Henry Payne Blog

Cartoon: Bloomberg Debate

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 21, 2020

Payne: Perfecting the four-wheel drift in a Subaru STI on ice

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 20, 2020

A Subaru WRX STI at full chat across the ice on Wisconsin's Dollar Lake. Though still based on the Impreza's last-gen chassis (new bones should come in 2021), the STI is one of the most capable compact cars on the planet.

The thing about ice racing is the quiet.

No squalling tires. No road noise. No full-throttle engine wail as I drifted a Subaru WRX STI from turn to turn across a frozen course. It’s magical.

I was in Eagle Lake, Wisconsin, the self-proclaimed Snowmobile Capital of the World. Located 65 miles west of the state line of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, it’s a snow globe where temperatures reach 20-below, drifts pile four feet on either side of the road, and hockey is played on frozen lakes. One of those bodies of water, Dollar Lake, was for years home to the World Championship Snowmobile Derby before the event moved to a permanent oval track.

These days, Dollar Lake plays host to Swedish rally star Patrik Sandell and his Subaru Winter Experience.

Each year, Sandell shows off the Subaru WRX STI off-road beast on the ultimate off-road surface. Some 200-plus adventure seekers and Subaru fanatics join his team here to explore the limits of grip in one of the most capable off-road machines ever made.

Subaru has carved out a unique space with the STI, the most extreme version of its performance WRX trim. If the Jeep Wrangler owns rock-crawling and the Ford Raptor is king of the desert, then the STI defines off-road speed. I’m a race-licensed track guy and have thrilled at the $38,000 STI’s ability to hang with $80,000 BMW M3s and Mercedes AMG athletes on the race track.

But the Subaru rules America’s off-road courses.

As the industry has moved to SUVs, compact sedans have been sidelined in the U.S. market, taking their steroid-enhanced, all-wheel drive Tasmanian Devil versions with them. The Mitsubishi Evo? Gone. Ford Focus RS? Toast. Fiesta ST? Hasta la vista.

But the Subie STI — based on the compact Impreza — remains. It’s the essence of Subaru’s rugged brand. Like Mazda’s Miata, the STI’s scrappy DNA is in every Subaru, whether sedan or ute.

Off-road driving schools like Seattle’s DirtFish — which provides instructors for Sandell’s winter camp — use Subarus as school cars.

Sandell, 37, has dreamed of racing Subarus since he was a speed-addled kid growing up in northern Sweden. Subaru dominated the World Rally Championship in the late ’90s to early 2000s, establishing the WRX legend.

While other Swedes bore holes in lake ice to fish, Sandell used the holes to measure surface thickness so he could race on the ice like his childhood rally heroes Colin McRae and Petter Solberg. Pushing the edge of the icy envelope made Sandell into one of the world’s premier rally drivers — and he’s realized his hopes by earning a spot as a U.S. Rallycross driver on Subaru’s team. Beats driving Zambonis.

The STI is a four-wheeled Apolo Ohno on ice. Credit deep-grooved, Swedish-made Lappi winter tires, encrusted with 400 3-millimeter studs (compared to a standard studded tire’s 150 1.5-millimeter treads). Like Michelin slicks on an asphalt racing surface, the $425-apiece Lappis enhance the STI’s inherent all-wheel drive grip to create astonishing ice traction.

I’m talking serious slick ice here. When I stepped out of the Subaru I had to take baby steps to keep from landing on my keister. But unleash STI’s 310 ponies out of a corner, and the rowdy ’Ru explodes like a stealth rocket.

As I hurtled toward the next apex, the Lappis were equally adept at slowing with those studs clawing at the ice as I stomped the big Brembo brakes. Try this on normal tires and the Subaru wouldn’t stop until Green Bay.

Turning is another story. Modern traction-control systems (more on them later), will choke the STI’s power, so the first rule of ice racing is to turn off the nannies lest the car crawl on its knees like, well — a human.

Ice and side g-loads make for tricky physics, and drifting the 3,450-pound greyhound across apexes requires skill and patience.

