Henry Payne Blog

Cartoon: Biden Putin Hunter Summit

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 17, 2021

Cartoon: EV Car of the Future

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 17, 2021

Payne: L-yeah! The three-row Jeep Grand Cherokee is finally here

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 17, 2021

The all-new, 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L is a gorgeous hunk of granite. As solid on road as it is solid looking. But the real treats are in the details. Standard 10.1-inch digital screens. Sculpted rotary shifter that might have come off the queen’s finger. American flag badges. Winged dashboard with chrome bezels.

Oh yes, and it has a third row. (Pause here while a cheering Jeep nation does the wave.)

The 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L is the GC badge's first three-row SUV.

This is no third-row afterthought (looking at you, Toyota Highlander). This is a big, honkin’ American third-row couch made for 6’5” giants like me. That’s right. I can sit behind myself in the third row sitting behind myself in the second (best legroom in class) row. Raised middle console so my size-15 feet fit. Padded armrest. USB and USB-C charging ports. Clearly, 6’4” Jeep interior design chief Chris Benjamin spent some time back here.

The Grand Cherokee’s third row has been a looooooong time coming. The OG midsize-SUV born back in 1992 (when then-Chrysler product genius Bob Lutz figured out the way to skirt station wagon-killing mpg laws was to jack them up and call ’em utes) has consistently been a segment favorite even as competitors came along with a variety of three-row chariots that now make up 75% of segment offerings.

One pull on the top-seat handle and the second row seat collapses forward for access to the third row of the 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L.

Now that Grand Cherokee is upping its game and adding a three-row, I expect it to sell (I’m just making an educated guess here) a zillion copies a year. Not just because this thing is a really good mainstream SUV. But because it’s also a really good luxury SUV.

Consumers know what I’m talking about. Jeep is a rare mainstream badge that is shopped by luxe and mainstream buyers. Check out the luxury brand-like price spread of a two-row Grand Cherokee (which will adopt the same design and features of L when it hits dealerships later this year) from its entry-level $36,000 starting sticker to the insane, $105,000, BMW X5 M-stomping, 707-horse Trackhawk.

“Should I buy the new BMW X5, Audi Q7, or Grand Cherokee?” my tennis club pals ask.

As readers of this column know, I regularly opine on how mainstream badges like Mazda and Kia have narrowed the gap to premium products. The Grand Cherokee L obliterates it.

Since its origins, the mid-size Jeep has been rear-wheel-drive based with powerful, longitudinally configured V-6 and V-8 engines. Like models from that other AWD SUV icon, Land Rover, this layout gives Grand Cherokee an inherently athletic look with a short overhang up front and a long hood. Seeking similar aesthetic gains, Ford and Lincoln recently converted their Explorer/Aviator middie platforms to RWD-based.

Also like luxury brands, the Jeep’s seven-slot grille is instantly recognizable. Bucking the current trend to big, toothy grilles (even Bimmer’s spouted buck teeth) the 2021 fascia is lean, athletic.

Speaking of athletic, the RWD platform — despite the wheelbase growing seven inches and overall length by 15 — allows more intuitive handling. My L-ephant in tennis shoes was nicely composed as I hustled around town chasing Detroit Grand Prix preparations. The tried-and-true 3.6-liter V-6 (a 5.7-liter, 357-horse V-8 is available for those who need to tow 7,200 pounds) has an authoritative voice.

The interior of the 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L is all-new with a focus on a thin, lifted, digital console screen.

Merging on to Interstate 96 in a top-trim Summit Reserve, I stomped the throttle and the V-6’s 293 horses responded immediately to my whip, propelling the 5,000-pound sled into the left lane. At cruising speed (air-suspension crouched for better aerodynamics), I relaxed and was pleased to find that both adaptive cruise control — and a more sophisticated semi-autonomous system called Active Drive Assist — were on offer. Nestled side-by-side on the steering wheel, the options are another welcome detail allowing drivers to choose their cruise.

Active Drive Assist is competent, and L drove smoothly in the middle of the lane — not ping-ponging back and forth like, ahem, a recent Volvo XC90 I piloted.

Keep your boot in it and the Jeep will travel 500 miles without range anxiety. When the feedbag runs empty just pull over and fill ’er up with $3 gas.

Jeep offered that I take the Grand Cherokee off-road to its diabolical Chelsea proving grounds where they tested the big ute across moguls, ditches, and flooded landscapes. Sounds like the typical Detroit road — so I stuck with my daily duties in town.

At a gas station on the east side, I ducked in for an iced tea. Upon my return, a few people had gathered to admire the Jeep made down the street in the Mack plant.

“That’s the new Grand Cherokee, isn’t it?”

“Yup, and this time it has three rows.”

My AWD tester is made for Michigan’s multi-season challenges with 10.9-inch lift (the same as a Wrangler Rubicon for goodness sake), two-speed transfer case for rocky terrain, limited-slip differential that’ll throw 100% torque from one rear wheel to the other to prevent slip in snow, and a prop shaft to swim the Detroit River (kidding about that last one). Lesser Laredo, Limited and Overland models get simpler systems that can merely climb Mt. Rushmore. It’s a Jeep thing.

