Take a Nostalgic Trip Back to Carguide Circa 2003 -2007
For a number of years in the early 2000's this was the online presence for Carguide Magazine.
Content is from the site's 2003 -2007 archived pages providing a glimpse of what this site offered its readership.
Enjoy the nostalgic trip back!
Left to Right: John Plow, Hugh McCall, Dave Lamb, Alan McPhee and John Robinson
The way we were
The Birth of Carguide . . . a Cautionary Tale.
by Alan E. McPhee
This is not the whole story – that would require a book. It would also require months of research to confirm and support the less than photographic recall of those involved. But in late 2000, we brought the principal players together to reminisce and share their personal memories of that crucial period in the early seventies that led to the birth of Carguide. So here are the selective recollections of myself, Hugh McCall, Dave Lamb, John Robinson and John Plow.
It was a car magazine that brought us all together. Canada Track & Traffic was a monthly motorsports magazine (created by another bunch of car nuts) published by Cantrack Publishing out of offices on Ellesmere Road in Toronto. The company also published a trade magazine, Canadian Automotive Times, and the race programs for Mosport Park. I had recently left gainful employment to work as a freelance commercial artist and had been hired by Bruce Hawkins, the publisher, as the Art Director for both publications. Hugh McCall was already there as the Editor, John Plow was handling photo assignments and Dave Lamb was a student intern who arrived just a few weeks after me in the fall of 1969.
McCall hard at work.
Hugh’s connection with Track & Traffic started much earlier: “In the summer of 1966, I was working in the art business in Detroit, but I was getting fed up with it and decided to quit. I got a call from my brother Bruce (of National Lampoon fame, not to mention The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and GQ), who used to work with the founder of Track & Traffic, Jerry Polivka. They were looking for some help, so I pulled up stakes and moved here. Sid Priddle was running things at that time and we shared an office at 1290 Ellesmere. Sid moved on to a PR company and around ‘68, they brought in Rod Campbell from Montreal, who in turn, brought in Len Coates as editor and I was out. But that didn’t last long. The publishing company passed from the Feinbergs – who also operated Mosport Park – to Paul Durish, who invited me back. I was at Maclean-Hunter working on a magazine called Canadian Controls and Instrumentation so it took about a nano-second to say yes.”
John Plow was still at Ryerson studying photography when he came across a copy of Track & Traffic. “It seemed to me they needed a photographer so I went out to the Rattlesnake Hillclimb, near Milton, and took some shots on spec. That would be about 1966 or ’67. Anyway, they liked my stuff and I began doing all their road test shots and covering motorsports events.” John was also involved in one of the great hoaxes of the time. “I think it must have been Jerry Polivka’s idea, but we decided to do a story on the ‘High Park Grand Prix.’” High Park is right in Toronto and clearly, NOT a location for racing. “Al Pease and some other race drivers brought their cars and we set up a series of shots throughout the park. They weren’t moving, of course, but we made it look like it. The result was so convincing that the Toronto Telegram ran the story as if it really happened. It caused quite a stir and I think the drivers were suspended for a time.” Since then, John has been the principal photographer and is now the Photo Editor for Carguide.
Sometime in 1969, the company changed hands again when Bruce Hawkins became the publisher. That was the situation when Dave showed up: “I was in the middle of an MBA program, being happily subsidized by the government as an adult student. But I needed a summer job. I don’t know how I actually found out about the magazine because it must have been the best kept secret in Canada. Anyhow, I sent in a resume and was called in for an interview. I come into this office and I’m confronted by a wall of people – it was like the Spanish Inquisition. There was Alan, Hugh, Bruce and Brian Hawkins, and Mike Lewis (who ran the printing plant out back), not set up in any formal kind of way, but sitting in chairs, on the edge of desks, or leaning against the bookshelves. The interview went something like this: ‘Have you ever written anything professionally?’ No. ‘Have you ever had anything published?’ No. ‘Can you use a camera?’ Well, no. There was a lot of muttering back and forth and then Bruce said, ‘OK, you’re hired. We’re going to play pool now, do you want to come along?’”
That was typical of the kind of collegial craziness that characterized life at Cantrack. In retrospect it may seem a little unprofessional, even irresponsible, but it was absolutely necessary to offset the very heavy stress of survival.
McPhee hard at work.
“For some months in 1970, we all knew that things weren’t going too well. Unlike Europe, the automotive industry in Canada – so powerfully directed by U.S. interests – has never been a great supporter of Canadian automotive publications. Their attitude then was “Why should we spend advertising dollars on a Canadian magazine when U.S. magazines flood Canadian newsstands, full of advertising we don’t have to pay for?” Advertising pays the bills. It was true then, it’s true today.
The crunch came on Friday, November 13, 1970. Hugh McCall noted in his diary: “A Friday the 13th that sure as hell lived up to its name. At 4:30, Bruce called us all in and told us the place had folded.” Cantrack did its own printing in the back of the building, but paper supplier Buntin Reid had pulled the plug. “Alan, Dave and I are determined to keep T&T; alive . . .”
Dave remembers: “We were all called to Bruce’s office . . . there were about twelve or thirteen employees at that time . . . both Bruce and his brother Brian were crying, or at least one of them was . . . some of the women were snivelling, and basically, Bruce said that they would be able to pay off their debts but we were all out of a job. And then I remember looking over at Hugh and then at Alan and without a word being exchanged, we knew what we were going to do.”
Bruce was quite pleased that we wanted to keep the magazine alive and so we negotiated a price of around $10,000 to secure transfer of the title and the addressograph plates. This was long before computers and digital databases. The metal plates contained the names and addresses of the subscribers. No plates, no magazine. To be on the safe side, Hugh returned to the office that night and “under cover of darkness,” retrieved the plates. We were able to scrape up about $6,000 so, as Dave put it, “We were technically bankrupt before we started.”
One of the reasons we were determined to keep going was the possibility of starting Carguide magazine, an annual Buyer’s Guide listing every vehicle on sale in Canada. I had presented this idea to Bruce earlier in the year without knowing about the coming financial crisis. Hugh and Dave both agreed that this had real potential if we could survive long enough to pull it off. There was nothing like it in North America and we felt that the domestic car makers would be more likely to support an annual Buyer’s Guide than a monthly motorsports magazine. Carguide, it should be said, was not an original idea. Growing up in Edinburgh, I had waited impatiently every year for the big Earl’s Court Motor Show in London. Of course, I couldn’t be there, but the Daily Express put out a magazine showing all the cars at the show and listing prices and specs. There was enough car stuff in that magazine to keep a teenager’s hormones on high boil for months.
John Plow works while Robinson and McPhee supervise.
We relocated on Universal Drive in Mississauga where Heritage Press was prepared to do our printing and give us some office space as well. “That first office was so small,” recalls Dave, “you had to climb over two desks to get to the third one.” Once established, we found ourselves facing the same challenges that beset all publishers. The three of us could put out a monthly magazine, but that left precious little time to sell advertising. Each month we would sit down and determine whether we could pay ourselves anything. The question became, “...how much do you absolutely need this month?” Sometimes the cupboard was bare.
