Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Enter the Kraken - The Infiniti QX80

I've become a bit spoiled. A little less than a year ago, we added a Chrysler 300C AWD Hemi to the fleet and it is, without question, the most well-equipped vehicle we've owned, to date. From its automatic everything to its heated and cooled everything, it has become a favorite in the driveway. And that Hemi!

It should come as no surprise then, that upon arrival in Nashville for a family gathering, my family of three was less than thrilled to find Enterprise handing us the keys to a lesser 300, of the V-6 variety. Thank you, no. Our salesman offered us an even swap into a Grand Cherokee, a truck we would actually buy. But then, he pointed at the burnt cherry behemoth in the corner of the lot. The large and godawful-looking Infiniti QX80. I couldn't resist the curiosity.

First, let me be up front about my thoughts on all things Nissan/Infiniti: BLECH. Nissan's offerings run from embarrassingly frumpy (Versa), to the Adderall-infused and overwrought (new Maxima), to the darling of tasteless millennials (the Joke... Puke... JUKE - damn auto correct!). And have you seen that mess of a new Titan (ACK!) No longer a Nissan Armada in its best outfit, the QX80 now hails from a Nissan Patrol (a non-US model), pimped for the Infiniti badge. But Nissan's attempt to meld the flowing curves of Infiniti's design language into the vast blandness of the Patrol yielded a bulbous and bloated oaf of a truck, with dumb fender vents and a grille the size of Delaware. And not in a good way. It reminds me of a sea creature, at a fetal stage.

"Yeah, but INSIDE, it's like the Taj Majal!", said an Enterprise salesman. Indeed, the interior tells a different story. 8-cows of standard grade leather don't deliver the olfactory wallop you might expect, though this example had 20k on the odometer. But the palette is nice, with shades of creams, taupes, browns, and greys providing a nice contrast to the very dark red exterior. Padded leather, soft-touch plastics and real stitching in the dash and console are nice details. And the 2/2/3 seating configuration is ideal for the majority of buyers who probably won't exceed four occupants.

Controls seemed less than intuitive, at first. But it didn't take long to find and master them. Probably the biggest disappointment was the lack of equipment. I'm sure this rental example was a base model (about $63,000), but it wasn't any better equipped, really, than any typical "EX" offering from... anybody. Heated seats and steering wheel, only for the front seats, and without cooling. A small, standard sunroof over the front seats. The 360° camera is cool, but I'd expect more tech from this marque and price point, like blind spot warnings and crash avoidance, which would seem a requirement for a vehicle of this size. One other note when you're spending this kind of cash... the doors are cheap, light, and tinny. No solid "THUNK" when you close them. Yeesh.

As a front seat passenger for our first long haul, I was ACHING for a place in which to store my phone. Storage in the QX80 is ridiculous. Open a large panel on the front console to reveal an oddly compartmentalized jumble of holes, including cupholders. Another, smaller panel opens up to a deep and irregular hole that could hold a large fries, if not for the boxy intrusion of a USB port. The glove box is like a FedEx bin—a giant empty shovel. All I wanted was a personal shelf or nook in which to place my phone and any other of the standard accoutrement for a 3-hour tour. Front and rear console storage is equally odd. And the passenger seat? Either my throne was broken or it had less functionality than the helm. Without the ability to tilt it, I spent much of my time between Nashville and Memphis trying not to slide onto the floor. And my other half (who puts seat heat on when it's 80° out) said the seat heat on the passenger side paled in comparison to that of the driver's seat.

Navigation was one of the greater aggravations. It's of the 5-seconds-too-late variety. The notchy animation of the map is more 64-bit than Pixar, and resulted in our consistently missing turns. NOTE TO NISSAN: A ping as you are passing your intended turn is not helpful. How 'bout a little advance notice? The navigation voice is female and speaks in a hushed tone, like a golf commentator.

Once behind the wheel, I did find the QX80 to be supremely comfortable in highway cruising. The 5.6-liter V8 provided sufficient power for merging and passing. Visibility is good and everyone gets out of your way when they see that grille in their rear view. Around town, its personality changed. Broken pavement and undulations tossed us around, unduly. And the steering requires way too much effort in parking lot maneuvering.

