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Payne: Big Volkswagen Atlas shrugs off the snow

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 16, 2020

Once upon a time, Volkswagen (translation: people’s car) lived up to its name in America making Bugs and Rabbits and Jettas and other fun fare that appealed to average Americans.

One of them was me. My first car was a Rabbit GTI.

But over the years VW grew detached with odd menu-offerings like the pricey Touareg SUV and Phaeton luxury car.

Now that it’s producing vehicles in America’s Tennessee heartland, the German brand seems to have regained its footing with the Atlas and Tiguan SUVs — schnitzel-and-potatoes utes with a decidedly American accent. Which is good news, because the big, all-wheel drive Atlas arrived in my driveway just as Motown was being buried by a classic middle-America blizzard.

Driving Metro Detroit roads in a snowstorm is an adventure. There are four types of winter drivers: plodders, joggers, speeders and crazies. I saw them all in the course of my winter blizzard adventures.

Winter drivers are a lot easier to negotiate in the towering all-wheel drive Atlas than in the ground-hugging, rear-wheel drive BMW M3 that I arrived in here 20 years ago — a Southern boy (West Virginia, not Tennessee) at the mercy of a Michigan winter.

Where the M3 would beach itself on minor snowdrifts, the Atlas strode boldly out of my snow-socked neighborhood. Merging onto Inkster Road, a plodder inched across my bow at 15 mph — slow even for the snow-covered 45 mph zone.

Flashers on (a sure plodder giveaway), he poked along like an icebreaker in the Arctic — then abruptly decided to stop in the middle of the road. Traveling a safe distance behind, I squeezed the Atlas brakes, felt a hint of ABS assist, then steered nimbly around him. Not bad for a 5,000-pound brute.

Starting at $31,000, my Atlas SEL Premium was nicely equipped with everything for a reasonable $50,320. That’s welcome from a company that has often priced itself above its brand weight. Festooned with the latest safety systems, the Atlas felt confident in my hands.

In addition to ABS, its helpful safety systems included adaptive cruise-control, blind-spot assist and multiple drive modes like Snow. Surrounded by the safety cocoon of the Atlas, I trailed a few steady joggers driving down Inkster while familiarizing myself with VW’s mixed bag of infotainment options.

Mrs. Payne was pleased to learn the Atlas carries Apple CarPlay, because it is vastly superior to VW’s own navigation system in ever-changing traffic conditions. When traffic clotted at an accident site, CarPlay — using its vast cloud resources — rerouted me to another road.

Though VW voice commands and navigation can be lacking, interior ergonomics are first-rate with buttons where they should be, making for minimal distraction in challenging conditions like, well, blizzards. Only VW’s volume knob annoys — mute it and the whole screen goes black.

Transitioning onto the Lodge freeway, my blind-spot assist suddenly blinked. My first snow-speeder of the day! — a hulking Ram pickup knifing in and out of traffic, eager to show off its road-skiing abilities. I watched him fly past, hoping I didn’t see him upside-down against a guardrail.

The 330-horsepower V-6 in the Atlas is nicely mated to its eight-speed transmission. Not overly sensitive on throttle, it smoothly did its job of distributing power to all four wheels. In a family-hauler class where some automakers offer only turbo-4s (the base Atlas offering), the V-6’s low-end torque is welcome, sacrificing fuel economy for confidence-inducing grunt.

Chugging along on adaptive cruise-control at 10 miles per hour under the speed limit, I kept the Atlas in the left lane, avoiding schools of plodders and joggers in the right lanes.

Then I passed crazy, which appeared to wake the SUV driver from his slumber. Crazy sped up to keep pace with me. Was there a finish line he wanted us to cross together? Inspired by the Ford GT40s in “Ford v Ferrari”?

Traffic loomed in the right lane ahead, but crazy barreled ahead until … it was too late. I canceled adaptive cruise-control and dropped back just in time for him to swerve across my grille and into my lane to pass the jogger-drivers ahead.

Atta boy, Atlas, you modern brute.

While safety systems and a capable chassis allow the driver to deal with the idiosyncrasies of winter drivers outside, occupants can carry on in oblivious bliss. VW has done everything right inside, from comfortable captain’s chairs to tasteful brown leather to easy-access third-row seats.

With its chiseled exterior looks and digital instrumentation, it begs the question: Why would anyone would pay another $20,000 for a similar Audi Q7?

The Atlas isn’t the only looker in the three-row mainstream world. And despite aiming to please, it comes up short on value relative to the Kia Telluride or Hyundai Palisade (two transplants also made in America).

My biggest complaint is the Atlas — like little-brother Tiguan — begs for an injection of performance character from its sibling Golf GTI and Golf R hatchbacks to separate it in the dog-eat-SUV pack. Not that I want to be a winter speeder. But when the roads dried out, I yearned for the athleticism I felt in my old Rabbit GTI.

The three-row Mazda CX-9 has the DNA of its Mazda Miata sports-car sibling. The Atlas could use a GTI infusion.

We’ll hear a lot more about the Atlas. VW has smartly kept the smaller, more expensive Touraeg model at home in Europe. Americans want big, roomy, affordable three-row utes and the people’s car — er, people’s SUV — fits the bill.

New for 2020 also comes the Atlas Cross Sport, a two-row version of the Atlas with a more elegant horizontal grille and taillights complementing a coupe-like roof. You get the idea — Cross Sport plugs the hole between the Tiguan and Atlas to appeal to empty-nesters coveting the room of an Atlas — but with the smaller feel of a Tiguan. Priced competitively at $33,000 to start, the Cross Sport should match up well against competitors like the Honda Passport and Chevy Trailblazer.

But what I like best about it is the Atlas Cross Tour R. “R” as in a real, rough ‘n’ ready Baja racer. Dude, it looks rad. And maybe, just maybe, its racing DNA will rub off on the Atlas to give it a little more speed. For summertime, of course.

2019 Volkswagen Atlas

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

Price: $32,565 including $995 destination charge($50,320 AWD SEL as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter turbo-4 cylinder, 3.6-liter V-6

Power: 235 horsepower, 258 pound-feet torque (turbo-4); 276 horsepower, 266 pound-feet torque (V-6)

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.9 seconds (V-6, Car and Driver); towing, 2,000-5,000 pounds

Weight: 4,759 (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 18 city/ 23 highway/ 20 combined (AWD turbo-4); 17 city/ 23 highway/ 19 combined (AWD V-6)

Report card

Highs: Good value in competitive segment; handsome package

Lows: Lacks VW character; so-so voice commands

Overall: 3 stars

GMC super-sizes its high-tech Yukon

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 15, 2020

GMC introduced an all-new, three-row 2021 Yukon on Tuesday, and the premium brand’s biggest SUV is bigger and brasher than ever.

Based on the same ladder-frame platform as the GMC Sierra pickup, the Yukon wheelbase grows by five inches. As a result, GM says the big ute gains 41% more third-row legroom and 66% more cargo volume. And engineers have equipped the supersized interior with new tech features.

The popular, premium Denali trim will be available. A rugged, off-road AT4 trim also will be on option on the Yukon for the first time.

Topping the list of Yukon goodies is a power-sliding center console that automatically opens for storage.

Drivers can survey the Yukon’s surroundings with an available nine camera views – the most in class – while using a 15-inch head-up display so they don’t have to take their eyes off the road.

A class-exclusive, adaptive air-ride suspension promises to deliver smooth sailing in the big land yacht. It also enables drivers to lift the chassis an additional two inches for extreme off-roading. That will be most useful in the AT4 trim, which has skid plates for rock protection. Once back on the road, the air-ride suspension will self-level for best aerodynamics.

Front-seat passengers aren’t the only ones to benefit as the second-row seats can slide up to 5½ inches for additional leg room.

The Yukon will be motivated by GM’s familiar 5.3-liter and 6.2-liter V-8 engines, also found in the Chevy Tahoe and Suburban that GM rolled out late last year. The 6.2-liter  delivers a class-best 420 horsepower paired with a standard 10-speed transmission. For the first time, the Yukon will be available with a 3.0-liter, inline-6 cylinder turbodiesel that’s less thirsty.

The Yukon is distinguished by a huge, meaty grille sandwiched by signature LED C-clamp headlamps. The stylish Denali trim gets the most attention. The Yukon Denali gets an exclusive interior – including a completely new instrument panel, unique seats and a choice of four color themes – outfitted with premium and authentic materials.

The Yukon – including a stretched XL version – will roll off the line at Arlington, Texas this summer. Pricing has not been announced.

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Why North American Car, Truck and Utility of the Year champs won big

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 15, 2020

The North American Car, Truck and Utility of the Year awards were announced Monday, on the same day as the Academy Awards nominees. Which is appropriate, because NACTOY is often referred to as the auto industry’s Oscars.

I’m one of 50 jurors for NACTOY, and I also thought the NACTOY/Oscar coincidence appropriate because they both got it right. Unlike last year.

“Green Book” won best picture last year over “A Star is Born” and “Black Panther”? Really? I was equally perplexed that the sensational Mazda 6 sedan and Jeep Wrangler didn’t get nominations for 2019 car and SUV of the year. The Wrangler (240,000 in sales) was passed over for the Jaguar i-Pace EV (2,500 sold)? Huh?

But this year, all is right with the world. “Ford v Ferrari” is nominated for Best Picture, and my fellow jurors and I are aligned on best car (Chevrolet Corvette), sport utility (Kia Telluride) and truck (Jeep Gladiator). In fact, each won their class comfortably.

The only thing that really stood between the Corvette and the trophy was whether it would be eligible in 2020. The first mid-engine Corvette – unlike its 2020 peers – won’t go on sale until late in the first quarter of this year due to a lengthy UAW strike that froze manufacturing at GM’s Bowling Green, Kentucky plant.

After a quick huddle, the jury agreed this was Corvette’s year.

It lapped the field, garnering 332 points to runner-up Hyundai Sonata (133) and Toyota Supra (35). (Each of the 50 members of the automotive press on the jury had 10 points to distribute in each category.) Indeed, the biggest surprise this year was that the Supra edged the Mazda 3 hatchback as a finalist. The Toyota, after all, is a low-volume $50,000 sports car, whereas the Mazda rocked the high-volume compact car class with premium exterior and interior design.

No doubt, some of my fellow jurors were drugged by Supra’s addictive handling and goosebump-inducing, BMW-developed inline six-cylinder. The Hyundai, too, brought premium touches to $30,000 mid-size sedans — check out its Tesla-like summon feature and wicked wardrobe.

But there was no denying the eighth-generation Corvette.

Chevy took a huge risk by tearing up tradition and rendering its icon as a mid-engine sports car. The Corvette team nailed it. The C8 offers stunning styling, interior and performance for a quarter the cost of comparable European exotics.

For example, the rear-wheel-drive Corvette (when equipped with Z51 performance package for a sticker price of $65,000) will sprint from zero-60 in 2.9 seconds — the same time as a $270,000 AWD Lamborghini Huracan. I’ll wait while you pick up your jaw from the floor.

The SUV category was never really in doubt either, though the Telluride (240 points) got a good run from its sister Hyundai Palisade (147). The Koreans share architectures and clever features (USB ports in the seatbacks, third-row speaker for driver-to-rugrats communication). Indeed, I found the Palisade’s clever console superior to the Telluride for daily livability.

But jurors were blown away by the Telluride’s good looks and rugged vibe.

There was jury buzz that the Koreans might split the vote — allowing the luxurious Aviator to cruise by into first place. But that would have been a shame. The Telluride is a luxury-worthy, mainstream SUV that costs an incredible $20,000 less than the Lincoln.

Making up for the Wrangler snub of a year ago, the Jeep Gladiator walked away with Truck of the Year honors with 273 points. It was never in doubt.

The runner-up Ram Heavy Duty (122 points) — like 2019 truck champ Ram 1500 — has redefined heavy-duty luxury with its tablet screen and luscious interior materials. But HD’s are hardly mainstream tools. Ford’s Ranger made a jubilant return to the midsize pickup fray after taking an off-ramp in 2012.

But the Ranger’s common interior paled next to the Gladiator’s signature offering of aviator vents and off-road grab handle. Jurors were also impressed that the Jeep boys didn’t just mail in a Wrangler-with-a-bed offering. The Gladiator is all new from the B-pillar rearward, offering upgraded tricks like sub rear-seat storage and a sophisticated multi-link rear suspension adopted from cousin Ram.

Armed with a second transfer-case shifter, removable doors and rock-tested skid plates, the Jeep takes the middie-segment to places — off-roading in the Rubicon, anyone? — that pickup trucks haven’t dreamed of going before.

That armor will cost you a $2,500 premium over similarly equipped pickups, but the Gladiator’s hot sales are proof of the jury’s good taste.

And so we soldier on into the 2020s. Hotly anticipated trucks and utes will continue to roll. Look for the new Chevy Tahoe and Suburban, Ram Dakota, Ford Bronco, Land Rover Defender and Chevy Trailblazer.

But with the market due for a flood of electric vehicles including the Rivian R1T pickup/R1S SUV, and the Ford Mustang Mach-E and Tesla Model Y crossovers, I’ll go out on a limb and predict NACTOY will get its first-ever electric truck and SUV Oscar winners.

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Corvette, Telluride and Gladiator take NACTOY honors

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 15, 2020

Detroit — The Chevrolet Corvette, Kia Telluride and Jeep Gladiator took home top honors in the 2020 North American Car, Utility and Truck of the Year awards on Monday. The prizes are popularly known as the auto industry’s Oscar awards.

