SUV/TRUCK REVIEWS

The new 2017 Kia Niro is a hybrid that offers impressive fuel economy and a more standard car look.

My first thought: Another hybrid? Do we really need that?

 

But wait. This one looks different …  It’s a crossover, has decent passenger room and actually has a little speed. And it’s affordable.

Okay, Let’s talk about it.

 

The Kia Niro is the vehicle in question here. As Kia and Hyundai make an increased push in the green car market, they have unveiled some new models for 2017, and the Niro is one of the bigger launches (along with the Hyundai Ioniq). I recently spent some time in a Niro and I’m back with a full report.

 

1. STRONG FUEL ECONOMY

This is the key to a successful hybrid. If it’s not there, they won’t sell.

The numbers are in, and they are impressive: I averaged 48.6 mpg during my time in the Niro.
Official numbers are 49 highway, 52 city, 50 combined -- and I’m sure those can be met or beaten if you drive the vehicle with the goal of maximizing that number.

It is worth noting that the mpg numbers shrink a bit on top trim level of the Niro (40 city/46 highway on the Touring model).

 

The 2017 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk has true off-road credentials.

While the overall state of FCA as an auto company can be debated, there’s no question that Jeeps remain very popular, and are one of FCA’’s biggest strongholds in the industry (along with their Ram trucks). And while many Jeep fans have turned into city dwellers and haven’t left the pavement in years, there are still some dedicated off-roaders out there who remain committed to the brand.

 

For them, there are still some Jeep options that keep their needs in mind, including the 2017 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk, in which I recently spent some time.


What is a Trailhawk?
There are two engine options on the Cherokee Trailhawk; A tamer 2.4-liter four cylinder option (184 hp); or a powerful 3.2-liter V6 (271 hp). My test vehicle had the stronger option and it performed admirably for me; I would recommend the upgrade.

The vehicle features a 9-speed transmission, and optional all-wheel drive (again, it’s recommended).

The Cherokee Trailhawk is designed for off-roading capability, so it must be said that this vehicle does not offer the best feel on regular roads (it can be quite bouncy and unsettling at times, to be honest).


Instead, it is designed to perform in adverse conditions (snow, sand/mud  and rock settings are included via the Selec-Terrain system), and work well no matter what conditions you are driving in.

The Cherokee Trailhawk features all-terrain tires, Hill Start Assist, Hill Descent Control, Selec-Speed Crawl Control, Off-Road Suspension, All Speed Traction control, Electronic Stability Control, Electronic Roll Mitigation and Anti-lock 4-wheel disc brakes, plus higher ground clearance and tow hooks, and unique designs in the front and rear vs. a standard Cherokee. Add all that up, and you end up with a Trail Rated vehicle -- and not in name only. It’s gone through the testing to show it can handle the not-so-beaten path.

 

The Toyota Highlander, pictured here, is one of the top-selling three-row SUVs on the market, trailing only the Ford Explorer.

In the U.S. of A., the SUV is the modern-day station wagon. Instead of the “way back” seat, we now drive stretched-out, boosted-up vehicles with a third row as our families get bigger.


With the numbers for SUVs on the rise and profits to be made, this is an area where being competitive is critical for automakers -- including Toyota, which battles in this segment pretty impressively with the Toyota Highlander (it trails only segment-leading Ford Explorer in annual sales).

I recently spent some time in a 2017 Highlander, which has received some updates from previous models, and I’m back with a full report on how it holds up in the segment.

LOOKS
Among changes on the outside for the 2017 model, you get a bigger, redesigned grille and new taillight design. These changes aim to set it apart from the cookie-cutter look of many SUVs, and succeed somewhat in doing so.


Seating in the Highlander can accommodate up to 8 people (2/3/3/). The two front seats are comfy and high quality materials are used in the vehicle. Middle row on my test vehicle had cozy captain’s chairs, so only two could fit, but there’s also a version with bench seating for three in middle. Rear seat claims to fit three but I would say two is best, even for little ones.

The Lexus NX is a standout offering in the compact luxury SUV segment.

Lexus has long captured the allegiance of many luxury car buyers in the United States … folks who probably will be loyal to the brand for years to come.


When they expanded their lineup in 2015 with a new model, the NX compact SUV, the question was whether the brand could duplicate the success it has seen with other models -- namely its midsize RX crossover -- in this segment.


In short, they’ve done quite well in very quick time -- selling more than 60,000 units in 2016 between the U.S. and Canada.
I recently spent some time in a 2017 Lexus NX 200t, and I’m back with a full report on what all the fuss is about, and how this luxury SUV measures up to the competition.

The 2017 Chevy Trax is best for city driving, and competes well with other mini-SUVs in terms of tech and safety offerings.

