2020 Hyundai Veloster N

Okay, this is certainly the most exciting Hyundai product I have driven to date. A performance hatchback, a super-souped up version of the company’s distinctive, slightly weird three-door compact, this right here is the 2020 Veloster N

(Listen, I’m going to try to not use the term ‘hot hatch’ here, not because it isn’t appropriate, but because that phrase has been sputtered out by literally everyone else who has driven it and now it is overused).

Hyundai has pulled off a real achievement here, not only creating a track-ready car with genuine fun factor, but doing so at a competitive price.

Starting with the biggest difference between the N and the regular ol’ Veloster, this one gets Hyundai’s turbocharged ‘Theta’ 2.0L engine under the hood, pumping 275 hp and 260 lb.-ft. of torque (or, 74 more horses than the 1.6L turbo available in regular Veloster models, and 128 more ponies than the base model two litre).

A six-speed manual transmission is the way to go with a car like this, and the stick in my test car did the job magnificently, short throws and the gates exactly where they should be (that’s my way of saying I never ‘missed’ a shift in my time with the car) paired with a clutch that is, likewise, easy to get used to.

The N model gets exterior cosmetic enhancements to differentiate it, most notably the grille and bigger wheels (19 inch, with low-profile tires which I can only assume would be pricey to replace after you’ve burned all the rubber off driving in the performance modes). The Veloster N body is also slightly longer, end-to-end, and slightly (10mm) wider.

It gets better front seats, too. Strap yourself into the sport-oriented, comfortably-but-firmly bolstered driver’s position (with the cool blue seatbelt) and hit the keyless start button and the fun begins.

There’s the standard, driver-selectable modes that we find in a number of vehicles (Normal/Eco/Sport), but behind the prominent N button on the steering wheel, this Veloster offers a bunch of user-customizable features (as well as a default N Mode, where the manufacturer has built a package of suspension stiffness, accelerator response and steering wheel ‘weight’ that, frankly, is pretty much perfect).

As you may imagine, N Mode is what people will buy this car for, and it really delivers on its promise. The suspension tightens up noticeably, the exhaust note changes to a suitably throaty growl, and the handling and cornering ability of the car (and full and instantaneous torque response) come out in full display.

Indeed, I wish I’d had some track time during my experience with the Veloster N, but even just keeping it within the posted limits and only doing the fun stuff in safe areas with no one around, this car is a hoot to drive.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

And even when you keep it in Comfort or Eco modes and just treat it as an A to B conveyance, the balanced feel of the low-slung body remains.

The interior is comfortable enough, once you get in (which in my case, was a case of folding myself up and doing a sort of backwards half-somersault while swing my knees under the steering wheel) but once inside there is good room overhead in the front seats.

Everything is pleasant enough to look at, and feels good (as you should expect from the price tag, though, you’ll find cloth upholstery and an array of plastic surfaces), and a relatively small suite of electronic/infotainment googaws.

Operated by a touchscreen (and supplemented with steering-mounted buttons), the N includes things like Android and Apple CarPlay mobile integration, Bluetooth connectivity, and a surround sound stereo system with 8 speakers.

But there are a number of things my test car didn’t include (and aren’t offered), and herein lies my main problems with the Veloster N

There was, for example, no navigation system.

The car had no front parking sensors, either, which can and will be a problem with a low-to-the-ground car with a fairly long overhang of the front end, just begging to play everyone’s favorite game: Meet the Curb.

It also lacked rear cross-traffic alert (one of my absolute fave safety features in any car) nor did it have a blind spot monitor system (and you can’t get them on the Veloster N, either, although it does come with regular Velosters). The lack of blind spot warning thing in particular gets up my nose, because rearward and over-the-shoulder visibility in this car is not as good as I’d like it to be.

And also, with heaven as my witness, I don’t like the rear seats.

It’s not just that they’re small, and there isn’t a lot of headroom (though all the passengers I had in the car during my time n it felt that legroom was pretty good), no, what bugs me is the whole ‘three doors’ thing.

The rear seat passenger on the driver’s side, has no door beside them, and that makes me feel claustrophobic as hell. I mean, let’s think the unthinkable here and pretend that you’re that passenger and there’s a rollover or something, and you find yourself trapped in the back seat with an immobilized fat guy beside you, blocking the only way out. Scary, yes?

Anyway, pretend I never said that. The main takeaway here is that if you like the regular Veloster, you’ll love the Veloster N. And the best part: the price.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Coming in at $34,999 (with another $1,705 freight charge), this is one of the best price-per-horsepower cars around.

2019 Honda Passport

Okay, the Passport is touted as all-new for 2019, but let’s start with the question that I (and everyone else I showed the Touring-trim test vehicle to during my time in it) asks:

What’s the difference between this and Honda’s other, very similar vehicle, the Pilot?

Because at a glance, they look a lot alike to my eye, both are pretty much the same size (and use the same engine, and depending on the trim level, the same transmission) and be honest, they look alike. In fact, I would cavalierly say that you could just just think of it as a Pilot without the third row of seats, but that wouldn’t be quite correct.

Both vehicles use the same engine, a 3.5L six-cylinder that promises a capable 280 horsepower (and 262 lb.-ft. of torque), and a nine-speed automatic transmission (at least in the case of the Touring trim models, which was the case with test car; and both can be had with all-wheel drive.

