The situation for the Asian automakers is hard to characterize. Mighty Toyota has stumbled while plucky Subaru has never looked stronger. Unsurprisingly, the Koreans continue to expand aggressively. Still to come: the Chinese, but will they buy an existing nameplate or set sail with one of their own?
HONDA Last year saw the timely introduction of the Fit and the Insight hybrid. This year, Honda seems to be putting its faith in crossovers. In addition to the Acura ZDX, an Accord-based wagon will be making its way to dealers this fall.
First Drive: 2010 Acura ZDX
The shape of things to come.
By Jean Jennings
Here’s the new reality: We have a bulging generation of aging hipsters with active lives who don’t want to drive with their knees up around their ears, and they want easy access for kayaks, geraniums, and occasional adult friends. And there are still a few people out there with money who want to be pampered in a cool-looking ride. But this idealized baby-boomer buggy can no longer look like a big SUV or a minivan, which makes the Acura ZDX a striking choice.
Without the exotic full-width, full-length panorama roof and the concealed rear door handles that give it a coupelike profile, the ZDX would look like it had been hit by the ‘s ugly stick. Having been prejarred by the X6, it’s easier to accept Acura’s wild fastback crossover.
The ZDX is a luxury leap for Acura, sure to be more of an image statement than a volume leader. Once you duck through its hunkered-down portals, you’ll find an utterly glamorous, leather-lined cabin with a ton of headroom, at least for the happy couple up front. The seat leather is truly special – ironed to a smooth, buttery finish. The dash is a horizontal stack of lovely layered materials – rich chocolate leather and a slice of brushed aluminum in our test car – running from door to instrument binnacle. The headliner is thick, and the carpeted cargo area behind the three-passenger rear seat has a covered sub-trunk that will hold a case of wine. Check the seams of the doors, the hood, and the power liftgate, and you’ll find no spot welds or rough metal edges.
There’s no roughness in the driving experience, either, since the ZDX is based on the ‘s platform and is powered by the same 300-hp, 3.7-liter V-6. A new six-speed automatic is operated with a set of perfectly placed aluminum paddles that feel great and work better. Even in auto mode, aggressive acceleration is met with crisp shifts almost at the rev limit. We dialed up Sport mode for a run west out of Carmel Valley on G16, and the heavier steering effort and firmer suspension dampening (part of the optional Advance Package) helped us to neatly slice through the long series of tight turns as the road narrowed and grew rough. Even in base trim, the ZDX hugs the road and is blessed with Acura’s trademarked SH-AWD (Super Handling All-Wheel Drive), which sends varying amounts of torque not only from front to rear but can send 100 percent of available torque to the left or right wheels.
The Technology Package, which loads on the electronics, is the other of the two optional ZDX trims. Cue the premium ELS ten-speaker, 435-watt sound system, with USB, Bluetooth audio streaming, the ability to link six iPods, fifteen gigabytes to store ripped CDs, and voice-activated song recall, and you won’t want to leave the cocoon. Think of your favorite boutique hotel, and Acura will nod sagely.
On sale: November
price: $45,000 (est.)
specs: 3.7L V-6, 300 hp, 270 lb-ft; 4-wheel drive
2009 Acura TSX V-6
New: With the new-for-2009 TSX, Acura‘s sporty sedan’s demeanor became decidedly more grown-up – just like its expected customers. So Acura is wisely catering to those buyers by offering an optional six-cylinder.
Noteworthy: Similar to the V-6 used in the base TL, the 3.5-liter unit produces lots of power but, thankfully, not too much torque steer. Although the TSX V-6 is a good bit faster than the four-cylinder model, the engine’s extra weight and relaxed demeanor give the car a boost of luxury, not sportiness. With the added refinement, this TSX reminds us a lot of the last-generation TL. The only real problem is that the extra $5500 for the V-6 means that this TSX costs about the same as the much larger new TL. Whoops!
On sale: Now
Base price: $35,660
Specs: 3.5L V-6, 280 hp, 254 lb-ft; front-wheel drive
2009 Acura TL SH-AWD
New: Acura‘s best seller adds a stick shift.
