More Test Drives – 2009 TL, CTS, Camry Hybrid

I spent the day with the family test driving a second round of cars, as we got back on track with our hopefully soon-to-be-completed replacement of a 2001 Honda Accord. We drove a 2009 Acura TL with the Technology package, an automatic 2009 Cadillac CTS with moonroof (no navigation model available), and a base Camry Hybrid (again, no navigation model available). First up was the Cadillac.

Cadillac CTS

The Cadillac CTS is the first American car my family’s seriously considering since… well the beginning of time as far as I’m concerned. I became interested in it due to overwhelmingly positive reviews of the car in its current model, refreshed in 2008. The car does indeed look great. Furthermore, the extremely attractive financing rate of 0.5% over 48 months, free maintenance for 4 years/80,000km and a $2,500 incentive add up to a boatload of savings over a similarly equipped 2009 Lexus ES350 or Acura TL.

Cadillac

There was no model exactly as we wanted configured (automatic, RWD, standard engine, no performance package, moonroof, and navigation) so we ended up taking a model that had everything except for the navigation system for a drive. My initial impression was ‘Wow, this interior in an American car?’. Then, shortly afterwards it was, ‘Wow, this feels cramped…’ I don’t believe the interior of the CTS is actually much (if any) smaller than the current car we drive; however the high waistline significantly decreases the size of all the windows, creating a smaller feeling interior. In the driver’s seat, it feels as though the car’s wrapped tightly around you, but in any other seat, it’s a far less appealing feeling.

Still, the drive with the standard FE1 suspension was smooth and road/wind/engine noises were well controlled. There was a nice growl to the base V6, but the noise never got out of control. Highway driving felt good and it was quick on its feet in city driving as well. Again, the interior looked very, very nice. I think I prefer it to the Lexus ES350 we drove a while ago. There was a bit of a disturbing burning smell when I got out of the car at the end of the test drive, but I’ll chalk that up to some funniness in the unbroken-in engine.

Camry Hybrid

Second was the Camry Hybrid. The last time we visited the Toyota dealership, they were completely sold out of the hybrid. Luckily this time around, there was one base model available for a test drive. The color (Aloe Green) wasn’t to my liking, but we decided that we should try out the hybrid regardless, if for nothing else than to see what the big deal with hybrids was.

Toyota Hybrid

Okay, so turning on the car felt a bit like nothing happened, then the gas engine kicked in a moment afterward. Some seconds later, the computer determined the battery was well charged and the gas engine turned itself off again. Whisper-quietness.

I’d read and heard inklings that recent Camrys’ interior quality had gone downhill and when I sat in the car, everything felt surprisingly cheap. You could chalk it up to completely different playing field between the Camry and the CTS we had just driven, but I’d go so far as to say even the old Accord we have has a superior interior. The center stack looked god-awful in the Hybrid with cheap looking buttons and labels.

Pushing out towards the highway, we really heard the difference between a V6 and V4 – the Camry had decent acceleration, but the engine gave out this high-pitched whine as it was pushed. What can you really expect from a small V4 though? Back on city streets, we tried to give the electric motor a chance to shine, but quickly realized short of slow rolling starts and a feather-like foot on the gas – the kind of driving that incites road rage amongst others – the gas engine was going to be used the vast majority of the time. Maybe I got the wrong impression of the hybrid from forum posters who touted ridiculous mileage (40MPG+). The mileage meter in the car didn’t show anything near that during our test.

Back at the dealer, we put on a straight (-ish) face when handing back the keys, saying only that the ride was ‘pretty quiet’. It seemed like the Camry (Hybrid) simply wasn’t for us. The interior was a disappointment and while some like to argue the idiocy of buying an entry-level luxury car for 25% more than a mid-level one with similar features, there are many, many things that the spec sheet simply can’t show.

2009 Acura TL

Finally, and somewhat surprisingly, I found myself in a 2009 Acura TL. I’d written off the TL due to the almost universally negative comments on the redesigned ’09 model as well as the photos I’d seen. We weren’t big fans of the 2008 TL; wind and road noise were pretty harsh and ride quality was worse than our current Accord. Although the pricing on the 2008 TL (at the time)  was fairly decent, we weren’t sure if it was worth the compromises. Still, we decided to cross the parking lot and drop by the Acura dealership. Upon finding out that there were no more new 2008 TLs to be found, the salerperson launched into a pitch for the new 09 TL, which I must say, was rather convincing.

2009 Acura TL Grille

We went out to the lot and after walking about the new TL a few times, a little voice in the back of my head started telling me that this thing looked far better in person than in the photos I’d seen online. The grill definitely looks a bit awkward, but the rest of the vehicle looked pretty darn good. The new bold style, if nothing else, makes the vehicle look far more distinctive than the previous generation TL, which was pretty bland overall. On the other hand, unique doesn’t mean good either.

However, the interior is a whole other matter. It feels a bit roomier than before, and the materials and quality are top-notch. The seats are much softer than before and exterior noise is better controlled. Ride quality has been significantly smoothed out from the outgoing model and felt much more like the kind of ride the family’s going for. Acura is clearly shifting its focus a bit, leaving the SH-AWD for more enthusiast drivers while ‘dumbing’ down the base model’s feel compared to the previous generation. I told the salesperson, who came along for the test drive, that I hoped I wouldn’t lose any sense of attraction to the car once I stepped out of it at took one glance at it.

