Articles Blog

Payne: Best bargains, Mazda CX-5 vs. Subaru Forester

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 21, 2019

Henry Payne compares the 2019 Subaru Forester Sport, left, with the 2019 Mazda CX-5 Signature.

The $30,000 price point is the meat of the U.S. market. It’s where America lives. The average cost of a new vehicle is just over $35,000 and the average vehicle is a compact crossover, the biggest segment in all of autodom.

So it figures that two of the best bargains to be found are at opposite ends of the $30,000-$40,000 aisle: the near-premium Mazda CX-5 and the blue-light special Subaru Forester.

If neither of these vehicles flips your switch, then you need to get your switch fixed.

Pound-for-buck, the Mazda CX-5 is the best SUV on the planet. With premium looks to rival any luxury entry, consider how my CX-5’s top grade, new-for-2019 Signature trim stacks up against luxury’s best-selling compact ute, the Audi Q5.

The $39,155 CX-5 offers the same high-tech standard features — all-wheel drive and leather interior — as a comparable $54,795 Q5, but has more interior room, more cargo room, more horsepower and more torque. That’s right, more horsepower and torque.

At a time when electronics have quickly narrowed the gap between first class and coach, there are many mainstream cars that exude a luxury vibe with premium accessories like adaptive cruise-control, digital instrument displays and sculpted bods. But power has always been the separator.

Until now.

In addition to its trusty 2.5-liter four-banger, the CX-5 is now optioned with the same terrific 2.5 liter turbo-four with 250 horses and 310 pound-feet of torque that’s found in big-brother CX-9. That means two more ponies than Audi, 22 more pound-feet of torque, and .02 seconds quicker to 60 mph. For $15,000 less. Mazda drops the mike.

Through the twisties of Oakland County, the CX-5 is a joy. I flatten the throttle and the 6-speed — despite being a smaller-ratio box than the 8-9 speeds increasingly common today — effortlessly downshifts to the necessary gear, before popping off buttery-smooth shifts as I increase throttle.

The response is aided by that gob-smacking torque number — more than a $50,000 Porsche Macan — and a nimble, 3,825-pound chassis that is 300 pounds lighter than a BMW X3.

But I know what you are thinking, dear reader. That $39,000 is still a lot to pay for an SUV. Especially if exiting apexes under full throttle is not high on your list of ute priorities. You’re just looking for an attractive, daily commuter that can deliver you to your destination sun, sleet, or snow.

If the CX-5 is a bargain Audi Q5, then the Subaru Forester is a bargain CX-5.

Start with looks: The Sport model in my driveway has come a long way from the rough Subaru Tribeca that used to be the face of Subaru. The Forester isn’t in the Mazda’s league — long nose, athletic shoulders, narrow greenhouse — but the Forester is nice to look at.

Carrying Subaru’s standard, signature all-wheel drive, the Forester has the upgraded brand look that attracted Mrs. Payne to the Subaru Impreza back in 2014. An ugly duckling no more, Subaru finally settled on a wardrobe that wouldn’t scare customers. It gets them inside to experience the brand’s wholesome goodness.

My Sport model was aggressively outfitted with a blacked-out grille and red rocker-panel highlights. That sporty look doesn’t translate to the drivetrain, which is a familiar 182-horse four-banger mated to a continuously variable transmission. Though 250 pounds lighter than the Mazda, the Forester won’t inspire you to consume asphalt — but it might encourage you to leave the road entirely.

With multiple off-road modes, the Forester gives off a rugged vibe that will instill confidence in Subaru’s core audience of weekend hikers.

I grunted around a sprawling construction site with the Forester — the Mazda’s pretty chrome kisser and Audi’s expensive price tag discourage such activity — dialing its mode selector to Mud.

The cloth-seat Forester comes standard with the same safety-assist goodies as its more expensive competitors — adaptive cruise-control, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity, blind-spot assist — though the leather-wrapped Mazda’s refinement is a step above with its Audi-like dash. The QX-5 copies the Audi’s tablet-like infotainment screen controlled by a remote rotary knob — but offers better ergonomics versus the German’s overengineered console.

The Mazda’s i-Activsense driver-assist system is terrific. Located in the center of the instrument cluster, it creates an electronic cocoon that keeps you informed as to where other vehicles are lurking (in your blind-spot, for example). Premium looks, premium tech.

The Subaru’s dash is chunkier, its touchscreen within reach for those who prefer jabbing with their fingers. What the Forester lacks in design sophistication it makes up for in customer-friendly ergonomics.

Subaru adds a second console screen above the dash with car-related details of your choice. That thoughtfulness abounds through the cabin as the Subaru bests the Audi and Mazda in nearly every interior metric (Mazda just nips the Subaru in rear leg-room) — most importantly, cargo room.

Where the Audi and Mazda opt for more athletic looks, the Subaru adds a fat caboose for more storage. It’s a reasonable priority, given the five-door-hatch SUV advantage. Even with the shortest wheelbase of the three cars, the Forester’s roomier interior packaging is optimized for the SUV customer.

Brand matters, and the four-ring Audi Q5 has ridden its good looks, athleticism and German engineering to 69,750 in 2018 sales — second only to the iconic Lexus RX as best-selling luxury SUV.

But $55,000 is a lot of dough, and the Mazda and Subaru bring their own brand credibility at a much lower price. Mazda has invested heavily in motor racing over the years to polish a reputation for fun and sex appeal. The influence of the Miata sports car is everywhere, even in this SUV. The only thing missing on my Machine Gray CX-5 Signature tester was Mazda’s sexy Soul Red paint scheme. For another $595, it’s worth it.

The Subaru looks better in mud than in red, and that’s a compliment. As the best compact SUV value money can buy, it sacrifices nothing in utility while still offering a distinctive personality.

Thanks to vehicles like the CX-5 and Forester, customers can shop for the average car without feeling average.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2019 Mazda CX-5 Signature

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

Price: $37,885 base, including $995 destination fee ($39,155 as tested)

Powerplant: Turbocharged, 2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder

Power: 250 horsepower (227 on regular gas), 310 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.2 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 130 mph

Weight: 3,825 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA: 22 city/27 highway/24 combined

Report card

Highs: Luxury ute at mainstream price; terrific i-Activsense surround safety-assist

Lows: Less cargo room; could use a bigger console screen, but I’m reaching here

Overall: 4 stars

2019 Subaru Forester Sport

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

Price: $29,770 base, including $975 destination fee ($31,815 as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder

Power: 182 horsepower; 176 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Continuously variable transmission

Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.5 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 127 mph

Weight: 3,531 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA: 26 city/33 highway/29 combined

Report card

Highs: Standard features galore, tough off-road and on

Lows: Acceleration requires patience; chunky interior design

Overall: 3 stars

First-ever Silverado pace-truck leads Daytona 500

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 20, 2019

Chevy Silverado pace truck at Daytona International Speedway start-finish line. The Silverso is the first pace truck ever for Sunday's Daytona 500.

The headlines report that General Motors is betting on self-driving electric Rivian pickup trucks. But this weekend, GM’s Chevy brand will pace the field in the Daytona 500’s first-ever pace-truck — the hands-on V-8-powered Silverado pickup.

Behind the wheel? None other than NASCAR racing legend Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The blue pace truck is part of a national marketing blitz for the all-new Silverado — remade from the ground up for 2019 — that is the highest-volume, most-profitable vehicle that GM manufactures. With 585,582 in 2018 sales, the full-size pickup was second only to perennial sales-leader Ford F-Series as the best-selling truck in America.

Add up sales of the Silverado, sister GMC Sierra and midsize Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon, and GM sold 973,471 pickups last year — more than any other automaker.

The trucks are cash cows that feed GM’s ambitious investment in electric and autonomous vehicles, including a possible piece of Rivian, an electric pickup maker which promises a semi-autonomous, 400-mile range EV pickup for the 2021 model year.

But for the 2019 model year, it’s all about Silverado.

The new Silverado is distinguished by its narrow headlights and grille — design elements adapted from the Chevy Camaro muscle car, which will be racing against NASCAR Ford Mustangs and Toyota Camrys for the 500 win.

Prior to the pickup, Chevrolet has paced the Daytona 500 a dozen times with pace cars: seven with Camaro and five with Corvette.

GM promises a high-tech future of “zero crashes, zero crashes and zero congestion” featuring driverless, robot electric cars. But Sunday’s race will feature one of the most recognizable drivers of all time, Earnhardt Jr., himself a two-time winner of the 500.

“I’ve had a lot of fun and a lot of success at Daytona over the years, and now I can’t wait to get out on that track in a Silverado,” he said. “Away from the track I’ve driven Chevy trucks all my life, and I’m excited to have this unique experience of pacing the Daytona 500.”

Earnhardt isn’t the first celebrity face behind at the truck’s helm. Emmet Brickowski, the animated star of “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part,” steers a Lego version of the truck through a promotional ad for the movie now in theaters. The truck also makes a cameo appearance in the film.

Lego constructed a full-size version of the Silverado that debuted at the Detroit auto show in January. The Lego truck is at the Chicago Auto Show this week as part of a national show tour.

Chevy is flooding the airwaves with three national ads for the SIlverado to tout its light-weighted steel chassis, best-in-class bed size and remote-drop tailgate. But for Daytona, what really matters on Sunday is the truck’s 106-mph top speed as Earnhardt puts the hammer down and leads the pack of race cars to the green flag.

Payne: Hawaii-inspired Hyundai Kona EV meets Detroit winter

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 20, 2019

The $37,000 2019 Hyundai Kona EV is expensive for a small ute, but is a good Metro Detroit commuter car for those who like EV torque, operation, and have a 240-volt charger in their garage.

I have been to Kona, the beautiful western region of Hawaii’s big island from which the Hyundai Kona electric SUV got its name.

Kona’s sandy beaches, palm trees and temperate climate contrast with the frigid Detroit January snow globe in which I first tested the cute new ute.

The Hyundai EV’s 258-mile battery range might have been calculated in the 80-degree paradise where cars cruise the sun-kissed coast, popping into the Kona Commons Shopping Center charging station to top off on electrons while browsing the local Target. If it had been calculated on my snow-caked commutes around Metro Detroit’s winter tundra desperately seeking a charging station, the figures would have been more modest.

Like half.

Which is a shame because I really, really like EVs like the Kona. The Hyundai is a direct competitor to the Chevy Bolt, the hatchback that beat the Tesla Model 3 to market as the first electric to boast 200-plus miles of range. Like the Tesla and Bolt, the Hyundai’s inherent physics make for a fun, different daily driver.

With its batteries under the floor (Hyundai’s clever architecture can accommodate gas or electric drivetrains without altering interior space), the Kona’s low center of gravity offers excellent handling despite its taller sport-utility stature. And the Kona copies the Bolt’s clever regenerative paddle feature — steering-wheel-mounted paddles that use the electric motor to brake and recharge the battery.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s no Model 3 — the Tesla sedan’s rear-wheel-drive layout puts it on par with the best German luxe athletes. But the Bolt and Kona front-wheel-drive platforms offer better all-weather potential.

Which is why EV’s battery Achilles heel is so maddening.

With temps in the low teens on the last Saturday of the Detroit auto show, I aimed my $44,650 Kona Ultimate model downtown. The robust 64-kWh battery pack stores about 75 percent of the energy of my $57,500 Model 3. But it still packs an impressive 290 pound-feet of torque so I could nail the throttle for quick passes on the Lodge.

Stoplight acceleration is similarly instantaneous. The front tires chirping on the cold pavement for a healthy 6.4-second zero-60 dash (a 10th of a second quicker than the Bolt).

Toggling the regen paddle as well as using the Eco drive-mode setting for maximum regeneration, I never touched the brake pedal on the trip downtown. I told you EVs are different.

But the fun stops at the parking garage. My go-to garage near Cobo has only a few spots for EV charging and they usually aren’t available when I arrive for work. My Saturday luck was better — but as I plugged in to the Chargepoint-managed meter, the clock began to tick. EV courtesy demands you plug in for a limit of three hours before vacating the space for another electron-starved soul.

I returned after two hours having gained 45 miles of range on the 240-volt Level 2 charger. That’s a lot of time for so little range. Especially in Detroit’s cold.

