Henry Payne Blog

CARtoon: Jaguar SUV

Posted by hpayne on August 23, 2016


Cartoon: Hillary Lochte Ticket

Posted by hpayne on August 23, 2016


Cartoon: Bolt Xmen

Posted by hpayne on August 19, 2016


Cartoon: Make Trump Great

Posted by hpayne on August 18, 2016


New classics for the Woodward Dream Cruise

Posted by hpayne on August 17, 2016


It’s time to head back to Woodward for our annual Dream Cruise reunion. This year’s featured class is 1990 which, after 26 years, is eligible for historic plate status under Michigan law. Most states celebrate the quarter-century mark, but we Michiganians are different (or just can’t count).

When I celebrated my 30th college reunion a couple of years back, time had taken its toll: Some classmates were notable for their loss of hair. Still others hadn’t changed a bit, their youthful figures still turning heads.

Some names I didn’t recognize. (We went to school together?) Some had kids who already had graduated from college.

So it is with our 26th-reunion class.

Some names we’ve forgotten. Geo? Who made you again? The Miata family is in its fourth generation. And Corvette ZR-1, dude, you’re as hot as ever.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Class of 1990.

Cars built in 1990 are now eligible for historic plate

Chevy Corvette ZR-1

This was the class’ star athlete. It made the girls swoon. If cars were barred for performance-enhancing drugs, the ZR-1 never would have made it. With bigger glutes to accommodate huge rear rubber, a performance suspension and a 375-horsepower engine supplied by Lotus, the ZR-1 was all-everything. And at $58,995 is cost double a base ‘Vette.

Redesigned for 1990, the 18½-foot long, V-8-powered

Lincoln Town Car

The Academy Award-nominated “Driving Miss Daisy” was a cultural phenomenon in 1990, so it’s only appropriate that Lincoln’s best-selling chauffeur-mobile got a major redesign. With sleeker styling, the 181/2-foot-long, V-8 powered land yacht was Motor Trend’s 1990 Car of the Year. Two bench seats! Six-passenger seating! Four-speaker AM/FM stereo with cassette player! Ah, the days when full-size sedans were king. Town Car sold a staggering 120,000 units in 1990 — five times more than today’s lux class-leading Mercedes S-Class.


The 1990 Mazda MX-5 Miata was a throwback to the British

Mazda MX-5 Miata

Here we jump from 221-inch ocean liner to 155-inch skiff. The Miata was made in Japan but made for America. The pet project of American journalist-turned-product-planner Bob Hall, the MX-5 was a throwback to the British roadsters of the 1960s. Nimble and topless, the Miata was an instant hit. Unlike the rest of us oldsters, the Miata hasn’t gained weight over two-and-a-half decades. The fourth-gen car — just 2,332 pounds — weighs nearly the same as the original.

A year after the slinky Reatta was introduced, Buick

Buick Reatta convertible

A year after the slinky Reatta was introduced, Buick dropped its top. The limited-edition, V-6 powered Reatta was always destined to be a Dream Cruiser classic. The convertible was even rarer with just 2,437 copies sold (65 of them were “Select Sixty” models with white skin and flaming red interiors). It would be the last Buick convertible until this year’s striking, Opel-based Buick Cascada.

Toyota's luxury brand Lexus debuted in 1990 with the

Lexus LS400

Toyota’s luxury brand debuted in 1990 with the full-sized LS. This big, juicy, premium steak was prepared just as luxury customers wanted — lush interior, big-cube V-8, air suspension — but for a fraction of the cost of comparable European dishes. It looked a Mercedes, but its customer service was second to none. Attentive service spawned urban legends of dealer agents walking 500 miles over hot coals for their customers. The flagship sedan has since lost its mojo, as the Lexus RX SUV has become the brand’s dominant seller – and signature vehicle.