I have to compare the QX to our last plus-size truck rental: A 2015 Chevy Suburban which we drove from Beverly Hills to Vegas on the day of the big Pacquiao/Mayweather fight. GM is a master in this class and delivers a lithe, solid, and confident driving experience. The QX falls far short of the 'Burban. It's ponderous around town, hollow-feeling, and ostentatious.

I had an Infiniti in the '90's and it was a wonderful ownership experience. But on its lack of equipment and merits, I'd take a comparably equipped Tahoe or Yukon over the QX80, any day. The QX's thin veneer of luxury inside a vulgar exterior doesn't hide the fact that this is a Nissan truck better suited for patrolling dunes in Qatar than the daily needs of American drivers.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Driving Dead: 2014 Chevrolet Captiva LT2

Zombies. Back from the grave, they roam among us. Don't believe me? Then you don't know about the Captiva.

I'm not surprised. It's not like there's ever been an ear-worm of a Captiva jingle by (insert asshat pop artist here) proliferating your prime time TV watching. There are no annoying, animated ads flashing a speeding Captiva in front of your face as you stream obscure indies and cat videos, either. Why? Because Chevy won't sell you one, regardless of how strongly you profess your love of the bland and mundane to them.

Where do they come from, you didn't ask? Back in 2008, GM's Saturn brand had just introduced a second generation of the Saturn Vue CUV. Betraying Saturn's roots of producing sub-par, all-American vehicles, the new Vue was a German-designed, South-Korean-built car sold in Europe as the Opel Antara. If that didn't make sense to you, go get your passport renewed and read it again. In GM's 2009 Government-ordered recession re-org, the Saturn brand got the axe, along with Pontiac, Saab, and Hummer. The one-year-old new Vue was dead. Or so it seemed.

While struggling through those hard times, GM had just introduced a second generation Chevy Equinox and its first-gen stablemate, the GMC Terrain, for 2010. But their tightened belt wouldn't allow them to produce enough of those to satisfy both consumer and rental fleet demand.

Without releasing engineered viruses or insidious biotoxins upon the population, GM conjured a captivating plan: Zombies. Breathing life back into dead Vues through golden bow tie badges and a new moniker, the Captiva arose. Sold exclusively to rental fleets, the only way you can own one is to buy one at the end of its tour of duty at Enterprise, and the like. But you'd only want to do that under certain circumstances. Read on, please.

The Captiva, thankfully, runs on gas. Not brains.

There's not much to discuss, in terms of style and driving experience. This low-level sample, with minimal equipment and lethargic four cylinder truly did the undead justice. From a design perspective, its beigeness makes it virtually invisible, which is good if you're on the lam. The best I can say is that the layout is completely logical, and it does handle very well. It's not uncomfortable and size-wise it's bigger than it looks - ostensibly every bit the size of a Chevy you CAN buy, the Equinox.

At worst it's painfully sluggish at low speed. Heave the giant, heavy steering wheel around in a parking lot as you stab at the accelerator for signs of life under the hood and you'll agree. Things eased up on flat Illinois highways, but you have to constantly remind this car to move. The high beltline and slab sides make backing into a parking space challenging, as well.

There are better-equipped 2011 and 2012 examples out there, in top LTZ trim. I hear these models have a capable V-6 and a good equipment list. Given that the Antara is still produced in Europe, and the Captiva has been selling in Central and South America for some years, buying a used Captiva LTZ won't leave you hunting for spare parts like some other departed GM unicorns (Pontiac G6). For that matter, you could also shop used '09 Saturn Vue V-6's and Redlines. But the 4-cylinder models are just utilities, best reserved for those who want solid A-to-B, and can probably be had for an attractive price on the used market, due to their complete anonymity and guaranteed zero resale value.

If there's such a thing as a hot zombie, Chevy has one in the works. Just when Pontiac finally got a car worthy of its "Excitement Division" title, the axe swung and the awesome G8 got its wings. But it's back, in two forms, as the Caprice PPV (police use only) and the upcoming SS sport sedan. The latter is a V-8, rear-drive badass that unfortunately lost a ton of visual appeal during its resurrection.

