Category Archives: Test drives

Observations on the styling and driving dynamics of new vehicles.

Quick look: BMW i3

Wait - this isn't a normal BMW....

Wait – this isn’t a normal BMW….

Light, peppy extended-range EV has innovation in spades

Despite plenty of hype to the contrary, the automotive world is a lot more ‘evolution’ than ‘revolution’, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The jump from Model T to Tesla Model S wasn’t achieved in a single bound.

In the electric vehicle world, the latest step forward is the quirky BMW i3 – a space efficient hatch that offers drivers an all-EV lifestyle or a range-extended experience. It began trickling into North American driveways as a pure EV last summer, with the more versatile range-extended model introduced this year.

Like screens? The futuristic BMW i3 has screens aplenty.

Like screens? The futuristic BMW i3 has screens aplenty.

The i3 isn’t going to be mistaken for anything else on the road. Short and tall, the four-seat EV features clamshell doors (with a dropped-down rear window), a glazed rear fascia, a spartan-but-high-tech interior, and extensive use of carbon fiber.

The dash, positioned low for visibility with two display screens rising from it, is topped with untreated eucalyptus wood and ringed (in this model) with dark brown leather – mixing classic luxury cues with the ultramodern.

While most EVs keep their interiors pretty conventional, BMW ventured way outside the box with the interior of this box.

Powering the i3 is an electric motor making 170 horsepower and 184 foot-pounds of torque, drawing from a battery with an EPA-certified range of 130 km. The manufacturer gives a range of 130-160 km, depending on driving style and terrain.

Mirror, mirror... The BMW i3 won't be mistaken for anything ordinary.

Mirror, mirror… The BMW i3 won’t be mistaken for anything ordinary.

A range-extended option exists for the i3, which, for a few thousand dollars more, adds a 647cc two-cylinder generator and tiny 7.2-litre gas tank, pushing the vehicle’s range to approximately 240 km.

The first thing a driver notices upon entering the cabin is a lack of full (to the firewall) console, as well as the lack of obvious shifter.

A small, between-the-seats console exists to accommodate the infotainment dial, armrest and electric parking brake, but a driver and passenger could play footsies with all that open floor space.

Protruding from the right of the steering column is a small, fob-like shifter actuated via a toggle on the end. In what first seems like an awkward placing, the pushbutton ignition and ‘park’ button is also located on this abbreviated stalk.

Shifty: a steering column-mounted gearshift uses a button to actuate 'Park'.

Shifty: a steering column-mounted gearshift uses a button to actuate ‘Park’.

In the back, rear seat passengers will be faced with a slightly upright seatback but ample leg and headroom.

The 6’4″ writer of this post could pass his hand between his scalp and the headliner while sitting on the flat but comfortable leather-bound bench seat.

Occupants of the i3 will quickly notice the surfaces not covered by leather or wood.

Looking like plain fiberglass, the interior boats widespread use of light and strong carbon fiber-reinforced plastic.

Not only does it contribute to the car’s stiff bodyshell, it allows the i3 to shed the weight that other EVs seem to pile on.

Starting at a curb weight of 2,635 pounds (barely more than the company’s Z4 roadster), the i3 weighs hundreds of pounds less than most modern compact cars, not to mention their heavier EV and hybrid brethren.

Interior room, comfort and visibility is the by-product of the i3's boxy shape.

Interior room, comfort and visibility is the by-product of the i3’s boxy shape.

Driving impressions

That light weight and stiff structure lends to impressive acceleration and cornering.

BMW states the i3 will go 0-to-60 mph (0 – 96 km/h) in 7.2 seconds, which is quite quick. Electric motors carry with them two distinct benefits: instant torque and seamless acceleration from a typical one-speed automatic transmission.

Lightweight carbon fiber-reinforced body panels are found throughout the interior.

Lightweight carbon fiber-reinforced body panels are found throughout the interior.

The i3 leaps ahead when the stiff accelerator pedal is pushed, and decelerates rapidly when released, thanks to heavy regenerative braking.

In fact, so heavy is the engine braking effect that the brake pedal gets little use when the car isn’t at rest.

The i3 rides atop distinctive 155/70 R19 tires. They’re tall, but they’re also skinny.

The duration of this test was disappointingly brief, so highway handling characteristics and range details couldn’t be fleshed out.

Would the BMW wander or feel skittish on the highway? What about high-speed wind and road noise? Buffeting? These useful observations will have to wait until a longer road test.

Present meets future: carbon fiber mingles with wood and leather in the i3's dash.

Present meets future: carbon fiber mingles with wood and leather in the i3’s dash.

Starting at $44,950 (before applicable government incentives) for the base EV model, the i3 with range extender will likely be the most popular model going forward.

After all, the ability to gas up in certain situations turns what would be a pleasant commuter vehicle into something capable of longer, out-of-town weekend jaunts.

It’s hard to beat the piece of mind that comes with knowing that once one fuel runs out, another will take over to help get you home.

Vehicles like the BMW i3 are still niche products, but improvements are occurring all the time in this field.

While pricier than plug-ins and EVs from Ford, GM, Nissan, Mitsubishi and Smart, the i3 takes the less-travelled middle road – slotting itself between the Tesla Model S at the top of the range, and those battling for the bottom.

Remember, this is still a BMW.

Rear clamshell doors greatly aid access to the rear seat, which surprises with its relative roominess.

Rear clamshell doors greatly aid access to the rear seat, which surprises with its relative roominess.

2015 Ford Focus Electric: no gas, no problem?

Yes, the Ford Focus Electric literally turned heads when out on the town.

Yes, the Ford Focus Electric literally turned heads when out on the town.

Range anxiety is real, but so are an EV’s advantages

If you’re a good and honourable person, you’ve already read the review of the 2015 Ford Focus Titanium in these pages.

Imagine now, for a second, that the engine from that competent tester was stripped out and replaced by a 107 kWh electric motor, and the trunk partially filled with a 23 kWh lithium-ion battery pack. Add in the Focus’ 5-door hatch body style, and that’s what you have here.

A 107 kWh electric motor generates 143 horsepower and gobs of torque.

