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Toyota Camry’s extreme makeover

Posted by hpayne on October 23, 2014

2015 Toyota Camry is available with the choice of a

The 2015 Toyota Camry gets a dash of sex appeal to keep up with the hotties in its mid-size sedan class.

Upon testing the new, 2015 Toyota Camry XSE (S for “sport”), I was not overcome with the urge to crash a wedding, steal the bride, and outrun the groomsmen in their classic, sky-blue convertible. Mrs. Payne would have greeted me at the front door with a rolling pin.

But the latest Toyota ad campaign suggests that Camry-buying, single men might find such ideas irresistible. Acting on impulse? Feeding primal urges?

This is the message of a Toyota Camry ad?

If you’re shocked, you haven’t visited the mid-size sedan aisle in a while. This once quiet, predictable quarter of the auto department store was as sexy as the washing machine display at Sears. The appliances were functional. Efficient. Boxy. King Camry ruled. Japanese quality was the coin of the realm. Everyone dressed the same. Public displays of

emotion were frowned upon. Muzak played over the sound system.

Then that rebel, the Hyundai Sonata, showed some leg and the whole place turned into a Studio 54 disco party.

The 2010 Sonata’s racy body turned heads. The Ford Fusion followed with a pouty grille and come-hither headlights so convincing you thought Aston Martin had made a grocery hauler. Then came Chrysler 200 with its lusty lights and feminine lines. Want to mambo with your midsize? The athletic Mazda 6 not only turned heads on the showroom floor, it could cut some serious rug, too.

After years of jelly-bean shaped look-alikes, these cars made hearts beat faster. They stirred . . . emotions.

The Camry appliance watched warily. Sure, its reputation for quality continued to draw customers, but it could see eyes wandering. Ooooh, that Fusion is pretty. Loooove those Hyundai lines. And their JD Power quality ratings were improving all the time.

If quality was becoming a universal ingredient, then how would Camry stand out? Toyota’s 2012 redesign created more concern. Dealers reportedly murmured that the new car was too bland. It reinforced Camry’s reputation as a vanilla brand. Hadn’t Jeremy Clarkson of “Top Gear” written a column titled, “Can’t sleep? Look at a Camry?”

“(It is) by far the dullest shaped body I have ever seen in my whole life,” wrote the renowned auto personality. “All I need to do now is think about the shape and I come over all drowsy.”

Ouch. Even Chevy’s own cure for insomnia, the Malibu, was reading the reviews. Faced with its own dealer revolt, GM had completely remade the ‘Bu in 2014 to address its somnolescent qualities. Wasn’t the Camry just a better-engineered Malibu? And didn’t Malibu just win JD Power’s Initial Quality Survey for best mid-sized sedan?

So just three years after the reborn ’12 Camry, we have the reborn ’15 Camry: More style, more handling, more … emotion.

It largely works. The Camry is no Fusion, but it is distinctive. Clarkson will have to find another cure for insomnia.

Toyota spent a reported $200 million in upgrading the sheet metal, chassis, and interior of the car. That’s a lotta dimes for a cost-conscious manufacturer that prides itself on getting it right the first time.

Behold the new car’s slimmer, less slab-like torso thanks to a lower beltline. But most striking is the plastic surgery around front. The Camry’s new kisser borrows heavily from Toyota’s Lexus lux brand, which has itself undergone an expensive face-lift. The Lexus is the best example of Akio Toyoda’s directive (when the CEO speaks, people listen) that Toyota products stir passion. Beginning with Akio himself, no doubt. A certified car guy. Ooooh, that Fusion is pretty!

The Camry’s hour-glass grille design reminds you of just how radical the Lexus looks. Indeed, some Lexus buyers may admire the Camry’s more measured interpretation. The new face comes in two guises — L and the racier S.

My preference is for the L style. Its thin, horizontal accents complete an elegant sculpture. The black, honeycomb S-maw echoes the Lexus F-Sport’s spindle grille. In the rearview mirrors it looks like the cow-catcher of an approaching locomotive. But it doesn’t intimidate like the Lexus. It’s cheap, plastic construction smacks of a pretender. An oversized Corolla S.

Were I that single dude, I would steal the bride in the LE hybrid.

Not only will the beauty warm to its less beastly face, but the sedan’s excellent, electric-assisted acceleration and chassis balance (thanks to 150 pounds of battery in the trunk balancing the four-banger up front) will put distance on your pursuers. On a hard flog through northern Florida, your intrepid writer found the hybrid well-balanced — rotating into corners with a tire-squalling vigor not normally associated with tree-hugging transport. And I had a ready alibi if pulled over: “There must be some mistake, officer. This is a hybrid.”

Not that you can’t appreciate the electric powertrain. My test mule boasted an impressive 572-mile range — meaning you could outrun the groomsmen before looking for a hotel for the night. Back the Camry down to 40 mph and it’ll run on battery alone for long stretches — stretching that range even further.

As you get to know your passenger in the Camry’s roomy, hushed cabin, she’ll marvel at the stylish, chrome-lined console. The standard, 4.3″ touch screen is outstanding, complemented by bigger, piano black touch keys. The screen’s usability will distract her while you fiddle with the Camry’s less driver-friendly details which smack, like the plastic grille on the S models, of cheapness. The holdover, notchy, shifter is clunky. And beware the (optional) adaptive cruise control, which will cease working below 20 mph, giving you a nasty surprise as you approach a stopped car ahead.

Full adaptive next time, please.

Indeed, next time will come quickly in this ruthless segment. One gets the sense that Toyota is especially concerned about Hyundai’s Sonata, which has also picked up makeup tips from its luxury superior, the Genesis. What’s more, the Hyundai’s handsome appliance starts at $21,960 – nearly $2k under the $23,795 Camry. Hyundai quality? Four JD Power stars, just like its revered Japanese competitor. And the Korean model weighs in with a hybrid and two superb 4-cylinder turbo engines which provide V-6 power while opening more room for Sonata’s segment-leading cargo space.

The Camry, meanwhile, stubbornly sticks to a V6 that make up just 6 percent of sales — even less than the 10 percent hybrid. Interior room matters. After the wedding-crashing theatrics, the talk will surely turn to kiddies.

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

2015 Toyota Camry

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

Price: $23,795 base ($32,987 Camry Hybrid LE as tested)

Power plant: 2.5-liter DOHC 4-cylinder; 3.5-liter DOHC V-6; Hybrid engine: 2.5-Liter DOHC 4-cylinder with Nickel-Metal Hydride AC-motor assist

Power: 178 horsepower, 170 pound-feet of torque (4-cyl.); 268 horsepower, 248 pound-feet of torque (V-6); 200 horsepower (hybrid)

Transmission: Six-speed automatic or continuously-variable transmission (Hybrid only)

Performance: 0-60 mph: 6.6 seconds (V-6 — manufacturer)

Weight: 3,240 pounds (3,485 hybrid as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 25 city/35 highway/28 combined (2.5L 4-cyl); 25 city/35 highway/28 combined (2.7L 4-cyl); 21 city/31 highway/25 combined (V-6); 43 city/39 highway/41 combined (Hybrid)

Highs: Runs like a Swiss watch; Hushed cabin

Lows: Plasticy S-trim fascia; Only partial adaptive cruise control

Overall: ★★★


Corvette vs. Porsche track showdown

Posted by hpayne on October 18, 2014

The Detroit vs. Stuttgart sports car faceoff has been

Who has the edge in this historic rivalry? I took them on Autobahn race track to find out.

Red Sox vs. Yankees. Coke vs. Pepsi. Corvette vs. Porsche.

The Detroit vs. Stuttgart sports car faceoff ranks as one of our great rivalries.

Growing up the son of a Porsche owner in West Virginia, I knew which side I was on. Now as a proud Detroiter and a Porsche owner, I’m on the fence. I admire both. As a pup, I watched the local Corvette and Porsche clubs face off in weekend autocrosses. USA vs. Germany. Domestic vs. import. Horsepower vs. handling. It has always been so.

If a Ford vs. Ferrari racing rivalry briefly blossomed in the 1960s, the Vette-Porsche rivalry has endured. Each generation gets better. The competition today has never been more intense. The 2014 Porsche Cayman is the best handling Porsche under $100k. Ever. The 2014 Corvette is the best handling ‘Vette. Ever.

Which reigns supreme? I took them on the track to settle it.

I tell pals who consider buying these thoroughbreds to track them. They are that good. You simply cannot explore their enormous potential at 80 mph – or 90, or 120 – on I-75. Their sophisticated chassis and multilink suspensions can achieve a neck-knotting 1-plus G on track.

Autobahn race track, for example. Located south of Chicago, it is fast, technical, and a favorite testing ground for amateur racers like myself. It also hosts a fleet of exotic sports cars courtesy of local dealers. Like fighters on a runway, they are lined up on the tarmac each weekend for pilots who want to explore the envelope: Maserati GranTurismo, BMW M4, Audi R8, Camaro ZL1. . .

I took out the 2014, 3.4-liter, mid-engine Porsche Cayman S and the 2014, 6.2-liter, front-engine Corvette C7 Stingray convertible for a fling.

The Cayman’s coupe construction increases chassis rigidity by 40 percent over its sister Boxster convertible. By contrast, the Stingray’s aluminum chassis does not depend on its B-pillar for stiffness, according to Chevy engineers – meaning the drop top gives away little to its coupe mate other than a roof.

Both Yank and Kraut are fabulous. Both represent their national stereotypes.

Taught and sleek, Porsche’s best handling sports car (take a backseat, 911) is tidy as a German manor. Trained on the demanding twists and turns of the legendary Nurburgring, the Cayman is wonderfully predictable. It’s the most drivable sports car on the road today.

Like a Hollywood celebrity, the C7 is gorgeous, loud, and loaded with personality. More stable than its C6 predecessor, the nearly 3,400-pound beast still moves around on Autobahn’s signature switchbacks. In turns 9 and 10, steering input is required as the chassis whiplashes from side to side. While the Porsche skips through with minimal fuss, the Vette is all knees and elbows, clawing its way across the asphalt to finally . . . pounce on to the back straight.

Unleash the Kraken. Where the 325-horsepower, 273-pound feet of torque Porsche gives a determined bark, the 455-horse, 460-pound feet Corvette roars like a lion. Freed from the thicket of twisties – Cayman territory – the lion hits the open savanna with authority.

The Vette gulps asphalt, its front maw gaping as if to devour the Cayman up ahead. As it reaches its prey . . .

. . . another thicket of turns. The Cayman slips away again through the Turn 11-12 chicane. And so it goes lap after lap. The Porsche darts. The Stingray surges. Yin and yang.

It’s why this rivalry rivets us. Two athletes getting the job done in different ways.

My track sessions were crowded with cars, so I didn’t bother with lap times. But around another great American course — the high speed, 4.1-mileVirginia International Raceway — Car & Driver clocked the C7 nearly 9 seconds faster. All hail horsepower.

And affordability. The C7 may be comparatively ragged, but Porsche’s handling refinement comes at a price: $83,000 compared to the Vette’s $75 grand. And Motown’s finest doesn’t sacrifice refinement inside. It’s gorgeous, leather dash and bolstered seats are the match of German royalty.

Porsche has exploited its performance brand to expand into SUVs (Cayenne and Macan) and sports sedans (the Panamera). With their sports car DNA, these sleds have become the best-selling Porsches ever, raking in profits undreamed of in the sports car-only days.

Were it not part of the GM empire, one wonders if Corvette, too, might have multiplied as utes and sedans. Howja’ like a Corvette CUV-7 next to your C7? Alas, Corvette soldiers on as a single car.

Rumor has it, however, that the 2017 C8 will be mid-engine. A ruthless V-8 located, Cayman-like, behind the driver’s ear. Be afraid Porsche. Be very afraid.

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

2014 Corvette Stingray

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

Price: $53,995 base (about $75,000 convertible as tested)

Power plant: 6.2-liter V-8

Power: 455 horsepower, 460 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60: 3.9 seconds (Car & Driver)

Weight: 3,362 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 16 mpg city/28 mpg highway/ 20 mpg combined

2014 Porsche Cayman S

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

Price: $63,800 base (about $83,000 as tested)

Power plant: 3.4L horizontally opposed 6-cyl

Power: 325 horsepower, 273 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Seven-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60: 4.2 seconds (Motor Trend)

Weight: 3,152 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 21 mpg city/30 mpg highway/ 24 mpg combined

The 21st-century Roadmaster: Chevy Traverse

Posted by hpayne on October 15, 2014

We compare the 2014 Chevrolet Traverse with its arguable

Shed a tear for the Roadmaster. The Chevy Traverse advances the wagon concept by maintaining everything we loved about 20th-century wagons while stuffing it with 21st-century technology.

If Rip Van Winkle awoke today from an afternoon nap in 1995, the first thing he would do is get a shave. The second thing he would do is get gas for his big family station wagon.

At that point, ol’ Rip might wonder what planet he was on.

Has there been any greater physical change in our world in the last 20 years than the disappearance of the station wagon from our landscape? (Okay, that and folks aren’t holding brick-sized cellphones to their heads anymore.) It’s how you know you’re watching a movie from last century. Today, sport utes dominate the family driveway.

Auto historians will tell you that 1970s mpg mandates killed the wagon. But I’m convinced it was Clark Griswold.

Griswold, as played by Chevy Chase in the 1983 classic “National Lampoon’s “Vacation,” drove his long-suffering family cross country in a Wagon Queen Family Truckster — a pea green, wood-paneled, fun-eating caricature of the American wagon.

The resulting fiasco was the cultural death-knell for the once-popular family vehicle.

By the mid-nineties, wagons were as hip as eight-track tape players. Minivans were the new family transport, and they in turn were being replaced by large SUVs. The rear-wheel-drive Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon was the last hurrah. Manufactured from 1991-96, the final Roadmasters (along with sister ships the Chevy Caprice and Cadillac Fleetwood) rolled off the Arlington, Texas assembly line that was being retooled for front-wheel drive utes.