Chevrolet Corvette chief engineer Tadge Juechter goes to the stage to accept the 2020 North American Car of the Year, the Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, award at the TCF Center in Detroit on Jan. 13, 2020

The Corvette Stingray C8 accelerated past the Hyundai Sonata and Toyota Supra for best car. The $60,000 Chevy icon is the first ‘Vette to put the engine behind the driver. At just a third the cost of mid-engine Italian supercars, the Corvette puts up similar performance numbers, including a sub 3-second 0-60 mph time.

The highly anticipated sports car took a rollercoaster journey to market, originally getting approval before the Great Recession of 2008 threw GM into bankruptcy.

“Winning (this award) is important and a powerful validation for what we’ve been doing,” Corvette executive chief engineer Tadge Juechter said as he held up the trophy. “Our team has poured their passion into this car.”

Delayed in coming to dealer lots by the 40-day UAW strike, the Corvette is expected to start production in February. Juechter said the company is getting ready to add a second shift at its plant to meet the demand for the C8.

So intense was competition for Car of the Year that icons like the BMW 3-series and Porsche 911 did not make the finalist list. Other notables left out in the cold were the Ford Mustang GT500, the most powerful Mustang ever, and the Mazda 3, an elegant and affordable compact car.

The Telluride edged the Hyundai Palisade and Lincoln Navigator for top SUV. The affordable Telluride’s suite of standard features and bold good looks wowed jurors as it has wowed consumers.

It was Kia’s first NACTOY win as the Korean brand has made a major move in the U.S. market with a fleet of stylish sedans and SUVs. The brand rode the popular Telluride to the biggest sales growth of any non-luxury brand in 2019. Kia nearly won NACTOY in 2018 with the Kia Stinger four-door sports sedan.

“This is a true accolade anyone would be proud to receive,” said an ecstatic Michael Cole, Kia North America president. “Since launching in a Super Bowl ad last year, demand has continued to outstrip supply. We got close with Stinger, but the Telluride is appropriate because it is designed and assembled in the U.S.”

The SUV showdown was NACTOY’s most intense as manufacturers continue to feed consumers’ insatiable appetite for all things ute. Entrants included such heralded German rookies as the Audi E-Tron — the brand’s first electric SUV — and the hulking three-row BMW X7. GM hopefuls included the return of the Chevrolet Blazer as a fashionable crossover, and Cadillac’s first three-row SUV not named Escalade, the XT6.

In the end, however, jurors found the Korean twins, Palisade and Telluride, and the stylish Aviator to be the most notable.

The truck category was an all-American affair with the Gladiator beating the Ford Ranger and Ram Heavy Duty.

Its rugged Wrangler-like qualities married to a useful pickup bed proved irresistible to jurors. Available only in all-wheel drive, the Gladiator starts in the mid-$30,000 price range.

“What’s not to like about a pickup truck with not only a soft-top removable roof but even removable doors?” said veteran NACTOY juror John Voelcker.

U.S. automakers usually dominate the truck category, and 2020 was no different. The Ram Heavy Duty was hoping to join its sibling Ram 1500 light-duty truck in the winners’ circle after the 1500 won NACTOY a year ago. The Ranger and Gladiator were evidence of the resurgence of the mid-size pickup market once left for dead. The Ranger had actually left the market in 2012, only to return this year, while the Gladiator is Jeep’s first pickup since the Comanche in 1992.

The awards were presented on stage at the TCF Center (formerly Cobo) in Detroit in partnership with the Detroit Auto Dealers Association and the North American International Auto Show. The NACTOY awards have in years past kicked off the North American International Auto Show – but the show has been moved to June this year for the first time.

The winners were the cream of a crop of 46 eligible nameplates this year. All vehicles are new to the market for the 2020 model year.

The list was winnowed to a field of semi-finalists in October: five trucks and 12 vehicles in the car and sport utility categories. Jurors then convened in Ann Arbor for an intensive week of testing and comparison to nominate the nine finalists — three in each category.

Considered the industry’s most prestigious independent award, NACTOY is presented by a jury of 50 journalists from print, online, radio and broadcast media across the U.S. and Canada, including the author of this article.

Car of the Year: Chevrolet Corvette Stingray

Other nominees: Hyundai Sonata, Toyota Supra

SUV of the Year: Kia Telluride

Other nominees: Hyundai Palisade, Lincoln Aviator

Truck of the Year: Jeep Gladiator

Other nominees: Ford Ranger, Ram Heavy Duty

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Automakers tout electric future while building more diesels

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 13, 2020

As a commitment to a post-carbon future of “zero-emissions” electric vehicles, General Motors Co. is converting is its Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant to the manufacture of electric trucks. Auto analysts forecast the vehicles will not be obscure green compacts, but the meat of GM’s big-vehicle lineup: GMC Sierra, Cadillac Escalade and a return of the Hummer.

At the same time, it is introducing for the first time diesel versions of its Chevy Tahoe and Suburban SUVs, and the Silverado pickup.

The paradox of GM’s dual commitment to diesel and electrification indicates the staying power of diesel technology at a time when fuel is plentiful and prices at the pump are just $3 a gallon. It is especially dramatic in the face of the Dieselgate scandal that has led to the abandonment of diesels by European manufacturers like Volkswagen and Audi, which are investing billions in electric-charging infrastructure.

But so efficient is diesel at moving heavy loads for long distances, that its resilience is creating doubts about the electric future touted by governments and manufacturers alike.

“Diesels don’t get enough ink these days,” GM President Mark Reuss said ahead of the Tahoe/Suburban rollout in Detroit last month. “This is really in the wheelhouse of people who want it. They really don’t care about the car diesel (scandal) that went on.”

GM is not alone.

Indeed, because of the sheer volume of the sport utility and truck segment — the largest chunk of the U.S. market by far — diesel-powered vehicles outsell EVs by more than 2-to-1, according to the Diesel Technology Forum, an industry trade group.

In the latest quarter for which data is available, sales of full-size diesel pickups in the United States were up 23% from the second quarter over the first quarter of 2019 — more than double the sales of all cars and trucks.

As diesel-engine options hit dealer lots in the Tahoe, Suburban and Silverado — and the Ford F-150, Ram 1500, Jeep Gladiator and Jeep Wrangler — that growth may accelerate.

An all-wheel drive Chevy Silverado or GMC Sierra powered by the new 3.0-liter V-6 Duramax diesel gets 25 mpg, which is 30% more efficient that its gasoline kin. Their range on a full tank of diesel is 600 miles, which is 144 miles more than a comparable gasoline V-8 model. Range is a key attribute for large vehicles buyers who tow for work and family trips.

The diesel Tahoe and Suburban SUVs, based on the same chassis as the Silverado, are expected to post similar fuel economy when they debut later this year.

The Silverado diesel variant comes with about a $5,000 premium over the gasoline V-8. For example, an AWD Silverado LT costs $50,900 versus $45,590 for a V-8-powered Silverado in the same trim-level.

That compares to a typical $15,000-plus premium for electric vehicles over similar gas-engine vehicles. A battery-powered Chevy Bolt, for example, costs about $15,000 north of a comparable $21,000 Chevy Sonic hatch; a Subaru Crosstrek plug-in costs $36,000 vs. a $22,000 gas-fueled Crosstrek.

The premium gets even steeper in large SUVs and pickups. Plymouth-based Rivian will debut its 230-mile range electric R1T pickup and R1S SUV later this year starting at $70,000. Rivian promises a 400-mile range vehicle, but that is expected to list well over $100,000.

“Electrification may be the wave of the future,” says Diesel Technology Forum Executive Director Allen Schaeffer. “But so far it’s not bearing out in the market. GM recognizes that you have to have vehicles that customers can buy.”

GM also recognizes it won’t be able to sell in high-volume, so-called “zero-emission states” unless they make EVs available. The 10 states — including California, the biggest U.S. market — are forcing automakers to electrify 7-10% of their products by 2025. That’s within the current vehicle production cycle.

“There’s little natural demand for EVs because they’re not a better, more convenient solution to transportation than gas engines,” says veteran auto analyst Rebecca Lindland of RebeccaDrives.com. “Regulations are driving the move to EVs.”

Lindland says automakers — while investing short-term in proven diesel technology — are hoping there’s a demographic shift. They are betting that millennials will be interested in environmentally friendly trucks, especially buyers who aren’t  utilizing their full capabilities as workhorses.

The generational shift is also a calculation of Tesla, which recognizes truck volume as key to its goal of flipping the industry to “sustainable transportation.” Currently, Tesla sedans and Model X SUV make up nearly 80% of U.S. EV sales — which are only 1.8% of the total market according to InsideEVs.com.

Unlike Rivian, Bollinger and other upcoming pickup offerings, Tesla promises that its pickup will start at a competitive $40,000. But it will have a range of 250 miles, just 40% of a Chevy truck.

Also complicating the electric-truck calculation is the stress of towing on battery range: Truck-testing authority TFLTruck.com, for example, has found that the Tesla Model X SUV only gets 30% of its range when towing 2,000 pounds.

The F-150 has been the biggest diesel seller among Detroit automakers, joining oil-burning service vehicles like the Ford Transit and Mercedes-Benz. But the addition of popular Chevrolet, Ram and Jeep models promises more diesel penetration.

“Customers have been asking for diesels in these vehicles for along time,” says Diesel Technology Forum’s Schaeffer, who says there are nearly 50 diesel offerings in the market. “It will be interesting to see how much the sales numbers grow as new vehicles come on line.”

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Payne: Subcompact Mazda CX-30 rocks

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 13, 2020

Mazda shoppers might be understandably confused these days.

The charming ads — the ones where the kid whispered “ZOOM ZOOM” at the end — have been replaced by a generic “Feel Alive” lifestyle campaign that might as well be selling you tennis shoes.

And the brand’s latest, four-digit CX-30 SUV is an alphanumeric migraine that doesn’t fit in the brand’s simple, single-digit sedan lineup (Mazda 3,6) or the three-digit SUV silo (CX-3, CX-5, CX-9). Earth to marketing department.

But there’s nothing confusing about the way the CX-30 subcompact ute drives, looks and feels.

Simply put — and simple is a repeated, positive theme here — this is the best performance subcompact on the market today. Period. So good, in fact, that its comparison set is not the usual mainstream competitors, but luxury subcompacts costing at least $10,000 more.

Based on the same platform as the sensational Mazda 3 compact hatchback, you will know the CX-30 is different the moment you grip its fat steering wheel and fling it into a corner. Poised and balanced, it’s more hot-hatch compact than hatchback ute.

Its 186 horses is best in the mainstream market, as is the buttery six-speed transmission it’s married to. A few years back I sampled the CX-30’s bigger brother, the compact CX-5, against its upscale peers — Audi Q5, Lexus NX, Mercedes GLC — and nothing could dance with it on road. Only a subcompact BMW X1 — a size down in class, but priced in the CX-5’s $40,000 neighborhood — bested it.

Now comes the subcompact CX-30 priced a whopping $15,000 under the premium BMW X1, and I suspect it’s the X1’s match through the twisties. This is the type of subcompact SUV that Volkswagen should make off its superb Golf platform — or that Ford should cook up from its Focus sedan. But they haven’t.

VW offers nothing in its class, while Ford’s cramped EcoSport entry is a boxy eggbeater. One of the hottest aisles in autodom, mainstream subcompacts boast a variety of toys like the off-roady Subaru Crosstrek, rugged Jeep Renegade, roomy Honda HR-V and funky Kia Soul.

Now it’s got a toned $23,000 athlete.

But the CX-30 is much more than a fun-to-drive ute (as refreshing as that is to say). Its simple, timeless design will wear well. It’s no Mazda 3 hatch (the most beautiful compact car ever penned), largely because designers felt compelled to lard the CX-30 with black body-cladding to give it SUV cred. That may protect its fenders from the rare off-road event, but it dulls Mazda’s knife-edge good looks next to full steel-body stallions like the BMW X1.

Still, it’s a looker in Soul Red, and if the cladding bugs you, match it with a darker color like Gunmetal Gray. The simple elegance continues inside with a sweeping horizontal design familiar to the Mazda 3 hatchback — and to BMW and Tesla.

Like Tesla, its broad dash lines are efficient and uncluttered. Like BMW, the instrument and infotainment screen are driver-focused — the result of fussy engineers obsessed with keeping drivers’ eyes glued to the road.

Over the spaghetti roads of southern California’s Cuyamaca Mountains, everything I needed was close. The screen navigation (Apple CarPlay and Android Auto standard) is high on the dash. The deft, multi-way remote rotary-controller (just like BMW) is at my elbow. The i-Activsense surround-view (like Tesla) is in the instrument cluster to monitor cars around me.

More awkward than the CX-30’s four-digit detour from Mazda’s naming convention (imagine if Audi built a crossover between the Q3 and Q5 called the Q30 — huh?) is its suggestion that it is a variant of Mazda’s entry-level subcompact SUV, the slow-selling CX-3.

Yet, the CX-30 is more CX-5 than CX-3. Marketing has its reasons for not calling it a CX-4 in the U.S. (because a different car is called CX-4 in the Chinese market), but they are unconvincing.

Based on a same platform as the Mazda 3 hatchback (not the CX-3), the CX-30 nevertheless gains some room over the 3 thanks to its taller SUV dimensions. Cargo room is a useful 20 cubic feet and swallows four carry-on suitcases. My 6-foot-5 frame fit in the second row thanks to clever scalloping in the front seatback and roof liner.

I conversed with my 4-foot-11 drive partner with ease from the back quarters thanks to better than BMW X1 interior quiet. And despite our Laurel and Hardy body differences, we both found the seating ergonomics excellent.

The CX-30 bristles with such clever human details, typical of those fussy Mazda engineers. Consider:

Standard features include adaptive cruise-control, automatic high beams and other items that you’ll have to pay extra for on a BMW X1.

