Stories by Tara Weingarten

  • Whole New World

    Remember when General Motors launched the Saturn brand 16 years ago and everyone went nuts for its no-haggle pricing? Yeah, that was a cool gimmick but there wasn't much else to snare buyers, and the brand limped into obscurity. Well, make way for its second act. Saturn's first real eye-catching model, the Sky, is attractive in nearly every way. The model is essentially a remake of GM's Pontiac Solstice, but it eclipses that car with big-city style, accurate steering, a burbly exhaust note and decent road handling. An observer in my heavily BMW'd gym parking lot said it best. "That thing looks like it cost 60 grand."Yes, it does, but for that amount, you could buy two and still have cash left over. My tester came with swank red and black leather seats. And I loved switching gears with the chrome-topped, short-throw shifter. As for standard features, it carries an embarrassment of riches: 18-inch wheels with performance tires; CD/radio with six speakers; two-stage "smart" airbags;...
  • Road Test: Mercedes-Benz

    Time for our first double-decker road test! Call it "Extreme Makeover: Car Edition." In an effort to keep its snazzy line in Hollywood shape, Mercedes-Benz has taken a cue from TV and nipped and tucked two of its superstars: the E Class (below) and the SL (above). Both models have received midlife face-lifts, giving fresh looks and, ahem, firmer bods--OK, suspension--to these cars, which won't be completely redesigned for another couple of years. Both get bigger engines, adding 80 horses for a substantial 26 percent increase in power. The E550 gets 2,000 new parts. It now has extra chrome trim, a more artistic- looking front grille and a fancier four-spoke steering wheel among the changes. The updates widen the E550's appeal as a family car and as an executive's primary drive.I'm impressed with the results of this midlife surgery. Choose the E Class sports model and get $2,800 worth of options free of charge: a sunroof, CD changer and Mercedes's proprietary safety package called Pre...
  • Travel: Sizzling Escapes

    Some like it really hot. If you can stand searing temperatures, now's the time to take advantage of great off-season deals in desert and ski-area resorts in the Southwest. Try these bargains: Arizona Biltmore, Phoenix. ( arizonabiltmore.com ) Through Sept. 10, book a room for $149. Activities at this Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired hotel include cigar-rolling classes, "dive-in" poolside movies and a 92-foot water slide. Mission Inn, Riverside, Calif. ( missioninn.com ) Built more than 100 years ago as a local eccentric's dream Spanish castle, this historic landmark is a real treat. A weekday summer package includes a two-night stay with cucumber-melon cooling baths for $535 per couple. Resort at Squaw Creek, Squaw Creek, Calif. ( squawcreek.com ) A bustling ski village that turns quiet in summer, with fields for horseback riding and rates from $199. Viceroy, Palm Springs, Calif. ( viceroypalmsprings.com ) Bring a friend to this kitschy, mod hideaway decorated with white shag rugs and...
  • Road Test: Toyota Camry SE

    Japanese carmakers have become so good at predicting what we American drivers want, they are on the verge of overtaking our market. Jump behind the wheel of the seventh-generation Camry and you'll see why. The car is roomy, zippy and loaded with creature comforts. It's not ugly, either (just OK-looking). My SE version tester was sporty with 17-inch six-spoke alloy wheels, an edgy black honeycomb front grille and a 3.5-liter, 268hp, V-6 engine that scooted along. My SE also had sport-body cladding, just like the more expensive German sport coupes.To be sure, if the Toyota symbol on my steering wheel had been obscured, I could have been convinced that this Camry was a Lexus instead. Now for the perks. You can get an optional ($2,200) large full-color touchscreen to exhibit audio, climate and navigation displays. Perforated, heated leather seats ($1,770) are executive like in their ample size. And back-seat riders get limo-esque legroom without compromising the voluminous trunk space....
  • Road Test: Volvo C70

    Volvo's new C70 isn't just a fun open-air convertible, it's also a work worthy of the Museum of Modern Art. It's not so much the car's looks that demand attention, though it's stylish enough. Rather, at the push of a button, the C70's hardtop roof splits into three leaves like a dining-room table--they neatly stack on top of one another, and all tuck into the trunk. The entire 30 seconds of motion is absolutely balletic. As for the car itself, it delivers smooth acceleration and on-point steering--a nice family cruiser, albeit one with a somewhat cramped back seat.This new C70 is a far cry from the last generation, which was plagued with problems, including a top that sometimes wouldn't retract and a loose frame that made for a squeaky ride. This new model is taut and built well. Seats are wide and comfortable, ideal for avoiding fatigue on long drives. But I was surprised Volvo designers chose to embellish the steering wheel with a metal strip. Sleek, yes, but it scorched my hands...
  • Travel: Jump Onboard--Quick!

