Payne: Would you believe an electric Porsche station wagon?

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 5, 2021

The automotive world is changing freaky fast. SUVs have eclipsed sedans. Electric pickup trucks are a thing. Dashboards look like iPads. And Corvette has put the engine behind the driver. What’s next?

Would you believe an electric Porsche station wagon?

The iconic sports car brand unveiled its 2021 Taycan Cross Turismo Thursday, a wagon version of its already radical new Taycan electric sports sedan introduced for the 2020 model year. The EV station wagon is the latest attempt by the Stuttgart-based automaker to leverage its sportscar cred in order to move in to higher volume segments like SUVs and sedans.

Porsche was the first performance sportscar-maker to introduce an SUV — the Cayenne in 2003 — a profitable business model that has been copied by virtually every other performance brand from Aston Martin to Ferrari. Porsche SUV and sedan sales now outstrip sports car sales by nearly 4:1.

Ironically, Porsche’s flagship, $100,550 911 sportscar will likely remain gas-powered even as the company promises to electrify half its lineup by 2025. The 911’s flat-6 engines are the beating heart of the brand.

You'll know it by the black fender side-cladding. The 2021 Porsche Taycan Cross Turismo.

“Let me be clear, our icon, the 911, will have a combustion engine for a long time to come,” Porsche CEO Oliver Blume said last November. “The 911 is a concept of the car that is prepared for the combustion engine. It’s not useful to combine it with pure electric mobility. We believe in purpose-designed cars for electric mobility.”

The purpose-designed, swiftly-silent Taycan was an immediate hit in 2020, selling about as many copies as the gas-fired Porsche Cayman/Boxster sports car despite costing twice as much. The Taycan Cross Turismo adds to this mix with increased ground clearance and cargo capacity thanks to its square hatchback.

The wagon version — Porsche insists on calling it a “crossover” — will launch with four variants: the base Taycan 4 Cross Turismo, Taycan 4S Cross Turismo, Taycan Turbo Cross Turismo, and Taycan Turbo S Cross Turismo.

Don’t be confused by the “turbo” nomenclature (an homage to the 911): the battery-powered Taycan has no turbochargers. It does, however, feature synthetic sound in order to mimic its gas-powered peers’ growls and downshifts.

In addition to standard, dual-motor-driven all-wheel drive, all Cross Turismo variants will feature a two-speed transmission, 800-volt battery architecture for more robust charging, and panoramic glass roof.

Combined with the EV sports sedan, the Taycan badge will boast eight different models that can be ordered in over 21,000 combinations.

The squared off hatchback of the Cross Turismo will allow rear seat occupants nearly four inches more headroom. Cargo space of 15.7 cubic feet gains about 1.5 cubes over the Taycan sedan. A “frunk” — front trunk — offers an additional 2.9 cubic feet of storage.

Telegraphing its more off-roady look — think of a Subaru Crosstrek SUV versus its sister Impreza sedan — the Taycan Cross Turismo gains about an inch in ride height, black fender cladding, and unique rocker panels.

The 2021 Porsche Taycan Cross Turismo appears similar to the Taycan sports sedan but adds fender cladding and roof rails for that rugged off-road look.

Standard air suspension allows drivers to further raise the ride for greater ground clearance. A “Gravel mode” is added for better grip off asphalt, though Porsche emphasizes Cross Turismo is “not designed as a rock crawling off-roader.”

Like the sportscars that have come before it, Taycan Cross Turismo’s performance envelope is maximized for on-road giggles. With AWD traction, the top-trim Turbo S Cross Turismo can accelerate out of a Woodward stoplight to 60 miles per hour in a breathtaking 2.7 seconds. The base, $92,250 Taycan 4 Cross Turismo will do the deed in 4.8 ticks.

Papa 911 would be proud.

Speaking of gas-gulpers, Porsche is working on synthetic fuels in anticipation of European governments continuing to penalize carbon emissions. Porsche’s synthetic gas would have the same carbon footprint as EVs in order to keep its sportscars running for years.

The 2021 Porsche Taycan Cross Turismo will come with three years free charging.

The Taycan Cross Turismo should arrive at U.S. dealerships this summer. It will coincide with the introduction of two new, carbon-fiber electric bicycles.

Yes, Porsche bicycles. Just to keep things freaky.

Payne: Second-gen Chevy Bolt EV is a treat. Pity it isn’t a Caddy.

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 5, 2021

The Chevu Bolt EV debuted as a 2017 model with a pricey sticker $38k. Five years later that price has lunged to $31,995 to be more competitive with EVs like the VW ID.4, Nissan Leaf, and Hyundai Kona EV. A bigger, pricier, 2022 Chevy Bolt EUV option is also available.

The second generation, battery-powered Chevy Bolt EV is better than ever. I just wish it were a Caddy.

The 2022 Bolt EV (as in Electric Vehicle) has acquired a stretched version — called the Bolt EUV (Electric Utility Vehicle) — and all kinds of luxury touches. Super Cruise self-driving like a Cadillac Escalade. Three inches of rear legroom like a stretched Audi A8 L model. Panoramic sunroof like an Acura RDX. Rear-view camera mirror like a Caddy. Clean, grille-less fascia like a Tesla.

The old Bolt’s plastic grille never quite fit. Like the Tesla Model S’s original plastic “nose cone” it appeared fake, cheap. The new Bolt mug is post-petrol modern. Inside, the cabin is stylish with console “trigger shifter” and all-digital displays.

The 2022 Chevy Bolt EUV options a nav system, but Android Auto (shown) and Apple CarPlay are top notch - and work wirelessly from your phone.

At the wheel of a Bolt EUV, I nailed the throttle out of a Downriver, Interstate 75 cloverleaf. The wee ute responded with instant torque — and minimal body roll thanks to the sub-floor battery pack. Approaching a stoplight, I lifted my right foot and Bolt eased to a stop with regenerative braking. Just like Tesla.

A size smaller than the compact Tesla Model 3/Y lineup that starts at $38,190, the subcompact Bolt EV/EUV model line begins at $31,995 and is perfectly priced to take on the Silicon Valley electric vehicle maker.

If it were a Caddy.

Cadillac has announced it is going all-electric this decade, a bold move aimed directly at the Tesla juggernaut — the only American luxury brand to make a dent in the Teutonic trio of Audi, BMW and Mercedes. Caddy has already announced the $60,000 Lyriq — an upmarket Tesla Model S fighter due in 2023. The Bolt EUV would make a perfect, entry-level companion.

If it were a Caddy.

Alas, as a Chevy the subcompact Bolt EV’s $31,000-plus price tag will seem exorbitant when it arrives on showrooms this summer next to the brand’s attractive lineup of gas-powered utes. The similarly sized subcompact Chevy Trailblazer, for example, starts at $19,995. The Bolt EUV? $33,995. Oh.

The Chevu Bolt EV debuted as a 2017 model with a pricey sticker $38k. Five years later that price has lunged to $31,995 to be more competitive with EVs like the VW ID.4, Nissan Leaf, and Hyundai Kona EV. A bigger, pricier, 2022 Chevy Bolt EUV option is also available.

“There is no better demonstration to GM’s commitment to electrification than the offering of a Chevy product,” said Chevy marketing chief Tony Johnson. GM says all its brands will be electric-only by 2035.

But a serious commitment to convert the masses to battery power would mean offering a $20,000 Bolt EUV to match Trailblazer. Pack a $32,705 Trailblazer to the gunwales — panoramic sunroof, leatherette seats, all-the-safety-stuff — and it is still cheaper than a base Bolt EUV. My loaded Bolt EUV tester rang the cash register at about $43,000.

Sure, the Bolt EUV offers that whiz-bang $2,200 Super Cruise feature, but I wager most Michiganians would trade that for the Trailblazer’s $2,000 all-wheel-drive option. The Bolt EUV doesn’t offer AWD — a deal breaker for many snowbound SUV customers like Mrs. Payne.

Winter is also unkind to EV range. In 30-degree Detroit temps, my tester got just 65% of predicted battery range in mostly 75-mph highway driving. The Chevy Trailblazer boasts 400 miles of range with gas-charging infrastructure everywhere.

Range anxiety is a serious problem for EVs — especially for the average Chevy customer who uses their steed as primary transportation. Advantage gas-powered Trailblazer. Or Trax or Equinox.

With the three more inches of rear seat room than the Bolt EV, the 2022 Chevy Bolt EUV fits 6'5" Detroit New auto reviewer Henry Payne nicely.

You see the holes in this idea that everyone will buy electric in 15 years. I’m not buying it.

More likely the folks buying the Bolt EV/EUV will be niche customers who seek out EVs: Customers who would expect to pay a 10-grand premium on a subcompact SUV, or who would have a second (or third) car for long-distance trips and only use the EV for daily commutes.

So is the 2022 Bolt EV/EUV better positioned to appeal to that niche customer than it was when it debuted as a 2017 model? Absolutely.

Start with the price. Bolt EV is a cool $6,000 cheaper than the first-gen model. Oh yes, I’m old enough to remember when the 2017 Bolt opened to a Motown fever predicting Tesla had met its match. Then priced at $37,495, the Bolt EV went mano a mano against the 2017 $35,000 Model 3 — the General’s well-oiled manufacturing machine beating the typically tardy Silicon Valley automaker to market by eight months.

The automotive press was atwitter. “General Motors is about to take the lead in the electric car race,” thrilled Wired magazine. Analysts predicted sales of 80,000 units a year. “Tesla just hit the competitive iceberg. RIP,” announced Seeking Alpha.

The Chevu Bolt EV debuted as a 2017 model with a pricey sticker $38k. Five years later that price has lunged to $31,995 to be more competitive with EVs like the VW ID.4, Nissan Leaf, and Hyundai Kona EV. A bigger, pricier, 2022 Chevy Bolt EUV option is also available.

Well, not quite.

Bolt sales haven’t topped 24,000 annually. When the Model 3 finally started deliveries (including to your humble scribe), it sold over 140,000 units in 2018, becoming luxury’s best-selling vehicle. Sales eclipsed 200,000 last year. Brand matters, and Chevrolet is no Tesla.

For Act Two, Chevy realistically targets its brand peers: Hyundai Kona EV, VW ID-4, Nissan Leaf.

Here, Bolt is better placed with its $31,000 base price. That’s on par with the Leaf and well below the Hyundai and V-dub that start in the high-$30,000 range. In top trim offerings, pricing is more competitive. Think $45,000 for the ID.4 and $47,000 for a comparable Kona EV.

This is where Chevy’s recipe gets creative.

Grabbing from Cadillac’s cookbook, Chevy spiced my $43,000 Bolt EUV with Tesla-like, Super Cruise driver assistance. No other mainstream brand can touch it. Entering I-75, I pressed the Super Cruise icon on the steering wheel and a green bar lit up the top of my steering wheel.

The 2022 Chevy Bolt EUV comes with a sharp, high-def, rear-view camera.

We’re self-driving, baby!

With an infrared camera mounted on the steering to make sure I didn’t nod off, Super Cruise took over the Bolt so I could eat breakfast (raspberry tart and milk. Delicious), check email, and so on. No interruptions like my Model 3’s Autopilot nannying me to keep my hands on the steering wheel. When it was time to exit the interstate (Super Cruise works only on divided highways), the Bolt EUV kindly asked that I take over again.

Never mind that, ahem, few will use Bolt EUV as a trip vehicle (charging infrastructure is still thin). Most will just use it around town (Chevy will install a 240-volt charger in your garage for free). But Super Cruise is the type of tech that EV geeks expect in the Age of Tesla.

It’s also a needed differentiator in a segment where everything looks alike. The Bolt, Kona EV and ID.4 appear separated at birth: blank fascias, rounded edges, utilitarian hatchbacks.

If only the Bolt had edgy lines and a vertical light signature. Like a Caddy.

2021 Chevrolet Bolt EV/EUV

Vehicle type: All-electric, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger subcompact hatchback/SUV

Price: $31,995, including destination fee (about $43,000 for Premiere EUV as tested)

Powerplant: 65 kW lithium-ion battery pack mated to front electric motor

Power: 200 horsepower, 266 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: One-speed direct drive

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.5 seconds (mnfr.); top speed, 93 mph

Weight: 3,679 pounds (Bolt EUV as tested)

Fuel economy: 259-mile range (Bolt EV); 250-mile range (Bolt EUV)

Report card

Highs: More price competitive with other EVs; attractive face and Super Cruise

Lows: Pricey compared to Chevy gas models; charging infrastructure

Overall: 3 stars

Payne: How auto safety systems saved Tiger Woods

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 3, 2021

Workers watch as a crane is used to lift a vehicle following a rollover accident involving golfer Tiger Woods, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, in the Rancho Palos Verdes section of Los Angeles.

As the world awaits an official Los Angeles County accident report on what caused Tiger Woods’ early morning crash Feb. 23, there is much that is unknown about the single-vehicle incident. Uncertainty abounds as to how fast the vehicle was traveling, whether Woods might have been asleep or distracted, if something malfunctioned in the vehicle, even why the golf icon wasn’t being chauffeured.

But auto safety experts say one thing is certain: Modern safety systems in Woods’ 2021 Genesis GV80 SUV saved the superstar golfer from much more serious injury.

Woods’ horrific rollover apparently resulted in isolated right leg and ankle injuries as safety features — and the crucial fact that Tiger was wearing a seatbelt — worked together to form a cocoon around the 45-year-old athlete. Developed over decades to increasing crash standards, the systems on board the Genesis help isolate passengers like Woods to prevent head and torso injuries.

“It really is a sign of how well these vehicles are built nowadays and the combination of all these safety features,” said David Harkey, president of The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which tests vehicles. “None of us want to be in that kind of violent collision. But your odds of surviving something like that now are much greater than they were a decade ago.”

Experts say vehicles are designed to create a sort of double-layer cocoon around occupants. The first layer is enabled by crush zones in the chassis itself in order to prevent the engine, wheels, and other external objects from intruding into the cabin on impact.

