More Catching Up

As I’m watching my favorite automotive news program, Autoline Detroit, I’m reminded how much I miss Detroit, my family and just Michigan in general.

These are strange times, as you probably know, and we’ve got a lot to look forward to as this recession winds down (hopefully), especially in the automotive sector. There are so many awesome cars coming out in the next few years, from all manufacturers, that anyone with even an inkling of buying really needs to do their homework to know what’s out there and what’s going to be out there shortly.

What’s more, Ford and General Motors have some really nice products coming soon, like the Fiesta, Cruze and Volt. If only Chrysler had such cool products on the way…let’s hope Fiat will help Chrysler (or will Chrysler help Fiat?) bring more reliable, fun-to-drive cars to the US.

With that said, Here are some more Retro Reviews. This batch will round out the 2002 model year reviews I wrote:

2002 Nissan Altima 3.5 SE

This is Not Your Brother’s Altima

by James E. Bryson

For the past few years, Nissan Motors has been trying to break itself out of a veritable rut of slow sales and somewhat-lackluster-performing cars by designing and building more interesting, and more powerful, cars.

The company’s first major effort of change was a redesigned Maxima, with sleeker lines and more power under hood. It seemed that Nissan was breaking out of its mold with abandon.

“Phase Two” could be considered begun with the introduction of the newly redesigned Altima.

When we first saw the all-new 2002 Altima out in the open at the St. Louis County Fair last year we were impressed with what it has become: A large-ish car with interesting styling and more features, including a powerful V6 option, that could set the sedan class on its ears.

When we saw the price on our test car (at $27,500)…let’s just say we were impressed in a different way.

As it is, for an extra $3000 above the price of our tester you can have either a new Maxima or Infiniti I35, both with the same 3.5-liter V6, albeit with more power and many more features.

That said, the new Altima is a balls-out blast to drive with 240 horses on tap and a “race-inspired” suspension. And don’t forget about the disc brakes at all four wheels, with vented discs up front to keep the stopping power strong during heavy use. Trust us, we put the brakes and multi-link independent rear suspension to the test during our week with the Altima.

We had almost too much fun taking the Altima through our handling loop in the hills outside of greater St. Louis. Through the corners and down the straightaways, we kept asking for more and the Altima kept giving.

This cars limits are at a point where most people will never go and that’s a good thing. We felt totally safe cruising at hyper-legal speeds down two-laners that would scare an SUV into a slow crawl. That is, until a small squirrel crossed our path and brought us back down to Earth.

With mortality rushing at us from all sides, taking a slower pace gave us a chance to admire all the new Altima has to offer.

The eight-way power driver seat, covered in a nice cloth fabric, which should stand up well to years of fast driving, is a dream to work and makes it possible for anyone to get comfortable. And, with the tilting and telescoping steering wheel, and one should be able to easily find a safe, comfortable driving position in no time.

We liked the dash layout, with easily legible gauges directly in front of the driver, in a three-pod treatment not unlike one of Nissan’s competitor’s cars. The oval radio is something Ford could learn from; with straight edges top and bottom and buttons that are aligned in rows. It is handsome and functional and can be used with gloves on…a plus for those in cold weather climates.

We particularly enjoyed the steering wheel mounted controls for the radio, climate control, cruise control, and more. Once we learned what functions each button performed, using them while driving was a cinch and let us keep both hands on the wheel.

The only change we would like to see, on the whole car, would be lighted steering wheel buttons. That’s it, end of story.

As a testament to the overall solidness of the new Altima’s design and execution, it was voted North American Car of the Year by journalists attending the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this past January. An accolade well deserved for this totally new car from a reborn Nissan.

Head- and knee-room were quite good for front seat occupants and adequate for backseat passengers. The local college basketball team might not be too comfortable, but for the average adult, the seats are really nice. Cupholders in the rear, fold down armrest are a really nice touch. And, the rear doors seem extra long…we’re guessing to make getting in and out less of a chore.

Actually, the extra length makes the Altima a longer, more manageable vehicle for everyday things like traveling down the highway or picking your friends for a raucous night on the town.

One other demerit, noted by a front seat passenger during a short drive, was the slab-side design of the interior door panels – which makes a crescent running from one door, behind the dashboard, to the other door. She thought the treatment made the interior seem sterile and uninviting. We’re having the state mental hospital check her out…just to be safe. We found that, overall, the interior is one of the best on any under-$30k sedan out there. It is well thought out and functional, even if one passenger didn’t like the modern flair of Nissan’s design team.