Noteworthy: The TL offers far more driving enjoyment than its relatively uninspiring looks would suggest. For 2010, a six-speed manual joins the party, and while it appears only in the all-wheel-drive TL, it’s still a welcome addition. The three-pedal option saves 88 pounds, and the deletion of the automatic’s torque converter lets Acura’s Super Handling All-Wheel Drive system respond to your right foot with a bit more pizzazz. The changes are eye-opening – what was a slightly lazy sport sedan has morphed into a drift-happy, slideways track hound, with no noticeable decrease in ride comfort.
On sale: Now
Base price: $39,000 (est.)
Specs: 3.7L V-6, 305 hp, 273 lb-ft; 4-wheel drive
Toyota finds its hybrid leadership under threat and is introducing a decontented Prius to beat back the challenge from Honda‘s cheaper Insight. No word yet on what will happen to the Matrix now that GM is discontinuing the Pontiac Vibe and ending its partnership at California’s NUMMI plant. there’s little news at SCION, which has seen a nasty sales slump. Lexus is suffering like all luxury marques but hasn’t slowed plans for growing its portfolio with two new models: the IS C convertible and the HS250h hybrid. And the economy be damned, Lexus intends to bring its LF-A supercar to production, thanks to support from new president Akio Toyoda – a devout performance enthusiast.
2010 Lexus IS C
New: The first two-door IS skips right past coupe and heads straight for convertible. And why not? Its folding hard top gives the feeling of a closed car but retracts quickly and quietly at the touch of a button. The IS loses little of its good looks in the transformation from four-door sedan to four-seat convertible, although, like its competitors, most of the trunk disappears when the top is down.
Noteworthy: The IS C is available in three different powertrain combinations – the IS250C is fitted with a smaller V-6 and either a six-speed stick or a six-speed automatic, and the IS350C gets a hot-rod V-6 attached only to the automatic. Equipped with either engine, the Lexus goes about its business smoothly, with a stiff structure and commendable body control. Interior materials are first-rate, too.
On sale: Now
Base price: $39,365
Specs: 2.5L V-6, 204 hp, 185 lb-ft; 3.5L V-6, 306 hp, 277 lb-ft; rear-wheel drive
2010 Lexus HS250h
New: HS could stand for Homely Sedan. This hybrid four-door is the answer to a question we’ve never heard asked: why can’t I have a four-cylinder, hybrid luxury car that’s neither pretty nor particularly luxurious? Then again, if your Prius is too proletarian, there’s nowhere else to go.
Noteworthy: The HS sports Lexus‘s first four-cylinder – the drive-line is similar to the Camry Hybrid’s, but it seems to be programmed better, giving more linear power delivery and better brake feel. Its chassis comes partly from the European-market Toyota Avensis, which donates its awkward, tall and narrow proportions. Despite nice touches like French-stitched dash materials and an impressive array of electronic driver-assistance systems, the HS comes across as somewhat downmarket. The four-cylinder drone doesn’t help, but at least it returns an EPA-estimated 35 mpg combined. That’s just 1 mpg better than a TDI – but the Lexus has a Prius-esque smugness factor that the Vee Dub will never match.
On sale: Now
Base price: $35,075
Specs: 2.4L I-4/electric hybrid, 187 hp (combined), 138 lb-ft; front-wheel drive
MAZDA leaves Ford‘s warm embrace with a strong product line, particularly the 3 and the new Mazdaspeed 3, but many questions about the company’s future remain.
2010 Mazdaspeed 3
New: Mazda‘s torque-steering, tire-shredding driveline gets dropped into the happiest car on earth. The new-for-2009 Mazda 3 has a smile bigger than the Joker’s, and with the maniacal thrust of 263 horses hiding behind it, the Mazdaspeed 3 is just as evil.
Noteworthy: Mazda isn’t messing with success; the new 3 is essentially a mildly revised version of the last car, and that’s a great thing. In the case of the Mazdaspeed version, it’s also a fast thing – the 3 epitomizes cheap speed. When the introductory press release mentions torque steer three times, though, you suspect that the last car’s biggest shortcoming carries over, too. The new Speed 3 gets slightly longer gear ratios to help put the power to the ground, but the rest of the driveline is unchanged.
On sale: Now
Base price: $23,945
Specs: 2.3L turbo I-4, 263 hp, 280 lb-ft; front-wheel drive
In a rapidly contracting U.S. auto market, secondary players like MITSUBISHI are fighting an uphill battle. Sadly, its only new offering this year is the Lancer Sportback.