Enter John Robinson. I knew John from my days at Macleans magazine. He was one of their top salesmen and I knew that he was itching to get out on his own. Somehow or other, we convinced him that Track & Traffic and Carguide represented the opportunity of a lifetime and he joined the crew. Having a professional salesperson really helped but Track & Traffic – ruefully known as Trash & Tragic – was a tough sell. We owed our marginal existence to the imports. Without the advertising support from Fiat, Toyota, British Leyland, Volvo, VW and Datsun, we could never have survived. John brought some fresh ideas as well. He suggested doing special features on motorbikes and snowmobiles that brought in additional advertising (and eventually led to a snowmobile magazine), and he was the one who took Carguide to the Auto Show in 1974, beginning a relationship that continues to this day. John remembers: “It was at the International Centre out by the airport. I remember you guys saying, ‘Why the heck do you want to spend your time out there selling a few copies of the magazine?’” True, I’m afraid. There was a bar out there called, I think, The Blue Lagoon. We spent quite a bit of time there while John and his whole family lugged boxes of Carguide around and sold them to the showgoers. “But they loved doing it,” said John, “My daughters still talk about it today.” From that small beginning, Carguide and the Auto Show have grown side-by-side to the point where, this year, we will sell in excess of 50,000 copies.
Through the late summer and fall of 1971, Hugh slaved away, compiling the vehicle lists for the first issue of Carguide. It wasn’t easy getting the information because some manufacturers simply didn’t understand what we were doing. On Wednesday, October 20th., Dave and I, along with John Plow, took a brand new Ferrari Dino 246 to Mosport to shoot the first cover for Carguide. It was a glorious fall day, with leaves just starting to turn, and here we were, three car nuts with a Ferrari and Mosport all to ourselves. After the shoot, Dave and I took turns doing laps in the Dino – one of the sweetest cars I’ve ever driven – until the gas gauge got dangerously low. It was utter bliss. So what if there was no pay that month.
Carguide was successful from the start but it became clear that the revenue it generated could not subsidize the losses from Track & Traffic. One by one, we all had to leave to find regular employment. Track & Traffic became Driving magazine and was taken over by Groupmark, a company that ran the Canadian Drivers Club for Shell Canada. Fortunately for me, John Robinson kept Carguide going single-handedly through the seventies and eighties before selling it to his son, current publisher J. Scott Robinson. Hugh has been retired now for some years, Dave Lamb heads up Barrington Promotions, a company specializing in ride and drive events, I returned to Carguide in 1990 as Editor, after sojourns with American Motors, AMC Renault, and Chrysler, and John Plow is still taking great photographs for the magazine. It has been quite an adventure.
THE WAY WE ARE
In 1990, Carguide evolved from an annual publication to a periodical, now published six times a year in both English and French versions. The first issue in 1972 had a circulation of under 30,000. The issue in your hands will be read by more than 1.5 million Canadians. Today, Formula Media Group is a $10 million dollar a year business producing numerous magazines including, Leisureways, Journey and Going Places for the CAA (with a combined circulation of more than 1.2 million, they represent the largest mass readership in Canada); Boatguide, Boating Business, and Canada's SOHO Magazine, a joint venture partnership with Staples Business Depot.
The adventure continues.
ARTICLES / POSTS
The Dodge Caravan Challenge
Six minivans, six families, twelve opinions
By Alan E. Mcphee, Photography By John Plow
No one could have imagined back in 1983 that Chrysler’s homely, boxy minivan would one day be the top-selling vehicle in Canada; that global sales would be pushing 10 million and that every other car company in the world would be running to catch up. Timing, they say, is everything and the minivan arrived just as the baby boomers were becoming a major force in the marketplace. David Foot, in his best-selling book, Boom, Bust & Echo, noted: “The minivan, the wheels of the baby boom, turned Chrysler into a profitable carmaker. Chrysler was in the right place, at the right time, just as boomers were producing children and needed roomier, but not too expensive cars.”
But while the first target may have been young families, the subsequent emergence of the minivan as a multi-purpose vehicle serving a variety of lifestyles, has ensured its continuing acceptance. Today, some forty percent of minivan owners are over 50. To find out how today’s minivan is perceived, Carguide invited six families to take part in a weekend test drive.
The group included an architect, a fire prevention captain, a human resources advisor, an insurance adjuster, a municipal administrator and three executives in sales and marketing. They own a variety of vehicles including two Ford Windstars, a Plymouth Voyager, Dodge Caravan, Honda Accord, Honda Civic, Infiniti I30, and a Ford Explorer.
The Carguide team consisted of executive editor Alan E. McPhee, special projects manager Jock McCleary, chief instructor Jeff McKague and photo editor John Plow. The venue was the Delta Rocky Crest Resort on Lake Rosseau in the Muskokas and DaimlerChrysler provided six, spanking new, 2002 Dodge Grand Caravan Sport models, in Inferno Red Tinted Pearlcoat, equipped with the 3.3-litre V6 and 4-speed automatic transmissions.
Friday evening: the crew gathered under the tent at Rocky Crest; Alan McPhee provided some background on the beginnings of the minivan, and then explained the salient features of the current model. The remote open and close feature for both sliding doors and the rear liftgate was very well received. It also provided some entertainment when Tony Colella volunteered to stand under the liftgate as it closed, demonstrating the ‘stop and reverse’ safety feature.
TJ, Clark Davey, Shelley Grist and Taylor
Kerry and Jeff Fennel
Liz and David Lemire
Frank and Stephanie Sorrentino
TIP-TOE THROUGH THE PYLONS
Safety is of primary importance, and chief instructor McKague always starts the day with a chalk talk covering driver’s seat adjustment, hand positions on the steering wheel, seatbelt and airbag information. Then, it’s on to the asphalt.
While nobody would claim that a minivan is a sports car, McKague had designed several driving exercises to demonstrate the vehicle’s handling capabilities. The first exercise involved threshold braking and full ABS deployment. Participants always have some trepidation about getting up to speed and applying emergency level pedal pressure. After some coaxing, the crew got into the spirit of the thing. The purpose of the exercise is to make the driver familiar with the amount of pedal pressure required and to illustrate just how little space is needed to bring the vehicle to a safe stop.
The slalom requires the drivers to proceed through a set of ‘gates’ at gradually increasing speeds. This demonstrates the vehicle’s response to steering inputs, on-centre feel and its resistance to lean as it changes direction through the gates. Again, there was some initial reluctance to push the minivans through the gates, but speeds gradually increased to the required 50 km/h as each driver became more confident in their own abilities and the stability of the minivans.
