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I’m dating myself here, but when I started driving, a vehicle that had an automatic transmission, air conditioner, tilt steering wheel, cruise control, and a cassette player was considered “loaded”. Add in power locks and windows and you had a “hard loaded” model. If you had remote keyless entry and anti-lock brakes, you had a luxury car. These days, all of those features and more are ubiquitous. Most of us wouldn’t think about buying a new vehicle without air conditioning. Having to roll down a window by turning a crank is considered an embarrassing hardship!

I recently had the rare opportunity to experience a base model Honda CR-V. It hasn’t been too many years ago that a base model vehicle was equipped with only minimum levels of safety equipment and very few comfort or convenience items. The CR-V LX is a base model that I could actually enjoy.

Manufacturers typically populate their press fleets with the highest trim level of each model which gives the reviewers an opportunity to evaluate all of a vehicle’s features and experience the best a model has to offer. While the top trim levels may be the fastest, best looking, and have the most features, most buyers don’t choose those higher-priced trims. Instead, they opt for the lower-cost middle and lower trims.


From the outside, there’s little to distinguish a base LX from a top-of-the-line Touring trim aside from black door handles and some black trim pieces instead of body-colored or chrome. Even the LX has nice-looking alloy wheels instead of the plastic wheel covers that are common on entry-level trims. Unless a person is a Honda CR-V aficionado, they’re unlikely to identify the LX as a base model.


I’m accustomed to driving vehicles that automatically unlock when you grab the door handles, so it took me a moment to realize the CR-V LX isn’t equipped with such a feature. I had to pull the remote out of my pocket and push a button before I was granted access to the inside if the CR-V.


Once inside, the differences in materials and features become more apparent. I was expecting to see a boring, monochromatic interior filled with the same color and texture of hard plastic. To my pleasant surprise, I found a durable-looking and comfortable cloth seat material, with contrasting plastic textures and colors.

The next step was starting the vehicle. I instinctively reached for a start button, but there wasn’t one. I would need a physical key before getting any further. Unfortunately, I had placed the remote back into my pocket after unlocking the door and was now forced to dig back into my pocket for the magic key for a second time. One thing I like about the ”old” key-based system in the LX is that I can shut then engine off while still listening to the radio or talking over Bluetooth. On the higher trims with pushbutton start, you have to shut everything off then push the start button again without pressing the brake pedal to put the vehicle into accessory mode which drops the Bluetooth connection and reboots the audio system.


Finally, the hard part was over! I turned the key and the CR-V’s venerable 2.4L non-turbocharged engine started breathing on its own with a familiar sound shared with Honda models of yore. It quietly and smoothly idled with refinement and precision as I familiarized myself with the other controls. The gauges are a combination of analog and monochrome digital instead of the color LCD display used on higher trims, but all the information you need is there – including a trip computer.

There are no power seats in the LX, but the driver’s seat is manually adjustable in all the normal ways including for height and recline. Most vehicles I’ve owned have had power seats and once I set them that’s where they stay…forever. Admittedly, I’m usually the only driver, but even in situations where there are multiple drivers, it’s actually faster to pull a lever and move the seat manually than it is to push a button and wait for electric motors to do the job.


Power door locks, windows, and mirrors are standard. The steering wheel adjusts for height and also telescopes. The cloth-covered center armrest slides forward. Although the vanity mirrors on the visors aren’t lighted, at least it has mirrors so you don’t have to yank down the rearview mirror or stare creepily into the side mirrors while picking spinach out of your teeth.


Once I found a comfortable driving position, it was time to set a comfortable temperature. The CR-V LX is equipped with automatic climate control so you just set your desired temperature and let it do the rest. It’s only a single-zone system, but as long as both the driver and passenger are warm-blooded creatures, that shouldn’t present too much of a problem. Besides, who wants to deal with a thunderstorm in the middle of a vehicle where the cold and warm fronts meet! There are A/C vents on the back of the center console and heater ducts under the front seats for rear passengers.


