First Drives: 2011 S60, Mazda2, Juke, Optima, and Grand Cherokee

By George Straton

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend a day at a media event outside Chicago where I was able to play the automotive version of musical chairs. Over six grueling hours, I and a few dozen other media members were able to get some seat time in 30 or so newer automotive models. The following is the result of the time spent with several new-for-model year 2011 offerings which we think will have some sort of impact in the marketplace.

2011 Volvo S60 AWD:

You can tell that Volvo management is trying to turn the Swedish premium car maker on its head when it eschews the old safety paradigm of “Volvo for Life” in favor of the testosterone level-enhancing “Naughty Volvo Tour.”

As if the S60’s all-new Coke bottle-shaped body and the power and drivetrain improvements aren’t naughty enough, the Volvo reps boldly dared members of the media to “Try to hit the [faux pedestrian] dummy. As it turned out, when moving under 22 mph (as in public parking lot conditions) not even a dummy behind the wheel could hit the dummy on the pavement. Actually, you actually do need to touch the brakes to bring the vehicle to a complete halt, and the system has limitations in the dark. Courtesy of a camera feeding live images to a processor, which matches against stored pedestrian images, Pedestrian Detection System seems an industry first.

Volvo sure isn’t making friends with the personal injury lawyers’ bar in this country, at least under ideal conditions. Perhaps perking up those lawyers’ ears, however, sometimes, things don’t work as planned.

Instrument layout, switchgear and high-line materials in the S60 T-6 are more Dania than IKEA. These elements alone would befit competitors from Germany which cost $10-$15K more. Volvo-nistas who of late lamented the departure of R series engines should be relieved that the turbo-inline 3.2 liter six has now entered the 300 HP club. Mated to a beefed up manumatic gearbox which sends power to an updated “instant on demand” Haldex All Wheel Drive system, the S60 T-6 attacks corners with zeal.

Driving on fatigued Midwestern roads, however, I came away from the S60 wanting more ride compliance than what the standard dynamic package with super low profile 18” performance tires provides. Mercifully, a higher profiled 17” tire / less stiffly damped Touring setup is available as a no-cost option.

2011 Mazda 2

Senior executives at Mazda must drive manual transmission cars with proper shifters and pedal clutches. I say this because Mazda shift action, even in the entry level 2010 Mazda2 model is second to none. Clutch pedal take-up is on the long side for relaxed driving, but the re-engagement at beginning of release travel is boon to fast shifting. The shift lever is a tall, inelegant piece., but all you need do is flick that lever in the same way you make your John Hancock with a fountain pen.

While the 1.5 liter inline-4 unit, bereft of either turbo or supercharging, is limited in low-end torque it is asked to carry only 2300 lbs and it will probably return mid 30 MPG fuel economy in combined driving.

Ride compliance is forgiving for such a light car. You can hang the tail out and still steer through with near-MX-5 Miata-type predictability. (Many members of the media at the event nicknamed the Mazda2 the front wheel drive MX-5.) For those disbelievers, an MX-5 Miata was on hand. Steering is not overly boosted. You say that those are rear drum brakes at the stern end? Could have fooled me into thinking they were discs.

The Mazda2 interior isn’t overly elaborate or ornate, but whatever is there is high quality in tactile feel.

The sub-$14,000 2011 Mazda2 is living proof of the paradox that some lower-priced entry-level affordable subcompacts are actually quite satisfying driver’s cars. It should serve as a note to the automotive industry: Please keep the manual transmission around.

2011 Nissan Juke AWD

Nissan says the Juke is targeted to young moderately affluent single men, while the larger Rogue was supposed to be for moms /dads with little kids. Then the company gave this compact cross-ute a name that any red-blooded football loving young American male could appreciate. (Other red-blooded males will simply have to figure it out.) The French side of the Renault-Nissan alliance takes credit for its all-new 180 HP 1600 cc inline four cylinder engine, which produces about as much power as do Nissan 2500-cc units. This fairly refined motor has only 2900 lbs to tote. Armed with available AWD, and fairly sporty suspension tuning, the Juke can give some NFL running-backs a run for their money.

