Minggu, 08 Juni 2008



By William C Montgomery

When it comes to full size pickups, three words have dominated headlines over the last six months: Toyota, Toyota, Toyota. Can the Tundra penetrate the Big 2.5’s final sanctuary? Who will crumble first, GM or Ford? It’s made in Texas! Yada, yada, yada. But Toyota’s not the only American-made foreign brand playing in the full-size pickup truck sandbox. Nissan was here first and they’re not going away. So can this Mississippi Titan play ball or is it destined to remain a third-string niche player?

Nissan jumped feet first into the full-sized truck market with their 2004 Titan model. Wide columns of chrome in the grill and front fascia projects mass and solidity. The now familiar look has aged well and bespeaks design originality. And there you have it.

If you’re asking “What pickup would John Stuart Mill Drive?”, Nissan gets high marks for glove-friendly door handles, standard factory spray-on bed liner, Utili-track cargo restraining system, a 12-volt bed outlet and a hidden strut that eases tailgate opening and closing. Gadget lovers will appreciate the “climate-resistant” lockbox positioned in the driver’s side rear quarter panel– until the the real world dents the panel and renders the cubby “climate-tolerant."

The Titan’s practicality continues with front seats that fold flat, providing blue print-wielding contractors with a useable work table. The Titan’s center console storage is large enough to stow and secure a laptop computer or, for Luddite load luggers, hang a few file folders. Pickup truck buyers love these features so much Nissan’s competitors have copied them.

Nissan’s laid out the interior controls and gauges logically, with genre-appropriate austerity. The Titan Crew Cab supplies abundant room for four husky carpenters or a family of five. Dashboard and door panels are appropriately washable. Passengers who utilize valet parking at Kennedy Center events will wrinkle their noses at the Titan’s confines. But that’s okay; this truck isn’t for them.

Country music lovers will applaud the Titan’s optional Rockford Fosgate 10-speaker audio system, including a bottom-tickling under seat sub-woofer. Other optional creature comforts include MP3 player connectivity, satellite navigation and radio, a DVD player and backup sonar.

What lies beneath is what usually gets hardcore pickup truck buyers blood a pumpin’. Nissan uses a fully boxed ladder frame supplied by Tower Automotive. Ford F-150 aficionados point out that the Titan’s “boxed” rails are really two C rails bonded together, rather than formed from one piece of material. Yes, well, the Titan’s frame’s cross members are welded into place for extra strength, rather than riveted. Overall, it's a professional grade tool, ready for years of action.

Most full size pickup trucks offer a wide array of engines of varying displacement: six-cylinders, diesels and big bore V8’s. Nissan keeps it simple: you get your choice of a 5.6-liter V8 married to a five-speed cog swapper or somebody else’s truck. For 2007, Nissan’s engine savants have finagled four percent more power from their 32-valve mill, boosting grunt to 317hp and 385 lbs-ft of torque. Too bad they forgot to do something about the abysmal 14/18mpg efficiency.

Still, it’s a dearth of power compared to Tundra’s 381hp and 401 ft.-lbs. of twist. But the Titan isn’t about to be left in the dust. A low first gear ratio and impatient torque converter get the 5,323lbs leviathan moving in a hurry– sometimes a little too quickly. Thanks to the standard limited-slip differential, I painted two symmetrical 10’ black lines on the concrete when I launched from a four-way stop. Fortunately the cop right behind me had better things to do than write a love letter to my spastic right foot.

My test truck’s [optional] Rancho performance shocks helped give the Titan surprising poise when maneuvering. Nissan’s pickup truck is decidedly more athletic feeling than Toyota’s new Tundra. For that matter, the Titan’s considerably more agile than trucks from Ford, GM or Dodge. The Titan’s no Lotus Elise through the slalom, but it delivers far more confidence through a cloverleaf than any of its rivals.

When Nissan first ushered the new Titan onto American dealer's showroom floors, the 'Merican made pickup was considered big, bad and bold. Since then Ford, GM and Toyota have updated and enlarged their models. These days, the Titan looks a whole lot less Titanic, and its prospects have dimmed.

Since the Titan’s introduction, Nissan’s plant has been operating just below its 90k units per year capacity. While not an abject failure, it’s not the runaway success Nissan envisioned. Reliability issues have certainly not helped it chances. And now Toyota’s entrée with a true full-sized truck is forcing deep discounts at Nissan dealerships. For buyers, that's a good thing. The Titan is a worthy (if sometimes quality challenged) competitor in a field crowded with excellence.


