Mid-engine Corvette racer debuts new engine, livery

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 12, 2019

With its V-8 engine mass over the rear wheels for the first time, the Corvette C8.R promises the ability to put the power to the pavement faster out of corners.

With its V-8 engine mass over the rear wheels for the first time, the Corvette C8.R promises the ability to put the power to the pavement faster out of corners. (Photo: Chevrolet)

Atlanta – The all-new Corvette C8.R race car that debuted Thursday at Road Atlanta marks an onslaught on international racing with Chevrolet’s first-ever mid-engine production sports car.

Sporting a large wing, lightened chassis and a different V-8 than the production car, the C8.R will debut at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona in January, just as production cars begin arriving in showrooms.

As with the current front-engine C7.R race car (which wraps up its racing career here the IMSA Weathertech 10 Hour Petit LeMans), development of the C8.R racer was integral to development of the production model. Chevrolet’s racing partner, New Hudson-based Pratt & Miller, shared and tested technology with the production program.

“It was important for us to develop the new race car alongside the production car, so that each product could properly take advantage of the new architecture,” said Corvette Chief Engineer Ed Piatek. “We share more parts — about 100 — between the race car and production car than ever before.”

One part that won’t be shared is an all-new 5.5-liter, overhead-cam, flat-plane crank engine. (The production cars is a traditional 6.2-liter push-rod engine.)

Though GM won’t confirm the engine for future production cars, it is a radical departure from Corvette’s previous small-block V-8s. Detroit News sources have said the production car will get two more drivetrain in addition to the base V-8.

The C8.R’s naturally aspirated engine will produce 500 horsepower — not much more than the production car’s 495 horses — but with faster-revving capabilities. Flat-plane cranks have been used by Ferrari in some of its engines.

“The flat-plane crank engine breathes better, has lower inertia and is more responsive than the push-rod engine,” said Corvette Chief Engineer Ed Piatek. The new engine will likely be restrained to 6,500 rpms by IMSA engine rules, he said.

The race engine is mated to a compact, six-speed sequential gearbox instead of the production 8-speed.

Though it is based on the same platform as the production car, new technology allowed the race team to design the C8.R long before production parts availability. State-of-the art 3-D printed prototype parts, wind tunnels and hydraulic simulators were used to evaluate subsequent chassis and aerodynamic designs.

The C8.R will compete in North America’s IMSA Weathertech series – including stops at Mid-Ohio Raceway near Columbus and Mosport Raceway outside Toronto – as well as the LeMans 24-Hour race in France next June. The C8.R looks to continue the C7.R’s run of success which includes championships in 2016-18, two first-place finishes at Daytona, and a LeMans win.

Road Atlanta also marks the exit from racing of the mid-engine Ford GT. The Corvette will compete against other mid-engine cars in IMSA’s GTLM class, including the Ferrari 488 and Porsche 911.

“There are a variety of reasons to do a mid-engine car,” said driver Tommy Milner, who will race the car next year. “The driver is more centrally located, and the car rotates around us. It will also put power down better which has been a huge advantage for Porsche.”

The design of the C8.R is familiar to the production model with its angled lines, short nose and big rear hips. This being a race car built to meet the high-stress of endurance racing, however, some details (engine aside) have changed.

Gone is the front trunk – “frunk” – replaced by a central radiator. For better driver visibility at 200 mph on Le Mans’ Mulsanne Straight in the middle of the night, extra headlamps have been fitted where the production car’s small, side radiators reside.

The race car’s will maintain the No. 3 and No. 4 from the outgoing C7.R, with the No. 3 car in traditional Corvette racing-yellow. But, in a nod to Corvette’s long history of design concepts that ultimately bore fruit in the C8, the No. 4 car will get a fresh, silver livery inspired by the 1973 Chevrolet Aerovette and the 1959 Corvette Stingray Racer.

“Since the mid-engine race car is such a revolutionary vehicle,” said Chevy creative designer Vlad Kapitonov, “we felt it would be fitting to honor Corvette racing’s legacy with both a redesigned, modern livery.”

Payne: Dodge Charger Widebody turns up wick on family sedan

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 12, 2019

Taking the family sedan on track. At Sonoma Raceway in California, the 2020 Dodge Charger Widebody Hellcat feels right at home.

Taking the family sedan on track. At Sonoma Raceway in California, the 2020 Dodge Charger Widebody Hellcat feels right at home. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

Rounding Sonoma Raceway’s high-speed downhill Turn 6, the 2020 Dodge Charger Hellcat Widebody compresses underneath me on stiffened performance springs and shocks. The 4,500-pound beast’s big rear-end twitches as I slowly feed 707 horses through 11-inch-wide Michelin tires. I open the throttle wide onto the back straight and the Hellcat explodes like a Saturn rocket pointed at the moon.

I love Dodge family sedans.

Since its debut at the 2015 Woodward Dream Cruise, the Charger Hellcat has redefined the full-size car segment. The first four-door to produce over 700 horsepower, the Charger became an instant icon alongside its two-door muscle-car brother Challenger.

More importantly, it did its job as a brand halo, injecting the bloodline with performance steroids that have benefited all Chargers. Not to mention their sales.

While the rest of the big sedan class — Chevy Impala, Ford Taurus, Toyota Avalon — have been buried under an SUV wave, Charger has survived with Captain Hellcat at the helm despite the fact that it sits on one of the oldest hulls in the business.

Dodge isn’t sitting on its laurels.

For 2020 it’s introducing a Charger Widebody variant for top Hellcat and Scat Pack trims. Widebody as in bodybuilding. Similar muscles are available on its brother Challenger.

“I just want to make bad-ass looking cars,” says Dodge designer Mark Trostle. He’s in the right place.

 Looking like pecs rippling from Charger’s torso, the Widebody’s enlarged fenders allow a wider track for the performance sedan. Wider track as in 1.5 more inches of rubber, a significant improvement on a big sedan like this — and a clever way to make the Charger’s chassis more nimble in its twilight years. (Fiat Chrysler CEO Mike Manley says a new platform for Charger is coming next decade.)

More than just flesh and rubber are upgraded for 2020. To deal with the added tire grip, chief engineer Jim Wilder and his team of bodybuilders have imbued both the Hellcat and Scat Pack with significant upgrades for shocks, springs and sway-bars. All this muscle doesn’t come cheap, and Widebody versions add abou$5,000 to the bottom line.

That means a standard Charger Hellcat commands a price just under $70,000, with my fully loaded Sonoma warrior (brooding, black-painted hood and all) clocking in at a nose-bleed $80,555. That tops a price spread not unlike the luxury cars whose specs Charger competes with.

The Charger family can be had from the entry-level $30,965V-6, all the way to Hellcat. Compare that to a BMW M5 which starts at $50,000 and stretches to $135,000.

I don’t imagine BMW and Charger customers will ever attend the same dinner parties, but if they do, Team Charger doesn’t need to be shy.

For $50,000 less, the Charger boasts 107 more ponies than the M5 and crosses the quarter-mile in the same 10.9 seconds. Yeah, M5 will spring to 60 mph nearly a second quicker (2.8 vs. 3.6), but credit that to the BMW’s all-wheel drive. The real mindblower here is Charger Hellcat’s near identical (0.96 vs. the M5’s 0.98) g-load cornering capability, despite weighing 300 pounds more than the state-of-the-art German.

I experienced this capability on twisty, country roads where the Saturn rocket feels strapped to the tarmac by its stiff suspension and giant Brembo brakes (yeah, M5 gets Brembos, too).

Best Charger ever? Not so fast. Hellcat, meet sibling Scat Pack.

Adopting the Hellcat’s same bodybuilding secrets — right down to those Brembos — the Widebody Scat Pack benefits from a lighter, 6.4-liter normally aspirated V-8 up front. Without Hellcat’s extra plumbing to feed more air to its supercharged, 6.2-liter eight-cylinder, the Scat Pack’s lighter weight translates to an M5-matching 0.98 cornering Gs.

I’m not making this up.

The result is a $45,000 Scat Pack Widebody (my loaded tester hit an even $60,000) that is a serious $20,000 cheaper than Hellcat (ahem, $70,000 south of the M5) that is just as sinister-looking in the rear-view mirror.

Sure, the Hellcat’s otherworldly supercharger whine will send chills up your spine, but at full bellow the Scat Pack’s V-8 roar will make grown men’s knees buckle. On-track at Sonoma, the Hellcat outpaced the Scat Pack thanks to the former’s prodigious torque. But with its rippled bod, the Scat Pack is as emotionally satisfying.

But wait, there’s more.

Due to packaging constraints, the Hellcat does not benefit from the latest safety-assist systems — meaning the $45,000 Scat Pack Widebody gets adaptive cruise-control. The Hellcat does not. That’s a huge plus for owners (most of us) who intend to use sedans for daily, family chores.

Is $45,000 still too rich for your stomach? Performance DNA trickles down.

For just $35,000, buyers can opt for the plenty-powerful, 300-horse Charger GT that comes equipped with the same rear-wheel drive handling (exclusive to class), hood scoop, Skittles color palette, brooding cowl … even the 20-inch tires found on its richer brothers.

Entranced by the V-8’s siren call? You can option up to the R/T and still leave the dealership for less than $40,000. The kids will love you when you come pick them up at school.

Speaking of which, all Chargers come with the secret sauce that makes them unique in muscledom: room.

Front-wheel drive competitors like the Avalon and Impala offer room without sex appeal. Rear-wheel drive coupes like the Camaro and Mustang offer sex appeal without the legroom (even the roomy Challenger requires hurdling the front seat to get in back).

The Charger sedan stretches Challenger’s wheelbase by 4 inches and puts it all to work in the back seat. My 6-foot-5 basketballer’s frame folded easily into back, letting me take thrill rides around Sonoma with French pro driver Nico Rondet.

You can enjoy this roominess with the best interior in American muscle, period. A simple, sculpted dash cups a standard 8.4-inch screen and intuitive UConnect infotainment system. Apple CarPlay is standard for getting you where you want to go.

The Hellcat adds red-tinted gauges that appropriately mimic the bloodshot eyes of some kind of underworld creature.

Someday Dodge will build Charger on a new, lighter platform. But for now, Detroit’s favorite son has managed to maintain Dodge swagger while dusting it with a personality that only luxury German performance makes (well, and Fiat Chrysler brother Jeep) can match.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I gotta take the family sedan back out on the track.

2020 Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Widebody and Scat Pack Widebody

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

Price: Base price Hellcat $71,140, including $1,495 destination charge ($80,555 as tested). Base price Scat Pack $47,490, including $1,495 destination charge ($61,445 as tested)

Powerplant: 6.2-liter, supercharged V-8; 6.4-liter V-8

Power: 707 horsepower, 650 pound-feet of torque (6.2-liter); 485 horsepower, 475 pound-feet of torque (5.7-liter)

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, Hellcat 3.6 seconds, Scat Pack 4.3 (mfr.); top speed, 196 mph (Hellcat Widebody)

Weight: Hellcat, 4,596 pounds; Scat Pack, 4,385 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA mpg, 13 city/22 highway/16 combined (Hellcat, est.); EPA mpg, 15 city/24 highway/18 combined (Scat Pack, est.)

Report card

Highs: BMW performance, Dodge price; Scat Pack stick

Lows: Hellcat gets pricey; handle with care, 707 is a lotta ponies

Overall: 4 stars

Payne: It’s not flashy, but the Honda Passport is practical, roomy and comfortable

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 12, 2019

Life's a beach. But the 2019 Honda Passport is for couples whose kids have flown the coop.

Life’s a beach. But the 2019 Honda Passport is for couples whose kids have flown the coop. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

The last time I took a road trip to South Haven, I was testing a Honda Civic Coupe. It was a nimble, athletic hatchback with polarizing styling that looked like it was designed by a 16-year-old. I couldn’t wait to get some laps on it at Gingerman Raceway, where we had a blast.

This summer I returned to South Haven in a Honda Passport. We never set foot on track.

The Passport is Honda’s entry into the mid-size SUV class occupied by stylish badges like the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Ford Edge and Nissan Murano. Its demographic is a different generation from the Civic Coupe. If the Civic is the first car for 20-somethings who’ve flown the nest, then the Passport is for 40-something empty-nesters who want SUV utility — but with more pizzazz than a three-row family bus.

The Passport and Civic Coupe bookend the enormous demographic that Honda covers today.

While the Civic Coupe shares its bones with other Honda hellions like the Si and winged Type R, the Passport is stablemate to the three-row Pilot SUV and Ridgeline pickups. Passport has picked up traits from both.

Five miles down the road from Gingerman — and a million miles away in lifestyle — is The Fields glamping resort. Glamping as in “glamorous camping,” Passport’s natural habitat.

Think of the Passport as a Glampilot. Glamorous Pilot.

After a cross-state, day’s journey in Passport’s quiet Pilot-like interior, the Passport summoned its inner pickup and happily bounced up the dirt road to the blueberry farm on which The Fields campground is located.

South Haven’s Gingerman has long been a destination for motorheads like me who have a need for speed. It’s one of the Midwest’s safest tracks to exercise your race car or performance sedan. But The Fields is more in line with a South Haven better known as a magnet for Midwesterners wanting to spend a weekend sampling Lake Michigan wineries, sandy beaches and orange sunsets.

