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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:★★★

Payne: For Taylors Detroit race is all in the family

Posted by hpayne on April 10, 2015

lat-levitt-dgp-0514_10554.jpg

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.

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:★★★★

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.

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.

The bold, new face of Lincoln

Posted by hpayne on March 30, 2015

The new face of Lincoln. The flagship, Continental sedan breaks cover. (Lincoln Motor Co. photo)

Lincoln just crashed the swank, 2016 New York Auto Show.

This was supposed to be the Cadillac CT6’s party, meticulously planned since the debutant’s elegant coming out at the Super Bowl. But with the quiet of a Lockheed stealth fighter and the beauty of Cinderella, the Lincoln Continental Concept stormed New York Monday with the new face of Lincoln.

Goodbye elegant bow wave, hello bold center grille. Get use to that term. Bold. Bold, bold. It’s a term that has been sorely missing in Lincoln’s lexicon. Where the wispy, waterfall, winged-grille of recent vintage has struggled to find friends, the bold new face and slab sides of the Continental are a return to American muscle. Or maybe English muscle.

The powerful lines of the big sedan harken back to prez limos – but also echo the powerful face and loins of, say, the Bentley Continental GTS. There are lots of familiar, exterior design cues here from the Acura-like, LED spider eyes to the Kia “tiger-nose” grille to the signature, horizontal, Lincoln tail. But the Continental is more than a new face. Its cutting edge rear seats (Asian executives are high-fiving right now) are 30-way, 11-bladder, reclining thrones fit for a king. Or at least The Donald.

Will this be the new direction that reignites a stale brand?

Lincoln could have totally reinvented itself as a digital-age, cutting edge, electric-maker. But Green Elon Musk beat Green Bill Ford to market with the Tesla Model S, the most exciting American luxe car in memory (it must be galling to Ford’s green scion that Musk even stole his great grandfather’s “Model T” badge language). So Lincoln has chosen to go back to the future instead. Continental resurrected – powered by 3.0-liter Ecoboost.

Ford is getting good at this stealth stuff. Remember the shocking reveal of the LeMans-bound, GT supercar at the Detroit Auto Show?

And don’t be confused by that “concept” label. One look at the finished, signature Lincoln, push-button console and this beast looks ready for the street. Expect it to roll into showrooms next year as Lincoln’s flagship sedan.

(Photo courtesy of Lincoln Motor Co.)

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Follow him on Twitter @HenryEPayne. WEB: http://www.detroitnews.com/staff/27083/henry-payne/. EMAIL: hpayne@detroitnews.com

Payne: Chevy Trax tastes better with AWD

Posted by hpayne on March 28, 2015

Packed with connected lifestyle technology – including

“Everything goes better with bacon.” Everyone has their own favorite condiment. Some folks like bacon. Others ketchup. My favorite is guacamole. Sure, it’s popular with chips. But a smear will improve just about anything from burgers to beans.

All-wheel drive is like that on autos.

Racers know that AWD is the supreme advantage — which is why it is banned in most forms of motorsport. For off-roaders, AWD is a must. Jeep swears by it. AWD gives modern supercars better grip off the line. But like guacamole, I find AWD valuable beyond its traditional places.

Everything goes better with AWD. Take the 2015 Chevy Trax I’ve been driving.

It’s one of a herd of subcompact SUVs that has carved out a new segment right before our eyes. It’s hip. It’s growing. It attracts young people to the brand. It’s . . . sooooo boring. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean “boring” as in nothing to offer. The Trax is cute. Loaded with amenities. A very practical entry-level car. But its highest purpose is affordable transportation. It only comes with a 138 horse, 1.4-liter turbo engine, for goodness sake. It has the low-end torque of a gerbil wheel. I’ve seen better 0-60 times from lawn tractors. It moves slower than the last two minutes of an NFL championship game.

And without a sporty, SS version there’s no horsepower savior on the horizon. But opt for the Trax’s affordable, $1,500, AWD option and this unsalted cracker comes to life.

Throw the Trax into a 90-degree right-hander and it rotates like a champ. Like Dumbo on skis, it slides, but stays on course. The more you do it, the more addictive it becomes. At 3,208 pounds (700 pounds lighter than a BMW X1!) the Trax is predictable, throwable — its weight never causing undue body roll despite its upright stance.

The experience heightens your senses and awakens you to the metal egg’s other idiosyncrasies.

Like storage. The Trax has more hiding places than a jewel thief. Two smart phone holders on either side of the center stack — a lidded compartment above it. Two gloveboxes like a VW Bug. Slide your hand under the passenger seat and a drawer pops out. The doors contain more bins.

If my kids were little, we’d do Easter egg hunts in the Trax.

Now play “Find the USB.” For all the storage Trax offers it only provides one USB port to recharge your phone. Where would you put it? Behind the shifter? Above the console? The upper glovebox? Bingo.

The only place the Trax doesn’t have a storage is between the seats because the Trax is so darn narrow. My long knees and tall noggin are comfortable in the front chairs, but put another tall guy next to me and it’s claustrophobic. Like airline seats that share an arm rest, you’ll be fighting for elbow room the whole trip. If you’re overweight, forget it. Mike&Molly couldn’t do their show in this car. Molly would have to sit in the back seat.

At least she wouldn’t create visibility issues. The Trax already has the worst blind sport in any small vehicle I’ve driven. The president’s energy policy doesn’t have blind sports this big. Mind the (standard) rear park-assist camera or you’ll be backing over your mailbox every two weeks.

Technology is a mixed bag. The 4G LTE Wi-Fi hot spot is brilliant. Infotainment ergonomics not so much. The touch screen is slow, the ON-OFF button is Son of Cadillac Cue. It’s so vague, I nearly broke my finger jabbing at it.

But all is forgiven when I fling the AWD bowling ball through another bend. Subcompacts were never this much fun. Remember them? Cars like the Chevy Sonic get good gas mileage. Front wheel drive. No AWD. Booooring. But add bacon and guacamole and it’s transformed. Here’s the Trax recipe: Take Chevy Sonic chassis. Jack it up. Add AWD. Call it a ute.

Bang! You’re selling 4,000 a month.

Just like the Buick Encore. Buick gets the premium crowd, but the Trax is plenty of subcompact for $4 grand less. It sports a surprising amount of rear room — even for giraffes like me — thanks to its hatchback configuration. Need storage? Flatten the front and rear seats and you can throw in a dining table.

Which we’ll need for that Final Four feast we’re planning. Pot luck style. I’ll bring the guacamole. Can someone bring 50 more horsepower for the Trax?

2015 Chevrolet Trax

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

Price: $20,995 base ($27,405 LZ AWD as tested)

Power plant: 1.4-liter, turbo inline 4-cylinder

Power: 138 horsepower, 148 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 9.4 seconds (Car & Driver)

Weight: 3,048 pounds base (3,283 AWD as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 24 mpg city/31 mpg highway/27 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: LOL AWD fun; Storage galore

Lows: Vague screen controls; Accleration of a garden snail

Overall:★★★

Payne: Jaguar XF is one cool cat

Posted by hpayne on March 26, 2015

From real-world efficiency to Autobahn-storming performance,

I have a soft spot for pizza, and one of my favorite pie joints is Primo’s, a small Birmingham convenience store just around the corner from the luxe showrooms of Auto Europe and Fred Lavery Porsche-Audi. Primo’s has been in business since the Cretaceous Period, and its loyal, crusty employees have seen a world of exotics drive by their big, front window. I have come to their store in countless vehicles. I pick up my box, exchange pleasantries, head back to my ride. But a recent visit was different. The cashier couldn’t take his eyes off the Polaris White, Jaguar XF I had parked in front.

“Wow, that’s a pretty car,” he ogled. Yes it is.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. The Ford Fusion copied the Aston Martin’s grille because the Brit-mobile has the best-looking face in the business. Tesla copied the XF sedan’s profile for its Model S sedan because the Jag sets the standard for four-door beauty.

Like its animal namesake, the Jaguar’s blunt nose is the only feature on this cat that isn’t poetry in motion. Narrow headlights sweep around the front corners. Curvy, chrome, lower-air intake accents frame the face like cat whiskers. From this crouched cowl, the vehicle’s body angles upwards across muscular wheel haunches, meeting a tapered roof in one of the auto kingdom’s most admired rumps.

This column’s reader comments are often peppered with comments scolding me for reviewing 60 grand chariots afforded by the fatted few. But rolling sculptures like the XF are the industry’s artistic standard. A young architect studying Frank Lloyd Wright may not re-create Fallingwater, but he can transform neighborhoods with attractive, affordable, Prairie style housing. So too the Jag.

Its first-class taste inspires every segment. There’s the aforementioned Fusion with a fastback that is oh-so-XF-like. Or the forthcoming Chevy Malibu which GM has teased with an XF-like (or is it Audi A7-like?) silhouette. My tennis game pales compared to Pete Sampras, but my serve benefits from mimicking his classic stroke.

Seems the 2015 Jaguar XF I’ve been flying around in has done a little mimicking of its own.

Truth be told, despite Jaguar cars’ Gwyneth Paltrow-good looks, they had always left me cold. Detroit-winter cold. Back when the brand was part of the Ford stable, I felt sorry for Blue Oval execs slip-slopping through Detroit winters in their rear-wheel drive, two-ton Jag sleds. Like Gwyneth in high heels on ice, winter driving in Jaguars seemed an exercise in caution. Where’s the joy in that?

But since the English cat was freed from Ford’s zoo, the beast has thrived in the backyard of India’s Tata. Jaguar is shedding its caricature as a rolling, wood-paneled London business office — with handling to match. Jaguar introduced the snarling, V-8, all-aluminum F-Type coupe. Then the aluminum, BMW 3-series-fighting XE bowed at the Detroit Show this January. And when the 2016 XF takes center stage in New Yorknext week, it too will get an aluminum structure. The gorgeous, Ford-developed XF got the brand back on track in 2008, but it was not until 2013 that Tata green-lighted AWDfor the XF to match its midsize luxe competitors: BMW xDrive, Audi Quattro, and Mercedes 4MATIC.

