Great Rides for Island Living
We test 10 of the hottest new vehicles in real world Honolulu traffic.
|Like other Honolulu commuters, we spend a lot of time, sometimes more than we’d like, in our cars. And like any other Honolulu commuters, much as we like our current rides, we dream about what it’d be like to drive something new, something fast, something different, something fun.
There’s an amazing variety of vehicles out there these days, from SUVs that have parking indicators built in, to flashy little cars with hybrid power plants. We got together and drove the 10 most interesting cars we could find, from minivans to sports cars. Most were brand-new models or new redesigns for the 2004 model year. All seemed to have more bells and whistles than we could believe.
We didn’t try to pretend we were from Car & Driver. We didn’t take cars apart or take them to the track. Instead, we drove them in real Honolulu traffic. Honestly, sometimes we were hardly moving, you know how that is. We ran them up Tantalus, on H-3 and just back and forth to work and Costco and the mall.
Cars are not just about torque and turning radius. They are about style, feel and personality. Here is what it felt like to drive these cars in the real world of Island traffic.
"I’ve never seen you drive like this," said my car enthusiast friend, Rex, as I nimbly tossed the MINI Cooper through Tantalus switchbacks. In a word, my driving had become active. Only don’t call it driving-in Anglicized MINI-speak, I am motoring.
I hadn’t expected this. I knew the Cooper was fun to look at. It’s deliberately designed, inside and out, to provoke a smile. The steering wheel control stalks look like the pointed, perky ears of a British bulldog. The giant, center-mounted speedometer seems taken from a pinball machine. But wait a minute, why is the speedo so big? Is this a fast car?
Yes, in its way. The 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine puts out just 115 horsepower, but the car is small, and matched, in this case, with a continuously variable automatic transmission putting a lot of power into torque-y, low gears. I toured Tantalus with the CVT in Steptronic mode, cycling through six speeds manually, without the hassle of a clutch pedal. This gives precise control over the car’s speed. The Cooper also has glued-to-the-ground maneuverability, due to its four wheels being pushed to the car’s furthest corners. The Cooper enables active driving, then rewards it.
In the city, the Cooper’s responsiveness and agility had me motoring through commute traffic as if I were walking through a crowded mall, sidestepping here, leaping into a small opening in traffic there. And what parkability-even the ridiculously small spaces by the Koko Marina Blockbuster Video were easy to access, with room to open the doors. The Cooper only sips gas. I averaged 27 mpg (including irresponsible mountain driving).
The Cooper’s positives could be its negatives, for some. "Responsive-
ness" also means feeling every bump of the road jolt through the stiff, 16-inch wheels. The car is noisy at freeway speeds, and a bit herky-jerky in stop-and-go traffic-take your foot off the gas, and the CVT squeezes down instantly to low, slow gears. Mastering the Steptronic mode helps alleviate this.
On the other hand, for a small, affordable car, this one comes loaded with options, from the front and side air bags to the Harmon-Kardon stereo system. Speaking of sounds, the engine has a pleasing tenor growl. Then there’s the visceral appeal of the MINI Cooper’s looks. People do stare at it. I don’t know when these qualities became so retro, but the Cooper succeeds by looking like a car and driving like a machine.
The coolest thing about the Toyota Prius-the one that never fails to impress everyone who sees it-was the button.
It really blows your mind when, key still in your pocket, you can just push the big button on the dash, and the car turns on. Like that.
It isn’t like starting a car, it’s more like turning on a stereo or a computer, except the Prius boots up faster than any computer ever did. Since it’s totally silent, you wouldn’t know it was running if the LED didn’t say "READY." You push the little joystick and the "shift by wire," continuously variable transmission moves you off smoothly until the gasoline motor kicks in.
The Prius, as almost anyone knows, is a hybrid vehicle. It has a super low-emissions, aluminum-block four-cylinder gas engine that delivers 78-horsepower. The gas engine not only drives the wheels, it also generates power for the car’s 67-horsepower electric motor and recharges the car’s hydride battery. The car even recaptures some of it’s energy while it’s slowing down or braking.
The Prius has a center LED screen that will show you graphically what’s going on in its complex power train. But here was all I needed to understand: After four days of driving in Honolulu, most of it in stop-and-go commuter traffic, and some of it stuck in the gnarliest gridlock a rainy rush hour could create, I still got 49.3 miles to the gallon.
There are a few things you need to get used to, driving a Prius, the main one being when you stop at a light or get stuck in gridlock, the engine shuts off. It’s only the gas engine that shuts off, the car still has all its electric drive. But after years of driving conventional cars, your instincts say, Ohmigod, the car just died.