In the hands of a pro like Sandell, it is a sight to behold. Executing what the Swedes call the “Scandinavian flick,” the ice-cross master simultaneously brakes, backs off throttle and flicks the steering wheel to rotate the car at obscene, 45-degree angles to the corner. Then he flings the car the opposite way — the so-called “pendulum turn” — to complete an ess curve.

Ice courses are also teachers of smart electronics.

In addition to the STI, Sandell’s school deploys a squadron of Subaru BRZs — a species of rear-wheel drive, track-focused sports car that is usually stored in garages this time of year waiting for the spring thaw.

While the STI shows off the raw power of all-wheel drive, the BRZ on ice is a showcase for modern safety systems.

“Turn on traction control and keep it floored all the way around the course,” said instructor Michelle Miller. She laughed as I shot her a skeptical look.

But I did. And, astonishingly, it worked.

So good is BRZ’s electronic brain — managing power and slip angles — that it kept the Subaru from swapping ends through iced twisties even as my lead foot was screwed to the floor. Again, the tires show their mettle, allowing enough grip to claw the car forward.

It’s why manufacturers regularly come to the northern Great Lakes — not just to test how fast they can propel you, but also how they can save you.

Naturally, I turned the BRZ’s traction control off once the lesson was learned, so I could get back to ice-crossing. Though the BRZ can’t match the STI’s muscle, it did prove a wonderful ice racer in its own right. While sharing the STI’s low center of gravity thanks to Subaru’s flat-4 cylinder engine design, the BRZ is 550 pounds lighter.

That means less mass to manage across the ice, so the BRZ is quicker to change direction. The physics lessons, it occurred to me, would be useful for young drivers — might I suggest required snow training to gain a license?

In an age of homogenous SUVs, Subaru’s free spirit is a breath of fresh (cold) air. And in an age of mega auto-mergers, it’s a reminder of how a small brand can still speak loudly.

Even on the quiet ice of the northern Midwest.

2020 Subaru WRX STI

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

Price: $37,895, including $900 destination charge ($39,727 as tested with four $425 Lappi tires)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter turbocharged boxer 4-cylinder

Power: 310 horsepower, 290 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.3 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 159 mph

Weight: 3,450 lbs.

Fuel economy: EPA 16 city/22 highway/19 combined

Report card

Highs: Tight shifter; AWD traction from the gods

Lows: Sopwith Camel wing not for everyone

Overall: 4 stars

2020 Subaru BRZ

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

Price: $30,845, including $900 destination charge ($32,545 as tested with as tested with four $425 Lappi tires)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter boxer 4-cylinder

Power: 205 horsepower, 156 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.3 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 134 mph

Weight: 2,798 lbs.

Fuel economy: EPA 21 city/29 highway/24 combined

Report card

Highs: Playful handling; has backseat room compared to two-seat sports cars

Lows: Engine lacks punch

Overall: 3 stars

Cartoon: Bloomberg and the Daytona 500

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 18, 2020

Cartoon: Trump wins Dayton 500

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 18, 2020

Cartoon: Trump and the Daytona 500

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 14, 2020

Cartoon: Bernie Wins NH

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 13, 2020

Payne: 2020 Toyota Highlander steps up to the challenge

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 13, 2020

Value is the name of the game. For less than $40K the 2020 Toyota Highlander LE comes with a bucket-load of standard features.

Value is the name of the game. For less than $40K the 2020 Toyota Highlander LE comes with a bucket-load of standard features. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

I am flying low in rural San Antonio, the three-row Toyota Highlander hybrid under my saddle begging me to go faster. I push deeper into a downhill right-hander, all four hooves scrambling for traction, then bury the throttle as electric torque kicks me out of the apex.

Wait, what? A three-row Highlander hybrid SUV?

Hell has frozen over. Up is down. And three-row utes are fun. Once the most somnolent class in ute-dom, mainstream three-rows have come alive in the last year. Credit the handsome feature-rich Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade which have reset the bar as to what an affordable SUV should be. Applause, too, for the Ford Explorer ST which dared to make a hot-hatch out of a family bus.