If you are captured by a Captiva at the rental lot, don't be afraid. You won't need Rick, Daryl, or Michonne to bail you out. No need to sever your own limb if ever scratched by a loose piece of trim or quarantine your children upon arrival at your hotel. This zombie is toothless and harmless.

Maxi: 2014 Mini Cooper S All4 Countryman

Long among the darlings of Zipcar, Mini is the last brand I expected to see on the Enterprise lot. But as I did my on-approach lot scan, I knew I MUST make it mine, for a week. Not just to satisfy my curiosities about the brand, but to relieve me from the boredom of another Elantra or Focus.

I fell in love. And in a karmic swing of the best kind, I had a second chance to dance with my Countryman when I returned to Chicago, two weeks later. My phone was still paired.

The Cooper S All4 Countryman is Mini's largest vehicle, with a name to match. Parked next to an original Ford Escape, there isn't a tremendous size difference. Dev1 and I were both able to get comfortable in the front seats, which are manually adjusted. The back seat is about what you'd expect - tight on the knees, but with plenty of head room. And the boot is deeply recessed, more than capable of holding your standard weekly baggage and cargo. With the back seats down, there's a lot of room back there!

Mini is the most heritage-bound brand out there, when it comes to styling. The exterior is a smart evolution of the original, which hearkens back to the sixties. The same can be said for elements of the interior. It is this devotion to style that gives Mini character unlike any other vehicle on the road, today, and is also the source of some of the most aggravating user interface experiences I've endured.

I should caveat the proceeding with the fact that the brand seems to have addressed some of the more obtuse ergonomic choices made in the name of heritage, in the all-new 2015 models. But the urge to rant is too delicious. Here I go (again).

If you have ever milked a hamster while piloting a bobsled, you've done something easier than using Mini's audio system. The controls are packed into a space that would fit on a Mint Milano, while a pie plate of wasted space is used for the center speedometer, which, by the way, you NEVER use. A postage stamp sized digital speed readout on the steering-wheel-mounted tachometer does that duty. But back to the audio. Everything - absolutely everything, from pairing a phone to finding your presets is non-intuitive. Prone to Hulk-smash outbursts, I repeatedly entertained the fantasy of my fist penetrating that giant squid eye of a speedometer. I restrained myself.

The intermittent wiper control is an exercise in ridiculousness. Rather than the traditional 3-detent stalk with a speed wheel, only 2 speeds are accessed by moving the stalk. One-speed Intermittent is activated by clicking a non-button-looking button on the tip of the stalk (which can't be seen because it's both behind and very close to the steering wheel. Climate control is also a drag. Tiny icons around a central knob adjust airflow, but fan speed and temperature are adjusted by two flanking wheels with unreasonably small travel.

How do you control the trip computer, you ask? By pressing the "BC" button on the end of the turn signal stalk, dummy! HOW COULD YOU NOT KNOW WHAT "BC" STANDS FOR? Further, The sunroofs have no opaque shades, just screens. It's great that both of them tilt, but why isn't there an auto-open/close feature? And rearward visibility sucks so much that the lack of parking sensors seems criminal.

While I'm at it, what's with the name? In a recent article, I read that the brand is Mini. The model is Cooper, Clubman, Countryman, Coupe, etc. Yet this Countryman wears Cooper badges, everywhere. 

But EVERY TIME I got into my Mini, there was a smile on my face.

No stranger to sacrificing sensibility for style (these jeans are killing me, but they look amazing), I totally get it. Countryman's redemption comes in the form of distinctive style and a truly entertaining driving experience. The 181 HP turbo four puts down 177 foot pounds of torque, giving fun launch performance only tarnished by a tad too much turbo lag. It's a more visceral ride, with a firm suspension (even firmer when Sport mode is engaged). But the firmness isn't uncomfortable. It's part of a really connected feeling, reminiscent of BMW—no surprise there. Open all four windows and the awesome two-pane sunroof and bathe yourself in that spitfire engine note. It's absolute fun!

