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Payne: The Lexus NX goes SciFi

Posted by hpayne on December 11, 2014

Lexus created the luxury-utility crossover category

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

Lexus has the most radical styling out there.

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

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

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

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

And so we get the NX.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report card

Highs: Polarizing stylin’; Planted handling

Lows: Polarizing styling; Glitchy touch pad

Overall: ★★★

 

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

Posted by hpayne on December 8, 2014

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

Majoros_ 2015-Chevy-Trax.jpg

Is the sedan a dinosaur?

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

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

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

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

Q: How did you get here?

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

Q: What was your first car?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Payne: Subaru Outback’s sensible chic

Posted by hpayne on December 8, 2014

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

2015 Subaru Outback

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

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

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

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

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

I blame Subaru marketing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015 Subaru Outback

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

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

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

Power: 175 horsepower, 174 pound-feet of torque

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

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

Weight: 3,593 pounds

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

Report card

Highs: Gobs of interior room; all-wheel drive

Lows: Noisier than most; vanilla styling

Overall: ★★★

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

Posted by hpayne on November 22, 2014

Baime_book_112214.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: So where did people find cars?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: You a gearhead?

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

Payne: VW GTI is a cheap thrill

Posted by hpayne on November 15, 2014

The 2015 GTI is wrapped in sheetmetal that is totally

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

May I recommend the Volkswagen Golf GTI?

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

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

Like beautiful people, beautiful cars come with paparazzi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except, ahem, for the water pump.

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

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

Do I miss the BMW i8? The what?

2015 VW GTI

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

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

Power plant: 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder

Power: 220 horsepower, 258 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

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

Weight: 3,105 pounds

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

Report card

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

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

Overall: ★★★★

GMC Canyon/Chevy Colorado: Urban cowboys

Posted by hpayne on November 13, 2014

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

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

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

But in town it can be a misfit toy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That includes trucks.

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

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

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

When life throws you lemons, make lemonade.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sold, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015 GMC Canyon/Chevy Colorado

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

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

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

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

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

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

Weight: 4,500 pounds

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

Report card

Highs: Ute with a box; Quiet interior

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

Overall: ★★★

 

Payne: Q&Auto – IndyCar champ Will Power

Posted by hpayne on November 8, 2014

IndyCar champ Will Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Do you still live in Australia?

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

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

Power: I tested a Minardi car back in 2004.

Q: How do you compare F1 and IndyCar?

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

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

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

Q: How do you like the Detroit course?

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

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

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

Q: Is Detroit particularly tough?

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

Q: What’s your daily driver?

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

Q: What’s your dream car?

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

Payne: Dodge Charger’s got room with vroom

Posted by hpayne on November 6, 2014

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

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

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

You know, a family car.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stability control. Don’t leave home without it.

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

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

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

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

Whaddaya think, Kuniskis?

2015 Dodge Charger

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

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

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

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

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic

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

Weight: 4,575 pounds

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

Report card

Highs: Inspired styling; Dude, 707 kicking horses

Lows: Porky; Know your own power

Overall: ★★★★

 

Payne: Volvo XC60 gets X-citing

Posted by hpayne on November 4, 2014

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

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

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

Well, scrap the caricature.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, the ladies love this hunk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015 Volvo XC60

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

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

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

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

Transmission: Six or eight-speed automatic

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

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

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

Report card

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

Lows: Thirsty 6-cyl engines; Quirky console

Overall: ★★★★

Payne: Luxe Lincoln MKC a must-c

Posted by hpayne on October 30, 2014

Lincoln introduces the all-new 2015 Lincoln MKC small

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

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

What’s next? A hug?

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

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

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

Beauty with sacrifices

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

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

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

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

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

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

That a Lincoln would even turn heads is newsworthy.

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

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

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

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

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

Comfort over athleticism

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

Which takes us to the bottom line.

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015 Lincoln MKC

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

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

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

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

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

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

Weight: 3,963 pounds (AWD as tested)

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

Report card

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

Lows: Heavy; demands a heavy wallet

Overall: ★★★★

Internet car radio poses bigger threat for local AM-FM

Posted by hpayne on October 25, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisers are following the users.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toyota Camry’s extreme makeover

Posted by hpayne on October 23, 2014

2015 Toyota Camry is available with the choice of a

The 2015 Toyota Camry gets a dash of sex appeal to keep up with the hotties in its mid-size sedan class.

Upon testing the new, 2015 Toyota Camry XSE (S for “sport”), I was not overcome with the urge to crash a wedding, steal the bride, and outrun the groomsmen in their classic, sky-blue convertible. Mrs. Payne would have greeted me at the front door with a rolling pin.

But the latest Toyota ad campaign suggests that Camry-buying, single men might find such ideas irresistible. Acting on impulse? Feeding primal urges?

This is the message of a Toyota Camry ad?

If you’re shocked, you haven’t visited the mid-size sedan aisle in a while. This once quiet, predictable quarter of the auto department store was as sexy as the washing machine display at Sears. The appliances were functional. Efficient. Boxy. King Camry ruled. Japanese quality was the coin of the realm. Everyone dressed the same. Public displays of

emotion were frowned upon. Muzak played over the sound system.

Then that rebel, the Hyundai Sonata, showed some leg and the whole place turned into a Studio 54 disco party.

The 2010 Sonata’s racy body turned heads. The Ford Fusion followed with a pouty grille and come-hither headlights so convincing you thought Aston Martin had made a grocery hauler. Then came Chrysler 200 with its lusty lights and feminine lines. Want to mambo with your midsize? The athletic Mazda 6 not only turned heads on the showroom floor, it could cut some serious rug, too.

After years of jelly-bean shaped look-alikes, these cars made hearts beat faster. They stirred . . . emotions.

The Camry appliance watched warily. Sure, its reputation for quality continued to draw customers, but it could see eyes wandering. Ooooh, that Fusion is pretty. Loooove those Hyundai lines. And their JD Power quality ratings were improving all the time.

If quality was becoming a universal ingredient, then how would Camry stand out? Toyota’s 2012 redesign created more concern. Dealers reportedly murmured that the new car was too bland. It reinforced Camry’s reputation as a vanilla brand. Hadn’t Jeremy Clarkson of “Top Gear” written a column titled, “Can’t sleep? Look at a Camry?”

“(It is) by far the dullest shaped body I have ever seen in my whole life,” wrote the renowned auto personality. “All I need to do now is think about the shape and I come over all drowsy.”

