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Payne: Aging Maserati Quattroporte grande dame still dazzles

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 17, 2020

Italian stallion. The 2020 Maserati Quattroporte S Q4 is a big sedan, but Detroit News auto reviewer Henry Payne had a blast wringing its neck through the twisties of northern Michigan.

The 2020 Maserati Quattroporte is dated, heavy, lagging in infotainment technology and expensive.

But, boy, is it irresistible.

There’s something about Italian luxury brands that make our legs weak, and the Quattroporte is a case in point despite the fact that it’s an aging sedan in a SUV world. Like its Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Lamborghini countrymen, Maserati comes with boatloads of sex appeal. It’s got racing history. Runway style. Brand cache. It’s the Italian bombshell you always dreamed of in travel brochures.

The interior of the 2020 Maserati Quattroporte S Q4 shares console tech with Jeep products. The UConnect system is efficient — but lags luxury competitors in glamour.

With its Levante model, the Italian brand has dutifully followed market demand for an SUV. The Levante checks all the signature boxes — trident logo, racy roofline, big grille — but it’s designed to mimic the sedans that have carried the family crest for decades. Those are the vehicles we really covet.

The six-figure, sixth-generation, flagship Quattroporte (Italian for “four doors”) is the most desirable of all. My friend Rob has coveted a Quattroporte for 20 years. When I finally scored a tester, I immediately brought it over to him to see if reality lived up to the dream.

Right on cue, his knees buckled.

Like Monica Bellucci, the Quattroporte has presence. In an era of in-your-face grilles, the long hood is a ski slope, ending in a sports car-low nose that sniffs the ground. The huge trident grille with its uprights bars — as if imprisoning the rabid beast within — is unmistakably Maserati.

The 2020 Maserati Quattroporte S Q4 uses cameras for backing up.

The swept headlights start a lovely shoulder line over big 20-inch wheels that doesn’t end until the broad hips. Every line is purposeful, efficient, European. There are hints that this is a dated, 2013 chassis — the headlight units, for example, are not as lean as current LED designs.

But overall, the style is timeless. Its sporty fascia is a welcome departure from the intimidating, upright grilles found on the mug of, say, the BMW 7-series.

Gal pal Missy, an 89-year-old car nut, also turned to jelly when I brought the Maserati by. She could have driven around in the Italian heartthrob all day. The big rear lounge chairs reclined — and she also had command over the front passenger seat when more leg room was needed.

But I didn’t feel the tug of younger generations as I have with, say, the Tesla Model S or the Audi A8. The Maserati has an Old World feel to it.

Big 20-inch wheels are available on the 2020 Maserati Quattroporte S Q4.

Part of that, surely, is that Maserati doesn’t race like other luxury brands — Audi, BMW, Mercedes. Racing wins was once a Maserati hallmark — and maybe that will return now that the 630-horse MC20 supercar is coming for 2021. But more than that is the cabin technology where Quattroporte lags. As Tesla and Audi wow with their splashy Google Map and touchscreen displays, the Maserati is a generation behind.

The instrument display is analog compared to the competition’s lush, digital landscapes. The center console screen is taken right out of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV’s corporate parts bin — shared with a Jeep Grand Cherokee. Don’t get me wrong, the Jeep’s UConnect system is one of the finest in the business, but it lacks the brio you would expect in a six-figure Italian stallion.

I thought of the new Corvette and how its mid-engine layout and sci-fi digital instrumentation have turned millennial heads. Does today’s youth aspire to a Maserati when they strike it rich?

The interior is otherwise swathed in luxury. Exquisitely stitched seats, acres of wood, and those adjustable rear seats that had Missy purring.

The 2020 Maserati Quattroporte S Q4 has a striking presence after sundown.

But what really woke me up was the drivetrain. Push the starter button and my murmurings about technological deficiencies were suddenly drowned out by my elevated heart rate. Italians are masters of styling and engine tech. The twin-turbo V6 under the hood in front of me was developed by Ferrari.

It growled at idle like a starved tiger. Sport driving mode is temptingly placed next to the simple monostable shifter. Shift paddles the size of butcher knives stick out from the steering column.

I toggle to manual shifting. We’re off.

Brap! Brap! Brap! go the upshifts as I lashed the 3.0-liter, two-turbo engine V-6 with an excellent 8-speed transmission. The Quattraporte is a big, all-wheel-drive luxury sedan — but it’s 150 pounds lighter than the equivalent, V6-powered BMW 7-series. Four hundred pounds lighter than the Mercedes S-class.

Not an SUV. The 2020 Maserati Quattroporte S Q4 doesn't have a hatchback, but it still has plenty of luggage room in the boot.

As I bounded through the twisties of M-66 up north, the Maserati really came into its own. Where the Germans are ocean liners, the Italian wants to gulp terra firma.

The car’s tight, weighted steering seals the deal, and Quattroporte and I danced from apex to apex. It’s a feeling not unlike another Italian, the Alfa Romeo Giulia, which lags its German peers in interior electronics but puts a smile on your face when you want to play.

Italians make driver’s cars, and that’s how the Quattroporte stands out in the big yacht market. My standard V6’s 424 horsepower is a good 60-100 ponies above its German peers. If that’s not enough, then an earth-pawing, 525-horse V-8 is available in the upper trim Gran Lusso.

I found 424 was plenty.

Quad pipes from the 425-horse V-6 marks the rear end of the 2020 Maserati Quattroporte S Q4.

Luffing along I-75 north of West Branch, I came upon a pickup weaving back and forth across the northbound two lanes. The predicament allowed the Maserati to show off two of its latest assets.

The first was automatic braking. As the truck blocked the left-hand lanes, I moved to the right lane to pass. The truck veered right across my bow. Before I could react, the car did — its automatic braking system (using the same technology that enabled adaptive cruise control on my long ride north) flashing a red alert in my instrument panel and braking automatically. Eccellente!

The second was raw power. Reacting quickly to the pickup’s blocking maneuver, I juked left and dropped the hammer.

The rear seats of the 2020 Maserati Quattroporte S Q4 are a nice place to be with climate and seat controls. They can recline, and the front passenger seat can be controlled by the person sitting behind it.

Foom!

The Quattroporte’s twin turbos rocketed the big sedan past the wandering pickup. The menace was a dot in my rear view mirror in seconds.

Of course such amenities are also available on full-sized sedans like, say, a Dodge Charger Scat Pack (485-horse V-8) or Kia Stinger (365 ponies) for half the price of the Maserati.

But they don’t have a trident at the end of a long nose that has mesmerized buyers for decades. Brand matters. But so does tech. Maserati will need to hustle to keep up with a new generation of luxury that decorate college kids’ dorm walls.

2020 Maserati Quattroporte

Vehicle type: Rear- and all-wheel-drive, five-passenger, big sedan

Price: $112,985, including $1,995 destination charge ($126,805 S Q4 as tested)

Powerplant: 3.0-liter, twin-turbo V-6

Power: 424 horsepower, 428 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.6 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 179 mph

Weight: 4,232 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA — 16 mpg city/23 highway/18 combined

Report card

Highs: Maserati moxie; engaging drivetrain

Lows: Dated console tech; big price tag

Overall: 3 stars

Battle of Tailgate: Ram Multifunction feature fires back against Ford, GMC

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 16, 2020

Barb Willobee, Mopar Design Lead Engineer demonstrates the factory-engineered, factory-backed retractable, center-mounted bed step for the Ram 1500, further enhancing the functionality of Ram’s exclusive multifunction tailgate. Designed to fit specifically with the multifunction tailgate, the step is rated for 350 pounds.

Call it The Battle of Tailgate.

This week, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV’s Ram launched another salvo at the truck market, making its dazzling, 60-40 split tailgate even more versatile with a companion, retractable step. Unlike conventional drop gates, the Ram 1500’s tailgate opens outward like a barn door allowing easier fork-lift pallet access to the bed — or easier individual access via a pop-out step.

The full-size truck’s innovation was the latest weapon in a battle begun by Ford Motor Co. over a decade ago with its Tailgate step — recently eclipsed by the General Motors Co. GMC Sierra’s jaw-dropping (literally, check out the ads), six-function Multi-Pro gate.

Once upon a time, the Detroit Three pickup wars were about who could tow more. But today, with pickup sales earning big profits at over 3 million units sold a year, skirmishes are breaking out all over the truck — not just under its hood.

The trick tailgate clash follows pitched battles over best interior, most creative bed, coolest console, and best super truck.

“Every truckmaker is looking for some away to set themselves apart,” said Roman Mica, publisher of The Fast Lane Truck, a leading truck benchmarking website. “So now we have a tailgate battle.”

Combined with the $395 retractable step available via Ram’s Mopar parts subsidiary, the $995 Multifunction tailgate is a cheaper option than the GMC Sierra’s Multi-Pro tailgate which is only available on upper trim models starting around $45,000. But it probably won’t bring your neighbor running for a demo. The six-way Multi-Pro has wowed truck buyers with its button-operated, six-way versatility: 1) tailgate drop, 2) long-board load stop, 3) second-tier, board load stop, 4) work surface, 5) walk-in standing desk, 6) bed-entry stairs.

The 2020 GMC Sierra's six-function MultiPro tailgate includes a walk-in bed feature - and fits six bicycles in its bed.

GMC’s Multi-Pro ads — with jaws and tailgates dropping in awe as a GMC Sierra rolls by — have been a staple of weekend football games.

The Ram’s two-way tailgate not only opens to an 88-degree angle for easier forklift loading — but it also drops like a normal tailgate. The pop-out bed step is mounted under the middle of the rear bumper for easy bed access when the barn door opens. The retractable step is also available with a regular tailgate — swinging out from the driver’s side, rear-bumper corner.

“Our retractable bed step further enhances the convenience and utility of Ram’s industry-leading cargo management system,” said Mopar parts chief Mark Bosanac.

Ram’s innovation leaves Ford trailing its cross-town rivals, which is ironic since TFL Truck’s Mica said Ford started the tailgate battle.

“The F-150 has had a tailgate step for years,” he said. “And to be fair, the Honda Ridgeline (midsize pickup) pioneered the swing gate before Ram.”

Ford’s Tailgate step was re-engineered in 2014 to fully disappear into the tailgate when not in use. The tailgate package includes a grab handle that pops out to help with bed access. That’s so 15 minutes ago. Ford is now reportedly working on its own multi-function tailgate for the F-150.

Ram’s news comes on the heels of its success in the console battle. Its 12-inch, Tesla-like screen wowed in 2018.

“Interiors used to be Plain Jane,” said Mica colleague, Andre Smirnov at TFLTruck. “Then Ram blew everyone out of the water with an interior worthy of a BMW 7-series or a BMW S-class.”

Ford responded with its “table console” in the forthcoming, 2021 F-150 — which boasts innovations like a stowable, electronic gear shifter to clear a flat, interior work surface.

Territory aft of the front cabin has become a battleground, too. Ram offers sub-floor storage bins, GMC and Chevy Silverado have carved out hidden cubbies in the second-row seatbacks, and the 2021 Ford introduces lockable storage underneath the seats.

Further aft, the pickup bed became a high-profile showdown between F-150 and Silverado when Ford introduced the first aluminum truck in 2015. Chevy tried to puncture Ford’s bubble — literally — with an ad dropping a toolbox into the F-150’s bed to punch holes in the tin.

More recently Silverado laid claim to the segment’s biggest bed. Not to be outdone, Ram boasts the pickup war’s only bed-side toolboxes — called RamBox Cargo Management System.

Detroit’s three automakers have not forgotten about the engine bay.

Each model cycle seems to bring a new champ when it comes to clean-and-jerking the most weight. For 2020, the Silverado leads the field at 13,400 pounds towing — 2,543 pounds payload in the bed. F-150 is next with 13,200 pounds of towing — 3,270 pounds payload. Then Ram 1500 at 12,750 pounds and 2,500 payload.

All three makers vie for best fuel economy with diesel engines offerings. Chevy leads by a nose with 27 mpg versus Ram’s 26 and Ford’s 24.

When fuel economy is the least of your concerns, a battle is brewing on the “super truck” front. Like the horsepower wars of Mustang vs. Camaro vs. Challenger, pickups are pawing the ground.

Ford innovated the segment with the Baja Desert-eating, 450-horsepower Raptor. Ram is countering in 2021 with its own prehistoric predator, the TRX (pronounced T-Rex) stuffed with a 702-horse Hellcat engine.

And where Ford and Ram are, GM can’t be far behind.

 

NHRA smackdown: V-8 Mustang Cobra Jet dragster vs. electric Cobra

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 10, 2020

The Kentucky Derby wasn’t the only place high-performance horses were racing last weekend.

Ford’s 1,400-horsepower electric Mustang Cobra Jet 1400 drag racer squared off against its sister 1,000-horsepower V-8 Mustang Cobra Jet on Sunday at the NHRA Nationals in Indianapolis.

It was the gas-powered car by a nose.

The electric Mustang Cobra Jet 1400 pops a wheelie in its NHRA drag-racing premiere.

The Indy appearance was the battery-powered Mustang Cobra Jet’s first at a drag strip. Ford sees an electric future. And just as with fossil fuel-powered sports cars, Ford is using the race track to test the limits of electric power. Ford has also developed a racing version of its Mustang Mach E — also packing 1,400 horsepower like the dragster — to push the envelope on road race tracks.

“It was pretty cool to see the response from all the fans,” said Ford Performance Chief Mark Rushbrook, who was on hand in Indy. “People were around (the electric car) all weekend — coming up to the car looking at it, taking selfies, excited to see the technology there and especially the performance capability.”

Capitalizing on the Mustang’s storied reputation for performance, Ford is launching a Mustang sub-brand headlined by the Mach E, the first electric Mustang SUV. It will go on sale later this year.

Check it out! Ford Mustang Cobra Jet match race: Gas vs. Electric at the U.S. Nationals

Indianapolis featured the first exhibition match-race for the two Cobra Jet dragsters in front of a national TV audience (and socially distanced grandstands) at the Super Bowl of drag racing, the NHRA Mello Yello Series Denso U.S. Nationals. The electric dragster’s battery powers four electric motors that make 1,100 pound feet of torque. The conventional Cobra Jet is motivated by a 5.2-liter supercharged V-8.

