Auto News & Reviews

  • 26 Feb 2020 4:37 PM | Derik Page (Administrator)

    The Greater Atlanta Automotive Media Association has named seven vehicles as some of the best in the 2020 Atlanta International Auto Show. The top picks range from sports cars, to trucks, to value purchases and the latest in technology.

           “We had to make some tough choices among all of the vehicles on display this year,” said GAAMA President Daryl Killian. “But we agreed the winners demonstrate some of the best new car options for the motoring public,” he added.

    The winners are:

    Best Truck: 2020 GMC Sierra 2500 HD

    Best Performance Vehicle:2020 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray

    Best Crossover/SUV: 2020 Ford Explorer

    Best Green Car: 2021 Ford Mustang Mach E

    Best Luxury: 2021 Genesis GV80

    Best Bang for the Buck: 2020 Hyundai Venue

    Judges Choice: 2021 GMC Yukon Denali

            The GAAMA Awards are respected by the mobility industry who reacted with appreciation.

              "It is an honor to receive the Greater Atlanta Automotive Media Association’s Best Bang for the Buck Award for the first-ever 2020 Hyundai Venue during the 2020 Atlanta International Auto Show, said Scott Margason, director, Product Planning, Hyundai Motor America. “Packing a powerful punch on practicality, personality and affordability, Venue offers the versatility of all-purpose driving, catering to a wide spectrum of lifestyles in different terrains that set it apart from other SUVs on the market.

    “On behalf of our Genesis colleagues worldwide who’ve worked so tirelessly to create our fabulous new Genesis GV80 SUV, we’re humbled yet very excited by this acknowledgement of their great work,” said Mark Del Rosso, President and CEO, Genesis Motor North America. “The members of GAAMA sure know a good thing when they see it.”

    Rhonda Belluso accepting the award on behalf of Ford said “The Mach E is a first step as we move toward electrification and we are honored that you think so much of it.”  She also noted the Explorer has been redesigned and now is available in regular, sport and Hybrid drivetrains to meet the needs of a wide range of drivers.

    GAAMA is a professional association of journalists across multiple disciplines that cover the automotive and mobility industry in the southeast.

  • 26 Jan 2020 9:37 PM | Danny Harrison

    MSRP: $29,590 ($36,000 as tested)

    4cyl, 181hp, 151pf, rwd

    The Mazda Miata is one of the last true roadsters still in production. Sure, it’s a subjective argument, but it’s one I’m willing to make after having the 2019 MX-5 for a week’s review.

    Let’s start with the name, though, before we talk about the more substanitive performance matters. You’ll notice on the 2019 MX-5 vehicle itself, there is no mention of Miata. It’s not even on the driver’s manual. You only see the MX-5 badging along with Mazda’s logo and wordmark. However, in commercials and in other communications, Mazda markets this vehicle as the MX-5 Miata.

    Clearly, the maker wants this new car to benefit from the association with 30 years of fun on highways and speedways, yet the conspicuous lack of the “Miata” badging suggests a change is on the way. When you drive the 2019, there’s no denying it’s still a Miata, only better than its predecessors. So let’s jump into why this is the case.

    The 2019 MX-5 is a redesigned Miata offering a better balanced engine and weight distribution (53/47 front/rear), more aggressive styling, updated technology and more raw power. To the latter point, previous Miatas have offered 155 horsepower, whereas the new one has 181. Some automotive journalists have argued Mazda needs even more horsepower than this, but I disagree.

    When you consider that the 2019 Miata only weighs 2,339 pounds, those 181 horses can push this rear-wheel-drive roadster really hard around turns, over hilltops and wherever else you want it to go. What’s more is that, in a smaller, more agile car like this, you’re really feeling the road, the turns, the dips and the apexes. You also feel the straight-ahead acceleration.

    We had the manual, six-speed version, which benefitted from the Miata’s new clutch with the dual-mass flywheel. The result is a short-throw shifter that helps you keep power to the wheels all the way up to the 7,500 RPM redline.

    According to several sources, this Miata and its predecessors can reach 60 on the straight and narrow in under six seconds. That’s really quick for a naturally-aspirated four cylinder.

    While larger, more powerful vehicles top the speed limit without you feeling it, the Miata feels more like riding a comfortable, race-ready go-kart. You’re much lower to the ground, you have a keen sense of your corners, and you really feel the speed. To put it simply, you can have a lot more fun and get a lot fewer speeding tickets.

    There was a lot about the 2019 Miata that we really liked.

    Under the Hood

    It took me a few days to pop the hood, but when I did, I was surprised to see how roomy the engine space is. You’ve got a lot going on under the there, but everything is so nicely arranged that you quickly find all of your fluid checkpoints, and your key components look to be easily accessible for replacing or upgrading. Our Club version had the optional red metal oil cap with MX-5 badging.

