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[REVIEW] 2020 BMW X3M Competition

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It is arguable that the first-generation BMW X3 created the segment of the compact sport luxury SUV. Without it, we would not have the Porsche Macan, the Alfa Romeo Stelvio, or the Mercedes-AMG GLC.

Based on the BMW 3 Series platform, the first X3 made its debut in 2003, sharing its rear suspension with the E46 BMW 330xi sedan.

BMW saw the downsizing trend way before its European rivals and delivered the X3 quite a few years before them. Conceived to have the agility of a compact SUV with the driving experience of company’s larger and very successful BMW X5, the X3 was BMW’s second crossover marketed as a “Sports Activity Vehicle”.


With the recipe having been proven to be a hit, the second-generation X3 continued on in time with uprated engines, and even an “M” body kit marketed as a Sport Package back in 2006.

However, it would be another three years before BMW would create a high-performance derivative of their larger X5, let alone the X3.


The M-ification continues

The third generation X3 made its debut in 2017 as a 2018 model, continuing on with its predecessor’s reputation for sporty handling, a composed ride, and a nicely finished interior.

Now based on BMW’s CLAR modular platform, it brought along improved driving dynamics, the latest upscale cabin amenities, technology, and safety features.


BMW also chose to launch a hotter version of the X3 right from the get-go, as part of its “M Performance” line-up of M-lite vehicles. Known as the X3 M40i, this model is available with the B58 twin-scroll turbocharged 3.0-litre inline six-cylinder engine producing 382 horsepower.


It’s rather surreal to think that these numbers were surpassed the X5 4.8i’s V8 power output less than a decade ago. The same versatile engine is also fitted to the M340i sports sedan and the BMW Z4 M40i roadster.

For the 2020 model year, the performance gods at BMW have breathed upon us once again and launched yet another member of BMW’s rapidly expanding performance line-up. This time, the hot tamale is not just another “M Performance” model, but the full meal “M” deal.

This then, ladies and gents, is the first X3 to receive the full BMW M division treatment from top to bottom.


What is it?

While the X5M is also equipped with a 3.0-litre turbocharged inline six-cylinder engine, it is a near ground-up redesign compared to the B58 motor powering the X3 M40i. Designated the S58, this engine is very much the real M deal.


BMW says that this engine has taken closer to five years to develop. In that time, the M engineers have added twin monoscroll turbochargers, an indirect intercooler, a forged crankshaft, and a lightweight cylinder head.

Other highlights include a larger bore and shorter stroke, and a different oil plan, intake, oil coolers, and a lower compression ratio favouring power over efficiency.


The result is more power and torque than any six-cylinder unleashed by BMW’s M division, 503 hp and 443 lb-ft of torque in X3M Competition-spec as tested. FYI, this engine is also destined for the next-generation M3 later this year.

There are actually two versions of this vehicle to choose from. The “standard” X3M has “only” 473 hp but no less torque. In reality, the difference is only a tenth of a second faster 0-100 km/hr runs between Comps and non-Comp versions, and of course less bragging rights for owners of the latter.


What’s it like to drive?

As you can imagine, with the X3M Competition’s substantial output and M goodies, “sharp” is the motion and “quick” is the word. BMW says that rather than try to develop an M version of the X3, they focused on developing an SAV version of the upcoming M3.


What does this mean? For starters, 503 hp is as much as you’ll find in an Aston Martin Vantage, and more even than a Ferrari F40. And yet, this is not a low slung sports car but a vehicle expected to cart lucky children to and from the daily school run.

With usable power right through the rev range, the twin-turbocharged S58 delivers power in a totally linear fashion. It does an impressive impression at being a naturally aspirated motor, with a simple flexing of the driver’s right foot.


Besides the all-new M engine, the gearbox and drivetrain have also been derived from the M5, including the latest M xDrive all-wheel-drive system.

While it’s not anywhere as configurable as the M5 (i.e. it can’t decouple its front driveshafts), a bespoke rear locking differential has also been carried over, along with adaptive multi-mode suspension, beefed-up M brakes, and even extra carbon fibre bracing for the engine bay.


While the engine is a real sweetheart, it’s only as good as the gearbox. BMW doesn’t disappoint here as the X3 uses the same Drivelogic system first found in the M5.

 

Drivers can alter the characteristics of the shifts in both manual and automatic modes, with three levels of aggressiveness to choose from.

Left in its least aggressive setting, the shifts are comfortable to the point of almost being lazy. Ramp it up to level three and you’ll get the swift, crisp shifts you expect from an M vehicle. Pull on the bespoke steering wheel paddles to stop it from holding onto gears for too long or you’ll bounce off the rev limiter in fully manual model.


Ride and handling-wise, the pedestrian X3 already excels with responsive handling, The X3M doesn’t employ the complicated air suspension setup found in rivals such as the GLC63 AMG. Instead, it uses uprated steel springs paired with adaptive dampers.

Roll is well-checked in corners, and you can actually feel the majority of the drive coming from the rear when you get on the power out of a corner. Steering is noticeably quicker than the standard X3 and can be much more weighted when set in Sport Plus mode. It’s accurate but a bit numb thanks to my test vehicle’s softer compound winter tires.


Even on the winter tires through, the X3M’s ride is quite a bit firmer than even the X3 M40i. I wouldn’t call it uncomfortable, however it is quite stiff even when on Comfort mode. The knock-on effect is that potholes and rough roads do penetrate somewhat into otherwise serene cabin, so be sure to do your due diligence with a test drive before signing on the dotted line.


If there is one disappointment, it’s the X3M’s exhaust soundtrack. It’s certainly no match in the excitement department compared to the Mercedes GLC 63’s snarling V8 or the Jaguar F-Type SVR’s pops and cracks. The active exhaust valves do open up upon command, but it’s a deep purposeful bellow rather than the spitting and crackling from the latter.


