Articles

Truck wars: Silverado gets more weapons for 2020

Posted by Talbot Payne on May 22, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Payne: Driving down memory lane in the last Volkswagen Bug

Posted by Talbot Payne on May 21, 2019

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

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

The Bug has been squashed. Again.

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

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

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

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

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

My first memory of the creature is at the movies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Talbot Payne on May 21, 2019

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

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

The 2020 Toyota Supra may never have happened without Hollywood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those two pistons are crucial.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2020 Toyota Supra

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

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

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

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

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

Weight: 3,397 pounds

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

Highs: Hot bod; obnoxious, snarling inline-6

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

Overall: 4 stars

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

Posted by Talbot Payne on May 15, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Talbot Payne on May 13, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s great news, the new front end looks so much better,” came a typical comment from the Camaro6.com forum (Camaro is in its sixth generation). “My biggest gripes with the 2019 Camaro are now gone.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Talbot Payne on May 13, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Payne: In ‘Vette vs. Porsche War, 911 GT2 sets the standard

Posted by Talbot Payne on May 12, 2019

The Porsche 911 GT2 RS, left, and GT3 RS are the fastest, most expensive models of the 911 breed.

The Porsche 911 GT2 RS, left, and GT3 RS are the fastest, most expensive models of the 911 breed.

The Carousel/Kink complex at Wisconsin’s Road America is one of the most demanding sections of race track in the country. The 700-horsepower Porsche 911 GT2 RS rips through it like a locomotive on rails.

With sticky, 13.5-inch Michelin rear tires clawing the pavement, I carry a neck-straining 1.5-g through the 180-degree Carousel turn and then explode into the left-right Kink as if shot from a cannon. A tap of the 16-inch brake rotors through the Kink at 115 mph and the Porsche goes straight to the head of the 700 Club.

You know the 700 Club. It’s inhabited by rare machines that push the envelope of what’s possible: 700-plus-horsepower cyborgs that define brands and make car enthusiasts’ knees weak. They are cars few can afford, yet all covet. They dominate our screen savers and lure us to showrooms.

They’re an intimidating lot, from the muscle-bound Dodge Hellcat to the winged Corvette ZR1 to the futuristic McLaren 720S. But the best of them is so, well, familiar looking.

The Porsche 911 has been around since 1963. Same conservative soap bar shape. Same blunt nose. Same rear-engine-dragging-out-back. You’ve seen a million of ‘em. They just get faster.

The ‘Vette has been around for even longer, and this rival odd-couple — one from Stuttgart the other Detroit, one white-collar the other blue-collar, one flat-6 the other V-8 — have pushed each other. Think Borg vs. McEnroe. Lakers vs. Celtics. Each from different worlds, yet always peers.

But with a bigger wallet, Porsche is the supercar standard.

Just ask the pro racers sitting around the table between Road America test sessions. Talents like David Donahue and Robb Holland and Randy Pobst. Champions all. They have traveled the globe and driven the 700 Club’s mightiest — Astons, Lamborghinis, McLarens, ‘Vettes, Vipers, Astons.

And yet they agree that the 911 is the benchmark. It’s predictable. Easy to drive. Puts down the power without turning your hair white.

“This car should be diabolical,” says Pobst surveying the rear-engine German. “But it’s not. I get high on these cars because they do exactly what you want.”

It was not ever thus. Hurley Haywood, Porsche legend with three LeMans wins to his credit and now a factory test driver, rolls his eyes at the thought of the first turbocharged Porsches. “You put your foot into it and then waited for the turbo to kick in,” he remembers.

The GT2 has no discernible turbo lag. None. Armed with the same twin-turbo, 3.8-liter flat-6 as the 580-horsepower Turbo S, the GT2 RS cranks up the power to an insane 700.

Drive it back-to-back with its stablemate the GT3 RS — armed with a normally-aspirated, 520-horse flat-6 — and the latter feels slow. I drove the Turbo S at Thunderhill Raceway three years ago and marveled at its athleticism for a 3,600-pound car.

At the wheel of a lightweighted, 3,241-pound GT2 I could easily keep up with pro Donahue in a Turbo S at Road America. The GT2 adds a cape to mortal drivers.

Credit years of engineering — and lots of steroids. Like the current Mustang GT350 and GT500, the 911 GT3 and GT2 are essentially the same car, but the GT2 gets the turbo (just as the 700-horse-plus GT500 gets the supercharger). They are an amazing weave of modern technology — rear-drive with rear-steer, gummy Michelin Sport Cup 2 R tires, multi-link suspensions, high rear wing, aluminum chassis, 7-speed, dual-clutch gearbox — that work together to make the perfect athlete.

The GT2 RS obliterated Car and Driver’s Lightning Lap record at Virginia International Raceway held by the mid-engine, carbon-fiber, $700K Ford GT supercar. By four seconds.

Donahue lapped Road America in the same time — 2 minutes, 15 seconds — as the lap record for my sports racer class (which weigh a mere 1,000 pounds). You could buy two $290,000 GT2s for the price of one Ford GT and have change left over. And you could buy two Corvette ZR1s for the price of a single GT2 RS and still afford a Chevy Equinox for the family.

The front-engine Corvette is an incredible bargain, but it is a handful compared to the 911.

Exiting the uphill Canada Corner at the end of the 140-mph back straight at Road America, I put 700 ponies to the ground and the rear end barely moves. The GT2 rushes corners so quickly that I pray for brakes — prayers are answered with massive, 16-inch rotors as big as Captain America’s shield.

The GT2 wears the crown, but I prefer the normally-aspirated GT3.

There is no better soundtrack on the planet. With similar-size flat-6 sans turbos, the GT3 gets its power by howling to 9,000 RPM (the forced-induction GT2’s redline is 7,200 RPM). That’s similar to my ol’ 1969 Porsche 908 flat-8 race car — the most glorious engine I’ve driven.

Wide open at throttle, the GT3 is a visceral thrill ride. Exiting Turn 3 onto a long straightaway, the car fires off 100/millisecond upshifts like a semi-automatic rifle — 2nd gear at 9000 RPM — BWAAAUUGGH! — 3rd gear — BWAAAUUGGH! — 4th …

It lacks the punch of the turbo GT2, but 346 pound-feet of torque will do. And the sound puts my reflexes on knife edge for better driving. Pummeled by the noise and stiff ride, I’m wearier after a GT3 session.

That doesn’t translate so well to daily commuting. A St. Louis pal leased a GT3 and brought it back, his teeth and ear drums rattling. He traded for a 911 Targa. Halo mission accomplished — the GT3 got him to the dealership, and into another car.

Corvette follows a similar model, but at a lower price. On paper the ZR1 — ancient push-rod front engine, leaf rear springs — shouldn’t be able to come within a country mile of the German rocket, but it’s right there. Pobst lapped Road Atlanta in the ZR1 and GT3 at identical times — the GT2 was up the road another 1.5 seconds.

Paying an extra $150K is a lot for 1.5 seconds.

Buyers walk out of the showroom in a standard $70K  ‘Vette every bit as posh inside as the $100K 911. Still, Corvette is chasing the GT2 with a mid-engine Corvette later this year.

The ‘Vette will be upgraded to a full coil-over suspension, and a rumored hybrid pairing a twin-turbo, overhead-cam V-8 with an electric motor up front. 700 Club? We might have to talk about a special, 1,000-horse wing.

Right on cue, we get a new 911 this year, too. The standard is an ever-moving target.

2019 Porsche 911 GT2 RS

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

Price: $294,250 base, including $1,050 destination fee ($325,250 as tested)

Powerplant: 700 horsepower, 553 pound feet of torque, 3.8-liter twin-turbo flat-6 cylinder

Transmission: 7-speed, dual-clutch automatic

Performance: 2.7 second zero-60 (mfr.); 211 mph top speed

Weight: 3,241 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 15 city/21 highway/17 combined

Highs: Stable manners at the limit; fistfuls of power
Lows: Looks don’t wow like a mid-engine supercar; costs 2x Corvette ZR1

Overall: 3 stars

2019 Porsche 911 GT3 RS

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

Price: $187,500 base, including $1,250 destination fee ($219,750 as tested)

Powerplant: 520 horsepower, 346 pound feet of torque, 4.0-liter flat-6 cylinder

Transmission: 7-speed, dual-clutch automatic

Performance: 3.0 second zero-60 (mfr.); 193 top speed

Weight: 3,153 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 15 city/19 highway/16 combined

Highs: Glorious flat-6 sound at 9,000 RPM; Grip, grip and more grip
Lows: Beats you up as a daily driver; pricier than ‘Vette ZR1

Overall: 4 stars

Payne: EVs are struggling, so why are automakers betting on EVs?

Posted by Talbot Payne on May 7, 2019

Jaguar I-Pace sales – the first direct Tesla-fighter from a European lux-maker – have been disappointing. Aimed at the Tesla Model S/X, its costs about $86,000.

