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Car Reviews

First Drive – 2018 Chevrolet Equinox: it's all about timing

 

Niagara, ON – Whenever a new vehicle goes through a generational cycle, a spike in sales is imperative. With the compact crossover segment in a current sales boom, there's no better time to release the all-new 2018 Equinox and reap the rewards.

The timing of the Equinox's release has thus far panned out. Through March 2017, the Equinox has been on a surge, sitting in sixth position with a 43.7 percent year-over-year Canadian sales jump.

The Equinox has not gone through a major makeover since 2010, making the third-generation model one of the most, if not the most, important vehicle for the Chevrolet brand, as it takes on the likes of the Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue, Toyota Rav4, Ford Escape, Hyundai Tucson, Mazda CX-5, and the list can keep going on.



Chevrolet is going into battle with a product that's shorter and lighter, yet more spacious than its previous iteration. Weight has been reduced by 181 kg (400 lbs.), thanks in large part to its shorter frame, as well as its chassis being made of high-strength steel. But Chevrolet used a little ingenuity to find more cargo space with an added 3 cu.-ft. of storage space underneath the trunk for a maximum cargo space (while the second row is folded flat) of 1,798 litres.

Another major change comes under the hood with three new engine choices being offered – two gas versions and a diesel. They will all be released at different times, starting with the currently available turbocharged, 1.5-litre four-cylinder that produces 170 hp and 203 lb-ft of torque. The base unit is matched only to a six-speed automatic transmission with a choice of standard front-wheel-drive (FWD) or the optional all-wheel-drive (AWD).

If those numbers seem a bit odd – they are. The 2018 version's horsepower gets lowered 12 hp, while its torque gets a boost of 31 lb-ft. The reduction in weight and additional torque create the necessary power for the Equinox to keep pace with other vehicles on the road, as well as those in its segment.



In June, production will begin on the 2.0-litre four-cylinder that has 252 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque matched to a nine-speed automatic transmission geared for impressive fuel economy. To be followed in the fall with a segment-first 1.5-litre diesel powertrain that generates 136 hp and a whopping 236 lb-ft of torque paired to that same six-speed automatic unit. According to Chevrolet Canada, the diesel will achieve segment-leading highway and combined fuel economy rated at 7.4 L/100 km in the city, 5.7 L/100 km on the highway and a 6.9 L/100 km combined.



But for this first drive program around the scenic roads of Niagara, Ontario, our chariot was the volume-selling 1.5-litre unit. The drive was quiet, unassuming and smooth – a perfect companion around the equally-smooth roads of Niagara-on-the-Lake and Niagara Falls. Everything about it was comfortable from its two-tone leather seats (a Premier trim addition) to its decent amount of headroom and legroom in both rows. Even its centre console acted as the perfect armrest while navigating through city traffic or on the highway.

 

When cruising, the Equinox proved its worth as an errands-soldier for families. However, when pushed, the gearbox gets a little noisy with some high revving, but that comes with the crossover territory. Even though, it won't set any speed records, the ute handles sharp turns effectively without need for correction or much body roll. Steering finds a nice, middle-of-the-road balanced setting that's not to loose, allowing you to fully keep control on turns.

According to Chevrolet Canada's presentation, the Equinox is being labelled as the 'perfect balance of style and function' – and it totally makes sense. Not only is its interior well crafted with soft-touch materials (especially noticeable in the Premier trim provided), it's versatile with room to fit five passengers comfortably, carry a big load with the second row folded flat, or tow up to 1,500 pounds. In addition, I was able to achieve a 7.8 L/100 combined fuel economy rating – a notch below its official combined AWD rating of 7.9.



As smooth as it drives, one of its best attributes comes down to value. Like other Chevrolet products, the Equinox possesses many standard features such as a rear vision camera, On Star with 4G LTE WiFi, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a parental control safety system called Teen Driver, a seven-inch touchscreen with MyLink, standard stop/start technology, heated front seats and heated rear view mirrors. It's a lot to receive starting at a price of $26,995 that already includes freight and A/C tax.

As you move up the ladder, the prices go up – all the way to a starting price of $35,395 for the Premier AWD, but that even comes at a discount from the previous iteration that didn't possess even close to the amount of technology and elevated design.



The all-new 2018 Chevrolet Equinox has all the tools to be a successful crossover at a time when crossovers are in high demand. It's not the most exciting crossover offered, but it offers a complete package of design, value and reasonable fuel economy, only to be made better by the soon-to-market diesel in the fall that will resonate with many families.