Interior and Technology

The latest X3 has almost all of BMW’s latest trimmings with the X3M taking it a step further with its wonderfully bolstered M-specific sports seats. Some may find the illuminated M badges a bit over the top, butit all adds to the theatrics of owning an M vehicle in my opinion.


Overall design and build quality is top notch with plenty of top grain leather, carbon fibre, and satin finished brightwork. The materials are much better than BMW’s last-generation fare.

Unlike slightly newer BMWs, the virtual dashboard is digital but yet of the older hybrid circular style. Purists may like the layout better though it all looks equally modern and handsome to me.


The X3’s slightly older system does lack BMW’s the latest generation semi-autonomous cruise control system with an interior facing driver attention camera.

Instead, it employs a single forward facing camera to accompany the radar unit instead of the triple forward facing camera set-up found in the X5 and X7.


Because it is a regular SUV shape after all, unlike its four door coupe-like X4, three slim adults can enjoy the rear amenities without too much fuss or muss. Cargo-wise, the X3 is identical in shape and capacity of any other X3 with more than enough space for the luggage involved in a typical family weekend.


There are large door map pockets up front, a generous glovebox and centre console, and sizeable rear door bins as well. The rear seats easily fold down in a 40/20/40 arrangement using the control levers either in the trunk walls, or incorporated into the seat base.

Final Thoughts

Is the X3M a bit silly? Yes, perhaps it is, but as they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

With real estate square footage at an increasing premium these days along with the price of insurance premiums, the X3M makes sense especially if you only have one or two garage spots and want your sports car cake and eat it too.


This is a mid-sized tall SUV…erm SAV, with five proper seats, permanent all-wheel-drive, and the ability to crawl up a snowy driveway.

In reality, is it likely to crawl up a muddy slope? Probably not. And even if it did, it is likely not going to fair very well with its 21 inch wheels and low profile summer performance tires. With given the growing popularity of performance SUVs, it’s a trend is likely to stay for a while.


You might not like the idea of a super-X3, but you have to respect the level of engineering that BMW’s M division has thrown at it.

In fact, I’ll take my exhaust chortle laughing all the way up the Sea to Sky Highway please.

Andrew is a proud car and tech geek who has worked in Surrey for over the last 10 years. He comes from a communications/marketing background and has worked for automotive-related companies such as Edmunds.com, BenzWorld.org since 1999. From track driving, to rally driving to autocross, he has done it all! When he’s not reading about the latest automotive news, he can be found outdoors snapping pictures at various events around town.

Automobiles

[REVIEW] 2020 GMC Sierra 1500 Duramax Diesel

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Since its conception in the early 1900s, the pickup truck has evolved from a purely utilitarian purpose to a blend of style and substance. Manufacturers have adjusted to consumer and industrial needs and desires over the year, adapting the basic design from niche market to mass appeal.

The North American pick-up truck market has always been a hotly contested segment, with the Ford F-150 juggernaut ruling by a large margin.

In Canada, the Ford F-Series and Dodge Ram pickups are the top 2 best-selling vehicles respectively in 2019. The former has been the best-selling vehicle in Canada for 10 years on the go. It was only back in 2008 where the Honda Civic took the top spot.

The current demand for these go-anywhere do almost anything vehicles isn’t going away anytime soon and arguably, due to consumer adoption in powertrains and vehicle technology, the next 5-10 years of its evolution should be more interesting than the last 20 years.

More efficient engine choices

While “diesel” may be a bit of a faux pas in the passenger car segment after the infamous VW Dieselgate scandal, diesel pick-up trucks are more popular than ever.

These days, aside from the honking large displacement V8 diesel ¾ ton pick-up trucks, the Big Three domestic manufacturers all offer a lighter-duty 3.0L diesel option in a fullsize ½ ton pick-up truck.

These smaller displacement six-cylinder turbocharged diesel engines offer consumers the ability to have their cake and eat it too. They can enjoy the utility and towing capability afforded by a full-sized quad cab pick-up truck but with family car fuel efficiency.

Fashionably late but worth the wait

The new flint, MI-built all-aluminum light duty diesel engine is a testament to modern day engineering progress.

Designed by GM’s centre for diesel expertise in Torino, Italy, the one thing that separates the GM engine from the competition is that this is the only completely new light-duty diesel in the segment.

With 277 hp and 460 lb-ft of torque, the 3.0-litre inline-six cylinder turbo engine is worth the wait. 95 per cent of that torque is available at just 1,250 rpms thanks to the latest turbocharger technology.

Moreover, 460 lb-ft is the same amount of twist produced by another GM engine with more than twice the displacement, the 6.2L gasoline V8 that is also available with either the Sierra or Silverado.

Save for flooring the throttle at a stop, there is virtually no turbo lag. With a little bit of brake-torquing, 0-100 km/hr runs can be accomplished in roughly 8.7 seconds.

Compared to the V6 diesel engines from Ford and Dodge, the new Duramax’s inline-six architecture is naturally balanced, making it a smoother operator. This new engine debunks diesels’ growly image, with added smoothness and refinement achieved in part through common-rail direct fuel injection at 36,250 psi (2,500 bar) with an engine-driven twin piston pump.

This wizardry sends fuel to solenoid-activated injectors with nine-hole nozzles that stabilize combustion, resulting in a reduction of the clattering noise typically associated with diesel engines.

Indeed, this is the first time that the inline-six architecture has been combined with turbocharging in a GM fullsized pick-up truck. Unlike a V6, there is no need for balancing shafts as the engine operates only two camshafts and their associated valvetrain components, balancing primary and secondary forces.

Paired with GM’s 10L80 10-speed automatic gearbox, the Duramax is rated to pull a respectable 9,300 lbs pounds (4,218 kg). The flat torque curve means more pulling power for longer periods of time, always a good thing if you happen to be using your truck like it is intended.

Numbers aside, how does it drive in the real world?

Smooth, responsive, big. Those are the three words that come to mind as to how the Sierra Duramax feels on the road.

