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Test-drive stories by NITISH S. RELE, motoringtampabay@gmail.com

4RUNNER TRAIL PREMIUM 4X4For 2015, the Toyota 4Runner continues as is. And why shouldn’t the midsize SUV, which has been in the running for more than three decades? Once again, the robust ride is equipped with a 4.0-liter DOHC V-6 engine developing 270 horsepower @ 5600 rpm and 278 pounds-feet of torque @ 4400 rpm. It is mated to a 5-speed automatic transmission, which we hope will get one an additional gear soon for more fuel savings down the road. Tow capacity is a formidable 4,700 pounds.

This is a standout vehicle, thanks to a prominent hood scoop meeting up with a muscular front grille surrounded by smoked multi-reflector projector headlight bezels, integrated front fog lamps, LED rear combination lamps and silver-painted roof rack. The cabin is spacious and accommodating as you would expect of any Toyota. Easily noticeable are large speedometer and tachometer gauges with a centered driver information center. Other standard niceties are manual a/c, 40/20/40 rear seat, tilt/telescopic steering column, rearview camera and six-way driver and four-way front-passenger seats. Go for the optional perfect-for-tailgating $350 sliding rear deck, which can hold up to 440 pounds.

Except for meager gas mileage, the 4Runner gets the job done. Whether testing its off-road prowess or on-road capability (the ride can at times be choppy for daily use), the SUV is surprisingly quick off the mark, spirited in traffic and pleasing to drive. Besides, it comes with Toyota’s steadfast reputation for reliability and durability.



2016 HYUNDAI TUCSONIntroduced in 2004, the compact Hyundai Tucson has undergone a makeover in the past. But the inside out redesign and power train change for the front-wheel or all-wheel-drive 2016 SUV appears to be major. And for the better, we must say.

Mated to a 6-speed auto transmission, the base SE trim comes with a 2.0-liter inline-4 cylinder engine putting out 164 horsepower @ 5200 rpm and 151 pounds-feet of torque @ 4000 rpm. However, the Eco, Sport and Limited versions are equipped with a 1.6-liter turbocharged inline-4 cylinder engine cranking out 175 hp @ 5500 rpm and 195 pounds-feet of torque @ 4500 rpm while coupled with a 7-speed auto gearbox. Hyundai claims EPA estimates are up by 5 mpg in the Eco. The front MacPherson strut and multilink rear suspension have been re-engineered while body rigidity, sound damping and safety have improved with the use of 50 percent advanced high-strength steel. The SUV is now 3 inches longer, 1.2 inch more in wheelbase and 1.1 inch in width. This contributes to more passenger/cargo room and utility space.

Designed at the carmaker’s Frankfurt Design Studio, the sharp-looking Tucson retains an even prominent hexagonal grille and sculptured hood, aggressively raked wheel arches, upright windshield, LED daytime running lights and tail lamps, sporty bumper and chrome dual tips.

The cabin in the 2.0 base model continues to offer an array of standard conveniences such as a/c, drive mode select (eco, normal, sport), 3.5-inch multi-information display,

tilt/telescopic steering column, 5-inch touchscreen display with rearview camera, 6-way height adjustable driver’s seat, center console, 60/40 second-row seat with recline/center armrest, power door locks and windows. Cargo space is 31 cubic feet, that’s up by 5.3. And the dual-level cargo floor can be lowered 2 inches for flexible storage needs. A first for Tucson is the hands-free lift gate and lane departure warning system.

Starting at $22,700 for the SE, the Tucson is a heck of a deal. Both power trains result in a responsive ride, sharp handling and decent overall cornering balance. And Hyundai’s five-year, 60,000-mile basic, and 10-year, 100,000-mile power train warranties should convince you to sign on the dotted line.



2016 SONATA HYBRIDIn the automotive world, bigger is always better. In most cases. But the 2016 Hyundai Sonata hybrid takes off in a different direction. The previous 2.4-liter power train has been replaced with a smaller 2.0-liter GDI 4-cylinder engine developing 154 horsepower @ 6000 rpm and 140 pounds-feet of torque. When paired with the 38-watt kW (up by 3) electric motor, the car boasts horsepower to 193 @ 6000 rpm. The more powerful 56 kW lithium-polymer battery pack (from former 47 kW) contributes to improvement of gas mileage by at least 10 percent.

The electric motor enables the Sonata to run solely on pure electric mode at speeds up to 75 mph. During regenerative braking, the battery is recharged by the captured energy as the driver brakes or slows down. At stops, the gasoline engine shuts down for fuel savings and zero emissions. For the driver’s convenience, an analog instrument gauge solely devoted to the hybrid display shows the charge, eco and battery readings. With 106.1 cubic feet of passenger volume, the cabin is comparable to other passenger sedans. And trunk capacity has increased from 12.1 to 13.3 cubic feet of space. Standard amenities include dual a/c, eight-way power driver and four-way front-passenger seats, 60/40 rear seat, wood grain accents, tilt/telescopic steering wheel and chrome door handles.