    A lot of new vehicles have smooth plastic covers over large portions of their engines, but not this Miata. As soon as you prop the hood, you’re seeing everything laid out in front of you. If you’re into cars, and Miata owners likely are, you want to see the engine. You don’t want the it-must-be-magic look.

    This is, of course, one of Mazda’s Skyactive engines, which they’ve been developing since 2011. The goal is to produce cleaner, more effecient engines while increasing power as well. Strangely, I was getting about 34 miles per gallon, and I wasn’t following the Miata’s shifting prompts, which are supposed to lead you to even better fuel economy.

    The Body

    Miatas for the last few years have been restyled to look more aggressive all around, and they push the envelope a bit further with the 2019. The copy we reviewed had spoilers and air dams and nice, sharp lines all over. One friend suggested the windshield frame is too chunky, but I never noticed until he said something. And really, it only looks “chunky” from the front.

    One really nice touch, which is a nod to the roadsters and cruisers of yesteryear, is that the door tops just inside the glass are color-keyed to look identical to the exterior. This looks really good with the windows down.

    The Roof

    Miatas are convertibles by default, and you can tell they take top operation seriously. This Miata’s manual latch system was so light and simple to use, I was able to unlock, lower and relock it with one hand and only a couple of simple clicks. Raising it is just as simple and super fast.

    The Interior

    The 2019 Miata’s interior is just about perfect. You have a lot of electronic gadetry in there, but it is not smeared everywhere like you see in a lot of cars. Mazda designed this model with the more retro look and feel of having simple, easy-to-find gauges and control knobs, which help you keep your eyes on the road and not scanning through scores of buttons you don’t regularly need.

    Even the touchscreen display plays the simple-times card. When you’re dialing through the radio channels, you can use the touchscreen controls or the ones on the steering wheel, or even better you can engage the dial at the fore of the center console armrest, and it simulates rolling through the stations like we used to do in the 1980s and before. They’ve done well to marry technology to the old-school feel of a roadster.

    One feature that screams luxury is cup and bottle holders. Sadly, there’s not much room in the Miata for many of these, but the ones they do offer are super clever. There are two standard holders, and normally they are situated on the aft part of the center console armrest. Reaching around to them is tricky, but if you’re driving solo, you can pop one out and reposition it to where the passenger’s left knee would be.

    On storage, Mazda excels again here in the 2019 Miata. It doesn’t have a traditional glove box in the dash, but they do offer a small cubby under the climate control knobs to stow your phone. Under the center console armrest is a small storage space for change, a wallet or whatever other sundries you need close to hand. Somewhat larger storage boxes are located on the back wall between the seats and behind the seats themselves. I’m thinking I’d keep baseball caps in the storage behind the seats, and when the top’s down, I’d keep any small valuables in that lockable center box.

    The trunk is small, but I was able to get a surprising amount of groceries in it.

    The sound system is pretty good. A clever thing they do in some trims, including the one we reviewed, is to put stereo speakers in the driver and passenger headrest. Even with the top down, you’re experiencing a full range of great sound without being overpowered.

    The Track

    The optional Brembo brakes, which also come with BBS wheels, make this Miata ready for race mode. We don’t tend to take review cars to the track, but this would be a fun one.

    Mazda has a clever YouTube video that claims the Miata is the fastest quarter-mile convertible in the world. It’s true, but there’s a catch. The video shows that the competiors, which include several six-figure vehicles and the Miata, all had to first close their convertible tops under simulated rainfall before they could accelerate down the track. The Miata’s manual latch system gives the car a huge advantage, and it completed the challenge ahead of the pack with several seconds to spare.

    The Downside

    There’s no such thing as a perfect car, at least not in this life, but it is fun watching the automobile industry try to make one.

    The only complaint I have with this MX-5 has to do with the difficulty I had getting in and out of it. This is not entirely Mazda’s fault, as I am above average in height and weight.

    A friend of mine who works on Mazdas responded to my dilemma with, “The best way to put on a Miata is to drop in and roll out.”

    Another friend likened the experience of exiting a Miata to popping open a can of biscuits.

    Again, there is no perfect car. What Mazda has done with this 2019 MX-5 is to keep the weight down while giving it better balance and a lot more power. They weren’t about to make it a bigger roadster just to accommodate easier entrances and exits for larger, less-nimble people.