My 28-mile trip home in 20-degree weather sucked 56 miles of range out of the Kona’s battery. That translates to a total battery range of just 129 miles, not the 258 in Hawaii’s climate (Car and Driver got 160 miles in their December test). And it’s a long way from the 360-mile range of the gas-powered, all-wheel drive, 1.6-liter turbo-4 Kona.

Which is why most folks will buy the more affordable, $29,775 gas Kona Ultimate ($15,000 cheaper than the Kona EV Ultimate) I tested last year. And it’s why the Kona EV is only on sale in nine states that mandate zero-emission vehicles (the closest ZEV state to Michigan is New York). If you want it here, you’ll have to special-order.

But, if …

1. you have a second gasoline-powered car for out-of-town trips to grandma’s house, and
2. you just need an EV for Metro Detroit commuting, and
3. you are willing to invest in a 240-volt charger for your garage

… then the Kona EV might just be the car for you. At a base price of $37,495 (without the leather and safety-assist frills of the Ultimate trim) it fills the space promised by the mythical $35,000 Tesla Model 3.

And, like the Model 3, it looks cool — cooler than its geeky, gas-powered sibling. The EV sheds much of the excessive ornamentation (not to mention unnecessary grille to feed the gas-engine air) of the standard Kona for a simpler wardrobe. The grille is replaced by barely noticeable chicken feet that help disguise the front charging plug door. And the cladding has been removed from the mid-face headlights.

The result is the upper running lights — connected by a thin chrome strip — dominate the face like a Tesla Model X SUV.

Add aero wheels and the Kona EV is a looker, even when buried under six inches of snow. I grunted into the blizzard, toggling on the Kona EV’s welcome heated steering wheel and heated seats. Like the Bolt, the Kona is well-appointed inside, including the latest electronic goo-gaws like Apple CarPlay and an e-shifter that opens up a nice sub-console storage pocket.

The EV is limited to front-wheel drive, which puts it at a disadvantage to much cheaper subcompact utes (the gas Kona, Chevy Trax, Ford Ecosport, etc.) as well as bigger, comparably priced compact luxury utes like the Acura MDX or Cadillac XT4.

Managing 290-pound feet of torque through the front wheels on a zero-60 run is fun. But in snow, it’s diabolical as the Kona EV’s traction-control system struggled to manage grip.

On hills, traction-control would starve power, forcing me to flick off traction-control altogether and claw my way to speed, the front tires flinging snow like a dog digging for a bone. Ah, my kingdom for all-wheel drive.

All this churning about in snowy, 21-degree conditions continued to burn nearly two miles of battery range for every mile traveled (not to mention about 10 miles in vampire losses overnight in the cold).

Like other EVs, Kona is a niche product for enthusiasts looking for something different — one-pedal-driving, drive-by-paddle, spartan design — that never has to visit a gas station.

But its optimal performance would be realized by someone living in Kona, Hawaii. Which is where all us freezing Detroiters would like to live about now.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2019 Hyundai Kona EV

Vehicle type: Front-motor, front-wheel drive, five-passenger SUV

Price: $37,495 base, including $1,045 destination fee ($45,695 Ultimate model as tested)

Powerplant: AC motor with 64-kWh lithium-ion battery pack

Power: 201 horsepower; 290 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: One-speed direct drive

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.4 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed: 110 mph

Weight: 3,767 pounds

Fuel economy: 258-mile range (129 miles observed in polar vortex)

Report card

Highs: Snazzy looks; all-season utility

Lows: Pricey for a subcompact ute; range plummets in cold temps

Overall: 3 stars

GM, Amazon eye electric-truck maker Rivian

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 13, 2019

The fully electric Rivian R1T pickup. GM and Amazon are reportedly in talks to invest in the Plymouth, Mich.-based company.

The hottest thing at the Los Angeles Auto Show this year was an electric-truck maker not named Tesla. That may be why General Motors Co. and Amazon.com Inc. are reportedly in talks to take minority stakes in Rivian Automotive LLC.

The Plymouth-based company shocked the industry in Los Angeles with a mature prototype of its R1T pickup that is targeted to hit the market in 2021. Tesla, which has said it is developing an electric pickup, has not showed a prototype.

A potential deal with GM would make a lot of sense, given GM’s ambitions in the electric vehicle and autonomous space where it has promised “to create a world with zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion.”

Details have yet to be finalized, and people familiar with the situation cautioned that no deal is certain. Reuters reported that investments by the two companies would value Rivian at between $1 billion and $2 billion.

Amazon declined comment. Rivian and GM issued statements praising one another without denying the reports: “We admire Rivian’s contribution to a future of zero emissions and an all-electric future,” GM said in a statement. And a Rivian spokesperson said: “We respect GM’s vision of the future of mobility but have no immediate comment on this story.”

The stylish 400-mile-range pickup shown in Los Angeles looked unlike anything else in the market. Rivian promised a roomy battery-in-the-floor, “skateboard” architecture aimed at upscale, outdoorsy customers who buy Range Rovers. Its base $69,000 model boasts clever “frunk” storage behind the grille and a Tesla-like 105-kWh battery. An upscale, $100,000-plus model would increase that to 180 kWh and a range of 400 miles.

But it wasn’t just the specs that impressed investors. It was Rivian’s mature business model.

Rivian founder and CEO R.J. Scaringe, a 36-year-old Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate, had assembled a team of 700 employees to work on the Rivian pickup and its sister SUV, the seven-seat R1S. Half of the employees — including industry luminaries like ex-McLaren director of engineering Mark Vinnels and ex-Jeep design chief Jeff Hammoud — were located right under the Detroit Three’s noses in Plymouth.

With $450 million raised from a Saudi Arabia-based investment group, Japan’s Su­mitomo and London’s Standard Chartered Bank, he had purchased Mitsubishi’s ex-manufacturing plant in Normal, Ill., with plans to pump out 20,000 units in 2021.

Like Tesla, Rivian plans to build a national supercharging network for its vehicles.

A potential investment by GM and Amazon into the electric-pickup maker would be consistent with the companies’ deepening interest in the autonomous vehicle space, especially for the Detroit automaker. And it would continue a quickening trend in the space: partnering with rivals to manage the staggering costs and complexity of development of EVs and autonomous-vehicles, and to move quickly for competitive advantage.

GM is in a race, not just with Tesla but with cross-town rival Ford Motor Co. to create an electric pickup. Pictures of Ford’s all-electric pickup have leaked online in recent days.

GM’s has consistently followed a strategy of entering into partnerships to push new technology. The company outsourced significant work on its electric Chevrolet Bolt — primarily to LG to develop the electric drivetrain — according to manufacturing consulting firm Munro & Associates.

The Bolt is the cornerstone of GM’s Cruise Automation LLC subsidiary, another joint investment with Honda Motor Co. which plans to bring self-driving cars to market later this year.

“Entering partnerships with a company like Rivian would be consistent with GM’s ‘best-in-breed’ outsourcing strategy,” says veteran truck expert Andre Smirnov of TFLTruck.com, who cites previous GM truck partnerships for its Duramax engines and Allison transmissions.

Just last week, Aurora Innovation Inc. — an autonomous technology start-up led by Chris Urmson, one of the founders of Google autonomous vehicle unit Waymo — said it had raised $530 million from an investor consortium that included Amazon and Sequoia Capital, which secured a board seat with Aurora.

For GM, an investment in Rivian would extend its record of securing tie-ups to speed its way to realizing its all-electric future. Last May, GM said SoftBank Vision Fund would invest $2.25 billion in its GM Cruise LLC unit to commercialize autonomous-vehicle development. And in October, Honda Motor Co. agreed to invest $2 billion over 12 years to jointly pursue large-scale deployment of self-driving technology.

“Together,” GM CEO Mary Barra said in a statement outlining the Honda partnership, “we can provide Cruise with the world’s best design, engineering and manufacturing expertise, and global reach to establish them as the leader in autonomous vehicle technology — while they move to deploy self-driving vehicles at scale.”

Payne: The 1,000-hp Chevy Suburban mega-ute is here

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 13, 2019

Specialty Equipment Engineering introduces the 2019 High-Output Chevy Suburban Stage II supercharged mega-ute. The SUV is claimed to be the first three-row SUV to make 1,000 hp.

Move over 700-horsepower Dodge Challenger Hellcat and Ford Mustang GT500. Here come the 1,000-horse mega-utes.

Car-mod shop Specialty Vehicle Engineering this week announced its 2019 Chevy Tahoe and Suburban SUVs — the first, 1,000-horsepower, three-row SUVs. That’s five-door, three-row family utes with four-digit horsepower — or 30 percent more than America’s most storied muscle coupes.

The Chevy SVEs follow the 1,012-horsepower, two-row, Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk from Hennessey Performance Engineering as utes have joined sports cars in the horsepower wars.

“The SVE SUVs are for customers who want to have something different than what’s in their neighbor’s garages,” says SVE president and founder Ed Hamburger. “Size matters.”

A veteran aftermarket performance engineer, Hamburger cut his teeth in drag racing and NASCAR before going into the specialty cars business last decade. While not a household name like Detroit’s Lingenfelter or Roush, Hamburger’s companies claim status as GM’s No. 1 specialty carmaker and have pushed out an eye-popping 65,000 GM-mods in the last two decades.

SVE also sells the Yenko Camaro and Corvette — 1,000-horsepower versions of Chevy’s iconic sports cars (licensing the famous Yenko muscle car badge of 1960-70s fame) so you can have a diverse garage of four-digit horsepower beasts. Other SVE products include 800-horse upgrades to the Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups and the Cadillac Escalade luxury SUV.

Like Roush and its Ford partnership, SVE’s mega-utes can be ordered at participating local dealerships. Chevy ships your SUV to Tom’s River, New Jersey, where Hamburger and his mad scientists work their magic. The finished vehicle is then sent to the dealer for delivery.

On top of the cost of a new, $51,455 Tahoe/Suburban, SVE’s so-called Stage II High Ouput Series, 1,000-horse package will set customers back a healthy $66,995.

At its core is a custom-built version of Chevy’s monster 6.2-liter V-8 engine. Hamburger bores it out to 6.8-liters, then stuffs it with a forged steel crankshaft, forged aluminum pistons, and super-sized supercharger. For less-deep pockets, SVE makes a Stage I, 810-horsepower version available for a mere $44,995.

Both versions are warrantied for three years/36,000 miles or until it sucks dry the world’s oil reserves.

Hamburger leaves performance spec numbers to the nut magazines, but says production tires limit top speed to 155 mph. Throw on performance-rated rubber and he estimates it will hit 180 mph before aerodynamics cry foul. That should get the family to the cabin up north — where the mega-ute can pull stumps out of the ground with its 875 pound-feet of torque.

The sleeker Yenko Camaro and Corvette mods are 200 mph-plus capable. SVE’s V-8 mills meet U.S. (and Michigan) emissions standards, but not the more stringent standards set by California and 13 other states.

To distinguish it from the average, 355-horse Chevy hauler, the SVE comes with dual, stainless-steel exhaust tips blowing out the side, 1,000-hp badging on the hood and tailgate, and special embroidered headrests.

For those concerned this is too stealthy, options include 22-inch chrome alloy wheels, satin-finish clear-coat paint wrap, and a suspension package that will lower the steel rhino two inches.

If GM products aren’t your bag, check out HSV — Hamburger’s Specialty Vehicles — which makes high-powered Jeep and Dodge mutants as well.

For more information visit Specialty Vehicle Engineering at www.specialtyvehicleengineering.com

From Daytona to EVs, trusty Mustang is Ford’s performance future

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 11, 2019

Ford will debut its 2019 NASCAR Mustang at Daytona 6500 qualifying February 9-10. The car will race for the first time February 17 at the Daytona 500.

A pony shall lead them.

Ford Motor Co. may be transitioning to an SUV and pickup brand, but the iconic Mustang muscle car is set to be the performance face of the company from its new electric crossover in 2020 to a Mustang-dominated, global racing lineup starting this year.

The Mustang will debut this weekend at Daytona 500 qualifying as Ford’s NASCAR model, replacing the Ford Fusion sedan. With a Mustang Funny Car dragster also bowing this weekend at the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals outside Los Angeles, the pony car will carry the Blue Oval’s flag into battle from the Australian Super Cup Series to GT racing in Europe.

