My Top 10 High-MPG Cars of 2013

My Top 10 High-MPG Cars of 2013

My Year of Driving the Latest Electric, Gasoline and Diesel Technology Cars.

silicon valley,advanced car,tech car,future car

At Silicon Valley Reinvents the Automobile

What a year! No one should doubt that 2013 was a breakthrough year for advanced technology vehicles, whether running on electricity, gasoline, diesel or some combination of the three.  The choices expanded, prices dropped and infrastructure exploded (for plug-ins). This year presents an abundance of riches; as I wrote earlier, we (at least we in California) now have 10 pure electric vehicles to choose from–and 2014 promises and expanded roster of choices. I had the opportunity this year to sample more than half of those available. Add in plug-in hybrids and the list of EV choices almost doubles, while traditional hybrids, clean diesels and high-MPG gasoline vehicles ranks keep growing both in number and popularity.

This year I also had the opportunity to help organize two glimpses at the automotive future — the Western Automotive Journalists’ “Silicon Valley Reinvents the Automobile” and “Future Cars-Future Technology” events. Those programs whetted my appetite for what is coming soon and alerted me to much that is already making its way into our cars and advancing their efficiency.

I didn’t get into every vehicle available this year, so this comes from a limited sample that focuses on the new vehicles. My biggest takeaway from 2013–the toughest job for a new car purchaser is sorting out what vehicle or vehicles can deliver the best for his/her situation. It’s never a matter of pure MPG (or MPGe for the plug-ins), but the type of vehicles that functions for you.

Here are the highlights of the year from my drives with some notes about how the vehicles fit into the many lifestyles out there. The choices are amazing and have been getting better every year. I’m really looking forward to 2014!

Also, I have to add a few more to the Top 10 in a couple categories just because so much has happened this year.

1. 2014 BMW i3 – both EV and range-extended EV.  I had the opportunity this year to help out BMW on a project introducing the new 2014 i3 to some folks just after its official “launch” and managed to spend several days squiring around three versions of the lead vehicle in the company’s new “i” division. With this car, available as a pure electric and also with a range-extending motor, BMW follows its Mini-E and Active-E programs with “the real thing.” This car has so much going for it, from a carbon fiber monocoque to a plethora of environmentally friendly features to a price that makes it one of the more affordable BMWs, it’s hard to step back and analyze it.

In my time in the preproduction i3, the reactions to it were almost universally positive. Some skeptics questioned its unique

BMW,i3,electric car,i brand

BMW introduces the i3

styling, but that appears to be one the points BMW is making. When you see an i3, you won’t mistake it for any other BMW – or any other car on the road. Though small, it’s highly functional, with decent room for four adults (with rear seat access through a hidden rear half-door) and cargo space via the rear hatch. The lightweight car has ample power from its 125 kW electric motor and carried 22 kWh of liquid-cooled lithium-ion batteries underneath its floor panels. Range is expected to be somewhere south of 100 miles and its EPA (MPGe) will probably slot it right in the pack of current similar-size electric cars. With its small range-extender engine and 9-liter gas tank, the i3 will cost a little more but still only deliver about 180 miles or range, keeping the i3 as primarily an urban vehicle.

BMW’s approach with the i3 is to present a unique vehicle, a la the Toyota Prius, that is identifiable not only as an BMW and an EV, but one that the company hopes will become the icon of electrics. If that happens, it will displace the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt, who, along with the less common Tesla Model S, currently hold that mantle. Early orders from dealers (it will be available nationwide before midyear 2014) have BMW execs excited that they may have a hit on their hands. Tracking the rollout of the i3 during 2014 is one of the stories we’re looking forward to for this coming year. Our experience up to this point indicates that the i3 will delight purchasers the same way the Mini-E and Active-E have. In fact, we predict the i3 will let BMW put its mark on the EV world very quickly.

2. 2013 Ford Fusion Energi – a versatile, stunning cruiser.  Spending a week with the 2013 Ford Fusion Energi, the plug-in version of Ford’s best-selling midsize sedan, was eye-opening.  After driving small  EVs, the Fusion seemed and was a spacious vehicle.  A midsize sedan, it could handle five passengers in comfort, or in my use scenario, three adults and luggage for a 600-mile weekend roundtrip. With the battery taking up a portion of the trunk, space was at a premium, but the Fusion handled it all with aplomb.  Most enjoyable of all, it didn’t miss a beat on the open highway, delivering a great, comfortable ride balanced with good road feel and handling. Fuel economy was not the 100 MPGe you get plugging it in for local drives, but solidly above 40 MPG on the highway and combined.

The 2-liter Atkinson-cycle gas engine was fine around town and on the highway at speed, but strained on steep hills. The test model came loaded with all the latest technology, including optional active park assist,

adaptive cruise control, rear view video camera and driver assist package with lane keeping and cross traffic alert. With all this technology and a 17-mile all-electric range, the Fusion Energi is the harbinger of future automated cars. It’s standard technology is designed to aid the driver in his/her quest to obtain the best fuel economy. The system teaches you quickly how to brake to maximize captured energy, extending the EV-only range and increasing efficiency.

All in all, the $39,495 (including $795 destination charge) Fusion Energi is full of style and substance. According to EPA

Ford,Fusion,Energi,plug-in car, hybrid

Ford has a plug-in version of its best-selling Fusion sedan

calculations, this model will save you $6,850 in fuel costs over five years compared to the average midsize sedan. Of course, if you have a short commute and can plug in at home and work, you can extend the electric range and increase those savings. As it is, Ford’s 2014 pricing has the Energi model starting $8,470 more than the Hybrid model, which in turn is $4,300 more than the standard Fusion. Some quick addition and you can see the Energi models costs almost $13,000 more than the base Fusion. While it may have a higher level of standard equipment, it’s clear that five years of “normal” driving are not going to recoup the additional cost. However, you also can factor in cash incentives in some states and a federal tax credit. In addition, because of its EV-capability the Energi is eligible for solo HOV-lane access in California, which offers a value for commuters that is sometimes hard to measure in dollars.

Fiat’s fun 500e

3. 2013 Fiat 500e – spunky gas-free fun. I gave this little electric car two thumbs up when I drove it earlier in the year. It remains the most fun EV I’ve driven and, while not the most practical car because of its small size (and miniscule back seat), it delivers so much in power and handling that it should be on the shopping list of anyone looking at electric cars. The best news is that, while eligible for all of the EV incentives and perks, the Fiat has a retail lease for the same price as its gas cousins.

4. 2013 Toyota RAV4 EVthe only SUV EV. This would seem like a no-brainer. Take Toyota’s bulletproof reputation for quality and hybrid leadership, add in some Tesla EV powertrain magic and drop it into a proven model (one that even has an EV heritage). The 2013 Toyota RAV4 EV has all that and its only limitations appear to be a high sticker price ($49,800 for the 2014 model) and limited availability (Toyota plans to build only a few thousand RAV4 EVs to meet its obligation under the California ZEV Mandate).

