Articles Blog

Payne: Q&Auto with the fastest man on earth

Posted by hpayne on February 28, 2015

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Over the next month, Carpenter will work furiously to prepare two team cars (each car requires a budget of at least $6 million). As a driver he trains daily. In between he promotes IndyCar. Like hosting a pre-screening of the movie “Focus” —starring Will Smith, Margot Robbie, and IndyCars — in Detroit this week. I sat down with the affable, soft-spoken oval-track master to talk speed, Super Bowls, and Suburbans.

Q: What’s it like to be the fastest man on earth?

Carpenter: It’s a lot of fun. Speeds like that are what focused me on motorsports, especially Indy. I’ve been the fastest the last two years and now I’d like to get to the track record (Ed. note: The track qualifying record is 237 mph set back in 1996 by Arie Luyendyk under different car rules).

Q: What’s constant, 230-plus mph like?

Carpenter: The first lap feels really good at that speed. But we take out a lot of down-force (wing angle) to run at that speed and that’s tough on the tires. We wear through a set in four laps — by lap four the tires are really sliding around. We’re right on the limit of adhesion. What has gotten us on pole is the ability to run 230 consistently over four laps.

Q: You’ve joined forces with Sarah Fisher?

Carpenter: We talked about it in the past. We had each been trying to grow (to two car teams), but it’s a challenge — a lot of money to raise. So now we’re Carpenter Fisher Hartman Racing, operating as a two-car team. I’ll be driving ovals. And Luca Filippi will be driving the street courses.

Q: Your sponsors?

Carpenter: On the No. 20 car it’s Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka who’s been with me full-time for four years. On No. 67 car Hartman Oil is the primary sponsor. Our engines are Chevy. Sarah hired me in 2011 for her team when she retired. Dollar General was sponsoring that car and didn’t want the confusion of Fuzzy’s on their cars because they weren’t selling any alcohol.

Q: TUDOR and NASCAR do their “Super Bowls” early in the year. You do yours — the Indianapolis 500 — over Memorial Day. Is that a good idea?

Carpenter: I like the way we’re set up. A lot of Indy is about tradition. It’s the focal point of our season and it’s been Memorial Day weekend forever.

Q: Detroit comes right after Indy. How important is it?

Carpenter: Detroit is the only doubleheader (Saturday and Sunday races) on the schedule which makes it important. You can make a lot of points. It’s hard coming (after Indy) because there’s one team that’s really happy and everyone else is licking their wounds. So everyone shows up in Detroit a little hung over in one way or another.

Q: Formula 1 costs have gone into the stratosphere after pressure from manufacturers to go to hybrid power plants. Do you feel pressure from manufacturers?

Carpenter: A bit. Chevy left (in 2004) and came back because IndyCar went to a smaller displacement, twin turbo, direct injection fueling. The formula is more in line with what they are building for production cars. They pull engineers from the production side and get them involved in racing to see our approach to problem solving.

Q:You leave the high speeds at the track. Still driving a Chevy Suburban at home?

Carpenter: Just got my new one a couple weeks ago. I’ve got three kids so I’m always dropping somebody off.

Payne: Honda CR-V vies for No. 1 best-seller

Posted by hpayne on February 26, 2015

Exterior design changes include a restyled front with

We Americans don’t like station wagons or hatchbacks. But jack ‘em up, stick high chairs inside, and change their name to “sport utility vehicles,” and we’ll buy them faster than Garth Brooks concert tickets.

The station wagon is dead, long live the station wagon. Once a popular hatchback version of the common sedan, the wagon has risen from the ashes as a full-blown class of its own: The SUV. So popular have wagons — er, utes — become that sedans are now the endangered species. Go figure.

The compact Honda CR-V sport ute is Exhibit A in this turn of events.

Don’t be surprised if you wake up some morning soon to find that the CR-V has outsold the Toyota Camry sedan as the best-selling non-pickup in America. Surprise! It just did.December 2014 sales: CR-V 32,369, Camry, 31,618. Camry still won for the year, but … when and if the CR-V passes it, it will only confirm a long trend. SUVs — can we call ‘em SWIDs (Station Wagons In Drag)? — outsold sedans for the first time in 2014 and now share the same clothing racks as sedans from SMALL (Honda HR-V vs. Honda Fit) to XL (Ford Explorer vs. Ford Taurus).

I ruminated over this phenomenon with marketing guru Jim Morrison of Jeep, the

company that birthed the car-based SUV. In Europe, theorizes Professor Morrison, the station wagon is still the family choice because the daily, no-speed limit Autobahn commute is done at the average speed of the Daytona 500. Performance is at a premium. In the 70 mpg U.S.? Not so much. Which means Euros want a wagon’s low center of gravity, while Americans want to sit up high so they can see what neighboring drivers are texting on their iPhones.

No doubt. But Europe is also experiencing its own SUV revolution — witness Morrison making the subcompact Jeep Renegade in Italy for European consumption. Yes, the Continent has the ute bug. Sure, the Euros will drive smaller SUVs (the Renegade could fit in the center arm rest of a Chevy Tahoe) given their wallet-flattening $8-a-gallon petrol prices, but they’re human too. And humans like sitting up high.

Why? Sport Ute 101, Chapter 1: The H-Point.

In industry speak, the H-point is the height of your hips off the ground. Humans like to sit with their hips no higher than their knees (look at that armchair you’re in). Sedans are unnatural, people. No one understands this better than Honda, a company once known for quirky fun-mobiles like CR-Xs and S2000s — but that now makes payroll by selling everycars to everyman.

The CR-V was the first compact SUV in the business and is Exhibit A in how Honda creates customers for life.

The 2015 in my driveway is the fourth generation of CR-V, following its segment-busting intro in 1997. The CR-V hit the market G-SPOT: A roomy, all-wheel-drive, family friendly recipe still small enough to maneuver in tight urban canyons. Marinate in legendary Honda reliability and the vehicle was crack for the middle-class.

The CR-V cuts a wide demographic swath: Soccer moms, young urban dwellers, arthritic boomers who can’t get out of a sedan without calling 911. And when the lease was up, why risk another brand when the CR-V is so doggone reliable?

The formula is being tested, however, as competitors have gained in durability and surpassed the shoebox-shaped CR-V in sex appeal. In its ambition to become a sales volume leader (Honda is the retail sales leader in a remarkable four of the six segments in which it competes), Honda forgot the fun factor somewhere back at that rest stop near Sandusky.

It’s as if Kid Rock began playing Brahms. Frisky Honda had gone nerd.

Ford filled the vacuum with ST hot hatches and creative Escape utes. The AWD Escape was a pair of Air Jordan high-tops to the CR-V shoebox. So just three years after its 2012 do-over, CR-V designers got a 5 a.m. reveille. Honda calls it “the most significant mid-model cycle redesign in the CR-V’s 17-year history.”

It shows. The makeover begins with a Kia Optima-like wraparound grille and headlamps. Ol’ four eyes used to look as homely as a pimply teen. Now the chrome, bezel-wrapped specs look like something out of the X-Men’s Cyclops catalogue. The ute’s chin mirrors the bezel line — giving the CR-V an aggressive, bullet-like nose with plenty of curb clearance. In back CR-V takes a page from the cool hatch crowd with tapered C-pillar glass. Damn the rear-quarter visibility. That’s what blind spot assist is for (“Engage the deflector shield, Scotty!” The CR-V is wrapped in high-tech safety systems).

Inside, the exterior cues translate nicely to a flowing dash converging in a narrow, center-shifter exclamation point. Function follows form, and the dash curves opens plenty of space for this tall passenger’s knobby knees.

Unfortunately, the CR-V’s instruments team didn’t get the wake-up call.

Instrumentation feels a generation behind interiors in the Escape, Chevy Equinox (or Camry sedan for that matter). The seat-heater buttons look glued on. You need a magnifying glass to see the telematics-control buttons. And Honda insists on a second dash screen that contains … the time and date?

Typical of Honda there are driver-friendly touches like multi-shelf door storage, console dishes for smartphones, and sliding cup holders. But Escape still feels a step ahead. Its rear seats fold flush for optimum storage — for, say, that 20-something’s first flat-screen TV. CR-V seats stubbornly refuse to flatten. And once you’ve used the Escape’s “foot kick” rear hatch opener there’s no going back.

The Ford is pushing CR-V for best-selling ute in America. That’s a good thing. Look out, Camry, you may have eight sets of tire marks over your hood.

Navigating Metro Detroit in 2 feet of snow, I could count off the CR-V advantages over a Camry or Honda Accord sedan. Sure-footed AWD. Better passenger access. More head room. More hatchback utility. Comparable fuel economy. And perhaps most significantly to this longtime sedan snob: A tight CR-V chassis. Despite its higher center of gravity, body roll wasn’t intrusive until I pushed the envelope. And envelope-pushing benefits the CR-V’s all-wheel drive.

Warning to sedans: The SUV in your mirror is closer than it appears.

2015 Honda CR-V

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

Price: $24,325 base ($33,600 Touring AWD as tested)

Power plant: 2.4-liter, direct-injection, inline 4-cylinder

Power: 185 horsepower, 181 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Continuously variable transmission

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.5 seconds (Car & Driver)

Weight: 3,358 pounds, base (3,624 AWD as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 26 mpg city/33 mpg highway/28 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Stylish new design; AWD winter warrior

Lows: Dated ergonomic switches; rear seats won’t flatten

Overall:★★★

Payne: Ford F-150, Swiss Army truck

Posted by hpayne on February 21, 2015

 

635600441000974953-CARtoon-SwiisArmyF150I get this pickup truck thing.

As a lad I played with Hot Wheels and built go karts while other kids played with Swiss Army knives and crafted tree forts. We boys never really grow up. So now I play with sports cars. Those other kids? They drive oversize tools called pickups. Call ‘em Swiss Army trucks. They can do anything.

Take the new, 2015 Ford F-150.

In America’s perennial, ferocious Truck Wars, the light duty F is the latest, greatest, best-selling example of the most versatile tool on earth. Like its Chevy Silverado and RAM 1500 competitors, it’ll ply a stream with a load of mulch in the morning, then comfortably chauffeur the family to evening dinner. The F-150′s a big, lovable, aluminum-skinned Labrador retriever. Man’s best friend.

These days Ford is rolling out fun F-150 accessories faster than Kim Kardashian can take selfies. Which is a welcome relief because the introduction of the F-150 a year ago was soooo deadly serious. When the F-150 was announced at the 2014 Detroit Auto Show, it promised to “preserve the world for generations to come” in the words of Chairman Bill Ford. Global warming was roasting polar bears and gas prices were headed to $10 a gallon. The Ford pickup was made of aluminum, we were told, to prevent the ocean from lapping at our doorstep. Everyone was so dang grim.

But then gas prices tanked and winter temperatures got so cold that polar bears are wearing long underwear. All of which is good news for Ford because they can go back to selling Swiss Army trucks and their cool tools.

I’ve already told you about the F-150′s side mirrors which can pool light on the ground like a theater usher, illuminate the landscape with spotlights, cover your blind-spot, and tie a bow tie (just kidding about that last one). The backseat will fit a boy’s basketball team — or it can be folded flat for a space bigger than Beyonce’s walk-in closet.

But with Detroit under 2 feet of powder this week, Ford’s happy elves showed off the truck’s snow plowing and snowmobiling capabilities.

“We know our customers better than they know themselves,” smiled Brandt Coultas, F-150 Consumer Marketing Manager. Snow plowing has always been the domain of heavy duty pickups like Ford’s F-450, not light duty. Heavy duties have more brawn, more ground clearance, more stump-pulling, diesel-fired torque. But Coultas’ team heard their customers pining for the same capability in light duties.

 

Ford listened and engineered the F-150 from the ground up to take the rigors of plowing.

The Ford F150 equipped with BOSS Snow Plow clears a parking lot in Dearborn.

We sports car guys are obsessive about this sort of thing, too. When Chevy designed the new Corvette C7, they listened to their customers — from Dream Cruisers to race teams — who said they wanted a no-compromise car. So Chief Engineer Tadge Juechter & Co. engineered the C7 to be stiff and aerodynamic. Want a convertible?Voila! Chop the top — no re-enforcement needed. Want to race at LeMans? Behold! Downforce galore.

For my Swiss Army truck adventure, I brought along my neighbor Bob Gulyas, a construction company owner and certified pickup guy. Ford brought the BOSS plow team. With the plow-ready F-150, BOSS just wired up a 430-pound blade and we were good to go. No extra alternator to run the power steering. No suspension changes. No cab limitations.

We had a ball pushing snow around the Adoba Hotel parking lot at Fairlane Mall in a 4×4 V-8. So much fun that I wanted to call in the F-150 owners’ club. Remember the 100 lucky Mustang clubbers invited to Ford Proving Grounds last Dream Cruise to witness the new pony’s line-lock, burnout feature? They went bonkers like kids at a Stanley Cup final.

Now imagine 100 F-150 owners lined up door-handle-to-door-handle to plow the Fairlane lot. But I digress.

Neighbor Bob marinates in F-150 every day, but was still blown away by the pickup’s new tools: Plow option, 360-degree camera, 170-degree SuperCab doors, rear-camera hitch assist, and so on. “The technology is incredible,” he said.

