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[Vehicle Review - 2009 Mercedes-Benz CL-Class]


By Joe Wiesenfelder, Cars.com
With 4 images by Manufacturer:
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1,604 words

Sometimes, being the only car of a particular type or price can put you in a lonely place - lonely enough that automakers usually avoid it, preferring to make their own copy of what everyone else is selling, and pricing it to match. The Mercedes-Benz CL-Class is an exception, an exclusive car in a couple of ways. For one thing, it's a large coupe, and that's a rare animal. In some ways it compares with the BMW 6 Series and the Jaguar XK coupe, but it's larger and starts around $30,000 higher than those models. At $107,900, it has the highest base price and lowest sales numbers of any Mercedes - except the $495,000 SLR McLaren, which is an animal rare enough to be extinct after the 2009 model year. All in all, being a lone wolf seems to be working out just fine for the CL-Class.

To oversimplify, the CL-Class is a two-door version of Mercedes' S-Class full-size sedan. Arguably, anyone who wants the best of both worlds can opt for the CLS-Class, which has four doors and the lines of a coupe, but Mercedes says that car's smaller size and lower price appeal to different buyers altogether. See them compared here.

The CL-Class comprises the CL550, the CL600 and two high-performance AMG models, the CL63 and CL65. The CL550 is the only version that sticks to a naming convention Mercedes once followed pretty closely: 550 stands for the CL550's 5.5-liter V-8 engine. After that, everything unravels: The CL600 has a turbocharged 5.5-liter V-12, the CL63 has a 6.2-liter V-8, and the CL65 has a turbocharged 6.0-liter V-12. I tested the CL550.

S-Class Foundation The CL-Class is an impressive car for one very good reason: It has everything that helps the S-Class dominate the full-size luxury-sedan market. Stretched taut over a coupe form, the sedan's handsome lines look bolder, sportier and younger. The CL is 5.6 inches shorter from bumper to bumper than the S-Class, its roofline is 2.2 inches lower and its wheelbase is 8.3 inches shorter. Inside, this translates to slightly more legroom, an inch less headroom and 2 inches more hip room in the front seats. It's the backseat that takes a hit in the two-door, losing 10 inches of legroom and 2 inches of headroom ... and a whole seat, come to think of it. The CL seats four, total.

The S-Class is quite roomy to start with, so even with the decreases, the CL's backseat is serviceable for adults, providing they aren't too tall and the front occupants don't set their seats back all the way. The greater challenge is getting in and out. A chrome handle on the outboard side of the front backrests tilts them forward and sets the power seat in forward motion to ease entry, but there's no avoiding the low roofline, which seems poised to ring your chimes no matter what you do. To compare, the BMW 650i and Jaguar XK, which are also four-seaters, don't measure up in backseat headroom and legroom.

The CL's trunk capacity gets nipped and tucked, too, measuring 13.5 cubic feet versus 16.3 in the S-Class and 15.9 in the CLS, though it beats the 650i's 13 cubic feet and the XK's 10.6 cubic feet. The greater problem is that the CL's backseat doesn't fold to extend the trunk space forward. This is common among large cars, and especially luxury models, whose owners supposedly don't demand the feature. Still, when you need a little more space, it would be good to have, especially because the backseat itself is difficult to use for bags, parcels, etc.

Performance to Match Looks Despite its size and 4,650-pound curb weight, the CL550 has performance to match its looks. It shares its engine and seven-speed automatic transmission with the S-Class, and as of the 2009 model year, it comes only with 4Matic all-wheel drive - an option on the S-Class. 4Matic adds $3,000 to that sedan's price, but even with the feature, the S550 costs $15,550 less than the CL. You also pay for all-wheel drive in terms of highway fuel economy. The CL is rated 14/21 mpg city/highway, matching the S-Class 4Matic and bringing a gas-guzzler tax of $1,300.

At least the thirsty drivetrain pays off, with zero-to-60-mph times around 5.5 seconds. (All the other CL-Class versions take about a second less - while increasing the price anywhere from about $35,000 to $96,000.) The seven-speed transmission is just as happy to accelerate gradually and smoothly, and steering-wheel-mounted paddles allow you to shift manually if that's your thing. Or you can choose between Comfort and Sport settings, which make the transmission more or less reactive in automatic mode, and adjust the adaptive suspension's firmness as well.

Lap of Luxury As in the S-Class, the cabin is a highlight of the CL-Class, with exceptional-quality materials and perhaps the best-executed ambient lighting in the market, with a line of yellow-orange LEDs that encircle the cabin, providing both illumination and decoration after dark. The excellent Comand multimedia control system lets you select the intensity.

More than just luxury, it's high-tech features that make a car like this exclusive, and the CL doesn't disappoint. There are only a handful of stand-alone options, including a heated steering wheel, Bluetooth cell-phone connectivity, an iPod control cable and 19-inch wheels. The most interesting stuff comes in option packages, though, such as the radar-intensive Distronic Plus Package.

High-Tech Features Distronic Plus takes adaptive cruise control - of which Mercedes was a pioneer - to another level. Adaptive cruise uses a front-mounted radar device to maintain the following distance from the car ahead. The "Plus" means Distronic allows the car to come to a complete stop, then accelerate again when the lead car takes off. I found the feature effective to the point of being freaky more than 95 percent of the time. Unfortunately, sometimes a car turning away in front of me or a sudden bend in the road caused a surge in acceleration, which once caused a hair-raising lurch toward an oncoming car. Obviously, the system should be used with extreme caution, preferably in stop-and-go highway traffic, not when intersections are likely.

The package also has rear-mounted radar units that provide a blind spot warning in either side mirror when another car is in your blind spot, an increasingly common feature.