By Brendan McAleer

Anyone who’s ever watched a canard-laden, sooty-arsed Spec V Skyline blast through a corner like a turbocharged gecko knows that the NISMO (Nissan Motorsports) boys are the fairy godfathers of serious speed . Yes, well, making a street fighter out of Nissan’s weight-challenged Sentra compact is gonna require some extra strength bippity-boppity-boo. Speedy silk purse, lethargic sow’s ear, that kind of thing. In short, I approached the Sentra SE-R Spec V with a healthy dose of scepticism, cynicism and I’ll-believe-it-when-I-thrash-it-ism.

Styling. My eyes! The goggles do nothing! Okay, the SE-R isn’t quite that bad. But despite the porcine lipstick application, this is a car only Kermit could love. The new seventeen-inch rims barely fill out the wheel wells and the aero-kit fails to drop the lines low enough to disguise the micro-van roofline. And that’s on top of a car with oversized headlights, Caddy-esque edges and Chryslerberusian hood strakes. Ew.

Yes, well, the original shoebox-special early-nineties SE-R was ugly as sin, but hellish fun to drive. If the new Sentra drives as good as it looks bad, all is forgiven.

Gripping the Sentra’s fat, red-stitched steering wheel, enveloped by side-bolstered sport seats, strapped in with a bright red seatbelt, confidence is high. A 350Z-style angled gauge pod completes the NISMO wikkidness, housing a fancy acceleration/braking G-meter and an oil pressure gauge;that owners of the consumption-prone previous-gen SE-R have been trained to scan on a minute-by-minute basis.

Other than that, it’s a Sentra. The dash is too high, Sauron’s peeking out between the dials again, the shifter’s in the wrong place, the plastics aren’t as nice as baby brother Versa, the C-pillars create huge blind spots, and the side mirrors are too small and don’t fold.

On the other hand, it’s a Sentra. There’s loads of goodies (Rockford stereo, et al), the cabin is airy and spacious, the rear seats are large and comfortable, tall doors provide easy ingress/egress and it’s got a huge trunk. Practicality, thy name is Sentra. Unfortunately, the Spec-V’s chassis-stiffening rear V-brace eliminates the folding rear seats, a functionality-reducing manoeuvre best left to baggy-trousered “tunerz”.

NISMO’s breath upon the Altima-sourced 2.5-liter engine hath bumped compression with special pistons and some tasty trick pieces (e.g. a cast-resin manifold). The resulting lump boasts a higher redline (6800 rpm) and more horses (200hp). The Sentra’s modified mill stumps up 180 lb/ft of torque. Though the twist now arrives higher up in the rev range, that’s the same grunt as the previous gen SE-R.

So, finally, I fired up the little devil and watched the tach and speedometer needles perform a full sweep of their ranges, STI-style. Whoa, Dude! The new Spec V leaps off the line with only the briefest of tugs, indicating that Nissan’s love affair with torque-tainted tillers could finally be on the wane. Of course, “leaps” is a fairly subjective verb here, as those 200 ponies have a whole lot of chuckwagon to motivate.

Despite 3100lbs. of not so curvaceous curb weight and reduced low-end torque, the Sentra pulls a respectable 0 to 60mph time of around six-and-a-half seconds. That’s good enough to best a Honda Civic Si Sedan, but expect forced induction rides like the GTI and Mazdaspeed3 to huff and puff and blow your house down.

With straight-line domination off the table, perhaps the Sentra’s helical limited-slip diff, close-ratio six-speed gearbox, monster anti-roll bars and stiffened springs will let you can catch ‘em in the corners. Lest we forget, Nissan’s advertising makes much of rabid engineers honing the Sentra SE-R’s suspension through repeated hot laps of the Nordschleife Nurburgring.

Green Hell no. Push the Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V past seven-tenths in the twisties and its top-heavy roots start showing. Over the howling of not-that-sticky performance radials, you can almost hear Sabine Schmitz scoffing, “I ken doo thet time in a Ven!”

Take the SE-R off the track and it’s surprisingly settled over rough roads; it’s a bit roly-poly, but nimble enough to do some damage. Unfortunately, the engine note is about as musical as a jack hammer. Luckily, the Sentra's tach is happy enough to kiss the redline and the brakes are phenomenal. Carving a line, I felt my facial muscles spasm. Trichinosis? Nope, just a hoonish grin.

