Yaris SE

Vehicle type: 5-passenger hatchback, front-wheel drive
Base price: $17,620 Price as tested: $18,625
Engine: 1.5-liter four-cylinder, 106-horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 103 pound-feet of torque at 4,200 rpm Transmission: 4-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 98.8 inches Overall length/width: 155.5 inches / 66.7 inches
Curb weight: 2,335 pounds
EPA mileage estimates: 30 city / 36 highway / 32 combined
Assembled in: France

Driven: 458 + 610 – 4 + 911 = 1,732 (horsepower of fun)

Porsche Turbo, Lamborghini Huracan and Ferrari 458 Spider await | Larry Edsall photos
Porsche Turbo, Lamborghini Huracan and Ferrari 458 Spider await | Larry Edsall photos

Yes, I know, the math in the headline is not correct. But trust me, the answer is accurate.

Sometimes, it’s fun being a guinea pig, especially when being a test subject involves snuggling yourself in behind the steering wheel and driving three of the world’s latest supercars. In this case, those cars were a Ferrari 458 Spider, a Lamborghini Huracan and a Porsche 911 Turbo.

My test drive started and finished at the Arizona Biltmore, the classic Phoenix resort hotel that in January will host the second annual Arizona Concours d’Elegance just a few days before it becomes the site of RM’s annual Arizona collector-car auction.

The Arizona Biltmore, built in a style inspired by the work of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, is part of the Waldorf Astoria group of hotels and resorts, and it was chosen to be one of the sites for the new Waldorf Astoria Driving Experiences, a program the group is test-marketing this year.

Here’s how the program works: Former race car driver Didier Theys, his wife, Florence, and their DXL company are contracted to show up at selected Waldorf properties with three exotic sports cars.

Theys, a native of Belgium who lives in the Phoenix area, raced professionally for 35 years. He raced at Indy and Le Mans, twice won the 24-hour sports car race at Daytona and was on the podium three times at Le Mans. He manages the Ferrari Challenge racing series for Ferrari, organizes ride-and-drive programs in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East, and if you buy a used Formula One car from Ferrari, it is Theys who delivers it and gives you instructions in how to drive it in vintage races.

Hotel guests can pay $995 to receive a driver’s briefing from Theys that includes specific instructions on the nuances of driving each of the cars, and then they get to drive each of those supercars during an experience that lasts for a couple of hours and runs for around 125 miles.

Before rolling out the program on a group-wide basis in 2015, test runs were conducted this year at selected Waldorf properties. In addition to paying customers, some members of the automotive media were invited to take a turn.

Needless to say, I did not hesitate to RSVP in the positive when the invitation arrived.

To keep things safe and relatively sane, driving is done follow-the-leader style with Theys in the lead in a high-performance sedan. Yes, we’re driving supercars and he’s in a four-door sedan, but he’s a professional race car driver and capable of setting a pace that lets us get a real driving experience. (Plus his car is equipped with a radar detector, so it’s wise to stay in line as directed.)

Our driving route went from the hotel to a freeway, then north and east of the city to rural highways and twisting, hilly two-lanes out near Bartlett Lake east of Scottsdale before working our way back to town, and traffic.

ferrariFor my first rotation, I was in the 2014 Ferrari 458 Spider, which is equipped with a racing-style steering wheel. Theys showed me the control for setting the car to Sport or even full Race mode, pointed out the shift lights built into the top rim of the steering wheel and suggested that as I accelerate, I engage the paddle shifter when three of those lights are glowing.

Priced at around $260,000, the 458 draws its power from a mid-mounted 4.5-liter V8 that provides 570 horsepower at 9,000 rpm. A seven-speed transmission delivers that power to the car’s rear wheels. As you might imagine, the engine sounds amazing. Handling — steering turn-in, suspension response, braking — is astounding.

Two driving highlights: The lights make you feel like an F1 racer, and I was amazed and delighted at the way the car responded immediately to inputs from my right foot, and not only when accelerating but also with lifting off, even slightly, such as to set and slow the car before a turn.

