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Payne: Toyota Camry or Ford GT?

Posted by hpayne on January 24, 2015

camry_ford_gt_mainart.jpg

“I want something that doesn’t break down,” said the lady in the red sweater when I asked her what she coveted on the Detroit Auto Show floor.

“Oh,” I replied, rather expecting the answer to be the drop-dead gorgeous, Holy-Mother-of-Pearl Ford GT supercar that had been a one-car mob scene since the doors opened to the public.

“My husband’s Toyota Camry has 293,000 thousand miles on it and has never had a problem,” she continued indignantly. So who’s counting? She is. “My Chrysler minivan has 150,000 and it’s in the shop. Again.”

Another Camry customer is born.

Red’s answer is proof that auto shows aren’t just fashion runways. They are also giant showrooms for folks who are in the market. They come to ogle the supermodels. The latest designer trends. Flying buttresses on the GT! Twelve LED headlights in the NSX! But then visitors will track down the cars that fit their lifestyle. Compare them. Try them on.

This year Ford’s stand leads with strength. Literally. The place has so much muscle it practically reeked of testosterone. Ford’s supercar was the biggest bodybuilder in a gym full of big biceps showing off the Dearborn automaker’s new performance division. Mustang GT350 R. F-150 SVT Raptor. Like Hulk Hogan at a pro wrestling autograph signing, the athletes were mobbed by adoring groupies.

Ford can do performance in its sleep. The history of the Ford GT alone will bring competitors to their knees. Winner of LeMans in 1966. And then in 1967, 1968, and 1969. Fifty years later, a new, 600 plus-horsepower GT that sounds like Godzilla gargling razor blades has its sights set on further French conquests.

At the Toyota stand, the Japanese automaker also wants to flex its new muscles. The Lexus RC F GT3 racing concept is the luxury brand’s first venture into serious GT racing. But its oiled pecs were largely ignored by showgoers. The FS-1, a delicious sports car on a Lazy Susan, got more respect. But performance cred is earned. Let us know when you win LeMans, boys.

But front and center in the Toyota display was a bank of Camrys. They welcomed visitors like . . . like what?

A beautiful hostess at a downtown restaurant? Naw. Despite the midsize sedan’s much-ballyhooed facelift this year, it’s hardly a head-turner.

A geriatric greeter at Wal-Mart? Nope. The Camry may be plain on the outside, but its hybrid technology is cutting edge.

A row of shiny TVs at Costco? Bingo.

The Camry is a pleasant, colorful, affordable appliance. That never breaks down.

Camry can do reliability in its sleep. It sets the tone for a smart brand that attracts people who need transportation. Like Red. Let the motorheads (guilty as charged) daydream about Ford GTs. Most folks want something that gets them from A to B without detours to the shop. Americans are a friendly tribe, but we don’t want to know our mechanic on a first name basis.

For all of its performance cred, Ford covets Toyota’s reliability rep. The Blue Oval’s jaw-dropping performance and styling (Ford’s Aston – er, Fusion – is George Clooney next to the Camry’s Steve Carell) draw customers to showrooms. But reliability is what keeps them coming back. Ford boasts slinky supercars that can fly at 200 mph for 24 hours, but Toyota excels at vanilla sedans you can flog 200,000 miles for 24 years.

On a flight back from Denver last year, a rental fleet manager told me a consistent complaint of customers is Ford’s original Sync infotainment system. Its moods drove them batty. Ford fixed the problems with Sync 2.0. But it has to earn customers back that it lost to Toyota.

During auto show media week I was driving a new, $33k, 2015 Camry. Like my kitchen toaster, it did its job with relentless normalcy.

Its console was the right balance of touchscreen and dials. Its hi-tech safety features watched over me like an angel. Its roomy seats fit all sizes. Its four-banger engine ran like a top. And its Lassie-like reliability makes you forgive its shortcomings. The low-mounted seat heater dials you have to blindly fiddle with to get right. The cruise control stalk that hides behind the steering wheel begging to be confused with the turn signal. The hard chrome console bezel that chews at my leg.

Someday, Toyota will blitz LeMans and Ford will rule Consumer Reports. Until then, we’ll drive our sexless Camrys to the auto show to ogle Ford GT beefcake.

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

 

2017 Ford GT

Vehicle type: Mid-engine, rear-wheel drive, two-passenger sports car

Price: $150,000 est.

Power plant: 3.5-liter, twin-turbo V-6

Power: 600-plus horsepower, 500-plus pound-feet of torque

Transmission: seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, sub-3 seconds (no doubt)

Weight: TBA (expect a lightweight with carbon-fiber tub)

Fuel economy: TBA (and honestly, does it matter?)

Report card

Highs: Porn for autobuffs; Classic GT40 styling for the 21st c.

Lows: Might get you thrown jail

Overall:★★★★

2015 Toyota Camry

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger sports car

Price: $23,795 base ($33,448 as tested)

Power plant: 2.5-liter DOHC 4-cylinder

Power: 178 horsepower, 170 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.9 seconds (Car & Driver)

Weight: 3,240 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 25 city/35 highway/28 combined

Report card

Highs: Bone reliable; Confy interior proportions

Lows: Styling a cure for insomnia; Center console can chaffe long legs

Overall:★★★

 

Payne: Z06 Corvette is an awesome blend of power and poise

Posted by hpayne on January 22, 2015

The Detroit News Auto Critic Henry Payne poses with

The Z06 makes 350 pounds of down force. Paired with an all-new aluminum chassis and 12-inch Michelin gummies, the Z06 is a big, tail-wagging, mountain of power. But with stick.

On the limit of grip — the 6.2-liter, supercharged V-8 howling like Cerberus in my ears — I modulate the Corvette ZO6′s throttle across the uphill, Turn 2 sweeper at Spring Mountain. But the hungry beast wants more. More throttle?

Payne, it seems to say, don’t you know I am the most capable production car in existence? That your pals at Car & Driver have recorded my 1.19 lateral G-forces higher than a Porsche 918 hybrid? Higher than a Nissan GTR?

I oblige with every passing lap. Which means that at 6,400 RPM I snatch fourth gear — 122 mph — at the top of the hill going into Turn 3, a 180-degree

downhill right-hander. BRAAAAKES! I stomp on the binders at the way-too-late marker and giant Brembo calipers seize 15.5-inch carbon-ceramic front rotors with the force of a Rottweiler on a postman’s leg. The coupe slows like it hit an invisible wall. My chest strains against the seat belt. My eyeballs bulge from their sockets. But the Z wants more. Brake later? Are you mad?

Fool, don’t you know that I can brake with any exotic car on the planet? A heart-stopping 128 feet from 70-0 mph? Better than a Porsche Turbo? Or a Ferrari 458?

And so it goes lap after lap trying to find the limits of this extraordinary, $78,000-plus super car. Exhilarating. Addicting. But how is this possible?

After all, we’re comparing the Corvette to the most technologically advanced weapons on the planet. Cars with carbon-fiber tubs. All-wheel-drive. Overhead-cam, turbocharged, made-with-Unobtanium, flux-capaciter cyborgs sent here by Skynet from 25 years into the future.

I mean, the Z06 still has its engine in the front like a truck, for goodness sake. And it uses antique push rods. And leaf springs (yeah, I know, Chevy calls ‘em “tranverse-mounted, composite springs” but every motorhead knows they’re leafs). The thing should be retired to the Smithsonian.

Well, hold the retirement party. The 2015 Corvette Z06 is the real deal.

Credit an engineering team lead by Tadge Juechter who has Pratt & Miller’s Doug Louth, chief engineer of Corvette’s racing program, on speed dial. The seventh-generation, $53,995 base Corvette C7 Stingray was conceived with the Z06 performance package and LeMans racing in mind. Would Juechter & Co. have use

more exotic suspension geometries and engine tweaks if it had twice the budget? Who knows? Who cares?

Squeezing every ounce of nutrition out of a front-engine, push-rod, transverse spring recipe it has perfected over three generations of car, Juechter’s geniuses then cooked their big sirloin steak with the best spices from Brembo and Michelin tires. The result? An affordable, freakishly-capable megabot with the performance of cars costing five times as much.

Consider: The Z06 lapped the epic, 4.1-mile Virginia International this year in 2.41.3 seconds. That’s quicker than the record 2.43.1 lap laid down by a $875,000 Porsche 918 at Car & Driver’s legendary Lightening Lap competition last year.

But the Z06 is more than quick. It’s comfortably quick. I was skeptical that this was possible. After all, I’ve driven Vette-zilla.

Vette-zilla was the 2007 ZR1, the last generation, C6-based Z06 on ‘roids. The most capable Corvette ever produced. With a 6.2-liter, supercharged V-8, 638 horsepower and all the tricks from the Brembo and Michelin magicians’ hats, the $110,000 ZR1 could run with the exotics. But it would wear you out in the process.

Like riding a bull through Pamplona, Vette-zilla roared and stomped and threatened to throw you through the window. It sweated 20 pounds out of you — but sweet speed was your reward. The ’15 Z06 tames Vette-zilla’s moods. Smooths its raw edges. And goes quicker. Nearly five seconds a lap quicker in GM’s VIR test.

On Spring Mountain Raceway I feel it instantly. The Z06 not only doesn’t generate as much lift as the squirrely ZR1, it makes 350 pounds of down force. Paired with an all-new aluminum chassis and 12-inch Michelin gummies, the Z06 is still a big, tail-wagging, mountain of power. But with stick.

“The difference from the ZR1 is that when you turn it in to a corner, it plants,” says ex-IndyCar driver Richie Hearn, who flogs Vettes at Spring Mountain’s Ron Fellows Driver’s School for a living,

That nimbleness has turned the old Detroit vs. Europe formula on it head.

“Detroit once made the drag queens,” says Juechter. “Europe the cornering kings.” Now, with hybrid-torque and all-wheel drive, Euro-sports like the 887-horsepower Porsche 918 stomp the big ‘Vette from 0-60. But without the weight of batteries and electric motors, the Z06 is lighter — easier to toss across apexes.

But don’t be fooled into thinking the ‘Vette is a tinny lightweight. At 3,524 pounds it is actually heavier than the last generation Z06 and ZR1. Wider and longer, the new car is stuffed with luxurious interior materials, media infotainment, four airbags, and a video Performance Data Recorder to play back the fun bits. They’ll be plenty.

With its race-breeding, you buy the Z06 over the base Stingray for weekends at the track (“You’re going to Waterford Raceway again this Saturday, hon?”). But the other days of the week, the Z06 is a luxury chariot. Unlike the single-minded, Z06/ZR1 hammers of yore, new Z06 owners (they went on sale in November, get in line) can have their cake and eat it too.

The Z06 is available in an automatic and a convertible with no compromise in performance. The convertible gains no weight over the coupe. The automatic loses no speed. Indeed, relates Juechter, when pro-drivers tested the Z06 at Road Atlanta last fall, they recorded faster times in the eight-speed automatic vs. the seven-speed manual.