The manually-controllable Continually Variable Transmission is impressive in that it lacks the artificial-feeling shift action found in other CVT applications. Nissan has come a long way with its “gear-less” transmissions.

Ride compliance in the Juke was fairly forgiving for its mission, which will likely be urban. Brakes, featuring large diameter disc rotors all around, were nearly sports car powerful.

To cater to the techno-culture there is the optional I-Con system which is less-elaborate play on iDrive and other multi-function single controller interfaces. This interface controls drive settings and climate control settings. Drive Mode controls throttle and transmission response and steering power assist. The display will actually show real-time performance using trick dials with variable colors.

To some, the Juke might look a semi-“bug-eyed” high performance Versa (from which it derives) on automotive growth hormones. In fact, thanks to the Versa it’s got utility. For stroking the ego, imagine that Juke is a BMW X6 that shrank a size and a half in the dryer.

2011 Kia Optima

Expectations were high for the 2011 Kia Optima, what with its more cohesive and meaningful exterior design than its corporate cousin, the Hyundai Sonata, and certainly leagues improved over its predecessor. And it has had nearly an extra year at finishing school over the Sonata. But when it comes to driving dynamics, one wonders if the Optima was at recess during most of that year. Kia is touting its new Dual Chambered dampers (shock absorbers). Since most shock absorbers have two chambers through which hydraulic fluid moves via valves to either stiffen or relax in response to wheel movement, it would seem that in the case of the new Optima Kia engineers were searching for middling handling at the cost of ride quality. Also the largely visual benefits of 18” wheels with lower profile rubber don’t help ride quality.

Interior control and display layouts, housed in dour if contemporary matte black panels, are well placed even if materials seems on par with Toyotas – of a generation ago.

And the Hyundai-Kia corporate 2.4 liter direct injection four cylinder, with its claimed 200 HP, mated to an automatic transmission, seems outclassed by less powerful inline-fours from Nissan and Honda. You really need to get the revs up to get into the sweet spot and the noises are not very pleasant.

All in all, there is undeniable value in the new Optima, and exterior styling may even better that of the previous class leading cousin Sonata. Now, if only Kia engineers can return from recess and re-tune the suspension an improved ride.

2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee AWD

Watch out BMW! There is a new Jeep Grand Cherokee in town. And this time it maker gets marching orders from Turin rather than Stuttgart.

In Europe, among the moneyed who seek attention, there has been only one American designed and built offering that has developed a following over the years. It is the daddy of the modern mid-size entry luxury SUV, the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Especially in Limited trim.

Exterior styling cues of the 2011 Grand Cherokee give the body an athletic appearance. The new liftgate brightwork says more Japanese luxury, but is distinctive nonetheless. Climb aboard, and the cabin has gone to displays, controls and upholstery which have finally reached the sublime. The driver seat is well-bolstered for the class. Despite the high center of gravity and high mass, the driver doesn’t feel either a “pogo stick” effect or a delay from inputs to chassis reactions. Steering is reasonably quick for a vehicle of this heft. Too, the brakes are tenacious backed by a suspension that reigns in dive.

The new 280 hp Pentastar V6 seems the equal to the hype in terms of power and refinement…. Matched to an eager shifting 6 speed automatic this powertrain relegates the Hemi, in its previous form, irrelevant. Even in AWD form, the sounds are refined and cabin isolation is impressive. If touted fuel economy claims of 16 city/ 23 highway MPG in are met, the competition may end up on the defensive.

Author: George Straton

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  1. Regarding Pentastar engine, it is amazing that in one development cycle, Chrysler engine evolves from the abyss to a modern V6. What took them so long to make the leap. If the know how was there, why couldn’t they design something like this a couple of years ago.

  2. I drove a 2011 Grand Cherokee with the Pentastar specifically because I wanted to see if the engine lived up to its hype. It’s a modern engine, to be sure, but the JGC is still a bit heavy for this engine. It is light on low-end torque (and indeed, peak torque) and left me still wishing for a V8.

    The GC’s new interior and appearance are outstanding, though. A very nice update, particularly in Overland trim.

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