Gripping that small, chubby wheel while lane-hopping down I-90 was pure joy. Even the 8AM hustle home after a night out that started 12 hours earlier was boosted with an enthusiasm usually felt after back-to-back double espressos.

Does it suit me? At first, I didn't think so. At my age, I'd envisioned myself next getting into an ATS4 or Audi5 for my solo runs up and down I-95, back East. But after a compliment from a passer by ("That car suits you, dude"... random) and a few vanity checks while parking next to a mirrored wall at my client's headquarters, Mini DID match my style. Whether in these excruciating jeans and some Varvatos Chucks or sleek office chic, Countryman proved a worthy accessory.

I forgive Mini for the petty annoyances. Lots of the quirky interface issues are one-time-only. The rest would come easier to the owner as time passed. In the long run, Countryman made me feel like I could have it all. Pure fun, smart packaging, all wheel drive. I could see myself making one my own, if I thought my home life could take that hit. The other half is not a fan. Still, I see a test ride in our future.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Bitch In Camaro

For my family, a pony car has never been a good fit. Their notoriously bad foul-weather handling isn't suited for New York/New England life and the tiny back seats aren't ideal for our teen, who grows two inches a month.

Still, we're dudes. And every time we see a Mustang, Camaro, or Challenger pop up as a potential rental, we get that grin. Twice in the last few years, we have found ourselves in Mustang convertibles and enjoying every minute of it. These experiences give us a good basis for comparison, as we took the keys to a red 2014 Camaro 1LT V-6 hardtop from the gentleman at Enterprise.

Though a new Mustang will debut later this year, the current generation of pony cars all came to be around the same time. Of the three, I've always considered Mustang to be the most successful execution, from a design perspective. It has a cohesive look that pleases both inside and out. Camaro is my second favorite, boasting a sexy exterior with the right mix of retro and future. The goofy dash and console, however, were a step in the wrong direction. Challenger also does a good job giving a healthy nod to exterior stylistic heritage. But the interior is like a prison cell.

Moments after exiting the lot at Enterprise, all of the things that make Camaro so sexy looking on the outside began working against us, from the inside. The high beltline and low greenhouse make for miserable lines of sight. No level of seat/wheel/mirror adjustment mitigates this. It's just something you have to get used to, along with staring at the ice-blue circus that is the driver interface. Granted, our Mustangs were convertibles, so I can't make a fair comparison in regard to outward visibility. But driving the Camaro in close traffic required extra vigilance to secure it's many blind spots.

I can make such comparisons when it comes to ride and performance. The Mustang's 3.7 V-6 made us happy when mashing the long pedal, with a blast of thrust and a surprisingly good growl (unusual for a V-6). Camaro's V-6 soundtrack is more Yoko Ono, accompanied by tepid torque and yawns of disappointment. But what really stood out about Camaro was the ride, which can be summed up in one word: unlivable. Miserably hard, when compared to Mustang, this low-end Camaro's ride makes every trip an endurance test on the backside. I'd get that if it were an upmarket performance model. But this is the vanilla version, devoid of the sporting pretensions of the marque.

I'd go into the conveniences, which are pretty standard GM fare, but why bother? I couldn't imagine having this car as a daily driver.

While we loved the looks of this Camaro, we were relieved when we handed the keys back to Enterprise. And while I hope sometime soon to be given the keys to a Challenger, I'll be more than happy to saddle-up any Mustang they have to offer, rather than to bitch in another Camaro.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Her Name is Rio

My climb up the platinum ladder of Enterprise Plus membership has had me stray from my early mission of reviewing stripped-down base models. I'm now pushed past the Mazda 2's and Chevy Sonics and into bigger (and only sometimes better) vehicles, lately.

Yet, thongless on a snowy April morning in Chicago, the only Rio I find myself in currently is a white-on-tan 2013 Kia Rio LX. Oba-oba.