A 107 kWh electric motor generates 143 horsepower and gobs of torque.

The Ford Focus Electric has been on the market since 2012, and represents one of the few all-electric models available today – certainly, a rarity in the North American scene.

This model does away with the range-extending on-board generators seen in more popular plug-ins, including those made by Ford (C-Max Energi, Fusion Energi), appealing instead to urban car buyers seeking a zero emission runabout.

A long weekend in the city seemed as good an opportunity as any to put the Focus Electric through its paces while keeping a few gallons of oil in the ground.

With an EPA-certified factory range of 76 miles (122 km), there was no doubt that range anxiety was going to join sunshine on the weekend’s forecast. More on that later.

Inside the cabin, the gasless Focus doesn't give away its special secret.

Inside the cabin, the gasless Focus doesn’t give away its special secret.

The test of the gas-powered Focus showed the compact to be a comfortable and put-together little vehicle with pleasant road manners.

Those qualities don’t disappear just because a battery has replaced the fuel tank – the Focus Electric, with its mid-level trim and gadgetry, performed (and coddled) just fine.

A rear-mounted battery adds about 300 kilograms to the vehicle’s curb weight, while the lack of internal combustion engine up front alters the weight distribution, moving it rearward.

You’d likely only feel the difference if you took the car on the track – the taught steering and compliant suspension does a good job at covering up any differences between the two.

The Focus Electric boasts 143 horsepower and 184 lb-ft. of torque from its powerplant, seamlessly applied through a 1-speed automatic transmission.

Patiently waiting its turn at the public hydro spigot.

Patiently waiting its turn at the public hydro spigot.

All that torque is available from a standstill – one of the great benefits of an electric motor – making the vehicle feel powerful and buttery smooth.

Electron-based power really shines when pulling a passing manoeuvre or merging, as the Focus Electric rockets to its desired speed with enough authority to push you back in your seat.

It’s tempting to drive the car in a manner that would wring the most fun out of this torquey motor, but hard acceleration comes at a price.

In this case, it gobbles up precious range from a limited supply.


White knuckles: living with a battery life indicator

Though the EPA says 122 km marks the end of the road, the Focus Electric showed a 148 and 155 km range, respectively, following two recharging breaks. That’s a little better, but nothing near the nearly 500 km range offered by more expensive EVs like the Tesla Model S.

That said, the price of a Focus Electric ($32,505 Canadian, before applicable rebates) undercuts a base Model S by more than half.

Everything you need to become a better EV driver is on display.

Everything you need to become a better EV driver is on display.

To make the most of the vehicle’s range, Ford employs an on-board ‘energy coach’ that monitors the braking, acceleration and cruising habits of the driver and rates them via an electronic display to the left of the speedometer.

The amount of power recaptured through coasting and regenerative braking is also displayed next to a thermometer-style battery life indicator.

While gas-powered vehicles shine on the highway when it comes to mileage, the manners of an EV are the complete opposite – highway trips sap range, while stoplight-to-stoplight motoring in the city sees plenty of juice returned to the battery.

It’s a shift in popular wisdom, but keeping to the busier streets helps the Focus Electric go the distance. With the battery indicator always counting down like sand through an hourglass, and with public charging stations still scarce, you’ll want to score high marks with the energy coach on an ongoing basis.

17-inch aluminum wheels lend a sporty look to the Ford Focus Electric.

17-inch aluminum wheels lend a sporty look to the Ford Focus Electric.

Range anxiety – that psychological affliction born of full-electric vehicles – creeps in during moments when the vehicle consumes more power than budgeted for a trip.

For example, on one 26 km trip from downtown to the suburbs by way of uncrowded parkways and open space, the Focus Electric consumed 44 km of range, despite gentle acceleration and a light foot at cruising speed.

A partial trip back of 16 km, through denser parts of the city that required more braking action, saw just 3 km of range bleed off the battery indicator.

A driver who previously though “I’m about to be stranded!” would now think “I can drive all night on this charge.”

The car's charging plug lies behind the battery hump in the rear hatch.

The car’s charging plug lies behind the battery hump in the rear hatch.

Though seemingly fickle, this behaviour is par for the course for an EV – little changes on the road can make big differences in range, so it’s important to plan ahead and anticipate them.

Charging the Focus Electric is a breeze if you have a 240-volt connection at home, as a full charge takes about four hours. Otherwise, you’ll be spending the whole night plugged into a regular 120-volt wall outlet.

This driver took advantage of a couple of 240-volt civic and institutional plug-in sites to keep the Focus on the road, though a few top-ups were accomplished via 120-volt plugs. The plug, which connects to a nifty glowing charging port on the driver’s side front fender, stows away in the hatch area of the car.

The Focus Electric doesn't care about inflated gas prices.

The Focus Electric doesn’t care about inflated gas prices.

Because of the location of the battery behind the rear seats, cargo capacity inside that hatch is severely hampered in this model.

It’s hard to say whether that would be a deal breaker with some buyers, though in its defence, the car’s rear seats do fold down to make a flat cargo surface.

In terms of viability, the Focus Electric exists to fill certain niches. Whether serving as a second car or a primary urban runabout, the vehicle works so long as the buyer is prepared to live within its limitations.

In Canada, where gasoline prices seem perpetually higher than oil prices would dictate, it gives a driver some satisfaction to be able drive past the pumps without a care as to the price on the sign.

If your can live with its range limitations, The Focus Electric will keep you comfortable... and green.

If you can live with its range limitations, the Focus Electric will keep you comfortable… and green.

2015 Ford Focus: new face, familiar ride

Ford wasn't prepared to let the Focus fade from the compact car scene. For 2015 it receives a major refresh.

Ford wasn’t prepared to let the Focus fade from the compact car scene. For 2015, it receives a significant refresh.

Subtle improvements keep restyled compact in the game

No car model wants to end up going the Marlon Brando route, lamenting “I coulda been a contender” to their friends over a beer.

That can happen when models are left to wither on the vine by an uncaring parent company. Like a retiree passed by a teenager on the highway, the model with the oldest hardware and least attention can soon find themselves in last place.

