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#164 of 203 M Class Road Rally
May 29, 2005 (7:16 pm)
This weekend Mercedes hosted an event they called the M Class Road Rally, here in DC it was at FedEx Field.
You may recall I didn't exactly rave about the last M class, well I was hoping for a big improvement given the new one's unibody and the 3.5l engine I loved in the SLK.
Not so. The same engine in the ML is saddled by a whole bunch more weight, so it could barely get the ML going. In the SLK is was spunky, here it was just lumpy. The slow-shifting tranny tried too hard to be smooth and only delayed things further.
The interior had nice quality materials except for a noticeably cheap vinyl headrest cover that did not match the seat leather. Plus the design was too plain, it reminded me of a TrailBlazer and not in a good way. Maybe it's those vents. At least the burled walnut is real and warms things up.
Ride was good, as was the wheel travel over obstacles they'd put in place for us to test the suspension. Problem is that resulted in a ton of lean in corners, the ML is just not happy going fast around a curve.
So the ML350 just did nothing for me, not an ounce of excitement. We then sampled an ML500 and that at least got my attendion. The V8 makes this SUV come alive, and somehow the lazy tranny interferes less.
Problem is handling it still a weak spot, with plenty of lean. My brother was in the passenger seat and we both had the windows open - it felt like we would fall out of the vehicle if our seat belts were not fastened.
Likes? Commanding view, great seats. The ML500's that is, they had deeper side bolsters. 19" rims available, though we sampled 18"s. I like the styling, especially how the shoulder tapers out towards the rear, and the crease on the back of the hatch runs parallel to the tail lights.
Some other nice touches are appealing, but you have to spend $50 grand or so for an ML500, and that's just crazy. The ML350 should be this nice given that even for $40k it's not nearly fully equipped. There's just no value to be found here.
Nice improvement, but Mercedes needs to toss in a big rebate to get me interested in this SUV that just doesn't stand out from the herd.
#165 of 203 M-Class counterpoint
May 30, 2005 (7:06 am)
I was with juice at this ML event, and my feelings were not nearly so negative:
I think MB did a very nice upgrade with this vehicle. Yeah, sure the V8 ML 500 is more fun; that's what an additional 1.5 liter will do for you. In all honesty, I think the ML 350 is just fine.
Juice did point out the seat/headrest issue, but whatever the difference, it was minimal IMO, and certainly not something to get upset about. I wouldn't have even noticed it if he hadn't pointed it out to me—and I notice EVERYTHING!
As to handling, again, this is not a sports car, but an SUV with a much higher center of gravity. Yes, it did feel heavy and somewhat of a bull-in-a-china-closet in the very tight stuff, but better than most for this type of vehicle. I didn't hear any tires squeal, and they gripped the road very well as I tossed it through the corners.
My sense is that the Subaru B9 Tribeca will out-handle it, but that shouldn't be too surprising as it has a lower center of gravity thanks to the boxer engine and is about 500 pounds lighter.
I liked the interior a lot; it's much better than the old model, and roomier too. I especially like the new gearshift lever, which is very similar to that used on the BMW 7-Series. It's just a short stalk on the steering column. To engage Drive, you just pust down on the lever. To Engage Reverse. To engage Park you just push the button on the end of the stalk and you hear a "ding" indicating the vehicle is now in Park. It also has "SportShift" buttons on the steering wheel if you want to shift the 7-speed automatic yourself. Yes, I did say "7-speed" automatic.
I do have a few complaints however:
• A Low Range transfer case is MIA for '06. Rumor had it at the Detroit Show that it would be part of an optional "off-road package," which would be available. Well it turns out, yes it may be available—but not for MY 06.
I think this is a big mistake; not because ML owners go off road, but because many do pull boats up steep boat launches, and having a Low Range can be very useful in these situations. In fact, a current ML 430 owner overheard my conversation with a MB rep regarding this. This owner pulled me aside afterwards and was very surprised to find out the Low Range is not offered—and very disappointed too. In fact he indicated that not having that feature could be a deal-breaker for him, as he uses the low range in his current ML all the time when pulling a boat out of the water—and he's got a V8 ML!
