Henry Payne Blog

$34K Mazda CX-5 vs. $54K Volvo XC60: the Mazda wins

Posted by hpayne on April 20, 2017


Welcome, dear reader, to another edition of “What’s it Worth to Ya?” It’s a little game I like to play comparing the ever-shrinking gap between luxury and mainstream brands.

We’ve played this game before with the Audi A4 and Ford Fusion. The latter’s roomier, more powerful, more affordable design really makes one think twice about paying a $15,000 premium for a four-ring grille.

C’mon, Payne, no one will ever cross-shop such cars.

Stay with me and you may reconsider.

Affordable electronics like heated seats and head-up displays are as easy to replicate in Mazdas as in Cadillacs. Meanwhile, five-door SUVs may be sweeping the planet for their practicality, but the resulting box-on-stilts restricts the tools available to designers to distinguish one brand from another. SUVs have turned dealer lots into the automotive equivalent of tract housing. How do you make your house stand out?

Take our compact-ute testers this week: the all-new, $34,000 2017 Mazda CX-5 and the $54,000 2017 Volvo XC60.

I won’t beat around the bush. The Mazda is the superior vehicle.

The XC60’s 2018 successor — introduced at last week’s New York Auto Show and due on dealer lots later this year — will finally get a platform upgrade after eight years on the U.S. market. It comes none too soon when you consider how the $20,000 cheaper Mazda has caught up — and often surpasses — the Volvo in metric after metric.

This is not to shame the Volvo, which is a lovely sculpture chiseled out of Scandinavian beech wood. Few luxury makes can hold a candle to the CX-5 in handling and design, not to mention value. Like its big brother, the CX-9 — the best-looking large SUV on planet Earth — the CX-5 is the prettiest, most athletic small ute this side of the seductive BMW X1. Dip it in Soul Red Chrystal paint and it’s more tempting than Elizabeth Hurley playing the devil in “Bedazzled.”

You feel the Mazda difference the moment you seize the steering wheel: It feels rooted to the pavement. It’s a sensation more often associated with a performance sedan. Not that the outgoing CX-5, which debuted in 2012, was a dog. Like Porsche’s SUVs and Panamera sedan, Mazda’s entire lineup is inspired by a sports car – in this case, the Miata. It’s a little like Mowgli being raised by wolves: He’s got their instincts. The CX-5’s father is Dave Coleman, a motorhead veteran of rally and sports car racing who also happens to be Mazda North America’s chief engineer.

Throw the CX-5 into an interstate cloverleaf and its Haldex-like AWD system bites like a Rottweiler on a postman’s leg. There’s push, sure — this is a front-wheel-drive biased chassis. But the finely tuned suspension (MacPherson strut up front, independent multi-link in rear) rotates with minimal body roll, tires protesting only at their limit. This little SUV thinks it’s a Miata.

The Mazda is not only the best-handling mainstream compact crossover, but it’s superior to everything short of high-performance crossovers like the Macan and Jaguar F-Pace. You’ll have to go a size smaller — subcompact utes like the BMW X1 or Audi Q3 — to find comparable handling. Yet even those vehicles are $10,000 north of the CX-5’s modest price tag.

The Volvo XC60, meanwhile, rolls leisurely through turns. Its steering chatters rather nervously as you approach the limit, then dissolves into a wail of tire screams as it senses the envelope’s edge.

Volvos have always been safety leaders and the XC60 is a Secret Service agent on wheels, always ready to protect with its state-of-the-art City Safety automatic braking. But the Mazda is hardly a potted plant: Using similar radar and camera tech, it is ready to intervene in perilous situations. The emergency-assist system isn’t standard like the Volvo’s, but the optioned Mazda still costs considerably less.

Volvo understands its brand is synonymous with safety and goes the extra mile. It boasts integrated child booster seats in the rear. Dogs are members of the family, too, and can be housed in a cage that has been crash-tested for safety.

But is the difference worth $20,000?

Perhaps Mazda’s most shocking accomplishment is in the beauty department. Design is what’s supposed to separate luxury from mainstream. The once-boxy Volvo has come into its own in recent years with sculpted lines and sultry grilles. Next year the new XC60 will get the cool Thor’s-hammer headlamps seen on the XC90.