Ford’s perennially popular Focus has been a reliable seller for the company since its introduction in the late 1990s.

The current generation debuted for the 2012 model year, arriving in sedan and 5-door hatch form with an edgy European design that highlighted its global architecture, and packed with the latest technology aimed at safety and comfort.

However, the recent increase of standout compact offerings – including those from resurgent North American brands – saw the Focus run the risk of being overlooked in a crowded marketplace.

New year, new face: The Focus now shares front-end traits with its bigger brother Fusion.

About face: the Focus now shares front-end traits with its big brother, Fusion.


The refreshed 2015 Focus arrives with a new face and a longer list of available equipment. Incremental improvements have been made throughout the vehicle to keep the model fresh, but nothing radical simply for change’s sake.

Up front, a wide, horizontal slat grille with chrome accents brings the Focus’ design more in line with the larger Fusion.

Unlike some mid-cycle design tweaks, this significant makeover (which also includes the lower fascia, hood, taillights and trunklid) represents an improvement, not just a change. The cleaner lines and chrome, plus the new LED accent strips above the headlights (which double as daytime running lights), adds an upscale element to the Focus.

The Focus Titanium comes with an 8-inch screen to display SYNC information and the standard back-up camera.

The Focus Titanium comes with an 8-inch screen to display SYNC information and the standard back-up camera.

The standard engine remains a 2.0-litre direct injection four-cylinder, generating 160 horsepower and 146 foot-pounds of torque. A five-speed manual transmission comes standard, with Ford’s six-speed dual clutch PowerShift automatic optional on lower end models and standard on the top-line Titanium.

For 2015, economy-minded buyers can option their Focus with a 1.0-litre EcoBoost three-cylinder previously found only in the subcompact Fiesta. That tiny engine makes a respectable 123 horsepower and 125 foot-pounds of torque, and comes mated to a six-speed manual transmission.

Also available in the Focus lineup is the hot ST hatch, with a 2.0-litre EcoBoost making 252 horsepower, and the Focus Electric, an all-EV model. Diversity of options seems to be Ford’s game for its volume compact.

Inside the vehicle, minor but meaningful changes have been made to the dash layout and steering wheel to reduce the sense of clutter and enhance user friendliness. The parking brake has also been moved further aft, now located discreetly between the seats.

On the tech front, Ford offers a host of standard equipment in the Focus, including its SYNC infotainment system (featuring voice activation, hands-free calling, and USB and mobile device connectivity), and a rear-view camera. A number of additional high-tech features can be optioned.

A little more black, a little less busy. That's what Ford accomplished with the dash of the Focus during its makeover.

A little more black, a little less busy. That’s what Ford accomplished with the dash of the Focus during its makeover.


Driving impressions

Our Focus tester was a top-line Titanium model decked out with all the options Ford could muster.

Inside, the leather-trimmed seating looked stylish and matched the soft plastics of the dash. Though flat in appearance, the 8-way power driver’s seat (with lumbar support) proved extremely comfortable.

A nice touch in the cabin is the ambient nighttime lighting, which bathes door handles, map pockets, cup holders and foot wells in a soft, cool blue. Outside, parking lamps mounted in the side mirrors illuminate the ground beneath the front doors for entry and egress.

The 6-speed dual-clutch automatic unfortunately doesn't have its own gate for manual shifting. A shallow, thumb-actuated shifter is offered, but is easily ignored.

The 6-speed dual-clutch automatic unfortunately doesn’t have its own gate for manual shifting. A shallow, thumb-actuated shifter is offered, and is easily ignored.

Though it’s a feature that few buyers would demand in a compact, domestic sedan, it’s nevertheless a classy touch.

Our tester’s PowerShift automatic made good use of the standard 2.0-litre engine’s power, but the drivetrain was sometimes ‘buzzy’ at low speeds, as the tranny would hold on to lower gears in preparation for acceleration. Under normal or vigorous acceleration, shifts were quick and smooth – hallmarks of a dual clutch transmission.

Geared for economy (upshifts are enthusiastic, downshifts hesitant), the transmission, teamed with the high-compression engine, makes for great fuel economy.

The 2.0-litre/PowerShift combination is rated at 8.9 litres/100km in the city and 6.2 litres/100km on the highway, which translates into 31.7 mpg (Imp.) city and 45.6 mpg highway. The city numbers were easy to match in real life, and one two-hour drive on rural secondary highways returned a figure of 5.3 litres/100km (53.3 mpg).

Models with the five-speed manual are a little thirstier, going by factory mileage numbers, but would deliver a livelier driving experience.

In rural and urban driving, the Focus shone in the handling department. The optional 18-inch painted aluminum wheels on our tester (17-inchers come standard on Titanium models) came wrapped in low-profile rubber, which allowed the Focus to hold the road with authority.

Heavily weighted steering with no hint of play added to the sporty feel of the car.

Low profile tires can sometimes deliver a jarring ride in areas prone to road cracks and frost heaves, but the pliable suspension of the Focus soaked up the imperfections surprisingly well. A lack of body or suspension rattles made the Focus feel taught and put-together.

Active Park Assist and BLIS with cross-traffic alert are two two options you won't want to be without.

Active Park Assist and BLIS with cross-traffic alert are two two options you won’t want to be without.

Open roads are fun, but eventually everyone has to navigate a parking lot. The available safety features in the Focus helped tame parking paranoia, thanks to a rear-view camera (displayed on the Titanium’s 8-inch monitor) and Ford’s BLIS system.

The system alerts the driver to fixed obstacles around the vehicle, and monitors for approaching vehicles when the driver is backing out of a spot. This electronic nanny takes a car with already good rearward visibility and makes it almost clairvoyant.

If your parking spot of choice is of the parallel variety, available Active Park Assist allows the driver press a button and follow directions, as the Focus eventually takes over and parks itself (with some driver inputs). It works, but it’s creepy at first.

Other high-tech safety aids included blind spot warnings (via an amber LED light in the side mirrors), and lane departure warnings. Drift too close to the centre line or adjacent lane and the Focus will shake the steering wheel to grab your attention. Drift too close to the shoulder, and you could get a fatigue warning, complete with a chime and an illuminated warning in the gauge cluster.

