Where to get genuine Mazda 0W-20 GF-5 synthetic oil

Recently, I was prepping for my 2016 MX-5’s first oil change, and I noticed something slightly annoying: most US Mazda dealers don’t use genuine Mazda oil anymore. Mazda uses this oil from the factory, but in the US manuals for most of its vehicles, says Castrol 0W-20 is just fine, too. By no small coincidence, Castrol is what most US Mazda dealers use – probably 99% because it’s much cheaper for them to purchase in bulk.

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The thing is, the Castrol has nowhere near the molybdenum content of the Mazda synthetic (650ppm), and the Mazda owner’s manual states quite clearly that optimum gas mileage is only guaranteed if you use the Mazda synthetic oil (i.e., not Castrol).

Luckily, I located an online seller of the genuine Mazda stuff: Avondale Mazda, an Arizona dealership. You can find it at this link. At the time of my writing this post, it was $9.99 per quart with free shipping. If you want to save a bit, Avondale also sells it by the case (12 quarts) for the equivalent of about a dollar less per quart, right here. While that may be a bit higher than what you pay if you put in an order at your local Mazda dealership, this is definitely a bit more convenient. Avondale Mazda generally seems to get good reviews on Amazon, too, so I’m guessing they’re pretty trustworthy.

How good a price is this? Very, actually. I called up my local Mazda dealership, a major outfit here in Los Angeles, and they wanted $9.50 per quart or $103.20 per case (12qts, $8.60/qt) for the pleasure of going and picking it up myself. Considering that’s around a 30 mile round trip, with gas the difference is a whole couple bucks more to have it delivered to my front door. I’ll take the latter, please.

CES: where “eco-friendly” tech goes to die.

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For being one of the most “green” industries, the tech business really has no problem being flagrantly wasteful at major trade shows like CES. I’m far from the most eco person on the planet, but the level of waste at CES really burns me up.

Take this flash drive. A metal flash drive with swivel action, in two layers of foam padding, in a metal case, with a plastic window.

The flash drive has four gigabytes of capacity. Four gigabytes. Its purpose? Storing some pictures of products that could have just as easily been stored on Dropbox, Google Drive, or one of many hosting services. But “what if a journalist doesn’t have easy internet access?” My god, is it 2003? I think anyone worth their chops can get access to the internet for the purpose of doing their job in 2016. If you can’t manage that, what does that say about you?

This really is shameful, and it’s the tip of a gigantic plastic/metal/paper waste iceberg at shows like CES. I left, I kid you not, at least a couple of pounds of CES swag-junk in my hotel room in the hope that maybe the staff there might have use for it, instead of just throwing it in the trash or recycling bins. Between the pens, flash drives, notebooks, and – yes seriously – printed press releases, it makes me fume that it’s all acceptable in the name of business.

The CTA (the body that organizes CES) really should set an example for the industry and ban flash drives, promotional pens, printed press releases, and notepads. Swag like this is just plain wasteful. If people are attending a show for free pens and flash drives, maybe the show should be reevaluating its priorities.

Owner Review: 2016 Mazda MX-5, One Month In (Miata “ND”)

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When I walked out of the dealership with two sets of keys to my new 2016 MX-5, I had spent approximately 20 minutes behind the wheel of a Miata in my life. 10 of those minutes were two months prior when test driving one, and the other 10 earlier that day when I took my own car out for a pre-acquisition shakedown.

I have never owned a convertible. Or a 2-seater car of any kind. This is my only car and will remain so for the foreseeable future. I point this out because MX-5s are almost exclusively weekend or leisure “second cars” when purchased new. Very few people get a new MX-5 and use it as their daily driver, probably because they’re not terribly practical. The big asterisk for me is that I work from home, and therefore have no commute. If I did have a commute, I’d probably think twice about an MX-5.

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So, this is basically what a month of 2016 MX-5 daily driver ownership has been like for me. It’s not a review so much as a story.

For reference, going forward, I may refer to the car as the “ND” Miata or MX-5 – this is the internal Mazda name for the all-new generation of MX-5 introduced for the 2016 model year. Old versions were the NA, NB, and NC. Make sense?

PRACTICALITY

The ND MX-5 is allegedly the most practical Miata yet. So far, I’m not finding it terribly impractical in any sense, aside from the fact that it only seats two people.

In terms of storage, this is the largest trunk of any MX-5, and you could easily toss two overnight bags or one full-size piece of luggage and one overnight bag in the back. You wouldn’t have room for much else, of course, but that’s enough for me. Without a passenger, you also have the passenger seat and footwell for storage, and that can net you another overnight bag and a backpack.

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The main glovebox is situated between the seats.

The glovebox is positioned between the driver and passenger seats above the cupholders, and it’s not very large. You can toss some sunglasses and your USB cables and a few knick knacks in there, but nothing unusually long or wide is going to fit. There are also two similarly-sized stowaway boxes behind both seats, only accessible when the seats are reclined forward. These little boxes are great for things like the vehicle manual and registration, insurance, etc., since you’re not likely to use them for anything else. Between the trunk and all the cubbies, I’ve seen no reason to have anything simply lingering in the cabin of the car aside from my always-attached USB cable.

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One of the storage cubbies behind the seats, with its cover removed.

The cupholders are functional, but good luck reaching them: you’d have to be double-jointed to grab a beverage from one as the driver, since they’re basically positioned behind you at the back of the center console. Both can be removed from the console (useful if you find your elbows bumping them often), and the passenger cupholder can be reinstalled in the passenger footwell to the right of the gearshift so that the driver can actually reach the contents of the cupholder while driving. I generally just use it to hold my phone.

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You can see the removable cupholder to the right of the e-brake and shifter here.

Going back to connectivity, the USB ports (there are two, woo!) are positioned directly below the HVAC controls on the center stack, and they’re recessed enough that a plugged-in cable won’t get in the way of the shifter. This is also where the aux jack is located. You will notice, though, that the AC adapter is not here – and you’d be hard-pressed to find it if nobody told you where to look. It’s hidden deep in the left side of the passenger footwell, which essentially says to me that Mazda doesn’t anticipate owners will use it much when they have two USB ports available to them already. It’s definitely a practicality concern if you use plug things in and out of the AC adapter regularly.

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Seeming to make up for the not-easily accessible AC jack, there are 2 USB ports.

The HVAC system on this Club model is manual, and in my experience, it works great. The one thing I’ve noted is that with the A/C off but the temperature control set to the coolest level (recirculating or not), air coming through the vents gets hot quickly if you’re just driving around town, suggesting that the HVAC routing is not particularly well-shielded from drivetrain heat. But if you flick on the A/C, it blows icy cold. The heater, as one might suspect based on my earlier comment, works brilliantly. I haven’t had an opportunity to test the defrosters.

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The Sport and Club feature standard manual HVAC controls, pictured.

The top is absolutely no cause for concern on practicality – it is brilliantly simple. You can literally take it down or put it up with one hand at a traffic light in 4-7 seconds. It requires no strong tugging or pulling, and latches in place with a “hook” along the centerline of the windshield surround, at which point you simply pull a lever down to lock it in place. Taking it down, just pull back on a small switch on the lever, pulling the lever down, and then fold the top back until you hear it “click” into place. That’s it. Mazda hit it out of the park on this top design, it’s just so easy. This is infinitely better than a power top – there are far fewer things to fail, and it is much quicker. The windows automatically roll down halfway when lowering the top or putting it up, as well.

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The single primary latching point for the top makes for easy top up/down action.

Ingress and egress is, well, what you’d expect: it’s a low, small car that has a low seating position. I’ve found that using the steering wheel for leverage makes getting out at least not totally graceless, while getting in requires a bit of patience for someone who is 6’1”. I begin with my right leg, which I then slide under the wheel, and use my right foot as leverage against the back of the pedal box to lift my left leg into the car. At that point, I’m in. Like I said, it does take patience, and your mileage may vary on this technique. Clicking in the seatbelt is pretty easy once you get the hang of where the latch typically sits. As far as headroom, I have the seat fully reclined and fully slid back, and I have plenty of noggin space. This car is really not unusually vertically restrictive.

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Mazda’s LED headlights are both good-looking and quite effective.

