Henry Payne Blog

Cartoon: Goliath Iran Attacks David Israel

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 15, 2024

Cartoon: Biden Response Iran Attack

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 15, 2024

Cartoon: OJ Simpson RIP

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 12, 2024

Cartoon: Trump Abortion Position

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 12, 2024

Cartoon: EV Truck Mandate

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 12, 2024

Cartoon: Eclipse Media Warming

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 12, 2024

Cartoon: Biden Eclipse Safety Wear

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 12, 2024

Payne: Livin’ large in the Fiat 500e clown car

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 12, 2024

Miami — The circus is in town. My 6’9” media colleague Brian Armstead and I emerged from our wee Fiat 500e to stares in downtown Miami.

Dude, you’re 6’5”, how do you two fit in a Flea-at?

Quite comfortably, thanks for asking. With a tall roof, peppy electric motor and plenty of room to splay our legs where the driveline used to be, the 500e is a modern clown car. Fiat has it right. Big brands are falling all over themselves these days to sell mainstream buyers on electric cars. But electrics are niche vehicles for premium shoppers. Tesla Model 3/Y is for techies, Mustang Mach-E for pony car enthusiasts, Hummer EV for off-roaders.

Fiat 500e is for fun.

The 2024 Fiat 500e is all-electric with all-iconic styling. Henry Payne, The Detroit News

The wee hatchback might as well have a key chain link on it. This is one adorable accessory. Dressed in red, the cheerful clown scurried through the streets with big LED eyes and a fashionable electric motor under the hood. What, no red nose?

Of course, fashion these days attracts politics, and the Fiat is perfumed with a marketing campaign promising to save the world. Cloying climate celebrities Bono and Jennifer Lopez have added their names to the circus, and I can’t think of anything more tiresome than dinner with jet-setting millionaire musicians lecturing Americans on how to save polar bears.

Ditch them at their private airport and take the 500e for a spin around the Big Top. This clown car is a treat.

Designed for metropolitan streets, our red 500e tester squirted out of stoplights in downtown Miami, its electric motor smooth as an Atlantic breeze. At 20 mph, external music composed by Italian composers Flavio Ibba and Marco Gualdi played to alert pedestrians it was coming. Seriously! Back up, and an electronic safety alert hums. Miami Nice.

The 2024 Fiat 500e has the latest Stellantis Uconnect 5 system for infotainment.

The 2024 Fiat 500e has the latest Stellantis Uconnect 5 system for infotainment. Henry Payne, The Detroit News

With a single-speed electric transmission, the Italian is easy to drive. Heck, you don’t even need to use your left foot. Select SHERPA mode and use the motor for regenerative braking.

At an A1A intersection on South Beach, I executed a U-turn on a dime. Zoot! Thirty miles an hour went by in 3 seconds, making intersections a breeze to cross. Refreshingly, Fiat doesn’t strain to advertise the car’s long distance driving abilities (ICEs embarrass EVs on refueling time). The pup will scamper around metro neighborhoods for up to 160 miles in SHERPA mode (149 miles in RANGE mode) before its tongue hangs out.

“Put it in the garage next to your Jeep Grand Cherokee gas car,” says Fiat North American Chief Aamir Ahmed (nice plug for another Stellantis brand there). I drove 140 miles from Naples to Miami and back this year in a gas sedan, a task that would be painful in a 500e. Ditto Detroit to Grand Rapids. Take the Jeep, not the Fiat.

This is a toy like a sportscar or an off-road Wrangler. Niches are nice — why does every vehicle have to be a commodity? An electric toaster?

The iconic shape of the 2024 Fiat 500e.

The iconic shape of the 2024 Fiat 500e. Henry Payne, The Detroit News

The 500 earns its distinction thanks to decades of brand polishing. Sure, the Italian is a healthy 10 grand north of a comparable subcompact Hyundai Venue, but the Fiat oozes la dolce vita with its big peepers, 17-inch wheels and Easter egg shape. There are few cars as recognizable as the 500. Think VW Bug, Ford Mustang, Porsche 911, Land Rover Defender, Mazda Miata. Icons all — and all aimed at niche buyers.

