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2016 BMW 340i Review: The Gold-Standard Sport Sedan

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It’s one of the most unfortunate side-effects of getting old: realizing that you’re no longer the young upstart you used to be, and are now firmly part of The Establishment. Sooner or later, no matter how cool you are, people will look at you as The Man, the authority figure, the old guy in the room. And despite the old saying, aging and respect are rarely related; pitchers are still trying to blank David Ortiz during his final season. Linebackers didn’t go any easier on Peyton Manning last year, and you bet that the Utah Jazz locker room wasn’t a fun place to be after Kobe Bryant scored 60 on them in April, even if it was his last game. In an age when Bob Dylan is doing Frank Sinatra covers and Robert DeNiro is starring in movies with Zac Efron, our capital L-Legends are beginning to seem as vulnerable as the rest of us.

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In the automotive world, nowhere is this more apparent than in the compact luxury segment, where for over 40 years, the BMW 3 Series has been The Man. For all intents and purposes, it single-handedly ushered in the modern sport sedan, and formed the basis for one of the most beloved performance cars the world has ever known. Without it, Mercedes wouldn’t have built the 190E (which became the C-Class), and Audi likely wouldn’t have reinvented itself on the strength of the A4 back in the ’90s. The tension has only risen from there. It’s safe to say that BMW’s bread-and-butter car wears a target on its back bigger than any other model on the planet. In fact, you could rename the segment “3 Series-Fighters,” and we doubt few, if anyone, would protest — competitors included.

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But one thing it’s never done is rest on its laurels. Like most legends, the 3 Series isn’t just competing with its rivals, it’s also competing with its own history. Worse, with each refresh and restyling it also has to reckon with what every current and former owner, journalist, BMW fan, and car guy thinks it used to be, regardless of whether or not it ever actually was. That’s a lot to be up against, and yet year after year, the 3 Series has never stopped behaving like the legend it is. There hasn’t been a “last good one” yet. Or “the one that nobody wants.” It’s never gone through an awkward phase as badly as the bigger 5 and 7 Series have. Since 1975, against all odds, the 3 Series has consistently been the 3 Series, and everyone else has just been trying to catch up. But a rising tide lifts all boats, and the competition is as fierce as ever, especially with a new crop of “Official 3 Series-Fighters” like the Cadillac ATS and Jaguar XE joining the fray. Still, after spending a week in a 340i, we came away more convinced than ever that the 3 Series is still the legend — and benchmark — it’s always been.

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Launched in 2011, we didn’t always love the look of the current F30 3 Series. It was a step up from the conservative-looking E90, but at 15.2 feet long and 3,800 pounds, it also was nearly the size of a 5 Series from 15 years ago, and its long, low, wide bodywork didn’t do much to hide that fact. But BMW has subtly freshened up the 3 for 2016, and a near-imperceptible nip and tuck in the right places has done wonders for it. It isn’t any smaller or lighter, but it looks cleaner, and that’s almost as good.

The sedan now looks more like the sportier 4 Series (once the 3 Series coupe), returning that to outwardly sporty pretense that’s historically given the model such presence. Our test car came in a gorgeous Melbourne Red Metallic that was deep and rich, but thankfully not too metallic. Accented with the matte chrome trim that’s included in the Track Handling Package (more on that later), it was a stunner, even if it was a little loud. The 3 Series was masterful at coming out of nowhere and dusting bigger, glitzier cars like an assassin in a Saville Row suit. Maybe our 340i was subtle compared to an M3, but against virtually everything else on the street, it was like bringing a lit roman candle to an ambush. Still, it seemed to dismantle the “cold, clinical German sedan” stereotype, and replace it with a look that says “Let’s get into some trouble.” It’s hard not to love a car that does that.

Powertrain

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The 3 Series may benefit from its facelift, but the real story is what’s underhood. Gone is the 335i model, with its N55 inline-six, replaced with the all-new 3.0-liter turbocharged B58. It’s still a smooth, powerful straight-six (a BMW hallmark), but the new mill is related to the company’s new modular design, which covers everything from compact three-cylinders up to sixes, and carries over to both gasoline and diesel-powered engines. The B58 is good for 320 horsepower and 330 pound-feet of torque — a 20 horse and 30 pound-foot boost over the old engine. Our test car had the no-cost option six-speed manual, which was direct, responsive, and allowed us to wring every drop of power out of the new engine. Through the standard 340i dual-exhausts, it all sounded so good that we even went without air conditioning on some very hot July days to hear its rasp. We don’t regret a minute of it.

Interior

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One of our big strikes against BMW has been the unimaginative interior design language that extends across its entire lineup. But after a few days with our 340i, we softened considerably. Is the 3 Series going to inspire anyone to wax poetic about its dashboard? Probably not. But who cares? The iconic 2002’s dash wasn’t sculpture either. BMW has long made sport sedans that expertly blend luxury, modern tech, and comfort, but are meant to be driven. Hard. Our 340i fit that description to a T.

Everything inside feels solid and purposeful, soft-touch materials are top-notch, and the seats were comfortable enough to tackle both bumper-to-bumper city traffic and highway driving without leaving us fatigued, while being well-bolstered and firm enough to keep us from sliding around on tight mountain roads. The same goes for the back seats, though there was just barely enough legroom for this writer’s 6-foot-2 frame.

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Ergonomically, the 340i is the continuation of a theme BMW has stuck with for over half a century. Big, easy-to-read white-on-black gauges tell you everything you need to know when you’re driving in anger, and the MID bleeds from the bottom of the instrument panel into the bottom of them — a stylistic touch that we liked a lot.

Tech and safety

All-new BMW X1 and 340i launch drive in Chihuahua, MX.

BMW may build “The Ultimate Driving Machine,” but it’s also concerned with keeping its drivers safe. The 3 Series comes standard with front and side airbags, dynamic stability control, and a brake fade compensation system. And while our near-loaded 340i’s Track Handling Package was mostly concerned with performance, its big M Sport brakes gave us confidence, even in emergency stopping situations during congested holiday travel.

Our car also had a heads-up display that kept our eyes on the road, active blind spot monitoring, and top, side, and reverse cameras. Seats and steering column are powered, with the former being heated, cooled, and having a memory function. For times when we couldn’t open up that sweet-sounding six, the optional Harmon Kardon surround sound stereo sounded big and clear, providing the perfect soundtrack for times when the engine couldn’t.

The drive

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Confession: We expected to like the 340i, but we didn’t expect to be so taken by it. The Germans have long been accused of building thoroughly impressive, occasionally beautiful luxury and performance cars, but very few people would describe any of them as having a warm personality. Our 340i did. It begged to be driven, and to be driven with some emotion. It was responsive, surprisingly forgiving, and impossible not to look back at and smile every time we parked it for the night.

Surprisingly, it doesn’t quite put the “machine” in “The Ultimate Driving Machine,” which was something that made us like it even more. It’s too inviting for that; at first we thought it was the loud paint job, go-fast wheels, and track pack, but the more time we spent with it, the more we realized it wasn’t the case.

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For a car designed to hit the track (should the occasion call for it), it was surprisingly comfortable and civilized in one of the worst places to drive on earth: Manhattan on a holiday weekend. But once we hit left city limits, it ran like a thoroughbred in open country.

All 3 Series have the Driving Dynamics Control with Eco, Pro, Comfort, Sport, and Sport + settings, but with the Track Package’s adaptive M suspension, revised steering, and those big brakes, the 340i blurs that line between world-class sport sedan and legitimate sports car. Dialing in Sport + for the first time, the car noticeably hunkered down, and it took to the mountain roads above the Hudson River with a purpose not usually seen in a sedan, regardless of who makes it.

Review

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We came away from our time with the 340i more than pleasantly surprised. On the one hand, it delivered everything we’d expect from BMW: top-notch build quality, a comfortable, tech-laden interior, fantastic handling, and plenty of power. But the 340i had more than that, namely that it was really, honest-to-God a lot of fun. Not only did it feel like a perfect driver’s car, it felt like our driver’s car, and that feeling grew stronger every day we had with it. You can employ the best engineers in the world and still never figure out how to make a car feel like that, so when you find something that does, it’s really special.

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If there’s any downside to our 340i, it’s the price. Its $45,800 base isn’t anything to sneeze at, but it’s also on par with the segment. But add our car’s $1,700 track package (a must for us, even if you aren’t going to track it), tech package ($2,700), Driver Assistance Plus ($1,700), Cold Weather pack ($800), and automatic high beams (another $800), our car rang up at a whopping $58,420 — well into bigger, plusher 5 Series territory. That’s a ton of money for a midsize luxury car no matter how good it is.