The other thing is that, while the Prius doesn’t feature the neck-snapping acceleration of a V-8, it isn’t slow, either. It’s just smooth-as I discovered in one of those rare instances when you get a clear lane on H-1, and I looked at the speedometer and realized I was going 70. Oops.
The computer-driven monoform design of the car makes it look a little like a toy. Other drivers don’t always take it seriously, and I found other drivers constantly cutting in front of me. But the car is far from tiny, it’s roomy in both front and rear seats, has lots of cup holders and storage up front and sits high enough that you don’t feel as though you are constantly looking up at the parade of SUVs that now dominate the roadways.
It’s a compelling combination of practicality (you get the sense that someday all vehicles will be this smart) and coolness. I’ve never before driven a car that was essentially a practical, well-priced, ecofriendly vehicle, and had people say, "Hey, can I have a ride?"
GM Hummer H2
"I hope I don’t kill anyone with this beast," I thought as I settled into the cockpit (manufacturer’s description) of the 2004 Hummer H2. The leather interior and wood-panel dash are a far cry from the U.S. military’s Humvee, from which it claims thoroughbred lineage. Even if you are of the opinion that the H2 is an ecological disaster (8 mpg), I confess that having more than three tons of vehicle wrapped around me suggested a level of security I haven’t felt since I left my mother’s womb.
As I was scanning the impressive collection of dials, buttons, gauges and displays, Wayne Hunt of Schumann Carriage reminded me with a smile that, "The Hummer won’t fit into any of the parking structures in Waikïkï or downtown." I quickly converted the H2’s 81 inches, in both height and width, into roughly 7 feet in each direction. This is a caveat of major proportions.
"OK, I got it," I said reassuringly, although not convincingly, by the look on his face. I yanked the shifter from "P" to "D" and put some of the Hummer’s 316 horses to work. The next thing I knew, everyone else looked like they were driving toy cars, because they were way down there looking up at me.
Going forward was easy, but backing up required some guesswork and a rosary. I tried parallel parking the monster once, and managed to do so without hitting anything or anyone. Then I took it on the highway. On the H1, the H2 was a pretty smooth ride. The aquarium-size windows along the sides provided terrific full-circle visibility, so changing lanes was not as risky as I had anticipated. But it drove like the big, heavy truck that it was. The General Motors promo literature doesn’t apologize for calling it a "truck." Neither will I.
But it’s a gentleman’s truck. Power windows. 9-speaker Bose stereo system. Power points and headphone jacks for the rear passengers. And lots more.
City driving was enough to bring on an anxiety attack. In Honolulu’s stop-n-wait traffic, the four-wheel disc and all-around ABS braking system worked efficiently and effortlessly. But a standard car lane seemed narrower than usual, as the H2’s footprint occupied more of it. On more than one occasion, I could see the driver behind me trying in vain to peek around the side to see what was holding things up.
In the end, I was left with the impression that the Hummer is somewhat of a contemporary American icon. It’s humongous. It’s a gas guzzler. It’s in-your-face. And, true to the 600 lb. gorilla that it is, it doesn’t care.
It is nighttime. A cool wind blows through the open cabin of the Z4 roadster. My wife, in the passenger seat, looks up and says, "I can see my favorite constellation!" In fact, with the top down, we can see all the stars, the moon, the clouds rushing by. I look up, too, and think, A convertible sure is a lovely thing.
A convertible Z4 is itself a lovely thing. The exterior boasts aggressive lines, creases, angles and depressions, all swooping and intersecting one another. Its long snout brings to mind the proportions of 1920s and 1930s roadsters. The interior is just as architectural, a minimalist medley of leather, brushed metal and sycamore. The controls-there are surprisingly few buttons to deal with-are literally at your fingertips, just an inch or two from where your hand rests at the shifter.
The convertible top is a fully automatic snap. Put the car in park, press down on the brake pedal, then hold down a single button. In less than 10-seconds, the ragtop unlatches and folds itself into a tidy bundle, or extends and reconnects with the windshield. If there is a downside to the convertible, it’s that the top, when up, creates some pretty big blind spots. I quickly learned to rely on the side mirrors.
But enough about the looks. The Z4 is about performance, going from 0-60 mph in 5.3 seconds, making it one of the fastest cars in a class that includes the Porsche Boxster, Audi TT, Nissan 350z and Honda S2000. The ride can be as tame or as dramatic as you want it to be. Leave the gear selector in "D" for drive for smooth and easy. Or press the "sport ride" button. Suddenly, the engine growls and the transmission stays longer in lower gears. Peppy acceleration becomes surging power. Want still more power and control? Push the automatic shifter over into Steptronic mode. From here, you control exactly when the automatic transmission shifts gears. Steering is precise and easy.