Road noise isn’t nearly as bad as I feared it would be. With the top up at 75MPH, it’s really hard to tell you’re in a ragtop at all. It just sounds like a typical lightweight sports car: a bit boomy for lack of sound deadening, but not really any worse than that. Rattles and squeaks are another story. I’ve only had one squeak thus far – the driver’s headrest was rubbing against the roll hoop and would squeak loudly around corners, I fixed it by moving the recline forward just a smidge. Rattles and buzzing, though, are present. The top rattles when it’s down. The wind deflector rattles when the top is up, especially with the stereo on. The top also emits some vibrational buzzing when the stereo is on at times – the stereo really does cause quite a lot of secondary noise. It’s odd, but from everything I’ve heard, absolutely typical of every previous-gen car. Shut the doors with the windows down, and you’re definitely going to get, you guessed it: rattles. The seat belt guides rattle, for god’s sake. But this is what you’re buying, and this is how Mazda has managed to get the weight of the car down so dramatically from the previous generation.

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Sound deadening and extra rubber trim and gasketing adds weight, so out it went. Metal is heavy: plastic is not. Out with metal, in with plastic. Light plastics. Which rattle. None of the rattling is so bad as to be truly annoying (yet…), but if you were hoping Mazda had brought the MX-5 to the level of the 6 or 3 in terms of interior quiet, you are going to be disappointed. The only big road noise you will get, by the way, is from the wheel wells: they are not insulated more than is strictly necessary. Every piece of gravel you kick up will let its existence be known to your ears.

FUEL ECONOMY

It’s good. No, really. Miatas have long been notorious for their poor gas mileage, which stemmed from two issues. First, short gearing. Second, low power and – more importantly – a narrow band in which it sat meant wringing out the engine a lot more often for passes and freeway onramps or even city driving.

The new MX-5’s 2.0-liter SkyActiv engine has much more usable torque low down in the rev range and a wider power band overall, and as such downshifting rarely feels necessary for passing unless it’s on a steep incline. The car can easily cruise in sixth gear at 40MPH, and get from there up to 65 without feeling utterly gutless.

Add in the weight reductions of this new generation and MX-5 gas mileage is no longer a dirty little secret of the world’s favorite little roadster. At 70-75MPH on the freeway with the A/C off and top up, 34-36MPG is easily achievable with just a bit of diligence. I’d say 37-38MPG at 70 is not unreasonable to expect if you’re actively managing your throttle inputs. My combined mileage has consistently sat around 31MPG without even trying to conserve fuel after 900 miles. The automatic MX-5 has longer gearing, so I would suspect cracking 40MPG highway would not be out of the realm of possibility. It’s not great considering the Miata’s weight and power output, but compared to Miatas of yore (the NC got a pitiful 28MPG highway), this is a massive improvement. This is especially good news when you consider the tiny 11.9 gallon gas tank on the ND, down 0.8 gallons from the NC. At 30 MPG, that’s around 360 miles per tank – not bad at all. On an all-highway run, 350-plus miles shouldn’t be too hard to get with the top up at reasonable speeds. On a recent trip from Los Angeles to the San Francisco Bay Area, I averaged 37.5MPG, at speeds generally between 70 and 75MPH the whole way and the top up.

DRIVING EXPERIENCE

I was rather prepared for an unrefined bump-fest when I ordered my MX-5 in the Club trim (which adds Bilstein dampers and a front shock tower brace), but so far I’ve been pleasantly surprised at just how compliant the car is in everyday driving. This almost certainly has to do with the near-comical level of suspension travel for a sports car, but living in Los Angeles, I’m grateful for the forgiving nature of the ND’s bouncy bits.

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While you can tell the Bilstein struts and shocks are relatively firmly damped, the long travel of the springs means you won’t find yourself bottoming out or jolted when confronted with simple road surface changes. This makes the MX-5 very city-driveable, at least in my opinion. You also get very solid ground clearance for a car of this class, meaning driveways and parking lots aren’t a terror-filled experience. Granted, I don’t have the aero kit from the BBS/Brembo package, so I’m not sure how much easier it is to scrape with those extra trim pieces. Body roll in corners isn’t terribly apparent as the driver, though as videos have made clear, the ND does roll quite a bit under intense cornering conditions, ostensibly to let novice drivers know the car is approaching its limits.

I don’t mind the roll – I think it gives the car a more playful, reactive feel – it exaggerates the experience so that you feel like you’re going faster than you are, which is to say, it’s fun. It’s not ideal for tracking and autocross, I guess, but for the road I definitely don’t see it as a problem. Oh, and of course: it is stupid fun on a tight road. Like, how “did I ever live without this?” fun. You will smile when you whip the MX-5 around a tight hairpin, and very whippable it is.

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The steering inputs are light, as many reviewers have said, but it makes the new car so easy to throw around corners with gentle, precise inputs – you don’t have to man-handle it. The level of feedback that makes it to the wheel isn’t as much as what you’d get on a hydraulically-assisted rack, I suppose, but it doesn’t feel unusually numb or anything. It’s different, certainly, but I’ve quickly grown to like how easy it makes the MX-5 to drive under ordinary conditions. It also isolates you from unpleasant vibrations on rough roads a bit better, I would assume.

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The brakes are very responsive and stopping power builds very predictably as you get on the pedal. I love the brakes on this car – it’s very easy to feel out when you’re approaching the limits of the tires in terms of braking force, as wheel slip/skid comes through in the chassis crystal clear. This lets you learn what’s going to get you in trouble, and it’s far from having to stand on the pedal to get there – the MX-5’s pedal is progressive, but it doesn’t get wimpy as you get closer to the floor. It is dead-to-rights linear. You can get the ABS to kick in on this car without trying hard, I’ll say that much.

ENGINE

The engine is… there. This is the most potent MX-5 powerplant yet (aside from the very limited-run Mazdaspeed MX-5), though it never feels very aggressive in terms of power delivery or overall character. The engine is a means to an end: it accelerates the car when necessary so that you may propel yourself into the next corner, which is where the real fun happens. It’s generally linear, it does move the car along pretty quickly when you really let it get on its tippy-toes at the top of the rev range, and it doesn’t feel or sound unhappy being worked hard. 0-60 tests have the 2016 MX-5 coming in under 6 seconds, which is quick, but anyone doing launches in an MX-5 is completely missing the point. In addition, don’t let the drop in horsepower from the NC fool you, the ND has a wider power band overall that makes power more accessible and usable than the previous cars, and still shaves several tenths of a second off the outgoing NC’s 0-60 and ¼ mile times. The ND even easily beats the old turbocharged Mazdaspeed Miata on these metrics (as did the NC), for what it’s worth.

This means you can actually cruise in the ND MX-5 in sixth gear at 40MPH without having your hand on the shifter at all times should you need, say, an extra 5MPH. You won’t be getting up to 60 especially quickly in sixth from 40, but it doesn’t feel wrong to do it. From what I’ve heard, downshifting was generally just a part of life in a Miata until now. The ND definitely will work your clutch foot a bit less if you found that to be the case in previous generation. It also means less cabin noise when the top is up, since you can probably hold a higher gear around town than in the previous cars.

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The exhaust note is definitely more interesting than any older Miata’s that I’ve heard, but it’s not going to wow you if you’re looking for something with “performance” vocals. It has a nice little growl on startup, but the idle is very quiet. Frankly, it’s all but anonymous at anything below 5000RPM or so. Once you really get it up near redline, it does have some soulful sounds to give (even if they aren’t particularly loud). It’s playful and sporty, and I’d personally like a bit of that in the midrange, too. If I decide to keep this car after the lease is up, an aftermarket exhaust system is something I might seriously consider, though I wouldn’t want anything loud or rumbly – 155 horsepower should not sound like 300.