Jaguar I-Pace sales – the first direct Tesla-fighter from a European lux-maker – have been disappointing. Aimed at the Tesla Model S/X, its costs about $86,000.

Tesla Inc. reported a bigger-than-expected $702 million loss in the first three months of the year, pushing the electric car-maker back to the capital markets for as much as $2.7 billion to shore up its dwindling cash reserves.

The red ink comes amid falling U.S. sales for electric vehicles and a struggle to show sustainable profits. So why are other automakers following its battery-powered business model?

As part of its “zero-zero-zero” strategy, General Motors Co. is promising a zero-emission electric-vehicle future as well as an autonomous vehicle-driven promise of zero crashes and zero congestion. Ford Motor Co. is making a Mustang-styled Tesla-fighter while also pouring $500 million into EV truck-maker Rivian Automotive of Plymouth. And Volkswagen AG is ending development of gas-engine powered vehicles by 2026.

Despite the headwinds facing EVs, automakers are betting on an uncertain future for a variety of reasons: fear of Tesla dominating “Generation App” millennials, activism of green CEOs, and the perfect marriage of batteries and autonomous cars. But the most immediate reason is government — not consumer — driven.

“First, there is a regulatory push in Europe and China that is driving players to introduce electric vehicles to fulfill their requirements,” says John Murphy, auto analyst for Merrill Lynch. Global governments — including California, the most populous state — are dictating specific drivetrains for the first time in auto industry history.

Tesla has been the runaway sales leader in EVs while charging a premium that often exceeds $100,000 for its cars. Its Model 3 was the best-selling luxury car in the United States last year, and the $40,000-plus EV has vaulted to the top of the sales charts in Europe as the California-maker has expanded overseas.

Yet, sales are down sharply this year in the U.S. as the initial Model 3 rush has subsided. So has the $7,500 federal subsidy for electric cars, scheduled to phase out over the coming year.

More ominously for automakers, total EV sales are down even as competitors entered the market. Sales of GM’s Chevrolet Bolt are down, for example, and Jaguar I-Pace sales — the first direct Tesla-fighter from a European luxury-maker — have been disappointing.

I’ve experienced the hesitation of potential EV buyers myself. The owner of a Tesla Model 3, I have been swarmed by friends who want to experience the car’s unique abilities. But when they learn of the compromises an EV owner must endure — garage charging upgrades, long waits at charging stations, range anxiety — their enthusiasm for ownership cools.

Indeed, Tesla-mania tracks early predictions that the Toyota Prius hybrid — a runaway sales success in the early 2000s — would lead to a hybrid sales wave. Didn’t happen. In truth, people just wanted the trendy Prius. Other hybrids like the Ford Fusion and Chevy Volt never caught on and have been retired.

“People don’t see EVs as a better solution for their needs than gas-powered cars,” says veteran auto analyst Rebecca Lindland of RebeccaDrives.com.

Still, automakers are betting the farm on EVs: “We’re committed to an all-electric future,” trumpets GM’s website. “It’s a simple equation: More electric vehicles on the road means fewer emissions and cleaner air for all.”

At its headquarters this year, VW brand strategy chief Michael Jost told an auto summit that “the year 2026 will be the last product start on a combustion engine platform.”

Much of this is regulatory, to be sure.

“On some level, they have to say that,” says Lindland. “Governments are mandating that they have to build EVs even though demand hasn’t grown significantly.”

What’s more, Volkswagen is trying to turn the page on its emissions cheating scandal. “It’s penance for past sins on Dieselgate,” says Merrill Lynch’s Murphy.

But there is also a concern among GM’s Cadillac and other luxury brands that they are losing out to what analyst Lindland calls “Generation App” — a rising group of worldly, earth-conscious buyers weaned on iPhones who will ultimately aspire to electric chariots.

Adds Murphy: “You’re looking at a marketing game to attract customers even if they don’t yet buy EVs. There’s concern among luxury-makers that Tesla may be taking market share from them.”

A big reason Tesla struggles is because — despite its promise to build a $35,000 Model 3 — the high cost of batteries destroys profit margins below $50,000. Merrill Lynch estimates EVs have to be in the $55,000-$60,000-plus price range to drive reasonable profit levels.

“It’s tough to understand why any automaker would significantly push econoboxes in the $30,000 range unless they need to meet regulatory requirements,” says Murphy.

Makers of those $30,000 econoboxes say, however, that there is legal risk in addition to regulatory. Specifically, they fear that governments will target Big Auto with lawsuits as they did Big Tobacco, suing them for such environmental damages as hurricanes and fires allegedly caused by carbon dioxide emissions.

“We consider that to be a real business risk, so we’re working very hard to be — not part of the problem — but to be part of the solution,” Honda Motor Co.’s vice president of environmental vehicles, Steve Center, told Autoline. Honda makes the $23,000 Insight hybrid and plans to electrify most of its lineup by 2030.

Don’t discount the personal activism of CEOs in wanting to be part of that solution, too. Tesla CEO Elon Musk is an outspoken green activist who has made saving the planet part of his company’s mission statement. His activism is echoed by two new EV partners — Ford Chairman Bill Ford Jr. and Rivian founder R.J. Scaringe.

Scaringe and Ford see eye-to-eye on green activism. “We believe the world needs to electrify,” says Scaringe. Happily, Rivian also meets Merrill Lynch’s investment threshold for $60,000-plus vehicles. Rivian is also attracting investment because it holds a key to perhaps the biggest door Tesla has unlocked: autonomy.

“The reason that Tesla’s valuation has been so high is because of its potential,” says analyst Lindland. “Investors see that potential in electrification and in self-driving cars.”

And sure enough, markets reacted positively to its stock sale plan this week despite the dilution in overall shares. Musk has been as much a missionary for robot cars as for battery power.

Rivian’s trucks — with their “skateboard” battery construction opening enormous storage space — have attracted Amazon investment for its autonomous delivery potential. GM has made Cadillac its lead EV brand, but close behind is its investment in Cruise Automation, a West Coast-based ride-sharing competitor to Waymo and Uber that the General intends to staff with driverless Bolt EVs.

These ride-sharing services — including one unveiled by Tesla last month — all test exclusively with EVs. Merrill’s Murphy has been bearish on Tesla’s profitability: “But in reality Tesla has changed the game, and everyone is chasing Elon.”

Payne: Kia Telluride is luxe and loaded

Posted by Talbot Payne on May 2, 2019

The 2020 Kia Telluride may come from a Korean brand — but its character is all-American. Designed in LA and manufactured in Georgia, it carries Cadillac styling cues and plenty of room for a big Yankee family.

Telluride. Posh ski resort. Beautiful people. Rugged western landscape.

You know what the Kia Telluride is trying to evoke even before you see this handsome, chiseled SUV.

That’s right — Kia. Like Volkswagen and Mazda, the Korean brand is separating itself from its mainstream competitors with premium-looking vehicles that are $20,000 less than similarly equipped luxury chariots. But where VW names its cars after winds (Golf, Passat) and Mazda goes with technical alphanumerics (CX-9, MX-5), Kia aims for the American heart.

There’s the Sedona (cowboy!) and the Soul (man!) and the Sportage (dude!).

But Kia really hit the bullseye last year with the $39,000 all-wheel drive Stinger. The slinky, hatchback sport sedan is an Audi A7 without the price tag — but the name is all-American muscle car like Super Bee or Hornet before it. As is its Ford Mustang-like color palette of yellow, red and blue.

With athletic handling, a sleek bod, mod interior and 365-horsepower twin-turbo V-6, the Stinger halo car sets Kia up as a desirable brand. Stinger makes your heart go thump.

Now comes the Telluride, and it is an affordable Cadillac XT6: vertical design cues, body chiseled from stone.

This first-gen Kia is aimed right at that most American of segments — the three-row SUV — and Detroit icons like the Ford Explorer and Chevy Traverse. The Telluride was designed in Kia’s Los Angeles design studio and is built in Georgia.

I first saw it at the Detroit auto show where Kia built an indoor off-road track (an oxymoron if there ever was one) and offered bruising rides in Tellurides specially equipped to take on the Baja peninsula.

It was a four-wheeled stallion in a rodeo corral and had the features to prove it: all-wheel drive with multiple terrain modes; a chassis that adapts its ride height depending on the terrain; two “oh-crap” handles on the center console like dual horns on a saddle. It was cowboy tough on the outside, hospitable as a Telluride ranch house inside.

Like Japanese transplant Honda, Kia has done its homework. The interior is made for long, comfortable American road trips. The center console sports a deep trough, perfect for holding phones, keys or French fry boxes. The seats are comfortable, the control knobs right where they should be. I turned to Mrs. Payne to ask if she had found her favorite things — seat heaters, easy-touch overhead lights, USB charger — but she was way ahead of me and ready to ride.

