Henry Payne Blog

Payne: Santa, can I have an Audi A3?

Posted by hpayne on December 20, 2014

The Audi A3

Santa would love the red, gorgeous, fast Audi A3. But the Golf GTI’s hatchback may prove more practical for his toy bag.

It’s red. It’s pulled by 220 reindeer. And, man, does it fly. Ditch the sleigh, Santa, get an Audi A3.

I told him so last week. Right after I asked him for one myself.

Sure, a 6’5″ guy looked a little foolish on Santa’s knee (Don’t get too many 220 pounders, huh, Nick?) at my office Christmas party. But drive the crimson, 220-horsepower, all-wheel drive Vixen I had in my driveway for a week and you’ll be making a dash for the nearest mall Kringle too.

I first discovered the A3 on Hell, Michigan’s terrific twisties this fall when judging entrants for the North American Car of the Year. It was Heaven. This all-wheel drive athlete changes direction quicker than DeMarco Murray.

Compact SUVs may be hot as chestnuts roasting on an open fire, but the A3 heads an expanding class of $30K-something compact sport sedans that are wicked, affordable fun. Indeed, the $30K-$40K bandwidth is a mash of luxury and mainstream brands – Mercedes, Ford, BMW, Subaru, Buick – unthinkable a decade ago.

Makin’ a list, checkin’ it twice.

I’m a slobbering slave to branding. Priced at the high end of the $30 grand range, the sexy, all-wheel drive Mercedes CLA250, BMW 228i, and Audi make my heart race. Cross the fast-but-more-homely, AWD Subaru STI and Buick Regal GS from my list. The JV German team even makes me forget their E-Class, 3-series, and A4 varsity siblings which have grown fatter with time (haven’t we all). The new kids are whip quick, torquey, and every bit as lovely as their bigger-boned sisters.

But the A3 tops my list.

Audi dresses up its VW Golf-based chassis with all-wheel drive, a toned torso, and the brand’s signature full-fascia grille.

I could stare at the Bimmer all day, but even in this low-frills segment, BMW upcharges $4,045 for power leather seats. On the Audi they come standard. The four-door CLA is the supermodel of the bunch, but beauty is only skin deep as the Merc’s interior sports a tacky screen (literally. It’s tacked on to the dash), tight pedals, and a less-powerful, 208-reindeer – er, horse – power plant.

The A3′s screen rises from the dash like Excalibur from the water. Its eager, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-banger sprints from 0-60 a half-second quicker than the Benz. Like its rivals, the A3′s 250-plus pound-feet of torque kicks like Comet. I fling the Audi into a corner, 19-inch wheels churning, four tires gripping like glue. I nail the gas, and . . .

Passengers, we appreciate your patience while the turbocharger spools up. Thank you and enjoy your flight.

Turbo laaaaaaag. It’s an affliction all small-block turbos suffer – even the insanely fast, carbon-fiber-light Alfa Romeo 4C.

Note to list: Santa, I wish I had a V-8.

Like the buttery-smooth, normally-aspirated V-8 in a new Ford Mustang. Same $32,900 base price as the A3. Double the horsepower. Instant juice. And the curvy, Euro-styled Mustang will make heads spin like a CLA supermodel. Inside, the Ford’s round, cockpit vents mimic the Merc and Audi. The console, however, is all-American, with a touchscreen that is intuitively easier to use than the Europeans’ distracting, slow, rotary knobs.

Still, the ‘Stang comes with its own asterisk. It’ll accelerate like an F-14 off the USS Nimitz, but at 3,800 pounds, the big sled isn’t nearly as tossable as the little A3. Option Ford’s superb, 2.7-liter turbo and the Mustang is a more nimble 3,500 pounds (the AWD Audi weighs in at 3,300), but you’ll have shed the trademark V-8.

Like Santa Claus, it seems, the perfect $30-something sedan is a fairy tale. Or is it? Seems the answer has been right under my nose all along.