But what if you prefer to play in powder than plow it? Say, in a 4×4 Can-Am Renegadeall-terrain vehicle? Swiss Army Truck will help, natch.

Lightweight, aluminum loading ramps that store on the truck bed sides are available (just screw them into the removable BoxLink cleats. Genius) so they don’t bang around under the ATV. Slide them into tailgate plate, back down the Can-Am, and you’re pounding powder like a motorized lynx.

Will the F-150 save the planet? Nope. But it’ll help you conquer it. The world is your backyard and Swiss Army truck has the tools to explore every inch. I wonder if that bed will fit my sports car?

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

 

2015 Ford F-150 with “plow prep,” spotlight mirrors, BoxLink ramps, trailer hitch, and lord-knows-what-else

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

Price: $26,615 base ($51,270 as tested, $4,600 BOSS plow (est) not included)

Power plant: 5.0-liter V-8

Power: 385 horsepower, 387 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: six-speed automatic

Performance: Towing capacity (4×4): 11,100 pounds

Weight: 4,871pounds

Fuel economy: EPA mpg: 15 city/22 highway/18 combined

Report card

Highs: Plow prep option just $50; Will do everything but tie your shoes

Lows: Can’t sprout wings and fly

Overall:★★★★

Payne: Is bargain Scion FR-S the Porsche 944 reborn?

Posted by hpayne on February 19, 2015

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Oh, it’s good to be in my 20s again. Auburn hair. Lightning-quick reflexes. Eyes like a hawk.

Or maybe it’s just this Scion FR-S I’m driving. Dude, it’s dope.

Not since my first sports car 25 years ago — Porsche’s legendary 944 — has a thrifty thoroughbred felt so good in my hands. “Affordable sports car,” after all, is usually an oxymoron.

But for the durable, adorable Mazda Miata roadster (25 years old this year), examples of the breed rarely survive the business bean counters.

I grew up at the track, the oil-stained son of a Porsche race jockey. But on the street, Porsches were exotics — megabuck 911 playthings for middle-aged moguls. Until the 944 broke the mold. Long before Mercedes (CLA 250) and Audi (A3) crafted down-market sedans to lure younger demographics, Stuttgart hatched a $20K, front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 2+2 sports car that set young motorheads’ hair on fire.

At a base price of $22,000 in 1982, the 944 was a bargain. And with sexy styling, torquey four-banger, and balanced handling, it was to die for. “The most seductive combination of economy and performance money can buy,” in the words of motorhead bible Road & Track.

Henry Payne and the Scion FRS

Fresh out of college in 1984, I drove the 944 for the first time. Where my college mates celebrated graduation by traveling to Europe to sip wine and chase French skirts, I rented a 944 (the Euro lot equivalent of a Mustang) with my old man and terrorized Germany. We hit the car’s top speed of 134 mph on the Autobahn. We bought laps at the epic Nurburgring (a must for every gearhead’s bucket list). We chased Mercs.

I was smitten. Six years and a many saved paychecks later, I had my own, used, 1987 Porsche (a 924S, the 944′s streamlined, lightweight option). We did everything together from long trips to track days. As well-behaved as the 944 chassis was on track it was also practical around town with a hatchback and rear seats big enough for little Paynes.

But Porsche would not make the 944 forever.

Margins were small and capital investments high. “When it came time to upgrade, it just wasn’t worth the money,” says Kelly Blue Book managing editor Matt DeLorenzo, former editor of Road & Track. The last 944 rolled off the line in 1991 and the segment withered with it. Its more-powerful 968 sequel exited in 1995. The rotary-powered Mazda RX7 — a 944 copycat — died a decade later. Nissan’s Z got porky and pricey. The Miata’s cuter than quick. Darkness enveloped the Earth.

In 2013, the FR-S rose from the ashes. Courtesy of Toyota’s youthful Scion brand. The budget bullet was back.

Shades of 944, Scion’s skin is aggressive yet timeless. Eschewing boy toy wings or flared fenders, the fastback design is purposeful, not showy. Inside the cockpit, FR-S transports pilot back to the 944′s low-slung, driver-centric layout. With its long snout and rear seats, even beanpoles like yours truly fit comfortably under the squat roof (I need a giant shoe horn to get in the wee Miata).

Scion controls are light years beyond the 944, courtesy of 21st-century strides in digital audio. Scion comes with 6-inch LCD touchscreen, Bluetooth, USB connectivity, nav, apps, Pioneer AM/FM/CD, woofer, and a partridge in a pear tree. It’s a veritable rolling opera house compared to my old Porsche and its radio and tape deck (Look it up, kids. You’ll find one in the Smithsonian).

In truth the only audio I need in the Scion is the exhaust note.

Light the wick with the push-button starter and the FR-S comes to life like a kicked wolverine. HAWRAWRP! It’ll make your tail tingle. You want a quiet car? Buy a Camry. The FR-S is loaded for bear.

At the other end of this deranged growl is a 200-horse, 2.0-liter Boxer engine. The compact power-plant is the perfect complement to the crouched Scion chassis (its center of gravity is lower than a Porsche Cayman).

With cost in mind, Scion co-developed the FR-S with Subaru (thus the twin Subaru BRZ), just as Porsche co-produced its bargain sports car with Volkswagen. But Porsche’s first take, the 924, was a disaster. Porsche delivered the styling goods, but VW delivered, well, a VW drivetrain. Duh. The result was, in order: 1) the little engine that couldn’t, 2) ridicule from Porschephiles, 3) an extreme makeover called the 944.

Toyota made no such mistake. The Scion chassis and Subaru drivetrain connect like Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson. The FR-S Boxer engine is a rarity — a non-turbo that spits 100 horsepower-per-liter.

Even in January on Seven Mile’s Washtenaw County twisties, the Scion thrills.

While modern sports cars have put on weight (haven’t we all?), the 2,770-pound FR-S weighs less than its 2,900-pound, 158-horsepower Porsche forebear (and the same as my 924S version). More remarkably, the FR-S — at $25,670 — is barely more expensive than the 944 three decades ago.

With a quarter century of materials and suspension advancements, the Scion is noticeably stiffer than the Porsche. It cuts through corners like a knife through capellini. I pine only for the optional manual transmission (though the auto tranny’s rev-matching tries hard to make me forget).

Following Payne tradition, I too have a hot-shoe, young college grad. He too lusts for bargain speed. He too is eying the FR-S. But here’s the thing: He has more choices than I did a generation ago.

So when he joined me for a taste of Scion, we took along a Honda Civic SI coupe as well. With its own high-revving, 200-horse, 2.0-liter chainsaw, the nimble, identically-priced SI represents a pocket rocket breed that didn’t exist three decades ago. And while the front-wheel driver can’t match the RWD FR-S’s athleticism, it holds its own while also holding more cargo.

Tough neighborhood. Though he’ll miss the FR-S on track days, my son might find the fun SI — or the VW GTI, or the Subaru WRX, or the Ford Fiesta/Focus ST — delivers more utility 24/7. If the FR-S wore the iconic Porsche badge? That might change the dynamic. The 944 undeniably benefited from the family crest. Scion lacks LeMans trophies on its mantle.

For over a decade Porsche thrilled the entry segment with 4-cylinder variations of the 944 including the 924S, 944S, Turbo, and 968 (I eventually stuffed a 3.0-liter, 240-horse 968 mill into my featherweight 924S for the ultimate 4-banger Porsche). Fingers crossed that the FR-S hangs around.

Because this budget-friendly, asphalt-chewing coupe is, like, the fountain of youth.

2015 Scion FR-S

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

Price: $25,670 base ($29,742 as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, dual-overhead cam Boxer 4-cylinder

Power: 200 horsepower, 151 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: six-speed automatic or six-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.0 seconds (Car & Driver)

Weight: 2,770 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 25 mpg city/34 mpg highway/28 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: A tossable treat; throaty boxer

Lows: Rugrat-sized rear seats; turbo option, please?

Overall:★★★★

Payne: Brawny, brainy Chrysler 300

Posted by hpayne on February 12, 2015

New Chrysler 300 sedan's iconic and unmistakable exterior

Everyone remembers their first 300.

Mine was at Newark airport in 2005. The everyman Rolls — slab-sides, egg-crate grille, broad shoulders — was taking autodom by storm. In an age of soap-bar sedans, the Chrysler 300 stood out like Hulk Hogan at a tennis tournament. Eager to get my hands on the big beast, I booked the “full-size” car from a rental company.

I drove up to the arrivals curb to pick up Mrs. Payne and our luggage. “Good lord,” said my wife, shooting me the have-you-lost-your-mind look. “How much did this thing cost?”

That’s 300. Dunhill threads at a Kmart price. I could have driven it up to Buckingham Palace’s gates and they would have waved me through. If Corvette is the All-American, affordable supercar, then 300 is All-American, discount luxury.

Though the 300 badge had been around since 1955, the reborn, rear-wheel sedan was an instant American icon. Looking like it had just rolled off the set of “Sin City,” the big palooka was gangsta chic. It displaced the Caddy Escalade as the bling choice of rappers. “What I gotta do to get that brand new 300 up outta you?” said one famous rapper on Chrysler’s West Coast office voice mail. “This is Snoop Dogg. Preach!”

The second generation 300 rolled out with more tailored sophistication. The egg-crate grille gave way to a smaller, sculpted face. The first generation’s exterior swagger was extended to the interior with standard leather seats and a gym-toned suspension.

The refreshed, 2015 S model in my driveway solidifies 300 as the most mainstream car on the street. With loud, redline suit and 20-inch wheels, it’s dressed for the red carpet.

For a bargain $41,000 — less than half the price of a similarly-sized BMW 7-series or Audi A8 — my 300 combines head-turning looks with muscle-car power. The 300 is the third ’15 model update on Chrysler’s LX platform following the Dodge Challenger and Charger.

I am not enamored with full-sized car chassis. Whether the Chevy Impala, Toyota Avalon or Chrysler LX triplets, they feel big, top-heavy. Weighing more than the Pentagon, they are barely more nimble than the midsize crossovers that are slowly hunting them to extinction (though their high seating position is a nice compromise between SUV and low-slung luxe sedan).

But what they lack in handling, the triplets make up for in attitude. Squeezed by roomy midsize sedans and the SUV juggernaut (300 sales are just one-third of what they were a decade ago), the Auburn Hills threesome have amped up the personality. Looks? Horsepower? Hips? These plus-sized sexpots got it in spades.

Most full-size sedans are nice rides for a date at the movies. The tire-shredding Dodge Charger wants to drag on Woodward. The 300 aches to be valeted at Fleming’s for a seven-course steak dinner.

This is not a shy automobile. The 300 bears an unmistakable resemblance to the current Bentley Mulsanne.

Keeping up with the Mercs, the 2011 model bore horizontal, chrome grille stripes. The new model adopts the trendy, “chain-link” grille made fashionable by the Mulsanne and Jaguar XJ. Fashion trends aren’t for everyone, and I’m not a fan of the chain link look any more than I’m into skinny Euro-pants.

But credit Chrysler for a clever riff on the style. Look closer and the grille texture is more than cross-hatched metal — it’s a weave of winglets echoing the winged Chrysler logo that floats in the middle of the big maw (supersized 32 percent as a nod to the 2005 original). Out back, 300′s upright, scalloped rear quarter-panels are right out of the Bentley catalog.

One of the most recognizable brands on the market, the 300 could be its own franchise — the Mini Cooper of big sedans. Think a 300 small crossover, or Escalade-challenging 300 ute, or big 300 roadster. But the 300 is Chrysler family.

That shared DNA makes the 300 surprisingly practical for all of its 5th Avenue eccentricities.

Little brother 200 is an ergonomic wonder with an interior fussed over for maximum driver convenience. Ditto 300. Its center console is a vertical design masterpiece. Best-in-class UConnect touchscreen. Essential climate dials. A simple, rotary shifter (with Sport mode, yum) that allows room for a smart phone holder. Maximum use of space, minimum fuss. All wrapped in soft-touch vinyl and carbon fiber accents. A classic, analog clock is cherry on the cake.

I drove the 300S back-to-back with a gorgeous, similar-size, $100K Audi A8. It also has an analog clock. But the Audi console is a maze of knobs, buttons, and shift stalks. It makes your eyes cross after the simple 300 system. Valedictorian, full-size luxe meets top-of-the-class, full-size luxe wannabe.

Impress me some more, 300.

With laminated glass, the 300 matches the A8′s tomb-quiet interior. Both sport smooth, 8-speed trannys by ZF. Both score high in Consumer Reports (Audi 91 score, 300, 82). Drivetrain warranty? Chrysler: 5 years/100,000 miles. Audi: 4 years/50,000. Stomp on the S’s 368-horsepower, hemi V-8 and the big rocket wants to go to the moon — just like the 435-horse, twin-turbo A8. Want inlaid wood like the Audi? The 300C Platinum’s got it. Phone connectivity? Check. Blind-spot assist? Check.

