2019 VW Jetta Execline

Photo by VW Canada

Rolling out for 2019 with improved looks and polished, minimalist styling, Volkswagen’s latest Jetta brings a competitive small sedan that combines daily usefulness with a dash of German aesthetics.

The company makes much of the seventh-generation’s “all new” status – it isn’t just the looks that have changed, the car now rides on VW’s latest global architecture (interestingly, the Jetta shares the platform with a diverse array of vehicles, from the Audi TT and A3 to VW’s own Atlas and Arteon).

Comfortable enough inside, and with good headroom even for us six-foot types, the dash shows off an uncluttered display accented with metallic highlights. The digital gauge cluster behind the wheel is easily tailored to display the information an individual driver may prefer, and the steering-mounted buttons are fairly quick to figure out and use, as is the touchscreen on the center stack

My test model was the Execline trim (which is the top end for Jettas, there are also Comfortline and Highline), which gave it customizable interior ambient lighting, and a 400watt BeatsAudio sound system along with the digital info display and a navigation module.

The Execline also gets a set of snappy 17” wheels, which nicely compliment the redesigned exterior. The car is a lot more distinctive than previous generation Jettas, thanks to a better looking grille and more accented creasing of the body panels.

Performance was supplied by a turbocharged 1.4L gasoline engine, which put a respectable 147 horses and 184 lb.-ft. of torque to the front wheels (with the torque coming on at a very low 1,400 rpm).

Marshaled by an eight-speed automatic transmission and four driver-selectable modes (I alternated mostly between Eco for better fuel consumption, and Sport for thrills), the little powerplant is up to any of the demands of daily driving. Oh, and I’ll mention too that the Jetta can be had with a manual six-speed gearbox as well.

It handles well, showing off agility and cornering ability, with just enough stiffness in the suspension to make the car feel sporty without letting the overall ride feel harsh or jarring. Backing that up with good braking and steering that allows a driver to feel connected to the road, the Jetta feels like a more expensive car (such as its Audi platform-mates).

My Execline tester included VW’s Driver Assist package as the only option on the already very well equipped machine, which added adaptive cruise control, front-assist emergency braking, lanekeeping assist and automated high beam control for the price of $995

VW claims fuel economy of 7.8L/100 km in the city and 5.9L on the highway, which, while not what you’ll find in hybrid cars, is pretty good in this segment.

In fact, the whole overall package stays competitive against its rivals from Japan and Korea (notably the Corolla and Civic kingpins) both in equipment and pricing.

The Jetta lineup starts in the low twenties (for a Comfortline trim) and by the time we get to the Execline car we see here it comes to $30,090 with its optional driver assist package, before freight and taxes.

 

2018 Crashed Ice in Edmonton

Well, that was pretty entertaining.

We took in Redbull’s Crashed Ice event on its Edmonton stop this past weekend, the last stop on a globe spanning tour that has seen this Ice Cross Downhill World Championships stop in cities from Finland to France to the US and Canada – in fact, the race was in La Sarre Quebec before bring the action to Edmonton, the final stop on the tour.

I confess I wasn’t familiar with the sport before we attended the Edmonton; but it isn’t too hard to get your brain around the concept, it’s a downhill skate race over a course that looks pretty extreme.

The skaters go off in heats of up to four, and rocket down an elaborate elevated course with a heavily iced surface, first one to the finish line wins. Sounds straightforward enough, right? But its easier said than done when you’re traveling at speeds of up to 80km/h.

No question this qualifies as an extreme sport, my friends, and I have nothing but respect for all the athletes who made it to the Edmonton final round.

(Incidentally, the overall winners were crowned here Saturday night, and American Amanda Trunzo took the honors in the women’s division, and Canada’s Scott Croxall won the men’s.

The full results can be seen here on Redbull’s Crashed Ice page

But it wasn’t just about the races themselves, this was a full-on, get-out-and-enjoy the spectacle in downtown E-town, where the streets around the Shaw center were closed off and people marched down Grierson hill to a site filled with a really decent crowd around the ice-cross track.

Adding another level of interest, this is the first year that Hyundai Motors has partnered with Redbull for the Crashed Ice show, the Korean manufacturer is using the extreme sport to showcase a couple of their more extreme vehicles – the newest generation of pumped-up Velosters.

