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What I think: 2014 Ford Fiesta 1.0 EcoBoost

2014 Ford Fiesta EcoBoost

It’s hard to get excited about an economy car with a three-cylinder engine, especially if your last memory of such a vehicle was a 55-horsepower Pontiac Firefly. But nearly a decade and a half later, automakers figure North America is once again ready for such a tiny engine, even if it’s in a car not quite as tiny as that late ‘90s Pontiac.

Ford’s 1.0-litre, three-cylinder “EcoBoost” turbocharged engine was a late addition to the 2014 Fiesta line, and carries on into the 2015 model year. As with its other EcoBoost engines, Ford charges a premium for this one, which replaces the standard 1.6-litre four-cylinder; in this case, the smaller engine adds $1,500 to the Fiesta SE’s base price of $16,000. Another kicker is that, at least when this was written, the turbo three-cylinder can only be ordered with a manual transmission.

2014 Ford Fiesta EcoBoost

The point of Ford’s EcoBoost program—not to mention the recent resurgence of turbocharging across the auto industry—is to use smaller-displacement engines to save fuel, and then add turbocharging to top up power output to match that of a larger engine. To that end, the 1.0-litre generates 123 hp to the 1.6-litre’s 120, but boasts a bigger bonus in torque, which is rated at 148 lb-ft to the four-cylinder’s 112.

Horsepower is the number that sells cars, but torque is the one that moves them; it’s a truer measure of an engine’s potency, a fact that becomes crystal clear when driving the 1.0-litre Fiesta. It’s a gutsy little motor that pulls the car around with authority. On acceleration, it makes a curious growl that takes some getting used to, and it’s quick, but that sensation is dampened by economy-minded gearing that keeps engine speeds low: at 100 km/h in fifth gear, the engine turns just 2,200 rpm, where the 1.6-litre would be spinning well above 2,500 rpm.

2014 Ford Fiesta EcoBoost dash

If that takes away from the car’s straight-line performance, it pays back in highway driving by reducing engine noise. That’s a good fit with the rest of the car, which drives with a grown-up feel not common in the subcompact class; an eight-hour day in the car during a road trip from Ottawa to PEI was nowhere near as tiring as I expected, based on my past experiences in small cars.

On that drive, the engine’s torque proved beneficial on the hilly highways through New Brunswick, where the car was able to accelerate (albeit slowly) uphill, in fifth gear, at highway speeds, loaded with two adults and plenty of cargo: not many subcompacts could make that claim. If I were in charge at Ford, however, I’d give this car a six-speed transmission to close up the gaps between gears (especially first and second) and improve straight-line performance.

2014 Ford Fiesta EcoBoost back seat

Our observed average fuel consumption was 5.5 L/100 km (42 US MPG) at cruising speeds close to 120 km/h; however, that averaged dropped below 5.0 L/100 km (47 US MPG) at more relaxed speeds, and our city-driving average was 7.4 (32 US MPG).

Beyond the powertrain, the rest of the Fiesta is standard issue: it’s underpinned by a capable chassis that handles admirably but provides a comfortable ride that once again belies this car’s small size. Steering feel is sharp, and the manual shifter and clutch are a cinch to drive smoothly.

2014 Ford Fiesta EcoBoost trunk

Interior space isn’t generous, but it’s useable: we had three people in the car for part of our two-day road trip, and our tall rear-seat passenger was snug, but not crammed. (My test car was the Fiesta hatchback, but the EcoBoost engine is also available in the sedan body style.)

As with any fuel-saving powertrain technology, the $1,500 cost for the EcoBoost engine in the Fiesta is a significant investment, at about 10 percent of the car’s base price. Ford did well to make this little car feel as grown-up as it does, as it helps offset the fact that for my tester’s $19,000 as-tested price, you could move up to a larger car that’s nearly as efficient.

However, as a showcase for unconventional engine technology – remember, it’s been 14 years since the last three-cylinder car disappeared – the EcoBoost Fiesta proves you don’t need a big engine to provide satisfying performance.

