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Payne: Sedan sirens, Buick LaCrosse and Jaguar XJL

Posted by hpayne on August 11, 2016

Two rejuvenated brands are turning heads this year

The heck with big sport utilities.

Those breadboxes on wheels have taken over our automotive kingdom. Boxy and brawny, they have become Americans’ vehicle of choice. Don’t get me wrong, I get it. Their utility is undeniable. They efficiently swallow families and their stuff. They give soccer moms visual command of the landscape. They assist senior citizens with an easy step up rather than a back-breaking stoop down. And they provide NBA-friendly room for sharp elbows and tall knees.

Utility? You bet. But sport? I mean, even Porsche can’t make a car jacked a foot in the air feel like a Porsche. There’s no denying physics. And stick a fifth door on anything and it’s going to look like a box. There are some lovely beaks out there, from the Maserati Lavante’s trident grill to the Mazda CX’9’s sunny smile. But you’ll never hear anyone talk about a ute’s gorgeous glutes. Or curvy hips.

SUVs are from Mars, sedans are from Venus.

For those who want beauty and athleticism in a large vehicle, there will always be sedans. Sedans may be down and out on dealer lots, but their inherent grace and feminine lines are still the benchmark for automotive style. Speaking of down and out, two rejuvenated old brands are turning heads this year with stunning full-size sedans that bookend the luxury segment: The entry-lux 2017 Buick LaCrosse and top-of-the-line 2016 Jaguar XJL.

With its stunning, much-copied lines, the XJL has helped re-establish Jaguar as luxury’s premier beauty. At the cheaper end of the lux menu, the LaCrosse manages to rekindle the spirit of the era when Buick wowed the world with designs like the 1954 Wildcat.

Few will lament the passing of the old LaCrosse. Heavy, arthritic and bulbous, it did little to shake the brand’s reputation as a purveyor of land yachts. Happily, however, Buick caught the SUV wave at just the right time, riding the fresh Enclave and Encore to sales glory. Buick has dominated the small-ute class with the perky and innovative Encore. That’s right — I just used innovative, dominated and perky in the same sentence as Buick.

SUV success has given the sedans a chance to get their act together and the all-new LaCrosse doesn’t disappoint.

It’s the first GM product built on the Epsilon II platform — E2 for short — and like other new GM platforms from Chevy and Caddy, it’s been hitting the gym. E2 lost 150 pounds from its predecessor, part of a 300-pound diet that has made LaCrosse a fit 3,650 pounds. Leaner and meaner, the lower-by-1.3 inches, more athletic-looking LaCrosse gained 2.7 inches in wheelbase, 1.3 inches in width.

Combined with a new five-link rear suspension (usually found in more upscale lux athletes like BMW) and a torque-vectoring, GKN-developed, dual-clutch all-wheel drive system (usually found in track-tuners like the Ford Focus RS), the LaCrosse delivers superb handling for a big car.

It’s startling, really. Like those Snickers commercials starring Betty White, it’s as if your granny’s Buick ate a candy bar and transformed into a 200-pound football player. Or, more appropriately in this case, a 200-pound lacrosse middie. Compared to class competitors like Lexus ES350 or Nissan Maxima, the Buick is more aligned with Maxima’s athletic DNA.

Over curvy Route 47 northwest of Portland, Oregon, I found the Buick fun through the twisties (fun and Buick — in the same sentence!), rotating with minimal body roll before putting the 305-horse, 3.6-liter V6’s hammer down. Try that in the boaty Lexus and you’ll get seasick.

But the real achievement of the LaCrosse is that’s it’s turned the clock back and made Buick pretty again. Buick actually rented out space in Portland’s artsy Pearl District to show off her curves.

Dash lines are sleek — check out the chrome bezel under the console that runs uninterrupted from instrument panel to passenger door. Out front, Buick’s winged grill — first seen at the 2015 Detroit Auto Show on the Avenir concept — accentuates the car’s lower, more horizontal lines. Those signature, old-school, boat-worthy Buick portholes? They have mercifully been demoted from the hood to aft of the front fender wells. The new Buick is all about wings.

The Buick even has Jaguar-esque lines. The LaCrosse’s coupe-like roof line, cat-eye headlights and full-mouthed grille echo the English cat. Initial design sketches even contained similar rocker panel chrome to the XJL (scrubbed in the final version, perhaps for cost).

To get the full Jaguar effect, it’ll cost you. About double the LaCrosse, actually.

The elegant $89,820 (as tested) XJL is the biggest, sleekest cat in the Jaguar litter. It’s the stretched version of the lovely, full-size XJ sedan introduced in 2012. Like Margot Robbie in heels, the XJL’s long proportions make it looked even sexier, tapered roof flowing into sleek haunches.

The Jaguar gets the expected royal-lux touches for 2016 — “double-J” daytime running lights, doors that suck close, rotary dial rising out of the dash at ignition. In practice, the Jaguar’s simpler dial blows away the LaCrosse’s finicky monostable doo-hickey. Yet Buick holds its own, even providing clever sub-console space that the Jag lacks, though to be honest I was so transfixed by the Jaguar’s front and rear camera system (giving you a bumper’s eye view of the road fore and aft while driving) that I didn’t mind its lack of Apple CarPlay/Android Auto. That popular feature comes standard (ahem) not only in the LaCrosse, but in entry-level compacts like the Chevy Cruze.

Beauty has its drawbacks, and the Jaguar’s rear visibility is dreadful compared to the Buick. Interestingly, in China, where big sedans routinely come with a driver, LaCrosse’s rear seats get Jag-like touches with heating, cooling and a shoe shine (and I’m making that last one up).

Stateside, though, the Jaguar XJL’s back seats are a world unto themselves. Lounging in diamond-quilted soft leather, passengers get their own window-blind controls and their own moon-roof controls.

Dah-ling — let me know when we have arrived at the club. I’ll be sunbathing on the back deck.

Yet the driver’s seat, like the LaCrosse, is a place to get your heart racing. The Jag is a 340-horse-drawn AWD locomotive.

Jaguar has lately gotten into the SUV game with the F-Pace, a fat cat that will ring up profits like a cash register on wheels. But no matter how successful Jag and Buick SUVs, their flagship cars will turn your head. Long live the sedan.

2017 Buick LaCrosse


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

Price: $32,990 ($48,575 AWD Premium as tested)

Power plant: 3.6-liter V-6

Power: 305 horsepower, 268 pound-feet torque

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.0 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed: 145 mph

Weight: 3,840 pounds (AWD as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 21 mpg city/31 mpg highway/23 mpg combined (AWD as tested)

Report card

Highs: Sleek Buicks are back; road-hugging, AWD handling (that’s not a misprint)

Lows: Clunky monostable shifter; how about a sport version?


2016 Jaguar XJL


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

Price: $74,400 base XJ ($89,820 XJL as tested)

Power plant: 3.0-liter, supercharged, dual-overhead cam V-6

Power: 340 horsepower, 332 pound-feet torque

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.1 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed: 124 mph (governed)

Weight: 4,397 pounds (AWD as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 17 mpg city/25 mpg highway/20 combined

Report card

Highs: Timeless beauty; posh rear seat

Lows: Infotainment average; blind spots the size of Wyoming


Sources: Mid-engine Corvette due in 2019

Posted by hpayne on August 4, 2016


General Motors Co. intends to start selling a mid-engine Chevrolet Corvette in early 2019, according to multiple sources familiar with the company’s planning.

While America’s iconic sports car has gone through seven generations of upgrades since it debuted in 1953, a mid-engine architecture would be the most radical change in Corvette history. The sources, who asked not to be identified because company plans have not been made public, said production of the mid-engine rocket would eventually be the only Corvette produced. One of those people said the current, front-engine C7’s Z06 and Grand Sport models would continue through 2021.

The eighth-generation Corvette C8 – codenamed “Emperor” — is targeted for an unveiling in early 2018, sources said.

“We do not comment on future product plans,” a Chevy spokesperson said.

One former GM employee with knowledge of the project said, “It’s happening. Mark Reuss wants it,” referring to the automaker’s global product development chief. “It’s the worst-kept secret in town.”

Chevy has long been concerned by Corvette’s aging demographic, and a mid-engine performance car could appeal to younger buyers.

“The median age of the Corvette buyer got three years older while I was there, which scared the hell out of us,” says Tom Wallace, who was Corvette’s chief engineer from 2006 until 2008.

Some sources say a mid-engine Corvette could be the basis for a Cadillac sports car.

When Cadillac President Johan de Nysschen was asked by Motor Trend last fall if a Cadillac “halo” car based on a mid-engine Corvette might be in the cards, he replied: “It has to be one of the options that we consider. In the future there are going to be some architectures inside the corporation that will remain purely Cadillac, but then there are others where it just isn’t economically feasible to enter segments by trying to do a unique Cadillac. Then you look at what’s available in terms of corporate assets. And I’m sure you’d agree that a new, very advanced Corvette platform wouldn’t be a bad place to start.”

C8 characteristics

With the engine located behind the driver and in front of the rear wheels, mid-engine sports cars are prized by performance-car fans for their balanced handling characteristics. The mid-engine format would make it more current with Corvette race-program competitors like the much-pricier Ferrari 488 and Ford GT.

The C8 is expected to be equipped with performance innovations like an active-aerodynamic system to enhance downforce, according to Car & Driver’s Don Sherman, who has been following the car’s development since 2014. The magazine says the next-generation Corvette will be powered by the tried-and-true small-block pushrod V-8 to keep costs down.

The mid-engine format would allow GM more flexibility to make performance variants — perhaps an all-wheel drive, plug-in hybrid model with electric motors driving the front wheels. That would put it head-to-head — at a more modest price — with cutting-edge, mid-engine hybrid supercars such as the Acura NSX and Porsche 918.

GM and Chevrolet last year trademarked the names Corvette E-Ray and Manta Ray. The names, some analysts believe, indicate the company is considering multiple vehicle variants.

Bob Lutz, GM’s former head of product development, speculates that the program’s long lead time — the C8 wouldn’t go into production until late 2018 — foreshadows an electric version “with 10- to 15-mile plug-in electric capability.”

“That would only require a 5-kWh battery, or $1,300 at today’s lithium-ion prices (plus motors and control hardware),” he said in an email. “It would be enough to give it a 50 mpg city label, and the electric motors at the front would enable limited AWD capability.”

The company recently announced investments totaling nearly $800 million in its Bowling Green Assembly Plant in Kentucky, where Corvettes are built. That includes $153 million for improving vehicle assembly line processes, on top of $137 million in previously committed capital. Last year, GM said it would invest $439 million for a new paint shop and $44 million to expand its Performance Build Center.

The plant is expected to be shut down for three months in mid- to late-2017 for retooling.

Lutz and Wallace say that they and then-Corvette Assistant Chief Engineer Tadge Juechter got the mid-engine Corvette approved in 2007, only to see the project shelved while GM went through bankruptcy reorganization in 2009.

Lutz says the $800 million Bowling Green investment figure is in line with what was asked for nine years ago.

“The program I got approved in ’07 was $900 million,” Lutz says, “and included a Cadillac XLR with a supercharged Northstar engine. If the current program is $800 million, I’d bet it includes a different-bodied Cadillac again as well.”

From ‘what-if’ to project

Corvette faithful have already begun putting down deposits on the car. Les Stanford Chevrolet in Dearborn, one of the top three Corvette sellers in the United States, confirms about two dozen customers have put down $2,000 on the C8 to be first in line.

“The potential for a mid-engine Corvette is in the future,” says General Sales Manager Scott Montgomery. “We have a lot of attention from members of the enthusiast community who have never been wrong.”

In addition to publishing spy shots of a camouflaged, mid-engine car undergoing testing, Car & Driver created computer renderings of the C8 featuring a muscular stance and low, menacing nose. The renderings are based on descriptions of the production prototype by people who have seen the car’s design.

Stephanie Brinley, a senior analyst with forecasting firm IHS Markit, said there have been rumors of a mid-engine Corvette for a decade. “It seems to be maturing from a ‘what-if’ to a project,” she said.

Pricing a new Corvette in line with Chevrolet and its value-brand philosophy will be important, Brinley said. It can’t have a $450,000 sticker price like the Ford GT. But Brinley said there is some space for a price increase over today’s $55,445 base C7.

GM has flirted with mid-engine Corvettes in the past, particularly in the 1960s when Chief Engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov argued it was a superior architecture. Arkus-Duntov produced four mid-engine concepts from 1960-70, including the 1968 “Astro II.”

The Astro was a reaction to the mid-engine 1966 Ford GT-40 and its stunning success at the 24 Hours of LeMans. Fifty years later, another Ford GT has won LeMans — and this time GM’s response appears to be a full-blown, mid-engine production C8.

138 5 Payne: Focus RS is Ford’s Golf R-killer

Posted by hpayne on August 4, 2016

With its sophisticated, dual-rear-clutch AWD system,

Conveniently located off Old Telegraph Road in Clarkston, Waterford Hills Raceway is one of Metro Detroit’s hidden gems.

Bordered by woods, its 11 turns spilling over grassy knolls offer some of the best road racing in Michigan. For 58 years Detroiters have enjoyed this great American racetrack next door.

Buyers of the ferocious, 2017 Ford Focus RS will want to get to know it.