Less common is the Parking Guidance feature, which helps you parallel park. (Click on the video icon to the right to see a demonstration.) Unlike a feature first seen in Lexus' flagship sedan, the LS 460, Parking Guidance doesn't turn the steering wheel for you and back into the space; that requires electric power steering, which the CL lacks. Instead, graphics on the instrument panel show you exactly how far to back up and how much to turn the wheel in a few steps. It doesn't have quite the gee-whiz factor, but it beats Lexus in a few areas: It can measure parking spaces as you drive along at less than 10 mph, and it won't let you try to fit in one that's too small. It allows you to be closer to the parked cars when you start out (Lexus puts you farther into the street), and there's no complicated setup requiring the backup camera, which the Lexus requires. (Lincoln doesn't have a direct competitor to the CL-Class, but it bears noting that its optional parking system combines the best of the Lexus and Mercedes systems.)

Another cool option is Night View Assist, a night-vision camera mounted high in the windshield that displays an image on the instrument panel's LCD screen. It can see a larger area than your headlights illuminate, and because it can read heat signatures as well as light, animals and people really stick out in the image. Urban areas like Cars.com's hometown, Chicago, are bright enough that Night View Assist isn't truly necessary, but you could say the same of a $108,000 car. In the world of luxury cars, bragging rights are more important than necessity. Does your golf buddy's car have night vision? I didn't think so.

Safety

Typical of full-size luxury cars, the CL-Class hasn't been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, but it does have a boatload of safety features. There are nine airbags, including two frontal ones, a side-impact torso bag for each of the four seats, side curtain airbags and a driver's knee airbag. Antilock brakes and an electronic stability system with traction control are standard. For a list of all standard safety features, click here.

CL-Class in the Market The S-Class sedan outsells the CL-Class roughly 10 to 1, but that doesn't make the big coupe a failure. Even though two-doors aren't as popular here as they are in some foreign markets, Mercedes says the U.S. is the CL's biggest market. Exclusivity is a major consideration among luxury-car buyers, and the rarity of large luxury coupes seems to be serving the CL-Class - and its buyers - well.

Snapshot

Starting MSRP $107,900 - $203,700

EPA Fuel Economy:
City: 11 - 14
Highway: 17 - 21

Available Engines:
382-hp, 5.5-liter V-8 (premium)
510-hp, 5.5-liter V-12 (premium)
518-hp, 6.2-liter V-8 (premium)
604-hp, 6.0-liter V-12 (premium)

Available Transmissions:
5-speed automatic w/OD and auto-manual
7-speed automatic w/OD and auto-manual

New or Notable
• All-wheel-drive option
• Parking Guidance System
• Standard Pre-Safe collision-mitigation system
• Blind Spot Assist

What We Like
• Smooth, effortless acceleration
• Progressive, strong brakes (CL550)
• Highly adjustable Drive-Dynamic Multicontour front seats
• Pillarless-coupe styling
• Clarity of Night View Assist screen

What We Don't
• Limited headroom
• Old-fashioned grab handles
• Flimsy coat hooks
• Limited backseat legroom for adults
• Gas mileage


[Buying topic of the week - To Buy or To Lease?]

By Eric Evarts, Cars.com
With 1 image by Ian Merritt,  Cars.com
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738 words

So, you're considering leasing your next vehicle.

Sure, approximately 80 percent of auto consumers either pay cash or finance their purchase with a loan, but you're considering joining the other one-fifth of intrepid consumers willing to forgo ownership for a new set of wheels and the short-term benefits that leasing provides.

Maybe you're self-employed and can write off your leasing payment as a business expense. Or maybe you're trying to get into a luxury model for less upfront cash. Or maybe you demand the latest safety and technology innovations and don't want to be saddled with a 60-month loan term. Or maybe you just like driving a new car every couple years.

"The question you have to ask yourself is, 'Is there a special reason I need a new car every few years? " says Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research in Bandon, Ore. "For most consumers, the answer is no."

But maybe you're in the minority. Maybe your answer is yes.

It's true that leasing has diminished in popularity as automakers have offered low-interest financing and cash-back offers to buyers. Leasing rates dropped from about 29 percent of retail car sales in January 2001 to around 21 percent in 2008.

But as automakers try to stem depreciation caused by falling residuals - the future value of a good - automakers have begun to readjust their leasing programs. Chrysler Financial will discontinue offering new lease products in the United States, effective Aug 1, 2008. GM has also dramatically cut back on its leasing incentives.

Many analysts think this sudden shift has more to do with bad timing than an actual issue with leasing. "This is more about a market segment falling apart," says Tarry Shebesta, president of Automobile Consumer Services. That segment being the large SUV market, which is commonly associated with fuel inefficiency and is extremely unpopular when gasoline is at $4 a gallon or higher.

As residuals are readjusted, so will the cost of leasing a vehicle. "Affordability is clearly [the] key," says Paul Taylor, chief economist for the National Automobile Dealers Association. When interest rates are low, lease payments aren't that much lower than financing. But "when rates start going up, leasing will become more popular again," he says.

Lower payments and higher interest rates aren't the only reasons to lease - leasing also offers purchasing flexibility, according to Michael Kranitz, creator of LeaseWizard.com software and author of "Look Before You Lease: Secrets to Smart Vehicle Leasing." Leasing allows consumers to defer the purchasing decision while they're using the car. "In the meantime, I have a three-year test drive," Kranitz says.

Lessees also don't have to worry about owning a depreciating asset - as the automakers know all to well - or dealing with hefty repair bills. At the end of the lease term - assuming they've kept the car in good condition and stayed within prescribed mileage limits - they can simply turn in the car and walk away.

Of course, those benefits have a price.

"Leasing is convenient, and . . . you're going to pay for that convenience," says George Pipas, manager of sales analysis for Ford Motor Co., which was one of the main proponents of leasing in the 1980s and '90s. "In the first two years, it might be cheaper," he adds. "But then guess what? You're going to have to do something." Namely, buy or lease another car.