This review also appeared in the Montreal Gazette

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Posted by on September 11, 2014 in Compact cars, Ford, What I Think

 

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What I think: 2015 Volkswagen Golf

2015 Volkswagen Golf

Volkswagen’s Golf is a car with a long history, dating back to what we knew as the Rabbit of the late 1970s (although this car has always been the Golf in Europe). That history does not include much in the way of daring design, and that doesn’t look poised to change as the Golf moves into its seventh generation for 2015.

That’s okay: despite looking not much different than the third-generation model introduced in the mid-1990s, the newest Golf is a sharp little car, with classy styling that belies its affordable price tag.

2015 Volkswagen Golf

The real news is what’s under the hood: the new base engine is a 1.8-litre turbocharged four-cylinder that makes 170 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque. It’s a bit of a throwback, as the fourth-generation Golf (and its Jetta sedan sibling) were notable for an engine nearly identical in specification; where that motor was aimed at drivers looking for a sporty drive, the goal of this new 1.8 TFSI powerplant is efficiency.

Fitted with VW’s latest direct gasoline injection technology, fuel consumption estimates are 9.3 L/100 km (city) and 6.4 (highway); my test car posted remarkable averages of 5.7 L/100 km in highway driving, and about 8.5 in the city. Those real-world results make the more expensive, but only slightly more efficient TDI diesel engine look a lot less appealing.

I lead with that because, while the Golf is a lovely car in most ways, that fuel economy—and the engine that provides it—is the most exciting thing about this car.

2015 Volkswagen Golf

Don’t take that the wrong way. The new engine is a torquey wonder, making plenty of smooth, quiet power. Surprisingly, the manual transmission is only a five-speed; most transmission innovation these days is going into eight-, nine- and ten-speed automatics. The number of gears doesn’t pose a problem in the Golf; what does is that this transmission is geared so far toward economy that the engine spins at less than 2,000 rpm at 100 km/h in fifth gear, and the gaps between ratios are very wide. The engine can handle all of that, but it does take a lot of the fun out of driving the car.

Likewise, the ride is softer than you might expect. Comfortable, without a doubt, and the car feels very solid at highway speeds, but the way the Golf goes over the road will do little to encourage you to attack corners with much enthusiasm. If you do, however, you’ll be rewarded with predictable handling and sharper responses than my tester’s 16-inch wheels and high-profile tires suggest.

2015 Volkswagen Golf front seats

This is a very spacious car, with accommodations that verge on mid-size, something that’s becoming common among compact cars. The cargo area is large as well: if you’re considering a small crossover for its trunk space, think smaller, because the Golf’s trunk will challenge just about any you’ll find in a compact SUV.

I was less enthusiastic about the front seats, which are far less comfortable than those in previous Golfs and Jettas I’ve driven. Helping to make up for that is their wide range of adjustment, including electric backrest adjustment and lumbar for both front chairs.

2015 Volkswagen Golf back seat

In fact, the base package is a decently-equipped car. Bluetooth is included in all trims, along with a streaming audio function and a wired iPod connector which only works with Apple music players. Front seat warmers are standard, along with heated side mirrors and windshield washer nozzles, all of which make winter driving more palatable. Manual air conditioning is also included.

If you move up to Comfortline trim, as my tester was delivered, the $23,000 price tag includes cruise control, backup camera, automatic post-collision braking and fog lights. Spec out the Comfortline with a $1,600 convenience package, and VW adds automatic headlights, auto-dimming rear view mirror, dual-zone automatic temperature control, sunroof and rain-sensing wipers.

2015 Volkswagen Golf trunk

For nearly $25,000, there are a number of things missing from the Golf that other small cars—most notably the Hyundai Elantra and Kia Forte—include for similar money. However, though the Golf may not be a ton of fun, it feels expensive going over the road, and for the right driver, that will count for more than any number of convenience features.

