For the third year in a row, the ABB FIA Formula-E Championship took over the cruise terminal in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York for the final two rounds of the 2018-2109 season. The open-wheeled electric racing series started out with a large dose of skepticism from the motorsports world and beyond with the mid-race car switch to accommodate battery depletion. However, this is the first season racing in the Gen2 cars that have enough battery charge to last to the end of the race, thus allowing a shift towards a more traditional pit lane and track layout. Gen2 cars have a top speed of 280km/h (~173 mph), with 0-60 acceleration at about 2.5 seconds. Remaining battery power is tracked on the driver standings during the race, showing most of the competitors with between 1-3% juice remaining at the checkered flag.
The series continues to advance their unique brand melding green power, Silicon Valley tech, and going fast with the new ATTACK MODE feature for the Gen-2 cars. ATTACK MODE is in the same spirit of, for example, IndyCar’s push-to-pass, in that it gives the driver an extra 25 kW of power to drive faster and harder for several laps. In order to get that extra bit of power, the driver has to pilot through the Activation Zone while racing – and teams only get the details an hour before the race start. The caveat is that they have to drive off the racing line in order to activate so it does cost the driver seconds, and if the zone is missed – as happened earlier in the season – those seconds are hard to make up without the extra power. Making everything feel a bit more like TRON, the protective Halo lights up with blue when the car is in ATTACK MODE, and magenta when they are using the FANBOOST.
The addition of the Jaguar I-PACE eTROPHY Championship as a support series has fleshed out race days, giving spectators more sportscar racing and less lukewarm filler of previous years. The Formula-E paddocks are still not accessible for most – with limited viewing even to those with VIP tickets, but the I-PACE paddocks were connected to the E-Village and accessible to all with a ticket regardless of price point. I-PACE paddocks also aren’t like those of other series – missing are the revving engines, exhaust fumes, and clinking of metal as team engineers deftly adjust combustion engines. The quiet, air-conditioned paddocks host dormant sports cars with blinking headlights – more like charging Cybermen than sleeping beasts. Drivers for the first season came from various global series including former Formula E drivers, NASCAR Toyota, LMP2, and perhaps most famously Katherine Legge from IndyCar and the now-defunct Nissan Delta Wing program. The electric race-spec I-PACE shares the 90kWh lithium-ion battery with the production model and can reach a top speed of 121 mph. Up to 20 drivers race for 25 minutes plus one lap.
Formula-E is not without growing pains, though. Following the FIA’s decision in June to ban Nissan’s twin motor powertrains for the 2019-2020 season, NISSAN E.DAMS driver and NYC Race 1 winner Sébastien Buemi said in the post-race press conference, “It’s been a tough season, lots of discussion about our power train… it’s been really political in a bad way from my point of view…. Clearly, you know to finish second in the championship is a good reward for the team, but on the other hand I’m sad that what we used this year will be banned next year. It just disappoints me massively because Formula E is about innovation in power trains and electric mobility.” He explained further, “I just hope in the future, you know, we keep the strengths of Formula E which is to, first of all, look for the sport, you know, and not for your own interests… I’m disappointed in the calling because it’s working very well now and we will not be able to use it. Again, you know, I have to accept it, it’s a decision taken by the FIA… we’ll live with it, it’s motorsport, sometimes it happens, but yeah, it’s a bit disappointing.”
That said, the rules and regulations are otherwise working well, keeping the series competitive (sending some side-eye to you, Formula 1). While Jean-Éric Vergne (DS Techeetah) was ahead in points going into the first race, three other drivers still had the chance to take the championship – Luca di Grassi (Audi Sport Abt Schaeffler), Panasonic Jaguar Racing’s Mitch Evans, and Buemi. Unlike last year in NYC when Vergne clinched the championship on day one, Buemi won the Saturday race leaving the championship to be decided by the final race. Panasonic Jaguar Racing’s Mitch Evans was second on podium, and António Félix da Costa/ BMW i Andretti Motorsport was third.
Ultimately, Vergne did win the championship on Sunday for the second year in a row after an exciting race that ended with Envision Virgin Racing’s Robin Frijns taking the checkered flag. Alexander Sims – BMW i Andretti Motorsport in second, and Sébastien Buemi rounding out the podium in third.
ABB FIA Formula-E Championship will return to New York City for the 2019-2020 season, but only for one day – the season-ending double header will now go to London. Why, Formula E? New Yorkers finally “got” racing and showed up in droves, and now you leave us? Is it our accents? IS THE RENT JUST TOO DAMN HIGH? London doesn’t have air condition in the subway like we do, I’ve been there, I know this! Well, I’ll still be here in New York next year, taking photos as the series continues to carve out its own niche in the world of Formula racing.
