Minggu, 08 Juni 2008

TOYOTA MODELS REVIEW

TOYOTA RAV4



By admin

The Toyota RAV4 is a compact sport-utility vehicle, the smallest of Toyota's large family of SUVs. The RAV4 was one of the first entries in the compact SUV market, which has become more and more competitive in recent years thanks to rising fuel costs. Next to its competitors, many of which are in their first generation, today's third-generation RAV4 benefits from years of refinement and many first-in-class features.

We have always described the Toyota RAV4 as possessing favorable on-road manners, good ergonomics and a high level of quality, even if that comes at the expense of macho styling and off-road prowess. It has the comfort and drivability of car-based architecture and benefits from fuel-efficient engines. As such, this highly evolved, well-packaged compact sport-utility vehicle is best matched to young families and urban singles in search of a compact SUV that hits that sweet spot between car-based station wagons and truck-based SUVs.

Current Toyota RAV4

The current Toyota RAV4 comes in Base, Sport and Limited trims, with either a four-cylinder or a V6 engine, and either front-wheel drive or an on-road-biased all-wheel-drive system. Automatic transmissions come standard (a four-speed unit for the four-cylinder, a five-speed auto for the V6). Today's RAV4 is close to Toyota's midsize Highlander in length and actually has a more powerful V6. Yet thanks to its more narrow width and lighter weight, it's easier to park and achieves superior fuel economy when comparably equipped.

The 166-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder provides surprisingly good acceleration and excellent fuel economy. With 269 hp, RAV4s equipped with the available 3.5-liter V6 are quite fast and buttery smooth. The steering is light and the brakes are strong, making the RAV4 feel effortless to drive. Maximum towing capacity for the V6 is a respectable 3,500 pounds.

Even in Base trim, the Toyota RAV4 is well equipped with power accessories, cruise control and a full suite of safety features, including stability control. Sport trim brings exterior enhancements, a sport-tuned suspension and bigger wheels. The Limited model adds numerous luxury features.

The interior has Toyota's typical ergonomic flair, placing controls and switches right where one expects to find them. Among the RAV4's clever features are flat-folding split second-row seats that slide both fore and aft up to 6.5 inches and recline for added comfort. The backlit, white-on-black gauges and stellar assembly quality contribute to the high-quality feel of the interior.

Among the RAV4's options is a (kids-only) third-row seat that folds into the floor, as well as side curtain airbags, a powerful JBL audio system and, on Limited models only, leather upholstery and a rear-seat DVD entertainment system.

The current RAV4 has changed little since its debut for 2006. For 2007, front-seat side airbags and side curtain airbags became standard (they were optional in '06), and the optional JBL audio system received steering-wheel-mounted controls and Bluetooth connectivity.

Past Toyota RAV4 Models

The original Toyota RAV4 was introduced in 1996, at a time when the only compact SUVs were crude truck-based sport-utility vehicles that were better off-road than on. The first RAV4 was dubbed a "cute ute" in reference to its cartoonish styling, a moniker that was applied to several of the small SUVs that followed.

The first-generation RAV4 (1996-2000) was offered in two-door and four-door body styles, with a convertible version for a brief period. The first-gen RAV4 was appealing to young singles, but due to its narrow width and tight rear legroom, this cute ute was ultimately no substitute for a traditional family vehicle. Advantages included carlike handling, a low cargo floor and a large rear door that made loading cargo a breeze.

The second-generation Toyota RAV4 (2001-'05) was larger, with more expressive styling and innovative removable second-row seats that gave it truly impressive cargo-carrying capabilities. Early models had a 148-hp, 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine that came up short versus the larger four- and six-cylinder engines offered by competitors. Toyota addressed this to some extent in 2004 by replacing the 2.0-liter with a larger 2.4-liter four-cylinder good for 160 hp. Acceleration was markedly improved, and buyers could still choose a manual or automatic transmission. Overall, we found this RAV4 to be a fun-to-drive urban runabout thanks to its precise suspension tuning and high fuel economy ratings.


TOYOTA ESTIMA HYBRID



By admin

The hybrid(gas-and-electric) car is set to the third generation model from January, '06 though Estima set a minivan hybrid car that becomes the first in the world to the second generation model. THS II that is the latest hybrid system adopted for present Prius is installed, and the best tune is done and installed in the minivan.
The installed engine is inline4, 2.4L. The output of the front and rear motor is added to 150ps(110kW) of the engine and the system output of considerable 190kW(140kW) is achieved. And 10.15 mode fuel cost achieves 20km/L at the same time. Super-low fuel cost at the compact car level of 1t class has been achieved though it is a weight body of 2t class.
It insists that it be a hybrid car though the design around the front grille is changed though it is the one of present Estima basic the externals design, rear combination ramp is made a blue, clear lens, and it refrains from a special wheel by installing it. As for the interior, a central meter is also the difference of the display system and becomes the one only for the hybrid. E-Four the mechanism by installing the motor in the rear wheel as well as a past model.
VDIM that was the latest vehicle stabilizer was adopted and high control stability was achieved. The improvement of the control on low mu road are included, and the height of stability that makes the best use of the advantage of the hybrid car to its maximum. The point to have secured spaciousness at gasoline (4WD) car level by the miniaturization of the battery cannot be overlooked.


TOYOTA WISH



By wilfred

This car is very popular for its fuel consumption (FC) of 14.4km/l. It is because of this reason that i recommand my mum to switch to this car from the mazda 3 which i drove previously. When i am driving my Mazda 3, the FC is nearly 10km/l and the worse FC i ever had is from 8 to the best FC of 11.3km/l. However, now for this wish, the first tank gives 10.5km/l and if i add on with the subsequence FC, which are much better, the average FC is about 12km/l which is only slightly more fuel saving. But if you take into account of the fact that wish is a 1800cc while mazda 3 is only a 1600cc, then it is considered as a plus plus PLUS factor for wish.

Apart from the good FC it provides, it is also comparatively cheaper (Wish $73K) than other cars in its class, like Honda stream ($80K), Opel Zafira ($86K), Peugeot 307SW($86K), Nissan Lafesta($79K), Mazda 5 ($74*) and toyota pinic ($86K)
*Price on mazda cars are priced after cash rebate so must add about $6K for mazda 5.

But of course, the attractive factors of wish is not only its price and FC, the exterior design is also very nice and it will looks even nicer if you go for a makeover which consist of full body kits($800), foglamps($250) and 17" rims ($1200). However, for the interior, the dashboard is still quite nice but the furnishing for the doors give me a 'cheap' feeling because the furnishing for mazda 3 is just too nice to compare with.

Some good features are the seat alarm for passenger as my mum always forgot to fasten seat belt, 3rd row seat are accessible via both side of the rear door, flat and huge boot space when the 3rd row seats are folded down. However, there are also some negative points which are that the rear windows are unable to be winded down fully and when the gear is at the park mode, the hazard lights switch is abit difficult to reach.

Overall, this car is still quite value for money as it is big able to carry alot of people and at a reasonable price. :)


TOYOTA VIOS



by crickyt

The first Vios I saw was silver, however in my opinion I thought it looked very narrow. Perhaps the color helped with the perspective. I think Black and the Marine Blue I saw were good color choices. This is just a quick review based on comparison with the previous cars I have driven for a period of more than 3 months, Toyota Camry 2.4V, Daihatsu Feroza, Volkswagen Beetle, and Proton Satria 1.6. This is also to provide a slightly more unbiased write up.