The back two rows are just as accommodating even for ex-basketball centers like me. Detroit competitor Chevy Traverse is made in Middle America and knows how to accommodate big, middle-American families with a third row that’s a livable place to be with cup holders, food holders, good legroom and panoramic roof for sunlight.

The made-in-Georgia Telluride doesn’t forget third-row passengers, either. Back-seaters get their own USB ports. And like the Traverse and another one of my class favorites, the Honda Pilot, the Kia allows third-row access with the simple push of a button. There are no multiple-step heaves to get into the back seat. Even little kids can do it.

Once back there, the second-row captains chairs (to keep peace between the kiddies) don’t just flop on your feet — they are slidable. The result is you can adjust first- and second-row seats to make everyone comfortable. In fact, I could not only sit behind myself in the second row — I could sit behind myself sitting behind myself in the third row!

This attention to detail is followed in every corner of the cabin — including thoughtful ideas like a front chime that alerts you if you left a child or pet in the back seat, and a microphone so you can talk to kids in the third row ZIP code.

Then there are standard features no $30,000 vehicle these days should do without.

Tops on my list is adaptive cruise-control, an important assistant for oft-distracted families on long road trips. Set adaptive-cruise and the big ute will keep its distance from vehicles ahead of you if you get distracted by — ahem — those second-row, fighting siblings. Kia matches segment pioneers like Honda and Toyota by making adaptive cruise-control standard and shames others — looking at you, Traverse — that don’t make it available until you’ve shelled out more than $45,000.

Telluride is one of the best values in the segment. For example, an all-wheel-drive S trim with 20-inch wheels and leather can be had for under $40,000.

And then the Kia goes a step further by wrapping value in a premium wrapper.

Its Asian competitors Honda and Toyota and Hyundai look like mainstream competitors (perhaps, in part, because they have luxury brands above them). But the Telluride looks like it belongs in the luxury class with Acura, Lexus and Genesis.

It’s been to Cadillac charm school, one of the most distinctive designs in the industry. Check out those vertical headlights pushed to the corners and highlighted by an orange LED signature. The inverted L-shaped taillights use bold red LED bulbs and might as well be taken right off the XT6.

Cadillac is worth dwelling on to hammer home one of my hobbyhorses: the narrowing gap between mainstream and luxury. My Kia tester looks like the XT6 and Range Rover had a baby. Its front-wheel drive-based, all-wheel drive system is similar to Caddy, as is its 291-horse, 3.8-liter engine (the Caddy’s 3.6-liter V-6 makes 310 horses).

All glammed up, the Telluride rides out the door at $45,000. The XT6 starts at $53,000.

Badge matters, no doubt. But with the $20,000 you save by going Kia, you could buy a terrific, used Cadillac ATS.

Telluride is not the only mainstream manufacturer to push upscale in the three-row space. The Mazda CX-9 is the best-looking three-row ute in autodom — mainstream or luxe — and has the dance moves of a 4,200-pound Miata. If handling is your thing, get the Mazda. The Telluride’s V-6 is plenty powerful, but the tranny is lackluster and it won’t inspire you in the twisties.

The upcoming rear-wheel drive-based (just like a Bimmer!) Ford Explorer will shame many luxury models with its tech-smarts — think of the one-button, self-park feature. But for best all-around game, the Telluride is Blake Griffin on wheels — big, smooth and multi-talented.

Come to think of it, Griffin was once a Kia spokesman. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was picking one up this spring.

 2020 Kia Telluride

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

Price: Base price $32,735, including $1,045 destination charge ($48,100 AWD SX model as tested)

Powerplant: 3.8-liter V-6

Power: 291 horsepower, 262 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.1 sec. (Car and Driver); maximum towing, 5,000 pounds

Weight: 4,482 pounds as tested

Fuel economy: EPA: 19 city/24 highway/21 combined (AWD as tested)

Report card

Highs: Caddy-like good looks; three rows of comfort

Lows: No athlete; transmission can be balky when pushed hard

Overall: 4 stars

Payne: Chevy’s new Blazer, a sport-ute in Camaro clothing

Posted by Talbot Payne on May 2, 2019

The 2019 Chevy Blazer SUV starts just under $30,000 with FWD. Load it it up with options and the sporty RS trim (pictured) and it can run over $50,000.

The 2019 Chevy Blazer SUV starts just under $30,000 with FWD. Load it it up with options and the sporty RS trim (pictured) and it can run over $50,000. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

The mid-engine Corvette isn’t the only Chevy that’s been getting looks lately.

The same week GM confirmed the fabled C8 ‘Vette by driving it through the middle of New York’s Times Square, I was piloting the all-new Chevy Blazer SUV through Detroit and turning heads, too. Dressed in RS trim with red paint, blacked-out grille and 21-inch wheels the size of flying saucers, Blazer is a looker.

“That’s it, isn’t it!” said an onlooker emerging from a doughnut shop.

“Whoa, is that the new Blazer? I knew it!” ogled an office security guard.

Say a thank you for halo cars. Not the Corvette (which has always been in a league of its own), but the Chevy Camaro which had a heavy influence on the look of this new ute. It’s about time.

The Chevrolet brand has for too long been a wallflower, its signature split grille vexing to designers. The Malibu’s front end is a dog’s breakfast of too many shapes, the Chevy Equinox and Chevy Traverse bland vanilla cones.

I first saw the Blazer RS at GM’s design center where its bold, black-and-red suit stood out like Ironman at high noon. Sitting in my driveway next to an orange Audi Q8 costing (choke) $35,000 more, the Blazer holds its own.

Like all huge locomotive grilles — think Audi, Lexus, Toyota — the Blazer is polarizing to be sure, but the Camaro cues give it a sinister look. Credit the innovative placement of headlights. The Blazer gets its mean ‘Maro visage with thin upper LED running lights — and moving the actual headlights lower on the fascia where you’d find the muscle car’s running lights.

Like a Pontiac Aztec, only good looking! Chevy designers say this amalgam works because the taller grille of an SUV demands lower placement of the peepers to reduce glare in the rear-view mirror of, say, a sedan.

The design, befitting the class, is dramatic from head to toe. This is not your grandpa’s Blazer.

The Blazer of old was truck-based, boxy and rugged. When Chevy resurrected the badge for 2019, it came back as a unibody crossover wedged between the compact Equinox and the family-hauling Chevy Traverse.

It’s a space that attracts adults whose chicks have flown the nest. It’s for couples who still want the space of a big ute, but with more stylish looks and sportier ride than the three-row bus. Big as my 4,246-pound tester is, the Blazer sits on the same C1 platform that I have raved about in siblings Cadillac XT5 and GMC Acadia.

Dial in Sport mode and the beast is remarkably fun to throw around on the road. A front-wheel drive biased architecture it may be (sorry, hot rodders, engine mod-shops like Lingenfelter are unlikely to touch the RS for that reason), but the Blazer features nifty engineering like dual rear clutch all-wheel drive and rotates beautifully through corners.

With a healthy 308 horses from a reliable 3.6-liter V-6 under the hood (shared with Caddys) it ultimately earned me a reprimand from Mrs. Payne who was trying (unsuccessfully) to dial a  number on her phone: Slow down!

The mid-size sport-ute segment is dominated by the Jeep Grand Cherokee (what better way to signal you are free of the three-row ute and ready for adventure?). So everyone else is trying to get attention with locomotive-size grilles or sporty tuning. The Blazer is definitely on the wild side of the segment, showing up more conservative offerings from Hyundai (Santa Fe) and Ford (Edge).

With its three-story grille and floating roof, it’s a felt suit and open-collar silk shirt next to the buttoned-up Edge. Though the Edge goes further in the sporting department with an ST trim that is a hot hatch on wheels.

Only the bling-tastic Nissan Murano and its rock-star wardrobe out-blazes the Blazer.

But where the Chevy really excels — and adopts the best of the Camaro — is inside.

No, not the Camaro’s tomb-like visibility — but its tablet screen, sport gauges and unique console with big aviator vents that can be rotated to control cabin temps. The Blazer improves on its muscle-car sibling by placing these controls higher on the console for good visibility and air flow.

GM has been tech-savvy with 4G WiFi and smartphone apps, and the infotainment system reflects that work. Ergonomics are great with clever tools like volume controls on the back of the steering wheel. The attention to detail extends beyond the console with A-pillar aviator vents, sliding rear seats and rear-seat alert.

Again, I compare it to the expensive Audi Q8 — which boasts one of the best interiors in luxury — and the Chevy exudes personality without the premium price tag.

Not all tech is useful, however.

Chevy continues to insist that its products have start/stop engine systems with no driver option to turn them off. Stop/start is fingernails on the blackboard for a lot of drivers (including this one), and not giving them the option to turn it off just makes them more irritable.

I should mention Blazer comes in multiple trims, including a turbo-4 powered, front-wheel drive, $29,995 base model. But if you’re looking to simply downsize from a Chevy Traverse, then I’d recommend the compact but roomy Equinox which is plenty sporty for less coin.