Once upon a time, rebel Toyota pioneered the unibody three-row SUV and defied truck-based convention. Now the aging Establishment, Highlander has to get crackin’. Where the Ford Explorer ST and Chevrolet Traverse High Country have decided to concentrate on big profits at the segment’s premium end, Toyota wants to fight in the value trenches.

Behold the crackin’-good 2020 Highlander.

Since that unibody revelation in 2001 the Toyota has been a fixture at the top of the three-row class: Reliable. Affordable. Efficient. Zzzzzzzz.

While its Toyota siblings turned hip ’n’ funky, Highlander became an old mare. I swear its tired, square jaw was growing whiskers. Then the family insisted it gets its own Extreme Makeover.

The new Highlander is different: It looks like a Toyota Supra sports car rear-ended a Tacoma pickup. Like the remade RAV4, the Highlander gets the Tacoma’s macho face, its grille-mouth turned down at the corners with determination. But aft of the A-pillars, the haunches swell with Supra-like blisters over the rear wheel-wells. It’s quite a transformation.

This being a family SUV, the makeup artists added tasteful chrome wings to the front grille (think Buick Enclave) and a proper large greenhouse opening for seven passengers. But make no mistake, this Toyota wants to be noticed. And that’s in line with Chairman Akio Toyoda’s ultimatum to designers to think outside the box.

The Highlander joins other wild projects like the Lexus RX and the new Toyota  Supra. The architectural style that is more Frank Gehry than Frank Lloyd Wright. My taste is more Wright than Gehry, and I prefer the Kia Telluride’s simple, timeless lines. But I admire Toyota’s ambition to evoke emotion from sheet metal.

The inside is even funkier. Check out the guitar-neck dash design with the body of the guitar holding a 8.5- or 12.3-inch touchscreen display. Where the Telluride and Palisade borrow styling cues from Audi, Toyota has a personality all its own.

Interior detail is obsessive, if not quite on par with Telluride and Palisade (see their clever USB ports in the seat backs). It’s a lesson for competitors like Ford and Chevy where you can literally see where corners were cut to save costs. Dash cubbies abound in Highlander for phones, change and potato chip bags. Third-row seat access is easy as popping the seat-top tab and sliding the second row forward.

The last-generation Highlander was smaller inside than competitors. That doesn’t change. An added 2.7 inches of wheelbase has been used entirely to expand cargo room, though it’s still shy of the big Koreans.

Having gotten your attention, the stylish Highlander wants to sit down and talk value.

Starting at $35,000, the Highlander offers trims L, LE, XLE, Limited and Premium.

I flogged the XLE grade all over Texas because that’s where Toyota expects half of its volume to come from. It’s easy to see why:

The XLE comes standard with automatic high-beams, automatic lane-keep, adaptive cruise-control and blind-spot assist. Asian brands have prioritized such features to meet millennial demand. Heck, my boomer wife won’t look at a car without these features.

Add all-wheel drive and the gas-powered 290-horse V-6 (mated to an eight-speed automatic) that I tried out came in at a cool $42,320. That’s nearly on par with a comparably equipped Telluride.

Toyota has baked hybrids into its lineup for two decades now, and the sippy Highlander hybrid that I tested is determined to impress. Telluride doesn’t offer a hybrid at all, and Ford prices its hybrid as a premium option available only at well over $50,000.

For just $1,200 more, my AWD XLE could be hybridized. The hybrid’s rear wheels are motivated by a stand-alone electric motor for an eye-popping 36 mpg. That’s a healthy 55% better than the V-6, which equated to nearly 600 miles of range for the hybrid.

As I drove, the Highlander hybrid really grew on me. Sure, upgrading to the $50,000-plus Platinum trim would add a panoramic roof, camera mirror and head-up display, but you get those features for just $47,000 in the V-6 Telluride.

Accelerating the hybrid out of a turn, I was reminded of the Ford Escape Sport Hybrid that I drove last fall. Like the Highlander, Ford also wants to make hybrid powertrains a high-volume choice, and the Escape’s smooth operation — a 4-cylinder engine mated to a dynamic, continuously variable transmission — had me convinced.