“I got to admit it,” says Indy racer Hearn after cranking off a lap that had me gripping the door handles, “I prefer the automatic to the paddles.”

GM product guru Mark Reuss nicknamed the Z06 “Big Nasty” for its fearsome capabilities, but the bandwidth of this beast is astonishing.

Cruise to church with your best gal in its sumptuous, leather seats and dual climate control on Sunday morning. Wake cemeteries with 3,000-RPM thunderclaps through lake country on Sunday afternoon. Supercars are supposed to come with super sticker prices. My Torch Red (or is it ticket-me-red?) Z06 with Z07 performance package and competition seats still goes out the door for less than six-figures. Less is more with the Z06.

OK, Payne, enough talk. I’m getting cold. Let’s hit the track and find a coupla more seconds.

Glad to serve, Big Nasty.

2015 Corvette Z06

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

Price: $78,995 base ($97,595 as tested)

Power plant: 6.2-liter, supercharged V-8

Power: 650 horsepower, 650 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: seven-speed manual or eight-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 2.9 seconds (manufacturer)

Weight: 3,524 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 15 mpg city/22 mpg highway (manual); 13 mpg city/23 mpg highway (auto)

Report card

Highs: Ferocious low-end power; Gotta-have-it good looks

Lows: Multi-gate, seven-speed manual gearbox takes some adjustment; fuzz magnet

Overall:★★★★

Henry Payne’s guide to the Detroit auto show

Posted by hpayne on January 17, 2015

You don’t have to walk far into Cobo Center to find my Car of the Show. The gorgeous, blood red, plug-in, battery-powered, twin-turbo, jewel-eyed, platinum-priced, fuel-efficient, high-performance, low drag, shrieking supercar Acura NSX.

The long-awaited NSX is a one-car smorgasbord of every hot feature on the floor — with the exception of a pickup bed. And like nearly every reveal at this year’s show it will only appeal to a few.

During media week, the NSX was a celebrity magnet. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld (reportedly he and fellow funnyman/car fanatic Jay Leno have dibs on the first two copies), rapper Ludacris, and every auto executive in town came by to ogle the $150K-plus exotic beauty. They are also the rare few who can afford it.

The 2015 Detroit Auto Show is a showman’s show boasting 50 eye-catching reveals. But it’s a dramatic departure from 2014′s circus that showcased major volume segment reveals like the Ford F-150, Chrysler 200, and Honda Fit. Key luxury debuts abounded, including the Lincoln MKC, Hyundai Genesis, and Acura TLX.

Last year, Cobo was big box retail. This year it’s an oversized boutique. With the U.S. market back to glorious, pre-recession, 17-million-in-sales-a-year growth, manufacturers are slicing and dicing the market with specialty models. That means performance models. Off-road models. Hybrid models. Anything to keep showrooms packed as automakers try to tease that last dollar out of your wallet.

This fracturing of the field means that fights are popping up all over the floor like sword duels in a “Hobbit” battle scene. Over here are Tesla and Chevy battling it out for the first 200-mile electric car. Over yonder a skirmish for best small pickup. Me? I’m a sucker for affordable sports cars. Here are the highlights:

Henry Payne’s take on 2015 NAIAS sports cars

Henry Payne’s take on 2015 NAIAS small, midsize and green cars

Henry Payne’s take on 2015 NAIAS luxury cars

Henry Payne’s take on 2015 NAIAS SUVs

Henry Payne’s take on 2015 NAIAS concepts

Henry Payne’s take on 2015 NAIAS trucks

Raptor vs. Rebel

In this corner of Cobo, the earth-pawing Ford Raptor. And in that corner the boffo, red-on-black Ram Rebel. Sounds like a WWE bout, huh? The names are intentionally intimidating. These are trucks with attitude. But the bout is a mismatch. The F-150′s evil twin, Raptor is an off-road assault vehicle suitable to run the legendary Baja 1000. With a seriously upgraded chassis and suspension, this monster might eat the trees that Ford has placed around the pickup’s exhibit. In contrast, the Rebel is an aggressive trim upgrade. Blacked-out grille, dual exhaust, and huge, knobby tires give it menace. But inside, this tough truck is a softie. Red-stitched vinyl interior, 8.4-inch UConnect console screen, and a clever media holder for your phone/tablet.

The Raptor/Rebel bruise brothers are evidence that there are the Big Three truck makers — and everyone else. Over in the Nissan stand, an all-new, full-sized Titan is everything you want in a truck. But the F-150′s Raptor variant alone sold more copies than Titan last year.

The 200-milers

Tesla’s Elon Musk has thrown down the gauntlet on making an affordable, $30K electric car. General Motors just picked it up. Expensive electrics like the Tesla Model S and Cadillac ELR are tech wonders, but rare. The Big Game in battery power has always been the challenge of building an affordable EV. The Ford Model T revolutionized motoring because once millions of Americans could afford cars, gas infrastructure followed. So will recharging infrastructure follow the 30-grand EV? If anyone can make the car.

Musk claims his promised, 200-mile-range, Model E (Model E like Model T, get it?) will be the silver bullet. Chevy’s 200-miler Bolt concept may beat him to it. The Bolt — smartly executed as a trendy, small crossover — stepped all over the Chevy Volt 2.0′s introduction this year. Don’t pity the Volt. The redesign has all the sex appeal of a loaf of bread. Or a Corolla.

Hybrid supercars

The aforementioned NSX is the latest entry in a new class: The plug-in hybrid electric supercar. The $900,000 Porsche 918 launched the trend with neck-snapping, 2.2-second, 0-60 time. But $1 million cars belong in museums, not on roads. The $138K BMW i8 — so beautiful it even shames other Bimmers on the stand — brought that price into more conventional, Porsche 911 Turbo-like orbit. The NSX follows. Electric motors benefit supercars in two ways. They add instant acceleration to lightweight chassis. And they turn the front wheels, transforming mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive athletes into AWD cruise missiles that can turn on a dime. Or (ahem) even negotiate a Detroit snow storm.

While we’re drooling over supercars, note the show-stopping Ford GT is not a plug-in. It’s a conventional, twin-turbo V6. Which means it’s headed for LeMans GT racing to slay Ferrari. High five.

Dashboard revolution

Thanks to digital technology, I get blind-spot alerts, automatic braking before I punt the car in front of me. . . I can even drive hands-free with lane-keep assist (which freaks out Mrs. Payne). But the digital revolution is also transforming the center console. Tesla’s “floating iPad” console is as cool as its 200-mile range. Over at the Lincoln stand, the all-new MKX eliminates the cumbersome gearshift stalk with a push-button tranny next to an infotainment screen angled helpfully toward the driver. Ditto the Chrysler 200.

And now for something completely different: The new Audi TT fuses console and instrument screens into one display for better heads-up driving. Thank a super-smart nvidia (Intel is sooo 15 minutes ago) chip — the same brain that runs your kids’ awesome video games.

Megatrend

For all the micro-segments on Cobo’s floor, there is one over-arching megatrend: SUVs are taking over the world. Like the 19th-century stagecoach, we homo sapiens like riding high in our 21st-century vehicles. Some cars go to extraordinary lengths to be SUVs. Check out the Volvo S60 Cross Country, which takes its flowing, coupe-like sedan shell and jacks it 2.5-inches in the air to be labeled a crossover. Or the Mercedes GLE63. Looks kinda like a Subaru Outback (who knew Subie was a fashion leader?).

But maybe the most haunting proof that everything will ultimately turn into a crossover is the Hyundai Santa Cruz concept. It’s a pickup. The height of a compact SUV. With car-like, unibody construction.

Wild. Put a 550-horsepower plug-in-hybrid drivetrain in it and I bet Leno will snap it up in a minute. Enjoy the show.

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

Five must-sees

Dodge simulator: The Detroit show’s first full-car simulator. Take the family for a wild ride in a Charger Hemi.

Acura NSX: You’ll be hypnotized by this supercar’s 12 jewel-eye headlights. If its 550 plug-in electric horsepower doesn’t already have you a trance.

Mini Superleggera. What you get when you cross a British boy toy with an Italian supercar designer.

Ford F-150 SVT Raptor. Looks like a mechanized Jurassic Park reptile. Just don’t put your hands inside the cage.

Alfa Romeo 4C Spider. Turbocharged, sports-car fun. In a drop-top. With the most gorgeous models in the show.

Payne: Top 10 new cars at the Detroit Auto Show

Posted by hpayne on January 17, 2015

It’s cold. Really cold. But instead of taking refuge in a dark theater to watch an Oscar nominee, Cobo Hall offers something better: A dazzling, mega-watt, toy wonderland called the North American International Auto Show. Inside are spectacular sets, beautiful models in black dresses, and 750 of the world’s shiniest, best rides. Fifty-five of them are all new machines pushing the limits of horsepower, molded sheet metal, and digital doo-hickeys. These beauties aren’t just transportation, they are art on wheels.

Hollywood has its Top Eight Best Movies. Here are my Top Ten best new vehicles.

Acura NSX: This raked, jewel-eyed weapon got speeding

1. Acura NSX

The second coming of Acura’s supercar has been foretold since a 2012 concept. Could it live up the hype? Could it live up to the legacy of the Ayton Senna-endorsed original? This raked, jewel-eyed weapon got speeding tickets just standing still on its Cobo stand. Every detail is sharp, purposeful. Hood vents speed air from the front openings, sucking the car to the ground. The NSX joins the nearby BMW i8 as a new kind of supercar that can slink silently through town on electric power, then assault the countryside when the electric-assist-twin-turbo-V6 motor kicks in.

Alfa Romeo 4C Spider: If the NSX has a flaw, its design

2. Alfa Romeo 4C Spider

If the NSX has a flaw, its design looks clinical. Cold. Not the Alfa. There’s something about Italian design that exudes sensuality. Warmth. (Or maybe it’s just the drop-dead gorgeous models on the Alfa stand.) Thanks to the stiff, carbon-fiber tub, the $60k, drop top Spider is just 22 pounds heavier than its coupe cousin. Store the soft top in the 4C’s lunch-sized boot. Opt for the removable hard top and store it in the passenger seat (which means the model can’t come with you, alas).

Chevy_Bolt_1.jpg

3. Chevy Bolt

Tesla’s swaggering CEO, Elon Musk, showed up in Detroit during media preview week without his Model 3, the long-promised, $35K, 200-mile range electric car. A pity, because Chevy beat him to it. What’s more, the crossover Bolt (lousy name, why didn’t they call it the Gamechanger?) scored a two-fer. It also eclipses its sister Chevy Volt which debuts its second-gen nearby.

Toyota_Tacoma_1.jpg

4. Toyota Tacoma

The Empire strikes back. Last year Chevy stormed the Detroit Auto Show with Colorado and Canyon pickups in an attempt to take back the small(er) pickup segment. This year, reigning class king Tacoma answers. It’s remade for the first time since 2006 with a new skin, new 3.5-liter V-6, and updated electronics. Smaller than the GM twins — Toyota bets its customers want a truck that fits in a parking space.