Glamping brings style to outdoor camping, with luxury tents lit by chandeliers. The Passport brings Honda practicality to stylish, midsize utes.

Typically, empty-nesters have come to the segment looking for more bling than soccer-mom practicality. The Edge and Chevy Blazer RS are the most outstanding examples of this: rolling sculptures with floating roofs and yuuuge grilles.

Or there’s the Jeep Grand Cherokee and its iconic, seven-slot grille. My personal segment favorite is the Edge, which combines chiseled beauty with a sporty ST trim that I might be tempted to take out on Gingerman to floor its mad 335-horse, twin-turbo V-6 (with shift paddles, natch).

The Passport is a wallflower compared to these Hollywood starlets.

Sure, my Passport tester layered on the mascara — black grille, black wheels, blacked-out pillars — and sported wild, jewel-eyed peepers that would make Elton John jealous. But wipe away the makeup and Passport is a boxy Pilot that’s jacked up 1.6 inches for off-road cred.

Assuming packaging isn’t your top reason for purchase, the Passport’s strengths lie in good-old daily livability and value. In short, it’s a Honda — an obsessively passenger-friendly vehicle.

As butch as Passport appears outside, it will wow female buyers. There’s not a female SUV shopper that I haven’t preached Passport/Pilot/Ridgeline to.

Like its Honda stablemates, Passport forgoes the common tortoise-shell center console for a sliding shade. Combined with the space-saving electronic “trigger” shifter (You’ll get used to it; Corvette is adopting something similar), this gives the console bottom-less space, meaning a purse or computer tablet can fit down there.

Leave the sliding shade open and rummage in your purse for anything. Your days of purse-tossing on the passenger seat are over.

For smaller purses and other items, just keep the shade shut and throw ’em on top. During the course of our drive, Mrs. Payne and I tossed two phones, a purse and a Kleenex box there. Try doing that in any other vehicle.

On top of the center console’s dexterity, the Passport offers room for two cupholders and forward space that can hold and charge your phone.

The Passport’s interior serves passengers well even if it’s not as stylish as competitors. My favorite interior in the segment belongs to the Chevy Blazer with its Camaro-like, adjustable aviation vents.

Passport controls look like, well, other Hondas with standard-issue tablet screen and digital instrument display. But like the console, its excellent ergonomics are all about the customer. Unlike the Chevy, Honda allows you to shut off the annoying stop-start feature where the engine internationally stalls at stoplights to gain credits for federal mpg nannies. Annoy you? Push the button.

The Honda soundly beats its Detroit Three competitors in cargo space, a meaningful statistic as my wife and I dragged around two suitcases, two tennis bags and a cooler in our west-side trip.

But the Passport doesn’t stop there. A hidden cubby under the rear cargo floor provides separate storage for, say, muddy shoes or valuables. And the rear seats fold flat with the floor (unlike, ahem, the Edge) allowing you to easily slide in a bookcase.

There’s value, too. Only the turbo-4-powered Hyundai Santa Fe — at $4,000 less than my comparably equipped Passport — is a better value in the segment. My Elite trim tester clocked in at $44,000, competitive with the turbo-4-powered Ford Edge.

But compared to V-6 powered competitors Blazer and Grand Cherokee, the Passport is thousands of dollars less. When I put my foot into the Passport’s strong, throaty, 280-horse six-cylinder, I even briefly felt a Civic-like urge to boogie.

In this class of 4,000-pound-plus, all-wheel drive rhinos, the Passport handles better than most. With new entries from Honda and Chevy, the mid-size, empty-nest segment feels fresh. Yet, brand traits remain remarkably true.

The Jeep Grand Cherokee and its Trackhawk trim is the class-best dirt-kicker. The Edge’s ST macho and self-park technology are right out of the brand playbook. And like Chevy brothers Corvette and Camaro, the Blazer is the class athlete.

Passport’s ergonomic strengths are undeniable: roomy, powerful, comfortable, with an interior layout that never frustrates. The big ute lacked for nothing and excelled in everything.

Unless, of course, you want to take some laps around Gingerman Raceway. For that, you’ll need a different Honda.

2019 Honda Passport

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

Price: Base price $33,035, including $1,045 destination charge ($44,725 AWD Elite as tested)

Powerplant: 3.5-liter V-6

Power: 280 horsepower, 262 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 9-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.8 seconds (Car and Driver); towing, 5,000 pounds

Weight: 4,237 pounds (AWD Elite as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA mpg, 19 city/24 highway/21 combined (AWD as tested)

Report card

Highs: Best storage console in the biz; eager V-6 mill

Lows: Wallflower looks; not as stylish inside as competitors

Overall: 3 stars

Mid-engine 2020 Corvette goes topless

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 12, 2019

The eighth-generation Chevrolet Corvette has already marked a number of firsts for the storied sports car: First mid-engine Corvette. First standard model to hit 60 mph in under 3 seconds. First with a dual-clutch transmission.

Add another: The 2020 Corvette convertible will be the first with a retractable hardtop.

Chevrolet introduced its latest topless Corvette in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Wednesday. A convertible model has been available with every generation of Corvette. The original 1953 car was offered only as a soft-top. Corvette introduced a removable hardtop in 1956. The current Stingray coupe has a removable targa mid-roof section.

But the 2020 Corvette will be the first to offer a completely retractable hardtop that stows behind the passenger compartment. The design works much like the hardtops on more-expensive mid-engine supercars like the Ferrari 488 Spider that retails for $284,650.

The convertible option will be offered on the Corvette as a $7,500 premium over the standard $59,995 model. Like the C7 Corvette before it, the C8 was designed from the ground up to go topless without compromising the car’s core, dynamic integrity.

“Our goal from the beginning was to make sure customers didn’t have to sacrifice any functionality, performance or comfort when choosing the hardtop convertible,” said Corvette engineering manager Josh Holder. “We managed to keep the same design theme as the coupe, as well as the exceptional storage capacity and track capability.”

By stowing the hardtop in the rear deck between two aircraft-inspired nacelles, the tonneau cover will obscure the engine compartment (the engine is displayed under glass in the hardtop coupe) but will not compromise rear or front storage. The rear cargo space can still hold two golf bags, while the front can stow an airline-spec carry-on bag and laptop case.

The nacelles are reminiscent of the flying buttresses on convertible Ferrari 458 or Lamborghini Huracan. The Corvette’s hardtop retracts in 16 seconds at speeds of up to 30 mph.

A body-colored roof is standard; Carbon Flash metallic-painted nacelles and roof are optional.

Corvette designers were careful to design the convertible to resist engine heat with minimal air-resistance. The composite top stows in a lightweight, shielded compartment to manage engine temperatures. With the top up, the C8 convertible sports an identical drag-coefficient as the coupe.

The Corvette Stingray coupe goes into production in Bowling Green, Kentucky, later this year. The convertible will following in the late first quarter of 2020. The convertible will also be offered for international markets with right-hand drive.

Potential buyers can now build and price their Corvette at

Honda Marysville: A non-union auto plant prospers

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 2, 2019

Honda workers - called "associates" - emerge from the Honda Marysville Plant at the end of the 6:30 a.m.-3 p.m. shift. Marysville's non-union plants haven't had a work stoppage in 40 years.

Honda workers – called “associates” – emerge from the Honda Marysville Plant at the end of the 6:30 a.m.-3 p.m. shift. Marysville’s non-union plants haven’t had a work stoppage in 40 years. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

Marysville, Ohio — While the United Auto Workers strike against General Motors Co. plants stretches on, it’s been business as usual here at Honda Motor Co.’s Marysville assembly.

Celebrating its 40th year of production this month, the non-union plant has never had a work stoppage as it has pumped out two of the most popular vehicles in America: the Honda Accord sedan and CR-V SUV.

Honda Marysville is not alone.

Dozens of so-called foreign “transplants” — from Asian mainstream manufacturers to European luxury makers — have followed Honda’s model across the United States in recent decades. The influx has transformed America’s auto landscape with a cheaper, more flexible, non-union workforce model upping competitive pressure on unionized Detroit.

Today, the Detroit Three automakers are an island of UAW production surrounded by foreign transplants that now make up 48% of U.S. vehicle production, according to the Ann Arbor-based Center for Automotive Research. That’s up from just 17% in 2000. Non-union employment rose from 15% of the industry at the century’s turn to 39% in 2013, according to the most recent Automotive News analysis.

“Unions are not dead,” said East Lansing-based economist Patrick Anderson, who noted the strike is costing GM $25 million per day in lost profits. “But confrontational, obstructionist bargaining as a success strategy is dead. Unions are here to stay only if they are interested in the welfare of their employers as well as their workers.”

The UAW says that non-union plants are at a disadvantage because union wages are better, the shops are safer, workers’ rights are better represented and disciplinary actions are covered by a grievance procedure. But UAW efforts to organize foreign-owned auto plants in the United States have failed repeatedly, despite promises of contract protections and generally higher pay.

In response to inquiries from The Detroit News, the union said: “As a matter of policy, the UAW does not comment on organizing plans and strategies.” Still, compensation in UAW-represented auto plants trends higher nationwide than non-union shops.

Average hourly wages in non-union transplants run between $23 and $25 an hour, according to the Center for Automotive Research, compared to roughly $30 an hour for so-called “legacy” employees at UAW-represented auto plants. Health-care plans and 401(k) programs are common, and bonuses are comparable to UAW-bargained profit-sharing payouts.

Honda’s Marysville is not immune to change. Like the rest of the industry, the plant has been whipsawed by changing market forces. The Honda Accord — the first sedan manufactured here beginning in 1982 — is down in sales as consumer tastes have shifted to SUVs. But rather than shutter Marysville, as has happened at GM’s sedan-only plant in Lordstown, Ohio, Honda has expanded production for its new best-seller, the CR-V SUV.

Honda employs 15,000 people in its facilities across Ohio — 4,700 in Marysville — making it Ohio’s 13th-largest employer, according to By comparison, GM employs 17,000 hourly workers across Michigan.

“Honda has been good to us,” said 32-year Marysville veteran Merrill Eggleston, 59, at the end of his shift in the plant’s weld shop. “… The UAW tried to get in here, but we have always had stable employment.”

Honda’s manufacturing flexibility and continued investment here — it has opened two more plants in the north Columbus area as well as expanded research on autonomous vehicles — have grown a loyal workforce.

“We don’t have a problem here. Which is good because we are privileged to have a job — Honda could just shut down and move away,” said radiator-and-headlight assembly worker Neal Howard, 49, who has worked here 19 years. “There is nothing to fight about. We have a good culture here, people just want to work.”

Eggleston and Howard’s sentiments were echoed by other associates interviewed at the end of a long day. They were all aware of the UAW strike but said relations with Honda were good.

“Honda works well with us,” said Brittany Mowry, 26, a full-time associate who started as a temporary worker in Marysville in 2011. “We’ve never had an issue.”

Honda first purchased land in Marysville in 1977 to build a motorcycle production facility. The decision proved prescient as Congress, led by Midwest Democrats like the late U.S. Rep. John Dingell, sought to impose import quotas on foreign cars as they grabbed more market share from the Detroit Three. The Accord began production here in 1982.

Executives at Honda were determined to build in the markets where they sold, and the United States held huge potential. In the midst of difficult economic times in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Ohio welcomed Honda with open arms after then-Gov. Jim Rhodes traveled to Japan to sell the company on the Buckeye state.

“He met with Mr. Honda, and they forged a real bond,” said engineer Steve Stolte, who surveyed the first 217-acre property that Honda purchased in Marysville. “Honda had a philosophy where they wanted to build cars in those markets where they were selling them.”

Stolte is now a commissioner in Union County, where Honda now occupies 8,500 acres of land. That workforce was largely agrarian before Honda, though Union County is home to other large companies like Scotts Miracle-Gro and Parker-Hannifin.

“This county was experiencing double-digit unemployment before Honda showed up,” county economic development director Eric Phillips said. “Today, we are the third-wealthiest county in the state with one of the lowest unemployment figures.”

Union County’s jobless rate was 3.5% in August; statewide, it was 4.2%. Locals now like to say: “In Union County, we know how to grow beans, corn and cars.”

Phillips is aware of the strikes in UAW plants but says the Marysville plants have been content and UAW attempts to organize workers here got no traction. County officials say the UAW had an office in Marysville until about 10 years ago.

“Honda is the pay standard here,” Phillips said. “Their average wage of $80,000 pays well. If you have a good-paying job, then folks are going to be pretty happy.”

Howard worked as a bank supervisor before he came to work for Honda.

“This pays a lot better than a bank,” he said.

The automaker’s pattern of high-paying, non-union employment has been repeated across the country in transplants from Toyota Motor Corp. in Kentucky to BMW AG in South Carolina to Kia in Georgia to Volkswagen AG in Tennessee. Sales of Detroit Three competitors have grown from 35% of U.S. market share in 2000 to about 55% today, according to CAR.

The transplants have long had a cost advantage over UAW plants. In 2007, before GM’s bankruptcy, Detroit Three plants hourly labor costs averaged $78 an hour (wages plus benefits), according to CAR, compared to $47 an hour for non-union plants. Closing that gap was a crucial requirement of the 2009 federal bailout of GM and Chrysler, and it remains a competitive challenge in this fall’s contract talks between the UAW and the Detroit Three.

