Toyota’s Camry has won three NASCAR championships and a fair number of “stock car” races to get there, but be honest, do you think of a Camry as racy?
Camry mostly conjures the image of a practical family sedan. But that could change, and all because of Toyota’s 2020 Camry TRD. For those not versed in car jargon, TRD stands for Toyota Racing Development. That’s the Toyota division that concentrates on making racing equipment for its vehicles, and race cars for various series.
Stylish Mazda3 AWD, a car for drivers who love to drive …
Some people still enjoy driving a car, its feel, its handling, its sharp engagement of power, yet their bank accounts don’t allow for a BMW.
What to do?
Mazda has an answer, its Mazda3 in either sedan or hatchback mode. Both are driving dandies. This week’s drive was aboard a dark metallic gray ($300 extra) Mazda3 Premium sedan, its top of the line trim. Making it even better, this one added all-wheel-drive, something only Subaru’s Impreza offers in this price range and market segment. This car was made for Wisconsin.
First, the Mazda3 is a sharp looking compact sedan with a handsomely styled nose and a fabulous looking, and quiet, interior that speaks of luxury, not economy. And, if you want sporty handling to pair up with sporty looks, this is one of the few primo choices that regular folks can afford.
Mazda starts by making its formerly optional 2.5-liter SkyActiv-G I4 engine standard across the Mazda3 lineup (sedan and hatch). It is both fuel efficient and peppy, generating 186 horsepower with a torque rating to match. Not only that, it drinks regular unleaded and expels minimal emissions. The engine is no rocket, but when you engage the electronic Sport drive mode via the console toggle, it leaps to action, zipping the Mazda3 to highway speeds with vigor.
In Normal mode the sedan hesitates a bit upon acceleration, but still has good power, just seems less energetic. Gas mileage doesn’t suffer. I managed 28.0 mile per gallon in about a 50/50 mix of city and highway while the EPA rates this at 25 mpg city and 33 mpg highway, again on regular gas.
Much of that you can attribute to Mazda using a fine 6-speed automatic transmission to engage the power. No CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) here. Sometimes those can be a bit lackadaisical as they aim to save fuel instead of instilling excitement. Note though that the automatic is all that’s available in the sedan and just one Mazda3 model, the Premium trim hatchback, offers a manual.
So while the Mazda3 will scoot pretty well, it’s more sports car peppy than muscle car macho. What it does well is create a joyful, fun feel for the road due to its fine handling. The Mazda3 turns into sharp corners with authority and purpose. There’s good feedback to the wheel that is appropriately firm, but not heavy. That translates to an entertaining, athletic drive.
Ride continues to improve from generation to generation in the Mazda3 and this longer 107.3-inch wheelbase helps create a well-controlled ride. However, Mazda returned to a torsion bar rear suspension (think previous-gen Mustang), away from a multi-link. I’ve enjoyed driving many a car with torsion-bar suspension, but this feels just a bit choppy on our distressed Midwest roads. Ride is never uncomfortable, but you’ll definitely know when you square up on a pothole.
Remember too this model added all-wheel-drive, so traction is improved in wet, sloppy weather, a norm much of the year for Wisconsin drivers.
As much fun as the Mazda3 is to drive, you’ll feel like you’ve slipped into at least an entry-level luxury sports sedan inside the Premium edition.
This sparkly gray tester featured a cream and black leather interior. The dash, doors and seats are all coated in leather, the seats being perforated (yes, and heated). The appearance is stylish and eye-catching. Trim is thin chrome on the dash and doors with satin chrome trim on the black leather wheel’s hub. The console’s face is black gloss with more black leather trim along its sides.
There’s a fine Bose sound system here and its chrome speaker covers on the doors add a bit of a jeweled looked to the interior. Fit, finish and quality inside look much improved from earlier models and the cockpit is much quieter too.
I like Mazda’s dash layout as it’s clean and easy to understand, and the infotainment screen is a sizeable 8.8 inches, plus is nicely tucked into the dash top’s center. That’s a styling improvement from earlier models.
Sadly (and I know I’ve said this before), Mazda doesn’t use a touchscreen, instead sticking with a big knob on the console to control the infotainment system. This is similar to the likes of BMW and Audi, not a good thing. This system isn’t intuitive. Just changing the channel is tough, and forget about setting or deleting favorites. Radios need to be simple enough to tune with a button punch while driving.
That somewhat spoils this otherwise fine interior for me.