On the same chassis as the A3, the VW Golf offers a more affordable, $31,000, sporty four-door: The GTI. For $9 grand less, the seventh generation GTI packs the same 220-horsepower turbo mill as the A3. The same black leather seats. An intuitive, Ford-like touch screen. An ingenious, torque-vectoring differential system that makes the front-wheel drive, 3,000 pound GTI nearly as fun to flog as the AWD A3.

And the GTI boasts something none of the other, fast-backed sports sedans have: A roomy hatchback. That means lots of headroom for 6’5″ elves like me and yawning, 53 cubic-feet of cargo room with the seats down.

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

 

2015 Audi A3

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

Price: $32,900 base AWD ($40,545 as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, dual overhead-cam, turbocharged 4-cylinder

Power: 220 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.8 seconds (manufacturer)

Weight: 3,362 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 24 mpg city/33 mpg highway/27 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Go-kart handling; Athletic proportions

Lows: Clumsy console rotary control; Cramped back seats

Overall:★★★★

Cartoon: Cuba Congress Embargo

Posted by hpayne on December 20, 2014

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Cartoon: Movie Threat Hunger Games

Posted by hpayne on December 19, 2014

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Payne: Ford F-150, Vehicle of the Year

Posted by hpayne on December 18, 2014

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F-150 is more than the Truck Wars top dog du jour. This pickup is a daring innovation on a new American frontier.

If this was the “2014 Sexiest Car Alive” column, I would pick the BMW i8. Like People magazine’s choice of Chris Hemsworth as the “Sexiest Man Alive,” the i8 is ripped, powerful as Thor, and attracts chicks like, well, Chris Hemsworth.

But when it comes to Vehicle of the Year, I’m a populist.

The rare $140,000 i8 will ship just 500 units anually and reportedly has a six-year waiting list at Detroit dealerships. Instead of never, how about a chariot you could drive forever? From 15-grand compacts to $50K sedans, what new vehicle raised the bar on performance, technology and livability without breaking the bank?

There were 45 new vehicles in the U.S. market and I wouldn’t kick any of them out of my garage (not even the Lexus RC-F Coupe which one legendary designer called a “fright pig.” When I heard its V-8 wail, I was in love). This year was an automotive cornucopia. We got updates on icons like the Ford Mustang, the return of the iconic Alfa Romeo, and more SUVs from sports car icon Porsche. Carmakers introduced electronic gizmos that check your blind spot and stop you before you hurt something (wow, isn’t that what the precogs did in Spielberg’s futuristic “Minority Report”?). M4 BMWs. Three-holer compacts. Not one, but two Hellcats.

I caressed, ogled and flogged nearly every one. Vehicle of the Year? The nominees, please.

Hyundai Genesis

There were lots of new lux toys in Santa’s workshop this year — Acura TLX with OMG AWD; Audi A3 that dances like Barishnikov, a Mercedes C-Class that makes Aphrodite look homely, BMW supermodels, and a Cadillac ATS that out-Bimmered the Bimmers in handling. But Hyundai whipped up a treat that was exgravaffordable. If that’s a word, it’s certainly one you rarely encounter in this segment. Yet Hyundai pulls it off. The Korean manufacturer carried its dress-for-success-for-less formula in the midsize market — see the curvy, 2011 Hyundai Sonata — into the luxe sedan segment.

Works for the Genesis, too.

The gorgeous Genesis does Audi style, BMW 5-series handling, Mercedes bends, and Lincoln livability — all in an irresistible, $38,950 base package. You read that right: $38.9K. That’s mid-size luxury for $10k less than a Lexus GS. Pair AWD with the 3.8L V-6 for $2,000 more and you get the torque of a V-8 and the grip of mountain lion.

Chrysler 200

The perennial ugly duckling of the mid-size sedan class, Chrysler produced a swan with the 200. Like the Aston Martin — er, Ford — Fusion, the 200 raised the bar for the common four-door sedan. And when optioned with AWD and a best-in-class, 292 horsepower V-6, the 200 (also like an AWD Fusion) pushed the volume sedan frontier. In a blind taste test with similarly priced luxury offerings from BMW and Audi, the 200 is the better buy.