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First Drive: Nissan’s Pathfinder Gets Off-Road Ready for 2017

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Nissan’s large SUV has been a staple of the Nissan brand for decades, and unlike the long defunct Honda Passport or Mitsubishi Montero, continues to rake in solid sales every year. While I wouldn’t call it an industry changing success story, Nissan does deserve a respectful nod of recognition for keeping the badge a solid option in America’s increasingly competitive SUV market over all those years.

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I am not a fan of sugarcoating things when it comes to reviewing a vehicle. Automakers make mistakes just like everyone else, and regardless of which focus groups weigh in, or what engineer inputs coincide with detailed design sketches, a final product can still be way off the mark when it hits dealer lots. Take the overhauled 2017 Nissan Pathfinder for instance. When a full refresh came along this year, we were excited about the stats we saw, yet we know all too well that reading about and driving a car can be two totally different experiences. So as my fellow members of the media openly dissected the SUV, I stepped back to assess why it was not winning everyone over.

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Forever the optimist, I always try to dwell on a vehicle’s strengths during a review, as well as noting the potential refreshes that may be in store down the line. The 2017 Pathfinder has some formidable weapons in its arsenal and evolutionarily speaking, it’s easily the best model to date, boasting far more standard amenities and appeal than its predecessor.

The new Pathfinder is more tightly wound and energetic than ever before. It’s a sharply redesigned SUV that has more brawn than expected, loads of tech touch-points, and a healthy amount of off-road ingenuity that makes it far more capable than one might suspect. It may not be the ideal answer to the sleekly crafted Mazda CX-9 or the sensationally capable Honda Pilot, but the Pathfinder certainly retains the upper hand in other areas, giving reason for us to start this review off on a high note.

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Kicking things into high gear, Nissan’s engineers have creamed the competition with an overhauled 3.5-liter V6 that can tow 6,000 pounds and gets up to 23 miles per gallon on the highway, making it both stronger and more fuel efficient than equally sized/powered SUVs. This means the Explorer, Pilot, and Highlander are all left in the dust when it’s time to tow, with 5,000 pound limitations, and everything save for the 4,000 pound hauling Acadia gets spanked on the highway when in rear-wheel drive trim.

The Pathfinder also corners and rides a lot tighter than expected, due primarily to the 11% stiffer front springs and 7% tighter rear coils, so body roll is down 10% over the outgoing model, which makes for a very enjoyable drive. Understeer has also been minimized, and while electronic steering inputs may still feel a hair disjointed at times, turn-ins are still precise enough to instill confidence on winding roads. This SUV also sports some concrete off-road endowments, and in 4WD trim brandishes things like hill descent control settings, a 4×4 low-end lock for increased torque, and a rear-wheel drive setting for increased highway mileage. Off-road, the Pathfinder handles itself nicely, and its downhill crawl control system worked flawlessly, despite some audible fanfare.

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The cabin of the Platinum model carries some clever and luxurious Infiniti touches, and buyers will likely be pleased to unearth things like a warming, power adjustable steering wheel, heated/vented front seats, a heated second row bench, illuminated stow spaces, large cup holders galore, and some great contrast colors across the dash. There also is a fair deal of cargo room in the back, and my lanky ass even fit comfortably in the third row, which shocked me considering how small it appeared at first glance.

Speaking of seats, the Pathfinder also sports some of the easiest folding chairs in the biz, and just two fingers allow you to slide, flip, and fold headrests and entire rows alike out of the way with ease. It even allows child seats to remain in place when accessing the third row, a godsend for parents the world over who curse every time someone needs to climb into the way back. Unlike the new Mazda CX-9, where sliding the second row required two hands and some strain, the Pathfinder transforms without issue, and rocks a panoramic sunroof in the rear for added flare, or when the peanut gallery wishes to gaze at the heavens.

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As clever and capable as it may appear, not everything is on the money with this one. The Pathfinder benefits from a new aerodynamic and stylish front fascia that is a far more broad-nosed, LED-lit take on the SUV as it reduces drag courtesy of a redesigned grille and lower bumper. But it also doesn’t harbor any major design cues that make it pop. Even on the Platinum line you don’t get things like polished dual exhaust ports, a spoiler integrated rear wiper, or consistently spread piano-black touches.

Venture inside the cabin and you’ll soon discover that the Pathfinder’s slight but notable design woes have unfortunately followed it indoors. For as good as those plush ventilated seats are, with all that space and clever seat-folding engineering, the cabin of the Platinum pales in comparison to the majority of its competition. While pricing has yet to be released, the cabin doesn’t have the charm of Japanese Rosewood and the aerospace aluminum inlaid cockpit of its more illustrious rival: the Mazda CX-9.

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Tech issues were an Achilles’ heel for the Pathfinder too. Even though Nissan should have all the kinks figured out by the time the Pathfinder lands at local dealerships this year, the way in which this system works when compared to say the Maxima is a major letdown. While touchscreen movement issues and pinch-to-zoom problems were all pre-production run related, it was the center-mounted command knob that I found the most annoying. This design does not allow pulling or pushing of the knob in any particular direction, instead limiting you to twisting a ring or mashing buttons around it, which feels archaic and clunky next to the Pathfinder’s recently overhauled competition.

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Mechanically, I was frustrated to find that there are no manual shift controls on the Pathfinder, so selecting a lower gear is completely out of the question unless you plan to slap it in “LOW” for a bit of engine braking. This is not what you would expect to discover on a Platinum model, as its integrated rear tow package and top-tier performance bragging rights are suddenly undermined by an engineering oversight that severely hampers powertrain control.

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On the topic of engine braking and towing, after closely looking over the stock disc diameters and undersized calipers on the Pathfinder I would not feel comfortable towing anything sizable for long distances with it. I’m not saying that this SUV couldn’t slow a 6,000 pound boat, as well as a car full of kids and beach supplies to a complete halt on a severe slope. I personally wouldn’t want to push the Pathfinder and its brakes to the kind of extremes that Nissan says it’s capable of for fear of cooking the rotors and pads, even when others may feel that the vehicle’s brake feel is more than adequate.

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2017 Aston Martin V12 Vantage S 7-Speed: Dogleg Manual Gearbox Makes It Enchanting

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Dogleg gearboxes send chills up the spines of automobile enthusiasts — this is precisely why Aston Martin has fitted its 2017 V12 Vantage S with one. The unique transmission layout, which puts the first gear on the bottom left of the pattern and requires sliding the shift mechanism up and over to engage the second gear (the movement has a “dogleg” shape), is used in motorsports because the second to third shift is more effortless with the pattern. Still confused? Don’t fret — it’s an emotional sports car thing.

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Channeling its motorsports history, which goes back more than 70 years, is a big deal to the British automaker — most recently, the company competed in the Le Mans 24 Hours race with its Aston Martin Racing V8 Vantage GTE. It was only natural, and an impressive nod to enthusiasts, that Aston Martin would fit its smallest and most powerful offering with such an engaging transmission.

Manual gearbox offerings are on the decline, says the Automotive Insights team at Kelley Blue Book, and no automaker has offered a dogleg transmission in many years — yet Aston Martin isn’t your typical automaker. “We’re all enthusiasts here at Aston Martin. Building cars that offer something exceptional is what we do. Technology drives us forward, but we understand the importance of tradition. The true purist will always hanker for the tactility and connection offered by a manual transmission, so it has been a real pleasure to offer just that in our fastest and most focused model. At a time when manual transmissions have almost entirely disappeared in high-performance cars, this makes the manual V12 Vantage S a very special car indeed,” remarks Ian Minards, Director of Product Development at Aston Martin.

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I first came face-to-face with a V12 Vantage with a manual gearbox five years ago — it was a 2011 model. The “artful amalgamate of aluminum, magnesium, carbon fiber, leather, rubber, and glass represents pure sensory overload,” I remarked in my review. “The low-volume exotic is a treat for the physiological senses of touch, smell, hearing, sight and balance. More succinctly, it is an intoxicating machine masterfully engineered to gratify every emotion in a car enthusiast’s soul.” As is evident, the powerful sports car understandably spoke to me, unlike any other vehicle that I had ever driven.

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There are countless improvements to today’s V12 Vantage S that help raise the bar over its predecessor. Most visible to passers-by is the optional Sport-Plus Pack that adds five body colors that may be combined with contrasting accent colors for the side sills, mirror caps, rear diffuser blades and lipstick — the front grille surround (see accompanying images). Lightweight 10-spoke alloy wheels finished in graphite, complete exterior package.

