My Drive this week was the Volkswagen Polo GTI. The reborn-again Polo GTI underwent a major update around this time last year – drivetrains were replaced, the three-door bodystyle was cut from the range, and purists were thrilled to find a manual transmission option was now available again. Yes, the Polo GTI was only available in automatic for a time – you’d think a sports car proposition would have a manual option wouldn’t you? But thankfully Volkswagen was listening and the faithful are happy again. Let’s take a look.

One of the more vocal criticisms of the last Polo GTI was that it didn’t look much different from your regular Polo, but VW has given the new model different looking alloy wheels, headlights and front and rear body parts to make it more obviously look like a sports model. Still, the design follows VW’s design trends for its cars with a refined, assertive looking appearance.

The interior is the same affair, with the typical dual binnacle instrument cluster divided by a vertical LCD information display. The centre console stack has gotten an update with a new 6.5-inch LCD screen dominating most of it. This entertainment system has the usual support for AM/FM radio, a CD player, USB music and Bluetooth phone, although it also adds the newer Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone control systems. These two aren’t unique to the Polo, but they’re a sorely welcome addition and as a bonus, give you access to your smartphone’s navigation system, although you can also get Volkswagen’s own sat-nav as a cost-option.

The tartan cloth seats are much the same as before, and they’re quite a good mix of support and comfort. It’s a small car, so legroom is going to a little tight for taller people, but otherwise most people should be fine. Same goes for the boot, which comes with a very city-focused 204 litres of storage space.

The Polo GTI used to be equipped with that revolutionary 1.4 litre twin-charger engine, which combined a low-rev supercharger with a high-revving turbocharger to get the best of both worlds and enable forced induction throughout the rev range without killing fuel economy. Times have changed though and turbochargers have become advanced enough to kick in almost from idle these days, so VW dropped the supercharger and enlarged the engine. We’ve now got a 1.8 litre turbo four cylinder that puts out 141 kilowatts of power and up to 250, or 320 Newton-metres of torque. That maximum torque depends on your choice of transmission – stick with the seven speed dual clutch automatic and you’ll go up to 250, but choose the new six speed manual and you can add that extra 70 Newton-metres of torque to get very close to Golf GTI performance. The weird thing is, they both take only 6.7 seconds to get up to 100 km/h from a standing start.

The dual clutch auto has been refined further, taking off from second gear under relaxed acceleration and quickly working its way up while keeping revs very low for more driving refinement. The suspension is balanced quite well, not feeling too harsh under everyday driving but staying taut enough for some fun cornering. The steering has been moved over to an electric setup, something which makes every-day driving much easier but slightly deadens road feedback in sportier situations. Only slightly though. Combined fuel economy is officially rated at 5.7 L/100km for the auto, and a slightly higher 6.1 for the manual. My testing in the automatic scored a somewhat-higher 7.2 litres per hundred.

The Polo GTI comes in the one trim level, although there’s a couple of option packs available. Standard features include remote central locking, climate control air, cruise control, auto-on headlamps and wipers, front fog lights and a security alarm. The options packs include LED headlights, mixed leather/Alcantara seats, a sunroof, parking sensors and a rear view camera.

The Polo GTI retails for $27,490 with the manual gearbox, while the dual-clutch automatic version comes in at $29,990, both before on-road costs.

So some people will claim the Polo GTI has got its mojo back – they’d be right. Now that there’s a manual gearbox and more power, there’s an awesome combination of sporty fun and everyday practicality available for under 30 grand. Definitely worth a look. That’s it for me this week.

16 April 2016
Albert Malik

My Drive this week is Kia’s small entry-level hatchback, the Rio. I was actually quite surprised to learn that the current generation Rio is now four and a half years old – I’m surprised because its design is sharp and modern enough that it doesn’t betray its age, but it was actually introduced way back in the second half of 2011. It’s a testament to the smart design work of Kia’s then chief designer Peter Schreyer, who succeeded in giving Kia a unique and modern look (he now heads design at Hyundai as well).

In any case, the Rio came in for a mid-life update last year, getting subtle tweaks to the design as well as a tweaked suspension tune and revised variant line-up. Let’s take a look.

The so-called ‘Tiger’ grille is present on every Kia nowadays and is obviously here on the Rio too. Assertive headlamps flank an H-shaped grille on the front, giving the Rio a tough look, although on this small hatchback it takes on a mildly cute look (I’m thinking of a tiger cub here). The bumpers have gotten a minor tweak in the 2015 update but for all intents and purposes this is the same design we had back when the car launched. But that’s not a bad thing because this design still looks modern enough to be relevant.