But where the 200 really shines is inside the cockpit. In a digital age when hydraulic lines have given way to drive by wire and center consoles that have become entertainment centers, the 200 breaks new ground.

Not an inch of the 200′s console is wasted. Queen Elizabeth’s interior designers aren’t this fussy about detail. The dash is elegant. The screen is as intuitive as your smart phone. And the shift knob is reduced to a dial, turning the center console in to a piece of furniture full of drawers, cupholders, sliding doors, and a sub-zero refrigerator (just kidding about that last one). The ladies love it. I might protest the 200′s rather numb relationship with the road when driven hard — if my smitten wife would ever let me behind the wheel.

Volkswagen Golf GTI

In 1984, the GTI pioneered a hot hatch segment that now includes cyborgs like the Subaru WRX, Honda Civic SI, and those naughty Ford ST twins, Focus and Fiesta. Thirty years on, the seventh generation German pocket rocket is still the standard.

Indeed, the GTI is my automotive benchmark. It is autodom’s decathlete. At about $30K — nicely garnished — its sticker is the average price of new cars sold. Like an SUV, its hatchback design offers comfortable seating for four and configurable cargo space. Unlike an SUV, its low center of gravity and compact size make for better handling, city maneuverability, and fuel economy.

All that — and it’s more fun than a Waverunner on Lake Michigan. The GTI’s styling won’t wow like the Focus ST, but its timeless, clean lines wear well. It doesn’t have AWD like a WRX, but its hushed interior spoils you even as you flog it like a go-kart.

But my 2015 Vehicle of the Year is the over-dog. The pre-game favorite. The blockbuster that lived up to the hype. Yes, the …

Ford F-150

Like the 2014 Chevy Silverado and the 2012 RAM before that, it’s the F-150′s turn to be the new standard in pickups. More capable, more comfortable, more fuel efficient. Blah blah blah.

Yet it’s so much more than the Truck Wars top dog du jour. This pickup is a daring innovation on a new American frontier.

The Big Pickup market is evidence that Big Government is back. Washington’s demands are as important an engineering challenge as consumer needs. EPA bureaucrats have decided that the carbon dioxide they exhale is a threat to the planet. And while D.C.’s deacons exempt respiration from their list of human sins, autos get no such pass. Fuel efficiency must double by 2025. Which means Detroit engineers have to serve vehicles that meet both the dietary needs of tree-hugging, bark-chewing bureaucrats and stump-pulling, red meat-eating Neanderthals like you and me.

Ford bet the farm on an aluminum truck. It delivers. The F-150 makes no excuses for federal regulation, no moral appeal, no compromise. This is a pickup owner’s pickup. Beginning at just $26K, the F has a hammer’s power and a pocket knife’s dexterity with shrewd details like side mirror spotlights.

Ford’s federal strategy varies dramatically from the General which downsized into mid-size trucks with the credible Colorado-Canyon combo. Yet the F-150′s new, 2.7-liter Ecoboost equals the smaller trucks’ fuel efficiency. True, steel Fs were heavier than GM armor. Despite weight savings of 700 pounds from previous generations, the Ford beer can tips the scales just 200 pounds lighter than the Silverado according to Car&Driver.

Critics also quibble about Ecoboost’s inflated EPA numbers — but isn’t satisfying EPA the point? The feds get what they want; customers get what they want. And in the long run Ford’s aluminum revolution promises benefits across its vehicle lineup.

Ford may not be the sexiest vehicle alive, but when Chris Hemsworth does a rugged, remote photo shoot for People magazine on top of a windswept rock, he’ll drive a new F-150 to get there.