The Blazer continues Chevy’s habit of expensive pricing compared to comparably equipped Japanese competitors. A $38,000 V-6 powered Blazer will offer fewer standard options than a $33,000 V-6 powered Honda Passport, for example. A coveted brand like Jeep might get away with this, but not Chevy.

What the Blazer has that Equinox/Passport/Jeep don’t is that RS badge. It’s Camaro inspired with Camaro swagger.

It’s the fashionistas’ choice. And like designer clothing, it’ll cost you. My RS tester cashed out at the nose-bleed price of $50,000, which is $3,500 more than the comparably equipped Ford Edge ST I test drove last fall. The Ford’s interior feels dated next to the Chevy’s digs and the Blazer is leaner by 200 pounds, but my motorhead heart beats for the ST badge and its timeless styling, tight handling and 335-horse twin-turbo V-6 (which will leave the Chevy’s normally aspirated V-6 gasping).

Blazer is a work in progress with annoying ticks like stop/start that distract from its nimble handling. And that sticker may make you second-guess how much you want that snazzy interior.

But a red-and-black RS will look really nice next to your mid-engine Corvette.

2019 Chevrolet Blazer

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front and four-wheel drive, five-passenger SUV

Price: Base price $35,040 including $1,195 destination charge ($50,765 AWD RS model as tested)

Powerplant: 3.6-liter V-6

Power: 193 horsepower, 198 pound-feet of torque (turbo-4); 308 horsepower, 270 pound-feet of torque (V-6)

Transmission: 9-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.3 sec. (Car and Driver); maximum towing, 4,500 pounds

Weight: 3,810 pounds (4,246 RS as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA: 22 city/27 highway/24 combined (automatic); 18 city/25 highway/21 combined (V-6)

Report card

Highs: Camaro interior done right; wicked RS styling

Lows: No option to turn off start/stop; pricey compared to competition

Overall: 3 stars

Luxury-car market demands huge risks and capital

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 24, 2019

The new Cadillac CT5 enters a stagnant sedan segment at a time when Cadillac is struggling to catch up in SUVs and EVs.

The new Cadillac CT5 enters a stagnant sedan segment at a time when Cadillac is struggling to catch up in SUVs and EVs. (Photo: Cadillac)

New York — The Big Apple’s annual auto show is a tony affair as the world’s luxury automakers try to wow one of the ritziest ZIP codes in the world. But this year’s premium menu is an expensive hash as automakers try to make all things for all people.

Once purveyors of exclusive sleek sedans and sports cars, luxury-makers now must invest in a buffet of options from sedans to SUVs to electric cars. Trying to satisfy the demands of family buyers, performance enthusiasts and government regulators alike, the challenge is difficult enough for industry leaders like Mercedes and BMW.

But for smaller luxury-makers the challenge holds huge risks that demand dizzying amounts of capital. Take Cadillac and Jaguar, two industry icons that are struggling to make the right choices.

“The landscape has gotten very complicated,” says IHS Automotive principal analyst Stephanie Brinley. “The volumes are in SUVs, but it takes time for automakers to make the transition to those platforms. They are increasingly trying to figure out how to share platforms with other brands.”

This year’s New York show features a patchwork of new models — from the giant three-row Mercedes GLS class, to an electric Genesis coupe concept, to small sedans from Cadillac and Jaguar.

On the heels of splashy Oscars ads introducing its full SUV lineup, Cadillac is shifting gears here to sedans. Its CT5 compact sedan that debuted this week marks a major shakeup in the brand’s sedan lineup as a much longer, roomier and luxurious competitor compared to the outgoing ATS.

Impressive as it is, however, the CT5 enters a stagnant sedan segment at a time when Cadillac is struggling to catch up in SUVs and EVs – markets that the Detroit brand has neglected.

Cadillac product marketing chief Jason Sledziewski says making SUV, sedan and electric platforms is an investment in the future: “In order to be part of the luxury industry in the world overall (we’re) becoming what you need to be. There are sedan customers out there, SUVs are growing and we know there is an EV future.”

The CT5 enters the $40,000 compact sedan market against formidable brands like the BMW with its 3-series and Jaguar with its next-generation XE introduced Wednesday.

Jaguar leveraged its reputation for making the gorgeous E-Type sports car and posh XJ sedan to craft the F-Pace SUV for a utility-mad market. Sports-car maker Porsche pioneered the idea in the early 2000s.

The $45,000 Jaguar F-Pace midsize SUV was the hottest-selling SUV in luxury when it was introduced in 2016. It quickly became the brand’s best-seller, for a time outselling the rest of the Jaguar lineup. A smaller E-Pace ute followed. Meanwhile, the brand’s legendary sedans have fallen off a sales cliff.

Still, the XE sedan remains the Jaguar’s number-two seller despite a nearly 50 percent drop in sales last year to about 4,700. Like Cadillac, Jaguar has been maligned for its lack of interior luxury next to German competitors, so it has amped up the XE’s insides.

To juggle changing tastes from sedans to SUVs (and back again if market tastes change) Cadillac and Jaguar have leaned on sister brands to make sense of the enormous capital investment. No longer can luxury brands rely on unique architectures. They must share.

For athletic Jaguar this means, somewhat paradoxically, building on the same SUV platforms as off-road brother Land Rover. The Jaguar E-Pace cuts costs by sharing the front-wheel drive platform of the popular Range Range Evoque.

“The more volume on the same platform, the lower our costs,” says Jaguar-Land Rover product planning chief Dave Larsen.

When Cadillac needed to play catch-up in the three-row SUV segment with the new XT6, it went to the GM toolbox and pulled out the same front-wheel drive platform that undergirds the GMC Acadia.

IHS analyst Brinley says automakers that make luxury and mainstream cars on the same manufacturing line have an advantage. For example, the Honda CR-V and premium Acura RDX come off the same line in East Liberty, Ohio.

The electric race pitches another curveball at carmakers. But this one is dictated not by consumer demand, but by government edict as countries mandate battery-powered vehicles.

“EVs are so much more complicated because there is the whole issue of customer demand,” says Brinley. “It’s more government regulation that is driving this.”

France and England have targeted the internal-combustion engine for elimination by 2040 and 2050, respectively. China – the world’s largest auto market — is expected to follow suit. While Cadillac has abandoned Europe, it sees China as a key to future sales.

Yet, Jaguar and Cadillac are investing in electrics despite weak demand.

Jaguar introduced its battery-powered $70,000 I-Pace on a new, so-called “skateboard” platform last year to rave media reviews. But sales have been disappointing. Just 212 I-Paces were sold last month compared to some 15,000 by Tesla, which dominates the EV market.

Until consumer demand warms, Jaguar is seeking opportunities with autonomous carmakers to build volume and meet stringent government emissions requirements.

Jaguar-Land Rover’s Larsen points out that Google’s autonomous arm, Waymo, has purchased 20,000 I-Paces for the 2021 model year for its self-driving platform. “We’ll be able to meet our federal regulatory requirement with that in the States,” he says.

Cadillac is making its own new electric platform, part of GM’s plans to roll out 20 zero-emission vehicles by 2023.

“Regardless of the automaker, selling electric cars is a loss-making proposition,” says auto analyst and investor Anton Wahlman of Seeking Alpha, “and with over 200 new models coming in the next 3 to 4 years, the competition for a limited number of buyers will become increasingly difficult.”

At least Cadillac doesn’t have to worry about the European market where emissions standards are tightening fast. While Cadillac has thrown its hybrid powertrains overboard to concentrate on battery-electric, Jaguar-Land Rover is promising a hybrid/plug-in or electric version for every model by 2020 to help with European requirements.

“Time is going to tell which electric car strategies will work,” says Brinley. “On paper right now they don’t make sense.”

Adds Wahlman: “Margins are likely to compress even further. For the time being it’s looking like a horrible time for automotive industry profits.”

Payne: Despite Musk’s claims, my Tesla unlikely to drive itself soon

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 24, 2019

On Tesla's latest, "Navigate on Autopilot" upgrade, the Tesla Model 3 will automatically change lanes on the way to its destination. That includes changing lanes when it is balked by a slower car. In this situation on the Lodge freeway, the car informed the driver of the lane change, waited for a faster car to come by, then made the pass.

On Tesla’s latest, “Navigate on Autopilot” upgrade, the Tesla Model 3 will automatically change lanes on the way to its destination. That includes changing lanes when it is balked by a slower car. In this situation on the Lodge freeway, the car informed the driver of the lane change, waited for a faster car to come by, then made the pass. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

Tesla laid out its road map for an autonomous future Monday, and I’m a beta tester.

In a live-streamed conference with investors, the Silicon Valley-based automaker says that cars going into production now will be equipped with the computer chip necessary to be fully self-driving. By sometime next year, predicted showman-and-chief Elon Musk, the company will also roll out a self-driving “robo taxi” service similar to Waymo and Uber that will hustle customers to their destinations — but with no one at the wheel.