• The other item I don't like is the lack of a full-size spare. I believe all SUVs should have full-size spares, especially if you tow a trailer.
• I'm surprised they didn't offer a 7-passenger version, as I think this feature is quickly becoming a "must-have" for this type of vehicle.
• Minor nit: I wish the NAV unit sat a bit higher on the center stack of the dashboard; more like the Subaru B9 Tribeca and other Japanese models.
Lastly, MB has said that they've gone to great lengths to make sure this car as trouble-free as possible. I hope that proves to be true, as that was not the case with the old ML. We will only know if they've been successful once these cars start getting some miles on them. Any takers?
#166 of 203 2006 Honda Civic LX Sedan
Sep 10, 2005 (1:26 pm)
I took a short road test today in the all-new 2006 Honda Civic sedan. It was a Royal Blue LX model with 5-speed manual transmission, made in Japan. Sticker price is $17,060 including destination charge. The 5-speed automatic is $800 more.
The car's swoopy styling is better looking in person than in pictures, I think. Its long, low roofline and sharply raked windshield do not shriek "Small car!" as do some of its competitors. The front is reminiscent of the Prius, but overall the car has unique and pleasing lines. Even the plastic wheel covers on the 16" wheels are nicely done, making it easier to justify the purchase of an LX vs. the EX with its alloys. The dark blue paint was smooth and lustrous. The only exterior flaw I could see was a slightly mis-aligned trunk lid--and I emphasize slightly.
The medium-grey cloth and plastic interior is also well-executed, with a dual-tone dash and faux aluminium trim bits. As on most low-buck cars these days, most of the plastic is unyielding, but the parts most likely to be touched--around the instrument binnacle and the tops of the doors--have some padding. Some people will probably quibble about the plastic door handles, but they can spend some more money and get an Accord if they want to grab metal. The dash didn't look as strange and asymmetrical sitting in the driver's seat as it does in photos. I was glad to see the trim on the steering wheel is toned down compared to that on the Si. The overall look is subdued, with just enough flourishes to make it interesting without being distracting. For example, Honda used two different fabrics on the seats and carved interesting shapes into the dash and door panels.
Speaking of distracting, the dual-level instruments feature a huge digital speedometer and bar graphs (all in white) for fuel and temperature at the top of the instrument panel, above a large tach centered behind the steering wheel. It sounds gimmicky, but works well in practice, at least in daylight. I would hope the digital readouts are dimmed at night, or they would be distracting. The tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel fit right between the digital readouts and tach, making the gauges easily visible. The steering wheel itself was plastic, but was pleasingly fat and grippy with little bulges in the 10 and 2 position. Cruise controls are embedded in the right-hand spoke, but there were no dash-mounted audio controls as on some competitors.
Secondary controls and displays had traditional Honda precision and quality. The HVAC controls were smooth knobs and push buttons, easy to decipher. I briefly tested the 4-speaker, 160-watt CD/MP3 stereo and it sounded fine for this class of car. One quibble is that most cars in this class have at least six speakers. I was disappointed to find out that the LX doesn't have the auxiliary input jack--need to move up-trim for that.
The driver's seat was comfortable, with lever-type height adjustment. Although I prefer two height adjustments on the seat bottom, the angle on the Civic's seat cushion was acceptable. The dead pedal was large and comfortable, and the short-throw shifter fell easily into my right hand. (One nit is that I'd like a grippier cover on the shift knob; it was smooth plastic on top.) There is a large center console (finally Honda got this detail right on the Civic!) with a big, comfy armrest that slides fore-and-back, and a huge well for CDs etc. Two large adjustable cup holders are covered by a sliding door. The are connected so you can store other stuff in there if you aren't thirsty. There are also numerous little cubbies in the console and dash for cell phones and other stuff, plus pockets in each door. Unfortunately, there's only one power outlet, so leave that to your passengers and concentrate on the driving. The A/C outlets are huge, and the car cooled quickly in 90-degree heat after sitting in the sun. After a couple of minutes, I was able to turn the fan down to low to better hear (or not) the sounds of the car.
