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Class of ’88: The new Cruise classics

Posted by hpayne on August 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corvette, 35th anniversary edition

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

The Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme

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

Ford Mustang 5.0

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

Camaro IROC-Z

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

Porsche 924S

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

Mazda RX7 convertible

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

Pontiac Fiero GT

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

Audi 5000

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

Buick Reatta

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

Honda CRX Si

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

There you have it. My short list.

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


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

Posted by hpayne on August 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pumping iron: The 2015 Dodge Challenger

Posted by hpayne on August 1, 2014

To call the new, earth-shaking 707 horsepower Dodge Challenger SRT the “Hellcat” seems an understatement.

Were there copyright issues with T-Rex, Godzilla or The Kraken?

Dodge executives say the 2015 Challenger standard-bearer is based on the legendary World War II Grumman Hellcat, the Zero-fighter that ruled the Pacific Ocean skies. Dodge’s supercharged maw seems like something dive-bombing from the sky, all right — but more like a ferocious, fire-breathing dragon. I’m talking Desolation of Smaug here — not that cutie in “How to Train Your Dragon.” I mean, you can hear this thing coming with its shrieking, front air inductor before the 6.2-liter hemi blows you off your feet with its huge, 8 inch-wide, rear dual exhaust outlets.

The supercharged Hellcat leads an army of updated 2015 Challengers into battle in the white hot War of the Muscle Cars. Not since these affordable weapons were birthed in the fiery crucible of the 1960s and ’70s have we seen such an arms race.

 Reigning class leader Camaro has added both horsepower and handling to its arsenal with the 580 horsepower ZL1 howitzer and the Z28 cruise missile. Not to be outdone, Dodge’s SRT Hellcat boasts the segment’s most powerful engine ever, adding to an ammo depot that already includes 5.7- and 6.4-liter hemis. And waiting in the wings is Ford with its new, sleek Mustang which finally matches its rivals with an independent rear suspension.

Remember when Planet Washington wanted to save GM and Chrysler so they could build 40 mpg tin cans? Really? Ask the one million faithful at the Dream Cruise this August to name their dream cars. I’m betting the Big Three of Camaro, Challenger, Mustang top the list.

“If you missed the first muscle car era,” says Dodge CEO Tim Kuniskis, “don’t miss this one.”

Kuniskis leads the combined Dodge-SRT regiment in Gen. Sergio Marchionne’s re-ordered army. Dodge is the cavalry. The horsepower guys. The point of the spear. With his natural swagger and passion for cars, Kuniskis would have made the brawling Dodge brothers proud. This guy chews nails for breakfast.

Introducing his steel soldier, Kuniskis barks out details like “Apocalypse Now” Lt. Col. Kilgore: “The Hellcat has 650 lb.-feet of torque. Top speed of 182 mph. Quarter-mile in 11.2 seconds. It’s loud, obnoxious, pure evil.”

The Challenger is unapologetically menacing.

Like the 2014 Camaro, the Challenger’s cowl has been narrowed from the 2008-14 generation. Its deep-set eyes are even more hooded under an extended brow. By comparison, the 2015 Mustang’s Fusion-like grille and swept headlights are softer. Dashing. European. That’s by design as Ford has recast its muscle car as a sports car to broaden its international reach. Challenger, by contrast, is steroid-fed, all-beef, All-American muscle.

Dodge media materials don’t boast of g-loads or drag coefficients. That’s sports car prattle. It boasts of the Challenger’s quarter-mile times. That’s Yankee drag-strip talk.

And the Hellcat goes like stink. So powerful is this beast that it comes with two keys: One black, the other red. Only the red gives you access to the full 707 horses.

Good choice. I mashed the pedal at Portland International Raceway, and … actually, I didn’t. Never mash a pedal connected to 700 horsepower. Even with measured throttle, this hellion has wheel spin in first and second gears off the line. With a manual shifter, you could spin the rear tires to dust. For more consistent starts, launch control is available. Just 12 seconds later, I was doing 120 mph-plus across the quarter mile.

But where to use such a weapon?

Let’s face it. 707 horsepower is a stunt. A model in hot pants to get folks in the showroom. And at a starting price of $59,995 it will only appeal to a few. Saner minds and smaller bank accounts will find plenty of pleasure in the $37,495, 465 horsepower. 5.7-liter hemi or the $27,995, 3.6-liter base Challenger.