And Grattan Raceway in Grand Rapids. And South Haven’s Gingerman Raceway. And M1 Concourse’s Champion Motor Speedway in Pontiac. Because the RS is as track-focused a production car you’ll find this side of a Camaro Z28 or Porsche 911 GT3. Yet for just $36,775 it’s within reach of the average motorhead.

In this Second Golden Age of motoring the RS joins the formidable Volkswagen Golf R and Subaru STI as all-wheel-drive, $35K-something hot rods with back seats. The STI is a legend with its Sopwith Camel rear-wing and nice-Subie-gone-bad swagger, while the classy V-dub boasts divine German engineering and hatchback utility.

Previous performance versions of the Focus haven’t been in the class of the Golf, the undisputed hatch benchmark for four decades. Compared to VW’s 210-horse Golf GTI, for example, the front-wheel drive, 250-horsepower 2016 Focus ST that I recently drove is a dinosaur, its torque steer so violent when under the whip it wants to rip the wheel out of my hands.

Like ST, the RS’s power dwarfs the Golf R on paper — but this time Ford harnesses it with appropriate engineering.

Engineered in Germany and assembled in Spain alongside other Focuses on Ford’s global C-platform, the RS (Rally Sport) initials are revered in Europe. The badge has graced off-road rally contenders — from Escort to Sierra to Focus — for years. Its appearance on these shores is a long-overdue first.

Golf R is the ultimate stealth hatch, its conservative lines not betraying my predatory intentions until I’m on top of you. Focus RS, on the other hand, looks like I bought it from Darth Vader Automotive.

Check out those gaping, shark-like jaws. RS alters three body panels from its brother Focus: front fascia, roof winglet and rear diffuser. The facial Extreme Makeover satisfies the little beasty’s ravenous appetite for air. Engines, a wag once said, are simply air machines. Apropos the RS with every front crevice devoted to ramming more oxygen down its 2.3-liter turbo’s neck. It bumper is thinned for more air through the grille. An enlarged lower opening feeds a turbo intercooler the size of Manhattan. What, no hood scoop?

We’ve seen this turbo 4-banger before in the current Mustang. Despite making a healthy 310 ponies, the four seems out of place in the muscle car but not the hot hatch. Not only does the RS mill produce a staggering 40 more horsepower than the Mustang, but it gains 58 horses on the Golf R. Mercy.

The wing adds downforce — and a big “ticket me” billboard — on top of the car. It’s not as outrageous as the STI’s aerofoil, which looks like it came off a World War I fighter plane. But it will make anyone over 30 wince.

The Golf R laughs at such bling, preferring more modest duds. That civility translates to the ride as well.

Take RS on the Michigan roads and you’ll want a mouth guard. Toggle the shock-stiffener button on the left stalk and the thing becomes positively violent. Roaring across Michigan’s concrete roads, the RS bobbed and pitched like a rodeo bull.

And if a bull needs a ring, the RS needs a track.

On Waterford’s smooth asphalt, I eased down the pit lane, selected Track mode (which automatically stiffens the shocks 40 percent), turned off traction control and the washboard-stiff RS was in its element. Like any small-displacement turbo, the meat of the rev band is over 3,000 rpms — but then it keeps pulling to its 6,500 redline. Acceleration (0-60 mph in a retina-flattening 4.7 seconds) is so quick I repeatedly hit the rev-limiter in second gear. Grabbing fourth gear on the short back straight, I briefly touched 100 mph before stomping the big Brembo brakes.

If the Focus body mods look aggressive, the chassis upgrades lash the car to the ground. RS gets a front sub-frame cross brace, rear cross brace, sway-bar bushing braces, “lion’s foot” suspension-tower braces, rear toe-link reinforcement, rocker foam and anabolic steroids injected into the hydraulics (just kidding about that last one). Then Ford really got serious.

Where Subie and VW use traditional all-wheel drive torque-vectoring systems that brake the inside wheels to help the rear rotate through corners, RS is equipped with twin rear-clutches that can accelerate the outside tires.

As a result the RS is a rocket through the twisties, its chassis rotating on a dime. I threw the hatch around like a rag doll, its Michelin Super Sports sticking like taffy. To show off its bonkers AWD, engineers gave the RS “drift mode” so you can easily induce four-wheel oversteer. This was especially fun in Michigan turns on Woodward — spinning the car like a top with a quick dab of gas — but on track the quick way around is Track mode.

Only in the fast, Turn 5 “Big Bend” did I feel the RS’s porky 3,459 pounds — 120 more than Golf R. For all of the stiffening and bigger turbos, the RS gets no body panel light-weighting over the base, steel Focus.

That base Focus design is apparent inside as well, contrasting with the Golf’s more-premium Audi-like look. But I’m a sucker for Ford’s’ clever console buttons and dials. RS temperature gauges and bear-hugging, blue-stitched Recaro seats give it character. Stash your phone in the shallow console cubby and it’ll fly out on the floor in hard turns. Those bolstered seats are there so you don’t get chucked on the floor too.

If you want a daily driver, buy the Golf R. Buy the RS if you want junior version of the Nissan GT-R, a race car in production clothing. After my Waterford Hills jaunt, I trolled Woodward for victims. I drag-raced two 420-horsepower M3s from a stoplight, the RS’s superior AWD traction hanging tough despite giving up 70 horses. Our thirst for blood slaked, RS and I headed home. On the way, I came up on a GT-R.

The driver recognized the beast in his mirrors and threw me an enthusiastic thumbs up as if to say: “Welcome stateside, RS. See you at the track!”

2016 Ford Focus RS


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

Price: $36,775 base ($39,560 as tested)

Power plant: 2.3-liter, turbocharged, inline 4-cylinder

Power: 350 horsepower, 350 pound-feet torque

Transmission: Six-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.7 seconds (manufacturer); top speed: 165 mph

Weight: 3,459 lbs.

Fuel economy: EPA 19 mpg city/29 mpg highway/25 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Hatchback utility; AWD OMG

Lows: Boy-toy styling; bucking bronco daily-driver


Payne Q&Auto: Pilgrim’s progress

Posted by hpayne on July 30, 2016


Andy Pilgrim is the American Dream. Right down to his surname.

Pilgrim crossed the Atlantic in 1981 to seek a better life. Arriving in New York City as an IT contractor under the watchful gaze of Lady Liberty with just $100 in his pocket, the 25-year old computer programmer was placed in Pontiac with General Motors. An avid motorbike racer in his native England, he also hoped to race a bit.

Give me your huddled masses yearning to breathe free … and do some hot laps.

Now 59, Pilgrim has realized his dreams. He has his own tech business. And by the way, he is one of the most highly regarded sports car drivers in the business after a career racing everything from Corvettes to NASCAR. Today he pilots Porsches for Black Swan Racing in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

“I came to the U.S. for opportunity,” said Pilgrim in Atlanta last week where he was testing Chevy’s new Corvette Grand Sport for Automobile magazine. “Racing was a dream. Car racing in England takes huge money.”

Pilgrim’s rags-to-riches rise in racing is a rare journey in an expensive sport dominated by wealthy families with names like Andretti, Earnhardt and Rosberg where money and sponsorship often talk louder than talent. Humbled by his success, Pilgrim is determined to give back to his adopted homeland. Alarmed by the lax driving standards in the U.S. (compared to say, England and Germany), Pilgrim is a missionary for safer driving habits through his non-profit Traffic Safety Education Foundation.

After spending his first year in Pontiac, Pilgrim’s next contractor gig took him to El Paso, Texas.

“Pontiac at the time had 68 percent unemployment, I was told. The room I got was $100 a month,” he says. “It was a rough neighborhood. (My complex’s) guard dog got beaten up.”

In Texas he bought his first ride, a used Renault Alliance Cup Car. “I called it a Renault ‘Appliance’ – and that’s how I got into serious racing,” says Pilgrim. “I funded myself. I never went to a racing school – I couldn’t afford it.”

It was a big step up from his motorbike in England.

“I didn’t have car,” he remembers of that first bike. “I would pay a buddy (gas money) to drop me at the track. And if I wasn’t dead, he’d pick me up in the evening to take me home.”

He started his own company, Electronic Computer Services, in Dallas in 1989. The successful small business kept the revenue stream coming to feed his racing habit. Pilgrim’s talents were getting noticed. His habit would soon become all-consuming.

In 1999 his career took off as Corvette Racing tapped him to race their first C5 race car. Co-driving the car with the father-son duo of Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr. at the 24 Hours of Daytona in 2002, he finished second-in-class. In 2004 he moved over to GM’s Cadillac race team where he would win the 2005 World Challenge GT Series championship. He has driven for numerous teams since, including a bid in NASCAR.

What’s a race driver’s life like?

On the Thursday I spent with Pilgrim at Atlanta Motorsports Park testing the Grand Sport, the race jockey had opened the week in Portland to talk at an auto conference, then flown to Pontiac to school a Corvette driver’s club on the M1 Concourse’s new Championship Motor Speedway.

“Fantastic,” he says. It is just blocks from his first Pontiac apartment.

From Atlanta he flew to Lime Rock, Connecticut, where he would qualify his Porsche for Saturday’s Weathertech race.

That’s a lot of frequent-flier miles.

“I’m getting paid to race cars in my late 50s,” says Pilgrim. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be doing it. It’s been phenomenal.”

When he’s not in airports, at race tracks or overseeing his tech company (“My insurance policy if the racing dries up”), he is passionate about teaching driver safety.

“We’re killing 20,000 more people on our roads than we should be,” laments Pilgrim, who is now a U.S. citizen. “Relative to other industrialized countries, we should be killing about 12,000 people if we were doing things as well as Germany and U.K. But we’re killing 32,000 to 40,000.”

“The driving test is a joke. They might as well hand it out with Kellogg’s Corn Flakes package tops,” he says. “We’ve got to change the culture. It starts with parents and with helping … kids understand what distracted driving is. Legislation isn’t going to fix it. They’re not going to make the driving test as hard as it should be because kids won’t pass the driving test until they’re 20 – and that is unacceptable to voters.”

So he travels the country handing out DVDs and instruction manuals, and giving speeches. “You gotta give back,” says Pilgrim who now resides in Boca Raton, Florida. “My mother taught me that.”

And how did he like the Corvette Grand Sport? “This car will not disappoint,” he grins. No, it won’t. Pilgrim set an unofficial production car track record at Atlanta Motorsports Park at a blistering 1:23.6.


Payne: Corvette Grand Sport grand slam

Posted by hpayne on July 28, 2016

Detroit News auto critic Henry Payne says "the Corvette

Imagine if Superman and Wonder Woman had a love child. The offspring would be beautiful, powerful, regal. Come to think of it, he would probably be Chris Hemsworth. Superkid would knock the Trumps, Kardashians, and Jenners right off the tabloid front pages.

But in lieu of this comic book fantasy, let me introduce you to the very-real spawn of a torrid Corvette Stingray and Z06 fling. His name is the 2017 Corvette Grand Sport.

The young Grand Sport is an impressive supercar to behold. You’ll know it by its birthmarks: twin “hashmark” stripes on either bicep — er, front fender — just aft of the ginormous, 19-inch tires. Actually, this sci-fi child from Planet Bowling Green should come with a cape.

Grand Sport has all the best attributes of its famous parents. From Momma Stingray it gets thrifty sensibility and a growly, normally aspirated, push-rod 460-horsepower V-8. From Papa Z06 comes the wicked athletic prowess: ground-hugging aero package, mega-brakes, wider track and massive, gummy tires. The result is a $65,445 C7 Corvette that won’t break the bank, yet offers the 1.2-G cornering performance that helped the Z06 vanquish six-figure cyborgs like the McLaren 650S at Car & Driver’s epic Lightning Lap face-off.

I am familiar with the Corvette family, having spent weeks with both around Metro Detroit since the Stingray was introduced in 2013. I have driven the Stingray in anger at Illinois’ Autobahn Raceway and the Z06 at full flight around the Mid-Ohio and Spring Mountain tracks.

So I was thrilled to hook up with Junior for a day around Atlanta’s glorious neck-bending 3-D Atlanta Motorsport Park last week. The kid didn’t disappoint.

With the Z06’s wide body, he looks like dad, save the hood blister for the supercharger. Stingray’s popular Z51 package is standard including rear-differential cooler and dry-sump oil system essential for hot laps. And since GS is all about track days, go on and option the Z07 package (what’s $8K?) to get the Herculean, 151/2-inch ceramic brakes so you’ll never have to worry about stopping. Merging on the track out of AMP’s pits and putting the throttle to the mat in third gear, I thought I was going to the moon – only to have the giant Brembos haul me back to earth like I had thrown Titanic’s anchor out the back window.

Under the Grand Sport’s composite skin is Corvette’s familiar, 3,400-pound, aluminum chassis. There’s no ultra-light carbon fiber tub like a McLaren. No magic, rear-steer-active-suspension engineering like the $90,000 Porsche 911. Over AMP’s non-stop roller coaster of blind turns, the ’Vette’s chassis twists and turns like a mechanical bull. Bellowing out of AMP’s high-g ESS turns onto the Nurburgring-inspired pit straight at 130 mph, I feel the beast’s weight moving underneath me.

No matter.

The Z07 downforce package of rear wickers and side-and-front spoilers sucks GS to the asphalt (and makes it look awesome, too). Standard magnetic shocks constantly balance the beast’s four paws. And on those paws are fitted the Z06’s massive 10-inch front and 12-inch rear Michelin Super Cup 2 tires — the rear glutes stretched 3.5-inches to cover their width. They grip. Like. Glue.