Ouch. Even Chevy’s own cure for insomnia, the Malibu, was reading the reviews. Faced with its own dealer revolt, GM had completely remade the ‘Bu in 2014 to address its somnolescent qualities. Wasn’t the Camry just a better-engineered Malibu? And didn’t Malibu just win JD Power’s Initial Quality Survey for best mid-sized sedan?

So just three years after the reborn ’12 Camry, we have the reborn ’15 Camry: More style, more handling, more … emotion.

It largely works. The Camry is no Fusion, but it is distinctive. Clarkson will have to find another cure for insomnia.

Toyota spent a reported $200 million in upgrading the sheet metal, chassis, and interior of the car. That’s a lotta dimes for a cost-conscious manufacturer that prides itself on getting it right the first time.

Behold the new car’s slimmer, less slab-like torso thanks to a lower beltline. But most striking is the plastic surgery around front. The Camry’s new kisser borrows heavily from Toyota’s Lexus lux brand, which has itself undergone an expensive face-lift. The Lexus is the best example of Akio Toyoda’s directive (when the CEO speaks, people listen) that Toyota products stir passion. Beginning with Akio himself, no doubt. A certified car guy. Ooooh, that Fusion is pretty!

The Camry’s hour-glass grille design reminds you of just how radical the Lexus looks. Indeed, some Lexus buyers may admire the Camry’s more measured interpretation. The new face comes in two guises — L and the racier S.

My preference is for the L style. Its thin, horizontal accents complete an elegant sculpture. The black, honeycomb S-maw echoes the Lexus F-Sport’s spindle grille. In the rearview mirrors it looks like the cow-catcher of an approaching locomotive. But it doesn’t intimidate like the Lexus. It’s cheap, plastic construction smacks of a pretender. An oversized Corolla S.

Were I that single dude, I would steal the bride in the LE hybrid.

Not only will the beauty warm to its less beastly face, but the sedan’s excellent, electric-assisted acceleration and chassis balance (thanks to 150 pounds of battery in the trunk balancing the four-banger up front) will put distance on your pursuers. On a hard flog through northern Florida, your intrepid writer found the hybrid well-balanced — rotating into corners with a tire-squalling vigor not normally associated with tree-hugging transport. And I had a ready alibi if pulled over: “There must be some mistake, officer. This is a hybrid.”

Not that you can’t appreciate the electric powertrain. My test mule boasted an impressive 572-mile range — meaning you could outrun the groomsmen before looking for a hotel for the night. Back the Camry down to 40 mph and it’ll run on battery alone for long stretches — stretching that range even further.

As you get to know your passenger in the Camry’s roomy, hushed cabin, she’ll marvel at the stylish, chrome-lined console. The standard, 4.3″ touch screen is outstanding, complemented by bigger, piano black touch keys. The screen’s usability will distract her while you fiddle with the Camry’s less driver-friendly details which smack, like the plastic grille on the S models, of cheapness. The holdover, notchy, shifter is clunky. And beware the (optional) adaptive cruise control, which will cease working below 20 mph, giving you a nasty surprise as you approach a stopped car ahead.

Full adaptive next time, please.

Indeed, next time will come quickly in this ruthless segment. One gets the sense that Toyota is especially concerned about Hyundai’s Sonata, which has also picked up makeup tips from its luxury superior, the Genesis. What’s more, the Hyundai’s handsome appliance starts at $21,960 – nearly $2k under the $23,795 Camry. Hyundai quality? Four JD Power stars, just like its revered Japanese competitor. And the Korean model weighs in with a hybrid and two superb 4-cylinder turbo engines which provide V-6 power while opening more room for Sonata’s segment-leading cargo space.

The Camry, meanwhile, stubbornly sticks to a V6 that make up just 6 percent of sales — even less than the 10 percent hybrid. Interior room matters. After the wedding-crashing theatrics, the talk will surely turn to kiddies.

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

2015 Toyota Camry

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

Price: $23,795 base ($32,987 Camry Hybrid LE as tested)

Power plant: 2.5-liter DOHC 4-cylinder; 3.5-liter DOHC V-6; Hybrid engine: 2.5-Liter DOHC 4-cylinder with Nickel-Metal Hydride AC-motor assist

Power: 178 horsepower, 170 pound-feet of torque (4-cyl.); 268 horsepower, 248 pound-feet of torque (V-6); 200 horsepower (hybrid)

Transmission: Six-speed automatic or continuously-variable transmission (Hybrid only)

Performance: 0-60 mph: 6.6 seconds (V-6 — manufacturer)

Weight: 3,240 pounds (3,485 hybrid as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 25 city/35 highway/28 combined (2.5L 4-cyl); 25 city/35 highway/28 combined (2.7L 4-cyl); 21 city/31 highway/25 combined (V-6); 43 city/39 highway/41 combined (Hybrid)

Highs: Runs like a Swiss watch; Hushed cabin

Lows: Plasticy S-trim fascia; Only partial adaptive cruise control

Overall: ★★★

 

Corvette vs. Porsche track showdown

Posted by hpayne on October 18, 2014

The Detroit vs. Stuttgart sports car faceoff has been

Who has the edge in this historic rivalry? I took them on Autobahn race track to find out.

Red Sox vs. Yankees. Coke vs. Pepsi. Corvette vs. Porsche.

The Detroit vs. Stuttgart sports car faceoff ranks as one of our great rivalries.

Growing up the son of a Porsche owner in West Virginia, I knew which side I was on. Now as a proud Detroiter and a Porsche owner, I’m on the fence. I admire both. As a pup, I watched the local Corvette and Porsche clubs face off in weekend autocrosses. USA vs. Germany. Domestic vs. import. Horsepower vs. handling. It has always been so.

If a Ford vs. Ferrari racing rivalry briefly blossomed in the 1960s, the Vette-Porsche rivalry has endured. Each generation gets better. The competition today has never been more intense. The 2014 Porsche Cayman is the best handling Porsche under $100k. Ever. The 2014 Corvette is the best handling ‘Vette. Ever.

Which reigns supreme? I took them on the track to settle it.

I tell pals who consider buying these thoroughbreds to track them. They are that good. You simply cannot explore their enormous potential at 80 mph – or 90, or 120 – on I-75. Their sophisticated chassis and multilink suspensions can achieve a neck-knotting 1-plus G on track.

Autobahn race track, for example. Located south of Chicago, it is fast, technical, and a favorite testing ground for amateur racers like myself. It also hosts a fleet of exotic sports cars courtesy of local dealers. Like fighters on a runway, they are lined up on the tarmac each weekend for pilots who want to explore the envelope: Maserati GranTurismo, BMW M4, Audi R8, Camaro ZL1. . .

I took out the 2014, 3.4-liter, mid-engine Porsche Cayman S and the 2014, 6.2-liter, front-engine Corvette C7 Stingray convertible for a fling.

