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Q&Auto: What did the F-150 learn from the F-Type?

Posted by hpayne on July 5, 2014

Kevan Richardson, Jaguar's program manager for sports cars, explains the aluminum construction of the Jaguar F-Type at a media test drive in Los Angeles.
Kevan Richardson, Jaguar's program manager for sports cars, explains the aluminum construction of the Jaguar F-Type at a media test drive in Los Angeles. (Jaguar)

This weekend we Yankees celebrate our divorce from Mother England. But the families are closer than ever. England’s our trustiest ally, we worship Kate Middleton, and we fancy aluminum in our signature vehicles.

Driven by draconian federal mpg regulations, the best-selling Ford F-150 is Detroit’s first mass production vehicle with aluminum skin. The lightweight pickup can trace its heritage back to Ford’s ownership of England’s lightweight Jaguar sports cars, which helped pioneer aluminum design over a decade ago. The two companies are no longer married, but they share bonds, explains Kevan Richardson, Jaguar’s program manager for sports cars.

“When Ford came in we got a lot of help with quality, processes, and financial discipline,” says Richardson, a wiry, straight-shooting Brit. “And they have transferred (our aluminum skills) back to their homeland.”

As the 2015 F-150 shows off its radical aluminum panels, Richardson is touring the U.S. with an aluminum F of his own. A taut, aluminum chassis is the backbone for Coventry’s sleekest, fastest cat yet — the snarling, 550 horsepower, 2015 Jaguar F-Type (read my review here). Will we someday see an aluminum-chassis Ford? I sat down with Richardson to talk materials, the nanny state, and the F-Type/F-150 odd couple.

Q: Is the F-Type the first, all-aluminum Jag?

Richardson: No. We started with aluminum in 2001 when we delivered the XJ. Then XK . . . was delivered in 2006, so that was effectively generation two. With F-Type we are on to the next generation.

Q: Was Jaguar the first production brand to use aluminum?

Richardson: No. Audi has had aluminum for a while. But without being disrespectful to them, their techniques are maybe a little backward compares to ours. We are fortunate (because) Coventry has always had a very good heritage in motor manufacturing — in building high speed cars and airplanes that were aluminum.

Q: Was your conversion to all-aluminum cars driven by performance or regulations?

Richardson: It’s kind of chicken and egg. In the 1990s Ford started to buy a lot of Bauxite mines. They were quite visionary about their material choice for the future. We were their premium brand. They decided that we were going to be the proving ground. We learned an awful lot about aluminum’s structural properties: Fuel economy is better, handling is better, the car is more balanced

Q: Was cost a factor?

Richardson: Aluminum is more expensive than steel. Fact. Carbon fiber — much lighter again — is not practical for high volume production. If you want a one-off performance race car, then carbon fiber is your game. But if you want to make high volume then aluminum is probably the best material. We reckon that if the F-Type were steel, that would be (220 more pounds) which is .3 seconds in zero-60. That’s a big deal when everyone wants to be at four seconds.

Q: How does aluminum challenge you?

Richardson: Aluminum is very difficult to work — especially in a shapely car like the F-Type. A truck (is) a good vehicle to make with aluminum, because it’s got big flat surfaces. Working with the F-Type, we’ve had to create a lot of new techniques to create the shape that we need, But with a truck there isn’t a lot of form.

Q: Regulations increasingly pinch what you can do — you can no longer have a leaping Jaguar hood ornament, for example. Could you make an E-Type today with a long nose?

Richardson: No. If you are in the driver’s seat, there’s something called a “vision angle” that says you have to see a certain distance in front of the car from the driver’s seat. In Europe, if you are unfortunate enough to have a collision with a pedestrian, then they have to meet a certain level of head injury criteria. So . . . in our car the bonnet deploys with a couple of actuators which fire the bonnet which creates survival space between the bonnet and the engine so that if (someone’s) head hits the bonnet you have space. The bonnet rolls them away.

Q: You now have aluminum in Jaguars, Corvettes, F-150s. What’s next?

Richardson: The industry is moving to aluminum. In 20 years, I think aluminum will be the choice for every car. It’ll have to be.

Z

Escape and Equinox bring serious pistols to the fight

Posted by hpayne on July 3, 2014

This is the Year of the Compact Crossover. With Ford Escape, Chevy Equinox, Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 racking up unit sales rivaling the compact sedan market, even the lux makers want a piece of the action. Everybody’s downsizing from the Lexus NX to the Lincoln MKC to the Porsche Macan. Heck, even, Peterbilt is probably working on one.

Given homo sapiens preference for riding up high — Americans conquered the West on horseback and Conestoga wagon after all — I’m wagering it won’t be long before crossover utility vehicles take over the sedan segment entirely. For sure, before the Lions win a Super Bowl. Heck, even Europeans have adopted this most American of trends, with CUV sales doubling over the last six years. Just this year, Jeep announced it will make its Renegade crossover in Italy and Ford will export the Edge. What’s next? Soccer-crazed Brits turning to baseball?

Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and CUVs. And no one understands the Yankee mind better than Honda.

While Detroit led the switch from big cars to big utes, Honda translated its small car success to small crossovers. Debuting an early example of the species back in 1997, the bulletproof, CR-V has led the way — and won class rodeo again in 2013 with more than 300,000 sold. Saddle up, Detroit. Motown is hot on the CR-V’s trail with its own superb crossovers, the Escape and Equinox. Which is better positioned to conquer the West?

Duel at high noon. We put these two pistols back-to-back. Twenty paces, gents.

Thinking outside the box

The CUV separated itself from truck-based SUVs by building on car-inspired, unibody chassis. Now their exterior skins are mimicking sedans as well.

Think outside the box.

Compacts like the Escape, Mazda CX-5, and Kia Sportage lead this wave with raked styling, attractive grilles and curvy hips. Where the Honda CR-V brought Civic-like dependability to the class, the Escape has leap-frogged the Honda in styling. A generation ago, the Escape looked like it was carved from a block of cheese. Now it looks like a Ford Focus on steroids.

From its angular front and rear lights to its full fascia grille (sure to be Aston Martin-ized soon like the rest of Ford’s lineup) to its swept greenhouse, the Escape shows a lot of leg to the passing sedan crowd. Dads who bought the Escape for their soccer moms will find themselves sneaking out to the garage at first light to take it to work instead of their aging (big, boxy ute name here).

The squared-off Equinox is a tidy, attractive interpretation of Chevy’s split-grille, two-box architecture. But next to the Escape it looks a generation behind. Only the muscular wheel wells stir any passion. In the salon chair next to the Equinox is the larger Traverse which has received the full Camaro-inspired, Impala-like extreme makeover. What the Equinox wouldn’t do to get the same stylist.

Surprisingly, the Escape’s sloped greenhouse does not compromise interior room and visibility. Indeed, the Ford’s angular glass carves out room in the D-pillar to improve driver’s rear-corner visibility. The Equinox’s more traditional D-pillar combines with the second-row headrest to make rear visibility difficult. All SUVs, however, suffer from D-pillar blindness. The solution? Blind spot assist on the mirrors. Don’t leave home without it.

Inside, only Sequoias like your 6-foot-5-inch author will notice the slight reduction in rear headroom from the Escape roof while still beating the Equinox in interior room.

Devil in interior details

My neighbor Betsy Walbridge is a stickler for detail. She’s a master chef with a shrewd taste for the right ingredients. She can spot an overcooked entree at 500 paces. And she loves her Escape interior.

Buyers lured by the Escape’s exterior detail will be won over by the high-IQ interior. Ford’s interior design engineers must have hammock-sized circles under their eyes because they sweated every detail. As in the exterior comparison, the Equinox is well-groomed, but just hasn’t spent as much time in front of the mirror as its Dearborn competitor.

May I call your attention to the Escape’s upright center console which is more accessible than the Equinox’s sloped approach. Both screens are high on the dash, necessitating sun shielding. The Escape’s canopy is wonderfully integrated into the interior’s swept design whereas the Chevy visor looks like an aftermarket job.

Ford’s infamous, glitchy SYNC system has been the single best advertisement for the CR-V. The new Escape shows off a much-improved system which, like Chevy’s ubiquitous MyLink system, gives you the world at your fingertips. Nav, radio, blue-tooth phone ...

What’s that, Mrs. Walbridge? Oh, yes, the devil is in the details.

To answer the phone, Ford provides a fingertip-accessed tab aft of the wheel. The Equinox sports a standard thumb button by the steering wheel hub. But if you have my neighbor’s small thumbs it’s a stretch.

More details. Foot-activated rear lift gate, three USB jacks, innovative two-shelf glove box, directional fog lights, fold-flat rear seats. ... Sure the Equinox comes with sliding rear seats, but when the other dude shows up at the front door with flowers — and a box of candy, and tickets to the Tigers game, and a babysitter for your kid sister, which one are you gonna go with?

Performance options

Both CUVs option with all-wheel-drive, which is not only useful for winter’s wrath but for getting out of the post-thaw potholes. For all the Escape’s interior and exterior eye-candy, however, the real difference-maker is hidden under the hood.

Class-leader Honda offers one engine — a 2.4 liter four banger. The Escape offers three: A standard 2.5 liter, a 1.6 liter turbo, and the terrific, 240-horsepower 2.0-liter turbo in the Titanium model that I drove. The Equinox is pro-choice as well — offering a base 2.4 and a 3.6-liter V6. Like Jeep’s racy Cherokee, Chevy is betting the V6 still has premium cachet.

But the Escape turbo is cutting edge: Quiet, no turbo lag, lots of low end grunt. It’s like a V6 but without the appetite. 24 mpg vs. 19 mpg.

They say the smart phone industry is about convergence. Users want a phone with the screen size of a tablet. The automobile has been around for a century, but it seems to be on the same course: Ute-size with car styling. The Ford Escape is that future.

2014 Ford Escape

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, five-passenger small sport utility vehicle Price: $23,505 base ($35,741 as tested) Power plant: 2.0-liter, dual overhead cam, turbocharged 4-cylinder Power: 240 horsepower, 270 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Six-speed automatic Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.0 seconds (Car & Driver); 118 mph top speed Weight: 3,769 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 21 mpg city/28 mpg highway/24 mpg combined Report card Highs: Car-like good looks; high-IQ interior Lows: Rear visibility; Aston Martin grille, please? Overall:★★★★

From The Detroit News: http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20140703/AUTO03/307030029#ixzz36RcbPUsS

2014 Aston Martin Vantage a supermodel on wheels

Posted by hpayne on June 30, 2014

It’s London weather outside. Driving rain. Puddles the size of Loch Ness. Naturally, the British-made Aston Martin Vantage S is in its element.

On a pylon-choked autocross course in a Troy parking lot, I rapidly toggle the steering wheel-mounted shift paddles — first, second, third — launching 430 unruly horses into the gloom. The 3,500-pound, V8-powered sports coupe romps about like Andre Drummond on a nerf basketball court. The Vantage combines blustery power with cat-quick reflexes to obliterate the tight turns even as its Electronic Stability Control keeps the car’s 11.2 inch-wide rear tires from hydroplaning into the shrubbery.

Moments later, the car’s huge, 15-inch rotors bring it back to earth without drama. Soaked to the bone, the big stallion rests. Even in these torrential conditions, the Vantage is achingly gorgeous. You almost feel like putting the umbrella over the car instead of yourself. The 2014 Vantage may be the runt of the litter — yes, a $117,000 “entry-level” Aston — but it’s every bit as breathtaking as its DB9, Vanquish, and Rapide siblings.

Aston Martin makes the most beautiful cars on the road today. Period.

 A walk through Aston’s Troy showroom is like walking through a Sports Illustrated supermodel shoot. Miss DB9, Miss Vanquish, Miss Rapide. Pardon me for staring. The Vantage is lust on wheels. The sentiment transcends gender. I ask a female News colleague the one car she would kill for. “An Aston Martin,” she replies without hesitation.

Seven deadly sins? They’ve probably all been committed for an Aston. Emotion drives the Aston purchase, because goodness knows there are more capable rides out there.

The forthcoming, musclebound, 650 horsepower Corvette Z06 will kick sand on the Vantage for under $100 grand. Load a nimble Porsche 911 with $100 grand in goodies and it will stomp the Vantage from zero-60 while dancing a minuet on its hood (both the Detroit and Stuttgart products have gone through two full redesign cycles since the Vantage debuted in 2006).

“We won’t always be the quickest,” says Aston Martin of Troy Sales Manager Brian Bucholtz, “but the lines and the beauty and the soul are what make this car.”

That’s not to say this English knight in aluminum armor (and fiber-composite skin) doesn’t swing a mean axe in battle. The Vantage is Aston’s sportiest model — complimented by a massive company investment in road racing. The effort was rewarded with a LeMans 24-Hour GT-class victory this year as the Vantage outlasted competitors from Ferrari and Porsche. On the street, the Vantage’s light, stiff aluminum chassis cradles a mid-ships front engine that gives the car a near perfect 51-49 weight balance. The almost two-ton athlete moves around on a compliant, not-too-harsh suspension, but never feels unstable. Not surprisingly, the Vantage feels a lot like its 550-Horsepower English cousin, the 2015 Jaguar F-Type that I reviewed this week. The Aston’s Gaydon, England home is just over the moor from the Jaguar’s Coventry lair. Both cars share aluminum chassis. Both are powered by throaty V8s. Both offer driver’s seats with the comfort of the English throne — and lots more power at your disposal.