    So this really isn’t a complaint so much as an observation. I’ve heard from people as tall as six-four, who say they squeezed in and were comfortable enough once situated behind the wheel. One man said his legs were uncomfortably close to the dash and steering wheel. My height problem is due to a longer-than-average torso, so my legs were comfortable, but my head was in the roof. In fact, on several occasions I dropped the top just long enough to get in more comfortably, and then I closed it again.

    Again, this isn’t a complaint. You’ll just want to be sure you fit in the thing before buying it.

    The Overall Impression

    Despite the snugness of this driving experience, the 2019 MX-5 is a superb, true roadster that remains relatively affordable while delivering on pretty much everything a sports car enthusiast wants to see, feel and hear. Thirty years into the Miata program, I think Mazda has nailed their landing with this newest iteration.

    And this brings us back to the question: Will Mazda really drop the Miata moniker in the near future. Second question: How will they top the 2019 MX-5?

  • 13 Dec 2019 10:45 PM | Danny Harrison

    I’ve been a little bit spoiled lately, with Toyota/Lexus bringing me a new Tundra to drive for a week and then swapping it with an NX 300 for another week. As much as I love my 2007 Town & Country daily driver, it’s fun to step out every now and again to see what’s new on the automotive scene.

    I’ll follow up soon with an NX 300 review, but first I want to tell you about the Tundra. In this case, it was the 2020 Toyota Tundra Limited CrewMax 4x4, still with the 5.7-liter, naturally aspirated V8 producing 381 hp and 401 lb-ft of torque.

    Consumer Reports calls the previous (2019) Tundra the second-best in class, second to the turbo-charged Ford F-150 V6, but again, the Tundras we’re testing are naturally aspirated V8s. I would rather they compared apples to apples here, but never mind, we at Georgia Dad after further review have overturned their call, and now both the 2019 and 2020 Tundras are the winners.

    Incidentally, we reviewed the 2020 with only about 2,000 miles on it. We’re probably talking springtime before Consumer Reports tells us what they think about this newer model.

    I’ll go ahead and tell you what I think now, and I’m going to start with the outrageous body color sported by the copy we reviewed. They call it Cavalry Blue, but I’d call it more of a toddler blue, which lives on the spectrum somewhere between baby blue and little boy blue. Look this color up. It’s an attention getter, and it seemed particularly popular with the women who saw our copy, but not so much with the men.

    I’d have expected the 86GT I reviewed this summer to be available in a blue like this, but not a full-size man truck, and especially not one like our copy that was appointed with so many luxury features. To finish that look, Toyota should have wrapped it in Hawaiian print patterns.

    I did like the way the blue looked at night, I must admit. In lower lights, it takes on deeper tones and looks pretty sharp.

    Once you step inside (and you’ll definitely want help from running boards), the cabin of the Tundra welcomes you with super-comfortable seating (ours was leather and heated) and plenty of places to put whatever and however many beverages you brought along. Two bottle holders in each door are accompanied by three more drink holders in the gigantic front-row center console.

    Gone are the days, it seems, when you could open the driver’s door for your wife (girlfriend, “special friend”, whatever), and they could slide through to the middle or right side of the truck. If you’re a console guy, these new Tundras have great ones, but as a husband and father, I’d rather have an extra seat there in the middle.

    Looking at the dash, we’re giving this Tundra mixed reviews. On the one hand, we like the eight-inch touchscreen display, and we’re happy to report that the Tundra is now Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatible. On the other hand, we don’t like the backlit silver buttons, because they catch a glare at twilight and sunset and become difficult to read. As this truck is pitched to middle-aged and older money, Toyota should consider a design tweak there.

    Other things we liked: nice sunroof, rolldown rear window, hydraulic-assist tailgate, dual-zone climate control, and the super-clear LED headlights and fog lights.

    One of my favorite features of any car, and a sort of standard comparison I make amongst everything I review, is the cruise control. Toyota/Lexus has a good Dynamic Radar Cruise Control system, but it works better on some vehicles than others. It works well on the Camry and ES 350, but it is a bit clumsy on the Tundra. Maybe that’s an unfair comparison, but it’s something I noticed. I do like that the Tundra still has the old stick control for cruise, whereas many of the newer Toyota/Lexus models have incorporated cruise buttons into the steering wheel.

    Something that may put people off buying the Tundra is the size. You may think this to be a big, lumbering giant, but in reality it is quite nimble in the parking lot as well as on the highway. It’s no Corolla, mind you, but for a full-size pickup truck, it is easier to maneuver than you may imagine.

    One dark morning, I was driving head-to-head toward a school bus with a distracted driver. The bus veered at the last moment into my lane, and I had to go up a railroad embankment. In my minivan, that may have been a dangerous problem, but not so in this Tundra. It handled the situation like a champ, and just for fun I repeated the maneuver.

