Articles

Ford vehicle sales fell 12.5% in first quarter, the worst of the Detroit 3

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 2, 2020

Ford Motor Co.’s sales fell 12.5% in the first three months of the year, the automaker said Thursday, following the dismal results of other carmakers who reported their numbers the previous day, as the pandemic closes dealerships across many parts of the country.

The sales drop was the largest of the Detroit Three automakers with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles down 10% for the quarter and General Motors Co. off 7% as government-mandated stay-at-home orders and a souring economy slowed buyer traffic to a crawl.

But the Detroit truck wars raged on, with Ford maintaining its crown as best-selling truck brand.

Other bright spots included Lincoln and the Mustang, which both gained sales ahead of what is sure to be a harrowing April. With most of the country anticipated to be in lockdown against the coronavirus storm, analysts expect auto sales to erode by 80%.

“Our Ford team is working around the clock on everything from building healthcare equipment, assisting our dealership network and providing our customers peace of mind through deferred vehicle payments,” said U.S. Ford marketing chief Mark LaNeve.

Dealer incentives were a big reason that Ford’s overall pickup sales were off only 5.4% as J.D. Power reported that automakers shoveled truckloads of incentives, including no-interest loans, to maintain volume in their most profitable segment.

Though even the mighty F-series was not immune to COVID-19’s effects with sales off 13.1%, it maintained its status as America’s best-selling vehicle with 186,562 units sold. Chevy SIlverado sales were 143,698 while Ram clocked in at 128,805.

Overall, GM, FCA, and Ford gained a whopping 11 points in U.S. market share thanks to healthy pickup sales.

Lincoln sales jump of 6.9% bodes well for Ford’s resurgent luxury brand for when markets return to normal. The gain came in the face of deep luxury sales losses as key premium markets like California and New York shuttered (although they are still permitted to do online sales, unlike Michigan). New York alone accounts for 14% of U.S. luxury sales.

Payne: Cadillac goes big with CT5-V, its sexiest, fastest, techiest compact ever

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 2, 2020

The 2020 Cadillac CT5-V is a compact, performance sedan that competes against the BMW M340i and Audi S4.

The 2020 Cadillac CT5-V is a compact, performance sedan that competes against the BMW M340i and Audi S4. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

When I was a kid, I imagined a button on my bike’s handlebars that would transform my two-wheeler into an asphalt-scorching race car. You, too?

Say hello to V-Mode in the 2020 Cadillac CT5-V.

I took the alluring sedan to my favorite Hell, Michigan,playground to play (and practice social-distancing). I luffed along comfortably through Livingston County, but as I approached the twisted curves of Hell, my heavy right foot began to itch. There, right out of my childhood dreams, was the V-Mode button on the steering wheel.

With a single press, the steering tightened in my paws, the 10-speed transmission dropped a gear and fangs seem to grow from the Cadillac’s front grille.

I buried the throttle and the beast leapt forward. WAAAUUUGGHHHH! roared the 360 ponies under the hood. BRAP-BRAP! spat the quick-shifting tranny. WHOOOOSH! went the scenery past my window.

The CT5-V lives up to Caddy’s mantra to go big in the compact sedan class.

Kicking its small ATS (now renamed CT4) down market to compete in the subcompact class against the BMW 2-series, GM’s luxe brand has tagged ATS’ big brother, CTS, to do battle against the likes of BMW 3-series, Audi A4, Mercedes C-class, Alfa Romeo Giulia and Tesla Model 3.

Rebadged the Cadillac CT5 and re-sculpted with a handsome fastback, the 2020 Caddy brings the CTS’ mid-size proportions to the compact class. It even expands its wheelbase 1.5 inches to claim biggest class specs: biggest front seat, biggest back seat, biggest wheelbase.

Then CT5 goes bigger on value. Starting at just $37,900 with a turbo-4 under the hood, the CT5 not only undercuts the ol’ $45,000 CTS by a whopping 7 grand, it’s also 5 grand cheaper than the BMW 3-series. With those big headlines and Cadillac’s sculpted bod, CT5 should turn heads.

But proportions and price aside, the standard 237-horse CT5 is an average meal. I flogged it around Ann Arbor last fall as part of the North American Car of the Year competition where its average power and interior didn’t stand out.

Not so the four-star CT5-V. V for va-va-voom.

It’s aimed at the up-market BMW M340i, Audi S4 and Mercedes AMG C 43. Just as the 382-horse BMW M340i offers buyers a taste of its mouth-watering, full-Monty, 444-horse M3 performance steak — but without the eye-watering, $80,000 sticker price — so does the Cadillac split the difference between the standard CT5 and its M3-fighter.

I wish I could tell you the name of the CT5’s tippy-top performance model (replacing my old favorite ATS-V), but Cadillac is leaving that fine cut of beef for later.

Suffice to say that the CT5-V offers plenty to chew on for now. This is a sleek, roomy, high-tech machine that will quietly deliver your guests to the club, then raucously entertain your inner child on twisty country roads to the cabin up north.

Let’s talk tech. Unlike the standard CT5, the V throws everything and the kitchen sink at the competition. Consider the V-mode that set Hell’s roads on fire.

It’s made possible by GM’s Performance Traction Management system — PTM, for short — that CT5-V shares with its mid-engine Corvette stablemate. The ’Vette’s button is called Z-mode. Personalize Z and V modes in Settings in the infotainment screen. My choices: Track setting engine sound, Track or steering, Track for powertrain, Sport for suspension, Sport for brakes.

The option instantly transformed my steed. I barreled through Hell’s empty ess-curves, the weighted steering anchored to the road, the four-barrel exhaust howling. Over roller-coaster brows, the stiffened magnetic shocks kept the 3,975-pound missile flat to the road. Entering a 90-degree turn, I stomped 4-piston Brembo brakes, then … stopped.

Launch control time. This is where PTM really shines. The computer-managed slip in my rear-wheel drive Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires while the 10-speed tranny — exclusive in the segment — barked off rapid upshifts.

This Corvette-like performance bandwidth intrigued my pal Jamie, who just gave back his 2017 CTS-V off lease for an $85,000 mid-engine C8 with Z51 performance package.

The CT5-V packs many of the same elements — PTM plus e-diff and magnetic shocks — but with a $30,000 less sticker price and roomy rear seats.

“Boy, this thing is good!” exclaimed Jamie as he flung the V through some Oakland County curves. I’m betting his Vette will soon have a CT5-V garage-mate.

V is faithful to the standard CT5’s promise (which also comes as a Sport and Premium Luxury model) of being at least $5,000 cheaper than the German competition. My $56,875 tester was considerably less than comparable the $62,000 Audi S4 and BMW M340i I’ve tested.

The sexy V is more fun than the conservative Audi and holds its own against Bimmer’s terrific inline-6.

Like the standard CT5, the sacrifice the V-buyer will make to BMW — and Mercedes and Audi — is in the dash displays, where the Yankee lags a generation behind. Visit a BMW’s interior and you’ll walk away drooling over its graphics displays, remote-controller wizardry and intuitive voice control.

“Go to Uncle Joe’s Chicken in Southfield, Michigan” I commanded the Bimmer, and it obeyed beautifully. The Caddy? Not so much. The CT5-V’s door handles tantalize with their soft-squeeze entry, but old-school analog gauges and an antiquated rotary screen controller lag the German’s state of the art.

Still, even the Germans feel a step behind Tesla in the electronics game. The electric Model 3 remains a unique experience and its comparable Performance version is priced at $57,000 with the CT5-V while offering head-exploding 2.9-second zero-60 acceleration, standard all-wheel drive (a $2,600 option on the Caddy), and an optional, class-best, $7,000 Autopilot.

That uniqueness won’t last long.

Later this year, Cadillac will introduce its own Super Cruise autonomous system to the 2021 CT5 which is Tesla’s match (assuming Cadillac is serious about maintaining over-the-air updates). No one can match this pair in the self-driving field.

Super Cruise offers Cadillac another value-play if it can compete with Tesla’s $7,000 Autopilot price.

Cadillac has followed GM’s brand-wide policy of nickel-and-diming customers for safety features like adaptive cruise-control and blind-spot detection at a time when even compact cars like the Nissan Sentra make such systems standard for $25,000. Cadillac could go bigger by making those features standard on the V, too — a no-brainer for a badge that is doing so much right in this segment.

With its sexiest, fastest, techiest compact car player ever, Caddy’s gotta continue to go big.

2020 Cadillac CT5-V

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear- or all-wheel drive, 5-passenger performance sedan

Price: $48,690, including $995 destination charge ($56,875 RWD model as tested)

Powerplant: 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6

Power: 360 horsepower, 405 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 10-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.8 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed: 168 mph

Weight: 3,975 lbs. as tested

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

Report card

Highs: Roomy interior; brilliant drivetrain tech

Lows: Dated rotary controller; standard safety features, please

Overall: 4 stars

Auto sales plunge as COVID-19 infects first-quarter reports

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 1, 2020

Automakers are releasing sales results from January through March, and they already show steep declines. Dealerships around much of the country have been shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Automakers are releasing sales results from January through March, and they already show steep declines. Dealerships around much of the country have been shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Paul Sancya, AP)

With March auto sales infected by the coronavirus, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles reported sales declines of 10% for the first quarter of the year, while General Motors Co. was off 7%, brought low by a dismal last few weeks after a healthy January and February.

Wednesday’s quarterly sales reports from automakers are the first since the U.S. was hit by the coronavirus crisis which has closed auto plants and many showrooms. Ford Motor Co. won’t release its January-March sales numbers until Thursday.

The pain spread across all sectors of the automotive market. Hyundai and Porsche saw sales decelerate, with the Korean manufacturer’s sales down 43% in March alone. Including its abysmal March results, Hyundai reported an 11% drop in the first quarter. Porsche first-quarter sales were off by 20.2% from a year ago after a record 2019.

The industry is bracing for difficult months ahead. After a record five years of annual sales over 17 million units in the U.S., sales were expected to slow in 2020, according to J.D. Power forecasts, to a still healthy 16.8 million units. Sales at the start of the year were promising even as automakers put more money on the hood to keep customers coming.

But with automakers poised for the spring selling season beginning in March, COVID-19 has changed the landscape.

Some 70% of the country’s population is operating under state shelter-at-home orders including major markets like California and New York. According to a University of Michigan survey, consumer sentiment tumbled last month to its lowest level since the 2008 Great Recession and is projected to hits its largest two-month decline ever.

As of Monday, at least 35 states had issued executive orders limiting non-essential business activity affecting dealerships.

Dealers across the country are offering no-interest loans and 84-month lease terms to entice buyers. GM and its dealers are offering concierge service, courtesy transportation, and home delivery where permissible. But permissible varies by state.

In Michigan, even online sales have been suspended until April 14.

The Michigan Automobile Dealers Association has advised its members that automotive sales remain closed under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s business guidelines. Only service, parts and body-shop operations are allowed to stay open.

“We are still actively talking with customers, answering questions and booking appointments for when the governor’s executive order lifts on April 14,” said a spokesperson for Lafontaine Automotive Group.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo lifted that state’s ban on online sales March 27. “This is an enormous win,” said New York State Auto Dealer Association President Bob Vancavage in a statement. Dealers “have been working non-stop to craft an exemption under the essential business guidelines to allow dealers to do what they do best: sell cars.”

In California, the nation’s largest auto market, the California New Car Dealers Association has advised all 1,400 showrooms to comply with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s shutdown order.

Even home-team Tesla was forced to shut down production and showroom deliveries of its electric cars . The shutdown comes as the Silicon Valley automaker is launching its first entry-level SUV, the Model Y. Analysts expect Tesla sales to be off 30%.