The Fiat is one of a handful starting at $40K-or-below in an EV class with its natural competitor being another icon, the $32K Mini Cooper Electric. Others to consider: Tesla’s 40-grand Model 3 and Volvo’s $36K Tesla-esque EX30 EV.

Tesla is king given its superior range (for that Naples or Grand Rapids trip) and superior tech (it can park itself as well as do neat Summon tricks). But the Fiat’s happy clown face always seems to be smiling compared to the Tesla’s smartphone vibe.

For $37,595, the 500e Beauty and Music models also match the Tesla with adaptive cruise control and blind-spot assist. Tellingly, my entry level $34K Red tester (in addition to its hard plastic interior) is not equipped with these urban essentials so Fiat can remain in the black. Yet another EV challenge, though the feds aim to make the Fiat more affordable with a whopping $7,500 tax credit if leased (the Fiat’s Italian assembly makes it ineligible for the $7,500 purchase subsidy. Go figure).

6'5" Detroit News columnist Henry Payne towers over the 2024 Fiat 500e.

Detroit News columnist Henry Payne towers over the 2024 Fiat 500e. Henry Payne, The Detroit News

Red’s cabin is otherwise state-of-the-art with wireless charging, wireless Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, volume/radio station controls on the back of the steering wheel, Alexa connectivity and Stellantis’s best-in-biz Uconnect 5 infotainment software. The rear seats will fit small adults and the hatchback makes for usable cargo storage, especially with the rear seats collapsed.

Buyers in big cities will, of course, enjoy maneuvering their 500e in tight apartment garages. For those folks, Fiat’s $600 credit for a 240-volt wall charger makes little sense (especially as apartment buildings balk at the expense of installing their own chargers), so use the credit on Stellantis’s Free2Move app, locate area fast chargers, and plan a meal each week around charging the car.  The Fiat will drink a quick 30 miles of electrons in 5 minutes when needed.

The front seats of the 2024 Fiat 500e easily fit six-footers. The back seats? Not so much.

The front seats of the 2024 Fiat 500e easily fit six-footers. The back seats? Not so much. Henry Payne, The Detroit News

Not your thing? It’s a niche, not a necessity.

Fiat would do the 500e a favor by offering a soft-top version at some point (that way seven-footers could stick their necks out the top). The soft top has been a signature of the Italian meatball over its 63-year history and would fill a disappearing market in the United States. Open-air models like the Camaro convertible, Toyota Solara and Buick Cascada have all disappeared in recent years.

Cruising with the windows down on Route 1 — the East Coast’s Woodward Avenue — on the way back into Miami, Brian cranked up his Pandora playlist through the car’s speakers. Miami is a car town like Motown, and we mingled with other icons on the route: Mustang convertible, Lamborghini Huracan, door-less Wrangler.

The interior of the 2024 Fiat 500e has no driveline interruption — so it's easy for big drivers to splay their legs.

The interior of the 2024 Fiat 500e has no driveline interruption — so it’s easy for big drivers to splay their legs. Henry Payne, The Detroit News

The 500e follows in the footsteps of 1957-vintage grandfather 500, a clown car with its engine hanging out the back and a similar urban mission. Take it on the highways and its 13 horsepower would take a week to reach its 53-mph top speed — if it didn’t get stomped by a truck first.

Today’s 94-mph 500e is not meant for road trips, either. But if you’re looking for a daily smile, it might be the fashion fit for your keychain.