“The Mustang started to go global for its vehicle sales in 2016. We wanted to mirror that with our race team,” says global chief of Ford Performance Motorsport Mark Rushbrook. “As Mustang street cars have true global reach and availability, then we are switching cars to a Mustang in all of our global race series where appropriate.”

The Dearborn automaker is going through wrenching global changes from abandoning its car lineup to investing in an autonomous-development-focused Detroit train station to introducing 40 electric vehicles by 2022.

But the Mustang’s signature, shark-like face and vertical-bar taillights will lend familiarity. The Mustang is now on sale in 146 countries and is the best-selling sports coupe in the world.

The Fusion sedan will no longer be pounding around the high bankings of Daytona International Speedway this weekend. Defending Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champ Joey Logano and his Bloomfield Hills-based Penske racing team will lead 14 Mustangs into qualifying. The 500-mile race will be held Sunday, Feb. 17, before a TV audience of over 9 million viewers.

Rushbrook’s Ford Performance team took advantage of NASCAR’s new, 2018 rules which allowed manufacturers to enter a coupe as well as the traditional sedan nameplate. Ford’s pony will join Chevrolet’s Camaro coupe — which debuted last year — and Toyota’s Camry sedan in this year’s Cup series.

“We believe we’ve designed the Mustang to be faster than the Fusion,” says Rushbrook, though he acknowledges you never know until race day. “Based on our computational fluid dynamics tools, scale wind-tunnel testing, and full-scale wind-tunnel testing — and the few on-track tests we’ve had — we’ve made a good move. But until the real race, we never know for sure, so there’s always some level of nervousness.”

Building Rushbrook’s confidence are new NASCAR aerodynamic rules, meaning every team had to start from scratch. Under the hood, the NASCARs still will be powered by familiar ol’, push-rod V-8s (though restricted to 550 horsepower for big ovals and 750 horses for small tracks and road courses).

NASCAR hopes the Mustang-Camaro rivalry will jump-start sagging ratings. And Ford hopes its pony car’s racing presence will help sell an all-electric crossover coming in 2020 — complete with fast-back Mustang design DNA.

The e-crossover’s sound will be decidedly un-V-8-like, but Ford is determined to translate the Mustang’s personality into a speedy, Tesla-like EV.

“We’re going to change a lot of people’s minds,” Ford global markets boss Jim Farley has told investors, promising a fast green ute that appeals to more than tree-huggers.

At the top of the go-fast pyramid will be Ford’s 2019 Mustang Funny Car.

NHRA Funny Cars are essentially Top Fuel slingshot dragsters with car bodies. Compared to the Mustang Cobra Jet dragster (also set to debut at the Winternationals) and its production-based engine, the Mustang Funny Car is a unique species. Over a mere 1,000 feet, the earth-shaking, V-8-powered rocket will reach 330 mph in less than the four seconds. It generates over 10,000-plus horsepower — more than the first five rows of the Daytona 500 field combined — from eye-watering nitro methane fuel.

“NHRA is is so far removed from anything that it’s difficult to use our analytical engine tools,” laughs Rushbrook, who says Ford Racing contributes its drive-train technology to every other race series it competes in. “They do their own engine works. We help them with aero only.”

The first Mustang redesign for Funny Car in almost a decade, the Mustang will line up against entries from Dodge (the Charger Hellcat introduced last year) and Chevy (Camaro run by NHRA legend John Force).

“It’s great,” smiles Rushbrook at the prospect of Detroit’s Big Three going to war on the drag strip. “Competing against other OEMs is part of the reason we want to be in motor sports.”

In addition to NASCAR, Mustang and Penske also will pair up on the other side of the globe for the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship.

Kiwi hot foot Scott McLaughlin will be defending his championship for Penske in the newly-badged Mustang Supercar. The ‘Stang replaces the outgoing Falcon nameplate though the underlying chassis and 650-horse, V-8 power-plant remain the same.

For the most direct transfer of race-to-street engineering, Ford is sending its production-based GT4 Mustang overseas this year. Similar to the car that has dominated IMSA’s Sportscar Challenge series, the pony will thrill fans in Europe as well as Down Under.

“The GT4 has a lot of direct relevance to our street program — it uses the same car body and minor modifications to suspension,” says Rushbrook. “Like global street-car sales, it gets global homologation so we can do one car, one design and it can be sold to race around the world.”

Behind the Mustang juggernaut will be other Ford models, of course. The gorgeous Ford GT in IMSA GTLM racing and the the Ford Fiesta in off-road rallying.

But a new era of Mustang performance is leading a new era for Ford.

“It’s my passion and I absolutely love what we’re doing,” says Rushbrook. Which is a good thing — because he’ll be wiping the tears from his nitro-stung eyes in California Friday night to take the red eye to Daytona for Saturday qualifying.

Chicago Auto Show picks up where Detroit left off

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 11, 2019

Chicago Auto Show

Mercedes and BMW are stiffing the Chicago Auto Show this year, just as they did with the Detroit show. Beginning Thursday, the Windy City will open to single-digit temperatures and 20 mph gusts off frigid Lake Michigan. There will be few show-stopping reveals from any of the major automakers.

And show organizers are just fine with that.

While the Detroit auto show is undergoing a major overhaul from January to June 2020 to re-energize automakers and rebrand itself as a summer show, Chicago is content with its lot in life as a winter showcase.

“February just works for us because it’s a long winter and we have 1 million square feet in McCormick Place to stretch our legs,” says show general manager Dave Sloan. “We had a sunny weekend a couple of years ago and it hurt our attendance. It was too nice outside.”

McCormick Place, of course, is the Second City’s massive 2.7-million-square foot downtown convention center. Even utilizing less than half McCormick’s sprawling footprint, the Chicago event is the largest auto show in North America.

Despite the absence of major premieres and the two luxury-makers, the sheer size of Chicago’s showcase still commands the presence of every other major automaker. And with Detroit vacating its winter show spot next year, Sloan thinks Chicago might become even more of a media attraction if automakers choose to debut their 2021 models in McCormick.

“We’re happy to have a little more space in front of us,” says Sloan, adding that he hopes being the first 2020 show will bring more big reveals. “We know how important the media preview is. We know it’s a small pie but hope to get a bigger piece of it.”

In the meantime Chicago will welcome some 20 new media reveals over the next two days that will largely feature trim upgrades and anniversary editions of existing models.

The exception will be the new Range Rover Evoque SUV and Subaru Legacy sedan, both important high-volume vehicles for their brands.

The Evoque will debut at the Chicago Economic Club, then make its way to the show floor where the English automaker has constructed a 16-foot hill so show-goers can sample its off-road chops — and ogle the brand’s first 48-volt mild-hybrid drivetrain.

A sexier Legacy tries to hang on to mid-size sedan customers with Subaru’s signature all-wheel drive and a Tesla-like tablet screen.

Reveals will also include a sport-trim of the Cadillac XT5, a first public look at the Chevy Silverado Heavy Duty pickup, and a new V-8 powered Ford F-series heavy duty. More Detroit-based automaker reveals include a special “Cranberry Wine-stitched” edition of the Chrysler Pacifica minivan — celebrating 35 years of Chrysler vans — and an eyeball-burning “Sublime” green upgrade to Dodge’s muscle-car lineup.

Rumors have it that a special-trim Alfa Romeo and Ram truck might sneak into the show as well.

From foreign automakers will come a powerful version of the Volkswagen Jetta called the GLI (think of the iconic Golf GTI hatchback but in sedan form). The snazzy Kia Sportage compact SUV gets a facelift for 2020. Filling out the menu are tasty snacks like a 30th-anniversary Mazda Miata sports car and a special-edition Nissan Pathfinder.

“We’re going to celebrate America’s love affair with the car. There are a lot of cars to be sold between now and autonomy,” says Sloan.

After the last of the estimated 3,400 members of the automotive press snap their pictures Friday, the party really gets started.

Chicago society comes out for a big charity bash Friday night — shades of Detroit’s Charity Preview — to raise over $2 million for good causes. Then the fans start to line up for the public show Saturday morning.

“The magic happens in Chicago at 9 a.m. on Saturday and we don’t even open until 10. People line up outside because they want to run back to the Jeep test track – it’s like a riding a roller-coaster and they never get tired of it,” says Sloan.

The Jeep track is one of four indoor tracks that help pack in the customers. “Managers call it dwell time,” says Sloan of the opportunity for customers to experience cars as well as be approached by floor staff.

There are six more ride experiences outside McCormick, a tradition that has inspired shows like Detroit to do their own.

The show doesn’t give official attendance figures, but it is widely considered to be the best-attended in the country.

Sloan, who runs the show on behalf of the Chicago Automobile Trade Association, is aware of the winds of change buffeting the industry and its marketing shows.

“We have to figure out where auto shows are going,” he muses. “Times are changing and we need to know how to keep bringing consumers to the show.”

Being the country’s biggest, best-attended stage has its advantages. Especially now that it will be the first calendar-year 2020 show in the U.S.

“This is still a very effective way of allowing automakers to market their products,” smiles Sloan.

Chicago Auto Show
Media days: Thursday and Friday
Public days: Saturday through Feb. 18

Payne: Hybrid Toyota RAV4 will git ‘er done

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 7, 2019

The 2019 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid is solid in the snow with AWD, and a chassis and independent suspension more refined from the previous gen.

Michigan winters concentrate the mind on transportation fundamentals.

Mother Nature cursed the first public day of the Detroit auto show this year with six inches of snow, and I waded through it in my 2019 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid tester — along with thousands of other job-bound Detroiters — to get downtown from Oakland County.

Snow has a way of de-romanticizing everything on the road.

I passed a muck-covered white Jaguar F-Pace that looked like a Victoria’s Secret angel splashed by a mud puddle. I churned past a Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk crawling along the Lodge’s left-hand lane at 20 mph, its white-knuckled driver oblivious to the steed’s enormous four-wheel drive capabilities. I rolled by a black Mercedes C-class, its sculpted body lines obliterated by salt wash.

My snow-covered RAV4 didn’t look much different than these design icons. But the Toyota is hardly a wallflower.

Spurred by its colorful CEO, Akio Toyoda, the brand has gone on a creative design binge that is sometimes wonderful, sometimes wacky. File the new Supra sports car (just unveiled at the Detroit auto show) as wonderful with is racy, LeMans prototype styling. For wacky, shield your eyes from the new Camry which looks like it was dressed by Marvel Comics with its racy lines and Ant-Man mask.

The RAV4 is changed dramatically since the last-generation car, which I liked very much. The new RAV4 is much more masculine, trading the previous generation’s round fenders and sleek roofline for a more muscular look. Fenders are squared off, the stance more upright, the rear lights chunky — finished off by a grille that comes straight from the best-selling Tacoma pickup.

In a female-friendly family segment, I’m not sure the pickup look is the way to go, but the RAV4’s truck-like capabilities were certainly appropriate for my snowy Saturday commute.

Sitting high off the ground, I toggled Trail mode in my Hybrid Limited model and plunged into the elements.

The 2019 RAV4 offers three different all-wheel drive systems — two for gas-engine models and one that is unique to the Hybrid. The Hybrid’s system uses the gas engine to drive the front wheels, and an electric motor to drive the rear. A Trail mode features brake-torque vectoring that can throw more power to the wheel that has the most traction (think limited slip-differential on a sports car). I can’t quibble with the engineering, but I couldn’t tell the difference in Trail or Normal mode.

I effortlessly drove the 3,800-pound beast around snowy  corners. The Toyota’s nanny systems intervened. But unlike the last generation which would nearly stall the car by cutting fuel, the systems of the new truck ultimately gave up as I applied more throttle for more fun fish-tailing.

Once on the Lodge, however, I was all business, and the Toyota negotiated the clotted byway with cheery confidence. It showed off good traction, predictable handling … and, um, none of its ballyhooed standard features.

The RAV4 may be a bargain with standard radar- and camera-based adaptive cruise-control and lane-keep assist — but the car was as blind as a bat in the snowy conditions.

I toggled adaptive cruise-control. Nothing.