The Golden State’s first-in-the-nation shelter-in-place order on March 16 showed ominous signs for the industry as sales cratered by 86% the first weekend after the order. J.D. Power expects that pattern to continue in other states that have enacted stay-at-home orders.

For Detroit automakers, core truck lines were a bright spot for the quarter, even when the disruption of March was included.

In GM’s stable, the Chevy Silverado pickup roared to 26% sales gains over a year ago with 114,313 units sold. The brand’s SUV lineup did not fare as well with sales down significantly, save the entry-level, $22,295 Trax SUV.

Indeed, outside of pickups and the low-volume Bolt electric car, only the affordable Trax and entry-level Spark sedan saw sales gains. That trend will be watched closely as small vehicles also saw a big gain during the last, 2008 downturn.

Overall, Chevy saw the least degradation among GM brands with sales off 3.8%. GMC dropped 5.5 percent (the Silverado’s Sierra cousin the exception at plus31%), Cadillac 15.8% and Buick 34.7%.

For Fiat Chrysler, the popular Ram pickup lifted sales 7% to 128,805 vehicles while sales of the family-friendly Chrysler Pacifica minivan climbed 5%. Jeep’s all-new Gladiator pickup continued to impress with its third consecutive quarter of 15,000-plus sales.

Despite the sales gloom, TrueCar projected the average transaction price of vehicles to be up 3.2% in March 2020. Transaction prices have been key to industry profit margins, but TrueCar analyst Eric Lyman sounded a cautionary note as COVID-19’s effect on sales did not set in until mid-month.

“Historically, there’s been a strong correlation between consumer confidence and average transaction price,” he said. “We’re now seeing one of the largest one-month declines in consumer confidence in nearly 50 years. April will provide a much clearer picture of the full impact caused from the coronavirus.”

As U.S. auto plants remain idle, China’s are open again for business

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 1, 2020

While COVID-19 has stopped auto assembly lines across North America, Chinese plants are revving up again after closing there in late January.

Major automakers from General Motors to BMW to Toyota say their factories in China have reopened, including the virus epicenter in the Wuhan province.

The openings include key product startups from Volvo and Tesla. The Chinese-owned Swedish automaker flipped the switch this week on its all-new Polestar 2, a key car in its global electrification strategy. Tesla has reportedly returned to full production at its all-new Shanghai factory producing the Model 3 sedan.

“We start production now under these challenging circumstances with a strong focus on the health and safety of our people,” said Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath. “This is a great achievement and the result of huge efforts from the staff in the factory and the team securing the supply chain.”

As coronavirus cases ballooned in the U.S. over the last two weeks, all 46 assembly plants in the U.S., foreign and domestic, were shut down.

China’s bounceback comes as COVID-19 cases have declined from their peak in late January. Daily life there has returned to normal with restaurants and auto dealerships re-opened. Two of the world’s largest automakers, GM and Toyota, report that production is now back to full tilt.

“Our plants in China have resumed production on a staggered basis, including the two plants in Wuhan,” said a GM representative. “Only three out of 13 plants in China haven’t started production yet.”

Plants like Jinqiao North Assembly outside Shangahia are applying strict cleansing guidelines and workers are required to wear face masks.

Employees in China went on break Jan. 25 for the Chinese New Year, two weeks after China recorded its first coronavirus-related death. They were then told not to return to work as the disease spread. GM began preparing for plants to reopen the week of Feb. 10.

Toyota, the world’s second-biggest automaker behind Volkswagen, has resumed normal operations in China with all regular shifts and production lines up to speed.

Other automakers including VW, Nissan, Hyundai and Honda reopened plants in mid-February.

Volvo’s Polestar startup — a separate electric brand — is crucial to the company as it seeks to meet European and Chinese emissions demands while also appealing to an anticipated new generation of luxury-EV customers inspired by Tesla.

The fastback EV is scheduled to arrive in Europe this summer, and then in the U.S. with a starting price of about $65,000.

Tesla’s Shanghai factory, its first outside the U.S., has been a showcase of government-business cooperation. Determined that China lead the world’s EV revolution, the government exempted the company from the national 10% sales tax. China provided extensive assistance to Tesla — including 10,000 face masks — to help it reopen the first day after the new year shutdown.

The government “will make all efforts to help key companies including Tesla return to normal production,” Xu Wei, a representative  the Shanghai municipal government, said at a briefing in February. Tesla began delivering Model 3s to customers in China just one year after it broke ground.

It is unclear when U.S. plants might start rolling again. GM said Thursday its plants are shut indefinitely. Ford and Fiat Chrysler said they could reopen their U.S. facilities as early as April 14.

Detroit auto show canceled as TCF Center selected for hospital overflow

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 1, 2020

Detroit — The Detroit auto show scheduled for June has been canceled after show organizers were told the TCF Center will be used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to house overflow patients from hospitals that are becoming overwhelmed because of the coronavirus crisis.

“Our understanding is that TCF Center will become a ‘temporary field hospital,” North American International Auto Show chairman Doug North told The Detroit News.

“We were certainly aware that FEMA has been talking with a whole host of other sites around the country — primarily convention-type centers — so we knew this was a possibility,” North said. “It didn’t become a complete reality until Saturday. It’s not a shock FEMA would want to get in here. We need to get this thing stopped as quickly as we can.”

This year’s event was scheduled for June 7-20 at the former Cobo Center and at nearby outside venues such as Hart Plaza. The show had traditionally been held in January but was moved to the summer to be more consumer-focused.

The announcement is another blow to Detroit’s restaurant and hotel industries that already were reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 shutdown. The Detroit auto show draws thousands of visitors from around the globe to the downtown, infusing the regional economy with hundreds of millions of dollars. The next show will not be held until June 11, 2021; that’s 866 days after the last show in January 2019.

“We’re hoping that this pandemic will be gone, and we can have a great show,” North said. “All our partners and stakeholders were really excited. Up until the last few days, we were getting calls from companies and individuals that wanted to get involved.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been assessing at least 15 sites for patient overflow as coronavirus cases have spiked around Detroit. The Detroit District is working under FEMA at the direction of the state to assess a list of potential alternate care facilities that Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office has prepared. The Army Corps was also assessing the Henry Ford Detroit Pistons Performance Center and two Wayne State University dormitories in Detroit.

The auto show’s move from from January to June this year had been an effort by organizers to reinvent the show and inject more excitement. There had been a decline in the number of global automakers participating in recent years, and public attendance had been down.

With the move to summer, there were to be outdoor debuts, test rides, demonstrations of robotic cars and off-road events at the TCF Center and Hart Plaza. Rally cars were to “drift” on the rooftop of the convention center. A new event, the Motor Bella festival of Italian and British cars was to have been held outdoors on Broadway next to the Detroit Opera House.

The Charity Preview ball was to have added a more casual and less expensive “summer chic” outdoor option in addition to the event with formal dress inside the convention center.

All tickets purchased for the 2020 show, including for the public show, industry preview and Charity Preview will be fully refunded, officials said. The ticket office will be in contact with ticket holders. Those with tickets to the charity event will have the opportunity to donate the proceeds of their refund to one of the nine beneficiaries had the event been held. NAIAS officials are discussing plans for a fundraising activity later this year to benefit those charities.

“It’s already been 18 months as of this June since our last show, so I’m hopeful we can develop something that will allow us to really try and support those charities between now and next year,” North said.

The 2021 event will begin June 11-14 with the Motor Bella festival. Press days will be June 15 and 16, with the Charity Preview event June 18. The public show will run June 19-26.

“We fully support NAIAS organizers in their postponement,” Mark Truby, Ford Motor Co.’s chief communications officer, said in a statement. “The health and safety of our community and those working throughout the industry is our top priority. We look forward to seeing the show’s return in 2021.”

General Motors Co. had been planning to “go big” for Detroit’s first summer show, said Terry Rhadigan, GM’s executive director of communications and corporate giving. GM was planning to use its Renaissance Center headquarters on the riverfront for the event put on by the Detroit Auto Dealers Association.

“We had big plans,  but it all seems rather insignificant now based on everything else that’s going on,” Rhadigan said. “[NAIAS Executive Director] Rod Alberts and the DADA have been great partners for us for decades. We are thinking about them at this difficult time and support the decision that was made.”

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles added: “We understand and support the decision, at this difficult time.”

While the cancellation is unfortunate, Michelle Krebs, executive analyst for Autotrader, said it could conserve automakers’ money, “which they are desperately trying to save right now.”

The companies have shut down manufacturing plants in North America and elsewhere because of the outbreak, causing them to take out loans, put projects on hold and take other actions to conserve cash. GM even is deferring 20% of salaried workers’ pay for up to six months with the intention of repaying them with interest later this year or early next.

“The impact of canceling the auto show is nothing compared to the impact of the coronavirus and the economic fallout,” Krebs said.

Detroit is not the only city to have lost an auto show because of the coronavirus outbreak. Three days prior to the Geneva Motor Show scheduled early this month, Switzerland banned events of 1,000 people or more, forcing its cancellation. The Beijing Auto Show in April has been postponed indefinitely, and the New York International Auto Show was moved to August from April.

In 2019, the last year the Detroit show was held in January, European automakers — with the exception of Volkswagen AG — passed on the event. A used-car display from a dealer in sports cars and exotic vehicles helped fill vacant floor space.

The event drew 774,179 ticketed visitors, which was about 35,000 fewer guests than in 2018; attendance was down in part because of a major snowstorm. Despite the downturn, the show brought a $430 million boost to the regional economy — the equivalent of hosting two Super Bowls.

“There is an opportunity,” North said, “to do this again next June and make it safe for everyone — and one that lets us leverage the great excitement we had for what we’re planning in June.”

Payne: Trusty Toyota 4Runner is 4Ever

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 30, 2020

2020 Toyota 4Runner

2020 Toyota 4Runner (Photo: Toyota)

Ford is about to enter the truck-based SUV market with the Ford Bronco and I get it. People are passionate about these things.

Yet, there are only two truck-based SUVs in the mid-size market — the Jeep Wrangler and the Toyota 4Runner. The Toyota what?

You can be forgiven for forgetting the Tacoma pickup-based ute doesn’t exist because Toyota hasn’t remade it since the Mesozoic Era (actually, 2009). It hasn’t had a wall-to-wall marketing campaign for some time, unlike the Jeep. You’d have to have been living on Mars not to have seen one of the Jeep ads (and I’m told there’s a Mars trim coming.). But 4Runner fans know the Toyota is there.

“What do you drive?” I recently asked a male acquaintance in Los Angeles.

“A 4Runner. Best car I’ve ever owned.”

“What do you have in the garage?” I asked a female shuttle driver in Texas.

“4Runner, I love it.”

We automotive journalists are guilty of pooh-poohing anything that hasn’t been remade in the last five years. We’re like children attracted to the latest shiny thing. But evidence is that you don’t have to be shiny to be relevant these days.

Take the Dodge Challenger and Charger muscle cars, two of the most-recognized nameplates in America thanks to savvy marketing, state-of-the-art infotainment and big horsepower. Make that ginormous horsepower.

Customers shrug at the fact that the Dodge brothers are based on an ancient 2006 chassis.

Ditto the 4Runner.

I climbed into my 4Runner tester with Mrs. Payne on a cold winter night at Detroit Metro airport after a long week away. The snow was blowing and the roads were covered with it. Detroit potholes were lurking. Boy, was I glad to see the 4Runner’s big bones and knobby, high-profile tires.

We threw our luggage in the cavernous boot, then cranked up the interior temps — heated seats, front rear-defroster, climate temps — with big, knobby dials to match the tires. After clearing the Toyota of crusted ice and snow, I tossed the snow brush into the back seat — rugged, mid-size trucks mean never having to worry about mussing the interior.