The second cocoon layer is created immediately around the driver using so-called passive safety systems like seatbelts and airbags that prevent occupants from flailing about the cabin.

“We call it the egg philosophy. The vehicle cage is structured like an egg shell with front and back crumple zones to keep the cabin intact,” said Bryan Johnson, a spokesman for Auburn Hills-based Joyson Safety Systems that outfits about one-third of manufacturers (though not Korea-assembled Genesis) with passive safety components.

“Can you keep the compartment intact during a crash and maintain a survivable state? That’s the whole key in a collision, and (the GV80) did that with respect to the upper body,” said Harkey, pointing to the roof, its integrity intact despite the apparent rollover.

IIHS and Joyson engineers have followed the Woods’ incident closely. “The underlying structure in Tiger’s crash did what is was supposed to do,” said Johnson. “The systems worked and kept Tiger seated and in an upright and protected position.”

In this aerial image take from video provided by KABC-TV video, a vehicle rest on its side after a rollover accident involving golfer Tiger Woods along a road in the Rancho Palos Verdes section of Los Angeles on Tuesday.

Los Angeles County firefighters extracted Woods from the GV80 by peeling back the front windshield glass. The tempered glass itself is a safety marvel as it is designed not to shatter in violent accidents like Woods endured. Harkey noted the intact cabin side windows and panoramic glass sunroof.

Woods injuries are reportedly limited to his right leg, ankle, and foot (shattered tibia and fibula with foot bones requiring screws and pins) likely caused by planting his right leg on the brake pedal as the vehicle went out of control.

“Your first instincts are to brake,” said Harkey. “That’s where we see injuries (in accidents like this) — to the ankles in the lower leg. That’s exactly what Tiger experienced.”

Harkey said Woods’ extended leg was vulnerable since it was up against the engine firewall where multiple parts — engine, wheels, suspension — are being smashed into the cabin structure.

By coincidence, IIHS is currently putting the $49,925 Genesis GV80 — new this model year — through its rigorous safety tests. Vehicles must meet federal safety standards to sell in the United States, but manufacturers frequently benchmark to IIHS’ higher standards which earns them the Virginia-based organization’s Top Safety Pick or Top Safety Pick Plus ratings.

Hyundai Motor Group, which includes the Genesis luxury brand, was awarded more Top Safety Picks than any other manufacturer last year.

Woods had just played the Genesis Invitational and was driving a GV80 courtesy vehicle at the time of his crash. The automaker has kept a low profile, lamenting Woods misfortune and “wishing him a full and speedy recovery.”

In a statement, Hyundai’s luxury maker highlighted several advance safety features in its GV80. Woods was cushioned by a center-side airbag that deployed between the front seats helping keep Woods in place (and from knocking heads with a right-seat passenger had their been one).

Woods was surrounded by airbags including a steering wheel airbag to the chest, side curtain airbags to keep his head from striking the door window, and a lower door airbag to bolster his hips.

“The biggest recent evolution in vehicle safety is the integration of sensors in vehicles,” said Joyson’s Johnson.

Today’s safety systems are designed to work with instant speed and precision. Take the simple seatbelt which experts agree was the foundation of keeping Woods alive in a median-hopping accident at perhaps 50 mph.

This "far side" airbag, made by Joyson, keeps passengers from knocking heads in an accident. A similar, console-based air bag deployed in Tiger Woods' Genesis.

“You now have pretensioners in a seatbelt that — right before a collision — will respond and retract. So it literally pulls your body back into an upright position,” said IIHS’s Harkey, describing a sequence that happens in milliseconds. “Then you have load limiters which allow the belt — once the crash occurs — to loosen slightly. That prevents injuries that sometimes occur because (a tight belt) may actually do a bit of upper body damage.”

Woods was alone, but more air bags would have deployed should other occupants have been present.

American consumers have gone whole hog for SUVs — over 70% of non-pickup truck new vehicle sales — which are heavier and carry a higher center of gravity than sedans, potentially making vehicles like the 5,000-pound GV80 less controllable compared to, say, its 4,100-pound G80 sedan sibling.

Regarding passenger protection, however, Johnson did not see that as an issue. A wild card, however, is the SUV’s hatchback which, unlike a sedan’s isolated boot, opens the vehicle cargo area to the passenger compartment — and potential flying objects like golf clubs or luggage.

In Woods’ case, his clubs and luggage stayed intact. Harkey said the IIHS test includes passenger dummies, but not cargo.

Overall, vehicle structural engineering have made big strides in recent years. “The GV80 is on an all-new platform — with strong focus on safety — including passenger compartment protection/reinforcement areas,” said Genesis. “This includes the use of advanced high strength steel for rigidity and safety.”

In 1995, IIHS began so-called moderate overlap tests in which 40% of the front end took the brunt of a head-on collision — the deadliest of crashes. In the last decade, IIHS has added small overlap tests aimed at strengthening front corner crush zones in which 25% of the driver/passenger sides bear the impact.

In addition to these overlap tests, IIHS tests for side, roof strength, and head-and seat restraints.

“It was clear that at, some point in the collision, (the GV80) landed on its front and there was severe intrusion into (the engine compartment),” said Harkey. “But the structure absorbed a lot of that energy.”

Driver error is the dominant factor is auto accidents. Suppliers like Joyson Safety Systems make passive safety systems to make sure accidnts aren't fatal.

Joyson’s Johnson said that active safety features like anti-lock brakes and forward collision avoidance systems — both of which were on the GV80 — have also made vehicles safer, though they likely did not factor in the LA crash. Woods was saved by good ol’ passive safety tech.

Johnson expects, however, that future active safety advances — accelerated by the promise of driverless vehicles — could prevent crashes.

‘We are currently seeing an evolution of occupant monitoring in systems like GM’s Super Cruise (driver-assist),” he said. “So if a driver is distracted, then a predictive system might be able to give them a warning in time.”

Biden-GM Urge Electric Vehicle Transformation, But Experts Say Climate Case Is Weak

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 28, 2021

Detroit – As the Texas power grid shudders in part under renewable power, the auto industry is also facing an uncertain transition to green energy.  General Motors dropped a bombshell last month that it will build only electric vehicles by 2035. The commitment comes as the Biden administration stocks up on climate activists to?transform the economy to fight global warming.

The administration is in line with governments from Europe to China that have declared EVs the future and – for the first time – are mandating which powertrains automakers must use.

But as GM and other automakers spend billions to bring electrics to market, prominent auto and climate experts say they are a solution in search of a problem.

Physicist Frank Jamerson, one of the architects of GM’s EV program, wrote in a 2020 Society of Automotive Engineers paper there is no evidence that gas-fired transportation is changing the climate. An advocate of nuclear power and hydrogen fuel cell development, GM’s ex-chief of electrochemistry said in an interview that “fossil fuels can be used until they run out, in hundreds of years.”

Center for Automotive Research Chairman David Cole, a leading Michigan research firm, concurs: “The climate data has been pushed aside by the politicians. This (climate crisis) idea is being pushed to save the world, and it’s a mistake.” Cole, Jamerson, and Weather Channel founder and meteorologist Joe D’Aleo plan an SAE warming conference in April.

Cole says the enormous investment in EVs, which make up less than 2 percent of U.S. sales today, is creating a two-tiered industry of haves and have nots. Big players like GM, Toyota, and Volkswagen have the resources to invest in a battery-mandated future whereas other companies do not.

“The haves can play that game, and the have-nots cannot. The big boys are investing so that if government is pushing autos towards electrification, they will be the winners.”

Veteran climatologists like John Christy, who oversees satellites that monitor global temperature data, says the EV push is disconnected from scientific evidence.

“There is no climate crisis. If you apply the proposed government regulations to the auto industry, they will have no climate impact,” said Christy, professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, in an interview. “Indeed, if you eliminate the U.S. economy from the face of the earth, it will have no impact on global temperature.”

Decades of scientific data indicate that global warming alarms have been inaccurate – including the predicted retreat of the Great Lakes in the Detroit automakers’ back yard.

Still, Big Auto has done an about-face on climate regulations after backing the Trump administration’s challenge to California’s controversial CO2 emissions rules.

GM’s view now aligns with the Biden campaign which asserts “humans’ contribution to the greenhouse effect is indisputable” and poses an “existential threat to . . . human life.” America’s largest auto manufacturer, GM’s reading of the political tea leaves echoes past strategic moves to align itself with Washington trends.

With the U.S. mired in Iraq in 2008, for example, the General supported the Bush administration’s transition to ethanol-fueled cars by 2022 to reduce foreign oil dependence.

A nuclear physicist by training, Jamerson worked at GM for over 30 years, becoming assistant program manager of the U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium in 1990. The alliance of GM, Ford, Chrysler, and the Department of Energy aimed to pool resources for a new generation of battery-powered cars.

The consortium was driven in part by concerns over climate change– fears data no longer support, the ex-GM exec says. Jamerson said batteries have progressed since his team developed GM’s first EV prototype, the Impact – but electrics still suffer from range challenges.

“There is no reason to deny the use of fossil fuels,” he said. “Let the marketplace decide.”

Climatologist Christy said mandating EVs would have no impact on climate: “1) The US is only 14 percent of global emissions so what we do won’t affect much. And 2) climate is not as sensitive to CO2 as the models say it is.”

Warming orthodoxy has been challenged by real world evidence. With Great Lakes levels at cyclical lows in 1988, climate alarmists like then-NASA scientist James Hansen projected man-made warming would cause shrinking coastlines. But lake levels today are back to historic, 30 year-cycle highs. Climate models have also erroneously predicted disappearing polar ice caps and record hurricanes.

James Taylor, president of the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, said in an interview that Biden administration plans to power an electrified vehicle fleet with wind turbines in the next decade would require nearly half the land mass of the United States – “the most environmentally ruinous plan we can think of.”

The contrarian data has not slowed political pressure on automakers. The governors of California and Massachusetts have set a ban on gas-powered cars by 2035. Biden promises rules “ensuring 100 percent of new (vehicle) sales . . . will be electrified.”

Auto analyst Cole said that, despite years of climate alarmism and government subsidies, consumers have not embraced EVs. Even in England, one of the most popular countries for electrics, EVs made up only 7.4 percent of sales in 2019.

Payne: Buick Envision, the second-gen’s the charm

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 26, 2021

In Florida you can have any car you want as long as it’s white. The reflective color is ubiquitous in the Sunshine State as passengers try to keep cool from the relentless ball of fire in the sky.

But the thing about white is it highlights a car’s style. Poor designs have nowhere to hide their awkward lines and sloppy details. They stand out against the white background like acne on Kate Upton’s face.

My white, 2021 Buick Envision ST tester looked lovely.

Thin grille and lights. High cheekbones. Lean rocker panels. Black 20-inch wheels under muscular shoulders. What a difference a generation makes.

The first-gen Envision landed in 2015 with a whimper. Sandwiched between the brand’s cute subcompact Encore and handsome three-row Enclave ocean liner, Envision should have been the brand’s crowning glory. Buick’s bestseller in the industry’s most popular segment. An exclamation point that Buick had completed its historic transformation from stale sedan brand to hip SUV brand.

But the Envision didn’t shout premium. Behind the signature grille was a jowly facia punctuated by old school Buick portholes — er, Ventiports. What were ’50s portholes doing on the brand’s breakthrough compact SUV? The interior was OK, the ride OK, the experience OK. Not what was expected from a brand that had wowed autodom with Encore and Enclave. Envision became better known for the UAW protesting its made-in-China origins.

The 2021 Buick Envision offers comfortable leather seats and lots of console storage.

Sales were, well, OK.

Gen two is an extreme makeover. Driving the Naples, Florida coastline with Mrs. Payne, my Envision may have been white like everything else, but it was vanilla no more. It looked sharp in lots choked with Mercedes GLCs, Audi Q5s and Lexus RX 350s.

The west coast of Florida is teaming with Midwest retirees and snowbirds who have escaped down Interstate 75 from the cold. Yet the auto mix is not much different than the state’s east coast populated by northeasterners who’ve migrated down I-95. German and Japanese luxe brands are everywhere. Like the European (Rolex, Gucci) and Japanese (Uniqlo, Canon) brands that litter ritzy shopping centers.

“We sell fashion,” a GM exec always reminds me, and its Cadillac and Buick brands have struggled in that pursuit.

It’s not just Euro-fashion Buick must contend with. Japanese-made Lexus has been dominant in Naples for years, its mix of affordability and customer service irresistible to monied Floridians. Especially the mid-size RX 350, often referred to as the official vehicle of Florida.

So it’s significant that the Envision turned our Delray-resident pal Alice’s head. She loves her similarly sized Lexus ES 350 sedan, but the Envision checked all her boxes.

Start with that athletic SUV exterior — some two inches lower and wider — which carried none of the baggage that might have reminded her of old Buick sleds. No portholes. No jowls. It looked like no Buick she had ever seen before.

That’s where Buick’s wholesale change to SUVs has been brilliant (even if it meant ditching my favorite Regal sedan sportback. Sigh). It’s a fresh start. Alice might have been a character right out of those Buick TV ads:

“That’s not a Buick!”

Pleased by the toned exterior, 60-something Alice slipped easily into the ute’s raised seat (the older you get, the harder it is to get into sedans, am I right?). The interior sealed the deal.

Reworked like the exterior, the quiet cabin is a pleasing place to be. Comfy front thrones. Roomy rear bench. Sculpted dash. Familiar GM steering wheel volume and cruise controls. Taking a page from Corvette — Corvette! — the center console is driver-centric, its big 10.2-inch infotainment screen rotated toward the driver.

Not that you’ll confuse the Envision’s handling with a ’Vette. The Buick is a Goldilocks ute: not too stiff, not too soft. Just right. Its suspension, 9-speed tranny and 228-horse turbo-4 are plenty peppy without tempting you into stoplight drag races.

But the driver-focused layout puts the touchscreen within easy reach — whether the pilot is your long-armed 6’5” reviewer or wee Alice, who, like a lot of Lexus customers, isn’t enamored with her vehicle’s remote touchpad controller.

