Ultra-high-performance Ford GT will set off fireworks July 4

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 23, 2019

The Ford GT will debut a new ultra-performance model July 4 at Goodwood in England.

Ford’s performance division will try to leave behind a difficult month at Le Mans by setting off some fireworks July 4 at England’s Goodwood Festival of Speed.

The automaker will unveil an “ultra-high-performance” version of the Ford GT production car alongside the Mustang Shelby GT500, the most powerful Ford ever produced. The annual Goodwood show is one of Europe’s premier automotive events.

The mid-engine GT’s sister race car was off the pace at the June 15-16 Le Mans 24-hour endurance race. It was the last factory-backed appearance at the famous track that made Ford GT an international household name. To add insult to injury, the best-placing GT in the GTE Pro class was disqualified for violating fuel tank regulations. Worse, the winning Ford in the GTE Am category – a private entry – was stripped of its crown for the same fuel breach.

No use crying over spilled fuel. So Ford is bringing out its big guns next Thursday to blow bad memories away.

Ford is teasing the new GT with a single photograph, but expect the latest evolution of the $700,000-plus halo car Ford has limited to a 1,350 production run. All GTs are hand-built by Multimatic in Canada.

Ending months of suspense after the GT500’s debut at the Detroit Auto Show in January, Ford announced this week that the mega-Mustang’s supercharged 5.2-liter V-8 will make a ground-shaking 760 horsepower – the most of any Detroit muscle car this side of the 840-horsepower Dodge Demon.

Both Fords are expected to make quick runs up Goodwood’s narrow, haybale-lined, 1.16-mile hill-climb course for the assembled multitudes.

The 760-horse Mustang GT500 eclipses by far the Snake’s last model in 2014. That generation boasted 662 horsepower. The 2020 car will mate all that power to a 7-speed dual clutch transmission. Ford promises customers won’t miss the traditional manual.

Significantly, the GT500’s power figure exceeds the 650-horse Chevy Camaro ZL1 1LE – the track-focused, winged GT500’s chief rival.

The supercar halos will preside over a packed Goodwood paddock of Ford muscle. Other toys will include:

  • The all-new Focus ST – alas, for European eyes only, because the pocket rocket has been discontinued on this side of the pond.
  • Joey Logano’s 2018, championship-winning Team Penske Fusion NASCAR
  • Gymkhana TEN star Ken Block’s Hoonitruck and Escort RS Cosworth
  • A Euro-spec Ranger Raptor pickup which will show off its moves on an off-road course.

The No. 66 Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT racer will also be on hand fresh from its sixth-place Le Mans finish. The car was one of four factory entries making one more bid to win the endurance race after taking the trophy in its maiden voyage in 2016. That win came 50 years after Ford  famously beat Ferrari in 1966, stunning the European racing world.

Ford was stunned at this year’s race when its No. 68 car was disqualified from fourth place.

Officially, Le Mans stewards found the race car’s total fuel volume was “in excess of the permitted limit.” The maximum allowed is 97 liters, while post-race scrutiny found the GT a hair over the limit at 97.83 liters.

Payne: Can the rugged Jeep Gladiator pickup adapt to domestic life?

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 20, 2019

I first drove the 2020 Jeep Gladiator pickup on a bruising off-road course in rural California: Mud-caked trails. Rocky landscapes. You know, Jeep stuff. Marketers love to show this capability off to journalists. How about that, eh? Unbelievable, yes? Yes, yes. But rugged as the ladder-frame Gladiator (and brother Wrangler) may be, how many owners will ever take it to those extremes?

So I was eager to get a Gladiator in my driveway this spring to test it as a common commuter sled where I would have to live with the Jeep’s more, ahem, truck-like attributes.

Silly me. I forgot that driving Michigan roads is an off-road test in itself.

Michigan has some of the worst byways I’ve ever driven (and this is coming from a West Virginia boy, no stranger to bad roads). Especially during the spring thaw when potholes the size of the Mariana Trench open up. Close your eyes crossing from Ohio to Michigan and you’ll feel it. KUH-THUNK, KUH-THUNK, KUH-THUNK. Welcome to Pure Michigan.

Pure Michigan.

The rugged Jeep came as a relief. I’ve been testing the autonomous-driving capabilities of a few luxury cars this spring — Mercedes, BMW, Tesla — and it’s murder on the concentration. The vehicles are competent enough at seeing lanes and traffic, but they can’t see imperfections in the road, so I’m always poised to intervene for fear of — KUH-THUNK — losing a tire.

The Jeep, by contrast, has no self-driving pretensions, and its rugged tires and frame shrugged off potholes like Avengers bouncing off Thanos. Take I-75 north of Madison Heights, for example. Ruts have opened up between the concrete lanes like moats around medieval castles. Negotiating these in a sports sedan is nerve-wracking. The Gladiator thumps over them with ease.

“Kid stuff. Payne, take me to a real off-road park like the Mounds!”

The Jeep was begging me. But I resisted. I was determined to write about the Gladiator as a daily commuter.

It gave me peace of mind every day I left the house. No worries about rough roads shaking the car to dust. In fact, my Gladiator Overland tester almost floated over the road on its big Bridgestones. This truck is no sport truck like the stiff Chevy Silverado Trail Boss.

Road handling is not its forte. But personality it has in waves. I covet the spare aesthetic brilliance of a Porsche or a Mazda, but after a week with the Gladiator I get its brand magnetism: Iconic face. Raw, outdoorsy design with exposed hinges and lock-down hood. Tattooed graphics everywhere, including a Jeep crawling up the windshield and “♥419” carved in the bed to honor its Toledo-built area code. Signature interior touches like straps that adjust the seat backs and door nets that hold cargo.

I find mid-size truck interiors to be cold and uninspiring, but the Gladiator has an appealing wardrobe with luxury-like flair. You know when you are in a Mercedes — and when you’re in a Jeep. It is this personality that makes the Jeep coveted across mainstream and luxury buyers.

I took Mrs. Payne out for an evening on the town and she chose the Jeep pickup in the driveway over the BMW 3-series. She wanted the Jeep’s status: outdoorsy, unique, authentic. She had coveted the Jeep Wrangler at a young age.

Is there any other truck with that kind of cross-gender appeal?

Jeep knows it’s got game, and you pay for it. The Jeep is priced to be exclusive, eschewing the low-end, rear-wheel drive market occupied by Chevy and Ford to start at $35,000 with 4-wheel-drive only. My tester was pricey — Gladiators are generally $2,000-$3,000 more than comparable competitors — yet lacks handy tech like the Ford Ranger’s self-parking feature. At $53,000, my Overland still had cloth seats!

My wife pulled herself into the cab with the A-pillar handle and remarked about the cloth and the noisy cab (all the panels, including doors, are designed to come off). But the Jeep turned heads, dressed in silver with gray 18-inch wheels, when we pulled into an upscale parking lot full of BMWs and Lexuses.

Payne, I’m getting impatient here. When can I get dirty?!

The Jeep’s voice continued to nag at me. All that off-road capability — skid plates, plastic bumpers, signature second shift-knob for 4-wheel-low — and I was just going to drive it back and forth to work? Even my pickup bed forays to haul mulch and winter debris from the yard seemed soooo mundane.

I finally gave in. Like driving a Porsche for a week and never going to the track, it just wasn’t right to deny the Gladiator a trip to its natural habitat. We set course for the Mound ORV Park near Flint over the Memorial Day weekend.

Just an hour north of Metro Detroit in Mount Morris, the Mounds is a haven for off-roaders. Its swampy, hilly, mogul-infested terrain is choked with dirt bikers, ATVs and mega-tire trucks. And Jeeps.

Jeep Wranglers are everywhere. The new Gladiator was an instant rock star.

I floored the 285-horse V-6 across moguls and splashed through narrow bike trails, the Gladiator’s compact proportions allowing it to go where a full-size truck could never roam. That floaty, on-road handling is perfect for terrain like this as the chassis requires flexibility over undulating terrain.

A helmeted dirt biker sidled up to me. “Dude, that Gladiator is beautiful. How’s it feel out here?” Like a Wrangler with a bed, I replied, and he gave me the “hook ’em horns” sign.

I slopped through a series of muddy ruts, caking the Gladiator in mud. A female ATV-writer sidled up to my door. “How’s it doin’? My daughter wants one sooooo bad!”

Locked in four-wheel low, I fishtailed across a muddy trail. A herd of dirt bikers rode by — all pumping their arms and giving me “hook ’em horns” signs.

Does the Jeep Gladiator pass muster as a metro commuter vehicle? Yup. Its mid-size dimensions, easy Uconnect infotainment and signature interior make it an all-season ride. But don’t forget to heed the call of the off-road every once in a while.

2020 Jeep Gladiator

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

Price: Base price $35,040 including $1,495 destination charge ($53,045 Overland as tested)

Powerplant: 3.6-liter V-6

Power: 285 horsepower, 260 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic; 6-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.2 sec. (Car and Driver); maximum towing, 7,650 pounds; payload, 1,600 pounds

Weight: 4,450 pounds (5,072 Overland as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA: 17 city/22 highway/19 combined (automatic); 16 city/23 highway/19 combined (manual)

Report card

Highs: Jeep cred; off-road warrior

Lows: Pricey; numb handling on-road

Overall: 4 stars

Payne: BMW 3-series wants its crown back

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 13, 2019

The 2019 BMW 330i sedan's sport coupe roof, long hood, and short overhangs telegraph its rear-wheel-drive, longitudinal engine. The 330i adds AWD for Michigan winters.

Socialism is all the rage these days among Washington elites, but lucky for them their new BMW 3-series was born in the boiling shark tank of capitalism.

Long the alpha shark in the compact-luxury segment, the last-generation 3 got a little, um, fat. And boy, did the product managers in Munich get an earful from the market.

New Coke never had it this hard.

Media outlets ripped BMW for going soft. Car and Driver dropped the 3-series from its Top 10 list for the first time in memory. Sales dropped. Enthusiasts started to talk openly of the Alfa Giulia and Cadillac ATS as the new standards for class-handling. The competitive pressures weren’t just athletic complaints, either.

Mercedes’ luscious interiors were turning heads away from BMW. Tesla’s sci-fi Model 3 was shaming the class with Silicon Valley technology. Mainstream upstarts like the Mazda 6 were offering athletic value for $20,000 cheaper. And then there’s the market flip to premium sport-utes.

Well. Market reaction duly noted.

The seventh-generation 2019 BMW 3-series bears a familiar silhouette and kidney grille but is otherwise a comprehensive remake to re-establish its iconic self as King of the Hill. It mostly succeeds.

Payne: BMW-Jaguar want to make EV babies

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 8, 2019

The Jaguar I-Pace charges on a 240-volt charger .

BMW and Jaguar Land Rover have announced they are tying the knot on power-train technology — but their offspring won’t have a growl.

The luxury auto icons will be developing the next generation of drive units for their electric cars, the latest collaboration between rival automakers as they move to Autos 2.0 — or ACES as the joint venture puts it, shorthand for Automated, Connected, Electric and Shared Vehicles.

“The transition to ACES represents the greatest technological shift in the automotive industry in a generation,” said Jaguar Land Rover engineering chief Nick Rogers. “The pace of change and consumer interest in electrified vehicles is gathering real momentum and it’s essential we work across industry to advance the technologies required.”

Automakers have a long history of collaborating on everything from gas engines (Toyota Supra and BMW Z4 share a 6-cylinder) to chassis (Ford and VW share commercial-truck platforms in global markets). On the ACES front, Honda and General Motors have joined forces on autonomous vehicles, and the recent merger talks between Renault SA and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV were in part driven by electric vehicle collaboration.