Ford GT: To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Henry

5. Ford GT

The more things change, they more they stay the same. While BMW and Acura showcase new hybrid supercars, the Ford GT is a conventional throwback. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Henry the Deuce’s LeMans win over Enzo Ferrari, the GT signals a 2016 LeMans GTE-class entry — complete with fire-breathing, class-legal V-6 twin-turbo. The exterior is a thoroughly modern re-imagination of the legendary GT-40. Ford has built plenty of green hybrids. This monster has its sights on red Italian sports cars.

Ford F-150 SVT Raptor: The six-figure Mustang GT is

6. Ford F-150 SVT Raptor

The six-figure GT is for extreme, on-road driving. The $45K Raptor is for extreme off-roading. Named after the lithe, lizard-skinned, big-clawed dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, the desert-mocking, earth-pawing, shrubbery-chewing F-150 version is twice as big and twice as mean. With upgraded chassis and suspension, the Raptor does share one thing with the GT: A howling, twin-turbo V-6.

Mini Superleggera: The Superleggera is the love-child

7. Mini Superleggera

What’s with the sports car in the Mini shoebox store? The Superleggera is the love-child of England’s Mini Cooper and Italy’s Touring Superleggera coach-maker. Powered by an electric motor, the two-seater concept features such design flourishes as a Jaguar D-Type-style fin and Union Jacks embedded in the tail-lights.

Mercedes F015 autonomous vehicle: With rotating chairs

8. Mercedes-Benz F015 autonomous vehicle

The luxury answer to Google’s self-driving toaster. With rotating chairs wrapped in Nappa leather, the walnut-trimmed F015 is a rolling lounge. If the regulators someday OK autonomous vehicles, this is how the beautiful people will arrive at the Charity Preview.

Mazda CX-3: The CX-3 – along with the Honda Honda HR-V

9. Mazda CX-3

Big and bold dominated this year’s reveals, masking a fundamental shift in the industry: SUVs are challenging sedans in every segment. The CX-3 — along with the Honda HR-V and Chevy Trax — is the first of wave of sub-compact utes. The pretty CX-3 boasts Mazda’s trademark stylish design and sporty handling.

Cadillac CTS-V: The V twins, ATS-V and CTS-V, take

10. Cadillac ATS-V and CTS-V

The V twins take on the formidable performance divisions of BMW M and Merc AMG. The graceful CTS-V shares the Corvette Z06′s earth-shaking, supercharged, 6.2-liter power plant. Top speed? 200 mph. But the nimble ATS coupe will be Caddy’s rep on the race track.

 

Payne: Je suis Charlie: Cartoonists in the cross-hairs

Posted by hpayne on January 16, 2015

Payne Toon 011615.jpg

I have never penned a cartoon mocking the Prophet Mohammed. Never mocked Jesus Christ. Or the Pope. It’s not my style of satire. It’s not the content that mainstream newspaper readers of The Detroit News expect.

But I have caricatured Christ multiple times. In good humor. For example, with a donkey lampooning the silly “What would Jesus drive?” protests against SUVs during the 2003 auto show.

It’s hard to believe drawing a religious figure’s likeness would lead to execution. Yet that is the fate that befell four of my cartoon peers in Paris last week at the hands of radical Islamists.

It doesn’t comfort me that their cartoons appeared in an edgy satirical magazine. It’s a thin line that separates different forms of expression — a line that terrorists don’t differentiate.

Their attack on Charlie Hebdo was an act of intimidation against anyone who doesn’t share their intolerant, doctrinaire world view. It’s an attack on all free people.

I’ve been buoyed by the strong, public reaction from Detroit-area Muslims and the 3 million people who bought Charlie Hedbo (traditionally an obscure, 30,000-circulation periodical) in its first publication since the Jan. 7 attack.

“Je suis Charlie,” the French chanted in the streets. I am Charlie.

In the first days after the attacks I was unsure if that sentiment would be shared.

“Satire, fairly or not, has always seemed less ‘serious’ than other forms of journalism, more of an indulgence,” wrote Fox News media reporter Howard Kurtz, echoing my own concerns that many would throw cartoonists under the bus. Kurtz rightly reasoned that “as the massacre at Charlie Hebdo reminds us, cartoonists, satirists and funnymen are often on the front lines of very risky battles.”

In the 25 years I have been in the cartoon business, Islamic attacks on controversial journalism have been a harbinger of worse violence to come.

In 1987, cartoonist Naji Salim Al-Ali fled Kuwait for England under death threats for his cartoons critical of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. Gunmen killed him on a London street.

In 1989, Iran took out a fatwa on author Salman Rushdie for his fictional “Satanic Verses” novel, deemed a mocking of Mohammed by Iran’s ruling imams. Yet Iran’s fanaticism prefaced decades of state-sponsored terror groups like Hezbollah.

In 2005, a Danish paper published a dozen cartoons of Mohammed to reassert the power of free speech, concerned that the terror attacks of 9/11 had cowed freedom of expression.

Clearly, satire isn’t the problem, but rather a tool radical Islamists use to advance their agenda.

Islam is not the first religion perverted by extremists. Post-Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan claimed itself the enforcer of Protestant values as it burned crosses on the lawns of blacks, Jews and Catholics. The way to confront such perversions of peaceful religions is for mainstream holy figures to denounce the fringe. As Christian churches did to the Klan. And as leading Detroit Muslims are doing in the wake of the Paris attacks.

I was joined on Fox 2 News’ “Let It Rip,” a day after the slaughter, by fellow newspaperman Osama Siblani, publisher of Metro Detroit’s Arab-American News, and Imam Mohammad Ali Elahi of Dearborn Heights. Both fiercely denounced the Charlie attacks.

Said the imam, who last week dedicated a Friday service to condemning the attack: “Freedom of speech comes with responsibility, but disagreement does not come with destruction.”

That’s how you fight terror. With military intelligence and strikes, yes. But also by marginalizing the extremists in our midst.

Shame is a powerful tool. As is humor.

Payne: Sculpted Nissan Murano is rolling art deco

Posted by hpayne on January 8, 2015

The new 2015 Nissan Murano carries Nissan's new design

In a world of plain, boxlike, mid-sized SUVs, the Murano is a standout. A statement vehicle.

If Nissan can spare a copy of its stunning new Murano, it might consider a donation to the Josephine Ford Sculpture Garden behind the Detroit Institute of Arts. Passing patrons would surely find it more coherent than Calder’s “The X and its Tail.”

Contemplate the Murano’s finely sculptured grille, for example.

It has nothing to do with feeding air to the engine (accomplished by an opening along the SUV’s chin), and everything to do with aesthetics. The tulip-shaped, repeating chrome and plastic ribs are industrial art deco design at its finest and might be mistaken for a classic 1930s Cord were it not for the Nissan logo in the center.

Framed by two boomerang-shaped headlights, this startling fascia begins an art deco journey from stem to stern. Behold the “floating” greenhouse covering the passengers like an umbrella. Or those swollen, swept hips (akin to the 1938 Dubonnet Xenia perhaps?). Or the Murano’s jagged shoulder lines that echo California’s Sierra Nevada mountains — not far from where the ute was conceived by Nissan’s Los Angeles-based design team.

In a world of plain, boxlike, midsized SUVs like the Lexus RX350 or Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Murano (named for the island off Venice that produces world-famous glass creations) is a standout. A statement vehicle. It will get most of its show-room traffic on the flamboyant coasts of California, New York and Miami — but the vehicle it reminds me of most is the now-defunct Chrysler Pacifica.

Like the Murano, the chiseled, 2003 Pacifica was a refreshing crossover in a sea of ute boxes. Like Marilyn Monroe, alas, Pacifica was a troubled beauty. A cursed Chrysler child, it stumbled out of the nursery, was plagued by glitches, and suffered an early death. The Murano comes from more stable stock. Indeed, it too debuted as an ’03.

Now in its third generation, it has turned heads while providing solid performance. But the 2015 model is a whole new animal. It is the first production Nissan that features the brand’s layered, “V-motion” design language.

Did I say “features”? Make that “flaunts.” This is one racy automobile. It’s not for introverts. Gatsby would have killed for this car.

Its upscale pretensions don’t end at the ’30s-like curves on its exterior. The interior mirrors the outer shell with plunging dash lines enveloping the tulip-shaped center console. The piano-black console materials and stitched leather instrument shroud suggest more luxurious automakers like Cadillac and Mercedes. But where the controls of those vaunted brands can be as maddening to converse with as an eccentric billionaire, Murano proves the most sensible instruments this side of a Jeep.

Where is the menu for the center console? Always along the bottom of the screen. How do I reset the odometer? Button on the left dash.

The Murano’s feminine form can fool the eye into thinking this is a compact SUV. Inside, however, there is no doubt as to its midsize proportions. The center armrest could swallow an iPad. I am all elbows and knees, yet I had plenty of room in the front seats, my arms resting comfortably on the door rests — not the window sills.

The rear seats are cavernous (hey, Nissan, how about a Barcalounger-like, flip-up ottoman feature?). This ship could easily fit three rows — but unlike its Pacifica contemporary, the Murano’s upscale look is aimed at empty nesters and friends. The Pacifica was an extension of Chrysler’s minivan stable — a family vehicle with second

row captain’s chairs and a third-row bench.

I was introduced to this $30,445-plus figurine in Napa Valley. Wine country. I get it.

Invite another couple for a weekend escape. Park by a wine orchard and drink in the view. Pour them a glass of Chardonnay in the cup holders that drop between the rear seats (they recline like the fronts). Ahhhhh. This is your captain speaking: Relax and enjoy a quiet flight, and . …

What’s this? The Murano is all-wheel drive? And it’s built on the same sporty chassis as the Nissan Maxima? Hold on to those wine glasses folks.

In Napa they once mashed the grapes with their feet. Too bad they didn’t have an AWD Murano. Throw this baby in a wine vat, and it could churn grapes to wine in seconds.

I couldn’t find any wine-makers who would take me up on the offer, so I went off-roading on their muddy winery roads instead.

The AWD Murano comes nicely muscled with a standard 3.5-liter, 260-horsepower V-6 connected to the wheels by a … Continuously Variable Transmission? Say what? I fear the worst. CVTs may gain 20 percent fuel economy, but the plodding slush-boxes kill performance faster than general anesthesia. Thankfully, Nissan is aware of this — these are the same guys who make the wicked Nissan GTR, after all — and have engineered their CVT with “D-stop logic.” Translation: It’s still a CVT, but nicely masked by the upshifts of a proper automatic.

Thus equipped, Murano and I slipped and churned and waggled our way through a Napa winery after a California downpour. Now I know why Murano’s ugly-duckling cousin, the Subaru Outback, comes equipped with unsightly, black plastic, skirt cladding — it provides a protective coat against mud. By contrast, I felt bad dirtying my Arctic Blue Metallic Murano’s sumptuous side panels — crisply creased and highlighted with chrome. Sure, I would prefer a Nissan Titan on back roads compared to the Murano — but then I’ll take the crossover’s asphalt manners any day.