I applied the lane-keep assist. Nothing.

The only safety-assist system that worked on the Toyota was blind-spot assist, which was useful for checking for wayward cars (on snowy roads, folks just make up lanes).

Autonomous cars may be testing in sunny San Francisco and La La Land, but the real test is here in the Midwest where inclement weather plays havoc with the car’s eyeballs. My car’s RAV4’s assist system were AWOL, reducing the Toyota to basic transport.

Which is what Toyotas do very well.

Folks who have to get to work on time — or get the kids to school on time, or get to the airport on time — need reliable transportation no matter the weather. And they have for years now consistently turned to good ol’ Toyota appliances.

For the sixth straight year, the RAV4 scored a 5 (out of 5) reliability rating in Consumer Reports testing.

Which means when Detroit’s a 15-degree snow globe, the RAV4 will start, drive, fit the family and get you to your destination on time without breaking the budget.

About that last thought. “Hybrid” and “budget” don’t usually share the same sentence, yet Toyota’s hybrid is a better vehicle than the standard, 2.5-liter model in every way. For just $800 more, the hybrid is quicker zero-60 and returns a whopping 11 mpg better fuel economy (39 mpg vs. 28). Which means the fuel-savings will earn back back the difference in three years. On paper, anyway.

In 400 miles of wintry travel under my lead foot, my RAV4 returned just 30.1 mpg. Michigan winters have a thing or two to teach La La Land on real-world hybrid mpg, too.

But while monitoring roads, blind-spots and left-lane lollygaggers loping along at 20 mph, it’s comforting to have a car with intuitive ergonomics. It is here that RAV4 has made its biggest step over the previous gen.

The interior is not only more handsome with a digital instrument cluster and raised tablet touchscreen, but the console is much improved.

The annoying, notchy shifter has been replaced by a smoother model. Under the raised touchscreen is a big cubby for throwing French fries and wallets. And phones, which remain essential for navigation in the RAV4 since its own navi system is subpar and Android Auto for my phone isn’t offered (happily, for you iPhoners, Apple CarPlay is available).

The terrain modes are efficiently packaged next to the shifter. Only Toyota’s habit for stuffing too many buttons on the left-of-steering-wheel dash panel is distracting. Searching for the heated steering wheel button somewhere around my left knee is not where I want my eyes to be when I have a snoot-full of snow coming at me.

Add it all up and the $37,000 RAV4 is a worthy vehicle — if still shy of the Mazda CX-5 for best all-around all-star in class. The 2019 RAV4 will likely retain its top-dog sales status — and the hybrid model should replace the iconic-but-fading Prius as the brand’s best-selling green vehicle.

As I churned past an awesome, $70,000 Ford Raptor on the Lodge, I smiled. For half the price, the RAV4 would deliver me to my destination just as safely but more efficiently.

That, in a nutshell, is what Toyota delivers. Fundamentals.

2019 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid

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

Price: $28,795 base, including $1,095 destination fee ($36,795 Limited model as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder mated to electric motor and nickel-metal hydride battery

Power: 219 horsepower (total hybrid system output)

Transmission: Electronic continuously variable transmission (e-CVT)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.6 seconds (Motor Trend); towing capacity, 1,750 pounds (mfr.)

Weight: 3,800 pounds (Limited as tested)

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

Report card

Highs: Hybrid affordability, Toyota reliability; much-improved interior ergonomics

Lows: Butch design not for everyone; no-thrills driving experience

Overall: 3 stars

Good Tesla, bad Tesla: duality vexes hot-selling brand

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 4, 2019

Tesla is a study in contrasts. Its Model 3 is the best-selling luxury vehicle in the U.S. – eclipsing models from formidable foreign brands like Lexus, BMW and Audi – yet the Silicon Valley-based company still must convince the financial community that it is a sustainable business.

Key to that goal is making a high-tech product with consistent quality. One of the riddles of Tesla is that it has designed one of the industry’s most advanced automobiles, yet struggles to manufacture it.

Two examples illustrate the opposite faces of Tesla.

After disassembling a Model 3 last year, veteran manufacturing consultant Sandy Munro of Munro & Associates said the car’s electronics and battery systems are “not a generation – but generations beyond what any other manufacturer is doing.”

Yet, the same time Munro was assessing the Model 3 in his Auburn Hills shop, Tesla was hiring an automotive supplier in California to patch up paint problems as cars emerged from its Fremont, California, manufacturing facility. With customer vehicles piling up in lots with unacceptable paint finishes, experts were called in to touch them up before delivery.

In Auburn Hills — the Model 3 spread out in pieces before them — Munro and his associate Mark Ellis marveled at the technology that underlies the rear-wheel drive, 310-mile range sedan.

State-of-the-art control systems are laid out in microscopic detail across green circuit boards. Wiring is minimal. There is no fuse box. High-voltage cables are many feet shorter than competitors. All is neatly packaged and sealed away below the car floor.

“This car is a paradigm shift in automotive technology. This is an electronic car assembled by Silicon Valley engineers using smartphone and laptop-quality engineering,” said Munro.

He added that Tesla’s regular over-the-air electronic updates are “several leaps ahead of the industry.”

The sci-fi tour continued on tables housing battery and electric-motor systems that Munro says have leap-frogged competitive systems from the BMW i3 and Chevrolet Bolt EVs laid out nearby. The Tesla batteries are more efficient, more powerful, more flexible.

The two engineers still marvel over the electric motor 10 months after they first extracted it from the car. At $754 per unit, its advanced magnetic design is not only considerably cheaper than the $841 BMW and $836 Chevy units, but is smaller, lighter, more capable.

“It has a much, much different level of performance. It blows the other automakers out of the water,” Munro said. “The Detroit boys better wake up and smell the roses. It’s not just autos. Tesla is more advanced than the aviation and defense industries we also assess. We benchmark other systems to what Tesla is doing.”

But when it comes to manufacturing, Tesla trails the pack.

An employee with an industry paint supplier spoke to The Detroit News, disclosing that the contract they entered into with Tesla to fix paint flaws was unprecedented.

As Tesla struggled to meet fourth-quarter production targets last year, its paint shop ran into serious difficulties. Model 3s emerged from the line with drip flaws, dirt in the paint and inconsistent clear-coat.

As customers revolted, Tesla CEO Elon Musk took to Twitter in August to acknowledge the problem.  “Sorry, we’ve put pretty extreme rules in place for paint & quality in genera,” he wrote. “If need be, we’re repainting/replacing entire sections of car or building whole new cars. Got to be done.”

But it wasn’t just a few dozen cars as sometimes happens in factory paints shops, but thousands of them. An estimated 20,000 blemished cars piled up in lots in San Francisco’s South Bay area, too flawed to deliver to customers who were paying north of $50,000 for their new vehicles, according to the industry source, who declined to be named because of not being authorized to speak.

According to that person, the outside company in late August was brought in to buff sand out of the clear-coat for about four months before Tesla fixed its paint shop in mid-December.

When reached by The Detroit News about its paint-shop issues, Tesla said Friday those issues have been addressed: “We went through significant challenges… with our general assembly line in Fremont. We successfully overcame these challenges and stabilized Model 3 production at high volumes.”

On Monday, the company amended its statement and said it couldn’t confirm the work was done by the vendor.

Back in Auburn Hills, Munro said Tesla’s shoddy manufacturing issues were readily apparent when his shop tore down the Model 3’s body. While the electric systems were wonders of efficiency, the body was a mess of over-engineering.

Door frames are secured using multiple techniques like laser welds, rivets and spot welds. The trunk and wheel wells use so many different panels that Munro’s engineering team scrawled “too many parts” across the trunk frame.

“It’s like a kid designed it. It’s not right,” said Munro, who has spent decades as a product manufacturing expert. “Nobody I know in the industry who knows how to organize a body shop has been called by Tesla.”

After Munro published the results of his Model 3 study, Tesla CEO Elon Musk called to discuss.

Tesla’s Jekyll and Hyde nature is on display in customer satisfaction as well.

Buyers flocked to the Model 3 in 2018 despite a market hostile to sedans. With sales of 138,000 units, the Model 3 ran away from the No. 2 Lexus RX sport utility (111,641), BMW’s iconic 3-series sedan (75,957) and the Audi Q5 SUV (69,978).

The Tesla topped Kelley Blue Book’s 2019 Best Resale Value award in the electric vehicle category with a whopping 69 percent retained resale value after 36 months. That topped other established segment champs like the Porsche Macan (best compact SUV, 65 percent retained value), Audi A7 (best luxury car, 47 percent) and Subaru Legacy (best midsize sedan, 52 percent).

“People don’t like Tesla Model 3s — they crave them — and that’s how you hold on to your resale value over time,” KBB concluded

Yet, Tesla online forums are filled with cautionary tales from buyers who have suffered through quality defects like bumpers falling off, door handles failing in cold weather, chassis rattles and screen glitches.

“Their poor build-quality is what is holding them up,” Munro said. “The car has too many parts, and too many parts cause the problems you see.”

Assessing Tesla’s forward-looking technology, the BMW’s cutting-edge chassis design, and the Chevy’s reliability, Munro mused on what could be: “If you could get all three of their best traits together, that would really be something. You’d have a helluva a car that nobody could compete with.”

Review: Honda Insight 3.0 is a chic geek hybrid

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 31, 2019

Under the cane around the hills of Oakland County, the 2019 Honda Insight's e-CVT transmission droned, dulling the fun factor normally associated with compact Hondas.

Honda’s Insight and Toyota’s Prius led the hybrid motorcade into the U.S. two decades ago, proudly parading their unparalleled fuel economy and geeky wardrobes.

Nerds were cool!

The egg-shaped Toyota became the rage of the Hollywood jet set, an essential accessory for those claiming the Age of Oil was over. Harrison Ford and Cameron Diaz arrived at the Oscars in the “Pious” (as it was nicknamed), and the hybrid became the first battery-powered car to soar past 100,000 in sales.

But while the Toyota rubbed its thick-rimmed-glasses-wearing nose with the rich and famous, the rest of the nerd frat house got stood up. Including the Insight.

The Camry hybrid, Ford Fusion hybrid, Ford C-Max, Chevy Tahoe hybrid all sat idly by the dance floor.  But the Insight was so … out there! Like the sci-pod Prius, the 70-mpg fuel-sipper dared to be a geek fashion plate.

Its spat-covered rear wheels, aero bod, Jetsons dash and split-window rear deck all screamed 21st-century green-mobile. Except like pocket protectors and plaid pants, it didn’t catch on. A second stab at geek-chic failed to turn heads in 2008. By 2014 Insight 2.0 was put out to pasture.

For 2019, Insight 3.0 has been totally remade. Nerd is out, tech is in, and I’m not sure even fuel economy matters that much anymore judging by the subpar (for hybrids) 37 mpg I got around wintry Metro Detroit.

In a remarkable transformation that would impress Professor Henry Higgins, the Insight has evolved from class geek to prom queen. That’s not to say green fashion has gone away — global warming has replaced oil scarcity as the bogeyman of the elites — but in a United States where gas looks to be affordable for some time (against all predictions to the contrary), the Insight has to sell itself with more than moral appeal.

This geek is downright attractive. It wouldn’t be out of place rolling up to Capital Grille for a night out. Gone are the rear wheel covers, Mork dash and goofy tuckus. Taking a cue from the Honda brand’s handsome Accord midsize sedan, the Insight is nicely understated with flowing lines, a coupe-like roof and conventional, tablet infotainment display.

The Insight feels more Acura than Honda with its flying buttress lower-front air intake, rectangular tail lights and electronic “trigger” gear-selector. Though based on the same platform as the quick, roomy Civic, the Insight shares none of the compact’s boy-toy accents like boomerang rear taillights and garish, faux, rear air-intakes (which the 20-year-old in me still find irresistible).

But the Indiana-made Insight makes its fashion statement without an Acura premium. The sedan is loaded with standard technology including a lovely, configurable digital-dash (was it really just five years ago that this technology wowed me on a $50,000 Cadillac CTS?), the aforementioned trigger gear-selector, adaptive cruise-control, rear traffic-alert camera (Honda’s version of blind-spot assist), auto-emergency braking and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Jumping into the car this winter after a week in Volvos and Teslas, my Insight in Touring trim felt decidedly premium. The handling is sharp, the chassis rock-solid. The elegant cockpit display is full of info, the heated leather seats as comfortable as a lounge chair. The console space is typically, brilliantly configured by Honda with room for my big phone, bottle of ice tea and more.