In fact, the Highlander could learn a thing or two from the Escape. The Toyota’s drivetrain is similar — an electric-motor assisted, 2.5-liter 4-cylinder (replacing the old V-6) driven by a CVT. But the Ford’s CVT is nicely stepped like a cog transmission, whereas Highlander’s CVT drones on and on.

That incessant noise, however, doesn’t dull my enthusiasm for a 36 mpg three-row SUV. Family budgets rejoice.

The Toyota’s smaller dimensions surely help it feel nimbler than its bigger Telluride/Escape/Chevy Traverse competitors, but credit Toyota’s new TNGA platform as well. With 15% better stiffness and upgraded suspension pieces, it joins the Camry sedan for the Most Improved Handling Award.

Much improved, too, is Toyota’s commitment to infotainment tech after a curious period when it pretended not to notice. Here at last is a Toyota touchscreen with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and voice-recognition that actually listens to you.

“Tune to Sirius XM Comedy Greats” I requested. Heard and done.

Kia and Hyundai are setting the pace, but Highlander is game to keep up.

2020 Toyota Highlander

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front- and all-wheel drive, 7- or 8-passenger SUV

Price: $32,950 including $1,120 destination charge ($39,250 LE AWD, $42,320 AWD XLE, $49,170 Hybrid AWD,  $50,345 AWD Platinum as tested)

Powerplant: 3.5-liter V-6; hybrid 2.5-liter inline-4 cylinder mated to electric motors

Power: 295 horsepower, 263 pound-feet torque (V-6); 243 horsepower (combined output, hybrid)

Transmission: 8-speed automatic (V-6); CVT (hybrid)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.8 (V-6) or 8.2 (hybrid) seconds (Car and Driver est.); towing 5,000 lbs. (V-6), 3,500 lbs. (hybrid)

Weight: 4,330-4,595 lbs.

Fuel economy: EPA 20 city/27 highway/23 combined (V-6 AWD XLE); 35 city/34 highway/35 combined (hybrid AWD)

Report card

Highs: Tight handling for a family ute; hybrid fuel economy

Lows: Smaller interior than competitors; no longer a snore to look at, but not everyone’s taste

Overall: 3 stars

Cartoon: Pelosi Impeach Biden

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 13, 2020

Cartoon: Chiefs Impeached by Pelosi

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 7, 2020

Cartoon: Pelosi Impeaches Chiefs

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 7, 2020

Cartoon: Romney TDS Impeachment Vote

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 6, 2020

Payne: Adorable Hyundai Venue mini-SUV is a bargain at under $20,000

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 6, 2020

Where are the headlights? In the middle. Framed by an LED tube, the headlights for the 2020 Hyundai Venue SUV sit under a running light "eyebrow" like the Chevy Blazer.

Where are the headlights? In the middle. Framed by an LED tube, the headlights for the 2020 Hyundai Venue SUV sit under a running light “eyebrow” like the Chevy Blazer. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

The Hyundai Venue is a tasty little snack box. Loaded with standard features, a remote smartphone app and perky styling, it’s as Mini Cooper-cute as it is utilitarian.

And it’s also an increasingly rare dish: a new vehicle available for less than $20,000.

Finding an affordable vehicle these days is almost as hard as ordering a $3 hamburger in an airport. The average — average! — new car transaction price in the U.S. market in December was $38,948. Blame our mad rush for expensive trucks and SUVs as well as a laundry list of nanny-state regulations.

Small cars have struggled under the burden while sales — and profit margins — shrink. As readers of this column know, I am a hatchback fan, and I’ve shed a tear as wee appetizers have been crossed off the menu. For example, my favorite Ford Fiesta hatch has packed its bags for Europe, taking its mild fuel appetite and ST sportiness with it.

But I am also a part of the problem.

As entry-level car prices have risen, I’ve purchased used cars instead of new. In the last 15 years, I’ve bought four small cars — Dodge Neon, Ford Focus and two Honda Civics. All used. Why pay $25,000 for a new car when I can walk across the lot to the pre-owned salesman and buy a perfectly good used hatchback with 25,000 miles and extended warranty for just $15,000?