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As for the transmission: the shifter is amazing. Just perfect. First gear can be a bit notchy when the car is cold, but how often are you shifting into first? Either way, every other gear is absolutely amazing and I haven’t missed a single shift in this car since I took possession of it. It is a gleefully great experience rowing through the gears, and there is an absolute minimum of effort required. The linkage feels like it glides into gear. The clutch is light and very easy (good for traffic!) and the engagement point is just above the middle of the pedal travel. That said, the lighter flywheel does mean that uber-smooth shifts take a bit of practice, and you have to develop your timing and footwork to get 1-2 and 2-3 just right. I still don’t have it exactly, but I haven’t regularly driven a stick in over 5 years. Downshifting is very, very easy in this car, and while I haven’t gotten brave enough to really practice my heel-toeing, off-throttle blip-shifting has been enjoyable and helped me learn how to modulate the throttle when I decide to start using the brake alongside it.

INTERIOR, STEREO/INFOTAINMENT

The good news is that, by my butt’s reckoning, the MX-5’s rubber-band “hammock” seats are extremely comfortable. They’re supportive and not over-bolstered, and I’m really liking them overall. That seems to be the general opinion about them among reviewers, too, though not everyone is in love. The number-one complaint is the lacking lumbar support, which I can understand, though I’ve only found this to be an issue when I position myself in the seat awkwardly. For those with problems, an insert could help, and I believe there are already aftermarket electric inflation bags you can install behind the seat (thanks, Japan).

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The quality of the interior is pretty much on part with what you’d find in an entry-level Mazda 3 or Mazda 6. It’s not outstanding by any means, but it’s good enough. The twist-to-shut HVAC vents feel flimsy and cheap, though, and the sun visors are almost hilariously bargain-bin in quality. A lot of the “cheapness,” though, is likely done in the name of weight-saving. Mazda tried to pull every gram they could out of the MX-5, and when you can replace a thick fabric or plush vinyl sun visor with a simple piece of molded plastic, the trade-off in quality isn’t really a concern. Same likely goes for the vents, the HVAC controls, and pretty much everything else inside the cabin. This isn’t a car that feels like it was built to last 100 years, nor does it pretend to be, and Mazda still does a pretty good job of making a relatively modest interior at least look modern and functional.

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The steering wheel is definitely very nice in terms of size and shape, though the leather doesn’t feel of the best quality, and I’d say the same of the leather shift knob and accompanying boot. It’s better than the leather on my girlfriend’s GT-trim Mazda 3 S, but I still think I’m going to have to keep an eye on it in terms of conditioning.

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The gauge cluster is laudable for its simplicity. The tach is nice and big, and inside the tachometer is a small LCD that shows your current gear and also provides upshift suggestions (i.e., if you’re in fourth doing 40MPH, it will show 4-6, meaning it thinks you should shift to sixth), though oddly not downshift ones. I guess it’s useful enough, that I’d much prefer to repurpose this to a secondary digital speedometer instead. I can generally manage the whole “what gear am I in” thing myself. The speedometer, off to the right of the tach and smaller, has very readable markings and reads easily at pretty much any speed. To the left, you’ve got a small rectangular LCD in a circular housing with your water temp, outside temp, trip computer, and fuel gauge. Annoyingly, the digital fuel gauge has rather poor glanceability – you really need to take a look at it to see where the LCD “needle” is sitting as your eyes aren’t naturally drawn to it by contrast. I’m OK with the idea of a digital fuel gauge, but this implementation seems a bit wanting. It’s a minor gripe.

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Mazda’s infotainment system has a few things going for it. First: it’s not visually overwhelming in the least. Mazda clearly abhors the text-overload that has made many modern vehicle infotainment systems a nightmare to visually parse, but by doing the opposite (relying heavily on iconography and many different panes), this does mean you need to learn where things are. The system will not hold your hand and guide you if you forget where something is, which can occasionally be frustrating as you try to adapt to it. The simple act of tuning the radio to a specific station is probably going to drive some older owners absolutely mad, because it is a multi-step process. Everything happens on the screen – which is only touch-active when you are at a stop or under 5MPH – and the best way to interact with it is by using the command dial behind the shifter. The positioning is definitely awkward and not optimal while actually driving sometimes, but it works.

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The Club model doesn’t have navigation, so I’m not going to remark on that. Bluetooth pairing with phones is as simple as you could hope, and I’ve not had any issues with it yet. Bluetooth audio streaming also works reliably well. The screen itself is bright and visible in pretty much all conditions, and it doesn’t block road visibility at all for me. It does look a bit awkward, but I’m not sure where else you’d put a display like that in a car this small, so the packaging really doesn’t both me. Radio reception has been good when I use it (the aerial, by the way, can be easily unscrewed by hand – so maybe don’t leave it on if you street park), and I haven’t had a chance to use the CD player and doubt I ever will. If you do want to use it, Mazda is going to make you work for it: the CD player sits behind the cupholders between the driver and passenger seats. Yep.

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The Bose audio system (Club and above trims) with built-in headrest speakers (which do work well) is very respectable, though it won’t be getting any praise for Hi-Fi quality. It gets the job done and even produces a respectable amount of bass for a system in a car this size. Keeping things audible even at freeway speeds with the top down isn’t nearly as hard as you’d think, those headrest speakers are ingenious. One thing I don’t like is that the hands-free system routes calls only to the driver headrest speakers, and you really have to crank it to hear the other person at times.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Overall, I’m very much liking my MX-5 so far. I hope to do more posts about it in the coming months as I become more familiar with the car and its various quirks and eccentricities. So far, though, I really think Mazda’s outdone itself with this vehicle, and I am a very satisfied customer.

If you want to support my blog and posts like these, you can shop on Amazon with my referral code (use this link). Here are a few car care products I use and can recommend, as well.

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First Drive: 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid And Plug-In Hybrid (PHEV)

Last week at Hyundai headquarters in Fountain Valley, California, I had a chance to be among the first groups of people in America to try out the new 2016 Sonata Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid. Around 4 hours of driving later, these are my thoughts. I’d like to preface them by saying I am not an automotive journalist by trade – I review gadgets and phones, not cars, so my impressions will probably be less technical, more general. Also, I freely admit my knowledge of cars is limited, so take criticisms with a grain of salt.

Because the Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid are so similar in so many ways, I’ll separate out sections for them where it makes sense. Otherwise, if a statement isn’t part of a vehicle-specific section and does not explicitly state which vehicle it’s referring to, assume it applies to both versions of the car.

I tested both vehicles in the Limited trim – the highest level Hyundai will sell. The Hybrid will have three trims (SE, Limited, Limited+Tech), and the PHEV will have two (SE, Limited), having a higher standard level of equipment. Pricing is not yet known, but the Hybrid will go on sale early this summer, while the PHEV is due in the fall.

The PHEV Sonata we tested was also a pre-production vehicle, meaning performance and certain aspects of the vehicle may not be completely representative of the production car.

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Exterior

The hybrid and plug-in both get some special stylistic treatment in the form of enhanced aero on the front and rear fascias, as well as aerodynamic not-BMW-i3 alloy wheels. Hyundai says the changes have lowered the car’s drag coefficient to an industry-leading 0.24, on par only with Tesla’s Model S among currently on-sale hybrids and EVs. That’s certainly nothing to scoff at.

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Overall, though, it still looks like the current-generation Sonata – slightly muscular and decidedly chrome-y. I’m not sure if this is really a problem given these are marketed as environmentally-conscious high-tech luxury commuters (and in the hybrid’s case, possibly a fleet car), but I don’t think the looks sell the “green” image too hard. The Sonata still feels somehow… a little stuffy, like it takes itself just ever-so-slightly too seriously.

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The good news, though, is that it doesn’t look cheap, not in the least. Unlike the standard Sonata, the hybrid and PHEV will only come in in the SE and Limited trims, with the same rim style (the Limited trim gets bigger 17″ wheels) and exterior trim across all versions of the vehicle. Along with the restyled front and rear bits, the Sonata Hybrid and PHEV look a bit special compared to their standard counterparts, even if the average person probably wouldn’t notice the difference – it still looks like a Sonata. Just a nicely-configured one.

Engine

Hybrid: The Hybrid’s drivetrain is easily the more likable of the two vehicles. While it boasts fewer peak horsepower at 195 versus 205 in the PHEV for the net hybrid system (Hyundai has not yet published net system torque), the absence of the PHEV’s larger battery pack (9.9KWh vs. 1.6KWh in the hybrid) means the standard hybrid is substantially lighter. Add in the hybrid-only sport mode to increase the aggressiveness of the 2.0-liter four’s cut-in, heft up the steering feel, and remap the throttle to be more responsive, and the hybrid definitely feels quicker than the PHEV in everyday use. Will driving it sportily annihilate your gas mileage? Kinda, but that’s also sort of a given.