With a 100-mile range from its 115 kW electric motor and 845 pounds of battery (with a 35 kWh capacity), the RAV4 EV delivers the typical quiet, smooth and powerful electric vehicle experience. The preproduction prototype I drove was well put together. The model offers the high driving position of an SUV and all of the SUV functionality as the battery doesn’t intrude into the cargo area. Charging on anything less than a 30 amp, 240-volt charger is tedious, though, taking 12-15 hours on a 16-amp station and almost two days using a 120 volt wall plug. Toyota does

encourage installation of a home charger and works with Leviton as their preferred provider, offering reasonable prices for the chargers and installation.

My only issue with the RAV4 EV is one I’ve found on several Toyotas I’ve driven–it doesn’t seem to have much personality. It’s

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RAV4 EV assumes the position

functional, does everything asked and performs as well as much of its competition, but the steering and road handling lack the input I’ve come to expect from the best models coming from Europe, America and Asia. Unlike the Fiat 500e or some of the other models on this list, the RAV4 EV doesn’t leave a memorable driving experience. But what it has going for it is that it’s the only pure electric SUV available, offering the same 70 cubic feet of cargo space (behind the front seats) as the gasoline version. Of course, it’s front-wheel drive only, but then again it’s not likely you’re going to take a 100-mile range vehicle too far into the outback.

5. 2014 Jeep Cherokee – taking Jeep into new territory in looks and efficiency.  Jeep hasn’t made its reputation on styling and fuel economy. It’s know for outstanding off-road ability wrapped in a traditional-looking package and a variety of comfort features that have made it more and more car-like over the years.

The new Cherokee, which I took on a brief test drive, is an impressive step forward. As someone who spent more than half a decade at a magazine dedicated to Jeeps and 4x4s, I witnessed the introduction of the midsize XJ Cherokee in the 1980s, a revolution for Jeep that brought unibody construction to an off-road vehicle and started the movement to upgraded interiors in SUVs.

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Jeep’s new Cherokee is a looker that can perform

The old Cherokee was surpassed by the Ford Explorer and a variety of other SUVs that expanded the category to become essentially beefed up station wagons, some of which would potentially go off-road. The new Cherokee is a gauntlet tossed down by the new Chrysler/Fiat management, challenging this category once again to find a balance between style, rock-crawling capability and adding in fuel efficiency.

Pricing on the Cherokee appears to be as attractive as the stylish exterior, starting at $22,995 for a front-wheel drive version and ranging up to $29,995 for a 4WD Limited model.

My time in the Cherokee was brief so I didn’t get a chance to test its off-road abilities or do a full-tank fuel economy run, but the vehicle promises 31 mpg highway with its 2.4-liter MultiAir and 9-speed transmission. In Trailhawk trim has all of the 4WD features that have helped Jeep build and keep its off-road reputation. I’m looking forward to some extended seat time and a chance to see how this model lives up to the Jeep reputation.

6. 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee EcoDiesel – the survival of the big SUV.  This is almost a no-brainer as well. Take an SUV with a solid reputation as both an off-roader capable machine and a smooth highway

Jeep’s New MPG Tool

operator and boost its fuel economy by 30 percent without sacrificing any performance. The Grand Cherokee, which once boasted a diesel engine borrowed from Mercedes, now gets one from Fiat. The 3-liter V-6 is quiet and powerful (240 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of torque), capable of towing more than competitors’ V-8 engines. It’s fuel economy is 20 percent better than the Grand Cherokee’s base V-6 gas engine and more than 40

percent better than the V-8 option.

Again, I only had a brief drive, but as has been the case with the diesel option in the big German SUVs (Mercedes’ GL, Audi’s Q7 and BMW’s X5), I would expect that this will be a popular option in the Jeep. Chrysler added an 8-speed transmission to the diesel (and other engine offerings) as part of the MPG-boosting package. It looks like with 2014 models where the EcoDiesel is available, prices will start at around $46,000. This is another one I hope to get more time in during 2014 to get a better feel for how it operates in the real world.

7. 2013 Nissan Leaf – still the leading pure electric car. Like my colleague John Faulkner, I spent a week in a Nissan Leaf this year and came away impressed with the car’s capability. We may dwell too much on the shortcomings of an EV when the real story is how much utility they have. With its real-world 70-80 mile range, the Leaf can handle most commutes (especially if workplace charging is available) and make around town trips for days without recharging. I tested its range on one evening excursion and found that, combined with a smartphone app that shows available charging stations, trips at the edge of the range could be handled without stress.

The Leaf takes on the country

In addition to my week with the Leaf, I also had the opportunity to take one on an extended drive from the Nissan plant in Tennessee. That drive pointed out two shortcomings of the car: (1) long-legged drivers taller than 6-foot-2 are likely to find the cabin cramped and less than comfortable, and (2) the Leaf is not really cut out for freeway passing. As is always the case with EVs, you’re going to spend more time calculating the length, terrain and outside temperature on a given trip (compared to a conventional gas car), but the learning curve is short and your experience will quickly raise your confidence for making longer drives. However, it remains an unnerving experience to watch your range steadily drop as you power down the freeway at 70 mph; ironically, it reminds me of the gas guzzlers of the 1960s where you could sometimes see the gas gauge needle move when you got on the accelerator. The Leaf remains a smooth, quiet performer. It’s easy to operate and can actually accommodate five adults, at least for short runs, and still retains some storage space in the rear hatch. Its styling is distinctive without being too eccentric. With the price drop that Nissan engineering this year, the Leaf appears to be reaching an audience beyond the early adopters and is starting to find its way into the garages of folks just interesting in low-cost, low-emissions transportation.

The Leaf remains one of the premier ways of getting there on electrons alone and, at least in California, is one of the models dealers are offering with discount pricing, special lease deals and a variety of options.

8. 2013 Chevy Volt – the best of both worlds.  The Chevy Volt, like the Nissan Leaf, has made its mark in the EV world. Intrepid Clean Fleet Report reviewer John Faulkner called it “the best GM car for the money” and I would be hard-pressed to disagree. From the beginning more than two years ago the Volt has been a bargain given the technology involved in the car. It’s fascinatingly smooth and responsive, delivering a great driving experience along with its excellent fuel economy. Unlike my experience with the Leaf, trip planning was effortless as the gas-engine backup was always available. On the other hand, plugging in regularly made around-town driving a pure electric experience.