The Passport, is slightly shorter, end-to-end, and also slightly wider and taller on a wheelbase that is almost the same (it is three whole millimetres shorter with the Passport). Oddly, despite this, the Passport’s turning radius is greater than the Pilot. Oh, and Passport has more second row legroom, owing to not having a third row squeezed in behind it.

This fine by me, and possibly for most potential customers, as I don’t need or use the third row in any vehicle I test, and the seats get folded down to make for more cargo space – which the Passport offers plenty of, boasting an interior cargo volume of 1,430 litres.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

So there’s that. Mostly though, it dishes out a Honda-level utility vehicle experience and brings its AWD platform and ground clearance to the real world where I recently drove one around for a week.

As I always enjoy mentioning, my city is fraught with potholes and uneven road surfaces, and in the summer we love to compound that by tearing up all the streets and major thoroughfares at once; in order to provide the residents with a delightful challenge – hence the desirability of an SUV or crossover vehicle.

I actually beat the NRCan fuel economy projection (11.3L/100km) after a week in the Passport, running it in Eco mode most of the time.

It handles all the bumps very well (including those ruthless extra-large speed bumps they put in quiet, children-infested neighbourhoods, those really tall ones that’ll rip your underside off if you’re driving a low-slung sports car) and a pretty capable suspension smoothed the ride and kept everything comfortable inside the cabin in both rows.

Some credit for Passport’s bump absorption must go to the seats. Well padded affairs, wrapped in leather upholstery and fairly roomy for people of almost any size, they are comfortable in either row and the driver’s perch offers a good range of adjustment.

Fire it up via push-button start, and appreciate the clean look of the instrument cluster – easy to read with all the major gauges obvious and use. The steering wheel houses a number of buttons, which you may also appreciate, as you may be using the steering-mounted controls more than the touchscreen interface (because the touchscreen has almost no buttons – although Honda at least brought the on/off/volume control knob back). You know what I figure it could use, is a central control knob on the centre console, such as you’d find in Mazda’s products.

Meh, I’m not sure I can fall in love with this.

What you do find on the centre console is the gear selector, which is the ‘strip-of-buttons’ arrangement found on most Honda (and Acura) vehicles. I have never really liked this thing, although really, it doesn’t offend anything but my dinosaurian sensibilities, which demand a proper shifter.

Boiling it all down, the Passport is an option for people who like the Pilot for its overall size and capabilities, but don’t need to stuff up to eight people into it. It also comes with a sticker price a few grand less than Pilot: the model I drove, Touring trim, came to $50,911.25 including freight and PDI

And, for those who like the size and configuration, but don’t care for Honda’s interface and controls, check out competitors like Toyota’s Highlander, the Kia Sorento or Hyundai’s Santa Fe (among many others, of course. This is a crowded segment, gentle shopper, with lots of choices available).

Mazda3 tackles 2019

2019 Mazda3 GT Sport, AWD

This is one of those vehicles that I never hesitate to recommend to anyone looking for a compact car, and Mazda has expanded the choices for 2019 with the introduction of an all-wheel drive option for their likeable sedan (or hatchback).

I love a mainstream family car with some curb-appeal on the outside, and enough attention to comfort and technology in the cabin that it never feels like the only reason for buying it is sheer value-for-money.

2019 Mazda3 GT sedan, front wheel drive

Indeed, the Mazda3 feels and looks and drives like a much more expensive car than it is, and is one of those marques that has moved the bar for all manufacturers by showing how well it can be done.

Having had the chance to get into a one of each earlier this summer, both in the top-line GT trim (so, you know, with more leather and a higher price tag than the entry-level) and came away impressed. In fact, picking a favourite mainly revolves around how much you feel you need the AWD drivetrain.

Otherwise, what you get in either package (the AWD is the red Sport hatchback in the photos, the grey sedan is the regular front-wheel drive) is a welcoming interior with comfortable seats and an array of controls that manage to remain easy-to-use while looking suitably high-tech and 21st century.

Here are the common stats for both these vehicles:

• 2.5L 4-cylinder engine (with cylinder deactivation)
• 186 horsepower, 186 lb.-ft. Torque
• 6-speed automatic transmission
• Heated seats, heads-up display, blind spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert and backup camera
• 8.8 inch information display
The Sport hatchback is about 65kg heavier, owing to the AWD system

Hopping into either model, I’m greeted by a heads-up display (or ‘Active driving Display’ as Mazda bills it), a little cooler hologram projected on the windshield just above the steering wheel. This is a great feature in any vehicle, for keeping important information – like the vehicle’s speed, for I live in the land of radar traps – right in front of you.

Firing the car up with the keyless start button, and the SkyActiv 4-cylinder engine shows off… well, let’s not call it a ‘sporty’ engine note, but a pleasant one; and also a quiet engine, which I like.

I didn’t find a big difference between the Sport AWD and the front-wheel drive sedans steering and handling (although the Sport is heavier), and frankly I doubt most drivers would, unless you jump from one model to the other back-to-back. For a mainstream family car, the steering feel is very good indeed, bringing a more tight and connected sensation with little ‘play’ in the wheel and just heavy enough that there’s enough feedback through the wheel to keep a driver engaged.