And your back-seat passengers (up to two medium-sized adults or three kids) won't mind too much being back there. Despite the relatively low interior volume number compared to other cars in its class (less than little cars like the '06 Kia Rio for example), there's a lot of usable space in back. With the driver's seat set for my 5'10" frame (32" inseam), I was quite comfortable in back, with plenty of knee and head room. Toe room was just adequate with the driver's seat raised about half way. The rear seat cushion is angled up at the front to provide decent thigh support--something rare in this class. Another nice touch is that each door has a storage bin. But there is no center armrest--again, you need to move up to the EX to get that feature.
The trunk is relatively small but boxy, to make the most of its size. There is some storage room around the temporary spare tire; the tools are clustered neatly on top of the spare. It would have been a good idea to put struts on the trunk lid to make the smallish trunk even more usable, but Honda opted for the usual intrusive hinges. At least they are covered in plastic to do minimum damage to luggage.
OK, on to the fun part--the driving. The car was being prepped to go out to a golf tournament to be shown off, so I didn't get much time behind the wheel. But I was impressed by what I heard and felt during the drive. First off, the key has a handy integrated remote (door and panic only, no trunk). The engine is quiet at idle. The shifter and clutch have the typical Honda butteriness, with the only nit being a faint clunk shifting into third. Acceleration with the new 140-hp engine is more than adequate for the class--some people will always want more power, but it was fine for a small family sedan, especially considering the 30/38 mpg EPA fuel economy ratings (30/40 for the automatic). The car truly felt as if it were carved out of a single block of metal. Incredibly solid, not a hint of a creak or squeak even when driving over railroad tracks at 40 mph. Road noise (albeit over smooth suburban streets) was low. The ride was well-composed--I could feel large bumps, but they seemed far removed. I thought the Civic actually rode more smoothly than the larger Accord, and definitely more smoothly and quietly than the New Jetta. I didn't tax the car's handling on the short test drive, but it tracked perfectly straight and took turns without any lean. The steering had just the right amount of assist. (Continued...)
#167 of 203 2006 Honda Civic LX Sedan - Wrapup
Sep 10, 2005 (1:27 pm)
At the end of the drive, the salesman asked what I thought. I told him I was very impressed and will definitely consider the Civic when it's time for my next car in the near future. I also told him I thought the Civic would take sales from the Accord, and he agreed. The Civic has nearly as much usable people-room as the Accord, rides and drives as well or better than the Accord, and offers nearly as much luxury (on the EX with nav and leather) but with better fuel economy--and the Civic costs thousands less.
I have trouble thinking of any significant flaws on the new Civic. Even the outside mirrors fold (non-folding mirrors are one of my pet peeves). There are a few nits, as mentioned above. In addition, I suspect that the bodyside moldings are too low to be effective in warding off parking-lot dings. And it would be nice if fifth gear were taller so that the stick shift car could at least match the slushbox in fuel economy. But that's about it.
With the new Civic, I think Honda has climbed back to the top of the small-car heap, neck and neck with the Mazda3. The 3 still leads in power and sportiness, but the Civic has the edge in economy and refinement. For people willing to spend around $17,000 for a small car, the Civic LX gives them a great new alternative.
#168 of 203 Long Term Test: Nissan Armada LE
Sep 14, 2005 (1:44 am)
Haven't written in a while so figured I'd take this opportunity to write up an overall Long-term test of my Armada, now standing at 12,000 miles since April 15th.