Only the chassis betrays different breeding. Fling the 4,500-pound, AWD Audi into a 90-degree corner and it’s a locomotive on rails. Chassis settles, tires bite, all four corners stay on the same page.

The less-sophisticated, RWD 300S is like a rodeo bronco. Big tail swishes, rear hoofs stamp, you feel the 4,200-pound beast shift under your saddle. But what’s this? My bronco comes with electronic stability control? I’ve experienced this system before on the insane, 700-horsepower Hellcat and it. Is. Remarkable.

If ESC keeps the Hellcat from killing you, it makes the 300 eminently controllable. But there’s more. And this is where it really gets good, dear reader. Because the zoot-suit, ticket-me-red, nail-gargling 300S can also be had as a sinister, black, all-wheel drive stealth-mobile just like the Audi. For less.

Trade the $3,000 V-8 option for the 300-horsepower V-6 with $2,500 all-wheel-drive (AWD is only paired with the 6). Good grunt. Better handling. Better snowmobile (30 percent of 300 sales are AWD). With black leather inside and “Phantom Black” outside (like the Rolls Phantom, yes?) and you see only the “C” LED running lights coming, and the red-LED-tubed taillights going.

Is there a more affordable, powerful, fashionable, usable, AWD, roomy sedan on the market? Drive this baby up to the curb and my wife will happily slip in. If Snoop Dogg doesn’t jump in first.

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

 

2015 Chrysler 300

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

Price: $32,390 base ($41,580 300S as tested)

Power plant: 3.6-liter, dual-overhead cam V-6; 5.7-liter Hemi V-8

Power: 292 horsepower, 260 pound-feet of torque (3.6-liter, base V-6); 300 horsepower, 264 pound-feet of torque (3.6-liter, V-6 in 300S); 363 horsepower, 394 pound-feet of torque (5.7-liter V-8)

Transmission: eight-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.5 seconds (Motor Trend estimate, V-8)

Weight: 4,029 pounds (V-6 RWD); 4,326 pounds (V-8 AWD)

Fuel economy: EPA 19 mpg city/31 mpg highway/23 mpg combined (V-6); 16 mpg city/25 mpg highway/19 mpg combined (V-8)

Report card

Highs: The bargain Bentley; Ward’s 10 Best interior

Lows: Bold styling not for everyone; bring back the SRT

Overall:★★★

Payne: Can Caddy’s comely coupe cope in winter?

Posted by hpayne on February 7, 2015

gas station low.jpg

he last time the 2015 Cadillac ATS Coupe and I met it was August in northern Connecticut. We had a ball. The BMW-fighter romped through the countryside, its balanced chassis a trained athlete. We were Rogers and Astaire in “Swing Time.” Julianne Hough and (name your celebrity du jour here) in Dancing with the Stars. Partners in synch on an asphalt dance floor.

What a difference six months and 70 degrees make.

With snow falling and the mercury plunging to single-digits in early January, dancing was the farthest thing from my mind. The ATS parked in my downtown parking garage was A) my refuge from the arctic weather, and B) my snowmobile home. Where I compared the comely coupe last summer to a sure-footed Labrador locked on a fox’s scent, this time I needed it to be a St. Bernard in an Alpine blizzard: Could it keep me alive?

When I reached the parking garage, my extremities were numb. It was so cold outside that Gary Peters was burning his Sierra Club membership card for warmth. Polar bears were sleeping on heat grates. Asphalt had turned to ice-phalt.

At the car door I dared not remove my thick gloves. No problem, ATS sensed the fob in my pocket and opened with a squeeze of the handle button. Nice. No need to remove the key to start the engine either thanks to push button start. But the cabin was an icebox (Dummy. With time, I’d learn to use remote start to heat ‘er up). Fortunately the Cadillac passes my wife’s first auto rule: “If it doesn’t have heated seats and a heated steering wheel, I’m not interested.”

She’s interested in the ATS. Thanks to heating coils, steering wheels and seats come to boil much quicker than air circulation systems. Ain’t the 21st century grand? I immediately pressed the steering heater button, then reached for the seat heater button on the console.

Ahem. Let me say here that I have been a fan of Cadillac’s CUE system. Its flush surfaces and dial-free, haptic feedback controls are elegant and modern – a welcome departure from Caddy’s stodgy, conservative past. But haptic controls read the heat from your fingers – which is a problem when your digits are colder than a penguin’s arse.

I pressed hard on the console’s haptic-thingy and brought the seat to simmer – but the process of firing up the radio and hapt-o-selecting AM 950 for traffic updates looked like a more daunting task. Not to worry, the hi-tech Caddy has more redundant communication systems than a nuclear-class submarine has redundant missile launch protocols.

In fact, my hands needed never leave the toasty steering wheel. Which is nice since at this point I was gripping it hard in order to prevent gangrene from setting in. Not only can the wheel buttons operate the Bluetooth phone connection (“Honey, can I get you anything on the way home? A parka? Ticket to Jamaica?”), they command every radio function. What’s more, the station list appears in the instrument panel, meaning I can keep my eyes straight ahead on a snowy night when Detroiters’ driving skills are no better than, say, your average shellfish.

I mean, seriously people?

On my way home I encountered 1) a car parked in the left lane shoulder (a problem since there is no shoulder on the Lodge’s left lane), 2) a chronic tailgater, and 3) countless macho pickup trucks driving as if they were on the last lap of the Indy 500.

Thankfully, my ATS came equipped with all-wheel drive and all-season tires so that I could navigate this wintry “Mad Max” landscape with confidence. By the time I reached Oakland County’s surface streets, traffic had thinned, my body temperature had warmed, and I could push the car’s abilities. The ATS’s AWD system is superb, allowing controlled four-wheel drifts. My wife owns an AWD Subaru Impreza (Second auto rule: “Cars must come equipped with all-wheel drive”) which is quite good, but the Caddy – befitting its higher price – is better, with tighter stability control.

I stopped in an empty school lot to do some donuts with the traction control off (don’t tell Mrs. Payne) before arriving home – the AWD system gripping like polar bear claws through my neighborhood’s unplowed streets.

So went the weekend. With its “Black Raven” paint coat covered in salt and snow, I never noticed the ATS’s chiseled beauty. With my eyes fixed on the road, I ignored the sumptuous, stitched leather dash. To me the measure of a luxury car is more than sport and comfort. All of those details will be there come summer when ATS and I can dance once again.

In the meantime, this St. Bernard got me home warm and in one piece.

2015 Cadillac ATS Coupe

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

Price: $38,990 base ($51,345 AWD, turbo-4 as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder

Power: 272 horsepower, 295 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: six-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.6 seconds (manufacturer)

Weight: 3,418 pounds (RWD)

Fuel economy: EPA 20 mpg city/28 mpg highway/23 combined

Report card

Highs: State-of-the-art instrumentation; Bear claw, AWD grip

Lows: Clumsy CUE; Snow boots a tight fit in rear seat

Overall:★★★

 

Payne: Car of Year Golf R encore

Posted by hpayne on February 5, 2015

With 292 horsepower from its turbocharged and direct-injection

The sleeper R is for the speed jockey who doesn’t need a muscle shirt to show off his pecs.

How did the VW Golf respond to winning the 2015 North American Car of the Year at the Detroit Auto Show?

By rolling out the new Golf R two weeks later: The biggest, baddest, fastest Golf ever.

It’s like Pixar bettering “Toy Story” with “Toy Story 2.” Like Verlander following a five-hit gem with a shutout. Like Apple introducing a new iPhone 6, then eclipsing it with a big screen iPhone 6 Plus.

The R is for those who don’t think the sensational Golf GTI is enough.

The GTI, of course, is what we North American Car of the Year jurists really mean when we say Golf was the best new car to hit U.S. roads last year. The $25K GTI is no boy toy indulgence, but an affordable, practical pocket rocket that makes up a full 50 percent of U.S. Golf sales. And for good reason. The GTI’s performance is legendary. Wolfsburg’s wizards conjured a front-wheel-drive chassis that rotates like a rear-wheel-driver thanks to an ingenious limited-slip front differential. Driving this fun box is a 210-horsepower, turbo 2.0-liter with a staggering 258 pound-feet of torque. Unleash this puppy on tight roads and it’s more fun than a Platinum Pass at Cedar Point.

With hatchback utility and a refined interior worthy of coaches priced 10 grand higher, the GTI is gift enough for the fun-starved compact car buyer. But like Corvette’s insane Z06, the gonzo Golf R takes GTI to another level.

Is R short for ‘roids? This hormone-fed hot hatch squeezes another 82 horses (292 total) and 280 pound feet of torque out of the same four-cylinders that motivate the GTI. Then it connects this bag of bobcats to the road with a torque-vectoring, all-wheel drive system that grips like a locomotive on rails.

But when I asked Hans Stuck — the legendary German race ace who assisted VW on Golf R development — what he likes best about the R, he replied with a wry grin: “Iss zee brakes.”

Zee man doesn’t lie. On paper, the oversized 13.4-inch front and 12.2-inch rear rotors available only on GTI’s Autobahn Performance Package come standard on the R. On road, stomping the brake pedal feels like someone chucked a boat anchor out the hatch. I took the R out on the twisty Route 78 in the Cuyamaca Mountains east of San Diego. Flinging the R over the gnarly, knotted road took me back to Hell, Michigan’s exquisite Route 32 loop where I last enjoyed Audi’s 2015 Audi A3 — my favorite handling car on last year’s Car of the Year short list.

That’s no coincidence.

Volkswagen owns Audi and the Golf R and A3 dine at the same family dinner table. Same MQB platform. Same AWD system. Same engine block. The A3 shares the GTI’s eager engine while its sister hot rod, the S3, shares the R’s 292-horse rocket. Which is to say, the Golf R is the Audi S3 in sheep’s clothing. Good grief, no wonder this thing has more moves than Derrick Rose.

VW lists the $37,415, base Golf R’s competitors as the $35,290 Subaru WRX STI, $44,025 BMW M235i, and $48,375 Mercedes GLA45 AMG. Obviously, the $42K S3 belongs on that list as well. And the forthcoming Ford Focus RS. That’s rare air.

What makes the R stand out in such company is that it doesn’t stand out.

If I’m an alpha male with 40,000 quid to throw around I want to enter I-696 like I own it. With a gaudy hood scoop and rear wing that looks like it was torn off a World War I biplane, Subaru’s STI comes down the on-ramp like Rickenbacker diving out of the sun. The Focus RS (can’t wait) appears in the rear-view mirror with a maw like a Great White at dinner time. The Audi S3? It wears its four rings on its massive grille like Usain Bolt wears his chest-full of gold medals. The M and the AMG are a Bimmer and a Merc. Say no more. You can smell the expensive cologne.

The R, on the other hand, is the sleeper of the bunch. From a distance it doesn’t look much different than the base Golf. Hmm. … Air-gulping lower gills seem oddly large. The wicked glow of LED running lights. But by the time you’ve digested this information the thing is by you with a bark like a hyena. Hawp! Only then do you see the signature, quad tailpipes receding in the distance. What the hell was that?!

The R, then, is for the speed jockey who doesn’t need a muscle shirt to show off his toned body. The predator who likes to sneak up on his prey. The practical Tasmanian Devil.

I covet the Audi S3, but would happily buy an R — and not because it would save me five grand and a hat-full of speeding tickets (“Don’t tell me, officer. The big Audi grille tip you off again?”). Both all-wheel-drivers would taunt a Detroit blizzard — but the five-door hatchback (a first for R which in previous generations has only been offered as a three-door) is much more utilitarian than the low-roof, cramped rear quarters of the S3 sedan. And VW’s intuitive, touchscreen console will save you the daily torture of the Audi’s rotary dial.

Audi, however, could teach VW a thing or two about marketing.

While the mother ship’s luxury brand has seen rapid growth in the U.S. market, V-dub has stalled. Indeed, Audi’s 182,010 in sales is roughly half VW sales — despite the former being a niche luxury automaker. That’s shocking underperformance for Volkswagen’s signature nameplate.

Did VW miss the boat on SUVs? Are VWs over-engineered for the U.S. market? Do hatchbacks only sell on crossovers? A combination of the above. Witness Audi leading in the shark-eat-shark luxe segment with bold styling, pricing, and segment-busting SUVs. While Audi wowed the compact SUV market with the entry-level Q3, for example, VW is MIA in a fast-growing subcompact segment featuring the Honda HR-V, Mazda CR3, and Chevy Trax.

Ex-Audi communications chief John Schilling has come across the aisle to help solve the mystery. And VW’s invested billions in a new Tennessee plant to churn out crossovers. In the meantime, we can thank them for the Golf. And the Golf GTI. And the Golf R.

Like Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” movie trilogy, each sequel gets better than the last. So will Golf stand pat with the R? Not likely. VW teased a 400-horsepower Golf R400 concept last spring. Please?

2015 Volkswagen Golf R

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

Price: $37,415 base ($39,910 as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbo, inline 4-cylinder

Power: 292 horsepower, 280 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: six-speed DSG automatic or six-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.9 seconds (auto); 155 mph top speed (manufacturer)

Weight: 3,340 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 23 mpg city/30 mpg highway/26 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: AWD all-weather performer; stealth fighter

Lows: Worth the premium over superb GTI?; bigger European console screen, please

Overall:★★★★

 

Payne: Q&Auto with Big Nasty’s creator

Posted by hpayne on January 31, 2015

US-DETROIT AUTO SHOW

They call the ferocious, 650-horsepower 2015 Corvette Z06 ”Big Nasty.” But its chief engineer is anything but.