New: A hatchback for Mitsubishi‘s fighter.
Noteworthy: The Sportback eschews the stripped-out trim levels of its stubby-bottomed sibling for two well-equipped models. If you’re looking for an Evo hatch, however, you’re out of luck. The Ralliart model is a veritable competitor to the WRX, though, with a 237-hp four-banger and a dual-clutch gearbox. The steeply raked hatch doesn’t do much for cargo capacity, but it makes the Lancer look a damn sight better.
On sale: Now
Base Price: $21,000 (est.)
Specs: 2.4L I-4, 168 hp, 167 lb-ft; 2.0L turbo I-4, 237 hp, 253 lb-ft; front- or 4-wheel drive
The Cube is the latest in a batch of niche cars, including the GT-R and the 370Z. Nissan next will have to turn its attention to its high-volume models, particularly the aging Sentra. Infiniti continues to cautiously expand its lineup with the G37 convertible.
Infiniti G37 convertible
New: Infiniti G37 loses its lid.
Noteworthy: The sporty Infiniti G lineup goes topless, courtesy of a three-piece hard top that folds away in the trunk much like the G37’s BMW 3-series and Lexus IS rivals. Infiniti will offer either a six-speed manual or a seven-speed automatic transmission mated to the 3.7-liter V-6.
Base price: $44,715
On sale: Now
Specs: 3.7L V-6, 325 hp, 267 lb-ft; rear-wheel drive
New: An open version of the new-for-2009 370Z coupe.
Noteworthy: The 370Z roadster wears the same shapely sheetmetal and shares most major components with its fixed-roof sibling. As the name indicates, the Z’s motivation now comes from a 3.7-liter V-6 that is more powerful and efficient than the 3.5-liter it replaces, thanks to variable intake valve lift and timing. The fully lined cloth top drops in twenty seconds using either a console- or exterior-door-mounted switch, and convertible-only mesh-covered ventilated seats can heat or cool you, depending on the season. Although more refined than its predecessor, the 370Z is still a delightfully blunt tool.
On Sale: Now
Specs: 3.7L V-6, 332 hp, 270 lb-ft; rear-wheel drive
New: After debuting ten years ago in Japan, Nissan‘s wacky box finally reaches our shores.
Noteworthy: The Cube is based on the Versa, and its sole powertrain is that car’s small but adequate 122-hp, 1.8-liter four-cylinder, which can be mated to a CVT or a six-speed manual transmission. The exterior design is simple and tidy, but unusual touches like the asymmetrical wraparound rear window give the Cube a playful personality. As with most rolling boxes, the Cube offers numerous interior and exterior customization opportunities.
On Sale: Now
Specs: 1.8L I-4, 122 hp, 127 lb-ft; front-wheel drive
First Drive: 2010 Nissan NISMO 370Z
There’s lots of show, but is there any more go?
By Don Sherman
After less than a year on the road, Nissan’s 370Z has already enjoyed a spa treatment by the NISMO (Nissan Motorsports International) therapists who specialize in hard-core street and track tuning. Less restrictive exhaust pipes and a reprogrammed control computer hike the DOHC V-6 engine’s output to 350 hp at 7400 rpm and 276 lb-ft of torque at 5200 rpm (an increase of 18 hp and 6 lb-ft). Suspension springs, bars, and dampers are all significantly stiffer. The nineteen-inch forged aluminum Rays wheels are half an inch wider and shod with more aggressive Yokohama Advan Sport tires. Their speed rating goes from W (168 mph) to Y (above 186 mph), and the rear-tire section width has been increased by 10 mm to support the lapping days this special edition will surely experience.
Gearing, brakes, and structural components are largely unchanged. A damper has been added between the body rails at both ends of the car to quell the high-frequency vibrations that normally accompany stiff suspension calibrations.
Body modifications include a longer nose, broader side sills, and aircraft parts grafted to the hatch. According to Nissan wind-tunnel measurements, the standard Z’s lift has been converted to 53 pounds of downforce at 73 mph without harming the base model’s 0.30 drag coefficient. Inside, there’s a liberal sprinkling of NISMO logos and grippy red and black cloth upholstery to restrain two passengers when the fun begins.