Anyway I was brought to the back of the showroom where they were polishing
my new car. It looked great and ready to go. I checked the V-Kool and it was done quite professionally, pity though, I can’t use my power windows or my demister for a good 48 hours and 2 weeks for the demister. But hey, if you buy a Vios you will know that good things will come to those who wait.

I stepped into the car for a quick preview, to drive to the front entrance. Started the car slowly…and then applied brakes on the first corner – me and my sales agent jerked forward slightly coz of the momentum. ‘Good brakes’, I commented. He agreed.

So after that was the routine engine number checking, chassis number, paint work, et cetera while he explained to me the things I had already knew about the car. I listened anyway. So as I was in a hurry to go (office calling me to come back), so I left.

The keys, some of you might want to know, are not like the Camry or even the Wajas with the integrated remote on the key, its a separate unit, and the remote with the label (Cobra: Delta Elettronica), opens the car and releases the trunk. A separate code key is also provided to disarm the immobilizer and lastly a engine start key. So that's 3 keys just for your Vios compared to 1 for the Camry.

Handling 3/5
The first couple of potholes were just minor craters. I found that the Vios goes over them with ease, however on uneven roads I found the car to have a ‘springy’ effect. I don’t know if anyone’s experienced this but I have a feeling it’s due to the lightness of the car. Now the thing is I’m not that thin, right…so any imperfections can be, how’d you say…’felt’. Cornering seems to be fine as the car has a small turning radius and the steering feels weighted. I would have preferred a lighter feel. However there is the ‘springy’ effect again and this might contribute to some body roll. I don’t know if this body roll is actual or psychological due to the high seats. I wasn’t in high-speed driving conditions so this is not tested yet. But I must admit that the ride quality is quite good. And I’m sure the passengers will appreciate the ride. Ride quality is better than Satria, but not as refined as the Camry. But I preferred the handling of my Satria. Perhaps this can be fixed with some lowering springs.

The air-conditioning 4/5
The air conditioning, as opposed to what I have read, was good. They are comparable to my Denso from the Proton Satria. Meaning, it can get pretty cold, pretty fast. I had no complaints. But this might have been due to the V-Kool? I am not sure about that but I was comfortable under the sun. However, the air-con blowing at left hand is a really an issue because frozen fingers are not my thing, plus I like to drive with both hands on the wheel(perhaps since it is a new car I really want to be careful), so I have to reposition the blower to the left – way left. Then I realized that the lack of air-con creates a slightly warmer sensation in the steering area, so I have to push the direction to the right, cool down, then push it to the left. I would have preferred the air con where the stereo is, and the stereo where the air con is. So for the positioning of the air
vent, I minus 1 point.

The brakes 5/5
With 4-disc brakes, and as I mentioned earlier, braking is very good. Perhaps some might not like it, but I do. I am driving more confidently now. Brakes are comparable to the Feroza, which stops where you want, when you want. You might need to get used to it, and I think the brakes are better than the Camry just because the Camry is heavier.

Compartments 4/5
I haven’t used all the compartments yet, but the cup holders are indeed quite shallow, compared to the Camry. I personally would prefer less BIG compartments rather than many SMALL compartments. The one under the air- con vent which is reportedly too small, IS indeed too small. My phone doesn’t go in completely, however, it managed to secure the phone in place without any problems. As I am using Bluetooth, the phone being there isn’t a problem. For wired handsfree, putting anything there might be a problem. Other spaces I have not explored yet, but they don’t seem to be a problem, as it is something you adapt to, I suppose. Definitely more spaces to put things compared to the Satria. However, the glove box seems to be quite small, and the quality is only average, however it closes nicely unlike the Waja I tested at a showroom.

Interior 2/5
I personally don’t like the centred meters even though I thought I could live with it. You read reports saying you need to focus less, but I find myself turning my head to the left, and back to the right to see the meter properly. The font size is also too small, and cluttered so you don’t see your actual speed as quickly as you wish. This may be due to the fact that they used circles instead of the usual lines and the color coordination is off. But I seem to stare at the meter longer than necessary, and that creates eyestrain. I also tried looking behind the steering, and wished the meters were there. Perhaps this has got a little getting used to. But I turned on the lights in a dark carpark, and was pleasantly surprised at the green text from the digital tripmeter, and the pleasant light green meters. I suppose I will have more fun driving at night than in the day.

The quality of the interior is generally good, fitting parts have no protrusions, nor imperfections. However the dull gray interior could have used a bit of life with the use of a lighter color tone. Stepping out of the car though, the interior looked fine with the grey on grey as opposed to my previous thoughts that it was too drab. Perhaps the new-ness gleaming in the sun made it look okay?

The fabric seats were quite okay, and the seats were quite comfortable on my ride home. However I do feel that the use of some leather would enhance the experience, and the smell. The new car smell seemed to be absent. Perhaps I will get that once I remove the plastic wrappers when I get off work. I don’t expect the interior to match the Camry, and the quality is a notch better than my Satria, but its design and color coordination earns it the lowest points.

Engine 3/5
The 1NZ-FE engine seemed good on paper, and with the VVT-i badge on the left side of the car, you might eventually believe that you have a car so good, you want to spend the night with it. The first few kilometers were fine at cruising speeds, but the moment I tried to accelerate the moment I cut into the right lane, it felt as if the car was just a caffeine injected tortoise. It takes quite a few seconds to bring the car to speed. But as soon as it’s moving the acceleration feels more intact. I have to say that I expected more of this engine. But for my needs, this is more than adequate. The acceleration falls behind the Camry and my Satria even, as my previous Satria seemed just that bit more responsive.

Noise 5/5
Noise from outside is reduced to a slight muffling, something I like, making the stereo seems better than actual. In fact I actually thought that the 6 speaker 2 din unit will suffice for now. Of course this is not comparable to my 2 amp – 7 speaker unit in my beetle. But riding on the highway would be a joy as without the motorcyclists weaving in and out and around your car.


TOYOTA AYGO



By Martin Schwoerer

What does ten thousand US dollars buy an automobilist these days? How about ceramic brakes for your Porsche 911 and a bit of pocket change. Or a more-or-less acceptable used car. If you want a new set of wheels, ten large buys you a generic-Asian small car with wooden-feeling controls, a depressing interior, lousy ride, asthmatic engine and poor dynamics. No image, no resale, no fun. You might as well take the bus. Alternatively, if you live in Europe, you could buy a Toyota Aygo. But should you?

The Aygo’s makers pronounce their car’s name the "I-go,” evoking the idea of, wait for it, mobility. From the outside, the little city car shares a noticeable similarity with its automotive antonym, the Yugo. Like Ye Olde Zastava Koral, the Czech-built Aygo is teeny-weeny. In fact, at 134”, the Aygo’s the shortest five-door vehicle on sale in Europe, and the second-shortest car overall (after the Smart). And that’s where the similarities end.

Whereas the Yugo was a two-box Golf clone pummeled with an ugly stick, the Aygo is a one-box mini-minivan (complete with severely raked windscreen) that fits within the Japanese car-as-Pokemon design theme. The Aygo sports short overhangs, inoffensive proportions and nice details, such as artfully sculpted headlights and semi-concealed rear doors. It’s an aesthetically convincing answer to a difficult question: how the Hell do you fit four adults into a shoebox-on-wheels?