But it’s the Mazda that has the luxury looks. Avoiding the grille clutter that defines many mainstream brands (I’m looking at you, Honda CR-V and Chevy Equinox), the CX-5’s face is a work of art. The headlights pierce the five-point grille like arrows; the LED work is evocative of Audi’s designer peepers. The body sweeps backward over high wheel-arches and deeply scalloped rocker panels — under blacked-out B and C pillars — to a chrome-punctuated fastback.

And did I mention it’s wearing a Soul Red Chrystal dress?

Inside, the Mazda is as whisper-quiet as the Scandinavian, but can’t match the Volvo’s carved-wood console. The CX-5’s design is more businesslike (think Audi) with attention to detail and material.

The XC60 and CX-5 both have meek infotainment systems that neglect Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. These oversights that are common among luxury brands. Despite these blind spots, the Mazda still one-ups its more expensive opponent with heated rear seats and a head-up display.

My favorite detail is the Mazda’s rear doors: They open to 80 degrees for easy rear egress. That solves a common ute challenge.

I have left the powertrains for last, because that is where the Volvo’s 300-horse, super- and turbocharged inline-4 clearly separates itself from the Mazda’s normally aspirated, four-cylinder 187-horse unit. But in practice, the CX-5 — though much buzzier under the cane — is a joy thanks to “G-vectoring control,” which cleverly manages engine-torque inputs for smoother acceleration and steering inputs.

Mazda execs call their strategy “moving to premium,” and it has all but eliminated the gap with more expensive SUVs. The high-tech Ford Escape and nimble Honda CR-V also play in the luxury league for thousands less. The pressure is on Volvo & Co. to justify their worth.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2017 Volvo XC60



Power plant 2.0-liter, turbo- and supercharged

inline 4-cylinder

Transmission Six-speed manual or automatic
Weight 2,875 pounds; 3,046 pounds

(with manual transmission)

Price $41,945 ($53,555 Inscription

as tested)

Power 302 horsepower,

295 pound-feet of torque

Performance 0-60 mph, 6.4 seconds

(Car and Driver)

Fuel economy EPA 20 city/27 highway/

22 combined

Report card



Lows Dull to drive; aging chassis has us

longing for update


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★

2017 Mazda CX-5



Power plant 2.5-liter, inline 4-cylinder
Transmission Six-speed automatic
Weight 2,875 pounds; 3,046 pounds

(with manual transmission)

Price $24,985 ($34,060 Grand Touring

as tested)

Power 187 horsepower, 185 pound-feet

of torque (2.0-liter)

Performance 0-60 mph, 7.6 seconds

(Car and Driver est.)

Fuel economy EPA 23 city/29 highway/

26 combined (AWD)

Report card



Lows Tardy off the line; Apple CarPlay

and Android Auto, please?


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NY Auto Show: Payne’s top picks

Posted by hpayne on April 15, 2017


The New York Auto Show is North America’s most-attended: More than a million New Yorkers are expected to rush the Javits Convention Center’s gates from now through April 23.

They won’t be disappointed. This year’s show is a new-car feast with a menu longer than Carnegie Deli.

These are my favorites.

Dodge Challenger SRT Demon

This will be remembered as the Demon’s show. The smoke from its huge tires obscured every other reveal. The 840-horse dragster is for the enthusiast who finds the Hellcat’s 707 ponies wanting. It’s also savvy marketing for an aging brand that can’t compete against the new, more nimble chassis of its Camaro and Mustang competitors. So the porky 4,223-pound Demon obliterates them in a straight line, racking up 9.65-second quarter-mile and 2.3-second 0-60 times that are unheard of in a production car. How fast is 2.3 seconds? The 1,380-horsepower, 3,075-pound Koenigsegg Agera RS1 supercar across the hall from the Demon huffs and puffs to 60 mph in 2.8 seconds.