The beast roars past the start-finish line rattling every window in the timing tower.

The GS is a tantalizing mix of raw and digital, a wild beast civilized by modern tech. Happily, GM doesn’t let the tech tame the monster, allowing drivers to dance as close to the edge as desired. I dialed the Drive Mode selector to TRACK SPORT 1, which gave me control while never completely turning off the electronic nannies.

There is no substitute for horsepower, and the Grand Sport will never rival the speed of Superdad Z06. But 460 horsepower is plenty for the weekend racer, thank you very much (and doesn’t have the Z06’s, um, annoying heat-soaking issues). Note pro Andy Pilgrim shattering AMP’s production car lap record the day I was there.

The Grand Sport is actually the raciest of Corvette’s three trims; its specs are closest to the normally-aspirated 491-horse, LeMans-legal C7-R race car. That was the intent of the original Grand Sport — raced by Roger Penske, among others — way back in 1963.

But where only five original Grand Sports were made, the 2017 GS will come from a big litter of convertibles and coupes. As with the last-gen C6 Grand Sport, Chevy expects sales to be on par with the Stingray (40 percent Stingray, 40 percent GS, 20 percent Z06).

But the Grand Sport is much more than a track car. Like its bunkmates, it transitions easily to the street.

Outside AMP, I drove an automatic Grand Sport for miles through the rolling hills and small burgs of suburban Atlanta. The Grand Sport comes in a dizzying array of colors and interior choices, but my favorite is the (new for ’17) Watkins Glen Gray Metallic paint, accented with red Grand Sport hashmarks. It’s subtle – unlike, say, the Admiral Blue Metallic with white hood stripes and red hashmarks that will set off every police radar detector within 50 miles. Save the “wow” factor for the black and lipstick-red leather-trimmed interior.

The automatic solves one of my two gripes about the Corvette: the mushy manual transmission. With its quick, barking upshifts, the eight-speed auto is both fun and quicker to drive. The manual seven-speed, by contrast, has one too many gates and is prone to mis-shifts.

My other gripe is the oily interior smell. You’ll get used to it.

Your speed-addled scribe kept the TRACK mode setting on the street; I like the heavier steering and wake-the-dead exhaust yowl. But the Corvette always aims to please and you can dive into the console settings and adjust ENGINE SOUND MANAGEMENT to anything you want — including STEALTH mode for gliding around town like you were in a 460-horsepower Prius.

Those console settings are part of Chevy’s MyLink touchscreen that includes passenger-friendly features like Apple Car Play and Android Auto so that your smartphone can take over the screen. Creature comforts abound, making it the most passenger-friendly sports car on the market. Riding shotgun means getting your own cocoon — plenty of legroom, a cubby behind the headrest that will fit a small camera bag or purse, and separate climate controls at your right knee.

There are also two enormous “Oh, crap!” handles for when your driver asks if you’d like to take a hot lap around the local race track. Like Lois Lane rocketing into the clouds on Superman’s back, you’ll want to hold on tight.

2017 Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport


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

Price: $66,445 coupe, $70,445 for convertible

Power plant: 6.2-liter, aluminum V-8 with direct injection and dry sump

Power: 460 horsepower, 460 pound-feet torque

Transmission: Seven-speed manual or eight-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 3.6 seconds (manufacturer); top speed: 175 mph

Weight: 3,428 lbs. (coupe as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 17 mpg city/29 mpg highway/21 mpg combined (manual); EPA 16 mpg city/29 mpg highway/20 mpg combined (automatic)

Report card

Highs: Glue-like stick; awesome power

Lows: Mushy manual box; oily interior smell


Corvette: A V-8 powered Phoenix rises

Posted by hpayne on July 24, 2016


Dawsonville, Georgia

The much-anticipated 2017 Corvette Grand Sport debuted to the media at Atlanta Motorsports Park here this week with a bang, challenging the production car track record in the hands of pro racer Andy Pilgrim.

Forecast to be the marque’s best-selling trim (Stingray and Z06 are the others), the Grand Sport started production this month at a time when Corvette’s Bowling Green factory is already straining to meet near-record demand at over 35,000 units for the 2016 model year. So rich are Corvette’s coffers that its profits are being plowed back into major production and heritage museum upgrades. And if that wasn’t enough, the C7-R race car is leading its IMSA Championship sports-car class from a formidable field of Ford GTs, Ferraris, and Porsches.

Not bad for a car that was on the chopping block just eight years ago.

“As we were headed toward bankruptcy, an all-new Corvette program would have been difficult to justify,” says Corvette Chief Engineer Tadge Juechter, sitting trackside in Atlanta as he recalled the dark days of 2008. “We were just going to keep building the old car.”

At the time, the sixth-generation C6 Corvette was already long in the tooth — a five-year program being stretched into a ninth model year. So Juechter and his team prepared to put off the C7 for years more as the U.S. government reorganized General Motors. After billions in U.S. bailout dollars and a complete revamping of the General’s brands, the seventh-gen C7 was given a green light.

From the ashes of old GM rose a new Corvette in 2013 — a V-8-powered Phoenix unlike any ’Vette that had come before.

Gone were the iconic round taillights. Gone were the sexy, smooth lines. In its place was still a front-engine, push-rod powered sports car — but one that looked more European: cut, Lamborghini-like edges, sharp headlights like shards of broken glass, and … horrors! Rectangular taillights.

“I got hate mail,” Juechter says. “But our demographics were getting older each year. We had to figure out (how) to get more young people into the car. That made us consciously walk away from the traditional bill of design.”

The risk paid off.

The C7 was hailed for its sci-fi looks and staggering performance, due in part to its co-development with GM’s New Hudson-based race partner Pratt & Miller. The ultra-high performance Z06 — powered by a gravity-bending, 650-horsepower, supercharged V-8 — outperforms McLaren and Lamborghinis costing twice as much. Stingray and Z06 have sold as fast as they can be built.

“It is working,” says Juechter, a soft-spoken, youthful 58-year-old. “In the first year, 30 percent of our customers — 30 percent — had never bought a Corvette before. And that’s in spite of our traditional customers who were lining up at the dealership to be the first (buyers). Ten years younger, much more educated, more ethnic, more urban, more coastal — all the things we want Corvette to appeal to.”

Now comes the $66,445 Grand Sport. You’ll know it by the twin stripes over each front fender. Featuring the Z06’s ground-sucking performance package and powered by the Stingray’s normally aspirated, 460-horse 8-holer, Juechter says it occupies “the sweet spot” between the Stingray ($56,445) and Z06 ($80,445).

“It’s incredible,” says Pilgrim who, as a Porsche pilot in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, knows a thing or two about iconic sports cars. “And (the Grand Sport) is as comfortable on the road as it is fast on the track.”

Corvette anticipates the Grand Sport will make up 40 percent of Corvette sales. That’s quite a change from a specialty badge that only graced five race cars when it debuted in 1963.

More importantly, Grand Sport and Corvette are now solid, profitable contributors to a GM product juggernaut that grew by a full point of market share in the first quarter of this year. GM product development chief Mark Reuss has said Corvette “makes as much money as any of the top-profit models in our company.” Motley Fool financial services estimates GM pockets more than $10,000 for each Corvette sold.

“Corvette is now a bread-and-butter part of the lineup,” says Juechter. “We don’t do it for intangibles — like driving showroom traffic, halo effect, or technology development. It is all about the business case.”

That bread and butter is now being fed back into the National Corvette Museum and production facility. The museum’s $20 million, 80-acre upgrade was completed in 2014 and has a test track to enhance the new buyer’s experience.

And the future that was once so uncertain? GM has committed $729 million to upgrading Corvette’s production plant — $439 million of that a paint shop nearly the size of the entire assembly facility.

“It’s a big commitment,” says Juechter. “It demonstrates that we will be in the Corvette business for the foreseeable future.”

More Grand Sport track records won’t be far behind.

Payne: Jaguar’s cat-like XE sedan

Posted by hpayne on July 22, 2016

At 12,000 feet over the Continental Divide – the “top

At 12,000 feet over the Continental Divide — the “top of the Rockies” — a gas-powered engine loses 30 percent of its horsepower in the thinning air. That still leaves my supercharged, 340-horsepower Jaguar XE 238 ponies to play with. I spur the roaring beast from turn to turn down the mountain’s face, the sedan’s torque-vectoring all-wheel drive distributing power to all four paws.

Ahhh, it’s good to have the big cat back in the wild.

When I came to Detroit 15 years ago, Jaguar seemed caged in the Ford zoo. The Detroit automaker had saved the storied English brand from certain extinction in 1990, but it seemed out of place among its mainstream brethren – fed the same diet, built on the same skeleton, sharing the same engines. It was a domesticated cat, reduced to chauffeuring Ford executives around as Ford’s pet luxury brand.

Jaguar’s last effort in the entry-luxe market was the 2001 X-Type. Based on the Ford Mondeo, it was ridiculed by Jaguar designer Ian Callum as “designed in Detroit and presented as close as a fait accompli to reluctant (Jaguar) designers and engineers.

The X-Type went over like Barack Obama at a coal miner’s convention. It limped out of the segment after less than a decade. Eight years, a new owner and an aluminum chassis later, Jaguar is back on a Rocky Mountain high. And, no, I don’t mean it runs on Colorado-legal hemp. But you can get one with a 2-liter turbocharged diesel.

Because a tank of petrol in Europe costs about the same as a monthly car payment here, Europeans have long preferred sippier diesels. With diesels running daily drivers — not just dump trucks — customers demanded they clean up their black soot act and muzzle the annoying wocka-wocka piston thrum. The result? Direct-injection turbo-diesels like that offered in the XE that are quieter than the school library and drink less than a camel across the Sahara. On Jaguar’s Rockies program I caned an XE diesel that returned a remarkable 31.9 miles per gallon.

So do I prefer the diesel to the 340-horsepower supercharged gasoline V-6? Are you high?

It’s not that the 180-horsepower diesel — the first of Jaguar’s much-ballyhooed Ingenium family — was reduced to just 126 horsepower at altitude. Or that four turbocharged cylinders aren’t enough to get the job done (a capable, base turbo-4, left over from the Mondeo days, is also an option). No, it’s that you can’t full appreciate this extraordinary animal’s athleticism unless mated to the car’s most capable engine.

Reborn under Tata, Jaguar has returned to its roots — which is to say, raw performance. The company announced this rebirth with the F-Type sports car. You couldn’t have missed it. When I started up its 495-horsepower V-8 in Detroit last year, it broke every window within a 10-mile radius.

The Porsche-fighting F-Type was a statement that the brand was polishing the heritage built by its LeMans-winning 1950s D-Types and the legendary, howling, hood-out-to-there E-Type (which is stilling taking no prisoners on today’s vintage racing circuit). Sure, Jaguars still wear a three-piece suit, but you’ll see their biceps bulging underneath.

Like the F-Type, XE was born with an all-aluminum chassis and double-wishbone front suspension. Over undulating Rocky Mountain switchbacks, ess-turns, and straightaways, the compact sedan was stitched to the road. It’s the most intuitive compact sedan I have flogged in the segment since the Cadillac ATS. Like the Caddy, the XE sports an all-new lightweight rear-wheel-drive-biased skeleton.

One other nice feature it shares with the ATS: It’s priced at $3,000-$5,000 under comparably equipped BMW 3s and Audi A4s. It offers the royal bloodline without the premium price.

With the V-6’s torquey supercharger on call, I blew past lines of traffic on the breathtaking mountain roads, the eight-speed shifter as smooth as silk. Hard on the binders, the all-wheel drive chassis rotated effortlessly into turns. I could feel little difference between a rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive cat (whereas the front-wheel-biased Audi is much more balanced with all-wheel drive), but I would surely option the all-wheel system if I lived in these mountains or our frozen Detroit tundra.

Jaguar’s renaissance has been helped by Tesla, which slavishly aped designer Callum’s mid-size XF sedan lines for its hot-selling Model S. So iconic is Jaguar that it has luxury groupies.

From its signature nose and predator’s eyes (menacing at night with J-stick LED signature), the hood sweeps backward to a coupe-like cabin pulled over rear wheel arches like — well, a Jaguar ready to spring.

Surprisingly, the interior is a mixed bag. The dashboard is bordered by a sweeping, half-moon arc running from A-pillar to A-pillar, yet the console is undistinguished but for the rotary gear shifter that rises to your hand at ignition.

Happily, Jaguar’s long-lamented infotainment system is in the rear-view mirror. With a 10-inch screen and Intel chip, the new, responsive InControl Touch Pro system is available in Prestige and R-Sport trims. Thanks to touch screen and rotary shifter, the center console is pleasantly uncluttered compared to its German peers.

Athleticism seems to require a cramped back seat as XE suffers from the same small quarters as the ATS. Six-footers will be tapping you on the shoulder to move up the front seat lest their legs and bowed necks convulse in cramps on long drives.

Drivers, on the other hand, will be looking to take the long way as the nimble cat begs to be exercised. A run through the car’s electronic features reveals an unusual, “speed limiter” button, a product of Europe’s Big Brother cameras that sniff out speeders. The complement to Adaptive cruise control will cleverly keep you under the speed limit when you blow into a small Michigan (or Ohio or Colorado) town after a 100-mph, supercharged sprint.

The XE is that much fun. And when you buy it off a Metro Detroit dealer’s lot, you’ll be at 650 feet above sea level. Which means you’ll have all 340 horses at your service.

