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Car Talk Test Drive Notes

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  • The Pioneer infotainment system is pretty outdated.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.

Ram 1500 Laramie Crew Cab 4x4 Diesel (2014)

  • We got a remarkable (for a full size pick up truck) 28 MPG on the highway while cruising along at 75 mph. We got 20 MPG in the city—phenomenally good MPG for a behemoth, thanks to a modern diesel engine and an eight-speed automatic transmission.
  • This truck is decked out! The top of the line model we drove had heated front and rear leather seats, comfortable enough for the most sensitive backside, a file holder to hold the gouging-estimates for your jobs (so you can afford this truck), a knock-out Sirius/XM/ everything else stereo system, and a gigantic storage console—and many other luxury touches.
  • The Laramie rides like a luxury car. When you’re inside the truck, with the windows closed, the diesel noise is remarkably diminished. It’s very well insulated. (Though, on the outside, or with a window or door open, it’s still plenty noisy.)
  • Very smooth at idle—a trait not normally associated with diesels.
  • The transmission offered on the Laramie includes a transfer case that allows the driver to select between two wheel drive, four wheel drive automatic (which kicks in when you need it), and both high and low, traditional locked four-wheel drive.
  • Excellent acceleration, thanks to the diesel engine’s low end torque and the turbo.
  • You can change lanes with impunity. This truck has size and presence. No one, short of tractor trailers, will give you any grief when they see you easing into another lane in front of them. Expect plenty of leeway from Camry’s and Focuses.
  • The Laramie has a great suspension system for pick up truck. And despite its size and load capability, it handles well on turns. Better than other pickups we’ve driven recently.
  • Surprisingly good turning radius for a vehicle of this size.
  • The “Ram Box” is a great idea. Lockable storage built into the sides of the cargo bed walls, each of the two boxes locks when you lock the vehicle.

  • It’s just plain huge. Want to get in? You’ll need the running board. And maybe a running start. On the upside, when leaving, the smooth leather seats act as an evacuation slide.
  • The Laramie is very hard to park in a tight space, such as a parking garage. If you’re driving regularly includes urban areas or parking garages, think more than once before plunking down for a Laramie. While you’re unlikely to drive into another vehicle when parking, thanks to the sensors and camera, it will take you four or five tries to successfully dock the Laramie.
  • The model we drove did have helpful proximity sensors at each of the four corners, and an excellent back up camera. Dodge calls these features are “Park Sense” and “Park View.” They’re required equipment, in our opinion, given the vehicle’s size and poor visibility, side and rear. But they’re only available on the higher-end model.
  • And ergonomically-speaking, the “Park View” viewing screen, which gives you a visual image of which corner of the truck is about to mutilate a Corolla, is in a terrible location--often blocked by the steering wheel.
  • Diesel fuel is not as widely available as gasoline. So be sure it’s readily available at service stations on your route to and from work.
  • There are a lot of buttons on the center console, many of them towards the bottom. Dodge clearly wants the Laramie to be regarded as a high-tech machine. The downside is that we often found it very hard to find the small button we were looking for while driving.
  • The “dial” style automatic transmission selector is kind of gimmicky.
  • The MSRP for the fully-loaded version we drove was a whopping $55,000. Be sure you have the spec home you’re building under contract, before you put a down payment on this rig.

Kia Forte EX (2014)

  • This car competes against other cheap little cars: the Corolla, Civic, Fiesta. And it competes well. When loaded up, as in our EX trim tester, it’s a pretty nice car to drive, and is comparable to similarly equipped Corollas and Civics at $19,500.
  • For a car of its size, it’s got a very comfortable ride. You don’t feel like you’re being thrashed around. It doesn’t feel like you’ve made a huge compromise in comfort just to drive a smaller car. It helps that the front seats offer a good range of adjustment.
  • In EX trim, it has a lot of the luxuries you might expect to get with a larger, more expensive car, including navigation, heated seats, heated steering wheel, and keyless entry. These are great convenience features that, at one time, you had to forego if you wanted a smaller car.
  • We expected the Forte to be noisier. In fact, it’s comparable and perhaps a bit quieter than the Toyota Corolla, one of its direct competitors.
  • It’s a decent handling car, and we found it fun to drive.
  • The Forte has extraordinarily good power for a car of its size. The EX comes with a 2.0 liter, 173 hp GDI, “direct injection” engine, which injects the fuel at very high pressure into the cylinder, allowing for more power and efficiency out of a smaller engine. The result is an EPA rated 24 city/36 highway*
  • *Your mileage will suck more than that, as with any EPA rating.
  • Comes with Kia’s standard 100k drive train warranty—a better warranty than many competitors, including Toyota.
  • More modern looking than even the new, 2014 Corolla.
  • We hated parting with it!