Such standardization also aids simplicity. In an online-buying age when millennials expect efficiency, the Mazda CX-3 configuration page is blessedly easy with four trim options — each building on the last. My favorite Preferred trim (heated, power seats) can be had for $28,645.

Such obsession with detail exposes the odd flaw. A black wheel option would better complement the black cladding. Voice recognition is poor. The car’s athletic nature screams for a second engine option like Mazda’s 2.5-liter turbo.

What to do? The black wheels can be bought used off a Mazda 3. Voice recognition is excellent if you plug in Apple CarPlay/Android Auto. And that turbo-4 terror with 250 ponies and whopping 310 pound-feet of torque? I’m betting sales of the CX-30 will be so strong that will allow Mazda to offer another trim (just like they’ve done with the Mazda CX-5, which can be had for less than $40,000 with a BMW-beating turbo-4).

And when that day arrives, maybe they’ll have figured out how to call it CX-4.

2020 Mazda CX-30

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

Price: $22,945 including $1,045 destination charge($31,240 AWD Premium as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder

Power: 186 horsepower, 186 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.2 seconds (Car and Driver est.); top speed, 123 mph (est.)

Weight: 3,408 pounds (as tested)

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

Report card

Highs: Sharp handling; premium interior

Lows: Heavy black cladding; turbo-4 engine option, please

Overall: 4 stars

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Payne: Mid-engine Corvette race car roars at Daytona debut

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 13, 2020

The world got its first look at a final-spec, mid-engine Corvette at full chat last weekend. But it was a race car, not a street-legal production car.

The Corvette C8.R impressed at its Daytona debut weekend, lapping within tenths of a second its Ferrari and Porsche rivals at the Roar Before the 24 — the full dress rehearsal for the IMSA Weathertech series’ Rolex 24 at Daytona endurance race coming later this month.

Like carefully choreographed Chevy product rollouts of the past, the race car should have followed the production C8’s production launch in December. The last-generation C7.R race car, for example, broke cover at Daytona in January, 2014 — four months after the production model rolled off the assembly line.

But a bitter, 40-day UAW strike has delayed production at Corvette’s Bowling Green, Kentucky, plant until February. Though some journalists have had a taste of pre-production cars, media test drives of the final product won’t happen until mid-February in Las Vegas — and paying customers won’t get their sweaty palms on the C8 until March.

So the racing debut of the Corvette C8.R (developed in parallel with the production car) at the Roar test trials took on even more significance. And the mid-engine missile put on a strong display around the 3.56-mile road course.

“I had heard a lot already about how good the Corvette C8.R is to drive, so I was very much looking forward to getting in it for the first time,” said Marcel Fassler, 2016 Daytona winner and three-time Le Mans champ. “The car is amazing to drive. There hasn’t been a lot of time to get used to the car, but you can see the potential. The car is very agile.”

Fassler’s teammate, Tommy Milner, topped the time charts for much of the three-day test weekend with a lap of 1.42.7 seconds — pushing 170 mph on Daytona’s steeply-banked oval turns for an average lap speed of nearly 125 mph. Eventually a Ferrari 488 and Porsche 911 pipped the ‘Vette for best time of weekend by a tenth of second.

Corvette is entering two cars, #3 shared by Antonio Garcia/Jordan Taylor/Nicky Catsburg and the #4 of Fassler/Milner/Oliver Gavin.

Like the last, front-engine C7 before it, the racing version of the mid-engine C8 was developed from the ground up alongside the production car. The C8 program got the green light six years ago as the first Corvette in 60 years to put the engine behind the driver. The C8 and C8.R share more parts than any generation production/race ‘Vette that has come before.

“It was important for us to develop the new race car alongside the production car, so that each product could properly take advantage of the new architecture,” said Corvette’s chief engineer, Ed Piatek. “The benefits of this mid-engine supercar, including its incredible balance, will be obvious on the street and the track.”

Their obvious similarities aside, the race car diverges in important ways from the $59,995 production steed — especially in the drivetrain, where the C8.R introduces Corvette’s first overhead-cam V-8: a 5.5-liter, high-revving, flat-plane crank mill (the production car debuts with an updated version of Chevy’s tried-and-true push-rod, 6.2-liter V-8).

Despite the race car’s revolutionary engine — flat-plane crank V-8s are rare outside exotics like Ferrari and the Mustang GT350 — Chevy has been understandably shy to discuss its details given that the engine will be reserved for a later model trim in C8’s life cycle — likely the Corvette Z06.

Racing the 5.5-liter 8-holer, however, gives Corvette precious experience at the ragged edge of endurance. The engine is mated to a new, more-compact six-speed sequential gearbox — different from the dual-clutch 8-speed automatic in the production model.

“The drive-train was a big challenge,” said a Chevy spokesperson. “We’ve been working on it quite a while.”

For all of its newness, the Corvette will still face the same ol’ IMSA Balance of Performance limitations in order to ensure it doesn’t run away from other cars in the GTLM class. The mid-engine Corvette must exist alongside, for example, a BMW M8 — a heavier, less-capable production coupe.

As a result, the Corvette — like the retired, mid-engine Ford GT before it — must achieve a minimum weight of 2,777 pounds, with power limited to 500 hp and 480 pound-feet of torque at 7,400 RPM.

Contrast that to the production version, which reportedly will make in excess of 650 horsepower at 8,600 RPM. Stripped of interior finery, sound deadening, and infotainment systems, however, the race car still tips the scales well below the 3,647-pound, production C8.

The C8.R has undergone extensive track testing around the world with its chassis 01 test mule. But the Roar Before the 24 debuted C8.R’s race-ready chassis 02 and 03. The two entries logged a combined 341 laps with no major issues.

“We’ve been very pleased with our time here simply because we haven’t had any durability issues. All in all, I couldn’t be more pleased with the progress that we’ve made,” veteran GM race program director Doug Fehan told Sportscar365.com. Corvette’s Pratt & Miller racet team builds the race car in Lyon Township.

The ultimate test will come when the green flag waves Saturday, Jan. 25, and the cars race a grueling 24 hours at full squawk.

The C8.R’s front-engine predecessor is already a legend, having won the Rolex 24 twice in 2015 and 2016. Notably, the C8.R is already 2.5 seconds a lap quicker than when that car debuted, hinting at its potential.

“We don’t have the knowledge base that we have had in the past,” said driver Milner. “So it’s been trying a lot of different things we’ve never tried before. It was fun to have that qualifying session . . . and see how we good we could do. Third is pretty good.”

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Payne: 10 vehicles that defined the decade

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 2, 2020

Years from now, historians may rank the past decade as one of the auto industry’s most important.

The 2010s began with the United States crawling out of the worst recession since 1982. SUV sales fizzled as cash-starved consumers opted for cheap cars. Uber and Spotify didn’t exist. Tesla’s lone product, a Lotus-based sports car, was best known for a “Top Gear” episode showing it running out of juice.

But as the economy righted itself, the 21st century’s trends went into hyperdrive: sport-ute mania, digitization, horsepower, regulation, electrification.

These 10 vehicles defined the decade.

Ford F-150

The more things change, the more things stay the same. Nothing outsold the Ford F-150 in the last decade. Just like the previous three decades. But the pickup’s significance grew beyond sales numbers. With the enormous technological challenges facing automakers, F-150’s outsize profits became key to underwriting Ford Motor Co.’s investment in expensive, unproven autonomous and electric vehicles. The pickup itself became a change agent as turbocharged V-6s displaced V-8s as volume sellers, and lightweight aluminum replaced steel construction.

Google car

The “Skynet Marshmallow Bumper Bot” (as the Oatmeal.com website called it) announced Silicon Valley as a mobility leader. Self-driving cars suddenly seemed within reach. Without a steering wheel, the Livonia-built Google car felt like riding in a four-wheel subway car. The pioneering robot plied city streets in San Francisco and Austin for a time before giving way to more practical people-movers like Waymo (Google) minivans, Uber Volvos and Cruise Automation Chevy Bolts.

Chevy Volt

Before the battery-powered Chevrolet Bolt EV, there was the 2011 plug-in Volt. It was General Motors Co.’s answer to the Toyota Prius hybrid. With battery range of 50 miles, the Volt could cover most daily commutes — yet it eased range anxiety with a small gas engine that could kick in to get you home. Consumers didn’t understand it, and the Volt didn’t survive the decade. The 2012 Cadillac ELR, kind of a Volt-in-a-tux, should have held more promise — but GM priced it at a nose-bleed $80,000. If Cadillac had introduced it for $35,000 (beating the Model 3 to market by five years), history might have been different.

Tesla Model 3

Elon Musk introduced the $35,000 Model 3 at a 2016 news conference. An affordable alternative to Tesla’s $80,000 Model S sedan that had wowed luxury-buyers with its Ludicrous electric acceleration, the Model 3 was an instant sensation. Tesla Inc. was deluged by 400,000 pre-orders. In its first full year on the market in 2018, the made-in-USA sedan was the luxury market’s best-selling chariot, beating even the Lexus RX350 SUV. More than an EV, the Model 3 wowed buyers with such technology as a giant tablet screen, Autopilot driving and over-the-air software updates. Manufacturing consultant Sandy Munro declared its electronics “generations beyond what any other manufacturer is doing,” and the industry mobilized to catch up.

Toyota RAV4

No one could catch the RAV4 compact SUV, which became the best-selling non-pickup in America — dethroning perennial-champ Toyota Camry. In so doing, the RAV4 became the first SUV to reign at No. 1. Not only did the RAV4 displace Camry, it also felled cousin Prius as the best-selling hybrid in America as battery technology moved to mainstream vehicles.

Jeep Wrangler

If the RAV4 was the undisputed best-seller, then Jeep was the king of utes. The World War II-inspired Wrangler had long headlined the off-road niche brand, but all that changed with the Fiat-Chrysler merger of 2009. Call it Fiat-Jeep. Visionary execs Sergio Marchionne and Mike Manley saw the Jeep’s potential as a global brand on a planet embracing all things SUV. More capable, comfortable and high-tech, the 2018 Wrangler doubled its sales. Jeep sales overall? Tripled since 2010 to nearly a million units a year.

Dodge Charger Hellcat

While the Detroit Three ditched poor-selling car lines, one sedan defied gravity. The Charger proved the power of bold marketing. President Tim Kuniskis and his merry band of elves took an aging chassis, injected it with unheard-of horsepower and called it the Hellcat (along with sister coupe Challenger). The Hellcat showcased how modern electronics have benefited not just infotainment systems, but the ability of family sedans to safely put 707 horses to the road.

Ford GT

Fifty years after the legendary Ford GT40 won LeMans, the GT celebrated by winning the storied 24-hour race again. The 2016 GT is a state-of-the-art, carbon-fiber weapon. It demonstrated the important role motor racing plays in the industry. Nearly every major brand now races, from the exotic Cadillac IMSA prototype to the common Mazda Miata. Popular culture embraced Ford’s achievement, too, as “Ford v Ferrari” — a movie chronicling the 1966 GT40’s success — became a Hollywood blockbuster.

Ford Mustang

The Mustang was birthed alongside the GT40 in the 1960s, becoming a symbol of Dearborn’s commitment to affordable performance. Ford observed its 50th anniversary in 2015 by taking the pony to new heights. With its daring redesign, the ‘Stang went global with sales in 146 countries. The muscle car took back its sales crown from the Chevy Camaro, then looked toward the next half-century by expanding as a sub-brand with its first electric SUV — the Mustang Mach-E.

Volkswagen Golf

Diesel-engine tech, which began the 2010s as the globe’s answer to fuel efficiency, became a pariah. Cars like the Golf were found in 2015 to have systems that cheated on emissions tests in order to circumvent regulations. The so-call Dieselgate scandal inspired a historic transformation of the world’s largest automaker from a diesel-focused company to an electric-vehicle evangelist. Governments forced VW to build a national battery supercharger network as penance for its sins — and to power politicians’ pet drivetrain, electric motors. As the 2020s dawn, however, buyers of trucks and commercial vehicles still prefer the advantages of diesel range and infrastructure. Will EVs conquer the passenger car frontier? The next decade will tell the tale.

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

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Driverless robots in Ann Arbor seek piece of food-delivery pie

Posted by Talbot Payne on December 27, 2019

Refraction's REV 1 autonomous food delivery vehicle makes its way down Fourth Street in downtown Ann Arbor, bound for Miss Kim restaurant in Kerrytown to pick up a food order.

Refraction’s REV 1 autonomous food delivery vehicle makes its way down Fourth Street in downtown Ann Arbor, bound for Miss Kim restaurant in Kerrytown to pick up a food order. (Photo: Lon Horwedel, Special to The Detroit News)

Ann Arbor — Self-driving autos hold enormous promise for ride-hailing services and commercial transportation.

But the first autonomous vehicle you see in practical use might bring you lunch.

The REV, an autonomous robot made by Refraction AI, will begin making meal deliveries from four restaurants to a test group of 300 customers in downtown Ann Arbor beginning Jan. 3. Five feet tall, with three wheels and a fuselage like an oversized bike helmet, the 100-pound REV promises food drops for half the cost of existing delivery services like Grubhub, EatStreet and DoorDash.

If successful, REV could begin the transformation of downtowns into “Blade Runner”-like metropolises populated by wee bots hustling meal, grocery and document deliveries along byways at 15 mph.

“We want to get autonomous vehicles on the road in a way that’s safe,” Refraction AI CEO  Matthew Johnson-Roberson said at the company’s headquarters in downtown Ann Arbor. “Our biggest focus is dense, urban areas. At (these) speeds, it’s a safe proposition.”

The REV program slots in a growing ecosystem of robotic delivery vehicles. Small bots from San Francisco-based Starship can be found on about 15 college campuses making food deliveries, while California start-up Nuro employs car-sized, 2,500-pound grocery delivery vehicles in the Scottsdale and Houston suburbs.