A lot of this is due to Mazda’s SkyActiv powertrain and the incorporation of the company’s G-vectoring Control system; which they tout as a grand enhancement to the car’s overall stability. Heck, I’ll just quote directly from their press kit, as I wouldn’t want to get the wording wrong:

“GVC maximizes tire performance by focusing on the vertical load
on the tires. The moment the driver starts to turn the steering wheel, GVC controls engine drive torque to generate a deceleration G-force, thereby shifting load to the front wheels. This increases front-wheel tire grip, enhancing the vehicle’s turn-in responsiveness”.

And, well, I have no reason to doubt them – the handling is very good, and twisting and cornering in the car is genuinely fun.

Inside the cabin, in either of the models I drove (both GT trim level) the driver gets the best seat in the cabin – a ten-way adjustable power affair with excellent lumbar support in my test cars, thanks to the inclusion of the Premium Package option (which also gave it the heads-up display). This $2500 package also includes rear crossing brake support and parking sensors, rear parking sensors and a traffic sign recognition system; all in all a pretty good addition to the car.

All the seats are quite good throughout, passengers aren’t punished by either the seating or the ride, and cabin quiet has been further bolstered by seals and damping, and sound insulation. All the better to listen to the Bose sound system, I suppose.

As for fuel efficiency, well it goes without saying that the AWD models consume more gas that the front-drive ones, but frankly not that much more.

The NRCan numbers for the Sport are 8.2L/100 km (combined), and the Fwd sedan is rated at 8.0L, but here’s an interesting anecdote for you: when Mazda entered both models in this year’s EcoRun competition, each of them achieved some pretty astounding results (which you can see here, alongside a number of other entrants), with an incredible 5.4 and 5.7L/100km, respectively.

Styling is one of the key selling points for the entire Mazda lineup as well – the company has really got their game on (finally, after a few years of that odd ’smiley face’ grille they were doing). Front-to-back, the 2019 Mazda3s rule the segment, I like their looks better than most of the competition.

The only thing I’m going to bring up is the new, fattened C-pillar on the hatchback model, which I don’t especially care for, both aesthetically and from a rear visibility standpoint. Now obviously, things like the blindspot monitor and rear traffic detection help make up for the compromised sightlines, but I am one of those old people who still enjoys things like shoulder-checking and, y’know, looking around.

All in all, it comes down to whether you prefer a hatch or a sedan, and AWD or front-drive. Speaking for myself, I’ve always liked a five-door body, but there is a decent trunk on the sedan, so you tell me – which one?

As for pricing, both vehicles were loaded up with the Premium Package option, which added $2,500 to the sticker, but the GT sedan (in optional Machine Grey Metallic paint) came to $30,695, all in, and that fancy-lookin’ Soul Red Crystal Sport model with all-wheel drive showed up at $33,645

.

 

 

EcoRun 2019: Alberta Edition

Calgary

We were yahoo’d properly into the spirit of the town, and given big, funny hats befitting our stature by the city’s Director of Business Development, Greg Newton, down at the Stampede grounds as the 2019 edition of EcoRun came to a close.

Stampede didn’t officially start for another week, but around here they take this festival/rodeo seriously, and start the party early. Our hotel downtown was buzzing with people in similar hats to ours, and the atmosphere decidedly celebratory.

However, just as the speechifying was about to begin, with the announcements of who among us had achieved the best fuel economy numbers – and would thus rule over us all with their prize, the coveted ‘Green Jersey’ (similar to an Oscar, except it isn’t rigged, ha ha), that’s when the weather turned on us.

The sky cracked open, and blasted down upon us some truly biblical rain, which is one thing; but it was when the thunder started and the power in our building went out that our group abandoned Stampede Park and ran to the buses back to downtown, sheltered from the monsoon (somewhat) by our big, funny hats.

But wait. I’m formulating this tale poorly – stories aren’t supposed to start at the end. Let’s back it up a couple of days, to the beginning of this 8th installment of AJAC’s EcoRun:

Edmonton

We kicked it off in Edmonton, down by the river at Louise McKinney Park. Mayor Don Iveson joined Minister of Natural Resources Amarjeet Sohi and Suncor VP Dean Wilcox on a stage with several of the vehicles to open the drive.

(And hey, for a complete list of vehicles that were involved in the event, and their fuel scores, scroll down to the bottom of the page).

EcoRun Chair David MIller (left) opens the event along with Mayor Don Iveson, Minister of Natural Resources Amarjeet Sohi and Suncor VP Dean Wilcox Photo courtesy John Walker/AJAC

You don’t need me to run down what the annual EcoRun is all about – in a nutshell it’s a demonstration of vehicles from a number of manufacturers’ most fuel efficient products. Not everything needs to be an EV or a hybrid to enter; we had a diesel-powered Chevy Colorado in the mix along with a couple of gasoline-only Mazda3s (both sedan and hatchback, and one an AWD to boot).

Here’s some links to some past history and overview of the event and its intent.

Getting back to the story: I jumped into a Toyota RAV4 and drove out to our first destination (and charge point for the electric vehicles):

Red Deer

I rolled into the ‘Deer with an average of 5.5L/100km, which is actually .5 under the NRCanada rating for the RAV, and pretty decent for an AWD crossover. It underscores another important point, too; almost every vehicle entered in this year’s run actually beat the projected ‘official’ mileage figures – some by a little and some by a lot. Check out the results for the Hyundai Elantra and the Colorado, for example!