A Jaguar powered by all four paws. Now that’s more like it.

The XF is a sure-footed cat in snow and dry. February threw everything at it, yet this kitty eagerly attacked the elements every day. Claw-like brakes. Instinctive all-wheel drive. Predictable steering. The big cat was as comfortable in powder as Lindsey Vonn.

The all-wheel drive system flatters the rear-wheel-drive-biased XF in the dry as well. Despite its heft, I could throw the sedan through corners, its rear tail naturally rotating into place. At stoplights, the AWD grip is a perfect mate for the ferocious 340-horse, supercharged V-6 under the hood.

Short of an electric Tesla, there isn’t a sedan on the market that will pin you to the back of your seat like the torquey, 320 pound-feet V-6. Locate the steering-mounted paddle shifters, grip the wheel and hang on for dear life as the buttery, eight-speed tranny launches the carnivore forward like it’s spied a pack of peccaries. If this Jaguar had spots they would fly off under acceleration.

But climb inside this panting predator and you feel 100 miles from its engine’s violence. Indeed, you can barely hear its throaty roar thanks to acres of sound-deadening material.

If the XF’s chassis is a trained athlete, the interior is a high-calorie buffet on a silver platter. My XF came with delicious materials including Barley leather seats, Truffle upper fascia in Soft Grain Leather, accented with Knurled Aluminum with Gloss-figured Ebony. I gained 10 pounds just looking at it.

But I’m just getting started. Look up and the ceiling is swathed in “Canvas Jaguar Suedecloth Premium Headlining.” Including the sun visors. I stroked the A-pillars like a Jaguar’s pelt. If the XF ever rolled over on its roof, I would be tempted to stay in the car, take off my shoes, and walk around on the soft ceiling barefoot.

But wait there’s more. The front windshield is heated with an extraordinary embroidery of microscopic heating wires. Push the starter button and the dash’s flush, aluminum air vents spin open, the navigation screen illuminates, and a gear selector dial rises out of the center console like a game-show button. To the moon, Mr. Bond.

Yet for all this eccentric luxury, the Jaguar’s is surprisingly practical.

Its Human Machine Interface — ergonomics to we laymen — is superb. Most luxury consoles these days require a six-week course to operate. The XF is as user-friendly as a Chrysler 200. Ample center console storage space that will actually hold (shock) a big screen iPhone 6. Intuitive climate buttons. Touch-screen infotainment system. Everything is designed to fall in your field of view from the console-centered, door unlock buttons to the heads-up display hovering over the hood.

Underneath its racy hind quarters is adequate rear passenger room and enough luggage space to store Big Ben.

Next week in the Big Apple, the 2016 XF will catch up to state-of-art electronics and aluminum structure. But its basic wardrobe will remain largely unchanged. It’s already the standard. Just ask Tesla … or your local pizza guy.

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

 

2015 Jaguar XF

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

Price: $52,100 base ($61,175 AWD, supercharged V-6 as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbo inline-4 cylinder; 3.0-liter, supercharged V-6; 5.0-liter, supercharged V-8

Power: 240 horsepower, 251 pound-feet of torque (4-cyl); 340 horsepower, 332 pound-feet of torque (V-6); 470-550 horsepower, 424-502 pound-feet of torque (V-8)

Transmission: 8-speed automatic transmission with steering-mounted paddle shifters

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.1 seconds (V-6 AWD, manufacturer)

Weight: 3,660 pounds base (4,145 AWD as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 19 mpg city/30 mpg highway/23 mpg combined (4-cyl); EPA 17 mpg city/27 mpg highway/20 mpg combined (V-6); EPA 15 mpg city/23 mpg highway/18 mpg combined (V-8)

Report card

Highs: Simply gorgeous; intuitive controls

Lows: Small nav screen; um, seat heater buttons buried in console display? (I’m really reaching here)

Overall:★★★★

Payne: Smoothed Ford Edge

Posted by hpayne on March 19, 2015

The 2015 Edge is now based on the same global platform

We’ve all had that fashion hiccup we regret.

The used-car salesman mustache. The Elton John-sized sunglasses. A decade of 1970s leisure suits. I wore a pair of plaid pants in my middle-school years that haunt me to this day. Not just plaid, but too-short plaid.

“Hey, Payne, expecting a flood?” my buddies would ask of pants that showed plenty of ankle. I blushed like Michael Keaton in “Birdman” walking across Broadway in his underwear.

Auto companies have their glitches too. The Ford Motor Co. is finally putting its fashionfaux pas behind it.

You remember the original Ford Fusion. The one that debuted Ford’s “three-bar” grille in 2006? Bold, chromed, and very American, tri-bar fashion looked awesome on big trucks. But just because a shaved pate on Michael Jordan looks cool doesn’t mean it’ll flatter Britney Spears.

Detroit auto critic Payne reviews the new Ford Edge. Henry Payne

The three-bar looked awkward on Ford sedans. It was variously derided as looking like a Gillette razor or braces on a teenager. Its victims included the Ford Focus, which went from one of the market’s sexiest compacts to looking like a refugee from the Island of Misfit Toys.

But most tragically, the stylish Ford Edge got stuck with it.

I’ve always admired the Edge. Birthed in 2006 for the 2007 model year, it followed the Chrysler Pacifica and Nissan Murano as pioneers of a new breed of crossover vehicle. Departing from the traditional, truck-based SUV (of which Edge’s bigger sibling Explorer was itself a pioneer) these mechanical satyrs combined truck-like utility with a car-like chassis (the Fusion/Mazda 6 chassis in the case of the Edge). The formula took America by storm and crossovers have now infiltrated every segment down to subcompacts.

The aptly named, cutting-edge Edge also wowed with an exterior that appeared chiseled from granite. Oh, but that face. Metal mouth distracted from Edge’s other, considerable assets. Mrs. Payne and I took a long look at the Edge in 2006, but we adopted the prettier Pacifica crossover instead.

The good thing about auto facial fads is that, unlike Mike Tyson’s tattoo, they can be easily erased. Mercifully, Ford’s 2010 Taurus and 2013 Fusion introduced elegant, open grilles that recognized car and truck fashion are two different things. The transformation has energized Ford’s lineup.

The ’15 Ford Edge is the last family member to get its Extreme Makeover.

Having endured a mid-cycle, 2010 refresh that actually grew its Gillette grille to Brobdingnagian proportions — you thought Jaws’ chrome teeth in “The Spy Who Loved Me” were scary? — the new Edge finally gets the face it deserves.

Edge adopts Taurus’ hexagon grille then integrates it with angled, LED headlights. How striking is the new look? It shames a similar effort by Audi on its new Q7 — though the upscale Audi’s fashion statement will cost you $20K more. The integration continues around back where Edge fuses Fusion taillights with Dodge-esque LED tube. Nice caboose. This hottie will make heads turn coming and going.

The plastic surgery comes just in time for the Edge’s debut on Europe’s runways where it is leading an invasion of new product including the Mustang. With crossovers sweeping the Continent, the Edge will make an impressive accessory in downtown London, Paris, and Berlin.

Face by Taurus, body by Adonis. The Edge’s bod is brawnier than ever. Credit Kenner-toy-designer-turned-Ford-designer Kevin George who has scalloped the dense sides of the Edge for a sexier, trimmer look.

That athletic stance complements a more toned Edge chassis, which — for all the buzz over the Edge’s exterior — is the real revelation of the new Edge. After all, Edge isn’t the cutting edge anymore.

Sure, the comely crossover continues to dominate the niche it trailblazed. The Pacifica is gone. The Toyota Venza and Honda Crosstour will soon follow. The wild Nissan Murano is JWoww of “Jersey Shore” on wheels — and just as polarizing. And sure, the Edge continues to load on cool, new tech features like kick-open hatch and parallel and perpendicular self-parking.

But self-driving isn’t for everyone. Mrs. Payne tried the self-parking feature and was freaked out when the Edge’s steering wheel started spinning about and beeping at her like it was possessed. I thought she was going to hit it with a blast of pepper spray.

Such features aren’t novel to the Edge anymore. Similarly equipped, more affordable utes now ply the streets competing for customers. Ford Escapes. Mazda CX-5s. Chevy Equinoxes. Looks and tech aren’t enough anymore. The Edge must compete in handling as well.

My wife’s pal, Mary, is right out of the Edge marketing textbook. Female. Fifty-something. An empty-nester who still wants a roomy, all-wheel-drive, mid-sized ute — but with more panache than an Explorer mom-mobile. How about an Edge? Sold.

But her ’13 Edge feels like a tank. Solid, but like a hammer. Throw it at a corner and she needs the arms of Thor. With a recipe of stiffer chassis, aluminum-multi-link suspension, and calibrated e-steering, the ’15 Edge feels lighter on its feet. Still 4,000 pounds. Still cut like the Seattle Seahawks’ Marshawn Lynch. But sure-footed like him, too.

I took the two-ton beast through the winding roads of Arizona’s Mazatzal Mountains and — surprise! — had a ball. Mary would be stunned. And could cancel that barbell weightlifting class she’s signed up for. Ford complements the Edge chassis by updating its suite of engines with Ford’s latest Ecoboost powerplants — part of its Quixotic quest to meet Washington pols’ random 54.5 mpg fuel economy mandates (why not 73.333 mpg? Or an even 100?). Good luck with that. By the time Ford figures out how to make 50 mpg Edges, Washington will have mandated that vehicles be powered by wind turbines.