And since most metro folks spend 99.9 percent of their time on asphalt, the Murano gets the gold. That’s the beauty of this beauty — it’s as pretty as Erin Andrews and has her athletic skills to boot.

Not to say Murano is faultless. Art deco facade aside, its bulbous front hood is out of step with V-motion’s plunging curves. More like B-motion.

And be wary of the optional, albino interior. You don’t have to be a newspaper-stained wretch like me to imagine how quickly an all-white interior can get smudged. Fortunately, the black and tan interior trim is not only practical, but prettier than anything this side of a Merc.

I drove a fully-loaded, tech-stuffed, V-6 Murano for $43,745. That’s $10,000 less than a similarly-equipped Lexus RX350 that doesn’t have nearly the panache. Lexus has its own boomerang-like, show-me design on the way. And not a moment too soon.

Who said that SUVs aren’t art?

2015 Nissan Murano

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

Price: $30,445 base ($43,745 as tested)

Power plant: 3.5-liter, dual overhead-cam V-6

Power: 260 horsepower, 240 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Xtronic Continuously Variable Transmission

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.1 seconds (Car & Driver)

Weight: 3,940-4,017 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 21 mpg city/28 mpg highway/23 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Art deco styling; lounge-like interior

Lows: Bulbous hood; dirt-magnet, albino interior option

Overall:★★★

Payne: What’s in (and out) for autos in 2015

Posted by hpayne on January 1, 2015

NSX 1.jpg

From Volt 2.0 to Dream Cruise burnouts, News’ auto critic Henry Payne looks at what’s hot (and not) in autos for 2015.

We ran the wheels off 2014 and now it’s been retired to the boneyard. As we turn the key — er, push the starter button — on a brand new year, what will be trending in all things automotive?

IN: Acura NSX

OUT: BMW i8

Last year belonged to Bimmer’s long-awaited, gorgeous, plug-in electric supercar. The $135,000 i8 is soooo 15 minutes ago. The curtain will rise on the long-awaited, gorgeous, plug-in electric, $100K-plus, NSX supercar at January’s Detroit show. The i8 employs an electric motor driving the front wheels and a twin-turbo, 1.8-liter gas engine spinning the rears for a combined 357 horsepower. The NSX’s similar drivetrain reportedly couples the electric motor with a 3.7-liter, twin-turbo V-6 for a combined, screaming 550 horsepower. Oh, lordy. I’m sure to lose my license this year …

IN: SUVs

OUT: sedans

How hot are SUVs? Even iconic sports-car maker Lotus is reportedly developing a Evora-based crossover. In 2014, purchases of new utes surpassed sedan sales. Once truck-based boxes, SUVs now cover every segment from the giant Chevy Suburban to the subcompact Chevy Trax. Based on car chassis, small lux SUVs are sexier-looking and sportier-handling as evidenced by entries like the BMW X1, Audi Q3, Lincoln MKC and so on. Meanwhile, the large sedan stable has stalled with rumors that horses like the Hyundai Azera and Ford Taurus may be retired to the glue factory.

IN: Chevy Volt

OUT: Chevy Volt

The General’s plug-in electric moonshot didn’t bring in sales like Toyota’s iconic hybrid Prius — though it did attract new customers to the showroom. Now comes Volt 2.0 with more performance and better range. Still, given the public stampede toward crossovers, why didn’t Chevy remake the Volt as a compact ute?

IN: Gasoline

OUT: Diesel

More expensive, diesel-powered chariots have struggled to make inroads in the U.S. despite 25 percent better fuel economy than gas-diet competitors. It ain’t getting any easier. With petrol prices plunging under $2-a-gallon, diesel remains above $3. That’s a 50 percent difference. Ouch.

IN: Matthew McConaughey and Ellen DeGeneres

OUT: Matthew McConaughey and Ellen DeGeneres

The “Interstellar” star’s eclectic, mumbling Lincoln ads became a cult hit — and the target of hilarious parodies from comedians like Ellen DeGeneres and Jim Carrey. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the ads aren’t going away. McConaughey is under long-term contract with Lincoln, which means more mumbling in ’15. Which means more priceless material for DeGeneres & Co.

IN: Takata air bag recall

OUT: Chevy Cobalt recall

The General’s ignition switch crisis set off a soul-searching spasm at America’s biggest automaker. New CEO Mary Barra’s feet were immediately put to the fire. But a vehicle stall is usually survivable. Not so exploding airbag shrapnel. The Takata bag issue has already resulted in 21 million recalled vehicles. It is a ticking time bomb in auto dashboards and could shred one of the world’s biggest auto suppliers.

IN: FCA US LLC

OUT: Chrysler Group

Alphanumeric car names are all the rage. Now Fiat-Chrysler has brought the trend to its corporate moniker.

IN: Dodge Hellcat

OUT: Dodge Avenger and Grand Caravan

Led by swaggering CEO Tim Kuniskis, Dodge announced it is now FCA LLC’s performance brand. That means more rascals like the fire-breathing, 707-horsepower Charger Hellcat — and no room for milquetoast, mom-mobiles like midsize sedans or minivans.

IN: CT6

OUT: SRX

Cadillac gets a new HQ (NYC), a new boss (Johan de Nysschen) and new alphanumeric badges. Luxe sedans will henceforth start with “CT,” followed by a number designating their rung in the hierarchy (a new, full-size model, for example, will debut as the CT6). ATS will RIP ASAP. And FYI, SUVs — like the soon-to-be-redesigned SRX — will start with XT. But I bet the iconic Escalade name will remain. LOL.

IN: Grille sculpture

OUT: Functional grilles

As electric vehicles proliferate, their front ends will become purely decorative. Without air-hungry engines behind the front bumper, designers will be freed to be more creative. The Chevy Volt and Cadillac ELR grilles are decorative shields. You know Tesla can do better than a plastic egg on its S. Even gas-powered crossovers like the stylish new Nissan Murano use lower air intakes to feed the beast — leaving the lights and grille as a sculpted work of art. What’s next? Full frontal neon lights?

IN: The Fields Era

OUT: The Mulally Era

The Boeing outsider, Alan Mulally, became an instant legend for rescuing the Dearborn automaker by returning its production to core products. Now comes his CEO successor, Mark Fields, the consummate Ford insider. Chairman Bill Ford wants to be to the connectivity revolution what his great-grandfather Henry was to the mobility revolution. Fields shares his passion.

IN: IndyCar

OUT: Formula One

F1 is the world’s most popular motorsport series. But its politically-correct hybrid powertrains made for higher costs, less competition and cars that sounded like lawnmowers. Ugh. Meanwhile, U.S-based IndyCar — longtime bridesmaid to F1, had a historic year. Eleven different drivers won races and the series (which includes a fling through Belle Isle’s park) gained viewers.

IN: Car apps

OUT: AM/FM radio

Customizable Internet music and traffic apps like Pandora, Spotify, Sirius XM, and Waze, etc. have invaded car consoles. Now comes Apple CarPlay. Can AM-FM survive?

IN: Uber

OUT: Taxi cabs

Even taxis aren’t immune from the digital revolution. App-driven cabbies like Uber and Lyft offered more affordable, more responsive service than taxi-cab dinosaurs. Anybody want to buy a New York taxi medallion?

IN: Line-lock burnouts

OUT: Dream Cruise burnouts

The Dream Cruise will never be the same. Thanks to the 2015 Ford Mustang’s line-lock innovation — which electronically locks the front brakes — you can now smoke your rear tires at a stop light without moving an inch. Whaddaya think of that, bicycle patrol?

IN: Push-button ignitions

OUT: Turn-key ignitions

Push button ignitions have been a luxury feature and the bane of valets (“Sir, did you walk away with the key in your pocket?”). Thanks to GM’s ignition key scandal, expect their use to accelerate into all vehicles.

IN: Managing Detroit automakers’ success

OUT: Managing Detroit automakers’ decline

The dark days of Detroit automaker bankruptcies have receded in the rear view mirror. With 2014 auto sales back at pre-recession levels, the Big 3 are back in black. Have they learned their lessons? The first challenge comes in 2015 with a new round of UAW contract talks.

IN: Heads-up displays

OUT: Tachometers

Originally a fighter jet innovation, heads-up displays — which project speed and other relevant criteria (like speed limits, my wife reminds me) in the driver’s line of sight over the hood — have proliferated into Cadillac, BMW and Hyundai cars. Meanwhile, with auto trannies ubiquitous, the traditional tachometer may get the boot.

 

Payne: Santa, can I have an Audi A3?

Posted by hpayne on December 20, 2014

The Audi A3

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

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

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

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

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

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

Makin’ a list, checkin’ it twice.

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

But the A3 tops my list.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

2015 Audi A3

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

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

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

Power: 220 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

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

Weight: 3,362 pounds

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

Report card

Highs: Go-kart handling; Athletic proportions

Lows: Clumsy console rotary control; Cramped back seats

Overall:★★★★

Payne: Ford F-150, Vehicle of the Year

Posted by hpayne on December 18, 2014

15FordF150_19.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hyundai Genesis

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

Works for the Genesis, too.

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

Chrysler 200

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

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

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

Volkswagen Golf GTI

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

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

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

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

Ford F-150

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

2015 Ford F-150

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

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

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

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

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

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

Weight: 4,050 – 5,142 pounds

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

 

Report card

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

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

Overall:★★★★

Payne: The Lexus NX goes SciFi

Posted by hpayne on December 11, 2014

Lexus created the luxury-utility crossover category

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

Lexus has the most radical styling out there.

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

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

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

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

And so we get the NX.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report card

Highs: Polarizing stylin’; Planted handling

Lows: Polarizing styling; Glitchy touch pad

Overall: ★★★

 

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

Posted by hpayne on December 8, 2014

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

Majoros_ 2015-Chevy-Trax.jpg

Is the sedan a dinosaur?

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

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

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

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

Q: How did you get here?

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

Q: What was your first car?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Payne: Subaru Outback’s sensible chic

Posted by hpayne on December 8, 2014

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

2015 Subaru Outback

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

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

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

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

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

I blame Subaru marketing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015 Subaru Outback

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

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

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

Power: 175 horsepower, 174 pound-feet of torque

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

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

Weight: 3,593 pounds

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

Report card

Highs: Gobs of interior room; all-wheel drive

Lows: Noisier than most; vanilla styling

Overall: ★★★

Payne: Q&Auto: When Motor City became Bomber City

Posted by hpayne on November 22, 2014

Baime_book_112214.jpg

Baime’s latest epic is “Arsenal of Democracy,” a sprawling tale of World War II, wartime Detroit, and Ford family intrigue.

The auto industry has a history of big moments and big egos. And no one tells its stories better than A.J. Baime.

Baime’s latest epic is “Arsenal of Democracy,” a sprawling tale of World War II, wartime Detroit, and Ford family intrigue. Run, don’t walk, to the nearest bookstore and buy it for Christmas. The book’s title is taken from President Roosevelt’s 1940 rallying cry for a joint military-industrial “arsenal of democracy” that would help England defeat Hitler’s Germany.