Like other GM trucks, there are several selectable engine/powertrain modes (Sport, Touring, Off-Road, and Tow/ Haul). Each of these deliver a unique feel, changing shift points, traction control settings, throttle response, and more. There is a good amount of adjustability between the modes, altering the personality of the truck depending on your needs or preference.

If you tow, the Sierra Duramax has a party trick up its sleeve as being the only light-duty diesel pick-up truck in the segment that uses its turbocharger to provide a healthy dose of back pressure, acting as an automatic exhaust brake of sorts.

While there is no dedicated exhaust brake button as with the bigger HD turbodiesel GM trucks), the 3.0-litre Duramax fully integrates this feature into its Tow/Haul mode, allowing the Sierra to hold its gear, keeping a constant engine rpm when towing a trailer downhill so as to not have to ride the vehicle’s or trailer’s brakes.

While we’re on the subject of towing, GM also offers a clever Invisible Trailer accessory camera which stitches together images from two cameras to make it seem as if you can see through your trailer on the infotainment screen. Perhaps in the future I will have an opportunity to see first hand how well it works.

 

Towing capacity with the light duty Duramax diesel is 9,100 pounds and payload is 2,240 pounds. The Sierra is certainly as much a workhorse as it can be a daily driver.

The healthy power and smart gearing from the 10-speed transmission means good fuel economy too. I averaged around 11.8L/100 kms in mixed highway and city driving, very respectable for a full-sized four door pick-up truck.

Whether or not it has a diesel engine, the Sierra’s ride quality and handling remains good. The cabin is quiet with fewer vibrations through the wheel and pedal than the F-150 and even the Ram.

Although it doesn’t ride as cushy as the Ram, the GMC Sierra (and its Silverado counterpart) steer and handle sharper than the F-1500 and Ram 1500. The GM’s choice of aluminum for diesel engine means that the GM trucks aren’t penalized by nose-heavy weight. Therefore, the ride quality isn’t any better or worse than its gasoline equivalents.

Like other GM trucks, the Sierra offers a fantastic “Auto” setting for its four wheel drive electronic transfer case. This setting allows the computer to automatically distribute torque to the front axle by anticipating the need for traction. For the rainy Pacific Northwest with alternating high and low traction road surfaces, this leave-it-and-forget-it mode is truly a godsend.

What about the rest of the truck?

My Sierra Duramax 1500 test unit was a Crew Cab model in Elevation trim with four-wheel-drive and the short box. Painted in the optional Satin Steel Metallic paint, it was particularly fetching.

The Elevation edition is mostly a styling package based on a mid-level SLE trim level. The idea behind this trim level is to keep the truck’s price affordable while still being able to offer consumers a fair amount of included equipment.

Accordingly, you won’t find things such as the optional CarbonPro carbon fibre bed or fancy the MultiPro tailgate. What you will find though, is a monochromatic appearance package with blacked-out body trim and wheels to give the vehicle a nice brash look. There are trim-specified blacked-out 20-inch wheels, black exterior accents, a blacked out grille surround insert, tow hooks, and side window trim.

 

The Elevation package also adds a 10-way driver’s seat with power lumbar support, heated front seats and steering wheel, dual-zone climate control, a trailer package, an auto locking rear differential, and rear wheelwell liners.

My truck was also equipped with the Preferred package adding an eight-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a 120-volt AC power outlet, Bose premium sound system, and a much improved HD Rear Vision back-up camera. While a 15 viewpoint 360 surround view camera system is available on the Sierra, it wasn’t available on this trim level.

 

The Driver Alert Package 1 also added in Rear Cross Traffic Alert, Front and Rear Park Assist sensors, Lane Change Alert, and a Blindspot warning system.

This latest generation GM pick-up truck brings with it a revised interior. Thankfully, the off-centre steering wheel position has now been rectified. Other positives include large clear controls and switches that have high quality tactile feedback, comfortable front seats, plenty of cubby storage spaces, and GM’s excellent 4G LTE in-car WiFi hotspot.

There really isn’t much to complain about. However, the misses include some cheap-to-the-touch dark and shiny plastics around the cabin, surprisingly in areas that are touched frequently such as the upper dashboard and glovebox, as well as some areas of the centre console. The overall dashboard design is functional, but not particularly fancy.

Final thoughts

Truck buyers in Canada have dramatically transformed in the past few years and manufacturers have been adapting by offering more permutations and combinations to their mid-sized and full-sized trucks.

Times they are a-changing as diesel engines used to be strictly the domain of heavy-duty pick-up trucks. Today, GMC is on a roll when it comes to its light-duty trucks. With the belated introduction of the Sierra 1500 light duty diesel pickup truck, the decisions for consumers are more plentiful than ever.

The company tells me that the Duramax diesel model is intended to slot between the 355 horsepower 5.3-litre gasoline-powered V8 and the 6.2-litre V8 choices. Since the diesel option and the 6.2-litre V8 essential cost the same, it really comes down to full economy savings as the diesel is far and away the most efficient engine offered in any GMC Sierra pick-up.

For those who use intend on using their Sierra as a daily driver, drive long distances on a regular basis, or need some occasional towing capability, the GMC Sierra 1500 Duramax diesel is a refined alternative and a welcome addition to the marketplace.

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[REVIEW] 2020 MINI Cooper S: 60 Year Edition

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Congratulations MINI, you’ve made it to your 60th birthday.

Considering that Volkswagen Beetle has been officially retired and the modern day Fiat Cinquecento has been cancelled for 2020, this is a commendable accomplishment for a small retro modern car.

It being such a milestone, MINI decided that this anniversary couldn’t pass without a glitzy limited edition. As such, the celebration is being done with a tried and true formula, a good old special edition.

MINI also achieved a new feat late last year, having rolled out its 10 millionth car since 1959 when Sir Alec Issigonis revolutionized the automotive world with his classic Mini design. Naturally, the 10 millionth unit was built as a 60 Year Special Edition.