Next comes the audio system. With large touch screens and satellite radio being so common these days, the small color display in the CR-V’s AM/FM-only audio system felt neutered. Pairing my phone to the vehicle via Bluetooth was easy. Bluetooth works for both phone calls and music, so I was able to listen my music library and stream my favorite stations. After some adjustments to the bass, midrange, and treble, I was pleasantly surprised just how good the base-level audio system sounds. A pair of tweeters mounted higher up would be a welcome addition, but I found the sound quality to be more than adequate for phone calls, audiobooks, podcasts, and casual music listening.


One of the primary reasons for purchasing an SUV is cargo capacity. You won’t be fitting any 4×8 sheets of plywood in the back of a CR-V, but you could possibly shoehorn a 75” TV in the back at a creative angle. If you are interested saving money on a hotel, couples up to 6 feet tall can fit in the rear with the back seats folded down and the head rests turned around to serve as pillows. And, not that it’s necessarily related, but there’s an actual spare tire instead of an inflator kit back there! 



With everything adjusted to my liking, it was time for takeoff. I placed the dash-mounted shift lever in reverse and was greeted by a small, but clear rearview image on the audio system’s color screen. The guidelines are fixed rather than dynamic, but at least you can see what you’re about to back into. Once I had the nose pointed in the right direction, I shifted to drive and pressed the accelerator pedal. The CR-V’s continuously variable transmission brought the vehicle to cruising speed with no drama whatsoever. Unlike some, I’ve always appreciated the shiftless feel and efficiency of.a CVT – particularly for relaxed driving. Sure, I wouldn’t have one in a sports car or rock crawler, but that’s not what the CR-V is all about.

The 2019 CR-V LX is the last Honda model available with the 2.4L non-turbocharged engine, so if you’re not a fan of turbochargers, you better grab one while you can. Power and performance from the 2.4L/CVT combination is more than adequate for city driving and cruising on the highway at all legal speeds. However, passing at highway speeds results in less progress than the noise suggests, so allow yourself plenty of distance to overtake.

The ride is on the firm side, yet comfortable and far from harsh. Steering is precise and direct, although it’s slightly heavier than I would prefer in parking lots. The CR-V remains surprisingly flat in corners – almost…sporty.


Overall, the CR-V LX is a very comfortable compact SUV that is easy to live with even for a base model. It’s got everything you really need and even a few things that you don’t. I find a certain charm in its simplicity.

For the 2020 model year, all CR-V trims have revised front and rear styling and gain idle-stop technology which can be temporarily disabled. The 1.5L turbocharged engine, which offers better low-end torque and a 2 MPG increase in fuel economy, replaces the 2.4L engine in the LX. Honda Sensing and a color driver information interface are now standard for 2020 as well. 

The 2019 CR-V LX starts at $25,570 including destination. The 2020 CR-V LX starts at $26,170. That’s an increase of $600 – not bad for Honda Sensing with its adaptive cruise control, collision mitigation braking system, automatic high beams, and other safety features along with the color LCD driver information interface, turbocharged engine, and increased fuel economy.


Do you prefer the simplicity and lower cost of a base model, the luxuries and safety features on higher trims, or do you fall somewhere in between?

2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon – I Was Wrong and I’m Sorry

2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon – I Was Wrong and I’m Sorry

I was driving 80mph when a white Jeep Gladiator blasted by me in the right lane.
“How dare he? And in such a vehicle!” Bitterness and disdain washed over me like an acid flashback washes over a Deadhead boomer. “Who buys these things?” I shouted, shaking my fist at the inside of my windshield.

Visions of silly decals, angry headlight kits, and aftermarket wheels and mud tires that never seem to get dirty danced in my head. I had a long-held opinion that Jeeps were very expensive toys that didn’t make a good daily driver. When I saw that white Gladiator pass me in the slow lane I felt the familiar ire rise in my heart. “Oh look at that, jeep stuck a box on the back of their Wrangler.” I was wrong.

To me, Jeeps fell into about three categories:

  1. Mall Crawlers – usually a Wrangler Dressed out to look off-roady but never really make it off the asphalt
  2. Clapped-out Cherokees- which are usually heard or smelled before they’re seen. Often lifted with last week’s mud still visible on the fenders. Sometimes driven by zealous teenage boys.
  3. Legit offroaders – the hardcore, don’t tread on me, I took my swaybars off for “more articulation bro”, no-top when it’s 30 degrees out types. Usually seen with bald mud tires. Their owners should be avoided unless you’re ready to enter an inescapable pit of conversation about approach angles, locking differentials and lamentations about body lifts.