At least, until you step inside. Unfortunately, the interior design is mostly carry over as well, which means an instrument cluster with three binnacles and monochrome LCDs in most places. This part of the car is a little more dated, but apart from these points, the cabin is well-finished and of decent quality. There’s plenty of leg room front and back, while the seats themselves are comfortable and supportive, especially the back seats which offer a bit more support than most rivals. There’s also plenty of storage options such as bottle holders and storage bins throughout the cabin.

There are two powerplant options – 1.4 and 1.6 litre naturally aspirated petrol engines. The 1.4 litre engine produces 79 kilowatts of power and 135 Newton-metres of torque, while the 1.6 litre direct-injected engine is more modern and efficient, getting a much beefier 103 kilowatts and 167 Newton-metres from its four cylinders. The 1.4 is paired with a six speed manual or optional four speed automatic, while the 1.6 comes standard with a more modern six speed auto.

I tested the 1.6 and the 6 speed auto, and they make for a reasonably decent showing in an entry-level hatchback. Under relaxed driving the engine is quiet and gets the job done, the six speed auto shifting quickly with a minimum of fuss. If you need to call on the power though, the gearbox is quick to put the engine into a higher rev band. This is because maximum torque comes in at just under 5000 RPM, so it needs those revs for something like an overtake manoeuvre. Still, it shifts quickly and will provide that acceleration, so that’s OK. Fuel economy is officially rated at 6.1 L/100km while I scored 7.5 L/100km litres – both in combined city and highway driving.

Handling is respectable, and while the suspension has received mild tweaks according to Kia, it’s difficult to pick out the difference. It still turns reasonably well around corners, but push it too hard and you’ll find the limits of its grip quickly. The electrically-assisted steering is light and easy to use, although it can momentarily get heavy if you’re doing three point turns and trying to turn it quickly.

The Rio is available in a few trim levels, and is in fact one of the few remaining hatchbacks to still be available with three doors. Standard features include power windows and mirrors, central locking, air conditioning and Bluetooth phone connectivity, while more premium models get cruise control, reverse parking sensors, auto-on headlamps and leather seat trim.

The Rio starts from $13,990 dollars for a three door body with the 1.4 litre engine and manual transmission, and at the moment this is actually a drive-away price, with Kia covering on-road costs for now. A five door body in automatic can be had for $19,090 drive away as well.

So the Rio is getting a little bit dated on the inside but looks every bit as classy on the outside. If your heart is set, you won’t go wrong. That’s it for me this week.

12 March 2016
Albert Malik

My Drive this week was Nissan’s second generation Qashqai, the new name and replacement for the Dualis crossover. We first got the original Dualis all the way back in 2007, and back then Nissan was just feeling out the relatively new crossover category. You can see the results of that labour in the second generation of this car, which arrived on Australian shores a couple of years ago. All wheel drive has now been dropped, with the Qashqai a strictly front wheel drive offering. Only five percent of Dualis buyers were going after all wheel drive, so it’s a pretty prudent decision. The seven seat option box has also been deleted – you’ll now need to go up to the Nissan X-Trail if you want more than five seats.

The car’s design has been refined further, with a sharp and classy look that brings it into line with Nissan’s current design language. The cabin interior has also gotten a good dose of touching-up, with soft-touch materials in places and a reasonable amount of leg room, especially in the front where the seats and steering wheel are quite flexible for adjustment. The back seats are a little stiffer, with a relatively flat back seat bench, although leg room is still adequate. There’s good odds-and-ends storage throughout the cabin, with bottle holders in each door, four cup holders and several other pockets throughout. In terms of cargo space, the storage area at the back can hold 430 litres with the seats up, growing to 1,585 litres with them down. Not bad at all.

The Qashqai is available with two different power plants, a 2.0 litre petrol engine as well as a 1.6 litre turbo diesel motor. The petrol unit produces 106 kW of power and 200 Nm of torque, while the turbo diesel gets 96 kW and 320 Nm. As usual, the petrol engine does better on power while the diesel is more torquey and pulls harder from lower in the rev range. Both engines come with a continuously variable transmission, while a six speed manual is also available with the petrol power plant.

My test car came with the petrol engine and CVT, which made for a very relaxed and smooth combination. The engine provides plenty of power for getting around town and suburban roads, but you’ll need to give it time if you’re shooting for motorway speeds from a standstill. The CVT is smart enough to rev up off the line, but quickly settles down into very low revs to reduce noise and fuel consumption as the car builds up speed. The Qashqai’s handling is balanced well, not overly sporty but soaking up most bumps on the road smoothly. The electric steering was a touch on the light side, although a sport setting in the menus lets you firm it up if you prefer things a little heavier.