I was really disappointed when Theys pulled into a parking lot at the lake, indicating it was time to trade cars. I’d really been having fun in the Ferrari and didn’t want to quit driving it. However, my disappointment evaporated quickly since next in line for me was the brand new 2015 Lamborghini Huracan I’d been watching in my rearview mirrors.

lamboPriced around $240,000, the Huracan (aka LP610-4) is the successor to the Lamborghini Gallardo. It carries a 5.2-liter V10 behind the cockpit, good for 602 horsepower. And since Lambo now is owned by Volkswagen and assigned to Audi, the Huracan has four-wheel drive. In the Huracan, that power goes to all wheels via a seven-speed auto-shifted gearbox.

One of my first impressions after climbing inside the Huracan was just how large are its exterior mirrors. But they need to be because there’s very limited visibility via the cockpit’s rearview mirror, and the exterior mirrors need to be big just so you can see around the cars very wide tail section.

You also noticed that hexagon shape of those mirrors, and then you look around and see that hexagon is the design theme throughout the interior. The interior also looks very mechanical, especially after leaving the more bionic shapes inside the Ferrari. If I felt like a racer in the Ferrari, I feel like I was on the bridge of the Star Trek Enterprise in the Lambo.

And that holds up when I hit the accelerator. Instantly, I’m at warp speed, struggling to paddle-shift quickly enough to keep up with the rate of acceleration.

Forget the rear-view mirrors. It’s an effort just to keep the view through the windshield in focus.

My time in the Lamborghini seemed short, though I realize it wasn’t because of mileage but because of the rate those miles flew beneath the wheels.

porscheLast shift was in the 2014 Porsche 911 Turbo.

I’d driven a few Ferraris in the past, and once spent a day in a Gallardo, but I’ve done thousands of miles in 911s. But this was my first drive in the latest-generation 911 Turbo.

Priced at a mere $153,000, the Porsche seemed like a bargain among supercars. Where the Lambo has a V10 and the Ferrari a V8, the Porsche provides a comparatively small horizontally opposed, 3.8-liter six-cylinder powerplant. However, that engine is equipped with a pair of turbochargers, which means it’s good for 560 horsepower, which flows to Porsche’s four-wheel drivetrain through a paddle-shifted, seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox.

The Porsche also comes with a back seat for those with small children or reasonably sized dogs.

Most of my time in the Porsche was on the way back to the Biltmore, which means some freeway and then surface-street traffic. But even on the crowded freeway, when you’re chasing a Ferrari and a Lambo through traffic, you can experience, enjoy and employ the power and the sure-footed dexterity the 911 Turbo provides.leadfollow

We started this story with a car-based mathematic formula, but forget the math, here’s the real sum/bottom line:

I didn’t want my drive in the Ferrari to end. The Huracan lives up to its name, which is Spanish for hurricane, and, in Lamborghini tradition, also the name of a famous Spanish fighting bull of the 19th Century, as well as the name of the Mayan god of wind, storm and fire. But if I were doing a long road trip, I’d take the Porsche.

Oh, and a PS to anyone who participates in a future Waldorf Astoria Driving Experience: Be careful when you get back into your own car after the supercar drive. In only a couple of hours I’d become so used to supercar performance, and especially to supercar braking performance, I nearly blew a stop sign as I was leaving the Biltmore in my own not-quite-a-supercar pickup truck.

 

Driven: 2015 Toyota Camry

The emboldened 2015 Toyota Sienna XSE | Larry Edsall
The emboldened 2015 Toyota Sienna XSE | Larry Edsall

The first time I saw one of those “Bold New Camry” television commercials, I had two thoughts:

  1. They’ve finally fired that oh-so-obnoxious actor who’s been in way too many Toyota commercials during the past few years, and
  2. The only thing bold about the Camry is the gumption of those who developed and approved this new series of commercials.

Is the Toyota Camry extremely competent? Absolutely.

Would I ever describe it as bold? Not in my wildest dreams.

But then I went to the SEMA Show, where automakers and others show off their latest car customization and high-performance products, and I saw a new Camry that was, well, indeed bold. No, it was actually way beyond bold. Because what appeared to be just another competent but far from emboldened new Camry turned out to be a wolf-in-sheep’s clothing: Beneath that stock 2015 Camry bodywork was an all-out, 850-supercharged-horsepower, ready-for-the-dragstrip, nitrous-boosted dragster.

Hey, maybe there is something bold about this new Camry after all.

To find out, I’ve just spent a week driving a 2015 Toyota Camry XSE.