The two-passenger cabin with the Sport-Plus Pack, already swathed in leather and Alcantera, is upholstered in black or gray with contrasting stitching. Occupants of all 2017 Vantage models, not just the V12, will note the new AMi III infotainment system, which arrives with an updated navigation system with better graphics, a simplified interface, and a much quicker processor. In addition, the Ami III incorporates Apple CarPlay for those with an iPhone.

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Less visible to everyone are the enhancements beneath the aluminum alloy body panels. The Vantage platform is an all-alloy aluminum monocoque (Aston Martin’s familiar “VH architecture”) that is riveted and bonded just like a modern aircraft. Bolted to the four corners of the stiff architecture is an independent double wishbone suspension. Mounted in the nose is a naturally aspirated 5.9-liter V12 (5,935 cc), rated at 563 horsepower and 457 pound-feet of torque — that’s 53 horsepower more than the 2011 model. Further back in the chassis is the transaxle gearbox, which is connected to the engine via a rigid torque tube. Customers are offered a choice between Aston’s Sportshift III, which is a 7-speed automatic, or the aforementioned 7-speed manual dog-leg gearbox, at no additional cost.

The clutch is heavy — a less-than-subtle hint of the power on the other side of the firewall — and dogleg gears require a bit of acclimation, especially to someone like myself who spends a ton of time rowing manual gearboxes with a traditional pattern. Launching from a standstill is effortless, but pulling up to a stop sign or stoplight requires a quick mental re-adjustment as my brain wants to continuously put the vehicle into reverse (thankfully, it requires a nice tug on the shifter so it won’t happen inadvertently). Instead, there’s a momentary pause each time before I drop it down into first gear.

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Once underway, the shift into second takes marginally longer with the dog-leg, but that is where the fun begins. Snapping between second and third is a breeze, and popping up to fourth and fifth is a subliminal action. Kudos to Aston Martin for not making seventh gear a fuel-sipping overdrive — unlike that gear in a Porsche 911 or Chevrolet Corvette, it is completely usable on the highway without any need to downshift when overtaking slower traffic.

Aston Martin mates the manual gearbox with AMSHIFT, which is more commonly called “rev matching” by the rest of the industry — it matches engine RPM to the vehicle speed during downshifts and it allows full-throttle upshifts. Press the SPORT button on the dashboard, which adds a shot of adrenaline to the throttle response and exhaust note, and AMSHIFT is engaged. Nail the shifts during an acceleration run and Aston says the V12 Vantage S will break the 60 mph benchmark in less than four seconds flat and hit 205 mph — handily leaving nearly every other premium sports car, including its predecessor, eating its dust. The accompanying soundtrack, blaring out of the twin gunmetal pipes on its tail end, is deliciously angry.

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The V12 Vantage S 7-Speed manual will be celebrated for its gearbox, but there’s a whole lot more to its story. It’s a driver’s car, meaning the hydraulically assisted steering (in contrast to today’s popular electronically assisted units) is heavy and tactile — there’s feedback through the three-spoke Alcantera steering wheel. Handling is also excellent, with the staggered size, and insanely sticky, Pirelli P-Zero Corsa tires holding each corner tenaciously. Braking doesn’t cause a sweaty brow either, as heat-resistant carbon-ceramic brakes are standard equipment.

Despite its aluminum-intensive construction, the V12 Vantage S isn’t a lightweight. The curb weight is slightly more than 3,600 pounds, which limits how tossable it is on the tightest of canyons, but the additional mass is dismissed by the powerful V12 when the driver’s foot is flat to the floor. On a positive note, highway stability — a combination of aerodynamics, steering tuning, suspension tuning, and mass, is exemplary — one must keep a close eye on the speedometer to keep the Aston out of the ticket zone as it prefers three-digit velocities.

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This unique dogleg sports coupe is one of the most enjoyable sports cars I have ever driven — sorry 2011 model, as you are now a distant memory — but getting my hands on one, or anyone else’s hands for that matter, will be next to impossible as Aston Martin is limiting U.S. volume to just 100 units. Rumor has it that every single one of them, each starting with a base price of $188,795, have already been spoken for.

As an automotive enthusiast, I often dream about someday owning a spectacularly engaging and powerful sports car like the 2017 Aston Martin V12 Vantage S with a 7-Speed dogleg gearbox. Yet wistfully, based on its highly exclusive low production volume, a dream is as close as anyone — myself included — will ever get.

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2017 Nissan Armada Review: Off-Road and On Patrol

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Smoke and soot cling to my skin from the raging 40,000 acres of wildfire just over the next ridge near beautiful Monterey, California. The sun smolders overhead as horses whinny nervously as I pull up and park my new, leather-filled Nissan Armada and set up for a photo shoot. My brow furrows from a stinging cocktail of perspiration, ash, and determination. Just over that ridge, 3,000 firefighters putting their lives on the line. I need to get these photos. This could get interesting.

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The Armada is a massive thing, redesigned from the ground-up atop the underpinnings of Nissan’s long-serving Land Cruiser-fighter called the Patrol. And while the Armada may be softer and more luxurious than its accomplished cousin, the soot-dusted SUV seems at home in a hairy situation. The Armada has struggled for years to attract buyers, so everything from the front fascia, to the drivetrain, to the interior have been redesigned. Still, amid the chaos, I wonder if the Nissan has what it takes to be a success.

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The new Armada has an outstanding plush leather interior, and while the Platinum version I drove was loaded to the gills, the $44,400 base SV model could be just as well-received when people see what it has to offer. Internally, the Armada is smaller than it used to be, but after time in every seat, I discovered that even the third row gave my 6-foot frame enough head and legroom. Seats either fold out of the way with the tug of a latch or the push of a button, accent colors and materials are near-Infiniti grade, and every model comes standard with a kicking, 13-speaker Bose audio system.

The redesigned Armada also features a stronger 5.6-liter Endurance V8 in it that sports best-in class 390 horsepower (up from 317), as well as four more foot-pounds of torque, so it can tow a segment-leading 8,500 pounds with its standard tow hitch. Now paired with a flawless seven-speed gearbox, the nearly 3-ton Armada has the ability to sail silently on to 14/19 miles per gallon if you baby the throttle just right. And I do mean “silently.” Even with the hammer down and Bridgestone Dueler tires screaming in protest, the acoustic glass on this SUV kept the cabin serenely quiet.
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The Platinum model has features like heated/ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, captain’s chairs and a removable center console, best-in-class head and legroom in the fold-flat second row bench, and standard Nissan navigation and weather. It’s filled with virtually every safety feature Nissan offers, thanks to its comprehensive “Safety Shield Package.” There’s also a moving object warning system and an around view camera monitor that allows drivers to select various views. So whether you’re dodging shopping carts or gnarled tree stumps, spotting hidden dangers in the Armada is now easier than ever.

The Armada may not have all the off-road prowess of the go-anywhere Patrol, but it’s far tougher than you might expect. Nissan sent us on a tight but diverse off-road track, and although the majority of buyers will never use it like this, I was pleasantly surprised by how well the Armada handled itself. Sure, it doesn’t come with Kevlar tires, multiple locking differentials, or a ride height that keeps the side boards scuff-free, but those driving cameras do help, and its thicker side frames make the chassis 20% stiffer. Having double wishbone suspension at all four corners and twin-tube shocks doesn’t hurt either.

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But for all of its lofty luxury, solid tech, and refocused off-road underpinnings, the redesigned Armada has problems that can’t be ignored, starting with its styling. It’s not offensive, but its rounded lines, bulging bumpers, and protruding tail lamps won’t win many new converts either. Inside, things are a little better thanks to Nissan’s nice leather, soft-touch materials, and color combinations, but faux wood and some cheap plastic look gaudy compared to the rosewood and aluminum touches you find in the new Mazda CX-9.

There are disappointments in the tech department as well, with the dated driver information display being the first offender. Compared to the sleek, full-color graphics found in its GM-built competitors, Nissan’s setup looks and performs like a decade old vehicle instead of a new model. There’s also only one USB port in the entire cabin and it’s up front, there are no LED interior lamps, and the navi system just isn’t on par with some of its competitors. It’s also impossible to get the Armada with a panoramic moonroof, even fully-loaded.

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Other major misses include a power driver’s seat that won’t lower very far (making for an uncomfortable driving experience if you’re short in stature), and when the third row is in use, storage space is curbed due to shallow undertray bins. And it differentiates itself from the Patrol – and much of its competition – by lacking disconnecting sway bars, and multiple traction modes for sand, mud, and other tough terrain.

Yet despite its many shortcomings, I still found myself liking the Armada. After all, it plowed effortlessly over trails, around sweeping canyon corners, and up inclines to that ash covered corral where I conducted my photo shoot. It’s pleasant to drive, and is far more nimble than its 3-ton frame would have you think. Everything from the over-sized sway bars to auto-leveling rear suspension keeps things in check. At the end of the day, this is a great, tough road trip car, with all of the amenities attached. And as I traversed back down the mountainside, I felt confident in it.