After a long day, we were in no mood to spend the next 45 minutes crawling along Detroit’s pocked cart paths worrying about a blowout in subfreezing temps. The opposite was true of 4Runner. The beast positively loved the conditions.

Like a salty sailor on rough seas, the 4Runner relies on old technology to chart its course. I eased the shifter into neutral, then yanked the truck’s second transfer-case shifter (familiar to Wrangler fans, too) back into four-wheel drive. With all four wheels churning, we set off into the gloom.

The 4Runner sits a ridiculous 10 inches off the ground with a Jeep-like 33-degree front approach angle for off-roading. Heck, we probably could have just cut through the woods to go home. The ute even includes a crawl mode for nature’s worst. This fearlessness has made Toyota’s ute a favorite of folks in rural communities where snowplows often take days to catch up to rutted roads. But this night, we decided to stick to paved roads.

The SUV bombed happily along, the 4.0-liter 270-horse V-6 mill roaring its approval. V-6s, of course, are frowned upon in this woke green age of turbocharged fuel-sipping 4-bangers. But with its guttural growl and instant torque, the six-holer matches 4Runner’s can-do character. Like the V-6s and V-8s under the hoods of Chargers and Challengers, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Customers sure don’t think the 4Runner is old-fashioned. Sales numbers in the last five years have seen a steady climb from 76,906 in 2014 to 131,888 last year. That’s a 70% jump, mirroring the 60% rise in Toyota Tacoma pickup sales to nearly 250,000 units over the same period.

As the U.S. has moved to SUVs, the idea of a Tacoma SUV with a hatch instead of a pickup bed has real appeal. Ford no doubt hopes for the same gains from a Ranger pickup-based Bronco.

Like Dodge, 4Runner mixes its old-fashioned with a taste of modern tech.

Once on M-39 headed north, I set adaptive cruise-control to 60 mph to avoid Melvindale and Dearborn speed traps. The localities are famous for using the 55-mph speed-limited Southfield Freeway to raise revenue, catching travelers who’ve been traveling the 70 mph common to the rest of the freeway.

Asian automakers have been aggressive about outfitting all their vehicles — right down to $20,000-something compacts — with safety systems like adaptive cruise and automatic emergency-braking. The 4Runner is no exception. In addition to saving my bacon from police radar, automatic cruise-control is a welcome trip companion.

Adaptive cruise is enabled by the big radar brick in the 4Runner’s gaping fish-mouth grille. After a while on M-59, ice and snow began to coat the brick like gnats in a Florida summer. Soon, the 4Runner’s brick was coated and the car’s brain told me adaptive cruise-control was no longer available. No problem, but a reminder of the many challenges self-driving systems have to overcome.

The 4Runner encountered no navigation challenges on the route thanks to another piece of updated software, Apple CarPlay. My wife simply plugged in her phone, and Google Maps routed us around stormy obstacles — traffic backups, road closures, accidents — for the quickest way home.

Speaking of plugs, 4Runner also has a three-prong outlet in the boot — perfect for charging laptop or other devices, because who carries those round cigarette lighter chargers with them anymore?

In a week of frosty, snowy weather, the Toyota was a welcome addition to the driveway. The big lug’s not much to look at, but my $48,000 Venture Edition tester served its purpose as a proper utility vehicle with heated front thrones, fold-flat second-row seats for extended cargo room, slide-out rear floor and updated 8-inch screen that keeps pace with the Wrangler’s modern U-Connect system.

Toyota prices comparably favorably to the Wrangler, too, while offering more cargo space and better interior quiet — if less overall character than the Jeep.

Both the Wrangler and the 4Runner are ol’ St. Bernards that will run the extra mile to save you from the elements. That’s how owners like them and sales numbers prove the point. Which sets up an interesting opportunity for the coming Bronco, which will surely bring lots of cutting-edge Ford tech to the ladder-frame segment.

The 4Runner is a loyal old friend. And customers are loyal back.

2020 Toyota 4Runner

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

Price: $37,240, including $1,120 destination charge ($48,877 AWD Venture Special Edition as tested)

Powerplant: 4.0-liter 6-cylinder

Power: 270 horsepower, 278 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 5-speed automatic with second transfer-case shifter for AWD

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.7 seconds (Car and Driver); towing, 5,000 pounds

Weight: 4,750 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 17 city/20 highway/18 combined

Report card

Highs: Rugged beast; nice modern touches like Apple CarPlay and 3-prong electric plug

Lows: Dated interior; gotta muscle that transfer-case shifter

Overall: 3 stars

Payne: Honda CR-V Hybrid makes geek great

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 26, 2020

New for 2020, the Honda CR-V Hybrid is the best performing CR-V with 212 horsepower and excellent torque.

New for 2020, the Honda CR-V Hybrid is the best performing CR-V with 212 horsepower and excellent torque. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

Honda hybrids used to be soooo nerdy.

The Japanese automaker’s first hybrid debuted 20 years ago. Costing $28,932 in today’s dollars ($18,800 in 2000), the wee front-wheel drive, three-door hatchback looked like a college science project.

Shaped like a doorstop, it was optimized for 647-mile range — assuming a semi-truck didn’t run over it first as its 72 horses struggled to get up to interstate speeds. It came standard with a manual transmission. Its bicycle-thin rear tires were covered by fender slats to increase aerodynamics. It sold like granola in a candy shop. Not well.

How far hybrids have come.

For the same price, Honda’s all-new $28,870 CR-V SUV comes standard with all-wheel drive, adaptive cruise control, automatic high beams, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and 212 horsepower. That’s 12 more ponies than the standard 1.5-liter turbo CR-V.

Heck, it’s more horsepower than the Honda Civic Si pocket rocket. The five-door hatchback merges up the interstate on-ramp like a tiger while maintaining maximum 560-mile range and best-in-class interior space.

Unlike the Insight, Honda may have a winner on its hands.

Customers had been more than happy with the CR-V’s two gas-powered options, gobbling up over 384,000 CR-Vs last year. But, this being the Age of the Nanny State, there is a regulatory advantage to Honda offering a hybrid option for its best-selling vehicle. So Honda ditched the second, 2.4-liter gas engine for the hybrid.

It helps make government electrification goals, not to mention Honda’s own internal goals. The idea of the Japanese automaker electrifying two-thirds of its product by 2030 seems absurd, until you realize its best-selling model will have batteries under the rear seat.

Unlike hybrids of the past, this greenie isn’t just for the faithful. Like similar offerings from Ford (Escape) and Toyota (RAV4), this nerd is superior to its gas-powered peer in almost every way.

As regular readers of this space know, I am a particular fan of the 2020 Escape ute, which Ford introduces in Sport trim at just $28,000. The Ford’s battery-assisted geekiness is buried under layers of hot black mascara makeup and cool tech displays. High mpgs never looked so good.

So, too, the CR-V Hybrid. The homely Honda can’t match class sexpots like the Escape and Mazda CX-5, but a remade lower facia and snazzy wheels are welcome upgrades. And the 2020 model gets attractive wardrobe colors like Radiant Red Metallic and a battleship gray called Sonic Gray Metallic.

The CR-V Hybrid’s real beauty is in the price.

Escape and RAV4 sticker prices balloon to over $30,000 with all-wheel drive, but that must-have feature for Michigan winters comes standard — along with everything else — on the Honda for under $29,000. That’s about $1,500 below its class competitors, and just $1,200 more than a comparable gas-fired CR-V.

Standard also is the CR-V hybrid’s 38 mpg fuel economy, 30% better than the 1.5-liter turbo-4 model. That means fewer stops at the gas pump — but it also means you’ll pay for that $1,200 premium in under five years.

Given the hybrid’s 50% better fuel economy in urban areas — I averaged 40 mpg carving Tucson, Arizona’s urban roads — you might make it up quicker than that.

This is one cocky nerd.

Not only does it go farther on a gallon of gas than its gas-only brother, but it has more fun getting there. Honda had the audacity to set up a sand course for the hybrid that showed off its low-end torque.

With its direct-drive to the wheels (no transmission), the Honda provides instant torque without the groan of a continuously variable transmission that accompanies its Ford and RAV4 competitors. The Honda boasts 212 horsepower at the top end, though it’s shoutier getting there thanks to its 2.0-liter engine versus Ford’s bigger 2.5.

Honda has deep racing roots, and that DNA is felt even in the CR-V.

As I’ve noted, Ford has sewn a Sport badge on the Escape to suggest its lively personality. Don’t expect a Civic-like Type R model for the CR-V anytime soon (man, would that be a hoot) but I still enjoyed pushing the compact ute around town. Honda obsesses over the details and the hybrid’s bod is taut with a suspension to match.

Like a nerd with thick glasses and thicker teeth braces, hybrids used to mean geeky outside and inside. But the CR-V Hybrid is thoroughly mainstream.

Open the door and you get Honda’s typical interior wonderfulness. In fact, pause and admire the CR-V’s rear doors: They are thoughtfully hinged to open almost 90 degrees to the B-pillar for easier ingress and egress.

The SUV’s console is nearly as clever with a roomy center console, thanks in part to its raised shifter island. There’s storage for cups and phone, and USB ports are forward-located so you can easily plug in your phone for turn-by-turn screen navigation. Exclusive to the hybrid is Acura’s nifty “trigger ignition” located high within easy reach.

That raised console was my only interior regret, as it sometimes bounced my knee. You’ll forgive them because Honda fussiness over passenger comfort is especially notable inside the console.

CR-V’s three-row Pilot cousin has the best-in-class console with a pullback shade that allows purses to be stowed on top of the console spine — or entirely inside it. The CR-V, too, allows multiple configurations depending on what you’re hauling.

Speaking of best-in-class, the hybrid obsesses over grades like a good nerd should. Best-in-class torque, best-in-class passenger space, best rear-seat legroom, lowest cargo floor for loading.

Poke around under the cargo floor and you’ll see the only sign of hybrid sacrifice. To accommodate its lithium-ion battery, the CR-V’s standard spare tire has been replaced by a tire repair kit. Got a flat? The kit will fill the tire with air while also coating the interior with a puncture sealer. Hopefully, ahem, that sealer will last as far as the nearest service station.

Other oddities include steering-wheel paddles so that you can play with regenerative braking. And at low speeds the hybrid will emit an eerie, alien spacecraft sound to alert other earthlings that a quiet electric car is headed their way — as required by federal law.

It’s weird. But, hey, sometimes hybrids have to let out their inner nerd.

2020 Honda CR-V Hybrid

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

Price: $28,870, including $1,120 destination charge ($37,070 Touring as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter 4-cylinder mated to AC motor with 1.4-kWh lithium-ion battery

Power: 212 total system horsepower, 232 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Single-speed direct drive

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.6 seconds (Car and Driver); towing: NA

Weight: 3,763 lbs. as tested

Fuel economy: EPA 40 city/35 highway/38 combined

Report card

Highs: 38 mpg for a family SUV; standard features galore

Lows: Homely face; no spare tire

Overall: 4 stars

Is virus-inspired eNASCAR a glimpse at the autonomous racing future?

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 25, 2020

Former General Motors vice chairman and car guru Bob Lutz created a buzz in the auto world three years ago when he described a dystopian future in which professional drivers would safely pilot their race cars remotely while fans watched online.

America got a taste of such a future last weekend.

With the U.S. auto industry in lockdown and professional racing canceled due to the COVID-19 crisis, major race series televised virtual races featuring top-name drivers remotely driving their cars. For sure, the cars weren’t autonomous, but the experience was similar: fans got to witness a thrilling race free of the threat of injury.

The eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational race at the virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway, for example, was put on via iRacing’s popular online game platform and broadcast via Fox Sports 1. Viewers saw a thrilling, crash-filled race with NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Daytona 500-winner Denny Hamlin dueling to the stripe. But Hamlin’s victory came without the carnage that accompanied his real-life Daytona win this January that sent competitor Ryan Newman to the emergency ward after a harrowing last-lap pileup.

“I insist that autonomous racing would be fantastic to watch,” Lutz told The News in 2017. “A battle of the sensors and adaptive software. There would be huge progress, and on the way to human-level perfection, spectacular crashes — but with nobody hurt! What’s not to like?”

The NASCAR race — and the IMSA Sebring sports car event and Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix that were also virtually run this weekend — are experiments meant to entertain fans in a desperate time. But they also dovetail with a zero-risk era where public venues have shut down for fear of transmitting the virus, and auto companies promise a future of zero fatalities.

“Zero, zero, zero,” is the new mantra of GM, for example.

“General Motors has committed itself to leading the way toward this future, guided by our vision of zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion,” wrote Mary Barra in 2017 describing an autonomous, battery-powered transportation revolution that she said would eliminate 1.25 million global auto fatalities, global warming and time-killing traffic jams.

Her vision dovetailed with Lutz’s own prediction of a self-driving future at Road & Track magazine’s 70th anniversary at the 2017 New York Auto Show, and again in an Automotive News column. Lutz sees a future where autonomous, ride-hailing services like Uber, Lyft and Cruise would crowd out personal driving.

“The tipping point will come when 20-30% of vehicles are fully autonomous. Countries will look at the accident statistics and figure out that human drivers are causing 99.9% of the accidents,” wrote Lutz.

Racing would soon follow, with autonomous events promising zero-risk entertainment.

The idea horrified racing legend Mario Andretti, who appeared on a panel with Lutz at the Road & Track anniversary.

“You’re talking about autonomous cars?” Andretti recalled in an Automobile magazine interview about the evening. “I don’t know. I wish I would have had a magic wand to look into the future a little bit, but there is cause for concern. Just thinking of the young talent, the young careers, looking forward, I’m always concerned about that, because I love the sport so much.”

On the virtual, eNASCAR track Sunday, young and old talent mixed. Chase Briscoe, an up-and-coming 25-year-old with Ford in NASCAR’s Xfinity minor-league series raced fender-to-fender against NASCAR Cup stars like Hamlin and Jimmy Johnson.

Retired superstar Earnhardt, now a TV analyst, also competed to amp up the entertainment. He retired in 2017 for fear of injury after multiple concussions over his career. Racing insiders say virtual, autonomous racing would spare drivers injury.

The eNASCAR Homestead race was broadcast with NASCAR’s familiar play-by-play trio of Mike Joy, Jeff Gordon and Larry McReynolds — each socially distanced from the other.

The field of racers all participated remotely via home computer simulators ranging from Hamlin’s estimated $10,000-plus setup to Timmy Hill’s more basic, off-the-shelf Logitech hardware. The racing around the virtual, 1.5-mile oval speedway was tight and full of wrecks given the wide range of experience at computer racing. The damage inhibited cars’ performance just as in real life, but racers were given two opportunities to “reset” their cars to keep racing if the damage got too bad.

Virtual cars carried their usual corporate sponsors including automakers Chevy, Ford and Toyota.

“There’s not another sport that can simulate to this degree,” marveled Joy.

Veteran racing auto writer Steven Cole Smith, who covered the weekend’s virtual racing for Autoweek.com, was unconvinced that computer-based or autonomous racing is the future.

“I hope I don’t live long enough to see that,” he said, musing on the inherent risk in racing that inspired Ernest Hemingway to write: “Auto racing, bullfighting and mountain climbing are the only real sports. All others are games.”

For his part, Lutz says the virtual weekend racing gave a glimpse at the inevitable future. “With passing and crashing, it will soon be as much fun as watching the real thing. You could even imagine a future master-computer that randomly feeds in mechanical failures, including yellow-flag ‘debris on track.’”

The virtual racing series will continue in the weeks ahead, joined by an IndyCar e-race at Michigan International Speedway next weekend.

Report: Auto sales T-boned by COVID-19 restrictions

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 25, 2020

The COVID-19 virus could slash sales of new vehicles by more than a third this month, according to automotive forecaster J.D. Power.

With state-mandated shutdowns in major markets accelerating across the country from New York to Detroit to San Francisco, the company says sales are already off 19% from its original March forecast. If current trends hold, J.D. Power expects sales by the end of the month to be off 32-40% from pre-virus forecasts.

J.D. Power’s Tyson Jominy expects Metro Detroit sales to decline by 80% in coming weeks as its March 25 shelter-in-place order mirrors those of other metro areas. San Francisco, for example, saw sales crater by 86% over the weekend after its March 17 stay-at-home order.

“It’s pretty clear that stay-at-home orders are the determining factor,” said Jominy, vice president of data and analytics. “Even in Detroit that has an unusually high lease rate due to home-town automakers. We expect Detroit to have similar levels of decline to other areas in the near future.”

Looking ahead, the Troy-based firm expects March through July to be the most heavily impacted months with a sales losses of 1.8-2.8 million units. The company is using China’s 12-week cycle of recovery as a baseline for its forecasts on the virus’s impact. Assuming fewer government restrictions in the latter half of the year, it forecasts annual sales between 13.3 and 14.8 million units – down 12-21% from a forecast of 16.8 million sales before the virus struck. U.S. sales for 2019 were 17.1 million, a record fifth-straight year over 17 million.

The J.D. Power numbers dovetail with other forecasts. IHS Markit sees a decline to 14.4 million in sales, a 15.3% drop, while Browne Consulting predicts a decline in US sales to 14.28 million units, a 16.5% reduction. The drops are shy of the 19% reduction in the 2008-2009 Great Recession.

Globally, IHS Markit forecasts a “stalling of demand in 2020” worse than the 8% global recession with car sales dropping 12% from 2019 to 78.8 million units.

Among major markets through last week, Detroit was least impacted with sales up 2% in March. San Francisco saw sales drop 41% this month, including the 86% weekend plummet after its March 17 shelter order. Seattle, once the US epicenter of the pandemic, is now the fourth most affected market, dropping behind San Francisco, Sacramento, and San Diego.

“It is important to recognize that while month-to-date results in some markets appear relatively robust, the sales pace in all markets is falling rapidly and a majority of ‘stay-at-home’ orders had not taken effect last week,” wrote Jominy in J.D. Power’s report. “The complete impact of the new rules will become apparent this week.”

Auto sales declines have tracked the coronavirus panic as it has emptied US streets week by week. Sales on March 8 were off 1%, March 15 by 15%, and March 22 by 35%.

Those numbers are expected to accelerate into April with J.D. Power predicting sales off 79 percent nationwide to just 230,000 units as more governors follow the 25 states (60 percent of the US population) that currently have stay-at-home orders.

However, the forecast sees bright spots assuming the restrictions start to lift in the weeks ahead.

Some 31 percent of consumers lease vehicles and J.D. Power expects 50 percent of them will postpone a decision when their vehicles come off lease in the next few months.

“When the restrictions lift, that means a large numbers of people will be coming back to the market,” said Thomas King, chief product officer for J.D. Power.

Unlike past economic downturns, King does not see auto production as an issue as plants were going full tilt before they shut down for COVID-19. Inventories are at a healthy 3.7 million units on the ground meaning customers will have lots of choice to return to.

Returning to production, however, is expected to be difficult, says JD Power, due to supply chains issues after weeks of shuttering. New production is expected to decline by 50% in April, 33% in May, and 10 in June.

To motivate buyers to return, dealers are ramping up rarely-used, 84-month lease terms. “We anticipate such loans to be prevalent” says King who notes they normally account for just 7% of the market.

The longer-term loans should also help the industry maintain record-high, pre-COVID-19 transaction prices of $33,600– key to maintaining auto profitably.

Sellers in the used market, however, will see their assets depreciate as used car values are falling faster than new cars.

Why Tesla resisted COVID-19 ultimatum to shutter Model Y production

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 21, 2020

Tesla Inc. agreed to shut down production at its Fremont, California, facility by Monday after days of tension with local Alameda County authorities over whether its facility constituted an “essential business” under coronavirus shelter-in-place guidelines.

The automaker was in the middle of the launch of its Model Y electric crossover that one industry analyst deemed “mission critical.”

“We have decided to temporarily suspend production at our factory in Fremont, from end of day March 23, which will allow an orderly shutdown,” Tesla said in a statement to investors.

The shutdown came a day after the EV pioneer pushed back on the county sheriff’s ultimatum in an email to its employees — first reported by Electrek.com — that it was “decreasing onsite personnel … while honoring our government commitment to keep our national critical infrastructure running.”

Tesla had defined “national critical infrastructure” as “business sectors crucial to the economic prosperity and continuity of the United States and includes auto manufacturing and energy infrastructure as defined by the Department of Homeland Security.”

Tesla’s reticence has been in contrast to Detroit-based automakers that have shut down their operations after concerns from United Auto Workers members and their leadership, including President Rory Gamble.

J.D. Power Vice President for Data and Analytics Tyson Jominy says that non-union start-up Tesla is under more pressure to produce because it has a thinner portfolio than traditional luxury automakers and because it usually makes its U.S. shipments at the end of each quarter.

“Model Y production is mission-critical to Tesla,” Jominy said. “They’re missing the bulk of the SUV market and the Model Y will greatly increase their market share. They are being watched more than anyone else by investors.”

He said Tesla’s revenue structure is also different than other carmakers since it sells directly to consumers. Where other companies book sales revenue to dealers as soon as cars leave the factory, Tesla operates its own dealerships and must deliver to customers to receive cash.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has resisted the idea that the coronavirus is a crisis. Alameda County, population over 1.5 million, reported 35 cases of COVID-19 by Thursday.

In its note to investors, Tesla said basic operations at Fremont would continue after March 23 “in order to support our vehicle and energy service operations and charging infrastructure.” Its Nevada battery gigafactory production is unaffected as is its national Supercharging network.

How the coronavirus brought auto marketing blitzes to a halt

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 21, 2020

Tucson, Arizona — When the last Honda CR-V Hybrid test vehicle was loaded on a car trailer here Friday, the auto industry’s media marketing machine packed up with it.

In an unprecedented seven-day period, automakers in the U.S. market — with one significant exception — shut down their media rollouts of new models to the public to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Like Hollywood’s postponement of new film releases, the delay will stack up introduction of new models and disrupt marketing plans.

Disruption caused by the outbreak has disrupted the marketing rollouts of vehicles like the 2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer.

Only Tesla bucked the industry trend as CEO Elon Musk downplayed the outbreak as the company’s compact SUV, the Model Y, began delivery to customers. Unlike other carmakers, however, Tesla does not invest in big, media-focused marketing campaigns, so its contrarian view did not disrupt the company’s product plans.

“Out of an abundance of caution, we have made the decision to cancel the Trailblazer drive program for now,” read the General Motors Co. email to the automotive press just four days before the Chevy Trailblazer subcompact SUV’s March 9-14 media test program in Phoenix. GM cited concerns for safety after reviewing recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization.

Cancellation of a California media rollout for the Cadillac CT4 and CT5 luxury sedans quickly followed. Then another big blow the following Monday: the postponement of Cadillac’s first all-electric vehicle, the Lyriq SUV — a product GM hopes will redefine its luxury brand for years to come.

Media reveals and test programs are part of carefully choreographedrollouts to maximize publicity for products that can cost hundreds of millions of dollars to bring to market.

“They are an important way to get key media to understand the products in a short period of time, then write about them,” says veteran auto analyst Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Kelley Blue Book. “That helps customers learn about the car as they arrive at dealerships.”