I found the Volt very stable in crosswinds, probably due to its low center of gravity created by 435 pounds of batteries arrayed down the center of the car. The electric drive was more than needed for freeway

Volt offers versatility

acceleration. It featured less aggressive regenerative braking than the Leaf, but still managed to extend its EV range. Even with an extended trip, I averaged just under 50 MPG with the Volt. It’s purely a 4-passenger vehicle, but the Volt has good room in the back seat and luxury appointments throughout. The luxury touches differentiate it from the Leaf, which has more of an everyman feel. Of course those luxury touches include options that took the price of the Volt I drove from just under $40,000 to more than $45,000.

It’s a lifestyle choice. The Leaf is a solid second car, potentially a commuter and definitely a go-anywhere-around-town champ. The Volt can do all of that and adds the ability to throw in a long-distance trip (250 miles round trip in my case) as well. Beyond functionality, the Volt does have more luxury appointments and imparts a more upscale aura. It’s not surprising the two models have become the poster children for the move to electric drive.

9. 2013 VW Jetta Sportwagen TDI – a highway cruiser, SUV substitute. Let’s get this out of the way first. I really like diesels. Yes, the fuel is typically more expensive than gasoline. Yes, the stations are a little harder to find. Yes, the engines make a little more noise. But look what they offer in return for these “inconveniences” – great, consistent fuel economy, turbocharged power and, in the wagon version, a luggage-gobbling vehicle that keeps a sedan profile and road manners.

So, Volkswagen in the not-too-distant past had a period when it was known as the “diesel Rabbit” company since that was its best-selling (and almost only) product in the U.S. Those diesels, for those who remember them, were very fuel efficient, but also slow, loud and smelly. Thankfully, as VW enters a new diesel era, those attributes are, like the Rabbit diesel, a thing of the past. Today’s diesels, such as the Jetta Sportwagen TDI I drove, have great highway manners and are smooth around-town performers as well. It’s not hard to see why the vast majority (more than 80 percent) of Sportwagen’s leaving American showrooms sport TDI engines. My test model featured a smooth-shifting 6-speed manual transmission, black leatherette interior and a panoramic sunroof. At its heart (and soul, when you think about it) was a 2-liter, 140-horsepower, 236 lb-ft of torque four-cylinder diesel engine. As sweet as this engine is, delivering a consistent mid-40s MPG on the highway, VW is about to replace it next year. The new model will be smaller and lighter, get better fuel economy but produce more power and have even lower emissions.

The lack of options on my test Jetta kept its price down ($28,390 including destination charges), but other than an HVAC system that seemed overmatched by the California-Nevada deserts even in springtime, it didn’t seem to be missing much. The car was a comfortable highway cruiser, topping its EPA 42 MPG highway regularly even with the speedometer pegged between 75 and 80. Around town it delivered the 34 MPG as advertised and offers the height of functionality in a compact package.

10. 2013 Smart ED – finally getting it right. Up front, I should disclose that I owned a gasoline Smart for several years. I had no issues with the car, although it was limited in use because of its size. Smart cars are not long-distance highway runners and with only room for one passenger and several grocery bags, taking one on a Costco run would only end in frustration. So, in some ways, the Smart is one of the most logical cars to turn into an EV. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that its design from the beginning is suited for electric drive and other alternatives. Daimler AG’s decision to electrify the Smart makes sense since it already has limitations like most EVs – it’s primarily a city car built around short trips, tight parking places and fuel economy-minded individuals.

Mercedes-Benz,Smart,electric car, Smart EDThe Smart ED I drove this year represented the third generation of the electric Smarts, one that finally appears to have nailed it. The first round used zinc-based batteries that caused a variety of issues, according to reports at the time. The second generation, which I drove last year, leveraged Daimler’s relationship with Tesla for battery management and related technology. My brief drive at the time left me wondering whether Tesla really would make it (a concern since answered by the company’s solid performance this year). It lacked power, was wholly inadequate on the highway and just seemed ill-suited for anything but short, flat city drives.

Thankfully, the third generation of one the most oddly named (check out the disambiguation under “health”) cars on the market appears to have things sorted out. Daimler has again changed batteries (now a 17.6 kWh package from Deutsche ACCUmotive) and uses a 55 kW electric motor that I am happy to report from a short drive is more than adequate to California’s typical roads. Though only boasting a 60-80 mile range and costing almost double the gas version of the Smart, the Smart ED deserves a look for those into a city car lifestyle. The range is not an issue running around most urban areas and Smart is already running discount deals like the other EV makers.

Small but finally right.

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That’s my 10 best, most-interesting vehicles of the year that I had the pleasure of piloting. It is not everything I have driven or written about and unfortunately one of the downsides of this kind of format is that some deserving cars get left off for no reason other than they’re the 11th or 12th most interesting cars of the year. In a field with the potential of hundreds of vehicles, ranking that “low” is not really a negative mark, so here are a couple just below the Top 10.

One that my colleague John Faulkner has had a chance to evaluate fully is the Jetta Hybrid. I was fascinated by the technology involved. Unlike many other hybrids out there, the Jetta focuses not only on fuel economy (which it delivers quite well, though I was never able to equal the EPA highway or combined ratings of 48 and 40 MPG) but also on performance. The turbocharged engine delivers great low-end torque and also was responsive throughout the powerband. Jetta’s hybrid features aggressive regenerative braking a feature that was unnerving at first – coasting on the highway the engine will shut off, then instantly restart whenever you touch the accelerator.

Another model that didn’t make my list, but is worth mentioning in a positive light is the latest version of the Honda Civic Natural Gas. Having been in earlier versions of the Civic GX, I was expecting to be underwhelmed. The experience was just the opposite. The Civic running on natural gas was as close to a gasoline Civic as one could expect. Filling up on CNG is getting easier as well, though I still consider this model as much of a challenge as an EV and in some ways even more because of lack of development of a home refueling infrastructure.

Those two are relatively easy (and I could probably expand the list as well), but there were also two vehicles I experienced this year that not only would not make my Top 10 list, they would be unlikely to end up on my recommended list at all. That said, both vehicles have their adherents.  The Mitsubishi i-MiEV and Prius c are two vehicles that live at the bottom, price-wise of their respective classes. Unfortunately, my experience with them only reinforces that sometimes you get what you pay for.

The i-MiEV is the adaptation of a Japanese market vehicle and while the changes for this country are noticeable and positive, it’s not enough to make this a competitive vehicle among electrics. With the price wars, EV affordability has become something of a level playing field and Mitsubishi’s competitors offer much more in vehicle comfort and features. It’s not that the i-MiEV is not a competent and functional electric car. It works, but acceleration lacks what is found on the Fiat 500e or RAV4 EV. Its steering is somewhat vague after driving European or most American sedans. If there were no other EVs out there or no other price competitive EVs, you could probably make a case for the i-MiEV, but that is not the case.