Answer: you don’t. The Aygo’s front seat occupants enjoy plenty of headroom, legroom and knee room. The Aygo is narrow enough to swipe through a credit card machine. So unless you’re broad of beam, you won't think you're sitting in a tiny car– until rear seat passengers ask you to scoot forward before they lose all feeling in their legs. No wonder Toyota didn’t call it the Wego.

By the same token, a four-up Aygo’s MINIscule boot (139 liters) won’t accommodate anything larger than a couple of loafs of bread (provided they’re not extra long baguettes). Combined with a complete lack of lockable storage space, it’s a major drawback for practically-minded and/or financially challenged buyers.

As Sciontologists will tell you, the cheap seats give you the best view of modern automotive design. The Aygo’s dash design looks fresh and funky without once over-reaching. There are chunky-funky backlit polycarbonate climate controls, plenty of small bins, a large iPodable audio system– and that's all. The cockpit makes drivers feel youngish and stylish, and not financially challenged.

The Aygo’s designers followed Colin Chapman’s dictate: to make a better-driving car, add lightness. The Aygo’s three cylinder 1.0-liter mill is the lightest engine on the market today, weighing just 67kg (the Lexus LS460’s transmission weighs 95kg). The tiny Toyota’s powerplant cranks out 68hp, pushing the automotive microlite from zero to sixty in 14 seconds and all the way to [a very brave] 100mph. (To achieve this performance, Colin and I recommend removing passengers.)

More to the point, the Aygo’s powerplant is a smooth, willing beastie, with a pleasant, thrummy sound up and down the rev range. Even better, no matter how hard you work the five-speed gearbox, you’ll still get at least 48 mpg.

I know: caning a car of this size and power is a bit like drag racing golf carts. But within the realm of “slow,” the Aygo is still a remarkably chuckable, consistent and maneuverable vehicle. Its suspension is an evolution of the Yaris’ torsion beam set-up, which is plenty damn stiff. Since the Aygo has no electronic handling nanny and 14” wheels, it’s a good thing that the car’s at and over-the-limit oversteer is controllable and linear.

Refinement is great, provided you’re OK with an unfair amount of road roar. The aforementioned suspension makes the car feel solid, but the penalty comes with a ride that’s hard and bouncy.

After 600 miles in the Aygo, it’s hard not to make a piercing glimpse into the obvious: the Aygo is an urban, or sub-urban, vehicle. And a damn fine one it is too. The Aygo’s tiny turning circle makes U-turns quick and stress-free, and there’s pleasure to be had in a spirited screeching-tire jounce up a parking garage's ramp. The Aygo may be cheap, but it's spry.

The Aygo has plenty of competition: the FIAT Panda, Ford Ka, Suzuki Alto, Kia Picanto, Getz (a.k.a. Hyundai) Aica, and the Aygo’s badge-engineered brethren (the Citroen C1 and Peugeot 107). Other than its stylishness, the Aygo’s trump card is money. The car that puts the toy back in Toyota has been designed to be cheap to buy and run (e.g. the engine has a timing chain). Toyota predicts service and repair costs of about $600 for the first 60K miles.

The Aygo could well be the least expensive car to own in Europe. Unexpectedly, it also has a lot of character.

TOYOTA 4 RUNNER



By William C Montgomery

In 2002, I embarked on a week-long trek across the High Uinta Mountains. On our first day out, I aggravated an old knee injury. So we borrowed a six-year-old all wheel-drive 4Runner and resumed our backcountry adventure by wheel. The 4Runner was ideal: rugged, reliable, capable and comfortable. Of course, Toyota didn’t get to be the world’s largest automobile manufacturer by leaving well enough alone…

In ’02, we flipped our mirrors back and threaded our way through narrowly spaced aspen trees to a lake at the bottom of a steep ravine. Skinned tree bark bore evidence that previous adventurers had attempted our road in wider vehicles.

Toyota’s ’03 revamp of the 4Runner added significant dimensionality to its formerly svelte figure. For the fourth gen 4Runner, the company based the vehicle on the plump Land Cruiser Prado 120. The 4Runner is now six inches longer and 4.3 inches wider than afore. That might not seem like much on-road, but off-road, well, let’s just say small is beautiful. Speaking of which…

In ‘06, the 4Runner underwent cosmetic surgery. The procedure pumped fresh collagen into the SUV’s trapezoidal grille and fender flairs. The nip/tuck also tightened the fog lights into round lenses and implanted projector-beam headlights and LED taillights. The Sports Edition continues to sport a decorative (i.e. useless) hood scoop: an ineffective affectation that belies Toyota's rep for serious-minded design.

We took full advantage of 4Runner’s cargo capacity to mule creature comforts: tent, chairs and a cooler. For family duty, the leather-trimmed 4Runner fit the wife, kids and our Black Lab. Still, it was a bit “snug.”

The obvious upside to the 4Runner’s Prado underpinnings: more elbow room for all concerned (unless you’re an adult banished to optional third row seats). The 4Runner’s cabin is amongst the best that Toyota-branded cars have to offer: supportive seating, soft-touch plastics, quality switch gear, flawless fit and finish and sublime ergonomics. Bonus! Even Nigel Tufnel would be impressed with a standard stereo’s power.

The Uinta’s Depression-era “roads” hadn’t been maintained since the Civilian Conservation Corps built them. The topsoil had long since eroded, leaving a highway strewn with boulders. We made full use of the 4Runner’s 11” of ground clearance, bucking and lurching our way to pristine lakes, without so much as a squeak or rattle.

Die-hard (one hopes) off-roaders will appreciate the 4Runner’s standard Hill Start Assist Control and Traction Control, and [available] Downhill Assist Control. They’ll also get off (so to speak) on the pair of convex back-up mirrors mounted above the 4Runner’s cargo area, inside the D-pillars. It’s a smart, low-tech substitute for complex (read: trouble prone) rear-view cameras.

Mud-pluggers will be FAR less pleased with the 4Runner’s aforementioned Biggie-sized proportions, and ground clearance and approach and departure angles that are little better than a full-domesticated CUV. These changes render an unmodified 4Runner completely unsuitable for a genuine Rocky Mountain high.

And then… a miracle. When we pulled onto a paved road, the 4Runner handled with the smoothness and quiet sophistication of a Lexus.

The latest 4Runner is even better equipped to handle extreme contrasts in road surfaces. Double-wishbone independent front suspension and four-link rear suspenders deliver creamy Camry refinement on tarmac. Sure, the big rig leans through corners like a four-wheeled La Torre di Pisa. But the SUV’s motions are controlled, predictable and rebound free. This truck tracks down the freeway as easily as it negotiates alpine trails.

My 4WD 4Runner Sport Edition (17” wheels, enhanced suspension) holstered the popular 236hp 4.0-liter V6, mated to a 5-speed automatic cogswapper. On the upside, the free revving 24-valve mill has lots of low down grunt (266 ft.-lbs. of torque @ 4000rpm) to motivate the two-ton leviathan. Soccer moms will have no problem getting the team to their Title IX practice. On the downside, 18/22 mpg.