All this for just $28,000 — or about the same price as a Civic Touring sedan with 25 more horsepower from a 1.5-liter turbo engine.

What we have is an attractive, sippy four-door hybrid with no apparent sacrifice over the gas-powered equivalent. That’s a long way from 1999. And a seemingly short way toward Honda’s goal to make 80 percent of vehicles electrified in just over a decade.

But then I stabbed the accelerator pedal. Oh …

I’ve driven the Civic in multiple forms — sedan, Si coupe, manual Sport hatchback, track-shredding Type R — and I don’t call it King Civic for nothing. It dominates the compact class because it offers its class-leading room and fuel economy in a variety of fun-to-drive flavors.

The Insight, on the other hand, is pure vanilla. Blame a driveline obsessed with a goal of 55 miles per gallon that mates a 1.5-liter normally aspirated engine and electric motor directly to the wheels. Honda calls it an e-CVT (electronic continuously variable transmission).

The result is a sluggish driveline with all the urgency of an old-fashioned gas-engine driven CVT. HNUUUUUUUUUUUGGGHHH went the Insight as I tried to whip it through the twisty lake roads of Oakland County.

The sensation was particularly off-putting because Honda has been on the cutting edge of engineering the dreaded CVT to be more palatable. The standard gas-powered Civic, for example, comes with a CVT with stepped shifts that give it the feel of a multi-ratio box.

I like how single-speed trannies work in quiet electric cars, but in the Insight I felt like I was stuck on a trip with Eeyore. The droning got under my skin and got louder when under the cane. Clearly, this is a driveline optimized for fuel-conscious right-lane drivers, not lead-foots like yours truly.

Accept that premise and the Insight is the gold-star student in Green 101.

Compared to its old nemesis Prius, it is more attractive, more affordable, more fun. The Toyota is still instantly recognizable. But since green is a more upscale demographic (see the flood of luxury EVs hitting the market), buyers may find its premium looks a better fit. Interior amenities are no contest, with the Insight packing a luxurious vibe — and roomy back seats with 4 more inches of legroom than the Prius.

While Eeyore may get on my nerves, the Insight will easily out-drag the Prius out of a stoplight: It hits 60 mph in 8.8 seconds compared with the Toyota’s glacial 10.5.

Two decades after its debut, the Insight finally seems to have the hybrid formula right. But the times have changed. The Age of Oil is ascendant, hybrid sales are slow (Prius purchases are half what they were in 2014), and SUVs have replaced sedans.

But if you’re looking for a sippy — as opposed to zippy — sedan, the Insight is competitively priced with its sibling 1.5-liter turbo Civic while gaining 40 percent better fuel economy and giving up just 20 percent of acceleration.

That’s a chic geek.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2019 Honda Insight

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

Price: $23,725 base including $895 destination fee ($28,985 Touring as tested)

Powerplant: 1.5-liter inline 4-cylinder mated to electric motor and 1.1 kWh lithium-ion battery

Power: 151 horsepower (total hybrid system output)

Transmission: 1-speed, direct-drive, electronic continuously variable transmission (e-CVT)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.8 seconds (Car and Driver est.); top speed, 110 mph

Weight: 3,078 pounds (Touring as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA: 51 city/45 highway/48 combined (Touring as tested)

Report card

Highs: Affordable hybrid; upscale interior

Lows: No 70 mpg figure like the old days; droning e-CVT negates usual Honda fun-to-drive factor

Overall: 3 stars

Cadillac Racing soars as the brand reboots

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 30, 2019

The #10 Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac DPi.V-R driven Fernando Alonso, Kamui Kobayashi, Jordan Taylor and Renger van der Zande won the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. Alonso became only the third F1 driver to win the Formula car crown and the 24.

For the Cadillac brand, 2019 promises a year of transition as the luxury automaker returns its headquarters from New York City to Metro Detroit and plays catch-up to competitors in the race to satisfy demand for SUVs and electric cars.

But when it comes to sports car racing, everyone is chasing Caddy.

Cadillac’s IMSA prototype program began 2019 where it left off in 2018 — in dominating fashion. Cadillac swept the top two positions at the grueling Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona endurance race last weekend, eclipsing a who’s-who field of manufacturer-led teams including Acura, Nissan, Mazda, BMW, Porsche and Ferrari.

GM’s luxury brand also shared international headlines with one of its first-place team drivers, Fernando Alfonso of Spain, who became only the third Formula One driver in history to win both the F1 championship and the Rolex 24.

The win established the Cadillac DPi-V.R as the car to beat again in 2019 after it swept the 2018 driver’s and manufacturer’s crowns in an IMSA Weathertech Series that spans a dozen races from Daytona to Long Beach, including a June stop at the Belle Grand Prix. IMSA is currently the world’s premier stage for manufacturer-sponsored racing, featuring head-to-head duels between the most storied names in motorsport.

“This is the third year in a row that Cadillac has been one-two at Daytona,” said Mark Kent, the director of General Motors Racing. “The attraction to drivers like Alonso is they want to be in a product know they can win in. If you’re on the outside looking in, the Cadillac prototype is the natural choice as the car that can win.”

Alonso’s feat generated headlines across the globe for Cadillac which is growing in markets like China and posted a global sales record last year with over 380,000 cars sold.

Cadillac’s wins parallel GM’s success in GT racing, where Chevy’s Corvette racing program also took home the 2018 drivers crown (the Corvette team struggled at Daytona). Caddy’s fortunes are the culmination of two decades of investment in motor racing beginning with its production-based, V-series racers in 2004.

Cadillac has built its racing cred even as its production lineup has struggled to compete in U.S. showrooms. Sales in 2018 were down by 1 percent to 154,702 units.

The brand shuffled its captain chairs last year, replacing ex-Audi North America chief Johan de Nysschen with Steve Carlisle and closing down the brand’s headquarters overlooking the Hudson River in the Big Apple.

Carlisle opened the Detroit Auto Show this January with a promise that Cadillac is back in Detroit — and back in the luxury game.

“Let me say with no offense whatsoever to the good people of the city of New York,” said Carlisle as he unveiled the all-new, three-row Cadillac XT6 SUV. “Cadillac is back in Detroit, and more determined than ever to reclaim the mantle as catalyst.”

With the XT6 and the smaller XT4 released in 2018, Cadillac hope to make up lost ground in SUV sales where Cadillac has lagged German manufacturers like BMW that have flooded the U.S. market with multiple models.

Cadillac even finds itself behind in battery-powered cars, a segment it helped pioneer in 2013 with the handsome plug-in ELR coupe. Cadillac ditched the ELR — and its cousin Chevy Volt — and has re-trenched with a new “BEV-3” electric vehicle platform designed to compete with BMW’s i-series and Jaguar I-PACE EV models.

“We are working to elevate Cadillac to a position at the pinnacle of mobility,” said Carlisle.

The racing team is already at the pinnacle. So admired is Cadillac’s racing program that it attracted four teams racing six cars at Daytona this year. That’s double the number when Cadillac debuted its 600-horsepower bat-mobile in 2017.

The program’s success in prototype racing came after a decade of five Pirelli World Challenge championships with the CTS-V coupe.

“Racing gives us the opportunity to show people through motorsport what Cadillac stands for,” says racing boss Kent. “It gives us an opportunity to demonstrate technology, reliability, and also… bring our production vehicles to the race track for people to look at some of our amazing products.”

Review: Posh Ram 1500 Longhorn vs. rugged GMC Sierra AT4

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 26, 2019

The Ram 1500 Longhorn is the North American Truck of the Year and a sleek combination of good looks, a high-tech interior and coil-over rear springs that boast the smoothest ride in its class.

Trucks are the new luxury.

Troll country-club parking lots these days (assuming they have parking spaces big enough) and you’ll see $70,000 Chevy Silverado High Countrys and Ford F-150 Raptors rubbing shoulders with chromed Mercedes and BMW chariots. These pickups are either insanely luxurious or bonkers powerful, depending on the owner’s preference.

The latest steaks on the menu are the posh Ram 1500 Longhorn and rugged GMC Sierra AT4.

Speaking of rich tastes, I recently drove the exotic Audi A6 and A7 Sportback sedans. They are the first midsize luxury cars to feature 48-volt lithium-battery technology to help with high-powered electric infotainment screens and smooth the drivetrain experience. You know, like a truck.

The Ram 1500 pickup beat Germany’s chariots to market this year (Mercedes also has a 48-volt system coming) with the latest in vehicle electrification. I should mention that the Jeep Wrangler also beat the luxury crowd. Boy, this is getting embarrassing.

But just as widely adopted electronics like adaptive cruise-control and blind-spot assist are blurring the difference between mainstream cars and luxury, so too is electrification. With its huge touchscreen, stitched leather and acres of chrome, my $66,755 Ram 1500 Longhorn is as luxurious as the Audis I drove.

And the 48-volt system attached to the big truck’s V-8 is a premium choice meant to provide premium amenities just like its German counterparts. Chief among them: papering over the latest federal annoyance from hell: stop-start.

Not a day goes by when I don’t hear from a new-car customer complaining about the engine shutting down at stoplights. The complaint echoes ’70s government-driven automatic seat belt rules that had passengers cursing belts wrapping around their necks on car entry.

Ram’s 48-volt system is here to help.

Brake to a stoplight and the belt-driven electric motor smoothly shuts down the 5.7-liter V-8 with nary a shudder. Release the brake pedal and eTorque rolls the rig forward with 410-pound feet of torque, nearly neutralizing the roughness all too familiar in stop-start engines. The nannies dictate, eTorque mitigates.

It also pays dividends in fuel economy, using the motor’s regenerative capabilities on upshifts to save about 2 miles per gallon over the standard V-8. Naturally, luxury amenities come with luxury price tags, and eToque will set customers back $1,450.

With EPA-estimated fuel savings at $300 a year, that means it’ll take nearly five years to make back your premium. Your mileage may vary. Truck customers might need more convincing, so eTorque tops the Ram tow charts with 12,750 pounds of towing (rear-wheel-drive configuration). Now we’re talkin’ truck-speak.

The GMC Sierra AT4 doesn’t have a 48-volt battery. Heck, it doesn’t even have adaptive cruise-control, a staple increasingly found on common $25,000 sedans.

What the AT4 does have is the earth-pawing aggression of a rodeo bull.

Equipped with 33-inch tires, locking differentials and steel skid-plates that could stop Captain America, the AT4 goes off-road as eagerly as 10-year-old boys attack wooded streams. Full speed, both feet first. My GMC inhaled the Eaton Proving Ground’s off-road course outside Marshall this winter.

It reminded me of my first adventure to Flint’s Mounds off-road park in a Jeep Wrangler a few Novembers ago. Right down to getting stuck after an overzealous dash through sandy Mounds mud. When I buried the Wrangler up to its axles I learned the off-road auto hierarchy. Always make sure there’s a full-size truck around to pull you out of trouble.

So what happens if your full-size truck gets stuck in the mud? I was pulled out by a Caterpillar backhoe.

Inside these two pickups is a new level of truck luxury. They are rolling New York condos.

The Ram is all cake and icing inside. Forget notchy transmission shifters (Ford) and steering-wheel stalks (Chevy/GMC). The Ram offers a rotary dial, like you’re tuning the radio. And like the old-fashioned Chevy stalks, it saves console space.

Or I should say console acreage. The Ram’s center console is ginormous with multiple vats to hold large objects — laptops, purses, books, microwave ovens (kidding about that last one). The storage continues in back with bins under the floor and space below the seats. If you’re wondering, the 48-volt battery is tucked behind the rear seats.

This living room is wrapped in exquisite leather and detail. Longhorn is hand-stamped on the wood dash. Leather-textured graphics are the background for both the instrument panel and the Tesla-like, 12-inch infotainment screen. Forget Trump Tower, the Donald could move into this cab.