Grand Cherokee saves the best for inside.

I liked the previous Grand’s “islands” theme (shared by Dodge products) that neatly organized dash elements. Jeep steps up the game with an integrated horizontal theme. Its focus is an elegant raised console screen. The dash is wrapped by flowing chrome bezels that extend, wing-like, to the doors.

The lifted console screen and rotary shifter and things of beauty.

The center display anchors a library of tech including Uconnect 5, the latest version of Chrysler’s (now Stellantis’) class-leading infotainment. It allows for wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a quick touchscreen, and swipe-able pages popularized by VW (I love when auto companies learn from one another).

A laundry list of standard safety and convenience features include blind-spot assist, adaptive cruise control, front-rear collision assist, rear cross-traffic detection, wireless smartphone apps.

(Pause to catch breath)

Optional night vision. Head-up display. Trail-rated skid plates.

If you don’t need the third-row seats, folding them flat opens 47 cubic-feet of space — 11 more than the current, two-row Grand Cherokee. Even the tailgate gets love with a button to set height so it doesn’t — WHUMP! — hit your garage door.

The Jeep’s value depends on where you’re standing. A $50,000 AWD Summit is 4 grand north of, say, a comparably equipped Kia Telluride. Shop against a three-row BMW X7 and it’s $20,000 cheaper.

That’s an L-uva deal.

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee

Vehicle type: Front engine, rear- and-all-wheel-drive, seven-passenger SUV

Price: $41,425, including $1,695 destination fee ($66,985 Summit Reserve as tested)

Powerplant: 3.5-liter V-6; 5.7-liter V-8

Power: 293 horsepower, 260 pound-feet torque (V-6); 357 horsepower, 390 pound-feet torque (V-8)

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph (NA); Towing, 6,200 lbs (V-6) or 7,200 lbs (V-8)

Weight: 5,068 pounds (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA est. mpg 18 city/25 highway/21 combined

Report card

Highs: Three roomy rows; state-of-the-art interior

Lows: 8-speed gearbox can stumble at low speeds

Overall: 4 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

Cartoon: Jester Stewart and the Wuhan Lab

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 17, 2021

Payne: Honda Civic dons a grown-up wardrobe, but still likes to boogie

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 17, 2021

How do you improve on a home run? Hit the next one into the upper deck.

The 2016 Honda Civic became the instant benchmark for the compact sedan segment. A clean sheet design from the ground up, its taut chassis was Nürburgring tested. It boasted best-in-class horsepower, fuel economy and rear seat room. And to make sure the world noticed, it drew styling cues right out of a DC Comic book with boomerang rear headlights, narrow greenhouse and more tattoos than Allen Iverson.

The new 2022 Civic (coming to a dealer near you this June) dials the wardrobe back to conservative Bruce Wayne from rad Batman suit. But on everything else it turns the dial up from 10 to 11.

After a 10th generation that shattered sales records, King Civic is poised to continue its reign at the top of the compact segment. Compacts are personal favorites because they are the LeBron James of automobiles — the best all-around players in the game. I’ve owned a VW Golf GTI, Dodge Neon, two Ford Focuses and a pair of Civics because they can do it all: dance through the twisties while sipping gas, seating four, looking sharp, and all while not breaking the bank.

The 2022 Honda Civic Sport is the best-selling Civic with racy black wheels and black trim. It starts at just $23,100.

Let’s take the Civic’s talents one at a time.

Dancing moves. I flogged the 2022 Civic through HUG — Hell, Unadilla and Gregory — the three burgs that border Michigan’s most insane network of country roads. The Civic left begging me for more.

Throwing the Civic across a 90-degree right-hander onto Doyle Road at Unadilla, the front-wheel driver is remarkably neutral — rotating easily like the rear-wheel-drive BMW 3-series I was chasing. That’s right, a BMW 3.

While underpowered at 180 horsepower compared to the Bimmer’s 248, they are both turbo-4s and the Honda is one sweet little drivetrain — its fuel-sipping, 36 mpg continuously variable transmission a universe away from the droning CVTs of yesteryear (the standard, 158 horse four-banger ain’t bad either, but lacks the upper-trim turbo’s low-end kick).

Long, 6'5" Detroit News auto critic Henry Payne could comfortably sit behind himself in the 2022 Honda Civic rear seat.

While I lost ground in the straightaways, the Honda could hold its own in the twisties, so intuitive is this chassis.

It’s a good thing, too, because the Honda has some serious competition nipping at its heels. I’m thinking the dazzling-looking, ninja-quick Mazda 3 and Hyundai Elantra that offer luxury amenities at a mainstream price. Set a high bar and others will follow.

Speaking of luxe, my $41,000 BMW sparring partner shot me a thumbs up as we exited Unadilla Raod — like two boxers after a good workout at the local gym. I didn’t have the heart to tell him he was being chased by a $25,000 Honda with more cargo space and 2.5 more inches of rear legroom.

Acres of room. Well, acres is an exaggeration, but the Civic’s best-in-class legroom is more than a 2011 mid-size Accord sedan, for goodness sake. At 6’5” I was comfortably able to sit behind myself. Indeed, the Civic will surely be mistaken by some for an Accord. And not just its mature understated exterior.