Hook-ups on ACES have become especially important given the uncertain development timeline of autonomous vehicles and the uncertain market for EVs. With hard government mandates looming, EV development is especially pressing.

For the first time governments are forcing automakers to make a particular drive-train — namely,  battery-electric — even though customers have shown little desire for the technology. Automakers have no choice but to follow an expensive path of making vehicles desired by markets — and by governments.

BMW and Jaguar have made their mark as manufacturers of roaring, gas-powered hellions like the M3 sports sedan and F-Type sports car. But both companies have been bullish on EV tech.

Given EVs range and charging issues, luxury buyers have been targeted as early adopters with multiple cars in their garages. BMW has launched a separate, battery-powered, “i-line” of cars led by the i3 hatchback and i8 sports car. Jaguar, too, has been a pioneer with its i-Pace SUV.

But sales of these products have been tepid in a U.S. market where EV owners have been reluctant to buy anything not named Tesla. The Silicon Valley-based electric car-maker has dominated EV sales — for example, its $40,000 Model 3’s unit sales dwarfed the $45,000 i3 in May, 13,950 to 439. And Tesla’s $75,000 Model X SUV outsold the $70,000 Jaguar i-Pace SUV by 1,375 to 228.

Worse for the European duo, Tesla sales have dropped this year as the company has maxed out on selling cars with a $7,500 tax credit. Buyers of BMW and Jaguar EVs still get the full $7,500 credit — the eventual loss of which could be even more devastating as the automakers struggle to meet U.S. regulations. In Europe, a key market for BMW and Jaguar, demand is weak while government mandates are even more onerous.

Faced with these realities, BMW and Jaguar are pooling resources on a new electric-drive unit.

“We’ve proven we can build world-beating electric cars, but now we need to scale the technology to support the next generation of Jaguar and Land Rover products,” said Jaguar’s Rogers. “It was clear from discussions with BMW Group that both companies’ requirements for next-generation EDUs to support this transition have significant overlap making for a mutually beneficial collaboration.”

The agreement allows for efficiencies created from shared R&D — as well as from joint procurement across the industry supply chain.

BMW and Jaguar Land Rover engineers will then jointly develop the EDUs — then manufacture them in separate facilities to meet the needs of their product lines. The British brand says production will take place at two facilities in England: Wolverhampton and Birmingham.

Payne: Despite autonomous potential, automakers still hone their brands by racing

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 8, 2019

Driver Scott Dixon celebrates after winning the Dual II IndyCar Series Race at the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix on June 2.

Driver Scott Dixon celebrates after winning the Dual II IndyCar Series Race at the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix on June 2. (Photo: Robin Buckson, The Detroit News)

Pontiac — Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.

That mantra guides nearly every major automaker today as brands from Chevrolet to Acura to Porsche pour extraordinary sums of money into the top echelons of motorsports to burnish their performance images and bring customers into showrooms. Despite the billions being invested in autonomous and electric vehicles today, motorsports is still a cornerstone of brand ID.

Where each automaker focuses that performance energy tells you a lot about where their brands are headed.

Honda Motor Co. wasted no time Monday after its win in Sunday’s Detroit Grand Prix as the engine supplier for Scott Dixon’s winning IndyCar. The Japanese manufacturer immediately pivoted to promoting … the Honda Civic compact car.

Honda hosted dozens of journalists here at M1 Concourse’s Champion Motor Speedway to sample the $34K, 307-horsepower Civic Type-R hatchback — the most ferocious, most expensive model in Civic’s broad lineup — and its TCR racing offspring. The Type-R TCR is entered in the IMSA sports car series Michelin Pilot Challenge racing series.

“In recent years we’ve really tried to push these production-based cars as an affordable entry point to get new (buyers) into the brand,” said Honda Performance Development engineer Justin Chiodo here. HPD manages Honda’s racing effort. “By … showing the performance of our cars it makes it a more desirable vehicle for people to purchase.”

The investment in the TCR racing program shows the importance that Honda places on the compact Civic as a brand halo and as an entry-point for first-time car buyers. Significantly, it is a segment that Detroit has abandoned completely in order to concentrate on compact SUVs.

Chevrolet, too, won at the Detroit Grand Prix last weekend as Penske’s Joseph Newgarden brought his Chevy-powered IndyCar into victory lane in the first of the weekend’s two open-wheel car races.

Chevy tries to translate such success into production cars. Its racing efforts include fielding racing versions of the Corvette and Camaro muscle cars to compete in IMSA just like Honda’s Civic — but in more powerful classes.

The Camaro, for example, competes in the Michelin Pilot Challenge GS class which includes other performance cars like the Ford Mustang, BMW M4, Mercedes AMG GT4, and Porsche Cayman GT4.R.

This effort dovetails with Chevrolet’s determination to make the Camaro the design halo for a new generation of SUVs, including the recently introduced Chevy Trailblazer and Blazer which share Camaro design cues. Chevy hopes the racy design — and Camaro/Corvette’s success at the track — will help elevate its SUVs over other, lookalike utes.

Honda’s TCR class, meanwhile, is dominated by foreign makes which still see the large (if shrinking) compact car class as key to conquering entry-level buyers. Other brands scrapping for attention in the class include the Hyundai Elantra, VW Golf GTI, and Audi RS3 race cars — all based on compact cars.

In addition to the wave of publicity that manufacturers receive from media coverage and trips to victory lane, they also value the tech transfer from racing. Racing cars at their track limits helps inform the next generation of production technology.

“There is a lot of feedback to Honda from all the teams about things we can improve on for the next race — or for the next generation of the car,” says Todd Lamb, owner of Atlanta Speedwerks, a racing team that fields two Civic TCR race cars in the IMSA series. “Everything we do adds up. Some of what we do on the track ends up back in the street car. It’s neat to see.”

Racing also fuels the aspirations of young people long before they get their driver’s license.

“Racing attracted me at an early age,” says Honda engineer Chiodo. “I’ve always had a strong respect for Honda. I grew up racing dirt bikes and I saw the quality and the products that this company builds. I always wanted to work for them.”

Honda and GM are partners in investing in the future of autonomous cars — a ride-sharing area that is uncharted new territory for these personal transportation brands. Until markets emerge for those products, however, both companies will continue to define themselves by racing.

After Detroit, Chevy and Honda will be watched by millions powering IndyCars at Road America in Wisconsin June 23. One week later, the IMSA sports car circus will travel to Watkins Glen, N.Y., where entries will include the Chevy Corvette in GT-LeMans class, Camaro and Civic Type-R TCR in Michelin Pilot Challenge, and Cadillac/Acura/Nissan/Mazda porotype racers in the IMSA Weathertech series.

Says Chiodo: “People see these cars racing on the track and maybe … that makes them interested in buying a Type-R, or a (Civic) Si, and even a Civic and enjoy our great engineering on the street.”

Payne: Hot-hatch Lexus UX F Sport vs. VW GTI, Mazda 3, Kia Soul GT

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 6, 2019

Henry Payne compares hot hatchbacks 2019 Mazda 3, clockwise from top-left, 2019 Lexus UX 250h F Sport, 2019 Kia Soul GT and the 2019 Volkswagen Golf GTI.

The Age of Ute is upon us, so it was inevitable that we would start to see SUV hot-hatches. Consider the Lexus UX 250h F Sport that just swaggered into my driveway.

Is it worthy? I put it to the test with some iconic hot-hatchback cars: Volkswagen Golf GTI, Mazda 3 and Kia Soul GT.

Compact hot-hatches, as readers of this space know, are my favorite class of car. They’re fun, utilitarian and affordable. Pound per dollar, they are the best all-around cars on the market. But this sport-ute craze has me worried.

Sedans are falling under the SUV tidal wave, their high-performance variants getting swept away with them. With the Ford Focus sedan has gone the Focus ST and Focus RS. So long Ford Fiesta means adios to the 197-horse Fiesta ST, a mainstay on my Top 10 list of best cars.

Seeing the handwriting on the wall, Mazda deep-sixed its Mazdaspeed 3 a few years ago to concentrate on sport utilities. The only silver lining in the Chevy Cruze’s burial is it didn’t take a hot hatch with it. Because there never was one. Happily, foreign makes are bullish on five-door performance hatchbacks.

Now Lexus throws its all-new, alphanumeric-nightmare UX 250h F Sport SUV into the fray. Is it worthy? I put it to the test with its car peers.

First, some rules.

A hot hatch has five-doors. Jetta GLI, I love ya, but you’re a sedan. The Golf GTI meets the criteria. Qualifying as a pocket rocket isn’t just a wardrobe change, it’s a performance upgrade with a steroid boost that gets your right foot tingling and your eyes sweeping the landscape for twisty roads beyond the metro grid.

Hell, Michigan, here I come!

And it’s gotta be affordable. That means $40,000 or less. Sorry, Mercedes AMG GLA 45 with four-zillion horsepower and a $50,000-plus price tag to match. You’re out.

No worries. That leaves a lot of stuff like the Hyundai Veloster N, Hyundai Elantra GT N, Mini Cooper S, Fiat 500 Abarth, Honda Civic Type-R (oooooh, somebody open a window it’s getting hot in here) … and our competitive test set: Golf GTI, Mazda 3 and Soul GT ute.

The $40,910 Lexus — injected with hybrid torque — certainly makes a first impression: Darth Vader grille. Scalloped bodywork. Ultrasonic Blue. Pocket rocket-fans crave look-at-me styling. It’s also an all-wheel driver like the retired Ford RS — um, to a point.

Adopting the same philosophy as the Toyota Prius AWD-e, the rear wheels get their drive from an electric motor which only works up to 45 mph. Why 45? To maximize fuel efficiency, and … wait, what? This is where you begin to realize the F Sport may not have its heart in this hot-hatch thing.

Combined with a 1.4-kWh nickel-metal hydride battery, the 2.0-liter four-banger makes just 181 horsepower — which is well off the $36,890 (as tested) Golf GTI’s ferocious 228 ponies.

The 2019 GTI is a joy to drive hard. The turbo’s 258-pound-feet-of-torque is sensational at low revs but never overwhelms the front paws. On a long trip to Road America race track in Wisconsin the GTI was both a comfy cargo-hauler and an attack dog for lunchtime track laps.

The Lexus is based on Toyota’s sporty TNGA platform, which is the most athletic Toyota-Lexus platform yet. With suspension bits upgraded from the standard UX, the F Sport is marvelously tossable through turns. But step on the gas and its kinship with its big-brother RC F Sport coupe suffers.

The UX 250h smothers its ambitions with a continuously variable transmission. Lexus tries to spice up the ol’ noodle with simulated gear steps and the (oddly inconsistent) rev match on upshifts and downshifts. The battery-tranny combo doesn’t provide the one-two punch of the GTI’s turbo-manual (6-speed auto optional).

The compact VW is the premium car here with more performance and room over the pricier-but-smaller subcompact UX. The GTI even shines in the style department where its timeless lines are complemented by signature, low-profile wheels.

Like the Lexus UX’s all-wheel drive for winter? Bring in the 2019 Mazda 3 hatch which features all-wheel drive for the first time. I bend the rules for the Mazda a bit since it no longer offers the MazdaSpeed performance upgrade. But the 3’s 186 horses make it one of the most powerful standard engines in segment and beats the Lexus to 60 by a whopping 1.7 seconds.

That, and the 3’s handling and looks are top shelf. Its aesthetics have no peer. Dress it in Soul Red and it will melt snow.

But the real revelation of our test is the 2019 Kia Soul GT, the original hot-hatch SUV.

This funk-mobile has outlasted its boxy brethren — the Nissan Cube and Scion xB — with smart marketing and a fun-to-drive vibe. A subcompact ute, it mirrors Lexus in available features (save AWD) — blind-spot assist, adaptive cruise-control, smartphone-app compatibility, lane-keep assist — but for just $28,965.

