Review: Toyota takes chances with 2018 C-HR

Toyota calls its new C-HR a “coupe-inspired crossover” with an “avant-garde physique” and “punchy” performance. I call this little wagon useful but a little pricy and certainly a design departure for Toyota.

I can tell you this, too: every time I climbed aboard, the top of my head skimmed the smallish door opening. Part of the blame goes to the car’s profile, which is a tad low (for an SUV). What we have is a possible noggin hazard for the careless.

The C-HR’s rivals don’t quite present the same sort of challenge. Honda’s HR-V, Mazda’s CX-3, the Buick Encore, Chevrolet Trax, Jeep Renegade and Fiat 500X have more functional door openings. Even the lower-slung Mini Countryman is less a headache threat.

Then there’s pricing. For now, Toyota Canada sells only a front-drive (FWD) version of the C-HR and it starts at $24,690. The starter version of the HR-V, front drive, lists for $21,150, while an AWD HR-V goes for $24,750 — $60 more than the C-HR.

Toyota’s entry in this race is, indeed, a tall station wagon and it’s not inexpensive. This is not a log-hopping, mud-crawling, backwoods beast. You’ll need proper winter tires when the weather turns, especially if you’re rolling to the cottage.

In town, well, think of the C-HR as the estate version of the Toyota Prius hybrid. These two share a platform – the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA).

The 2018 Corolla will move to this flexible platform and more of this sort of model sharing is coming for the TNGA. Flexible? It’s capable of adopting all-wheel drive and you can expect a future version of the C-HR to do just that.

The styling here points to Toyota’s fervent desire to juice a conservative image built on great quality and safe styling in cars. You can see lots of folds and creases here, not to mention the planted stance and big wheel flares housing 17-inch alloy wheels.

You can see the car’s face from a mile and it has a bit of snarl to it. The rear doors have integrated handles positioned up high, which not everyone will like. At the very rear, there is a hatch with a lip spoiler. It’s a bold overall design, unlikely to be universally loved.

Inside, four adults will be comfortable, five can snuggle together if you plant a third in the middle of the rear seat. The cargo area will not hold a set of golf clubs, unless you pull out your driver and three-wood and tuck them elsewhere. The rears fold flat or split 60/40. You will not complain about headroom once you’re inside, even if you’re quite tall.

The cabin materials are equal to the price tag and the front buckets are good enough, though short under the thigh and a bit softer than the sporty design would suggest. In back, you won’t find a lot of room to slide feet under the front seats.

I liked whirling around town in this wagon. The C-HR is tight and nimble, relatively quiet and quite comfortable on the highway.  The 2.0-litre four cylinder has competitive power (144 horsepower/139 pound-feet of torque) and it’s mated to an unexciting but perfectly functional CVT (continuously variable transmission). Fuel economy: 8.7 city/7.5 highway using regular gas.

Not golf club friendly.

Toyota has loaded up the C-HR with lots of features, including a seven-inch screen, the usual connectivity stuff and even voice recognition technology. The base car has all the odds and ends most will want, but if you need more, a Premium Package (Starting MSRP: $26,290) moves you up to 18-inch alloy rims, better tires, a Smart Key System and even puddle lamps that project the C-HR logo on the ground. And it’s very safe, passively and actively.

Toyota is taking a few chances with the C-HR. The design is far beyond a stand-pat effort. Not everyone will applaud. The pricing is a bit rich, too, though every offering is loaded. No stripper models here. And at launch, there’s not an all-wheel-drive version, which is in stark contrast to rivals like the H-RV.

If this isn’t quite what you’re looking for in a subcompact crossover, stay tuned. Toyota will most certainly roll out more versions of the C-HR. The competition won’t stand pat, either.

2018 Toyota C-HR

Price as tested: $28,178.47.

Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder (144 horsepower/139 pound-feet of torque).

Transmission: CVT.

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.7 city/7.5 highway using regular fuel.

Comparables: Honda HR-V, Mazda CX-3, Buick Encore, Chevrolet Trax, Jeep Renegade, Fiat 500X and Mini Countryman, Nissan Juke, Mitsubishi RVR.

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2018 Mercedes E-Class Coupe review: the eyes and ears have it

LILLOOET, B.C. – The latest 2018 Mercedes-Benz E400 coupe comes equipped with a PRE-SAFE sound system capable of protecting the three tiny bones of your middle ear from the piercing, pulsating, pounding noises generated in a wicked car crash. This has something to do with engaging the stapedius muscle to protect all the tender bits of your inner ear from smashing sounds.