Logos and more…

Think of the 60 Year Special Edition as a posh limited edition MINI, available only as a MINI 3 Door and MINI 5 Door.

My test vehicle was fitted with an eight-speed automatic gearbox (sorry no manuals for the special edition), the British Racing Green IV paint job, and a premium brown leather interior combination.

The latter is an exclusive hide, called “MINI Yours Leather Lounge 60 Years” only available in the exclusive “Dark Cacao” colour.

The combination looked particularly fetching, particularly with the contrast stitching and piping designed to match the British Racing Green paintwork.

If you don’t fancy the deep and rich British Racing Green featured paint colour, you must be crazy. Nonetheless, being the democratic company that they are, MINI has also made other body finishes available.

These include Midnight Black metallic, Moonwalk Grey Metallic, Melting Silver metallic, and MINI Yours Lapisluxury Blue non-metallic.

Regardless of whatever paint colour you choose for the body, the MINI 60 Years Edition also adds a paint finish in Pepper White or Black for the roof and exterior mirror caps.

Hood stripes with specific 60 Years livery and cool looking exclusive 17-inch two-tone alloy wheels finish off the distinctive look of the edition cars.

But wait there’s more…

MINI Canada really doesn’t want you to forget that this is no ordinary MINI. The product planning and marketing departments have really gone to town here, fitting the special edition 60 Years logo not only on the left-hand hood stripe but also on the fenders by the turn signals, the door sill plates, the front headrests, and the steering wheel.

An LED puddle lamps even projects the logo onto the ground when the driver’s door is open.

On the more practical side, Edition cars also feature LED headlamps, white turn signals, and the fantastic looking LED taillamps in the British Union Jack design.

To justify its dearer sticker price (by $6,900 CAD), many of the option boxes have been ticked as standard equipment.

Thus, what are normally optional extras, such as the LED lighting package and ambient lighting, are already included, as is the uprated 8.8-inch BMW Group’s iDrive touchscreen infotainment system with Bluetooth, GPS satellite navigation, and wireless Apple CarPlay connectivity.

You’ll also find other niceties like selectable Driving Modes, a high definition rearview camera, front and rear parking sensors, and rain sensing wipers.

What hasn’t changed

Thankfully, the unique properties that have kept this small British car popular worldwide haven’t been changed with this celebratory edition.

As with other Cooper S models, this includes the creative use of interior space and the go-kart like driving experience.

Although not a new model, thanks to BMW’s efforts, MINI has managed to keep much of the original Cooper’s spirit intact.

It might be bigger and heavier, but one drive behind the wheel will put a smile on the face of almost any cynic.

The combination of a taut and well-tuned chassis, plus the Cooper S’s 2.0-litre TwinPower Turbo direct-injection four-cylinder engine with 189 horsepower, keeps the driving experience entertaining. 0-100 km/hr flashes by in only 6.7 seconds and the handling is delightfully darty and entertaining.

The car absolutely loves corners and the 207 lb-ft of torque at a low 1,350 rpm allows one to squirt out of corners with aplomb once you’re past the apex.

Personally, I’d take usable low-down and mid-range torque any day over high-revving theatrics.

Sure, the steering feel could be a little less rubbery, the ride from the 17 inch wheels is certainly not cushy, and I wish that the pops and bangs of the exhaust overrun were a little louder, more consistent, and more frequent.

But all in all, the 60 year Special Edition Cooper S has an enticing sparkle its character that matches well with its deep and rich British Racing Green colour.

Final thoughts

At its core, the 2020 Cooper S is already an absolute gem of a driver’s car. The surprisingly muscular and mature nature of the engine and gearbox package makes day-to-day driving a breeze.

Sure, if you’re looking for a razor-sharp hot hatch, something like the Cooper S JCW may be more up your alley. Even in its Sport Mode, the Cooper S isn’t tuned to shift quite as crisply as one of MINI’s six-speed manuals either.

However, despite the 60 Year Anniversary Edition MINI Cooper S being a paint-and-sticker aesthetic package, its limited run status may just be another brilliant excuse for the ultimate MINI enthusiast to have his or her cake and eat it too at the next weekend car meet.

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[REVIEW] 2020 Nissan Sentra SR

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Nissan’s baby sedan has grown up.

Originally launched in 1982 as Nissan’s subcompact car, the originally Sentra was the most fuel-efficient gasoline powered car at the time. Largely owing to this appeal, the Sentra quickly became a success to the tune of the best-selling import in the U.S.

38 years later, the Sentra is now in its 8th generation and no longer Nissan’s subcompact car (leave that for the Nissan Versa). With big-car levels of room and sporty driving dynamics, the compact class is one of the fiercest in Canada, dominated by the Honda Civic, the Toyota Corolla, and even the Hyundai Elantra.

So what room does this leave for Nissan? According to them, it boils down to a premium-car experience, styling, and substance.

Let’s take a look at how Nissan’s all-new compact sedan has grown up to be arguably the most handsome car in its class on sale today.

If looks could kill

The only thing that’s not new for 2020 is the name of the car. Nissan’s engineers have literally redesigned it from the ground up.

Unfortunately, the Canadian media launch coincided with the rise of COVID19 cases globally and Nissan Canada made the correct call to cancel the national press event so as to support social distancing and to prevent the pandemic from spreading within the country.

Kudos to Nissan Canada’s PR and on-ground team in offering a limited number of vehicles for auto journalists to test drive after a strict COVID19 cleaning protocol was established and observed. If anything it made the new Sentra stand out even more, purely on its merits.

A glitzy press event was clearly not necessary to highlight the Sentra’s bold new look. This thing’s a stunner!

With its broad shoulder line giving it a wider-looking stance, V-motion corporate grille and even a two-tone floating roof, the 2020 Nissan Sentra draws inspiration from its big brothers, the Altima and the Maxima.