In October, Texas’ finest automotive journalists descend on the Texas Hill Country. It’s called the Texas Truck Rodeo, and it’s a crucible where one truck is elevated above all others and selected as the Texas Auto Writers Truck of Texas (read “the world”). The Jeep Gladiator would be there and I wanted to drive one.


I got to spend some quality time with this firecracker red ragtop Rubicon. Initially, the proportions look a little funny but you get used to it. In 10 years when they change it, we’ll look back at this design and say, “why couldn’t they have left it alone.” Jeep engineers have done a good job staying true to the no-nonsense, functional design aesthetic while embellishing it here and there to offer some style.


Thankfully, the kitschy stuff kept to a minimum and the marketing impulse to stencil Jeep on every panel has been curbed. When you sell something that looks like nothing else (aside from a Mahindra Roxor but that’s another article) you really don’t have to advertise that way. Batman didn’t have to paint “Batmobile” on the side of his ride, the wings, afterburner and menacing black paint give it away.




Inside the Gladiator Rubicon, you’ll find a heated steering wheel and heated leather seats. Pretty swank for a vehicle with removable doors. In the dash, there’s an 8.4 inch display that controls the Alpine sound system. It displays the navigation and some other goodies too. A delightful array of buttons and switches for locking the differentials and disconnecting the swaybars occupies space ahead of the shift levers.


Seats are firm but comfortable. The second row has space for adults. This jeep comes with the optional wireless Bluetooth speaker that tucks away into a special compartment behind the second row. Pretty neat, but it’s a $295 option I might skip.



Under the hood, there’s a 3.6 liter V6 connected to an eight-speed automatic transmission. This sends power to the front and rear Dana 44 axles with electronic locking differentials and electronic swaybar disconnects. The power on-road is good, and offroad the Jeep feels plenty torquey.  Fox 2.0 shocks come standard on the Gladiator Rubicon.


Vehicles on mud tires ride rougher and make extra noise. Combine that with a ragtop and you get what should be a cacophonous ride. I’m not saying the gladiator Rubicon is bending the laws of physics, but it is much quieter than I anticipated. It’s surprisingly smooth when you consider it’s off-road capabilities. I listened closely as I drove on asphalt and only identified one rattle. This Jeep was fitted with adaptive cruise control which makes for a relaxing interstate experience. Instead of the rattly, squeaky Jeep I expected, I was met with a level of sophistication and comfort I hadn’t anticipated.

When it’s time to play in the dirt, the Gladiator shifts effortlessly from two to four-wheel-drive on the fly. There’s gratification in grabbing the lever of a manually shifted transfer case that a push-button doesn’t deliver. It’s also reassuring to know that electrical gremlins won’t stand between me and four-wheel drive when I need it most.

I especially liked the forward-facing trail cam. It’s like having a spotter outside on the trail. Jeep even fitted it with a little washer nozzle to clean it off when the going gets muddy. The Jeeps handled the off-road course without breaking a sweat.


Jeep claims the Gladiator Rubicon gets 17 mpg around town and 22 on the highway. These numbers aren’t great, but next year Jeep is offering their first diesel option which they claim is going to be the most efficient Wrangler ever.


Zealots and kooky branding aside, there’s nothing like a jeep. Be ready to save your pennies and nickles though because Jeep isn’t in the business of giving these things away. The base price for a 2020 Gladiator Rubicon is $44,600. If you want it dressed up the way this one is, you’ll be in it for closer to $59k. Of course, you don’t have to go with a Rubicon package and a no-frills Sport model can be had for $33k.

Due to some silly biases developed in my adolescence, I have largely ignored Jeep. After getting to know the Gladiator I see that it’s peerless offroad and remarkably civilized when you hit the pavement. It’s so nice to be pleasantly surprised. It almost takes the sting out of being so wrong. Almost.IMG_9460.JPG

2019 Hyundai Kona SEL AWD – It’s Not Electric and That’s OK

2019 Hyundai Kona SEL AWD – It’s Not Electric and That’s OK

During the week I drove this car, I had a lot of questions about Konas. Not this Kona, the electric ones. “Hey, how far does that thing go on a charge?” “Hey, how long does it take to top up the batteries?” “HAY, WHAT’S IT LIKE TO DRIVE THE FUTURE AND SAVE THE PLANET?” I disappointed everyone, saying “I dunno it runs on dinosaur guts.” At which point they lost interest in the little Hyundai. But just because it’s a gas-burner does it deserve to be ignored?