Yes, I blasted around Roundtop Drive in this thing, and it was enough to realize that daily commuting doesn’t come close to pushing the limits of this car. Drop it into first or second at the apex of a hairpin turn, for example, and it launches like a rocket. Do anything you want in this car and it shrugs, "Duck soup, now when are we gonna do some serious driving?" Anyone who buys this car and doesn’t take it to the track is wasting a good chunk of their money.
I suppose I should mention that this roadster gets 20 miles per gallon in the city, 28 highway. Which is good news, since you’ll be making unnecessary trips on the slightest provocation
"Yeah, what are they gonna do about it?" as I pulled my giant, loaned 2003 Lincoln Aviator into a parking space clearly marked COMPACT. I was anything but compact in this vehicle, and I was loving it. The Aviator was a whole new automotive world to me. After all, the two people in my household share a Saturn coupe-bought used and with low gas consumption in mind. And I’m five-foot-two-inches tall. So I was a small, environmentally conscious person tucked like a peanut into a plush, rich nougat of American engineering.
My first surprise occurred as I adjusted the rear-view mirror and did a double take: Two back seats? I literally turned around and stared. Sure enough, there are two sets, although one easily folds down to make more room for groceries or panting Labrador retrievers. I tested out the cargo capacity by hauling a year’s worth of toilet paper from Costco. Yep, definitely holds a lot of stuff. My second surprise was when inquiring about the "media" button on the steering wheel. It’s for the DVD player/rear entertainment system in the back seat? Oh. But, of course.
You can’t help but notice the Aviator, and it’s a true luxury vehicle: it’s almost eerily quiet to drive, the doors make a satisfying thump when closed and you can control your temperature to micro-climate perfection. Cool enough over on the passenger side, honey? No? Let me turn on your seat chiller. Throughout my test-drive weekend, I kept saying to myself things like, "This is a fuh-ine piece of machinery." It handles extremely well: responsive steering and powerful, eight-cylinder engine. And parking it was surprisingly easy. It also looks darn good, with a moon roof, leather interiors and sleek exterior styling. Fuel economy? Not so pretty; it only gets 13 mpg in city traffic, 19 on the highway.
I had been worried I’d have to get a running start and vault into the driver’s seat, but I found getting in and out to be effortless. There is a small step to help you down, but I didn’t need it, and stepped in without stretching, even in a narrow skirt.
There are two safety features that caught my attention. First, the side mirrors are enormous, and adjust themselves when you shift, say, from park to reverse. The plus side was I had no blind spots, despite the vehicle’s 114-inch wheelbase. The down side is I felt like I’d started working for TheBus. It’s a sensation only amplified by another safety feature: In reverse gear, the Aviator beeps as it approaches objects. Some sort of sensor cues the vehicle to beep faster and faster the closer you get to hitting something.
Would I buy this car? No. It’s just plain too much car for me. But if I were driving cross-country or had three gangly teenagers who needed to stretch their legs out or watch Lord of the Rings on the H-1, sold.
At 211 cubic feet, the interior of the Nissan Quest seems larger than the first apartment I rented in Hawai’i.
The Quest is Nissan’s move to give new life to the minivan. For a van, it’s got a relatively zoomy exterior, reminiscent of Nissan’s radically styled SUV, the Murano.
But minivans aren’t about the outside. They are all about interior space. This one makes virtually anything else you’ve ever traveled in seem cramped. It makes you want to go out and adopt a soccer team, so you can fill all the seats. Or, once you master the first-you-push-this-down, then-release-that technique and get the seats flat and out of the way, you could go buy some nice 4×8 pieces of plywood.
I was driving a barebones Quest-no sun roof, no in-dash Bose audio, no dual-monitor DVD player, no power sliding doors and rear hatch, no rouge-colored leather-appointed interior package. Still, the interior was far from an afterthought. Everything was designed-from the cluster of controls mounted in an oval between the front seats to the contoured door handles. There was a hanger on which to hang your dry cleaning, a hook for your briefcase on the driver’s seat armrest, even a little page holder just above the steering wheel where you could clip your To Do list.
My favorite feature: the occupant-sensor passenger seat airbag. Since minivans are about kids, and airbags and small children aren’t a good combo, the passenger seat weighs its occupant. If he or she weighs less than 47 pounds, it shuts the airbag off.
Quest goes out of its way to try to make ordinary families feel, well, less ordinary. There’s a beefy engine, a 240-horsepower V6. Acceleration is hardly breathtaking, but considering that you are driving a living room, it moves reasonably well.