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

 

2015 Ford F-150

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear or four-wheel-drive, six-passenger pickup

Price: $26,615 (base model) – $60,705 (King Ranch)

Power plant: 3.5-liter V-6; 2.7-liter turbo “Ecoboost” V-6; 5.0-liter V-8; 3.5-liter turbo “Ecoboost” V-6

Power: 283 horsepower, 255 pound-feet of torque (3.5L V-6); 325 horsepower, 375 pound-feet of torque (2.7L Ecoboost V-6); 385 horsepower, 387 pound-feet of torque (V-8); 365 horsepower, 420 pound-feet of torque (3.5L Ecoboost)

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Performance: Towing capacity (4×4): 7,500 pounds (3.5L V-6; 8,400 (2.7L Ecoboost); 11,100 (V-8); 12,000 (3.5L Ecoboost)

Weight: 4,050 – 5,142 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA mpg: 18 city/25 highway/20 combined (3.5L V-6); EPA mpg: 18 city/26 highway/22 combined (2.7L Ecoboost); EPA mpg: 15 city/22 highway/18 combined (5.0L V-8); EPA mpg: 18 city/24 highway/20 combined (3.5L Ecoboost)

 

Report card

Highs: User-friendly details; aluminum’s better power-to-weight ratio

Lows: Turbos may not deliver expected fuel economy; aluminum’s insurance cost questions

Overall:★★★★

Cartoon: Bush Dynasty

Posted by hpayne on December 17, 2014

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Cartoon:Isis and Terror in Australia

Posted by hpayne on December 16, 2014

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Cartoon: Rolling Stone Headline

Posted by hpayne on December 12, 2014

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CARtoon: Santa Hellcat

Posted by hpayne on December 11, 2014

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Cartoon: CIA Torture Condemned

Posted by hpayne on December 11, 2014

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Cartoon: Breathe Shirt

Posted by hpayne on December 11, 2014

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Payne: The Lexus NX goes SciFi

Posted by hpayne on December 11, 2014

Lexus created the luxury-utility crossover category

Toyota’s CEO thinks his products are bland. So here comes the radically restyled, nimble-handling, SciFi NX SUV.

Lexus has the most radical styling out there.

Read that again. Say it out loud. Sounds weird, yes? How did Lexus and radical styling find their way into the same sentence? It’s like vanilla ice cream that makes your tongue burn. Or chic styles at the Dollar Store. Or sexy Rick Snyder.

But there sits the Lexus NX. And it is one edgy cat. Or space ship. Or bug zapper. Or whatever it looks like.

Lexus designers’ ears have been burning since 2009 when Toyota CEO — and certified motor-head — Akio Toyoda took the helm demanding more excitement from his cars. “Traditionally, Toyota’s design decisions have been driven by consensus among a large group of stakeholders,” read a Toyota press release at last winter’s Detroit auto show. “Under Akio Toyoda’s stated directive to invigorate Toyota products with energy, passion and “Waku-Doki” (translation: a palpable heart-pounding sense of excitement), the approval process has been streamlined.”

That is, Toyota’s boss thinks his products are boring. A yawn-fest. An auto-sized NyQuil pill. Has there ever been a more candid moment in image-obsessed, self-flattering Autodom?

And so we get the NX.

If early, 1990s Lexi resembled Mercedes, and the 2000s looked like — um, what did they look like again? — then the current Lexus lineup has come into its own. Bold. Slashing. Dissonant. A safe brand pushing the envelope. I like that.

Though I’m not sure history will judge it kindly. Sure, the NX is aimed at younger buyers. But will a SciFi design resonate? The NX looks like a Narn Cruiser from a Babylon 5 episode. And like all SciFi designs, its sharp, technical lines lack warmth. Most car faces are anthropomorphic, reflecting something human with eye-like headlights and mouth-like grilles.

Not Lexus. The NX gains its design inspiration from a spear with long, shaft-like lines ending in two arrowheads at the front end. The grille gets caught awkwardly between the two points. Viewed head on, the grille looks variously like an hour glass (the base 200t) or a giant bug zapper (the sporty F trim). Whatever, the arrowhead (or L for Lexus) theme echoes throughout the vehicle from lights to center console. The obsession reminds of other LOOK AT ME! designs like the 2002 Caddy CTS or the Taurus’s oval period.