The Cayman’s coupe construction increases chassis rigidity by 40 percent over its sister Boxster convertible. By contrast, the Stingray’s aluminum chassis does not depend on its B-pillar for stiffness, according to Chevy engineers – meaning the drop top gives away little to its coupe mate other than a roof.

Both Yank and Kraut are fabulous. Both represent their national stereotypes.

Taught and sleek, Porsche’s best handling sports car (take a backseat, 911) is tidy as a German manor. Trained on the demanding twists and turns of the legendary Nurburgring, the Cayman is wonderfully predictable. It’s the most drivable sports car on the road today.

Like a Hollywood celebrity, the C7 is gorgeous, loud, and loaded with personality. More stable than its C6 predecessor, the nearly 3,400-pound beast still moves around on Autobahn’s signature switchbacks. In turns 9 and 10, steering input is required as the chassis whiplashes from side to side. While the Porsche skips through with minimal fuss, the Vette is all knees and elbows, clawing its way across the asphalt to finally . . . pounce on to the back straight.

Unleash the Kraken. Where the 325-horsepower, 273-pound feet of torque Porsche gives a determined bark, the 455-horse, 460-pound feet Corvette roars like a lion. Freed from the thicket of twisties – Cayman territory – the lion hits the open savanna with authority.

The Vette gulps asphalt, its front maw gaping as if to devour the Cayman up ahead. As it reaches its prey . . .

. . . another thicket of turns. The Cayman slips away again through the Turn 11-12 chicane. And so it goes lap after lap. The Porsche darts. The Stingray surges. Yin and yang.

It’s why this rivalry rivets us. Two athletes getting the job done in different ways.

My track sessions were crowded with cars, so I didn’t bother with lap times. But around another great American course — the high speed, 4.1-mileVirginia International Raceway — Car & Driver clocked the C7 nearly 9 seconds faster. All hail horsepower.

And affordability. The C7 may be comparatively ragged, but Porsche’s handling refinement comes at a price: $83,000 compared to the Vette’s $75 grand. And Motown’s finest doesn’t sacrifice refinement inside. It’s gorgeous, leather dash and bolstered seats are the match of German royalty.

Porsche has exploited its performance brand to expand into SUVs (Cayenne and Macan) and sports sedans (the Panamera). With their sports car DNA, these sleds have become the best-selling Porsches ever, raking in profits undreamed of in the sports car-only days.

Were it not part of the GM empire, one wonders if Corvette, too, might have multiplied as utes and sedans. Howja’ like a Corvette CUV-7 next to your C7? Alas, Corvette soldiers on as a single car.

Rumor has it, however, that the 2017 C8 will be mid-engine. A ruthless V-8 located, Cayman-like, behind the driver’s ear. Be afraid Porsche. Be very afraid.

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

2014 Corvette Stingray

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

Price: $53,995 base (about $75,000 convertible as tested)

Power plant: 6.2-liter V-8

Power: 455 horsepower, 460 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60: 3.9 seconds (Car & Driver)

Weight: 3,362 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 16 mpg city/28 mpg highway/ 20 mpg combined

2014 Porsche Cayman S

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

Price: $63,800 base (about $83,000 as tested)

Power plant: 3.4L horizontally opposed 6-cyl

Power: 325 horsepower, 273 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Seven-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60: 4.2 seconds (Motor Trend)

Weight: 3,152 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 21 mpg city/30 mpg highway/ 24 mpg combined

The 21st-century Roadmaster: Chevy Traverse

Posted by hpayne on October 15, 2014

We compare the 2014 Chevrolet Traverse with its arguable

Shed a tear for the Roadmaster. The Chevy Traverse advances the wagon concept by maintaining everything we loved about 20th-century wagons while stuffing it with 21st-century technology.

If Rip Van Winkle awoke today from an afternoon nap in 1995, the first thing he would do is get a shave. The second thing he would do is get gas for his big family station wagon.

At that point, ol’ Rip might wonder what planet he was on.

Has there been any greater physical change in our world in the last 20 years than the disappearance of the station wagon from our landscape? (Okay, that and folks aren’t holding brick-sized cellphones to their heads anymore.) It’s how you know you’re watching a movie from last century. Today, sport utes dominate the family driveway.

Auto historians will tell you that 1970s mpg mandates killed the wagon. But I’m convinced it was Clark Griswold.

Griswold, as played by Chevy Chase in the 1983 classic “National Lampoon’s “Vacation,” drove his long-suffering family cross country in a Wagon Queen Family Truckster — a pea green, wood-paneled, fun-eating caricature of the American wagon.

The resulting fiasco was the cultural death-knell for the once-popular family vehicle.

By the mid-nineties, wagons were as hip as eight-track tape players. Minivans were the new family transport, and they in turn were being replaced by large SUVs. The rear-wheel-drive Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon was the last hurrah. Manufactured from 1991-96, the final Roadmasters (along with sister ships the Chevy Caprice and Cadillac Fleetwood) rolled off the Arlington, Texas assembly line that was being retooled for front-wheel drive utes.

Fast forward 20 years and what should Rip buy? Say hello to the 2014 Chevy Traverse. The Roadmaster has been reincarnated as an SUV.

But unlike Clark Griswold, Rip won’t need to be conned by car salesman Eugene Levy to get into the Chevy. Thanks to vehicles like the gorgeous, sleek Traverse, we hardly miss the wagon. From its wrap-around, Impala-style grille to its high-tech console to its signature Pentagon-rear window, the Traverse can haul eight passengers like the Roadmaster while turning heads, entertaining the kiddies, and still flexing some good ol’ American muscle.

Still, Rip and I wipe a tear from our cheeks. There are some nostalgia pieces that wagon diehards will miss. So let’s get to know our family haulers.

Why compare a Buick and Chevy, you ask? Why not apples to apples? Why not the 1995 Chevy Caprice wagon and the Chevy Traverse? Fair question. Convenience, for

one. My pal (and Rip Van Winkle stand-in), The Detroit News personal finance guru Brian O’Connor, owns a ’95 Roadmaster wagon. It has 194,000 miles. He’s ready for a new ride.

But there are practical, market considerations as well. The all-wheel drive Traverse stickers at $47,355 which is about the same price — adjusted for inflation — as a Roadmaster would sell for today. The Traverse’s Buick Enclave twin, by contrast, would lighten the wallet another $8,000. And, since the Roadmaster was the Brontosaurus of the Wagon Era, perhaps it would make sense to compare it to the equivalent SUV-saurus, the Chevy Suburban. But the Suburban — 130-inch wheelbase vs. the Buick’s 116 — is in another class of big. Manhattanites are buying Suburbans as luxury apartments.