Tadge Juechter is a soft-spoken, wiry, passionate motorhead who grew up coveting Porsches. As just the fifth Corvette chief engineer, he now leads a brand that exists to eat Porsches for lunch. Inside and out, the plush, powerful Z06 is the most capable ‘Vette yet.

In winning the Daytona 24 Hours GT-LeMans class last month, the Z06′s racing variant — the Corvette C7.R — left Porsche and a field of other supercars in its dust. The stock $98,000 Z06 made jaws drop when it lapped VIR racetrack quicker than the $900,000 Porsche 918 hybrid. Mention these accomplishments to Juechter and he beams. He designed this weapon from the ground up to cruise the street and conquer the track. The now 57-year old is the kid who grew up down your block inventing crazy stuff in his dad’s garage.

“I was born to engineer things,” he says.

I sat down with Juechter at Nevada’s Spring Mountain Raceway to talk Big Nasty, the future of V-8s, and grocery shopping.

Q: You like to drive your creations?

A: Oh, yeah. I’m still looking for keys where I can get them. Now that I’m on the Corvette team I used Corvettes for everything from track day to daily driver to going to the grocery store. My wife had a horse and we’d go to the feed store and buy 300 pounds of feed. The guy would come out with the handcart stacked up to here and he’d say: “Where’s your pickup?” I’d say, “No, it’s the Corvette over there.” And I’d open up the hatch and say: “That’s where it’s going.”

Q: You have mechanical and aerospace engineering degrees and a Stanford MBA. Why cars?

A: Since I was a kid I was interested in inventing things I could interact with mechanically. I was building go-karts and bicycles with suspensions. I didn’t like remote control. I always wanted to be in the middle of it. There is no greater career path for someone interested in that than the auto industry. Maybe I could have invented jet engines, but I’m not going to be flying F16s around.

Q: The base Corvette C7 Stingray was built with racing in mind wasn’t it?

A: Stiffness improvement and aluminum is the best way to do that. So this time we elected to do a ground-up build using technologies that weren’t even available the last time around. Things like hollow castings and high pressure die castings.

Same thing’s true on the (C7.R) race car. They wanted stiffer, stiffer, stiffer … so that’s how we engineered it. (They) put the roll cage on to make it stiffer yet, and the drivers got out in the car and they could tell from the first lap that the car felt more confident.

Q: The Z06 numbers are staggering. Zero-60 in 2.9 seconds. Sixty-0 braking in under 100 feet. Cornering loads of 1.2 Gs. Yet the Z06 has a front-mounted, push-rod engine and transverse composite springs — technology a lot of people would call antiquated. How do you do it?

A: (There) are two fundamentally different engineering approaches. We’ve been refining the small block since the ’50s, and you put that much engineering over that much time refining a fundamental concept and you can squeeze a lot out of it. The small block V-8 engine is a miracle of engineering. Because it’s so compact you can locate it well back in the car for 50-50 weight distribution. It makes our car extremely easy to drive.

Q: V-8s are becoming an emissions challenge. What is their future?

A: Our customers are in love with the V-8. But many governments give us a displacement penalty because in their mind it’s correlated to fuel economy. So you get these upside-down situations where — even though we get better fuel economy than our competitors — we pay a higher tax or higher registration fees. My opinion is you stack based on what you want. Then you let the industry decide what the optimum technology is to get there. But that’s not what (governments) are doing. They are choosing winners and losers. So that pressure is going to continue to grow.

Q: Is there a turbo V-6 in Corvette’s future?

A: We didn’t look long at a turbo-6 because we couldn’t meet anywhere near our performance goals. And we can’t (have) a car that’s slower than the previous generation. People would just keep their old cars. We looked at turbo-8s, (but) we went to supercharging because we wanted the immediate throttle response. Even though turbos have come a long way, the turbo lag is still there.

Payne: Jeep Renegade, Chevy Trax crowd pleasers

Posted by hpayne on January 29, 2015

Detroit has had to make great strides to catch up with

From the torrid Cadillac CTS-V to the lovely Lincoln MKC to the elegant Chrysler 200, Detroit automakers have done yeoman’s work catching up to competitors in segments where they had been left for dead. Great sedans. Great performance. But great isn’t enough. To rule a segment requires invention. That good ol’ American pioneering instinct.

Could Green Ford have jump-started Lincoln if had been first to develop an electric rocket like the Tesla Model S? What if Chevy had beaten the Toyota Prius to market with the Volt? What if Corvette had leveraged its legendary name — like Porsche — to build a lineup of affordable, earth-scorching Corvette crossovers? Woulda’ coulda’ shoulda’.

So put your hands together for the Jeep Renegade and Chevy Trax, the Lewis and Clark of subcompact SUVs.

The pair map a new road at a time when Americans are hungry for crossovers. Not just hungry, starved. We can’t get enough of them. Sedan and station wagon sales have flattened as manufacturers have flooded the market with midsize and compact utes. SUVs aren’t just family haulers anymore. They are car-based, all-wheel-drive commuters. Jeep Grand Cherokees. Toyota RAV4s. Mercedes Benz GLAs.

Paleontologists may one day unearth sedanosaurus bones.

In truth the station wagon variant of sedans never died — it just went into a Witness Protection Program. Changed its name. Put on lifts. Came back as a crossover. Good timing for Detroit.

A Jeep sedan is an oxymoron. And Americans only trust Chevys with V-8 or SUV in their name. So make Jeep and Chevy subcompact utes and Americans will be beating down the dealer doors to get at ‘em.

Jeep marketing guru Jim Morrison (no, he never fronted for the Doors) predicts the already booming segment will explode from 200,000 to 300,000 units in a few years. He’s not alone.

“The segment is growing on buyer interest in SUVs, as well as the impressive level of technology and features available,” says Stephanie Brinley, senior analyst with HIS Automotive. “We will see the higher percentage growth this year.”

Until this year, browsing the subcompact market was like shopping the subculture boutiques of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. It was full of strange styles. Nissan’s cockamamie Cube. Hamster-chic Kia Souls. Wall-eyed Nissan Jukes.

I recently drove a Juke — its headlights on top of its hood like the eyeballs of a mechanized frog — with a yellow exterior and red interior. If you like to wear ketchup and mustard, this is your vehicle.

But with the entrance of Chevy, Jeep, Mazda (CX3) and Honda (HR-V), everything’s changed. It’s like they opened a giant mall on Haight Street anchored by Macy’s, Brooks Brothers, the Limited and Banana Republic. Goodbye subculture, hello establishment.

And like big box retail, these automakers offer wildly different products drawing from their well-worn brand DNA.

Take Chevy and Jeep, the Brooks Brothers and Banana Republic of autos.

Jeep invented the SUV in the 1980s and continues to set the trend as crossover fashion sweeps the globe. In 2014 Jeep sales ballooned 44 percent, the brand eclipsed the 1 million sales mark worldwide — and is poised to go even higher with the globally-marketed Renegade.

Should Americans worry that Jeep has lost its roots by making Renegade in Melfi, Italy on a Fiat 500X platform (Fiat’s own entry in the subcompact market)? Fuhgeddaboudit. This pasta dish is as American as a Pizza Hut pie with stuffed cheese crust. Like Jeep Jr. trying on Grandpa Jeep’s WW2 uniform, the little guy is an adorable chip off the old block.

“The Renegade is true to the brand,” says Morrison. “It’s defined by the Wrangler delivering open air freedom.”

Wrangler, of course, is the iconic, everyman Jeep coveted by generations of youth. If the Grand Cherokee redefined Jeep as a refined, unibody family hauler, the open-top Wrangler is still old school warrior. Sure, the refined Renegade ditches the Wrangler’s antique body-on-frame and loud-as-nails interior.

But right down to the available olive drab “Commando” paint job, the Renegade wants to get up at the bugle call with Wrangler and eat some dust.

Four-wheel drive, upright windshield, straight-up-seven-slot grille, flat roof, trademark “X”-marks in the rear taillights taken from original military Jeep gas cans. Heck, the instrument panel even features the splash of a paintball gun.

The Chevy Trax, by contrast, is all urban cool. If you never soiled it through a muddy stream it wouldn’t resent you in the least.

Like Renegade, Trax is also aimed at the first-time youth buyer (note its hip spelling). Its interior may bear the marks of the subcompact Sonic sedan with which it shares a platform, but the hatchback is Son of Honda Fit. The front passenger seat, for instance, folds flat like the middle chairs so you can throw a surfboard inside. But Trax also wants to appeal to a wider demographic: Empty nesters, oldsters, Dinks (couples without kids).

Renegade’s interior and exterior — air vents shaped like Pixar’s Wall-E robot, removable roof panels, orange and black trim inspired by base jumper suits (I’m not making this up) — scream Gen Y. But Trax’s softer, more conventional, lines won’t scare off seniors. Or females.

If you wear a baseball cap to work, the Renegade calls like a siren. If you’re a pretty siren who needs a vehicle for tight downtown parking spots, Trax X’s the box.

Manufacturer introductions of the two vehicles say it all.

I flogged a 180-horse Renegade from San Jose, California to the Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area (a kind of Waterford Raceway for off-roading) where the Renegade was as happy as a pig in slop. We played in the mud, bounced off rocks, charged down insane 45-degrees slopes (standing O for the engineers’ Hill-descent Control).

My 138-horsepower Trax 4-banger never left San Diego. We had a nice quiet date along palm tree-lined beaches and urban byways. While the Renegade’s 4×4 claws (set ‘em to Snow, Sand, Mud or Rock) will climb Mount Rushmore, the Trax’s more modest AWD system strives only to get you through a Detroit blizzard (though both have Wi-Fi hot spots giving you connectivity from anywhere). That modesty pays dividends in dry conditions. The Trax is no ‘Vette, but it’s noticeably nimbler than the Wrangler-esque Renegade.

Bottom line? These are fantastic, fuel-efficient, $20K products for a new segment. Mazda’s CX-3 will woo the performance crowd. Honda’s HR-V the reliability nerds. But the Chevy Trax brings GM’s formidable ute reputation in a small package. And Jeep just found a whole new hill to conquer.

That ol’ Detroit pioneering spirit is back.

2015 Jeep Renegade

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

Price: $18,990 base ($27,355 “Omaha Orange” Latitude 4×4 as tested)

Power plant: 1.4-liter, turbo, in-line 4-cylinder; 2.4-liter, in-line 4-cyl “Tigershark”

Power: 160 horsepower, 184 pound-feet of torque (turbo 4); 180 horsepower, 175 pound-feet of torque (turbo 4)

Transmission: six-speed manual (turbo 4-cyl engine only); nine-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.6 seconds — turbo 4-cyl (Motor Trend est.); 0-60 mph, 8.0 seconds — 2.4-liter 4-cyl (Motor Trend)

Weight: 3,044 pounds (4×2 turbo 4-cyl); 3,573 pounds (4×4, 2.4-liter Trailhawk edition)

Fuel economy: NA

Report card

Highs: Best-in-class cargo room; as happy in the outback as on the road

Lows: Upright front end and broad C-pillar create blindspots; lumbar support-challenged seats

Overall:***

2015 Chevrolet Trax

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

Price: $20,995 base ($28,305 AWD LTZ as tested)

Power plant: 1.4-liter, turbo inline 4-cylinder

Power: 138 horsepower, 148 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 9.0 seconds (Motor Trend)

Weight: 2,805 pounds (FWD); 3,208 pounds (AWD)

Fuel economy: EPA 26 mpg city/34 mpg highway/29 combined

Report card

Highs: Best-in-class fuel economy; clever interior package

Lows: Another engine option, please?; tastier-but-still-vanilla exterior

Overall:***

Payne: Toyota Camry or Ford GT?

Posted by hpayne on January 24, 2015

camry_ford_gt_mainart.jpg

“I want something that doesn’t break down,” said the lady in the red sweater when I asked her what she coveted on the Detroit Auto Show floor.

“Oh,” I replied, rather expecting the answer to be the drop-dead gorgeous, Holy-Mother-of-Pearl Ford GT supercar that had been a one-car mob scene since the doors opened to the public.

“My husband’s Toyota Camry has 293,000 thousand miles on it and has never had a problem,” she continued indignantly. So who’s counting? She is. “My Chrysler minivan has 150,000 and it’s in the shop. Again.”

Another Camry customer is born.

Red’s answer is proof that auto shows aren’t just fashion runways. They are also giant showrooms for folks who are in the market. They come to ogle the supermodels. The latest designer trends. Flying buttresses on the GT! Twelve LED headlights in the NSX! But then visitors will track down the cars that fit their lifestyle. Compare them. Try them on.

This year Ford’s stand leads with strength. Literally. The place has so much muscle it practically reeked of testosterone. Ford’s supercar was the biggest bodybuilder in a gym full of big biceps showing off the Dearborn automaker’s new performance division. Mustang GT350 R. F-150 SVT Raptor. Like Hulk Hogan at a pro wrestling autograph signing, the athletes were mobbed by adoring groupies.