Ram long ago pioneered coil-over rear springs making it the nicest daily driver in class. Ford and Chevy will scoff at the Ram’s bed sag under heavy loads, but every technology has trade-offs. Smooth ride? Give me that smooth 48-volt tech while you’re at it.

Lest you think Ram has gone soft with all this luxury, however, I took the Ram to a nearby construction site to play.

I don’t take construction sites lightly. Their mix of mud, gravel and odd terrain can quickly trap all-wheel drive SUVs. But the body-on-frame four-wheel drive Ram was in its element. It grunted around narrow, rocky mounds in 4WD Low. It navigated muddy roads in 4WD Auto and shrugged off the odd rock thrown at its belly.

And when I wanted to open the door to survey the landscape without plunging my loafers into mud and snow? The Longhorn’s luxurious running board swung out under my feet.

The GMC sneezes at the Ram’s barge boards. This truck is equipped with the construction manager’s dream — the MultiPro tailgate. Gather round, boys, and geek out at the six-way tailgate including walk-up steps and stand-up desk.

I should note that the MultiPro is exclusive to the high-end Sierra’s V-8 powered AT4, SLT and Denali trims. The Ram’s eTorque option is standard on the 3.6-liter V-6, so 48-volt doesn’t always come with a premium.

But pickups and V-8s go together like linebackers and muscle. Unleash the V-8’s 420 ponies — its roar audible even over the soundproofed cabin — then roll into a stoplight quiet as a mouse. Power and grace. That’s luxury.

The Germans have Mercedes and Bimmers that you can park in front of the Townsend Hotel’s Rugby Grille on a Saturday night. Detroit offers Longhorns and AT4s right beside them.

Ahem, just be sure and clean the mud off your boots before you enter the Townsend’s red-carpet lobby.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2019 Ram 1500 Longhorn

Vehicle type: Rear- or four-wheel drive, five-passenger pickup

Price: $53,085 base including $1,695 destination fee ($66,755 as tested)

Powerplant: 5.7-liter hemi V-8 with 48-volt lithium-ion battery (0.43 kWh)

Power: 395 horsepower, 410 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.9 seconds (Automobile magazine est.); 1,750-pound payload; 11,180-pound towing (Crew cab 4×4 as tested)

Weight: 5,354 pounds (Crew 4×4 as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA: 17 city/22 highway/19 combined (4×4)

Report card

Highs: Posh, clever interior; easy rider

Lows: Payback on eTorque premium unclear; do you want to get something this pretty dirty?

Overall: 4 stars

2019 GMC Sierra AT4

Vehicle type: Rear- or four-wheel drive, five-passenger pickup

Price: $53,500 base including $1,895 destination fee ($65,475 as tested)

Powerplant: 5.3-liter V-8, 6.2-liter V-8

Power: 355 horsepower, 383 pound-feet torque (5.3-liter), 420 horsepower, 460 pound-feet torque (6.2-liter)

Transmission: 8-speed automatic (5.3 liter), 10-speed automatic (6.2 liter as tested)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.8 seconds (Motor Trend); 2,070-pound payload; 12,100-pound towing (CrewCab 4×4);

Weight: 5,015 pounds (CrewCab 4×4 as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA: 15 city/20 highway/17 combined (4×4); 15 city/19 highway/17 combined (6.2-liter 4×4)

Report card

Highs: Good-looking, outdoorsy dude; 6-way MultiPro tailgate

Lows: Interior shy of Ram premium; no adaptive cruise-control

Overall: 4 stars

Next Dodge Challenger will get electric-motor boost

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 19, 2019

A new generation of Dodge muscle cars is coming, and it will get a boost with an electric motor.

Fiat Chrysler’s performance brand has ridden the ground-shaking, supercharged V-8 Challenger Hellcat to become the No. 2-selling sports coupe in the U.S. behind the Ford Mustang. But Fiat Chrysler CEO Mike Manley says the clock is ticking on the car’s aging 2-ton chassis and thirsty engines, and they will be replaced in the next decade.

“The reality is those platforms and that technology we used does need to move on. They can’t exist as you get into the middle-2020s,” the new Fiat Chrysler boss said at the Detroit auto show. “New technology is going to drive a load of weight out, so we can think of the powertrains in a different way. And we can use electrification to really supplement those vehicles.”

Despite sitting on Chrysler’s 13-year-old LX architecture, the Ontario-assembled Challenger has soared in sales. The top-of-the-line $60,000, 717-horsepower Hellcat version broke the internet when it debuted in 2015.

But with government emissions standards tightening, automakers have been looking to alternative powertrains with fewer cylinders to satisfy customer performance demands. Supercar-makers like Acura, McLaren and Porsche have mated electric motors and downsized gasoline engines, with the primary purpose of the batteries being performance, not fuel efficiency. So don’t expect the next Hellcat to be an all-electric car.

“I think that electrification will certainly be part of the formula that says what is American muscle in the future,” said Manley. “What it isn’t going to be is a V-8, supercharged, 700-horsepower engine.”

Manley did not go into specifics on what the gas-engine components would be, and a Dodge spokesperson said the company had no further comment.

Ford is rumored to be working on a hybrid, turbo-4 with V-8-like power for its next-decade Mustang. And the coming mid-engine Corvette will reportedly offer a gas-electric model putting out 1,000 horsepower.

Challenger 2019 models (and their sister Charger sedans) are powered by four engines: 3.6-liter V-6, 5.7-liter hemi V-8, 6.4-liter hemi V-8, and supercharged 6.2-liter V-8. Industry analysts have expected Dodge to put a twin-turbo V-6 into performance models with as heavily updated, lighter chassis.

Ward’s Auto predicts that use of the company’s workhorse Pentastar V-6 — found in numerous Fiat Chrysler vehicles and produced at Detroit’s Mack Avenue Engine plant — will continue to grow in volume over the next decade, including the addition of the twin-turbo variant to replace the $35,000 Challenger R/T’s 5.7-liter Hemi V-8.

Bob Gritzinger, propulsion analyst for Ward’s Intelligence, suspects Dodge may mate the twin-turbo V-6 with an electric motor for peak power.

“I could see something along the lines of the Porsche model which puts a turbo V-6 together with an electric motor to create the (all-wheel drive) Panamera 4 e-Hybrid,” says Gritzinger.

With a combined gas-electric jolt of 462 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque, Car and Driver hit 60 mph in just 3.6 seconds in the Panamera.

Fiat Chrysler chief Manley says electrification “can’t be the dominant part (of a muscle car). Electrification deployed to increase the performance of the vehicle as its primary goal – with the added benefits of fuel economy – is very different, instead of the other way around.”

Kelley Blue Book analyst and veteran muscle car fan Karl Brauer is skeptical that electrification and muscle can co-exist.

“There’s a long-standing rule about what constitutes American muscle, but electrification is not part of it,” he said. “I need something that gets my blood pumping.”

He acknowledges the hybridization of $100,00-plus European supercars like Porsche and McLaren, but says it has come “with a lot of added weight and cost.”

He says the last Chrysler CEO to alter the American muscle recipe was Lee Iacocca in the late 1970s. Under similar regulatory pressures, Iacocca moved away from thirsty V-8s and toward front-wheel drive V-6 platforms. Forty years later, Dodge roared back to prominence with the trusty V-8 hammer.

“The Challenger is now challenging the Mustang for sales primacy with a V-8,” says Brauer. “Who would have thought that? In terms of sales, the supercharged V-8s have worked well.”

Analysts also speculate that the entry-level $28,000 Challenger may use a version of the company’s 2-liter turbo-4 with a 48-volt eTorque mild-hybrid assist.

Manley praised the Challenger team’s leadership for elbowing into the sales battle between traditional segment leaders Mustang and Chevy Camaro.

Since 2014, Challenger sales have increased 30 percent to 66,716 in 2018 — within 10,000 units of the Ford — while Camaro fell 25 percent last year to 50,963. Only the Challenger gained sales in 2018 (by 3 percent), with 42 percent of cars equipped with V-8s.

“(The team) is incredibly creative,” said Manley. “They came up with this idea which originally was part of a mini skunk-works until it was too late to stop it. I think everyone very quickly envisioned what Hellcat would do for Dodge.”

Dodge appears poised to re-imagine American muscle again in the decade ahead.

10 must-sees at the Detroit auto show

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 19, 2019

The Shelby Mustang GT500

Cobo’s main show floor is a different place this year. I’m tempted to tout the delicious, scissor-door McLaren 570 as my favorite car in show.

But it’s part of Envy Auto Group’s display of exotic, pre-owned cars — an exhibit from a car dealer that helps fill space left by the mass exodus of European luxury brands. Thanks to Envy, you still get to ogle Porsches and Ferraris — but they aren’t the newest stuff on the market.

For that, there are still plenty of U.S. and foreign automakers who have brought their A-games. There are the usual mighty muscle cars and trucks we expect at a Motown show. But there is also an extraordinary breadth of vehicles from electric to autonomous to V-8s appealing to the richest auto consumer market on the planet.

Here are the most important vehicles in show.

Toyota Supra

I have never seen a Toyota news conference packed with so many people. Motorheads have thirsted for the next Supra since Toyota teased the stunning FT-1 Concept in 2014. The production car holds nicely to the concept’s design with its low, racer-like hood and roller-coaster hips. A lightweight, 50-50 balanced two-seater, the Supra got an assist from BMW, which makes the 335-horse turbo in-line six-cylinder. It’s the same mill that motivates the BMW Z4. Look for this $50,000 hottie come summer.

Ford Mustang GT500

Lightweight straight-six Supra, meet fire-breathing, supercharged V-8 pony. With more than twice the horsepower of the Toyota, the legendary GT500 track monster is aimed squarely at the Chevy Camaro ZL1 across the Cobo aisle. Where past GT500s were straight-line dragsters, this athlete takes the agile GT350 platform and adds steroids. The huge carbon-fiber rear wing will help keep this 700-plus horse Snake on the ground while it inhales supercars costing twice as much.

Ram Heavy Duty 2500/3500

For a different kind of muscle, check out the Heavy Duty version of the Ram 1500, voted North American Truck of the Year. The 2500/3500 ups the light-duty’s capabilities by stuffing a 6.7-liter Cummins turbo-diesel under the hood that makes 1,000-pound feet of stump-pulling torque. Make that house-pulling. The 3500 can tow over 35,000 pounds while nurturing passengers with leather thrones and a 12-inch Tesla-like screen.

Ford Explorer

Ford also makes SUVs. The best-selling ute of all time, the Explorer is totally remade. It sits on a rear-wheel drive based chassis for better towing and design dynamics. But the high-tech interior is where it really shines: one-button access to the third-row, one-button operated self-park feature. This being Ford, the Explorer gets multiple engine options,  including a hybrid and 400-horse ST performance variant.

Kia Telluride

Kia went after the Audi A7 with its sexy Stinger sedan coupe last year. This year Kia beats the three-row Jeep Wagoneer to market with a more rugged version of the Sorento SUV. The exterior is bold and upright like a Range Rover. The interior is luxurious. Take it on a test spin on Kia’s indoor Cobo track.

Nissan IMs Concept

With the explosion in electric and self-driving technology, show-stopping concepts are back. There are a few of these envelope-pushing concepts on the floor, but my favorite is the Nissan with its spare, Caddy-like styling and suicide doors. What’s the autonomous world look like? Nissan imagines a single, rear-seat armchair where the boss sits, while the front seats swivel for assistants to take notes.

Lincoln Continental

Suicide doors aren’t just for concepts. A special edition of 80 Lincoln Continentals — celebrating Conti’s 80th birthday — is being made with stunning, rear-hinged rear doors. The palatial rear seats can comfortably fit Andre Drummond, while front-row passengers luxuriate in 30-way seats.

Cadillac XT6

The bling-tastic, three-row Escalade has long been the choice of rappers and Wall Street limo services. “XT6 takes the Escalade down to an everyday package,” says Caddy designer Andrew Smith. The handsome ute sits on the same wheelbase as the two-row XT5 for better handling, yet carves out 30 inches of third-row legroom. The CUE infotainment system can be operated by touch or remote rotary dial.