Maybe that's the reason approximately 80 percent of consumers buy rather than lease. They also may be trying to build equity, or they simply like the comfort of driving the same car for a number of years. Or they could be trying to avoid leasing's cycle of endless car payments, mileage limits and annoying wear-and-tear considerations.

But that's not you. Not yet, anyway. You don't want to worry about maintenance bills when your payments are up. You drive your car for business. You have good credit. Or you simply love having the latest set of wheels.

It's possible, then, that leasing is for you. And that's fine - just make sure you understand the process.

[new/redesigned car profile - 2011 Toyota Sienna]


By Kelsey Mays, Cars.com
With 4 images by Mathew Avery, Cars.com:
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2,752 words

Toyota has shot for the moon with its redesigned Sienna minivan, with features that run the gamut from functional to pie-in-the-sky.

The Sienna is the only large minivan left with optional all-wheel drive, and it's one of the first in a long while to offer a four-cylinder. From that humble foundation, it piles on the goodies: Loaded models can have dual moonroofs and rear lounge seats with footrests, and there's a sport-tuned Sienna SE for parents inclined to carve corners en route to Charlie's slumber party.

Good thing that foundation behind the frills holds up well. Though flawed in a couple key respects, the Sienna's fundamentals are sound. Toyota seems to think the minivan segment is headed for a rebirth. I'm skeptical, but if you're not high-tailing it out for a crossover, the Sienna deserves a look.

The Sienna comes in five trim levels: base, LE, SE, XLE and Limited. Base and LE models have a four-cylinder, with the V-6 optional on both trims and standard higher up. The LE V-6, XLE and Limited offer optional all-wheel drive. At a California preview for journalists, I evaluated both drivetrains, as well as the sport-tuned Sienna SE.

Handsome, for a Minivan With obvious similarities to the FT-MV concept shown at the 2007 Tokyo auto show - the acronym stood, perhaps more obviously, for "Future Toyota Minivan" - the Sienna looks handsome. We've had a little more than a year to absorb the Camry-based Venza's left-field face. The Sienna's face has the same elements, but there's more canvas to paint them on, so they don't seem quite so overbearing. Short front overhangs, a tasteful rear spoiler - included standard - and wraparound taillights complete the look. As minivans go, it's handsome.

Taller and wider than its predecessor - but not nearly as long - the Sienna measures a couple inches shy of the Honda Odyssey and Chrysler's minivan twins, the Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country. The Sienna's 36.9-foot turning circle nearly ties Honda (36.7 feet) and beats Chrysler vans' 39.1-foot circles.

Base, LE and XLE models carry 17-inch alloy wheels. XLE and all-wheel-drive models have 18-inchers; the SE comes with 19s, among a number of other changes.

Ample Power On most trims, Toyota's 3.5-liter V-6, a staple from last year's Sienna and a number of other models, is back in the saddle. Alas, it works through an oafish six-speed automatic that prefers to reach 5th or 6th gear as soon as possible and, when called upon to downshift, hunts indecisively for the right gear. The outgoing Sienna's five-speed automatic felt far more responsive. However, Toyota's V-6 is a workhorse, and once the transmission fetches the right gear, it delivers confident thrust and a throaty, satisfying exhaust note. (Yes, even minivans can have cool exhaust notes.) All told, the Sienna's V-6 feels beefier than the Odyssey's V-6, and perhaps even a tick gutsier than the Grand Caravan's 4.0-liter V-6.

I did not sample a Sienna with all-wheel drive. It adds 205 pounds, which shouldn't sap too much of the V-6's gusto. Toyota's 2.7-liter four-cylinder, of recent Venza and Highlander vintage, comes standard on front-wheel-drive base and LE models. It's matched to a six-speed auto. At the L.A. Auto Show, where the Sienna was introduced, I puzzled over the wisdom of offering a four-cylinder on a large minivan. Color me convinced. Pushed hard, the four-cylinder emits a coarse roar compared with the V-6's refined growl, but it's capable enough, moving the Sienna smartly around town.

The drivetrain doesn't run out of steam until the highway, where 60-70 mph passing feels a bit lethargic, and the transmission gets stage fright trying to pick the right gear. Of course, I drove the four-cylinder with only one other person in the car - the Sienna's chief engineer, Kazuo Mori - and it's possible that a full load of passengers could prove to be too much. If you're shopping the four-cylinder, rope a few family members to come along and see how it does.

EPA-estimated gas mileage works out to 19/26 mpg (city/highway) for the four-cylinder - better than the 17/25 mpg rating both the Odyssey and Grand Caravan attain. The V-6 Sienna gets a competitive 18/24 mpg with front-wheel drive and 16/22 mpg with all-wheel drive. Here's how the engines compare:

Drivetrains Compared

	Four-cylinder		V-6
Availability			Base and LE (std.)	Base and LE (opt.);
SE, XLE, Limited (std.)
Displacement			2.7 liters		3.5 liters
Transmission			Six-speed automatic	Six-speed automatic
Horsepower (@ rpm)		187 @ 5,800		266 @ 6,200

Torque

(lbs.-ft. @ rpm)			186 @ 4,100		245 @ 4,700
EPA mileage
(city/hwy., mpg)			19/26 (FWD)		18/24 (FWD);
16/22 (AWD)
Towing capacity (lbs.)		n/a			3,500

Source: Automaker data

Ride & Handling Ride quality, a strength for the last Sienna, remains good. In all but the sport-tuned Sienna SE, the suspension fairly glides over bumps, maintaining excellent cabin comfort. Wind noise on the highway is fairly low, too. But on a couple of models with 17-inch wheels I noticed more road noise than I'd expect in a minivan.

Toyota swapped the outgoing Sienna's hydraulic power steering for a more efficient electric-power-steering setup, but I'm not wild about the results. The last Sienna's steering wheel would glide with buttery, Lexus-like smoothness - a satisfying trait that set the minivan apart from its competitors. This one turns easily at low speeds, but it feels artificial. On the highway, I could also use less power-steering assist; the wheel feels firm enough at 40 mph or so, but at 60 mph or 70 mph it has a looser response, requiring a few too many corrections at the 12 o'clock position to stay on course.