Ford can do performance in its sleep. The history of the Ford GT alone will bring competitors to their knees. Winner of LeMans in 1966. And then in 1967, 1968, and 1969. Fifty years later, a new, 600 plus-horsepower GT that sounds like Godzilla gargling razor blades has its sights set on further French conquests.

At the Toyota stand, the Japanese automaker also wants to flex its new muscles. The Lexus RC F GT3 racing concept is the luxury brand’s first venture into serious GT racing. But its oiled pecs were largely ignored by showgoers. The FS-1, a delicious sports car on a Lazy Susan, got more respect. But performance cred is earned. Let us know when you win LeMans, boys.

But front and center in the Toyota display was a bank of Camrys. They welcomed visitors like . . . like what?

A beautiful hostess at a downtown restaurant? Naw. Despite the midsize sedan’s much-ballyhooed facelift this year, it’s hardly a head-turner.

A geriatric greeter at Wal-Mart? Nope. The Camry may be plain on the outside, but its hybrid technology is cutting edge.

A row of shiny TVs at Costco? Bingo.

The Camry is a pleasant, colorful, affordable appliance. That never breaks down.

Camry can do reliability in its sleep. It sets the tone for a smart brand that attracts people who need transportation. Like Red. Let the motorheads (guilty as charged) daydream about Ford GTs. Most folks want something that gets them from A to B without detours to the shop. Americans are a friendly tribe, but we don’t want to know our mechanic on a first name basis.

For all of its performance cred, Ford covets Toyota’s reliability rep. The Blue Oval’s jaw-dropping performance and styling (Ford’s Aston – er, Fusion – is George Clooney next to the Camry’s Steve Carell) draw customers to showrooms. But reliability is what keeps them coming back. Ford boasts slinky supercars that can fly at 200 mph for 24 hours, but Toyota excels at vanilla sedans you can flog 200,000 miles for 24 years.

On a flight back from Denver last year, a rental fleet manager told me a consistent complaint of customers is Ford’s original Sync infotainment system. Its moods drove them batty. Ford fixed the problems with Sync 2.0. But it has to earn customers back that it lost to Toyota.

During auto show media week I was driving a new, $33k, 2015 Camry. Like my kitchen toaster, it did its job with relentless normalcy.

Its console was the right balance of touchscreen and dials. Its hi-tech safety features watched over me like an angel. Its roomy seats fit all sizes. Its four-banger engine ran like a top. And its Lassie-like reliability makes you forgive its shortcomings. The low-mounted seat heater dials you have to blindly fiddle with to get right. The cruise control stalk that hides behind the steering wheel begging to be confused with the turn signal. The hard chrome console bezel that chews at my leg.

Someday, Toyota will blitz LeMans and Ford will rule Consumer Reports. Until then, we’ll drive our sexless Camrys to the auto show to ogle Ford GT beefcake.

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

 

2017 Ford GT

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

Price: $150,000 est.

Power plant: 3.5-liter, twin-turbo V-6

Power: 600-plus horsepower, 500-plus pound-feet of torque

Transmission: seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, sub-3 seconds (no doubt)

Weight: TBA (expect a lightweight with carbon-fiber tub)

Fuel economy: TBA (and honestly, does it matter?)

Report card

Highs: Porn for autobuffs; Classic GT40 styling for the 21st c.

Lows: Might get you thrown jail

Overall:★★★★

2015 Toyota Camry

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

Price: $23,795 base ($33,448 as tested)

Power plant: 2.5-liter DOHC 4-cylinder

Power: 178 horsepower, 170 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.9 seconds (Car & Driver)

Weight: 3,240 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 25 city/35 highway/28 combined

Report card

Highs: Bone reliable; Confy interior proportions

Lows: Styling a cure for insomnia; Center console can chaffe long legs

Overall:★★★

 

Payne: Z06 Corvette is an awesome blend of power and poise

Posted by hpayne on January 22, 2015

The Detroit News Auto Critic Henry Payne poses with

The Z06 makes 350 pounds of down force. Paired with an all-new aluminum chassis and 12-inch Michelin gummies, the Z06 is a big, tail-wagging, mountain of power. But with stick.

On the limit of grip — the 6.2-liter, supercharged V-8 howling like Cerberus in my ears — I modulate the Corvette ZO6′s throttle across the uphill, Turn 2 sweeper at Spring Mountain. But the hungry beast wants more. More throttle?

Payne, it seems to say, don’t you know I am the most capable production car in existence? That your pals at Car & Driver have recorded my 1.19 lateral G-forces higher than a Porsche 918 hybrid? Higher than a Nissan GTR?

I oblige with every passing lap. Which means that at 6,400 RPM I snatch fourth gear — 122 mph — at the top of the hill going into Turn 3, a 180-degree

downhill right-hander. BRAAAAKES! I stomp on the binders at the way-too-late marker and giant Brembo calipers seize 15.5-inch carbon-ceramic front rotors with the force of a Rottweiler on a postman’s leg. The coupe slows like it hit an invisible wall. My chest strains against the seat belt. My eyeballs bulge from their sockets. But the Z wants more. Brake later? Are you mad?

Fool, don’t you know that I can brake with any exotic car on the planet? A heart-stopping 128 feet from 70-0 mph? Better than a Porsche Turbo? Or a Ferrari 458?

And so it goes lap after lap trying to find the limits of this extraordinary, $78,000-plus super car. Exhilarating. Addicting. But how is this possible?

After all, we’re comparing the Corvette to the most technologically advanced weapons on the planet. Cars with carbon-fiber tubs. All-wheel-drive. Overhead-cam, turbocharged, made-with-Unobtanium, flux-capaciter cyborgs sent here by Skynet from 25 years into the future.

I mean, the Z06 still has its engine in the front like a truck, for goodness sake. And it uses antique push rods. And leaf springs (yeah, I know, Chevy calls ‘em “tranverse-mounted, composite springs” but every motorhead knows they’re leafs). The thing should be retired to the Smithsonian.

Well, hold the retirement party. The 2015 Corvette Z06 is the real deal.

Credit an engineering team lead by Tadge Juechter who has Pratt & Miller’s Doug Louth, chief engineer of Corvette’s racing program, on speed dial. The seventh-generation, $53,995 base Corvette C7 Stingray was conceived with the Z06 performance package and LeMans racing in mind. Would Juechter & Co. have use

more exotic suspension geometries and engine tweaks if it had twice the budget? Who knows? Who cares?

Squeezing every ounce of nutrition out of a front-engine, push-rod, transverse spring recipe it has perfected over three generations of car, Juechter’s geniuses then cooked their big sirloin steak with the best spices from Brembo and Michelin tires. The result? An affordable, freakishly-capable megabot with the performance of cars costing five times as much.

Consider: The Z06 lapped the epic, 4.1-mile Virginia International this year in 2.41.3 seconds. That’s quicker than the record 2.43.1 lap laid down by a $875,000 Porsche 918 at Car & Driver’s legendary Lightening Lap competition last year.

But the Z06 is more than quick. It’s comfortably quick. I was skeptical that this was possible. After all, I’ve driven Vette-zilla.

Vette-zilla was the 2007 ZR1, the last generation, C6-based Z06 on ‘roids. The most capable Corvette ever produced. With a 6.2-liter, supercharged V-8, 638 horsepower and all the tricks from the Brembo and Michelin magicians’ hats, the $110,000 ZR1 could run with the exotics. But it would wear you out in the process.

Like riding a bull through Pamplona, Vette-zilla roared and stomped and threatened to throw you through the window. It sweated 20 pounds out of you — but sweet speed was your reward. The ’15 Z06 tames Vette-zilla’s moods. Smooths its raw edges. And goes quicker. Nearly five seconds a lap quicker in GM’s VIR test.

On Spring Mountain Raceway I feel it instantly. The Z06 not only doesn’t generate as much lift as the squirrely ZR1, it makes 350 pounds of down force. Paired with an all-new aluminum chassis and 12-inch Michelin gummies, the Z06 is still a big, tail-wagging, mountain of power. But with stick.

“The difference from the ZR1 is that when you turn it in to a corner, it plants,” says ex-IndyCar driver Richie Hearn, who flogs Vettes at Spring Mountain’s Ron Fellows Driver’s School for a living,

That nimbleness has turned the old Detroit vs. Europe formula on it head.

“Detroit once made the drag queens,” says Juechter. “Europe the cornering kings.” Now, with hybrid-torque and all-wheel drive, Euro-sports like the 887-horsepower Porsche 918 stomp the big ‘Vette from 0-60. But without the weight of batteries and electric motors, the Z06 is lighter — easier to toss across apexes.

But don’t be fooled into thinking the ‘Vette is a tinny lightweight. At 3,524 pounds it is actually heavier than the last generation Z06 and ZR1. Wider and longer, the new car is stuffed with luxurious interior materials, media infotainment, four airbags, and a video Performance Data Recorder to play back the fun bits. They’ll be plenty.

With its race-breeding, you buy the Z06 over the base Stingray for weekends at the track (“You’re going to Waterford Raceway again this Saturday, hon?”). But the other days of the week, the Z06 is a luxury chariot. Unlike the single-minded, Z06/ZR1 hammers of yore, new Z06 owners (they went on sale in November, get in line) can have their cake and eat it too.

The Z06 is available in an automatic and a convertible with no compromise in performance. The convertible gains no weight over the coupe. The automatic loses no speed. Indeed, relates Juechter, when pro-drivers tested the Z06 at Road Atlanta last fall, they recorded faster times in the eight-speed automatic vs. the seven-speed manual.

“I got to admit it,” says Indy racer Hearn after cranking off a lap that had me gripping the door handles, “I prefer the automatic to the paddles.”

GM product guru Mark Reuss nicknamed the Z06 “Big Nasty” for its fearsome capabilities, but the bandwidth of this beast is astonishing.

Cruise to church with your best gal in its sumptuous, leather seats and dual climate control on Sunday morning. Wake cemeteries with 3,000-RPM thunderclaps through lake country on Sunday afternoon. Supercars are supposed to come with super sticker prices. My Torch Red (or is it ticket-me-red?) Z06 with Z07 performance package and competition seats still goes out the door for less than six-figures. Less is more with the Z06.

OK, Payne, enough talk. I’m getting cold. Let’s hit the track and find a coupla more seconds.

Glad to serve, Big Nasty.

2015 Corvette Z06

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

Price: $78,995 base ($97,595 as tested)

Power plant: 6.2-liter, supercharged V-8

Power: 650 horsepower, 650 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: seven-speed manual or eight-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 2.9 seconds (manufacturer)

Weight: 3,524 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 15 mpg city/22 mpg highway (manual); 13 mpg city/23 mpg highway (auto)

Report card

Highs: Ferocious low-end power; Gotta-have-it good looks

Lows: Multi-gate, seven-speed manual gearbox takes some adjustment; fuzz magnet

Overall:★★★★

Henry Payne’s guide to the Detroit auto show

Posted by hpayne on January 17, 2015

You don’t have to walk far into Cobo Center to find my Car of the Show. The gorgeous, blood red, plug-in, battery-powered, twin-turbo, jewel-eyed, platinum-priced, fuel-efficient, high-performance, low drag, shrieking supercar Acura NSX.

The long-awaited NSX is a one-car smorgasbord of every hot feature on the floor — with the exception of a pickup bed. And like nearly every reveal at this year’s show it will only appeal to a few.

During media week, the NSX was a celebrity magnet. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld (reportedly he and fellow funnyman/car fanatic Jay Leno have dibs on the first two copies), rapper Ludacris, and every auto executive in town came by to ogle the $150K-plus exotic beauty. They are also the rare few who can afford it.

The 2015 Detroit Auto Show is a showman’s show boasting 50 eye-catching reveals. But it’s a dramatic departure from 2014′s circus that showcased major volume segment reveals like the Ford F-150, Chrysler 200, and Honda Fit. Key luxury debuts abounded, including the Lincoln MKC, Hyundai Genesis, and Acura TLX.

Last year, Cobo was big box retail. This year it’s an oversized boutique. With the U.S. market back to glorious, pre-recession, 17-million-in-sales-a-year growth, manufacturers are slicing and dicing the market with specialty models. That means performance models. Off-road models. Hybrid models. Anything to keep showrooms packed as automakers try to tease that last dollar out of your wallet.

