| Car and tech rants from Jim Bray | Publishing online exclusively since 1995 |
February 24, 2017

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Toyota Highlander

Toyota's 2017 Highlander a handsome and comfortable SUV

The popular Highlander SUV/Crossover is about mid-way through its current generation and Toyota has enhanced and upgraded it for the 2017 model year, making it an even more pleasant vehicle to be in.

In fact, I'd reckon that, after my week in Toyota Canada's sample Highlander XLE AWD model that it's an even nicer vehicle than its up market cousin, the Lexus RX 350. That's because, while it isn't as luxurious or, ahem, prestigious as the Lexus (which rides on the same basic platform), the sample was plenty luxurious enough, more handsome inside and out (with the usual "eye of the beholder" caveat) and easier to operate.

The ease of use comes mostly from Toyota's decision to put a touch screen in the centre stack and mount it within reach of even short people. And it's easy to fathom and to use. The Lexus has its screen mounted high and out of reach, forcing the company to put one of those damn mouse-like Remote Touch devices on the centre console, and as nifty as that sounds it's actually counterproductive if you're just trying to get stuff done because you're fiddling with the knob and menus all the time instead of just poking and choosing. more...

High tech gloves let you use your smart device without getting frostbite

Drivers and/or texters in climes where winter rears its ugly head repeatedly have an interesting new ally in their quest to operate smart devices without getting their hands cold.

Glider Gloves is a line of hand wear that promises to let you text, phone, and even operate vehicles' LCD screens without having to remove them, a promise that - given my history of trying to use my smart stuff while wearing gloves - seemed like a product that was simply too good to be true. more...

Volkswagen and Subaru drive off with Canadian Car of the Year honours

The best new car and utility vehicles in Canada for 2017 come from Germany and Japan and, while one is considered a car, both could be considered utility vehicles as well.

That's because the Canadian Car of the Year (CCOTY) overall winner, the Volkswagen Golf Alltrack, is not only a great car in its own right, it's also what once would have been known in these parts as a station wagon, a family-and-hauling-friendly vehicle that blends the best of both worlds while never forgetting that at heart, it's a Golf - which is a very good thing indeed.

The other side of the Car of the Year coin is Utility Vehicle of the Year, which for 2017 has gone to the Subaru Forester, which just happens to be my favourite Subaru year after year (though I must admit liked earlier ones better).

Still to be awarded is the Green Car of the Year, which will be named at the end of March - just as Canada is turning green again after a long winter. Somehow I don't think those greens are related… more...

Virtual reality demonstrations showcase a technology with plenty of potential

The term "virtual reality" has been around for years, and for about the same length of time we've been promised that it's the next big thing we'll have in our lives.

Like so many technological promises, however, it's been mostly vapourware when it comes to consumer products, with only a few baby steps taken on the journey to immersive virtual worlds for us to play in. But it appears to be coming, and if a couple of demonstrations I attended over the past couple of months are any indication, there should be some really cool stuff available over the next few years. more...

Time Sagas

Honda moves in the right direction with the new CR-V

Maybe Honda is listening to its critics because this new CR-V is a nice step back toward Hondas of old, Hondas that weren't just great vehicles, but which didn't really annoy their owners at the same time.

I've been one of those critics over the past few years, though I can't imagine a small potatoes guy like me being responsible for Honda moving back toward the light - but it's sure good to see.  

The first indication of a potential turnaround in Honda's attitude is the return of a volume control knob to the centre stack of the new CR-V SUV/Crossover. The second is that the new CR-V is actually quite a handsome vehicle, much nicer than its predecessor. And that's a great start. more...

Vapourizers offer handy portable and/or party performance - usually

Late last year I did a column outlining in its most basic terms the issue of marijuana use, and in the process I introduced a few of the popular vapourizers available on the marketplace today. In that column I assembled a group of baby boomers I know, folks who've been "imbibing" the still-illegal substance for decades and who are (surprisingly to some folks, I'm sure) productive members of society who just happen to enjoy the odd toke. They provided me with valuable insight and opinions, most of which were very positive of the vaping experience.