Today, says CAR’s Kristin Dziczek, that gap has been narrowed to $63 for GM’s UAW plants versus $50 for non-union. But that doesn’t tell the whole story as transplants still have the flexibility to peg their wages to local manufacturing norms in different communities where they build.

“The transplants can set regional wages,” Dziczek said. “GM can’t do that. The Detroit Three negotiate national pattern agreements with the UAW so that they don’t compete against each other on wages.”

The lack of wage and workplace flexibility add up to big drags on the efficiency of UAW plants versus their non-union competitors.

“At Honda, everybody is an associate, so that allows a more flexible workforce. There is not the multiplicity of job classifications as in union plants,” said Auto Trends Consulting’s Joe Phillippi, a longtime industry analyst. “In a UAW plant, no one can do someone else’s job. You don’t have the spirit of teamwork like you do in a non-union plant.”

Added Anderson, the East Lansing economist: “No question a labor cost advantage can be put into higher quality and higher dealer margins.”

The Georgia-built, $40,000 three-row Kia Telluride SUV, for example, is marketed at $5,000 less than a comparable Ford Explorer built in Chicago.

Credit Suisse’s Dan Levy estimates the strike could cost GM more than $50 million per day, but industry watchers say the GM/UAW negotiations are crucial to the long-term survival of the Detroit Three automakers if they are to stem the relentless take of market share from foreign transplants.

“GM and the UAW have to figure out which century they are in,” Anderson said. “Since the bankruptcy, GM has made itself a 21st-century company talking publicly about competitive wages and closing plants to remain profitable. But the UAW and their political supporters are still using rhetoric right out of 1979. It’s not clear that they understand that the game has changed.”

Bollinger introduces Motor City-made electric trucks

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 2, 2019

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

Ferndale – Rivian isn’t the only all-electric truck-maker in the Motor City.

While the Plymouth-based firm has wowed auto show attendees and attracted hundreds of millions in investment from Fortune 500 companies including Amazon and Ford, Ferndale-based Bollinger Motors has also targeted its stylish electric trucks for production next year.

Bollinger Motors debuted its four-door, all-electric SUV and pickup trucks in Ferndale on Thursday. Called the B1 and B2, respectively, the big and rugged vehicles are targeted at off-road enthusiasts with a penchant for pricey Range Rovers.

Bollinger is the brain-child of industrial designer Robert Bollinger, who largely self-financed his effort with a fortune earned in the cosmetics industry.

The inspiration for the EVs came from “living on a grass-fed farm in the Catskills in upstate New York,” Bollinger said in an interview on Autoline this spring. “I wanted to go back to a childhood dream of starting something automotive. I needed a truck out of necessity, it’s what I wanted to drive.”

After hammering out a rough vision of his prototype on his farm — the vehicle’s severe, boxy design owes itself to its founder’s design aesthetic and the fact that it doesn’t use stamping dies to save development money – Bollinger introduced an early B1 prototype at Classic Car Club of Manhattan in 2017.

The response was electric and Bollinger had 28,000 hand-raisers interested in his products by mid-2019. A move to Metro Detroit soon followed so that the growing company could take advantage of Michigan’s deep engineering and automotive vendor resources. Plans are to build them in Ferndale.

 With Jeep Wrangler-like dual locking-differentials, knobby tires, 15-inch ground-clearance (adjustable up to 20) and 10-inch suspension travel, the B1 and B2 are designed to explore Bollinger’s farm – and the limits of the outdoors.

Bollinger designed the truck electric to advantage of EVs’ inherent physical qualities – battery in the floor, low-end torque and electric motors driving front and rear axles – to offer utility and hauling capability.

“It was obvious to go electric – anyone starting anything now in automotive has to be electric,” Bollinger said. “Electric is so much better than gas – there is pass-though (space) in the middle of the truck, lockable storage space in front, and two motors.”

The interior is open as a pass-through space. Both the front and rear ends of the vehicles have drop-down tailgates so that you can run long cargo – lumber, rolled carpet, steel beams — from one end to the other. The B2 pickup has enough pass-through space for 16-foot-long lumber. The B1 SUV can accommodate 13-footers.

The pickup will feature a 6-foot bed which is extendable to 8 feet by dropping the wall behind the rear seats.

The B1 and B2 are classified as Class 3 trucks weighing between 10,000 and 14,000 pounds – the same class as a Ford F350 Super Duty. The skin is made of aluminum, but most of the mass comes from the huge battery that will give the truck over 200 miles of electric range while offering the capability to tow a claimed 7,500 pounds or carry 5,200 pounds of payload.

While Rivian has already received 100,000 orders from Amazon for delivery trucks, Bollinger is focused on selling at small volume to off-road customers.

“We needed to be in our little niche – and own it. I don’t to raise millions of dollars, I don’t want millions of square foot of space, I want to know everyone in the company,” said Bollinger.

The B1 and B2 batteries are liquid cooled and heated to maintain battery range in all kinds of weather. The vehicles are spare both inside and outside – no big, fancy Tesla touchscreens here – with an emphasis on utility. All of the vehicles’ doors and glass are removable to get close to nature.

Pricing will be announced closer to production in 2020. Expect a sticker more like Range Rover than Jeep. For more information visit

Specs for Bollinger B1 and B2

Dual electric motors

120-kWh battery pack

614 horsepower

668 pound-feet torque

4.5 second 0-60 mph

100 mph top speed

15-inch ground clearance (adjustable to 20-inch)

10-inch suspension travel

5,201-pound payload capacity

7,500-pound towing capacity

Payne: Mustang Ecoboost High Performance is a wild but affordable stallion

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 26, 2019

The 2020 Ford Mustang HiPo upgrades the base pony car to a 330-horsepower turbo-4, adding a stiffer suspension and bigger brakes for wicked performance for under $40K.

The 2020 Ford Mustang HiPo upgrades the base pony car to a 330-horsepower turbo-4, adding a stiffer suspension and bigger brakes for wicked performance for under $40K. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

Ford Mustang and Focus RS had a baby. Hello, wunderkind.

Actually his name is Mustang Ecoboost High Performance Package, but let’s just call it the HiPo. We all know great athletes by their nicknames anyway. MJ. Gronk. V-Mart.

The HiPo is a prodigy that bears the DNA of its parents — a hot-hatch hellion crossed with an elegant rear-wheel drive pony car. Rotating the RS’ eager turbo-four longitudinally and stuffing it into the Mustang’s forward bay, HiPo has a natural 50/50 weight balance, throaty voice and $35,000 price tag.

That affordability is the car’s secret sauce. It offers hours of fun for sports car owners who can only dream about owning its V8-powered, $60,000-plus big brothers GT350 and GT500.

Where the GT350 and GT500 really have to be taken to a race track to explore their limits, you can explore 80% of the HiPo’s bandwidth through Hell, Michigan’s twisties, Harbor Springs’ Tunnel of Trees or a parking lot’s autocross cones.

I got my first dose on the spaghetti curves of California Route 1 north of San Francisco. I was an instant addict.

BRAAAAAP! The bratty Mustang was off like a shot, its weighted steering rooted to the asphalt. Turn the wheel, and the nimble chassis followed like ink from a pen nib, pulling over an impressive 1G of cornering loads. Readers of this column know I am a disciple of the sixth-gen Camaro, the best-handling pony car devised thanks to Chevy stealing its chassis from the Cadillac ATS, the best-handling compact luxury sedan devised.

Mate the Camaro’s athletic bod to the 335-horse V-6 1LE Track Package and the Chevy is more fun than a free weekend pass to Cedar Point. No Mustang or Challenger or Charger could touch it. Until now.

Somehow, the elves in Ford Performance’s toy shop have conjured a Mustang to match the 1LE.

Credit chassis tricks like thicker sway bars, 10%-stiffer springs and engine-bay cross-braces that strap the pony flat to the road. And there is the famous 2.3-liter, 330-horse turbo engine, rescued from the RS before the pocket rocket left our shores for good.

Motorheads everywhere shed a tear that day as the top-trim RS followed the Focus line back to Europe. But its heart beats on in the Mustang and its is a worthy competitor to Camaro’s V-6 and sharp 6-speed manual box. More than worthy.

With optional 10-speed transmission, the HiPo will stomp a Camaro 1LE V-6 out of a stoplight by over half-a-second, 4.5 seconds to 5.1. I told you this kid was a prodigy.

WRAUUUGGH! I waved a big-boy Mustang GT350 by me on Route 1 and attached myself to his bumper like a sucker fish on an orca. We danced through the curves, the GT350 eventually leaving me behind with its prodigious 526-horse V-8 power. Nice to have four more cylinders. But drive a GT350 like that too long and it’ll turn your hair white. Not to mention wake every cop within a 50-mile radius.

Without the heavy V-8 up front, HiPo can be driven hard without scaring the lunch out of you. Or the dollars out of your wallet.

Yes, the 10-speed transmission is a treat. But for $1,500 less, the six-speed manual box is plenty engaging. It actually ups the visceral thrills since the engine is tuned for a higher rev range than the RS, so you can really row the gearbox. That, and there’s more SNAP CRACKLE POP when you lift off the throttle into a tight bend. Who says manual transmissions are dead?

HiPo also comes with a handling package that engineers refer to as the High Performance Hi — ½-inch wider sticky tires, bigger sway bars, limited-slip differential, magneride shocks — which seems kinda redundant on a special-edition Mustang already outfitted with $4,995 in handling and engine upgrades. It is.

Unless you’re a track-day regular, the standard HiPo is plenty of car. There, just saved you another $1,995.

Ford also offers a convertible version of the HiPo for an extra $5,500 so you can hear the RS engine topless, but chopping the top reduces chassis stiffness by 25%. So stick with the coupe, it’s gorgeous anyway in Grabber Green or Twister Orange (which won’t cost you a thing, either).

All you’ll need to add is leather seats.

GROAAAAAN! That’s the sound you’ll make after emerging from the standard cloth Mustang HiPo seats after a couple of hours of destroying country roads. I’ve found Mustang cloth to be hard on the back, so do yourself a favor and get the leather package — because once behind the wheel you won’t want to get out.

Bottom line, after adding the HiPo package to the base $27,765 Mustang, you have one of the best sports car bargains on the planet for $34,960:  Apple CarPlay and Android Auto standard. Nice touchscreen. Digital instrument display. Good visibility and actual rear seat legroom (though giraffe necks like your 6-foot-5 reviewer will struggle under the fastback roof).

The rear seat may deter Focus RS buyers who have followed their favorite engine to the HiPo. Squared-off hot hatches, after all, offer unique utility with their excellent rear cargo and head room.

But they will find a bargain in the HiPo, which is a cool $7,000 cheaper than the dearly departed $42,000 Focus RS and its manual-only gearbox. Focus fans will like the HiPo’s abundance of Skittle flavors, too — like the aforementioned green and orange, or Race Red, Kona Blue or Orange Fury.

This being one of nine Mustang trims, HiPo can be easily distinguished by its mesh grille, multi-colored rear pony badge and black hood stripes (which I would call whiskers, but this is a pony).

I’ve balked at the government emissions-forced trend toward turbo-4-powered performance cars, including the wispy standard four-banger in the $26,000 Mustang. The RS engine is not that four. Heck, this RS-derived engine has more output than the Mustang GT just a decade ago, and a personality to match. Bury the throttle through a tunnel — say, under Cobo after a long day at work — and hear the active exhaust erupt, gurgle and bang through the big quad exhaust pipes.

Papa Mustang and Mama RS would be proud of their little hellion. Just call him HiPo.

2020 Ford Mustang Ecoboost High Performance Package

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

Price: Base price $32,760, including $1,095 destination charge ($41,570 Coupe Premium as tested)

Powerplant: 2.3-liter turbo 4-cylinder

Power: 330 horsepower, 350 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual; 10-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.5 sec. (mftr.); top speed, 155 mph

Weight: 3,632 pounds, HiPo manual; 3,797 convertible automatic

Fuel economy: EPA: 20 city/27 highway/23 combined (coupe manual, convertible automatic)

Report card

Highs: Athletic handling, performance at an affordable price

Lows: Cloth seats stiff for long hauls, convertible not as athletic

Overall: 4 stars

Rent a 750-horse Hendrick Motorsports Camaro from Hertz

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 25, 2019

Call it Hertz Rent-a-Beast.

The car rental company has teamed with its NASCAR race team, Hendrick Motorsports, to offer steroid-juiced rentals of Chevy’s most insane Camaro muscle cars, the SS and ZL1.

Cloaked in a menacing black wardrobe with yellow stripes down the hood, the Hertz-Hendrick V-8-powered monsters can be smoked off the airport lot beginning at $99 a day for the SS. The Hendrick car gains 25 horsepower over the standard SS thanks to engine tweaks.

The ZL1, which harbors the same supercharged engine as the 650-horse Corvette Z06, is cranked to 750 ponies thanks to a Hendrick-exclusive Callaway supercharger. The ZL1 can be had for a stiff $299 a day.

Starting this fall, travelers can find the ZL1 at Hertz counters at airports in Charlotte, Las Vegas, Miami, Orlando and Phoenix. The SS will be at those locations as well as Atlanta, Dallas, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Houston, Los Angeles, Nashville, San Diego, San Francisco and Tampa.