The V-8s have so much torque that they are akin to riding a bull through a rodeo barrel course. By contrast the Pentastar V-6 allows you to master the Challenger’s big chassis. The Challenger is hardly nimble. At nearly 4,500 pounds and that big boat anchor up front, the Hellcat can feel like a rocking horse. Raring to go in a straight line, but nose heavy under braking and nervous in tight bends. Fortunately, the Challenger’s electronic stability control is superb, and the V-6 reduces overall weight to 3,800 pounds — bringing 52-48 balance while still offering plenty of giddyap and a throaty exhaust brap.

Speaking of manners, the updated Challenger has brains to match its brawn.

With electronic steering, electronic shifter and an eight-speed transmission, the Challenger has gained fuel efficiency to go with its bigger biceps. The V-8 options are all less thirsty, and the V-6 boasts 30 mpg on the highway.

The previous-gen Challenger needed an interior decorator. Not the 2015 model. This SRT has been watching HGTV. The new Dodge features soft vinyls and choice details like aluminum bezels that trace the three stylish trapezoids housing the instrument cluster, console and shifter island. The result is a tasteful Dodge interior with a style all its own.

The car’s exterior is also harmonious, simple.

Like its muscle car brethren, the Challenger is respectful of its heritage. Where the outgoing model took its design inspiration from the 1970 car, the 2015 update mimics the 1971 model’s split grille and split tail-light design. But unlike Camaro’s fake side gills, the Challenger eschews ornamentation. Form follows function.

The result is a surprisingly clean, consistent design from base SXT to King SRT. While the Challenger’s 10 trim packages come with a dizzying array of options, a 27-grand V-6 does not look like Megan Fox’s kid sister next to the 60-grand Hellcat. And with its functional rear seat — the two-door Challenger is built on the same platform as the roomy, four-door Dodge Charger. Unlike its tight Camaro and Mustang mates, you can comfortably drive the whole family to the Woodward Dream Cruise.

But when you get there, let them out at Dairy Mart to get ice cream. Then pull out the red key and go light the fires of Hell. You sure this thing shouldn’t be called Nostradamus?

2015 Dodge Challenger

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, five-passenger sports sedan
Price: $27,995 base ($59,995 Hellcat as tested)
Power plants: 3.6-liter, dual overhead cam 6-cylinder Pentastar; 5.7-liter pushrod 8-cylinder Hemi; 6.4-liter pushrod 8-cylinder Hemi; 6.2-liter supercharged DOHC 8-cylinder Hemi
Power: 305 horsepower, 268 pound-feet of torque; 372 hp, 400 lb.-ft. torque; 485 hp, 475 lb.-ft. torque; 707 hp, 650 lb.-ft. torque
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic (six-speed manual available with 6.4-liter Hemi and 6.2-liter supercharged Hemi)
Performance: 0-60 mph, 3.5 seconds (est.); 199 mph top speed (6.2-liter Hellcat)
Weight: 3,834 (V-6) — 4,439 pounds (supercharged V-8 Hellcat)
Fuel economy: EPA combined — TBD
Report card

Highs: Unique, artful interior; menacing good looks
Lows: Awesome power that’s unsafe in the wrong hands; stilted handling


Henry Payne: Hyundai refines Sonata’s allure

Posted by hpayne on July 24, 2014

My wife’s sofas are littered with pillows inscribed with clever sayings. My favorite: “I know I’m efficient. Tell me I’m beautiful.”

The Hyundai Sonata reminds me of that pillow.

Efficient, affordable and reliable, the Sonata suddenly showed up in 2009 looking gorgeous. We gaped at it. We purred over it. We bought it. Dubbed the YF in Hyundai’s internal nomenclature, the midsize sedan wasn’t so much a sonata as it was a rock ‘n’ roll cantata. With a raked nose, open grill, and deep body creases that resembled hollow cheekbones, the Sonata arrived like Mick Jagger kicking in the stage door and singing “Start Me Up” at a violin recital. The docile, middle-aged, midsize sedan segment gasped. And then, irresistibly, they started to tap their feet. Start me up … and don’t stop!

“The YF put us on the map in terms of volume,” says Mike O’Brien, Hyundai Product VP for North America.