Fuel economy was also pretty reasonable considering the powertrain and car’s weight of 1,400 kg. The official combined rating is 6.9 litres per 100 km, and I was able to achieve 8.4 litres in combined, mostly suburban driving.

The Qashqai is offered in two trim levels with each drivetrain for a total of four variants. Standard features are quite reasonable with 17 inch alloys, cruise control, electric parking brake, reversing camera and basic smartphone connectivity with Bluetooth included on the base ST model. Jumping up to more expensive variants will net you electrically-folding mirrors, rain sensing wipers, proximity keyless entry, LED headlights, climate control air and 360-degree camera monitoring when reversing.

The Nissan Qashqai retails from $25,850 for a petrol ST manual, topping out at $37,990 for a diesel automatic with all the bells and whistles. Remember, prices are before on-road costs, so expect to add another $3,000 or so before you get the car on the road.

In summary, the Qashqai is a solid improvement on its predecessor, with a design that’s acceptable to everyone, decent refinement and reasonable value for money; and while it might only be front wheel drive and five seats, I think most people interested in this car wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s it for me this week.

19 February 2016
Albert Malik

My Drive this week was the Lexus RC F. This is Lexus’ current halo sports coupe and successor to the IS F and boy is it a fun car to take for a spin.

With the RC F, Lexus has essentially taken everything they learned with the IS F and put it into the RC sports coupe. They’ve also refined and enhanced the technology, improving on the drivetrain and ride to produce a racing coupe that perhaps hearkens back to the fast spinning engines of Japanese four cylinder engine yore.

The RC F starts with the same V8 engine from the IS F – it even has the same model number. But refinements have seen power increased by 13 percent to 351 kW, and torque increased five percent to 530 Nm. The best part, in my opinion, is the engine redline. It’s up by 500 rpm, meaning maximum power now comes at 6800 rpm, and the redline itself is 7300 rpm. This means the RC F roars from take-off, heading with anger and then screaming towards redline before demanding a gear upshift.

So what does it sound like? The RC F has the same automatic exhaust flap control as before – the exhaust is quiet under normal driving, but put your foot down and the flaps open up to let a more powerful sound out of the bag. It doesn’t have that savage burble the C 63 AMG did last week, but it makes up for it with a high revving scream that evokes visions of V8 Supercars.

The eight speed torque converter automatic gearbox also returns in the RC F, with extra refinements to handle the higher revving engine here. In manual mode, every gear except first gear operates in converter lock-up mode, simulating a clutched manual gearbox. Upshifts are executed in 0.3 seconds, while downshifts are done even quicker at 0.2 seconds with the gearbox blipping the throttle to match engine speeds to the gear. Drive power goes to the rear wheels only.

Being a sports car, the suspension setup is quite a firm one, and there’s no adaptive suspension to soften it for regular road driving. It’s suited to windy roads and fast circuits, and Lexus has even developed a new, electronically-controlled rear differential to change the car’s handling depending on which kind of road you’re on. The company calls it the Torque Vectoring Differential, and it can electronically control how much torque goes to each rear wheel. You can choose from three profiles – Standard, Slalom and Track, with Slalom making the car “more agile for better handling on windy mountain rallies”, while Track “stabilises the car for better stability on circuits”.

Standard creature comforts in the Lexus RC F include adaptive cruise control, leather accented heated and ventilated front seats, proximity card entry, 17-speaker sound system, sunroof, rear parking camera and sensors, blind spot monitor with rear cross traffic alert and lane departure warning.

The RC F retails for $133,500 plus on-road costs.

24 October 2015
Albert Malik

My Drive this week was the Mercedes-Benz AMG C 63 S. When AMG gets its hands dirty producing the sports versions of Mercedes-Benz’s cars, you know they aren’t stuffing around and this car is no exception. The C 63 is based on the standard C Class and comes with a range of sports enhancements across the entire car.

The new C 63 is quite a different beast from the old one. In the previous generation we had a 6.3 litre naturally aspirated V8 engine, but with stricter and stricter exhaust emissions rules coming along, Benz has taken the axe to the engine’s displacement. There’s now a much smaller 4.0 litre V8 doing the rounds, but with twin turbos to boost output, power and torque are actually better than before. There’s 375 kW of power to tap into, while the massive 700Nm of torque comes at just 1750 RPM. The turbos sit inside the engine V area, helping to reduce lag by shortening the path of the exhaust gases to the turbo.

AMG also put a lot of effort into the sound you get from the engine exhaust. The engineers said they wanted to make sure downsizing the engine didn’t change the sound in any way, but they do leave the driver with a choice, the good old exhaust opener button that you can push to open up some flaps to get more of a burble and many, many more decibels.