Hertz has sponsored Hendrick’s NASCAR No. 24 Camaro — one of four entered by Hendrick in the Monster Energy Series — since 2018 with driver William Byron on board. Hendrick’s supply of Camaros to Hertz completes the marketing loop. Rental companies are healthy markets for Detroit 3 muscle with the Camaro and its Ford Mustang and Dodge Challenger competitors available.

Hertz’s so-called Hendrick “pace cars” are not the rental agency’s first performance car rodeo.

The company rents other performance cars as part of its Adrenaline Collection. The international rental brand rents Maseratis in Italy, Jaguars in England and “Kollektion 7” performance cars in Germany (including athletes like the BMW Z4, Mercedes-AMG GT and Porsche 718 Boxster).

For the U.S. Ford faithful, Sixt Rent a Car offers a 600-horse Shelby Mustang GT-S with 600 horsepower in limited locations.

Renters of the Camaros might want to bring their helmet. They are the most ferocious Camaros on the market. The Hertz-Hendrick ZL1 is part of an elite club of muscle cars that puts out more than 700-horsepower, including the 717-horse Challenger Hellcat and forthcoming 760-horse Mustang GT500.

In addition to the custom paint job and engine upgrades, the Hertz-Hendrick cars will be distinguished by touches like special wheels and embroidered headrests with driver Byron’s signature and No. 24 team logo.

The celebrate the debut of the monster Camaros in Hertz’s fleet, customers can register to win an SS until Nov. 18. Five finalists get a day at Hendrick Motorsports’ Charlotte facilities that includes a ride-along with Byron at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The Hertz partnership will help raise Camaro’s profile at a time when the badge has struggled. Camaro was the best-selling muscle car in the U.S. in 2014, but has since dropped to third.

Hertz customers can find more details at

2020 NACTOY vehicle of the year nominees announced

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 25, 2019

Detroit – Nominees for the 2020 Car, Utility and Truck of the Year Awards were announced Friday, and Detroit SUVs and pickups were heavily represented.

As U.S. automakers abandon car segments, only one Detroiter is in the running for Car of the Year, but the mid-engine Chevy Corvette is the early front runner against a herd of foreign makes.

The trophy for best truck is sure to reside in the Motor City since all five semi-finalists are American-made: Chevrolet Silverado Heavy Duty, Ford Ranger, GMC Sierra Heavy Duty, Jeep Gladiator and Ram Heavy Duty.

Riding a wave of new products, Ford Motor Co. entries will make up a third of the 12 utility nominees. The Ford Explorer and Escape utes will be in contention, along with their luxury brothers from Lincoln — the Aviator and Corsair. Other nominees include: Audi E-Tron, Cadillac XT6, Chevrolet Blazer, Honda Passport, Kia Telluride, Hyundai Palisade, Subaru Outback and Volvo V60 Cross Country.

The $60,000 Corvette — which boasts performance on par with supercars costing five times as much — will try to beat 11 competitors for best car including the BMW 3 Series, Cadillac CT5, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Soul, Mazda3, Mercedes-Benz A-Class, Polestar 1, Porsche 911, Subaru Legacy, Toyota Supra and Volkswagen Arteon.

The NACTOY jury is made up of 50 independent journalists from print, online, radio and broadcast media across the U.S. and Canada, including the author of this article. Jurors winnowed this year’s new offerings to 12 semifinalists in the car and SUV categories, and five in the truck category.

Jurors’ next call of duty is an annual comparison drive in October where they will determine three worthy finalists from each category. Those finalists will be announced at the Los Angeles Auto Show on Nov. 20.

Winners will be announced in early 2020.

2020 North American Car of the Year semifinalists:

BMW 3 Series

Cadillac CT5

Chevrolet Corvette Stingray

Hyundai Sonata

Kia Soul


Mercedes-Benz A-Class

Polestar 1

Porsche 911

Subaru Legacy

Toyota Supra

Volkswagen Arteon

2020 North American Utility of the Year Semifinalists:

Audi E-Tron

Cadillac XT6

Chevrolet Blazer

Ford Explorer

Ford Escape

Honda Passport

Kia Telluride

Hyundai Palisade

Lincoln Aviator

Lincoln Corsair

Subaru Outback

Volvo V60 Cross Country

2020 North American Truck of the Year Semifinalists:

Chevrolet Silverado Heavy Duty

Ford Ranger

GMC Sierra Heavy Duty

Jeep Gladiator

Ram Heavy Duty

Payne: Ford brings back hybrid option for new Escape, and it’s a winner

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 25, 2019

The 2020 Ford Escape Sport Hybrid comes with blacked-out grille and windows, a digital instrument cluster and 198 horsepower.

The 2020 Ford Escape Sport Hybrid comes with blacked-out grille and windows, a digital instrument cluster and 198 horsepower. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

Ford’s two best-selling vehicles, the F-150 pickup and Escape SUV, may target different customers but they have traditionally relied on the same recipe: high-tech with high-design.

The F-150 is a tech-tastic smorgasbord of industry bests like trailer park-assist and stump-pulling towing. So, too, Escape, which introduced self-park-assist and kick-open tailgate gizmos that took many luxury brands years to emulate.

In 2015 the F-150 introduced its greatest tech confection yet — an eco-friendly aluminum-skin souffle — and customers loved it. Right on cue, here comes the Escape with its own daring entree: a hybrid powertrain targeted not at granola chewers, but at the meat of its customer base.

In fact, the hybrid model isn’t pitched as a green exotic. It simply stuffs the battery-electric, 198-horse drivetrain into its signature Sport model and dares you to like it.

I do.

I’ll leave it to the bean counters as to whether a $29,000 hybrid makes financial sense (Ford has to sell a lot of hybrids to meet federal fuel-economy regulations), but as a vehicle the hybrid — er, Sport Hybrid — is the Escape’s best option.

This is one good-looking geek. It might rival my handsome class-favorite Mazda CX-5 if only it handled like a Mazda. I’ll have to wait on the Escape ST for that, I guess.

The Escape has been a mainstay of small sport-utilities since the turn of the century. But it’s been a distant fourth in sales to the Japanese Big Three of Toyota (RAV4), Nissan (Rogue) and Honda (CR-V).

This despite Escape’s consistently brainiac entries.

That included a hybrid back in 2005, beating that darling of hybrid first-adopters, Toyota, to the menu by 11 years. Alas, Ford squandered the opportunity (an all-too familiar Detroit tale) and abandoned the Escape hybrid in 2012 due to poor sales. No wonder. The ’12 Escape hybrid  (which I recently flogged as a New York City taxi with 400,000 miles on the odometer), was $10,000 more expensive than the standard Escape, with less cargo room due to the battery.

More: Road test: A 2012 Ford Hybrid New York taxi with 400,000 miles

For 2020, the Escape has gone back to the drawing board. The result: an Escape designed from the get-go to take hybrid technology (just as Ford designs Mustangs with the asphalt-pawing GT350 in mind). This greenie is a no-compromise hybrid with the battery stored in the floor so as not to elbow in on cargo or cabin space.

Which is important because the new Escape is every golf foursome’s dream.

I can’t tell you how many women have approached me over the years asking for compact utes that fit four golf bags. Behold, the new Escape (Ford expects a 60%-plus female buyer mix) which will stack four easily and still provide the best rear legroom in class. I’m not making this up.

Thanks to rail-mounted rear seats that slide backward like the fronts, my 6-foot-5 frame could easily sit behind myself. Ford even scallops out the front seatbacks for more knee room.

Better yet, the Sport Hybrid’s electric motor helps make 200 horsepower (16 more than the base 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine) while smoothing out the ubiquitous stop-start stall that is the most hated feature in automotive today. Speaking of smooth, the hybrid mates a sippy CVT transmission to the gas engine, which contributes to seamless (if slower) acceleration compared to the standard, eight-speed tranny.

Ford then wraps this smart package in an exterior shell reminiscent of the Porsche Macan.

The Fusion looked like an Aston, the Explorer like a Land Rover and now Escape does Porsche. It looks sharp. It’s the cure for the common five-door.

I could gaze into Escape’s big, beautiful peepers for hours. Like the Mazda CX-5, this is a car that, unlike the homelier RAV4 and CR-V, won’t make you pine for luxury. It spells out E-S-C-A-P-E across its tookus, an upscale touch. And even the standard 1.5-liter car comes with dual tailpipes. Classy.

Hybrid Sport goes a step further with the best-looking wardrobe of the line. It’s better-looking than the $33,000 Titanium package. Starting at $29,000, the Escape SE Sport Hybrid gets a blacked-out grille, wheels (upgradable to 19-inch dishes) and window trim.

Comparably equipped, my $34,000 Escape tester was cheaper than a RAV4 hybrid while adding upscale touches like leatherette seats and big wheels. Though that’s still a grand above the bargain leather-throned Soul Red Mazda CX-5 hottie (in part because Mazda eschews hybrid for a slick-shifting four-banger).

This being an SUV, Escape is lathered with black fender cladding (ugh). But paint it Velocity Blue or Rapid Red and you’ll be the envy of the block.

Inside, the hybrid comes standard with the Escape’s modern 12-inch digital display stolen right out of a Lincoln Aviator, with cool Drive Mode graphics and readouts tracking hybrid kilowatts/horsepower while you head up a hill. Dude, that’s dope.

Dude, I wish it was as dope to drive.

Where the tight Mazda CX-5 begs to be flogged, the Escape will make you wish you were back in a Fusion sedan. Despite a 200-pound diet over the previous generation and isolated rear subframe, Escape is mid-pack in the handling department.

Most drivers will appreciate the sub-frame’s contributions to cabin quietness and smooth ride — speed-crazed motorheads will buy performance sedans to get their handling jollies.

As the interior quiet and roominess suggests Escape is obsessive about ergonomics. Importing the electronic, rotary shifter from Fusion (similar to Jeeps) opens acres of space for deep console bin storage as well as a deep dish for keys, change or a Big Mac. Lack of console space was a drawback in previous Escapes. No more.

Steering-wheel buttons are intuitive, and the interior design is clean and spare like the exterior — save for the curious, dimpled door inserts.

Sport Hybrid aside, customers can choose the terrific, entry-level turbo-3 cylinder with 180 horsepower — on par with similar class four-bangers (the Mazda CX-5 does 187 ponies) — and a color palette that includes a yummy Dark Persian Green.

For the tech-thirsty, a top-trim, 250-horse turbo-4 Titanium boasts neat Ford tricks like kick-open tailgate and self-park assist.

The Titanium can get pricey, but if you frequent crowded cities with parallel parking, consider it for its self-park ability alone. Escape will meticulously park itself with the touch of a button — no fender rubs, no curb-scarred wheels.

For Ford customers who lament the passing of the prom-queen Fusion sedan, the Escape is worth a look.

2020 Ford Escape

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

Price: Base price $26,080 including $900 destination charge ($34,240 SE Sport Hybrid, $36,025 SEL 2.0L, $40,070 Titanium 2.0L as tested)

Powerplant: 1.5-liter turbocharged 3-cylinder, hybrid with electric motor and 2.5-liter Atkinson 4-cylinder, or 2.0-liter turbo 4-cylinder

Power: 181 horsepower, 190 pound-feet of torque (1.5-liter); 200 horsepower, NA pound-feet of torque (hybrid); 250 horsepower, 280 pound-feet of torque (2.0-liter)

Transmission: 8-speed automatic, continuously variable transmission (CVT)

Performance: 0-60 mph, NA; towing 3,500 pounds (2.0L), 1,500 pounds (hybrid)

Weight: 3,299 pounds base (3,706 AWD Sport Hybrid as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA, 26 mpg city/31 highway/28 combined (1.5 liter AWD); 23 mpg city/31 highway/26 combined (2.0-liter AWD); EPA for hybrid NA — 35.1 mpg observed by Detroit News in spirited highway/back road driving (Sport Hybrid)

Report card

Highs: Sporty looks, hybrid value

Lows: Slow infotainment screen; CVT tranny slows hybrid off the line

Overall: 4 stars

Honda CR-V joins the hybrid compact SUV fray

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 20, 2019

A new CR-V Hybrid to be built at Honda's Greensburg, Indiana plant

A new CR-V Hybrid to be built at Honda’s Greensburg, Indiana plant (Photo: Honda)

Detroit – Honda introduced its first hybrid SUV here Wednesday as government regulations transform the vehicle landscape with mainstream battery-powered options.

The Honda CR-V Hybrid joins the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid and the new Ford Escape Hybrid in the best-selling compact SUV segment.

Long marketed as niche vehicles with sales hovering around 3% of U.S. sales, hybrids are experiencing a resurgence as Washington ratchets up mpg rules on big automakers. The Trump administration is trying to roll back regulations requiring fleets to average 54.5 mpg by 2025.

Honda has pledged that two-thirds of its global lineup will be electrified by 2030, and the CR-V Hybrid – part of an update to its 2020 offerings – is the brand’s biggest volume commitment yet after introducing low-volume, electrified variants in the past like the wee Insight and hydrogen-powered Clarity.