The interior takes a page from the Accord’s book with a simple horizontal dash design — placing the touchscreen high in the driver’s-eye view. Honda excels at interior ergonomics, and the Civic layout is master class.

Looks sharp. Like Accord, the interior has upscale aspirations — think Lincoln Aviator — with a honeycomb character line that is not just distinctive but hides the HVAC vents. Like the Lincoln, the touchscreen shelf helped steady my thumb as I paged through the infotainment display.

The 2022 Honda Civic's signature honeycomb dash trim hides HVAC vents for a clean, Tesla-like look.

The higher dash also benefited your giraffe-legged reviewer. My knees chafed on the old Civic’s vertical dash buttresses. No issues with the 2022 design. Has Civic moved on from the cheap plastic buttons on the previous gen’s steering wheel? You bet. I lament only that the old car’s clever configurable console cupholders and storage has been sacrificed to the ‘22’s more mature design themes. Storage still abounds (something luxe-class Mercs and Audis don’t do well).

Though interior dimensions haven’t changed, the greenhouse has.

Looking out over that the high touchscreen, I surveyed the landscape through a bigger windscreen thanks to Honda moving the A-pillar backward to a more vertical position. Together with side mirrors mounted on the doors, visibility improves.

The tech-tastic 2022 Honda Civic offers adaptive cruise control which not only measures the distance to the car in front, but also helps with lane keep.

That field of view now takes in a lower, longer aluminum (a first for Civic) hood that tapers to a more modest fascia than the last model. I’m a big fan of my eighth-gen Civic Si’s timeless thin grille and swept greenhouse. The new Civic should age well, too.

As will its price.

Won’t break the bank. Despite the Civic’s massive upgrades in interior tech (better cameras, all-digital displays, more air bags), the compact sedan’s price doesn’t budge. Credit some of this to its Made in America origins — the 11th-gen Civic will be screwed together in nearby Canada (sedans) and Indiana (hatchbacks).

My $24,000 Sport (Civic’s most popular model, the kids love the blacked-out trim and big 18-inch wheels) and loaded, $28,000 Touring testers are priced right on top of the outgoing car. That’s in keeping with Civic’s status as brand beacon that brings new customers to its product family. In the Age of Ute, the sedan maintains its price value over pricier SUVs.

Tight handling, bigger back seat, digital displays … the gap between luxe and mainstream is narrowing. Is a compact Acura ILX a better car? Perhaps the biggest bonus is wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto available on the upper trim, EX and Touring models (EX and Sport, with a smaller 7-inch display, still require a cord to connect) just like the 90-grand BMW M4 I was tested recently.

Jump in and the car immediately recognized the phone in my pocket, turning the touchscreen into a mirror image of my ‘Droid. My texts, tunes — and destinations were all there.

All-around athlete, indeed.

Gone to Hell: The 2022 Honda Civic is fun to take to Michigan's best roads around HUG -- the towns of Hell, Unadilla, and Gregory.

My Hell trips are usually reserved for high-horsepower athletes. But like the Bimmer I was chasing, the standard Civic is in its element here. And it is just the appetizer.

With its toned bod, light weight — and 1.5-inch longer wheelbase than last model — the 11th generation Civic promises even more performance from its forthcoming Si and Type-R hellions.

They’ll be swinging for the top deck.

2022 Honda Civic

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger sedan

Price: $22,695, including $995 destination fee ($24,095 Sport and $29,295 Touring as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter 4-cylinder; 1.5-liter turbo-4

Power: 158 horsepower, 138 pound-feet of torque (2.0L); 180 horsepower, 177 pound-feet of torque (1.5L)

Transmission: Automatic, continuously variable transmission (CVT)

Performance: 0-60 mph (7.5 sec., Car and Driver); top speed, 126 mph

Weight: 3,077 pounds  (Touring as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA, 31 mpg city/40 highway/35 combined  (2.0L); 31 mpg city/38 highway/34 combined (1.5L)

Report card

Highs: Fun to drive hard; engaging, upscale interior

Lows: Conservative exterior might be mistaken for an Accord

Overall: 4 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

Cartoon: Cruella Whitmer

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 13, 2021

Cartoon: Bezos Outer Space

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 13, 2021

Payne: BMW M4 has big grille, big power — and big identity crisis

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 13, 2021

Say hello to the 2021 BMW M4 coupe. B stands for “big”: big kidney grille, big proportions, big power, big sticker price.

Big ambition.

Most of it works, but the big news is that M4 is no longer the brand’s premier track rat. That title belongs to the smaller, apex-slicing M2 coupe — a rocket with the same proportions as the 2000 E46 M3 that established M as the handling standard for performance coupes. Twenty years later, M badge proliferates throughout the BMW lineup, from the M2, M5 and M8 to even M versions of its X3 and X5 SUVs.

Even the 2021 BMW M4 graphics for low tire pressure are cool.

And as the M4 (now the coupe’s badge, M3 is a sedan) has grown, it has shed some of its athletic identity to the nimbler M2. If today’s M2 is a scalpel, then the M4 is, well … having a bit of an identity crisis.