This article originally appeared in the Montreal Gazette

 
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Posted by on September 10, 2014 in Volkswagen, What I Think

 

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What I think: 2014 Cadillac CTS V-Sport

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At one time, the Germans had a lock on the mid-size luxury/sport sedan segment: it just didn’t get better than a BMW 5 Series, an Audi A6, or a Mercedes-Benz E-Class.

It’s a different story now with the recent introduction of the third-generation 2014 Cadillac CTS. Through its first two generations, the CTS was a good car that never quite had what it took to unseat the Germans’ mid-size supremacy. But now, Cadillac has a sedan that could easily convert a loyal German buyer with a car that, simply put, feels pretty German.

I drove a CTS in V-Sport trim, which tacks a couple of turbos onto the available 3.6-litre V6, to create a hot, hot car that is surprisingly easy to live with.

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Getting big power out of a medium-displacement engine is no stretch any more, thanks to modern turbocharging tech; putting that power in a car that feels as well-suited to the rat race as it does the race track is another matter, and that’s where Cadillac has truly succeeded.

I often scoff at cars with adjustable drivetrain and chassis settings. It seems like a cop-out that lets engineers get around the work of creating a solid all-round car. Too often, none of the available settings do anything just right: either the suspension’s too soft and throttle response too lazy, or the ride becomes uncomfortable and the throttle too touchy. So, credit to Cadillac: the V-Sport includes such a system, and while I find it superfluous as ever, select the “sport” setting and you get a near-perfect balance of ride comfort, handling and, in particular, perfectly-tuned throttle response.

2014 cadillac cts v-sport CHASE 008

Hit the gas, wait out the half-second of turbo lag, and revel in how the car surges forward on a tide of torque. This isn’t the first sedan to do speed well, but it’s the manner in which the car delivers it that’s so impressive. The rear-end squats—just a little—and the car hauls arse against a backdrop of one of the most intoxicating six-cylinder exhaust notes I’ve heard in some time. The V-Sport handles brilliantly as well, thanks in no small part to the adjustable suspension, which limits lean in turns and controls body motions over rough pavement.

It accomplishes all of this with poise—quite a feat, given that this car doesn’t even enjoy the traction benefits of all-wheel drive, usually a requirement for making a high-powered car enjoyable in hard-charging.

2014 cadillac cts v-sport CHASE 006

In a week of enthusiastic city driving—this much power really does corrupt when it feels and sounds this good—my test car averaged better than 15 L/100 km, an impressive number for a 420-horsepower car.

Factor in the $75,000 price tag for my V-Sport tester, and you’re looking a true performance bargain when stacked up against the likes of a BMW 550i, Audi S6 or a Benz E 550 (all of which come standard with all-wheel drive, by the way). Cadillac is doing a lot of things right at the moment, but nothing in its lineup is more right than the CTS V-Sport.

 
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Posted by on September 2, 2014 in Cadillac, What I Think

 

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Straight Eight: 2015 Subaru WRX STI

2015 subaru sti 013

1. This one goes to 11
Subaru’s STI takes the WRX sports car and cranks everything up: there’s more power, more grip and more tech, including an adjustable centre differential. If you want a taste of what it feels like to drive a rally car, this is the one to try.

2015 subaru sti 011

2. (Not-so-) little wing
If someone you know buys an STI, here are some questions to ask them: Is the wing FAA-approved? How quickly does your laundry air-dry when hung from it? Does it improve your cell reception? (It’s standard on the pricier two of three STI models, and not included on the base model.) (Credit for the wing jokes goes to my friend Steph Willems. When you’re done here, go read his excellent blog.)

3. What’s this button do? Oh shi—
The STI gets limited-slip differentials front and rear, and a driver-controlled centre diff: you can fiddle with the latter’s various adjustments to change how the car handles when flung around corners. It all makes it easy to forget you’re driving a real car, and not in your basement playing Forza Motorsports; I prefer the relative simplicity of the standard WRX.