I escaped with the Soul through the rural roads of east Virginia’s Northern Neck and had a ball.

The box is driven by a smooth dual-clutch transmission that the Lexus would die for. Nail the throttle and the 201-horse turbo 1.6-liter practically rips the front wheels out of their fenders. It’s a live one, this animal.

The last-generation Soul marketed itself with rapping hamsters, but this generation feels higher up the food chain. Soul’s more sophisticated wardrobe includes boomerang taillights and thin Camaro-like LED headlights. Gone are the goggle-eyed hamster peepers.

I found the Soul’s sci-fi look more premium than the Lexus but still with plenty of, well, soul. The feeling continues inside. Both the Soul (circles everywhere) and the Lexus (slashing lines like its exterior) are funkadelic. But the Soul’s console touchscreen outclasses the F Sport. Like other Lexi, the UX screen is controlled by a touchpad that will have you cursing like Yosemite Sam.

Consarn rassa-frassin’ racka-frackin’ varmint!

My biggest complaint about the Soul is its uncomfortable front seats — but in the roomy rear, your giraffe-legged reviewer could sit behind himself.

We in Club Hot Hatch are pleased to have new members, and the Lexus UX 250h F Sport is a welcome addition. But it has work to do to catch its mainstream brothers.

2019 Lexus UX 250h F Sport

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

Price: $37,025 base including $1,025 destination fee ($40,910 as tested)

Powerplant: 181 horsepower, 2.0-liter inline-4 cylinder hybrid with electric-motor assist

Transmission: Continuously variable transmission

Performance: 8.6 second zero-60 (Car and Driver); 110 mph top speed

Weight: 3,605 pounds

Fuel economy: 41 mpg city/38 mpg highway/39 mpg combined

Highs: Dramatic style; good fuel economy

Lows: fussy infotainment controller; more muscle, please

Overall: 2 stars

2019 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5 passenger, compact hot-hatch car

Price: $28,490 base including $895 destination fee ($36,890 Autobahn trim as tested)

Powerplant: 228 horsepower, 258 pound feet of torque, 2.0-liter, turbocharged inline-4 cylinder

Transmission: 6-speed manual; 7-speed automatic

Performance: 6.0 second zero-60 (Car and Driver); 125 top speed

Weight: 3,186 pounds (manual); 3,256 (automatic)

Fuel economy: 24 mpg city/32 mpg highway/27 mpg combined (manual); 25 mpg city/31 mpg highway/27 mpg combined (automatic)

Highs: Roomy hatch; torque-tastic

Lows: Stop/start system ruffles otherwise smooth drivetrain (happily, it’s not on the manual)

Overall: 4 stars

2019 Mazda 3 hatchback

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, 5-passenger, compact hot-hatch car

Price: $24,495 including $895 destination fee ($31,930 as tested)

Powerplant: 186 horsepower, 185 pound feet of torque, 2.6-liter inline-4 cylinder

Transmission: 6-speed automatic, 6-speed manual

Performance: 6.9 second zero-60 (Car and Driver, est.); 130 top speed

Weight: 3,255 pounds (AWD hatchback as tested)

Fuel economy: 25 city/35 highway/29 combined (FWD manual); 24 city/32 highway/27 combined (AWD auto, as tested)

Highs: Easy on the eyes; luxury-class interior design

Lows: Blind spot the size of New Hampshire; bring back high-horse MazdaSpeed, please?

Overall: 3 stars

2019 Kia Soul GT

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

Price: $28,495 base including $895 destination fee ($28,495 as tested)

Powerplant: 201 horsepower, 195 pound feet of torque, 1.6-liter, turbocharged inline-4 cylinder Transmission: 7-speed, dual-clutch automatic

Performance: 6.3 second zero-60 (Car and Driver); 130 top speed

Weight: 3,036 pounds

Fuel economy: 27 mpg city/32 mpg highway/29 mpg combined

Highs: A step up in sophistication from previous hamster-mobile; sci-fi look

Lows: Not as athletic as its peer group; hard front seats

Overall: 3 stars

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‘Ford v Ferrari’ roars into theaters Nov. 15

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 6, 2019

Christian Bale in "Ford v. Ferrari," in theaters Nov. 15.

Hollywood loves epic battles: “Clash of the Titans.” “Batman vs. Superman.” Godzilla vs. anything.

Now here comes the heavyweight movie that Detroit has long been waiting for: “Ford v Ferrari.”

The story of Ford’s historic 1966 defeat of the famous Italian racing marque at the world’s most famous endurance race, LeMans, will be told on Nov. 15 when the movie is released to theaters. A trailer was dropped this week, and it promises scenes filled with speed, crashes and sexy cars.

But learning from the checkered history of racing movies, director James Mangold (“Logan,” “3:10 to Yuma”) has taken care to make this movie about more than two car companies. This is a movie about big personalities (Carroll Shelby, Ken Miles, Henry Ford II) played by big movie stars (respectively, Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Tracy Letts).

“Ford v Ferrari” tells the tale of Henry the Deuce’s quest – after being spurned by Enzo Ferrari in a cross-Atlantic merger – to embarrass the Italian in his own sandbox: LeMans, the 24-hour race that Ferrari had won 6 years running.

The stakes were big and so were the egos. The film goes behind the scenes as Ford hires Shelby to build one of Ford’s iconic cars – the GT40 – to pull off one of racing’s greatest upsets. Spoiler alert: Ford sweeps the podium.

“You’re gonna build a car to beat Ferrari… with a Ford,” says British race-driver Miles in the clip. “And how long did you tell them you needed? Two-three hundred years?”

“Ninety days,” snaps Shelby.

The focus on auto personalities follows Ron Howard’s successful formula in 2013’s “Rush,” which relived a Formula One title duel by casting Hollywood heart-throb Chris Hemsworth in the leading role. That movie seemed to give a second breath to racing movies (after disasters like Steve McQueen’s 1971 flop “LeMans”), “Ford v Ferrari” roars into theaters this year along with another highly anticipated car film, “The Art of Racing in the Rain.”

“Ford v Ferrari,” its source material derived from A.J. Baime’s critically acclaimed book, “Go Like Hell,” was ultimately based on an original screenplay. Initially cast with Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in the leading roles, the movie has taken a circuitous course to the big screen.

Damon and Bale are already promoting the movie, appearing as honorary starters and waving the green flag for the Indy 500 Memorial Day weekend.

Despite Ford’s favorable outcome, the movie was made without the Blue Oval’s help. Indeed, the preview does not seem to cast Henry Ford II in a favorable light as he whimpers in the passenger seat after being taken by Shelby for a wild test ride in the GT40.

“Based on this trailer, I think I might miss opening night! I knew Henry Ford II and Tracy Letts is no Henry Ford II,” the Deuce’s son, Edsel Ford II, tweeted this week after seeing the trailer.

Hollywood hopes for more positive reviews this winter.

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VW sees opening in Detroit-dominated pickup market

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 3, 2019

The 2019 compact VW Tarok pickup truck concept is currently configured for the South American market with an economical, 147-horse, 1.4-liter engine. If it was brought to the U.S., VW says that would likely be bumped up to a more capable engine found in the U.S. Golf and Jetta models.

The U.S. pickup truck market has big profits, big segments — and a big hurdle for foreign makes to clear, given Detroit Three loyalty and steep import tariffs.

But Volkswagen thinks there might be an opening.

The German manufacturer has introduced two pickup concepts to the U.S. market in the last year, and it is particularly bullish on its most recent entry, the Tarok mini-pickup concept shown at this year’s New York Auto Show.

“As (midsize) pickups get bigger – to the stage where they are as big as full-size pickups were not so long ago – and more expensive and less fuel-efficient, we are trying to see if there is space for a vehicle with a smaller footprint that potentially is more affordable and gets better gas mileage,” says VW Senior Vice President for Product Marketing Hein Schafer.

With a 193 ½-inch wheelbase, the Tarok is much smaller than, say, the midsize Ford Ranger at nearly 211 inches. But VW innovates a neat party trick by expanding its 4-foot bed into a 6-foot bed by dropping the panel behind the rear bench seats and flattening the seat backs like an SUV. Like the Rabbit-based, simply named Volkswagen Pickup from the 1980s, the Tarok would sit on a compact-car chassis and be sold as a lifestyle, outdoor truck – in contrast to the ladder-frame bruisers that dominate larger segments.

VW’s transverse-engine MQB platform also has the advantage of being made in Mexico. Vehicles built in North America are not subject to the so-called “chicken tax,” a protectionist 25% tariff applied to pickups imported from abroad. VW currently imports the Jetta sedan and Tiguan SUV from Mexico.

Import tariffs are a concern for VW even as it enters into a global truck alliance with Ford. VW plans to make a truck-based midsize pickup called the Amarok. The problem? It’s made in Argentina for international markets and would be subject to the 25% tax, which is a dealbreaker.

“If we were to go into the pickup market, we would produce the vehicle in the USMCA area,” says Schafer, referencing the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement — the proposed replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement that governs the North American trade sphere and is exempt from the chicken tax.

VW wants in to the U.S. pickup market because it is a cash machine.

“The pickup market is huge, but we have seen that even the biggest of car companies have yet to make much of a dent in the domestic stranglehold on full-size trucks,” says Schafer. “So we wanted to show something a bit different — something that’s a bit more in line with what a potential VW customer might expect.”

Stung by the high costs of Dieselgate and electric car mandates in Europe, the German manufacturer is determined to grow in the profitable, less-regulated, SUV-crazed U.S. market.

With its three-row Atlas SUV and compact Tiguan ute, VW has shaken off its old, Beetle-car identity to become a full-line SUV and sedan maker with offerings in four of the five biggest vehicle segments.

The 2018 Tanoak midsize pickup concept shown in the Big Apple was based on the Atlas (which is currently made in Tennessee). But while VW says media and public reaction was positive, the truck would be an expensive proposition to make in a crowded midsize market including established nameplates like the Chevy Colorado and Toyota Tacoma.

VW is also wary of Honda’s experience with the midsize, SUV-based Ridgeline pickup. Despite glowing media reviews and a menu of unique features, the Ridgeline has failed to catch fire in a segment where trucks are defined by ladder-frame chassis and big tow numbers.

Autotrader senior auto analyst Michelle Krebs says that the smaller the pickup, the easier it is for foreign brands to gain market traction against the Detroit Three.

“Our research shows there is little brand loyalty in smaller trucks,” she says. “Full-size buyers are the most loyal in the industry; smaller-truck buyers are the least. So the newest player likely has a good chance of conquesting buyers.”

VW is not the first to look at a compact pickup. Fiat Chrysler sells the cute car-based Fiat Toro pickup in South America and has reportedly looked at bringing it to the U.S. to shore up the struggling Italian brand here.

“Obviously there is a market here for small pickups for young people who don’t want to spend $40,000 and want a lifestyle vehicle to haul their bikes or kayak,” says veteran auto analyst Joe Phillippi of AutoTrends Consulting. “But it’s a finite number of sales and manufacturers need to make sense of the numbers.”

While VW won’t talk price yet, Phillippi estimates a small pickup would start in the low-$20,000s — which is $5,000 under midsize pickups — and top out under $30,000 when fully loaded. Targeted at youth buyers on the U.S. coasts, it could also bring new customers to VW’s lineup.

Autotrader’s Krebs agrees that there is an opportunity with young folks — “VW has always done well with youth buyers” — as long as the price is right.

“That’s why avoiding the tariffs and building it in North America is key,” she concludes.

On its website, Volkswagen takes a stroll down memory lane, recalling the Pennsylvania-manufactured VW Pickup that sold over 77,000 copies between 1979-84.