Red Deer isn’t just famous for being the birthplace of Wade Ozeroff, either, there’s a sports museum on the outskirts of the city where we pulled in for a look while the EV’s recharged. The recharging can take a couple of hours, even with 240v power, so the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame is a good place to kill time, and hear a few words from one of the big sponsors of the EcoRun, ATCO’s Francois Blouin.

Drumheller

I switched to a Volvo for the next leg, an XC60 T8 for the drive from Red Deer to Drumheller. Great vehicle, incidentally; I love Volvo’s interiors in any of their current vehicle lineup. I got less-stellar fuel economy on this leg of the run, though, coming in at 6.7L per 100km.

But hey! Drumheller! I haven’t been to the area since I was a little kid, and they’ve got way more stuff at the excellent Royal Tyrrell Museum. I totally recommend it – there’s dozens if not hundreds of dinosaur skeletons (and prehistoric mammals). The facility is awesome, as is the Badlands countryside around it.

 Calgary

It was in Drumheller that I swapped the Volvo for a fully electric vehicle, a Kia Niro. And here’s an important point: EVs have become much better at predicting, accurately, their range. When they unhooked my test car from the charging station, it claimed to have a range of 220 kilometers.

I have been in earlier-generation electric vehicles where this claim meant nothing (which is where the whole ‘range anxiety’ comes in – a car starts off saying it has lots of range and then the estimate plummets when you pull onto the highway in a headwind, and then suddenly you’re worried about not making it home).

Not the case with the Niro, though. The drive to Cowtown was 141 km, and pulled into the hotel downtown with 80 km of range still left in the battery, according to its info display.

Longview

Photo courtesty AJAC/John Walker

Longview, AB isn’t just the home of country music icon Ian Tyson, it is also the base of one of the finest Jerky stores in our fine province. I picked some up for the rest of the trip, and totally vouch for the quality of their fine product.

That aside, the trip to Longview from Calgary (this is into the second day of the Run) allowed another hybrid from Toyota to stand out – the Corolla Hybrid.

What made it remarkable in particular was that this was only leg of the event where I drove with a passenger in any of the vehicles. A delightful woman named Andrea from NRCan joined me for the trip, which was great timing because the Corolla didn’t a navigation system and I am absolutely terrible at directions.

Indeed, the only thing worse than a car with no nav is a car with a navigation system that gets confused and does stupid things like try to send you the wrong way down a one-way, or keeps making you drive across the bridge over the river unnecessarily. So it was good to have someone to read the map directions, especially since all the highways to Longview seem to be called Hwy 22. Andrea can attest to this.

Anyway, the point is, the Corolla hybrid came in under the official economy estimate with two of us in the car (I got 3.9km/100km versus the stated 4.5 from the company) and that was including me getting lost for a while on the way out of downtown.

Banff/Canmore

Coming into the home stretch, Andrea abandoned me in Longview (perhaps in favor of a more competent media geek, one who doesn’t get lost, I dunno), and I hopped daintily into another Toyota product – one of my favorites: the Prius!

And not just any Prius, either, but the company’s new, all-wheel drive model. It turned in stellar mileage on the drive from Longview to Banff/Canmore yielding 3.7L/100km which is incredible for an AWD car, and full litre below the official economy numbers. Also, this one had a nav system, and a really good one at that.

Calgary Redux

In summation: that was about that, my gentle friends. My last push of the EcoRun was in a Nissan Altima that took me into Calgary (admittedly, it was pretty much a straight run down the highway) with a result almost two km under the official FE number, at 5.8L/100km.

I could have done better, too, but the Altima’s nav system got confused and kept trying to make me drive over to the wrong side of the river and I got mad at it and was perhaps mashing the gas a little hard as I drove ‘round and ‘round in downtown traffic.

Actual photo of David MIller, outgoing EcoRun Chair and a pretty right-on guy.

And now we’re back to the start of this tale, y’all, with a bunch of really good-lookin’ men and women fleeing the Stampede grounds deluge in big funny hats.

Don’t worry, though, we took over the bar at the hotel for the closing ceremonies, conducted under makeshift conditions by longtime EcoRun Chair, David Miller. The poignant touch on the evening is that will be Miller’s last turn as Chair of the event after 8 years – a great guy with absolutely first-rate planning skills who consistently pulls together the wonderful showcase of fuel-efficient and alternative-fuel vehicles. I can’t imagine how much work must go into putting this spectacle on, primarily done by Miller and the event Logistics Manager, the excellent Jim Koufis.

My big funny hat is off to them, and to the Alberta edition of the AJAC EcoRun!

You can check out the results below for the results of all the entries, there really isn’t a loser in the bunch:

 

 

2019 JCW MINI Countryman ALL4

Well, it isn’t the MINI that I would buy, but the Countryman is the model that makes the most sense.

(In case you are wondering why I wouldn’t buy one, it is because my favorite is the ‘real’ one: the three-door Cooper. That thing is my jam, man. Oh, and also the price, but I’ll save that ‘til the end, to build suspense).

I tell you, though, the 2019 Countryman, in this case all dressed up in the John Cooper Works package, is the one that works the best for where I live – a magical kingdom where the potholes rule the road, and periodically a wicked ‘polar vortex’ weather pattern moves through; as happened during my time with the test car.

Right off the bat, I’ll give it full marks for its cold-start cooperativity, and for having heated seats and steering wheel, as I experienced the Countryman during a record-setting time in February, (where we set a new benchmark for most days with temps below -20C, apparently).

