On the Road Review: Winter Rally 2017

Every February, New England’s automotive media gathers in southern Massachusetts for a day of conversation, great food and the chance to drive multiple cars back-to-back. After much dialogue, we pick winners for several categories from the cars the industry has supplied for evaluation.

Most notable by their absence this year, besides our friend Wayne Carini, who was probably somewhere much warmer, was GM. BMW and Porsche were missing too (there have been several memorable Porsche experiences at Winter Rally, but let’s not get distracted), however that’s just a gap in their car supply.

Yet not a single General Motors product has been in our test fleet for almost a year. So we can’t tell you about the latest Cadillac sedans so we can debate if this brand will ever be The Standard of the World again. We haven’t seen the newest GMC and Buick crossovers, or the revolutionary Chevy Bolt electric car, because GM won’t send them to us for your enjoyment.

The largest automaker in North America won’t share press cars with New England’s media; seems like a major faux pas by someone, a strategy that reveals shortsightedness in a marketplace that shows growing FCA sales, growing Honda, Toyota and Kia sales and growing Ford truck sales.

Anyway, on to the cars. Will the Jeep Grand Cherokee be a multitime winner (like our favorite football team) of New England’s Winter Vehicle honors? Will Subaru’s Outback mount a challenge? Will there be some vehicles that some media won’t even drive? (There always are.) Answers to those questions will appear in the weeks to come — hint, whoever wins the New England’s Winter Vehicle honor usually touts that award in their advertising.

Here are the six new vehicles that I spent some time with:

Kia Sportage

From the moment you see the new Sportage, painted a charming Cashmere here, the latest Kia says, “I’m different.” And it is. Wearing an expressive face unlike any other compact crossover, the Sportage (a sibling to Hyundai’s Tucson) packs a ton of features inside, along with two engine choices — 182-hp or 260-hp — all backed by a six-speed automatic and either front- or all-wheel drive. The cabin is roomy, comfortable and well stocked. It makes a great first impression that is not altered while driving. Pricing starts at $22,990 for base front drivers; add $1,500 to get AWD with a locking button for true 4WD at low speeds. Sales were up 35 percent last year; look for more Sportage sales this year.

Mazda CX9

Mazda has completely revamped its largest offering. This three-row crossover is shorter than all of its “full-size” rivals, and it drives like it too, with more agility and crisp responsiveness than its heavier rivals. One engine supplies power — a turbocharged 2.5-liter four makes 227 hp, or, 250 hp if you opt to burn premium fuel only.

The cabin feels airy and much roomier than the exterior profile would lead you to imagine. The third row, however, is for kids only — don’t imagine your in-laws back here unless you want them to be your ex in-laws.

Pricing starts at just over $31,000 for a front-drive CX9, climbing to over $44,000 with AWD and all of the latest bells and whistles. The entertainment interface, like our recent 3-series sedan, remains a challenging alternative presentation that is unnecessarily complicated, but this wagon’s driving style will win lots of fans. Yet, can the Mazda carve out enough marketshare in a hotly contested segment with deep-funded rivals rolling out new wagons too?

Subaru Impreza Five-Door

Subaru has redesigned its smallest AWD offering, giving the Impreza a freshened stance, more safety features, and a larger interior that Subie fans will embrace.

Our five-door sample is the most practical small wagon in this class because it comes with AWD — standard. The 2.0-liter 152-hp boxer-four engine is the sole powerplant for now, while a five-speed stick is available on the base model, $18,395, or a CVT automatic is available. The five-door model is $500 higher than the sedan’s price. Subaru’s EyeSight safety portfolio is now an option, plus a new Sport trim. EPA fuel economy numbers jump to 28/38, making this Impreza the most fuel-efficient Subaru on sale.

VW Golf AllTrack

This new Golf Wagon sports 4-Motion AWD and everything else that you love about a Golf — quick on its feet, fun to drive, easy to use. S-trim starts at just under $27,000 with a 170-hp turbo-four cylinder providing good power. Smartphone apps, Fender audio, hidden rear view camera, plus a lengthy list of standard and optional safety electronics quickly elevates this compact wagon into any conversation with potential Subaru buyers. Yes, it feels that good.

VW has had a rocky 18 months, but this wagon signals the core greatness of the brand as well as, finally, the realized need for family wagons with AWD in this market. A revised Tiguan crossover plus an all-new Atlas 3-row crossover (made in the USA) will also debut in the coming months. Stay tuned; VW is not going away.

Jaguar F-Pace

For a brand left for dead by Ford less than 10 years ago, Jaguar is surging. This F-Pace, the brand’s first-ever crossover (and its top-selling vehicle in less than nine months!) is an impressively competent offering. The luxurious cabin, the potent supercharged V-6 engine, plus adroit road manners over the tortured streets we drove, all indicate that this new rear-drive platform (shared with the XE and XF sedans) elevates Jaguar into the pool for the luxury segment against BMW and Mercedes. A turbo-diesel is the base engine, starting at only $41,000, while an AWD V-6 is just $1,400 more. Quite a revelation here.

Lincoln MKC

The MKC is Lincoln’s version of the Escape. Swathed in rich leather and wood surface trim, plus a very unusual push-button transmission presentation that climbs the face of the dash and puts the “start” button at the top, the Lincoln comes off as pretentious. The turbo-four engine delivers decent verve, and the heavy steering is precise, yet the Lincoln is no match for the F-Pace in either details or feel.

The Lincoln starts at $32,720 with FWD or $35,130 with AWD with top models over $48,000. Lincoln is making small inroads in the luxury segment, (with SUVs/crossovers outselling its cars almost 2-1) but badly lags Cadillac, Acura and Infiniti in total sales.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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