“Is America ready for a smaller pickup again?” the company asks. “Based on the reaction to the Tarok Concept in New York, Volkswagen has the potential to make one a reality — and bring another distinctive vehicle back to American roads.”

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New Cadillac CT4 roars into subcompact luxury segment

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 3, 2019

The CT4-V infuses the brand’s racing DNA for a dynamic, responsive and exhilarating driving experience.

The CT4-V infuses the brand’s racing DNA for a dynamic, responsive and exhilarating driving experience. (Photo: Cadillac)

Detroit —The all-new Cadillac CT4 is small but fierce.

General Motors’ luxury brand unveiled its entry-level subcompact sedan Thursday in V-series trim, signaling a revamped sedan strategy powered by familiar V-series muscle.

Ditching its old strategy of “tweener” sedans to fight German competitors by straddling segments, the CT4 is aimed squarely at the entry-level products from BMW (2-series), Audi (A3) and Mercedes (A-class). The CT4 comes just months after the New York Auto Show debut of the CT5 sedan which will compete head-on against the compact BMW 3-series, Audi A4 and Mercedes C-class.

Based on the same, athletic Alpha platform as the outgoing Cadillac ATS (and Chevrolet Camaro), the CT4 will likely be powered by a base 2.0-liter turbo-4 as Caddy enters the small sedan segment for the first time.

But first, the CT4 gets V-series muscle.

For the first time in Cadillac’s history, the powerful V-line will be introduced at launch alongside the base car. The CT4 V-series debuted Thursday with a 2.7-liter turbo-4 that puts out 320 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque — with 90 percent of that torque produced at just 1,500 rpms.

“This one is available from day one,” GM president Mark Reuss said the car’s premiere at Eastern Market. “We want to make the V-series more accessible to customers, and they will also be available with rear- or all-wheel drive.”

To complement its athletic bod, the CT4-V will get standard upgrades like magnetic shocks, Brembo brakes (with three color options for the calipers), launch control, 8-inch screen and 18-inch wheels. Though pricing hasn’t been announced for the base CT4 yet, Cadillac says the V-series will come with a $6,000-$7,000 premium.

But wait, there’s more. Reuss said there will be a second, even more powerful V-series available at a later date. “How do you like the Blackwing name?” he asked reporters, referencing the monster, twin-turbo V-8 engine that is exclusive to the CT6-V.

Significantly, too, the CT4-V gets brains to go with its brawn.

Taking a page from the flagship CT6 sedan, it will option Cadillac’s industry-leading, self-driving Super Cruise feature. Super Cruise’s introduction into an entry-level vehicle suggests that Caddy is determined to accelerate the technology into all segments to compete against Silicon Valley’s Tesla. And, like Tesla, the CT4 will improve over time with over-the-air updates.

The CT5 also benefits from Caddy’s new, accelerated V-series strategy (including the Super Cruise option). Its V-option will be powered by a 355-horse, twin-turbo V-6.

The CT4’s proportions are similar to the old compact ATS, and will therefore be large for the subcompact, luxury segment.

Expect the CT5 price to start at around $40,000 when its hits dealer lots late this year, while the CT4’s price should come in around $33,000 when it debuts in early 2020.

The large Cadillac CT6 sedan remains the brand’s flagship even as its future is uncertain after its Hamtramck manufacturing plant closes next January.

The timing of the new V-series cars with the Detroit Grand Prix this weekend was no coincidence. Cadillac’s  DPi-V.R prototype is the dominant car in IMSA sports-car racing and the brand wants to emphasize that as it revamps its lineup to take on the Nurburgring-tested Germans.

“We have a strong racing technology transfer to production story to tell,” said Ken Morris, Cadillac VP for global product. “It’s what makes Cadillac a Cadillac.”

Cadillac’s performance-oriented sedan strategy comes as the brand has refocused on becoming a full-line SUV maker with the XT4, XT5, and XT6 crossovers to complement the truck-based Escalade.

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Detroit Grand Prix player/coach: Racer Simpson’s star pupil is Michigan paraplegic Johnson

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 3, 2019

South African race driver Stephen Simpson comes to the Detroit Grand Prix this weekend with a couple of important Michigan connections. He will co-pilot the blazingly fast, No. 84 Cadillac DPi prototype for JDC Miller Motorsports in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Challenge race.

And when he’s not trying to score points for Detroit’s most famous luxury brand, Simpson is coaching and co-driving in the Michelin Pilot Challenge with another notable local: Lansing’s Michael Johnson, the only paraplegic driver in IMSA pro sports car racing.

Stephen Simpson, left, and Michael Johnson

Johnson put their Audi RS3 on the Pilot Challenge TCR class pole at Daytona this year, becoming the first paraplegic to accomplish that feat. The accomplishment is the latest highlight in the extraordinary career for the 26-year old who was paralyzed from his chest down in a freakish motorbike racing accident when he was 12.

It’s a journey, says Johnson, that would not have been possible without the inspiration and coaching of Simpson.

“I wouldn’t be here without him,” says Johnson, who was born in Mt. Morris but now calls Lansing home. “He’s helped me tremendously throughout my career. He understands my body and where I’m coming from. He is a phenomenal person.”

The feeling is mutual.

“He’s a great role model and an ambassador (for the sport),” says Simpson, who started coaching Michael in 2011. “When we met we just clicked. He’s very quick behind the wheel and he’s still progressing. His goal is to win the Daytona 24-Hour” (America’s premier sports car race).

Unusually, the pair will not be racing together on Detroit this weekend. The sprawling IMSA race calendar usually pairs the Pilot Challenge and WeatherTech races together, but only the latter will be in Detroit. Johnson will be on his way to Watkins Glen for testing – prepping the Audi to race with Simpson the weekend of June 27. Simpson will also be piloting the Cadillac in Watkins Glen.

The co-drivers won their first race together last year at Lime Rock, which was also the first pro win for Johnson. Every accomplishment by the 26-year old is news as he is the rare race driver who competes without the use of his legs in sport that puts enormous G-loads on the human body.

Johnson has succeeded with relentless determination, raw talent … and a little help from his racing peers.

His life changed forever in 2005 when he was momentarily blinded by debris on his visor in a dirt-bike race.

“I’m not sure what happened,” says Johnson. “I ran out of (visor) tear-offs, hit a rut or another biker in front of me and … went through the wood fence. I hit my chest with the handle bars so hard it broke my back.”

He would never regain feeling below his rib cage. Undeterred, he focused on racing as he underwent rehabilitation in 2006.

He and his father traveled to Wisconsin in 2006 to buy a go-kart with hand controls that had been used by racing amputee Alex Zanardi – himself a victim of a horrific IndyCar racing accident that resulted in the loss of his legs.

“Zanardi pioneered a bunch of devices,” says Johnson. “He’s an inspiration that helps me strive to be like him – and perform to the best of my ability.”

Johnson began the long climb up pro racing’s farm league ladder, moving from go-karts to Formula 2000 cars to Pro Mazda. It was there that his life intersected with Stephen Simpson.

Simpson, who is nearly a decade older than Johnson at 35, had recently faced a turning point in his own racing career.

More: IndyCar champion Scott Dixon ‘always excited’ to race in Detroit Grand Prix

More: Detroit Grand Prix continues to build on impressive history

As a 16-year old racing in South Africa, Simpson served notice of his talent, as the youngest driver to win South Africa’s Formula Ford Championship. His skills attracted attention abroad and he graduated to the brutally competitive Formula Renault (Europe) and Indy Lights (U.S.) junior series with dreams of one day racing in Formula One and IndyCar.

Those hopes were dashed by the Great Recession of 2008 and Simpson found himself without a drive. Passionate about his craft, he turned to coaching to make a living.

He and Johnson crossed paths in Pro Mazda in 2011. A powerful bond was formed.

By 2016 they were also sharing a car together in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge (now Pilot Challenge) series, and last year they won their first race – at Lime Rock – in a thrilling pass last-lap pass by Simpson.

In addition to working well together, the pair have similar driving styles, which helps in quick pit stop driver exchanges.

Without use of his legs, Johnson drives with a special steering wheel equipped with thumb-operated accelerator buttons on the front and finger-operated brake buttons on the back. He also must negotiate gear changes with paddle shifters.

Though packed into the Audi RS3 with a six-point seatbelt harness and bucket seat, Johnson has only his upper body to brace against the substantial, 2-plus G-load side forces the race car generates in turns.

Credit his intense off-track training regimen with Lansing exercise guru Josh Gibbs.

When he swaps with Simpson at pit stops, Johnson is helped out of the car by Gibbs. He also takes a seat insert with him to allow for the longer body of Simpson. The South African uses the same steering wheel as Johnson – but uses the Audi’s foot pedals for acceleration and braking.

While the younger Johnson chases his racing dreams, Simpson has continued to build his resume in other areas of the sport. In addition to Michael, Simpson coaches Andretti Motorsports’ Indy Lights team of three drivers – as well as a Formula 4 team. And he was a spotter for JR Hildebrand at last weekend’s Indy 500 race.

His first year racing the Cadillac for JDC Miller is a work in progress. One of six Cadillacs in the IMSA field – Caddy has been the dominant car in IMSA prototype for years – Simpson’s team is striving to match the pace of competitors.

“We’re learning the car every race weekend,” says Simpson. “Our goal is to add to Cadillac’s win tally in the WeatherTech Sportscar Championship.”

 Who knows, someday soon, one of his Cadillac co-drivers might be Michael Johnson.

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Chevy brings back the Trailblazer as a small SUV

Posted by Talbot Payne on May 30, 2019

The 2021 Trailblazer will slot into Chevy's lineup between the small Trax and compact Equinox.

The Chevy Trailblazer is back. And like the sporty, all-new 2019 Chevy Blazer, the compact ute blazes a whole new trail compared to the truck-based, mid-size Trailblazer of old.

The 2021 Trailblazer will slot into Chevy’s lineup between the small Trax and compact Equinox as American continue to gobble up everything ute.

The Trailblazer is also an indication of the fundamental shift of Chevrolet to an SUV-focused lineup after discontinuing the Cruze compact sedan and shuttering its Lordstown assembly plant. Based on GM’s new VSS small-SUV platform (along with the Buick Encore GX that was also announced this Wednesday) the compact, unibody Trailblazer will be built in South Korea where it can also be exported to the Chinese market.

The new ute will get a sporty, RS trim with a face uncannily similar to the mid-size Blazer RS. Fierce, upper running lights with the headlights placed lower alongside a big, gaping grille.

Where the Trailblazer of old (produced from 1999-2009) was made in conjunction with the mid-size Blazer, the new Trailblazer is much smaller than the new Blazer, which is built in Mexico.

The Trailblazer will share interior design with the Trax, but gets more standard features and likely more cargo space.

The Trailblazer, which will hit dealerships early next year, will have standard safety features like automatic emergency-braking and pedestrian braking, as well as lane-keep assist. Though pricing has not been disclosed, expect the Trailblazer to fall somewhere between the $22,295 Trax and $24,795 Equinox.

“This helps replace replace the Cruze in Chevy’s lineup as they continue to offer the SUVs that Americans want,” said Stephanie Brinley, senior auto analyst at IHS Market.

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Payne: Old world Mercedes C300 vs. new age Tesla Model 3

Posted by Talbot Payne on May 30, 2019

The front of the 2019 Mercedes C300, right, is an ornate sculpture of three-star grille and diamond-studded grille. The electric Tesla Model 3 doesn't even have a grille.

The front of the 2019 Mercedes C300, right, is an ornate sculpture of three-star grille and diamond-studded grille. The electric Tesla Model 3 doesn’t even have a grille. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

There are different luxury tastes. Some shoppers like ornate things, others prefer it simple.