Our 4Runner was a primal machine, bereft of electronic trickery or safety nets. We admired it for that.

The 4Runner now offers standard ABS, Vehicle Stability Control and Electronic Brake-force Distribution. The latter balances the amount of brake pressure applied to each disk depending on cargo load distribution. For example, if you put The Big Show (don’t know, don’t ask) into the back seat, the 4Runner will adapt to the extra 500 lbs. by channeling more braking force through the rear binders.

When we returned the 4Runner, I looked back with admiration, as one does with a faithful steed at the end of a long journey. Respect.

As an off-road machine, the current 4Runner is severely compromised. Toyota baked all of its mud-plugging goodness into the FJ Cruiser and relegated the 4Runner to highway and light trail duty. In other words, the 4Runner is now a refined, rugged looking, long-legged station wagon that gets miserable gas mileage. It's a terrific machine, but what's the point?

TOYOTA HIGHLANDER SPORT



By Justin Berkowitz

Sir Isaac Newton had a ninth law: all vehicles must gain mass with each passing generation. I know, I know: safety regulations, usable third row, American tastes, yada yada yada. And it’s true that the new, bigger Toyota Highlander exacts no fuel efficiency penalty for its extra height, width, length and weight. Even so, has the new Highlander lost something, as Toyota moves further and further away from cheap and cheerful towards pricey and ponderous?

The original Highlander’s bland sheetmetal made the Camry-on-stilts a sort of anti-Xterra for urban worriers. For reasons lost in the mists of machismo, the new Highlander has morphed into a CUV with a ‘tude. Not only has the model gained mass, it now bristles with malice. “Angry eyes” headlights combine with a Tundra-like raked windshield and bulging hood to create a vehicle that dares you to call it a cute ute.

The sheetmetal landscape is dominated by cartoonish, chunky features, from heavily indented side panels, to huge gaps in the wheel wells, to an immense block of grey plastic stretching right across the Highlander's posterior embossed with the word HIGHLANDER. In case you were wondering.

The Highlander’s interior is only slightly less manic. The previous cabin’s plain, po-faced layout constantly reminded its occupants they were flying economy class. The new model draws the top half of the dash downwards for a more business-like look, and then sprinkles spizzarkle throughout. The chrome-ringed cowls housing the main gauges set the theme: artsy “design” and electronic affectation over genuine quality and ergonomic excellence.

The Highlander’s plastics all look decent enough; some even boast fake grains and sophisticated textures. But they're harder than frozen pizza. You could cut your hand on the sun visor’s plastic flange, a sharp-edged hangover from a lackadaisical molding process. The Highlander’s cardboard egg carton headliner is the worst I've seen in a new car since fat Elvis roamed Las Vegas. The seatbacks are covered in a flocky "carpet" cloth that belongs in the triangular love nest of a ‘70s-era powerboat.

The soft-roader’s fit and finish is simply appalling. Some of the Highlander’s door panel's plastic pieces were so badly misaligned I assumed they were an homage to cubism. (They’re not.) Other than some handsome buttons on the dash that embody [what we traditionally think of as] Toyota quality, the Highlander is a riot of impoverished thinking AND execution.

As a people schlepper, the Highlander regains lost ground. The middle row is commodious, with easy ingress and egress. The trick center console detaches entirely and slides into a storage compartment. The third row is the main beneficiary of the Highlander’s growth. While the seat cushion is five inches from the floor, there’s now sufficient space for genuine adults. As long as you don’t mind having your knees at chin height, you’re good to go. For an hour or so.

As part of its move upwards (outwards?), the Highlander’s easily overwhelmed four-cylinder mill has been banished. As the standard 3.5-liter V6 kicks-out 270 horses and 248 ft.-lbs. of twist, sloth is no longer an option. The front wheel-drive Highlander can now motor from rest to 60 mph in an entirely respectable (especially for its size and weight) 7.6 seconds, growling most agreeably in the process.

Otherwise, the engine is supremely quiet and refined. Unfortunately, the five-speed automatic ain’t up to the job. Even with all-wheel drive, torque management is a major problem. Press on and the Highlander’s cog swapper hunts for gears. Meanwhile, the Sport-suspended Highlander jitters and shakes like an espresso addict. Spirited driving also dings the Highlander’s fuel efficiency, which [officially] clocks in at 17/23.

A few moments behind the wheel of the Highlander and you’ll know that Toyota’s chassis gurus have sacrificed all possibility of dynamic satisfaction to the gods of Novocain. The steering is light enough to turn with your eyelashes (closed course, professional driver), yet so slow your mind tends to drift before a major change of direction can be achieved. The brakes are effective enough, but so soft in their operation you expect to hear a pneumatic exhale when you’re done. Even in the "sport" variant, body roll is as bongo board bad.

Driving, schmiving. The new Highlander has all the features American crossover buyers have come to expect: alphabet soup safety technologies, supersized cup holders, [optional] DVD entertainment, power points aplenty, a backup camera and a nearly functional third row. While the plethora of electronic gizmos raises doubts about long term ownership costs, reliability has become less of an issue in consumers’ minds.

And there you have it: the reason Toyota has supersized the Highlander. The automaker knows its own growth depends on playing the American way, where bigger is better and more is more. The strategy puts Toyota’s soul at risk, but the buyer has spoken. As the new Highlander indicates, Toyota’s listening.


TOYOTA COROLLA S

2009 Toyota Corolla S



By Sajeev Mehta

I like to believe that the general population’s insensitivity to the joys of automotive design, engineering and performance is a simple matter of missed opportunity. If the average driver had suckled on Hot Wheels' sweet metallic tang from toddler-hood, if a mechanically-minded mentor had gently and gradually revealed the wondrous secrets of the automotive arts during their teenage years, if they’d been shown how to harness horsepower with skill and respect as adult drivers, they’d share my passion for cars with genuine soul. Meanwhile, Toyota sells millions of Corollas and no one complains. Why would they?

Aesthetically speaking, there’s nothing particularly kvetch-worthy about your basic Corolla. The lines are clean and understated (i.e. unrelentingly generic and utterly forgettable). There’s no wrong answer when describing a three-box design with the requisite front clip folly of swept back headlights and a flashy plastic grille. And the infusion of sculpted amorphic taillights to a snub-nosed posterior isn’t in poor taste.

The ground-effects equipped Corolla “S” is a different– and important– matter. Fully 14 out of 16 photos on ToMoCo’s official website showcase the S: an adhesive-backed insult to the Import Tunerz sporting a dainty decklid spoiler and a tragically short tailpipe extension. Aside from the dressy 16” wheels that show off the rear’s dour drum brakes, the Corolla S’ sport factor isn’t fooling anyone– except (perhaps) for easily impressed, fictional documentarians from the Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. “Nice. Very nice.”

The cabin answers to that description without irony. The Corolla S offers a pseudo-upscale interior with delightfully comfortable cloth seating for four. The leather clad three-spoke rim improves the Corolla’s awkward tiller-to-driver seating position. The S-grade gauges have class-appropriate pseudo-sportiness, although their red and white motif turns to Siamese baseballs by night. And the base stereo hits the requisite highs and lows with moderate enthusiasm.