The Nissan Armada is the first Full-size SUV put out by Nissan. This also being the last of the Super-utes to hit the market has given Nissan a distinct edge over the competition (Chevy Suburban/Yukon XL, Ford Excursion/Expedition, Toyota Sequoia) since Nissan could learn from the other's mistakes.
5.6 liter DOHC, Variable Valve, Variable Intake, V8 motor. This is a finely crafted piece of machinery, pumping out 305hp and 385lbs-ft of torque and running on good old 87 Octane! This helps to make this the fastest SUV in it's class 0-60 at a surprising 7.1 seconds. Towing is also at the to of it's class with the exception of the Yukon XL w/optional 8.1L engine and the Excursion with the Diesel or V10 option. Nissan really did some nice work on this driveline, not only is the engine great but the exhaust note is super. It sounds almost as if they put Flowmaster mufflers on from the factory! The 5-speed Automatic transmission is extremely smooth. You can barely tell it's shifting, and the 5th gear OD is great for highway mileage. At 80mph it turns about 2200 RPMs give or take a few. The 4wd system is also very versatile. It includes RWD mode, AWD Mode, 4wd High (locked 50/50 torque split), 4wd Lo (locked 50/50 torque split w/low range) This gives you the most choices as far as the terrain you are using the vehicle for. Included standard is also Front and rear ABLSD which is electronic Limited Slip differentials that use the ABS system to shift power from wheel that is slipping to the wheel that isn't. VDC is also standard that includes Yaw control, Power cut, and ABS application to prevent skidding in inclement weather or emergency maneuvers.
4 wheel independent suspension is standard. 18" Aluminum rims standard On the LE and any other trim with towing package auto-leveling rear suspension is standard as well. The 4-wheel independent suspension gives this vehicle an outstanding ride. It's a quite smooth, almost Cadillac like ride. Handling however isn't wallowy or soft considering it weighs in at 5400lbs and is a massive vehicle.
This is probably the best part of the Armada. The interior is extremely roomy. With it's cab-forward design you have a nice big windshield and a very airy interior. The doors are huge and allow for easy ingress and egress. They really thought of everything in this vehicle's interior. 2nd row seats have almost as much room or more room than the 1st row. On the LE 2nd row includes bucket seats that are as comfy as the 1st row. Arm rests are standard with reclining positions as well. Front driver and passenger get electronic controls as well. The transmission tunnel doesn't interfere with leg room which I found to be a problem on the GM trucks. Center consoles in 1st and 2nd row are large enough to hold 2 or 3 laptops easily each. Gauges are totally complete and include Oil Pressure, Coolant Temp, Volts, Fuel, and Transmission Temp. Tire pressure monitors and ABS are standard as well. In the 2nd row the floor is flat without any driveshaft tunnel interference and the 2nd row folds flat to form a smooth transition from the 3rd row that folds flat as well. Grab handles and overhead bins are everywhere as well as large bins in the doors with a slot that will hold up to a 1 liter bottle in each. Rear air conditioning is also standard and can be controlled by the 2nd row and has it's own condenser unit. Power fold out quarter windows are also standard on the LE model this allows for spring and summer cruising without the AC. First row windows have auto-up and auto-down as well. 2nd row windows go all the way down into the doors as well, a nice feature IMHO. Behind the 3rd row there is ample storage, enough for me to keep 3 milk crates across and 2 high with the 3rd row up. Another feature that is nice is the 3rd row is actually a leather seat rather than vinyl that is found in the 3rd row of the GM trucks that have leather 1st and 2nd rows. Finally the rear lift gate is a 2-part unit where the glass can be lifted separate from the liftgate. Great for loading gear without it falling out the back. The rear lift gate is also motorized and can be controlled by the key FOB for opening and closing. The key FOB will also allow you to roll down both front windows remotely. The stereo on the 04-05 has a 6 cd Bose unit with 10 or 12 speakers. Sound is good and it provides RDS service for your station to send data to the display. Nifty item is a headphone jack input for connection up Ipods or other input devices to the stereo without using an FM modulator. Standard also is auto dimming mirror with compass and outside temp. Auto headlights I found to be very useful too. They really didn't miss a detail on here with footwell lights, glove box lights, plenty of overhead reading lights for the 2nd and 3rd rows. The passenger front seat also can be folded down so you can fit a 10ft ladder front to rear with all the seats folded down! Upon opening the driver door the seat moves to the back most position for easy entry/exit and then returns to the original position when you start the car up. I know i've gone on here fairly in depth but I'm not very easily impressed but this car really grabbed me as far as the interior use of space.
