Category Archives: Cars

Scion Unveils 2011 iQ – Premium Micro-Subcompact

Generally only reviews products that are available for purchase already – preferably after we’ve been able to test the product first-hand.

But rules were made to be broken.

And that’s why we’d like to contribute some advance buzz to the newly unveiled 2011 Scion iQ – projected to hit dealerships early next year. Just unveiled at the NY Auto Show, the iQ looks primed to add some serious style to micro-subcompact sector.

Just how small is the iQ. At 120 inches long, it’s about one foot longer than the Smart fortwo, but a good two feet shorter than either the Yaris or the Mini Cooper.

In my experience, the Yaris and the Mini Cooper (especially the Cooper) were both fun to drive. The Smart fortwo, not so much. Does that mean that iQ will fall somewhere in the middle in terms of excitement and comfort, or will it blow its subcompact competitors out of the water?

Scion promises that through innovative technology (ultra-slim front seat backs!), you’ll be able to fit three adults and a pet (presumably a small pet) into this car.

From an eco standpoint, Scion is gunning for an Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV-II) rating, plus combined mileage in the high 30s.

I’ll be honest. I can’t wait to test drive this thing. I love small cars for their maneuverability – and of course for the fact that they take up less room on the road and presumably require fewer raw materials in the manufacturing process. Plus the iQ just looks extraordinarily fun to drive. (Of course, the Smart looked fun to drive too and turned out to be painful, so looks can be deceiving…)

And let’s hope that the tiny iQ doesn’t come with an outsized price tag.

Stay tuned. The next few years should be pretty exciting when it comes to new Greener vehicles.


2010 Honda Insight

2010 Honda Insight (photo via Honda website)

2010 Honda Insight (photo via Honda website)

They say, “Variety is the spice of life.

(Personally, I’d choose Garlic as the spice of life, but hey, Variety tastes good too.)

Which is why after more than 200 written reviews of green products, I’ve decided to branch out a bit and try my first audio review of the 2010 Honda Insight.

To create this audio podcast, I used a service called BlogTalkRadio. As the name suggests, BlogTalkRadio is really intended to be use less as a 1-way podcast and more as a 2-way (or 3-way or more-way) conversation.

But since this was my first time trying BlogTalkRadio, I just went ahead and recorded it as a typical podcast. In the future, I will give advance notice of my BlogTalkRadio shows here on this blog and also on some of my other social media sites (Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.) so that anyone who wants to can call in and participate.

Of course, if you miss the show live you can also listen anytime using the BlogTalkRadio widget.

Listen to on Blog Talk Radi

What do you think? Do you like the audio approach? Do you have ideas or requests for future shows?

Thanks for reading – and listening! Hope you enjoy my radio review of the 2010 Honda Insight.

2010 Toyota Prius V

The 3rd Generation Toyota Prius - Greenest car on the road

The 3rd Generation Toyota Prius - Greenest car on the road (image via Toyota website)

No need for waffling here. The verdict is simple. The Toyota Prius gets top honors for the most eco-friendly car I’ve driven thus far.

Over 10 days of driving and nearly 2000 miles, the 3rd generation version of this iconic hybrid champ delivered fuel efficiency (mostly on highways with 70 mph speed limits) in the 45 mpg range.

I had a chance to test the 2nd generation Prius back on last summer’s Colorado trip and I have to say that this new generation takes a dramatic step forward in comfort and driving performance.

The 2010 car comes with both EV mode and Power mode buttons. Press the EV mode and the car will operate off electric power only provided the battery has enough juice and you’re moving slowly enough. Press the Power button and you get a potent boost of acceleration that lets you rocket onto the highway or scoot past other cars in the parking lane. (I’ll admit it, I got a thrill from passing both a BMW and a Porsche on the highway in the Prius.)

The top-of-the-line V version of the Prius came loaded with luxurious extras including heated side mirrors, heated front seats, a voice-activated touch screen DVD navigation system, satellite radio, integrated backup camera and so forth. I’ll admit that I never figured out how to work out some of the options (like Intelligent Parking Assist).