More significantly to buyers, the base, 2.0-liter 4-banger and 2.7-liter V-6 turbo engines offer more performance with better fuel economy. My favorite is the turbo 6 — exclusive to the Sport model — which not only gains 10 ponies over the shelved, 3.7-liter V-6, but boasts a throaty exhaust note that actually penetrates the ute’s hushed interior. Edge’s cathedral-like, engine compartment-sealed, acoustic-glassed quiet is the most significant change in an interior that otherwise largely mimics the old.

With new Edge, it’s all about style. The braces are off. The body is gym-tuned. When this Ford waltzes down the French Riviera, no one will blush.

2015 Ford Edge

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

Price: $29,890 base ($46,180 AWD Sport as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbo 4-cylinder; 3.5-liter, 6-cylinder; 2.7-liter, turbo 6-cylinder

Power: 245 horsepower, 275 pound-feet of torque (turbo 4); 280 horsepower, 250 pound-feet of torque (3.5-liter V-6); 315 horsepower, 350 pound-feet of torque (turbo V-6)

Transmission: six-speed automatic

Performance: Towing capacity: 3,500 lbs, base; 0-60 mph, 6.7 seconds for Edge Sport (Car & Driver)

Weight: 3,912 pounds base (4,060 as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA (all figures AWD): 20 mpg city/28 mpg highway/23 mpg combined (2.0-liter turbo); 17 mpg city/25 mpg highway/20 mpg combined (3.5-liter V-6); 17 mpg city/24 mpg highway/20 mpg combined (2.7-liter turbo)

Report card

Highs: Chiseled good looks; The foot-kick hatch comes to Edge

Lows: Thirsty V-6 turbo; Self-park may freak you out

Overall: 4 stars

Payne: Shy Subie Legacy steps up

Posted by hpayne on March 14, 2015

The completely re-designed for 2015 Subaru Legacy delivers

I feel like a TV infomercial pitchman when I tell folks about the Subaru Legacy.

If I told you you could have an all-wheel-drive, midsize sedan with a V-6 engine and the biggest cargo room in class what would pay? $34,000? But wait, that’s not all! This car has all that and more! Heated seats, blind-spot assist, nav screen, torque vectoring! So NOW what would you pay? $36,000? But wait, there’s more! Not just FRONT heated seats, but rear heated seats, too, plus keyless entry and wood trim that you would expect in a luxury German car! So now what would pay? $38,000?

Well, folks you can have all this in the stylish new, 2015 Subaru Legacy for just $32,500! You heard me, just THIRTY-TWO FIVE!

Subarus are autodom’s bargain kings. Their fans are legion – including my Impreza-disciple wife. They make you question brand hierarchy. Why should I pay $30 grand more for an AWD, BMW 5-series when I can get the same package in a $30k Subie Legacy? Including lane-change assist and rear cross-traffic alert (this nifty innovation saved me a kick in the can when backing out of my claustrophobic, neighborhood service station). Would you pay $40 for filet mignon at Fleming’s if you could get the same steak for $20 across the street at Outback?

What’s that? Of course, presentation matters.

That Fleming’s steak will taste better if it’s drizzled in Merlot sauce in a private booth – rather than dropped on a table next to a flustered family at wit’s end with their rugrat. Like restaurants, like cars. Upscale brands ooze style and substance.

But the latest Legacy – nay, the new generation of mainstream sedans – are punching above their weight.

Consider styling. Led by the sultry Ford Fusion and Chrysler 200, midsize sedans aren’t the vanilla-mobiles of old – even sales leader Toyota Camry has gotten an extreme makeover. In the past Subaru has tried to push the style envelope with frightening results. Remember the 2006 Tribeca? It looked like a refugee from Planet Ork.

Smartly, Subie designers decided to conform the new Legacy to the latest styling trends rather than blaze new trails. The result is quite pleasant (and distinguishes the sleek sedan from its more-popular-but-homelier Outback cousin). Trendy, hexagon grille (see Ford Edge, Hyundai Santa Fe). Coupe-like roofline. Creased flanks. Hooded headlamps like a 5-Series.

Go on. Park it next to the midsize Bimmer. Years ago, you would have perished the thought. In fact you would have hidden the Legacy on the other side of the restaurant lot from Bavaria’s finest. You couldn’t bear the humiliation. Like Billy Joel dating Christie Brinkley, it violated nature’s order.

But my new ‘Ru in Ice Silver Metallic is Pygmalion’s sculpture. She belongs. The eyes are dazzling, the shoulders defined.

On the dance floor, you might notice the difference. If you’re Fred Astaire. But like driving, most people are content with the basic waltz. The Legacy’s 3.6-liter, Boxer 6 packs plenty of oomph – even when mated to a continuously variable tranny. Want to slam through the gears? Paddle shifters are at your fingertips. Unless you’re an adrenaline-guzzling, speed freak like me, you’ll likely never push the limits of a sedan chassis. And even if you do you’ll find the Legacy’s torque-vectoring, all-wheel drive system a marvel in wet or dry.

AWD is Subaru’s DNA, of course. As standard on every Subie as a kidney grille on a BMW. No one else can say that.

The interior is what separates Fleming’s from Outback. Mid-size from lux. Legacy from 5-Series. The Subaru’s instrumentation is practical, not fancy. Though not as innovative as a 200, the Legacy nevertheless learns from the best-in-class Chrysler console with intuitive knobs, large buttons and useful storage space. Most useful is a phone cubby, which, paradoxically, exposes the Legacy’s biggest weakness: Connectivity.

It’s a challenge for any automaker in the smartphone age. With giant phones like the iPhone6 and (my) Samsung Note 3, the small Legacy cubby is outdated. As is the car’s Bluetooth system (which repeatedly failed to understand my voice commands perhaps because the Legacy interior is not as quiet as competitors) and the nav system which pales next to the latest Google app. Which means I wanted to use my phone navigation . . . um, if I could fit my phone in the cubby.

Details, details. She’s still a steal.

What if I told you this stylish sedan has the best interior room in class! Just THIRTY-TWO FIVE! Order now!

2015 Subaru Legacy

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

Price: $23,285 base ($32,585 Limited as tested)

Power plant: 3.6-liter, boxer 6-cylinder

Power: 256 horsepower, 247 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Continuously variable transmission

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.4 seconds (Car & Driver est.)

Weight: 3,662 pounds (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 20 mpg city/29 mpg highway/23 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: 21st century design; AWE-some AWD

Lows: A-pillar wind noise; poor connectivity

Overall:★★★

Payne: Cute utes: Buick Encore vs. Mercedes GLA

Posted by hpayne on March 12, 2015

The 2015 Buick Encore is a front-engine, front or all-wheel

Buick and Mercedes are slumming down segment for the same reason: To attract new buyers to their upscale brands. But their small ute solutions are different to suit different brand reputations.

Buick’s Encore is an affordable cutie because young buyers think Buicks are overpriced boringmobiles driven by their grandmothers to bridge games. Merc’s GLA250 is sporty eye candy because young professionals think Mercs are sleds the length of 5th Avenue driven by Park Avenue billionaires.

The result is a pair of segment-busting new toys.

These new toys come courtesy of an all-new segment that is blooming in front of our eyes: The subcompact SUV. Once upon a not very long ago, the world was split into orderly halves. Small, egg-shaped sedans were for youngsters. Big, boxy SUVs for when they got kids to haul around. But as SUVs take over the world they are poaching on small sedan territory.

The death of the sedan could mean the rebirth of Buick.

Buick has been making some pretty nifty sedans of late like the elegant LaCrosse and nimble Regal. But let’s face it. Buick has defined dog sedans for so long that consumers only see the LeBoring and Beagle. But what happens if Buick pioneered a new crossover segment?

Like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir suddenly cutting a hip-hop album. Or Shoney’s debuting a menu of Skuna Bay Salmon with roasted couscous. Buick SUV? Duuuuude. Cool.

The 2015 Encore is not only hip but easy on the hip pocket with a starting price at just $24,990. A Buick ad has cleverly captured this new direction with an embarrassed 20-something hopping into the wrong car thinking it’s her friend’s stuffy Buick. “Wow,” she exclaims when she finally finds the Encore. Yeah, it’s that different.

At 4 grand north of its engaging Chevy Trax stablemate, however, the Encore will lose some millennials to budget considerations. But with sharper styling, European vibe, and a suite-full of digital goo-gaws, the middle-aged empty nester may find the Encore irresistible.

Take Mrs. Payne’s friend, Julie, an active, post-soccer mom who could star in her own ad.

Buick was not her first premium choice. But both Cadillac and Lincoln are AWOL in the subcompact ute segment. BMW and Merc are present, but — determined to Buy American — Julie kept walking to Buick.

She was smitten with the Encore at first sight. “It’s adorable,” she says. But adorable is more than skin deep. With all-wheel drive, fold flat seats, sunroof, and nav, the Encore is bejeweled with amenities once found only in large luxe offerings. Throw in 4G LTE Wi-Fi connectivity, Bluetooth phone capability, remote start, blind-spot assist, and she was sold. You had her at “4G LTE WiFi.”

With Julie’s 24/7 job demands, the rolling, Wi-Fi hot spot allows her to work from anywhere, anytime when she and her husband are on the road. Had she considered a Chevy Trax? Yes, but the Encore is more sophisticated. A Chevy Sonic (which shares the Encore’s platform)? She’s never heard of it (did I mention sedans are dead?).

Out the door, Julie will pay just $32,000 for her loaded Encore — the price at which the 2015 Mercedes GLA250 enters the fray.

The Merc earns its higher price tag with typical Teutonic swagger.

This is the hottest looking ute in the segment. While not as seductive as its sedan sibling, the S-Class-inspired CLA250, the GLA (in Merc alphabet soup, C is for sedan, G is for SUV. Got it?) is as sporty-looking as utes come. By comparison, it makes the boxy GLK — Mercedes’ bigger, compact ute entry — look as sexy as a shoebox.

