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Letter From Europe: KIA Niro; Mazda Miata; LC500 Lexus; Forza Friends;

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Full confession : before that brilliant Super Bowl commercial, I’ve never heard of the Kia Niro PHEV EX Premium. Having seen it I was keen to take it for a spin or at least to Quail Lodge in Carmel Valley. The verdict: very nice indeed, all it needs is a little bit more power. On Highway 1 it was having a bit of a struggle on the hills at 65 miles per hour. Mind you it did have two huge golf clubs and tons of luggage. In spite of the uphill battles I still got 46 miles per gallon. Interestingly enough that is exactly what KIA’s official figure is. I normally exceed these figures, had it been a flat road I certainly would have done.

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Leaving with a full tank it was Marin-Monterey-Carmel Valley (twice)-back to Monterey and then back to Marin. It was still good for another 150 miles. Pretty remarkable.  I think those excellent Michelin tires had something to do with it.. I didn’t get a chance to try the 26 mile all electric range, as I have said in previous reports charging in our part of the World is very difficult and cumbersome. It was sort of OK to go for a  10 minute walk to collect the VW Golf from the charging station but right now it is so cold here in Belvedere that it isn’t even funny. Of course if you have a garage it is a totally different story.

The KIA comes fully equipped, unlike German cars where the base price might be  say 40 thou by the time you’ve finished with the necessary extras you are looking at 60.

Well, full credit to KIA, the base price is virtually same. The interior was somewhat on the dark side, I would have preferred some lighter touches.

The brakes were sort of all right without giving you that totally reassuring feeling. We didn’t drive in the dark so I cannot report of headlights but  can confirm that the wipers are excellent.

The EPA figures are impressive. Fuel economy and green house gas rating gets 10 out of 10 and the smog rating is 7 out of 10.

So, you ask, would I buy it? The honest answer has to be no. It is a very fine product, well built (there were no rattles) but I need something a little bit bigger and more powerful. It was fine 95% of the time keeping up with traffic but going up to Tahoe it would spend most of its time behind the big rigs. But if you are not a skier, you live, your commute is from say Novato to SF then it is of course just fine.

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Something very very different, the test car I had before was the Mazda Miata. Let me come clean-you cannot have this much fun in an automobile for something like 30 thousand dollars. Of course the fact that it was warm and sunny helped as well but the whole concept of reaching for a lever, giving it a shove and ending up with a convertible-eat your hearts out Mercedes. The gearbox is an absolute delight, it was wonderful to change manually and getting it right.

The Editor of FORZA, a magazine about Ferraris is an owner and a former racer. He jumped out of his seat  in the office and straight into the Mazda. Now he is a much better driver than I am so I was happy to listen to his verdict. Actually his smile said it all. Brilliant was the verdict before he reluctantly handed  back the keys.

The ceramic metallic color of the test car  was awesome and I was one happy camper totally seduced by the little Mazda. 

It is no coincidence that Car and Driver named it one of the 10 best cars of 2017 for the 16th time. One of the reasons is simple. Test drivers-boys and girls- tend to be in their 20-s or maybe early 30s so they have all had Miatas, affordable, open top, perfect for dating, picking  up groceries and generally having fun. Once the baby is on its way it is an entirely different matter. But to give you an idea of the Miata’s popularity Central Pennsylvania alone has a club with 100 members! I am sure other clubs have many more. What astonished me is that owners seem to keep forever. Bashed, battered, bruised, torn covers and yet they are still running! Loved it.

Much as I loved the Miata another member of the Mazda family left me cold. The CX-3 is gutless. It is as simple as that.  I don’t know where the 148 horses were but they certainly have not been  fed well. Noisy, underpowered is all I can say. The styling is very attractive but it does not make up for the minimal legroom in the back. The most idiotic thing of course is the position of the handbrake. If you are resting your right arm on the pad which is what you are supposed to do you can’t pull ups the handbrake unless you are a contortionist . It costs around 25 thousand dollars and even my good friends at C&D will tell you that there are better alternatives even within the Mazda family. Maybe I am missing something but the CX-3 is not for me. 

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The guy busy digging up the road near the UCSF hospital stopped. And stared. And smiled and gave me the thumbs up. I smiled back of course at which point he indicated that a rapid start from the traffic lights would be in order. Easier said then done as it was raining cats and dogs but I did my best. He was still smiling when I was already 50 yards down the road. What-you may wonder-was I driving ? A Ferrari, a Lambo, a McLaren? None of the above . A Lexus! A Lexus I hear you cry. But that is what my Grandmother drives. Not any more. Well, I dare say they still  have some cars for what was their clientele but it is rapidly changing. Compared to the Lexus of yesteryear the 2018 LC 500h is on a different planet. I for one could not believe it so the only thing to do was to head straight to FORZA magazine’s offices to see what the Editor had to say about it. Astounded. Amazed. The Porsche owner Art Director was equally blown away. The interior could have come from a 300 thousand dollar Lambo or Aston. The seamstresses have done a very good job.

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What-I hear you ask is the big deal? Well, you have a car, I would call a supercar for around 100 thousand dollars doing what other makes ask at least 200 for. And because it is a hybrid the fuel consumption works out in excess of 30 miles per gallon. The 3.5 liter 24 valve engine which sounds pretty mean once you really put your foot down. The steering is razor sharp, the ride is firm as you would expect from a sports car. Is the  LC perfect? Of course not. No car is. The trunk in tiny  and the radio/nav/ system is truly silly. After the LC left-much to my regret-a Toyota Camry arrived for one third of the price. I’ve just parked it but can tell you that the info system is a 1000 times better. Simple, logical. Seeing that Toyota own Lexus I would have thought it must have occurred to some of the staff as well. I know that so-called buff magazines have been having apoplectic fits over it!

So all I can say is that the day Lexus produces a convertible with an improved info system at around a hundred grand rivals in  the 200 thou category will have a major problem on their door step. The name might be an initial hindrance but once potential buyers get behind the wheel  and take the L:C for a spin they won’t care about badge on the front for more than a second. It is that good.