For someone who loves reading and writing about cars, it should come as no surprise that I have my favorite automotive journalists. One of them is Ezra Dyer. In his early days at Automobile Magazine, he would rhapsodize about his father’s extraordinarily basic Dodge Ram pickup truck. Like e, Ezra is a New Englander. As a young kid, my grandfather, a retired forest ranger, would put me in his giant Dodge pickup he used for runs to his charcoal kiln. It had no carpet, not even a radio; that truck served one purpose-to work. Fast forward to early adulthood and my cousin would let me use his truck to drive from his cottage to beautiful Moonstone Beach in Rhode Island, nicely broken in like your favorite jeans, and I certainly didn’t worry about tracking in any sand. Call it a Yankee sense of practicality, the common thread with these trucks lay in their simplicity.
In 2019, pickup trucks are much different. Years ago, if your owned a truck you had a legitimate reason to. And that truck wasn’t usually needed to take the family to church or your date on a weekend getaway. Trucks of today are asked to be able to function like a working truck while delivering all of the amenities of a passenger car. Dodge started using Ram for its pickups from 1932 to 1954. In 1981, Dodge resurrected the Ram name. In 2011, Ram became its own brand. For 2019, the Ram entered its fifth generation. The Rebel joined the Ram pickup family in 2016 as the Ram built for off-roading.
For a truck built to go off-rad, it certainly looks the part. The Rebel gets its own unique styling. Knobby all terrain tires, tow hooks and an overall serious demeanor suggest this Ram wasn’t built to just haul mulch from the local garden center. As a result, during my time with the Rebel it got a LOT of attention. I get to drive plenty of new cars for The Garage, and most of the time no one pays any attention. That all changes when I get a truck. One guy pulled over to the side of the road while I was walking up to it just to ask me questions about it. I was asked if this was Ram’s answer to the Ford Raptor-a good question. While it is down on power, from its looks to off-road ability, yes, this is the closest truck Ram builds to the Raptor. With its striking red and black exterior, the Rebel attracts plenty of attention. Much like how men gather around whenever you’re grilling something, men, complete strangers, will want to gather around to look at, and talk about this truck. And anyone who came up to check it out was mightily impressed.
And that’s before anyone stepped up to examine the Rebel’s cabin. While Ram offers trims that are even more opulent, our Rebel had nearly every conceivable amenity many luxury car buyers would want. Solidly constructed, the materials gave an impression of durability. The general impression being the Ram is ready to take a bit of a beating inside and put up with it. Ram engineers are aware that many of their customers use their trucks as a mobile office. There is storage galore, and an impressive number of power and USB outlets. Our Ram truck had Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, making this truck an instant extension of your smart phone. The Ram’s UConnect infotainment continues to be intuitive and easy to use. It is worth mentioning the Ram’s back up camera is without question, the clearest I have ever seen on any car or truck, and if you are towing anything, you will seriously appreciate that. For all its toughness, the Rebel is very comfortable up front. Our Rebel was a quad cab. I’m 6’1″, and while I fit in the backseat, my knees were up against the front seatback, That, and its upright seatback, the rear is acceptable for a quick trip but that’s about it. Buyers needing more rear seat room would do well to get a Ram with a crew cab. If I am reviewing a car equipped with SiriusXM satellite radio, I will typically tune in to the stations that play the alternative rock of my college days. But none of it ‘felt’ right while driving he Rebel. So strong is this truck’s personality that Tom Petty Radio was the only music I would listen to for my week with the Rebel. For any modern vehicle brimming with all the latest technology to have that much character really says something about this truck.
While other Ram trucks offer a V-6 under the hood, that engine is not going to do you any good if you intend to actually take the Rebel to do what it was built for, and that was to leave the paved road behind you. With that purpose in mind, all Rebel’s have a 5.7L Hemi V-8 with 395hp, paired to an 8-speed automatic. The Rebel always in 4×2 mode until you select 4×4. Puttering around town or humming down the highway, the engine is quiet, but once you stomp on the throttle the Hemi comes to life with a glorious roar, and it feels like you’re driving a muscle car that can haul things. Speaking of hauling, Ram 1500’s with a V-8 can tow up to 12,750 lbs, and can handle up to 2,300 lbs. payload on the bed. All of that power is handy for when you need it, but for a truck with this level of capability, it’s absurd to expect much in the way of fuel economy. At least the Ram has a 28 gallon fuel tank so you are not constantly at the pump. In addition to the all-terrain tires and tow hooks, the Rebel differs from other 1500’s with an upgraded suspension, a locking differential, skid plates and hill descent control.