Yes, the Ford Focus is spying on you, but it’s for your own good. And, presumably, you paid for it.

While the loaded Titanium model came in over $31,000 with all options and fees factored, a base S sedan begins at $16,799. Sure, you won’t be able to wow your friends with Knight Rider-like levels of gizmos, but the body and engine will be the same.

With the 2015 Focus, Ford has made meaningful improvements to an already competent vehicle. There are newer ‘all new’ compacts out there, but the Focus shouldn’t be overlooked just for that – especially when you consider the sum of its contents.

A comfortable yet sporty ride, laundry list of high-tech features and new face makes the Focus a worthy compact to consider.

A comfortable yet sporty ride, laundry list of high-tech features and new face makes the Focus a worthy compact to consider.

Acura RDX: comfy, competent crossover

The coldest February on record didn't deter the 2015 Acura RDX from seeking snowy adventure.

The coldest February on record didn’t deter the 2015 Acura RDX from seeking snowy adventure.

The following review ran in the Oye! Times automotive section on Feb. 20, and can be viewed here:

Acura must have figured luxury crossover buyers didn’t like weighing equipment options, so it made everything standard on its smallest utility vehicle.

Well, almost everything.

The Acura RDX comes in one trim level, with one available drivetrain and just a single available upgrade – a technology package that our tester came with. Competing in a crowded market, the folks at Acura must have felt it was better to put everything in one basket to sweeten the package.

Introduced for the 2007 model year, the second generation of the Acura RDX appeared in 2013 with a new look and a simplified drivetrain.

The Acura RDX shares many of the styling cues of its larger brother, the MDX.

The Acura RDX shares many of the styling cues of its larger brother, the MDX.

A strong, Honda-sourced 3.5-litre V-6 replaced the high-tech turbo four of the previous generation, while a simpler AWD system replaced Acura’s previous SH-AWD system. This changed reduced the vehicle’s weight by about 130 pounds, while boosting gas mileage considerably. The previous 5-speed automatic transmission gained an extra gear, which can take credit for the large bump in highway mileage.

The RDX’s styling can best be described as ‘safe’, with the marque’s corporate ‘shield’ grille offering brightwork up front and an angular body behind it.

With a somewhat wedge-shaped nose and angular body panels, its profile is similar to that of its larger stablemate, the MDX. Both chose to forgo the coupe-like rooflines that are making inroads into the utility market.

While it doesn’t swivel heads like the edgier crossovers on the market, the design does enhance interior volume and helps cater to those not looking to make an overt design statement. After all, the RDX is a luxury vehicle first and foremost – meaning it’s reserved on the outside, but will coddle you on the inside.

And coddle, it does.




The dated, button-heavy centre stack in the 2015 RDX will be mostly gone come 2016.

The dated, button-heavy centre stack in the 2015 RDX will be mostly gone come 2016.

The RDX is something of a hot rod amongst its peers, coming equipped solely with a 3.5-litre i-VTEC V-6 making 273 horsepower and 251 foot-pounds of torque. Many compact crossover SUVs these days come with standard four-cylinder engines, and an increasing number are doing away with a six-cylinder option altogether.

The steering wheel mounted paddle shifters for the 6-speed automatic aren’t likely to see much use in regular driving – the shifts are so delayed as to make the feature almost pointless – though they would assist in holding gears while climbing a steep grade.

Up front, there’s ample legroom, a cavernous console with numerous plug-in points, and standard Bluetooth hands-free calling. Our tester’s optional technology package added Acura’s navigation system (with voice recognition and 8-inch display screen), as well as a 10-speaker, 410-watt premium audio system.

A dual-zone climate control system and power tailgate were also included in the package.

Leather comes standard in the RDX, and the 8-way power driver’s seat features adjustable lumbar support. Both front seats are heated, which is a welcome necessity during a winter as cold as this one.

Creature comforts and effortless power are the hallmarks of this right-sized Acura.

Creature comforts and effortless power are the hallmarks of this right-sized Acura.

A leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob are par for the course, and look nice, but the dated-looking dash could use a lot of work. The centre stack – a mass of hard black plastic – is button-heavy and confusing, with climate control, clock, and stereo information crowded into an inch-high display strip.

The contrast between the dashboard’s hard and soft plastics isn’t appealing to the eye, and the quality of both materials don’t seem worthy of this class of vehicle. Acura would be wise to adopt the modern, less cluttered dash layout of the larger MDX for use in the RDX.

A saving grace for the dash situation is the locating of stereo, Bluetooth and other controls on the steering wheel.

In the rear, a healthy 26.1 cubic feet (739 litres) of cargo volume is available behind the second row seats, which can fold flat and feature a 60/40 folding seatback. Rear legroom is generous at 973 millimetres.


Driving impressions


Excellent front and rear seat legroom makes the RDX a nice venue to spend time.

Excellent front and rear seat legroom makes the RDX a nice venue to spend time.

The RDX isn’t particularly heavy for a crossover, at just over 3,800 pounds, which makes for effortless acceleration and passing. The V-6 emits a throaty growl under heavy throttle, which is pleasing for the horsepower enthusiast, yet seems almost at odds with the vehicle’s conservative image.

The steering isn’t heavy in the RDX (that wouldn’t be fitting for a luxury vehicle, after all) but it is precise, making the RDX feel nimble and balanced, despite having a suspension geared towards a softer ride.

With cracks, potholes and frost heaves littering the roads during this colder than average winter, a softer suspension – coupled with meaty P235/60 R18 tires – helped soak up the minor road imperfections and offset the worst ones.

At highway speeds, some road and wind noise intruded into the cabin, but not excessively. Despite the poor road conditions and frigid temperatures encountered during the test period, the RDX’s body and fittings exhibited no squeaks or rattles, which helped reinforce the vehicle’s sense of quality.

The Acura RDX comes standard with full-time all-wheel-drive.

The Acura RDX comes standard with full-time all-wheel-drive.