Dressed in matching white livery with gold cobras painted on the doors, the two cars lit up the Lucas Oil Raceway strip. NHRA Funny Car driver Bob Tasca III was behind the controls of the all-electric Cobra Jet 1400, while former NHRA Funny Car driver Tony Pedregon piloted the V-8 Cobra Jet.

Ready, set... The electric Mustang Cobra Jet 1400 (right) squares off against its gas-powered sister Mustang Cobra Jet at the NHRA Nationals.

Tasca popped a wheelie in the EV pony off the line, and Pedregon crossed the quarter-mile line first in 8.797 seconds at 158.26 mph. Tasca was just behind him at 8.826 seconds and 156.81 mph.

The e-dragster’s time was just off tests that clocked the car at 8.27 seconds at 168 mph. The gas-powered Cobra Jet has competed in NHRA for years against competition from Chevy and Dodge and holds the NHRA Factory stock quarter-mile record of 7.7 seconds at 176 mph.

Rushbrook said Ford and NHRA are in talks about bringing electric drag-racing to the sport. “NHRA is open to discussing the right classes,” he said. “We will include other manufacturers in those discussions… so that we can compete against Chevy or Dodge or Toyota. We’d love to have Tesla come and race with us, too.”

Rushbrook said there is lots more to learn about the electric monster’s capabilities.

The electric Mustang Cobra Jet 1400 (left) made its first appearance at the NHRA Nationals, Sept. 6.

“It’s been a great but challenging project for all of us at Ford Performance,” said Rushbrook.  “We are very interested in continuing to work with NHRA to determine how electrification can be part of the sport and to show off the Cobra Jet 1400 at max power in due course as regulations develop.”

Instant electric torque off the line has already made Tesla a legend among amateur drag racers. YouTube is full of videos of Model S sedans disappearing from V-8 production muscle cars like the Mustang and Dodge Hellcat.

But the Cobra Jet face-off was the first chance to see the professionals go at it in cars made exclusively for the dragstrip. The silent launch of the Cobra Jet 1400 was in striking contrast to the earth-shaking supercharged V-8 Cobra Jet.

At the top end of the sport, nitro-guzzling Top Fuel dragsters make spectator eyes water as they rocket down the strip at 320 mph.

The electric Mustang Cobra Jet 1400 does a burnout ahead of its run at the NHRA Nationals in Indianapolis.

“Drag racing has always been where Detroit proves its most advanced powertrains,” said NHRA chief development officer Brad Gerber. “The U.S. Nationals is the sport’s quintessential stage for reaching enthusiasts wanting a glimpse at the future technology of performance vehicles.”

Look for the Mustang Cobra Jets to square off again at NHRA’s Gainesville, Florida event the weekend of Sept. 25-27.

Payne: Encore GX ST brings Buick manners to small SUVs

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 10, 2020

If you’ve been on Mars for the last few years, you may be disoriented when you see what’s happened to America. No, I’m not talking about the coronavirus pandemic and urban riots; I’m talking about Buick’s lineup.

America’s once-stodgy sedan brand has been transformed into a stable of hip SUVs.

Buick’s “mistaken identity” ads featuring utes like the Envision and Enclave were the most watched car ads of 2019, and “That’s not a Buick!” has become an American catchphrase. I’m not making this up.

To convince you the world has gone mad, let’s unpack the name of this week’s tester, the 2020 Buick Encore GX ST.

The 2020 Buick Encore GX sells Buick style and comfort. On Detroit's rough roads, the nicely tuned suspension made for a smooth ride.

It’s the bigger brother of the Encore — Buick’s pioneering 2013 subcompact SUV. Yes, I just used Buick and pioneering and subcompact in the same sentence. Polling rock-bottom in brand identity and desperate for attention, GM let Buick’s product team off the leash to create a segment-busting, entry-level, cuddly SUV. Consumers adored the little pup.

Hitting the SUV craze in full stride, Encores flew out of the pet shop, selling 102,000 copies last year. That’s more than the Honda HR-V, for goodness sake. It also brought in new buyers to the brand who could move on to Buick’s other crossover offerings, the Buick Envision and three-row Enclave.

Buick decided to milk the Encore’s success with the Encore GX (for Grand Crossover). In Encore’s pioneering spirit, the Encore GX is one of the first subcompact-plus SUVs, shoehorned between the subcompact and compact spaces. Yeah, I’d like a new name, too, to avoid confusion. But Buick’s marketers figure they have a good thing going.

The 2020 Buick Encore GX is bigger than its sister Encore, with more interior room and AWD optioned.

Other than its surname, Encore GX shares nothing with little-bro Encore. It’s on a longer front-wheel-drive platform, offers all-wheel drive and is more space-comparable to a compact — yet isn’t as doughty-looking as the more expensive Envision.

And just to remind you that it’s a luxury car, the Encore GX comes complete with an alphanumeric alphabet soup designation like the ST (for Sport Touring) tacked onto the end of the name. It’s right up there with the Mercedes GLA 63 GT mouthful.

So successful is Buick’s SUV transformation that it’s quietly killed off its last remaining sedans, the Regal and Regal Tour X Wagon. They were my favorite Buicks with their hatchback utility and sleek lines. Carrying on their sex appeal, my Encore GX ST was smeared with alluring red lipstick in the grille and a peppy 155-horse turbo-3 cylinder.

That’s not a typo. I said three-cylinder in an SUV.

Engineers are doing marvelous things with three-bangers these days, and I have mourned the passing of the Ford Fiesta and its “Godzilla-in-a-box” 1.0-liter turbo-3. It was a joy to drive while returning 35 mpg. The Encore GX’s 3 isn’t so sippy (just 28 mpg), but when mated to GM’s state-of-the-art 9-speed tranny it is plenty zippy.

The cockpit of the 2020 Buick Encore GX ST is a comfortable place to be with big knobs, good ergonomics and lots of technical features.

Trouble is, while Buick was re-inventing itself, so was the competition. Lunging out of the subcompact-plus starting gates with the $25,095 Encore GX are two more SUVs from premium mainstream brands: the $23,110 Kia Seltos and Mazda CX-30.

Both offer even more powerful engines: the 175-horse turbo-4 in the Seltos, the 186-horse 2.5-liter 4-cylinder in the Mazda — while returning comparable 27-mpg fuel economy.

More important, they expose GM’s persistent refusal to standardize technology (a miss most glaring in the $78,000 Chevy Silverado I recently tested that neglected adaptive-cruise control). Adaptive-cruise and blind-spot assist — two essentials on Mrs. Payne’s shopping list — are standard in both the Kia and Mazda for hundreds of dollars less than the Buick.

Some buyers will balk at the Kia’s eccentric styling but not the Mazda, which (despite its lamentable wheel-arch cladding) is one of the most appealing vehicles out there. Then Mazda loads on the value.

An all-wheel-drive CX-30 (with Select trim) equipped with standard adaptive-cruise control, blind-spot assist, automatic windshield wipers and leather seating clocks in at $28,700. My front-wheel-drive Encore GX ST (in comparable Essence trim) started at $29,495 before selecting options that are standard on the CX-30.

Fold down the rear and front passenger seat and the 2020 Buick Encore GX can swallow long items like winter sleds.

Escape to rural roads in the Mazda, finger the paddle shifters in manual mode and it’s a fun box with tight handling and an eager drivetrain. The GX doesn’t even come with paddle shifters.

Reach behind the GX’s steering wheel and you can toggle … not shift paddles, but hidden volume and radio station controls. That’s where Buick makes its play. This is a ute for those who want that old feeling of Buick luxury in a new shell.

Cruise around Metro Detroit and the Buick adroitly soaks up bumps on our oxcart roads. The Mazda wants to squeal the tires; the Buick wants you to hear the sounds of your favorite Sirius XM station.

Cockpit features are familiar to other GM premium products. The infotainment system echoes the Chevy Corvette or Suburban SUV or Cadillac XT4, as did the posh camera mirror in my GX ST tester. There was even self-park assist, particularly useful in an SUV with yuuuge blind spots.

My favorite shared piece is the flat-folding front seat, which I first encountered in the wee Encore back in 2015 when I had knee surgery. If you’ve had leg surgery, you’ll know the difficulty of traveling in anything smaller than a Silverado pickup. But the Encore and Encore GX allow you to fold the front seat flat so I could easily use it as an ottoman from the back seat.

A more common use would be for toboggans that I used to take to Michigan’s snowy hillocks with my kids. GM’s clever engineers have chosen the right side for the 60 percent split in the 60-40 rear seat so it aligns with the front passenger seat — opening a cavernous aisle from rear hatch to front glovebox (with the front and rear seats flattened).

Three long sleds slot in there nicely.

Of course, if you’re heading out in the snow much, you might prefer the all-wheel-drive option of the Encore GX which gets you into even pricier territory, some $5,000 north of the comparably equipped Mazda. That’s the downside. But just the idea of a young family taking the kids to the slopes in a hip Encore GX ST SUV tells you how much this brand has changed in the last few years.

Welcome back from Mars. 2020 is one weird scene, man.

The 2020 Buick Encore GX is the premium brand's latest SUV entry slotted between the smaller Encore and the (slightly) bigger Envision.

2020 Buick Encore GX

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

Price: $25,095, including $995 destination fee ($34,115 front-wheel-drive Essence ST as tested)

Powerplant: 1.2-liter turbo-3 cylinder or 1.3-liter turbo-3

Power: 137 horsepower, 162 pound-feet of torque; 155 horsepower, 174 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 9-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 9.3 seconds (Car and Driver)

Weight: 3,094 pounds as tested

Fuel economy: EPA, 26 mpg city/30 highway/28 combined (1.2-liter); EPA, 26 mpg city/29 highway/28 combined (1.3-liter)

Report card

Highs: Smooth ride, peppy engine; versatile cargo storage

Lows: Tight second row; gets pricey relative to competition

Overall: 3 stars

Debut: Jeep Wrangler 4xe plug-in hybrid promises smooth rock-crawling

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 3, 2020

The long-awaited Jeep Grand Wagoneer SUV is coming back, and that’s not the off-road brand’s only new offering.

The 2021 Jeep Wrangler 4xe plug-in that debuted Thursday is a greener, more-premium version of the brand’s iconic dirt-kicker. Just as the Grand Wagoneer offers a teak-trimmed alternative to gold-plated Range Rovers, the 4xe is aimed at the lifestyles of the rich and adventurous.

The Wrangler 4xe will mate twin electric motors to a 2.0-liter turbo 4-cylinder gasoline engine for a combined 375 horsepower and stump-pulling 470 pound-feet of torque. The system claims about 400 miles of hybrid range with a towing capability of up to 3,500 pounds. The 4xe will get a claimed 25 miles on its 17-kWh battery alone.

Offered only in upscale 4xe, Sahara and Rubicon trims, the Wrangler 4xe will start well north of the standard $29,790 Wrangler. Gas-powered Rubicon and Sahara trims start at about $40,000 and fully loaded models can push $60,000. Expect 4xe models to climb even higher. Prices will be announced as the 4xe comes to market in the US, Europe and China next year.

The 2021 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 4xe pairs a 2.0-liter turbo engine with two electric motors.

Just as Wrangler defines Jeep’s off-road ethic, so will the 4xe wear a green halo. It will lead a Jeep march of 30 electrified vehicles in the next few years as manufacturers strain to meet stringent government emissions mandates. At the premium end of the market where sleek EVs like the Tesla Model Y have gained traction, the 4xe plug-in offers a rugged choice without range anxiety..

Electric Blue will be the 4xe’s signature.

Interior of the 2021 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 4xe includes Electric Blue accent stitching on seats and interior trim.

The unique color will trace Jeep badges as well as the Rubicon name on the hood. Electric Blue Rubicon tow hooks stand out against black bumpers. Inside, Electric Blue stitching highlights seats and trim in the 4xe Rubicon.

The Wrangler 4xe is armed for the Outback with a ladder frame, trail-rated gear, solid front and rear axles, full-time 4×4 two-speed transfer case, articulating suspension and 30 inches of water-fording capability (with the battery sealed under the rear seat to prevent damage).

Buttons left of the steering wheel control three modes of its “E Selec” energy-storage system.

  • eSave: Saves the battery for pure-EV off-roading or in urban areas (like European cities) were gas engines are banned.
  • Electric: The Wrangler operates on battery alone until the powertrain reaches minimum charge or the driver’s heavy right foot requests more torque (such as wide-open throttle) from the gas engine.
  • Hybrid: The default hybrid mode combines the 2.0-liter engine and electric motors.

Jeep promises that treacherous off-road maneuvers will be smoother in eSave mode using the vehicle’s torquey electric motors.

“The Wrangler 4xe offers a more precise off-road driving experience with no traditional transmission torque converter,” said Wrangler engineer Mike Weissich. Translation: The electric motors smoothly apply torque as opposed to a gas engine where the driver has to rev the engine to roll over rocky terrain.

Credit a new motor generator, replacing the conventional generator, that spins the engine for nearly seamless, fuel-saving start-stop operation and generates electricity for the battery pack. A second generator is mounted at the front of the transmission case, replacing the conventional torque converter of an automatic transmission.

Typical of electrified vehicles, the 4xe regenerates the battery when the driver uses the brakes. The blue Wrangler amps up that capability with a “Max Regen” feature which applies more assertive regenerative braking calibration when the vehicle detects the driver’s foot is completely off the throttle.

Whether drivers paying $60,000 for an SUV will want to risk off-road scratches is an open question. But if they just want to use the 25 miles EV range around town, the battery will fully recharge in about 12 hours on a standard household outlet.

Payne: Pocket rocket’s progress, 1984 VW Rabbit GTI vs. 2020 Jetta GLI

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 3, 2020

The modern car is a technological wonder. Quiet, connected and smooth, it’s the rolling equivalent of a soothing, electronic pop song.

But sometimes I get nostalgic for a raspy rocker with a string guitar.

I was reminded of that feeling as I flogged a 1984 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI around the hills of Oakland County this summer. The Rabbit GTI (and its sedan stablemate Jetta GLI) are the 1980s ancestors of the all-new Golf GTI/Jetta GLI — performance versions of the German brand’s entry-level hatchback/sedan.