Apples to apples? The Traverse’s 119-inch wheelbase is more Roadmaster like.

If the Chevy is the 21st-century station wagon, its seating position is decidedly 19th-century. Federal mpg laws inspired truck-based sport utes, but Americans’ preference to ride horse-like — high in the saddle — accelerated their popularity. The lower Roadmaster feels like you’re sitting on a Shetland pony. On its knees.

I’m no physicist, but the laws of nature dictate that the Traverse should feel less stable compared to the wagon’s lower-center of gravity. But utes have evolved with better chassis engineering. Built on GM’s sedan-like, unibody Lambda platform, the Traverse is a long way from the truck-based SUVs of 20 years ago. Add GM’s Stabilitrak electronic stability control system and the Traverse is remarkably stable for a 2 ½-ton vehicle.

The 4,700-pound Roadmaster, by contrast, is as nimble as an ocean liner.

Navigating high-speed turns requires considerable concentration. It pitches like it’s in choppy seas. The Buick could use a tug boat.

This ICBM may not turn, but it’s a rocket in a straight line. Stomp on the gas and the small-block, 5.7-liter, 260-horse V-8 in the beast’s belly — yes, the same small black as in a 1990-vintage ‘Vette — roars with authority. So this is why they called it “master.” Glorious. But the V-6 Traverse matches it. The six-holer pumps out 28 more horses (288 total) — while trailing the surly V-8′s 335 pound-feet of torque with “only” 270 pound-feet. Naturally, that kind of power works up an appetite and the V-6 only gains 1 mpg (19 vs. 18) on the old nail — but if you want fuel economy, buy a Spark.

The Traverse and Roadmaster take strikingly different approaches to wood. The Buick wears a full coat of the stuff. Lucky it’s vintage vinyl or the Roadmaster would have been plagued by woodpeckers. The Chevy is more modest, saving its wood grain paneling for the dash which is beautifully appointed. Indeed, the Traverse advances

the wagon concept by maintaining everything we loved about 20th-century wagons while stuffing it with 21st-century technology.

The Traverse’s center console is a candy box of goodies from a 6.5-inch MyLink, color infotainment touchscreen to controls for collision alert, blind-spot assist, hands-free calling, heated steering wheel, dual-climate control, Bluetooth connectivity, and a direct line to the Oval Office (just kidding about that last one). The Roadmaster? It has a radio.

Mimicking the wagon, you can flatten the second and third seats in the Traverse if you need to move a grandfather clock — or just need a place to sleep for the night. The Traverse also offers the option of a second-row, digital entertainment center and “smart-sliding” captain’s chairs that bow like Queen Elizabeth’s subjects when you want to get into the third row.

A moment of silence for the rear-facing, third-row bench, please. I spent much of my childhood facing backwards in third-row wagon seats. Our own private space capsule. This led to innovations like the Roadmaster’s rear door which was built to open like a door, lay flat like a pickup tailgate, and re-enter the earth’s atmosphere at 17,000 mph (OK, made that up, too). The modern Traverse’s rear hatch is automatic (more digital wizardry), but it only knows how to go up. Score one for Roadmaster.

Wipe away that tear, Rip, and get a new Traverse. Then join us again in another 20 years. By then steering wheels should have disappeared in favor of self-diving Google cars.

2014 Chevrolet Traverse

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

Price: $31,670 base ($47,355)

Power plant: 3.6-liter direct-injection V-6

Power: 288 horsepower, 270 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Performance: Towing capacity: 5,200 pounds

Weight: 4,956 pounds (test vehicle)

Fuel economy: EPA 16 mpg city/23 mpg highway/19 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Attractive styling; cavernous cargo space

Lows: 5,000 pound porker; Big blind spots

Overall: ★★★★

Q&Auto: Marketing guru Scott, built Ford tough

Posted by hpayne on October 11, 2014

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Unlike a stereotypical truck guy, Scott is a lean drink of water. Fittingly, his lean F150 breaks the truck stereotype, too.

7,000-pound gross vehicle weight rating, that’s a lotta room for equipment (or more 6-foot truck guys) in back.

“Aluminum has given us a great opportunity to improve the truck: More capability, more durability, better performance, better efficiency, better handling dynamics, and at an affordable price,” says the 36-year Ford veteran, rattling off bullet points like a 6-speed tranny rifles gears. The F-150 has been the best–selling truck every year that Scott has been at Ford and he thinks the aluminum revolution is a good reason it’ll be on top for 36 more.

“Eighty percent of our customers know aluminum works,” he says of the lightweight metal that has girded battle ships and race cars alike. “My job is to convince the other 20 percent.”

I rode with Scott on a F-150 test drive outside San Antonio, Texas where we talked tin, toughness, and the 1000 miles of Baja.

Q: What did you drive to the Dream Cruise?

Scott: A new F-150.

Q: As a pickup truck guy would you rather be at the Cruise or another event?

Scott: I’d probably like it more at the Baja 1000 (Ed. note: the brutal, 1000-mile, off-road race on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula). It’s really about toughness and durability.

Q: How long have you been with Ford?

Scott: Thirty-six years. The last 13 years as truck marketing manager. The first 20 years of my career I was in sales in different locations around the country. In 1997 I was Explorer brand manager. Then I had all the SUVs for three years. Then in 2002 I took the truck marketing job.

Q: Is the F-150 a game changer?

Scott: Absolutely. It’s the new standard for full-sized pickups.

Q: Aluminum’s benefits are well known. Why not an aluminum truck until now?

Scott: A combination of factors. We had to be prepared to manufacture a vehicle with aluminum. To master different joining techniques with aluminum. The materials supply was an issue. So a whole host of issues combined to say that now was the right time. Having it all coincide with the needs of the buyer in terms of being a better performing, more capable, more efficient truck.

Q: Ford has done aluminum before with Jaguar. It produced an aluminum-bodied Ford Taurus prototype in the early ’90s. So why not do aluminum first in a sports car like Mustang? Why bet big on your franchise vehicle, the F-150?

Scott: Light-weighting makes the most sense in a truck. Because you can take weight out of the truck and reinvest that weight reduction in more capability like towing and hauling that a customer values so highly.

Q: Does this make it easier for Ford to transition to aluminum in other vehicles?

Scott: Certainly we will have learned a lot about making that conversion. So the next vehicle will be easier, yes.

Q: There is huge brand loyalty in this segment. How do you convince a RAM or Chevy buyer that this is a game changer?