This fracturing of the field means that fights are popping up all over the floor like sword duels in a “Hobbit” battle scene. Over here are Tesla and Chevy battling it out for the first 200-mile electric car. Over yonder a skirmish for best small pickup. Me? I’m a sucker for affordable sports cars. Here are the highlights:

Henry Payne’s take on 2015 NAIAS sports cars

Henry Payne’s take on 2015 NAIAS small, midsize and green cars

Henry Payne’s take on 2015 NAIAS luxury cars

Henry Payne’s take on 2015 NAIAS SUVs

Henry Payne’s take on 2015 NAIAS concepts

Henry Payne’s take on 2015 NAIAS trucks

Raptor vs. Rebel

In this corner of Cobo, the earth-pawing Ford Raptor. And in that corner the boffo, red-on-black Ram Rebel. Sounds like a WWE bout, huh? The names are intentionally intimidating. These are trucks with attitude. But the bout is a mismatch. The F-150′s evil twin, Raptor is an off-road assault vehicle suitable to run the legendary Baja 1000. With a seriously upgraded chassis and suspension, this monster might eat the trees that Ford has placed around the pickup’s exhibit. In contrast, the Rebel is an aggressive trim upgrade. Blacked-out grille, dual exhaust, and huge, knobby tires give it menace. But inside, this tough truck is a softie. Red-stitched vinyl interior, 8.4-inch UConnect console screen, and a clever media holder for your phone/tablet.

The Raptor/Rebel bruise brothers are evidence that there are the Big Three truck makers — and everyone else. Over in the Nissan stand, an all-new, full-sized Titan is everything you want in a truck. But the F-150′s Raptor variant alone sold more copies than Titan last year.

The 200-milers

Tesla’s Elon Musk has thrown down the gauntlet on making an affordable, $30K electric car. General Motors just picked it up. Expensive electrics like the Tesla Model S and Cadillac ELR are tech wonders, but rare. The Big Game in battery power has always been the challenge of building an affordable EV. The Ford Model T revolutionized motoring because once millions of Americans could afford cars, gas infrastructure followed. So will recharging infrastructure follow the 30-grand EV? If anyone can make the car.

Musk claims his promised, 200-mile-range, Model E (Model E like Model T, get it?) will be the silver bullet. Chevy’s 200-miler Bolt concept may beat him to it. The Bolt — smartly executed as a trendy, small crossover — stepped all over the Chevy Volt 2.0′s introduction this year. Don’t pity the Volt. The redesign has all the sex appeal of a loaf of bread. Or a Corolla.

Hybrid supercars

The aforementioned NSX is the latest entry in a new class: The plug-in hybrid electric supercar. The $900,000 Porsche 918 launched the trend with neck-snapping, 2.2-second, 0-60 time. But $1 million cars belong in museums, not on roads. The $138K BMW i8 — so beautiful it even shames other Bimmers on the stand — brought that price into more conventional, Porsche 911 Turbo-like orbit. The NSX follows. Electric motors benefit supercars in two ways. They add instant acceleration to lightweight chassis. And they turn the front wheels, transforming mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive athletes into AWD cruise missiles that can turn on a dime. Or (ahem) even negotiate a Detroit snow storm.

While we’re drooling over supercars, note the show-stopping Ford GT is not a plug-in. It’s a conventional, twin-turbo V6. Which means it’s headed for LeMans GT racing to slay Ferrari. High five.

Dashboard revolution

Thanks to digital technology, I get blind-spot alerts, automatic braking before I punt the car in front of me. . . I can even drive hands-free with lane-keep assist (which freaks out Mrs. Payne). But the digital revolution is also transforming the center console. Tesla’s “floating iPad” console is as cool as its 200-mile range. Over at the Lincoln stand, the all-new MKX eliminates the cumbersome gearshift stalk with a push-button tranny next to an infotainment screen angled helpfully toward the driver. Ditto the Chrysler 200.

And now for something completely different: The new Audi TT fuses console and instrument screens into one display for better heads-up driving. Thank a super-smart nvidia (Intel is sooo 15 minutes ago) chip — the same brain that runs your kids’ awesome video games.

Megatrend

For all the micro-segments on Cobo’s floor, there is one over-arching megatrend: SUVs are taking over the world. Like the 19th-century stagecoach, we homo sapiens like riding high in our 21st-century vehicles. Some cars go to extraordinary lengths to be SUVs. Check out the Volvo S60 Cross Country, which takes its flowing, coupe-like sedan shell and jacks it 2.5-inches in the air to be labeled a crossover. Or the Mercedes GLE63. Looks kinda like a Subaru Outback (who knew Subie was a fashion leader?).

But maybe the most haunting proof that everything will ultimately turn into a crossover is the Hyundai Santa Cruz concept. It’s a pickup. The height of a compact SUV. With car-like, unibody construction.

Wild. Put a 550-horsepower plug-in-hybrid drivetrain in it and I bet Leno will snap it up in a minute. Enjoy the show.

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

Five must-sees

Dodge simulator: The Detroit show’s first full-car simulator. Take the family for a wild ride in a Charger Hemi.

Acura NSX: You’ll be hypnotized by this supercar’s 12 jewel-eye headlights. If its 550 plug-in electric horsepower doesn’t already have you a trance.

Mini Superleggera. What you get when you cross a British boy toy with an Italian supercar designer.

Ford F-150 SVT Raptor. Looks like a mechanized Jurassic Park reptile. Just don’t put your hands inside the cage.

Alfa Romeo 4C Spider. Turbocharged, sports-car fun. In a drop-top. With the most gorgeous models in the show.

Payne: Top 10 new cars at the Detroit Auto Show

Posted by hpayne on January 17, 2015

It’s cold. Really cold. But instead of taking refuge in a dark theater to watch an Oscar nominee, Cobo Hall offers something better: A dazzling, mega-watt, toy wonderland called the North American International Auto Show. Inside are spectacular sets, beautiful models in black dresses, and 750 of the world’s shiniest, best rides. Fifty-five of them are all new machines pushing the limits of horsepower, molded sheet metal, and digital doo-hickeys. These beauties aren’t just transportation, they are art on wheels.

Hollywood has its Top Eight Best Movies. Here are my Top Ten best new vehicles.

Acura NSX: This raked, jewel-eyed weapon got speeding

1. Acura NSX

The second coming of Acura’s supercar has been foretold since a 2012 concept. Could it live up the hype? Could it live up to the legacy of the Ayton Senna-endorsed original? This raked, jewel-eyed weapon got speeding tickets just standing still on its Cobo stand. Every detail is sharp, purposeful. Hood vents speed air from the front openings, sucking the car to the ground. The NSX joins the nearby BMW i8 as a new kind of supercar that can slink silently through town on electric power, then assault the countryside when the electric-assist-twin-turbo-V6 motor kicks in.

Alfa Romeo 4C Spider: If the NSX has a flaw, its design

2. Alfa Romeo 4C Spider

If the NSX has a flaw, its design looks clinical. Cold. Not the Alfa. There’s something about Italian design that exudes sensuality. Warmth. (Or maybe it’s just the drop-dead gorgeous models on the Alfa stand.) Thanks to the stiff, carbon-fiber tub, the $60k, drop top Spider is just 22 pounds heavier than its coupe cousin. Store the soft top in the 4C’s lunch-sized boot. Opt for the removable hard top and store it in the passenger seat (which means the model can’t come with you, alas).

Chevy_Bolt_1.jpg

3. Chevy Bolt

Tesla’s swaggering CEO, Elon Musk, showed up in Detroit during media preview week without his Model 3, the long-promised, $35K, 200-mile range electric car. A pity, because Chevy beat him to it. What’s more, the crossover Bolt (lousy name, why didn’t they call it the Gamechanger?) scored a two-fer. It also eclipses its sister Chevy Volt which debuts its second-gen nearby.

Toyota_Tacoma_1.jpg

4. Toyota Tacoma

The Empire strikes back. Last year Chevy stormed the Detroit Auto Show with Colorado and Canyon pickups in an attempt to take back the small(er) pickup segment. This year, reigning class king Tacoma answers. It’s remade for the first time since 2006 with a new skin, new 3.5-liter V-6, and updated electronics. Smaller than the GM twins — Toyota bets its customers want a truck that fits in a parking space.

Ford GT: To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Henry

5. Ford GT

The more things change, they more they stay the same. While BMW and Acura showcase new hybrid supercars, the Ford GT is a conventional throwback. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Henry the Deuce’s LeMans win over Enzo Ferrari, the GT signals a 2016 LeMans GTE-class entry — complete with fire-breathing, class-legal V-6 twin-turbo. The exterior is a thoroughly modern re-imagination of the legendary GT-40. Ford has built plenty of green hybrids. This monster has its sights on red Italian sports cars.

Ford F-150 SVT Raptor: The six-figure Mustang GT is

6. Ford F-150 SVT Raptor

The six-figure GT is for extreme, on-road driving. The $45K Raptor is for extreme off-roading. Named after the lithe, lizard-skinned, big-clawed dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, the desert-mocking, earth-pawing, shrubbery-chewing F-150 version is twice as big and twice as mean. With upgraded chassis and suspension, the Raptor does share one thing with the GT: A howling, twin-turbo V-6.

Mini Superleggera: The Superleggera is the love-child

7. Mini Superleggera

What’s with the sports car in the Mini shoebox store? The Superleggera is the love-child of England’s Mini Cooper and Italy’s Touring Superleggera coach-maker. Powered by an electric motor, the two-seater concept features such design flourishes as a Jaguar D-Type-style fin and Union Jacks embedded in the tail-lights.

Mercedes F015 autonomous vehicle: With rotating chairs

8. Mercedes-Benz F015 autonomous vehicle

The luxury answer to Google’s self-driving toaster. With rotating chairs wrapped in Nappa leather, the walnut-trimmed F015 is a rolling lounge. If the regulators someday OK autonomous vehicles, this is how the beautiful people will arrive at the Charity Preview.

Mazda CX-3: The CX-3 – along with the Honda Honda HR-V

9. Mazda CX-3

Big and bold dominated this year’s reveals, masking a fundamental shift in the industry: SUVs are challenging sedans in every segment. The CX-3 — along with the Honda HR-V and Chevy Trax — is the first of wave of sub-compact utes. The pretty CX-3 boasts Mazda’s trademark stylish design and sporty handling.

Cadillac CTS-V: The V twins, ATS-V and CTS-V, take

10. Cadillac ATS-V and CTS-V

The V twins take on the formidable performance divisions of BMW M and Merc AMG. The graceful CTS-V shares the Corvette Z06′s earth-shaking, supercharged, 6.2-liter power plant. Top speed? 200 mph. But the nimble ATS coupe will be Caddy’s rep on the race track.

 

Payne: Je suis Charlie: Cartoonists in the cross-hairs

Posted by hpayne on January 16, 2015

Payne Toon 011615.jpg

I have never penned a cartoon mocking the Prophet Mohammed. Never mocked Jesus Christ. Or the Pope. It’s not my style of satire. It’s not the content that mainstream newspaper readers of The Detroit News expect.

But I have caricatured Christ multiple times. In good humor. For example, with a donkey lampooning the silly “What would Jesus drive?” protests against SUVs during the 2003 auto show.

It’s hard to believe drawing a religious figure’s likeness would lead to execution. Yet that is the fate that befell four of my cartoon peers in Paris last week at the hands of radical Islamists.

It doesn’t comfort me that their cartoons appeared in an edgy satirical magazine. It’s a thin line that separates different forms of expression — a line that terrorists don’t differentiate.

Their attack on Charlie Hebdo was an act of intimidation against anyone who doesn’t share their intolerant, doctrinaire world view. It’s an attack on all free people.

I’ve been buoyed by the strong, public reaction from Detroit-area Muslims and the 3 million people who bought Charlie Hedbo (traditionally an obscure, 30,000-circulation periodical) in its first publication since the Jan. 7 attack.

“Je suis Charlie,” the French chanted in the streets. I am Charlie.

In the first days after the attacks I was unsure if that sentiment would be shared.

“Satire, fairly or not, has always seemed less ‘serious’ than other forms of journalism, more of an indulgence,” wrote Fox News media reporter Howard Kurtz, echoing my own concerns that many would throw cartoonists under the bus. Kurtz rightly reasoned that “as the massacre at Charlie Hebdo reminds us, cartoonists, satirists and funnymen are often on the front lines of very risky battles.”

In the 25 years I have been in the cartoon business, Islamic attacks on controversial journalism have been a harbinger of worse violence to come.

In 1987, cartoonist Naji Salim Al-Ali fled Kuwait for England under death threats for his cartoons critical of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. Gunmen killed him on a London street.

In 1989, Iran took out a fatwa on author Salman Rushdie for his fictional “Satanic Verses” novel, deemed a mocking of Mohammed by Iran’s ruling imams. Yet Iran’s fanaticism prefaced decades of state-sponsored terror groups like Hezbollah.

In 2005, a Danish paper published a dozen cartoons of Mohammed to reassert the power of free speech, concerned that the terror attacks of 9/11 had cowed freedom of expression.

Clearly, satire isn’t the problem, but rather a tool radical Islamists use to advance their agenda.

Islam is not the first religion perverted by extremists. Post-Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan claimed itself the enforcer of Protestant values as it burned crosses on the lawns of blacks, Jews and Catholics. The way to confront such perversions of peaceful religions is for mainstream holy figures to denounce the fringe. As Christian churches did to the Klan. And as leading Detroit Muslims are doing in the wake of the Paris attacks.

I was joined on Fox 2 News’ “Let It Rip,” a day after the slaughter, by fellow newspaperman Osama Siblani, publisher of Metro Detroit’s Arab-American News, and Imam Mohammad Ali Elahi of Dearborn Heights. Both fiercely denounced the Charlie attacks.