These robot companies share business models that Uber and Lyft taxi services are ultimately predicated on: remove the driver and reduce transportation costs dramatically. In the case of REV, that means Refraction only charges restaurants 10-15% of an order, compared to the 30-35% that’s typical of its human-piloted delivery competition.

“Grubhub costs are unaffordable to us,” said Ji Hye Kim, proprietor of the Miss Kim restaurant Ann Arbor, one of the restaurants participating in Refraction’s rollout. “Such services are basically just for marketing.”

Says Johnson-Roberson, who co-founded the company with fellow University of Michigan faculty member Ram Vasudevan: “We want to build something that makes the economics work. We’re using affordable hardware. We’re not spending Bentley money to drive around your tacos.”

The Detroit News followed a demonstration run of REV-1 (shorthand for the first-model Refraction Electric Vehicle) around downtown Ann Arbor on a snowy, frigid day where a customer (a Refraction employee) ordered food from Miss Kim about a quarter-mile away.

Orders are made via phone app. Then REVs are dispatched from their “nest” at Refraction headquarters. Deliveries will be made in 30 minutes within a 2-mile radius from four restaurants including Miss Kim, Belly Deli, Tios Mexican Cafe and Chow Asian Street Food. Refraction’s service will debut with five vehicles making runs from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a goal of saturating Ann Arbor with 35 bots.

Just 30 inches wide, the REV-1 navigated city streets as a bicyclist would — using bike lanes where possible, or hugging curbs and parked cars. Sidewalks are off-limits. Much of REV’s delivery model is built around the e-bike ecosystem that has become commonplace in U.S. cities.

“Eighty-ninety percent of our travel is not in a bike lane. We travel in the margin of the road,” said Johnson-Roberson, 36. “The biggest problem we face is a car door opening on us — just like a bicyclist. Small pets are a real tough problem — and squirrels.”

REV pulled up to Miss Kim to pick up its package. Kim emerged with two bags and entered a code on the REV keypad. A side-door popped open, exposing the pod’s 16-cubic-feet belly which can hold four or five delivery bags. Pausing for a crossing pedestrian, the REV pulled out of the parking lot and trundled down Fourth Avenue toward its destination.

The pod was not immune from road rage; one commuter yelled at it to get out of the way in Miss Kim’s narrow parking lot. Refraction AI teleoperators monitored it remotely, ready to take control should issues arise. Case in point: Ann Arbor’s busy transit center where heavy pedestrian traffic can stymie REV’s route.

But armed with two lidar laser sensors as well as a cloak of cameras, radar and ultrasound sensors, the robot is capable of negotiating streets in any climate — including this wintry, 19-degree Michigan day.

Upon arrival at its destination, REV alerted the customer via the app to come and extract their order.

Johnson-Roberson says that the challenges of Michigan roads are essential to training REV for national markets: “Our approach is the potholes are so bad — we are building a vehicle robust enough that it can hit them and keep moving. During the big (November snow) storm, we were out every day … because you’re not going to get scalability without dealing with winter.”

Refraction plans to expand to Boston in 2020 as well as Madison, Wisconsin and Palo Alto, California.

“We want to do Detroit as well. We’re thinking Corktown where Ford wants to have its mobility hub. That’s going to be a great place to operate,” Johnson-Roberson said.

While Google put autonomy on the map in 2015 with its marshmallow-shaped Google car, Refraction AI is evidence of the large role the Midwest plays in the autonomous industry.

REV is assembled by Roush Industries in Livonia at an affordable $4,000. Roush also built the Google car. The robot was designed — including a full-scale clay model — by a local auto designer. Refraction’s Ann Arbor team works on electronics and software.

“Between here and Detroit are a host of suppliers, part makers. We’ve had no problem sourcing frames, components, everything we need from the automotive supply chain,” said the CEO whose chief investors are eLab and Trucks Venture Capital.

Trained in marine robotics and computer science, Johnson-Roberson comes out of Pittsburgh’s heralded Carnegie-Mellon engineering ecosystem that has produced such industry talents as Google car pioneer Chris Urmson (now with Aurora Innovation) and John Bares who runs Uber’s huge autonomous tech center in Pittsburgh.

The autonomous ambitions of Google and Uber have come under fire from labor activists as a threat to jobs. Ride services employ thousands of “gig economy” drivers, from full-time employees to part-time students looking for extra income.

Johnson-Roberson is sensitive to the issue but sees autonomous companies as models for sustainable, higher-paying jobs.

“(Gig economy) drivers often wind up making less than minimum wage. They get paid per delivery. They are transient jobs, people don’t like them,” he said. “Everyone at Refraction is a full-time employee or part-time student. Our vision is to have employees get full benefits.”

The driverless REVs can go about their chores for up to 12 hours on a single charge and then return to their nest to juice up overnight.

As the REV program expands nationally to 60 vehicles over the next six to 12 months, Johnson-Roberson says Refraction will quickly grow out of its small, sparse Washington Street offices — not only to provide space for robots and maintenance but to house teleoperators who monitor REVs going about their business all over the country.

Restaurateur Kim is excited about the prospects.

“I think the idea is super-cool,” she said. “The robots are cute, but as business owners, their affordability offers us the chance to hire more employees devoted to delivery services because the cheap business model allows us more money to pay our employees.”

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Payne: The Hyundai Sonata will open your eyes, not your wallet

Posted by Talbot Payne on December 26, 2019

New chassis. The 2020 Hyundai Sonata is tighter, lower and swifter than the previous generation.

New chassis. The 2020 Hyundai Sonata is tighter, lower and swifter than the previous generation. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

Well, it seems we enthusiasts weren’t the only folks who missed Hyundai’s curvaceous 2011 Sonata hottie.

Hyundai missed it, too.

Eight years after it scandalized the tired, mid-size appliance aisle with the sixth-generation Sonata “Fluidic Sculpture” design, the Korean maker is back with Hottie II — the 2020 Sonata.

Not only is the new Sonata a knockout, but it’s borrowed some high-tech tricks from Tesla. This Alabama-made model hit the catwalk at the New York Auto Show last spring and actually made us think about sedans again.

With its pouty mouth, wildly decorated peepers, streamlined hood, “dynamic lasso” greenhouse and rippled bod, the 2020 Sonata rekindles memories of the car that opened the decade — and our hearts. After the 2011 sedan’s wild success, Hyundai apparently got embarrassed by all the attention and retreated to a more conservative wardrobe for its 2015 model remake. Customers retreated, too.

The plain-Jane 2015 model was also ill-timed as the market was ignoring cars for SUVs. Other automakers like Honda, Mazda and Nissan realized that to make sedans more attractive, you had to make them more sedan-y. That is, emphasize coupe-like shapes (compared to boxy utes), athletic bods (compared to high-center-of-gravity utes), and lean fascias (compared to jowly, upright utes).

Sonata got the message for 2020. As Ken Miles says in “Ford v Ferrari”: “Ohhhhhh, yes! More of that, please!”

But it’s not just the exterior that gets more lovin’.

The chassis is all-new as well, compliments of that German-in-the-Korean henhouse, Albert Biermann. The ex-BMW M-brand wizard has whipped Sonata into shape. I pined for some sport-utility tricks like a hatchback or all-wheel drive, but Hyundai balanced its determination to make a more nimble sedan with the Korean brand’s well-earned reputation for value. Adding an expensive hatch (less rear rigidity) or all-wheel drive system (more weight) would compromise both.

I felt Sonata’s athletic aspirations as soon as I turned onto Arizona’s mountainous roads along Roosevelt Lake north of Phoenix.

The steering wheel, fat and rooted to the asphalt, encouraged me to have fun. Lighter, stiffer and lower by 1.4 inches, the Sonata wants to play. But just as you plant your foot out of a corner, you think … that’s all there is?

The mid-size Sonata offers two engines like its segment competitors, but Sonata’s 245-horse, 2.0-liter turbo-4 is gone. Instead, a standard 190-horse normally aspirated 2.5-liter and eco-friendly 180-horse turbocharged 1.6-liter are right on top of each other spec-wise. That is, they are compact hamster wheels inside a sleek, land shark’s body.

Spend over $30,000 and the Mazda 6 gains a 250-horse turbo-4, the Toyota Camry a 301-horse V-6, and the Honda Accord a 252-horse turbo-4. Not Sonata. Its top-line 1.6-liter turbo has pep at low revs, but so does the $22,000 Honda Civic 1.5-liter turbo-4 with the same horsepower and similar interior legroom. Heck, even the conservatively styled Subaru Legacy gets 260 horses for $28,000 along with all-wheel drive that Mrs. Payne covets and Sonata doesn’t offer.

But the Sonata has other things than my heavy lead-foot on its mind.

Slip into the $28,000 SEL or $34,000 Limited interiors and you think you’re sitting in a $50,000 luxury car. From the 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster to head-up display to the gorgeous 8-inch infotainment tablet, you might as well be staring at the horizontal dash of a BMW 3-series. The detail is that good.

The tablet infotainment screen even features swipe-able pages like the BMW, and the Apple CarPlay function won’t set you back $80 a year.

Below the raised the tablet is a roomy center console with an electronic push-button shifter out of a Hyundai Palisade — the eye-catching, three-row SUV that people are crowding around over in the SUV aisle.

Obsession with detail reaches into the most remote corners of the car: Rear seats are heated and cooled. Soft armrests have phone storage baked in. When I flick on the turn signal, cameras under the mirrors let me monitor the cars in my blind spot in the instrument panel. Clever.

Safety features like adaptive cruise-control, automatic emergency-braking and blind-spot assist — pricey options on luxury vehicles costing $20,000 more — all come standard on the Sonata’s high-volume $26,000 SEL trim just like they do on the Honda Accord, Subaru Legacy and Mazda 6.

I’d like to add the Ford Fusion and Chevy Malibu to that list, but Ford is abandoning sedans and Chevy has been slow to offer standard safety devices. You have to climb well north of $30,000 with the Malibu Premier trim to find tech goodies like adaptive cruise and blind-spot assist.

Separating itself from the competition, Sonata even dips into Tesla’s bag of tricks with a Summon-like feature and key card.

Boxed into a parking garage space? The Sonata will drive to you with the push of a button. Don’t like carrying a key in your pocket? Stash Sonata’s card key in your wallet or purse, and the car will recognize you upon approach.

But still my left foot twitches. An antidote is in the works.

Next fall Hyundai will unveil the Sonata N-line. Yes, N as in the crazed, three-door Veloster N. Inspired by their compact pocket rocket, Hyundai will extend its capability into the mid-size sedan segment.

Normally reserved for the compact class, high-horsepower sedan variants have been rare (the recent Ford Fusion Sport and VW Passat R-Line were limited entries). I got a taste of the Sonata N-line in full camouflage in Phoenix , and kept my lead foot buried the whole time.

Though specs are still preliminary, the N-line estimates a whopping 290 ponies from an all-new turbocharged, 2.5-liter engine four-cylinder. With a Sonata chassis developed from the ground up for this kind of adventure, the N-line gains significant suspension and brake upgrades while losing none of the high-tech goo-gaws.

Expect the Sonata N-line to start about $3,000 above the top-line, $33,500 Sonata Limited I cruised around in. That would make it competitive with upper trims like the Accord Touring and Camry Sport.

The N-line won’t be shy just like the rest of Sonata’s sexy lineup. Welcome back to the catwalk, Hyundai.

2020 Hyundai Sonata

Vehicle type: Front engine, front-wheel drive, 5-passenger sedan

Price: $24,330 including $930 destination charge($31,265 SEL Plus and $34,365 Limited as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder, 1.6-liter turbo 4-cylinder

Power: 191 horsepower, 181 pound-feet torque (inline-4); 180 horsepower, 195 pound-feet torque (turbo-4)

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.3 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 135 mph

Weight: 3,230 pounds (SEL Plus)

Fuel economy: EPA est. 27 city/36 highway/31 combined

Report card

Highs: Head-turning bod; loaded with standard features

Lows: More power, please; no AWD option

Overall: 4 stars

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Payne: Three-row SUV battle — Durango SRT, Cadillac XT6, BMW X7

Posted by Talbot Payne on December 12, 2019

What is the best sled to take over the hill and through the woods to grandma’s house this holiday season?

My family and I spent the Thanksgiving holiday putting three top-drawer utes to the test around Metro Detroit to determine what mattered most to five people stuffed into three-row transportation. Our sleds were a similarly equipped lot from three very different brands: a $73,040 Cadillac XT6, a $78,235 Dodge Durango SRT, and $112,245 BMW X750i.

All three have outsized personalities and wave their brand flags — from the sculpted Cadillac to the Hellcat-wannabe Durango to the ridiculously posh Bimmer. But all also satisfied my family’s basic needs: Three rows with second-row captain’s chairs, so everyone had their space. State-of-the-art technology for my 20-something sons and daughter-in-law. All-wheel drive, two-zone climate control and heated seats for my wife who fears a Michigan blizzard might attack at any moment. And finally, V-6/V-8 powerplants to scratch the itchy right feet of the Payne motorheads.

In this Age of Ute, we put these well-dressed hunks to the test across freezing tundra and cratered Michigan roads to determine what matters most in an SUV — personality or utility.

Dodge Durango SRT

I exploded out of our subdivision in the Durango SRT onto Telegraph Road. Shifts barked like an angry sports car. With the throttle wide open, the engine roared like a T. rex at a Texas Roadhouse buffet.

The SRT badge means Dodge’s glorious 6.4-liter hemi V-8 is under the hood. It’s the same engine that motivates the wicked Charger Scat Pack that I flogged around Sonoma Raceway last fall.

