Hot-sellers on Cold Winter Days

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Michael Toscano

If a new car is on your wish-list for Christmas, or if you’ve put getting one on your list of list of New Year’s resolutions, here is a look at some hot-sellers on these cold winter days.  We’re looking at two SUVs, a sports wagon, and a mid-sized sedan.

2014 Subaru Forester 2.5i Touring

Forget everything you know…or knew…about the Subaru Forester.  It’s been substantially  redesigned for 2014, making it a good pick for drivers seeking a comfortable all-wheel drive vehicle.  This plucky and compact crossover SUV now blends many of the best features of a car with an SUV, delivering a good ride either on or off the road. Price tags are modest, starting as low as $22,820, although the Forester reviewed here, an upscale Touring model, has an MSRP of $33,220, including options.

Subaru in 2014 looks pretty much like Subarus of past years, but under the hood there’s a more aggressive 2.5 liter turbocharged engine, an upgraded transmission, and a hefty list of desirable standard features.  Subaru Intelligent Drive (SI-DRIVE) is an engine system allowing the driver to adapt performance characteristics by choosing from three modes: Intelligent, Sport, and Sport Sharp.  All of the 2014 Forester models come equipped with Subaru Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive.  You have your choice of engines, with our 2.51 model featuring a 170-hp 2.5-liter engine and continuously variable transmission (CVT) with manual shift mode.

The first thing we noticed when moving from the driveway and down our suburban street is that the new Forester feels more agile than previous models.  We can apparently thank what the company calls a “50-percent” stiffer structure, retuned front strut and double-wishbone rear suspensions, and larger, 17-inch tires and wheels. The upgraded rear suspension uses pillow ball joint mounts for its lateral links to smooth the ride. The four-wheel independent suspension delivers sprightly handling with a comfortable ride.  Adding to my comfort level is the way the new Electric Power Assisted Steering offers tight control, one of the things I always find especially appealing.   

The touring model we used for a week of family driving worked out pretty well for us.  The rear cargo area is not as large as might be found on similar vehicles, but it can be increased to 74.7 cubic feet when the 60/40 split rear seats are folded down. It also comes with a helpful liftgate (so useful when one has an armful of grocery bags or other accessories of family life, and underfloor storage.  It does seem as though some cargo space may have been sacrificed for the extra legroom to be found in the rear passenger seating area.  With rear doors which open widely, the Forester is easy to get in and out of for kids and older adults. 

Subaru has modernized the interior cabin and upgraded the materials and surfaces.  The list of standard features is impressive, and the options on our 2.51 Touring model included safety features such as an EyeSight Driver Assist System, pre-collision braking, and lane departure warning.  Standard safety equipment includes electronic stability and traction control systems, active front head restraints, front side-impact airbags and front and rear side curtain airbags with a rollover sensor, and four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes with brake assist.  A rear-vision camera, which now seems essential, is standard on all but the base 2.5i.

Subaru cites the EPA-estimated 24/32 mpg City/Highway with CVT (22/29 mpg with 6-speed manual transmission) for the Forester 2.5i.  You can save by using regular gasoline, as premium gas is not required.  Traveling at both highway and in-town speeds, we averaged around 22-23 mpg.  The new continuously variable transmission (CVT) on the 2014 Forester takes the place of a four-speed automatic, and helps with fuel economy.

Responsive, roomy and comfortable, and with decent performance, our 2.51 Touring Subaru provided us with much of what is desirable in an SUV, without the bulk and weight of the large-sized SUVs and off-roaders. 

2013 Land Rover LR4

Is Land Rover going soft with their LR4?  They seem to be trading in some of the vehicle’s muscle for street-driving luxury.  But they have not pared back the weight of this big ‘ol driver, so it lumbers along guzzling gas with its supercharged 5.0 liter V-8 and automatic transmission.  That kept our mileage down around the 12-or-13 mile-per-gallon range for the week our “aintree green” 2013 LR4  was with us.  And that’s all premium gas, of course.  That might automatically disqualify the LR4 for you, but read on; there may be other attributes you’ll find appealing.  Like the 375 horsepower and 375 lbs of torque that can make one feel like a Master of the Highway while riding high on 19-inch aluminum alloy wheels.

So there’s OK passing and merging power on the highway.  Regarding the cost, the folks at Land Rover seem to have been hearing the complaints.  For 2014, Land Rover is making changes with the engine on the LR4, scaling back to a supercharged 3.0-liter V-6 engine and an eight-speed automatic transmission.  That should replace guzzling with mere gulping, aided by stop-start technology that automatically tamps the engine down when the vehicle is stopped.

Our LR4, with several optional luxury options packages, came with a price tag of about $62,000.  And for that, they’ve made sure that one rides in plenty of comfort.  There is a lot of cargo space, an awful lot of head-and-legroom.  And with huge windows, lots of visibility.  Land Rover has loaded the LR4 with features designed to enhance comfort and safety.  In fact, it’s rather luxurious for a vehicle with Jeep DNA.  There’s lots of leather, and even the steering wheel comes with heat, if you want it.  They have loaded on a long list of features with the upper trim packages and options, but seem to have skimped on making things like the navigation and entertainment systems user friendly.  The LR4 offers the option of a third row, bringing brings seating capacity up to seven, and that may turn out to be the most useful function it has:  transporting groups of people.  There’s room for your stuff, of course, with the second and third rows folding down to allow generous cargo space.