First Drive – 2017 Honda CR-V

Victoria, BC – No one will argue about the Honda Civics success, especially in Canada, as the No. 1 selling passenger car for 18 consecutive years, soon to be going on 19. The Civic has been a pillar of strength for Honda, but there are other reasons why Honda has been able to retain a top-three brand sales position in Canada.

One of those reasons is the CR-V; it's compact crossover, now in its 20th year and onto its fifth-generation. Sales are still strong, but recently the CR-V has taken a step back in terms of 'wow' factor, compared to its other big rivals in the Toyota Rav4, Ford Escape and even the Nissan Rogue. These points haven't been lost on Honda and were even pointed out by Dave Gardner, Senior Vice President of Operations at Honda Canada.

“The compact SUV has been one of our few blemishes,” said Gardner.

Now let's be realistic for a second, the CR-V isn't a blemish. It's refreshing to hear someone talk about its faults, but the 2016 version is still a decent crossover that happens to be tailored to a more conservative clientele. Yes, it also lacks in performance; however, it's nothing to be ashamed about.

In their rhetoric, what Honda wanted to make clear was that there's much more to the company than simply the Civic. And that comes at a time when the largest sales segment is compact crossovers/SUVs, so the Japanese outfit is making its move in prime time. After all, the CR-V helped to invent the compact crossover segment 20 years ago with the debut of the CR-V, when many others doubted its longevity for the North American market.



For 2017, Honda isn't holding anything back on the CR-V as they take every main negative: exterior styling, plain cabin experience, vehicle performance and value; and turn all those into positives.

“We want this [fifth-generation] CR-V, the Civic of the compact crossover segment,” said Hayato Mori, Senior Manager of Product Planning and Business Development at Honda Canada.

For the first drive, Honda hosted a group of journalists on the west coast of Canada on Vancouver Island. We were stationed in Victoria, and the drive would take us down the coast through Sooke and due to personal navigational error into Port Renfrew.



The navigational error wasn't a bad thing at all, as the roads to Port Renfrew were some of the more challenging, curvy roads we would encounter, and that made for an exceptional test of the CR-V's new turbocharged, 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine and its handling prowess.

The new turbo engine – the same one found in the Civic – is the only one offered in Canada on all trims from LX to Touring. It produces 190 hp and 179 lb.-ft. of torque (more than the Civic) and matched to a reasonably-sounding continuously variable transmission (CVT). All-wheel-drive (AWD) is standard on all trims, except LX, where its placed as an option above 2WD.

Performance improvements were definitely needed on the CR-V. The turbo engine won't show it too much in the numbers, but I definitely sensed some more pep behind the wheel. Throughout the drive, it seemed to carry the perfect amount of power needed for this utility vehicle. Sometimes, there's more than enough power; while other times, there's a lack of oomph, but Honda seems to get it right with this new setup.



It all starts with a smooth initial acceleration that quietly gets up to speed. As you press down on the accelerator, the typical CVT whining doesn't show; instead a more linear acceleration is noticed and appreciated. The quiet ride enhances the tranquil state that's felt behind the wheel, only to be made more comfortable by its seating that provides not only great visibility, but an exquisite driving position with a healthy does of head and leg room. There are many vehicles I get into where I fiddle in agony over an ideal seating position, and the CR-V I have to say, was a pleasure to be in.

As tranquil as it is, there still is a tendency for boredom behind the wheel. It should still be noted, that many crossovers fall into this lack of energy category, so the CR-V shouldn't be picked on. It's still conservative in many ways, just a lot better than it was, and that pleasantly shows in its handling and balance as well. Small inputs to the steering wheel were needed throughout the twists and turns, keeping the CR-V direct at all times, while soaking up plenty of the imperfections on the road. There were, however, certain corners where steering response was a tad slow. Once again, it should be noted, that we were coming in hot, something the CR-V had a bit of trouble managing.

One attribute that Honda was raving about was class-leading fuel economy numbers. For the AWD units, a rating of 8.7 L/100 km can be had in the city and a 7.2 L/100 km on the highway. During the ride on Vancouver Island, the CR-V was able to muster a combined 7.4 L/100 km, mostly from highway-type driving. Regardless of the reason, the number is still pretty decent for a hauler that weighs 1,557 kg, and those numbers can be enhanced by using an Eco driving mode.



One of the glaring blemishes discussed earlier was exterior styling. Honda's conservative nature is well documented, and they didn't re-write the book with this new CR-V, but they sure tightened its shape and image.