It’s a tweener between the M2 and the 600-horsepower M5 hammer. Like a 6’8” NBA player who wants to play guard. Or an electric guitar player who prefers Beethoven concertos. In M4’s case it wants … Ford Focus RS-like drift mode.

That’s right, drift mode.

On M1 Concourse’s Champion Speedway track, the M4 felt confused. Exploding out of the Turn 6 hairpin onto the back straight, the 473-horsepower, twin-turbo, 3.0-liter mill soared. I ripped off quick manual shifts — long live the manual! — as BMW’s inline-6 cylinder’s endless torque curve lit up the digital RPM instrument display. Thanks to M-mode, that display can be projected on the windscreen in my direct line of sight so I could upshift before the torque wave slammed into the 7,200-RPM redline.

Good seats, Intuitive controls. The 2021 BMW M4 has one of the best cockpits in autodom.

But as I entered Champion’s long Turn 7, M4 suddenly wanted to be a Fast and Furious drifter — its rear stepping out — rather than firmly planted like Ms of old. The rubbery manual shifter doesn’t help, making it hard to find gears under heavy g-loads. The smooth engine and ragged handling clash.

Blame M’s confusion on three traction modes — Stability control ON, Stability Control OFF and the M Drift Analyzer (aka, drift mode) with its 10 settings. On M1’s skid pad afterward, I rotated around pylons like I was a steel horse negotiating rodeo barrels. The Drift Analyzer is a fun challenge to harness — though by the time you figure it out, your expensive Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires may be reduced to dust.

It all felt like too much. How do you say “Jump the shark” in German?

I pined for the simplicity of my ol’ 3,480-pound 2001 E46 M3 — its raspy, 330-horse inline-6 singing at 8,000 RPM while the taut 107-inch chassis intuitively found apexes. Today, that simplicity is found in the M2 with its comparable weight, 16-inch wheelbase and 405 horsepower. If you frequent track days, M2 is the E46’s true heir.

M4 has stretched five inches beyond those athletes, tipping the sales at a porky 3,709 pounds.

The new Bimmer was more in its element on a day trip to Mid-Ohio race track, where I was competing with my SCCA Lola sports racer.

Unlike 2-seat sports cars, the 2021 BMW M4 has a working back seat.

On the Buckeye State’s country roads (traction control on), the turbo-6’s siren song was addictive. Like Corvette Z-mode or Porsche’s Sport Response button, the M4 makes it easy to program the car to your liking. I prefer Sport Plus mode and the enhanced wail of the 6-cylinder.

There is no lag at low revs and gobs of power at redline. I opted for electronic rev-matching to make manual downshifts smooth and satisfying. Just keep your eye on the tachometer as triple-digit speeds arrive quickly.

On longer interstate stretches, the BMW’s superb interior shines.

Ergonomics are some of the best in the industry. The fat steering wheel felt rooted to the road. Instrument and infotainment displays are well placed, and the M4 adds (at a fee, of course) a head-up display that contains relevant speed/navigation/radio details so your eyes never have to leave the road.

Under the graphically rich dash screen is useful console phone storage despite the presence of the huge signature iDrive rotary screen controller. Redundancy is everywhere, including touchscreen controls if the iDrive doesn’t suit you. Oh, and there’s a row of radio preset buttons under the screen.

BMW is on the cutting edge of electronic technology, and M4 automatically detected my Samsung smartphone with wireless Android Auto each time I entered the car. This effortless synchronization of phone and car is the future of car-phone integration, and BMW even mirrored my phone’s Google Maps in the head-up display.

My $93,000 tester came with all the bells and whistles, including $3,400 carbon fiber seats and blue-and-yellow stitched interior that would make Gucci jealous. For those who don’t need such razzle-dazzle, the standard seats are luxury enough.

The 2021 BMW M4 gets a complete makeover, including elegant rear tail lamps and nice lines.

Interiors have been an M strength dating to my BMW ownership days. I chose the M3 over a Porsche Boxster/Cayman because I had a family and needed the coupe’s backseat to seat four. That same practicality holds today as buyers look at competitively priced coupes from Porsche and Corvette.

Speaking of competitive, I tested an M2 at the same time as the M4. It also seats four but for thousands of dollars less. Indeed, the rear seat room of the M2 matches M4 despite the latter’s stretched wheelbase. What’s more, M2 also brings electronic tricks like wireless phone connectivity (if not quite matching the M4’s poshness).

With a healthy 405 horsepower from the same, slightly detuned turbo I-6, the 3,415-pound M2 actually has a better power-to-weight ratio than the 473-horse, 3,700-pound M4. Bimmer seems determined to push M4 into grand tourer territory and crown the M2 its new track halo.

One big M4 ambition I took a shine to, however, was the full-fascia kidney grille.

The polarizing kidneys were a source of constant comment in the Mid-Ohio paddock. They are aggressive. They are grille-zilla, and I liked them. They match M4’s masculinity and power.

Grille-zilla is also available on the cheaper M450i, AWD version of the 4-series that I drove to Hell and back earlier this year. Endowed with the same interior tricks as M4, this may be — pound-for-pound — the best 4-series. Big grille, big power, but without the big sticker.