The final exercise was the ‘brake and avoid’ test. McKague had set up two escape lanes with red stoplights at the end. The Caravans had to approach down a central lane at speed. At a given point, McKague blocked off one of the escape lanes with the red light, forcing the driver to take evasive action and steer for the ‘safe’ escape route. This required full deployment of the Anti-Lock Braking System simultaneously with steering input. This is the virtue of ABS…the ability to emergency brake and steer to safety without loss of control. Perhaps McKague left his signaling a trifle late once or twice, just to make things interesting but, as Jeff Fennel discovered, it’s never a good idea to try and anticipate what he’ll do. When he anticipated going left, only to find the red light blocking the lane, he tried to correct at the last second and managed to become a star in a new sport…asphalt bowling.
The Caravan’s performance through the pylons may have been the biggest surprise for everyone.
WHAT THEY SAID ABOUT CARAVAN’S ERGONOMICS
The front seats met with general approval. Liz Lemire: “The power seat is great…I liked the tilt (adjustment) of the seat cushion and the thigh support was just right. I didn’t feel like I was sliding off the front edge.” Clark Davey felt the seat controls were well placed but “…I found the (seat) height adjustment hard to use. Back and thigh support is excellent…the built-in lumbar support is great. Much more comfortable than our last Ford Windstar.” At 6'2", Kim Dobson felt the need for more headroom but found the seats good for long distances. This was echoed by Frank Sorrentino who noted, “After a two-hour drive, I was still extremely refreshed.”
Major controls posed no problems. Shelley Grist liked the steering wheel position, “As a former Windstar driver, I prefer the Caravan’s (steering wheel) location, because the gauges are easily visible, not blocked by the wheel.” Clark Davey found “…all the controls in the ‘cockpit’ were within arm’s reach, I didn’t have to bend forward out of my normal driving position to reach them.” Rose Colella particularly liked the outside power mirror controls mounted within easy reach on the driver’s door.
David Lemire thought the grey-on-white gauges were easy to read and Kerry Fennel liked the central location of the secondary controls: “Everything you need to use is logically laid out and easy to reach.” The three-way split heating, venting and AC system also garnered praise. “I especially liked having individual control of the temperature for the driver, passenger and rear passengers,” said Clark Davey. Kim Dobson agreed, “Especially when the sun is shining in on the driver’s side”
Front seat entry brought mixed reviews. “I’m 5'6" tall,” said Kerry Fennel, “and I had to tilt my head getting into the driver’s seat. First time I banged my head. Taller people would have a problem.” This was also noted by the Dobsons, Liz Lemire. and Shelley Grist, although Clark Davey found “…stepping into the Caravan was easy and comfortable.” There’s no question that minivan architecture is very different from passenger cars and this is a characteristic that familiarity cures.
In general, everyone found all-around visibility to be good with one exception. Shelley Grist said, “When the (front) passenger is sitting up and puts down the sun visor, you can barely see out the window.” Liz Lemire noted “…nice big mirrors, and shoulder blind-spot check area is clear for easy checks.” She also wondered if consideration is being given to a back-up proximity warning feature.
WHAT THEY SAID ABOUT DODGE CARAVAN’S HANDLING
The Caravan’s performance through the pylons may have been the biggest surprise for everyone. Kim Dobson said, “The van drove like a car, with better visibility.” Frank Sorrentino agreed, “I was pleasantly surprised with the overall handling of the vehicle,” and cone-eliminator Jeff Fennel added “…sticks to the road superbly, cornering never felt awkward, steering is great.” Clark Davey was also impressed with the steering. “The steering response was excellent. I didn’t have to turn the wheel as much as I have on other vehicles.” David Lemire was also impressed: “Going through the pylons, I was amazed that a van could turn so quickly at speed. Body roll was better (less) than any other minivan I have driven.” According to Kim Dobson, “The Caravan never felt out of control. I think that the speed and conditions would have to be much more extreme before you reach the van’s limits.”
The ABS exercise always has a powerful effect on people who have never experienced an emergency ‘brake and avoid’ situation. “The brakes were fabulous,” said Rose Colella. “The ABS application was excellent, especially in the emergency situation. I really felt safe in the van with such powerful brakes, especially with children on board.” It was a new experience for Kerry Fennel: “This was the first time I have used and seen ABS in action. I was very impressed with the way I could keep control of the vehicle during heavy braking.” David Lemire went further stating the Caravan’s brakes are “…the best I have ever seen on any van or even car.” Kim Dobson suggested, “Experiencing the ABS in a controlled setting is something everyone should do with their own vehicle.” Strong brake pedal kickback is a characteristic of some ABS systems, but the Caravan seems to have tamed it. Shelley Grist noted: “When the anti-lock braking system was used…the system didn’t have a lot of kickback. It wasn’t intrusive at all.” Liz Lemire seemed to sum things up: “Steering control under full ABS was remarkable. The exercise was truly outstanding at demonstrating the purpose and capability of ABS.”
Ride comfort also scored high with our test drivers. Frank Sorrentino: “The vehicle was surprisingly quiet at highway speeds. I would rate it an excellent ride on all types of road surface.”
Ramona Dobson said, “Background noise inside the van is very reasonable. It was easy to carry on a conversation between front and rear seats…I wasn’t always yelling at the kids to make sure I was heard.” Jeff Fennel agreed: “Overall ride is smooth and noise inside the van is minimal.”
“We were struck by how quiet this vehicle actually is,” said Liz Lemire. “If it wasn’t for the trees whizzing by, it could have been our living room we were sitting in.”
WHAT THEY SAID ABOUT CARAVAN’S PERFORMANCE
Our test vehicles were equipped with the 180 horsepower 3.3-litre V6 engine. A 215 horsepower 3.8-litre V6 is standard on the ES model. Shelley Grist found, “…the vehicle responded well to accelerator inputs. I found it to be a bit slow from a standing start. During kickdown passing maneuvers it performed adequately.” Kim Dobson noted that strong acceleration pushed the Instant Fuel Economy read out to 29 L/100 km, “...But we got by the gravel truck smartly.” Stephanie Sorrentino felt that the Caravan “…has good acceleration from a standing start and accelerates smoothly to higher speeds.” Frank agreed it was extremely responsive “…especially when its size is taken into consideration.” While most drivers shared this opinion, some felt performance would be enhanced with the 3.8-litre engine. Jeff Fennel thought that acceleration was a bit “sluggish” on entering the highway and David Lemire suggested people should check out the 3.8-litre version.
There were no disagreements about the 4-speed automatic transmission, which everyone found to operate extremely smoothly, going up and down through the gears without any suggestion of shift-shock.
WHAT THEY SAID ABOUT CARAVAN’S SAFETY
“The seatbelts are easy to connect,” said Tony Colella, “and unlike others, slide back into place very easily.” Liz Lemire appreciated “…the shoulder height adjustment. They didn’t lock up when reaching for a purse, map etc., like some do.”
“The rear seat passengers (TJ and Taylor) felt their seatbelts were very restricting,” said Shelley Grist. “However, as a parent, I appreciate the fact that the belts kept the children securely in place.”