I had a chance to compare 36 years of progress when I tested a roomy, high-tech 2020 Jetta GLI recently as well. It’s not a hatchback, but the GLI sedan is otherwise the 2020 Golf GTI’s twin making it suitable for this week’s comparo. It shares the Golf GTI’s 228-horsepower engine, chassis and suspension, giving them serious punch over the base 147-horse Jetta/Golf.

The 2020 VW Jetta GLI sports a 2.0-liter turbo-4 with 228 horsepower and a strong 258 pound-feet of torque.

The ’84 Rabbit GTI, of course, was the original pocket rocket, coming to our shores in 1983. The second generation of the car adopted the Golf name in 1986.

The 1984 GTI was the first car I ever owned. It was a hoot. And a revelation.

Taking a compact car and stuffing it with a performance engine, the Rabbit GTI was the automotive equivalent of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It was affordable, seated four — yet could instantly transform into a Tasmanian Devil picking on luxury cars twice its price. The V-dub inspired a revolution of pocket rocket including the Mazda3 Speed, Ford Focus ST and Honda Civic Si.

Getting behind the wheel of the ol’ ’84 with its hot red interior (VW keeps it in its Virginia heritage collection, occasionally letting it off its chain to play with journalists) brought the memories rushing back.

The Rabbit GTI was my post-college daily driver. I flogged it for hours from my Charleston, West Virginia, home to court the future Mrs. Payne in St. Louis. On the odd weekend, I would ring its neck at a local autocross. We bonded.

We even shared some hillbilly DNA, as Rabbit (and sibling Jetta) body stampings were made in Charleston before shipment to Westmoreland, Pennsylvania, for assembly. The Pennsylvania factory — which punched out VWs from 1978-87 — was the first modern foreign “transplant” in the USA, to be followed by Honda and others.

The ’84 GTI still felt relevant. It was the second historic VW I’d driven this year — a 1964 Beetle.

America has gone gaga for trucks and SUVs -but compact cars like the 2020 VW Jetta GLI have kept up - providing interior size that nicely fits four.

But the Bug felt like a museum piece, like an old-fashioned typewriter. For sure, the Rabbit GTI lacked the technological wizardry that makes the Jetta so much more livable today. But I didn’t feel like I’d be blown off the road by a passing Chevy Suburban as I did in the (72 mph top speed) Beetle.

Not that the Rabbit GTI was a Brink’s armored truck.

Tipping the scales at just 2,100 pounds, it is remarkably lighter than its 3,200-pound Jetta GLI and Golf GTI successors. Credit that difference not just to more technology, safety systems and sound insulation, but to simple dimensions. The Jetta GLI wheelbase is 105 inches compared to the 95-inch Rabbit.

Today’s compact cars have gotten fatter, just like its drivers.

I had to stuffed into the Rabbit while the Jetta was a Barcalounger by comparison. But that also means the Rabbit felt whip-quick. Its 90-horsepower 1.8-liter four-banger seems puny by today’s standards, but so does its one-ton weight.

With an intuitive 5-speed manual, the GTI was a treat to drive fast. Adding to the fun was a bratty engine note that rewarded hard driving. The GTI is a VW icon, its square shape and red highlights as recognizable as the Beetle’s bulbous profile and round headlights. I got more than a few thumbs-up from motorheads as I sped around town.

Four decades on, the current Jetta GLI has a more establishment feel.

The 1984 VW Rabbit GTI inspired a wave of pocket rockets including the Honda Civic Si (right).

In addition to its size, Jetta is loaded with safety and tech features that would have seemed out of a sci-fi novel in 1984: blind-spot assist, auto rain-sense wipers, anti-lock brakes, automatic windows, rear camera, automatic headlights, push-button start, heated seats and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity are standard for just $26,890. As is a 10-color, LED ambient lighting system that changes depending on which Drive Mode you’re in (Eco, Normal or Sport).

Yes, the 21st-century car is a marvel of electronic advances. But Jetta GLI is hardly a numbing experience. Ford may have dropped out of the pocket-rocket race when it ditched the Focus, but the Honda Civic Si and Hyundai Veloster N are serious segment challengers. Jetta GLI (and brother GTI) are up to the challenge.

GLI’s 228 horsepower is 150% more than my ol’ Rabbit GTI, more than making up for its increased heft. Power-to-weight ratio in the Jetta is 1:12 compared to Rabbit’s 1:23. Combine that with a whopping 258-pound feet of torque, and the turbocharged, 2.0-liter Jetta GLI flat-out goes.

A limited-slip differential up front assures stability, so I could really keep my foot on this beast out of corners.

Fastest toaster in town. The rear view of the 1984 VW Rabbit GTI includes a loud little tailpipe.

Establishment it may be (check out the conservative black interior), but GLI is true to the GTI’s original mission as a driver’s car. In addition to the expected power, Jetta GLI has a manual transmission option. The shifter is one of the best in the business with its notchy throws. It even adds a sixth gear over the ’84 model, enabling 32 mpg highway compared to the Rabbit’s 26 mpg.

Readers of this column know my preference is for the hot-hatch GTI (just as in 1984) over the GLI sedan — but the GLI’s $1,800 cheaper sticker price can’t be ignored.

When I sold my Rabbit GTI in the early ’90s it was starting to rust along the rocker panels. Modern, galvanized steel steeds like the Jetta are better protected, adding to the GLI’s more robust feel. And yet. …

There was no denying the GTI’s personality. Like a favorite raspy rocker’s soundtrack, the loud GTI left me with a lot of memories.

That’s the challenge of selling modern cars in the electronic age. Jetta GLI has its predecessor’s performance appeal, but will you remember it in 30 years?

The front-wheel-drive, 2020 VW Jetta GLI starts at just over $26 grand and brings a stronger engine and suspension than the base Jetta.

1984 VW Rabbit GTI

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

Price: $8,350 ($21,232 in 2020 dollars, adjusted for inflation)

Powerplant: 1.8-liter, inline 4-cylinder

Power: 90 horsepower, 105 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 5-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 9.7 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 104 mph

Weight: 2,100 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 21 mpg city/26 highway/23 combined

Report card

Highs: Quick handling; bratty exhaust note

Lows: Tight cabin; loud interior

Overall: 3 stars

The 1984 VW Rabbit GTI likes to party on Oakland County's twisty roads.

2020 VW Jetta GLI

Vehicle type: Front-wheel drive, five-passenger, compact sedan

Price: $26,890, including $895 destination charge

Powerplant: 2.0-liter, inline turbo-4

Power: 228 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.8 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 126 mph

Weight: 3,225 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 25 mpg city/32 highway/28 combined

Report card

Highs: Roomy interior; gobs of torque

Lows: Sleepy exterior; lacks personality

Overall: 3 stars

M1 Concourse race track breaks ground on new event center and restaurant

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 2, 2020

Pontiac – M1 Concourse planted the seeds Tuesday to make Pontiac a major auto events destination.

The private car club attracted a who’s-who of Oakland County dignitaries for the ground-breaking of its event center and restaurant. Scheduled to open in September 2021 ahead of M1 Concourse’s inaugural American Festival of Speed auto exposition, the 28,500-square-foot center will contain a ballroom, large events space and two-story restaurant aimed at hosting major events as well as daily patrons. It will offer public access to the facility and its race track.

“We believe this is going to be the new hub of all things automotive,” said M1 CEO Jordan Zoltoff in an interview. “We like to say we’re going to be the Dream Cruise every day.”

He was flanked at the ceremony by Pontiac Mayor Dierdre Waterman, Oakland County Executive David Coulter and Oakland Sheriff Mike Bouchard.

“There are a lot of firsts here in Pontiac right now,” said Waterman, ticking off recent business commitments by Amazon and United Shore mortgage company. “And Pontiac is taking its rightful place as the home of the largest sports enthusiast facility in the world.”

A who's who of Oakland County dignitaries joined M1 CEO Jordan Zlotoff (sixth from left) for the groundbreaking of the M1 Concourse Event Center including Sheriff Mike Bouchard (black mask), Executive David Coulter (fourth from left), and Pontiac Mayor Dierdre Waterman (fifthe from left).

Located at the southeast corner of M1’s 87-acre campus, the event center will have views of the facility’s centerpiece 1.5-mile Champion Motor Speedway. The center will have separate, public entrances distinct from the garages that house M1’s private club members.

M1 is located at the corner of Woodward and South Boulevard, just north of St. Joseph Mercy Oakland Hospital.

The model is similar to high-profile private golf clubs like Oakland Hills and Detroit Golf Club that have played host to major golf tournaments. M1 swaps out the golf course for a race track. The event center is part of the facility’s long-term plan to be a private auto playground as well as a catalyst for change in Pontiac.

“We are breaking ground on something we have dreamed about for four years,” said M1 Concourse member Tom McDonald who drives a Porsche Speedster. He was one of a number of M1 members attending the ground-breaking who were enthusiastic about the facility’s larger commitment to making Pontiac shine.

M1 Concourse's event center will be located at the southeast end of the property with public access off Woodward and South Boulevard.

“M1 is all about the Pontiac community. Pontiac is the next place besides Detroit that is natural for rehabilitation,” said Tim Hartge, CEO of the Pontiac Motorsports Exposition that will run the Festival of Speed. “Woodward Avenue connects them both. There is no reason not to see an a resurgence for both Detroit and Pontiac.”

Zlotoff said that his development team visited other private auto clubs around the country for ideas including Autobahn outside Chicago, Monticello west of New York City, and Spring Mountain in Nevada.

“The big difference between M1 and other motorsports facilities is we’re so close to not only the core metropolitan area, but also all the Motor City automotive activity that occurs here,” said Zlotoff. “We’re really catering to corporate clientele, whether it’s the (big auto companies) or tier one suppliers to do marketing events and VIP experiences.”

Zlotoff emphasized in particular the advantages of offering fine dining in the major metro area.

M1 Concourse garage owner Tom McDonald praised the opening of the facility's Event Center. McDonald said "M1 is a facility for car owners, car lovers, and now the general public."

“We can have on-site dining facility that probably isn’t viable at other tracks just because they don’t have enough people coming through,” he continued. “We believe this is going to be a really desirable place to hang out and socialize.”

The two-story restaurant will be open seven days a week, feature indoor and outdoor patio seating, two full-service bars, and an upper level deck overlooking Champion Motor Speedway’s sweeping Turn 10B.  A sealed cigar lounge is planned. M1 plans to announce a restaurant partner soon.

The event center’s grand opening will dovetail with Hartge’s inaugural American Festival of Speed next September.  Modeled on the Goodwood Festival of Speed in England, M1’s auto-palooza hopes to rival the Detroit Auto Show as Michigan’s premier enthusiast expo with historic cars, point-to-point races, even new car reveals.

M1, located on a former General Motors manufacturing facility, has already attracted national attention.

“My friend Jay Leno called and wanted to film an episode of ‘Jay Leno’s Garage’ in Detroit. I told to come to M1 Concourse. It’s cool,” said Bouchard.

M1 Concourse is home to some of the coolest cars in the Metro area.

In addition to Leno’s show, M1 has played host to public events including cars and coffee car gatherings, open track days, and Roadkill Nights drag races presented by Dodge (the latter was canceled this year due to coronavirus concerns).

Construction of the auto club’s final phase-four garages is already underway just west of the Event Center’s location. Upon its completion next spring, phase four will round out the 253 private garage/condos that are home to M1’s enthusiasts and their toys.

A map released with the event center site plan includes a go-kart track behind the event center.

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

Payne: This is the latest feature car buyers want more than anything

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 2, 2020

Car buyers want dashboard cameras on their next new vehicle more than any other feature, even though only a couple of automakers have started to offer them.

In an age when cellphones and doorbell cameras are nearly ubiquitous, about 70% of car buyers in AutoPacific’s annual Future Attribute Demand Study say an on-dash video camera is a must-have for recording on-road incidents — or just keeping watch over their parked cars.

While aftermarket dash cams are available starting at about $100, Silicon Valley-based luxury automaker Tesla Inc. is the only manufacturer that builds them standard into their vehicles. Cadillac is rolling out its Surround Vision Recorder as a feature on its CT5, XT4, XT5, XT6 and coming 2021 Escalade. A Performance Data Recorder is ready for duty on upper trims of the Chevy Corvette and Camaro.

Dashboard cameras like those standard on Teslas record what's going on around the car and can be played back later.

I’ve been using my Tesla Model 3’s Dashcam system on the road … and when I’m away from the car.

In typical Tesla style, the Dashcam software was released as part of a model-wide over-the-air system update nearly two years ago. The software allows the cameras in Tesla’s Autopilot system to capture video on a USB drive. Incremental upgrades followed with a significant update this year allowing owners to view video footage on the big 15-inch console screen.

Sentry Mode on Teslas records video of anyone trying to break into the car.

“Features that promote safety, whether through improved driver visibility or collision avoidance, have been trending upward in AutoPacific’s Future Attribute Demand research for the past few years,” said Deborah Grieb, a research analyst for the automotive marketing research and product-consulting firm.

Comfort and convenience items have traditionally topped the list, and five years ago the top two choices were power driver’s seats and heated seats.

This year, safety features like dash cams and air bags surged to the top of the list with convenience features such as head-up display and over-the-air software updates just behind.

“Consumers have experienced an influx of personal video in social and news media in recent years and are very familiar with the potential security benefits of camera footage,” Grieb said. “It’s really not surprising to see such high interest in an in-vehicle recording device.”

Dashcam uses four of my Model 3’s eight navigation cameras — front, rear and both sides — to monitor surroundings. With flash drive inserted, Dashcam will automatically turn on when I enter the car, its camera avatar glowing red at the top right of the console screen.

I have not been in any accidents, so I have no horrific video to share. But Tesla Dashcam videos of various incidents are popular on the web, drawing hundreds of thousands of views.

If desired, you can replay your recent journeys, the four cameras capturing multiple views. Did you see that sky-blue Chevy Bel Air ahead of me on Woodward? The Mustang I out-dragged at a stoplight? Want to see what it’s like to hustle through the twisted roads of Hell, Michigan?