It would be safe to assume that a truck built with the capability of tacking difficult off-road situations would have to give up a lot in terms of day to day driving comfort, but with the Rebel you would be dead wrong. Ram 1500’s use a coil spring rear suspension, while other trucks use a less sophisticated leaf setup. The result is a truck that doesn’t ride like a truck. I took the Rebel for a leisurely weekend trip to the Berkshire Mountains, and I was simply amazed. Even over rough pavement, the Rebel is remarkably composed. If not for the fact I could see the truck’s bed behind me, it feels like you are driving a large crossover. It is simply a remarkable feat that Ram engineers could build such a capable truck that offers unparalleled levels of refinement.
In addition to all the equipment unique to the Rebel that we already mentioned, other standard equipment includes a power drivers seat power rear sliding window and SiriusXM radio. Options on our Rebel included an 8.4″ color touchscreen display, dual zone auto climate control, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, heated front seats, heated steering wheel. front and rear parking assist, remote start, premium audio and blind spot detection. sticker price came to $54,250USD, including destination.
I often thought of my grandfather and his brute, no frills Dodge pickup while I was driving the Ram. I usually got stuck on how I would tell him that it is possible to have a truck that can do everything and more that his truck could but ride the way he would expect a luxury car would. Because if he wanted something nice than his single purpose truck, well, there was always my grandmother’s Chrysler LeBaron. The pickup truck as we know has evolved a long way from what I remember from my childhood, but with the new Ram, I feel like the goalposts just got moved forward. When it comes to trucks, most buyers are unwaveringly loyal to their brand of choice. Anyone shopping for a full size pickup truck, regardless of where their loyalties lie,, owe it to themselves to take a serious look at the Ram 1500. It is really that good.
Over the past decade, Monster Energy AMA Supercross has seen a welcome rise in attendance and popularity. The ever-evolving series has changed quite a bit from the days of Jeremy McGrath and Ricky Carmichael to an increasingly data-driven sport with exclusive factory team trainers producing elite athletes. Much like their four-wheel motorsport brethren, factory riders train full-time on and off the track, giving them a distinct advantage over privateers while narrowing the competitive gap to fractions of a second between teams. I had the opportunity before Round 16 at the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, to talk to some of the riders, managers, trainers, and Carmichael himself about what goes on behind the scenes to ensure success.
Potential riders are often spotted at amateur races. Interested teams will back a candidate as young as 12 or 13 with sponsorship, even bringing them to train alongside signed riders. “What we do is we bring them to the group and they’re around these guys, training with these guys, involved with their program… maybe not to as high a level… time-wise, maybe not on the bike as much… but it’s getting them used to that. Riding with these guys during the week is the biggest thing, I think, because they see that, they kind of have that carrot they’re always chasing… that’s always bringing them closer and closer,” said Wil Hahn, Star Racing/Yamaha Racing team manager and former pro rider. “We might not have a kid sign when they’re on the 60’s or 80’s, but we’re trying to help them.”
Training to track time ratio is around 50/50. Gareth Swanepoel, the trainer (and also a former rider) for the Yamaha team said that while the training depends on each rider’s needs, during the racing season they’ll ride three times a week, two bike rides a week, two days of gym, plus active recovery days with lights rides, running, yoga, or other stretching. This all evolved in the sport when Ricky Carmichael, looking to gain an edge over physically bigger riders in the 450SX class, hired a trainer. “He took it to a whole new level of training, so now, everyone has to train because he was beating everyone so bad, everyone had to start training to keep up with him,” commented Jeremy Albrecht, JGRMX Yoshimura Suzuki Factory Racing Team Manager. “Everyone follows what the top guy is doing, so when he started training like that, then the next guy does it, and now everyone does it.”
In training, moto-specific LitPRO as well as GPS combined with On-bike data loggers capable of pulling in up to 12 data points gather information from the motor and shocks that is downloaded after completion then linked to video. Teams then use propriety software pinpoint mechanical performance then adjust as needed after practice or a heat. As an example, “We’re able to measure how much suspension’s used in corners and whoops and obstacles and if [a rider] comes in and says, ‘Hey, my bike’s really soft’, we can look… on the computers to kind of say, ‘Well, you didn’t use all your travel’”, said Yamaha Supercross/Motocross Supervisor Jim Perry in the paddock on Saturday. “So if he says one thing, we’re able to look at the data and say, ‘Maybe that isn’t what you’re feeling’… then our suspension engineers and chassis engineers can analyze that and make some changes.” Unlike many of the automotive racing series, communication between the rider and team is verboten during the actual race. Instead, riders rely on communication with their mechanic and a white board.