Base-priced at $26,000 (our Limited edition was $30,100), the Sonata hybrid is even more appealing once you factor in EPA fuel estimates of 39 mpg city and 43 highway (regular Sonata gets just 25/37). And, of course, bold styling, a trait missing in hybrids on the road.



2015 LINCOLN MKCLincoln finally got it done! Its first compact luxury SUV is out on the road. And the small debutant is packed with ample power. The five-passenger SUV even comes in front-wheel or all-wheel drive in the 2.0-liter inline-4 cylinder engine. Take your pick. Under the hood of our test drive sat a 2.3-liter EcoBoost inline-4 engine belting out 285 horsepower @ 5500 rpm and 285 pounds-feet of torque @ 2750 rpm. That is plenty of vim and vigor for the 3,989-pound vehicle to scoot from any speed. A 6-speed auto gear box, which can be toggled manually or via paddles on the robust steering wheel, is standard.

A split-winged grille with the centered familiar Lincoln emblem, flanked by HID headlights and LED accents, conveys a muscular stance. But it is in the lavish, stylish and beautifully made cabin that the MKC justly shines. MyLincoln Touch, an interface to control audio, phone and navigation systems via voice, touch or both, is quite user-friendly. Passenger and cargo room is plenty with 25.2 cubic feet behind the second row and 53.1 cubic feet behind the first row. Six-footers in the rear seat have generous room to stretch legs and relax during long drives. Standard amenities include dual-zone auto climate control, three-spoke manual leather steering wheel, 10-way power driver and 4-way front-passenger seats, 60/40 flat second-row bench, hands-free lift gate and the Lincoln welcome/farewell light elements when you enter or exit.

Beware, this is no gas sipper. Though EPA estimates are 18 city/26 highway and 21 combined, we averaged just under 21 mpg in most of our all-week driving.

Priced at $35,595, the MKC can peak at nearly $49,000 with options. So, this is not a cheap vehicle by any means. But the all-new Lincoln boasts quick acceleration, exceptional handling and balance and remarkably good body control. Plus, it is attractive to the eye inside and out.



2015 CHARGER R/T It falls just one short of the SRT Hellcat, which Dodge has loaded up with a mind-numbing 700 horsepower. Our 2015 Charger R/T Scat Pack test drive was equipped with a 6.4-liter Hemi V-8 engine, which still packed a massive punch at 485 hp @ 6000 rpm and 475 pounds-feet of torque @ 4200 rpm. And that is more than plenty for this full-size sedan, finally mated to an 8-speed auto gear box in place of the previously antique 5-speed. The rear-wheel-drive speedster takes the edge off sharp bumps and breaks with composure because of the assuring independent front short-long arm with high upper ‘A’ arm and 5-link rear suspension, both performance tuned. Keeping torque steer to the minimum is the rack and pinion electric power-assist steering offered in comfort, normal and sport modes.

Ensconced on a unitized steel body, the front fenders of our Charger sported a “392 Hemi” badge while the rear was etched with R/T as well as LED tail lamps, spoiler and dual chrome tips. The air-intake hood met up with an intimidating black matte honeycomb grille and Scat Pack badge, which is surrounded by quad halogen reflector headlights. That this is a race-inspired cabin is evident from the rounded 180 mph speedometer and 7000 tachometer gauges with fuel and temperature readings, and a driver information center. Lending taste and elegance to the cabin are aluminum lithographic splashes on the center stack, shifter, dash and door-switch bezels. The 8.4-inch UConnect touchscreen offers effortless navigation, audio and phone controls. Other standard goodies are eight-way power front seats, 7-inch reconfigurable instrument cluster, 60/40 rear seat, a spacious 16.5-cubic-foot trunk, compass and a distinctly-designed T-handle shifter with drive or sport mode

Safety is vital for Dodge with dual front and side airbags, side curtain airbag for both rows, driver knee airbag, active head restraints, Electronic Stability Program, traction control, hill-start assist, front/rear crumple zones, daytime running lights and tire pressure monitoring system. Providing positive brake feel are 14.2-inch vented front and 13.8-inch rear discs equipped with four-piston Brembo calipers.

