Steve’s Top Picks
If you like the value of the Corolla but favor an SUV body-style, the Corolla Cross is calling. Already offered as a sedan, hatchback and hybrid model with a high-performance variant joining soon, a Corolla crossover SUV just seemed inevitable. Priced from $23,410 including destination it’s a welcome alternative to the slightly more expensive CH-R which favors style over practicality and can’t be had with all-wheel drive. Thought it’s not much to look at this well-appointed XLE grade packs a lot of usefulness and features into its elevated body which clears an impressive 8+”. For those who are intimidated by the size and fuel economy of a traditional SUV but crave its commanding view and 5-door versatility, the Corolla Cross slots in nicely. Rated at 30mpg with a nearly 400 mile driving range it’s a value proposition that asks few sacrifices of its owner. With adequate sizing in the front, middle and rear, a roof rack and the ability to tow 1,500 pounds, the Corolla Cross presents as a do-it-all for the car shopper on a budget. Its least desirable trait comes from the powertrain – a CVT mated to the modestly powered 2.0-liter engine with its 150 pound-feet of torque which can at times cast a pall on the driving experience but I’m guessing it would hardly bother the typical Corolla Cross owner. The Corolla Cross is more than just another utility vehicle – it’s one that strikes a compelling balance in every aspect of its offering.
There is no more Civic Coupe or Civic Hybrid but there is a stellar new sedan, frisky Si model and an upcoming high-performance Type R. And when you begin with a car that’s this good you might as well make as many variants as possible. So here’s the Hatchback, priced with a $1,000 premium over the Civic with a trunk for a starting MSRP of $24,365 including destination. How much different is it than the sedan? It’s 5” shorter, can be had with a 6-speed and takes cargo volume with the seats up to over 24 cubic feet or the same as an HR-V. That’s basically it. And the sedan does have a couple of advantages…more paint choices and better gas mileage. This top-of-the-line Sport Touring trim comes only in black, white or gray and in an apples-to-apples comparison loses up to 3mpg when equipped with the standard CVT. But if you crave this kind of short throw shift for yourself fun make sure you choose one of the 4 Hatch trims that starts with the word Sport otherwise you’re getting a CVT…not a bad one but still. And then if you want the stick and the turbo? Well, you’re looking at it…you’ve got to go Sport Touring. The good news is that the manual is a no-charge option and the turbo is actually more fuel efficient than the 2.0-liter base engine. In typical Honda fashion there’s just about zero personalization options but at least everything you see here is standard for an as-tested price of $31,260. And for that price you are getting a well-stocked car with leather, sport pedals, heated seats, a moonroof and the full panoply of driver assistance features. And it’s the Sport Touring that’s the only hatch that gets such goodies as parking sensors, rain sensing wipers, an auto-dimming rear view mirror with garage door opener, a power passenger seat though one without height adjustment, and more substantive stuff like wireless phone projection, the big touchscreen with navi, an awesome sounding 12-speaker Bose sound system with sat and HD radio, a wireless phone charger, rear USB ports, and the bigger and better driver info screen. Outside, this is the only one to get fogs and dual exhaust finishers. With sharp styling, an exciting drive and SUV-fighting cargo room, the Hatchback is yet another variation to the Civic lineup worth keeping.
All of the full-size trucks on the market are pretty amazing…there isn’t a bad choice in the lot. But this Tundra Limited with the TRD Off-Road Package is a near-perfect blend of luxury sedan and weekend warrior hitting all the right notes in terms of comfort and capability. I love this truck for all that it is…but I just can’t believe Toyota didn’t give the 4-wheel drive system an auto setting…the other truck makers have learned that lesson but here you’re either in 2-wheel drive or 4-high with no variability for changing road conditions. Toyota wanted to make the Tundra the leader in driving comfort and this is a beautiful drive with car-like precision that’s been engineered into all of these new trucks. And with the off-road suspension you can tear down that trial while floating over the rough stuff. The new V6 grumbles like the V8, there’s plenty of power and the drive modes are intuitively integrated. Other than the lack of 4WD Auto this is a great setup for a truck that can do it all without going to extremes. I’ve really connected with this truck; it hits all of the right notes. Too bad it doesn’t fit in my garage.
Last year Audi sold nearly 3 times as many SUVs as it did cars despite a lineup of coupes, sedans and sport models that come in every size and flavor. So it’s fair to question the relevance of this redesigned gas-fueled subcompact sedan in a market dominated by SUVs and burgeoning EVs. But if you still appreciate a sporty, German-engineered, turbocharged ride this new A3 has got your back.
So you want an Audi but your bank account is borderline. Well, meet the A3. With starting MSRP of $35,895 it’s one of only 2 Audis priced at under $40,000. The other is this car’s SUV counterpart, the Q3 which outsells the sedan nearly 5 to 1. So why choose this? Well, it’s a little cheaper than the Q3, its new mild-hybrid powertrain is significantly more fuel efficient and it’s quicker making for a sportier drive. But with a trunk instead of a hatch it has less than half of the standard cargo volume even though the A3’s backside gets a little bigger this year. The A3 is now a tad longer, wider and taller than before, 66 pounds heavier and slower to 60mph by a half a second, clocking in now at 6.3 seconds. But before you roll your eyes you should know that this 48-volt electrical system provides eboost upon takeoff and fills the 2.0-liter turbo with additional low-end torque so the immediacy to go is still there; impressively so for an engine alone that now makes only 201 horsepower and 221 pound-feet of torque. The big benefit of this electrical assistance though is of course gas mileage which rises from 25mpg to 31mpg in combined driving and all the way to 36mpg on the highway. Regular gas? No problem. This also increases the driving range from 330 miles to 450 miles. And this car is so comfortable up front and quiet that long highway cruising is most certainly in play. I say front because the A3’s rear seats aren’t nearly as accommodating, this is a subcompact after all. You can fit 2 back here and it’ll be OK but 3 across is definitely a no. If it’s all out performance you crave remember the S3 and RS3 are here to fill those needs. But this A3 – with quattro all-wheel drive, the 4-cylinder turbo, 7-speed dual clutch transmission and Drive Select is the perfect blend of silky smooth sedan and frugal fun.
This here is the Bronco Wildtrak – the most expensive Bronco – designed for high-speed, all-out dessert runs…a terrain type foreign to my area. Instead, I’ve got a freshly fallen 3” sleet bomb with some snow on top. This is the only Bronco which comes standard with the Sasquatch Package taking ground clearance to 11 ½” through long-travel Bilstein shocks and 35” mud tires mounted to 17” beadlock-capable wheels. There’s a higher final drive ratio delivering more torque to the ground and it also possesses a nearly 2” wider track. The Wildtrak also comes standard with the more powerful 2.7-liter twin-turbo V6 rated at 315 horsepower and 405 pound-feet of torque on regular unleaded – 330 horsepower and 415 pound-feet of torque if you feed it premium. A 10-speed auto is the only available transmission on Wildtrak, rated at 17mpg. This one is also optioned with Dual Tops: a Carbonized Gray removable hard roof with a sound deadening headliner which was left at the shop and – the way it was delivered to me – with a retractable full soft top. Removing the standard fog lamps on this tester is the optional Ford Performance Heavy Duty front bumper which includes upgraded front steel bash plates. Other notable extras on this Bronco include leather-trimmed vinyl seats, a 2” hitch receiver for max towing of 3,500 pounds and the most lavishly equipped Lux Package which essentially turns this Bronco’s interior into that of a well-stocked Explorer’s.