  • Thanks to the modern look, don’t expect to see out the rear. There is a backup camera, however. Unfortunately, you’ll quickly start to hate the delay of several excruciating seconds, from when you shift into Reverse until the screen shows the view behind the car.
  • Overall, we found the Forte to be a little small, in terms of interior room. The back seat is not particularly roomy, either, and lacks good headroom for taller people (aka adults).
  • It’s still a small car, with a small wheelbase, which means the ride will never be like that of a larger car. And despite the fact that it was surprisingly quiet for a small car, you will hear engine noise from the smaller engine.
  • We never got close to their claimed fuel economy of 24 city/36 highway in our real world testing.
  • Navigation system is a little less user-friendly than some.

Toyota Camry LE (2014)

  • It’s a Camry. It remains great, basic transportation, that’s among the 2 or 3 most reliable vehicles ever built.
  • Perfectly adequate. What do we mean by that? It’s got reasonably comfortable seats, good visibility, good shoulder and headroom, decent legroom in the back, a comfortable back seat, and a spacious trunk. It’s a good family car, and very practical.
  • The transmission-engine combination is smooth as silk.
  • You can reasonably expect this car to run for 200,000 miles without a big repair. You’ll drive it until you really wish it would finally die.

  • It’s a Camry. It’s image neutral-- at best. You’re not buying it for its looks.
  • It’s noisy. There’s a fair bit of road noise.Is it excessively noisy? Almost.
  • It needs a backup camera.
  • It uses a key. Quaint!
  • One of the big complaints against Toyota is that they “de-content” their models over the years to save money. The same accusation could be leveled against the 2014 Camry. It’s feels a little less solid, a little cheaper than it has in the past. Is it excessive? No. But it is notable. And as a result, the 2014 Camry is noisier than comparable Camry from seven or 8 years ago.

Nissan Juke SL AWD (2013)

  • Unusual, fun appearance. Makes a statement that you’re not ready to drive a Camry, move to the suburbs, and have your 2.5 kids.
  • It’s got love-it-or-hate-it styling. Some of us at Car Talk loved it. Some of thought it was the ugliest thing seen here since my brother walked into the office around noon. We think risky styling is a plus these days.
  • Small, economical, and all-wheel drive. Less fun to drive but more practical than a Mini Cooper.
  • Nissan makes reliable cars that are affordable to maintain.
  • The Juke has a decent back seat that’s surprisingly roomy.
  • The continuously variable transmission is quiet in normal driving. However, it does rev noticeably when climbing hills and under load, but that’s something we’ve noted on a number of CVTs with small engines.

  • If you hate the styling, that can be a deal breaker.
  • This is not a car for the 45-year-old-plus buyer. It has that “feel the road” kind of ride. A daily commuter might tire of the ride quickly. Then again, if you’re trying to make a statement, ride comfort is not your top priority. Remember, lots of people buy Jeep Wranglers!
  • The Juke is noisy. But Juke buyers will forgive that.
  • Poor visibility out the back window and the rear side windows. A backup cam helps alleviate that problem.
  • TomTom navigation system is included in the base price. It’s a nice touch having it included. Unfortunately, it’s a cheap, frustrating navigation system.
  • With a base MSRP of $26k, this is an awful lot of money to spend on a small car. It’s not the most practical use for your money—for the same price you can get a Honda CRV or a Subaru Forester. But you don’t get to stand out in one of those cars.