Next week: 2024 Genesis G90

2024 Fiat 500e

Vehicle type: Electric, front-wheel drive, four-passenger coupe

Price: $34,095, including $1,595 destination charge (as tested)

Powerplant: 40-kWh lithium-ion battery with front electric motor drive

Transmission: Single-speed transmission

Weight: 2,952 pounds

Power: 117 horsepower, 162 pound-feet of torque

Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.5 seconds (mfr.); top speed, 94 mph

Fuel economy: EPA est. range, 149 miles

Report card

Highs: Iconic looks; fun day at the circus

Lows: Specific metro use case; pricey for a subcompact

Overall: 3 stars

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

Cartoon: Buttigieg EV Phones

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 4, 2024

Payne: Go used, go Chevy Malibu

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 4, 2024

Naples, Florida — My Chevy Malibu is roomy, techy and easy on the eyes. And, most importantly, it’s a used bargain at under 20 grand.

Let’s go used car reviewing.

I’m a big fan of affordable cars whether new or used, but it’s a tough hoe for consumers these days in a market buffeted by a perfect storm of electric vehicle mandates, low post-pandemic inventories, and high manufacturing costs. The average price paid for a new vehicle has ballooned from $37,577 in 2019 to $47,338 now. Worse, the number of new cars under $20,000 has shrunk as manufacturers buffeted by rising regulation, labor costs and electronic tech find it hard to make margin on entry-level cars — driving customers into the used market, where inventories have been hammered by the lack of production during the pandemic.

The 2023 Chevy Malibu 1LT isn’t sporty, but it is easy to use, park, and has high quality ratings from JD Power. Henry Payne, The Detroit News

“We need more used cars,” Roger Penske lamented to me in a recent interview as he listed the challenges to his dealer network.

The average price of a used vehicle — $27,297 as of last month — is up even more than new cars (33% vs. 26%) from $20,398 in 2019. Ouch. Meanwhile, affordable new cars like the Honda Fit, Chevy Sonic and Ford Focus have left the market. Manufacturers are flooding the zone instead with EVs to both meet onerous government sales mandates and to test consumer taste for battery-power. Most of the new cars I test these days are pricey electrics like the $50K Chevy Blazer EV. To make up for big losses on EVs (Ford lost $4.7 billion in its EV division last year), brands are making higher-trim models to capture profit.

Meanwhile, customers want gas-powered Swiss Army knives — affordable vehicles that can do it all from road trips to urban parking to loading in a family of four.

The handsome profile of the 2023 Chevy Malibu 1LT includes optional, 18-inch wheels.

The handsome profile of the 2023 Chevy Malibu 1LT includes optional, 18-inch wheels. Henry Payne, The Detroit News

As I travel the country, I’ll try to report on good finds from time to time. The Chevy Malibu is one.

Sneak up behind my Malibu 1LT tester in a parking lot and you might mistake its sleek lines for a luxury chariot. Coupe-like roof, scalloped side panels, fashionably-spoked wheels. Walk ‘round to the front and the mood is ruined by a dog’s breakfast of twin grilles and competing surfaces. Give me a simple, European grille any day.

I have a friend who’s a big Lexus fan but recoils at their Darth Vader grilles. So she just parks the car head-first into her garage or downtown parking spot so she never has to look at it. Happily, when you’re behind the wheel of the Malibu, you never have to look it in the face.

Instead, you get a handsome, ergonomically-superior interior. Easy-to-read tablet screen, well-organized, bezeled climate controls, fat knobs for controlling climate and sound, intuitive automotive shifter. Alas, the steering wheel of my 2023 tester didn’t have Chevy’s newer roller button for volume and cruise control — but I could still find the raised control buttons with my fingers so I never had to take my eyes off the road.

The 2023 Chevy Malibu 1LT is easy to learn with big knobs, a bezeled climate menu and big digital screen.

The 2023 Chevy Malibu 1LT is easy to learn with big knobs, a bezeled climate menu and big digital screen. Henry Payne, The Detroit News

Better yet, Malibu allowed me to control the radio from the back of the steering wheel. Volume buttons on the wheel’s right backside. Station controls on the left.

I rented my ‘bu tester in Naples, Florida — which is hardly New York City — but is still jammed with traffic in the winter months with everything from spring breakers to senior citizens to hot rodders with more horsepower than sense.