Burmester 3D sound: 23 speakers and three subwoofers

Thoughtful technology, indeed.

It’s somewhat ironic, then, that the E400 4MATIC coupe is also available with a $6,900 Burmester 3D sound system that has, oh, about a million watts of power available to push crystal clear audio through 23 speakers and pounding base notes through not one, not two, but THREE subwoofers. (Actually, it’s 1,450 watts, but I could not pass up the chance at hyperbole.)

We can assume one of two things: either Burmester sound is so refined it cannot do harm at any volume, or PRE-SAFE sound engages when required to protect your hearing from a Pete Townsend-like inner-ear meltdown when the volume is cranked up for Pinball Wizard or Won’ Get Fooled Again.

Soft shapes: I expect 60 per cent of drives to be women.

Seriously, though, I mention PRESAFE SOUND more in tribute than in bemusement. It’s just one of a long list of breathtaking technologies loaded into the reimagined, restyled, reinvented and completely renovated version of an E-Class coupe we first saw in 2009 – the one later facelifted gently for the 2014 model year.

Here in 2018, Merc’s designer have wrought a luxurious coupe ($72,700 base, more like $90,000-plus when properly equipped) that is bigger inside and out, boasts a softer design and has only LED lighting. The headlights alone have 84 independent LED bulbs and the tails are crystal-look LEDs that dazzle in the dark.

At first glance, this coupe is really quite lovely, rather than bold and challenging. Yes, the soft, rounded shape is not a smack to the face, but rather something quite gentle. Draw your own conclusions about the target buyer. Mercedes says owners will be 60 per cent male, 40 per cent female. Regardless of who holds the pink slip, I’m betting the drivers will be exactly the opposite: 60 per cent female, 40 per cent male.

In any case, look closely and you might conclude that we’re looking at an open-air two-door disguised as a traditional coupe. Take note: the windows are frameless, the doors pillarless. A sweeping glass sunroof lets in light and air. Thus, the car can feel very close to a convertible if that’s what you want.

A wonderfully fast one. The 3.0-litre turbocharged V-6 puts out 329 horsepower and 354 lb-ft of torque, which translates into a 0-100 km/hour time of 5.3 seconds. All that oomph is channeled through a nine-speed automatic gearbox that snaps from gear-to-gear, up and down, with the kind of seamlessness you’d expect. You can control things yourself through the paddle shifters.

Yes, yes, this coupe is quick, rides poised at highway speeds and quite nicely holds a balanced line through a tightening corner. Of course. Merc has figured out chassis dynamics.

What vents!

But honestly, what stands out are the stunning cabin design and all the high-tech bits throughout.

I’m not going to rattle off a list of interior features and gizmos; of course the car works with Apple Auto and Google Android Auto and all blah, blah, blah. All the traditional and expected technological goodies are standard.

What you might not have expected is the delicious 64 tones of ambient lighting tucked away throughout the cabin. It’s

Stunning display.

subtle and calming; a visual balm. And then there are the side-by-side high-definition displays that sit centre stage right in front of you – one for instrument cluster, the other for the infotainment/system screen, the latter managed through a tidy mouse that falls to hand just so in the centre console.

You do not want the 7-inch standard instrument cluster; no, you want the widescreen cockpit display that allows you to dial up any of three styles: classic, sport, progressive. I preferred sport, given the nature of the car itself.

Also note the new vent design. It’s a turbine look that is well executed – and not just visually, but functionally. You can pump a lot of air through them and they set off the overall excellence of the cabin design.

Finally, a few words about the smarts of this car. Yes, you can dial up power and chassis choices, from Comfort to Eco to Sport, Sport+ or anything individualized in between. The interface programming makes all this quite an easy process, as is setting a destination in the navigation system, customizing seat comfort and all the rest.

The other side of the “smarts” coin is safety. Like all carmakers, Mercedes is moving towards fully autonomous cars by steadily adding features that “assist” the driver. So you have Parking Assist and Traffic Sign Assist and Evasive Steering Assist and Attention Assist and Blind Spot Assist and Active Brake Assist and…

It’s comforting to know this coupe will help me if I get sleepy or distracted or find myself overwhelmed. But I wouldn’t buy this car for any of that. The cabin design, on the other hand, is a triumph and sets this car apart from its rivals.

Cabin: Big selling feature.

2018 Mercedes-Benz E-Class Coupe

Price: $72,700 base.