Subaru Forester (2014)

  • The triumph of function over design.
  • Large doors provide easy access, and large windows provide good visibility, especially out the back.
  • Good, simple, affordable, basic transportation with the added safety of all-wheel drive. Base Forester available in the low 20s—pretty affordable for a car with all-wheel drive.
  • Very good fuel economy for its class. We got mid 25-27 MPG in mixed driving.
  • The 2014 felt a bit less tinny than the previous Forrester, with a bit less road noise that we’re used to in this model.
  • Good, firm handling.
  • Latest electronic safety features are at least available, even if it’s as an option.
  • The usual Subaru all-wheel drive is time-tested and reliable. In many other respects, this is a tried and true design. You should expect to get 150k miles out of a new Forester—with a repair caveat, noted below.
  • Great car for the person who swears by Consumer Reports and couldn’t care less about image. The ultimate in practical, economical cars for people in snowy climates. Subaru checked all the boxes with this car: decent fuel mileage, not too big, not too small, all-wheel drive, room in the back… what else do you want?

  • A triumph of function over design. Not a looker.
  • Ride is on the firm side.
  • As good as they are, Subarus are not quite as reliable as Toyotas and Hondas. We see a number of Subarus in our shop with 100,000 miles or even sometimes a bit less, having expensive issues with oil leaks or head gaskets. Until we see evidence to the contrary, we’d expect this level of reliability with the 2014 model. For this reason alone, we’d be hard pressed to take a Forester over a Honda CRV.
  • There are no knobs for the radio controls. If you’re traveling out of your home area and your existing presets aren’t useful, you need to turn to the screen—which is both annoying and dangerous.
  • All gussied up, the Forester can cost as much as $33k. In our opinion, that’s no longer a bargain for what you’re getting. The Honda CRV would be a much better option, if you’re looking at the higher-end Forester. It’s more reliable, better put together, better looking, and can probably be had for less.

Lexus GS 450H (2013)

  • This is a sweet car. It’s luxurious, comfortable and very quiet—at least for the driver and his or her passenger.
  • Good mileage results—we were getting around 35 MPG, even with the car tuned for performance rather than maximum fuel economy.
  • If you’re into luxury and want to send a message that you care about the environment, but don’t want to give up a damned thing, well then…. this is the car for you.
  • Hybrid technology is always a pro in our opinion, but the implementation in this case is a bit of a con. (Details below.) Engine start/stop technology is probably the most useful aspect of the hybrid engine, and definitely improves the MPG in city driving.
  • Handling, suspension are perfect. Nonpareil--and for that kind of money, you should expect nothing less.

  • The $69,000 price tag. We figure $55,000 for the basic GS, and another $14,000 so you can park in the Whole Foods lot without having to hide your face when you walk by the Prius owners.
  • The hybrid is tuned to provide greater performance at the expense of fuel economy. We prefer greater fuel economy along with acceptable acceleration, rather than ridiculous acceleration and only good fuel economy.
  • Back seat room was not given high priority. It can seat three, but not particularly comfortably. We’d consider this car a four-seater, rather than a five-seater, for any trips more than a few miles.

Hyundai Sonata Limited (2013 )

  • It's a really nice car. Its highest level trim, which we test drove, came with a price tag of $27,595—about on par for vehicles in this class. We found it to be a cut above the Toyota Camry in terms of luxury and very comfortable.
  • It comes with a modern, efficient 2.4-liter 4-cylinder, direct injection engine and a six-speed automatic transmission that delivers a healthy amount of power in a small package.
  • Pretty good fuel mileage. We got 27 MPG in mixed driving--not bad for a car that can carry four people very comfortably.
  • One result of a smaller engine is that there’s lots of room under the hood, which we like to see. Why? Simple. Eventually, every car is going to need repairs. And, the more space there is to maneuver under the hood, the easier and more affordable the repair will be.
  • Like all Hyundais, the Sonata comes with a great warranty: Six years or 60k miles on everything, and 10 years/ 100k miles on the powertrain.
  • Surprisingly decent rear seat room and comfort for a car with a swoopy design.
  • Hyundai offers a hybrid edition of the Sonata, which claims to add an additional 12-14 MPG in the city, and 5-6 MPG on the highway for about $3,000 more.

  • Rear visibility is compromised by swooping rear end, although it’s better than some.
  • Entry through rear doors requires some careful head movement due to shape of roof.
  • Reliability isn’t quite up to the Toyota/Honda level, although not bad.

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