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If there’s one takeaway from driving the all-new 2017 Nissan Armada, it’s that it offers more than meets the eye, and it’s only going to get better with each update and refresh. What we see today is far from the end for Nissan’s full-size SUV; instead, it feels like the beginning of a new chapter for a brand that prides itself on creating “innovations that excite.”

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2017 Buick LaCrosse vs. Chevrolet Impala

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For the first time in history, we’re living in an era where there really aren’t any bad new cars. Short of a catastrophic defect, the days of five year old cars abandoned on the side of the road, rebuilding engines with 30k miles on them, or cars that are already rusting when they leave the factory are over.

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From the cheapest runabout to the most exotic hypercar, we expect our cars to start the first time, every time, and automakers have risen to the occasion. But this has led to an interesting phenomenon: With quality as a baseline, more entry- and mid-market models are becoming more aspirational, and giving more expensive models some unexpected competition.

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You could argue that this rising tide lifts all boats; that competition from the bottom up will benefit everyone. But what happens if competition comes from within? What do you get when you have platform-mate fighting with platform-mate for sales supremacy? Well, you have this week’s Buy This, Not That: The Chevrolet Impala versus the Buick LaCrosse.

Tale of the Tape:

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For decades, General Motors thrived on a strict brand hierarchy that offered something for everybody. That started to go off the rails in the ’80s, and all came crashing down in the 2000s – which ironically enough, is when the LaCrosse was introduced, and the Impala was revived. But those days are long gone, and a surging GM is back in the saddle. Its full-size cars are too; the tenth-generation Impala is handsome, upscale, and a far cry from the fleet-focused and rental and cop-special models that came before it. The full-size Chevy is due for a major refresh next year for the ’18 model year, but the Buick just got its big refresh, and boy is it good.

To car buyers of a certain age, the Impala name brings to mind long, low, powerful full-size sedans of the ’50s and ’60s. To people who didn’t live through the nameplate’s glory days, Impala means cop cars, taxis, rentals, and maybe grandma’s car. Thankfully, the current-generation car erases the sins of the recent past while drawing on the qualities that made the car legendary.

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For an American public that is abandoning sedans for crossovers and SUVs, the Impala is the full-size sedan perfectly suited for the times. It’s big and tall, with a roomy interior and tall driving position. The base engine is a 2.4 liter inline-four, which makes 196 horsepower, 186 pound-feet of torque, and returns 31 miles per gallon on the highway and 22 in the city. Slotting above that is the 3.6 liter V6, which is good for 305 horses, 260 pound-feet, 18 MPG in the city and 30 on the highway.

Base price ranges from the $27,300 LT model to the $35,645 Premier (which replaced the LTZ). And while the LT is fairly pared down, the Premier comes with everything you’d want in a full-size near-luxury sedan, including dual-zone climate control, MyLink infotainment system with eight inch touch screen, a suite of safety sensors, and built-in 4G LTE Wi-Fi. It’s a lot of car for something wearing a bowtie badge, and offers all the luxury most buyers would ever want or need.

But by the time you get to the leather and tech features of the Premier, you’re well into Buick LaCrosse territory, the Impala’s upscale cousin. After decades of redundancy, GM has figured out how to differentiate between its brands again, and these two platform-mates are a shining example of it. We recently drove the all-new for 2017 LaCrosse (and will have a much more in-depth write up coming soon), and came away convinced that Buick is back in that sweet spot right between Chevy and Cadillac.

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The new LaCrosse is, simply put, the best car to ever wear the nameplate. Virtually everything has been improved, from performance to comfort. With styling borrowed from the gorgeous 2015 Avenir concept, it’s longer, lower, and wider than the outgoing LaCrosse, and has a presence that recalls both the Maserati Ghibli and Mercedes CLS from certain angles, while still looking thoroughly American. And while the Impala is a great Chevy, the Buick feels special, and has been designed to punch well above its weight.

Lincoln may be trying to corner the market on “Quiet Luxury,” but Buick has beat them to the punch. Not only is it quieter than any other car in its class, it’s also quieter and smoother than the Lexus ES. It still has a 3.6 liter V6 under the hood, but the engine has been entirely redesigned, and is the first powerplant in GM history to be designed specifically for start/stop technology. That may not sound like much, but it means that it’s now better on gas, and makes restarting in traffic barely perceptible, and without placing any extra stress on the engine or starter. Even with the V6, fuel economy is better in the Buick too: 21/31 with on front-wheel drive cars, and 20/29 on all-wheel drive models. The 2017 LaCrosse starts at $32,990, but that entry point climbs all the way up to $44,190 for the all-wheel drive.

The Verdict:

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The current Impala is one of our favorite American sedans, and is leaps and bounds above anything to wear the nameplate in decades. Despite rumors of its impending demise, GM’s working on making a next-generation model for 2018, that will likely be hitting dealers this time next year. And we can’t wait to see it, because if it’s anything like the redesigned LaCrosse, GM could be able to corner the full-size market completely. The Buick was designed to over-perform in every metric, and it does. It’s bigger, safer, lighter, faster, quieter, more luxurious, and better looking than the outgoing model, and is a premium car without a premium price tag. The Impala can be spec’d to the nines, but until Chevy proves that they can do full-size as well as their in-house rival, we’ll take the new LaCrosse any day of the week.

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Auto Envy: The Hot Cars of Southwest Florida

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America is a nation of car lovers, on a more local level, we are a region of luxury car fanatics. Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Lexus are so commonplace that most go unnoticed. It’s not uncommon to be sandwiched by Maseratis at the grocery store.

2016 Bentley Continental GT Speed Convertible

($285,885 as tested)

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It turns out that Naples is the No. 2 Bentley market in the entire United States (behind only Beverly Hills). That probably comes as no surprise if you’ve spent more than 2 minutes on any local road. They. Are. Everywhere. Why? Because they’re almost perfect. The 2016 Bentley Continental GT Speed Convertible is the best combination of everything from the high-end group. Head-turning style? Check. Ridiculous amounts of power? Check. Reams of luxury? Check. Daily livability? Check, check and check.

Its spectacular power comes from a 626-hp W12 engine, helping this 6,393-pound convertible reach 60 mph in just 4.0 seconds with a top speed of an absolutely insane 203 mph. It’s a rocket. If Richard Branson were in town, he’d slap the word Virgin on its side and start a commuter airline. Luckily he’s not, because the word “virgin” would be meaningless to the driver of this car.

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Though it’s missing the cutting-edge technology of the Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Range Rover we tested, Bentley knows how to keep its occupants happy. Engine notes are muted (though subtly aggressive); the ride is plush, yet taut, thanks to its German overseers (Bentley is owned by Volkswagen Group); and there’s room for four adults who’ll appreciate quilted leather seats (handmade with your behind in mind).

We took the GTC Speed to its natural setting (Port Royal) and cruised Gordon Drive in an effort to fit in while playing with as many buttons and levers as possible. And fit in we did. When I pulled over to admire myself in front of the Port Royal Club, we were passed by three Bentley GTCs and a Flying Spur. That was a 2-minute span. If I sat there any longer I might have spotted dozens—each driven by platinum blondes of an indiscernible age. But none of that mattered once I hopped back in and turned on the seat massagers. It’s like a woman named Olga had been sewn into the seatback for my own personal pleasure. I gripped the Mulliner-bezeled shifter and jetted toward my home on Galleon Drive content with the knowledge that this car has it all. It’s badass and top-shelf all at once. I also discovered I don’t live on Galleon Drive. My apologies to whomever’s house that was. By the way, you’re out of milk.

2017 Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG convertible

($200,625 as tested)

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There are those among us who prefer understated to bombastic, but who still require all the bells and whistles and performance that come from the world’s top automobiles. And Mercedes-Benz knows those people better than anyone. When we called Mercedes-Benz of Naples’ managing partner David Wachs to tell him we were looking for the best money could buy, we thought he’d direct us to a Mercedes-Maybach S600 sedan. Nope. He had something newer (and rarer) in mind: the brand-new 2017 Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG convertible with a 570-hp turbocharged V8 (though the S65 AMC coupe is slightly more ostentatious with its biturbo V12 and standard Swarovski crystal headlight diffusers, it doesn’t come in a convertible).

Salesman Justin Bockholt gave us the tour of the new S63 AMG and its tech-heavy features, which tend to come to life once you’ve hit the open road. From its Magic Body Control suspension that neutralizes road imperfections to plush carpeting with its Adaptive Drive Technology that almost does the driving for you, this car is likely the most technologically advanced vehicle in the group.You can remote-start it with your phone from anywhere on earth (yes, there are numerous safeguards in place to keep your neighbors from driving off with it).