For those who want the legendary M thrill on the track, let me suggest M2 Jr.

The 2021 BMW M4 is the halo model of the M-brand that now includes other models like the M2 and M8 - and M X3 and M X5 SUVs. All are as fun on track as they are on road.

2021 BMW M4

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, four-passenger sports coupe

Price: $72,795, including $995 destination fee ($93,795 as tested)

Powerplant: 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged inline-6 cylinder

Power: 473 horsepower, 406 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual, 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 3.8 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 180 mph

Weight: 3,709 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA, 16 mpg city/23 highway/19 combined

Report card

Highs: Inline-6 cylinder from the gods; that big grille actually looks pretty good

Lows: Identity crisis; cheaper M2 a better buy

Overall: 3 stars

Cartoon: Biden China Challenge

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 7, 2021

Cartoon: Fauci Email Fibs

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 3, 2021

Payne: Meet the Volkswagen Taos, successor of Golf, son of Atlas

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 3, 2021

Certain milestones crystalize new realities. When we Skyped my kids in college. When Amazon Prime promised it could deliver my gifts Christmas week. When my phone became my camera.

And when the Volkswagen Taos SUV replaced the Golf hatchback.

The 2022 VW Taos is a subcompact SUV with size. Starting at $24,190, it replaces the VW Golf in the brand's lineup to compete against SUVs like the Jeep Compass and Subaru Crosstrek.

So dominant are SUVs in the U.S. marketplace that VW has ditched its iconic Golf. Sure, the Golf GTI and R performance variants will live on, but as small-volume halo cars. That’s right, the Golf is now the VW brand equivalent of a Mazda Miata. How the world has changed.

In the Golf’s place now as VW’s entry-level compact vehicle is the Taos. Same MQB platform. Same four door-hatchback layout. Same 1.5-liter turbo-4. Same premium price over the Jetta sedan (which survives as VW’s entry-level vehicle … for now). Same $24,190 starting price. But, boy, has the brand focus changed.

And that’s important in a U.S. market where giant SUVs stalk the earth and a new generation of Americans demand that their transportation rides high like a Conestoga wagon. Still, it’s jarring for us VW vets who grew up ducking into low-slung Golfs and taking the back roads to our destination.

I didn’t so much duck into the Taos as slide in. Like jumping on a bar stool instead of stooping into a diner booth. SUV hip points are about half-a-foot higher than a car but it feels like much more. Barreling into a sweeper on Hadley Road north of Chelsea, I stabbed the Taos’ brake pedal to stabilize the Conestoga wagon on turn-in.

Detroit News critic Henry Payne took the 2022 VW Taos through Hell, Michigan's twisty roads - but no one will confuse the big subcompact SUV with a nimble Golf.

I’d never do that in a nimble Golf. That’s when it hits you. This isn’t a big Golf — it’s a mini-Atlas.

Atlas, of course, is the brand’s humongous three-row SUV. Made in Tennessee. All-wheel drive. Bold truck-like grille. Oh, yes, VW understands us Yankees now. It wasn’t always so.

VW resisted the SUV trend in early days with its first too-small Tiguan compact ute sampling the U.S. market like a Bratwurst maker forced into making — Gott on Himmel! — hot dogs!

But with the second-generation long-wheel-base three-row Tiggy, VW got it. Then came the Atlas, which (true to its namesake) put the brand on its back and carried it to new heights. Together with its sister, the two-row Atlas Cross Sport, it has outsold Tiguan to start 2021. Speaking of sisters, my own sis bought one and declared it the best V-dub she’s ever had (she’s owned several). She even gave it a nickname: Lassie. Remember when folks use to do that with Golfs? Gott in Himmel.

My nickname for Taos is Son of Atlas.

The rear seat is yuuuge. I sat behind myself with ease. Not only did my 6’5” knees have room behind the backseat, I had inches to spare. The Golf used to be roomy among its class peers (think Corolla and Mazda hatches) thanks to its squared-off styling. Taos benefits from the same design.

Detroit News auto critic Henry Payne and his 6'5" frame could easily sit behind himself in the 2022 VW Taos.

My expectations were that Taos would be a Hyundai Venue or Nissan Kicks-fighter. Small, cheap. I was wrong. VW leaves the $19K space to Jetta. The Taos starts a class higher, with my front-wheel-drive SE and all-wheel-drive SEL testers soaring as high as $34K. Want a VW hatchback that costs south of $20,000? Buy a used Golf.

The Taos niche on the menu has grown quickly in recently years to slake Americans’ insatiable appetite for all things ute. It’s aimed squarely at the Jeep Compass, Subaru Crosstrek, Chevy Trailblazer, Mazda CX-30 and Kia Seltos.

Think of it as the pasta serving at an upscale Italian Bistro between appetizer and entrée. These dishes are spicy meatballs. Much of that spice is communicated via outdoor ruggedness, like the all-new Crosstrek I cooed over last year with its tough mug and running-shoe-like cladding.

Interestingly, VW went after the Crosstrek five years ago with the Golf Alltrack — a raised (by 0.6 inches) Golf. Like the Crosstrek (essentially a raised Impreza hatchback), it seemed an easy solution. I loved it. Consumers didn’t. They passed over it as an SUV pretender. Tough crowd.

