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Car Talk Test Drive Notes

Audi A3 (2014)

  • Ride and handling. Like most Audi’s, a very good balance between sporty handling and comfortable ride.
  • This truly does feel like an entry level Audi. It’s halfway between Volkswagen Jetta and an Audi A4. It’s not quite luxurious, but it has elements of higher priced cars. It’s comfortable, it drives well, looksgood, and it will fill a niche.
  • Smooth, powerful 2.0-liter turbo charged engine with mileage in the mid 20’s (EPA says 24/33).
  • Excellent Quattro all wheel drive option.
  • Comfortable seats with good adjustment.
  • Clean, calm, Audi-style interior.
  • Nice thick, three spoke steering wheel feels good to the touch.
  • Multimedia interface is reasonably useable. And Audi has the good sense to have two actual radio volume knobs (one on the steering wheel, one next to the shifter) and knobs for temperature control and fan speed. A radio-tuning knob would make the system perfect.

  • Dual clutch automatic transmission exhibits strange hesitations, especially when starting out. Once going, it’s great. There is no manual transmission option in the A3 sedan.
  • The back seat is very limited.
  • No USB port. This is a car that specifically markets itself as a vehicle for “connected,” “wired” people who like everything high-tech. And yet there’s no way to charge a phone! It’s an almost comically dumb oversight by Audi. They say they’re planning to add a USB port soon… but not in time to avoid the mockery.
  • On our $35,000 test car, there was no back up camera, no navigation, and no keyless entry or ignition. That makes this seem like a cut-rate luxury car.

Honda Civic Si (2014)

  • This is coupe version of the Honda Civic, with an upgraded engine, and sportier handling and feel. As a result, it’s fun to drive.
  • The engine is peppy. The six-gear manual transmission had closely-spaced gears, so we found ourselves shifting a lot.
  • It handles well, and is fairly nimble.
  • It’s a Honda, so it’s going to be reliable.
  • Ventilation controls are knobs, and worked well. Nice, large tachometer that’s easy to read.
  • USB power outlet, which is nice touch.

  • The touch-screen system for the radio controls is absolutely horrible-- well worse than most, and in our opinion it’s so bad that it’s a reason not to buy the car. It’s a complete pain in the tuchus to change any setting on the radio, with every audio control available only through buttons on the screen-- even the volume. And guess what? There are no presets for your radio stations.
  • To make matters worse, we found the screen to be not particularly responsive. You need to look carefully to make sure you’re pressing the button in exactly the right spot on the screen.
  • The touch screen is slow to start up, too—it felt like forever, even after we had driven the car for just a few days. Honda needs to stop screwing around, and put in a volume knob, a tuning knob, and some presets.
  • It’s a two-door vehicle, which is really a drawback, in our opinion. On the Civic Si, though, there’s not even a handle on the top of the front seats to move the seat forward, as there are in many two-door vehicles. You need to bend over to reach the lever. Most two-door vehicles also have seating controls with a memory, so your seat returns to its prior position. Not the case, here. Honda, what were you thinking?
  • Visibility is a bit poor, particularly out the rear corners. The poor view is mitigated by a good backup camera.
  • Most people will find it a little twitch in its performance, which is the appeal for someone who wants sporty performance.

Mazda 6 Grand Touring Edition (2014)

  • The styling is great. Looks like a more expensive, sporty car than you would expect for an Accord/Camry competitor.
  • Handling is great—it really digs in on turns. Hardly any body lean. It’s the most fun of any car in this class.
  • Low speed Brake Assist, which automatically stops the car from low speed when you’re about to roll into a pedestrian while checking Facebook on your iPhone, is a great safety feature every car should have.
  • Ride is reasonably comfortable, even given the sharp handling.
  • The transmission’s “Sport Mode” that keeps the revs higher is fun.
  • There’s plenty of room in the back seat.
  • SkyActiv engine (that’s Mazda’s brand name for a bunch of modern technologies that improve fuel economy) results in very good fuel economy—near 30 mpg combined and high 30s on the highway--for a large car.
  • Overall, we liked this car. If you want something that is fun to drive and looks snazzier than a Camry or Accord, this is a good choice.

  • The sound and the overall feel of the engine/transmission combination, which was designed to maximize economy, gave the car the sound and feel of economy car.
  • The small engine and resulting high revs had us flashing back to a 1987 Tercel. The actual performance of the engine and transmission were just fine. But the sound of a small, high revving engine in what is otherwise a premium car was a little disconcerting and would take some getting used to.
  • Unfortunately, Mazda went with a small, cheesy, cheap-feeling center touch screen system. When we tried to connect an iPhone we got a loading error—and the system froze, so no other function could be used.
  • The navigation system feels like an afterthought—it’s a cheap, touch-screen system. It’s as if someone at Mazda HQ remembered that the car needed a navigation after all the design work had been completed.
  • $33k is on the high end for its class.

