After traversing the rough, potholed terrain of bankruptcies, dealership failures, and jettisoned brands, the auto industry has regained traction with some promising new models and technologies. And our Auto Test Center has put about 80 new cars though their paces, turning up some pleasant surprises and some disappointments. Here is some of what we learned and experienced along the way:
New-model ups and downs. Some new small cars that impressed us were the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Fiesta, and Mazda2. On the other hand, Honda's Accord Crosstour and CR-Z didn't live up to expectations. The Crosstour, a raised hatchback with optional all-wheel drive, feels bulky and handles clumsily when pushed hard, and the coupe-like styling compromises cargo space and the rear view. The CR-Z, a sporty looking two-seater hybrid, isn't that sporty to drive and gets only 35 mpg overall--good, but not what we expect from a small hybrid.
A thumbs-up for some redesigns. Unlike some updated models, these redesigned or freshened models struck us as R&D money well spent: the Hyundai Elantra and Sonata, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Kia Sorento and Sportage, Land Rover LR4, and Porsche Cayenne.
A hole in the safety net. While electronic stability control systems are proven lifesavers, their effectiveness depends on how they are calibrated. That was clear when we tested the 2010 Lexus GX 460. When the SUV was pushed to its limits in one of our handling tests, the rear slid far to the side before the ESC system could regain control; that could lead to a rollover. It caused us to temporarily designate the Lexus as a "Don't Buy: Safety Risk." Within a month of our findings, the automaker corrected the glitch with a software update. The problem was caught and fixed before there were any reported accidents or injuries.
Fuel-efficient rubber. Our tire testing found two new models that provide good grip and treadlife yet have low rolling resistance, which helps gas mileage. They are the Continental ProContact EcoPlus+ and Michelin Energy Saver A/S.
Technology that helps. Infiniti's exterior camera system shows a 360-degree view of the area around the car, which is handy in tight parking situations. The BMW 7 Series includes an effective lane departure warning system that vibrates the steering wheel to warn the driver if the car inadvertently crosses a lane-divider line. Ford's EcoBoost V6 engine, which combines turbocharging and direct fuel injection, provides effortless, V8-like acceleration without sacrificing fuel economy.
Technology that hinders. We expected better from Ford's new MyFord Touch and MyLincoln Touch control systems, which have voice control and large, crisp screens. But we found them difficult and very distracting to use. The small touch-screen buttons can be hard to identify quickly and sluggish to respond; touch-sensitive buttons can be finicky to operate. Overall, navigating the system requires too many steps and too much time with your eyes off of the road to perform simple functions. Oh, for the days of easy knobs and buttons.
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