What distinguishes the GLA beyond the signature, tri-star grille is a squashed greenhouse. This ute looks like it was formed in a giant Panini maker. Or as the bastard love child of a GLK and Hyundai Veloster. The result is a chopped ute with attitude. Indeed, the GLA’s low, bullet-like shape contradicts the norm of high-riding utes with commanding visibility.

This Panini is loaded with meat. Two liters of 208-horsepower, turbocharged schnitzel to be exact.

The AWD GLA will leave the 138-horse, 1.4-liter Encore choking on dust. Opt for the GLA’s $49k, AMG45 sport version — with its insane, 355-hp power plant — and you’ll be picking Buick Regals out of your teeth.

But if handling and horsepower aren’t on your subcompact shopping list — then the GLA’s sticker price is hard to swallow. A fully-loaded GLA will top the charts at $45,000 yet feel cheap next to the $32K Encore’s richer amenities.

American manufacturers make more livable consoles than their German counterparts. Despite elegant touches like wood accents and pin-wheel climate vents, the Merc’s knob-controlled, tacked-on console screen will drive you mad to operate.

Interestingly, Buick has mimicked the Mercedes rotary dial to appear more European. I cringed when I first saw it. But in placing the dial in the middle of the dash (not out of sight by the armrest) surrounded by complementary buttons, the Buick system avoids the worst aspects of the German system. Encore instrumentation is intuitive and safe.

And — despite its gerbil-driven power plant — the Encore is more fun than expected thanks to AWD. Adorable the Encore may be, but it doesn’t mind getting dirty. I whipped it hard on California mountain roads this winter. Dirt trails. Motor bike country. The Encore had a ball. What’s more, JD Power has awarded it Mercedes-like reliability with a 2014 Best-in-Class Initial Quality Study rating.

Like spam vs. steak, the little Yank starts at the opposite end of the brand respectability scale from Merc. But its price point and utility demand recognition.The Encore has a hit on its hands because it has exploited a void in the market: The affordable, premium small SUV.

The Mercedes is sexy, sporty. But its price pushes it into competition with not just the BMW X1 but also the Audi Q3 and Lincoln MKC. At the mainstream end of the sub ute segment, the Chevy Trax has its own mirrors full of the Honda HR-V, Mazda CX3 and Jeep Renegade.

The Enclave stands alone, straddling the bridge between luxe and bargain.

America craves small utes and the Encore and GLA are talented entrees on a new menu. Heck, Buick could even learn a new recipe from the talented German. How about a sporty, 200-plus horsepower version of the Encore?

2015 Buick Encore

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

Price: $24,990 base ($32,595 AWD as tested)

Power plant: 1.4-liter, turbocharged, inline 4-cylinder

Power: 138 horsepower, 148 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: six-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 10.0 seconds (Car & Driver)

Weight: 3,358 pounds (AWD)

Fuel economy: EPA 23 mpg city/30 mpg highway/26 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Loaded with tech; not your grandma’s Buick

Lows: Narrow interior; glacial acceleration

Overall:★★★

Payne: Porsche Cayenne a rhino in Ballet Slippers

Posted by hpayne on March 5, 2015

For 2015 Porsche Cayenne engines have been upgraded

You know you’re not in a normal SUV when you have six — count ‘em, six — grab handles in the cockpit. In layman’s terms: “Oh, crap! handles.” You usually find them in the shot-gun seat of powerful sports cars (the new Corvette Stingray has two) for those moments when the driver pushes the envelope and the surprised passenger’s instincts are to scream — “Oh, crap!” — and grab for something to hold on to. Rollercoasters are festooned with grab handles.

But why are they in a midsize, four-door family ute? Because it’s a 2015 Porsche Cayenne S.

You’ll need them, believe me. Because at some point while you’re cruising down the road in your comfy, luxe ute — Mom dozing off in front and the kids playing smartphone games in back — Dad is going to be possessed with the Ghost of Racing Legends Past that haunt every Porsche. He’ll be overcome with the desire to test the limits of the Teutonic handling and horsepower that lurks beneath.

And there is plenty beneath the Cayenne S. A twin-turbo V-6 with 420-horsepower and bless-my-soul 406 pound-feet of torque. Sport mode-damped suspension. Sophisticated sub-frame. Torque-vectoring, electronic center diff. All-wheel drive grip.

Here comes an ess curve. The ghost seizes Dad. His eyes glaze red. His chest swells. Shirt buttons pop. Hair grows like ivy up his forearms. He grips the wheel. Floors the throttle. RHAAAWWWRRRRGHH! Goes the V-6. And the great Cayenne surges like Ndamukong Suh seeing an unprotected quarterback.

Oh, craaaaaaaaap!

The family grabs for all six handles. Inexplicably, even the driver gets two (lest the steering wheel snaps off in Dad’s Hulk-sized hands, I can only suppose). I have witnessed this possession. A good friend — a brilliant, law-abiding Lansing economist — emails me audio files revving his Cayenne in his garage.

The Porsche ute is pure automotive brilliance.

For 2015 Porsche Cayenne engines have been upgraded and optimized to consume less fuel than their immediate predecessors while offering improved performance. Max Ortiz

It represents a manufacturer executing its brand to perfection. Marketing 101 listen up. Porsche built a racing dynasty that ruled the Earth from the 1960s-90s. The Porsche 907, 908 (which I still race), 935, 962. The alpha male of them all, the Porsche 917, won everything in sight, becoming so dominant that sports car racing had to change the rules to give everyone else a chance. Porsche translated that racing expertise to the best production sport cars on the street: 911, Cayman, Boxster.

Then Porsche took that special sauce and mixed it with family vehicles — the Cayenne and Macan SUVs and Panamera sedan — that collectively make more money than God. In the last decade, a once 15,000-a-year sports car manufacturer has seen salestriple riding sales of $70,000 SUVs in a U.S. market that craves crossovers.

The Cayenne is the best-selling Porsche. Ever. It defines luxury SUV performance. Its little brother Macan — introduced last year — will surely surpass it in sales. Porsche made so much dough in the last decade that it made a run at buying its parent

Volkswagen, for goodness sake. With Macan sales, Porsche might buy Rhode Island.

But the Cayenne isn’t just a show horse (though most will only drive it as such). The Cayenne lineup has been upgraded — base V-6, turbodiesel V-6, S, S E-hybrid, and Turbo — in a mid-production cycle refresh, adopting the same chassis steroids found in elite GTS and Turbo models.

For those who think utes lack personality, the Cayenne S begs to differ.

Sure, the S has sacrificed its V-8′s throaty roar to the green police for a more fuel-efficient, twin-turbo V-6. But there is no sacrifice in performance as the V-6 gains 20 horsepower and more low-end torque. Step on it out of a stoplight and zero-60 goes by in just 5.2 seconds. Oh, craaaaap!

This 4,600-pound beast is a rhino in ballet slippers. I tested it in the Cuyamaca Mountains east of San Diego. On the same serpentine roads I conquered with the hot hatch VW Golf R just a month before. Surely these roads would humble the Porsche SUV. How could 21/2 tons of ute navigate evil switchbacks and diving hairpins? By defying the laws of physics apparently.

Like a hot hatch on stilts, the Cayenne attacked the twisties. Credit the torque-vectoring AWD system which transfers grip wherever it’s needed, allowing me to rotate the rhino with confidence. Superb electronics and an eight-speed tranny helped control the beast’s girth, minimizing body roll and allowing early application of the turbo’s awesome power to leap from turn to turn.

All-wheel drive. Don’t leave home without it.

Aesthetically too, the Cayenne is true to its roots. Though that’s not always a good thing. The Cayenne slavishly follows the 911′s timeless, tear-drop shape making it look like a jacked-up 911 prepared for a Ford Field monster truck rally. Raked body lines — the Cadillac SRX or BMW X6 come to mind — would give the body a more crouched look. For 2015, Porsche did make changes — a widened hood line here, spread tail pipes there — to give the appearance of a wider stance. It works.

The interior changes little. It’s handsome. Athletic. Multi-gauge, 911-like instruments with dedicated navi-map display. Button-assisted touchscreen. The 175-mph top speed tac. Yeah, it’s a Porsche all right. A multitude of button functions spill down the long, narrow center console like tattoos down LeBron James’ arm. They are space eaters (where can I store a phone?) but, in keeping with the sporty brand, they are at your fingertips. No searching through touch-screen menus to find performance essentials.

Porsche even eschews a push button starter. Turn the key just like the legends of old.

For all of the testosterone, what surprises about the Cayenne is its utility. At 6-foot-5-inches I can sit behind myself in a rear seat that shames Delta coach class. This isn’t your typical, Porsche dark back-seat hole but a pleasant, airy space with cupped seats, headroom and available, full-cabin sunroof. Want to load up cross-country skis or a couple of snowmobiles for a day at the state park? The 60-40 rear seats fold flat, and the rhino will haul up to 7,700 pounds.

Snowmobiles? Fun, no doubt. But I’ll take the warmth of the Cayenne cabin with heated, leather seats and a twisty rural road. Hold on to those oh, crap! handles, kids.

2015 Porsche Cayenne S

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

Price: $59,295 base ($94,550 as tested)

Power plant: 3.6-liter, twin turbo 6-cylinder

Power: 420 horsepower, 406 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: eight-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.2 seconds (manufacturer)

Weight: 4,579 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 17 mpg city/24 mpg highway/20 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: The standard for SUV performance; Twin turbos

Lows: 911 design language loses something in ute translation; V-8 withdrawal

Overall:★★★★

Payne: Q&Auto with the fastest man on earth

Posted by hpayne on February 28, 2015

Carpenter_Focus_wide.jpg

Over the next month, Carpenter will work furiously to prepare two team cars (each car requires a budget of at least $6 million). As a driver he trains daily. In between he promotes IndyCar. Like hosting a pre-screening of the movie “Focus” —starring Will Smith, Margot Robbie, and IndyCars — in Detroit this week. I sat down with the affable, soft-spoken oval-track master to talk speed, Super Bowls, and Suburbans.