Fast forward 20 years and what should Rip buy? Say hello to the 2014 Chevy Traverse. The Roadmaster has been reincarnated as an SUV.

But unlike Clark Griswold, Rip won’t need to be conned by car salesman Eugene Levy to get into the Chevy. Thanks to vehicles like the gorgeous, sleek Traverse, we hardly miss the wagon. From its wrap-around, Impala-style grille to its high-tech console to its signature Pentagon-rear window, the Traverse can haul eight passengers like the Roadmaster while turning heads, entertaining the kiddies, and still flexing some good ol’ American muscle.

Still, Rip and I wipe a tear from our cheeks. There are some nostalgia pieces that wagon diehards will miss. So let’s get to know our family haulers.

Why compare a Buick and Chevy, you ask? Why not apples to apples? Why not the 1995 Chevy Caprice wagon and the Chevy Traverse? Fair question. Convenience, for

one. My pal (and Rip Van Winkle stand-in), The Detroit News personal finance guru Brian O’Connor, owns a ’95 Roadmaster wagon. It has 194,000 miles. He’s ready for a new ride.

But there are practical, market considerations as well. The all-wheel drive Traverse stickers at $47,355 which is about the same price — adjusted for inflation — as a Roadmaster would sell for today. The Traverse’s Buick Enclave twin, by contrast, would lighten the wallet another $8,000. And, since the Roadmaster was the Brontosaurus of the Wagon Era, perhaps it would make sense to compare it to the equivalent SUV-saurus, the Chevy Suburban. But the Suburban — 130-inch wheelbase vs. the Buick’s 116 — is in another class of big. Manhattanites are buying Suburbans as luxury apartments.

Apples to apples? The Traverse’s 119-inch wheelbase is more Roadmaster like.

If the Chevy is the 21st-century station wagon, its seating position is decidedly 19th-century. Federal mpg laws inspired truck-based sport utes, but Americans’ preference to ride horse-like — high in the saddle — accelerated their popularity. The lower Roadmaster feels like you’re sitting on a Shetland pony. On its knees.

I’m no physicist, but the laws of nature dictate that the Traverse should feel less stable compared to the wagon’s lower-center of gravity. But utes have evolved with better chassis engineering. Built on GM’s sedan-like, unibody Lambda platform, the Traverse is a long way from the truck-based SUVs of 20 years ago. Add GM’s Stabilitrak electronic stability control system and the Traverse is remarkably stable for a 2 ½-ton vehicle.

The 4,700-pound Roadmaster, by contrast, is as nimble as an ocean liner.

Navigating high-speed turns requires considerable concentration. It pitches like it’s in choppy seas. The Buick could use a tug boat.

This ICBM may not turn, but it’s a rocket in a straight line. Stomp on the gas and the small-block, 5.7-liter, 260-horse V-8 in the beast’s belly — yes, the same small black as in a 1990-vintage ‘Vette — roars with authority. So this is why they called it “master.” Glorious. But the V-6 Traverse matches it. The six-holer pumps out 28 more horses (288 total) — while trailing the surly V-8′s 335 pound-feet of torque with “only” 270 pound-feet. Naturally, that kind of power works up an appetite and the V-6 only gains 1 mpg (19 vs. 18) on the old nail — but if you want fuel economy, buy a Spark.

The Traverse and Roadmaster take strikingly different approaches to wood. The Buick wears a full coat of the stuff. Lucky it’s vintage vinyl or the Roadmaster would have been plagued by woodpeckers. The Chevy is more modest, saving its wood grain paneling for the dash which is beautifully appointed. Indeed, the Traverse advances

the wagon concept by maintaining everything we loved about 20th-century wagons while stuffing it with 21st-century technology.

The Traverse’s center console is a candy box of goodies from a 6.5-inch MyLink, color infotainment touchscreen to controls for collision alert, blind-spot assist, hands-free calling, heated steering wheel, dual-climate control, Bluetooth connectivity, and a direct line to the Oval Office (just kidding about that last one). The Roadmaster? It has a radio.

Mimicking the wagon, you can flatten the second and third seats in the Traverse if you need to move a grandfather clock — or just need a place to sleep for the night. The Traverse also offers the option of a second-row, digital entertainment center and “smart-sliding” captain’s chairs that bow like Queen Elizabeth’s subjects when you want to get into the third row.

A moment of silence for the rear-facing, third-row bench, please. I spent much of my childhood facing backwards in third-row wagon seats. Our own private space capsule. This led to innovations like the Roadmaster’s rear door which was built to open like a door, lay flat like a pickup tailgate, and re-enter the earth’s atmosphere at 17,000 mph (OK, made that up, too). The modern Traverse’s rear hatch is automatic (more digital wizardry), but it only knows how to go up. Score one for Roadmaster.

Wipe away that tear, Rip, and get a new Traverse. Then join us again in another 20 years. By then steering wheels should have disappeared in favor of self-diving Google cars.

2014 Chevrolet Traverse

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

Price: $31,670 base ($47,355)

Power plant: 3.6-liter direct-injection V-6

Power: 288 horsepower, 270 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Performance: Towing capacity: 5,200 pounds

Weight: 4,956 pounds (test vehicle)

Fuel economy: EPA 16 mpg city/23 mpg highway/19 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Attractive styling; cavernous cargo space

Lows: 5,000 pound porker; Big blind spots

Overall: ★★★★

Q&Auto: Marketing guru Scott, built Ford tough

Posted by hpayne on October 11, 2014


Unlike a stereotypical truck guy, Scott is a lean drink of water. Fittingly, his lean F150 breaks the truck stereotype, too.

7,000-pound gross vehicle weight rating, that’s a lotta room for equipment (or more 6-foot truck guys) in back.

“Aluminum has given us a great opportunity to improve the truck: More capability, more durability, better performance, better efficiency, better handling dynamics, and at an affordable price,” says the 36-year Ford veteran, rattling off bullet points like a 6-speed tranny rifles gears. The F-150 has been the best–selling truck every year that Scott has been at Ford and he thinks the aluminum revolution is a good reason it’ll be on top for 36 more.

“Eighty percent of our customers know aluminum works,” he says of the lightweight metal that has girded battle ships and race cars alike. “My job is to convince the other 20 percent.”

I rode with Scott on a F-150 test drive outside San Antonio, Texas where we talked tin, toughness, and the 1000 miles of Baja.

Q: What did you drive to the Dream Cruise?

Scott: A new F-150.

Q: As a pickup truck guy would you rather be at the Cruise or another event?

Scott: I’d probably like it more at the Baja 1000 (Ed. note: the brutal, 1000-mile, off-road race on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula). It’s really about toughness and durability.

Q: How long have you been with Ford?

Scott: Thirty-six years. The last 13 years as truck marketing manager. The first 20 years of my career I was in sales in different locations around the country. In 1997 I was Explorer brand manager. Then I had all the SUVs for three years. Then in 2002 I took the truck marketing job.

Q: Is the F-150 a game changer?

Scott: Absolutely. It’s the new standard for full-sized pickups.

Q: Aluminum’s benefits are well known. Why not an aluminum truck until now?

Scott: A combination of factors. We had to be prepared to manufacture a vehicle with aluminum. To master different joining techniques with aluminum. The materials supply was an issue. So a whole host of issues combined to say that now was the right time. Having it all coincide with the needs of the buyer in terms of being a better performing, more capable, more efficient truck.

Q: Ford has done aluminum before with Jaguar. It produced an aluminum-bodied Ford Taurus prototype in the early ’90s. So why not do aluminum first in a sports car like Mustang? Why bet big on your franchise vehicle, the F-150?

Scott: Light-weighting makes the most sense in a truck. Because you can take weight out of the truck and reinvest that weight reduction in more capability like towing and hauling that a customer values so highly.

Q: Does this make it easier for Ford to transition to aluminum in other vehicles?

Scott: Certainly we will have learned a lot about making that conversion. So the next vehicle will be easier, yes.

Q: There is huge brand loyalty in this segment. How do you convince a RAM or Chevy buyer that this is a game changer?

Scott: Our success at launch is going to be determined by maintaining the high loyalty we have with our current customers. We’ll be successful if we can maintain . . . that owner base which is the largest in the market. As for conquests, that is a bonus.

Q: This truck is loaded. How did you keep price down with aluminum and all that tech?

Scott: You have to have mentality that price is governed by the market environment — and where your competition is. Affordability has to be in the forefront. That means we have to be efficient as we build it.


Aluminum F-150 is battle tough

Posted by hpayne on October 9, 2014

The all-new 2015 Ford F-150 on the streets of San Antonio

The F-150′s huge three-bar grille growls. Its “c-clamp” headlights intimidate. This truck is a fit, aluminum heavyweight fighter. The console compartment could hide a Mini Cooper.

These Fords don’t do things half way. Consider the 1942 B-24 bomber and 2015 F-150 pickup.

These two aluminum-skinned, alphanumeric-badged industrial behemoths signal that Ford Motor Co.’s ambition hasn’t shrunk in 70 years. Both use lightweight construction to increase range. Both push the limits of mass manufacturing. Both elevated Detroit’s industrial genius. The B-24 defined the chairmanship of Henry Ford’s only son, Edsel Ford. The F-150 will define the legacy of his grandson, William Clay Ford Jr.

In 1941 Edsel met the federal government’s challenge and committed Ford’s Willow Run factory to making the B-24 Liberator as a weapon to win America’s war with Germany. In 2014 Bill Ford has risen to the challenge of federal mpg standards to convert Ford’s Dearborn and Kansas City F-150 assembly plants to aluminum construction to win the war against … um, global warming. OK, so Washington’s wars these days are a might quixotic. Ford’s brilliant engineers have translated the challenge to win the conflict that really matters: Defeating RAM, GM and Toyota in the truck wars.

Only compared to the B-24 does the F-150′s task seem small. The Liberator program, after all, sought to make a one million-part bomber an hour from scratch in 18 months. It is one of the supreme industrial achievements of mankind. But the F-150′s ambition shares B-24′s challenges in key respects. It carries huge risks. It requires enormous industrial retooling to produce 70 trucks an hour — 600,000 a year. It must prove itself in a highly competitive theater.

In 1942 Charles Lindbergh test-flew the first B-24s over Willow Run. The plane was uncomfortable and handled like a pig, causing his arms to ache from exertion. It was “more complicated than the keyboard of a pipe organ,” he wrote in his diary.

The F-150, you’ll be pleased to know, drives like a limousine.

But for its Brobdingnagian dimensions, the sophisticated F-150 cockpit could be confused with a similarly-priced, $40K luxury sedan. The seats are plush, the ride hushed, the instruments sculpted.

My favorite F-150 is a $46,600 XLT. Its huge three-bar grille growls. Its “c-clamp” headlights intimidate. This is an aluminum truck all right. Military-grade aluminum. Opt for the steering column shifter, and the full center console is a bin of storage trays for phones, drinks, briefcases, small farm animals. The storage compartment at my elbow could hide a Mini Cooper.

Sitting atop a completely re-engineered chassis, suspension, and body, the big truck glides down the road despite its leaf-sprung, solid-rear axle chassis. Credit staggered rear shocks, eight chassis-stiffening cross-members, and twin frame-rails firmed with 78 percent high-strength steel (up from 28 percent in the outgoing model). That light-weighting theme runs throughout the truck, making it more nimble, more capable, and more fuel efficient.

This light-alloyed heavyweight weighs in a fit 700 pounds less than its predecessor — even as its cabin is stuffed with more technology than an Apple store.

The pickup market is the most demanding segment in autodom as customers need a daily driver and a workplace tool. These vehicles are rolling Swiss Army knives — they’ll take the kid to school while carrying a load of mulch while recharging your band saw.

Consider the Ford’s side mirror.

Approach it in darkness and an LED drops a pool of light for ground visibility. Another bulb turns the mirror into a rotating spotlight, illuminating the landscape. Embedded sensors alert you to traffic in your blind spot. And mirror cameras help form a 360-degree view around the truck’s perimeter. Give this tool a first place blue ribbon at the science fair.

The Big Four truck warriors are representative of their corporate brands. Toyota’s Tundra is perennially atop J.D. Powers’ quality ratings. Chrysler’s RAM has carved a loyal following with its innovative eight-speed gearboxes and coil-sprung suspension.

Ford and GM are the titans. The volume sellers. The F-150, for example, comes in everything from a $26,616 two-wheel drive base cab to a $52,155, leather-skinned, luxury, 4×4 Super Crew Cab that can scale the Empire State Building while giving you a back massage.

Pickup loyalties are legend. You thought wartime Europe was Balkanized? Truck wars have long bloodlines. Traditionally, the best truck — Ford, RAM, GM, Toyota — is the latest model.

But with the aluminum F-150, you sense a watershed moment.

With GM struggling through bankruptcy, Ford launched its moonshot. Investing billions, the F-150 translated its history with aluminum-skinned Jaguars to benefit trucks: Better

power-to-weight ratio, handling, and fuel economy.

Aluminum is just half the story as Ford has also developed a formidable artillery of new turbocharged engines. Where four huge engines carried the B-24 aloft, four engine options power the F-150.

In keeping with its light infantry theme, the pickup’s mix has changed from the previous generation’s two V-6, two V-8 lineup. Only one V-8 remains (the 5.0-liter with more horses and torque — 385 and 387 — than before). With the success of the base six-banger and Ecoboost V-6, Ford has ditched the 6.2-liter V-8 to add a third V-6 to its lineup. The rookie is Ecoboost Junior — a precocious 2.7-liter twin turbo that packs a 325 horsepower, 375-pound feet wallop.