Navigating this morass in the Malibu is also easy thanks to wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto — a significant upgrade to the Chevy since its 2016 debut — which mirrors your phone’s navi system for seamless, familiar operation. I gave voice commands without ever taking my phone out of my pocket.

“Hey, Google, navigate to Miami!”

The direction dutifully followed on screen.

The rear seats of the 2023 Chevy Malibu 1LT offer good legroom for tall folks.

The rear seats of the 2023 Chevy Malibu 1LT offer good legroom for tall folks. Henry Payne, The Detroit News

Add to this convenience a lack of range anxiety. I love electric vehicles, but you need to be conscious of range at all times. Recharging takes time, and could make you late for an appointment — or take you out of your way, especially in unfamiliar territory (to me) like South Florida. Gas power = peace of mind.

After a morning of errands, Mrs. Payne and I set off for Miami (to look at buying a used Alfa Romeo 4C — a used car for another column), at which point I finally took a look at my fuel gauge: just 118 miles left for the 240-mile round trip. We’d need fuel to get there and back. No worries.

I drove into one of the numerous service stations on Naples’ perimeter, added 328 miles in a minute and was set for the day. Try that in a $100,000, 800-volt, Porsche Taycan Turbo and you’ll get 245 miles in 16 minutes at an Electrify America fast charger (according to a recent Inside EVs test). Who would think a Malibu costing 1/5th that of a Taycan would be faster at anything?

Merging onto I-75 east to Miami, I floored the 1.5-liter turbo-4 under the hood, which let out a nice growl. Then I set cruise control at 80 mph. I’d prefer adaptive cruise, but that’s not available on ’23 1LTs. Preferences vary depending on automaker — but I’d recommend a used car today with at least two of three electronic advances: wireless Android Auto/Apple CarPlay, adaptive cruise, and … blind-spot assist.

The big trunk of the 2023 Chevy Malibu 1LT will swallow the family suitcases.

The big trunk of the 2023 Chevy Malibu 1LT will swallow the family suitcases. Henry Payne, The Detroit News

The latter is standard on the ’23 Malibu, so I didn’t have to crane my neck to check traffic every time I wanted to pass a slower car. Were I alone, I might have listened to a Spotify on Android Auto, but Mrs. Payne and I passed the time chatting in the quiet cabin.

Had we been passengers in the backseat, we’d have been comfortable. The advantage of a midsizer like Malibu is its good rear legroom. Also excellent is the Chevy’s JD Power quality rating, a key consideration of any buyer.

Malibu scores an 85, beating competitors like the much-loved Subaru Legacy (81).

With front-wheel drive, the Malibu won’t tempt you to conquer Mt. Rushmore in a snowstorm like the AWD Legacy. But the Chevy sedan will do just fine in all seasons, deliver an easy-on-the-wallet 32 mpg and 540 miles of highway range — and won’t beg the premium price of a comparable Subie.

The 2023 Chevy Malibu 1LT averages 32 mpg — not bad for a midsized sedan.

The 2023 Chevy Malibu 1LT averages 32 mpg — not bad for a midsized sedan. Henry Payne, The Detroit News

My rule of thumb is to buy used vehicles with 50,000 miles or less on them, and that have a good service history. There’ll be a Malibu for you there — though you may have to go to Florida to find it.

As the industry goes all-electric, used gas vehicles could be in more demand than ever.

Next week: 2025 Fiat 500e

2023 Used Chevy Malibu

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, four-door sedan

Price: $27,895 when new, including $1,500 destination charge (under $20,000 used 1LT)

Powerplant: 1.5-liter turbocharged inline-4 cylinder

Power: 160 horsepower, 184 pound-feet-torque

Transmission: Continuously variable automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.8 seconds (Car and Driver); Top speed, 130 mph

Weight: 3,184 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA est. 29 mpg city/36 highway/32 combined

Report card

Highs: Easy to use; easy on the wallet

Lows: No adaptive cruise control; oh, that face

Overall: 3 stars

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

Cartoon: Transgender Easter Bunny

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 3, 2024

Cartoon: Trump Jailed in Siberia

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 31, 2024

Payne: Best of the 2024 New York auto show

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 31, 2024

New York — The heyday of the mega-media auto show has passed. But the show must go on.