Dashcam will record your every move for 60 minutes and then begin again, writing over previously footage.

The horn can be programmed to save the last 10 minutes of video. Which is logical, since hitting the horn usually means trouble or imminent contact. Honk! Incident saved to show the officer it wasn’t your fault.

Or in the event you’ve witnessed something, tap the camera icon to save the clip.

For now, the main competition in dash cams is in the aftermarket. For $100-$400 (before installation), you can get some seriously capable dash cams from companies like Garmin, Blackvue and Vantrue that offer widescreen video and voice commands, and can be accessed via your mobile phone.

Dashboard cameras were a $3 billion industry in 2019, according to Grand View Research in San Francisco, with expected strong growth in North America over the next decade.

Tesla’s operator’s manual is in the screen (like everything else in this space-age car), so it’s easy to follow the detailed setup instructions.

When I’m away from the car, I put the Tesla into Sentry Mode, which keeps an eye on things when I can’t. Unlike a doorbell camera, Tesla’s Sentry Mode doesn’t allow video footage to be viewed remotely via phone app. Videos can be watched later on the console screen, or by transferring them to a computer with a flash drive.

I particularly like using Sentry Mode in tight parking places, should someone open their door on me.

Sentry Mode operates in three escalating states.

  • Standby: In its default state, Sentry Mode constantly monitors the area surrounding my Model 3 for possible security threats.
  • Alert: If Sentry Mode detects a threat — say, someone leaning on the vehicle or trying its door handle — Sentry Mode switches to the Alert state. Headlights flash and a big red digital eyeball appears on the center screen with the word “RECORDING” next to it to alert passersby.
  •  Alarm: An intrusive action such as someone breaking a window triggers Sentry Mode’s Alarm state. A security alarm activates and the audio system makes a loud sound. And at this point Sentry mode does engage your mobile phone, sending an alert to let you know there’s trouble. Tesla says the alarm will sound for 30 seconds.

Fortunately, Sentry Mode hasn’t had cause to disturb me.

But the videos it takes are interesting viewing when I return to the car. By touching the Dashcam icon and selecting “Launch Viewer,” I can watch footage of activity around my car from each of the four cameras. I can pause and rewind.

Tesla’s Dashcam is on the cutting edge of consumer tastes. And the best part is, no assembly required.

Corvette engineering all-stars give a jolt to GM’s broader EV efforts

Posted by Talbot Payne on August 28, 2020

General Motors is moving its Corvette engineering all-stars into its autonomous and electric vehicle programs, a move intended to give a jolt to the automaker’s commitment to an all-electric future.

The move is more than a shuffling of corporate chairs.

Headed by Tadge Juechter, the Corvette squad employs some of the company’s top engineering talent. In particular, the team knows how to push the envelope of vehicle performance — a capability GM is determined to bring to its fast-growing electric portfolio.

Tadge Juechter heads GM's Corvette engineering team, which is moving to the electric-vehicle program of the automaker.

“GM is committed to a zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion future,” Juechter, who is executive chief engineer for Global Corvette, said in an exclusive interview. “But we are also committed to vehicles that give a transportation experience. How do you make EVs a joyful experience when you remove the internal combustion engine and transmission options? We will work to bring that passion into the EV space.”

GM’s automotive product development is essentially housed under two umbrellas: Global Products Programs include internal combustion-engine vehicle lines from trucks to cars as well as engines and transmissions; that’s where the Corvette team has operated. Then there’s Autonomous and Electric Vehicle Programs which oversee development of EVs in brands as diverse as Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC; that’s where the Corvette team is headed.

While not divulging future products, Juechter said his team will look to influence a new breed of performance electric stallions across GM’s portfolio. The automaker has already touted the capabilities of forthcoming products like the electric GMC Hummer which promises neck-snapping zero-60 mph acceleration in 3 seconds.

Juecheter hinted there’s more like that to come.

“We want to develop bespoke BEVs (battery-electric vehicles) that are a companion car to the Corvette in the garage,” said Juechter. “People have asked us questions like: ‘Why don’t you make a Corvette SUV?’ We want to create interesting BEVs that have a lot of driving cred.”

Juechter was quick to point out that the move will not compromise his team’s commitment to the fire-breathing mid-engine Corvette C8 introduced this year to rave reviews.

“Is this the end of V-8s for us? No,” said Juechter. “The V-8 powertrain plan for the Corvette will remain in its entirety.”

The 2020 C8 is the first Corvette to put the engine behind the driver, giving it performance on par with European supercars costing four times as much. In addition to the base 495-horsepower, 6.2-liter V8-powered Corvette, The News has previously reported that higher trims will get Corvette’s first overhead-cam V-8 — a high-revving 5.5-liter engine that motivates the Corvette C8.R race car

The News has also reported that the C8 will be electrified. A top-trim Zora model is expected mid-decade with an electric motor up front mated to a twin-turbo version of the 5.5-liter engine to create a combined 1,000 horsepower.

Juechter would not confirm any future Corvette models, but the team’s move is sure to fuel rumors of an all-electric Corvette. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden caused a stir earlier this month when he said he’s been told of a coming Corvette EV.

Juechter says that he has evolved into an electric believer.

“I have become more enamored with electrification over time,” he said. “Much of my life has been devoted to internal combustion engines. But the evolution to electric vehicles has to happen. You can either stand by or be a part of it. There are impressive things being done with electrification, and I am a passionate believer in the environment.”

There will be a a lot of automotive passion on the Autonomous and Electric Vehicle team.

Juechter will be reunited with Ken Morris, who recently left as Global Products Program boss to head Autonomous and Electric. The two motorheads have bonded before on vehicle development. Morris has been known to join the engineering wizards at GM’s Milford Proving Grounds to test their high-performance monsters.

“I’m excited to be putting the team that redefined supercar performance, design and attainability in key roles to help us integrate and execute our EVs to those same high standards,” Morris said in a statement.

Corvette until now was largely in its own silo (along with Camaro) on the internal-combustion side of the business. “Corvette shared the least with the rest of the portfolio,” Juechter said.

His group is expected to have a greater influence over the battery-electric side. As evidence is the promotion of one of Juechter’s top Corvette engineers, Ed Piatek, to a new role as chief engineer of future EV products. Corvette Chief Program Engineer Josh Holder will fill Piatek’s shoes as chief engineer for Global Corvette.

“We have to think long-term,” said Juechter. “What can I do to help the environment, but not lose the thrill of driving?”

Payne: Volvo’s Polestar 2 is the conservative Tesla Model 3

Posted by Talbot Payne on August 28, 2020

Coming to a dealership near you: “Spawn of Tesla.”

America’s best-selling luxury electric automaker has inspired a wave of competitors from legacy rivals. The Ford Mustang Mach-E has its sights set on the Tesla Model Y. The Jaguar iPace targets the Model S. The Audi eTron takes on the Model X.

And now, the best-selling Model 3 finally has its first direct competitor, the Polestar 2.

But where Tesla tore up the rulebook on how to make an all-electric car, Polestar parent Volvo hopes to attract customers with more familiar features.

Hatchback utility. The 2021 Polestar 2 has the same platform as the Volvo XC40 — and its hatchback cargo space.

Flogging the Models 2 and 3 across the twisties of Hell, Michigan, I marveled at how Tesla has transformed green-car expectations over early market entries like the Nissan Leaf. Tree huggers? These athletes are road huggers. Like the Model 3, the Polestar 2 has nearly 80 kWh of battery in its belly and loves to attack apexes. Hustling along two-lane North Territorial Road in the Polestar, I encountered a sleepy Audi A7.

Mash throttle. Zot! I was by him on a wave of electric torque.

Polestar may be an electric startup, but it sprung from the bosom of a 93-year-old Swedish car company — not a mad genius entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. Legacy breeds conservatism.

The interior of the 2021 Polestar 2 is roomy, spare — but with a familiar layout of instrument display, center console screen and shifter.

The Model 3 shocked us with a spare cockpit anchored by a single 15-inch screen. All controls are in the screen, save two multi-purpose buttons on the steering wheel. Open the glovebox? It’s in the screen. Windshield wipers? In the screen.

Polestar 2, by contrast, modernizes Volvo’s familiar cockpit with a vertical, 12-inch screen. Adaptive cruise-control is controlled via traditional buttons on the steering wheel. An instrument display is behind it. The glove box is opened with a button. The wipers are operated by a stalk.

Given its more conservative nature, I doubt Polestar will sway the Tesla cult. Compared to hyper-growth Tesla, Polestar is suitably modest with its early sales projections. But it foretells a future of Tesla-like luxury vehicles.

Tesla is to cars what Apple was to smartphones. Its big screen revolutionized interiors. Its operating system set a new bar for electronics.

The 2021 Polestar 2 can be charged on common CCS charging systems.

Think of Polestar as Android OS to Tesla’s Apple. Indeed, Android is at the heart of the Polestar experience.

Tesla follows Apple’s vertically integrated business model from battery production to its own operating system. Polestar is horizontal, contracting batteries to LG Chem and operating system to Android.

Polestar is the first to use Android OS in a car. Forget screen-mirroring your phone with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Polestar’s Android system is the real deal — a smartphone on wheels like Tesla.

“Hey, Google,” I barked at the car, just as I would my Android phone. The big screen awoke; familiar, multi-color Google bubbles awaited my command.

“Navigate to Hell, Michigan.”

The screen immediately plotted a course for Hell’s playground (from my Ypsilanti starting point). Android voice-recognition and ease-of-use put parent Volvo’s in-house OS (I recently used in a Volvo S60) to shame.

The Polestar 2 will naturally attract Volvo customers with its familiar Thor’s-hammer headlights, crisp styling and safety systems. They will also appreciate its hatchback – opening more useful cargo space than the Model 3’s standard trunk (the Polestar shares a platform with the Volvo VC40 SUV). And they will be impressed by the Android system – a big leap over Volvo’s fussy system.

The 2021 Polestar 2 uses its big screen for a nifty overhead camera view.

The revelation extends to the digital, configurable instrument display which takes a page from Audi’s playbook by duplicating your map route in the instrument display as well as console screen. Some Tesla buyers will prefer it to glancing sideways at a center screen.

But, to my surprise, the Android system otherwise mimics Tesla. Take AM radio, for example.

Tesla doesn’t have it. Why? I’ve never received a straight answer. “Because AM is so 15 minutes ago. No one uses it in California,” a Teslaphile once told me. Really?

Leave it to Polestar engineers to explain. Electric motors interfere with the AM signal, one told to me, because they have similar frequencies. So Polestar doesn’t offer AM either. Over time (like my Model 3) digital options should become available.

As will Sirius XM, another feature Polestar — and Tesla — don’t offer. Both EVs, however, do offer Spotify, and it’s slick.

“Play U2,” I said to my friendly Google Assistant.

A list of U2 songs populated the screen.

Not as friendly is Polestar 2’s range, where it runs head-on into Tesla’s secret sauce: charging infrastructure.

My Polestar returned 73% of expected battery range (73 miles on the road took 100 miles off the battery) in my spirited outing to Hell and back. My Model 3 has returned similar numbers. But the Tesla’s mighty 80-kWh battery boasts 325 miles of range versus Volvo’s expected 270 (when EPA finalizes numbers next month).

That matters when traveling to, say, Traverse City, 250 miles from Ypsi.

“Navigate to Traverse City,” I barked.

“Out of battery range,” replied Google, noting I had just 100 miles of battery range left. “Add a charging stop.”

The first available stop was, um, a slow, 240-volt ChargePoint station. The map even put the word “Slow” next to it. I’m not making this up.

As with other key components, Polestar relies on third parties for charging. Companies like ChargePoint, EVGo and Electrify America. Which means you’ll need to research on your own whether you can get to Traverse City. Ask Tesla how to navigate there and it’ll map your course, including at which 150-kW fast-chargers to stop.

Polestar depends on Electrify America for fast-charging (like every other EV-maker not named Tesla) — and they haven’t a single supercharger north of Lansing. Tesla has eight.

Translation: Polestar owners will take their Volvo XC90 SUV up north. The Polestar 2 is a city vehicle.

The steering wheel of the 2021 Polestar 2 will be familiar to Volvo drivers — despite that new Polestar logo.

Polestar is also conservative when it comes to self-driving. For an extra $8,000, Tesla offers you the world’s best autonomous capability. Automatic lane changes. Hands-free driving. Stoplight recognition (really, it just arrived in the latest over-the-air update). Polestar is content to give you Volvo’s adaptive cruise-control.

For many drivers that is enough. They don’t want to be a part of Elon Musk’s beta experiments.

Unlike Tesla’s mad rush to world domination (it was America’s best-selling luxury car last year), Polestar is starting as conservative as its styling. The 2 is offered as a top-trim, all-wheel drive model at $61,200 — add $5,000 for the Performance option like my $66,200 tester.

That’s about $5,000 more expensive than an equivalent Model 3 Performance model. The good news: New spawn Polestar still qualifies for a $7,500 federal tax credit.

Old meets new. A century after the gas-engine Ford Model T, left, defeated battery-powered cars, the 2021 Polestar 2 hopes to turn the tables and usher in a new EV revolution.

2021 Polestar 2

Vehicle type: All-wheel drive, five-passenger electric hatchback

Price: $61,200, including $1,300 destination fee ($66,200 Performance model as tested)

Powerplant: 78-kWh lithium-ion battery pack mated to dual electric motors

Power: 408 horsepower, 487 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Single-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.5 seconds (Performance model as tested); top speed, 125 mph

Weight: 4,680 pounds

Range: EPA number pending. Estimated: 270 miles (as tested: 73 miles traveled took 100 miles off the battery)

Report card

Highs: Familiar Android OS; hatchback

Lows: Conservative styling; lacks Tesla charger network

Overall: 3 stars

Chevy offers first glimpse of its Bolt EUV due next summer

Posted by Talbot Payne on August 26, 2020

As General Motors revs up its electric vehicles offensive with high-priced, high-style vehicles like the Cadillac Lyriq and GMC Hummer EV, it’s not forgetting about cheaper entries.

The $37,495 Chevy Bolt EV hatchback will get a refresh next year – and a bigger SUV brother, the Bolt EUV.