I was expecting the Sentra SE-R Spec V to be a sort of Heffalump GT-R: extra power thrown at a chassis totally unsuited to sporting aspirations. Surprise! The Sentra SE-R Spec V turns out to be a viable alternative to Honda’s hot sedan that provides a stronger (if rougher) engine, a capable (if less balanced) drive and liveable mileage (24/31).

More importantly, at around $20K, the Spec V’s a bargain for entry-level enthusiasts looking for a box-fresh, fully warranteed, practical and fun daily driver. But unlike Ye Olde B13-chassis Sentra SE-R, serious racers need not– indeed should not– apply


2008 Nissan Rogue

By Michael Martineck

It probably seemed like a good idea at the time: introduce American car buyers to Nissan’s new cute ‘ute in an episode of NBC’s hit show Heroes. And so we see the Rogue in the hands of a world saving high school cheerleader– ensuring its chick-car status for all eternity. And then rogue crooks swipe the CUV and drive it to Mexico. Demonstrating what? The car is easy to boost? Why didn’t technopath Micah Sanders get a booster seat, take the wheel and show Ford the true meaning of “sync my ride?” All of which leaves me wondering: is the Rogue good enough to survive its own marketing?

From the looks of it, yes. Although the upward kinked rear window is a Murano cue without which I could do, the Rogue’s swoopy lines are generally as fresh as a pair of Puma sneakers. The height vs. width solution makes the vehicle look decidedly skinny from certain angles, but that may be part of the appeal (you can’t be too tall or too thin). And cheers to the designers for realizing nobody wants to see your spare tire.

The Rogue’s design loses coherence at the front. If the crossover’s grill actually made French fries at least they’d be an excuse. As it is, the monochromatic prow lacks a dramatic focal point or expression. To bad the varsity team from Infiniti didn’t do more coaching; their similarly proportioned EX has a far more appealing Cheshire cat grin.

The Rogue’s righteous cabin screams “give me a Z!” And so it does, cowled instruments, air vents and all. The Rogue’s minimalist collection of round, friendly gauges and sensibly designed and positioned controls create a handsome, business-like space that seems built for the long haul. The same can’t be said for the seats, whose comfort lacks highway compatibility. The base radio sports an Aux jack for iPoditude and delivers sound. (You’ll need to upgrade to BOSE for a flattering adjective.)

Nissan’s svelte utility vehicle has one engine option: a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. The powerplant’s 170 horses and 175 lb-ft of torque fit the demographic remit: not being slow and not sucking gas. Bonus! Floor it and the Rogue will charge-up on-ramps with growly, thrashy abandon. Around the corners, at speed, the Rogue should not go; the tires and chassis will tell you so. If you don’t listen, four-wheel anti-lock braking, Electronic Brake force Distribution, Vehicle Dynamic Control and Traction Control will remind you.

Nissan’s continuously variable transmission (CVT) is perfect for urban work, but a genuine pain on the highway, where the slightest throttle input sends the revs soaring or falling. The Rogue's CVT’s not as good as the best systems (usually married to larger engines) and not as bad as the worst. Opting for paddle shifters is like putting Peyton Manning in a pleated skirt and sweater; it’s not the right gear for the game.

By the same token, if you think Nissan’s [optional] Intuitive All-wheel Drive is designed for hard core off-roading, you’re wrong. But there are advantages…

The Rogue’s system uses all four wheels to get going, cruises in front wheel-drive, and engages the rear wheels in corners or slips. So you get torque steer-free starts, front-wheel drive economy, rear wheel drive handling in the corners, and all wheel-drive security. As the Rogue is neither sports car nor genuine mud plugger, it all adds up to extra prowess on wet and snowy roads.

That said, driving dynamics help set the Rogue apart from its formidable competition– emphasis on “help.” Just about every brand’s got one of these little cute utes– Toyota’s RAV-4 and Honda’s CRV are on their third-generation– and they all drive with ever-increasing "car-like" aplomb. Nissan’s blend of tech makes it the least rut-going of the top CUVs, but arguably the best on the boulevard. To stand out, though, the Rouge needs to, well, be a rogue. It’s not.