I was worried about how cumbersome it might be to drive a van in dense Honolulu traffic. However, Quest seemed to just flow its way through traffic, in and out of lanes, as if everyone on the road was cutting it a little slack. At first I thought other drivers must be under the mistaken impression I had lots of little kids aboard.
But finally I decided it wasn’t the kid thing. It was as if the other driver was thinking, OK, OK, I know you just pulled in the lane right in front of me, but hey, you’re driving a minivan. How exciting can your life be? Go ahead.
Lexus RX 330
Everyone knows that most SUV drivers never really go off-road. Lexus certainly realizes that. That’s why it introduced the RX 300 in 1999, a vehicle with the proportions of an SUV, but loaded with the elegance and upscale appointments of a high-end sedan. The auto industry calls these "cross-over" vehicles. Newly redesigned for 2004, the Lexus RX 330 continues to cross-over between luxury and utility.
Oddly enough, luxury-utility is not an oxymoron. Now that I’ve tooled around in one of these things for a few days, I can see why the RX line is one of Lexus’ best-selling models-it’s a total transportation solution. Want good looks? The sheet metal is very nicely sculpted (there’s a particularly striking confluence of angles and curves at the tailgate). Want luxurious handling? The suspension confidently skims over Hawai’i’s crappy roads, while the steering action feels silky smooth. Want to haul cargo? You could carry 38 cubic feet of stuff in this thing. Even the mileage isn’t bad, at 20 mpg in the city, 26 mpg on the highway.
And all that comes with a wealth of electronic gizmos once reserved for luxury cars. Examples: The steering wheel automatically folds itself out of the way, then redeploys for easier exits and entrances. The big, side mirrors automatically tilt down when you put the RX 330 in reverse, so you can see the stripes of your parking space, or any obstacles. Oh, and the rear-view mirror? It has a built-in digital compass.
The 3.3-liter, 230-hp V6 engine seems plenty powerful. But the five-speed automatic transmission feels jerky and a bit unpredictable-sometimes, a stab at the gas results in instant speed, other times, the transmission fishes around before settling on a useful gear.
My favorite aspect of the RX 330 was actually its interior-instantly comfortable, all beige leather, silver control panels, bird’s-eye maple insets. The electroluminescent instrument gauges are some of brightest, most readable I’ve ever seen. And that steering wheel! A thick, sturdy wheel of lacquered wood, really, the perfect way to pilot this sleek land yacht.
Acura TL Sedan
"Oh, Dad," said my teenage daughter when I drove home in the white 2004 Acura TL with front and rear spoilers. "Do not pull up next to a bunch of young guys while you’re in this car. They’ll want to race."
Had they shown up, I could have taken them. The Acura TL has an all-aluminum, 270-horsepower engine V-6, run through a five-speed automatic transmission that you can choose to shift manually with a quick flick of the lever. It’s not one of those cars that seems twitchy with power. It’s perfectly well-mannered, but responsive. Step on it and the power just seems to keep coming. Not that I would encourage the pleasures of speed, but it does seem like just the car for a Sunday morning romp across H-3.
The Acura seems glued to the road. Slide down those sweet curves from Wilson Tunnel into Kane’ohe and you feel this tremendous security that the car is going to go where you nudge it to go, and nowhere else.
Oh, yes, the TL is Racer Boy heaven, all wrapped in a pleasant four-door family sedan. The interior is snug-alone among the Japanese car companies, Honda/Acura has never gotten the idea there are people in the world taller than 5’10". But every model, even the least expensive, comes loaded with every creature comfort known to automobilies-10-way-adjustable leather-accented seats, individualized climate controls with filtered air. Plus some bells and whistles you don’t anticipate-a Bluetooth, hands-free phone, with controls on the steering wheel, a eight-speaker sound system that not only plays radio, tape casettes and CDs, but also DVD disks. No, not DVD movies, as the intro disk patiently explains, because the car has no video monitor. It plays DVD audio disks, which give you that whole theater surround-sound thing. You can actually hear the difference from conventional CDs, though the subtleties of the sound system are unlikely to compete with the joys of simply driving this baby.
All the while the TL makes you seem like a solid citizen, driving your kids around on the typical parental errands. Early one weekend, I had to drive my younger daughter and her friend Jennifer to the Kane’ohe Yacht Club for some kind of sailing regatta. The Käne’ohe Yacht Club has a gate to keep riffraff like me out. But since I was on a mission, I pulled up anyway and explained myself to the young security guard, knit cap, earrings, tattoos. He opened the gate and as we glided by in the TL, he said, "Nice car."