    The 2020 Tundra starts around $33K. The copy we tested had around $52K on the sticker.

    Something else we liked was the huge gas tank with its 38-gallon capacity. We didn’t like the fuel economy (13-18 mpg), but at least you’re talking a range of around 550-600 miles on average with that gas tank. The base model offers the 26-gallon tank, but that’s still a good 400-mile range or so. Mind you, filling up the 38-gallon tank in the Atlanta area these days will set you back about $90

    Overall, we loved the Tundra. Everything about it, except for the front seat console, screams “real truck”, and even though the interior is more akin to the Lexus line for all of its luxury, the Tundra is, as we say around here, a “hoss”.


  • 11 Nov 2019 11:38 AM | Brian Medford (Administrator)

    It has been 18 years since you could buy a brand-new Jeep branded pickup truck, the Jeep Comanche. Jeep teased a concept Wrangler-based truck back in 2003 under the Scrambler name, and again in 2005 under the Gladiator name. But now the wait is over and the 2020 Jeep Gladiator is here to satisfy your Jeep truck needs...

    NAPA Knows New Cars: 2020 Jeep Gladiator

  • 03 Sep 2019 7:17 AM | Christopher Lawrence

    A car rarely is about just getting you from point A to point B. Rather, a car is a calling card of sorts, a conveyance of your station in life, whether it screams “midlife crisis” or “I’ve got three kids and two dogs.” It’s a way to impress clients or congratulate yourself on a job well done. It can be practical or playful. To help you find the perfect vehicle for you and your lifestyle, Simply Buckhead Magazine took eight cars out on the roads of Buckhead to see how they performed.

  • 25 Aug 2019 11:06 PM | Danny Harrison

    Have you ever wondered, “What’s the point of tiny ‘boy-racer’ sports cars?” How much fun can a four-banger possibly be, right?

    I thought all of that until I spent a few days in the 2019 Toyota 86 GT, and now I get it. Not that I would get one myself, but now I get what the fuss is about.

    Toyota said they were going to pick up my loaner RAV4 and drop off an 86 GT for a week, and I thought, “Hey, that will be a fun car to drive.” But to be honest, I didn’t really know the 86 GT. So, then I looked it up and saw it only had four cylinders. Probably not so fast, I thought. Then I saw it was a two-door, rear-wheel-drive fastback that produced 205 horsepower. Alrighty, then. I was intrigued. More than 200 horses from a four-cylinder, naturally aspirated engine? Bring it on.

    They brought it on, and my first impression was that it is probably one of the best-looking cars on the road, and I don’t normally think this of smaller cars. Because it sits so low, it’s nice that they carried the aggressive styling from the menacing nose all the way across the top of the vehicle to the track-ready tail. When you walk up to this car, you can’t help but wonder if it can deliver on the visual hype, but trust me, this is more than just a pretty boy-racer.

    I love the color of the copy they brought, too. It’s called “asphalt”, and I appreciate the honest labeling. It really does look like a fresh coat of asphalt, and the name of this hue is especially fitting, because this car and asphalt are meant to happen.

    My second impression was that it would be painful to get in and out of this car on any long-term basis. If you are under six feet tall, and if you wear size 40s or smaller (I don’t know women’s sizes), you’ll probably think this car has perfect roof height and racing seat width. For the rest of us, it takes about two minutes to get used to the squeeze, and that’s after planning carefully how to contort in order to drop into the seat. But let me assure you, it is worth the trouble.

    Once behind the wheel, this 86 GT was a combination of best-go-kart-ever and best-video-arcade-game-ever. The gauges are refreshingly simple. You’re practically sitting on the floor. When you put it in gear (we tested the six-speed manual), it responds immediately. When you enter a turn, you don’t have to slow down at all, because the tires and suspension are ready for it. In short, it is the coolest, must fun little car I’ve ever driven.

    I get why people want these, and I get why men like me in our mid-40s all-of-a-sudden want to go on a diet. Ladies, we’re not necessarily trying to impress you. We’re trying to fit more comfortably into these racing seats.

    Shifting gears on the 86 GT is dreamy unless you’re trying to drive really slow through a parking lot. This is not a cruiser, not a grocery-getter, not a Home Depot helper. It’s not a cross-country star, either, but I’ll get to that in a minute. What’s fun is to push this car near redline before shifting, and then do it again until you’re up to speed. At that point, you just kick it straight over to fifth or sixth gear. You may think it normal to keep it in third for 35 or fourth for 45, but you’d be wrong. This little animal whines and vibrates like it has been leashed and doesn’t like it.