In terms of size, weight, engine output and gas mileage, the three CUVs cited above are virtually identical. The Rogue loses 15 cubic feet of cargo area due to its sleek lines. It does have The Mother of All Gloveboxes, and lots of clever cubbies for iPods, laptops and meal cards. The back has a very cool tray-size nook that, left open, separates pom-poms from Evian bottles from your backpack. And…?

The Nissan Rogue seems like it’s still in high school, trying to fit in, afraid to be really different. (You remember what happened to the deeply dorky Quest minivan?) The Rogue’s cuter than most of the other cute utes, but that’s a subjective judgment that doesn’t guarantee the model a seat at the CUV table. To be Nissan’s hero, the Rogue would have to exhibit some really extraordinary ability. That it doesn’t.


2008 Nissan Altima Coupe

By Megan Benoit

Nissan says the Altima Coupe was designed separately from the Altima sedan. It’s a different car, from the ground-up. Roger that. Not since the Chevrolet Lumina Sedan and Minivan have two more disparate vehicles shared the same name. While Chrysler’s auto show folk are talking-up the joys of a “shared genetic pool,” the Altima Coupe 3.5SE isn’t even swimming in the same ocean as the sedan. In fact, the Altima Coupe deserves a sexier name, something distinctive, with more panache. I suggest “Accord-killer,” but it’s unlikely to get approved by any legal department, anywhere.

A quick tour around the Altima Coupe reveals the missing link; Nissan took the 3.5SE to Infiniti and beyond. From the side, the two-door Altima is nearasdammit a dead ringer for the new G37. Sure, they changed the headlights and taillights, gave it dumpier base trim and hood strakes (and aren’t charging you an arm and a leg for it). But the DNA is there. Chrome milk moustache non-withstanding, the 3.5SE Altima Coupe is a whole lot of sexy. It’s every bit as hot looking as the new Accord Coupe is not, and a fair piece cheaper.

One sit behind the base 3.5SE’s wheel shows why this bad boy is a bargain basement bomber. The base SE comes with cloth seats and the most basic of pseudo-luxury accoutrements, including push-button engine start and stop and one of those nagging fuel economy gauges that tries to guilt you into punching the gas less. But there is nothing to dispel the notion that you’re in a souped-up economy car. Sure, the fancier options are there, but if your style is ‘shut up and drive,’ being able to forego leather seats and premium audio is a bonus.

Yes, the 3.5SE’s cabin is nicer than many of its Japanese rivals, but oy, the ergonomics. The shoulder bolsters were more than a tad overly-bolstered (and I’m not exactly a football player), the center armrest is ill-positioned and the entire interior had the most overpowering new car smell I’ve ever suffered.

But by far the worst offender: the system used to move the passenger seat forward so the few and the damned (damned few?) can enter the backseat. Nissan's placed the latch on the far side of the passenger seat, where only the driver can see and reach it, and only while they’re seated. Forcing the driver to move the seat is cruel and unusual punishment.

Engine on, and all is forgiven (for the driver anyway). In terms of sheer engine performance, Goldilocks couldn’t ask for a better whip. The 2.5S is too slow. The G37 is too expensive. In terms of horsepower to dollars to curb weight, the 3.5SE Coupe just nails it. Zero to sixty takes just 5.8 seconds. The high-revving, hefty Accord feels downright sluggish next to this beast. Astonishingly, the Altima has more torque and horsepower and better gas mileage.

No matter what you’re doing, prodding the gas is immensely, intensely and immediately satisfying. A cackle-worthy exhaust note would be the cherry on the icing on the cake. The 3.5SE's six-speed manual is better than Nissan’s standard fare, delivering unrestricted access to every last one of the 350SE Coupe’s 270 horses. If you start comparing it to better gearboxes… just offer a silent prayer that it’s not a CVT.

In terms of handling, the 3.5SE’s a front wheel-drive car. Push it and you’ll be "rewarded" by the gradual onset of understeer. Thankfully, tight proportions (a small wheelbase and a stubby rear) mean you never feel like the nose is trying to plow a path to scenery, or an angry god controls the tail end. It’s Goldilocks material again: smooth, safe and predictable.

Nissan has even managed to keep the torque steer demons at a distance, although uncomfortably numb steering is the regrettable result. Once you get used to the anesthetic helm, you can cane the 3.5SE like a pro– just don’t expect the sort of feedback you’d get from a car that really knows its way around a track.