While the V-8 gives the F-150 best payload-in-class and the 3.5-liter turbo boasts best tow capacity, Ford expects Junior to take the truck to the summit of a different metric: Fuel economy. When EPA numbers come in next month, the 2.7 is expected to challenge RAM’s 3.0-liter diesel for top fuel sipper. My media mates were recording 21-22 mpg on our San Antonio-area test drives — in the ballpark of RAM’s 23 mpg benchmark.

Not me. I was gulping gas over a, muddy, gulch-filled off-road course. Short of pulling Gs in a sports car on (name of race track here), there’s nothing more fun.

South Texas ranch country and I punished the new sled through gulch, grade and goop. This is no tin-skinned B-24, but a rock-solid, 6000-series-military-alloy aluminum brute. With four wheels churning and twin turbos spooling, the 4,806-pound rhino never protested. Hopping out of the truck after the test, I slammed the doors and tailgate with abandon. Not a tinkle.

The B-24 answered the critics over time. The F-150 will have to do the same. Will the 1,500-repair shop infrastructure be able to mend aluminum as efficiently as steel? Will insurance rates increase? Will turbos prove as durable as diesels?

These are formidable challenges. But thanks to Ford’s risk-taking culture, we are watching history in the making.

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

2015 Ford F-150

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

Price: $26,615 base ($46,615 2.7-liter Ecoboost, 4×4, Super Crew as tested)

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

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

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

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

Weight: 4,806 pounds (test vehicle)

Fuel economy: NA

Report card

Highs: Bold styling; all-around athlete

Lows: Uncertain costs of insurance, repairs

Overall: ****

Chevy Malibu, JD Power, and how GM beat the Recall Rap

Posted by hpayne on October 4, 2014

Chevrolet Malibu is a sedan designed for those seeking the complete vehicle package: smart engineering and design, along with all the amenities that make driving fun. For 2015, the latest wireless technologies help make Malibu a better-connected car for those on the go.

The hapless, stalling, ignition-plagued Chevy Cobalt has been the bane of General Motors’ existence in its 2014 Year of the Recall. But it’s not the General’s most recalled vehicle. That title goes to the Chevy Malibu.

That’s right, the same Chevy Malibu that J.D. Power’s Initial Quality Survey honors as America’s most reliable midsize sedan.

Surprised? You’re not alone. The most recalled-most reliable Malibu is evidence of why GM’s recall woes haven’t been a drag on sales. Despite relentless media headlines about GM lemons, sales of Chevy cars are up over three percent this year. And while the Malibu hasn’t been burning down the house, it did just record its best September sales in five years. Its little brothers, Cruze and Sonic? Both are flying off the shelves.

This is all the more remarkable given that the compact pair are the replacement for the unloved Cobalt. Shouldn’t Americans be avoiding Spawn of Cobalt? Shouldn’t they be exiling Chevy, King of Recalls, to the sales dungeon?

The truth is recalls aren’t the same as reliability. And the new Malibu isn’t the Chevy of old.

Indeed, the good ol’ days of quality cars are today. Vehicles have never been so trustworthy.

“In 2013, overall vehicle dependability averaged 126 (problems per 100 vehicles) – a five percent improvement from the 2012 average of 132 – and the lowest problem count since the inception of the study in 1989,” reads J.D. Powers’ 2013 U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study.

Um, okay. But what about an industry on pace for a record 40 million recalls this year? Some 26 million by GM alone? The 850,000 Fords recalled last week? The 690,000 Toyotas recalled this week?

“Our dependability studies measure problems that consumers actually experience in their own cars,” says David Sargent, J.D. Power’s vice president of global automotive research. “Recalls are more about potential problems. That is to say, 99.6 percent of recall issues will never be experienced by consumers.”

GM spokesman Alan Adler says that 3 out of 4 his company’s recalls have been so-called “noncompliance” repairs where no safety defect is at issue. A May recall on 2004-2012 Malibu tail lights, for example. “Not to minimize any recall,” says Adler, “but it hardly belongs in the rogue’s gallery of problems.”

J.D. Powers’ Sargent has his own example: His personal vehicle was recalled this year . . . for a sun visor replacement. “Manufacturers are just more sensitive right now,” he says of the post-Cobalt, post-Toyota-instant-acceleration climate. “There’s a bias right now towards recalling what wouldn’t have been recalled before.”

David Sullivan, an Auto Pacific analyst, concurs. He sees little relation between recalls and dependability.

“Consumers aren’t looking at recalls when they shop for a vehicle,” he says. “They are looking forward, not backwards. They are looking at Consumer Reports and whether cars have poor reliability or crash ratings.”

Which is why Malibu’s high J.D Power grade is so important. It is the equivalent of a four-star movie review. You know it won’t be a wasted trip to the theater.

What’s more, recalls get customers back into the dealership.

“Imagine the owner of, say, a recalled 2004 Malibu,” says GM’s Adler. “Maybe they haven’t been in a dealership for a while and they come in to see a new Malibu or Cruze. They’re going to say ‘WOW!’ That’s a new Chevy?”

“Wow” wasn’t my first reaction to the 2015 Malibu I drove recently. But it’s a solid performer. And it would wow anyone who arrived here in a time machine from a decade ago.

To this time traveler the interior might as well be the Star Trek Enterprise. This affordable, $30K chariot is whisper quiet inside and features a dizzying array of tech from rear-cross traffic alert to standard stop-start engine technology that will get you 29 miles per gallon. It’s crisp, intuitive keys and dials surround a touch screen that will connect you to phone, Sirius, and even read you your text messages.

Outside of the Chrysler 200, it’s the best center console in the business. Wow.

Speaking of outside, the Malibu could use a stylist. Where Chevy has dressed its high-end Impala and low-end Spark like runway models, the middle of its lineup is, well, middling.

Adler says the recalls are a silver lining — a chance for the General to reconnect with buyers. “If you take care of the recall customers and minimize the inconvenience,” he concludes, “then you make a better Chevy customer than you had to begin with.”

What the heck, one more Malibu recall and I guarantee sales will really soar: Just replace its mug with that sexy Impala grille.

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

2015 Chevrolet Malibu

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

Price: $23,290 base ($30,280 as tested)

Power plant: 2.5-liter, direct injection 4-cylinder

Power: 196 horsepower, 186 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph: 8.4 seconds (Motor Trend)

Weight: 3,532 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 25 mpg city/36 mpg highway/29 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Quiet cabin; Driver-friendly console

Lows: Small back seat; A face only a mother could love

Overall: ★★★

First impression: Aluminum Ford F-150 is a winner

Posted by hpayne on October 3, 2014

2015-F150San Antonio, Texas — THOOOOOONK!

The 2015 Ford F-150′s bumper hits the bank full on as it barrels over a hill in the wilds of south Texas. The big truck shrugs it off.

Not a flinch. Not a tingle.

Nail the throttle and the 325-horsepower, 2.7-liter V-6 engine’s twin turbos launch the 4,806-pound beast out of the gulch and onto the next hill. Hill after muddy gulch after rocky creek bed goes by like this without a groan from the chassis.

For those who thought an all-aluminum body would compromise Ford’s “Built Ford Tough” reputation, think again. This F-150, whose predecessors have been America’s top-selling vehicle for 37 years, is tougher than ever.

In perhaps the boldest move in the auto industry today, Ford — which allowed automotive journalists behind the wheel for a first test drive in San Antonio this week — has bet its franchise vehicle on aluminum. The result is a new truck that not only vaults Ford back to the top in the truck arms race, but it also likely changes the segment forever. The F-150 — available later this year with a starting price of $26,615 — greets you with a huge, new, upright, three-bar grille and matching headlights.

This is not a shy vehicle. And neither is Ford shy about its aluminum transformation.

Begin with the obvious. Aluminum won’t rust, making for better longevity in Michigan winters, where the salt piles up almost as high as the snow. In making the big truck 700 pounds lighter and with a significantly lower center of gravity, Ford’s engineers tout a truck that is more nimble, sips less fuel, yet maintains its best-in-class towing capabilities with a remade high-strength steel chassis and two stump-pullingturbo mills.

The new F-150 still rides shy of the coil-springed RAM truck, but it’s no longer a leaf-spring buckboard. Take it off-road, however, and the lighter, stronger chassis really comes into its own.

The big pickup has benefited from Ford’s past ownership of Jaguar. The aluminum Jag taught the F-150 light-weighting and riveted manufacturing. The F-150 is no English sports car, but the same principles apply.

But the aluminum diet is only half the story.

With the new 2.7-liter Ecoboost, Ford promises RAM diesel-like fuel economy (EPA figures don’t arrive until November, but the turbo is likely close to the diesel’s 23 mpg) without the diesel’s $4,000 premium.

The 2.7-liter engine is $495 more than the F-150′s base V-6.

Like Ford’s turbo-riific ST small sedans, the F-150′s turbo engine has fast become the preference over bigger, thirstier V8s.

Inside a well-equipped $46,600 4×4, Ecoboost Ford XLT gains size and amenities on par with its Chevy and RAM peers.

These aren’t your grandfather’s pickups.

You can enjoy the refinement of a sedan inside — while the F-150 assaults the local terrain outside.

Nimble 2015 Mustang reinvents the pony car

Posted by hpayne on September 25, 2014

The all-new 2015 Mustang is the next chapter in the life of one of the world's most iconic cars.

We all make mistakes. The 1970s had an epidemic of them. Watergate. Stagflation. Leisure suits. And the 1974 Ford Mustang II.

You remember, the pony car built on a Pinto platform.

Mustang’s Edsel. In a decade of bitter war, national division and White House scandal, Americans were unsteady. Untrusting of their leaders. Unsure of their institutions. The ’74 ‘Stang was the last straw. The sickly, four-cylinder stallion was a harbinger of decades of Detroit auto decline as the industry suffered from quality issues and a regulatory assault from Washington. The ‘Stang was built to satisfy onerous federal regulations, not customer demands. Not until 2005 did the proud pony get its mojo back.

It’s 2014 and history is repeating itself. Iraq. IRSgate. Stagnant growth. Men’s skinny slacks. And, oh lord, Ford is remaking the Mustang to, in part, satisfy federal mpg diktats. The proverbial Casey steps to the plate. Will the Blue Oval strike out again?

You can exhale, dear friends. Ford has hit it out of the park.

The 2015 Mustang is a thoroughly modern, affordable sports coupe that doesn’t sacrifice its muscle car heritage. It’s sleek yet muscular. Affordable yet loaded with gadgetry. Powerful yet fuel efficient. Where the 1974 car rebelled against its past, the ’15 updates it.

Consider …

In 1974 the Mustang II introduced Mustang’s first 4-cylinder engine in response to rising gas prices. But it also ditched its V-8 and downsized the car to pint-sized, Pinto proportions. I mean, the thing practically needed training wheels. Sure, the little pony still sold, but it had lost its enthusiast base. And as any pol will tell you, when you lose your base, you’re toast.

By contrast the 2015 model trumpets the 4-cylinder required to meet mpg regs as a performance advance. This is no entry-level four, but a swaggering turbo with higher output than the base six and enough torque to pull up Chris Christie on water skis. Ford doesn’t even call it a four. It calls it Ecoboost. High tech. 21st century.

But Mustang doesn’t shy from its meal ticket, the V-8.

 Detroit News auto critic reviews the newest version of the pony car.

Indeed, while the Ecoboost is California avocado, the V-8 is Midwest sirloin for the regular customers. Fuel economy takes a dip — from 18/25 to 16/25 for the automatic — as Ford turns up the stove from 412 horsepower to a boiling 435. How’s that for a menu?

While U.S. foreign policy has pulled back from the world, Ford foreign policy is expansive. Invasive. Genghis Khan on four wheels. The Ford Visigoths aim to conquer Europe and China with an army of Mustangs.

No Mustang deuces here. This brute is all stallion. Its exterior maintains T-bone-sized sides and a gun-turret-narrow greenhouse while delivering a sports car’s swept fascia and fast back. That fascia has proved controversial among purists as Ford translates muscle car with more international design language. While the Challenger Hellcat doubles down on the U.S. youth market, the movie-star Mustang wants big international box office.

“It’s a gorgeous car,” says Hal Sperlich, product manager of the original ’65 pony — a car that overnight changed Ford’s stodgy image. “It fits Ford’s strategy as brand headliner around the world. People will like it overseas.”

As the international face of the Ford family it gets family design cues. A more Fusion-like grille. Swept headlights (goodbye brooding cowl) and elegantly sculpted, Mercedes-like nostrils at the front corners. Me? I’m a hips guy. And the Mustang’s lower, wider rear proportions make the car much more athletic — hinting at the transformation within.

But for the die-hards who still resist, I invite them behind the wheel.

The 2005 retro-design restored ‘Stang’s iconic status after 30 years in the wilderness. But an icon need not be an anachronism. The Mustang’s solid rear axle was a relic of the Stone Age. It belonged in the Smithsonian, not on a Flat Rock production line. To compete against the Camaro — much less European performance sedans — the Mustang had to evolve. The result is an independent rear suspension and reworked, dual-link front McPherson struts that transforms Clark Kent into a caped sports car.

Owning a Mustang used to mean suffering though corners to get to V-8-devouring straightaways. No more. The new car is a revelation. Toggle the car into sports-plus mode — one of five available modes that come standard — and the beautifully-weighted steering rotates the car into corners with aplomb.

On California’s State Route 2 I chased a Porsche 911 for miles, shadowing his every move through esses, switchbacks, straightaways. This is a muscle car? With its high center of gravity and porky curb weight of 3,725 ponds, the big V-8 won’t be mistaken for a Porsche or Bimmer M4 — but at half the price, it’ll make them sweat.

Inside, the Mustang retains its familiar portions while dialing up the technology. Sure, the backseat feels like a Barcalounger compared to Delta coach class, but it is still tight by modern auto standards. You want headroom for four or a fast back for your date? I thought so. In the cockpit the seats are comfortable and heavily bolstered — for all those increased G-loads you’ll be pulling. The dash bears familiar touches like twin gauges while the console gets a glorious slab of aluminum from port to starboard. The instrument interface is intuitive — even though the interior boys undercooked the aluminum accents with tin foil-like material.