But wait, there’s less! Rotary knobs and switches are clumsy and clunky, and the chrome trimmed-shifter looks out of place in the cabin’s sea of flat black. More importantly, at every touch point, the Corolla is cursed with Toyota’s latest form of competitive advantage: borderline beancounting. The plastics are harder than cubic zirconium, and the engineering shows a lack of attention to detail. For example, the sun visor sucker-punches the (optional) lighted rearview mirror through its downward motion. Whoops.

Still, price points, polymer pickiness and all that. the Corolla’s cabin is acceptably sporty for people who consider sportiness a series of marketing-related cues, rather than a genuine dedication to harmonious performance prowess. And if you grok that, you’ll understand the rationale behind its dynamic “prowess.”

The Corolla S is motivated by a 1.8-liter four-banger. To compensate for the mini mill’s lack of power (126hp @ 6000rpm), Toyota’s cursed the S with jumpy throttle mapping. Part throttle inputs are an exercise in accelerative overkill; call it slow and furious. Summon some highway passing power and the wide ratio four-speed slushbox gives a whole lot of nothing. Still, a scamper to sixty takes all of eight seconds; not a shameful figure considering the 26/35 EPA window sticker.

If you don’t ask for much, you get plenty in return. At reasonable speeds, the Corolla S’ cheapo twist-beam axle keeps the rear tires composed on all but the sharpest corners. The steering is tight. The S’ compliant suspension and absence of body flex and/or roll delivers a smooth and composed ride. Behold! The Corolla’s stock in trade.

With 122lb-ft of twist on tap, torque steer is a non-issue. Push hard and the hyper-throttle sends the stiff tires howling in disapproval. More understeer and nods of disapproval from pedestrians soon follow. On the positive side, whatever speed you [eventually] achieve is easily retarded with the S’ responsive and linear stoppers, drum brakes and all. Taken as a whole, the Corolla S only feels sporty at 7/10ths. Beyond that, options like ABS, side air bags, and the active handling nanny become mandatory.

Cavil if you must, but there’s no peer for the Corolla’s reputation for quality and durability. Intangibles like that are fine for most, but enthusiastic drivers prefer items like a fully independent suspension and rear disc brakes. If you want more, spend less. The Mazda3 offers more power, poise and interior quality for hundreds less. Even the rightfully-panned Ford Focus serves a fully independent suspension and more gadgets for the same coin. If you look closely, Toyota’s reputation premium threatens to destroy their value proposition.

Anyway, reliability be damned. There’s no excuse for the Corolla S’ haphazard approach to spirited driving. At least not for people who genuinely give a damn about such things, or even understand what driving pleasure is all about. In fact, I suspect the S is nothing more than the anti-Corolla Corolla: the model customers choose to say “I drive a Corolla but I like cars.” Like, not love.



TOYOTA LAND CRUISER



By William C Montgomery

In the movie “Out of Africa,” Denys Finch-Hatton’s 1923 International Harvester stalls on an open savannah amidst a herd of seriously cranky water buffalo. After a few nervous minutes tinkering with the engine, Denys tells Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) to manually crank the engine. It explodes to life, and they continue their illicit journey into cinematic history. Substitute a Canon DSLR for Blixen’s .416 Rigby, and in my mind, I’m there. As for the Harvester… what about an all-new 2008 Toyota Land Cruiser?

Sticking with the cinematic theme, the new Land Cruiser’s sheetmetal is still as tight and creaseless as a Hollywood actress’ Botox-pickled brow. Subtle fender bulges give way to doors as expansive and flat as the Serengeti itself. The big rig’s headlights and turn signals are integrated into massive light clusters, flanking a supersized grille, sporting the now familiar Schick shtick. The sidelights’ silhouette now tapers sportingly; a single failed attempt to ameliorate the off-roader’s overall blockishness.

In sum, the new Land Cruiser looks thoroughly modern and endlessly generic: a Rav4 writ large. Once again, the casual observer could be forgiven for confusing the pride of Aichi for any one of America's current crop of increasingly milquetoast motorized Mastodons. Given the ongoing antipathy towards genuine body-on-frame SUVs in some quarters, it may be a welcome case of hiding in plain site.

Inside, plain is the word. While the Land Cruiser’s helm offers a suitably majestic view of the landscape, the dashboard geography is a Toyota parts’ bin job; a throw it against the wall and see what sticks farrago of cowled gauges, glove aversive buttons, shiny knobs, LCD displays and ugly vents. Buttons under and behind the steering wheel? A single knob stuck on the side of the center stack? The Land Cruiser’s cabin is more rock fall than rock garden.

Strange to say, there is comfort to be found in the stiff though not brittle plastic adorning nearly every surface. It serves notice that the obviously not a fashion icon Land Cruiser was designed for long-haul duty in harsh climes, where cleanliness is nowhere near godliness. Even minor features such as the second row seat flip-out cup holders feel ready for half a million miles of hardscrabble living. Still, a starter button in an SUV?

The new, slightly larger Land Cruiser has enough cargo capacity for a month in the veld. For supermarket safaris, the second row offers the go-along gang plenty of leg room– more than the Cruiser’s [in name only] 4Runner. As is the way of such things, the Cruiser’s third-row fold down jump seats are best reserved for “time outs” or rewarded as “time served.”

The Land Cruiser is powered by the same luscious 5.7-liter V8 introduced in the new Tundra full-size pickup. Mated to a quick-witted six-speed transmission, stumping-up 381hp and 401 ft. lbs. worth of “I’m an SUV, get me out of here” torque, it’s Cruiser by name, cruiser by nature. Thirteen mpg city fuel economy may leave the environmentally conscious gasping for breath, but the Cruiser’s mighty mill is never caught short of puff. Entering, exiting or overtaking on the highway is epically effortless.

Through the corners… forget it. Keeping the 74” tall 5690 lbs. SUV plumb is more than the stabilizer bar-equipped coil springs suspension configuration can manage. At least the motions are predictable and relatively free of bounce and rebound.

The Land Cruiser is newly bestowed with Lexus’ trick Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS). Interconnecting hydraulic cylinders attached to the front and rear stabilizer bars respond to unequal wheel loading to facilitate greater articulation, keeping the wheels in contact with an uneven surface. The 200 Series also gets Crawl Control; it applies throttle and brakes to maintain uniform low speed suitable for the roughest roads. Innovative, but isn’t that what a driver’s for?

The new Land Cruiser’s off-road electronic arsenal is awesome, but truly adventurous souls won't be impressed. Toyota's reliability rep aside, fixing software glitches in the kind of places where you would really need the off-road gizmos is an impossibility. (That Harvester was ratty, but mechanically malleable.) And if you're not using the Land Cruiser off-road, why not opt for the cheaper, more luxurious Toyota Sequoia? All of which leaves the technologically triumphant Land Cruiser in the middle of nowhere.

And very expensive real estate it is too. My gas-guzzling test model rang-in at a whopping $79,143, including a $5K “market adjustment." Demand outstripping supply? Not for long, Mr. Bond. There are only so many people willing to fork-out that kind of cash for capability they don't need, from a brand (and an interior) with a decidedly downmarket demeanor. Economic conditions forced Karen Blixen to sell her coffee farm in British East Africa. Economics will take the wind out of the sales of Toyota’s bigger, better prairie schooner.