Interior features Ultrasuede with red stitching
Interior features Ultrasuede with red stitching

I snuggle into the driver’s seat and look around and speculate that likely the only thing bold about this car is the red-stitching that runs across the face of the dashboard. But then I notice that there’s the same stitching on the shift-lever boot (albeit surrounding a lever for an automatic, not for a manual transmission). I also see the same stitching on the seats. Oh, and those seats aren’t the usual slippery leather; they have Ultrasuede to hold you in place in case you take a curve at a bold rate of speed.

For the 2015 model year, Toyota opted to do a major if mid-generation update on this country’s best-selling family sedan (a title the Camry has claimed for like the past dozen years). While the powertrain carries over, the Camry’s track has been widened, the brakes improved, the interior revised and all the bodywork (except the roof) redesigned to be both more aggressive in appearance and more aerodynamic for fuel efficiency.

The car is available in standard gasoline or in hybrid versions. Opt for the standard setup and you can select from LE, SE, XLE and the new XSE trim levels (also new is an SE version of the hybrid, which Toyota calls the “eco fun” setup.)

X is Toyota code for premium and SE stands for sports edition. Thus the XSE combines the luxurious features formerly found only on the XLE model — power moonroof, acoustic (noise-quieting) windshield, etc. — with the suspension, 18-inch wheels, smoked-chrome mesh grille and smoked projector-beam headlamps, rear spoiler and chrome-tipped exhaust that set the SE apart.

Opt for the XSE and you also get a 268-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 engine and six-speed automatic transaxle that you can manipulate via steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

Also standard on the XSE are 10 airbags, all sorts of computerized safety technology, rear-view camera, power-adjustable front seats, dual-zone automatic climate controls, and Toyota’s Entune Audio Plus — all for $31,370.

The press-fleet vehicle we’ve been driving also was equipped with a blind-spot monitor ($500); Entune Premium with JBL Audio and Navigation ($805); a technology package with pre-collision, lane-departure, dynamic radar cruise control and automatic high-beam headlamps ($750); illuminated door sills ($299); remote starting ($499); carpet/trunk mat set ($225); and Ruby Flare Pearl paint ($395), bringing the as-tested price to $35,688 with delivery fees.

While I found the switchgear to be less than intuitive — and that applies to both the big touch-screen atop the center stack and the controls mounted on the steering wheel — I realize I’m not the average buyer for this vehicle. That buyer, says Toyota, is 45 years old, or some 12-years younger than the typical customer in this segment of the new car marketplace.

New Camry in its more aggressive profile
New Camry in its more aggressive profile

Speaking of that marketplace, Toyota sells more than 400,000 Camrys a year, or as it was explained to me, 50 American families drive home every hour from a Toyota dealership in a new Camry.

Since the Camry was introduced to the American market in 1983, Toyota has sold 10.2 million units, and 6.6 million of them still are on the road, Toyota says.

While I’m old enough that my family is grown and we’re scattered around the country, I’m still young at heart when behind the wheel, and I can assure you that this is the best Camry I’ve ever driven, inside and out, and dynamically as well. Imagine: A responsive Camry that can be sort of fun to drive! Yes, it’s pretty luxurious inside, but it’s luxury with a sporty flair, and even better, the car itself is responsive to the enthusiastic driver’s inputs into its pedals and steering wheel.

O.K., it’s not quite bold in a head-turning sense. It’s not going to snap your head back like that SEMA dragster version, nor are a lot of people on the sidewalk going to turn their heads when they see you go past.

However, this new 2015 Toyota Camry XSE certainly fits what my dictionary says is the first definition of bold. It is, indeed, “confidently assertive.”

2015 Toyota Camry XSE
Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door sedan, front-wheel drive
Base price: $31,370 Price as tested: $35,688
Engine: 3.5-liter V6, 268-horsepower @ 6,200 rpm, 248 pound-feet of torque @ 4,700 rpm Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 109.3 inches Overall length/width: 190.9 inches / 71.7 inches
Curb weight: 3,480 pounds
EPA mileage estimates: 21 city / 31 highway / 25 combined
Assembled in: Georgetown KY

Driven: Ford Fiesta ST hot hatchback

Ford Fiesta ST transforms the diminutive economy car into a credible sports compact | Ford
Ford Fiesta ST transforms the diminutive economy car into a credible sports compact | Ford

While it’s hard to think of the compact Ford Focus ST as anybody’s big brother, that’s exactly the relationship we have with the Fiesta ST, a surprisingly sophisticated little hot rod that takes a similar performance approach and applies it to an even-smaller package.