Golf Alltrack died quietly after the 2019 model year, clearing the way for Taos.

Upright Taos dresses up nicely in hiking garb. Further proof that Atlas’ size — not Golf athleticism — sets the tone for V-dub these days, the Taos offers only a 1.5-liter, 148-horse engine compared to the Alltrack’s 170-horse, 1.8-liter turbo-4. And Taos doesn’t even offer an engine upgrade like, say, the 250-horse Mazda CX-30 Turbo, which stands out as class athlete.

Indeed, I was particularly taken by the Taos SE with black trim and 18-inch black wheels. Like its targeted millennial demographic, Taos is also determined to accessorize outdoors chic with digital tech. Think an Apple Watch to go with your hiking boots.

A digital cockpit and infotainment screen come standard on Taos, with larger displays available. Tech such as rear camera, smartphone connectivity and auto headlights are standard as expected in this class — but then VW steps out of the rigid trim walk and offers the content-rich $995 IQ.Drive on even its base SE model: blindspot assist, adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist, rear traffic alert, rain-sensing wipers, the works.

The 2022 VW Taos offers digital displays standard. They can be controlled from the steering wheel as well as by touch (console screen).

Winter-weary Michiganians will also appreciate that AWD is offered at entry trim (for $2,045) — another dramatic departure from the Golf class that only offered AWD as a performance accessory on the rambunctious, track-tastic $40K-something Golf R.

Ergonomics are quite good — with the caveat that V-dub continues to resist an audio mute button. Want to turn off your radio without shutting down the entire infotainment display? Ya’ gotta’ turn the knob aaaaaall. The. Way. Down. Gaaaargh!

Ahem. Otherwise, there are big knobs everywhere and information-rich digital screens so your eyes won’t be long diverted from the road.

Or off-road. Taos’ sheer interior size (its rear seat and cargo dimensions are only slightly smaller than Tiguan) will encourage families to pile in for long adventures. As such, Taos is another gas-powered threat to VW’s claimed electric future. With 410 miles of get-away-from-it-all range from its sippy, torquey 1.5-liter engine versus 250 miles for a much pricier ID.4, the Taos begs the question: Why EV?

Grunting along Unadilla Township’s back roads in the AWD Taos, my eyes began to wander looking for dirt roads to play on. A decidedly un-Golf-like thought.

What’s next VW? A pickup?

2022 Volkswagen Taos

Vehicle type: Front engine, front and-all-wheel-drive, five-passenger compact SUV

Price: $24,190, including $1,095 destination fee ($32,685 FWD SE and $35,440 AWD SEL models as tested)

Powerplant: 1.5-liter turbo-4 cylinder

Power: 158 horsepower, 184 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic (AWD) or 8-speed automatic (FWD)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.8 seconds (Car and Driver est.); top speed, 120 mph

Weight: 3,430 pounds (AWD as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA est. mpg 28 city/36 highway/31 combined (FWD); 25 city/33 highway/28 combined (AWD)

Report card

Highs: Roomy interior; digital displays

Lows: Lacks Golf nimbleness; mute button, please

Overall: 3 stars

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Posted by Talbot Payne on June 3, 2021

Payne: Starter Nissan Versa is roomy, techy (just beware the gerbils)

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 3, 2021

If I were shopping for my first car today? My Neanderthal tastes haven’t progressed much since I was a 22 year old exiting college in 1984. Back then, I wanted speed, speed, speed. And some hatchback utility.

I bought a used VW Rabbit GTI. I’d do the same today. Cost? About $18,000 with 75,000 miles as I surf the used car ads (the Rabbit is now a Golf).

That said, it’s comforting to see that there are new cars available for that price that don’t stink. In fact, they are quite pleasant. Take the all-new 2021 Nissan Versa I flogged across the Arizona desert recently.

Sporting the snazzy, V-motion grille found on bigger siblings like Altima and sculpted body stampings across its hood and flanks, the Versa was a nice weekend date out of the Enterprise subcompact sedan rental pool.

The pool has become a lot shallower of late.

Stylin'. The 2021 Nissan Versa shows off its pleasant curves in the artsy town of Tucson, Arizona.

Detroit automakers have abandoned the segment save the Chevy Spark (a cutie that, alas, was given a coat of vanilla for its 2021 refresh. C’mon, GM, these wee products need to stand out on the shelf!). Want Detroit iron? Hit the used lot. That leaves the new sedan menu to Asian morsels like the Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio appetizers.

To attract first-time American buyers, Nissan goes big. We Yanks take up a lotta room, after all.

I’m a 6’5” giraffe and was shocked that I could sit behind myself in an entry-level sedan. That size continues in the boot, where Mrs. Payne and I stuffed in two carry-ons, a tennis bag and another large bag. That’s more than a Kia Optima can swallow.

Entry-level prices can be a little deceiving for subcompacts as the standard, $15,930 Versa comes equipped with a manual and no Apple CarPlay. The former suits me just fine (my first GTI was a manual), but the lack of smartphone capability in the early 21st century is unworkable. Gotta have your smartphone running navigation when wanderlust calls.

