What I think: 2018 Kia Rio

One of the most significant trends in the new-car market over the last couple of decades is the way upscale features have trickled down from luxury cars to more affordable models. The Kia Rio is a case in point, as the least expensive model from a brand known for catering to budget-oriented buyers, whose top-level EX Tech trim includes niceties like navigation, heated seats and steering wheel, leather seating, and automatic climate control.

That’s the car Kia gave us to test, and looking at the specifications before picking it up, we wondered how much we would have to temper our expectations of this handsome, not-quite-$24,000 car. It’s easy to think some of the Rio’s slick looks and upscale specs would rub off on the way it drives.

Initial impressions were good: The 1.6L engine idles so quietly, my wife asked if the car was a hybrid. It is not, however, and that notion was quickly dispelled when we put the motor’s 130 hp to work. It’s eager enough, but makes a lot of noise even in moderate acceleration, and the engine isn’t much to listen to.

Also noisy is the car’s suspension, which transmits a lot of clunking and clomping sounds into the cabin over rough pavement. We’d say that’s to be expected in a subcompact, but others in this class are better at isolating driver and passengers from the worst of that soundtrack. That said, this new Rio’s suspension did better at keeping our test car’s big and heavy 17-inch wheels planted on the road; versions of the last-generation Rio fitted with wheels like this tended to feel unsettled when driving on broken asphalt.

There’s more headroom in the Rio’s front seats than in many larger cars we’ve driven recently, a nice surprise in a small hatchback. Those riding in back will find vertical space is also good there, but legroom is predictably snug.

Upscale aspirations or not, fuel economy is still a major consideration in small cars, and our tester lived up to that with an average of 8.4 L/100 km in a week of city driving, just squeaking in under Kia’s estimate of 8.5.

We appreciate Kia’s efforts to keep the Rio’s secondary controls simple. The single-zone automatic climate controls are very tidy, located below the 7.0-inch touchscreen that houses the car’s straightforward UVO infotainment system and sporting a few redundant hard buttons to make its basic functions easier to use while the car is moving. UVO also supports the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integrated platforms as standard (these are still optional in some much more expensive cars).

Rio pricing starts at $14,795 for the sedan, and the hatchback comes in at $200 more. Our fully loaded EX Tech test vehicle carries an MSRP of $23,745, which includes the six-speed automatic transmission that comes in all trims save for the two least expensive.

That fully-loaded model is also the only way to get the Rio’s sole active safety feature, an automatic emergency-braking system that reacts to an obstruction in front of the car if the driver doesn’t. Despite the Rio’s upscale pretensions, the Honda Fit comes with a more comprehensive set of driver aids for just over $20,000, including lane-departure warning with lane-keeping assist. Even the aging Toyota Yaris boasts more driver aids in a $16,000 base model that comes standard with automatic braking, lane-departure alert and automatic high-beam headlights.

About $21,000 will buy you a Rio EX, in which you have to go without automatic braking, but you get the same infotainment and climate controls, a sunroof, heated front seats, and a heated steering wheel.

Kia clearly feels the Rio is finally good enough to compete simply as a nicely made car, rather than having to load it with the most features for the least money. That old approach may have been a good way to get people to give the Rio a chance, but the company’s new philosophy will work better to keep those buyers coming back.

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Posted by on September 13, 2018 in Kia, What I Think


What I think: 2018 Nissan Maxima

Nissan markets the Maxima as a budget-oriented upscale sport sedan, but we think they’d do better to drop the sport label and instead emphasize the car’s comfortable interior and smooth, efficient powertrain. Read my full review at

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Posted by on September 5, 2018 in Uncategorized


What I think: 2018 Kia Sorento

The Kia Sorento surprised us in ways we didn’t expect with a 2016 redesign, and in its top-end SXL trim, it continues to be one of the best values for a luxurious crossover vehicle. Read my full review at

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Posted by on August 16, 2018 in Uncategorized


What I think: 2018 Mazda6 Signature

The Mazda6 mid-size sedan doesn’t get as much attention as competitors like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, so Mazda has rolled out a new Signature trim and bolted its 2.5L turbocharged four-cylinder engine under the hood in a bid to turn more heads in the family car crowd. Read my full review at

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Posted by on August 10, 2018 in Mazda, TractionLife


What I think: 2018 Nissan Qashqai

If you want to know why auto-industry insiders think small SUVs will soon run compact cars into the ground, you don’t have to look much further than Nissan’s lineup. The Japanese company helped kick off the small-crossover craze with its oddball Juke in 2011, but has recently committed to a more mainstream approach signaled by the Juke’s forthcoming replacement with the Kicks, and the arrival of the Qashqai you see here.