“It’s annoying,” she said rolling her eyes. The same affliction dogs the Acura RDX, one of my favorite SUVs in segment — save for its Tru Touchpad screen controller. Oh, I’ve gotten an earful from owners.

The 2021 Buick Envision offers wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto which opens even more room in the center console.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, Buick has stuck with a touchscreen just like your smartphone. Alice loved it. And the lack of a remote controller also opens the console for storage space for her multiple thermoses, keys, etc.

Not that Buick isn’t immune from innovation. Where Lexus and Acura try (unsuccessfully) to impress with touchpad tech, Envision opts for a button “trigger” transmission. A console space saver, it’s easy to learn. It joins other GM innovations that have stood the test of time: head-up display, safety alert seat.

Both these inventions (first found on cousin Cadillac) come with Envision’s $2,500 Tech Package. It’s worth it. The safety seat buzzes your butt when you get too close to an object. Mated to “HD surround vison” — as sharp a front-rear camera as you’ll find — the two systems combine for worry-free mobility in tight spots. Like the Lemon Tree Inn parking lot where my wife and I stayed in Naples.

The tech package also includes wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which further unclutters the console while enabling the best nav apps on the planet.

Given this obsession with detail, noticeably absent from my $40,000 ST tester was Adaptive Cruise Control. It would have come in handy on Florida’s highways — choked with sunbirds fleeing cold temps and nanny-state governors.

GM has been curiously tight-fisted in offering ACC on its vehicles. It’s a notable omission and reminded me of mainstream brands like Nissan, Subaru and Mazda that offer it (and other standard items on the Buick like blind-spot assist and emergency braking) for under $30,000. Technology has shrunk the difference between mainstream and luxe brands, and a loaded AWD Subie Outback or Mazda CX-5 can be had for $5,000 less than a comparable Envision or Acura RDX.

Brand matters, of course. And, within its competitive set, Envison is every bit the value of its Japanese peers. That’s a big step up.

Oh, yes — and be sure and step up with the Envision’s $1,350 Sport Touring package. Those big black wheels and trim details will really show off your Buick’s toned, white beach bod.

All-new for 2021, the 2021 Buick Envision is built on the same FWD chassis as the Cadillac XT4, offers a 228-horse turbo-4, and an athletic design.

2021 Buick Envision

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

Price: $32,995, including $1,195 destination fee ($40,820 FWD Essence ST as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged inline-4 cylinder

Power: 228 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 9-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, NA; towing, 1,500 pounds

Weight: 3,732 pounds (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA est. mpg, 24 city/31 highway/26 combined (FWD); 22 city/29 highway/25 combined (AWD)

Report card

Highs: Athletic styling; driver-friendly console

Lows: Numb handling; standard adaptive cruise, please?

Overall: 3 stars

While Mercedes debuts another knockout C-class, Cadillac looks to the future

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 23, 2021

Mercedes unveiled its all-new C-class Tuesday, and it’s stunning. With its curved, space-age screen rising from the console, state-of-the-art “MBUX” voice recognition, and smooth, 255-horse turbo engine with 48-volt battery assist, Merc’s best-selling sedan reasserts the automaker’s place — along with the BMW 3-series and Tesla Model 3 — as the most coveted luxury car in autodom.

The 2022 Mercedes-Benz C-class sports a majestic, 11.9-inch console screen.

It’s a big reason why GM’s luxury brand, Cadillac, is swinging for the fences by going all-electric in 2030.

Despite producing swift chariots on par with its rivals in athleticism, Caddy has struggled to keep up. Going electric is a chance to reset by leap-frogging the competition in technology.

“That’s how extreme you have to go to stay relevant in today’s luxury market,” said ISeeCars executive auto analyst Karl Brauer while swooning over the C-class’ new interior. “It’s not good enough for Cadillac to be as good as the Europeans. They have to be over the top on tech, design, and drivetrain.”

To that end, Cadillac has unveiled its first EV, the mid-sized Cadillac Lyriq SUV, that matches Mercedes in interior wow factor. Then it takes it up a notch by promising a dual-motor, skateboard electric chassis like Tesla.

The Lyriq boasts a 33-inch, curved LED screen that stretches from behind the steering wheel across the dash — a sculpture as dramatic as the Mercedes’ 12-inch masterpiece. Mercedes’ self-driving features allow automatic lane changes — just like Cadillac’s Super Cruise and Tesla’s Autopilot. Building on Cadillac’s Super Cruise driver-assist technology, the Lyriq will introduce “augmented reality” feature — projecting two planes of driver information over the road in front of the car.

The new Cadillac Lyriq electric crossover has a 33-inch display screen.

But it’s Cadillac’s commitment to an all-EV lineup in just nine short years that it hopes will help it stand out to new, Generation Tesla car buyers against the European juggernaut.

Significantly, Mercedes  — which has defined luxury for decades — has not felt the need to target an all-electric future until 2039. “By 2030 we aim to have electric models make up more than half of our car sales — that includes all-electric cars and plug-in hybrids,” the company announced in 2019.

But for Cadillac, the future is now or never.

“Cadillac is a small financial risk for General Motors, so they can swing for the fences,” said Brauer. “A lot of statements made today about the electric future are meant to benefit brands like Cadillac in the present. Mercedes doesn’t need to do that because they define the market today.”

The Cadillac Lyriq that debuted Thursday night will hit dealerships late next year.

In addition to its interior tech, the 2022 C-class (due on dealer lots early next year at a likely starting price of about $43,000) doubles down on the design traits that luxury buyers covet: giant, chrome star anchoring the front grille, aviator vents anchoring the horizontal dash, coupe-like roof flowing across an expanded wheelbase.

Cadillac has tried to match Mercedes in sedan segments (as well as SUVs) with its CTS and ATS — recently rebadged as the CT4 and CT5. Tested on Germany’s famed Nürburgring race track, the Caddys received raves from the motoring press for their agility and power — and for V-series performance variants that went stride-for-stride with high-end Merc AMG models.

But ATS sales never crested 40,000 in the states, while the C-class often doubled that.

“Along with Mazda, Cadillac is one of the most underappreciated brands in the market,” said Brauer. “If you drive (a Cadillac sedan) it was right there with the Germans.”

In announcing his new C-class Tuesday, Mercedes CEO Ola Källenius expressed his confidence the sedan would set a new standard: “The C-Class is already our best-selling sedan. Our most successful model range will once again raise the bar as the most sophisticated offering in its segment.”

With its new lineup of EVs coming by decade’s end, Cadillac hopes it will capture some of the magic that has made Tesla as desirable as Mercedes. In 2020, the Model 3 sold a segment-best 206,500 units.

The 2022 Mercedes-Benz C-class is all new and will arrive in dealerships early next year.

Lordstown Endurance EV pickup is going desert racing

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 23, 2021

Lordstown Motors is going racing.

The Ohio-based electric pickup truck maker will enter its Endurance pickup in the SCORE San Felipe 250 on April 17, a grueling test of off-road endurance on Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula. Automakers have a long history of proving production vehicles in extreme racing environments, and the nascent electric vehicle industry is proving no different.

Lordstown’s Baja entry follows other manufacturers into competitive racing. The Jaguar iPace has competed in the FIA’s international eTrophy series. Plymouth’s Rivian put its R1T truck to the test in the Rebelle Rally last fall. And GMC Hummer is sponsoring a prototype EV racing team in the Xtreme E off-road series.

The Baja desert series, sanctioned by the Southern California Off Road Enthusiasts International (SCORE), has been a benchmark for off-road racing. The Baja 1000 – a 1,000-mile race in its 54th year– is the premier event in a series that includes the San Felipe 250, Baja 500 and Desert Challenge.

“We feel that it is quite a significant milestone for the electric vehicle community that an electric pickup truck can compete in an environment as demanding as Baja California,” said Lordstown Motors CEO Steve Burns. “Our goal is to be the first EV to ever complete the San Felipe 250, and with the superior traction, weight balance and advanced software control of our hub motor-based Endurance, we are confident that we will do just that.”

The event features a wide range of off-road classes including motorcycles, buggies, trucks, custom-race rods, and production vehicles. The Lordstown Endurance will be of the latter variety, racing in the eClass.

The Lordstown Endurance truck is entering the Baja San Felipe 250 off-road race in April.

The full-size pickup will feature a beta version of Lordstown’s production skateboard chassis with big, 37-inch off-road tires to take on Baja’s treacherous terrain. The truck will be built in General Motors’ former, 6.2 million-square-foot Lordstown Assembly Plant that once bolted together Cruze compact sedans.

The daunting, 250-mile race starts in San Felipe, Baja California and traverses terrain including sand, rock, high-elevation mountains and low-speed ravines. Temperatures vary widely from desert heat to mountain cold, a challenge to batteries that are sensitive to extreme conditions.

“The Baja races give EV makers the opportunity to say that their vehicles are invulnerable. Range is the issue for electrics. It’s going to be rough in the cold climbs,” said Sue Mead, a six-time Baja 1000 racer and the only American to have won the international, 6,000-mile Dakar Rally. She achieved the Dakar feat in a Ford F-150 Raptor.

Mead said that the instant torque of electric motors is ideal for off-road racing, but battery life will be tested versus gas-powered entrants that have dominated the sport.

Battery robustness has been a challenge for EVs even as manufacturers like Tesla have advertised over 400 miles of range. Under the duress of Car and Driver’s Lightning Lap at 4-mile-long Virginia International Raceway, for example, a Tesla Model S could not finish a lap without going into limp mode. A Porsche Taycan was the first EV to complete the high-speed test last year.

The Lordstown Endurance truck will be sold to commercial fleets.

Racing California’s all-female Rebelle Rally last fall, off-roader Emme Hall of Roadshow got just over half the advertised 300-mile range in a beta electric Rivian R1T pickup. A semi carrying a 130-kWh mobile charger provided re-charging support, which enabled full battery recharges in about an hour.

Lordstown hopes the Baja experience will toughen the Endurance’s image as it targets the commercial truck fleet market. The production, 600-horsepower Endurance boasts a range of 250 miles and tow capacity of 7,500 pounds. Currently in its beta production phase, Endurance is slated for September production.

It joins a growing segment of electric pickup trucks due in the next two years including the Hummer EV, Tesla Cybertruck, Rivian R1T, Bollinger B2 and Ford F-150 Electric.

This year marked the first time an EV competed in the famed King of the Hammers off-road event in California. Independent racer Kyle Seggelin and his team stuffed a Toyota 4Runner with the electric powertrain of a Nissan Leaf EV. The truck was further modified for full battery swaps.

The team swapped out the 62-kWh battery pack twice over the course of the tough, 91-mile course.

The Lordstown Endurance truck will be made in the former GM plant in Ohio.

Most dependable: Lexus, Kia top 2021 JD Power auto study

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 23, 2021

Automobiles are more complex than ever, and more dependable than ever.

That’s the encouraging news from data analytics firm JD Power which released its 2021 U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study Thursday. The widely-watched study found vehicle durability at an all-time high, improving 10% over 2020 — and 25% over 2016 when the industry was backsliding in durability due to the swarm of new electronics debuting on vehicles.

2021 Kia Seltos

This year’s survey also marked a victory for Kia as the Korean brand beat perennial #1 Toyota as the most dependable mainstream brand. Toyota’s luxury brand, Lexus, continued its dominance as the most reliable automaker overall for the ninth time in 10 years. The Porsche 911 sports car was the most dependable model surveyed.

Just five years ago dependability was declining — by 3% year-over-year — provoking flashing lights from JD Power, especially in so-called ACEN features (infotainment, navigation, in-vehicle communication systems) as automakers rushed to integrate connectivity and autonomy in their vehicles.

But the latest study indicates that that these systems are maturing, with reported defects dropping from 152 problems per 100 vehicles five years ago to just 121 PP/100 today.

“Today’s three-year-old vehicles are of higher quality and more dependable than in previous years,” said JD Power vice president of global automotive Dave Sargent. “Most owners aren’t experiencing their vehicles breaking down or falling apart. In the future, dependability will partially be determined by the ability to solve problems through vehicle updates and the avoidance of technology obsolescence.”

The ability to update vehicles over the air is accelerating with, for example, the Ford F-series pickup — the top-selling vehicle in autodom — introducing OTA updates with its 2021 models. Ironically, Tesla — the pioneer of OTA updates — had one of the poorest scores on JD Power’s test (172 PP/100) as the Silicon Valley brand struggled with manufacturing quality issues.

The closely-watched Vehicle Dependability Study, now in its 32nd year, tracks 33,251 original owners of three-year-old cars (2018 models for this year’s study) over 12 months. JD Power covers 177 specific problems grouped into eight major vehicle categories: audio/communication/entertainment/navigation (ACEN); engine/transmission; exterior; interior; features/controls/displays (FCD); driving experience; heating, ventilation and air conditioning; and seats.

All categories improved this year, led by exterior and driving experience. The ACEN grouping, where consumers have seen the biggest advances in recent years (from voice recognition software to navigation programs to satellite radio features) showed marginal improvement and remains the category with the most problems reported.

“From early in the ownership experience, many owners complain about these systems being problematic,” Sargent said. “It’s a recurring theme. With smartphone apps increasingly giving owners an alternative, some will give up on the vehicle’s built-in systems that caused that initial frustration.”

Among vehicle segments, cars were the most dependable, averaging 111 problems per 100 vehicles. Trucks averaged 130 PP/100 and SUVs 122 PP/100. Given that trucks and SUVs now account for a whopping 80% of monthly retail sales, JD Power noted the industry’s attention should be on those segments.

Asian brands continued to lead the way in reliability, a calling card that has gained them significant market share since the 1980s. Owners of Korean and Japanese vehicles reporting the least problems — 115 PP/100 — compared with U.S. brands (126 PP/100) and European autos (131 PP/100). Credit this gap in part to Korea’s Hyundai Group triumvirate — Hyundai/Kia//Genesis — which were big movers in the survey.

