2017 Mazda MX-5 RF

2017MX-1Pound-for-pound, and with the top down, this is probably the most delightful and fun automobile within reach of a majority of buyers. It is an indulgence, certainly, but the Mazda MX-5 offers a sprightly and nimble two-seater that lowers a power hardtop and lets loose with some responsive and sporty performance.

At the entry-end of the lineup, there is a case to be made for bang-for-bucks value, but that is thrown off a bit by my test version – the 2017 MX-5 RF GS – which pushes the price to over 40K, but we’ll come back to that later.2017mx5-1

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The retractable top in mid-fold.

RF stands for ‘retractable fastback’, a convertible hardtop that deploys with what Mazda claims is segment-leading quickness (and it does, in fact, open and close with impressive alacrity) and is frankly a lot of fun to watch, as the roof panels fold over one another and settle at the press of the dash-mounted button.

This right here is the most attractive of the MX-5 models, and looks good whether the top is up or down; the car is a stylish piece of art that attracts comments. My test vehicle was further enhanced by an attention-grabbing paint job (“Soul Red Metallic”) that prompted a couple of random drivers to roll down their windows at stoplights to ask about the car.

My tester’s top was color-matched to the body, but there is an option to get it in a contrasting, ‘piano black’ finish. I’m not sure I’d want that, though; it looks just fine as is.

So the styling and overall design of the RF is a ‘10’, no question; and during a couple of very nice days out here on the Prairies it delivered everything it oughta – fun in the sun with the fresh air blowing through the cockpit.2017mx5-8

On that note, Mazda has done a good job of keeping wind in the cabin under control (mostly anyway, but we all know there’s going to be noise in a car like this). Informal testing with a couple of passengers confirmed that you can converse at normal volume up until about 80 kilometers and hour.

Powered by a 2.0 litre inline-four that pumps out a potential 155 horsepower (which, while not a big number by today’s standards, is way more than enough to haul a small car like this one up to speed in a hurry) and paired with a six-speed, short-throw manual transmission that just feels good to operate; the MX-5 brings the fun factor.

A rear wheel drive platform, tight-cornering with a responsive steering feel and low-to-the-ground weight distribution that loves twisty roads and sudden bursts of acceleration. A suspension that, while certainly tuned on the ‘sporty’ side of firmness, still manages not to punish the occupants when driven over bumps and imperfect road surfaces.

My GS RF tester yielded up some pretty decent full economy as well, sticking very close to the NRCan stated numbers (8.9L/100km in the city, 7.1 highway) and a very similar RF did quite well in the recent EcoRun event, with a combined mileage of 6.1.

What’s not to love?

The shortcomings are self-evident: the overall size and limited capacity of the car make it a tight fit in the passenger compartment, and if you are a taller person like myself, it feels claustrophobic with the top up (and with the roof in place, visibility is compromised from within the car).

Filled to capacity (which is two people), driver will find themselves rubbing elbows with passenger, and both will find themselves rubbing elbows with the oddly placed cupholders that jut from between the seats. The cup-traptions are removable, and you should remove them if you buy an MX-5, because why the heck would you want cups held at elbow height in a tight cabin like this?

Nor does the vehicle offer a lot of cargo capacity – although the wee trunk isn’t actually that bad, considering the overall size of the car; but this one is mostly suitable as a day-tripper that will be home by nightfall.2017mx5-2

The RF is at the top of the price chain among MX-5 models, which may choke back the value factor, but consider that the lineup starts at a 33,817, for which you get the same SkyActiv powertrain (and also manual transmission).

This one, though, a GS trim, retractable fastback with a four thousand dollar option package (the Sport package, which adds red-caliper’d Brembo brakes, 17” BBS wheels and Alcantara-trimmed Recaro sport seats) came to $43,500 before destination fees and taxes.

EcoRun 2017

KiaNiro

Kia’s Niro, a nifty new Korean crossover that also seems to be priced right

I’d still be driving up and down Autoroute 40, just outside Quebec City, were it not for the Kia Niro.

For I am the sort of person who could get lost in a room with one door, you see – not gifted with a ‘sense of direction’, as it were – and so became more and more convinced that I was indeed lost; just as the 2017 EcoRun was entering its final leg here in la Belle Province.

Ford's Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid

Ford’s Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid

This is the second year I have participated in the EcoRun, an interesting and worthwhile event that has been running for six years now.

Listen, rather than re-write the wheel here, so to speak, I’ma just post a link to the site and also this piece from last year if you want to catch up on how the whole thing runs.

In a nutshell, though, the EcoRun is essentially a great demonstration not only of new technology and methods aimed at reducing both emissions and fuel consumption – this years lineup of vehicles included hybrids, pure electric cars and Toyota’s hydrogen fuel cell groundbreaker, the Mirai – but also a reminder that a lot of cars can yield great fuel economy just by minding your driving habits.Eco-12

You can check out the full field of entries here, and see a few gasoline-only contenders like Nissan’s Versa (two versions of it, too, manual and CVT), or Mazda’s CX-5.

It isn’t a contest with a defined winner, there is no singling out of any vehicle as being the best (and frankly that would be difficult to do, right? Comparing a Porsche Cayenne plug-in hybrid against, say, Hyundai’s new Ioniq would be complex).

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David Miller, co-chair of the 2017 AJAC EcoRun, with the whole vehicle lineup in front of the Joliette mural.

There is no real prize for the participating journalists either – who this year once again turned out to be a great group of some of my favorite people from across the country – but you can win a green t-shirt for being the most fuel-efficient of the bunch when the results are tallied.