Matching its loud voice, our tester also came with an outrageous red and dual-striped-hood wardrobe with big red Brembo brake calipers and a hood scoop in front. All that was missing was a rear wing. With its rear-drive bias and stiff suspension, it was a rocketship to drive around town.

Passengers had a different impression.

“What? I can’t hear a word you’re saying,” my daughter-in-law yelled from the third row. Even after I had settled down to a civilized 55 mph on adaptive cruise-control, the interior of the Durango was loud. At least I could hear my wife’s reasoned advice in the second row: “Slow down!”

The Durango’s interior is beautifully wrapped in leather with cool details like a T-shifter, second-row infotainment screens, digital instrument display and acres of console room. But it hides an aging chassis that rode like a Conestoga wagon over Detroit’s bumpy trials.

The Durango SRT would be a party animal on a guy’s hunting trip. But it’s a tough sell for a daily driver.

BMW X7 50i

The BMW’s face was the most polarizing of our threesome, with signature twin-grille kidneys the size of Ndamukong Suh’s shoulder pads. Otherwise, this three-row Versailles Castle is a collection of the auto kingdom’s best stuff.

The 456-horse twin-turbo V-8 doesn’t have the visceral thrills of the Durango, but it is every bit as potent, hitting 60 mph in 4.6 seconds with buttery shifts from its eight-speed box. Floating on an air suspension, the X7 absorbed Detroit’s bumps with aplomb while its supple rear-wheel drive biased chassis is not averse to a spirited drive.

But cruising luxury is this yacht’s calling card. The interior is whisper-quiet, making for easy three-row conversation and musical enjoyment. Infotainment can be controlled via iDrive rotary controller or touchscreen. The luscious chocolate-leather seats begged to be licked, and the chrome-plated interior is decorated like a Christmas tree with LED lights that can be programmed to glow any color of the rainbow.

Not surprisingly, the X7 was always the family’s first choice to drive because it had it all — speed, comfort, class — plus, we knew that opportunities to cruise town in a six-figure chariot are rare. Who has that kind of money? The X7 spares no expense with third-row heated seats, three-zone climate control, a split rear hatch with a pickup-like drop-down tailgate, the biggest panoramic roof anyone had ever seen and a voice recognition system — “Hey, BMW, go to the Detroit Institute of Arts” — as good as a smartphone.

Like Versailles, the X7 also doesn’t know when enough is enough. Example: Automatic-folding second row-thrones that were so slow you wished for good ol’ manual-fold seats. And a tailored second-row console that no one used made it harder to get out of the third row.

Cadillac XT6

Not too fancy. Not too macho. Just right.

The Caddy was the only player in the group to feature a sub-400 horsepower, non-V-8 powerplant (310-horse V-6) and front-wheel drive bias. No one seemed to miss them. With a family of five, the consensus was that launch-control out of Woodward Avenue stoplights (my favorite Durango V-8 trick) in a three-row ute is low on the list of priorities.

What was appreciated was the Cadillac’s best-in-test exterior (the XT6 was introduced to the news media this year in an art museum) and quiet, easy-to-use interior. While not dressed to the nines inside like the BMW, the Cadillac nevertheless featured amenities like panoramic sunroof (let there be light for third-row passengers!) and head-up display — while offering extras like a rear-seat warning (if you left a baby seat back there) and easy third-row access.

The XT6 proved that utility is the priority in three-row utes. If you want personality, buy a sports car.

But that begs the question …

Why pay $73,000 for Cadillac when a stylish $51,000 Chevy Traverse or $48,000 Kia Telluride offer the same amenities for a whopping $20,000 less?

Technology has become the great equalizer between luxury and mainstream, and the roomy Traverse and Motor Trend SUV of the Year Telluride come with the same blind-spot assist, adaptive cruise and emergency braking as its pricier peers. Their voice-recognition is no BMW — but like the Cadillac and Dodge, simply connecting Apple CarPlay levels the playing field. Then the mainstream utes add panoramic sunroof, knock-out styling, head-up display (Telluride), one-button third-row access, 20-inch sport wheels and USB ports everywhere.

Yes, yes, brand matters and that’s the Chevy/Kia challenge. But with the tens of thousands you save on a big ute, you can buy an apex-carving, drop-top sports car with loads of personality for when the holidays are over and your better half wants a weekend escape to your favorite restaurant.

I’m thinking Mazda Miata.

2020 Cadillac XT6

Vehicle type: All-wheel drive, 6-passenger SUV

Price: $58,090, including $995 destination charge($73,040 as tested)

Powerplant: 3.6-liter V-6

Power: 310 horsepower, 271 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 9-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.4 seconds (Car and Driver); towing capacity 4,000 pounds

Weight: 4,644 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA est. 17 city/24 highway/20 combined

Report card

Highs: Handsome looks; roomy, quiet interior

Lows: Lacks Cadillac “wow” factor; milquetoast drivetrain

Overall: 3 stars

2020 Dodge Durango SRT

Vehicle type: All-wheel drive, 6-passenger SUV

Price: $64,490, including $1,495 destination charge ($78,235 as tested)

Powerplant: 6.4-liter V-8

Power: 475 horsepower, 470 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.7 seconds (Car and Driver); towing capacity 8,700 pounds

Weight: 5,510 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA est. 13 city/19 highway/15 combined

Report card

Highs: Challenger V-8 under the hood; wicked exterior

Lows: Aging chassis; loud interior

Overall: 3 stars

2020 BMW X7 50i

Vehicle type: All-wheel drive, 6-passenger SUV

Price: $93,595, including $995 destination charge($112,245 as tested)

Powerplant: 4.4-liter twin-turbocharged V-8

Power: 456 horsepower, 479 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.5 seconds (Car and Driver); towing capacity 7,500.

Weight: 5,617 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA est. 15 city/21 highway/17 combined

Report card

Highs: Decadent interior; smartphone-like voice recognition

Lows: Sticker shock; oh, those kidneys!

Overall: 3 stars

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Revealed: The all-new 2021 Chevy Suburban and Tahoe mega-utes

Posted by Talbot Payne on December 12, 2019

GM President Mark Reuss talks about the Chevy Suburban High Country, left, and Chevy Tahoe Z-71 as GM introduces the 2021 models at Little Caesars Arena, Tuesday night, December 10, 2019.

GM President Mark Reuss talks about the Chevy Suburban High Country, left, and Chevy Tahoe Z-71 as GM introduces the 2021 models at Little Caesars Arena, Tuesday night, December 10, 2019. Todd McInturf, The Detroit News

Chevrolet premiered the all-new 2021 Chevrolet Tahoe and Chevrolet Suburban on Tuesday evening. Appropriately, the mega-utes were unveiled in Little Caesars Arena, where giant Detroit Pistons basketball players roam the floorboards.

Based on the Silverado pickup, the twin SUVs have traditionally been the biggest in the land. So it’s not surprising the all-new models are the largest that General Motors has ever made, with the Tahoe increasing cargo room behind the third-row seats by a whopping 66% — and its stretched brother, the Suburban, increasing its total cargo space a healthy 19%.

But taking a page from Pistons’ Goliath-like center Andre Drummond, the twin Chevys also promise to be nimble as they ride on a smooth, independent rear suspension for the first time. Combined with magnetic shocks and air suspension available on the off-road Z51 and High Country trims, the Tahoe-Suburban offer an astonishing range of on-road and off-road capability.

“With the air suspension you can actually lower the truck for people to get in, or you can raise it to go off-road in the snow,” GM President Mark Reuss said in an interview. “But then at speed the truck will lower for better aerodynamics and fuel efficiency. We are were the only ones doing that with MagneRide and air suspension.”

On stage at Little Caesars, Chevy displayed the range of suspension options with a jacked-up Z51 Tahoe and lowered High Country.

Responding to the equally out-sized Ford Expedition (new in 2018), the Suburban and Tahoe have gone on a 300-pound diet from their predecessors. They will share an electrical “digital vehicle platform” with the Corvette so they can receive over-the-air software updates like a smartphone.

Celebrating its 85th birthday as GM’s oldest nameplate, the Suburban has always been the headliner of the pair with its ocean-liner proportions. But the shorter, more affordable Tahoe has been the best-seller, dominating its full-size SUV class sales.

Based on platforms shared with GM’s high-volume Chevy and GMC pickups, the big SUVs are cash cows with prices starting in the low $50,000 range and ballooning to over $80,000 for upper-trim models. They pay tuition for a lot of the General’s nascent electric-vehicle education. The Suburban and Tahoe will go on sale in the middle of the 2020 season.

Tahoe led the way in large SUVs in last year in sales of more than 104,000. The Suburban followed at 60,633 and the Expedition was a distant third at 54,661. Among foreign brands, only Nissan (the Armada) and Toyota (the Sequoia) try to compete, but with much smaller sales numbers.

This year is a different story: Remade with a twin-turbo V-6 and upgraded technology, the Expedition – based on the F-150 pickup — has come roaring back through the first three quarters of 2019. It has leap-frogged the Suburban in sales, and trails the Tahoe by 62,155 to 80,103.

The new Tahoe and Suburban aim to put the Expedition back in its place.

The big tanks will fight on a considerably lighter, stronger platforms courtesy of the Silverado which countered F-150’s move to aluminum with an athletic, lightweight, mixed-metal architecture. The new chassis allows for lower load floors for batter cargo and seating position. The second-row seats, for example, gain a whopping 10 inches in added legroom with segment-first sliding second-row seats for even more flexibility.

“With an increasing number of SUVs on the market, we knew the all-new Tahoe and Suburban needed to reach higher than ever,” said product chief Tim Herrick. “We transformed Tahoe and Suburban to offer all-new technologies and features.”

While both vehicles gain over 4 inches in wheelbase, the Tahoe’s overall length stretches a yawning 6.7 inches to claim 25% more cargo space than the Expedition.

These big beasts are motivated by familiar push-rod V-8 engines — a standard 5.3-liter dynoed at 355 horses, and a 6.2-liter boasting best-in-class 420 horsepower.

The eight-cylinders will be joined for the first time by the class’s only turbodiesel: the same Duramax 3.0-liter inline 6-cylinder offered in the Silverado 1500. Chevy expects it will receive an EPA best-in-segment mpg rating (Silverado makes a best-in-full-size-pickup 33 mpg highway). The diesel’s stump-pulling 460 pound-feet of torque equal the 6.2-liter V-8.

The interior will bristle with technology, including a standard 10-inch console touchscreen with standard Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, WiFi hotspot connectivity and up to nine cameras for enhanced towing capability.

“The interior 10.8-inch screen is really nicely integrated from a design standpoint,” said Reuss. “Everyone assumed we’d have the same interiors of our pickup trucks, but we don’t. Between Chevy, GMC and Cadillac the interiors are all completely different. They are different and we spent the money to be different.”

Work through a record six trims — double the last generation — and a toy chest of goodies are available including a 15-inch color head-up display and dual 12.6-inch rear-seat LCD touchscreens.

All this brain and brawn is wrapped in an exterior that is a mild face-lift over the current version. Like the Silverado pickup, the Suburban fascia gets thinner LED headlights atop its massive split grille with signature LED running-light “cheeks” giving the big brute a cheery appearance.

In addition to the familiar volume LS and up-level LT  trims, Tahoe and Suburban will be available in four more distinct personalities:

“We’re offering multiple trims, like our pickups. No one else is doing it,” said Reuss. “RST, Z51, High Country. We’re looking to grow the segment.”

The Tahoe and Suburban will roll off the assembly line in Arlington, Texas, alongside the GMC Yukon and Cadillac Escalade. They are the product of a $1.4 billion plant investment that supports 4,800 employees, 1450 body-shop robots and daily production of 1200 vehicles.

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As Ford, Chevy exit sedan market, Asian makers gain share

Posted by Talbot Payne on December 12, 2019

Joe Busch, sales consultant at LaFontaine Hyundai in Dearborn, wipes the ice off of a 2020 Elantra SEL Tuesday. Hyundai saw sales of its compact car increase 102% this November over last year.

Joe Busch, sales consultant at LaFontaine Hyundai in Dearborn, wipes the ice off of a 2020 Elantra SEL Tuesday. Hyundai saw sales of its compact car increase 102% this November over last year. (Photo: Max Ortiz, The Detroit News)

Phoenix — A year after Ford and Chevrolet abandoned the compact-car segment to prioritize SUVs, buyers are abandoning those makes and shopping for cars made by Hyundai, Toyota and Honda.

Some 42% of Ford Focus and Chevy Cruze compact car owners have stayed in the compact car segment with a significant percentage buying competitors’ vehicles, according to an industry study by Edmunds that finds a deterioration of market share for the Detroit makes, and a decline in brand loyalty.

Hyundai, for example, saw sales of its Elantra compact car increase 102% this November over last year. The brand has also introduced an all-new 2020 mid-size Sonata that — like the all-new Toyota Camry and Honda Accord introduced in 2018 — the automaker hopes will capture buyers who still want sedans.

“There are 6.5 million car owners who do not have a successor sedan for them from their manufacturer. Forty-four percent of those say they want a sedan, so if you look at the raw numbers, there are still a lot of buyers out here,” Hyundai Vice President of Product Planning Mike O’Brien said at a media test of the new Sonata in Phoenix.

He noted that since Chrysler dropped its 200 sedan after the 2017 model year, there’s been an exodus of 20 nameplates from the sedan market.

The Edmunds study focused in particular on compact cars, which is the biggest car market – at 9.1% of share – in the United States today. The Ford Focus and Chevy Cruze have both left the segment in the last year as the Detroit makers concentrate on market demand for SUVs.

To be sure, a healthy share of former Focus and Cruze owners are acting as Ford and Chevy hoped: by moving into one of their SUVs. To date this year, 18% of Focus owners traded for a Ford SUV, while 21% of Cruze owners traded for a Chevy SUV.