Indeed, the $99,000 F-Type Coupe’s popular debut on the red carpet this year has put some pressure on Aston’s pricing. Where the awesome Vantage Coupe S I drove in Troy begins at $136,700, a new GT offering this fall will start at $102, 725 — a nod to an increasingly crowded field at $100k. (If budget is no object, then the $186,000, 565-horsepower, 205-mph V-12 Vantage is also available.)

Fierce as the engine compartment may be, the driver’s cabin is serene. Stitched black leather wraps the interior. Piano black keys make for a classy console, even if the Aston’s features are sparse compared to competitors. A navigation screen rises form the dash like Excalibur from the proverbial rock.

The Vantage also comes in a Roadster.

Sans roof, the car adds 350 pounds in body stiffening — but the cabin loses none of its serenity. Knifing through the wet autocross course pylons, I gain increasing confidence in the vehicle’s stability control, actually flooring it in third gear while the electronics tidy up the tail. Electronics also help huge, 6-piston front brake calipers bring the leaping lion to a dead stop on four, 19-inch paws. Puddles? What puddles?

Back at rest again, you can’t walk away from a Vantage. I backpedal savoring the sculpted, sleek lines. Some say that when Ford stole the look of Aston’s grille for its Fusion, it cheapened the English brand. Nope. With just 4,200 Astons sold across the globe last year, the allure of its rare beauty is intact.

2014 Aston Martin Vantage

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, two-passenger sports car Price: $138,700 base (Roadster $155,000 as tested) Power plant: 4.7-liter, dual-overhead cam V-8 Power: 420 horsepower, 346 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Seven-speed SportShift II automatic Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.5 seconds (manufacturer); 180 mph top speed Weight: 3,850 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 14 mpg city/21 mpg highway/16 mpg combined Highs: Lust on wheels; Husky exhaust note Lows: Price tag; Minimal console features Overall:★★★★

 

Jaguar roars once more with F-Type Coupe

Posted by hpayne on June 26, 2014

I know, you covet the iconic, ’60s Jaguar E-Type with a majestic hood that starts here and stretches into the next zip code. You fell in love with it when you were a kid and wish that they would make it again.

Well, you can’t have it. Government nannies these days prohibit taffy-stretched hoods under driver vision regulations. Write your congressman.

Meanwhile, you’ll just have to settle for the 2015 F-Type Coupe. Oh, you lucky dog.

This vicious, road-eating, ear-splitting cat is the first true sports car Jaguar has made since the E-Type died in 1974. It is glorious. Its bloodline runs straight back to the C- and D-Types that crossed the English Channel and conquered French LeMans. You thought that the Jaguar had gone the way of the British Empire? A once irrepressible power that you can only read about in history books?

Well, the empire is back — and the pride of England has one of its former colonies to thank. Credit Indian industrial giant Tata with giving Jaguar the means to rule the world stage once more with an armada of high-powered vessels. The irony is delicious, yes, m’lord?

When Ford cast off Jaguar and Land Rover in 2008 (part of its own empire downsizing to return to its core brands), the fading giants were gobbled up by Tata. We snickered at the time. Tata? The maker of tiny Indian econoboxes was going to save Jaguar? Would it run on curry?

We’re not snickering anymore. The colossus of India has poured capital into the English make and given legendary Jaguar designer Ian Cullum and his engineers the freedom to create magic again. The results are the sleek XF and XJ sedans and now the athletic F-Type.

Thank you, India. Just don’t call it a Tata F-Type. This beast roars with an English accent.

“This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,” intones English bad boy actor Tom Hiddleston (Loki in “Thor”), quoting Shakespeare in Jaguar’s “It’s good to be bad” ad campaign. The Jaguar lineup is unabashedly nationalistic — waving an English flag that has produced some of the greatest motorcars of all time. This is a proud beast that has recaptured its swagger (though not its leaping Jaguar on the hood — another casualty of the regulatory state. Something about European pedestrian crash rules).

The F-Type replaces the elegant but decidedly domesticated XK cat. The wild F is obsessed with style and power. Especially power. “We have an insatiable appetite for power,” says Hiddleston in Jaguar’s super Super Bowl ad. And where the E-Type was a smooth V12 wrapped in satin, the F-Type is a blunt V8 with all the subtlety of a ship cannon.

Sure, the base F-type starts at $65,000 with a dandy, 340 horsepower, supercharged V6. But the lead ship in this fleet is the 550-horsepower, V8-powered R-Coupe. You’ll know it by the four, cannon-like exhausts at the aft of the ship. Light the F off and you’ll trigger car alarms. For a minute you wonder if the Brits sneaked a Camaro SS engine under the bonnet. Rev it once at idle and you can’t stop. VROOM! VROOM! VROOM! And it gets better once you toggle the eight-speed tranny to “D.”

For maximum effect, select “Sportshift.” See ya’.

Stomp on the gas pedal — WAAAUUUGGGGH! — and the great cat bellows with delight. Under braking the pipes crackle like a July 4 fireworks show. What the F? Is this legal? Don’t you need a permit to make this much bedlam?

This heavy artillery comes courtesy of a direct-injected, Eaton-supercharged power plant that delivers 502 pound-feet of torque at 2500 RPM and just keeps hauling right to its 6500 RPM redline. The big cat is rated at 18 mpg fuel economy — unless you’re a speed maniac like yours truly who locks it in Sportshift mode using the helm-mounted paddles to maintain maximum spinal tap. Then you’ll consume half the North Sea’s oil reserves in an hour.

But that’s the beauty of the F. You don’t need to flog it to enjoy it.

This elegant animal purrs as sweetly as it roars. Toggle the “Eco” switch and the big cat will even go to sleep at stoplights, saving fuel. The interior is as comfortable as the royal box with leather stitching and heaping handfuls of carbon fiber accents. With its growling V8 and plush interior, the Jag seems to own its own niche in a world of 6-cylinder Porsches and expensive Audi R8s and Aston Martins.

Indeed, the F-Type reminded me most of the Corvette C7 with which it shares many attributes despite vastly different bloodlines. The Duke of Coventry, meet the dude from Detroit.

Maybe their customers don’t cross-shop, but they should. Eliza Doolittle has learned a thing or two from Henry Higgins. Consider: Both LED-lamped silhouettes are stunning in the moonlight. Both sport rigid, light-weight aluminum chassis. Both harbor throaty, big block V8s. And both feature comfortable, roomy interiors right down to dual climate controls and dual hand grips for the passenger (when their drivers want to explore the car’s .94 side-g limits). Even the tapered, fighter-jet greenhouses look similar.

But ’Vette will provide you all this for $10 grand less with 95 more horses and better fuel economy.

The two differ dramatically in design, however. The Stingray is knife sharp, the F-Type wave-smooth. The R-Coupe sits catlike on big haunches stuffed with 20-inch, multi-spoke, “Cyclone” wheels. Its sleek, pillar-less roofline is gorgeous — if tough on driver visibility due to massive fore and aft beams. A single, stunning piece of cold-formed, stamped aluminum makes the car’s side-panel. The shark-gilled grille will inevitably be found wanting compared to its E-Type forbear. But it commands respect in the rear-view mirror.

Unleash the beast on track and give thanks for big brakes.

Four-pot front calipers and massive, 15-inch rotors (eyeball-sucking, chest-caving, carbon ceramic discs are ahem, a $12 grand option) are essential to hauling this 186-mph freight train back to earth. Rotate the F into a corner and mind the mass — the R Coupe’s 3,671 pounds will move around. Nevertheless, the aluminum, Boron-riveted chassis is 80 percent more rigid than the breathtaking F-Type convertible that caused a jaw-dropping epidemic when it debuted a year ago.

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” wrote Shakespeare. Yes, few will be able to afford the F-Type. But the rest of us can fall in love with a Jag again.

2015 Jaguar F-Type

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, two-passenger sports car Price: $65,000 base ($103,225 as tested) Power plant: 5.0-liter, direct-injected, supercharged 8-cylinder Power: 550 horsepower, 502 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Eight-speed, “Quickshift” automatic Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.0 seconds (manufacturer); 186 mph top speed Weight: 3,671 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 16 mpg city/23 mpg highway/18 mpg combined Highs: Cat quick; Comfortable interior with intuitive controls Lows: Impaired driver visibility Overall:★★★★

From The Detroit News: http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20140626/AUTO03/306260033#ixzz35rtSxSM6

Alfa Romeo 4C is one spicy meatball

Posted by hpayne on June 19, 2014

If Dustin Hoffman’s character had received an Alfa Romeo 4C as a graduation present in the counterculture 1960s film, “The Graduate,” he wouldn’t have had free time for Mrs. Robinson. Ben would have been addicted to California’s twisty public roads and legendary racetracks in the gorgeous, insanely fast Italian machine.

Ms. Romeo, are you trying to seduce me?

Consider me smitten. Alfa is back in the U.S. after nearly three decades away and it’s well worth the wait. The 4C is a rolling video game console. Thank the wedding of Chrysler and Fiat for this child prodigy. You’ll find it at 86 Fiat-Alfa dealerships this fall. Just follow the squealing groupies.

“The Graduate” made Alfa an American cultural icon. But the 2015 4C is nothing like the cute, underpowered, convertible 1967 Alfa Duetto Spider of movie fame. The 4C is the direct descendent of another 1960s Alfa legend, the curvaceous 1967 33 Stradale. Like the Stradale, the 4C is a track-developed missile that brings race-car technology to the street.

Simon and Garfunkel, get me rewrite. The sound of silence has been shattered by the bedlam of 237 stampeding horses.

Where the Duetto was an affordable Italian sports car, the pricey Stradale was an exclusive rocket ship for the few (only 18 were made). The 4C splits the difference. Starting at $55,195, the Italian roller skate brings Ferrari technology at a Corvette price — though production capacity will initially be limited to 1,000 units a year. This is a raw, mid-engine driver’s car with manual steering, a howling 4-cylinder on turbo-roids, and a taut, 2,465-pound carbon fiber chassis.

Small though it may be, the 4C portends big things for Alfa in America. It leads an invasion of eight new vehicles in five years as Fiat-Chrysler positions Alfa as its premium luxury brand against sporty lux heavyweights like BMW, Audi and Cadillac. It’s an ambitious menu for Turin’s Italian kitchen. The 4C is just the appetizer.

But what a dish. This is one spicy meatball.

Designed by legendary Pininfarina designer Lorenzo Ramaciottie, the 4C’s shape bears the unmistable echo of the sexy Stradale with is tapered front end, narrow greenhouse, and rear air intakes for engine cooling. Beneath covered headlamps, the signature triangle on the nose is flanked by two gaping horizontal scoops — the legendary Alfa “Trilobo.” It’s the face of a bobcat ready to pounce. As I drove through San Francisco on a June test drive, locals flashed thumbs-up at the unmistakable visage. Welcome back, Alfa.

Catch up with a 4C (if you can) and the rear end recalls mid-engine Ferrari designs with its round taillights, aggressive stance and glass engine cover giving a glimpse of the epic power plant within.

Deeper within the Ferrari parallels get more interesting. The 4C employs a similar lightweight carbon fiber tub found in the Italian stallion’s Formula One cars. Carbon fiber’s expense means it’s usually found in half million-dollar supercars, but the 4C is the first under six figures. The diet come at a price, however. Alfa has sacrificed amenities for weight (600 pounds less than a Porsche Cayman).

The 4C may look like a junior Fezzaz on the outside, but inside it’s just junior. Its tight interior pales in comparison to the comfortable surroundings of a Corvette C7 or Cayman, much less a Ferrari. This hot rod makes a Subaru STI feel like a stretch limo. The narrow interior contains no glove box or door storage. Doors stuffed with sound-deadening material? Double-laminated glass? You want the Maserati dealer next door.

Mind the low roof, climb over the high, exposed carbon fiber sills, and the manually adjusted, bolstered seats are surprisingly roomy. A motorcycle-inspired instrument cluster hides behind the tiny, flat-bottomed steering wheel. The cramped passenger seat is an afterthought, like a motorcycle side pod. The narrow center console is a model of efficiency. A cluster of buttons determine shift modes (manual sticks are soooo 20th century) for the wheel-mounted paddles.

A tiny radio is angled 30 degrees to the driver. I never turned it on. The engine is all the music you need.

The 1750 cc, turbocharged four is an aural delight.

It has more percussion than a Jennifer Lopez concert. Lope through town and the turbo whistles under acceleration, the downshifts bark, the turbo’s wastegate spits.

Koo-koo-ka-choo crackle-pop-vrooooom, Mrs. Robinson.

Mash the pedal and the engine wails — its 258 pound feet of turbo torque arriving like a tea kettle blast after a moment of ... um ... turbo lag.

Turbo lag?

Isn’t that a relic of the 20th century? From blown BMW sixes to Subaru fours, modern turbos deliver their torque seamlessly. Not the 4C. Even with advanced scavenging (a control unit maximizes cylinder air flow), the lag means you have to anticipate acceleration as you depart turns. The delayed explosion doesn’t unsettle the 4C thanks to the carbon monocoque’s exquisite firmness, but it does retard the car’s fun factor.