In heavy snow, and on partially covered highways, the RDX’s all-wheel-drive system helped maintain the vehicle’s composure, with the rear axle kicking in as needed. For the most past, the system stays in the background, waiting to ride to the rescue of wheel slip.

To counter momentum, four-wheel disc brakes (ventilated on the front) did a good job of stopping the RDX quickly, and the pedal had a consistently heavy feel. Some brakes are mushy in the upper level of travel then come on too strong, causing the diver to reflexively back off. There was none of that with the RDX.

With a big V-6 under the hood, the RDX’s doesn’t set records for being frugal on gas. Acura lists the RDX’s city fuel consumption at 12.1 litres/100 km, while highway driving nets 8.7 litres/100 km.

A jaunt of about 120 km on rural two and four-lane roadways returned 9.0 litres/100 km, while outfitted with snow tires. City mileage averaged factory estimates.

Retailing at $41,690, the Acura RDX sees competition from the likes of the Lexus NX, which features edgier styling and retails for almost the same price, but doesn’t offer a V-6 engine. The Lincoln MKC, another turbo four-only model, undercuts the price by a couple of grand.

A suspension tuned for comfort didn't dampen the RDX's sporty drivetrain and precise steering.

A suspension tuned for comfort didn’t dampen the RDX’s sporty drivetrain and precise steering.

Despite the new competition, annual sales of the second generation RDX far exceed those of the first generation, showing that Acura’s strategy for the model is clearly paying off.

With its abundant space and standard features, the Acura RDX capitalizes on themes of comfort and convenience – a plan that seems to have served it well. With the second generation RDX now its third year on the market, and with some styling elements starting to show their age, Acura decided to freshen up the model for the 2016 model year.

A facelifted RDX was recently unveiled at the Chicago International Auto Show, sporting an updated look and minor equipment tweaks. A more chiseled front end, restyled headlights and taillights, and a simplified dash layout are among the most notable changes.

The 2016 Acura RDX is expected to go on sale in the spring of this year.

Mazda3 GT keeps the fun, adds class

The 2015 Mazda3 GT surprised with its affection for snow.

The 2015 Mazda3 GT surprised with its affection for snow.

The following review appeared in the Oye! Times automotive section on Feb. 26, and can be viewed here.

Is the Mazda3 GT as good as it gets when it comes to affordable, sporty compact cars?

It could very well be.

Two weeks in the 2015 Mazda3 GT revealed the taught, shapely sedan to be a comfortable, refined performer, and a surprisingly good vehicle for tackling the worst of Canadian winters.

It’s not hard on the eyes, either.

When the third-generation Mazda3 debuted for the 2014 model year, the cartoonish ‘smile’ that adorned the front end of the previous generation had been wiped away, replaced with a mature and subtly elegant look.

Mazda likens its company-wide KODO design language to a cheetah pouncing on prey, which isn’t a bad metaphor. Viewed from any angle, the Mazda3’s long hood, short deck and curvaceous flanks hint at the proportions of the classic Jaguar E-Type of the 1960s – another famous automotive cat.



IMG_8081 (1484x1824)

Mazda’s CONNECT system allows the driver to control infotainment systems from this console-mounted dial.


The GT is the Mazda3’s top trim level, and comes with all the goodies needed to stand out from the rest of the lineup.

Under the hood lies Mazda’s SKYACTIV-G 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine, a high compression (13:1) direction-injection powerplant that makes a smooth 185 horsepower and 184 foot-pounds of torque.

A six speed manual transmission comes standard, and is the gearbox you’d want in a sporty car like this. With short, notchy throws and a lower gearing than the optional six speed automatic, the transmission helps the driver wring the most fun out of the GT’s engine.

The GT ditches the 16-inch wheels of the base and mid-range Mazda3 in favour of 18-inch alloy rims, wrapped with wide 215/45R18 rubber.

This tester came with the optional luxury group, which added leather upholstery and interior trim to the GT’s long list of standard features, which includes a power moonroof, fog lights, 9-speaker Bose audio system, heated seats, rear backup camera and power everything.

Heads up! Mazda's flip-up speed display keeps your eyes on the road.

Heads up! Mazda’s flip-up speed display keeps your eyes on the road.

To aid the driver, the GT employs Mazda’s heads-up driving display, which projects the vehicle’s speed onto a flip-up glass panel above the instrument panel. Gimmicky but useful, it helps keep your eyes on the road.

The seats, shod in black leather with red stitching, were a little flat on the bottom, but were infinitely adjustable.

The rear seats folded down to expand the 12.4 square foot trunk, which is on the small side for its class (No worries, as the Mazda3 comes in a hatchback version for those wanting more cargo space).

The nerve centre of the Mazda3 uses a 7-inch touchscreen display mounted atop the dash (eyes on the road, people!), controlled by a large rotary switch located on the console.  The MAZDA CONNECT infotainment system controls all radio, audio input, navigation and wireless connectivity functions, and was easy to get used to.

Mazda's KODO design language doesn't ignore the taillights.

Mazda’s KODO design language doesn’t ignore the taillights.

Besides being user-friendly, the CONNECT system serves to de-clutter the dash, which is reserved mainly for the dual-zone climate controls.

That sparse but expansive dash, coupled with the tasteful use of shiny bits and decent quality interior trim pieces, made the Mazda3 GT look and feel like a low-end German luxury car. That’s not a bad thing to be compared to.


Driving impressions


Lower gearing helped the Mazda3 respond quickly in city driving and reduced the need for downshifting.

Lower gearing helped the Mazda3 respond quickly in city driving and reduced the need for downshifting.

If isolation from engine and road noise is a sign of luxury, then the Mazda3 GT comes close to attaining that status.

The SKYACTIV-G engine only lets on that its running when the throttle is opened up, and even then there’s little vibration or harshness to be felt through the vehicle.

The 2.5-litre never feels like it’s working all that hard, and under brisk acceleration, the engine note in the cabin remains muted.

Fitting for a model with a reputation for sportiness to uphold, the GT’s suspension is on the firm side, which makes softening winter road cracks and frost heaves a challenge.