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When the electric mode simply can’t give the driver the power they need, the gas engine cuts in pretty effortlessly to push you forward, and in sport mode, it’s almost always on if your foot’s anything more than slightly depressing the accelerator once you’re doing over 40MPH. The standard hybrid, for the weight savings and sport mode alone, is easily the better driver’s car of the two. It’s not exactly sporty or anything, but we’ll explore that more shortly.

I’d also say I prefer this hybrid drivetrain to the 2.4L GDI in the standard Sonata from a performance and driveability standpoint. An NA engine with that kind of power in a car of this weight class just feels a bit anemic. The hybrid setup gives you the torque you need to get the car off the line with some enthusiasm. Granted, I haven’t driven the Sonata Eco, and another journalist at the media drive told me that car’s 1.6L turbocharged engine was much more lively and fun in character than the hybrid, and perhaps even than the 2.0T. I would agree that the hybrid isn’t exactly sporty even in sport mode, but it’s still definitely more fun than the 2.4, and it spanks the 1.6T for city MPG, so take that for what you will.

PHEV: From a usability perspective, it is very possible to comfortably drive the Sonata PHEV in a normal fashion in electric-only mode without the gas engine ever needing to cut in, you just need to keep your foot out of the gas. While the electric engine in the PHEV isn’t particularly powerful, it is substantially more powerful than the regular hybrid’s, and that instant torque gives it solid performance right off the line. After the line, not so much. Acceleration is smooth, certainly, but even hammering on the throttle and pushing it past the kick-down switch and engaging full gas and electric power, the PHEV feels lazy compared to the hybrid. It’s simply not quick – not that such a thing is fatal to its justification, most mid-size PHEVs are… conservatively powered.

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The lack of a sport mode also means you can’t encourage the gas engine to cut in earlier, and the throttle response is in a perpetual state of “are you sure?” It’s not as slow to respond as a Prius in Eco mode in my experience, but you’ll know you’re driving something designed to save gas.

Both vehicles are limited to 75MPH in electric-only mode, though I found I could push them to 76-80MPH if I was on a decline without engaging the gas engine.

Transmission

Both cars share a 6-speed automatic – no CVTs here. Hyundai say they chose a traditional automatic over a CVT because it makes these electric-assisted vehicles drive more like “normal” cars.

For the hybrid, I buy the argument – in manual shift mode while also in sport mode, the hybrid actually feels responsive and much more like a normal gas engined car than when you’ve got it set in Eco with the transmission in auto. Shifting obviously isn’t DCT quick (nor is it especially slow), but I did appreciate the manual shift mode experience in the hybrid when I wanted to have a little fun driving the car. It’s a lot easier to understand how to modulate the throttle and braking if I can control what gear I’m in. And even when it’s in auto, you can still generally feel the shifts, so you’re getting more feedback than you would in a CVT (slightly more useful here since the car lacks a rev counter). And yes, I am sitting here evangelizing an automatic transmission as the driver’s choice, but that’s because the alternative (CVT) would probably be significantly worse.

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In the PHEV, the gearbox’s existence essentially never comes to your attention unless you actively choose to throw it into manual mode. There’s no tachometer in either car, to start with (just a “power usage” gauge), and the lazy, eco-friendly throttle and shift points in the PHEV (no sport mode) mean the transmission is almost irrelevant from a driver experience standpoint in that car. You can force it into the fray by placing the car in manual, but I see absolutely no reason to do this as part of regular driving. It would probably just make those MPG-maximizing algorithms in the PHEV less efficient, anyway.

The actual reason Hyundai might have chosen this transmission is that Hyundai doesn’t actually sell any car with a CVT. Developing a hybrid-specific transmission may not have been seen as worthwhile (either on cost or performance) to Hyundai when the auto works well in the standard hybrid and respectably in the PHEV, and I doubt most buyers will care about the transmission to begin with. Shifts were smooth, and while responsiveness depends on which driving mode you’re in, the sport mode with manual shifting in the standard hybrid provided a good overall experience.

Ride

Hybrid: The hybrid doesn’t feel ungainly, in fact, it felt quite agile in some situations. But it’s also a not-light mid-size sedan carrying around some extra weight in the form of batteries. Still, even at 3510lbs in Limited trim, the hybrid is 250 pounds lighter than the Limited PHEV, and that’s a big deal, especially when the bulk of those 250 pounds are coming directly out of the trunk.

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The hybrid felt extremely composed and smooth on the highway, but also very soft – bumps were eaten up with ease. Hyundai knows its target audience, and these cars are undoubtedly tuned for older folks or buyers looking for a plush ride. Sport mode has no effect on the suspension that I’m aware of, and the Sonata doesn’t exactly scream “sporting heritage” from the rooftops in terms of driving dynamics to start with. But by using stronger steel in the construction of the frame, Hyundai claims to have improved the structural rigidity of the cars considerably (41% versus the old Sonata Hybrid), and I think that came through well on bumps and road elevation changes. The car recomposed itself quickly when dips or bumps were met, and never felt as though it was “bounding” over obstacles. It was planted.

Combine that with exceptional smoothness, and the Sonata Hybrid gives you a luxurious, confident ride at almost any speed – it doesn’t feel sporty, but it’s not meant to, either. As for steering feel, well, I wasn’t blown away, but it wasn’t bad for a mass-market sedan. Like the suspension, the steering felt designed to deliver comfort and confidence – the car responded well to input, but it didn’t give you much in the way of feedback.

PHEV: I’m not sure I can describe perfectly what the difference is with the ride in the PHEV, but one of them seems to be sensation of speed: you feel that you’re going noticeably slower in the PHEV versus the hybrid, and that’s probably something to do with the 250 extra pounds of batteries in the trunk. When I was going 85MPH, it felt more like 70.

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At speed, the PHEV felt slightly less composed over bumps and dips in the road, perhaps a result of the substantial extra mass at the rear end. The PHEV gets a slightly fatter sway bar up front, but I have no real knowledge about how the rear is set up compared to the hybrid. It’s far from being a concern, but I did feel the PHEV was the vehicle that required more of my focus to actually drive at higher speeds.

Around town, it was the same as the regular hybrid – composed, soft, and comfortable.

Braking

Here’s a disclaimer: I don’t drive a lot of hybrids or EVs. I was told the brakes on these cars were pretty normal for a hybrid. I was also told they’re a major improvement versus Hyundai and Kia’s regenerative braking of just a few years ago – so take that for what you will.

From my point of view, both the cars we tested had a subpar braking experience – compared to a normal car. In both the PHEV and hybrid, there was a learning curve particularly for high-speed braking, the amount of force the driver needs to exert on the pedal, which provides little feedback, is very substantial. Both my co-driver and I had a difficult time getting the rhythm right, forcing us to really get on the brakes at the last minute when approaching stopped traffic or a red light in some situations.

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And despite the relatively high input demand, they’re still grabby hybrid brakes: touch the pedal and you’re going to get a minimum amount of brake force applied to start the energy recovery system. Press harder, and for a while, not much seems to happen. Press hard, and you’ll get the car to stop, but the amount of force required was simply too great in my opinion. The cars we tested both had just a hair over a thousand miles on the odometer and exhibited the exact same braking behavior.

Eventually, I am sure drivers will adapt to how these brakes behave – they’re still totally functional, of course. I just hope Hyundai tweaks them to provide a little more progressive pedal feel, if they can.

Mileage

Hybrid: This is no Prius in terms of size and gas engine displacement. The Sonata Hybrid competes with the similarly mid-size Accord and Camry hybrids, but doesn’t attempt to unseat them via MPG alone. It has class-leading cargo and interior volume, and is easily the widest car in the mid-size hybrid class. If you’ve driven a new Sonata, you’re aware of this: it’s a wide car. It is wider than a 2001 BMW 7-series. This is how far we’ve come.