As with those iris-burning designs, the NX will surely mellow over time. But for now it demands attention like a gorgeous model wearing a spiked mohawk. Will punk work on a luxury fashion runway that includes elegant models like the Lincoln MKC and BMW X3?

The NX-men are hardly the most radical mutants in the Toyota-wide design experiment. Across the pond in Europe, the tiny Toyota Aygo city car, for example, sports an X-graphic on its animal-esque nose that makes it look like Wolverine with war paint.

You wanted Waku-Doki, Akio-san? You got it.

The design edginess is a conscious attempt to broaden Lexus’ appeal beyond reliability, the trademark of Toyota products. At a coffee shop in Nashville where I drove the NX — would you like your Lexus with a denim interior, Mr. McGraw? — a store manager told me of giving up his BMW 3-series for a Toyota Prius hybrid. Why? Because the BMW was gorgeous but high maintenance. If Toyota/Lexus can deliver looks with practicality, why choose a Bimmer in the first place?

Also in contrast to German luxe-makers, Lexus has never resisted Americans’ interior demands. This Japanese manufacturer gets it: American live in their cars.

Have a car full of coffee quaffers? NX has a car full of cup holders. Have a ladies golf foursome every Saturday? Four golf bags will stack behind the second-row seat. Smart phone need juice? The center compartment sports a wireless charging tray.

And FYI, Lexus boasts the NX is a model of NVH and HMI (that’s Noise Vibration Harshness and Human Machine Interface for those not fluent in industry-speak).

Well … the NVH is A-OK. The HMI? AWOL.

The little ute has been fussed over for quiet and comfort. Its slippery, car-like styling (sure, the C-pillars have blind spots the size of a Ndamukong Suh, but that’s what the affordable, blind spot assist feature is for), and laser spot-welded chassis make for a library-quiet interior.

Which means you can contemplate the dashboard’s curiously poor HMI in silence. Lexus prefers German-like infotainment systems over superior American designs. Where Yankee consoles (think Jeep) centralize a touchscreen with redundant analog controls underneath, the NX sticks a non-touch screen high on the dash and then insists that you operate it with a touchpad waaaaay down here in front of the shift lever. Coordinating hand and eye works when stationary, but changing radio channels with your finger on a touch pad while driving is a challenge right out of a TV game show.

“Congratulations, Julie, you’ve managed to change from AM to FM and select a new station in less than a minute! You win a trip to Nashville!”

Lexus’s decision to mimic German handling is more understandable. The front- or all-wheel drive NX’s handling is wunderbar. It’s a crossover that looks like a car and aims to handle like one as well. The NX’s electric steering gives the pilot an immediate sense of security despite the ute’s high center of gravity. It’s firm, nicely-weighted, connected to the road.

Owners will likely test the handling limits of their NX only when in trouble, and when it comes they will find a Toyota RAV4-based chassis that is predictable in a corner and refreshingly free of plowing understeer.

While it strains to push the envelope outside, the NX is a reminder that Lexus has always been cutting edge under the hood.

Two fuel-sippers are on offer. A turbocharged 2.0-liter four for the $35,405 base 200t. A gas-electric hybrid powertrain in the NX 300h begins at $40,645. Even the swaggering F Sport ($37.5k) is on a diet. It gets the same, 235-horsepower turbo mill as the base model. What the F? After all, F models are designed to attract males to a female-heavy brand. In a bid for testosterone, Lexus offers a gimmicky active sound control option in the F Sport that allows you to turn up the exhaust volume inside. It’s a turn-off.

Best to enjoy the NX for what it is: A lush, efficient Lexus wrapped in a rad SciFi costume, dude.

