EcoRun 2018!

Prologue: Good Morning New Brunswick

The EcoRun vehicle showcase wrapped up its seventh year late in June, once again demonstrating the real-world utility of a cross section of fuel-efficient cars. This was my third year participating in the event (which is staged by the Automobile journalist’s Association of Canada).

I’ll get to that pretty quick – and you can find background info on EcoRun here and here, for a rundown of what its all about – but first, can we get a shout-out for the province of New Brunswick!

Serving as the backdrop for the adventure, the beautiful province provided fine scenery and a backdrop of Maritime lifestyle for myself and the other participants as we wound our way through three cities on some beautiful roads.

This year marked the first time NB has been the staging ground for EcoRun, and it is also he first year it could have been – the event requires somewhere to plug in for the various PHEVs and all-electric vehicles that account for many of the cars used for the drive, and the province has just completed a year-long implementation of the province’s charging network.

Indeed, NB has gone from having virtually no public charging points for such vehicles to having 49 of them, including 18 level 3 chargers (level 3 are the ‘fast’ chargers, these are the ones you want if you’ll need to get up to full battery in a reasonable amount of time).

Photo courtesy John Walker/AJAC

That alone is a good reason to plan your holiday in the Atlantic province if you drive, say, a Honda Clarity or Toyota’s Prius Prime, but put it together with the hospitality and scenery and (of course) the food, and my advice is to put New Brunswick on your list of Canadian adventures.

Go ahead, learn more here.

EcoRun: Part One

The scene at Catch 22 in downtown Moncton.

We kicked things off in Moncton, where we’d landed the day before and fueled up with a dinner at Catch 22 Lobster Bar downtown; which I mention for no other reason than to say that if you are ever in downtown Moncton, eat at Catch 22. Order the lobster, of course, but really, order anything on the menu.

The next morning, Day One, the assembled auto journos and our nineteen vehicles gathered at Moncton City Hall where we were welcomed by the province’s Finance Minister, Cathy Rogers, and the city’s Mayor Dawn Arnold.

Justifiably proud of the giant strides made so quickly in modernizing the provinces electrical infrastructure, they waved the EcoRun green flag to start us on our way – nearly 600 kilometers split up into six legs of driving over the next two days awaited.

NB Finance Minister, Cathy Rogers, and Mayor Dawn Arnold, with EcoRun co-chair David Miller at Moncton City Hall. Photo by John Walker/AJAC

I started out in Ford’s Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid (and with as many vehicles as we had at the 2018 event, of course not all the participants could get seat time in all the cars, so I’ll focus mostly on the ones I drove).

The Energi is the pluggable gas-electric hybrid version of the Fusion (and this may be one of the last chances to see one, for as I’m sure you know, Ford is going to stop selling cars in North America to focus on trucks and utility vehicles). A full-size sedan boasting a roomy and comfortably appointed interior beneath some good-looking sheetmetal, I put a little over a hundred km on it en route to our first change point, a recreational family holiday spot called Snider Mountain Ranch.

Now, I won’t lie to you, me and some of other drivers kind of blew the curve for the Energi – I ended with a fuel consumption number of 4.6L/100km (which is high, for that car, a couple of the other drivers got into the low fours and one brought it down to a ridiculous 2.4L/100km)

The thing of it is, though, it wasn’t that long ago that those numbers would have been considered really good – that’s how far hybrid technology has come.

Anyway, we spent a couple of hours at Snider Mountain (where the EV and plug-in hybrids were recharged at Flo chargepoints) and then saddled up in new vehicles.

I took a run from the ranch to the City of Fredericton in Mazda’s CX-3, one of a few gasoline-only vehicles entered in the EcoRun this year. Mazda loves to make the point that even in a field of hybrids, the SkyActiv underpinnings of the vehicle can still yield very good economy.

And here’s the thing – it did. I put over a hundred km on it and beat the NRCanada rating by over a litre per hundred. Nearly all the drivers who used the CX-3 did – average economy for our event was 7.2 – versus the official rating of 8.2 from NRCan.