But those buyers tend to have extra cash to spend as small SUVs can cost between $4,000-$8,000 more than a small car, reports Edmunds. As a result, those staying in the compact car segment are increasingly turning to the remaining foreign brands.

Dearborn is home to Ford’s headquarters. It also is home to Metro Detroit’s largest Hyundai dealer, LaFontaine Hyundai — a distinction driven, in part, by customers’ desire for a compact alternative to the discontinued Focus.

“We’ve seen a lot of interest in the Elantra since Ford left the compact market,” said Lafontaine sales manager Steve Hunsinger. The Elantra is prominently featured on the dealership’s website.

Determined to compete in the Detroit Three’s backyard, Hyundai matches Ford’s friends-and-family discount by offering Michigan buyers its own employees’ discount. Hunsinger says that, in addition to meeting demand for an affordable compact, the Elantra also benefits from Hyundai’s best-in-industry, 10-year/100,000-mile drivetrain warranty.

“Ford and GM made a strategic decision to prioritize profit at the expense of market share,” said Edmunds auto analyst Jessica Caldwell. “While this may set them up better in the long run so they have the cash they need to fund electrification and autonomy, there’s no question that decision is giving their competitors an edge now.”

Focus owners trading in their car to buy another Ford vehicle decreased from 40% in 2016, to 33%  in 2019. The drop in brand loyalty has been steeper among Cruze owners — from 57% of owners trading in for a Chevy in 2016, to 45% this year.

Asian carmakers have benefited: the Honda Civic picked up 4% of former Focus buyers, the Toyota Corolla 3.5% and Hyundai Elantra 2.3%. Cruze trade-ins for Civics and Corollas nearly doubled from 2016 to 2019.

More: The racy Honda Civic Si just wants to have fun

More: Toyota Corolla Hatchback is wallflower no more

With the termination of the Ford Fusion and reported demise of the Chevy Malibu in a few years, foreign makers are hoping for the same playbook in midsize sedans.

That may be a tougher sell, given that midsize sedan sales have plummeted from 17% to 8% of market share.

But, says Hyundai’s O’Brien, “Not everyone hates their sedan. We see a healthy outlook for the future.”  He points to the 6.6 million Honda Accords that are on the road, and the 7.2 million Toyota Camrys, 3.9 million Nissan Altimas and 2.2 million Hyundai Sonatas.

The Detroit Three have the profitable full-size pickup market virtually to themselves.  But the midsize-pickup market can be seen as a test case for brands that abandon whole segments: Ford left the declining mid-size pickup market in 2012 only to return in 2019 with Toyota’s Tacoma dominant. Since re-entry, Ranger hasn’t been able to command the share it once did — but it boasts a 49% higher price that’s in line with the company’s profit-focused strategy.

Asian automakers are hardly sedan-dependent. Toyota, Honda and Nissan lead the compact SUV segment where most mid-size sedan buyers have fled. Hyundai is prolific in SUV markets as well, becoming one of the first automakers to introduce three entry-level models – the compact Tucson, subcompact-plus Kona and subcompact Venue coming next year.

Tucson sales are up 116% in November, the Kona up 106%.

But given the higher prices of SUVs over cars, Asian automakers see the compact-sedan market as crucial to attracting first-time, low-income buyers into their brands.

“The catch is, if Ford and GM don’t have affordable options for shoppers who are buying their first or second new car, it could be much harder to win them over later,” said Edmunds analyst Caldwell. “Catching consumers early and keeping them in the family has been a basic tenet of automotive brand strategy for decades. But it feels like we’re in the midst of a transformative time for the industry where automakers are being forced to rethink everything. Time will tell if it will end up the right call in the long run.”

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Payne: Infiniti quickens the pulse with all-season Q60 looker

Posted by Talbot Payne on December 6, 2019

The Infiniti Q60 Red Sport 400 (as in 400 horsepower) is a fun drive on track with its all-wheel-drive power and slippery 0.28 drag-coefficient. At over 4,000 pounds, the all-wheel drive model is heavy.

The Infiniti Q60 Red Sport 400 (as in 400 horsepower) is a fun drive on track with its all-wheel-drive power and slippery 0.28 drag-coefficient. At over 4,000 pounds, the all-wheel drive model is heavy. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

The Infiniti Q60 Red Sport 400 is another mouthful of luxury alphanumeric badging that will make your brain hurt.

Just remember that Q60 rhymes with “cue sexy.”

Infiniti has come a long way from the somnolent 1989 ads that introduced the brand — not with footage of sleek cars — but with quietly narrated commercials about water and geese. I’m not making this up. Thirty years later the growly, aggressive, shapely Q60 has no patience for water. Or geese.

Cresting the curvy hills of west Oakland county, I toggled the Q60’s drive mode to Sport Plus and put pedal to metal. Four-hundred horses under the hood roared in unison, the quick seven-speed transmission firing off shifts like a shotgun. Hustling into a tight bend, I flicked through downshifts as the exhaust barked loudly.

If a flock of geese was anywhere nearby, it would have scattered. Cue sexy.

How sexy? The Q60 Red Sport 400 (400 signals 400 horsepower) is now one of the official driving-school cars of the terrific M1 Concourse test track in Pontiac. Right alongside M1’s ferocious, 700-plus-horsepower Dodge Charger and Challenger Hellcats, and earth-pawing Viper ACR.

Red Sport, Hellcat, Viper. That’s a lot of underworld references. You get the point. This isn’t your father’s Infiniti.

It’s taken a long time, but Nissan’s luxury brand has finally produced a halo coupe with personality, style and twin-turbo V-6 power. All that sexiness still sits on top of Nissan’s aged rear-wheel drive FM platform which has been the bones of everything from the Nissan 370Z to the late Infiniti G35.

If the Japanese brand can stick with its nomenclature and update its platforms over time, it has a chance to bottle a credible formula of emotion and value.

Start with the fundamentals. The Red Sport’s powerful baritone comes from the same twin-turbo V-6 found in the base coupe that puts out a detuned 300 horses. Infiniti then wraps this playful mill in its updated, head-turning Infiniti design (also found in the compact QX30 ute of all things). The hood and flanks are deeply scalloped. The lines flow to all the right places over 20-inch wheels.

With its lower hood and grille, these new cars eschew the heavy, swollen-cheek appearance of other Infiniti models that reminded me of Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor. It wasn’t a memorable look. The Q’s pouty grille (essentially an inverted Jaguar mouth) is flanked by angry, LED running lights that glow with menace in your rearview mirror.

Sitting next to a hippy $90,000 Lexus LC500 coupe in the M1 Concourse paddock, the Infiniti holds its own.

Slip inside and the premium vibe dulls. The sculpted door handles continue the sinewy lines of the exterior, but the old Infiniti FM architecture shows its age in the console and instrument panels. If you cross-shop with state-of the-art digital interiors from BMW or Audi, you’ll be taken back in time. There’s an old-school truck brake for the emergency brake. Analog displays and screens are from another era, though they make up in utility what they lack in modernity.

The dual-stacked screens remind of old Honda Accords (the 2019 version of that mainstream sedan shames the Infiniti’s interior architecture), but they work together nicely — separating navigation and radio/vehicle information that now have to co-exist on state-of-the-art tablet displays of competitors.

The Q60 may lack the digital pizzazz of its class peers, but it’s up to date on the latest digital driver-assistance features like pedestrian emergency braking, blind-spot assist, and adaptive cruise-control (or Intelligent Cruise Control in Infiniti-speak). After I’d had my jollies at M1 Concourse and exhausted Oakland County’s twisties on my way home, I merged into clogged highways where the adaptive cruise system is useful in maintaining a distance from other cars — and from (ahem) state police speeding tickets.

Even the navigation system — usually a horror show in vehicles these days — was reasonably competent, and Nissan provides a remote control knob for zooming in or out depending on the destination. Still, the option of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto app compatibility for superior phone navigation is a must, and here Infiniti lags. Compatible systems aren’t due for another couple of years.

Mrs. Payne, my right-seat navigation expert, groaned at Apple CarPlay’s absence. But she didn’t groan at the price.

Loaded to the gills with all-wheel drive, digital goo-gaws and two-tone leather interior, my racy coupe stickered for $62,000 — a healthy $20,000 cheaper than a comparable BMW M4 coupe. For the M4’s stratospheric $80,000 you could walk out of the Nissan/Infiniti dealership with a Red Sport and a low mileage, pre-owned Nissan Rogue for off-the-grid hatchback adventures for which a sports coupe is ill-equipped.

What the Q60 is equipped for is getting your pulse racing.

The all-wheel drive Red Sport is nicely screwed to the road, meaning you can get into the throttle — and that glorious 7-speed box — confidently at corner exits. Corner entry is more a challenge given the all-wheel drive car’s 4,000-pound heft. If you enjoy track days, you’ll want the lighter (if still porky) 3,866-pound rear-drive car.

If you’re buying an all-season sports tourer, then the all-wheel driver is a must for Midwest snows.

Frankly, that’s where the Q60 Red Sport’s value lies.

If you have $60,000 to drop on a performance coupe, then lust after a rear-wheel drive, 405-horse BMW M2 or 500-horse Mustang GT350. They are quicker on track and carry epic brand histories.

But their fun ends with the first flakes of winter. If you want an all-season, all-wheel drive sports car that’s easy on the eyes — and the wallet — then the Infiniti is a solid choice. Compared to its AWD peer group — the 349-horsepower Audi S5 or 305-horse Lexus RC 350 F Sport AWD , the Infiniti is the only one to crest the magic 400-pony mark.

Most importantly, that means the Infiniti will walk away from its Japanese rivals. Pity that message didn’t shine through back in 1989 when Lexus advertised cars, not geese, and launched one of the America’s most coveted luxury brands.

Nice to have Infiniti finally in the game. Cue Sexy.

2019 Infiniti Q60 Red Sport 400

Vehicle type: Rear or all-wheel drive, 4-passenger sports coupe

Price: $55,895, including $995 destination charge ($64,130 AWD as tested)

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

Power: 400 horsepower, 350 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 7-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.5 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 155 mph

Weight: 3,882 pounds (4,047 AWD as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA est. 19 city/27 highway/22 combined

Report card

Highs: Slinky looks; AWD, all-season athlete

Lows: Dated interior; porky on scales

Overall: 3 stars

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After Mustang SUV, calls for Corvette SUV grow

Posted by Talbot Payne on December 6, 2019

Speculation about a Corvette-badged SUV led Car and Driver magazine to come up with its own rendition of what a Corvette SUV might look like.

Speculation about a Corvette-badged SUV led Car and Driver magazine to come up with its own rendition of what a Corvette SUV might look like. (Photo: Alexander Stoklosa, Car and Driver)

An electric Mustang SUV will hit dealerships late next year. When will Corvette follow suit?

The positively received debut of Ford’s battery-powered Mustang Mach-E in Los Angeles last month (with the automaker hinting that it could develop a full Mustang sub-brand) has turned up the heat on Chevrolet to expand its Corvette lineup as well.

Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas has added his name to a chorus of voices calling for General Motors to create a Corvette sub-brand making SUVs. He estimates the sub-brand could be worth $7 billion to $12 billion, and says a battery-powered, Corvette-badged vehicle would help GM convince customers that electric vehicles are a desirable performance option.

Just this year, ex-GM vice chairman of product development Bob Lutz as well as Car and Driver magazine urged GM to create a Corvette sub-brand. Their case builds on a Detroit News story that went viral two years ago.

In answer to repeated News inquiries as the whether GM has studied the idea, company executives and spokespeople have said “We do not comment on future product.” Intriguingly, however, when GM CEO Mary Barra was queried on the topic by Morgan Stanley’s Jonas in a quarterly earnings call last month, she replied: “Well, I appreciate that you think our Corvette franchise is very strong. I’m not going to talk about the future.”

Porsche was the first sports car brand to translate its DNA to sport utility vehicles. The Cayenne SUV was controversial when it rolled out 16 years ago, especially among Porsche faithful. But the move has been a huge hit. Today Porsche SUVs are the brand’s best sellers, and analysts estimate Porsche is responsible for one-third of Volkswagen Group’s profits.

Nearly every other performance brand has followed suit, including Lamborghini, Jaguar, Alfa Romeo and Ferrari. Aston Martin was the most recent sports-car brand to enter the fray when it unveiled the DBX crossover last month in Los Angeles.

But Mustang is different in that it has been a performance badge in the Ford stable since its introduction as an affordable sports coupe in 1965. Nevertheless, Ford hints that it could expand a Mustang sub-brand.

Ford introduced the 2021 Mustang Mach-E, an electric SUV, in November.

Ford introduced the 2021 Mustang Mach-E, an electric SUV, in November. (Photo: Max Ortiz, The Detroit News)

“There’s a lot of emotion with the Mustang, and it’s time to progress that and make it spread wider,” Ford Europe design boss Murat Gueler said in an interview with British magazine Autocar. “We’ve talked about building a family.”

Morgan Stanley’s Jonas envisions a similar future for Chevy’s Corvette sub-brand.

“The Ford Mustang Mach-E unveil stands as a clear precedent with relevance to Corvette,” Jonas wrote in a comprehensive case study. “The Mach-E extends the Mustang brand into an all-new powertrain, segment and consumer base.”

Former GM vice chair Lutz told the News in 2017 that “Corvette is a powerful brand that should be developed. Go upmarket with a mid-engine sedan (or) something like Cayenne. They would split it off from Chevrolet — nobody makes that connection anyway.”

Chevrolet's mid-engine 2020 Corvette Stingray debuted in July.

Lutz expanded on those statements this summer in an interview with Automotive News: “If I were there, what I would do is develop a dedicated architecture, super-lightweight, super-powerful, Porsche Cayenne-like, only much better and a little bigger, medium-volume Corvette SUV.”