GM released a teaser photo of its Bolt EUV, due next summer.

Chevy teased the two vehicles in a video Wednesday showing subtle changes in the EUV’s belt and roofline as it morphed from the familiar Bolt EV profile. The EUV loses the Bolt EV’s big A-pillar quarter window, while gaining a more dramatic “floating roof” at the C-pillar.

In addition to its bigger proportions, the Bolt EUV will be the first Chevrolet equipped with Super Cruise, GM’s cutting-edge self-driving technology first introduced in the Cadillac CT6. GM plans 22 vehicles with Super Cruise by 2023, including 10 by next year.

Both Bolts will go into production in summer 2021 as 2022 models.

Based on the same platform as the Bolt EV (which was introduced in 2017), the EUV and Bolt EV will not have GM’s latest, BEV3 platform that under-girds the Lyriq and Hummer. That platform features the 300-plus mile range Ultium battery.

But the EUV may exceed the Bolt EV’s 259 miles of range if it uses its longer size to stuff in more battery. Motor Trend reports that the EUV wheelbase is stretched 3 inches for more interior space and 5-6 inches overall.

Expect the EUV to be front-wheel-drive like the Bolt EV. And expect a starting price in the low-$40,000 range as Bolt EUV competes agianst other mid-price entries like the Telsa Model Y and Ford Mustang Mach E.

Both Bolts will be built at the Orion Assembly plant.

Hold on: GM built a Cadillac that can go 200 mph

Posted by Talbot Payne on August 26, 2020

The subcompact Cadillac CT4 and compact CT5 may have gone down market compared to the, respectively, compact ATS and mid-size CTS they replace. But their performance variants promise to be just as potent.

Cadillac announced the top-shelf CT4-V Blackwing and CT5-V Blackwing models last spring, and teased further details of the track-focused monsters this week.

The 2022 Cadillac CT5-V Blackwing and CT4-V Blackwing will feature a performance steering wheel meticulously crafted with leather and cut-and-sewn stitching, a 12 o’clock red racing stripe, carbon fiber trim and a V-Series emblem. Pre-production steering wheel shown. Actual production steering wheel may vary.

Both cars will get the same carbon fiber-trimmed, sport steering wheel and V-mode performance capability. But the big headliner is the CT5-V Blackwing will get the same, 200 mph, manual-transmission capability as the outgoing CTS-V, one of the most ferocious sedans ever to hit the market.

The 200-mph figure — barely visible in a teaser photo’s instrument display — signals that the CT5-V Blackwing will come with the same, supercharged, 640-horsepower, 6.2-liter V-8 at the heart of the retired CTS-V. That 200 mph engine was also found in the last-generation, front-engine Corvette C7.

That’s good news for General Motors Co. performance fans who miss the stick shift option in the new, mid-engine Corvette C8. For the first time, Corvette has eschewed the manual in favor of a quick-shifting, dual-clutch automatic transmission.

Spy videos reported by Car and Driver have shown the Blackwings testing with similar, powerful V-8 and twin-turbo V-6 engines from the outgoing CTS-V and ATS-V. The CT4-V Blackwing version will likely get the same 464 horse, 3.6-liter twin-turbo V-6 as the ATS-V it replaces.

GM VP for Global Product Ken Morris drove the blue CT4 performance variant around Belle Isle in 2019. In production trim, the car will be called the CT4-V Blackwing.

At a surprise, on-track appearance at the 2019 Detroit Grand Prix — with GM President Mark Reuss and Global Product Vice President Ken Morris at the wheel — media onlookers noted the familiar V-8 and V-6 exhaust notes from the two fully-camouflaged cars.

Don’t be fooled by the Backwing badge.

Neither Blackwing model is expected to carry the fabled, 550-horse, twin-turbo, 4.2-liter Blackwing V-8 engine in its belly. The mill, the most advanced gas engine built by Cadillac, had a short life span in the now-defunct Cadillac CT6-V. Cadillac has since signaled that its future is electric and has devoted more resources to battery-powered drive-trains.

The Blackwing name lives on as representative of Cadillac’s pinnacle of performance.

In addition to the 200 mph Easter egg, the teaser pic reveals that the Caddies will gain state-of-the-art electronics shared with the Corvette C8. A Performance Traction Management system is located on the right of the steering wheel — and a V-mode button (which can instantly transform the car from cruiser to street hot rod) is visible on the lower left.

The CT4-V and CT5-V Blackwings will be slotted above the middle-trim, V-series models. The Blackwings are aimed at Europe’s iconic BMW M, Mercedes AMG, and Audi RS Dobermans.

The mid-trim V-series models have debuted this year to warm reviews for their state-of-the-art aerodynamics and chassis tuning. The Blackwings promise to add to the formula with meatier engines will likely drive their sticker prices $30,000 north of the standard sedan models.

The Cadillac CT5-V Blackwing will likely carry a 650-horse, 6.2-liter V-8 in its belly - a carryover from the Caddy CTS-V.

The standard, rear-wheel-drive CT4 starts at $33,990— well below the similarly-sized $36,490, compact ATS that it replaces — as it has moved down a segment to compete against the likes of the subcompact BMW 2-series and Audi A3. The mid-level $45,490 CT4-V makes 325 horsepower.

The CT5, currently available for sale, follows a similar path as its CT4 sibling with a starting price at $37,890 — well below the $47,990 of the CTS it replaces. The Blackwing will be priced above the $48,690 CT5-V which debuted last spring.

The mid-size CTS-V that the CT5-V Blackwing replaces started at $88,990 and could top out at over $100k as it competed against the mid-size BMW M5. Expect that price to drop as the Blackwing lines up against the compact-sized, $70,000 BMW M3.

The Blackwing athletes are due to hit dealer showrooms next summer.

Penske ahead of Indy 500: ‘We have found a way to keep moving forward’

Posted by Talbot Payne on August 22, 2020

When the green flag falls on the Indianapolis 500 this Sunday, it will mark the zenith of Roger Penske’s extraordinary racing career.

The Bloomfield Hills-based businessman and motorsports icon fell in love with America’s greatest race when his father took him to the track as a 14-year-old. Now 83, Penske will not only be looking to add to his record 18 Indy 500 wins as a team boss — he will be doing it as owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar series.

Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet, celebrates with team owner Roger Penske and his crew in victory lane of the 2019 Indy 500. The win was Penske's 18th as a car owner.

Penske has hardly had time to celebrate his trifecta.

The historic coronavirus epidemic threw a monkey wrench into the IndyCar series schedule. It has shut down racing for weeks and forced a rework of the schedule — including the Indy 500 that was moved to this weekend’s Aug. 23 date from its traditional Memorial Day.

“I think 2020 has been an incredibly difficult year for everyone,” said “The Captain,” as he is affectionately called, in an interview this week ahead of the big race. “Certainly, no one could have envisioned the challenges we have all faced this year. But the most important thing is we have found a way to keep moving forward.”

That relentlessly positive attitude has propelled Penske to a successful business career that includes not just the Indy jewels, but a sprawling empire that spans car dealerships, truck rentals, race engine manufacturing and supply chain management services.

Team Penske's racing operation in North Carolina.

At Penske Corp.’s heart, however, is a passion for racing. A passion seeded as a young teen growing up in Shaker Heights on the east side of Cleveland.

“My love for racing really began at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when my father took me to see my first Indianapolis 500 in 1951,” Penske said. “Since then, it was always a goal of mine to return to race at Indianapolis and, of course, competing at the Indianapolis 500 was the pinnacle of racing — and it still is.”

He was an amateur Sports Car Club of America racer in the early 1960s. Quick in sports cars, he earned Driver of the Year honors in 1961 and caught the eye of pro series like Formula One and NASCAR. He was even offered a rookie test at Indianapolis, but turned it down because he couldn’t get time off from his Alcoa day job — another rookie named Mario Andretti took his place instead.

Penske’s sights were set on business ownership.

“When I first began racing I really just enjoyed the competition and the challenge. … But once I got an opportunity in the automotive business through a Chevrolet dealership in Philadelphia, I knew that was going to require so much of my focus,” he said. “I made the decision to retire as a race car driver in 1965 to build the business.”

He also built a racing team, starting in 1966. The two enterprises became inseparable as the years went by, the racing providing his businesses a halo marketing profile while also reinforcing good business practices.

Mark Donohue won the first of Roger Penske's 18 Indy 500 victories in 1972.

“Racing continues to be the common thread that runs throughout our business. Our success on the track — especially at the Indianapolis 500 — has really helped build awareness of our brand,” he said. “But beyond that, the lessons we have learned and the philosophies that have brought us success in racing have been directly applied to all areas of our business: teamwork, technology, perseverance and focus.”

A key partner is his early team endeavors was Mark Donohue — nickname, Captain Nice — a rare racing talent who also was a skilled engineer. Their success began in sports cars, then Trans Am Camaros — an SCCA class that Team Penske would dominate in the late 1960s. But their eyes were set on bigger fish.

“The Indianapolis 500 was the pinnacle of racing. We worked with our sponsors to put together a program for the 1969 Indianapolis 500 with Mark,” remembers Penske. Success was immediate.

Donohue finished seventh, winning Indy 500 Rookie of the Year honors. Just three years later, he stood atop the podium — the first of Penske’s 18 Indy wins. Penske started racing in NASCAR and the globetrotting Formula One series in the mid-1970s, an endeavor that cost Donohue his life in a tragic 1975 accident.

The Captain’s biggest successes have come at Indy. His parking spot in the paddock is #18 — in honor of the number of times he has won the 500.His winning drivers are a who’s who of Indy legends — Rick Mears (four-time winner), Al Unser, Al Unser Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi, Helio Castroneves (three-time winner).

Rick Mears won four Indy 500s for Team Penske. Here he enjoys the Borg-Warner trophy in 1984.

Associates who have worked for him describe a kind, driven entrepreneur with a keen eye for detail. He knows names and family details of team members right down to workers on shop floors. He attends every IndyCar race and serves as a driver race strategy manager.

The racers worship him.

“I’m very proud to know Roger, quite frankly. I think he’s a monument of racing — a monument of business in general,” Frenchman and 2019 Indy 500 winner Simon Pagenaud said. “I want to make him proud by winning. Frankly, I would like to be the driver to win his first Indy 500 as an owner of the speedway.”

Penske’s influence transcends his team. His efficient management style — even his white shirt and slacks dress code — is emulated up and down pit row.

“In the paddock, no one is more respected,” said former Car and Driver executive editor Steven Cole Smith, who covers motor racing for Autoweek and Grassroots Motorsports. “But interestingly, those who work for him don’t call him Mr. Penske. They call him Roger.”

The Indy 500 has changed dramatically over the years. Speeds have climbed from an average lap speed of 150 mph in the 1960s to over 230 mph this year. Yet perhaps nothing has altered the sport as dramatically as the coronavirus epidemic.

Will Power is one of four drivers entered for Team Penske Chevrolet in the 2020 Indy 500.

The racing world heralded a bold new era with Penske’s purchase of the Indy 500 and IndyCar from the Hulman family late last year. But the new boss couldn’t have had an inkling of what was to come.

The pandemic crippled the early 2020 racing season. May races at Indy and Detroit fell in quick succession, with the season not getting underway until June. The Indy 500 was rescheduled until late August, which seemed a safe bet at the time.

The season gained momentum as Wisconsin’s Elkhart Lake road course welcomed the return of thousands of fans to motorsport in July.

But a surge in national cases panicked officials, leading to the postponement of IndyCar’s Mid-Ohio race until October. Bad news for Sunday’s 500 inevitably followed: no spectators would be allowed for the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

Penske reacted with his trademark optimism: “The most important thing is we have found a way to keep moving forward. I am proud of what we have been able to accomplish together, and while this year’s Indianapolis 500 will certainly be different without fans in attendance, we are looking forward to putting on a great show for everyone watching on NBC.”

Says Cole Smith: “There is no better steward to pull IndyCar and IMS through this pandemic.”

Dealing with fast-changing health conditions hasn’t been Penske’s only Indy 500 challenge. As a team owner, he has watched his Chevy-powered team uncharacteristically struggle in qualifying.

Helio Castroneves is chasing his fourth Indy 500 win for Team Penske Chevrolet in 2020.

His Fab Four of drivers — Pagenaud, Castroneves, reigning IndyCar champ Josef Newgarden, and Will Power — were frozen out of the top three rows of qualifying last weekend. It’s the first time that’s happened since 2002. Instead, Penske’s Honda-powered rivals dominated qualifying, with Newgarden the first Penske car on the 33-car grid in 13th.

But The Captain is not one to dwell on the past. Of past Indy winners, he confesses no single favorite. All carry special moments, he says.

His focus now is on Sunday, the next race. The next challenge.

“To me, I am always looking forward,” he said. “While I am so proud of all we have accomplished at Indianapolis, I am focused on our next opportunity to win there and that will come for us this Sunday.”

Hold on: GM built a Cadillac that can go 200 mph

Posted by Talbot Payne on August 21, 2020

The subcompact Cadillac CT4 and compact CT5 may have gone down market compared to the, respectively, compact ATS and mid-size CTS they replace. But their performance variants promise to be just as potent.

Cadillac announced the top-shelf CT4-V Blackwing and CT5-V Blackwing models last spring, and teased further details of the track-focused monsters this week.

The 2022 Cadillac CT5-V Blackwing and CT4-V Blackwing will feature a performance steering wheel meticulously crafted with leather and cut-and-sewn stitching, a 12 o’clock red racing stripe, carbon fiber trim and a V-Series emblem. Pre-production steering wheel shown. Actual production steering wheel may vary.

Both cars will get the same carbon fiber-trimmed, sport steering wheel and V-mode performance capability. But the big headliner is the CT5-V Blackwing will get the same, 200 mph, manual-transmission capability as the outgoing CTS-V, one of the most ferocious sedans ever to hit the market.

The 200-mph figure — barely visible in a teaser photo’s instrument display — signals that the CT5-V Blackwing will come with the same, supercharged, 640-horsepower, 6.2-liter V-8 at the heart of the retired CTS-V. That 200 mph engine was also found in the last-generation, front-engine Corvette C7.