That’s kind of the main point of EcoRun, that virtually any vehicle can achieve better fuel economy when driven with an eye to lowering consumption. I didn’t do anything special with my driving habits in any of the cars; except maybe for sticking to the posted limits and trying to avoid hard braking and lunging starts; and I figure all the other participants did the same. AJAC strongly discourages ‘hypermiling’ techniques (i.e., driving waaay too slow) as it defeats the spirit of the event.

Anyhoo, switching cars in Fredericton I got into one of my favorite new vehicles of the year: Honda’s Clarity plug-in.

The Clarity was originally going to be present in New Brunswick with both its powertrains (it is also sold as a hydrogen fuel cell car, but apparently the FC one wasn’t able to make the event).

Clarity is a full-size family car that I will feature pretty soon right here on the world’s finest website; as it delivered some of the best fuel economy I have ever seen. No kidding, I did a week-long test of one recently where it ended up at an incredible 1.9L/100km over 360 kilometers driven.

I really have nothing but praise for the 2018 Clarity.

Here’s my room at a Delta in Moncton. The layout was very similar in other members of the chain we stayed at.

We rolled into Saint John at the end of day one and parked everything at the hotel. As a bit of trivia, all the hotels we stayed at were Delta. What I found interesting was how uniform the room layout was in all three of them. Once you get used to it, everything is exactly where you found it in the previous one, which is pretty handy when I want to locate the TV remote and flip on the Cartoon Network while I fall asleep.

EcoRun: Day Two

Photo by John Walker/AJAC

Most of St. John downtown appeared to be under construction when I rolled out the next morning, resulting in a detour where I almost immediately got lost; but fortunately was driving the Camry Hybrid from Toyota, which had an excellent navigation system.

Good thing it was a short leg to a cool little spot called the Baybreeze restaurant, where we performed another car swap. I didn’t post my best mileage in the Camry, but I want to stress it came in with an overall score of 4.8L/100 km, which beat its NRCan rating.

Mitsubishi’s latest gas-electric utility vehicle was up next – the Outlander PHEV. Once again, this new entry outperformed its FE rating overall, but I bet it could do even better. There’s a lot of tech onboard and a lot of fuel-saving, efficiency-boosting wonders within its electronic presets. Mitsubishi’s rep gave me a bit of a rundown on the basics, but you know, this tiny brain of mine…

I am hoping to get a longer-term test drive in the Outlander plugin (hopefully this summer) and I’ll let you know how it goes.

Photo by John Walker/AJAC

The best possible car to finish up the 2018 EcoRun was the Lexus. I didn’t plan it that way, it just worked out that I got the new LS500h sedan for the final run to our last destination, back in Fredericton.

It goes without saying it is a supremely luxurious auto, and after a couple days of sitting in cars for extended periods, well, give me the one with the massage seats.

The LS500h is also the only car that I beat the rest of the field in, finishing up at 6.9L/100 km, which is just over two litres per hundred better than the NRCan numbers, and even lower than the average posted by AJAC drivers at this years event (which was 8.0)

And with that, the ‘Run came to its end at the Delta Marriott in Fredericton (the nicest of the three we stayed at, imho). Now, while EcoRun isn’t run as a competition, either for the vehicles or the drivers, the group does award the Green Jersey to whomever posts the best overall fuel economy.

Just to show you that anyone can win, I won it last year; but for 2018 the prestigious t-shirt was taken home by Jim Kerr, a real good guy and long-time auto writer (and mechanic, and teacher) from Saskatoon.

But the point that EcoRun is truly making, is that this is a game anyone can win; regardless of what they drive; and with gas prices where they are, it would foolish not to play.

Photo by John Walker/AJAC

You can view the stats of all the models driven here; and once again, I exhort you to visit New Brunswick when you can.

 

 

 

 

 

 

2018 Lexus NX300h

At Edmonton’s Aviation Museum

Hybridized and Urbanized

Winter’s never the greatest time for a hybrid vehicle to show off their superior fuel economy – everyday driving is harder work in snow, and running the heater (and heated seats and steering wheel, in this case) force the gasoline engine to be in use most of the time.

Nevertheless, I ended a week of driving with figures not too far off the stated FE (which is a combined city/highway consumption of 7.5L/100 km, I got 8.8 during a freezing cold week with a fair amount of snow) in our test subject – the 2018 NX300h.