Buick Regal Fastback and TourX

 The Regal’s introduction came a week ago in Detroit to clear the way for the Enclave SUV’s reveal in New York. Utes are where the money is and the Enclave is another lightweight winner from GM’s engineers. But the sleek Regal is still the more interesting vehicle: The Tesla Model S-like hatchback model and stunning TourX wagon variant are relevant in a SUV-crazed world.
 Honda Civic Type R
 This is what we’ve been waiting for since the Audi A3-baselined Civic debuted in 2015: That stiffened chassis was built for a VW Golf R-fighter, and the Type R is just that. With more headlight mascara than Kim Kardashian and a whale-tail that will make Subaru’s WRX STI jealous, the only question is whether the R’s front-wheel drive can manage the 2-liter turbo’s 305 horsepower. Is the Type R’s $40,000 too pricey? Try its terrific, 180-horse Sport cousin for just $22,000.

Lincoln Navigator

 “This thing is huuuuge!” Subaru exec Tom Doll crowed in introducing the biggest Subaru ever — the three-row Ascent. Such is the market demand for big SUVs that even Subaru has one now. But you ain’t seen huuuuge until you’ve saddled up a Navigator: Built on the same frame as the ginormous Ford F-150 pickup, this behemoth dwarfs the Ascent. The Navigator has the biggest head-up-display and moon-roof in autodom, a 10-speed tranny and more seats that Radio City Music Hall (well, almost).

Lucid Air

 Silicon Valley startup Lucid pinched Tesla chief engineer Peter Rawlinson and Mazda designer Derek Jenkins to out-Tesla the Tesla. The result is the stunning Lucid Air electric sedan that is bigger and more beautiful than Elon Musk’s pioneering Model S. Jenkins really explores the envelope of a battery platform without a gas engine under the hood. The result is a cavernous interior draped with a tinted moon roof that changes tint when exposed to the sun. It’s billed as being capable of 217 mph.

Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk

 Sharing the same 707-horsepower, supercharged V-8 as the Dodge Challenger and Charger Hellcats, the Trackhawk seats five in comfort while assaulting the quarter-mile at 116 mph. The Jeep’s performance numbers measure up to the $100,000 Porsche Cayenne Turbo and BMW M X5, but without the sticker shock. Like the Corvette, the Trackhawk is the affordable supercar — er, superute.

Porsche 911 GT3

 This is the purist’s 911. The new-generation 911 has gone to automatic tranny-driven turbo power for more grunt and better fuel economy. The track-oriented GT3 is the outlier. With a six-speed stick and normally aspirated 500-horse, 4-liter flat-6, the GT3 promises the full Porsche visceral thrill.

Jaguar F-Type, 4-cylinder

The F-Type is designer Ian Callum’s Mona Lisa. So this mid-cycle refresh gets minimal tweaks — you’ll know it by the single outer air intakes on the front fascia rather than the old three-slot “shark gills.” The real story here is the first four-banger under the hood of an F-Type. The four not only helps the big cat meet emissions mandates, but it also drops its entry price below $60,000 so it can compete against Porsche’s full lineup of Caymans, Boxsters and 911s. But will four cylinders make a suitable Jaguar growl?

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Payne: Mazda 3 is a charm

Posted by hpayne on April 10, 2017

Though a front-wheel driver, the hatchback Mazda 3's

When I turned off my Mazda 3 tester at 10 p.m., the last thing to fade into darkness was the tachometer.

That was fitting, because I had been rowing the terrific 3’s gearbox all day.

Finding fun driving opportunities in the middle of winter isn’t easy. The weather doesn’t cooperate. The Mazda arrived in my driveway the morning of an ice storm. Walking across the asphalt to the 3 was more treacherous than Washington’s crossing of the Delaware. But even in such conditions, the 3 begs to be driven aggressively.

Start with design. Like all Mazdas these days, the compact hatch is gorgeous. Since its jack-o’-lantern crisis (designed by a kid with a crayon and carving knife as I recall) of the mid-2000s, Mazda visited a proper stylist and cleaned up its act.

My hot-hatch preference is for the Volkswagen GTI (for reasons to be detailed later), but there is no better-looking compact car out there than the 3 — even when painted gray to match the weather. It has a shark nose, flowing lines, slit headlights. The 3 is a front-wheel driver with the expected long front overhang — yet with its long hood, the Mazda hatch sits back on its haunches like a rear-wheel-drive BMW Z4 coupe.

