Auto sales are up, gas prices are dropping and 2014 ends with the big SUVs surging in popularity again. But it was two small SUVs that impressed us. Here are our favorites from among the vehicles we drove this year. As always, there were many we didn't get the opportunity to drive, so we are already preparing our 2015 wish list.
Lexus NX 200t (2015): The Lexus is one of the best-looking small SUVs on the market and carries the automaker's first turbocharged engine. It has the practicality of a "ute," but in its F Sport trim also has lively performance and handling. Not to mention it's eye candy — all chiseled angles and bold character lines. Best of all, it's fun to drive. ...
It's not every day the term "mac daddy" is used to describe the Toyota Camry, which despite being the bestselling car in America, has always been more bland that hip. But when Peter pulled the redesigned-for-2015 Camry into a Publix parking space, the car was greeted by an admiring onlooker calling it the "mac daddy" of Camrys. That's true — our tester was the top-level XSE, a new package — but in any trim, this is not your daddy's Camry....
We've all heard the saying "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Fortunately, so has Subaru. For 2015, it has refined its Outback both inside (more room, nicer cabin) and out (bolder design) without changing what makes the crossover so popular.
Appearance: We call it a wagon, Subaru calls it a crossover. No matter. For 2015, the Outback carries a new front fascia with a more integrated design for the hexagonal grille and bumper. (The grille also has active shutters to cut down on drag.) The headlights now carry a hint of the automaker's sporty WRX. There's less gray plastic cladding and more chiseled character lines on the body. In all, these changes make for a handsome wagon. ...
The Mercedes-Benz M Class is the luxury automaker's midsize SUV. For 2015, the ML400 replaces the ML550 and its gas-guzzling 4.7-liter V-8. There's no question the SUV has better fuel efficiency and, of course, luxury, but does it have anything that makes it stand out?
Appearance: The "designo" Diamond White Metallic (a $1,515 option) shimmers in the sun. Aside from that striking paint, the ML400 is a handsome, if slightly generic-looking, SUV that wears Mercedes' three-slat grille with traditional fan-blade logo. Standout design details include chrome skid plates, bold character lines and LED daytime running lights. Our tester had the optional 20-inch AMG five-spoke wheels and Bi-Xenon headlamps. Those headlights have Active Curve Illumination and adaptive high beams, which came in handy on the dark back roads Lyra sometimes drives....
The bottom line: The WRX STI is one of the last of a dying breed: street-legal rally cars. We're glad Subaru is committed to improving this gem.
Earlier this year, we drove the newly refreshed 2015 Subaru WRX Limited, and loved it. But consider that model the "WRX light." We've driven the rally-inspired STI performance version, and wow, the car is a beast.
Appearance: For 2015, the WRX STI comes only in a sedan, which grows slightly and looks ready to pounce. The car has a bold front end with squinting headlights and muscular fenders. And, of course, there's the cartoonish wing, which is almost big enough to invoke the Road Runner Superbird for those of us old enough to remember it. Our tester's paint was the catch-me-if-you-can Lightning Red Metallic, which really stands out in traffic — so watch your speed....
It seems like it was just the other day that we drove the 2014 Corvette Stingray — a convertible — and were impressed with the all-new, seventh-generation Corvette. Now we've driven the 2015 model — this time a coupe — and Chevy already has made a big improvement: There's a new 8-speed automatic transmission that's more refined than the previous 6-speed gearbox. Even manual enthusiasts should take notice. ...
Proof that the luxury compact crossover segment is the new arena for upscale automakers comes in the form of cars such as the Lexus NX 200t, which we reviewed recently, Porsche Macan and Mercedes-Benz's new GLA. We drove the GLA45, and anything we say has to be gauged against the version that Mercedes provided: AMG performance.
Appearance: At first look, it's tough to classify the GLA, which is based on the CLA sedan chassis. Mercedes staunchly calls it an SUV. Well, maybe, since it's raised a bit. But to us, it's a hatchback. In the AMG version, a very hot hatch. Our tester had the subdued Mountain Grey Metallic paint, but Mercedes also has an interesting palette that should appeal to younger buyers, including the matte-finish Mountain Grey Magno (which Lyra loves) and Northern Lights Violet Metallic. In its AMG guise, the GLA is all sinew, aggressively sculpted with flared wheel wells, high shoulders and twin power-dome hood. The front end features a large Mercedes three-point star with the "AMG double-cross-wing" design bisecting the mesh grille, and swept-back bi-Xenon headlamps with LED running lights. There also are aluminum skid plates, large air intakes, chrome roof rails and an integrated hatch-top spoiler. Our tester also had the upgraded 19-inch double-spoke alloy wheels. And this should please Mercedes: Lyra noticed some 20-somethings admiring it in a restaurant parking lot. ...
We drove the Lexus CT 200h when it first came out in 2011, and surmised it was the car for people put off by the funky look-at-me design of hybrids such as the Prius. For 2014, Lexus has continued to refine the compact hatchback for those who want to go green with luxury and style.
Appearance: The major change is an updated front-end design, which now carries the metal-trimmed hourglass-shaped grille that is the Lexus standard. LED headlamps are now available as an option. Overall, the five-door hatchback retains its athletic-looking appearance with its long hood, flared fenders and sharp body creases. Our tester's paint color was a stunning hue called Redline, which seems more a case of wishful thinking with the CT 200h. Dual-spoked 17-inch alloy wheels complement the sporty look....