Not only did Kia leapfrog Toyota for most dependable mainstream brand, but the three Korean brands averaged 99 PP/100 — 19 points better than Japanese brands collectively (118 PP/100).

Luxe-brand Lexus put up an overall best low score of 81 PP/100, an improvement of 17% from five years ago when it was also top dog. Rounding out the 2021 Top Five were 2) Porsche (86 PP/100); 3) Kia (97 PP/100); 4) Toyota (98 PP/100); and 5) Buick (100 PP/100) tied with Cadillac (also 100 PP/100).

Kia showed the greatest improvement year-over-year — 37% — followed by Cadillac, Acura, Hyundai, and Mitsubishi.

Per individual models, Toyota led the way with five segment awards: Lexus ES, Lexus GX, Toyota Avalon, Toyota Sienna, and Toyota Tundra.

GM garnered four segment awards: Buick Envision, Chevrolet Camaro, Chevrolet Silverado HD, Chevrolet Tahoe. Hyundai also racked up four segment awards with the Genesis G80, Kia Optima, Kia Sorento, and Kia Sportage.

Payne: Wagon or SUV? Audi A6 Allroad vs. Volvo XC90

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 23, 2021

Station wagon or SUV?

It’s almost a moot choice today since so few wagons remain after the SUV tsunami. But in the luxury class, European automakers continue to bring sleek, powerful wagons popular across the pond. They are a reminder that such four-wheeled dinosaurs once ruled North America before a regulatory meteor from Washington in the 1970s rendered them virtually extinct, ushering in the SUV Age.

I took two of the finest examples of the modern European SUV and station wagon — the Volvo XC90 an Audi A6 Allroad, respectively — on the road to ponder the existential question.

The A4 Allroad has been the only Audi wagon to grace U.S. shores in recent years as the German brand swarmed the SUV market with its popular Q5 and A7 utes. But outdoorsy Allroad fans (like Subaru Outback and Jeep Wrangler cultists) are rabidly loyal. So Audi is offering to slake their thirst with the mid-size, 2020 A6 Allroad.

The low, sleek profile of the 2020 Audi A6 Allroad. Despite their good looks, wagons have fallen out of favor in U.S. because they are harder to climb into.

I grew up in wagons and generally prefer them to utes for their lower center of gravity and sleeker looks. But, honestly, the A6 Allroad is not a head-turner. Cruising up north on I-75 to Charlevoix, a Cadillac CTS wagon and a Buick Regal Tour X filled my windscreen. I trailed them both for a few miles, admiring the Caddy’s bold angles — ogling the Buick’s lovely flanks.

Utilitarian and gorgeous. What SUV gives you that?

Yet the Audi left me cold. On road-side stops the A6 didn’t turn heads. Perhaps it’s the big, busy face — its criss-crossed grille bars resemble lattice work on an apple pie. Audi innovated the big front grille (even BMW is belatedly following the trend with grotesque M4 kidneys), but it now swallows the face like a medical mask.

Volvo makes a gorgeous fascia on its V90 wagon. The Audi? Meh.

But you’d be hard-pressed to find a Volvo wagon, so popular is the XC90. It kick-started Volvo sales in the States in 2016, and for good reason. It’s an elegant piece of work. Eschewing grille-zilla, the XC90’s face is a modest, horizontal sculpture. The A6 grille juts outward, like a bulldog’s jaw — XC90 is scalloped like a Maserati and punctuated by that classic Volvo logo.

The 2020 Volvo XC90 SUV has been a huge sales success for a brand once known for its station wagons.

Volvo continues to separate itself from its German peers with signature, Thor’s hammer headlights in front — big, boomerang-shaped taillights out back. Its one of my favorite SUV designs right there with a Mazda CX-9 which, ahem, is $20,000 cheaper while offering the same amenities and BMW-like handling (a comparo for another day).

I took a family trip last fall in the XC90 across the Upper Peninsula to Wisconsin’s Road American race track, and the SUV lived up to its utilitarian reputation.

There’s no denying the creature comforts of the XC90. Loading the big ute is easy. Its hatchback rises to expose a cargo bay at waist level — the load floor is about 2.5 feet off the ground.

The XC90 has a cramped, third-row option, but we used the full space behind the second row seats to fit baggage for three: oversized suitcase, two carry-ons, briefcase, cooler, tennis bag, iRacing game pedals and steering wheel, groceries and a kitchen sink (kidding about that last one).

The 2020 Volvo XC90 sports a fully digital instrument display.

My 6’3” son and I (6’5”) took shifts at the wheel — slipping laterally in and out of the Volvo’s raised seats as we cruised Route 2 along Lake Michigan’s north shore. Both race car drivers, we’re used to bending down to get into low-slung sports racers. But I’ve also become used to the exclaims of SUV-pampered friends when they encounter a wagon these days:

“It’s so low! It’s hard to get into!”

But not hard to drive. The Audi chassis makes for superb handling.

After a monotonous Friday cruise up I-75 to Gaylord in the Audi, the spaghetti-shaped curves of M-32 were a welcome diversion. At 4,486 pounds the Allroad is a big car, but its stiff bones and Quattro AWD system are eager to hustle — pushed by the 48-volt-battery-assisted, 335-horse turbo V-6 under the hood.

Despite a load of luggage in the boot, I put the A6 in DYNAMIC  mode and danced across miles of country roads — occasionally tugging on the paddle shifters to wind the engine out of corner apexes.

In my 366-mile journey through the U.P. to Wisconsin, I never felt a similar temptation in the Volvo.

With Google maps enabled in the 2020 Audi A6 Allroad, the twin touchscreens make for a beautiful view of the surrounding landscape.

The big, 5,105-pound ute is a comfortable ride, its high center of gravity built for lakeshore views. With an 87-horsepower motor (plug it in and the ute will go 18 miles on electricity alone) mated to a supercharged, turbocharged 4-banger, the Volvo puts out an impressive 400 horsepower and launches to 60 mph 0.3 seconds quicker than the Audi. But it’s a drivetrain built for fuel efficiency, not performance. The 27 mpg Volvo will travel 520 miles on a tank of gas, the Audi 505 miles averaging 22 mpg.

The Volvo is 11 inches taller than the 4’8” high Allroad, but otherwise our testers have similar dimensions, a reminder that SUVs are just raised wagons. Similar length, headroom, legroom.

The Volvo may be the SUV, but it’s the Audi that carves out more cargo room: 30 cubic feet behind the second row compared to XC90’s 24. The Volvo’s space advantage is with third-row seats.

Up front, the XC90’s interior exhibits typical Volvo charm with its crystal shifter, rotary starter button and simple, Scandinavian design. But its infotainment tech pales compared to Audi, which has long been a leader in digital tech.

Pack it in. The 2020 Volvo XC90 will swallow a lot of luggage under its rear hatch — though not as much as rival station wagon Audi A6 Allroad.

While I generally recommend ditching in-car nav systems for superior Apple CarPlay/Android Auto navigation, Audi is an exception.

Displaying my route via Google Earth in both the center and instrument displays, Allroad enhanced my scenic trip with its own, beautiful satellite views of the Lake Michigan coastline. The Volvo system is pedestrian by comparison, and I used Apple CarPlay for reliable navigation.

Both Audi and Volvo use touchscreen controls — a new twist for the Audi faithful who have used remote dials in previous generation cars. With its crisp, haptic touch response, the Audi is easy to use and a generation ahead of the Swede.

Crowned 2016 North American Utility of the Year, the lovely XC90 continues to impress as a worthy option in a German-dominated segment. But for those who want the added dimension of performance in their utility vehicle, Audi’s good ol’ station wagon is my preferred long-distance tool.

The distinctive taillights of the 2020 Audi A6 Allroad.

2020 Audi A6 Allroad

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

Price: $66,895, including $995 destination fee ($71,990 as tested)

Powerplant: 3.0-liter turbocharged V-6 with 48-volt battery assist

Power: 335 horsepower, 369 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 7-speed, dual-clutch automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.2 seconds (Car and Driver); towing, 5,500 pounds

Weight: 4,486 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA, 20 mpg city/26 highway/22 combined

Report card

Highs: Mesmerizing maps; utility with handling

Lows: Oh, that face; lacks console storage

Overall: 3 stars

Now owned by the Chinese firm Geely, the 2020 Volvo XC90 has retained the classic Volvo characteristics of safety and handsome design.

2020 Volvo XC90 e-AWD plug-in 

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, six-passenger wagon

Price: $68,495, including $995 destination fee ($86,790 as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter supercharged, turbocharged inline-4 cylinder with 87-horsepower electric motor assist

Power: 400 combined system horsepower, 472 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.9 seconds (Car and Driver); towing, 5,000 pounds

Weight: 5,142 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA, 27 mpg gas/55 MPGe when fully charged

Report card

Highs: Unique styling; Scandinavian interior

Lows: Infotainment tech lags; plug-in gets pricey

Overall: 3 stars

Payne: Rugged Ford Ranger Tremor hits the slopes

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 11, 2021

So you enjoy off-roading. Done it in the snow?

It is beautiful, challenging and dangerous. And the perfect habitat for the 2021 Ford Ranger Tremor — my four-wheeled snowmobile for a recent trip to wintry Holly Oaks ORV park.

The 2021 Ford Ranger Tremor is the most rugged Ranger on offer. The off-road package is available on XLT and Lariat trims.>

My last foray into Holly Oaks’ twisted canyons was last November in the Ford Bronco Sport, my 2020 Detroit News Vehicle of the Year. Bronco Sport is a superb all-around package of utility, design and fun. Not content to just haul stuff (like two bikes upright under its rear hatch), the unibody-based, $34,000 Bronco Sport Badlands edition features the twin rear clutch pack off a Ford Focus R hot hatch to make for serious off-road capability. I whipped the little stallion around Holly Oaks so hard I popped a tire bead.

But when the going gets really tough, you’ll want a ladder frame under you like the Ranger Tremor. And even then, you’ll still want bead locks as (ahem) I once again torqued a bead off a rim. I’ll get to that in a moment.

The Tremor is the most capable Ranger pickup on offer. And the mid-sizer is a worthwhile daily driver even if you don’t plan on tearing up off-road parks. Tows 7,500 pounds with 2,080 payload. My pal John bought a Ranger because he couldn’t fit an F-150 into his Manistee condo’s garage.

Time for bead locks. The 2021 Ford Ranger Tremor loves to play off-road — and News auto critic Henry Payne managed to separate the tire bead from the rim on a particularly woolly piece of Holly Oaks Park. Good thing there is a spare tire under the bed.>

I can’t fit an F-150 into my two-car garage, either. It’s a technical marvel with six engine options, tablet display with state-of-thee-art SYNC 4 infotainment, zone lighting, self-park-assist, onboard generator, wireless phone apps and a rear seat big enough to fit the Detroit Pistons front court.

Ranger is a generation behind big brother (waiting for hand-me-downs) when it comes to tech. Its cabin has small screens, SYNC 3, no hybrid option, and adaptive cruise control that doesn’t work under 10 mph.

Whoa, Nelly! It’s been a while since I drove ACC that didn’t come to a full stop behind another vehicle.

But throw on the Ranger’s $4,290 Tremor package and the wee pickup comes alive with all-road capability. No, this isn’t a Baby Raptor with Baja suspension and twin-turbo V-6 engine that can leap tall buildings in a single bound. But Ranger still gets upgraded Fox shocks with Ranger’s standard, snarly 2.3-liter engine turbo-4 with class-best 310 pound feet of torque. Heck, it’s shared with the aforementioned Focus RS pocket rocket (oh, I miss that little hellion in North America) and Mustang HiPo. Tremor starts a whopping $30,000 south of Raptor.

And size matters off-road. Small size.

Where F-150 Raptor’s capabilities can only fully be realized by ingesting sand dunes in SoCal’s Borrego Desert at 100 mph, you can satisfy Tremor’s appetite at Holly Oaks (or The Mounds in Flint) just 30 minutes up I-75.

The 2021 Ford Ranger Tremor at play. It's rear-wheel-drive layout and 4x4 traction makes it fun in the snow.>

North Oakland County is pickup country, and I drove in a herd of F-150, F-250, Chevy Silverado, GMC Sierra and Ram 1500 elephants up the interstate. But Holly Oaks’ confines (carved out of an old cement quarry) are more amenable to compact bruisers like the Ranger Tremor.

This is Jeep Wrangler (and soon-to-arrive) Ford Bronco country, with narrow trails and narrow crevices not unlike what you’ll find on rocky Moab terrain in Utah. Mid-size pickups have piggy-backed on the explosion in SUV interest, bringing pickup bed utility to the game. Tremor is joined by the Jeep Gladiator, Chevy Colorado ZR2 and Toyota Tacoma TRD.Get the COVID-19 Update newsletter in your inbox.

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Tremor goodies are a nice value as they sit on top of the already tough FX-4 off-road package — and can be coupled with XLT and Lariat trims starting at $41,000.

The Ranger’s torquey, 270-horse mill and Fox shocks make it a blast around Holly Oaks high-speed bits just like cousin Bronco Sport. But blanket the 235-acre landscape in 6 inches of snow, and the desire for a ladder-frame chassis suddenly become paramount.

The 2021 Ford Ranger Tremor climbs Mt. Magna at Holly Oaks in the snow. The rocks make for slick going, but with 4-wheel-low selected and the locking rear differential on, the Tremor made it to the top.>

Under the powder lurk potholes and ridges and debris that would bend a unibody chassis. The Ranger box-frame absorbed the punishment with steely determination. Add Tremor’s four underbody skid plates, 32-inch tires, 9.7-inch ground clearance and 31-inch approach angle, and my Cyber Orange Ranger was a rhino in tennis shoes.


I buried the truck’s nose into a ditch hiding under the snow as I slid sideways around a downhill embankment. Tremor’s skid plate and shocks absorbed the impact (sparing my head from the ceiling), but the shock twisted the tire bead off the rim. Good thing Tremor carries a spare under its belly. Better yet, put bead locks on the rims if you want to explore the limits.