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The 2016 Sonata Hybrid in Limited trim manages to just best the Camry Hybrid XLE on the combined cycle (41MPG vs 40MPG, respectively) and comes slightly short of the Fusion Hybrid’s 42MPG, but is easily beaten by the Accord Hybrid’s 47. On the city driving figure (39MPG), the Sonata’s less powerful electric motor (the gas engine is the bulk of the available power) is immediately apparent – its competitors have a clear edge around town, because the gas engine is cutting in more often on the Sonata under more aggressive acceleration.

My observed mileage during the whole leg of our 80-mile or so trip in the hybrid was around 36-37MPG, but that actually seems pretty good – that was a combination of a small amount of aggressive city driving in sport mode and occasional manual shifting, a large amount of careful but still quick freeway driving (I wasn’t hypermiling it, that’s for sure), and some highway-speed (40-50MPH) driving with light traffic. If I had really tried, I think 40MPG would have been easily achievable. On the highway, 41MPG or more was pretty easy to get as long as you weren’t doing much stop and go.

PHEV: This, of course, is the big one. I’ll be honest: I wasn’t paying super close attention to the PHEV’s range when it was going electric-only. Hyundai says you can get 24 miles on electric-only, I’m inclined to believe them that it’s somewhere in that ballpark. That puts the Sonata PHEV a step above the Accord and Fusion Energi if your priority is electric range.

After draining most of the battery on the first leg of our journey, I placed the car in “battery regenerating” mode for the freeway, where the gas engine is charging the battery by running constantly, to charge it up a bit for the next pair of journalists driving it.

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This regeneration mode, by the way, is something the driver can “force” on to charge the battery, but the implication I got here is that it’s basically just there to make certain buyers feel better. When not in this mode, the car’s algorithms will decide when to use the gas engine to charge the battery on their own, and they’ll be a lot smarter about it than you in terms of maximizing efficiency. The generator mode is mostly there so you can have a full battery when you get off the highway and into town, versus a half-full one in the standard “sustain charge” mode. Why? That’s a question I’m still not sure I can answer.

With my limited experience driving PHEVs, I just don’t know how to judge PHEV gas mileage – most of the savings come from charging it in your garage overnight instead of filling the tank, so long-distance mileage is a whole other ball game for this car. A short test just isn’t going to give you the data points you need. Our 80-mile haul wasn’t enough time to get a feel for how the car’s computer management of the battery and gas engine regeneration on long stretches will maximize that precious dino-juice.

Hyundai’s estimate is, when the battery is in “sustain” mode (vs EV only mode) and starts to occasionally recharge the battery with the gas engine, you’ll get 40MPG combined. So, if you’re looking for a PHEV that prioritizes overall efficiency over electric-only range, this may not be car for you. If you’re looking for a vehicle that can basically be an electric-only commuter for sub-25 mile round trips (or sub-50 if your have access to charging at work), this is obviously a better choice than the Fusion or Accord plug-ins, and even gets better combined mileage than the Ford.

Both cars absolutely demolish the base 2.4-liter Sonata for mileage, of course, though in my experience that’s a very low bar to meet.

Interior

Both cars we drove were Limited models, meaning leather seats and the full-size Hyundai infotainment/navigation system. Both also had lots of fancy driver assists – blind spot detection, collision warning, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, and automatic high-beams are available.

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The regular hybrid won’t get the jumbo navigation system unless you go for the full Limited with Ultimate Tech upgrade, which will of course come at a cost. Hyundai’s tech packages are generally pretty large, though this one seems a little more conservative on big-ticket items, so perhaps it will be less expensive than usual. Regardless, it will almost definitely be worth it just for CarPlay and Android Auto once they’re available.

The PHEV, in contrast, gets the full navigation system as standard on the base car. The Limited upgrade really just gets you the driver assists mentioned above, leather, Xenon headlights, and a better sound system.

The quality of interior on both cars is identical, and is like any Sonata Limited you could go try out at a dealer today. The seats are very nice and very comfortable – in my opinion, as a big guy – and while some interior pieces aren’t always of an outstanding quality, the inside does look very modern and generally seems well put together. You will notice some wrinkles in the premium experience, but they’re the same as any Sonata at this trim level. Occasionally, less than great plastic does show up, and a few buttons do feel like they were pulled out of the bargain bin. But given what these cars will probably sell for, and the quality and amenities of interiors from the competition, I doubt Hyundai is remotely concerned about how the Sonata’s interior will compare n terms of fit, finish, and features. This car is very well-equipped for any mid-sized sedan, not just a hybrid.

Overall, Hyundai is doing a great job creating a luxurious, spacious, and tech-savvy interior without resorting to too many gimmicks or corner-cuts. The Sonata Hybrid and PHEV are very nice places to sit with tons of great features.

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Interior technology

Android Auto wasn’t installed on the cars we drove, so I can’t really speak to it. Hyundai’s typical high-end nav system was present, and I still find it kind of a chore to navigate, even if it does seem very stable and reliable. If you own one of these cars, you’ll no doubt become accustomed to it – I just didn’t have enough time during our drive to get super familiar with the system.

Blind spot monitoring works, but in my opinion was too aggressive in detection. Same with collision warning – I had it go off three times on the drive, and it was always felt premature. Adaptive cruise control I didn’t have a chance to try out, and lane departure I only used briefly, because I personally find it kind of annoying. (But it did work.)

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Hyundai hasn’t said if the Hybrid and PHEV will ship with Android Auto enabled, if an upgrade will be needed, or if they’ll have CarPlay any time soon, either.

I will say I find Hyundai’s approach to the infotainment UI to be a bit… weird in terms of navigation and layout. A simplified, cleaner home interface with an app-centric design would be much more intuitive to owners who already have a smartphone or tablet. As is, it’s a bit wonky to get around things, but everything did work as you’d expect once you located it.

The PHEV has some interesting stuff going on here that the hybrid doesn’t, too. You can check out dedicated readouts for efficiency information, ranging from eMPG/MPG to electric vs. gas engine usage, real-time drivetrain power distribution information (that one is actually on the hybrid, too), and more. I’m unsure if this information is being backed up in the cloud anywhere for access via BlueLink or another Hyundai online service, but I’d hope so. If you can’t take the data out of the car, the data loses a lot of its value.

Summary

Not knowing what either car will cost, it’s obviously hard to come to a conclusion on them yet. I haven’t driven any of the cars’ competitors, either – Fusion, Accord, or Camry, so I can’t prove any real-world comparative info.

But if you like the current Sonata, and just want that package with a more efficient powerplant (especially around town, where the 1.6T Eco just can’t compete), the hybrid and PHEV both bring that same level of quality and technology to the table, and get their own “look,” so you can know you’re driving a slightly special Sonata.

The PHEV wouldn’t be my pick, frankly – it’s slow, and even with the overnight charging to keep your gas costs down, I kind of doubt it’d be worth it economically for me personally. The hybrid feels like the better bet to me, offering a more engaging driving experience (if you choose) and slightly better efficiency when not in electric-only mode. It’ll be cheaper, too, of course, and I think Hyundai won’t have a problem moving quite a few of them.

That we have sedans of this size getting around 40MPG on the combined cycle is extremely impressive in any case. 15 years ago, that would have sounded totally ridiculous, especially on something as loaded as one of these vehicles – you’re getting so much cool technology, and you’re also getting a big sedan with combined mileage that’s on par with older 4-cylinder gasoline sub-compacts.

I will not be surprised if the Sonata Hybrid sells well, it’s a compelling total package. As to the PHEV, it will likely be attractive to existing Sonata loyalists with short commutes – there’s no denying the plug-in can be a huge cost-saver for the right person. Both cars are immediately going to be very competitive in their respective segments, too, so let’s not overlook that – Hyundai obviously knew what the competition was and built a car that their competitors will have a tough time talking down.

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Review: Air France Premium Economy on A380, 772 (777-200), and domestic – seat, service, and food

Recently (Feb/Mar 2015), I had the opportunity to fly Air France round trip to Barcelona, and I booked the entire fare as W class – Air France’s premium economy. The fare was surprisingly low for the season and the seat, as I typically would expect to pay 50%+ over standard economy for a W fare seat, but in this case the price was almost of negligible difference, so I took a chance and booked.