The smaller Prius – less is less

My time in the Prius c was limited, but I did get a chance to give it a pretty thorough challenge on the road, heading up over the Laureles Grade in Carmel Valley and hitting some high-speed roads around Monterey. The “c,” which adopted the Prius name even though it is based on the smaller Yaris platform, is a compact car based on the EPA’s interior volume characterization, but it feels more like a subcompact. Toyota advertises the “c” as the “snug Prius,” which I can’t argue with. It’s small and has a proportionately small engine that didn’t appreciate the extreme grade I pushed it up. Handling also seemed kind of soft, but not out of line for Toyota’s approach to the U.S. market.

The Prius c’s main appeal seems to be its low price. Since its introduction, the “c” has been the entry-level Prius, allowing the larger original Prius to move upward in price and options. It does deliver on fuel economy, but for me the sacrifice in performance and space is not worth the meager savings.

My final category is a twofer – the prototypes I’ve driven and the ones I’m looking forward to in the coming year, some of which are the same. First up is the E-Golf, which I’ve driven in several prototype forms over the past couple years. The models I’ve driven seemed ready to head to the showroom, but it will probably be late next year before the electric Golf shows up on these shores. I did take a short drive in the Chevy Spark EV (and John Faulkner gave it a full review). I plan to put some time in one soon to see how it fits in the developing hierarchy of electric cars. My initial impression is pretty positive. Of course, high on my list of unobtainium is the Tesla Model S. I have a neighbor with one and see them daily (haven’t seen one on fire yet–that’s a joke, Elon), but haven’t given one a proper test, although again all reports I’ve seen and heard have been quite positive. And add the new fuel cell Hyundai Tucson that goes on sale this spring. And I’m sure there will be some good surprises as well. Happy New Year, indeed!

Story & Photos by Michael Coates

Posted Dec. 30, 2013

Other related stories you might enjoy:

Top 10 Best-Selling High MPG Cars of 2013

Top 10 Best Fuel Economy Cars of 2014

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Cars Go On Sale in 2014

Road Test: 2014 Volkswagen Touareg TDI R-Line

Road Test: 2014 Volkswagen Touareg TDI R-Line

VW Puts the Punch in a Premium SUV

SUVs are ubiquitous, on the road, at the mall and maybe even in your neighborhood and driveway. Size, seating capacity, options, powerplants and fuel economy can make it seem like a dizzying array of vehicles to choose. Clean Fleet Report would like to suggest narrowing your scope by first considering the engine and fuel type – gasoline vs. gasoline-electric hybrid vs. clean diesel – as this will have the most impact on your cost of ownership over the life of the vehicle.

The Touareg is one of the rare SUVs that comes with three engine options: gasoline, clean diesel and hybrid, along with six trim levels. we’ll take an in-depth look at one of them. The 2014 Touareg TDI I was driving had

VW,volkswagen,Touareg,mpg

VW takes the SUV market heard on with the Touareg

the R-Line package, which is surpassed in options only by the Executive and Hybrid models, but has more standard equipment than the Sport, Sport with Navigation and Lux versions. Confusing, yes. However, what you are looking at are primarily comfort and convenience options and packages, so figure out what options are critical for you and the picture clears up nicely.

Volkswagen considers the 2014 Touareg to be a “premium” SUV, not luxury such as those offered by sister-brands Audi, Porsche or Mercedes-Benz. This could be viewed as a marketing ploy if VW could not make a case for exactly what Premium means and why you should consider having a Touareg in your garage.

Drivetrain

The Touareg TDI is powered by a 3.0-liter, 24-valve direct injection, turbocharged clean diesel V6, and is rated at 20 City/29 Highway, with an average of 23 mpg and a range of 700+ miles. The 29 mpg highway rating is the best in class (standard SUV) with the turbo-diesel producing 240 hp and delivering a whopping 406 lb-ft of torque. All Touaregs come with VW’s 4Motion permanent all-wheel drive and an eight-speed automatic transmission with Tiptronic.

There is approximately a $3,500 premium for the clean diesel engine over the 3.6L, 280 hp/265 lb-ft VR6 gasoline engine. However, for the pure driving fun (and good fuel economy) the TDI is the way to go.

The Driving Experience: On The Road

 

VW,volkswagen,Touareg,SUV,TDI,diesel,clean diesel

The view of VW’s flagship SUV many will see

The first thing that becomes apparent is that massive 406 lb-ft of torque. It is strong and stout off the line but really shines when kicking-in at 2,000 rpm (at around 40 mph). Keep your foot in it to 70 mph and Yowzers – oh yeah, that was fun! Even weighing in at 4,974 lb, this power made easy work of SoCal freeway onramps and changing lanes.

Touareg TDI up to the task

The Touareg TDI R-Line feels solid and confident on the road with responsive handling due to all-wheel drive, 20-inch alloy wheels, all-season tires, four-wheel vented power-assisted disc brakes and ABS. While not a sports car by any means, the Touareg lives up to VW’s claim that it is a performance SUV.

The low noise levels, even with the diesel engine, demonstrate the time VW engineers have put into making the driving experience as enjoyable as possible. The high seating position, aided by a power driver’s seat, provides excellent viewing from all angles.

I did not test the Touareg’s off road capability or ability to tow 7,700 lbs, so I will leave those for you to explore. However, when locking the 4Motion transmission into all-wheel drive, you will get a 30 percent front and 70 percent rear wheel distribution of power, so driving on roads in snow should be a reassuring experience.

One of the convenient and very helpful features on the Touareg are the Bi-Xenon adaptive headlights, which rotate in the direction of a turn being made. It was a treat having the headlights illuminating where I was actually going and is an excellent safety element that makes the Touareg a stand-out.

Driving Experience: Interior

Since VW calls the 2014 Touareg TDI R-Line a “premium” SUV, it had better be equipped with a long list of features that go on-and-on, and, that is the case. The interior has a luxury feel and look with a fit and finish that

are German-tight and have R-Line-only high-gloss black and brushed aluminum trim on the dashboard, center console and doors, along with brushed aluminum pedals and steering wheel.

There is a good mix of soft and hard plastics with no unnecessary fake woods or plastic chrome pieces. The heated leather front seats (bottoms and backs) were very comfortable (with a 12-way power driver’s seat with

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Premium shows up inside the Touareg TDI

memory) so along with the height adjustable and telescoping steering column, finding a comfortable driving position was easy. I did find the center console to be rather tall and wide, taking up a bit of cockpit space. The 40/20/40 flat folding rear seat is comfortable for three adults with ample storage space and the power, panoramic moonroof/sunroof is a nice feature bringing the sky into the car.

The 8-speaker sound system with CD and SiriusXM sounded very good and is upgraded to the Dynaudio system in the Executive and Hybrid models. The 8-inch color touch screen controls the navigation, climate and entertainment settings.

Driver comfort can only be as good as driver confidence in the vehicle’s safety equipment. The Touareg comes with nine airbags, adaptive cruise control, Area View monitor with four cameras, lane assist and side assist blind spot monitors and the previously mentioned all-wheel drive, power disc brakes, ABS and adaptive headlights.

