Henry Payne Blog

Payne: Mazda CX-5 gives zoom-zoom to ute-ute

Posted by hpayne on April 16, 2015

For the 2016 model year, Mazda is bringing new levels

We’re back in the appliance aisle this week.

Looking for a reliable machine that will move family, haul groceries, get us to work, won’t pillage the pocketbook. The automobile equivalent of a washing machine. Used to be the aisle was dominated by midsize sedans, but the options have expanded as taller, five-door utes have come to market.

The brand names are familiar. Honda (CR-V), Toyota (RAV4), Chevy (Equinox). Durable. Bulletproof. Functional. What else do you need in a washing machine? Quite a bit, I’m happy to say. Midsize sedan appliances have suddenly gained attitude — like your fridge sprouted an exposed carbon-fiber handle or your washer spin cycle plays The Stones Greatest Hits. The Ford Fusion looks like an Aston Martin, the Chrysler 200 is a polished piece of rolling furniture, even Camry has grown a goatee. I like where this is going. Cars are more than appliances, after all — they’re public avatars for us.

Compact utes have also shed their toaster square image to stand out from the crowd. Ogle Jeep’s bullet-nosed Cherokee or Ford’s raked Escape. Or salute the GMC Terrain pickup-design swagger.

But what if you’re the athletic type? Got running shoes and compression pants in your locker? Break into a sweat at least once a day? Then you might like to try on the Mazda CX-5.

Mazda, of course, has made athleticism — they call it “zoom-zoom” — their calling card. The Miata sports car is the most outgoing example of a lineup of vehicles that invites you to have fun on your way to the ATM appliance. “There’s a little bit of Miata in every Mazda,” company spokesman Tom McDonald likes to say. Mazda goes so far as the put its name on race tracks like Mazda Raceway in Laguna Seca, California where it provides a school of Miatas to train new disciples in zoom-zoom.

But ask any Miata school attendee for weekend highlights and they will mention the van tour of the fearsome, roller-coaster-like Laguna, one of America’s most daunting tracks. After one door-handle-leaning, tire squalling, pro-instructor-piloted lap, you will never look at a four-row, commercial van the same way again.

The all-wheel-drive Mazda CX-5 is like that.

Make sure the eggs are out of the backseat and have a ball. The Mazda DNA is there. The crisp steering. Predictable chassis. Athletic good looks. That big Mazda grille is grinning for a reason.

Introduced in 2014, the 2016 CX-5 showed up for spring training this year looking fitter (tweaked face, LED tail-lights) and with more options than ever. It could be a contender for best all-around ute. Could be. Readers of this column know that I’m a fan of the Ford Escape. Its total package is the benchmark for the segment – a delicious confection of style, high-tech, innovation, and options.

The Escape doesn’t match the CX-5′s handsome face (where’s that signature Aston grille, Ford?) but, like the Mazda, its body is surprisingly toned for a ute. Aggressive stance, strong shoulders, car-like style. That panache continues inside with the class’s most sculpted interior. Dash instruments are artfully packaged in chrome and matte-black surfaces. The Mazda is sooo Honda CR-V-like. Practical but lacking in the unique appeal that attracted you in the first place. The interior is roomy in front and back for sequoias like me. Empty-nesters tempted by the growing subcompact ute class may reconsider once they have tried a wider, compact ute. Ample center storage space awaits and you aren’t wedged in so tightly with your seatmate that you can smell what kind of omelet they had for breakfast.

Mazda matches the Ford standard for fold-flat rear seats (others class entries are content with seats that ALMOST fold all the way down) and even introduces remote buttons so you can flatten the seats from the back hatch. But that assumes you weren’t already miffed that the Mazda doesn’t have the Escape’s nifty “kick to open” rear hatch feature — a must for egg crate-carrying grocery shoppers. Even the luxe Audi A8 has copied this Ford innovation.

But the engine bay is where the Mazda is curiously zoomless-zoomless.

Where the Escape offers a trifecta of engine choices — 1.6-liter turbo, 2.5-liter, and a punchy, 240-horsepower 2.0-liter turbo, the Mazda offers but two normally-aspirated mills: A 155 horsepower, 2.0-liter base engine and the 2.5-liter, 184-horsepower gas-burner found in the Mazda 6 sedan. Nail it and you’ll pine for a turbo’s quiet torque. The CX-5′s 2.5 is a buzz-saw — invading an otherwise quiet cabin. Rumored is a diesel option down the road …

The narrow power plant options are especially curious coming from one of the world’s most innovative engine makers. My ears are still buzzing from Mazda’s historic 1991 24 Hours of LeMans win in which a non-piston-powered sports car won for the first time in history. Mazda’s unmuffled rotary engine created such a racket off the front straight grandstands that a generation of Frenchmen now wear hearing aids.