Scott: Our success at launch is going to be determined by maintaining the high loyalty we have with our current customers. We’ll be successful if we can maintain . . . that owner base which is the largest in the market. As for conquests, that is a bonus.

Q: This truck is loaded. How did you keep price down with aluminum and all that tech?

Scott: You have to have mentality that price is governed by the market environment — and where your competition is. Affordability has to be in the forefront. That means we have to be efficient as we build it.

 

Aluminum F-150 is battle tough

Posted by hpayne on October 9, 2014

The all-new 2015 Ford F-150 on the streets of San Antonio

The F-150′s huge three-bar grille growls. Its “c-clamp” headlights intimidate. This truck is a fit, aluminum heavyweight fighter. The console compartment could hide a Mini Cooper.

These Fords don’t do things half way. Consider the 1942 B-24 bomber and 2015 F-150 pickup.

These two aluminum-skinned, alphanumeric-badged industrial behemoths signal that Ford Motor Co.’s ambition hasn’t shrunk in 70 years. Both use lightweight construction to increase range. Both push the limits of mass manufacturing. Both elevated Detroit’s industrial genius. The B-24 defined the chairmanship of Henry Ford’s only son, Edsel Ford. The F-150 will define the legacy of his grandson, William Clay Ford Jr.

In 1941 Edsel met the federal government’s challenge and committed Ford’s Willow Run factory to making the B-24 Liberator as a weapon to win America’s war with Germany. In 2014 Bill Ford has risen to the challenge of federal mpg standards to convert Ford’s Dearborn and Kansas City F-150 assembly plants to aluminum construction to win the war against … um, global warming. OK, so Washington’s wars these days are a might quixotic. Ford’s brilliant engineers have translated the challenge to win the conflict that really matters: Defeating RAM, GM and Toyota in the truck wars.

Only compared to the B-24 does the F-150′s task seem small. The Liberator program, after all, sought to make a one million-part bomber an hour from scratch in 18 months. It is one of the supreme industrial achievements of mankind. But the F-150′s ambition shares B-24′s challenges in key respects. It carries huge risks. It requires enormous industrial retooling to produce 70 trucks an hour — 600,000 a year. It must prove itself in a highly competitive theater.

In 1942 Charles Lindbergh test-flew the first B-24s over Willow Run. The plane was uncomfortable and handled like a pig, causing his arms to ache from exertion. It was “more complicated than the keyboard of a pipe organ,” he wrote in his diary.

The F-150, you’ll be pleased to know, drives like a limousine.

But for its Brobdingnagian dimensions, the sophisticated F-150 cockpit could be confused with a similarly-priced, $40K luxury sedan. The seats are plush, the ride hushed, the instruments sculpted.

My favorite F-150 is a $46,600 XLT. Its huge three-bar grille growls. Its “c-clamp” headlights intimidate. This is an aluminum truck all right. Military-grade aluminum. Opt for the steering column shifter, and the full center console is a bin of storage trays for phones, drinks, briefcases, small farm animals. The storage compartment at my elbow could hide a Mini Cooper.

Sitting atop a completely re-engineered chassis, suspension, and body, the big truck glides down the road despite its leaf-sprung, solid-rear axle chassis. Credit staggered rear shocks, eight chassis-stiffening cross-members, and twin frame-rails firmed with 78 percent high-strength steel (up from 28 percent in the outgoing model). That light-weighting theme runs throughout the truck, making it more nimble, more capable, and more fuel efficient.

This light-alloyed heavyweight weighs in a fit 700 pounds less than its predecessor — even as its cabin is stuffed with more technology than an Apple store.

The pickup market is the most demanding segment in autodom as customers need a daily driver and a workplace tool. These vehicles are rolling Swiss Army knives — they’ll take the kid to school while carrying a load of mulch while recharging your band saw.

Consider the Ford’s side mirror.

Approach it in darkness and an LED drops a pool of light for ground visibility. Another bulb turns the mirror into a rotating spotlight, illuminating the landscape. Embedded sensors alert you to traffic in your blind spot. And mirror cameras help form a 360-degree view around the truck’s perimeter. Give this tool a first place blue ribbon at the science fair.

The Big Four truck warriors are representative of their corporate brands. Toyota’s Tundra is perennially atop J.D. Powers’ quality ratings. Chrysler’s RAM has carved a loyal following with its innovative eight-speed gearboxes and coil-sprung suspension.

Ford and GM are the titans. The volume sellers. The F-150, for example, comes in everything from a $26,616 two-wheel drive base cab to a $52,155, leather-skinned, luxury, 4×4 Super Crew Cab that can scale the Empire State Building while giving you a back massage.

Pickup loyalties are legend. You thought wartime Europe was Balkanized? Truck wars have long bloodlines. Traditionally, the best truck — Ford, RAM, GM, Toyota — is the latest model.

But with the aluminum F-150, you sense a watershed moment.

With GM struggling through bankruptcy, Ford launched its moonshot. Investing billions, the F-150 translated its history with aluminum-skinned Jaguars to benefit trucks: Better

power-to-weight ratio, handling, and fuel economy.

Aluminum is just half the story as Ford has also developed a formidable artillery of new turbocharged engines. Where four huge engines carried the B-24 aloft, four engine options power the F-150.

In keeping with its light infantry theme, the pickup’s mix has changed from the previous generation’s two V-6, two V-8 lineup. Only one V-8 remains (the 5.0-liter with more horses and torque — 385 and 387 — than before). With the success of the base six-banger and Ecoboost V-6, Ford has ditched the 6.2-liter V-8 to add a third V-6 to its lineup. The rookie is Ecoboost Junior — a precocious 2.7-liter twin turbo that packs a 325 horsepower, 375-pound feet wallop.

While the V-8 gives the F-150 best payload-in-class and the 3.5-liter turbo boasts best tow capacity, Ford expects Junior to take the truck to the summit of a different metric: Fuel economy. When EPA numbers come in next month, the 2.7 is expected to challenge RAM’s 3.0-liter diesel for top fuel sipper. My media mates were recording 21-22 mpg on our San Antonio-area test drives — in the ballpark of RAM’s 23 mpg benchmark.

Not me. I was gulping gas over a, muddy, gulch-filled off-road course. Short of pulling Gs in a sports car on (name of race track here), there’s nothing more fun.

South Texas ranch country and I punished the new sled through gulch, grade and goop. This is no tin-skinned B-24, but a rock-solid, 6000-series-military-alloy aluminum brute. With four wheels churning and twin turbos spooling, the 4,806-pound rhino never protested. Hopping out of the truck after the test, I slammed the doors and tailgate with abandon. Not a tinkle.