The fact that you can operate the sliding doors and the liftgate by remote, from inside the vehicle as well as from the outside, was seen to be a real bonus safety feature. Shelley Grist probably said it best for everyone: “The driver or front seat passenger can push the buttons (in the overhead console) to open the (sliding) doors, from their own seat. This would be very beneficial when parents drop off children at school in the ‘kiss and ride’ lane. The parent would not have to get out, walk around to open the door, let the child out, shut the door and walk back to the driver’s seat.” Tony Colella volunteered to stand under the liftgate as it closed to demonstrate the ‘stop and reverse’ safety feature. “This is a great idea,” he said, “and little fingers can’t get caught in the sliding doors either.” In addition to the multi-stage front airbags, it was also noted that our test vehicles were equipped with side airbags for front seat occupants.
WHAT THEY SAID ABOUT CARAVAN’S SPACE
Our test vehicles came with second row Quad Command Captain Seats and a 50/50 split third row bench. Stephanie Sorrentino felt there was plenty of room both in front and back, “Very spacious, rear seating more than adequate for five adults.” This opinion was shared by most, but Ramona Dobson and Kerry Fennel weren’t so sure. Ramona said, “Rear seats could hold five adults, but I would say only for short trips. Four would be more comfortable. “Liz Lemire “…really liked the split rear bench…makes it lighter and more manageable to remove. Great for those times when you want to buy something oversized but have too many passengers. The power hatch option was fabulous.”
While leg and headroom throughout were generally felt to be more than adequate, several taller members of the team had concerns with respect to front seat headroom. Clark Davey and Shelley Grist both felt the need for more headroom, or the ability to lower the front seats. Jeff and Kerry Fennel agreed. David Lemire “…felt my head would hit the ceiling in vigorous driving.” Liz Lemire commented, “I found the headroom in front to be inadequate – I felt really close to the sun visor and I felt it was impeding my visibility.”
Everyone noted cargo volume and easy access. Again, the remote control rear liftgate came in for praise. “Cargo volume is superb,” said Jeff Fennel, “and rear hatch opening feature makes loading/unloading a snap.” Shelley Grist noted, “The fold down rear bench seat is a plus in added cargo space.”
WHAT THEY SAID ABOUT CARAVAN’S FIT AND FINISH
Noise, Vibration and Harshness (NVH) are generated by tires, engine, wind and suspension. Judging from our test team’s responses, the Dodge Caravan must be one of the quietest vehicles on the road. Kim Dobson said, “(engine noise) was non-existent except when passing (kickdown). No squeaks or groans from the suspension or body. Easy to have a conversation front to rear.”
Shelley Grist noticed some tire noise “...but it wasn’t harsh or vibrating.” Frank Sorrentino seemed to sum it up. His response to tire, engine, wind and suspension noise was: “Quiet; Quiet; Quiet and Excellent.”
Interior fit and finish drew high marks. “Good quality materials are used,” said Liz Lemire. “The tactile feel of the controls was very good, user-friendly and solid without being heavy.” Clark Davey noted that the upholstery materials seemed very durable and Shelley also noted that the plush materials and vinyl surfaces would be easy to clean. Kerry Fennel liked “…lots of nook and cranny space for maps etc. I liked the string bag between the front seats for keeping things handy and in place.” According to Frank Sorrentino the Caravan is “…a solid, well built vehicle with a feel of quality.”
Exterior style and finish also scored well. Kerry Fennel: “Visually pleasing. Sleek, nicely contoured and aerodynamic.” Clark Davey: “Excellent overall paint finish. Trim quality is good with consistent gaps between panels and door openings.” Tony Colella: “Excellent all the way around.” But maybe Liz Lemire made the most interesting observation: “This is as sporty as any manufacturer could make a minivan look. You might actually need to worry about your teenagers taking it out to play loud music and cruise for chicks…it’s that good looking!”
Did the Dodge Grand Caravan meet our team’s expectations? Nine said it did, and three said it exceeded their expectations. How about value for money? One person thought it represented Average value for money; six rated it as Good; four rated it Above Average, and one felt it was Excellent value for money. Has the experience changed the way they would approach future buying decisions? Definitely. Frank and Stephanie Sorrentino have a new respect for minivans. Stephanie said, “This was my first experience with a minivan. I was impressed by the performance and excellent value. I will consider a van in the future.” Rose Colella: “It made me very much more aware of the safety aspects of a vehicle.” Kerry Fennel: “I may ask more pertinent questions about ABS, now I have a bit more knowledge.”
And Ramona Dobson feels, “I think a true test drive has to be longer than a 15-minute spin around the dealer parking lot.” All our testers agreed that anyone in the minivan market should test drive the Dodge Grand Caravan. “Absolutely,” said Shelley Grist. “Test drive the Caravan before making a decision. It is an excellent vehicle that is comparable in price, design, features and comfort.”
“Definitely test drive this van to set the bar and then compare,” said Liz Lemire. “It’s a winner!”
Carguide Sienna Challenge
By David Lamb and Alan E. McPhee
Photography by John Plow and Bill Petro
The life of an automotive writer isn’t shabby. They test drive great vehicles. They (sometimes) travel to exotic locations, spend hours on racetracks and have a chance to meet the designers and the engineers who build the cars.
It gives them insights into the industry not available to regular consumers. But it comes at a price. Sometimes too much technical information can be a barrier to understanding the real world, “street values” of a vehicle.
Which is why the Carguide Challenge series is so refreshing. It gives the editorial staff a chance to look at vehicles, and the testing of them, through fresh eyes — the eyes of consumers just like you. Consumers who have to make real world buying decisions . . . not just exercise their opinions like automobile journalists. They come to this three-day event with a totally different perspective.
The teams started with a series of straight line threshold braking tests, gradually increasing speeds to 80 km/h with full ABS application.
The brake and avoid exercise was the final test, replicating a real world emergency situation. Most marveled at the stability of this van.
Six lucky couples were recruited from the general population across Canada. We tried to match their lifestyles and demographics to the featured vehicle, in this case the all-new 2004 Toyota Sienna minivan.
No one tried to sell our guests a 2004 Sienna, though Toyota probably wouldn’t object. In fact, it’s a strict rule: No manufacturer representatives can be on hand. Even our staff stays out of the test vehicles while our guests conduct their testing.
Our cast of characters is comprised of six couples, two with children.
- Neil and Wendy Andruk from Clearbrook, British Columbia.
- David and Leslie Wong, Calgary.
- David and Suzanne Kirk, Peterborough, Ontario, accompanied by their two children, David, 10 and Morgann, 8.
- From Ontario, Tony and Sadie Sattan who brought their children, Fabian, 12, and Felicity, 10.
- Mario Cloutier and Diane Sawaya from Laval, Quebec.
- And from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Chris Waugh and his wife Carol Campbell-Waugh.
What they drive on a daily basis is significant. As a group, they own a total of five vans: an Aerostar, Windstar, Caravan and two Voyagers. They also own an Olds Cutlass, an Infiniti G35, a Dodge Dakota, Mazda Tribute, and for you trivia fans, an ’82 GM Vanguard.