2017 Jaguar XE


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

Price: $35,895 base ($38,495 XE Premium and $61,385 XE R-Sport as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter turbocharged, inline 4-cylinder; 2.0-liter turbo-diesel inline 4-cylinder; 3.0-liter supercharged V-6

Power: 240 horsepower, 251 pound-feet torque (gas 4-cyl); 180 horsepower, 318 pound-feet torque (turbo-diesel 4-cyl); 340 horsepower, 332 pound-feet torque (V-6)

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.1 seconds (V-6 AWD R-Sport as tested, manufacturer); top speed: 120 mph (governed)

Weight: 3,320 base (3,795 pounds, V-6 AWD R-Sport as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 21 mpg city/30 mpg highway/24 mpg combined (gas-turbo 4-cyl); TBA (turbo-diesel 4-cyl); EPA 20 mpg city/29 mpg highway/23 mpg combined (V-6 AWD R-Sport as tested)

Report card

Highs: Cat-like handling; premium looks, affordable price

Lows: Uninspired interior; small back seat


Mod-shops push for protection from EPA

Posted by hpayne on July 20, 2016

Environmental Protection Agency regulations remaking the U.S. economy to fight global warming have taken a lickin’, but keep on tickin’. Despite automakers’ concerns that consumers aren’t buying battery-powered cars, the EPA will require that vehicles average over 50 mpg by 2025. And lawsuits by 24 states (including Michigan) backed by the coal industry have not deterred rules that have contributed to dozens of mining company bankruptcies.

One industry, however, has turned back the tide.

The $30 billion auto modification business this spring successfully forced EPA to withdraw language that would have banned the conversion of production cars to race cars, potentially putting jobs in jeopardy. Now these companies are on the cusp of engraving that success in law.

Members of the Specialty Equipment Market Association were in Michigan last week rallying support for the Recognizing the Protection of Motorsports (so-called RPM) Act which would “exclude vehicles used solely for competition from certain provisions of the Clean Air Act.”

Their efforts bore fruit Tuesday when Democratic Sen. Gary Peters pledged his support, joining six Republican House members from Michigan.

“This bill will provide certainty to the motorsport and racing industries on the EPA’s regulatory role regarding motor vehicles that are used exclusively for racing,” said the outspoken green senator who counts auto parts suppliers among his state constituents.

The bipartisan legislation, first reported by The Detroit News, has 125 co-sponsors in the U.S. House and 23 in the Senate. Since the 1970 Clean Air Act, the competition exemption was widely understood until the EPA inserted obscure new language that said “certified motor vehicles and motor vehicle engines and their emission control devices must remain in their certified configuration even if they are used solely for competition.”

When SEMA discovered the change, a grassroots firestorm ensued.

The trade group confronted EPA regulators in a meeting. “We asked: ‘Is this what you really meant to do, because the world of motorsports is going to come unglued,’” recalls SEMA President Chris Kersting. An online petition gained 168,000 signatures.

“If that regulation had gone through, you would not have been able to convert a street vehicle for use in racing,” explains Kersting. “This was a real left-hand turn.”

The EPA said the Clean Air Act had always given it the authority to regulate racing. Not until House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman and Michigan Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, sent a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy did the agency reconsider.

“Although they withdrew the regulation, they continue to hold the position that their interpretation of the law is that converting cars for race use is illegal,” says Kersting. “Until that cloud of illegality is eliminated, everybody involved is operating with some trepidation.”

An EPA spokesperson said it doesn’t comment on pending legislation.

David Ziozios, CEO of Motovicity Distribution in Madison Heights, is a parts wholesaler representing 180 brands.

“This would be a complete job killer,” says Ziozios, who traveled to Washington to meet with Michigan’s delegation on the subject.

Ziozios says that if the EPA reinstated its language, “it would be completely detrimental to entire racing circuits in Michigan from GingerMan Raceway toWaterford Hills to Milan Dragway where most of the cars are converted production vehicles with VIN numbers.”

Payne: Clarion NSX, a classic remixed

Posted by hpayne on July 15, 2016


Want to melt your ear drums? Rolling onto I-696’s Orchard Lake on-ramp, I put the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” on full volume. Then I unleash the supercharged Acura NSX’s 340 supercharged horses. With Jagger screaming and the twin pipes roaring, I enter the freeway with the throttle wide open at 8000 RPM.

Eat your heart out Beyonce. The 1991 “Clarion Builds” Acura NSX is the hottest musical act in Detroit this summer.

By updating vintage cars with cutting-edge audio systems, Clarion Audio’s Clarion Builds is giving classics new life. Leaders in automotive audio systems for 82 years, Clarion launched its annual Builds program last year with a 1972 BMW 2002 that fetched $125,000 at Barrett-Jackson Auctions. “Builds Part Two: The NSX” is now on national tour — its ultimate concert date set for Barrett-Jackson sometime later this year.

The NSX stop in Detroit in June was also a timely opportunity to sample the classic NSX just as Acura’s own sequel — the 2017 Acura NSX — is hitting dealer lots. I say sequel loosely, because the two generations of NSX share a badge and almost nothing else. The 2001 BMW M3 and 2016 BMW M2 I reviewed recently may be 15 years apart, but their shared DNA is instantly familiar: inline-6 engines, taut 3,500-pound chassis, aggressive kidney grilles.

The two NSX are supercars for different times.

The first generation, born in 1989 in Japan, was the first aluminum supercar made — and for much less than luxurious brands like Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche. Jump forward a quarter century and NSX II once again does supercar on the cheap — but this time it’s Made in America (Marysville, Ohio) in the e-Age with a hybrid powertrain.

True to its Clarion Builds mission, the “Caelum Blu” ’91 NSX — rebuilt from the ground up by Autowave in California — is significantly updated. Lower, wider, with 18-inch-front/19-rear wheels and front spoiler and rear wing off the track-tuned, 1992 NSX-R, it looks hungrier, more modern even with its oh-so-20th century pop-up headlamps.

Inside, I sit in a cocoon of luxury, cradled by leather seats and surrounded by Clarion’s five-speaker, all-digital audio system. Coming soon to a galaxy near you.

But turn the key and roll out of Clarion’s Farmington Hills garage, and I’m transformed back to the early ’90s when Macaulay Culkin was adorable, Joe Montana dominated the NFL, and the Clintons were sleazing American politics. Well, some things never change.

This car feels more like my ol’ 1979 BMW M1 supercar than the 21st century NSX cyborg. No head room. No power steering, No squared-off steering wheel. Clarion head unit aside, the NSX’s console is pedestrian compared to the ’17 car’s sci-fi layout. No sport-mode dial. No Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Only a slanted, multi-media display that is blinded by sunlight.

Clarion yanked the tired, 230,000-mile (!), 207-horse 3.0-liter V6 and stuffed in the 3.2-liter V6 found in 2004 NSX models. Add supercharger and output is now a beefy 344-horsepower. But the engine’s character is still that of the high-revving, normal aspirated engine of old. Row the classic NSX’s tight manual box (kids, ask grandpa to explain a manual shifter to you), and the car accelerates to a glorious 8-grand crescendo.

Floor the new NSX and instant torque flattens your face. Zero-to-60 for the oldster: 4.8 seconds. For the new, second-gen hybrid NSX? Three-point-oh.

The new, “jewel-eyed” car is better in every measure, including its road-hugging, torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system. How spoiled I felt in the new NSX with its grip-fitted, electronic steering compared to the old car’s heavy, hydraulic steering. NSX II’s style is cleaner and more sculpted, though the new car does pay homage to its forebear with horizontal rear lights and a view into the mid-mounted engine.

The ’91 car is more cab-forward in its design — illustrative of an era of cab-forward Chrysler LH cars and Formula One racers of the day — yet with Clarion’s subtle visual tweaks (and barking exhaust courtesy of AEM Induction Systems) it turned heads wherever I went in Metro Detroit.

I parked next to a new, Porsche Panamera GTS in Bloomfield Hills. German sports sedan meets Japanese sports coupe. A nice pair in the garage.

A new, hybrid 2017 NSX doesn’t come cheap. It may be well south of the $900,000 you’ll shell out for a hybrid Porsche 918, but — at $160,000 base — it is a $60,000 dearer than the (inflation-adjusted) cost of a ’91 NSX today. Of course, the Clarion Builds version should go for well north of that at Barrett-Jackson.

But isn’t digital Jagger at 8,000 rpm worth the premium?

1991 Clarion Builds Acura NSX


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

Price: TBD at auction

Power plant: 3.2-liter supercharged V-6

Power: 344 horsepower, 247 pound-feet torque

Transmission: Six-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.8 seconds (Clarion)

Weight: 3,200 pounds

Fuel economy: NA

Report card

Highs: Wicked, updated styling; one-of-a-kind

Lows: Sure you don’t want the new, superquick 2017 NSX?


Payne: Porsche Macan’s sport(ier) utility

Posted by hpayne on July 15, 2016

The Macan is Porsche's best-selling vehicle, benefiting

Fifty years after racing success made Shelby and Porsche household names, the performance icons still produce some of the world’s most recognizable sports coupes. This year the snake’s blue stripes tattoo the hood of the snarling Mustang GT350. Porsche’s crest punctuates the latest, road-carving 911.

But Porsche has extended its good name far beyond sports cars. Which is why, at the Shelby National Convention at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course this June, I found myself chasing a parade of GT350s in a Porsche SUV.

Wait. What?

With its introduction of sport utes (the Macan, Cayenne) and four-door coupes (the Panamera), Porsche is now richer than God. Analysts estimate the profit margins on Macans alone at a gazillion dollars (I’m rounding here). When Stuttgart introduced the Cayenne in 2002, purists denounced the move as heresy. My Porsche friends threw holy water on the demon beasts. Clothing was rent. Then they saw the bottom line.

Over a decade on, all is forgiven. The utes have tripled Porsche sales. They are cash registers on wheels. More important to the faithful, the profits are plowed back into Porsche’s racing program which continues to polish the famous crest. This year a Porsche (the 919 hybrid) crossed the line at the 24 Hours of LeMans for a record 18th time.

Why didn’t I think of that?!! cries every manufacturer. What if Ford had made a Shelby Mustang SUV? Or if GM had greenlighted a Corvette Crossover? Sounds weird? So did “Porsche SUV” not long ago. Now everyone’s doing it: Jaguar F-Pace, Lamborghini Urus, Maserati Levante. C’mon Ferrari, what are you waiting for?

At Mid-Ohio the steward signals the track is open for track touring. I slide into the Macan S and turn the key left of the steering wheel (just like the race cars!).VRRROOOM! growl the four pipes out back, each as big around as a drain pipe. The signature console sleeve of buttons offers multiple performance options. I tick each one off like a jet pilot before takeoff.


SHOCKS. Stiffened.

BODY. Lowered.


I floor the S’s 340-horse V-6, its turbo boost nailing me to the seat as I chase a Shelby out of the paddock. Up the front straight, into the famous, 180-degree Keyhole turn, and … WHOAAA, BESSY!

The 4,112-pound boat wallows through the turn, my arms working the steering like a skipper in a tempest — it felt so sports-car firm just a moment ago! — to get over to the corner apex which seems to be floating ever further from my grasp. With throttle I eventually bring the stern around and get the vessel straightened out for the long, back straight where the pipes can sing again.

Alas, not even the engineering wizards at Porsche can transform the physics of the SUV.

Flog a 911, Cayman or Boxster and you know instantly it’s a Porsche. Razor-sharp handling. Stiff chassis. Flat-six exhaust note. Sure, my all-wheel-drive twin-turbo Macan might eat for lunch the classic 306-horsepower, solid-rear-axle ’65 GT350 in front of me over the course of a lap. But it wouldn’t be pretty.

Such is the nature of hatchbacks that are jacked a foot into the air. And no amount of tuned-shock, double-wishbone suspension German engineering can change it. Probably not even a 6-cylinder boxer engine would help — that’s the famous engine architecture that brought a low center of gravity to Porsche sports cars, yet is curiously missing in the Porsche SUVs most in need of it.

Why no boxer? Maybe because the SUV-four-door coupe customer ain’t a sports car customer. But SUVs are where the money is made.

At a Bloomfield parking lot outside Trader Joe’s, a fashionable couple emerges from their Panamera — a sort of stretch 911 limousine. I ask the driver if it has the V-6 or V-8 under the hood. “You know, I don’t know — and I don’t know what’s in my wife’s Panamera, either,” he says. Blasphemy! Any sports car owner would know what was under the hood, but the larger luxe demographic doesn’t care. Heck, they won’t bat an eye that Macan shares a platform with Audi’s Q5, either.

It’s good enough that the Macan is the best-handling SUV.

The Jag, Maserati and Lambo will have something to say about that, of course. Indeed, the double-wishbone F-Pace I recently rowed over the Rockies is one nice-handling stagecoach. We’ll await the full-spec track comparo from our pals at Car & Driver to know for sure, but the Macan’s smaller size and multitude of buttons likely make it King of the Hill. But in truth it’s still a handling-challenged SUV.

Which brings me back to the VW Golf GTI which, as you’ve heard me say a thousand times, is the best hatch on the planet.

Better yet, give me the GTI’s steroid-fed twin, the Golf R-AWD like the Macan. Similar cargo room. 292-horsepower pushing 800 fewer pounds. Zero-60 in 4.5 seconds vs. Macan S’s 5.2. More intuitive console controls. Cheaper by $30,000. And with a much lower center of gravity, it will run rings around the Macan S in the twisties.