The worst pavement imperfections make their presence widely felt, an issue compounded by the GT’s wide low-profile tires, but they were at least buffered somewhat. The cure – a softer suspension – would run the risk of turning a sporty car into a marshmallow and ruining summer driving fun.

Despite the war zone roads and frequent snowfalls, the Mazda3 felt planted and stable in all conditions. It felt, actually, like it was several hundred pounds heftier than it was.

Traction control that wasn't overbearing was a pleasant surprise, and lent itself to a sporty ride.

Traction control that wasn’t overbearing was a pleasant surprise, and lent itself to a sporty ride.

Mazda’s use of ultra-high-tensile steel in key areas of the body (it’s the first automaker to do so) makes for a stronger, lighter vehicle, and the GT tips the scales at a lean 2,980 pounds.

On the highway and around town, the steering remained heavy and on-centre, with no tendency for the car to wander, even in heavy crosswinds.

That heavy steering helped keep the GT pointed forward in deep snow, while the Michelin X-Ice snow tires our tester came with deserve a lot of credit for keeping their grip.

Unlike some traction control systems, the electronic nanny keeping the GT in check didn’t shut down the party prematurely. Corrections to wheel slip and skids were quite subtle – enough to keep the driver firmly in control while still making the GT a fun vehicle to drive, even in deep snow.

Despite the performance-geared manual transmission, the GT’s gas mileage didn’t stray from factory numbers. On one 100 kilometre highway trip (both 4-lane and 2-lane), the GT returned 6.4 litres/100 km, which matches its official rating.

The Mazda3 weathered the coldest February on record in the Ottawa Valley with ease.

The Mazda3 weathered the coldest February on record in the Ottawa Valley with ease.

Another trip of similar distance returned 6.1 litres/100 km. In the city, the GT is rated at 9.3 litres/100 km, which is achievable in light traffic (with at least a few green lights).

Thanks to a taller gearset, Mazda3s equipped with the automatic transmission return better fuel economy, both in the city and on the highway. Even thought the majority of GT buyers will go this route, not having an available stick shift in this model would seem like sacrilege.

The ‘fun and sporty’ reputation Mazda developed over the years is still present in the Mazda3 GT, but in a more mature form. With the model’s adolescence now in the rear-view, the newly refined Mazda3 is ready to be appreciated by an adult audience.

Motoring for the masses

A long-term look at Chevy’s global compact


Sadly, the Eco doesn't come with fog lights, unlike higher-end Cruze models.

Sadly, the Eco doesn’t come with fog lights, unlike higher-end Cruze models.

It’s been four years since Chevrolet began erasing the sins of the past with the help of its compact Cruze sedan.

In the fall of 2010, a freshly bailed out GM sprung a new model into the marketplace designed to compete, rather than just show up for participation marks. The Cruze rolled out with a splashy advertising campaign crafted by nervous executives and their secretly terrified underlings, designed to make people forget about the blandmobile that preceded it (and the one that came before that).

Offered strictly as a four-door sedan positioned on the large side of the compact spectrum, the Cruze was engineered to be everything the Cobalt and Cavalier weren’t. More rigidity, more spaciousness, more technology and more miles to the gallon was needed to wage war with the perennially popular Civic and Corolla, as well as lower volume offerings like the Focus, Sentra and Jetta.

Unlike the Chevy Cobalt and Pontiac G5 twins (as well as the Cavalier/Sunfire that came before them), the Cruze was truly a global car, manufactured in four continents and sold in five. Only in Australia was the Chevrolet nameplate shoved aside to make way for a regional GM division name – in this case, the Holden Cruze.

With a ho-hum yet competitive 1.8-litre four-banger serving as a base North American engine, the Cruze raised eyebrows by offering only 6-speed transmissions (both manual and automatic) – a game-changer for the compact field. GM took a risk by offering, as an uplevel powerplant, an engine smaller than that of its base model – a 1.4-litre turbo making the same horsepower (138), but with more torque (148 ft-lbs versus 125).

Lightweight 17-inch alloy wheels set the Eco apart from lesser (and greater) trim levels.

Lightweight 17-inch alloy wheels set the Eco apart from lesser (and greater) trim levels.

The cheap gas of the 1990s and 2000’s was by then no more, thanks to the oil spike of mid-2010, but memories of the big engine displacements it fostered were still fresh. A volume engine in a roughly 3,100-pound car that displaced less that a litre-and-a-half was a foreign concept for GM, and America as a whole.

The public would no doubt question it. Would it pull its own weight? Would a driver used to brawny V-6’s be able to tolerate this motorcycle-worthy 1,364cc mill? Was the car as a whole a flimsy piece of junk?

The passage of time told the story. The Cruze sold well as gas prices remained elevated for years amid a struggling economy, while the automotive industry quickly moved in the direction of smaller displacement turbos and transmissions with economy gearing aimed at wringing more MPG’s out of their lineup.

Horsepower sells, but so does gas mileage when money’s in short supply.

First contact

In November of 2011, a younger (but no more idealistic) version of myself wanted to drive one of those new sedans. Not surprisingly, I ended up with a volume LT model as a tester, equipped with the 1.4-litre turbo and automatic.

My review was published in a now-defunct chain of Ottawa-area weekly newspapers.

Going into the Cruze, I recalled driving a base Chevy Cobalt rental in the Rocky Mountains the year before. While the 2.2-litre engine made decent power, its antiquated 4-speed automatic put the ‘S’ in slushbox and made mountainous driving an irritating chore.

The 6-speed in the Cruze didn’t need the accelerator to be floored in order to necessitate a downshift, and the tiny engine pulled with surprising ease. As well, the interior of the Cruze put the never-ending soft-touch plastic of the Cobalt to shame, thanks to its two-tone fabric inserts in the doors and dash.

Red fabric inserts in the dash and doors contrasts nicely with the black interior.

Red fabric inserts in the dash and doors contrasts nicely with the black interior.

A tilt/telescopic steering wheel and a 6-way driver’s seat (that travels an incredibly long way rearward) made it easy to get comfortable behind the wheel, even with my 6’4″ frame.