Riding on an all new and improved platform, the Sentra sports slim upswept LED headlamps, defined bumper corners, and a sharp looking rear bumper. Compared to the previous generation, this new car is about two inches lower and two inches wider .

From its side profile and especially when judging the Sentra’s C-pillar, there are more Altima cues there with its sleek, fastback-like roof profile as part of its radical design.

Gone are the slab sides, replaced by defined character lines that run through the doors, quarter panels, and fenders.

Out back, there are slim taillights with an all-new unique shape, and the rear bumper has an integrated (purely cosmetic) rear diffuser.

Under the hood, there is a new, more powerful engine that boost fuel economy. A redesigned interior includes more luxury, more standard technology and more driver-assistance features. More on that later.

Safety and Driver Assistance Systems

Nissan’s high level of standard safety equipment jives well with the “Sentra” name which was originally created for Nissan by Ira Bachrach of Namelab.

The word “Sentra” sounds like “sentry” and “central” which is supposed to evoke images of safety. Right from the start, Nissan had wanted consumers to understand that despite its compact dimensions, the Sentra was safe.

Nissan’s Safety Shield 360, a suite of six driver-assistance features, is now standard on the Sentra, just like the other Nissan sedans.

These six features include blind-spot monitoring, automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane departure warning, high beam assist, rear cross traffic alert, and rear automatic braking.

These compliment the Sentra’s standard 10 airbags and even an alert to remind drivers to check the back seat for children when exiting the vehicle.

I was frankly shocked to see the inclusion of a comprehensive tire pressure monitoring system on my test vehicle, with individual tire pressure readouts versus the generic cheaper ABS wheel speed sensor type system which only tells you that a random tire is low on air.

Interior and Infotainment

The 2020 Sentra has a vastly improved interior when compared to the outgoing car. Gone is the rental-fleet vehicle feel. With greater overall passenger space, there are high-quality materials and details including contract stitching and satin-chrome aluminum accents.

While beating a Honda Civic on driving dynamics along is a tall order, beating it on interior design and quality is far easier. Nissan said that much attention was paid to engineer in premium car levels of smoothness on things such as the dials and switches.

I particularly like the circular HVAC vents, which reminded me of those found in the latest Mercedes-Benz vehicles.

The faux carbon fibre print helps to add some interesting texture to the centre console and window switch areas and Nissan’s excellent NASA-inspired Zero Gravity seats also make their appearance.

They can be outfitted as standard cloth or heated leather depending on the trim level selected. I particularly liked the sporty-looking orange accents throughout the interior on my SR trimmed model. SR Premium models get gorgeous-looking quilted leather seats with contrast stitching.

As expected, a heated steering wheel is also available. What’s less expected are the soft-touch surfaces on the dash and door panels, lending an air of quality lacking in many cars in this category.

Infotainment and connectivity-wise, the well-equipped SR trim includes the optional floating 8.0-inch infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration. SR Premium models are also equipped with Nissan’s Intelligent Around View 360 degree monitor.

Unusual for its class, this system is highly customizable, with the ability to add widgets to a customized Home screen menu.

If I had a couple of niggles it would be that there are a couple of signs of cost cutting in the trunk area. You’ll need to watch your grocery bags as the gooseneck hinges can crunch your load when the cargo area is fully.

Moreover, it would also be nice to have an interior trunk lid handle to pull the trunk lid shut, especially in foul whether when the exterior of the car is dirty, or at least for the next few months, to avoid errand COVID19 germs.

How does it drive?

The Sentra now features a new 2.0-litre, 4-cylinder engine rated at 149 horsepower and 145 lb-ft of torque. This more fuel-efficient engine offers increases of 20 per cent and 16 per cent respectively over the previous generation’s 1.8-litre engine.

A new independent rear suspension matched to a McPherson strut front suspension offers much improved driving dynamics. The SR’s ride is firm but compliant despite its low-profile tires.

Nissan has also upgraded the electric power system for a more responsive dual-pinion rack with standard Nissan Intelligent Trace Control technology.

Intelligent Trace Control is a comfort feature that uses Electronic Stability Control data to automatically and smoothly applies small amounts of braking to individual wheels to correct the vehicle trajectory to match the driver’s commands. The system can also engage when exiting a corner.

For example, if the vehicle starts understeering due to accelerating too quickly out of a curve, Trace Control will smoothly brake the inside wheels to help gently bring the Sentra back to the steered path. The amount of braking is small and does not affect the vehicle speed appreciably, but aids cornering by correcting the speed and/or adding yaw when needed

While I never pushed the Sentra anywhere close enough to experience the system, I can report its effectiveness in Infiniti vehicles.

Like almost every other compact sedan around, the 2020 Sentra continues to use a CVT. While I wasn’t a less than enthusiastic fan of the previous generation Sentra’s CVT, this latest generation unit is well-tuned and much smoother.

I liked that the transmission emulates a conventional automatic gearbox when you stomp on the throttle pedal, with a number of “fake” stepped gearshifts felt before it holds the revs steady like a typical CVT. This helps to take away the typical droney nature of most CVTs.

I almost missed the Sport mode, toggled via an unmarked button on the shifter. This increases the throttle responses and makes the CVT opt for maximum engine rpms and power sooner. Interestingly, it can even “rev-match” when it downshifts in certain conditions.

Of course, the Sentra’s CVT only has 149 horsepower to work with, but this Is enough to motivate it to the middle of the pack 8.1 seconds as far as 0-100 km/hr times are concerned in this class.

Final Thoughts

Overall, the 2020 Nissan Sentra is a much-improved choice, especially if best-in-class exterior styling, interior quality, and value for money are top priorities for you.

While the new Sentra is a little more expensive than before, its overall desirability has shot up dramatically. You might even find it unexpectedly fun-to-drive.