Power is put to the rear wheels through a seven speed automatic transmission that acts and feels like a dual clutch, but Mercedes points out it’s actually a multi-clutch gearbox. It’s a little complicated, but think of a torque converter automatic that’s had the torque converter removed and a single clutch put in its place, while a number of planetary clutches on the other gears allows for double declutching on downshifts. Putting the C 63 into any of the racier sports modes will bring the gearbox to life.

The suspension is very focused on sports driving, with a tune that’s extremely firm and tight. AMG has equipped the C 63 with adaptive suspension, allowing you to select from Comfort, Regular and Sports profiles, but even in Comfort it’s much firmer than the regular C-Class, making it pretty difficult to stomach for everyday driving. Take the C 63 to a racetrack though and it’s totally in its element.

The braking package is also race spec, with monstrous 390 mm vented discs in the front and 360 mm discs in the back. You can also option ceramic discs if you want to do some serious racing.

Standard features in the C 63 S include adaptive cruise control, climate control air conditioning, a 13 speaker sound system, digital TV tuner, and a head up display with speed, gear position and a bar-shaped tachometer. This head up display goes great with the AMG instrument cluster that displays turbo boost, oil temperature and transmission temperature in the centre LCD. There’s also some beautiful leather, racing-themed seats with loads of electronic adjustment, as well as a leather and Alcantara steering wheel.

The Mercedes-Benz AMG C 63 S can be had in both sedan and wagon body styles, and can be yours from $155,490 plus on-road costs.

17 October 2015
Albert Malik

When we look back at the recent history of drivetrain technology in cars, it’s quite fascinating to see how engines, gearboxes and such have been developed by the different carmakers around the world. In Europe the focus was on downsizing the engine and using turbochargers to make up the gap of lost displacement. This process started with diesel engines and then moved on to petrol, so that in modern cars today, you’ve got petrol engines as small as just one litre coming equipped with a reasonably sized turbo to give it the maximum output of a 1.5 litre engine. Drive it normally though and you get the fuel economy of the one litre engine. Go to the other side of the world – Asia – and you find the Japanese manufacturers have worked on pairing an electric motor with a petrol engine to improve efficiency. Toyota had the most success here, starting with the Prius and then expanding to most of the model range. It shared that love with Lexus too, and you can now have a hybrid drivetrain with almost every single model Lexus offers.

This was the divide in ideology for a few years now, but recently, you could say there’s been a reconciliation of ideals, at least that’s how it appears. The European car manufacturers have begun offering more and more plug-in hybrid vehicles in the last year or two, while Japan’s largest car manufacturer has finally made an attempt at a downsizing turbo engine. It was only a few months ago when we read that Toyota’s engineering team had developed a turbocharged two litre petrol engine, and the Group has wasted no time in rapidly rolling out the engine across the Toyota and Lexus ranges around the world.

This brings me to my Drive this week – the Lexus IS 200t. For several years now, the Lexus IS engine choice was pretty simple – get the smaller 2.5 litre V6 to save fuel, or the bigger 3.5 litre V6 if you wanted power. The company then introduced a hybrid option which gave you power somewhere in-between the two while drastically reducing fuel consumption.
But now, the new turbo engine changes everything – it replaces the smaller V6 to actually become the entry-level drivetrain, making the IS a much better car to step into now.

The current generation IS sedan was introduced only a couple of years ago, so Lexus has decided to drop in the new drivetrain and not change anything else. The two litre turbo engine produces 180 kW of power and 350 Nm of torque; it comes mated to an eight speed automatic transmission powering the rear wheels.

I have to say, for the company’s first attempt at a turbo engine, they’ve done a pretty decent job. Engine response off the mark is admirable – it quickly fires up to the 6100 RPM redline and the wide spread of gears makes sure the revs stay up there under full acceleration, making good use of the engine’s torque band and getting you to 100 km/h in around seven seconds. Unfortunately, acceleration when you’re already moving isn’t so impressive. Plant your foot down and the gearbox will find the right gear almost immediately, but then there’s 1-2 seconds of turbo lag before you get to maximum output and fire away. Lexus says it’s using a twin-scroll turbo charger, so the lag is a bit of a mystery and a shame, but still, it’s the company’s first turbo engine, so I can only imagine the next one will be even better.

The gearbox is one of the smoothest and sophisticated in the business. Under normal driving it will shift up as soon as it can to improve fuel economy. If you hit a hill, the gearbox will notice and downshift to give you enough torque to climb up. Put the car in sports mode and the gearbox becomes more responsive when you drive the car harder. It will stay longer in lower gears, blip the throttle on downshifts and execute those downshifts earlier if you’re braking hard from high speed.