The driving dynamics of the Cruze, from steering to braking and cornering, were substantially improved over the Cobalt. While I didn’t mention it at the time, the design of the Cruze, though cautious, was reasonably attractive and promised a long shelf life.

With the Cruze only just out of the gate at the time, and with GM compacts steeped in negative stigma, I pretty much declared the new model a winner in terms of value and content.

As it turns out, a lot of people chose to hand their money to GM in return for a Cruze. The 3 millionth Cruze rolled off assembly lines in Ohio in August of 2014.

Of those sedans that rolled out of Lordstown over the past four years, one was mine.

2011 Chevy Cruze Eco

The Cruze Eco was Chevy’s ‘Wow – look at those numbers!’ model.

With a triple overdrive 6-speed manual mated to the 1.4-litre engine, in addition to significant weight savings, aerodynamic improvements (including grille shutters that close above 20 km/h), and low rolling resistance tires, the Eco was designed to deliver head-turning mileage numbers.

The high-mileage model was a phenomenon that soon became common place for domestic auto manufacturers. Ford and Dodge soon had theirs in the form of the Fiesta SFE and Dart Aero, respectively.

Don't think for a second that dropping a gear is going to make something happen...

Don’t think for a second that dropping a gear is going to make something happen…

The highway mileage figure for these cars is great for use in advertisements – you’ll see them preceded by the words ‘up to’.

The Cruze Eco, which seemed to only be sold in the colour red, subtly improved on the appearance of the base LS and volume LT models with chrome-plated 17-inch alloy wheels and a low-profile rear lip spoiler.

Inside, the two-tone upholstery (black and red seems popular!) is complemented by a similar motif on the doors and dashboard. There, the somewhat cheap-looking black plastic is broken up by fabric mesh inserts that are pleasing to the eye and seem durable enough.

The centre stack and console is trimmed in bright silver plastic that won’t fool anyone into thinking it’s aluminum, but makes for a brighter, more engaging interior nonetheless.

With the Cruze now an established presence, deals can easily be found on used and off-lease models. The Eco no longer carries a price premium after three years (it seems), making it a good deal for mileage-conscious shoppers.

Hence why I got into one.

The Drive

I’ve mentioned the comfortable driving position and handling characteristics of the Cruze already (Hey, how ’bout that turning radius?!), so we don’t need to venture into that. For a compact car, backseat space is acceptable, and a 15 cubic foot trunk puts it near the top of its class in terms of cargo volume.

As a past owner of several GM sedans, going back to the early ’90s, I was happy to see that the horrific 1st generation anti-lock braking system had been tossed on the trash heap of history. A ’93 Chevy Corsica and 2003 Pontiac Grand Am came equipped with them, and I loathed every second I spent trying to come to a full and complete stop.

On a 163 km journey from Killaloe, ON to downtown Ottawa, the Cruze Eco managed an average of 66.5 mpg (Imp.), or 4.2 L/100km.

On a 163 km journey from Killaloe, ON to downtown Ottawa, the Cruze Eco managed an average of 66.5 mpg (Imp.), or 4.2 L/100km.

The anti-lock system on the Cruze, which featured rear drums for weight savings, stops far faster and with far less pedal pulsation that the older GMs. On ice and snow the difference is even more noticeable – slick conditions confused those earlier brakes, and both cars had a tendency to give up on slowing down if the surface was slick, even with the brake pedal to the floor).

Traction control keeps the Cruze planted while cornering (at reasonable speeds) on snow and gravel, and can be shut off in order to slog through the deeper drifts.

At low to moderate speeds, the Cruze’s steering is just what you want it to be. Precise and power assisted at low speeds, the steering firms up nicely as speed rises.

On the highway, travelling on straight stretches, I take issue with the need to perform minor, ongoing steering corrections, due to an otherwise firm wheel that offers a little bit of play – play that translates into unwelcome trajectory changes. With your hands off the wheel, the car doesn’t wander, but with a two-hand grip, you’ll find yourself constantly making subtle corrections.

Most of the time these actions are subconscious, but it’s still an issue that should be addressed in the second-generation Cruze.

The Cruze's design fared well, but will be updated significantly for the 2016 model year.

The Cruze’s design fared well, but will be updated significantly for the 2016 model year.

The triple overdrive gear set on the Eco’s 6-speed manual can take most of the credit for the model’s great highway fuel economy, but it does make around-town driving a little tricky. Don’t think that dropping a gear in any situation (even on the highway) is going to make an appreciable difference in acceleration.

Given the loftiness of those top three gears, dropping two ratios is almost always required to perform your average ‘manoeuvre’. The mileage that comes from that gearbox and all the other fuel-saving gizmos is appreciated, though, especially when you see the price at the pumps.

GM lists the Cruze Eco’s highway fuel economy at 4.6 L/100km, or 61 MPG (Imp.), which is 11 MPG more than the least efficient Cruze model.

On a 163-kilometre drive from the rural Valley town of Killaloe to my driveway in downtown Ottawa, the Cruze Eco managed to average 66.5 MPG, or 4.25 L/100km. The trip was made on secondary highways and a four-lane highway, and I kept to the speed limit (but didn’t drop below).

Driving normally, highway jaunts usually return mileage in the 57-58 MPG range.

The Cruze was a big step up in late 2010 and it’s still a capable, competitive vehicle. I’ll be interested to see the specs on the second generation model, which comes out next year as a 1016 model.

In the land of giants

2014 Mazda 2 proves a surprisingly liveable road trip companion*

*too bad about the transmission

The Mazda 2 beams with joy after reaching the Rockies...all by itself!

The Mazda 2 beams with joy after reaching the Rockies…all by itself!

Like Texas of the North, it just seems that everything’s bigger in the province of Alberta.

Personal wealth, population growth and the proportions of private vehicles all outstrip the national median. Oh, and there are big mountains, too.

The only thing not in oversupply after landing in a hot, sunny Edmonton two weeks ago was rental car choice – the airport cupboard was as bare as supermarket shelves before a hurricane. A cab took me to an off-site agency, where I waged a bloody battle for the last four-wheeled machine that didn’t possess a half-ton carrying capacity.

