Category Archives: Notes from George

2013 Kia Optima SXL-Seeking Rarified Air

By George Straton

January 1, 2013

optima2You can always count on some real cold in the atmosphere here at Drive…He Said’s” Chicago abode. Not that it would stop the 2013 Kia Optima SXL, glass roof and all, from seeking it’s own rarefied air.

For the Birdwatchers Among Us:

Audubon Society members can observe and ponder the differences between the robin (not the  boy wonder) and oriole in the Optima SXL mid-size family sedan. Driver and front passenger get a power sliding moonroof. Two six footers and junior comfortably share a fixed glass panoramic roof with powered shade aft. Birds should especially notice how well the dark roof contrasts with the Snow White Pearl exterior of our Optima test vehicle.

Nowadays the Optima mid-size family car is built in West Point Georgia. Our tester was in top-tier SXL trim. Meaning that at $35,000 it wanted for little. Not counting lane departure warning/correction, guided park assist, or intelligent cruise control. Power and motion are provided by SX model donations: a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline 4-cylinder gas engine, with direct injection,  and a 6-speed manumatic slushbox. Additional comfort and convenience includes heated and cooled front seats and audible park warning. A baby could probably be taught to use the 6.5″ touch screen controlling UVO handsfree communication/media and hard drive navigation unit.

The “L-for-Limited” treatment pitches Nappa over normal seating steer-hides. The side mirrors do a power fold-up act second only to the Lamborghini Aventador’s “scissor” doors.  There are the functional bonuses: steering wheel mounted paddle shifters, more aggressive 245/45 series rubber and stiffer damping. Visual benefits include the four-wheel disc brake calipers painted in “look at me red” poking through mirror-finished 18″ alloy wheels. There are splashes of chrome whether inside on the pedals, or out on the tasteful trunk spoiler or the door sills. From the “theater marquis” are the illuminated red “KIA” emblems on driver’s and front pax rocker panels.

Second Time at Bat:

Since we last fielded an Optima (, Kia has gone to work on matters previously deemed three-fourth’s-baked. Right off the bat, you notice this sporty front-drive sedan actually has the stop to complement the go of the engine’s 274-horsepower. Improvements in braking are “night and day” different over previous Optimas.  Tap the pedal and hold on. There is actually some serious bite with these pads, at least until the limit of pedal travel. And those limits may be more owing to the tuned-for-placid Kumho Optimo all-season rubber. The stiffened Mac strut / rear multi-link setup has further tamed body roll and dive. Any semblance of torque steer is eliminated by an aggressive traction / stability control algorithm.

More a work-in-progress is an electric power steering assist which is heavy enough at low speeds to produce sore flexors and which fights jerking motions. A suspension which isolates your morning latte over railroad tracks manages to crash over larger road divots. Uneven pavement yields modest pitching. That’s gotta’ be the low-profile tires. The six-speed transmission, despite the nimble paddle shifters, is remiss to upshift smoothly when cold. Still a paradigm of smoothness under all but the most aggressive throttling is the powerplant. Off the line, the Kia Optima SXL commands respect completing the null-60 mph run in a tick over 6 seconds.  Fuel economy stands in the not-too-shabby 24 mile-per-gallon range.

Despite its major “hits” the Optima still has some “misses” to address. The buttery leather which trims the well-proportioned, fully-adjustable steering wheel is too slippery when the pace picks up, and some road impacts transmit through. Legible and logically placed redundant controls on the spokes are too dimly lit at night to be of much use. Successful voice command dialing from a downloaded phonebook will be limited to single syllable contacts. Such an intuitive media selection screen interface is worthy of  a sound system which offers spacial accuracy. Infinity’s dash-top mounted center channel “5.1” speaker doesn’t cut it.  At freeway speeds, a cabin unmolested from unpleasant powerplant and drivetrain noise, is mobbed by wind noise. Could it be the twin rubber door seals, down by one layer to the triple seals found in the Volkswagen Passat and Toyota Camry?  In areas of fit, a creak emanating from the driver’s seat each time we exited our Optima SXL was auspicious for a car with with less than 10K miles on the clock.

