Ford’s fast Farley: Racer on Sunday, CEO on Monday

Posted by Talbot Payne on November 24, 2020

Thumbs up from Ford CEO Jim Farley in his Lola T98 sports racer. Farley has become an accomplished racer while also rising to Ford's top job.

Jim Farley is the top dog at Ford – and he’s no slouch at auto racing, either.

Last weekend, Ford Motor Co.’s CEO stood atop the podium at the SVRA Road Atlanta Grand Prix, the winner of his race class in a 1978 Lola T298 sports racer. He also raced his 1967 Shelby Cobra in a separate class, finishing sixth.

A latecomer to racing as an adult, Farley has become an accomplished driver, escaping from the pressure-cooker world of automotive manufacturing to race amateur vintage racing events in the U.S. and Europe.

“He’s one of the best non-pro drivers we’ve ever had race with us,” said Bud Bennett of RM Motorsports in Wixom, which prepares Farley’s Lola. “He has quite a bit of natural ability.”

Farley took over the helm of Ford in October, joining an elite corps of Detroit auto execs with a passion for going fast. General Motors Co. President Mark Reuss and Cruise LLC CEO Dan Amman are both Nürburgring race track-licensed drivers. Toyota boss Akio Toyoda also has a fondness for race tracks.

Farley logged about a half-dozen races in the U.S. this year as well as a few in Europe. When across the pond, he pilots a 1966 Ford GT-40. Naturally, all three race cars are powered by Ford engines.

Ford CEO Jim Farley, middle, stands atop the winner's podium Sunday at the 2020 SVRA Road Atlanta Grand Prix, driving his classic Lola T298.

At Road Atlanta, one of North America’s most challenging circuits with its signature, writhing downhill esses, and long, undulating back straight, Farley won his class in two sprint races. He also placed first in his class in the endurance race, and fourth overall, while staying behind the wheel for all 70 minutes even though Bennett was listed as his co-driver.

Farley lapped Road Atlanta consistently in the 1-minute, 26-second range, recording a fast lap of 1:25.6. By comparison, Joe Blacker, an accomplished sports car driver with decades of racing experience, lapped his similar Lola T298 at 1:28.4 at the same event a few years ago.

“He drives the wheels off that thing,” said Bennett. “We see a lot of famous people in vintage racing, but we treat Jim like everyone else. He doesn’t have a big head.”

In its prime during the late 1970s, the 300-horsepower English-made Lola – powered by a high-revving, 4-cylinder Ford Cosworth – was one of the quickest sports racers in the world, running against other European thoroughbreds like the Chevron B36, March 75 and Toj 206. With its open, two-seat cockpit and big rear wing, the 1,300-pound racer pulls a neck-straining 2-g loads in high-speed turns.

Vintage race series organized by sanctioning bodies like Sportscar Vintage Racing Association and Historic Sportscar Racing have allowed collectors to continue to race these cars just as the pros did in their prime.

Ford CEO Jim Farley was class winner in his Lola T298 at the Road Atlanta Grand Prix sprint race - finishing second overall.

Farley was competitive in his 289-cubic-inch 1966 Shelby Cobra, too, lapping at 1 minute, 40 seconds-flat despite giving up cubic inches to some monster 427-cube Chevy Corvettes.

Win on Sunday, sell on Monday, the saying goes. Farley was back on the job Monday.

Payne: Ford F-150 Hybrid is one tough nerd

Posted by Talbot Payne on November 19, 2020

The 2021 Ford F-150 may not look much different than the outgoing model, but it is bristling with high-tech updates including a hybrid powertrain and on-board generator.

If the last generation Ford F-150 concentrated on brawn, then the 2021 F-series is about brains.

America’s best-selling pickup is back for its 14th generation, and it’s one clever cookie. Think fully digital displays, over-the-air-updates, wireless Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, a stowable shifter and a hybrid powertrain that acts as an onboard generator that can operate an armful of tools.

Built Ford tough? Built Ford smart.

Five years ago, pickup buyers got a crash course in metallurgy as the 2015 F-series became the first truck to sheath itself in aluminum. Though based on the same rugged steel ladder frame familiar to full-size pickups, the F-150’s toned, aluminum bod allowed a weight savings of up to 700 pounds, making it more athletic and fuel efficient. The Ford weathered all sorts of taunts from its competition (remember Chevy’s aluminum bear cage ad?), but came away unscathed, posting big sales numbers as well as class-leading towing and payload.

Funny thing, though. The aluminum revolution didn’t follow. Other truck-makers ignored Ford’s tin lead. Now comes F-150 with the first hybrid drivetrain in class, and my bet is that it won’t be the last.

That’s because the benefits of going hybrid in trucks is — like super sports cars — about more than preening green.

Tell performance car buyers that a battery will make their car more sustainable, and you’ll get yawns. Tell them its torque will rocket it to 60 mph faster, and they’re all ears. Today, hybrid supercars abound — and wait until you get a load of the forthcoming, 1,000-horsepower hybrid-electric Corvette.

“It wasn’t enough that a hybrid F-150 got better fuel economy,” said engineer and F-150 program supervisor Mike Schneider. “We wanted to use it to really enhance a work truck’s capability.”

Option the 2021 Ford F-150 Hybrid's 7.2 kW onboard generator and the truck is a rolling work space that can power multiple tools.

The onboard generator was born. Trucks are rolling toolboxes, and truck guys have been carrying around bulky gas generators in their beds for years. Schneider himself has a $2,300, 5 kW generator that takes two people to load into the truck bed.

Opt for the F-150’s “Powerboost” hybrid, twin-turbo V-6 engine option (a $3,300 premium over the 2.7-liter V-6) and a 2.4 kW generator is integrated into the truck (a 7.2 kW option is also available). My F-150 Lariat tester had the 7.2 kW option with five plugs bristling from the rear bed: four 110 volt outlets, one 240 volt.

The tailgate party options are enormous. Ford showed off a model at its Milford Proving Grounds that was running a 55-inch TV, Weber grille and meat smoker, which makes the truck a double threat at the football game and the worksite. Tailgate on Sunday, cut wood on Monday.

The 2021 Ford F-150 Hybrid, if optioned with 7.2 kW on-board generator, comes with four 150-volt bed plugs and one 240.

Ford couples bed outlets with a nifty tailgate complete with built-in rulers and clamp holders so you can plug in your bandsaw while measuring wood cuts.

The hybrid powertrain is no slouch on the road, either. Combining low-end electric torque with the twin-turbo’s upper-RPM range capabilities, the engine pulls hard through the rev range. That 570 pound-feet of torque was especially noticeable when dragging a 13,000-pound mobile home around local roadways.

With electric-motor assist, the 10-speed tranny was noticeably smoother in the hybrid than a comparably burdened truck powered by the non-hybrid, twin-turbo V-6. In keeping with its Swiss Army knife capability, the F-150 comes with a dizzying array of engine options including the standard, 3.3-liter V-6, turbo 2.7-liter V-6, twin-turbo-V-6, hybrid, V-8, and diesel.

The 2021 Ford F-150 Hybrid pairs the 3.5-liter twin-turbo V-6 with an electric motor to make 570 pound feet of torque.

You could shop all day mixing and matching the F-150’s drivetrain options over the vehicle’s six trim options. I focused my time on a $68,000, hybrid-powered Lariat model which was a nice middle ground between Ford’s best-selling XLT trim and the luxurious Limited ocean liner.

Ford claims 90 percent of its sheet-metal is new for 2021, but the exterior betrays few major changes. The grille has a nice ovoid shape to it — shades of little brother Ranger — for a more pleasing face. Otherwise, the signature elements are all there — C-clamp headlights, scalloped A-pillar window for better visibility, F-150-stamped tailgate.

Rear bed access for the 2021 Ford F-150 includes an optional tailgate drop step.

My Sport 4X4 picked up a couple skid plates to keep from slapping its belly on off-road excursions. The truck was suitably rugged when I took it off-road — the frame rails absorbing punishment over challenging moguls that would have reduced a unibody SUV to a trembling bowl of jelly.

But even the off-road experience benefited from the new truck’s interior smarts.

I crawled up a steep embankment of the F-150, its 4×4 system churning happily along in the Mud/Ruts driving mode (one of eight modes). I couldn’t see what was on the other side. No problem. I pushed a button above the dash and an underbody camera showed me the way.

Such conveniences are all over this truck, and all of them operated from the truck’s big, 12-inch touchscreen (eight-inch is standard — but in the Age of Tesla, everything has a 12-inch option). Need a floodlight to illuminate the woods on a moonless night? It’s in the display. Need a bed light? In the display. Even the bed outlets can be monitored from the screen.

This dexterity extends to the console itself, where the turbo V-6 engines come with a stowable shift lever. Hide the lever with the push of button and the console turns into a flat desk surface.

With the shifter stowed in the console, the 2021 Ford F-150 options a "desktop" work surface.

My crew cab interior was enormous and enhanced with more storage — including a second glovebox and lockable, sub-rear seat storage. The latter is suitable for fishing rods and gear — but also for electronic devices that not only benefit from the truck’s Wi-Fi hot spot, but can be recharged by plugging into the second row’s outlet. These are amenities normally associated with your house, for goodness sake, so you can see why trucks are fast becoming a luxury option to rival big European sedans.

The truck’s brains help makes its size more manageable, too.

My F-150 featured advanced cruise control called CoPilot 360 Assist (a Cadillac Super Cruise-like Active Drive Assist is on the way next year), which offers capable driving assistance on interstates and in crowded traffic. Truck owners are busy folks, and the system allows them the ability to take phone calls or glance at text messages without having to pull over to the side of the road.

Trucks have always been the biggest, brawniest things on the road. Now a new generation of F-150s shows they are among the biggest nerds, too.

2021 Ford F-150 Hybrid

Vehicle type: Four-wheel drive, four-door, five-passenger pickup

Price: $42,840, including $1,695 destination charge ($68,090 as tested)

Powerplant: 3.5-liter, twin-turbo V-6 with electric motor

Power: 430 horsepower, 570 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 10-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph (NA); maximum towing, 12,000 pounds

Weight: 5,540 pounds (base, 4×2 hybrid)

Fuel economy: EPA mpg 24 city/24 highway/24 combined (16.6 mpg observed)

Report card

Highs: Hybrid innovates on-board generator; innovative cabin

Lows: Corner bed steps, please; gets pricey

Overall: 4 stars

Simple Civic: Honda’s best-seller sports spare design for 2022

Posted by Talbot Payne on November 17, 2020

SUVs may be all the rage, but the Honda Civic keeps on ticking.

Honda gave a first look at its 11th generation Civic Tuesday night as it hopes to maintain its status as the best-selling compact car in America. Indeed, the Civic was the second best-selling car in 2019 period — behind only the mid-size Toyota Camry.

The Indiana-made Civic will follow the formula of the popular 10th generation model by offering a buffet of models including manuals, automatics, sedans, hatchbacks and athletic performance variants like the Si and Type R.

2022 Honda Civic Prototype

But where the dramatic last-gen model appeared to have been designed by a Marvel comics artist, the 2022 model is drawn with a simpler, more mature pen.

2022 Honda Civic Prototype

Body lines are tidier, and the taillights evoke luxury brand Acura rather than the Batmobile. Perhaps most striking is the absence of a monobrow chrome grille. An LED headlight signature now dominates the face. The spare styling continues inside with a bold, horizontal dash layout punctuated by a 9-inch tablet screen on top. Car and Driver reports that an updated infotainment system will include wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

The prototype Civic’s unveiling begins a drumbeat toward the 2022 production model’s launch next spring.

Despite a market upheaval that has seen SUVs more than double sedan sales, Civic has been remarkably durable. U.S. sales were 316,638 in 2006, 344,996 in 2012, and 325,260 last year.

Civic has remained a mainstay in Honda’s lineup even as Detroit manufacturers have ditched the segment. The Ford Focus and Chevy Cruze both pulled the plug since the Civic’s last, 2015 remake. Unlike Ford and Chevy, however, Honda cannot rely on profit-rich, high-volume truck sales and so it’s dependent on Civic for volume sales as well as bringing new buyers into the brand.

2022 Honda Civic Prototype

To that end, the range-topping, $38,000 Type R is widely admired for its performance, and the Si carries the brand’s flag in professional IMSA racing. Civic is a perennial Top Ten pick by the enthusiast magazine Car and Driver.

2022 Honda Civic Prototype

Civic launched its new car — in eye-scorching Solar Flare Pearl color — via the Twitch gaming service, an Internet platform popular with young people.

2022 Honda Civic Prototype

“Leveraging its strong presence in e-sports and gaming, Honda’s debut on Twitch is a nod to Civic’s global appeal with young buyers,” said Honda in a press release. The 10th-generation Civic has been … the most popular vehicle, car or light truck with millennials, Gen Z, (and) first-time new vehicle buyers.”

Civic has come under renewed assault in the last two years from competitors Nissan Sentra, VW Jetta and Hyundai Elantra which have challenged Honda with striking designs and high-tech gadgetry. The new Elantra is particularly notable for an expansive lineup that mirrors Civic’s performance ambitions while also introducing a sippy hybrid model.

The 2022 Civic parries the attack with its first all-digital instrument display, clean design and usual obsession with vehicle dynamics.

With SUVs dominant in the marketplace, sedans have sought to accentuate their advantages like sleek design and superior handling. The new car’s design focuses on a low center of gravity and wider stance for better handling. In addition, the compact’s design empathizes a lower and longer hood for a more athletic look.

2022 Honda Civic Prototype

“The team also made substantial changes to the Civic’s upper body design to maximize visibility for the driver, including moving the front roof pillars rearward … and relocating the side mirrors to the doors for a clearer view through the front side windows,” said Honda.

In addition to its spare interior design, a new signature honeycomb mesh accent extends the width of the dash which also serves to visually conceal the air vents.

Details on the Civic’s drivetrain were sparse. Expect more as the vehicle approaches spring launch.

Against SUV headwinds, the 10th-gen Civic has sold more than 1.5 million units in the last five years, setting thstandard for best passenger car retail sales (Honda sells little to rental fleets). The Civic will be manufactured in Greensburg, Indiana where the compact has been produced since 1986.

Order window open for Rivian electric pickup, priced at $67,500

Posted by Talbot Payne on November 16, 2020

Rivian’s order lines are open.