The B-24 answered the critics over time. The F-150 will have to do the same. Will the 1,500-repair shop infrastructure be able to mend aluminum as efficiently as steel? Will insurance rates increase? Will turbos prove as durable as diesels?

These are formidable challenges. But thanks to Ford’s risk-taking culture, we are watching history in the making.

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

2015 Ford F-150

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

Price: $26,615 base ($46,615 2.7-liter Ecoboost, 4×4, Super Crew as tested)

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

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

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

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

Weight: 4,806 pounds (test vehicle)

Fuel economy: NA

Report card

Highs: Bold styling; all-around athlete

Lows: Uncertain costs of insurance, repairs

Overall: ****

Chevy Malibu, JD Power, and how GM beat the Recall Rap

Posted by hpayne on October 4, 2014

Chevrolet Malibu is a sedan designed for those seeking the complete vehicle package: smart engineering and design, along with all the amenities that make driving fun. For 2015, the latest wireless technologies help make Malibu a better-connected car for those on the go.

The hapless, stalling, ignition-plagued Chevy Cobalt has been the bane of General Motors’ existence in its 2014 Year of the Recall. But it’s not the General’s most recalled vehicle. That title goes to the Chevy Malibu.

That’s right, the same Chevy Malibu that J.D. Power’s Initial Quality Survey honors as America’s most reliable midsize sedan.

Surprised? You’re not alone. The most recalled-most reliable Malibu is evidence of why GM’s recall woes haven’t been a drag on sales. Despite relentless media headlines about GM lemons, sales of Chevy cars are up over three percent this year. And while the Malibu hasn’t been burning down the house, it did just record its best September sales in five years. Its little brothers, Cruze and Sonic? Both are flying off the shelves.

This is all the more remarkable given that the compact pair are the replacement for the unloved Cobalt. Shouldn’t Americans be avoiding Spawn of Cobalt? Shouldn’t they be exiling Chevy, King of Recalls, to the sales dungeon?

The truth is recalls aren’t the same as reliability. And the new Malibu isn’t the Chevy of old.

Indeed, the good ol’ days of quality cars are today. Vehicles have never been so trustworthy.

“In 2013, overall vehicle dependability averaged 126 (problems per 100 vehicles) – a five percent improvement from the 2012 average of 132 – and the lowest problem count since the inception of the study in 1989,” reads J.D. Powers’ 2013 U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study.

Um, okay. But what about an industry on pace for a record 40 million recalls this year? Some 26 million by GM alone? The 850,000 Fords recalled last week? The 690,000 Toyotas recalled this week?

“Our dependability studies measure problems that consumers actually experience in their own cars,” says David Sargent, J.D. Power’s vice president of global automotive research. “Recalls are more about potential problems. That is to say, 99.6 percent of recall issues will never be experienced by consumers.”

GM spokesman Alan Adler says that 3 out of 4 his company’s recalls have been so-called “noncompliance” repairs where no safety defect is at issue. A May recall on 2004-2012 Malibu tail lights, for example. “Not to minimize any recall,” says Adler, “but it hardly belongs in the rogue’s gallery of problems.”

J.D. Powers’ Sargent has his own example: His personal vehicle was recalled this year . . . for a sun visor replacement. “Manufacturers are just more sensitive right now,” he says of the post-Cobalt, post-Toyota-instant-acceleration climate. “There’s a bias right now towards recalling what wouldn’t have been recalled before.”

David Sullivan, an Auto Pacific analyst, concurs. He sees little relation between recalls and dependability.

“Consumers aren’t looking at recalls when they shop for a vehicle,” he says. “They are looking forward, not backwards. They are looking at Consumer Reports and whether cars have poor reliability or crash ratings.”

Which is why Malibu’s high J.D Power grade is so important. It is the equivalent of a four-star movie review. You know it won’t be a wasted trip to the theater.

What’s more, recalls get customers back into the dealership.

“Imagine the owner of, say, a recalled 2004 Malibu,” says GM’s Adler. “Maybe they haven’t been in a dealership for a while and they come in to see a new Malibu or Cruze. They’re going to say ‘WOW!’ That’s a new Chevy?”

“Wow” wasn’t my first reaction to the 2015 Malibu I drove recently. But it’s a solid performer. And it would wow anyone who arrived here in a time machine from a decade ago.

To this time traveler the interior might as well be the Star Trek Enterprise. This affordable, $30K chariot is whisper quiet inside and features a dizzying array of tech from rear-cross traffic alert to standard stop-start engine technology that will get you 29 miles per gallon. It’s crisp, intuitive keys and dials surround a touch screen that will connect you to phone, Sirius, and even read you your text messages.

Outside of the Chrysler 200, it’s the best center console in the business. Wow.

Speaking of outside, the Malibu could use a stylist. Where Chevy has dressed its high-end Impala and low-end Spark like runway models, the middle of its lineup is, well, middling.

Adler says the recalls are a silver lining — a chance for the General to reconnect with buyers. “If you take care of the recall customers and minimize the inconvenience,” he concludes, “then you make a better Chevy customer than you had to begin with.”

What the heck, one more Malibu recall and I guarantee sales will really soar: Just replace its mug with that sexy Impala grille.

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

2015 Chevrolet Malibu

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

Price: $23,290 base ($30,280 as tested)

Power plant: 2.5-liter, direct injection 4-cylinder

Power: 196 horsepower, 186 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph: 8.4 seconds (Motor Trend)

Weight: 3,532 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 25 mpg city/36 mpg highway/29 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Quiet cabin; Driver-friendly console

Lows: Small back seat; A face only a mother could love

Overall: ★★★

First impression: Aluminum Ford F-150 is a winner

Posted by hpayne on October 3, 2014

2015-F150San Antonio, Texas — THOOOOOONK!

The 2015 Ford F-150′s bumper hits the bank full on as it barrels over a hill in the wilds of south Texas. The big truck shrugs it off.

Not a flinch. Not a tingle.

Nail the throttle and the 325-horsepower, 2.7-liter V-6 engine’s twin turbos launch the 4,806-pound beast out of the gulch and onto the next hill. Hill after muddy gulch after rocky creek bed goes by like this without a groan from the chassis.

For those who thought an all-aluminum body would compromise Ford’s “Built Ford Tough” reputation, think again. This F-150, whose predecessors have been America’s top-selling vehicle for 37 years, is tougher than ever.

In perhaps the boldest move in the auto industry today, Ford — which allowed automotive journalists behind the wheel for a first test drive in San Antonio this week — has bet its franchise vehicle on aluminum. The result is a new truck that not only vaults Ford back to the top in the truck arms race, but it also likely changes the segment forever. The F-150 — available later this year with a starting price of $26,615 — greets you with a huge, new, upright, three-bar grille and matching headlights.