    During my week with the 86, I never put it on a real track, but I did put it in track mode, and I did push it hard around corners. Seriously, there are several tight roadway turns in my town, and I took them quite often at full speeds, avoiding the brakes, while the car never barked tires, and it responded like it was no big deal. The racing seats become a comfort at that point, because you stay steady in place.

    This is a fun car to drive. Most of the time.

    This is not a fun car to drive on a two-hour business trip, at least not the manual version. I had to travel to Athens, Georgia for meetings, and on the way up I made the mistake of connecting to Hwy. 78 from Interstate 85. That route was excruciating, because I was stuck at one speed driving straight for such long periods of time. That racing seat I had become used to hugging me now felt annoying. It was also annoying to have so many people pull up and offer to race me. That doesn’t happen so often when I’m driving my Town & County or Suburban. Probably kids en route to the UGA campus, I guessed.

    I find it funny that some reviewers ding the 86 for not having enough technology on board. That’s not why you’re buying an 86. I love that the clock is an old-school digital readout in the dash. I love that the climate controls are chunky dials. I even love that there is no standard satellite radio in these cars, because you just don’t need it these days. I love that they didn’t just migrate the Corolla technology package into the 86. No, it seems to me that the 86 keeps the spirit of its Scion FR-S predecessor and brings a little more of that indy cool factor to the Toyota lineup.

    You do still get the touchscreen interface offering satellite navigation, Bluetooth phone connectivity and the rest, though I will say the Pioneer system we tested was way too slow in switching between these functions. I hope it was just our unit and not the norm, but from what I’ve read elsewhere, it may be the norm for the 2019 models. (Fix it, Toyota.)

    There is a lower trim than the GT, simply called the 86, and then there’s the 86 TRD (Toyota Racing Development) on the top side. The TRD version is roughly the same as the GT, but it comes with the higher performing Brembo brakes, Sachs shocks and Michelin Pilot Sport 4s. The TRDs only come in black with a special edition red-orange-yellow stripe, and the company says they’re only making 1,418 of them. A basic 86 starts around $27K, the GT around $29K and the TRD just north of $32K.

    If you’re not planning to put this car on a closed-course track, don’t bother buying it unless you set aside a budget for speeding tickets and taxi fares once your license is suspended. You’re much better off in something like the new Corolla Hatchback, which is almost as much fun on country roads, much more comfortable on highways and city streets, and much easier on the budget (starts around $20K).

    I agree with the cast of the old British “Top Gear” television series, who insist cars are either meant for the road or for the track but not both. The 86 is built for the latter.

  • 24 Aug 2019 11:27 PM | Danny Harrison

    I don’t always agree with Consumer Reports, but they were right to give their top minivan score to the 2019 Toyota Sienna, and after they test the 2020 model, which we have recently done, I’m guessing it will come out on top, too.

    Earlier this year, we reviewed the 2019 Sienna, and we loved its relatively plush third row, its quieter-than-normal cabin, a ton of standard safety features, the precise Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, and a powerful almost-300 horsepower engine. The 2020 still has all of that.

    The 2020 copy we reviewed was the new Nightshade Edition. So imagine (or look at the pictures) a “Super White” Sienna trimmed with a black mesh sport grille, black door handles, black outside mirror caps, black wheels and a black spoiler. Add a black Toyota emblem and badging, and you’ve got a cool-looking ride. You can also get the Nightshade Edition on Celestial Silver Metallic, Midnight Black Metallic and Salsa Red Pearl Siennas.

    While we’re talking about variants, we drove the SE, which normally comes as a front-wheel drive, but our was the smooth-riding all-wheel drive. You’ll pay about $1,500 more for that upgrade. A basic SE starts around $37,500. The Sienna also comes in the $34,000 LE and the $37,500 XLE trim levels. As equipped, our copy was stickered at just a tick over $45,000.

    Our family of seven took the Sienna to John Tanner Park about an hour west of Atlanta, which was a 90-minute trip for us, and we experienced first-hand a benefit of having mid-row windows that lower. One of our children gets motion sickness, and sometimes a dose of fresh air cures it. Having four windows that lower, which is not normal for even most late-model minivans, is super handy.

    On that trip, we also enjoyed how spacious the Sienna is. We had coolers and picnic supplies and changes of clothes and so much more, and the generous 39 cubic feet of aft cargo space (behind the third row) was plenty.

    We regretted that we couldn’t take this all-wheel drive onto the sand or snow to try it out those capabilities, but its nice to know that the AWD system is working for you all of the time, even on regular roads under normal driving conditions. Unless I am mistaken, the Sienna is the only minivan offering AWD.

    This new Sienna seemed quieter than normal, and after a little research we learned it has a new acoustic windshield that contributes to that result.