The Plymouth-based electric truck-maker’s online configurator is live as of Monday for customers who placed orders for its highly anticipated R1T pickup and R1S SUV. The pickup starts at $67,500 and the SUV at $70,000. Both prices are slightly less than the anticipated $69,000 as the luxury electric pickup market heats up with competitive entries from Tesla, GMC Hummer, Lordstown, and Bollinger looming.

In addition to the Rivian R1T pickup, the Plymouth-based company plans an R1S SUV on the same skateboard, electric platform. The prototype was shown alongside the pickup at the LA auto show.

“It’s time to build an electric adventure vehicle exactly the way you want it,” reads the company website at “Choose your color, interior, battery range, wheels and tires, even add a camp kitchen.”

The upscale Rivian truck first wowed the public at the 2018 auto show when it debuted its R1T pickup. With its battery under the cabin, the electric architecture opened up huge “frunk” storage (front trunk) storage and neck-snapping acceleration times. It brought Tesla-like capability to pickup trucks.

Following Tesla’s sales strategy, Rivian’s roll-out will be limited to certain trims.

Rivian has promised three batteries with its vehicles — 250, 300 or 400-mile range — but only the mid-range, 300-mile battery will be offered initially. The 2022 $67,500 pickup and SUV will be delivered in early 2022, while a limited-run, 2021 $75,000 First Edition model will begin deliveries in June of next year. The 2021 $77,500 First Edition R1S SUV will follow in August.

The Rivian R1T is about the same length as a Chevy Colorado mid-size pickup. With its batteries in the floor, however, it adds storage in the "frunk" as well as space behind the rear seats and under the bed.

Tesla has often promised affordable versions of its EVs but struggled to make them work financially. For example, it canceled a promised $39,000, standard version of its Model Y SUV. The lowest-priced Model Y now available is a long-range all-wheel drive model starting at $49,990.

The initial, $75,000, 2021 Launch Edition Rivian pickups and SUVs will be outfitted with an Adventure package. Adventure models include extras like a power tonneau cover for the bed, onboard air compressor, and underbody shield for off-roading. The 2022 models will come with an Explore package which feature a manual tonneau cover and matte black cabin trim.

Manufactured in Illinois, all Rivians are equipped with panoramic glass roof, vegan-leather seating, 4G WiFi, quad-motor drive, independent air suspension, and electro-hydraulic roll control. A hands-free “Driver+” system is standard so that drivers can “automatically steer, adjust speed, and change lanes on your command,” says Rivian. The system is limited to divided highways and monitors the driver for attention like Cadillac’s Super Cruise system.

The interior of the Rivian R1T pickup featues big, digital screens and generous use of wood trim. In addition to 400 miles of range the truck offers Level 3 autonomous driving.

Rivian says its vehicles are capable of over-the-air updates, a feature pioneered by Tesla and that improves vehicles over time. Rivian says that its 400-mile battery pack will be available in January 2022.

As the Adventure and Explore names indicate, Rivian is targeting its vehicles as an outdoor brand. In that vein, Rivian will be available in 10 colors including Limestone, Glacier White, Compass Yellow and Red Canyon.

The GMC Hummer is also aimed at the $70,000 adventure market, but its launch edition starts at $112,595. Lordstown and Atlis pickup competitors will target service fleets. Key to Rivian’s success is a 100,000-unit order from Amazon through 2024 to supply delivery vehicles, an economic boon while the company tests the waters for expensive trucks.

While Rivian claims 300 miles of range, battery-powered vehicles have proven to get much less than that when operating in cold temperatures or under towing duress — shortcomings that may put them at a disadvantage against gas-powered pickup trucks that can travel 600 miles between fill-ups and tow 10,000 pounds.

Rivian plans to service owners’ vehicles via a Tesla-like, “comprehensive mobile service program.” Rivian says it will build a charging station infrastructure called the “Rivian Adventure Network — our nationwide network of fast-charging stations capable of adding up to 140 miles of range in 20 minutes.”

Holly Oaks ORV Park: A new playground for Jeeps and dirt bikes

Posted by Talbot Payne on November 14, 2020

Holly — Holly Oaks ORV Park is open. It should be called Holly Oaks OMG Park.

ORV, of course, stands for off-road vehicle. ORV parks cater to those keen to exercise their Jeeps and dirt-bikes in the great outdoors. The state of Michigan has a network of off-road parks spanning from the boggy Mounds in Flint to the sandy dunes of Silver Lake on Lake Michigan.

Oakland County’s Holly Oaks adds to the state’s diverse offerings with a sprawling 113-acre dirt theme-park of roller-coaster hills, high-speed flats and diabolical courses with names like Mount Magna, which is modeled after the craggy terrain of off-road mecca Moab, Utah. The park, situated in a former sand-and-gravel mine, opened in mid-September.

“It’s extremely unique, and it’s unique for a whole range of reasons,” said Tom Zielinski, a corporate-events creator who helped design the complex located just south of the Mt. Holly ski resort. “There are a couple other places in the state, but they don’t have nearly the challenges in terms of elevation. And here’s the single biggest thing: They don’t have proximity to a major metropolitan area.”

Holly Oaks ORV Park has opened in a former sand-and-gravel mine near Holly.

The idea for an off-road vehicle park was seeded 17 years ago in the office of Jon Noyes, principal planner for Oakland County Parks and Recreation.

Noyes concedes the idea of an epic ORV park in Metro Detroit was “a little outside the box.” But he points out that Oakland County was one of the first in the country to build a bicycle motocross facility. It was one of the first to build a wave-pool waterpark. It’s been innovative with dog parks, too.

After a state plan for an ORV park near Kensington Park collapsed under community opposition, Oakland County approached the state with the Holly Oaks plan: Build the park with Michigan funds, then allow the county to manage it with community input.

Whether on-road (Waterford Hills Race Track) or off-road, such facilities are a challenge, given their noise and the potential for disturbing neighbors. Indeed, dirt bikes and four-wheelers were banned from areas nearest Holly Road after the county received complaints.

“We ended up with the best possible location,” Noyes said. “The area shares a boundary with I-75, which is already loud. The park has 350 feet of vertical elevation — but it’s sunk into the ground, which helps muffle noise. And it backs up to a ski resort. It’s pretty much the ideal spot for an ORV park.”

The park’s proximity to the Motor City means carmakers have embraced it as a place where engineers — and customers — can put their vehicles to the test.

Like the paved proving grounds of Milford and Dearborn that have helped produce on-road athletes like the Chevy Corvette and Ford GT, Holly Oaks is an off-road torture chamber that pushes the limits of everything from the Wrangler to the Bronco to the 702-horsepower Ram 1500 TRX.

“It can be an opportunity for all the manufacturers,” said Zielinski, who noted the park has already hosted numerous manufacturer events such as the Ford Bronco reveal as well as customer events such as the Jeep Adventure Academy. Noyes said corporate events are key to the park’s financing in addition to customers’ daily $15 use fee and ORV permit.

A Ford Bronco Sport drives down a hill at Holly Oaks ORV Park.

Pedal down, dirt up

A ride over the park’s undulating terrain put to the test the Jeep Wrangler Sahara that I was driving.

Shoving my Jeep transfer case into four-wheel-low, I grunted along two-way Skyline Drive, a ridge that borders the north end of the park. An area called The Oasis — with a lake at its center — spread out below the ridge.

The fun began on the aptly named Vulture’s Roost, the park’s highest point that leads into a wicked, unidirectional trail that winds along Darlene’s Ridge. The trail is full of blind peaks and challenging terrain before plunging down the side of the mountain into a valley called Dead Wood.

With a spotter at the top of the daunting 35-degree Hot Tub slope, my Wrangler attempted to crawl out. The Jeep vaulted upward, then — GRONCH — high-centered on its left frame rail. Scratching for traction, it backed down — defeated — into the tub again.

Others fared worse: A Chevy Colorado pickup carefully picked its way from one rock to the next, only to high-center on a strategically placed concrete block. A Jeep is brought in to rescue the helpless Chevy.

My Jeep emerged outwardly unscathed from its journey, its scars of battle hidden underneath. Wranglers are off-road warriors after all, and Holly Oaks is a battlefield made just for them.

A Chevy truck high centers over a rock/timber obstacle at Holly Oaks ORV Park.

If you go

What: Holly Oaks Off-Road Park,113 acres of hills, rocks and mud that’s situated on a former sand-and-gravel mine. It’s open to trucks and SUVs, as well as dirt bikes and four-wheelers.

Where: 14551 Shields Road, Holly

Hours: The park is only open weekends in its first season, from 10 a.m to 5 p.m. Those hours will narrow to 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. the weekend of Nov. 21-22. On the three-day Thanksgiving weekend, Nov. 27-29, hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The park will then close for the season from December through March.

Admission: Admission is currently limited to 500 ticket sales a day — a ticket covers each vehicle and costs $15. Park users are encouraged to buy tickets online at Tickets for each day can be purchased online starting at 9 p.m. the day before. Online ticket sales will stop two hours before the park closes. In-person sales at the gate will stop one hour before the park closes. In addition, vehicles will not be admitted without Department of Natural Resources ORV and ORV Trail stickers. The two stickers cost $36.25 combined.

Park rules: Vehicles cannot be louder than 94 dBa and must have a muffler and spark arrester containing baffles meeting U.S. Forest Service specifications.

Children12 and older can ride dirt bikes and quads in the park if they are properly licensed with a DNR ORV Safety Training Certificate.

Payne: 2021 Cadillac Escalade goes back to the future

Posted by Talbot Payne on November 13, 2020

For you Dream Cruisers nostalgic for the huge 1950s Cadillac Eldorado Sevilles that once ruled the earth, check out the 2021 Cadillac Escalade.

Skyscraping rear tail lights. Massive chrome front grille. Twenty-two-inch silver wheels. Monster 6.2-liter V-8 under the hood. Acres of interior cowhide. It’s stunning. The King of Bling.

If the Queen of Soul were still around, she’d get hers in pink.

But this Escalade is more than a boulevard head-turner. In keeping with Cadillac’s founding mantra for innovation, this old-school land yacht is on the bleeding edge of new digital technology. With two wheels in the past and two wheels in the future, it is a bridge to Cadillac’s coming electric transformation. It’s a “Star Trek” command center built on a truck frame.

What else? The distinctive, chiseled profile of the 2021 Cadillac Escalade.

In the 21st century, Cadillac has struggled to do battle against German competitors as a performance brand despite a talented squadron of alphanumeric dogfighters like ATS, CTS and CT6. The proper-name Escalade, meanwhile, has carried the century-old Cadillac flag, using technology and style to pamper celebrity.

The Escalade posits the solution that Cadillac’s future lies in its past.

The 10-foot-long cutter aims to inspire a new generation of electric cruisers with proper names like Lyriq and Celestiq. Cruising through Ann Arbor, the Escalade had serious presence, turning heads with its headlights like a rolling Fox Theatre marquee.

Its face is leaner than before. Modeled after the stunning Escala concept, the chrome is more subtle. Its slit, horizontal headlights suggests an athletic celebrity that watches its calories.

But this blockbuster saves its best scenes for the interior. The dashboard will shame corporate boardrooms. Sitting atop acres of luscious brandy wood is a curved, 38-inch OLED screen — the largest in the industry. You could do IMAX movie premieres on this thing.

As the turn approaches, the arrow in the Augmented Reality screen grows bigger to indicate where to turn in the 2021 Cadillac Escalade.

The big screen serves as a preview of the Lyriq EV’s 33-inch screen. The screen of the Lyriq (due late 2022) will be one continuous window, whereas the Escalade is three screens in one. It’s a reminder that Caddy was an innovator in the luxury space with head-up displays (Escalade’s got that, too), but Cadillac hasn’t jumped the shark this time.

Where its first innovative CUE system drove owners screaming into the street with its button-less, haptic-touch interface, you can access the Cadillac’s deep infotainment offerings in multiple ways: touch-screen, BMW-like remote rotary dial and voice-control. I used elements of all three.

Google Maps still trumps any in-car navigation system, and the Cadillac generously offers Apple CarPlay and wireless Android Auto connectivity. But like Audi’s spectacular panoramic Google Earth map display in the instrument panel, the Caddy has a trick up its sleeve that Google Maps can’t offer …

I pointed the nav system to Zingerman’s Deli, its front door nestled in a confusing maze of one-way Ann Arbor streets. After exiting the freeway, I poked “Augmented Reality” on the screen’s far-left quadrant, and the 14.2-inch instrument display switched to video of the street ahead.

The driver's cockpit in the 2021 Cadillac Escalade.

An arrow pointed the way on the road, but another series of directional arrows grew in the video display as my turn approached. I found the precision useful in Ann Arbor’s confusing college-town streets, though I would recommend only using it in low-speed streets.

The video display is available at highway speed, too, but can be distracting. I was essentially looking through double windshields, so large is the instrument display. Better to stick to the traditional “Map” display on the highway.

And now for its next trick …

Cadillac will also option the latest Super Cruise technology for use on geo-fenced interstates and divided highways. With a steering-mounted laser focused on your face to make sure you don’t (ahem) leave the helm, SuperCruise is the best self-driving system on the market even as Tesla can do more tricks on two-lane roads where the Cadillac system refuses to go.

Whether Cadillac users will embrace such a sci-fi system in such a massive vehicle remains to be seen. Autonomous systems make Mrs. Payne veeeery nervous.

My test Escalade was not equipped with Super Cruise, and its standard adaptive cruise-control system was underwhelming compared to better systems from more affordable brands like Subaru and Mazda.

The palatial interior of the 2021 Cadillac Escalade includes a full moonroof. The sticker price can soar above $100,000.

It’s an oversight in Cadillac’s otherwise technological tour de force. Check out the Caddy’s self-park feature. Or seat-specific volume control. Fifteen camera views. Soft-close doors. Air suspension that’ll drop 4 inches to help you in the car. Teleport to Mars (kidding).

When it’s not giving you a peek at the future, the Escalade is refining the past.

Commuting across Metro Detroit’s high-speed freeways and cattle-car secondary roads, the Escalade is a magic carpet riding on available magnetic shocks and Escalade’s first-ever independent rear suspension. Like Astaire and Rogers, they are quite a team. Under car-guy Mark Reuss, GM’s been obsessed with athleticism and light-weighting, and even the Escalade benefits.