This is not a shy vehicle. And neither is Ford shy about its aluminum transformation.

Begin with the obvious. Aluminum won’t rust, making for better longevity in Michigan winters, where the salt piles up almost as high as the snow. In making the big truck 700 pounds lighter and with a significantly lower center of gravity, Ford’s engineers tout a truck that is more nimble, sips less fuel, yet maintains its best-in-class towing capabilities with a remade high-strength steel chassis and two stump-pullingturbo mills.

The new F-150 still rides shy of the coil-springed RAM truck, but it’s no longer a leaf-spring buckboard. Take it off-road, however, and the lighter, stronger chassis really comes into its own.

The big pickup has benefited from Ford’s past ownership of Jaguar. The aluminum Jag taught the F-150 light-weighting and riveted manufacturing. The F-150 is no English sports car, but the same principles apply.

But the aluminum diet is only half the story.

With the new 2.7-liter Ecoboost, Ford promises RAM diesel-like fuel economy (EPA figures don’t arrive until November, but the turbo is likely close to the diesel’s 23 mpg) without the diesel’s $4,000 premium.

The 2.7-liter engine is $495 more than the F-150′s base V-6.

Like Ford’s turbo-riific ST small sedans, the F-150′s turbo engine has fast become the preference over bigger, thirstier V8s.

Inside a well-equipped $46,600 4×4, Ecoboost Ford XLT gains size and amenities on par with its Chevy and RAM peers.

These aren’t your grandfather’s pickups.

You can enjoy the refinement of a sedan inside — while the F-150 assaults the local terrain outside.

Nimble 2015 Mustang reinvents the pony car

Posted by hpayne on September 25, 2014

The all-new 2015 Mustang is the next chapter in the life of one of the world's most iconic cars.

We all make mistakes. The 1970s had an epidemic of them. Watergate. Stagflation. Leisure suits. And the 1974 Ford Mustang II.

You remember, the pony car built on a Pinto platform.

Mustang’s Edsel. In a decade of bitter war, national division and White House scandal, Americans were unsteady. Untrusting of their leaders. Unsure of their institutions. The ’74 ‘Stang was the last straw. The sickly, four-cylinder stallion was a harbinger of decades of Detroit auto decline as the industry suffered from quality issues and a regulatory assault from Washington. The ‘Stang was built to satisfy onerous federal regulations, not customer demands. Not until 2005 did the proud pony get its mojo back.

It’s 2014 and history is repeating itself. Iraq. IRSgate. Stagnant growth. Men’s skinny slacks. And, oh lord, Ford is remaking the Mustang to, in part, satisfy federal mpg diktats. The proverbial Casey steps to the plate. Will the Blue Oval strike out again?

You can exhale, dear friends. Ford has hit it out of the park.

The 2015 Mustang is a thoroughly modern, affordable sports coupe that doesn’t sacrifice its muscle car heritage. It’s sleek yet muscular. Affordable yet loaded with gadgetry. Powerful yet fuel efficient. Where the 1974 car rebelled against its past, the ’15 updates it.

Consider …

In 1974 the Mustang II introduced Mustang’s first 4-cylinder engine in response to rising gas prices. But it also ditched its V-8 and downsized the car to pint-sized, Pinto proportions. I mean, the thing practically needed training wheels. Sure, the little pony still sold, but it had lost its enthusiast base. And as any pol will tell you, when you lose your base, you’re toast.

By contrast the 2015 model trumpets the 4-cylinder required to meet mpg regs as a performance advance. This is no entry-level four, but a swaggering turbo with higher output than the base six and enough torque to pull up Chris Christie on water skis. Ford doesn’t even call it a four. It calls it Ecoboost. High tech. 21st century.

But Mustang doesn’t shy from its meal ticket, the V-8.

 Detroit News auto critic reviews the newest version of the pony car.

Indeed, while the Ecoboost is California avocado, the V-8 is Midwest sirloin for the regular customers. Fuel economy takes a dip — from 18/25 to 16/25 for the automatic — as Ford turns up the stove from 412 horsepower to a boiling 435. How’s that for a menu?

While U.S. foreign policy has pulled back from the world, Ford foreign policy is expansive. Invasive. Genghis Khan on four wheels. The Ford Visigoths aim to conquer Europe and China with an army of Mustangs.

No Mustang deuces here. This brute is all stallion. Its exterior maintains T-bone-sized sides and a gun-turret-narrow greenhouse while delivering a sports car’s swept fascia and fast back. That fascia has proved controversial among purists as Ford translates muscle car with more international design language. While the Challenger Hellcat doubles down on the U.S. youth market, the movie-star Mustang wants big international box office.

“It’s a gorgeous car,” says Hal Sperlich, product manager of the original ’65 pony — a car that overnight changed Ford’s stodgy image. “It fits Ford’s strategy as brand headliner around the world. People will like it overseas.”

As the international face of the Ford family it gets family design cues. A more Fusion-like grille. Swept headlights (goodbye brooding cowl) and elegantly sculpted, Mercedes-like nostrils at the front corners. Me? I’m a hips guy. And the Mustang’s lower, wider rear proportions make the car much more athletic — hinting at the transformation within.

But for the die-hards who still resist, I invite them behind the wheel.

The 2005 retro-design restored ‘Stang’s iconic status after 30 years in the wilderness. But an icon need not be an anachronism. The Mustang’s solid rear axle was a relic of the Stone Age. It belonged in the Smithsonian, not on a Flat Rock production line. To compete against the Camaro — much less European performance sedans — the Mustang had to evolve. The result is an independent rear suspension and reworked, dual-link front McPherson struts that transforms Clark Kent into a caped sports car.

Owning a Mustang used to mean suffering though corners to get to V-8-devouring straightaways. No more. The new car is a revelation. Toggle the car into sports-plus mode — one of five available modes that come standard — and the beautifully-weighted steering rotates the car into corners with aplomb.

On California’s State Route 2 I chased a Porsche 911 for miles, shadowing his every move through esses, switchbacks, straightaways. This is a muscle car? With its high center of gravity and porky curb weight of 3,725 ponds, the big V-8 won’t be mistaken for a Porsche or Bimmer M4 — but at half the price, it’ll make them sweat.

Inside, the Mustang retains its familiar portions while dialing up the technology. Sure, the backseat feels like a Barcalounger compared to Delta coach class, but it is still tight by modern auto standards. You want headroom for four or a fast back for your date? I thought so. In the cockpit the seats are comfortable and heavily bolstered — for all those increased G-loads you’ll be pulling. The dash bears familiar touches like twin gauges while the console gets a glorious slab of aluminum from port to starboard. The instrument interface is intuitive — even though the interior boys undercooked the aluminum accents with tin foil-like material.