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[REVIEW] 2020 Toyota Prius Prime plug-in hybrid

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When you think of hybrid vehicles, I would venture to say that the Toyota Prius is the first vehicle that comes to mind. It’s actually rather unbelievable that the first-generation Prius made its debut over two decades ago, back in 1997.

In car technology years, that’s ancient. But over the last 20 years, the Toyota Prius has become the quintessential hybrid vehicle even though it has given up its ground to other hybrids over the years, including those made by Toyota itself.

This eco warrior has been owned by anyone and everyone from celebrities, social media influencers, to taxi fleets. Almost all of the taxis in Vancouver, for example, are Prius or Prius V’s.

While the previous generation Prius was really more of an evolution of the second-generation car it replaced, the current fourth-generation Prius (that has been with us since 2017) was truly a revolution.

While its styling was truly controversial, the biggest advance was in fuel economy, the main reason that target customers would be interested in hybrids in the first place. Fuel economy improved to a phenomenally low 4.5L /100 kms, brought on by a new, larger, and more efficient 1.8L four-cylinder engine.

Despite the improvements in fuel consumption, the fourth generation Prius was larger inside without being tremendously larger outside than before. Its aerodynamic but yet practical hatchback shape provides almost the same family-hauling space of most mid-sized sedans, and handling, interior quality, and noise levels were all improved.

Initially only available in certain USA states, Toyota also introduced the Prius Prime, a second-generation plug-in hybrid version of the Prius. This was designed for consumers tempted to buy a full electric vehicle, but yet aren’t willing to jump in with both feet just yet due to the range anxiety.

Why get the Prius Prime over a regular Prius?

The answer is simple. If you don’t need all-wheel-drive that is now offered on the standard Prius, can charge frequently to maximise the electric-only drive mode, the Prius Prime is the more compelling car.

Not only does the Prime give you the coveted “OK” sticker that allows you to drive in carpool lanes, but to my eyes, it’s also a better-looking car out of the pair.

It’s true that the first-gen Prius plug-in, introduced in 2012, was perhaps a bit of a half-hearted effort that promised some electric-only range. Even though I was generally positive on the car when I reviewed it a few years ago, it was expensive for what you go. I also noticed that the old Prius plug-in resorted to firing up its gas engine on more frequently than expected.

Clearly Toyota took notice due to its lower owner satisfaction surveys of the Prius Plug-in hybrid versus the regular Prius.

Now with its dedicated “Prime” moniker, Toyota has heard those EV-leaning buyers loud and clear.

The Prius Prime not only has a dedicated name and several styling differences, but it has the ability to stay in all-electric mode even at highway speeds. Thanks to an 8.8 kWh lithium-ion battery, the Prime has a claimed range of about 40 kilometers in all-electric mode. I found that I could eek out above this figure with careful driving.

What’s new for 2020?

Interestingly enough, one of the major updates for 2020 was a fifth seating position for the Prius Prime. Before 2020, the Prime only came as a four seater, with the alleged explanation being that if the rear were to seat three across, the car would need to have more reinforcing material and its 3.3 kW charger would need to be move.

Nonetheless, this was enough of a concern for buyers that Toyota obviously found a way to make the centre-rear seat happen. 2020 models also receive two additional USB ports for the rear passengers.

The third biggest change for 2020 is standard Sirius XM and Apple CarPlay capability, as Toyota recently included on a few of their other models.

Other than that, the Prime remains pretty much unchanged from 2019 aside for a few colour trim differences for a more premium feel, as well as relocated seat heater buttons for easier usability.

What’s it like to drive?

Toyota says that the reason why “Prime” was chosen was because the word represents “the best” or “at the top”.

With this model being the best-equipped and most technologically advanced Prius in the model’s two-decade global history, they felt that the name was a natural fit.

Plug-in hybrid vehicles have come such a long way in the last few years and the Prius Prime leads the charge. With the range being double than what it used to be, owners with frequent access to a charge point, or even a household outlet, will find that the price premium over the standard Prius will pay off rather quickly.

Keep the batteries charged and, as I did, you could feasibly run the Prius PHEV almost ever without having to fill up the fuel tank. I averaged an astounding 2.8L/100 kms in my week with the Prime due to relying largely on battery power for most of my commute.

Toyota says that the Prius Prime takes 2.5 hours to recharge at 240 volts, and can be charged overnight at the standard 120 volt in around 5-6 hours with the provided travel charging cord. There is no Level 3 high speed DC charging capability on the Prime since the Level 2 240v charging speed is quick enough already.

With its EV Auto Mode, Hybrid Mode, and EV-only modes, the Prime allows owners to juggle its power sources remarkably efficiently. Plant the throttle pedal and the revs do rise. However, the torque of the electric motor means you don’t need to bury your foot to get off the mark.

Toyota has admitted that the hybrid CVT drive is not the most pleasant way to get about if you need to move quickly. Therefore, they’ve addressed the problem with a meatier motor (with 71 hp and 120 lb ft of torque) and denser battery, as well as more noise insulation.

The battery deserves its own mention as it is twice as powerful as before while only being 50 per cent heavier and only two-thirds bulkier.

As a result of these improvements, the engine noise from the 1.8 litre, 121 horsepower, Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine is rarely intrusive. It’s a subtle improvement, but a worthwhile one. The CVT provides ultra-tall cruising ratios which the Prius Prime can tolerate due to its low aerodynamic drag.

Toyota claims that the Prius’ engine boasts the best thermal efficiency of any mass-produced engine anywhere in the world thanks to a new exhaust gas recirculation system and incremental improvements made on combustion, heat management and friction reduction.

The Prius’s remodeled lighter and smaller transaxle, which houses the electric motors and transmission, has helped the engineers reduce its length by 59mm, meaning that the auxiliary 12 volt battery can now be housed in the engine compartment instead of the cargo area.

Despite the ability to run in EV-only mode even at highway speeds up to 135 km/hr, there are limitations to the electric motor’s oomph. You’ll find the internal combustion engine firing up seamlessly to fill in should you need to make a passing maneuver.