More information on equipment can be found here. 

Driving Experience: Exterior

The exterior styling is conservative but equals the designs of luxury SUVs with appealing clean lines and no unnecessary cladding or body panels. To set it apart, the Touareg TDI R-Line has some styling features that differentiate it from the other Touareg models such as special scuff plates, front bumper fascia, side skirts, LED taillights and oval shaped exhaust tips. All tastily done and add to the look of the vehicle.

Pricing

The Touareg is offered in six models and three powertrain options ranging in price from $44,905 to $65,080. All prices are MSRP and include the $910 Destination Charge.

The 2014 Touareg TDI R-Line I drove was priced at $58,525, including the $910 Destination Charge.

Sales

Half of all Touareg sales are equipped with the turbo charged, clean diesel engine, according to VW, and 24 percent of Volkswagen’s USA overall 2013 sales are clean diesel models. When combining the Volkswagen Group of America’s 2013 sales of VW, Porsche and Audi, these three brands command 75 percent of the diesel market and exceeded the 100,000-TDI engine sales mark during 2013.

Observations: 2014 Touareg TDI R-Line

So did VW make a case for exactly what makes the 2014 Touareg TDI R-Line a “premium” SUV? Let’s see…upscale interior with contemporary exterior styling, excellent fuel economy, performance and handling, plus a long

VW,volkswagen,Touareg,TDI,clean diesel,diesel,mpg

Ready to set sail

list of safety and entertainment features all for thousands less than competing luxury SUVs? Yes, I believe they did

The SUV market, from small to full size, is very competitive with a wide array of brands and models to choose from. As with all vehicle purchases it is important to ask yourself what you need from a car or truck for your lifestyle and driving patterns.

You can find other premium SUVs that you personally may find more appealing, and that, of course, is your decision. However, for the features, equipment, comfort, safety, ambiance and above-all fuel economy, the 2014 Touareg TDI R-Line should be on your shopping list.

 

Competitors

Other contenders in the standard-size 4WD SUV category that are close on the heels of the Touareg TDI’s 29 MPG Hwy. are:

  •  Jeep Grand Cherokee w/3L diesel – 28 MPG
  • Audi Q7 TDI w/3L diesel – 28 MPG
  • Infiniti QX60 Hybrid – 28 MPG
  • Mercedes ML 350 BlueTEC w/3L diesel – 28 MPG

Story & Photos by John Faulkner

Posted: Dec. 23, 2013

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What Is Start-Stop in a Car?

What Is Start-Stop in a Car?

Start-Stop Is an Invasion That’s Started – And We’re Not Talking About Hybrids.

It’s coming and it’s coming in a big way. Ford announced last week (Dec. 12, 2013) that 70 percent of its North American vehicle lineup will feature start-stop by 2017, which is essentially tomorrow in the automotive world that is in the 2014 model year and already introducing 2015 models. That came on top of analysts noting that 45 percent of European vehicles already feature start-stop, where it’s more widely accepted. Most current American vehicles featuring start-stop are hybrids, but this new breed takes the technology into a much broader market.

Ford,start-stop,stop-start, mpg, fuel economy

Ford spreads start-stop throughout its lineup

2014-chevrolet-malibu_start-stop

Chevrolet Makes Stop-Start Standard in Malibu

One of the simplest ways to reduce vehicle fuel consumption is to shut off the engine when it is not being actively used. Other than hypermilers, few of us turn the engine off when we stop at a traffic light or when at a fast food drive-thru and turn it on when it’s time to go – and in many older cars it might not even result in real fuel savings. That’s where stop-start technology comes in, so get ready for its invasion. In simple words, stop-start systems automatically shut the engine off every time the vehicle stops, such as at a traffic signal, and restart it instantly when needed.

The idea of stop-start dates back to the 1930s, and its use can be traced back to the 1980s by European automakers Volkswagen and Fiat. Gasoline-electric hybrids from Honda and Toyota introduced American drivers to stop-start systems more than a decade ago. Today, it is a feature of every hybrid vehicle in the market. For conventional gas- or diesel-powered non-hybrid vehicles, stop-start is a relatively low-tech, low-cost solution that moderately improves fuel economy as well as reducing tailpipe emissions.

These systems are also known as micro hybrids, start-stop, idle-stop, idle-elimination, and a variety of names branded by automakers such as Auto Start-Stop (Ford) and Eco Start/Stop (Mercedes-Benz).

Fuel Economy Savings

Depending on the system design and driving environment, stop-start by itself can add 3-10 percent to MPG numbers. Combined with other fuel efficiency technologies such as direct fuel injection, electric power steering, electric-powered air conditioning compressors, as well as regenerative braking, fuel economy gains can reach 15-20 percent improvement. Stop-start systems make an appealing option for automakers: they don’t require serious design or engineering changes, unlike hybrids and electric vehicles, and the benefits can quickly outweigh the relatively small cost.

Since stop-start operates when the engine is warm and lubricated, there is very little, if any, additional engine wear. They do demand, however, a lot from vehicle batteries. In addition to calling on the battery for engine ignition and starter-motor several dozen times a day, it must provide electrical power for climate control systems and maintain audio and lighting each time the engine shuts down.

Bring in the New Batteries

Conventional 12-volt lead-acid batteries aren’t designed for such punishment so automakers are turning to what’s called Absorbed Glass Matt (AGM) batteries. An AGM battery’s advantage is it recharges up to five times faster and can be deeply discharged with no damage. Like all automotive batteries, it will need replacement. Be prepared to spend two to three times the cost of a regular 12-volt battery. In addition to an upgraded battery, stop-start requires a beefier starter/alternator.  Also, specific software programming is required to ensure the system performs properly. That means when the brake pedal is released – or clutch pedal if equipped with a manual transmission – the vehicle takes off quickly as well as smoothly.

Here They Come

In 2003, General Motors began offering stop-start on its full-size Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups. With a 295 horsepower 5.3-liter V-8 and a four-speed automatic transmission, the EPA estimated city fuel economy at 16 MPG was 2 mpg better than the standard model (Highway fuel economy was the same at 19 MPG since start-stop has little impact in that mode.). For a variety of reasons, including a $2,500 additional cost, GM ended sales in 2006 with only a few thousand sold.

Production vehicles with stop-start technology began emerging in Europe in 2007. This was in response to stringent and escalating European emissions targets. The European Union has mandated that automakers’ fleets average 130 grams of CO2 per kilometer by 2015, with a target of 95 grams by 2020 – slightly more efficient than the 54.5 mpg proposed by the Obama administration. Today, nearly 50 percent of all light-duty vehicles sold in Europe are equipped with stop-start systems. That includes high-end performance cars from Ferrari and Lamborghini. Lux Research, a global automotive market research firm that has analyzed start-stop technology for several years, predicts that the European stop-start market will grow from more than 4 million units in 2011 to nearly 13 million units by 2017. European automakers began exporting vehicles with stop-start to the United States in 2012, including Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Added in 2013 were cars from Porsche, Jaguar and Volvo.