TOYOTA MATRIX

2009 Toyota Matrix



By Justin Berkowitz

Do you know how many Matrices Toyota sold in the United States last year? That's not a rhetorical question; I have no idea. Toyota rolls the number into Corolla sales. No surprise there. The Matrix shares its underpinnings with the Corolla– and the Pontiac Vibe (same car, different wrapper). Even if the Matrix accounts for a fraction of Corolla sales, a fraction of a lot is a lot. And so, just as Toyota is bringing out the new Corolla, they’re unleashing the sequel to the Matrix. Let’s call it The Matrix: Rebloated.

Although the Toyota website gallery only shows blue pill imbibers the sporty version of the Matrix, the basic box ain’t bad. It’s still a tall, narrow, stumpy sort of wagon thing (a.k.a. a snail from outer space). The new sheetmetal swaps the “grandma’s high trousers” look for gangsta chic. I’m not convinced about that swoopy swage line, and I’ve seen less steeply raked coffee tables, but at least there’s not an Echo in there.

The Matrix’ cabin is the eHarmony.com of interiors. Sure, it LOOKS OK. The radio head unit doesn’t make me cringe (i.e. no Ford-style digital toothpicks readout) and the steering wheel-mounted radio buttons are a plus at this price point. The gauges are models of legibility. But when you actually meet the polymers in person, it’s time for an emergency phone call from your buddy. The silvery plastic sprinkled throughout the cockpit is just abominable, guaranteed to scuff-up and look like crap in a year.

In terms of practicality, the Matrix’ rear hatch opening is (like the Saturn Astra) narrow at the bottom, leading to inconvenient fumbling with large objects. The cargo area is even worse. While the rear seats fold flat, the seat backs and cargo area are plastered with “bureaucrat gray” hard plastic, offering less traction than Ron Paul. And how about the scuffs, digs, scrapes, divots, lacerations, and other nasty marks that sliding hard goods will make as they rumba around the cargo area?

Our test car holstered the 2.4-liter four-cylinder mill currently doing its anti-Civic duty in the Camry, Corolla, Scion xB, Scion tC, RAV-4, and so on. The 158hp powerplant’s definitely a willing and smooth dance partner. But the Matrix’s 5-speed automatic transmission is hopped-up on blow. “WHAT? ME? YOUWANTMETOCHANGEGEARS?” Confused, hyper, and generally out of whack, the erstwhile slushbox was always in the wrong gear. Switching to the optional manumatic mode improved smoothness slightly, but herky-jerky throttle tip-in and limited gas pedal feel still ensure a less-than-satisfying driving experience.

The Matrix’ steering and suspension are standard-issue ToMoCo; which is to say they’re solid and firm and more than merely adequate for drivers who aren’t in a hurry and have never driven a Honda. Take a corner too quickly and you risk scraping the Matrix’ side skirt on the pavement. Never mind. The economy car’s greatest virtue is its ride. It delivers an ideal balance between soft and non-nauseating.

Aside from the usual prospect of excellent mechanical reliability and non-catastrophic resale value, there is very little about the new Toyota Matrix that’s inherently good. In fact, at the risk of jamming the red pill down your throat, it’s a terrible car. While we can quibble about quality, the biggest reason that the Matrix is a complete non-starter: Toyota sells not one but two competitors that are significantly better. (Not including the less-expensive, aforementioned Pontiac Vibe.)

If you still fancy a $22k Matrix (despite all that I’ve said here), please note that you can get the new Scion xB for less than $18k. Same platform, same 2.4 liter engine. The Matrix’ “advantages” over the killa B: an extra gear in its automatic transmission (which bites anyway), an optional sunroof and optional AWD– for yet another $1100 and $1000 respectively. And the Matrix offers a slightly more fuel efficient 1.8 liter engine (by a paltry four mpg city, two mpg highway).

So how about fuel economy? You could spend the same amount of money as you would on the Matrix 2.4 and enjoy vastly better fuel economy in the Prius.The Matrix’s entry level 1.8-liter engine (with the autobox) returns 25 city/31 highway. The Prius is rated at 48 city/45 highway. Not only will you be able to swan about in the carpool lane, but the Prius is a flat-out superior automobile. It's a genuinely usable hatchback with a novel, space-age interior that offers its own variety of fun (passing pumps in a single bound).

Folks, this is pretty simple. You can get the same car for less money with the Scion xB. Or you can get more car for the same money in the Toyota Prius. Either way you win. And the Matrix loses.



TOYOTA COROLLA



2009 Toyota Corolla

By Paul Niedermeyer

Every forty seconds, another new Corolla rolls off a dealer’s lot. Statistically speaking, it’s piloted by a middle aged woman without a college degree. She could be your house cleaner, mother or receptionist. For forty years, the Corolla has satisfied her with its predictable blend of reliable, economical and durable transportation. These days, old is out, youthful is in. Toyota’s PR professed and ambitious goal for their tenth generation Corolla: “to connect, more than ever, with younger buyers on every level” (Toyota’s italics/underlines). So, has the new Corolla hooked up?

The first half of Toyota’s “Plus-Alpha” program to attract younger buyers is “creative style packaging.” Corolla designers were sent to Italy for four months to discover “What would stand out, even on the streets of Turin?” I’m thinking a Fiat 500 Abarth SS. Their answer was not quite as dramatic. In fact, on the lowly streets of Eugene, the new Toyota Corolla was utterly lost in the sea of… older Toyota Corollas.

Goal number two is the “plus-alpha criteria of new value ‘improvements in sensitivity performance.’” What sounds like an ad for a sexual dysfunction remedy is actually all about improving the “five-meter impression” (no, not THAT “five-meter impression”). In Toyota-speak, it’s the aesthetic appeal as the customer approaches the vehicle, gets in and drives the car for five meters.

The presumption that the Corolla will sell itself within 16.4041994750656 feet is not without merit. It’s safe to say that the majority of Corolla buyers are pre-sold by the sea of virtually unbroken “happy faces” in Consumer Reports’ reliability stats, as well as the class-leading EPA mileage numbers (27/35).

Within my first five meters of acquaintance with the new car, I had an overwhelming “improvement in sensitivity performance”– from my nose. As I opened the door, my olfactory sense was assaulted by the intense smell of the still-polymerizing plastics. A pungent reminder of Toyota’s industry leading “just-in-time” manufacturing process? I cautiously touched them to make sure they weren’t still hot.

My other senses weren’t any happier with the plastics. The Corolla’s interior looks and feels distinctly cheaper than the preceding model. The flimsy ventilation controls feel much more Tianjin than Toyota City. I notice that my NUMMI built tester’s domestic content is down from 60 to 50 percent relative to last year. How else is Toyota going to offset the cost of an extra 150lbs of steel in the new model and keep their profit margins healthy?

Toyota deployed the extra metal to widen the Corolla by a couple of inches, as well as make it quieter. The only noticeable result: the hard, sharp-edged plastic door panels were that much more prominent in my field of vision. For a middle-aged man who’s 6’4” tall, the Corolla’s rear seat leg, hip and head room is woefully inadequate. But the cleaning-lady carpool will be happy enough.

Even in those first five meters, the Corolla’s new electrically-assisted steering made a powerful impression. Mother will love its over-boosted lightness in the Costco parking lot, but not me. It’s a necessary trade-off to keep the EPA numbers up (what with that extra body weight), but its synthetic feel and unpredictable weighting are a let down from the predecessor’s perfectly adequate hydraulic tiller.