Where the CT4 and CT5 sedans will wow you on a twisty road, the Escalade will lull you into believing it sits on a unibody chassis, so sure-footed is this Hulk in a tuxedo. Only when I clattered across Huron River Road railroad tracks — the ladder frame shifting under me — was I reminded this Caddy still sits atop an old-school, Silverado pickup architecture.

The athletic obsession brings more creature comforts. Thanks to the independent rear suspension, third-row thrones have more well room so your 6-foot-5 reviewer could comfortably sit behind himself sitting behind himself. The third-row space is complemented by more second-row legroom, part of the Escalade’s comprehensive remake.

Well, except for that big boat anchor up front. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The small-block 6.2-liter V-8 has been a workhorse in everything from pickups to ’Vettes, and it does its usual yeoman’s work here. Its 460 pound-feet of torque (the same amount in an available turbo-diesel, if that flips your switch) is always ready to pull the sled — and more with my tester’s tow package.

In keeping with Escalade’s magic-carpet treatment, the V-8 is mated to a silky 10-speed transmission. That dynamic duo also does duty in the Chevy Tahoe, Suburban and GMC —impressive three-row yachts in their own right.

But the Escalade is the future of tech. They’ll remember it at the Dream Cruise in 2080.

The 2021 Cadillac Escalade is based on the same truck frame as the Chevy Silverado — but its independent rear suspension and tech offer refinement worthy of a Mercedes.

2021 Cadillac Escalade

Vehicle type: Rear- or four-wheel drive, seven-passenger SUV

Price: $77,490, including $1,295 destination charge ($110,585 4WD Platinum as tested)

Powerplant: 6.2-liter V-8; 3.0-liter turbo inline-6 diesel

Power: 420 horsepower, 460 pound-feet of torque (V-8); 277 horsepower, 460 pound-feet of torque (diesel)

Transmission: 10-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, NA; towing capacity, 8,000 pounds as tested

Weight: 5,822 pounds (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 14 mpg city/18 highway/16 combined (V-8 with 4WD)

Report card

Highs: Oh, that screen; smooth ride

Lows: Super Cruise is super, but adaptive cruise-control is average

Overall: 4 stars

Here’s how auto startups are getting the cash to challenge Big Three carmakers

Posted by Talbot Payne on November 12, 2020

Not since the early 20th century have there been so many startups in the U.S. auto industry.

Add Phoenix-based Atlis Motor Vehicles to a growing list of electric-vehicle startups across the United States — Rivian Automotive, Nikola Corp., Lordstown Motors Corp. and Bollinger Motors among them — seeking to make their marks. The surge in 21st-century startups is inspired by the meteoric success of Silicon Valley EV-maker Tesla Inc. as well as government regulations that for the first time mandate the powertrains automakers must use.

Upstart automaker Atlis Motor Vehicles is betting its Atlis XT electric pickup can compete against the Detroit 3. The Phoenix-based company plans to put the truck on the market late next year.

But where automakers a century ago were pioneers on the Industrial Revolution’s transportation frontier, today’s startups face formidable challenges from established Detroit-based and foreign automakers jockeying for the same space in a still-undefined consumer market. The competition is stiff and well-financed.

General Motors Co.’s Cadillac is going electric and its GMC unit has a new Hummer EV. Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ Ram have electric pickups in the works. German rivals including Volkswagen and BMW intensify the competition.

Those legacy makers hold a big advantage in access to capital to build factories, manage distribution and establish dealer networks. But startups benefit from efficiencies created by in 21st century, including online marketing and low-maintenance electric powertrains.

Founded by Mark Hanchett, the Atlis XT pickup is aimed at the commercial vehicle market instead of the luxury niche targeted by Rivian and Hummer. Atlis promises a pickup starting at $45,000 with a flexible electric platform that fleet customers can configure to their own specifications.

“Organizations like Atlis are really looking at a much bigger picture,” Hanchett said in an interview. “It’s perfect for fleet owners. Electric technology is superior to the diesel technology that’s out there today.”

Hanchett breaks through the noise with a bold claim: that his trucks can recharge up to 500 miles on the Atlis high-speed charging network in just 15 minutes — competitive with the diesel trucks that dominate today’s market.

— competitive with the diesel trucks that dominate today’s market.

With a motor at each wheel, the Rivian pickup can spin left- and right-side wheels simultaneously in opposite directions to turn donuts in its own tracks like an Army tank.

The variety of planned EVs is broad, reminiscent of the early 1900s. The Industrial Revolution’s innovation of gas and steam engines were the perfect spark for the horseless carriage. The Duryea Motor Coach Co. launched the auto revolution in 1896 with the first gas-powered motorcar.

The first decade of the 20th century saw anywhere from 500 to 1,500 startup automakers (depending on the source) in the U.S. They ranged from names that would become familiar like Oldsmobile and Cadillac, to forgotten shops like Pope Hartford and the Thomas B. Jeffery Co. But when Ford Motor Co. broke through with mass manufacturing in 1913, boutique automakers found themselves in trouble.

“Capital became a huge factor,” said Matt Anderson, curator of automotive history for The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn. “You had to have resources for manufacturing and then to weather World War I and the Great Depression.”

The demands of mass production inspired relentless consolidation as General Motors, for example, gobbled up Buick, Olds, Cadillac and Oakland. By 1929 the number of U.S. automakers was fewer than 50 with some 80% of production coming from GM, Ford and Chrysler. Ahead of the current wave, the last auto startups were Tucker Corp. and Kaiser Motors just after World War II.

The challenge of competing against the auto behemoths remains as true today as it was then. But the nature of EVs means that startup costs are much less than they have been for gas-powered vehicles in an industry whose barriers to entry historically have been high.

The Tesla Cybertruck’s bullet-proof stainless-steel skin is made from the same stuff as Musk’s Space X rockets.

New cost-model

“A traditional gas-car company required $3 billion before you even put a spade in the ground,” said auto consultant Joe Phillipi, a veteran auto investment analyst who worked on Wall Street for decades. “Developing the powertrain, transmission, electronics were cost-prohibitive. But these new electric automakers have simpler powertrains, don’t have to worry about regulatory validation for emissions, and in some cases can outsource their production.”

California-based startup Fisker Inc. is one of the latter. Led by ex-Aston Martin designer Henrik Fisker, the company announced this fall that its $37,499 compact SUV, the Ocean, will be produced by Austrian supplier Magna Steyr.

Further reducing costs, the Ocean will be made on Magna’s own EV architecture. Fisker’s design will be coupled with off-the-shelf items from suppliers with Magna overseeing the car’s assembly. Magna has previously showcased an EV prototype for Sony and has experience assembling gas vehicles like Mercedes’ G-wagon SUV.

Atlis is a more-vertical company in the mode of Tesla. It not only builds its own vehicles, but also a proprietary charging infrastructure and battery cells. Ditto the plan for Atlis.

Lordstown Motors’ electric truck Endurance is displayed after its unveiling at the Lordstown Motors Corporation plant in Lordstown, Ohio.

Atlis’ priority is raising capital, which has been plentiful for upstart EV makers. The biggest sources of cash: U.S. equity markets, venture-capital investors and sovereign investment funds from countries like Saudi Arabia. Even such legacy automakers as Ford, an investor in Rivian, are active in the space.

Hanchett is pursuing an initial raise of $25 million for battery development and charging infrastructure before revving up vehicle production in late 2021 with a second round of financing.

“There are billions in capital out there from venture funds across the world,” said consultant Phillipi. “The Saudis are investing heavily in this technology because they want to diversify beyond oil for the next wave of transportation.”

He adds that truck makers Atlis, Lordstown and Rivian — while not ruling out retail orders — are directly dealing with fleet customers to cut inventory costs, a major expense for legacy automakers that traditionally sell through dealer networks.

Altis rival Lordstown Motors recently secured financing with DiamondPeak Holdings Corp. to jump-start manufacturing on the site of GM’s closed Lordstown Assembly in northeast Ohio. The merger with DiamondPeak provided $675 million of gross proceeds that will be used to fund production of the $52,000 Endurance pickup. GM invested $75 million in the startup. Lordstown Motors also received backing from institutional investors, including Fidelity Management & Research Co. LLC.

“We don’t see anybody in our lane,” Lordstown CEO Steve Burns told The Detroit News of his Endurance truck. “There is nobody with a full-size truck for workers priced in this range, and it is hard to get a lane to yourself in modern-day automotive.”

Ferndale-based Bollinger Motors introduced the B1 all-electric SUV sport utility on Thursday.

Startups vs. legacy makers

Even as these EV startups seek to upend Detroit’s three automakers’ hold on the truck market, they have a symbiotic relationship with them.

Besides GM’s investment in Lordstown, GM is working on a deal to partner with Phoenix-based Nikola to make electric and fuel-cell trucks together, including Nikola’s Badger truck. When announced in September, the deal was to give GM and 11% stake in the company.

Ford has invested $500 million in Plymouth-based Rivian.

Even Tesla, which claimed the best-selling luxury car in 2018 with its Model 3, is dependent on legacy automakers. The company would be unprofitable were it not for selling emissions credits to gas vehicle-producing manufacturers so that they stay in compliance with, for example, California’s stringent emissions rules.

Payne: It’s a bird, it’s a plane . . . it’s the 702-horse Ram TRX supertruck

Posted by Talbot Payne on November 5, 2020


Flying at over 65 mph in a 2021 Ram 1500 TRX — four feet off the ground — is when you realize that there’s not much pickups can’t do anymore. Hold that image, and let me catch you up.

The 702-horsepower TRX — pronounced T. rex — is the most powerful truck made.

But it’s much more than a rocket-sled. It’s like the recent crop of insane high-performance supercars I’ve tested — McLaren GT, Porsche 911 Turbo, Chevy Corvette C8 — that defy the laws of on-road physics while surrounding you in luxury. The TRX is an off-road weapon with the interior of a Bellagio Hotel suite.

This remarkable versatility has made pickups the new halo vehicles for brands — as desirable as luxury performance cars. Call them supertrucks.

I punished the TRX on Nevada’s off-road trails, rocky terrain and Wild West Motorsports Race Track. Yes, the Wild West Motorsport Park. Wild West, for the uninitiated, is home to serious off-road racing. It’s a twisted, four-turn torture chamber that puts Baja 1000-capable racers to the test with extreme jumps, slippery turns and severe drops.

OK, back to that flying truck …

Dropping seven stories down the ski slope-shaped Turn 4 — the supercharger screaming over the roar of the 6.2-liter V-8 — I pushed 70 mph and launched the 6,350 pound-beast into the sky over the main straight jump. My body tensed for the impact …

WHUMP! The behemoth landed with remarkable composure, its underbelly skid plate armor slapping the dirt. With 14 inches of suspension travel, TRX’s specially tuned Bilstein shocks rebounded with poise, sparing my helmeted head from going through the roof. Another 1.2 miles of drifting turns, punishing jumps and high-speed straightway followed. The Ram begged for more.

Not only did the pickup emerge unscathed after four laps, but so did I. No bruises. No back trauma. No kidding.

The United States is awash with club tracks (see M1 Concourse in Pontiac) catering to the owners of Corvettes, Porsche 911s and Ferraris who want to push the limits of their supercars in their natural habitat. Maybe they’ll build off-road club track for trucks like the TRX one day. Like supercars, its capabilities can’t be truly realized unless you’ve taken it off-road.

Unlike supercars, however, the ranks of supertrucks are few. Like two (three if you count the coming Hummer EV).

The $70,095 TRX joins the segment-busting 450-horse, $55,150 Ford Raptor as pickups with upgraded hardware to handle off-road extremes.

These vehicles are most intriguing, however, because of their bandwidth. I have marveled at the dexterity of the new mid-engine $59,995 Corvette C8, with interior amenities that match its mechanical bravado. It’s a car you can track on Sunday afternoon, then take to the country club for an evening meal. Ram’s super-truck takes this capability to the next level.

The 2021 Ram 1500 TRX builds on the Ram 15000 pickup with a fortified chassis and 702-horse Hellcat engine for extreme off-road capability.

My loaded TRX tester could be hammered around Holly Oaks Off-Road Vehicle Park on Sunday afternoon, valeted at the club Sunday night, then filled up on Monday for the family vacation trip.

Let’s take each dimension one-by-one.

Off-road: If you guessed TRX’s 702 ponies come from the same Hellcat engine that have made legends of the Dodge Challenger/Charger — you’d be right. But where those hammers can shred a quarter-mile faster than any Mustang or Camaro competitor, their ancient chassis limit them in the twisty bits.

The TRX, by contrast, sits on Ram’s state-of-the art bones, battle-hardened by Fiat-Chrysler’s SRT performance shop. I’ll read with interest Car and Driver’s Jurassic Park Raptor vs. T. rex comparo test. But with 252 more horsepower, Bilstein shock technology and frame rails the size of skyscraper girders, the Ram costs $15,000 more for a reason.

Flogging the Raptor and TRX back-to-back, the Ford feels nimbler thanks to its lighter (5,500 vs. 6,350 pound) frame. But it’s no secret that Raptor fans pine for the monster’s rowdy, first-generation V-8 over the current twin-turbo, 450-horse V-6.

The TRX holds nothing back with the Hellcat furnace.

Toggle the launch-control button on TRX’s dash. Mash the brake. Mash the throttle. Release brake. The predator’s primeval roar mated to its quick-shifting 8-speed tranny will raise goosebumps on your neck, just like a supercar. I hit 60 mph in 3.9 seconds compared to Raptor’s 5.1 (Car and Driver figure clocked the TRX at 3.7). Let’s do it in the dirt, too. With 4×4 traction, engineers recorded 5.1 seconds on Wild West’s dirt flats.

Gold rush. The 2021 Ram 1500 TRX can go most anywhere on- and off-road. Here it is near Virginia City, Nevada — a famous gold rush town. You'll need to put down $89,000 in gold to afford this pickup.

Valet: Roll up to the club and grown men’s knees will buckle. The TRX shares sibling Ram Rebel’s aggressive face and then some. Menacing LED lights flank the jack-o-lantern jaw.

A hood scoop feeds air to the beast within. Three lights glow inside the opening (required by highway law because the TRX’s width has grown to over 80 inches). Eight-eight to be exact, thanks to massive, 13-inch-wide, 35-inch-tall Goodyear knobbies under the swollen fenders. Give this truck a steroid test.

