APRIL 2017
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Test-drive stories by NITISH S. RELE – motoringtampabay@gmail.com

All Toyota Camry admirers, here is your dilemma: go for the current model or wait with bated breath for the 2018 sedan, which is said to be a trendsetter, of sorts, as we are told. Though the power trains maintain their status quo, next year’s Camry is built on an all-new platform, gets a 2-inch wheelbase boost, 8-speed gearbox instead of the present 6, and a striking cabin from what we hear.

As for now, the best-selling car in the United States continues as is. The 3.5-liter V-6 cylinder engine develops 268 horsepower @ 6200 rpm and 248 pounds-feet of torque @ 4200 rpm. That is plenty to cruise on the highway or dodge traffic in the city. The sedan is equipped with an effective 6-speed auto transmission and a sport-tuned suspension for nippy and attentive handling.

LED high and low headlights with black trim bezels flank a smoked chrome upper grille hosting the familiar Toyota emblem. Satin-chrome accents deck up the interior with its center stack, custom-tuned JBL audio system, 4.2-inch TFT screen between the tachometer and speedometer, and a wireless charging system for select cellphones. Trunk space is a cool 15.4 cubic feet. Standard goodies are eight-way power driver and four-way front-passenger seat, leather three-spoke tilt/telescopic steering column, 60/40 rear seat, two 12-volt power outlets and a 6.1-inch touchscreen for navigation, audio, phone controls.

Dual front and side airbags, side curtain airbag and front knee airbags are fitted at no extra charge along with side-impact door beams, four-wheel antilock brakes, Electronic Brake Distribution with brake assist, vehicle stability and traction controls, rearview camera, front/rear crumple zones and tire pressure monitoring system.

This bread-and-butter vehicle for and from Toyota is a nimble, athletic and tidy ride that seats five with ease. A total revamp inside and out for the eighth-generation 2018 model can only help to keep the midsize sedan at the top for several years to come.



The midsize luxury sedan comes in two trims: the ES350 or its hybrid version, the ES300h, which was our test drive for the week. After a major re-do some years back, Lexus has maintained its status quo except for making rain-sensing wipers and Lexus Safety System (pre-collision, lane departure alert with steering assist, intelligent high beam and high-speed dynamic radar cruise control) standard.

Under the hood resides a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine that cranks out 156 horsepower @ 5700 rpm and 156 pounds-feet of torque @ 4500 rpm. But the battery-powered electric motor ups the total to 200 hp. It is mated to an ordinary Continuous Variable Transmission. But drivers can pick the following modes: normal, eco, sport and EV. In the latter, the car can coast for half a mile at 25 mph on solely electric power. During deceleration and braking, the vehicle uses regenerative braking to apply much of the wasted energy toward recharging the hybrid battery. We earned nearly 36.4 mpg in mixed driving (EPA estimates are 40 city, 39 highway, and 40 both).

Safety features include dual front and side airbags, side curtain airbag, front knee airbags, rearview camera, vehicle stability and traction control, four-wheel antilock brakes, smart stop technology, front/rear seatbelt pretensioners and crumple zones, tire pressure monitoring and daytime running lights.

The massive Lexus spindle grille with stylish satin chrome trim is flanked by twin-projector LED headlights, while the blue tint in the emblem and the penciled hybrid on the rear doors are a giveaway. Step into the well-lit and airy cabin and you will quickly get cozy and comfy in the plush leather seats. A mouse-like, easy-to-use Remote Touch enables the driver to toggle navigation, climate, audio and phone controls. Also standard are auto dual a/c, driver information center, 10-way power front seats, power moon roof, analog clock, piano-black trim interior and a split-folding rear seat. Though trunk capacity is reduced by the battery, you get 12.1 cubic feet of space.

Positioned between the entry-level IS and the larger GS, the ES300h is a fun ride, responding with agility while saving you some money at the gas pump. Zero to 60 is just 8.1 seconds with top speed at 112 mph. Indeed, it is one of the smartest choices for any prospective midsize luxury sedan buyer.