Hyundai Elantra GT N Line

This is muscle for those on a budget. The Elantra gains a hot hatch version to rival the VW Golf GTI. Loaded with standard features for just $25,000, economy buyers get 201-horsepower fun with hatchback utility.

VW Passat

While Detroit brands are emptying Midwest sedan factories, VW is sticking around with the Tennessee-built Passat. Updated inside and out, the upscale V-dub nevertheless hedges its bets by sticking with an old platform rather than the more modern MQB chassis that Europe gets.

Detroit auto show consumer guide: Trucks

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 17, 2019

There is no truck market in the world like the U.S., and no one makes trucks like Detroit’s Big Three. Mid- and full-size pickups sell nearly 3 million a year here, with the full-size Ford F-Series leading the way with some 900,000 sold. The perennial best-seller got some serious heat this year from competitors Ram 1500, Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra, which all introduced new steeds.

The fast-growing midsize segment got more crowded as the Ford Ranger and Jeep Wrangler pickups elbowed in — but Toyota (which struggles to sell its Texas-made full-size pickup) still dominates midsizers as the Tacoma towed a 23 percent increase in sales. Yee-haw!

Ram Heavy Duty 2500-3500

What it is: Ram follows its North American Truck of the Year award-winning 1500 with the 2500 and 3500 heavy-duty trucks. The 3500’s 6.7-liter turbo-diesel Cummins V-8 hits the magic 1,000 pound-feet of torque threshold — the most powerful truck ever. A Power Wagon trim is available with Jeep Wrangler-like off-road tricks like locking front and rear axles. But the big fella isn’t all brawn; there is also a premium, black-trimmed 2500 Laramie Black edition that shows off the truck’s quiet interior and air suspension.

Payne’s take: Ram Heavy Duty numbers are eye-popping: 7,680-pound payload, 35,100-pound towing capability. It’s 10 decibels quieter inside, Ram says, with best-in-class .409 drag co-efficient. It has tire-pressure monitoring for up to 12 wheels including trailer, and a 12,000-pound Warren winch.

Jeep Gladiator

What it is: Detroit gets its first look at the long-awaited Jeep midsize pickup that debuted in Los Angeles last fall. Like the Ram Heavy Duty, it goes right at Ford for best-in-class metrics, boasting 7,650-pound towing capability and 1,600-pound payload capacity. The pickup will come in familiar Wrangler trims including premium Sahara and off-road Rubicon. It will be powered by a base Ecodiesel 3.6-liter V-6 that grunts out 442 pound-feet of torque.

Payne’s take: Determined not to repeat the Scrambler debacle of the early ’80s, the Gladiator is much more than a Wrangler with a bed. Jeep fortified the rail-frame structure to 212 inches in length to outfit a proper 60-inch bed. Jeep is late to a fast-growing midsize pickup segment swarming with Chevy Colorados and Toyota Tacomas, but Jeep has high expectations for this bruiser.

Detroit auto show consumer guide: Concepts and EVs

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 17, 2019

Concepts are dead, long live concepts.

With accelerated production cycles and reduced budgets, wild design concepts were thought to be a thing of the past. But with automakers exploring electric power, concepts are in again as designers explore the design envelope — and try to get consumers interested in a promised new era of electric vehicles.

Infiniti QX Inspiration Concept 

What it is: The minimalist QX follows its sister Q Inspiration concept sedan that debuted at last year’s show. Where the sedan previewed Infiniti’s innovative variable-compression turbo gas-engine technology, the QX debuts the brand’s electric architecture. The batteries hide in the floor, allowing for a lounge-like (if entirely sci-fi), roomy interior. The egg-like body is daring in its lack of common features like a grille — though the side gashes look like they were punched in by a forklift.

Payne’s take: Infiniti promises that half its 2025 sales will be electric, which seems ambitious given that its EV sales today are nearly nonexistent. Still, like the Teslas and the Hyundai Kona EV before it, the QX Inspiration is another intriguing design study of cars without gas engines. NBA megastar Steph Curry broke the internet after posting video of a QX delivered to his driveway.

Nissan IMs Concept

What it is: Not to be outdone by richer bro Infiniti, Nissan brings its own EV concept to the show with chiseled features and a lower, longer sedan profile than the QX Inspiration ute. The IMs sits on big 22-inch wheels (designers love those), while a monster 115-kWh battery and two motors put 483 horsepower to the ground with all-wheel drive. Range is estimated at 380 miles.

Payne’s take: Nissan has been more aesthetic of late with the Murano concept and stylish Altima sedan. The IMs is a huge step beyond those renderings with its simple, Cadillac-like design. This is an old-fashioned, sci-fi dreamboat right down to its yoke steering wheel.

GAC Entranze Concept

What it is: From China’s fifth-biggest automaker, the battery-powered autonomous Etranze Concept isn’t so much a car as it is a family pod on wheels. GAC says the three-row cockpit is inspired by an airline fuselage. Particularly striking is its use of cork in the interior — part of the concept’s vow to use sustainable “green” materials.

Payne’s take: The Entranze joins a group of four more-familiar production vehicles at GAC’s display as the Chinese brand pushes toward a 2020 product launch in the U.S. Three of the vehicles are already in production in Asian markets: a three-row SUV (which should be the first volley here), compact ute and minivan. Concept designer Pontus Fontaeus is an industry veteran who previously worked on interiors for Ferrari and Volvo.

Lexus LC Convertible Concept

What it is: Toyota’s luxury division teases a Roadster version of its halo LC sports car. With 22-inch wheels and white leather seats with yellow stitching, the Convertible brings even more drama to Lexus’ sexiest vehicle. With a 2+2 configuration like the Coupe, the rear seats are nevertheless even more cramped by the foldaway top — think of them more as a storage shelf. With the Coupe starting north of $93,000, expect the sure-to-be-production convertible to top the six-figure mark.

Payne’s take: The Darth Vader grille of the Lexus has been the centerpiece of the brand’s dramatic, polarizing design direction. It ain’t pretty — except on the LC sports car, where it fits nicely with the car’s organic lines. The LC Convertible adds more curb appeal by going topless, though the added weight will make this already-heavy cruiser even porkier. Still, if Lexus equips the Roadster with the same growling, 471-horse V-8 as the Coupe, the Convertible will make beautiful music with the top down.

Detroit auto show consumer guide: Sports cars

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 17, 2019

America is experiencing a second golden age of sports cars (the 1960s was the first). With gas prices low, the economy revvin’ and track events galore, there have never been more reasons for enthusiasts to push the performance envelope.

And what an envelope. The Detroit auto show will feature everything from a $25,000 Subaru BRZ to the $500,000 Ford GT supercar. The absence of Europe’s luxury brands on the Cobo floor will mean less eye-candy this year, but there are still plenty of roller skates to get your heart racing. Modern electronics are enabling hybridized cyborgs from the future — but are also allowing drivers to safely manage unheard-of 700-horsepower from old-fashioned V-8s.

What it is: This is the most powerful Mustang ever. Although Ford has yet to finalize the numbers, the GT500’s horsepower will eclipse 700 thanks to a supercharged 5.2-liter V-8 nicknamed the Predator. But there’s more here than just predatory acceleration numbers. The wicked-looking pony comes with a Track Pack option that adds aero bits — including a huge rear wing — to 12-inch gummy tires and 16.5-inch brakes to help this thing carve up apexes.

Payne’s take: The Ford Mustang is the best-selling sports car in the world, and Ford is determined to keep the hits coming. For the first time in 50 years, a powerful GT500 will be in showrooms alongside its legendary track-rat little brother, the GT350. But this time the GT500 is the total package as Ford takes aim squarely at crosstown rival Chevrolet’s 650-horse Camaro ZL1 1LE.

Toyota Supra

What it is: First seen at the 2014 Detroit show as the dazzling FT-1 Concept, the Supra is a dramatically styled two-seat, rear-wheel drive sports car. Sharing a chassis with the BMW Z4, the Supra brings super handling with weight distributed 50-50 front-to-rear. Under the sculpted hood is a 335-horse inline V-6 mated to an eight-speed automatic. Four-pot, fast-stop Brembo brakes are standard. The interior is driver-centric with bolstered seats, a rotary-button infotainment controller and available heads-up display.

Payne’s take: The Supra slots in above the Toyota 86 as a premium sports car (see that BMW-developed engine, Nurburgring-tested portfolio) in the Toyota lineup. It re-establishes Toyota’s sports chops among Japanese rivals like the Acura NSX and Nissan GTR. The purposeful styling is unique, drawing on Toyota’s LeMans prototype for inspiration with narrow nose, big hips and aerodynamic trunk. A composite hatchback adds welcome cargo functionality.

Lexus RC F and RC F Track Edition

What it is: Lexus coupe’s F performance trim gets a mid-cycle upgrade with subtle design changes, light-weighting and an apex-carving track edition. Design upgrades include stacked front LED lights and more-chiseled tail lights. Launch control will boost standing-start zero-60 times to 4.2 seconds. That number drops below 4 seconds with the Track Edition, which is draped in lightweight carbon fiber from hood to roof to big rear wing. To go with all the cool black stuff outside, the Track Edition adds an all-red interior.

Payne’s take: The RC F is Japan’s version of the Detroit muscle car with a honkin’, stonkin’ 472-horse, 5.0-liter V-8 to wake up the neighbors. It goes like stink in a straight line, but its weight has been a liability — an issue the new Fs address with more aluminum, and in the case of the Track Edition, carbon fiber. Did you ever think ol’ vanilla Lexus would have a Track Edition? It’s not vanilla anymore.

Subaru Impreza WRX STI S209 

What it is: The S209 is special-edition track version of the superb, if aging, Subie WRX STI. The S209 is strapped down with multiple suspension tweaks and body braces to the STI’s already rally-tested bod — and brings a whopping 31 more horsepower to the Subie’s standard, 310-horse, 2.5-liter turbo-four. You’ll know it by the strut-mounted rear wing, which replaces the standard, curvy aerofoil.

Payne’s take: As Subie fan boys wait impatiently for the all-new STi, based on the superb, stiffened bones of the current Impreza, Subie is slaking their thirst with special models like the S209. The S follows last year’s RA-Type, which jacked up the horsepower to 325, but was generally panned as not being “more” enough.

Detroit auto show consumer guide: Sedans

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 17, 2019

Sedans have taken a backseat to SUVs in U.S. market share. The iconic BMW 3-series, for example, is now outsold by the boxier X3 sport ute. The Honda Accord and Toyota Camry have gotten sexier remakes in recent years to emphasize the inherent beauty of the low sedan shape, but even they are outsold by SUVs in the lineup.

Detroit brands are leaving the U.S. sedan market, but Asian and European automakers see an opportunity with sedans to bring in new customers.

What it is: The Prius family gets its first all-wheel drive for northern climates like Michigan. The feat is accomplished by changing from lithium-ion batteries to nickel metal-hydride (better for cold weather) and adding an electric motor to the rear (look ma, no prop shaft to the rear to save interior space). Mileage suffers a bit compared to front-wheel drive, but it still hits the magic 50 mpg number. Other upgrades include refreshed styling for a less-angry face and black console to replace that blinding white-porcelain sink look.

Payne’s take: Rejoice, northern tree-huggers, the all-wheel drive Prius has arrived! Don’t expect Jeep Wrangler off-road capability, though. For a $1,400 premium over a standard $25,000 Prius, the all-wheel drive system is designed to optimize grip on snowy roads, not traverse the Yukon. The all-wheel drive system reverts to front-wheel drive (unless necessary for added grip) over 6 miles per hour, and ceases working altogether over 43 miles per hour. With Prius, fuel economy is always the priority.

Volkswagen Passat

What it is: The roomy Passat gets styling and interior upgrades for 2020, though it maintains the car’s aging, eight-year-old NMB architecture rather than shifting to VW’s modern MQB chassis that undergird its Golf and Jetta brethren. Premium styling updates include a new fascia and “Passat” letters across the trunk lid. A big, standard eight-inch screen dominates a redesigned upscale dash. Power comes from the good ol’ 174-horse turbo-4 mated to a 6-speed tranny. Alas, the optional 280-horse V-6 has been put out to pasture.

