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Is the magic still there?

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OK, we admit it – we’re big fans of BMW M cars. In order to minimize the risk of endless gushing throughout this review, we attempt to answer your most pressing questions surrounding these performance car icons:

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Finding BMW’s X6 too big? You’ve gotta see this!

When I picked up the keys to BMW’s new X4, one of their public relations staff told me that like the bigger X6, the little smaller X4 is “quite a polarizing car.”

Turns out he was right.

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Throughout my time with BMW’s newest model, reactions were split evenly. “That car looks awesome!” blurted one person excitedly.

“It looks too much like a Pontiac Aztec. And where am I supposed to put my stuff?” asked another.

Polarizing stuff indeed. But whether or not you like the X4, you can’t blame BMW for building it. Despite the X4 being the answer to a question most people aren’t asking, they will probably sell as many of them as they can build. The bigger X6 has been something of a quiet sales success, racking up impressive numbers in a few markets across the globe, one of them being Canada. If you’ve spent any time commuting anywhere across our City of Toronto, you’ve probably seen your fair share of them. There are those extroverts who go for that Armadillo profile but don’t want to step up to the X6, be it for size reasons, cost, or both. BMW will now happily fill that void in their lives with the X4.

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A Corolla? Oh yes. Sporty? Um…

DSC01143With more than 1.3 million examples parked in driveways across Canada, the Toyota Corolla has enjoyed the kind of sales success many manufacturers dream about. Over the years it has solidified its reputation as a durable, loyal method of transporting its owners, many of whom appreciate its thrifty pricing and low cost of ownership. Despite these accolades, one thing the Corolla has never been known for is sportiness, or even fun.

OK, so we’re leaving out the spunky rear-drive AE86 version, but that one was short lived and wasn’t wholly embraced by enthusiasts until it was out of production.

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Lexus builds a spiffier Prius, but falls short on Sport.

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The Lexus CT200H has a number of things going for it. It’s nicely appointed. It skips across city streets in hushed comfort while returning stellar fuel economy. It even looks pretty cool, a sort of Japanese take on the Volkswagen GTI. In F-sport trim as worn by our tester, it’ll throw itself into corners with more enthusiasm that you’d expect.

Ah yes, the F-Sport trim level, something people ostensibly select if they like all the virtues the CT has but want them delivered with a sporty edge. Judged within that framework, the CT falls quite a bit short.

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Short time, but still sweet.

scion-frsThere are certain things in life that are just too irresistible to turn down, like free money and the keys to exciting sports cars. No offers for cold hard cash materialized recently, but Toyota did offer a scant few days in Scion’s mildly updated funster, the FR-S, and we quickly accepted.

We very much indeed liked the FR-S the last time we drove one and gushed, “…so much fun to saw away at the wheel and travel up and down the gears, it’s pure automotive bliss.” Heady but wholly deserving praise indeed, especially when you consider the Scion FR-S is a practicality-be-damned, extremely low and somewhat underpowered conveyance.

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It had a good run.

fjThis Road Test can be considered a eulogy.

That’s because after model year 2014, Toyota’s FJ Cruiser will be relegated to the pages of history, another vehicle marched into irrelevance. I’m just not sure that’s a fair way to sum up the FJ’s life.

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The 4 series drops its top for the first time.

IMG_9051Despite the fact that they’ve been around for a while, folding hardtops are still one of the remaining examples of curbside automotive theater. Flick a switch and try not to be fascinated by the insanely complex hydraulic and steel ballet that ensues, exposing you to the elements and neatly stowing the resulting metal origami discreetly into the trunk. This effect is heightened, as I learned while doing so in stop-and-go traffic, when you can do so at speeds just below 20km/h- a new trick the 428i Cabriolet brings to the table for 2014.

Also nearly as complex, it offers the ability to stow more of your gear even with the top down, allowing you to move it out of the way in the name of recouping some of those precious available cargo litres.

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Less MINI, more BMW.