All of this data gathering and training comes together at the starting gate – staying calm, keeping the heart rate low combined with muscle memory to get out of the gate as quickly as possible when it drops. Getting a good position on the track, ahead of the field, is key. In an informal meeting with H.E.P. Motorsports 4-stroke riders Kyle Chisholm, Alex Ray, and Adam Enticknap on media day, Ray told us “The only that’s going through your mind is you want a good start, you want to start up front, because if you’re in the middle or in the back, it creates more risk… you have more people, everyone’s bunched up in a group, you don’t know what all these other people are doing, if you’re up front, you sort of have control over the race.”
During racing season, meetings are on Monday, ride and train during the week, travel, practice on Friday, race on Saturday, travel on Sunday… meetings, train, race, repeat.
A quick primer: In Monster Energy AMA Supercross, there are two classes – the 250SX bikes are the “Lites”, the younger riders’ development series. This class is subdivided into East and West regions for the entire season until the Las Vegas championship, where 22 riders race in the East/West Showdown over 15 minutes plus one lap. The 450SX is the top level of the Supercross series and race nationally, where the main even features 22 riders racing for 20 minutes plus one lap. Each division goes through qualifying on the day before the finals, and the 40 fastest riders advance to the race day events. On race day, both classes have two heats of 20 riders each, and the top nine advance to the main event. Everyone else has one more chance in the Last Chance Qualifier, and the top four LCQ finishers round out the 22 final competitors. The bikes are all from six manufacturers – Honda, Husqvarna, Kawasaki, KTM, Suzuki, and Yamaha. The dirt track, like its rallycross counterpart, has a series of obstacles; small, waist-high bumps called “whoops”, a table top, a rhythm section with no drummer but larger jumps of varying size and interval, and the ultimate finish-line jump assuring a spectacular airborne end to the race.
The 2019 season has seen its share of crazy weather, most notably torrential rain in San Diego and snow in Denver before the race. New Jersey was no exception; the track was covered for rain on Friday, scuttling the opportunity to practice for many of the riders. The track wasn’t too much of a mess for a cold but sunny race day, though looking at my clogged sneaker treads after a track walk, there was a lot of packed mud. In the 250SX class, Chase Sexton won the race, with Mitchell Oldenburg and Justin Cooper in second and third. Going into the 450SX finals, Cooper Webb was the points leader. After an exciting race with several overtakes and mistakes by the riders in front, Cooper Webb ultimately triumphed with Zach Osborne and Eli Tomac in second and third.
The Las Vegas Championship where the 250 East and West divisions race and a new 2019 450SX champion will be crowned takes place Saturday, May 4th. Check your local listings for viewing times and channels.
Every year at the New York International Auto Show, the Saratoga Automobile Museum sets up a display of some of the finest classic cars. This year, the theme was “Italian” – and while there was no Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale do drool over, the collection did not disappoint.
2019 is a curious year for the New York International Auto Show – at first look, there are some automakers that are notably absent – BMW, MINI, Volvo, and Mitsubishi skipped the show this year. In automotive parlance, the show is leaner, or more “muscular”. However the space on the show floor was taken up by some fresh new faces, most prominently with Rivian, the U.S.-based company producing electric adventure vehicles with a 400-mile range.
There were some significant launches; among them, Hyundai showed up with the 2020 Venue, a new SUV, as well as a sleek new Sonata with a digital key. Lincoln thankfully dropped the confusing letter-number naming convention with the Corsair, a compact luxury crossover that can seat five people. Toyota’s new offerings include the new revamped Highlander as well as a cute Yaris hatchback. Subaru showed off their sixth-gen 2020 Outback in the middle of a rather nice-smelling booth highlighting national forests.
Concept cars were super slick, creatively named, and largely electric – Kia revealed their HabaNiro concept with 300-mile all electric range. The Genesis Mint luxury electric concept was hard to even get close to after an off-site reveal the night before. VW showed up with not one but three concepts: the ID. Buggy, the compact Tarok Pickup Concept, and the Basecamp (the latter two have combustion engines). Another company new to NYIAS, Mullen, revealed the modular, aluminum and carbon fiber Qiantu K50 electric sportscar.