Q: What’s it like to be the fastest man on earth?

Carpenter: It’s a lot of fun. Speeds like that are what focused me on motorsports, especially Indy. I’ve been the fastest the last two years and now I’d like to get to the track record (Ed. note: The track qualifying record is 237 mph set back in 1996 by Arie Luyendyk under different car rules).

Q: What’s constant, 230-plus mph like?

Carpenter: The first lap feels really good at that speed. But we take out a lot of down-force (wing angle) to run at that speed and that’s tough on the tires. We wear through a set in four laps — by lap four the tires are really sliding around. We’re right on the limit of adhesion. What has gotten us on pole is the ability to run 230 consistently over four laps.

Q: You’ve joined forces with Sarah Fisher?

Carpenter: We talked about it in the past. We had each been trying to grow (to two car teams), but it’s a challenge — a lot of money to raise. So now we’re Carpenter Fisher Hartman Racing, operating as a two-car team. I’ll be driving ovals. And Luca Filippi will be driving the street courses.

Q: Your sponsors?

Carpenter: On the No. 20 car it’s Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka who’s been with me full-time for four years. On No. 67 car Hartman Oil is the primary sponsor. Our engines are Chevy. Sarah hired me in 2011 for her team when she retired. Dollar General was sponsoring that car and didn’t want the confusion of Fuzzy’s on their cars because they weren’t selling any alcohol.

Q: TUDOR and NASCAR do their “Super Bowls” early in the year. You do yours — the Indianapolis 500 — over Memorial Day. Is that a good idea?

Carpenter: I like the way we’re set up. A lot of Indy is about tradition. It’s the focal point of our season and it’s been Memorial Day weekend forever.

Q: Detroit comes right after Indy. How important is it?

Carpenter: Detroit is the only doubleheader (Saturday and Sunday races) on the schedule which makes it important. You can make a lot of points. It’s hard coming (after Indy) because there’s one team that’s really happy and everyone else is licking their wounds. So everyone shows up in Detroit a little hung over in one way or another.

Q: Formula 1 costs have gone into the stratosphere after pressure from manufacturers to go to hybrid power plants. Do you feel pressure from manufacturers?

Carpenter: A bit. Chevy left (in 2004) and came back because IndyCar went to a smaller displacement, twin turbo, direct injection fueling. The formula is more in line with what they are building for production cars. They pull engineers from the production side and get them involved in racing to see our approach to problem solving.

Q:You leave the high speeds at the track. Still driving a Chevy Suburban at home?

Carpenter: Just got my new one a couple weeks ago. I’ve got three kids so I’m always dropping somebody off.

Payne: Honda CR-V vies for No. 1 best-seller

Posted by hpayne on February 26, 2015

Exterior design changes include a restyled front with

We Americans don’t like station wagons or hatchbacks. But jack ‘em up, stick high chairs inside, and change their name to “sport utility vehicles,” and we’ll buy them faster than Garth Brooks concert tickets.

The station wagon is dead, long live the station wagon. Once a popular hatchback version of the common sedan, the wagon has risen from the ashes as a full-blown class of its own: The SUV. So popular have wagons — er, utes — become that sedans are now the endangered species. Go figure.

The compact Honda CR-V sport ute is Exhibit A in this turn of events.

Don’t be surprised if you wake up some morning soon to find that the CR-V has outsold the Toyota Camry sedan as the best-selling non-pickup in America. Surprise! It just did.December 2014 sales: CR-V 32,369, Camry, 31,618. Camry still won for the year, but … when and if the CR-V passes it, it will only confirm a long trend. SUVs — can we call ‘em SWIDs (Station Wagons In Drag)? — outsold sedans for the first time in 2014 and now share the same clothing racks as sedans from SMALL (Honda HR-V vs. Honda Fit) to XL (Ford Explorer vs. Ford Taurus).

I ruminated over this phenomenon with marketing guru Jim Morrison of Jeep, the

company that birthed the car-based SUV. In Europe, theorizes Professor Morrison, the station wagon is still the family choice because the daily, no-speed limit Autobahn commute is done at the average speed of the Daytona 500. Performance is at a premium. In the 70 mpg U.S.? Not so much. Which means Euros want a wagon’s low center of gravity, while Americans want to sit up high so they can see what neighboring drivers are texting on their iPhones.

No doubt. But Europe is also experiencing its own SUV revolution — witness Morrison making the subcompact Jeep Renegade in Italy for European consumption. Yes, the Continent has the ute bug. Sure, the Euros will drive smaller SUVs (the Renegade could fit in the center arm rest of a Chevy Tahoe) given their wallet-flattening $8-a-gallon petrol prices, but they’re human too. And humans like sitting up high.

Why? Sport Ute 101, Chapter 1: The H-Point.

In industry speak, the H-point is the height of your hips off the ground. Humans like to sit with their hips no higher than their knees (look at that armchair you’re in). Sedans are unnatural, people. No one understands this better than Honda, a company once known for quirky fun-mobiles like CR-Xs and S2000s — but that now makes payroll by selling everycars to everyman.

The CR-V was the first compact SUV in the business and is Exhibit A in how Honda creates customers for life.

The 2015 in my driveway is the fourth generation of CR-V, following its segment-busting intro in 1997. The CR-V hit the market G-SPOT: A roomy, all-wheel-drive, family friendly recipe still small enough to maneuver in tight urban canyons. Marinate in legendary Honda reliability and the vehicle was crack for the middle-class.

The CR-V cuts a wide demographic swath: Soccer moms, young urban dwellers, arthritic boomers who can’t get out of a sedan without calling 911. And when the lease was up, why risk another brand when the CR-V is so doggone reliable?

The formula is being tested, however, as competitors have gained in durability and surpassed the shoebox-shaped CR-V in sex appeal. In its ambition to become a sales volume leader (Honda is the retail sales leader in a remarkable four of the six segments in which it competes), Honda forgot the fun factor somewhere back at that rest stop near Sandusky.

It’s as if Kid Rock began playing Brahms. Frisky Honda had gone nerd.

Ford filled the vacuum with ST hot hatches and creative Escape utes. The AWD Escape was a pair of Air Jordan high-tops to the CR-V shoebox. So just three years after its 2012 do-over, CR-V designers got a 5 a.m. reveille. Honda calls it “the most significant mid-model cycle redesign in the CR-V’s 17-year history.”

It shows. The makeover begins with a Kia Optima-like wraparound grille and headlamps. Ol’ four eyes used to look as homely as a pimply teen. Now the chrome, bezel-wrapped specs look like something out of the X-Men’s Cyclops catalogue. The ute’s chin mirrors the bezel line — giving the CR-V an aggressive, bullet-like nose with plenty of curb clearance. In back CR-V takes a page from the cool hatch crowd with tapered C-pillar glass. Damn the rear-quarter visibility. That’s what blind spot assist is for (“Engage the deflector shield, Scotty!” The CR-V is wrapped in high-tech safety systems).

Inside, the exterior cues translate nicely to a flowing dash converging in a narrow, center-shifter exclamation point. Function follows form, and the dash curves opens plenty of space for this tall passenger’s knobby knees.

Unfortunately, the CR-V’s instruments team didn’t get the wake-up call.

Instrumentation feels a generation behind interiors in the Escape, Chevy Equinox (or Camry sedan for that matter). The seat-heater buttons look glued on. You need a magnifying glass to see the telematics-control buttons. And Honda insists on a second dash screen that contains … the time and date?

Typical of Honda there are driver-friendly touches like multi-shelf door storage, console dishes for smartphones, and sliding cup holders. But Escape still feels a step ahead. Its rear seats fold flush for optimum storage — for, say, that 20-something’s first flat-screen TV. CR-V seats stubbornly refuse to flatten. And once you’ve used the Escape’s “foot kick” rear hatch opener there’s no going back.

The Ford is pushing CR-V for best-selling ute in America. That’s a good thing. Look out, Camry, you may have eight sets of tire marks over your hood.

Navigating Metro Detroit in 2 feet of snow, I could count off the CR-V advantages over a Camry or Honda Accord sedan. Sure-footed AWD. Better passenger access. More head room. More hatchback utility. Comparable fuel economy. And perhaps most significantly to this longtime sedan snob: A tight CR-V chassis. Despite its higher center of gravity, body roll wasn’t intrusive until I pushed the envelope. And envelope-pushing benefits the CR-V’s all-wheel drive.

Warning to sedans: The SUV in your mirror is closer than it appears.

2015 Honda CR-V

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

Price: $24,325 base ($33,600 Touring AWD as tested)

Power plant: 2.4-liter, direct-injection, inline 4-cylinder

Power: 185 horsepower, 181 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Continuously variable transmission

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.5 seconds (Car & Driver)

Weight: 3,358 pounds, base (3,624 AWD as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 26 mpg city/33 mpg highway/28 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Stylish new design; AWD winter warrior

Lows: Dated ergonomic switches; rear seats won’t flatten

Overall:★★★

Payne: Ford F-150, Swiss Army truck

Posted by hpayne on February 21, 2015

 

635600441000974953-CARtoon-SwiisArmyF150I get this pickup truck thing.

As a lad I played with Hot Wheels and built go karts while other kids played with Swiss Army knives and crafted tree forts. We boys never really grow up. So now I play with sports cars. Those other kids? They drive oversize tools called pickups. Call ‘em Swiss Army trucks. They can do anything.

Take the new, 2015 Ford F-150.

In America’s perennial, ferocious Truck Wars, the light duty F is the latest, greatest, best-selling example of the most versatile tool on earth. Like its Chevy Silverado and RAM 1500 competitors, it’ll ply a stream with a load of mulch in the morning, then comfortably chauffeur the family to evening dinner. The F-150′s a big, lovable, aluminum-skinned Labrador retriever. Man’s best friend.