Like Toyota, Nissan dove into the luxury pool with

nfiniti Q45

Like Toyota, Nissan dove into the luxury pool with its own brand. But unlike Lexus’s swan dive, Infiniti did a belly flop. The Q45 was much more daring than Lexus, less derivative in design. Infiniti chose to debut the car with ads never showing the actual automobile. Its antiseptic interior was clean of coveted design elements like wood trim. It’s a pity, because the car was a technical tour de force: It came with a class-leading, 278-horse, 4.5-liter V-6 and innovative details like rear-wheel steering and an active suspension that read the contours of the road for a smoother ride.

Updating the 300ZX for the 1990 model year, Nissan

Plymouth Laser/Eagle Talon

Remember those 1990 class lovebirds, Chrysler and Mitsubishi? Well, the pair got hitched and birthed a Diamond-Star family of identical triplets: Eagle Talon, Mitsubishi Eclipse and Plymouth Laser. Only the Mitsubishi would survive the decade, but the Eagle was the athlete of the litter, winning the SCCA Touring Car championship in 1990 and 1991. Priced affordably (the equivalent of $25K-$35K today), the top-trim, turbocharged Talon/Laser/Eclipse was a rocketship with 195 ponies and all-wheel drive handling.

In 1990 Chrysler and Mitsubishi collaborated on a Diamond-Star

Nissan 300 ZX

Nissan designers penned one of the sexiest, most revered shapes in the market when they updated the 300ZX for the 1990 model year. The arched rocker panels alone caused grown men’s knees to buckle with desire. Sporting two engine options — 220-horse V-6 or 300-horse twin-turbo — the low-slung coupe was as quick as it was good-looking. Car and Driver gave it high honors with a place on the annual Top 10 list.

The successor to the sporty Sirocco, the wedge-shaped

VW Corrado

The successor to the sporty Scirocco, the wedge-shaped Corrado coupe was a stunner. Its muscular physique, unique rear spoiler (which deployed at speeds over 50 mph) and peppy, 138-horse supercharged engine made it one spicy heisse wurst. But customers balked at the V-dub’s high price. For the 1992 model year, it was stuffed with a 187-horse V-6, causing Car magazine to call the Corrado of “25 Cars You Must Drive Before You Die.”


Under pressure to sell small cars profitably in the

Geo Prizm

This wee sardine can is hardly a classic cruiser, but there’s a neat twist if you’ll bear with me. Under pressure to sell small cars profitably in the U.S. market, GM teamed with Toyota in 1990 to produce the Prizm in their joint-venture NUMMI plant in Fremont, California. A quarter-century later, the fuel-sipping Geo badge is gone as Americans still resist small cars. And the NUMMI plant? It’s been converted by Tesla to produce its future-classic Model S electric car.

The TVR Griffith -- now eligible for U.S. import after

TVR Griffith

While American cars become eligible for historic plates after 26 years, U.S. law also grants status to American-illegal cars when they turn 25. Cars like the TVR Griffith — which never satisfied America’s onerous federal regulations — are now legal to be driven on U.S. roads. A classic English badge, the lightweight, fiberglass-bodied, 240-horse TVR was a rocket in a straight line, and a handful in the twisties. Look for this outsider crashing the Woodward class party.


Cartoon: Obama and Louisiana Floods

Posted by hpayne on August 17, 2016


Payne: Best college car

Posted by hpayne on August 13, 2016

A new car will depreciate 60 percent after four years.

Cars mark milestones in our lives: The car you got your license in as a teen. Your first family carrier when you had kids. Your mid-life crisis Camaro ZL1 that got you a fat ticket on Woodward (remember that one?).

For many, August means finding the right car to go back to college.

After the emotional family trip your freshman year — the tears, the hugs, the goodbyes — sophomore year begins an annual routine. You’re on your own. Time to have your own car and make the trip back yourself. The car represents freedom, but also expense.

You imagine rolling up to campus in a brand new, yellow Mustang convertible — V-6 purring, shades on. But will all your stuff fit in the trunk? Will your three pals fit in the back seat? And what was that sticker price again? Thirty-three grand?