That first drive almost turned into seven meters. The Corolla’s brake pedal felt like it was going to drop to the floor. We’re talking seriously mushy stoppers, unlike the firm ’08 comparison tester at hand. In sum, my five-meter impression was not a success; every time I hopped out of the ’09 and sat in the ’08, my “sensitivity performance” improved, and not just because of the smell. If any connection was going to happen, a longer drive was in order.

The revised 1.8-liter engine offers a few more horsepower. More importantly for the Corolla’s target market, it’s noticeably quieter. Given Toyota four-cylinder engines’ long, flat torque curves and the car’s intended mission in life, the four-speed automatic is adequate. With improved sound insulation and a soft ride, the Corolla is truly the Lexus of small car freeway cruisers. Your receptionist will love it.

When it comes to spirited driving, highlight and delete. The “old” ’08 is clearly the more dynamically engaging of the two models, with its pleasant steering and firm brakes. Or maybe I was just getting bored.

The 2009 base Corolla automatic lists for $16,050. That’s none too cheap, considering it has manual window cranks. Call me an old crank, but I don’t foresee a wave of new younger buyers connecting with the new Corolla. In fact, some traditional Corolla buyers may begin to question the price/value equation, in light of the cheap interior and the improved competition. That still leaves the Corolla’s stellar reliability reputation; hopefully the development team’s four months in Italy didn’t have an affect on that.


TOYOTA SEQUOIA



By William C Montgomery

Professor W. Edwards Deming taught post-War Japan statistical process control. Toyota management applied Deming's lessons with characteristic discipline, refining the Yale grad's famous "14 points" to create their lean manufacturing system. Through it all, ToMoCo had one over-riding goal: to mimic and surpass the world's greatest automakers. Driving the new Toyota Sequoia back-to-back against its archetypal competition– the Chevy Tahoe and Ford Expedition– proves the old adage: be careful what you wish for.

Toyota's "homage" to the great American SUV is obvious at first glance. The new Sequoia looks like the offspring of an illicit tryst between the manly Ford Expedition King Ranch and sweet little miss White Diamond Tahoe LTZ. Baby Sequoia has her father's horizontal chrome grille and her mother's facial structure. It's a pastiche without panache, a me-too shape that displays the same lack of originality that's helped propel other Toyota models to stellar sales success.

Other than the slight "flame surfacing" on the Sequoia's sides (cribbed from BMW), the nose provides the model's only ToMoCo branding. (Again.) While the snout's a straight cop from the Sequoia's sister-under-the-skin (the Tundra), the designers were smart enough to ditch the faux vent that crosses the top of Tundra's grille like a thin John Waters mustache. The Sequoia's front and rear-end are also more squared-off than the pickup, and the beltline is higher.

As befits the SUV version of Toyota's super-sized pickup, the Sequoia's almost an inch wider, over an inch longer and 700 pounds heavier than its previous iteration. And yet the Sequoia is now only par for the course in the big-boned American SUV genre. In fact, the Sequoia is shorter in length than the King Ranch Expedition and shorter in stature that both the Ford and the Chevy. Even so, in Arctic Frost Pearl paint, the Sequoia's doors and side quarter panels appear positively glacial in their vastness.

The Sequoia Platinum is a new trim line above the standard SR5 and former top dog Limited. It's more than just a purdy paint job and blingy wheels. The Platinum coddles its passengers– both front and middle– in infinitely adjustable heated and cooled leather seats. The standard navigation system with thank-God backup camera is the centerpiece of an all-too-busy dashboard awash in clunky brittle plastics. Low-rent vinyl posing as leather covers the doors. Clearly, unavoidably, the Sequoia's cabin is not Toyota's best work.

No matter what guise you prize, the Sequoia's basic packaging fails to outclass the Chevy and Ford– except for third row passengers. Although the Ford's way backs' headroom and legroom are superior, the key metrics here are shoulder room and thigh support, which the Toyota supplies in ample amounts. Raise the retractable shades, fold down the [Platinum's] nine-inch DVD screen, pass out the wireless headphones and Mom and Dad will be blissfully (if only temporarily and only in their imagination) childless.

While it would be easy to conclude that this is the big rig's raison d'etre, any such misapprehension will be rectified the moment you fire-up Toyota's 381hp 5.7-liter phenom. The V8 growls to life like an irritated grizzly bear awakening from hibernation. Poke the well-placed pedal and the engine gives you a heavy metal power chord that beats anything produced by the [optional] 14-speaker 440-watt JBL stereo system. And the engine ain't just whistling Dixie; the Sequoia's 10k-pound tow rating makes it the boat-schlepper's top pick.

The powerplant motivates the 6045lbs leviathan with ridiculous ease. Provided you've got a platinum credit card to pay the man at the gas station (13/18 mpg), you can blast this big boy from zero to sixty in 6.2 seconds. Even though the Sequoia's class-leading brakes and fixed four-piston front calipers can haul her down from 60mph in 139ft., that's… nuts. Which is OK, ‘cause driving this porker is about as fun as tending a fussy baby.

Members of the Platinum club get to chose whether they want the Electronic Modulated Suspension (H-TEMS) set for sport or comfort. Unfortunately, dialing up Sport isn't sporting and Comfort isn't comfy. Despite a fully boxed frame, low-pressure gas-filled shock absorbers and hollow stabilizer bars, the ride is too jittery for wafting and wafts too much for romping.

The six-speed transmission is another kill-joy; it hunts for gears like cat hunting a room full of mice. Yes, you can take manual control of the tranny, but who does? Meanwhile, jostling in a perch high above highway pavement while the neurotic tranny busily searches for acceptance, drivers are charged with the chore of manning an extremely sloppy tiller. No fun.

So here we are. The Sequoia is a bland-looking, gargantuan, comfortable SUV with a five-star engine, a two-star interior and lousy handling dynamics. In Toyota's quest to become like Ford and GM, they've become just like Ford and GM. Yes, but… consider Toyota's Demming-sourced rep for reliability. The ToMoCo juggernaut rolls on.


TOYOTA SIENNA LE



By Samir Syed

When I drove a Buick Terraza around Berkeley last fall, I was overwhelmed by the sense of occasion that came with it. The car had so much ghetto cachet I almost fell in love with it. It reinforced all of the car enthusiast prejudices I harbored about minivans (i.e., they suck). And for that, I thanked it. The Toyota Sienna, on the other hand, proved to be a bigger challenge. Each time I wanted to hate some aspect of the minivan, I found myself pleasantly surprised. I don't think I'm giving anything away saying right from the outset that the world's most boring carmaker has made the best example of the world's most boring type of car.

The Sienna isn't much of a looker. You'll never associate the van with the insanely hot actress of the same name. Toyota's sensibility signature is stamped all over the vehicle, from its unexceptional one-bar grill to its reasonably-sized badge. Viewed from its side, it's obvious the Sienna pays some heavy tribute to the last generation Dodge Caravan. Bloated-bean styling? Check! Bulbous ass-end? Check! Wheels that look goofily undersized? Check! Check! Check! If non-descript is good, the Sienna is amazing.