The Radar Cruise Control is a nifty feature that takes us one step closer to the notion of self-driving cars. Basically, a radar device in the nose of the car can sense if you’re getting too close to the car in front of you and try to adjust accordingly. If you’re already a fan of cruise control, the Radar version will probably make you even happier, but personally I’ve found that I usually can get better mileage and feel safer with cruise control off on all but the most empty roadways.

My favorite geeky tool on the Prius V was the Lane Keeper Assist (LKA) device that actually keeps track of the lanes and not only beeps to warn you if you’re veering outside the lines, but actually gives you a nudge back toward the center of the lane. (Putting on the turn signal supersedes the LKA so you don’t need to worry about fighting the car when it comes time to exit the highway or switch lanes.) I think LKA could literally be a lifesaver on dark roads or in cases where the driver is a little bit tired. I wouldn’t say it eliminates the need to pay attention or to get enough rest, but LKA definitely seems like the best active safety device I’ve seen since inventions like Anti-Lock Brakes and Vehicle Stability Control.

From a design standpoint, the new Prius has better lines on the outside and more comfort on the inside. Focusing on the sharp lines of the exterior, I think the Prius has truly entered the ‘beautiful car’ category.

Meanwhile on the inside, with the rear seats folded down, the cargo capacity seemed voluminous. I liked the high clearance on the hatchback door. The seats were supportive and reasonably comfortable even after 9+ hours on the road. The view through the rear window is still somewhat obstructed by a horizontal solid panel, but Toyota has definitely improved visibility over the previous generation Prius.

Really, I have only two complaints about the Prius. One is mileage. Yes, the Prius gets great mileage, but for the price (more on this later), I would have liked even better mileage. Call me demanding, but since I somehow managed to achieve 50+ mpg in a 2nd generation Prius, I would have hoped to get at least 50 mpg in the next generation Prius.
The second issue is price. Highway mileage of 45 mpg is great, but these days lots of conventional gasoline-engine cars are knocking on the mid-30s in terms of highway mpg. My wife and I will be doing some car shopping ourselves in the near future, and despite being an eco-conscious shopper, I’m having some trouble justifying the Prius premium.

After all, the 2010 Toyota Corolla is rated at 35 mpg on the highway and I’ve seen promotions for Corolla leases for around $160/month. By contrast, I haven’t seen the Prius offered with any lease specials at all. (I called one dealer and was told that a Prius lease would probably cost me $300-500/month.) For folks who prefer leasing, this makes the Prius relatively unattainable. (From a straight purchase standpoint, you’ll pay around a $7,000 premium for a Prius over a Corolla.)

So ultimately, the Prius is a fun car and a fantastic choice for any eco-friendly driver. But I keep hoping that Toyota will push the envelope more in terms of both mpg and affordability. Perhaps we’ll see some new developments next year in terms of a hybrid Yaris that will check both those boxes?

Perpetually unsatisfied. I suppose so. But that’s what makes me excited about all the eco-friendly advancements I think we’ll see this year and beyond. We’ve made great strides in terms of Green gadgets and tools, but there is still a long way to go to get to the point where we can enjoy comfortable high-tech lives without placing too much of a burden on the planet.

PS – Interested observers have inquired as to the relative environmental costs of producing a Prius compared to a typical gasoline-only (i.e. non-hybrid automobile). I asked Toyota about this and received a response from Wade Hoyt, Northeast PR manager that ” the Prius’s manufacturing carbon footprint is slightly higher [than the footprint of a non-hybrid mid-size sedan]. However, when looking at its total lifecycle assessment, including manufacturing, plus the in-use life of the car, as well as its end-of-life recyclability, Prius’s carbon footprint is significantly smaller.” I tried to get some hard data to quantify the Prius’s carbon footprint advantage, but was told that such data has not been released outside the company.

Where to Buy:

At your local Toyota dealer, of course! The 2010 Prius starts at $22,400, but prices can climb steeply from there. With delivery and processing fees added in, my tester car had a total MSRP of $32,771. Ouch.

Disclosure: Toyota generously allowed me to test drive the Prius for more than a week.

2009 Nissan Cube

Nissan Cube - funky and fresh as a cucumber

Nissan Cube - funky and fresh as a cucumber

Happy New Year!

