On The Road

A three-pack of fun

Gary Anderson/Special to the Town Crier
Genie Anderson takes a spin in the Mazda MX5 RF Grand Touring on a recent trip to Alice’s Restaurant on Skyline Boulevard in Woodside.

It’s unusual for us to disagree on which car we liked best during any given month, but last month was the exception. And the crux of the argument was which car was the most fun to drive.

Of course, we agreed that the new Mazda MX5 RF Grand Touring – think Miata, the old name for the MX5, with a Ferrari-like roof that opens – met that criterion. As soon as it was delivered, we immediately drove it up Page Mill Road to Alice’s Restaurant on Skyline Boulevard for hamburgers.

But Genie thought the 2017 Kia Forte SX five-door, with its six-speed manual transmission, was also fun to drive, while I preferred the just-released all-electric Hyundai Ioniq Limited. Both of these impressions were surprises, because we didn’t know much about either car before it was delivered to our garage.

Mazda MX5, impractical but sporty

Now, we won’t argue that the MX5 is practical. No one would want to have this cute little two-seat sports car as his or her only mode of transportation. There is space for only one passenger and a minuscule trunk with just enough room for a roll-aboard or two bags of groceries. But when not traveling or running errands, you’ll be happy to have the fourth generation of this attractive sports car. We drove the new RF (for retractable hardtop) model, which provides Ferrari-like styling in a car that sells for under $34,000 and provides 26 mpg from a 155-horsepower engine.

And when the weather is nice, that attractive hardtop lifts up and the middle portion of the top plus the glass back window tuck neatly away so that you can enjoy the sun and the breeze. Handling? Responsiveness? Satisfying six-speed manual transmission? Of course. How do you think it became the best-selling, longest-running sports car in the world?

The nice thing about the Kia Forte and Hyundai Ioniq is that in addition to being fun to drive, they’re practical. They both have four doors for passengers, good rear legroom and a hatch that provides access to a reasonable amount of cargo space.

Hyundai, hybrid & electric models

The new Hyundai Ioniq can actually be purchased as a straight hybrid or a pure electric vehicle. The hybrid combines gasoline and electric power for improved mileage (a range-topping 58 mpg in combined driving, as a matter of fact). The electric version offers a range of approximately 135 miles on a charge. This fall, the company will even split the difference and offer a plug-in hybrid version with 27 miles of electric-only range.

It’s simply up to you to decide whether you want to trade urban driving economy for peace of mind on long trips. For us, that range meant that we only plugged the car in overnight twice during the week. The car can be charged on household 110 voltage in approximately 12 hours, twice as fast on household 240, and in approximately four hours on an installed car charger. But if you occasionally need to drive to Sacramento on business, the hybrid may be a better deal.

We enjoyed every mile of driving during the week, and I voted the Ioniq my favorite car of the month. With the electric motor, the car delivers its rated 215 pound-feet of torque instantaneously, which meant that we could maneuver responsively in traffic and reach highway speeds quickly. Even better, this torque is combined with a low center of gravity from the lithium-ion battery pack and a front-struts, rear torsion-bar suspension that is supple over the bumps and reassuringly stable around corners. The bottom line was that this EV was as much fun to drive as the Chevy Bolt we tested a few months ago.

We also liked the paddles on the steering wheel that controlled the brake regeneration, allowing the driver to select the extent to which the electric motor/generator slowed the car while feeding electricity back into the battery.

And that brings us to styling. Unlike Chevy, BMW and Toyota, Hyundai doesn’t think an EV needs to scream “futuristic” outside and in. The Ioniq simply looks like an attractive car on the outside with no attempt to get attention, and like a well-styled and comfortable compact hatchback on the inside. And for the environmental geeks in the crowd, the company proudly notes that most of the paint is made from soybeans and the plastics use natural materials such as sugarcane, wood and volcanic ash to improve biodegradability.

The hybrid version can be purchased for under $30,000, while incentives and the company’s new “subscription” lease deals can put an EV version in your driveway for $275 to $350 per month, depending on trim level, with unlimited mileage and refunds for all charging costs.

Kia Forte flourishes

Genie, on the other hand, cast her best-of-the-month vote for the Kia Forte. She noted that at 25 mpg in combined driving, it was as efficient as the Mazda MX5 while actually putting more power to the wheels. She also found the six-speed manual transmission easy and engaging to drive. Although it was just a bit more top-heavy than the MX5, she still enjoyed the handling and ease of maneuvering in traffic afforded by the compact size of the vehicle.

On the other hand, with errands to run, she liked the capacious cargo space under the rear hatch much more than the MX5, and her trip down to Carmel to visit a friend could not have been made with the Ioniq EV. She believes that it wouldn’t be much of a stretch for a single person or couple without children to use the compact Forte as their only vehicle, a capability that neither of us would argue could be claimed by the EV or the sports car. At under $30,000 even with the top-level trim and accessories, it certainly is economical to own.

By the way, all three cars, even at their economical price points, offered the latest in safety features – including rear cross-traffic, side blind-spot and front-impact warning systems as well as lane-departure warning, active cruise control and adaptive headlights.

Bottom line: Choosing among these three cars simply depends on how you define the words “fun” and “practical.”

Los Altos residents Gary and Genie Anderson co-own Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits car club magazines and contributes articles to automotive magazines and online services.

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