Body roll comes with any quick off-ramp jaunts, but it isn't an ever-present force like in some top-heavy crossovers. The antilock brakes - four-wheel discs - feel strong overall, but it takes a few inches of pedal travel before they bite down. Others have more linear response.

Road-Trip Ready Toyota says it designed the cabin to give the driver and front passenger the perception of personal space - with swooping textures giving Mom and Dad a sense that more than half the dashboard is theirs, no matter which side they're sitting on. There's a bit of truth to it. The Sienna's lowish roofline clips a bit off the windshield, but the dashboard's swooshed-about trimmings lend an impression of space. Typical of a minivan, you'll be able to fill it up with all manner of stuff. There are upper and lower glove compartments - both generously sized - plus two sturdy pull-out cupholders, large door pockets and a matted floor tray for a purse. I'm lukewarm on the Sienna's optional center console, with two cupholders and a large storage compartment. It gets the job done, but it doesn't convert to a pass-through like the one in the Odyssey, nor does it have the tricks of the Grand Caravan's jack-of-all-consoles.

Materials quality is middling; areas you'll regularly touch, like the upper door panels, are clad in cheap, unpadded plastics. But that's the case for a lot of crossovers and just about every minivan. At least Toyota's materials look good, with similar graining to those in the Prius and Venza. Controls are logically placed and easy to use, and most of them operate with high-quality precision. The Sienna earns kudos for its wide, extendable sun visors and the speedometer's 10-mph increments, which make it far easier to see your speed than many cars' 20-mph readouts. Parents will like that, depending on trim level, the Sienna comes with a minimum of 10 cupholders.

I found the front seats comfortable, with durable, high-rent fabric in the Sienna LE that I spent the most time in. (The base Sienna, Mori told me, has a lesser fabric; there wasn't one to check out.) The Sienna's leather upholstery, standard on the XLE and Limited, feels appropriately upscale.

The adjustable second row - offered in two- and three-seat configurations - offers 25.6 inches forward and back adjustment range. That allows for plenty of legroom if you have the seats all the way back, and the chairs sit high enough for good thigh support. Third-row room depends on where the second-row seats are positioned, but adults should be able to work out a compromise. Headroom in both back rows is adequate. As in all minivans and most crossovers, the Sienna's third row folds flat into the floor. It's easier to do than in the Odyssey - ironic, given Honda was one of the pioneers of stow-in-the-floor third rows; on the Sienna Limited, it powers down with the push of a button. (Astute readers will note that we say exactly the opposite in our impressions of the Sienna at the L.A. Auto Show - probably the result, a Toyota official told me, of the auto-show prototypes' third-row-folding mechanisms not quite being ready for prime time.)

Cargo volume behind the third row totals 39.1 cubic feet, with 87.1 cubic feet when the third row is folded and the second-row seats are deployed. The second-row seats don't fold into the floor, like Chrysler's Stow 'n Go, nor do they fold down like most others. What's more, Toyota says given the Sienna's mechanical packaging - including, no doubt, the driveshaft space required for all-wheel drive - the second row has no under-floor storage compartments. Chrysler's vans offer pretty cavernous bins in front of the second row, and even the Odyssey includes a shallow one.

However, the Sienna has a few tricks of its own. Its second-row seats tip and slide forward for easy access to the third row; it's more cumbersome than the Odyssey's walk-in feature, but easier than the tumbling seats in some minivans and crossovers. The seats also lock into a sort of collapsed-forward position, giving drivers 117.8 cubic feet of cargo volume. Should you want maximum cargo space, they're removable for a class-leading 150.0 cubic feet of volume, which is proof positive that minivans, once again, are still more space efficient than crossovers or SUVs.

Cargo Volume Compared (cu. ft.)


		Toyota		Honda		Dodge		Toyota 		Toyota
		Sienna		Odyssey	Grand Caravan	Highlander	Sequoia

Behind 3rd row	39.1		38.4		32.3		10.3		18.9
Behind 2nd row	87.1		91.1		83.7*		42.3		66.6
Behind 1st row	150.0		147.4		140.1*		95.4		120.8

*83.7 and 140.1 cubic feet for Grand Caravan SXT; Grand Caravan SE has 82.7 and 143.8 cubic feet, respectively. Source: Automaker data for 2010 models, except 2011 Sienna

For Parents & Passengers Well-equipped Siennas come with all manner of amenities, from second- and third-row sunshades to dual retracting moonroofs. Limited models include footrests for the second row, not unlike first-class airline seats. (Or so I recall, from many years ago. I make a journalist's salary, remember.) If there's no one in the third row, second-row passengers can move their seats to the rearmost position, kick the footrests up and enjoy the best seat in the house - provided they're medium height or shorter. I'm 5 feet 11 inches tall, and with the footrest up, my shoes would have left dirt all over the front seatbacks. This is a minivan chair, after all, not a La-Z-Boy.

Toyota's new Dual-View Rear Seat Entertainment system has a 16.4-inch wide, flip-down screen for the second row. It can play in widescreen and extra-wide formats, or it can play two separate programs side by side - different DVDs, for example, or a DVD and a video game. Each outboard passenger can listen to his or her own channel with wireless headphones. Dual View is nifty, but I find Chrysler's dual-input screens more functional. A screen is placed in both the second and third rows - a setup that allows, for example, an adult to watch something in the third row while the kids in the second row view something else. Toyota's common viewing area, obviously, does not allow that level of privacy.

You don't have to spring for the pricey navigation system to get the Sienna's backup camera; it's also available as a cheaper, stand-alone option, where it resides - like in the Highlander crossover - in a small information display atop the dash. Get navigation and the backup camera comes as Toyota's Panorama Camera, which displays a 180-degree view behind the bumper, with guiding lines for the intended path. It's useful for a crowded parking lot, though the fisheye lens may take some getting used to.