I can’t wait to see what sorts of efficient, eco-friendly products hit the market this year.

We’re going to start off the year with a couple car reviews. I expect we’ll see lots of hybrid cars come to market this year, but meanwhile most cars sold in the U.S. are gasoline-only.

I recently had the chance to test the Nissan Cube – the most fuel-efficient vehicle in the EPA’s Small Station Wagon category other than the diesel version of Volkswagen’s Jetta Sportwagen.

With 28 mpg highway and 30 mpg city, the Nissan Cube offers more than respectable mileage while still packing 58 cubic feet of storage capacity (with rear seats folded down) into one of the funkiest bodies on the road.

Make no mistake, the Cube turns enough heads to cause neck injuries in passersby.

I’ve test driven all manner of eco-friendly cars over the past 6 months and the Cube gets more stares than any of them, including the smart fortwo.

I actually had a parking lot attendant crawl into the front seat just to get a closer look at the Cube’s instrument panel.

If you ever needed proof that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, try driving the Cube. Some prospective passengers recoiled at the idea of being seen in the snub-nosed squared-off beast. Others literally shook my hand for having the luck to be a Cube driver.

Personally, I think the squat little Cube resembles nothing so much as a little urban tank. It looks a little space age. A little futuristic. A little cartoonish.

But how does it drive and ride? The wide cushy seats make short trips as relaxing as plopping down on the couch. And the Cube’s smooth acceleration and handling lets the car glide through urban and suburban traffic with ease and moxie.

On the highway, it was a different story. The Cube’s tall, boxy profile left it vulnerable to buffeting by wind gusts. Truck-induced turbulence gave me a hard time keeping the Cube steady within its lane. Compared to my last test drive in the low-and-wide Mini Cooper, I worried that the Cube seemed a little tipsy in high-speed turns. And the seats that had been so cushy for shirt trips didn’t offer enough support (lumbar or otherwise) to make me look forward to long road trips.

So the Cube is a mixed bag. It’s practical, relatively eco-friendly and you won’t have any trouble finding it in the parking lot.

On the other hand, if your commute calls for a lot of highway driving or if you get enough cubicle time at the office, the Cube might not be the right box for you.

Personally, I think the Cube’s designers deserve credit for pushing the envelope and taking design risks. I really admire some of these innovative touches on the Cube. For example, I like the way that the rear door opens to the side (like a regular car door) instead of like a lift gate. And I think the asymmetrical glass corner on the right rear of the car is brilliant from both a design and functionality point of view since it gives the driver lots of visibility when merging to the right or backing out of a parking space.

The biggest success of the Cube may be to show car designers and consumers alike that there is nothing to fear from thinking outside the box.

Where to buy:

Your local Nissan dealer. The Cube has a MSRP of $13,990 to $20,120 depending on engine and options.

Disclosure: Nissan allowed me to test drive the Cube over several days.

MINI Cooper

The Mini Cooper in red

“You drove all the way here in that?!

That’s the response I got when I casually mentioned that my wife and I had driven from New York City to Nashville in a MINI Cooper sedan.

What’s more, I had a great time all 1,800 miles or so of the roundtrip ride along freeways through hills and valleys cloaked in forests resplendent in their multi-hued autumnal finery.

But enough with the poetry.

The point is that the car performs. As the MINI Cooper ads used to invite, this vehicle makes you want to jump in and start motoring someplace.

(“But didn’t you feel nervous alongside the big rigs on the highways,” asked my sister? Not really. I don’t think a midsize sedan or even an SUV would perform any better in a big rig collision than the MINI Cooper, which happens to have 5-star safety ratings for rollovers and side crashes involving front seat passengers.)

So what makes the MINI Cooper worthy of consideration by Green drivers?

For starters, the EPA ranks the MINI as having the best MPG in its class of minicompact cars. My automatic sedan was rated for 25 mpg in the city and 34 in the highway. In hilly terrain with light traffic most of the way, I managed to attain low to mid-30s mpg for much of the journey.

Like the Smart car I reviewed recently, I think that MINI should also get some eco points purely on its small size. It seems logical that making a small car would require fewer raw materials than a large car and MINI has taken the concept a bit further with a minimalist philosophy that includes the use of lightweight and recyclable materials.