Of course not. The plucky little Kona may not be remarkably beautiful, fast or extraordinary in any way, but it is good and it is cheap.  From the outside, the Kona could be almost any other crossover. It doesn’t help that it’s coated in Forget-Me White paint. There’s a CUV shaped hole in the market and just about every manufacturer has a four-wheeled peg to fit. This is Hyundai’s peg, and it’s pretty darn good.


It has slits for headlights that look like they’re borrowed from a Jeep Cherokee circa 2014. They’re reminicent of the look my older sister gave me when I decapitated her Barbies (sorry Chrystal). The taillights are equally grumpy. There’s black plastic body cladding over the wheel wells and along the rockers. Some may find this unsightly, but it’s dead practical. Shopping carts can bag into it at the store and it won’t chip like a painted fender.


Hyundai designers fell prey to the current trend of floating rooflines, but it’s easily one of the more tasteful examples. 17inch alloy wheels offer a quality look to the Kona and are standard equipment. Overall, it looks frisky, like it’s ready to play. It’s not a serious off-roader and it’s not trying to look like one.



The Kona’s seats are wrapped in black cloth with houndstooth inserts. This is just like a 1969 Camaro. That’s fun. Hyundai could easily have done black and grey to remind us that life is just a bleak and bitter landscape of pain and regrets pocked with shattered dreams and that we all ultimately die. But no, they went with something fun and funky! It also probably hides the inevitable Taco Bell stains.


This Kona was fitted with the Tech Package. That gives it eight-way power seats, a power sunroof, Infinity sound system, a shark fin antenna and Hyundai’s bluelink services. The touch screen interface is easy to navigate and easy to reach without leaning forward in your seat. The interior layout is somewhat spartan but it’s not uncomfortable. Forward collision avoidance and cross-traffic alert systems come standard. I like that there’s still a mechanical connection to the transmission and there’s an old fashion, yank-style, hand brake. The rear seats are roomy enough for adults and downright spacious for offspring.


Under the hood, beats a capable 2.0-liter four-banger. It uses the Atkinson cycle which is basically magic. Actually, it’s a modified Otto cycle that gives the pistons a bit of a running start on their way toward the cylinder head thus increasing fuel efficiency. That’s connected to a six-speed auto with drive mode selection. Nail it on an on-ramp and it complies and accelerates to highway speed without complaint. With a sub seven second 0-60 it’s not setting the world on fire, but it’s not a painfully slow drive either. Hyundai says we can expect 30mpg highway and 25 around town. These aren’t stunning numbers, but it’s still what I consider economical.


This little Kona comes with a ton of amenities standard. But even when you doll it up with the extras that this one has, the tech package and shark fin antenna, it’s still under $26,000. In 1969 money that’s only $3,700, or roughly the price of a brand new ’69 Camaro, and Camaros never came in AWD with Bluetooth connectivity. So there you have it, if you want an icon from the heart of the muscle car era, buy a Hyundai Kona.



2019 Mazda 3 Premium AWD – An efficient Commuter That’s Fun to Drive

2019 Mazda 3 Premium AWD – An efficient Commuter That’s Fun to Drive

The 2019 Mazda 3 is a slick and comfortable small sedan with good options. In Mazda fashion, the 3 gets incrementally better with each passing year. The last one I drove was in 2017, how does the new one compare?



Outside, the Mazda 3 looks good. I like the uncluttered nature of its styling. The long low hood, raked C-pillars and stubby trunk all add up to give the Mazda 3 a sporty profile. The chunky 18-inch alloy wheels and LED headlights and taillights have an upmarket look. I especially like the front grille treatment. The Soul Red Crystal metallic paint has to be one of the most appealing factory colors on any car.