Mazda calls its design philosophy “Kodo” — which translates to “soul of motion.” That is, Mazda’s designers look at their cars as living creatures. They have soul, all right. Even on the biggest car Mazda makes, the CX-9 crossover (a finalist for 2017 North American Utility of the Year), the design stands out.

For 2017 the 3 has been lightly tweaked with Kodo-rific exterior detail and a quieter interior. The Mazda brand is all about the joy of driving. Zoom-zoom-zoom go the ads. Where other brands add a sporty car as a brand halo, Mazda starts with its MX-5 Miata and grows from there. Every vehicle shares the MX-5’s drivable DNA. As my colleague Ron Sessions likes to say when we do Mazda test drives: “I don’t think we’ll be talking autonomous much today.”

Yet, Mazda is also building a reputation for rich content — part of its philosophy that cars should make the time we spend with them enjoyable.

I approach my 3 with key in pocket and depress a small, door-handle button to unlock the doors. That’s a slick detail for an entry-level vehicle.

Inside, the Japanese car speaks with a German accent: It has a tight, predictable stick shift with short throws. Closely placed pedals for double-clutch downshifts. Tablet infotainment display controlled by remote rotary dial (happily, for this touchscreen fan, it can also be controlled by fingertip when the car is stationary). Gauges accented by chrome like Porsche-Audi premium models.

It’s the little, fussy details that impress: Head-up display. Push-button start. Dual-climate control. Auto-adjust high beams. The sticker price says $28,450, but these are touches you expect (and often don’t find) on luxury mules costing twice as much.

The high-beams are particularly useful this wintry day because my schedule will take me through the pocked, wet streets of Detroit well after dark.

Over Motown’s dreadful roads, I probably should have brought a right-seat rally navigator. Google Maps would have to do. Driving I-94 to the Grosse Pointe War Memorial is a stage on the Dakar Rally. But the predictable, balanced 3 makes every rut and slick patch manageable.

It’s a landscape that needs maximum lighting, so I flick on the high beams — and leave them there. With the auto high beam feature, they smartly read oncoming traffic and turn off when another car comes into view. That’s one less thing for me to worry about as I negotiate streets that are rougher than Normandy Beach.

I turn off the traction control for maximum fun, and here I pine for my favorite GTI for the first time.

The 3 may shout zoom-zoom, but it lacks limited slip-limited slip. The limited-slip differential, like the one on the GTI equipped with its performance package, is a clever bit of engineering that distributes torque to help maintain grip under hard acceleration. It is particularly useful in front-wheel drivers, especially when the roads are 40 degrees and slick as David Beckham’s hair. For the same price as the 3, the GTI will deliver its performance package — limited-slip differential and all. So will the Honda Civic Si for that matter. If you plan on having fun (and isn’t that why you buy Mazda?) the lack of this feature will be missed.

Until 2013, Mazda made a direct GTI competitor called the Mazdaspeed 3 properly equipped with the feature. Bring it back, pretty please?

Happily, the 3 does come equipped with an independent rear suspension like the VW, Honda and Ford Focus. Which is a good thing when you are humming along at 60 mph and hit an unexpected Detroit road defect. On a solid rear-axle Hyundai Elantra or Chevy Cruze this might send your head through the roof. The Mazda just shrugs.

The 3’s sculpted rear-hatch looks cool but would appear to offer less headroom for rear passengers than the squared-off — if less pretty — Golf. But inside, the 3 was surprisingly roomy for your freakishly tall reviewer. Even with moon roof, I could sit up straight in the 3’s rear seat.

Need cargo room? The rear seatbacks neatly flop flat with a pull of a latch at the seats’ top.

Fortunately, I wasn’t carrying delicate cargo this night as my briefcase slapped back and forth across the rear hatch like a pinball. Rowing the box with abandon to 6-grand, the front tires howling under too much torque, I kept the revs up for maximum response.

Mazda has thus far resisted the industry stampede to turbo engines, opting instead for a less-torquey, 2.5-liter four-banger.

I emerged from the Mazda 3 at the end of the evening refreshed. It’s a high I always feel after driving a fine hatch — but for all I know it might have been enhanced by something Mazda calls “G-vectoring control,” a subtle, computer-assisted coordination of engine inputs and steering to make for smoother cornering.