Beggars can’t be choosers, so fate and circumstance left me holding the keys to a diminutive Mazda 2 – a zygote of a vehicle by Alberta standards, but one that would ultimately carry me for several thousand kilometres over two weeks.

As a 6’4″ man with a sensitive back and (maybe) a similar ego, I was a little worried. Would Mazda’s smallest offering ultimately break me like an adolescent’s heart?

My initial fears proved unfounded. After two weeks of driving across picturesque landscapes both urban and rural, mountainous and endlessly flat, the Mazda 2 proved itself to be a comfortable, roomy, and compliant driver, albeit one with a few qualms.

The nitty-gritty

First off, the car’s drivetrain is more likely to inspire flashbacks to the 90s than get pulses racing. With a 1.5-litre four-cylinder (the only available engine), making 100 horsepower and 98 foot-pounds of torque, the hatchback’s power numbers fail to impress when viewed on paper.

Transmission choices are also archaic – a five-speed manual and four-speed automatic rounded out the gearbox menu.

"You think you're pretty tall, huh? Let's dance."

“You think you’re pretty tall, huh? Let’s dance.”

Venturing inside the silver 4-door rental tester, the base-level interior matched the drive train for sheer minimalism. A tachometer and CD player with radio presets joined power windows and door locks in the luxury item category, though the door locks were inconveniently placed on the centre console and the exiting door had to be locked via a key.

Air conditioning came in handy on the hottest of days, and when acrid forest fire smoke encroached from faraway blazes. However, being a windows-down kind of guy (and wanting to maximize mileage), AC usage was kept to a minimum during the trip.

The Mazda’s spartan instrumentation didn’t leave much room for computing power. A trip meter was provided, but on a long road journey through vast stretches of wilderness, a miles-till empty display would have provided piece-of-mind (especially given the car’s less-than-exact eight-bar digital fuel gauge and tiny gas tank).

These little details proved an annoying yet minor distraction from an otherwise compliant vehicle.

The drive

The first few days of the test involved inner-city and highway driving in and around the rapidly growing city of Edmonton, as well as a trip to Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies – about three-and-a-half hours each way.

The base Mazda 2 didn’t come equipped with a tilt/telescoping steering wheel, but I found the wheel was already optimally placed for my stature.

So too was the cushy-yet-supportive seat, which provided proper back support and was the right height for the wheel.

Headroom and legroom was surprisingly abundant in the Mazda 2’s cabin, and the armrests never once caused elbow soreness (a common complain on long-haul drives). Amazingly, I had lucked into a very comfy subcompact for this journey.

On the road,  the car’s light weight (about 2,300 pounds), tight turning radius and 55-series tires (mounted on 15-inch rims) made for a taught feel and nimble road manners. At all speeds, the steering remained weighted and on centre, with no play or need for minor corrections at high speed.

"Finally, a field as cheerful as I am!"

“Finally, a field as cheerful as I am!”

These mannerisms came in handy not just on the streets of downtown Edmonton (clogged with menacing mountains of moving steel) but also on hair-raising hairpin mountain roads where the car’s handling and precision was an asset.

In a straight line, the cog-challenged automatic was happy to revv close to redline under moderate acceleration, making the most of the engine’s meager horsepower, but was reluctant to leave the comfort of overdrive at speed unless the accelerator was nearly floored. With no cruise control (another gripe), this meant a falloff in speed before a looming monster in the rear-view necessitated a throttle jab and the desired downshift.

An overdrive lockout button was located on the shifter, which ended up being used regularly in loftier elevations. Equipped with the manual transmission, I could see this car coming alive and being a fun little runabout, not unlike older Honda Civic hatches from the late 80s and early 90s.

The front disc/rear drum anti-lock brakes reliably brought the featherweight car to a halt in short order, and exhibited a firm, consistent brake pedal feel that didn’t go unappreciated.

With double-trailer transport trucks regularly plying area highways, mingling with the standard single-occupant commuter vehicle favoured by Edmontonians (A Ford F-350 or Ram 3500 crew cab 4×4, often with lift kit), the wee Mazda seemed to be in a perpetual state of menace.

However, absent from the driving experience – on 110km/h highways as well as on windy mountain passes – was the buffeting normally encountered by small cars traveling fast outside of a vacuum. The little Mazda must have all the right curves, as it stayed planted in its lane as crosswinds slipped around it.

I’ll admit to feeling a little emasculated by my losing hand in the automotive size contest, but not having to spend more than $40 at the gas pump was a bonus that gave me just a little feeling of smug satisfaction.

Mazda lists the automatic’s fuel consumption at 7.1 litres/100km in the city and 5.8 on the highway, while the 5-speed returns slightly better numbers. Even with the automatic, these numbers are better than those returned by, say, the Nissan Micra, and pretty much identical to those of a base Chevy Sonic.

What next?

A lack of interior refinement and available features is a handicap for the 2 that could affect sales, though a replacement looms on the horizon. Recently, Mazda announced it will be introducing the subcompact’s successor sometime in 2015 as a 2016 model.

The new model is expected to incorporate the ‘Kodo’ design language currently seen on the Mazda 3 and 6 (thus banishing the last of the demented clown faces to the scrap heap of history), while also piling on the technology.

It's not the size that matters; it's where you go with it.

It’s not the size that matters; it’s where you go with it.

A fuel-efficient Skyactiv engine of an undetermined small displacement will likely be found under the hood, and it should be safe to say goodbye to the 4-speed automatic, and possibly the 5-speed stick as well.

Despite being modestly endowed with power and saddled with a museum artifact for a transmission, the Mazda 2 held up well during two weeks of extensive driving under very diverse conditions.

From the endless fields of Saskatchewan to the towering peaks of British Columbia, in rain, heat and forest fire smoke, the tiny hatchback proved easy to like and held its own against Alberta’s road-going battlecruisers.

If the next generation of Mazda 2 keeps the current model’s nimble, roomy attributes – and low price – while bringing the technology up to date and boosting mileage, Mazda will have a very competitive vehicle on its hands.