The salesperson also acknowledged that the style was quite polarizing – some had been disgusted with the new design while others loved it. For some, who initially didn’t like it, the styling grew on them. Now I’m not of the mind that a $50,000 vehicle needs to ‘grow on me’ , but I’m glad we gave it a chance nonetheless. The ride quality was vastly superior to the previous TL we tested and overall the test drive was a success in at least getting us to consider the TL once again.

We were planning on driving the Lexus ES350 again to get a baseline comparison, but it was right at closing time, so didn’t get a chance to do that this weekend.

Now it’s time to crunch the numbers. The three vehicles we’re really considering now are the ES350, TL, and CTS. The ES350 and TL both have the same horrible 5.9% finance rate (which means we’ll go with out own, lower-rate line of credit) while the CTS stands at 0.5%. The CTS also has some other benefits, such as a local dealer (Niagara Falls instead of St. Catharines) and free maintenance for 48 months/80,000km, so those will have to be considered as well.

It’s coming down to the wire now.

Test Drives – Toyota, Lexus, Acura

Well it’s around that time to replace the aging Honda Accord (2001) sitting on the driveway. After some extensive research the test drive list was narrowed down to the Lexus ES350, Toyota Camry Hybrid, and Acura TL as a start.

Arriving at the combined Toyota/Lexus dealership in St. Catharines, we first went to look at a Camry Hybrid. Unfortunately the demo model was out for the afternoon and the other Hybrids were in a car lot elsewhere. As a result, we were only able to take a look at a non-Hybrid model and talk about financing and leasing options.

We were then introduced to a Lexus sales representative and went through the main features of the Lexus ES350. Shortly thereafter, we set out in an ES bound for the highway to mimic the typical daily use of the car. Even when pulling out of the lot, we noticed significantly less engine and road noise than the Accord we currently drive. Then again, there’s probably something wrong if a brand new Lexus isn’t quieter than a 7 year old Honda. We took some side roads to get to a slightly less busy part of the QEW, where we could stretch the car out. The car handled bumps and potholes with ease – the interior of the car was also pleasing. The somewhat small windows and the moonroof let in lots of light to make the interior feel quite roomy.

Accelerating onto the highway was satisfying. The V6 provided more than enough oomph to get around other vehicles on the road without creating a racket. The imperfections in the seemingly always-under-construction highways sent little vibration through the frame and as a result was very pleasing. We’re talking about a family car here, not a 20-something wanting a lowered Civic. There was one patch of service road that had been recently paved and with negligible road noise and extremely good engine sound proofing, it was like floating on a cloud.

Upon returning to the Lexus dealership, my dad decided to try out the RX350 as well. This was a bit surprising as my previous efforts to convince him to buy into any type of SUV typically ended in failure, with top issues being fuel consumption, increased price, and necessity. We don’t carry tons of stuff around and the vehicle would be used 90% of the time as a commuter to work, so mileage is important. Still, we hopped into an RX and set off for the highway.

The first thing I noticed was a distinctly noisier environment than the ES. Furthermore, with the heavily tinted windows in the back, it also felt a bit cramped, even if that was an optical illusion. Once on the highway, it was apparent that engine and road noises were significantly higher than with the ES. On some side roads, we also noted quite a bit of roll when going over bumps. I’m sure that’s a result of the typical ‘smoothing’ out by Lexus. Instead of taking a bump directly, the suspension sort of wallows to lessen the thud.

In the end I think it was good to drive the RX350, just so that we could knowingly cross it off the list of possibilities. Instead of wondering about the RX, we laid the idea to rest.

Hopping across the parking lot, we entered the Acura dealership and took a look at the TL. After a quick introduction with a sales rep, we got into the car and the representative drove us around to point out some of the features we wouldn’t have come across on our own. My initial impressions were of a more ‘modern’ interior design than the ES and a firmer seat. Once onto the highway, we noticed an abundance of road and engine noise. Even in city driving conditions, road noises and bumps were transferred readily into the interior of the vehicle. That probably has something to do with the ‘sportier’ market and different suspension tuning as compared to the ES or RX. Back at the dealership, the rep handed over the keys and told us to take it for a ride. We went along the same route as we had taken the ES and RX previously to make the comparison. It certainly felt less wobbly than either the ES or RX, but it wasn’t really what we were looking for. On the other hand, with the 2009 model incoming, I got the sense that the sales rep was more willing to negotiate on price and terms.

With the drives fresh in my our minds, I came home and crunched some numbers that night. The Acura TL was approximately the same price as the ES350 for the base model (higher MSRP, but better lease/financing rates) while the navigation package brought the ES350’s price well over the TL with navigation. Of course, the Camry Hybrid comes in far below either the TL or ES. In fact even with the navigation package, the Camry Hybrid comes in well less than both ES and TL base models.

We’re planning another day of driving when we’ll be able to test the Camry Hybrid and ES350 in quick succession to see if the ES is just a plush Camry or something that offers a significant difference from the Camry’s ride to justify the price.