Back in action, I charged up the park’s “Twin Tetons,” all four wheels churning snow to make it to the top. “Maintaining momentum is key to getting through snow,” Holly Oaks designer Tom Zielinski had advised me earlier in the day.

At the top of Teton II, I hesitated. Pondering the steep decline below, I toggled Ranger Tremor’s “Trail Control” feature — low-speed cruise control that I’d first experienced on the Raptor to navigate rocky western terrain. Pedal-free, I inched down the slope at 5 mph — too slow as it turned out.

The 2021 Ford Ranger Tremor features upgrades over the FX-4 off-road trim like Fox shocks, increased ride height and approach angle, and six auxiliary plugs for extra hardware.>

The 4,571-pound truck began to slew sideways, a bad sign in slippery conditions that can — in the worst case — pitch the truck sideways, flipping it into a barrel roll. When in doubt, throttle out! is the off-roaders’ mantra. I overrode Trail Assist with throttle, and the Tremor straightened out, barreling downhill true as an arrow.

The Tremor trim builds on Ranger’s FX4 package (skid plates, 4WD drive modes, tow hooks) by adding signature red grille nostrils, Fox shocks and 32-inch, Continental General Grabber tires. The combination is magic off-road, lifting the truck nearly 10-inches off the ground (four hoop side steps are added to help climb into the cabin) and absorbing sub-snow frozen moguls.

Saucy. The 2021 Ford Ranger Tremor can be had with a special Tremor graphics package.>

Where regular shocks might shake a tooth loose, the Foxes cushion the blows while the Grabbers, well, grab. As it turned out, the pair have a civilized side, too. Daily commuting is quite smooth, with the Grabber quieter than your average off-road claws.

For those who want to bring a dirt bike along, Ranger’s bed offers good utility, though I can’t say the same for the tight rear seats. If your family has long legs, get an F-150.

I miss Ford’s hot hatch sedans. But Ford still offers a stable of affordable vehicles — Bronco, Bronco Sport, Mustang, Escape — with lots of personality. Add Tremor to the list.

2021 Ford Ranger Tremor

Vehicle type: Four-wheel-drive, four-door, midsize pickup

Price: $42,545, including $1,195 destination charge ($47,805 Tremor Lariat as tested)

Powerplant: 2.3-liter turbo-4 cylinder

Power: 270 horsepower, 310 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 10-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.5 seconds (Car and Driver est.); towing, 7,500 pounds; payload, 1,430 pounds

Weight: 4,565 pounds as tested

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

Report card

Highs: Off-road brute; 32-inch tires

Lows: Dated interior tech; tight back seat

Overall: 3 stars

Payne: On Lightning Lap 2021, Corvette, Mustang GT500, Porsche EV shine

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 8, 2021

Mustang beat Lamborghini. A mid-engine Corvette is faster than a mid-engine Porsche. And an electric vehicle completed a full lap of Virginia International Raceway.

Those are some of the highlights of the 14th Annual Lightning Lap, Car and Driver’s benchmark for automotive performance at America’s most fearsome track in southern Virginia. Not just a contest for all-out speed, the rigorous test gives a snapshot of the auto industry’s current performance envelope.

Eighteen new cars - representing the industry's state of the art - competed in the 14th annual, Car and Driver Lightning Lap.

Eighteen cars were chosen by the Ann Arbor-based enthusiast publication to compete in this year’s Lightning round, a selection of the latest, most-capable performance chariots in the U.S. market for 2021. Entrants were showroom-ready and ranged in price from $45,750 Mini John Cooper Works GP to the $429,190 McLaren 765LT. From the all-wheel-drive Subaru STI 209 to the all-wheel-drive Lamborghini Huracan Evo. And from the 330-horsepower, 2.3-liter Ford Mustang High Performance to the 760-horsepower, supercharged 6.2-liter Mustang Shelby GT500.

“Back in 2006, we chose VIR because its 4.1-mile Grand Course configuration is the closest thing we have in the U.S. to Germany’s brutal Nürburgring,” wrote Car and Drover editors. “These laps reveal a vehicle’s strengths and weaknesses and also the stories beyond the numbers. Still wondering why Chevrolet moved the Corvette’s engine from the front to the middle? The C8’s lap should clear things up.”

Chevy Corvette C8

None of the new entrants set a lap record (that was achieved by the insane McLaren Senna back in 2019 at 2 minutes 34.9 seconds at an average speed of 134.5 mph) but this year’s stable did include the first electric car, the $189,940, 616-horsepower Porsche Taycan Turbo S ($205,360 as tested), to complete a lap of the rollercoaster circuit.

The Taycan managed to do what a Tesla Model S could not — the Model S went into limp mode in 2016, its battery unable to withstand the rigors of a full lap at full throttle. The 5,222-pound Taycan also became the fastest, 5,000-plus pound car (batteries are heavy) in Lightning’s history — besting the 5,120-pound Porsche Cayenne Turbo SUV.

All-electric Porsche Taycan Turbo S

“(Taycan) endured, without issue, our typical lapping schedule: a brisk out lap, a fast-as-you-dare hot lap followed by a cool-down, another hot lap, and then a cool-down before heading back to the pits,” wrote Dave Vanderwerp. “Starting with a full battery from an overnight charge, the Taycan landed at about 40% capacity after this routine, which, interestingly, is a burn rate on par with the (Mustang Shelby GT500). To find the battery’s limits, we did two consecutive flying laps once, which put enough heat in the battery to reduce power.”

 one of the other 17 gas-fired cars ran out of gas in the course of the test. For 50 minutes on track the Taycan spent 4.5 hours recharging.

That highlights one of the challenges facing EVs as manufacturers and governments push an all-EV future. General Motors, for example, intends to convert its 3 million annual U.S. vehicle sales to battery power in 14 years by 2035. That’s six times the sales Tesla achieved in 2020 after 12 years in the market.

One of those GM cars targeted for electrification is the Chevy Corvette C8 which is currently powered by a throaty, 495-horse V-8 located — for the first time —behind the driver.

Mid-engine Porsche Cayman GT4

Not only did the mid-engine, $59,995 Corvette C8 ($86,865 as tested) smoke the last-generation, front-engine C7’s VIR lap time by 5 seconds, it bested the mid-engine, $114,450 Porsche Cayman GT4 ($118,600 as tested) — the only mid-engine sports car currently in Porsche’s lineup.

“An obsession with lap times is why the Corvette’s V-8 is now behind the front seats,” wrote C&D driving ace K.C. Colwell. “The move paid off, with the C8 lapping VIR 4.8 seconds quicker than its direct predecessor, the 2014 C7 Stingray, a car with an identical power-to-weight ratio.”Get the COVID-19 Update newsletter in your inbox.

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Car and Driver found the mid-engine made the C8 more predictable through VIR’s labyrinth of writhing corners. Also credit inexhaustible brakes.

The ‘Vette proved its value equation as the most affordable super car on the planet. It bested the Porsche by 1.3 seconds around VIR’s 24 turns — and topped the time of the mid-engine, $203,100 Acura NSX Car and Driver tested in 2017.

Lamborghini Huracan Evo

Two other mid-engine European supercars in this year’s competition, the $429,190 McLaren 765LT and $334,969 Lamborghini Huracan Evo justified their sticker premiums (phew!) over the Corvette by turning quicker laps with the McLaren recording a 2021 best 2 minute, 38.4 seconds. FYI, its 175 mph on the front straight was an all-time Lightning record.

But the Lambo came up short against another sub-six-figure Detroit muscle car, the Mustang Shelby GT500. The most powerful pony to ever to roll off Flat Rock’s assembly line, the 760-horse, rear-wheel-driver beat the AWD Italian stallion by 4/10 of a second, 2.44.6 to 2.45 flat. Ouch.

Ford Mustang Shelby GT500

Credit the Mustang’s feat in part to a 7-speed, dual-clutch transmission that is similar to that used in the Corvette. Made my Tremec, both automatic boxes snap off shifts in milliseconds — and have provoked cries of foul from enthusiasts who say muscle cars should be powered by stick shifts. Keeping up with European exotics requires exotic technology.

Other notables in this year’s test were the GT500’s cheaper cousin: the turbo-4 powered Mustang High Performance. For $42,070 ($37k base price), Junior lapped the course in 3.04.4.

Mini John Cooper Works GP

Just a few tenths quicker was the fastest front-wheel-drive car ever at Lightning Lap: the Mini John Copper Works GP. With 301 horsepower, that’s one mighty Mini.

How Team Fehan built Corvette into a racing powerhouse

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 8, 2021

When the Chevy Corvette C8.R race cars rolled across the line 1-2 at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona Sunday, it wasn’t just another win for the storied race team. It also made for the perfect management hand-off from legendary Corvette race boss Doug Fehan, 72, to new chief Laura Klauser, 34.

Over the last 24 years, Fehan built one of sports-car racing’s premier programs. And made Corvette one of the world’s best super cars in the process.

Corvette Racing; Rolex 24 at Daytona in Daytona Beach, Florida; January 30-31, 2021; Corvette C8.R #3 driven by Antonio Garcia, Jordan Taylor, and Nicky Catsburg; Corvette C8.R #4 driven by Tommy Milner, Nick Tandy, and Alexander Sims.>

From its stealthy beginnings inside General Motors Corp. in 1996, Corvette Racing was conceived by Fehan as a way to not just raise the profile of the Chevrolet brand, but to take Corvette to another level as one of the industry’s best-engineered cars. In so doing he brought a racing culture to GM that today parallels some of the world’s most renowned racing brands, Porsche and Ferrari.

“When we look at all the achievements we’ve garnered over the years, I think the most important to me personally was this technology transfer,” Fehan said in an interview. “This concept of taking what we learn on the race track and being able to . . . weave it into the fabric of the production vehicles. That was one of my main objectives. I believed in motorsports and I knew it was way more than a checkered flag and a trophy.

Over four generations of Corvette race cars — from the C4.R to the current C8.R — Fehan’s team helped integrate race engineering into production cars. That evolution has resulted in the extraordinary, $59,995 C8 production super car, the first mid-engine ‘Vette that has wowed the world with performance and design befitting European super cars that cost four times as much.

Corvette chief engineer “Tadge Juechter … had been around long enough to see what I tried to do with C5, C6 and C7 and he was totally cooperative and on board,” said Fehan. “We put on a collaborative effort — between the race team and the production team — unequaled inside GM and probably anyplace in the world. That to me is as satisfying as the championship.”

The three-decade journey also made Fehan one of the most recognized figures in the pit lane from Daytona to France’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, where Corvette Racing won eight times. Gruff, honest, and eccentric, Fehan was a racer’s manager.

Doug Fehan with the last front-engine Corvette race car - the C7.R.>

Juggling the responsibilities of managing a race team for one of the world’s largest corporations, Fehan also gained the respect of some of the world’s greatest drivers including NASCAR’s Dale Earnhardt (who raced for him in 2001), sports-car great Ron Fellows, and international star Jan Magnussen.

“Consider this was a factory-supported program with consistent support at that level for so long — it is absolutely the premier (sports car) program anybody’s ever put together,” said race driver Andy Pilgrim, one of the sport’s most accomplished sports car pilots who scored Corvette’s first win in 2000 in Texas (with co-driver Fellows).

Pilgrim compared Fehan to Porsche’s Alwin Springer, the influential head of Porsche Motorsports North America, that helped make that marque a dominant force in the German brand’s largest market. Pilgrim raced with Porsche before Fehan approached him to race Corvettes.

Corvette Racing; Rolex 24 at Daytona in Daytona Beach, Florida; January 30-31, 2021; Corvette C8.R #3 driven by Antonio Garcia, Jordan Taylor, and Nicky Catsburg; Corvette C8.R #4 driven by Tommy Milner, Nick Tandy, and Alexander Sims.>

“I’d already worked with Alwin, and then going to Doug — it doesn’t get any better than that. It was an amazing factory program,” Pilgrim said in an interview. “Doug has a unique way of understanding, working with his drivers. It’s a gift.”

The fiercely independent Pilgrim and the corporate boss Fehan hit it off. As skillful as he was at navigating GM’s corporate hallways, Fehan was fiercely independent as well. In an age of collared team shirts and matching uniforms up and down the pit lane, Fehan stood out.Get the COVID-19 Update newsletter in your inbox.

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“He was beloved in the pits with his acerbic wit,” said Steven Cole Smith, veteran race writer for Autoweek and other publications. “He would show up in a Hawaiian shirt, shorts, and neon running shoes.”

With years of racing management under his belt including GM’s Oldsmobile Aurora prototype program, Fehan got the green light to develop the Corvette program in late 1996. It was a tightly kept secret even in GM.

“We developed that car in total secret. There wasn’t an Internet There weren’t cell phones. There wasn’t all the electronic media you have today,” Fehan said. “There were very few people within GM that even knew we were developing that car.”

Corvette Racing; Rolex 24 at Daytona in Daytona Beach, Florida; January 30-31, 2021; Corvette C8.R #3 driven by Antonio Garcia, Jordan Taylor, and Nicky Catsburg; Corvette C8.R #4 driven by Tommy Milner, Nick Tandy, and Alexander Sims.>

The Corvette C5.R debuted in the Daytona 24 Hour GT class in January, 1999 — leading much of the race before finishing second on one of the world’s biggest stages. The pressure packed moment would launch an unprecedented run of over 100 IMSA wins over the next two decades.

“My bosses thought we were crazy wanting to debut at Daytona — a 24 hour event, the most grueling race in North America. But I told them, this is where we have to go to learn,” remembered Fehan. “The GM executives were there, they were thrilled, they were watching it happen, they watched the teamwork. All the things we professed would happen, did happen. And they began to see the value of what we were doing.”

Corvette Racing would go on to win 14 team championships, highlighted by eight Le Mans victories. “The first Le Mans victory was just stunning,” Fehan said, “the most emotional event you could possibly have in a lifetime.”

