2015 Toyota Camry XSE
A bland dish receives some much needed spice.
Toyota is the world’s largest automaker (they’ve closed the book on another year of over 10 million units sold globally) so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they are amongst the world’s biggest spenders on Research and Development. On a per-hour basis, these folks are shelling out a staggering 1.1 million dollars. With that kind of scratch to throw around, you’re able to do things that would otherwise financially paralyze competitors, like significantly refresh the bestselling model in your portfolio three years ahead of schedule.
Except Toyota insists this isn’t a mere refresh but rather a holistic re-imagining of North America’s most popular car. Line up a 2014 model beside our tester and you’d be had pressed not to agree. The styling is all new, so’s the interior and you can now have access to models you didn’t before (Hybrid SE, anyone?)
PROS: A genuine improvement over the last generation in every way, feels more expensive than before but isn’t, starting to show signs of life in the driving dynamics department.
2015 Toyota Avalon Limited
Toyota’s flagship starts acting more its age.
Typically, twenty-one year olds are most concerned with proliferating the latest social media app and partying, not making sure the PVR is set to capture Perry Mason reruns and being mindful that one’s patent shoes and belt are the same hue of white. Yet that is precisely the kind of stuff the young Avalon has been burdened with since it burst onto the scene in 1994, the product in Toyota’s lineup tasked to catering to the geriatric set. Built as an answer to the floaty land yachts built by the likes of Cadillac and Buick, the Avalon was always anonymous, blending into the background as easily as roadside guardrails. Things took a particularly bad turn for the worse in the model’s second generation, when it became a bleating, slab sided appliance, complete with optional bench front seats and column gear shifting.
Nowadays, even Cadillac and staid ol’ Buick, two brands who’ve always counted the blue-haired set as some of their core customers, actually make stuff that doesn’t feel like a living room on wheels any longer. The target in this segment is one that doesn’t tend to move all that often, but expectations have clearly changed. Cadillac is making edgy, beautifully crafted vehicles that are actually fun to drive, and even Buick has followed suit, offering up the handsome Lacrosse and showing us exciting things to come with the Avenir concept.
PROS: Easy on the eyes, actually enjoyable to drive, Lexus kit at Toyota pricing.
2015 Toyota 4Runner
When resistance to change pays off.
Usually, brisk change is synonymous with automotive industry product cycles. Nowadays, if a car sticks to its basic recipe for more than five years it’s considered ancient. There are exceptions to this rule, and perhaps the most well documented example of adamant resistance to change can be found in Porsche’s 911. Around basically unchanged since the 1960’s, it has seen its fair share of criticism- the engine is in the wrong place, it’s too much of a handful to drive- and yet throughout the years they’ve honed the car into something that is often mentioned as one of the world’s greatest cars. The 911 is laser-focused on delivering leading edge performance and fulfilling the souls of passionate drivers everywhere and certainly delivers.
If one looks hard enough, the same resistance to accept the status quo can still be found within the automotive landscape, and we can find another instance in Toyota’s 4Runner. Since 1984, the basic recipe remains the same while the vehicle has grown, gained weight and evolved its styling. The 4Runner traces its lineage directly to the Hilux pickup, the vehicle responsible for mobilizing folks in the most hostile and remote regions of our planet (the same one the blokes on Top Gear tried to kill, unsuccessful, multiple times.) The platform is resolutely capable and durable, of that we can be sure.
2015 BMW 740Ld xDrive Sedan
Diesel power and a Long Wheelbase 7 series, together at last
If a full size, fuel-sipping German luxury sedan is on your shopping list, the usual suspects (Audi, Mercedes Benz and now, BMW) have you covered- all offer models with diesel power. BMW continues to offer a 7 series ActiveHybrid, but we’ve driven the technology on 3 and 5 series models- two examples that embody the Law of Diminishing Returns for fuel savings when you consider the premium you’re asked to pay over the standard version. That, and the stark reality that “Your Mileage May Vary” mean that these cars aren’t particularly good at achieving better consumptions figures than their conventionally powered counterparts.
If stretching each droplet of fuel as far as it can go is a high priority, diesel is the only way to go. A nice by-product of diesels is a deep well of low end torque, goading you to effortlessly harness the wave of thrust that results even from smaller throttle openings. The lazy and relaxed feel to the way these cars pour themselves down the road is perfectly fitting for a big luxo-barge. Although a tad late to the party, BMW will satiate well-heeled diesel shoppers with their excellent 3.0 inline six oil burner- the very same one found under the hood of the 535d.
PROS: Hedonistic luxury, torque rich engine does the ‘wafting’ thing pretty good, can still be a willing partner for fun despite its size.