    One last observation is that they smoothed out the hood even more with the 2020, which is a good move. If you read our reviews of the previous Siennas, you’ll know we didn’t like the ridges over the front wheel wells, which make these minivans look from the front like angry lizards. All is forgiven now.

  • 03 Aug 2019 11:54 PM | Danny Harrison

    The Toyota RAV4 will always have a special place in my heart, because it was my first-ever official review vehicle. Back then, in 2015, we were a family of five with a bun in the oven, so we could all just about squeeze into that vehicle for a trip to our OB/GYN in Downtown Atlanta.

    Four years later, our family has grown by two, and the RAV4 has grown a bit as well, at least under the hood. The 2019 model still has the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, but now it delivers 203 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque versus the 2015 model’s 176 horses and 172 pound-feet.

    You see a difference on the outside, too. The new RAV4 is an inch longer and an inch wider, and it sits almost two inches higher than previous RAV4s, but the clearance is also higher, so they haven’t expanded the cabin; they’ve just shifted it upward a tad.

    The RAV4 cabin interior is roughly the same size as before, but they took an inch or so from the front head and leg room and shifted it to the back seat, which was a good move in my opinion. You’ve got plenty all around for four adults. There are three safety belts in the back for when you’re hauling kids.

    You have larger wheel options with the 2019 RAV4, and those look good. The Limited AWD version we drove had 19-inch alloys, which look nice with the higher-riding SUV.

    One criticism that fits nicely right here is that this new RAV4 has a tub-style floor, which means the driver is dropping their left foot really low to the ground while having to lift their right foot higher than normal to exit the vehicle. I’m not an engineer, but I think that was an unnecessary development. This week, I’m driving the 2020 Sienna minivan, which sits about as high, but it has the relatively low doorway clearance and makes for easier entering and exiting.

    Performance-wise, this new RAV4 is a champ. Having just recently stepped out of the smaller C-HR, which felt slow, the RAV4 feels much quicker while just as nimble. We took it for a couple of laps around what we call our local race track, where we can push hard into corners and over hills while maintaining the speed limit, and we were impressed with this SUV. It handled better in sport mode than most sedans would do. All the while, you’re getting between 25 and 33 miles per gallon, which is decent.

    The copy we reviewed was in the Limited trim level, plus it was packed with loads of optional technology, and I think this blurs the luxury line. I really don’t see how this vehicle is still a Toyota and not a Lexus.

    One of my favorite bits of technology is the Bird’s Eye View Camera. When reversing, one half of the eight-inch display shows an animated top-down view of the RAV4, and cameras mounted around the vehicle work together to simulate, as the name suggests, a bird’s-eye view as if there’s one camera mounted on a 20-foot pole above you. It’s pretty incredible. On the other half of the display, you still get the now-standard back-up camera as well, so between the two views you’re getting a lot of good safety information.

    Another great piece of technology on the RAV4 we reviewed, and one I’d like to see on more vehicles, is the forward camera view that activates when you’re parking and nosing up to a wall or other barrier object.

    A kid-favorite feature is the optional glass roof. The screen pulls all the way back, and the front half pops up and slides back. If they were old enough to ride up front, they might also enjoy the vented seats. I did.

    A basic new RAV4 will cost you about $25K. The one we tested was closer to $40K. If you’re brave enough to buy used, you can get a loaded 2015 model in most markets for well under $20K. Four-year-old RAV4s are just getting started, and if you buy them from a Toyota dealership, you’re likely getting it as a Toyota Certified Used Vehicle (TCUV). That means you’re covered head to toe for 12 months or 12,000 miles (whichever comes first), you get a free year of roadside assistance, and your powertrain is covered for the next seven years or until the odometer reaches 100,000 miles. Incidentally, Toyota offers this TCUV program on their vehicles up to six years old.

    [Danny Harrison is a veteran journalist who cut his teeth in the newspaper industry in 1995. He is the public relations specialist for a bustling municipality just south of Atlanta, but he still enjoys writing news features and reviews in his personal time. He is an active member of the Greater Atlanta Automotive Media Association. He and his wife have five children, all of whom fancy themselves to be automobile critics.]

  • 02 Aug 2019 8:18 PM | Danny Harrison

    A childhood dream came true recently when a few of us automotive journalists were invited to join loads of law enforcement officers in test driving Ford’s all-new Police Interceptor utility vehicles, including the first-ever pursuit-rated hybrid model. This spectacle took place in a parking lot at Atlanta Motor Speedway, which constantly amazes me with how many different kinds of non-NASCAR events it hosts throughout the calendar year.

    Going back to 1996, I have spent countless hours riding along as a journalist with police officers and sheriff’s deputies, but only now, 23 years later, have I taken the wheel of a police vehicle. And with all due respect to those Crown Vics of yesteryear, they would be left standing at the starting line by these new Police Interceptor utility vehicles.