Taking the standard subcompact Fiesta economy car, Ford engineers have added enough spice to turn it into an engagingly hot hatchback with sparkling performance and super-sharp handling, while keeping it civilized enough for normal driving.

ST stands for Sport Technologies | Ford
ST stands for Sport Technologies | Ford

Not that you’d want to drive the Fiesta ST normally. Like the Focus ST and other performance-tweaked munchkins, such as Mini Cooper S and Fiat 500 Abarth, the Fiesta ST is way too much fun for just plodding along. It’s a creature for carving back roads and, if you’re lucky enough, race track runs.

The key word here is fun, which Fiesta ST delivers in a big way despite its tiny proportions. Even everyday driving is fun as you row through the crisp-shifting gears and zip away from stoplights. The Fiesta ST comes exclusively with six-speed manual transmission. Bravo!

Plus, the four-door hatchback configuration makes it a practical car for young drivers who require a good all-around vehicle. And it gets decent gas mileage. Fun and sensible, a very favorable combination.

The Fiesta ST was new for 2014 and continues essentially unchanged for 2015. The Europeans have had versions of this car since 2005, so I wonder why it took so long to get here.

The look is sharpened with styling tweaks and vibrant paint hues | Ford
The five-door setup adds practicality to the sporty mix| Ford

Unlike much of the competition, the price tag is accessible enough for cash-strapped millennials. The Fiesta ST stickers around $22,000 and rises to about $25,000 fully equipped, compared with the standard Fiesta that starts off at around $14,000.

Sure, $25-grand might seem pricey for a tiny Fiesta hatchback, but consider that the Fiesta ST is powered by a turbocharged 1.6-liter engine that generates an admirable 197 horsepower and 202 pound-feet of torque. There’s plenty of pull for a car that weighs just 2,742 pounds, and it goes like stink.

The suspension has been firmed up and the body lowered to improve handling. Electronic Torque Vectoring Control reduces understeer during hard cornering, and torque steer – the bane of front-drive performance cars – has been pretty much eliminated. There’s a driver-selectable electronic stability control with the choice of standard, sport or turned off entirely.

The five-door configuration adds practicality to the sporty mix | Ford
The ST gets special styling tweaks and vibrant paint hues| Ford

There also are such styling enhancements as unique grille and chin spoiler, rear diffuser and high-mount spoiler, bright-tipped dual exhaust, ST badges and uniquely styled 17-inch alloy wheels. Buyers can select from a vibrant selection of paint colors.

Inside, the fully equipped Fiesta ST comes with a package of features – video screen with navigation, decent audio, computer functions, etc. The FordTouch interface can be a trial initially, but you get used to it.

So, with all that, Fiesta ST starts to seem like some kind of a performance bargain.

Fiesta ST feels quick and balanced on its stiff suspension, although some might find it too buffeting over rough surfaces. Control is always good, though, and enthusiast drivers should be willing to make the tradeoff of edgy handling over a comfortable ride.

The $25,000 price tag includes what should be a highly desirable feature: sporty Recaro front seats that are stiffly bolstered for enthusiast driving. But while the bolsters on the seats and backrests might be great for holding you in place during fast cornering, they are really too tight for anyone but the smallest, slimmest drivers and passengers.

The optional Recaro sport seats are effective but tight | Ford
The optional Recaro sport seats are effective but tight | Ford

I’m tall but not too wide and I found them unacceptably uncomfortable. Nobody who rode with me liked them, and any folks with a bit of meat on their bones would feel likewise. Members of the youthful target audience might be a better fit, though. But anyone who is considering this $2,000 option would be advised to try it on for size beforehand.

There’s also a piece of gimmickry on board, the “active sound symposer” that feeds the car’s sonorous exhaust note into the cabin to enhance the sporty experience. This is more than just the common sound tube found in some performance cars but an electronically controlled system that directs only certain acceleration tones to the occupants’ ears. It’s also found in the Focus ST.

