August 2012

Cute Cars

by The Car Family

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If styling is your game the macho looking All Four MINI Cooper S Countryman and the doll house exterior of the Fiat 500 Cabrio have the genre pretty much wrapped up despite appearing polar opposite in looks. One thing they do have in common is that they are fun to drive, get reasonable gas mileage, and interiors that are as unique as the exteriors. More importantly is that they make you feel good about your purchase.

As attractive as both are they are polar extremes when it comes to utility. The MINI has all wheel drive, room for four adults, quirky ergonomics, a turbocharged engine, and a fairly potent engine. The Fiat is a convertible with a retro interior look, a simple to operate top, limited backseat room, and quirky ergonomics. Both models have limited handling, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t fun to drive. The more powerful MINI has a seamless transmission that keeps the power flowing while the automatic equipped Fiat uses a more traditional six- speed automatic transmission or five-speed manual to handle the 1.4 liter engine’s output. The Fiat comes in three trims, the Pop, Sport, and Lounge and we tested the latter. If you can wait a bit there are more powerful Fiats planned including some that could make them one of the fastest small cars around. The MINI likewise comes in a variety of models of which the All Four is the newest version and the most distinctive.

Mom’s view: There are some downsides to the Fiat such as road noise, very difficult to read instruments, and a steering wheel that only tilts making it awkward for some drivers. The blind spots are to the back with the top down and to the sides, but Fiat has made a great side view mirror that offers two angles enabling you to see cars in what used to be the blind spot. Our gas mileage was 32 mpg in mixed driving. Safety is always important in small cars and the Fiat has plenty with anti-lock disc brakes, seven airbags, and stability control. Standard features are abundant including everything from keyless entry to cruise control to tire-pressure monitoring. More upscale models have automatic temperature control, and a removable TomTom navigation system. Both vehicles were a breathe of fresh air, but the MINI won my heart for its better ergonomics and eye appeal. My friends loved it as well. The Fiat doesn’t try to say, “I’m rich” as some cars do. It says, “Let’s have some fun.” Enough said.

Dad’s view: Small fuel tanks on both these cars make it difficult to squeeze over 300 miles from a tank of premium fuel, but what really separates them is the all wheel drive that the MINI All Four offers. It would be an ideal buy for a skier or mountain resident who wants good fuel mileage in a handy package. The suspension is quite good considering the height of the car and the brakes are world class. This car begs to challenge inclement weather. I loved it. The seats may be tight for the girthy and controls need to be studied, but this is a fun family vehicle. Cute, maybe not so much, but definitely eye candy for those who like this Swiss Army knife of the small car segment.

Working woman’s view: The seats in the Fiat felt better, but the MINI had the more upscale interior. The placement of the window controls on the center panel is an acquired taste and the overly large speedometer in the center of the dash is redundant as there is a digital readout in front of the driver. I liked both cars, but clearly the Fiat is more fun to own for me. The convertible is perfect for those days when you need a pick-me-up, and it makes your happy just to look at it. The MINI is more eager to please and attracts a different crowd. The high driving position is reassuring as it affords you the feeling that you are in a much larger vehicle. Thankfully, both aren’t shaped like beans as more vehicles in this category. I think Fiat got this model right.

Fiat Interior

Young working male’s view: The MINI Cooper S Countryman All4 is essentially a MINI on steroids. It has a high stance, potent engine, and feels quite roomy. The MINI is the more quirky of the two when it comes to the interior layout that even includes the placement of the cupholders close to the shifter. There is a MINI connect feature and other electronic upgrades, but the radio reception is limited. Options abound, but the real joy of this vehicle is its playful nature. The turbo and transmission work well together and the forward thrust is impressive for vehicles in this segment and only extreme corners tax its suspension. Interior storage space is limited, but there isn’t anything in the All4 that would be a turn-off for the buyer who enjoys following the road less traveled.

Family conference: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and this is clearly the case with these two vehicles. The Fiat is not just but cute, but if ordered with the more powerful engine, can be a fun canyon runner. The MINI Countryman is cute in the opposite direction offering a tough guy stance and a fairly potent engine to go along with its eye catching exterior. Both are unique and both are worth seeing.