Engine: 3.0-litre turbocharged V-6 (329 hp/354 lb-ft torque.

Transmission: nine-speed automatic.

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): NA, but in my 400 km test, I had a combined 10.1 litres/100 km.

Comparables: Audi S5, BMW 6-Series.

 

 

 

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The case for the 2017 Kia Forte5 vs VW’s Golf

Volkswagen’s Golf is arguably the world’s most refined, most thoroughly complete four-door hatchback from a mainstream manufacturer.

A close second is Kia’s Forte5. But a skilled debater could argue that the Kia has an edge over the Golf.

2017 Forte5 cabin: refined, well-conceived.

The case for Kia starts with an anti-VW argument. “Dieselgate” has turned VW into a felon under U.S. law – for conspiracy, obstruction of justice and stating falsehoods. For some, buying a car from a criminal is a non-starter.

But not for many. VW’s 2016 sales jumped 3.8 per cent. The company remains profitable and is investing billions in “clean” technologies as part atonement, part image rehabilitation.

VW brand head Herbert Diess recently told reporters that the German automaker would target one million electric car sales by 2025. VW plans to take on Tesla, in fact.

2017 Forte5: balanced proportions.

“Tesla is a competitor we take seriously. Tesla comes from a high-priced segment; however, they are moving down,” Diess said, referring to the coming $35,000 (U.S.) Model 3. “It’s our ambition, with our new architecture, to stop them there, to rein them in.”

My point: even though not a single senior VW executive will likely ever do jail time, the automaker has paid a price for its criminality: tens of billions of dollars to compensate wronged owners and the general public, and billions more on a technological push designed to cast a “green” halo over VW.

The brand story matters; the car market is loaded with brand-conscious buyers. And if it’s purely a brand contest, Kia has plenty of its own ammunition.

2017 Forte5: decent room in the back seat.

The Kia brand is ranked higher by Consumer Reports than VW. Kia also finished No. 1 in J.D. Power and Associates’ most recent Initial Quality Study (IQS) and well above average – and well above VW – in J.D. Power’s latest long-term Vehicle Dependability Study.

As well, the Forte is ranked second in its class in the IQS – just behind Toyota’s Corolla and tied with the Forte’s corporate cousin, the Hyundai Elantra. No Golf in sight. By third-party measures, Kia beats VW, and the Forte is a better quality car than the Golf.

Nonetheless, we can agree that the Kia brand lacks VW’s heft and history. For some, Kia is a kind of recently-bankrupt, low-rent Toyota- or Honda-wannabe. They see Kia as a brand lacking cachet and in need of an owner’s explanation.

I’d urge them to give the Forte5 a chance, head-to-head, against a similarly priced Golf. A Forte5 SX 1.6L when uniformly equipped with a Golf 1.8 TSI Highline is about $600 cheaper, primarily because the VW buyer needs to add the optional $1,400 six-speed automatic.

2017 Forte5: strong design.

That still leaves the Kia with a gearbox edge, however. The Forte’s seven-speed autoshift manual is a real gem, superior in performance and execution to the Golf’s less sophisticated automatic. And the Forte5’s four-cylinder, direction-injection turbo is considerably more powerful – 201 horsepower versus 170 for the Golf.

If you want a VW gearbox comparable to the Kia’s, you need to jump up to the Golf GTI, with its beautifully refined six-speed autoshift. But if you do that, you’ll pay another $7,500 in all to get a VW uniformly equipped against the Kia.

The Kia, in fact, is a terrifically refined hatchback with loads of room, quick responses, and superb technological ideas and execution. The cabin materials are wonderfully refined, the seats are almost as comfy and supportive as the Golf’s and the infotainment interface is easy to manage – less fussy than the Golf’s.

No question, the latest Golf is an excellent automobile. But to get a Golf as well-equipped and powerful as a Forte5, you’ll need to spend thousands more – and give your money to a Dieselgate-stained automaker.

Perhaps it’s time to give Kia and its Forte a chance, a test drive. You might be surprised and illuminated, even if you end up with a Golf and the Dieselgate conversations that come with it.

2017 Kia Forte5 SX 1.6L

Price range: $29,895. Freight and PDI: $1,560.

Engine: 1.6-litre four-cylinder, turbocharged (201 hp/195 lb-ft torque).

Drive: front-wheel.

Transmissions: seven-speed autoshift manual.

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.4 city/7.9 using regular fuel.