In recent decades, auto shows were theme parks — each year showcasing more spectacular displays than the last. Manufacturers packed in media to introduce their latest toys. At the 2019 New York International Auto Show, automakers trucked in media for major reveals like the Cadillac CT5, 300-mph Koenigsegg Jesko, Ford Escape, Hyundai Sonata, Ford Mustang Ecoboost High Performance, Mercedes GLS, Porsche 911 Speedster, Subaru Outback, VW Tarok pickup concept, Chinese start-up Qiantu K50, and more. This year, there was the Genesis Neolun concept, Genesis GV60 Magma and a smattering of practical SUVs.

New York Auto Show. Genesis GV60 Magma, X Berlinetta Turismo, GV80 Magma.

New York Auto Show. Genesis GV60 Magma, X Berlinetta Turismo, GV80 Magma. Henry Payne, The Detroit News

Reveals have moved elsewhere in this new media age and shows have returned to their original purpose: get customers in seats. With that spirit in mind, here are my favorite cars and attractions inside New York’s Javits Convention Center.

Tedson Daydream Porsche 911 restomod delivered to Michael Strahan. Hey, it’s New York and there is a lot competing for your entertainment dollar. The Big Apple is stuffed with ginormous towers, wealth and celebrity. Sometimes all in one. Strahan is the towering, ex-All-Pro New York Giants defensive end who has made good as a TV host in his post-football career. Good thing, because he has an automotive sweet tooth to feed.

New York Auto Show. Michael Strahan recieves his Porsche Tedson Daydream. Henry Payne, The Detroit News

The latest addition to his collection was delivered at the Javits Center: a Tedson Daydream restomod, 600-horsepower, hybrid, 1995 Porsche 911. You have our attention, Michael. Croatian physicist Goran Turkic created Tedson to satisfy the insatiable thirst for upgraded, air-cooled-engine 911 supercars.

Tedson not only beats factory Porsche to a hybrid 911 powertrain (Porsche’s hybrid will reportedly arrive later this year) but does so with a manual transmission — something Stuttgart rarely offers anymore. Strahan was good enough to leave his car in the exotics section of the NYIAS for the week next to other goodies like the 1986, V12-powered “Rambo Lambo” Lamborghini LM002 and the 1,813-horsepower, 258-mph electric Rimac Nevera supercar that can hit 60 mph in a face-flattening 1.74 seconds.

New York Auto Show. Tedson founder and CEO Goran Turkic

New York Auto Show. Tedson founder and CEO Goran Turkic. Henry Payne, The Detroit News

Toyota sportscars. If those cyborgs are too rich for your blood, wander down the aisle to the Toyota display, which features (God bless them) three sportscars under $60k. The $47,535 Supra, $37,595 GR Corolla and $30,395 GR86. Yes, I’m calling the four-door GR Corolla a sportscar.

New York Auto Show. Toyotoa performance cars, GR Corolla, Supra, GR86

New York Auto Show. Toyotoa performance cars, GR Corolla, Supra, GR86. Henry Payne, The Detroit News

The all-wheel-drive hot hatch is one of the most entertaining rides in autodom. Somehow, Toyota engineers squeezed 300 horses into its three-cylinder engine. The GR86 is as quick as it is good-looking, and the Supra shares its smooth, inline-six-cylinder mill with a BMW Z4.

Chevy Trax. Speaking of affordability, Chevrolet leads its exhibit this year with the terrific second-generation $21k Trax. That’s a welcome change from escalating prices across the industry that have driven the average new-car transaction price to (cough) $48k. The attractive, high-tech Trax is especially welcome from a brand that is going all-electric with pricey EVs like the $50k Blazer EV.