From a driving standpoint, the MINI is both comfortable and fun. The sport seats on my test vehicle ($250 extra) were nicely firm and supportive in all the right places. The suspension ate up most of the bumps in the road without so much as a hiccup. The MINI’s low, wide stance gave the car stability and traction to spare. I didn’t even feel nervous taking the curves at 70 mph in dense morning fog on the hills outside of Charleston, West Virginia.

The view other drivers will see when getting passed by the Mini

The view other drivers will see when getting passed by the Mini

From a design standpoint, MINI had me from the moment my hand touched the old-fashioned metal door handle. The doors close with a satisfying thunk and there’s something neat going on with the way that the windows automatically seal themselves a fraction tighter once the door is closed and you’re ready to roll.

Basically, the MINI just has that premium car feel. There are nifty little touches such as color adjustable mood lights that pop on at night or in cloudy conditions on the roof in front of the rear-view mirror. And I liked the way that the circular gas gauge consisted of little petals arranged in circular formation. Heck, I even liked the way MINI dinged to remind me that the parking brake was on or that I needed to fasten my seatbelt. (You know you’re in a fancy car when the ding sounds harmonious.)

Want more evidence that the MINI has little luxe touches? How about the Cold Weather package that included heated mirrors, heated seats and power-folding side mirrors for tight squeezes.

That being said, MINI isn’t perfect. What are the drawbacks?

  • Being low to the ground may be good for stability and handling, but it means that getting in and out of the car could be hassle for some people. Entering and exiting the Toyota Yaris, for example, was much more of a breeze.
  • Acceleration was puzzling. Sometimes the MINI was responsive and agile. Other times – especially on long uphill stretches – I struggled to maintain speed without flooring the accelerator and sending the engine racing. This racing engine issue – which once sent the tachometer soaring toward the red zone – even appeared a couple of times while I was testing the MINI’s cruise control, prompting me to turn off the cruise function and rely on manual controls.

    A speedometer so big that the driver behind you may be able to read it.

    A speedometer so big that the driver behind you may be able to read it.

  • Sometimes the MINI’s design just felt too cute or clever by half. The saucer-sized spedometer in the center of the car never won me over. I would have preferred a smaller and simpler spedometer behind the steering wheel. Even after a week behind the wheel, I sometimes still reached down to roll down the window and forgot that the controls were on the central panel. I would have preferred that the car automatically lock its doors when reaching a certain speed (i.e. 5 mph) as many cars do rather than requiring me to remember to lock the doors manually (again from the central console). I constantly ended up changing the station when I wanted to change the volume on the radio. These are all small quibbles, but it just felt like the designers could have made the car’s internal systems – audio, climate, windows – much easier to control. Oh and while the low roofline may make the car aerodynamic and add to its curb appeal, it also makes it a little tough to see stoplights if you’re the first car in line without leaning forward and craning your neck upward.
  • The MINI is really comfortable for the driver and front-seat passenger, but I tried sitting in the back seat once and I’m convinced that the only passengers who can comfortably use that rear seat would be infants, pets or people who have no legs. I wasn’t able to take a photo showing the paucity of rear-seat leg room, but take my word that there were only a few inches between the back of the drivers seat (in my driving position) and the front of the rear-seat cushion. Anyone forced to sit there for long would be at serious risk of deep-vein thrombosis and or claustrophobic breakdown. Now with the back seats folded down, the MINI has quite a decent amount of cargo space, but advertising the car as providing realistic transportation for four adults just seems misleading to me. I almost wish that MINI had just made this a two-seater with a large cargo bay, but I suppose it is nice for parents with young children to have the option of securing car-seated toddlers in the back.

Even though MINI has been in the States since 2002, I guess it’s still somewhat of a phenomenon outside big urban areas. From the time I left the greater NYC area, I only noticed one other Mini on my side of the highway until I had practically reached Nashville, at which point a MINI Cooper S (the sportier version) passed me. As he went by, the driver gave a jaunty wave – just the sort of cheery camaraderie one might expect from one MINI driver to another.

Parking, as expected, is a snap in the MINI.

U-turns are a breeze.