These days Ford is rolling out fun F-150 accessories faster than Kim Kardashian can take selfies. Which is a welcome relief because the introduction of the F-150 a year ago was soooo deadly serious. When the F-150 was announced at the 2014 Detroit Auto Show, it promised to “preserve the world for generations to come” in the words of Chairman Bill Ford. Global warming was roasting polar bears and gas prices were headed to $10 a gallon. The Ford pickup was made of aluminum, we were told, to prevent the ocean from lapping at our doorstep. Everyone was so dang grim.

But then gas prices tanked and winter temperatures got so cold that polar bears are wearing long underwear. All of which is good news for Ford because they can go back to selling Swiss Army trucks and their cool tools.

I’ve already told you about the F-150′s side mirrors which can pool light on the ground like a theater usher, illuminate the landscape with spotlights, cover your blind-spot, and tie a bow tie (just kidding about that last one). The backseat will fit a boy’s basketball team — or it can be folded flat for a space bigger than Beyonce’s walk-in closet.

But with Detroit under 2 feet of powder this week, Ford’s happy elves showed off the truck’s snow plowing and snowmobiling capabilities.

“We know our customers better than they know themselves,” smiled Brandt Coultas, F-150 Consumer Marketing Manager. Snow plowing has always been the domain of heavy duty pickups like Ford’s F-450, not light duty. Heavy duties have more brawn, more ground clearance, more stump-pulling, diesel-fired torque. But Coultas’ team heard their customers pining for the same capability in light duties.

 

Ford listened and engineered the F-150 from the ground up to take the rigors of plowing.

The Ford F150 equipped with BOSS Snow Plow clears a parking lot in Dearborn.

We sports car guys are obsessive about this sort of thing, too. When Chevy designed the new Corvette C7, they listened to their customers — from Dream Cruisers to race teams — who said they wanted a no-compromise car. So Chief Engineer Tadge Juechter & Co. engineered the C7 to be stiff and aerodynamic. Want a convertible?Voila! Chop the top — no re-enforcement needed. Want to race at LeMans? Behold! Downforce galore.

For my Swiss Army truck adventure, I brought along my neighbor Bob Gulyas, a construction company owner and certified pickup guy. Ford brought the BOSS plow team. With the plow-ready F-150, BOSS just wired up a 430-pound blade and we were good to go. No extra alternator to run the power steering. No suspension changes. No cab limitations.

We had a ball pushing snow around the Adoba Hotel parking lot at Fairlane Mall in a 4×4 V-8. So much fun that I wanted to call in the F-150 owners’ club. Remember the 100 lucky Mustang clubbers invited to Ford Proving Grounds last Dream Cruise to witness the new pony’s line-lock, burnout feature? They went bonkers like kids at a Stanley Cup final.

Now imagine 100 F-150 owners lined up door-handle-to-door-handle to plow the Fairlane lot. But I digress.

Neighbor Bob marinates in F-150 every day, but was still blown away by the pickup’s new tools: Plow option, 360-degree camera, 170-degree SuperCab doors, rear-camera hitch assist, and so on. “The technology is incredible,” he said.

But what if you prefer to play in powder than plow it? Say, in a 4×4 Can-Am Renegadeall-terrain vehicle? Swiss Army Truck will help, natch.

Lightweight, aluminum loading ramps that store on the truck bed sides are available (just screw them into the removable BoxLink cleats. Genius) so they don’t bang around under the ATV. Slide them into tailgate plate, back down the Can-Am, and you’re pounding powder like a motorized lynx.

Will the F-150 save the planet? Nope. But it’ll help you conquer it. The world is your backyard and Swiss Army truck has the tools to explore every inch. I wonder if that bed will fit my sports car?

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

 

2015 Ford F-150 with “plow prep,” spotlight mirrors, BoxLink ramps, trailer hitch, and lord-knows-what-else

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, five-passenger pickup truck

Price: $26,615 base ($51,270 as tested, $4,600 BOSS plow (est) not included)

Power plant: 5.0-liter V-8

Power: 385 horsepower, 387 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: six-speed automatic

Performance: Towing capacity (4×4): 11,100 pounds

Weight: 4,871pounds

Fuel economy: EPA mpg: 15 city/22 highway/18 combined

Report card

Highs: Plow prep option just $50; Will do everything but tie your shoes

Lows: Can’t sprout wings and fly

Overall:★★★★

Payne: Is bargain Scion FR-S the Porsche 944 reborn?

Posted by hpayne on February 19, 2015

2015_Scion_FRS_007.jpg

Oh, it’s good to be in my 20s again. Auburn hair. Lightning-quick reflexes. Eyes like a hawk.

Or maybe it’s just this Scion FR-S I’m driving. Dude, it’s dope.

Not since my first sports car 25 years ago — Porsche’s legendary 944 — has a thrifty thoroughbred felt so good in my hands. “Affordable sports car,” after all, is usually an oxymoron.

But for the durable, adorable Mazda Miata roadster (25 years old this year), examples of the breed rarely survive the business bean counters.

I grew up at the track, the oil-stained son of a Porsche race jockey. But on the street, Porsches were exotics — megabuck 911 playthings for middle-aged moguls. Until the 944 broke the mold. Long before Mercedes (CLA 250) and Audi (A3) crafted down-market sedans to lure younger demographics, Stuttgart hatched a $20K, front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 2+2 sports car that set young motorheads’ hair on fire.

At a base price of $22,000 in 1982, the 944 was a bargain. And with sexy styling, torquey four-banger, and balanced handling, it was to die for. “The most seductive combination of economy and performance money can buy,” in the words of motorhead bible Road & Track.

Henry Payne and the Scion FRS

Fresh out of college in 1984, I drove the 944 for the first time. Where my college mates celebrated graduation by traveling to Europe to sip wine and chase French skirts, I rented a 944 (the Euro lot equivalent of a Mustang) with my old man and terrorized Germany. We hit the car’s top speed of 134 mph on the Autobahn. We bought laps at the epic Nurburgring (a must for every gearhead’s bucket list). We chased Mercs.

I was smitten. Six years and a many saved paychecks later, I had my own, used, 1987 Porsche (a 924S, the 944′s streamlined, lightweight option). We did everything together from long trips to track days. As well-behaved as the 944 chassis was on track it was also practical around town with a hatchback and rear seats big enough for little Paynes.

But Porsche would not make the 944 forever.

Margins were small and capital investments high. “When it came time to upgrade, it just wasn’t worth the money,” says Kelly Blue Book managing editor Matt DeLorenzo, former editor of Road & Track. The last 944 rolled off the line in 1991 and the segment withered with it. Its more-powerful 968 sequel exited in 1995. The rotary-powered Mazda RX7 — a 944 copycat — died a decade later. Nissan’s Z got porky and pricey. The Miata’s cuter than quick. Darkness enveloped the Earth.

In 2013, the FR-S rose from the ashes. Courtesy of Toyota’s youthful Scion brand. The budget bullet was back.

Shades of 944, Scion’s skin is aggressive yet timeless. Eschewing boy toy wings or flared fenders, the fastback design is purposeful, not showy. Inside the cockpit, FR-S transports pilot back to the 944′s low-slung, driver-centric layout. With its long snout and rear seats, even beanpoles like yours truly fit comfortably under the squat roof (I need a giant shoe horn to get in the wee Miata).

Scion controls are light years beyond the 944, courtesy of 21st-century strides in digital audio. Scion comes with 6-inch LCD touchscreen, Bluetooth, USB connectivity, nav, apps, Pioneer AM/FM/CD, woofer, and a partridge in a pear tree. It’s a veritable rolling opera house compared to my old Porsche and its radio and tape deck (Look it up, kids. You’ll find one in the Smithsonian).

In truth the only audio I need in the Scion is the exhaust note.

Light the wick with the push-button starter and the FR-S comes to life like a kicked wolverine. HAWRAWRP! It’ll make your tail tingle. You want a quiet car? Buy a Camry. The FR-S is loaded for bear.

At the other end of this deranged growl is a 200-horse, 2.0-liter Boxer engine. The compact power-plant is the perfect complement to the crouched Scion chassis (its center of gravity is lower than a Porsche Cayman).

With cost in mind, Scion co-developed the FR-S with Subaru (thus the twin Subaru BRZ), just as Porsche co-produced its bargain sports car with Volkswagen. But Porsche’s first take, the 924, was a disaster. Porsche delivered the styling goods, but VW delivered, well, a VW drivetrain. Duh. The result was, in order: 1) the little engine that couldn’t, 2) ridicule from Porschephiles, 3) an extreme makeover called the 944.

Toyota made no such mistake. The Scion chassis and Subaru drivetrain connect like Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson. The FR-S Boxer engine is a rarity — a non-turbo that spits 100 horsepower-per-liter.

Even in January on Seven Mile’s Washtenaw County twisties, the Scion thrills.

While modern sports cars have put on weight (haven’t we all?), the 2,770-pound FR-S weighs less than its 2,900-pound, 158-horsepower Porsche forebear (and the same as my 924S version). More remarkably, the FR-S — at $25,670 — is barely more expensive than the 944 three decades ago.

With a quarter century of materials and suspension advancements, the Scion is noticeably stiffer than the Porsche. It cuts through corners like a knife through capellini. I pine only for the optional manual transmission (though the auto tranny’s rev-matching tries hard to make me forget).

Following Payne tradition, I too have a hot-shoe, young college grad. He too lusts for bargain speed. He too is eying the FR-S. But here’s the thing: He has more choices than I did a generation ago.

So when he joined me for a taste of Scion, we took along a Honda Civic SI coupe as well. With its own high-revving, 200-horse, 2.0-liter chainsaw, the nimble, identically-priced SI represents a pocket rocket breed that didn’t exist three decades ago. And while the front-wheel driver can’t match the RWD FR-S’s athleticism, it holds its own while also holding more cargo.