It all starts with the new platform its sits on that's broader, bolder and wider. The most noticeable change occurs in its front fascia that showcases a two-layer chrome grille with cool-looking flared fenders and standard LED lighting, that's also featured on the back side. Overall, it's more sleek and larger appearance will attract more attention and that's exactly what the bland looking previous iteration desperately needed.



As impressive as the outside looks, more significant changes are found on the inside. The wider and taller makeup is noticed immediately with a more spacious back row. At times, a crossover can only be as good as its versatility, and Honda made sure of that with increasing rear leg room and cargo space (1.8m of flat cargo space), while retaining a similar overall length. In addition, the centre console can be constructed in three different ways, while a hands-free power tailgate can be accessed through an upward kicking motion and also adjusted with a choice of three heights. 

The design takes on plenty of hard and soft materials that help to elevate the look and feel of the CR-V. Yes, once again it's a big improvement in soft-touch leather, but the faux wood trim comes off a bit cheap. On the other hand, the seven-inch touchscreen is less clunky and easy to use, and that includes the addition of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. What it also includes is the rebirth of the volume knob. Honda has listened to its critics and brought this simple feature back after a two-year hiatus.



Canadians will be treated to a few exclusive perks that include a heated steering wheel and heated rear seats in EX-L and Touring models, as well as a panoramic moonroof for the Touring trim.

Lastly, CR-V owners will be treated to Honda's suite of safety technology, called Honda Sensing, that's standard on all AWD units. New technologies for 2017 include: Adaptive Cruise Control with Low-speed follow and Road Departure Mitigation, and that's on top of the plethora of technology aids that are already a part of the system.



The 2017 Honda CR-V goes on sale in late December at a cost that's only $400-$1,000 (depending on trim) more than its outgoing model. The starting price is $26,690 for the LX 2WD, but for AWD, you will need to go up to $29,490; while it tops out at $38,090 for the Touring trim.

In the fastest growing segment, Honda isn't taking any chances with its CR-V. Honda doesn't want it just to not lose ground to the Rav4 and Escape, it wants to take over the segment, just like the Civic did in its sedan class. To achieve this goal, improvements to inside-and-out styling will be a big help, as well as the standardization of safety technology, enhanced interior volume, better performance and lower fuel economy.

Will that be enough for Honda? It's hard to say, but with Honda's pedigree and the positive history of the CR-V, it sure can't hurt.

Test Drive – 2016 Fiat 500X

 

Many car brands try to create unique non-mainstream sub-brands to appeal to more buyers who are looking for something out of the ordinary. While brands like Scion have failed to maintain traction, others like MINI have done fairly well. Following in the footsteps of the latter, Italy’s Fiat has proven its rich brand history – resulting in noticeable sales for its iconic 500 model here in North America.

But the 500 isn’t for everyone. Its tiny size is impractical for most people while its cute appearance attracts more female buyers than male.

This week, I had the opportunity to test out the Fiat 500X. Alongside the 500L, the 500X plays a very important role in broadening Fiat’s appeal in the North American market.

The 500X fits in perfectly between the petite 500 and the bulky 500L. More importantly, its chunky appearance will appeal more to male buyers. From the front, its headlights are less rounded, wider, and more angled to give it a mean appearance; while the hood of the car is relatively longer compared to the rest of it. In addition, the big wheels and chunky tires add height to the vehicle, while the fender extensions make it appear ready to be taken off the beaten path.

Our tester came equipped with a 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine coupled to a nine-speed automatic. The base engine is a 1.4-litre turbo coupled to a six-speed, similar to the engine found in the 500 Turbo. The ZF-derived nine-speed transmission, according to ZF, offers 16 per cent better fuel economy when travelling at a constant speed of 120 km/h.

Our 2.4-litre offered adequate performance to deliver some decent city driving thrills. Upon acceleration, the car leaps forward delivering instant pick up. However, the rate of acceleration decreases considerably as your speed rises. And while there seems to be a noticeable amount of engine noise reflected in the cabin, the sound was more performance-oriented rather than that of a struggling engine.

An interesting feature in the 500X is its drive mode selection. Toggling through the Normal, Sport, and Weather modes adjusts the car’s RPM limits and steering feel. In Sport mode, the rev notes were quite pleasing to listen to, but I found the RPMs to be unnecessarily hovering at 3,000rpm when driving through a parking lot at 30 km/h – even upon disengaging the accelerator.