This is a tall SUV, even if it is marketed as “mid-sized.”  That means you’ll feel it when zipping around corners.  Four-wheel drive is standard.   We didn’t get much of a chance to test out the Terrain Response system, but what we did experience off the road promised a lot more fun in store.  

It’s a bit of a puzzle as to the ultimate focus of this vehicle.  It looks like it’s built for rough-and-ready off-roading, but performs like a city SUV.  It has lots of luxury touches, but the operation of the infotainment systems seems a bit unwieldy.  If it is designed to move seven people, then why is it so bulky?

Bottom line:  the LR4 of 2013 needs to figure out what it wants to be in order to be truly successful.  Still, this is a brand with a laudable heritage, and with refinements coming, it will be well worth checking out in the new year.

2014 BMW 328i xDrive Sports Wagon

OK.  In the interests of full disclosure, let’s state upfront that we were very happy to see this “mineral white metallic” Beemer in our driveway.  We have had a couple of BMW 328i sedans as our family car and love the breed.  In fact, we still have one.  So we wanted to know if the revamped sports wagon version enhances the car’s appeal.

The verdict:  yes, in most areas.

The ride is superb, rolling with a 2.0 liter BMW TwinPower Turbo, 16-valve  inline 4-cylinder engine.  Yeah, that’s right.  A four-cylinder engine.  But in this case, size does not matter for performance.  It manages to churn out 240 horsepower and 255 lb feet of torque.  So it zips along, seemingly without effort, matched with an eight-speed automatic transmission.  Paddle shifters behind the steering wheel allow for more direct control if you’re feeling especially sporty.  With a long list of standard features such as Dynamic Stability Control, a variety of settings on the Driving Dynamics Control, the xDrive all-wheel-drive system, robust brakes and suspension that grabs the road, you get super-precise handling.  So you will be forgiven for forgetting that you’re driving a station wagon…I mean, sports wagon. This is all BMW.  Or mostly all.

The one performance drawback we experienced is that acceleration seemed somewhat mushy, compared with the rest of the operation.  It was more noticeable when moving out of lower speeds than in merging on the highway, but as we did a lot of city driving that week, it was a constant disappointment.  Of course, that is relative.  The acceleration would be fine for most vehicles.  But it was just a bit off for this breed, especially when every other performance aspect was superb.  You may not notice or care, as you will otherwise be so happy moving about ion this car.

Our xDrive came with an MSRP of just over $51,000, but that included a substantial list of very nice safety and “sports line” features.  You can get into an xDrive for $10,000 less than that, making it a good choice for entry into the luxury line.  BMW cites EPA figures of 22 mpg city and 33 highway, for a combined mileage of 26 mpg.  We got around 24 mpg, decent when considering the performance and comfort the car offers.  I suspect the automatic start-stop system, which cuts engine power when the car comes to a complete stop, also helped during city driving.  Premium gas is required.

This is a great-looking car, even if I wasn’t especially fond of the white exterior.  Nothing personal; I just don’t care for white exteriors.  Oh, and the “Dakota Coral Red/Black” interior seemed garish and made the leather look like plastic.  But, again, that’s personal preference and there are plenty of color schemes to choose from.

The main thing is that the xDrive still looks like a 328i, with taut lines that sleekly promise muscle combined with grace.  You can find all of the little luxury items and abundant safety features of BMW’s popular 3-Series.  And except for a tad more looseness in the steering, you don’t feel like you’re driving a station…er, sports…wagon.  We can carry a fairly good-sized amount of cargo with our 328i sedan, but the split fold-down rear seats of the x-Drive allows for much more flexibility.

Family car?  Yes.  Sporty car?  Yes.  Great-looking and handling?  Absolutely.  So, is there a station wagon in your future?

2013 Toyota Camry

There are reasons this car usually tops the sales charts in the U.S.  Let’s check them out.

Here is a car older drivers may wish to consider, as it offers the comfort of a mid-sized sedan with a modest sticker price.  It is safe, runs quietly, and is efficient.  There are still 2013 Camry’s available in dealer lots, and this is a great time to get a good price.  So we have this look at a model which carries a base price of $23,400, but came to us with options bringing the total up to $29,713.

You want more numbers up front?  Here they are.  The Camry is a front-wheel drive, five-passenger (four-door) sedan that is available in four trims: L, LE, SE, and XLE.    (We drove the “sport-styled” SE.)  A 178-hp 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission are standard on the Camry.  Mileage:  25 city, 35 highway.  We managed at least 30 mpg, with mixed driving.

Toyota has been cutting weight off the Camry in recent years and stiffening up the suspension, allowing for a leaner, more responsive driving experience.  Steering is comfortably tight.  You can order larger engines than the 2.5 liter, 4-cylinder DOHC, 16-valve one that came with our SE, along with a 6-speed automatic transmission and paddle shifters.  But ours managed acceleration that was smooth and responsive.  No complaints there, for the money.

The Camry is a nice-looking car.  Ours was eye-catching in striking “Barcelona Red Metallic,” with a light gray interior. The lines are clean and uncluttered, with an aerodynamic aspect.   The interior is pleasant, with a well-planned dashboard.  Our Camry SE featured a combination of fabric with SofTex synthetic leather trim.  A 60/40 split rear seat comes standard.

There is a wide variety with the different powertrains Toyota is offering, so you should be able to find one which fits your specific needs.   If going green is important, there’s the Camry Hybrid (which I have not driven, so I cannot compare it to the standard engines).