Oh, and did I mention “line lock”?

Dive deep into the instrument panel menu and you will find it in the track apps. It will change the Dream Cruise forever. It’s Burnouts for Dummies. Disable traction control. Prep the system with brake. Then stomp the accelerator and thrill as the rear tires spin like turbines — churning more gases than a Mount St. Helens eruption.

It’s a blast — and a reminder that, for all the change, Mustang has not forgotten what it stands for: affordable, coed-toting, All-American fun. That’s why Bill Clinton bought a ’65 ‘Stang. That’s why Europeans are lining up for their first ponies.

That’s why 2014 is not 1974. Have no fear, America. Mustang is here.

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

2015 Ford Mustang

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

Price: $24,425 base ($46,075 V-8 as tested)

Power plant: 5.0-liter 8-cylinder; 2.3-liter Ecoboost turbocharged 4-cylinder; 3.7-liter V-6

Power: 435 horsepower, 400 pound-feet of torque (V-8); 310 horsepower, 320 pound-feet of torque (4-cyl); 300 horsepower, 280 pound-feet of torque (V-6)

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph: 4.4 seconds (Motor Trend). Top speed: 155 mph

Weight: 3,729 pounds (V-8); 3,524 (4-cyl)

Fuel economy: EPA 16 mpg city/25 mpg highway (V-8); 21 mpg city/32 mpg highway (4-cyl)

Report card

Highs: Sports car handling; seats fit like a glove

Lows: Cheap control dials; cramped rear seat

Overall: ★★★

Payne: 200 days with the Chrysler 200

Posted by hpayne on September 20, 2014

With the choice of two world-class engines, an innovative all-wheel-drive system, available sport mode and paddle shifters for an engaged driving experience, and estimated highway fuel economy of 36 miles per gallon (mpg), the all-new Chrysler 200 makes the commute something drivers will look forward to.

My wife’s best friend has never been quite satisfied with the car market’s offerings. Like many hockey moms, she lives behind the steering wheel.

“I’m tired of having to reach into the right seat to keep my purse from flying onto the floor. Why don’t cars have a place to store your purse in the center console?” sighed the 5’4″, reach-challenged Midwesterner on a recent visit.

Seen the new Chrysler 200? I said.

“The what?”

“The 200 has an e-shifter which opens up room below the center console,” I said in my best car salesman imitation. “Plenty of room for your purse under the shifter. Secure. Reachable.”

I had her attention. I gave her a brief engineering seminar on e-shifters and their negation of shift linkages.

“Cool. But what would be even better is if I could put my purse right beside me so I can reach right into it. I know where everything is without looking,” she said.

No problem, I say, figuring my commission owed by Chrysler if I close the sale. The e-shifter also opens up the space behind the shifter. Thank sliding cup holders. Slide ‘em back and – voila – a purse drawer at hand’s length.


I’ve been getting that a lot lately.

Since I last regaled you in March about my thoroughly satisfying test drive of the clever 200 in Louisville, I’ve had a few more dates with Chrysler’s flagship closer to home. Call it 200 days with the 200. We’re growing fonder with each visit.

Of course, the car market is never easy. Our hockey mom friend hasn’t rushed out to get the 200 since we spoke because she’s an SUV buyer. And the 200′s cargo dimensions don’t meet her needs. And Chrysler doesn’t make a comparable SUV. And that’s a whole ‘nother issue. But the Chrysler ute is coming. And when it does, it’ll have the same ingenious, best-in-class center console that hockey moms covet.

And brand loyalty is born.

Chryslers did its homework with the 200. Having your back against the wall will inspire folks like that. Flirting with midsize irrelevance, the 200 is Chrysler’s moonshot. It can’t afford to fall short.

But the 200 is more than a car for interior nerds. This midsize has looks to match. Like a Lake Michigan wave, its body flows from stern to stem. In an age when big, masculine grilles have even taken over the compact classes, the 200 is pleasing to the eye. It’s more feminine than the Ford Fusion’s gorgeous grille (if Aston Martin has a bastard midsize sedan child, it would look like the handsome Fusion) and that’s not a bad thing.

The Fusion is the best of the hot hexagon grille fashion trend. Subaru and Hyundai fancy the look as well. Lined up against their midsize pageant competitors, the 200, Fusion, and Mazda 6 cuties are the three finalists.

The Sonata and VW Passat make a nice showing. Cars like the Camry and Accord look dated. Chevy Malibu, get thee to a beauty parlor and ask for the Impala facelift.

Part of the Chrysler’s secret is its flowing greenhouse that defies the traditional sedan “three box form.” Alas, the sleek look also defies ceiling room. Duck your head before you get – clonk – too late. If you want head room, buy a Jeep. The 200 is for DINKs and stylish empty nesters.

On the road, the Chrysler won’t be confused for a Mazda in handling, but — packed with all-wheel drive and a zesty 3.6 power plant — a 200S will give the Subaru Legacy a ride as an affordable AWD V6 for $32k. Indeed, the S is proving to be a hit in early sales returns – making up 31 percent of sales versus an anticipated 25 percent.

And – ssssshhhhh — the 200 is quiet.

Credit its class-leading .27 drag coefficient and laminated windows. In truth hush is now expected in a class where you can hear a pin drop in most cabins. So when you have to talk over the Legacy’s wind noise, you notice.

When it comes to quality. . um, can we go back to talking about how lovely the 200 is?

“The 200, Avenger, Compass, Journey, and Patriot scored too low to be Recommended,” wrote Consumer Reports back in 2011 of the 200′s predecessor. The new 200 — still under testing by the CR lads — will have to build its reputation from the tire valves up. The Subies and Accords of the world may not be much to look at, but they are bone reliable with 80-plus CR ratings.

Hockey Moms will embrace the 200′s innovative purse storage — as long as they aren’t emptying it at the dealership for nagging repairs.

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

2015 Chrysler 200S

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

Price: $22,695 base with 4-cylinder ($32,775 AWD V-6 as tested)

Power plant: 3.6-liter, 24-valve V-6

Power: 295 horsepower, 262 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Nine-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph: 7.0 seconds (manufacturer)

Weight: 3,784 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 18 mpg city/29 mpg highway/22 combined

Report card

Highs: Best-in-class console; Easy on the eyes

Lows: Jerky tranny; Low (bonk!) rear ceiling access

Overall: ★★★

Roarin’ RC-F coupe wakes up staid Lexus

Posted by hpayne on September 19, 2014


Lexus is perennially near the top of JD Power’s quality ratings. It led a torrid luxury market with the summer’s hottest sales gains. Its Lexus EX350 crossover is so prevalent in upscale Naples retirement communities, locals call it “the official vehicle of Florida.”

Satisfying. Durable. Predictable. Yet Toyota’s luxe brand isn’t satisfied. Now it wants to be exciting.

Mom, hide Dad’s retirement savings because Lexus wants to fill the other garage spot with a ground-thumping, ear-shredding, two-door, $70,000 temptress. It makes Homer’s Sirens sound like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Lexus dubs it the RC-F. But they want you to think Sex-us.

Inspired by Toyota President Akio Toyoda himself — the motor-head grandson of the company’s founder — the racy-looking, racy-sounding RC-F wants to wipe your memory banks of boring ol’ Lexus design. Akio wants performance. Akio wants style.Akio wants to take on the vaunted BMW M4. What Akio wants, Akio gets. And the Lexus team has have never had more fun.

The immediate descendant of the LF-A supercar, the RC-F is the wildest looking luxury coupe this side of the Jetsons’ ride.

Based on the RC350 coupe version of the IS350 sedan, the RC-F is another in the maddening alphanumeric alphabet soup that has overrun luxury brands. But if you must, I would have named it OMG-F.

Japanese luxe makers have struggled with their design language for decades. Acurahad it, lost it, and is now trying the 10-spider eyes approach. The Infiniti Q50′s pinched grille looks like Baby Herman’s cheeks. Lexus opened as a Mercedes clone in 1989 then settled on boredom.

Determined to recast itself as a performance brand, Lexus’ new design goes for shock value. In so doing they have thrown the kitchen sink at the RC. The huge, black, hour-glass front spindle grille comes at you like a locomotive cowcatcher. Six LED spider eyes light up the corners. We homo sapiens look for our reflection in our cars. We expect their fascias to be anthropomorphic. Human-like. But the RC-F resists.

If anything, that spindly maw looks like a villain’s mask. Like the Winter Soldier’s dark veil in “Captain America” or Batman nemesis Bane’s breathing device. If BMW and Mercedes are the handsome superheroes, then the RC-F is the mad samurai determined to create chaos in our orderly, German-dominated, performance luxury world. Heck, even Lexus coupe ads feature Wes Bentley, the actor who chillingly played Blackheart, the son of Mephistopheles, alongside Nick Cage in “Ghost Rider.”

In truth, however, the genius of Lexus design is it that it looks like a sculpted weapon. It drips with sci-fi menace.

Its bug-zapper grille is shaped by two arrowheads that punctuate the car’s heavily creased sides. The headlights echo the Lexus “L” logo. Two trim lights immediately underneath the headlights are also L-shaped.

Out back, the coupe is curiously derivative of Scion’s (Toyota’s youth brand) affordable FR-S sports car. Separated at birth, you might say. A reminder that the RC coupe is aimed at a younger, 40-49 demographic. You a 20-something with an FR-S? You might aspire to the Lexus one day. Double the cylinders, double the fun.

These Toyota planners are shrewd. But even Lexus has to learn. As good as the RC-F is, it has has some learnin’ to do.

Take the base RC350. Please.

On the outside, this sleigh is a looker. Where the F’s face is a spindled web of terror, its less expensive sister ($42,950 base) is chrome heaven. So bejeweled is the RC that it recalls the 1950s Caddys right down to the little fog lights on its skirt (where the Caddy’s chrome bumper would have been). All that’s missing is a — AWOOOGAHHHH! — horn on the front fender.

Like Cinderella on her way to the ball, the dazzle isn’t confined to the face. The RC’sfigure is full of swoops and folds. Its taillights extend beyond the bodywork like the tail-fin lights of yore. You’ll want to drive this one to the valet and leave it at the curb for everyone to ogle. You have arrived.

Alas, the RC350′s beauty is skin deep. The ballroom floor is full of svelte coupes: The BMW 4-series, Audi A5, the athletic new Cadillac ATS coupe. All are taut, quick, athletic dancers. The 3,750-pound RC, by contrast, is less sure-footed. One wrong turn and she’ll step on your toes. The steering is light compared to the best-in-class ATS and BMW coupes. Its body roll (watch that diet) more noticeable.

The interior is a beautiful landscape of materials — leather, wood — but the Lexus skimps on details that will stand out like CyndiLauper at a Junior League meeting. Where e-brakes have become standard in this high-tech club, the Lexus prefers an old-fashioned, foot brake. Pickup chic? Like the European luxe makers, the coupe eschews the American-car touchscreen (my preference, but then I have freakishly long arms).

But rather than a dial, Lexus introduces a cool, mouse-like touch pad. Cool in theory, buggy in practice. I found it almost unworkable over New York roads (my finger dancing across the haptic surface with every road bump), and merely maddening when parked. Buick-like, Lexus decorates the skin with glued-on, non-functional strakes.

Details, details. Lexus RC350 2.0 (how’s that for an alphanumeric badge?) will be better.

But where Lexus has the details right is on the RC-F. Make that eight details.

Challenged by stringent international fuel emission rules, the coupe class has gone turbo. Glorious Caddy 4-bangers with kick-in-seat low-end torque. Blown BMW sixes with more power than Zeus. But where are the trumpets? Thank you, RC-F for putting the soundtrack back in luxury.

The 5.0-liter, 467-horsepower V-8 is the best music this side of a Jaguar F-Type — but for 30 grand less. Heck, it deserves consideration with my favorite Corvette C7. Same price. Same horsepower. Two more seats. So you can bring your pals along for the ride.

On Monticello Raceway’s spectacular, 4.1-mile roller-coaster track east of New York, the big, 4,000-pound (psst, Lexus that’s the same weight as a Dodge Challenger R/T) even has the personality of a C7 and F-Type — all throaty roars and dazzling power slides. The terrific, rev-matching, eight-speed auto tranny almost made me forget the absence of a stick (a relic of the 20th century).

Jerry Seinfeld keeps his Porsche collection at Monticello. I don’t think he’ll be interested in the Lexus. But arrive behind him at the same restaurant in your RC-F, rev the V8, and I guarantee heads will swivel. What the F? That’s a Lexus?

2015 Lexus RC Coupe

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

Price: $43,715 base RC350 ($76,565 RC-F V-8 as tested)

Power plant: 3.5-liter direct-injection 6-cylinder; or 5.0-liter direct injection 8-cylinder

Power: 306 horsepower, 277 pound-feet of torque (V-6); 467 horsepower, 389 pound-feet of torque (V-8)

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic (RWD); Six-speed automatic (AWD)

Performance: 0-60 mph: 4.4 seconds (RC-F). Top speed: 170 mph (electronically limited)

Weight: RC350: 3,748 pounds; RC-F: 3,958 (AWD add 143 lbs.)

Fuel economy: EPA 19 mpg city/28 mpg highway/22 combined (RWD V-6); 16 mpg city/25mpg highway/19 combined (RWD V-8)

Report card

Highs: Howling V8; Wicked styling

Lows: Emergency foot brake; porky

Q&Auto: Ohio basketball star-turned-Acura TLX czar

Posted by hpayne on September 13, 2014

'It goes back to Mr. Honda's philosophy that we have to manufacture cars in the countries where they are sold,' says Mat Hargett.