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4. Gripping story, bro
Between those differentials and a set of grippy tires, the STI drives much differently than the WRX. It was impossible to break the rear end loose on public roads, whereas the WRX seemed more willing to drift through fast corners.

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5. Power play
Despite its bigger engine and extra power, the STI doesn’t feel much quicker than the WRX, and you have to beat the crap out of the car to feel what difference there is in a straight line.

6. Boneshaker
The last STI that I drove was a 2008 model. Where I remember that car having a surprisingly comfortable ride, this one does not. It’s punishing, actually, and as a result, the car isn’t much fun to use for everyday driving. The new WRX is much easier to live with as a daily driver.

2015 subaru sti 008

7. Big gulp
My average fuel consumption was higher than 12 L/100 km in city driving, and barely better than 9.0 on the highway, making it a solid 20 to 30 per cent thirstier than the WRX I drove a few weeks ago.

8. No hatchbacks allowed
Subaru disappointed countless fans of the old WRX and STI (including me) by building this new one exclusively as a sedan. It’s still a perfectly practical car—just not as practical as it used to be.

 
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Posted by on August 26, 2014 in Straight Eight, Subaru

 

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Straight Eight: 2014 Kia Forte5

2014 kia forte5 003

1. Five alive
This is the Kia Forte5. It’s the hatchback variant of the brand’s compact car, a competitor to the likes of the Honda Civic and Mazda3. Those 18-inch wheels fill out the fenders nicely, don’t they?

2014 kia forte5 002

2. Flower power
Wait, the wheels look like flowers. When did this turn into a review of a 1999 Volkswagen New Beetle?

2014 kia forte5 1001

3. It wants to be sporty
The car looks good, especially from the rear. The black lower bumper insert and dual exhaust tips are pretty sharp.

2014 kia forte5 001

4. It tries to be sporty
Kia says the Forte5, in my tester’s SX Luxury trim, has a sport-tuned suspension, but the soft ride doesn’t feel like it. Also, the suspension has a hard time keeping those big, heavy wheels planted on the road over rough pavement. The resulting unsettled ride really doesn’t work for me.

2014 kia forte5 2001

5. But it’s not all that sporty
Power-assisted steering is nothing new, but adjustable power-assist is. Press a button on the wheel and choose from “comfort,” “normal,” and “sport” modes. None of these settings does anything to improve the Forte’s vague steering feel.

2014 kia forte5 011

6. Turbocharged torque
All that said, the turbocharged engine is a fun little thing, even when hitched to the automatic transmission. Despite its small 1.6-litre displacement, it makes lots of torque at low revs. It deserves a better-sorted chassis than this.

2014 kia forte5 006

7. Stick to your strengths
Rear seat space approaches that of mid-size cars, and the trunk is nearly as large as that of many small crossovers. The front seats are comfortable, but the cushions are quite firm. This car’s interior is very well put together.

2014 kia forte5 008

8. The price of luxury
If you had $29,000, would you spend it on this car? Because that’s what Kia asks for the SX Luxury model I drove. It comes with a lot of nice stuff – heated steering wheel, heated rear(!) seats, HID headlights, proximity key, automatic air conditioning and a backup camera – but the Forte5 is a better deal closer to its $20,000 starting price. At that point, you don’t get the flowery wheels, but that’s okay with me.

 
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Posted by on August 19, 2014 in Kia, Straight Eight

 

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Straight Eight: 2015 Subaru WRX

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Exterior photos by Chris Chase; Interior photos courtesy Subaru Canada

1. More than meets the eye
Subaru’s high-performance WRX is based on the compact Impreza, but the differences between them are greater than they might appear based on exterior appearance. The WRX’s turbocharged motor nearly doubles the power output of the Impreza’s, and its drivetrain is beefed up to handle all that power.

2015_SubaruWRX_061

2. Surprisingly practical
Due to its four-door sedan roots, the WRX is that rare sports car that comes with everyday practicalities such as plenty of rear-seat and trunk space. I do miss the hatchback body style of the previous-generation model, though.