The Sienna's interior's Camryness is unavoidable-which, admittedly, is no a bad thing, you know, for a glorified van. [The Camry is, after all, the sedan with the soul of a minivan.] The seats are perfect shaped for protracted posterior positioning. The interior plastics aren't particularly awesome, but they're not particularly Chrysler either. The controls don't snick as much as roll around in imaginary butter, but at least they do what they do, and probably will do for decades.

One gripe: the center stack. No matter what color the cabin, the center stack is unrelenting black. How much would it have cost to fit the Sienna with a matching center stack? All told, though, it's a near-perfect interior for the car buyer who doesn't want to spend too much time getting to know his car's interior.

The test Sienna was equipped with the eight-seating option, whereby the middle row of captain chairs is replaced by a composite bench for three. Full marks for relatively easy way back access. Equally important, even without the power-folding option, the third row folds into the floor with the flick of a wrist. And anyone who disses minivan man doesn't understand the practical value of what is, let's face it, a fancy, big ass panel van with seats.

That's not to say the Sienna is in any way a crude device; the interior is a veritable sanctuary of silence once the Toyota begins rolling. The minivan is unflustered and unflappable, isolating occupants from anything resembling external stimulus. I swear I couldn't tell you the condition of the roads I drove on without stopping, opening the door and looking down. If a fire truck was bearing down on me, the first indication would be in my rear-view mirror.

The Sienna's engine doesn't provide much in the way of stimulus, either. This is, of course, another huge plus. ToMoCo's corporate 266 horsepower 3.5-liter V6 is simply ideal in this application. With 245 ft.-lbs. of smooth, free-flowing torque on tap, the powerplant always has an answer. It never lets the Sienna driver get impatient or frantic or… anything really. Even with four adults aboard.

The Sienna's five-speed automatic gearbox is similarly inconspicuous by its absence. You put it in "D", "P" or "R" as needed and that's the end of it. I repeat: the drivetrain's refinement is literally incredible; it's either pure Zen or automotive monotony, depending on your tastes.

The electronically-assisted steering is a perfect match to the rest of the Sienna's subliminal driving dynamics. You can't help but feel that the minivan's helm is somehow running interference for its "master," surreptitiously autopiloting around road imperfections so as not to interrupt family discussions about what craptastic plastic toys the kids will win at Chuck E. Cheese.

If the Honda Odyssey is the BMW 535i of minivans, the Sienna is the Lexus GS430. The Sienna's chassis is completely dedicated to wafting, not carving. The Sienna plows through curves as you'd expect, but Toyota's designers were thoughtful enough to include anti-roll bars at both ends of the vehicle, which mitigate some of the copious body roll. Coupled with gas-filled shocks at both ends, the Sienna is safe, secure and serene.

Taken as a whole, the Sienna is remarkably unremarkable. It's a minivan whose space, features, power, ride and handling are so unobtrusive they simply disappear. It is, perhaps, the ultimate automotive appliance: an aid to family life that's as indispensable as it is invisible. Other minivans have their relative advantages, but none offer the Toyota Sienna's mind-numbing tranquility. How great is that?


TOYOTA PRIUS



By Mike Solowiow

To my eyes, the Toyota Prius looks like an Area 51 reject: an ungainly sci fi fantasy devoid of charm or beauty. To its admirers’ eyes, the Prius is the latter day equivalent of a Model T or a VW Bug: an automobile whose virtues– and virtuousness– transcend the normal dictates of style. And THEN there’s the debate about propulsion, premiums and politics. It’s hard to think of another car that’s been this polarizing– for both manufacturer (Maximum Bob) and the end user (a.k.a. car buyer). And yet, just as sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, sometimes a car is just a car. Ah, but is the Prius a good car?

The current Toyota Prius (NHW20) hit American showrooms in 2004. The exterior shape hides the black skirts, integrated (vision robbing) rear spoiler and aero wipers that give the Synergy-driven sedan a slippery .26Cd. Clean, smooth and strangely attractive in Spectra Blue Mica, the Prius is still unique enough to stand out. “The” Prius has become “a Prius” without losing its identity.

And yet, for observers who know that “Dino” isn’t just the name of an annoying cartoon house pet, the word “ungainly” springs to mind. For others, “Toyota” is beginning to resonate; the Prius' shape is slowly fading into the masses of Yarii, Fits, and Versas. A refresh is overdue.

The Prius’ interior reeks of cost savings. Toyota hid all the really nasty plastic where fingers rarely dwell (lost parking tickets and french fries excepted). Strangely rippled soft touch materials resembling burnt Ruffles potato chips cover half of the dash, steering wheel and door panels. While it looks “interesting,” a close encounter of the third kind is like caressing a hairless cat. And the lack of beauty was more than skin deep; the center console shook more violently than a crack addict at the Western Casino and Bingo Hall.

The Prius places all the important driving info at the base of the windshield. After a few days, it was no biggie– unlike the gigantic ode to geekdom rising out of the dash like an electronic Kilimanjaro. The LCD information display that controls the car’s auxiliary functions is not so functional (Mr. Bond). The combination of buttons and touch-screen interface makes every adjustment– from the air-conditioner to changing radio stations– a tiresome two or three press affair. [Note: I fly AWACS for a living.]

At least the Prius gives drivers a choice between green and orange tones on the display, depending on whether you’ve got spring or autumn skin tones.

The Prius is motivated by a 76bhp 1.5-liter gas engine married to a 67bhp electric motor, a battery-powered powerplant that stumps-up an astounding 295ft-lbs of torque at 0 rpm. Around town, the Prius could not be easier to drive. It’s quick on its feet, nimble and almost tossable. In Las Vegas traffic, the Prius returned a laudable, affordable 40.5mpg. In stop-and-go traffic, the family-sized golf cart is in its natural element. Magic.

It’s an entirely different story on the open road. Find a slightly hilly/curvaceous piece of interstate and the Prius is more out of place than a gay pride parade at a West Texas football game. On level ground, the Prius easily attains 80, even 90mph (as the Clark County Police pointed out). Introduce a small incline, let alone a mountainous circuit, and the Prius huffs, and puffs, and gets blown off the road by any other vehicle, down to and including a Smart ForTwo.

Climbing the road to the summit of Mt. Charleston, the Prius quickly drained its batteries. It could groan no faster than a pathetic 57mph. Once the battery boost ceased to exist, the CVT transmission buzzed louder, and louder, reducing fuel consumption to 17.5mpg. Throttle response ceased to exist, and momentum became the name of the game.

If the Prius handled like a Honda Civic, you could dismiss its Pinto-like performance with the old “a slow car driven fast can be fun" argument. Nope. The Prius washed out into drastic understeer on every curve. In fact, the battery pack in the rear caused the back end to sway outwards when I lifted off the throttle. Who knew you could have a ‘moment’ in a Prius?

The more I pushed the Prius– and I mean that in the “I want to get home in time for dinner” sense of the word– the more it resembled a four-wheeled Lean Pocket. (“Remove from box, place directly in InSinkErator.”)

As a driving enthusiast, I’d describe the Prius as a funky Corolla with a big battery and bad handling. As an observer of the automotive scene, I’d call the Prius the uber-Toyota: inexpensive, efficient, reliable transportation that makes you feel good about not driving anything else. I’m not damning the car with faint praise; it’s what makes the Prius the people’s car of our time.