It’s a good, rich sound but it can get tiresome, and I don’t really see where it’s necessary for a little car like the Fiesta ST. FYI: In a Google search, I found a company that offers a “sound symposer delete” system for Focus ST. So there you go.

Otherwise, the small engine is quite strong and smooth, with just about the right amount of free-revving power so that you can enjoy driving it hard without going into stratospherically illegal speeds. The six-speed manual is a pleasure to shift, quick and direct with effectively spaced close-ration gearing. And the Fiesta ST is a blast on winding roads.

No doubt, it’s a great setup at this price point. Just mind those seats.

Ford Fiesta ST

Vehicle type: Four-passenger, four-door hatchback, front-wheel drive.
Base price: $21,400.
Price as tested: $24,985.
Engine: 1.6-liter inline-4, 197 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 202 pound0feet of torque at 3,500 rpm.
Transmission: Six-speed manual.
Wheelbase: 98 inches.
Curb weight: 2,742 pounds.
EPA mileage estimates: 26 mpg city/35 mpg highway/29 mpg combined

Driven: 2015 Honda Fit

2015 Honda Fit EX-L Navi | Larry Edsall photos
2015 Honda Fit EX-L Navi | Larry Edsall photos

Each year on the eve of its SEMA Show, the staff of the Specialty Equipment Market Association walks the nearly 30 miles of booths and vehicle displays in and around the Las Vegas Convention Center and does a car count. At the 2014 show earlier this month, that count counted some 1,500 cars and trucks.

Early the next morning, just before the show opens, SEMA hosts an awards breakfast. Among those awards are the SEMA Awards, given to the four most popular vehicles with SEMA-member companies. As SEMA officials put it, the award winners are the vehicles member companies have chosen — and paid their own money to purchase — because they judged them to be the best choice for displaying their array of aftermarket automotive products.

This year, the awards went to the 2015 Ford Mustang (car), to the 2015 Chevrolet Silverado (truck), to the 2015 Jeep Wrangler (4×4/SUV) and to the 2015 Honda Fit (sport compact).

The Fit’s victory ends the two-year reign of the Scion FR-S in the sport compact category and comes, no doubt, in part because the 2015 model is what Honda calls an “all-new” generation of its sub-compact hatchback.

Time flies: It was way back during the 2007 model year that Honda introduced its American customers to the Fit. Here’s what I wrote at the time for the iZoom.com website:

Honda Fit redesigned and vastly updated for 2015 model year
Honda Fit redesigned and vastly updated for 2015 model year

“Fit is one of three subcompacts launched in the U.S. market for the 2007 model year by Japan’s major automakers. It joins the Nissan Versa and the Toyota Yaris in offering a compact and extremely fuel-efficient vehicle in a well-crafted package with a complete array of safety features. And once again, the Big Three, who for some reason missed yet another trend in the marketplace — that $3 a gallon gasoline might mean that people would forsake their huge and gas-guzzling SUVs and start buying small cars with big fuel economy numbers — are in panic mode, searching for a way to compete.

“Of course, Honda, Nissan and Toyota were at a huge advantage in such a shift because cars like the Fit, Versa and Yaris are the sort of vehicles they’ve been selling back home and in Europe and other places for many, many years. All they needed to do was to make some tweaks to better fit the American consumer and they were ready to roll (for example, Honda’s been building the Fit – known elsewhere as the Jazz – since 2002 and the U.S. is something like the 70th country to get a version).

“So in a world in which Ford seems to have lost not only its focus, but its Focus, where Chrysler is looking to China for help with some sort of sub-competent sub-compact and where GM’s best bet may be getting its own version of the Versa from potential partner Nissan/Renault, Honda offers a car that seems to truly fit the new American automotive marketplace.”

In the meantime, Ford has indeed reFocused, Chevrolet has turned to its South Korean cousins for help, and Chrysler did, indeed, get aid from overseas, but from Italy, not China.

But ever since its launch, Honda’s Fit had proven, yes, a very good fit for American drivers.

Back in 2007, I spent a week in a Honda Fit Sport and still have fond memories of that tight, tossable, spunky car. Now I’ve just finished a week at the wheel of the new 2015 Fit EX-L Navi and I’m much less impressed.