That’s good news for General Motors Co. performance fans who miss the stick shift option in the new, mid-engine Corvette C8. For the first time, Corvette has eschewed the manual in favor of a quick-shifting, dual-clutch automatic transmission.

Spy videos reported by Car and Driver have shown the Blackwings testing with similar, powerful V-8 and twin-turbo V-6 engines from the outgoing CTS-V and ATS-V. The CT4-V Blackwing version will likely get the same 464 horse, 3.6-liter twin-turbo V-6 as the ATS-V it replaces.

GM VP for Global Product Ken Morris drove the blue CT4 performance variant around Belle Isle in 2019. In production trim, the car will be called the CT4-V Blackwing.

At a surprise, on-track appearance at the 2019 Detroit Grand Prix — with GM President Mark Reuss and Global Product Vice President Ken Morris at the wheel — media onlookers noted the familiar V-8 and V-6 exhaust notes from the two fully-camouflaged cars.

Don’t be fooled by the Backwing badge.

Neither Blackwing model is expected to carry the fabled, 550-horse, twin-turbo, 4.2-liter Blackwing V-8 engine in its belly. The mill, the most advanced gas engine built by Cadillac, had a short life span in the now-defunct Cadillac CT6-V. Cadillac has since signaled that its future is electric and has devoted more resources to battery-powered drive-trains.

The Blackwing name lives on as representative of Cadillac’s pinnacle of performance.

In addition to the 200 mph Easter egg, the teaser pic reveals that the Caddies will gain state-of-the-art electronics shared with the Corvette C8. A Performance Traction Management system is located on the right of the steering wheel — and a V-mode button (which can instantly transform the car from cruiser to street hot rod) is visible on the lower left.

The CT4-V and CT5-V Blackwings will be slotted above the middle-trim, V-series models. The Blackwings are aimed at Europe’s iconic BMW M, Mercedes AMG, and Audi RS Dobermans.

The mid-trim V-series models have debuted this year to warm reviews for their state-of-the-art aerodynamics and chassis tuning. The Blackwings promise to add to the formula with meatier engines will likely drive their sticker prices $30,000 north of the standard sedan models.

The Cadillac CT5-V Blackwing will likely carry a 650-horse, 6.2-liter V-8 in its belly - a carryover from the Caddy CTS-V.

The standard, rear-wheel-drive CT4 starts at $33,990— well below the similarly-sized $36,490, compact ATS that it replaces — as it has moved down a segment to compete against the likes of the subcompact BMW 2-series and Audi A3. The mid-level $45,490 CT4-V makes 325 horsepower.

The CT5, currently available for sale, follows a similar path as its CT4 sibling with a starting price at $37,890 — well below the $47,990 of the CTS it replaces. The Blackwing will be priced above the $48,690 CT5-V which debuted last spring.

The mid-size CTS-V that the CT5-V Blackwing replaces started at $88,990 and could top out at over $100k as it competed against the mid-size BMW M5. Expect that price to drop as the Blackwing lines up against the compact-sized, $70,000 BMW M3.

The Blackwing athletes are due to hit dealer showrooms next summer.

Payne: Chevy Suburban takes the school bus to another level

Posted by Talbot Payne on August 21, 2020

All-new for 2021, the Chevy Suburban is the longer version of its twin, the three-row Tahoe. Built on the Silverado truck chassis, the family Suburban has a more refined interior and ride than the pickup.

In the 19th century, huge elephants would kneel to pick up Indian maharajas. These royals would ride atop their steeds in gem-flecked carriages called howdahs, decorated with gemstones. In 21st-century America we don’t have royalty.

But we have howdah-carrying elephants.They’re called Chevy Suburbans.

I picked up Mrs. Payne for a night out this summer in Chevy’s all-new 2021 model. When we arrived at the Clarkston Union Bar & Kitchen, the elephant — er, Suburban — dropped 2 inches to allow for easier egress for my 5’5” wife.

Thank an all-new air suspension, part of a comprehensive remake of one of the bowtie brand’s most beloved vehicles.

The driver's side quarter dash panel of the 2021 Chevy Suburban has multiple buttons to control 4-wheel drive, electric outlets, lights and more.

The Suburban is the stretched version of the Tahoe, the Brobdingnagian mega-utes based on the same truck platform as the mega-selling Chevy Silverado. Sister brand GMC has its own version called the Yukon, while crosstown rival Ford puts its Expedition atop the Ford F-150 platform. Like the full-size pickup market, truck-based SUVs are dominated by Detroit automakers with Suburbans, Tahoes and Expeditions ruling the road like, well, elephants.

But for 2021, the Tahoe and Suburban have taken significant steps to separate themselves from their truck kin. Silverado and Suburban badges have always suggested a difference between ranch workhorse and family transport, but now it’s more than just a name, third-row seats and a hatch.

For the first time ever, Tahoe and Suburban get more upscale independent rear suspension and unique interiors. I’ve yet to drive the Tahoe, so I’ll focus on my Suburban Z71 tester.

I am already a fan of the new Silverado, the lightest truck in class thanks to a 400-pound diet over the last generation due to shrewd multi-metal chassis engineering. Suburban inherits this chassis, then adds car-like independent rear suspension making it a joy to drive.

The second row of the 2021 Chevy Suburban gets a palatial view with the sunroof.

The smoother road ride over Metro Detroit’s ox-cart roads is welcome — but the SUV’s light weight (Suburban saves 300 pounds over the last gen) still means it’s fun to drive on-road. Pity my poor third-row passengers.

This thing is an ocean-liner, stretched another four inches over its predecessor. Second-row seats not only gain 10 inches of legroom, but the captain’s chairs slide, allowing for easy third-row seat access. The rug rats are waaay back in coach now.

Curled up in their seats, headphones on, playing their video games, they deserve a warning when dad decides to have fun in the twisties. Might I suggest an intercom system like an ocean liner?

Attention passengers: the captain is about to have a little fun.

An intercom system (I’m not kidding, actually — the Kia Telluride has one and it’s a lot shorter than the Suburban) is one of the few things missing from this technological tour de force. The other is adaptive cruise control, which GM has been notoriously reticent in offering in vehicles from the Chevy Traverse to the Corvette. ACC comes standard on my wife’s $21,395, all-wheel-drive Subaru Impreza hatchback for goodness sake. And on one of my favorite SUVs, the $23,000 Mazda CX-30.

Flatten the seats, and the cargo area of the 2021 Chevy Suburban will swallow a small grocery store.

For a long-distance cruiser like the Suburban (starting at $57,795), adaptive cruise should be standard as well. Suburban doesn’t even offer it until the High Country trim, starting at the kingly sum of $77,890.

Or my $78,925 (cough) Z71 tester.

My recent $72,075 Corvette C8 ride didn’t have adaptive cruise, either. The good news is there are other Suburban features that favorably reminded me of King ’Vette — and the Cadillac CT4-V.

That’s because the interior has been comprehensively overhauled compared to Chevy and GMC Sierra pickups I’ve recently inhabited. The latter felt dated with, for example, stalk shifters and low infotainment screens. Maybe the Ford Expedition’s stylish new interior got GM’s attention.

The Suburban brings a modern electronic “trigger shifter” (a dash-mounted version similar to the Corvette). The tablet screen is mounted high on the dash — see Caddy and ’Vette — making for better visibility so I could keep my eyes on the road while accessing Chevy’s typical blizzard of tech offerings, from Sirius XM to Wi-Fi hot spot to nav system.

Forget the nav system, actually, as Suburban offers Apple CarPlay and Android Auto standard. My wife still swears by them as the best map guidance in autodom. “Go to Clarkson Union” I barked and Android Auto had it on our tablet screen in a jiffy.

Intimidated? The front end of the 2021 Chevy Suburban Z71 is blacked out with fearsome grille and skid plate underneath for off-road exploration.

Stomp the gas pedal and V-8 Corvette tunes fill the cabin. My eight-holer was of the smaller, 5.3-liter variety. Those wanting the Full-Monty, 6.2-liter V-8 ’Vette experience will have to jump (as with adaptive cruise) a rung to the High Country model.

There are a lot of rungs. Six in all as the Suburban lineup looks a bit like the endless, eight-trim Silverado — something for everyone. I like my Z71, thank you very much.

The Z71 gives the big bus a rugged, off-road swagger with blacked-out grille and nameplates complimenting its chiseled flanks and LED running lights. Royal elephants would kill for this kind of bling.

With a higher approach angle, skid plate, standard four-wheel-drive, all-terrain tires, two-speed transfer case, Hill Descent Control and red tow hooks, the Z71 elephant could credibly do support vehicle duty if you wanted to tow your ATVs to a Michigan off-road park.

Such work is usually the domain of pickups, but they cease to be passenger friendly aft of their crew cab. Stretching almost 19 feet from stem to stern, the Suburban is just shy of the 19.2-foot long Silverado with 5.8-foot bed — which means 41.5 cubic feet of storage in back for a Conestoga wagon with 550 miles of range.

The 2021 Chevy Suburban features plenty of technology including smartphone compatibility, button transmission and tablet screen with 4G Wifi.

And it’s covered like a Conestoga.

Inside are options galore — befitting a Chevy that can easily price out in the neighborhood of a Mercedes GLE SUV. My favorite features include the second-row captain’s chairs, which, like minivan seats, can flatten into an ottoman. I liked sitting in the third row, propping up my size 15 feet on the second-row stool and getting laptop work done while on the road.

And the center console island? It moves. Push an overhead button and the whole console slides backward, revealing a hidden drawer underneath — good for stowing valuables or just everyday items like charging cords for the two USB jacks in the back seat.

It’s one fancy carriage. Maybe they should have called it the Chevy Howdah.

2021 Chevrolet Suburban

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear- and four-wheel drive, six-or-seven-passenger SUV

Price: $52,995, including $1,295 destination fee ($78,925 4WD Z71 trim as tested)

Powerplant: 5.3-liter V-8, 6.2-liter V-8

Power: 355 horsepower, 383 pound-feet of torque (5.3-liter); 420 horsepower, 460 pound-feet of torque (6.2-liter)

Transmission: 10-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, NA; towing, 8,100 pounds (as tested)

Weight: 5,978 pounds (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA, 15 mpg city/19 highway/17 combined (5.3-liter as tested)

Report card

Highs: Improved interior; comfy third row

Lows: Gets pricey; standard adaptive cruise control, please

Overall: 4 stars

HENRY PAYNE Payne: In the saddle of the bucking Ford Bronco and Bronco Sport

Posted by Talbot Payne on August 19, 2020

The Three Amigos (left to right): Ford Bronco 4-door, Bronco 2-door, Bronco Sport at Holly ORV park, reviewed by Detroit News auto critic Henry Payne.

Holly – The new Holly Oaks Off-Road-Vehicle Park off Interstate 75 will be one of the premier off-road playgrounds in Michigan when it opens this fall — just in time for the 2021 Ford Bronco and Bronco Sport.

I got a sneak peek of the park while riding shotgun in the Ford siblings’ most extreme Badlands trims last week. In their natural ORV habitat, the Broncos are a blast. And, yes, I’m including the unibody Bronco Sport in the same breath as the truck-based, scene-chewing, rock-stomping Bronco.

With its fancy rear clutch packs and four skid plates, the Bronco Sport Badlands brings big bandwidth as a daily driver and weekend warrior. More on that later. Let’s start with the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon-fighting headliner, the truck-based Bronco Badlands.

The $43,590 Badlands sits at the top of Bronco’s dizzying, six-model ladder (Base, Big Bend, Black Diamond, Outer Banks, Wildtrak, Badlands). Bronco Badlands isn’t bashful about copying Rubicon’s playbook: retro-looks, two-or four door configuration, outboard spare tire, removable body panels, manual transmission option, washable interior. My tester was further equipped with the Sasquatch package — 35-inch tires, dual-locking differentials, 12-inch screen — that can be had on any Bronco model.

This two-door Bronco got a workout at the Holly track

Holly Oaks is gonna be a Bronco-Wrangler war zone when the Ford comes to market next spring. The park echoes California’s epic, state ORV sandboxes with its high-speed canyons and skyscraper-high trails. With pedal to the metal in our skid-plated armored, 310-horsepower Bronco Badlands, Ford engineer Dan Schaeffer rocketed up formidable, 27-degree dirt inclines, splashed through ponds and devoured sand.

But Holly ORV park isn’t just about trails. Like any serious ORV park it offers diabolical obstacle courses as well. Its signature hill is a re-creation of some of Moab’s most infamous rocky terrain: the 45-degree steep Hot Tub. Mogul-pocked Mashed Potato Hill. Or the I-dare-you-to-cross-me Golden Crack.

A Ford Bronco and Bronco Sport navigate the trails of Holly ORV park

For these outdoor torture chambers, Badlands brings a deep toolbox like Wrangler Rubicon. The key difference is modern Badlands’ equipment like the hydraulic, detachable front sway bar that helped us crawl over an impossible incline. Or the independent front suspension (Wrangler prefers solid axle front and rear) that allows for a smoother ride.

Off-road veterans will swear by Wrangler’s mechanical purity, but a new generation reared on 21st-century electronics will cheer the Bronco’s advances.

Perhaps most significant is Bronco’s rotary, transfer-case controller with seven signature GOAT modes (Go Over Any Terrain) in Badlands models. It counters Wrangler’s manual option (essentially a second gearshift growing from the console).

As we grunted around the ORV park, Bronco cowboy Schaeffer simply spun the dial when he needed to switch from four-wheel-high to four-wheel-low or (Bronco exclusive) four-wheel crawl. It’s hardly a bucking Bronco.

A Wrangler Rubicon, by contrast, has to be stopped so you can arm-wrestle the stick shift to the proper mode.

New Ford Broncos -- three times the fun

Taking inspiration from the original Bronco that became the first production vehicle to win the grueling Baja 1000 endurance race in 1969, the Bronco team developed its toolbox (engines, 10-speed tranny, suspension, chassis) alongside the current Bronco R Baja racer. Both the V-8-powered ’69 Baja Bronco and the ’19 Baja Bronco R were available for Holly Oaks rides.