Comparables: Ford Focus, Subaru Impreza, Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Mazda3, Hyundai Elantra, Volkswagen Golf, Chevrolet Cruze, Fiat 500L.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2017 Chevy Equinox slims down, gets connected

JORDAN VILLAGE, Ont. – I have just signed onto a Wi-Fit hotspot, which would not be particularly remarkable if I were in a Starbucks or an airport.

But here, Wi-Fit is part of the OnStar package in the newest version of the Chevrolet Equinox, the reinvented 2018 model (base price $26,995 including freight and dealer prep).

Access to a 4G LTE network and a touchscreen interface makes the Equinox an extension of your smartphone.

So I’m hooked into a rolling 4G LTE cellular network, a fast one and in the Equinox is can serve up to seven devices. This means I’m not eating into the data plan on my smartphone and that’s the sort of thing Chevy believes will drive sales of its popular compact SUV (sport-utility vehicle).

Indeed, General Motors argues that connectivity is king when it comes to pulling in youthful, 30-something buyers to an Equinox that faces some pretty stiff competition from the likes of…oh, it’s a very long list: Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Nissan Rogue, Ford Escape, Mazda CX-5, Jeep Cherokee, Hyundai Tucson and Santa Fe, Kia Sportage, Volkswagen Tiguan and more. And yes, GM has the market research to prove it.

If you’re shopping for a tall family wagon and you want to stay connected, the Equinox really is a class leader, right down to the user-friendly standard seven-inch colour touchscreen (eight-inch optional).

Handsome cabin design.

Chevy’s product planners really have thought through the electronics and infotainment side of things. The term “class leader” gets bandied about too readily these days, but it’s not a stretch here, not at all.

So we’re fully into in a new age now.

A year or three ago, a car review like this would focus on the fact that the remade Equinox has lost nearly 200 kg of heft and fuel economy from the base engine, a 1.5-litre four-cylinder turbo (170 horsepower/203 pounds-feet of torque) is a very good 8.3 litres/100 km combined. That’s the front-drive Equinox. The all-wheel-drive version comes it at 8.9 L/100 combined, both using regular fuel.

The view from behind.

The conversation would then dig into the ride and handling side of things. And sure, this lighter, nimbler rig feels solid and poised at highway speeds and it doesn’t roll and wallow through corners, either. It’s a bit noisier at speed than some of the competition, however, a trait I’d put down to the weight-loss plan that clearly put sound deadening to the back seat, with connectivity riding up front.

Truth is, the basic engineering story here is quite good. GM has stripped out suet and tightened up the design. This Equinox is five inches or nearly 13 cm shorter than before, yet cabin and cargo space haven’t suffered a bit. In fact, the clever under-floor storage in the boot is just what you want if you’re looking to tuck away from sight items like iPads. The seats are quite good, too.

In standard trim, the Equinox with its six-speed automatic gearbox isn’t much at towing: max rating of 680 kg or 1,500 lbs. It’s the same tow rating story for the coming diesel model with its 136 hp/236 lb-ft torque rating, mated to a nine-speed transaxle. The 2.0-litrgas e turbo with its nine-speed is what you want for trailering: 252 hp/260 lb-ft torque, and a 1,588 kg/3,500 max tow rating.

As for safety, the body structure itself if very robust and with a full complement of airbags; it should do well in crash tests. Beyond passive safety, Chevy is offering a rear camera and other bits and pieces like it are standard. Meanwhile, all sorts of camera-based technology, intelligent headlamps and more are optional.

Chevy’s advertising is going to say that you get more standard gear with the Equinox than the Rogue, RAV4 or CR-V. There’ll share lists and charts to make the case. And the dealers will push a simplified packaging arrangement, which makes the step up from basic Equinox to Premier model quite simple. And for 2018, the sticker price will be sliced down by standard discounts that reach to nearly $2,000.

But every automaker and its dealers can haul out this sort of thing. GM, however, believes the differentiator isn’t packaging or price, but connectivity.

The cluster.

The Equinox is compatible with Apple Carplay and Android Auto, which means your wagon can become an extension of your phone and the interface is just as straightforward and familiar. That’s a huge positive of for many.

Indeed, there’s a very useful MyChevrolet app available that makes it easy to use your phone to stay on top all sorts of functions and systems – from starting and shutting down the Equinox to finding the nearest dealer for service.

All very nice. But did I mention this Equinox looks quite good? Surely there’s a way to share that bit of news with the MyChevrolet app.

2018 Chevrolet Equinox

Price range: $26,995-$35,995 including freight and PDI.