Driver gets an extra cupholder
Driver gets an extra cupholder

The 130-horsepower (up from 109 in the 2007 version), 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine is buzzy, and you definitely want to use the paddle shifters if you expect any sort of sporty driving experience from the continuously variable transmission. There’s not only a lot of road and wind noise entering the cabin, but the suspension thunks over bumps, even when encountering a manhole cover that should generate a mere ripple at most.

And wouldn’t you think by now that designers and engineers would have found away to make the right rear passenger’s should strap available without it simply hanging inelegantly from the ceiling?

Yes, I’m an old geezer, and am not likely ever to get used to an audio system that has neither a simple on/off button nor a knob for changing volume levels, let alone stations. And yes, there is a touch-screen system and controls on the steering wheel, but the HVAC system still has knobs, so why can’t I have them for the audio as well?

There's good space beneath that hatchback roof
There’s good space beneath that hatchback roof

On the other hand, this EX-L Navi version does have a navigation system, and heated and leather-trimmed front seats, and air conditioning, and a moonroof, and HondaLink and satellite radio and Pandora interface and voice recognition and such, and not only a wide-angle rearview camera but LaneWatch, which means that when you flick on your turn signal to indicate a right-hand turn, a camera in the right exterior mirror projects onto the 7-inch display screen a wonderful view of the side of your car and everything in the adjacent lane and more so you don’t turn into a truck, a car, a cyclist or a pedestrian.

It also encourages you to minimize fuel consumption as you drive with subtle light brackets on either side of the speedometer that glow green or blue depending on how aggressively you’re working the accelerator. I tend to ignore such suggestions. Nonetheless, while the 2015 Honda Fit is rated at 32 miles per gallon in town and at 38 on the highway, I averaged 42.3 overall.

So I’m left confused, perhaps even fit to be tied. This new Fit is new and improved but I did not enjoy it nearly as much. However, I’m thinking that had it been equipped with a manual transmission, I’d have found it a lot of fun to drive.

But perhaps I should think of the Fit as I do another of those SEMA Award winners, the Jeep Wrangler, that it’s a great starter kit that needs the aftermarket to extract its potential.

And the aftermarket is ready. At the SEMA Show, Spoon Sports did engine and suspension tweaks to turn the 2015 Fit into an endurance-racing car. Biscotto Engineering launched 16 new parts for the car, including a turbocharger that extracts 480 horsepower from the Fit engine.

Meanwhile, Kylie Tjin did a version for those with “an active metropolitan lifestyle” that included 18-inch wheels, air suspension, custom bodywork accents, Katzkin interior, Sony audio upgrades, and even a Greddy Fixie bicycle with a special slide-out bike holder that stores the bike not off the back end but within the cargo compartment.

And then there was the one done by MAD Industries, on gold-colored 19-inch wheels and Eibach suspension, with a greatly upgraded interior, and even a matching gold-and-black 125-cc Honda Grom mini-motorcycle.

Driven: 2015 Kia Soul EV

2015 Kia Soul EV can travel around 100 miles goes about 100 miles before its battery needs to be recharged | Larry Edsall photos
2015 Kia Soul EV can travel around 100 miles before needing to have its battery recharged | Larry Edsall photos

I’m wondering if the people who drove electric cars a century ago were plagued by range anxiety. By the way, those people included Henry Ford’s wife, Clara, who bought a Detroit Electric because she found her husband’s cars simply too noisy.

While Mrs. Ford bought a Detroit, the largest of the early electric car producers was Baker, of Cleveland, Ohio. Baker offered as many as 15 different models and counted Thomas Edison, Mrs. William Howard Taft and “Diamond Jim” Brady among its customers.

Battery-powered vehicles also were popular among fire departments, authors Curtis and Judy Anderson note in their book, Electric and Hybrid Cars, A History, because “Horses sometimes balked near fires and the gasoline engine was considered too flammable.”

At one point in America’s early automotive history, gasoline-, steam- and electric-powered vehicles each enjoyed about one-third of the market. Yet in 1916, Baker quit producing cars and instead went into the forklift business.

Range anxiety wasn’t the issue. For one thing, there weren’t very many roads on which you could drive very far from home, so most travel was within your city of residence. For another, in many large cities there were battery-exchange leasing programs. Running low on charge? Pull into a battery-exchange service station and someone would remove the spent lead-acid batteries from your car and replace them with fully charged ones.