But for all the competitive highs and lows, the program’s North Star was always what Fehan dubbed “cascade engineering” — making the production car better via racing.

“Product relevance has always been paramount in my mind. That’s how you connect with the customer,” he said. “The final distillation is: we need to sell cars. That’s the business we are in.”

Race driver Pilgrim was fully aware of his role in a much bigger factory machine: “We would get engineers that would be (with the race program) for a year. Then they disappeared back to GM. . . back to design or wherever. I thought that was brilliant.”

That integration survived through ups and downs in the auto industry, through multiple GM CEOs — even the near cancellation of the ‘Vette program during the 2009 Great Recession.

With the eighth generation Corvette C8 — the first with its engine behind the driver — the program realized its full potential.

“This was the first time that we were really able to start with a clean sheet of paper between engineering and racing. The result is astounding,” Fehan said of a production product and race car that have been runaway successes since they first turned a wheel a year ago.

Corvette Racing; Rolex 24 at Daytona in Daytona Beach, Florida; January 30-31, 2021; Corvette C8.R #3 driven by Antonio Garcia, Jordan Taylor, and Nicky Catsburg; Corvette C8.R #4 driven by Tommy Milner, Nick Tandy, and Alexander Sims.>

The C8.R race car won the IMSA championship in its first year. The C8 production car sold out its first year and is back-logged for its second. Now the 2021 season is off and running with a Daytona GT victory already in hand.

The baton has been handed off to Klauser, GM’s first Sports Car Racing Program Manager, who will integrate the Corvette team under one GM umbrella that includes IMSA Cadillac prototypes and Camaro GT cars.

“Doug is a key piece of Corvette Racing’s history,” Klauser said in an interview. “He was there from the beginning and helped establish the strong team we are so proud of today. I appreciate the support Doug has given me during the GM Motorsport Competition transition period we’re going through. I’m excited to continue building on the Corvette Racing legacy.”

Payne: Acura MDX X-cedes X-pectations

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 4, 2021

I knew something had changed when I got into the cockpit of the 2022 Acura MDX. Sci-fi Drive Mode dial and “trigger” shifter like an NSX supercar. Dash-mounted, driver-centric touchscreen like a Mazda3. Digital dash display like an Audi S6.

This is a performance car in SUV drag.

Sure enough, the three-row SUV wanted to boogie. Acura had brought me to Hell, Michigan — home of the state’s most challenging roads — to drive the MDX for a reason. I dialed the fat Mode knob to Sport and floored the MDX onto Hadley Road’s twisties, the torque-vectoring all-wheel drive rotating the behemoth into corner apexes. The ute sped ahead with little body roll, its V-6 engine roaring with pleasure as I fed it more gas.

The 2022 Acura MDX, which comes standard with FWD for about $45,000 — and can be loaded with goodies to over $60,000 like this tester.>

I first experienced the joy of sporty SUVs in the Audi Q7 back in 2015 on California’s own Hell roads — the writhing Route 1 coastal highway. No surprise, the Ohio-made MDX has benchmarked to the Q7 and it shows. The Acura wants to challenge the Germans on the dance floor, which is crowded with entrants from mainstream brands like the Mazda CX-9 and Dodge Durango Hellcat as well.

Call them family utes with a wild side. The world will know just how wild in another year when the MDX debuts its ferocious Type S performance model — a turbocharged, V-6 hellion that promises asphalt-clawing 355-horsepower.

The 2022 MDX is the second SUV to benefit from the “Precision Performance” remake of Acura’s brand. MDX follows the game-changing RDX which, in 2018, debuted a similar offering in the compact class. The new MDX not only shares RDX’s athletic ambitions, it builds on the RDX qualities of standard features and performance.

A boo-yah to MDX for keeping a V-6 engine standard. In this regulation-choked age, luxury automakers have rushed to turbo-charged 4-bangers. Better fuel efficiency! Better CO2 emissions! Better torque!

Less fun.

A comparable, $65,000 Audi Q7 powered by a turbo-4 sounds like a vacuum cleaner compared to my throaty, $61,675 Acura V-6. Who wants to pay 65 grand for an Audi that sounds the same as a $25,000 Jetta?

Of course, most civilians will never flog their family MDX like your insane Detroit News scribe, but they will take notice of a large SUV that is noticeably crisper than the last-gen Acura. The steering is more precise, the body roll minimal, the drive more premium. Acura accomplished this with major hardware upgrades like a double-wishbone front suspension (see BMWs) and 50% increased chassis rigidity.

And Acura did it without compromising MDX’s traditional value play. This is the X-factor that has made MDX the best-selling three-row luxury SUV for two decades.

The 2022 Acura MDX comes standard with panoramic sun roof, leather seats and loads of interior tech.>

At a starting price of $45,000, the Acura comes loaded with standard goodies including digital instrument display, panoramic sunroof, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot assist, automatic emergency braking, lane-keep assist and a sauna in the rear cargo bay (kidding about that last one).

Compare that to the BMW X7, which doesn’t include the panoramic roof or adaptive cruise in its $75,000 base price — or Cadillac’s XT6, which won’t sell you adaptive cruise until the price pushes $55,000.

This consumer friendliness is an obsession with Acura (and sister Honda brand). They sweat the small stuff.

The interior of the 2022 Acura MDX includes a wealth of standard features including twin digital displays, trigger shifter with Drive modes, wireless charger, adaptive cruise control and more.>

MDX is stuffed with X-ceptional details. Honda brands are known for their magic seats — the Honda Fit folding second-row, Odyssey minivan sliding rear seat — and MDX makes a splash with the segment’s first removable rear seat. With two pull tabs, the middle section can turn into a console, a middle seat or even be removed entirely — revealing separate, second-row captain’s chairs. Clever.

There’s a self-washing rearview camera. Sub-cargo storage bay. Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Wi-Fi hotspot. “Cabin Talk” feature that activates a microphone so you can talk with rear passengers. An easy-to-adjust head-up display button. A single button that will fold the middle seat, opening easy access to the third row (a usable third row where, say, small adults can feel comfortable). Indeed, the console is as busy as an airline cockpit with buttons for everything — call it the anti-Tesla.

Amidst this ergonomic obsession, the MDX’s biggest shortcoming stands out like a sore thumb: the “True Touchpad Interface” which controls the 12.3-inch infotainment screen. In remaking itself as performance brand, Acura has been comprehensive in transforming everything from exterior design to trigger shifter — but the touchpad is an innovation too far.

The 2022 Acura MDX takes on the Audi Q7, left, as a ute with nimble handling. A double wishbone front suspension helps.>

In a smartphone world of touchscreens (even Audi has abandoned its remote rotary controller), the touchpad is a driver distraction. It’s best used when stationary — but even then Mrs. Payne found it hard to work from the passenger’s seat as she tried to manipulate Apple CarPlay.

Genesis has similarly designed a difficult remote controller for its new GV80, but the screen has redundant touch control. If Acura insists on keeping the touchpad, it should do the same.

The touchpad also takes up valuable space in the center console, usually a strength of Acura/Honda. The 2022 MDX cuts back on some of the deep console storage space of its predecessor. What it does have is a standard, wireless phone charger which even worked on my huge, 6.5-inch Samsung Galaxy 20 smartphone.

For all of its gym training, the MDX isn’t quite the athlete the Audi is. Flogging both through Hell, the Q7 is more sure-footed. And its digital display and touchscreen are state of the art. That Audi standard will cost you, but the Acura is hardly cheap — its amenities adding up to $61,000, just 4 grand short of the Q7 (and turbo-5 Genesis GV80).

The Acura should be looking over its shoulder at the Kia Telluride and Mazda CX-9 — two premium-focused mainstream badges that give Acura a run for the value crown. The loaded Telluride SX boasts premium looks, similar features, and even stuffs a 291-horse V-6 under the hood for a ridiculous $44,000. That’s 3 grand less than MDX’s starting price, for goodness sakes. The $49,000, turbo-4 powered Mazda Signature trim, meanwhile, will dance with the best luxury cars for just $49,000.

Who knew three-row SUVs could be so much fun to drive? Just be sure to warn the third-row passengers with the MDX’s Cabin Talk feature — like an airline pilot — before you enter the gates of Hell:

“Make sure your seat belts are securely fastened. We are about to encounter turbulence ahead.”

The 2022 MDX continues Acura's streak for making compelling three-row SUVs.>

2022 Acura MDX

Vehicle type: Front- and all-wheel-drive, four-door, seven-passenger SUV

Price: $47,925, including $1,025 destination charge ($61,675 MDX with Advance Package as tested)

Powerplant: 3.5-liter V-6

Power: 290 horsepower, 267 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 10-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.1 seconds (Car and Driver est.); towing, 5,000 pounds (AWD)

Weight: 4,565 pounds as tested

Fuel economy: EPA 19 mpg city/25 highway/21 combined (AWD on 91 octane fuel)

Report card

Highs: Upscale design/handling; standard features galore

Lows: Distracting touchpad controller; reduced console storage

Overall: 3 stars

Payne: Moving day in the worry-free Toyota RAV4 Hybrid

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 4, 2021

The Toyota RAV4 has taken over sister Prius’ spot as the best-selling hybrid in the brand’s lineup. But not because it’s greener than the iconic sedan: it’s more practical.

On a weekend in which I helped move my son into his Seattle townhouse, green was the least of our priorities.

Happily, my RAV4 tester was everything it needed to be. In so doing it gave insight into the limitations of all-electric vehicles and America’s craving for SUVs. The RAV4’s forefather was the iconic Prius, which put hybrids on the map. It also sold like hot cakes in California because it qualified for $4,000 in state and federal tax breaks — plus free passage to Cal’s coveted high-occupancy vehicle commuter lanes.

The 2021 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid delivers utility, 40 mpg, and no range anxiety common to electric SUVs.>

Those benefits are long gone — and Prius must sell as a sedan in an SUV market. Good luck. It’s not hard to see why utes are hot. They are versatile tools in a demanding world like, say, Seattle where, on any given day, consumers need a commuter car, a weekend getaway vehicle or a moving van.

On this weekend we needed the latter with hatchback, cargo bay and roomy rear seats. And no range anxiety.

A wave of all-electric SUVs is coming to challenge the RAV4, including the VW ID.4 and Ford Mustang Mach E. But they are priced significantly higher and they demand plugs to charge their 200- to 300-mile range. My son’s townhouse does not have a fast charger. Oh.

Hybrids are looked down on by greens today because they use gas. But RAV4’s hybrid promised 450 miles range, easy access to gasoline stations if we ran low on fuel, and no range anxiety. At $41,100, we could make back its $1,500 premium over the standard, 27 mpg RAV4 in just three years at 41 mpg. It’s a bargain.

If you can put up with its annoying electric whrrrrr, that is. It’s required at low speeds by the feds (to alert pedestrians of electrified vehicles’ presence under 18.6 mph). It drove my son bonkers. Whrrrrrrrr.

Speaking of annoying, it was nice not to add EV range questions to a moving schedule that included repairman times, plumbing issues and cable TV hookup: Would we lose range in 30-degree winter weather? Would Seattle’s steep hills suck electrons? Would we be able to find open charger bays?

The big-ticket items were first on our shopping list: big-screen TV, table and chairs, work desk.

The RAV4’s cargo hold swallowed them all easily — though the OLED screen required an extra trip to Costco since we didn’t want anything else in back that might harm it. The Costco parking lot was jammed on a Saturday — cash-rich Seattle denizens (their stock portfolios runneth over) are apparently upgrading their domiciles now that COVID-19 has forced them to work at home.

Destination: Seattle Costco. The 2021 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid hatchback was just the right SUV for our shopping needs.>

RAV4’s were everywhere in the parking lot (it is America’s best-selling vehicle, after all), and it’s not a bad thing to look at. For the current generation Toyota designers took inspiration from the Tacoma pickup, and the RAV4 has a rugged, off-roady appearance that helps it stand out in the boxy SUV crowd.

Mrs. Payne could care less about styling — her focus was on the center console as she hooked up to Apple CarPlay to navigate us around watery Seattle’s tangle of roads. Knob and button touchscreen controls were easy to use (are you listening Lexus?), and the navigation system never let us down as we hopscotched from one retail superstore to the next.

The console of the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid is useful with Drive modes, storage space, easy-to-use touchscreen, and big knobs for easy control.>

By day we loaded and unloaded boxes, furniture and groceries. The RAV4 has a clever cubby in the cargo hold that helps with fragile items like bananas or eggs. By night we picked up my son’s gal pal and explored Seattle’s culinary scene. In striking contrast to the Prius, RAV4 has lots of rear leg room (38.7 inches compared to 33.4), so even your 6’5” giraffe reviewer could easily take a back seat.

RAV4’s biggest drawback is that we had to shoe-horn it in to my son’s garage. It’s a reminder how much vehicles have grown over the years. Fit America’s best-selling F-150 pickup into his garage? Fugeddaboutit.

My son is also in the market for a car. Scratch a compact ute off his list. But the shopping experience convinced him that he needs a hatchback as well as all-wheel drive for when snow hits Seattle’s vertical streets.

And like his father, he has the need for speed. So he’s looking at a hot hatch Mazda3 or VW Golf R that fits his garage. RAV4 may be versatile, but nimble handling is not one of its attributes.

Pack it in. The 2021 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid proved a good pack mule for the Paynes' moving day.>

2021 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid

Vehicle type: Front-wheel-drive, four-door, five-passenger hatchback

Price: $29,675, including $1,175 destination charge ($41,100 as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine with lithium-ion battery and AC motor assist

Power: 219 horsepower combined

Transmission: Continuously variable transmission

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.8 seconds (; towing, 1,750 pounds

Weight: 3,780 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 41 mpg city/38 highway/40 combined

Report card

Highs: Rugged looks; no range anxiety hybrid driving

Lows: Numb handling; argh, that low-speed electric sound!