Prompted by the government’s CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) increase to 35.5 miles per gallon in 2016 and a requirement of automakers to raise the average fuel efficiency of new cars and trucks to 54.5 mpg by 2025, U.S. automakers are also turning to stop-start. In 2012, General Motor’s Buick division introduced a sophisticated stop-start system to its mid-size LaCrosse sedan. Called eAssist by GM, the system is now available on the Buick Regal and Chevrolet’s Malibu. Ford and Chrysler each put their toes in the start-stop water in 2013. Ford’s system is available on the 2014 Fusion SE sedan as a $295 option, while Chrysler’s stop-start is standard on the 2014 Ram 1500 HFE pickup truck. Chevrolet also added a no cost light stop-start system (see below) to the base Malibu model. The numbers may be small now but Lux Research has forecast that the North American stop-start market will grow from minimal in 2011 to more than 8 million by 2017.

Stop-Start System Types

Not all stop-start systems are created equal. Lux Research segregates stop-start systems into three broad classes: light, medium and heavy.

Light Stop-Start

The most simple and least expensive, light stop-start systems employ a higher durability starter and a more powerful and longer lasting battery. Also, the engine controller requires reprogramming to pre-position the fuel injection system, starter and transmission to provide instant engine restart when the driver either releases the brake or clutch pedal. Most light stop-start systems include a driver-selectable on-off switch, and some add a small auxiliary battery to eliminate a momentary dimming of lights or slowing of the air-conditioning fan when the engine stops and starts. Extreme hot or cold weather can prevent systems from activating.

The light stop-start feature doesn’t use an electric motor and batteries to move the car down the road and is not considered a hybrid by many standards. Because of their mechanical simplicity, a stand-alone light stop-start system only costs $300-$400 more than a conventional vehicle. Fuel economy improvement is 3-5 percent, slightly more if most of the driving occurs on city streets and stop-and-go traffic. The majority of stop-start systems employed in gas-powered vehicles sold in the U.S. fall into the light category.

Medium Stop-Start

Like a light stop-start system, a medium stop-start version uses a beefed-up starter, more powerful battery and usually an auxiliary battery. In many medium systems, an enhanced alternator is used that allows regenerative braking to recharge the auxiliary battery, usually a small lithium-ion. Medium start-stop systems add $500 to $700 to the price of a conventional vehicle. Fuel economy improvement is 7-12 percent, and again, slightly more if most of the driving occurs on city streets and stop-and-go traffic. There is yet a vehicle with medium start-stop to be offered in the U.S.

Heavy Stop-Start

Heavy stop-start systems offer the highest level of functionally. They are most often a design called Belt Alternator Starter (BAS) or, in Europe, Belt-Driven Starter-Generator (BSG). A BAS is integrated into the belt drive system of a conventional combustion engine. It replaces the belt driven alternator with an electric motor that serves as a generator and a motor. Thus, when the engine is running, the motor acting as a generator will charge a separate battery. When the engine needs to be started, the motor then applies its torque via the accessory belt, and cranks the engine instead of using the starter motor. The separate battery is also recharged via a regenerative braking system.

In this scheme, the motor/generator is made larger than a standard starter motor so more torque can be generated when in the motoring mode. This allows for quicker starts of the engine, and makes the stop-start operation possible. A BAS system is fairly sophisticated and, in addition to the stop-start function, can enhance fuel economy even during highway driving by cutting off the fuel supply when cruising or decelerating. Some systems can also provide some electric assist to the engine during acceleration, but not all-electric operation – thus the term “micro-hybrid.”

When an automatic transmission is part of the drivetrain equipped with BAS, an auxiliary electric-driven oil pump is added to the transmission. This keeps it primed and the fluid flowing when the engine shuts down at a stop. That sustains the transmission’s readiness to perform when the driver accelerates. A BAS heavy stop-start system can add $1,000 to $2,000 to the price of a car, but fuel economy gains are 15-25 percent or more. GM’s eAssist is considered a heavy system.

Actual Mileage Will Vary

In its recently published Fuel Economy Guide for model-year 2014 vehicles www.fueleconomy.gov , the federal Environmental Protection Agency notes for the first time vehicles with stop-start with the abbreviation “SS.”  It includes both conventional as well as hybrid powertrains. What the guide doesn’t tell you is the official EPA fuel efficiency test cycle doesn’t include much idling time. Therefore, fuel savings provided by stop-start aren’t reflected in the official fuel economy ratings. That will change when the new 2017-’25 fuel-efficiency standards are published. It will include extra credit for “off-cycle” systems such as engine stop-start. Until then, you will just have to trust that the stop-start fuel economy gains claimed by auto companies are truthful.

It would appear that there are no reasons to doubt them. Though battery electric vehicles are the current sexy topic, stop-start is poised to become the real fuel saving technology revolution in automotive history. The reason for the breakneck ramp up is simple – it works and it doesn’t cost that much. Stop-start technology won’t be optional, but will soon be standard equipment. So, don’t be surprised if the next car, truck or SUV you purchase shuts off its engine at the first stop light – and enjoy the fuel savings it offers.

Photos from the manufacturers

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Top 10 Best-Selling High-MPG Cars of 2013

Top 10 Best-Selling High-MPG Cars of 2013

You say hybrid-we say Prius

Actually January through November, but we know the way this end.

We know the year isn’t over yet, but we also know the only thing that will change between now and Dec. 31 on the sales charts are the actual numbers. We’ve got a very good sense of which are the Top 10 best-selling High-MPG cars of 2013, so we’re not afraid to let you know early (in case it fits into your holiday shopping plans).

The year 2013 is almost over and the auto industry is moving toward the best sales year in half a decade. High mileage electric cars, plug-in hybrids, hybrids and clean diesels are drafting along with the positive sales year and going beyond, with each segment besting the overall market as new models enter and draw attention. The expectation is for aggressive selling to continue through the rest of the year, but it’s a good time to regroup and declare the Top 10 winners for the year.

If you’ve been following our coverage throughout the year, you’ll recognize the players – the Prius liftback dominates the 42 hybrid models now on the market; VW’s Jetta and Passat takes the lion’s share of diesel sales (although now joined by 20 other models) and the plug-in segment (now totaling 15 models) splits fairly evenly between the pure electric Nissan Leaf and the extended range Chevy Volt. Then Tesla and Toyota carve up most of the rest of this segment, which has shown the most dynamic growth this year.

These three segments of high-MPG models (augmented by a few natural gas Honda Civics) are pacing the market and all three are adding new models, which portends continued growth. That said, the penetration of the by hybrids, plug-ins and diesels still totals less than five percent of the overall market.