“The CR-V Hybrid signifies our direction to bring Honda hybrid-electric technology to all core models and to invest in the production of electrified vehicles in America,” said Honda U.S. sales executive Henio Arcangeli Jr.

The CR-V will be manufactured in Greensburg, Indiana.

Toyota’s RAV4 Hybrid, assembled in Canada, this year leapfrogged the Toyota Prius Hybrid as the best-selling hybrid in America. Offered in base LE trim with a starting price at a class-competitive $28,945, Toyota has positioned the RAV4 Hybrid model to sell with a starting sticker price just $2,200 above the base LE gas model.

The Escape Hybrid, too, debuts this fall as a volume offering in Ford’s best-selling vehicle outside the F-150 pickup truck. Ford abandoned its first Escape Hybrid after the 2012 model year. Priced $10,000 above the base ute, the ’12 Hybrid offered little bang for the buck and sales tanked despite positive media reviews.

The Escape Hybrid has been reborn this year as a Sport and Titanium offering priced just $2,210 over the base S model at $28,290. Ford expects Hybrid trims to make up over 30% of Escape sales.

“It’s the regulatory environment that pushes you to do things that they customers don’t want – or don’t want initially,” Ford SUV marketing manager Craig Patterson said at the Escape Hybrid’s media test this month. “We anticipate that eventually customers will gravitate toward these cars.”

Honda estimates a 50% increase in CR-V Hybrid fuel economy over the gas-engine model. The hybrid option will be the most powerful offering in the CR-V lineup with 212 horsepower, besting the 1.5-liter gas engine offering by 22 horsepower. While seven ponies shy of the RAV4 Hybrid, it trumps the Escape Hybrid by 14 horsepower. The CR-V also offers a unique two-motor system that operates without a multi-ratio automatic transmission for a smoother, more EV-like drive experience.

The CR-V will be offered in every trim level beyond the base LX. While Honda won’t disclose final pricing until closer to launch early next year, the Hybrid model will likely be priced under $30,000 like its competitors.

Though the Honda, Toyota and Ford strategies mark a notable mainstreaming of hybrid offerings, they aren’t a guarantee of success. Nissan marketed its own Rogue Hybrid since 2017 — a battery-assist variant of the second-best-selling SUV after the RAV4 —for a competitive $28,745, just $2,500 more than base trim. However, tepid sales led to the car’s demise for the 2020 model year.

Honda, too, has tried a hybrid offering of its popular midsize Accord sedan, but sales crawled along at under 4%. Other volume automakers like Chevy and Hyundai have tested the waters with smaller minnows. Chevy sells the niche all-electric Bolt EV, while Hyundai has produced a variety of hybrid plug-in and electric small cars.

Toyota’s success with the popular RAV4 Hybrid — sales are at 15% of RAV4 volume and climbing — gives automakers hope, though industry insiders express concerns the complicated drivetrains are expensive and may dull profit margins.

Cadillac rolls out the full lineup for its new subcompact CT4 sedan

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 12, 2019

Bright exterior accents, along with unique grilles and fascias distinguish the CT4 Luxury and Premium Luxury models.

Bright exterior accents, along with unique grilles and fascias distinguish the CT4 Luxury and Premium Luxury models. (Photo: Cadillac)

The compact Cadillac ATS has been reborn as the subcompact CT4 sedan.

GM’s luxury brand rolled out the full model lineup for its entry-level car Thursday, a rear-wheel drive athlete that will go head-to-head against segment stalwarts like the Audi A3, BMW 2-series, Mercedes A-class and Acura ILX. Like the BMW, the Cadillac is a rare entry in class with rear-wheel drive capabilities.

Cadillac teased the CT4 with two performance variants — the V-series and an as-yet unnamed track monster – at the Belle Isle Grand Prix weekend earlier this year. The CT4 will be Cadillac’s entry-level sedan below the compact CT5 (replacing the ATS) and flagship CT6.

The CT4 will also go head-to-head against its class peers by offering all-wheel drive and Caddy’s advanced Super Cruise self-driving system.

The standard CT4 will be powered by a 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder rated at 237 horsepower with 258 pound-feet of torque (a 350T badge on the car’s trunk translates the English torque rating into the internationally-recognized, 350 newton-meters of torque). The engine will be mated to an 8-speed transmission.

The CT4, like other Cadillacs, will then be available with a Premium Luxury and black-trimmed Sport variants. Only the former will be optioned with the 2.7-liter turbo-four (linked to a class-exclusive 10-speed tranny) that also powers the V-series performance model.

The all four-cylinder lineup means that unlike the outgoing ATS, the CT4 will not have a V-6 engine option as Cadillac aims to meet tighter federal fuel-economy standards. The CT4 also appears to ditch the sleek, two-door Coupe model that the ATS line offered.

Stuffed into the CT4-V, the 2.7-liter turbo-4 will make 325 horsepower and 380 pound-feet of torque.

The exterior of the CT4 adopts the more horizontal design language first seen on Cadillac’s Escala concept. Those design cues also were adopted by the Cadillac XT6 SUV seen earlier this year. Where the ATS was small for the compact class, the similarly sized CT4 should fit better as a subcompact.

The most radical change comes inside, where the CT4 dumps the ATS’s vertical console for a more horizontal stack that’s topped by a tablet-like 8-inch infotainment screen.

“We developed CT4 to appeal to youthful buyers in the luxury market who may be new to the Cadillac brand,” said Cadillac design boss Andrew Smith.

Unlike other recent Cadillacs, the CT4’s touchscreen does not come with the option of a remote, center-console rotary-control knob.

The introduction of Super Cruise on CT4 signals Cadillac’s attempt to use the sub-compact segment to introduce signature high-tech just as Mercedes has done with its MBUX voice-command system. In addition to Super Cruise – which will enable self-driving on geo-fenced, divided highways – the CT4 will also be able to download over-the-air updates.

The CT4 will continue to be built in Lansing on the same Alpha platform as the outgoing ATS. The architecture – which also undergirds the Chevy Camaro – has proved one of the best-handling chassis in the world. At Belle Isle this summer, GM president and licensed race driver Mark Reuss demonstrated a yet-to-be-named track-tuned variant of the CT4. The track car is expected to mirror the capable ATS-V which has proven competitive with BMW’s formidable M-brand.

Cadillac said the CT4 would be available for order later this year. Pricing hasn’t been released, but expect the CT4 to start in the low-$30,000 range. It will be available for order later this year.

Payne: In Outback’s shadow, Subaru Legacy is a bargain AWD sedan

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 12, 2019

The 2020 Subaru Legacy Sport is an aggressive-looking beast with black wheels and trim - but it doesn't come with Subaru's  more powerful turbo-4 engine.

The 2020 Subaru Legacy Sport is an aggressive-looking beast with black wheels and trim – but it doesn’t come with Subaru’s more powerful turbo-4 engine.

Pity the Subaru Legacy sedan.

It has a hard enough time competing for dates in SUV Nation, but it also has to compete against its sibling Outback. Separated at birth, the Outback and Legacy share the same DNA, platform and electronics — except the Outback got jacked up by 8.7 inches to SUV status and became the fun, outdoors-loving, best-selling big man on campus. Its dance card is full every weekend.

To make matters worse, the Outback went out and got plastic surgery.

Legacy was always the better-looking sibling with its sleek roofline and Sport trim and athletic stance. But for its sixth generation, the Outback got Botox shots that cleaned up its lumpy face, toned down its love handles and — this one really hurts — picked up the same Sport trim as Legacy.

The new Outback has cool black highlights, black wheels, blacked-out window pillars, the full Sport treatment. And to rub it in, the Outback calls its sport trim Onyx.

The Legacy could wallow in self-pity, but it knows its strengths and builds on them for its own next-generation makeover.

For 2020, Legacy is more athletic, more attractive and more of an all-wheel-drive bargain than ever. The Outback may have more rugged sex appeal than Russell Crowe, but it comes at a $4,000 premium. The Legacy is a cheap date with quick moves that will get you to dinner and a movie on time.

Sedan sales may be down compared to sport utilities, but the Legacy is evidence they are still the best bargain on the showroom floor. For us aesthetically minded penny pinchers, the midsize sedan is one heckuva deal.

Like the best-in-segment Honda Accord sedan, the Legacy offers standard luxury features and handling for about $25,000. Indeed, these sedans’ amenities are so good that luxury buyers have to think long and hard whether Audi’s four-rings ($54,000 for a base A6) or Acura’s caliper logo ($33,000 for a base TLX) are worth the hit to the bank account.

For the same price as a base Honda LX, the $25,895 Legacy Premium echoes with standard — standard! — adaptive cruise-control, lane-keep assist and 11.6-inch, Tesla-like console screen. Good luck finding those features on equivalent luxury models for under $50,000.

With a press of the adaptive cruise-control button on the steering wheel, the Legacy competently self-drove through heavy California traffic (is there any other kind?), with lane-centering, braking for the car in front of me and accelerating automatically. It allowed me to negotiate the big console screen to adjust temperature, seat heater, navigation directions (Apple CarPlay/Android Auto also standard) and … um, the start-stop button.

For a brand synonymous with its “Love” ad campaign, Subaru is surprisingly obtuse about Americans’ hatred of start-stop, which makes cars stall at stoplights in order to get credits toward federal fuel-economy regulations.

BMW, VW and Mercedes love their customers so much they put the start-stop button right next to the on-off button so drivers can shut it off as soon as they get in the car. Subaru buries it deep in the infotainment screen. Sigh.

Love returns when you hit the gas pedal. Built on Subaru’s excellent new Global Architecture, the Legacy benefits just as the compact Impreza sedan and Outback before it.

With an impressive 70% improvement in torsional rigidity thanks to high-strength steel and lots of glue (the new, new engineering thing), Legacy rotated nicely through California’s Ojai Mountain twisties (like Hell, Michigan, except miles longer).

Venture off-road and the Legacy can go confidently where few other sedans dare with its standard (there’s that word again) all-wheel drive. Muddy, pockmarked national-park dirt roads are no problem with Legacy’s torque-vectoring AWD — all four corners are always spinning to get you out of trouble.

This is Legacy’s secret sauce. And though the sedan segment may be shrinking, Subaru sees it as a tasty alternative as Detroit manufacturers leave the segment. Chrysler long ago headed for the weeds and the fetching Ford Fusion (with Altima, the only other automaker that offers all-wheel drive in the segment) is scheduled for the scrap heap. Only the Subaru comes – yup – standard with AWD in the segment.

If you’re a Midwesterner facing all-season weather, that’s a welcome sight for a $23,000 base sedan.

Dress the Legacy in my favorite Sport trim and it’s ready for a night on the town for about $30,000. And bring friends. I could sit behind myself comfortably in the back seat, 6-foot-6 frame and all. Continuing the interior upgrade, the Legacy has gained a healthy 1.4 inches of rear leg room despite no wheelbase length change.

While the interior has had a full remake, the outside is familiar save for a rimless grille here, a higher beltline there. The biggest exterior alteration is – typical Subaru – value-driven. The rear trunk opening has been stretched allowing for four full-size bags to fit in the trunk where only three did before. Clever.

The conservative styling bucks the segment trend in which Accord, Hyundai Sonata, and Toyota Camry sexed up their offerings to keep their customers’ cheating eyes riveted on sedans. If Legacy were ice cream, it would be vanilla. That’s a gamble, especially in light of brother Outback’s better looks.

Also a gamble is the bet that performance-minded customers (like me) won’t miss its flat-6 engine.

In a crowded segment, the six’s throaty roar was a siren song for customers looking to upgrade from the base 2.5-liter four-banger’s dull buzz. To improve fuel economy, pricier Legacys (designated LX) get turbocharged 2.4-liter fours to match the Accord’s 2.0-liter turbo-4.

But the turbo remains mated to the same CVT transmission as the standard 2.5-liter four-cylinder, whereas the Accord moves to a 10-speed and the Mazda 6 boasts one of the silkiest 6-speeds you’ll ever encounter.

Even King Accord’s own Sport model shows up my favorite Subaru Sport with a more powerful standard engine and optional stick shift. Price? The same. Both cars are made in the midwest (Accord in Ohio, Legacy in Indiana). Both have more rear seat room than Delta Comfort.

So Legacy makes its case with that secret-sauce AWD. It is catnip in the upper Midwest, save for one thing: Sibling Outback also has AWD. And that lah-dee-dah Onyx model, unlike Legacy’s Sport, gets the 260-horse turbo engine.

Curse you, twin brother.

2020 Subaru Legacy

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

Price: Base price $23,645 including $900 destination charge ($30,090 Sport as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter 4-cylinder or 2.4-liter turbo 4-cylinder

Power: 182 horsepower, 176 pound-feet of torque (2.5-liter); 260 horsepower, 277 pound-feet of torque (turbo-4)

Transmission: Continuously variable transmission (CVT)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.1 sec. (manufacturer estimate for turbo-4); top speed, 130 mph

Weight: 3,523 pounds (Sport as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA: 27 city/35 highway/30 combined (2.5-liter); 24 city/32 highway/27 combined (turbo-4)

Report card

Highs: AWD sedan bargain, Tesla-like screen

Lows: Vanilla exterior; start-stop switch off hard to find

Overall: 3 stars

Taycan unveiled: Porsche goes electric with a Tesla-fighter

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 7, 2019

Porsche introduced its first-ever electric vehicle, the Taycan, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019, in Niagara Falls, Canada.