Inside this press car was outfitted with white leather wrapped seats and dash. I can’t say I’d like to be accountable for keeping it clean over the life of the car, be for the week I had it, it presented no issues. The seats are comfortable and there’s room enough in the back seat for grown ups.

The premium trim gets you a Bluetooth capable, 12 speakers Bose stereo. Android Auto and Apple Carplay make connecting your phone to the car seamless.  A moonroof with one-touch open lets the light in and the Active Driving Display projects vehicle information like speed, cruise control settings and even navigation aids onto an area in the driver’s line of sight to keep eyes safely on the road. Mazda has integrated the 3’s infotainment screen into the dash more and it looks good. It’s a subtle change that indicates they’re still improving the car little by little.


Mazda’s infotainment system controls are some of the most intuitive on the market.
There’s a multi-function control wheel and a few shortcut buttons that make navigating the menus a breeze. Within the console, there’s a Qi wireless charging pad. I like this layout because it encourages us to drop the phone in the console while we drive.

Under the hood, the 2.5L SKYACTIV-G 186 horses and 186 lb-ft torque. Not huge numbers, but the car never feels anemic. The 6-speed automatic transmission is nice and snappy.  In fact, it’s fun to goose the little 3 around and its predictable driving character inspires confidence in the bends.

Mazda says that we can expect the AWD 3 to get 25 mpg around town and 33 on the highway.  The combined mileage is 2 mpg worse than the front wheel drive version. However, if you live in a snowy climate I imagine that you’ll find the AWD a good investment. Highway driving is quiet and smooth.


The base price on the 2019 Mazda 3 is $27,900. Adding the Premium package gets you some features you might not expect in a non-luxury brand. This includes the heads up display, leather seats, moonroof, paddle shifters and adaptive lighting to name a few. Other available options featured on this car include illuminated door sills like a lexus and a frameless rearview mirror like those found in a Volvo.  All these push the price point to $30,930.

The last time I reviewed this car was in 2017, at that time I called the car a good value. I haven’t changed my mind. It’s still an efficient commuter/kid hauler that’s fun to drive and offers good amenities. I would like to see a return of the Mazdaspeed3 which had a turbo option.

2019 Volvo XC60 Inscription – Overtly Refined & Elegant, Subtly Swedish

2019 Volvo XC60 Inscription – Overtly Refined & Elegant, Subtly Swedish

Back in 2002, Volvo build their first SUV, the XC90. It drew on design elements from the wagons. From that point, Volvo’s aesthetic evolved from its boxy beginnings to what must be some of the best looking, most refined cars on the road.



The XC60’s looks have a subtle nod to some all-weather performance but it doesn’t look bulky or overtly off-roady. Instead, it looks sophisticated and capable.


Black and silver 19-inch alloy wheels complement the Pine Grey metallic paint. The vertical taillights are a holdover design elements from old Volvo wagons. I’m a sucker for dual outlet exhaust and the Volvo checks this box.



As pleasant as the exterior is, the real story of the XC60 is told inside. I’d question the motives of anyone buying a car with white upholstery. And you’d have to be nuts to buy one as a family car. But good lord it is gorgeous inside. Set in the dash is the nine inch touch screen that controls everything from the seat massage, to navigation to the optional Bowers and Wilkins premium sound system.


Every surface is sumptuous. The materials are all exceptional and the craftsmanship is something you can appreciate for the life of the car. For example, the airconditioning vents controls are not just silver-colored plastic. They’re aluminum. That means they were machined to fit and function, not squirted into a mold. It also means you’ll feel the quality each time you reach to adjust the vent. It’s cold or hot to the touch rather than the dead feeling plastic offers. There’s room in the back for adults and there’s ample cargo space behind the second row.



There’s an evident pride taken design and execution here. I especially like the subtle nods to this car’s nationality throughout the cabin.



The ride and drive are as refined as the interior accommodations. Air ride at all four corners ensures the ride is buttery smooth. I love that the ride height can be adjusted on the go by fiddling with the drive mode settings. Volvo’s 2.0 liter four-banger takes advantage of a super charger and a turbo. This double puffer set up means the XC60 has 316 horsepower to play with.