California’s high speed Sonoma Raceway magnifies this personality tic. It’ll keep you as busy as a chainsaw juggler. Rotate the go kart-precise steering into a corner and the chassis won’t necessarily follow, sometimes showing oversteer. Hit the apex right and hang on for 1.1 g side loads — until the turbo’s hesitation forces you to thumb the paddle shifters to maintain momentum. I found myself longing for the instant power of a Cayman S’s normally-aspirated flat 6.

Once the boost arrives, however, the 4C’s acceleration is gelatto-smooth. The digital tac blurs — 90-100-110-120 mph — as the car accelerates in 4th gear down the Sonoma main straight. Peg the revs at 6 grand with launch control and the 4C will go 0-60 mph in the same 4.5 seconds as the Cayman — despite having half the displacement. Mama Mia, that’s a hot espresso.

Over 50 years, Porsche sports cars built a foundation for performance that launched a showroom-full of sporty SUVs and four-door coupes. The Alfa Romeo 4C will try to duplicate that narrative for 8 sedans and SUVs in just five years.

Crazy? Perhaps. But whether it succeeds or not, Alfa’s ambition will be entertaining to watch. Personally, I’m hoping for a sequel to “The Graduate” featuring the Alfa 4C. Scene: Party at parents’ home, Take One.

Mr. McGuire: Ben, I just want to say one word to you — just one word: Plastics.

Ben (wearing sunglasses, a leather jacket, and an Italian model on his arm): Way ahead of you, sir. Ever done 0-60 in a carbon fiber Alfa?

2015 Alfa Romeo 4C

Vehicle type: Mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive, two-passenger sportscar Price: $55,195 base ($64,845 as tested) Power plant: 1.7-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder Power: 237 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Six-speed, sequential Alfa TCT with dual-clutch, paddle shifters Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.5 seconds (manufacturer); 160 mph top speed Weight: 2,465 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 24 mpg city/34 mpg highway/28 mpg combined Report card Highs: Go kart-quick handling; Italian good looks Lows: Cramped passenger seat for your hot date; Turbo lag Overall:★★★★

 

Is a Cadillac CTS four-banger still cool?

Posted by hpayne on June 15, 2014

The 2014 Cadillac CTS arrived again in my driveway this month like some sort of intergalactic space ship. Silvery. Swoopy. Otherworldly. It’s been half a year since I was last visited by this visage, but it has lost none of its wonder.

My 2013 Detroit News Vehicle of the Year is still the most stunning, midsize luxury sedan on the road. It’s perfectly-proportioned, angular face looks like it was designed by Angelina Jolie’s “Maleficent” makeup team. Beauty with a touch of menace. The LED headlights glow. The key in my pocket automatically opens the locks. Like a magnet, the CTS pulls me into its space-age interior. I push the start button and blue ambient lighting shimmers through the cabin as the Cue infotainment system awakes with a chime right out of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” The auto-tightening seatbelts conform to my torso. Take me to the moon.

But when I stomp on the pedal to initiate Warp Speed something is different. This starfighter is motivated by a, um . . . four-banger?

Sure enough. Where my $63,895 Vehicle of the Year came with a lusty, 3.6-liter, direct injection V6, my new, $65,425 steed bears the four’s coarse, unmistakable woodpecker-like thrum as the CTS rapidly pulls away from dock and into the stratosphere. Packing 272 turbocharged horses, the four doesn’t lay about, vaulting its cargo from 0-60 in 6.2 seconds – just .2 seconds shy of the V6 (numbers courtesy of our pals at Car & Driver). Impressive. But the sticker price still begs the question: Does four belong in a first-class, midsize sedan?

 In autodom these days four is the new six. Under relentless pressure from Washington’s righteous greenies, automakers must meet fuel-sipping, 52-mpg fuel efficiency mandates by 2025 while still satisfying performance-hungry customers. The powerful, fuel-efficient 2.0-liter turbo has been the popular answer, powering everything from compact VW hot hatches to midsize Ford Fusions.

But Caddy is a rare four-pot pioneer in big car luxury (joined only by BMW and its five-series). Other automakers shy from equipping their luxes with quads. “Our luxury customers want the performance of a six or eight-cylinder engine,” said Hyundai Motor America Chief Dave Zuchowski upon introducing the Korean automaker’s gorgeous 2015, $38,000-base Genesis with a silky-smooth V6 this spring.

“But that’s a Hyundai!” I can hear Caddy marketers murmuring. They have to sell V6 luxury to gain separation from their econobox stereotype. GM, on the other hand, has been selling dynamite 2-liter turbos in its upscale Buick Regal GS and entry-level lux Caddy ATS. Our customers know our performance brands. They trust our technology.

And so, apparently, they do.

Since its launch last year, Caddy has sold two turbo-fours for every six-cylinder (60 percent of sales, compared to 30 percent for the V6 with the wicked, neck-snapping, twin-turbo V6 gobbling the last 10 percent). It seems the four belongs with the swells. Welcome to the ball, Cinderella.

I would offer this caveat, however.

In replacing the CTS’s old, 270 horsepower, 3.0-liter six, the blown four has given the lightweight, 3,731-pound midsize a base engine with plenty of get-up-and-go and better fuel economy to boot. But not that much better. Surprisingly, the turbo four gains only one mpg (23 vs. 22) on the new, 320-horsepower V6 as Caddy engineers have tuned the fab four for low-end torque over fuel efficiency.

Load up the $46,025 base four with the same futuristic options as the six – road-hugging magnetorheological dampers, blind spot assist, and so on – and the fuel savings will seem negligible compared to the $60 grand sticker price. And that four-banger buzz in your ear may start to annoy you. Four may belong in mid-size lux, but six is still worth the price.

Speaking of annoying, I can’t bid adieu to my second CTS date without a comment about her Cue system. The unique, space-age, touch-operated system is the most radical infotainment console this side of the Tesla Model S “iPad” console. It is also the most controversial given its steep learning curve and sometimes inexact haptic response.

But just as the haptic keys on my Samsung Galaxy smartphone sometimes betray me, Cue’s faults pale compared to its cool factor. While gripping the road with BMW-like tenacity, the touchscreen CTS has left Caddy’s senior-citizens’ image on Planet Fuddy Duddy.

The new generation of Cadillac is a LED-lit, e-operated, magnetic-riding UFO. But I’ll still take mine with a six, please.

2015 Cadillac CTS 2.0T

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, five-passenger luxury sedan Price: $46,025 base ($65,425 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, 6.2 seconds (Car & Driver); 133 mph top speed Weight: 3,731 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 20 mpg city/30 mpg highway/23 mpg combined Report card Highs: Miss USA good looks; world-class handling Lows: Rear seat tight long legs; Can’t get that 4-cylinder buzz out of my ear Overall:★★★★

From The Detroit News: http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20140614/AUTO03/306140018#ixzz34jI7VtfV

2015 VW GTI: Hail the (still) King Hot Hatch

Posted by hpayne on June 12, 2014

How good is the 2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI? While testing Wolfsburg’s latest pocket rocket on California’s notorious, twisty Route 1, I was picking fights with Ferraris.

Parked at a scenic Pacific overlook somewhere north of the Golden Gate Bridge, I heard a symphony of 12 cylinders blow by, waking me from my ocean reverie. Now here’s a test, I thought. Moments — and a bent speed limit — later I had caught up with the blood-red 1968 Ferrari 330 GT in a traffic clot on Route 1’s two-lane artery. California drivers instinctively know what to do when their mirrors suddenly fill with the prancing horse logo: Get out of the way.

Traffic scattered to the shoulder, and we were off. The skilled Ferrari driver clearly knew the terrain and we danced from corner to corner — shredding short straightaways, straightening out ess turns, dive-bombing hairpins — the front wheel-drive GTI effortlessly keeping pace with the rear-wheel drive Italian legend. After a few miles of this, my dance partner signaled to pull over.

“I wanted to find out how a VW could keep up with a Ferrari,” he said, smiling broadly.

Seven generations after VW wowed the world with its first hot hatch, the GTI is still wowing. It’s a testament to the relentless advance of auto engineering that a compact sedan can do battle with a supercar that 40 years ago would have blown it off the cliff. But it’s also a testament to the competition in the modern hot hatch segment.

To maintain its crown — and the new GTI does — it must constantly improve to stay ahead of the hungry contenders nipping at its heels: Ford Focus ST, Honda Civic SI, Subaru WRX, and so on. The GTI may have invented the pocket rocket market, but its competition wants to own it.

You should be warned, dear reader, that your speed-addled reviewer is hardly objective on such matters. My first car was a 1984 GTI. Yes, the Alpha Dog itself. Or rather Alpha Rabbit. Back then, the little VW was sold under the Rabbit badge on this side of the pond. Maybe the marketing department didn’t think Golf — named for the Gulf Stream’s warm winds —would translate to America. Whatever. My Mark 1 went like a scalded hare with an ocean tail-wind.

And it’s a tortoise compared to the new Mark 7. To prove the point, VW brought along representatives of all seven generations to California to celebrate the car’s 30th U.S. anniversary. There was my 1984 GTI, just as I remembered it. The flying shoebox that filled a shoebox full of speeding tickets. But aside from the golf ball shifter (Golf ball, get it? And they say Germans have no sense of humor), the Mark 7 has been transformed over the last three decades.

The Mark 7 is more refined yet has lost none of the spirit of the original. Comfortable in its skin, the GTI’s distinctive package has evolved subtly over time. What’s the German translation for “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”? Squint and you’ll see the changes from the outgoing Mark 6. The new gen is lower and wider (producing a lower .31 drag coefficient) which translates to the car’s graphics as well. The grille and headlights are narrower, more horizontal. The classic phone dial wheels have grown more angular. Red highlights splash the grille and brake calipers for a touch of menace. From headroom to toe-in, this randy rocket has been crafted with attention to detail.

Begin with that bane of front-wheel drive rockets: torque-steer. Stomp on the accelerator of the eager Ford Focus ST, which I recently had the pleasure of flogging around Miller Motorsports Park in Salt Lake, and the steering wheel wants to leap from your hands as 250 horses stampede the front wheels.

Not so the GTI. Jump on the V-dub when exiting a tight corner — when chasing a Fezzaz on a windy road, for example — and this German hare leaps forward without resistance. It’s this precision that allows the GTI to match the ST’s sub-6 second 0-60 mph time despite giving up 40 horsepower.

The 2.0-liter engine is a joy, pulling smoothly throughout the rev range thanks to a remarkable 25 percent boost (to 258 lb.-feet) in torque. Credit Wolfsburg’s mad scientists, says VW North America Quality Chief Marc Trahan, and their cocktail of single-scroll turbo, variable cam timing, and direct fuel-injection that delivers juice to the cylinder heads at a brisk 2,900 pounds per square inch. Oh, yes: It also manages 29 mpg. This supple engineering is matched by superb handling dynamics, courtesy of a lighter chassis and the GTI’s strut front and multi-link rear suspension.

Crouching a half-an-inch lower on 18-inch wheels than the standard Golf, the GTI benefits from an electronic differential system that monitors all four wheels for slip to reduce understeer inherent in FWD cars. The result is a fun-box that feels as planted as a California redwood through Route 1’s intimidating switchback turns.

So the GTI is a boy toy delight. So it’ll feed your need for speed. So is it a livable daily driver?

If the GTI is all fangs and sinew on the outside, it cups you like a soft glove on the inside. Even at full song, the interior is remarkably hushed, secured with laminated glass and an enclosed undercarriage. The interior is simple, elegant — its utilitarian knobs, touch screen, and six (six! This is a German vehicle?!) cup holders integrated by sweeping lines and red highlights that echo the exterior.

Unlike cramped two-seat sports cars or four-seat coupes (looking at you, Mercedes CLA250), the GTI has plenty of rear head and trunk room. Hail the hatch. Where my 1984 original was a three-door, most Mark 7’s will be sold with five thanks to a 103.6 inch wheelbase stretched over a stiffer chassis that doesn’t sacrifice performance for room. The trunk space (a bicycle-swallowing 52.7 cubic feet with the seats down) rivals mid-size sedans.

More power, more room, more comfort will also leave you with more in the wallet. The 2015 GTI hits dealer lots this month $700 cheaper than its predecessor. My Tornado Red, SE-trim, automatic, five-door tester stickers for a sweet $30,910.

The GTI has matured nicely. And who knows? If I live another four decades, I may be hounding a 2014 Ferrari F12 Berlinetta down Route 1 ... in a 2060 GTI.

2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger hatchback Price: $25,215 base ($30,910 as tested) Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged, direct injection, inline-4 cylinder engine Power: 210 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Six-speed automatic Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.6 seconds (Car & Driver est.); 153 mph top speed Weight: 3.086 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 25 mpg city/33 mpg highway/29 mpg combined Report card Highs: Hushed cabin; wicked quick handling Lows: More USB ports, please Overall:★★★★

Q&Auto: Racing scion, middle-aged dad show off Detroit GP’s variety-pack of drivers. . . and cars

Posted by hpayne on June 6, 2014

Arie Luyendyk, Jr. and Al Carter came to auto racing from very different places.