Our agenda involved an overnight stay at the Marriott hotel, adjacent to the Lester B. Pearson airport. The first night, we conducted a standard walk-around, pointing out the key features of the Toyota Sienna.
The following day we traveled to the wine district of Niagara-On-The-Lake, where we spent two days at the luxurious Queens Landing Inn. It’s a tough life.
Dynamic testing, designed and implemented by our resident chief instructor, Jeff McKague, was done at the nearby Niagara Falls airport. The airport personnel actually cordoned off a separate runway for our tire squealing antics. To evaluate a vehicle, you need to put it through a series of repeatable driving manoeuvres that determine its performance capabilities. Safety is the first priority and Jeff started out by giving the team a basic “chalk talk” covering vision, proper seating adjustment, hand positions on the wheel, outside mirror adjustment and anti-lock braking techniques.
The teams started with a series of straight line, threshold braking manoeuvres, gradually increasing speed from 60 km/h to 80 km/h with full ABS application. Next was the slalom. This exercise demonstrated the vehicle’s lateral stability as it is thrown through a succession of left and right turns, and its response to steering inputs. It is also a vision exercise that makes the driver look well ahead while utilizing peripheral vision. The “brake and avoid” exercise was the final test, replicating a real world emergency situation. In this, the driver has to drive through a pylon “gate” at speed. Beyond the gate, pylons block the centre lane, leaving escape lanes on either side. At the last possible moment, Jeff signals which lane to take, forcing the driver to “panic” brake and steer for the safe lane indicated. Confidence — and speed — gradually builds as the teams realize that with ABS, they can mash the brake pedal at speed, yet still steer away from danger without losing control.
Over the course of three days, we gave our testers ample time and varying conditions to thoroughly evaluate the fleet of seven Siennas. We even threw in a day of persistent rain.
“The steering wheel adjustment tilt and pull is just phenomenal” ~ Mario Cloutier
Toyota has chosen to relocate the automatic transmission shift lever to the lower portion of the dash.
One of the dynamic tests highlighted this feature. It was a timed event with a prize for the quickest run. It wasn’t hard to see who drove vans with a column shifter. These van owners would swivel around for a fast look over their right shoulder, yank on the windshield wiper stalk, spray the windshield and wonder why they weren’t moving backwards.
Half of our testers appreciated the new gearshift location, suggesting it made sense and was easy to use. The others argued there was no advantage, saying, ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it’.
The group was unanimous, however, when it came to its approval of the front seats. Everyone appreciated the ease and functionality of the power controls, which are standard on the LE and XLE models.
As you might expect, the leather seats with heated surfaces drew praise, particularly from those who don’t have such luxuries in their everyday driver.
Leslie Wong made no bones about her preference. “The soft leather seats and smooth feeling steering wheel would be well worth the money, considering how many hours you spend behind the wheel of your car.” She went on to say, “I have also downgraded heated leather seats from a luxury to a necessity.”
The best feature, by far, according to our testers was the fold down rear seat arrangement. Wendy and Neil Andrak show how easy it is.
“The whole exterior look is one of high quality workmanship” ~ Leslie Wong
“... Plenty of room for storage ... low enough for easy cargo lifting” ~ Wendy Andruk
Neil Andruk was more practical. “This is a great feature for small children, if they spill, it’s easy to clean.”
Suzanne Kirk agreed with Leslie. “The heated leather seats in the XLE model were heavenly after standing out in the cool damp air.”
One exception was Mario who thought the seat cushions didn’t offer enough thigh support.
Chris Waugh and his wife, who are admittedly big people, found the legroom for front passengers marginal.
According to Carol, “I felt there was no knee space when sitting in the vehicle and I know my husband could only have his knees fully bent.”
As a group, they raved about the tilt and telescopic steering wheel.
“The features of the steering wheel are amazing, said Diane Sawaya. “The pull towards the driver is a valuable feature.”
Mario added his comments. “The steering wheel adjustment features — tilt and pull — are just phenomenal.”
Unanimous approval was also given to the all-around visibility. Each made positive statements about the large windows and mirrors.
After the dynamic tests, a couple of our VIP testers mentioned the left foot dead pedal. Jeff gets them to brace themselves with their left foot when ‘tossing’ the vehicle through cones and other abrupt changes in direction.
“Really appreciated the false left-foot pedal. It gave me a well-balanced feeling and stability of posture,” according to David Kirk.
David Wong said much the same. “The dead pedal is a great idea. A physical, tangible item that helped me with leverage and balance.”
There were some complaints about the seatbelts. Most felt the belts were comfortable and unrestrictive. But three mentioned the difficulty they had finding the seatbelt latch in the second row seating. They felt it was too low, or buried in the seat cushion.
It appears David Wong put considerable thought into the matter.
“I noticed difficulty in one of the seats — it would not engage quickly. The seatbelt indicator (seat belt not engaged) is a good idea but should be extended to the second and third row seats.”
Diane Sawaya mirrored these comments. “When I sat in the second back seat, the anchor support was too deep into the seats.”
“I was pleased to drive a minivan that has this much car feel” ~ David Kirk
Everyone felt the transmission was a smooth performer that contributed to the Sienna’s exceptionally quiet ride. David Kirk reported, “The cabin was quiet enough that I could hear the children whispering to each other while on the highway.” Carol Campbell-Waugh expressed the same thought. “You could hear people speaking with ease, from front to back.” Mario Cloutier agreed, “I was amazed to notice how low the noise factor was across all models.”
Likewise, everyone praised the car-like ride, and in particular, the quietness, regardless of road conditions. A target defined by Toyota and mentioned to our staff prior to the event, included ‘a new level of handling confidence’. Amazingly, most of our testers used virtually the same words to describe the handling and braking, without having read any of Toyota’s literature. Suzanne Kirk observed: “The steering response was great. Much more car-like than I’ve found in other minivans.” Tony Sattan said, “I drove the Sienna (in the slalom) at a reasonably high speed and the steering was smooth and responsive. It made me feel confident.” Diane Sawaya was also pleased with the steering: “Power steering responds smoothly and returns promptly to on-centre.” Chris Waugh mirrored these comments, “I found the steering to be quite tight (responsive), giving the driver a feeling of control and confidence,” while Wendy Andruk, summed it up for everyone: “I felt very much in control of the vehicle.”
The most appreciated feature, by far, was the third row seats that hide away under the floor to create a flat storage area.
There had been some concerns about keeping the kids occupied during three days of testing. We didn’t have to worry. The rear seat DVD entertainment system with its two sets of wireless headsets kept the young ’uns quiet ... and the old folks happy.
“It was incredible how easy it was to fold the rear seats to a flat position,” suggested Wendy Andruk. Diane Sawaya agreed, “This feature is simply amazing.” Tony Sattan was very clear. “This is the one reason why I would choose the Sienna in my next purchase decision.”