The NISMO treatment is a boon to agility. Steering response is nearly instantaneous, and body roll is negligible. The more securely mounted steering gear telegraphs road news directly to your fingertips. There’s just enough resilience left in the suspension that you can race over rough patches without wincing at the sight of a bump. To enter drift mode, you simply disable the stability control, flick the wheel, and tap the gas.
Spending an extra $6200 (above the price of a 370Z with the optional sport package) for the NISMO edition seems reasonable until you know what we learned at the test track: the long slate of chassis and appearance modifications don’t actually improve acceleration, cornering, braking, or top-speed performance.
ON SALE: Now
Specs: 3.7L V-6, 350 hp, 276 lb-ft; rear-wheel drive
0-60 mph: 5.5 sec
1/4-mile: 14.1 sec @ 103 mph
70-0 mph braking: 177 ft
Cornering, L/R: 0.97/0.91 g
Top speed: 155 mph
Apparently, New England college professors haven’t been hurt by the recession. SUBARU was able to buck industry trends and report only a minuscule sales decline through the first half of 2009, thanks mostly to the spectacular launch of its new Forester. If it can do half as well with its redesigned, more mainstream Legacy sedan and Outback wagon, the oft-ignored Japanese automaker will laugh all the way to the bank again in 2010.
The Legacy sizes up for mid-size sedan competition.
By Phil Floraday
For 2010, Subaru‘s flagship sedan grows bigger, faster, and more fuel efficient all at the same time. That should be enough to push the Legacy from a quirky choice to a true competitor in a hugely important segment. But Subaru isn’t planning on stealing hordes of buyers from the or the . Rather, it expects that the Legacy will be cross-shopped with alternatives like the Volks-wagen Passat, the , and the Mazda 6.
The Legacy’s interior is more comfortable, with a 3.9-inch increase in rear passenger legroom and full-frame doors that noticeably reduce noise. Golfers can now squeeze four bags of clubs in the 14.7-cubic-foot trunk. More proof that Subaru is getting closer to the mainstream: there’s finally an auto-up driver’s window.
Suspension changes bring Subaru’s default front struts and rear multilink suspension systems to the Legacy, providing a good ride and making service easier across the Subaru range. The three engine choices are a 31-mpg (highway) four-cylinder, a 265-hp turbocharged four, and a bigger, more refined boxer six. Transmissions include a six-speed manual, a CVT, and a traditional automatic.
With configurations ranging from frugal and capable to fast and refined, the Legacy has broad appeal. There’s also enough Subaru quirkiness to keep the early adopters happy with this generation – all engines are boxers, all-wheel drive is standard (of course), and there’s a good array of safety features. If the 2009 Forester‘s success is representative of the demand for a more mainstream Subaru, the 2010 Legacy sedan should be quite well received by the market.
On sale: Now
Base Price: $20,690
Specs: 2.5L flat-4, 170 hp, 170 lb-ft; 2.5L turbo flat-4, 265 hp, 258 lb-ft; 3.6L flat-6, 256 hp, 247 lb-ft; 4-wheel drive
The dirt-track Legacy returns.
By Joe Lorio
A new Legacy naturally means a new Outback as well, but rather than just being a jacked-up Legacy wagon, this time the Outback gets its own, more SUV-shaped body, which is higher and wider but not as long as before. Mechanically, the Outback is still kin to the Legacy, which means you’ll find the 170-hp, 2.5-liter boxer four with either a CVT or a newly available six-speed manual. Unfortunately, the manual isn’t offered with the top (Limited) trim level, and it can’t match the automatic’s gas mileage (an impressive 22/29 mpg), so its chief selling point is that it knocks $1000 off the sticker price. The other engine is the 3.6-liter boxer six with a five-speed automatic; both automatics have shift paddles. Subaru has dropped the turbo four due to lack of buyer interest, although it strikes us as desirable for higher-elevation regions where the Outback is so popular. Standard all-wheel drive, 8.7 inches of ground clearance, and an innovative roof rack with retractable crossbars assure that the Outback is up for its advertised outdoorsy adventures. A roomier back seat, a quiet highway ride, and a nicely trimmed interior are welcome anytime.