The Good, The Bad, The Ugly....
Towing is also outstanding. I routinely tow my race car trailer and this does the job flawlessly. This past summer I towed my race car to 5 different tracks here in the northeast and mid-atlantic area. Loaded at roughly 6000lbs the trailer was not even noticeable. In the middle of July with 90-100+ degree humid days we were able to get 13-14mpg doing 75mph and full blast A/C going. The auto leveling suspension worked flawlessly and leveled out the trailer nicely. Wiring up the brake controller for the trailer took about 20 min and was totally integrated with the wiring harness.
Looks, well it takes some time to get this vehicles looks to grow on you. It's a bit on the ugly side, but IMHO once you are inside visibility is excellent and then you aren't looking at the outside from the inside.
The running boards are good but don't attempt to offroad with them on. I did and will probably have to replace them since they got a bit mangled while offroading. Offroading however was flawless with this vehicle, the ABLS worked amazing well and was almost as good as having a locker. breakover angle was the only other issue, with the wheelbase we hit the running boards often.
Milage. hasn't been that bad so far. In city driving I'm averaging 13.5mpg over 5000 miles, 5000 miles of highway I'm averaging 19-20mpg. Not bad for the comfort and size of this vehicle.
Brakes have been discussed over and over and people have complained a
Sep 16, 2005 (9:30 am)
Brakes have been discussed over and over and people have complained about warping. I had this issue at 3000 miles and noticed extremely large volumes of brake dust on the rims. At 3000 miles Nissan replaced the Rotors, Caliper Brackets and pads with upgraded ones and so far for 9000 miles no issues, no dust and it stops almost as well as my race cars!
I have a slight pull to the left and after offroading I think I took off all the grease on the bushings so the front supension is squeeking like crazy.
Upgrades that I would like to see? -Locking Gas Door - On a vehicle that is the flagship of the Nissan line, it should have this. Also it should have HIDs The Murano, Maxima and the Altima get them as options! For 06 they have also addressed the Power-retracting mirror issue that I would have suggested the put in as well as turn signals in the mirrors are std in 06. I'd say add in 2nd row heated seats would be nice.
That's about it, I'll keep you all updated on this longterm test of the Nissan Armada. Feel free to e-mail me at the e-mail address in my profile if you have questions or comments. -Mike
#171 of 203 2006 Kia Rio LX
Oct 08, 2005 (5:41 pm)
With gas prices in the U.S. around $3.00 a gallon, small cars are gaining in popularity here. Thus it was excellent timing on Kia's part to recently introduce an all-new Rio sedan and Rio5 5-door hatchback. With these models, Kia will go head-to-head with other automakers who will soon unveil all-new small cars in the U.S.: Hyundai (Accent), Toyota (Yaris), Honda (Fit), and Nissan (Versa).
I drove a white Rio LX sedan with a 4-speed automatic transmission and no options. Sticker price with destination was $13,905. This was the only Rio in the dealer's stock and had literally just rolled off the truck. It still was still wrapped in plastic on the outside and inside, and the radio and HVAC controls were not operational. Still, I was in a hurry and the last Rio they got in stock was sold the day it arrived. So the sales rep handed me the keys, told me to have fun, and and off I went.