Quick overview (intercontinental / long haul – A380 and 772 (777-200))
  • The seat: The intercontinental/long-haul seat for AF’s premium economy is a fixed shell that is completely different and bespoke to the class, and it can’t intrude on other passengers since it’s fixed in place. Recline is liberal for economy, but still limited. Width is great, as is legroom. Some may find the seat hard, I personally thought it was pretty OK. One universal wall outlet (if you need more, buy one of these Monster Outlets To Go – they’re universal voltage friendly, too) and 1 USB port is included per seat. There is a footrest, but you’ll have to be short to want to use it. There is more than enough room for a standard laptop on the seat tray.
  • The service: No doubt – premium economy gets much faster meal service than standard economy, as well as a premium economy-only drink and snack bar (very handy).
  • The perks: PE had an exclusive bathroom on my 772 (777-200) flight from CDG->LAX, but on the A380, the bathroom was shared with standard economy. The free comfort package (earplugs, face mask, toothbrush, etc.) was a nice bonus, and the main meal was served with an extra appetizer. You also get an apertif of champagne before dinner. You get a second checked bag free of charge.
  • The entertainment: AF’s infotainment screens in PE are pretty well sized, but the system is old and the resolution abysmal. Bring an iPad and some headphones (for flying, I really like Samsung’s noise-cancelling, wireless Level Overs). There is no Wi-Fi on any long-haul Air France flight.
A380

I flew on an Air France A380 (the double-decker) from Los Angeles to Paris (LAX->CDG) for the first leg. Boarding was pretty well-managed by intercontinental standards, with the clerks at the gate calling up first, business, premium economy, and SkyPriority (plus other member levels) to board first. Air France seems unique here, in that there are only two boarding calls – first tier customers, and then… everyone else. Given the science suggests mass-boarding is the best technique for boarding quickly, this is pretty close to optimal. I found this system used on all legs of my journey, at 3 different airports.

Upon reaching my row on the upper deck, I tossed my bag in the spacious overhead and got into my seat. There, I found a blanket, a larger and cushier pillow than standard economy, and a bottle of Evian in the area between the infotainment screens. Everything still seemed pretty fresh, and even the complimentary noise-cancelling headphones looked quite new (not so on my 772 flight back).

Carry-on bag recommendation: I fly with a 25″ Filson Medium Duffle Bag – it’s basically indestructible and it looks fantastic. It has a lifetime warranty, too.

I sat and immediately found lumbar support in the seat lacking, but stuffing the pillow behind me quickly resolved that. The seat itself had truly ample legroom, and the width is more than enough for someone as large as myself (very large – 6’1 and quite… fat). I buckled up and we taxied off.

After hitting altitude, about 30 minutes after our late afternoon departure, the crew distributed everyone in the premium economy cabin a bag of accessories (quite a stylish little bag, too), including a face mask, large foam ear plugs, booties for the headphones (because ear germs), a toothbrush, and a couple other small items. At the same time, we were provided our menus for dinner (you can only select a main, which appear to be the same mains as standard economy), and shortly after that, offered an apertif glass (cup) of champagne or any other beverage we desired, along with some pretzels.

Around 30 minutes later, dinner was served. I had a shepherd’s pie (the other option being red sauce pasta with veggies), but an appetizer exclusive to premium economy of smoked salmon and green salad was also served, along with the typical accouterments – butter, bread (rolls were generously distributed), cheese, fruit, a bottle of water, and a brownie. The main was quite typical but certainly not bad, and the smoked salmon salad was actually quite tasty – a pleasant surprise, to be sure. You also got first dibs – it was unlike the meal service would out of either main course, since they had yet to serve standard economy.

The extra large tray in premium economy seats, which folds down twice, allowed me to eat my meal without arching my head into the seat in front of me, and then comfortably fold half the tray back up after I had finished, so it wasn’t an intrusion on my ability to recline. Reclining was the first thing I did after that meal, by the way – the amount of food served was more than adequate, and I was stuffed.

As I started to settle into the seat, I played with the various recline options and the built-in metal footrest. The seat on Air France’s A380 reclines a good amount, but business class passengers won’t be impressed, as it’s nowhere near lie-flat. There is a recliner-style legrest you can prop up, but it’s basically useless unless you’re very short, as is the metal footrest (I put it down once and promptly put it back up). After selecting a movie, I grabbed my free bottle of water (really, this is a nice thing to have!), took a gulp, and watched Guardians of the Galaxy in potato resolution.

The included noise-cancelling headphones were quite good at the noise cancelling part, though I found the quality of audio middling at best. Worry not, though, audio-lovers, as there is a standard 3.5mm (yes, really, no attenuator or multi-plug required) jack right above the storage area for the included cans, so you can plug in your headphones of choice. The touchscreen was typical crappy resistive fare, and the remote control felt like something from 2002. But, everything worked, and I was content enough at that.

Noise-cancelling headphone recommendation: I really like Samsung’s Level Overs for long flights. They’re crazy comfortable, wireless, and the noise-cancellation works shockingly well.

I charged my iPad and phone through my travel power strip attached to the seat’s AC adapter (very easy to find unlike many airlines – between the seats, facing the seats in front of you) and stretched out the recline like no one was watching. I was actually pretty comfortable, for a plane. After-dinner coffee was served (or drinks, whatever you wanted), the lights were lowered, and I began to wonder just what I’d do for the next 9-plus hours with my extra wide arm rest, since fighting over it wasn’t actually going to be necessary, and the fixed shell seat in front of me could not angle my infotainment screen into invisibility.

As we neared Paris, breakfast was served. A small omelette which was quite delicious along with some bread, cheese (of course!), fruit, and yogurt were provided. Nothing extraordinary, but service was again quick and efficient. We landed, and after an agonizing 40 minutes of taxi / gate assignment, we deplaned alongside business class ahead of the pack.

Domestic

I flew two domestic short-hauls to and from Barcelona on Air France. Premium Economy did have significant perks: Air France serves all its business and premium economy passengers a full meal for flights >1 hour in duration, including beer, wine, and champagne. Standard economy gets only snack service. The seat gets more legroom, but otherwise, it’s economy with food and early boarding (nothing to scoff at, though). The food was quite good for the most part, and again, Air France rigorously enforced the 2-stage boarding procedure to ensure business and priority flyers were on the plane first.

772 (Boeing 777-200)

For my flight from CDG->LAX, I had originally booked an earlier seat on an A380, but I missed the plane. I was rebooked to an older 777-200 (AF calls them a 772), and I feared the worst. My fears were, largely, unfounded.

Boarding was a bit of nightmare – the plane had an unexpected security screening, and a gaggle of grandmas in wheelchairs took about 30 minutes to be carted onto the 777 ahead of all the other passengers (entirely fair, but it took entirely too long), and it was obvious no one was looking forward to this nearly 7000-mile red-eye, with many passengers visibly agitated at the delay (bad vibes = bad plane ride).

We got on, and while the PE section was much smaller on the 777 than the A380 – a mere 32 seats by my count – it looked basically identical. Overhead storage was configured differently, but there was still ample space, and all the same amenities provided. Free bottle of water, nice pillow, blanket, pre-dinner snack (this time some delicious butter crackers), bag of stuff, champagne, dinner menu. I noticed one of the restrooms ahead of us was out of service, but after takeoff, the steward curtained off premium economy from both business and standard economy, so a scant 32 people had an exclusive bathroom. Very nice – on the A380, we were required to share with standard economy, though there were only a small number of economy passengers on the upper deck (maybe 60).

The seats were older, for sure – my neighbor’s only reclined after vigorous encouragement, and the footrests were substantially narrower than those on the A380. The seat had the same width and pitch, though, so it basically felt the same to me, down to the extra-wide armrests. We got our snacks and champagne and hunkered down.

Dinner was actually surprisingly good – PE’s exclusive appetizer was 3 cold shrimp on a bed of mint and parsley tabbouleh, and while the shrimp were a bit tough, they tasted refreshingly real to me. The main course was chicken in a brown sauce with couscous, and I found the quality substantially better than the American-sourced fare we received on the flight from LAX. Bread, cheese, fruit, and a mini lemon meringue pie were provided, though we did not get our after-dinner sweets on this plane (I’m guessing they couldn’t source any).