Sienna SE It's the quintessential oxymoron, this idea of a sporty minivan. Why create a sport-tuned Sienna SE? Toyota thinks there's a market for it, and the automaker may have won at least one convert. From the instant Toyota began talking up the SE, Cars.com senior editor and prospective minivan shopper David Thomas has watched with keen interest.

Truth be told, the SE feels most like Toyota's shot at the Honda Odyssey, the segment's most dynamic minivan. With a sport-tuned suspension, dialed-down power-steering assist, 19-inch wheels and a host of racy styling cues, the Sienna corners crisply, with well-managed body roll and similar turn-in precision to its Honda rival. The steering wheel requires more effort to turn at low speeds, but it's not so heavy as to be a chore. At higher speeds, it returns a satisfying firmness that's missing in other Siennas. The front seats have faux leather side bolsters. They're firmer but not any larger, though I wish they were. When taking quick corners in the Sienna SE I could have used more lateral support.

The price you pay with the Odyssey is in its ride, which is on the firmer side. Alas, I only had time to take the Sienna SE on a short jaunt on glass-smooth roads at the end of the media preview - nothing near the succession of surfaces on which I drove the LE and XLE. The SE rode comfortably enough, but we'll have to get one to our well-rutted Chicago offices before making a call.

Safety & Features The 2011 Sienna has not yet been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Standard safety features include the usual raft of airbags - dual-stage front, side-impact and three-row side curtain, plus a driver's knee airbag - as well as antilock brakes, active head restraints and an electronic stability system. Optional on the Sienna Limited is Toyota's Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system, which attempts to better manage vehicle stability. VDIM is fairly widespread among the automaker's Lexus lineup.

Parents will want to know that there are Latch child-seat anchors for the outboard second-row seats, as well as the center position in the third row.

Standard features on the base Sienna include the usual power accessories, keyless entry, three-zone air conditioning, cruise control and a CD stereo with an MP3 jack. Climb the trim ladder, and you can get USB/iPod stereo compatibility, power-sliding doors and a power tailgate, a navigation system, a backup camera, heated leather upholstery, one or two moonroofs, rear DVD entertainment and much more.

Sienna in the Market With a starting price of $24,260, the 2011 Sienna packs impressive value. For that reason, among a lot of others, Toyota could gain a bigger slice of the minivan pie. My concern is the pie itself: It's shrinking - and fast. Excluding the Kia Sedona - a bit player by sales popularity - the four major minivan nameplates are down 30 percent through November in annual sales. That's a few ticks worse than the auto industry's general sales malaise and far worse than the sales of comparable large crossovers.

Toyota division manager Bob Carter told me he thinks the segment can rebound in the years to come - perhaps as much as 30 percent better than what it's doing today. That would be quite a turnaround, especially given car shoppers flight from anything with sliding doors.

That flight is a shame, really. You can stuff minivans full of people or gear, or both. They're relatively fuel-efficient and indisputably comfortable. Maybe as shoppers return to the basics of what they need in a car, the minivan will see its day come again. I've been hoping for that all year, though, and I have yet to see any signs of it. Send Kelsey an email

Snapshot
Starting MSRP  $n/a

EPA Fuel Economy:
City: n/a
Highway: n/a

Available Engines:
n/a

Available Transmissions:
n/a

New or Notable
• Redesigned for 2011
• V-6 or new four-cylinder
• Available AWD
• Seats seven or eight
• Available lounge-style second-row seats
• Available 180-degree backup camera

What We Like
• Ride comfort
• Versatile second row
• Cargo volume
• Gas mileage with four-cylinder
• Capable engines
• Available AWD

What We Don't
• Mushy brakes
• Some cheap cabin materials
• Indecisive transmission
• Highway steering response
• Some road noise
• No second-row floor storage


[Ask.cars.com Q&A (4)]


By Joe Bruzek, Cars.com
With 4 images by Ian Merritt, Cars.com:
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715 words

Q. Which sedans have fold-down seats that will allow for bike storage, and also have manual transmission?

A. Folding rear seats are a common feature in most new compact and midsize sedans. Those segments, which include cars like the 2010 Mitsubishi Lancer and 2010 Ford Fusion, respectively, are also more likely to have a combination of manual transmission and folding seats compared with larger sedans.

The Fusion may work for you, with its large trunk and standard folding seats. It also comes with a manual transmission standard. Our resident weekend athlete, Cars.com editor William Jackson, said the Lancer also was workable, though it depends on the bike's size. The best thing you can do is take the bike with you on test drives.

Sedans aren't best suited for carrying a bike. Hatchbacks, wagons or SUVs are still our favorite weekend athlete vehicles. When shopping for a sedan that can carry a bicycle, Jackson advises that you be on the lookout for characteristics like wide cargo openings, seats that fold as flat as possible and a wide pass-through where the seats fold.

While almost any sedan will work if you strip it down to the frame, our favorite weekend athlete mobiles make the job easier with much more cargo space. For 2010, we named the 2010 Honda Element the Best New Car for Weekend Athletes. And yes, it comes with a manual transmission.

Q. Why is the 2010 Toyota Prius not included in Toyota's recall, but the 2009 is?

A. When the Toyota floormat recall - which affects 4 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles - was announced, we actually had a 2010 Toyota Prius in our test fleet and asked Toyota the same question. At the time, a Toyota spokesman said no specific complaints were filed with Toyota or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration regarding the 2010 Prius' floormats, hence the 2010's absence.

Now that the Prius has been on sale for additional months and Toyota has begun to implement fixes, we followed up with Toyota, and the 2010 Prius is still not included in the recall list. Toyota spokesman Brian R. Lyons explains:

"Toyota believes that the likelihood of pedal entrapment is remote in vehicles not included in the recall. Therefore, 2010 Prius was not included in the recall. Nevertheless, we strongly urge owners to ensure that their floormats are compatible with their vehicle and properly secured at all times."