Said the imam, who last week dedicated a Friday service to condemning the attack: “Freedom of speech comes with responsibility, but disagreement does not come with destruction.”

That’s how you fight terror. With military intelligence and strikes, yes. But also by marginalizing the extremists in our midst.

Shame is a powerful tool. As is humor.

Payne: Sculpted Nissan Murano is rolling art deco

Posted by hpayne on January 8, 2015

The new 2015 Nissan Murano carries Nissan's new design

In a world of plain, boxlike, mid-sized SUVs, the Murano is a standout. A statement vehicle.

If Nissan can spare a copy of its stunning new Murano, it might consider a donation to the Josephine Ford Sculpture Garden behind the Detroit Institute of Arts. Passing patrons would surely find it more coherent than Calder’s “The X and its Tail.”

Contemplate the Murano’s finely sculptured grille, for example.

It has nothing to do with feeding air to the engine (accomplished by an opening along the SUV’s chin), and everything to do with aesthetics. The tulip-shaped, repeating chrome and plastic ribs are industrial art deco design at its finest and might be mistaken for a classic 1930s Cord were it not for the Nissan logo in the center.

Framed by two boomerang-shaped headlights, this startling fascia begins an art deco journey from stem to stern. Behold the “floating” greenhouse covering the passengers like an umbrella. Or those swollen, swept hips (akin to the 1938 Dubonnet Xenia perhaps?). Or the Murano’s jagged shoulder lines that echo California’s Sierra Nevada mountains — not far from where the ute was conceived by Nissan’s Los Angeles-based design team.

In a world of plain, boxlike, midsized SUVs like the Lexus RX350 or Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Murano (named for the island off Venice that produces world-famous glass creations) is a standout. A statement vehicle. It will get most of its show-room traffic on the flamboyant coasts of California, New York and Miami — but the vehicle it reminds me of most is the now-defunct Chrysler Pacifica.

Like the Murano, the chiseled, 2003 Pacifica was a refreshing crossover in a sea of ute boxes. Like Marilyn Monroe, alas, Pacifica was a troubled beauty. A cursed Chrysler child, it stumbled out of the nursery, was plagued by glitches, and suffered an early death. The Murano comes from more stable stock. Indeed, it too debuted as an ’03.

Now in its third generation, it has turned heads while providing solid performance. But the 2015 model is a whole new animal. It is the first production Nissan that features the brand’s layered, “V-motion” design language.

Did I say “features”? Make that “flaunts.” This is one racy automobile. It’s not for introverts. Gatsby would have killed for this car.

Its upscale pretensions don’t end at the ’30s-like curves on its exterior. The interior mirrors the outer shell with plunging dash lines enveloping the tulip-shaped center console. The piano-black console materials and stitched leather instrument shroud suggest more luxurious automakers like Cadillac and Mercedes. But where the controls of those vaunted brands can be as maddening to converse with as an eccentric billionaire, Murano proves the most sensible instruments this side of a Jeep.

Where is the menu for the center console? Always along the bottom of the screen. How do I reset the odometer? Button on the left dash.

The Murano’s feminine form can fool the eye into thinking this is a compact SUV. Inside, however, there is no doubt as to its midsize proportions. The center armrest could swallow an iPad. I am all elbows and knees, yet I had plenty of room in the front seats, my arms resting comfortably on the door rests — not the window sills.

The rear seats are cavernous (hey, Nissan, how about a Barcalounger-like, flip-up ottoman feature?). This ship could easily fit three rows — but unlike its Pacifica contemporary, the Murano’s upscale look is aimed at empty nesters and friends. The Pacifica was an extension of Chrysler’s minivan stable — a family vehicle with second

row captain’s chairs and a third-row bench.

I was introduced to this $30,445-plus figurine in Napa Valley. Wine country. I get it.

Invite another couple for a weekend escape. Park by a wine orchard and drink in the view. Pour them a glass of Chardonnay in the cup holders that drop between the rear seats (they recline like the fronts). Ahhhhh. This is your captain speaking: Relax and enjoy a quiet flight, and . …

What’s this? The Murano is all-wheel drive? And it’s built on the same sporty chassis as the Nissan Maxima? Hold on to those wine glasses folks.

In Napa they once mashed the grapes with their feet. Too bad they didn’t have an AWD Murano. Throw this baby in a wine vat, and it could churn grapes to wine in seconds.

I couldn’t find any wine-makers who would take me up on the offer, so I went off-roading on their muddy winery roads instead.

The AWD Murano comes nicely muscled with a standard 3.5-liter, 260-horsepower V-6 connected to the wheels by a … Continuously Variable Transmission? Say what? I fear the worst. CVTs may gain 20 percent fuel economy, but the plodding slush-boxes kill performance faster than general anesthesia. Thankfully, Nissan is aware of this — these are the same guys who make the wicked Nissan GTR, after all — and have engineered their CVT with “D-stop logic.” Translation: It’s still a CVT, but nicely masked by the upshifts of a proper automatic.

Thus equipped, Murano and I slipped and churned and waggled our way through a Napa winery after a California downpour. Now I know why Murano’s ugly-duckling cousin, the Subaru Outback, comes equipped with unsightly, black plastic, skirt cladding — it provides a protective coat against mud. By contrast, I felt bad dirtying my Arctic Blue Metallic Murano’s sumptuous side panels — crisply creased and highlighted with chrome. Sure, I would prefer a Nissan Titan on back roads compared to the Murano — but then I’ll take the crossover’s asphalt manners any day.

And since most metro folks spend 99.9 percent of their time on asphalt, the Murano gets the gold. That’s the beauty of this beauty — it’s as pretty as Erin Andrews and has her athletic skills to boot.

Not to say Murano is faultless. Art deco facade aside, its bulbous front hood is out of step with V-motion’s plunging curves. More like B-motion.

And be wary of the optional, albino interior. You don’t have to be a newspaper-stained wretch like me to imagine how quickly an all-white interior can get smudged. Fortunately, the black and tan interior trim is not only practical, but prettier than anything this side of a Merc.

I drove a fully-loaded, tech-stuffed, V-6 Murano for $43,745. That’s $10,000 less than a similarly-equipped Lexus RX350 that doesn’t have nearly the panache. Lexus has its own boomerang-like, show-me design on the way. And not a moment too soon.

Who said that SUVs aren’t art?

2015 Nissan Murano

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

Price: $30,445 base ($43,745 as tested)

Power plant: 3.5-liter, dual overhead-cam V-6

Power: 260 horsepower, 240 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Xtronic Continuously Variable Transmission

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.1 seconds (Car & Driver)

Weight: 3,940-4,017 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 21 mpg city/28 mpg highway/23 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Art deco styling; lounge-like interior

Lows: Bulbous hood; dirt-magnet, albino interior option

Overall:★★★

Payne: What’s in (and out) for autos in 2015

Posted by hpayne on January 1, 2015

NSX 1.jpg

From Volt 2.0 to Dream Cruise burnouts, News’ auto critic Henry Payne looks at what’s hot (and not) in autos for 2015.

We ran the wheels off 2014 and now it’s been retired to the boneyard. As we turn the key — er, push the starter button — on a brand new year, what will be trending in all things automotive?

IN: Acura NSX

OUT: BMW i8

Last year belonged to Bimmer’s long-awaited, gorgeous, plug-in electric supercar. The $135,000 i8 is soooo 15 minutes ago. The curtain will rise on the long-awaited, gorgeous, plug-in electric, $100K-plus, NSX supercar at January’s Detroit show. The i8 employs an electric motor driving the front wheels and a twin-turbo, 1.8-liter gas engine spinning the rears for a combined 357 horsepower. The NSX’s similar drivetrain reportedly couples the electric motor with a 3.7-liter, twin-turbo V-6 for a combined, screaming 550 horsepower. Oh, lordy. I’m sure to lose my license this year …

IN: SUVs

OUT: sedans

How hot are SUVs? Even iconic sports-car maker Lotus is reportedly developing a Evora-based crossover. In 2014, purchases of new utes surpassed sedan sales. Once truck-based boxes, SUVs now cover every segment from the giant Chevy Suburban to the subcompact Chevy Trax. Based on car chassis, small lux SUVs are sexier-looking and sportier-handling as evidenced by entries like the BMW X1, Audi Q3, Lincoln MKC and so on. Meanwhile, the large sedan stable has stalled with rumors that horses like the Hyundai Azera and Ford Taurus may be retired to the glue factory.

IN: Chevy Volt

OUT: Chevy Volt

The General’s plug-in electric moonshot didn’t bring in sales like Toyota’s iconic hybrid Prius — though it did attract new customers to the showroom. Now comes Volt 2.0 with more performance and better range. Still, given the public stampede toward crossovers, why didn’t Chevy remake the Volt as a compact ute?

IN: Gasoline

OUT: Diesel

More expensive, diesel-powered chariots have struggled to make inroads in the U.S. despite 25 percent better fuel economy than gas-diet competitors. It ain’t getting any easier. With petrol prices plunging under $2-a-gallon, diesel remains above $3. That’s a 50 percent difference. Ouch.

IN: Matthew McConaughey and Ellen DeGeneres

OUT: Matthew McConaughey and Ellen DeGeneres

The “Interstellar” star’s eclectic, mumbling Lincoln ads became a cult hit — and the target of hilarious parodies from comedians like Ellen DeGeneres and Jim Carrey. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the ads aren’t going away. McConaughey is under long-term contract with Lincoln, which means more mumbling in ’15. Which means more priceless material for DeGeneres & Co.

IN: Takata air bag recall

OUT: Chevy Cobalt recall

The General’s ignition switch crisis set off a soul-searching spasm at America’s biggest automaker. New CEO Mary Barra’s feet were immediately put to the fire. But a vehicle stall is usually survivable. Not so exploding airbag shrapnel. The Takata bag issue has already resulted in 21 million recalled vehicles. It is a ticking time bomb in auto dashboards and could shred one of the world’s biggest auto suppliers.

IN: FCA US LLC

OUT: Chrysler Group

Alphanumeric car names are all the rage. Now Fiat-Chrysler has brought the trend to its corporate moniker.

IN: Dodge Hellcat

OUT: Dodge Avenger and Grand Caravan

Led by swaggering CEO Tim Kuniskis, Dodge announced it is now FCA LLC’s performance brand. That means more rascals like the fire-breathing, 707-horsepower Charger Hellcat — and no room for milquetoast, mom-mobiles like midsize sedans or minivans.

IN: CT6

OUT: SRX

Cadillac gets a new HQ (NYC), a new boss (Johan de Nysschen) and new alphanumeric badges. Luxe sedans will henceforth start with “CT,” followed by a number designating their rung in the hierarchy (a new, full-size model, for example, will debut as the CT6). ATS will RIP ASAP. And FYI, SUVs — like the soon-to-be-redesigned SRX — will start with XT. But I bet the iconic Escalade name will remain. LOL.

IN: Grille sculpture

OUT: Functional grilles

As electric vehicles proliferate, their front ends will become purely decorative. Without air-hungry engines behind the front bumper, designers will be freed to be more creative. The Chevy Volt and Cadillac ELR grilles are decorative shields. You know Tesla can do better than a plastic egg on its S. Even gas-powered crossovers like the stylish new Nissan Murano use lower air intakes to feed the beast — leaving the lights and grille as a sculpted work of art. What’s next? Full frontal neon lights?

IN: The Fields Era

OUT: The Mulally Era

The Boeing outsider, Alan Mulally, became an instant legend for rescuing the Dearborn automaker by returning its production to core products. Now comes his CEO successor, Mark Fields, the consummate Ford insider. Chairman Bill Ford wants to be to the connectivity revolution what his great-grandfather Henry was to the mobility revolution. Fields shares his passion.

IN: IndyCar

OUT: Formula One

F1 is the world’s most popular motorsport series. But its politically-correct hybrid powertrains made for higher costs, less competition and cars that sounded like lawnmowers. Ugh. Meanwhile, U.S-based IndyCar — longtime bridesmaid to F1, had a historic year. Eleven different drivers won races and the series (which includes a fling through Belle Isle’s park) gained viewers.

IN: Car apps

OUT: AM/FM radio

Customizable Internet music and traffic apps like Pandora, Spotify, Sirius XM, and Waze, etc. have invaded car consoles. Now comes Apple CarPlay. Can AM-FM survive?

IN: Uber

OUT: Taxi cabs

Even taxis aren’t immune from the digital revolution. App-driven cabbies like Uber and Lyft offered more affordable, more responsive service than taxi-cab dinosaurs. Anybody want to buy a New York taxi medallion?

IN: Line-lock burnouts

OUT: Dream Cruise burnouts

The Dream Cruise will never be the same. Thanks to the 2015 Ford Mustang’s line-lock innovation — which electronically locks the front brakes — you can now smoke your rear tires at a stop light without moving an inch. Whaddaya think of that, bicycle patrol?

IN: Push-button ignitions

OUT: Turn-key ignitions

Push button ignitions have been a luxury feature and the bane of valets (“Sir, did you walk away with the key in your pocket?”). Thanks to GM’s ignition key scandal, expect their use to accelerate into all vehicles.