Just sayin’.

But of course the badge matters. You want a Porsche in the garage next to your classic ’65 Shelby.

The Macan’s truer competitor is obviously the Q5. And here I have some quibbles. The next-gen Q5 (like the three-row Q7 I reviewed this April) will come equipped with the sensational Virtual Cockpit — the Nvidia-chip driven, sci-fi instrument display that is today’s gotta-have-it dash tech. Porsche’s three-ring instrument display and buttons may be iconic, but its slow, hopelessly complicated console pales next to the Audi. Vhat, Brother Porsche, you don’t have ze Nvidia chip? Ha! Oktoberfest around the VW family table must be chilly.

Macan makes up for its interior shortcoming with a well-apportioned exterior. Big Brother Cayenne has always looked awkward to me — a fat 911 on stilts. The smaller Macan makes more visual sense — especially in back where broad hips give it an aggressive stance. And since Cayenne doesn’t offer three rows (like Audi’s Q7), the Macan is a more sensible budget choice.

For $10,000 less, the Macan S offers two more seats than a convertible Boxster S sports car, a full-length moonroof to give it an open feel, and similar horsepower. Just don’t compare it to the Boxster through Mid-Ohio’s Keyhole. You’ll start to question this whole Porsche SUV thing.

2016 Porsche



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

Price: $48,550 base ($73,320 Macan S as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter turbocharged, inline 4-cylinder; 3.6-liter twin-turbocharged V-6 (Macan S and GTS); 3.6-liter twin-turbocharged V-6 (Macan Turbo)

Power: 252 horsepower, 273 pound-feet torque (4-cyl); 340-380 horsepower, 339-369 pound-feet torque (twin-turbo V6, Macan S and GTS); 400 horsepower, 408 pound-feet torque (twin-turbo V-6, Macan Turbo)

Transmission: Seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic PDK

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.2 seconds (Macan S as tested, manufacturer); top speed: 156 mph

Weight: 4,112 pounds (Macan S as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 17 mpg city/23 mpg highway/19 mpg combined (Macan S as tested)

Report card

Highs: Porsche style; smooth, dual-clutch tranny

Lows: Looks like a Porsche, handles like an SUV; boxer engine, please?


Payne: Full throttle on M1’s new track

Posted by hpayne on July 10, 2016


Pontiac– I explode out of Turn 7 at M1 Concourse‘s new Champion Motor Speedway and crest the blind Turn 8, feeding the hungry Dodge Viper ACR’s V-10 more gas. With 2,000 pounds of downforce from its huge rear wing and the front dive-planes pressing down on its chassis, the Viper barely notices the rise in the track as the engine howls past 6,000 rpm in second gear.

Who says racing on Woodward isn’t legal?

Welcome to a lap around Detroit’s newest racetrack, a stone’s throw from Woodward. Champion Motor Speedway is the latest addition to M1’s sprawling 87-acre car-enthusiasts’ amusement park. At 11/2 miles long with a 1/3-mile back straight and a variety of corners it’s not only a hoot but a rarity: A car track located smack in the middle of a major metropolitan area.

The Detroit News got exclusive first access to the 10-turn track to shoot video, pull Gs and flog the stuffing out of a Viper and Hellcat – two of M1’s six Dodge

performance cars to be used for racing schools and as pace cars. Car clubs have blossomed around the United States in recent years, and I have raced most them from the legendary uphill esses of Virginia International Raceway to the flat sweepers of Autobahn, Illinois, to the serpentine switchbacks of Thermal Raceway in Palm Springs.

But no track is quite like Champion.

Racetracks are usually social outcasts fraught with noise issues and banished to far-flung rural areas. Even legendary Lime Rock Park in rural Connecticut is saddled with noise restrictions and a ban on Sunday racing. Yet, here is M1 beating in the heart of Pontiac. What’s next, a military firing range? But locals, says founder and CEO Brad Oleshansky, have been welcoming.

“We have neighbors come by and go: ‘Wow, it’s noisy! It’s awesome! It’s been dead for all these years!’” he says, laughing.

It’s a sign Pontiac is coming back to life. Combined with 250 car condos, retail shops and restaurants, M1’s track not only promises great racing but revitalization of a lost city. Beginning this August, M1 – along with sponsor Dodge – will define the Dream Cruise’s northern boundary like Ferndale and Mustang Alley define the south end.

Not bad for a development that originally didn’t include a racetrack.

A motorhead who grew up cruising Woodward in a ’55 Chevy and a Toyota Supra, Oleshansky envisioned the property as a man-cave haven for Woodward cruisers. San Jose has one. Minneapolis, too. But as the entrepreneur talked to Detroit car companies about corporate opportunities, they kept asking about a track: For testing, training, marketing. For convenience. No schlepping to GingerMan in South Haven or Grattan in Grand Rapids to test. And the facilities would be state-of-the-art compared to the more rustic Waterford Hills Raceway in Clarkston.

Suddenly, M1’s value multiplied beyond collectors to speed-addled track rats like me. Oleshansky hired Martyn Thake, an experienced designer of urban track venues like Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Mexican Grand Prix. The M1 track was born.

As a good neighbor, however, Oleshansky laid down some rules. Pontiac has not put decibel restrictions on Champion, and he wants to keep it that way. Cars must be equipped with street-legal exhausts.

“We’re self-managing here. We only allow street-legal vehicles,” Oleshansky says. “And we have the benefit of a few things. We’re not doing racing here. There’s a train that goes by that’s crazy loud every hour. There was a factory here for 100 years that was way louder.”

Thirty-feet wide with 10 turns, Champion is the perfect place to exercise a fast toy like the Viper ACR. I thought testing Dodge’s track weapon at M1 would be like a hurricane in a living room – not enough space.

But Lime Rock and Waterford also are 11/2-mile tracks. Sure, Champion’s tight Turn 1-2 complex and Turn 6 hairpin are slower than anything you’ll find at those courses, but the asphalt in between really let me stretch the snake’s legs (an oxymoron, I know). I stomped the throttle out of Turn 6 and I hit 110 mph before the end of the back straight (track test director and ex-Indy Lights racer Aaron Bambach has seen 125 mph). Then it really gets fun with the roller-coaster 7-8 complex followed by a 90-degree left-hander.

The Viper’s huge 15.4-inch brake rotors hauled the beast back to earth, pulling my eyeballs from their sockets. Long radius, neck-straining Turns 10a and 10b follow, where I explored the Dodge’s 1.5-plus lateral g-capabilities.

For more technical car testing, M1 offers a full skid pad – a huge patch of asphalt also suitable for events (like Ribfest last weekend), autocrossing or doing tire-smoking donuts (lookin’ at you, Hellcat).

The M1 track has only been open a couple weeks. It still needs proper corner apex and exit curbing, and grass to grow up to its edge. With the dry conditions this summer, Champion was dirty with dust, limiting grip. I still laid down a track lap record of 1.19 seconds in the ACR – the standard only because Bambach, who finished third in this year’s Belle Isle Super Truck race, hasn’t bothered to record his times. Your move, Aaron.

M1’s modern track facilities are a local jewel. M1 will offer its condo members six to seven hours of track time a week. The public will be welcome, too. Bambach says Open Track Sundays – twice a month – already are planned.

Ask for a ride in the snake.

Payne: Tesla’s Autopilot not really an autopilot

Posted by hpayne on July 8, 2016


This spring I road-tested a Tesla Model S P90D in Autopilot mode. The first thing to understand about Autopilot is that it’s not one.

Unlike airliner autopilot systems that allow pilots to set a course so they can work on other tasks, Tesla explicitly warns customers at its stores that its Autopilot is for “driver assistance only.” Drivers must pay attention.

After all, at 30,000 feet there are no semis. No trees. No stoplights. On solid ground, Tesla Autopilot demands the pilot be engaged.

In my half-hour drive on Telegraph and the streets of Oakland County, my hands were never far from the steering wheel. Were they not, I tempted any number of risks — from veering off the road to running through red lights.

Sadly, since Autopilot was introduced last fall, some drivers haven’t taken these warnings to heart. In the past week, we’ve learned of a fatality alleged to be related to a Tesla Model S on Autopilot in Florida and a major accident involving a Tesla Model X on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Blame the drivers, sure, but the automotive press needs to be more cautious about over-hyping the potential of self-driving cars. Truly self-driving cars are years away and may never be truly autonomous. And the startup company, too, has over-hyped what is clearly a test-phase program in order to get a leg up in the dog-eat-dog luxury segment.

Take the misleading name Autopilot. A quick primer on how it works: Though Autopilot is the most advanced driver-assist feature on the road today, its technology is familiar in the digital revolution that has transformed autos in the last five years. Most luxury cars — BMW, Audi, Mercedes — employ similar systems using cameras and radar. Even many nonluxury vehicles now option adaptive cruise-control and lane-assist.

Adaptive cruise-control uses a radar in the front grille to maintain a distance from the car in front while the car is at a set speed. Add a camera above the front mirror and a car will also monitor lane markings to maintain its lane.

With Tesla’s version 7.0 software update, its Model S and X puts these driver-assist capabilities on steroids. In addition to radar and front and rear cameras, 12 ultrasonic sensors wrap the car in a 360-degree digital cocoon monitoring vehicles in front, beside and behind. The software also enables self-parking and the ability to remotely extract a car from a parking space.

But my Model S tester was no Google car. The marshmallow-shaped autobot I drove — more accurately, rode in — at Google headquarters last year was truly autonomous. It doesn’t even have a steering wheel. In addition to radar and camera sensors, the Google car is equipped with LiDAR on its roof that constantly scans its surroundings.

Tesla’s system is less ambitious. Think of it as a safety monitor — or just a cool toy.

For example, Tesla programs its hardware to preform neat tricks like auto-lane changing. On Telegraph, I pulled the left-turn signal — but the Tesla did not immediately react. The ultrasonic sensors sensed a car next to me. Once that car glided past, my Model S switched lanes without me touching the wheel. Neat, but don’t get too comfortable.

In fact, I was aware I shouldn’t be relying on Autopilot much at all. “Tesla requires drivers to remain engaged and aware when Autosteer is enabled. Drivers must keep their hands on the steering wheel,” warns Tesla’s online manual. The reason became immediately clear as I approached a stoplight. The camera couldn’t see it. I put my hands back on the steering wheel and braked to a stop. No wonder my Tesla contact advised that “we only recommend using Autopilot on the highway” — there are no stoplights on the open road.

Engaging Autopilot again — a simple tug on the cruise-control stalk — I pulled away from the traffic signal and was back up to speed. Then Telegraph’s right-lane marker suddenly disappeared at a neighborhood entrance. “BING!” The Model S’s chime told me the system was confused — and a message in the digital instrument display warned “hold steering wheel.”

You get the idea. At no time was I tempted to text on my phone, much less watch a video or take a nap. Autopilot it is not. But clearly some in Tesla’s army of fanatical customers are willing to act as beta testers. Beta-testing is alien to Detroit’s lawyered-up auto industry, but in the Silicon Valley computer culture out of which Tesla was born, it’s second nature.

“We still think of it as a public beta, so we want people to be quite careful,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk said when unveiling Autopilot last October.

But the consequences of beta-testing automobile software are much greater than, say, the latest version of “World of Warcraft.”

“Slow-moving gridlocked traffic on Autopilot works super well,” Musk enthused last fall, “almost to the point where you can take your hands off. I won’t say you should. Some people may — we don’t advise that.”

But with a name like Autopilot, I can see where folks might be tempted.

Payne: Qaptain Quirk? Clubman vs.Veloster vs. Juke

Posted by hpayne on July 6, 2016

Detroit News auto critic Henry Payne reviews three

Combine "velocity" and "roadster" and you get "Veloster,"

The Nissan Juke revels in its oddness, which is why

You want different? We got different.

There’s plenty of variety for car shoppers with deep pockets: supercar hybrids, Tesla gullwings, BMW i8s. But what for those on a budget? The compact car aisle offers entry-level buyers a wealth of affordable appliances bristling with technology. But in a volume segment designed to onerous safety and fuel-economy regulations, the row-upon-row of soap bar-shaped lookalikes can be numbingly familiar: Toyota Corollas, Chevy Cruzes, Honda HR-Vs, Ford Focuses. Competent yes, but with all the personality of oatmeal.

For those who like Chunky Monkey Chocolate Chip Fudge Ripple, peanut butter on their bananas, and plaid shirts and checkered pants, welcome to the Quirky Qar Qlub.

These cures for the common car must meet my four criteria: (1) They look like nothing else. (2) Sport at least one odd birthmark. (3) Are priced under $30,000. (4): Beg to be driven. My three favorites: the 2016 Mini Cooper Clubman, Hyundai Veloster and Nissan Juke.

Mini Cooper Clubman

Mini? Maxi is more like it.

Clubman — a proper five-door compared to the awkward three-door version introduced in 2007 — is supersized for the small-crossover segment. And it’s a suitably quirky entry in a segment that prizes quirk. Even as more mainstream, small SUV designs like the Chevy Trax and Honda HR-V have invaded the market, quirk-mobiles like the Juke, Kia Soul and Jeep Renegade make for a spicy mix of characters right out of a “Star Wars” bar scene.