So think of my SV-trim tester as the starter price at $18,130 — still well below what you can find in the SUV class. For that, you get the essential smartphone apps, blind-spot assist, cruise control (adaptive is available on the upper SR trim) and auto high beams. That’s a sweet suite of stuff — and on par with a used 2016 Golf GTI.

What you don’t get for your 18 grand is horsepower. The Versa is gerbil powered — 122 of them.

My interstate merges were done full throttle lest I be trampled by a herd of SUVs and semi-trucks. With a continuously variable rubber band — er, transmission — running the show, the Versa’s four cylinders make quite a racket.

The soapbar-shaped 2021 Nissan Versa is a smart buy in the subcompact segment starting at $15k. The Detroit Three have largely abandoned the class.

Leave Tucson to the north and the table-flat desert gives way to the rolling foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Twisties abound and the versatile Versa is fun to throw around — as long as you remember to get on the throttle early out of turns lest the gerbil wheel stalls mid-stroke.

Despite my heavy right foot, I managed an impressive 38 miles to the gallon — better than the advertised 35 mpg EPA — over some 300 miles of driving. That’s good news for the tight budgets of 20-somethings.

While you won’t confuse Versa’s interior for its fancy Sentra big brother (a contender for last year’s North American Car of the Year), it never discomfited my big frame.

The cloth seats fit nicely, and the instrument display is split between an analog speedometer and digital display. I thumbed through digital pages that featured mpg, mph and tire pressure data.

The interior of the 2021 Nissan Versa features comfortable seats for long trips, and (on the SV model and above) smartphone app connectivity and CVT tranny.

Typical of Nissan, engineers have included thoughtful details throughout. Door-mounted mirrors, for example, make for better outward visibility. Unscrewing a Snapple bottle at a stoplight, I yearned for a little door handle-mounted cubby to store the cap. There it was, right at my elbow.

Still, having spent the week before my Versa date in $30K-plus compact SUVs, I was quickly reminded of how spoiled modern electronics have made me. In the sub-$20K subcompact class, passive key entry is a luxury. I had to unlock the doors manually with the fob (“Thurston, is that a bead of sweat on your brow?”) as well as the trunk. Safety features like auto-shift-into-park-when-the-door-opens and adaptive cruise control have expanded the safety cocoon around more expensive vehicles.

That used 2016 Golf GTI will come similarly equipped, though it will be 75,000 miles worse for the wear. It will also have 220 horses under the hood, tempting Neanderthals like me.

If you prefer zero miles on the odometer — and don’t mind fuel-efficient gerbils — then the Nissan Versa is a fine choice.

With floating roof and rear diffuser treatment, the comfortable seats for long trips ain't bad lookin' for an entry-lvel vehicle.

2021 Nissan Versa

Vehicle type: Front engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger subcompact sedan

Price: $15,930, including $950 destination fee ($18,130 as tested)

Powerplant: 1.6-liter 4 cylinder

Power: 122 horsepower, 114 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 5-speed or continuously variable transmission

Performance: 0-60 mph, 9.0 seconds (Car and Driver est.); top speed, 115 mph

Weight: 2,657 pounds (SV as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA est. mpg 32 city/40 highway/35 combined (CVT)

Report card

Highs: Roomy interior; pleasant to look at outside

Lows: No standard smartphone connectivity; gerbil power

Overall: 3 stars

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Payne: Used 2015 Tesla Model S P90D is a Ludicrous bargain

Posted by Talbot Payne on May 27, 2021

The OG has still got it.

It’s been over three years since I’ve been behind the wheel of a Tesla Model S. The Original Gangster. The breakthrough electric vehicle that redefined what a battery-powered vehicles could be. Since that time, I’ve owned two Model 3s — the more affordable junior version of S that made the Silicon Valley brand a luxe best-seller when it was introduced in 2017.

But here’s the thing. The Model S is not only still state-of-the-art, it’s now affordable too.

What are you waiting for? This used, 2015 Tesla Model S P90D with 60,000 miles can be had for under $50,000 - a far cry from the car's new price of $140k - yet the S is as modern as ever.

The used market is awash in Model S cars going back to its original 2012 model year. Good cars. Like the 2015 Model S P90D with 60,000 miles I drove for two days while my Model 3 Performance was in the shop (to clean out a mouse that tried to escape from Michigan’s winter by nesting in the floorboards).

Ludicrous mode. Zero-to-60 in 2.8 seconds. All-wheel drive. Leather and Alcantara interior. Panoramic sunroof.

Tesla’s Clarkston dealership was using this P90D as a loaner for customers like me, but I’m sure they’d sell it to you. Offer 45 grand. That’s right, $45,000, a few grand more than the average $38,900 new car price paid in 2020. If they won’t sell it to you, there’s one in Glendale, Arizona, for $46.4K with 55,000 miles. Or Chattanooga for $49.9K with 50K miles, or …

You get the idea. They’re out there at accessible prices for a sedan that sold new for $140 grand. A new, 2021 Model S starts at $79,990. The performance version (now called Plaid instead of P90D)? $120k.