Overall: 3 stars

Buckle up: 2021 Ford F-150 Raptor reloads for Detroit truck wars

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 3, 2021

Detroit’s truck wars have raged for decades. Now come the super truck wars.

Ford Motor Co. on Wednesday unveiled the all-new, third-generation, 2021 F-150 Raptor, the most capable off-road warrior the F-series has ever birthed. The OG super truck, Raptor has inspired competitors like the Ram 1500 TRX and GMC Hummer EV. The latest version takes its dirt-pounding capabilities to new heights with a 37-inch tire option, 15-inch suspension travel, and tech features galore.

2021 Ford F-150 Raptor is Baja 1000 race inspired.>

But for those pining for a 700-plus horsepower version to fight Ram’s Hellcat engine-fired TRX, they’ll have to wait. A Raptor R, likely powered by the 760 horsepower, supercharged V-8 from the Mustang GT500, is a year away.

In the meantime, the Baja racing-inspired Raptor will be powered by a standard, 3.5-liter, twin-turbo V-6 while bringing plenty of new goodies to the fight. Spec’d at 450 horsepower and 510 pound-feet-of torque in the previous gen, the new model’s numbers have not yet been released.

The class-best 15-inch suspension travel is made possible by a unique rear sub-assembly that includes five-link suspension, coil-over springs, and more-capable, off-road Fox shocks. As violent as the Raptor is outside, the tank gets more civilized inside with standard 12-inch dash touchscreen, retractable gear shift, and wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

A new 5-link rear suspension and Fox shocks allow the 2021 Ford F-150 Raptor class-best 15 inches of wheel travel.>

“Raptor is the original desert truck. We just took it to another level,” said Ford Performance vehicle program director Ali Jammoul. “The all-new Raptor splices off-road performance muscle with advanced technology and connectivity.”

Super trucks are already outstripping the coveted super car segment in sales volume. Since its second-gen product rolled out in 2017, Raptor has outsold Porsche’s entire sports-car lineup – and the Chevy Corvette, too.

Raptor has been given a run for its money by Ram’s insane, 702-horse TRX (pronounced T-Rex) which boasts 13-inch suspension travel, a muscle-bound chassis, and big-screen interior. The GMC Hummer promises its own electrified take on the segment including claimed 3.0-second 0-60 times and “crab mode” for negotiating tight spaces.

The Raptor doubles down on what has made F-series the best-selling pickup for over 40 years: tech and capability.

The big cabin in the 2021 Ford F-150 Raptor features a retractable gear shift so the console can be turned into a desktop.>

The standard, 2021 F-150, introduced in November, is only sitting on dealer lots for nine days as customers have flocked to its high-tech goo-gaws. Raptor bristles with the same tools.

In addition to the big screen and wireless capability, Raptor options a 2 kW on-board generator so customers don’t have to lug their own generator into the Outback. Six auxiliary switches are provided for external devices.

The 2021 Ford F-150 Raptor options a 2.0 kW generator with plufs in the bed.>

Raptor promises Tesla-like, over-the-air updates for improved capability, Ford’s latest SYNC 4 infotainment system, and zone lighting so occupants can light up the truck’s surrounds. The retractable shifter allows occupants to turn the center console into  desktop workspace.

All this luxury is wrapped in an aluminum body design inspired, appropriately, by the F-22 Raptor fighter jet.

In truth the exterior design changes are subtle. The aggressive front end is still dominated by F-O-R-D letters stamped across the grille, hood scoop, and three amber lights (required by federal law give the Raptor’s 80-plus inch wide footprint).

The 2021 Ford F-150 Raptor has a twin-turbo V-6 with augmented sound to sound more like a V-8.>

The super truck’s foundation has been fortified for off-road punishment. To withstand the impact of 15-inch suspension travel (by comparison, Baja race truck suspension travel is up to 40 inches) at over 100 mph in the desert, Raptor is fitted with huge, 3.1-inch diameter Fox dampers. Electronically controlled, the shocks not only change damping rates at 500 times per second during high-speed off-roading — they helped cushion the ride on Detroit’s broken roads.

For the first time, the Raptor offers a choice of 35 or 37-inch BF Goodrich tires, the latter raising the pickup’s ride height to 13.1 inches. The front, coil-over suspension is capable of 14-inches of suspension travel. Locking differentials are available front and rear for when the terrain gets gnarly and Raptor needs to crawl over rocks or through narrow gulches.

The new Fox shocks on the 2021 Ford F-150 Raptor are surrounded by new coil springs in the rear.>

“Raptor is rooted in Baja 1000 racing, and its suspension advances our capability and performance — a five-link rear setup with more wheel travel than any Raptor before it,” said Ford Performance chief engineer Carl Widmann.

While the turbocharged V-6 will soon play second fiddle to Raptor R’s supercharged V-8, it’s no slouch with stump-pulling low-end torque. In response to customers who pined for the first-generation Raptor’s, 5.4-liter V-8, the V-6 has been sound-enhanced with a more guttural roar.

Seven drive modes — Slippery, Tow/Haul, Sport, Normal, Off-road, Baja and Rock Crawl — are on hand to automatically adjust drivetrain and suspension depending on your circumstance. The 36-gallon tank provides range of 500 miles.

Even towing and payload capacities have been upgraded to 8,200 and 1,400 pounds, respectively.

High-flying Blackwings are most capable Cadillacs yet

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 2, 2021

Cadillac’s gas-fired, high-performance track monsters are going out in style.

General Motors Co.’s luxury brand on Monday unveiled the 2022 CT4 and CT5 V-Series Blackwing models, the most powerful lineup of Cadillac performance sedans ever offered with 472 and 668 horsepower respectively. The pair are the last V-Series models offered with gas-engines as the brand transitions to all-electric vehicles.

The Blackwing cars are an evolution from previous ATS-V and CTS-V performance sedans, carrying enhanced versions of the familiar twin-turbo, 3.6-liter V-6 and supercharged, 6.2-liter V-8 from their predecessors. But with a significantly reduced price from the ATS-V, the $59,990 CT4 Blackwing will be competitive with both subcompact and compact performance offerings from rival European automakers.

The CT4 Blackwing, for example, matches the price of the subcompact BMW M2 coupe while offering two more doors and nearly 70 more horsepower. For $11K less than the compact, $70,895 M3 sedan, the CT4 Blackwing offers comparable horsepower and a quicker, 3.8-second run from 0-60 mph. The Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio is still king of the compact hill with 505 horses.

The ferocious, $84,990 CT5 Blackwing, squeezing another 28 horsepower from the outgoing CTS-V’s 640-horse mill, is the most powerful Caddy ever and takes aim at higher-priced, six-figure performance models like the $103,000 BMW M5 and $114,000 Audi RS7. The CT5 adds to its value equation by dropping 5 grand off its sticker price compared to the previous gen CTS-V. It will hit 60 in just 3.7 seconds.

“V-Series Blackwing stands for the very highest level of execution and offers a distinctly American vision of performance: incredible power and luxurious craftsmanship, with absolutely zero compromise between the two,” said Cadillac Chief Engineer Brandon Vivian. “We looked to our championship-winning racing heritage to create two cars that elevate the renowned V-Series experience.”

Cadillac CT4 V-Series Blackwing rear features quad pipes and diffuser for downforce.>

In keeping with that racing heritage, the two cars underwent extensive track testing and were teased in a TV commercial Saturday night during the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona where one of Cadillac’s four Dpi.VR prototype entries finished second overall. The Blackwings learned from Cadillac’s successful racing program.

“Behind the scenes we try to take the lessons we learn on the race track and tie that back into production,” GM Sports Car Racing boss Laura Klauser said in an interview. “The CT5 and CT4 took all the learnings from DPi program and brought that into production (like how) to more efficiently bring air over the car which helps stability and fuel efficiency.”

Quad pipes and defuser distinguish the rear end of the Cadillac CT5 V-Series Blackwing.>

Yet, the CT4 and CT5 Blackwing cars also mark the end of an era of development as Cadillac moves away from gasoline power.

That status is likely to make these Blackwings attractive to the collector community as the pinnacle of Cadillac combustion engine performance. Rory Harvey, vice president for Global Cadillac, said in an interview that the performance commitment “will remain no matter the propulsion system.”

The Blackwings are built on the same platform as the CT4 and CT5 sedans that redefined Cadillac’s sedan lineup. The 2020 CT4 replaced the ATS — but dropped to the subcompact segment where its size and power are more competitive against the BMW 2-series and Audi A3. Similarly, the CT5 replaced the mid-sized CTS and is now aimed at the compact segment where, for example, it boasts class-leading rear legroom.

To telegraph their driver-centric nature, both rear-wheel-drive Blackwing models will come standard with a six-speed manual transmissions — though an optional 10-speed automatic will produce quicker lap times courtesy of advances like “No-Lift Shift” which enables race car-like gear swaps without letting off the gas pedal.

The Cadillac CT4 V-Series Blackwing comes in manual or auto transmission.>

The CT4 V-Series Blackwing, boasting 445 pound-feet of torque to go with its 472 horses, will offer optional goodies such as an enhanced aerodynamics package with bigger rear wing and front spoiler to enhance its already nimble, track-carving capabilities. It offers (together with CT5 Blackwing) a standard, electronic limited-slip rear differential.

The 659-torque, 6.2-liter CT5 Blackwing will offer exotic add-ons like carbon-fiber seats and carbon ceramic brakes (at 15.7 inches, the largest ever offered on a production Caddy) to help bring the 200-mph-plus missile back to earth.

The CT4 Blackwing will hit a mere 189 mph.

Cadillac CT4 V-Series Blackwing needs lots of air to feed the twin-turbo V-6 beast behind.

With black grilles, the front ends of the Blackwing cars bristle with menace. Air intakes are everywhere to feed the internal-combustion beasts within. Both cars are strapped down with extra body braces and visually distinguished by side air vents to speed air through the fender wells. Out back, quad tailpipes and diffusers lurk below the V-Series logo-encrusted trunk.

Inside, the cars have full digital instrument displays with TOUR/SPORT/TRACK driving modes. A configurable V-mode — similar to that found on the mid-engine Chevy Corvette — can optimize the cars’ state-of-the-art, magnetic-ride-control shocks for track conditions. It’s accessed via a prominent button on the steering wheel. For optimal 0-60 sprints, launch control is available.

The Blackwing name is not to be confused with the twin-turbo, 550-horse, 4.2-liter  Blackwing V-8 that only inhabited the now discontinued Cadillac CT6-V. The CT4’s V-6 and CT5’s supercharged V-8 are made in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

The Blackwings go on sale this summer and are available for pre-order.

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Payne: Hummer time — EV Super Truck will race in Extreme E race series

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 30, 2021

The GMC Hummer EV is going racing.

The Hummer brand, that is. GMC announced that it will sponsor one of 10 teams in the inaugural, 2021 Extreme E season. The international series is an FIA-sanctioned, off-road electric racing competition meant to bring attention to what Extreme E says is a planetary climate crisis.

GMC will sponsor Chip Ganassi Racing's first EV racing venture in the inaugural Extreme E season in 2021. GMC's Hummer EV, the world’s first all-electric supertruck, inspired the unique grille, graphics, and bodywork on the 550-horsepower electric spec racer.>

The 10 teams will all race a similar, battery-powered, 550-horsepower spec racer called the Odyssey 21, its battery developed by Williams Advanced Engineering, an offshoot of the Williams Formula 1 team. The Hummer team will be managed by Chip Ganassi Racing of IndyCar and IMSA racing fame — and its entry features unique grille, graphics, and bodywork inspired by the Hummer super truck. The EV racer will not share components with the 2022 Hummer EV that goes into production later this year.

“We feel very proud to welcome GMC and its iconic Hummer EV to the Extreme E family,” said Alejandro Agag, founder and CEO of Extreme E. “Not only will Extreme E be a thrilling motorsport, it will also showcase the performance and benefits of electric vehicles.”

The Extreme E series comes as major corporations embrace politically-charged causes including climate change, racial justice, and gender equity.

The series will take place in five remote regions of the world —  desert, ocean front, Arctic, rainforest, and glacier — to bring attention to “the impact of climate change and human activity on some of the world’s most remote locations, while promoting sustainability and the adoption of EVs.”

To underscore the point of its strategic intent, General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra said Thursday the automaker would cease producing gas and diesel engines by 2040 as part of its bid to become “carbon neutral.” GM says its future is all electric, and the $80,000 Hummer EV — the first vehicle based on GM’s Ultium battery platform — is a key part of that strategy.Get the COVID-19 Update newsletter in your inbox.

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Extreme E race teams must have one male and one female driver — each required to perform the same driver and co-driver duties — in order “to promote gender equality and a level playing field.”

The series is supported by the RMS St. Helena, a former English Royal mail ship that will serve as a “floating paddock” — ferrying the vehicles from location to location by sea instead of air transport in order to reduce Extreme E’s carbon footprint.

Extreme E debuts as the FIA’s other electric race series, Formula E, struggles.

Both Audi and BMW have pulled out of the series — billed as “the future of motorsport” — as manufacturers have looked to more relevant forms of racing. The open-wheel series’ relatively low performance compared to Formula 1 and IndyCar has been dissed by drivers. Ex-IndyCar champ Jacques Villeneuve, for example, told The Drive Formula E was “perhaps the most boring” series he had ever competed in.

Given its emphasis on bringing quiet, “zero-emission” racing to urban areas like Brooklyn, New York, Formula E has been heavily impacted by COVID-19. Travel has also been difficult as the globe-hopping series faced national quarantines. At present only one race, Saudi Arabia, has been confirmed for 2021.

Extreme E expects few issues with quarantines or urban areas given its remote locations in Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Greenland, Brazil, and Argentina. No fans will be present, and the series will be broadcast via TV. The off-road rally format requires that each EV competitor must complete two laps of the course.

The series has recruited a rainbow of drivers from across the racing spectrum including ex-Formula 1 ace Jensen Button, Australian Rally Champion Molly Taylor, and IMSA sportscar star Katherine Legge. Off-road racers Kyle LeDuc and Sara Price will pilot the Hummer EV entry.