In an automotive age where SUVs rule, station wagons are a fading market category. But Volvo has been a resolute defender of the traditional family haulers. Its all-new stylish V60, which is based on the S60 sedan, is just what you'd expect from the Swedish automaker that has a solid reputation for safety.
Appearance: Yes, wagons can be sexy. The V60's front channels the classic Volvo. The grille has a familiar diagonal line with a Volvo badge. The hood is chiseled, and the car's look is heightened by a high door line and narrow windows that appear as one uninterrupted design framed in chrome trim. The vertical taillights flare out to hug the body. At an angle, they are almost L-shaped. The spokes of the 19-inch Ixion alloy wheels have a visual twist, and the integrated chrome dual-exhaust tips finish off the look. Overall, these elements fuse into a cohesive design. The V60 has certainly come a long way from the boxy Volvo wagons of previous decades....
Americans have an insatiable appetite for the SUV. The latest segment automakers are battling over is the compact luxury crossover. Lexus' entry in the competition is the 2015 NX 200t — with the carmaker's first turbocharged engine and its hybrid counterpart, the 300h. Both models are based on parent Toyota's RAV4.
Appearance: The NX 200t we tested was a preproduction model in the F Sport trim. It's probably the sexiest crossover on the market. It carries the now-familiar Lexus spindle grille, which has prominent black mesh instead of the regular trim's horizontal slats. Everything about the NX 200t's aggressive styling — a mix of chiseled angles and bold character lines — seems calculated to send the message to a younger demographic: This isn't your father's Lexus. We particularly like how the almost-triangular headlights sweep up in a curve along the hood line and the 18-inch Y-spoked alloy wheels. ...
Despite gas prices still being over $3 a gallon, large SUVs have been making a comeback. Among them, the Infiniti QX80, one of the most sumptuous. For 2014, Infiniti's land yacht gets a new letter-number designation — previously it was the QX56 — under the brand's "renaming" of its lineup. What ever happened to actual names?
Appearance: The QX80 looks somewhat ungainly, with its high belt line and its not-quite-seamless mix of angles and curves. It's an odd look, especially in profile. Lyra likens it to a Beluga whale — albeit one that rolls on 22-inch alloy wheels and has a large chrome-trimmed grille and low-set headlights....
The Mazda MX-5 Miata marks 25 years as one of the auto world's most popular and affordable roadsters. Last month, Mazda showed off the all-new fourth generation Miata, which is due out next year as a 2016 model. Currently, there is a 2015 Miata, which includes a 25th Anniversary Edition, but we drove the similar 2014.
Appearance: The Miata still has the gaping smile that was the signature look for Mazda for a few misguided years. Thankfully, it's gone in the next generation. But as Lyra says: "In other Mazda cars, the smile was annoying. But with the Miata, it's endearing." The design is still from the less-is-more school: a rounded body with only fender flares and a few character lines to provide visual interest. If it's drama you want, you'll have to wait for the 2016 Miata. Our tester had the convertible hardtop, which gives the car a sleek profile. ...
09/24/14 Working Life
Appearance: The overall look seems more like a refinement than a clean-sheet design. The first things that stand out are the Jewel Eye LED headlights. Each has the five gemlike bulbs that first appeared on the 2014 RL, and are now being incorporated into Acura's other models. The slender headlights are brighter than halogen lamps. Acura's chevron grille now seems less pronounced, with a muted brushed-aluminum panel. The body has attractive character lines, but the look is more generic than distinctive, which has been one of Acura's challenges. We hope the upcoming NSX sports car influences the rest of the company's models much like the LFA's design cues filtered into the Lexus lineup....
For 2014, Land Rover's venerable LR4 gets a slightly more fuel efficient engine, cosmetic tweaks and a new four-wheel-drive system. What hasn't changed is the midsize SUV's ability to carry seven passengers and do so off the beaten path if necessary.
Appearance: Recognizably Land Rover. It's tall and boxy, but with some new features for 2014, such as the grille, bumper and lights. Our tester's two-bar grille was part of the Black Design Package ($3,500), which also included 20-inch black five-spoke wheels. It's a sharp look that helps to mitigate the somewhat blocky shape. The headlamps include distinctive LED daytime running lights — a circle plus a U. Book-ending the signature asymmetrical rear window are dual round LED tail lights that also stand out. Overall, our tester had an aftermarket look....
Talk about a departure: Kia, the Korean automaker perhaps best known in the U.S. market for its funky little Soul crossover or the more mainstream Optima family sedan, has just introduced a full-size, rear-wheel-drive luxury car. Even more surprising: Other than a name that seems lifted from a TV infomercial, the 2015 K900 delivers.
Appearance: This is new territory for Kia, so the automaker can be forgiven if it looked at the full-size luxury competition and appropriated some styling cues: The long, creased hood, the sleek body with a high belt line and the wind tunnel-designed roof would not look out of place on a Jaguar. Elsewhere, touches such as integrated dual-chrome exhaust tips, integrated turn signals in the side mirrors and 19-inch wheels add some tasteful bling. Even Kia's signature "tiger nose" grille is more subtle, with an intricate wavelike mesh pattern. The headlights feature two quad LEDs that swivel to adapt to speed and driving direction. The only design misstep: a distracting and nonfunctional fender-top "vent."...