There are whispers among some manufacturers that this is the new business model: forget entry-segment vehicles and concentrate on $23,000-plus subcompact SUVs. What of the buyers who want a car for less? Let ’em buy used.

Don’t think automakers are happy about this trend. Ford and Fiat Chrysler are losing sleep over losing first-time buyers to Asian competitors. Happily, there’s the Ambien of fat profits from pickups to help them rest easier.

Foreign-makers don’t have the luxury of selling mega-trucks. They put bread on the table by moving new vehicles. As prices of new vehicles rise, entry-level buyers are fewer.

Hyundai thinks it has an answer. The Venue is a segment-buster.

Starting at just $18,470, it is the cheapest SUV on the market — and one of only three utes under $20,000 (along with the Nissan Kicks and the funk-tastic Kia Soul). That’s about $3,500 less than a subcompact Ford Ecosport or Mazda CX-3. Call the Venue a sub-subcompact. Call it a mini SUV. Just don’t call it a hatchback.

Hatches are less popular than Michael Bloomberg’s soda-pop sermons. Hyundai made a fetching $15,700 hatchback version of its Accent subcompact sedan until 2017 that cost $2,300 less than the Venue. No one cared.

But Hyundai has cooked the Venue in its secret sauce. Not only does it conform to millennials’ SUV tastes, it’s peppered with the modern electronics they crave and that have only been available on more expensive Hyundais like the Elantra and Tucson: standard features like phone app, automatic emergency-braking, automatic high-beams, Apple CarPlay connectivity, 8-inch tablet infotainment display …

You had me at phone app.

One of my favorite luxury conveniences — courtesy of brands like BMW and Tesla (and always cutting-edge Ford) — is monitoring my car by app. Remotely. I run my life by phone, so why not my car, too?

Download Hyundai Blue Link from the Google Play store. Enter VIN number. Simple.

On a Venue media test on a toasty Miami day in January, I remote-cooled the interior to 65 degrees while at lunch. Try to do that in your old used car.

My wife would like preheated seats as well, but that would require adding the $1,750 premium package that include navigation and a sunroof — pushing an automatic, front-wheel drive Venuewell north of $20,000 and into the path of better-equipped, more powerful, all-wheel drive subcompact utes like the stylish $23,000 Mazda CX-3 (for some reason, a Chevy Trax doesn’t get these goodies until it hits $28,000).

Venue’s biggest value-play is under $20,000 thanks to its suite of standard electronic goo-gaws. Like standard Apple CarPlay. It’s all Venue needs to get where you wanna go. Utes specialize in what millennials like to call their “side hustle” — a second job or avocation. Pop the hatch, flatten the rear seats, and Venue will carry your gear anywhere.

With its upright proportions, Venue beats a similarly priced Toyota Yaris hatchback in nearly every metric. The Venue has three more cubic feet of cargo room and another inch of head- and rear legroom. That means more space for your music case, bandmates, golf clubs, bicycle or whatever your hustle.

All this and looks, too. My mini ute was so cute I was comparing it to the Mini Cooper Clubman ($30,000) and Audi Q3 ($40,000).

The jack o’ lantern grille is sandwiched by mid-fascia headlight cubes that are topped by “eyebrow” parking lights. The cube lights are echoed in the taillights. Choose the Denim trim and its Mini Cooper-like white roof, and — aw, what the heck — you may be willing to cough up $23,000 it’s so adorable. The interior is a pleasing dish of chunky climate dials, storage cubbies and 8-inch tablet screen.

Pleasing, too, is Venue’s willingness to play. Despite its boxy shape, this SUV is no high-riding porker. Weighing just 2,612 pounds, the Venue feels more hatchback than SUV with a 6.6-inch ground clearance, just an inch higher than the Yaris. Miami is hardly a twisty alpine playground, but the Hyundai eagerly attacked the odd 360-degree cloverleaf.

The driveline, however, will only create goosebumps on EPA bureaucrats.