Our Altima tester came with a gaggle of standard features and convenience items for a base price of $23,149.00. We were impressed with the number of standard features for the price and the value associated with these items. If you can imagine this, our Altima 3.5 SE came with the 3.5-liter DOHC V6 with continuously variable valve timing, liquid-filled engine mounts, four-wheel disc brakes with vented discs up front, dual exhaust with chrome tips, 17 -inch wheels covered with P215/55r17 Bridgestone tires, remote keyless entry, four cupholders, driver and front passenger auto down (and up) electric windows, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, eight-way power driver’s seat, air conditioning and cruise control, speed sensitive automatic volume control for the radio, and a trip computer with outside temperature. And those are just the tip of the standard equipment iceberg.

Add to that the ABS and Airbag Package ($749) [which includes anti-lock brakes, front airbags and front and rear head curtain airbags], a Bose AM/FM/six-CD-changer with eight speakers ($899), a power glass sunroof ($849), a rear spoiler ($399), floor mats ($79) Xenon high-intensity discharge headlights ($499) and traction control ($299), and $540 for destination charges and the grand total for our gold test car came to $27,462.00.

Nissan calls the 2002 Altima the “cure for the common car” and we couldn’t agree more.

2002 Saturn VUE

Saturn Enters the 21st Century

by James E. Bryson

When General Motors first started producing Saturn cars in Spring Hill, Tennessee, back around 1990, the SUV boom was just beginning. And, with the continuing popularity of the small SUV realm, Saturn has finally jumped into the fray with the all-new-for-2002 VUE.

The VUE is about the same size as the Ford Escape and Honda CR-V, but it’s plastic body panels, distinctive Saturn-esque front fascia and Saturn-derived interior set it apart from the run of the mill SUV.

We were quite impressed with the VUE overall. The design is not unlike any other small SUV, but the details are what caught our eyes.

The most innovative feature within the SUV world right now is the continually variable transmission (that Saturn has named VTi) which is offered currently only in the VUE. It’s a bit odd driving a CVT-equipped vehicle at first, though the novelty never really wore off for us after a week of driving.

To give an example, when you’re sitting at a stoplight and it changes, you hit the gas and the vehicle starts moving forward. The engine revs to about 3000 to 4000, depending on how hard you’re pushing it, and the revs never change until you reach the desired speed. The vehicle seems to gather speed quickly enough, the 2.2-liter four-cylinder has 143 horsepower, without the straining a traditional automatic transmission-equipped vehicle would seem to have.

On the highway, you push the gas pedal to pass and the engine revs don’t jump like in a regular automatic, the tach arm sweeps to about 5000 and you make your pass. It’s a very smooth transition and a very quiet operation. The power of the four-cylinder won’t push you back into the seat but it’s enough to get you into trouble.

One thing we did notice on our all-wheel-drive tester was a bit of torque-steer at full throttle. We really weren’t expecting this from an AWD vehicle and find it more interesting than a nuisance.

In all situations the CVT-equipped VUE has the smoothest driveline of any SUV we’ve tested. And that’s saying a lot.

The only bad situation we found with the CVT was heading down a hill. The transmission was in no position to hold down speed, even with a lower “gear” selected. While this wasn’t a life-threatening situation, we’d hate to be at the top of the Rockies, heading downhill, with the CVT-equipped VUE. Did you see where the truck ramps were??

The interior of the VUE will make any Saturn fan feel at home. The instrument cluster directly in front of the driver has large gauges for speed and engine revs as well as smaller gauges for temperature and fuel level. While not the best assortment, it does the job well and is very legible in all kinds of lighting.

The seats of our tester were covered in a tan cloth that felt almost like vinyl. Whether this is good or bad is hard to say. The material will probably stand up to years of abuse but the look is somewhat outdated…one friend told us that the cloth looked like that of his 1972 Oldsmobile Delta 88.

One other thing about the interior, or, more precisely, the power window controls: Why must Saturn engineers put the window switches on opposite sides of the gear selector? We find this to be annoying and cumbersome when you try to raise or lower the windows on those nice days where you want to drive with the windows down and enjoy the weather.

On the highway, the VUE was rock-solid. It took bumps and expansion joints, ate them up and spit them out. The ride was firm but not jarring, evidence of this vehicle’s car-based platform.

Driving on twisty roads was a lot of fun as well. While the VUE is tall, it doesn’t feel tippy like larger SUVs. Of course, we would have liked to have the V6 in our tester but you can’t always get what you want, according to an old Rolling Stones song anyway.

Another little issue we didn’t much care for was the placement of the ignition. The steering wheel blocked it a lot of the time and we found ourselves craning our neck to find the keyhole. We would like to see more cars with the ignition on the dash like the Chevy Impala. It seems to us to make more sense and for those that have really long key chains (Why people do this is beyond us…) it might be safer since the length of the chain would be over the center console rather than the driver’s knee.

The VUE has a three-cubic-foot disadvantage in cargo capacity compared with the Escape and CR-V, but it’s a small amount in the real world. We were able to get our two 20-gallon tubs and assorted cardboard boxes to the recycle center without drama, though we had to fold the rear seats down, but we had to do that with the Escape as well.