One other change in the IS 200t is the introduction of engine idle stop-start – great for saving fuel in heavy traffic or city conditions with a lot of stopping. It’s also intelligent enough not to stop the engine when you have the air conditioning at full power on those hot days.

A quick summary of the model line-up: the IS 200t is available in three variants – Luxury, F Sport and Sports Luxury. Standard features include climate control air, radar cruise control, satellite navigation, bi-xenon headlights, rain sensing wipers and electrically-adjustable steering column. The F Sport adds all the sporty stuff, like adaptive suspension, 18 inch alloys, sports pedals, high friction brake pads and a single gauge digital instrument cluster. The Sports Luxury adds a sunroof, 15 speaker sound system, electric rear sunshade and new-age safety features including automatic high beam, lane departure warning and blind spot monitor.

The IS 200t retails from $57,500 and ranges up to $79,000 for the top model before on-road costs.

In summary, the Lexus IS now has turbo power and it’s pretty decent, especially considering it’s the company’s first attempt at one. If you’re after a Lexus IS but don’t want to spend too much on one, you won’t go wrong with this drivetrain. That’s it for me this week.

10 October 2015
Albert Malik

This week I had the opportunity to drive the new Toyota Camry, and what was particularly memorable about this drive was the fact that this Camry is the last generation we’ll see in production in Australia.

Now when factories are producing their final model, you might be lucky if that model gets a few improvements here and there, minor things maybe, but with only two years to go until Toyota’s Altona factory downs tools, the Camry surprises with almost completely overhauled sheet metal. The car is sporting a new design only three and a half years into the previous model’s run, and to top it off, there are huge price reductions across the range. I’ll get into the details of the price reductions shortly but first, let’s take a look at the design.

In my own humble opinion, this is the first time in a long time, perhaps ever, where the Camry has looked sharp enough to have both sporty and refined elements. The front of the car now adopts the trapezoidal grille common in Toyota’s range today, but in the Camry it gives the car a mostly sporty appearance, with curved headlamps, fog-lamps and other areas adding to the flowing, sculpted look. The theme continues around the car and to the back, where the taillights adopt a curved-strip look that again looks both sporty and elegant at the same time.

Jumping inside the Camry, the interior has sadly received much less attention than the exterior. The dashboard design is mostly carryover from the 2012 generation, and what should have been a completely new interior was reserved for the V6-powered Aurion. One exception to this is the instrument cluster, which on the most expensive Camry variant is upgraded to a dual-gauge design with LCD screen in the centre. It’s the same look you can find in competing cars and is not all that revolutionary in 2015, but still, it’s great to find it in the Camry. Cheaper variants resort to a more traditional three-gauge setup with monochrome element LCD display.

In any case, the interior is still as roomy as ever, with large amounts of rear legroom making long family trips comfortable and relaxing. Both cloth and leather seat trims are available, while the boot can take a respectable 515 litres of cargo; down to 421 litres in the hybrid version thanks to the hybrid battery being stored there.

Drivetrains – there’s only two to choose from and they’re the same as before – 2.5 litre four cylinder petrol engine, or the same engine paired with electric motors in a hybrid configuration. The 2.5 litre engine on its own produces between 133 to 135 kW of power and 231 to 235 Nm of torque depending on the variant. In the hybrid package, the engine itself has a slightly lower 118 kW output thanks to its more efficient Atkinson cycle, but the electric motor backs this up to make a final 151 kW when you’ve got your foot down. The petrol engine gets a six speed automatic gearbox, while the hybrid gets Toyota’s usual planetary gear CVT system. Both of them power the front wheels only.

So that’s the numbers out of the way, how does it feel? In a word – right. In two words – just right. For everyday driving, both drivetrains are simply just fine.

The petrol drivetrain reacts quickly off the mark and builds up torque swiftly. The six speed auto is calibrated towards saving fuel and aggressively upshifts as soon as it can, but it will detect if you hit an incline and quickly downshift for the sake of it, so getting up hills isn’t a problem at all. If you need to floor it, the gearbox quickly gets the right gear and has you on your way to motorway speeds very swiftly.

The hybrid is slightly different, and in my experience, slightly more refined. The car will choose between the petrol and electric motors for the situation, turning on the petrol engine when accelerating, but otherwise keeping it off and relying on the electric motor for low to mid speed cruising, deceleration and when you’re stopped. The CVT gearbox means there’s no shift shock, with torque being delivered smoothly and linearly. It also means the engine will hold its revs as speed builds up – it might be a problem for some, but not for me. If you need to floor it, the electric motor power comes on instantly but it’s quite limited. The petrol engine produces the bulk of the power, but it needs around two seconds to get to maximum revs for some reason. Quite a bit slow sadly, so you’ll need to plan ahead for those times where you need to jump ahead of a car quickly. Finally, when slowing down, the electric motor becomes a generator, producing electricity to store in the battery, in return for slowing the car down to a stop.