    The longest lines this summer may not be at Disney World but on your way home. Ah, welcome to the airport--packed with all the vacationing crowds trying to get out of town. After 9/11, heightened measures sometimes made security checkpoints unbearable. The good news is, the average wait time is now only 10 minutes at metal detectors in the nation's 450 commercial airports, according to the Transportation Security Administration. But you'll most likely get stuck in some other line before you get to board. Some 1.3 million more people than last year are hoping to fly this summer. Key word: hoping. The number of canceled domestic departures in May was up to 1.2 percent, compared with 0.9 percent last year, according to a report last week from the U.S. Department of Transportation.Map out a strategy, though, and you can breeze right through the airport. Let's start with the metal detector. You've got to pack for it, experts say. When sorting at home, throw all change, cell phones and...
  • Road Test: Gallardo Spyder

    Subtle it's not. Hit the ignition and hear a roar from its massive exhaust pipes that could wake the dead. But was it music to my ears? Well, duh. The Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder's strident sound complements this new supersexy twin-seater's buff Italian looks. And unlike previous Gallardos, this one's top comes off, almost like a striptease. It's hard not to sneak a peek--at the car's wide, flat and low physique. The downside is, it's not exactly a family runabout, though what kid wouldn't thrill at the prospect of pulling up in the carpool lane in the passenger seat of this baby? My sixth grader almost passed out from excessive joy.The Gallardo Spyder's performance is stunning. Its V-10, 520-horsepower engine rips from zero to 60 miles per hour in 4.2 seconds, and has a top speed of 194mph (though--darn--I didn't get the chance to prove it). Shifting is smoother than I had expected, from a six-speed sequential manual transmission that's accessed through finger paddles behind the...
  • The Good Life

    Whether you're heading to the beach or the pool this summer, chic accessories are a must. "It's a huge market," says designer Melissa Odabash. "Beach gear is becoming increasingly fashion-forward, and people are looking for items that are both versatile and trendy." Her caftans provide a hip starting point: silky and retro-sexy, they're beloved by Riviera glitterati andcasual beach bunnies alike (£200-£1,000; odabash.com ). For the gents, Belgian designer Dries Van Noten's sarongs provide a cool splash of après-swim comfort in reassuringly masculine colors (£140; harvey nichols.com ).Even beach towels have gone upscale. Hermès is offering plush, massive sheets emblazoned with brilliant boats and vibrant sea-life reminiscent of Henri Matisse's collages (from £227; hermes.com ). Prada's more spartan version is nautical white with a blue border (from £120; prada.com ).Parasols are making a high-profile comeback. Specialty boutiques like James Smith's in London and New York's Brella Bar...
  • Drinks: Summer Cocktails

    Break out the tiny umbrellas and tiki highballs: it's time for the ultimate summer backyard cocktail party. This year's "must taste" tipple: rum (just don't serve it with Coke). Add the ingredients in order and shake, don't stir.Muddle 8-10 mint leaves2 oz. 10 Cane Rum ($35)1 oz. fresh lime juice1 oz. simple syrupSplash of club soda1 oz. Depaz Rhum ($42)1 oz. Myers Dark Rum ($17)1/2 oz. Grand Marnier ($25)11/4 oz. fresh lime juice1/2 oz. fresh orange juice2 oz. 10 Cane Rum1 oz. fresh lime juice1 oz. simple syrup
  • Road Test: 2006 KIA Sedona LX