But what drew Baime into the project was the conflict within the Ford family between a pro-war son, Edsel, and his pacifist father, Henry. Baime uncovered these raw nerves while writing another epic, “Go Like Hell,”about another trans-Atlantic battle — the bitter rivalry between Edsel’s son, Henry Ford II, and Enzo Ferrari for world racing dominance.

“Hell” is now in development as a movie with 20th Century Fox. Its reported co-stars? Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise. “There have been a lot of very good racing movies made — but a long time since a great one was made,” muses Baime. “My dream is that is that this will be the one.”

Baime recently tore through Detroit on book tour. I sat down with him to talk about war, Fords, and muskrat meat.

Q: What’s “Arsenal of Democracy” about?

Baime: It’s about FDR’s vision to win WW2. It was going to be a war of mass production and naturally Detroit and its automobile industry would play the starring role.

Q: Why is Ford’s Willow Run plant, which built the B-24 Liberator bomber, the book’s center?

Baime: I focus in Willow Run for a variety of reasons. But most importantly because it’s the best story and has everything in it. It’s that one story that illuminates everything that was happening on the home front.

Q: Did General Motors, Chrysler, Ford actually become full-time munitions makers?

Baime: That is correct. Ford was actually the last car company to roll a car off the assembly line. If memory serves, it was February 22, 1942 — not long after Pearl Harbor. These companies started building things for the war effort. All kinds of amazing things. Chrysler built field kitchens. Ford built the B24 bomber but also built invasion gliders up in Kingsford. And tanks and tank engines . . . .

Q: So where did people find cars?

Baime: During the war there was an amazing amount of stuff that was difficult to find. You couldn’t buy a new car. You weren’t allowed to drive very much because of strict rules to replace tires. Everything was used for the war effort. Every raw ingredient. There was a shortage of aluminum, rubber, and gasoline because all of those things were needed for the war. You couldn’t get a steak anywhere. People would actually go to their butcher stores and buy muskrat and horse meat.

Q: In the auto industry today we’re used to breakneck, four-year product cycles. But that’s nothing compared to the production promises of Willow Run is it?

Baime: They broke ground on Willow Run (in March, 1941) – and they expected to be turning out bombers in 14 months. They had to remove an orchard first. The idea was to build the biggest airplane factory under in the world under one roof. And to build the biggest, fastest, most destructive bomber. (This at) a time when no airplane — let alone a 60,000-pound bomber — had been mass-produced.

Q: A bomber contains a million parts and the goal was to make one an hour?

Baime: They finally achieved the goal just after D-Day in June, 1944. By end of the war, this one factory was building 70 percent of the B-24 bombers. The B24 is the most mass-produced military aircraft in history.

Q: How did Ford build bombers while company’s founder, Henry Ford, was opposed to the war?

Baime: It was very difficult on a number of levels. There’s this incredibly dark battle between good and evil within the company — within the family — that really came to a climax at the same time as WW2 came to a climax.

Q: Ironically, Edsel Ford died of cancer before the end of the war. So his father survives him is the war hero?

Baime: Henry Ford opposed entry into the war right up until Pearl Harbor. But the Willow Run factory captured the imagination of the masses — even in Europe. Ford was deemed a war hero.

Q: You a gearhead?

Baime: I am. I grew up playing with matchbox cars and watching Dukes of Hazzard. I always loved cars and motor racing – and the big epic stories the industry has produced, the dark side of industrial progress, the heroes. But right now my Subaru’s battery is dead and I can’t get my car running.

Payne: VW GTI is a cheap thrill

Posted by hpayne on November 15, 2014

The 2015 GTI is wrapped in sheetmetal that is totally

After a week with the superstar, supercar BMW i8 (stay tuned for my review next Thursday), I am in withdrawal. Despondent. Needy. What can fill the void of a hybrid luxury sports car with 357 horsepower, 420 pound-feet of torque, and a body that would make Kate Upton jealous?

May I recommend the Volkswagen Golf GTI?

Not that the German hot hatch will make you forget the i8. It won’t. But the VW will remind you that you don’t have to spend $140,000 to get a thrill. At $30 grand – the average price of a new car – this fun-box will give a pricier BMW 3-series sedan fits.

Sure, the GTI doesn’t have the celebrity status of the i8, but it’s plenty sexy with its signature, 18-inch wheels. And as any tabloid star will tell you, celebrity can be exhausting. You can’t hide in an i8. Muscle cars wanted to challenge me. SUVs full of picture-snapping families sidled next to me. Street gawkers wanted to know its every detail.

Like beautiful people, beautiful cars come with paparazzi.

But they are often, like the i8, short on practical amenities like headroom, legroom, luggage room. Heck, the backseat inspiration of the i8 seemed to be my college clothes trunk. Purses have more room than the rear luggage compartment. The beauty of the GTI is that you can comfortably accommodate three friends and their baggage for a weekend Up North – and have a blast getting there on twisty Route 66.

Since the GTI washed up on our shores in 1983, it has inspired a whole segment of pocket rockets including the Ford Focus ST and Subaru WRX. GTI accounts for a whopping 50 percent of Golf sales and debuted its seventh generation this year – a spicy bratwurst I reviewed for you in June.

Not content with that firecracker, VW this fall added a performance package option — 10 more horsepower, more stopping power, more cornering power (and if that isn’t enough spice to curl your taste buds, the speed nerds at APR will sell you an engine chip upgrade worth another 100 ponies).

So I dragged my sullen, post-i8 depression into this randy rocket – and perked right up. Mrs. Payne thanks you, VW.

The GTI fits like a glove. Sure, the bolstered seats aren’t made from organic unicorn hide like the i8 — but they are leather nonetheless. The Autobahn-trim cabin comes with lux-like amenities — heated seats, leather steering wheel, voice-command audio – plus features the i8 lacks: A proper touch screen and 6 cup holders (proof that not all German makers are numb to the needs of car-dwelling Americans).

Stomp on the gas and . . . a twinge of i8 nostalgia returns. The 220 horsepower, 2.0-liter four banger hesitates before the turbo awakes. The i8′s 227 horse, 1.5-liter twin-turbo three would do the same were it not for its complimentary electric motor. Sigh, I do miss that instant, hybrid torque . . . but then the turbo cavalry arrives and the GTI explodes down the road like a bullet out of a rifle.

Approach a sharp bend and the big, fire-engine red, GTI –monogrammed brakes stick like glue. Electric steering is perfectly weighted. The short wheelbase rotates on a dime. This is front wheel drive? Where’s the push? Exit the corner. Back on the juice. Glorious.

And all this for just $34,000. Ditch the lighting package and opt for a stick (the only way to fly) and you’re under $30 grand. I could buy everyone in my family of four one for the price of an i8 – and have enough left over to buy a used ’13 for my sister for Christmas.

But aren’t steroid-fed athletes a maintenance nightmare? Actually, the quality experts at JD Power give it a Performance Award.

Except, ahem, for the water pump.

Every Golf owner knows their water pump is cursed. It’s the GTI’s Achilles Heel. My son drove his 2013 GTI to California this summer. Flattened the back seats. Got all his stuff in the hatch. The perfect cross-country car. His water pump failed on arrival in San Francisco (at least it has the courtesy of not failing in the middle of Death Valley).

So save for a water pump. And $1500 for the performance package. Or you can save another $10 grand for the next GTI upgrade: The Golf R400. Which VW will tease at the Los Angeles Auto Show next week. Which has all-wheel-drive. And (ahem) 394 horsepower. And a 3.9 second zero-60 time. That’s right. A 2.0-liter turbo V-dub with the same acceleration as a 6.2-liter Corvette C7.

Do I miss the BMW i8? The what?

2015 VW GTI

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

Price: $25,215 base ($34,005 Autobahn edition as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder

Power: 220 horsepower, 258 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Performance: Zero-60: 5.6 seconds (Motor Trend); 153 mph

Weight: 3,105 pounds

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

Report card

Highs: No torque steer under hard acceleration; Will terrorize 3-series

Lows: Options push price into mid-30k; Hit/miss voice commands

Overall: ★★★★

GMC Canyon/Chevy Colorado: Urban cowboys

Posted by hpayne on November 13, 2014

The 2015 GMC Canyon is an all-new midsize truck that

I love my full-sized pickup. But, boy, have they gotten big. Godzilla big. Swing-my-tail-and-I-might-take-out-a-block-of-condos big. Thus the GMC Canyon and Chevy Colorado.

I love my big, full-size pickup. Wide as the Mississippi and three states long, it can tow my race trailer, pull stumps up by their roots, and empty a Home Depot of mulch.

But in town it can be a misfit toy.

Like Ndamukong Suh in a china shop, the big beast always seem one step from trouble. A sudden swerve? Dang, I just squashed a Toyota Corolla. A drive-through lunch? Oops, I took out the menu board. Parallel parking? Fuhgettaboutit.

Today’s full-size pickups are modern marvels: Comfortable, quiet, as capable as a Swiss Army knife, as durable as Bill Cosby. But, boy, have they gotten big. Godzilla big. Swing-my-tail-and-I-might-take-out-a-block-of-condos big.

Thus the Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon. For the urban cowboy that wants the capabilities of a Chevy Silverado in a Chevy Equinox-sized package, General Motors offers a pair of midsized trucks. Smaller, cheaper, more maneuverable, but with all the sedan-like, 21st century interior amenities that truck customers have come to expect.

You’re scratching your head. But didn’t GM abandon the midsize market just three years ago as sales stagnated? Haven’t consumers made the choice for full-size trucks?

Let me explain. What changed is those limo-riding geniuses in Washington decided to make vehicles better. Buckle up, kids. When the auto industry gets detoured through the Beltway swamp even three-ton 4x4s can get stuck in the regulatory mud.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, our pols are busy shutting down domestic oil production. But on Tuesdays and Thursdays (Fridays they drill for campaign contributions) they are making America less dependent on foreign oil. So in 2009 they mandated that, by 2025, auto fuel economy must increase by, ahem … 99 percent.

That includes trucks.

Ford answered the call by light-weighting its pickup fleet with aluminum — at about the cost of the annual GDP of Portugal. Less weight = better fuel economy. But for bankrupt GM a multi-billion bet on aluminum was not an option. Plan B: Hang on, Mary, we’re doin’ a U-turn back to the smaller, midsize truck market. Smaller trucks = better fuel economy.

The result is a fascinating war of strategies between the world’s two biggest truck armies. Aluminum F-150s vs. the twin steel tanks of GM full-size and midsize pickups. It’s offense vs. defense. Broncos vs. Seahawks. Superman vs. Batman. It should be good.

In fielding its light infantry, GM didn’t just remake the tinny, midsize trucks of the last war. The Canyon and Colorado pickups are weapons remade from the ground up.

When life throws you lemons, make lemonade.

Consumer trends may aid GM’s choice as well. A funny thing happened to the compact SUV market in the short time GM has been away from compact trucks: It grew. Boy, did it grow. Compact SUV sales jumped 21 percent in 2013 and have continued as the fastest growing sales segment in 2014. Jack’s beanstalk didn’t grow this fast.