Q. Can the 2010 Nissan Murano fit one infant, one toddler and one booster in the second row?

A. Three safety seats might be too much hardware to fit comfortably in the second row of the Murano. You might be able to squeeze the seats back there, but there are a few alternative SUVs with more second-row room worth mentioning.

For example, the 2010 Nissan Pathfinder has a larger second row than the Murano. Not only is the rear seat larger, but there are less contours and side bolstering that give safety seats a flat surface to rest against. Also, if your toddler is self-sufficient enough, he or she can ride in the Pathfinder's standard third row.

The Pathfinder is a fairly large SUV, so if you're looking for a model sized more closely to the Murano but with a third row, the 2011 Kia Sorento may suit your needs. A Sorento LX starts at $22,395, and a third-row option is $700. The third row is more usable than many smaller SUVs that offer a third row.

Sticking with a five-seater formula like the Murano, Toyota's Venza has a generously sized second row.

Don't be afraid to take the seats with you on a test drive - and maybe even the toddlers - to see if they can get in and out of a third row comfortably.

Q. When is the new 2011 Kia Sorento coming out at dealerships?

A. January is the 2011 Kia Sorento's first month on sale, and the new SUV is now filtering onto dealership lots. We're showing about 300 examples in our national inventory, but that number will surely grow in the coming weeks.

An entry-level Sorento starts at $19,995 for a base model with manual transmission and front-wheel drive. A top-of-the-line EX with all-wheel drive and automatic transmission is $28,895, not including a $795 destination charge. There are numerous configurations in between.

[Pickup Trucks Story- The Top 10 Significant Trucks of the Decade]


By Mike Levine, Pickuptrucks.com
With 1 image by Mike Levine Pickuptrucks.com:
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257 words

Indian automaker Mahindra could partner with Navistar to build its upcoming TR Series pickups at a Navistar-owned factory in the U.S., according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. Such a move would allow Mahindra to avoid the so-called "chicken tax" that adds a 25 percent tariff to pickup trucks produced in most countries outside of the U.S.

"Once we decide to assemble in the U.S., we would look at Navistar's facilities to see if there's something available which is right for us and if that works out," Pawan Goenka, Mahindra's president of automotive operations, told the WSJ. "We will certainly give priority to using Navistar's facilities." A decision is expected be made by December, Goenka said.

Mahindra is about to start production of its first U.S.-bound pickups in India. The trucks are expected to go on sale this spring.

Navistar builds International brand commercial trucks, MaxxForce brand diesel engines, IC Bus vehicles and Workhorse brand chassis for motor homes and step vans, and it is a private label designer and manufacturer of diesel engines for trucks. Navistar built diesel engines for Ford Super Duty pickups until 2009.

Mahindra TR Series pickups, based on the company's Scorpio platform, will be offered in two cab configurations: a two-door regular cab and a four-door crew cab. Both will use a slightly modified version of Mahindra's mHawk 2.2-liter inline-four-cylinder diesel engine that meets U.S. emissions regulations. It's expected to have fuel economy ratings as high as 30 mpg and 1.3-ton hauling capability. Pricing is expected to start around $22,000.

[Mother Proof Review - 2010 Cadillac SRX - Redesigned SRX Nearly Gets a Perfect Score From Mom]


By Lori Hindman, Motherproof.com
With 4 images by Lori Hindman, Motherproof.com:
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1,154 words

When I first got into the Mitsubishi Outlander SE, I was a bit disappointed. There were no power-adjustable leather seats, and I couldn't find the MP3 jack, so I couldn't hook up my iPod to the stereo. Blah. (I later found it.) Then I took a walk around it and checked out the cargo area, where I saw a pull cord. I pulled it, and a third row appeared from nowhere! It was like magic, and just like that, the Outlander was forgiven.

I'm easy like that. You're less impressed? You need more than a little magic trick to sell you on a car? Fair enough. After test driving the Outlander and waiting for my earlier mood swings to settle down, I found it to be a fairly functional, moderately cute and decently priced midsize SUV.

The Outlander isn't sporty or a hybrid; it isn't super huge or teeny-tiny. It just does what it's supposed do, which is get from Point A to Point B. Its four-cylinder engine is adequate for the job, but not particularly zoomy. The Outlander's handling is equally decent, with some body roll in turns. Its turning radius is small enough to make parking no problem. There's a knob on the dash to select two- or four-wheel drive, but I never used it because, really, when does a suburban mom in California need that?

While it's not incredibly quiet inside the cabin, the road noise isn't obnoxious. However, I did notice some odd squeaks and creaks while driving, and I wonder what that says about the initial quality of this Mitsubishi SUV.

The Outlander gets an EPA-estimated 20/25 mpg city/highway, but I got less than that, of course, since I live in some nasty hills and have issues with speed limits.

Exterior

Sitting in my driveway, the Mitsubishi Outlander looked just like every other white midsize SUV that's ever been in my driveway. There's nothing distinctive or interesting about it, but it's still pretty cute, with a dash of sport thrown in. It says, "I could if I had to, but I'd rather not, if you don't mind."

While the Outlander certainly isn't bubbly, it isn't angular, either. There are edges to the hood, roof and tail. Roof rails help elongate the side view, and a smattering of chrome brings some sparkle to the exterior without seeming tacky. The door handles are chrome, as is a strip at the bottoms of the doors. The 18-inch wheels seem small for this midsize SUV, but not laughably so. The angled LED taillights and structured rear window give a crisp look to the tail section; it's vaguely sporty. Only the front view seems to have any personality. Not all cars really present a face, but the front reminds me of my grumpy kids, with narrowed eyes and downturned mouths. It's not as cute as them, though.

Getting in and out was no problem for me, but it was a bit more difficult for the kiddos. While the Outlander doesn't sit particularly high off the ground, it's a step up for kids. Without a flat step-in area, it was challenging for their little legs.