Reaching for Rarified Air?

So the suggested price may elicit some “That’s base  BMW 3-series territory” moans. In its defense the Kia Optima SXL’s  responsiveness to inputs and predictability in handling, in a front-drive family sedan with a 15 cubic foot trunk, tugs at our enthusiast heart strings. The exterior styling most closely approaches a “4-door coupe” in the segment without being too “swoopy-trendy.” Getting a rear-view camera on a Volkswagen CC VR6 requires forking over$3K more. Contrasting stitching schemes on seating and interior trim, with subdued dark simulated wood grains evoke a professional place to conduct business. A driver’s throne, though finicky to adjust,  is suited to spirited track time. There is the decadence of heated rear seating. And a center console canted slightly towards the driver as in Bavarian sport sedans of yore.

Quite simply put there is nothing boring about the 2013 Kia Optima SXL. Even if bird-watching is your “cup of tea.”

optima sxl

2013 Volkswagen Passat TDi

By George Straton            passat2013

Suffering  from “battery electric vehicle range anxiety” this holiday season? We at “Drive…He Said” picked up a “half-witted” key to a 2013 Volkswagen Passat TDi, to evaluate what might be the perfect antidote.   What better way to combat our own anxiety than by taking the high road to that “Birtplace-of-all-Passats” in Chattanooga, Tennessee.   In days of our youth Chattanooga was the un-official “half-way point” on spring-break trips to Clearwater, Florida. Sure, it also happens to be known for the “Choo-Choo” and a fateful American Civil War battle. Even though we usually stayed overnight in Nashville (oops).

Just north of this picturesque city of 170,000, straddling the Tennessee River, is where the Passat TDi was born.  With an EPA highway fuel-economy rating of 43 miles per gallon, “just” 620 miles to drive from Chicago, and a generous capacity for 18.5 gallons of diesel on-board there should be ZERO fuel stops. If only the human bladder had such capacity.   Inside and Outside the Volkswagen Chattanooga Assembly plant:   One-point-two million square feet of gleaming buildings are nestled in over a thousand acres in the foothills of the southern Appalachian Mountains. Hard to believe that the Volkswagen Chattanooga Assembly plant resides on land reclaimed from a former explosives manufacturing site. Outside there is an abundance of white-tail deer either frolicking or “mowing” the natural grasses. The wind whistles through the leaves of the legions of oak trees which span the entire horizon.

They all seem oblivious to the 3000 humans inside the assembly plant who along with some 380 robotic arms and welders finish 600 new Passats each day. One out of every five of those Passats is a diesel TDi model.   Watching the robots effortlessly fire off nearly 5000 pin-size laser welds confirmed our seat-of-our-pants observations as to the high-build quality of the Passat TDi. The assembly line moves at a relaxed pace, such that if a worker detects a flaw along the way a car can be pulled for further inspection. If a defect can be remedied then it gets re-introduced to its siblings. If not, it gets torn apart for inspection. In one morning, out of 300 cars being produced; we witnessed two non-conforming units pulled off the line. With one repaired to be re-introduced the other was to be torn down for further examination.   Who said only cars have to exemplify sustainability?. The nation’s only LEEDS Platinum certified automotive plant, with its impressive run-off water reclamation system, will soon obtain 12% of its electricity from an adjacent 33,000 panel solar field.