The first thing I noticed as I drove off the lot was that the engine made a faint rattling sound at idle, reminiscent of a diesel engine. This was the first time I had heard that type of noise in a test drive of a brand-new gas-engined car. But then, it was right off the truck. I didn't notice the noise after the engine had warmed up. Otherwise, the engine, a 1.6L, 110 hp CVVT unit, hummed under full throttle (but not excessively so) and was quiet when cruising on the freeway at 65-70 mph (engine revs were 2500 at 65). Acceleration with the automatic was adequate under gentle throttle. I didn't push it since it was brand-new, 6 miles on the odometer. Upshifts were smooth, and downshifts imperceptible. I really didn't notice the operation of the automatic at all--which is a good thing. You won't get neck-snapping take-offs with this car, but that's not it's mission. People will buy it for its EPA 29/38 mpg fuel economy ratings, not its power.
Handling with the power steering was quick, even a bit twitchy. I thought to myself, this car would be fun to toss around town. The chassis felt rock-solid, and although bumps were felt, they were remote "thrums" rather than kicks. The car tracked well on the freeway, although it seemed a little skittish. I wondered if the tires were at the proper inflation. (When I returned, the sales rep volunteered that the tires were over-inflated from being on the truck, even before I could ask about it.)
The most impressive thing about this smallest Kia is that it doesn't look or feel cheap. The white paint (after the sales rep peeled off the plastic wrap) was glossy, even, and smooth. All panels lined up perfectly, with narrow, even gaps. The wheel covers looked almost like alloys. Fat, sporty-looking black moldings protect the doors. As noted, the car is solid on the road, with no squeaks or rattles, and little noise at cruise except faint A pillar wind noise at about 70 mph.
Inside, the tan interior has a quality look. There's a lot of plastic on the dash, but it has pleasing textures and colors (with a two-tone treatment), smooth--even Lexus-like--switchgear (with the exception of the temperature knob), clear gauges (including a tach), damped grab handles above the doors, and a meaty, 3-spoke steering wheel. What betrays the low price point of the car is that all the plastic surfaces inside are hard--even the armrests on the doors. There is a comfy fold-down right armrest for the driver, but none for the front passenger. There's a map light above the dash, but it's a single lamp. Also, storage space is limited. There are a few small storage bins around the dash and center console, but only the glove box and smallish bins on the doors to hold big stuff. The back of the passenger's seat has a pocket too. There are only three cupholders in the car: two in the front (actually only one if you smoke), and one Big Gulp-sized holder for the rear.
One plus on the Rio is the multi-adjustable driver's seat with two knobs for height adjustment. With that and the tilt steering column, I was able to dial in a perfect driving position. The seat cushion felt a little small compared to that of, say, an Elantra, but it was comfortable. The seats are covered in an ivory tricot-type cloth which looked and felt fine, but I wonder how durable it will be (and how easy to keep clean). With the driver's seat set for my 5'10", 32" inseam frame, I was able to fit fairly comfortably in the back seat. My ankles were up against the front seat, but that part of the seat was padded and there was plenty of room under the seat for my feet. The backrest angle felt good and thigh support was OK. Headroom front and back was fine; the Rio has a raised roofline compared to the old model. I could see spending a couple of hours in the back with no problem, but in general I think it's an area best left for kids.
The trunk is surprisingly roomy for a car this small, but it's quite shallow. The trunk expands via a 60/40 split folding rear seat. "Big deal", you say. Well, it's actually a nice surprise on an inexpensive car, considering Honda doesn't even put this feature on its $18,000 Civic LX.
And maybe that's the best way to sum up the '06 Rio: it's a nice surprise. Kia has built a car that is a vast improvement over its predecessor. It's small on the outside, roomy on the inside (roomier than the Civic, for example), sips gas up there with the best of them, is fun to drive (as long as quick 0-60 times aren't important to you), and even has an aura of quality (as long as you don't start squeezing all the plastic trim inside). And like all Kias, it has a 5-year, 60,000 mile bumper-to-bumper warranty and a 10-year, 100,000 mile powertrain warranty.