The doors were easy to manage, though they seemed a bit lightweight. This makes it easier for kids to open and close them, but it made me wonder about safety. Maybe I'm just biased toward that heavy-sounding thump, but it makes me feel secure.

SENSE AND STYLE Family Friendly (Not Really, Fair, Great, Excellent): Excellent Fun-Factor (None, Some, Good Times, Groove-On): Some

Interior

The Outlander's interior is all about function. The dash is clean and crisp with metallic accents and sporty red lighting. A hidden storage bin pops up from the center of the dash, and there are four cupholders up front to contain all of those drinks I mean to throw out but never do. There's less space for loose items, but a dual-level center console bin is great for containing extra cords and junk.

The SE version of the Outlander has a sporty fabric that cleans easily. The seats are on the firm side, and the driver's seat manually adjusts in six directions; the passenger seat moves in only four directions. The steering wheel tilts but doesn't telescope. Basically, you have your general adjustments, but not the fine-tuning you'd get in other cars. And at this price, that's OK.

In the backseat, my guys were happy campers with height-adjustable seat belts that were easy to buckle. Cupholders in the center armrest were within easy reach. There are also bottleholders in the rear doors.

There's tons of cargo space tons of cargo space behind the second row, but the real winner is the pop-up third row. It's not the simplest or easiest mechanism I've ever seen - a complicated set of diagrams are posted in the cargo area explaining the process - but it's a great emergency solution for play dates or carpools.

The two-person third row isn't one I'd want to use for long trips or full-size people, but my boys were happy back there and had no complaints. They even had an extra bin for storing those multiplying juice boxes. The seats are lightweight and reminded me more of a hammock than anything else. They're slung in place and have virtually no padding. Headrests fold into place and seat belts come from the side pillars of the car, not the ceiling.

IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT Storage Compartments (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Galore Cargo/Trunk Space (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Galore

Safety

For an SUV with just the basic safety features, including antilock brakes, electronic stability system and traction control, the Outlander scored well in crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It's a Top Safety Pick for 2009, earning the highest score - Good - in frontal-offset, side-impact and rear crash tests. Top Safety Pick winners also must have stability control, as the Outlander does.

There are plenty of airbags, too, with front- and side-impact airbags for the front row and side curtain airbags for the first and second rows. However, there are no airbags for the third row, which is another reason that it's for occasional, not daily, use.

The second row is wide enough to fit three kiddie booties comfortably, but not three child-safety seats. A reclining seatback makes it easy to get the right angles to install car seats; the Latch connectors are out of sight, but not out of reach. Legroom is plentiful enough for rear-facing infant-safety seats or leggy teens. It was a bit of a tight fit for my son's booster seat; however, it sat firmly in the seat without much shifting or rocking.


FAMILY LIFESTAGE
In Diapers: Flexible cargo space and easy-to-reach Latch connectors make life with a baby easy.
In School: A pop-up third row balances the carpool versus cargo space scale.
Teens: The excellent crash-test ratings and added safety features make this a safe SUV for teens to drive.


[KickingTires Highlights (2)]

Dodge Renames Most Trim Levels


By David Thomas, Cars.com
With 0 images.
1,110 words

A few days before the automotive world descends on Detroit for the 2010 North American International Auto Show, Chrysler has released the full details on a number of special-edition versions of its current lineup for the Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep brands. It also has unveiled an entirely new naming convention for its Dodge models' trim levels.

No longer will you buy a Dodge Nitro SE or SXT. Instead it's a Dodge Nitro Heat, Detonator or Shock. The idea behind the change is that car shoppers don't want a "base" model or something as droll as an SE, they want a name attached to the trim level. Heck, Audi calls its base models "Premium" and the next tier is Premium Plus, so Dodge isn't alone in this trend. However, the flashy names it has chosen might be confusing to car shoppers, especially since each model has differing trim levels. Yep, Heat won't be the base model for a Caliber - that's called an Express. There is a Heat version of the Caliber, but it's wedged between the Mainstreet and Uptown trim levels.

"The new Dodge brand lifestyle models are aimed at consumers who want the most out of life rather than models that indicate only how much they were able to afford with the previous good, better and best lineup," a Chrysler spokesman said via email about the name changes. "They are also intended to convey our new attitude."

We dutifully break down each model and its new trim levels below. If you have something to say about this new naming convention, tell us in the comment below.

2010 Dodge Journey

There are more variations now available in terms of packages, which bundle options together. Currently, you can get an SE for $20,490, and the next step up to the SXT jumps to $23,790. The new variations have added three trims that fall between what was the SE and SXT.

Formerly

SE, SXT, R/T

Now

Dodge Journey (no trim level designation) $20,320 17-inch aluminum wheels, cruise control, sunscreen glass, body-colored mirrors, floormats and passenger grab handles.


Dodge Journey Express $21,320
Adds a two-person third row for seven-passenger seating

Dodge Journey Hero $22,320 Adds 235 hp, 3.5-liter V-6 engine with dual exhausts paired with a six-speed transmission


Dodge Journey Hero with AWD $23,320
Adds all-wheel drive, 19-inch wheels

Dodge Journey Heat $24,320 Adds Uconnect phone, iPod control, Sirius Satellite Radio, auto-dimming rearview mirror, remote start, trip computer, HomeLink universal transceiver, tonneau cover, six premium speakers with subwoofer, a tri-folding cargo floor with additional storage space beneath, 19-inch aluminum wheels and large chromed-tip dual exhausts

Dodge Journey Crew $25,320 Adds third row for seven-passenger seating, automatic climate control, premium gauge cluster, rear DVD entertainment system, 19-inch painted machined wheels, body-colored side sills and chrome interior accents, roof rack and door handles,

Dodge Journey Uptown $29,320 Adds leather-trimmed seven-passenger seating, power sunroof, navigation system with 30GB hard drive and real-time traffic, backup camera, rear DVD entertainment system, 19-inch chrome wheels and chrome bodyside molding

Dodge Nitro The 2010 Nitro is already on sale, but the 2010 we detail below is what we in the auto industry call a rolling introduction, usually it's a change mid-model year. It's confusing on its own and throwing in the new trim level names makes it even worse. On the good side, the new 2010 comes with a more powerful V-6 engine at 260 horsepower (up from 210 hp) and new styling, but we can't tell what the changes are in the images we have. It also starts at $23,250 versus the 2010 SE's $21,590.