On the heels of that column I was sent samples of a couple of other - and very different from each other - vapourizers, so over the past few weeks I reassembled my panel to get their impressions (and no, Rich Little wasn't one of them) of these new units, one of which had the potential to be the slickest little portable they'd seen. The other vapourizer isn't portable at all, but my panellists discovered it has its own joyful positives that made it a real, well, hit. more...

Lexus GS sport sedan a 'Lexurious' and fun drive

Lexus has been relentlessly, and passionately, pursuing automotive perfection since the brand first upset the luxury car market back in 1989. Does that mean its current line has reached that pinnacle of automotive excellence for which it has advertised its intent for so long?

Of course not. The only perfection in this world is my wife - followed closely by my grandson (and, yes, they made me write that) - and it isn't realistic to expect flawlessness in any mere product, especially since your idea of perfection is undoubtedly quite a bit different from mine (which, of course, means yours is wrong...).

But they keep plugging away, redefining and refining their line and building some of the most reliable vehicles on the planet year after year.

Their mid-sized GS sports sedan is reasonably sporty, too, though folks who look for a BMW-like experience with Lexus have been disappointed because the cars, while lovely and fun, still don't have that special "je ne sais quois" of a 5 series, not that much does. more...

LG makes a cool roll-up keyboard and a flexible cell phone

Continuing a theme from a couple of weeks ago, I've been playing with - I mean reviewing seriously - a couple of products that might be good places to drop some of that after-holiday cash you may have left over or received as a gift.

This time, it's a pair of products from South Korea's LG, which is probably best known for TV's and appliances, but which is also a big player in the mobile device market. And these two products fit securely in that niche: a nifty Bluetooth keyboard and a fully featured cell phone that even offers virtual reality capability (for an extra cost, of course). more...

Acura's biggest SUV gets rhinoplasty for 2017

The Acura MDX has traditionally been a very nice luxury SUV and this might explain why the 2017 version hasn't changed a lot from the previous year.

Probably the biggest change is to its front end, which now sports a new grille the company calls "diamond pentagon." I had no issues with the last schnozzola on the MDX - my issues with the vehicle stem more from an interior treatment that hasn't been changed significantly, and that's a shame.

Besides the new grille, the MDX gets a more sharply sculpted hood, front fascia and front fenders, new LED fog lights and the cool Jewel Eye headlights that are appearing on the company's inventory. There's also a new chrome rocker panel design, the rear bumper has been redesigned, and you now get twin tailpipes. It's a handsome exterior, indeed. more...

Ron Howard's Inferno features left wing loon as super villain

I never saw this one coming, and I have a feeling that Tom Hanks, Ron Howard, author Dan Brown and screenwriter David Koepp didn't either: Inferno, the third movie in the "Da Vinci" code series, features a megalomaniacal bad guy who's such a left wing whacko that non-whacko left wingers should take note of where their movement has gone in real life.

It's funny, because that's exactly the opposite of what these guys say on the new Blu-ray release's supplements, where they portray tech billionaire Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) as a really, really smart guy who just seems to have overstepped the rules of decency by devising his plot to kill half of the human race so the remaining half can rebuild. more...

Hyundai's popular big ute gets a 2017 freshening

It may not be particularly sporting when stacked up against the likes of the Porsche Macan and Jaguar F-Pace, but Hyundai's 2017 Santa Fe Sport costs a lot less and still manages to offer a lot of good stuff - including some fun - to its potential buyers.

The Sport - a moniker that distinguishes the two row, five seat Santa Fe from the three row XL version - is said to have "over 350 all-new parts with new features" as well as 11 per cent better fuel mileage and, of course, new standard equipment.

There's plenty that isn't new, of course, but that isn't because Hyundai has become cheap (well, I really don't know their motivation) but because the Santa Fe's current generation is a pretty darn compelling vehicle already - a vehicle that, like the company that builds it, has earned its success. more...