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 training courses extant, this one starts in the classroom. Ex –racer Jason Carvahlo was acting as our chief instructor and went on to explain the day’s schedule, what exactly we’d be doing and some basic theory. The real fun began on the makeshift course BMW had set up- made even better by the fact that our steeds were 435i M Sports (the automotive gods blessed my co-driver and I with the only manual gearbox example on hand.)
2015 BMW 435i Gran Coupe xDrive
Yet another 3 series to choose from.
It’s a good thing that the BMW 3 series is inherently a good car. Otherwise, folks might get pretty annoyed that yet again, the Bavarian Motor crew has filled yet another niche no one knew needed filling. As of this writing, there are seven different takes on the old stalwart of BMW’s ever burgeoning lineup- wagons, convertibles, coupes and now this Gran Coupe, which isn’t a coupe at all.
Those familiar to this space know we’ve spent time in the Gran Coupe realm before, although that was in the much bigger (and more expensive) 6 series/M6. Need a refresher of what the heck a Gran Coupe is? No problem: it’s BMW speak for swoopy, coupe-like styling proportions on the basis of a sedan profile; you know, the kinds of cars with four doors (once you wrap your head around that fact, you won’t wonder if we’ve lost our minds calling a 4 door a coupe.)
PROS: Easy on the eyes, holds more stuff than a regular 3 series sedan, Gran Coupe sounds cooler when you’re telling people about the car you drive.
2015 BMW M235i xDrive Coupe
The darling of enthusiasts, now with more traction!
One of the most compelling cars we Road Tested this past summer was BMW’s renowned M235i. You remember that one; finished in Estoril Blue, it was optioned pretty much how we would have asked- a few niceties on the inside, yes, but most importantly an honest to goodness manual transmission. By now, you’ve heard how the M235i approaches the vaunted E36 M3 in terms of sheer joy to drive, and it’s muscled enough to post performance numbers that nip at the heels of one of our other all-time favourites, the V8-powered E92 M3. Enthusiasts take note- cars like this don’t come around too often, and this one’s made for you.
PROS: Peerless driving dynamics, four season usability, an automatic transmission that adds to the fun instead of taking away from it.
2015 BMW 435i xDrive Cabriolet
It’s never too cold to drop the top.
Although it may seem like we’re nuts for Road Testing a convertible in the depths of a Canadian winter, it gave us a chance to verify that yes, BMW’s trick folding hardtop on all Cabriolet models will work just fine in ambient temperatures of -40 degrees Celsius. Not many owners will decide to let the underwhelming glare of the winter sun into their cars, but count us among the slightly insane few who’ve tried it. Want another impressive tidbit? The insulation of the top deserves praise not only for the way it dulls road and wind noise but how impervious it is- I was amazed that a bottle of water that had frozen overnight had melted significantly after sitting in the parking lot upon arriving from work an hour prior- the way it held onto the interior heat was remarkable.
2015 Volvo S60 T6 Drive-E Platinum
Change is a-comin’.
You may be forgiven for passing over the S60 you see here as just another Volvo, albeit one with a healthy level of optional equipment in Platinum trim. The ordinary vehicle you see here is actually much more than that; it packs some serious tech under the hood, thus making it a harbinger of the sorts of things to come from Volvo in the future. The Swedes are betting the farm on new engine technologies that promise to deliver the efficiency we expect nowadays while prolonging the weaning of our long built up dependency on the instant gratification of power afforded by larger sized mills.
How do they aim to do this, you ask? A serious weight reduction regimen? Diesel engines? None of the above. Volvo is heading down a decidedly more complex road to achieve their goals, and their new “Drive-E” engines will be small displacement four cylinders with artificial aspiration. In the case of our T6 tester, our 2.0 lump under the hood was a double pumper, meaning it possesses a turbocharger as well as a supercharger. The supercharger fortifies the engine with good low end response, and above 3,500 rpm the turbo takes over. It’s all completely transparent, but more on that in a moment.
Another look- 2015 BMW M4 Cabriolet
Is the end of December a good time to grab the keys to a seriously high performance drop-top? No, it isn’t, a fact that should surprise exactly no one. What is surprising is how good the BMW M4 Cabriolet fares as a winter car- it’s amazing. After getting dumped on with 20-plus centimeters of accumulation and bone chilling temps, I was gleefully shocked that the M4 performed so well, even as CUV’s around us with jaw-clenched pilots promptly turned generic all season rubber into wheel spin and smoke.
BMWs all have always been inherently blessed with good balance, and their chassis bits try to make the most of their job in flattering the driver, especially in vaunted M trim. Throw a good set of snow tires into the mix, turn off stability control entirely and you have the makings of a vehicle that will get you to and from the office no matter what’s going on outside. It was great fun steering the car effortlessly with the throttle (the Active M Differential really earns its value here too) and we even put the top down for a few moments, much to the startled glances of fellow motorists.