Exterior proportions work, though everything is so … obese. Honey, I blew up the Mini! Headlights are as big as your head and door-mounted mirrors look like they weigh 100 pounds. I didn’t measure it, but I bet Clubman’s mouth could swallow the original 1960 Mini in one bite.

Familiar Mini DNA continues inside with signature “hook” switchgear everywhere, dinner plate-sized center infotainment console, and round door handles. Though a wholly owned subsidiary of BMW, Mini’s plaid coin cubby still reminds of its British heritage even as it (argh!) adopts its German parent’s rotary-console control knob.

Quirky birthmark? Check out Clubman’s unique rear “Dutch doors.” It’s like the Mini was rear-ended by an Oxford cabinet-maker. Push the hatch key and each door swings open like it was haunted. Give ’em room. The hinges are so tightly spring-loaded they almost whacked my wife off her feet as she rounded the back. With second-row seats collapsed, this maximum Mini boasts best-in-quirk cargo room.

But the quirkiest quotient is its handling. True to Mini club-racing tradition, the low-profile Clubman can cut some rug. Wanna get dirty in the Outback? Buy a Renegade. Want to dance on twisty roads? Clubman’s the ticket.

Only the engine disappoints. Married to an excellent six-speed manual, my base 1.6-liter turbo 3-cylinder was but adequate. Cough up $3,500 for another cylinder and you’ll get 189 horses (the Cooper S).

Hyundai Veloster

Combine “velocity” and “roadster” and you get “Veloster.” Though it’s not a roadster. More like a coupe — with three doors. And a hatch. I told you it was quirky. I would have called it “Cerberus” after the three-headed dog that guards Hell.

It looks like a hound from Hell. I’m pretty sure this is what Cerberus would drive. With fearsome jaws and beady eyes, Veloster is a zombie pit bull that just saw a postman.

There are a few of these mongrels scampering around Detroit and they always catch my eye. Though not for the third door (right side). There’s that face — and a cool tuckus with sculpted taillights and twin exhaust pipes in the middle like Corvette C7 Jr.

Of course, I’m just talking here about the 201-horse Veloster Turbo — not the base, 132-horse speed bump. I don’t know why you’d buy anything but the Turbo. If you’re looking for hatchback practicality, the VW Golf or Ford Focus blow Veloster away. Taking the ancient, last-gen Elantra Veloster chassis on broken Detroit roads and I worried it would pull apart like taffy.

The inside is a surprisingly fun place to be — unless you’re 6-foot-5 like me and you were the first person to get shoved across the backseat to sit behind the driver. You might need the jaws of life to extract you. But you’ll still admire the airy four panes of glass — optional twin-moonroof connecting front and rear windshields — interrupted only by the B and C pillar supports.

The bowl-shaped shifter seems to be a quirk standard — Veloster, Mini and Juke all share it. Unique touches abound like a dash-centered start-stop button and orange door handles that double as “oh-crap!” handles for your passengers when the devil inhabits you.

And he will.

Take ol’ Cerberus — er, Veloster — over to Hell, Michigan, every once in a while to let the demon run. The eager turbo and remarkably smooth, 7-speed auto box (6-speed manual optional) beg to be flogged. Spying my twin pipes, I routinely attracted other motorheads eager to play — yeah, they know what those pipes mean.

Hey, Hyundai, how about three pipes for the next gen?

Nissan Juke

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the quirkiest of them all? Juke looks like a Nissan and a frog had a love child. Big, muscular haunches. Round corners. Lights like eyes on top of the hood. I expected a fly-eating tongue to snap out of its broad mouth at any moment.

“It’s really cute,” said one passerby. “Except for the face.”

But Juke revels in its oddness, which is why I love it. It’s a conversation piece like the pet pug down the street. Its bastard looks are also deceiving. Short of the Mini Clubman, it is one of the best handling utes in the segment. The boys at Car & Driver recorded skid pad g-loads at .84 — just shy of the more athletic-looking Mini’s .86 and Veloster’s .85. Over the San Francisco Bay area’s insanely twisted King’s Mountain Road to Half Moon Bay, the Juke playfully juked left and right, its peppy 188-horse, 1.6-liter turbo enjoying brief straightaways in between. And like Mini, Juke brings all-wheel-drive to Qlub Quirk — a useful tool to dig out of Detroit’s snowy winters.

Despite its crossover moniker, however, Juke is tight in the hind seats, providing poor leg and cargo room compared to larger, comparably priced vehicles like the Honda CR-V.

But utility is for conformists. You’re different. And so, bless us all, are the Juke, Veloster and Clubman. Quirk on, qar lovers.

2016 Mini Cooper Clubman


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

Price: $24,950 base ($26,500 as tested)

Power plant: 1.5-liter, turbocharged 3-cylinder; 2.0-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder

Power: 134 horsepower, 162 pound-feet torque (turbo 3); 189 horsepower, 207 pound-feet torque (turbo 4)

Transmission: 6-speed manual or 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.9 seconds (turbo 3-cyl., manufacturer), top speed: 127 mph

Weight: 3,105 pounds (manual, turbo 3-cyl. as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 25 mpg city/34 mpg highway/28 mpg combined (manual turbo 3); EPA 24 mpg city/34 mpg highway/27 mpg combined (manual turbo 4)

Report card

Highs: Good ol’ Mini styling; best-in-quirk cargo room

Lows: Rotary-dial console control; all-wheel drive, please?


2016 Hyundai Veloster Turbo


Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, four-passenger sport coupe

Price: $24,950 base ($27,450 auto as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged inline 4-cylinder

Power: 201 horsepower, 195 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual or 7-speed dual-clutch automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.7 seconds (Car & Driver), top speed: 140 mph

Weight: 2,877 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 27 mpg city/33 mpg highway/29 mpg combined (23.8 mpg flogging-it-like-a-madman as tested)

Report card

Highs: Aggressive styling; airy, glassed roof

Lows: Taffy chassis; rear-seat for munchkins only


2016 Nissan Juke


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

Price: $21,150 base ($23,000 S AWD)

Power plant: 1.6-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder

Power: 188 horsepower, 177 pound-feet torque

Transmission: Continuously-variable automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.9 seconds (Car & Driver), top speed: 124 mph

Weight: 3,164 pounds (S AWD)

Fuel economy: EPA 26 mpg city/31 mpg highway/28 mpg combined (S AWD)

Report card

Highs: Peppy powerplant; nimble handling for a compact utility

Lows: Love-it-or-hate-it styling; space-challenged



Payne Q&Auto: The big cat is back at Jaguar

Posted by hpayne on July 1, 2016


Long derided as an “old person’s car,” Cadillac’s reinvention as an athletic brand has drawn headlines and rave reviews. But it is not alone. Caddy’s Old World English peer, Jaguar, is also shaking off its arthritic image to re-emerge as the track star of old.

It’s more “Chariots of Fire.” Less Duke of York.

Like Cadillac, Jaguar’s resurgence is happening under new corporate governance. Cadillac has separated itself from Mama GM’s apron strings and set up shop in the Big Apple under the experienced hand of Johan de Nysschen – not un-coincidentally the ex-chief of competitor Audi North America. Meanwhile, Jaguar – cast out by Ford – has been adopted by Tata. The Indian conglomerate has given Jaguar a big studio in which to paint and the classic marque is making great auto art again.

Watching over North American operations is another German-badge defector: Joe Eberhardt, 52, a 25-year veteran of Mercedes.

“If you go back in Jaguar history, there is a lot of DNA that is reborn in today’s cars: performance, design, and value. That’s what gave Jaguar a fascinating run in the ’60s and ’70s,” said Eberhardt at the Aspen, Colorado, media launch of the cat’s latest litter, the XE sedan and F-Pace crossover.

“(Then) the cars became more exclusive and … and we had some durability and reliability issues. So it was important in launching these cars that we redefine what Jaguar stands for.”

For all its noble British lineage, Jaguar these days appears a luxury version of Japan’s Mazda: a niche performance brand built on a sports car. Mazda has the Miata. Jaguar the F-Type.

Here’s Mazda spokesman Tom McDonald last June: “There’s a little bit of Miata in every car we make.”

And here’s Eberhardt: “There is a little bit of F-Type in every product. It’s absolutely key and core to the brand.”

With the big cat back and roaming the landscape, Jaguar now follows with its two most important vehicles: the entry-level XE and it first-ever SUV, the F-Pace.

Whether it is the tail lamps on the light, aluminum-bodied F-Pace or side cues or its double wishbone suspension, F-Type infuses F-Pace. “Ian Callum is the one best designers in the business and he is developing a face for the brand,” says Eberhardt.

Cadillac too has bolstered its lineup with the lightweight XT5 crossover, promising more SUVs to come. But though Cadillac and Jaguar benchmark to the Teutonic trio of Merc, BMW, and Audi, Jaguar is less eager to go head-to-head in every niche.

“We debated that internally for a long time,” says Eberhardt. “You have to mention all expectations of a car. We have to cover the luxury portion, have to cover design … but maybe give it more performance just to give someone a reason to try.”

That focus – and the brand’s own elite status as a racing success – allows it to go after the biggest luxury fish in the pond, Porsche, in a way few can. Jag was the 1950s King of LeMans after all. That status undisputedly belongs to Porsche now after its 18th 24-hour win this month.

“The Macan dynamically is a target,” says Eberhardt with a hint of admiration in his voice. “(It) is almost a perfect car. We are almost there, but we are also $12,000 cheaper.”

It’s not just cost where Jaguar smartly conforms to market reality. It also recognizes that being an eccentric Brit has more negatives than positives. Reliability matters. “We needed to take reliability out of equation, so we launched Jaguar EliteCare,” says the Jaguar executive. “We have the best-in-class, bumper-to-bumper 5-year or 60,000-mile warranty.”

The cat’s swagger is back with its best lineup in years. Its success is crucial to taking on – not only the German competition – but the rising costs of government mandates. Short term, Jaguar is confident that it can meet global warming-driven mpg mandates with its Range Rover-proven diesel technology, even as it girds for fallout from VW’s diesel cheating scandal.

“Customers want the benefits of diesel which are greater range and better fuel economy,” says Eberhardt. “We don’t know what the reaction of these segments will be to diesel, but in a couple of months we’ll see.” Already a success in Europe, he expects the F-Pace’s US diesel take to be around 20 percent.

But by 2025 the road will get steeper as California, for example, outright mandates manufacturer sales of zero-emission, battery powertrains.

“That’s 15.4 percent (of sales) to be exact,” says Eberhardt. “We’re in discussion with (California) because the implications for that are much bigger for us given our scale. There will be EVs in our future.”


Payne: Not the same ol’ Jaguar vs. Caddy

Posted by hpayne on June 29, 2016

The 2017 Jaguar F-Pace and the 2017 Cadillac XT5 are

Is it too soon to name the 2017 Automobile All-Rookie Team? Of course not. You didn’t have to wait until season’s end to know that LeBron James would make the cut in 2004. Or that Kyrie Irving would get his votes in 2012 (jeez, no wonder the Cavs just won an NBA championship).

And you don’t have to wait until January for me to tell you that the Jaguar F-Pace and Cadillac XT5are two of the best new players in the luxury game.

Compact crossovers haven’t lacked for drama in the last year as Porsche debuted the asphalt-dicing Macan, Lincoln its stylish MKC, and Lexus handed the design pencil to Darth Vader to sketch the most menacing ship this side of a Super Star Destroyer. But the 2017 model year is notable for two old-world nameplates crafting two distinctive new-world performance crossovers.

Written off as senior citizen brands, the F-Pace and XT5 not only make a statement in the most 21st century of segments — compact SUVs — but they do it with style and athleticism that redefine both nameplates. Both feature innovative, lightweight chassis. Both sport car-like agility. Both are “tweeners”: one-size-fits-all compact crossovers that try to split the difference between the armada of vehicles German competitors throw at the segment. For example, BMW’s X1, X3, X4 and X5. Or Mercedes’ GLA, AMG GLA45, GLE.

Print up the T-shirts. “F-Pace and XT5 Against Everybody.”

The all-new Jag might have the easier path given its family lineage. The F-Pace badge is a nod to the F-Type, the ferocious King of Cats in the vein of storied Jaguar sports cars like E-Type and XJSS. That history gives Jaguar performance cred alongside Porsche, BMW, Mercedes and Audi that are also imprinting their athletic DNA on crossover siblings.

A friend is happily married to her Cadillac. I showed her a picture of the F-Pace. “Ooooooh,” she moaned with desire. Jaguar, you marriage wrecker.

In contrast, Cadillac is an icon of roomy luxury, not track heroism. While the F-Pace’s slit headlamps and round taillights evoke the crouched F-Type, the XT5’s handsome shield grille and vertical LED light signature recall the CTS and CT6 sedans.

F-Sport’s tapered greenhouse and muscular rear shoulders make it the sports car-lover’s SUV. The Caddy is lit up like Saturday night, a sculpture for the well-manicured.

By now some of you may be screaming “Cadillac isn’t a rookie!” with the same passion that 7-footer Arvydas Sabonis shouldn’t have been a 1996 NBA all-rookie pick because he was already an established international star. Fair enough. After all, while the XT5 is a new badge, it follows Cadillac’s first entry in the compact space, the SRX. But the XT5 a different animal. The gym-toned XT5 has shed 278 pounds from its predecessor.

Under the skin, XT5 and F-Pace are more akin.