GM’s cancellations came at the start of a busy spring of introductions, and sent ripples through the industry. An automaker of GM’s size forced other automakers to reassess their own programs.

Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk was unconcerned, tweeting he same day: “The coronavirus panic is dumb.”

Coincidentally, GM’s action came just days after the producers of the James Bond movie “No Time to Die” delayed its release date from Easter weekend (April 10) to Nov. 25 for fear the film’s box office returns would be severely impacted by the virus.

“The James Bond movie is a metaphor for auto reveals. Movies are released at a specific time for maximum audience exposure,” said Brauer. “You don’t want them all jammed together or they will be stepping on each other.”

That reality was a key factor as Ford, Hyundai and Porsche all pushed forward with their programs the week of March 16-21. But the pressure continued to mount.

On March 10 the New York Auto Show, one of North America’s largest exhibitions with numerous product reveals and over 1 million attendees, threw in the towel.

 “For 120 years, ‘the show must go on’ has been heavily embedded in our DNA, and while the decision to move the show dates didn’t come easy, our top priority remains with the health and well-being of all those involved,” said show organizer Mark Schienberg in announcing the show’s first postponement since World War II.

Like “No Time to Die,” it got a new date: Aug. 28 to Sept. 6. Auto products wouldn’t be so lucky.

On Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, members of the media arrived in Tucson for Honda’s CR-V Hybrid program. Unlike other automakers, Honda had not banned executive travel in the U.S., and its program — with just 50 media over two days — would be a compact affair.

It would also be the last for a while.

Friday the 13th opened with Ford pulling the plug on its March 17-18 Bronco plans — a painful step given the importance in spearheading the Blue Oval’s shift from cars to SUVs. The move came after Washington banned European travel and COVID-19 cases continued to rise. “We concluded the issue has taken on a different dimension,” said a Ford representative.

With its German-based executives banned from travel to the States, Porsche followed suit — canceling its March 22 California media test program for its new 911 Turbo S.

Only Tesla remained defiant as Musk reportedly expanded on his March 6 coronavirus tweet with a March 13 email to employees. According to a copy of the email leaked to Buzzfeed, Musk told employees the evidence “suggests that (COVID-19) is not within the top 100 health risks in the United States.”

Tesla’s chief followed up with another email, reported by the LA Times, on March 16 saying that: “My frank opinion is that the harm from the coronavirus panic far exceeds that of the virus itself,” adding that COVID-19 cases “will not exceed 0.1% of the population.”

Model Y deliveries began over the weekend — ahead of schedule.

By week’s end, it was clear Honda would be the last media event until May. In a Super Bowl ad back on Feb. 2, GM announced its electric Hummer SUV would debut May 20.

In perhaps a light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel, the event is still on.

Payne: Trusty Toyota 4Runner is 4Ever

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 15, 2020

Ford is about to enter the truck-based SUV market with the Ford Bronco and I get it. People are passionate about these things.

Yet, there are only two truck-based SUVs in the mid-size market — the Jeep Wrangler and the Toyota 4Runner. The Toyota what?

You can be forgiven for forgetting the Tacoma pickup-based ute doesn’t exist because Toyota hasn’t remade it since the Mesozoic Era (actually, 2009). It hasn’t had a wall-to-wall marketing campaign for some time, unlike the Jeep. You’d have to have been living on Mars not to have seen one of the Jeep ads (and I’m told there’s a Mars trim coming.). But 4Runner fans know the Toyota is there.

“What do you drive?” I recently asked a male acquaintance in Los Angeles.

“A 4Runner. Best car I’ve ever owned.”

“What do you have in the garage?” I asked a female shuttle driver in Texas.

“4Runner, I love it.”

We automotive journalists are guilty of pooh-poohing anything that hasn’t been remade in the last five years. We’re like children attracted to the latest shiny thing. But evidence is that you don’t have to be shiny to be relevant these days.

Take the Dodge Challenger and Charger muscle cars, two of the most-recognized nameplates in America thanks to savvy marketing, state-of-the-art infotainment and big horsepower. Make that ginormous horsepower.

Customers shrug at the fact that the Dodge brothers are based on an ancient 2006 chassis.

Ditto the 4Runner.

I climbed into my 4Runner tester with Mrs. Payne on a cold winter night at Detroit Metro airport after a long week away. The snow was blowing and the roads were covered with it. Detroit potholes were lurking. Boy, was I glad to see the 4Runner’s big bones and knobby, high-profile tires.

After a long day, we were in no mood to spend the next 45 minutes crawling along Detroit’s pocked cart paths worrying about a blowout in subfreezing temps. The opposite was true of 4Runner. The beast positively loved the conditions.

Like a salty sailor on rough seas, the 4Runner relies on old technology to chart its course. I eased the shifter into neutral, then yanked the truck’s second transfer-case shifter (familiar to Wrangler fans, too) back into four-wheel drive. With all four wheels churning, we set off into the gloom.

The 4Runner sits a ridiculous 10 inches off the ground with a Jeep-like 33-degree front departure angle for off-roading. Heck, we probably could have just cut through the woods to go home. The ute even includes a crawl mode for nature’s worst. This fearlessness has made Toyota’s ute a favorite of folks in rural communities where snowplows often take days to catch up to rutted roads. But this night, we decided to stick to paved roads.

The SUV bombed happily along, the 4.0-liter 270-horse V-6 mill roaring its approval. V-6s, of course, are frowned upon in this woke green age of turbocharged fuel-sipping 4-bangers. But with its guttural growl and instant torque, the six-holer matches 4Runner’s can-do character. Like the V-6s and V-8s under the hoods of Chargers and Challengers, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Customers sure don’t think the 4Runner is old-fashioned. Sales numbers in the last five years have seen a steady climb from 76,906 in 2014 to 131,888 last year. That’s a 70% jump, mirroring the 60% rise in Toyota Tacoma pickup sales to nearly 250,000 units over the same period.

As the U.S. has moved to SUVs, the idea of a Tacoma SUV with a hatch instead of a pickup bed has real appeal. Ford no doubt hopes for the same gains from a Ranger pickup-based Bronco.

Like Dodge, 4Runner mixes its old-fashioned with a taste of modern tech.

Once on M-39 headed north, I set adaptive cruise-control to 60 mph to avoid Melvindale and Dearborn speed traps. The localities are famous for using the 55-mph speed-limited Southfield Freeway to raise revenue, catching travelers who’ve been traveling the 70 mph common to the rest of the freeway.

Asian automakers have been aggressive about outfitting all their vehicles — right down to $20,000-something compacts — with safety systems like adaptive cruise and automatic emergency-braking. The 4Runner is no exception. In addition to saving my bacon from police radar, automatic cruise-control is a welcome trip companion.

Adaptive cruise is enabled by the big radar brick in the 4Runner’s gaping fish-mouth grille. After a while on M-59, ice and snow began to coat the brick like gnats in a Florida summer. Soon, the 4Runner’s brick was coated and the car’s brain told me adaptive cruise-control was no longer available. No problem, but a reminder of the many challenges self-driving systems have to overcome.

The 4Runner encountered no navigation challenges on the route thanks to another piece of updated software, Apple CarPlay. My wife simply plugged in her phone, and Google Maps routed us around stormy obstacles — traffic backups, road closures, accidents — for the quickest way home.

Speaking of plugs, 4Runner also has a three-prong outlet in the boot — perfect for charging laptop or other devices, because who carries those round cigarette lighter chargers with them anymore?

In a week of frosty, snowy weather, the Toyota was a welcome addition to the driveway. The big lug’s not much to look at, but my $48,000 Venture Edition tester served its purpose as a proper utility vehicle with heated front thrones, fold-flat second-row seats for extended cargo room, slide-out rear floor and updated 8-inch screen that keeps pace with the Wrangler’s modern U-Connect system.

Toyota prices comparably favorably to the Wrangler, too, while offering more cargo space and better interior quiet — if less overall character than the Jeep.

Both the Wrangler and the 4Runner are ol’ St. Bernards that will run the extra mile to save you from the elements. That’s how owners like them and sales numbers prove the point. Which sets up an interesting opportunity for the coming Bronco, which will surely bring lots of cutting-edge Ford tech to the ladder-frame segment.

The 4Runner is a loyal old friend. And customers are loyal back.

2020 Toyota 4Runner

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

Price: $37,240, including $1,120 destination charge ($48,877 AWD Venture Special Edition as tested)

Powerplant: 4.0-liter 6-cylinder

Power: 270 horsepower, 278 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 5-speed automatic with second transfer-case shifter for AWD

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.7 seconds (Car and Driver); towing, 5,000 pounds

Weight: 4,750 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 17 city/20 highway/18 combined

Report card

Highs: Rugged beast; nice modern touches like Apple CarPlay and 3-prong electric plug

Lows: Dated interior; gotta muscle that transfer-case shifter

Overall: 3 stars

As GM and Ford ramp up EVs for US, Europeans retreat

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 15, 2020

As General Motors and Ford Motor Co. bet the farm on electric vehicles, European manufacturers are pulling vehicles from the U.S. market for lack of demand.

BMW confirmed this week that it will not bring its electric iX3 crossover to these shores, following a decision by Mercedes in December to delay the introduction of its EQC EV here. They will be sold in international markets like Europe and China where governments are forcing electrification with penalties and consumer incentives.

The BMW and Mercedes made their decisions despite the fact that the iX3 and EQC are aimed at the heart of the American market: the compact SUV segment. The similar-size gas-powered BMW X3 and Mercedes GLC are the German automakers’ best-selling vehicles here.

The moves follow poor sales for Jaguar’s iPace SUV, which debuted to media raves last year as a Tesla-killer but which has failed to catch fire with consumers. Tesla dominates the EV market with 80% of sales and has been the only automaker to sell in volume.

The German automakers’ retreat comes as GM and Ford go all-in on electrification, hoping to duplicate Tesla’s sales success.

Ford is investing $11 billion to produce 20 new EVs by 2023, headlined by the Tesla Model Y-fighting Mustang MachE compact ute. GM last week said it will spend $20 billion on 22 vehicles in the same time frame. Ford predicts a third of its vehicles will be electric by 2030 while GM says 60% of its research and development is committed to EVs as it electrifies all its brands.

GM is targeting Tesla a decade after introducing the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid in response to the Toyota Prius hybrid which industry analysts expected to lead a consumer stampede to hybrids. Volt production ended last year after disappointing sales, while Prius sales are off 60% from last decade as predictions of an oil shock never came to fruition.

This month’s drop in crude prices may create more headwinds for battery-powered vehicles.

The average price of gas nationally was $2.34 this week – down from $4-a-gallon in 2011 – with prices as low as $1.79 in Metro Detroit due to an international oil price war cause by decreased demand due to the coronavirus scare.

Despite the U.S. debut of 45 pure electric and plug-in hybrids to considerable hype last year, battery-powered sales plunged 6.8% to only 325,000 in sales according to Edmunds.

BMW and Mercedes, however, are bullish on sales of their EV SUVs overseas, especially in Europe and China where government incentives are heavily skewed toward electrics. In Europe auto fleets must meet carbon dioxide targets of 95 grams/per liter – equivalent to 57 mpg – or face massive fines.

A U.S. National Highway Transportation Safety Administration analysis of a similar U.S. target of 54.5 mpg by 2025 would have no impact on global temperatures by the year 2100.

To encourage consumers to buy EVs, countries are dangling a host of incentives – and penalties. France, for example is imposing a tax of up to $20,000 on non-electric cars. A new VW Touareg diesel SUV will see an increased tax this year of nearly $8,000. Norway and Denmark tax non-EVs by over 100% of sticker price.