To add to the cargo handling varieties of the VUE, Saturn’s engineers fitted a nifty little expandable box into the floor of the cargo area. This apparatus was useful in handling groceries and other loose objects and works well with the mission of this all-purpose vehicle.

We truly appreciated the hardcover owner’s manual. We found it to be easy to read and was so full of color pictures and helpful text that we found it difficult to put down.

Our VUE stickered at $21,915.00, including a smallish destination charge of $510.00. What’s remarkable is the base price of $18,860.00. Our tester had only three chargeable options: a Power package that included power locks/windows/mirrors, remote keyless entry, cruise and map lights ($1360); head curtain air bags ($395) and an AM/FM 6-disc changer/cassette stereo ($790).

For the money, and the utility of the VUE, you can’t go wrong. We’d recommend this vehicle to anyone looking for a small SUV.

2002 Subaru Outback Sport

The Mini Sport-Ute with Big Personality

by James E. Bryson

Drivability on all sorts of road surfaces and in all sorts of conditions has been the rallying cry for Subaru for as far back as we can remember. Their tagline-the beauty of all-wheel drive-demonstrates their focus on safety and a go anywhere mentality rivaled only by Jeep.

This year Subaru has taken a huge chance and restyled their Impreza line of small cars, of which, we drove the new-for-2002 Impreza Outback Sport.

The new design encompasses new flared fenders (like the World Rally cars), a new face with oval headlights and trademark trapezoidal grill. In the rear, the changes are more subtle; a large rear wing that hangs over the tailgate and redesigned taillights mark the most noticeable changes.

This “baby” Outback is outfitted like its bigger sibling but its smaller design lends itself more to the rugged nature of the Outback line. The body side molding, along with the front and rear bumpers and lower body panels, is in Graystone Metallic. The front fascia has built in fog lights and there’s a clever cargo area tray for dumping dirty things on and four cargo tie-down hooks, among other Outback-only touches.

There is a ton of storage space with the rear seats folded flat (another new feature this year), 61.6 cubic feet, since you asked so nicely. And the 12-volt outlet back there really makes life out in the backwoods easier.

The 80-watt AM/FM/CD radio sounds nice with its four speakers pumping out everything from country to rock, rap and hip hop. The storage space above the radio is good for holding a couple CDs or sunglasses but not much else. We’d prefer to have both spaces (radio and storage) taken up by the Macintosh unit from the big Outback.

The seats, with their tweed-looking material, were supportive and comfortable. The side bolsters on the bottom cushions and seat back kept us in place during radical cornering maneuvers and they never impeded heavily on our personal space like some sports car’s seats can.

Speaking of cornering, the Outback Sport was just that…sporty. We had a great time flinging this highly maneuverable car around our test loop.

We were less impressed with the rubbery shifter, but it didn’t impede on our fun; it’s accurate to a degree but a bit wobbly.

For truly fun driving, you need good handling and plenty of power. In the power front, our car’s 2.5-liter boxer four-cylinder put out 165 horsepower and 166 pound-feet of torque, which gave us enough oomph to scoot out of corners with verve and made the straights that much shorter.

The day we took the Outback Sport to our favorite test loop it had rained that morning and the road was still a little wet. While this didn’t deter us too much, we had to take things a bit slow because on most corners, we slid out a bit. Thankfully, the slides were very controllable in part because of all-wheel drive and the decent size tires (P205/55 R16’s).

All Outbacks come with roof racks. While not a bad thing in particular, our tester’s roof rack got noisy at speeds above 30 miles per hour. And, while this isn’t truly bad, it did get old after a few days and we tried to stay away from the highway because of it.

We had hardly a complaint with our test car. The only real issue was we found it difficult to get third gear at times, but that could have been more our inconsistent nature and not something with the gearbox itself.

We also found the car easy to fog up if we didn’t keep the air moving in there. Of course, there are many reasons for something like this and we chalked it up to someone before us getting the interior really wet without drying it up good.

Our Outback Sport came equipped with tons of standard features like all-wheel drive, anti-lock brakes, four-wheel independent suspension, air, single CD player with a decent radio and a whole bevy of other things.

For all that, the standard price for our tester was only $18,695.00, compared with $17,495.00 for a base Impreza, that’s a really good bargain.

The only optional equipment on our Outback Sport was a keyless entry system ($175) and splash guards ($150) bringing our total as-tested price, after a $525 destination charge, to $19,545.00.

For the price, the 2002 Subaru Impreza Outback Sport is a better bargain than the Mazda Protege5, Ford Focus ZX5 and the Pontiac Vibe/Toyota Matrix twins. It’s a fun vehicle to drive and will be a pleasure to own for its practicality and sporty flair.

Thanks once again for stopping by!!!


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James E. Bryson

Cars make the world go 'round!

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