But what about value? At $13,905 for a car with crank windows, no power mirrors or locks, no cruise control, no ABS, and 14" wheels, the Rio (and Rio5) face some serious competition from the Chevy Aveo and even from slightly larger cars like the Suzuki Forenza and Reno, the Hyundai Elantra (which has lower pricing for '06), and even the Rio's stablemate, the Spectra. The Rio has in its favor standard side curtain airbags (in addition to front-row side bags) and better fuel economy than those cars. But within a few weeks, the Rio will face direct competition from its cousin, the all-new Accent--based on the same platform and offering many of the same features, but with standard ABS. And close on the Accent's heels will be all-new competitors from Toyota, Honda, and Nissan--all expected to start around $12,000.
Personally, I think the Rio makes a more compelling case in 5-door guise, as the Rio5, due to its greater versatility and more attractive styling, which includes 15" alloys. Even then, I think the Rio will have its work cut out for it in an increasingly competitive small-car market. For now, I think the Rio is the best of a relatively small group of cars, which include the Aveo, ECHO, and (old) Accent. A few months from now? We shall see...
#172 of 203 2006 Ford Fusion S
Dec 03, 2005 (1:40 pm)
The new Fusion is Ford's latest attempt to entice buyers in the hotly-contested mid-sized family car market. It is the replacement for the Taurus. How does it stack up against able competitors such as the Accord, Camry, and the newly-redesigned Sonata?
Ford clearly aims the Fusion at younger drivers who look for style and a sporty driving experience in their mid-sized cars. Thus I decided to test a stick-shift Fusion, which comes only with the 4-cylinder engine. My local dealer had only one 4-cylinder Fusion on the lot, and it was a base S model with no options. That was fine with me, as I wanted to see how a Fusion with no options would fare.
The test car was Redfire Metallic with a camel interior (with black accents). MSRP was $17,795 including destination. For that, you get quite a lot of standard equipment, including power windows/locks/mirrors, 4-speaker MP3 stereo, 16" wheels with decent-looking plastic covers, 4-wheel disc brakes, tilt/telescope steering column, 60/40 split fold-down rear seat, speed-sensitive wipers, remote entry, A/C, two-tier center console with armrest, and height-adjustable driver's seat. What was missing was a few safety features that are increasingly standard on cars of this class, and even much lower priced cars: side airbags, side curtain airbags, and ABS. Those safety features are all available on the Fusion, but would add almost $1200 to the sticker price. What is not available at any price on the Fusion is electronic stability control, a useful safety feature that is standard or at least optional on most competitors.
The exterior of the Fusion is dominated by five big horizontal chrome bars up front. It's an aggressive look that many people like; I'm just not one of them. Also noticeable on the Fusion is wide gaps around the hood and trunk lid--wider than on competitors like Accord and Sonata. The gaps were at least even, but lent an unfinished appearance to the car. The trunk itself is large--almost 16 cubic feet--and nicely trimmed; even the underside of the decklid is covered. The struts supporting the trunk lid are a nice touch, expanding usable trunk space while helping to protect luggage and groceries. The trunk expands easily by pulling knobs in the trunk to lower the 60/40 rear seat backs. They do not lie very flat, however.
Sitting in the driver's seat, you get the feeling the car was designed to be more than just a family hauler, with its relatively low height and intimate interior. It feels more like the Accord in that respect than cars like the Camry and Sonata. The deeply-textured black dash and matching trim on the tops of the doors looked and felt good, as did the fat four-spoke plastic steering wheel (leather on the high-zoot SEL). But other trim did not exude the same quality feel. The deeply-textured ivory plastic on the lower dash in particular looked cheap, as did the plain black trim in the center stack (gloss black or woodgrain trim comes on higher-priced models). The chromed plastic door pulls and lock buttons are a plus. The gauges are clear, the radio controls are fairly intuitive (sound of the 4-speaker system was adequate), and the 3-knob HVAC controls were simple in operation if not up to the competition in feel. They are also low on the center console--a bit of a reach and downward glance to get to. Storage is adequate if not exceptional, with the highlights being a large two-tier bin under the center armrest and a lidded compartment above the center air vents. But there were no pockets behind the back seats and no bins on the rear doors.