Mr. Schreyer and crew did their thing to the Rio's design, thank the stars. From the outside, it's a smart contender compared to its contemporaries, like the Hyundai Accent, Ford Fiesta, and Toyota Yaris. Open the door and things get even better, with two-tone color scheme, satisfyingly solid switchgear, and thoughtful application of matte and chrome silver touches. Climate controls are especially good, but the base radio has some confusing and illogical buttonstuff. Funny thing is, an interior this good looking gives one a false sense of... equipment. Since Rio makes you feel like you're in a more upmarket car than you actually are, you find yourself constantly surprised at the lack of small conveniences to which you are probably accustomed. More than once I found myself looking for some basic conveniences that simply weren't there!

Yeah, yeah, they have to keep the price down (about $17,000 in case you're curious - which isn't all that low), but I have to wonder about the manufacturing cost logic at play here. Is cruise control REALLY that costly that it can't be bundled in a higher-trim, entry-level? How about Bluetooth? Lumbar, maybe? Yet Kia uses ancient, cabled trunk and fuel filler door releases which must cost more to manufacture and assemble than a manual fuel door and a trunk release button ACTUALLY ON THE TRUNK, as they are on my $38,000 car back home. Ooh. I got all mad there for a minute.

For an entry-level car, Rio is comfortable and powerful enough to keep you from fearing for your life during onramp merges. Around town, it felt as though the back end got happy over road irregularities, though I didn't notice the same when on highways. The fellas never complained about ingress/egress, or comfort from the back seat. And, as you'd expect from a small four-cylinder, fuel economy is in the thirties, highway.

But, for me, the benefit of Rio over many of its rivals is curb appeal. It looks good, inside and out, and therefore doesn't project an image of an entry level car. I myself occasionally have to look hard to distinguish it from its big brother, the Forte.

All in all, My week in Rio wasn't a memorable one. But it was better than my expectations. I'm sure that "other" Rio would deliver much more fun, thong or not.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Hedgehog and the Antelope

This week, fate put me in two sedans on opposite ends of the Chevrolet spectrum (pun not intended), as I rented both the Sonic LTZ Turbo and the Impala LT. It was a great opportunity to see how one company serves 20-somethings and 40-somethings alike.

The Hedgehog

The Sonic has one of the best faces in its class. Aggressive blackout headlamp clusters flank the corporate grille giving the car a youthful, sporty appeal. Body lines are better on the slightly-more-expensive Sonic hatchback, in which the design energy is continued through a great relationship between the rear doors and the c-pillar; and a tidy tail with blackout tail lamps. By comparison, the sedan's arse is just... kind of... there.

While well-laid-out and feature-rich, Sonic's interior is a penalty box. Unlike its big brother, the Cruze, coddling isn't in its vocabulary. Don't get me wrong—it was comfortable to drive, though obviously a little tight for back seat adults. It just has no elements of warmth, whatsoever. Hard surfaces abound and the small, motorcycle-style gauge cluster leaves a lot of empty expanses on the dash. This LTZ did have MyLink touchscreen, voice recognition, OnStar, and heated leather—nice touches not expected on a $20,000 entry-level sedan.

Like the fleet-footed video game icon, the Sonic Turbo wants to be quick and fast. Not having a good basis of comparison, I didn't find it to be either. I'm sure a manual transmission would help a great deal. Its 138hp turbo four certainly gets the job done, and steering is quick and precise. But power doesn't come on strong enough, and seems to fade fast. It certainly trounces the baby brother Spark, but if Chevy wants to move more Sonic Turbos, they should make the Sonic Turbo move more. If this were more of a little barn burner, it could easily make shoppers forget it's tiny competitors, like Mazda2, and FIAT 500,

The Antelope

When my Enterprise agent offered me an Impala, he and his co-workers were surprised to see me cringe. The 2013 Impala is a throwback to a platform from the late '90's. Only cops should drive it. Yet Chevy continues to make them in 2014 as the Impala Limited, for rental fleets ONLY.

What I didn't realize was that the agent was offering me the all-new 2014 Impala LT, sister-ship of the Buick LaCrosse and Cadillac XTS. THAT, my friends, is a whole other story.

Fly me to the moon, indeed.