Three years after the most powerful and technologically advanced Kia made its debut, the Korean carmaker has totally redesigned the flagship sedan. Though it shrinks in width and height, the wheelbase and length in the Cadenza are slightly up. There is extensive use of not just high-strength steel but also aluminum in the chassis to result in a lighter vehicle. A substantial change under the hood is the gas-saving 8-speed automatic gearbox to replace the previous 6-speed. Extra sound-damping materials hold wind and road noise to a minimum.

Sharing its platform with the Hyundai Azera, the front-wheel-drive Cadenza continues with the 3.3-liter V-6 GDI engine pumping out 290 horsepower @ 6400 rpm and 253 pounds-feet of torque @ 5200 rpm. A retuned independent MacPherson strut front and multilink rear suspension handle the rough surfaces with little sacrifice to the backside. And then there is the Motor-Driven Power Steering to provide a quick and precise feedback to the driver. Drive modes are comfort, eco, sport and smart.

Up front, the familiar “Tiger nose” concave grille now boasts a hexagonal shape while flanked by Z-shaped signatures in LED headlights and fog lamps. Chrome is noticeably visible on the trunk lid, side molding and mirrors. The cabin is posh as is expected of a luxury ride with Nappa leather seats, dual-zone auto a/c, 14-way power heated/cooled driver and 10-way front-passenger seats, woodgrain-style trim, power tilt/telescopic steering wheel with paddle shifters, analog clock, 8-inch touchscreen, Harman Kardon premium audio, and power rear sunshade and manual side sunshades.

Safety features include dual front and side airbags, side curtain airbag, driver knee airbag (a first), four-wheel antilock brakes, stability, hill start assist and traction controls, blind spot/rear detection traffic alert, lane departure and forward collision warning, rear parking assist and autonomous emergency brakes.

Since its introduction in 2013, the Cadenza has proved to be a tough contender to proven premium sedans from Audi, BMW, Lexus and Acura. Though not necessarily agile, this Kia is a fine mix of luxury and performance.



Though the Mazda3 received a major transformation three years ago, the carmaker has incorporated some fresh life in 2017. The power train is still fitted with the direct-injection Skyactiv technology, which uses a torque boost via a high compression ratio for stretching fuel economy. A 2.5-liter inline-4 cylinder engine puts out 184 horsepower @ 5700 rpm and 185 pounds-feet of torque @ 3250 rpm. Mated to the car, which is available as a sedan or hatchback, is a 6-speed manual or auto gearbox.

Surrounded by bi-xenon HID headlights, the front fascia sports a bolder look with a new bumper and side mirror design, and a revamped matte-finish grille, The Mazda badge and license plate holder are now positioned slightly lower. Changes in the cabin include a new standard electronic parking bake, reworked steering wheel for a firmer grip, and center console and front door pockets with expanded storage room. To top it all, Mazda has used additional sound materials to insulate the interior from road noise. The 7-inch touch screen, part of the Mazda Connect navigation/infotainment system, is easy to operate via a command control button in the center console. Other standard amenities include six-way power driver seat, heated front seats, push-button start, dual-zone auto a/c, cruise control, leather-wrapped tilt/telescopic steering column and shifter, 60/40 fold-down rear seat with hidden armrest and cup holders, power windows and door locks, and AM/FM.

Dual front and side airbags, side curtain airbag, stability and traction control, hill launch assist, active front-head restraints, four-wheel antilock brakes with electronic brake distribution and brake assist, rearview camera, blind spot monitor, rear cross traffic alert and tire pressure monitoring system are standard. For 2017, the G-Vectoring Control (uses engine timing for more accurate steering inputs) comes at no extra cost.

Base-priced at $24,195, Mazda3 is a compact car, so we will excuse the tight rear seat for passengers. And it is not headed to the racetrack since power at the front wheels is just right. This great fuel-sipper with the impressive Skyactiv technology is inexpensive, trendy and a blast to drive.


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