It’s this obsessive, Jeeves-like care for driver comfort that rewards Mazda customers. From Kodo to G-vectoring to seats that hold you like a mother’s arms, the Mazda is about enjoying every minute of driving time.

Even on roads fit for the Dakar.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2017 Mazda 3



Power plant 2.0-liter, inline 4-cylinder; 2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder
Transmission Six-speed manual or automatic
Weight 2,875 pounds; 3,046 pounds (with manual transmission)
Price $19,970 ($28,450 as tested)
Power 155 horsepower, 150 pound-feet of torque (2.0-liter);

184 horsepower, 185 pound-feet of torque (2.5-liter)

Performance 0-60 mph, 7.4 seconds (2.5-liter, Car and Driver)
Fuel economy EPA 27 city/37 highway/31 combined (2.0-liter manual)

EPA 25 city/33 highway/28 combined (2.5-liter manual)

Report card

Lows No limited-slip differential; bring back Mazdaspeed 3


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Payne: Toned Chevy Equinox vs. Honda CR-V champ

Posted by hpayne on March 30, 2017

The 2018 Chevy Equinox, the automaker's best-selling

Bigger isn’t always better.

That line seems heresy in an American auto market where vehicles have grown with each generation to accommodate bigger performance demands, bigger storage needs and bigger (ahem) waistlines. Ford F-150s are the size of Detroit apartments, sports cars are more muscled than John Cena, and a Mini Cooper isn’t mini at all.

“Bigger is better” is most evident in crossovers. They are station wagons on stilts that are taller, longer and thirstier than the sedans customers have abandoned.

So imagine my shock when America’s brand, Chevrolet — the maker of supersized Suburbans, tremendous Traverses, carnivorous Camaros — put its 2018 Equinox on a diet. The brand’s best-selling SUV has lost a whopping 400 pounds, four inches of length and two cylinders to bring its proportions more in line with Honda’s svelte, class best-selling CR-V. That means an all-wheel-drive Equinox improbably weighs about the same (3,540 pounds vs. 3,523) as my athletic 2001 BMW M3.

Like Nixon going to China or Apple becoming a phone maker, who better than Equinox to challenge orthodoxy? Equinox has worn the bigger-is-better uniform since 2005 and has come up short.

The solution? Another all-American aphorism: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Impressively, the Equinox diet doesn’t compromise interior space but makes it more fun to drive. That’s a designation formerly reserved for niche zoom-zoom manufacturer Mazda and its CX-5 crossover.

“We can do anything, but we can’t do everything,” GM chief engineer for crossovers Rick Spina likes to tell his troops.

But compact crossovers are the Shane Halter (the last Tiger to play all nine positions in a game) of autodom. Customers demand all-around performers that are good at everything from utilitarian shopping needs to road trips through mountain twisties. Spina and team have defied their motto: Equinox and CR-V are good at dang near everything.

In targeting the CR-V — which invented the class way back in 1996 — the Equinox took on a moving target. The CR-V, too, has undergone a complete (if more evolutionary) remake that incrementally increased length, width, height and rear legroom. Honda sells so many models from its Marysville, Ohio assembly plant that it should call it McCR-V and put a big sign out front reading “Over 4 million served” (the actual number they’ve sold to Americans).

Honda’s remarkably taut chassis is based on the same platform as the Audi A3-baselined Civic play-toy that has motorheads drooling. How serious is Honda about SUV handling? CR-V project leader Takaaki Nagadome’s first job at Honda was body engineering for the NSX supercar. It shows.

I first drove the CR-V last fall in flat Marysville farmland and was soon pining for twisty, mountain roads. I’m not saying the CR-V is a Civic hot hatch, but Car and Driver recorded similar skid-pad numbers as the once-untouchable Mazda.

Throw the Honda ute into a 90-degree right-hander and it bites. Even the CR-V’s safety system freaked at the speeds I was taking corners: the auto-brake assist flashed “BRAKE” in the instrument panel as I hurtled into one ess turn.