In the “If You Have to Ask You Can’t Afford It” supercar section of the show, Swedish maker Koenigsegg introduced their road-legal Jesko to North America, and Sleepy Hollow, New York’s Glickenhaus drove his 700-hp SCG 003S to the show. Dubbed the world’s most expensive SUV, the oddly angular and very very large Karlmann King will set you back about $2.3 million – perhaps more if you choose the armored option.
And then there were the special editions – so many fancy badges! Nissan was celebrating the 5oth Anniversary of the GT-R with some beautiful classics joining the 50thAnniversary Edition. Tangentially, there is another larger independent booth display of classic of Z’s downstairs. (Not to be outdone, Toyota is displaying some classic Supras – JDM fans, this show’s for you). Dodge’s Challengers and Chargers will now be available in the Stars & Stripes Edition, and Alfa Romeo created a limited-edition 019 Quadrifoglio NRING (Nürburgring) for both the Stelvio Quadrifoglio and Giulia. Last but not least – Ford celebrated Mustang Day with the Ford Mustang Performance Package and hot dogs.
The New York International Auto Show in the Jacob Javits Center is open until April 28, 2019.
For the first time at the New York International Auto Show, a NASCAR Cup Series team has set up a booth. StarCom Racing [SCR] is based in Salisbury, North Carolina with driver Landon Cassill. At the age of 18, Cassill was signed to Hendrick Motorsports as a test driver for Jimmie Johnson for five years, and has driven for other teams since in the Xfinity (Rookie of the Year 2008), K&N Pro Series, and Arco Re/Max Series since. The team’s parent company, StarCom Fiber, is a New Jersey based regional telecommunications that runs fiber throughout the region, so setting up a presence at NYIAS made sense not just to build a fan base and get their name out there, but to network and attract more sponsor partnerships. “We feel like this is a tremendous platform being that there’s going to be a million people walking through this building,” said Cassill in the Thursday press conference. “We feel like we have to stand out in a little bit different way than other race teams… NASCAR teams don’t really come to the NY Auto Show, and for the place where we’re at and the size that we have, there’s no reason not to be here.”
Led by team manager and 1990 Daytona 500 winner Derrick Cope, the chartered team will race the full 2019 season with Cassill driving the number 00 Camaro. “…our northeast race fans are some of the most passionate and well educated race fans about NASCAR that we see all over the country. Tracks in Pocono, Dover, New Hampshire, Watkins Glen are the racetracks where I sign the most hero cards, the most letters and trading cards, these are fans that really pay attention to what we have going on.”
Cassill will be in the booth signing autographs Tuesday, April 23, 4-6 pm and Wednesday, April 24, 11 am-1 pm, and Derrike Cope will also sign autographs Saturday, April 20, 2-4 pm.
We seldom stop to consider what a dizzying variety of options one has when it comes to picking out a new car today, especially when you consider how mind bogglingly simple it was once only a few decades ago. If you had a family and you needed to carry them and their belongings around, you would choose either a small, medium, or large sedan or station wagon. That was it. There were no minivans, there were no crossovers, and it was out of the ordinary for a family to buy an SUV for an everyday family car. Ford stunned the industry when it announced it was essentially going to let all of its sedans die off in North America. GM is killing off their large front wheel drive sedans. People are still buying large sedans, and as key players fall by the wayside, the companies still in the market will gladly take up the demand. But for what is such an old concept-the large sedan-how does it remain relevant in 2019?
The Avalon has been Toyota’s flagship sedan since 1994. For 2019, the Avalon is all-new, and now entering its fifth generation. While many consider the Avalon simply a larger Camry-which was once the case-the Avalon rides on its own platform that is shared with the Lexus ES. The Avalon is a large sedan, but its proportions are just right. Early Avalons were dismissed as Toyota’s idea of a Buick. A study also revealed that in North America, Toyota attracted the oldest buyers. A middle age or younger car buyer hears that Toyota’s are favored by old people can be enough to be a deal breaker. So in response to that, I do not find it surprising that contemporary Toyota’s are now looking edgier. Looking at the Avalon from the front or front 3/4 view, there is just no getting around that front fascia. To say it is overwrought is an understatement. Enormous front ‘grills’ seem to be a thing these days, and I predict this look is destined to not age well. Look at the rear of the car, its pleasant enough but entirely forgettable. There is just nothing to suggest this is Toyota’s premium sedan. Which is shocking, because when you take the Avalon in from its side profile, there is no question this is the most expensive four door Toyota offers. As a whole, the Avalon’s appearance is alright, but incoherent. You feel differently about this car depending on what angle you are viewing it from.