(Cough.) Not on top of what the parents are paying in tuition, you’re not.

Welcome to Econ 101. College wheels are a lesson in cost management and utility. Shopping starts in the USED section. Save the new car for later. The truth is new vehicles on average depreciate by 20 percent their first year off the lot according to Carfax.com — and 60 percent over four years.

Talk about a lousy investment. So buy used. But be reasonable about it.

My college roommate bought his first car in August 1985 with $100 he had saved from his summer job. It was an old Fiat with more miles on it that the Space Shuttle. He drove it 200 miles to Princeton University from Virginia that August, unloaded his stuff in our room, then coaxed it — wheezing and wobbling — to a nearby garage to get it serviced.

The grizzled mechanic took one look at the Italian lemon, turned to my 19-year old roomie and said: “Son, you’re lucky to be alive.”

Happily, 200,000 miles is the new 100,000. So if you can find a 5-year-old-plus car with less than 100,000 miles on the odometer, chances are you’ll get a good buy for under $10,000.

There’s a school of thought among parents that their kids should drive around in tanks for safety in the case of an accident (likely with another kid in a tank). But I come from a different school: If you’re a competent, defensive driver, a smaller car allows you to avoid contact in the first place. Case in point — at the busy Tel-Twelve interchange on the Lodge Freeway a few years back, a hulking SUV cut across three lanes (seized by a sudden Big Mac attack, perhaps?) to exit onto Telegraph Road — and right across my bow. Driving a nimble Ford Focus ZX3 hatch (ultimately the college car for both my boys), I took violent avoidance action and emerged unscathed.

If I had been in a large SUV, I would have been on my roof. Or worse.

Compact hatches are also affordable. A Ford Focus or Mazda 3 hatchback, Honda Fit, Toyota Prius or VW Golf all meet my under-100,000 miles/$10,000 ticker criteria. They are also thrifty daily drivers for tight student budgets — and will sound attractive to tuition-shocked parents when you go to them on bended knees for one more college expense.

A 2011 Honda Fit, for example, will get over 30 mpg and require minimal maintenance. Look for a used, mid-sized, 30-mpg-sipping Honda Pilot SUV for under $10K and you’d have a better chance finding a unicorn.

Yeah, I know, millennials dig SUVs just like everyone else. And, says Chevy marketing guru Steve Majoros, crossovers are no longer just for soccer moms now that a new generation of subcompact utes is peppering vehicles lots: Chevy Trax, Fiat 500X, Jeep Renegade. But good luck finding those newbies for less than $10K.

Five-door compacts offer the same utility at less cost. All you give up is a few inches off the ground. That’s right, the days of the underpowered compact are over.

I didn’t have a car in college (a West Virginia native, I was lucky to have shoes), but the future Mrs. Payne did. Her used, loaded-with-college-stuff BMW 318 sedan and its paltry 98 horses barely made it over Pennsylvania’s mountains on her way to school.

That five-door, four-year-old Honda Fit/Focus/Golf beats the Bimmer by 20-60 horsepower and will climb interstate mountains like a billy goat. It’ll also fit your belongings. And your three college pals. And go from Ann Arbor to home and back on a couple of gallons of gas.

Cartoon: ISIS Intelligence and Obama

Posted by hpayne on August 12, 2016


Cartoon: Trump Hillary Olympics

Posted by hpayne on August 12, 2016


Cartoon: Hillary Stronger Together

Posted by hpayne on August 12, 2016


Payne: Sedan sirens, Buick LaCrosse and Jaguar XJL

Posted by hpayne on August 11, 2016

Two rejuvenated brands are turning heads this year

The heck with big sport utilities.

Those breadboxes on wheels have taken over our automotive kingdom. Boxy and brawny, they have become Americans’ vehicle of choice. Don’t get me wrong, I get it. Their utility is undeniable. They efficiently swallow families and their stuff. They give soccer moms visual command of the landscape. They assist senior citizens with an easy step up rather than a back-breaking stoop down. And they provide NBA-friendly room for sharp elbows and tall knees.