It goes back to Mr. Honda’s philosophy that we have to manufacture cars in the countries where they are sold,’ says Mat Hargett. )

You know LeBron James. But the Cleveland Cavaliers’ prodigal son isn’t the only 6’8” sensation to come out of northern Ohio. Mat Hargett played his high school basketball in Cleveland before anchoring Ohio Northern University’s defense for four years as a shot-swatting center. LeBron was drafted by native Cleveland. Hergett hung up his uniform and took an electrical engineering degree to home team Acura.

Home-team Acura?

That a corn-fed, All-American boy from Ohio is development chief for Honda’s luxury division tells you a lot about the sprawling global auto market. Like GM’s German-based Opel division, Acura is an exclusive North American nameplate not sold in its parent company’s home country. Acura headquarters are in California, while Ohio is home to Acura production.

Call it the United States of Acura. Long before Chrysler was “imported from Detroit,” Acura was “imported from Ohio.” It is a Japanese brand made in America, sold to Americans, run by Americans.

Like Hargett. The imposing, ex-hardwood star is the luxury maker’s vice president for development in Raymond, Ohio. He works under another Midwest prodigy, Indiana-born, Purdue-trained, Acura chief Erik Berkman. The 23-year Honda veteran Hargett is the first electrical engineer to lead a product development team, guiding the superb 2015 Acura TLX to market this summer.

At the TLX’s introduction in Bay Harbor, Michigan, I spoke at length with Hargett about Acura-merica.

“It goes back to Mr. Honda’s philosophy that we have to manufacture cars in the countries where they are sold,” says Hargett.

Upon graduation, Hargett was intrigued by the Japanese automaker. “I was told that if you worked in Honda and had an idea for a new position that you could go straight to the president. I couldn’t believe it,” he remembers. “(It) was true. If you want to make a proposal it doesn’t matter if you are Japanese or American. One journalist referred to it as ‘controlled chaos’ which I’m not sure is the correct term. But there’s not a lot of rank here.”

Hargett’s development of the Acura TLX began in 2009 as soon as his team finished the last generation TL.

“We knew right away we were going to replace the car,” says Hargett who began the TLX development process like a startup venture. It was just him and a sheet of paper. From his Ohio office outside Columbus, he began assembling a core team of designers, engineers, and technicians.

It made for long hours and travel to Acura’s Los Angeles-area HQ. “(It) was tough on my wife,” he laments of the time away from family. But he was no stranger to long days after a collegiate career spent juggling an electrical engineering degree with a full basketball schedule.

“I got made fun of a little bit on road trips because I’d be studying on the bus until 1 AM,” he recounts. “After a three-hour practice every day … I’d do a 7-to-midnight study kill in the library. Sometimes I’d fall asleep and I wouldn’t wake up until 2 or 3 in the morning.”

As the TLX project gained steam it also gained international scope. Auto production is an extraordinarily complex web of suppliers and assembly lines that spans continents and languages. The Acura was designed in L.A., its base 2.4-liter engine developed in Japan, its 3.5-liter powerplant made in Ohio, its 9-speed transmission developed by ZF in Germany, then … well, let Hargett explain:

“The transmission was then produced in South Carolina, assembled at our engine plant in Anna, Ohio, then transferred to final assembly in Marysville, Ohio.”

“There is so much technology in the car that we can’t do it all ourselves,” he continues. “But I’d say 95 percent of the work is done here. The TLX was developed in the U.S. by our team.”

The sedan is an enormously important product for Acura as it tries to restore lost U.S. market mojo. In typical fashion, Honda has trusted the heavy lifting to its state-side crew. Hargett marvels at being the first EE to lead such a colossal management enterprise.

“A lot of the car is electrified today from the console to the drivetrain,” he says. “Electronics have changed cars dramatically.”

Emerging from the front seat of the TLX, the slim Hargett is all knees and elbows. We swap stories of our college-playing days (all us 6’5”-plus freaks play ball, you know). Does he still play?

“I don’t play much anymore due to herniated discs in my back,” says the 44 year old. “But we do have a fitness center that opened on our R&D campus just a year or so ago with a full basketball court.”

Who knows? Maybe LeBron will shoot an Acura commercial there some day.


SRT wannabe: Dodge Dart GT

Posted by hpayne on September 11, 2014

After hours in a local Dodge dealership, I imagine the conversation goes like this:

Challenger SRT Hellcat: Okay, kid, ya gotta get the guys’ attention tomorrow. The boy racers. You know, stir their testosterone. I want you to let out a primal roar. VHHRRROOOOOOOOM! Got it? You try.

Dart GT: Grrrr.

Hellcat: Oh, dear.

The Dodge Dart GT may not be ready to run with the hot hatch crowd — much less its rowdy siblings — but give it time. Chrysler’s first foray into the compact car performance segment — indeed, the first GT since the 1960s Dart — carries enormous potential for both Chrysler and Dodge as they sort out their new family identities.

When Dart first hit dealer lots in 2012, Dodge was a mainstream brand and Chrysler had upscale aspirations. All that changed with Fiat-Chrysler’s May 5-year plan which returns Chrysler to its rightful place as the company’s family brand and gives Dodge free license to explore its wild side.

Dodge dumped its minivan and Avenger models, married SRT, and began spawning ferocious demons like the Challenger SRT Hellcat and Charger SRT Hellcat. From its corner bed, the compact Dart was wide-eyed.

Back in the troubles of 2009 — after the White House auto task force identified Fiat as the best match for an ill Chrysler’s blood transfusion — the Dart got the nod as the first state-side model based on an Italian platform. Dodge meet Alfa Romeo Giulietta.

Dart’s target was as much Washington bureaucrats as consumers. Dodge had dusted off the popular Dart name — dormant since 1976 — to erase memories of its woeful predecessor, the Caliber, and resurrect the brand’s compact car sales. But Fiat first had to satisfy President Obama’s resurrection demands. That is, Fiat had to guarantee a 40 mpg Dart with a U.S-made engine before it could take majority share of the Auburn Hills-based company.

Forget horsepower. Dodge engineers poured their talents into a 41 mpg, Michigan-made, 1.4-liter turbo to go with Dart’s standard 2.0 and 2.4-liter engines. Its press release boasted of “fuel efficiency” no less than 11 times.

In Dart’s second year of production GT came to market as an afterthought. In a female-heavy segment, it was a nod to the guys — a sportily-outfitted upgrade to the SXT-trimmed 2.4 liter. Original plans for a raucous R/T had been shelved. The targeted demographic was small, they said. Better to concentrate on the base model, they said. The conservative GT was born.

That was then, this is now. There’s no room for “conservative” in the new Dodge. Not with motorhead CEO Tim Kuniskis in the driver’s seat.

No sooner had the burnout smoke cleared from Kunikis’s introduction of the supercharged Challenger SRT Hellcat this summer than he unveiled a Hellcat version of Dodge’s four-door “family” sedan, the Charger. I’m not making this up. True to Dodge’s reborn performance mission, you can now smoke BMWs out of Woodward stoplights while taking the kids to school. Indeed, the family sedan beats the Challenger Hellcat to a quarter mile (11.0 seconds vs. 11.2).

“No kid ever grew up with a poster of a Passat on his wall,” Kuniskis likes to say.

If Dodge is making SRT family sedans, it must have plans for the Dart. Sure enough, buried in General Kuniskis five-year plan for world domination is a 2017 Dodge SRT Dart.

Due in late 2016, Dodge promises a tattooed, all-wheel drive Dart with a blown 4-cylinder engine and more steroids than Barry Bonds’ bathroom cabinet. Subaru WRX and VW Golf R, check your mirrors.

Challenger SRT Hellcat: Good lord, what happened to you?

Dart SRT (gnawing on a VW GTI wishbone): ’Sup, brother? Wanna go pick on some Mustangs?

Okay, I’m getting waaaay ahead of ourselves. That’s 2017. What to make of the 2014 Dart GT?

The nimble, roomy compact portends good things not just for Dodge but for the compact Chrysler 100 — due in 2016 — that will also carry the Dart’s DNA.

In sharing Dart’s 2.4-liter four-banger with the high-volume SXT model, the GT surrendered its claim to the pocket rocket class where compact sharks like the $30K VW GTI and Focus ST get their own high-output drivetrains. Instead, the GT swims in the same pool as the cheaper Hyundai Elantra GT or Toyota Corolla S. That is, they get sexy hard bodies but without the speed.

The upside is the down-market price. For customers who don’t want to pay a 30 grand pocket rocket premium, the $23,000 Dart GT offers beauty without the beast.

Still, the Dart’s Tigershark engine, also found in the Chrysler 200, is no slouch. Its 184 ponies offer a much punchier ride than Elantra and Corolla peers — and is on par with the excellent Mazda 3’s 2.5-liter mill. Promisingly for future generations, the chassis rivals the renowned Mazda in handling. Oh, yeah. A perfectly-weighted electronic, rack-mounted steering and taut chassis make the front-wheel driver a joy to throw around Michigan’s twisty roads.

Inside, the Dart GT really struts it stuff. The compact’s simple, intuitive dials-and-touch screen controls pioneered the best-in-class interior found in the new, midsize 200. Digital, configurable instrument cluster, 8.4-inch touchscreen, soft dash materials, graceful design. Now imagine the next-gen Dart with a Chrysler 100 badge and you have a dynamic duo in the showroom.

One of the roomiest, most affordable cars in class, Dart has seen climbing sales (a record August), glowing reviews, and (crucially) improved J.D. Power ratings — if not yet in the class of Toyota and Hyundai.

To complete its graduation in two years to SRT hellion, the GT needs a styling upgrade from punk to prince. The genes are there. The car’s current snub-nosed, big-butt stance is so 15 minutes ago. Look to its sibling Alfa Giulietta hot hatch for makeover tips. Think swept-back fascia (heck, even the Charger SRT’s elegant nose will do), raked windscreen, and sporty hot hatch.

The Dart GT is the perfect platform for Chrysler family success. I can hear voices in the dealer showroom now. . .

Challenger SRT Hellcat: Ummmm, thanks, by the way, for showing us all how to do classy interiors. How do you like my cool new dashboard bezel?

Dart GT: Not bad. You got my style. Now, would you mind if I borrowed your drivetrain for tonight?

2014 Dodge Dart GT

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, four-door sedan
Price: $20,995 base ($23,735 as tested)
Power plant: 2.4-liter, 16-valve, inline 4-cylinder
Power: 184 horsepower, 174 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.7 seconds (Motor Trend)
Weight: 3,215 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 22 mpg city/31 mpg highway/26 mpg combined
Highs: Nimble handling; Award-winning interior
Lows: Jerky six-speed; Hot hatch, please

Rein-car-nation: 2014 BMW M235i vs. 2001 BMW M3

Posted by hpayne on September 6, 2014

Do you believe in reincarnation?

Last month my favorite, 2001 BMW M3 reappeared in my driveway calling itself an M235i. I nearly called Shirley MacClaine’s agent. What does she know about rein-car-nation? Pun intended.

BMW enthusiasts have been griping in recent years that the celebrated M3 (now called an M4, I’ll explain) has gotten, well, fat. Not Marlon Brando fat. Barry Bonds fat. Muscle-bound. Loaded up on steroids. Look close at those headlamps . . . do I detect a hint of yellow? It’s a fighter jets on wheels. But a long way from the nimble, tossable E36 and E46 M3s that defined performance luxury at the turn of the century.

BMW didn’t reach the pinnacle of performance luxury by sticking cotton in its ears, of course. It’s heard the grumblings. So it added the M235i to the menu. It’s one tasty heisse-wurst.

We interrupt this review for a brief word on nomenclature. The 2-series is the latest update of the Bavarian automaker’s new, even-odd, sedan-coupe nomenclature. Odd numbers are sedans, even numbers coupes. So the once 3-series is now exclusively four-doors, and the two-doors are segregated as 4-series. Thus the M4 – formerly the M3.

Got it? Good.

So when the Bavarian automaker introduced the 2-series to the U.S. this year, the M-badged M235i would seem to be the logical next step of an M performance vehicle. Except it’s not. The M235i is a tweener. A stepping stone. A product of BMW’s separate M performance division, but without the total, full-moon transformation from base coupe into a howling M2 werewolf.

“It’s the first type of this M package that we’ve introduced,” explains BMW spokesman Dave Buchko. “It’s not a full blown M.”

A full-blown M, you see, would get lighter suspension components bolted directly to sub-frame, aluminum-center hubs, carbon fiber body panels, carbon fiber driveshaft, heat-seeking missiles (just kidding). The works.

Though BMW is mum, the M2 is coming, rest assured. Complete with $10,000 premium. In the meantime, however, enthusiasts get a cheaper M235i with suspension, brake, and steering upgrades – that make your hairs stand on end. Just like the M3 of old.

How alike? Consider:

The 2001 M3 featured a 3.2-liter straight-6 cylinder with 333 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque. The 2014 M235i? 3.0-liter straight-6 turbo with 320 horsepower, 330 pound-feet.

- Where the 2015 M4 has expanded to 184.5 inches long and 73.6 inches wide, its older, 2001 sibling is eight inches shorter and just 70.1 inches wide. Ditto the M235i (174.5 inches wide, 69.8 across).

- 0-60 seconds? Both trip the wire at 4.8 seconds.

- Both feature stability control, 18-inch rims, battery in the trunk.

- Price? The base M3 cost $46,045 in 2001. The base M235i stickers for $43,100.

But that similarity is actually the most striking dissimilarity. Get out your inflation adjust-o-meter and the old M3 would set you back $61,076 in today’s dollars (at $63k the new M4 is not far off). So for nearly 20 grand less, you get the M3 reborn as an M235i.

And more.

The M235i’s turbo packs 25 percent more torque and 40 percent better fuel economy. This six is a caged bull. Kick the stirrups and hold tight the reins. The twin-scroll turbo delivers peak torque at just 1300 RPM.