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It has sensors in the steering wheel, which allow it to register your level of input and awareness while using the Active Lane Keeping Assist. Add to that extras such as double-paned side glass; aluminum interior touches; and dual 12.3-inch dashboard monitors that display not only the standard speedometer and tachometer and gauges, but 360-degree camera angles. (It has cameras built into the front end to give you a better viewpoint for when you’re pulling out of a blind driveway. A great feature for Sanibel homeowners who contend with cyclists scooting across the end of their driveways every day.) It even has a Hot Stone Massage setting built into the seats.

And it goes without saying that the build quality is superior. Wachs literally jumped and put all of his weight on the driver’s door while it was open. Many cars would need to have that door realigned immediately. Not a Mercedes. Although, I must admit it’s disconcerting to have a businessman swinging from the door of your car while you’re hoping to make a quick run to the club.

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On the road the car is deceptively quick, hitting 60 from a dead stop in just 3.9 seconds. That’s a tick quicker that the S65, thanks to the S63’s all-wheel drive. Even in light rain you can punch the gas pedal and rocket to 90-plus mph without a concern for anything other than local police. A built-in radar detector is a good option for this car, but chances are the cops will be looking at the Porsche or Aston Martin first. And therein lie both sides of the coin for this car: It’s subtle. If you want supercar performance, world-class technology and Old World build quality, this is your car. But if you want to stand out in the crowd, you might look elsewhere.

2017 Porsche 911 Turbo S

($196,200 as tested)

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Let me just say this about Porsche Brand Ambassador (aka salesman) Philippe Martin—he is a fine human being. He’s charming, knowledgeable and speaks French like Marcel Marceau—probably better. But why this lovely man would start my test drive of the fresh-from-the-factory 2017 Porsche 911 Turbo S in the middle of a school zone is beyond me. That’s right, a yellow-light-flashing 20 mph school zone.

“Slow down! Slow down! Theez iz a schul zone,” he says with an accent that Meryl Streep could only dream of.

“Why would you bring me to a school zone with this car?” I asked, exasperated. He had no answer.

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Let me tell you first and foremost: The brakes work exceptionally. So does the gas pedal. Martin started our test drive behind the wheel for two reasons: One, he wanted to show me how the new adjustable driving features worked before letting me loose. Two, he knew I wanted to be somewhere yesterday.

Seriously, he drives as though we just robbed a bank. In fact, it’s very possible (probable, even) we hit 130 mph on Golden Gate Parkway between 41 and Goodlette-Frank Road. (I can’t be sure because it happened so fast and my head was pressed against the back of the unbelievably supportive 14-way leather-covered power seats.) Nevertheless, I guess it was fine for him to drive like he was evading a hurricane, but for me? School zone.

“Yes, zeh technology has made seh cah perfect for both zeh track and going to get groceries,” Martin says, “but it iz very fast. You must still be caheful.”

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With a top speed of 205 mph and a 0 to 60 time widely accepted to be in the 2.5-2.6 second range, this car is faster than ever before thanks to a twin turbo-charged 6-cyclinder making 580-hp. It is the very definition of stupefyingly fast. And if it weren’t for its use of road-holding technology and German dedication to improvement, it could be extremely dangerous. But it is as easy to drive as any car you might find yourself in. Easier even. It’s also useable and bulletproof, capable of daily commutes or track days at Sebring. Most owners of this car will do both—regularly.

The all-wheel drive sports car features PCCB carbon brakes and Porsche’s dynamic chassis control, which keeps the car flat through turns. A new feature is the Sports Response dial, a 918-style rotary driving-mode selector mounted on the steering wheel that allows you to select various driving modes geared toward whatever action you’re looking for: “going fast,” “going really fast” and “pooling bodily fluids in the back of your cranium.”

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With state-of-the-art technology such as Apple CarPlay and Connect Plus, you can use your smartphone to see real-time traffic on the car’s display monitor or use your favorite apps while driving. You can even operate audio and communication functions via gestures or on the monitor’s touchscreen. It’s safe to say there’s nothing this car can’t do. Other than carry four adults. Or tow a boat. Or hold more luggage than an overnight bag. But otherwise, PERFECT.

2016 Aston Martin Vanquish

($323,876 as tested)

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It’s gorgeous. It’s angry. It will take your money, but you won’t care. While those sound like lines from a first draft of a Robert Palmer song, they’re actually our lasting impressions of the 2016 Aston Martin Vanquish.

Though all things are subjective, the truth is that in person this car is so beautiful that if you were to stare too long, you might end up with a harassment suit brought against you. Trust us, it’s worth the risk. Regardless, salesman Ron Ball of Naples Luxury Imports had to remind me I was there to test drive the car and not ask for its phone number. “Don’t talk to me. I’m too cool right now,” I replied. Of course, he was right—the car is meant to be driven. Slipping the crystal key fob into its position in the middle of the dash allows you to press the starter button and awake a sleeping giant—a 568-hp V12 engine that roars like a proper racecar when asked. An English gentlemen in a carbon fiber Savile Row suit who’ll punch you in the mouth for the asking. But don’t worry, around town it’s silky smooth.

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The interior on this particular car was nice, but not spectacular, due in large part to the center console’s piano black lacquered veneer, which looks more plastic than ‘tastic. And the technological add-ons (specifically the pop-up GPS/parking video monitor) seem dated. But the seats and driving position are terrific and perfectly capable for both spirited, tight-cornered jaunts or long-distance trips. In addition, the car allows the driver to select from several different suspension and engine modes, taking it from sublime grand tourer to track-ready racer in an instant. And unlike some luxury models, you can truly feel the difference. This car goes 0 to 60 in just 3.6 seconds and has a top speed of 201 mph, meaning you can conceivably get from Naples to Fort Myers in about 10 minute . We took the car through downtown Naples in an effort to hit every red light possible so people could look at me. Mission accomplished. Tourists along Fifth Avenue South gawked and I rewarded them with the occasional rev. You’re welcome.

Ultimately, it’s a car that turns heads and goes like a bat out of hell while still being mostly comfortable. However, there are no backseats, just quilted leather shelves designed purely to take your French bulldog to the groomer. If you want to look cool, sound cool and be cool, this is the car for you.

2016 Range Rover SV Autobiography LWB

($203,985 as tested)

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We weren’t planning to include a Range Rover in our testing for the simple reason that Bentley, Jaguar and Maserati all have new SUVs entering the marketplace. And surely one of them would be a better choice, right? Well, not so fast.

If you’re truly looking for the best, Range Rover’s top-of-the-line limited-edition long wheel-based SV Autobiography is perfect for things such as trips to the polo fields, picking up guests from the airport, and antiquing for fun and profit. This particular vehicle in Santorini Black screams “Hollywood producer!” at the top of its lungs thanks to its optional deployable running boards, built-in voice recorder, dual panoramic sunroofs with screens, 29-speaker Meridian stereo system, front and rear LCD monitors, and executive seating.

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Speaking of seating, rear passengers will feel like they are traveling first class on Singapore Airlines thanks to seats that recline and feature automatic footrests that slide out from under the front seats, not to mention automated tray tables, which fold out of the rear center console.

But as much as the SV Autobiography is wonderful to drive—and it really is beautifully balanced and easy to drive for its size—it’s best to be experiencing this vehicle from the backseats. Of course, that’s in part due to the fact that the Range Rover comes with a beverage chiller and glasses, perfect for a bit of bubbly while your manservant handles the driving. There’s also a spectacular rear infotainment system with wireless headphones, and front and rear climate-controlled seats with massage. In addition to a semi-autonomous driving feature, which features blind-spot monitoring with closing vehicle sensing and reverse traffic detection, it also has lane departure warning and traffic sign recognition along with its head up windscreen display.

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My favorite feature is the perpendicular and parallel parking assist with park exit and 360-degree parking aids. Ball and I spent far too much time letting the Range Rover park itself throughout downtown Naples just to amuse ourselves. Unfortunately, it doesn’t find parking for you, it just parks itself with the touch of a button once you’ve found that rarest of items: convenient parking in Southwest Florida. As tiny homes go, this is one of the nicest.

2016 Rolls-Royce Dawn

($421,845 as tested)

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If you end up purchasing a 2016 Rolls-Royce Dawn available in one of a million different colors, congratulations. You’ve arrived. The all-new four-seat convertible from the world’s most luxurious brand is testament to awesomeness in excess. This particular model eschews the image of both the stodgy, cigar-smoking corporate giant and the Cristal-swigging rap star. Yes, this car is George Clooney in Portofino, Keira Knightley in Lake Geneva and you right here. Even in this town, it gets looks.