The 3.5SE’s highway ride is comfortably quiet, with little wind noise and a moderate amount of tire roar. Around town, the 3.5SE’s suspension absorbs bumps and potholes with ease. Standard safety features won't win any awards; even stability control costs you extra. Stripper lover's alert: nearly everything is optional. The Altima is a blank slate with a fast engine, just waiting for you to customize with your choice of toys. Or not.

So the 3.5SE’s dead sexy, has the guts to match and starts at $24k. Not to put too fine a point on it, that’s the sort of price point that pisses in Subaru and Honda’s Wheaties. If you’re less than six feet tall, emo-thin and don’t need space for more than two, I can’t think of a car in its class that presents a better performance bargain.


2009 Nissan Murano

By Michael Martineck

Nissan claims the Murano was the first crossover. Subaru claims that "honor" for the Forester. I think the first crossover was probably some variant of the Model T. Ladder frame construction or no, I'm never exactly sure what constitutes a CUV or SUV. Besides, as most truck buyers neither tow nor venture off-road, it's what semanticists call an invidious distinction. In other words, who cares? The more important question is whether or not a particular vehicle has the looks, packaging and performance it needs to survive. The new Nissan Murano must, again, still, stand on its own merits. Does it?

For 2009, Nissan has re-mixed rather than reinvented the Murano. The next gen uni-body trucklet is the same size and basic shape as the previous version. Equally important, the new Murano's turned its back on the industry trend towards bloat; it's only slightly heavier than its predecessor. And despite its generous proportions, Nissan also resisted the urge to add some kind of flip-up rear cushion and claim seven-passenger status.

In terms of artistic expression, Nissan's started to stray. The "old" Murano had more than a few "challenging" design elements. The update takes all these style points and exaggerates them. Some of the mods work. The rear glass now bows out like an astronaut's helmet. The front hood bows in, dune buggy-style, creating sensual fenders. The rear hatch's looks are color dependent; it appears slim and svelte in black, puffy and plump in white.

On the downside, Nissan did nothing to ameliorate the Murano's triangular C-pillar/blind spot. Maybe they didn't see it. But no one will miss the Murano's new, Hannibal Lector-esque front fascia. Love it or hate it, I hate it. It strikes a major discordant note in an otherwise coherent design. The website proclaims "There's no such thing as too much style." Twenty-seven lights, boxes and chevrons say otherwise.

By the same token, the Murano's cabin suffers from what the music industry calls over-production. A superabundance of creases, nooks and grooves evokes 80's artists' visions of future airports. The vinyl-record-sized gauges light up inside and around the edges, screaming "look at me." The center console combines vertical controls with a horizontal mini-desk and an LCD monitor. Perhaps after you've read "Nissan Murano for Dummies" it'll all make sense. I never figured out how to redirect the heater's airflow.

The materials are first class though– especially if you opt for double-stitched leather. In fact, the LE serves as a showcase for Nissan's current cache of optional features: a headline grabbing dual-plane moon roof that covers both sets of seats, mood lighting that belongs in a loft-living bachelor's pad, a power lift gate and power-fold rear seats. The optional gizmology count is also high: a 9.3-gig music hard drive, Bluetooth and iPod connectivity and a key you can leave in your pants (or are you just happy to see me?).

Nissan's blessed their crossover's VQ-series V6 power plant with another 25 horses (up to 265hp), hitched-up to Nissan's second-generation Xtronic continuously variable transmission. There's significantly more in-gear urge underfoot, and the transmission no longer feels like a giant rubber band straining to stretch (thanks in part to the more powerful engine). Better yet: the Murano's fuel economy gains one EPA mpg in the city cycle (18/23).

Despite its newfound speed, the Altima-platformed Murano's feather-light steering and body float leave no doubt that corner carvers need to step up to (and stump up for) an Infiniti EX (better platform despite similar size), or consider Mazda's CX-9. The Murano LE's 20" wheels add grip and plenty o' bling, but make for a bouncy ride over big bumps. Shod with standard 18" footwear, I can well believe Nissan's claims for increased chassis rigidity and decreased noise. Listening to the beehive transmission proved the point; I had to strain to hear it, as opposed to work to ignore it.

To verify the Murano's cold weather capabilities, I tested the CUV in both virgin snow and pre-trampled cake. For comparison sake, I ran the course in a 2007 Murano and the fully loaded 2009 tester. While the differences between past and present Muranos are slim, the 2009 is the best choice for slippery stuff. It's superbly balanced and grabbed traction with almost disappointing (for hoons) alacrity.