Using a super charger and a turbo allows the engine to get the benefits of both. The super lends it’s linear, predictable power and the turbo gives you the punch in the higher revs. It makes for above-average performance. The Volvo is whisper quiet on the freeway. And Volvo claims it’ll get 27 mpg on the highway and 19 around town.


I love the direction Volvo is going. They’re truly special. You feel it when you’re seated behind the wheel. They’re not setting the world on fire with outrageous designs that will be dated next year. The sense of pride and craftsmanship on the part of Volvo designers is evident throughout the car, especially inside.

This XC60 with these features has a price point just shy of $65k. That’s a lot of money, especially considering it’s not even Volvo’s biggest SUV. However, it’s dead nice to drive and to behold. Now, if you must have a new XC60 but you don’t have that kind of dough don’t despair. If you’re willing to suffer the indignity of a non-heated steering wheel, or perhaps you could drag yourself into a car without Nappa leather you can save $750 and $2,200 respectively. Continue with the austerity measures and you can whittle to price down to a paltry $45 grand.


2019 Acura RDX A-Spec -You’ll Want To Put A Ring On It

2019 Acura RDX A-Spec -You’ll Want To Put A Ring On It

The last Acura RDX I drove was the 2017 model. I drove 300 miles in one direction with my girlfriend and drove back with a fiance. That car’s performance was flawless albeit unremarkable. For 2019, Acura introduced its third-generation RDX. It’s more beautiful and more comfortable. We took this one to San Antonio to watch our friends tie the knot. Thus forever solidifying a link between nuptial processes and Acura’s RDX in my mind. 



For the 2019 model year, the RDX got a makeover. Up front, there’s a much larger grill opening with a massive Acura emblem floating in the center. I think it works. The  A-Spec trim offers 20″ shark gray wheels. They look fantastic under the platinum white pearl body color.  The aggressive body styling and dual exhaust hint at the A-spec’s performance-tuned suspension.




It’s red! While the color may not be for everyone, the execution is undeniable. For those folks looking to make a more subtle statement, the A-spec also comes in black. The build quality of the seat covers is above average even for a luxury car. There’s lovely red decorative stitching.  Seats are firm. After hitting tons of traffic and taking six and a half hours to get to San Antonio, my hind parts were tender. Over time the seats may break in, but how often do we really spend that much time behind the wheel?


I didn’t love the trackpad. Not because it’s an especially bad example of one, but because they’re impractical. My opinion must be the minority though because these things are popping up in everything from Acuras to Aston Martins. I think rather than the distracting trackpad technology which mimics a laptop, manufacturers should implement touch screens within easy reach of the driver.


Under the cargo area, there’s a clever storage arrangement. Sadly, there’s no spare tire, not even a donut. Just an air pump and some good-luck goo. The second row seats can be folded down to create an open cargo space to haul all sorts of stuff.


Under the hood, a turbocharged 2.0 liter four-cylinder churns out 272 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque and it makes a nice noise doing it. The exhaust note when the V-Tec kicks in is particularly agreeable, so my foot found the floor more than often than a less childish foot would have. It’s not terribly fuel-efficient. In the 800 plus miles I put on the car, it averaged 21 mpg according to the trip computer. Most of these were highway miles, some in excess of 85 mph. I bet this car is capable of better mileage with a different driver. 



After arriving in San Antonio the groom lamented to me that the water pump failed in the 60s Ford Galaxie they chose as their getaway car. I immediately volunteered the shiny white Acura.  IMG_78562

After a lovely ceremony and reception my wife, the A-Spec and I had the distinct pleasure of sharing the couple’s first car ride as man and wife. I think white lace sets off the red interior nicely. Congratulations Mr. and Mrs. Murphy!



In my previous article about the RDX, I concluded that it would be a nice car to buy your mom. Two-row, mid-sized, luxury SUVs are definitely aimed at moms.  I think the newest iteration of the RDX broadens its appeal. I also think it’s the best looking option in its class. This car with these options will set buyers back $46,895. That’s not cheap, but this is a luxury SUV that really ticks all the boxes. Its Honda heritage is bound to make it reliable. The ride and performance are gratifying and the looks are exceptional. All that and you still beat the Lexus RX 350 sticker by nearly $13,000. That’s what I call value.