Although the 500X is quite unique, it has a growing list of competitors. The Mazda CX-3, Honda HR-V, Chevrolet Trax and Jeep Renegade, just to name a few, all offer similar performance and slightly more space for less money. Compared to the Fiat's sub $23,000 base price, the Trax prices out as the lowest at $19,795, while the Renegade comes in second at $21,495. Being the most expensive, buyers will have to decide whether the brand's unique Italian heritage and eye-catching styling will be worth those extra Euros.  

 

In short – 2015 Buick Verano

Likely safe to say that, unless you have been living under a rock or visiting a distant galaxy, you may be fleetingly familiar with General Motors' renaissance marketing and advertising campaign for their previously staid Buick marque. With Buick now being touted as “no longer the car your father would drive” (paraphrasing), I’m here to tell you that I would agree. And, for the most part, overall, they may be onto something with design, styling and technology which now has much broader and ready appeal.

The 2015 Buick Verano boasts an interior that's high on quality materials and comfortable seats. The model tested and driven came with leather seating. The front passengers are quite comfortable, with the driver's seat especially well bolstered for a car of this size. The rear seat isn't as generous – if you are an average-size North American adult.

The Verano's standard seven-inch touchscreen interface is generally agreeable, but honestly, Buick has fallen into the more button approach that other manufacturers seem to love. Note to engineers – less is more – please. Determining the appropriate button to push while driving is a distraction.

The Verano Turbo which, not surprisingly, comes with a turbocharged engine generates 250 horsepower from its 2.0 litres, and comes with either a six-speed automatic (as tested) or a six-speed manual transmission. To be clear; all Veranos are front-wheel drive.

The Buick Verano has a driving style that makes it feel like a bigger, more substantial car. That’s meant as a compliment. It's quiet, the ride is smooth (too much for some tastes, perhaps), and this small Buick sedan manages to evoke driving experiences of larger, more expensive (Buick) models such as the larger Regal and LaCrosse. What makes this all the more interesting, size-wise, at least, it’s much closer to its corporate sibling, the Chevy Cruze.

While the Verano would never be considered “sporty”, the turbo offers zippy acceleration but it feels as if the suspension is still tuned more for comfort. There is also some terrific technology on board such as forward-collision warning.

For the record, the 2015 Buick Verano, as tested, is probably way up there as one of the most comfortable cars available at this specific price point.

The base engine can run on regular unleaded gasoline, while premium is recommended for the turbo. But I digress.

As tested:
Price: $35,950 – plus applicable taxes
Engine: 2.0L 4 cylinder turbocharged EcoTec
Power: 250hp/260 ft-lb of torque (yes, you read that right – no corrective lenses for you!)
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Fuel economy (L/100km): City 11.4/ Hwy 7.9

Pros: A well-appointed value-laden North American built compact sedan. Quite comfortable up front for the driver and passenger, less so for adults in the rear. As a small family “take-me-to-Grandma’s-house” car, overall, few complaints. For the price as tested, this Verano is in some pretty good company – from the usual Asian manufacturers.

Cons: Tight for space in the rear for two average-size adults – especially for longer trips. Small point, but premium gasoline is recommended for the turbocharged engine. If you are not aware, when a manufacturer “suggests” premium, higher octane gasoline, know that it does, indeed, make a difference to the vehicle’s overall performance.

Long and the short: Worthy overall of consideration for your everyday transport dollar. Will new – and old – consumers embrace the new Buick, breathing life into this mature marque? Time and sales will tell.

First Drive: 2016 Nissan Maxima

 

Ottawa, ON – Floundering in a diminishing segment, Nissan was at a crossroads with the Maxima, it's full-size sedan. The choice was simple: completely change or pull the plug on the second-longest Nissan nameplate, beginning in 1981.

Now in its eighth-generation, Nissan went ahead and launched the 2016 Nissan Maxima in a very lucrative Super Bowl advertisement back in February. Nissan executives wanted to create a luxurious marvel that seems to be more premium than what we are accustomed to, a similar situation to what Nissan has done with its Murano SUV.

To test out the new refined showpiece of Nissan, they invited a number of journalists to Ottawa for a drive up to the Quebec Laurentians, and back. It was a great opportunity to not only feel the comfort of what Nissan is calling a jet fighter-styled cockpit interior, but also the power behind this so-called “sports sedan.”



Nissan simplified the buying process by only offering up four trim levels with no options. The base SV starts at $35,900, more than $2K less than the previous starting price; the second-tier SL at 38,950; the sports-tuned SR at  $41,100; and finally, the Platinum edition that tops out at $43,300.