A more civilized rotary powered Mazda’s sensational RX for years (more sports car DNA), but Mazda’s recent green push — dubbed SKYACTIVE — has been largely one-dimensional. SKYACTIVE technology is green and sexy — but like Ford’s signature “Ecoboost” play to the green elites, it could co-exist with more horses.

Perhaps I protest too much. That buzzy four only temporarily distracts from a startlingly good value that starts a grand below the Escape.

The CX-5′s embarrassment of standard riches — cross-traffic alert, blind spot monitoring, collision-brake support, 7-inch touchscreen, full-body massage (just kidding about that last one) — can’t be found on a Porsche Macan crossover at more than twice its cost. My “Blue Reflex Mica” tester had a standard features list as long as a CVS Pharmacy receipt — plus moonroof — yet stickered for less than 29-grand. Its 22-grand base bests Honda and Toyota even as its Consumer Reports score is neck-and-neck with its better known Japanese rivals.

I’m grateful for the CX-5. The appliance aisle needs its special sauce. Not everyone wants Honda-Toyota-Chevy mayonnaise. The CX-5 won’t challenge Big Appliance for best sales numbers but it forces them — witness Honda’s lovely new CR-V — to add some nuts and fudge to its recipe.

Now if we can just entice Mazda into commercial vans. Zoom-zoom.

2016 Mazda CX-5

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front and all-wheel drive, five-passenger sport utility vehicle

Price: $22,465 base ($28,835 AWD as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, inline-4 cylinder; 2.5-liter, inline-4

Power: 155 horsepower, 150 pound-feet of torque (2.0L); 184 horsepower, 185 pound-feet of torque (2.5L)

Transmission: 6-speed automatic transmission

Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.3 seconds (Car & Driver est. 2.5-liter); towing capacity as tested: 2,000 pounds

Weight: 3,550 pounds (AWD as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 26 mpg city/35 mpg highway/29 mpg combined (2.0L); EPA 24 mpg city/30 mpg highway/26 mpg combined (AWD 2.5L tested)

Report card

Highs: Playful for a ute; standard is loaded with extras

Lows: Uninspired dash; sporty engine to match sporty chassis, please

Overall:★★★

Cartoon: Sniper Burning

Posted by hpayne on April 16, 2015

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Cartoon: Reid Forcast

Posted by hpayne on April 16, 2015

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Cartoon: April 15th Green Fat Cats

Posted by hpayne on April 15, 2015

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Cartoon: Billary 2016

Posted by hpayne on April 14, 2015

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Cartoon: Darth Lexus

Posted by hpayne on April 14, 2015

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Payne: For Taylors Detroit race is all in the family

Posted by hpayne on April 10, 2015

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For most of us, a family weekend in the car means a quiet trip Up North with Dad at the helm of the Suburban and the kids buried in their iPods in the backseat.

It’s a little different for the Taylor family.

One of motor racing’s most prominent tribes, the Taylors spend their weekends in loud, cramped vehicles doing up to 200 mph. When the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship roars onto Belle Isle next month for the Chevrolet Sports Car Classic – sharing the show bill with the Verizon IndyCar Series – the Taylors will be a favorite to spray champagne in victory lane.

Dad Wayne Taylor, 58, is an endurance racing legend, a two-time Daytona 24-Hour winner. But these days, Pops is in the backseat (that would be a metaphor. There is no backseat in a 600-horsepower Corvette DP missile) balancing the books of Wayne Taylor Racing, while his hot-shoe sons – Ricky, 25, and Jordan, 23 – take turns at the wheel.

In motorsports culture family dynasties make the Clintons and Bushes look like pikers. Andretti, Unser, Rahal, Petty, Earnhardt, and more have dominated the pit lane over the years. But Ricky and Jordan are rare siblings who pilot Dad’s wheels. Only drag racing’s formidable Force clan – John and daughters Courtney and Brittany – compare.

The boys seem to have had a normal childhood. Which is to say, soccer was their first sport.