    The 2020 lineup, all three based on the body-on-frame Ford Explorer, consists of the 3.3-liter, the 3.3-liter hybrid and the 3-liter EcoBoost. They’re all V-6 engines, and they’re each more powerful than the old Crown Vics, which sported 4.6-liter V-8s back in the day. But you may be surprised to learn that the 3.0 was significantly faster and more powerful than the rest of the lot. Intrigued? Read on.

    Police departments not wanting to try anything too out of the ordinary may opt for the 3.3-liter gas engine, which produces a generous 285 horsepower and a whopping 260 pound-feet of torque. When I drove this model around the twisty-turny closed course, I was impressed with its ability to handle my erratic driving and my tendency to push too hard into the corners. The driving instructor a couple of times had to remind me to brake a bit earlier, but this Interceptor was quite forgiving.

    Next up was the 3.3-liter hybrid model, and it, too, handled well and offered the same level of performance. Actually, this hybrid is said to deliver a combined 318 horsepower when utilizing gas and electric for short bursts. I tried to notice the difference, but it was relatively the same vehicle. Now go back and read that again: A hybrid SUV is performing at the same level or maybe better than an all-gas SUV, and both of these far outperform typical SUVs. Both outperform the iconic Crown Vic Interceptors of the past as well. That’s amazing to me, especially when you consider the benefits of a hybrid, which can idle in all-electric mode, saving lots of fuel over the course of a year.

    Finally, they put me in the 3-liter, which threw me off completely. I wrongly assumed that this smaller engine would deliver smaller results. I was unprepared for how quick this monster is.

    I wish I could have driven it for a second lap. On my first and only, I had the seat pushed back just a bit too far, and when I floored it off the line, it pushed me into the seat, and my hands loosened grip of the steering wheel. Naturally, I applied the brakes, and then I stopped to adjust the seat and steering wheel. I stomped the gas again, but I had already burned up half of that first straightaway, so I was weak going into Turn One. Never mind, the rest of the course was a thrill ride. This 3-liter engine squashed the competition with its 400 horses and ridiculous 415 pound-feet of torque.

    Full disclosure: I’d have known this third Interceptor was the beefiest if I hadn’t jumped the line for the introductory talk and headed straight for the drivers’ queue. Sorry, but I was on a long lunch break, and I still needed to squeeze in a bite to eat on the way back to the office.

    Turns out, the 3-liter Interceptor achieves its greatness with an EcoBoost turbocharger akin to the ones they put in Lincoln Aviators and the 2020 Ford Explorers, and just a step or two down from the popular 2017 Ford GT. It’s crazy-fast for an SUV. It was honestly more than I could handle in that one lap. I needed to get used to its power, and I’d love to have a second go at it one day.

    While the track session was super cool, I also enjoyed learning from the Ford reps about the genius that goes into providing the Interceptor utility vehicles to the police. For starters, nobody idles like the police do. No disrespect here. A police officer’s vehicle is their office most of the time, so they often have to pull over somewhere, access their phones and laptops, and get their paperwork done while sitting on ready to respond to emergencies. High performance engines notoriously burn too much fuel, and if you’re just sitting there, wouldn’t it be nice to switch the engine off? You couldn’t do that in the Georgia summertime without a strong battery-run climate control system, and that’s what you get with the Interceptor hybrid. They say it can add up to thousands of dollars in fuel savings each year, and I can’t help but think it becomes a friendlier option for police who must idle in parking areas and near crowds and pedestrians.

    The real kicker is that the Interceptor hybrid still gives you strong performance when you do get that call and have to stop idling and be somewhere quickly or catch up to a pursued vehicle.

    Not long after Ford stopped making the Crown Victoria Interceptor, we saw Dodge pick up the slack in the police sedan market with their modified Charger. In more recent years, we’ve seen more police go to SUVs, and especially Fords and Chevys, so I’m guessing we’re going to see more and more departments opting for the Police Interceptor utility line in the years to come.

    If you’re a police officer, you may want to check out the next Interceptor utility drive event if it rolls back through town. I’ll have my driving gloves on ready for Round Two.

    [Danny Harrison is a veteran journalist who cut his teeth in the newspaper industry in 1995. He is the public relations specialist for a bustling municipality just south of Atlanta, but he still enjoys writing news features and reviews in his personal time. He is an active member of the Greater Atlanta Automotive Media Association. He and his wife have five children, all of whom fancy themselves to be automobile critics.]

