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The Safest Vehicle? 2014-2015 Acura MDX Review: Kids, Carseats & Safety

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What’s the safest vehicle you can buy today?  It may well be the 2014 and 2015 Acura MDX, especially among vehicles for 6 or more passengers.  It aced the IIHS crash tests, achieving a “Good” result in every test and in every single sub-category evaluation for each of those tests.  It’s the only 3-row vehicle to accomplish that!  With the tech package, it earns a “Basic” IIHS front crash prevention score and a Top Safety Pick+ rating.  The Advance package has a full set of advanced safety features including autobrake and active lane keep assist, earning an “Advanced” IIHS front crash prevention rating.  It also earned a 5-star NHTSA overall crash rating, with 5-stars in all five crash tests as well!  It’s one of a few SUVs and minivans that earned a top overall ratings from both agencies, and one of a handful of vehicles in any class to get top results in each and every crash test from both agencies.  At nearly 4400 lbs., it has the advantage of weight in a frontal crash combined with handling that is better than average for a midsize SUV.

What You Get:

The MDX was redesigned for 2014 and the 2015 model reviewed here is essentially identical.  Acura really left nothing on the table when it comes to safety, except that more of these features could be standard or at least available on the base model.  You sort of expect to pay more for advanced safety features on mainstream sedan, but when Subaru offers them for less than $1200 on most of its family vehicles, even mid-level trim versions, we do wonder what some luxury brands are thinking when it comes to a 3-row family hauler.

For example, with the MDX, you must add the $4,300 Tech package to get the Blind Spot Information system, a basic Forward Collision Warning system and Lane Departure Warning.  Definitely opt for at least this trim level.  To equip a frontal crash prevention system competitive with the $1,200 Subaru Eyesight system, you must tack on over $12,000 to get the Advance Package with Entertainment Package.  Yes, that is 10x the cost to protect your family!  The Advance package adds an IIHS Advanced rated Collision Mitigation autobrake system with front seatbelt pretentioners as well as a Lane Keeping Assist system.  You also get the handy Adaptive Cruise Control with the unique low-speed follow system and an array of parking assist sensors.  I’m not a fan of leather seats without ventilation in the summer, but Acura also forces you to buy the most expensive model to get this feature as well.

mdxheadlightAside from these marketing issues, the MDX is quite simply an excellent vehicle.  Plus, with the new 3.5L engine, fuel economy got a nice bump and you can now order a 2WD version with even better gas mileage, up to 20mpg city.  The styling is sharp and more aggressive than the previous generation.  The Jewel Eye headlight treatment is very slick.  Kudos to Acura for avoiding the trend to add ubiquitous Christmas tree running lights around their headlights.  The interior is also very nice, though I wish luxury manufacturers would use more realistic-looking wood trim if they must use wood grain at all in their interiors.

The Drive:

Unlike the Infiniti QX60 I drove recently, the MDX is a much nicer driver’s vehicle.  The Integrated Dynamics system is adjustable.  I prefer the Sport setting for a heavier steering feel and a little more performance tuned throttle and more aggressive transfer of power in turns.  A driver with another keyfob could have their preferences saved to Comfort, for easier turns and more conservative throttle.  A nice setup that automatically switches for each driver!  In any setting, the MDX is a better handling ride than the QX60 and many other larger midsize SUVs.   The only peculiar thing I noticed is a little cabin vibration at idle, mostly on the steering wheel and armrest.

acuramdxwheelI also found the transmission to be very smooth overall, but perhaps a bit quick to downshift in Sport mode when coasting.  Paddle shifters let you override this one quibble.  Acceleration, emergency handling and braking all seemed competent overall.  Zero complaints.  No, it’s not like a sport sedan, but it’s far superior to any truck-based SUV.  The 290 hp V6 engine has plenty of power, but can also shut off three cylinders to bump its fuel economy to 20/28/23 in 2WD trim and 18/27/21 with SH-AWD.  My SH-AWD tester managed 19mpg around town.  Not all that good overall, but still respectable for the class.  With the optional tow package, you can pull 5,000 pounds.

Access is pretty easy front and back, even for kids.  I found the seats to be pretty comfortable and supportive overall.   All the adjustments were adequate.  Visibility is mediocre, typical for a midsize SUV.  With the rear head restraints UP and the entertainment screen DOWN, the rear-view mirror is all but worthless.  Thankfully a backup camera is standard.  The gauges and forward display are great.  The split-screen console stack is a little confusing at times and has a little more of a learning curve than some others, but ultimately is fine once you learn the setup.