“We grew up (in Florida) around racetracks, but until we were 10 we weren’t really that interested,” says Jordan, the bespectacled one. “We’d be at the track but we would always have a soccer ball to kick around.”

But they had oil in their veins. Eventually, the track called. Beginning with go-karts.

“It was very low key at the start,” says Ricky. “Not until we were 12-13 did we get our own kart. My Dad started spending more time with us, and that’s how we got more serious about it.”

They climbed the podium fast. Barber open-wheel racing, Formula 2000, prototype sports cars. At the improbable age of 18, Rick Taylor joined his father to race a Sun Trust Bank-sponsored, Pontiac Riley prototype in the Rolex 24-Hours of Daytona. Sixteen-year old Jordan made the trip too – entered with a different team in the GT class.

Heady stuff. Goosebumps for Dad.

“Now, if we can just get my wife, Shelly, in the pace car, we can have the have the entire Taylor family in the race,” quipped Wayne at the time.

For the next few years the boys came and went like teenagers do. Rick left the team nest. Jordan came on board in 2013. Then finally, last year, Taylor racing was family. In a sport where team-mates often feud more than speak, the close Taylor boys are more like an Olympic two-man bobsled team. Teamwork. Teamwork. Teamwork.

“We’ve never been that competitive with each other which is good because you can take the ego out of it,” Jordan says. “On any weekend if Ricky is faster than me then we used that to our advantage. We‘re talking to each other.”

It didn’t take long to nab their first win. Right here in Detroit last May.

“For a street course it’s really good,” says Jordan of the twisty Belle Isle circuit. “It’s fast and wide, and compared to Long Beach its miles better. Not as bumpy.”

Detroit has better roads than California? Refreshing to hear.

“This is a big event for us, especially being the Corvette team with GM headquarters right here,” adds Ricky looking out over a barren Belle Isle when I interviewed the brothers in early March. The place looks different without the leaves of May. Or pit stalls. Or grandstands.

But the Taylors came here in winter because racing is about more than driving fast. It’s sponsor dinners, series promotion, and missionary work. The boys love the missionary work. They want other kids to know what a great career racing can be. This day they have proselytized to a rapt audience at Cody High School’s Detroit Institute of Technology.

“We were introduced to the sport really young,” says Ricky. “When we were in school other kids didn’t know what we were talking about. It’s cool . . . to share our experience with Cody kids and talk about the technology transfer between the school and what they can apply to the motor sports industry.”

They’re still learning themselves. Like how to run the family business someday. “Dad always talks about retiring,” smiles Ricky. “But I don’t think he’s anywhere close to that. It’s hard for him to keep busy outside racing right now.”

That, and he’s having too much fun on family road trips.

Cartoon: Economy Falling

Posted by hpayne on April 10, 2015

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Cartoon: Iran Nuclear Program

Posted by hpayne on April 10, 2015

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Cartoon: War on Women

Posted by hpayne on April 10, 2015

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Payne: Four-door freaks, Porsche Panamera S vs. Audi S7

Posted by hpayne on April 9, 2015

German automakers are mating athletic performance with

Left-lane lollygaggers drive me crazy.

Americans take hours of driver’s ed classes with instructions to travel in the right lanes unless they need to pass. Then we get our driver’s license, develop instant amnesia, and spend the rest of our lives in the left lane driving like snails with a tail of road rage in our mirrors.

Say hello to the cures for the common lollygagger: The Porsche Panamera S and Audi S7 four-door coupes.

A brief sketch of the “four-door coupe” is in order. It’s a freak of nature. An oxymoron. A rare breed of sedan that includes the e-mazing — if distance-limited — Tesla Model S that I fell hard for last year. Or the achingly gorgeous, painfully pricey Aston Martin Rapide. Like Grace Kelly, it offers unmatched beauty afforded only by Monaco royalty.

At half the price of the Aston with twice the range of a Tesla, the Panamera S and S7 may be the best all-around athletes in the auto gymnasium.

The performance variants of the already potent Panamera and A7 models, the Panamera S and S7 share their siblings’ gorgeous lines and lush interiors. Just add steroids. About 420 horsepower will do.