During the walkaround, my three developer friends and I oohed and ahhed over Impala's sexy looks. The Camaro-esque front end looks great, even with the slightly over-sculpted front hood. The body sides are handsome and crisp—I just wish Chevy would ditch their slavery to that arc which flares over the rear wheel well. It's a design vestige from years gone by that should be given the Coco Chanel treatment: Remove one accessory. The tail is a bit of a nap, but looks much better on models with the integrated chrome exhaust ports. This $30,000 LT was not such a model.

Inside, Impala dazzles. Some might find the details a little too much, while others will appreciate its American boldness. I'm of the latter thinking. I love the dual-cowl dash with its contrasting stitching, echoing the upholstery treatment. The seats are supremely comfortable and I loved the fabric inserts, which keep winter cold and summer hot from coming into contact with the lower back. Controls to the bountiful features quite literally fall into your hands. And Chevy has out-cooled Cadillac with a secret Batcave on the dash that slides the MyLink touchscreen open guillotine-style, to reveal a secret cubby with a USB port. Quibbles? Steering wheel looks like it came off a utility van; door lock switches are hard to see/find; giant touchscreen can't be independently dimmed. And it's a shame to have to plunge a key into that dash. A car this nice should always have pushbutton start.

I recently bought a 2013 Buick Regal GS, specifically avoiding the 2014 model and the advanced safety features that come with it, in favor of the previous year's higher horsepower. Speaks to my priorities. This Impala was my first taste of the safety features I missed out on in making that decision. Lane departure warning, blind spot warning, following distance/collision avoidance, and back-up camera with active telemetry - Impala had it all. And I loved it. Especially the backup camera, which connects to the steering to superimpose motion graphics onto live video, helping guide you into parking spaces. It became a game—all of us gazing at the monitor as I backed-in without looking behind or to my sides. Don't try this at home, kids. If you do, don't blame me if it goes wrong. Everything else worked beautifully, save for one glitch in which collision avoidance went off, beeping and projecting a flashing red LED warning onto the windshield when there were no other cars in sight.

The V-6 provided great thrust whenever I needed it, mercilessly spinning the tires (stability control disabled) from a dead stop, and blasting through holes on Chicago's congested I-90. Through it all, Impala is beautifully quiet and controlled. Impala LT has seats made for broad American backsides, without any sort of bolstering for spirited driving. As a result, throwing it around corners required bracing myself with one knee against the door and the opposing elbow against the console - a move I became accustomed to in my old 2012 Regal Turbo (predecessor to the GS). Still, it handled these maneuvers with aplomb.

Handing the Keys Back

Sonic's tiny footprint would make it a good city car for singles and couples, pre-kids. The hatchback would be even better. For my taste, however, it would need a little more grunt and some soft touches on the inside in order to be truly livable.

Stares and compliments are part of my daily driving experience in my Regal GS. The same was true of the Blue Ray Metallic Impala. Add a sunroof and navigation and I would be perfectly happy with an Impala as a long-range family cruiser.

GM is on to something, and it's not just skin deep. These two Chevy bookends are evidence that styling, performance, and content can come together for buyers on a variety of budgets, in an unapologetic and uniquely American way.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Is this thing on?

I've never driven a hybrid. There. I said it. I did test drive a pre-production Chevy Volt, but that's not really a hybrid. And it wasn't really a test drive, either. Still, I've been a big proponent of the Kia brand since Peter Schreyer took over as design boss. I even came close to buying the top-spec Optima SX when I last went car shopping.

That said, I was delighted when Colleen and Taylor at Enterprise said they had a surprise for me this week: A black 2013 Kia Optima LX Hybrid with 300 miles on the O.D. Good lookin' out, girls.

Deafening Silence. Press the start button and the engine roars to li... Wait. The engine... does... nothing. Is this thing on? Starting a car that doesn't sound like it's starting is disconcerting at first. Ignition is signaled by a little melody and some animation on the dash. Then, dead silence. Put it in gear and it glides away from your parking spot in full golf cart mode. Go easy on the accelerator and you can sustain travel in full EV mode, provided you're not fully effaced and dilated or experiencing any other urgency. The same silence awaits you at every stop light. No idle. Just you and your tortured thoughts, goaded by the tick-tock of the turn signal. I think it's due to the lack of internal combustion drama that I found myself forgetting to turn the car OFF upon arriving at my destinations. Thankfully, the car beeps at you mercilessly until you fix that situation.