The Nissan Murano hasn't been doing all that well in the sales charts lately. The company skipped the '08 model year; ‘07 sales were off six percent. With its upgraded engine and interior and raft of new options, the redesigned model is a safe bet to please the Murano's fan base. Strange to say, the big question is whether or not the new nose job will attract or repel style-conscious cross-shoppers. If so, the Murano will easily weather the hard times ahead. If not, not.


By Mike Solowiow

Nissan wants you to buy the Armada LE 4×4 to "Live Big." Someone needs to tell these guys that conspicuous consumption is dead– at least for those car buyers who can no longer afford it. While the high and low ends of the SUV market are still relatively robust, big-ass trucks in the former "sweet spot" are giving potential buyers a toothache. It may have something to do with the price of gas. Or ruinous depreciation. Which is a shame. The Nissan Armada is a damn Skippy good truck; you know, if you used to like that kind of thing.

The Armada is a paid-up subscriber to the Japanese school of design. Small details rule. The rounded arches over the Armada's doors look cool. Hidden rear door handles get props. Now, take a step back… Another one… NOW you can see that those bulging fenders are more Mitsubishi Starion shazzam than Audi Quattro cool. Who the Hell would be fooled into thinking the Armada only has two doors? And yes, that Nissan emblem on the grill really IS the size of a dinner plate.

Taken as a whole, the Armada is a mish-mash of bulky truck clichés. I'm not saying it's derivative, but the Honda Pilot, Land Rover Discovery and Chevrolet Tahoe called. They want their everything back.

Climbing into the Armada's cabin, I got lost. Tom Tom says turn left at the center arm rest, another left at the climate control, and you will arrive at the steering wheel. Nissan has upgraded the SUV's cavernous interior to great effect. Acres of dash are covered in sensually squidgy plastics in pleasant desert hues. Buttons still litter the center stack layout like scattered Lego, but a cool aluminum iDrive-like twist knob below an LCD screen makes access to ancillary systems easy.

The strip of ersatz timber separating the upper and lower dash and the silver plastic surrounding the Armada's shifter are about as convincingly upmarket as $10 Prada sunglasses. Escaping the aesthetic affront presents its own set of challenges; access to the way back requires agility, persistence, experience and a ready supply of Shrek Band-Aids.

For the 2007 model year, Nissan upgraded the SUV's 300bhp 5.6-liter V8 to a more robust 315bhp (or 317, depending on which promotional materials you read). This launches the Black Pearl-sized vessel from no-wake to an ocean-going 60mph in about 7.5 seconds. Unlike the Tundra-based Sequoia, the Titan-based Armada is in no hurry to prove the point. The big Nissan's tip-in is leisurely, and the five-speed slushbox likes any gear as long as it's the one that delivers the best fuel economy.

Speaking of which, the Armada's V8 is touted as the world's most efficient 5.6-liter V8! AND the gigantic FlexFuel badges proclaim the truck's E85 ability. Yes, well, you'd have to be a well-heeled corn grower to put up with 25 percent to 30 percent less fuel efficiency than the Armada's "normal" 15mpg EPA combined cycle.

How Nissan made the Armada handle as well as the smaller XTerra amazes me. With nearly three tons of mass pushing at marginally adequate tires, the Armada rolls only slightly, hangs on, and never loses its composure. Broken pavement causes the front end to skip to the side, but control quickly returns.

Obviously, no one takes an Armada around a corner. But if you did, understeer rules the day. Still, you never feel as though the Nissan really WANTS to plow straight ahead into the nearest guard rail. The options list included speed-sensitive steering. The only change I felt was a gentle transition from finger-twirling light, to not-quite-a-zombie on center helmsmanship. To feel the road in an Armada means pulling over and getting out. Which, in a beast weighing 5675lbs, might take a while.

Off-road, the Armada reveals its true purpose: the school run. Dial the switch to 4×4 High, wait ‘til the light goes out and then… fuhgeddaboutit. The standard running boards snag everything taller than forest squirrels. Grinning slightly at the amused salesman when we got high centered at the Land Rover off-road demo course, I engaged 4×4 Low, felt a shimmy and a crunch. And then the body quivered as the Armada scraped its belly off the obstacle. Not exactly safari material.