Think of a diamond-encrusted necklace compared to a simple stone. A Rolex or an Apple watch. A Tudor home or the horizontal elegance of a Frank Lloyd Wright prairie-style.

Add Mercedes C-class vs. Tesla Model 3 to the list.

These two rear-wheel-drive based icons offer styling that is as dramatically different as their gas-powered turbo-4 and electric powertrains. My $63,000 Mercedes-Benz C300 tester is the old-money classic. The $57,500 Tesla is the new-money rebel. Tuxedo or jacket casual. Grosse Pointe meets Ann Arbor.

Credit Tesla with not just pushing the envelope, but establishing new class aspirations. But look a little closer and both cars want to take you to the same digital future.

After some stodgy years at the turn of the century, Mercedes’ exterior design has emerged as the segment’s fashion plate. From its flowing lines to its diamond-studded grille, it’s palace sculpture.

The Model 3 is a different aesthetic. It’s iPhone simple from sleek shoulder lines to — well, it doesn’t even have a grille, much less one with diamond studs. It eschews badging. The Tesla announces itself from the front with a simple “T” logo. The Mercedes? An “M” would never do. This ship’s bow carries a giant three-pointed star.

Out back, the Mercedes provides more information with C300 and 4MATIC badging on the trunk announcing its unique class and drivetrain. The Tesla is naked. Not even a “3.”

Climb inside under their panoramic skylights and the differences are even more dramatic.

The Mercedes comes with a handsome, weighty doorknocker of a key. The Tesla’s key is a Visa-shaped card that fits in your wallet.

Push the start button and the dapper German’s turbo-4 shudders to life. Slide into the battery-powered Tesla and it’s already on, having recognized your key card (assuming you didn’t summon it from its parking space via Tesla’s phone app). Oh, these Silicon Valley engineers are clever.

The cabin of the Mercedes is like something out of Neuschwanstein Castle. The decoration is exquisite. Lush console wood, chromed oval vents, tanned leather. The steering wheel has more buttons than a Wurlitzer organ. The doors are laid out with so much silverware — seat controls, Burmester speakers — that it could be an ambassador’s dinner table. All that’s missing is a chandelier.

The Tesla is remarkably minimal. A polished plank of wood spans the dash with a giant 15-inch tablet hanging in the middle. The cabin is monochrome black. There are just two buttons on the steering wheel. No vent ornaments. No door-mounted controls. No ornate speakers.

It’s as if Rubens and Mondrian painted a car in the same year.

Behind the divergent designs, however, both automakers have labored to make high-tech, driver-centric products.

Those buttons on the Mercedes steering wheel mean you can thumb through multiple menus without taking your hands off the wheel. More information — navigation, speed limit — is available in a head-up display floating above the hood. Other commands are voice-operated — “Set the cabin temperature to 72 degrees.” Navigating to a destination requires only a direct command — “Navigate to Detroit Metro Airport” — rather than having to enter a full address.

The Mercedes’ commands can be hit-or-miss (this is not the latest MBUX system I recently experienced in the A220 sedan) and will get better with the next generation.

The Tesla is state of the art. Voice commands are as good as your phone. The big screen seems a distraction until you realize that almost everything is automatic — headlights, wipers, even music requests: “Play the Rolling Stones.”

Speaking of automatic, the C300 and Model 3 are desperate to drive themselves.

Don’t let them. These are Level 2 systems far removed from fully autonomous Level 4. But they are competent within limits.

The Mercedes is controlled via cockpit buttons in plain sight. Tesla settings are automatically configured in the screen. Engage the systems (C300 via the cruise-control button, Model 3 via a double pull on the shift stalk) and instrument icons light up letting you know the cars are in charge.

Both systems are true to the road with no ping-ponging between lines. Both can automatically change lanes with the pull of a turn signal (and both are smart enough not to if another car is present). Both will come to a stop behind another car — then start up again. Over time the Tesla’s system proves superior, in part because of over-the-air updates like the new Navigate on Autopilot.

Design is a powerful statement of self. But what will ultimately force your choice between these cars is their power source.

My friend Rick, an experienced luxury-car connoisseur, jumped into both cars and was instantly enamored with the 3’s performance. It’s a tiger. The steering is rooted to the ground, the 307 pound-feet of torque as instant as a lightning bolt. The hills of Oakland County were our playground.

“The Tesla is just so much fun to drive,” he said.

The Mercedes is tight enough, but handling has never been the brand’s forte. The steering is numb, the turbo-4 engine — smooth as it is with a dual-clutch, 9-speed automatic — seems coarse after the Tesla’s liquid torque.

But the Mercedes will go 574 miles (highway) on a fill-up. And when it runs out, it will fill up again at the nearest filling station in just five minutes.

The 325-mile range Tesla, by contrast, is a car for defined commutes. Install a 240-volt charger in your home and draw a driving radius as to where you need to drive. Lansing? OK. Pittsburgh? You’ll need to plan. Sure, the Tesla’s navigation is superb, telling you exactly where Tesla’s network of superchargers are along the way. But each stop requires at least half-hour to top up on electrons.

Speaking of planning, repairs to the Tesla will take a month via mobile service units, since Michigan bans Tesla dealers. There is no such ban on the German’s service centers.

Given the Tesla’s range and service limitations, its strong sales numbers are testament to how different its design is. After last year’s flood of orders (to curious folks like me), sales have steadied at about 6,000 a month — similar to the beautifully decorated Mercedes.

One last detail about these very different masters. The C300 and Model 3 use the same transmission stalk. Just like Rubens and Mondrian used the same sable paint brush.

2019 Mercedes-Benz C300

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

Price: $42,395 base, including $995 destination fee ($63,325 AWD as tested)

Powerplant: 255 horsepower, 273 pound-feet of torque, 2.0-liter turbocharged, inline-4 cylinder

Transmission: 9-speed, dual-clutch automatic

Performance: 5.5 second zero-60 (Car and Driver); 131 mph top speed

Weight: 3,500-4,150 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 22 city/33 highway/26 combined (AWD)

Highs: Supermodel looks; interior by the gods

Lows: Not a toned athlete; MBUX infotainment not in this model yet

Overall: 4 stars

2019 Tesla Model 3

Vehicle type: Battery-powered, rear- and all-wheel drive, 5-passenger sedan

Price: $36,200 base, including $1,200 destination fee ($57,500 RWD as tested)

Powerplant: 271 horsepower, 307 pound-feet of torque, 80.5-kWh lithium-ion battery with electric motor drive

Transmission: Single-speed automatic

Performance: 5.1 second zero-60 (Car and Driver); 141 mph top speed

Weight: 3,549-3,814 pounds (RWD, depending on battery size), 4,072 (AWD)

Fuel economy: 325-mile range (big battery as tested)

Highs: Unique driving experience; planted handling

Lows: Battery range; lack of Michigan service centers

Overall: 4 stars

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That’s a Buick? Encore GX adds another SUV to its lineup

Posted by Talbot Payne on May 30, 2019

The 2020 Buick Encore GX shares the Encore's cute stance, but gains a more premium wardrobe with bigger grille, scalloped sides and remade c-pillar.

The 2020 Buick Encore GX shares the Encore’s cute stance, but gains a more premium wardrobe with bigger grille, scalloped sides and remade c-pillar. (Photo: Buick)

Continuing its transformation as an SUV brand, Buick on Wednesday announced its fourth crossover, the Encore GX.

The GX will slot between the subcompact Encore and the compact Envision in the premium brand’s lineup. The three-row, Lansing-made Enclave is the biggest, priciest Buick offering.

Larger and more luxurious than the Encore, the GX shares its sibling’s name and cute proportions, but will be built on GM’s new small-SUV VSS platform. The smaller Encore is built on GM’s older Gamma architecture. Both vehicles will be imported from South Korea. The Envision is built in China.

In addition to the platform change, the GX gets significant exterior and interior upgrades. The GX’s face receives a bigger grille and more elaborate gills. Rear taillights are also more elaborate, echoing the LaCrosse sedan’s horizontal flourish. The luxury upgrades continue across the body as GX ditches Encore’s black fender-cladding and adds deeper door scallops and a remade c-pillar.

Inside, GX shares the Encore’s horizontal console design, but gains 5 cubic feet of cargo space, leaving it just 3 cubic feet shy of the larger Envision. It will also add premium treats like GM’s rear-camera mirror that first debuted on Cadillac’s swank CT6 sedan.

“The GX fills a hole in Buick’s lineup, especially as its sedans go away,” says IHS Markit senior analyst Stephanie Brinley. She said it’s nicely featured and should do well.

Pricing has not been announced, but expect the GX to start at around $27,000 — between the $24,195 Encore and $33,190 Envision.

Since it was introduced in 2013, the Encore — along with flagship Enclave — has led a Buick brand resurgence.

Encore pioneered the subcompact segment and remains one of the hottest-selling small utes, the industry’s fastest-growing segment. In 2018 the Encore even outsold its mainstream Chevy Trax stablemate, bringing new customers into Buick showrooms.

With the addition of the Encore GX, the Buick also stays ahead of GM’s other premium brand, Cadillac, in slaking America’s thirst for utes. Cadillac has lagged the SUV revolution even as Buick led it. With its new XT4, Cadillac now has three crossovers on sale (the giant Escalade is based on a truck chassis).

The GX takes a page from Jeep and Nissan which have flooded the small crossover space with three offerings. Jeep has the Renegade, Compass and Cherokee. Nissan has the Kicks, Rogue Sport and Rogue. In the premium space, only mega-luxury brands BMW, Audi and Mercedes offer multiple vehicles in the compact SUV space.

Today, 90 percent of Buick sales come from SUVs. Its sedan offerings – once the cornerstone of the brand – will shrivel to one car, the European-made Regal, at the end of this year as the full-size LaCrosse goes out of production with the planned closing of GM’s Hamtramck plant.

The Encore GX is slated to hit dealerships in the spring of next year, and Buick is keeping details close to the vest for now.

A Buick spokesperson said that, in addition to the wardrobe upgrades, the GX would have more power, torque and efficiency than the Encore.

Standard items on the GX will include auto emergency and pedestrian braking, forward-collision alert and lane-keep assist.

Analyst Brinley says that Buick’s decision to pair the Encore’s name with GX — rather than inventing a new name — was a practical decision: “It’s faster and easier to bringing an existing badge to market.”

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Payne: Flagship Arteon is the sexy VW hatchback

Posted by Talbot Payne on May 29, 2019

The gorgeous 2019 VW Arteon is the cure for the common SUV: great looks, hartchback utility, good price. It's only missing a high-horsepower sport version as found on other V-dubs.

Let’s hear it for art.

Some of the country’s most recognizable art is in its downtowns: The elegant “Spirit of Detroit” in Motown. Calder’s “Flamingo” in Chicago. The sculpture that spells “Love” in New York. They break up monotonous landscapes of right angles.

The VW Arteon is like that in the boxy world of SUVs. This stunning sedan sculpture is the cure for the common five-door.

From its finely drawn face to its meticulously stamped clamshell hood (go on, feel the surfacing with your fingers) to its coupe-like roof, the Arteon lives up to its name. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of art in automotive today.

Even amidst the New York Auto Show’s exotic supermodels, the Arteon and Mazda 3 hatchback stopped me in my tracks. Both cars make a statement in classes that have seen sales eroded by ute-mania. Both offer flowing, feline lines to counter the masculine SUV bulk. Both accomplish this while embracing the SUV’s most utilitarian feature — the hatchback.

And both do not fully follow through on their dramatic aspirations. Where the Mazda 3 stops short of optioning a high-horsepower hot hatch, so does Arteon shy from offering a second, more-powerful engine to complement its athletic bod. No doubt their low production volumes test the business case for a second engine.