  • 21 Jul 2019 4:20 PM | Danny Harrison

    It’s always a pleasure to do a weeklong review of a Lexus vehicle, and the ES 350 is probably my favorite of the fleet, so I was looking forward to that late-June delivery. I was intrigued all the more to learn it would be the “Ultra Luxury” edition.

    The cynical side of my brain wondered if it would live up to the billing, especially as the ES is considered to be an entry-level luxury sedan. I, of course, shared this cynicism with a couple of friends, but when later they asked if it really was ultra-lux, I had to consistently answer, “I can’t think of anything it lacks.”

    From the outset I will say there is one tweak I would make if I were Mr. Lexus and could order such things. I really don’t like the ES’s user infotainment interface. It’s a touchpad on the center console, and it is not easy to use. Maybe it would feel more natural if I was in the vehicle for longer than a week, but even by Day 7 it was not coming to me.

    I do like the way they make the hand rest comfortable and convenient for using the touchpad, but I don’t like the way the touchpad itself works. It is ultra-difficult to get the cursor to go where you want it to go. That’s a pretty big problem, especially when you find it in a $43K vehicle (our copy was actually stickered at $53K). The short-story solution: Replace the touchpad with a touch screen like you find in the ultra-impressive Camry.

    Despite the interface shortcomings, this ES 350 is still an amazing vehicle. Let’s start with the performance. The 3.5-liter V-6 delivers 302 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque, and that’s a lot, and it means you’re in complete control of this vehicle in traffic. You want to be in front of that car in that other lane? Snap, and you’re there. Front and rear performance dampers ensure that you maintain more road grip and less bounce when you’re maneuvering on challenging surfaces. This vehicle is an entry-level luxury car, but it’s an entry-level sports car as well. You’re not going to do much more with a V-6 than Lexus does with their ES 350 powerhouse.

    The natural downside to performance is fuel economy, but the beauty of this engine is that you’re still getting an average 26 miles per gallon and up to 33 on the highway. That’s not bad considering the power you’re getting. Mind you, if you push it hard all the time, your mileage won’t be this generous.

    Toyotas and Lexuses are both rolling off the line these days with a bevy of standard, high-tech safety features, including the impressive pedestrian detection system. Cross traffic notification systems have impressed me for years, and they’re handy when backing out parking lot spaces. The ability to detect pedestrians is even more important. It works when you’re driving forward, too, of course, so it helps you “see” people walking dangerously close to traffic.

    By the way, you don’t find pedestrian detection in the 2019 GX 460, which surprised me, and I mentioned it in that review a few weeks ago. The much-less-expensive Corolla comes standard with it, so I was surprised that the GX did not. As I noted in that review, I’m guessing Lexus is just rolling out the same GX until it’s time for a redesign, which I am hoping comes in 2020.

    The ES 350 further earns its Ultra Luxury badge by offering 14-way driver and 10-way passenger seats that are both heated and ventilated. This latter feature is one of my favorites, especially down here in the Georgia summertime. You’re getting a wood and leather steering wheel as well, which is beautiful and well set in this overall gorgeous interior.

    Our copy had a few extra options I enjoyed quite a lot. The panorama glass roof is fantastic, even though I’m not much for sunroofs. In this case, you’re enjoying the city lights at night, and this will be great for showing friends around Downtown Atlanta and Buckhead with all of their skyscrapers. Illuminated door sills and other ambient lighting is a nice touch, again, really coming in handy at night.

    The copy we tested had the optional Mark Levinson sound system, which is anchored by a 12.3-inch display, 17 speakers and 1,800 watts. I’d like to hear the standard, 10-speaker system, because you’re paying an extra $3K for the Mark Levinson package. I think most new cars are rolling off the line with better standard sound these days than just a few years ago.

    Another surprise this time around was how much I enjoyed the tucked-away wireless phone charging pad. Once you’re in this ES 350, you don’t need your phone to hand anymore, because it syncs perfectly with the car via Bluetooth. Now you can put it completely out of sight while charging it wirelessly.

    Whenever I drive the ES 350, going back several years now, I wonder why they still call it an entry-level luxury car. I get that the price point is lower than you could pay, but some people don’t want the larger car with the larger engine at any price, and you’re not really going to get much more in the way of luxury appointments in the cabin even if you go up the chain. I’d rather just call this a luxury car and be done with it. If you’re driving the ES 350, you haven’t just entered. You’ve arrived.

    [Danny Harrison is a veteran journalist who cut his teeth in the newspaper industry in 1995. He is the public relations specialist for a bustling municipality just south of Atlanta, but he still enjoys writing news features and reviews in his personal time. He is an active member of the Greater Atlanta Automotive Media Association. He and his wife have five children, all of whom fancy themselves to be automobile critics.]

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