Who cares? There are very few full-size SUVs that shouldn't be something else. For the most part, these days, they are. Only their ancestors still roam the earth, sucking gas, threatening to squish all those funny-looking CUVs and the, what do they call them? Cars. Still, if you're one of those people who doesn't know when to leave a party, the Armada is a solid choice. It's comfy, safe (at least for you), tows stuff and, uh, that's it.


By Jonny Lieberman

After spending a few days in Nissan's Cube, I was reminded of Los Angeles' historic Mar Vista Housing tract. Built in the 1940s by designer Gregory Ain, the development deployed basic shapes (squares and rectangles) to give the suburban spread a high degree of architectural sophistication. Of course, people considered these "flat roof" houses a commie plot; builders only erected 52 of the planned 100 homes. The Nissan Cube sells for $11k in Japan. In the same way as Mar Vista, the Cube offers a whole lot of chic for a little bit of green.

At first glance, all you see is a box. But the Cube is a subversive piece of sheetmetalistry. First of all, it's brilliantly asymmetrical. The rear hatch is in fact rounded glass on one corner, whereas the other holds the hinges. Second, the Cube rolls on four round wheels (surprise!). Yes, well, the circle motif playfully contrasts against the cubism. The grill, wheels, headlights and taillights are all actually circles on squares.

The design brings to mind the episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where Larry orders a "Vanilla Bullshit" at Starbucks and starts exclaiming, "Coffee and milk! Milk and coffee! What a great idea!" Sometimes you don't need a grand, flame-surfacing language that speaks (only) to art school deans. More to the point, an entire coffee shop full of hot moms emptied out into a parking lot to "ooh!" and "ahhh!" over the khaki-colored Cube. Let's see you pull that trick in a Bangled Bimmer.

This simple-yet-clever styling motif continues inside. That's right, the dials, seat pattern and even plastic molding on the glovebox are all circles on squares. Other than that, there isn't much to write home about. On a postcard.

Calling the Cube "Spartan" is like calling water wet. Yet there is much to like about the minimalist treatment. For instance, a column shifter leaves room for a bench seat. There's a hunk of plastic molding in back that stores an umbrella. And if playing drug runner is your thing, the Cube has more smuggling compartments than the Millennium Falcon. Handy cubbyholes abound, including two glove boxes. Most importantly, you can haul mucho stuff, especially with the back seats down and scooched forward.

A couple of points before I share my driving experiences…

Nissan was kind enough to lend me a JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) car. That means the steering wheel's on the wrong (right!) side. The Japanese juice box's 1.4-liter engine has as much chance of making it to the States as Ron Paul has of making it to the White House… with Mike Gravel as his running mate. An all new, US-bound Cube debuts at this year's Los Angeles Auto show. Figure on the Versa's 1.8-liter four-pot scrunched under the hood.

The JDM car packs about 90 horses and not a lot of torque (if you can translate Japanese, have it). You'd expect that confronting American traffic in a low-po Cube would be a terrifying experience for all concerned. ("Honey, did we just squish something?") Here's the thing: it's absolutely not. Even with the extra weight of the Cube's all wheel-drive components (more on that in a bit), the Nissan tips the scales at just 2400 pounds.

I'm guesstimating a zero to 60 time of, oh, I don't know, 15 seconds. The Cube's statistical sloth makes getting onto the freeway a theoretically dangerous exercise. But the funny thing about reality is that it's always disproving the most logical theories. The Cube's no rocket, but around town it felt fine. Quick, even. While 90 mph is all she wrote, passing people is possible. Instead of lightly drubbing the Cube's throttle, you just bury it.

Even better, once at speed, the Cube is wonderfully composed. I was shocked by its sporting agility; we're talking Honda Fit-like handling. Meanwhile, the high seating position makes you feel like one of the big boys.

As mentioned, our Cube featured AWD. More precisely, e-4WD, and it's not what you think. The engine never powers the rear wheels. Instead, Nissan fitted a small electric motor to one of the half-shafts. Stuck in some sloppy footing? Flip a switch and the alternator sends power back to the rear wheels; talk about traction on demand.

The final part of my endorsement equation is this: have you been to the pumps lately? Nissan made me promise to go easy on the Cube, as only five exist in the country, they don't have any spare parts and no one knows how to fix them. Regardless, the Cube returned an honest-to-goodness 40 mpg.

So, besides cost, brand cachet (but not cachet) and more power than you need (be honest), what are you giving up with the Cube? In a word, nothing.