    What does the Kia Sedona have to offer? From the looks of it, you wouldn't think much. Here's a minivan, bland as toast inside and out. But tap the accelerator and ... oh, what's that? Speed. Can't believe it myself, but this functional ride actually has a fun side. Performance--there I said it--comes from a brawny 3.8-liter, 24-valve engine with 244 horsepower. And the car is as comfy as a Barcalounger, seating seven snugly.I hauled my posse to an elementary-school graduation. Though the trip started with grumbles about the Sedona's looks, I heard props from backseat riders once we got going. "Hey, the air conditioning actually works back here," sassed a particularly acerbic teen. That's because the Sedona has three different climate zones, and we cranked up all of them. But hmm. Given the tart attitude coming from the backseat, maybe I should've let him roast. ...
  • Travel: A Better Class Of Coach

    Fasten your seat-belts ... and prepare for a bumpy ride. This summer, airlines are expected to be more crowded than ever before. Carriers predict a record 209 million passengers between now and Labor Day, up about 1 percent from last year. On the other hand, there are 3 percent fewer domestic seats available, since many airlines are retiring older, large long-haul planes in favor of smaller regional aircraft, which accommodate fewer passengers.But there are still ways to fly comfortably without shelling out for first class. You just need to know where to look. To offset the hassles of traveling, carriers are now offering more entertainment, legroom and other perks in coach for a small fee. "Passengers have been saying for a long time that they want low fares even if it means having à la carte service onboard," says David Castelveter of the Air Transport Association. "So now, if you want more, you have to pay for it."For long flights, or if you're really tall, consider booking a seat...
  • Road Test: Grand Vitara

    It's cute (well, a little stubby), not too pricey and completely utilitarian. That makes Suzuki's newest Grand Vitara a great choice for that summer tradition: the family road trip. Unlike most SUVs, this one offers lots of legroom without scrimping on the cargo area, so you can pack in the kids, all your gear--and still bring along the hamsters. While driving in highway traffic and also when parallel parking, I liked the Grand Vitara's excellent visibility. But I was less than wowed by the lackluster acceleration and the whiz of its Mixmaster-sounding 2.7-liter, V-6, 185-horsepower engine. Road noise was also a problem at high speeds on the freeway.But I had better-than-expected fuel economy, and I liked the little perks, all included: steering-wheel-mounted audio buttons, keyless entry, XM Satellite Radio and fog lamps, which helped me navigate safely during an early-morning drive through socked-in hills. Pair that with the Grand Vitara's four-wheel-drive capability, and I'd say...
  • Road Test: BMW M Roadster

    BMW's new little toy is a major buzz maker and a naughty, naughty car. I tap the little round black button that reads SPORT. I press the gas pedal as I climb the freeway on-ramp and look in my mirrors to merge into highway traffic. Then I look down at my gauges: 100mph, and the speedo needle shows no sign of pulling back. "But officer, it felt like I was just doing 50." That "evil" SPORT button transforms this sassy twin-seater into a beast with 330 horsepower and loads of torque from its 3.2-liter, in-line six-cylinder engine. Though it looks like its less expensive Z4 sibling, the M keeps 75 more horses in its stable. That's zero to 60 in a snappy 4.9 seconds, in case you were curious.BMW designed this sports car for purists, and it shows. If you don't like to engage your left foot, forget about buying this car. It comes with only one transmission: a six-speed manual with a heavy-duty clutch for raucous up-and-down shifts. I ache when I think about how well the M Roadster handles...
  • Road Test: VW GTI

    It's the type of car that teenage boys drool over, kinda like an automotive equivalent of Natalie Portman. But I adore this car, and I am certainly no teenage boy. VW's redone compact hatchback is seriously cool, with sculpted alloy wheels, a fun honeycomb front grille and prominent cherry-red brake calipers on each wheel. Looks are just part of this car's sporty allure: under the hood, a seemingly modest 2.0-liter, turbocharged, 200-horsepower, four-cylinder engine cranks out the same zero-to-60 time as the new Jaguar XK, which I don't have to tell you costs a whole lot more. The suspension is tight, so shooting through twisty canyons is nearly as amusing as riding on a Go Kart track.Though this fifth-generation GTI is all new, it wears charming retro features that take me back. Check out the plaid cloth seats, similar to the fabric in my college-era Jetta. The huge hatchback trunk belies the car's compact size, and the back seats offer even more cargo room, with a pass-through for...
  • Travel: Another Day In Paradise