The lights went down, and I played with the infotainment system. This unit was even worse than the on the A380 (again, no Wi-Fi on Air France long haul, either, and probably not till 2016-2017+), and had huge banding issues. I watched Interstellar in the most forgiving sense of the word (I heard it and saw some images, occasionally, I think). The Air France headphones on this 777 were battered and bruised, clearly in need of replacement, so I used my own set instead. After the film, I went over to the private premium economy snack area and refilled my now-empty bottle of Evian with a larger one.

The seat, I thought, was just as comfortable as the A380 I took from LAX, and seemed basically identical in every functional sense of the word. Outlets, USB port, headphones, etc. The remote control was older, though, and placed at thigh-level instead of vertically nearer the front of the seat divide, meaning I would accidentally activate it relatively often when shifting in my seat.

Our special little bathroom had a couple of perks, too – there was face wash and hand lotion, with small cotton pads to scrub your face. It was a refreshing apricot-scented wash that didn’t need to be rinsed, and after getting a bit greasy sitting on the plane 5 hours and, before that, 7 hours at the airport, I relished in the clean and refreshed feeling my face got after a quick scrub.

Later, breakfast was served (my jetlagged stomach politely declined). About an hour after that, we landed and gated quickly at LAX (way ahead of schedule considering we departed 40 minutes late).

Air France Premium Economy: Overall value assessment

Air France premium economy is, at 15-25% above standard economy fare, an excellent deal all things considered. I’ve read whining and moaning about the seats and the service, but honestly, it’s so much better than standard economy on a large long-haul flight that I’m not sure how those people justify their complaints. It’s better in almost every way, and worse in basically none. The extra checked bag alone almost pays for itself! Now, if we’re talking in-demand season, I believe Air France charges quite a lot more for these seats, something like 40-70% over standard economy. At such a premium, there is no way these seats are truly worth the money, but if you have miles or a credit card with good rewards, the spend could be entirely worth it to avoid suffering with the rest of the herd for 10-plus hours. Additionally, if you simply have the disposable income but don’t want to splurge on Air France’s largely unremarkable long-haul business class, premium economy is much better value for money.

The lack of Wi-Fi is definitely a major drawback (Air France knows it, and they’re pricing competitively), and the infotainment system is in dire need of updating, though it’s functional. Food and drink extras are modest, but what is provided over standard economy is certainly appreciated (who doesn’t want to be greeted with champagne?).

I think the PE experience across all of Air France’s long-haul fleet is basically comparable, too, something that isn’t always true of this fare class on other airlines. The problem is that not every Air France plane has it – 747s are still business and economy only, though the A330s, 777s, and A380s do all appear to have at least one supported configuration.

No, Vinyl Does Not Sound Better Than MP3 – Making The Case For Digital Audio

The resurgence of vinyl as a “high-fidelity” music playback medium is becoming more and more recognized in popular culture. “Hipsters” and true audiophiles alike are quickly starting a new-age vinylphile scene, largely because of a small but noisy backlash against digitally distributed music.

First things first: this phenomena isn’t new – the anti-digital audio movement was alive and well in the early days of compact discs and digital mastering, two phenomena that took off roughly contemporaneously in the 1980’s. By the 90’s, both had improved by leaps and bounds in terms of quality and consistency, though numerous music artists like Neil Young decried the rise of digital production and the “ones and zeroes” of compact discs, compared to the warmth, character, and high fidelity of analog vinyl records at the time. But the Walkman and in-car CD players made the compact disc a consumer smash-hit, and cassettes quickly fell by the wayside as the better-sounding and more reliable CD took over the marketplace.

With the rise of the iPod, things changed again: MP3 and other digital audio formats rapidly eclipsed compact discs in terms of total distribution (even if much of that distribution was illegal), and personal audio entered a new age.

In the early aughts (00’s), the quality of digitally distributed audio wasn’t exactly stellar, but nor was the playback equipment. Laptops and desktop computers had middling audio reproduction to start with, but this was something of a blessing in disguise: low expectations set by computers and laptops (and those old iPod earbuds, yuck) meant that digitally distributed music could be encoded at low bitrates without having an extreme impact on the perceptible quality of the audio. A 64 or 48Kbps MP3 was not uncommon to see in these early days, perhaps ripped from a scratched CD using a sketchy drive, and encoding tools were not nearly as standardized or effective at compression. This is where ire toward digital really started, even if those problems are basically nonexistent today.

But with huge amounts of digital distribution happening extralegally during this time, there was no real concern for preserving quality or the effects of burning/re-ripping/re-encoding on lossy audio formats – people simply didn’t care. While Apple was distributing comparatively very high-quality 128Kbps AAC files by 2003 on iTunes, that still comprised just a tiny amount of the music being distributed around the internet. Who wasn’t illegally downloading music in the mid to late 2000s?

Today, things are rather different. Even the lowest of the low streaming services generally stream at 128Kbps MP3 over Wi-Fi (though they do go down to 96 or even 64/48Kbps over mobile – see: Pandora), and if you’re actually buying digital music, it’s all but guaranteed to be at 192-256Kbps MP3 or higher. I have still yet to see real evidence that even 192Kbps MP3 sounds better than 128Kbps MP3, by the way – which should tell you something about all the FLAC and lossless weirdos out there.

In this context, listening to music on vinyl makes little sense. Vinyl is, by its nature, an imperfect medium – all the “warmth” and “character” vinyl lovers describe of their records is generally attributable to the natural sonic qualities of vinyl playback, qualities that will come through on a $100 Pyle turntable pretty similar to a $1500 Marantz. Yes, a nicer turntable / stylus will produce much nicer audio than a much cheaper one, but that’s not really the point here: the point is that the “vinyl effect” is basically psychological – these people have come to associate “quality” with the inherent characteristics of vinyl playback, and that’s an entirely inappropriate conflation.

Vinyl is a carburetor in a fuel-injected world. Yes, a properly tuned, calibrated, and expensive vinyl setup can sound and perform much better than many digital setups, but that’s missing the point: most vinyl playback today happens on cheap turntables with cheap or old records and cheap or old needles and goes through cheap or old speakers. It is far easier and cheaper to make a digital setup that sounds as good or better than a very carefully tuned and much, much pricier vinyl setup. Vinyl love is nostalgia, plain and simple.

Much as the man driving a ’69 Mustang Boss 302 may proclaim that his underrated V8 puts out 350-plus horsepower and was one of the most potent vehicles of its day, that doesn’t mean a $21,000 2014 Ford Fiesta ST with a scant 197HP won’t spank it in essentially every measurable performance metric while being more reliable and far less expensive. Could you make the Boss faster than the Fiesta by throwing huge sums of money at it? Sure. But claiming that the Boss is the better car because you can make it better is an obvious fallacy. This is the argument vinyl-heads will have over and over with nonbelievers – vinyl can sound better than MP3, you just have to know what to buy and be willing to spend. And clean your records. And your needle. And set your tracking force. And your pitch. And balance the turntable.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s look at the records themselves. Let’s say you have a mint condition, unopened copy of CSNY’s Deja Vu on vinyl, original pressing. And then let’s say you have the remaster from 2006 in 192Kbps MP3. The vinyl already has a disadvantage: the MP3 has been mastered for digital to remove analog hum, hiss, and other artifacts of the production process that weren’t possible in 1969. Some remasters do end up ruining records, but most are careful exercises in restoration and utilize new technology to more effectively present the music as the artist originally intended while eliminating problems in the original mastering. Right out of the gate, the MP3 is almost certain to sound superior – while the vinyl has the appeal of “originality,” this advantage is rooted – like almost all vinyl arguments – in nostalgia. Original does not sound objectively better, no matter what vinylphiles will try to tell you. Then let’s look at money: how much would such a record cost? Well, for a truly original copy, you’d be looking at $100+ for an unopened record. A later high-grade reissue in excellent condition would run you more like $15-35+, so let’s say you use that. How much does the 2006 remastered MP3 cost? About $10. Or it’s included as part of a music subscription service and costs you nothing but your monthly fee.

So, which is going to sound better? That, of course, is almost entirely contingent on the setup. With the digital file, $330 will buy you a great DAC, headphone amplifier, and very good set of Grado headphones quite easily. At that point, you’ll probably have 95% of the perceptible audio quality money can buy in the realm of digital audio.