On sale: Now
Base Price: $23,690
specs: 2.5L flat-4, 170 hp, 170 lb-ft; 3.6L flat-6, 256 hp, 247 lb-ft; 4-wheel drive
HYUNDAI Whereas last year Hyundai grabbed the lion’s share of attention with its new Genesis sedan and coupe, 2010 seems to be the year for Kia, with the Soul – a funky, fun, and inexpensive answer to the scion xb – and the Forte, a direct challenger to the and the .
First Drive: Koup
CHASING THE CIVIC.
With its Forte Koup (the K, of course, is for Kia), Kia now has three vehicles – the others being the Soul and the Forte sedan – that a person might purchase solely for looks rather than price. That’s what happens when you hire one of Audi‘s top designers, Peter Schreyer, to lead your worldwide design team. Look for a handsome four-door hatchback Forte next year, too.
The Koup is virtually identical mechanically to the Forte sedan. Kia calls its base Koup the EX and the uplevel one the SX, which is a little surprising because Honda uses EX for its top trims, and Kia would like nothing more than to be considered in the same league as Honda. The Koup is a great stride in that direction, with a roomy, well-designed interior, admirable build quality, and crisp exterior lines that evoke the Civic two-door. Like the Forte sedan, the Koup is loaded with standard equipment, including a superb six-speaker CD stereo with an iPod/MP3 jack. The 2.4-liter four’s six-speed manual has one more forward gear than the Civic coupe’s manual, but it’s not quite as silky to shift. The five-speed automatic is quick to downshift, but don’t rev the engine too close to its 6500-rpm limiter: Kia hasn’t equaled the refinement of Honda’s four-cylinders yet. Then again, who has?
On Sale: Now
Base Price: $17,000/$18,500 (EX/SX, est.)
Specs: 2.0L I-4, 156 hp, 144 lb-ft; 2.4L I-4, 173 hp, 168 lb-ft; front-wheel drive
New: An all-new small sedan that could be a bona fide competitor to the and the .
Noteworthy: Kia junked the Spectra name entirely in an effort to shed itself of that car’s bargain-basement image. In its place, the new Forte gets an attractive, wedge-shaped exterior, a well-equipped cabin (satellite radio, Bluetooth, steering-wheel-mounted controls, two twelve-volt outlets, USB port), traction and stability control, and a very generous (14.7 cubic feet) trunk. Available with either a lively 156-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder or an even more enthusiastic 173-hp, 2.4-liter four, the Forte is satisfying to drive and quite reasonably priced.
On Sale: Now
Base Price: $14,390/$17,890 (LX/SX)
Specs: 2.0L I-4, 156 hp, 144 lb-ft; 2.4L I-4, 173 hp, 168 lb-ft; front-wheel drive
SUZUKI We like the SX4, but a compact can’t carry the brand by itself. The stylish Kizashi arrives as an early 2011 model.
2010 Suzuki SX4 Sportback
New: The SX4 Sportback trades in the SX4 Crossover‘s roof rack in favor of a hot-hatch-looking body kit. More power and better transmissions back up the sportier look with more go.
Noteworthy: All 2010 SX4s receive a new 2.0-liter engine that makes 7 more hp and 4 lb-ft more torque. A CVT replaces the old optional four-speed automatic, and a six-speed manual replaces the old five-speed.
On sale: October
Base price: $18,500 (est.)
Specs: 2.0L I-4, 150 hp, 140 lb-ft; front-wheel drive
2011 Suzuki Kizashi
New: A brand-new mid-size Suzuki, after a three-year absence.
Noteworthy: Suzuki’s new sedan is the first production model derived from three concepts shown in the past two years, all wearing the Kizashi name. The Japanese word kizashi indicates that something great is coming, and struggling Suzuki could certainly use that right now. While the Verona mid-size sedan that left the United States in 2006 was a rebadged, Korean-built Daewoo, the Kizashi is a Suzuki-engineered car. Initially, it will be offered only with a four-cylinder paired to a six-speed manual or a paddleshifted CVT. Keyless ignition is standard; iPod integration and eighteen-inch wheels are optional. Available Bluetooth connectivity will allow you to stream music from your phone to the stereo.
On sale: December
Base price: $19,500 (est.)
Specs: 2.4L I-4, 185 hp (est.), 170 lb-ft (est.); front or 4-wheel drive