The biggest comparison to be made between the standard petrol drivetrain and the hybrid one is fuel economy. The standard petrol drivetrain officially scores 7.8 L/100km in combined city / highway driving, while the hybrid gets 5.2 L/100km. So this means the hybrid officially consumes 33 percent less fuel than that petrol drivetrain, which is pretty significant. Real world figures? I averaged 9.5 L/100km with the petrol drivetrain and 6.5 L/100km with the hybrid – slightly more than the official figures but right around the same difference between them. Of course, your driving style makes all the difference and when I made an effort to drive less aggressively for the sake of fuel economy, I got the petrol drivetrain down to 8.6 L/100km. The hybrid? Even better – 5.7 L/100km. Driving style can make all the difference.

In terms of handling, the Camry has a soft, but balanced setup that’s oriented towards comfort. The car rides just fine with supple suspension and a well-weighted steering wheel. It goes around corners with confidence at usual speeds and that’s enough for me, but if you want a little more sportiness, the Camry Atara SX variant has a specially-designed suspension package by Toyota Australia that gives the car a firmer ride as well as more direct steering. It definitely creates even more confidence around the corners, at the cost of slightly more jiggling over the little bumps and corrugations we have on our roads.

The Camry is reasonably well refined, keeping out the noise and vibrations of driving, but the hybrid also gets an acoustic windscreen that noticeably reduced the noise levels in the cabin.

The Camry can be had in four grades – Altise, Atara S, Atara SX and Atara SL. The Altise comes with 16 inch alloy wheels, LED daytime running lights, cruise control and a six speaker sound system with USB and Bluetooth support. If you get the hybrid drivetrain, you’ll also get climate control air conditioning, proximity keyless entry and the dual gauges with LCD screen instrument cluster. The Atara S adds rear parking sensors, bigger 17 inch alloys, electrically adjustable driver’s seat and the Toyota Link apps system. The top of the range Atara SL also gets satellite navigation, leather seats, 10 speaker sound system and a range of modern safety technologies including automatic high beam, lane departure warning and rear cross traffic alert.

The Atara SX is a sporty offshoot of the Atara S with the sports suspension I mentioned earlier. It also gets a rear lip spoiler, sports driving pedals and hot 18 inch black alloy wheels.

The Camry starts from $28,990 driveaway for a Petrol Altise, while a hybrid Altise is $32,990. The range tops out at the hybrid Atara SL which is $42,490 driveaway.

This is definitely Toyota’s best Camry ever – it looks very sharp and fashionable, it’s practical and well equipped, it’s now very good value for money and I’m sure it will have Toyota’s legendary reliability as well. Definitely a worthwhile choice in your car shopping.

3 October 2015
Albert Malik

My Drive this week was the Subaru Forester. This car is one of the more popular compact off-road four wheel drives, and for the 2015 model year update Subaru made the drastic change of lowering prices across the range, with some variants dropping by as much as $3,500. The other hallmark addition was an automatic gearbox being added to diesel variants. This was a long time coming and should help boost the Forester diesel’s appeal.

The 4th generation Subaru Forester has been around with us for almost two years now, so the updated version I’m looking at today is the first update in this model’s history.

The exterior gets a single tweak – a shark fin radio antenna, which refines the look of the car just a little bit more. That’s the only exterior update.

Inside, the main change is the new, integrated centre console, which looks far better than the previous slot-in module and allows for a larger 7.0-inch LCD touchscreen. Other minor changes were made to add a more premium effect to the cabin, including the use of piano black and silver highlights. Otherwise you’ve still got the roominess and comfort the Forester previously offered – leg room is decent both front and back, while the load carrying capacity of 422 litres is quite generous.

So, let’s take a look at this new automatic box. Quick rundown first – the Forester’s 2.0 litre turbo diesel engine produces 108 kW of power and 350 Nm of torque. The automatic is a CVT, meaning unlimited ratios, although under strong throttle it will start imitating a stepped gearbox so that you feel like you’re going faster. It’s a trick, but most people like it, so that’s all that matters really. It’s a Subaru, meaning all four wheels are driven at all times, and fuel consumption officially averages 6.3 L/100km in combined driving.

Funnily enough, the Forester driving experience is quite similar to the Outback diesel I tested earlier this year. Off the mark performance is a bit average thanks to some turbo lag, but once you get going the strong torque of the diesel really comes into its own and gets you moving quickly. Kick-down reaction is quite decent, so overtaking manoeuvres on motorways are easy to execute. High speed driving is quite refined, although slightly noisier if you’re sitting in the back, and real-life fuel consumption is also reasonably close to the rated one, with my score being 6.9 L/100km (in combined usage).