Utility? You bet. But sport? I mean, even Porsche can’t make a car jacked a foot in the air feel like a Porsche. There’s no denying physics. And stick a fifth door on anything and it’s going to look like a box. There are some lovely beaks out there, from the Maserati Lavante’s trident grill to the Mazda CX’9’s sunny smile. But you’ll never hear anyone talk about a ute’s gorgeous glutes. Or curvy hips.

SUVs are from Mars, sedans are from Venus.

For those who want beauty and athleticism in a large vehicle, there will always be sedans. Sedans may be down and out on dealer lots, but their inherent grace and feminine lines are still the benchmark for automotive style. Speaking of down and out, two rejuvenated old brands are turning heads this year with stunning full-size sedans that bookend the luxury segment: The entry-lux 2017 Buick LaCrosse and top-of-the-line 2016 Jaguar XJL.

With its stunning, much-copied lines, the XJL has helped re-establish Jaguar as luxury’s premier beauty. At the cheaper end of the lux menu, the LaCrosse manages to rekindle the spirit of the era when Buick wowed the world with designs like the 1954 Wildcat.

Few will lament the passing of the old LaCrosse. Heavy, arthritic and bulbous, it did little to shake the brand’s reputation as a purveyor of land yachts. Happily, however, Buick caught the SUV wave at just the right time, riding the fresh Enclave and Encore to sales glory. Buick has dominated the small-ute class with the perky and innovative Encore. That’s right — I just used innovative, dominated and perky in the same sentence as Buick.

SUV success has given the sedans a chance to get their act together and the all-new LaCrosse doesn’t disappoint.

It’s the first GM product built on the Epsilon II platform — E2 for short — and like other new GM platforms from Chevy and Caddy, it’s been hitting the gym. E2 lost 150 pounds from its predecessor, part of a 300-pound diet that has made LaCrosse a fit 3,650 pounds. Leaner and meaner, the lower-by-1.3 inches, more athletic-looking LaCrosse gained 2.7 inches in wheelbase, 1.3 inches in width.

Combined with a new five-link rear suspension (usually found in more upscale lux athletes like BMW) and a torque-vectoring, GKN-developed, dual-clutch all-wheel drive system (usually found in track-tuners like the Ford Focus RS), the LaCrosse delivers superb handling for a big car.

It’s startling, really. Like those Snickers commercials starring Betty White, it’s as if your granny’s Buick ate a candy bar and transformed into a 200-pound football player. Or, more appropriately in this case, a 200-pound lacrosse middie. Compared to class competitors like Lexus ES350 or Nissan Maxima, the Buick is more aligned with Maxima’s athletic DNA.

Over curvy Route 47 northwest of Portland, Oregon, I found the Buick fun through the twisties (fun and Buick — in the same sentence!), rotating with minimal body roll before putting the 305-horse, 3.6-liter V6’s hammer down. Try that in the boaty Lexus and you’ll get seasick.

But the real achievement of the LaCrosse is that’s it’s turned the clock back and made Buick pretty again. Buick actually rented out space in Portland’s artsy Pearl District to show off her curves.

Dash lines are sleek — check out the chrome bezel under the console that runs uninterrupted from instrument panel to passenger door. Out front, Buick’s winged grill — first seen at the 2015 Detroit Auto Show on the Avenir concept — accentuates the car’s lower, more horizontal lines. Those signature, old-school, boat-worthy Buick portholes? They have mercifully been demoted from the hood to aft of the front fender wells. The new Buick is all about wings.

The Buick even has Jaguar-esque lines. The LaCrosse’s coupe-like roof line, cat-eye headlights and full-mouthed grille echo the English cat. Initial design sketches even contained similar rocker panel chrome to the XJL (scrubbed in the final version, perhaps for cost).