How the 2013 VW Passat TDi took to the hills of southeastern Tennessee:   Seven-miles of steeplechase-styled driving loops await in Hamilton County’s 2800 acre Enterprise South Nature Park. Just turn right as you enter the Volkswagen Drive roundabout (or left if exiting). It’s here where drivers realize another beauty: that of low engine speed torque inherent with diesels. Not that we minded depressing the light clutch and stirring the easy to row shifter of the 6-speed manual transmission in our “Candy White” tester. This, despite the fact that clutch and brake pedals are canted too far right. Caught napping in a high gear by a switchback that rises steeply? Forget about downshifting in the Passat TDi. Just push the accelerator from as low as 1200 r.p.m. and feel nearly all the 236 pound-feet of twist  tugging at the 3300-pound Passat’s front wheels. Observe the small Atkinson-engine supplemented electric hybrids wheezing just to catch up. It’s all developed by a single cam 140 horsepower 2.0-Liter turbocharged inline 4-cylinder, with iron block and aluminum cylinder head.

As a family vehicle, the VW Passat TDi acquits itself pretty well. The interior dimensions are on par with some full size sedans, with  the rear seat’s 39″-inches of legroom matching that of the Chrysler 300 sedan. With the added benefit of a reduced middle transmission hump, a 6-foot tall adult in the middle position has little reason to complain in the back-seat of the Passat TDi. Three full sized leather trimmed Hartmann suitcases will luxuriate in the 17-cubic foot trunk, with fold down access to the cabin.

As Teutonically intuitive, logical and legible the controls and displays are, the Germans in Wolfsburg have clearly imposed austerity measures on this second model designed for Americans. We’ll protest the austerity in the 2013 Passat’s un-lined glovebox, the hard plastics on the door panels and the arm-rest which no longer slides forward. The tall, sharp edges of the center console are not a comfortable place to rest a knee. And there’s that rotary headlamp switch that has but two positions: Daytime Running Lights and On. Tight window seals and good aerodynamics exclude wind noise from the cabin. Lower amounts of insulation elsewhere amplify the sound of liquid (fuel? AdBlue?) sloshing out back, something the flat sounding base audio system cannot overcome.

Priced at $27,000, that our stripped SE was, at least Volkswagen doesn’t deny any Americans heated front seats.   Exterior styling struggles to be formal but is hardly expressive, much in the way that a solid black suit is in dire need of stripes (and we don’t mean “pinstripes”).

If you have ever been in the last German made B6 Passat, derived from the previous model of Audi A4, then you’d “comprende” what all the fuss is about.   During more sedate in-town outings, the Passat TDi asks little of drivers or passengers. There is this care-free attitude. Pick up the pace on the wide sweeps in the valleys just outside Chattanooga, though, and the Passat becomes nonplussed. Meaning that the rapid steering rack is in need of feedback. Brakes, which are typically a VW forte, need a larger booster. And mucho body roll demands higher spring rates. Are we asking for a lot? This is the same company this gives us Golf Rs…not to mention Veyrons, Aventadors, Continental GT Speeds and 911 GT-3s.

The Myths about Diesel Costs and Emissions:   Having descended Lookout  Mountain, the fuel gauge noted perhaps a gallon and a half of reserve on-board the Passat TDi at the 706 mile mark. Had we chanced it the Passat TDi would have run out at 800 miles. It would be our second and final fueling of the entire round trip. Settling on a service station featuring a prominent “Diesel” sign, we meandered around the “gasoline islands” until we saw a lonely diesel pump banished far and away, in the corner, as if isolated with a contagious illness.

Even if clean low-sulfur diesel goes into the tank on the “slightly pungent side,” the Passat TDi’s urea injection significantly reacts with the exhaust nitrites removing any soot and stink from what exits the tailpipe. Thank you, California EPA. (The TDi does require a urea replenishment  every 10,000 miles on the, costing less than an oil change.)

“So you say that diesel fuel costs 15% more expensive than regular grade gasoline.” With 40% lower fuel consumption than a comparable four-cylinder gas-powered family sedan, the net fuel cost to drive the TDi on freeways is 30% less. “What about gas-electric hybrids?” For now, expensive-to-replace batteries consume plenty of trunk space and dictate smaller fuel tanks. Is it just coincidence that for the same money Kia now assembles its Optima Hybrid model less than 200 miles away in West Point, Georgia. Call it fodder for another pilgrimage.