Nissan Versa Note (2014)

  • Pretty well-equipped for a cheap car. Our high-end SV version had a suggested retail price of $19,645. That included all kind of amenities, including heated seats, push-button start, aluminum alloy wheels, iPod controls, Bluetooth, fog lights, backup camera, and the “NissanConnect” navigation. But it added a whopping $5,000 to the cost of the base Versa S model, however. Very maneuverable and easy to park.
  • Very easy to get in and out of for a small car. Large, well-shaped doors. Decent interior room. Good back seat for a compact car. Very livable.
  • Nissans are generally reliable.
  • Quiet at idle.
  • Handling and comfort are both good on smooth roads, and at highway speed.
  • Surprisingly stable when we drove it on a windy, rainy day. Some small cars can feel unsafe under those conditions. This one doesn’t.
  • Good mileage. EPA rated at 31 city, 40 highway.

  • When you load it up, $19,645 is a pretty big chunk of a change for an economy car.
  • The Versa has a cheap suspension. It’s fine on smooth roads, but if you live in the part of the country that suffers from potholes and frost heaves, you’ll feel every one of those transmitted right to your tuchus. And the car is unsettled by rough road patches.
  • Loud. Surprisingly so.
  • There are signs that this is a cheap car. The wipers juttered when moving across the windshield.
  • Nissan is trying compete with the Honda Fit—right down to the “Electric Honda Fit Blue” color of the car we drove. However, the Fit has much better handling. But if a comfortable, relaxed ride is more important to you than sporty handling, though, you might prefer the Versa over the Fit.

Volkswagen Jetta SE (2014)

  • Great engine/transmission combination on the manual transmission test car we drove. Smooth, peppy, fun to drive.
  • Their new, optional, turbocharged, 1.8-liter direct-injection engine is an improvement over VW’s old five-cylinder engine. It’s got a fair bit more power. That’s the engine we’d opt for.
  • Great clutch. Buttery. Makes shifting fun and easy.
  • Good low-end torque, combined with the great clutch allows you to start in Second Gear from a full stop without bucking or stalling. That’s the sign of an easy-to-live-with manual transmission car.
  • Fun, sporty handling. Little body roll on corners.
  • Good visibility.
  • Good trunk room.
  • It’s got a real backseat that can be used by people over the age of 10.
  • Despite the sporty handling, it’s reasonably comfortable, with roomy seating and a pretty calm ride. VW has softened up the ride just a bit, moving it one click in the direction of Buick—although hardly in that neighborhood yet.
  • You can opt for a good array of accoutrements, including heated seats and a sunroof.
  • We got 35 MPG on the highway, which is pretty darned good for a comfortable, reasonably roomy, fun to drive car. We averaged about 22 MPG in city driving.

  • We don’t know if it’s the sound of the engine or an “engineered” sound that VW added to make the car sound sportier, but there’s a noise from under the hood that sounds to us like cheap, plastic gears grinding. We got used to it. Turning up the radio helped.
  • The headlights don’t go off automatically when you turn off the ignition. Hard to believe in 2014, but true. In this day and age we can summon a million HD cat videos on our telephones, but you can’t eliminate the risk of draining the battery when you turn off the ignition and forget to turn off the lights?
  • Entertainment system and in-car electronics felt a generation older than most cars these days. VW needs to catch up. Case in point: The iPhone connector was for the iPhone 4—replaced by Apple two years ago. Some of these items might be corrected for the 2015 model year, but the electronics and display had a bit of an old “Texas Instruments” calculator feel to it.

Ford Fusion Plug-In Hybrid (2014)

  • Good fuel efficiency. EPA estimates 38 mpg overall when using a combination of plug-in power and gasoline.
  • 500+ mile cruising range with combined plug-in and gasoline power.
  • Good package of safety features, including blind spot monitoring and back up camera.
  • Pretty good room. Back seat is especially comfortable.
  • Ride is comfortable and quiet.
  • Nicely appointed, with all the accoutrements one would want.
  • Good interior fit and finish.
  • Sharp styling.
  • Plug-in Energi version of the Fusion is great for people who have a place to plug in, and who have reasonably short commutes. You plug it in at night and/or at work, and you operate almost exclusively on electricity for its 15-20 mile range, which is cheaper than gasoline. And when you need to go further, you have the gasoline engine at the ready for long trips so there’s no range anxiety.
  • Features inflatable seat belts for 2015. We’ll see what the real world data show about how much they add to occupant safety, but it bears watching.