Musk also boldly claimed that, after just three years of development, Tesla had developed “the best chip in the world,” which he said was seven times faster than industry’s competitors. What’s more, he was dismissive of the lidar navigation hardware that has been a cornerstone of the rest of the self-driving industry. Lidar uses pulsed lasers to allow a car to “see” what’s around it.

“Lidar is a fool’s errand,” he laughed. “Anyone relying on lidar is doomed.”

Detroit News auto critic Henry Payne took delivery on his Tesla Model 3 in October, 2018 for $57,500. To upgrade to Tesla's latest computer chip, he would need to pay an additional $5000.

Detroit News auto critic Henry Payne took delivery on his Tesla Model 3 in October, 2018 for $57,500. To upgrade to Tesla’s latest computer chip, he would need to pay an additional $5000. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

Tesla’s announcement came at the same time Tesla Model 3 owners like me have been receiving over-the-air updates to their autonomous “Autopilot” systems that increase the car’s ability to drive itself.

Called Navigate on Autopilot, the upgrade is a long way from self-driving, but gives owners a glimpse of the future. And it gives Tesla valuable, real-world data to test their technology.

Fun as it is, it seems generations away from full self-driving.

My state-of-the-art, Level 2 system requires constant attention from the pilot and makes for some nervy moments at the envelope’s edge. But with tens of thousands of beta testers on the road like me logging millions of miles, Musk touted Tesla’s leadership role in the race to autonomy and insisted full autonomy is right around the corner.

“The powerful sustainable force for us is the fleet,” said Musk. “We have 100 times the number of cars on the road (compared to competitors). It’s a massive data advantage.”

That plan has attracted skeptics — and billions in capital from investors such as Transpire Ventures’ John Meyer.

“Tesla’s autonomous vehicle training data clobbers anyone else aside from Waymo,” says Meyer. “This is due to the hundreds of thousands of cars that have been on the road for years, all of which have been collecting data on real-time driving … and sending it back up to Tesla.”

 
Tesla's Navigate on Autopilot software is voluntary. The driver can choose the settings they prefer from DISABLED to MAD MAX.
Tesla’s Navigate on Autopilot software is voluntary. The driver can choose the settings they prefer from DISABLED to MAD MAX. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

My Navigate on Autopilot came over the air (along with a 5% power boost to my already capable 271-horse system) on April 9 at midnight, just like an update to my smartphone.

The following morning, the Model 3’s giant console screen told me the car was now capable of changing lanes on its own once I had set a navigation point. Tesla allows me to set the test parameters —  from Disable to Mild to Average to Mad Max (Tesla-speak for the most aggressive setting).

Naturally, I went for Mad Max.

Like Cadillac’s SuperCruise, Navigate on Autopilot is geo-fenced — that is, it only works on limited-access highways and freeways like the Lodge and Interstate 75. As I navigated M-10 to downtown Detroit from Oakland County, the car took over from me, following the 70 mph speed limit in the slow lane. When I encountered a slower car the screen informed me it was “Changing lanes into faster lane.”

The car paused. Waited for faster cars to pass. Then turned into the left lane, accelerated around the passed car, and pulled back into the right lane. Impressive.

But my eyes never left the road. There are infinite variables that a robot car can still not see — like potholes, which are ubiquitous in Detroit this time of year. Or the odd ladder that’s fallen off a truck.

Were any of these objects in the road, I would have had to seize the wheel to avoid them — an action that the car would initially resist with a tug (hey, I’m driving!).

A fellow Tesla owner friend has no interest in wrestling with such ambiguities and tells me he’s passing on being a beta tester, thank you very much.

“That scares me,” he says.

It hasn’t scared some people enough, and there have been some terrible accidents as Tesla drivers took Autopilot at its word.

Nevertheless, Tesla insists it can overcome such obstacles with the new computer chip, part of Tesla’s so-called HW3 package that includes a radar, cameras and 12 sonar devices to navigate its landscape.

“The core problem of neural networks (the brain of a self-driving car) is recognizing objects,” said Tesla director of artificial intelligence, Andrej Karpathy. “Neural networks work better with more data.”

So when my car encounters, say, another car moving into its lane — what Tesla calls a “cut-in” — the neural network takes that experience, coupled with thousands of others, to teach cars how to drive.

“We ask the fleet to automatically send us car cut-ins,” says Karpathy. “Then we train the network. Why is Tesla unique? Because we have the fleet.”

Tesla is unique in not adding lidar to help with the task of identifying objects. That move defies rivals like Waymo, Uber and General Motors’ Cruise Automation autonomous programs.

I have driven in Waymo and Uber self-driving cars, and they are heavily reliant on lidar. Those companies, too, have promised fully self-driving cars on the road by the end of this year.

For all my car’s contributions to Tesla’s learning, I would need to upgrade its computer chip to the HW3 standard — at a cost of $7,000 on top of the $57,500 I have already spent — to be eligible for Musk’s robo-taxi service.

“People will be able to add (their own cars) to the Tesla network with Tesla taking 25-30% of the revenue,” says Musk.

My car is currently equipped with HW2 hardware which will not be able to run the software the company says will be necessary to negotiate everything that Michigan roads will throw at me: potholes, ice, blowing snow.

Call me skeptical. I doubt full self-driving is a year away, much less 10 years away.

But in the meantime I’ll be beta-testing Tesla’s software upgrades and setting them on Mad Max.

Last year in San Francisco, I took a Tesla Model S in self-driving mode onto a highway cloverleaf. The car couldn’t make it.

At the end of my trip this month when I (automatically) exited the Lodge in my Model 3, it slowed down to 35 mph and gingerly made its way around the cloverleaf.

Mission accomplished. And I was hovering nervously over the steering wheel the whole way.

Payne: Top 10 premieres at New York auto show

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 21, 2019

New York — The Detroit auto show this year was a shadow of itself as foreign luxury automakers fled in droves. Except for BMW, the luxury crowd is well-represented at the New York auto show.

Despite that, Detroit automakers steal Gotham’s show. There’s the Jeep Gladiator pickup, and its off-road experience outside Javits Convention Center that will have the public lining up from Hell’s Kitchen to Brooklyn. And an electric pickup from Plymouth-based Rivian. And the ferocious Ford Mustang GT500.

A variety of vehicles also make their debuts in New York. Here are my favorites.

Koenigsegg Jesko – New York features high-end toys like no other North American show. This year the show attracted such curiosities as the BAC Mono (a single-seat rocketship) and the $2 million Karlmann King (Batmobile meets SUV), but my favorite came from Sweden’s hypercar maker. With a claimed top speed of 300 mph, the Jesko eclipses its 278-mph Agera predecessor as the fastest car in the world. The Jesko manages this feat with (cough) 1,579 horsepower, all-wheel drive and a carbon-fiber tub.

Koenigsegg Jesko, on display at the 2019 New York Auto Show.

Cadillac CT5 – Cadillac takes the mid-size CTS platform downmarket with a thoroughly remade, compact BMW 3-series fighter. Interior room may be best-in-class, but the CT5 still has plenty of hustle from your option of two turbocharged engines. Gone is the fussy, haptic CUE system replaced by your choice of infotainment controls: touchscreen, remote rotary-dial or voice control.

Ford Escape – After a Henry Ford Museum coming-out party this spring, the compact ute makes its first appearance on a show floor. And boy, does thing look good. Located just down the hall from the Porsche Macan from which it takes design cues, it’s sleek and sporty. That magic continues inside with electronic tricks like one-button-activated self-park assist. The Lincoln Corsair — based on the same roomy platform — also debuted at this show, but I’m not sure it’s worth $15,000 over the sophisticated Escape.

Hyundai Sonata, on display at the 2019 New York Auto Show.
Hyundai Sonata – Welcome back, Sonata. After a detour to Vanilla Town with its last-generation sedan, the Sonata is back with a head-turner. The design features such innovations as LED running lights along the hood – and a seamless hood over a rimless grille, usually associated with Aston Martin. Inside, rear-seat passengers get more room than Delta first class.

Ford Mustang Ecoboost High Performance – Despite its awkward name (they couldn’t have called it a Mustang ST?), this pony car is an affordable track toy. Rescuing the throaty 330-horse, 2.3 liter turbo-4 from the Focus RS hot hatch, the Mustang saves 150 pounds up front compared to a V-8 ’Stang. That’ll make it a treat at weekend autocrosses and Waterford Hills track days.

The 2020 Porsche 911 Speedster Heritage Edition is shown at the New York Auto Show.

Porsche 911 Speedster – The special-edition Speedster says auf wiedersehen to the current-generation 911. It doesn’t come cheap at $275,750, but in return you own one of 1,948 copies (Porsche’s founding year) and unique deck “streamers” behind the front seats like the 1950s classics. In the boot is a loud, naturally aspirated flat-6 that also sounds like the good ol’ days.