My Countryman was equipped with a pricey John Cooper Works package, not unlike the last time I got up close with the largest of the MINI fam, and the overall experience in my time in this one was much the same.

The season, though, was different, and so my impressions were more focussed on the all-wheel drive and selectable traction control modes than in the Countryman’s power or dynamic handling (which are both pretty decent in the compact utility vehicle class – my tester boasted a potential 228 hp and 258 lb.-ft. of torque – and will bring you ample acceleration in more ideal road conditions).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It dealt with the snow very well (but if we’re being honest, I won’t it overshadowed any of the other AWD utility vehicles I have driven in slippery/drifty conditions, it just did the job and stayed under control at all times and of course never got stuck).

A 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder engine puts out the power; and delivered fuel economy that, while not hybrid calibre, stayed pretty acceptable by my estimation – I ended up averaging 9.8L/100km, and that’s in winter conditions and deep cold. Also I didn’t put the vehicle in Sport mode very often. JCW brings the action to halt when necessary with big Brembo brakes that could frankly be described as “grabby”. I know the vehicle is intended for performance situations, but I’ll warn you in advance if you’re planning a test drive in a JCW Countryman, braking comes on hard and enthusiastically when you hit the pedal.

Inside the JCW Countryman, the familiar circular motif of the MINI brand continues, with all the gauges, controls and displays framed in round, or at least rounded shapes. All the instruments are easy to read and understand, the switchgear looks quite arty, and most functions run through a centralized knob-and-buttons controller on the console.

The front seats were very good in the test car – fully adjustable, heated sports seats with thigh extension and upholstered in (optional) “Carbon Punch” leather.

An advantage of the Countryman line is that the rear seats are also pretty accommodating for passengers – they had more head and leg room than I expected, and more configurable because they could both slide forward and back, and also recline.

So overall, the Countryman sells itself as a thoroughly practical choice for everyday driving, and is a capable, multipurpose crossover that can handle a wider variety of conditions than my beloved three-door Cooper. Being in the ‘premium’ class of the segment, it brings a higher level of quality and design (and materials) over what you would find in some of the more down-to-earth competitors (like Mazda’s CX-3 for example), but here’s the thing: that all comes with a premium sticker price.

While the ALL4 lineup starts at a not-bad entry point of $31,090 (according to the company’s product guide) this one here, being the extra-tony Midnight Black Edition pushed that up to $39,790, and then with the John Cooper Works Package added (JCW option is another $7,200) and the freight and PDI charges tacked on, we are suddenly looking at a total cost of $49,635

 

2019 Toyota Tundra SR5

(or, if you enjoy longer, but more technically correct headlines: 2019 4×4 Toyota Tundra SR5 Crewmax 5.7L TRD Pro)

As with a number of Toyota’s vehicles (I’m thinking of the 4Runner), the company’s full-size pickup is nearing the end of its current-generation product life cycle. The 2019 Tundra is pretty close to the ones we’ve seen on the roads for the past few years give or take a few updates and cosmetic and option/packaging changes.

Our tested vehicle this time out is a 4×4 with Crewmax cab (like all pickups from virtually all the major players, there is a bewildering variety of configurations to choose from) and 5.7 litre V8 engine.

This big iForce powerplant brings a competitive 381 horsepower (and 401 lb.-ft. of torque) to the platform and promises a 1,700 lb payload in the bed and 10,000 lb towing capacity. I’ll just mention here that buyers can still select Tundra with a smaller 4.6 litre eight-banger as well, should you not require that kind of power.

Porting the power through a 6-speed automatic transmission and making it easy between four-wheel drive modes (and 4×2) with a simple knob on the dash, the Tundra is easy to get used to and doesn’t bring a big learning curve to jump in and start driving.

As it happened, our videographer, Elliott owns a 2013 Tundra (also with TRD Pro equipment) so here is a look at the two side-by-side:

For 2019, the TRD package brings extra toughness and off-road equipment – and a few new standard features (like the Rigid Industries fog lamps, and Fox shock absorbers) in addition to a lot of badges all over the vehicle, inside and out.

TRD Pro pumps up the cost of the Tundra by almost eighteen grand ($17,900 to be exact) but brings it to a level suitable as a proper truck for real world use.

The offroad capability is boosted with an underbody skid plate and fuel tank protector plates, all-terrain tires (mounted on TRD-specific 18” wheels and Remote Reservoir suspension kit.

The branding adds to the appearance inside and out, with TRD performance dual exhaust tips and black badging, and the name is now stamped into the bed side; and some pretty good looking stitching on the leather seats in the cabin.

Passenger space is generous throughout the Crewmax cab, as is storage area; but here’s an interesting thing Elliott pointed out when compared to his 2013 model: the rear seats have been changed to a flip-up style, which has eliminated a behind the seat hidden storage area.

Technology standouts in our test Tundra were clearance and backup sensors (and blind spot monitor), AVN navigation system and an auto-dimming rear view mirror with compass in it.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I won’t pretend I did any serious rough-country driving during my time in the Tundra, but Toyota boasts of the vehicle’s ability on difficult terrain. I did manage to find some snowy trails and a lot of pothole-cratered roads to navigate though (because I live in Edmonton, you see, where our civic flag is just a picture of a pothole swallowing a car) and the truck dealt with urban hazards with ease and a consistently smooth ride.