Otherwise, the Premium model is a winner, coming with a full list of safety features, such as blind-spot warning, lane departure warning and assist, smart cruise control, automatic emergency braking, adaptive front lighting and driver attention monitor. The latter is touchy, occasionally setting off a series of beeps and flashing a steering wheel image on the center instrument panel screen.
I also found the lane control to be overly strong, really turning the wheel hard away from a centerline to the point of being insistent. Sometimes, it must be noted, there is something that you’re avoiding on the road and you need to quickly adjust the wheel yourself to avoid that pothole, hubcap, mystery item, etc.
Overhead there also is a panoramic sunroof, and the car includes heated seats, a power driver’s seat with two memory settings, visors with extenders, paddle shifters behind the wheel, push-button start and a head-up display. Dual climate control also comes on the Premium model.
Seating is comfortable in front with mild contouring, and note that the heated seats get really warm, so the lowest setting is most used after a couple minutes of bun warming.
Legroom is particularly cramped in back, especially when a taller passenger or driver is up front, necessitating the front seat be pushed well back. Think of this as a back seat for kids primarily.
The rear seats split and fold flat to boost cargo room, which is a reasonable 13.2 cubic feet before seats are lowered. Releases in the trunk allow a driver to put the seats down without opening a rear door too.
Also, it should be noted the sedan is about eight inches longer than the hatchback to create expanded rear seat and cargo room.
There are a couple other concerns though. First, the Mazda3 automatically applies the park brake every time the car is turned off, or put into Park. That might make sense if this had a manual transmission, but it does not. This means the driver must press a brake release button every time the car is started, just to get it rolling. Can’t say how many times I put the car in Reverse only to have it strain against the parking brake as I tried to back from a parking space. It’s a small thing, but annoying daily.
Second, the A-pillars are rather large, somewhat blocking front side views at intersections, and while I was happy to have a wireless charging station ($275 extra), this one is in the storage box/armrest between the front seats. So to access it you must raise the armrest, which is awkward it you need to access the phone while driving. It’s also easy to forget the phone in the box.
Enough whining, the happy news beyond how this drives, is pricing. This upscale Premium version with AWD started at $28,820, including delivery. AWD is about $1,400 extra on a Mazda3 sedan. With just a few minor options the test car ended up at $30,645, a bargain at today’s prices.
Yet a base model with 16-inch wheels and tires, cloth interior, etc. starts at $22,420 for the sedan and $24,520 for the hatchback, considered a premium model of sorts. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are now standard on all Mazda3s.
Select and Preferred trim levels come with 18-inch wheels and tires and leatherette interiors plus dual-zone climate controls. Preferred adds the power driver’s seat and memory features, a 12-speaker Bose sound system, heated seats and XM radio.
Premium gives you the bigger alloy wheels, adaptive lighting, fancy leather interior materials, the head-up display, sunroof and paddle shifters.
Even at the top-end of its trims the Mazda3 is a delight to drive, offering better styling inside and out than many of its competitors.
FAST STATS: 2020 Mazda3 AWD Premium
Hits: Sharp looker and sporty handling, peppy acceleration in Sport mode, controlled ride, plus AWD and good gas mileage. Quiet, luxury interior at value pricing, heated seats, large screen, panoramic sunroof, wireless charger and full complement of safety equipment.
Misses: Park brake sets automatically every time the ignition is turned off and is annoying to disengage each time you start the car, awkward rotary knob to adjust infotainment screen, large A-pillar restricts view, wireless charger location not convenient.
You simply must admire the marketing genius of a car company that dubs its LED headlights as Thor’s Hammer.
Volvo wins that honor with several of its latest models. The powerful headlights project a T, hence the Thor nomenclature. The latest hammering of lights I witnessed was on a beautifully sculpted Volvo S60 sedan, but not just any such sedan.
No, Volvo is committed to going all electric sooner instead of later, so this was the S60 T8-AWD Inscription model. It’s Volvo’s top-of-the-heap hybrid touting a combined 400 horses from its 2.0-liter turbocharged and supercharged I4 engine and an 87-horse hybrid electric motor.
The sexy sparkling pearl white (that’s $645 extra) mid-size luxury sedan was a powerhouse jumping onto the freeway, or hustling away from a stoplight. No wheel chirp from the AWD system and there are four power modes to let a driver decide how much oomph is needed at a moment’s notice, or how much economizing. Adjustments are made on the console.
Pure hybrid delivers plenty of kick as the S60 hybrid is rated 295 ft.-lbs. of torque. It feels like much more though. And yes, the gas engine with its 313 horses of turbo and supercharged power kicks in to add more thrust. Think of it as Volvo’s Saturn V hooked up to all four wheels.