But the brilliance of the Prius is that it never truly forgets about electric propulsion. It goes right on storing energy from its regenerative braking system and downhill coasting, ready to deploy as soon as you move away from the next traffic light.

Understandably then, the Prius Prime is best suited to around-town driving where starts and stops are frequent. Like other Priuses, the high-geared, super-fast steering makes city parking and traffic-dodging a clinch in town.

Given that Toyota has shifted over 1.5 million Priuses worldwide, clearly they know what they’re doing. The Prius prime’s ride is comfortable but firm and handling still a bit reluctant perhaps due to the eco-friendly low rolling resistance tires. However, the crucial low-speed urban ride is nicely dampened, and Toyota’s latest efforts with its regenerative braking is commendable.

Still, this is not a driver’s car by a long shot, nor does it purport to be.

Toyota’s Safety Sense technology is included, including automatic emergency braking, automatic high beams, active cruise control, and blindspot warning.

What about the styling?

While it may come as no surprise that the Prius is slipperier than before, it may be surprising to many that the Prius shares the same 0.25 ultra-low drag coefficient as a Tesla Model S.

The Prius’ appearance is said to benefit from an unusually young design team and a concerted effort to “inject ego” into what remains a largely familiar silhouette.

Compared to the third-generation Prius, its longer and slightly wide, but yet lower, with an overall height descended by around 20mm and the driver’s hip point sunk by a full 59 mm. The resulting drop in centre of gravity compliments the 60 per cent gain in torsional rigidity provided by a more extensive use of high-strength steel and additional body reinforcement.

Compared to the regular Prius, the Prime stands out with unique quad-LED projector headlights and LED foglamps, as well as lighter carbon-fibre composite tailgate with “dual-wave” rear glass. Due to the curved window, there is no rear wiper.

This unique rear tailgate also houses a different LED taillamp design which encompasses the entire width of the car.

What about the interior?

Toyota doesn’t skim on its equipment when it comes to the Prius’ interior. While the instrumentation may be slightly unconventional, it checks all of the boxes as far as usability.

There is a colourful heads-up display, the requisite digital speedometer, and a much improved colour multi-function trip computer housed in a wide instrument pod spanning the centre of the dash. The two main trip computer screens provide usage monitors which provide enough readouts to satisfy even the most discerning efficiency geeks.

My well spec’ed out Prime also came with a JBL premium sound system, GPS satellite navigation, as well as a wireless Qi-compatible phone charger.

The large Tesla-like portrait touchscreen is nice to look at, but the user interface seems very much ported over from the standard landscape-orientated Toyota infotainment system.

The learning curve is a little bit steep initially, as it takes a while to sort out the split screens and the various information that can be displayed. Arguably, the screen resolution could also be a bit higher and the graphics a bit more premium in feel.

On longer journeys, I found the front seats comfortable, but a little flat. In the rear, leg room is generous, although head room is still limited for larger adults as a consequence of the aerodynamic descending roofline above you and the battery and fuel tank packaged below.

Assuming that your head isn’t bothered by the roofline, you’ll feel well provided for in the back, with USB and 12V power outlets available between the front seats, and good-sized bottle holders in the doors.

The Prius Prime’s trunk a good size, having swollen to 343 litres below the window line. It offers space nearly on a par with its conventional hatchback rivals. Thanks to the tailgate, the cargo area is both wide and long and swallows bulky items particularly easily, although it’s shallower than you might expect.

Final thoughts

With its manufacturer-estimated 1,035 kilometer total driving range and 40-kilometer EV range, the Prius prime raises the efficiency bar even more.

The interior doesn’t feel as cheap as before, and the odd touches that remain make it quirky enough to have some character.

All in-all, the Prius Prime is practical, yet durable and reliable enough to serve as a daily driver for years to come.

Despite the new additional standard features, the 2020 Prius Prime starts at $32,990, same MSRP as the 2019 model. The 2020 Prius Prime Upgrade package starts at $34,990 ($455 less than the 2019 model).

My 2020 Prius Prime Technology test vehicle starts at $37,990 ($580 less than the 2019 model).

 

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Automobiles

[REVIEW] 2020 Chevy Bolt EV

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When Chevy revealed a completely new electric vehicle as a concept car at the 2015 Detroit Motor Show, there was tremendous excitement.

Looking like a cross between a BMW i3 and a Chevy Sonic hatchback, the Bolt joined the 2016 Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid to showcase GM’s renewed focus on electric vehicles.

The Bolt was particularly appealing as it promised to be the first mainstream affordable electric vehicle that offered enough range to rival a much more expensive Tesla Model S.

Initially launched with over a 380 km range battery as standard equipment, the Bolt had significantly more range than its closest competitor, the BMW i3, which only had a sub 200 km max range.

Improved range and more for 2020

At its production launch for the 2017 mode year, the Bolt largely delivered on the promises that GM made with the concept Bolt.

At a time when most affordable EVs struggled to go even 160 kms on a charge, the Bolt EV was a revolution.

Fittingly, Chevrolet decided to show off the car at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show instead of a traditional auto show. The name was renamed to “Bolt EV” so as to separate it from the “Volt”.

Nonetheless, that confusion remains today due to the similar names. Still, Chevy applied a lot of the learnings it gathered from the experience of Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid owners and applied it to the Bolt EV.

For 2020, Chevy’s engineers have tinkered with the Bolt’s battery chemistry by changing the ratio of manganese, lithium, cobalt, and nickel, to eek out about an additional 33+ km of extra range.

These updates to the energy density of the 288 cells have increased the capacity of the under floor lithium-ion battery pack from 60.0 kWh to 66.0 kWh. This now puts the Bolt EV’s total estimated range of about 416 kms to be slightly more than the Hyundai Kona Electric and the entry-level Tesla Model 3 Standard Range Plus.