The Trax, being just a few years old now, is among the lesser known vehicles in the Chevy lineup. But this subcompact SUV is one the automaker has high hopes for, as sales continue to rise amid a surge in support for this emerging class of vehicles.

In essence, Chevy’s entry in the mini-ute category is a more simplified version of GM’s more upscale Buick Encore offering. I recently spent some time in a 2017 Trax and I am back with a full report on how it competes against the other small soldiers on the roadways.

LOOKS

While higher off the ground than sedans, mini-SUVs are going to all be pretty tight inside. It comes with the territory.

But overall, the Trax has a decent amount of room for the segment. Though sitting two up front and three in back will be a tight squeeze. I wouldn’t do it regularly unless the ones in back are all little ones.

The 2017 Mazda CX-3 competes in the emerging subcompact SUV category.

Several years back, led by the Nissan Juke and other vehicles, the subcompact SUV category became a big thing -- and it’s been exploding every since, with manufacturers clamoring to join the segment. Last year, Mazda got involved with the CX-3 offering, and that offering is back again unchanged for its second year with a 2017 model, which I recently had a chance to test.

For those unfamiliar, these things are simply tiny SUVs; they ride higher than a regular car and area bit heavier, but interior space isn’t much bigger than a small sedan. Every year, more and more them appear.

The CX-3 can technically fit 2 people in front and 3 people in back, but the space is so tight in the rear, I wouldn’t want to sit there. Maybe small kids will be OK.

Numbers on the CX-3 are 18 cubic feet of cargo volume, and it can accommodate a max load of 850 pounds. The vehicle is 168 inches long, 70 inches wide, 61 inches tall, and weighs 2,945 pounds. In addition to the tiny back seat, your cargo space isn’t much to talk about.

On the plus side, the interior design is among best in the segment.

Target buyers for this vehicle would be couples who won’t be transporting children, or folks who generally travel alone or with one passenger, and want to upgrade from a typical small sedan at a reasonable price.

The Hyundai Santa Fe Sport is the larger of the two options, compared with the Tucson

If you’re looking for an SUV, Hyundai has probably got you covered. There’s the three-row Santa Fe offering (which is technically a mid-size SUV); the two-row Tucson (a compact SUV), and also the two-row Santa Fe Sport, which falls in the middle of the other two in terms of size and doesn’t really have a category.


Part of the confusion comes in because the Tucson was recently given a bit of a boost in size, pushing it closer to the Santa Fe Sport -- so the question becomes; If you were to choose between the two, which one is better?

Having recently spent time in both vehicles, I’m back with all the details on how to answer that question.

LOOKS

The difference here is best told in numbers.

You’ll get more cargo room in the Santa Fe Sport than in the Tucson (35.5 cubic feet, vs. 29.5); You’ll also enjoy a bit more rear legroom in the Santa Fe Sport, which is quite roomy for the segment (overall vehicle length is 185 inches, vs. 176 on the Tucson).


In addition to the length difference, the Santa Fe Sport is an inch wider and an inch taller. Weight is about 300 pounds more (3,760 vs. 3,475).

Inside both vehicles, Hyundai did a great job with quality of the interior design, which felt and looked high-end for the price range.

The Kia Soul is among the more uniquely styled vehicles on the road in 2017.

Personality goes a long way in life.

It’s how salespeople get you to buy things you don’t need, it’s why comedians often date supermodels, and it’s why vehicles like the Kia Soul have a following.


As it applies to automobiles, personality -- in my view -- means you’re doing something different designwise than the rest of the competition. That’s increasingly rare in the automotive world lately -- as it’s easier to play it safe than take a risk.

But if you’ve ever seen a Kia Soul and then looked at all the other compact SUV options on the road, you know they have being different down to an art form.

The question is: Is being different equivalent to something you would want to drive, or is it just for show. I recently spent some time in a Soul and I’m back with a full report.

The number of people who can afford three-row luxury SUVs is not a large one, but it’s a market with some of the most intense competition in the industry. Battling for those big bucks is never easy, with so many strong products available, and loyalty is hard to sway.

 

One automaker doing its best to compete in this niche segment is Volvo, whose flagship XC90 SUV has stepped up its game this year to compete with the big boys as well as it can.

So what does Volvo bring to this battle of luxury SUVs? … Bold but not extravagant Scandinavian design, elegant look and feel, strong engine performance and handling and tons of space … though some issues with the tech system do hold it back from true greatness (more on that later).

 

The 2017 Acura MDX offers seating for seven.

With the intense competition in the category, luxury automakers have to focus greatly on strategy when designing their vehicles -- considering every detail from looks to performance as compared to the rivals in the segment.


I recently spent some time in a 2017 Acura MDX, the three-row SUV from Honda’s luxury arm, and I’m back with a full report on how well they did their homework as they aim to grow their share in the segment.

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