2009 Nissan GT-R

Nissan GT-R: World´s 1st Full Test - Inside Line Exclusive

By Stephan Wilkinson

The GT-R is the blind date everybody’s been telling you about for months: incredible body, second in her class at Harvard, fabulous conversationalist, star athlete. Then you meet her. Yes, she has obvious “assets,” but nobody mentioned the halitosis. She graduated with a B.A. in accounting. She’s a great conversationalist, but her voice sounds like run-flat tires with three-inch sidewalls running over a concrete-aggregate rumble and tar-strip slap. She's an athlete, but a grunting shot-putter, not a Sharapova. In short, the GT-R is SO not a supermodel.

I spent 1,450 miles inside a Nissan GT-R in early April, flying through the deserts of Nevada and central California. I didn't notch 193mph, the GT-R's top speed. But I (or you) could have done so with ease. I decided not to approach this limit to preserve my license. In fact, the Nissan coupe plants itself on the road better than any car I've ever driven.

Stretching the GT-R’s legs on an open Nevada two-lane road was so simple that my 28-year-old daughter could repeat the process a few minutes later while I lazed in the right seat. When we passed opposite-direction tandem tractor-trailers on these empty highways, it was as though the GT-R slipped by a Smart. With a Cd of .27 and just enough downforce in all the right places, aerodynamics are apparently a lot of what allows this car to go so fast so easily.

If there's anything to criticize about the GT-R's handling— I also spent an afternoon with the car lapping the mickey mouse Reno-Fernley Raceway— it's the steering. While the helm’s quick and precise, it’s strangely numb and electric-feeling. The Japanese still have a lot to learn from Porsche here, but the GT-R is ridiculously nimble for a two-tonner (with driver and gas).

Two of the car's most highly touted features baffle me, though. One is the endlessly configurable instrument display, called-up via the nav screen. Nissan readily admits that it “was inspired by videogames.” It’s not what you’d call useful– unless you're intent on studying steering-wheel deflection, slip angle, transmission-oil pressure and brake-pedal position while late-apexing an off-ramp. It's the geek equivalent of the complex chronographs of the 19th century: pocket watches that read out everything from the tides to your mistress's menstrual cycle.

The GT-R’s fiddly “launch mode” for maximum acceleration (meaning turbo spool-up) is also a curiosity. It will amuse those who haven't an ounce of mechanical sensibility who don't mind abusing machinery. Actual GT-R owners will use it a few times to amuse the neighbors, and then will realize that they're still making payments on the $70,000+ appliance they're brutalizing. Even Nissan told me to only use it "once or twice."

For me, the car's tires are the biggest turnoff. Quick! Name a single benefit to run-flats. They're noisy, expensive, difficult to repair and can only dismount with special machinery. I don't have a spare in my 911 either, since a fuel cell fills the trunk, but I use Ride-On to seal its tires permanently. (No, Ride-On has nothing in common with Slime or Fix-a-Flat.) The Bridgestones on the GT-R are so loud they negate the Bose sound system; a Costco Kenwood would have sufficed amid the din.

Obviously, this car's numbers– whether we're talking racetrack lap times, zero to sixty or MSRP– are stunning. We all know that GT-Rs are lapping the Nordschleife faster and faster, that they out-accelerate Porsche Turbos and ZO6s and cost $69,850 (plus “market adjustment fees…”). There's a lot to like about this car, but is it the ultimate, the Godzilla, the Nurburgring killa?

Who cares? Acquiring a supercar, rather than fantasizing about one, faces the buyer with a decision with vastly more to do with real-world attributes than with video games, bad movies and teen fetishes. (Admittedly, the last video game I played was Space Invaders.) It fascinated me that nobody in Nevada or California noticed the GT-R, other than carwash attendants, 14-year-olds with mullets and every parking valet in Vegas. The rest of the world walked on by, assuming they’d encountered a new Toyota Supra.

Seventeen years ago, the first Japanese supercar arrived in the States: the Acura NSX. Fabulous numbers, a half-price Ferrari, buff-book craziness, slavering car writers, rumored to be the benchmark for the McLaren F1, development work by Ayrton Senna… So where did the NSX go? Ultimately, it became the orthodontist's car, when the world went back to buying Porsches and real Ferraris. Care to take bets on what will happen to the GT-R?

Bottom line: the car world may have gone cuckoo for Coco Puffs over the GT-R but it’s ultimately a pointless, nerdy, twin-turbo, electronics-laden technological curiosity.