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Monthly Archives: July 2011

Nuts and bolts: 2012 Honda CR-V concept

By Chris Chase

Concept vehicles are the ones normally seen at auto shows, often-radical styling exercises that suggest what’s in store for a carmaker’s future models. Honda’s concepts of late, though, have been more down-to-earth vehicles providing a very accurate preview of a coming-soon production model. Proof can be seen in the concept for the two-seat CR-Z hybrid (seen at the 2007 Tokyo auto show), and more recently, in the Civic concept (essentially a production model with blacked-out windows) that made the auto show rounds earlier this year.

2012 Honda CR-V concept

Photo courtesy Honda Canada

Honda’s latest preview is of the 2012 CR-V Concept, unveiled July 25th. The CR-V is Honda’s entry in the compact crossover/SUV category, an important one in North America and one in which Honda has been a very important player since the first CR-V was introduced way back in 1997. This so-called concept is another thinly-veiled production model, the giveaway being Honda’s pronouncement that the 2012 CR-V will go on sale in Canada (and presumably in the U.S., too) early next year – far too soon to allow time for significant design changes.

The styling isn’t a total departure, but Honda’s being less cautious than with the 2012 Civic that just went on sale. Honda has more latitude here than it did with the Civic: the CR-V is important, but the Civic is practically the poster child for small cars in Canada. The concept’s front-end treatment is a kinder, gentler version of that found on the ungainly, unloved Accord Crosstour. The rear, from what’s visible of it in the single front three-quarter image Honda provided, retains the current model’s basic look, with bumper-to-roof taillights, but otherwise looks like a cross between the Volvo XC60 and Kia Sportage, neither of which are bad designs to crib style ideas from.

Based on the company’s press release, it seems Honda will stick with its strategy of offering a single four-cylinder engine in the CR-V, despite most of its competitors’ offering six-cylinder or turbocharged four-cylinder powertrains in uplevel models. Honda doesn’t say anything about performance upgrades compared to the current CR-V, but does boast of “top-of-class” fuel economy. Sounds impressive, but don’t expect miracles; a ten per cent improvement over the current front-drive model’s figures of 9.8/7.1 L/100 (city/highway) would be a generous estimate. The current CR-V is offered with just one transmission, a five-speed automatic. My guess is Honda will stick with it for 2012; the Sportage and Tucson already come with six-speed automatics, and the Toyota RAV4 still uses a four-speed with its four-cylinder engine.

Inside, Honda promises a “more accommodating and spacious design” and a lower cargo floor. The latter is the more interesting statement, as the CR-V is already one of the better vehicles in its class, along with the Toyota RAV4, for ease of cargo loading.

Honda’s on an unfortunate streak lately with many of its brand-new models being duds in the marketplace. It has had better luck redesigning existing successful vehicles, though, and the redesigned CR-V should do just fine. A lower price would help, and I do think Honda will cut the CR-V’s price for 2011, in order to keep competitive with Korea’s Kia Sportage and Hyundai Tucson – popular, well-designed vehicles that undercut the Honda by a significant amount. The 2011 CR-V’s MSRPs start at $26,290 for the base LX FWD model, and top out at $35,390 for the EX-L with navigation.

Notably, Honda will offer the CR-V in a Canada-exclusive Touring trim, and the 2012 model will be the first CR-V to be built at the company’s Alliston, Ontario manufacturing plant.

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What I think: 2011 Nissan Quest SL

By Chris Chase

2011 Nissan Quest SL

2011 Nissan Quest SL

You might expect a company that builds crazy fun cars like the 370Z and GT-R to have an entire line-up of vehicles infused with a fair amount of amusement. Indeed, Nissan is no slouch in building performance-oriented vehicles, such as the Maxima and the SE-R version of the otherwise dull Sentra, not to mention a couple of Infiniti models that challenge the world’s best sport sedans.

However, it seems Nissan’s supply of fun factor ran out when it got around to putting together its redesigned 2011 Quest. Certainly, no one gets into a minivan expecting it to drive like a sports car, but even taken on its own merits the Quest was disappointing, with ponderous handling and vague steering, two aspects that were pulled sharply into focus on a back-roads cottage getaway. I’ll admit that my expectations were coloured by a recent test of the also-new Honda Odyssey, a van that carries itself with far more poise, with a tight suspension and unexpected cornering ability.

2011 Nissan Quest SL

2011 Nissan Quest SL

To be fair, the Quest’s soft ride won’t go unappreciated; that’s a great thing in a vehicle designed as a people-mover, and means it will attract buyers who appreciate the cushy ride of the Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country twins.

The Quest’s interior does play against type. One of its best features is the third row of seats that fold away forward, instead of back and down into the well behind them. This creates a permanent, covered “trunk” available no matter the positioning of the rear seats, a real, practical benefit for everyday use.