Eco Sluts Beware. There are several displays you can call up on Optima's dash to monitor your hybridworthiness, from a growing-flowers animation to more statistical views. To scroll through these options, you push a button on the steering wheel labeled "Trip". Not intuitive, Kia. I gravitated toward the display that shows you what's driving the car (electric or gas). But even if you forgo these digital spectacles, a big analog gauge on the dash constantly reminds you of the impact your right foot has on your eco-virtue.

The car can be switched from miserly Eco mode to—er—non-Eco mode, which still uses the electric motor to aid propulsion. Either way, when you need power, it's there - brought to you courtesy of gasoline. A stomp on the pedal pushes the Optima where it needs to go when passing or in emergency maneuvers with impressive thrust, for a hybrid. Driving the car hard into corners yields good grip and firmness—a real sense of control—which is surprising given the low-rolling-resistance tires. I was challenged to keep the Optima on a straight path on the highway. The stiff steering needed constant input, and it didn't help that my man hands are too big to grip the wheel between the center bottom spokes. Overall, the Optima Hybrid is smooth and connected in everything it does. And the transition from voltage to octane is imperceptible, except from a dead stop, when a precious second is lost as the car interprets your input.

Thirsty much? I took the Optima Hybrid on a round-trip adventure from the Northwest burbs to downtown Chicago. According to the live mileage display, I averaged 41mpg, with heavy inbound stop-and-go, in Eco mode.

Grins & Chagrins. Infotainment was one of the few disappointments. The low-end touchscreen audio system was not capable of providing Bluetooth voice dialing through my iPhone. It doesn't remember speaker volume from one call to the next. And the speakers, whether serving up music or phone convos, sounded tinny and one dimensional.

Some things are universal to Optima, hybrid or not. GREAT looks inside and out. First rate fit and finish. And roominess, especially for passengers in the rear. But the two deal-breakers I encountered in our search for a new car still irked me throughout this rental: the passenger seat and the armrest ergonomics.

Optima gives the pilot a comfy, 8-way power seat including lumbar. But even on the highfalutin SX with seat heat for ALL FOUR outboard passengers, the co-pilot gets a 4-way manual job. Don't like your seat height on that five-hour road trip with the family? Pull over and grab a phone book or two from the nearest recycling bin. Then bunch-up your sweater and jam it behind your lower back for some support. Or just tough it out and ask Guest Services at Wally World for the name of a good chiropractor.

The other reason is best shown in a picture.

Only a T-Rex can comfortably drop the rear windows via the driver door switches. It FEELS much worse than it looks. I'm serious - this and the seat thing disqualified Optima from a continuing role in our driveway. And the stalker salesman, too.

Rentalist Interruptus. On a sunny Sunday en route from the gym, an image of the front of the car came on screen with the warning: "Check Active Air Flap System". Then the Stability Control Active light came on, followed by a simultaneous Stability Control Off light, followed by the Brake Warning light, followed by the Check Engine light. Happy Father's Day! Enterprise Roadside Assistance arranged a swap for the next morning.

End Rant. Kia is a value brand. So there's a little tinniness to the back doors, and some of the plastics inside are bargain bin. But NHTSA awarded the Hybrid 5 stars across the board in crash testing, and its quiet comfort and confident stance are impressive. The system failure on a car with less than 800 miles is troubling, but these things happen. Unfortunately, I'll never know why this one malfunctioned.

If you like the idea of a Sharper Image digital doorstop in your driveway, buy a Prius. But if you want a sexy, roomy hybrid sedan with a sophisticated driving experience, dig your tiny raptor arms into your necessarily high pockets and shell out 26 grand to Kia. Then open those back windows and glide slowly and silently into the sunset, avoiding any tar pits you may encounter.