Fuel Mileage Results may “Vary Greatly”:   Ordinarily, here at “Drive…He Said” we aren’t the sorts to brag. But you should have seen us make believers out of a small gathering that toured the VW Chattanooga plant along with us. “What? You said 46.5 miles per gallon averaging just under 80 miles per hour? Without hypermiling? While passing on the steep inclines on Interstate 24 west of town? And your TDi ran 710 miles on 17 gallons of diesel fuel before the “driving on fumes” warning light came on?” In urban slogging the Passat TDi returned a more earthly 34 mpg.   So, come on America. Do diesel pumps really deserve to be so lonely?

(Reprinted from Drive….He Said, December 5, 2012)

New Windshield Wiper Blades Let the Sunshine In – DIY Vehicle Maintenance

By: George Sraton

Drive…He Said

Outside temps have already started their wintry descent. As traffic races a fresh splash of road salted slush smacks the middle of your car’s windshield. Instinctively you activate your the windshield wipers. As the wiper arms move to and fro the result is smeared rather than cleared glass.  More aggravating is the chatter which isn’t caused by your pearly whites.

Some “Do-It-Yourself  TLC” is in order for you car / truck / van.  Do some holiday shopping for your ride at the nearest auto parts store, general merchandise store. Or simply let your fingers do the on-line walk to pick out a pair of new windshield wiper blades. Its nice to know that many brands even offer rebates available during the late fall and early winter.

You say you’re almost positive that you swapped out the wiper blades last year? Or that a yours are the more expensive integrated-frame “beam-style” blade fitted to many newer cars today? Even that the rubber is advertised to be made of silicone or have a Teflon coating? Besides you can’t see any major tears or rips in the wiper blade.

Well, exposure to the sun’s UV rays still breakdown the fanciest rubber. Ditto the heat and cold. As do the ozone, exhaust, pollution, road grime and road salt.  For verification roll the rubber portion of the wiper blade in between your fingers. If the rubber appears glazed and lacks real pliability, the blades are goner’s.

While the traditional exposed frame wiper blades accept rubber refills, over time the metal springs tend to bind or corrode and the surfaces will discolored. In the end all -new wiper blades are going to be the simplest to install.

When selecting replacement wiper blades be sure to match size and connector-types. Walk-in retailers will have a catalog next to the display that will provide the dimensions for your vehicle’s application. Online-retailers allow consumers to complete drop-down boxes which will generate the lengths. Keep in mind that it is not unusual for the driver’s side wiper blade to be different in length from the passenger side. Confirm the size by pulling a measuring tape.

Prior to installing carefully read the diagram on the packaging. Even if the text instructions are pretty sparse. Ascertaining the type of hook on the wiper arm will permit you to select the appropriate adapter, as two are typically supplied.

Time to Complete the DIY Wiper Blade Removal / Install: less than 10 minutes (and probably less than 5 min.)

Some final tips when its comes to windshield wiper blade maintenance: Always change wipe blades in pairs. Remember, rear windshield wipers included on many wagons and SUVs also need the same attention.

Your vehicle will thank you back for the new wiper blades, as will your eyes and ears. Happy Holidays and Safe Drives from “Drive…He Said.”

Notes from George

Winter’s-A-Comin’ – Affordable All-Wheel Drive

By George Straton      

If we got away lucky lucky with some spring-time weather for Thanksgiving this week, WBBM-TV meteorologist and “Drive…He Said” friend, Ed Curran, would caution that meteorological winter is still another week away.  We are willing to go out on a limb and make a forecast of our own: that by the first of the year more than one piece of crystalized H2O will fall from the heavens above.

Once the snow starts sticking to the pavement, buyers in the market for new sets of wheels, white knuckles, sweaty brows and all, will make B-lines towards models which can send power to “All Wheels.” Keeping in mind, whatever advantages all-wheel drive offers in the slippery also apply in the dry.