To get the full Jaguar effect, it’ll cost you. About double the LaCrosse, actually.

The elegant $89,820 (as tested) XJL is the biggest, sleekest cat in the Jaguar litter. It’s the stretched version of the lovely, full-size XJ sedan introduced in 2012. Like Margot Robbie in heels, the XJL’s long proportions make it looked even sexier, tapered roof flowing into sleek haunches.

The Jaguar gets the expected royal-lux touches for 2016 — “double-J” daytime running lights, doors that suck close, rotary dial rising out of the dash at ignition. In practice, the Jaguar’s simpler dial blows away the LaCrosse’s finicky monostable doo-hickey. Yet Buick holds its own, even providing clever sub-console space that the Jag lacks, though to be honest I was so transfixed by the Jaguar’s front and rear camera system (giving you a bumper’s eye view of the road fore and aft while driving) that I didn’t mind its lack of Apple CarPlay/Android Auto. That popular feature comes standard (ahem) not only in the LaCrosse, but in entry-level compacts like the Chevy Cruze.

Beauty has its drawbacks, and the Jaguar’s rear visibility is dreadful compared to the Buick. Interestingly, in China, where big sedans routinely come with a driver, LaCrosse’s rear seats get Jag-like touches with heating, cooling and a shoe shine (and I’m making that last one up).

Stateside, though, the Jaguar XJL’s back seats are a world unto themselves. Lounging in diamond-quilted soft leather, passengers get their own window-blind controls and their own moon-roof controls.

Dah-ling — let me know when we have arrived at the club. I’ll be sunbathing on the back deck.

Yet the driver’s seat, like the LaCrosse, is a place to get your heart racing. The Jag is a 340-horse-drawn AWD locomotive.

Jaguar has lately gotten into the SUV game with the F-Pace, a fat cat that will ring up profits like a cash register on wheels. But no matter how successful Jag and Buick SUVs, their flagship cars will turn your head. Long live the sedan.

2017 Buick LaCrosse


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

Price: $32,990 ($48,575 AWD Premium as tested)

Power plant: 3.6-liter V-6

Power: 305 horsepower, 268 pound-feet torque

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.0 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed: 145 mph

Weight: 3,840 pounds (AWD as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 21 mpg city/31 mpg highway/23 mpg combined (AWD as tested)

Report card

Highs: Sleek Buicks are back; road-hugging, AWD handling (that’s not a misprint)

Lows: Clunky monostable shifter; how about a sport version?


2016 Jaguar XJL


Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear- or all-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan

Price: $74,400 base XJ ($89,820 XJL as tested)

Power plant: 3.0-liter, supercharged, dual-overhead cam V-6

Power: 340 horsepower, 332 pound-feet torque

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.1 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed: 124 mph (governed)

Weight: 4,397 pounds (AWD as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 17 mpg city/25 mpg highway/20 combined

Report card

Highs: Timeless beauty; posh rear seat

Lows: Infotainment average; blind spots the size of Wyoming


Cartoon: Phelps Gold

Posted by hpayne on August 10, 2016


Cartoon: Hillary State Sale

Posted by hpayne on August 10, 2016


Cartoon: Rio Olympics

Posted by hpayne on August 5, 2016


Cartoon: Obama Trump Unfit

Posted by hpayne on August 5, 2016


Sources: Mid-engine Corvette due in 2019

Posted by hpayne on August 4, 2016


General Motors Co. intends to start selling a mid-engine Chevrolet Corvette in early 2019, according to multiple sources familiar with the company’s planning.

While America’s iconic sports car has gone through seven generations of upgrades since it debuted in 1953, a mid-engine architecture would be the most radical change in Corvette history. The sources, who asked not to be identified because company plans have not been made public, said production of the mid-engine rocket would eventually be the only Corvette produced. One of those people said the current, front-engine C7’s Z06 and Grand Sport models would continue through 2021.