Luyendyk Jr., the dashing, Netherlands-born, 32-year old son of Indy royalty (his father Arie is a two-time winner of the Indy 500), was born into racing. Carter, by contrast, is a 47-year old Delaware father of three teenagers who didn’t turn a wheel in anger until seven years ago.

They are as diverse as the cars that will be running at Chevy Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix this weekend. From open-wheel IndyCar racers to huge, 600 horsepower Stadium Super Trucks to the TUDOR Sportscar Championship’s earth-shaking Corvettes, Porsches, and Aston Martins, fans will see the full diaspora of modern race cars.

The drivers are no less interesting.

The Indy superstars – Castroneves, Montoya, Power – got the headlines for their autograph session in Campus Martius Park downtown Thursday. But dozens of racers were everywhere in Metro Detroit this week, all players in the sprawling, traveling circus that is pro racing.

Luyendyk appeared at Kart-2-Kart in Sterling Heights for the Inaugural Doug Guthrie Kart Challenge sponsored by Quicken Loans. In the limelight with his father since he began racing go-karts at age 11, Junior is as much a celebrity off the track as on. His reality TV exploits on Hell’s Kitchen and The Bachelorette have made him a heart-throb and he was trailed by gal groupies. He made easy small talk with fans, raced karts with IndyCar’s Mike Conway, and clowned with a TV sports reporter.

He will compete in the Super Trucks Series, which will transform Belle Isle into a sort of automotive pro wrestling ring - with trucks jumping 130 feet in the air over ramps, sliding through turns, and slamming into each other like bulls through the streets of Pamplona. His career has careened from Indy Lights to the Indy 500 to European sports cars to trucks. Racing is his home. He knows its winding, unpredictable life road like the back of his hand.

For Carter, on the other hand, racing was a sort of mid-life crisis.

“I was a lifetime race fan,” says the former Wall Street trader. “Then I went to the Skip Barber Racing School with some fast young guns and next thing you know I have a full-series ride in the TUDOR series.”

It was hardly that simple, of course. Carter was a natural racer, all right, winning two Skip Barber Masters Series Championships in a row. And that got him attention to compete in the Continental Tire Sports Car series where he has successfully raced since 2010 (this year in a Porsche). But racing was also becoming a necessary career.

“At 40, I was a derivative trader on the stock exchange,” he says. “Unfortunately, I got replaced by a computer, so I needed to find a different occupation and found myself doing this.”

“Doing this” means building a racing career that puts food on the table.

“I wish I could say I had a pile” of money in the market and then went racing, he muses, “but I was able to afford an entry into the sport so that I could get noticed. My wife would attest that driving a race car is a struggle and it’s hard to be financially independent doing it.”

His hard work included a meeting with his Aston Martin sponsors in Troy this week, entertaining their clients, and promoting his Royal Purple/B-Positive Foundation/Jetset Magazine/Caramba Tequila/Eagle Tech Systems/Sideskinz/ Adobe Road Winery-sponsored (whew, that’s a lotta sponsors!) TRG-Aston Martin Vantage to media. His steady progress in racing caught the attention this year of the successful TRG race team and their entry in the most exciting GT series in America.

Carter was hired alongside James Davison (a twenty-something Aussie from a long line of racers who competed at Indy last week). Carter acknowledges that his younger partner is the team “shoe.”

“He’s maybe a second quicker than I am,” says Papa Carter. He also acknowledges racing is a tough racket as his own racing outfit (B-Positive Foundation) assists TRG-Aston in competing with a new car while wooing sponsors that pay the bills.

TUDOR is the big time. Carter’s Aston crew must compete against major manufacturer-backed teams like the vaunted Pratt and Miller Chevy Corvette.

Like Luyendyk, Carter lives race to race. What have you won for me lately? might be the sport’s credo. Like actors, they are always auditioning for their next role. The TV heartthrob and Delaware dad have come to Belle Isle on different boats. But their fast smiles indicate they are both exactly where they want to be.

“It doesn’t suck,” says Carter of his new profession.

 

Hyundai’s 2015 Genesis belongs in the bigs

Posted by hpayne on May 29, 2014

Genesis. The term conjures big beginnings on a biblical scale. Profound starts. New dawns (though if I Google “genesis,” the legendary rock band is the first term to appear. But I digress).

It’s an apt name for Hyundai’s totally remade 2015 midsize luxury sedan.

Following the Korean brand’s tentative, 2009 audition in the segment, the new Genesis is a swaggering, Nurburgring-tested, tech-savvy cyborg locked in on the segment’s top dogs. But can Hyundai really go toe-to-toe with Mercedes? Can Wal-Mart create a luxury aisle and really draw customers away from Neiman Marcus?

New beginnings in a hyper-competitive lux club dominated by some of the most coveted brand names in the world — Mercedes, BMW, Cadillac — used to mean carmakers had to create alternative personalities to compete. Toyota invented Lexus, Honda transformed into Acura, Nissan became Infiniti (and Ford is trying to breathe life back into Lincoln).

 Hyundai has bucked the trend. It decided to forego the colossal expense of developing a new brand (separate dealer network, separate marketing campaign) to sell its premium Genesis and Equus suits in the same showrooms as working-class threads from Sonata, Elantra and Tucson. Hyundai is convinced (or at least wants to convince us) that mingling first and coach class is the American way. That the Great Recession taught us that too much was gauche. That smarts trumps status. That greed isn’t good.

“The definition of what premium is changed after the Lehman collapse,” says Hyundai Motor America CEO Dave Zuchowski. “Americans want affordable luxury.”

It’s a tricky sell. My favorite automotive analyst curmudgeon, Michelle Krebs, rolls her eyes at Hyundai’s luxury pretensions. Taking on the Titans of Taste is a formidable task. After reinventing itself under the “Art and Science” banner in 2002, for example, Cadillac’s market share has barely budged even as it has produced its best product in its history. Hyundai knows all that. They say they’re in it for the long haul.

So how’s the new Genesis? It’s a knockout.

Where Genesis 1.0 was a conservatively styled lux wannabe, the second-gen Genesis belongs in the bigs. Hyundai designers call it Fluidic Sculpture 2.0 — a benchmark for the brand. It’s a benchmark for the class as well. Like a thick-necked racehorse, the Genesis’ long, muscular front hood flows into an athletic fast back. Walk around this sleek animal and comparisons to the gorgeous BMW 5-series silhouette slip off the tongue. Not bad company for a Hyundai.

The front end is equally striking with aggressive headlamps tapering to a bold, full-fascia hexagonal grille. Belted by six thin, horizontal chrome lines, the bold mouth echoes the Audi A6. But something is missing. Where the Audi — and Mercedes and Caddy — decorate their big grilles with their iconic logos, the Hyundai’s maw is naked.

Where’s the logo?

Genesis may sleep under the Hyundai roof, but the traditional Hyundai “H” logo is hidden ’round back. Genesis has earned its own logo — an attractive (if derivative) icon with wings surrounding a Genesis shield.

Logos are signatures. Mercedes’ schnoz welcomes you with a huge, three-pointed star. Cadillac bears its shield like a warrior. Audi wears its four rings like an Olympic athlete. BMW’s trademark twin kidney grille (forget its four-rotor logo) adorns every face. By contrast, Genesis has chosen to downplay its wings on the hood of the car. But what then makes a Genesis? Without a bold logo the hexagonal grille might be confused with a common Mazda 6. The lack of grille adornment gets more awkward when up-trim Genesis (or is that Genesi?) add front radar for adaptive cruise control. Where Mercedes and Cadillac hide the radar behind their logos, the plastic radar “brick” sticks out like a sore thumb in the Genesis grille. Ugh.

I obsess about such details because the Genesis team got most details right in this detail-obsessed segment.

Barreling through Waterford Township’s lake roads, the Genesis is a toned athlete. Hyundai benchmarked the Genesis to Germany’s finest and it shows. Assisted by dynamics experts at legendary Lotus Engineering, Genesis engineers equipped the chassis with more than 50 percent high-strength steel, giving it a higher torsional rigidity than the 5-series. The car features all-new, multi-link suspensions front and rear, a longer wheelbase, reduced camber angles, and optional all-wheel drive. Then Genesis took this rockin’ gym bod and put it on the track, circuit-testing it around Korea’s Yongam Formula One track and the formidable, 15-mile, Nurburgring Nordschliefe. Gott in Himmel, is that a Hyundai catching me on der Nurburgring?

The details continue to stack up inside the beautifully-trimmed cabin. Best interior volume in class. Superb 12-way, double-stitched power seats with 4-way lumbar support. An intuitive center console stack with 9.2-inch touchscreen (on premium models) with just the right number of redundant button controls, including (if you prefer) a German-like rotary knob at your elbow. Your backseat passengers will tip you on exit for the yacht-like legroom — especially if you chosen the cabin-length, blue sky-revering, panoramic sunroof.

You’re impressed, I can tell. Perhaps Hyundai truly belongs in lux class, you concede. Still, you hedge, what separates the Genesis from the pack in this high-tech, high-gloss, high performance segment?

May I present the best base model luxury car on the planet.

In crafting its new beginning, Genesis did not forget Hyundai’s roots: Affordable quality. Where entry-level lux is often just a frame on which to build a mansion, the base Genesis is the total package. You get the same sleek looks down to the 15-spoke wheels that match luxury trim rims in appeal. Shorn of the premium model’s awkward, radar brick, the front grille pops. Inside, the cathedral-like room and plush thrones are standard, while the touchscreen only shrinks by an inch (and anyway you lose the annoying rotary dial, hoo-ray!). Pulling this chariot is the standard, best-in-class, 311-horsepower, 3.6 liter V6.

All this for $38,000. Bone stock.

That’s seven grand less than the turbocharged 2.0-liter base Caddy CTS. Ten grand less than the entry Lexus GS350. And (cough) $14k less than the base Mercedes E350. But wait, there’s more. Factor in Genesis’ quality reputation — the existing model received JD Power’s prestigious, five-star Quality Award (Lexus? Just four stars) — and 10-year/100,000 mile powertrain warranty, and you save serious coin without sacrificing style.

The 2015 Genesis is a bold beginning. How about an equally bold ad theme song? May I suggest Genesis’ “Follow You, Follow Me”?

2015 Hyundai Genesis

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger luxury sedan Price: $38,950 base ($38,950 as tested) Power plant: 3.8-liter, direct injection, V6 engine Power: 311 horsepower, 293 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Eight-speed automatic Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.8 seconds (Top Speed est.); 155 mph top speed Weight: 4,138 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 18 mpg city/29 mpg highway/22 mpg combined Report card Highs: Luxurious bargain; Sculpted good looks Lows: Nondescript rear end; Radar “brick” mars gorgeous grille on premium models Overall:★★★★

Q&Auto: IndyCar star Dixon preps for Belle Isle

Posted by hpayne on May 24, 2014

Scott Dixon rounds turn 8 at the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix in 2012. Scott Dixon rounds turn 8 at the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix in 2012. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News, file)

Memorial Day weekend belongs to the Indianapolis 500. Next week belongs to the Belle Isle Grand Prix. Last year belonged to Scott Dixon.

IndyCar’s defending champion — and most accomplished driver — will come to the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix as a child phenom-turned-grizzled veteran. What hasn’t changed is the winning. At 33 Dixon’s accomplishments would make Mozart jealous.

Maybe it’s in his DNA. His parents were both dirt track racers in New Zealand, after all. Dixon’s prodigious talent and fiery competitiveness were recognized early. At age 13, he was granted a special competition license to jump from go-kart racing to New Zealand sedan racing — even though he was two years shy of the legal age to drive a car. He would go on to win everything he entered.

National Formula Vee champion at 14. National Formula Ford champion at age 15 and so on. He was given a ride stateside at the age of 19 after shattering the Sebring Raceway, Florida, lap record at his first Indy Lights test in 1999. He won Indy Lights the following year. At age 20, he had an IndyCar seat (then called CART) and became the second youngest driver ever to win an Indy car race. Championships followed in 2003, 2008, and 2013 with Chip Ganassi Racing. He sits fourth in the standings as the series enters Memorial Day.

He’s won Indy. And Detroit. And the 24 Hours of Daytona (in a sports car). Autosport named him one of the 50 greatest drivers to have never raced Formula One. He is a national hero in New Zealand, yet when I sat down with him courtside at a Detroit Pistons game, few recognized this modest father of two. We talked Belle Isle, Corvettes, and more.

HP: How much of a role does fitness play in your job?

Dixon: We’re pulling up to 4 Gs on some of the short ovals and road courses. In the winter it’s weights, biometrics, reactions — high intensity stuff. Once spring hits, you do a lot more cycling, running, swimming. You start to get race fit as well (with) your neck. You go to a track like Barber (in Alabama) and by the end of the day your head is starting to lay over in the corners.

HP: You do sports car endurance racing as well. How does that compare physically?

Dixon: It depends. At Daytona you have so many straights you get to relax. But the heat is tougher in those cars, whereas the open Indy cars have built in air conditioning when you go 200 mph.

HP: How do you like Belle Isle?

Dixon: It’s actually quite a technical circuit. The turn I really love is the fast corner onto the front straight. It’s pretty crazy there — quick, and very bumpy. Turns one and two are quite tricky too because of the surface change and bumps. The new track layout creates better passing which last year was a great addition.