2011 Nissan Quest SL

2011 Nissan Quest SL

However, another against-the-grain design element doesn’t work as well: the second row seats that can’t be removed from the van. They do fold, but the result is a higher load floor with all seats down than in other vans, which limits the Quest’s maximum cargo space. Still, the Quest is a big vehicle, and the reduced cargo volume will only be a problem for transporting very large items too tall for the interior.

Nissan’s other interior trick is to play with perceptions to make the front seats spacious and yet give the driver the visual impression that he or she is piloting a vehicle sportier than a minivan. The dash and cowl are high and the windshield header squeezes down lower than in most vans, lending a gun-slit effect to the forward view. At the same time, the door panels and side glass are pushed out to create a spacious environment for the driver and front passenger. The overall effect – and I’ll let you decide whether this is a good thing – is like sitting in a bathtub with a chopped roof.

The front and second row seats are wide and comfortable, the fronts nicely sculpted for long-haul comfort. The third row suffers from the usual minivan maladies, with a bottom cushion too low and too short on thigh support for adult legs. Headroom is generous throughout, but legroom feels tight in the second and third rows.

Getting in is made easy by a low step-in height. The second-row seats slide forward to ease access to the third row, but not quite far enough to make it truly easy for adults. Toyota got this part right, with second-row bottom cushions that fold up as the seat is moved forward, to make more space.

2011 Nissan Quest SL

2011 Nissan Quest SL

Looks-wise, there’s a lot of Infiniti (Nissan’s upscale brand) in the Quest’s dash; panel fits are easily as good, but the materials aren’t. One glaring problem, literally, is the way that the glossy wood and plastic trim at the top of the centre stack reflect the midday sun straight into the driver’s eyes. Also, the climate and radio controls are partly obscured from the driver when the transmission shift lever is in the “drive” position.

Nissan’s well-known 3.5-litre V6 fills the Quest’s engine bay, generating 253 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque. This is the first Quest to use the continuously variable transmission (CVT) that has become common in other Nissans, and as is common to all Nissan CVTs, this one works smoothly. It can be slow to “downshift” when more power is needed, however. Natural Resources Canada’s fuel consumption ratings are 11.1/8.1 L/100 km in the city and highway test cycles, respectively; in real-world driving, my tester averaged 13.3 L/100 km in the city and what I thought was a disappointing 9.6 L/100 km over 400 km of highway driving at speeds in the 80 to 110 km/h range.

2011 Nissan Quest SL

2011 Nissan Quest SL

With a starting price of $29,998, the Quest lines up pretty closely with its import rivals, but costs more than the Dodge Grand Caravan. Get into the higher-end trims, and the Nissan gets pricey, with the top-end LE running $48,498. If you’re after lots of luxury and technology, this is the most expensive van you can buy, particularly if you add the $2,000 dual-pane sunroof to the LE.

My tester was the SL, positioned two rungs up from the base trim and priced at $38,798. All Quests include cruise control, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel, power mirrors, six-way manual driver’s seat, keyless entry and pushbutton start and a removable second-row console. The SV model adds alloy wheels, fog lights, seat heaters, upgraded stereo display, USB port, auto-dimming rearview mirror, and dual-level front centre console and conversation mirror.

2011 Nissan Quest SL

2011 Nissan Quest SL

Basic kit in my SL model included 18-inch wheels, leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, Bluetooth, heated side mirrors, power liftgate and sliding doors, automatic headlights, leather seats, eight-way power driver’s seat and four-way power front passenger seat, one-touch-release third row seats and a backup camera. My tester also had the optional, $2,100 DVD player that will run video through the seven-inch screen in the dash, and an 11-inch display that folds out of the headliner for rear-seat riders. With that add-on, the total MSRP was $40,898, plus $1,600 freight.

The Quest does day-to-day minivan stuff well: it’s easy for people to get into, comfortable once they get there, and includes a handful of practical cargo touches. On the downside, the Quest is no deal in its higher trim levels, and the dull drive is a turn-off even by minivan standards.

 

What I Think: 2011 Lexus CT 200h

By Chris Chase

The words “sporty” and “hybrid” don’t spend much time together. Generally speaking, if a hybrid is sporty, the entertaining side of its personality comes at the expense of the fuel-saving potential that the hybrid moniker supposes.

But now, here’s Lexus, with the 2011 CT 200h, a compact hybrid hatchback that its maker says is designed for “moments of fun.” As a hybrid, it’s got the specs: the combination of 1.8-litre gasoline engine and electric motor comes more or less untouched from the Prius, by Lexus’ parent company, Toyota.

2011 Lexus CT 200h

2011 Lexus CT 200h

In pursuit of the sporty half of the equation, Lexus fine-tuned the drivetrain, making modifications designed to coax more performance out of the gas-electric power pair. The CT 200h’s 134 horsepower and torque (105 lb-ft from the gas engine, and 153 from the electric motor, although the net total is something between those two numbers) match those in the Prius.