Cruising around town is effortless, though you are aware that it’s a wee bit larger than a typical automobile. Yet, that size is deceiving. Once you’re standing next to it or sitting behind the wheel, it’s a joy. And speaking of design, it’s a beauty up close. One of the more stunning features is its enormous suicide doors. They’re large to allow for ease of access to the backseats, which actually fit adults. But because they’re so large—and hinge from the back—they’re a bit ungainly to close. But not to worry, for RR has placed a discrete button on the dashboard that, when pressed, silently closes the door for you. No effort needed on your part.

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A quick trip through Park Shore with Ball proved that the Dawn commands attention wherever it goes. And thanks to parent company BMW, the Dawn has all the technology you’d expect at this price point: Active Cruise Control, Adaptive Headlights with a grille-mounted infrared night vision camera that detects potential hazards more than 300 yards ahead. “If you don’t like this color, Rolls-Royce will make this in any color you want,” Ball says as we wait for a light to change at the corner of Park Shore and U.S. 41. “If you want your car to match the shirt you’re wearing, we could just send them a swatch of that cloth and they’d match it perfectly. Even with the leather. These cars can be completely personalized to your taste. If you have a tree in your yard you’re particularly fond of, we can send it to the factory for the veneers in your car.

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2017 Mitsubishi Mirage G4 Sedan Automatic

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Do an internet search looking for the worst cars sold in the U.S. and you find lists more numerous than posts covering that video of Jay Leno in the Hemi Under Glass drag car that rolled over. Consensus, in the subcompact class at least, gravitates around the Mitsubishi Mirage, a subcompact hatchback so widely loathed by reviewers upon its 2014 debut that it, um, rang up a year of rising sales. Our own road-test review wore a typical headline: “Sad Trombone.” More than 21,000 people heard a trumpet, though, calling them to buy one.

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About the time those 2015 sales figures had us wondering if maybe we’d missed something appealing about the Mirage—other than its two advertising-friendly virtues of a low $13,805 base price and bragging rights to the best EPA-combined fuel-economy rating of any nonhybrid vehicle (40 mpg for the CVT version)—Mitsu skipped the 2016 model year. Call it a furlough from the whipping post. The Mirage returns as an early 2017 model, with its lineup now augmented by the Mirage G4sedan, the subject of this test. The sedan’s wheelbase is 3.9 inches longer, most of which benefits space for the back-seat passengers, and the G4 is 20.7 inches longer overall, reflecting the addition of the trunk. That extra space moves this Mirage out of the subcompact class and into the compact category according to EPA/SAE measurements..

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Americans, we’re told, strongly prefer sedans over hatchbacks, so count this as an attempt to adapt the car to our market. The hatchback, built in Thailand, competes with similar cars in global (primarily Asian) markets. We’re often asked why such basic transportation appliances aren’t sold in America. The Mirage G4 is a case study in what happens when manufacturers try.

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The G4 redesign stretches the potato-like hatchback into more yam-like proportions. It may have a nerdish, pseudo Prius appeal to those wowed by the 37-mpg EPA-combined fuel-economy rating. The Mirage even shares one exterior part with the Lancer Evolution—a chromed metal garnish on the front fender. As on the Evo Final Edition, you can rattle it around with a fingertip.

Packaged for America

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In SE form, the Mirage G4 has standard automatic climate control, power windows, proximity-sensing remote locks, push-button ignition, 15-inch aluminum wheels, cruise control, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, and a backup camera. Its cloth bucket seats are adjustable six ways on the driver’s side, four on the passenger side, and they’re heated. It also has a 6.5-inch display for the infotainment system; it doesn’t have its own navigation, but it is Apple CarPlay/Android Auto–compatible, and there’s Bluetooth connectivity. That long list of equipment reflects more catering to our market, but it also inflates the MSRP to $17,830, enough money that the list of better alternatives grows very long indeed.

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That these features were not initially designed into the car is obvious. There are buttons on the driver’s door and trunklid to release the locks when the proximity key is detected, but approach from the passenger side and all you’ll find is a standard keyhole. The USB port is in the glovebox—grope around, you’ll find it. The speaker for Bluetooth hands-free calling is tacked atop the dashboard on the passenger side while the microphone is found at the end of a wire routed atop the steering column; it got unstuck and we had to tape it back on. The ignition button resides left of the steering column.

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We could give a demerit for the glossy finish of the pebble-grain dashtop cover, but, really, this is a car built down to a price, and the materials don’t look worse than some others at the low end of the market, where modern features and a warranty (10 years/100,000 miles on the Mirage drivetrain) entice shoppers away from the used-car lot. Sedan competitors would include the Nissan Versa, the Kia Rio, the Hyundai Accent, and the Ford Fiesta. Differences of $2500 to $3000 between trim levels loom large in this $15,000-to-$18,000 battlefield, but there’s no amount of money you can throw Mitsubishi’s way to erase the Mirage’s weakest link.

Weak-Hearted

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What the Mirage needs, much more than a trunk or rear-seat legroom, is a heart transplant. Specifically, its engine is short one cylinder. The 1.2-liter naturally aspirated three-cylinder suffices in many markets around the globe, but even newly uprated to 78 horsepower (from 74 in 2015), it makes about three-quarters of the power its prime competitors offer here. Americans need automatic transmissions, so Mitsu’s three-banger is strapped to a continuously variable transmission (CVT). This powertrain objects, loudly and continuously, when urged to move the little car out of its own way. The Mirage G4 SE weighs 127 pounds more than the 2014 hatchback we tested, and the CVT is standard. Only the base ES sedan, the stripper version that costs $14,830, offers a manual five-speed transmission.

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These factors together give us a G4 that needs 12.8 seconds to get to 60 mph, a longer time than any passenger vehicle we’ve tested in many years (the hatchback could hit 60 mph in 10.9). Turn off the A/C and select the CVT’s Sport mode, and one could almost be convinced that the G4 has enough power, but we’re talking about less grunt than is offered by several ATVs, some of which, to be fair, also cost more than the Mirage G4.

Those drawn to the Mirage G4’s fuel economy should know that the EPA figure is in reach only if you drive slowly all the time. We floored the throttle pedal a lot to keep up with traffic, and we recorded 33 mpg in mixed city and suburban driving. By contrast, we got 34 mpg in a Chevrolet Spark, also with a CVT. That car has a 98-hp 1.4-liter four-cylinder and hits 60 mph two seconds quicker, and it never feels as overworked as the Mirage G4. Other makers offering three-cylinder engines in city cars in the U.S.—Mini, Ford, and Smart—use turbocharging to overcome their engines’ size limitations.

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This lack of oomph becomes a problem on the road. Once, a traffic signal turned green and we watched, astounded, as a landscaper’s diesel pickup towing a flatbed with a tractor on it walked away from us. Yes, the Mitsubishi’s throttle was floored, but we plead guilty to using the A/C on a 95-degree day. When entering freeways in the Mirage G4, assume you’ll have to merge behind tractor-trailer rigs doing 60 mph in the right lane—our track data shows this car needs 8.8 seconds to get from 50 to 70 mph, about twice as long as is typical for family sedans. Once going, the Mirage can maintain a steady 80 mph on cruise control, the engine drone changing as the CVT adjusts for road terrain. Be alert, though, since the suspension tuning seems to reach its limits at 70 mph, after which little road dips and bumps become events to manage.

Can we say some nice things? Sure. The front seats, although short on thigh support, are supportive and better than in some cars another step up the food chain, while the rear seat is now roomy enough that you won’t feel bad asking friends to take a short ride back there. The steering feel is pretty good, and the tight turning circle aids parking maneuvers.

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Don’t get too eager, and you’ll find the handling is balanced and predictable; the 0.78 g we measured on the skidpad bests the Versa sedan by 0.02 g and the Smart Fortwo by 0.04. The front-disc/rear-drum brake system worked well, with decent pedal feel. The car stopped from 70 mph in only 170 feet, really strong for the class, and exhibited no fade over six repetitions, although it took so long to get back up to 70 mph that the tiny rear drums always had time to cool. The brake system also employs EBD (electronic brake-force distribution) and incorporates a hill-hold feature.

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We’d be interested in driving a manual-transmission Mirage G4, but with it being available only in the no-goodies trim level, it wouldn’t be much surprise to learn Mitsubishi doesn’t offer one for press use—it’d be like wearing a “kick me” sign on your back, at least until they replace that missing cylinder under the hood. And that is a short course on why “basic transportation” automobiles fare poorly in America.