    It's time to pack your hula skirt. With summer about to start, few destinations attract as many tourists from families to honeymooners--as Hawaii. Just ask the 7.4 million people who visited last year. Drawn by the surf and sun, they arrive to discover other riches: rain forests, desert hikes, marine life. Emily McCary, who vacationed in Maui in 2003, visited a volcano with her son, Cooper, 7 at the time. They stood 10,023 feet above sea level at Haleakala National Park, gazing at the vast black crater below. "When we got home, he wanted to read everything he could about volcanoes," she says.Here's how to make your family vacation a blast, without taking out a second mortgage: the average round-trip flight from Los Angeles to Oahu costs $585.20, according to the Hawaii Travel and Tourism Authority. Peak season (in July) runs higher. But you can save by searching ata.com (ATA flies to Honolulu) or booking a package, with hotel stay, on priceline.com . In general, flying to Oahu can...
  • Road Test: Eclipse Spyder GT

    Just in time for spring, the Mitsubishi Eclipse takes its top off. This is, for the most part, a fun car with enough space for you and three friends (that is, if you push the front seats up just a bit). My GT test car was somewhat quick, going from 0 to 60 miles per hour in about seven seconds from a completely competent 3.8-liter, V-6 engine with 260 horsepower. And to make this Spyder even more tire-screechingly sporty, there's gobs of torque on the low end of the power curve, so you can peel out better than your neighbor. Not bad for a convertible that costs under $30,000. Handling was better than expected from this front-wheel-driver, though I thought the steering could be better in tight corners. While I drove the Spyder for only a week, I worry that squeaks and rattles might develop as it ages, because I felt the car shudder over bumps. And when I slammed the door, it didn't give off a satisfying whomp, but instead made a loud bang. Inside, there are things to like: deep...
  • Style: A Hairy Situation

    The beauty world is still fussing about ionic hair dryers. How come? They emit negative ions that quickly evaporate water molecules, so you spend less time with the heat on. Now that prices are dropping, it might be time to try one. But, be warned, the cheapy newcomers--starting at just over $20--often don't work as well as the pricey originals. Here are a few we tested. The BioIonic Nano-i5X ($175; bioionic.com ) is among the best; it cuts drying time in half and comes with a cold button to set the curl. It's also superquiet. The Umberto TGR 4000i ($105; umbertobh.com ) is smaller and lighter, ideal for travelers. It includes a nine-foot cord and has a switch to stop the flow of ions for a lower heat setting. The Infiniti by Conair ($49; conair.com ) is somewhat heavy, though not too noisy, and it never gets really hot (or really cold with the cold button). In the end, we were left with a little more frizz than expected. The Revlon Ionic Pro Stylist ($25; helenoftroyusa.com ) is...
  • Road Test: Honda Fit

    Are you fit? Honda's newest little bullet is. Going back to the carmaker's early days--when it churned out little Civics by the container-load--Honda's latest nano-size car easily seats five and still "fits" handily into subcompact spaces at the mall. While some friends of mine marveled at the Fit's svelte physique and questioned its crashworthiness, I loved its Euro-style handling and taut suspension. I felt perfectly safe during a week of city and highway driving. Are you cheap? Fit is. It gives great fuel economy--better than most hybrids, without the price premium added. And though it's also cheap at the dealership, Fit doesn't look shoddy. It has thoughtful styling, with way-cool, bright-blue ringed dials accented with red needles, and a soft, tactile rubber shift knob. The sport seats get bonus points for microfiber inserts and cozy velour upholstery. And while many cars are going for clean lines in the interior, taking away extraneous gadgetry and storage compartments, Fit...
  • Road Test: BMW M5

    The M5 is one of the cars that secured BMW's stellar reputation. But the latest M5 is now packing a mind-boggling 500 horsepower in "sport" mode. It's so scary fast, I almost can't believe this car is legal. I mashed the pedal and felt this roomy five-seater leap off the pavement before it scorched the highway. New this year are automatic seat bolsters that wrapped around my torso when I started the engine--all the better to stay in position on curvy roads. And check out the tachometer, which electronically changes from 6,300rpm when the engine is cold to a satisfying 8,200rpm when the engine warms up. Sadly, the option of a manual transmission is gone, replaced by BMW's seven-speed SMG, or sequential manual gearbox, which offers steering-wheel-mounted paddle or center-console shifting but no clutch with which to occupy the left foot. Happily, there is the little black Power button on the dash, central to the M5's psyche. It turns this nearly tame family sedan into a beast. Maybe...
  • Road Test: Pontiac Solstice