Niagara Falls, Canada – The two most-anticipated performance cars of 2019 are the Chevrolet Corvette C8 and Porsche Taycan — but for very different reasons. While the Corvette reaches for new performance heights with its first-ever mid-engine layout, the Porsche is out to prove its first-ever electric vehicle isn’t compromised by battery power.

As governments from Europe to China to California mandate EV production, Porsche is determined to put its performance stamp on battery-power just as it has for high-horsepower gas engines.

“We want to be the benchmark. That is a good word,” said Porsche executive board member Detlev von Platen as he unveiled the stunning Taycan on the edge of Niagara Falls Wednesday morning. “The Taycan sets a new standard. It is the sportiest EV in class. Just like every other Porsche.”

The performance specs on the all-wheel drive Taycan are nearly as spectacular as the Niagara Falls backdrop. In top Turbo S trim (the EV maintains the brand’s “Turbo” trim nomenclature though it lacks turbochargers), Taycan hits 60 mph in a face-flattening 2.6 seconds. That’s on par with the gas-fed Porsche 911 Turbo supercar.

Credit twin electric motors and the massive 93.4 kilowatt-hour battery that sits under the Taycan’s seats. The battery is nearly on par with Tesla’s 100-kWh Model S sedan which (in Performance trim) can hit 60 mph in just 2.4 seconds.

That electric power was the inspiration for the Taycan’s introduction at Niagara. The hydroelectric plants around the falls produce enough electricity to supply one-quarter of the power used in Ontario and New York state. The Taycan was simultaneously unveiled in China and Europe, two important markets for Porsche where governments are targeting gas engines for elimination.

Porsche is the first foreign automaker to challenge Tesla on performance after the Model S stunned the auto world seven years ago with its electrifying acceleration. But the German automaker does not try to compete with Tesla on price.

Where the Model S starts at $85,000, the cheapest Taycan Turbo that debuted here starts at $152,250 (including $1,350 destination fee). The Turbo S stickers at an eye-watering $186,350.

These prices are in line with top-trim 911 coupes and Panamera sedans, and well beyond that of Tesla’s sedan. Expect a base single-motor, rear-wheel drive version of the Taycan to eventually start closer to $100,000.

Raw speed is where the Taycan seeks to separate itself from Tesla and other EVs like the Jaguar i-Pace and coming Audi e-tron GT (with which the Taycan shares a platform and LG Chem-supplied battery).

“This car does things that no other Porsche has ever done in terms of acceleration, braking and the ability to change direction,” said Porsche North America CEO Klaus Zellmer in reference to the Taycan Turbo S’s prodigious 774 pound-feet of torque, electric motors and 16.5-inch, 10-piston brakes.

Taycan has already set the fastest, four-door EV time around Germany’s legendary 12.8-mile Nurburgring race track at 7 minutes, 42 seconds. That’s just 10 seconds off the fastest gas-engine production sedan record clocked by the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio.

This despite the Taycan weighing a porky 5,132 pounds, nearly a ton more than the Alfa and on par with a Ford F-150 Super Crew.

Unlike the Model S which has famously struggled to make laps around U.S. tracks, Taycan was designed to run blistering track laps with its Porsche kin.

The hardware required to do that — extensive liquid-cooling for the battery and massive electric cables — takes up significant space in the 194-inch long sedan. Yet, despite being 3 inches shorter than the Panamera (Porsche’s gas-powered sedan with which the Taycan is competitively priced), the EV has similar interior space due to the lack of gas engine under the front hood. Similar to Tesla’s skateboard chassis, the Taycan’s battery is located under the floorboards.

Like all EVs, Taycan will face consumer resistance on range and charging infrastructure.

The German maker seeks to quell these concerns with a range of up to 279 miles (compared to the Model S’s 370) and the unique ability to charge at 270 kilowatts (Tesla can charge up to 200 kW) on Electrify America’s nascent U.S. charger network. Porsche says that at 270 kW, the Taycan can charge to 80% of capacity in 22.5 minutes – or about 9 hours on a home, 240-volt plug.

Outside, the EV sedan is unmistakably Porsche with its blunt nose and sleek coupe roofline. The production car largely adheres to the signature elements of the futuristic Mission-E concept car that dropped jaws when it debuted at the 2015 Frankfurt Auto Show. Aerodynamic gills flank the front, four-point optic headlights and a horizontal taillight spans the rear deck lid.

But physical changes required to meet regulatory rules and budget ceilings have compromised the production design. Gone are the Mission-E’s doors; the racy, conceptual rocker panels have been trimmed.

Inside, Porsche has crafted a sci-fi digital cockpit to match the car’s futuristic ambitions. The console is adorned with digital touchscreens including an industry-first, curved-glass instrument display. Porsche teamed with Apple to create the first Apple streaming service with access to over 40 million songs. “Foot garages” are carved in the rear floor between batteries for for better foot room, and the trunk and “frunk” combine for 15.7 cubic feet of cargo space.

Taycan development set Porsche back $6.6 billion, the most expensive project the automaker has ever undertaken.

To spread costs, Taycan shares its EV platform with Audi. Porsche promises more electrics in the years to come: first up, the Taycan Cross Turismo, a crossover due next year.

“By 2025, 50% of Porsches will be sold with a plug,” says Zellmer. “(Taycan is) more than just one new model. It’s a milestone as Porsche enters the age of full electrification.”

As Porsche test-drives an EV future, Taycan is one leg in a three-legged drivetrain strategy that includes EVs, hybrids and Corvette-fighting, gas-powered sports cars like the 911.

Road test: A 2012 Ford Hybrid New York taxi with 400,000 miles

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 7, 2019

You've come a long way, baby. On its tour of downtown Detroit, the 2012 Ford Escape Hybrid NYC Taxi stops by Ford's original Highland Park plant where the Model T was assembled.

You’ve come a long way, baby. On its tour of downtown Detroit, the 2012 Ford Escape Hybrid NYC Taxi stops by Ford’s original Highland Park plant where the Model T was assembled. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

Talk about built Ford tough.

I’ve been tooling around Detroit in a bright yellow 2012 Ford Escape Hybrid New York taxi with 400,000 miles on the odometer. Four-hundred thousand. I’ve never owned a car with 200,000 miles, much less a cab that survived New York’s street of Hades for all that time.

With Ford about to launch the first new hybrid option of its popular Escape model in 13 years, the cab that the automaker loaned to me is a revealing artifact of the promise and drawbacks of battery-powered vehicles.

The early 2000s were high times for hybrids as the Toyota Prius accelerated in sales while pundits predicted peak oil, and politicians declared hybrids Earth’s best friend. Leading the way was New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg who tried to force yellow cabs to go hybrid.

Bloomberg predicted all city taxis would be hybrid by 2012 and piled on incentives for cab drivers to get there (on top of $3,000 tax credits offered by the federal government). A leader in hybrids under Bill Ford, the Blue Oval was poised to take advantage of Bloomberg’s activism and, in 2007, yellow Escape hybrids starting hitting the city streets.

Or should I say bump-bump-bumping city streets.

I’ve driven Gotham byways for decades going back to my ‘80s Jersey college years, and they make Detroit’s oxcart paths seem smooth by comparison. Throw in city tempers and traffic thicker than Andrew Dice Clay’s Brooklyn accent, and a mile in a city cab can feel like you’re on an amusement park thrill ride.

 Now do it for 400,000 miles.

I can only imagine what this Escape Hybrid has been through, and I admire its durability. No, not the interior which looks like it hosted a party of 6-year-olds. The ripped seats are patched with tape. The controller-knob graphics are worn to nothing. The driver’s-side visor kept dropping into my face. The driver’s-door window didn’t work, the radio wheezed and the interior had more rattles than a haunted house.

But the hybrid drivetrain was healthy as horse. This is remarkable because we all suspect that car batteries will one day expire like our phones.

Nope. Ford confirmed that the 400,000-mile drivetrain contained the original nickel-metal hydride battery mated to a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine and continuously variable transmission. Indeed, the combination of low-end electric-motor torque and smooth CVT shifting made for a drivetrain that had no business being competent after nearly half-a-million miles on Gotham roads.

Rated at 30 mpg new, my cab was still clocking 24.7 mpg in my two days in Detroit.

Alas, this reliability had little effect on the Escape Hybrid’s sales durability. After debuting to media acclaim – it won the 2006 North American Car of the Year – Escape Hybrid sales dropped by 60% by 2012 even as the Escape overall achieved record sales. With a whopping $9,000 premium over a comparable gas-powered model, not even government subsidies could make up the difference

A 2006 Roadshow review foreshadowed the steep hill Escape Hybrid had to climb: “Commanding a serious premium over a comparable gas-powered Ford Escape, our front-wheel-drive 2006 Ford Escape Hybrid came in at $31,080. At this list price, the Escape Hybrid runs into a lot of competition, and the novelty and reduced consumption for its size may not be enough to make it a winner.”

But the argument for the Ford Escape Hybrid as a taxi (or Uber as we say these days) is much more compelling. Especially with Ford’s upgrade to lithium-ion batteries in its most recent Fusion Hybrid and subsequent narrowing of the hybrid price premium.

While we won’t see the slipper, new Ford Escape Hybrid — one of my New York Auto Show 10 Best new products — until later this fall, we do know it will only cost $28,255. That’s just $3,370 more than the base gas-powered ute. Furthermore, it will likely return fuel economy numbers similar to the $28,000 Fusion Hybrid’s 42 mpg combined, a whopping 70% better than the standard $23,170 Fusion at 25 mpg.

Driving an average of 10,000 miles a year, a normal Fusion hybrid owner would take 10 years to make up that $5,000 premium at current $3-a-gallon gas prices. But cabbies aren’t average.

The average NYC cab driver puts on 50,000 miles a year (my taxi averaged 57,000 a year to clock its 400,000 total), which means they’d get the premium back in a cool 24 months.

No wonder so many Uber drivers tell me they are looking at hybrids. They’re economical – even compared to EVs which may never require a visit to the filling station, but need constant charging. Not so the gas hybrid.

The beauty of hybrid taxi-nomics is they just make sense, which means manufacturers shouldn’t have to rely on cockamamie political schemes to sell them.

That was not always the case. The nickel-hydride battery in the 2012 hybrid cab only delivered about 28% better fuel economy compared to Escape’s standard 2.5-liter mill. So it didn’t make up the $9,000 premium on my Ford Hybrid taxi until, well – last year. That’s a long time.

We’ll see if the new Escape Hybrid lives up to its potential.

In the meantime, I didn’t do the 2012 taxi any favors by taking it through the streets of Detroit. An NYC-mobile with 400,000 miles on its bod deserves to retire to Florida like other senior citizens.

But I put the ol’ boy to work up and down the Lodge and I-75 and then up Woodward to visit Ford’s birthplace at the Highland Park factory. It was about a century ago, of course, that Henry’s gas engine defeated the electric vehicles of the time on cost and practicality.

A century later, Ford is betting battery power can compete with the gas engine. At least we know the battery can last as long as its gas engine.

Payne: Mercedes-AMG G63 is like a Wrangler on steroids

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 7, 2019

Vroom. With all-wheel-drive capability, locking differentials, and big departure and approach angles, the 2019 Mercedes-AMG G63 likes to hang out with ATVs.

Vroom. With all-wheel-drive capability, locking differentials, and big departure and approach angles, the 2019 Mercedes-AMG G63 likes to hang out with ATVs. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

If I didn’t know better, I’d think Mercedes was an aftermarket performance-mod shop for Jeeps.

Consider the fire-breathing all-road beast prowling my driveway, the 2019 Mercedes-AMG G63: Boxy shape like Jeep Wrangler. Ladder frame like a Wrangler. Round headlights. Square fenders. Locking differentials. Rear-door mounted spare. Dash-mounted grab handle. Even the door locks go WHAP!  when you shift into Drive.

A Wrangler, yes?

If I didn’t know better, I’d think Mercedes shipped the Jeep off to Austria, gutted it, and then rebuilt it as a luxury hot rod. It has gorgeous twin digital screens, remote rotary controller and touchpad and red leather and Nappa seats (oooohh!). The engine compartment is stuffed with a twin-turbo 4.0-liter V-8 that churns out 577 horsepower. Quad exhaust pipes exit the side rocker panels like a Dodge Viper, and let out a VROOOOMMM! when you press the start button.

If I didn’t know Mercedes-Benz was a Stuttgart-based luxury automaker, I’d think they were the Jeep equivalent to the Lingenfelter, Callaway and Roush mod shops that inject steroids into Dream Cruisin’ Chevy and Ford cars and trucks.

But the G63 is German from the ground up.

It was just a year ago that Mercedes stole the Detroit auto show with the all-new G-Class truck on which the AMG G63 performance model is based.

The first remake of the iconic truck in three decades, the 2019 G-Class — popularly known as the G-Wagen — was thoroughly reworked from stem to stern with Mercedes’ state-of-the-art drivetrain, interior and electronics.