The three door hatchbacks are being groomed for rally sport with the introductions of the 2019 Veloster Turbo and their halo hatch, the Veloster N

The Turbo was on display up at street level, showing off for the crowd with a sporty leatherclad interior and matte paint-job on it that looked pretty appealing.

This one boasts 201hp 195 lb.-ft. of torque (and I’m told it will be available with a manual transmission as well), but the monster Veloster, the N, was strictly on display at Crashed Ice.

Mirko Lahti of Finland, Alex Schrefels of the United States, Jesse Sauren of Finland and Joni Saarinen of Finland compete during the Junior Competition at the tenth and final stage of the ATSX Ice Cross Downhill World Championship at the Red Bull Crashed Ice in Edmonton, Canada on March 9, 2018.

Here it is up on a pedestal in front of one of the first drops on the ice course, looking sporty; and when it hits the streets and showrooms this car will really be bringing the performance.

A 2.0L turbocharged engine pushing 275 horses and 260 lb.-ft. of torque, riding on an electronically controlled suspension and offering a selection of driving modes tuned for track performance; with distinctive body sculpting and detailing to differentiate this top of the line model from the Turbo and other members of the Veloster lineup.

The N won’t be available until later in the year, so this is our first look at it, but we’ll be hoping to take a drive in this little monster when it arrives.

And on a less adrenalizing but perhaps more practical note, Hyundai had their newest urban-oriented utility vehicle on hand as well – here’s the 2018 Kona at their display in downtown Edmonton.

Now if you’re like me, gentle reader, you probably realize that while you may want the Veloster, the Kona is the one that makes a better case for purchase as all-round everyday vehicle for all seasons.

And that’s about it. Having seen this year’s Crashed Ice competition, I’m a fan; and having seen Edmonton’s support for the event and the good time had by everyone I met there I’d bet the event’s sponsors and promoters are fans of us too.

Check out the Youtube here:

 

 

 

Mercedes Benz E 400 Coupe

For 2018, a wicked two-door for the well-heeled 

Mercedes doesn’t require introduction in the world of tony, high-end vehicles, and the company offers an exhaustive range of choice for buyers across many pricepoints.

Not ‘any’ pricepoints, mind you, the pantheon of Benz is geared toward the customer with a premium car budget; but when you’re dressing for success and trying to impress the partners at the firm, that’s when you turn to German luxury and styling.

And the E-Class is the one to turn to, slightly better from a status standpoint than the C-Class, a few notches below the S-Class, and boasting major changes for this model year: the E400 4MATIC coupe.

(as is my wont, that will be the only time I spell it all in capitals like that. And, as you no doubt already know, 4Matic is Benz-speak for all-wheel drive).

The E400 has expanded for 2018, being both longer and wider (and just a little over an inch taller) than last year’s, and the engine still rates the same: a twin-turbo V6 capable of 329 horsepower and 354 lb.-ft. of torque.

Of course, if all you wanted was a powerful two-door, you’d buy a Mustang and save some money (unless you went with a Shelby Fastback, which is actually more expensive than the base E400), but if you’re shopping this one it’s all about the style.

Mercedes’ sets the tone with interiors, and while my test vehicle went with basic black as the dominant color scheme (it is available with optional brown, beige or two-tone color schemes), which imparts a feel of appropriately understated class.

Nappa leather upholstered seats face a redesigned dash crowned by digital displays (two of them on dash and console, each configurable and custom-tailorable as to the info they show) set on ash wood accented, curved surfaces.

The whole effect is wonderful to look at, and impressed everyone I showed the vehicle off to, but the icing on the cake in the E400 test car was the comfort of the first row; capped by my favorite option on the tester – massage seats.

Driver and front seat passenger will love this.

Seriously, up until I climbed into the E400 I would have said the seats in the previously featured BMW 440i were my favorite buckets in any luxury car I have driven; but the offers adjustable back massage of the E has won my heart.