Auto enthusiast publication Car and Driver followed up with a rendering of a front-engine Corvette SUV with a hood scoop, coupe-like roof, and entry price of about $70,000. “We also think it’s a no-brainer for Chevy to expand the Corvette brand beyond just the titular model,” wrote the influential publication.

“While the risk of brand dilution has always existed, Porsche has managed this delicate relationship of scarcity vs. volume growth particularly well, which has been reflected in financials,” he wrote. “Today Porsche sells across a variety of segments.”

Just two years after Porsche launched the Cayenne in 2003, the mid-size SUV represented 28% of brand volume – a number that has ballooned to 50% today with the introduction of a second crossover, the Macan.

Jonas sees a Corvette SUV — along with increased demand for its first-ever mid-engine C8 sports car — leading to an increase in Corvette volume to 85,000 units by 2025 with a bullish market valuation of $12 billion.

Retired GM engineer Tom Wallace ran the Corvette program from 2006-2008 and says the company closely tracks rivals’ development.

“When I was Corvette chief, we often studied the Porsche business model and product line-up, and were generally impressed,” he told The News. “The fact that they have done the Cayenne and stuck with it is a vote of confidence that such a vehicle can be a success.”

Industry experts say the challenges to expanding Corvette’s offerings beyond a single model are many, including a fear that a Corvette SUV would cannibalize sales from Cadillac.

A Corvette SUV would require a different platform than the mid-engine C8 — at substantial cost.

“To be successful, this vehicle would require an all-new RWD/AWD architecture, which currently does not exist,” Lutz told The News. “That’s high investment for relatively low volume.”

That has led to speculation that the Corvette could share GM’s “skateboard” electric-vehicle platform currently being developed for Cadillac beginning in 2021. GM has promised an all-EV future with Cadillac its flag-bearer, but Jonas sees an opening for Corvette.

“Electric Corvette would … help to convince customers that EVs are desirable from a point of view of speed, range and performance,” he writes. “We see room for Corvette to be a part of GM’s EV strategy and complement the existing gap of models across Cadillac and select Chevrolet models currently.”

With the Mustang Mach-E coming next year, and the electric Porsche Taycan sedan already being shipped, GM will surely be watching closely.

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Payne: Porsche puts its DNA in an EV with the electrifying Taycan sedan

Posted by Talbot Payne on December 2, 2019

The Porsche Taycan Turbo S carved up Angeles Crest road north of Los Angeles.

The Porsche Taycan Turbo S carved up Angeles Crest road north of Los Angeles. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

Tesla pioneered the high-performance electric vehicle. The Porsche Taycan has put it on steroids.

The Tesla Model S caught the automotive world flat-footed in 2012. It could shoot from zero-60 mph in under 3 seconds and whip around interstate cloverleafs as if on rails.

Suddenly, EVs were cool. But while other legacy automakers scrambled to catch up to innovations like iPad-sized touchscreens, mega-batteries and on-air software upgrades, Porsche focused on raw speed.

With the Taycan, Porsche has set a new standard beyond Tesla’s Ludicrous-mode performance benchmarks. You know that because Tesla chief Elon Musk is camped out at Germany’s Nurburgring track trying to beat the Taycan’s lap time.

Raw speed is what the Stuttgart-based manufacturer has been doing for the last six decades. Significantly, Taycan does not go head-to-head against Tesla on autonomous driving, charging networks and minimalist big-screen interiors.

The Taycan is a market of one — a $100,000-plus electric four-door sports sedan boasting Porsche 911-like performance characteristics well above comparable EVs. It’s an EV for Porsche-philes.

Porsche is deserving of its reputation. Scott Burgess, one of my predecessors in this seat, advises journalists to grab a Porsche at least once a year to reacquaint themselves with the driving standard. When I asked K.C. Colwell, Car and Driver’s skilled test driver, which car stood out at the magazine’s legendary Virginia International Raceway Lightning Lap this year (a performance-car showdown including notables like the McLaren Senna and Mercedes-AMG GT63 S), he didn’t hesitate.

“The Porsche 911 GT3,” he said.

When I tested the mid-engine 2020 Chevy Corvette last month, I compared it to the Porsche Cayman, the best mid-engine sports car under $100,000 I’ve ever driven.

Now Taycan is the EV gold standard. Developed by Porsche’s mid-engine chassis team, think of it as a 5,200-pound electric Cayman.

The Taycan’s capabilities are welcome news for us motorheads. Automakers are evolving into highly regulated utilities as governments dictate their drivetrain choices. Michigan says DTE Energy must get 15% of its energy from wind power by 2021. California says about 8% of carmakers’ product must be electric by 2025.

For most automakers, that’s a chore. But for a select few performance shops — Porsche, Tesla, Audi — the EV is an opportunity to explore the envelope of battery propulsion.

We’re talking serious giddyap.

I will never forget my first launch in a Tesla Model S P90D in Ludicrous mode. My brain slapped against the back of my skull by instant 100% torque in the 2.6 OMG seconds it took to get from 0-60.

The Taycan offers the same concussive acceleration in its top-drawer 772-torque Turbo S, which explodes to 60 in a mere 2.6 ticks.

Mash the brake and accelerator pedals to the mat in launch-control mode as you would in a gas-powered 911 — wait a moment for instrument panel approval — then release brake. Zot!

Also familiar is Porsche’s naming convention. Porsche wants you to know its EV has turbo-like capability. It calls the Taycan’s top-drawer trims “Turbo” and “Turbo S” just like the 911 and Panamera, even though EVs don’t use turbochargers like gas cars. (Taycan even options a guttural hum that mimics internal-combustion engine sound.) Porsche wants you to know its EV has turbo-like capability.

That capability is most apparent in the chassis dynamics.

This 5,121-pound beast is nailed to the road. Scraping myself off the seatback after the rocket-launch acceleration, my 760-horse Turbo S hurtled toward corners with alarming pace only to be brought back to earth by huge, 10-pot calipers clawing at ceramic brake discs. Then, miraculously, the Taycan would hug corner apexes as if they were magnets.

Credit Goodyear Eagle II summer rubber as wide as the slicks on my old Porsche 908 racer (12 inches rear, 10.5 inches front). It has the the same all-wheel steer, all-wheel-drive suspension magic that makes 911 the world’s best-handling coupe and the 4,500-pound Panamera GTS feel half its size.

But also credit battery physics. Instead of the low-slung “Boxer” 4- or 6-cylinder engine  in a Cayman or 911, Taycan pilots sit atop an enormous 94-kWh battery between the wheels.

Porsche has ridden to glory on low-center gravity Boxer engines for decades. Low-slung lithium-ion battery packs fit the formula perfectly. Indeed, Porsche says the Taycan’s center of gravity is three inches lower than a 911, already one of the best in the industry.

The Taycan’s purpose is reinforced by its tapered coupe roofline low nose and tear-drop headlights. Inside, there’s more rear-seat room in a Tesla Model 3 Performance than a Taycan, a reminder the Porsche is a compact sedan, not a mid-size grand tourer like Panamera.

Passengers will be treated to Porsche’s most advanced cockpit yet. Curved glass instrument panel, buttonless touchscreen and keyless entry are harbingers of Porsche interiors to come. But there is no big Tesla touchscreen here (a second dash screen is optional for the front passenger to fiddle with) that can plot the Porsche’s route to the company’s own network of superchargers across the country.

Porsche’s dependence on a hodgepodge of charging networks — Chargepoint, dealer lots, EVGo, Electrify America — is a reminder of Tesla’s ace in the hole: its proprietary charging infrastructure.

Porsche boasts the industry’s only 800-kW charge system (good for 80% charge at 270-kW in just 22 minutes), assuming you can find an 270-kW-capable Electrify America charger in the Midwest.

The Porsche’s interior signature is its drive-mode selector in the middle of the steering wheel with settings for Range, Normal, Sport and Sport Plus. This car wants to be driven fast.

I flogged the Turbo S unmercifully over Angeles Crest twisties and Los Angeles interstates. I arrived at my destination after 174 miles, having taken just 178 miles of the battery. That’s next-level thermal management.

Where the Taycan excels is in its purity, with exquisite craftsmanship and meticulous engineering.

If all that’s worth your paying $100,000 more for a Taycan than a Model 3 Performance, then you fit Porsche’s demographic. Steroids don’t come cheap.

2020 Porsche Taycan Turbo S

Vehicle type: All-wheel drive, 5-passenger sedan

Price: Starter 4S $105,150, including $1,350 destination charge (Turbo S starts at $186,350; about $198,000 as tested)

Powerplant: Lithium-ion battery pack mated to dual electric motors

Power: 750 horsepower, 774 pound-feet torque

Transmission: Two-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 2.6 seconds (mfr.); top speed, 161 mph

Weight: 5,121 pounds

Range: 246 miles on full charge

Report card

Highs: Sports car handling despite weight; distinctive looks

Lows: Gets pricey; tight back seat

Overall: 4 stars

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Detroit GP 2020: IndyCar champ kicks off ticket sales

Posted by Talbot Payne on November 27, 2019

The 2020 Detroit Grand Prix will feature IndyCars (foreground) and the Historic Trans Am Series with cars like the 1960 Camaro Trans Am (background).

The 2020 Detroit Grand Prix will feature IndyCars (foreground) and the Historic Trans Am Series with cars like the 1960 Camaro Trans Am (background). (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

Detroit — It’s November in Detroit but racing enthusiasts are already warming up for Detroit Grand Prix IndyCars.

Reigning IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden was in town Tuesday to kick off ticket sales for the 2020 Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear as the IndyCar circus roars back to Detroit May 29-31. The event will kick off a June full of big events, including the PGA Tour’s Rocket Mortgage Classic, the Detroit Auto Show and Ford Fireworks.

The race weekend will boast a jam-packed schedule including the only doubleheader IndyCar race on the calendar, the IMSA Weathertech SportsCar race, Trans Am Series, and the inaugural Historic Trans Am Series race featuring legendary muscle cars of the 1960s and 1970s.

“It’s like Christmas here in Detroit when we start ticket sales,” said Newgarden.

The Penske driver is coming off his second title in three years.

“I never thought that would be something that would happen,” he said. “For sure a highlight of last season was Detroit — being able to win the first duel. We tried to follow it up on Sunday and win the second race but didn’t quite make it happen. So we have some room for improvement in 2020.”

Scott Dixon, one of Newgarden’s closest title rivals, won the second race last year.

In addition to kicking off Detroit’s summer calendar, the Detroit Grand Prix will be run for the first time under Penske Corporation’s IndyCar ownership. Penske purchased the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (home of the Indy 500 a week before Belle Isle) and the NTT IndyCar Series in a stunning deal announced earlier this month. Penske has organized the Belle Isle races since their debut in 2007 – and the 2020 event will the ninth consecutive running of the Dual in Detroit.

Team Penske will enter three cars in the NTT IndyCar race.

Penske’s Acura SportsCar team will compete in the IMSA Weathertech race. And the Historic Trans Am race likely will be awash in classic Penske Camaros and Javelins as The Captain and crew dominated Trans Am racing in the 1960s-early 1970s. The series will recreate those days of thunder as period-perfect Chevy Camaros, GMC Javelins, Ford Mustangs, Plymouth Barracudas, Pontiac Firebirds, and Dodge Challengers will go wheel-to-wheel on Belle Isle’s street circuit.

“We know how passionate people are in Detroit about classic cars and Motor City muscle, and the Historic Trans Am Series features some of the coolest and most powerful cars in racing history,” said Bud Denker, Detroit Grand Prix chairman and Penske president.

Newgarden took a moment Tuesday to fire up the 5.0-liter V-8 of a 1969 Camaro that will compete at Belle Isle.

IndyCar and IMSA Weathertech have led a resurgence in open wheel and sports car racing in the U.S., even as NASCAR numbers have fallen. IndyCar viewers were up 9 percent this year via NBC TV and online broadcasts. Eyeballs for IMSA increased 35 percent this year.

About 95,000 spectators crossed the Belle Isle bridge in 2019, even as severe weather and lightning postponed Saturday activities.

Tickets for the 2020 Detroit Grand Prix can be purchased online at DetroitGP.com/Tickets, through the ticket hotline at 866-464-PRIX (7749) or at the Grand Prix box office in downtown’s GM Renaissance Center.

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What Ford F-150 owners think of the Tesla Cybertruck

Posted by Talbot Payne on November 27, 2019

Ford F-150 owners were impressed by the Tesla Cybertruck's claimed performance. But they worry about battery range and reliability.

Ford F-150 owners were impressed by the Tesla Cybertruck’s claimed performance. But they worry about battery range and reliability. (Photo: Tesla)

And now for something completely different.

A Los Angeles Auto show that started with a Ford Mustang Mach-E electric crossover taking on the Tesla Model Y, ended with Tesla in its familiar position: introducing a vehicle unlike any seen before.

The Tesla Cybertruck pickup caught the automotive world by surprise with its daring sci-fi design, segment-busting performance figures and competitive $39,000 starting price. Conversations with Metro Detroit Ford F-150 enthusiasts indicate the Tesla has their attention. But when it comes to purchase, these users all got hung up on familiar concerns about electric vehicles.

More than perhaps any other vehicle, owners of pickups raise concerns about battery range and reliability compared to gas-powered mainstays.

Detroit auto companies these days are noticeably insecure when it comes to Silicon Valley EVs and autonomous vehicles. They, too, want to be the cool kids on the block. So Ford cheekily launched its first electric SUV, the Ford Mustang Mach-E, at LA’s Hawthorne Airport right under the nose of Tesla’s design studio. The glitzy launch event featured movie star Idris Elba interviewing Ford CEO Bill Ford. Consumers applauded.