These thoroughbreds were raised on the German Autobahn where they cruise comfortably in the left lane at 120 mph in a disciplined automotive culture where lollygaggers are locked away for life. On this side of the pond these lithe sprinters will find the fast lane clogged with obstacles — like Usain Bolt stumbling upon a pack of 1,500-meter runners mid-dash. One second you’re zipping along, then — bam! — your grille’s full of L.L. Lollygagger III talking to his broker at 55 mph.

Drive the Porsche and Audi home in heavy traffic and they will grow more impatient than Chris Christie at a vegetarian buffet. Cruising at 55 with the left-lane lollies feels like standing still. If the duo were sharks they would suffocate. No problem. Move to the right lane, punch the throttle, and surge forward like an F-14 shot off a carrier deck.

It’s hard to decide which cure I’d recommend more.

On the Lodge, the S7 ate traffic like a humpback whale feeding in a school of plankton. One gulp and they’re gone. The S7′s insane, turbocharged, 420-horse V-8 has more torque than anything this side of a Tesla. The electric car-like kick is enhanced by the high-tech, cocoon-quiet interior. Its heads-up display and Google Earth nav system are futuristic. Its pin-striped accents, chrome cupholders, and quilted seats are boardroom luxe. Even with the V-8 engine exhaust set to DYNAMIC (other options: NORMAL and COMFORT), the rocket’s thrust sounds distant, muffled. The landscape moves past your windows as if you had pressed a fast-forward button — dizzyingly fast, but silent.

The Panamera has other ideas.

This is a Porsche after all. Start button on the left side of the steering wheel. Instrument cluster with tac front and center. Quirky, fold-out cup holders. The Panamera is posh — but with 60 years of racing heritage at your fingertips. Literally. The Porsche has more buttons than an airliner cockpit. Want SPORT or SPORT PLUS mode? Hit the button. Want to hear the roar of your 420-horse twin turbo as it devours lollygaggers? Push the “dual exhaust” avatar and open the gates of Hell.

Springing to the right of a herd of lollygaggers on the Left Coast’s arching San Diego Coronado Bridge, my Panamera tester erupted with a roar that sounded like Cerberus gargling with razor blades. The speedo spiked as I launched up the five-lane span, the exhaust barking with each lightning-quick paddle shift. If I had kept my foot in it I surely could have hurdled downtown San Diego and returned to Earth near Palm Springs. And attracted every cop west of Vegas.

The 3.0-liter, twin-turbo V-6 replaces the previous gen V-8 — but, thanks to the exhaust special effects, it retains much of the eight-holer’s aural pleasure.

Porsche styling is behind the eight-ball compared to the S7, but Porsche if it cares. No. It’s about tradition.

A motorhead pal quips that the Panamera looks like a 911 stretch limo. The 911 sports car is Porsche’s signature. The iconic, fast-backed shape. The countless racing titles. Vehicle styling trends come and go, but the 911 is the Rock of Gibraltar, impervious to the winds of time.

Porsche might have called the Panamera the 911 sedan, but this is no 911. The Panamera kicks the engine from the rear to the front. The addition of two, surprisingly roomy rear seats interrupts the coupe-like greenhouse, making the sedan appear butt-heavy. It’s attractive like Kim Kardashian — if you don’t mind the caboose.

The effect is unmistakably Porsche, however, and — along with the Cayenne SUV — has hugely expanded the sports car maker’s consumer demographic from motorhead to luxe. In a Birmingham parking lot recently I asked a well-dressed gentleman emerging from his Panamera what engine he had under the hood — a question every 911 owner could instantly answer.

He had no idea — and admitted he didn’t know what was under the hood of his wife’sPanamera either. Porsche is smiling all the way to the bank.

The S7, meanwhile, reaches for motorheads beyond Audi’s core luxe buyer. Squint hard and an Audi A4 bears a family resemblance to the VW Jetta. The 7 is a breed all its own. Its sloping ducktail is revered. That pretty new Chevy Malibu unveiled in New York? Audi S7 inspired. Ditto the fast-backed Ford Fusion.

If you want the prettiest four-door coupe, buy the S7. If you want a four-door Porsche, the Panamera is your drug.

Allow me to recommend all-wheel-drive in both. Despite their slender lines, these coupes are heavyweights, tipping the scales over 4,500 pounds. Driven hard, my rear-wheel-drive Panamera could be a handful, its long front end in a different time zone from the rear. For $5,100, the Panamera 4S adds AWD. The S7 is the bargain with AWD standard.