The XT5 claims the title as class lightweight, but match AWD models and the F-Pace’s aluminum chassis proves slimmer. Still, the Caddy’s C1XX architecture is so good it makes the three-row GMC Acadia feel athletic. Both Jaguar and Cadillac took journalists to some of the most challenging roads in the country to show off their steeds — roads normally reserved for sports car tryouts.

I flogged the XT5 over California’s Lake Elsinore hills. I chased Porsche Cayennes, harassed hot hatches and generally acted like a sedan instead of a tall stagecoach. I got to stretch the F-Pace’s legs over the Colorado Rockies alongside its sedan stablemate, the Jaguar XE. Both are built off the same architecture and both sport double-wishbone front suspensions usually reserved for sports cars.

So unexpectedly delightful was the bigger F-Pace’s handling that it tempted my fellow journalists into three speeding tickets. As the Jag ads say: “It’s good to be bad.”

Part of that naughtiness is Jaguar outfitting its tallest cat (in addition to a base, 2.0-liter diesel) with the same 340- to 380-horse supercharged V-6 engine as its XE R-Sport. Rotate the dial to SPORT mode, stomp the accelerator mid-corner and it will nearly jump off the road. At a Rocky Mountain high 12,000 feet with no guardrails I found this mildly alarming (Jaguar might want to dial back the throttle sensitivity a tad).

The Caddy’s sole V-6 option can’t match the cat’s horsepower, but its 310-horse, 3.6-liter V-6 is no slouch in motivating the lightweight frame. It would be wise for Caddy to follow Jaguar’s three-tier engine strategy (a 2.0-liter turbo is rumored on the way) to broaden the car’s appeal.

But the Brit, too, could learn a thing or two from the Yank’s interior. Assuming you can get into the Jag’s cabin.

With its raked windshield, I had difficulty bending my 6-foot-plus frame into the awkward opening without putting the seat all the way back. Once inside, the Jaguar is surprisingly spartan. I wasn’t expecting an old-world, wood-paneled executive suite, but the Jaguar lacks character save for the dramatic rotary dial that emerges from the center console like Arthur’s scimitar from the proverbial lake. The center stack is featureless and the instrument panel is fitted with a simple plastic hat.

The Cadillac, meanwhile, boasts beautiful dash lines arcing from instruments to glove box, and the all-new CUE system floats above the console. The stitched leather, Alcantara and wood trims in my $62,000 Platinum edition should be in a display window in the Somerset Collection. Jaguar’s stitched black leather looks coach class by comparison.

The Cadillac also makes excellent use of its e-shifter to open up storage — perfect for a small purse or bag — below the console.

Jaguar’s optional heads-up display is a feature Cadillac innovated. But the F-Pace’s regrettable stab at an Audi-like “virtual cockpit” display is half-baked. Better to stick with the standard chrome dials.

Not that the XT5 is perfect. Jeep’s Grand Cherokee roll-away troubles have put a negative spotlight on so-called “monostable” shifters. Cadillac’s version has proper fail-safes in place so you can’t mistakenly leave the car dangerously in neutral. But the monostable’s operation reminds why vehicles like the Jeep and BMW X1 have shed the feature. It’s clumsy. Better to take the Jag’s simpler, rotary-dial route – every bit the space saver and more intuitive to boot

Look out Deutschland, these two rookies have enormous potential. Who gets Rookie of the Year? The Caddy is the better total package. But who am I to deny the animal appeal of the cat? Oooooh.

2017 Jaguar F-Pace


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

Price: $41,985 base ($70,735 V-6 R-Sport as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter inline 4-cylinder; 2.0-liter diesel 4-cylinder; 3.0-liter supercharged V-6

Power: 240 horsepower, 251 pound-feet torque (4-cyl.); 180 horsepower, 318 pound-feet torque (diesel); 340-380 horsepower, 332 pound-feet torque (V-6)

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.1 seconds (V-6 as tested); top speed (governed): 155 mph

Weight: 4,102 pounds (3.0-liter V-6 as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 18 mpg city/23 mpg highway/20 mpg combined (V-6)

Report card

Highs: Gorgeous styling; balanced handling

Lows: Undistinguished interior; half-baked “virtual” instrument panel


2017 Cadillac XT5


Vehicle type: Front-engine, front- or all-wheel-drive, five-passenger SUV

Price: $39,990 base ($63,845 Platinum AWD as tested)

Power plant: 3.6-liter V-6

Power: 310 horsepower, 271 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.7 seconds (Car & Driver est.); top speed (governed): 130 mph

Weight: 4,257 pounds (AWD as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 18 mpg city/26 mpg highway/21 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Elegant interior; nimble handling for an SUV

Lows: Balky, monostable shifter; more engine options, please



Payne: Best. Cadillac. Ever.

Posted by hpayne on June 27, 2016

Is the 2016 Cadillac CT6 the best car Cadillac has

In the Age of Ute, Cadillac’s decision to roll out a full-size flagship sedan – the CT6 – has been met by rolled eyes from many in the auto press. Tough crowd. But as I tell anyone in the luxe shopping aisle these days: You gotta drive this car.

It is the best. Cadillac. Ever.

The luxury brand’s comeback has been longer and more frustrating than that of Tiger Woods. Like the golfing great, Caddy deems anything short of No. 1 a loss. As Woods benchmarks to Spieth and McIlroy, so has GM’s luxury brand benchmarked to BMW, Audi, and Mercedes – the kings of performance luxury.

Like Woods, Cadillac may not make its way back to the top. The competition is formidable. Not just the German gold standards but also a new player named Tesla which has electrified the full-sized sedan market with the Model S.

On its way back Caddy has put up some impressive product. Stuffed with a Corvette Z06 engine, the ferocious CTS-V sedan is a supercharged rival for BMW M5 and Mercedes-AMG S63. The handsome ATS sedan is an asphalt carving knife, challenging its German peers for best handling car in segment. Combine that handling with a 464-horse, twin turbo V-6 and the ATS-V rivals the legendary BMW M3 for best performance sedan.

But with each entry there have been as many minuses as pluses. The Vs’ chain-mail grille and high price tags makes them a tough sell. The ATS’s backseat would cause anyone but small children leg cramps. And all suffered from a CUE infotainment system that had owners running from their cars screaming. To beat the most desired brands on the planet, “as good” isn’t good enough. You have to build superior, transformational (see Tesla) product.

For the first time, Cadillac has done it with the CT6.

The CT6 advantage begins with a look. The Caddy’s loooong hood is a head-turner. Credit rear-wheel drive architecture compared to the outgoing XTS which was less elegant giving its cab-forward, FWD proportions. With most of its bulk set over the rear wheels, the car has a crouched, catlike stance. Gorgeous. Combined with the signature, vertical Caddy running lights and a sculpted face – wide mouth, headlights pushed to the edges – the 6 demands you get to know it better.

You gotta drive this car.

Inside the Caddy is equally impressive. Gone is the (trying-too-hard) cut-and-sewn dash replaced by an elegant, horizontal layout. Significantly, the CUE infotainment system has been overhauled. Its maddening slider controls have been replaced by more workable buttons, and the screen – once lazy to the touch – jumps to your command. The change comes too late for my friend Dicran – he ran screaming from his XTS to buy an Audi A6 after one CUE snafu too many. And after a lease with Audi’s maddening, remote rotary dial control, he’ll come back to Caddy for a second look.

With a workable interface at last, the console’s deeper details impress. Apple Car Play and Android Auto come standard. The imposing, yacht-like gearshift slides easily along its track next to twin upholders. A clever phone slot hides just under the storage console – itself brilliantly designed with a left-and-right hinge so that it is equally accessible by driver and passenger.

The roomy rear seat is a nice place to be even for a 6-foot-5 circus freak like me. Adjustable seats, multi-functional center armrest. I could lounge back there all day – were the CT6 not such a blast to drive.

You gotta drive this car.

Because once Caddy has sucked you in with eye candy, it reveals its transformational trick: a 3,657 pound-chassis that makes this car handle like a sports coupe. That’s 600 pounds lighter than a Mercedes S-Class. Or 1,000 pounds lighter than Tesla. More than any big car I’ve driven, the CT6 demands to be thrown into turns like an oversized Miata.

All this for just $54,490 – or $30,000 cheaper than a BMW 7-series. My only caveat is the base 4-cylinder doesn’t belong in it (well, two caveats – the eight-speed tranny can be curiously clunky at low speeds). Not because it can’t pull 3,600 pounds (it can), but because a 4-banger just doesn’t sound right in this upscale athlete. The CT6 is a no compromise package – so don’t compromise by choosing anything but the superb, all-wheel-drive, twin-turbo V6. Still 900-pounds lighter than a comparable Tesla, still (at $72,170 loaded) $10k less than a base 7-series.

Best Cadillac ever.

“Oh, I thought you were just saying that as a good Detroiter,” said my friend Julie as she slipped into the CT6. “But this really is a stunning car.”

Cadillac has a lot of baggage. Keep building CT6s and it won’t be carrying it around for long.

2016 Cadillac CT6


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

Price: $54,490 base ($72,170 AWD, twin-turbo V-6 as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder; 3.6-liter V6; 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6

Power: 265 horsepower, 295 pound-feet of torque (turbo-4); 335 horsepower, 284 pound-feet of torque (V-6); 404 horsepower, 400 pound-feet of torque (twin-turbo V-6)

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.1 (twin-turbo V-6, Car & Driver est.)

Weight: 3,657 pounds (base, 4-cyl, RWD); 4,085 pounds (Twin-turbo V6, AWD as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 22 mpg city/31 mpg highway (turbo-4); EPA 19 mpg city/29 mpg highway (V-6); EPA 18 mpg city/26 mpg highway (twin-turbo V-6)

Report card

Highs: Athletic proportions; modern, elegant interior

Lows: Turbo 4-banger out of place in this athlete


Payne: BMW M2 the max

Posted by hpayne on June 22, 2016

Detroit News auto critic Henry Payne has fallen hard

As regular readers of this column know, I race Porsches and think Stuttgart’s engineering is second to none. But when it came time to buy my first ultimate-performance car, I walked past a Porsche Boxster/Cayman and bought a 2001 BMW M3. With a young family of four, I needed the rear seats. And with its ginormous grip and 3.2-liter, 333-horsepower straight-six, it was more fun than a free season pass to Cedar Point.

Produced from 2000-2006, the M3’s so-called E46 model is the best car I’ve owned. Fifteen years later and I’ve fallen hard for the blue-and-red M badge again. This time it’s an M2.

But in truth it’s the second coming of my M3.

The E46 was Goldilocks-perfect. Not too hot, not too cold. Just right. I could flog it at Waterford Raceway on Sunday, then drop my boys off at school on Monday on my way downtown. With its state-of-the art chassis dynamics and engine, it promised sports car performance in a luxury package. Yet its $46,045 price tag wouldn’t tempt you to rob a bank. The high-revving engine was ferocious, yet I could put my boot in it over Michigan back roads without scaring myself to death.

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Subsequent generations of M3 — like “X-Men” sequels promising ever more firepower — adopted steroid-fed V-8s and twin-turbo V6s. The current 2016 M4 (as BMW now calls the coupe version of its M3 sedan) rocketship produces 425 horsepower, 406 pound-feet of torque and will set off an entire block of car alarms with a barking, 3.7-second zero-to-60 mph blast. It’s a tornado in a teapot. A Corvette with a Bavarian accent.

And it can cost an eye-watering $83K. Too much car, too much money. At a loaded $56,445 the M2 badge is back in my wheelhouse again. BMW advertises it as a return to its turbo-2002, 1970s roots — but more accurately, M2 re-creates the DNA of the six-bangers that made M legend.

Begin with the walk around of the Long Beach Blue Metallic, 365-horsepower, turbocharged Velociraptor in my driveway. Oh, drool. And I thought a glimpse in the rearview mirror at my E46’s menacing mouth made knees knock. The M2’s front air intakes look like they were taken off an F-22 jet fighter.

It’s not just their size, but the exquisite sheet metal surfacing — integrated with BMW’s traditional kidney grille — that creates one of the most distinctive Bimmer faces since, well, my M3. Unlike current 3-series fashion, the headlights are in their proper, separate place at the corners — not melting into the grille like too-wet risotto into your filet mignon.

In the tradition of my E46, the M2 is superhero version of a 2-series coupe. Muscular flanks. Wheel wells stuffed with sticky Michelin Pilot Sports (now Super Sports) so wide they look like the Hulk’s biceps ripping through Bruce Bannerman’s shirt. The 19-inch, forged aluminum wheels are right off the bigger M4 (as are the aluminum suspension bits), so the Hulk analogy fits.

The greenhouse is set back further than my 2001 steed, lengthening the swollen hood and giving the effect of a greyhound sitting back on it haunches ready to sprint. Those haunches finish in a quartet of exhaust pipes that hint at the power within.

It is the engines that differentiate these beasts.

On a test track in Almost Heaven West Virginia, my E46 is a raspy tenor, its un-boosted scream reaching crescendo at 8,000 RPM redline. The M2 is a throaty baritone revving to 6,500 with buckets of low-end, twin-scroll turbo-assisted torque. Like the latest, turbo Porsche 911, the response is instant. No lag. There’s a rule of racing thumb that, as long as your engine is three liters or less, you can floor the pedal at corner apex without fear of the rear-end stepping out. Disregard that for the M2.

There is so much low-end grunt that I had to modulate its throttle out of corners. SPORT + mode is easier to access (a simple button push as opposed to my M3’s more complicated, at-start procedure) — turning off ABS and increasing engine response.