Oh, and did I mention “line lock”?

Dive deep into the instrument panel menu and you will find it in the track apps. It will change the Dream Cruise forever. It’s Burnouts for Dummies. Disable traction control. Prep the system with brake. Then stomp the accelerator and thrill as the rear tires spin like turbines — churning more gases than a Mount St. Helens eruption.

It’s a blast — and a reminder that, for all the change, Mustang has not forgotten what it stands for: affordable, coed-toting, All-American fun. That’s why Bill Clinton bought a ’65 ‘Stang. That’s why Europeans are lining up for their first ponies.

That’s why 2014 is not 1974. Have no fear, America. Mustang is here.

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

2015 Ford Mustang

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

Price: $24,425 base ($46,075 V-8 as tested)

Power plant: 5.0-liter 8-cylinder; 2.3-liter Ecoboost turbocharged 4-cylinder; 3.7-liter V-6

Power: 435 horsepower, 400 pound-feet of torque (V-8); 310 horsepower, 320 pound-feet of torque (4-cyl); 300 horsepower, 280 pound-feet of torque (V-6)

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph: 4.4 seconds (Motor Trend). Top speed: 155 mph

Weight: 3,729 pounds (V-8); 3,524 (4-cyl)

Fuel economy: EPA 16 mpg city/25 mpg highway (V-8); 21 mpg city/32 mpg highway (4-cyl)

Report card

Highs: Sports car handling; seats fit like a glove

Lows: Cheap control dials; cramped rear seat

Overall: ★★★

Payne: 200 days with the Chrysler 200

Posted by hpayne on September 20, 2014

With the choice of two world-class engines, an innovative all-wheel-drive system, available sport mode and paddle shifters for an engaged driving experience, and estimated highway fuel economy of 36 miles per gallon (mpg), the all-new Chrysler 200 makes the commute something drivers will look forward to.

My wife’s best friend has never been quite satisfied with the car market’s offerings. Like many hockey moms, she lives behind the steering wheel.

“I’m tired of having to reach into the right seat to keep my purse from flying onto the floor. Why don’t cars have a place to store your purse in the center console?” sighed the 5’4″, reach-challenged Midwesterner on a recent visit.

Seen the new Chrysler 200? I said.

“The what?”

“The 200 has an e-shifter which opens up room below the center console,” I said in my best car salesman imitation. “Plenty of room for your purse under the shifter. Secure. Reachable.”

I had her attention. I gave her a brief engineering seminar on e-shifters and their negation of shift linkages.

“Cool. But what would be even better is if I could put my purse right beside me so I can reach right into it. I know where everything is without looking,” she said.

No problem, I say, figuring my commission owed by Chrysler if I close the sale. The e-shifter also opens up the space behind the shifter. Thank sliding cup holders. Slide ‘em back and – voila – a purse drawer at hand’s length.

“Whoooooooa.”

I’ve been getting that a lot lately.

Since I last regaled you in March about my thoroughly satisfying test drive of the clever 200 in Louisville, I’ve had a few more dates with Chrysler’s flagship closer to home. Call it 200 days with the 200. We’re growing fonder with each visit.

Of course, the car market is never easy. Our hockey mom friend hasn’t rushed out to get the 200 since we spoke because she’s an SUV buyer. And the 200′s cargo dimensions don’t meet her needs. And Chrysler doesn’t make a comparable SUV. And that’s a whole ‘nother issue. But the Chrysler ute is coming. And when it does, it’ll have the same ingenious, best-in-class center console that hockey moms covet.

And brand loyalty is born.

Chryslers did its homework with the 200. Having your back against the wall will inspire folks like that. Flirting with midsize irrelevance, the 200 is Chrysler’s moonshot. It can’t afford to fall short.

But the 200 is more than a car for interior nerds. This midsize has looks to match. Like a Lake Michigan wave, its body flows from stern to stem. In an age when big, masculine grilles have even taken over the compact classes, the 200 is pleasing to the eye. It’s more feminine than the Ford Fusion’s gorgeous grille (if Aston Martin has a bastard midsize sedan child, it would look like the handsome Fusion) and that’s not a bad thing.

The Fusion is the best of the hot hexagon grille fashion trend. Subaru and Hyundai fancy the look as well. Lined up against their midsize pageant competitors, the 200, Fusion, and Mazda 6 cuties are the three finalists.

The Sonata and VW Passat make a nice showing. Cars like the Camry and Accord look dated. Chevy Malibu, get thee to a beauty parlor and ask for the Impala facelift.

Part of the Chrysler’s secret is its flowing greenhouse that defies the traditional sedan “three box form.” Alas, the sleek look also defies ceiling room. Duck your head before you get – clonk – too late. If you want head room, buy a Jeep. The 200 is for DINKs and stylish empty nesters.

On the road, the Chrysler won’t be confused for a Mazda in handling, but — packed with all-wheel drive and a zesty 3.6 power plant — a 200S will give the Subaru Legacy a ride as an affordable AWD V6 for $32k. Indeed, the S is proving to be a hit in early sales returns – making up 31 percent of sales versus an anticipated 25 percent.

And – ssssshhhhh — the 200 is quiet.

Credit its class-leading .27 drag coefficient and laminated windows. In truth hush is now expected in a class where you can hear a pin drop in most cabins. So when you have to talk over the Legacy’s wind noise, you notice.

When it comes to quality. . um, can we go back to talking about how lovely the 200 is?

“The 200, Avenger, Compass, Journey, and Patriot scored too low to be Recommended,” wrote Consumer Reports back in 2011 of the 200′s predecessor. The new 200 — still under testing by the CR lads — will have to build its reputation from the tire valves up. The Subies and Accords of the world may not be much to look at, but they are bone reliable with 80-plus CR ratings.

Hockey Moms will embrace the 200′s innovative purse storage — as long as they aren’t emptying it at the dealership for nagging repairs.

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

2015 Chrysler 200S

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

Price: $22,695 base with 4-cylinder ($32,775 AWD V-6 as tested)

Power plant: 3.6-liter, 24-valve V-6

Power: 295 horsepower, 262 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Nine-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph: 7.0 seconds (manufacturer)

Weight: 3,784 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 18 mpg city/29 mpg highway/22 combined

Report card

Highs: Best-in-class console; Easy on the eyes

Lows: Jerky tranny; Low (bonk!) rear ceiling access

Overall: ★★★