HP: You do back-to-back weekends with Indy. Is Belle Isle more demanding?

Dixon: Indy is very mentally tough because of the emphasis that’s put on it. All your sponsors are there. The team is really pushing itself to win. It’s such a long three weeks and the fact that, when you’re on the oval, it’s not as physical — but you’re on the edge so often. Detroit is really physical and with the (Saturday and Sunday races) it makes it twice as hard.

HP: When you were young was it your dream to race in the U.S.? Or in Formula One?

Dixon: I watched all racing, but New Zealand has a rich heritage with Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme and Chris Amon in F1. But I still watched the Indianapolis 500. At a young age you think racing just happens. You don’t know the financial risks your parents are taking or the sponsors who are trying to help you. Did I ever think it would get to this point? Not really.

HP: Was it a conscious decision to come to the U.S. over Europe?

Dixon: We were heading to Europe and Formula 3. But Kenny Smith, my mentor and manager when I was in New Zealand, knew Vern Schuppan who was running Stefan Johansson’s Indy Lights team at the time. He said they’ll give us a test. That changed my career path.

HP: What’s your daily driver?

Dixon: A Chevy Tahoe. I’m a little tight with my money. Whenever I buy a flashy car I feel like I’m wasting money.

HP: What’s your dream car?

Dixon: I have an appreciation for older cars. The American muscle cars. But it will take me a long time to figure out which one. I have the Corvette pace car (I won at) Indy 2008. But I’ve only driven it twice. It’s in storage.

 

2014 Chevy Impala an ugly duckling no more

Posted by hpayne on May 22, 2014

The 2014 Impala is new from the ground up, with muscular design elements that provide a nod to the past while embracing Chevy's modern styling. (Henry Payne / The Detroit News)

Remember when the most memorable thing about a Chevy Impala was its elegant logo of a leaping impala? It was like Shrek modeling a Rolex watch. Or a frog wearing a bejeweled crown.

Well, the frog has been kissed by a princess.

Improbably, Chevy has transformed the perennial bane of the rental car lot into a handsome prince. At last, the Impala deserves the logo that has always graced its skin. The result is a big, graceful sedan that deserves to headline the Chevy brand.

“Corvette and Impala clearly embody what we want to be,” Chevy’s global marketing guru Tim Mahoney said when describing the brand’s touchstones of design and performance technology. Get out the smelling salts. Did he just mention Corvette and Impala in the same breath? Get used to it. Impala is that good.

While GM recall woes are a reminder of The General’s haphazard past, Chevy’s cornucopia of 2014 product show the promise of its future. If the elegant Cadillac CTS (The Detroit News 2013 Vehicle of the Year) and the cute Chevy Spark are proof that GM can compete at the high and low ends of the market, then the Impala is evidence that the company is serious about its flabby middle.

Impala is the answer to the long-asked question: Why can’t Chevy translate the sex appeal of its smoldering Corvette and Camaro sports cars to its sedans?

The big sedan’s head-turning grille and surly rear shoulders are unmistakable echoes of the Camaro. Impala designers gave it the pony car’s simple, elegant grille line — while smartly resisting the deep-set cowl that gives the Camaro a touch of menace. Add LED lights along the front lip and the visage commands immediate respect in your rear view mirror.

The attention to detail continues along the big animal’s flanks with aerodynamic touches that reduce the car’s drag coefficient to a slippery .29. Where the Impala’s sweeping greenhouse and strong shoulders taper into a square back, small winglets sprout from the corner taillights to separate laminar flow, making for less rear turbulence. Better for sprinting across the Serengeti.

Where the old Impala was ignore-me vanilla, the 2014 is lick-me double chocolate fudge swirl. This sudden obsession with style may seem out of place in a large midsize sedan market traditionally catering to stodgy seniors. But this ain’t your grandfather’s midsize sedan market.

The 30-40 grand neighborhood has become an open grassland of eager predators from all-wheel drive Fusions, to loaded Chrysler 200s to base Audi A2s. If the traditional herd of large sedans don’t evolve, they’ll be eaten. Impala was not the first to adapt to this new ecosystem, but it’s at the front of the pack. It joins the Dodge Charger, Chrysler 300 and Ford Taurus SHO in bringing swagger to the segment. They make a stark contrast to the modestly competent Toyota Avalon-Hyundai Azera-Kia Cadenza.

It’s nice to see boldness rewarded.

The Impala has done a complete flip-flop in market appeal. Where 78 percent of its sales used to go to rental fleets, now 70 percent of its sales are retail customers. Consumer Reports gave Impala its highest rating — 95 — of all sedans. Indeed, it placed third among all vehicles behind the luxurious Tesla Model S (99 score) and BMW 1-series coupe (97). That’s heady company.

“No other domestic car has topped the sedans ratings since we began tracking scores in that fashion over 20 years ago,” reports the consumer group. The same outfit judged the outgoing Impala as “a woefully uncompetitive and outdated model that was to be avoided even as a free upgrade at the rental-car company.”

What a difference a year makes.

The extreme makeover continues under the skin where the Impala’s haunches sit on GM’s front-wheel drive Epsilon chassis architecture featuring improved shock and suspension tuning. The result is a nimble, 3,800-pound athlete that turns into corners without panic and withstands g-loads without keeling over like a yacht in a windstorm. The looks and handling add class to what big sedans do best: Size and power.

The Impala packs 105 cubic feet of room, including best-in-class front legroom and a trunk that could hide Godzilla. The base Impala comes with an adequate 4-banger, but the 3.6-liter, direct injection V6 is the engine of choice for hauling this sleek beast. And, despite its girth, the V6-powered chariot returns a competitive 23 mpg fuel economy.

Big shoulders. Best-in-class-horsepower. Fast-back. If all that sounds like an advertisement for male testosterone, you’re right. Sales skew 65-35 male. I stuck a couple petite gal pals in the Impala and they instantly commented on its size and daunting rear blind spots. That roomy fast back architecture may look good on the outside, but from the driver’s seat it’s a narrow-windowed turret.

That’s where Chevy’s portfolio gets interesting, because right across the showroom is an Impala on stilts. The Traverse SUV shares the Impala’s handsome front fascia while affording smaller drivers a more commanding view of the surrounding landscape. The Traverse’s higher, 47 percent female demographic nicely complements the Impala. Want rear-wheel drive power? The big Chevy SS offers Impala-like room and a 6.2-liter Corvette engine. Want better fuel economy? Let me show you the Chevy Malibu.

It’s an impressive toy cabinet — though, ahem, the SS and Malibu could benefit from the Impala/Traverse’s design cues.

The Impala’s interior is as plush as it is roomy with a stitched dash, aluminum accents and wood inlays surrounding Chevy’s competent MyLink infotainment system. Pay 35 grand and you get leather seats (no, not Impala hide). As on the exterior, the Impala team has thrown out the old rent-a-bucket template with a new standard of detail. Press the center console, and it opens to reveal a secret space for storing valuables. The automatic gearshift operates like butter, and Impala brings crash imminent braking to the segment. This nifty, radar-controlled safety technology — usually found on pricier vehicles — will hit the binders to avoid a crash if driver’s reflexes are too slow.

How confident is Chevy about the Impala? They gave the NASCAR badge to the sporty SS. Let Fusion and Camry pretend to be 200 mph sports sedans on the steep bankings of Daytona. The Impala is so secure in its new skin, it figures its buyers will find it anyway.

Heck, they’ll be demanding it at the Hertz counter.

2014 Chevrolet Impala

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger sedan Price: $27,510 base ($39,245 as tested) Power plant: 3.6-liter, direct-injection, V6 engine Power: 305 horsepower, 264 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Six-speed automatic Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.0 seconds (Car & Driver); 149 mph top speed Weight: 3,800 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 19 mpg city/29 mpg highway Report card Highs: Head-turning looks; leg-fitting room Lows: High trunk = low visibility; How about a turbo 4-banger? Overall:★★★★

 

Happy 65th: Drivin’ the original ’49 Beetle

Posted by hpayne on May 17, 2014

Come ride with me in a time machine back to 1949. No, not Doc Emmett Brown’s flux capacitor-equipped DeLorean DMC-12 - but the original 1949 VW Beetle Type 1.

This year marks the 65th anniversary of the iconic Bug’s appearance on these shores. In the decades since, the Beetle has become an icon: The most recognizable silhouette in all of Autodom, a symbol of the hippie movement, and car that spawned the wildly popular Love Bug movie and TV series. Though it sprung from the brain of an irredeemable Fuhrer, the irresistible Beetle has found a place in every Yankee’s heart.

But a drive in the original Beetle is a reminder of its humble beginnings.

If the direct-injection, water-cooled, front-engine 2014 Beetle is a $25,000 accessory for the fashionable female or sporty male (see my Thursday Drive review of the powerful, Beetle GSR), the single carburetor, air-cooled, rear-engine original was a simple tool for everyone.

The interior is a simple landscape of cloth seats (two unadjustable buckets in front, a bench in the rear) a metal dash with a speedometer bookended by two glove boxes. Stitched leather dash and nav package? You’re in the wrong segment, mein freund. The car is surprisingly roomy, however, swallowing my 6’5” frame with plenty of headroom. Three small pedals – clutch, brake, and accelerator – sprout from the floor like typewriter keys from an antique, manual Underwood typewriter. A four-speed corn-stalk of a shifter grows out of the floor, a four-wheel emergency brake squatting behind it. Crank handles operate the windows. Rear visibility is minimal through the rear split screen.

The exterior? It’s a Beetle. ‘Nuff said.

The oily bits are equally, intentionally simple. One of the first rear-engine, rear-wheel vehicles produced (it was designed by the father of the Porsche, Ferdinand Porsche, after all), the chassis is designed for minimal maintenance. An air-cooled engine. Mechanical drum brakes. An interior heated by the engine via an air-air exchange manifold. No air conditioning. Heck, a cactus needs more maintenance than this car.

“Upkeep? I give it an oil change and lube job every 3,000 miles,” says Bob Ellis, proprietor of Der Vintage Werks in Ortonville, Michigan, who looks after the ’49 car for VW.

Conceived by Porsche in 1938, the Bug didn’t enter mass production until after WW2 under Allied supervision. In 1949 it crossed the pond for the first time via Dutch importer Ben Pon. Sales, says Ellis, were slow at first given bitter memories of the war. But over time the cute, $1,280 Bug proved irresistible.

I met Ellis on the Cranbrook campus where I could drive the seatbelt-less VW on private roads. Like any 65-year old, the old boy was a bit creaky. The brake lights and the “semaphore” turn signals (which pop out from the car’s b-pillars) didn’t work and this Bug moves like snail. Uncle Ferdinand designed its slippery shape for sustained speeds on the Autobahn, but that was a different era. Put her on Woodward and it might get run over by a mail truck.

Slam the door shut (“You really gotta slam it!” says Ellis), turn the key, open the choke, crank the starter button, and . . . oh, yes, it’s unmistakably a Beetle. How many Americans learned to drive a stick on a Bug? The gearbox lacks synchro rings so shifts are rough (hard acceleration before upshift or even engaging the clutch helps a smooth stir of the stew), but the tin tub slowly accelerates with a familiar Beetle thrum that sounds like an over-caffeinated woodpecker. Zero-60 feels like it should be measured in hours (officially its 28 seconds). Top speed? Just 68. C’mon, Herbie!

I never got out of third gear on Cranbrook’s two-lane roads, but with gears thrashing, the woodpecker pecking and the odd hubcap popping off, the little bugger felt plenty peppy – as long as I didn’t notice the co-eds jogging past.

After 21 million in sales and multiple enhancements, VW knew in 1974 it was time to retire the formula and the front-engine, front-wheel drive Golf was anointed to replace the Beetle. The last rear-engine Bug rolled off a Mexican assembly line and into the sunset in 2005. When VW, eager to milk Bug nostalgia, launched the New Beetle in 1998, it did so on the modern, nimble Golf platform.

Engine in the front? Trunk in the rear? That’s not a Bug. But it’s progress, so we welcome the new Beetles to the family. Still, it’s a treat to get back in the time machine to relive the way it was.

Now if I could just find that hubcap.

1949 VW Beetle

Vehicle type: Rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive, five-passenger coupe Price: $1,280 (in ‘49 dollars) Power plant: 1,192 cc, air-cooled, 4-cylinder boxer engine Power: 25 horsepower Transmission: Four-speed manual Performance: 0-60 mph, 28 seconds; 68 mph top speed Weight: 1,800 lbs (est.) Fuel economy: 36 mpg Report card Highs: Roomy; Timeless Beetle shape Lows: Non-synchro gearbox; Cornering is an adventure Overall: Revered like an old friend

 

2014 VW Beetle GSR: Power supplants flower

Posted by hpayne on May 15, 2014

The Volkswagen Beetle has come a long was since the "people's car" was introduced to the U.S. market in 1949. In celebrating the Beetle's 65th birthday this year, VW gives us a turbocharged, 210-horsepower bug aimed at more male-oriented consumers. (Henry Payne / The Detroit News)

Introduced in the States in 1949, Volkswagen translated literally as “people’s car.” So what’s German for “boy toy”?