Climb the TRX’s 12-inch ground clearance and there’s more wow inside. Ram spared no luxury, making standard a 12-inch, Tesla-like screen and materials that have made 1500 pickups the envy of your neighborhood. The rotary dash shifter is replaced by a hive of drive-mode buttons (4WD High, AWD Low, etc.), while a proper shifter sprouts from the console for easier V-8 rowing. A flat-bottom steering wheel rounds out the performance cockpit.

Road trip: I expect to see plenty of TRX’s towing boats and race cars across Michigan. The beast’s standard crew cab will easily swallow a family. Option a $695 tonneau bed cover and toss in back all the luggage/supplies you need. With 8,100-pound tow capacity and 650 pounds of stump-pulling torque, the TRX will haul your boat — and be the envy of the dock slip.

The 2021 TRX is proof that the 21st-century electronics revolution can transform even the wildest automotive beast. Built on an old-fashioned ladder frame, TRX is a one-vehicle auto show. It boasts 1) the ruggedness of a pickup with bed and tow-hauling capabilities; 2) roomy, leather-trimmed interior to rival any luxury vehicle; 3) mega-screen housing everything from infotainment to 0-60 mph performance pages; 4) a sports car suspension with massive brake rotors, coil springs, multi-link arms and Bilstein shocks.

Move over supercars. Supertrucks have arrived.

Mean machine. At more than 80 inches wide, the 2021 Ram 1500 TRX is required to sport three lights. TRX puts them in the hood intake.

2021 Ram 1500 TRX

Vehicle type: Four-wheel drive, four-door, five-passenger pickup

Price: $70,095, including $1,095 destination charge (est. $87,170 as tested)

Powerplant: 6.2-liter, supercharged V-8

Power: 702 horsepower, 650 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph (4.5 seconds mfr., 3.9 seconds as tested; maximum towing, 8,100 pounds

Weight: 6,350 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA mpg 10 city/14 highway/12 combined

Report card

Highs: On- and off-road capability; interior opulence

Lows: Hard to park; gets pricey

Overall: 4 stars

Cadillac Super Cruise vs. Tesla Autopilot: Which is tops?

Posted by Talbot Payne on November 2, 2020

In a test of 17 driver-assistance systems across brands ranging from Tesla to Mazda, Cadillac’s Super Cruise topped Consumer Reports’ list in limited testing conditions. But in truth, Super Cruise and Tesla Autopilot are head-and-shoulders above the field.

Cadillac’s is the safest. Tesla’s the most capable. Their priorities reflect two very different companies that are in a race for the self-driving future.

Cadillac is part of the multi-brand, lawyered-up General Motors behemoth intent on realizing an electrified, autonomous future – including the Cruise ride-sharing service that has been approved to test Chevy Bolt robots in San Francisco. Its approach is conservative and deliberate, with layers of redundancy.

Tesla, by contrast, is an ambitious startup electric carmaker led by swashbuckling founding father Elon Musk. He sees his model lineup – not a separate fleet like Cruise – leading the world into the autonomous future. Autopilot 2020.12.6, the  latest over-the-air update, is a daring, risky, real-world exploration of state-of-the-art self-driving.

I have driven all the automakers’ systems and am constantly evaluating upgrades. Consumer Reports’ test released Wednesday consisted of a 30-mile loop of interstate and secondary roads (plus the company’s test track) and was limited to the systems’ lane-keeping and speed-control ability using adaptive cruise-control. In industry jargon, these are “Level 2” systems that require full driver engagement. Full-self driving “Level 4” systems do not require driver attention.

Super Cruise and Autopilot, unlike their peers, push hard on the Level 2 envelope and give a peek at a self-driving future.

Super Cruise was introduced in the now-defunct Cadillac CT6 sedan, and is on course for use in 22 vehicles (including non-Cadillacs like the GMC Hummer and Chevy Bolt) by 2023. Super Cruise generally acts like other lane-keeping, adaptive-cruise systems in the market – though it doesn’t work on secondary roads and highways with stoplights.

It is limited to divided, limited-access highways like I-75. That’s because GM is intent on perfecting self-driving in a safe environment devoid of stoplights and traffic crossings that can confuse the current technology. Cadillac is determined that you can relax, take your hands off the wheel, and – yes – check your email and texts.

With Cadillac Super Cruise activated, Detroit News auto critic Henry Payne drives hands free at 80 mph on I-30 outside of Texarkana, Arkansas.

Consumer Reports tries to discourage such ideas, saying: “The evidence is clear: If a car makes it easier for people to take their attention off the road, they’re going to do so—with potentially deadly consequences.”

But, let’s be honest, that’s the whole point of autonomous systems – to allow drivers to do other things. And that’s why CR gives Super Cruise its highest rating, because it constantly monitors drivers to make sure they aren’t too distracted.

An infrared camera stands watch on the steering column, monitoring the driver at all times. The purpose of Super Cruise is to allow the driver to relax as if in an easy chair with hands off the wheel, whereas other systems constantly urge drivers to grip the wheel.

That includes Teslas like my Model 3. Tesla requires some assurance from the driver that they’re engaged – hand on the wheel, rolling the adaptive-cruise speed button – every 15 to 30 seconds.

Freed of the helm on Super Cruise, I ate a meal and thumbed email on a 400-mile test. If the camera detected my head turned for any period of time, a steering wheel-mounted  light would escalate warnings: 1) flash green 2) turn red 3) flash red and start braking while a voice warned: PLEASE TAKE CONTROL OF VEHICLE.

Cadillac is clearly concerned the Barcalounger position will encourage naps.

Cadillac's Super Cruise makes sure drivers are paying attention with an infrared camera on the steering wheel. Super Cruise is an evolution of adaptive cruise-control.

With its constant nannying, falling asleep at the Tesla wheel is less likely. But quick texts and email checks are doable. If you ignore the nanny 1)  a blue light will flash in the screen, 2) a warning chime will sound, then 3) the car will revoke your self-driving privileges for the rest of the drive.

Both vehicles can skillfully take turns up to 85 mph. Enter a curve too fast, and they’ll back off the throttle. Lane-centering is superb. True to its ambitious nature, Tesla features “Navigate on Autopilot” to negotiate a highway route entered in the car’s navigation system, lane changes and all. While in Super Cruise, you have to change lanes yourself – though a lane-change upgrade is coming this winter with the all-new Escalade.

For all of their sophisticated cameras, neither robot mode can see pop-up construction zones with orange barrels. Neither can see potholes. Neither will work in bad weather like snow.

Exit the highway and Super Cruise hands me back the controls. It knows its limitations.

But that’s just where the Tesla is getting interested. With its latest upgrade, Autopilot wants to drive secondary roads too.

It’s not for the squeamish.

Traveling down Telegraph Road with Autopilot’s blue wheel symbol glowing on the screen, the Model 3 detected a stoplight and slowed down to determine if it was red or green. I often had to goose the accelerator pedal so a surprised follower didn’t rear-end me. Having recognized the Christmas tree, Autopilot will stop at red or keep going through green. Or it might stop at green. Flashing yellow is a crapshoot.

Tesla Autopilot stops for a stop sign.

At a busy construction intersection at Big Beaver and Crooks Road, the Tesla rudely sped by queued traffic in the right lane before I realized the lane was closing and I merged left.

In Charlevoix, two joggers in the street (their profiles popping up in the car’s crisp display) caused the Tesla to slam on the brakes. A human driver would have just weaved around them.

Navigating south to Detroit on I-75, Autopilot expertly changed lanes in and out of slower traffic, speeding up to make sure it merged seamlessly.

It’s a fascinating, attention-demanding glimpse at what the car sees, and a reminder of how far autonomous systems have to go. For those who simply want a relaxing interstate drive, however, Super Cruise is your driver.

Still, the two companies move relentlessly ahead. Even in the month since Consumer Reports’ test, advancements have been made. Super Cruise has added the aforementioned auto-lane change feature as well as adjusted lane-centering so the vehicle will move farther over in the lane when passing, say, an wide semi-truck. Meanwhile, Tesla has rolled out a fully self-driving update to select customers. That’s right – the Tesla turns at intersections on its own.

The driverless future is coming, ready or not.

Payne: Mercedes-AMG’s fearsome C63 Coupe is a sinister Halloween treat

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 30, 2020

It’s almost Halloween. Need a sinister car to drive the kiddies from house to house?

Well, if you’re Bruce Wayne or someone with similar means, I might suggest the Mercedes-AMG C63 Coupe. In matte black. My family immediately dubbed it the “Batmobile” when it rolled into my driveway this fall — its sinister shade a striking contrast to Michigan’s leafy, orange trees.

Yes, Mercedes. That icon of the establishment has produced one of the most wicked-looking cars in autodom. Brooding front grille. Slit headlights. Growling, 503-horse V-8 engine. The specs on this beast sound more like something out of Dodge’s bat cave.

Honey, our C-class Mercedes has been possessed!

The 2020 Mercedes-AMG C63 S Coupe comes with Designo Graphite Grey Magno paint - aka, matte black-  that makes a striking contrast to Michigan's fall October colors.

I prowled Michigan in the C63 this fall, spreading fear throughout its northern latitudes.

It’s almost as evil-looking as big brother AMG GT R, the 550-horse racing version that is currently devouring Acuras and Porsches on the IMSA race circuit, with a maw the size of a humpback whale. Compared to the $200,000 GT R, the $106,440 C63 is a bargain.

A product of Mercedes-Benz’s AMG performance division, the C63 S is the alpha male of the three AMG coupes offered, each more capable than the last: C45 (382 horsepower), C63 (469), C63 S (503). And those are just the C-class choices for the two-door coupe! Add three AMG options to the each of the other C-class variants — wagon, sedan and Cabriolet — and you understand why it is so difficult for Detroit luxe brands to compete against the broad Merc lineup.

My tester was a rolling candy store — loaded with every sweet on the shelves. For example:

  • Dark chocolate, silver-rimmed 19-inch front/20-inch rear five-spoke forged wheels: $2,100
  • Licorice Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires: $600
  • Black-night package on wing, mirrors, etc., plus chrome-plated exhaust tips: $750
  • Black carbon-fiber package: $1,750
  • Candy-corn yellow ceramic brakes: $5,450

And so on. I got cavities just looking at it.

But the real treat is the $2,020 Designo Graphite Grey Magno paint — matte black, for short — that wraps this refugee from hell.

Halloween jack 'o lantern. The fierce maw of the 2020 Mercedes-AMG C63 S Coupe.

Matte paints have been maintenance nightmares in the past (they can’t be protected by waxing like normal finishes), but Mercedes reassures that current coats “do not require any special instructions for care, other than don’t use abrasive materials on it or let harmful debris like bird dropping linger.”

Bird droppings. Good to know. But I’m pretty sure Bruce Wayne will keep it in his garage.

For all its wicked exterior looks, the GT is a grand touring model that competes with other daily-driver sports cars like the Corvette C8 and Porsche 911. That means cargo room.

Where the mid-engine Corvette (get it in pumpkin orange) offers its frunk and trunk for storage, the front-engine C63 offers a sizable boot and second-row seats. Wee trick-or-treaters will fit nicely back there.

Helping in the process are Mercedes’ magic seats. Just pull the seat-top handle and they silently glide — ghost-like — forward.

Up front, passengers are wrapped — too tightly for my 230-pound, 6-foot-5 frame — in heavily bolstered competition seats. These track-focused thrones are great for pulling Gs, but they grew uncomfortable on my four-hour trip north.

Happily, the interior surroundings are heavenly. Mercedes interiors are the most luxurious in the land, even in AMG monsters. The signature silver aviator vents stood out next to carbon fiber-wrapped console. Instrument and dashboard infotainment displays are rich in graphics, and — when the sun goes down and the goblins come out — interior mood lights can be programmed to change yellow, purple, red.

The 2020 Mercedes-AMG C63 S Coupe features the brand's signature aviator vents - but not the latest MBUX infotainment controls that allow the driver to communicate verbally with the car. That upgrade will comes next gen.

Indeed, cruise the highway and the C63 aims to please. While not yet equipped with the brand’s latest MBUX voice-recognition software (“Hey, Mercedes, turn the temperature to 70 degrees”), the C63 does come equipped with Mercedes’ steering-wheel-mounted mouse pads so that you can control the twin screens without your fingers leaving the wheel.

The AMG also features the latest in self-driving capabilities. Press adaptive cruise-control, set speed, and the coupe stays nicely centered in its lane. Pull the turn signal and it automatically changes lanes. But you don’t buy an AMG for self-driving.

Roll the drive-mode switch next to the monostable shifter, and Dr. Jekyll transforms to Mr. Hyde. Normal mode changes to Sport to Sport + to Race. With each step the beast grows more demonic.

The chassis tightens. The engine growl gets more menacing. The tailpipes crackle. The long hood grows horns.

On my favorite M-32 stretch of road up north, I unchained the horses of hell.

That’s 503 horses to be exact. In Sport + mode, a quick 8-speed dual-clutch transmission effortlessly swapped cogs. The 4.0-liters of V-8 shook the road, followed by bratty exhaust flatulence as I lifted off the gas for looming curves.

Despite slick asphalt dotted with the first orange leaves of fall, the big AMG stayed planted through the twisties. The steering was direct. The brakes toothy. Body roll minimal. The payoff were straightaways where I could open up the V-8 once more.

Race mode offers the kiddies the additional thrills of launch control, but the rear-wheel-drive Merc was curiously resistant to the idea — the electronic nannies intervening as I laid down the power. The C63 advertises sub-4 second 0-60 mph runs, but I was well shy of that.

Trees up north were turning fiery red and orange — the perfect backdrop to the streaking black batmobile. For $106,000, the C63 comes with an excellent Burmester stereo, but I never turned it on. Like the Porsche flat-6, the engines in the coupe class are music to the ears.

The Porsche’s talent is in its peerless handling, but the Mercedes’ V-8 sex appeal is more visceral. That’s part of the coupe’s charm.

Refined Mercedes is not the first brand that comes to mind at Halloween. But AMG has given the German badge needed personality. It’ll put a smile on your face like a Camaro SS and Mustang GT350. It’s a Detroit muscle-car wrapped in a matte-black German tuxedo.

Mercedes, like other European brands, is investing heavily in electric vehicles, and it will be a challenge to match the personality of AMG’s V-8. Strap in the trick-or-treaters. Empty the neighbors of their candy. Then toggle Sport +.

And let the big dog howl at the moon.

The 2020 Mercedes-AMG C63 S Coupe is a comfortable highway cruiser. But cycle through its drive modes -SPORT, SPORT +, RACE - and the car gets hungrier, louder, more athletic. Take it on a twisty road and its dynamite.