Engines aside, the two cars feel related. Rowing the gears, both manuals are a bit gummy (inferior to my favorite, tight Porsche and Mazda Miata shifters). The interiors are similar even with the M2’s expected digital advances of navigation, push-button start, keyless entry, satellite radio and so on. (How many trips did I make from Detroit to West Virginia in my old M3 while fishing for radio stations? In the M2 I tuned to the Warriors/Cavs NBA game on Sirius XM and never missed a shot.)

Similar length and width. Same 3,400-pound girth. Same 10-inch rear rubber. Separated at birth. Only the M2 has been improved.

In SPORT mode, downshifts are rev-matched. Upshifts growl like a hungry Rottweiler. Corner grip is astounding — not knife-edge Porsche-sharp but close. The M2 pulls G-loads of .99. My old M3? .87. Acceleration is lip-curling.

The M2’s brakes — shared with Big Brother M3/M4 — are a revelation. My M3 chirps under maximum exertion, its ABS throbbing. The M2 grips instantly, like a bulldog to a postman’s leg.

A modern M3/M4 or Corvette C7 requires big tracks like Mid-Ohio to fully realize their potential. But I can wring the M2’s neck at smaller, local tracks like Waterford or Gingerman and leave satisfied. Same on the road.

On I-64 back to Michigan, a Nissan Z sidles up for a challenge. I downshift to fourth gear. Buckets of torque. Goodbye Z. State Route 35’s two-lane twisties are an M2 playpen along the Ohio River.

In the 15 years since my M3 the choice of performance cars has exploded.

“We’re in the second golden era of performance cars,” Fiat-Chrysler gearhead exec Tim Kuniskis likes to say. There are $40K hot hatch VW Golf Type Rs and Ford Focus RSs and nimble Camaro SSs. And at the top of the heap, the $56K M2 for the same price (inflation adjusted) as my 2001 M3.

I pay a visit to Cedar Point in the M2 to snap some pictures of the car with the park’s epic roller coasters. It brings back memories. Memories of a Dad in an M3 planning a trip with his young family to the famous Millennium Force for the first time.

If that were me today, we’d hop in an M2 and enjoy the coaster ride home.

2016 BMW M2


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

Price: $52,995 base ($56,445 as tested)

Power plant: 3.0-liter, turbocharged, inline 6-cylinder

Power: 365 horsepower, 369 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed manual or automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.2 seconds (Car & Driver)

Weight: 3,415 pounds (manual)

Fuel economy: EPA 18 mpg city/26 mpg highway/21 mpg combined (manual); EPA 20 mpg city/27 mpg highway/23 mpg combined (automatic)

Report card

Highs: Get-outta-my-way styling; buckets of torque

Lows: No Apple CarPlay or Android Auto (c’mon, guys, all the mainstream compacts got ’em)


Payne, Q&Auto: How Porsche 911 stays No. 1

Posted by hpayne on June 22, 2016


The Porsche 911 is a living legend. Now in its 53rd year of production, it is the world’s most iconic sports car badge. It is the dream car of every young gearhead. It is the winningest race thoroughbred on the planet.

And yet, it is an anachronism.

With its engine still hanging out the rear like its Ferdinand Porsche-designed forbearer, the Volkswagen Beetle, the 911’s architecture is a museum piece next to modern, midengine peers from Ferrari, McLaren and Audi. Heck, even today’s front-engine VW Bug has abandoned its great-grandfather’s butt-dragging design.

One might expect the Porsche to be in the Smithsonian next to the corded phone and video cassette. And yet, here is the new, lusty 2017 Porsche 911 setting the bar once again for balanced, jaw-dropping performance. That unmistakable, fast-back shape is the product of years of high performance testing, highly skilled engineers and a tried-and-true architecture.

“We always want to offer our customers the best concept from the best engine, best body and chassis. The combination of all these makes the 911 — including the rear-placed engine,” says engineer Bruno Kistner, 47, based in Weissach, Germany. “Its day-to-day usability, race track performance and design are unique. It’s a Porsche.”

As drivetrain manager, Kistner puts the 911’s so-called boxster, flat-6 cylinder engine through some extraordinary calisthenics to make sure it’s not just production worthy, but track worthy, too.

“Porsche thinks differently,” he says. “You won’t see this type of testing at BMW or Audi. They would say it’s a nonsense test.”

It’s this relentless pursuit of perfection that has kept the 911’s rear engine architecture competitive — while at the same time applying its own inherent advantages. Better braking thanks to less weight shift to the front wheels. Better interior room for rear seats. Better, lower center of gravity.

And traction, traction, traction. With more weight over the rear wheels, the 911 has consistently ranked with all-wheel-drive cars for best acceleration off the line.

“We had to use an all-new AWD drive system on our latest 911 to finally make the AWD drive car accelerate any faster over the rear-drive car,” says Atlanta-based Frank Weismann, 35, product experience manager for Porsche Sportscars North America.

That formula also pays dividends at the race track. “Look at Long Beach,” says Weismann, speaking of Porsche’s recent, dramatic victory there. “It’s a street course where it’s essential to accelerate out of a corner. The 911 was all over the Corvette.”

Every 911 is baselined to track performance. And every 911 is baselined to its predecessor. Porsche’s heritage runs deep — and though the company makes midengine Caymans and front-engine SUVs, that heritage is synonymous with the rear-engine 911’s distinctive silhouette.

“The 911 evolved out of the 356 that evolved out of the Beetle. So there is that lineage, and at Porsche a lot of the development has to do with tried-and-true basic layouts and dependability,” Weismann says.

But tradition doesn’t mean ignoring progress. Indeed, even as the 911’s iconic architecture has remained familiar, it has been on the cutting edge of development over the years, from water-cooled engines to turbocharging to rear-wheel steering.

The 2017 911 is no different — for the first time employing turbocharging in its base model.

“It’s a revolution to bring it into the 911 — and not just for the (high performance) 911 Turbo,” says Kistner. “The techniques are just an evolution. To change from a naturally-aspirated engine to a turbo we could have done it differently. But we only changed the displacement from 3.4 to 3.0 — that’s almost nothing. Again because we wanted to figure out the best combination. We don’t call it turbo downsizing — its turbo right-sizing.”

Porsche’s challenges don’t just come from competitors such as Ferrari and Corvette — but from governments as well. Kistner and Weismann see coming global warming regulations as the most challenging the industry ever has faced. And not just the US government’s 54.5 mpg-by-2025 mandate.

“In Europe, a significant revision in 2018 (will be) how the fuel economy cycle is conducted,” says Weismann. “That’s making Bruno’s job a lot more challenging. Emissions mandates are not the only reason (for the 911’s turbo engine) – but government’s an important factor.”

Kistner sees the turbo as a bridge to other technologies as rules tighten. Will we see an electric-hybrid 911 someday? Kistner is mum. But whatever the energy source, you know the 911 will be hanging the engine out the back and leading the pack up front.

Car and Truck… and SUV of the Year Awards

Posted by hpayne on June 21, 2016

Recognizing an altered automotive landscape where SUVs have become the vehicle of choice among consumers, the U.S.’s longest-running, independently judged auto award will honor the year’s best sport utility in its own, separate category.

The North American Car and Truck of the Year Award will henceforth be known as The North American Car and Truck/Utility of the Year (NACTOY). The 2017 prizes for outstanding car, truck and SUV will be announced Jan. 9 at Detroit’s North American International Auto Show.

Previously, SUVs had been lumped together with pickups for truck of the year. But as utes have expanded well beyond their body-on-frame origins, their definition has morphed to include everything from giant, pickup-based Cadillac Escalades to sporty subcompacts like the Mazda CX-3 and Mercedes GLA.

“SUVs’ booming popularity is changing the auto industry,” said Mark Phelan, NACTOY president. “Customers use SUVs for everything from work to family transportation to off-road recreation. The NACTOY jury recognizes that with the new award.”

Some SUVs have also become known as “crossovers” — since they share the high-riding position of trucks, yet are built on unibody platforms like sedans. Discussion among NACTOY’s 60 jurors — an independent group of journalists representing newspapers, magazines, television, radio and websites across North America — had intensified in recent years as the definition of truck did not seem to adequately represent the diversity of vehicles. The author of this article, Henry Payne, is a jury member.

In 2016, for example, the playful, 101-inch wheelbase, 2.0-liter Mazda CX-3 was pitted against the stump-pulling, diesel-powered, 152-inch wheelbase Nissan Titan HD pickup — as well as the soccer mom-friendly Honda Pilot and luxurious Volvo XC-90 — for best “truck.”

It was awkward. In the end, the Volvo took the award.

NACTOY’s award expansion coincides with a change in its stewardship. Founded in 1994, the awards were overseen by an organizing committee until this year, when that structure was replaced with officers: president, vice president and secretary-treasurer.

The officers are: president Phelan, vice president Matt DeLorenzo (managing editor-news, Kelley Blue Book), and secretary-treasurer Lauren Fix (auto critic for multiple television and radio outlets). Former organizing committee members Chris Jensen, Tony Swan and Lindsay Brooke make up a temporary advisory committee.

The jury kicks off its awards deliberations for 2017 models this month by identifying eligible vehicles. The list will be whittled to three finalists by Dec. 6.

Payne: How Fiat saved Mazda’s Miata

Posted by hpayne on June 20, 2016


Thanks goodness for the Fiata.

In partnering with Mazda’s MX-5 Miata to resurrect the classic Fiat 124 Spider — thus the nickname “Fiata” — Fiat Chrysler not only gained a halo sports car for its struggling Italian brand, but likely saved the most celebrated small sports car of the past 25 years.

“The possibility exists that without our partnership with FCA, there may not have been a business case to produce the fourth-generation MX-5 Miata,” says Robert Davis, Mazda’s senior vice president of U.S. operations.

The critically acclaimed 2017 Fiat Spider is the latest addition to an American performance product renaissance. From the Dodge Challenger Hellcat to the Ford Focus RS to the Subaru BRZ, the motoring public has not had such a buffet of affordable performance iron since the 1960s. As Tim Kuniskis, Fiat Chrysler’s head of passenger car brands, likes to call it: “The Second Golden Age of the Performance Car.”

But U.S. automakers are facing the costliest wave of government regulation since the 1970s: So-called CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) gas mileage rules from Washington mandate average vehicle fuel economy of 54.5 mpg by 2025. California mandates that 15.4 percent of vehicles sold by 2025 be electric- or hydrogen-powered “zero-emission vehicles.” Combined with tougher safety regulations and increased consumer demand for navigation and driver-assist features — electronic enhancements unheard of just a decade ago — the cost of developing a new car can run into the 10 figures.

So when Mazda contemplated the fourth generation of the Miata, a green light was not assured, even as the frisky roadster has come to define the Japanese-based manufacturer’s “ZOOM ZOOM” image that covers everything from its 3-model sedan to its mid-sized CX-9 crossover.

The MX-5 is the best-selling two-seat sports car ever with more than 1 million sold since 1989 — but with annual production of just 15,000 cars it’s a relatively low-volume toy. Given the car’s bespoke platform — not shared with any other Mazda — its business case is tenuous. So for the first time in its history, Mazda looked for a partner on Miata production.

“Cars have gotten more expensive with safety and emissions requirements,” explains IHS Automotive Senior Analyst Stephanie Brinley (and an MX-5 owner). “Look at the first Miata compared to the current car; it’s night and day in terms of equipment.”

Meanwhile, partnering with Mazda was an opportunity for Italy’s Fiat which was struggling to gain an identity in the U.S. market after its merger with Chrysler. Like Mazda, capital-starved FCA faces enormous challenges to meet looming government regulations.

“If you look at where FCA is at and where are the most important places to put our money, a 124 Spider heritage car might not be at the top of the list,” said Bob Broderdorf, director of Fiat North America, at the Spider’s media launch in San Diego this month. “Unique partnerships allow us to bring a car like this to market.”

Fiata was born.

Mazda’s rear-wheel-drive soft-top was the perfect platform for Fiat to launch the Spider’s comeback. The MX-5’s proven production record was an added bonus to a quality-challenged Italian automaker stuck with the nickname “Fix it again, Tony.” The two cars roll off the same Hiroshima assembly line and share chassis, switchgear, even infotainment systems – their skins and drivetrains the only significant differences.

“For Fiat it was an easy way to expand the lineup, and they have enough of a history with sports cars to credibly pull off another one,” says Brinley.

The result are two fun-mobiles starting at just $25,000, a throwback to 50 years ago when European sports cars from Fiat, Alfa, Lotus, MG and Triumph were topless fun. In 1989 the Miata resurrected that era and now, ironically, is being sustained by one of the vehicles it aimed to recreate.

But with automakers girding for a harsh decade of regulation, will the Second Golden Age last?

“Performance and tech are . . . intermingling to pay homage to these originals before additional CAFE regulations and changes to the marketplace kick in,” says Broderdorf. “Particularly with electrification.”

FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne has made no secret that he would like to partner with General Motors or another, larger company to share the R&D investment required to meet those challenges. With fewer resources, smaller manufactures are entering into more symbiotic partnerships to sustain lower volume models that are still essential to brand image and youth buyer outreach. Subaru developed the BRZ sports car and rebadges it as a Toyota 86. And Mazda builds the Toyota Yaris iA in Mexico off its Mazda 2 platform.

Fiata may be the future of many more industry marriages.