“The EV market is purely a government creation,” said Seeking Alpha auto analyst and investor Anton Wahlman. “Take away government mandates, subsidies and other incentives, and EVs are a steady 0.1% of the market whether we’re talking about Laos, Louisiana or Luxembourg.”

Despite nixing the iX3 — and poor sales for its current i3 and i8 EV lineup currently —  a BMW spokesperson says more EVs are in the pipeline for the US in 2021: “The iNext goes into production in the middle of 2021, followed by the BMW i4, which begins production towards the end of 2021.”

Both vehicles are based on BMW’s all-new “skateboard” architecture.

GM EVs will also be based on a new skateboard platform which the company believes is game-changing when combined with the continued drop of battery prices. GM says that, in addition to its green benefits, its BEV3 architecture is more efficient to manufacture, provides more crash protection than gas cars, and will offer a more refined driving experience.

“No one knows the (customer) adoption curve,” GM President Mark Reuss said last week. “So we have to be tooled and ready to go.”

Other automakers express similar sentiments that EV adoption is inevitable both because of government regulation and a consumer shift. At a Volkswagen test program in Vancouver this month, executives said the millennial generation covets EVs because they are environmentally aware – and because they expect the same technology in cars as in their battery-powered smartphones.

VW plans on introducing the first of its all-electric ID line – the Tesla-like ID.4 crossover – to the U.S. later this year. Product planners say, however, EV acceptance in the U.S. may come slowly.

So to meet consumer demand, VW is introducing another variant of its hot-selling gas-powered three-row Atlas SUV – the two-row Atlas Cross Sport.

IndyCar opener: In his 20th season, Dixon isn’t slowing down

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 15, 2020

Think of Scott Dixon as IndyCar’s Roger Federer.

As he enters his 20th year in American open-wheel racing this weekend in St. Petersburg, Florida, Dixon has dominated the sport like few before him. Like Federer in tennis, Dixon has been a constant at the top of the sport, winning five championships and amassing more wins (46) than any driver before him save for Mario Andretti and AJ Foyt.

He was the youngest-ever (20) winner in his first year, won his first championship in his third season, and has finished outside the Top Five in points only five times. Shortly after the Detroit Grand Prix this May, he will turn 40 while racing neck-and-neck with young guns half his age.

“It’s interesting to see how each generation shifts,” he said in an interview from his home in Indianapolis. “It’s what drives you. It’s purely competition, and with these young guys there’s been a big insurgence in recent years in IndyCar. I’m loving it.”

One of those young guys this year will be 23-year-old rookie Oliver Askew of Sweden, part of a bumper crop of new talent, who punched his ticket to the NTT IndyCar Series by winning the Indy Lights feeder championship last year, just like New Zealand-native Dixon did 20 years ago on the heels of a dominant 2000 Indy Lights campaign.

Dixon has tasted success on Detroit’s rugged street course — winning here three times — but not at St. Petersburg.

“I’ve never won there, which is something that bugs me,” says the veteran nicknamed the Iceman. “We had some great pre-testing, and the team has done a great job gearing up for the season.”

Though both St. Pete and Detroit are street courses, Dixon emphasizes that they are dramatically different from the cockpit, primarily because of Belle Isle’s concrete surface.

“Detroit is its own bag, really. It’s a concrete circuit and it’s quite rough just with where all the seams are and how the concrete lays,” he said. “Technically, St. Pete has a little more grip and a little more high-speed. Detroit has . . . very low grip in some areas.”

Detroit commuters know what he’s talking about.

Dixon has been at the top of IndyCar for so long in part because he is a master of all surfaces. Again, the Federer analogy applies.

The 38-year old Swiss legend has won his 20 tennis titles on grass, hard courts, and clay. IndyCar is like no other racing series on the planet — requiring drivers to win on street courses, road courses, short-track ovals, and super-speedway ovals if they are to take home the crown after 17 races.

That versatility is no more in evidence than the week of May 24-31 when racers will transition from the banked Indianapolis super-speedway to two punishing races on Belle Isle’s mean streets.

“That’s the biggest extreme you can have,” said Dixon, who won the coveted Indy 500 in 2008. “One week you’re at 250 mph with almost no downforce on the car — about 1,500 pounds — and then go to a street course topping out at 170 mph but with 6,000 pounds of downforce on the car.  I love that mix as a driver.”

It wasn’t always so.

Dixon came to US open-wheel racing from the epic road courses of New Zealand and Australia — “my all-time favorite’s Philip Island, which is just outside of Melbourne” — but had to quickly adapt to the banked ovals adored by American fans.

“Honestly, (my) first year in 2001, I didn’t get along well with the ovals,” said Dixon, even though he had had success in Indy racing’s junior series, Indy Lights. A move to Chip Ganassi’s racing team in 2002, however, was a turning point. He’s been with Ganassi ever since.

“Once I moved to Ganassi and had a good base of (chassis) setups, it was a good mind shift for me. We went on to win the championship,” he said, recalling an era when the open-wheel series was split between CART and the Indy Racing League. All 16 IRL races were held on ovals.

Through his two decades of success in the U.S., Dixon has had numerous rivals including champions Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish, and most recently Josef Newgarden. But perhaps no driver has been as consistently excellent over the last decade as Will Power — an Australian who is the same age as Dixon.

Named Autoweek’s top two “Drivers of the Decade,” (Dixon is No. 1) they are the only two pilots to have finished in the Top 10 in points the last 10 years.

Yet, where Federer and Rafael Nadal will forever be compared as tennis rivals, Dixon does not view Power in the same manner.

“(There’s) not a set rivalry, it’s always the guy you’re competing with at the time. I think it’s more team based,” reflects Dixon, who will pilot a Honda-powered Dallara Sunday. “We benchmark ourselves off Penske. They are a helluva team with a fantastic driver lineup and the same goes for Andretti.”

Dixon says the new season brings a big change for drivers as they acclimate to the “aeroscreen” safety cockpit design meant to shield them from flying debris. A fierce competitor, Dixon would relish another swim in Belle Isle’s fountain if he can win again here in Detroit.

“It’s the only time I’ve ever jumped in a fountain,” he laughed. “It was a lot colder than I expected, but when you’re winning, man, who cares!”

But the race that animates him like no other — a universal feeling among his peers — is the Indianapolis 500.

“Indy is like nothing else. I’ve been lucky enough to go to Super Bowls, World Cups, all the great events around the world,” said the Kiwi. “But to get almost 400,000 people in one place — the atmosphere is crazy.”

The road racing talent who won his first racing title as a 14-year old on the other side of the world, is now the dean of IndyCar drivers.

“I never really got (oval racing) until I drove it. And then I thought, ‘Wow, this is so tough, and so technical.’ It’s crazy, man, living life on the edge at 250 mph.”

IndyCar Series highlights

Opener: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

When: 3 p.m. Sunday

TV: NBCSN

Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix 

Race 1: 3 p.m. Saturday, May 30

Race 2: 3 p.m. Sunday, May 31

TV: Both on NBC

Automakers get ‘imaginative’ with coronavirus parts disruptions

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 15, 2020

The real impact of the coronavirus outbreak in China on the North American auto industry soon could be felt as delays from the shipment of parts catch up to automakers — a disruption that could lead suppliers to reverse a trend of consolidating production in China.

As automakers cancel vehicle showings and implement employee travel restrictions, the magnitude of the outbreak’s impact on U.S. manufacturers ultimately will depend on demand, according to experts. Companies may have to pay extra to prioritize shipping or for air freight travel as the extended holiday and slow production ramp-up catches up to manufacturers. But if the virus worsens here, it could hurt demand. While that may reduce the need for expedited shipments, it could cause a host of other problems.

“The larger danger, in my opinion, is a demand-side collapse,” Michael Dunne, CEO of Hong Kong-based advisory firm ZoZo Go LLC, said Friday during a webinar held by the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor. “People’s appetite for going out, buying things, doing things can go to nothing in a hurry. … It’s a time for extended uncertainty over the next several months and to get used it to as soon as we can.”

The U.S. death toll on Friday rose to 14 people in Washington state as total cases surpassed 250 in the United States. President Donald Trump signed an $8.3 billion emergency spending bill to help combat the outbreak.

For now, automakers are facing the challenge of ensuring they have the parts they need. General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra earlier this week said the company’s supply chain has been secured through late March.

“Out of an abundance of caution, we have made the decision to cancel,” a GM representative said in an email. The electric GMC Hummer reveal scheduled for May is still on pending review.

GM now also is requiring leadership approval for employees traveling domestically and internationally. Fiat Chrysler Automobile NV implemented similar measures earlier this week. The Italian American automaker is developing contingency plans and changing vehicle specifications where a certain part may be in short supply.

Ford Motor Co. has extended its restrictions on non-essential domestic and international travel for employees to April 17 from March 27. It remains on track to unveil its highly anticipated Bronco off-road SUV this spring.

“I’ll acknowledge we’ve been imaginative in how we’ve managed the issue so far, including the supply side in terms of specific forms they’ve taken,” Ford spokesman T.R. Reid said. “We can fulfill the needs of our customers. Second to keeping our people safe, that’s the top objective for us.”

About three-quarters of the dollar value of auto parts made in China that are imported to the United States are used to make vehicles, according to the Center for Automotive Research. The largest categories of imports were wheels, brakes and brake parts.

But “it doesn’t matter what we get from China because everyone else gets things from China,” said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of the Center for Automotive Research. “It’s a very layered and integrated global supply chain.”

The outbreak in China began just before the Lunar New Year holiday, a build-up in production prior has helped to reduce disruption for now, Dziczek said. It can take a month for two for shipments to reach North America — about as much inventory as automakers typically have on hand. That is compared to just two weeks to Japan and South Korea, causing early shutdowns at Hyundai Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. there.

“That buffer is drawing down,” Dziczek said. “It’s going to start to bite really soon.”

And with greater consolidation of vehicle platforms, more factories are reliant on the same suppliers, causing a greater multiplier effect.

The result, experts predict, will be a reverse in trend of suppliers moving global production to China. In the 1990s, suppliers pivoted to China from producing in Southeast Asia as China’s economy continued to grow in the 2000s and 2010s. But trade tensions and two consecutive years of decreasing demand for automobiles there are changing the picture. Coronavirus is accelerating the change, ZoZo Go’s Dunne said.

“The urgency around that has just been amplified as manufacturers and suppliers have found with the events unfolding in China,” Dunne said. “Without sources outside of China, they’re extremely vulnerable.”

That likely means China production is moving up the value chain with what is made there staying there, said Paul Stepanek, owner of Complete Manufacturing and Distribution, an Asian consulting firm. Global parts production could return to other parts of Southeast Asia like India, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.

“That,” Dunne said,  “is a big new strategic direction for them.”

Presidential candidates drive Chevys, except for Sanders’ Subaru

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 5, 2020

Michigan’s Tuesday presidential primary is a key stop on the road to the White House, and Michiganians want to know what the Democratic and Republican candidates will be picking them up in.

Looks like a long line of Chevys — and a foreign-made Subaru.

From former Vice President Joe Biden’s smoking hot Corvette to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Chevy Aveo egg-beater to President Donald Trump’s Indy 500 Camaro pace car, the candidates like the General’s iron. But Sanders was seen Tuesday driving his wife Jane to the Vermont polls in a Subaru Forester.

Even the Democratic pols who dropped out of the race just ahead of the Michigan primary (but will still be on the ballot Tuesday) drove Chevys when they weren’t on their campaign bus.

The personal vehicles of political candidates have always been fraught with meaning as politicians express their empathy for the state that put America on wheels — and the United Auto Workers union employees who built them. Candidate choices are  complicated by Democratic platforms that declare autos a threat to the planet, even as the Detroit Three automakers butter their bread with hulking sport utility vehicles and trucks coveted by consumers.