 

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15 of the Fastest Ford Mustangs Ever Made

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Since its introduction in 1964, Mustangs have been the beating heart behind Ford’s all-encompassing lineup. While General Motors aims to take on the supercar segment with the Chevy Corvette, and FCA hits everyone hard with its Hellcats, Ford is taking the American muscle car global. Where it once stayed stateside to take on rivals like GTOs, Rebels, and Grand Nationals, it’s now preaching the gospel of affordable horsepower in places like China and Germany, and doing a damn good job at it too.

Simply put, Ford’s commitment to its ponycar has resulted in a modern day masterpiece. Available with cutting-edge powerplants like turbocharged inline-fours and flat plane crank V8s, a much overdue independent rear suspension, and more tech than ever before, the current Mustang could be the most important model since the original rolled off the line over 50 years ago.

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In addition to the current car being the most advanced, nimble, and fastest base-model Mustang in history, Ford has also released some seriously powerful limited edition versions over the past few decades that cater directly to the speed freaks. This means that some seriously powerful Mustangs have been hitting the pavement lately — and that’s saying something since the “regular” GT has never exactly been a slouch.

With a half-century’s worth of attainable speed under its belt, we’ve taken a look back at Ford’s pride and joy to provide a short list of some of the fastest, street legal, factory Mustangs ever produced. To keep things simple, we’ve omitted race-tuned cars, third-party modified vehicles, and concepts. These 15 ‘Stangs are all stock, all vicious, and all legendary.

15. 1971 Ford Mustang Boss 351

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When the 1971 Boss 351 debuted, Car & Driver mourned the fact that it felt like more of street car rather than a track star. But drivers of the Boss weren’t disappointed in its 351-cubic-inch V8, which cranked out 330 horsepower and 370 pound-feet of torque. Not everyone loved the car’s new look, but performance-wise, it delivered, running from zero to 60 in 5.8 seconds and the quarter-mile in 14.1 seconds at 100.6 miles per hour — numbers that still make it one of the fastest of all time.

14. 1993 SVT Mustang Cobra R

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It may not have been the most muscular looking Mustang ever, but the fleet, final installment of the third-generation Mustang had some zip in the SVT Mustang Cobra R trim. According to Road & Track times published by Ford Racing, the 1993 Cobra R made the zero to 60 sprint in 5.7 seconds and ran the quarter-mile in 14.3 seconds at 99 miles per hour using 235 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque. Only 107 models of this speedster were ever produced.

13. 2003 Mustang Mach 1

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Ford was in a retro mood around the turn of the century. Following the release of the 2001 Steve McQueen-inspired Bullitt, it followed up with the 2003 Mach 1. Sporting the shaker hood scoop based on the original ’60s model, the 21st century Mach 1 packed a 4.6-liter V8 capable of 305 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque, and a specially tuned exhaust setup. According to Motor Trend, it could launch from zero to 60 in 5.6 seconds, and run the quarter-mile in 13.88 seconds at 101.9 miles per hour.

12. 2001 Mustang Bullitt

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In the 1968 film Bullitt, Steve McQueen played a cop who went all out in pursuit of the bad guys. Flying through the hills of San Francisco in his Highland Green Mustang GT, McQueen and the film’s producers added yet another layer of coolness to the iconic Ford’s resume. So to celebrate one of the most iconic Mustangs of all-time, Ford launched the Mustang Bullitt in 2001.

The new model had the chops to do some racing of its own. Featuring an upgraded 4.6-liter V8 (265 horsepower and 305 pound-feet of torque), the 2001 Bullitt Ford debuted running zero to 60 in 5.6 seconds, and the quarter-mile in 14.0 seconds at 97.9 miles per hour (both figures per Motor Trend). Fewer than 6,000 units were produced.

11. 1969 Mach 1 Cobra Jet

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There are many discrepancies (arguments) and disagreements (brawls) over the actual output and performance of the earliest Mustangs, but Gary Wizenburg put together the most comprehensive rundown in Mustang! The Complete History of America’s Pioneer Ponycar (Automobile Quarterly, 1979). According to Wizenburg’s extensive research, the hairiest of the early models was the 1969 Mach 1 Cobra Jet, a Mustang with a 7.0-liter, 428 cubic-inch V8 capable of 335 horsepower and 440 pound-feet of torque.

The 1969 Cobra Jet matched even the 1970 Boss 302 Trans Am (built for the track) in quickness. Both cars went zero to 60 in 5.5 seconds, with the Mach 1 making the quarter-mile run in 13.9 seconds at 103 miles per hour (as clocked by Car Life in March 1969). It also hit a top speed of 121 miles per hour in the Car Life tests, which made it the fastest of the early models — even faster than the Trans Am.

10. 1995 Mustang SVT Cobra R

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It may not have had the attitude of the original Cobras, but the 1995 SVT Cobra R had plenty of performance to compensate. Using its 5.8-liter V8, the 1995 Cobra R produced a max of 300 horsepower and 365 pound-feet of torque. That had it running zero to 60 in 5.2 seconds and the quarter-mile in 13.8 seconds at 102 miles per hour (Motor Trend). It also began the trend of upgrading performance with each successive Cobra R model, which Ford’s Special Vehicle Team later brought to the shockingly fast Shelby GT500 models.

 9. 2012 Mustang V6 Premium

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Once the 2007 base Mustang began challenging vintage GT models with a quarter-mile run near 15 seconds, it was clear that even Ford’s entry-level ponycars had gotten serious. In the 2011 V6 Premium, Ford delivered an engine producing 305 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque, capable of going zero to 60 in 5.1 seconds. It also ran the quarter-mile in 13.7 seconds at 102.0 miles per hour. Motor Trend posed a valid question in its test of the car: “Could’ve had a V8, but why?”

8. 2008 Mustang Bullitt

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Fans of Steve McQueen and the stripped-down retro Mustangs demanded a new Bullitt model to go with the fifth-generation car’s retro looks, and the company delivered in 2008. This time, there was a lot more under the hood to help you channel some 1960s cool. The 2008 Bullitt’s 24-valve V8 capable made 315 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque. That power output vaulted the car from zero to 60 in 5.0 seconds, and it ran the quarter-mile in 13.7 seconds at 102.7 miles per hour.

7. 2003 SVT Mustang Cobra

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When the latest SVT Cobra appeared in 2003, it was clear that this was a whole new level of power for the Mustang. The 4.6-liter “Terminator” V8 was as fearsome as its name, with 390 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque on tap. It may not have been as mean-looking as the original, but it would blow the Cobras of yore away with its 13.1-second quarter-mile run and 4.8-second zero to 60 sprint.

6. 2000 Mustang SVT Cobra R

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With 385 horsepower and 385 pound-feet of torque, the 2000 SVT Cobra R had a larger displacement V8 (5.4 liters) than the 2003 Cobra, yet had a lower power output. But that didn’t stop the lightweight from outrunning the newer Cobra on the track. Testing by Motor Trend put the 2000 Cobra R zero to 60 time at 4.4 seconds with a 12.9-second quarter-mile at 110.8 miles per hour. Ford produced only 300 models of this Mustang, all of them coupes.

5. 2011 GT California Special

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The 2011 GT California Special had a new look and a ferocious new DOHC V8 capable of 412 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque, making it one of the fastest Mustangs ever produced. Like the models sharing the same engine, the GT CS made the zero to 60 sprint in 4.3 seconds while covering the quarter-mile run in 12.8 seconds at 110.8 miles per hour (Motor Trend). Standard GT Premium models delivered the same exceptional performance without the limited-edition price tag.

4. 2007 Shelby GT500

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Conceived as the next SVT Mustang Cobra, the 2007 Shelby GT500 ended up being the first Mustang to wear the Shelby name in nearly 40 years. With a 500-horse supercharged 5.4-liter V8, it cranked out a maximum 480 pound-feet of torque. The GT500 looked every bit the vintage muscle monster and backed it up with performance, running a quarter-mile in 12.7 seconds at 116 miles per hour, according to Motor Trend. It made the zero to 60 sprint in 4.5 seconds.

3. 2012 Mustang Boss 302

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Thankfully, Ford’s line of throwback Mustangs doesn’t seem to be a passing fad. The Boss 302 reappeared in 2012 with a 5.0-liter V8 that made 444 horsepower and 380 pound-feet of torque. How bad was the latest Boss Ford? In Motor Trend tests, it took its 3,621 pounds and went flying from zero to 60 in 3.97 seconds, running the quarter-mile in 12.3 seconds at 115.8 miles per hour. It was the Boss Mustang fans had been wanting for decades, and one which Motor Trend declared the greatest ‘Stang of all time.