If the Land Rover Sport is the $100,000 equivalent of the Jeep Grand Cherokee for well-heeled customers, then the G-Wagen is the six-figure Wrangler for the well-to-do. At a nose-bleed price of $125,000, the base G-Wagen is a Wrangler in a tuxedo with an interior so rich you want to lick it, and a 417-horse V-8 to hammer asphalt into submission.

But, God bless them, Mercedes is not content with a base G-Class. Like the Challenger Hellcat, the BMW M or the Audi RS, the German luxury-maker has gone off and made a fiendish AMG performance version of the G-Class called the G63.

My $166,000 tester is the most bonkers vehicle I have driven. Ever. It’s even more insane than the Hellcat-engine-infused, 707-horse Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk or GMC Hummer that migrated from Mideast battlefields to American roads.

Interestingly, the latter was popularized by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who also debuted the G-Wagen in Detroit in 2018. Seems they share an Austrian birthplace. Nothing says intimidating like the Terminator.

The G63 is no mere Jeep Trackhawk that wants only to terrorize race tracks. Not content to set asphalt on fire with 3.9-second zero-60 launches, G63 also wants to go off-road with three — count ’em, three — locking differentials. It’s the first vehicle that I’ve taken to the Mounds Off-road Vehicle Park in Flint and drag racing on Woodward … in the same day.

The G63 is pure conspicuous consumption. (Maybe that’s why Mercedes has debuted its Q-class EV: to atone for its sins). On my hour drive to the Mounds, I blew a Challenger off the road, idled loudly in a construction zone and consumed about half of Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves.

But I didn’t sweat the 12.7 mpg because I knew there would be gas stations just miles from the Mounds. When Rivian comes out with its $150,000 all-electric, all-terrain SUV next year, the G-wagen will be tough competition.

Entering the Mounds, I armed my off-road tank for battle. Toggle the low gear setting, shift into neutral, then lock up all three differentials. I’ll leave the why of three differentials to the engineers, but all I know is this thing will climb trees.

Even outfitted with low-profile, sporty Goodyear Eagle 22-inch tires (for Woodward burnouts) rather than more appropriate off-road knobbies, the G63 grunted around the Mounds like it was its backyard sandbox. The Jeepish grab-handle is wrapped in leather (natch), so if Mrs. Payne were along for the ride, she’d have something to hold on to.

The Mounds is Wrangler, ATV and dirt bike territory. Jaws dropped as I rumbled by, rear-end slewing sideways, quad side pipes snorting obnoxiously. I don’t think anyone had ever seen a Mercedes there before.

“That is a gorgeous vehicle,” said one mud-caked ATV rider, drinking in my equally mud-caked chariot.

Too bad more G-Wagen owners don’t exercise their $100,000 animals up here. Maybe it’s because they would get the red leather interior muddy. With a whopping 9.5 inches of body clearance between the axles and 38-degree departure angle up front, the AMG 63 bounced along the Mounds moguls like a big puppy.

Its appetite for mud satisfied, G63 headed south for Woodward.

The G-Wagen is outfitted with Mercedes’ latest interior — twin instrument and console screens under one horizontal plane of glass, silver steering-wheel spokes festooned with controls including mini-touchpads to scroll the instrument display, rotary air vents, rotary infotainment controller with a touchpad that can read your handwriting.

But the G-Class doesn’t have the state-of-the-art infotainment system — triggered with a hearty “Hey, Mercedes!” — that debuted on the A-class this year allowing for direct, phone-like navigation commands. I entered an address on Woodward, then settled back into rouge-seated luxury.

The G63’s new electronic systems are oddly nervous for a car so indestructible. Proximity sensors went berserk at the sight of curbs, walls and drive-thru windows. I turned off the auto lane-keep system given its annoying habit of slamming the brakes whenever I diverged from a lane.

I’m particularly grateful for Merc’s placement of the engine start-stop button right next to the ignition button — so I can immediately turn off the annoying stall feature when I get in.

The G63’s handling is remarkably good for a rolling, solid-rear-axle shoebox, and I enjoyed some twisties on my way to Woodward Avenue.

Woodward is all about stoplight hole-shots.

A Mercedes-AMG CLA45 sedan, recognizing its big brother, shadowed me at a stoplight. On paper they do similar 0-60 times. But my V-8 monster got the jump and that was that.

Other muscle cars were less suspecting of the might beneath the skin of the big toaster. I dragged a Camaro SS and Audi RS5 that disappeared in my mirrors before they knew what hit them.

With its boxy proportions, the cabin comfortably fits four. Who knows, maybe Mercedes will bring a G-Wagen pickup to the U.S. someday just like a Jeep Gladiator.

With 577 horsepower.

2019 Mercedes-AMG G63

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, luxury sport utility vehicle

Price: G-Class base price $125,495 including $995 destination charge ($166,095 AMG G63 as tested)

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

Power: 577 horsepower, 627 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 9-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 3.9 sec. (Car and Driver); top speed, 137 mph

Weight: 5,842 pounds base

Fuel economy: EPA: 13 city/15 highway/14 combined (12.7 mpg observed)

Report card

Highs: On- and off-road power, state-of-the-art interior

Lows: What, no Wrangler-like swaybar disconnect? Needs its own fuel tanker

Overall: 4 stars

Subaru and other small carmakers squeezed by EV mandates

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 3, 2019

Peter Tenn is Subaru planning manager for its Legacy sedan and best-selling Outback SUV models. He says California attempts to mandate battery power are a tough sell to green Subaru customers, given the cost and limited range of EVs.

Peter Tenn is Subaru planning manager for its Legacy sedan and best-selling Outback SUV models. He says California attempts to mandate battery power are a tough sell to green Subaru customers, given the cost and limited range of EVs. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

But with California and 13 other states mandating that about 8% of each automaker’s sales be battery-powered, zero-emission vehicles by 2025 — within the product cycle of Subaru’s current lineup — the maker of affordable, all-wheel-drive vehicles is caught in a vise.

Like other carmakers from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to Mazda Corp., it will have to make cars that customers don’t want — or buy carbon credits for up to $8,000 for every EV they don’t sell to meet their quota.

The primary seller of credits has been California automaker Tesla Inc. Because it only produces electric cars, Tesla has amassed a vault of credits. In 2018, Tesla made $103 million on credits sold to other manufacturers.

By 2035, the California Air Resources Board regulatory body has indicated it wants 100% of vehicle sales to produce no emissions. CARB determines the state’s emissions goals.

The disconnect between what customers want and what the government demands — echoed by even stricter mandates from Europe and China — has some analysts wondering how it will all shake out.

“It’s insanity to invest in auto companies under these conditions,” said Anton Wahlman, an investor and Seeking Alpha auto analyst. “Governments are ensuring that these companies will make limited profits. California is practicing socialism by mandate and telling private companies what they have to sell.”

The mandates are particularly burdensome for smaller auto companies, such as Subaru Corp. and Mazda that don’t have the vast research and development resources of a Toyota Motor Corp. or Volkswagen AG. And they don’t have profitable pickup lines like Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. to subsidize unprofitable electric vehicles.

“We have limited manufacturing facilities, limited engineers that can work on multiple programs,” Subaru’s Tenn said. “We’re trying to launch everyday cars. It’s tough to take those people off and put them on EV programs if we want to give our customers the kind of vehicles they expect from us.”

Fiat Chrysler has seen little demand for EVs such as the tiny Fiat 500e that former CEO Sergio Marchionne famously pooh-poohed as a California-compliance vehicle. So it has thus far paid millions in credits to Tesla in order to keep selling vehicles in California. Through 2023, Fiat Chrysler has committed to paying nearly $2 billion in emissions credits to operate in U.S. and European markets. It also has pledged more battery-powered vehicles.

California has long had an exemption from the federal government to set its own emissions rules, an authority now being challenged by the Trump administration, which is attempting to relax gas-mileage rules. Four large automakers — Ford, Volkswagen, Honda Motor Co. and Mercedes-Benz — have defied the White House’s efforts by coming out in support of California’s more stringent rules.

All four of those carmakers have made substantial investments in electrification.

Ford, for example, is making a big bet on a yet-to-be-seen Mustang-inspired EV, while VW is rebranding itself an electric automaker after the Dieselgate scandal.

When Colorado adopted California’s EV mandates this year, auto dealers pushed back.

“Seventy-seven percent of Coloradans said in a May survey … that California should not be able to determine what kinds of cars can be sold in other states,” Colorado Automobile Dealers Association CEO Tim Jackson wrote in the Colorado Sun. “Seventy percent of Coloradans agreed that electric cars might be a good choice for some, but those purchases should not be paid for by other consumers.”

Electrification comes a price premium.

Subaru currently offers only one plug-in, the compact Crosstrek SUV Hybrid priced at $34,995. That’s $13,100 more — a 60% premium — over the standard gas-powered Crosstrek. Through July of this year, U.S. sales of Crosstrek Hybrids represented just 1.5% of all Crosstreks sold, and just 0.26% of Subaru’s overall sales.

The battery premium is costly across the industry.

A Chevy Bolt EV in LT trim costs $36,620 compared to a similar-sized and equipped, similar-equipped, $22,395 Chevy Sonic Premium. Among luxury vehicles, Lincoln’s $68,880 plug-in Aviator SUV carries a premium over a comparably equipped, $58,700 turbo-V6 gas-engine version.

“Big automakers can sell high-margin vehicles that deliver a profit, but they’re going to lose some of that high margin to subsidize EVs,” said Matt DeLorenzo, the veteran Kelley Blue Book senior managing editor and veteran auto analyst. “Subaru’s quandary is one of many reasons why California shouldn’t be allowed to set de facto emission standards for the U.S.”

Limited by resources, Subaru has partnered with industry giant Toyota to make a subcompact, electric SUV platform. Toyota indicates that development is targeted for 2025, but that won’t help Subaru meet targets until then.

“Credits are a short-term solution because the mandates just get more onerous,” investor Wahlman said.

“Most automakers would rather lose money on selling an EV rather than depending on credits. Because there is always the chance that the customer will change.”

Dodge unleashes snarling 10th anniversary Mopar Challenger

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 3, 2019

The Mopar ’19 Dodge Challenger muscle car is painted in Pitch Black (left) or White Knuckle. Based on the 485-horse Challenger R/T Scat Pack, the Mopar Challenger is festooned with Mopar Blue-striped tattoos around a "Shaker" hood scoop.

The Mopar ’19 Dodge Challenger muscle car is painted in Pitch Black (left) or White Knuckle. Based on the 485-horse Challenger R/T Scat Pack, the Mopar Challenger is festooned with Mopar Blue-striped tattoos around a “Shaker” hood scoop. (Photo: FCA US LLC, Dodge)

The 25th Woodward Dream Cruise is over, but Dodge is still celebrating American muscle.

To honor the 10th anniversary of Mopar-branded cars, Fiat Chrysler’s performance brand is dressing up its 485-horsepower Dodge Challenger R/T Scat Pack in wicked Pitch Black or White Knuckle warpaint – and then covering it with tattoos.

The signature touch is a “shaker” scoop bulging from the hood like a bicep and surrounded by Mopar Blue center stripes that run from the front fascia along the Challenger’s spine to its rear spoiler.

“We’re commemorating our 10th Mopar build with another collectible Dodge Challenger, which continues to be the modern muscle-car every bit as beloved today as the first generation vehicle 50 years ago,” said Mopar boss Mark Bosanac.

Beloved is right. The roomy, retro-styled Challenger is coming off its best sales year in over a decade, soaring to America’s No. 2 muscle car behind the Ford Mustang.

For years Mopar has been Chrysler’s mod parts shop, offering upgrades to existing models – but production cars weren’t badged Mopar until 2010 when Dodge rolled out the Mopar ’10 Challenger.

In the last 10 years, limited-edition Mopar chariots have included the Mopar ’12 Chrysler 300, Mopar ’13 Dodge Dart, Mopar ’16 Ram Rebel, and Mopar ’18 Dodge Durango.

In addition to its unique body art, the Mopar ’19 Challenger will feature the usual array of Scat Pack upgrades that make the 6.4-liter monster the most powerful car in Challenger’s lineup this side of the iconic SRT’s unholy trinity of Hellcat, Redeye and Demon: 20-inch black forged wheels, Pirelli P Zero summer tires, a limited-slip differential, cold-air intake, aerodynamic spoilers and more.

Inside, more tattoos. A Mopar logo will be embroidered on the cloth seatbacks.

Dodge will make 90 for the U.S. market and 10 for Canada. With a standard 6-speed stick shifter and optional 8-speed auto transmission, the Mopar Challenger starts at $45,835 with dealer orders opening next month. The cars will be delivered ready to burn rubber in the fourth quarter.

Payne: It’s the most powerful VW GLI ever — and it has a stick

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 3, 2019

The 2019 VW Jetta GLI on the long, flat, 300-mile trip to Indy from Detroit. The seats were comfortable, the Apple CarPlay nav unflappable, and the turbo-4 sippy.

The 2019 VW Jetta GLI on the long, flat, 300-mile trip to Indy from Detroit. The seats were comfortable, the Apple CarPlay nav unflappable, and the turbo-4 sippy. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

You could hear the teeth gnashing this summer when Chevy introduced the eighth-generation Corvette without a manual transmission option.

Heresy! Off with their heads! God save the manual!

But to paraphrase Mr. Twain, the death of the manual has been greatly exaggerated.