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

 

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

Price: $35,405 base 200t ($42,235 for 300h hybrid model)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged inline-4 (200t and F Sport); 2.5-liter dual overhead-cam inline-4 with nickel-metal-hydride battery-powered, AC electric motor assist (300h)

Power: 235 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque (200t, F Sport); 194 hp combined hybrid power rating (300h)

Transmission: Six-speed automatic (200t, F Sport); Continuously variable automatic (300h)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.0 seconds (200t AWD — manufacturer)

Weight: 3,940 pounds (base FWD); 4,050 (AWD)

Fuel economy: EPA 21 mpg city/28 mpg highway/24 mpg combined (200t FWD); 35 mpg city/31 mpg highway/33 mpg combined (300h); 22 mpg city/27 mpg highway/24 mpg combined (F Sport AWD)

Report card

Highs: Polarizing stylin’; Planted handling

Lows: Polarizing styling; Glitchy touch pad

Overall: ★★★

 

Cartoon: CIA Torture

Posted by hpayne on December 11, 2014

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Cartoon: Gruber

Posted by hpayne on December 11, 2014

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Cartoon: News Narratives

Posted by hpayne on December 9, 2014

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Cartoon: Chicken Little Oil

Posted by hpayne on December 8, 2014

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Payne: Q&Auto, Majoros – are sedans dead?

Posted by hpayne on December 8, 2014

Chevy marketing guru Steve Majoros has watched SUVs take over the industry. Now comes tiny Chevy Trax., the small SUV to end small cars?

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Is the sedan a dinosaur?

“We’re not there yet. But . . . the smaller you go (in the market) it’s more of a trend,” says Chevy’s Steve Majoros, one of Detroit’s savviest marketing guys. “(SUVs) have more expression to them, more character to them. They fit the multi-dimensionality that people have in their lives.”

You know that digital technology is changing car interiors from safety systems like adaptive cruise control to consoles screens playing Pandora. But have you noticed that the exterior has received an extreme makeover as well? Sport utes long ago ceased being truck-based behemoths. They are now car-based crossovers with designs that think outside the box. SUV models match sedans segment for segment, from large lux (want a Audi Q7 or Audi A8?) to compacts (Ford Escape or Ford Focus?).

For the first time in history, according to IHS Automotive, SUV registrations this year outnumber sedans, 36.5 percent to 35.4 percent. That flips the table from just five years ago, when sedans led the way — 36.3 percent to 31.4. And it is a sea change since the ’80s when a “ute” was just a Utah college mascot.

From Chevy account manager at Campbell Ewald to Chevy marketing director for cars and crossovers, Majoros has watched this revolution unfold. His latest contribution to the trend? The cute Chevy Trax, the first mainstream ute in the subcompact segment. The youthful, energetic 49-year old has the resume of a grizzled veteran and the chin grizzle of a rock star. I sat down with Majoros at the Trax launch in San Diego to talk utes, Corsicas, and twenty-somethings.

Q: How did you get here?

Majoros: I am a marketing guy first and a motorhead second. I worked at Campbell Ewald for 25 years in Detroit. I was on the Chevy account, I love GM; I bled GM. Then Campbell Ewald lost the Chevy account, and that stung. I did a lot of new business in non-auto categories and it just wasn’t as interesting. I had to get back into (auto), and was fortunate enough to join GM.

Q: What was your first car?

Majoros: My first car was the family Impala. First car I purchased was a Chevy Corsica, small sedan. Then I’ve had an S-10 pickup, Blazers, Tahoes . . . .

Q: You and I are typical of our generation. First car a sedan. An SUV meant a truck. Now your 22-year old kid wants a small SUV as his first car. Why?

