Sunday, June 1, 2008

2007 BMW 328i

The 328i sedan is BMW's entry-level ultimate driving machine here in the US. Last redesigned in 2006, the car boasts yet another variation of the long-hood-short-deck shape that's been a 3-series hallmark since the early 90s. For 2007, the 3-series gets a boost in power and new model names: The 325 becomes the 328 as horsepower rises by 15 to 230; the 330 becomes the 335 with a turbocharger that boosts horsepower from 255 to 300.
Yes, the 328i is good to drive, but that's hardly the only reason to buy it. The 3-series is exceptionally well thought out, showing the sort of attention to detail that made Japanese automakers famous. Furthermore -- and this is something I never thought I'd write about a BMW -- the 328i delivers surprisingly good value for money.

The 328i including destination charge, with automatic headlights, dual-zone climate control, sunroof, and safety kit galore, including front-seat-mounted torso and side-curtain airbags, four wheel antilock disc brakes, and electronic stability control. My tester added genuine leather seats (heated and power adjustable in front), dynamic cruise control, and other goodies.

Of all this car's attributes, it was the interior that impressed me most. A tilt and telescope steering wheel helps drivers of all shapes get comfortable. Front Seats have a slide-out thigh bolster, giving taller drivers the same thigh support usually reserved for us short people. My car had an airy and bright tan interior, but the dashboard was thoughtfully topped in glare-cutting black.

The back seat is designed with a nice long bottom cushion, favoring the reality of good thigh support over the illusion of more legroom (in truth, there's plenty of both). The LATCH child seat anchors are easy to access, and the center headrest folds down so it won't block the driver's view out the rear window. The trunk is small, but since the 328i comes with run-flat tires (and, ergo, no spare tire), there's extra storage space below the trunk floor.

The 328i's interior has two glaring faults. First, the seat belts aren't height adjustable, so drivers have to rely on the seat-height adjustment to ensure the seat belt lies properly on their shoulder. Virtually every other car on the market has height adjustable belts; why BMW missed this is beyond me. Second, split-folding rear seats don't come standard.

Other complaints are typical German foibles: Some of the secondary controls are labeled ambiguously, and the cupholders won't accommodate the huge cups and bottles of which we Americans are so fond.

The 328i is powered by a 3-liter inline six-cylinder engine. The inline six (as opposed to a V6) is a BMW trademark; it is inherently balanced with no need for balance shafts to smooth out vibrations. Also in keeping with tradition is the 3-series' rear-wheel-drive layout, though BMW also offers the 328xi and 335xi models with all-wheel-drive.

I found the 328i's 230 horsepower engine to be very powerful and flexible, and the six-speed manual was an absolute delight to use. My observed fuel economy - 23 MPG - was par for the mid-size six-cylinder course. Frankly, I think the 3-series could do with a smaller and more fuel-efficient engine, but less power wouldn't really fit with BMW's image.

I pushed the 328i hard on my favorite twisty road; the steering was lovely and the tires almost uniformly refused to give up their grip. When I got going too fast, the stability control system would cut in suddenly and decisively. After a while, though, I stopped pushing and slackened my pace. Was the handling good? Definitely. But was it fun? Not as much as I expected. The Bimmer felt bored, as if I wasn't taking advantage of its superior handling abilities. But doing so would require driving at speeds much faster than I consider to be prudent -- and trust me, I drive this particular road pretty darn fast.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

2008 Honda Accord

If you've grown weary of reading reviews in which automotive journalists wax endlessly about Honda's manual gearboxes, we sympathize, but we don't apologize. Once again, the Accord, which is all-new for 2008, has one of the sweetest-shifting manual transmissions on the market.

The new Chevrolet Malibu showed up the more expensive, automatic-equipped Accord EX-L V-6 in our annual All-Stars competition, but our drive in this four-cylinder EX sedan reminds us that the Ohio-built Accord is still one of the best in the segment. Sure, we wish that Honda offered individual options instead of just trim packages - for example, you can't get heated seats, automatic dual-zone climate control, or even a leather steering wheel without bumping up to the EX-L model for $2000. You'll never mistake this car for a real sport sedan, at least when it comes to handling, and it is decidedly dowdy compared with the stunning coupe version of the car.

The new Accord EX get a nicely equipped sedan with a spacious and well-executed cabin and a smooth, fuel-efficient four-cylinder engine that happily revs past 7000 rpm.

Honda's V-6 makes sense in the Accord coupe, but for this generation of Accord four-door, the less-expensive model is in many ways the most desirable. Get yourself a four-cylinder, stick-shift version of Honda's perennially popular sedan, and you, too, will bore family, friends, and neighbors with endless praise for your sweet-shifting Honda.

Monday, May 26, 2008

2008 Toyota Yaris

Last year, the Yaris replaced the Echo inToyota's lineup as its least expensive new vehicle. As in the 2007 model year, two Yaris body styles are available for 2008: a three-door liftback and a four-door sedan.

The sedan rides on a longer wheelbase (100.4 inches vs. 96.9 in) than the Liftback model, and can be viable transportation for small families while the hatchback is ideal as a commuter that can also handle longer trips when the need arises.

Standard under the hood of both vehicles is a 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine producing 106 horsepower — adequate for a small, light car of this type. Buyers can choose either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic. All models come standard with 14-inch wheels and air conditioning; major safety features such as anti-lock brakes and side-impact airbags may be ordered optionally.

The 2008 Yaris Liftback Sport model is a new addition to the lineup. The Yaris Liftback Sport gets body-color bumpers and side rocker panels. In addition it adds sport seats, a leather-trimmed steering wheel and shifter knob, 15-inch wheels, a rear defroster, a rear wiper, and an audio system with MP3 capability and an auxiliary jack.

For 2008 all Yarises get standard tire-pressure monitors, but are otherwise unchanged.

  • Styling
It's gimmicky but relatively clean.
  • Performance
Fuel economy is great; acceleration, not so much.
  • Comfort and Quality
The back seats can really be rough.
  • Safety
Three-star performance in front crashes is nothing remarkable.
  • Features
It's no luxury car, and the base Yaris gets roll-up windows.