2020 Mercedes-AMG C63 Coupe

Vehicle type: Rear-wheel drive, two-door, four-passenger coupe

Price: $78,495, including $995 destination charge ($106,440 as tested)

Powerplant: 4.0-liter, twin-turbo V-8

Power: 503 horsepower, 516 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 9-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 3.8 seconds (mfr.); top speed, 180 mph

Weight: 3,803 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 18 mpg city/27 highway/21 combined

Report card

Highs: Hot inside and outside; drivetrain personality

Lows: Heavy; beware bird poop on the paint

Overall: 4 stars

Payne: Ram TRX breaks 4-second 0-60 mph speed barrier

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 28, 2020

Pickup trucks have a new king of the hill.

The 2021 Ram 1500 TRX has become the first production truck to break the four second 0-60 mph acceleration barrier, according to The Detroit News and Ram real-world testing.

In its first media test last week in Nevada, the 702-horsepower monster rocketed from 0-60 mph in just 3.9 seconds, shattering Ram’s own estimate of 4.5 seconds for the supercharged truck. Perhaps as impressive, the TRX (pronounced T-Rex) recorded a 5.1 second 0-60 time off-road (dirt-gravel mix) time. The off-road sprint equals the on-road 0-60 time recorded by the 450-horsepower Ford F-150 Raptor, until now the fastest truck in production.

The 2021 Ram 1500 TRX is the first sub-4 second production pickup at 3.9 seconds.

The TRX and Raptor — joined by the 2022 GMC Hummer EV this week — make up a new class of super truck capable of sports car-like acceleration while boasting astonishing off-road capabilities. The electric motor-driven Hummer claims a 0-60 time of 3 seconds when it debuts late next year.

The highly anticipated Ram — its engine bay stuffed with the same supercharged, 6.2-liter V8 engine found in the Dodge Challenger Hellcat — is the first truck to take on the Raptor, which has wowed the motorhead community since its introduction in 2008. Currently equipped with the same twin-turbo V-6 engine found in the Ford GT supercar and state-of-the-art, performance Fox shocks, the Raptor brought Baja 1000-capable equipment to the pickup realm. Its heights were not challenged — until now.

The TRX isn’t the first speed freak that Ram has brought to market. Car and Driver has been the media baseline for 0-60 tests over the years, and it recorded the 2004 Dodge Ram SRT-10 (Ram was under the Dodge brand then) at 4.9 seconds. A missile on wheels, the SRT-10 didn’t have off-road aspirations but came equipped with the same 500-horse, 8.3-liter V-10 engine found in the Viper supercar. The Ford SVT F-150 Lightning stuffed in a supercharged V-8 back in 2001 and hit 60 mph in just 5.2 seconds. The 2008 Toyota Tundra TRD achieved a torrid 4.5 seconds.

Today’s standard-issue pickups are hardly weaklings. Car and Driver recorded the 2019 Ram 1500 at 6.0 seconds 0-60 when equipped with a 395-hp, 5.7-liter V-8. The TRX is a whole different animal, though.

Its 0-60 dash is comparable to a Chevy Camaro SS muscle car. Though, to be sure, the $89,000 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk — with the same Hellcat engine lurking under the hood — still has 0-60 mph bragging rights in the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV brand stable with a 3.5-second time.

Similar to supercars like the Corvette C8 or Porsche 911 that routinely record sub-3.0 second 0-60 times, the top-shelf TRX uses launch control to achieve its astonishing drag times.

The 2021 Ram 1500 TRX recorded 3.9 seconds 0-60 mph time (right) and 5.1 seconds off-road.

Hit the Launch Control button on the truck’s dash. Flatten the brake pedal. Bury the accelerator pedal. Wait for the revs to level at 2200 RPM. Release brake. The truck explodes forward with electronics managing the four-wheel-drive system for slip.

The grip of the 4WD drive system — particularly during off-road acceleration tests — is impressive. As is the visceral appeal. The Hellcat engine’s supercharger shrieks above the roar of the V-8. No wonder it’s named after the T-Rex predator.

The Ram’s speed capabilities come despite a considerable 850-pound weight disadvantage over the lighter Raptor. In addition to the V-8 boat anchor up front, the Ram’s ladder frame has been strengthened for off-road punishment.

Media tests included multiple laps around Nevada’s winding off-road Wild West Motorsport race track, where the Ram was launched four feet into the air at 65 mph over jumps. The impact was cushioned by competition Bilstein shocks, which, similar to Raptor, are capable of 14 inches of travel.

The 2021 Ram 1500 TRX is the first sub-4 second production pickup at 3.9 seconds.

TRX is distinguished over other Ram trucks by its swollen fenders, 13-inch wide-by-35 inch tall tires and big hood scoop. And its $70,095 price tag.

That puts it well above the $55,000 Raptor, but is below the starting price for the electric Hummer at $79,995. Indeed, with its boisterous V-8 and luxurious interior with 12-inch Tesla-like screen, the TRX pickup indicates there is plenty of life in the ol’ gas engine yet.

Loaded with options, the Ram will cost about $95,000 next to the top trim $112,000 Hummer. Despite its thirsty 12 mpg fuel economy, the V8-powered TRX claims about 400 miles of range compared to the Hummer’s electric 350. Gas station infrastructure is much friendlier to off-road adventure seekers than the sparse national fast-charging network.

Payne: Hummer EV vs. growing field of competitors

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 22, 2020

In the middle of World Series Game 1 on Tuesday night — in between beer, smartphone and camping equipment ads — viewers were treated to a 2-minute commercial about … an $112,595 electric Hummer pickup.

There might have been some head scratching.

Brands that sell $100k vehicles — Porsche, Land Rover, Maserati — usually don’t take out TV ads. Customers with that kind of disposable income call their car broker to buy their cars for them. The rare exception is the $100k, 2021 Cadillac Escalade, but that debuted at the Oscars where Hollywood swells drive up in limos. Polarizing basketball activist Lebron James introduced the ad promising the Hummer “would change the world,” though revolutionary autos usually have more modest price tags like the Model T or the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

But if not a revolution, General Motors Co.’s Hummer indicates something wild is happening in the luxury pickup market. GMC Hummer is one of a handful of expensive electric pickups coming to market in the next two years.

Seeking to capitalize on trendy luxury consumers who value sustainability, these trucks offer no-compromise power and technology while delivering guilt-free, zero emissions. While the Tesla Model 3 sedan popularized lux EVs, battery architecture uniquely favors pickups by offering yuuuge power, handling and storage capabilities.

“As the first of GM’s next-gen EVs, the Hummer EV will fundamentally alter conventional off-road and truck paradigms,” says GM electric guru Ken Morris.

Here’s how it stacks up against the other electron-guzzling pickups currently available to order:

GMC Hummer EV

Due in: late 2021 as a 2022 model

Deposit: $100,

Service: GMC dealers

Price: $112,595 ($79,995 base model in 2024)

Horsepower: 1,000

0-60 mph: 3.0 seconds

Towing: NA

Battery size: 200 kWh est.

Range: 350-plus

The iconic Hummer comes at the segment by throwing everything into its bed and the kitchen sink. It brings open-air, off-road capability like Jeeps; Super Cruise self-driving like Cadillac; the instant acceleration and high-tech of Tesla; and the latest tailgate tricks from GMC itself.

GMC Hummer EV

Unlike the original, diesel-powered, Humvee-based H1, the Hummer EV is as capable on-road as it is off. Its whisper-quiet electric drive-train floats on an air suspension while offering eyeball-flattening, 3.0-second, 0-60 acceleration. Off-road, its 35-inch knobby tires can go anywhere and then some — its new Crab Walk mode allowing the truck to navigate tight terrain diagonally.

Without an engine up front, passengers can store the Hummer’s roof in the “frunk” (front trunk) in order to have an unobstructed view of the heavens. Range is a healthy 350 miles though that will vary greatly depending on weather and the number of 0-60 launches you do. The truck is fast-charge capable on Electrify America’s emerging national network.

Tesla Cybertruck

Due in: late 2021 as a 2022 model

Deposit: $100,

Service: Tesla stores

Price: $69,900

Horsepower: 600

0-60 mph: 2.9 seconds

Towing: 14,000 pounds

Battery size: NA

Range: 500-plus

If the Hummer is a riff on an iconic shape, the Tesla Cybertruck is the most radical design in segment, its stainless steel body looking like something out of a sci-fi movie. The Cybertruck is considerably cheaper than the Hummer with a base price of $39,900 for its single motor truck. The top-line tri-motor — first available and comparable to the Edition 1 Hummer now on sale — starts at $69,900.

Tesla will build its Cybertruck in a new plant near Austin, Texas.

Tesla has only shown a prototype concept truck thus far, but the interior looks to be typically Tesla spartan. Controls are accessed through a single console screen — like the Model 3 sedan.

Tesla is promising delivery through its own dealers in late 2021, but the Silicon Valley automaker has been notoriously erratic in meeting delivery schedules — one of the advantages of a legacy automaker like Hummer and its independent dealer network. On the other hand, Tesla has a big leg up on its competition with the best, fast-charging network in the country.

Rivian R1T

Due in: early 2021

Depost: $1,000,

Service: Rivian stores

Price: $80,000 est.

Horsepower: 750

0-60 mph: 3.0 seconds

Towing: 11,000 pounds

Battery size: 105-180 kWh

Range: 400-plus

Before Hummer, before Cybertruck, Plymouth-based Rivian really opened eyes to the capabilities of an electric pickup. With four electric motors on board it promises a sprint to 60 mph in 3.0 seconds.

With its batteries stored in the basement, the R1T maximizes storage space with a massive frunk and pass through space behind the rear seats for another 12 cubic feet of storage. The Rivian is smaller than the competitive set — sized somewhere between a midsize and full-size pickup meant to appeal to urban customers. Its interior is uncluttered with two tablet screens for controls.

The  Rivian R1T at Rivian headquarters in Plymouth in November 2018.

Like Hummer, the Rivian can perform a handling trick of its own. With its quad motors spinning left and right-side wheels simultaneously in opposite directions, the R1T can rotate in place. Rivian calls the feature “Tank Turn.”

Bollinger B2

Due in: late 2021 as a 2022 model

Deposit: $1000,

Service: Independent dealers

Price: $125,000

Horsepower: 614

0-60 mph: 4.5 seconds

Towing: 7,500 pounds

Battery size: 142 kWh

Range: 200

Bollinger offers simple design and maximum storage. Designed for heavy lifting on founder Robert Bollinger’s New York farm, the B2’s pass-through interior can handle cargo up to 16-feet long stretching from front-to-rear bumper. With 15 inches of ground clearance, the truck can be raised or lowered another 5 inches.

The Bollinger B2 electric truck .

Optimized as a work truck, the B2 has 8 electrical outlets for power tools. You can attach a plow to it.

Lordstown Endurance

Due in: late 2020 as 2021 model

Deposit: $100,

Service: TBD

Price: $52,500

Horsepower: 600

0-60 mph: NA

Towing: 7,500 pounds

Battery size: 180 kWh

Range: 250-plus

Of the five trucks, the least is known about the Endurance to be built in GM’s old Lordstown Assembly site. But it is unique in that it features four hub-mounted electric motors for better vehicle control. Lordstown sales are focused on commercial fleets, so it appears determined to deliver an affordable truck — as opposed to competitors that are all starting production with high-end, $100,000-plus vehicles. That means it likely will have fewer gee-whiz features.

Payne: Five cool things to know about GM’s Hummer EV

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 20, 2020

True to its military roots, the GMC Hummer EV is big, brawny and blingtastic. And now it’s electric.

The gas-guzzling celebrity toy has transformed into an electron-guzzling celebrity toy. The $112,595, three-electric motor “Edition 1” launch model (the base model starts at $80k) will roll off the line in late 2021 on massive, 35-inch off-road tires — loaded to its removable roof with the latest in automotive technology. Promising “zero limits” performance to go with its “zero-emissions” drive-train, General Motors Co.’s Hummer hopes to be as fashionably athletic as its new spokesman, LeBron James.

In an indication of Hummer’s performance ambitions, GMC pirated long-time Camaro chief engineer Al Oppenheiser to create the OMG EV. “It’s an absolute off-road beast with a unique e4WD drive system that provides maneuverability unlike anything GM has ever offered,” said the muscle car veteran.

The $112,595, 2022 GMC Hummer EV will debut as a special launch edition in late 2021. The top-trim pickup truck will feature removable roof panels, 350-plus miles of range, and an automatic rear tonneau cover.

Here are five cool things to look for:

Crab mode

With four-wheel steering, the Hummer will have the ability to move like a crab. That is, diagonally, in order to get in and out of tight spots off-road. Officially dubbed “CrabWalk,” the system steers the front and rear wheels at parallel angles at low speeds, enabling sideways movement. With its underbelly armored with skid plates, the Hummer is designed for harsh terrain like its Army Humvee predecessors.


Perched high off the ground with four-wheel drive and enough Ultium batteries to take it 350 miles off the grid, the Hummer is a monster. But with three electric motors making 1,000 horsepower (a number usually associated with hyper-sports cars like the Aston Martin Valhalla), the silent rhino will hustle from 0-60 in a neck-snapping 3.0 seconds. Compare that to Tesla ‘s upcoming, 1,100-horse Model S Plaid trim that promises a run to 60 in 2 seconds.

The 2022 GMC Hummer EV will have a removable roof that can be stowed in the front trunk.

Star view

Like a Jeep Wrangler, the Hummer wants to put its passengers closer to nature. The big pickup’s roof panels come off (including a front compartment T-bar) to offer an unobstructed view of the sky. Unlike the Wrangler, the Hummer’s doors are frameless, meaning the view won’t be obstructed by door frames. Where to store the panels? GMC has made room in the front trunk — or frunk, as it’s called. Ditching a gas engine for batteries stashed in its belly, Hummer now has plenty of storage under the hood.

Unreal engine

Epic Games’ famous, 3D Unreal Engine rendering software dovetails nicely with Hummer’s no-gas engine theme, and with the new generation of millennial buyers that Hummer hopes to appeal to. Unreal Engine is legendary in the gaming space as the 3D rendition software behind Epic Games’ PlayStation and PC hits like Fortnite. The Hummer team used the software for stunning 3D images that can be displayed in the truck’s 13.4-inch console screen. The digital generation can gaze on a big, 12.3-inch display behind the steering wheel as well.

