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.