To meet stringent emissions regs, the meek 121-horse, 1.6-liter 4-banger (at least it bests Yaris’ 103 ponies) has been designed with expensive dual-injectors for better fuel burn. It’s then matched to a continuously variable transmission that returned 37 mpg on my 100-mile hustle. I think I out-dragged a box turtle at a stoplight once.

For the budget-conscious buyer not shy of stick shifts, I’d suggest ditching the CVT for the more-fun $18,470 manual-transmission model. Or you could just buy a used low-mileage 2018 Hyundai Elantra GT hatchback with more power, room and same electronic features for $17,000.

Now I’m causing trouble again.

2020 Hyundai Venue

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

Price: $17,350 including $1,120 destination charge ($23,280 SEL as tested)

Powerplant: 1.6-liter inline-4 cylinder

Power: 121 horsepower, 113 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual, 6-speed automatic continuously variable-transmission (CVT)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 9.9 seconds (Car and Driver est.); top speed, 115 mph

Weight: 2,612 (with CVT)

Fuel economy: EPA 32 city/37 highway/34 combined (automatic as tested)

Report card

Highs: Cute ute; standard features galore

Lows: Zero-60 mph in a while; fat $1,210 destination charge hurts value play

Overall: 3 stars

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Cartoon: Pelosi and State of the Union

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 6, 2020

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Cartoon: Ground Hog Day Election

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 3, 2020

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Cartoon: Super Bowl J.Lo and Shakira

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 3, 2020

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Cartoon: Billionaire Bowl: Trump and Bloomberg

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 3, 2020

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Cartoon: NYT Bolton Bombshell

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 31, 2020

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Cartoon: Lincoln Impeachment and Schiff

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 31, 2020

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Cartoon: Prince Charles and Global Warming

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 30, 2020

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Payne: To Hell and back in an insane BMW X4 M SUV

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 30, 2020

To Hell and back. Detroit News auto critic Henry Payne took the 2020 BMW X4 M to the devilishly twisty roads of Hell, Michigan to test the limits. At night. In the rain.

To Hell and back. Detroit News auto critic Henry Payne took the 2020 BMW X4 M to the devilishly twisty roads of Hell, Michigan to test the limits. At night. In the rain. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

I remember picking up my 2001 BMW M3 like it was yesterday. The sleek coupe hugged the ground with its front spoiler just inches off the asphalt. Its 330-horsepower, naturally aspirated inline-6 cylinder 3.2-liter engine put out a rare 100 horsepower-per-liter through the rear wheels at a screaming 8,000 rpm. Its six-speed manual transmission begged to be revved to redline.

My, how things have changed.

For 2020 BMW has introduced the X4 M, a bulbous five-door SUV with a coupe roofline riding high over the tarmac. Under the bonnet sits a 3.0-liter, forced-induction, twin-turbo inline-6; it feeds all four wheels via an eight-speed automatic gearbox. There’s not a manual transmission in sight.

What’s more in this Age of SUV, the BMW has favored this Franken-ute with its most-powerful inline-6 ever. It gets this engine even before the M4 (as the M3 coupe is now called). So the X4 M makes 503 horsepower and the M4 a mere 425. The nerve.

But before you deduce that everything at BMW has gone to hell … well, I went to Hell.

Hell, Michigan, that is — home of the most forbidding roads in all of our Great Lakes State. I picked a particularly hellish November night to go: pitch-black sky, roads slick with rain and leaves, air frosty as a witch’s nose. If a BMW sport-ute is to earn its performance stripes, then it had better be able to manage Michigan’s most devilish secondary roads.

That, and I loved telling the Bimmer’s navigation system to “Go to Hell.”

It’s not just the market’s taste for utes and turbos and automatic transmissions that have changed — the last two decades have transformed BMW interiors. With a big push from Silicon Valley’s Tesla, the X4’s console infotainment screen is a digital wonder. Heck, my ’01 had just a small radio display.

The X4 M’s screen is a comprehensive display with crisp graphics and endless pages that allow you to configure your vehicle’s drive modes, radio presets, head-up display and safety systems. Safety systems include adaptive cruise-control, lane-keep assist, automatic braking, 360-degree park-assist and automatic seat-eject at impact with parachute (just kidding about that last one).