The series fits the “super truck” ambitions GMC Hummer has for electric vehicles. The Odyssey 21, for example, will launch from 0-62 mph in 4.5 seconds — nearly as quick as the 3.0 second blitz promised by the tri-motor production Hummer.

“I can’t think of a better fit than showcasing the look of GMC’s Hummer EV in Extreme E with Chip Ganassi Racing,” said Jim Campbell, GM’s US vice president for motorsports. “Both Hummer EV and the Extreme E series are designed to be revolutionary — to challenge perceptions of electric vehicles and to showcase their true capability.”

Season 1, 2021 Extreme E calendar:

Desert X Prix: AlUla, Saudi Arabia: April 3-4

Ocean X Prix: Lac Rose, Senegal: May 29-30

Arctic X Prix: Kangerlussuaq, Greenland: Aug. 28-29

Amazon X Prix: Para, Brazil: Oct. 23-24

Glacier X Prix: Patagonia, Argentina: Dec. 11-12

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Payne: First date, boxy Mercedes GLB or sexy Mercedes CLA?

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 28, 2021

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

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

The 2020 Mercedes GLB is optioned with a panoramic roof.>

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

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

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

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

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

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

The stylish front end of the 2020 Mercedes GLB.>

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

If you want a stylish Merc, forget the GLB and check out runway model CLA.

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

The gorgeous CLA doesn’t need superfluous jewelry. Its lean bod is visual enough.

Keep on truckin'. The 2020 Mercedes CLA is the German brand's stylish, entry-level sedan.>

It’s even prettier than CLA’s first-gen car which I swooned over in 2015. Especially in the rear quarters, which drooped in the 2014 model like it had been held too close to a flame. The 2020 model sports a firmer derriere.

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

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

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

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

How far we've come. The 2020 Mercedes CLA in Ohio.>

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

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

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

If anyone challenges you at a stoplight, the AMGs launch control is also useful. Floor the brake. Bury the throttle. Wait for the revs to level at 3,000 RPM. Lift brake. ZOT!

The 2020 Mercedes CLA is an example of the brand's superior interiors.>

As different as the SUV and sedan look outside, the cockpits are similar inside. Both vehicles come with a standard 7-inch gauge cluster. Upgrade to a 10.25-inch cluster like my testers and you get one of the industry’s best digital experiences. Where Tesla has inspired a generation of cars with big center screens, Merc has innovated the horizontal dash screen stretching from driver’s instrument panels across the console.Get the COVID-19 Update newsletter in your inbox.

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

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

Green steering wheel graphic on the instrument display means the 2020 Mercedes CLA is self-driving.>

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

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

Perhaps my favorite ergonomic feature on the Mercs is the location of the engine Stop/Start button (the most annoying feature in autos today) right next to the ignition button. Turn on the ignition key — and turn off STOP/START in one motion. Thanks, Mercedes!

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

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

The interior of the 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 63 is optioned with sport seats and a sunroof.>

2020 Mercedes CLA

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

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

Powerplant: 2.0-liter, inline turbo-4

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

Transmission: 7-speed automatic

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

Weight: 3,505 pounds

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

Report card

Highs: Sexy bod; sporty AMG dynamics

Lows: Useless touch pad; cramped rear seat

Overall: 4 stars

2020 Mercedes GLB

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

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

Powerplant: 2.0-liter, inline turbo-4

Power: 221 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

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

Weight: 3,891 pounds

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

Report card

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

Lows: Boxy exterior; sleepy turbo-4

Overall: 3 stars

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How M1 Concourse became Metro Detroit’s #1 auto venue

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 28, 2021

Pontiac — Suddenly, M1 Concourse is the epicenter of Detroit car shows.

In 2021, Pontiac’s exclusive car club will host four of the region’s major car events, including the Detroit Auto Show’s Motor Bella and American Festival of Speed back-to-back in late September. In addition to those fall headliners, M1 will dominate summer Woodward Avenue cruising as it brackets the Aug. 21 Dream Cruise with the (tentative) Roadkill Nights and Woodward Dream Show weekend events.

The M1 Concourse Event Center and Restaurant has spectacular views of Turn 10B of Champion Motor Speedway - and a two-story restaurant.>

In so doing, Pontiac — Metro Detroit’s second city — will be the focus of the automotive community as thousands of spectators and media descend on its sprawling enthusiasts’ playground anchored by the 1.5-mile Champion Motor Speedway race track.

“I don’t see us in competition with Detroit,” M1 Concourse CEO Jordan Zlotoff said in an interview. “Obviously there’s a lot of news right now about there not being a traditional auto show event in the city, but I think there is a big future for the whole region in terms of what we can do around automotive activations.”

Automotive activations are participatory auto venues increasingly craved by automakers over static convention center shows. Zlotoff said that M1 had been in talks with the Detroit Auto Dealers Association (which organizes and manages the North American International Auto Show) to complement Motor Bella before COVID concerns forced the entire event outdoors to M1 Sept. 21-26.

Cool toys. M1 Concourse CEO Jordan Zlotoff cozies up to a rare Farrari LaFerrari kept at the private track facility.>

“We offer things by having a mile and a half track and 87 acres of outdoor space that can’t be offered downtown,” Zlotoff continued. “Our whole is bigger than the sum of the parts, and there’s a lot of ways we can work together and just leverage each other’s strengths.”

Zlotoff said that becoming the region’s automotive Disneyland was part of the plan since the club broke ground in 2015 on its first phase of private garages. With 173 built, M1 is now well into Phase Four of its garage development with a planned 255, making it the biggest private garage facility in the world. Its 160 Motorsport Club members keep a variety of exotic vehicles — from snarling Mustang muscle cars to rare Ferraris — with regular access to the track for exercise.

Tom McDonald, a member of M1 since 2017, likens the facility to a golf club — but with a track at its center. Like a golf course, M1 is a magnet for public events.

“Hosting auto shows is like bringing a PGA (golf) tournament to Oakland Hills,” smiled McDonald. “It brings more attention to the facility.”

M1 Concourse garage owner Tom McDonald praised the opening of the facility's Event Center. McDonald said "M1 is a facility for car owners, car lovers, and now the general public."

It’s a twist on the usual auto club business model. Similar private club tracks like Virginia International Raceway between Richmond and Durham, North Carolina, or Autobahn south of Chicago, tend to attract racing competition. Located miles from urban centers, these tracks double as major race venues. M1’s location in the middle of an area precludes wheel-to-wheel racing lest it violate local noise ordinances.

Instead, it’s focused on testing and time trials, making it a prime spot for activation events where manufacturers can show off their wares. Zlotoff credits the facility’s attraction to auto shows to a number of factors.

Motown muscle. Dodge Hellcats and Vipers are among the machinery that drivers can learn on at M1 Concourse.>

“One is just our location in Pontiac being so close to everything in metropolitan Detroit,” he said. “If you look at where (other) tracks are located, they’re far off from city centers. Also, we’re conveniently located to all (Detroit automakers) — as well as the hotels, restaurants, and the infrastructure of the city.”

Given its proximity to automakers and their supply chain, Zlotoff said that club’s goal from day one was to be an event facility — not just a track facility — with premium dining, restrooms and driveway amenities.

“This is a world-class facility that caters to clients that are in the automotive business world,” he continued. “They can produce a sophisticated event that has the look and feel of something you could do in a very high-end hotel or equivalent facility. I think it’s the confluence of those factors that are allowing us to put on all these events.”

M1 broke ground in September on an events facility that is designed not just to cater large events, but as a dining destination and configurable event space so that manufacturers could, for example, stage vehicles for auto show-like reveals.

McDonald, an ex-communications executive for VW North America and Mazda, said M1 is perfectly suited to new car reveals. Its exposure this year will raise its profile in North America, not unlike England’s Goodwood Festival of Speed which has become a must venue for international automakers.

A group of 1970s Shadow Can Am cars do laps around M1 Concourse. The 2021 American Festival of Speed will feature similar cars on the track.>

“The experiences of Motor Bella and American Speed Festival will really solidify M1’s reputation as an experiential facility that should push growth in the future,” he said. “Auto shows are changing, and auto marketing budgets are being tailored to take advantage of events like M1 can put on.”

McDonald points to the growth of similar, sprawling outdoor venues like Goodwood, Amelia Island Concours d-Elegance in Florida, and Monterey Car Week in California as examples of what M1 could become in the future. They are events where automakers can not only unveil new products — but also show them in action.

“What better location than a race track off of Woodward Avenue in Detroit?” he said.

M1 has recently hosted small media reveals for the Ford Mustang Mach 1 and the Honda Civic Type R. Porsche and Mazda have hosted track-oriented M1 events, too. Though Roadkill Nights sponsored by Dodge was canceled last year due to COVID concerns, the 2019 event brought 50,000 spectators to M1 over two days to ogle the new Dodge Charger Daytona, take thrill rides in muscle cars, and watch Woodward drag racing.

Zlotoff acknowledged that COVID circumstances have accelerated M1’s viability as organizers look for less-risky outdoor venues.

A map of the 87-acre M1 facility shows its 1.5-mile race track, 253 garage units and planned M1 Concourse Event Center and Restaurant (at the southeast corner).>

The events will make for a crowded M1 calendar in 2021 that includes a Fourth of July fireworks show and regular Cars and Coffee collector events sandwiched around private member use. Zlotoff said the attention will benefit Pontiac, which as the center of M1’s mission statement.

M1 has been involved with the local community including the donation of a neighborhood playground, while M1’s Pontiac Motorsports Exposition arm will host charity events at the Aug. 19-21 Woodward Dream Show and Speed Festival to benefit local organizations.Get the COVID-19 Update newsletter in your inbox.

“Businesses are helping to change the nature and character of the city and its economic growth,” said Zlotoff. “We are certainly focused on helping the city. We want to see it prosper. I think M1 has been on a great trajectory, and I think it’s going to continue go upward in the next five to 10 years.”

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New GM racing chief Klauser hits the ground winning at Daytona

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 27, 2021

Corvette Racing has a new boss.

General Motors Co. veteran Laura Wontrop Klauser has succeeded the legendary Doug Fehan, who left Corvette Racing at the end of 2020. Klauser assumed a new position as GM’s first Sports Car Racing Program Manager overseeing Corvette, Cadillac, and Camaro IMSA race programs. She has been involved with GM racing for the last five years.

Laura Klauser talks to the Cadillac racing team during a race weekend. She is the Sports Car Racing Program Manager overseeing Corvette, Cadillac, and Camaro IMSA race programs.

“It’s a huge honor to move into this role with Corvette Racing,” said Klauser. “It unquestionably is one of the premier programs in all of sports car endurance racing. This motorsports management restructure is a great opportunity to rethink how Chevrolet operates on IMSA weekends. My goal is to promote more synergy between our racing programs and funnel our technical learnings back to GM.”

Klauser’s first week on the job was a successful one as the Cadillac Dpi-V.R prototype won the Motul Pole Award 100 at Daytona International Speedway and the Corvette team placed 1-2 in the GTLM division. By winning the Motul 100, Caddy will be on the pole for next weekend’s Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, North America’s premier sports car endurance race. Cadillac is going for a 5th straight Daytona win.

Corvette is coming off a historic 2020 season in which its first mid-engine race car won in its inaugural campaign. It was a crowning achievement for Fehan’s 24-year career at Corvette Racing.

The #4 Mobil 1/SiriusXM Chevrolet Corvette C8.R driven by Tommy Milner, Nick Tandy and Alexander Sims finished first at the Roar Before the 24 Motul 100. The Motul 100 sets the grid for the Rolex 24 at Daytona January 30.>

“The team spent three years working double shifts — two jobs — to bring the C8.R to fruition,” Fehan said in an interview. “To come out the first year and win that championship it’s an outstanding achievement for that team, and I couldn’t be more proud of what they’ve done.”

Though his work at Corvette is done, Fehan won’t be going away quietly: “I’m not one to sit back and look out the window,” he laughed. “Racing is my passion and I plan to find a way to continue with that.”

Klauser, 34, takes the reins as GM continues its engineering-based approach to motorsports programs.

“Behind the scenes we try to take the lessons we learn on the race track and tie that back into production,” Klauser said in an interview. “In the case of the Cadillac (race car), we did a lot of aerodynamic trial and error. The CT5 and CT4 sedans took all of the learnings from the DPi program and brought that into production. It was a way to learn how to more efficiently bring air over the car which helps stability and better fuel efficiency.”

Laura Klauser (center, right) is GM's new Sports Car Racing Program Manager overseeing Corvette, Cadillac, and Camaro IMSA race programs.

A mechanical engineer with a masters in engineering, Klauser joined GM in 2008 and looks to expand the technical direction for Corvette Racing.

After working in GM production and the Cadillac ATS race program, Klauser helped launch the Cadillac DPi-V.R racer, which has been a consistent contender in the high-flying prototype category against other manufacturer entries including Mazda, Acura, and Nissan. Cadillac-supported teams have claimed two manufacturers championships, four Michelin Endurance Cup Championships and 18 race wins.Get the COVID-19 Update newsletter in your inbox.

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Since Fehan launched Corvette Racing in 1997, the program has compiled 14 IMSA team titles (including in 2020) and a record 100-plus wins.

In addition to her GM management roles, Klauser is the chair of the SAE Detroit Section Board and a familiar face to the Corvette customer and enthusiast community. She owns  a 2013 Corvette Grand Sport that she takes to track days.

“We are pleased to have someone as enthusiastic and experienced as Laura,” said Mark Stielow, Chevy Director of Motorsports Competition Engineering. “Corvette Racing and GM’s road-racing efforts will benefit from her engineering experience with both the Corvette and Cadillac production cars.”

Klauser & co. will field nine cars in three different classes at next weekend’s Daytona events. The Cadillac Dpi-V.R and Corvette C8.R will take the green flag at the Rolex 24 January 30-31.

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