Here are the trim level changes.

Formerly SE, SXT

Now

Dodge Nitro Heat $23,250 Standard 20-inch aluminum wheels, eight premium speakers with a 368-watt amplifier and 9-inch subwoofer, deep-tinted glass, Uconnect phone, iPod control, Sirius Satellite Radio, auto-dimming rearview mirror, speed control and security alarm

Dodge Nitro Detonator $25,250 Adds 20-inch Mopar polished/painted aluminum wheels, hood decal, eight speakers plus subwoofer, remote start, rear-park assist and color-keyed premium cloth interior that matches the exterior paint color


Dodge Nitro Shock $26,250
Adds heated leather seats and a sunroof

2010 Dodge Caliber The 2010 Caliber hadn't been formerly introduced with pricing until now. It gets a new interior and a price increase. The new lowest trim level, the Express, starts at $16,880; the 2009 SE model started at $16,460.

Formerly

SE, SXT, R/T, SRT4 (SRT4 discontinued for 2010)

Now

Dodge Caliber Express $16,880 Standard Uconnect phone, iPod control, auto-dimming rearview mirror, Sirius Satellite Radio, 115-volt outlet, cruise control, remote keyless entry, tonneau cover, and power windows, mirrors and locks

Dodge Caliber Mainstreet $18,260 Adds 17-inch aluminum wheels, chrome crosshair grille, body-colored door handles, fog lamps, folding front-passenger seat, touring suspension, tachometer, continuously variable automatic transmission, and 60/40-split folding, reclining rear seat

Dodge Caliber Heat $17,995 Adds sport-tuned suspension, 18-inch polished-aluminum wheels, four-wheel-disc antilock brakes, performance steering, color-keyed instrument panel and seats, B- and C-pillar blackout accents and five-speed manual transmission

Dodge Caliber Uptown $19,995 Adds these features to Mainstreet model: automatic climate control, leather seating, power-adjustable driver's seat, nine-speaker Boston Acoustics stereo system, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls and two articulating liftgate speakers

Dodge Caliber Rush $19,995 Adds these features to Heat trim: 172-hp 2.4-liter engine, 18-inch chrome-clad wheels, SRT-designed spoiler, automatic climate control, nine-speaker Boston Acoustics stereo system with touch-screen and 30GB hard drive. A CVT is optional.

Dodge Avenger The Avenger gets added standard equipment with the new base model and starts at $1,000 less than the current SXT's price of $20,320.

Formerly
SXT, R/T

Now

Dodge Avenger Express $19,230 Standard Uconnect phone, iPod control, auto-dimming rearview mirror, Sirius Satellite Radio, power-adjustable driver's seat, heated premium cloth seats, heated exterior mirrors, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, chrome interior accents, Media Center 430 radio with touch-screen and 30GB hard drive, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, 17-inch aluminum wheels, chrome crosshair grille and automatic transmission

Dodge Avenger Heat $20,230 Adds fog lamps, rear spoiler, 18-inch aluminum wheels, body-colored crosshair grille and six Boston Acoustics speakers Optional Boost Package adds more performance with a 235 horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 engine, chromed dual exhausts, sport-tuned suspension, performance steering and six-speed transmission with Auto Stick

Dodge Challenger Thankfully, Dodge didn't change the naming convention for the Challenger. It still comes in SE, R/T, R/T Classic and SRT8 trim models. A Plum Crazy special edition is available for the R/T and SRT, and it comes with optional white- and purple-colored leather seats. The special editions start at $34,415 and $43,430, respectively.

Dodge Grand Caravan

There are no changes to the Grand Caravan trim levels; they remain the SE and SXT. We assume minivan shoppers don't have enough attitude to warrant the Express and Heat names.

Chrysler Announces New Engines


By David Thomas, Cars.com
With 0 images
319 words

Chrysler won't have a significant new model on the streets until the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee hits dealers this summer. The company in the meantime is releasing a slew of special editions of its current models - we'll have more on them later today - as well as news on what will power future releases.

Leading the charge is a new four-cylinder engine borrowed from Fiat. While the 100-horespower, 1.4-liter engine packs variable valve timing to increase efficiency and a turbo version puts out 170 hp and 170 pounds-feet of torque, we're a bit shocked at what Fiat calls the engine. The company is not only importing the technology but the name as well: Fully Integrated Robotized Engine, or FIRE.

Seriously. They call it FIRE. In a country where drivers traditionally don't like to associate flames with their cars' engines, we're unsure why it was included in any U.S. press or marketing materials.

The FIRE engines will see their first duty in the Fiat 500 when it goes on sale late this year.

A larger four-cylinder engine called the World Gas Engine, or WGE - it may sound boring, but at least it doesn't conjure images of exploding cars - will likely be found under the hoods of the company's midsize cars like the Dodge Avenger and Chrysler Sebring. The 190 hp, 2.4-liter engine makes 175 pounds-feet of torque and should get better fuel economy than the current offerings in those cars, which have a combined 24 mpg.

An all-new V-6 engine will see action in the company's large sedans like the Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger and Challenger and SUVs like the 2011 Grand Cherokee, which is the first model to officially be attached to it. It's a 280-hp, 3.6-liter engine that makes 260 pounds-feet of torque, and the company says it will get 11% better fuel economy over the engine it replaces. In the Grand Cherokee, that's currently a combined 18 mpg.

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