The feature – like almost all onboard function in the E – is engaged and configured through a central controller on the console. This isn’t unusual for most luxury vehicles, you’ll find similar systems in all the premium cars, and while it isn’t as intuitive and straightforward as I want, I will say that like the Mercedes implementation of it (branded as COMAND, all in capitals once again) better than the touchpad of Lexus or the twiddle-and-poke function of BMW’s iDrive module.

Anyway, I’m saying 10 out of 10 for style and comfort throughout the cabin, with a bonus for the LED accent strip that rings the cockpit, which can be tailored according to your mood through the aforementioned Comand module.

Outwardly, you’ll still recognize the E Coupe, despite the company’s insistence that it is ‘all-new’ they haven’t departed too radically from their winning formula, and this is what really works for the car.

The fascia and headlight treatment is new, as are the air intakes and ‘diamond’ grille, and hood has been resculpted with what they call a powerdome bulge added; but the side windows and overall profile are still very similar to the 2017 model year.

It is a beautiful piece of sculpture, no question, but I like the way Benz has kept the outward appearance shy of being ostentatious and show-offy.

Driving the E400 is what really sells the car – from inside the ultra-quiet cabin the flat and stable ride garners approval from passengers in both front and rear seats, and the smoothness of acceleration from the three-litre six meshes so well with the steering feel that it will quickly spoil a driver for anything else.

The nine-speed transmissions fluid shifts are seamless in any of the drive modes, but the E allows you to takeover the shifting with wheel-mounted paddle shifters for those who enjoy the extra feel of being in charge.

All-wheel drive also brings a broader, year-round appeal to the platform, especially if you live in a climate zone where you just know its gonna snow.

I don’t have a lot of criticism of the E400 coupe overall, but for the really obvious:

The coupe body, having just two doors, in my mind makes it a de facto two-seater (its not, of course, the car will hold four people after all, but if you regularly haul more than one passenger you will want to check out the proper sedan version of the E-Class)

And then of course, the matter of price. My test model came with a sticker cost of $85,600, which included a number of option packages that brought it up to full luxury status.

You can pay a lot less and still come away with a pretty decent car from less prestigious brands, but hey, you can pay a lot more, too; compare it with a number of other similarly dressed-for-success autos from Audi, BMW or Lexus.

2018 Hyundai Elantra GT Sport

I do love the compact hatchbacks, my friends.

A 5-door hatch is the most useful body style for a car, especially that can be the only vehicle for a family, or even an angry loner such as myself.

The utility of the big rear door for cargo and groceries speaks for itself, and seating for up to five people is a plus; but put that together in a sporty hot-hatch body with a direct-injection gasoline turbo engine and a six-speed manual gearbox and we have a car that is actually a lot of fun in addition to practical.

Such is the case with this one – and here: check out our Youtube video of the  2018 Hyundai Elantra GT, in Sport trim.

Hyundai is pretty proud of this latest iteration of their well-received compact, and they tout it as being “all-new” for 2018

It’s not just the design of the body – and check it out, the Elantra has become progressively more attractive and aerodynamic this year, and gained a new and better-looking grille.

The company credits their new focus on ‘European styling’ for the improvements, which is where the car was developed and tested, and they also state that it is built with 53% more Advanced High Strength Steel (from their own subsidiary, Hyundai Steel, which they are extremely proud of)

That’s double the high strength steel used in the outgoing model, adding extra rigidity to the new Elantra GT’s chassis which Hyundai says further enhances noise insulation, collision safety, and the car’s driving and handling performance.

And sure, I’ll go along with that. The Elantra GT is highly maneuverable and genuinely fun to drive. The one we’re looking at here, as I say, is the Sport model, which gets Hyundai’s 1.6L turbo powerplant.

The engine has an output of 201 hp and 195 lb.-ft. of torque, which is actually more torque – available at lower rpms – than Honda’s Civic SI, but hey, we shouldn’t turn this into a horse-measuring contest here.

Sure you can get more get-up-and-go in Ford’s Focus ST or the VW Golf GTi, but really, we must stop and ask ourselves, how much power does the average driver require, for average daily use?

201 is way more than adequate, at least for any kind of legal driving, and it got me up to speed good and quick in any situation where I poured it on.

Now, you can get the GT with an automatic (a 7-speed dual clutch transmission), but for the purists, the six-speed manual is great. A short throw shifter that feels great to use, and helps bring the performance-oriented feel to daily driving.