Tough neighborhood. Though he’ll miss the FR-S on track days, my son might find the fun SI — or the VW GTI, or the Subaru WRX, or the Ford Fiesta/Focus ST — delivers more utility 24/7. If the FR-S wore the iconic Porsche badge? That might change the dynamic. The 944 undeniably benefited from the family crest. Scion lacks LeMans trophies on its mantle.

For over a decade Porsche thrilled the entry segment with 4-cylinder variations of the 944 including the 924S, 944S, Turbo, and 968 (I eventually stuffed a 3.0-liter, 240-horse 968 mill into my featherweight 924S for the ultimate 4-banger Porsche). Fingers crossed that the FR-S hangs around.

Because this budget-friendly, asphalt-chewing coupe is, like, the fountain of youth.

2015 Scion FR-S

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

Price: $25,670 base ($29,742 as tested)

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

Power: 200 horsepower, 151 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: six-speed automatic or six-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.0 seconds (Car & Driver)

Weight: 2,770 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 25 mpg city/34 mpg highway/28 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: A tossable treat; throaty boxer

Lows: Rugrat-sized rear seats; turbo option, please?

Overall:★★★★

Payne: Brawny, brainy Chrysler 300

Posted by hpayne on February 12, 2015

New Chrysler 300 sedan's iconic and unmistakable exterior

Everyone remembers their first 300.

Mine was at Newark airport in 2005. The everyman Rolls — slab-sides, egg-crate grille, broad shoulders — was taking autodom by storm. In an age of soap-bar sedans, the Chrysler 300 stood out like Hulk Hogan at a tennis tournament. Eager to get my hands on the big beast, I booked the “full-size” car from a rental company.

I drove up to the arrivals curb to pick up Mrs. Payne and our luggage. “Good lord,” said my wife, shooting me the have-you-lost-your-mind look. “How much did this thing cost?”

That’s 300. Dunhill threads at a Kmart price. I could have driven it up to Buckingham Palace’s gates and they would have waved me through. If Corvette is the All-American, affordable supercar, then 300 is All-American, discount luxury.

Though the 300 badge had been around since 1955, the reborn, rear-wheel sedan was an instant American icon. Looking like it had just rolled off the set of “Sin City,” the big palooka was gangsta chic. It displaced the Caddy Escalade as the bling choice of rappers. “What I gotta do to get that brand new 300 up outta you?” said one famous rapper on Chrysler’s West Coast office voice mail. “This is Snoop Dogg. Preach!”

The second generation 300 rolled out with more tailored sophistication. The egg-crate grille gave way to a smaller, sculpted face. The first generation’s exterior swagger was extended to the interior with standard leather seats and a gym-toned suspension.

The refreshed, 2015 S model in my driveway solidifies 300 as the most mainstream car on the street. With loud, redline suit and 20-inch wheels, it’s dressed for the red carpet.

For a bargain $41,000 — less than half the price of a similarly-sized BMW 7-series or Audi A8 — my 300 combines head-turning looks with muscle-car power. The 300 is the third ’15 model update on Chrysler’s LX platform following the Dodge Challenger and Charger.

I am not enamored with full-sized car chassis. Whether the Chevy Impala, Toyota Avalon or Chrysler LX triplets, they feel big, top-heavy. Weighing more than the Pentagon, they are barely more nimble than the midsize crossovers that are slowly hunting them to extinction (though their high seating position is a nice compromise between SUV and low-slung luxe sedan).

But what they lack in handling, the triplets make up for in attitude. Squeezed by roomy midsize sedans and the SUV juggernaut (300 sales are just one-third of what they were a decade ago), the Auburn Hills threesome have amped up the personality. Looks? Horsepower? Hips? These plus-sized sexpots got it in spades.

Most full-size sedans are nice rides for a date at the movies. The tire-shredding Dodge Charger wants to drag on Woodward. The 300 aches to be valeted at Fleming’s for a seven-course steak dinner.

This is not a shy automobile. The 300 bears an unmistakable resemblance to the current Bentley Mulsanne.

Keeping up with the Mercs, the 2011 model bore horizontal, chrome grille stripes. The new model adopts the trendy, “chain-link” grille made fashionable by the Mulsanne and Jaguar XJ. Fashion trends aren’t for everyone, and I’m not a fan of the chain link look any more than I’m into skinny Euro-pants.

But credit Chrysler for a clever riff on the style. Look closer and the grille texture is more than cross-hatched metal — it’s a weave of winglets echoing the winged Chrysler logo that floats in the middle of the big maw (supersized 32 percent as a nod to the 2005 original). Out back, 300′s upright, scalloped rear quarter-panels are right out of the Bentley catalog.

One of the most recognizable brands on the market, the 300 could be its own franchise — the Mini Cooper of big sedans. Think a 300 small crossover, or Escalade-challenging 300 ute, or big 300 roadster. But the 300 is Chrysler family.

That shared DNA makes the 300 surprisingly practical for all of its 5th Avenue eccentricities.

Little brother 200 is an ergonomic wonder with an interior fussed over for maximum driver convenience. Ditto 300. Its center console is a vertical design masterpiece. Best-in-class UConnect touchscreen. Essential climate dials. A simple, rotary shifter (with Sport mode, yum) that allows room for a smart phone holder. Maximum use of space, minimum fuss. All wrapped in soft-touch vinyl and carbon fiber accents. A classic, analog clock is cherry on the cake.

I drove the 300S back-to-back with a gorgeous, similar-size, $100K Audi A8. It also has an analog clock. But the Audi console is a maze of knobs, buttons, and shift stalks. It makes your eyes cross after the simple 300 system. Valedictorian, full-size luxe meets top-of-the-class, full-size luxe wannabe.

Impress me some more, 300.

With laminated glass, the 300 matches the A8′s tomb-quiet interior. Both sport smooth, 8-speed trannys by ZF. Both score high in Consumer Reports (Audi 91 score, 300, 82). Drivetrain warranty? Chrysler: 5 years/100,000 miles. Audi: 4 years/50,000. Stomp on the S’s 368-horsepower, hemi V-8 and the big rocket wants to go to the moon — just like the 435-horse, twin-turbo A8. Want inlaid wood like the Audi? The 300C Platinum’s got it. Phone connectivity? Check. Blind-spot assist? Check.

Only the chassis betrays different breeding. Fling the 4,500-pound, AWD Audi into a 90-degree corner and it’s a locomotive on rails. Chassis settles, tires bite, all four corners stay on the same page.

The less-sophisticated, RWD 300S is like a rodeo bronco. Big tail swishes, rear hoofs stamp, you feel the 4,200-pound beast shift under your saddle. But what’s this? My bronco comes with electronic stability control? I’ve experienced this system before on the insane, 700-horsepower Hellcat and it. Is. Remarkable.

If ESC keeps the Hellcat from killing you, it makes the 300 eminently controllable. But there’s more. And this is where it really gets good, dear reader. Because the zoot-suit, ticket-me-red, nail-gargling 300S can also be had as a sinister, black, all-wheel drive stealth-mobile just like the Audi. For less.

Trade the $3,000 V-8 option for the 300-horsepower V-6 with $2,500 all-wheel-drive (AWD is only paired with the 6). Good grunt. Better handling. Better snowmobile (30 percent of 300 sales are AWD). With black leather inside and “Phantom Black” outside (like the Rolls Phantom, yes?) and you see only the “C” LED running lights coming, and the red-LED-tubed taillights going.

Is there a more affordable, powerful, fashionable, usable, AWD, roomy sedan on the market? Drive this baby up to the curb and my wife will happily slip in. If Snoop Dogg doesn’t jump in first.

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

 

2015 Chrysler 300

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

Price: $32,390 base ($41,580 300S as tested)

Power plant: 3.6-liter, dual-overhead cam V-6; 5.7-liter Hemi V-8

Power: 292 horsepower, 260 pound-feet of torque (3.6-liter, base V-6); 300 horsepower, 264 pound-feet of torque (3.6-liter, V-6 in 300S); 363 horsepower, 394 pound-feet of torque (5.7-liter V-8)

Transmission: eight-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.5 seconds (Motor Trend estimate, V-8)

Weight: 4,029 pounds (V-6 RWD); 4,326 pounds (V-8 AWD)

Fuel economy: EPA 19 mpg city/31 mpg highway/23 mpg combined (V-6); 16 mpg city/25 mpg highway/19 mpg combined (V-8)

Report card

Highs: The bargain Bentley; Ward’s 10 Best interior

Lows: Bold styling not for everyone; bring back the SRT

Overall:★★★

Payne: Can Caddy’s comely coupe cope in winter?

Posted by hpayne on February 7, 2015

gas station low.jpg

he last time the 2015 Cadillac ATS Coupe and I met it was August in northern Connecticut. We had a ball. The BMW-fighter romped through the countryside, its balanced chassis a trained athlete. We were Rogers and Astaire in “Swing Time.” Julianne Hough and (name your celebrity du jour here) in Dancing with the Stars. Partners in synch on an asphalt dance floor.

What a difference six months and 70 degrees make.

With snow falling and the mercury plunging to single-digits in early January, dancing was the farthest thing from my mind. The ATS parked in my downtown parking garage was A) my refuge from the arctic weather, and B) my snowmobile home. Where I compared the comely coupe last summer to a sure-footed Labrador locked on a fox’s scent, this time I needed it to be a St. Bernard in an Alpine blizzard: Could it keep me alive?

When I reached the parking garage, my extremities were numb. It was so cold outside that Gary Peters was burning his Sierra Club membership card for warmth. Polar bears were sleeping on heat grates. Asphalt had turned to ice-phalt.