Here’s a crossover that is riding the wave of popularity that buyers have bestowed on the small-ish utility vehicle segment, and bringing with it a Lexus level of premium build quality in addition to an economical low-emissions powertrain.

As you know, Lexus is the luxury arm of Toyota Motors, the company that has done more than anyone to bring hybrid vehicles to the masses (check back next week, when we’ll be looking at the latest version of their original marketplace gamechanger, the Prius), and in terms of size and configuration (and powertrain) you could think of the NX as being the more elite version of the company’s ultra popular RAV4.

Fitting into the Lexus utility lineup between the recently announced UX and the larger and better known RX models, the NX has been around for about four years now – long enough that it has received a bit of a refresh for the 2018 model year, though not a complete model change.

New front fascia and a sleekening of the grille and front bumpers have helped streamline its appearance on approach; and the love-it-or-hate-it ‘spindle’ grille that the vehicle shares with the rest of the Lexus lineup has been incorporated more seamlessly into the overall presentation.

The rear of the NX has had its taillights stretched a bit, the rear bumper has been lowered and widened, the exhaust tips are larger for this year and an underbody spoiler has been added.

Overall, I think the styling changes work in its favor, this is a good-looking machine that manages to stand out on the road without begging for attention in an undignified or gaudy fashion; unlike a number of ‘premium’ compact crossovers that have sprouted up in the expanding segment.

The NX is more about the occupant’s experience inside it than the overall curb appeal, although it does look sweet perched on those eighteen-inch alloy wheels.

Our test car showed off nice upholstery over comfortable seating (the leather even extended to the wrap on the steering wheel), and brought the newly enlarged information screen to the center-dash display (the display has grown three inches from previous models).

Comfort is always one of the strong points in virtually any Lexus, and our NX lived up to expectations with a fully adjustable driver’s seat, decent room overhead in the front row, power tilt-and-telescoping steering column and a heated steering wheel.

Ah, yes indeed. The Remote Touch touchpad. photo courtesy Lexus Canada

Everything is easy to reach and relatively intuitive to operate, but let us draw your attention once again to the interface, which is this touchpad thing here. I find it fiddly and imprecise, to be honest with you, and easy to overshoot the menu items I try to select.

I’ll warn you too, the NX isn’t a huge vehicle. I didn’t find the space bad, but it is noticeably tighter inside than the RX model, and likewise doesn’t offer as much cargo and second-row space.

From a driving perspective, the NX300h boasts a smooth ride and a quiet cabin (although, interestingly, the engine note is reproduced inside the cabin through the vehicle’s sound system speakers, in what the company calls ‘Active Sound Control’. Neat, eh?)

The all-wheel drive system offers a selection of preprogrammed drive modes (Sport, Eco and Normal, as with most of Lexus’ hybrids), and the electric power steering system makes the handling responsive and car-like, overall. Our test car also contained the Lexus Safety System, which brought lane-departure with steering assist.

The Hybrid gets its power from a combination of 2.5L gasoline engine mated to two electric motors, bringing enhanced fuel economy to the NX and a combined output of 194 horsepower and 152 lb.-ft. of torque.

So it isn’t exactly a sports car, but frankly I didn’t feel under-powered during my time in the NX. The transmission is a CVT, as seamless as any in the company’s lineup does a great job of everyday driving (and includes paddle shifters as well).

Lexus’ overall rep speaks for itself, the company dominates in data from consumer advocacy agencies in terms of reliability and build quality.

There’s little to dislike here, as I find with most of the company’s products, and if you find the price a bit on the ‘high’ side (which it is, let’s not lie to each other here, gentle reader),I am going to suggest cross-shopping the NX against the Toyota RAV4 hybrid (coincidentally the 2019 model was just unveiled in New York), which sports virtually the same powertrain in a more budget-conscious machine but at roughly ten grand less.

Here’s the sheet (pdf): NXh 963 – BXWV 682 EN

This one here, though, a 2018 NX300h, came to $55,300 (and that’s before freight and taxes, the full sticker was $57,471.25 CDN)

Don’t forget to check out our video of the NX on Youtube!