From the right-hand saddle, the ’69 machine — driven by pro driver Shelby Hall, daughter of ’69 Baja winner Rob Hall — proved to be a serious rodeo ride compared to the state-of-the-art R. But its V-8 roar made me nostalgic. The new car’s 2.7-liter turbo-6 (which Shelby will pilot at Baja this November) packs plenty of punch but lacks the visceral thrill.

Bronco history includes the 2019 Bronco R Baja racer, left, 1969 Baja winner, and original 1966 Bronco two-door.

As for the unibody Sport SUV, Ford likes to describe it as the mule that will haul gear, bikes and kayaks to the trailhead. If you want to go further, take the Bronco. Well, maybe.

Bronco Sport Badlands wants a piece of the action.

Holly Oaks echoes California’s epic ORV parks with its high-speed canyons and skyscraper-trails. Barreling along in the four-skid-plated Bronco Sport Badlands model, Ford engineer Kyle Culek attacked the same 27-degree dirt incline I’d experienced minutes before in a Bronco Badlands. Piece of cake.

At the summit Culek pressed the console “Trail Control” button — turning adaptive cruise control into a sort of low-speed crawl system. At 5 mph, we calmly descended the other side of the 27-degree hill. Look ma, no feet! All Culek had to do was steer.

Back in the canyon, Culek rotated the GOAT to sand, then floored it. WAAAUUGHRR! The throaty, 2.0-liter turbo-4 howled as all four wheels spit sand. Credit the same, rear dual-clutch pack found in Ford’s Focus RS track monster — calibrated for off-road performance. That’s my kind of family vehicle.

The demonstration indicates Sport’s unique appeal in the volume, compact SUV segment. It’s as if Bronco and Escape had a baby. This kid has off-road instincts without sacrificing road manners. If priced right, the roomy, all-wheel-drive Sport (note the same cavernous, sliding second-row seats as Escape) should be a serious challenger to mainstays like the Jeep Compass and Subaru Forester.

Matching their AWD capability with handsome looks, Sport can store two bikes upright in the rear hatch.

Like the U.S. pickup market, Wrangler vs. Broncos is going to be a Detroit civil war. They will square off on battlefields like Holly ORV park, and first impressions are that Bronco has brought serious firepower.

But for those who want their Bronco with a more comfortable saddle, Bronco Sport may be the sleeper pick.

The Woodward Dream Cruise is alive, just unofficially

Posted by Talbot Payne on August 14, 2020

The Dream Cruise is canceled, long live the Dream Cruise.

While official city and corporate events for this week’s originally planned Woodward Dream Cruise were canceled back in June out of COVID-19 health concerns, the annual pilgrimage to Woodward motors on.

Over the last few days, “the world’s biggest traffic jam” has attracted thousands of cruiser-faithful in lawn chairs enjoying a steady stream of sports cars, hot rods and Detroit classics ahead of what would have been the official culminating event on Saturday.

Even though the official Woodward Dream Cruise was canceled, cruisers are out in force anyway.

Many of those behind the wheel shrugged off the absence of official events and said it brought a refreshing return to the grassroots gatherings that made the Dream Cruise unique 25 years ago.

“It’s nice not to have all the companies here,” said Veronica Spitza of Brighton, who drove a mint 2010 Chevy Camaro SS to Royal Oak with husband Al. “It’s been easier to find a parking space that usually are soaked up by all the corporations.”

The Spitzas have been coming to the Cruise since the late 1990s, and this year they made it a family affair: They brought a 20-year-old nephew, Jack, from New York. A Barrett-Jackson Auction fan, this is Jack’s first Dream Cruise.

The annual event is a summer highlight for ’73 Corvette Stingray owner Sam Agus, 72, and pal Mike Detrych, 72, who haven’t missed a Cruise since 1995. The Milford natives grew up together and fought in Vietnam together. When Detrych returned from war, he bought a red 1969 Chevelle V-8 that he still drives today.

“It’s just like the old days out here,” said Agus, who met the original owner of his Corvette for the first time Thursday. “The companies aren’t here, but the cruisers still are.”

Behind them, the parking lot between the A.J. Desmond & Sons Funeral Home and vacant Art Van store in Royal Oak was taped off, empty of its usual crowds. That sight was not unusual along Woodward as businesses discouraged large gatherings.

Despite that, Cruise attendees were in a festive mood. They naturally social-distanced around cars and in lawn chairs.

Woodward Dream Inc. president Michael Lary defended his board’s decision to cancel official events out of concern for heightened COVID-19 cases.

“We made a decision based on the best interest of the public,” said Lary, whose board is made up of local city officials. “We didn’t want to be part of doing irresponsible things.”

Some cruisers lamented that local communities and corporations were not more involved, saying they could have brought sanitizer stations and broadcast public service announcements to the large gathering.

Longtime cruiser Roger Posey, 70, lamented that Memorial Park in Royal Oak was taped off, as were many other public spaces. He is president of the Woodward Tri Five Cruisers car club — which celebrates Chevrolets made in the years 1955-57 — that usually gathers there.

His group has relocated their lawn chairs to a strip of lawn in front of a medical office. A stunning, multi-colored lineup of Chevy Bel Airs and 210s was parked behind them. Posey’s ride? A 1956 V8-powered 210. Posey’s club usually attracts members from Canada and as far as Australia and England — but they won’t make it this year due to travel restrictions.

“This year reminds of the first five years of the Cruise,” said Posey, thinking back to the mid-1990s. “I remember three guys pulled up at the stoplight near Duggan’s. They drag-raced three abreast out of the light. Then 35 police on horseback came up Woodward and put a stop to the drag racing.”

Police in black Ford Explorer SUVs were common along the grassy median this week. But with traffic backed up for hundreds of yards, drivers behaved themselves. A ’60s Corvette Stingray-turned-dragster with a rear parachute and towering engine-blower made the earth shake. An orange McLaren 720S burned retinas.  A topless classic 1967 Ford Bronco towered above an old MG.

The Woodward Tri Five Cruisers car club usually gathers at Memorial Park in Royal Oak. Because that was taped off by the city, they relocated their lawn chairs to a strip of lawn in front of a medical office, with their Chevy Bel Airs and 210s parked behind them.

It wasn’t just the old guard that was enjoying the atmosphere.

Nineteen-year-old Brennan Lata was hanging out with his West Bloomfield buddies in front of the Jeep dealership in Royal Oak. They had all piled into Lata’s Ford Mustang GT and 18-year-old Matthew Awdich’s Corvette to cruise the strip.

“We’ve been coming here since we got our driver’s licenses,” Lata said. Though overall numbers for this year’s Cruise will be way down, Lata and company signal that new generations will be here for years to come.

Dream Cruise President Lary hopes a vaccine proves successful soon so the Cruise can return to normal next year. Despite companies staying away this year, he was still pleased to see the classics on Woodward.

“The bottom line is there is still an experience there for folks who want to enjoy it,” he said. “That’s what is so great about this event.”

Payne: Porsche 911 is still the performance standard

Posted by Talbot Payne on August 12, 2020

Everything has its baseline for greatness. In golf, it’s Tiger Woods. In tennis, Roger Federer. In basketball, Michael Jordan.

For sports cars, it’s the Porsche 911.

The 21st century has seen a resurgence in supercars with new entries like the McLaren 570 and Audi R8 joining mainstays Ferrari and Lamborghini. Yet the 911 has maintained the German brand’s claim to handling pre-eminence. The last-generation track-focused 911 GT2 RS destroyed Car and Driver’s Lightning Lap record at Virginia International Raceway held by the mid-engine carbon-fiber $500,000 Ford GT supercar. By five seconds.

The 2021 Porsche 911 Targa 4S features all-wheel-drive and steps up the horsepower from 379 to 443.

Every brand baselines its sports cars to the 911 on track and off. The eighth-generation 2020 model is no different. Though I must admit, I had my doubts.

When Porsche introduced the latest 911 — factory code 992 for you Porschephiles — at the 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show, it aimed to swath the world’s greatest athlete in luxury. Digital electronics have transformed autodom and Porsche didn’t want to be left behind. The LA intro was just as lavish. LA celebrities as sleek as the 911’s classic Coke-bottle shape walked the outdoor runway with Porsche’s star. A light show lit up the night

Conversation strayed to Porsche’s electric sedan, the Taycan, into which the company had poured millions. Taking it all in, I worried the 911 might go soft. Like a Hollywood legend who forgot what made them a legend.

After a day going to Hell (Michigan) and back in the convertible, Targa 4S — a new trim for the 2021 model year — I’m happy to report the champ is still at the top of its game.

The 2021 Porsche 911 Targa features 20-inch wheels and massive brake calipers for instant stopping.

I felt the 911 difference almost immediately. I had stepped out of Corvette’s all-new C8 the day before — hands down the best-handling Corvette ever made — with full coil-over springs, widened track and instant traction. Yet, it doesn’t instill the same confidence as the 911.

The Porsche goes exactly where you point it. Pushing the Corvette (or most sports cars) over the undulating hills of M-32 in Antrim County, I had to work the steering wheel at the limit to keep the beast on its chain. Across similarly challenging curves on Hell’s Hadley Road, the Porsche feels like it’s on rails. It’s like a slot car begging for more juice.

It wasn’t always so. The 911’s aft-of-axle rear-engine layout — compared to Corvette/Ferrari/McLaren mid-engine weapons — is inherently unbalanced. It took decades for Stuttgart engineers to tease out the gremlins of oversteer. An arsenal of modern technology helped. My Targa 4S tester benefited from innovations like electronic limited-slip differential, rear-axle steering and engineering witchcraft like “PASM” and “PDCC” that would take pages to explain.

All the driver needs to know is it makes handling magic.

Electrics have a long way to go. The gas-powered 2021 Porsche 911 Targa can go 422 miles on a tank of gas; the comparably priced Porsche Taycan EV just 200 miles on a charge.

When I drove my Tesla Model 3 Performance — a nice-handling sports sedan — afterward, it felt like a wet noodle by comparison. The only car that rivals the 911 is another Porsche: the smaller Cayman/Boxster and its inherently balanced mid-engine layout.

But when it comes to the new 911’s biggest change — the interior — Porsche still has work to do. Especially when compared to the Corvette C8, which has vaulted itself to best cockpit in class. A reminder: the C8 is also the cheapest supercar in class, starting at a bargain $59,995.

My Racing Yellow Porsche tester starts at $136,550 but with options ballooned over $180,000. For this you get a roomy cabin with plenty of head clearance for this 6-foot-5 giraffe. Unlike its mid-engine competition, 911 has rear seats (though they are more hospitable to golf bags than people). Together with a carry-on luggage storage in the frunk, it’s a sports car fit for weekend trips.

The simple, sleek form of the 2021 Porsche 911 Targa belies its sophisticated all-wheel steering and incredible driveline.

The console is much improved over the previous generation with room for a cupholder (Imagine! Previous models had a flimsy pop-out from the glove compartment.). Theres’s adaptive cruise-control and a touchscreen complete with modern amenities like 4G Wi-Fi and Apple CarPlay. It’s a layout shared with the more-luxurious Panamera sedan and Cayenne SUV — even improving on those siblings with a small, ice cube-sized auto shifter that doesn’t obstruct climate buttons.

But other details lag compared to the ’Vette.

Porsche doesn’t offer Android Auto, and voice recognition is average. The 911 has upgraded its signature five-dial instrument display with state-of-the-art digital readouts — but the round steering wheel obscures some information. Corvette’s race-car like square steering wheel, by contrast, allows better visibility of its broad digital dash. The C8’s retractable hardtop can be stowed while moving at speeds up to 30 mph. Want to store the Targa roof? You’ll have to pull to the side of the road.

Classic touches like Porsche’s left-side key remain, but overall the cabin lacks the personality of rivals.

Detroit News auto critic Henry Payne took the 2021 Porsche 911 Targa to Hell, Michigan's wicked-fast roads.

Leave the personality to the drivetrain.

Despite adding twin turbochargers, the flat-six engine makes beautiful music. The symphony’s exhaust notes get more aggressive as you cycle through the Sport and Sport Plus drive modes. Unlike the Boxster/Cayman which downgraded to a turbo-4, the 911’s six-holer screams for more right foot at high revs, just like the ’Vette’s V8. Advocates for a silent, electric future should drive these beasts first.

Mated to a lightning-quick dual-clutch 8-speed PDK automatic transmission, the 443-horsepower mill exhibits no turbo lag. None. Not on corner exits. Not on launch-control starts that snap your neck on the way to 60 mph in 3.4 seconds.

The Targa is available with a 7-speed manual for purists, but the PDK is superior and comes with paddle shifters for when you want to be in control.

New for 2020-21, the interior of the 2021 Porsche 911 has gone upscale with crisp buttons and a fancy touchscreen.

For all the emphasis on interior-tech refinement, the 2021 reserves its most clever electronic trick for acceleration. “Sport response” plants a button in the middle of the steering wheel. Luffing behind traffic, I pushed the button. Instantly, the gearbox downshifted from 6th to 3rd, the flat-6 screaming whilst the tach quivered at 6,000 rpms.

Nail the throttle. Gulp traffic in the blink of an eye. Exhale. Wow.

Luxury upgrades exact their toll on weight, and the added tech and Targa roof meant my 4S weighed in at an estimated 3,700 pounds. The gym-toned athlete shrugged it off. As I wrung the 911’s neck through Livingston County curves and cloverleafs, it felt much smaller.

It’s what makes 911 the Tiger Woods of sports cars. But the competition is nipping at its heels.

2021 Porsche 911 Targa

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

Price: $120,650, including $1,350 destination fee ($181,840 Targa 4S AWD as tested)

Powerplant: 3.0-liter, twin-turbo flat-6 cylinder

Power: 379 horsepower, 331 pound-feet of torque (Targa 4); 443 horsepower, 390 pound-feet of torque (Targa 4S)

Transmission: 8-speed automatic, 7-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 3.4 seconds (Targa 4S, mfr.); top speed, 188 mph

Weight: 3,354 pounds, standard 911 (3,678 pounds, Targa 4S as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA est. 18 mpg city/23 highway/20 combined

Report card

Highs: Handling from the gods; glorious drivetrain

Lows: Lacks infotainment sharpness; priced well into six figures

Overall: 4 stars

CEO-to-be Farley rides historic Ford product shift

Posted by Talbot Payne on August 12, 2020

As he takes the helm of Ford Motor Co. in October, CEO-designate Jim Farley will steer the 117-year-old automaker through one of the most profound product shifts in its history.