The 2022 GMC Hummer EV is the first vehicle to utilize Epic Games' 3D Unreal Engine software in its infotainment system. The graphics display is part of Hummer's futuristic ambitions. The image here is from an Epic prototype - not the Hummer itself.

The 3D look leads a bevy of high-tech features including 18 camera views (including under the belly), high-speed charging and Super Cruise — GM’s acclaimed, self-driving system heretofore only found on Cadillac.


Pickups are the new luxury class, and Hummer is marinated in style. The bed can be covered by an automatic tonneau cover. The rear window will automatically roll down as well. This being a GMC pickup, the Hummer will also come with a MultiPro tailgate which can be configured six ways including as stairs into the bed or as an architect’s table. Like its sibling GMC Yukon SUV, Hummer will feature air suspension so the truck can be raised or lowered 6 inches for better access — or off-road clearance.

All these features are wrapped in a familiar Hummer look. The truck is designed with signature square wheel arches, c-pillar sail and high side sills topped by a narrow greenhouse. Like Hummers of yore, the truck features a tall front grille for extreme off-road approach angles — but with a twist.

As an EV, the signature six-slot grille will light up with the Hummer, since the grille is no longer needed to feed air to the gas engine behind. The Hummer EV comes a long way from the crude Hummer that AMG  launched into the market with the urging of celebrity actor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1992. That diesel-powered animal was a Humvee military vehicle with lipstick.

The new Hummer EV sits on an all-new electric platform with a 21st-century interior. GMC is hoping buyers will ride it into the future.

How Hummer fell from the heights of notoriety — and was reborn

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 15, 2020

Gulf War military transport vehicle. Celebrity fashion-statement. Great Recession symbol of excess. For three decades, the hulking Hummer SUV has been one of the most notorious vehicles on the planet.

When the all-new re-branded GMC Hummer EV is introduced Oct. 20 with LeBron James as spokesman, the giant SUV will begin a new chapter in Hummer lore as a more earth-friendly vehicle that’s powered by electricity.

It was big. It was a celebrity fashion-statement. And during the Great Recession, the Hummer became a symbol of excess.

Seventeen years ago, James — then a high school senior phenom in Akron — drove to school in his new 2003 Hummer H2. The bling-tastic, gas-guzzling $50,000 Hummer equipped with a custom sound system, three TVs and a video game console drew the attention of the Ohio High School Athletic Association, which wanted to know where the money came from.

Today, the reborn Hummer EV fits Hollywood celebrity LeBron’s green lifestyle.

Buzz — whether good or bad — has always followed the Hummer.

Operation Desert Storm made the military Humvee into an American hero.

Originally manufactured by American Motors’ AM General subsidiary in 1981, the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle became the U.S. military’s mainstay transport vehicle. GIs quickly gave it the nickname of Humvee or Hummer. In 1990, the Hummer became synonymous with the divisive Persian Gulf War as the U.S. led an international coalition of forces into battle to reverse the Iraq invasion of Kuwait.

Operation Desert Storm — or the “Videogame War,” as some called it — made the Hummer a TV star as Americans followed the action from their living rooms. While high-tech stealth fighters ruled the skies, Humvees were ubiquitous on the ground, carrying troops across the desert warscape.

Hollywood took notice. While filming “Kindergarten Cop” in Oregon, actor and former body-builder Arnold Schwarzenegger spotted a convoy of 50 Humvees on their way to a nearby military base. He was smitten.

Former California governor and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger was instrumental in bringing the Hummer to the general public.

“He just went ape for that machine,” his agent, Lou Pitts, said in Schwarzenegger’s unauthorized biography. “I mean, it was big, it was unique, and it was something that was larger than him.”

Schwarzenegger wanted a military Humvee for the street, complete with camouflage paint and a gun turret. AM General balked. But after flying to South Bend, Indiana, to meet with company executives (and signing a lengthy liability waiver), the Terminator got his way. Schwarzenegger had the hulking vehicle customized in Michigan to make it Los Angeles street-worthy.

Schwarzenegger, then at his peak as America’s action hero, saw a business opportunity. He lobbied AM General to make its war hero available to the general public.

The AMG Hummer was introduced to the civilian market in 1992. It dwarfed anything on the road.

This Hummer H-1 dwarfed the lowriders at the Woodward Dream Cruise.

Upgraded slightly from the spartan military original, the Hummer came in eight colors. The interior was dressed with carpet, stereo and cloth or vinyl seats. Options were few.

Its diesel V-8 guzzled 10 mpg, but given its military heritage, it had capabilities to die for in disaster-prone California with its fires, mudslides and earthquakes. The all-wheel-drive beast had an insane, 72-degree approach angle and could run on four flat tires. It came with a built-in air compressor to inflate or deflate the tires while moving.

Most buyers just drove it on the boulevard, reveling in all the attention.

Sales started slowly for the $65,000-$90,000 truck. But its profile grew as it was embraced by celebrities. Roseanne Barr got one. Mike Tyson bought six. Owners included CNN boss Ted Turner, talk show host Montel Williams, tennis star Andre Agassi, novelist Tom Clancy, Dennis Rodman and a squad of other NBA stars.

By the time LeBron James got his as a teenage basketball star, the Hummer had become a macho status symbol.

Joe Bongiovanni, of Toutle, Wash., installed thermal imaging equipment in a military Humvee to search for Sasquatch in forests below Mount St. Helens.

Credit that in part to General Motors, which bought the brand in 1999 and turned it over to its corporate marketing machine. GM called its Hummer flagship the H1 and launched a brand lineup: The smaller H2, built on the Chevy Tahoe chassis, rolled out in 2003 with a 6.0-liter V-8. The “entry-level” H3 arrived in 2006; it shared the Chevy Colorado’s pickup frame.

Sales soared and the Hummer display at the Detroit auto show became a must-see. Kids climbed over the civilian weapons like jungle gyms. But trouble was stirring on the battlefields of the military and of the American public.

The second Iraq Gulf War in 2003 showed the HMMWV vulnerable to guerrilla warfare. Hummers were no match for so-called improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Scrambling to protect themselves, GIs welded on their own improvised steel armor. The military began development on a less vulnerable Humvee replacement.

Celebrity trends started to shift under the production Hummer, too. At the tail end of his acting career, Terminator Schwarzenegger became Gov. Schwarzenegger who represented a green California electorate that was more interested in Toyota Prius hybrids.

The Governator converted three of his four Hummers to alternative fuels: vegetable oil, biodiesel and hydrogen.

Celebrities were also mobilizing against the war as the George W. Bush administration pushed for regime change in post-9/11 Iraq. The “What Would Jesus Drive?” movement descended on the Detroit auto show and demanded an end to SUVs. The Hummer lineup was in their crosshairs.

“The symbolism of these impractical machines’ military roots is too delicious to ignore,” scolded media mogul Arianna Huffington. “We go to war to protect our supply of cheap oil in vehicles that would be prohibitively expensive to operate without it. Maybe the next model, the H3, will need to be connected to an intravenous gas-pump hose all the time.”

By 2006, the Hummer brand was at its apex. It was exported to 33 foreign countries with global sales of 71,000.

Then came higher gas prices and the Great Recession of 2008.

This 20-passenger custom pink Hummer limo was added to the fleet of Lenox Township-based Satisfaction Limo in 2011.

Sales dropped by half. Staggering toward bankruptcy, GM stopped production in 2010. A proposed sale to a Chinese firm tanked, and the Hummer brand was shelved.

In a prescient 2010 statement, Schwarzenegger said he believed “the Hummer is a great vehicle that needs to be reintroduced with a more green engine like electric or biodiesel.”

The Hummer, in fact, will be reborn as an electric vehicle under the GMC brand. Both SUV and pickups will be offered for the 2022 model year. A long way from stripped-down military efficiency, the new Hummer EVs will have luxurious interiors with state-of-the-art infotainment screens and will be controlled by the first application of Epic Games’ Unreal Engine Human-Machine Interface — the 3D rendering software coveted by the gaming world.

Estimated to start around $70,000, the Hummer EV’s top trim is expected to boast 1,000 horsepower, a 3-second zero-60 acceleration time, and a sideways crab-walking mode that likely will be used more often to get out of a tight spot in a parking lot than avoid an off-road boulder.

Still big. Still premium. Still a celebrity toy. At least until the next controversy comes along.

Payne review: Re-imagined Chevy Trailblazer takes on class-king Mazda CX-30

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 15, 2020

The Chevrolet Blazer has been roasted in … well, a blaze of criticism for not being like the new Ford Bronco. Unlike the wildly anticipated Ford, the mid-size Chevy isn’t sparking passion because it has forsaken its roots as a rugged truck-based SUV.

Its sibling  — the subcompact 2021 Chevy Trailblazer — is feeling the heat, too. The original 1999 Trailblazer was a premium trim of the Blazer. “We want our old ladder-frame, rugged Trailblazer back,” cries the internet peanut gallery.

“Chevy just ruined the Trailblazer name, too,” huffs Top Speed.

“The 2021 Chevy Trailblazer is a total letdown,” stomps Motor Biscuit.

“The Trailblazer nameplate has been used on a unibody crossover instead of a body-on-frame off-roader as it was in its previous iteration,” moans CarBuzz.

The 2021 Chevy Trailblazer fills the increasingly popular subcompact SUV hatch segment.

I get it. The new Trailblazer is different. Peter Gabriel left Genesis to go solo and who the heck is this Phil Collins guy? Kirstie Alley followed Shelley Long and now “Cheers” is ruined! Drew Carey replaced Bob Barker?

To be honest, I know as much about those cultural earthquakes as I do the old Trailblazer. Which is to say, very little. I never drove one.

So instead of comparing “Trailblazer: The Sequel” to the original, I’m going to compare it to its current competitive set. Namely the Mazda CX-30, the best subcompact crossover I’ve driven.

Because that’s what the Chevy Trailblazer is now: A smaller SUV squeezed between the entry-level Trax and the compact Equinox. With its stylish design and high-tech interior, it’s supposed to whet your thirst for the Blazer, should you covet a $40,000 mid-size ute.

The Trailblazer makes a very compelling case for itself. Indeed, along with the CX-30, my fellow jurors voted the Trailblazer a semifinalist for 2021 North American Utility of the Year.

Consider the high-volume LT trim I’ve been flogging. At $28,180, the all-wheel drive Trailblazer comes nicely equipped, just like the comparable, all-wheel drive $29,195 Mazda CX-30 Premium trim. That’s not something I’m used to.

Starting with the Chevy Traverse I tested back in 2017, the current generation of Chevy sport utilities has been stingy with standard safety features. Features like adaptive cruise-control aren’t standard on a Traverse until you reach the $55,590 High Country trim. Japanese manufacturers like Mazda, Subaru and Honda, on the other hand, have loaded their cars with standard cruise-control, automatic headlights, blind-spot assist and more.

So essential have these features become that Mrs. Payne won’t consider a vehicle unless it has adaptive cruise and all-wheel drive for under $30,000.

Trailblazer has learned the lesson.

While not offering adaptive cruise or blind-spot assist standard (both come standard on the Mazda Preferred trim, and all Japanese/Korean competitors offer at least one of the two standard), the LT offers these important features for just $620 and $345 respectively. That’s an affordable complement to standard goodies like lane-keep assist, automatic emergency-braking, automatic high-beams, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity and 4G Wi-Fi. Cruising along busy eight-lane I-96, these features quickly become essential to navigate traffic.

The hatchback 2020 Mazda CX-30 is a more utilitarian version of the brand's sexy Mazda 3 sedan.

Chevy executes handsome interiors with technology shared across model lines as diverse as Cadillac and Corvette.

While I’m drawn to the Mazda’s premium interior with its high infotainment screen and remote rotary-controller, the Chevy’s touchscreen is much more intuitive. Menus are easier to navigate; radio stations easier to store. The attention to detail in both cars belies their subcompact status.

On the outside, I’ve never been a fan of Chevy’s too-busy split-grille fascias. But the Trailblazer (along with big brother Blazer) is one of the brand’s more coherent creations. Maybe because Trailblazer is starting to look a lot like Hyundais, which have developed along similar lines with their mid-fascia headlights (upper “eyebrow” lights are running lights). Check out the new Hyundai Venue. Separated at birth.

Upper trims of the Trailblazer get nifty touches like a white Mini Cooper-esque roof (so does Hyundai). But my LT and its sporty, 17-inch wheels looked great.

That said, the Mazda CX-30 is still prom queen with its long nose, swept headlights and elegant lines. Even the overwrought fender cladding (SUV virtue-signaling) didn’t spoil my white tester with its gray 18-inch wheels.

The drver-focused cockpit of the nimble,

Mazda has also been cream of class in handling; I flogged it with the confidence only a BMW X1 can rival. But GM engineers have developed a disciplined cross-brand culture of tight, lightweight chassis from the best-in-luxe Cadillac CT4 to the lightweight Chevy Silverado to the nimble Equinox.

Trailblazer is no different, and it proved fun to drive as I lake-hopped across Oakland County from Loon to Wolverine to Orchard Lake.

The Chevy’s 155-horse 1.3-liter turbo-3 banger (exclusive with all-wheel drive) can’t rival the Mazda’s 186-horse mill, but the 174 pound-feet of torque (versus CX-30’s 186) is the real value here and pulls like a mule at low revs where you want it. Both engines are attached to buttery transmissions – 6-speed Mazda, 9-speed Chevy.

Loading more bling to go with its zing, my $29,195 CX-30 had a panoramic roof and leatherette seats that the Trailblazer can only dream of. Plus, the Mazda has the best 360-degree safety system (so you can monitor other cars around you) this side of Tesla.

Like all new cars, the 2021 Chevy Trailblazer has a backup camera - though the Trailblazer's resolution pales compared to other vehicles.

Trailblazer counters with impressive creature-comforts. After all, SUVs are bought for utility first, driving dynamics second. Trailblazer shares with siblings Trax and Buick Encore one of my favorite interior tricks – the fold-flat front seat. This ingenious tool (when combined with flattened middle-row seats) not only allows the wee Trailblazer to carry long toboggans or surfboards from hatch to glovebox — it’s also is an instant ottoman should you require the rear seat to get work done on a trip.

With three more inches of rear legroom — and 10 more cubic feet of rear cargo — the Chevy is much more accommodating of your friends when you ask them along for some trailblazing.