The CT 200h’s fuel consumption numbers are not the same, though; owing to different throttle and engine control programming, the Lexus’ Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) ratings are 4.5/4.8 L/100 km in the city and highway test cycles, respectively, compared to the Toyota’s 3.7 and 4.0 L/100 km. My Lexus test car averaged an impressive 4.9 L/100 km in city driving, which is actually better than the 5.2 L/100 km my 2010 Prius tester managed.

On paper, those fuel ratings and Lexus’ marketing claims suggest that this Lexus is the very definition of guilt-free wheeled entertainment. Guilt-free, yes, but entertaining… well, that depends on what you expect.

2011 Lexus CT 200h

2011 Lexus CT 200h

The CT 200h is more agile in corners than the Prius, balancing sharp handling with a comfortable ride. Short of paying stacks of cash for a Porsche Panamera or Cayenne Hybrid, BMW’s hybrid X6 SUV or even Lexus’ own hybrid GS luxury sedan, you won’t find another hybrid this affordable that also allows for this much fun on bendy roads.

What you don’t get for that low, low price (the CT starts at $30,950) is spirited straight-line performance. If this car is faster than a Prius, you won’t be able to measure the difference by the seat of your pants, and in fact, I couldn’t detect much of any difference in the car’s behaviour compared to the last Prius I drove (though that was a couple of years ago at this point). Stand on the gas pedal, and the car’s continuously variable transmission (CVT) lets the engine run up close to its red line, and keeps it there as the car gains speed. As with any CVT-equipped car, the effect is a little strange compared to the up-and-down soundtrack of a traditional transmission moving through its set gear ratios. Again, though, as with other CVTs, this one keeps engine speeds low in normal driving; that, combined with the electric motor pitching in, makes for a quiet drive, as long as you’re not in a hurry.

In the gauge cluster, a multi-mode trip computer will display the distance travelled and fuel consumption in L/100 km, or it can be set to show you a hybrid system status screen that shows whether the car is moving on gas or electric power or, most commonly, a combination of both.

2011 Lexus CT 200h

2011 Lexus CT 200h

An “EV mode” (EV meaning electric vehicle) button on the dash forces the car to run on electricity alone, so long as the conditions are right: it works up to speeds of 40 km/h, under moderate acceleration and only when the car’s electronics say the battery has enough charge to pull it off. It’ll work three times out of four you try it. Lexus actually says not to use it too much, as it could cause fuel consumption to increase through repeatedly draining the battery and then requiring the gas engine to run to recharge it. It’s meant, suggests Lexus, as a convenient way to provide a quiet running mode for driving through residential areas late at night – not that most cars are loud enough to wake up the neighbours, unless you’re doing donuts in their driveway.

There are three different other drive modes beyond EV mode, one of which is a sport setting that brings quicker throttle response – as in, you get more power for less movement of the gas pedal – but doesn’t actually add any power. The other two choices are “eco,” which aims to save fuel by reducing gas pedal sensitivity, encouraging more leisurely driving, and a “normal” setting that strikes a middle ground and ultimately makes for the best driveability.

2011 Lexus CT 200h

2011 Lexus CT 200h

Interior finishings look and feel like quality, with the exception of the speaker covers in the dash top, which didn’t fit flush with the rest of the dash panel. But that’s a relatively minor thing in an otherwise nicely put-together car. The CT does away with the Prius’ high-tech interior look, presenting analog gauges for speed, fuel and a third gauge that can be toggled between a hybrid system power display or a more traditional tachometer, which is switched to automagically when sport mode is selected.

2011 Lexus CT 200h

2011 Lexus CT 200h

This is a small car, and the proof is found inside, where headroom is tight, and rear seat legroom is about equivalent to a compact hatchback, like the Mazda3 or Kia Forte5. Where the most space is lost, though, is in the trunk, where the high floor, dictated by the placement of the hybrid system’s battery pack, takes a significant cut out of cargo space. Naturally the rear seats fold (so do those in the Prius, but hybrid sedans, like the Ford Fusion, Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima lack a folding rear seat), usefully expanding trunk space.

2011 Lexus CT 200h

2011 Lexus CT 200h

To my test car, Lexus added the $4,900 Premium Package, which includes 17-inch alloy wheels (replacing 16-inchers on the base model), six-CD changer, 10-speaker stereo, driver’s seat memory, leather seats, power sunroof, auto-dimming side and rear view mirrors and backup camera. With that, the as-tested price came to $35,900 before taxes and fees.

It wasn’t long ago that the less-interesting Prius sold for something similar to the CT 200h’s $31,000 base MSRP, proof that hybrid technology is moving closer to the core of the new car market. Still, it’d take years to make back the price difference between this Lexus and a similarly-equipped Mazda3 Sport hatch – the top-line version costs $28,765 with navigation and steerable headlights, which my Lexus tester didn’t have – and the Mazda is a more engaging car to drive. But if your goal is to save fuel and have “moments of fun” doing it, then the CT 200h fits the bill.

For more information, see Lexus.ca.