I admit nostalgia for the manual, non-turbo, high-revving, 106-horsepower-per-liter six of old (Pop Quiz: In 2001 what other normally-aspirated engines were in the 100-ponies per liter club?*). Its glorious, raspy exhaust note at 8000 RPM crescendo should have a Grammy. But you have to rev high to go fast. Not the turbo.

Never mind those 0-60 numbers. In my fender-to-fender stoplight tests, the M235i trampled the M3 every time (I tested against both the 2001 coupe and the heavier convertible, which clocks 0-60 in 5.1 seconds). Credit the M235i’s dynamic duo of turbo and lightning-fast, paddle-shifted, 8-speed, automatic transmission.

Fun, of course, returns lousy fuel economy — your scribe’s daily, lead-footed antics returned (ahem) 13 mpg. More sensible driving will get you EPA-rated 25 mpg (and fewer traffic tickets), an improvement over the old nail’s 17 mpg.

Chassis and suspension advances also allow the new, nimbler Bimmer to achieve .97 skid pad g-loads compared to the M3’s .87. This despite the M235i’s extra 100 pounds over the 3,415-pound M3 (though less than the porky 3,835-lb. convertible) – courtesy of a decade’s blizzard of safety regulations. Metal forming has advanced as well, however, and the new M is more gorgeous than ever. The hips are sleeker, the lower front air nostrils more menacing, the headlights more alluring.

I’ll have to look into this reincarnation stuff. Maybe I’ll come back as Helio Castroneves.

*Answer: The Honda S200 and Ferrari 360 Modena

2014 BMW M235i

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, four-passenger sports coupe
Price: $44,025 base ($46,575 as tested)
Power plant: 3.0-liter turbocharged 6-cylinder
Power: 320 horsepower, 330 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic with paddle-shifters
Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.8 seconds (manufacturer)
Weight: 3,535 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 22 mpg city/32 mpg highway/25 mpg combined
Highs: Aggressive styling; white-knuckle acceleration
Lows: Ticket magnet
Excellent ★★★★
Good ★★★
Fair ★★
Poor ★

2001 BMW M3

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, four-passenger sports coupe
Price: $46,045 base ($52,995 coupe as tested)
Power plant: 3.2-liter dual-overhead cam 6-cylinder
Power: 333 horsepower, 262 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.8 seconds (manufacturer)
Weight: 3,415 pounds (coupe); 3,838 pounds (convertible)
Fuel economy: EPA 15 mpg city/22 mpg highway/17 mpg combined (revised from 2001 figures: 16 mpg city/24 mpg highway/19 mpg combined)
Highs: Sticks like glue; 8,000 RPM symphony of sound
Lows: Ticket magnet

TLX makes Acura X-citing again

Posted by hpayne on September 4, 2014

Behold the irrepressible X.

Once the most neglected letter in the English dictionary. Once the mark of illiterates. Once only whispered in close quarters like “It’s X-rated” or “Hey, pal, XYZ.” Now it is proudly displayed from every facade in America. X-Men, X Factor, X Games, Xbox, Brand X. My cable company wants me to buy Xfinity. I apply Rain-X to my windshield. The No. 24 letter in the alphabet is No. 1 in the hearts of marketers everywhere.

In the auto industry X branding is an epidemic. SRX, XTS, Model X, xB, MKX, XL, XF, XJ, XC60, XC90, X1, X3, Xenophobia (okay, not that last one — but it would make a fine product for import haters).

X is the mark of youth, sportiness, edginess. But not necessarily success. Lincoln MKX hasn’t X-actly set the world on fire. Scion’s X-line may soon X-pire. And Acura’s X-vehicles haven’t X-ited either.

Until now. The MDX was 2013’s hottest luxury SUV in the scorching, midsize SUV segment with a 29 percent sales jump vaulting it to No. 3 behind — what else? — the RX and SRX from Lexus and Cadillac, respectively. With Acura’s small RDX a sales hit too, Acura wants to translate ute sales gains to its moribund sedan lineup.

Say hello to the new, 2015 Acura TLX. It is X-cellent.

The Acura is an All-American, designed and built in the USA. TLX product chief and former Ohio Northern U. basketball star Mat Hargett assembled a team of California designers and Ohio engineers to compete against the world’s best. With a fresh game plan, the imposing, 6’8” Hargett hopes to replay Acura’s sedan glory days.

Returns to fundamentals

It was just ten years ago that the Acura TL was the No. 2 best-selling, small lux four-door in the U.S. — its 71,000 in sales trailing only the vaunted BMW 3-series. “I think in 2005 the TL took the market by storm with great technology and stylish looks at an affordable price,” Hargett told me at a TLX test flog through Northern Michigan.

With the TLX, the Acura returns to those fundamentals after a series of marketing and styling miscues.

 Alphabet soup lineup

Despite doubling its entry lux offerings — the TL was joined by the TSX — Acura’s sales fell by half since 2005. By replacing the bigger TL and smaller TSX, the TLX is Acura’s focus against the 3-series, Audi A4, and Cadillac ATS. The GLX fights on in the midsize category, while the Honda Civic-based ILX — launched in 2013 — tries to wrestle entry-level lux buyers from the Audi A3 and Mercedes CLA.

Okay, so Acura’s model lineup is an alphabet soup. So counting by numbers (Audi’s A3, A4, A5, for example) makes more sense. So at least Acura, like Cadillac, has learned the glories of plastic surgery.

While Caddy has leaned its bulges with liposuction, Acura got a nose job. Remember the beak? The previous generation TL’s signature chrome grille was variously compared to a parrot’s bill, a buck-toothed bumpkin, or a locomotive cow-catcher. None of them flattering.

‘Red carpet athlete’

The TLX’s new honker would make a Hollywood plastic surgeon proud. The softened septum concentrates attention on the eyes. And the TLX peepers are a marvel. Like the MDX and GLX before it, the TLX gets 10 — ten! — “Jewel Eye” LED headlights. These are celebrity spectacles. Elton John would kill for these rims. Bono, get yourself an Acura.

Maybe the celebrity specs are why Acura press materials refer to the TLX as a “red carpet athlete.” But lux can’t live on looks alone. Indeed, the $30,000-$40,000 sedan segment has become the industry’s fiercest battleground.

We’ve had this conversation before. Earlier this year, I compared a $44,000, AWD Audi A4 with a $36,000 AWD Ford Fusion Titanium. Both 4-banger turbos. Both leather. But with the premium Fusion packing similar options to the Audi, it was hard to justify the extra cash unless you are brand obsessed.

So too the Acura TLX. At $31,890 base it compares nicely to a $33,700, starter BMW 3-series. But compare to its sibling Honda Accord — made on the same platform in Marysville, Ohio — and the math gets ugly. Observe: A loaded $35,025 TLX comes with a 206-horsepower, 2.4-liter, 4-cylinder (what, no turbo?) engine, while a $32,910 2014 Accord is topped up with nav, driver assists, and a throaty, 276-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6.

Whoa. You’ve gotta be seriously hypnotized by the Acura’s headlights — look into my eyes-eyes-eyes-eyes-eyes — to justify the lux brand.

Step up to Acura’s tech package, however, and the TLX value gets X-citing. Beginning at $41K, Acura offers its so-called Super Handling-All Wheel Drive option. That’s a TLX SH-AWD, FYI. A mouthful, but the SH-AWD system is worth every letter. It’s one of the best in the business.

Fan boys of Subaru’s torque-vectoring, 38-grand WRX STI take note. If you want a refined luxury ride to go with your sensational handling, the TLX is your cup o’ nitro. Acura was an early pioneer of the AWD system that speeds up the outer wheel — while slowing inner ones — to assist rotation through corners. So Michigan drivers can not only tear up twisty, Up North roads like M-119 in summertime — they can also conquer winter snows.

Against its formidable BMW 328i and Audi A4 classmates, the TLX more than held its own. Its AWD is superior to the Audi and the equal of BMW’s X-Drive (I told you this X thing is outta control) system. Though exhibiting more body roll than BMW’s superb chassis, the TLX rotates through corners with savage aplomb.

Inside the hushed cabins, space is surprisingly plentiful. With smaller entry-lux vehicles like the A3 and ILX in play, our test class has been given room to grow. The backseats of the TLX, 328i, and A4 all nicely accommodated my 6-foot-5-inch frame (Hargett the Giant was still pinched), a clear improvement from previous generations.

In interior quality, the Acura again beats the Audi — if not BMW’s gorgeous trim and architecture. But the Acura’s twin infotainment screens are more intuitive — and TLX is wired with tech-savvy blind spot warning, lane assist, brake assist — everything but X-ray vision.

Bottom line? The BMW is prettier, a hair-more-agile, less-user friendly for 52 grand — or a whopping $6K more than the Acura.

How much is a brand name worth? Which car do you want to park at the country club? You’ll have to answer those questions yourself. The TLX deserves your X-amination. And it’s just in time for Xmas.

2015 Acura TLX

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front or all-wheel-drive, five-passenger sports coupe
Price: $31,890 base ($46,685 AWD V-6 as tested)
Power plant: 3.5-liter direct-injection 6-cylinder; 2.4-liter direct injection 4-cylinder
Power: 290 horsepower, 267 pound-feet of torque (V-6); 206 horsepower, 182 pound-feet of torque (4-cyl)
Transmission: Nine-speed automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph: 6.0 seconds (est. for V-6). Top speed: 125 mph (governor limited)
Weight: 3,774 pounds (AWD V-6)
Fuel economy: EPA 21 mpg city/31 mpg highway/25 combined (AWD V-6); 24 mpg city/35 mpg highway/28 combined (4-cyl)
Highs: Tech-savvy; awed by SH-AWD
Lows: Bland rear styling; Turbo-4, please


Q&Auto: The design guru behind Caddy’s curves

Posted by hpayne on August 30, 2014

Cadillac Director of Exterior Design Bob Boniface stands with the new ATS coupe.

Cadillac Director of Exterior Design Bob Boniface stands with the new ATS coupe. (Henry Payne / The Detroit News)

The Woodward Dream Cruise is a rolling art museum, showcase for an age when American design ruled the continent. Masterpieces include 1950s Cadillac Eldorados with jet-aircraft-inspired tailfins swimming like sharks through an urban ocean. Drawn by legendary GM designer Harley Earl, these sculpted vessels symbolized American post-WW2 optimism.

After decades in the wilderness, that Caddy swagger is back.

Cadillac Director of Exterior Design Bob Boniface and his team are producing tomorrow’s classics today: The imposing Cadillac Escalade, elegant CTS (2013 Detroit News Vehicle of the Year), and sensual 2015 ATS Coupe.

As agile as they are beautiful, these vehicles stand with the best of BMW and Mercedes. The CTS and ATS are the sum of Cadillac’s decade-long design resurgence. They are bold. All-American. The product of a design chief who has sketched cars since he was a tike on a trike. His credits include Jeep Liberty and Chevy’s Volt. Get him talking about cars, and the soft-spoken 48-year-old is a kid again, reeling off his favorite designs. I sat down with Boniface in Litchfield, Connecticut to talk about the ATS, tail fins, and the Cruise.

Q: The Art & Science design language has matured since the breakthrough 2002 CTS. What changed?

Boniface: In the late 1990s we introduced a concept car called the Evoq. That car pointed the way toward Art & Science design language with a lot of creases. The CTS which was the first production car to use that language. I think it was the right thing at the time . . . to say that this was a different kind of Cadillac. It got people’s attention. But it was a severe design language. Since then we’ve taken the things that are good about it: The vertical light signature, the shield-shaped grille, the precise creases on the car. We’ve kept these but the surfacing between the creases is more sophisticated. (The cars) are prettier now.

Q: This is a conscious decision to evolve the design language?

BB: Yes. And in the case of the ATS Coupe, we listened to the customer. We had an earlier version which is more severe with a lot more wedge and rake to the belt. The side body was thicker. The grille . . . more severe. Customers told us that it looked heavy, inefficient – it didn’t look fun to drive. So we brought that information back to the studio and we took as much visual mass out of the car as we could.

Q: Look at the luxury segment today and there seems to be a German style, a Japanese style. Is there an American style of design?

BB: I think so. Our cars are very American. A lot of it is the vertical light signature, front and rear. They aren’t tail fins, but it harkens back to that – the blade-like corners of the . . . late ‘60s and ‘70s. We own that vertical light signature. It’s not everyone’s taste, but we’ve evolved it to the point that it’s very tasteful.

Q: The ATS is made for international markets. How much do pedestrian safety standards influence the front of the car?

BB: Quite a bit. Fortunately . . . we can pay for things on a Cadillac. We put pyrotechnics on the hinge of the hood (Ed. note: in Europe) so if a pedestrian’s head hits the hood, they’ll be safe. But it is a minefield on the front of the car: The sensors, the cooling requirements, the pedestrian safety requirement . . . . That’s why I’m so happy the car looks like a Cadillac because if you just followed the letter of the law – and we do – you could very easily come up with a very generic, jellybean front end.

Q: What distinguishes a luxury design from a mainstream design?

BB: Proportions. Detail. Cadillacs – with the exception of the XTS – are rear-drive vehicles. The wheels are forward, the windshield is back, the rear overhang is longer. The cars have this swept-back feeling. The details – that’s where the money is. The details on the headlamp, the machining on the wheels, even the brake calipers. (The luxury segment) is more than transportation. Cadillacs are a means of self-expression.

Q: At the Dream Cruise, what stands out to you?

BB: The designs that stand the test of time: The ‘60s American designs. Look at, say a 1966 Impala, or a ‘69 Camaro or a ‘69 Super Bee. They were basically stylized boxes – but, the subtlety of surfacing to get light to cascade across the body . . . are just beautiful. It’s harder today to design a car because of all the regulatory pressure — the pedestrian safety, the fuel economy rules, the crash-worthiness. But we have materials to do those things. Back then, they basically had a body on frame and wrapped sheet metal around it. They had to make a big ol’ box look good and they did.