Nissan has sold the Qashqai in Europe and elsewhere for a number of years, and while the name is new to us, this little utility shares its underpinnings with the familiar Rogue, a vehicle that lives at the large end of the compact-crossover spectrum and has done very well for Nissan in North America.

The Qashqai’s basis on the nicely-sorted Rogue is a good starting point that makes it a smooth driver, though more road and wind noise gets into the cabin than we remember from our last Rogue test drive.

Doing the work is a 2.0-litre that makes 141 hp and 147 lb-ft of torque. With that motivation under the hood, performance is fine, but you’ll get more straight-line satisfaction from stronger competitors like the Fiat 500X (180 hp) and Mitsubishi’s RVR (optional with 168 hp).

And while the Volkswagen Golf wagon is not technically a crossover, its Alltrack AWD option positions it as a competitor to cars like the Qashqai, while offering both more power and interior space.

Basic front-drive Qashqai models come with a manual transmission, but the continuously variable automatic (CVT) is mandatory with AWD. It’s not an exciting way to put power to the road, but it does so while mimicking the stepped gear changes of a traditional automatic and avoiding the droning engine note that annoys us in many other CVT-equipped cars.

While I normally ignore eco-minded drive modes, in the Qashqai this feature softens jumpy throttle response and makes it easier to drive smoothly. All we wished is that the car would remember which setting was engaged when the car is turned off; the button is awkwardly placed down by the driver’s left knee, which proved a pain given that we used it every time we started the car.

Button placement aside, if the idea behind it is to make the Qashqai more fuel-efficient, our test was inconclusive, because cold weather bumped fuel consumption to an average of nearly 11.0 L/100 km in mostly highway driving — much higher than Nissan’s estimates of 9.1/7.5 with the optional all-wheel drive system. That said, the AWD worked well during a week spent in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal, including the aftermath of a 20-cm snowfall.

Nissan says a FWD model with the CVT is nominally more efficient than my AWD tester, but given my experience with other vehicles offered with both types of drivetrains, a front-drive model could turn out to save more fuel in real-world driving than those estimates suggest.

Despite its small footprint, the Qashqai is plenty roomy (bulky winter clothing notwithstanding). Two of us were cozy but not cramped in the front seats, and the rear bench offers perfectly useful head- and legroom for adults, including lots of toe room under the front seats. Predictably, cargo space is limited, but the trunk floor can be adjusted downward a couple of inches to add a few valuable litres of volume.

Our test vehicle was the mid-range SV trim with AWD, a $26,798 vehicle that includes niceties like heated front seats and steering wheel and dual-zone automatic climate control. If you want a touchscreen-based infotainment system, you have to spring for the $29,498 SL trim, which also gets navigation and leather seating.

As good as I remembered the Rogue being when I last drove one in 2013, I wondered if the mechanically similar Qashqai would feel dated next to other automakers’ more modern crossover designs. Not at all: This is a nicely done little utility that I think buyers will find just as easy to live with as the Rogue. All I’d suggest is that if fuel economy is a priority for you, think hard about how much you need four-wheel traction.

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Posted by on January 7, 2018 in crossover, Crossovers/SUVs, Nissan


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What I think: 2018 Volkswagen Atlas

2018 Volkswagen Atlas Chris Chase 0001.

The 2018 Volkswagen Atlas marks a turning point for this German company in the wake of the diesel emissions scandal that rocked it in late 2015. The Atlas is an all-new large SUV that shows VW is serious about turning its fortunes around by focusing its efforts on SUVs and crossovers that can compete in North America, where there is a seemingly endless appetite for such vehicles.

Read my review at

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Posted by on January 3, 2018 in Uncategorized


What I think: 2018 Honda Accord

2018 Honda Accord CHASE 0001

The family sedan faces an uncertain future, but Honda thinks it can extend the life of this segment with the latest version of its Accord. This is as new as new gets for an existing model these days: along with updated styling, the well-known Accord also has a pair of new turbocharged engines.

Read my review at

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Posted by on December 26, 2017 in Uncategorized