The record? Well, let’s start with turntables. If you go cheap, a fully-manual Pyle that’s serviceable but not great will set you back $70. A good but cheap AudioTechnica needle, maybe another $30. You’ll also need a phono preamp, say $25 for that. Then you have the same cost for the headphone amp and headphones. A grand total of, we’ll say, about $325.

Which sounds better? I would know, because I have this exact setup, and it’s the digital audio every single time, without a shadow of a doubt. No vinyl hiss, cracks, pops, or hum. No dust to contend with. No adjusting tracking force. The digital sounds fuller, with superior bass, channel separation, and fidelity. Maybe if I had a $300 turntable, $200 needle, and a $300 small tube amp with some open-back Sennheisers, I could get the full vinyl experience. Oh, and pay the insane cost of getting all the music I want on vinyl. And to do it right, that means chasing down audiophile high-weight reissues, which run anywhere from $30-100+. Why would I do this? I don’t know, because there is no truly justifiable reason for it from the perspective of sonic quality. It makes no sense.

Now, it’s easy to say “that’s not a fair comparison – the digital reissue is a new master, of course it sounds better” because this allows vinyl-heads to postulate that if the digital version was the exact same master as the vinyl, the vinyl would be superior because the digital is lossy. Except this is a moot point: half of the advantage of digital is in having the newest, cleanest master of the song. Now, sometimes true originals are interesting to hear, but no one is listening to them for fidelity! There’s historical value, there’s nostalgic value, and that’s really it – for sheer listening pleasure, I will take the digital remaster of nearly any album any day of the week over the analog original. They sound better.

Anyway, the real point here is that in almost no real-world setting will vinyl sound better than a legitimate MP3 of the same song or album when played through the same equipment (aside from the record player, obviously). It’s an absurd thing to argue. If you throw the same money at a DAC as you would at a high-end turntable, stylus, and preamp, you’d struggle to even find a place to spend all that cash. Like a lot of the high-end audiophile market, though, it’s very easy to find a company that’s happy to convince you of whatever it is you want to believe about how to get the “best” sound, and the sudden demand for vinyl has made a $1500 turntable a viable business model again. Make no mistake: this phenomena is cultural, not technical, in nature. Audiophiles with deep pockets love to be told that what they like is what is also objectively better: modern, high-end vinyl gear merely caters to a demand of the market, not some rediscovery of vinyl’s obvious superiority. Vinyl is cool again, and so people, even audiophiles (unsurprisingly), want to be in with what’s cool. That’s all this is really about, at the end of the day.

If you’re really serious about sound, you should also be serious about getting value for your money, and high-end vinyl is the antithesis of value. Vinly is fashion – it is tasteful, classic, and calls back to a time when we consumed music differently. That doesn’t make it better. If anything, it serves to discredit it.

Taking FLAC: Pono reviews generally confirm FLAC purists are full of it, and so is Pono

So, it turns out I was wrong about Pono: the difference is not easy to hear. In fact, according to pretty much every review of the device, Pono provides no credible evidence of audible improvement over a smartphone when playing the same file, or even that Pono sounds appreciably better playing back FLAC versus a smartphone using high-bitrate (256Kbps) AAC. David Pogue even went so far as to conduct a blind test with well over a dozen people.

Make no mistake: Pono was developed by some very respected names in the audio industry, sporting components similar to those found in good portable headphone DAC/amplifier units. But instead of showing that a “proper” DAC/amp can noticeably improve the listening experience over an iPhone, Pogue’s test found that ordinary people, even when wearing some universally-lauded Sony monitoring headphones, simply couldn’t tell the difference between Pono FLACs and iTunes 256Kbps AACs.

This bodes poorly for portable amplifiers and DACs, but also supports the apparently unassailable truth that most people simply will not be able to observe an appreciable difference using FLAC versus high-res MP3s or AAC files. If they can, they’re probably telling themselves they can, or are simply conflating undesirable distortion (non-harmonic distortion increases at ultra-high sampling rates) with greater detail.

FLAC purists maintain that it is these higher sampling ceilings and greater bits rates which are responsible for the more pronounced “texture” and “feel” in music (cymbals are often cited, for no apparently good reason – almost all instruments produce ultrasonics). In fact, it is these higher sampling ceilings that expose even my audiophile-approved Onkyo TX8255 receiver-amp as unable to avoid audible distortion (that is, not true to the recording) at these supposedly inaudible ultrasonic frequencies. It’s unlikely the distortion would cause a truly noticeable effect on listening experience, but Pogue’s experiment supports the notion that such sounds in FLAC files might actually be undesirable – more people voiced a preference for the iPhone playing back 256Kbps AACs, rather than FLACs on the Pono.

If anything, Pogue’s test goes to show that, unsurprisingly, the world of digital audio has improved leaps and bounds from the early days when MP3 really was a dirty word and we were all trading crappily encoded CP rips on Kazaa and Napster. This tends to really be my theory anymore: audiophiles were among the first to explore the world of digital audio on the web, and they were around to experience the growing pains of that community. When a 96Kbps MP3 rip was what you downloaded because no one was ripping at 256 or 320, and the rips were sourced from old, scratched CDs read by cheap computer drives and then often compressed into oblivion.

I agree that, for a while there, the digital music industry really kind of was screwing the pooch on audio quality by leaving it to the bootleg community, and early streaming services like Pandora really did no one any favors, dipping down to a wretch-inducing 48Kbps on their mobile app at times. But Apple and the labels themselves started remedying this, and by the time the 128Kbps AAC became the de facto quality floor on the later iPods, we were probably already 90% there in terms of the listening experience.

With the iPhone, we saw a smartphone manufacturer pay attention to audio on a hardware level, and Apple remains the bar to meet in the mobile industry for audio hardware on a smartphone or tablet. They actually care about this stuff (let’s not forget they had 6 years to get it right in the iPod) – and Pogue’s test shows it pretty decisively. The fact that he was able to get away with this while driving a big set of Sony MDR7506 monitoring headphones is even more impressive, proving that mobile amplifiers have come a tremendously long way.

While I’ve generally understood the direction Neil Young and Pono were coming from – even if I disagree with some of the premise – I can’t help but agree with Pogue’s conclusion that Pono seems terribly misguided and reeks of the common snake-oily claims you find in the high-end audiophile world. It also proves that audiophiles will convince themselves of whatever they want, regardless of whether or not data controverting those views exists, and will continue to throw money at products catering to those beliefs because you can’t “really” hear the FLAC difference unless you have the budget (a pretentious argument at best).

Pogue also emphasizes what I’ve always said: focus on your equipment, not the files. The files are only going to be bad if you go out of your way to find ones that sound bad.

While I even find it mildly surprising few people preferred the Pono in Pogue’s study, I think it really does just go to the point that the engineers doing DAC and amplifier work on today’s modern smartphones and the related chipsets have figured out how to downsize and isolate those components very effectively. Is it so surprising that Apple, the world’s largest producer of MP3 players and high-end smartphones – that see vastly higher adoption rates in the music business – is creating an excellent audio experience on its products? I don’t think it’s exactly inconceivable, and Qualcomm seems to be doing a fine job, too.

While I would not go so far as to say standalone DACs and headphone amplifiers are without purpose, I will suggest that it generally seems safe to assume that a high-end smartphone is probably the best headphone DAC/amp in your home if you don’t own such dedicated products. I still believe a good DAC and amp are necessary with most laptops and PCs (I prefer Schiit’s Modi and Magni combo), because I’ve always noticed a very real difference with them on my desktop system.

Still, your best investment remains good headphones, and I can’t recommend Grado’s SR80e enough – they’re insanely good value for money. If you want something a little nicer, I really like the Blue Mo-Fis, whose active amplifier setup really do seem to make a difference to my ears when using a smartphone, since they’re of such a high impedance.

As for Pono, I’d suggest taking a pass: you’re supremely unlikely to notice the difference it provides, and FLAC albums simply aren’t worth the money unless you’re playing home music archivist. Put the money toward a good set of cans or studio monitor speakers – you’ll notice a far greater difference than any triangular prism can provide.