Ah, handling. It makes these predators enjoyable even after you’ve left the expressway. After a long squawk up north on I-75, take a left at Gaylord and treat your S-of-choice to the S turns of Route M-32.

Just hope the lollygaggers don’t exit with you.

2015 Porsche Panamera S

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, four-passenger sport sedan

Price: $93,200 base ($116,140 as tested)

Power plant: 3.0-liter, twin-turbo V-6

Power: 420 horsepower, 384 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 7-speed PDK automatic transmission with steering-mounted paddle shifters

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.6 seconds (manufacturer)

Weight: 4,586 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 17 mpg city/27 mpg highway/21 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Comfy backseat buckets; engine special effects

Lows: Old-school European, fold-out cupholders; price

Overall:★★★

2015 Audi S7

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, four-passenger sport sedan

Price: $82,500 base ($88,875 as tested)

Power plant: 4.0-liter, turbocharged V-8

Power: 420 horsepower, 406 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 7-speed automatic transmission with steering-mounted paddle shifters

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.5 seconds (manufacturer)

Weight: 4,508 pounds base

Fuel economy: EPA 17 mpg city/27 mpg highway/20 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Gorgeous; liquid-smooth power

Lows: Tedious, rotary dial-operated infotainment screen; steering-stalk triplets can confuse

Overall:★★★★

Cartoon: 2016 Final Four – GOP Regional

Posted by hpayne on April 8, 2015

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Cartoon: Rand Paul Frodo

Posted by hpayne on April 8, 2015

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Cartoon: Obama Talks and Iran

Posted by hpayne on April 6, 2015

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Payne: How Gotham’s auto show is different

Posted by hpayne on April 6, 2015

McLaren

New York votes as blue as California but it isn’t as green. New Yorkers like to think they are saving the polar bear — look, we have Prius cabs! — but when it comes to cars, they are as politically incorrect as we purple state, ute-addicted Midwesterners. California’s status symbol is Tesla, New York’s is Mercedes. As BMW North America President Ludwig Willisch said about electric vehicles: “(New Yorkers) couldn’t care less.”

These stereotypes play out on the U.S. auto show circuit.

The Detroit Auto Show is the All-American, muscle car and truck-palooza. Los Angeles preens green. New York showcases luxury.

We aren’t the Motor City for nothing. Cars are Michigan religion. We put the world on wheels and worship men like Ford, Dodge and Shelby. Green is California’s faith. Carbon is a sin and natives frown on gas-guzzlers like Puritans on Hester Prynne.

New York? New York’s creed is money.

If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. If you can’t, you commute from Jersey. New York is so expensive that, if I put an Escalade on blocks, I could rent it out for $8,000 a month as a penthouse apartment. One of my book editors at Penguin Random House — the world’s largest publisher, with its headquarters on Broadway — lives on Manhattan’s east side. Without children. She says only One Percenters can afford to raise kids in Manhattan. The middle class lives in north Jersey. Or Long Island. Space is simply too expensive.

Just down the street from the Javits Center (the sprawling convention complex that hosts New York’s show on Manhattan’s west side), a new development is rising with condos for sale between $2 million and $21 million. Twenty-one million for a condo? You could buy all of northeast Detroit for $21 mil. The Big Apple is choked with million-dollar cribs. With $1,000-a-month parking underneath.

So it’s no wonder that the Javits Center show floor caters to luxury. If you want to introduce a luxe sedan, sports car or SUV, New York is your bazaar. Walk onto Javits main floor and luxury chariots abound. There are Rolls Royces and Maseratis and Aston Martins. Acres of Astons. The classic Vanquish. The four-door Rapide. The track-pulverizing Vulcan. James Bond’s jaw would drop.

Surrounding the Aston corral is Porsche, Lamborghini, Koenigsegg, Bugatti, and McLaren. Heck, McLaren — which makes nothing under $185 grand — has its own stand. Last year it sold fewer than 500 cars in the U.S., probably to a block of $21 million condo owners. I wonder what you would do with a 1,200-horsepower, 268-mph Bugatti Veyron in Manhattan. In cross-town traffic it’s not going to get you to LaGuardia any quicker than a Chevy Tahoe. And it won’t have room for your luggage.

I haven’t seen these cars on Cobo’s floor in years. (They usually have an exclusive, off-site casino showing.) In New York the luxe divisions of mainstream companies — Lincoln, Cadillac, Lexus — split from their corporate parents to show off for the gold chain crowd.