    The new Pontiac Solstice is a charming, fun and accessible roadster, reasonably priced for a ride that delivers breeze-through-your-hair open cruising. But its best feature is its Batmobile-esque rear-end humps over each seat--pure folly. There's lots more to love: a gruff engine note that's deep and throaty, a soft leather steering wheel, a five-speed short-throw shift that slides easily into the gates, sharp steering and the I'm-a-party looks. But there are things about the Solstice that bug me, too. Its bullnose front end, though it looks great from the outside, is a liability when riding inside. I found it impossible to see the roadster's edge, making it tough to park. Also, I felt swallowed by the car with its shoulders yanked so high, and its seats (with no height adjusters) positioned too low. And speaking of seats, they're unbolstered, which means they're comfy for long drives but didn't keep me positioned well on curvy roads. Worst of all, the Solstice's top can be put up...
  • ROAD TEST | FORD EXPLORER

    Five and a half million of you have bought Ford's flagship SUV, the Explorer, making it the No. 1 midsize in America. For 2006, the Explorer gets a bolder, more aggressive look and improved roominess, plus optional extra seating for seven (for $1,340). My Eddie Bauer test model throws in extras like dual climate zones and a heated 10-way power leather driver's seat. Front passengers still get leather trim on the heated seat, but have to move their seats manually. There's a big color screen for audio and navigation controls, and separate climate buttons so I didn't have to switch out to fiddle with the temperature.This fourth-generation Explorer is a monster. My back-seat riders commented on the generous legroom. I liked that the roominess for riders didn't compromise the ample rear cargo space. Also improved is the car's power, with a 292hp, 4.6 liter V-8 engine, and a six-speed automatic transmission for better fuel efficiency. Seventeen-inch wheels come standard on the Bauer model...
  • Education: Speak In Tongues

    Carol Kaminski, a 49-year-old speech pathologist from Philadelphia, wanted to brush up on her Spanish. But instead of taking a community-college class, last fall she decided to pack her bags and head to Granada, Spain. Kaminiski is among a growing number of adults enrolling in language-immersion classes--staying abroad for two or more weeks, often with host families. "I lived in a hostel where the desk man couldn't even speak English," Kaminiski says. "By the end of two weeks, I was speaking Spanish."Prices vary by country. It costs only $320 per week, including board and 20 hours of classes, to visit the Dominican Republic, but a similar package to Paris is more than $1,000 per week. In most of these programs, you'll divide your time between language classes and cultural outings: cooking, art, dancing. There are plenty of Web sites that can help you book a trip, but two stand out. Transitionsabroad.com is a clearinghouse for programs all over the world. It's less expensive when you...
  • Road Test: Porsche Cayman S

    A week in the Cayman S and I am a new woman, almighty and invigorated. I am also stripped down to raw nerve endings, feeling every punch of the throttle. You might say the Cayman is just a hard-topped version of the Porsche Boxter, itself a thrilling ragtop roadster. But no, it's so much more than that. With the addition of a fixed roof, this sharp two-seater is so structurally sound, it can stay on track in tight cornering. And the S in its name means there's a little SPORT button that, when pushed, firms up the shocks and remaps the acceleration so that less pressure on the pedal is needed to zoom ahead. Let's just say it hunkers down and wants to do business.Now look at it. Hips as voluptuous as Marilyn Monroe's, the sexy Cayman S is almost indecent. And that voice. The Cayman's 3.4-liter, 295-horsepower, flat-6 engine emits a satisfying chorus all the way up to its 7,200-rev limit. There's loads of power all over the low gears but, more impressive, there's ample torque in the...
  • Road Test: Ford Fusion