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Evoque: Range Rover no Longer Square

by The Car Family

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If you covered the name plate on the Evoque you would never know it was a Range Rover. It is fresh, modern, fun to drive, and strangely enough has an abundance of curves. Of course, Range Rover still has its quirks such as a monitor whose images wash out even in a strong moonlight and cameras that show views of every side of the vehicle at the same time giving you a panoramic effect.

So who is going to buy this new entry into the SUV field? Well, at around $45,000 it is probably going to attract well situated early adapters or those looking for a practical work of art. Its appearance and performance are going to certainly challenge those tired of the BMW, Lexus, and Infiniti same old packages. Indeed, this Evoque gets plenty of looks and the luxurious interior makes up for the limited cargo space. We think it is going to be a success in metro areas. It is available in a two or four door version giving buyers the opportunity to distinguish it even further from the competition.

Although we averaged around 23 mpg, the government provided a 19/28 mpg highway rating for the Evoque. This is as good as it gets for an all wheel drive vehicle, even topping Subaru’s ratings. No doubt this excellent rating is due to the four cylinder, turbocharged engine that seeks premium fuel. The 4000 pound four-door uses the 240 horsepower and 251 lb-ft of torque to good advantage, but the six-speed automatic does have it moments of uncertainty. The acceleration is fine once underway, but we have found turbocharged engines and automatic transmissions sometimes don’t communicate well. The Evoque is happiest when passing and we would expect that the 0 to 60 time to be around seven seconds.

Mom’s view: Strange brew. This sharp looking Evoque provokes a sexy image with its sleek styling that certainly hides it Range Rover family heritage well. I found it a bit difficult to step up into our four-door tester, but once inside the seats were comfortable and the interior very well done. Most interesting was the fact that the sloping roof did not cut into the rear head room space and that the rig’s high stance did not make opening and closing the rear hatch a problem with its automatic feature. On the down side was the key fob that required a great deal of effort to activate due to the sunken nature of the buttons. Driving it was typical of most off-road capable SUVs with wind and tire noise a constant. The monitor was impossible to read in many light conditions, but the controls were easy to master. Side and rear view visibility were quite good considering the vehicle’s slender windows. Overall, this is a winner and sure to generate new sales for Land Rover.

Dad’s view: The steering has an excellent feel, but does not like to have its limit tested. The brakes are terrific with good pedal feel. If the powertrain were a bit more refined it would be one of the best SUVS for its size. The Evoque can easily hold four adults and the rear cargo compartment is a bit smallish. I found myself loving the five-camera system that provides a 360-degree view of the vehicle’s surrounding area. Well worth a test drive just for that feature. What separates the Evoque even more is that it is available in either three or five-door body styles. It is easily one of the most capable small off-road SUVs and resale should be excellent for the class. Prices range up to $52,395 for the Prestige Premium model and for that you get upgrades in both interior and handling. The engine choices are nil. I found the Evoque growing on me the more time I had to explore it limits. If the quality is there, this will be the most fun Range Rover ever.

Young working woman’s view: Cute, darn cute. The biggest problem is the fact that you would have to make a choice of colors from about 12 interior colors and 12 exterior colors, as well as three different roof colors. After that you have to decide on wheel designs and other options. With any luck you are never going to see a similar Evoque. The Land Rover is easy to park as it is only 172 inches long and the power steering provides a good feel. It isn’t the smoothest vehicle to drive in traffic as it the drive train sometimes feels jerky, but the performance is adequate. The only vehicle that comes close is the Mazda CX-7 and it does not have the Evoque’s cachet. I liked it, but the pricing puts it out of my demographics. However, it certainly deserves attention if you like the attention.

Young working male’s view: The hockey puck like control that rises from the center console for shifting isn’t difficult to use, just different. The monitor’s touch screen works well, but shouldn’t be so complicated for such simple tasks as finding a radio station. The car has a full length sun-roof that adds light, but does not open. Thankfully, the air conditioning system works adequately. The optional stereo system is a must have as it helps covers the sound of the droning engine when under full throttle. The Evoque has all the electronic communication devises and the sound quality if above average. I enjoyed this vehicle very much and find it one of the only SUVs I would seriously consider.

Family conference: At least a SUV that combines style, grace, and fuel-economy. A little dear, but for some that may add to its attraction. Well worth a test drive. And stay tuned for a convertible version.

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