The always-on four-wheel drive helps considerably for handling. The Forester is very well composed around corners, hooking admirably and staying pointed where you want it to go. The brakes also work well, pulling the car up quickly when needed.

Diesel Foresters are now available in two variants, the L and S. L model diesel Foresters get the 7.0-inch touchscreen I mentioned earlier as standard, as well as dual zone climate control air conditioning, cruise control, 17-inch alloy wheels, front fog lamps, multi-function display in the instrument cluster and USB/Bluetooth audio with Pandora support. The S adds to this with HID headlamps, proximity keyless entry, sunroof, satellite navigation, leather trim and electrically-adjustable front seats.

Pricing for the Forester range now starts from $29,990, although a diesel L starts from $33,490 with a manual gearbox. Throw in another $2,000 for automatic, while a fully-kitted S automatic will set you back $41,490. All prices are before on-road costs.

The Forester makes for a great family car, and it can certainly handle a reasonable amount of off-roading if you want to go camping or just enjoy the great outdoors. It’s on sale now.

19 September 2015
Albert Malik

My Drive this week was the Prius V people mover. Last month I took a look at the compact version of the Prius, the Prius C, but this week I’m moving in the other direction, examining the bigger brother of the hybrid power fuel miser. This car is something you can sort-of compare to the Honda Odyssey and Kia Rondo – it’s a seven seat wagon that lets you cart the family around without the overhanging proportions of a larger, van-based vehicle, and thanks to the hybrid drivetrain, you can keep the fuel spend under control.

Toyota gave the Prius V its mid-life update earlier this year, with changes to the design as well as noise, handling and safety improvements. Let’s take a look.

The Prius V now sports a design you could call more assertive. Angled headlights giving the front face an angry look, flanked by new, vertical LED daytime running lamps down lower in the bumper. The rear combination lamps have also got a new look.

Going inside it’s surprising to see how much room there is in the cabin – the proportions are really deceiving. There’s plenty of room in the first two rows, while the smaller third row is good for children but will be a tight squeeze for adults. The front seats have a lot of bolstering and support, while the second row is still contoured for three people but somewhat flatter than the front. The two rear seats can be folded down flat into the floor to create a fair bit of storage – 485 litres to be exact. With the seats upright it drops to a paltry, but still usable 180 litres.

The main changes in the cabin are the dashboard – the centre console is upgraded with Toyota’s newer infotainment system, which comes with a raft of more modern features and newer satellite navigation but sadly gets the underpowered processor found across the Toyota range, making the experience a sluggish, frustration-inducing affair. The instrument cluster also gets a new multi-information LCD screen, making it easier to see the hybrid powertrain information and fuel consumption readouts.

Speaking of which, the Prius V’s hybrid powertrain remains unchanged in this updated model. The combination of a 1.8 litre, 73 kW petrol engine and a 60 kW electric motor combine for a maximum 100 kW of power, which is provided to the front wheels through a CVT planetary gear-based transmission.

The drivetrain is firmly focused on saving fuel here, so maximum acceleration can feel a bit lacking on motorways, even when you put the car in Power Mode, but fuel consumption is definitely impressive. The official combined rating is 4.4 L/100km, and in my testing of combined city and highway driving, I managed to achieve 4.9 litres. If you follow the car’s suggestions to drive economically, you’ll do better.

Ride and handling have been improved slightly in this update, with Toyota re-engineering dampers and rear trailing arm bushes to improve ride response. In practice, the Prius V is composed and confident around mild corners. It’s no sports car, but for everyday duties it’s more than adequate and instils confidence.

The braking system combines friction brakes with regenerative braking to recharge the battery system, contributing to the fuel economy of the car. It’s smooth, but I did find I needed to increase brake pressure as the car comes to a stop, which is slightly different behaviour compared to normal cars.

The Prius V is available in two grades – base model and i-Tech luxury. The base model gets standard climate control air conditioning, cruise control, automatic power windows on all four doors, alloy wheels and a six inch centre console display with six speakers and USB audio with Bluetooth. The i-Tech adds a load of extra features including panoramic sunroof, satellite navigation, radar cruise control, digital radio, bi-LED headlamps, leather trim and lane departure warning, which is a new addition in this updated model. Both variants also get seven airbags, stability control and a reverse camera.

The Prius V retails from $34,490, while the i-Tech costs another $10,000, starting from $44,490 – both before on-road costs.