After a couple of thousand miles and fighting my way through the gauntlet at the Holland Tunnel back into NYC, I was ready to give up the key to my MINI, but just a couple days later I found myself wishing I could be back behind the wheel. To me, that’s a strong endorsement of the MINI‘s appeal.

Where to buy:

MINI is superbly customizable, although take note that snazzy options like checkered-flag side mirrors can end up costing a bundle if you go crazy with the bells and whistles.That said, you can build the MINI of your dreams online and then send that package to a dealer.

Or just go to a dealer directly and see what they’ve got in stock.

Note that all that MINI cuteness doesn’t come cheap. My MINI Cooper sedan started at $18,550, but with the cold weather package (heated seats, heated mirrors, etc.), automatic transmission and a handful of other options plus destination charge, the total came to $22,800.

Other versions of the MINI have steeper (sometimes much steeper) base prices. The sportier MINI Cooper S starts at $22,300. The MINI Cooper convertible begins has a base price over $24,000. The top-of-the-line MINI John Cooper Works models begin at $28,800.

To put that in perspective, a 5-door automatic transmission Toyota Yaris starts at a shade over $12,000 and you can probably pick one up nicely equipped for less than $17,000.

The MINI has more of a premium feel and is more fun to drive, but on the other hand the Yaris offers better mpg and the actual ability to hold four (or even five) adult humans in relative comfort.

Bottom line — If you want a fun car with good performance, good comfort, good looks and relatively Green specs – and you never need to transport more than two adults – the MINI could be your perfect fit.

PS – MINI is apparently in the process of field-testing an electric version MINI called (appropriately) the MINI-E, but there’s no word yet on when (or if) the electric version will reach dealerships.

Disclosure – MINI loaned me a MINI Cooper sedan to test drive for this review. Unfortunately, I had to give it back when the test was complete.

Smart fortwo Passion Cabriolet


smart fortwo cabriolet

Lowering the top on the smart fortwo cabriolet is a breeze

Parking a smart fortwo should be at the top of the list of Easiest Things in the World.


Even if the parking space is lilliputian, even if you have approached it from an odd angle, even if the cars on either side of you are gargantuan trucks, you should be able to squeeze into the space with room to spare.

I must confess that I was a little nervous to test driving the smart fortwo. Yes, I requested a loan of the car. After years of decrying the practice of individual people commuting in massive trucks, I decided it was time to squeeze myself into what is surely the tiniest car on the market today.

The two-passenger smart car’s dimensions tell the story. Its total length is less than 9 feet – more than 3 feet shorter than the already compact Mini Cooper. The relative tinyness of the smart fortwo has an interesting effect on interactions with other drivers. You must drive defensively because some drivers will act as if they simply don’t see you because it’s impossible anything as small as a smart fortwo is actually on the road. On the other hand, there are also drivers who are also so charmed by the smart fortwo’s cuteness that they will wave you along and give you some special deference, much as a tiger might refrain from chasing a canary.

Does the smart fortwo feel cramped inside? Not particularly. I stand over 6-feet tall and I had plenty of headroom, enough elbow room and just enough leg room.

Of course, you can’t take long road trips in the smart fortwo – unless you put your luggage into a compacting machine first. If you want to see out the (small) rear window, don’t count on holding more than your smallest suitcase and a couple of bags of groceries. That’s all we managed to fit in the Smart’s 7.8 cubic feet of cargo space (up to the belt line).

The smart fortwo coupe. Cute? You betcha.How about the smart fortwo’s design? Cute as a button – and about the same size! 🙂 People will stare. They may start conversations or ask to trade the smart fortwo for whatever gas-guzzler they’re driving. Almost every time I parked the smart fortwo, I turned to marvel at how compact and fun it looked next to whatever staid minivan or sedan was parked next to it.

I thought the fit and finish of the inside components was generally pretty good. I liked the bold red accents on the dashboard and control panels.

I was also very impressed with the performance of the Cabriolet roof that opened and closed at the push of a button by sliding along a track at the top of the vehicle.

On the other hand, I would have exchanged the Passion Cabriolet’s complicated audio system in a heartbeat for an interval windshield wiper system or cruise control.