Payne’s take: Detroit automakers are shelving their sedan lineups, the Japanese are all in with all-new cars … and, well, VW is somewhere in between. The Passat is a half-hearted upgrade as VW won’t retool its Tennessee plant for production on the brand’s sensational MQB chassis. Clearly, VW doesn’t see the payback in the U.S. market on the investment. I drove the MQB-based version of Passat in Europe a few years back and it was sensational — an Audi in V-dub clothing with nimble handling and digital instrumentation. The new Passat will soldier on in the U.S. market, but it’s not the best VW can do.

Lincoln Continental Coach Door Edition

What it is: For Lincoln’s 80th anniversary (the nameplate got its start as an exclusive car made for Edsel Ford in 1939), the Continental will produce a special edition on 80 cars with rear coach doors — popularly known as suicide doors — which are hinged toward the back. The car will be fully loaded to Black Label specs, including 30-way front seats, acres of white leather and a 400-horse, twin-turbo V-6. Price: north of $100,000.

Payne’s take: Lincoln’s got its groove back with the sexy Navigator and Aviator SUVs, and the flagship Continental is getting in on the action. The sedan joins the Rolls-Royce family (which debuted its suicide door-equipped Cullinan SUV at the exclusive Gallery showing ahead of the auto show) as the only vehicle in production equipped with suicide doors. To prevent the doors from dangerously swinging open at speed, they won’t operate over 2 miles per hour.

Detroit auto show consumer guide: SUVs and crossovers

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 17, 2019

The automotive landscape has been transformed by SUVs since the Great Recession. Essentially the rebirth of station wagons — except more rugged-looking and riding higher for better visibility — the five-door box is America’s family favorite.

New utes abound at this year’s show as automakers try to fill every niche from subcompact SUVs to giant, soccer-team haulers. Here are the latest in Detroit.

Ford Explorer

What it is: Where to begin? The best-selling SUV of all-time has been redesigned from stem to stern. Shared with Lincoln’s Aviator, the three-row SUV chassis is now rear-wheel drive biased with all-wheel drive optional. Extensive use of aluminum saves 300 pounds, which will assist first-ever ST performance and fuel-efficient hybrid models. Inside, the Explorer bristles with high-tech gadgets from one-button park-assist to third-row access with the touch of one button. The Explorer is immediately recognizable by its signature “flying c-pillar,” but the front grille is deeper with more-integrated headlights.

Payne’s take: The Explorer has always been a poor man’s Range Rover, and now with its Rover-like rear-wheel drive chassis it is more Rover-like than ever. Standard features abound, including blind-spot assist and auto high-beams. But load up the handsome $55,000 Platinum trim with seven drive-modes and park-assist. and you have Rover specs for half the price.

Cadillac XT6

What it is: The three-row XT6 is Cadillac’s first non-truck based, three-row ute. It slots in between Caddy’s best-selling XT5 and the GM pickup-based Escalade. Based on the same architecture as the smaller XT5, the Cadillac nevertheless manages to carve out a third-row seat roomier than a base Escalade. A much-improved CUE infotainment system is standard with touchscreen and remote-rotary knob operation. The big rig is powered by a a 310-horse V-6 engine mated to 9-speed auto tranny.

Payne’s take: Every SUV that Cadillac introduces right now is important for a brand that is way behind in the SUV game. While the King of Bling Escalade will remain Cadillac’s SUV flagship, expect the XT6 to draw more buyers looking for better fuel economy, ride and park-ability. The XT6 faces formidable competition from the Audi Q7 and reborn crosstown-rival Lincoln — but it should be a winner if priced right.

Lincoln Aviator

What it is: Lincoln likes to talk about the owner experience, not Nürburgring lap times. Call it “quiet flight.” Approach the Aviator and the mirror projects an image of the Lincoln logo on the ground. The doors unlock. The car kneels to help you get in if you opt for air suspension. Open the door and a chime recorded by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra plays. As for the oily bits, the Aviator will be powered by a healthy turbo V-6 pumping out 400 horses mated to a smooth, 10-speed tranny.

Payne’s take: Call it Navigator Jr. Like its extravagant big brother, the Aviator wraps you in luxury with 30-way massaging seats and tasteful touches like a tablet screen. But the Lincoln shouldn’t be shy about its chassis engineering, either. Its platform is rear-wheel-drive based (with all-wheel drive optional), which gives it Range Rover proportions, good towing capacity and lots of rear cargo room. Lincoln touts the plug-in hybrid version as the most powerful in the segment with 450 horsepower and 600 pound-feet of torque.

Kia Telluride

What it is: Following sister-brand Hyundai’s jump into the three-row crossover space with the Palisade (first time in Detroit after its Los Angeles Auto Show debut), Kia introduces its own jumbo-ute. Built at the same Georgia plant as Kia’s stylish mid-size Sorento SUV, the Telluride has a more rugged view with boxier styling and a more-powerful turbo engine option.

Payne’s take: While producing sexy sedans like the Stinger coupe and Optima, Kia is keeping up with the Joneses with another family ute. The Telluride brings Kia’s stylish look to a growing segment with household names like the Ford Explorer and Toyota Highlander. Boxier than its elegant Sorento sister, this bro brings an off-road Jeep Wagoneer vibe a year ahead of the Wagoneer’s expected intro. Ride it on Cobo’s Telluride Torque Track.

Kia Niro EV

What it is: The third member of the Niro crossover family after the gas-engine and plug-in hybrid versions is a 239-mile-range EV. You’ll know it by its closed-off cheese-grater grille and blue accents. True to Kia’s vibe, it promises fun-to-drive characteristics like a regenerative paddle on the steering wheel so you can bring the car to a stop without ever touching the brake pedal.

Payne’s take: The 239-mile range of the Niro EV (subtract about 30 percent in Michigan winter) is Kia’s answer to the Chevrolet Bolt hatchback. The front-wheel drive EV offers an impressive 291 pound-feet of torque and can be fully recharged in about 10 hours if you have a 240-volt charger in your garage. Expect a price around $38,000 before federal tax credits.

Kia Soul

What it is: The third generation of Kia’s compact hamster-mobile makes its first Detroit appearance after bowing in at the Los Angeles show. The exterior gets a cool, edgy remake with thinner headlights, horizontal upper grille and rad boomerang tail lights. The signature “island” remains in the rear hatch. The roomy millennial-friendly interior is less changed while offering lots of safety features like blind-spot assist and adaptive cruise-control. New X-line and GT-Line trims are added — the latter primed for performance when matched with the top-of-the-line 201-horse turbo mill. The base engine squeezes out 147 ponies and has a hamster-friendly $18,000 starting price.

Payne’s take: Long live the box! The Kia Soul has proven resilient as other cubes hit the ditch: Nissan Cube, Scion xB, Honda Element. The third-generation Soul looks poised to boogie on with a stylish exterior remake, two sporty trims and a peppy turbo-4 option. Alas, weary winter-weather wanderers, the Soul doesn’t get all-wheel drive. For that, you’ll have to get the slightly more conventional-looking Kona ute.

Detroit auto show consumer guide: Smaller show, big acts

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 17, 2019

People check out the vehicles and other attractions in the Ford Motor Company exhibit space at the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center in Detroit on Wednesday, January 16, 2019.

The 2019 Detroit auto show is diminished this year, a victim of the exodus of foreign luxury-makers and the transition to a new June format 18 months from now.

But though this year’s show speaks softly, it carries big sticks.

From the ferocious Ford Mustang GT500 to the stump-pulling Ram Heavy Duty pickup to the long-awaited return of the Toyota Supra sports car, Cobo Center is full of the good ol’ muscle the event has long been known for. It’s also a family-fun destination with utes galore and enough rides, rope courses (yes, rope courses) and high-tech to keep the young ‘uns stimulated the whole afternoon.

Enter Cobo from the Washington Boulevard Garage/Cobo Roof into Hall A and it’s not immediately apparent that anything has changed.

The aisle between the Ford and Chevy exhibits is like a moat between warring armies: Corvettes, Camaros, Mustangs and pickups bristle like heavy artillery. But while GM’s stand looks familiar from last year, Ford has a fresh look to go with its new state-of-the-art Mustang and Explorer weapons.

The stand is arranged with “shipping containers” full of product: an F-150 over here, a ‘Stang GT500 over there. In the middle of it all is a huge stage that re-creates — twice-an-hour — Ford’s media reveal of its all-new GT500 and Explorer. The simulated helicopter drop of the GT500 is not to be missed.

The second floor of the old Ford exhibit is gone, replaced by the “Ford Scramble Net” ropes course and virtual-reality Explorer drive. The kids will spend hours crisscrossing the roped net dangled high above the floor. Or you can pack the whole family into the Explorer, strap on virtual-reality goggles, and take an 11-minute ride into America’s national parks.

Behind the Ford exhibit is Fiat Chrysler’s display, once the envy of the show with its floor-to-ceiling, Times Square-like light displays. This year’s exhibit is de-tuned, though the product is not with enough Hellcat, SRT and Ram horsepower to blow the roof off Cobo.

There are plenty of themes to watch for. Here are my favorites.

Muscle Beach

The Dodge display ripples with biceps. Check out the 797-horsepower Challenger Red Eye.

But the new kid on the beach is the Ford Mustang GT500. This isn’t your father’s snake. Past GT500s were Woodward Avenue dragsters that left track-carving to the GT350. The new generation is an all-around athlete aimed squarely at the hyper-speed Camaro ZL1 1LE across the aisle.

If stump-pulling power is more to your taste, the Ram Heavy Duty 3500 generates 1,000 pound-feet of torque. That magic number bests every pickup in the business, and Ram does it with the stylish design and interior that just won its 1500 sibling the North American Truck of the Year prize.

On the other side of Cobo is another tasty morsel. Toyota teased the next-gen of its legendary Supra with the FT-1 concept sports car five years ago. It followed through this year by bringing in Formula One superstar Fernando Alonso and Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda (the funniest CEO in auto today) to introduce the curvaceous, 335-horse, $50,000 Supra hatchback.

“It’s not just fun to drive,” the hip 62-year old CEO said. “It’s totally lit.”

Envy Auto Group is new to the main floor. The exotic-car dealer used to exhibit in the Cobo basement. They were brought upstairs to plug the space left by the exit of BMW, Mercedes, Volvo, Porsche, Mini-Cooper, et al.

But what a collection of cars Envy has: McLaren 570S, Ferrari 488, Lamborghini Huracan, Aston Martin Vantage S. It has the exotics usually only seen in the exclusive $500-a-ticket gallery gala at the MGM Grand casino that takes place before the show.

It’s a reminder that whatever the show’s circumstances, show-goers come to see the hardware.

Ute nation

We show-goers love glitz, but sport utilities pay the bills. There are new utes everywhere you turn.

The Chevy Blazer is a knockout with Camaro-like, aviation-style climate vents. The rear-wheel drive based Ford Explorer has technology that will embarrass luxury cars costing twice as much. The Kia Telluride beats the Jeep Wagoneer to market as a rock-chewing, three-row SUV. Even China’s GAC brings two utes aimed at the U.S. market that it says it intends to enter.

My favorite crossroads in Cobo is between the Cadillac, Lincoln and Buick stands where Detroit’s newest three-row luxury-SUV entries can be compared face-to-face-to-face. Each brings seriously competitive vehicles (note the similarities between the new Cadillac XT6 and Buick Enclave). You will be blown away by Lincoln’s resurgence, including the Lincoln Aviator that debuted at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November and is being shown in Detroit for the first time.

Tech-tastic 

The merger of technology and autos is moving fast, and the Detroit show abounds with cutting-edge examples.

Toyota is going to flood the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo with autonomous cars and driverless pods. For a glimpse of what’s coming, check out the snow-white, lidar-crowned Lexus LS 500h.

Then there’s Nissan’s cool, autonomous IMs Concept with suicide doors, a retractable steering wheel and single rear throne for maximum comfort when the car is self-driving.

My favorite tech piece isn’t an automobile at all, but a two-seat, eight-rotor, hybrid chopper called the SureFly Octocopter. You’ll find it across from Lexus. Each of its eight rotors is controlled by electric motors, giving it drone-like maneuverability — and backup battery-power should the gas engine fail. Market target: 2022.

The kids will love it. Just as soon as you extract them from the Ford Scramble Net.