2. 2016 Shelby GT350R

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The lightweight Shelby GT350R isn’t just one of the best Mustangs ever, it’s also one of the best performance cars in the world. With its innovative flat-plane crank V8 and a healthy dose of carbon fiber, and other lightweight bits, the track-focused GT350R went from zero to 60 in 3.9 seconds during independent Motor Trend tests. It would go on to hit 119.6 miles per hour in just 12.1 seconds, all courtesy of the 471 horsepower being sent to the rear wheels.

1. 2013 Shelby GT500

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With the arrival of the 2013 Shelby GT500, Ford debuted a V8 with the most horsepower ever produced in North America. The 5.8-liter, 32-valve supercharged aluminum beast produced 662 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 631 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm, which was enough to intimidate the majority of the world’s land vehicles.

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2017 Porsche Panamera Debuts with Fresh Design, Powertrains

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After all the teasers, spyshots, and some barely disguised mules, Porsche finally pulled the cover off the 2017 Panamera, showcasing striking good looks, a futuristic cockpit, and a pair of fresh powertrains.

Let’s get it out of the way: The new Panamera features a prettier and more cohesive design than the previous sedan. While the first-gen Panamera was dynamically spectacular, the bloated, hunchback proportions were not always handsome.

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Porsche returned to the drafting table and emerged with a sinewy, taut design. The eternal 911 shape is present around the back, but not so much that it renders the shape ungainly and disproportionate. Porsche claims the 2017 Panamera is 1.3 inches longer, 0.2 inches wider, and 0.2 inches higher. Despite this, the sedan appears lower, thanks in part to a 0.8-inch drop in the rear roofline. Underneath, the wheelbase stretches an extra 1.2 inches to 11.61 inches.

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Inside, the interior takes a scoopful of cues from the sci-fi Porsche Mission E concept. Gone is the choked tangle of buttons that plagued the first-gen. Now, a modernist array of touch-sensitive panels flanks the gear shifter, housing controls for A/C, infotainment, and vehicle settings. Around the rest of the cabin, it’s business as usual. Aluminum and leather meld together on various surfaces to create a well-designed, luxurious environment that we have come to expect from the German automaker. In the center of the console rests an impressive 12.3-inch display, delivering all of the infotainment features necessary, including the all-important Apple CarPlay capability.

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Up front, buyers have the choice of two brand new engines, available at launch in either the Panamera Turbo or 4S. In the Panamera 4S, a 2.9-liter twin-turbo V-6 engine provides the motivation with 440 hp and 405 lb-ft of torque, a 26-hp and 18 lb-ft boost over the older 3.0-liter V-6 engine. Porsche’s blindingly quick PDK dual-clutch gearbox sends power to all four wheels, resulting in a stellar 0-60 mph time of 4.2 seconds and a top speed of 180 mph with the optional Sport Chrono package.

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Move up to the range-topping Panamera Turbo, and an all-new 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 pumps out 550 hp and 567 lb-ft of torque, launching the Turbo to 60 mph in a scant 3.6 seconds and on its way to a top speed of 190 mph. As we experienced in the past, that is likely a very conservative estimate, with real figures likely dipping to the low three-second range.

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Underneath the handsome new skin, Porsche stuffed in an updated suite of driver assistance programs, including Porsche Active Suspension Management, Dynamic Chassis Control, and Torque Vectoring Plus. Along with the optional addition of an air suspension, the new Panamera comes with electronically assisted power steering. Around back, the sedan now incorporates a rear-wheel steering system similar to the setup on both the Porsche 911 and the 918 Spyder. On the Turbo, a specially designed deployable rear wing keeps things stable at high-speeds, while other Panameras receive a smaller wing.

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The 2017 Panamera launches Stateside in either Panamera 4S or Turbo specification. For the 4S, prices begin at $101,040. If you want the sweet, sweet V-8 power of the Turbo, prices jump to $147,950. Deliveries will begin in January of next year.

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2016 Nissan Maxima SR – A Boulevard Cruiser That Eats Up Miles

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The AUTOMOBILE staff is getting used to continuously variable transmissions. Yes, we can hardly believe it ourselves. The CVT-only choice in our Four Seasons Nissan Maxima SR places a huge philosophical gulf between this latest version and the ’99 Maxima, which was offered with a five-speed manual and was the first to wear the “4DSC,” or “four-door sports car” moniker.

A handful of road trips in the Maxima the last couple of months sharpened our view of what, exactly, this car is: a comfortable V-6-powered semi-premium midsize sedan with a stiffer-than-standard suspension (thus “SR” for Sport Rally). Aside from the ride, the 4DSC window stickers are little more than window-dressing, though the Nissan Maxima has more of an enthusiast-driver’s attitude than the models with which it usually is compared, the Chevrolet Impala and Toyota Avalon.

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Those two sedans are significantly bigger than the Maxima; the Chevy qualifies as a full-size car. The Maxima shares the Nissan Altima’s wheelbase, though it has unique sheetmetal, a slightly longer body, and a much nicer interior.

“The Maxima benefits from a decently comfortable ride, surrounded by what’s one of the most well-equipped, premium-feeling, and attractive Nissan interiors I’ve ever experienced,” staff photographer Patrick M. Hoey says.

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Our set of Pirelli Sottozero 3 tires easily handled what was somewhat of a weak winter in Michigan this year, as well. “Clawed through absolutely everything nature threw at them,” daily news editor Eric Weiner says about the Sottozeros. “Not too many situations with really deep snow and ice—it was a cold, but not that snowy winter—that we would have needed Blizzaks to handle. Pirellis had really good highway manners … not too squishy, though they’re really loud with lots of roar once it warmed past 50 degrees.”

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Weiner also had Auto One of Berkeley, Michigan, fill a window chip for $40. A first oil change and filter came at 10,001 miles, totaling $39.01, including parts and labor. And Suburban Nissan of Troy, Michigan, removed and replaced the Maxima’s steering column under warranty, after our complaints of scraping noises from the wheel. Now it turns without noise or drama. We also switched back from winter tires to the OEM Goodyear Eagle F1 19-inch all-season rubber after the arrival of spring.

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These fixes left Hoey with a near-perfect modern highway cruiser for a long, boring drive across Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey and into Manhattan for a 10-day, 1,478-mile round-trip to the New York International Auto Show.

“While the Maxima’s refinement is a remarkable improvement over the rest of Nissan’s commuter cars, it’s not yet at 100 percent,” Hoey says. “Road noise is a real problem. I had to keep volume high while listening to talk radio and podcasts, and when a call came through Bluetooth, both the callers and I were annoyed by how loud the cabin noise was. I found myself instinctively pulling at the power window switches, but ultimately I suspect poor door/window sealing or exterior trim catching the wind is the culprit.”

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Although daily news editor Conner Golden remains “disappointed in the still-awful steering,” Hoey says its ratio was quick enough to save him when approaching the New York-New Jersey border and a truck in the right lane lost some cargo, causing two cars following the truck to dart into his lane.

“Even full-on ABS braking wasn’t enough, so I flung the Maxima’s steering wheel counter-clockwise, and the Maxima responded quickly to what I thought was a damage-minimizing maneuver.”Perhaps our photographer is underestimating his driving abilities, but he credits the Maxima’s “quick steering” for his avoiding a “nasty collision.”

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By the time I got behind that two-tone Nissan Maxima wheel for my first road trip in the Four Seasons Maxima, the rest of the staff was already talking about how seamless the CVT has become. The transmission is remarkable for the lack of remarks made about it in the logbook.

I left for the Chevrolet Cruze first drive in Nashville early on a Monday evening, stopping for the evening in Carollton, Kentucky, a bit more than 200 miles from the final destination. In the Carollton Holiday Inn Express parking lot, the Maxima’s dash display congratulated its driver with a new high fuel economy average of 35.2 mpg for the trip—not bad for a powerful 3.5-liter V-6.

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With more than 11,000 miles on the car, it earns due praise for what it lacks: squeaks and rattles. It had none. The car feels tight as new. But road noise is evident on long trips, and that seems to be the result mainly of the 19-inch tires, which bump-thump stiffly over freeway expansion strips. Perhaps the Maxima is trying too hard to live up to its “4DSC” window stickers.

On the Detroit-Nashville round-trip, the seats were relaxing, though the driver’s adjustable lumbar support could adjust a bit lower in the seatback, and the lower cushion felt soft and squished after a few hundred miles. But the car was so comfortable that the 550-mile return-trip, begun at 3 p.m. Central time, was easily, safely accomplished in one day. Our 2016 Nissan Maxima is proving to be an exceptional boulevard cruiser whose biggest shortcoming is an insistence on clinging to a long-gone marketing department-created reputation.