Sales in 2014 Expected to Keep Rolling

Auto analysts predict the positive sales trends will continue into 2014 as the economy improves and all indications are that these high-MPG models will also keep ahead of the rest of the market. The Top 10 vehicles in sales are relatively consistent while a couple models on the margins of the sales numbers shuffle places among the top 14 or 15.

On top of the group – always – is the Toyota Prius. With a several year head start on most of the other cars on sales, it’s sales are typically triple those in the next tier. In the second tier are the models breaking into the mainstream, selling well enough to assure their continued existence in the market, but well below the Prius level. At this level the VW diesels – Jetta and Passat – are joined by the midsize Toyota Camry and Ford Fusion hybrids as well as two Prius variants, the c and V and the Ford C-Max hybrid. The electric Leaf and Volt are bubbling significantly below the second tier group and are joined by a group of hybrids along with the Tesla Model S.

Details on sales for the first 11 months of the year as well as the month of November (parenthetically) follow. It’s shaping up to be a solid year for these high-MPG cars.

1. Toyota Prius – 135,291 – (9,801) The Prius is unchallenged as the leader among all of the alternatives, a mainstream car that ranks up with the best selling standard cars. It captures almost a third of all hybrid sales even though it is well into its product cycle (it was introduced in 2009) and probably will need to kick up its game as its 50 MPG rating doesn’t make it stand out when compared with the mileage plug-in hybrids are delivering.

2. Toyota Camry Hybrid – 41,722 – (2,998) The Camry’s hybrid version is a solid second best among hybrids for the year though in November it dropped below the Prius c in sales.

toyota,camry,hybrid,mpg,power,fuel economy

A Hybrid with real-world acceleration

3. Volkswagen Jetta TDI – 41,089 – (2,936) The clean diesel standard-bearer is pushing toward the top of the second tier, virtually neck-and-neck with the Camry Hybrid in sales. It accounts for fully one-fourth of diesel sales at this point.

4. Toyota Prius c – 39,169 – (3,001) The “baby” Prius continues to attract entry-level hybrid seekers and had a strong November, second only to the Prius liftback. This smallest, least expensive hybrid in the Toyota lineup helped Toyota to a 1-2-3 podium finish among hybrid sales, Ford is mounting a challenge.

5. Ford Fusion Hybrid – 34,502 – (2,769) The flagship of hybrid fuel economy at Ford is leading a challenge by that automaker to Toyota’s dominance of the hybrid segment, although its approach to fuel economy includes also plug-in versions of the Fusion and C-Max, an all-electric Focus and its conventional EcoBoost engines.

6. Volkswagen Passat TDI – 32,754 – (2,432) The Jetta’s “big brother” has steadily maintained its sales trajectory during the year, setting sales records for the TDI version of the midsize model. The two VWs (and the company’s three other TDI models) give the company a dominating position in the diesel market similar to Toyota’s with hybrids with more than 70 percent of the diesel market.

7. Toyota Prius V – 32,879 – (2,227) The Prius “wagon” is having a good year, adding to Toyota dominance of the hybrid market, where Toyota and Lexus models take almost 65 percent of total sales.

Ford-CMax-Hybrid-bestseller

Ford C-Max Hybrid

8. Ford C-Max Hybrid – 26,858 – (1,457) Ford’s hybrid “wagon,” along with the Prius V, demonstrates that there is a clear demand for more versatility along with good fuel economy, although C-Max sales have been slipping during the last few months of the year.

9. Chevrolet Volt – 20,702 – (1,920) The Volt is selling on par with last year as a price drop on 2013 models boosted sales and 2014 models carried on with lower prices.

10. Nissan Leaf – 20,081 – (2,003) Nissan’s pure electric car has been benefiting from strong word-of-mouth and a price drop earlier in the year. It’s heading for its best sales year and looks like it will stay in the Top 10.

11. Hyundai Sonata Hybrid  – 19,640 – (1,866) Hyundai’s hybrid models flies under the radar somewhat, but had a great November where it finished sixth among hybrids. With the Kia Optima Hybrid using the same technology the combined sales from the Korean manufacturer are almost at the Toyota Camry Hybrid level.

12. Tesla Model S – 16,950 – (1,400) Tesla’s pure electric has estimated sales numbers (they release the official ones when they report their quarterly earnings so we only get a glimpse of the real numbers intermittently. Production has been steadily increasing during the year as the company fills its orders for its expensive, but exquisite sedan and begins ramping up exports, which is already starting to affect U.S. sales (which is all we report). It does have the “honor” of being the most expensive car in this list by a good margin.

Bubbling below the Top 10 (or 12 in this case) are several models that help boost hybrid sales. The Toyota Avalon Hybrid, Lexus ES Hybrid, Chevy Malibu Hybrid, Kia Optima

Toyota has added hybrid models to the lineup like the Avalon Hybrid and Lexus CT 200h Hybrid don’t rack up big numbers, but they add to the strength of the segment – and cumulatively accounted for more than 50,000 additional hybrid sales.

This segment shows a great amount of strength as new models continue to be introduced. There were eight brand-new hybrid models in 2013 (and several more that were barely launched in 2012); six new plug-ins entered the market and the diesel segment added eight new models. The word is the new models are going to keep coming, which should keep the high-MPG car segment invigorated.

Photos from manufacturers

Posted Dec. 14, 2013 (compiled with Hybridcars.com & Automotive News information as reported by manufacturers)

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Road Test: 2014 Toyota RAV4

Road Test: 2014 Toyota RAV4

2014 Toyota RAV4

Close to 30 MPG – And Worth a Closer Look.

You have most likely observed that not everything that is stated or printed is cast in stone. Look no further than the “your mileage will vary” warnings or anything printed in the smallest possible type on a contract.

That also holds true for our 30 mpg All-Wheel Drive (AWD) Club – cars, crossovers and SUVs with AWD that deliver at least an EPA estimated 30 miles per gallon (MPG) on the highway. We’ve made an exception for Toyota’s RAV4 AWD crossover, which has an EPA rating of 22-mpg city, 29 highway, and 25 combined city/highway.

The reason for the exception? The RAV4’s all-wheel drive system.

Typical of AWD systems in this class, the RAV4’s system, called Dynamic Torque Control, operates in fuel-saving front-wheel drive if sensors aren’t detecting any wheel slip. Any loss of traction activates an electromagnetic coupling that reapportions torque, up to 50/50 front/rear, until grip is restored. Torque transfer to the rear wheels can also take place based on steering input and cornering forces to improve handling and control.

Like virtually all compact crossovers, the RAV4 is not designed for severe off-roading. However, it has a feature relatively rare in this class – AWD Lock – for maximum traction off pavement or very slippery on-road packed snow or ice. Activated by a dashboard button, it locks torque distribution in a fixed, 50/50 ratio at speeds up to about 25 mph. Above this speed, the system automatically reverts to standard AWD mode.