Battle of the Three-bangers: ’14 Ford Fiesta vs. ’95 Geo Metro

Posted by hpayne on August 29, 2014

2014 Ford Fiesta 1.0-liter Ecoboost

Good things come in threes. Three-point basket buzzer beaters. The Three Stooges. Charlie’s Angels.

And Ford’s turbocharged, 1-liter, three-cylinder engine.

Three-holers have been as rare as four-leaf clovers in recent years as their poor power and inherent lack of balance have won them few buyers. The Mitsibishi Mirage and Smart, to name two, have underwhelmed with their buzzy leaf blowers. But with the relentless advance of fuel economy regulations and engine technology, automakers like Ford are re-introducing the three to a new generation of buyers.

The 2014 Ford Fiesta SFE is lightning in a bottle. Make that lightning in a 1-liter bottle. With its surprising power, hybrid-like fuel efficiency, and Fusion-like good looks, this overachiever is sure to become a micro-car icon. Indeed, the Ecoboost Fiesta brings to mind another three-banger idol from last century, the Geo Metro.

 GM’s Metro wowed us with 47 mpg numbers long before Toyota gave birth to the Prius – or the 3-cylinder Fiesta took Europe by storm. Though discontinued before the Millennium, the Metro maintains a cult following that worships its small sticker price and big fuel savings.

Sure, the little Ecoboost just won International Engine of the Year for an unprecedented third straight year. OK, Germany honored its tech innovation with the prestigious Paul Pietsch Award. Ford wants three-cylinder bragging rights stateside? It’s gotta go through the Metro first. Eager to gauge the three’s evolution, I went hunting in my Race Red SFE for a late ‘90s Metro.

Geo Metro owners are a proud lot. Like the Dwarves in Tolkein’s Hobbit, they are a close tribe fiercely protective of their cars and three-cylinder artisanship. They are dismissive of pretenders — ahem, like the Mirage and Smart — that fail to live up to the three’s fuel efficiency potential. The 1.0-liter Smart gets only 36 mpg? Amateur.

They give the new Fiesta more respect.

I contacted the Michigan clan through the online Geo Metro Forum. My offer to reciprocate driving a Geo Metro for the Fiesta was met with much enthusiasm. The Metroids are intrigued by a 1-liter that aspires to the Holy Grail of 50 mpg while also promising performance — a strange concept in the remote, Middle Earth realm of three-bangers.

The Geo Metro itself was hatched as an economy car in every sense of the word. At $8,085 in 1995 ($12,639 in today’s dollars) it was the cheapest chariot on the lot – and would still be today. So obsessed was GM with Metro’s price tag that it offered the passenger side mirror as an option.

The pride of the litter, the Geo Metro XFi (manufactured from 1990-1994), got an EPA estimated 43 mpg city/53 highway. That’s 47 mpg combined. It was the penny-pincher’s best friend. But the Metro made no pretense of performance. Zero-60? Use an hour glass. Side Gs? Side what?

Lansing-based Geo Metro owner Matt Spiess answered my call for a three-for-all. We had a blast.

Spiess’s 49-horsepower, 1995 Metro is officially EPA rated at 40 mpg combined (37 city/44 highway) a year after GM discontinued the XFi. But in his quest for better fuel economy, Spiess has upgraded his matchbox (complete with “Got 50 mpg?” sticker on the bumper) with XFi guts and a rear spoiler not unlike my Fiesta. As a result Spiess is averaging an astounding 52 mpg around Lansing. On my 80-mile trip from Detroit, I drove “green” – 5th gear, at the speed limit (you don’t know how hard that is for me) – and still managed “only” 47 mpg.

Point to Mr. Geo. Yet, while returning hybrid-like fuel economy numbers, the affordable Fiesta is one zesty salsa to drive. Game, set, and match, Mr. Ford.

To the auto engineers of the last 20 years, we salute you. Start with the Fiesta’s briefcase-sized engine. Its 123 Ecoboost-ed horses are not just 74 more than the Metro. Not just more than the standard 1.6-liter Fiesta. It’s more ponies-per-liter than a Lamborghini Aventado (106) or Corvette ZR-1 (103).

This three is King Kong in a can.

The turbo’s peak torque arrives at just 2,500 RPM. Merging onto US-127 north of Lansing at full throttle, the subcompact Fiesta disappeared from the Metro. Its 8.3-second, 0-60 sprint is a half-second quicker than a 1.8-liter Honda Civic. The Fiesta’s power comes smoothly, predictably, quietly.

The quiet is a testament to the fact that subcompact advances aren’t just under the hood.

Thanks to extensive sound-deadening and chassis work, the interior is noticeably quieter than the buzzy Metro. The instrumentation is more refined, the cup holders abundant, the cargo room plentiful. The three-banger only comes in Ford SE trim with a list of standard features as long as your arm. Seven air bags, leather steering wheel, a passenger side mirror . . .

“I can’t believe how smooth, quick, quiet, and powerful it was,” wrote Spiess at afterwards. “It did not feel like a little 3-cylinder at all.”

Our comparison was not without its old school nods, however. Throwing the threes into tight turns, I found the Metro’s hydraulic steering more responsive than the Fiesta’s numb electronic rack. And in a nod to cost, the Ford only comes with a five-speed manual gearbox.

The cost-cutting is a reminder that the Fiesta’s leap in engine technology is not cheap. Where the Metro tri-hammer was a base engine, the Fiesta mill is a $995 option over the base $14,925 sedan. Add the SE trim, heated seats, and destination charge, and my triple stickered at $18,190. That may be south of similar mpg hybrids — and Mini Cooper’s stylish three-holer ($21,300 base) — but it’s well north of what an inflation-adjusted Metro would be today. Heck, you could buy a used Metro for the Ecoboost premium, Spiess noted.

But the wee Metro also came with a price: Dealers couldn’t give them away. The XFi died in 1994 due to poor sales — the Metro brand followed in 1997. Squeezed by Washington mpg edicts even as Americans shy from small cars, the Fiesta 3-cylinder is an attempt to make fuel efficiency fun.

From the Fiesta 3-banger to one of my 2013 Best Vehicle finalists, the Fiesta ST hot hatch, Ford has brought spice to the common shoebox. The Fiesta has studied the Metro’s efficiency. But it is also learning the three Rs of sales: Revvy, racy, and roomy.

On my way back from Lansing, I flogged the Fiesta harder. I pulled Gs, rowed the box, returned 42 mpg . . . and still would have had enough room for Charlie’s Angels.

2014 Ford Fiesta 1.0-liter Ecoboost

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-door hatchback
Price: $14,925 base ($18,190 as tested)
Power plant: 1.0-liter turbocharged, dual-overhead-cam 3-cylinder
Power: 123 horsepower, 125 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.3 seconds (Car & Driver); 120 mph top speed
Weight: 2,537 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 32 mpg city/45 mpg highway/37 mpg combined
Highs: Pretty face; Hybrid-like fuel economy
Lows: Numb steering; Six-speed box, please

1995 Geo Metro

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, three-door hatchback
Price: $8,085 (base, 1995)
Power plant: 1.0-liter single overhead cam 3-cylinder
Power: 55 horsepower, 58 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Performance: 0-60 mph, 12.6 seconds (; 90 mph top speed (est.)
Weight: 1,808 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 37 mpg city/44 mpg highway/40 mpg combined (base Metro); 43 mpg city/53 mpg highway/47 mpg combined (Metro XFi)
Highs: Sub-$10k sticker; Got 50 mpg?
Lows: Spartan interior; Slow as molasses

King of the Cruise: Challenger Hellcat or Corvette Stingray?

Posted by hpayne on August 22, 2014

Detroit News cruisers Tom Greenwood (left) and Henry Payne get ready to patrol the strip in their Corvette and Challenger Hellcat steeds. (Henry Payne / The Detroit News)

Ginger or Mary Ann? Steak or lobster? Hellcat or Stingray?

Vexing choices. Because there is no wrong answer. Because they say so much about you. I’ll take Mary Anne to a steakhouse on Woodward in a. . . um. Er. Uhhhhhh. Which car would make the best Dream Cruiser?

The 707-horsepower, most-powerful-muscle-car-ever, $59,995, 2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat? Or the 455-horsepower, best-pound-for-dollar-sports car-on-the-planet, $76,465, 2014 Corvette C7 Stingray convertible?

Every year, thanks to the generosity of Detroit automakers, The Detroit News auto writers land two state-of-the-art chariots so we can cruise the Cruise in style. It’ll be hard to top this year’s duo. They are future Hall-of-Famers. So gratifying, yet so different. A muscle-bound odd couple.

When the Hellcat curled up on our doorstep, my Cruise colleague, Tom Greenwood, was speechless. So he tapped these classic words on his laptop:

“Dripping with testosterone, the exhaust produces a growly vibration that could churn milk into butter. Honestly, the only thing that would make it better would be if the tailpipes smelled like bacon.”

Amen, brother.

Yet, given the choice, would I take the Hellcat over the C7? A week on Woodward tells the tale.

Begin with the visuals. The Stingray will be recognized for decades as the seventh generation ’Vette that took the brand from attractive to sexy. Curvy and taut, the C7 is Beyonce on wheels. Our Z51 “bumble bee” package is especially striking. Draped in ticket-me-yellow paint, the wheels and trim are black, meaning the black soft top — traditionally an eyesore on convertibles — fits right in.

Speaking of clam shells, this top will open or close while rolling. Feel rain drops? Under 35 mph, the roof will shut with the touch of a button. No stopping. No fiddling. It’s a cruiser’s dream.

As menacing as our gray and black-trimmed Hellcat looked, it’s only subtly different than its brooding forebears. You’ll know it by the SRT badge and “Slingshot,” black-matte wheels.

But turn the key and the Hellcat comes into its own. The Corvette sports 455 horsepower. The Hellcat sees that and raises it by 252. Two-fifty-two. It’s like adding a Ford Focus ST turbo to the drivetrain. It’s so much power that SRT provides two keys — one red, one black — to caution drivers. Red flings open Pandora’s box. Black limits you to “just” 500 Furies.

Stomp the pedal at a stoplight and all Hellcat breaks loose. The rear tires spin like belt sanders. The air fills with an acrid odor (bacon?). The supercharger drains oxygen from the surrounding ecosystem. A headlight-sized intake — where the inner left lamp should be — makes a shrieking sound like Dracula’s mistress. Mothers hide their children. Car alarms erupt. The Hellcat explodes down the road.

It. Is. Epic.

Next to this tornado, the Corvette (3.8 second 0-60 versus the Hellcat’s 3.5) seems downright civilized. But keep your foot planted over 4000 RPM and valve flaps open in the four big exhaust pipes. An addictive, thunderous roar echoes off the asphalt.

You want to hear it again and again. It’s like the last stanza of the national anthem. Sung at the Super Bowl. By Whitney Houston.

So V-8s go great in a straight line, you say. So tell me something I don’t know. How do they handle? Pardon my snicker. We’re dream cruisers. Stoplight stompers. Ever seen an ess curve on Woodward? Still, man cannot live on burnouts alone. The open road is a symphony and you want an instrument that can play all the notes.

No surprise, the ’Vette walks away from the Hellcat in the twisties. Where the C7 can feel big and sloppy compared to say, a Porsche Boxster, it’s Fred Astaire compared to Hellcat the Dancing Bear. Through the swells and dips of north Oakland County the 3,362-pound C7 is planted, predictable — while the Hellcat’s 4,439 pounds must be carefully managed.

For all the violence outside, these beasts are remarkably comfy inside. The engineers didn’t blow the whole budget on artillery. The Stingray’s plush leather and suede-wrapped steering wheel are living room-comfortable. Your passenger is pampered as well with separate climate controls and two “oh, sh**!” handles for when 4,000 revs come.

The Hellcat can’t match the ’Vette’s country club interior, but it boasts its own suede seats and superb 8.4-inch touchscreen. And it comes with two roomy rear seats so that a family of four can enjoy the fun.

My Cruise-loving wife — my real-life Mary Ann — loves convertibles. So I choose Stingray. How about you?

2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, five-passenger sports sedan
Price: $59,995
Power plant: 6.2-liter supercharged DOHC 8-cylinder Hemi
Power: 707 hp, 650 lb.-ft. torque
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic with paddle shifters
Performance: 0-60 mph, 3.5 seconds (est.); 199 mph top speed
Weight: 4,439 pounds
Fuel economy: TBD
Highs: Earth-shaking power; Intuitive controls
Lows: Might get you thrown in jail

2014 Corvette Stingray Convertible

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, two-door, sport convertible with electronic, retractable top
Price: $76,465
Power plant: 6.2-liter, aluminum V-8 with direct injection and dry sump
Power: 455 horsepower, 460 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Seven-speed manual
Performance: 0-60 mpg, 3.8 seconds; 190 mph top speed
Weight: 3,362 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 17 mpg city/29 mpg highway
Highs: Glorious V8 note; Luxury interior
Lows: Might get you pulled over by a cop on a bicycle

A coupe coup: The Cadillac ATS Coupe dazzles

Posted by hpayne on August 21, 2014

I love economy of line.

A few strokes from caricaturist Al Hirshfeld’s pen could magically capture a Broadway celebrity’s face.

The bold curves of architect Eero Saarinen’s Dulles Airport transform a massive flight terminal into a soaring sculpture.

And the shrewd lines of the 2015 Cadillac ATS Coupe mark it as a future classic.

The luxury maker’s long-awaited coupe comes with high expectations. After Caddy’s BMW 3 series-fighting ATS sedan debuted to rave reviews in 2012, could the two-door match the high style bar set by the German marque’s 4-series? Could the coupe smooth out the sedan’s rough edges? Or would it stumble as the CTS coupe — an ambitious but flawed sculpture — did before it?