The eighth-generation Corvette C8 – codenamed “Emperor” — is targeted for an unveiling in early 2018, sources said.

“We do not comment on future product plans,” a Chevy spokesperson said.

One former GM employee with knowledge of the project said, “It’s happening. Mark Reuss wants it,” referring to the automaker’s global product development chief. “It’s the worst-kept secret in town.”

Chevy has long been concerned by Corvette’s aging demographic, and a mid-engine performance car could appeal to younger buyers.

“The median age of the Corvette buyer got three years older while I was there, which scared the hell out of us,” says Tom Wallace, who was Corvette’s chief engineer from 2006 until 2008.

Some sources say a mid-engine Corvette could be the basis for a Cadillac sports car.

When Cadillac President Johan de Nysschen was asked by Motor Trend last fall if a Cadillac “halo” car based on a mid-engine Corvette might be in the cards, he replied: “It has to be one of the options that we consider. In the future there are going to be some architectures inside the corporation that will remain purely Cadillac, but then there are others where it just isn’t economically feasible to enter segments by trying to do a unique Cadillac. Then you look at what’s available in terms of corporate assets. And I’m sure you’d agree that a new, very advanced Corvette platform wouldn’t be a bad place to start.”

C8 characteristics

With the engine located behind the driver and in front of the rear wheels, mid-engine sports cars are prized by performance-car fans for their balanced handling characteristics. The mid-engine format would make it more current with Corvette race-program competitors like the much-pricier Ferrari 488 and Ford GT.

The C8 is expected to be equipped with performance innovations like an active-aerodynamic system to enhance downforce, according to Car & Driver’s Don Sherman, who has been following the car’s development since 2014. The magazine says the next-generation Corvette will be powered by the tried-and-true small-block pushrod V-8 to keep costs down.

The mid-engine format would allow GM more flexibility to make performance variants — perhaps an all-wheel drive, plug-in hybrid model with electric motors driving the front wheels. That would put it head-to-head — at a more modest price — with cutting-edge, mid-engine hybrid supercars such as the Acura NSX and Porsche 918.

GM and Chevrolet last year trademarked the names Corvette E-Ray and Manta Ray. The names, some analysts believe, indicate the company is considering multiple vehicle variants.

Bob Lutz, GM’s former head of product development, speculates that the program’s long lead time — the C8 wouldn’t go into production until late 2018 — foreshadows an electric version “with 10- to 15-mile plug-in electric capability.”

“That would only require a 5-kWh battery, or $1,300 at today’s lithium-ion prices (plus motors and control hardware),” he said in an email. “It would be enough to give it a 50 mpg city label, and the electric motors at the front would enable limited AWD capability.”

The company recently announced investments totaling nearly $800 million in its Bowling Green Assembly Plant in Kentucky, where Corvettes are built. That includes $153 million for improving vehicle assembly line processes, on top of $137 million in previously committed capital. Last year, GM said it would invest $439 million for a new paint shop and $44 million to expand its Performance Build Center.

The plant is expected to be shut down for three months in mid- to late-2017 for retooling.

Lutz and Wallace say that they and then-Corvette Assistant Chief Engineer Tadge Juechter got the mid-engine Corvette approved in 2007, only to see the project shelved while GM went through bankruptcy reorganization in 2009.

Lutz says the $800 million Bowling Green investment figure is in line with what was asked for nine years ago.

“The program I got approved in ’07 was $900 million,” Lutz says, “and included a Cadillac XLR with a supercharged Northstar engine. If the current program is $800 million, I’d bet it includes a different-bodied Cadillac again as well.”

From ‘what-if’ to project

Corvette faithful have already begun putting down deposits on the car. Les Stanford Chevrolet in Dearborn, one of the top three Corvette sellers in the United States, confirms about two dozen customers have put down $2,000 on the C8 to be first in line.

“The potential for a mid-engine Corvette is in the future,” says General Sales Manager Scott Montgomery. “We have a lot of attention from members of the enthusiast community who have never been wrong.”