So with a package that offers great flexibility for cargo an passenger handling, as much power the average driver is ever likely to need and a generally good looking vehicle body, its hard to pick at the 2018 GT Sport’s faults.

It isn’t even significantly expensive when compared to its major rivals (like the aforementioned Civic Si), and in fact comes in a lot lower than either the Golf or Focus hot-hatches; and I want to mention here that Hyundai has gained a lot of ground in terms or reliability and longevity; as demonstrated by the Consumer reports rating of not just this but all of their lineup.

The NRCanada fuel economy rating for the GT is 10.7L/100 km, which, while not stellar, isn’t really too bad for a turbo gasoline engine intended to be sporty and fun, and here’s the thing:

If you love the looks and the layout, but don’t need the turbo, the Elantra GT is also available with a 2.0 litre non-turbo engine and starts in the low twenties.

Our GT Sport tester moves that up a bit, with this one coming in at a Canadian MSRP of a little over 28K

2017 Toyota Highlander SE

The Highlander needs no introduction, Toyota’s popular crossover took over the roads and grabbed up market share beginning back in 2001, and has developed a reputation for quality and endurance that keeps customers coming back.2017Highlander-9

The shape is still familiar, although the front end has been tweaked for the new model year with the family grille; the wide-mouth trapezoid that is being bestowed on Toyota models of all sizes and types.

Still in its third generation, Highlander is much the same for 2017 as last year’s, but with a new package available – the SE option.2017Highlander-7

To be brief, the SE is a package available on the XLE (V6) trim, which gives the vehicle a sportier grille, second row reclining captain’s chairs (SE is a seven seater, Highlanders can also be bought with room for eight passengers), roof rails, ambient lighting, SE-specific paint options and 19” wheels.

The one you see here is a gasoline-powered (i.e., non hybrid) coaxing a potential 265 horsepower from its 3.5L six-cylinder engine, and sporting a new-for-2017 8-speed automatic transmission.2017Highlander-4

Blind-spot monitors and rear cross-traffic sensors are a useful part of the safety suite, as is intelligent cruise control, lane departure warning (and an active departure-assist system, which will attempt to pull the car back between the lines, presumably in case a driver isn’t paying attention).

It drove well, for a large-ish, though technically still a ‘mid-size’ crossover, with smooth steering and good stopping power from the brakes. The cabin is spacious and cargo-friendly when the third row of seats is folded down, and when the rearmost seats are righted, access to them is helped out by the sliding second row.

Comfortable enough for long drives, thanks to a driver’s seat that will accommodate a wide variety of body types, although I got a few complaints about the ride from second-row passengers.2017Highlander-2

Overall, it is easy to recommend Highlanders in any trim, just based on the vehicle’s rep and record. It is a constant favorite of Consumer Reports and other quality barometers, and yielded good fuel economy during my time in the SE – the ‘city’ portion of which was no doubt helped by the engine’s auto-stop function, which shuts it down when stopped at a light.

There are definitely a few things I would change about it, of course, should I ever become a Toyota engineer:

I don’t especially enjoy the user interface on the console, with flat buttons on either side of the information display that don’t offer a lot of ‘feedback’ when you are using them – sort of like elevator buttons, if you know what I mean. You have to look at them to see if they have responded to your touch.

The vehicle didn’t have a digital speedometer option among the choices of info to display between the dials, and the navigation app wasn’t especially space age, lacking the handy feature whereby speed limits are shown on the street map on the center display.

2017Highlander-6

You see what I mean about the cover, right? Here it is in its mounted position, where it blocks the 3rd row, and also inhibits folding the seats.

Finally, the rollup tonneau cover, which hides your goodies in the back from prying eyes isn’t easy to store when you remove it. Unlike, say, Subaru’s Forester, where a compartment has been built into the rear floor to snap the thing into to have somewhere to keep it when it’s not in use; the one in the Highlander has to sit loose on the floor. And it would have to be removed when using the third row seats, as it locks in place right in front of them.

And of course the price – Highlander comes at a premium it seems. My test model, with the $1,595 SE Package, bent the sticker all the way to $47,478 including taxes/destination charges.