For those willing to pay less than half the price of a new Corvette, the next-generation Volkswagen Jetta GLI is not only the most powerful GLI ever — it also comes with a stick.

Not that I don’t understand the concerns of the Corvette faithful. Super sports-cars with manuals are surely on their last legs. There is something deeply satisfying about being able to slowly unleash 500 horsepower at a stoplight, the rear wheels smoking as you work throttle and clutch together like bow and strings. WAAAWWHHRRGH!

Or the satisfaction of a buttery, 4-to-2 downshift into a 90-degree turn after a perfect heel-and-toe downshift. AWROOOMYEAHHH!

But high-end dual-clutch automatic boxes do it all so much better that it’s pointless to resist. The faithful want 2.9-second zero-60 runs? Gotta have a dual-clutch automatic tranny. Want a car that stops on a dime with lightning quick downshifts? Same answer. Want a $70,000 ‘Vette that can compete with a $190,000 Porsche on track day? Once you’ve gone dual-clutch auto there is no going back.

But in Budgetville where most car enthusiasts still live, dual-clutch automatics are unaffordable and sticks are still where it’s at for the enthusiast.

The new Mazda 3 is offering the manual as a premium option, the Mazda Miata is a manual icon, and VW’s Jetta may be the best bargain this side of — well, its sibling Golf GTI.

As readers of this column know, the GTI is my favorite all-around player. For four decades the total package of hatchback value, interior comfort and performance fun.

The Jetta has always been the more affordable, sedan version of Golf. It’s the nerd to Golf’s party boy, the vanilla to Golf’s Rocky Road, the Teller to Golf’s Penn. Jetta never got a GTI performance equivalent.

That changed in 2011 with the first Jetta GLI stuffed with GTI goodies. For its seventh generation, Jetta has brought back the GLI again. I took the manual version on a road trip to Indianapolis Motor Speedway where I was racing my (manual, of course) Lola sports racer.

I expected the trip to measure Jetta GLI’s relevance compared to the GTI — and to automatic transmissions in general.

From the first press of the Jetta GLI’s clutch pedal, it was a different barrel of monkeys. Forget to press the clutch pedal and brake pedal, and the car won’t start at all (automatics require only pressing the brake to start). With a whopping 258 pound-feet of torque from its 2.0-liter turbo-4 and a tidy six-speed box, the GLI rekindles the joy of manuals.

It’s the same torquey 228-horse engine found in the Golf GTI. Torque comes on strong at 3,000 rpms, and with the Sport mode engaged (is there any other?) the turbo-4 makes a satisfying grunt when flogged. Unlike high-horsepower manuals (the Camaro ZL1) that require the strength of Zeus to shift, the VW six-speed is light to the touch for quick shifts.

Mrs. Payne was my co-driver. Though she prefers automatics (especially on long trips to, um, Indy, where an automatic transmission and adaptive cruise-control is particularly handy) she was content with the GLI stick, especially the hill-assist feature which makes first-gear hill starts a cinch.

Only the second to third shift is mushy (careful, or you’ll grab fifth by mistake and bog the engine). Rush a corner, and the gas and brake pedals are nicely aligned for heel-and-toe downshifts. The Jetta rotates nicely on it its award-wining MQB chassis screwed down with a stiffer suspension than the base Jetta.

The recipe is all GTI including multi-link rear suspension, flat-bottom steering wheel, limited-slip differential (perfect for autocrossing) — even big 13.4-inch brakes borrowed from the top-of-the-line, all-wheel drive, smokin’ hot-hatch Golf R.

Whew! You can see the vanilla melting. Especially as my GLI tester was wrapped in a very GTI-ish red coat with red war-paint grille. Twin pipes in the rear also signal competitors to keep their distance.

All this… and less.

True to Jetta’s entry-level spot in V-dub’s lineup, VW offers this manual treat at just $26,890, a significant $1,600 discount over the 2019 GTI. Trade up to the loaded, GTI Autobahn edition, and the delta between GLI and GTI grows to a yawning $5,000.

So is the GLI worth it?

On my 600-mile round trip to Indy, the differences reveal themselves. In between the handsome silver-rimmed gauges, the GLI gets away with a cheaper, pixelated digital display. The cloth seats never chafed, but they aren’t the bolstered, plaid thrones of the GTI. That means less body grip on high-G turns.

But the big differences are body style, and here’s where the GTI earns its premium. The Jetta is a big car with the same cargo and rear leg room as the mid-size Passat of just two generations ago. But while its cavernous 14.1 cubic feet of trunk space made for excellent airport runs (to pick up my sons and a friend), it paled in dexterity to the GTI’s 22-cubic-feet hatchback.

The GLI back seat gains two inches on the GTI but gives up an inch of precious headroom. And while VW has tried hard to sex-up the Jetta’s exterior with some nicely sculpted shoulder lines, it doesn’t have the character of the Golf classic.

I’ll pay the extra $1,600 for GTI, but I won’t pay the extra 800 clams for the GLI’s automatic transmission.

The six-speed manual was a reminder of the joys of the stick. Unless you’re stuck in three-hour Los Angeles traffic jams, the manual is a wonderful way to explore the torque range of the excellent VW engine.

The GTI/GLI torque numbers dwarf anything else in class, especially the manual Mazda 3 which soars in aesthetic appeal at just $28,420 — but then doesn’t offer an engine option beyond the merely competent standard 2.5-liter four-banger. Talk about vanilla.

By combining a sporty chassis, good power and a stick, the Jetta GLI is a cure for the common SUV. Or the $60,000, automatic Corvette.

2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI manual

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

Price: Base price $26,890 including $895 destination charge ($26,890 as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter turbo-4 cylinder

Power: 228 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.8 sec. (Car and Driver); top speed, 126 mph

Weight: 3,217 pounds base

Fuel economy: EPA: 25 city/32 highway/28 combined

Report card

Highs: Manual fun, torque-tastic turbo-4

Lows: Vanilla styling, not a hatchback GTI

Overall: 3 stars

Payne: Lush Lincoln Aviator is an all-American land yacht

Posted by Talbot Payne on August 23, 2019

Back to the future. With big engine power, a palatial interior and bling-tastic design, the 2020 Lincoln Aviator resurrects the Detroit land yachts of yore. But as a hi-tech SUV.

Another Dream Cruise is in the books, and it was a glorious indulgence of 1940-1970 muscle cars and land-yacht nostalgia.

For American muscle, the nostalgia is sweet because Detroit continues to lead into the 21st century with updated versions of the Corvette, Camaro, Challenger and Mustang.

But land yachts have always left me wistful because U.S. luxury makers surrendered their crowns decades ago. Cadillac Brougham tail fins no longer slice through downtown traffic. Oldsmobile Ninety-Eights the length of oil tankers are gone. Huge Chrysler New Yorkers have sailed into the sunset. The boulevards today are ruled by sleek, athletic Germans.

But I’m happy to report there is hope.

The Lincoln Aviator SUV is here and is a welcome throwback to the future. Aviator is an unabashed embrace of all that once made American luxury great: design, size, power and comfort, updated for the 21st century.

Aviator leads an army of real names. Gone is the German-like alphabet soup of MKC, MKX, MILK (OK, I made that last one up). They’ve been replaced by proper names like Navigator, Nautilus and Corsair.

Turbo-4s are for politically correct Euro-utes. The new Aviator swaggers into your rearview mirror with a standard 400-horsepower (best in class) twin-turbo V-6, and a rear-wheel drive based chassis, gaping chrome grille and an interior quieter than a public library and more wooded than an Upper Peninsula forest.

Where 1940s Lincoln Continental Cabriolets lowered a massive 292-cube V-12 into their engine room, the Aviator boasts a range-topping, twin-turbo V-6-powered Grand Touring model mated to an electric motor generating a stump-pulling 630 pound-feet of torque. Post-war luxury owners wanted a big V-8 to drag home the bear strapped to their rooftop. Today’s 21st-century scion is more woke — they want to bag the bear and save the planet.

So Lincoln gives ’em power with a conscience. I got 22.1 mpg in the hybrid versus 18.7 mpg in the standard V-8. Drive like there’s an eggshell on the accelerator and you can do 20 miles on the battery alone. But make no mistake, this hybrid is no pious Prius.

With its massive torque, the Grand Touring model came out of stoplights like a steam locomotive. Indeed, the hybrid’s general character differed little from its standard little brother, except that it sucked the world’s oil reserves through a smaller straw.

Flying low through the California wilderness, Aviator struck fear in slower traffic just like the chrome-caked grilles of Motor City yore. Of course, this being a Ford product, the grille these days looks more Bentley than Continental Cabriolet. Blue Oval designers have fallen in love with Brit designs of late. Fusions look like Astons, Mustangs like Mondeos, Explorers like Range Rovers — but it could be worse; they could look like a Lexus.

Besides, Lincoln is trying to inspire brand cred, so borrowing from gold-standard Bentley is shrewd.

Design is just one part of a long journey by Lincoln that has culminated in the Aviator. Like the brand-redefining Acura RDX that was the spawn of the Acura NSX supercar and two design concepts, the Aviator is the most important Lincoln this century. On its back it carries the hopes of a new Lincoln generation.

I like to call it “Baby Navigator” because the similarities to Lincoln’s flagship are unmistakable: bling-tastic grille, tablet infotainment screen, luxurious graphics.

But the significance of Aviator is more than skin deep.

Along with the Ford Explorer, Aviator debuts a state-of-the-art rear-wheel drive based architecture. The platform allowed Explorer to introduce the apex-carving ST model that I raved about in July. But Lincoln chief engineer John Davis makes clear that Aviator was the impetus for the new platform.

The longitudinal engine layout takes Lincoln back to its rear-wheel drive glory days when land yacht sedans ruled Woodward. This being the 21st century, of course, SUVs are the new land yachts. But rear-wheel drive brings luxury cred — just ask European hits like BMW and Rover.

Next to Bentley, Range Rover is Lincoln’s (and just about everybody else’s) favorite Brit with its saucy proportions, short front overhangs and loooooong roofline. The Aviator (and Navigator) has been to Rover school and has the sculpted bod to prove it.

But unlike the truck-based Navigator, the Aviator sits on a more athletic unibody made of aluminum and high-strength steel that can cut some rug on the dance floor. It’s not as athletic as the lighter, tighter Cadillac XT6 I recently flogged — but the Aviator is a far more comprehensive vehicle. I love the Cadillac’s design and handling, but it’s just another ute in Caddy’s lineup. The Aviator is Lincoln’s masterpiece.

The Cadillac raids the GMC/Chevy toolbox for the workhorse 310-horse, 3.5-liter V-6. The Aviator starts with the aforementioned 400-horse twin-turbo V-6, and  then goes to a different level with a hybrid asphalt pounder.

Inside, Aviator brings in the Vanderbilt’s interior designers.

Ditching the old Lincoln’s nice-if-dated vertical dash, Aviator’s horizontal interior has more layers than a wedding cake. Acres of wood laid over stitched leather are set off by delicious color combos like mocha and ebony.

Class-leading 30-way adjustable thrones will massage you to jelly. Second-row seats are hardly second-class with their own climate screen and available console island. Roomy third-row seats are accessed as easily as pulling a tab, and — with the rear rows folded — you can gaze up at the stars through the yawning panoramic roof.

Which reminds me of my biggest Aviator complaint, the lack of a wow standard feature. The panoramic roof isn’t standard. Why not? It is on a $38,000 Acura RDX. Lincoln’s answer is, you have to climb the price ladder to $60,000 before Audi or Volvo will offer you a 300-horse engine option.

At $52,000. Lincoln gives you 400 horses standard mated to a class-exclusive 10-speed tranny. It’s good ol’ American power at a good ol’ American value.

Lincoln has its own personality again. Open the driver’s door and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra welcomes you with a chime. Dealers provide red carpet, door-to-door service.

Will it work? Stay tuned. For this year’s Dream Cruise, the 1993 Lincoln Mark VIII coupe qualified for its antique plates. When it debuted that year, the Mark VIII claimed dramatic proportions and a daring, wraparound interior. It died five years later.

Now comes Aviator. It’s not a coupe. It’s a three-row ute aimed at the meat of the market. Motor City luxury is back, baby.

2020 Lincoln Aviator

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear- and all-wheel drive, 6- or 7-passenger SUV

Price: Base price for standard V-6 model $52,195, including $1,095 destination charge ($83,540 Black Label AWD as tested); hybrid model $69,895 including $1,095 destination charge ($83,670 Grand Touring Hybrid AWD as tested)

Powerplant: Twin-turbo, 3.0-liter V-6; twin-turbo V-6 hybrid mated to DC electric motor/lithium-ion battery

Power: 400 horsepower, 415 pound-feet of torque (V-6); 494 horsepower, 630 pound-feet of torque (hybrid)

Transmission: 10-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.3 seconds (V-6); maximum towing, 6,700 pounds (V-6)

Weight: 4,892 pounds (AWD V-6 as tested); 5,673 pounds (AWD hybrid as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA: 17 city/24 highway/20 combined (AWD V-6); Hybrid — 400-mile-plus range

Report card

Highs: All-American value, power; good looks

Lows: Pricey hybrid; standard adaptive cruise, please

Overall: 4 stars