Some ex-Canyon/Colorado customers turned to bigger pickups, but most, says GM, went into small utes like the Equinox and GMC Terrain. Midsize pickup sales have stalled at 250,000 units a year without Detroit trucks. The Toyota Tacoma, the segment leader, hasn’t been updated since 2004. It’s as if the local deli hadn’t updated its menu in eight years. The patrons have turned surly. Surveys finds them the No. 2 most disgruntled customers in the industry. They fled to the SUV buffet across the street.

But what if someone made a compact ute with a box in back?

Not just a box, but seats with the same room as your ute? Quiet interiors insulated with triple-sealed doors? Center consoles engorged with nav screens, Internet radio, and 4G Internet hot spots?

All that and the Colorado brings an Impala-like, more aerodynamic front cab design that might appeal to cross-shopping crossover buyers. But I particularly like the Canyon. The GMC is more old school pickup with its iconic, Sierra-like, bold grill. But for a couple grand more than the Colorado, it comes with stitched, soft dash materials that scores a trifecta: It blows away the foreign competition; matches its bigger, full-size siblings; and mimics the scores of attractive, compact utes that advertise in the Canyon’s $25,000-$40,000 neighborhood.

I took a Canyon Super Crew around the neighborhood to my truck buddies. My own, handpicked urban cowboy focus group. They ate it up. Its easy, step-up rear corners. Its strong tailgate. Its roomy interior. Sure, the Canyon — built on the Sierra pickup rail platform and leaf springs — rides like a bronco compared to the car-like unibody of a GMC Terrain. But at nearly the same price as the Terrain, it’s more rugged while offering the same interior comforts.

Sold, right?

But here’s where the Ford aluminum strategy gets interesting. My urban cowboys loved their first date — but before they got hitched to Canyon, they all wanted to know how its price and fuel mileage compared to a full-size pickup.

I know, I know. Truck guys are brand loyal. A Red Sox fan will never root for the Yankees. And a GM pickup owner will never buy a Ford. But with the new F150, Ford has redefined full-size pickups.

At 4,800 pounds — 780 pounds less than its previous generation — Ford contends that its 2.7-liter, 325 horsepower, 375 pound-feet of torque, V6 Ecoboost, aluminum F150 may rival Ram diesel’s class-leading, combined 23 mpg when EPA figures are announced later this year. Heck, Ford’s non-turbo, 3.5-liter V6 will probably better 20 mpg in its new aluminum shell.

By comparison, a 4,500-pound, 3.6-liter, 305 horsepower, 269 pound-feet of torque, steel Canyon boasts 20 mpg combined EPA mileage rating (17 city/24 highway). That’s better than the mid-size competition, but not F150.

Bigger is better fuel economy? Take a bow, Ford.

But where Colorado-Canyon may not save at the gas pump, it’ll save you at purchase. You’ll need that bigger F150 truck bed to carry the $8,000 more in dollar bills to buy it. The 2.7L Ecoboost Ford V6 comes in at $46, 615. The Canyon? Just $38,915.

Is a full-size pickup worth eight grand more? Is the Canyon worth four grand more than the aging, V6 Tacoma? Your needs will tell the tale. I need a big pickup that will tow a trailer of race cars while seating five overfed adults. If your needs are more modest — say a family trip with a 5,000-pound bass boat — then the Canyon might be enough.

That and you can park the GMC in a downtown Detroit parking garage without a tugboat.

Next week’s Drive review: 2014 BMW i8 vs. 1979 BMW M1

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

2015 GMC Canyon/Chevy Colorado

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

Price: $22,805 base ($38,915 Canyon Crew long box as tested)

Power plant: 2.5-liter dual-overhead-cam inline 4-cylinder; 3.6-liter, dual-overhead-cam V6

Power: 200 horsepower, 191 pound-feet torque (4-cyl); 305 horsepower, 269 pound-feet torque (V6)

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Performance: Payload: 1,470 pounds; Trailering: 7,000 pounds (AWD 6’2″ box as tested)

Weight: 4,500 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 19 city/25 highway/21 combined (4-cyl); EPA 17 city/24 highway/20 combined (V6)

Report card

Highs: Ute with a box; Quiet interior

Lows: Good ol’ rough truck ride; Can get pricey

Overall: ★★★

 

Payne: Q&Auto – IndyCar champ Will Power

Posted by hpayne on November 8, 2014

IndyCar champ Will Power

This was Will Power’s year as he won his first IndyCar championship. I sat down with the boyish-looking 33-year old to talk Detroit, oval tracks, and racing movies.

Will Power won the inaugural Quicken Loans Office Grand Prix last week … on a tricycle.

It’s been that kind of year for the talented, Australian-born racer. He won three Verizon IndyCar races in 2014 on his way to his first series championship after three years a runner-up.

In Detroit to kick off ticket sales for the 2015 Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix, Power and Penske teammate Helio Castroneves did some trike racing on Quicken Loans main call center floor (Quicken sponsors the Saturday and Sunday IndyCar races. Other heats feature sports cars and trucks) in the Chase Bank building downtown. The media ate it up. So did Quicken employees who got to rub shoulders with both winners of the 2014 Dual in Detroit.

The veteran car jockeys are friends, fierce competitors — and very different men. Three-time Indy 500 champ Castroneves is a racing rock star. Nicknamed “Spiderman” for his trademark fence-climb when he wins, the electric Brazilian is a TV celebrity with two appearances on “Dancing with the Stars” to his credit. The soft-spoken, boyish-looking Power doesn’t have a nickname (Will Power is pun enough) or TV show — though he was in the 2013 animated snail-racer movie, “Turbo.”

“I played a journalist and had one line: ‘It’s a freak of nature,’ ” he laughs in recalling his big screen debut.

One of the world’s elite drivers, Power too is a freak of nature. I sat down with him at Quicken’s HQ to talk Detroit, oval tracks, and racing movies.

Q: After three years runner up, how big was it to win this year?

Power: It was huge for me … after having been so close three times before. It was my most solid year as far as being good at every discipline where in the past I was super-dominant on street courses — not so much on oval. This year it was very even. Oval was almost my strength this year.

Q: You were in “Turbo.” What’s your favorite racing movie?

Power: ”Days of Thunder” is a cool movie. “Rush” is very accurate. The “Senna” documentary is probably the best I’ve seen — very real.

Q: Do you still live in Australia?

Power: I live in Charlotte, North Carolina where the Penske team is based. I lived in Indianapolis before that. I have a wife but no kids — we might work on that next year. The team is based (in Carolina) because they also have a NASCAR team and everything is under the same roof.

Q: We just had the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin. Have you raced in Formula One?

Power: I tested a Minardi car back in 2004.

Q: How do you compare F1 and IndyCar?

Power: IndyCar is very spec. Everyone has the same stuff so it really comes down to the driving team and the engineers to get the most out of that. Which has made for this unbelievably competitive environment that we race in. There are 22 cars and 22 guys that can win every week. Formula One is more about the equipment. It’s difficult to get a gauge on drivers because everyone’s equipment is different.

Q: Do you still have F1 aspirations or do you prefer IndyCar?

Power: I enjoy racing IndyCar. It would be difficult to get into F1 at my age (Ed. Note: Power is 33). They’re looking for young guys who are going to spend some time there.

Q: How do you like the Detroit course?

Power: It’s a very good track. What makes a good race track is being able to pass. There’s nothing worse than watching a procession. It’s a fun track to drive — pretty technical. It’s spectator friendly as well.

Q: Detroit will be the only dual race on this year’s schedule. How do you like the duals?

Power: I love (them). I think they are a great idea. We go there to race. Why waste two days practicing and qualifying when you can race for two days? We practice on Friday and should be racing on Saturday and Sunday. The streets are closed down for us, so we should take absolute advantage of that.

Q: Is Detroit particularly tough?

Power: It depends on the temperature and the day. But it’s pretty tough to drive these cars now.

Q: What’s your daily driver?

Power: A Chevy Tahoe. The new one’s really nice.

Q: What’s your dream car?

Power: I’d probably like one of the Porsches. I’m not sure which one. I’m not a big car guy. I’m a race car guy, but I’m not into buying expensive cars.

Payne: Dodge Charger’s got room with vroom

Posted by hpayne on November 6, 2014

For 2015 Dodge and SRT take America’s only four-door

In the Age of the SUV, the Charger redefines sedan performance. This is a roomy sedan that’ll hunt down Pruises for breakfast.

The 707-horsepower, 2015 Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat goes 0-60 in 3.7 seconds, hits a top speed of 204 mph, and reaches a quarter mile in 11 seconds flat.

You know, a family car.

I wink. I smile. But in the Age of the Sport Ute, Dodge’s large sedan is pure genius. It may be the 21st century but we Americans still prefer riding high in SUVs like the horse-drawn carriages of the 19th. To compete with these domesticated elephants, Dodge offers the Hellcat and its Charger siblings. Performance sedans for those who want vroom with room.

The full-size sedan segment is fat with stylish four-doors like the Toyota Avalon, Ford Taurus, and Chevy Impala. But these sedans are an endangered species thanks to stylish, roomy, sport utes produced by their own brandmates. Take the Impala, a stunning divan on wheels which ultimately must compete with a handsome Chevy Traverse SUV that is roomier with better visibility.

Chrysler fields the most iconic SUV of them all, the Jeep. But you’ll never mistake a Charger for a Jeep.

Carpool to school and it’ll hunt down Priuses for breakfast. Even the growling, base V6 is politically incorrect. Look in the mirror and its specter is chilling. Where the previous gen Charger bullied with its gaping, truck-like mouth, the new Charger adopts racier family features first seen on the Dodge Dart. Dart, meet harpoon. A narrow, blacked-out grille makes a brooding mono-brow across the Charger’s wide face. Like the pupils of a black panther, the darkened, swept headlights glow with white LEDs. The kids’ll scream for it.

Behind this fearsome maw is a jaw-full of sharp teeth. Unlike segment competitors that introduce themselves with 4-cylinders, the $27,995, starter SE announces itself with a V6 – the same 292-horsepower mill that premium Chrysler 200s use to terrorize the mid-size sedan class. For just $12k more you’re at the reigns of the R/T Hemi V8′s 485 horses.

Key to this inspiration is Dodge’s barrel-chested, drag-racing CEO Tim Kuniskis who spits out facts about the Charger lineup like a Gatling gun. Dodge commercials celebrate the Charger as the natural evolution of a company founded by the speeding, brawling, bare-knuckled Dodge brothers. I bet Kuniskis could whip ‘em both.

He’s certainly punishing the competition. Charger sales have increased 63 percent in five years, increasing market share by over three percent. “We don’t want to compete on a spread sheet,” says Kuniskis, who, at 45, is the average age of the Charger’s much-young-than-segment buyer.

“I want people to day: ‘Damn, that’s a nice car.’”

To drive home the Charger’s performance statement, Kuniskis has bred the ferocious, Charger Hellcat. Just as he did the two-door Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat when the iconic two-door muscle car debuted this summer. Two Hellcats? Do we have to choose?