Volkswagen Touareg V8
I know what you’re thinking-55 grand for a Volkswagen? The price tag makes more sense when you realize that this brand-new model was designed in tandem with the Porsche Cayenne, and you can spend as much as $90,000 for one of those. And unlike the many SUV-styled cross-over vehicles that are exaggerated luxury cars, the Touareg is engineered for serious off-road use.
For example, the suspension is augmented air compressors the driver can control, raising and lowering the vehicle as needed. The Touareg knows which of its four tires are getting any traction and is capable of sending the oomph of its 310-hp V8 engine to just a single tire, if it’s the only one grabbing ground. (Mileage with all that power? Fourteen mpg city, 18 highway.)
I’ll take a chance and say it. The Touareg is a guy’s car. Not only is it engineered for an off-road safari, it is loaded with cool gadgetry. By my rough count, the area surrounding the front seats boasts 121 different controls to operate, from the steering wheel to the nav system to the air suspension, and 13 gauges or LCD read-outs to consult about the status of the Touareg and its relationship to the outside world. Because of the detailed information provided by the built-in Global Positioning System, you’ll have to retrain the backseat drivers to be more precise, such as, "Steer 20-degrees right, bring us around to course zero-nine-five."
Well, I didn’t take my Touareg on safari, just around town. Loved the way it gobbled speed bumps. Loved the smooth power and sound of the V8. Loved the characteristically German stiff seats and sense of solidity the Touareg displayed. Loved the potential built into all that technology, even if I didn’t come close to mastering it on a
three-day test drive. "If you were buying this car, we’d take you through the whole owner’s manual and explain every control," said sales executive Peter Bunn. "Then we’d have you come back in a week and see how you’re doing."
There was one gizmo I found instantly useful-the parking detectors. Four LED displays, one representing each corner of the Touareg, run out from green to yellow to red as you inch into a space, like a terrorist alert. Get too close to anything and the car also beeps a warning. Compared to the design sophistication of the rest of the interior, these displays look a bit Knight Rider, but they work. Follow the sensors and you won’t ding a thing. It’s nice to have a vehicle looking out for me, for a change.
The best thing about the RX-8 is the adrenalin. It hits from the moment you sit in the low-slung, bucket seats. The console and the steering wheel sit high, sports car style. The pedals are machined aluminum, so’s the shift lever.
Then you touch the accelerator and … goodbye. The RX-8 is powered by a compact rotary engine. Mazda has been making rotary engines since 1961. This latest rotary is tamed a little in fuel consumption and emissions from the one that powered the legendary RX-7 sportscar in the 1980s and early 1990s. But it’s hardly tamed in performance, generating 238 horsepower at a stunning 8,500 rpm.
A rotary power plant substitutes a triangular rotor for the usual pistons and cylinders. We’ll skip the technical description, but if you’d like to see a moving diagram, there’s a clear one on Mazda’s British Web site, www.mazdarx8.co.uk. Rotary engines can be exceptionally smooth. They have only a few moving parts, and they don’t have to translate the up-and-down motion of the pistons into the rotary motion of the drive chain. Rotaries also generate a lot of power for their relatively light weight and small size.
You don’t need a diagram to understand all this, however. You can just start driving and hear it and feel it. There’s a less powerful model with an automatic transmission, but this car moves better with a short-throw six-speed manual transmission, which gives it a whole lot of kick. You can find yourself at freeway speeds before you hit fourth gear.
Nobody buys a car like this to be practical. You buy it because it’s fast and fun. But, alone among sports cars, the RX-8 has four doors. This took some innovative engineering. The doors both open from the center. The front doors open conventionally, then a latch unlocks the back doors, which swing in the other direction. Backward-opening doors are usually called suicide doors-Mazda calls them "freestyle," which sounds a bit more positive.
The unusual doors (the rear door contains the pillar that usually separates the doors on a sedan) are there for a reason. They allow access to the back bucket seats, each big enough for a full-size adult. You have to sit in back to believe it, but there’s almost as much cabin space in an RX-8 as there is in most sports sedans. The Mazda is the only sports car that will comfortably carry a family of four. Some ingenious work with the rear suspension even leaves reasonable room in the trunk.
But just because it has four cup holders and room for groceries doesn’t mean the RX-8 has become middle-age, domesticated or overweight. It’s the real deal-from the 18-inch aluminum alloy wheels to the big analog dashboard gauges that glow blue on entry, black on white during the day and red on black at night.
It’s enough of the real deal to leave you frustrated with speed limits and congested roadways, because it says, oh, come on, this is not supposed to be a chore, driving is supposed to be fun.
How much fun? The first night we drove it, we had to get from downtown to Hawai’i Kai. We went through Waimänalo, just for the heck of it.