It's a system that's less complicated at the dealership level, but customers might have a hard time deciding what's more appropriate for their lifestyle. The two trims on hand for the drive were the SR and Platinum, and after a day with them, I still can't figure out which I prefer.

On one hand, the range-topping Platinum is decked out with a panoramic moonroof, wood-tone finishes, an around-view monitor and power tilt/telescope steering. That all sounds great, but then you go to the SR and its sporting 19-inch aluminum-alloy wheels, a leather-wrapped heated steering wheel, and a sports-tuned suspension with some features that include Active Ride Control, Active Trace Control and Active Engine Brake.

A big drawback for the SR is not being able to have it with that panoramic moonroof – it just couldn't be done for lower body rigidity of the vehicle. So instead, you're left with a decision.



One decision that doesn't have to be made is with the engine. All Maximas come with an updated 3.5-litre V6 that not only improves on power from 290 hp to 300, but betters its fuel economy numbers to beat out other like-minded V6s in the premium large sedan category, as well as some in the mid-size sedan range. On our drive, the Maxima managed both in both trims an 8.5L/100 km with plenty of power surges to see what's really under that hood.

Also new in the Maxima is a refined Xtronic continuously variable transmission (CVT) that's been fine-tuned to have a wider gear ratio range that can get aggressive when pushed. I did find their to be a little lag after acceleration contact, but it's miles beyond what we used to think of CVTs.

The drive through the twisty Laurentians areas was a perfect spot to test out the handling of this large sports sedan. The most notable thing about the drive was how quiet it was. Only when that accelerator got pressed down to pass a few slow moving vehicles and trucks when two-lanes turned to one, the Maxima lit up and loudly CVT'd its way passed them. Otherwise, the journey was consistently relaxed and smooth, aided by the updated version of Nissan's NASA-inspired zero-gravity seats.



The interesting thing about the new Maxima is given its large dimensions, its width is not noticeable while driving. It seems less like a full-size, as in the Hyundai Genesis, and more like its sibling, the Altima. I'm not sure whether it's the sleek silhouette design that makes the Maxima feel smaller or the lightweight feel (the Maxima dropped 82 lbs., giving it an excellent power-to-weight ratio), but it was evident and that's a big check mark for me.

The two drive modes offered are: Normal and Sport, so naturally we tested both out. Normal mode added an extra layer of comfort and smoothness in the Platinum trim, especially over some rough chopped up areas around Quebec; while the SR felt more suitable in Sport mode with quicker response times and better cornering stability. Road feel was always present allowing you to manage the steering with crisp and accurate responses.

As smooth as the drive is, so is the design. Nissan turned this sedan from just another number option in its portfolio into a star. The V-motion grille might seem a bit large and more suitable for a larger vehicle, but the signature boomerang LED headlights supply it with a lot of character. The silhouette gets a sleeked-back cool look with a blacked-out A-Pillar and aggressive lines going across its body into its rear, where it takes on a more muscular backside.

Inside, the all-new Maxima shines with soft comfortable leather that's elevated with authentic contrast stitching on the dash, seats, door panels, you name it. The craftsmanship feels luxurious and more in-line with the Infiniti brand than Nissan.



A Nissan-first is a flat-bottomed leather-wrapped steering wheel that's steals the show. It's thick and handy with plenty of buttons to toggle between the radio stations, making a phone call, or figuring out your fuel economy numbers. If you don't like to use your steering wheel for controls, don't worry, you have a eight-inch colour touchscreen or a display commander rotating dial behind the gearshift. A little redundant, and not necessary, but I gather they're trying to accommodate all preferences.

I had a chance to sit in the back, and there's enough leg room for Dikembe Mutombo to relax in and not have to wag his finger. Headroom can be an issue for the taller individual, mainly due to the sloping silhouette, but if you're under 6'2”, there should be no trouble at all. The trunk is spacious, but it doesn't compare to some of its competitors.



Is the 2016 Nissan Maxima a sports sedan? The quick answer is no, but it's a well-designed full-size sedan that's focused on style and performance. The new iteration is light years ahead of the old, and it comes with many standard luxuries, such as heated seats and steering wheel, navigation, a rear view camera and advanced safety technologies that many other premium offerings don't have.

At $35K, the Maxima seems like a perfect choice, but the sales side can get murky, as we reach the $40K-43K mark. Many consumers in that range want to see a distinguished badge, and I'm not sure the Nissan one is what they want. If you take away the desire for status and take this Maxima out for a test drive, you will be pleasantly surprised not only by its exquisite styling, but also by its opulent cockpit.

The Nissan Maxima is currently on sale at dealerships across Canada.

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