But as halo designs for the respective brands, they deserve halo performance.

After I picked up my jaw from the ground upon seeing the Arteon again in Solvang, California (“The Danish Capital of the USA”), I slid inside. Defying its coupe-like roofline, its interior is palatial. Credit a wheelbase stretched five inches over its predecessor, the attractive VW CC. That translates into leg room that is six inches longer than a Nissan Maxima and four inches more than a Kia Stinger and Buick Regal — all competitors in the sporty sedan segment.

My 6-foot-5 frame easily sat behind myself in the rear seat. So pick up your friends for a day out — but be sure to tell them to hang on.

Because even though Arteon has the biggest back seat in the VW family (beating even the giant Atlas SUV), it has the personality of hot-hatch siblings Golf GTI and Golf R — my favorite compact toys. Credit a shared platform — VW’s genius, scalable MQB architecture.

Indeed, Arteon is a natural walk for V-dub fans looking to supersize their hatchback Golf into a hatchback sedan. It has the same driving controls, same infotainment system, same driving dynamics.

If you haven’t tested a sportback — the Arteon, Kia Stinger, Buick Regal and Audi A5 — do yourself a favor. Their versatility is the best-kept secret in autodom.

Los Pedros National Forest in southern California is Hell, Michigan on steroids. Its writhing, rural roads stretch for miles. Sporting the same torque-vectoring all-wheel drive system as the Golf R, the Arteon eagerly attacked Los Pedros. Dial the mode selector to Sport and the steering and sophisticated adaptive-damping suspension tighten.

The big car’s dimensions seemed to contract as it rotated effortlessly through corners. Hmmm, you might want to put barf bags in the rear seats for your passengers.

Pushing the Arteon’s limits, I pined for more from its 268-horse turbo-4. VW offers the 220-horsepower GLI over the standard Jetta. And the 228-horse GTI and 292-horse R as Golf upgrades. But halo Arteon gets … nichts?

Pity. After all, VW group has gems in its toolbox like the 394-horsepower turbo-5 holer (found in the Audi TT RS) or the 349-pony turbo-4 in the Audi S4. Heck, the Golf R’s growly 288-horse turbo-4 would do.

Perhaps Volkswagen corporate wants the Arteon to respect the family hierarchy. Give the gorgeous Arteon a sultry mill and I’d never covet an Audi A7 again. At much less than a $70,000, 335-horse Audi A7, the Arteon would be irresistible

Know your place, Arteon!

But that place has already been taken by the aforementioned turbo-4 powered Kia Stinger hatchback, which goes head-to-head against the Arteon until $40,000 at which point it sprouts a 365-horse, twin-turbo V-6 and lays rubber up the road in pursuit of luxe Germans.

Arteon? It is content to stay in its lane and trade blows with the Maxima, Buick Regal and Acura TLX. With their giant, elephant-packing hatchbacks, the Arteon and Regal are my picks here. The Buick steals the value play by adding an all-wheel drive 310-horse V-6 for just $40,000 — less than the comparable all-wheel drive Arteon SEL trim.

The va-voom VW makes its pitch with upscale touches like athletic handling, panoramic sunroof, three-zone climate control and Kurkuma Yellow Metallic paint (yum).

 But VW is taking a risk by pricing with luxe brands like Buick and Acura, and making customers pay al a carte for tech features. Other upscale mainstream brands like Mazda and Kia load their cars with standard features like adaptive cruise-control. Heck, even the Arteon’s younger brother, the $25,000 Jetta SEL, is a catch with standard items like adaptive cruise-control and high-beam assist.

With my preferred Arteon SEL trim, you’ll have to reach to $43,000 to get the (excellent) adaptive cruise-control system and all-wheel drive. I’m a sucker for 19-inch wheels, so tack on $1,250 for those. Then pick from Arteon’s color palette, including the stunning Kurkuma yellow (necks are still spinning in Cali after I drove it past).

Priced in the meat of the U.S. market, Arteon has competition aplenty, even from its own family. The smaller Golf GTI and Golf R come loaded from $35,000 to $40,000. The Atlas SUV will debut a sporty two-row “Cross” version this year that’s aimed at ute heart-throbs Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ford Edge. And there are entry-luxe lookers like Mercedes A-class.

Arteon takes the best from all of them. It beats the Golfs with size while keeping their intuitive, well-engineered interiors and instrument controls. It has more dazzle and more rear seat room (I’m not making this up) than the boxy Atlas. And its looks rival any luxe-mobile.

On my way back from Los Padres National Forest, my mirrors filled with another Arteon and we danced through the twisties.

It was hard to keep my eyes on the road. I kept glancing back in the mirror at that plunging clamshell hood. The hockey-stick LED running lights. Chrome grille lines dragged across the front as if by the hairs of an oil brush.

It’s the art of Arteon, a masterpiece in SUV Nation.

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front- and all-wheel-drive, five-passenger hatchback sedan
Price: $36,840 base including $995 destination fee ($45,940 SEL Premium AWD as tested)
Powerplant: 268 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque, 2.0-liter turbo 4-cylinder (premium gas recommended)
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Performance: 5.8-second 0-60 (Car and Driver est., AWD); 155 top speed
Weight: 3,854 pounds ((AWD as tested)
Fuel economy: EPA 22 city/31 highway/25 combined (FWD); 20 city/27 highway/23 combined (AWD)
Highs: Luxury good looks; nimble AWD handling
Lows: Gets pricey; performance engine option, please?

Overall: 3 stars

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Truck wars: Silverado gets more weapons for 2020

Posted by Talbot Payne on May 22, 2019

New for 2020, the Chevrolet Silverado Trail Boss gets the 420-horse, 6.2-liter V-8, the cheapest truck in class with over 400 ponies.

New for 2020, the Chevrolet Silverado Trail Boss gets the 420-horse, 6.2-liter V-8, the cheapest truck in class with over 400 ponies. (Photo: GM)

In the truck wars, you can never rest on your laurels.

Just a year after introducing an all-new Silverado, Chevy is back for 2020 with a menu of upgrades. Chief among them is its best-in-class 13,400-pound towing capability, dethroning the Ford F-150.

The 2020 Silverado also offers adaptive cruise-control for the first time, a common safety feature that many reviewers found lacking in the 2019 model. The pickup’s performance Trail Boss trim also gets the brand’s signature 420-horsepower, 6.2-liter V-8, making it the most affordable light-duty truck on the market with over 400 horsepower at $43,865.

“In today’s truck market, customers continually demand more features, more technology and more capability,” said chief engineer Tim Herrick. “For 2020 we are delivering more in each of these areas.”

The upgrades build on the all-new Silverado’s lightweight chassis, 10-speed transmission, and versatile, rolled-steel bed options. The truck is offered with a blizzard of options across eight trim lines. For 202,  more than half of those trim levels can be had with the top-dog V-8 paired with the sippy 10-speed tranny – in addition to V-6, turbo-4, and 3.0-liter diesel engine options.

The towing record comes courtesy of pairing the 6.2-liter V-8 with the lightweight, RST model.

The Silverado will need all those tools at it pursues the segment-leading F-150 while trying to hold off the resurgent Ram 1500. Media reviews raved about the all-new Ram last year as it took home an arm-full of prizes including North American Truck of the Year.

After closing the gap on Chevy the last two years, Ram surpassed its rival in the first quarter of this year: 120,026 to 114,313 units sold.

“It’s unlikely these Silverado changes were a response to market sales – and likely has more to do with product cadence,” says IHS Markit senior analyst Stephanie Brinley. “These are both highly competitive vehicles, and consumers are benefiting from the competition.”

The 2020 Silverado also benefits from technology recently introduced on the Silverado Heavy Duty bruiser. Features like 15-view and tailgate-mounted cameras have trickled down to the light-duty truck.

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Payne: Driving down memory lane in the last Volkswagen Bug

Posted by Talbot Payne on May 21, 2019

Seventy years after it came to the U.S., the VW Beetle is retiring -- for the second time (the first retirement came in 1978). The 2019 Beetle prowled the Penn State campus just as the first Beetles did when they took the country by storm in the 1960s.

Seventy years after it came to the U.S., the VW Beetle is retiring — for the second time (the first retirement came in 1978). The 2019 Beetle prowled the Penn State campus just as the first Beetles did when they took the country by storm in the 1960s. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

The Bug has been squashed. Again.

As the iconic Volkswagen retires from the U.S. market for the second time in 40 years, I spent a week driving down memory lane with the final model, the 2019 New Beetle. I took it to its American roots — a college campus — for my niece’s Penn State graduation.

Stylish and peppy, my Final Edition front-engine Beetle has come a long way from the 1960s Beetles that captured America’s youth. Simple and non-ostentatious, those so-called Type 1 Bugs were everywhere on university lots, the affordable first cars of generation Baby Boomer.

The tan 2019 Bug I drove was a curiosity at Penn State; it was a fashion statement that has outlived its fashion. It was also a gem, and its demise opens a flood of memories to late-boomers like me — as it surely did the early-boomers who mourned the passing of the rear-engine Bug in 1978.

Although other classics from the 1960s golden era of the automobile — Mustangs, Camaros, Challengers, Mini Coopers — have proved more sustainable than Beetle, it shares something with them. It’s more than an automobile. It’s part of the cultural fabric.

Detroiters mark decades by Tigers teams, couples mark sentimental occasions with favorite ballads. I mark my years with Beetles.

My first memory of the creature is at the movies.

I come from a family of racers, and “Herbie the Love Bug” was right up our alley. When Herbie hit the screens in 1968, we were there. I adored the quirky car. It was the ultimate underdog among sleek competitors and the dastardly Peter Thorndyke.

I knew nothing at the time about the Bug’s roots in Hitler’s Germany. The Fuhrer’s brainchild for an affordable “people’s car” — hence, Volkswagen — was contracted to Ferdinand Porsche. Porsche himself was a difficult, mad genius whose rear-engine, bug-like design was the template for millions of Beetles to follow.

I doubt the students at Penn State who smiled at the passing Bug know its Third Reich history either.

That’s because it was a Brit who ultimately brought the Bug to the world. In decimated post-war Germany, Hitler-partner Porsche (his son Ferdinand would ultimately start the sports car company that bears that name) was deemed by occupying American forces to be too radioactive to lead the company he started.

British Army Maj. Ivan Hiss rescued the Volkswagen factory and installed an executive team that would export Bug to the U.S. in 1949. It would become as American as apple pie.

Credit New York’s Doyle, Dane, and Bernbach ad agency. With self-deprecating slogans like “And if you run out of gas it’s easy to push,” the Beetle was irresistible. It is featured in Paul Ingrassia’s epic book, “Engines of Change,” as one of the 15 cars (alongside the Model T, Jeep and Corvette) that changed America.

I didn’t know many hippies as I came of age in the ’70s, but I knew plenty of fellow 16-year-olds who cut their teeth on the Beetle. Bugs were as cute as Herbie. But man, that manual transmission saw some ugly shifting.

GROOOOONCH! The sound is still stuck in my head as my friends wrestled the shifter that grew from the floor like a cornstalk, mangling shifts as they worked the clutch.

“What’s a clutch?” millennials might ask today.

My 2019 Bug is available only as an six-speed automatic, and it’s smooth as silk. On a rainy weekend at Penn State, I would toggle Sport mode in the Beetle (an electronic gizmo that would be as alien to Ferdinand Porsche as hyperspace in Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon) and shoot out of a green light, the automatic transmission effortlessly swapping cogs as the front wheels clawed at the wet payment for traction.

Front-wheel drive? The concept was as alien to the original Type 1 Bug as an automatic transmission.