Steady yourselves, muscle-car veterans. I’d choose the Charger.

When my speed-starved son sprung for his first car this year he bought a four-door, 200 horsepower, VW GTI hot hatch. Without any sacrifice in performance he can comfortably escort a double date to dinner. The same principle applies with the four-door Hellcat. Indeed, thanks to a slipperier drag coefficient, the Charger actually puts up gaudier numbers than its Challenger stable-mate: It’s 0.2 ticks quicker down the quarter mile, and eclipses the 200-mph mark while the coupe manages “just” 199 mph.

All that while comfortably fitting 6’5″ ball-players like me in its cavernous, ute-like backseats. Besides, what would the kids rather see you pick them up at school in? A vintage Challenger trying to relive the ’60s, or a rockin’ Charger bod that looks like it jumped out of a Sega Ultimate Street Racing game?

When I tested the Challenger Hellcat at Portland Raceway this June, I thrilled at its raw, asphalt-chewing power.

But at my test of the Charger Hellcat on a rain-soaked drive from Washington, DC to West Virginia, I was treated to a demonstration of the car’s life-saving electronic systems. Purchasers of mega-horsepower muscle cars beware – these beasts are nitroglycerine on four wheels. Explosive. Unstable if not treated with respect.

As a life-long racer, I’ve developed instincts with high-torque, high-power-to-weight ratio cars. But my drive partner in the 700-plus horsepower Hellcat, a longtime friend and colleague, had not.

Entering an empty four lane on our way to Summit Point Raceway in the wet, he stomped on the throttle and the Hellcat bit back. Suddenly, we were swerving across two lanes like Ahab clinging to Moby Dick. With each wag of the 4,575-pound Charger’s tail, the big fish porpoised further out of the driver’s control. I braced myself. This was going to be a real tank slapper. Like a wayward bowling ball at Star Lanes, we were doomed for the gutters.

And then, like the hand of God, the electronic control system saved us.

Cutting throttle, applying brakes, shaving the car’s pitch and yaw, the Charger’s computer brain took over and brought the beast back from beyond. Riding in the backseat, SRT chief engineer Russ Ruedisueli was quiet – no doubt admiring his engineers’ handiwork (and saying a prayer of thanks).

Stability control. Don’t leave home without it.

The non-incident highlights the Charger’s biggest shortcoming, its girth. At a time when the new 3,800-pound 2015 Mustang has pushed the muscle car envelope with a sophisticated suspension, the powerful Charger and Challenger can feel like Bambi on new legs. Dodge benchmarked the $63,995 Hellcat to a BMW M5. It can whip the porky Bimmer in a straight-line, but it can’t match its road feel.

With a strict diet and upgraded corners, the head-turning Charger could win every argument in the muscle car class.

Its technical specs are jaw-dropping – from a standard eight-speed transmission to available autonomous, collision avoidance. Its lush interior is unsurpassed in the segment with a stylish, aluminum-bezeled console bordering the superb, family-friendly UConnect infotainment system. At remote Summit Point on deadline, my laptop failed me. The UConnect’s WiFi hotspot was my only lifeline to the outside world.

When my son looks to upsize from his four-door GTI, the Charger will look like steak compared to SUV gristle. But what if he had a Dodge competitor to his compact V-Dub? What if Dodge translated Charger’s youthful performance cred to a four-door hot hatch for first generation buyers? Utilitarian. Fast. With a hemi under the hood.

Whaddaya think, Kuniskis?

2015 Dodge Charger

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

Price: $28,990 base ($64,990 Hellcat as tested)

Power plant: 3.6-liter V6; 5.7-liter Hemi V8: 6.4-Liter Hemi V8; 6.2-Liter, supercharged Hemi V8

Power: 292 or 300horsepower, 280 pound-feet of torque (V6); 370 horsepower, 395 pound-feet of torque (5.7L V8); 485 horsepower, 475 pound-feet of torque (6.4L V8); 707 horsepower, 650 pound-feet of torque (6.2L superchargedV8)

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph: 3.7 seconds (manufacturer); Top speed: 204 mph

Weight: 4,575 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 19 city/31 highway/23 combined (3.6L V6); 18 city/27 highway/21 combined (AWD 3.6L V6); 16 city/25 highway/19 combined (5.7L V8); 15 city/25 highway/18 combined (6.4L V8); 13 city/22 highway/16 combined (6.2L V8)

Report card

Highs: Inspired styling; Dude, 707 kicking horses

Lows: Porky; Know your own power

Overall: ★★★★

 

Payne: Volvo XC60 gets X-citing

Posted by hpayne on November 4, 2014

xc60 museum fr 3-4.jpgFrom the sculpted grille to those signature boomerang taillights, the sexy Swede will turn 007′s head faster than Britt Eckland in “Man with a Golden Gun.” But would he use it as a getaway car?

I’ve struggled with Sweden’s twin stereotypes. How could a country that boasts the world’s most beautiful women also be home to Volvo — the homeliest luxury carmaker on the planet?

Swedish lasses have been desired by men everywhere. Volvo’s four-wheeled boxes have been coveted by bespectacled, granola-chewing nerds. Tiger Woods-ex Elin Nordegren looked as out of place in a Volvo as her golfer husband did in a Buick.

Well, scrap the caricature.

It’s cool to covet Swedish blondes and Volvos. Even now I wager you’re looking up from this page to follow a Nordic beauty in a stunning Volvo down the street. Perhaps she’s in an S60 sedan. Or a V60 wagon.

Or today’s focus, the XC60 – the prettiest small crossover on a very talented, very crowded small crossover stage.

My driveway has been besieged by new utes this year as every manufacturer from Detroit to Deutschland flogs its small crossover entry. The styles vary from Lincoln’s ya-gotta-c MKC to Lexus’s in-excess NX. But once ugly-duckling Volvo is an XC60 swan.

From the sculpted grille to the tapered hips to those signature boomerang taillights, the XC60 will turn James Bond’s head faster than Britt Ekland in “Man with a Golden Gun.” But would 007 use it as a getaway car?

It’s no Aston DB5. But let’s be real. In our post-sedan world, if Bond needs to hijack a passing vehicle, it’s likely to be a ute. And as SUVs go, the XC is one sweet ride.

Which surprised me since — true to its caricature — the Volvo is a tank. At 4,277 pounds it tips the scales as one of the heaviest crossovers in class thanks to all-wheel-drive, a turbocharged V6, and enough safety systems to stop an incoming nuke. Someone’s been snacking on Swedish meatballs and cream sauce. This sled is 600 pounds heavier than an Audi Q3. Wrestle the Big Swede into a corner and you feel the weight shift before … the magic kicks in.

A moment while I pull my motor-head brothers aside …

We didn’t think this Chinese ownership thing would work, did we? When Ford off-loaded Volvo to Geely for a song in the depths of the Great Recession we thought it was the end, right? Lights out? Swedish homicide by a clueless, communist conglomerate?

Wrong. Volvo has thrived under Chinese ownership just as Jaguar — also cast off by Ford — has roared under India’s Tata. The secret? The Chinese and Indian owners haven’t micromanaged their talented, adopted children. They’ve let them do their thing. Thus the jaw-dropping Jaguar F-Type. Thus the elegant XC60.

“We’re still headquartered in Sweden where the magic still happens,” says Volvo spokesperson Laura Venezia.

“Geely certainly lets Volvo be Volvo,” adds Tony Nicolosi, CEO of Volvo North America. Which means the big beast has paws aided by torque-vectoring all-wheel drive. The same kind of outer-wheel spinning, inner-wheel braking AWD magic that makes the Subaru WRX a rocket ship and turns the Volvo on a dime. Gripping the nicely-weighted, heated, leather steering wheel, I could rotate the XC60 into a corner with precision (ahem, for a SUV) then stampede out of the exit with 300 turbocharged horses.

Oh, the ladies love this hunk.

ncluding my gold-maned wife. Once inside, however, her concerns turned to more practical Volvo engineering touches like safety and child seats. For all its style and performance, the XC60 hasn’t forgotten its roots.

The Swedish SUV is the only vehicle in class to offer standard crash prevention braking. No wonder it gets the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s highest score. Through the magic of radar and lasers, the Volvo will stop on its own under 30 mph if it detects a collision. It’s also available with an array of safety features like adaptive cruise control, pedestrian detection, and blind-spot assist.

Got kiddies? The Volvo’s lush, black-and-white stitched leather interior comes equipped with built-in rear booster seats.

Mrs. Payne even discovered the button (on the typically maddening European center console — OK, the Volvo ain’t perfect) that flips down the rear headrests — THWACK! — thus waking up inattentive teens in the back. Though I told her I was sure that feature is for laying the seats flat for an extended trunk.

Whatever. The point is that the XC60 is the total package — a safety-first performance vehicle that hotties can line up to buy. This lux entry justifies its fully-loaded, $52K sticker. Myself? I would hold off a while longer. In a couple of years the AWD XC60 will bow with the brand’s Drive-E, turbocharged and supercharged, 2.0-liter, 302 horsepower inline turbo 4 with eight-speed transmission.

And it will be cheaper and more fuel-efficient (Drive-E currently only comes in a front-wheel drive package). Magic.

Supercharging and turbocharging. Another pair of Swedes that look good together.

2015 Volvo XC60

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

Price: $36,675 base ($52,225 AWD, turbo-6 as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged in-line 4-cylinder; 3.2-liter in-line V6; 2.0-liter turbocharged “Drive-E” inline-4: 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-6

Power: 240 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque (4-cyl.); 240 horsepower, 236 pound-feet of torque (3.2 inline-6); 302 horsepower, 295 pound-feet of torque (Drive-E turbo-4); 300 horsepower, 325 pound-feet of torque (turbo inline-6);

Transmission: Six or eight-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph: 6.2 seconds (Edmunds.com)

Weight: 4,277 pounds (AWD turbo-6 as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 24 city/31 highway/27 combined (2.0L turbo-4); 18 city/25 highway/20 combined (3.2L 6-cyl); 22 city/30 highway/25 combined (Drive-E turbo-4); 17 city/24 highway/20 combined (3.0L turbo-6)

Report card

Highs: Not the same ol’ homely Volvo; Still the same ol’ safety underneath

Lows: Thirsty 6-cyl engines; Quirky console

Overall: ★★★★

Payne: Luxe Lincoln MKC a must-c

Posted by hpayne on October 30, 2014

Lincoln introduces the all-new 2015 Lincoln MKC small

I was born and raised in the South. We southerners like to say Midwesterners are the nicest Americans without a drawl. Take the Lincoln MKC.

This is one friendly vehicle. Walk toward it and the rear LED lights glow, the mirrors open like sunflowers to the sun, the doors unlock as your fingers slip inside the handle. Is it the key in my pocket or you just happy to see me?

What’s next? A hug?

That warmth is an asset in a hot compact luxury segment headlined by the ruthlessly efficient Acura RDX and the Teutonic twins BMW X3 and Audi Q3. As early entrants in the segment, the RDX and X3 set the standard for reliability and power.