In addition to publishing spy shots of a camouflaged, mid-engine car undergoing testing, Car & Driver created computer renderings of the C8 featuring a muscular stance and low, menacing nose. The renderings are based on descriptions of the production prototype by people who have seen the car’s design.

Stephanie Brinley, a senior analyst with forecasting firm IHS Markit, said there have been rumors of a mid-engine Corvette for a decade. “It seems to be maturing from a ‘what-if’ to a project,” she said.

Pricing a new Corvette in line with Chevrolet and its value-brand philosophy will be important, Brinley said. It can’t have a $450,000 sticker price like the Ford GT. But Brinley said there is some space for a price increase over today’s $55,445 base C7.

GM has flirted with mid-engine Corvettes in the past, particularly in the 1960s when Chief Engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov argued it was a superior architecture. Arkus-Duntov produced four mid-engine concepts from 1960-70, including the 1968 “Astro II.”

The Astro was a reaction to the mid-engine 1966 Ford GT-40 and its stunning success at the 24 Hours of LeMans. Fifty years later, another Ford GT has won LeMans — and this time GM’s response appears to be a full-blown, mid-engine production C8.

138 5 Payne: Focus RS is Ford’s Golf R-killer

Posted by hpayne on August 4, 2016

With its sophisticated, dual-rear-clutch AWD system,

Conveniently located off Old Telegraph Road in Clarkston, Waterford Hills Raceway is one of Metro Detroit’s hidden gems.

Bordered by woods, its 11 turns spilling over grassy knolls offer some of the best road racing in Michigan. For 58 years Detroiters have enjoyed this great American racetrack next door.

Buyers of the ferocious, 2017 Ford Focus RS will want to get to know it.

And Grattan Raceway in Grand Rapids. And South Haven’s Gingerman Raceway. And M1 Concourse’s Champion Motor Speedway in Pontiac. Because the RS is as track-focused a production car you’ll find this side of a Camaro Z28 or Porsche 911 GT3. Yet for just $36,775 it’s within reach of the average motorhead.

In this Second Golden Age of motoring the RS joins the formidable Volkswagen Golf R and Subaru STI as all-wheel-drive, $35K-something hot rods with back seats. The STI is a legend with its Sopwith Camel rear-wing and nice-Subie-gone-bad swagger, while the classy V-dub boasts divine German engineering and hatchback utility.

Previous performance versions of the Focus haven’t been in the class of the Golf, the undisputed hatch benchmark for four decades. Compared to VW’s 210-horse Golf GTI, for example, the front-wheel drive, 250-horsepower 2016 Focus ST that I recently drove is a dinosaur, its torque steer so violent when under the whip it wants to rip the wheel out of my hands.

Like ST, the RS’s power dwarfs the Golf R on paper — but this time Ford harnesses it with appropriate engineering.

Engineered in Germany and assembled in Spain alongside other Focuses on Ford’s global C-platform, the RS (Rally Sport) initials are revered in Europe. The badge has graced off-road rally contenders — from Escort to Sierra to Focus — for years. Its appearance on these shores is a long-overdue first.

Golf R is the ultimate stealth hatch, its conservative lines not betraying my predatory intentions until I’m on top of you. Focus RS, on the other hand, looks like I bought it from Darth Vader Automotive.

Check out those gaping, shark-like jaws. RS alters three body panels from its brother Focus: front fascia, roof winglet and rear diffuser. The facial Extreme Makeover satisfies the little beasty’s ravenous appetite for air. Engines, a wag once said, are simply air machines. Apropos the RS with every front crevice devoted to ramming more oxygen down its 2.3-liter turbo’s neck. It bumper is thinned for more air through the grille. An enlarged lower opening feeds a turbo intercooler the size of Manhattan. What, no hood scoop?