In celebrating the Beetle’s 65th birthday this year, VW gives us a turbocharged, 210-horsepower bug aimed at young lead-foots. Did I say bug? This limited edition yellow and black-striped compact is a bumblebee with sting.

The GSR completes the Beetle’s third-generation transformation from chick car back to everyman car. Emphasis on “man.” Where the iconic, rear-engine 1949 Beetle Type 1 (the original design debuted in Germany in 1938) was a no-frills tool for buyers who needed affordable transportation, the front-engine New Beetle launched in 1998 quickly gained a reputation as a “chick car.”

If the original was a sexless utility vehicle, Beetle 2.0 became a statement car for the independent female. At its peak of 80,000 in sales, New Beetle’s buyer demographic skewed heavily female, 72 percent-28 percent. How could it not? It came complete with a flower vase on the dash, for goodness sake.

But as any Woodward cruiser will tell you, chicks may buy a dude car, but dudes will shy from a chick car. Thus, Beetle 3.0 was launched for model year 2012.

The redesigned, more manly bug was stretched (by 6 inches), flattened (a half-inch lower), widened (by 3.3 inches), and squared off to broaden its demographic appeal. The fenders are still round, but less like a grapefruit and more like a bicep. Its windowsill lines rose, its roof got squashed — like Charles Atlas had leaned on it. Its face got more masculine. Its chin bore a toothier, wider grin. Heck, with the round lights it almost looks — dare I say it? — Porsche-like. More to the point, the vase disappeared and the Beetle got a turbo. Power supplants flower.

And if anyone didn’t get the hint, here comes the limited edition GSR for 2014.

Volkswagen has blessed Beetle with a sporty R-edition design package, which is also found on the upmarket Volkswagen CC, Tiguan, and Toureg. The Beetle R-line is basically a rebadged 2013 Turbo, and the GSR is the queen — er, king — bee. In keeping with the nostalgia brand, the GSR is a throwback to the 1973 “yellow black racer” (that’s gelb schwarzer Renner in the mother tongue, thus the acronym GSR) sold only in Europe. The 2014 GSR engine gets 10 more horsepower over last year’s turbo. Its butt gains a spoiler. Its fenders are stuffed with 19-inch, 10-spoke “tornado” wheels that look like turbine blades on a jet engine.

This is a bug on testosterone. A He Beetle. Heck, its chin is practically growing stubble. It begs to be taken to the track. So I obliged.

While race testing on a crisp May weekend at Autobahn Raceway outside Chicago, I took a few hot laps in the Bug as well. As a young lad, I watched “The Love Bug” perhaps 2,000 times. It was one of my favorite flicks, a Disney fantasy about a David among Goliaths. But outside the movie theater, I never imagined I’d see a trackable Beetle. Until now.

Lumped into a track group with other sports sedans — Porsche Boxsters, Chevy Corvettes, BMW Z3s — the Beetle was overmatched, but hardly a misfit. From a standing start, the torquey turbo burdens the front-wheel drive bug with ferocious torque steer. But at speed, all that low-end torque helps launch the car from corner to corner like a scared rabbit. The car’s 6-speed manual shifter (topped with a bumble-bee colored knob, natch) is a might mushy, but with power on demand, I didn’t need to row the box like, ahem, some 8,000 RPM, 2.0-liter Civic engines I know.

Ferdinand Porsche designed the Beetle’s slippery shape for the Autobahn nearly a century ago, but today that shape is hardly state-of-the-art at .36 drag coefficient. Fortunately, however, the chassis is. The GSR shares the Golf GTI’s nimble front strut and multi-link rear suspension architecture. Stir in precise electronic steering and the Beetle was a hoot to throw around.

That said, it is hard to place the GSR. At 30 grand it is in the same shopping aisle as the sporty Ford Focus ST or Subaru WRX, yet not as racy. Its performance is more comparable to a Fiat Abarth or Mini Cooper S, yet its larger chassis — based on the VW Jetta — offers substantially more interior room than its little Euro-brothers.

The GSR is a unique car for the uniquely style-conscious boy racer who likes tooling around town in a Beetle with an exterior louder than Jim Carrey’s suit in “The Mask.” Which is why VW is only making 3,500 of ’em (mine was #216).

But hang up the suit, and the GSR shares the Beetle R-line’s exquisite attention to detail.

Men and women alike will admire a vase-less interior that is luxurious yet practical — with a nod to the Beetle DNA. The instruments are big and easy to read (including old-school odometer reset button, bless you). The dash embeds VW’s familiar, ergonomically friendly controls, yet sports two glove boxes in a nod to the ’49 original. The seats are black leather yet manually adjustable. The side pockets are made with elastic straps to store a 1-liter bottle if necessary. Unlike other two-door coupes, the Bug’s backseat has loads of headroom for the over-6-foot crowd.

At night, LED lights wreath the headlights. Turn a corner and the GSR’s inside fog light illuminates — better to see the apex, my dear. It’s all attention to detail one would expect from a car company determined to broaden an old brand’s appeal. So how’s the He Beetle doing? Not bad, thanks for asking.

I asked males young and old what they thought of the GSR during my test, with near universal approval. Still, it’s an acquired taste. “Love the look, but its shape is still buggy,” said one 20-something. Well, yes. The cold, hard numbers? In its second year of release, the Beetle sold more than 43,000 units — its best performance since 2004. Not on pace to sell 21 million like the original, but a healthy niche vehicle nonetheless. Males are coming back to the brand — if gingerly. Dudes are now 35 percent of buyers and with the turbocharged R-line, VW hopes to keep ’em coming.

Now how about stuffing the Porsche 911’s 520 horsepower, twin turbo under the hood?

2014 VW Beetle GSR

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger coupe Price: $29,995 base ($30,850 as tested) Power plant: 2.0-liter, direct-injection, turbocharged inline 4-cylinder engine Power: 210 horsepower, 207 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Six-speed manual Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.0 seconds (Car & Driver); 127 mph top speed Weight: 3,164 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 23 mpg city/31 mpg highway Report card Highs: Turbo-riffic; A treasure of useful gadgets Lows: Mushy manual gearbox; Loud paint job not for everyone Overall:★★★

First ride in Google’s driverless car makes commuting more productive

Posted by hpayne on May 13, 2014

Detroit News auto writer Henry Payne poses with one of Google's self-driving cars in Mountain View, Calif., Tuesday, May 13, 2014. (Sarah Rice / Special to the Detroit News)

Mountain View, Calif. — The great thing about driving a driverless car is that texting is legal. So is checking the Web for news. And taking notes on a pad.

I did all three Tuesday morning while testing Google’s self-driving car on public roads here, near the company’s headquarters. The test was the first time Google has made its car available to the media.

After logging 700,000 test miles on their own, Google Self-Driving Car Project Director Chris Urmson and his team felt their fleet of autonomous Lexus 450h hybrid crossovers was ready for prime time. These guys are bullish on self-driving cars.

“There’s this myth that people love driving,” says Urmson. “But commuting to work in the morning isn’t fun. What if we could let people focus on things like texting that they are already doing in their cars, but do it safely?”

Google's Self Driving Car Is Safer Than You...

Google predicts that self-driving cars could eliminate 90 percent of the 33,000 vehicle fatalities a year, while making commuting more productive and less agonizing.

My three-mile drive through crowded city streets went without a hitch as the driverless Lexus negotiated stoplights, straying city buses, crosswalks — and even the odd jaywalker. Indeed, the experience is familiar to anyone who has driven, say, a new Cadillac or Mercedes with adaptive cruise control. The Google car uses similar radar technology that sets a cruise speed (Google’s technology is pegged to speed limits) and then brakes or accelerates as it monitors other vehicles.

What’s different — and a little freaky — is that the Google car does so much more. Like steer.

Rolling out of the Computer History Museum parking lot (a logical place for our drive to begin, no?), the steering wheel spun right like it was piloted by a ghost. At speed on the four-lane Shoreline Boulevard, the wheel rolled left, changing lanes to prepare for a left turn.

Suddenly a city bus veered toward our lane. The steering wheel vibrated, sensing the moving mass, while the car lightly applied brakes to take potential avoidance action. None was necessary. The Google car picked up speed again, never disturbing my texting.

How does Google car manage all this? Miles of computer code and a Velodyne laser dome.

Befitting the computer nerds who designed it, the laser dome — aka, the lidar — looks like a giant, whirling propeller beanie on top of the Lexus. Containing 64 lasers spinning at 10 revolutions per second, the lidar takes a staggering 1.5 million measurements per second.

In the trunk, a quad-core processor synchs the laser’s 360-degree view with maps of the surrounding terrain (no coincidence that former Google Maps director Andrew Chatham is lead mapping engineer for the car) to navigate a complex landscape of pedestrians, potholes, crosswalks and stoplights — not to mention other vehicles. Cameras at the beanie’s base read stoplights, stop signs and other color-coded cues.

California is one of four states — including Michigan — that authorizes the testing on public roads. By California law, I had to sit in the back seat while two Google engineers monitored up front. But other than answering my questions, the Googlers were wallflowers.

The 450h’s luxurious interior is unmolested save for two computer monitors on the dash that basically take the system’s pulse. An on/off button on the steering wheel allows a driver to switch to manual mode. A giant, red panic button on the center console can reboot everything should the computer have a brain freeze. They say it’s never been needed.

Director Urmson is passionate about the car’s potential. He predicts it will provide mobility to the blind and elderly. But he is mum on its commercial prospects, preferring to perfect the technology first.

“We still have a long road ahead,” he says, acknowledging the system’s high cost. Google won’t discuss development costs.

That said, its use by executives on long daily commutes doesn’t seem far away. California legislation has been fast-tracked to allow use in delivery fleets on predictable routes.

Ex-GM director of Research & Development and University of Michigan Professor of Engineering Larry Burns is a Google consultant who says the driverless car “will bring a period of transformational change.” That means safer, more efficient streets — but with labor disruptions as taxi drivers and other workers are displaced.

While I talked to test-driver Gavino Nestor, the Lexus suddenly slowed as two young jaywalkers hustled across the four-lane in front of us. The braking was smooth. No shrieking tires. No violent avoidance action. When they were gone, we returned to our conversation as the car accelerated to 35 mph and a promising future.

Q&Auto: Marketing whiz finds new roads for Chevy

Posted by hpayne on May 10, 2014

Tim Mahoney, chief marketing officer Global Chevrolet at the Chicago Auto Show in February. Tim Mahoney, chief marketing officer Global Chevrolet at the Chicago Auto Show in February. (Steve Fecht / Chevrolet)

Herd Chevrolet’s sprawling product portfolio under one ad slogan. Make Chevy a global brand. Make Chevy a global brand without selling in Europe. Change brand perception after years of inconsistent product. Sell the busiest year of bowtie product launches in 102 years. And if all that isn’t challenging enough for a new Chevy marketing chief. . . .

Then Cobalt happens.

Fortunately for GM’s biggest brand, Chevy has hired one of the best marketing minds in the business, Tim Mahoney. A soft-spoken hobbit with a quick sense of humor, the 57-year old Mahoney has that Forrest Gump-like knack of being around some of the great marketing campaigns of the last couple decades. But unlike Gump, Mahoney’s presence is no accident. A self-described marketing nerd, this 30-year automotive veteran knows his stuff. Porsche defied purists and made an SUV the best-selling Porsche ever? Mahoney was there. Subaru launched the iconic “Share the Love” campaign? Mahoney was there. VW’s Darth Vader ad is the buzz of the Super Bowl? Mahoney was . . . you get the idea.

The recall gorilla in the room doesn’t phase him. “It’s an opportunity if we do it right,” says the marketing man with the Midas touch. And with products like the new, road-shredding Corvette Stingray and the handsome Impala to play with, you don’t doubt him. My Detroit News colleague, Melissa Burden, and I climbed the Ren Cen mountain to talk with Chevy’s global marketing guru about the “Find New Roads” campaign, Apple, and love.

Q: How do you change Chevy’s public perception?

Mahoney: Great brands are built with consistency and integration. I’ll give you an example from Porsche. Porsche values rested on performance, design and exclusivity. That applied to a 911, to a Boxster, to a 356. That also applied to a Cayenne. So we’re setting an expectation.

Q: How long will it take?

Mahoney: It took two years at Subaru for “Love” to rally grab hold. We just celebrated the first anniversary of Find New Roads in March. The beauty of Find New Roads (is) it’s about possibilities. That works incredibly well in the Middle East, in South America, it works well here. We’re saying American optimism and ingenuity without saying it, right? Because we’re the ones as a culture who solve problems and find new roads.

Q: Most of your career has been spent at niche brands like Subaru and Porsche. How do you connect all the dots in a brand as big as Chevy?

Mahoney: You start with a brand architecture that at a ground level is about quality and value — and then at a differentiating level is a combination of design and performance technology and you start to build that into every vehicle. Corvette and Impala clearly embody what we want to be.

Q: In marketing do you ignore Switchgate or do you embrace it as an opportunity to redefine the brand?

Mahoney: Mary Barra said were going to be judged based on how we handled it, not that we had it. She tells the story that she got an email from a customer who was concerned and she picked up the phone and called them. So she really is walking the talk. And we have a chance to change the conversation with the launch of 4G later this year — we’ll have the ability in the cars to connect up to seven devices. And we have to continue to build great cars because the Cruze is not the Cobalt, nor is this Impala what you rented three years ago.