In case you don’t want to pay extra for the hybrid, nor like the idea of plugging your car into your garage outlet each evening, a standard S60 is available with just the 300+ horse turbo/super I4. A standard turbo I4 that makes 250 horsepower also is available. Costs are less for those than the hybrid.
But for now let’s focus on this hybrid rocket, which also handles like a fine sports sedan. While feeling substantial it also is light enough to whip through a serious series of S-curves with no tail-wagging or sway. A new double A-arm suspension up front and multi-link system with composite leaf spring in back do the trick. This Volvo handles.
Ride is as you’d expect, firm, sporty and well-controlled. Not smooth enough to be considered ultra-luxurious, but nearly as good as most German makes that purport to be ultimate sports sedans.
The Volvo also was a fine machine to have during one of our incredibly rainy fall weeks. Its traction was stout, never putting a wheel wrong even when pushed a little harder than might be wise in the wet, certainly on wet leaf coated streets.
A quick word here on the car’s svelte looks before we gaze inward. I like the S60’s lines, its lowered hoodline gives it a slim profile, yet it still sports a large Volvo grille with equally imposing Volvo badge that could nearly pass for a superhero’s shield. Thor maybe?
It’s also worth noting for the uninitiated that plug-in hybrids are simple to recharge as popping the trunk, removing the charger and cord, and plugging the charger into a port just in front of the driver’s door. Then plug the cord into a garage outlet. Even with a 110-line it only took 3-4 hours for a full charge, which got me about 25-30 miles of pure electric zoom.
While in that mode I saw 53-58 MPGe, but running mostly on gas with a little electric help throughout the week I ended up at 37.5 mpg. It appears the key to stellar economy is regular evening recharges.
Inside, the car is extremely quiet, as are most hybrids because there’s not much engine noise. Sound deadening is good too, so road noise is minute.
This white sedan featured a two-tone dark brown and medium brown leather interior, the dash, doors and steering wheel being dark, the seats the milder shade, with contrasting stitching. There are driftwood inlays in the dash and doors, plus satin chrome trim on the dash, air vents, and door handles. Black gloss finish trims the large vertical infotainment screen and there’s a crystal-like shift knob that glows at night.
Seats are well-shaped and power up front, with the lower cushion able to be extended, a benefit to taller drivers. The front seats also are heated and cooled, plus add a massaging feature activated via a control at the front of the seats’ door-side panels, yet visually adjusted on the infotainment screen. All of those perks are part of a $2,200 leather seat package.
Meanwhile heated rear seats and a heated steering wheel add $750 to the price tag.
The S60’s interior is roomy too, certainly to haul four adults cross country, while the trunk is a bit limited at 11.6 cubic feet.
The 9-inch tall Sensus infotainment screen works well and is much like a smart phone, allowing the driver, or preferably a passenger, to slide the screen either direction to reveal many options. Sliding one way unveals 19 functions while the other reveals 22 apps. While it’s easy to figure out, it really is complex enough that safety dictates a second operator, or only making adjustments while the car is at rest.
The advantage of a large screen, naturally, is seeing its navigation map more easily. For the record, the test car’s stereo also was an audiophile’s, well, dream. The Bowers & Wilkins premium sound system adds $3,200 to the car’s cost, but it could melt your ear buds, and I mean that in a good way.
Other pluses include a large power sunroof, a head-up display, and all the safety devices we’ve come to expect, from parking sensors and blind-spot warning to emergency braking and pedestrian recognition systems. City Safety helps avoid low-speed accidents, smart cruise is standard as is auto high-beam headlights that bend around corners. And yes, that backup camera delivers a 360-degree view.
What doesn’t the S60 include? A wireless charging station. Plenty of places to hook in a power cord, but nothing cordless for your phone.
Then there was one more concerning oddity. Occasionally there was no heat from this South Carolina-built car. Maybe it thought only air conditioning would be required.
I set the temperature, even to HIGH, and pressed the Auto button to fire up the heat several mornings. Nothing, no fan noise, no nothing. Adjust the fan and the air pouring from the vents was only cold. Then, miraculously, two days before I returned the car the heat popped on and continued working the rest of the drive. Odd!
Figuring that if your car had such a glitch a sharp dealer would fix it, I’d have no trouble buying a Volvo. At its base T5 Momentum level with the 250-horse turbo I4 the car’s a bargain starting at $36,795. And there are plenty of models to choose from between that and this top-line T8 hybrid.