While slight weight and fuel economy penalties are associated with all-wheel drive hardware, in recent years the gap with front or rear-driven vehicles has truly narrowed.

Drive…He Said” recently tested two “affordable” all-wheel drive applications with divergent missions.

2012 Subaru Impreza Sport wagon On-Road All-Weather Traction on the Cheap:

Boy do we have an affordable all-wheel drive car for you. A brand that was once  viewed as quirky as SAAB and was likely confused with now defunct Swedish car-maker, has made lots of converts in large part due to its allegiance to all-wheel drive as a staple in its entire model line-up (save for the BR-Z). For 2012 Fuji Heavy Industries automaker has given us a re-bodied Impreza Sport five-door wagon. Haunches are less exaggerated than in the last model, now more squared off. The additional D-pillar with imparts the profile of a wagon. A 104″-inch wheelbase results in 35″-generous inches of rear leg-room and 22.5-cubic feet of trunk, which doubles when rear seat-backs fold, is competitive with many compact crossovers. However, be prepared for an overall somber interior in terms of finish. Standard hands-free connectivity is welcome. However, pairing devices is hardly intuitive thanks  to an infotainment head-unit which resembles that in an early 1990s Honda Civic and which offers minimally improved sound. Kudos to Subaru USA’s Customer Service call center, where a living, breathing agent answered our call on the first ring (sans queues). The same agent returned our call with a fix, inside of an hour.

Overall build quality in the Impreza Sport is good down to the polished door fasteners. Quite a few plastics are actually soft. A steering wheel adjusts for height and reach, and the center arm rests slides forward. The driver’s bucket is plenty wide with a modicum of side bolstering. And parents will be heartened by what have to be the easiest-to-access child seat anchors out there, minivans included. Each latch in the Impreza Sport has it’s own cavity in the rear seat cushion, concealed by fabric flaps. Many fingers will owe Subaru gratitude.

For years Porsche has been touting the packaging and weight distribution advantages of horizontally-opposed piston (aka “boxer” / “flat”) engines for the track. Subaru is the only other company which offers “flat” engines in its mass produced street cars in the U.S.. With the primary advantage being that the 2.0-Liter flat-4 cylinder gas powerplant in the Impreza Sport sits in front of the front wheels. So the 148-horsepower flow rear-wards, split evenly between the front wheels and then those “out-back.” When sensors detect loss if traction at a wheel, the viscous coupling of that wheel’s axle shaft will detach power to that wheel. Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive and aggressive stability control easily prevented the 205/55 Yokohama Avid S34 tires from breaking traction on dry pavement.

Despite an ultra-short 4.1:1 gear ratio, meant to make more of the 145-pound-feet of torque available, we found ourselves frequently downshifting the 5-speed manual gearbox by two gears for any meaningful freeway acceleration. That Impreza Sport manual transmission rewards drivers with direct, if long-ish throws and feather-light clutch engagement. Without an extra 6th gear engine, drive-line, tire and wind-noise become cabin intrusive in concert. Steering reactions are whoopsie-doo slow to inputs. The front strut rear double wishbone suspension deserve more higher spring and damping rates given the excessive roll and dive. Disc brakes at each corner begged for more aggressive pads with better initial bite, as the brake dust would have been camouflaged by the attractive smoke-finished 17″ alloy wheels.

Perhaps the 2012 Impreza Sport’s less-than-icy air-conditioning helped matters, but we’ll take the 28 miles per gallon in boisterous combined driving. As we will the good ride compliance on rough city roads. The price-meter just barely moved from $19,000 to just over $21,000 in the case of our Camelia Red Pearl premium tester. To find another car with the boxer engine’s low-speed raspiness you’d have to multiply that figure by at least a factor of three. And that Porsche Boxter has neither the Subie’s standard all-wheel drive nor its utility.