Q: What have you changed?

Mahoney: The carpet tiles (laughs). I learned from the Japanese and Germans to stand back and watch for a while. As Americans we tend to react too fast and wind up having to go back and fix things. (We need to) get the balance right between the three things that go into every purchase: The emotional connection, the rational component, and the economic piece. Apple didn’t launch the iPad talking about what it cost — they talked about how cool it was.

Q: What does China look like?

Mahoney: Chevy is an infant brand. But for the first time, China sales passed Brazil. In the next 8-10 years the market is going to swell to 30 million cars so there’s room for Chevy. The Manchester United sponsorship will help us there because over 100 million Man-U fans live in China. As soon as we go on their shirt in September it will be like Super Bowl Sunday every week when they play in terms of the number of fans watching.

Lux at under $30K: Buick Regal GS vs. Mercedes CLA250

Posted by hpayne on May 8, 2014

Don’t judge a book by its cover, but we judge cars by the cover all the time. It’s called branding. Consider this week’s comparison between the Mercedes CLA250 and the Buick Regal.

You’re already snickering, aren’t you?

The latest entry in the entry-level luxury class, the CLA250 is traffic-stopping, jaw-dropping, mom-I-gotta-have-it-now gorgeous (see, I’m judging). Everyone’s heard of the CLA because everyone remembers the Super Bowl ad that promised that we didn’t have to sell our soul to the devil, aka Willem Dafoe, to afford the unaffordable Mercedes brand. At last, luxury for all. Merc for the masses. The 30 grand Mercedes.

Buick, meanwhile, is still stuck making I-can’t-believe-it’s-a-Buick ads. “Sure doesn’t look like a Buick,” says granny of a red Buick Regal GS. Such is the penance Buick pays for years of mailed-in designs for the blue-haired set. In a recent survey by Strategic Vision, 48 percent of luxury buyers said they would consider buying a Mercedes (second only to BMW’s 51 percent). Buick? Just 11 percent. Ouch. It’s a long way back from irrelevance.

But just as Buick seems to be getting its mojo back, Mercedes has decided to poach on Buick’s entry-level luxury territory. Not content to rule first class, the German uber-brand is roaming the aisles of business class, winking at the customers. A 30 grand Mercedes versus a 30 grand Buick? Not fair, you say. Have the ref call the fight before it starts, you say. You can’t watch, you say.

Well, don’t judge a book by its cover.

Look inside and the Buick Regal is the real deal. Comparing a Regal GS with the formidable CL250 is not a slaughter, but evidence of how far Buick has come. On horsepower, interior ergonomics, and drivetrain, the GS is superior. Indeed, the CLA250’s shortcomings show that it can’t just drop into the entry-lux market and expect a coronation.

Like the midsize sedan segment, entry-lux has suddenly become brutally competitive. Step on the dance floor and you’re engulfed by wannabe dance partners from every corner of the room. You know the traditional players like Buick and Volkswagen. But here come dressed-up Ford Fusions and Chrysler 200s offering all-wheel drive and powerful engines and electronic add-ons. And European luxury makers are no longer content to wait until you’ve been admitted to the country club. They’re putting their iconic logos on CLA250s and BMW 2-series and Audi A3s to lure younger and younger members.

Mercedes is a looker

I invited the fully attired $43,245 CLA250 and $44,975 Regal GS to the ballroom. Let’s dance.

The Mercedes catches your eye like a model that just stepped off a European runway: Flowing lines, great body, mesmerizing eyes. Your heart melts. The CLA250 is stunning. It should come with its own swimsuit calendar and perfume.

The CLA’s looks are in the family DNA. A descendent of the stunning S-class and CLS coupes, the CLA is slumming down-market with the cheaper, front-wheel-drive class. But its looks don’t suffer despite a longer snout to accommodate front-wheel drive. Flared, air intake nostrils add drama to a fascia already distinguished by Mercedes’ three-pointed star logo in a bold grille. The grille is further bejeweled with chrome flecks that spread outward from the logo like ripples in a pond. It’s stunning. From there the body is a familiar symphony of sexy curves and racy fastback.

Wasn’t Mercedes the plump, conservatively dressed, rich aunt of the lux class? Not anymore. Mercedes coupes have made the German dame desirable again. Match Merc up against anything else in the entry lux class and it is a swan among geese.

The Regal GS does a lot of flapping of wings — fake hood vents here, chrome-tipped exhaust tips there — to get your attention, but it’s no swan. The base Regal’s face is indistinctive, a problem the GS addresses with dramatic, vertical intakes on either side of the grille. These T-bone steak-shaped openings add meat to the Regal’s appearance and hint at the toned muscle under the suit.

If you can get past the CLA’s looks — did I mention it is achingly gorgeous? — the Regal is more than a match for its more-pedigreed rival in performance and interior design.

Both steeds are motivated by direct-injection, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-bangers that provide plenty of torque, though the Mercedes would appear to be overmatched with just 208 horsepower compared with the Buick’s 259 ponies. In practice, however, the compact-size Mercedes is carrying around 600 pounds less than the midsize, all-wheel-drive Regal. So the Regal will get you through Snowmageddon — while the CLA is less thirsty (30 mpg vs. 22 mpg for the GS) and more speedy (0-60 mph in 6.1 seconds vs. 6.2).

Both the Merc and Regal will be looking over their shoulders at the Ford Fusion and Chevy Malibu sedans which also sport 2-liter turbos with comparable acceleration — and less than comparable sticker prices. Didn’t I say this is a competitive segment?

Buick's interior stands out

The comparison gets more interesting on the interior. At first blush, the German’s dramatic, aluminum-brushed theme of oval instruments and air vents sets it apart. But the Mercedes interior is maddeningly inconsistent in its attention to detail.

For example, the Merc’s electronic lane assist is among the best in the business, with a subtle steering wheel tickle notifying the driver of lane drift — yet the CLA’s small, non-touch nav screen is nailed to the dash like a cheap TV in a barber shop. On the one hand, the car smartly shifts to park when you turn off the key — on the other the brake and accelerator pedal are so close together I had to take off my size 15 shoes to operate the car.

In contrast, the Buick is a model of ergonomic competence. From its touchscreen to its sport seats, everything fits like a glove. Neither car gets points for rear seat room thanks to their coupe-like roof lines, but the D-class Regal is much easier on the knees than the C-class CLA.

Young, upwardly-mobile buyers aren’t buying a lux ticket for the back seat, however. They’ve come for the status. Buick and Mercedes covet them. But no matter what the specs say on paper, they want to be seen dancing with dashing Mercedes.

“Branding is an emotional connection,” says Stephanie Brinley of IHS Automotive. “And Buick doesn’t have that button to push.”

Buick is making strides. But the boys in Stuttgart aren’t standing still either.

2014 Mercedes CLA250

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, four-door, five-passenger coupe Price: $29,900 base ($43,245 as tested) Power plant: 2.0-liter, direct-injection, turbocharged inline 4-cylinder engine Power: 208 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Seven-speed automatic with shift paddles Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.1 seconds (Car & Driver); 133 mph top speed Weight: 3,264 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 26 mpg city/38 mpg highway/30 mpg combined Report card Highs: Beautiful lines; torque-on-demand turbo Lows: Cheap nav screen; tight pedals Overall:★★★

2014 Buick Regal GS

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, four-passenger sedan Price: $29,690 base ($44,975 as tested) Power plant: 2.0-liter, direct-injection, turbocharged inline 4-cylinder engine Power: 259 horsepower, 295 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Six-speed automatic Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.2 seconds (Motor Trend); 155 mph top speed Weight: 3,710 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 19 mpg city/27 mpg highway/22 mpg combined Report card Highs: All-wheel drive stability; turbo-riffic Lows: Porky; vertically challenged back seat Overall:★★★
 

2015 Honda Fit is fitting first car

Posted by hpayne on May 4, 2014

Behold inscrutable automotive nomenclature. Puzzle over Volkswagens named for German winds like Passat, Golf, and Jetta. Smile at the overwrought Rolls Royce Silver Wraith or Aston Martin Vanquish. Try to decipher alphanumeric badges like SS, TLX, and Z06.

Honda just calls its subcompact the Fit.

How simple. How practical. How . . . fitting. Is there any car name that more accurately describes its product? Designed for an active, young demographic, this Swiss army knife of a vehicle adapts to your friends, your stuff, your budget. Priced affordably from $15,525 to $20,800, the Fit is found on the same tool belt as the Nissan Versa, Chevy Sonic, and Ford Fiesta. Yet as smart and utilitarian as it is, this nerd box on wheels retains Honda’s trademark handling.

Honda got the recipe right in 2006 when it first introduced the Fit and sticks to it in the 2015 model, the car’s third generation for the U.S. market.

What should I buy as my first car? young folks ask. The Fit is always on my short list. No coincidence, then, that Honda chose the University of Michigan for the 2015 Fit’s media test drive. Honda parked a dozen of them on University Avenue in central campus. Like oversized iPhones they came in techy-fruity colors like Milano Red, Mystic Yellow Pearl, and Passion Berry Pearl. I’m surprised students hadn’t hijacked them all by day’s end.

Truth is, they didn’t seem to notice. The poor devils walked the Diag like zombies on caffeine. Eyes sunken from consecutive all-nighters. Their spines bent under the weight of backpacks a Marine couldn’t hoist.

But this car is their future. It’s the perfect post-grad vehicle. It’s a rolling backpack, for goodness sake.

Honda credits its interior versatility to rear “Magic Seats.” They tumble, fold flat, and chase sticks (OK, kidding about that last one). But there’s more magic in this car than just the chairs. Improbably, the Fit has gotten smaller while getting bigger. Honda shortened the Fit by 1.6 inches while lengthening the wheelbase by 1.2 inches and increasing the Fit’s best-in-class 52.7 cubic feet of rear cargo room (seats down). By comparison, the ginormous Chevy Tahoe SUV has 51.7 cubic feet behind its second row seat. The best-in-class-interior-room Fit also increases rear legroom by 4.8 inches to 39.3 inches — a number that will make many midsize sedans blush, including Honda’s roomy, 38-inches-of-legroom Accord.

The base Fit is fitter too, shedding 44 pounds and increasing fuel economy to 36 mpg. Yup, that’s best in class, too.

Gotta move boxes and plants into a new apartment? The Fit gives you 4 feet of floor-to-ceiling space. Horizontal room? Fold the front passenger seat flat to open up 7 feet, 9 inches of fore-to-aft space. That’ll swallow a surfboard. Or Shaq O’Neal.

Excuse me while I blab on about that lay-flat front seat. At 6 feet 5 inches I can’t complain about the Fit’s rear legroom. But on a long trip I’ll feel cramped in any car because I can’t stretch my legs. Thanks to Honda’s furniture geniuses, I can sit in the back seat of the Fit and use the front seat as an ottoman. My 6’11” News colleague Bill Wilson loves his 2008 Fit. Buy a ’15 and he can flatten front and rear seats and sleep in it too.

OK, so the Fit has more space than a New York apartment. How does it drive? Like a champ.

If the interior nerds got more room out of a shorter car, you just knew the powertrain wonks were going to squeeze more horsepower from the gerbil wheel up front. Yup, the Fit gains 11 percent more horsepower from the 1.5 direct injection four-banger while also increasing fuel efficiency by 16 percent. Admittedly, the efficiency comes from a droning, Continuously Variable Transmission that has all the soul of a pencil sharpener. But for the easily bored (guilty as charged), the Fit fits paddle shifters behind the steering wheel so you can row the box.

Ricocheting across Ann Arbor, the Fit was plenty nimble. The smaller Ford Fiesta is my favorite subcompact dance partner — but unless you crave the $25 grand Fiesta ST’s power, it’s hard to argue the Fit isn’t the better value.

I will argue with the Fit’s new fascia, which, like the CVT transmission, lacks personality. Where the old Fit greeted you with a smile, the new model’s eye-wear looks like that weird visor X-Men Cyclops wraps around his face. The good news is that other Fit design updates — from elegant door lines to a chrome-accented rear trunk — add character.

Twenty-somethings have enough complexity in their new lives. When they buy a car, Honda is an easy Fit.

2015 Honda Fit

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-door, five-passenger compact Price: $15,525 base ($20,800 as tested) Power plant: 1.5-liter, direct-injection, inline 4-cylinder engine Power: 130 horsepower, 114 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Continuously Variable Transmission (six-speed manual option) Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.5-10 seconds (Car & Driver est.); 110 mph top speed Weight: 2,642 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 32 mpg city/38 mpg highway/35 mpg combined Report card Highs: Roomy rear; Nimble handling Lows: Tight front seat legroom; Soul-less tranny Overall:★★★★

   

2014 Camaro SS convertible: Cruiser King

Posted by hpayne on May 1, 2014

Spring has finally sprung in Detroit and the thoughts of restless natives are turning to cars, cruising and Woodward Avenue. Has Chevy got a car for you.