There's quite a bit of room under that hatch
There’s quite a bit of room under that hatch

“The future of electrics looked bright,” the Andersons note.

Well, it did until gasoline-powered cars got self-starters — no more difficult and dangerous cranking to start your car — and until roads improved to the point that you actually could drive both at a faster rate of speed and far out into the countryside — or even across the country — in relative comfort.

Except for occasional and pretty much experimental engineering efforts, the plug was pulled on electric cars until recently, when environmental concerns and those over petroleum supplies, as well as advances in battery technology, put electric vehicles back on the highway. I’ve spent the past week driving one of the newest, the 2015 Kia Soul EV.

Well, I’ve been driving it since I figured out how to recharge its batteries. Turns out someone who drove the car before had set its onboard computer system to recharge only during certain hours of the night. The owner’s manual was pretty much no help in finding a solution.

Phone calls back and forth to the local Kia rep and a plea on Facebook (with an engineer from another car company suggesting the correct solution) finally got the lights atop the dash blinking, the indication that the car’s 27 kWh lithium-ion polymer battery was being recharged and that in about eight hours (via standard 110-volt household current) I’d have 100 miles of range in which to see what this EV could do.

While this was my first experience with the Soul EV, it wasn’t the first time I’d driven the boxy Kia compact. Right from its launch, the Soul has been among my favorite compact hatchbacks, and this newest generation has been the best, with the wider track making the car feel and handle like a much larger vehicle without sacrificing any of the scoot-down-the-road fun I’ve experienced behind the steering wheels of gas-powered Souls.

The view under the hood
The view under the hood

This electric-powered Soul offers that same driving sensation. It’s fun to drive. It’s cute on the outside and roomy on the inside.

On the other hand, it comes with a couple of features you don’t get in the gasoline-powered version.

One of those features is a $36,000 price tag. Yes, the Soul EV has all sorts of airbags and stability assists, and even front and rear proximity sensors and a rear-view camera to ease parking. It also comes with navigation and UVO (Kia’s infotainment and connected platform), heated and ventilated and leather-trimmed front seats, tilt and telescoping steering column and fog lamps, and heated exterior mirrors that fold closed when you shut off the car.

But for $36K, you could buy two gasoline-powered 2015 Souls, each of them rated at 30 miles per gallon on the highway and capable of being refilled at any gas station in about five minutes.

Which brings me to the other “feature” of this, and seemingly all, electric vehicles — range anxiety.

The Monroney (pricing) sticker on the 2015 Soul EV says the car has a range of 105 miles on a full charge, and breaks that down into 92 miles on the highway or 120 when just buzzing about town. Recharging, the sheet says, will cost you about $600 a year, and using electricity instead of gasoline will save you $8,000 over the course of five years of ownership.

Although it wasn’t mentioned, you also save on not having to do oil changes every few thousand miles at around $30 bucks a pop.

But also unmentioned are the emotional costs of range anxiety. From the moment you push the start button, you are likely to fret about how soon you’re going to run out of juice, and where that might occur.

Plugged in
Plugged in

The Soul EV tries to alleviate that fear with a feature on its information screen that tells you about how close the nearest recharging facility is to your present location. I was surprised about how many and how close they were.

But I also had to think about where I was heading in ways not considered when driving a petrol-powered car or truck. For example, I calculated the distance from home to WestWorld of Scottsdale, where the Goodguys were having its annual autumn car show, and realized the Soul EV wasn’t going to get me there and back.

Another day, a couple of us were going not quite so far north in Scottsdale and took the Soul. Turns out we had plenty of charge left when we got home, but it was a nervous drive nonetheless.

On yet another day, we were heading from home to central Phoenix. Even though there’s a mountain to circumnavigate on the way, we pretty much relaxed on the drive, knowing we’d likely be using only half the available charge. On each ensuing trip from home to central Phoenix, we were able to focus more on the drive and less on the anxiety.

Perhaps if you owned an EV instead of merely testing one for a week, you’d get to the point of being confident in its range and would relax and enjoy the drive. Perhaps.

Screen shows remaining mileage, strength of charge, distance to charging station
Screen shows remaining mileage, strength of charge, and distance to closest charging stations

But from our perspective, EVs remain best-suited as a second or third vehicle used primarily for a short daily commute or driven by people with no particular place to go — at least no particular place that’s very far from home.