Likewise, there were rave reviews for the cargo area, which has a deep well when the third row seats are upright. “I can visualize groceries not falling all over the storage space as usually happens,” said David Kirk. Wife Suzanne was impressed with the ease of entry and exit, “The power-assisted self-closing feature of the doors is a mother’s dream come true and the safety feature that prevents the door from pinching a hand or arm would be welcomed by many parents.” Neil Andruk agreed. “I found all the doors easy to operate.
The automatic side doors and rear hatch were a big plus.” Chris Waugh noted that “... access to the rear is accomplished with little effort, compared to other minivans on the market.”
The Dynamic Lazer cruise control was a big hit. David Kirk: “The distance-sensing lazer control is a GREAT feature/option.” It works in conjunction with cruise control. A send/receive unit is mounted low within the right front bumper. In effect, the driver sets cruise control, then activates the system. A small button on the hub of the steering column presets the distance. Once the vehicle enters the preset zone, it backs off and obediently maintains its distance. “I can foresee this option combo being a potential lifesaver on late night, tired-driver runs.” said David Kirk.
Our team from left to right: Tony Sattan, Wendy and Neil Andruk, Diane Sawaya and Mario Cloutier, David and Leslie Wong, Chris Waugh and Carol Campbell-Waugh. Fabian, Felicity and Sadie Sattan, Suzanne and David Kirk with their children David and Morgann in front.
Young families with kids make up the majority of minivan buyers. Having four on our team, all under the age of 12, provided a unique perspective. Chief engineer Yokoya calls it ‘the Kid Factor’ and his solution is in the rear seat entertainment section. Occupants in the second or third row can enjoy video or audio programs independent of the older folks up front. Two wireles headsets are provided (let them crank it up). The system includes a 7-inch flip down LCD screen with DVD player. The kids even have their own remote control. All our under-age testers gave it two thumbs up.
At the end of the three days we asked our testers to complete an evaluation form. As you would expect, the scores were high. There aren’t many gaps in the Toyota armor. Our temp testers were genuinely impressed with the vehicle in all its varieties with the CE and LE scoring best. Both Neil and Wendy Andruk, owners of a Plymouth Voyager, felt “... There was more van than I expected,” while Tony Sattan, who has a Dodge Caravan in the driveway felt, “It is superior to other similar vehicles ... it is the best value for the money.” However, Mario Cloutier and Diane Sawaya (the real “hot-shoe” of the group), felt that the XLE and XLE Limited should have a more powerful engine (there’s at least one in every crowd).
The CE and LE models met or exceeded the expectations of all the team members. They also scored as ‘above average’ or ‘excellent’ in terms of value for money. Two members felt that because of the higher price of the XLE (and XLE Limited), and the long list of luxury features, it might even deserve a Lexus badge.
Attention to Detail
Hyundai improves entry-level, luxury offerings
By Richard Russell
VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Hyundai has released a pair of new products that bookend its ever-evolving lineup. Both the third-generation Accent and the all-new Azera showcase the engineering and relentless pursuit of quality that have changed perceptions of the South Korean company.
“We are halfway through our 24/7 schedule — seven new products in 24 months. A lot of engineering and attention to detail went into these new vehicles and we will be judged not only on how they compare to the competition but to their predecessors,” said Hyundai Canada president and CEO, Steve Kelleher.
Both Accent and Azera are larger, faster and more economical, and boast more features and interior space than their predecessors — and competitors. The Accent introduces a new degree of refinement to the entry-level class and the Azera has an astounding array of standard equipment at a very attractive price.
The 2006 Accent shares a new platform with its Kia Rio cousin. The wheelbase has grown 58 mm (2.3 in.) and the track widened. It is 45.7 mm (1.8 in.) longer, 25.4 mm (1 in.) wider and 76.2 mm (3 in.) taller. Occupants in all positions will appreciate the added head, leg and shoulder room. The driver’s seat sits 51 mm (2 in.) further off the ground for easier ingress/egress and better sight lines. The 60/40 folding rear seat has a folding centre armrest complete with cupholders.
The 2006 Accent appears initially as a 4-door sedan in GL, GL Comfort and GLS guise. A 3-door hatchback will follow in the first quarter of 2006 as a ’07 model. Standard equipment on the $13,995 base model includes two 12-volt outlets, full variable intermittent wipers, AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system with four speakers, sun-visor extensions, tilt steering wheel and 8-way manual adjustment for the driver seat. The $15,295 GL Comfort model gets air conditioning, power windows and locks, heated mirrors, remote keyless entry and six airbags (two on the GL). At $16,659, the GLS adds larger tires wrapped around 15-inch alloy wheels, 4-wheel disc brakes and ABS with electronic brake force distribution. Unfortunately ABS is not available, even as an option on the other models.
The 1.6-litre engine from the current Accent has been carried over but upgraded with continuously variable valve timing (CVVT), resulting in 110 horsepower and remarkable fuel economy. Because of a different final drive ratio, the 4-speed automatic is actually more frugal on the open road than the 5-speed manual. Natural Resources Canada rates the automatic at 5.9 L/100 km (47.9 mpg) on the highway and the manual at 6.2 (45.6 mpg). The city numbers are 8.3 (34 mpg) and 7.4 (38.2 mpg) respectively.
While the Accent makes an excellent point of entry for the Hyundai lineup, the Azera provides an aspirational vehicle for Hyundai owners looking to move up. But Hyundai sees this
newcomer as a genuine contender for people considering such respected names as Accord, Camry, Allure and Maxima. Built on a new and exclusive platform, the Azera is a large car, 25 mm (1 in.) longer and 70 mm (2.7 in.) taller than the XG 350 it replaces. It rides on a wheelbase that is 30 mm (1.2 in.) longer and the track is 25 mm (1 in.) wider. The back seat is especially commodious and the trunk capacity has gone from 410 litres to 469 litres — in day-to-day language that’s BIG.
The Azera is also one of the more stylish sedans on the market, especially from the rear three-quarter view. On the inside, restraint contributes to the upscale feel. Fit, finish and the quality of materials compare with vehicles costing much more.
As the flagship of the Hyundai fleet, the Azera is well equipped, yet costs thousands less than similarly equipped vehicles. Standard equipment on the $34,495 base model includes 4-wheel disc brakes with ABS and Electronic Brake Force Distribution, Electronic Stability Control, electronic traction control, eight air bags (front, side-curtain and side-impact for both front and rear seats, electric windshield de-icer, power sunroof, 6-speaker AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system, automatic dual-zone temperature control, cruise, power windows and locks, remote keyless entry, 17-inch alloy wheels wrapped in Michelin tires, plus heated and powered front seats
(10-way driver, 4-way passenger). The $37,495 Premium model adds a full-leather interior, power adjustable pedals, electric rear sunscreen, rain sensing wipers and an audio upgrade.
A brand new, all-aluminum 3.8-litre V6 with four valves per cylinder, dual overhead camshafts and continuously variable valve timing provides ample motivation. Producing 263 horsepower, it is paired with a 5-speed automatic transmission that passes power to the front wheels.