 Sales of the Sonata increased nearly 50 percent from 149,000 a year to 215,000. What’s more, it was Made in America with 3,000 Alabamans working at three-shift capacity in Birmingham to keep up with demand. But like ambitious musicians, car brands must evolve to stay relevant. Just as The Stones’ lyrics date them, so do the Sonata’s lines. Four years later, Hyundai is back with a new single — and it’s less rebellious, more mainstream.

“The last Sonata got us into the party,” says O’Brien. “The new one gets us invited back.”


A lot has happened since the 2009 model. To be specific, the Genesis happened. No, not the Genesis Coupe, but Hyundai’s sexy, Euro-styled, Genesis luxury sedan (why two different vehicles in Hyundai’s lineup share a name is a mystery). The Genesis moves the Korean brand uptown in the U.S. market. The last gen Sonata’s daring, slashing architecture inspired other, smaller Hyundai drones — Elantra, Accent — to ambush their segments as well.

Now the Sonata steps to the beat of the Genesis. Where the Sonata pioneered Hyundai’s “Fluidic Sculpture” design philosophy, the Genesis sets the tone of Fluidic Design 2.0. The rest of the lineup will surely follow.

The Sonata’s familiar, fluidic design riffs are still in evidence but have been tidied, tucked, trimmed. Like Jagger singing in a coat and tie at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the rebel is now the establishment.

Like the Genesis, the new LF Sonata’s grille is more upright. The deep, racy shoulder lines have been pulled straight. “Fluidic Sculpture 2.0 is more modern, more detail-oriented,” says O’Brien, a former Ford and Toyota engineer. “It’s elevated to a more premium level. If the YF was a big, showy diamond, the LF is a smaller cut of higher quality.”

The conservative upgrade is echoed inside the Sonata’s swept, coupe-like greenhouse. With rolling edges and a slashing, vertical console, the outgoing Sonata’s interior mirrored its loud exterior. The 2015 model is less busy, more harmonious. Piano-black keys and soft vinyl bring premium refinement across an intuitive, zen landscape. Like horizontal seams across a rock face, parallel lines unify the dash. Beginning left of the steering wheel, horizontally arranged driver assist buttons (governing traction and lane assist) give way to an elegant instrument panel. Seamlessly, the eye moves right to orderly radio and climate controls. A horizon of soft vinyl continues across the glove box, you … are … getting … sleepy … zzzzzz.

OK, so fans of the previous generation may want a little more interior pizzazz. But Hyundai has concentrated the new car’s innovation deeper under the skin.

Like Ford and its Fusion, Hyundai has nixed a V6 from its engine options. Not just banished it. Buried it. With an engine bay designed with only fuel-efficient, four-bangers in mind, the Sonata opens more space for the rest of the chassis to accommodate passengers. The result: the best interior room in class — a yawning 122.4 cubic feet. With the front seat back, I can stretch my 6-foot-5-inch frame to full length — yet the 6-foot-5-inch bloke behind me can still comfortably sit upright, his knees just touching the seat back in front of him.

The benefits extend to the also-roomiest-in-class trunk. Open it and you need a spelunker guide with a torch to find its nether reaches.

Back up, you say. What was that about no V6 option? How are you supposed to lug around all that acreage without upgrading the Sonata’s stock 2.4-liter and 2.0-liter engine options?

Okay, if you’ve come to the midsize class with performance in mind, you might want to keep on walking. The Mazda 6 has more nimble handling. Chrysler’s curvy, all-wheel drive 200 sports a throaty, 295 horsepower, 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 that will better slake your thirst for speed.

Still, the Sonata four-holers — 185 and 245 horsepower, respectively — provide plenty of giddyap. What’s more, you can flog the four hamsters with minimal intrusion into the cabin thanks to the Korean sedan’s superb chassis upgrade. With 40 percent more steel enforcement and a sealed underbelly, the 2015 Sonata barreled over the carriage-rutted roads of Ypsilanti Township with little clatter. Try that in the previous generation YF.

Which leads me to the Sonata’s last clever secret: a turbocharged, 1.6-liter engine offered only in the sedan’s so-called “Eco” trim.