Inside, the Avalon is a grand slam homerun. There is simply no mistaking you’re sitting in the most luxurious car that wears a Toyota badge. Quality of materials and fit and finish are exemplary. The quilted leather and real wood accents confirm this is not a car that aspires to be luxurious, it simply is a luxury car, without question. Controls are intuitive and easy to use. The seats offer exceptional comfort, and as expected, the Avalon provides a very roomy and airy cabin. With all the quiet and comfort you could want, the Avalon is a perfect setting for long, relaxing drives. The Avalon is Toyota’s first car to come with Apple’s CarPlay (sorry Android users, your phone cannot connect). It is worth mentioning that in cars that were sold in regular and hybrid versions, hybrid owners had to be wiling to make a considerable sacrifice-trunk space. I have seen full size hybrid sedans have a trunk that might hold enough luggage for a weekend getaway but little else. Not so with the Avalon. With the batteries underneath the rear seat, you are able to enjoy the large amount of trunk space buyers expect in a car of this size.
The Avalon Hybrid is powered by a 2.5L four cylinder along with two electric motors to make a combined 215hp with a CVT transmission. While the numbers suggest that is not much horsepower to move a car of this size, in reality the Avalon keeps up with highway traffic with no problem at all, and never seems strained. Yes, there are buyers who will only accept the sound of a silky V-6 under the hood, and the regular Avalon delivers just that experience. But consider this-the Avalon Hybrid costs about $1,000 more, but delivers 70% better fuel economy. In the long run, the Hybrid makes more sense. Our perception of the luxury car experience is also evolving; exceptional fuel economy is also an accepted qualifier for luxury today. The typical Avalon buyer isn’t going to be doing any stoplight drag racing to begin with, and with such an unobtrusive drivetrain, you don’t feel like you’ve given up anything in the name of saving gas, The EPA gives the Avalon Hybrid 43 MPG, but my test car was telling me I was getting 37 MPG in mixed driving. That is a remarkable number for a full size luxury car.
The Avalon Hybrid is available in three trim levels; our test car was the luxury oriented Limited. Standard equipment included 18″ alloy wheels, LED headlights, moonroof, premium JBL audio, navigation, head up display, power heated steering wheel, leather power heated and ventilated front seats, heated rear seat, Qi wireless phone charging, pre-collision system, lane departure alert with assist, automatic high beams and dynamic radar cruise control. Our test car had the optional Advanced Safety Package, which added intelligent clearance sonar, bird’s eye view camera with perimeter scan and rear cross traffic alert with braking. Including destination, our Avalon Hybrid had a window sticker of $45,118USD. Remember when I mentioned the Avalon shares the same platform and drivetrain as the Lexus ES? A Lexus ES Hybrid equipped similar to our Avalon would set you back an extra $9,000. With that in mind, the Avalon represents a solid value for a luxury hybrid sedan.
While the notion of a full size sedan is a decades old proposition, the Avalon Hybrid points to the future of the genre. It is tough to argue the pros of a luxury car boasting the latest in technology and luxury features that boasts fuel economy figures you’d be happy to be getting in a basic, no frills Corolla. This combination is the new definition of luxury. While I question that front-end styling, the Avalon Hybrid is a full size sedan that is completely relevant in today’s automotive marketplace. Ford and GM may have thrown up their hands and walked away, but Toyota has proven this is a breed of car worth building.
In the summer of 1989, my friend’s mom had driven a group of us to Riverside Amusement Park in Massachusetts. After the end of a fun day, I was asked if I, who had a newly minted driver’s license, would like to drive home. Would I?!? I gladly got behind the wheel of the Funaro family hauler-a Buick Electra Estate Wagon-and floated on down the highway. As I drove us all back to Connecticut, what was not going through my 16 year old mind was “What kind of car would we all be driving when we’re all grown up and have kids?” Fast forward thirty years to the present. I post a pic of this Toyota Highlander on social media, and my old friend Nancee proudly proclaims “That’s my car!” And here we are. My generation has largely ignored the station wagon, and there are those of us who wouldn’t be caught dead in a minivan. If Generation X wasn’t rushing to buy a Camry wagon, and a true SUV was too harsh, what does Toyota do? Take that Camry platform, and build us a crossover.
The first Highlander arrived in 2001, making it one of the earlier crossovers. Now in its third generation, today’s Highlander has been around now since 2014, so it’s hardly new. In 2017, Toyota gave the Highlander a facelift, but apart from some other minor tweaking, Toyota has pretty much left it alone. Buyers are certainly not complaining-in fact, 2018 was the Highlander’s best sales year ever, with over 244,000 Americans taking home a Highlander.