  • The Fusion we test drove was absolutely terrible in the snow, so approach with extreme caution if you live in the snow belt. Probably due to electric motor and its high torque, the traction control kicked in on the slightest grade during slippery conditions, bringing the car to a stand-still. To be fair to Ford, the high-low-rolling-resistance tires on the model we drove almost certainly contributed to this issue. But we can’t endorse this car for anyone who drives in snow until we’ve tested it with all-weather or snow tires to see if we can get it to move when it’s snowing out.
  • Very little room in the rear trunk, as a result of the space needed for the Energi battery pack.
  • The plug-in hybrid does require a weather-proof electrical outlet within reasonable range of your driveway. That’ll cost $500 or so, by the time you include parts and installation. So, factor in that additional cost.
  • For 2015, touch-screen controls have been added to the dashboard. And we’ve pretty much hated those in every other car we’ve tested. They’re hard to operate, slow to respond, and a general pain in tuchus. Knobs! We need knobs, Ford!

Ford Fiesta SE (2014)

  • As little cars go, it feels well-put-together. Though the emphasis is on little. Good mileage. We averaged about 30 MPG.
  • Handles well, and it’s fun to drive around town. That’s probably its biggest advantage among its competitors. If you’re looking for zippy handling in a very small car, start here.
  • Added bonus: For a car of this size, it’s pretty stable on the highway.
  • Fairly nice interior, with a good array of upscale options, including heated seats, heated side mirrors, and modern electronics.
  • Improved fit, finish, and dashboard materials over prior years. Nice exterior styling.

    Acceleration is only adequate. Very noisy on the highway. Both road and drivetrain noise are awful at highways speed, with a terrible differential whine. We found ourselves going slower, just to cut down on the noise.
  • Stick shift is just five-speed, and we found it to be a little sloppy. Reverse was often hard to find.
  • While there’s adequate leg room up front, the cockpit feels narrow up there. And the seats are not especially comfortable for our body types. The thigh bolsters were fatiguing, after a while. We found it very hard reach the adjustments, too.
  • Back seat room is very limited. And front passengers will have to scoot their seats up towards the windshield to allow real adults to sit back there.
  • Visibility out the back of the hatchback version we tested was poor.
  • There’s a display screen on the center console, but it’s small and hard to read.

Scion Tc (2014)

  • It’s a cheap, little economy car, that’s a lot more fun to drive than most. It grows on you.
  • The Tc has plenty of power, and a peppy engine. It’s just a 4- cylinder, but Scion manages to get 179 horsepower out of it, and the car feels quick and lively.
  • Cornering is quite good. Improved suspension and handling over previous version of the Tc. Feels tight and fun to zip around in.
  • Shape reminds us of the old two-door Saab 900. There’s a nice, big useful hatchback area that has plenty of storage.
  • The six-speed automatic transmission has an auto-manual feature that works pretty well, and allows you to change gears up and down manually and pretend you’re driving a sporty car.
  • A manual transmission is an usual option on this car for Toyota/Scion, and is available for those who don’t want to pretend.
  • Gas mileage is decent, among the landscape of all cars—EPA says about 26 mpg overall. But compared to other small cars, it’s not that impressive.
  • It handled reasonably well in the snow.

  • Two-door design makes this car a challenge for anyone over age 35.
  • Ride can be choppy, especially with the optional, enormous 19 inch wheels.
  • Interior is fairly cheap looking and feeling. But this is a $19,000 car, not a $29,000 car. They seem to have put the money into handling and sportiness rather than the interior.
  • The headlights don’t go off when you turn off the ignition. C’mon Scion! It’s 2014. We have the history of all of civilization’s knowledge in tiny phones in our pockets these days, and Scion can’t make sure that we don’t drain our car’s battery when we turn off the ignition? How much did Scion save by eliminating this feature—three bucks?
  • There is noticeable engine noise. It was probably intentional, to give the car more of an aura of sportiness. But if you like your driving quiet, this isn’t your car.
  • The Pioneer infotainment system is pretty outdated. It’s verrry slow. It takes forever to boot up and change functions, and it can’t do two things at once. It’s crummy, and could really use an upgrade.
  • No heated seats, no backup camera—and neither is available as an option, either. A backup camera, in particular, would be very useful.
  • The Tc doesn’t have a dual clutch, sequential manual transmission— it’s just an automatic transmission with a faux-manual shift option. That’s about what we’d expect for this price point, and it works well. But Scions use of the term “sequential” is misleading at best.