Paired with a seven-gear, dual-clutch transmission, this little gem — combined with my lead right foot — terrorized Ypsilanti while still recording 32 miles per gallon. Yet, the Eco model — in typical Hyundai fashion — comes in at a surprisingly cheap $27,275. Hybrids should shudder at such performance — beginning with $32,785, 38 mpg Sonata hybrid. Do the math.

The crisp, elegant Sonata is a statement that the Hyundai is here to stay. Its bread and butter sedan is a match for anything in the segment — and at a cheaper price with the Sonata $1,200 cheaper on average than key competitors.

Hyundai’s challenges are elsewhere on the menu. The Genesis wants to gain a foothold in the cut-throat lux market while the Tucson struggles to get traction in the red hot, small crossover segment. Indeed, just as Sonata has gained sedan market share, families are moving away from sedans and into crossovers.

The Sonata is runner-up (behind the Chevy Malibu) in JD Power’s Initial Quality Survey. It’s a leader in value. A leader in interior space. Yes, the Sonata is efficient. Just don’t call it beautiful. Handsome will do.

2015 Hyundai Sonata

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger sedan
Price: $22,000 base (Sonata Sport 2.0T $29,385 as tested)
Power plants: 2.4-liter, dual overhead cam 4-cylinder; 2.0-liter turbocharged DOHC 4-cylinder; 1.6-liter turbocharged DOHC 4-cylinder
Power: 185 horsepower, 178 pound-feet of torque; 245 hp, 260 lb.-ft. torque; 177 hp, 195 pound-feet torque
Transmission: Six-speed automatic (seven-speed EcoShift dual clutch transmission with the 1.6-liter turbo)
Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.0 seconds (Sport 2.0L, Car & Driver)
Weight: 3,616 pounds (Sport 2.0T)
Fuel economy: EPA combined 29 mpg (2.4L); 26 mpg (2.0L); 32 mpg (1.6L)
Report card

Highs: Roomy interior; Competence at every turn
Lows: Fluidic dashboard no more; Sport model could use more horses

The best of the best auto features

Posted by hpayne on July 22, 2014

Best ottoman: Honda Fit. Seriously. Get in the backseat, fold the front passenger seatback flat. Put your legs up and stay awhile. (Henry Payne / The Detroit News)

From compacts to muscle cars to crossovers to land yachts, Americans have never had such a broad vehicle menu and I have the pleasure of sampling it for you 365 days a year. It’s not a bad gig. We auto pundits spill gallons of ink picking the Best Sedan, Best SUV, Best Sports Car, and so on.

But what of the myriad features stuffed into the fastest, sexiest, most complex consumer products on earth?

Even before the acceleration of digital wizardry into cars, auto features were worth their own best list. Teams of engineers are assigned to every corner of a vehicle in order to tease out that last styling or ergonomic detail that will make a customer choose, say, a Jeep Grand Cherokee over a Hyundai Santa Fe.

Herewith my 2014 list of the best of the best features in autos today – mechanical, digital, aesthetic, and otherwise. This is hardly a comprehensive list – and I will humbly admit to C pillar-sized blind spots. I have not driven all 290-plus models out there. What did I miss? What is your favorite feature? Please add your “Best of” choice in the Comments field below. First, let’s turn on the lights. . . .

Best headlights: Cadillac Escalade. Bordered by an LED tube waterfall, a ladder of five LED bulbs – each separated by heat-dispersing fins – light the big ute’s path. The Fox Theater’s marquee doesn’t have this much bling.

Best fog lights: VW Golf. Lux vehicles swivel their headlights to follow your path, but only the common Golf (and its Beetle bro’) use their inside fog lamps to illuminate a corner’s apex. High curb? Pothole? You’ll see it.

Best grille: Mercedes CLA250. Put Merc’s star in the middle of a pentagon grille. Then place jewel-like droplets on a thin mesh that radiate out from the logo like ripples on a pond. Eat your heart out Tiffany’s.

Best launch control: Corvette C7. Other supercars – Alfa Romeo 4C, Nissan GTR — offer automatic tranny launch controls so idiot-proof you feel like a passenger on board Cedar Point’s Top Thrill Dragster ‘coaster. The 455-horsepower Stingray gives it to you with a manual. It’s life-altering. Not for the feint-of-heart, it offers a test of your shifter reflexes as you rocket from zero-60 (popping the clutch with your right foot on the floor at a rib cage-rattling 4000 RPM) in 3.8 seconds.