Buyers like crossovers for their practicality-they need to comfortably hold passengers, and their belongings, so stylists have to work around those parameters. The Highlander is certainly contemporary, but what I found interesting was just how aggressive the front-end styling was. Parked near my neighbor’s older 4Runner, a very capable off-roader, I was taken aback at just how angry the family friendly Highlander looked in comparison. Out in the wild though, the popular Highlander tends to get lost in the crowd. I’d see another Highlander, or at least I thought I did, so I found myself always making a double take to be sure. On its own merit, the Highlander is a handsome car, it’s just a little forgettable from any angle except the nose and is easily lost in a crowd.
Of course, what matters most in any crossover is its cabin. The Highlander is a pretty substantial vehicle, so it should come as no surprise there is plenty of room inside. Back to my friend Nancee, who, when asked why she picked a Highlander, explained her teenage son is already over 6′ tall, so a roomy rear seat was a must, and in this regard, the Highlander delivers. The three-row Highlander can seat up to eight, but it’s worth noting the third row will not hold an adult. Seating falls to seven if you choose second row captains chairs. The interior of the Highlander is a very pleasant place to spend time. I appreciated the soft touch materials. There is storage space galore and multiple USB ports. Gauges and controls are easy to understand. While I appreciate having knobs for various adjustments, the buttons flanking Toyota’s aging but still excellent infotainment system lacked tactile feel. Our top of the line Highlander had nearly every feature most buyers could want-nearly-the absence of Apple CarPlay was a little disappointing. Overall, the Highlander was very comfortable, and with industry leading build quality and high grade materials, the impression I get is this is a car that is intended to hold up for a very long time.
Under the hood, the Highlander gives buyers two choices. Base cars receive a 2.7L four cylinder paired to a six-speed automatic. You can only have front wheel drive, and with only 185hp pushing a car this large, this sounds like a tall order. Our Highlander had the 3.5L V-6 paired to an 8-speed automatic. With 295hp and available all-wheel drive, this is far more suitable to the Highlander’s character. The EPA gives fuel economy ratings 20/26 MPG city/highway, but the trip computer in my car never budged its average above 18 MPG. It’s worth mentioning here that if fuel economy is that important to you, there is a Highlander Hybrid available. Power is perfectly adequate around town and for highway cruising. At highway speeds the Highlander is extremely quiet and composed. I appreciated the weight that gradually builds up in the steering as your speed increases. For a car designed to haul your family around in comfort, the Highlander more than meets expectations.
The Highlander is available in six different trims, with the base Highlander starting in the low $30’s. Our test car was the top of the line Limited Platinum. Standard equipment was leather seats, front heated and ventilated seats, power seats, second row sunshades, premium JBL audio, an 8″ touchscreen with navigation and SiriusXM radio, 19″ wheels, panoramic moonroof, second row heated seats, heated steering wheel, rear power ligtgate, rain sensing wipers, front parking sonar, Lane Departure Alert, Pre-Collision System, automatic high beams and dynamic radar cruise control. Out the door, our Highlander had a window sticker of $48,319USD. That is not inexpensive, but you are getting a high level of equipment, and a Highlander outfitted such as this one is essentially a luxury car. With so many trim options available, I suspect most buyers will gravitate to the mid-level XLE, as my friend did.
So yes, thirty years after the question I didn’t ask myself, the crossover is the choice my generation has made to haul themselves and their families. Over the years, the Highlander has evolved from a sort of tall station wagon to something that looks how you might expect an SUV to appear. And although the Highlander is no longer a new design, buyers continue to open their wallets. The true luxury of the Highlander goes far beyond any of its available features. For buyers, the true luxury of the Highlander is how seamlessly it fits in to their busy lives, and knowing they can ask nearly anything the car was meant to do, and the Toyota will happily go about its work without the slightest protest, Trips to amusement parks included.
It’s no small secret that Americans and Europeans have their differences, and one needn’t look any further to illustrate that point than to look at what kind of cars we like to drive. The 1970’s fuel crisis made a great argument for the hatchback-the idea being to get the maximum amount of room possible for people and cargo on a relatively small footprint. VW’s Golf was a raging success and proved the formula worked, and it was what a lot of people wanted. Well, almost everyone. For whatever reason, Americans looked at hatchbacks and decided they looked kind of cheap. And those new car buyers didn’t want to be seen driving something they perceived as being cheap looking. So, in 1980, VW had the brilliant idea to take the Golf, put on a trunk on it, and call it a Jetta.