All this doesn’t come cheap, of course, and a base X4 M lists a healthy $7,000 higher (inflation adjusted) than my 2001 M3. Consider $4,000 of that the SUV premium, courtesy of hatchback and all-wheel-drive.

The screen can be controlled via a dexterous iDrive rotary knob, direct touch or voice commands. With my hands wrapped around the meaty, heated steering wheel, I preferred voice commands which were as good as anything this side of Siri.

“Go to Hell!” I barked and the beautiful screen quickly sketched my path to the Michigan burg’s infernal roads.

Interstate 96 toward Hell was bliss in the BMW’s stuffed lounge chairs. Heavily bolstered for the g-loads to come, the 18-way seats are comfortable, never pinching my 6-foot-5 frame. The rear seats are another matter. Already cramped for long legs, the X4’s sloped roof — to give the ute a coupe-like look compared to its more-upright sister X3 M (yes, there’s another one!) — also cramped my neck. That’s not much different than my old M3.

Happily, BMW has made full use of the SUV’s cargo space. Not only do the rear seats fall flat to accommodate, say, a bicycle, but BMW has thoughtfully taken a page from family utes: It added a sub-layer of storage under the cargo floor to house muddy shoes or other loose ends that might otherwise clatter around in back.

Despite 173 more horsepower than my old M3, the X4 is noticeably quieter. And that’s not necessarily a good thing. I loved the raspy howl of the ol’ inline-6, but the X4 so swathes its passenger in quiet comfort — the better to hear the sweet nav voice tell me  “You have arrived at your destination” — that it’s hard to hear the 503 turbocharged ponies pummeling the pavement. At least there’s an exhaust amplification button.

The same electronic magic that has transformed the car’s interior, of course, has also transformed this 4,500-pound rhino (1,000 pounds heavier than my old M3) into a blast to drive fast.

Staring through the rain-splashed gloom of Hell’s Glenbrook Road in the dead of night, I engaged launch control. I let loose the brake at full throttle, and the beast exploded forward as if on rails.


With state-of-art electronics managing grip to all four paws of this rear-biased machine, the X4 M shrugged at the damp pavement. The 60-mph mark blew by in under 4 seconds (3.3 seconds is the official Car and Driver count, an astonishing 1.5 second quicker than my M3), the eight-speed tranny flicking off millisecond upshifts.

Into Hell’s twisted curves I hurtled, the ginormous 15.6-inch brakes bringing the two-ton-plus beast to heel. The rhino danced through turns, the SUV’s all-wheel-drive proving much superior to a rear-wheel drive sports car’s grip in the clammy conditions. Too much throttle? I could feel the electronics quickly adjusting torque to all four wheels to maintain grip.

I could also feel the car’s turbo-lag off corners. No problem. With a leftward shove of the Bimmer’s monostable (which operates on an east-west axis instead of the usual north-south), I was in manual mode. I toggled shifts with the steering wheel-mounted paddles, maximizing torque by keeping the revs high.

A I learned the SUV’s moods, I could program (more digital refinement) my preferred chassis settings — Sport Plus for stiffened shocks and performance trannny response, Sport for steering, Traction Control for slick conditions — with buttons on the steering wheel.

As I left Hell, I was almost convinced that an M-badged SUV is a good idea. But as good as the X4 M is, its lighter, sleeker, lower M4 sibling is that much better. The M4’s athletic bod can change direction like Barry Sanders in the open field.

So at least basic physics haven’t changed. But the X4 M bends them to its will more than you could imagine.

2020 BMW X4 M

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, 5-passenger compact SUV

Price: $74,395 including $995 destination charge($86,495 X4 M Competition as tested)

Powerplant: 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged inline-6

Power: 473 horsepower, 442 pound-feet torque (503 horsepower as tested)

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 3.3 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 161 mph

Weight: 4,590 (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 14 city/19 highway/16 combined

Report card

Highs: All-season athlete; stupid power with AWD grip

Lows: Bulbous looks; the M4 coupe is quicker on track

Overall: 3 stars

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