Subaru Outback at the 2019 New York Auto Show.Subaru Outback – To introduce the latest version of its iconic crossover, Subaru built a spectacular floor display that transports visitors to an outdoor national park. A mainstay of the Subie lineup with station-wagon utility and all-wheel drive, the Outback sits on a new platform which brings new goodies like a big Tesla-like console screen and a torquey turbo-4 that replaces the reliable flat-6.

Mercedes GLS at the 2019 New York Auto Show.

Mercedes GLS – Mercedes showed its first electric vehicle, the EQC, in New York. But it was overshadowed — literally —  by the hulking GLS three-row SUV, which is where the money is made. The GLS has all the expected Mercedes touches: heated rear seats, voice-recognition controls. But my favorite feature is Carwash mode which closes the big ute tight as a turtle, then raises it up high for maximum fender-well cleaning.

Payne: Kia’s Niro electric SUV shrugs off the cold

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 21, 2019

The 2019 Kia Niro EV has a range of 239 miles and can be recharged on a 100 kWh fast-charger 9though they are rare in the Midwest).

The 2019 Kia Niro EV has a range of 239 miles and can be recharged on a 100 kWh fast-charger 9though they are rare in the Midwest). (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

And now for something completely different. The battery-powered Kia Niro that suffers no range loss in cold weather.

This has been the winter of my battery discontent. I enjoy electric vehicles, from the Chevy Volt to the Hyundai Kona to my Tesla Model 3. They are all mass-market targeted with attractive designs, good cabin room and — in the case of the Kona and Niro (and the Volt’s sister Bolt EV) — utilitarian hatchbacks. They push the class envelope on acceleration, interior design and technology.

But they also push my patience with serious battery degradation when the weather gets frosty outside. Which is often in Michigan.

When the mercury drops below 40 degrees, battery range drops with it. At 30 degrees, range suffers by 25 percent. Under 20 degrees (including the sub-zero polar vortex this winter), range drops a dramatic 50 percent.

Not the Niro EV.

The little Kia arrived in my driveway this March in 31-degree weather with 163 miles of range left (fully charged the Niro promises a Chevy Bolt-like 239 miles). I jumped in for an afternoon’s adventure … but not too much of an adventure, mindful that I likely had just 115 miles of actual range.

The game was on. I logged 77 miles that day while losing just 70 miles off the battery, an unprecedented feat. And I wasn’t babying the Niro, either.

My journey took me across 70 mph interstates (hitting 80 mph at times, and a steady state of 75) as well as Detroit city traffic. Oakland County twisties. Meijer parking lots. I flogged the Kia in Eco, Normal and Sport modes just like every other EV I’ve driven.

Luxury-car market demands huge risks and capital

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 21, 2019

The new Cadillac CT5 enters a stagnant sedan segment at a time when Cadillac is struggling to catch up in SUVs and EVs.

The new Cadillac CT5 enters a stagnant sedan segment at a time when Cadillac is struggling to catch up in SUVs and EVs. (Photo: Cadillac)

New York — The Big Apple’s annual auto show is a tony affair as the world’s luxury automakers try to wow one of the ritziest ZIP codes in the world. But this year’s premium menu is an expensive hash as automakers try to make all things for all people.

Once purveyors of exclusive sleek sedans and sports cars, luxury-makers now must invest in a buffet of options from sedans to SUVs to electric cars. Trying to satisfy the demands of family buyers, performance enthusiasts and government regulators alike, the challenge is difficult enough for industry leaders like Mercedes and BMW.

But for smaller luxury-makers the challenge holds huge risks that demand dizzying amounts of capital. Take Cadillac and Jaguar, two industry icons that are struggling to make the right choices.

“The landscape has gotten very complicated,” says IHS Automotive principal analyst Stephanie Brinley. “The volumes are in SUVs, but it takes time for automakers to make the transition to those platforms. They are increasingly trying to figure out how to share platforms with other brands.”

This year’s New York show features a patchwork of new models — from the giant three-row Mercedes GLS class, to an electric Genesis coupe concept, to small sedans from Cadillac and Jaguar.

On the heels of splashy Oscars ads introducing its full SUV lineup, Cadillac is shifting gears here to sedans. Its CT5 compact sedan that debuted this week marks a major shakeup in the brand’s sedan lineup as a much longer, roomier and luxurious competitor compared to the outgoing ATS.

Impressive as it is, however, the CT5 enters a stagnant sedan segment at a time when Cadillac is struggling to catch up in SUVs and EVs – markets that the Detroit brand has neglected.

Cadillac marketing chief Jason Sledziewski says making SUV, sedan and electric platforms is an investment in the future: “In order to be part of the luxury industry in the world overall (we’re) becoming what you need to be. There are sedan customers out there, SUVs are growing and we know there is an EV future.”

The CT5 enters the $40,000 compact sedan market against formidable brands like the BMW with its 3-series and Jaguar with its next-generation XE introduced Wednesday.

Jaguar leveraged its reputation for making the gorgeous E-Type sports car and posh XJ sedan to craft the F-Pace SUV for a utility-mad market. Sports-car maker Porsche pioneered the idea in the early 2000s.

The $45,000 Jaguar F-Pace midsize SUV was the hottest-selling SUV in luxury when it was introduced in 2016. It quickly became the brand’s best-seller, for a time outselling the rest of the Jaguar lineup. A smaller E-Pace ute followed. Meanwhile, the brand’s legendary sedans have fallen off a sales cliff.

Still, the XE sedan remains the Jaguar’s number-two seller despite a nearly 50 percent drop in sales last year to about 4,700. Like Cadillac, Jaguar has been maligned for its lack of interior luxury next to German competitors, so it has amped up the XE’s insides.

To juggle changing tastes from sedans to SUVs (and back again if market tastes change) Cadillac and Jaguar have leaned on sister brands to make sense of the enormous capital investment. No longer can luxury brands rely on unique architectures. They must share.

For athletic Jaguar this means, somewhat paradoxically, building on the same SUV platforms as off-road brother Land Rover. The Jaguar E-Pace cuts costs by sharing the front-wheel drive platform of the popular Range Range Evoque.

“The more volume on the same platform, the lower our costs,” says Jaguar-Land Rover product planning chief Dave Larsen.

When Cadillac needed to play catch-up in the three-row SUV segment with the new XT6, it went to the GM toolbox and pulled out the same front-wheel drive platform that undergirds the GMC Acadia.

IHS analyst Brinley says automakers that make luxury and mainstream cars on the same manufacturing line have an advantage. For example, the Honda CR-V and premium Acura RDX come off the same line in East Liberty, Ohio.

The electric race pitches another curveball at carmakers. But this one is dictated not by consumer demand, but by government edict as countries mandate battery-powered vehicles.

“EVs are so much more complicated because there is the whole issue of customer demand,” says Brinley. “It’s more government regulation that is driving this.”

France and England have targeted the internal-combustion engine for elimination by 2040 and 2050, respectively. China – the world’s largest auto market — is expected to follow suit. While Cadillac has abandoned Europe, it sees China as a key to future sales.

Yet, Jaguar and Cadillac are investing in electrics despite weak demand.

Jaguar introduced its battery-powered $70,000 I-Pace on a new, so-called “skateboard” platform last year to rave media reviews. But sales have been disappointing. Just 212 I-Paces were sold last month compared to some 15,000 by Tesla, which dominates the EV market.

Until consumer demand warms, Jaguar is seeking opportunities with autonomous carmakers to build volume and meet stringent government emissions requirements.

Jaguar-Land Rover’s Larsen points out that Google’s autonomous arm, Waymo, has purchased 20,000 I-Paces for the 2021 model year for its self-driving platform. “We’ll be able to meet our federal regulatory requirement with that in the States,” he says.

Cadillac is making its own new electric platform, part of GM’s plans to roll out 20 zero-emission vehicles by 2023.

“Regardless of the automaker, selling electric cars is a loss-making proposition,” says auto analyst and investor Anton Wahlman of Seeking Alpha, “and with over 200 new models coming in the next 3 to 4 years, the competition for a limited number of buyers will become increasingly difficult.”

At least Cadillac doesn’t have to worry about the European market where emissions standards are tightening fast. While Cadillac has thrown its hybrid powertrains overboard to concentrate on battery-electric, Jaguar-Land Rover is promising a hybrid/plug-in or electric version for every model by 2020 to help with European requirements.

“Time is going to tell which electric car strategies will work,” says Brinley. “On paper right now they don’t make sense.”

Adds Wahlman: “Margins are likely to compress even further. For the time being it’s looking like a horrible time for automotive industry profits.”

 

VW tests the waters with a midsize pickup concept

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 21, 2019

The Tarok, Volkswagen's midsize pickup concept, was unveiled Wednesday at the New York auto show.

The Tarok, Volkswagen’s midsize pickup concept, was unveiled Wednesday at the New York auto show. (Photo: Volkswagen)

New York – To atone for its Dieselgate sins, Volkswagen has been touting its electric future, from its ID line of EVs to its Electrify America charging network.