That’s not all. In Sport mode (more on that later), which is standard on AWD versions, the system triggers more dynamic power distribution. Torque transfer to the rear begins the moment the steering wheel is turned. And if the RAV4 begins to noseplow through a corner, the system will send up to 50 percent of the power to the rear to stabilize control.

Pretty cool stuff.

Toyota, which likes to vaunt that the RAV4 spawned the crossover segment in 1996, today is in a traffic jam surrounded by competitors – more than two dozen and counting. And, while it has sold well over the last several years, it hasn’t been able to dislodge either the Honda CR-V or Ford Escape from the top-selling position. With an all-new for 2013 RAV-4, the first fully redesigned edition since model-year 2006, the automaker is looking to change that.

Exterior Styling

New styling trades rounded edges for a more creased, aerodynamic form. Lost in the redesign was RAV4’s trademark side-hinged cargo door, jettisoned in favor of a modern, roof-hinged liftgate. It’s far from a radical shape, but it does stand out visually enough in a category that includes the styled-in-Europe Ford Escape, the handsomely aerodynamic Honda CR-V and the latest redesign of the Nissan Rogue.

An expressive front leads to a lowered hood line and steeply raked windshield. The arched roof culminates with a large spoiler and the concave lines of the rear hatch lend a modern look. Aerodynamics is greatly improved over the last RAV4 thanks to the slipperier shape, new underbody covers and front “aero” corners.

Redesigned Interior

The redesigned interior is a highlight with a wide soft-touch dash dividing the work and comfort zones, giving an almost cockpit feel. Cabin materials rank among the better in this class. Dashboard controls are driver centric,

RAV4 Interior Goes Upscale

and in the center is a 6.1-inch screen that displays audio and climate controls settings as well as the available navigation system.

Front bucket seats are road trip comfortable and in back, three adults will find legroom that rivals many mid-sizers while seated on a sofa-height bench that is comfortably firm. The rear seat is split 60/40 and folds nearly flat with a simple lift of a handle on the bottom of the cushion. Folding offers up 73.4 cubic feet of cargo volume, tops by far in the class. With the back seat upright, the space behind is 38.4 cubic feet, also a class-leading number.

RAV4 won’t confuse buyers with its configurations – the choice is either front- or all-wheel drive and just three trim levels: LE, XLE and Limited. Our review vehicle was a 2013 XLE AWD model. There are no changes for the 2014 model year except for a new Entune audio lineup and a new Technology package for the Limited model.

It’s What’s Underneath That Counts

Beneath the new RAV4’s sheetmetal, not much has changed. Dimensions in the latest iteration are nearly identical to the previous version, riding on a 104.7-inch wheelbase with an overall length of 179.9 inches – a footprint that virtually duplicates the CR-V and Escape.

Under the hood, Toyota has tucked away the carryover 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. Output is rated at 176 horsepower and 172 pounds-feet of torque, numbers that are on par for the class. Instead of the old four-speed automatic transmission, however, it’s now mated to a six-speed automatic borrowed from the Camry. It features two overdrive gears and a torque converter that locks up more of the time (than in past versions), which improves fuel economy.

New to the RAV4 are Eco and Sport modes, activated by dashboard buttons. Like others of its kind, Eco mode aims to save gas by easing off throttle response, remapping shift points and regulating the air conditioner. Sport mode sharpens shift points, throttle response and steering response.

On the Road with the RAV4

Weighing in at a portly 3,585 pounds, our XLE AWD needed all of its 176 ponies. The engine is fairly smooth and mostly quiet, and was more than adequate to handle the everyday chores of merging and passing. The four had a good working relationship with the automatic transmission, which shifts quickly and quietly through the gears. The shift lever can be toggled for manual-type gear control, and when in Sport mode the transmission held the gear selection.

Driving on city streets or freeways, the all-independent suspension delivered a pleasant ride. Even over railroad tracks and rough, broken surfaces, the RAV relayed very little bouncing. Steering responded quickly to input, although there wasn’t much feedback.

Cornering was taken in stride with some expected body roll when pushed, but there was an unexpected lack of understeer. The four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes performed competently when one of those “oh-my-god” situations suddenly appeared.

Mild Off-Roading with the RAV4 – Good MPG

As for the 50/50 lock-up of the AWD system, we gave it a modest test on a eight-mile, narrow and hilly Forest Service trail that had been slightly washed out in places. It performed as advertised, but with a low 6.3-inch ground clearance and no underbody skid plates, the RAV4 isn’t designed for serious off-highway excursions.

When it comes to fuel economy, the EPA’s little disclaimer that “actual mileage will vary” works two ways. We clocked 264 miles during our week with the RAV4. Nearly half, 127 miles, were driven in the default Normal mode with frequent selections of the Sport mode. We kept to posted speed limits in town, but drove on the freeways mostly at 75 mph, 5 over the posted limit. When we topped up the tank, 26.2 mpg was tallied.

The other 137 miles were driven with the Eco mode selected. On the freeway we set the cruise control to 68 mph. Topping up revealed 30.6 mpg, 1.6 mpg better than the EPA’s estimate. Toyota notes that the EPA doesn’t engage the ECO mode during the test-drive cycle – perhaps they should.

Competitive Pricing

In its quest for more sales, Toyota has priced the RAV4 very competitively. The LE AWD with an attractive selection of features has a sticker price of $25,810, including $860 destination charges. Notable is the standard backup camera that displays on the dashboard screen. And every 2014 RAV4 has USB linking as well as Bluetooth hands-free connectivity to cell phones and music streaming. Power locks and windows, air conditioning, cruise control and a manual tilt/telescope steering wheel are included, as well.

XLE AWD ($27,260) and Limited AWD ($30,580) have a sunroof and dual-zone automatic climate control standard as well as Toyota’s Entune infotainment system. It teams with a smartphone for access to a collection of popular mobile applications such as iHeartRadio, Pandora, and MovieTickets.com. Standard features exclusive to the Limited include a leather-wrapped steering wheel, power driver’s seat, heated front seats, and keyless entry with pushbutton ignition. Exclusive to the Limited is a power liftgate and the optional Technology package featuring a blind-spot monitor with rear-cross-traffic alert and lane departure alert.

RAV4-Cavernous Cargo Space

The 2014 RAV4 is a compact crossover that doesn’t waste a square inch of passenger or cargo room. It has surprising amounts of both in a body that has presence on the road without occupying too much of it. In addition to Toyota’s-brand quality and resale value, you get above-the-traffic ride height, comfortable seating for five, and just enough off-road capability to keep you out of trouble — or get you into it.

 

 

 

Story & photos by Larry E. Hall

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