    Ford cuts a little edge into the five-passenger family sedan with the new Fusion. This stylish car isn't a bad boy, but it does include some sharp architectural touches--loads of bling and shiny chrome. The headlamps are shaped like trapezoids, the front grille wears thick chromed horizontal bars and the Ford logo sits in the center like a flashy jewel. I especially like the angular tail, which is more compelling than the rounded edges found on most family sedans, and there are twin chromed exhaust pipes for a sporty touch. Contemporary details continue inside with gauges that are crisp and graphic. My tester had chic enamel-look black plastic trim covering the dash that reflected light. It's so much more visually engaging than the usual matte plastic trim. A chromed shift knob and spiffy analog-clock frame add even more bling. The leather-wrapped steering wheel has multifunction buttons found on more expensive models. And best of all, the Fusion comes with a low sticker that doesn...
  • Safety: It's a Slippery Slope

    The blizzard on the East Coast last week frosted cities and streets. How do you steer safely? We asked for tips from auto experts. Unfreeze door locks by heating the end of a key with a match. Keep battery terminals clean for more reliable starts, since your car's juice can be 60 percent less powerful in colder temperatures. Are your tires properly inflated? They should have enough seasonal tread for maximum traction. (The proper tire pressure is listed inside the driver's side door jamb, glove box or on the fuel cap.) Also, store a bag of Kitty Litter or sand in the back seat--pour it over the snow in case you get stuck. If you're stuck, don't gun the engine as this will only plow you deeper. Switch to a higher gear and pedal with a light touch. Cruise control isn't normally a good idea on frozen roads, since you'll want to speed up and slow down as the streets allow. Finally, remember it can take twice as long to stop on slick, icy terrain. Brake carefully.
  • Road Test: Mercedes S550

    Flagship sedans are on every street corner out here in Los Angeles. How do you stand out? Hop behind the wheel of the redesigned S-Class from Mercedes. Purebred touches are everywhere, in its full-leather upholstery, burl-walnut trim and heated 14-way power front seats. Most impressive, the S550, with a new 5.5-liter, V-8, 382-horsepower engine, is 26 percent quicker than the last-generation S-Class, yet still gets the same fuel economy. And though this four-door family car is big--1.7 inches longer and nearly an inch wider than the previous model--it still drives like a lithe vehicle. The S-Class was born with Benz's pedigreed genetics, but this latest iteration shows the most swagger, jammed with the newest technology. The optional infrared Night View Assist (part of a $2,500 package) uses thermal imaging to help drivers see nearly 500 feet farther down the road at night. It's perfect for those who live in dimly lit areas with deer or kids on bikes. The Distronic Plus cruise...
  • Road Test: Jeep Commander

    If G.I. Joe were in the market for some new wheels, he'd want them to look like this. Jeep's super-rugged, beefy, boxy seven-passenger vehicle isn't just tough-looking. It's also built like a soldier. My tester, with its massive 5.7-liter V-8, 330-horsepower Hemi engine, had good acceleration and better than expected handling through corners despite its high ride.Everything about the Commander is made to look substantial and resilient, as if it could come out unscathed after a boulder-laden climb. There's ample torque and full-time grippy four-wheel drive to get through muddy terrain and generous ground clearance. I like the copious use of rivets and bolts to punctuate the Commander's utilitarian and industrial personality on the dashboard and steering wheel. It even sports bolt-on flared fenders. Yet it's also fashionable with dual skylights, muted matte faux-woodgrain trim, two-tone seating and a stylized chrome door handle. Strong enough for Joe, but also playful enough for you...
  • Road Test: Toyota Avalon

    These days, even domestic cars are built overseas with foreign parts, so who can say what's American anymore? Try Toyota. (But don't get all patriotic on me.) Its new redone Avalon is probably America's perfect full-size family car. After all, it was assembled by Americans in Georgetown, Ky. After a week of driving this comfy sedan, I can't help but think that this is what most U.S. carmakers envision for their own fleets. It's elegant, sharp-looking and still playful to drive--more like an entry-level luxury ride than a top-of-the-line model from a hoi polloi brand. There's peppy power from a 3.5-liter, 268-horsepower, V-6 engine, adept handling on curves with good stickiness from the 17-inch wheels and a medium-firm suspension for gliding effortlessly over beaten winter roads. And this third-generation Avalon is jammed with sweet appointments. My tester had tufted-leather seats with excellent lumbar support, real-looking plastic wood-grain trim for a more environmentally friendly...