Ford’s luxury lineup has failed to impress in the sedan and large SUV segments. The MKC is a fresh look in a fresh segment. It succeeds where its siblings have failed. Unlike the MKZ sedan, the C looks athletic. Unlike the MKX midsize SUV, it’s a pretty face.

The Escape had already established Ford’s Global C platform as a fit chassis. The MKC makes it alluring. Its adaption of Lincoln’s winged grille-design language soars. Maybe it’s the Halloween holiday, but the MKC’s face reminds me of Catwoman’s mask. Sexy. Mysterious. A high, nicely-sculpted belt line keeps your stare. Curvy hips — imagine Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman — swell over the rear wheels before tapering into the feline superhero’s — ahem, Lincoln’s — signature, LED-lit tail.

Beauty with sacrifices

Like the Audi A3, the MKC’s narrower greenhouse suggests sedan-like elegance. This modification is most striking compared to the BMW X3′s bigger, boxier greenhouse. Dare I suggest a BMW looks homely? Only compared to the sleek Lincoln and Audi.

I’ve been smitten with the Audi line’s lines for years, but the Lincoln gives Q3 a run in the swimsuit competition. So pretty is the MKC that it has attracted that hunky, drawling, mumbling Matthew McConaughey as a spokesman for the brand.

Beauty comes with sacrifice, however, as the higher sill line in the MKC and Q3 reduces visibility. The X3 lets the sunlight in. Its C-pillar visibility is superb compared to the Lincoln’s tapered, blind rear quarter window.

The Lincoln’s beauty is more than skin deep. This lass brings lots of personality.

Come inside the Lincoln’s lush, intuitive interior. Detroit’s automakers know intuitively that Americans live in their cars. You’ve heard me applaud the Chrysler 200 as the most driver-friendly midsize sedan. The MKC is the class of small lux. Its interior engineers must eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with customers because they anticipate their needs like a mirror.

But the elegant Lincoln and Audi — both new this year — aim for something higher. In fact, they typify why compact SUV is the market to watch. Like the Ford Escape and Mazda CX-5 in the mainstream compact crossover segment, they promise sexy styling and nimble handling that make sedans chew their fingernails. Utes with hot bods? Muscle beach is getting crowded.

That a Lincoln would even turn heads is newsworthy.

Tired of shifter stalks that grow like weeds in the middle of your console? The Lincoln simplifies automatic shifting to five buttons on the dash. This not only conforms to the push-button nature of the console — touchscreen, climate controls — but also frees up the center aisle for more storage space and climbing between seats (how many times have you been hemmed in by a parking garage wall on your left and had to climb over the gear shifter to get out of the passenger side?)

Worried about distracted driving? Like an oversized game console, the MKC locates all of the car’s essential functions on four, tidy quadrants of the steering wheel.

Miss the visibility of boxier SUVs? The C offers driver assist features like blind spot assist, park assist, rear camera, even a front collision alert when you approach, say, Cyrus the bull in the middle of the road in that McConaughey ad (he’s weirding me out).

This customer care follows you ’round back. Arms full of suitcases? Golf bags? McConaughey DVDs? You can open the rear lift gate with a swing of your foot under the bumper. Once open, a cavernous, vertical space awaits so that you can pile it all in — and still load four pals.

The Audi matches the Lincoln in interior comfort but falls short in usability. It must be a cultural thing. Germans, after all, spend less time in their cars and more time on the throttle. Trying to navigate an address on the Q3′s rotary dial-controlled, non-touch screen will drive you to the looney bin. Fortunately, the Q3 will get you there in a hurry.

Comfort over athleticism

The AWD Audi dances like a sports car. Flogging the taut crossover over Hell, Michigan’s heavenly roads, I had a ball. This is German personality. Is it what ute-users are looking for? Lincoln thinks not. It extends soft luxury interior to soft exterior ride. Indeed, sister Escape is more athletic than the MKC.

Which takes us to the bottom line.

So confident is Lincoln that you’ll love the MKC, it has given it a BMW-esque sticker price. I’m not so confident. Brand in this greyhound-eat-greyhound segment must be earned.

My AWD, 2.3-liter, full-loaded, ruby red, ebony premium-leather MKC came in at a pricey $49,265. Sure, the 2.3-liter Ecoboost’s 285 horses will blow you away. But it won’t blow away a 2.0-liter Q3′s 2.0-liter turbo. Though the Q3′s mill possesses just 210 hp, Top Speed.com rates their 0-60 times equal. Yet the loaded Audi stickers for about $40,000.

Lincoln should also worry about the Ford Escape in its rear-view mirror. My Escape-smitten neighbor, the lovely Mrs. Walbridge, was captured by my MKC. She fell in love with its looks. With its center console. With Matthew McConaughey. Then she read the sticker.

Her loaded, comely (if not Hollywood handsome) Titanium Escape matches its lux mate nav-system-for-nav-system, liftgate-kick-for-liftgate-kick, but it set her back just 38 grand. Is the Lincoln lawyer really worth it?

More tempting is the base 2.0-liter, 240-horse MKC which only lightens the wallet to the tune of $44,931. That might be worth that lovely face. And that Midwest-friendly welcome. And the fact that Lincoln is producing world-class luxe again.

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

2015 Lincoln MKC

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

Price: $34,890 base ($49,265 as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter inline-4 turbo; 2.3-liter inline-4 turbo

Power: 240 horsepower, 270 pound-feet of torque (2.0L); 285 horsepower, 305 pound-feet of torque (2.3L)

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph: 6.6 seconds (Car & Driver)

Weight: 3,963 pounds (AWD as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 19 city/26 highway/22 combined (2.0L AWD); EPA 18 city/26 highway/21 combined (2.3L AWD)

Report card

Highs: Looks like Catwoman; best-in-class console

Lows: Heavy; demands a heavy wallet

Overall: ★★★★

Internet car radio poses bigger threat for local AM-FM

Posted by hpayne on October 25, 2014

Twenty-five years ago, carmakers decorated their auto exteriors with eye-catching wood trim. Today, the wood is on the inside, complementing flashy center consoles with seven-inch, digital touch screens.

The car dashboard is being transformed and it’s taking AM-FM radio with it.

Just as it did newspapers and broadcast television, the Internet revolution is roiling the local broadcast landscape that has long held a monopoly on the car radio.

With center console infotainment systems, the in-car landscape has undergone a seismic shift started by satellite radio two decades ago and accelerated by Internet players like Pandora, Spotify, and iHeartRadio.

Now, AM-FM stations face a tipping point as Apple CarPlay, Google’s Android Auto, and in-car Wi-Fi hot spots fundamentally change the user interface in vehicles from radio to Internet.

“The center stack has changed from two dials and three buttons to very complex systems that contain so many different options,” says Paul Jacobs, vice president of Jacobs Media, a radio consulting firm in Bingham Farms. “The radio industry needs to work very hard to make sure radio remains vital in the car of the future.”

Jacobs Media hosted the Second Annual DASH conference in Detroit last week, bringing together radio executives, automakers, and auto suppliers from all over the country.

“It’s a much more competitive landscape,” says Steve Chessare, who manages three Detroit stations — WRIF-101.1 FM, WCSX-94.7 FM, and Sports Radio 105.1 — for Greater Media. “It’s more important than ever to create content that people want to engage in.”

It’s a new landscape. Beginning with this year’s Chevy Malibu, every new generation GM vehicle will come with a Wi-Fi hot spot that will allow up to seven devices to connect directly to the Internet.

In December, the Hyundai Sonata promises to be the first car compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Audio so that drivers can plug in their iPhones and mimic their interface on a vehicle’s screen.

That means customers can more easily bypass the AM-FM dial and go straight to their favorite Internet radio service. By allowing consumers greater control over their music choices, services like Spotify have proven popular with users — especially young listeners.

“It’s like the introduction of central door lock mechanisms,” says radio consultant Larry Rosin, president of Edison Research in New Jersey. “Once you don’t have to reach across the car to lock the doors, you never want to go back. It’s the same with the choice Internet radio offers.”

Advertisers are following the users.

While local media ad revenue in the U.S. is expected to increase 2.8 percent (to $151 billion) by 2017, that growth is expected to come almost entirely onlineAccording to BIA/Kelsey, online advertising will rise 13.8 percent per year, while traditional advertising — TV, print, radio and yellow pages — is expected to remain flat (at $107 billion).

According to an estimate by Statista, there are some 160 million digital radio listeners — a number expected to hit 183 million by 2018.

That trend is driving once-big radio players like Walt Disney Co., which has radio stations that cover 42 percent of the country, out of the industry. Disney is selling 23 stations and going digital with Radio Disney kids programming.

Unlike newspapers which have seen customers move away from home delivery, the Internet radio revolution is not driving listeners out of the car. Just the opposite.

According to Jacobs Media, half of radio listening is in the car, with that percentage increasing with each new generation. For example, 45 percent of baby boomers get their radio fix in the car compared to nearly 60 percent of Generation Y. One-fifth of cars on the road are “connected” via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. With 90 percent of Gen Y drivers carrying a smartphone — versus 65 percent of baby boomers — in-car connectivity for new cars is a must.

While AM-FM radio remains the leading infotainment priority of new car buyers in Jacobs’ survey (89 percent), 66 percent of respondents say an iPod connector is important, 51 percent say Bluetooth, and 25 percent satellite radio.

“The mainstay of local broadcast radio is news and traffic,” says John Wordock, executive editor of the Wall Street Journal Radio Networks. “But I think apps may eventually cut into radio’s monopoly on traffic reports in the car.”

Edison’s Rosin points to growing Internet traffic sites like Waze, which calculates real-time traffic based on driver inputs to determine the fastest way to reach your destination.

“No one cares about traffic reports but their own,” says Rosin, who told the DASH conference that radio traffic reports may go the way of the dinosaurs.

How will local radio compete? Rosin and Jacobs agree that stations must stay current with digital apps. They also agree that content is king and AM — long second sister to FM — may have the secret sauce given the strength of talk radio.

“The way to compete is to continue to invest in local talent and great local content,” says Jacobs. “People don’t listen to stations, they listen to personalities.”

Greater Media’s Chessare says his stations are pushing online apps as well as their own Internet sites. Their online advertising is up 43 percent this year.

Jacobs was encouraged by what he saw at the DASH conference as radio owners and car dealers agreed to collaborate on making radio operation — programming presets, finding radio bands — part of the car-owning regimen.

“I just bought a brand new Jeep Wrangler and the salesman had me in the car for 45 minutes showing me all the different things the car could do,” says Greater Media’s Chessare. “Cars are so complex these days. We need to be pushing dealers — and incentivizing dealers — to walk customers through the cars’ features in their showrooms.”

“The car is the No. 1 listening location,” adds Jacobs. “It is also the No. 1 revenue category. So it is imperative that the radio industry get to know the auto industry better. Radio needs to get a seat at the table making sure they are delivering their content in a way automakers want in order to ensure they have a place in the center stack of the future.”