Then Tesla reminded everyone how it was done.

“The Mach E was a familiar auto industry reveal,” said Tim Stevens, an auto reviewer with C-NET’s “Roadshow” who used to cover Silicon Valley electronics. “Tesla is probably 95 percent Tesla faithful in the room, emotions are very high. Musk presents the truck and all of a sudden they are hitting it with a sledgehammer. It’s a very different sort of event.”

The Tesla show was populated with lightning-shooting Tesla coils and screaming Tesla employees dressed in sci-fi costumes. When Musk strode on stage, says TFLTruck expert Roman Mica, he was greeted with screams of “I want to have your baby!” and “I want to marry you!” That doesn’t happen to other industry executives.

Then things really got crazy. Musk introduced a stainless-steel triangular pickup that looked like it had come off a Hollywood sci-fi movie set. After demolishing a Ford F150 door, Tesla designer Franz Von Holzhausen turned his sledgehammer on the Cybertruck’s doors and then chucked steel balls at its windows to prove its toughness.

Musk infamously failed in proving the shatterproof quality of the Cybertruck’s “armored glass” – two windows yielded to steel balls – but such glass is not unknown to the industry. Ford itself was the first to use shatterproof Gorilla Glass on its Ford GT supercar.

The rollout was crazy, yes. But it was also an acknowledgment by Tesla that its space-age truck has to address conventional concerns valued by Detroit Three pickup owners: toughness, performance and versatility.

Ford, Chevrolet and Ram brands have ridden these attributes to dominate the biggest vehicle segment in the United States. Musk is desperate to penetrate the truck truck market to show the mass sales-potential of EVs. On the toughness front, F-150 owners I talked with were impressed by Musk’s demonstration – unconventional as it was.

They were well aware of the Cybertruck after Musk’s circus show. They were unfamiliar with Rivian, Bollinger and Lordstown Motors, the other electric trucks hoping to gain traction in the pickup space.

When Ford introduced its aluminum-body F-150 four years ago, Chevy responded in a similar manner as Tesla: by dropping a toolbox on an F-150 truck bed and puncturing it. By contrast, the Silverado’s bed is made from rolled-steel. The Cybertruck’s skin is stainless steel.

My trucker focus group liked Tesla’s macho, including claimed payload (3,500 pounds) and towing (14,000 pounds) — figures that beat the Detroit Three. At $39,000 for a rear-wheel-drive model, they liked that the Tesla was priced competitively, unlike the Rivian and Bollinger trucks that are north of $70,000.

But where truckers get cold feet is in the practical application of those numbers. The Ford F-150, for example, sold nearly a million copies last year because of its gas-powered versatility.

At TFLTruck, which tests vehicles on Colorado’s challenging landscape, Mica and his team have been testing Tesla’s Model X SUV with a claimed 4,980-pound towing capability – healthy for a mid-sized SUV. But with 2,000 pounds behind it, TFLTruck finds the Model X gets just 30 percent of its predicted 325 miles of range.

For an Oakland County-based construction worker commuting 100 miles to a job site in, say, Ann Arbor, that can be an issue. To an outdoorsman driving up north on a fishing trip to the Manistee River outside Grayling, the lack of charging infrastructure in rural America is concerning. For an electrician working out of his truck in winter cold at a facility without power, battery life is a worry. The concerns translate to other battery-powered trucks entering the market as well.

Those concerns mirror the people who have tested my Tesla Model 3.

Interestingly, my truck experts did not flinch at the Cybertruck’s styling. In fact, they found it refreshing. Technologically curious by nature, these Ford faithful were intrigued by the Tesla’s electronic wizardry. Put the Cybertruck design back-to-back with an F-150 and it looks like it arrived here from the future.

That said, they balked at the Cybertruck’s steep bed sides that would make it difficult to pitch shovelfuls of mulch into an open bed. The innovative midsize Honda Ridgeline introduced a similarly innovative design in 2006 and was met with poor sales.

At the Cybertruck reveal, Musk’s 1976 Lotus Esprit was on display. The angular sports car, which was used in the filming of the “The Spy Who Loved Me,” helped inspire the Cybertruck’s unique looks.

At the Ford reveal, a picture of the 1914 Detroit Electric vehicle that Henry Ford’s wife, Clara, drove was prominently displayed. Innovative and quiet, the Detroit Electric EV failed to sell next to Ford’s popular, gas-powered Model T because it lacked range and affordability.

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Chevy’s Trailblazer is back as a stylish subcompact crossover

Posted by Talbot Payne on November 21, 2019

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer RS

Los Angeles – The Chevy Trailblazer is back, and it’s had an extreme makeover. Abandoned by Chevy as truck-based, V-8 powered family SUV in 2009, the Trailblazer has returned for 2020 as a stylish, unibody-based subcompact SUV that fits into Chevy’s SUV lineup between the subcompact Trax and compact Equinox.

Think of it as the baby Blazer.

Just as the Chevy Blazer offers a sexier two-row SUV to complement the more pedestrian, volume-selling Equinox, so does Trailblazer offer a more stylish (check out the ACTIV adventure trim) is particularly striking., more-contented version of Chevy’s wee entry-level Trax.

If that sounds like the Buick Encore GX (positioned above the smaller Encore) that was also revealed this week at the Los Angeles Auto Show, it is. The Trailblazer will be built in Korea on the same stretched, front-wheel drive subcompact platform as the GX – and share its new, turbocharged 1.2-liter and 1.3-liter engines.

The Trailblazer demonstrates GM’s strategic shift away from sedans to concentrate on SUVs. The compact Cruze sedan is no more – replaced now by three subcompact and compact SUVs: Trax, Trailblazer and Equinox.

The Trailblazer is not alone, competing with other automakers who also see white space between subcompact and compact SUVs. The “subcompact-plus” Jeep Compass, Nissan Rogue Sport, Encore GX, Kia Seltos and Mazda CX-30 have also recently joined the segment — the latter pair also introduced here in Los Angeles.

The Trailblazer will blaze a trail to dealer lots around spring 2020. Pricing is expected to start at under $20,000. Which means its will start cheaper than the Trax despite being bigger. Go figure.

The Trailblazer brings what the market wants – a high-riding seat position and optional all-wheel drive for snow-belt winters. The new ute even wants to live up to its name with an ACTIV trim that is tricked out with muscled shoulders, Hankook Sport Terrain tires, higher ground clearance and shock tuning when traveling off-road.

Its youthful white “turret top” will draw immediate comparisons to Mini Cooper.

The Trailblazer also comes with an urban chic RS badge, trimmed out with black grille and wheels just like the bigger Blazer. “This is my sexy-mom car,” thrills a woman in one of Chevy’s signature “real people” ads. The RS and ACTIV trims will likely start in the mid-$20,000 range.

The two turbo engine options are mated to a sippy, continuously variable transmission or nine-speed automatic.

Inside, Trailblazer sports a suite of standard and optional safety equipment – first introduced on the pricier Equinox – and not found on the Trax: forward-collision alert, automatic emergency-braking, auto high-beams, lane-keep assist, rear-seat reminder and more. Options include adaptive cruise-control and blind-spot assist.

Rear passengers enjoy more legroom than the tight Trax thanks to a stretched wheelbase. Front passengers enjoy an armrest and deep center console storage. The interior is also wonderfully configurable – the rear seat reverses the traditional 40/60 split so that the passenger and second-row seat can be flattened to fit a surfboard or long boards.

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Payne: Two motors are better than one for Tesla Model 3 Performance

Posted by Talbot Payne on November 21, 2019

Tell the difference? The external differences between Henry Payne's RWD Tesla Model 3, right, and the new Tesla Model 3 Performance are subtle. The Performance model gets bigger Brembo brakes with red calipers — and an underlined, dual motor badge in the rear.

Tell the difference? The external differences between Henry Payne’s RWD Tesla Model 3, right, and the new Tesla Model 3 Performance are subtle. The Performance model gets bigger Brembo brakes with red calipers — and an underlined, dual motor badge in the rear. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

What’s more fun than a Tesla Model 3 with an electric motor? A Tesla Model 3 with two electric motors.

Regular readers of this column know I’m a car enthusiast who bought a long-range, rear-wheel drive Model 3 a year ago (after putting down a $1,000 deposit waaay back in April 2016) because I wanted to follow the first viable U.S. auto start-up in my lifetime, live with an EV and drive the industry’s most innovative vehicle.

I bought the rear-drive car because it’s what I could afford. I pined for the wigged-out dual-motor, 473-horse Performance Model 3 with Track Mode, but its sticker price $20,000 north of the rear-drive chariot was prohibitive.

So when Tesla lowered the price of the Performance 3 this fall by $15,000 (just $6,440 more than my rear-drive drive car) I jumped at the chance to trade up for the brand’s most rabid sports sedan.

Buying a fully loaded Performance Model 3 allows me to tell you of the full capabilities of the tricked-out version of America’s best-selling EV. Indeed, the Model 3 last year outsold every luxury car in America.

The purchase was primarily a selfish one. I was reaching the limits of my car in track tests and knew the Performance 3 had more to offer.

I didn’t wait long to storm Champion Raceway at Pontiac’s M1 Concourse to put the dual motors to the test. On the street, the Performance car’s power advantage (nearly doubling the rear-wheel drive model’s 225 horses by unlocking more battery capacity) is obvious. Stomp the right pedal and the car explodes to 60 mph in a chest-caving 3.2 seconds, the 473 ponies getting instant traction via all-wheel drive. That’s not far off the $140,000, 760-horse, Ludicrous Mode, 2.8-second Model S P90D AWD I tested four years ago.

It’s comparable to a Corvette Grand Sport. Or an Audi R8 V-10. Supercar stuff.

But on track, that’s the least obvious difference in the two cars. After all, instant torque off corners is an inherent advantage performance EVs have compared to gas cars that lose drivetrain efficiency by feeding its gas power to a combustion chamber lit off by a spark plug that shoves a piston that turns a connecting rod that (pause for breath) … well, you know.

Electric motors are instant power — the dual motor Model 3 just has more of it. Dual motors also allow more athletic handling. The 3’s dynamics are quite good with its low center of gravity, planted steering and sophisticated suspension. The Performance model turns up the wick, not just with better traction, but by using the motors in tandem for better rotation.

Tesla does this through Track Mode, exclusive to the Performance model. I turned it on while in Park, then attacked the M1 Concourse in Pontiac. Surprisingly, Track mode does not turn off battery regeneration, meaning the car still “brakes” when you pull your foot off the accelerator. I learned to use regen as a trail brake, tipping into the throttle with trail-brake oversteer as I entered a corner. Indeed, for all its EV sophistication, the Performance 3 has some good ol’ fashioned “Fast ‘n’ Furious” blood in its veins that encourages drifting.

The Performance Model also benefits from massive Brembo brakes that increase stopping power from the car’s impressive 110 mph top speed on the back straight. But I still got a brake-overheat warning after four laps (the RWD model protested after just two).

True to Tesla’s minimalist, Apple-like design philosophy, the Performance 3’s appearance changes little. Wheel wells are now engorged with extremely low-profile 20-inch dinner plates — just waiting to be eaten by a Detroit pothole. I’ll revert to aftermarket 19-inch wheels (supplied by T-Sportline) for the winter months.

Speaking of Brembos, their red caliper hats are another subtle giveaway that more capability lives under the skin. Other than that, the front is the same ol’ blank face (with larger lower intakes to feed the battery within), and the Dual Motor badge is underlined red out back to differentiate it from the Model 3’s regular dual motor (4.1-second 0-60, no Track Mode).

Inside, nothing changes. Same black seats. Same 15-inch screen. Same wood dash stretching A-pillar to A-pillar. The same, that is, until a new over-the-air upgrade comes along.

Like every Tesla, the Model 3 improves over time. My RWD model was dramatically different after one year — in ways big and small. Small like the whimsical whoopie cushion I can prank passengers with (Pfffft!). Big in that it now self-drives on geo-fenced highways, including automatic lane changes.

My new car got better within days of purchase, downloading software upgrade 3.10 that is most significant for its Enhanced Summon feature. Where the crowd-pleasing Summon once only allowed the car to drive forward or backward, it now can turn, negotiating its way out of parking spaces and trotting to you across a parking lot.

Manufacturing quality had improved over a year. My new car’s panel gaps were more uniform, with no blemishes like an unpainted inner-trunk corner.

Other things hadn’t changed as much as I would have hoped. Tesla’s service was still outstanding, but I had to travel to Cleveland to trade in for my new car just as I had a year ago. Michigan still bans the California company from selling in-state.

Trade-in value was also consistent with the industry at about 25% deprecation after one year. Tesla has, after all, become a volume seller in the compact luxury-sedan segment just like BMW, Mercedes and Audi. My $57,500 2018 Model 3 traded in for $40,800 — about the same as offers I got online at Cars.com and CarGurus.

But where my Performance Model 3 started at $65,000 in 2018, my loaded 2019 model cost me just $63,940 — just over $6,000 more than my loaded RWD model. Sweetening the deal: free Supercharging by using a referral from a fellow owner as the Model 3 continues to save me hundreds of dollars at the gas pump.

What a year it’s been.

2019 Tesla Model 3 Performance

Vehicle type: All-wheel drive, 5-passenger sedan

Price: Base $51,190, including $1,200 destination charge ($63,940 as sold)

Powerplant: Lithium-ion battery pack mated to dual electric motors

Power: 473 horsepower, 471 pound-feet torque

Transmission: Single-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 3.2 seconds (mfr); top speed, 155 mph

Weight: 4.072 pounds

Range: 325 miles on full charge

Report card

Highs: Supercar acceleration; Track Mode

Lows: 30% devaluation of Model 3 on trade-in after 1 year

Overall: 4 stars

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