“Ford? Never heard of it. The name’s Lincoln Continental III, Esquire. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Trump.”

The mainstream brands still share the palatial main floor — like coach sharing the same plane with first class. Indeed, the Ford GT and Chevy Corvette Z06 would stomp most Astons. But pickups are relegated to the basement. The only people who drive pickups in Manhattan are condo construction crews.

And then there’s third class. The North Hall.

Walk out the door from the main floor. Down the North Concourse. Through the connector to North Hall from North Concourse. Or you could take a cab. It’s as if Cobo’s Detroit show also used Joe Louis Arena for exhibit space. Four automakers are stuck in North Hall Siberia: Mitsubishi, Fiat, Scion and Subaru.

They make small, affordable vehicles. You know, bought by people who commute in from Jersey.

Cartoon: Kerry Iran Bazaar

Posted by hpayne on April 4, 2015

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Cartoon: Easter Chicken

Posted by hpayne on April 2, 2015

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Payne: Kia Sorento is boffo bargain

Posted by hpayne on April 2, 2015

The redesigned Sorento delivers with a new 2.0-liter

We are fascinated by identical twins. The Zuckerberg-suing Winklevosses. The adorable Olsens. The tennis-playing Bryans.

And we like twins with a bit of mystery. Did you know that gorgeous supermodel Gisele Bündchen is a twin? Did you see the twins twist coming in the magician film classic, “The Prestige”? Me neither.

We’ve watched the careers of autodom’s twins. Mercury and Ford. Dodge and Chrysler. Chevy and Olds and Pontiac and Buick (um, that’s actually quadruplets, isn’t it?) But the mystery duo of the moment are the Koreans, Hyundai and Kia.

The pair share a corporate parent (Hyundai), U.S. assembly plant (Georgia), and chassis — yet this is hardly a Bryan-like, high-fiving, doubles team. Indeed, they barely acknowledge each other. When I ask Hyundai and Kia about the other, they are curt.

“We view them as a direct competitor, just like Honda or Toyota,” a Kia rep says. Feel a chill, bro?

Yet, like the Bryans, parent Hyundai is proud of its kids. They are affordable. Reliable. Both are celebrating record sales as they slake America’s insatiable thirst for everything ute.

Take the Kia Sorento I’ve been flogging about town.

The Sorento is an all-new 2016 model following the all-new, 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe. Midsize utes are cargo haulers, so I was pleased my test mule was equipped with a V-6 engine and AWD. Want a 4-pot fuel-sipper? Buy a compact SUV.

Like its crib-mate, Sorento delivers family-friendly, midsize utility. Yet only theatrical parents would dress their twins the same after, say, their second birthday. Twins need a chance to breathe. A chance to find their own identities. Sorento and Santa Fe are no different.

Kia has traditionally been the more affordable brand, and — sho’nuff as they say in Georgia — the Sorento V-6 is the bargain buy at $31,890 base. That’s almost $2,000 less than sister Fe (I’m mixing brother and sister metaphors, so humor me). Similarly equipped Toyota Highlander or class-sales leader Ford Explorer will command another $500-1,000 above that.

Yet Sorento is no Cinderella in rags. It sports a striking wardrobe compared to stepsister Santa Fe. Leather seats. Nav system. Lots of digital bling like Bluetooth connectivity, blind-spot assist, rear-camera assist, and so on. In fact, the swankiest trim Sorento Limited stickers for $44,890 — six grand north of Santa Fe Limited. My steed stickered at $40,595.

Sorento is like walking into Pei Wei and finding the same decor and menu as upscale sister-chain P.F. Chang’s. Seems the sisters have similar tastes.

The names tell you something. Santa Fe gets its moniker from the chic New Mexico burg. Not to be outdone, the Kia borrows its name from Sorrento, chic Italian tourist trap (dropping one r for some reason). Kia likes the European market and its badge was conspicuous on my last trip across the pond.

Sorento’s European pretentions are more than just a subscription to Elle.

Kia hired Audi fashion legend Peter Schreyer to bring flair to the Korean brand. The result is a family of distinctive, “tiger-nosed,” grilles with sleek sheet metal. My Sorento greeted me with spreading mirrors and a chime upon entering the cabin. Red calipers wink at me behind the snowflake-shaped wheels like the trendy, red-bottom heels of Paris runways. Well, hello.