Aside from the additional range for 2020, the only additional changes include two new exterior colours, and upgraded hardware for the Rear Vision Camera and Surround Vision camera systems. My press vehicle tester was equipped in the new Oasis Blue paint job, but a new Cayenne Orange Metallic colour is also available at additional charge.

Vehicle Interior Highlights

With lots of light thanks to huge windows all around, the Bolt has an airy interior. The low, flat floor allows for a comfortable seating position even in the rear, and there is a decent 17 cubic feet of cargo space despite the compact size of the car.

Although it is made from a combination of lightweight materials, including aluminium, magnesium, carbon fibre and woven mesh, the Bolt’s interior is more functional and techie versus luxury.

The two-toned dashboard design is interesting and helps to break up the grey bits of plastic that look a bit cheap and cheerful.

A floating instrument panel and multi-purpose connected centre console have a compartment large enough to stow an iPad, and the pixelized flecked plastic white trim befits the ethos of the Bolt and gives it added personality. I suspect that most buyers who chose the Bolt over the Tesla Model 3 or BMW i3 probably won’t care too much about the hard plastics.

The LG-supplied large LCD display screens are crisp and clear in their presentation of key driver information, and the large 10.2 inch colour infotainment touchscreen with “flip-board” operation is impressive.

My higher end “Premier” trim also included the infotainment package with a Bose premium 7-speaker system with subwoofer, wireless device charging, and two USB charging-only ports for the rear passengers.

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality worked seamlessly, and there is a built-in WiFi Hotspot with available 4G LTE data, much like other GM vehicles.

While I was impressed by the multitude of electric vehicle display screens, energy coaches, and available customizations, I was also perplexed by the Bolt’s lack of a simple “remaining percentage of battery capacity left” readout.

Hard as I tried to find it, the only place that seemed to indicate this was in the Bolt’s smartphone app. Otherwise, one must contend with the Bolt’s “fuel” gauge and range-to-empty readout.

Speaking of smartphones, the Bolt also comes with standard KeyPass smartphone entry/start operation as standard equipment.

While I have heard some people complaining about the seats being a bit firm and lacking in support up front, I found them reasonably comfortable albeit lacking in lateral support.

Heated at the front and rear on my Premier trim Bolt, the car’s seating positions are rather upright like an SUV.

Additional Tech Highlights

My Premier trim Bolt EV was also fitted with a plethora of active safety systems as part of the Driver Confidence Package II. This included blindspot monitoring, automatic emergency braking, lane keeping assist with departure warning, forward collision alert, front pedestrian braking, rear cross traffic alert, and rear park assist.

This package also added the IntelliBeam automatic high beam assist to the standard LED headlamp system.

For those with teenage drivers in the family, GM also offers Teen Driver Technology, an available built-in PIN code restricted system that helps to coach them even when you’re not there. It lets parents set a speed alert, a volume limit, and more.

For example, parents can enable a “Buckle to Drive” feature or mute the audio until front-seat occupants are buckled up. There is even an in-vehicle report card to track (and hopefully motivate improvements) the young driver’s performance.

Vehicle Driving Highlights

It’s not just on paper that the Bolt seems like a great vehicle. Until my review vehicle, I hadn’t spent any time in it, but could easily see why GM had big hopes for the Bolt.

In the three years since the Bolt has made its debut though, the electric vehicle landscape has changed dramatically with the notable arrival of the Hyundai Kona EV, the Kia Niro EV, the longer-range Nissan Leaf Plus, and the Tesla Model 3. Even more EVs are coming later this year.

Like the earlier versions of the Bolt, EV, the 2020 model still delivers smooth, linear acceleration off the line from its healthy 200 hp electric motor which also produces 266 lb-ft of torque. This results in a 0-100 km/hr time of 6.6 seconds.

While not necessarily unique to the Bolt, it is always a bit of a novelty to be able to drive an EV with just one pedal, speeding up and slowing down using only the accelerator pedal and allowing the regen to capture some of the kinetic energy while slowing down the vehicle.

Carried over from other GM hybrid vehicles, the Bolt also features a novel “regen on demand” feature which allows one to pull on the steering wheel mounted paddle to invoke a more aggressive level of regeneration. One can literally slow down the Bolt to a complete stop by just using the paddle.

Although the big battery allows Bolt owners to enjoy some great range between charges, it takes a long time to charge it back up. In my test on a Level 2 240-volt home charger, it can take almost 10 hours to charge from empty. Most drivers won’t need to wait that long if they top up the battery in between trips throughout the day.

An optional DC fast-charging capability, as fitted to my test vehicle, allowed about 140 km of extra range with just 30 minutes of charging at a compatible Level 3 DC fast charging station.

On the road, the Bolt’s large greenhouse makes driving a joy. Drivers can enjoy improved confidence also due to the upgraded second generation digital rearview mirror. Unlike Jaguar Land Rover’s equivalent product, GM’s also allows one to tweak the level of zoom and even adjust the image up or down.

As previously mentioned, the tailgate mounted cameras have been upgraded with a higher resolution unit, as have the cameras for the surround-view camera system.

A high pressure heated camera washer system ensures that the rear facing cameras can be cleaned at any time, even in inclement weather conditions.

Final Thoughts

All-in-all, I enjoyed my time with the Bolt EV. It’s not just an excellent EV, but a great car all around. It’s just too bad that aside from the initial buzz during launch, Chevy hasn’t really managed to get its model name out there very well.

The instant torque makes the Bolt EV fun to drive and its low centre of gravity afforded by the battery pack aids in its good handling and confidence on twisty roads. Although the ride can be a bit choppy on rougher roads, interior is a bit noisy and the unusual 7-shaped gear selector pattern is initially tricky, the Bolt continues to be a sharp EV.

Those minor complaints aside, if you’ve ever thought about going electric, the Bolt is a great alternative especially if you are turned off by the hype from Tesla fanboys.

If you want an EV with great numbers and a reasonable price, don’t forget the Bolt.

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