But VW has to make money to fund its electric dream. To that end, it has used the 2018 and 2019 New York auto show to introduce gas-powered pickup truck concepts.

The Tarok midsize pickup concept made its debut on the New York show floor Wednesday, following the larger Tanoak pickup that took a bow last year.

The Tarok shared billing with the ID Buggy, an electric reinterpretation of the classic American dune buggy. The Buggy joins ID concepts like the Roomzz SUV, Vizzion car, Crozz SUV and Buzz microbus.

The Tarok is aimed at the mid-size U.S. pickup space, which has been one of the fastest growing segments in auto. The Tarok has a 117-inch wheelbase, which is small for the segment. It is 11 inches shy of the larger Tanoak which is based on VW’s biggest SUV, the Atlas.

A VW spokesperson said the company was testing the waters with the Tarok, adding that the smaller pickup could lower the cost of entry into the market.

The Tarok is based on the same versatile MQB platform that under-girds the Golf hatchback, Jetta sedan, Arteon SUV and other models that sell in the hundreds of thousands world-wide. But the platform is a unibody construction that has proved a difficult sell in a U.S. pickup market dominated by rugged, so-called “ladder frame” architectures use by everything from the Ford Ranger to the Toyota Tacoma.

The only unibody midsize pickup made for the U.S., the Honda Ridgeline, has won media raves for its roomy interior and smooth ride. But it has struggled to get traction in the market.

VW has entered a partnership with Ford to sell vehicles globally, but there are no plans to partner on Ford’s ladder-frame pickup chassis in the U.S. The unibody construction for either the Tarok or Tanaok concepts is attractive to the brand because it could be constructed at VW’s North American plants in Tennessee or Mexico. That would avoiding the steep “chicken tax” tariff on pickups  that make it cost-prohibitive to import pickups from outside North America.

VW currently makes a ladder-frame Amarok pickup in Argentina for international markets, but importing it here would be subject to the tariff.

With its smaller size and possible cheaper price, VW says there is an opportunity for Tarok to attract young buyers looking for a hip, fuel-efficient wood-hauler.

With that in mind, the all-wheel drive Tarok is powered by a sippy 147-horsepower, 1.4-liter turbo-4.

To make up for its shorter length (a foot shorter than Detroit competitors) the Tarok invents the neat party trick of dropping the wall behind the rear seats. With the seats flattened, owners could use the added space for more cargo and long objects.

The Tarok is attractively designed with signature VW touches like a horizontal grille and taillights. The interior is upscale like other VW models. And to demonstrate the little truck’s off-road chops, the Tarok has an approach angle of 23.8 degrees, a departure angle of over 26 degrees and ground clearance of almost 10 inches.

And with a claimed payload capacity of 2,271 pounds, it could carry a lot more mulch than an electric dune buggy.

Chinese Qiantu electric supercar targets U.S. market

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 21, 2019

China's Qiantu K50 electric supercar.

China’s Qiantu K50 electric supercar. (Photo: Qiantu Motors)

New York – Make it three Chinese cars coming to the U.S. market in 2020.

Qiantu Motors unveiled the Qiantu K50 electric supercar at the New York auto show on Wednesday, throwing its hat in the U.S. ring along with GAC and Byton as Chinese automakers bringing models to the U.S. next year.

Their products will be a diverse lot. GAC has a gas-powered family SUV introduced at this year’s Detroit auto show, while Byton’s M-Byte is an electric SUV with a giant dash-screen that’s aimed at Tesla. Introduced at last year’s Los Angeles auto show, the M-Byte has a sister in the wings, the K-Byte sedan.

The Qiantu K50 is all about green speed.

Developed in China with a U.S. distribution network by Mullen, Qiantu (pronounced “Shan-too”) will assemble the K50 in North America. It is already under production in China. The EV bears the proportions of a mid-engine sports car like the Audi R8. Behind the cockpit, however, resides a T-shaped battery, not an engine. That battery powers an all-wheel drive, 430-horsepower powertrain with electric motors in the front and rear.

“We are thrilled to bring the Qiantu K50 to the North American epicenter of luxury, design and entrepreneurial spirit — New York City,” said David Michery, Mullen founder and CEO. “These are three of our brand’s core values, which are embodied in our first flagship vehicle with zero CO2 emissions.”

To help its need for speed, the K50 is built on a a lightweight aluminum chassis with body panels crafted from carbon fiber. Add the massive lithium-ion battery, though, and the car tips the scales at a heavy 4,300 pounds. The battery is liquid-cooled and heated for seasonal climates, unlike many EVs on the market today.

In addition to its mid-engine layout, the K50 shares design cues with other supercars. Its rear lights remind of McLaren while its dark black “sideburns” echo the first-generation Audi R8.

The low, swoopy nose bears the Qiantu dragonfly logo, but no grille.

The sports car is said to have a range of 230 miles on a single charge. Targeting a supercar market home to some of the world’s most prestigious brands, the Chinese rookie will come equipped with premium touches like a 15.6-inch digital instrument display, leather and Alcantara sports seats, solar-powered air circulation, and three drive modes: Adaptive, Sport and Boost.

Mullen has a used-car sales infrastructure in the U.S. and is building retail stores specially for the K50. The supercar is scheduled to be on lots in late 2020 with a sticker price between $100,000-$150,000, putting it in the same space as the BMW i8 plug-in and Audi R8.

The Qiantu K50 is trying to succeed where other electric supercar start-ups have failed. Both Faraday Future and Lucid have teased EVs for the U.S. market but haven’t been able to follow through on production.

GAC, which first showed its Trumpchi SUV at the 2018 Detroit show, has a production-ready version of an SUV.  But its entry has been delayed by the U.S.-China tariff spat. It’s due to make landfall here in early 2020.

GAC sold more than 500,000 vehicles in 16 countries last year, but most of its sales have been in China. It plans to expand to Africa, South America and other Asian markets this year.

Start-up Byton is on ambitious schedule to get its SUV to market next year. It wowed the LA show with it’s a big-screen interior that hints at an autonomous future. It has pulled some of its engineering talent from BMW and has offices in Germany, the U.S. and China.

Green and gas-guzzler Mercedes SUVs debut

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 21, 2019

Mercedes debuted its giant three-row, gas-guzzling GLS SUV  on Wednesday in New York.

Mercedes debuted its giant three-row, gas-guzzling GLS SUV on Wednesday in New York. (Photo: Daimler AG)

New York – In the age of $2.80 gas, giant fuel-guzzling SUVs are funding automakers’ investments in money-losing electric vehicles. For example, Chevy funds its Bolt EV with profits from its three-row Suburban SUV.

Same goes for Mercedes-Benz.

The German automaker on Wednesday revealed an all-new three-row Mercedes GLS SUV. It’s quite a contrast with the Mercedes EQC, a compact electric SUV that debuted at the CES technology show in January and gave Americans their first look at the brand’s new EQ electric line.

The two SUVs share little except standard all-wheel drive, a state-of-the-art MBUX infotainment system and a curb weight in excess of 5,300 pounds.

Though the three-row GLS is two vehicle sizes bigger than the EQC (which is based on the same chassis as Mercedes’ gas-powered GLC compact SUV), the EV’s 80-kWh batteries are a boat anchor bringing its weight on par with its big brother.

The EQC is the first entry in a new brand of Mercedes SUVs, just as BMW has introduced an i-line of electric cars and Volvo has started a Polestar EV line. For New York, Mercedes is showing a special edition EQC 1886 – a reference to Karl Benz’s first three-wheel vehicle in 1886. The special edition is loaded with luxury details.

Unlike competing SUV EVs like the Audi e-Tron or Tesla Model X, Mercedes has not made a new “skateboard” chassis for the EQC, but adapted an existing SUV chassis. As a result, the Mercedes is quick to 60 in under 5 seconds but lacks its competitors’ lower center of gravity for nimbler handling.

The giant GLS, which originally debuted in 2006 and is made in Alabama for the American market, makes a nod toward electrification by introducing a 48-volt system for both its turbo V-6 and V-8 engines. The system helps with fuel efficiency, smooths the drivetrain and allows for a power boost of up to 21 horsepower when desired.

Even at an estimated 20 mpg fuel economy, however, the GLS will go much farther than the EQC on a tank of fuel thanks to its mammoth 26-gallon fuel tank. The GLS will drive 500 miles on a tank while the EQC will get an estimated 200 miles on a charge. Final EPA numbers will be disclosed as the GLS comes to market later this year and the EQC debuts in 2020.

The big GLS is based on a unibody chassis unlike truck-based three-row competitors like the Cadillac Escalade and Lincoln Navigator. Its third row is no less roomy, though. The rear seats are also heated and are equipped with USB ports (the SUV has nine in all).