All in all, if you put aside the hybrid part of the equation, the Prius V is actually a reasonably good value-for-money proposition for a people mover. It’s well featured, uses little fuel and doesn’t break the bank. I was quite impressed with it. That’s it for me this week.

12 September, 2015
Albert Malik

My Drive this week was the Toyota Eighty Six. Or is it Eight Six? I think most people are familiar with Eighty Six, so I’ll go with that. The Eighty Six is Toyota’s first sports car in a long time, and was developed in partnership with Subaru, which also sells their own version, called the BR-Z. When it first appeared on the Australian market three years ago, it heralded a return to sports cars by the Japanese company that many said was long overdue. What I think is really amazing though is that despite not making any form of sports car for around a decade or more, Toyota really managed to nail it on the head with the 86. It looks good, sounds good, and most importantly, drives really good! Let’s take a look.

The Toyota 86 is a sleek looking two door coupe, and the company says it’s inspired by its more successful sports cars of old, the 2000GT and the Corolla Sprinter 86. It’s got that aggressive stance, particularly thanks to the angry headlights. The body follows the lines of your typical coupe, curving upwards for the cabin and then downwards towards the rear. It looks great and just feels right, and this is a theme throughout the 86 actually – it gets the feel, the balance right for a sports car throughout.

Once we jump inside you can see where the inspiration for the cockpit came from. Dashboard switches and knobs are all inspired by the simple levers you find in a race car, while the instrument cluster is defined by its large tachometer with a digital speedo – again, perfect. The seats snuggle up to you and have loads of lateral support to keep you firmly in place, but they’re soft and comfortable. They’re a lovely place to be, as long as it’s in the front. Yes, this car does somehow manage to find the room for two back seats as well, but it’s a tiny amount of room only and I wouldn’t want to go back there unless I absolutely had to. They’re really for emergency use only. The boot is the same story – it’s positively tiny with only 217 litres of space to use.

But we’re not here to start transporting cargo with this car, we’re here to drive it. And driving is what the 86 does so well. It’s powered by a two litre, four cylinder boxer engine courtesy of Subaru. It’s been tuned to produce a maximum 147 kilowatts of power, which is pretty high for a naturally aspirated two litre engine. Torque tops out at 205 Newton-metres all the way up at 6400 revs, so you can see the kind of torque map Toyota was going for here – very high-rev focused. For racing, that’s perfect. The engine mates with a six speed manual or six speed automatic, connecting to the rear wheels through a limited slip differential. So that’s the specs, but the driving? In a word – balance. I tested the manual variant and I was amazed at the responsiveness of the 86. It reacts immediately to the accelerator pedal, which helps you take off smoothly and quickly. The engine is very relaxed and calm until around 2500 RPM, when the torque begins to seriously increase as you head towards the 7400 RPM redline. The gearshift has a medium throw and slots through the gears with such smoothness that feels just so satisfying.

And the engine sound. This isn’t the same boxer engine you find in a WRX or anything like that. It sounded like someone had ripped out the exhaust system from my test car and bolted on a hot dog muffler or something. Well maybe not that bad, but that was the kind of sound – the sound all small engine sports cars should have. The temptation to push the car past 3000 RPM just to hear that sound was just so strong and believe me, I lost that battle many times. It’s a beautiful sound and one that longs for a racetrack to be unleashed. The 86 would be right at home on a racetrack, not least because of its handling. This car is perfectly in tune with the driver – turn the wheel and almost instantly the car turns. It stays flat and composed, and even building speed around the corners, it keeps its composure until you really push it, when the rear begins to break traction and drift. At this point the stability control will catch the car, but you can turn on a sports profile for the stability control that will allow the car a touch more oversteer before bringing it back to line. It ensures the safety of the car, but it also ensures even more fun. The suspension is taut and firm to enable this level of handling, while the braking system does its job with aplomb, pulling up the car with more than enough ease.

Toyota offers the 86 in two variants. The entry level GT comes standard with 16 inch alloy wheels, cruise control, seven airbags and a reverse camera that runs on a 6.1 inch touchscreen with USB and Bluetooth. The top spec GTS adds to this with a load of convenience features – proximity keyless entry, HID headlamps, LED daytime running lamps, climate control air, leather seats and satellite navigation. You can also get an option pack for the GTS that gives the 86 an even more aggressive body kit, including an oversized rear spoiler.

The 86 is on sale from $29,990 dollars plus on-road costs. If you enjoy going to track days or for any form of light racing really, the 86 will be an absolute blast. As I said at the start, it looks good, sounds good, and drives really good too. It has to be one of the most balanced sports cars I’ve ever driven. That’s it for me this week.

August 29th 2015
Albert Malik