Muscle-car fans, crave for that throaty exhaust growl (it’s a Hemi!) as you turn on the ignition? Like to mash the pedals for a speed-demon-like takeoff? Then the Charger will fit the bill. To a T.


eminently HANDS-ON Murano a tough package to beat

2015 Nissan MuranoJust six months ago, we presented an overall review of the 2015 Nissan Murano. This time, the Japanese carmaker sent over the five-passenger midsize crossover for a week. Our revamped and front-wheel-drive ride was fitted with a 3.5-liter DOHC V-6 engine, which is mated to a Continuous Variable Transmission. It develops 260 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 240 pounds-feet of torque at 4400 rpm.

The interior is practical with plush zero-gravity seats and the 60/40-split rear bench seat folds via a button. Other goodies include eight-way power driver and four-way front-passenger seats, leather steering wheel, seats and shifter, 8-inch multi-screen color display, 9-speaker Bose sound system, overhead sunglass holder, start/stop button and power lift gate. Three 12-volt power outlets and front/rear USB ports should keep young occupants in the back seat quiet and busy during long hauls.

Sharing its platform with the Altima sedan, the Murano delivers a civilized and composed ride with impressive handling, crisp steering and superb balance. Generous cargo and people-hauling capabilities make the eminently useful Murano a tough package to beat.



2015 Mini Cooper SAnd now we have a hardtop four-door Mini Cooper. This inevitably means larger in all aspects but it is still miniscule, sort of. A 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder twin-turbo engine develops 189 horsepower @ 6000 rpm and 207 pounds-feet of torque @ 1250 rpm. The 6-speed manual in the 2015 Cooper S is a blast to shift, especially at lower speeds. Front suspension is left up to a MacPherson strut while the rear gets a multi-link axle. Keeping the car on course is an electro-mechanical power steering system. Drive modes include sport (aggressive), mild (normal) and green (eco). Fuel mileage mimicked EPA estimates at 24 mpg in the city (EPA highway is 34 mpg).

Here is how the four-door version is larger than its smaller twin: 6.3 inches longer; 2.9 inches in wheelbase; 0.6 inches in headroom; 0.4 inches higher; and 0.5 cubic feet in cargo volume with all seats up and 40.7 with seats folded down; rear passenger legroom by 1.5 inches. Large round traditional Mini headlights surround a hexagon radiator grille with honeycomb pattern, power dome and an air intake scoop. The rear shows off jewel-like upright tail lamps, centered dual exhaust and prominent S etched on chrome bar. The circular theme continues inside with air vents, instruments, door trim and of course the eye-catching retro-style, center-mounted speedometer. Toggle switches for heat/ac enhance the distinct appearance of the cabin. So does the LED light ring in the instrument cluster that provides feedback to the driver. Other notable features include 60/40 fold-flat rear seat, dual a/c, interior LED lights and a hidden under floor cargo bin.

Always wanted to buy a Mini Cooper but hesitated because you feared it fell short on space? Well, you have plenty of room in this splendid ride with its inimitable European flair. And lest we forget, it is great value for the money.



2015 Chevrolet Camaro SSThis one is especially for the performance-oriented folks. The rest should take a back seat. Seriously. The 2015 Chevrolet Camaro SS gets a mammoth 6.2-liter V-8 engine cranking out 426 horsepower at 5900 rpm and 420 pounds-feet of torque at 4600 rpm. Making the rear-wheel-drive coupe a thriller is an effortless and standard 6-speed manual stick with a 3.9 final drive gear ratio (sorry, no automatic).

But the iconic muscle car is even more of a blast to drive when equipped with the road-racing-inspired 1LE performance package priced at $3,500. It fetches you a suspension with 27-mm solid front and 28-mm rear stabilizer bars for admirable body control when pushed hard at sharp turns. Of course, it is a relief to have 10-spoke 20-inch aluminum wheels, four-piston Brembo brakes, strut tower brace and a dual-mode exhaust system. Steering feedback is rapid and accurate, thanks to a variable ratio electric power system.

Among the numerous safety features are dual front and side airbags, side curtain airbag for both rows, stability and traction control, four-wheel antilock brakes, limited slip differential, rear obstacle detection system, three-point safety belts for all, tire pressure monitoring system and daytime running lights. The powerful 14-inch front and 14.4-inch rear ventilated roar discs will boost any driver’s confidence behind the wheel.

With a vent-style matte black hood, purposeful front splitter and rear spoiler, the Camaro SS appearance can be bold but intimidating. However, the interior displays a classic Camaro appearance with deeply recessed instrument binnacles housing round gauges. Also standard are a flat-bottomed sueded-microfiber steering wheel and short-throw shifter, head-up display, ambient lighting, and, of course, the familiar SS emblem on the backs of front seat headrests.

The only minus we see is a tight rear seat and poor visibility. Otherwise, the Camaro displays incredible nimbleness, tremendous handling and exceptional braking. It leaves you asking for more as you put the pedal to the metal.


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