MBUX enables speech recognition command by simply introducing yourself to the system — “Hey, Mercedes” and then telling it what you want. The system first appeared on the entry-level A-class sedan and has migrated upward to its expensive SUVs.

Such amenities are common in the imposing SUV which will likely start in the mid-$60,000 range but top out north of $100,000 if you want to option the V-8 engine and other amenities.

Those amenities include optional second-row captains chairs over the standard bench seat. The second-row thrones get their own tablet for controlling cabin features.

The standard all-wheel drive system is mated to the 362-horse, 3.0-liter turbo V-6 or turbo-V8 putting out 483. The GLS is equipped with safety technology like automatic braking and blind-spot assist to help it avoid trouble – or avoid causing trouble.

The big German introduces a standard Carwash mode that preps the vehicle — with the push of a button — to enter a car wash. The program sets the car in the highest riding position for maximum cleaning of wheel wells. It folds the mirrors, closes the sunroof and any open windows, and  turns off features like automatic windshield wipers when water hits the car.

At the end of the wash, the GLS will automatically deactivate these settings and drive autonomously away at 12 mph.

The GLS bears Mercedes’ familiar, imposing grille highlighted by a giant, three-pointed star logo.

As an electric vehicle that doesn’t need air for a radiator, the EQC’s grille is put to a different use: styling.

The logo lights up – complementing a wide LED light that connects the two headlights and fames the deep, black grille. The grille shield looks more Honda than Mercedes and is the signature for Mercedes’ new EQ line.

Times are a-changing.

Jaguar returns to its roots with 2020 XE performance sedan

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 21, 2019

The Jaguar XE is refreshed, luxurious and eager to remind you that the Brit brand still makes fast rear-wheel drive cars.

The Jaguar XE is refreshed, luxurious and eager to remind you that the Brit brand still makes fast rear-wheel drive cars. (Photo: James Lipman, jameslipman.com)

New York – The Jaguar XE is refreshed, luxurious and eager to remind you that the Brit brand still makes fast rear-wheel drive cars.

Remember Jaguar sedans? The sleek cats have, along with its growling sports cars, defined the brand for nearly a century. All that changed in 2016 when Jaguar – following Porsche’s lead with the Cayenne and Macan SUVs – translated its sporty DNA into the F-Pace ute which instantly became the hottest-selling Jaguar. By a lot.

Its 18,000-a-year sales dwarfed those of its XE, XF and XJ sedan stablemates. It led to the launch of another small ute, the E-Pace, that was based on a front-wheel-drive Range Rover Evoque, for goodness sake. When it came time for Jag to introduce an electric car, it even crafted that as a higher-riding SUV.

The athletic XE takes Jaguar back to its roots while adding significant interior and engine upgrades.

The entry-level compact sedan maintains its light, mostly aluminum platform which has won raves as one of the nimblest in the luxury jungle. The Jag is available in rear-wheel and all-wheel drive configurations driven by one of two Ingenium 2.0-liter turbo-4 engines, one making 247 horsepower and the other 297. The latter can spring from zero-60 in 5.4 seconds.

Gone from the menu are the diesel and 340-horse V-6 options.

The most notable change comes inside where the previous model was dinged for failing to match luxury-class expectation.

“The last car, frankly, we left a bit short,” says Jaguar design chief Ian Callum. “The whole interior has been retouched.”

Surrounding the monostable shifter is an optional 10-inch console screen that mimics the design found in the upscale I-Pace EV as well as SUVs from Jaguar’s sister Land Rover brand. Below the main screen is a second 5.5-inch touchscreen controlled by two fat knobs that separate climate control from the upper infotainment screen. Twin-screen systems are back in vogue these days with Audi adopting a similar layout, ditching its long-time rotary controller.

To keep the driver’s attention through the twisties, the instrument panel behind the steering wheel is 12.3 inches wide and stoked with digital information. A head-up display is also available, as are clever features like self-park-assist and a rear-view camera mirror like that innovated on the Cadillac CT6. With the flip of a switch, the mirror can toggle between reflective and camera views.

At the driver’s fingertips, a rotary shifter has been replaced by monostable device familiar to the F-Type sports car. Like the F-Type, the XE will only be available with an 8-speed automatic transmission.

All this tech is wrapped in more luxurious materials than before including new door handles and standard leather seats.

Befitting the Jaguar’s sleek, purposeful exterior design, wardrobe changes are small. The grille has been widened up front and the headlamps and air intakes leaned to give the car a more athletic stance.

“The new Jaguar XE is all about building on the undeniable sporting proportions of the original car,” says designer Callum. “We’ve given the car much bolder graphics and more visual width, planting it in a way which really illustrates its dynamic intent.”

The XE will go on sale this summer. Right next to the brand’s SUVs.

Payne: Ford offers affordable, high-performance 2020 Mustang

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 21, 2019

Ford debuted the Ford Mustang Ecoboost High Performance to media at the Cork &  Gabel restaurant in Corktown across from Ford's new train station tech building.

Ford debuted the Ford Mustang Ecoboost High Performance to media at the Cork & Gabel restaurant in Corktown across from Ford’s new train station tech building.  (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

The passionate heart of the Ford Focus RS is still beating. It’s under the hood of a Mustang.

Ford Motor Co. unveiled its first, turbo-4 cylinder-powered performance Mustang Monday to complement its lineup of V8-powered beasts like the GT Performance Pack, GT350 and GT500. Called the Ford Mustang EcoBoost High Performance, the entry-level pony resurrects the ferocious, 2.3-liter mill from the discontinued RS — a victim of Ford’s exit from sedan segments.

Armored with aerodynamic tools like a front splitter and rear aerofoil, gummy tires from Pirelli, and bigger brakes, the EcoBoost High Performance will be priced well below the retired, $41,000 Focus RS (not to mention the GT Performance Pack which can easily run north of $45,000) when it hits dealers this fall.

“At the heart of this Mustang is the engine,” smiles Mustang Vehicle Product Manager Tom Barnes. “This is really a fun car to drive. It’s for the guys who like to so the same thing that RS customers do.”

Mustang sales left its crosstown, Chevy Camaro rival in the dust last year, 75,842 units to 50,963. Mustang sees a chance to pick off even more buyers with its new performance model.

The new pony is aimed squarely at the Chevy Camaro 1LE, a similarly-styled muscle car powered by a 275-horse, turbo-4. Since their recent upgrades to more athletic chassis, Mustang and Camaro have been in an expensive arms race to produce the fastest track weapon with Mustang’s 700-plus horse, $70,000 GT500 due later this year to battle the $70,000, 650-horse ZL1.

The Camaro 1LE and EcoBoost High Performance take the war to a more affordable battlefield.

Ford engineers say the new model came together quickly in the last year in order to make Mustang’s 55th birthday this week (the car debuted on April 17, 1964 at the World’s Fair). Reminiscent of the gen-one Mustang’s development six decades ago, the car began as a five-person skunkworks project in the Ford Performance garage.

You’ll know it by its unique grille, black “hood whisker” stripes, 2.3-liter side badge, and wicked black wheels.

Mated to either a 10-speed automatic or a 6-speed manual transmission, the RS engine is not only more powerful than the Camaro, but offers entry-level Mustang buyers a second engine choice above the standard, 310-horse 4-banger. Built in Valencia, Spain, it has been spun around from the front-wheel-drive, Focus application to fit the Mustang’s longitudinal, rear-wheel-drive demands.

Where the AWD RS put down 350 horsepower/350 pound-feet of torque the Mustang version will pump out 330 horses and the same torque through the rears. Expect the new model to be 300 pounds lighter than a V-8-powered ‘Stang — but about 100 pounds more than an RS.

“The lighter weight up front really makes this car turn in quickly,” says Mustang and Ford Performance Chief Engineer Carl Widmann, who says the EcoBoost High Performance straps on an engine brace for added stiffening.

Sticky, 19-inch Pirelli rubber will aid that turn-in. Mustang contracts with the Italian tiremaker for its turbo-4 cars and Michelin for its V-8s. A sprint to 60 mph will blow by in about 4.5 seconds — arriving a half-second quicker than the standard ‘Stang. Top speed? 155 — 34 mph quicker than the base car.

For those who want more, options abound. The EcoBoost High Performance will come in coupe and convertible trims. Coupe buyers can also opt for an EcoBoost Handling Package which adds wider tires, MagneRide shocks, limited-slip rear differential and stiffer sway bars.

Interior options include a digital tachometer, leather seats, and bigger infotainment screen that will run the latest version of SYNC 3 as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Four new colors are available including Grabber Lime, Iconic Silver, Red Hot Metallic, and Twister Orange.

Mustang sales have been split 50-50 between V-8 and turbo-4 engines, but the quieter 4 hasn’t gained the sex appeal of the V-8 with its baritone exhaust and storied racing history. The EcoBoost High Performance may change that with its more aggressive engine note and gurgling backwash.

Look for the new pony in Ford’s New York autos show corral this week. It will be dressed in Velocity Blue.