I was able to set a comfortable driving position using the manual (lever-type) seat height and seatback adjusters. When I had the seat height just where I wanted it, my hair was brushing the headliner, so I lowered it a bit. (I wonder how much room is available with the optional moonroof.) I would have preferred to have the front of the seat cushion a little higher; I found I could adjust seat bottom angle more to my liking with the power seat that is standard on higher trim levels. I didn't need the telescopic feature on the steering wheel, but it might be welcome for other drivers. With the front seat set for my 5'10" frame, I checked out the rear and found plenty of room for legs and feet, but my hair touched the headliner and I wanted more thigh support. There's a rear center armrest with cupholders to keep rear seat travellers more comfy.
It is in driving where the Fusion really shines. The 160 hp I4 engine has decent pickup with the standard 5-speed stick, and has good low-end torque also so you don't need to row the shifter a lot. When I did, I didn't mind because the grip is meaty, the throws are short, and the clutch is easy to modulate (although not as light as, say, the Accord's). There is some engine noise when accelerating, but it's not excessive--just enough to remind you that you are driving a car. Wind and tire noise were not significant up to 60 mph (it was snowing, so that's as fast as I pushed it). Handling was precise, with no lean on turns and solid steering feel. The whole car seemed very solid, with no rattles or squeaks. The ride is firm, but well controlled and quiet. You will feel bumps, but not curse them. Despite sloppy, icy roads, the car moved along with assurance, and the non-ABS brakes worked well (although I did brake cautiously, given the conditions and the fact this was someone else's car).
So how does the new Fusion stack up against competitors like the Accord, Camry, and Sonata? In the driving department, I think it is a worthy competitor to the Accord and in fact I like the ride quality of the Fusion better. It has a firmer ride and crisper handling than the Camry LE or Sonata GL/GLS. So mid-sized sedan buyers who put sporty handling at the top of their list should appreciate the Fusion.
However, the Fusion is disappointing in other areas, notably in the lack of standard safety equipment, headroom, back seat comfort, the quality of some interior bits, and exterior panel fit. It warranty is also one of the shortest of the mid-sized class, with only 3 years/36 months for bumper-to-bumper and powertrain.
Price-wise, the Fusion does well against competitors like Accord and Camry, and not quite as well against the Sonata when comparably equipped. Example:
Fusion S with ABS and Safety Package: $18,985
Sonata GL with floor mats: $18,580
(Sonata includes features like ESC, 6-speaker stereo, heated mirrors, and leather-wrapped wheel; Fusion has telescopic wheel and speed-sensitive wipers.)
All in all, the Fusion offers a fun-to-drive, reasonably-priced package for mid-sized car buyers, especially those who would like to buy a car from an American car company. Interestingly, though, the Fusion is one of the few cars in this mid-sized class not built in the U.S.--the Fusion is built in Mexico.
Mar 29, 2006 (6:43 am)
A Segway, that is.
I got to try one of these recently, at a trade show here in DC. It was pretty interesting.
They take a while to get used to. At firts you hop on and it feels totally awkward, like it's hard to keep your balance and stay still.
You get used to it after only a minute or two, and then you can get around pretty well. It's actually kinda "fun to drive", I guess.
I still don't see many of them around, but if you get a chance, try one out, it's definitely memorable.
To bring the topic back to cars, I wonder if the technology could be used to assist a disabled person in driving. Basically you're using your feet to accelerate, brake, and turn left and right. Your hands only help you keep your balance.
We're so used to two (or three) foot pedals and a steering wheel, but I wonder if a little out-of-the-box thinking could benefit folks with limited use of their arms.