With its new bod, Equinox goes toe-to-toe with its Japanese rival. Chevy’s confidence was apparent as it set media testers loose on the Blue Ridge Mountains’ serpentine roads. With an aluminum-block, 1.5-liter, base turbo engine up front, the crossover doesn’t plow through corners. The Mazda may still set the standard for this class, but the Equinox turbo has better giddyup than the CX-5’s normally aspirated 2-liter. The giddyup winner of this comparison, however, is the Honda’s 1.5-liter turbo that was first introduced in the Civic.

Heat up this hot tamale over 3,000 rpm and the CR-V really sizzles. Equinox is nearly as spicy, but it’s a 170-horsepower base engine compared to the Honda’s 190-horse premium offering (a normally-aspirated, 2.5-liter is the base mill). The CR-V’s engine strategy emphasizes economy: married to an excellent continuously variable tranny, it boasts 29 mpg (3 mpg more than the Equinox) despite its higher output.

Touting bigger-is-still-better when it comes to performance, Chevy will offer a muscular 252-horse, 2-liter turbo as its prime engine later this year.

It’s worth noting that the sticker on my $38,122 loaded Equinox — with moon roof and Premiere trim — was $3,500 above the $34,635, similarly equipped top-trim Touring CR-V with the premium 1.5-turbo. How expensive will that 2-liter Equinox be?

Chevy says the price is justified by going the extra mile on technology and refinement. For example, the Equinox went shopping at the upscale GKN boutique for a twin clutch-pack system that can move drive torque front to rear. Attack a snowy hill in the dead of Michigan winter and Chevy says you’ll feel the difference.

But will buyers feel enough of a difference to deter them from the tried, true and cheaper CR-V?

Chevy goes the extra mile inside with a more-sculpted interior, more buttons and optional gee-gaws like heated rear seats and surround-vision camera. The CR-V comes away looking cheaper — especially those plasticky steering-wheel controls. But the Honda comes with typically clever ergonomics of its own including versatile center-console storage and rear doors that open nearly 90 degrees for better entry.

Elsewhere, these valedictorian students of American taste are an even match, covering every driver need: hidden rear-storage compartments; grocery-friendly, kick-open rear hatches; fold-flat rear seats.

And Chevy and Honda continue to show why they have been pioneers in smartphone-app connectivity as Android’s Google Maps embarrassed both Honda Navi and Chevy OnStar in navigation tests.

What may ultimately decide your choice between these evenly matched rivals is your design taste. Neither will challenge the pretty Mazda for the title of Miss Crossover.

The Chevy’s sleek shape may earn its best-in-class .336 drag-coefficient, but it’s determined to offend no one — the designers even managed to make the problematic split-grille a generic shape. If the Equinox were ice cream, it would be vanilla.

The CR-V is Chunky Monkey. The youthful design details are familiar — bat-wing taillights, funhouse wheels — but with more attitude. The front grille looks like a bulldog with a pronounced underbite.

Lest you think Chevy still doesn’t value plus-size cars, you’ll be pleased to know that the forthcoming midsize Traverse is XXL. But for its compact SUV, the Equinox matches the CR-V as proof you can do everything with less.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2018 Chevrolet Equinox



Power plant 1.5-liter, turbocharged, inline 4-cylinder
Transmission Six-speed automatic
Weight 3,375 pounds (FWD); 3,540 pounds (AWD)
Price $25,370 ($38,122 Premier AWD as tested)
Power 170 horsepower, 203 pound-feet of torque
Performance 0-60 mph (NA)
Fuel economy EPA 26 city/32 highway/28 combined (FWD)

EPA 24 city/30 highway/26 combined (AWD)

Report card

Lows Vanilla styling; Premier-trim sticker shock


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★

2017 Honda CR-V

Power plant 1.5-liter, turbocharged, inline 4-cylinder
Transmission Continuously variable automatic
Weight 3,307 pounds (FWD); 3,508 pounds (AWD)
Price $24,945 base ($34,635 AWD Touring as tested)
Power 190 horsepower, 179 pound-feet of torque
Performance 0-60 mph, 7.6 seconds (Car and Driver)
Fuel economy EPA 28 city/34 highway/30 combined (FWD)

EPA 27 city/33 highway/30 combined (AWD)

Report card

Lows Bulldog front end; plasticky controls


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