Both the Accent and Azera impressed during several hundred kilometres of mixed-road driving. The things we noticed most relate to refinement and how Hyundai has caught up to the leaders of the pack, especially in terms of engine and suspension. Both the four and six were quiet, smooth and willing to rev without sounding strained. Both cars were eerily quiet at all sane speeds. Obviously the Azera was superior in this respect, downright impressive in fact. But we bet the Accent would beat the competition in its class. Hyundai has made great strides in shock absorber and spring rate tuning. The rides were well controlled and devoid of the willowy feel of previous versions.
Competition is the consumer’s best friend. The Accent and Azera will certainly keep the industry on its toes.
Boss Benz bristles with new power and technical tidbits
The latest S-Class has more features and controls than any of its predecessors
ST. MORITZ, Switzerland — There’s bound to be a spike of fresh interest whenever Mercedes-Benz bares a brand-new S-Class to the world. To those who saw it showcased for the first time at the Frankfurt auto show, it also served as a marker for some new technology that will eventually make its way down to the lower levels of the passenger car market.
But for now, the new S-Class rules the luxury car roost with a raft of new high-tech enhancements sure to massage the egos of any owners worried about losing out in the bragging rights race.
The latest S-Class has more features and controls, many of them automatic, than any of its predecessors.
Among the highlights in this area is a new night view assist system, which considerably enlarges your range of vision in the dark. That became abundantly clear during a rapid return run between Milan and this Alpine rendez-vous for the rich and famous.
Just as impressive is improved brake assist technology that works out just how hard an emergency stop has to be to minimize the chance of another car running up your rear. Optional in conjunction with an upgraded Distronic Plus system, it does this with the same pair of radar sensors that also communicate with the big sedan’s “active” cruise control, which automatically slows you if you come up quickly on a car ahead. Actually, approaching a stoplight, it can bring the S-Class to a safe halt behind the car ahead if need be. It calls for a large leap of faith to let it do this, as your right foot hovers in the vicinity of the brake pedal, but the system works uncannily well.
Scan away from the night view system’s display towards the middle of the dash and you’ll spot another high-res screen for the usual nav map and stereo functions. But you can also call up a 3-D graphic feature that lets you alter the shape of your seat by selecting the part you want to pump up and inflate. It’s all accomplished through a big, round knob you can turn, press and prod in various directions, your hand and wrist supported on a comfy padded armrest. Though it sounds similar to BMW’s oft-panned iDrive system, better screen menus and easily intuitive operations mean M-B’s ‘Comand’ controller is more user friendly.
The technology treats seem endless: active damping for the air suspension, a floor plan with random dimples pressed in to add strength and muffle resonances, a new and bigger V8 engine …
But perhaps it’s time to take a look at the S500 from the outside. If the new S-Class looks bigger, that’s because it is. The wheelbase has increased to 3165 mm (124.6 in.), a stretch of 80 mm (3.1 in.) over the old model. The body is longer overall too — at 5206 mm (204.9 in.) it occupies 48 mm (1.8 in.) more garage space. Width and height have also increased slightly, growing to 1871 mm (73.6 in.) and 1473 mm (58.0 in.) respectively.
Although the basic platform is still a conventional steel unibody structure, the hood, front fenders, doors and trunk lid are all aluminum to offset weight gain brought on by the increased size and extra equipment, though the S500 is still about 90 kg (198 lb) heavier than before.
Curiously, despite its larger dimensions, the new S-Class appears slimmer and certainly looks sleeker. The front end sports a fresher look, highlighted by large, angular headlamps that sweep back into the fender lines. Prominent wheel arches and deep character lines along the sides add a dash of visual interest. The rear view is dominated by a trunk lid not unlike that adorning the larger Maybach ultra-lux sedan.
Inside, thin metal strips underscore wood dash and door trim and, from behind, those bands emanate a subdued light at night (controllable by the aluminum Comand knob).
After a couple of days of pushing, prodding and turning a plethora of buttons and switches in sumptuous, leather-clad silence, we reckon you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more welcome or comfortable driving environment.
Fits and finishes are up to snuff, the power-every-which-way seats are broad, comfy and nicely cushioned. If you opt for it, you can even have them heated, ventilated and capable of massaging you to ease the accumulated tensions of a long journey.
The S500’s 5.5-litre V8, with 388 horsepower at your disposal, kicks out 86 horses more than the 5.0-litre unit it supplants while whisking you from 0-100 km/h in 5.4 seconds. Remarkably, it achieves this while using less fuel than its predecessor.
Torque is also up, peaking at a stout 391 lb-ft from 2,800 to 4,800 rpm.
At work, this V8 feels exceptionally smooth at low to medium speeds, is more responsive and stronger throughout a broader rev range, yet possesses truly impressive top-end muscle accompanied by a nicely gruff full-throttle exhaust note that in no way detracts from its air of refinement.
A 7-speed automatic transmission is standard, as is a heavily revised version of the previous S500’s much-praised air suspension system, a hill-hold function and an adaptive braking system that, among other things, automatically applies light braking to clear water from the discs when the windshield wipers are activated. The parking brake is now electronically controlled too, eliminating the old foot-operated pedal mechanism.
But occupant safety hasn’t been passed over in the new S-Class’ technological push. Along with the previously described Brake Assist Plus system, this luxury sedan boasts a second-generation version of Mercedes-Benz’s Pre-Safe system that, in anticipation of a collision, automatically pads out the proper part of the seat, moves it to the best position, pre-tensions the seat belts and closes the windows. All of this supported with a full complement of front and side airbags for maximum passenger protection.
Production of the previous S-Class, which began in 1998, totalled some 500,000 units, making it the best-selling luxury sedan of all time. Along the way, it picked up close to 50 international prizes and awards.
So the advanced features housed within the new S-Class start from a high baseline. Around a dozen technical innovations are going into volume production for the first time in this newcomer.
For its owners, passengers and Mercedes-Benz, it will be a trip to remember — for all the senses.
Yaris points to new directions
Tiny Toyota aims to win big with fine design and a brilliant interior
VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Toyota could be looking at a minor miracle from its new Yaris, a replacement for the entry-level Echo.
The previous Echo and its hardy little Tercel forerunner made a sizeable dent in the North American small car market. But the new Yaris is expected to leave a full scale crater.
If that sounds like a tall order, it’s not as wildly optimistic as it might first seem. The Echo and Tercel were merely stalking horses, sent to clear a path in the small-car segment for the much more convincing Yaris.
And convincing this newcomer is. Not only has it done well in its home market of Japan (where it sells as the Vitz), but it has also fought the good fight against a raft of rivals from Citroen, Ford and VW in the highly competitive European market.
So is this tiny Toyota the best small car yet? To find out, we sampled it over the course of an intensive day of driving in and around this soggy metropolis.
The Yaris is sold in both 3- and 5-door hatchback models, and comes in three trim levels, including CE, LE and the sporty RS grade. Prices range from $13,580 for a base 3-door in CE trim with manual transmission, through $14,175 for the LE and $16,880 for the 3-door Yaris RS. In 5-door form the LE is $14,910 while the RS starts at $17,615.