Few consumer items express your personality like a car. You are what you drive. Truck owners are different from sports car owners are different from hybrid owners. During the last presidential election, a CarTalk.com/National Public Radio poll found that 86% of electric car owners were for a Democrat and 14% supported Republicans. GOP supporters were more likely to drive Detroit Three truck brands.

Auto choices can toe a fine line, as illustrated by Michigan favorite Barack Obama, the Democratic president who chastised the Motor City at the Detroit Economic Club in 2007 for not making more Toyota Prius-like hybrids — yet owned an earth-pawing, V8-powered Chrysler 300C himself.

Here’s what you’ll find in the 2020 candidates’ garages.

Joe Biden

Like the president he served, the ex-veep likes cool wheels – but could not drive to the office by Secret Service rules. When he is on the campaign trail, Biden plays to his party’s green base, saying “we’ve got to take combustion engine cars off the road as rapidly as we can.”

But Biden is a self-proclaimed car guy who famously drag-raced former Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2016 in his V8-powered, ’67 Corvette Stingray convertible on the “Jay Leno’s Garage” TV Show. The muscle car was a wedding gift from his father.

Bernie Sanders

The Sanders campaign advertises its candidate drives a fuel-efficient, 2011 Chevy Aveo, fitting a political message that targets One Percenters and encourages sacrifice to fight climate change. The Aveo averaged 27 miles per gallon in city driving and 35 mpg on the highway.

But on Super Tuesday, CBS News reported that Sanders drove “himself and wife, Jane, to their polling location … in a Subaru Forester.” Made in Japan, the Forester runs counter to Sanders’ vocal support for UAW workers and American-manufactured products — though Subaru has brand status in liberal, environmentally conscious Vermont. A 2020 model averages 27 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway.

“We are appreciative of the support of Sen. Biden, Sen. Sanders, Sen. Warren and all of the Democratic candidates, especially during the recent 40-day strike and on trade issues,” UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg said in a statement. “Ultimately when we all purchase a vehicle, buying a union-made vehicle, made right here at home, is the most direct way to invest in all of us.”

Like Sanders’ 2011 Aveo, other candidates seem to have taken Obama’s 2007 Detroit speech to heart. Obama promised to “require automakers to meet higher fuel standards and produce more fuel-efficient cars.” Detroit automakers did, and the Democratic candidates bought them.

Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg bought a 30 miles-per-gallon, 2015 Chevy Cruze. On the campaign trail, Buttigieg touted the sedan’s manufacture in the key swing state of Ohio. He dropped out of the race Sunday and endorsed Biden. Billionaire Tom Steyer, who proposed banning gas-powered vehicles sales by 2030, drives a 2016 Chevy Volt plug-in. He suspended his campaign on Saturday.

Outside of the candidates, the sippy Chevys struggled to find buyers in the U.S. market, and the Aveo, Cruze and Volt are all out of production.

Elizabeth Warren

The campaign of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts did not respond to Detroit News inquiries. Her choice of vehicles outside of her “Courage over Cynicism” campaign bus is not well documented — though she does apparently Buy American. Before her Senate run in 2012, she ditched her BMW for a Ford gasoline-electric hybrid.

Mike Bloomberg

A public transit proponent, Bloomberg — like many New Yorkers — took the subway to work as mayor. Unlike most New Yorkers, Bloomberg was picked up at his Upper East Side town house by a pair of ginormous, New York Police Department-issue Chevrolet Suburban SUVs and delivered to his subway stop. His campaign said he has continued using similar SUVs following his time in office.

On Wednesday, Bloomberg dropped out of the race and endorsed Biden.

While Bloomberg doesn’t not appear to be a car guy, news reports suggest he is a plane guy. The billionaire entrepreneur is licensed to fly airplanes and helicopters. A fleet of planes are registered under his “Wing & Rotor Transportation Holdings LLC,” including a twin-turboprop Hawker Beechcraft, AgustaWestland helicopter, Cessna 182 Skylane, and three Dassault Falcon jets.

Donald Trump

The president will be on Michigan’s Republican ballot Tuesday as well, getting a nominal challenge from former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, who ran in 2016 as a Libertarian vice presidential candidate.

For the last four years, Trump has been ferried about in a Secret Service-piloted, 22,000-pound, armored Cadillac built on a heavy-duty truck chassis. Nicknamed “The Beast,” the limo recently paced the Daytona 500 field. It reportedly is powered by a diesel engine (diesel fuel is less flammable) and has 8-inch thick armor.

But the president’s personal collection also reportedly favors GM products.

There’s that 2011 Chevy Camaro Indianapolis 500 pace car as well as a Cadillac Escalade SUV and drop-top Caddy Allante. Though he doesn’t see eye-to-eye with Elon Musk on global warming, Trump also reportedly owns an American-made Tesla. Speaking of domestic fare, he also keeps a 24-karat gold, custom-made motorcycle from former “Apprentice” contestant Paul Teutal Sr. — owner of Orange County Choppers.

Trump’s collection is ever-changing, but according to news reports, he also owns a fleet of European chariots including a 1956 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud, 2015 Rolls Phantom, Mercedes S600 sedan, and 617-horse, $450,000-plus 2003 Mercedes Benz SLR McLaren.

So there is some bipartisan agreement after all. Both Bernie and The Donald own GM and foreign products. And there is this, according to the CarTalk.com poll: Supporters of the Democratic and Republican front-runners tend to own older, pre-2000 vehicles.

Payne: Ford, Mazda and Mitsubishi scrap for small-SUV best value

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 5, 2020

Payne: Ford, Mazda and Mitsubishi scrap for small-SUV best value

These are interesting times.

Where Americans once coveted soap-bar smooth sedans, now they crave the boxy, five-door SUV. Give me a game show where contestants have to identify utes by their profile and contestants would be stumped. When I arrived at my aunt’s house driving a BMW X4 she asked if it was the latest Chevy SUV. Oh, dear.

Brands have been working hard to break the monotony with coupe-like roofs and daring fascias. Peel back the top of these tin cans, and it gets more compelling: dazzling digital displays, remote rotary-controllers, high-tech driver-assist features. And that’s on vehicles that cost $30,000 and less.

Take the three small SUVs that I’ve been flogging: the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, Ford Escape Hybrid and Mazda CX-30.

Throw out the rule book. Traditionally, Mitsubishi would be the budget play here. But technology and SUV segments are moving so fast that the Japanese model is not only a generation behind the Ford and Mazda on tech smarts — it also trails in value.

Indeed, the compact-segment Escape Hybrid gives so much bang for $30,095 that it is priced competitively with the two subcompact entries here even as it offers considerably more cargo space and a fancy-pants hybrid powertrain.

The subcompact $28,720 Outlander Sport is the junior version of the compact Outlander, and it is fully loaded for our three-way comparison. It features modern amenities like push-button start, blind-spot assist, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto with Google navigation, heated leather seats, sculpted wheels and all-wheel drive.

Except for all-wheel drive, the bigger Escape matches the Mitsubishi feature-for-feature. Then it jumps ahead a whole generation.

The Escape styling is smooth and car-like. Where the Outlander still sports the chunky, upright grille of classic SUVs, the Escape looks like a Porsche Macan — itself a rendition of the Porsche 911 sports car. The Ford is easy on the eyes.

The styling contrast continues inside where the Outlander Sport is layered in hard plastic and an uninspired center console capped with aluminum. The Escape has soft-touch materials in all the right places (despite geeking out on dimpled door inlays).

The center console is a delight with a safety-conscious rotary shifter that automatically spins to Park if you accidentally open the door in the mall lot while still in Drive. It also opens up lots of console storage space.

The Escape is a student of the digital age with a 12.3-inch instrument cluster and iPad-like infotainment display. Instrument details include fuel-economy numbers, a hybrid energy indicator and dazzling drive-mode graphics.

The interior of the Outlander Sport is conventional with fixed, round instrument dials and minimal information in between. The Escape bristles with modern ergonomics. The heated front seat controls, for example, are operated by button compared to the Outlander’s clumsy rocker switch.

Safety technology is really where the Ford makes its mark.

Blind-spot assist and automatic headlight high-beam assist come standard on all Escapes — matching the loaded Outlander Sport GT trim’s offerings. These are conveniences so useful you can’t go back once you’ve experienced them.

Elsewhere, the Ford has has thoughtful touches like a double-pull hood lever so you won’t burn your hands searching under the hood for the latch. The rear seats fold flat, making for good load capacity when necessary — but only the Escape gives my knees breathing room with sliding rear seats.

The Outlander Sport feels nimble thanks to its subcompact proportions. But despite gaining 250 pounds on the Mitsubishi, the larger Escape is easy to drive with good torque from its hybrid electric motor.

Add it all up and the upsized, sophisticated Ford comes in at just $1,375 more than the Mitsubishi. Add in the hybrid’s 60% better fuel economy (41 mpg compared to 25 mpg) and the Escape will earn back the difference in fuel savings in just three years.

But …

We have one more player in our test: the Mazda CX-30. What a revelation this little dumpling is.

The CX-30 combines the best of the Ford and Mitsubishi and then cooks them into a nice recipe seasoned with Mazda’s signature handling. Like the Escape, it offers the latest electronic features standard — and more.

The result? For $28,700 (same price as the Outlander Sport) the CX-30 offers all-wheel drive like the Mitsu, looks like the Escape, and has equivalent interior features: heated leatherette seats, blind-spot assist, lane-keep assist, automatic windshield wipers, Bose audio, eight-way seats and so on.

And then it ups the ante with a luxe-like interior and state-of-the-art adaptive cruise control.

Adding adaptive cruise control — which I would argue is one of the most important safety systems out there today — on the Ford Escape adds another $2,900 to the bottom line. AWD? Another $1,500 for $34,490 total.

You can see where I’m going with this.

Standard electronic features are not only making it hard to justify the 15-grand jump from mainstream to luxury brands — it’s making it hard to justify the 5-grand jump between mainstream segments.

Ultimately, I think Detroit automakers like Ford will offer the same standard features now found on the pioneering Japanese brands like Mazda.

But as the CX-30’s handsome lines and interior betray, there is more premium here than just electronics.

I enjoy the hybrid Ford’s smooth driving experience courtesy of its hybrid drivetrain. But the CX-30’s 6-speed automatic is buttery smooth, too, and more compelling than the Ford’s dry CVT transmission. And its 186 ponies are just 12 shy of the bigger Escape.

On road, the Mazda is in its own league when it comes to handling.

Some of my motorhead peers have scoffed at the idea of nimble SUVs. The irascible Jeremy Clarkson from “The Grand Tour” writes that there’s a reason SUVs aren’t exciting to drive: “People who buy medium-sized SUVs don’t want to hammer along as if their hair is on fire.”

And my fast friends at Car and Driver wonder why anyone would want a high-riding CX-30 when its lower, nimbler Mazda 3 hot-hatch twin is available.

Fair points. I covet the Mazda 3, too.

But for those on a budget who need an SUV because it’s easier for entry/egress and offers a taller command of the road, the CX-30 compromises little of the 3’s sporty character. And lack of compromise is the theme of this comparison, after all.

For $30,000 or less, you can have it all in a SUV: looks, tech, fun, utility. Especially if it’s got a Mazda badge.