Thirty nine years and seven generations later, that formula has been sales gold for VW. With Audi’s and BMW’s commanding premium prices, the Jetta was the only game in town if you wanted a German sedan on a budget most people could afford. And while the people who bought their Jettas loved them, VW looked around and saw their competition enjoying greater sales numbers. The problem, as I believe VW saw it, was the Jetta cost a little more, and VW engineers were obsessing over things the average American buyer didn’t really care about. The solution was the Jetta would be built with the American buyer in mind.
The purists were less than thrilled at the realignment. But the Jetta experiment continues to evolve, and for 2019 an all new, seventh generation has arrived. First impression is the Jetta appears a bit larger than Jettas of yore. And you would be right-today’s Jetta is around the same size as a Passat was twenty years ago. While the Jetta has grown to America specific proportions, the styling definitely has a German accent. It is no nonsense, not flashy nor trendy. The smart, creased styling gives the Jetta an upscale look. Our test car, finished in Platinum Grey Metallic with contemporary LED head and tail lights and a ‘just right’ amount of chrome looked serious enough for any junior executive to own without apology. Our SEL model let the car down in one area worth mentioning: the 16″ alloys look comically small on the car and betray the otherwise high end appearance. In fact, during my week with the Jetta, the only criticism I received about the car’s looks were that the wheels were too small.
Inside, the Jetta overall is a pleasant place to spend time. Utterly contemporary, the satin chrome accents and door handles, piano black surfaces and dark grey faux wood trim work in concert to provide an aesthetically pleasing environment. The controls are intuitive, displays crystal clear, and I appreciated the driver-focused infotainment screen. At night, you and your passengers will be entertained being bathed in soft ambient LED lighting-there are ten hues to choose from to set the right mood. The only letdown were the hard plastics found on the door caps and center console, which serve as reminders you’re sitting in the cheapest VW sold on these shores.
During my time with the Jetta, I took a 400 mile round trip from my native Connecticut to a wintry retreat to Atlantic City, and it was here I was able to appreciate the Jetta’s cabin and features. The seats provided plenty of comfort, and I loved how the steering wheel felt in my hands. Music is a must for any road trip, and the Beats audio did not disappoint. The trip really provided an excellent opportunity to use Apple CarPlay, which allowed me to use Google Maps for navigation, access Pandora radio, and send and receive text messages. It was a great companion, and very simple to use. Even after slugging through New York Friday rush hour traffic, I arrived feeling fresh and relaxed.
All Jettas are motivated by a 1.4L turbocharged four cylinder rated at 147hp. This proved to be perfectly adequate for merging onto highways and passing-the Jetta never felt out of breath. Fuel economy is excellent, with a rating of 30MPG city, 40MPG highway. After cruising at a pretty good clip for hours, I was impressed that I was still able to average 40MPG. You can get a six-speed manual in a Jetta-but you are forced to settle for the base model, as all other Jettas come standard with an 8-speed automatic. Left on its own, the automatic will rush to the highest possible gear for max efficiency, which is fine, but you find yourself constantly lumbering around at about 1,000 rpm where there is no boost on immediate tap. A friend and former Jetta owner found it an affront, and ignorant of longtime buyers that VW will not offer a manual across the line, and I agree.
In this Volkswagen tuned for American drivers, I set my expectations pretty low for ride and handling. I was pleasantly surprised. The Jetta feels well controlled and buttoned down. Ride was about as stiff as I would have hoped for a non-GLI Jetta. While the handling felt just right, the super light steering felt out of place, as if the handling people and steering people never once met to decide what the Jetta driving experience, as a whole, should be.
The Jetta is available in five trim levels-base S, SE, sporty R-Line, SEL, and SEL Premium. Our SEL test car came standard with LED head and tail lights, panoramic sunroof, heated front seats, leatherette seating, dual zone auto climate control, push button start, auto dimming rear view mirror, 8 speaker Beats audio with Sirius XM satellite radio, 8″ infotainment touchscreen, VW’s 10.25″ Digital Cockpit gauge cluster, rearview camera, forward collision warning, blind spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, and lane assist. Including delivery, our test car stickers at $25,590USD, which represents a solid value for the features you get in return.
After seven generations, it’s only natural the Jetta has evolved from Golf with a trunk to a car with a personality all its own. Yes, the Jetta we see now is tailored specifically to the North American car buyer, but in this iteration, VW has smartly, if only slightly, moved the needle closer to it German ancestry. When asked ‘who is this car for?’, I would have to say the Jetta would be perfectly suitable for the small family who want out of the crossover craze, or anyone looking for an easy to live with highway commuter with a just right amount of amenities and style for a weekend date night.