OPPO's new UDP-203 adds 4K Ultra HD to its universal player line

Oppo Digital is back with a new universal player and, in the company's grand tradition, it's a winner.

The UDP-203 takes all that was great about the company's BDP-103, and there was plenty, and adds 4K UHD and HDR capability. Along the way it also got a classy new interface and a remote control that, while it looks pretty much like the BDPs' that came before it, now lights up when you grab it - a really handy feature.

Oppo regularly knocks it out of the park with their products which, while priced higher than the average mainstream consumer might like to justify, are easily worth their weight in wampum if you're an audio and/or videophile. The stuff is built well, works great, and offers just about any feature you could want in such a device. more...

Toyota Camry hybrid a surprisingly nice drive

It's been called an appliance, a vanilla vehicle, boring, whatever. But the fact remains that Toyota's Camry is a model of greatness in its own right - a car that'll deliver comfortable and efficient driving for many years without fuss or hassle.

It's also one of the top-selling vehicles in North America and, though it may never quicken the pulse of driving enthusiasts, it delivers a better driving experience than those same enthusiasts might expect.

Even in its hybrid form, the topic of this piece. Oh, as a hybrid it's saddled with a noisy and whiny CVT and CVT's also generally sap a lot of the enjoyment out of the driving process, but even that couldn't kill my enjoyment during a recent week with the Camry hybrid SE. more...

Of routers and smart plugs and mice (oh, my!)

It's a new year and if you have any money left over from the Christmas giving season - or if you have some gift dollars burning a hole in your pocket - there are innumerable tech solutions on which you can blow the cash, from a new router to a new mouse, and lots in between.

Let's look at a couple of items I've been playing with for a while now, including the TP-Link AC3200 Wireless Tri-band Gigabit Router, whichlooks like a cross between an unidentified flying object and my home town's football stadium with its tall towers supporting a giant Bose speaker over the mid field stripe. more...

Honda's new Ridgeline improves an already interesting pickup

Honda's  odd-looking pickup truck of old is gone, replaced by a new generation - its second -  that brings a much more conventional demeanour to the marketplace.

And other than some "Honda-isms" that mar an otherwise great interior, it could be the perfect choice for people who need a pickup truck sometimes, but whose hauling needs aren't heavy duty and who refer the driving feel of an SUV or crossover to that of a "regular" truck.

Part of the reason for that different feel from other pickups is because the Ridgeline isn't a "regular" pickup truck at all. It features a unibody, er, body, which is more like today's cars and SUV's than the "body on frame" construction of the garden variety pickup. This makes the Ridgeline feel more like a Honda Pilot than, say, a Toyota Tacoma, and there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, as a "not a truck guy" kind of guy, I'd look to the Ridgeline before any other pickup truck on the market if I ever needed to buy a truck.

Well, except for the Honda-isms the company still hasn't figured out. more...

Audio-Technica cuts the cords on turntables

It doesn't offer a USB interface to let you rip your vinyl but, despite that, Audio-Technica's AT-LP60-BT turntable may be the most flexible platter spinner I've ever seen.

That's because it can be used wirelessly, thanks to its built in Bluetooth interface, and it also has its own built in phono preamp that lets you use it with receivers and/or preamps that may not have one built in.

Heck, if it had the USB interface it would probably be perfect! more...

Smallest Lexus SUV continues to be a winner

Take Lexus' top selling vehicle, the RX 350, shrink it to the next market niche down, and resist the urge to add a bunch of over styled cues and the result is the NX 200t, a wonderful little crossover/SUV that Lexus has made even more wonderful for 2017.

Well, mostly. It still has that awful "spindle" grille that's infecting all Lexi currently, and you have to use a trackpad to navigate its central stack's LCD - but other than that the NX continues to be my favourite current Lexus, the nicest of a very nice line of luxury vehicles.