We’ve seen this turbo 4-banger before in the current Mustang. Despite making a healthy 310 ponies, the four seems out of place in the muscle car but not the hot hatch. Not only does the RS mill produce a staggering 40 more horsepower than the Mustang, but it gains 58 horses on the Golf R. Mercy.

The wing adds downforce — and a big “ticket me” billboard — on top of the car. It’s not as outrageous as the STI’s aerofoil, which looks like it came off a World War I fighter plane. But it will make anyone over 30 wince.

The Golf R laughs at such bling, preferring more modest duds. That civility translates to the ride as well.

Take RS on the Michigan roads and you’ll want a mouth guard. Toggle the shock-stiffener button on the left stalk and the thing becomes positively violent. Roaring across Michigan’s concrete roads, the RS bobbed and pitched like a rodeo bull.

And if a bull needs a ring, the RS needs a track.

On Waterford’s smooth asphalt, I eased down the pit lane, selected Track mode (which automatically stiffens the shocks 40 percent), turned off traction control and the washboard-stiff RS was in its element. Like any small-displacement turbo, the meat of the rev band is over 3,000 rpms — but then it keeps pulling to its 6,500 redline. Acceleration (0-60 mph in a retina-flattening 4.7 seconds) is so quick I repeatedly hit the rev-limiter in second gear. Grabbing fourth gear on the short back straight, I briefly touched 100 mph before stomping the big Brembo brakes.

If the Focus body mods look aggressive, the chassis upgrades lash the car to the ground. RS gets a front sub-frame cross brace, rear cross brace, sway-bar bushing braces, “lion’s foot” suspension-tower braces, rear toe-link reinforcement, rocker foam and anabolic steroids injected into the hydraulics (just kidding about that last one). Then Ford really got serious.

Where Subie and VW use traditional all-wheel drive torque-vectoring systems that brake the inside wheels to help the rear rotate through corners, RS is equipped with twin rear-clutches that can accelerate the outside tires.

As a result the RS is a rocket through the twisties, its chassis rotating on a dime. I threw the hatch around like a rag doll, its Michelin Super Sports sticking like taffy. To show off its bonkers AWD, engineers gave the RS “drift mode” so you can easily induce four-wheel oversteer. This was especially fun in Michigan turns on Woodward — spinning the car like a top with a quick dab of gas — but on track the quick way around is Track mode.

Only in the fast, Turn 5 “Big Bend” did I feel the RS’s porky 3,459 pounds — 120 more than Golf R. For all of the stiffening and bigger turbos, the RS gets no body panel light-weighting over the base, steel Focus.

That base Focus design is apparent inside as well, contrasting with the Golf’s more-premium Audi-like look. But I’m a sucker for Ford’s’ clever console buttons and dials. RS temperature gauges and bear-hugging, blue-stitched Recaro seats give it character. Stash your phone in the shallow console cubby and it’ll fly out on the floor in hard turns. Those bolstered seats are there so you don’t get chucked on the floor too.

If you want a daily driver, buy the Golf R. Buy the RS if you want junior version of the Nissan GT-R, a race car in production clothing. After my Waterford Hills jaunt, I trolled Woodward for victims. I drag-raced two 420-horsepower M3s from a stoplight, the RS’s superior AWD traction hanging tough despite giving up 70 horses. Our thirst for blood slaked, RS and I headed home. On the way, I came up on a GT-R.

The driver recognized the beast in his mirrors and threw me an enthusiastic thumbs up as if to say: “Welcome stateside, RS. See you at the track!”

2016 Ford Focus RS


Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger, five-door hatchback

Price: $36,775 base ($39,560 as tested)

Power plant: 2.3-liter, turbocharged, inline 4-cylinder

Power: 350 horsepower, 350 pound-feet torque

Transmission: Six-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.7 seconds (manufacturer); top speed: 165 mph

Weight: 3,459 lbs.

Fuel economy: EPA 19 mpg city/29 mpg highway/25 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Hatchback utility; AWD OMG

Lows: Boy-toy styling; bucking bronco daily-driver


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