 2020 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport

2020 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport

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

Price: $28,720, including $1,095 destination charge

Powerplant: 2.4-liter 4-cylinder

Power: 168 horsepower, 167 pound-feet torque

Transmission: Automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.0 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed: 123 mph

Weight: 3,316 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 23 city/28 highway/25 combined

Report card

Highs: Loaded with standard features; tight handling

Lows: A face only a mother could love; interior a generation behind

Overall: 2 stars

2020 Ford Escape SE Sport Hybrid

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

Price: $30,090, including $900 destination charge

Powerplant: Hybrid with electric motor and 2.5-liter Atkinson 4-cylinder

Power: 198 horsepower, torque NA

Transmission: Automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT)

Performance: 0-60 mph, NA; top speed, 126 mph

Weight: 3,554 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA, 44 mpg city/37 highway/41 combined

Report card

Highs: Face like a Macan; 41 mpg

Lows: Lags Japanese in standard features; mediocre handling

Overall: 3 stars

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GMs new EV models detailed: Cadillacs, Hummers, Buicks, Chevys

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 4, 2020

Warren – General Motors gave a sneak peek Wednesday of a new generation of electric vehicles that the company says will eventually transform the company from a maker of gas-powered vehicles to electrics.

Two upscale GMC Hummers and two Cadillacs headlined the presentation. The Cadillacs showcase new, non-alphanumeric badges as the brand chases Tesla for luxury-EV supremacy: the limited-edition, handcrafted Celestiq “halo” sedan and a Lyriq SUV.

GM released a teaser image of the electric Cadillac Lyriq.

GM released a teaser image of the electric Cadillac Lyriq. (Photo: GM)

The presentation to investors and media in GM’s design facility included electric vehicles from every GM brand — 11 EVs in total, including two Buicks and a Chevy SUV —displaying the company’s commitment to electrify the company from top to bottom.

The vehicles are part of GM’s plan to bring 20 new EVs to market by 2023, and all will be built on GM’s flexible new BEV3 “skateboard” architecture that can be configured for front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive and all-wheel-drive, and take battery sizes from 50kWh to 200kWh.

Coming EVs from GM include:

Cadillac Celestiq: A new flagship car for the Cadillac brand, the stunning electric sedan has long dash and wheelbase proportions. The dramatic digital interior is dominated by a pillar-to-pillar LED display screen. Though no date for production has been set, it will be custom-built in limited numbers to herald Cadillac’s new direction.

Cadillac Lyriq: Teased at the 2019 Detroit auto show, the Cadillac EV will be the first Cadillac to get a real name – as opposed to the alphanumeric names of the brand’s gas-powered vehicles – when it goes into production in 2021. Like the Celestiq, the Lyriq shows off Cadillac’s dramatic new styling direction with a full-fascia crest grille that bristles with LED lighting details that glow as the driver approaches the car with key or phone app.

The interior of the Lyriq is dominated by a curved LED screen. With the battery packs buried in the floor, two “floating islands” rise between the front and rear seats with controls for climate and infotainment. The Lyric SUV’s 23-inch wheels and 34-inch screen will be the biggest ever seen on a Cadillac.

The Lyric will debut with rear-wheel drive with an all-wheel drive option. GM says battery packs could vary form 50-200kWh that increase range and cost.

Cadillac SUV: Further down the road, Caddy promises a unnamed three-row EV similar in size to the Escalade. Its grille, however, will look like the Lyriq and Celestiq to distinguish it as an EV.

Buick SUV and crossover: Buick will debut two new compact Buick EVs by 2025 showcasing a new design direction for the brand. The fascias of the yet-unnamed vehicles resemble the Lamborghini Urus with thinly slit headlights perched atop big open grilles feeding cooling air to the batteries within. Like all the new GM products, the Buicks will feature Tesla-like electronics and 30-inch screens.

GMC Hummers: Hummer will introduce a sport-utility truck and sport-utility vehicle on the BEV3 platform. The former will have a shorter wheelbase and will be aimed at off-road applications. Despite thin grilles, the big vehicles will be unmistakably Hummer with big, bold proportions and square wheel arches. With no engine up front, owners will be able to take the roof off and store it in the front “frunk.” Given their heft, the Hummers will likely get the biggest battery (9200 kWh) and charging (800-volt) capabilities to boast up to 1,000 horsepower.

New Chevrolets: Chevrolet will get a yet-unnamed mid-size EV SUV that bears a striking resemblance to the current Blazer. The EV architecture, however, will enable more interior space. The interior bears similar design cues to the Blazer but with a bigger, 18-inch screen.

Also shown was a teaser photo of an electric Chevy pickup truck.

In addition, GM showed two redesigned Chevy Bolt models that will be introduced over the next year. The Bolts will be the first non-Cadillac models to get self-driving Super Cruise feature.

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Cadillac, Ford, VW turn the switch on new electrics

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 3, 2020

The EVs are coming, the EVs are coming.

Three major automakers made announcements Tuesday of significant electric vehicles that will be hitting U.S. streets in the next two years. Cadillac’s first all-electric crossover (so far unnamed) will debut in Los Angeles on April 2. Volkswagen’s first-ever electric crossover, the ID.4, will hit U.S. shores late this year. And Ford will offer the first electric version of its Transit cargo van next year.

The vehicles come as part of a flood of new models hit the world market both to meet government regulations and corporate environmental goals — and to remake brands like Cadillac and VW that have made commitments to go all-electric.

As sexy as the Cadillac and VW niche products promise to be, the Ford van may be the most significant of the three. More than 153,000 Transits were sold in the U.S. last year – 240,529 worldwide.

Competing with similar models from Chevy, Ram, and Nissan — and a coming, 2022 Rivian EV backed by orders from Amazon  the Transit is the best-selling van in its segment and is ubiquitous in the delivery fleets of small business.

As international cities move to banning gas-fired engines, vehicles like the Transit are deemed essential to businesses that are also under pressure from shareholders to develop global warming-fighting sustainability goals.

The U.S.-built Transit also promises cheaper operating costs as well as upgraded connected services like high-speed data architecture and cloud-based services to optimize fleet performance.

“The world is heading toward electrified products and fleet customers are asking for them now,” said Farley. “Ford is thinking deeply on connectivity relationships to provide these businesses smart vehicles beyond just the electric powertrains.”

The roomy Transit is currently offered with three gas-engine options: 3.5-liter V-6, 3.5-liter V-6, and a turbocharged 2.0-liter diesel four-cylinder. The Transit EV will join the Mustang Mach E and F-150 EV as battery-powered vehicles in the Ford lineup.

Cadillac’s EV crossover was first teased at the 2019 Detroit Auto Show — and promises a full name different than the alphanumeric badges found on Caddy’s current gas-powered cars.

The SUV will be the first vehicle built on GM’s skateboard BEV3 platform with batteries in the floor.

“Inspired by past innovations and with a powerful vision towards the future, Cadillac looks to set a new standard for American luxury,” said a Caddy press release announcing the car’s unveiling at Milk Studios in LA, April 2.

Volkswagen announced its first EV vehicle to hit US shores will be called the ID.4 as part of the brand’s new ID (Intelligent Design) electric line.

The sleek crossover was first seen as the I.D. CROZZ concept at the 2017 Los Angeles Auto Show and featured a spare, Tesla-like interior dominated by a center screen. The rear-and-all wheel drive ID.4 promises 310 miles of range and appears aimed at the Mustang Mach E and Tesla Model Y.

It goes on sale in the US later this year as a 2021 model.

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Still inspiring other women, racing legend St. James returns to Detroit for Trans Am event

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 3, 2020

Detroit – When Lyn St. James fires up her vintage 1969 Trans Am Camaro this May at the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear, her career will have come full circle.

One of Sports Illustrated’s Top 100 Female Athletes of the 20th Century, St. James is a motor sports legend. The first woman to win Rookie of the Year honors at the Indianapolis 500 (in 1992), she has won at big races all over the world, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 12 Hours of Sebring. She’s been a guest at the White House multiple times and an inspiration to female drivers such as Danica Patrick.

But behind the wheel of a Ford Mustang at the Trans Am support race for the 1988 Detroit Grand Prix, she was just another driver scrambling to make a name in the world of racing. Then, she was overshadowed by male racing legends like Brazil’s Ayrton Senna, who won the Formula One race that year.

“When I ran in the 1980s no one gave a hoot about a woman driver, much less who was going to be the next great woman driver,” said the 72-year old last weekend at Autorama in TCF Center, where she signed autographs for fans. “It was a non-issue. The whole decade of the 1980s, there were hardly any women (race drivers).”

She was a talent – a relative late-comer to auto racing at the age of 40, but with corporate backing from the Ford Racing Team. “I remember I had a top-five finish one year, and I crashed one year,” she says of her three Detroit Trans Am starts from 1988-90.

The 2.5-mile street course snaked along the waterfront and past the RenCen and was known as one of the roughest, most demanding circuits in the world. St. James enjoyed it all.

“The track was bumpy, but there was a flow about it that worked. I enjoyed coming under the tunnel – it was just cool. Detroit is the Motor City, and I was a Ford driver, and to be part of a culture where racing is totally embraced” was a thrill, said the Cleveland native. “To see the support here – the signage all over track – it was like coming to Mecca.”

St. James returns to Detroit May 29-31 on Detroit’s Belle Isle street course, where the Detroit Grand Prix moved in 1992. Retired from motor racing, St. James will appropriately race a retired Camaro famously sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh in the early 1970s.

She’ll race in the Historic Trans Am series, one of three support races this year for IndyCar’s Detroit Grand Prix. Current Trans Am and the IMSA Weathertech sports car race round out the other support series.

St. James’ Camaro has special meaning to her – not just as a reminder of her Trans Am roots – but because another legend, Detroit’s own Roger Penske, had a hand in preparing the car for the student-crewed, University if Pittsburgh team that ran the No. 19 car in its heyday.

“I remember meeting Roger back in the 1980s at Mid-Ohio (race track). I said I wanted to talk to him about how to win,” said St. James. “I’ll remember it as long as I live – because even back then he was like God in our sport. His advice was, ‘You look like you’re doing a lot of things right.’ And he said, ‘My suggestion is you keep doing what you’re doing and it’ll come around.’ That was 1983 – and I had my first win in 1985. He really made me feel good.”

After moving through the Ford racing program in the late 1980s, St. James got her historic shot at the Indy 500 in 1992 and made the most of it – not only finishing 11th and winning rookie of the year, but becoming the oldest driver at 45 to earn the honor.

She would race seven more times at the Brickyard, her last in 2000 when she was the oldest driver in the field while her female protégé, Sarah Fisher, was the youngest.

By that time, St. James had become an icon in the sport, mentoring young drivers like Fisher – one of eight more women drivers that have followed St. James on Indy’s 200-mph bankings.

“I had experiences meeting Billie Jean King and working with the Women’s Sports Foundation. I got so much fan mail that I realized I needed to become proactive about the driver feeder system and see who is out there … that has serious aspirations,” said St. James. “I created a driver development program. I was really trying to help that next wave of drivers.”

At Autorama, St. James spent time with 10-year-old Karley Phillips Dryden, who races quarter midgets.

“She says half of the quarter racers are female,” smiled St. James, who now lives in Phoenix. “It’s changing, it’s happening. We just need more women to show up.”

St. James will show up at Belle Isle as part of the inaugural Historic Trans Am race to compete on the Belle Isle GP weekend.

She has become a regular on the vintage car racing circuit as a guest pilot in racers as diverse as a 1979 Chevron B39 Atlantic car and pre-war 1929 Bugatti. Not long ago she won a vintage race at Indy in a 2007-era Dallara IndyCar – fulfilling her dream to enter the Brickyard winner’s circle.

“I actually got on the podium at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and got to drink milk! Oh my God, I know it’s not the 500 – but I still got to drink milk on the podium,” she said.

She hopes to add the Historic Trans-Am Series race to her win column. She’ll race the Belle Isle course for the first time against other vintage muscle cars including Mustangs, Barracudas, and Javelins.

“This is my gravy,” said St. James. “To come back and be able to race at all as part of this group in Mecca it’s an honor. I’m living the dream.”

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