3. Rally-ready
If you’re like me, you’ll forget about the lack of a hatchback once you hit the gas. It’s not a scary-fast car, but it’s pretty damned quick, and the all-wheel drive system gets the power down efficiently. Want to feel like a rally driver? Hit the gas as you power through a corner, and feel the rear wheels push the car through the curve.

2015_SubaruWRX_057

4. Transmission switch-up
My tester had the standard six-speed manual transmission. The option is a continuously variable automatic, but – no offense to those who don’t drive stick – that’s not the transmission that belongs in this car. The clutch is heavy for driving in heavy traffic, but the shifter feels deliciously precise and mechanical in its movement.

5. What’s that sound?
I’ve long complained about Subaru’s poor-sounding stereo systems. This one’s better than in the last WRX I drove (a few years ago), but it’s clear that Subaru’s focus was on making this car fun to drive, not fun to listen to.

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6. Efficient fun
The WRX’s fuel economy has come a long way: I averaged 8.0 L/100 km in an even mix of city and highway driving, which matches the Subaru’s highway estimate for the car. In straight highway driving, I averaged less than 7.0 L/100 km, which is pretty great for a performance car at cruising speeds close to 120 km/h.

2015_SubaruWRX_059

7. Comfortable support
Well-bolstered seats are a necessity if your plan is to drive this car in any manner close to what it was designed for. These ones are, but not so aggressively that they’re a pain to repeatedly get in and out of while running weekend errands. Plus, they’re comfortable for long drives.

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8. Lower price, low profile
At $30,000, the 2015 WRX costs $2,500 less than the car it replaces, which is always good. But my favourite thing about the WRX? It looks enough like its downmarket Impreza cousin to avoid attracting too much attention – especially from the cop you just sped past.

 
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Posted by on August 13, 2014 in Straight Eight, Subaru

 

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Straight Eight: 2014 Mini Cooper

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1. New look
What you see here is the third generation of the “new” Mini Cooper. Base price is $20,900; options in my tester ran that up to $24,470. Its larger, bulky-looking exterior is polarizing; personally, I prefer the looks of the previous car.

2. Big comfort
I day-tripped this one from Ottawa to a friend’s house on the east side of Toronto, and after the eight-hour round-trip, I was less tired than I have been after long drives in more luxurious cars.

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3. Great soundtrack
Entry-level models use a new turbocharged three-cylinder engine that’s more powerful than the four-cylinder in last year’s base car, and it produces an adorable, hilarious symphony of turbo-related whooshes, whistles and sighs as you accelerate and brake your way around city streets.

4. Thrifty shifting
That extra power is tempered by “taller” gearing that keeps engine speeds low, and bumps fuel economy up: my test car averaged 8.0 L/100 km in the city, and 5.0 L/100 km in highway driving at an average speed of just under 100 km/h.

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5. All grown up, sadly
There was an urgency to the previous Cooper’s driving feel. Where’d it go? The new one is still fun to drive, with a nice balance in turns and sharp steering, but on the whole it feels softer and more relaxed.

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6. Rev me up
The manual transmission has a rev-match downshift function that makes you feel like a superstar driver every time you downshift for a corner, and generates more of the engine’s fun noises. However, I prefer doing this myself when I drive a stickshift, and I couldn’t find any way to disable it.

7. The fun switch
Toggle the car into sport mode: throttle sensitivity goes way up, and you discover that this is the best way to experience this car. Sport mode also firms up the optional adjustable suspension ($500!), but this makes the car uncomfortable on rough roads. Thankfully, you can set it to leave the suspension alone.

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8. Dude, where’s my speedo?
You’ll notice some changes inside. I like that there’s a bit more space, and that the electric window controls now live on the doors. I never thought I’d say it, but I miss the massive speedo in the middle of the dash that was legible from three cars back and two lanes over.

 
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Posted by on August 11, 2014 in Mini, Straight Eight

 

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