2012 Jeep Compass 4×4 – Off-Road Capability For a Bit More Dough

A local kid from Belvidere, Illinois, the 2012 Jeep Compass 4×4 is initially a front-drive compact crossover utility vehicle, sharing its platform with the Mitsubishi Outlander. Optionally, it is fitted with Jeep’s Freedom II all-wheel drive system. Under normal dry traction conditions, 100% of engine power is fed only to the front wheel, by way of a continuously variable transmission.  However in the event that ABS and stability control sensors at either front wheel sense slippage, the electronic coupling engages and power is fed rear-wards. Without any snow to contend with, we tried out our Compass Latitude 4×4 first on an off-road trail. Suffice it to say that with a “19:1 selectable “crawl” ratio in the CVT assisted by an electronic locking brake differential, 9-” inches of ground clearance and a maximum 29.6-degree approach angle, the little sport-ute handled some steep grades admirably.

You’d expect the 2.4L inline-4 twin-cam gasoline engine’s 172-horsepower rating should be up to snuff for a 3300-pound compact-ute. Alas, the super wide spacing of the CVT band ratios requires constant battering of the accelerator pedal to obtain any meaningful motion. Twenty-two (22) miles per gallon in combined driving,  isn’t too shabby for an off-road CUV. Invaluable was the Compass’ tow hook as a leaf and mud hill got the best of us during a photo-op. It proved that the tuned-for-the highway quiet 215/65 Goodyear Wrangler SR-A all-terrain tires, on 17″ alloy wheels, should never by mistaken as true off-road mudders.

On blacktop, the Jeep Compass’  front strut / rear multi-link suspension does a good job of quelling excessive body motion. Only the nastiest impacts transmit to the seat bottoms. Steering is sufficiently quick if “galaxies-away” in feel. More numb, if it’s possible, is the spongy brake pedal response fed by four disc rotors. There aren’t lots of soft touch materials and the plastic grains are dicey. Still the isolation of  the Compass cabin from noise was a welcome surprise. The former Wrangler-style front fascia, with its pancake-shaped headlamps, has been sent to the showers in favor of a more streamlined front treatment in line with the Grand Cherokee line.

The 2012 Jeep Compass 4×4 is priced starting at $21,000. Our Latitude-spec tester creeped and crawled out the door for just under $26,000. That included luxuries like heated seats, universal garage door remote,  and hands-free voice commands for media / communications. Off-road equipment includes hill descent braking drive/power-train/ fuel tank skid plates, engine oil cooler and a trailer tow wiring harness for 2,000-pounds of trailer-pulling. The steering wheel, adjustable for tilt, has the kind of illuminated infotainment and cruise control buttons that are well sized, spaced and intuitive. Seats were covered in a annoying fabric which clung to pants like contact cement, while the skin inside the pants slid around. Rear seat legroom and headroom each measuring 39″-inches would be more impressive were it not for the extension of the driver’s center console which protrudes into the space normally reserved for the rear seat middle passenger’s feet. Feel free to load 22 cubic-feet of cargo behind the second row seat, or 54 cubes if you flip the seat back down. Rugged outdoor types and backyard types alike will appreciate the clever pop-out flashlight recessed behind the cargo bay ceiling courtesy lamp.

Yeah, we know there are prettier, more “car-like” compact CUVs out there, with monikers like CR-V and CX-5. For the money, though, none of them offer the all-wheel drive off-road adventures which await in the Jeep Compass.

Our two budget choices for all-wheel drive, good for winter’s powder and summer’s pavement, each in their respective element. (From top to bottom); (1) The trail-rated 2012 Jeep Compass 4×4 starts at $21,000 – our Latitude tester came in just south of $26k. (2) 2012 Subaru Impreza Sport wagon, with full-time all-wheel drive for a admission price of $19,000, with our “Premium” edition ringing up for a still real “bang-for-the buck” at $21,000

And, hey “…Let’s be careful out there….” on the roads this winter!