Overall, it’s an excellent vehicle on the road.  Smooth, quiet and it just has that well-built and solid feel to it that many other vehicles lack.  I rate it very close to the Mercedes GL450 in this regard and that is high praise.  I also appreciate the adapative cruise with low speed follow.  One of those features that just strikes you as making a difference.

Fitting your Precious Cargo:

The second row is an oddity for midsize SUVs.  It not only has three top tether anchors, but it also has three separate pairs of lower LATCH anchors.  Combined with two more top tether anchors in the third row, it is nearly as flexible in this regard as the Honda Pilot.  The 2nd row does have some issues with the center seat, as is the case in many midsize SUVs.  With the plastic seat hardware, a somewhat narrow width and some issues with seatbelt and LATCH anchor crossover, it’s not nearly as easy to fit 3-across carseats as it is in a Honda Odyssey minivan.  It can be done with careful selection, though.  The third row is mainly for kids, especially on long trips. Access is relatively easy and it is comfortable for kids in forward-facing carseats, boosters and pre-teens as well.  We wish manufacturers would add more rear-seat USB or other charging outlets in their family vehicles, though.

 Gallery:

Below left, a handy spot for a rear-facing tether accessory strap as can be used on a few select convertible carseats, like those from Diono, Combi or Britax.

A License Plate Divided

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plate2Dear State of Illinois,

I’ve always contended that Arizona was the most thematic state in the union. Everything about the state screams “Arizona!” If a person were to be abducted by UFOs and dropped in the middle of Arizona, it would only take a couple minutes of wandering around before the person spotted a turquoise lizard or purple kokopelli painted on the side of a building and realized he was in the Grand Canyon State. (I realize this scenario is absurd. UFOs are more likely to abduct people FROM Arizona, not TO it. But I digress.)

Illinois, you might not be as thematic as Arizona, but you seem to be trying. You don’t have stovepipe hats carved into highway retaining walls (at least not that I’ve seen), but you’re fiercely proud of Abraham Lincoln, who spent most of his adult life in the state. As The Land of Lincoln, Illinois even includes Abe’s likeness on its standard-issue license plates.

I’m a huge presidential history nerd and a big fan of Lincoln (who isn’t?) so when we moved here, I was thrilled at the thought of having him on my license plate. But then I started to notice something that bothered me and my sense of order: Lincoln’s head is centered, and it shouldn’t be.

IMG_0724Back when Illinois’ plates used to consist of three digits, a space, and three digits, it made perfect sense for Abe’s head to be centered on the plate, so one could see him. I’m sure it felt right.

But now the standard, non-personalized plates consist of three digits, a space, and then four digits. That means the plate is off-balance and the first digit in that second set inevitably covers part of Abe’s head, and it drives me nuts.

So, State of Illinois, I am humbly asking you to scoot Mr. Lincoln’s head to the left a bit. You could even have two different prints: an off-center one for use on the standard-issue plates, and the centered one for people who order personalized plates where an off-center Abe might look weird. And don’t tell me this would be too complicated. The state currently offers more than 50 specialty plates, so adding one more design shouldn’t be a big deal.

I realize it’s a silly thing to ask, but if Illinois is truly the Land of Lincoln, shouldn’t we avoid stamping over his head as much as possible? It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

Sincerely,

A concerned citizen

2015 Toyota Sienna 3rd Row Preview

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2015SiennaHere is a quick look at the refreshed 2015 Toyota Sienna.  The big news for some families is that Toyota has added a fourth LATCH position.   You can now install a child safety seat with LATCH in either second row captain’s chair, the third row “center” position and now the third row passenger-side seat as well.  Another new available feature that some parents may appreciate is the Driver Easy Speak system.  It’s essentially a microphone that can be enabled so the driver’s voice is amplified for those in the second and third row seats.  Now the kids will hear you when you say, “If you don’t cut that out right now I’m going to turn this Swagger Wagon around!”

 

Toyota now makes a backup camera standard on all Sienna models, which is essential for safety.  Bluetooth hands-free is also standard.  They also added a front passenger seat-cushion mounted airbag to reduce leg injury risk.  The driver’s seat retains a knee cushion airbag.  In addition, the side curtain airbag coverage has been increased around 30%.  There is also a handy new multi- information display right in front of the driver, between the main gauges, to help you keep your eyes off the road as briefly as possible.  This standard 3.5 inch screen can be configured to show the information you want without having to turn to the main dash screen and searching for it.

Updated crash tests results are not yet available from the IIHS or NHTSA, but Toyota expects it to do as well as the 2014 model.  Perhaps the one drawback of this refresh?  A full complement of advanced safety features (including pre-collision frontal crash prevention) is only available on the Limited Advanced Technology Package in the new Limited Premium trim.  This package also includes Dynamic radar cruise control, vehicle dynamics integrated management and hill start assist control. Features like Blind Spot Monitor and Rear Cross Traffic Alert are standard or available in packages on various trim levels.