Even the price isn’t all that off-putting, though frankly I think I may have become somewhat jaded to pickup prices. Sixty-five grand is sixty-five grand, after all, but you can certainly pay more than that for a number of trucks that double as working and family vehicles (like the Ram 1500 we looked at recently).

Detractions I would offer after my time in this one, in addition to the usual stuff that comes with the overall size (the turning circle, the difficulty in any sort of covered parkade due to the overall height) would be:

No smart key. I could open the doors by pushing a button on the fob, but starting the Tundra required the key to be inserted in the ignition. Seems kind of anachronistic in these modern times.

Climbing into the cab was made more difficult by the test truck having no step-in rail or running board.

And of course, fuel economy – the Tundra is rated at a combined mileage of 16.0L/100 km, and I came in closer to eighteen, though in it’s defense, all my driving was done during a week of pretty heavy snow and deep-freeze temps.

Ultimately, it is a decent truck backed by Toyota’s formidable reputation for build quality and long-term value, and despite the age of this current generation continues to offer the best competition to the traditional Big Three options.

2019 Acura RDX Premium Elite

For those times when you want what everybody else is having, just nicer and with more stuff, the premium crossover offers a solution.

Midsize utility vehicles dominate the market, for reasons easy to see – elevated lines of sight for drivers, easier entry and exit due to the overall height, and (in most cases) all wheel drive – make for a package that suits the needs of a large segment of the population.

And, when a buyer wants such a vehicle, but still wishes to stand out from the crowd (and not have their ride easily confused with all the others on the roads), the makers of luxury brands step up and offer just that.

This is the case with the RDX, from Acura, Honda’s luxury arm. They’ve been selling the combination of everyday usefulness and high style (and of course, enhanced performance) since 2006, and with this third generation have put forth a complete redesign to make their popular offering ever more appealing to driver and passenger alike.

Certainly the 2019 RDX is vastly better looking in its redesigned body – the grille alone is an improvement over past models (which the company describes as ‘diamond pentagon’), and follows up with more pleasing and tapered style from front to rear.

I’m a fan of the new look, mostly because I was never a fan of the old look; that cheese-slicer faux-chrome horizontal band that served as the vehicle’s face just didn’t do anything for me.

The ‘A’ badge at the center of the grille has grown quite a bit larger as well; you won’t miss the branding even at a casual glance.

Naturally, one of Acura’s biggest hooks has always been performance. The manufacturer is dedicated to bringing a sporty and, when pushed, adrenaline charged experience to their models, and the RDX continues to bring that with the latest iteration.

It gets a new engine for the new generation, a turbo two-litre (which replaces the 3.5L V6 of past models) that is capable of 272hp and 280 lb.-ft. of torque. The power comes on quickly and readily – I didn’t find any significant lag or delay when punching the accelerator, regardless of which of the available drive modes I’d selected.

The intelligent, adaptive suspension and all-wheel drive system (called ‘super-handling all wheel drive’ in Acura-speak, SH-AWD for short) keeps the ride under control on slippery terrain, or when performing enthusiastic cornering just for the fun of it.

Inside the cabin, the RDX follows through on the ‘premium’ promise, decking the seating surfaces out in comfortable leather and the dash and door trim with dark wood inserts. It was all quite pleasant to look at and touch in the test vehicle I used for this review, as was the brown-on-black color scheme inside the cabin.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

From the driver’s position, the 2019 RDX is great. I love a heads-up information display, putting the pertinent info (particularly the speed) in easy view right in front of you. I am throwing in a special shout-out to the 16-way power adjustable driver’s seat in my Platinum Elite trim test vehicle, Acura offers one of the best driver’s seats available.

The steering feels great, it’s smooth and responsive, allowing a feeling of connection and control. Braking is very effective, without being grabby, even when applying the brakes hard.

As is the case with any vehicle from any carmaker looking to compete in the premium market, technology abounds; some of it good and some of it… well some of it I could do without.

I love the look and design of the center console and gauge cluster, it’s a masterpiece of high-end industrial design. The framing of the mode selector knob and gear selector on the center console looks good, as does the central information display on the dash.

Things I don’t especially care for though, are the gear selector itself (it is the ‘strip-of-buttons’ motif found in an increasing number Honda and Acura products). I just prefer an old-skool shifter. Maybe that’s just me. I feel the same way about the turny-knob selector found in several FCA vehicles, like the Ram 1500.

Another thing I didn’t enjoy in the RDX is the touchpad interface. Similar to what you’ll find in other premium offerings from, say, Lexus’ NX, it is like the pad on most laptop computers. While the one in the RDX is perhaps more precise, I find that with any of these systems, inevitable some sort of grit or crumb or particle of dust ends up on the pad and you feel it under your finger when touching the pad and ew, I hate that.

As for the pricing of the vehicle, well decide for yourself.

The one used for this review was the top-of-the-line trim, a Platinum Elite (with no additional options, and I do like a vehicle that comes pretty much complete without having to tick a lot of boxes to get all the extras required to fully put together the car you want), and it rolls with an MSRP of $54,990 before taxes and destination charges.

In the world of premium crossover utes, that’s actually not out of the norm, and I will mention that 2019 RDX can be had in five different models (base, Technology, Elite and A-Spec), all of which provide the basics of the Acura experience, starting at entry point of $43,990

©Wade Ozeroff 2019

2019 RAM 1500 Limited

Big, bold and (arguably) beautiful, revamped and reworked for 2019 the Ram 1500 competes with other upper-niche trucks that seek to fill the higher echelons of the pickup market.