At the car door I dared not remove my thick gloves. No problem, ATS sensed the fob in my pocket and opened with a squeeze of the handle button. Nice. No need to remove the key to start the engine either thanks to push button start. But the cabin was an icebox (Dummy. With time, I’d learn to use remote start to heat ‘er up). Fortunately the Cadillac passes my wife’s first auto rule: “If it doesn’t have heated seats and a heated steering wheel, I’m not interested.”

She’s interested in the ATS. Thanks to heating coils, steering wheels and seats come to boil much quicker than air circulation systems. Ain’t the 21st century grand? I immediately pressed the steering heater button, then reached for the seat heater button on the console.

Ahem. Let me say here that I have been a fan of Cadillac’s CUE system. Its flush surfaces and dial-free, haptic feedback controls are elegant and modern – a welcome departure from Caddy’s stodgy, conservative past. But haptic controls read the heat from your fingers – which is a problem when your digits are colder than a penguin’s arse.

I pressed hard on the console’s haptic-thingy and brought the seat to simmer – but the process of firing up the radio and hapt-o-selecting AM 950 for traffic updates looked like a more daunting task. Not to worry, the hi-tech Caddy has more redundant communication systems than a nuclear-class submarine has redundant missile launch protocols.

In fact, my hands needed never leave the toasty steering wheel. Which is nice since at this point I was gripping it hard in order to prevent gangrene from setting in. Not only can the wheel buttons operate the Bluetooth phone connection (“Honey, can I get you anything on the way home? A parka? Ticket to Jamaica?”), they command every radio function. What’s more, the station list appears in the instrument panel, meaning I can keep my eyes straight ahead on a snowy night when Detroiters’ driving skills are no better than, say, your average shellfish.

I mean, seriously people?

On my way home I encountered 1) a car parked in the left lane shoulder (a problem since there is no shoulder on the Lodge’s left lane), 2) a chronic tailgater, and 3) countless macho pickup trucks driving as if they were on the last lap of the Indy 500.

Thankfully, my ATS came equipped with all-wheel drive and all-season tires so that I could navigate this wintry “Mad Max” landscape with confidence. By the time I reached Oakland County’s surface streets, traffic had thinned, my body temperature had warmed, and I could push the car’s abilities. The ATS’s AWD system is superb, allowing controlled four-wheel drifts. My wife owns an AWD Subaru Impreza (Second auto rule: “Cars must come equipped with all-wheel drive”) which is quite good, but the Caddy – befitting its higher price – is better, with tighter stability control.

I stopped in an empty school lot to do some donuts with the traction control off (don’t tell Mrs. Payne) before arriving home – the AWD system gripping like polar bear claws through my neighborhood’s unplowed streets.

So went the weekend. With its “Black Raven” paint coat covered in salt and snow, I never noticed the ATS’s chiseled beauty. With my eyes fixed on the road, I ignored the sumptuous, stitched leather dash. To me the measure of a luxury car is more than sport and comfort. All of those details will be there come summer when ATS and I can dance once again.

In the meantime, this St. Bernard got me home warm and in one piece.

2015 Cadillac ATS Coupe

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

Price: $38,990 base ($51,345 AWD, turbo-4 as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder

Power: 272 horsepower, 295 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: six-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.6 seconds (manufacturer)

Weight: 3,418 pounds (RWD)

Fuel economy: EPA 20 mpg city/28 mpg highway/23 combined

Report card

Highs: State-of-the-art instrumentation; Bear claw, AWD grip

Lows: Clumsy CUE; Snow boots a tight fit in rear seat

Overall:★★★

 

Payne: Car of Year Golf R encore

Posted by hpayne on February 5, 2015

With 292 horsepower from its turbocharged and direct-injection

The sleeper R is for the speed jockey who doesn’t need a muscle shirt to show off his pecs.

How did the VW Golf respond to winning the 2015 North American Car of the Year at the Detroit Auto Show?

By rolling out the new Golf R two weeks later: The biggest, baddest, fastest Golf ever.

It’s like Pixar bettering “Toy Story” with “Toy Story 2.” Like Verlander following a five-hit gem with a shutout. Like Apple introducing a new iPhone 6, then eclipsing it with a big screen iPhone 6 Plus.

The R is for those who don’t think the sensational Golf GTI is enough.

The GTI, of course, is what we North American Car of the Year jurists really mean when we say Golf was the best new car to hit U.S. roads last year. The $25K GTI is no boy toy indulgence, but an affordable, practical pocket rocket that makes up a full 50 percent of U.S. Golf sales. And for good reason. The GTI’s performance is legendary. Wolfsburg’s wizards conjured a front-wheel-drive chassis that rotates like a rear-wheel-driver thanks to an ingenious limited-slip front differential. Driving this fun box is a 210-horsepower, turbo 2.0-liter with a staggering 258 pound-feet of torque. Unleash this puppy on tight roads and it’s more fun than a Platinum Pass at Cedar Point.

With hatchback utility and a refined interior worthy of coaches priced 10 grand higher, the GTI is gift enough for the fun-starved compact car buyer. But like Corvette’s insane Z06, the gonzo Golf R takes GTI to another level.

Is R short for ‘roids? This hormone-fed hot hatch squeezes another 82 horses (292 total) and 280 pound feet of torque out of the same four-cylinders that motivate the GTI. Then it connects this bag of bobcats to the road with a torque-vectoring, all-wheel drive system that grips like a locomotive on rails.

But when I asked Hans Stuck — the legendary German race ace who assisted VW on Golf R development — what he likes best about the R, he replied with a wry grin: “Iss zee brakes.”

Zee man doesn’t lie. On paper, the oversized 13.4-inch front and 12.2-inch rear rotors available only on GTI’s Autobahn Performance Package come standard on the R. On road, stomping the brake pedal feels like someone chucked a boat anchor out the hatch. I took the R out on the twisty Route 78 in the Cuyamaca Mountains east of San Diego. Flinging the R over the gnarly, knotted road took me back to Hell, Michigan’s exquisite Route 32 loop where I last enjoyed Audi’s 2015 Audi A3 — my favorite handling car on last year’s Car of the Year short list.

That’s no coincidence.

Volkswagen owns Audi and the Golf R and A3 dine at the same family dinner table. Same MQB platform. Same AWD system. Same engine block. The A3 shares the GTI’s eager engine while its sister hot rod, the S3, shares the R’s 292-horse rocket. Which is to say, the Golf R is the Audi S3 in sheep’s clothing. Good grief, no wonder this thing has more moves than Derrick Rose.

VW lists the $37,415, base Golf R’s competitors as the $35,290 Subaru WRX STI, $44,025 BMW M235i, and $48,375 Mercedes GLA45 AMG. Obviously, the $42K S3 belongs on that list as well. And the forthcoming Ford Focus RS. That’s rare air.

What makes the R stand out in such company is that it doesn’t stand out.

If I’m an alpha male with 40,000 quid to throw around I want to enter I-696 like I own it. With a gaudy hood scoop and rear wing that looks like it was torn off a World War I biplane, Subaru’s STI comes down the on-ramp like Rickenbacker diving out of the sun. The Focus RS (can’t wait) appears in the rear-view mirror with a maw like a Great White at dinner time. The Audi S3? It wears its four rings on its massive grille like Usain Bolt wears his chest-full of gold medals. The M and the AMG are a Bimmer and a Merc. Say no more. You can smell the expensive cologne.

The R, on the other hand, is the sleeper of the bunch. From a distance it doesn’t look much different than the base Golf. Hmm. … Air-gulping lower gills seem oddly large. The wicked glow of LED running lights. But by the time you’ve digested this information the thing is by you with a bark like a hyena. Hawp! Only then do you see the signature, quad tailpipes receding in the distance. What the hell was that?!

The R, then, is for the speed jockey who doesn’t need a muscle shirt to show off his toned body. The predator who likes to sneak up on his prey. The practical Tasmanian Devil.

I covet the Audi S3, but would happily buy an R — and not because it would save me five grand and a hat-full of speeding tickets (“Don’t tell me, officer. The big Audi grille tip you off again?”). Both all-wheel-drivers would taunt a Detroit blizzard — but the five-door hatchback (a first for R which in previous generations has only been offered as a three-door) is much more utilitarian than the low-roof, cramped rear quarters of the S3 sedan. And VW’s intuitive, touchscreen console will save you the daily torture of the Audi’s rotary dial.

Audi, however, could teach VW a thing or two about marketing.

While the mother ship’s luxury brand has seen rapid growth in the U.S. market, V-dub has stalled. Indeed, Audi’s 182,010 in sales is roughly half VW sales — despite the former being a niche luxury automaker. That’s shocking underperformance for Volkswagen’s signature nameplate.

Did VW miss the boat on SUVs? Are VWs over-engineered for the U.S. market? Do hatchbacks only sell on crossovers? A combination of the above. Witness Audi leading in the shark-eat-shark luxe segment with bold styling, pricing, and segment-busting SUVs. While Audi wowed the compact SUV market with the entry-level Q3, for example, VW is MIA in a fast-growing subcompact segment featuring the Honda HR-V, Mazda CR3, and Chevy Trax.

Ex-Audi communications chief John Schilling has come across the aisle to help solve the mystery. And VW’s invested billions in a new Tennessee plant to churn out crossovers. In the meantime, we can thank them for the Golf. And the Golf GTI. And the Golf R.

Like Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” movie trilogy, each sequel gets better than the last. So will Golf stand pat with the R? Not likely. VW teased a 400-horsepower Golf R400 concept last spring. Please?

2015 Volkswagen Golf R

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

Price: $37,415 base ($39,910 as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbo, inline 4-cylinder

Power: 292 horsepower, 280 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: six-speed DSG automatic or six-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.9 seconds (auto); 155 mph top speed (manufacturer)

Weight: 3,340 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 23 mpg city/30 mpg highway/26 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: AWD all-weather performer; stealth fighter

Lows: Worth the premium over superb GTI?; bigger European console screen, please

Overall:★★★★

 

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