Speaking of trailblazing, it’s also worth noting how difficult the Trailblazer makes its for the brand’s electric ambitions: For a significant $10,000-plus less, the Trailblazer has 137 more miles of range than an equivalent $39,790 Chevy Bolt EV (396 vs. 259), more cargo room and all-wheel drive for Michigan’s’ long winters.

Nostalgia for old autos is natural. But when compared to the best the current market has to offer in subcompact SUVs and EVs, Trailblazer is a worthy sequel.

The 2021 Chevy Trailblazer is a long way from the original, rugged, 1999 Blazer. The new, cute ute is a subcompact offerings with smooth on-road dynamics.

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer

Vehicle type: Front- or all-wheel drive five-passenger subcompact SUV

Price: $19,995, including $995 destination charge ($28,185 AWD LT as tested)

Powerplant: 1.2-liter turbocharged 3-cylinder; 1.3-liter turbocharged 3-cylinder

Power: 137 horsepower, 162 pound-feet of torque (1.2-liter); 155 horsepower, 174 pound-feet of torque (1.3-liter)

Transmission: Continuously variable transmission; 9-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 9.4 seconds (Car and Driver); towing capacity, 1,000 pounds

Weight: 3,252 pounds (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 26 mpg city/30 highway/28 combined (as tested)

Report card

Highs: AWD option; good interior room

Lows: Good value, but still lacks standard options offered in competitors

Overall: 4 stars

2020 Mazda CX-30

2020 Mazda CX-30

Vehicle type: Front- and all-wheel drive, 5-passenger subcompact SUV

Price: $23,000 including $1,100 destination charge ($29,195 AWD Premium as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder

Power: 186 horsepower, 186 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.2 seconds (Car and Driver est.); towing capacity, 1,500 pounds

Weight: 3,388 pounds (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA est. 24 city/31 highway/26 combined (as tested)

Report card

Highs: Sharp handling; premium looks

Lows: Heavy black cladding; tight rear legroom

Overall: 4 stars

Hyundai green-lights development of a ‘walking car’ with 4 dog-like legs

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 12, 2020

Rugged Jeeps and pickups can explore the great outdoors. But for those who want vehicles to travel further into unnavigable terrain, Hyundai is working on what it calls a “Transformer-class vehicle” right out of a science-fiction film.

The Korean automaker has formed an Ultimate Mobility Vehicles Studio in Silicon Valley to develop its so-called “walking car,” It’s based on the Elevate concept vehicle that wowed visitors to the 2019 CES technology show in Las Vegas.

Hyundai says the walking car it's developing can can traverse uneven terrain, climb a 5-foot wall and  step over a 5-foot gap.

Envisioned initially as a vehicle to assist first-responders to reach remote disaster zones, the walking car will also be explored by Hyundai’s team for its potential in consumer and industrial uses.

In addition to rescue duty for earthquakes and other natural disasters, the Elevate vehicle could be used to satisfying individual wanderlust and help transport the disabled by, for example, walking up to their front door, leveling itself, and rolling in wheelchairs.

The Elevate looks like a giant robotic dog featuring leg joints for articulation over extreme terrain. Wheel are attached to the feet so it can roll as well.

An underside review of its articulated legs.

The design, says Hyundai, allows the machine to walk with mammalian or reptilian gaits, while also allowing it to move in any direction.

The walking car can traverse uneven terrain, climb a 5-foot wall, step over a 5-foot gap, and spread its legs to a 15-foot wide track width – all while keeping its main cabin (and passengers) level. A combination of wheels and articulated legs enables faster walking speeds.

A artist conception of the"walking car" concept as taxi for the disabled.

When not in the field, the ultimate mobility vehicle can drive on-road by folding its legs into stowed-drive mode. The battery-powered Elevate cuts power to the joints to allow travel at highway speeds like any other vehicle.

The Hyundai team not only shows off the Korean firm’s expansive view of the mobility future (it is also researching a flying car and drones), but also demonstrates the auto industry’s integration with Silicon Valley and Detroit at a time of intense technological change.

The New Horizons Studio is led by Hyundai Vice President John Suh, a 35-year veteran of investment in automotive and emerging tech, including positions at General Motors, Stanford University and the Palo Alto Research Center. He is a founding director of Hyundai Cradle, a California venture firm that invests in pioneering mobility projects.

The concept was designed in Metro Detroit by Walled Lake-based Sundberg-Ferar, a leader in transportation design. Sundberg-Ferar is no strange to Silicon Valley, having designed the region’s BART system trains.

“By combining the power of robotics with Hyundai’s latest EV technology, Elevate has the ability to redefine our perception of vehicular freedom,” said Sundberg-Ferar design chief David Byron. “Imagine a car stranded in a snow ditch just 10 feet off the highway being able to walk or climb over the treacherous terrain, back to the road potentially saving its injured passengers – this is the future of vehicular mobility.”

Hyundai isn’t the only auto manufacturer working on so-called “white-space development” beyond traditional cars. Toyota is developing a hydrogen-powered lunar rover and Honda has developed an innovative business jet airplane. Multiple companies are investing heavily in the future of autonomous vehicles.

“This is in the Hyundai culture. It is a manufacturing company that is always looking at building engineering solutions,” said Hyundai spokesman Miles Johnson. “It’s an ecosystem where we’re looking at everything from robotics to scooters.”

Payne: Room or vroom? Entry-level Mercedes GLB crossover vs. CLA sedan

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 12, 2020

The Mercedes GLB and CLA may sound like they come from the same family. But they are as different as Hansel and Gretel.

The GLB crossover and CLA sedan occupy the same entry-level compact segment. Both offer front- or all-wheel drive. Both feature the same state-of-the-art self-driving system. Yet Mercedes-Benz sees SUV and sedan buyers as entirely different people.

So it has given the entry-level vehicles two entirely different personalities.

Like siblings that take after mom or dad, the GLB gets its DNA from Papa G-wagon — Mercedes’ top-of-the-line SUV patriarch. The comely CLA learned its lessons from the top-dog S-class coupe.

The 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 wears the brand badge proudly.

GLB is square and chunky like the off-roady G-wagon, its giant greenhouse giving excellent 360-degree visibility and comfortable rear seating for your giraffe-legged reviewer. I could easily sit behind myself in the GLB with headroom to spare.

Elsewhere in its SUV lineup, Mercedes has been pushing the envelope trying to make its SUVs look more sedan-like with racy “coupe” designs on the GLC and GLE. Well, the GLB won’t be turning any heads.

The little Mercedes takes its design cues from a shoebox. This sport utility is all about utility.

Strangely, my GLB 250 came equipped with paddle shifters, which were as useful as tennis shoes on a fish. The GLB is not a vehicle you want to row hard. Its 2.0-liter turbo-4 has enough pep to get around town, but the turbo lags and the car’s top-heavy appearance (all that greenhouse glass!) translates to healthy body roll in the twisties.

Homely it may be, but you can throw everything and the kitchen sink inside its big square hatchback — and the GLB middle seats fold flat for easy loading. Its wheelbase stretches a healthy four inches beyond the CLA. Got more stuff? Load it on the roof rails.

From the side, the 2020 Mercedes GLB looks like any other ute.

If you want a stylish Mercedes, forget the GLA and check out runway model CLA.

With is long shark nose and swept lines, the sedan will get entry-level buyers’ attention. Papa S-class would be proud. Interestingly, the GLB is adorned with jewelry — chrome exhaust valance here, a dab of rocker-panel chrome there — in order to let you know the shoebox is a Mercedes.

The gorgeous CLA doesn’t need superfluous jewelry. Its lean body is visual enough. It’s even prettier than CLA’s first-gen car which I swooned over in 2015, especially in the rear quarters which drooped in the 2014 model like it had been held too close to a flame. The 2020 version sports a firmer derriere.

That’s important because the CLA is a companion sedan with the Mercedes A-class. Like the S-class and its S-class Coupe stablemate, Mercedes offers entry-level sedan buyers two body styles. Though the CLA has four doors, its raked roofline echoes that of the two-door, S-class coupe.

The A-class is attractive to look at — but for a couple grand more, you can score a date with the homecoming queen.

The hatchback of the 2020 Mercedes GLB may not rival the coupe-back of the CLA sedan, but it holds a lot more cargo.

Speaking of a couple grand more, I would recommend upgrading to the CLA’s AMG performance trim.

Like the GLB, the standard 221-horsepower 2.0-liter turbo-4 in the CLA feels a bit uninterested. The AMG 35 trim gains 81 ponies and a taut all-wheel-drive suspension.

Luffing along state Route 250 in Ohio, a serious-looking 232-horse Mazda RX8 suddenly loomed in my mirrors. I toggled into the AMG 35’s exclusive Sport Plus mode, tightening the suspension and steering. The engine lowered an octave as if clearing its throat.

With a flick of the shift paddle (useful in the CLA as opposed to the GLB) I dropped the transmission a gear, then floored it. Blatt! Blatt! went the lightning-quick upshifts as I sped through a pair of ess curves, the chassis solid as a rock.

The tires on the 2020 Mercedes GLB have a little more sidewall than the CLA sedan, in case you want to take it off-road.

Exploding out of the last corner, I glanced in the rear-view mirror for my RX8 friend. He was barely in sight, struggling to keep up.

If anyone challenges you at a stoplight, the AMG’s launch control is also useful. Floor the brake. Bury the throttle. Wait for the revs to level at 3,000 rpms. Lift brake. Zot!

As different as the SUV and sedan look outside, the cockpits are similar. Both come with a standard 7-inch gauge cluster. Upgrade to a 10.25-inch cluster like my testers and you get one of the industry’s best digital experiences. Where Tesla has inspired a generation of cars with big center screens, Mercedes has innovated the horizontal dash screen, stretching from the driver’s instrument panels across the console.

Note the Kia K5, Hyundai Sonata and 2021 Cadillac Escalade as disciples of Merc’s design lead. Managing the wealth of information on these graphically rich screens is a beautifully engineered steering wheel. Without removing my hands from it, I used tiny mouse pads on the spokes to negotiate between menus.

The 302-horse 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 enjoys the long, flat country roads of middle Ohio.

There’s self-driving capability, too, for the ambitious. Mercedes’ system is reliable on a divided interstate, even changing lanes automatically when you pull the turn-signal stalk. Unfortunately, the voice-recognition system struggled with my navigation commands, whereas the available Android Auto (ahem, Mercedes, if Kia can do wireless Android Auto, why can’t you?) responded perfectly as always.

I continue to use phone apps for my in-car navigation.

The Mercedes’ consoles provide useful storage space for phone and water bottles — but could be even more useful were it not for the giant touchpad that occupies valuable console real estate and proved clumsy to operate. I didn’t use it.

Perhaps my favorite ergonomic feature on the Mercedes is the location of the engine stop-start button — the most annoying feature in autos today — right next to the ignition button. Turn on the ignition key — and turn off the stop-start button in one motion. Thanks, Mercedes!

Aft of the front thrones, the two vehicles change significantly. The CLA sedan gets cramped, the coupe roofline bearing down on my noggin while I have to splay my long legs to sit behind myself.

So different are GLB and CLA that Merc fanatics might consider buying both for the garage. One for daily chores, one for weekend getaways. One for Hansel, one for Gretel.

Next week: 2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer

Rear shot of the 2020 Mercedes CLA.

2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA

Vehicle type: Front- or all-wheel-drive five-passenger compact sedan

Price: $37,645, including $995 destination charge ($66,340 AWD AMG CLA35 as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter inline turbo-4

Power: 221 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque; 302 horsepower, 295 pound-feet of torque (in CLA35 as tested)

Transmission: 7-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.8 seconds (mfr.); top speed, 155 mph

Weight: 3,505 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 23 mpg city/29 highway/25 combined  (as tested)

Report card

Highs: Sexy bod; sporty AMG dynamics

Lows: Useless touch pad; cramped rear seat

Overall: 4 stars

The boxy 2020 Mercedes GLB may not be much to look at it, but it makes it up in utility.

2020 Mercedes GLB

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

Price: $37,595, including $995 destination charge ($55,340 AWD GLB 250 as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter inline turbo-4

Power: 221 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.9 seconds (mfr.); top speed, 130 mph

Weight: 3,891 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 23 mpg city/31 highway/26 combined

Report card

Highs: Roomy interior; state-of-the-art electronics

Lows: Boxy exterior; sleepy turbo-4

Overall: 3 stars

Debut: Honda Ridgeline pickup gets macho makeover for 2021

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 12, 2020

Honda’s midsize truck is getting truckier.

The only pickup on the market that is built on a unibody SUV platform, the latest generation of the Ridgeline has boasted superior ride dynamics and interior room since Honda left behind the traditional ladder-style truck frame for 2017. But it has suffered under the perception that it’s soft against trucks built on traditional frames. Meanwhile, the midsize pickup segment has gotten more crowded with new entries from Ford Ranger and Jeep Gladiator in the last two years.

The 2021 Honda Ridgeline gets a more aggressive face.

So Ridgeline has hit the gym for a new more-toned look. The 2021 pickup sports a more aggressive, upright truck grille. The larger opening is crisscrossed with rugged latticework while a more muscular “power bulge” hood looms above it. Bodywork has been totally remade from the A-pillar forward.

A prominent skid plate, heavily clad fender wells and a dual exhaust emphasize Ridgeline’s tough new look. Want more bling? A new Honda Performance Development option adds a unique grille treatment, black fender flares and bronze-colored wheels.

The midsize Honda Ridgeline gets some attitude for 2021. It's is the only pickup in class built on a unibody SUV platform.

“Truck enthusiasts have long recognized Ridgeline as an incredibly versatile and capable pickup, and now it’s got the rugged looks to match,” said Art St. Cyr, Honda North American vice president of auto operations.

Truck guys like what they see.

“The 2021 truck adds a much-needed dose of macho style with the new front and dual exhaust,” said Andrew Smirnov of The Fast LaneTruck, the online truck review site. TFL Truck baselines all trucks with extensive testing.

The styling backs up the Ridgeline’s sophisticated, torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system and versatile bed which includes a 7.3-cubic foot trunk underneath and a versatile dual-action tailgate that can both drop and swing like a door. Ram only this year added a similar option to its full-size truck.

But truckers question whether the beefier styling will be enough to expand beyond Ridgeline’s niche as a smooth-riding city truck.