The bow-tie brand usually fronts its show space with King Corvette — affordable as supercars go, but still pricey. Trax is an entry-level hatchback that will get first-time buyers into the brand for when they might one day afford a ‘Vette.

Other easy-on-the-wallet, stylish new entries at the show include the ‘24 Nissan Kicks and the Kia K4, which replaces the ol’ Forte.1949 VW Beetle. Bring grandpa to the show and he’ll remember this gem. On Jan. 17, 1949, the first VW Type 1 — aka, the Beetle — set wheel on U.S. shores. Costing $1,268 ($16,000 in today’s dollars), it was the bargain Bug that launched VW to global prominence. By the mid-1960s it was selling over 300,000 units a year in the United States. It’s a reminder of how different the EV transition is on the wallet. Next to the Beetle is the electric VW ID.Buzz, an electric throwback to another cheap ‘60s V-dub, the Microbus. ID.Buzz costs a whopping $50k (compared to $21k for the Microbus in today’s dollars).

New York Auto Show. 1940 VW Beetle and 2025 VW ID. Buzz

New York Auto Show. 1940 VW Beetle and 2025 VW ID. Buzz. Henry Payne, The Detroit News

VW has said its electric ID.4 SUV is the most important vehicle since Beetle as the brand transforms. But ID.4’s $41,000 price tag helps explain why it hasn’t flown off the shelves.Mustang 60th birthday. Another ’60s icon celebrates its birthday in New York. Like the Bug, the Mustang helped define American car culture, offering an affordable sportscar to the masses. Mustang, too, no longer sells for the price ($32k today versus $24k in 1964, inflation adjusted) nor the volumes (500,000 unit sales in the ‘60s, 60,000 today) — but it remains true to its brand: an affordable, head-turning, gas-fired kick in the pants.

New York Auto Show. Mustang 60th birthdayNew York Auto Show. Mustang 60th birthday. Henry Payne, The Detroit News

At NYIAC, Ford debuts a matte finish for its seventh-generation pony (universally hailed as one of the best-looking ‘Stangs ever) that is available for $5,995 on any model. Try that on a Ferrari. “Mustang has been about freedom of expression for 60 years, and our new Matte Clear Film provides a whole new way for customers to make Mustang their own,” said Chief Engineer Laurie Transou.

New York Auto Show. Mustang Mach-E Rally

New York Auto Show. Mustang Mach-E Rally. Henry Payne, The Detroit News

Mustang has expanded as a sub-brand with the electric Mach-E SUV to both broaden demographic appeal (think Porsche SUVs) and gain government emissions credits so Dearborn can keep producing the V8-powered Mustangs the faithful want. The latest Mach-E model — the lifted, off-road Rally — is on display in New York.EV test track. Big Auto and Big Government want you to go electric and NYIAS offers — like Detroit and LA — an indoor test track to try out what will be your only powertrain choice in 10 years.

It also affords showgoers the chance to jump in some pretty fancy machines since EVs are largely a premium niche. Test bots include the Cadillac Lyriq, Chevy Blazer EV, Silverado EV Work Truck, Kia EV6, VW ID.4, Nissan Ariya, Lexus RZ 450e and Lucid Air.

New York Auto Show. EV test track, Lucid Air and Cadillac Lyriq

New York Auto Show. EV test track, Lucid Air and Cadillac Lyriq. Henry Payne, The Detroit News

The $80k Lucid Touring is my favorite with gorgeous styling and an interior that could fit a marching band. “Put your heads in the headrest because this thing accelerates fast,” warns the test driver. Zot! That’s fun. And the track is short enough that you don’t have to worry about range anxiety.

The New York International Auto Show is open to the public through April 7.