This one, a 1500 in ‘Limited’ trim definitely positions itself near the top. It’s a combination of comfortable and well-appointed cabin, with a piled-on collection of tech and creature comforts wrapped in a body painted ‘Diamond Black Crystal Pearl’ (quite a mouthful there, eh?).

Powered by a 5.7L HEMI eight-cylinder engine dispensing huge power and torque (395 hp and 410 lb.-ft., respectively) and four wheel drive, this is the Ram for the well-heeled and style-conscious buyer.

Of course that comes at a price, and omigawd – have you seen how much you can option the price of a pickup to these days? Equipped as it is, this one bent the MSRP to over thousand dollars (CDN, of course), but I’ll come back to that in a bit.

Clambering up into (and out of) the cabin is aided by a foldout, power running board/step, which is handy because the Ram is a tall vehicle, but once everyone is inside there is a great deal of space in both seat rows, and rear seat legroom is extraordinarily good.

Quality leather wraps the seats, and passengers and driver (me) alike found them extremely comfortable. The climate controls allow for everyone to tailor the heat or A/C to their individual preference, but it was mostly heat that was in demand at the time of year I drove the Ram. On that note, I do love a vehicle with a heated steering wheel. Once you’ve experienced this function there’s no going back.

I loved the sound system in the Limited tester (it’s a Harmon/Kardon rig with 19 speakers), and I very quickly resorted to using the vehicle’s voice-command system for changing stations on the radio, because if I’m being honest here, I found the center stack interface difficult to use.

There’s a big touchscreen (and in the Limited its very big, twelve inches) that will display the various onboard functions of the Ram. You can split the display into up to four quadrants to show multiple info at once, and it is pretty bright. Like, almost too bright, especially at night.

A very good camera system with the Limited helped me out tremendously, as I don’t regularly drive vehicles of this size; so a 360 degree view along with backup cameras and rear cross-traffic alerts was a real benefit.

The ride is very good in the Limited, on virtually any road surface it handles bumps and rough patches well. Steering is at least the equal of any of it competitors, and it handles well (although what I mean is, it handles well for a truck, it’s obviously not a Porsche we’re dealing with here.

Gear selector for the 8-speed automatic transmission.

Overall, I liked the Ram during my time with it; although I primarily treated it is a good-looking luxury vehicle rather than a work truck. I like the exterior appearance (especially since the company has backed off a bit from the ‘gigantic grille’ look that they embraced for a long time.

It has lots of storage space inside, ample electrical and usb plugs for various devices, and delivers a top-flight passenger experience.

The downsides, for me, were the overall size of the thing, the difficult electronic interface, and of course fuel economy. I shouldn’t get to picky about the economy, of course – I mean what do you expect from a 4×4 pickup? The manufacturer states combined city/highway mileage of 16.1L/100 km, which is actually pretty good for a V8, and I managed to bring it down to 14.5 in a roughly even mix of city and highway use (but I admit, I wasn’t pulling a load or hauling anything in the bed, so that number will only go up if the Ram is driven as intended).

The price, though, dayumn. Clearly, I am showing off my embitterment about my economic and social stats by saying this, but where the heck are all the people coming from who can justify an $85,295 pickup truck?

Seriously, I’m askin’ here. If anybody knows the secret please let me in on it.

Limited models start at a little over 74K, but the vehicle I used for this drive included the aforementioned paint job ($275), $445 for a larger fuel tank (124 litres), the Level 1 equipment group ($3,895), folding tonneau cover for the bed ($650), anti-spin rear differential ($525), panoramic sunroof ($1,595), 22-inch wheels ($750), and $870 for hitch receiver and trailer brake controller.

2019 Lexus ES 350

I admit I have a nostalgic love for the ES, as one of the first vehicle-launches I ever attended was for the gap-bridging sedans; way back in the rosy-colored days of yesteryear.

We squeezed our oil straight out of live dinosaurs with our bare hands back then, if I recall correctly, and it was a simpler time; unencumbered with the level of gadgetry and electronic user interfaces of today. I believe the year was 2001

It was also the first time I’d seen a Lexus up close (or any luxury auto, for that matter). I liked it then and I like the vehicle to this day, give or take a few minor points.

Renewed and revised from stem to stern, Lexus’ entry-level luxury sedan rolled out its seventh generation on a new platform, wrapped in good looks and incremental improvements inside and out.

The ES 350 still looks familiar, overall, with the familiar (and polarizing!) spindle grille fronting the car’s presentation of smooth lines and curbside appeal.

Performance tweaks and enhanced handling compliment a serenely quiet cabin, and if upgraded with one of the option packages available the ES does a great job of capturing the spirit of the luxury the brand.

Why, let’s take this one here, for example – an ES 350 (the 350 is the gas-only trim of the vehicle, not to be confused with the ES 300h, which is a hybrid) with the company’s ‘Ultra Luxury package’.

The basics are these: the latest generation is a front-wheel drive sedan powered by a 6-cylinder engine that brings a potential 302 horsepower and 267 lb.-ft. of torque, now channeled by an 8-speed automatic transmission (the outgoing gen used a six-speed).

Riding on the company’s GA-K global platform, the ES is slightly lower and wider, and made stiffer with the addition of more high-strength steel throughout.