The test car listed at $56,395, including delivery. With its various options this one settled at $64,190, including $800 for fancy wheels.
Bottom line? S60 is a lively hybrid that can increase your fuel economy substantially, while still providing a powerful, fun, sporty and safe drive. But check the heater before you drive off the lot.
FAST STATS: 2020 Volvo S60 T8 E-AWD Inscription
Hits: Sporty looking sedan, kick-butt power, sporty handling, AWD and with quiet, luxurious interior. Tall vertical infotainment screen, massaging front seats, 4 power modes, comfy seats, roomy interior, big sunroof, heated steering wheel and powerful great sounding stereo. Oh, and a plug-in hybrid so excellent mileage.
Misses: No wireless charging station and occasionally no heat, plus too much futzing with the multifunction info screen.
Made in: Ridgeville, S.C.
Engine: 2.0-liter super and turbocharged I4 & plug-in hybrid electric motor, 400 hp (combined)
Fastbacks look, well, fast. Audi has decided its sportbacks will look slick too and that’s what Audi calls its new A5 hatchback. This is a sedan with a hatch that in profile is reminiscent of Audi’s spectacular A7, a good thing indeed.
When we are lucky, good things don’t change, much!
This week’s luxurious example is the Lexus IS350 F Sport, a certified BWM 3 Series fighter, and a near identical luxury sport sedan to one I drove two years ago, right down to the Atomic silver color.
Not much has changed, which is mostly good. If you were to look back at my previous review you’d see the same pluses and minuses, so the only downside is that the negatives have not been addressed. Still, they aren’t deal breakers.
Essentially the IS350 and BWM 325i are dimensional clones, just one reflecting the more luxurious leanings of its Japanese maker, while the German make stresses performance. Lexus began challenging the iconic BMW in 2005 as it tried to lure more young executives away from the German make with its new IS sedan.
The current model though draws a distinct line in the styling sands by delivering an edgy style that BWM would, apparently, never attempt. The Lexus boasts a big in-your-face grille and crisply creased body. As I said before the IS looks quick even as it lazes at the end of the driveway. Continue reading 2017 Lexus IS350 F Sport→
Volvo’s S90 a near perfect blend of sport, luxury …
There are many truly wonderful mid-size, luxury, sport sedans, both heavy on the sport and heavy on the luxury. Few blend the two as well as the new Volvo S90 T6 AWD Inscription.
The S90 may be the best driving car I’ve tested this past year.
There’s irony though, because the Volvo, like an increasing number of luxury sport sedans is loaded down with a gaggle of electronic goodies aimed at nearly driving the car for you. It’s no secret that autonomous cars are just around the corner and the Volvo proves that.
Each year our vehicles have more safety and driving aids and the S90 has plenty.
But first let’s consider how much fun the Volvo is to drive.
The S90 rides on a 115.8-inch wheelbase and features a double wishbone suspension front and rear. The result is a smooth yet athletic ride that makes the car feel one with the road, but not so glued to it that every crease and bump disturbs its occupants. The Volvo had one of the best rides I’ve experienced this year.
Even more amazing is the power. A hot little 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 is under its long lean hood. Oh, and it’s also supercharged. That pumps the power to 316 horses with a torque rating of 295 ft.-lbs. The car leaps to life in Comfort driving mode and yet (wait for it) there is a Dynamic mode that turns the S90 decidedly racy. The lower gears are held longer, and there are plenty of those with an 8-speed Geartronic automatic standard on all models. Continue reading 2017 Volvo S90 T6 AWD Inscription→
Here’s a simple truth. It’s fun to drive a car that’s fun to drive.
That may seem silly, but let’s break it down.
First, cars have taken a back seat to trucks for years now as first SUVs and then crossovers replaced the family sedan as the vehicle of choice.
Second, fun often means power and that ebbs and wanes in popularity based on the price of oil.
Third, fun also means responsive handling and that frequently is achieved by engineers designing an overly stiff car that tortures your tushie.
So finding a fun car to drive is a rarity, yet Audi has absolutely nailed it with its new A4 sedan. I drove a crisp bright Ibis white Premium model that, contrary to its name, is the base A4. Mine was loaded with Premium Plus and Technology packages though, so more likely reflects a mid-level A4 in performance and feel.
Audi’s A4 is speedy, fun and sophisticated. It’s a joy to drive and ride in and has everything a driver could want, although once loaded it becomes pricey, like a BMW. Continue reading 2017 Audi A4 Premium→