The springtime-edition Camaro SS convertible has arrived on dealer lots. Cancel the European family vacation. Forget the second home up north. Write a check for 50 grand and you’ll be the envy of this summer’s Dream Cruise. They say spring comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. They ain’t lyin’. Turn the key on the SS and it sounds like Simba waking up hungry. Groooowwl. Males will drool. Lionesses will purr. Meoooowwww.

Behold the King of Beasts.

I haven’t driven a car in a long time that stirred interest like the SS. It was like chauffeuring a Hollywood celebrity. Cruising Metro Detroit, men and women alike poured from homes and businesses to admire the Captain America-handsome steed with the voice of James Earl Jones. “I’ll park that for you,” teased one feline who looked like Kate Upton’s brunette sister.

My wife would have been jealous if she weren’t transfixed as well. And she’s normally allergic to the muscle cars I bring home. She wanted to go topless (ahem, the car) and go cruising on Woodward all week.

What makes this alpha male tick?

Two things: Looks and power. The Summit White SS convertible is rolling sinew. Under its massive shoulders bulge 21-inch painted aluminum wheels. These saucers are nearly as large as the 22-inchers on the Cadillac Escalade or Chevy Tahoe SUVs. Captain America could slay four Hydra agents with these shields.

Like a lion’s noble nose and firm jaw, the Camaro’s front end is formidable. Extending for what seems like acres, the great snout gives way to a slim forehead of a windshield topped by a mane of blue tonneau rag top. Up front, the SS sports Camaro’s updated face — aerodynamically sculpted for maximum airflow when exercising. Chevy narrowed the headlight cowl and expanded the lower air opening to increase down force over the big front spoiler. The blue-striped hood bulge is rippled with air intakes that work in tandem with the front ducts to suck air through the engine bay.

Engine roar's addictive

Ooooooh, that engine. Behind the Camaro’s signature maw is Chevy’s signature LS3 V-8 — shared with the outgoing C6 Corvette — producing 426 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque. The growl from the vacuum-actuated dual exhaust headers nestled in the new-for-2014 sculpted rear diffuser doesn’t stop at idle .

Step on the throttle and the growl becomes a throaty roar over 4,000 RPM. And like any addiction, it must be fed. I revved it on the open road. At traffic lights. In the parking lot. Roar, Roar, Roar.

The deafening exhaust note helps you ignore the voices in your head saying this beautiful hunk of muscle can be terribly impractical.

The windows are so narrow you’d have better visibility out of a WW2 pillbox. The convertible’s C-pillar is wide enough to obscure the Grand Canyon.

Backseat legroom is scarce. The ragtop handle requires the strength of Zeus to secure into place. And the car handles like a pig. Throw this athlete into a corner and suddenly it’s wallowing about like a linebacker on a badminton court. Thank goodness for traction control.

Clearly, this isn’t a track car. Like a Hollywood celebrity, it just acts the part.

 

Comfortable cruiser

There are two kinds of performance car. Exhibit A: Stiffly-sprung sports cars that live for twisty back roads. Slashing Porsche Boxsters, agile BMW M4s — even the SS’s chassis-stiffened cousin, the Camaro ZL1. And there is Exhibit B: Comfortable cruisers that rule the stoplights with raw power. Mighty Mustangs, asphalt-pawing Chargers, the Camaro SS. Unlike the ZL1, the SS doesn’t come with magnetic shocks or stiff springs. This is a dragster, not a road racer. Cheetahs rule the rural prairie, lions rule the urban jungle.

On a 60-degree day this April, the wannabe kings were prowling Woodward.

In Royal Oak, I pulled into to a lot full of big cubic inch alpha males. Marking his territory, a Mustang owner sniffed around my SS — musing, critiquing, dismissing. The side vent gills are faked with decals, he pointed. Four square gauges you’ll never use — oil pressure, oil temperature, transmission temperature, battery voltage — hog the center console. The 21-inch wheels hobble hard cornering, and so on.

This Camaro’s just for show! Well, welcome to the strip.

A Camaro partisan could make the same critique of many Mustangs. Track your Shelby GT500 but bring your gal to Woodward in the red GT Premium Convertible. Like a Mr. Universe contest, the cruise is as much about the muscle oil as the muscle. The Camaro SS plays its part well. Chevy’s media materials don’t hide the fact. They lay on the muscle oil. The sculpted new fascia. The 245-watt Boston acoustic sound system. The comfortable (ahem, for front seat passengers), elegant, stitched dash. The perforated leather seats. The white door inlays with aqua blue LED highlights that glow in the dark.

The Camaro is a body-builder’s physique in a muscle shirt. It may not have athletic moves, but who cares when you have biceps that would make the Hulk green with envy. Deactivate the traction control, rev the needle to 3 grand, pop the clutch, and lay rubber tracks out of a Woodward stoplight. Corralling that power in S-curves, however, isn’t worth the effort. Now you know why my wife loves this car. She knows its muscle is for preening, not for terrifying her on the back roads. The SS is a velvet hammer.

With the top down, the revs up, 21-inch tires spinning, 395-cubic inches growling, the stereo crooning, and the ladies swooning — I challenge you to find a greater spectacle on Woodward than this glorious hunk of beefcake.

May has bloomed. Woodward beckons. Your dream cruiser has arrived.

2014 Chevy Camaro SS Convertible

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, four-passenger coupe Price: $41,955 base ($50,635 as tested) Power plant: 6.2-liter V-8 engine Power: 426 horsepower, 420 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Six-speed manual Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.4 seconds (manufacturer est.); 155 mph top speed Weight: 4,172 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 16 mpg city/25 mpg highway Report card Highs: Rude exhaust music; topless at 4,000 RPM Lows: Could use a diet; handles like a pig (see diet issues) Overall:★★★

From The Detroit News: http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20140501/AUTO03/305010038#ixzz30VcfTqxT

Q&Auto: Do the D in a Maserati limo

Posted by hpayne on April 27, 2014

Sam Zahr shows off Luxury Limousines' 28-foot long Maserati Quatrroporte. Zahr runs Metro Detroit's most exclusive limousine service featuring a fleet of unique luxury machines. These aren't your average stretch Lincoln Town Cars. From sports cars to buses to SUVs, Zahr's got it. (Henry Payne / The Detroit News)

What’s the hardest part about building a Maserati Quattroporte limousine?

“The transmission,” says Sam Zahr, owner of Luxury Limousine of Southfield and its one-of-a-kind stretch Maserati. “It’s in the trunk with the clutch. That’s a big modification to extend the driveshaft all the way from the engine up front.”

Zahr runs Metro Detroit’s most exclusive limousine service featuring a fleet of unique luxury machines. These aren’t your average stretch Lincoln Town Cars. From sports cars to buses to SUVs, Zahr’s got it. A Hummer? Yup. A party bus with a dance floor? Sure. A pink Escalade? No problem. Walking Zahr’s lot is like visiting luxury row at the Detroit Auto Show — except everything is 30 feet long.

The interiors of these land yachts are appropriately lush. The converted, 2006 model year, 400 horsepower, 28-foot long Quattroporte sports leather seats, wood trim, flat-screen DVD players, and an elegant, cabin-length wet bar (unstocked, by law, limos are BYOB). Like luxury markets everywhere, the limo business is volatile and Zahr has been riding the rollercoaster since he founded Luxury Limousine in 2005. He soared with the 2006 Detroit Super Bowl XL, then blew a tire in the Great Recession. Wedding parties are his staple (Six hours in the Maserati will set you back $650-$850) but Lux Limo is also on celebrities’ speed dial when they come to town. Zahr has seen ‘em all — Miley Cyrus, Eminem, Kid Rock, Justin Bieber.

Does the Bieb prefer the Maserati or Merc? Neither, says Zahr. With his big entourage, the teen idol likes the party bus.

I sat down with the 39-year old Lebanese immigrant to talk limos, cleaning bills, and the American Dream.

HP: Tell me about your fleet.

Zahr: We specialize in luxury. Each car is unique and one of a kind. We have the Maserati limousine, probably the only one in the world. We have a Mercedes S600 limo, Range Rover limo, BMW 740Li, and Lincoln and Dodge Charger that other limousine companies operate. But they have luxury touches that make us stand out from other services.

HP: What’s the most popular?

Zahr: The Mercedes, though the Maserati and BMW are also very popular.

HP: How do you make a Maserati limo?

Zahr: I design my own limos. A night out in a limo is great — but weddings are the bread and butter for this business. I design these limos with the brides in mind — from the seats to the wet bar to making room for them when they come in (to the cabin) with a big wedding dress. We buy the car, then we cut the car, then we build what kind of leather and lighting and sound system we want inside.

HP: Who builds them?

Zahr: American Eagle limousine in Virginia. I’ve had over 10 years’ experience working with them.

HP: What’s your next creation?

Zahr: I’m in the process of making my first in-house limo. We moved (from Dearborn to Southfield) into this bigger building recently and we want to start building our own. I have something crazy coming. We are working on a double-decker bus with up to 60 people upstairs and downstairs. You can have a bachelorette party and bachelor party in the same bus.

HP: Tell me a wild limo story.

Zahr: Oh, man, I have so many stories. Just a couple weeks ago, after the limo driver had dropped everybody off, he came back to clean the limo and someone was laying inside and right next to him was a gun. My driver thought he was dead, but the guy gets up and starts peeing in the limo. My driver called 911 and the police arrested the guy. So I charge the party $500 to clean the limo and then four days later the guy comes in and wants to argue with me!

HP: Tell me about yourself. How did you get here?

Zahr: I was born in Lebanon. I moved here for the American Dream. I moved here when I was 19 and attended Oakland Community College for an associates degree, then transferred to Eastern Michigan and graduated with a Business Information Systems degree. I started this company after I called a local limo company for a Pistons game. The driver was very late; the limo was not nice; the driver was not well dressed. I felt I was misled and I got in an argument with (the owner), and I said because of this experience I’m going to start a limousine business. I found my first two limos in Boston. The first was a BMW X5.

 

Making cars ‘easy for the queasy’

Posted by hpayne on April 25, 2014

General Motors engineer Matt Gohlke conducts a test with Urwah Khan, 6, for the Human Factors group during General Motors Annual Kids Day event Thursday at the Tech Center in Warren.
General Motors engineer Matt Gohlke conducts a test with Urwah Khan, 6, for the Human Factors group during General Motors Annual Kids Day event Thursday at the Tech Center in Warren. (Jeffrey Sauger photos for Buick)

Any parent knows the terrors of what General Motors calls the “puke zone” on a long road trip. The children are happily reading, or playing on their laptop, or watching a DVD and the next thing you know, you’ve got a motion sick kid and a huge interior cleaning bill.

Fortunately, automakers feel your pain.

GM has enlisted the children of its own employees to improve the location of its ceiling-mounted, backseat DVD players. And Ford Motor Co. testers are guarding against the inevitable by making vehicles more — um — spew resistant.

DVD players are customarily located in the ceiling or on the back of seats (see the Dodge Durango or Hyundai Equus) because scientific research has determined that if a passenger’s eyes are focused on a fixed point — and can see the passing landscape outside the vehicle — then their brains know they’re moving.

“But if our eyes are at a downward angle and do not see the view outside the vehicle, our bodies become sensitive to motion and increase the chance of sickness,” says Don Shreves, manager of GM’s Human Factors engineering group which studies how customers interact with vehicles.

With GM’s three-row, midsize 2014 Buick Enclave SUV, the Human Factors team took its research one step further. They put kids to work during the company’s Take Your Child to Work Day. The goal: determine the best placement of the DVD screen to increase view-ability and decrease motion sickness.

GM researchers set up a sliding track on the Enclave’s roof that could move the DVD player fore and aft. They then monitored the responses of more than 75 kids to determine when the screen was too close or too far away. After crunching the data, Human Factors turned the results over to Buick’s vehicle engineering team, which integrated the findings into the SUV’s final design.

Chrysler also has done extensive research with the result that the rear-seat entertainment system in the 2015 Dodge Durango has been relocated to the backs of the front seats from the ceiling center console. “Chrysler Group takes seriously the issue of passenger comfort to ‘make things easy for the queasy,’ ” says Chrysler spokesman Eric Mayne.

But what of the inevitable backseat disaster?

Ford has it covered. The company’s researchers pour milkshakes down seats to make sure seat belts buckle, and that upholstery and nooks and crannies can be properly cleaned of grit, drinks, and, yes, vomit.

“Accidents happen,” a Ford spokesman said. “We test crevices with crumbs and crap to make sure seats are easily cleaned.”

Automakers’ sensitivity to rear seat occupants is consistent with the American habit of living in our cars. From soccer moms to family vacations, we spend more time commuting in our vehicles than any other major industrialized nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

As a result, even the back seats of pickups have become more refined, while giant SUVs such as the Chevy Tahoe and Cadillac Escalade are outfitted with sophisticated, magnetic-ride shock absorber systems to cushion backseat occupants who once felt like they were riding a bucking bronco.

Like the old, rear-facing station wagon third-row seat, forward-facing third-row seats are increasingly in demand by SUV-buying families — but the tendency toward lightless caves has widened the puke zone.

Designers for vehicles like the Enclave have responded with optional two-panel sun-roofs, as well as providing third-row passengers with their own air conditioning and audio controls.

The attention to detail will save Americans on cleaning bills — and having to stock the back seats with barf bags.