Engines: 1.5-litre four-cylinder, turbocharged (170 hp/203 lb-ft torque); 2.0-litre four-cylinder, turbocharged (252 hp/260 lb-ft torque); 1.6-litre four-cylinder diesel (136 hp/236 lb-ft torque).

Drive: front- and all-wheel drive.

Transmissions: six- and nine-speed automatic.

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.2 city/7.3 hwy for the 1.5-litre; 9.8 city/7.8 hwy for the 2.0-litre; 7.4 city/5.7 hwy for the 1.6-litre diesel. Gas engines use regular fuel. Rating for FWD models, but AWD is available.

Comparables:  Ford Escape, Subaru Forester, Nissan Rogue, Honda CR-V, GMC Terrain, Jeep Cherokee, Toyota RAV4, Mazda CX-5, Hyundai Tucson and Santa Fe, Kia Sportage, Volkswagen Tiguan.

 

 

 

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Are eight-year car loans a ticking time bomb of debt?

– Graphic source: J.D. Power & Associates’ Power Information Network

More than half of Canadian car buyers who opt to finance take a loan of 84 months or longer, which suggests “we might be bumping up against a ceiling regarding the (term) length,” says the chief economist of the Canadian Automobile Dealers Association (CADA).

– Source: J.D. Power’s Power Information Network

But loans stretching to seven or eight years are not a ticking time bomb in the marketplace, adds Michael Hatch.

“We’re aware of that trend towards ever-longer amortization,” says Hatch. “I don’t think it can get a lot higher.”

Nonetheless, loan delinquency rates at about 1.2-1.3 per cent are the lowest of any non-mortgage debt in Canada, says Hatch.

Still, J.D. Power and Associates’ PIN (Power Information Network) data shows that 54 per cent of financed purchases have terms of 84 months or longer, up from 52 months late last year.

Auto analyst Dennis DesRosiers of DesRosiers Automotive Consultants points out that the trend to longer loan amortization follows an increase in the length of vehicle ownership. Canadians now hold onto a new vehicle for eight to nine years, he says.

“If own a vehicle for eight to nine years, why not finance it for eight to nine years?” he says.

But in a new report, Merrill Lynch economist Carlos Capistran argues that Canadians as a whole are being buried under excessive debt and the Bank of Canada should signal rate hikes immediately. Capistran argues that Canada has an overheating credit market marked by excessive risk-taking, and it should be cooled down by the Bank of Canada.

This is not a new concern. In its year-end Financial System Review, the Bank of Canada revisited its oft-expressed concern about high levels of consumer debt in Canada.

– Source: J.D. Power & Associates’ Power Information Network

“Since June (2016), the proportion of highly indebted households has continued to rise in many cities, notably in the Greater Toronto Area,” the Bank said in a statement. Statistics Canada says Canadian household debt is at a record high, with households holding $1.68 of credit market debt to each dollar of disposable income.

Hatch and DesRosiers have argued that vehicle debt is not a pressing concern. There is good debt and bad debt, and “housing and cars tend to be good debt” with an underlying asset, says DesRosiers.

“A car is very much a need item, not a want item,” says DesRosiers. “It’s not a trip or goodies in your garage.”

DesRosiers also dismisses concerns about the nearly one-third of Canadians who are upside down– with loan balances exceeding vehicle value — on their trade-in, according to PIN data.“Everyone has always been upside down; that’s nothing new. It’s the nature of our industry” to have a large number of trade-ins worth less than the outstanding loan,” says DesRosiers.

Hatch argues that longer loan terms are a response to consumers demanding affordable monthly payments which are now approaching an average of $610, notes J.D. Power. Dealers are providing financing answers to a “consumer psychology that focuses almost exclusively on the monthly payment, not the sticker price.”

Hatch and DesRosiers argue that while vehicle loans are backed by a depreciating asset, today’s vehicles are the most durable ever – with an average useful life of more than 300,000 km or 15 years.

“We now have the longest (vehicle) life span in the history of the industry,” says Hatch. “Vehicles are lasting longer and resale and residual values are higher than they used to be.”

So for a number of good reasons, Canadian dealers are not fretting over long loan terms, though they “are increasingly aware of this issue. And more and more are starting to come to the position that this is not the best thing.”

Why? One reason is that consumers who are upside down have a more difficult time buying a new vehicle.

“It takes forever to get into positive equity on the vehicle. And that hammers their ability to trade in for the next one,” he says.

 

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