By the late 1970s, governments were panicking over the OPEC-induced oil crisis and forcing manufacturers to make more fuel-efficient cars. VW developed the front-wheel drive, four-door Golf hatchback, which also happened to be more utilitarian than the two-door Bug and its cramped rear seat.

As the Golf thrived, the Bug wilted. VW eventually put it put to pasture in 1978 (it continued production in Mexico until 2003 for foreign markets).

Then VW marketers heard the sighs of late-boomers like me.

In 1996, the Bug kicked off a Decade of Nostalgia that included retro redesigns of cars including the Mustang, Camaro, Mini, Ford Thunderbird and more.

Now a fashion statement instead of a mass-market car, the New Beetle was aimed at women, complete with dashboard flower vase and bright colors right out of my wife’s spring dress collection. The New Beetle was still affordable and sold well initially. Ironically, it was based on the Golf chassis that had killed the original Type 1.

The New Beetle also shares the Golf’s peppy 2.0-liter, 174-horse turbo-4, a long way from the Type 1’s 30-horsepower hamster wheel.

But for all its Golf underpinnings, the New Beetle is unmistakably a Bug. Everything is cute and round: headlights, fenders, shifter base, speakers.

The New Beetle could never expand its female demographic to us motorhead males, though goodness knows the carmaker tried. I took a bright-yellow and black New Beetle to the race track known as the Autobahn in 2014. Dubbed the “Bumblebee” – a Bug with a stinger – it was stuffed with the Golf GTI’s 210-horse four-banger. It was a blast. But what motorhead would pass up a GTI for a Bumblebee?

Dressing it in Herbie’s red and blue racing stripes and No. 53 might have been a better idea.

And so the second-generation New Beetle has come to its natural end. With leather seats, sunroof, push-button start and modern gizmos like blind-spot assist, the 2019 Final Edition is a bargain at $26,000, just like its grandfather. Get it while you can.

Five years ago, on the Beetle’s 65th anniversary, I test-drove a 1949 Type 1 Beetle, one of the first of its kind sold in the United States. For $1,268 new, it had roll-up windows, no air-conditioning and non-adjustable cloth seats. Zero-60? 28 seconds. Top speed? 68 mph. It’s hard to imagine these things once were ubiquitous on American roads.

And it’s also hard to imagine American roads without them. So long, Bug. Something tells me we’ll see another version of you someday.

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Payne: Toyota’s new Supra is fast, furious and ’fordable

Posted by Talbot Payne on May 21, 2019

The 2020 Toyota Supra is a blast to drive fast. The neutral handling means the car changes directions quickly - and can be drifted at will.

The 2020 Toyota Supra is a blast to drive fast. The neutral handling means the car changes directions quickly – and can be drifted at will. (Photo: Toyota, Toyota)

The 2020 Toyota Supra may never have happened without Hollywood.

Three years after the last-generation Supra had been discontinued, the 2001 action film “The Fast and the Furious” cast the car as Paul Walker’s tire-burning co-star. The Japanese sports car became a mega-hit, more coveted in retirement than when new.

“Supra, Supra, Supra. It’s all we heard from dealers and fans, especially on social media,” says 2020 Supra chief engineer Tetsuya Tada. So in 2014 Toyota rolled out a jaw-dropping concept car at the Detroit auto show called the FT-1. Everyone knew it was a Supra tease. Social media went loco.

Five years later the new-generation Supra is finally here. It was worth the wait.

The sexy Supra has its father’s silver screen appeal. It’s a rockin’, sockin’ looker complete with its own glorious turbocharged six-cylinder soundtrack.

At full tilt on the back roads of Virginia and Summit Point Motorsports Park, Supra is addictive. Its quick, tail-happy handling has been tuned with the next “Fast and the Furious” sequel in mind. Its tail-kicking 365 pound-feet of torque comes on like a light switch at just 1,600 rpms. And its adjustable, bolstered seats will keep you comfy for hours of backroads fun.

But the new Supra has also learned from papa’s high-living ways with a smaller price tag and smaller, more-athletic chassis that should make it more accessible to more drivers. Call it fast, furious and ‘fordable.

From the green flag, Supra’s development team made no bones about its target: the Porsche Cayman/Boxster, the best-handling sports car on the planet for under $100,000.

Tag-teaming with the BMW Z4 Roadster — with which Supra shares its chassis and drivetrain — the pair double-team the Stuttgart star. The Bimmer takes on the drop-top Boxster, the Supra takes on the Cayman coupe.

High-five Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda. Overnight, we sports-car junkies have seen our choices double. And at a more affordable price. When the Supra bowed out in ’98, it carried a Cayman-like price tag (adjusted for inflation). While the comparable, inline-6 powered BMW will be priced closer to the Boxster at $63,000, the Supra will cost 10 grand below Cayman (with an even cheaper turbo-4 version possible, too) with more standard features and two more cylinders.

Those two pistons are crucial.

The Cayman once boasted one of the best soundtracks in the sports car genre. Its normally-aspirated, flat-6 mill was heaven at high revs. But Porsche has succumbed to Europe’s green nannies and stuffed the current, so-called 718 generation Cayman with a flat turbo-4. It hits all the performance targets but sounds like, well, an angry VW bug. Fast and … not so furious.

Enter the Supra and its BMW-sourced inline-6.

It’s muffled a bit by its (torque-tastic) turbo, yes, but Toyota has tuned it to the nines with an aggressive note on start-up, piped in cabin sound, and — BRAAAP! — a gargling, farting backfire when you let off the gas.

“Not so fuel-efficient,” says Tada-san, “but it sounds great.” Now that’s a sports car. Let Toyota’s hybrid sedans appease the nannies. Its halo sports car is box-office beefcake.

So how does the Supra measure up to the Cayman on track?

They are surprisingly different, even though the Supra was baselined to the Cayman S and boasts a lower center-of-gravity. It’s even lower than its cheaper sibling, the Toyota 86 with a boxer-4 engine, heretofore autodom’s low-CG standard.

The Cayman feels like it’s on rails around fast turns. Its mid-engine chassis is resistant to the driver’s efforts to hang the tail out. Its dual-clutch transmission is ultra precise, with rapid-fire up/down shifts. Porsche carves apexes like a scalpel.

The Supra, on the other hand, encourages drifting. Tada-san and team tuned the chassis with amateur racers in mind. Miss your turn-in? The Supra’s neutral handling responds aggressively to steering input to rotate the car quickly. The result is a car that — with huge, sticky 10-inch front and 11-inch rear Michelin Supersports — is a joy to drive sideways.

It’s not the fastest way around the track — but it will put a grin on your face. I had to discipline myself around Summit’s tight, Shenandoah Race Track not to hang it out everywhere.

Physics also plays a role. At nearly 3,400 pounds the Toyota is closer to a V-6 Camaro than the 2,888-pound Cayman. As a result, the Supra has more mass to control through corners and is jouncier over severe road undulations. Indeed, the Supra’s speed (117 mph at the end of Summit’s back straight compared to 98 for the Toyota 86) and whippy handling mean some drivers will prefer Toyota’s tidier, 201-horse brother.

Give the handling medal to Porsche — but give the passion prize to Supra.

That passion is underlined by the inline-6. The single-clutch eight-speed transmission doesn’t match Cayman’s sophisticated dual-clutch tranny, but it’s so good you won’t miss the lack of manual option. It keeps you in the meat of the 6’s torrid torque band all the time.

The emotion continues in the styling, which shames Paul Walker’s ol’ high-wing Supra.

I swooned over the FT-1’s nose, which appeared to have been taken right off a Ferrari F1 car. The snout has been modified a bit to accommodate engine air-intake needs, but the finished product is uniquely Toyota and very racy (see if you can tell where the bumper structure runs).

That aggressive look continues across the twin-bubble roof, rocker panels and muscular rear shoulders — my favorite view of the car. It’s a panther ready to pounce. And that big hatchback easily swallowed my luggage, plus a golf bag if that’s your game.

Inside, BMW prevails — which ain’t a bad thing. The remote rotary infotainment dial is very good, as is Bimmer’s monostable shifter. Toyota’s own digital display is properly racy.

Typical of Japanese exterior design these days, the Supra is bristling with fake air ports. But Toyota says they are properly located should tuners want to modify them to get more downforce/engine capability from the car.

Racing, by the way, is integral to Supra. Its “GR” trunk badge references Toyota’s Gazoo Racing team, with plans to enter the car in GT series across the globe. But with its combination of long torque band and short wheelbase, Michigan enthusiasts will find they can push the envelope of the production car on rural roads as well as on track.

Toyota now joins Chevy with a pair of accessible sports cars ranging from the $27,000 86 to the rockin’ Supra.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see them in “The Fast and the Furious 9.”

2020 Toyota Supra

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, 2-passenger sports car

Price: $50,920 base, including $930 destination fee ($56,115 3.0 Premium trim and rare $57,375 Launch Edition as tested)

Powerplant: 335 horsepower, 365 pound-feet of torque, turbocharged inline 6-cylinder

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 4.1-second zero-60 (mfr.); 155 mph top speed

Weight: 3,397 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 24 city/31 highway/24 combined

Highs: Hot bod; obnoxious, snarling inline-6

Lows: Porky; tight fit for a big dude with helmet

Overall: 4 stars

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Payne: How Mustang dominates muscle cars — and Ford’s future

Posted by Talbot Payne on May 15, 2019

At the M1 Concourse in Pontiac, the 2019 Ford Mustang GT350 proved remarkably nimble for a muscle car. Credit increased aerodynamics and tire capability learned from brother GT500.

Pontiac – Mustang is the king of muscle-car sales.

Credit a striking new design, affordable sticker price and relentless introduction of thoroughbreds like the 526-horsepower 2019 GT350 that I just flogged around M1 Concourse’s Champion Speedway. It sounds like a T. rex gargling razor blades and looks like your dreams.

But Mustang isn’t stopping there. The iconic pony has transcended its retro roots to become a brand ambassador to 146 countries — and a new generation of electric-vehicle buyers.

“(Sports cars) is a really important segment for us, we’ve been in it for 55 years. But globally last year we sold 113,000 Mustangs. This is one of our strongest brands and it’s important that it’s around for the next 55 years,” says Amy Marentic, who holds the newly created title of regional product line manager for Ford’s Mustang, Bronco, Raptor and GT.

Her responsibilities signal the importance of touchstone models as the automaker transforms into an EV and SUV maker (to complement its F-series truck franchise).

After eating rival Chevy Camaro’s exhaust from 2009 to 2014, the sixth-generation Mustang has been a runaway sales hit. U.S. sales last year crested 75,000 units, the fourth year in a row it has taken the crown from Chevy and Dodge.

Relentlessly spitting out new model trims, the Mustang lineup is the most diverse ever with a 2.3-liter turbo-4, EcoBoost high-performance turbo-4, V-8 powered GT, V-8-powered Bullitt (after the Steve McQueen movie), convertibles galore, the snarling GT350 and — new for 2020 — the first-700-horse Mustang GT500.

“This is the most customizable year of Mustang ever, between the engine choices, aero choices and models like the Bullitt and GT350,” says Marentic.

Despite competing against a Camaro that has outperformed the Ford in almost every technical comparison, Mustang has won over the segment on passion. That passion is tricky to bottle. Ford was questioned in 2015 about its revolutionary redesign of an icon that had fed on baby boomer nostalgia. But the modern 21st-century design captured a new generation of buyers.

While Camaro priced its more-athletic V-8 powered chassis $4,000 north of Mustang’s GT, customers were left cold by its design and cramped interior. Despite trailing the ferocious,650-horse Camaro ZL1 on track, Mustang stamped its GT350 with the legendary Shelby Cobra badge and turned knees to butter.