Majoros: The younger generation would rather have a sense of style and technology than other things. There is an emotional appeal to these vehicles. Our Global Connected Consumer team has a saying: “Young people want to bring their digital life into their vehicle and they want to bring their vehicle into their digital life.” I think my son’s generation has rejected the notion of the big vehicle – he’s not in a Tahoe state of mind. But he’s in a state of mind that he looks at this vehicle and it doesn’t look out of touch with what (his) friends are doing, what society’s doing, what the culture’s doing. He’s in a band. He’s taking two guitars, and drums, and it fits what he needs, and he doesn’t have to make an excuse for it. It checks a lot of boxes pragmatically and emotionally.

Q: Isn’t this trend perfect for Detroit which excels in SUVs but has struggled with sedans?

Majoros: Absolutely. Tahoes and Suburbans are great vehicles. I want that same sense of connection — that sense of pride — in small cars. It’s not the car I got because I had to, it’s the car I got because I wanted it. If you can connect that brand and then move them through portfolio? That’s a pretty good recipe.

Q: GM is first into the subcompact ute segment with the Buick Encore and now the Trax. How did Chevy decide to make this car?

Majoros: One, We’ve got an awful lot of smart people in product planning and product forecasting that knew what was going to happen. Two, we look at our dealer body and we ask them: what’s moving? Three, if we want Chevy to succeed then you ask: How do we bring people into the portfolio? The number one vehicle bringing new people to Chevy is Volt. Numbers 2-4 are Sonic, Spark, and Cruze. I fully expect Trax will do the same thing.

Cartoon: Santa Cheap Gas

Posted by hpayne on December 8, 2014

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Payne: Subaru Outback’s sensible chic

Posted by hpayne on December 8, 2014

Outback has maintained the loyalty of Ben & Jerry’s-Chunky-Monkey-eating hipsters while making the most vanilla-looking cars on the planet. Who needs heels to climb Mt. Everest?

2015 Subaru Outback

‘There’s nothing I can’t reach in my Subaru,” goesthe Subaru ad. I get carried away with that sometimes.

A new, 2015 Subaru Outback crossover arrived in my driveway just as the first winter storm pummeled Detroit last month. Armed with a ‘Ru, I was determined to pummel right back.

I jumped in. It fit like a glove. Surveyed the cockpit. All-wheel drive. Yup, it’s a Subaru all right. Tore out of my driveway through three inches of snow, stabbed the brakes, rotated the Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive with X Mode system (that’s AWD for short) at the apex, and … plowed straight across the road, through my neighbor’s lawn, and into a drainage ditch.

Dang. Fortunately, there nothing a Subaru can get me into that it can’t get me out of. With Outback’s healthy, 8.7-inch ground clearance and all four wheels churning, I straddled the ditch and eased effortlessly back onto the main road. A minor detour. No harm done.

Mrs. Payne called me at work a short time later. “Were those your tire marks across the neighbor’s lawn?” (Sigh. Murphy’s second law: Your wife or a cop will always be there when you screw up.)

I blame Subaru marketing.

The new Outback comes shod with the same torque-vectoring technology as their all-wheel drive sports sedan, the WRX STI. You’ll recall I blew up Laguna Seca Raceway in this $38K, heat-seeking missile last February thanks to its apex-hugging AWD system. Arm the more rugged Outback with the same technology? Banzai!

Thanks to the affordable off-road Outback and on-track STI, Subaru has managed the unusual feat of making loyalists (“evangelists” Subaru likes to call them) out of tree-huggers and motor-heads alike.

With its rugged, all-wheel personality, the versatile Outback has long been a favorite of liberal bark-munchers from Maine to Washington state. Meanwhile, the fire-breathing, Sopwith Camel-winged STI has been the envy of carbon-swigging, beer-belching hot rodders from California to the Carolinas.

The bipolar personality is not as illogical as it appears. The Outback caters to athletes who enjoy exploring the outdoors — the WRX to rally jocks who enjoy conquering the outdoors. But it all makes for some interesting bedfellows.

Subaru is as at home partnering with environmental groups like the National Park Foundation as it is with high-performance oil companies like Motul. Heck, my wife and I have as much use for greenies as a fish does for a bicycle. Yet we own a compact Impreza wagon because it is the perfect intersection of sport and utility — it shares the same platform as the WRX, yet provides my wife the winter security of AWD.