The charm offensive continues inside. The instrument cluster is right out of Schreyer’s VW/Audi stylebook — white on black dials, chrome accents. Pepper and salt interior decor, leather stitching. Nice.

I like to jump into a test car and test its ergonomics on the fly. Controls should be intuitive, and everything in the Sorento is where it should be. Here’s to you, interior design team. Sorento may speak with a European accent, but it’s fluent in American ergonomics. The console is shorn of the worst Euro bad habits (looking at you, Audi) of button acne or rotary screen controls.

Chrome-bezeled islands holding the controls like the Dodge Challenger. The upright touch screen is easy to reach (not all drivers have orangutan arms like your scribe). Radio stations, seat heaters, climate dials, gas cap release, USB and 12-volt plugs are all right in front of me. Kia offers a new eService called UVO that — among other things — will play nanny to your teen-driver on speed and curfew. Which they might find more annoying than the Olsen twins’ fashion line.

Mrs. Payne has embraced nimble hatchbacks in our empty-nest years, but the Sorento might have been tempting back in her soccer-mom days. Especially since it offers her essentials: AWD, heated seats, third-row seats. She’d prefer the roomy second row be captain’s chairs — easier rugrat access to the third-row — but credit an available, full-cabin length sunroof in making that last row seem less basement-like. Step ’round back and that third row can be flattened — together with the second — with clever switches that open up maximum, I-hope-this-big-screen-TV-fits cargo space.

Wrap all this in a quiet cabin and it’s no wonder that the Korean twins sell more midsize utes (210,000 in 2014 even before the new Sorento debuts) than any other car company outside Ford’s dominant Explorer and Edge tag team.

With its European style and car-like chassis, the Sorento is a reminder — not just in how far Korean vehicles have come — but in how far SUVs have come. Though not as firm as the crisp Edge, I drove Sorento around town with the confidence of a sedan. When your friends get all teary about the good ol’ days, remind them what land yachts SUVs used to be like.

Only the drivetrain betrays the Sorento’s discount price.

The 6-speed auto tranny has all of the finesse — YUMP! — of a garden tractor. The touchy accelerator doesn’t roll on so much as — YIP! — jerk the machine to life. Upshifts came as abruptly — YUNK! — as a mule kick. Happily, the 290-horse, 3.3-liter V-6 provides plenty of muscle to move the Sorento’s 4,343 pounds.

I wouldn’t want to be at the dinner table with the Korean twins. The brands are spending daddy’s money following the same business strategy: More high-margin utes, more brand-polishing, upscale, luxury cars. And while Hyundai attracts a higher income demographic, the Sorento’s youthful styling is turning more heads.

Naturally, then, Hyundai has appointed Kia’s Schreyer to be its designer as well. The twins are dating the same stylist? Let the fur fly.

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

 

2016 Kia Sorento

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front and all-wheel drive, seven-passenger sport utility vehicle

Price: $25,795 base ($40,595 AWD V-6 as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbo inline-4 cylinder; 2.4-liter, inline-4; 3.3-liter V-6

Power: 185 horsepower, 178 pound-feet of torque (4-cyl); 240 horsepower, 260 pound-feet of torque (turbo 4-cyl); 290 horsepower, 252 pound-feet of torque (V-6)

Transmission: 6-speed automatic transmission

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.8 seconds (Car & Driver est. V-6); towing capacity as tested: 5,000 pounds

Weight: 3,704 pounds base (4,343 AWD as tested)

Fuel economy: (all figures with AWD) EPA 19 mpg city/25 mpg highway/22 mpg combined (4-cyl); EPA 21 mpg city/26 mpg highway/23 mpg combined (turbo 4-cyl); EPA 18 mpg city/26 mpg highway/21 mpg combined (V-6)

Report card

Highs: Versatile, three-row player; intuitive console

Lows: Jerky drivetrain; looks chunkier than Santa Fe twin

Overall:★★★

 

Payne: The Jurassic toy designer who makes Fords

Posted by hpayne on March 31, 2015

Ford car designer Kevin George with the 2015 Ford Edge

If you loved Kenner Products’ remote control “Ricochet” toy car as a kid and covet the new Ford Edge as an adult, meet Kevin George.

He designed both.