The Blue Oval’s F-150 profit-machine continues to steam ahead as the best-selling vehicle in America, but Ford is completely revamping its North American lineup to meet changing consumer and government demands. In the works is a shift away from sedans to slake consumer demand for popular SUVs while at the same time investing billions in electric vehicles to satisfy government mandates.

Jim Farley

The shift comes as Ford’s SUV lineup is under pressure from foreign automakers while the popularity of EVs is in question. Yet industry analysts say Farley, now chief operating officer, inherits a Ford and Lincoln model lineup that has made shrewd, measured moves to position itself in the marketplace without overexposing itself to government whims.

“Our new product vision — led by the Mustang Mach-E, new F-150 and Bronco family — is taking shape,” said Bill Ford, Ford’s executive chairman, in announcing Farley’s promotion. “We now have compelling plans for electric and autonomous vehicles … and we are becoming much more nimble.”

More:New Ford Bronco debut: Five cool things to look for

More:Howes: Ford’s charge to new CEO Farley — ‘step it up’

More:Ford debuts 14th generation of iconic F-150 pickup

Credit that in no small part to Farley and ex-manufacturing boss Joe Hinrichs — Farley’s chief competitor for the top job before his abrupt departure in February — who ran the nuts and bolts of Ford’s marketing, technology and production over the last two decades.

“I think Farley and Hendrix really led to the march toward these new vehicles, and I think they’ve done an excellent job with it,” said George Peterson, a veteran industry analyst and president of AutoPacific, who says outgoing CEO Jim Hackett’s strength was high-level corporate strategy. “Hackett was a placeholder until Farley or Hinrichs was ready.”

A century after founder Henry Ford revolutionized the American automobile with the Model T, Ford is undergoing a historic shift in its lineup, particularly with an eye on the rich U.S. market.

“North America is where Ford makes its money,” said Stephanie Brinley, IH Markit senior auto analyst. And that’s likely to continue.

All-new F-150.

Ford F-series

When it comes to making money, the F-series pickup line is Ford’s franchise. From its debut in 1948, the F-series line now spans everything from F-150 light-duty trucks to F-750 super-duty commercial trucks. Together they sold 896,526 units in 2019, far and away the best-selling vehicles in the U.S.

Before joining Ford in 2007 Farley worked for Toyota Motor Corp. for 20 years, one of the few foreign companies that has taken a lunge at Ford’s pickup dominance. The Toyota Tundra sold 111,673 copies last year.

Credit the F-150’s dominance to relentless change, including the bold decision in 2015 to make a fully aluminum body, a segment first. Ford’s aluminum investment came with huge risks as competitor Chevy/GMC put its truck investment into growing the mid-size pickup markets with the Colorado and Canyon models.

The aluminum F-150 — together with its introduction of new, sippier, turbo-6 cylinder engines — was a hit, but the rest of the industry did not follow its aluminum, lightweighting strategy. Instead, Ford wound up playing catchup as the mid-size pickup market exploded — led by the twin GM products and Toyota Tacoma.

Ford’s Ranger, revived in 2019, has hit the ground running and is now one of the fastest-selling trucks in its segment. Meanwhile, F-series is in the middle of its first major refresh since its aluminum remake.

“The amount of investment they keep putting into the F-150 is impressive,” AutoPacific’s Peterson said. “The 2021 model is highly evolved — they claim at least 92% of all the part numbers on it are new, even though it doesn’t look any different particularly. They’ve paid a lot of attention to the interior craftsmanship and the interior infotainment systems.”

The "trail rig" concept version of the the Bronco Sport Badlands has a one-inch lift kit, LED off-road lights mounted to a front nudge bar and a platform roof rack to carry jerry cans and other gear.

SUVs

Thirty years ago, the Ford Taurus was the best-selling sedan in America. For 2021, the Blue Oval won’t have a sedan in its U.S. lineup as the mid-size Fusion sunsets with the 2020 model year. Iconic Ford names like Focus and Fiesta will continue to sell in foreign markets like Europe.

Pickups aside, SUVs lead the charge in the U.S.

Riding point will be the rugged, Ranger-based Ford Bronco — aimed squarely at the Jeep Wrangler. Just as Wrangler has defined Jeep’s hot, SUV-focused lineup, so will the versatile Bronco headline a stable of utes, including the Ford Ecosport, Escape, Bronco Sport, Edge, Explorer and Expedition.

“The breadth and depth of the Bronco line is really, really impressive,” said Peterson, including the addition of the unibody Bronco Sport which — unlike the truck-based Bronco — complements the Escape as a more out-doorsy compact crossover.

The Explorer was one of the first five-door SUVs way back in 1995, and it remains a class best-seller. But it’s come under increasing assault from Asian competitors with the all-new Kia Telluride, Hyundai Palisade and Toyota Highlander.

IHS Markit’s Brinley says Ford has reacted by maximizing profits with new premium trims and sharing vehicle platforms. New for 2020, for example, the Explorer introduced an ST performance model that turns heads with wicked looks and bigger horsepower.

“Ford has been getting more efficient by sharing components across model lines,” she said. “It’s making a difference in profitability.”

Nicknamed the “baby Navigator,” Aviator echoes big brother’s sumptuous interior and Bentley-like design cues while also riding on a rear-wheel-drive platform. The Navigator, too, shares its platform with a Ford — the F-150 pickup.

Lincoln

One example of that sharing is the Explorer-based Aviator SUV. Aviator was the impetus for changing the Explorer’s traditionally front-wheel-drive platform to rear-wheel-drive to complement Lincoln’s re-invention as Ford’s premium SUV brand.

Nicknamed the “baby Navigator,” Aviator echoes big brother’s sumptuous interior and Bentley-like design cues while also riding on a rear-wheel-drive platform. The Navigator, too, shares its platform with a Ford — the F-150 pickup.

With blingtastic design and feathery rides, Lincoln has new life as an SUV brand. The Continental and MKZ sedans have joined the Taurus/Fusion on the scrap heap, and the volume Corsair SUV is just getting market traction.

“The re-invention of Lincoln is complete,” IHS Markit’s Brinley said. “The brand knows what it is, and knows what it has to execute in the future.”

The Ford Mustang Mach E 1400.

Electrics

A passionate environmentalist, Chairman Ford has talked a big game on Ford’s green future. But with little consumer demand for EVs, the company’s product planners have resisted wholesale makeovers like Cadillac’s plan to sell only electric vehicles by 2030.

“No EV strategy is a good strategy,” said AutoPacific analyst Peterson, whose organization has polled consumers on electrics since 2005. “Consistently, EV consideration (for a new vehicle) has been between 3% to 5%. There is little consumer pull except for Tesla.”

Taking a page from its icons playbook that has elevated F-series and Bronco, Ford is expanding Mustang as a performance sub-brand that includes a battery-powered Tesla Model Y fighter called the Mustang Mach-E.

Ford hopes the Mach-E will not only rival Tesla in appeal — but also familiarize consumers with high-tech electronics essential to future autonomous vehicles.

On the government compliance front, Ford re-launched the Escape hybrid this year (after a 7-year hiatus) as a practical SUV aimed at the heart of the market’s biggest SUV segment. The company hopes its volume sales will meet government mandates while also satisfying consumer’s core needs of cargo space and fuel efficiency.

Ford’s product shift risks backlash if the market returns to sedans — now almost exclusively the domain of foreign automakers. But with Farley at the wheel, Ford has a car guy with a nose for what Americans covet, observers say.

The CEO-in-waiting, a weekend track warrior, has owned a 1966 Mustang and 1965 Ford GT40 race car.

#SaveTheManual: More cars steer away from stick shifts

Posted by Talbot Payne on August 12, 2020

The manual transmission continues to go the way of the hand-crank window.

Several more vehicles — including the popular Jeep Compass and Honda Accord — will no longer have stick-shift options after the 2020 model year.

The continuing trend toward automatic transmissions is driven not only by ease of use: In many cases, automatics now get better gas mileage than their stick-shift counterparts. Adding to the decline is the phase-out of small, entry-level sedans that traditionally have offered manual transmissions as budget options.

James Carl of Royal Oak poses with his 2015 Ford Fiesta ST with a six-speed manual transmission. “I like the control of a stick," he says. "I like to know what gear I’m in and the ability to choose whatever gear I want in a particular situation."

Auto enthusiasts have rallied behind the hashtag #SaveTheManual, but it’s not just entry-level SUVs and sedans that are stiffing sticks. High-end sports cars in the pursuit of more speed are also turning their backs on manuals. Two of the highest-profile performance-car launches in 2020, the Ford Mustang GT500 and mid-engine Chevy Corvette, debuted without a three-pedal option.

“Track- and drag strip-focused sports cars are focused on pushing the envelope, and manuals just make no sense,” said Michael Fiske, IHS Markit principal auto analyst. “Dual-clutch transmissions in cars like the Mustang are crowding out the manual, because if you really want to shave tenths off your quarter-mile time, you need an automatic.”

Fiske says manuals are increasingly the domain of small, affordable performance cars that owners enjoy for the driving experience. The Mazda MX-5 Miata and Toyota 86, for example, are synonymous with stick shifts.

Stick shifts are a dying breed. When they are available, they can cost more than an automatic. And frequently, cars with manual transmissions get worse gas mileage than their self-shifting counterparts.

“Manuals let you write your own story,” said M1 Concourse chief instructor Alex Della Torre, 47, who owns three Mazda MX-5s. “If you want to max out your revs, you have that power.”

Yet even popular performance cars such as the stick-shift Ford Fiesta ST and Focus ST have been yanked from the U.S. market, a casualty of the relentless upshift from cars to SUVs.

James Carl, 30, of Royal Oak owns a 2015 Fiesta ST. He was raised on sticks, having previously driven a now-defunct Mazda RX-8 and Bronco II.

“I like the control of a stick. I like to know what gear I’m in and the ability to choose whatever gear I want in a particular situation,” he said. “An automatic doesn’t give you that choice.”

He laments the loss of the subcompact Fiesta ST — its last model year was 2019 (the compact Focus ST died in 2018). Ford’s ST performance badge continues on in sport utilities like the Explorer and Edge — but without the option of a stick.

A Ford partisan, Carl said his only choices going forward are the Mustang muscle car (he races one), and the forthcoming Bronco SUV, which will have a manual option.

Like some pickups and the Jeep Wrangler, the Bronco’s off-road performance promises to attract manual enthusiasts. That’s rare in an SUV. More typical is the Jeep Compass, for which just 7.7% of buyers go for the manual.

SUVs like the Compass have replaced cars like the Focus and Fiesta as entry-level vehicles, which were typically offered as base manual models because the stick’s $1,000 to $1,500 savings attracted cash-strapped customers.

James Carl, 30, of Royal Oak, poses with his 2015 Ford Fiesta ST with a six-speed manual transmission, Monday afternoon, July 27, 2020, which is no longer available.

But, say analysts, stiffer fuel economy rules mandated over the last decade made already low profit-margin small cars even more costly to produce.

“The EPA mileage rules really made it hard for small sedans to meet emissions standards. It’s easier to hit the mpg mark with SUVs because the rules treat them differently,” said IHS Markit’s Fiske, an industry veteran. Plus, he said, SUVs have higher profit margins.

Even the take-rate for manuals on Mustangs is just 9.1% as the marque has developed a smooth-shifting, 10-speed automatic. Mustang rival Chevy Camaro’s manual take rate is a paltry 1.4%. Ford now targets its manual Mustang offerings at special, upper-trim models such as the GT350, Bullitt and forthcoming Mach 1.

The top-trim Mustang, the ferocious 760-horsepower 2020 GT500, shocked enthusiasts when it skipped the stick and introduced the pony-car kingdom’s first dual-clutch, seven-speed automatic. That’s because even the best drivers will not be as fast on the track with a manual transmission.

The GT500’s tradition-busting move was followed by the 2020 Corvette, the first ‘Vette to put the engine behind the driver — and ditch the stick. The car’s eight-speed, dual-clutch automatic is staggeringly quick (performing shifts in under 100 milliseconds), allowing sub-3-second, zero-to-60 times. Try that with a manual.

Amateur racer and stick-shift fan Steve Nowicki, 61, of West Bloomfield isn’t interested in a manual muscle car. He drives an automatic Ford F-150 to work but has a stick-shift Miata for play.

“Stick shifts are more manageable with restrained horsepower,” he said. “My Miata is just fun to drive. It’s my summer, let’s-just-go-for-a-ride car.”

Vaunted sports car maker Porsche has flirted with eliminating the stick shift from its flagship 911, but pushback from core enthusiasts means it’s still offered on upper trims like the S and 4S models for 2021. For the entire 911 model line, manuals are chosen by a mere 2.7% of customers.

At the entry-level end of the market, performance brands like Mazda now dangle manuals at enthusiasts willing to pay more for the feature, rather than budget-conscious buyers. The $22,445 Mazda 3 compact offers the manual only its fully loaded Premium hatchback model, starting at $28,420.

Mazda now only offers a stick-shift in its Mazda 3 and MX-5 Miata, having ditched the three-pedal option in its sporty, mid-size 6 sedan after 2019.

The ST logo on the grill.

The Honda Accord, a competitor to the Mazda 6, will follow suit by discontinuing its stick option after the current model year. Other sticks are leaving the market at year’s end because their model lines have been axed. They include the Fiat 124, Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris and Chevrolet Sonic.

Only 0.8% of Accord buyers opted for a manual. Honda, a driver’s brand with deep roots in racing, has found more success in its compact Civic model with a take rate of 9%.

Even the manuals’ once-vaunted advantage over automatics in fuel economy has dissipated. An automatic Civic with a 1.5-liter engine, for example, gets 33 mpg compared to 30 mpg for the comparable manual version.

M1 Concourse’s Della Torre, however, sees one clear advantage for manual transmissions.

“You don’t have time to text and drive,” he said. “You are forced to focus on driving alone.”