The newcomer also keeps prices down at the pumps. Toyotasays the 5-speed manual transmission, standard across the board for the Yaris, uses just 6.9 L/100 km (41 mpg) around town and 5.5 L/100 km (51 mpg) in highway use.With its 42 litre (9.2 gal.) fuel tank that gives the Yaris a theoretical highway range of 755 km (469 miles). With the optional 4-speed automatic transmission, fuel consumption is barely higher at 7.1 L/100 km city and 5.8 L/100 km highway.
Compared with the outgoing Echo, the Yaris is a perky little visual stimulant. It has a cleaner, more cohesive shape than its predecessor. It sits squat on the road, the front fascia jutting aggressively. From the side, a one-motion monoform shape flows up from the hood to a cabin area with arched lines under the side glass. Combining curved surfaces and sharp lines, as seen in the sculpted door surfaces, creates a feeling of substance transcending the Yaris’ actual physical dimensions.
Chief engineer, Kosuke Shibahara, says this visual signature reflects a new direction in design philosophy at Toyota. Known in-house as Vibrant Clarity — Toyota’s equivalent to the new L-Finesse design theme at Lexus — it’s a precursor as to how all future Toyota’s will look.
Based on the company’s global small-car platform, Toyota is particularly proud of the Yaris’ packaging. Although it’s only 3825 mm (150.6 in.) in length (90 mm up on the Echo), it has an amazing amount of interior space.
According to project leader Shibahara, his engineering team carved out a comfortable, roomy interior “millimetre by millimetre.” He points to the Yaris’ use of space (achieved by adopting a flat floor) that creates rear seat room comparable to that of Toyota’s bigger Corolla. No argument there. A ride in the rear of a 5-door LE version revealed plenty of knee room, headroom and space to move around comfortably.
If you can believe it, there are also 12 distinct storage spaces spotted throughout the cabin: from upper and lower glove boxes, through pockets on each side of the centre console, to bottle holders, retractable cup holders and seatback pockets and more. This isn’t the Yaris’ only clever trick. The 60/40 split-fold rear seats on RS models (CE and LE models get a single folding seatback) are also hinged, allowing the cushions to flip and fold to create a deep, flat-floor cargo area.
A clean, backlit Lexus-like gauge layout is housed in a neat vertical console arrangement that also creates more legroom up front. The offset dials take some getting used to, however. But, just below them, smooth operating rotary switches for heating and ventilation win points for their ease of operation. Also useful is the tilt steering wheel (leather-wrapped on RS models).
Durable fabric seating materials and door trim add a lively look, and the latter wouldn’t look out of place on some of Toyota’s more upscale products.
But the little hatchback’s major strength beats in its 1.5-litre 4-cylinder engine with variable valve timing, an improved version of the unit that powered the Echo. Modified intake and exhaust systems result in a peak power output of 106 horsepower and 103 lb-ft of torque, with outstanding fuel efficiency.
Drive is to the front wheels through a standard 5-speed manual transmission, although a 4-speed auto is available. It poured rain during much of our drive time, great for assessing wet weather grip, anti-lock brake performance (standard on the RS, optional on CE and LE), road noise, ventilation and wiper functions. We didn’t find the Yaris lacking in any of those areas.
Though the power and torque numbers don’t look unduly impressive, the Yaris felt eager enough to cope with any traffic situation encountered. The standard 175/65R14 tires (185/60R15 on RS models) demonstrated surprising levels of grip and control, especially in the base 3-door CE on a testing slalom layout.
MacPherson strut suspension up front coupled with a rear torsion bar system prop up a neat little city car that turns tightly — abetted by a new electric power steering design — is fun to toss around when you’re feeling exuberant, cuts deftly through traffic, parks easily and has a nicely controlled ride with little noticeable fore/aft pitching or body roll.
The above attributes are of key importance to younger male drivers in their mid-20s, a demographic group that Toyota wants to win over. It didn’t quite make the grade with them on the Echo, but this sophisticated, technologically savvy segment should find the new Yaris more to their liking, especially the sportier RS hatchbacks. It’s difficult to grab their attention, but the Yaris should fit nicely into their lifestyle and make them look good wherever they work, play or just or hang out.
Co-opting car guys
If you're a car enthusiast, chances are good that you exert more influence on the buying habits of friends, relatives and co-workers than you realize.
That's something we at Carguide have long suspected. Now there's a scientific study that backs our belief that car guys wield influence on the buying habits of others that's far out of proportion to almost any other form of product advertising or promotional activity in which manufacturers engage. Moreover, the study concludes that carmakers are missing the boat on making use of your knowledge and enthusiasm to market their products.
A recent North American study by Forrester Research Inc., of Cambridge, Mass., says car companies would do well to engage you and others like you in market-building processes such as messaging, branding and product innovation.
Automakers assume that their most valuable customers are those who buy the most expensive vehicles, spend the most on service or remain loyal through several purchase cycles, says Mark Dixon Bünger, author of Spotting Alpha Carbuyers.
Field biologists know how to spot an alpha animal — the individual that influences every member of his or her pack, makes decisions for the group and enjoys the bounties of being a leader, says Dixon Bünger. He identified three candidate categories of alphas, “who each influence tens, hundreds or thousands of other car buyers through their words and actions." They are: auto enthusiasts, car-culture communicators, and technology-loving auto innovators and early adopters.
Enthusiasts are the modders, car magazine subscribers and do-it-yourselfers to whom neighbours turn to for advice before going to see the dealer. Fully 67 per cent of 5,196 North American car shoppers polled said they consider advice from auto enthusiast friends to be "important" or "very important" to their buying decisions.
Car-culture communicators influence others "simply by blabbing about it to a wide network of friends and family in an erudite and compelling way. They are cultural gadflies, social influencers with opinions about what's cool. Their influence — whether through a (Internet) blog read by thousands or a conversation with three people at a party — can build or break automakers' brands, one buyer at a time."
The innovators and early adopters "love new technology for its own sake, even when (it) is not quite mature enough to be cost-effective or sometimes even work properly,' says Dixon Bünger. These are the easiest of the three groups to spot, he adds. "They're the ones driving hybrid and CNG vehicles, hacking into their telematics devices or tinkering around with biodiesel and fuel cells."
Dixon Bünger recommends that car companies identify and engage alpha car buyers in a number of ways, including learning to spot them in the crowd (not easy: "a combination of psychographic, social and behavioural factors define 'alphahood'"); understand what influences them ("use a multi-channel approach to find out what magazines, events and websites your alpha specimen prefers, and why?"); engage them in car-company work ("giving alphas the inside scoop will strengthen your relationship with fans and disarm the debate with detractors"); and give them tools to expand their influence (“engage them using sneak preview events with press and executives, give them developers' kits and access to marketers and engineers, and provide them a role in message and product development").
All of which sounded great until I realized that by engaging guys like you, carmakers might put guys like us out of business.