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

Cartoon: Harry, Meghan, Kate Cancer Show

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 31, 2024

Payne: Muddin’ in the rugged Lexus GX (yes, Lexus)

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 31, 2024

Holly — The steep descent into Holly Oaks ORV Park’s boggy Big Valley via Electric Slide Trail is no picnic. The crest above me, depending on Mother Nature’s mood, alternates sending mudslides or sand runoff onto the trail. The dirt path is rocky, uneven, with a habit of opening up holes that will swallow a vehicle’s front corner. Survive the descent and you’ll still have to navigate the steep ascent up The Troubles on Big Valley’s backside.

Good thing I was driving a Lexus GX. That’s right, a Lexus.

The brand known for its pampered dealer service, sippy hybrids and posh rides has long had a gas-guzzling, off-road model hiding in plain sight. But with the 2024 model year, GX gets a proper muscle-shirt wardrobe to match the gym-toned bod underneath. Off-roading is in, and GX embraces Lexus’s inner rock warrior much as the V8-powered Lexus LC 500 gives life to the brand’s sportscar ambitions.

The 2024 Lexus GX 550 4WD shows off its impressive suspension articulation as it navigates Holly Oaks ORV Park. Henry Payne, The Detroit News

My GX shares its rugged ladder-frame truck bones with Toyota’s forthcoming, similarly priced Land Cruiser off-road bruiser, and both look the part for ‘24. From its square corners to its round headlights, Land Cruiser is a Land Rover with a Japanese accent, and the Lexus looks butch as well. With its squared-off fenders and tear-drop grille, the GX might be the love child of a Lexus and GMC Canyon.

It’s quite a contrast from the softer, more familiar Lexus bod found on GX’s mid-sized stablemate — the unibody three-row TX that I used to move furniture over the winter holidays.

Sure, my Overtrail + tester cost an eye-watering 80 grand (like the TX500h F Sport), but the GX’s ripped pecs and biceps beg to be exercised off-road — especially in its clingy new wardrobe. My tester was dressed in Earth and Black Onyx that matched its natural Holly Oak habitat. Like Jeep Wranglers, Jeep Gladiators, Ford Broncos, GMC Canyons, Chevy Colorados and other native beasts, the GX’s ladder frame is tough as nails.

WHUMP! WHUMP! The GX’s frame rails — lifted 9.7 inches in the air by 33-inch all-terrain Toyo tires — absorbed the deep ruts of Holly Oaks winter-torn landscape. Not a shudder, not a groan. Fat skid plates under the Lexus’s nose also help absorb impacts.

The 2024 Lexus GX 550 4WD shows off its 24-plus inch wheel articulation over Holly Oaks moguls.

The 2024 Lexus GX 550 4WD shows off its 24-plus inch wheel articulation over Holly Oaks moguls. Henry Payne, The Detroit News

“That’s impressive,” said my driving mate Tom Zielinski, who designed Holly Oaks off-road Hellscape and has piloted every vehicle under the sun through here.

True to its luxury badge, the Lexus brings premium technology to the off-road experience (OK, the rugged Toyota 4Runner has it, too). Dirt-kickers like the Wrangler Rubicon and Bronco Badlands offer (respectively) manual and electronic disconnecting, button-actuated front sway bars for when you want to increase suspension articulation and keep both wheels on the ground over sketchy terrain.

The Lexus front and rear sway bars disconnect automatically. Dude.

At the bottom of Electric Slide, the broken terrain looked like it had been bombed by B52s, but GX rode it beautifully, all four wheels increasing travel up to two feet to help the Toyo tires keep close to terra firma.

The 2024 Lexus GX 550 4WD gives drivers information on the traction of all four tires.
The 2024 Lexus GX 550 4WD gives drivers information on the traction of all four tires. Henry Payne, The Detroit News

Lexus calls its system Electronic Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System — or e-KDSS for short. Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? It’s part of a laundry list of acronyms that Lexus pilots will find in the cockpit of the Overtrail model — the halo model for the new GX line signaling its rugged aspirations.

Under the center console’s DRIVE MODE selector are standard drive modes — NORMAL, ECO, SPORT, SPORT PLUS — and then a MTS button which stands for Multi-Terrain Select. That opens up still more drive modes — AUTO, DIRT, SAND, MUD, DEEP SNOW, ROCK.