DSC00530Back in 2001 the MINI brand emerged from the shadows of bankruptcy, solidly backed by BMW and almost singlehandedly introduced a market segment we North Americans weren’t familiar with – the premium small car. The R50 generation landed with great fanfare as retro resurrections tend to do (VW’s New Beetle that debuted a few years earlier comes to mind) and customers loved the modern take on what made MINI’s so great- being the automotive equivalent of a gnat, buzzing nimbly from street to street with four occupants seated in modern comfort and safety.

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History repeats itself. Enthusiasts: cue celebration.

DSC00438I will readily admit that I’ve been guilty of BMW double talk. On one occasion, I’ll wax poetic about the brand that has clung fiercely to its defining trait as purveyors of Ultimate Driving Machines. And yet, out of the other corner of my mouth, I’ll bemoan the prevalence of artificially aspirated engines and the piping of their sound inside the cockpit, or the heresy of sacrificing the enchanting status of the M sub-brand at the alter of increased profits. Maybe I’ll gripe about softer suspensions and steering feel that sometimes feels like its left the building. Either way, change is afoot, and it’s not always warmly embraced.

Or is it? Recently BMW wisely sent the 1 series to pasture in favor of the 2 series you see here. Never mind that the name further convolutes BMW’s model naming strategy; the main idea here is that the ungainly 1 has been replaced by a much better looking 2.

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No need for earplugs anymore.

cherokee-ecodIf your experience with diesel engines installed in Jeep products includes the Jeep Liberty CRD, that’s too bad. From 2005 to 2007, this spoon-in-a-blender masquerading as an engine could be found displacing 2.8 litres under the hoods of the poor folks who actually ordered one. As a fairly modern diesel, it was disappointing the way it clung steadfast to all the qualities we hate about diesels- thrashy vibration, weak kneed power delivery and a noise that could make your teeth itch, assuming substantial hearing loss hadn’t set in already.

OK- perhaps that’s not fair, but the 3.0 diesel engine tapped for duty in the Jeep Grand Cherokee is so vastly, monumentally better than the outgoing unit that you may be surprised to find out they came from the same factory, VM Motori Cento in Italy.

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2014 Chevrolet Silverado LTZ 1500 4WD Crew Review

Car Reviews & Road Tests

All hail the reigning King of the Pickups. It’s far from an exact science, but you can assert with confidence that whichever manufacturer- usually referring to the Big Three domestics in this case- brings the latest pickup truck to market that it’ll all but certain take home honors for Best in Class/Truck of the Year. [...]

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2014 Buick Regal GS AWD Review

Car Reviews & Road Tests

Not a Grand National, but that’s the point. If you count yourself amongst China’s burgeoning populace who drives, trends are strongly suggesting that more than likely you fancy a Buick. If young professional best describes who you are, more than likely you don’t fancy a Buick. After General Motor’s great reorganization of brands, Buick survived [...]

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BMW Advanced Driver Training Program

Automotive News

BMW calls their entry-level driver training program “Advanced”, but don’t be mislead into thinking the curriculum includes storming apexes and trail braking behind the wheel of an M3. Those who are out to improve lap times will be disappointed; those that aim to improve their overall skill as drivers will be rewarded. Like many driver [...]

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2014 Chevrolet Malibu LTZ Review

Car Reviews & Road Tests

Distancing itself from the Malibu’s of the past. While spending time recently in Chevrolet’s Malibu LTZ, I wondered why this car isn’t on more people’s radar screens. It competes in one of the most popular and hotly contested segments in the market and thanks to a last minute refresh for 2014, happens to be pretty [...]

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2014 Nissan Juke NISMO RS Review

Car Reviews & Road Tests

They took a Juke NISMO and gave it more power and a clutch. We said “thank you.” When we discussed the Juke NISMO last year, we mentioned that it had its flashes of brilliance. We did say, however, that if any crossover needed a manual transmission, then this would be it. Well, lucky for us, [...]

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2014 BMW 228i Coupé Review

Car Reviews & Road Tests

More than a 1 Series plus 1. In the ever-evolving volume that is BMW’s model names, the 1 Series is gone in North America for 2014, to be replaced by the 2 Series. Now available only in coupe form (there was a 1 Series convertible), the new car is a little bigger, a little more [...]

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