Despite its six-year age, a used Model S still feels like the most modern car in the midsize market. Other manufacturers have pedaled hard to catch up — most notably Mercedes, which now sports most of the tech features found in the Model S. But S remains as fresh as the first time I saw it on the Detroit auto show floor in 2012.

The 2015 Tesla Model S P90D wows with its 17-inch console screen and all-digital displays. The rest of the industry is still catching up to S tech.

Crowds were three deep to get into it. They ogled its big screen. Its simple interior. My Model 3 took that simplicity to its logical extreme — an iPhone-simple interior with everything located in a 12-inch center screen. It was the Model 3’s radical design that enticed me to put $1,000 down after Elon Musk unveiled it in April 2016. I put a deposit on a $50,000 car without even sitting in it. Before a single model had even rolled off the line.

Because I knew its potential after driving multiple Model S’s.

Turning right onto Interstate 75 after leaving the Clarkson dealership, I matted the throttle and … curses! The Tesla mother ship in Silicon Valley had restricted the loaner car’s drive mode to “Chill.” No Ludicrous mode for loaner drivers. Insurance reasons, I get it.

But the 4,800-pound sedan still surged forward nicely — an appetizer for the dizzying, face-flattening torque that Ludicrous mode offers. Yet for all its heft (equal to a base Ford F-150), the Model S felt planted, its battery underneath me creating a center of gravity lower than a Porsche Boxster Cayman, for goodness sake. I hustled around the clover leaf.

I barked a restaurant destination — “Zao Jun in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan” — and the system didn’t miss a thing, perfectly interpreting my southern West Virginia command for an Asian restaurant. I set sail using the beautiful Google Earth-rendered display that still wows nearly a decade after I first saw it on the showroom floor.

In Ludicrous mode, the 2015 Tesla Model S P90D will hit 60 mph in just 2.8 seconds.

Significantly, the S felt current — its software updated through 2020 by over-the-air updates to contain the latest infotainment and toybox features (like Fireplace) that Tesla offers. That is, despite being six years old, the Model S has gotten better, its graphics and features updating all the while.

What the used Model S did not have, however, was Autopilot.

Though all cars Tesla manufactured from September 2014-October 2016 contained the hardware necessary for driver-assist, my car likely didn’t have the updated software for the same reason it was denied Ludicrous mode: so loaner customers didn’t play with it. It can be, um, intense for the uninitiated.

That will be fine with most folks (a friend of mine has a Model S with Autopilot and never uses it) since the vehicle’s standard adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist and emergency braking are excellent. I cruised happily around town barking navigation instructions, deferring to the auto windshield wipers to clear muck from my screen, and watching the auto high beams switch on/off when they sensed another car.

The 2015 model still has the “nose cap” (as Tesla-philes call it) — that awkward faux plastic grille that S sedans had until designers removed it for a simpler “falcon beak” in 2016. My Model 3 looks awkward with no grille at all — its nose as featureless as bad guy Voldemort in a Harry Potter movie.

Best of both worlds. The 2015 Tesla Model S P90D features low-center-of-gravity sedan handling with the hatchback practicality of an SUV.

For $1,750, you can buy an updated front clip for the Model S from TSportline.

Unlike Model 3, Model S is equipped with a hatchback, opening massive rear cargo space just like an SUV. Or an A7, my favorite Audi sedan. It’s the best of both worlds: SUV utility meets sedan’s low center of gravity.

The Model S is also solid as a rock at high speed. Mrs. Payne remarked on how hushed the interior felt compared to the Model 3 — which has had numerous build issues as Tesla rushed them out the door to fill demand. Pals who own Model S’s have remarked to me how reliable theirs have been — a testament to the simplicity of the Tesla’s build. Electric motors and batteries don’t require much maintenance.

So for your $45,000 luxury yacht, you also get low maintenance costs. And — finally! — a dealership nearby.

The Clarkson dealership is the first in the state for Tesla after the incoming Whitmer administration lifted restrictions on manufacturers (i.e., Tesla) selling directly to customers. The state legislature tried to reverse the order, but the effort died in the Senate.

The interior of the 2015 Tesla Model S P90D. In addition to its tablet-like, 17-inch screen, the Tesla has received regular updates over the air that have made the car better on six years. Updates like Autopilot self-driving and audio features.

Just a half hour up I-75 from my Oakland County home, I returned the S and picked up my repaired Model 3. The 3 remains my preferred Tesla for its compact size and more track-worthy nature (we motorheads like track days).

But a low-mileage, sub-$50,000 P90D is a tempting dish indeed. Especially as it tastes as fresh as when it came out of the oven.

2015 Used Tesla Model S P90D 

Vehicle type: Battery-powered, all-wheel-drive, five-passenger luxury sedan

Price: est. $45,000-$50,000 ($139,700 when new in 2015)

Powerplant: 90 kWh lithium-ion battery with twin, electric-motor drive

Power: 532 horsepower, 713 pound-feet torque

Transmission: One-speed direct drive

Performance: 0-60 mph, 2.8 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 155 mph

Weight: 4,842 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA MPGe 89 city/98 highway; range, 270 miles

Report card

Highs: Exotic EV at an affordable price; Ludicrous mode

Lows: Charging on long trips tedious; “nose cap”

Overall: 4 stars