So from a looks, design and fit standpoint, I was pretty pleased with the smart fortwo. Then I started driving it.

I had been a little trepidatious based on my advance read of several blogs including Edmunds and The Truth About Cars that excoriated the smart fortwo’s transmission, acceleration and handling.

Basically, I wholeheartedly endorse their conclusions. I drove the Smart in urban traffic (Brooklyn, Manhattan), suburban (Long Island) and rural (Hudson Valley). If your commute involves very smooth, straight roads at moderate speeds of 40-50 mph, the smart fortwo could be a good car for you. But if your route involves winding roads, hills, highways where good acceleration is a must or the traffic flows around 70 mph, I would say that the smart fortwo could very well make for a scary ride.

I’m not refering to its size or safety characteristics. Smart has created a great website ( with compelling personal anecdotes about the strength of the car’s “safety cell” structure. I fully sort of believe that the safety cage would protect me in a crash, but I’d prefer to avoid getting in a crash in the first place and I had several occasions (off ramps, on ramps, hard turns, occasions that called for acceleration) where I felt that I was lucky to avoid collisions with other vehicles or the landscape in my smart fortwo.

And then there’s the small matter of bumps in the road. Both my passenger and I actually had back pain after driving for several hours in the smart fortwo down admittedly very potholed and uneven highways in the NYC metro area. Yes, I blame the highways, but I’ve ridden electric bicycles that offered a smoother ride at 20 mph on New York’s streets.

I could go on to talk about how the ‘automated manual transmission’ drove me crazy in both full automatic and semi-manual modes. Or about how the vibration and engine noise are exhausting even at low speeds, but you probably get the picture.

It’s all a shame since the smart fortwo really is an attractive car from an eco-friendly standpoint. In mostly highway driving, I managed to get around 40 mpg, which is very impressive for a non-hybrid car.

Not only that, but the smart production process is pretty eco-friendly too, including the use of prefabricated modules at the French factory where smarts are produced, plus water-soluble paints, recyclable body panels and a power-coating of the safety cell that eliminates the need for solvents.

Heck, the car even has ‘flax-based components’ in its dashboard! How cool is that!

The car itself is classified as an Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV). Smart’s press materials trumpet the clever design of an electric pump that “blows fresh air into the exhaust port when the engine is cold to almost completely oxidize the carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrocarbons (HC) and render them harmless.” Sounds good to me.

Truth be told, I would have a hard time recommending the current generation of the smart fortwo. As this blog attests, I’m pretty passionate about protecting the environment, but I also have minimum comfort and handling thresholds when it comes to assessing a car and smart fortwo didn’t meet them.

On the other hand, I’m still excited about the news that smart is planning an electric version of the fortwo, expected to arrive in the US (via pilot programs) in late 2010. With any luck, the electric car will have better and smoother acceleration. If so – and if smart can improve handling and shock absorption – the electric smart car could be a very smart choice indeed.

Where to buy

Purchase a smart fortwo at a Dealer near you.

The smart fortwo Passion Cabriolet starts at $16,990, but a few options (like power steering) and destination charge brought the model I tested up to just $17,980.

According to the smart website, there is a base Pure Coupe that lists for under $12,000, but expect to pay extra for options such as air conditioning and radio.

Disclosure – Smart USA lent me a smart fortwo Passion Cabriolet to review.

Breaking News – Nissan Unveils Leaf Electric Car

New Nissan Leaf Electric Car (photo via Nissan website)

New Nissan Leaf Electric Car (photo via Nissan website)

After too many years of talk about a viable, mass-market electric car, it looks like Nissan will be bringing one to the United States next year.

Obviously I haven’t had a chance to test the car yet, so I’ll just suggest you visit Nissan’s website to learn all about the Leaf electric car.

If this car can really reach highway speeds (90 mph according to Nissan’s website, 76 mph according to today’s Reuters story), recharge in as little as 30 minutes and be priced comparably to a regular gasoline-burning car, the Leaf should rocket to the top of the wish list for any Green consumer.

If you’re planning on buying a new car in the next year or two, keep your eyes peeled for Leaf announcements – and hopefully a Leaf review on this site as soon as the car hits US dealerships.