Stay tuned for our full review coming later this fall!

Thank you to Toyota USA for the preview of the Sienna, Camry and Yaris.

Horton has a Head

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elephant headHalloween is upon us, and that means it’s time to get the kids’ costumes ready. Maybe some of you are struggling with how to create the perfect costume that can’t be bought in stores. Maybe you need to make a full-headed mask or a large prop. Perhaps I can help. What you need is papier mache–but not the drippy, tedious kind you did in school. What you need is DIY papier mache clay.

Let’s back up a couple months to when a friend volunteered me to make a giant Horton the elephant head for a Dr. Seuss show our daughters’ dance studio was performing. The head had to be really big–large enough that it would look appropriate on a two-person elephant. One of the instructors suggested that I use papier mache and chicken wire, but the thought of cutting and sculpting chicken wire really didn’t appeal to me. I saw no way to get around the papier mache, though.

papier ballSo I went to Five Below and bought a few different inflatable balls. I blew them up and decided that a small exercise ball was the way to go. But then I started the papier mache process. If you ever did this in school, you probably remember tearing up strips of newspaper, dipping them in a mixture of flour and water (or something like that) and layering it on. That works fine for something small, but I quickly realized it was going to take FOREVER to make a head as large and as sturdy as I needed, especially since you’re supposed to let the layers dry completely before adding more.

In desperation, I turned to the internet for help. That’s when I discovered the site Ultimate Paper Mache and a recipe for do-it-yourself papier mache clay. (This woman makes adorable papier mache animals—I might need to take that up as a new hobby.)

It’s really simple to make. You just need a roll of toilet paper, 1/2 cup of flour, 3/4 cup of all-purpose glue, and 1 cup of joint compound. (The recipe also calls for linseed or mineral oil, but the site says it’s optional so I didn’t use it.) You take the toilet paper off the roll and soak it in warm water, then squeeze it out. You should end up with 1 1/4 cups of toilet paper pulp. If you have more, just discard it. I used a Costco roll that gave me about double that, so I doubled the other ingredients, too, and made a jumbo batch. Tear the pulp up into 1-inch-ish pieces, add the other ingredients, and mix (I used a hand mixer). When you’re done, you’ll have a mixture the consistency of cookie dough or very thick canned frosting.

big headIt spreads like frosting, too. I used my hands to glump some onto my existing layer of newspapers on the exercise ball, then used a frosting spreader to spread it out. Here’s the beautiful thing about the clay: Because it’s so light and airy, you can spread it up to 1/4″ thick. Do you know how long it would take to properly apply an equal amount of newspapers??? FOREVER.

The nature of the clay also makes it really easy to attach other parts. Just make sure those are made of light-weight things, too. I used a cut-up-and-repositioned heart-shaped styrofoam wreath to form the tops of Horton’s ears, and some taped up newspaper to make the IMG_0380trunk. To attach them, I set them in place over my existing (dried) clay, then just used more clay to hold the base of each appendage in place. I let the base dry before I finished covering the rest of the ears and trunk, just so they wouldn’t get too heavy and fall off before everything was dry.

I wound up needing several batches of clay to finish the elephant head. That included two layers plus the clay I needed to join other parts. You can keep the unused clay in the fridge, so that was handy for times when I needed a break or had to wait for things to dry. (Leave at least 24 hours for drying between layers.)

naked elephantThis stuff dries HARD, too. I needed to cut around the opening a little, so it wasn’t so rough, and also needed to cut a mouth opening so the person inside could see out. My husband had to use a jig saw, and it was a bit terrifying, but luckily he knew what he was doing. 

I added some fabric, a little yarn, lots of paint, and a pink poofy thing, and then my elephant head was done. For as big and solid as it is, it was remarkably light. I tried the head on several times and wore it around the house a bit (because I thought it was funny) and didn’t get uncomfortable despite the size.

horton on stageThe clay would be fantastic for making lots of different Halloween masks or costume accessories. Heck, why not make some pumpkins to decorate your house, or a cauldron for candy? It’s not Halloween-rleated, but one of the commenters on that site’s blog was making toadstools for preschoolers to sit on. How cute would that be?

If you want your items to last, you’ll want to shellack them. Even though they dry rock-solid, they’re still mainly paper and flour. Those can break down over time, and bugs sometimes eat stuff like that. Yuck. It’s also important to note that the clay is supposed to go over a form, just like regular papier mache. It’s not intended to be used like modeling clay, although I suppose if you model in 1/4″ layers, it could work.

So go grab yourself some toilet paper and joint compound, and whip up something cool!