Toyota Highlander (2014)

  • Like most Toyotas over the past few decades, we expect the Highlander to demonstrate excellent reliability.
  • Good interior materials. Feels like a higher quality car inside than the previous Highlander.
  • The Highlander has a comfortable ride, bordering on cushy. Driving down the pothole-ridden streets of Our Fair City, we found it extremely tuchus-friendly. Not as soft and pillowy as what we experienced in the Nissan Pathfinder, but the Highlander corners better than the Pathfinder.
  • Every imaginable convenience, including separate rear temperature control, good storage for phones and media players, steering wheel mounted controls for everything, 148 speakers (ok, 12), heated and even cooled seats (our recommendation: Surprise your spouse with the cooling setting when he or she nods off on a long drive.)
  • Back up camera that works well, with trajectory lines on the screen that show you where you’re headed, using sensors that read the steering wheel position.
  • The Highlander has three rows of seats, with two bucket-seats with ample leg room in the middle row. Bench seating is available for the middle row, if you need to squeeze 8 people into your Highlander...assuming the three people in the third row are short and already have very stumpy legs.
  • Toyota has squared off the rear of the Highlander, making for more useful interior space in the cargo compartment and modestly better headroom for any poor bastard stuck using the third row of seats.
  • Strong new style overall. Less cute, and more acceptable to male buyers, we predict. But we found the squared off the rear end (while a plus for interior room) did make the back end a little unattractive.
  • With the 3-liter engine, it’s not overpowered. The power is just about right.

  • It’s huge. We got used to it over time, but it’s hard to park anywhere in a city. And even suburban parking can pose challenges. The Highlander has grown a lot over the years—it’s not longer really an “in-between” size SUV.
  • Lousy gas mileage. With the 6-cylinder engine, we got an average of 18 MPG. On the highway, we eked out a whopping 19! There’s a 4-cylinder option if you’re willing to drive a 2-wheel drive Highlander instead of AWD, but that barely improves the mileage at all and risks being underpowered (we have not tested it). The problem is the size and weight of the vehicle.
  • That said, if you really must have something this big—if you really do need to carry seven people regularly--don’t beat yourself up too much over the mileage, because the Highlander’s mileage is comparable with other poor-mileage vehicles in this class.

Volvo S 60 T6 (2014)

  • The new S60 is a sweet car. It features a nice balance between ride comfort and precise handling. It’s an easy car to live with every day.
  • Plenty of power.
  • Solid feel.
  • Clean and classy looking. Volvo’s definitely playing on the clean, Swedish aesthetic. We liked it. We think it’s a great looking car on the outside and has a clean, calming interior. Nice design work.
  • It has all the latest safety features you’d expect from Volvo, including blind spot warning and lane departure warning, which gently shakes the steering wheel if you’re wandering. The first time the steering wheel shakes, it’s a bit surprising—we though we had a flat tire. But, once you know what it is, it takes its place among useful safety features.
  • All-wheel-drive option.
  • The keyless entry system works particularly well. Just put your hand in a door handle, and you can have all four doors unlock. To lock the car, there’s a simple and clear indentation on the door. Touch it, and everything locks.
  • Others we’ve tested are picky about exactly how and where you touch them, and some will only open the driver’s door. This one is particularly good, in that you never have to try twice or think about.

  • We drove the 5-cylinder 250 hp version, which gets mediocre mileage (low 20s, combined). They have a new 4-cylinder 240 hp engine with an 8-speed transmission for 2015 that claims high 20s combined, a huge improvement if it delivers those numbers in reality. But we have not tested it yet.
  • The automatic start-stop is rough enough to be pretty annoying. The S60 turns off the engine when you stop at a light, and restarts it when you lift your foot off the brake. But it’s rough and noticeable. Volvo needs to reengineer the motor mounts or something to make the start-stop smoother. It got on our nerves, even during a week-long test drive. It can be disabled with a button on the dash, but you’d need to do that every time you start the car.
  • The back seat is awfully tight. There’s not much room, and for a car with an MSRP that starts at $33,315 and heads north of $45,000, we thought that was a serious negative if you carry more than two people frequently.
  • Poor rear visibility, mitigated by the backup camera.
  • We experienced an occasional bit of torque steer. If you’re trying to turn while you step on the gas, the steering will have a tendency to try to pull the wheels straight.
  • The S 60 has a very noisy engine... from the outside. While the passenger compartment is well insulated, the car adds a significant amount of noise pollution to the scene around you.


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