The Outback, on the other hand, should never be mistaken for a sports car. My accidental, off-road antics being Exhibit A.

I attacked my snowy, cul-de-sac turn like a STI might attack a dirt road. But the Outback is 10 inches longer and walks around on stilts compared to the squat STI. Result? Neighbor’s-lawn-exploring understeer. Oops.

Once I stopped treating the tree-hugger like a motor-head, the Outback is a joy.

It is affordable and competent. Night or day. Sun or snow. Its buttons are where they should be. Roomy, heated front seats. Plenty more room in the heated rear seats to seat more. Lotsa cargo space in the hatch for their stuff. The Outback isn’t so big that you have to worry about collecting a wall while backing out of a parking space — and isn’t so small you have to worry about getting flattened against a wall by a wayward pickup. It does what you ask. It’s as loyal as a beagle.

“It’s not every day you find a companion as loyal as a Subaru,” goes another adorable ‘Ru ad. “Love. It’s what makes a Subaru a Subaru.”

Which is a good thing too, because only a mother could love something as homely as the Outback.

Not ugly, mind you. Just homely. Which is a major improvement from the turn-of-the-century Subarus which were as frightful to look at as a bulldog in an argyle sweater. Indeed, one of Subaru’s most remarkable attributes is that it has maintained the loyalty of Baby Boom, Ben & Jerry’s-Chunky-Monkey-eating hipsters while making the most vanilla-looking cars on the planet.

Mindful of this shortcoming, Subaru has been making regular trips to the beauty parlor, and the 2015 Outback — like the remade WRX and Legacy sedan before it, has received a fashionably handsome hexagon grille.

Outback is part of a Subaru lineup that crams the mid-size segment with remarkably affordable vehicles. At a ridiculously low $26,995, the Outback sits on the same chassis as the Legacy sedan. For five grand less you can get the Subaru Crosstrek crossover which is similarly twinned with the compact Impreza sedan. Crammed between them is the Forester crossover. That’s a lot of product in a $22K-$27K space.

Outback owners swear by its bulletproof dependability, AWD durability, and award-winning safety credentials (run one off a Lake Michigan pier and it’ll probably float to safety on its eight air bags). So they can be forgiven its shortcomings.

The Outback (like Brother Legacy) is noticeably noisier than its competition despite an acoustic glass upgrade. The 2.5-liter BOXER engine buzz is drowned out only by the wind howling across the slim A-pillars. Despite its friendlier grille, the Outback’s flanks are plain while the black cladding along its skirts is as out of place as knee pads on a cheerleader.

“So what?” an Outback would say if it could talk.

Plain is hip, people. Do rock climbers wear heels? Do mountain climbers pack Perrier in their canteens?

The Outback is the anti-brand brand. If you lust for brand identity then you can pay $52,000 for a BMW X5 with 13-cubic feet less interior volume. Or $31K for a much smaller Jeep Cherokee. The Outback was a hip crossover before anybody knew what a crossover was. In fact, the Outback is really a station wagon sitting 8.7 inches off the ground.

As for me and my wife, we’ll stick with our Impreza wagon. Though come spring I’ll keep my eye out for a mouth-breathing, 305-horsepower WRX STI in my driveway. I wonder what my wife will say when she sees I’ve been doing doughnuts in our lawn …

2015 Subaru Outback

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

Price: $26,995 base ($31,535 as tested)

Power plant: 2.5-liter, dual overhead-cam, BOXER 4-cylinder

Power: 175 horsepower, 174 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Continuously-variable automatic transmission with six-speed manual paddles

Performance: 0-60 mph, 9.3 seconds (manufacturer); towing: 2,700 lbs.

Weight: 3,593 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 25 mpg city/33 mpg highway/28 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Gobs of interior room; all-wheel drive

Lows: Noisier than most; vanilla styling

Overall: ★★★

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