Think of it as kind of a Rav4 on steroids, though that isn't really fair to either vehicle. But they both operate in that basic size niche, though of course at different areas of the marketplace. And they're both very good vehicles, the NX also having the honour of being the first Lexus to sport, a term used not to describe its driving experience, a turbocharged engine. more...

Dynamite documentary and a raucous remake showcase moviemaking's downhill slide

A reasonably good remake of a western classic, and an Oscar-winning Canadian documentary are on tap  for review this week, two movies that are wildly different from each other, but both of which have distinct Japanese connections.

The original "The Magnificent Seven" was a remake of an honoured Japanese film, Akira Kurosawa's "the Seven Samurai," and this new remake does a reasonable job of updating the story for today's Hollywood - for better and for worse.

Meanwhile, 1975's "Best Documentary" Oscar-winning "The Man Who Skied Down Everest" is a remarkably compelling film that, to my surprise (despite its title) is more about the journey of the man himself than the actual ski down Everest, as remarkable as it was in its own right. more...

Lincoln MKZ offers a capable and luxurious drive

Remember Lincoln? Ford's high end division used to be out front - whether as luxury limo-type vehicles such as the Continental, "hot rods" of song, and even the original 1960's TV Batmobile, which was really a Lincoln under the skin.

Whatever happened? Lincoln is still around, but today their vehicles are basically gussied up Fords - not that there's anything inherently wrong with that. But it seems to me that the high end vehicles should be the state-of-the-art ones, with their stuff trickling down to their lesser brands. This is how companies like Lexus have done it traditionally - stuff that began life on the top line vehicles, even such currently "pedestrian" features such as traction control, ABS and airbags, have made their way down the market and can now be found on the "lowly" Toyotas.

Ford may be looking at changing this reverse trickle down thing, starting with the upcoming Continental that looks very interesting indeed, but in the meantime we have vehicles such as the MKZ that's under discussion here. At heart, it's a Fusion - again, not that there's anything wrong with that - that has been, well, enhanced. And it's enhanced very nicely for the most part. more...

New fantasy and religion Blu-rays both miss their marks

Movie and/or TV versions of two popular literary works show up on Blu-ray just in time for Christmas, one of which is an interesting attempt while the other is a misguided return to previously and better exploited waters.

The first, the Shannara Chronicles, takes a series of fantasy novels, adds some unnecessary (and typical) political correctness that also leads to a suspension of one's suspension of disbelief, resulting in a mixed bag that's interesting but ultimately empty.

The second, the new Ben-Hur remake, is apparently an attempt to make Lew Wallace' classic "Tale of the Christ" accessible to today's short attention span folk who may not have ability or desire to sit through the nearly four hours required to watch the epic 1959 classic.  more...

Hyundai scores a twofer in the 2017 Canadian Car of the Year competition

Hyundai's Elantra copped a couple of category crowns in the 2017 Canadian Car of the Year Awards, announced on Tuesday, December 6 in Toronto.

The South Korean automaker's compact sedan was named Best New Small Car and its new Sport version won Best New Sports/Performance Car. The news comes in the wake of the Canadian Car of the Year TestFest held at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park during the last week of October.

Eight category winners were announced in all, the winners now competing head to head with each other for the overall bragging rights as Canadian Car of the Year and Canadian Utility Vehicle of the Year, which will be announced next February. AJAC, the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada, under whose auspices the competition is held, will also name the Canadian Green Car of the Year awards next March. more...

Bluetooth speakers from LG and DreamWave bring good sound and portability to your tunes

Bluetooth speakers are everywhere these days, and with good reason. They offer wonderful portability and convenience, connecting you to your tunes regardless of where you are and, in many case, offering you wonderful sound quality under the circumstances.

Into this fray come three new choices, one from the worldwide powerhouse LG of South Korea, and the other two from the U.S.-based DreamWave. LG's is a very small unit that focuses on portability and convenience, while the DreamWave's two samples appear to focus more on durability and flexibility. more...

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