The 2021 Honda Ridgeline interior is the roomiest in class. For the new model year it gains a volume knob to help improve complaints about its infotainment system.

TFL Truck publisher Roman Mica said that he was surprised Honda didn’t take the opportunity to release a rugged, jacked-up, more high-speed version of its pickup similar to what Chevy does with the Colorado ZR2 or that Jeep offers with the Gladiator Mojave. Honda — which competes in multiple forms of motorsports —has certainly earned that right by competing in the brutal Baja 1000. The Ridgeline won its class this year for the fourth time.

Mica said that the Ridgeline is the rare pickup that doesn’t offer a two-speed transfer case or significant departure/approach angles that can get a truck through Mother Nature’s most difficult terrain, even if most customers never push that envelope.

“Most buyers are looking for the truck they want, not the truck they need,” he said. “Most truck owners want to be prepared for the zombie apocalypse.”

Built in Alabama on the same bones as its mid-size Pilot SUV, Honda seems content with Ridgeline’s versatility as a daily driver. The more rugged looks should please the Honda faithful who have complained the Ridgeline looked more crossover than pickup. Honda sold 8,607 in the third quarter, up from 8,378 a year ago.

The Tacoma led the segment with over 58,000 in sales last quarter while the Gladiator made big gains with 22,163 (a 37% gain) and the Ranger sold 28,350 (up 8%).

Though its tow rating of 5,000 pounds trails segment competitors, the Ridgeline is no slouch in payload with best-in-class 1,580 pounds. The interior is what really separates it, thanks to the more flexible unibody frame and clever Honda console.

The console shares the Pilot SUV’s sliding door which opens cavernous storage room. The rear seats flip up allowing for rear storage for, for example, a bicycle.

A Car and Driver comparison test of the segment’s front-runners found the Ridgeline scored best-in-class cornering performance, rear-seat space and volume, lowest sound levels, and best in class safety features.

Those safety features include standard forward-collision warning, lane-keep assist and adaptive cruise-control.

The Ridgeline’s drivetrain remains the same for 2021 with a standard, 280-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 mated to a 9-speed automatic transmission.

Tesla takes a more traditional route to its new Berlin plant

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 6, 2020

Since the introduction of its groundbreaking Model S sedan in 2012, Tesla has been about industry disruption.

Led by mercurial CEO Elon Musk, the Silicon Valley electric-car maker has taken a clean-sheet approach to everything automotive — from its spare interior designs to its “Ludicrous mode” acceleration to its over-the-air software updates.

A street sign reading Tesla Street stands in front of the construction site for Tesla's new Berlin factory.

But its attempt to remake auto manufacturing in 2018 nearly broke the company.

The year of what Musk called “production hell” at its Fremont, California, plant was a lesson in hubris as Tesla sought to meet demand for its mass-market Model 3 sedan. Vehicles came off the line with sunken hoods, detached bumpers and uneven panel gaps. Some were assembled in parking lot tents. Flawed paint jobs delayed the delivery of thousands of vehicles.

As Tesla embarks on its first major production facility in Europe — building the Model Y compact SUV in Berlin starting next year — experts say the company appears to be adopting traditional production methods and relying less on robots. And it is simplifying the vehicle’s structure.

Tesla's Elon Musk visited the site of his new Berlin plant in September. As it prepares to build the Model Y SUV there, the company appears to have learned from its missteps in producing the Model 3 in California.

“Tesla’s got an innovative culture,” said manufacturing expert Sandy Munro, president of Munro & Associates. He has been a vocal critic of Tesla production. “Sometimes, it gets it right. Sometimes, it gets it horribly wrong, as in the case of the (California) plant. So now we’ve got the German plant, and it seems to be learning from its mistakes.”

Riding current consumer and government trends toward electric vehicles, Tesla announced a record 139,300 deliveries in the third quarter, up 24% from its previous record set last December. All of those vehicles were built in California.

Tesla began production of cars in its new Shanghai plant late last year and plans to boost capacity of the plant from 200,000 to 250,000 by the end of the year.

With Asian sales suppressed by the coronavirus crisis, the China plant is at overcapacity, and the automaker is facing increased competition in the electric market in Europe from established carmakers.

Still, Tesla anticipates increased demand for its vehicles globally, with countries like France and England phasing out gas and engines over the next 20 years.

But Tesla’s quality has been an issue even as it has been an innovator in the design of electronics and body construction.

Its electronics and battery systems are “not a generation but generations beyond what any other manufacturer is doing,” said Munro, a 30-year veteran of auto manufacturing and one of the industry’s most respected consultants.

And the manufacturing process?

“It’s crap,” he said of Fremont assembly’s attempt to automate assembly three years ago. “It was a terrible, terrible philosophy. Unless you’ve designed your product so that a blind, one-armed idiot — a robot — can put it together.”

Tesla will build the Model Y compact SUV next year in this factory rising in Berlin.

Convinced he could make what he termed “alien dreadnought” factories operated mostly by robots, Musk hired Audi executive and automation advocate Peter Hochholdinger in 2016. Tesla made a crucial mistake in automating the factory while the Model 3 was still in prototype development.

David Cole, a veteran analyst and chairman emeritus of Ann Arbor’s Center for Automotive Research, said most manufacturers don’t start production until they’ve finished development. “Tesla, on the other hand, would take prototype tooling into the production line to see what worked. They didn’t figure out their processes before they started volume production.”

For its Berlin plant, Tesla is once again promising transformative change.

But this time, the company is playing to its strengths by designing a simpler product that will then be assembled to German manufacturing standards: Tesla has managed to reduce its front and rear chassis compartments to two castings for the Model Y.

“The current version of Model Y has basically two big high-pressure diecast aluminum castings that are joined, and there’s still a bunch of other bits that are attached,” Musk said in an April podcast. “Later this year we’ll transition to the rear underbody being a single-piece casting that also integrates the rear crash rails.”

The castings essentially make up the front and rear compartments of the car — the rear cargo area and the front trunk where the engine would be located in a gas car.

The advantages of using a single-piece casting are many: It reduces production costs by using fewer parts, which means fewer supplier stampings as well as less labor.

Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst for Guidehouse Insights, agrees the single castings are an interesting idea but that execution will be key.

“Precision on a part that large could be challenging,” he said, pointing out the difficulties of deformities, for example.

Such manufacturing advances in Tesla’s new Berlin and Chinese plants have industry analysts bullish on Tesla’s future.

“The key takeaway from Tesla’s September investors meeting is its focus from being not just a cutting-edge EV maker — but to also being on the cutting edge of manufacturing,” said iSeeCars executive analyst Karl Brauer. “That focus could translate into a corporate mindset that gives him a long-term competitive advantage over competitors.”

Musk isn’t the first auto executive to learn the lessons of technical overreach. General Motors made similar mistakes under the leadership of Roger Smith in the 1980s. Under pressure from Toyota, Smith envisioned a “lights out” car factory where efficient robots shouldered most work.

In their 1994 book, “Comeback,” authors Paul Ingrassia and Joe White cataloged Tesla-like scenes from GM’s Hamtramck plant: “Instead of easing robots onto the line a few at a time, providing for inevitable debugging problems with redundant equipment, GM bet the entire Hamtramck production system on the proposition that leading-edge automation would work instantaneously.”

Mused Munro: “I guess Elon had to learn his lesson just like Roger Smith.”

North American Car, Utility and Truck of the Year semifinalists named

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 1, 2020

Forget the presidential debate, let the wrangling over Vehicle of the Year commence.

The 2021 North American Car, Utility and Truck of the Year (NACTOY) Awards announced its 27 semifinalists Wednesday. The list includes eight sedans, 15 SUVs, and four trucks, and tells the tale of the Detroit Three’s move away from cars. One sedan is from Detroit, while five Motown SUVs make the list. All four truck candidates are from Detroit.

The 2021 Escalade has the bold presence and exclusive technology to elevate the extraordinary and make every drive feel like an occasion.
Cadillac, Cadillac


2021 Ford Mustang Mach E
2021 Chevy Trailblazer
Chevrolet, Chevrolet
The 2020 Land Rover Defender comes in 90 (two-door) and 110 (four-door) trims. All vehicles are four-wheel-drive with the ability to wade into 35-plus inches of water.
The 2021 Ford Bronco Sport is based on a unibody chassis – not the truck chassis of its brother Bronco – but it still likes to get dirty off-road.
All-new for 2021, the Chevy Suburban is the longer version of its twin, three-row Tahoe. Built on the Silverado truck chassis, the family Suburban has a more refined interior and ride than the pickup.
2021 Nissan Rogue
Nissan, Nissan
The subcompact-plus 2020 Mazda CX-30 is the Japanese brand’s fourth entry in the SUV market – placed between the tiny CX-3 and bigger, compact CX-5.
2021 Genesis GV80
Genesis, Genesis
2021 Kia Seltos
Kia, Kia
2021 Hyundai Santa Fe
Hyundai, Hyundai
2020 Kia Sorento
Kia, Kia
2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime
Toyota, Toyota
2021 Toyota Venza
Toyota, Toyota
2021 Volvo XC40 Recharge P8 AWD in Glacier Silver
Volvo, Volvo

Contenders range from icons like the Cadillac Escalade and Ford F-150 to upstarts like the Ford Mustang Mach E, Ford’s first electric vehicle. Not only are the nominees dominated by utility vehicles, but they represent the most diversity of drivetrain offerings with everything from V-8 engines to gas-electric hybrids to full electric vehicles.

Early favorites are the Genesis G80 for Car of the Year, Ford Bronco Sport for SUV and Ford F-150 for best truck.

Significantly absent from the list is the Tesla Model Y, the American electric automaker’s latest SUV and the hottest selling SUV EV in the market. However, Tesla did not make its car available for jury testing.

2021 Ford F-150 Limited in Smoked Quartz Tinted Clearcoat.
Ford, Ford
Most powerful Super Duty yet launches with two new engine offerings including all-new advanced 7.3-liter gasoline V8 and upgraded third-generation 6.7-liter Power Stroke® diesel V8; all-new heavy-duty 10-speed TorqShift® automatic transmission
Ford, Ford
The 2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave has a 45-degree approach angle to better hurdle obstacles.
2021 Ram 1500 TRX

A jury of 50 independent journalists whittled 46 new vehicles for the 2021 model year down to the semifinalist candidates. Each car will be fully vetted in the months ahead and finalists announced in December in Los Angeles. Winners will be announced in January during an event hosted by the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

“The breadth of choices in the SUV category from style to powertrain is really impressive,” said NACTOY Secretary Gary Vasilash, an industry veteran who is editor-in-chief of AutoBeat. “You have everything from a $20,000 Kia Seltos to a $120,000 Escalade.”

The Escalade’s remake – which includes features like a 38-inch touchscreen – sits on top of the Chevy Silverado pickup truck platform that also supports 2021 Chevrolet contenders Tahoe and Suburban.

The full slate of nominees come despite a coronavirus-scarred year that saw auto sales crater in March and April as states shut down dealerships and national unemployment soared. Sales have since rebounded, but many product introductions were pushed back until later this year.

The Bronco Sport is an indication of the increased bandwidth of the SUV market. The so-called “baby Bronco” will have many of the rugged style attributes of the forthcoming Bronco (due in the middle of next year) which Ford has targeted at the Jeep Wrangler. Unlike the truck-chassis Bronco, however, the Bronco Sport will be on the same unibody platform as the Ford Escape. All three vehicles will be available to customers in the compact SUV segment – an unprecedented offering from the brand.

The Ford Bronco Sport is an early favorite for SUV of the year.

According to IHS Markit, SUVs made up 47.4% of US sales in 2019 with sedans dropping to just 22%. Taken together with pickup trucks – the most profitable vehicles in the Detroit Three lineup – SUVs and trucks now make up nearly 80% of US sales.

Nevertheless, 2021 NACTOY sedan nominees are some of the most stylish models ever conceived as automakers use their inherently sleeker shape and handling dynamics to sell to non-SUV customers. The Acura TLX marks a return to that brand’s sporty vibe. The gorgeous Kia K5 and Genesis G80 are statement cars from Korean automakers determined to go head-to-head with Japanese and European mainstays.

Vasilash is particularly fond of the $20,000 Nissan Sentra which offers upscale looks and a wealth of safety features like adaptive cruise-control and blind-spot assist not found on luxury cars costing thousands of dollars more.

All-new for 2020, the Nissan Sentra compact combines great looks with a more nimble, lowered chassis for just $25k in SR trim.

The 2020 Cadillac CT4-V is a new performance variant of the CT4 – which itself replaces the ATS sedan and debuts in the subcompact segment.

2021 Acura TLX
2021 Hyundai Elantra
2021 Genesis G80
Jack Schroeder, Genesis
2021 K5 EX 1.6T FWD
2021 Mercedes E-class
Mercedes, Mercedes
The 2021 Polestar 2 is the second car from Volvo’s new EV brand. Where the Polestar 1 was an expensive, $100k-plus halo car – the 2 is aimed at the volume Tesla Model 3.

“It’s a car that regular people car afford to buy,” said Vasilash. “It’s significant because it is aimed at a customer that wants a vehicle with more style and dynamics than their neighbor’s SUV.”

The 2021 contenders also include a wealth of battery-powered vehicles as automakers try to replicate Tesla’s success in the market as well as meet California’s draconian sales goals. California’s governor has announced the state will prohibit the sale of new, gas-powered cars by 2035.

Models include the Polestar 2, the first sedan from Volvo’s electric car brand, as well as the Toyota RAV4 Prime, a gas-hybrid plugin variant of America’s’ best-selling SUV.

2021 NACTOY Semifinalists

Car of the Year 

Acura TLX

Cadillac CT4/CT4-V

Genesis G80

Hyundai Elantra

Kia K5

Mercedes-Benz E Class Sedan, All-Terrain, Coupe, Cabriolet

Nissan Sentra

Polestar 2

Utility of the Year 

Cadillac Escalade

Chevrolet Tahoe/Suburban

Chevrolet Trailblazer

Ford Bronco Sport

Ford Mustang Mach E

Genesis GV80

Hyundai Santa Fe

Kia Seltos

Kia Sorento

Land Rover Defender

Mazda CX-30

Nissan Rogue

Toyota RAV4 Prime

Toyota Venza

Volvo XC40 P8 Recharge

Truck of the Year 

Ford Super Duty

Ford F-150

Ram 1500 TRX

Jeep Gladiator Mojave