IN: Managing Detroit automakers’ success

OUT: Managing Detroit automakers’ decline

The dark days of Detroit automaker bankruptcies have receded in the rear view mirror. With 2014 auto sales back at pre-recession levels, the Big 3 are back in black. Have they learned their lessons? The first challenge comes in 2015 with a new round of UAW contract talks.

IN: Heads-up displays

OUT: Tachometers

Originally a fighter jet innovation, heads-up displays — which project speed and other relevant criteria (like speed limits, my wife reminds me) in the driver’s line of sight over the hood — have proliferated into Cadillac, BMW and Hyundai cars. Meanwhile, with auto trannies ubiquitous, the traditional tachometer may get the boot.

 

Payne: Santa, can I have an Audi A3?

Posted by hpayne on December 20, 2014

The Audi A3

Santa would love the red, gorgeous, fast Audi A3. But the Golf GTI’s hatchback may prove more practical for his toy bag.

It’s red. It’s pulled by 220 reindeer. And, man, does it fly. Ditch the sleigh, Santa, get an Audi A3.

I told him so last week. Right after I asked him for one myself.

Sure, a 6’5″ guy looked a little foolish on Santa’s knee (Don’t get too many 220 pounders, huh, Nick?) at my office Christmas party. But drive the crimson, 220-horsepower, all-wheel drive Vixen I had in my driveway for a week and you’ll be making a dash for the nearest mall Kringle too.

I first discovered the A3 on Hell, Michigan’s terrific twisties this fall when judging entrants for the North American Car of the Year. It was Heaven. This all-wheel drive athlete changes direction quicker than DeMarco Murray.

Compact SUVs may be hot as chestnuts roasting on an open fire, but the A3 heads an expanding class of $30K-something compact sport sedans that are wicked, affordable fun. Indeed, the $30K-$40K bandwidth is a mash of luxury and mainstream brands – Mercedes, Ford, BMW, Subaru, Buick – unthinkable a decade ago.

Makin’ a list, checkin’ it twice.

I’m a slobbering slave to branding. Priced at the high end of the $30 grand range, the sexy, all-wheel drive Mercedes CLA250, BMW 228i, and Audi make my heart race. Cross the fast-but-more-homely, AWD Subaru STI and Buick Regal GS from my list. The JV German team even makes me forget their E-Class, 3-series, and A4 varsity siblings which have grown fatter with time (haven’t we all). The new kids are whip quick, torquey, and every bit as lovely as their bigger-boned sisters.

But the A3 tops my list.

Audi dresses up its VW Golf-based chassis with all-wheel drive, a toned torso, and the brand’s signature full-fascia grille.

I could stare at the Bimmer all day, but even in this low-frills segment, BMW upcharges $4,045 for power leather seats. On the Audi they come standard. The four-door CLA is the supermodel of the bunch, but beauty is only skin deep as the Merc’s interior sports a tacky screen (literally. It’s tacked on to the dash), tight pedals, and a less-powerful, 208-reindeer – er, horse – power plant.

The A3′s screen rises from the dash like Excalibur from the water. Its eager, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-banger sprints from 0-60 a half-second quicker than the Benz. Like its rivals, the A3′s 250-plus pound-feet of torque kicks like Comet. I fling the Audi into a corner, 19-inch wheels churning, four tires gripping like glue. I nail the gas, and . . .

Passengers, we appreciate your patience while the turbocharger spools up. Thank you and enjoy your flight.

Turbo laaaaaaag. It’s an affliction all small-block turbos suffer – even the insanely fast, carbon-fiber-light Alfa Romeo 4C.

Note to list: Santa, I wish I had a V-8.

Like the buttery-smooth, normally-aspirated V-8 in a new Ford Mustang. Same $32,900 base price as the A3. Double the horsepower. Instant juice. And the curvy, Euro-styled Mustang will make heads spin like a CLA supermodel. Inside, the Ford’s round, cockpit vents mimic the Merc and Audi. The console, however, is all-American, with a touchscreen that is intuitively easier to use than the Europeans’ distracting, slow, rotary knobs.

Still, the ‘Stang comes with its own asterisk. It’ll accelerate like an F-14 off the USS Nimitz, but at 3,800 pounds, the big sled isn’t nearly as tossable as the little A3. Option Ford’s superb, 2.7-liter turbo and the Mustang is a more nimble 3,500 pounds (the AWD Audi weighs in at 3,300), but you’ll have shed the trademark V-8.

Like Santa Claus, it seems, the perfect $30-something sedan is a fairy tale. Or is it? Seems the answer has been right under my nose all along.

On the same chassis as the A3, the VW Golf offers a more affordable, $31,000, sporty four-door: The GTI. For $9 grand less, the seventh generation GTI packs the same 220-horsepower turbo mill as the A3. The same black leather seats. An intuitive, Ford-like touch screen. An ingenious, torque-vectoring differential system that makes the front-wheel drive, 3,000 pound GTI nearly as fun to flog as the AWD A3.

And the GTI boasts something none of the other, fast-backed sports sedans have: A roomy hatchback. That means lots of headroom for 6’5″ elves like me and yawning, 53 cubic-feet of cargo room with the seats down.

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

 

2015 Audi A3

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

Price: $32,900 base AWD ($40,545 as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, dual overhead-cam, turbocharged 4-cylinder

Power: 220 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.8 seconds (manufacturer)

Weight: 3,362 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 24 mpg city/33 mpg highway/27 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Go-kart handling; Athletic proportions

Lows: Clumsy console rotary control; Cramped back seats

Overall:★★★★

Payne: Ford F-150, Vehicle of the Year

Posted by hpayne on December 18, 2014

15FordF150_19.jpg

F-150 is more than the Truck Wars top dog du jour. This pickup is a daring innovation on a new American frontier.

If this was the “2014 Sexiest Car Alive” column, I would pick the BMW i8. Like People magazine’s choice of Chris Hemsworth as the “Sexiest Man Alive,” the i8 is ripped, powerful as Thor, and attracts chicks like, well, Chris Hemsworth.

But when it comes to Vehicle of the Year, I’m a populist.

The rare $140,000 i8 will ship just 500 units anually and reportedly has a six-year waiting list at Detroit dealerships. Instead of never, how about a chariot you could drive forever? From 15-grand compacts to $50K sedans, what new vehicle raised the bar on performance, technology and livability without breaking the bank?

There were 45 new vehicles in the U.S. market and I wouldn’t kick any of them out of my garage (not even the Lexus RC-F Coupe which one legendary designer called a “fright pig.” When I heard its V-8 wail, I was in love). This year was an automotive cornucopia. We got updates on icons like the Ford Mustang, the return of the iconic Alfa Romeo, and more SUVs from sports car icon Porsche. Carmakers introduced electronic gizmos that check your blind spot and stop you before you hurt something (wow, isn’t that what the precogs did in Spielberg’s futuristic “Minority Report”?). M4 BMWs. Three-holer compacts. Not one, but two Hellcats.

I caressed, ogled and flogged nearly every one. Vehicle of the Year? The nominees, please.

Hyundai Genesis

There were lots of new lux toys in Santa’s workshop this year — Acura TLX with OMG AWD; Audi A3 that dances like Barishnikov, a Mercedes C-Class that makes Aphrodite look homely, BMW supermodels, and a Cadillac ATS that out-Bimmered the Bimmers in handling. But Hyundai whipped up a treat that was exgravaffordable. If that’s a word, it’s certainly one you rarely encounter in this segment. Yet Hyundai pulls it off. The Korean manufacturer carried its dress-for-success-for-less formula in the midsize market — see the curvy, 2011 Hyundai Sonata — into the luxe sedan segment.

Works for the Genesis, too.

The gorgeous Genesis does Audi style, BMW 5-series handling, Mercedes bends, and Lincoln livability — all in an irresistible, $38,950 base package. You read that right: $38.9K. That’s mid-size luxury for $10k less than a Lexus GS. Pair AWD with the 3.8L V-6 for $2,000 more and you get the torque of a V-8 and the grip of mountain lion.

Chrysler 200

The perennial ugly duckling of the mid-size sedan class, Chrysler produced a swan with the 200. Like the Aston Martin — er, Ford — Fusion, the 200 raised the bar for the common four-door sedan. And when optioned with AWD and a best-in-class, 292 horsepower V-6, the 200 (also like an AWD Fusion) pushed the volume sedan frontier. In a blind taste test with similarly priced luxury offerings from BMW and Audi, the 200 is the better buy.

But where the 200 really shines is inside the cockpit. In a digital age when hydraulic lines have given way to drive by wire and center consoles that have become entertainment centers, the 200 breaks new ground.

Not an inch of the 200′s console is wasted. Queen Elizabeth’s interior designers aren’t this fussy about detail. The dash is elegant. The screen is as intuitive as your smart phone. And the shift knob is reduced to a dial, turning the center console in to a piece of furniture full of drawers, cupholders, sliding doors, and a sub-zero refrigerator (just kidding about that last one). The ladies love it. I might protest the 200′s rather numb relationship with the road when driven hard — if my smitten wife would ever let me behind the wheel.

Volkswagen Golf GTI

In 1984, the GTI pioneered a hot hatch segment that now includes cyborgs like the Subaru WRX, Honda Civic SI, and those naughty Ford ST twins, Focus and Fiesta. Thirty years on, the seventh generation German pocket rocket is still the standard.

Indeed, the GTI is my automotive benchmark. It is autodom’s decathlete. At about $30K — nicely garnished — its sticker is the average price of new cars sold. Like an SUV, its hatchback design offers comfortable seating for four and configurable cargo space. Unlike an SUV, its low center of gravity and compact size make for better handling, city maneuverability, and fuel economy.

All that — and it’s more fun than a Waverunner on Lake Michigan. The GTI’s styling won’t wow like the Focus ST, but its timeless, clean lines wear well. It doesn’t have AWD like a WRX, but its hushed interior spoils you even as you flog it like a go-kart.

But my 2015 Vehicle of the Year is the over-dog. The pre-game favorite. The blockbuster that lived up to the hype. Yes, the …

Ford F-150

Like the 2014 Chevy Silverado and the 2012 RAM before that, it’s the F-150′s turn to be the new standard in pickups. More capable, more comfortable, more fuel efficient. Blah blah blah.

Yet it’s so much more than the Truck Wars top dog du jour. This pickup is a daring innovation on a new American frontier.

The Big Pickup market is evidence that Big Government is back. Washington’s demands are as important an engineering challenge as consumer needs. EPA bureaucrats have decided that the carbon dioxide they exhale is a threat to the planet. And while D.C.’s deacons exempt respiration from their list of human sins, autos get no such pass. Fuel efficiency must double by 2025. Which means Detroit engineers have to serve vehicles that meet both the dietary needs of tree-hugging, bark-chewing bureaucrats and stump-pulling, red meat-eating Neanderthals like you and me.

Ford bet the farm on an aluminum truck. It delivers. The F-150 makes no excuses for federal regulation, no moral appeal, no compromise. This is a pickup owner’s pickup. Beginning at just $26K, the F has a hammer’s power and a pocket knife’s dexterity with shrewd details like side mirror spotlights.

Ford’s federal strategy varies dramatically from the General which downsized into mid-size trucks with the credible Colorado-Canyon combo. Yet the F-150′s new, 2.7-liter Ecoboost equals the smaller trucks’ fuel efficiency. True, steel Fs were heavier than GM armor. Despite weight savings of 700 pounds from previous generations, the Ford beer can tips the scales just 200 pounds lighter than the Silverado according to Car&Driver.

Critics also quibble about Ecoboost’s inflated EPA numbers — but isn’t satisfying EPA the point? The feds get what they want; customers get what they want. And in the long run Ford’s aluminum revolution promises benefits across its vehicle lineup.

Ford may not be the sexiest vehicle alive, but when Chris Hemsworth does a rugged, remote photo shoot for People magazine on top of a windswept rock, he’ll drive a new F-150 to get there.

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

 

2015 Ford F-150

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

Price: $26,615 (base model) – $60,705 (King Ranch)

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

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

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

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

Weight: 4,050 – 5,142 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA mpg: 18 city/25 highway/20 combined (3.5L V-6); EPA mpg: 18 city/26 highway/22 combined (2.7L Ecoboost); EPA mpg: 15 city/22 highway/18 combined (5.0L V-8); EPA mpg: 18 city/24 highway/20 combined (3.5L Ecoboost)

 

Report card

Highs: User-friendly details; aluminum’s better power-to-weight ratio

Lows: Turbos may not deliver expected fuel economy; aluminum’s insurance cost questions

Overall:★★★★

Payne: The Lexus NX goes SciFi

Posted by hpayne on December 11, 2014

Lexus created the luxury-utility crossover category

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

Lexus has the most radical styling out there.

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

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

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

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

And so we get the NX.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report card

Highs: Polarizing stylin’; Planted handling

Lows: Polarizing styling; Glitchy touch pad

Overall: ★★★

 

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

Posted by hpayne on December 8, 2014

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

Majoros_ 2015-Chevy-Trax.jpg

Is the sedan a dinosaur?

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

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

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

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

Q: How did you get here?

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

Q: What was your first car?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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