 

A Tale of Two Lexus IS’s

There’s no want for choice in Lexus’ sedan lineup, that’s for sure. From the diminutive hatchback CT200 to the less attainable LS and RC halo cars, Toyota’s luxury brand packs the field with variants even within the platforms.2017IS300-4

The IS group for example. A buyer is offered 3 trims (200t, 300 and 350) and from there the available optional packages and equipment make for some difficult decision-making.

Here’s a look at a couple of them: the same in many respects (and dimensions) but fairly different cars; each with their merits and detractions.

I had the chance to take a 200t and a 300AWD out for test drives back-to-back, and here’s a little summary:2017IS300-6

2017 IS 300 AWD

The more expensive of the two, although not by much – even with the all-wheel drive powertrain it came to about 4K more – the 300 brings superior horsepower with its 3.5 litre gasoline powerplant and bumps up its creature comfort with the addition of a Luxury package (which adds an additional $6,700 to the bottom line).2017IS300-1

A six-speed automatic transmission marshals the 255 (and potential 236 lb.-ft. of torque, which the spec sheet claims comes on at a low 2.000 rpm) horses under the hood, with wheel-mounted paddle shifters and multiple drive modes to make the most of the refined and quiet power of the vehicle.

The aforementioned Luxury package adds flourish to the interior’s dark and leather-clad, understated splendor with inclusions like a heated steering wheel (which is also power tilt-and-telescoping), a ten-inch info display atop the center stack, heated/ventilated seats, and in-dash DVD player and navigation system.2017IS300-3

The option also includes a couple of useful safety features: blind spot monitor and rear cross-traffic sensors. Frankly, I feel that these should be included as standard equipment on a car in this class (and at this price), because both are extremely useful. The system has proved its worth many times, to prevent a driver from backing out into moving traffic or pedestrians.

2017 IS 200t

The 200t was actually my favorite of the two IS models, despite being the more entry-level.2017IS200t-1

Rolling on a rear-wheel drive train, and with a smaller engine (which yielded better fuel economy than the V6 of the IS 300) it is an agile and fun car from a driver’s standpoint, and boasted a better information display and ease-of-use with its tech features.

The two litre turbo-four may have less on-paper horsepower (it is rated at 241 hp) than its platform sister, but torque is boosted to a superior 258 lb.-ft. My personal experience with it did not disappoint, the 200t had power to spare, and the handling was no doubt helped out by the fact that it is about 70 kg lighter than the 300 AWD.

I’ll tell you what I really like about the test car I used, though – the instrumentation.

Equipped with Lexus’ F Sport Series 1 option, this IS gained – along with F Sport badges sprinkled liberally throughout the interior – a digital speed display.2017IS200t-2

My IS 300 did not have this, only an analog dial display. I find it much easier to acquire, much quicker to determine your speed at a glance, with a big illuminated number put squarely in the center of the cluster.

Also, the F Sport display is fun to watch and dazzle your friends with, because when you put the car into sport-mode, the single gauge actually physically shifts over to the right to allow room for more graphical info to pop up and display beside it.2017IS200t-10

My 200t had no navigation system, which is again too bad at this price point (the car finished up at a little over 47K with freight and taxes) but also left out Lexus’ remote-touch user interface – a sort of combination of mouse and joystick on the console to select onboard functions that I find imprecise and tricky to use. The 200t embraced a simpler combination of selector knob and ‘home’ button.

Overall, either of the vehicles brought a proper, Lexus driving experience. Interior quiet, superior fit and finish throughout and an overall reputation for quality.

As both cars are dimensionally identical in length and width, detractions for them are basically the same. Rear seat legroom isn’t great, and the cars are built with a long overhang at both front and rear. There are a lot of cement curbs and parking ramps with steep angle-of-entry in my town, and a bumper that juts out a couple of feet in front of the wheels is just begging for scrapes.

Either way, though, the pair of IS’s offer a solid competitor against rivals from Germany at the entry end of the midsize premium sedan segment, and either are worth a test drive.

The IS 300 AWD with its Luxury pkg came with a final MSRP of $51,821 (all in), the 200t F Sport finished at $47,121