“We are proving new vehicles that bring new technologies and the halo strategy of the GT350 and GT500 that bring customers into showrooms,” Marentic at M1 above the din of a passing GT350.

This relentless focus on a mere 200,000 sales segment signals what Mustang means to the company.

When ‘Stang barrels down the back straight of M1 Concourse at 110 mph, its V-8 is more than a thunderclap — it’s the signature sound of a high-tech flat-plane crank, 5.2-liter engine usually found in exotics like the Ferrari California.

More than a straight-line dragster, the GT350 is remarkably nimble around M1’s twisty 1.5-mile thanks to super sticky Michelin Cup 2 tires and rear wing shared with the GT500.

Ford hopes that passion for performance will translate to a new era of Tesla-fighting electric cars.

Coming next year, a four-door crossover electric vehicle bears the unmistakable Mustang three-bar taillights. Rumors that the car will be named the Mach 1 — after a ’60s-trim Mustang — have quieted. But Ford is determined to translate muscle car macho to EVs as part of an $11 billion investment in 16 battery-powered models worldwide by 2022 — as demanded by government mandates and Chairman Bill Ford Jr.’s determination that Ford be a green pioneer.

Mustang pioneered the two-door pony car in 1965. The 2019 GT350 is light years beyond its forefather, the 1965 GT350. With electronically controlled anti-lock brakes and engine systems, the new car inspires hard driving around the M1 track that would turn your hair white in the ’65 car.

But the result is the same. The ’65 GT350 dominated 1960s Trans Am racing. Its namesake is a key reason Mustang is the most coveted muscle car today.

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Payne: Camaro facial hopes to jump-start Chevy’s mojo

Posted by Talbot Payne on May 13, 2019

The 2020 Camaro SS, with its reworked front fascia, instantly received praise from motorhead magazines and Camaro forums alike.

Camaro did an about-face this month as Chevrolet’s iconic muscle car struggles to regain its sales mojo.

The face in question was the 2019 Camaro. It debuted last April to a collective “Whuh?” from its fan base — the latest stumble in the rollout of Chevy’s Holy Trinity: Camaro, Silverado and Corvette.

Despite applause for Chevy’s engineering, General Motors Co.’s volume brand has received lukewarm reviews for its all-new Silverado pickup, and the long-anticipated mid-engine ‘Vette has repeatedly been delayed. Analysts say the miscues are unrelated, but getting each vehicle right is key to the brand’s long-term health.

The signature, V-8-powered SS was unveiled last year with an oddly placed bow tie badge — and a gaping, black maw of a grille that came to represent the black hole that swallowed Camaro sales.

After dominating U.S. muscle car sales from 2009-14, the ‘Maro slipped behind the redesigned Ford Mustang, and then — for the first time in 2018 — fell to No. 3 in the pony car race behind both the Mustang and Dodge Challenger.

While the Camaro has garnered raves as the segment’s best driver’s car — consistently dominating comparison tests by the performance press and even being compared to luxe icons like the BMW M3 — it hasn’t made hearts beat like the Ford and Hellcat-infused Dodge.

Rather, the Camaro was faulted for a too-conservative styling update and an ergonomically challenged interior with the outward visibility of a World War II pillbox.

The 2019 Silverado suffered similar complaints even as it set a new standard for chassis engineering that saved 450 pounds and defied the industry trend toward expensive aluminum construction with a crafty, mixed metals architecture. Yet the model’s uninspired styling — not un-coincidentally following Camaro design cues — and ho-hum interior contrasted with hosannas for Ram’s stylish new 1500 pickup.

The Silverado Heavy Duty introduction also created controversy as its polarizing face became an internet meme.

Ram has been closing the gap to Silverado sales over the last two years (market leader Ford F-series has held steady at No. 1) and then — as its new 1500 garnered baubles like North American Truck of the Year — surpassed the Chevy in the first quarter of this year: 120,026 to 114,313 units sold.

“GM has consistently made good drivetrains and their engineering has been very good,” says veteran Kelley Blue Book auto analyst Karl Brauer. “But it’s the art more than the science where they struggle.”

Team Camaro has not taken the styling criticism lightly: “Customers spoke, and we listened,” said Chevy marketing guru Steve Majoros.

The brand showed a redesigned SS “Shock” concept at SEMA last fall. That mug debuted on the new 2020 model last week and instantly received praise from motorhead magazines and Camaro forums alike.

The SS returns the bow-tie emblem to its familiar place in the upper grille and breaks up the black hole with a body-color bar between the upper and lower grilles.

“It’s great news, the new front end looks so much better,” came a typical comment from the forum (Camaro is in its sixth generation). “My biggest gripes with the 2019 Camaro are now gone.”

Fans certainly have had little to gripe about in performance. The Camaro has been a class leader in handling, power and performance models. Its 650-horse, V-8 powered ZL1 1LE is a track beast, with a lap time around Car and Driver’s Lightning Lapcompetition a full 6 seconds quicker than Mustang’s GT350. Camaro also has been first to market with an affordable, 4-cylinder, 1LE performance package (Mustang follows this year with a competitive turbo-4 variant).

For 2020, Camaro continues that progress by taking the LT1 trim for its V-6 and Turbo-4 models and stuffing it with a 455-horsepower V-8, instantly making it the most affordable 8-holer in the Camaro lineup at $34,9951 — $3,000 less than the SS.

“The new Camaro LT1 is a great choice for those seeking a pure V-8 performance experience,” says Majoros.

The V-6-powered model also gets new gears with GM’s quick-shifting, 10-speed transmission heretofore reserved for the V-8. When the ‘20 muscle car hits dealers this fall, customers will find additional upgrades including a Rally Green color and 20-inch, forged aluminum wheels available on LT, LT1 and SS models.

Chevy hopes the changes will help Camaro turn the corner on sales. Chevy’s coupe makes up 21% of U.S. muscle market share, compared to Challenger’s 23% and Mustang’s 29%.

The bow-tie brand’s biggest gamble comes later this year when the mid-engine Corvette is unveiled in production and race trims. The so-called C8 will be the first Corvette to sport the engine behind the driver, and anticipation has been off the charts even as the super-car has been delayed.

That passion, says KBB analyst Brauer, is what has been what’s lacking in Camaro and Silverado — and bodes well for the Corvette, which features Ferrari-like lines and a range of high-performance mills reportedly mated to a Porsche-like dual-clutch transmission.

“These days you have to make a comprehensively good car,” says Brauer. “It’s not enough just to be well-engineered. It also has to sir passion.”

Chevy has paraded the thinly camouflaged car before crowds in New York’s Times Square and at the National Corvette Museum in Kentucky. Look for its fresh face on July 18.

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Payne: Tesla opens new Toledo center as it fights Michigan ban

Posted by Talbot Payne on May 13, 2019

The Tesla Cleveland-Lyndhurst dealership in Ohio. Unlike Michigan, Ohio allows a limited number of manufacture-owned dealers.

Banned from selling cars in Michigan, Tesla Inc. opened a new Toledo service center on the state’s southern border this month. The move comes as the Palo Alto-based electric car-maker tries to accommodate its growing Midwest customer base while battling Michigan in a closely watched court case.

Michigan has built a regulatory wall against manufacturer-owned dealerships, one of 16 states to do so. Other manufacturers long ago accepted so-called state franchise laws that require automobiles be sold and serviced through independent dealerships.

But as the brash new kid on the block, Tesla is trying to reinvent customer service with online ordering and manufacturer-owned stores like fellow Silicon Valley tech giant Apple. The effort has been met with a cold shoulder from states like Michigan.

Under pressure from the auto dealer lobby, the Snyder administration in 2014 signed into law an amendment strengthening the manufacturer-owned dealer ban. When Tesla applied for its own, Detroit-based service center in 2016, it was rejected under the law. Tesla filed suit claiming “its rights under the United States Constitution to sell and service its critically-acclaimed, all-electric vehicles at Tesla-owned facilities in the State of Michigan.”

The case is still pending in federal court in Michigan’s western district.

In the meantime, Tesla has pursued a strategy of serving Michiganians via Ohio which allows a limited number of manufacturer-owned dealers under its own franchise law. Tesla serviced customers through its Chicago service centers early this decade when it introduced its $70,000 Tesla Model S sedan.

But the service and delivery has grown more urgent in the last two years with the introduction of the $40,000 Tesla Model 3 which has quickly become one of the best-selling luxury cars in America.

Tesla’s 23,000-square-foot Cleveland dealership and service center opened in 2014 and has become the funnel for Detroit-area deliveries. Tesla has augmented it with the new Toledo location, and by flooding Michigan with Mobile Units — mechanics who pay service visits to customers at their homes. The Palo Alto-based company even skirted Michigan law by opening a “gallery” store in the Somerset mall to display its products — though its employees are not allowed to pitch customers.

“Tesla’s ‘Apple’ model doesn’t translate to autos,” says economist Patrick Anderson whose East Lansing-based consulting firm works with dealers, manufacturers, and suppliers. “The economic rationale for these laws include ensuring owners get recall and warranty repairs in a timely manner. Auto dealers have responsibility for recalls, emissions regulations, and tracking VIN numbers. Tesla doesn’t have the financial resources to keep up with those demands.”

The libertarian Cato Institute weighed in on the other side: “In recent years, states and localities have worked to undermine beneficial economic disruption by using state and local laws and regulations to bar startup companies from competing. Trailblazers such as Tesla, Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb are finding market entry barred in places as diverse as Michigan (and) New York.”

Tesla says its Toledo store is necessary as it sees more new owners in Michigan. The company competes against some of the most acclaimed, service-friendly brands in the industry like Lexus and Mercedes-Benz, and it is keen to provide customers with convenient service.

The Toledo location is one of roughly 20 new service centers opened so far this year. Along with maintaining its own supercharging network, dealership overhead has been a big cash burn for a company that has struggled to make profit.

The Tesla formula has been undeniably successful as it has dominated electric vehicle sales in the United States. But with luxury EVs from formidable brands like Audi and Porsche coming to the market this year — in addition to cheaper alternatives like the Chevy Bolt EV and Nissan Leaf — Tesla has competition like never before.

“There’s a good reason every successful manufacturer of vehicles sold in America relies on independent dealers to sell and service them,” says economist Anderson. “The dealers buy the cars and parts from the factory — and pay for the advertising and the buildings at which cars are sold. Dealers could buy enough cars and parts to make Tesla do the one thing they have never been able to do: turn a profit.”

Tesla’s exclusive supercharging network, a key to its success, is also being challenged. Electrify America, a $2 billion national network of fast chargers funded by Volkswagen AG as penance for its costly “Dieselgate” emissions scandal, is starting to penetrate Michigan.

The network has begun to sprout nodes with super chargers that parallel the capabilities of Tesla’s grid. For example, an Electrify America charging station near Kalamazoo has 150 kW capability that boasts 125 miles of range gained in just 15 minutes. Where Tesla’s Kalmazoo charger s only compatible with its products, Electrify America stations are open to all EVs from Tesla to Chevy to Audi.

Tesla has battled in court to win the right to sell in Utah and Virginia as well. The Virginia case is pending while Tesla lost in Utah, only to have the legislature there reverse course and allow the company to sell in state.

A ruling in the closely-watched Michigan case was recently postponed. Some insiders speculate that — with the recent change in Lansing from a business-minded Republican to a green Democrat attorney general — the state may be friendlier to Tesla.

The battle to address a cobweb of franchise laws in all 50 states is formidable, however, and even Musk has suggested that Tesla will eventually have to partner with dealers.

“Before considering taking on any franchised dealers, we first need to establish a solid base with our own stores,” he told the Automotive News World Congress in 2016. “I just think it’s very important to have our destiny in our hands in the early stage. Then we can transition later if we can find the right partner.”

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