George, exterior design manager for the 2015 Edge crossover, came to Ford through an unusual route: the toy business. For a dozen years, he designed some of the most beloved toys on kids’ wish lists — Ricochet, “Jurassic Park” movie figures, “Batman” vehicles, NASCAR models — for Kenner before he realized his life’s dream and crossed over to the auto industry in 2001 to sculpt cars.

Where he once worked closely with Hollywood legend Steven Spielberg on Jurassic Park vehicle designs, he now pens cars for the legendary Blue Oval.

“The passion that kids had for their toys — I want them to grow up and have that same passion for their cars,” says the 48-year-old, who has just completed a media tour for the Edge as it debuts in dealer showrooms this month.

Growing up in Kettering, Ohio, Kevin George’s passion for autos started young. His father, a General Motors engineer, brought home a steady diet of development vehicles. He learned the language of car design. The lights. The lines. His friends wanted to play baseball or soccer.

“I wanted to draw cars,” he says.

But when it came time to choose a university, the budding designer eschewed the traditional auto design factories of Detroit’s College for Creative Studies or California’sArt Center College of Design. He chose the University of Cincinnati. Once more, he learned from his father.

“He encouraged me to get an industrial design degree because he said I can always get a product design job,” reflects George. “He warned me that the auto business was very cyclical.”

After graduation in 1987, George took his “book” — portfolio — to Cincinnati’s Kenner, a little toy company once known for Play-Doh and Easy Bake Ovens that had struck pay dirt by landing the “Star Wars” contract to produce action figures. The Hollywood connection was a gold mine for Kenner as it became the go-to company for movie merchandise.

Nearly every movie project had vehicles and young George lobbied for the assignment. His first project: “Ghostbusters” in 1989. Then came Jurassic Park.

“We gave away free movie design work,” laughs George, because the lead time on making toys — design, materials, Chinese production, shipment to market — was longer than making a movie. So George and his team became de facto designers for Spielberg props like the park’s tour trucks.

George read Michael Crichton’s original novels. Worked with Hollywood designers. Spielberg came to Cincinnati.

“The trucks were initially based on the Ford Explorer. But I didn’t like the vehicles, so we did a different design,” remembers George, aware of the irony that he’s now a Ford designer. He changed the roofs to clear glass. Added numbers. Spielberg approved.

Other blockbusters followed. Batman. NASCAR. The game-changing, all-wheel drive “Ricochet” design that introduced a remote control car that would always land on its feet — saving kids the trouble of rescuing cars turtled on their roofs.

The Ricochet, as its packaging promised, was “virtually unstoppable.” But George’s toy design career was not.

Kenner was bought by Hasbro. The Cincinnati division was closed and George took a different job in Rhode Island. The “non-cyclical” product design industry had suddenly hit a cycle. George faced a crossroads.

“My wife asked me: ‘What is it that you want?’ ” he recalls. “‘Follow your dream.’”

Ricochet’s designer sent his book of toy vehicle designs to Ford North America Design Director Moray Callum — including a hot rod, ’32 Ford split window. “I think he liked that car,” smiles George.

He was hired. His first assignment: chief interior designer for the 2005 Mustang. Now that’s hitting the ground running.

“It’s great to have designers that come from a different background on our team,” says George’s boss, Chris Svensson, design director of the Americas. “They bring a different perspective to addressing a design challenge. It ensures we are evaluating every possibility.”

George never looked back. He worried that car design might be different, more high-tech. But he’s found that while the tools have evolved — CAD computer design, Oculus Rift virtual reality helmets — craftsmanship remains paramount.

“They do things the same way we did at Kenner,” he says. “With a movie toy you ask yourself: ‘What is the core fantasy of this film?’ With a car it’s the same. ‘What is it that people like about a ’67 Mustang?’ I knew what to do. I knew how to capture the essence of the Mustang.’”

The same principle applied to remaking the Edge, a pioneer of the crossover segment and one of Ford’s most familiar shapes.

“Just because you can change everything doesn’t mean you should,” he says of a design that integrates Ford sedan family cues like a Taurus-like grill and Fusion-like taillights — yet retains Edge’s signature, sculpted stance.

George says he particularly enjoyed working on Edge’s full-size clay model in the design studio, carving out big scoops of clay from the ute’s slab sides to give it a leaner look.

Playing with clay. Drawing cars. Just like when he was a kid. He’s living his dream.

CARtoon: Lincoln Continental

Posted by hpayne on March 31, 2015

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