My test car, wrapped in a paint job called “Nightfall Mica” showed off the exterior changes the new platform ushers in, slimmed-down headlamps and more angling of the A and C pillars enhance the car’s low and sleek appeal.

Driving the ES is a great combination of smoothness and performance. Lexus all about the ride, and I can’t say I’ve ever driven any of their marques that didn’t stack up any of their German luxury competitors, but the 2019 ups the ante with a revised suspension at both front and rear.

It handles deftly, with the suspension and overall rigidity contributing to a maneuverable and responsive experience on the roads and in the curves, and improved power steering setup.

Lexus says that the changes to the steering have also allowed more adjustability of the tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, which is a good thing.

And! While we’re while we’re on the subject, check out the wheel. Strongly reminiscent of the steering in Lexus’ LC halo coupe, as is the cluster with protruding, machined knobs for the drive-mode selector.

The interior is as expected with the ES, nearly flawless and well executed throughout. A two-tone treatment for the leather upholstery in the test car called “Chateau” was genuinely pleasant to look at, and the seat comfort is very good, especially the front row (rear seat passengers also get some additional room as part of the GA-K platform).

Put it all inside a magnificently quiet cabin and top it off with a Mark Levinson premium audio system resonating from 17 speakers (part of the aforementioned Ultra Luxury package), and the ES stands out as it intended to, as an introduction to the brand.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Overall, it isn’t hard to like most everything about the car, and really my big complaint is I don’t like the touchpad interface. I don’t know if I like the touchpad any less than the previous version of the company’s Remote Touch, but I don’t it more either; instead finding it fiddly and imprecise.

Also, entry and exit from the rear doors is a bit of a crunch for taller people, owing to the redesign.

While this isn’t the trim I would choose if I were buying (I’d get the hybrid ES 300h, because fuel econzo, know what I’m saying?) my test car made a solid case for itself.

Here’s the thing, though; while the price of the ES 350 starts under 50K, you’re going to want one of the option groups, to pull it up to the level of a true luxury machine.

The Ultra Luxury package on this one, which added everything I want for my entry-lux sedan, pushed that up by over ten grand, bringing the as-driven price of the test car to $61,701 (including freight and PDI)

2018 Prius Prime

My new favorite PHEV, right here:

We have a saying out here in Edmonton, a pithy witticism of homespun folksy wisdom “What the heck happened to our fall?” because although we do get a very nice autumn, the beauty only lasts a couple of days and then the wind kicks up and blows all the leaves off the trees and everything looks like a backdrop from a Tim Burton movie.

Thus it was, in the final days of October, that I was delighted to head for Ontario, where the trees are still adorned in colors; and also where the testing days for the Canadian Car of the Year are held.

Fully recharged in about 2 1/2 hours on a Level 2 charger. The Hilton in Ajax has a bank of chargers for both regular EVs and Tesla vehicles.

There were a lot of nice vehicles at the CCOTY event (held at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park, formerly called Mosport) but I tell ya, one of my favorites wasn’t an entry in the contest this year – it was this one right here: Toyota’s Prius plugin hybrid.

I had the chance to put some time in a Prime, getting from Pearson airport to the city of Ajax, where the voting journalists make their home for the four days of the event, and commuting to the CTMP site.

Overall, I put about 427 km on the Prius, driving to the site every day; mostly highway kilometers – and this is where a hybrid vehicle saves the day. The Prime will run purely as an electric vehicle for as long as it can (and the Prime has more battery capacity than the regular model Prius) and after it runs out of charge switches to operating as a regular hybrid car, with its gasoline engine in combination with the (dual) electric motors.

The basics are this: the Prime employs a 1.8L gasoline powerplant, which combined with the electric motors yields a net output of 121 horsepower. It’s a front-wheel drive four seater (2+2 configuration) with a CVT transmission, all rolled up in a compact, hatchback body that sports a little more style than the regular Prius.

While the horsepower numbers don’t sound impressive, I never found the car let me down. It handled merging and passing on the highways without causing me a lot of angst or apprehension, and at one point I managed to fit four full-sized adults into it without anyone feeling cramped.

The car is comfortable enough in the driver’s position, with ample overhead space – oh, and hey! – heated seats and a heated steering wheel make for a welcoming environment on cold mornings.

My test car, in a trim level they call Prime Upgrade with an additional Technology package option, gave it a full-featured suite of electronic conveniences with an upgraded audio system and a heads-up display that projected all the pertinent information.

Prime models also get a bigger information screen on the center stack, and satellite navigation system (which is a lifesaver for people like me, I don’t know the area around Toronto/Ajax well at all). Indeed, without the nav system I would probably still be driving up and down the 401).

As for the economy case, even though I was mostly operating in hybrid mode (the fully electric range got used up fairly quickly during highway driving, and the Prime will automatically switch to using the gas engine), I still ended with fuel consumption of only 3.9L/100 km, which actually beats the stated FE number from NRCanada.

When I was just running short distances around Ajax, my fuel consumption was zero, as long I kept it charged; and the hotel I was at (a Garden Inn) provided a bank of Level 2 chargers for guests; which would fully recharge the battery pack in about two-and-a-half hours.

Prime is the only member of the Prius family I hadn’t driven before (or it was, anyway, if you’re following the action from the LA auto, you’ve seen the company introduce and AWD version of the car) and has made itself my personal favorite.

The one seen here, with its Tech package option, came to $38,570