Immediately realizing that I wouldn’t win, I intended to honor the spirit of the event; to demonstrate that any car can achieve better-than-stated fuel economy just by moderating one’s driving habits. No need to go nuts with any hyper-miling craziness, no driving down the shoulder of the road with the mirrors folded down and the A/C turned off to wring a few extra kms from the vehicle.

So I drove pretty much the way I normally do, but with perhaps more attention to not accelerating too exuberantly away from a light, sticking to the speed limit on the highway, coast wherever possible, that type of thing.

And anyway, it has always been my personal maxim that: ‘it’s not important if you win or lose, only that you do slightly better than Howard Elmer’.

The way EcoRun works is, a route from Ottawa to Quebec City was broken down into ten legs of roughly a hundred kilometers average, and at the end of each one we’d switch to another car.

CEO Louis Tremblay of AddÉnergie shows off the company's technology. They offer fast-charger station installations for homes and businesses.

CEO Louis Tremblay of AddÉnergie shows off the company’s technology. They offer fast-charger station installations for homes and businesses.

All in, I drove three hybrids, two plug-in hybrids, a diesel car and four strictly gasoline-powered vehicles. Talking with the various journos at the various stops (some pretty interesting spots, too) we all were seeing the results – pretty much every vehicle everyone used came in under the NRCan economy figures.

Even when you get lost like I do. A few of the cars didn’t have navigation systems in them, which for me is death – the organizers vastly overestimated my intelligence, and ability to read a printed route book and drive at the same time – so I took to following other members of our Eco caravan when I found myself in a Hyundai Ioniq without a nav app.

At the University of Quebec at Trois-Rivieres Hydrogen Research Institute for a brief overview of some of their facility!

At the University of Quebec at Trois-Rivieres Hydrogen Research Institute for a brief overview of some of their facility!

Except that following people never works. The guy I was tailing lost me at a light and I was on my own on Autoroute 40, right up until I noticed that someone else was following me (ha!) in the Niro, which I knew had navigation from driving it earlier.

So anyway, that solved that. Bonuses all around for everyone involved.

It’s not important if you win or lose, only that you do slightly better than Howard.

It’s not important if you win or lose, only that you do slightly better than Howard.

The takeaway lesson here, is that most any car can deliver good efficiency when driven optimally and with economy in mind. A decent showing all around, and pretty much every one of the entrants beat their stated economy.

There’s a list of the final fuel-usage tally of them all here, from a great event that continues to make its point and spread the word.

Check out the video!

2017 RAV4 AWD Platinum

RAV9While it hasn’t changed outwardly in any significant way for 2017, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing for Toyota’s RAV4; wrapped as it is in a sterling reputation for quality and reliability (as the RAV has been pretty much since its introduction).

The body retains the cues established after the last major facelift, and after the removal of the full-size spare tire mounted on the (formerly) side-hinged tailgate of the early models the RAV4 has forgone a lot of its distinctiveness.RAV1

But although it can now be easily mistaken for any number of compact utility vehicles, it does still sport a certain character and flourish, particularly when viewed from the front.

Indeed, check out this test model’s face – doesn’t this seem like it would have been a better tie-in for the Star Wars cross promotion Nissan did earlier this year? C’mon, the RAV just looks more like a stormtrooper helmet; even more so in the ‘Galactic Aqua Mica’ paintjob unique to this package.

This is what is new for 2017: the Platinum package option for the Limited trim.

Platinum adds $1,460 to the price of the RAV4 Limited (all-wheel drive) trim level, and builds on an already pretty good set of features. Power rear lift-gate, atmospheric lighting in the footwells, and the full-body colour treatment that makes my test vehicle look so sinister at the curbside.

And of course, you get interior trim and badging that announces the Platinum-ness of the whole thing. It’s not as ostentatious as, say, the extra labeling strewn around a Dodge PowerWagon, but you won’t forget what edition of RAV you’re driving.

The interior is specific to the Platinum package as well, a black-on-black upholstery and dash surface that looks well executed and feels good under the touch.2017RAV4a

Everything else is what you would get with a plain ol’ Limited model; and that isn’t too shabby.

RAV4 runs a 2.5 litre four-cylinder engine that offers a potential 176 horsepower, paired up with Toyota’s six-speed automatic tranny (there is no manual option in Canada).

Seating for five, and acceptable headroom in the rear (though legroom isn’t great, depending on the size of who you’re putting back there) along with decent cargo space are what made the RAV4 as popular as it is – it would be hard to go wrong with using this for a one-car suburban family.

Operating everything in the cabin is easy and intuitive which is a quality I find in most Toyota vehicles, there is no head-scratching looking for things or queuing up your station list on the stereo. I like the interface on the console better than the one found in the Highlander, frankly. Better, more tactile knobs and buttons.

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This is cool and everything, but I would rather it showed me the vehicle speed.

The only thing I question in my RAV tester’s array of information options that can be called up between the main dials is the lack of a digital speedometer. While I can choose to look at a graphic display of the vehicle’s eco-performance or an oversimplified diagram of g-force and weight shift, why can’t I get a digital speedo?

Seriously, that is a function I find pretty handy in my city, where speed limits vary wildly (also, they keep changing them. Seemingly hourly). In fact, I’m not sure you can call yourself Platinum if you don’t have a digital speed display, but forcing them to brand it as the ‘Molybdenum Alloy” package would just confuse the public.2017RAV4c

Never mind me, though, if you’ve already made up mind for a RAV, it starts at an MSRP of about twenty-eight grand for a base model with front-wheel drive; but if you want to run out and buy a 2017 Limited AWD with Platinum package, it scampers up to $39,615 before freight and taxes and fees.

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WARRANTY: Basic-3 Years or 60,000km. Powertrain-5 Years or 100,000km. Corrosion Perforation-5 Years unlimited. Major Emissions- 8 Years or 130,000km.

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.

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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.