The ATS coupe scores on all fronts — starting with an elegant chrome line that runs the length of the car’s front lip. At times I’ve found it difficult to look at the ATS sedan head on. With its raked hood and sculpted body, the four-door was a lovely interpretation of Caddy’s Art & Science design architecture.

But oh, that face.

The sedan’s large pentagon grille was split in two by a front bumper line. It looked like a mouth stifled by a giant strip of masking tape. The headlamps bulged. The chin strained. Mmmahmmmahmmm. Please, someone, the ATS seemed to be saying, can you remove the #@!!** adhesive?

Ahhhhhh. Thank you, Cadillac designer Bob Boniface. The veteran artisan has worked the same magic on the coupe that he brought to the CTS sedan, The Detroit News’ 2013 Car of the Year. In extending the lower lip line and giving the mouth a chance to breathe, the coupe’s face (coming to the sedan, too) has been transformed. The grille dominates the front, its full, chrome lips smile, the headlamps twinkle. Hello, gorgeous.

Oh, but Boniface’s pen is just getting warmed up. Walk around the coupe’s flanks and a single, arching sill line connects hood to windows to tail. Immediately below it, the ATS sedan’s elegant shoulder line has been dropped, bisecting the car’s big rear quarters and knitting everything into proportion. It’s the trickiest space in auto design. The Audi A5 has it right. The creaseless CTS coupe, not so much. Its hindquarters look as naked as Homer Simpson’s forehead.

Not the ATS. Like its sister CTS, you want to take something this beautiful onto the dance floor. Then the ATS really shows its moves.

Like the sedan, the coupe is equal — dare I say superior? — to its German competitors. The steering is perfectly weighted, the chassis taut (aided by a 38 percent stiffening in high strength steel and extensive adhesive bonding), the balance — nearly 50-50 front to rear — is exquisite. Mindful that its nemeses have porked up, the Caddy has slimmed down. Its dimensions match those of the superb BMW E46 chassis of a generation ago, tipping the scales 53 pounds lighter (267 pounds less than an AWD Audi A5).

Bounding like a retriever after a fox over the equestrian hills and valleys of northern Connecticut, the ATS coupe felt small in my hands. With a multi-link front suspension and independent rear, this Labrador is relentlessly sure-footed. Strap on magnetic shocks and it gets even better.

Like the wings of Hermes on all four heels, magnetic shocks make this hound fly. Caddy’s magnetic shocks are suspension steroids. And they’re legal. Heck, put them on a Cadillac Escalade (they do) and the lumbering offensive lineman thinks it’s Adrian Peterson.

Recognizing the coupe’s natural beauty and athleticism, Caddy’s product planners have appropriately fed it plenty of drivetrain meat. Skipping right over the sedan’s 2.4 liter, four-cylinder starter salad, the base coupe goes straight for the sirloin — a turbocharged 2.0-liter four with 272 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. Bigger chops? GM’s trusty 3.6-liter V-6 is protein-fed with 321 horsepower and roars like a bull when poked.

But as satisfying as the V-6 pipes are, the quieter turbo packs plenty of punch. Consider the numbers. While the V-6 sprints from 0-60 mph in 5.5 seconds, the turbo 4 is right on its hip at 5.6 seconds. And it drinks 3 mpg less to get there. Tucked up under the four’s exhaust manifold, the dual scroll turbo is a compact dynamo, giving the little engine a wicked kick in the glutes from 2,000 revs all the way to the 6,500 redline. Mated to a silky smooth, 6-speed automatic or manual box, the turbo shifts effortlessly, even in fast downshifts as the car’s six-pot Brembo anchors haul it back to earth.

Inside, the Caddy’s interior strives to match the drama outside.

The ATS is the first Caddy to offer GM’s 4G connectivity for the Internet starved (um, like your trusty scribe lost on Connecticut back roads). Paddle shifters the size of boat cleats anchor either sides of the steering wheel, allowing for ease of use even as the coupe explores its .93-g envelope. Comfortable, bolstered seats tempt you to stay in the saddle for hours.

The rest of the quiet interior is familiar Caddy territory. The haptic-touch, smartphone-like center screen requires a tutorial, but at least it’s all right in front of you. BMW, Audi and now Lexus consoles are stacked shelves of high-placed screens and low-mounted dials. If Europeans had designed the etch-a-sketch, the nobs would have come with a separate console.

Befitting a coupe, the rear seats are not for the claustrophobic. Still, the designers have thoughtfully located redundant fore and aft switches at the top and bottom of the seats so the rear passenger can move the seat to get out. Very clever.

The ATS coupe is Caddy’s sixth product in three years as the veteran tries to reestablish itself as a premier luxury brand. And ATS will bring a V-series coupe performance droid to the fight next year to take on the mighty BMW M4. But as good as the ATS products are, its competition isn’t standing still. While the ATS is Caddy’s gateway to the under-35 set, BMW — to use just one example — has added a 2-series as well as small utes to its lineup.

Will Caddy ever catch up? Maybe not. But the ATS sedan and coupe are proof that Cadillac is capable of making some of the finest small lux cars in the world. The cars grip like glue. The engines pull like Clydesdales. The interior warms like a ski cabin.

And like a Hirschfeld drawing, the ATS coupe just needs a few simple lines to make you recognize true beauty.

2015 Cadillac ATS Coupe

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, four-passenger sports coupe
Price: $38,990 base ($49,685 turbo-4 as tested)
Power plant: 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder; 3.6-liter direct injection V-6
Power: 272 horsepower, 295 pound-feet of torque (turbo-4); 321 horsepower, 275 pound-feet of torque (V-6)
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.6 seconds (turbo-4); 5.5 seconds (V-6). Source: Cadillac
Weight: 3,418 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 21 mpg city/31 mpg highway (turbo-4); 18 mpg city/28 mpg highway (V-6)
Highs: Sleek styling; nimble handling
Lows: Claustrophobic rear seats


Class of ’88: The new Cruise classics

Posted by hpayne on August 14, 2014

Woodward Dream Cruises are like high school reunions. We go back to the alma mater every year to meet old friends, retell tall tales, and see if Mary Jo Meriweather is still as hot as she was three decades ago.

On Woodward this year, we honor the Class of 1988.

Now old enough to qualify for historic Michigan plates, the 26th anniversary class featured an assortment of nerds, athletes and timeless beauties. Which models will show up? Which ones should show up? Does that certain curvy creature still turn heads like she did then?

Your humble class auto critic has gone back through my tattered yearbook to sort the losers and leaders. Has anyone become a celebrity like Dodge Challenger (Class of ’71)? Will there be dorks-turned-cool like the Ford Model B street rod (Class of ’32)?

In 1988 Ronald Reagan was president, “Die Hard” was the No. 1 movie, and the Ford Escort was America’s best-selling car. The Ford what?

The auto landscape was almost completely unrecognizable compared to today. AMC was a car, not a TV channel; GM owned Lotus; and sedans still dominated auto sales. The Ford Taurus was the best-selling midsize car in America while the Ford Escape crossover hadn’t even been conceived. Heck, crossovers hadn’t been conceived. Today’s perennial sales king, the Toyota Camry, didn’t even make the Top Ten. Then, only three of the Top Ten sellers were Japanese. Now, only three American cars break the top tier.

So what endures? What I love about the Cruise is its democratic celebration of the good, the bad and the ugly. There are no white-glove, toffee-nosed judges handing out blue ribbons at the end. No wax-sealed invitation letters. No gatekeepers. Every vehicle is welcome.

We come. We see. We appreciate. But we do, um, appreciate some 1988 classmates more than others …

Corvette, 35th anniversary edition

No Cruise class is complete without a Vette, and 1988 is no different. The C4 was the Big Man on Campus. Though an underpowered 250-horsepower by today’s standards, we coveted its sleek physique. It was Corvette’s 35th birthday — so GM blessed us with a limited, commemorative edition. Known as the “Triple White Corvette,” it’s painted white with white wheels and white interior (including seats & steering wheel). If only Elvis could have driven one in Vegas.

The Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme

The ’88 coupe was Olds’ first front-wheel drive car. Awkwaaaard. But this car was still special. The Cutlass was the first vehicle to feature a heads up display (HUD) — the hologram-like gauge that hovers in a driver’s line of sight. The nifty feature has since spread to Cadillac, Chevy, Hyundai, Lexus, etc.

Ford Mustang 5.0

Nearly shipped off to the glue factory in the early ’80s, the third generation pony car had evolved into a menacing, Top Ten Car & Driver pick by 1988. Shaped like the head on Thor’s hammer, it had a kick to match. While this bruiser won’t win any beauty prizes, its thumping 5-liter heart thrills enthusiasts.

Camaro IROC-Z

While the Z28 took a hiatus, Camaro produced its performance car under the IROC-Z badge from 1988-90. Short for International Race of Champions, the IROC package attempted to capitalize on the popular SCCA showroom stock series to boost flagging sales. “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” as the saying goes. The result was a weapon packing 350 cubic inches of heat. With IROC-Z emblazoned across its skirt, a snarling ’88 Camaro still awakens goose bumps.

Porsche 924S

The Porsche 924 was a rare Stuttgart belly-flop — an underpowered, affordable sports car that eventually yielded in 1983 to the brawnier Porsche 944. But … for two years in 1987 and 1988, Porsche dressed the 944 platform in the slipperier, lighter 924 body. Pair a better drag coefficient with 160 horsepower and what do you get? A heckuva sleeper. The resulting 924S was not only cheaper than the 944 (at under $20K), but quicker. Considered one of the best handling sports cars of its generation, the balanced 924S is instantly distinguished from its weak sister 924 by its phone dial wheels. Only 17,000 S’s were made. I sense collector’s item.

Mazda RX7 convertible

Mazda’s rotary-powered Porsche 944 fighter got a facelift in 1986 to look sexier. In 1988, the RX-7 went topless as well. Anything for sales, I guess. For all of its imitation, the RX-7 was a wonderful actor in its own right with superb 50-50 weight balance and that unique Wankel power plant. Mazda racers of that era sounded like a chainsaw cutting through your head. Fortunately, production cars were muffled.

Pontiac Fiero GT

GM’s late performance division’s small sports car finally got its mojo with the Fiero GT, produced from 1986-88. While endowing the Fiero with dramatic mid-engine looks, Pontiac had starved the standard model with under 100 horsepower. The GT fixed that with a peppy, 140-horse V6. Distinguished by its deep front spoiler and rear wing, the peppy GT — alas — came too late to save the Fiero. It passed in 1988.

Audi 5000

While GM shoulders responsibility for its deadly ignition failures, the Audi 5000’s “sudden acceleration” scandal is a reminder that many safety recalls are the result of media and safety advocate sensationalism. The 5000 was framed by a rigged “60 Minutes” broadcast, resulting in a cratering of Audi sales in the U.S. The 5000 was subsequently discontinued in 1988 as the company embarked on the long road back to public acceptance. Absolved by federal regulators and feted by Car & Driver as a 10 Best pick, the 5000 endures as one of ’88’s best sedans.

Buick Reatta

While GM refashioned Buick as a family brand (the once-powerful Regal, for example, had been neutered of its V8 and recast with front-wheel drive), the powerful Reatta coupe paradoxically debuted as a halo performance car in 1988. A fish out of water in a conservative brand, the bland Reatta became a symbol of GM brand chaos. If not a classic, a classic tale of GM’s woes.

Honda CRX Si

This mighty mouse was part of a Honda juggernaut that took the U.S. by storm in the ’80s. From the Accord to the CRX, Honda established a reputation for affordable fun. Redesigned for 1988, the 2,000-pound Si was the terror of the autocross — the era’s favorite pocket rocket after the VW GTI. Equipped with a multi-link suspension, you could ring its neck at a weekend track event — then enjoy 50 mpg on weekday commutes.

There you have it. My short list.

I welcome your own favorites in the Comments section online. Looking back at the ’88ers it’s remarkable how much 1970s federal fuel economy regulations had reorganized the Big Three’s portfolio. We are in the midst of a second federal fuel economy crusade today that could equally transform the landscape a quarter century hence. A turbocharged, 6-cylinder Corvette anyone?


Just in time for Cruise: Dodge releases hell-raising Charger SRT Hellcat

Posted by hpayne on August 14, 2014

Driving Woodward Avenue this week after the flood you might consider an outboard motorboat or an ark to gather all the Detroit zoo animals. But come Saturday’s Dream Cruise, the sun will be out, and so will the cars. You’ll want something appropriate for cruising with the family.

How about a roomy, 707-horsepower four-door sedan that seats five and does the quarter mile as fast as a Ferrari Enzo?

Dodge has your car. Chrysler’s performance brand rolled out a fire-breathing, 205 mph, V-8 2015 Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat at Vinsetta Garage on Woodward on Wednesday morning to a mob of media. The car will be mobbed by the public as well since Dodge plans to show this bad boy at its 13 Mile and Woodward display at this weekend’s Cruise.

The Charger is the second Hellcat badge for the Dodge SRT after the Challenger SRT Hellcat was introduced earlier this year. Both share the same menacing looks, the same red-tinged leather interior, and the same supercharger which boosts horsepower by a bone-rattling 215 horsepower over the already ferocious V-8 found in the Charger and Challenger R/T models.

Yet the “family sedan” Charger is not only roomier than its coupe cousin — it’s faster. The Charger Hellcat will giddyap down a quarter mile drag strip in just 11 seconds, two-tenths quicker than the Challenger Hellcat. Zero-60? A hell-raising 3.6 seconds, also two-tenths quicker than the Challenger version.

“This car goes where most brands wouldn’t go in this market,” said Dodge CEO Tim Kuniskis whose hot brand is the most searched on the Internet. “Sometimes you need to stop listening to the focus groups. The Charger Hellcat redefines practicality.”