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A sneak peek at some noteworthy vehicles we’re now testing

Published: March 2014

Chevrolet Corvette

The latest version of this American icon delivers performance that can be refined or wild, depending on your mood. Our C7 Stingray offers ferocious acceleration, precise handling, and superb braking. Gone are the cheap interior and noisy cabin of past ‘Vettes.

From a standing start, the Stingray shoots forward like a fighter jet catapulted off an aircraft carrier, with never-ending torque and a throaty bark. With its direct-injected 460-hp, 6.2-liter V8, Chevy claims that it sprints from 0-to-60 mph in a mere 3.8 seconds; we’ll check that on our track. The seven-speed manual gearbox works well, but navigating through the gears takes some practice.

The Corvette has quick reflexes, flat cornering, and none of the nose-heavy sensation of previous models. Like any sports car of this ilk, it shows off its virtues best on a track. Dial the driving-mode selector to “Track,” and the steering tightens, the exhaust bellows, and the stability control loosens its grip, giving a skilled driver a little more latitude to explore the car’s handling limits.

Switching to “Touring” mode turns the Corvette into a fairly civilized cruiser with a palatable ride and an exhaust sound that doesn’t frighten the neighbors.

Thankfully, the Corvette now has comfortable, supportive seats, and interior quality has received a major upgrade. But getting in and out still requires a fair bit of agility, and outward visibility is not terrific. Chevy’s MyLink touch screen competently coordinates audio, phone, and navigation functions. And it’s handy that the instrument panel shows the posted speed limit.

It’s also easy to remove and stow the optional carbon-fiber roof panel for open-air driving.

Price: $73,260

Trim: Stingray 3LT with Z51 suspension

Engine: 460-hp, 6.2-liter V8

Transmission: Seven-speed manual

Chevrolet SS

You can think of this seemingly nondescript sedan as a stealth Corvette. Or a wolf in sheep’s clothing. With its Corvette-sourced 6.2-liter LS3 V8, the SS is a high-horsepower, rear-wheel-drive scorcher that’s built by GM’s Holden division in Australia. And for a starting price of $43,475 you get an incognito muscle machine that can run with BMW and Mercedes-Benz tuner cars, and do it for significantly less money.

Firing up the SS’s engine sparks a rumble that gets everyone’s attention. All 415 hp are channeled through a six-speed automatic transmission that works well with the V8; paddle shifters are on the steering wheel for those inclined to shift manually.

The quick, taut steering and well-controlled suspension keep the car stable and buttoned-down, lending it a sporty, athletic character. The ride is firm, but it’s compliant enough to make the SS tolerable on a day-to-day basis. Note, though, that the SS comes with summer-only tires, so you’ll want to swap those for all-season or winter tires if you expect to drive in snowy conditions.

Inside, you’ll find a very good driving position as well as deeply sculpted seats with a prominently stitched red  “SS” logo. Controls are mostly easy to master, but the reach to the touch screen is a bit far.

The SS benefits from a spacious rear seat and a good-sized trunk. Standard safety features include a backup camera as well as blind-spot-detection, forward-collision-warning, rear-cross-traffic-alert, and lane-departure-warning systems.

Overall, the SS can be especially appealing for those who want an exciting driving experience yet balk at having to contend with a low-slung, two-door sports car.

Price: $47,170


Engine: 415-hp, 6.2-liter V8

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Mercedes-Benz S-Class

The S-Class has long been a standard for driving comfort and a showcase for new technology. And this redesigned 2014 model pushes the envelope further. It treats you to an extremely hushed cabin, a magic-carpet-like ride, and effortless power delivery. And in corners this large sedan can dance with the alacrity of a sports sedan. The interior is opulent and pampering, but good luck getting used to the complicated controls.

With its suite of advanced safety features, the S550 can almost drive itself. Its active cruise control maintains a set distance behind a car in front, and the steering-assist system keeps the car centered in the driving lane—with the steering wheel eerily moving by itself. All that it asks is for the driver to keep one hand on the steering wheel. The S550 also has inflatable rear seat belts, like mini air bags to prevent rib-cage injuries, and it automatically brakes if needed to help avoid a collision.

Price: $114,475

Trim: 4Matic

Engine: 449-hp, 4.6-liter turbocharged V8

Transmission: Seven-speed automatic

Toyota Highlander

The Highlander has always been pleasant, functional, and one of our highest-rated SUVs. The redesigned 2014 model provides improved handling and a larger third-row seat, and the once-stodgy styling has been jazzed up. We bought an all-wheel-drive XLE version, which comes well-equipped and has a navigation system.

The Highlander’s steering is quick and well-weighted, lending this midsized SUV some athletic moves. The ride is comfortable while remaining steady and tied down. And the cabin is pretty quiet, letting in only a touch of wind noise at highway speeds.

The 270-hp, 3.5-liter V6, paired to a six-speed automatic transmission, provides smooth and ready power. So far, we’re seeing about 19 mpg in mixed driving, which is about par for the class. A hybrid version arrives this spring, but only in Limited and Platinum trim lines; its price will start at $49,790.

Toyota has also spiffed things up inside the cabin. Wide and well-padded, the front seats accommodate most body types. We opted for the $275 second-row captain’s chairs over the standard bench seat, which give lots of elbow room. But that option drops seating capacity from eight people to seven. Even though the new third-row seat is wider, it remains best for kids.

Controls are simple, with large buttons. Toyota couldn’t resist sprinkling in some touch-sensitive buttons around the radio, but they work OK. It’s easy to navigate the large, 8-inch touch screen, but it’s a far reach to some controls. Toyota’s Entune system provides a high level of smart-phone connectivity.

So far, the new Highlander has been a favorite among staff members with kids.

Price: $38,941


Engine: 270-hp, 3.5-liter V6

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the May 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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