Below that is another button: DAC. Short for Downhill Assist Control. FYI. LOL.

The roomy cabin of the 2024 Lexus GX 550 4WD.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The roomy cabin of the 2024 Lexus GX 550 4WD. Henry Payne, The Detroit News

These acronyms are part of a blizzard of buttons that make an airline cockpit look simple. I tested a 2024 Tesla Model 3 Highland the day before the Lexus, and they’re from different planets. Elon Musk’s smartphone-on-wheels is obsessive about removing buttons (not a single one on the console), while Lexus is determined to have everything at your fingertips. There’s even a COOL BOX button under the console storage lid so you can keep your drink chilled. And a camera button to peer 360-degrees around the car for obstacles.

But wait, there’s more. In addition to Drive modes and gear shifter, the console includes more buttons for the transfer case that allows you to select H4 (4-wheel-drive high), L4 (4-wheel low), rear differential lock, or four-wheel lock for off-roading.

Charging out of Big Valley, the rear locker did its job maintaining traction while I straddled ruts deeper than the Grand Canyon. At The Troubles’ summit, the landscape got even more ill-tempered and I laid my foot into the 349-horsepower twin-turbo V6 (the same mill that motivates the terrific Toyota Tundra pickup) and powered my way back onto level ground. When in doubt, power out.

Mission accomplished. The GX Overtrail is one tough ute. If I had wanted to bring more toys to the sandbox, GX will tow a mighty 9,063 pounds of side-by-sides, motor bikes, whatever.

The 2024 Lexus GX 550 4WD is tough off-road, and easy to drive on-road with 33-inch off-road tires and a compliant suspension.

The 2024 Lexus GX 550 4WD is tough off-road, and easy to drive on-road with 33-inch off-road tires and a compliant suspension. Henry Payne, The Detroit News

Customers will buy GX for its macho looks and cred, but most will spend their time on asphalt. For a stiff, truck-framed SUV, GX excels there, too, thanks to its adaptive suspension.

Once you, um, come to terms with the ergonomics.

Like the console, the steering wheel and dash are choked with buttons and menus you’ll need to sort out. The (recommended) head-up display isn’t adjusted via the left-quarter dash like a Cadillac, for example, but under the VEHICLE CUSTOMIZE menu under the SETTINGS menu in the center screen. Took me a while to find that one.

The generous 14-inch touchscreen is a big advance over remote-touch-operated screens of Lexus past that made Mrs. Payne’s head explode. Fat Camaro-like dials are also helpful for climate control.

The 2024 Lexus GX 550 4WD mug gets a bit of GMC Canyon toughness.

The 2024 Lexus GX 550 4WD mug gets a bit of GMC Canyon toughness. Henry Payne, The Detroit News

Lexus has been slow to update drive-assist systems and wireless smartphone apps, but my GX was on par with competitors with a good adaptive cruise system and wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.

This being a Tundra-based SUV, rear seat room was generous, and a third seat is available in non-Overtrail models starting at $64,250. But, if you have more cash, I’d recommend the Overtrail for its all-terrain bandwidth.

Just make sure to get the rubber floor mats option to absorb the dirt you track in.

Next week: 2023 Chevrolet Malibu

2024 Lexus GX

Vehicle type: Front-engine, four-wheel-drive four-door SUV

Price: $64,250, including $1,350 destination charge ($80,915 GX 550 Overtrail + 4WD as tested)

Powerplant: 3.4-liter twin-turbocharged V-6

Power: 349 horsepower, 479 pound-feet-torque

Transmission: 10-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.5 seconds (mfr.); Towing, 9,063 pounds; Top speed, 109 mph

Weight: 5,666 pounds (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA est. 15 mpg city/21 highway/17 combined

Report card

Highs: More engine options; major exterior/interior upgrades

Lows: Rear seat still tight; gets pricey

Overall: 4 stars

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

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