Best alternative drive system: Chevy Volt/Cadillac ELR. Yeah, yeah, I love the electric Tesla Model S, too. Staggering acceleration. Innovative electronics. Acres of interior space. But what if you’ve gotta drive to Marquette? Until electric cars are as cheap as Civics, the charging infrastructure won’t happen. The GM batteries will get you to work. The gas engine will get you Up North.

Best blind spot warning: Acura MDX. I like blind-spot assist. Especially in large SUVs with blind spots the size of Oklahoma. But can I always see the little, blinking car icon? On the outside of my passenger mirror? In the sun? MDX blind-spot indicators are inside the vehicle on the A pillars. Smart.

Best smart key: Hyundai Equus. Approach the Equus and the big sedan senses the key in your pocket, instantly unlocking the doors and opening the side mirrors like hands to greet you. (Okay, it’s a little eerie.)

Best paddle shifters: Mazda MX-5. With all the mighty supercars out there with steering wheel-mounted shifters, who woulda thunk the mini MX-5 would pioneer paired, up-and-down shifters on both sides of the wheel? No longer are both hands a slave to the wheel when shifting.

Best ottoman: Honda Fit. Seriously. Get in the backseat, fold the front passenger seat back flat. Put your legs up and stay a while.

Best touch screen: Chrysler UConnect. I prefer dials whenever possible, but given the amount of stuff you can pack into touch screen systems (not to mention the feds mandating backup cameras), they are to stay. UConnect – in Jeeps, Chryslers, et al – is one useful guide dog.

Best center console: Tesla Model S. A 17-inch tablet. No surprise, it’s from the Silicon Valley-based automaker.

Best backseat: Chrysler/Dodge Stow n’ Go. These ridiculously versatile thrones fold up for easy access to the third row, or fold into the floor, or offer floor storage when upright, or eject you before a crash – safely deploying parachutes for a soft landing (okay, I made that last one up).

Best liftgate: Ford Escape. No contest. Swing your foot under the bumper and the hatch opens.


Happy Birthday, sport: The 2014 Mazda MX-5 Miata

Posted by hpayne on July 17, 2014

Our thirst for 1960s’ nostalgia is bottomless, so automakers keep remaking the classics. Ford will birth a brand new Mustang this fall as it chases GM’s own retro-rod, the Camaro. Alfa Romeo’s 4C is a dead ringer for the ’67 Alfa 33 Sradale, and Jaguar has followed the elegant E-Type with the ferocious F-Type.

Meanwhile, Mazda has cornered the market on wee English sports car nostalgia with the Miata.

Mazda has been so successful in preserving the golden era of Lotus Elans, MG Midgets and Bugeye Sprites that the Miata has become an icon unto itself, now celebrating its 25th year of production. Along the way, the Miata picked up the MX-5 badge to recognize it as a permanent member of the Mazda family, not just a passing salute to ’60s sports cars (and to make it sound more, ahem, macho). Indeed, the mass-produced cutie has far outlasted and outsold its Elan inspiration as the Lotus badge expired after nine years.

Yet Mazda’s little roller-skate has stayed true to its roots: affordable, fuel efficient, and more fun than Monty Python’s Spamalot.

Tight fit

Compact and cramped, the MX-5 is even sized like a British crumpet. It is the tightest fit of any car that I’ve driven. A Fiat 500’s headroom is like the Sistine Chapel compared to this pillbox. Next to an MX-5, the compact Chevy Spark’s driver seat feels like a Vegas pool chair.

The third generation MX-5 remains an homage to the playful Elan’s looks with its smiling, gaping grille which seems to shout — “Aha, I caught ya!” — in your rearview mirror. Early sketches of the all-new, fourth-gen MX-5 (due next year) suggest that the car will conform to the Mazda family’s Kodo-design architecture, cementing its position of permanence in the Mazda lineup.

Wipe a sentimental tear because Mazda does Lotus so well. Indeed, with its open headlights, the MX-5 now echoes the original, legendary 26R, which launched the Elan legend by terrorizing the European GT circuit in the early ’60s. The MX-5’s haunches have also grown, giving the car the more fearsome, feline look of the 26R as opposed to the mousier production Elan (that the original Miata slavishly resembled). Our scrawny cutie has been working out.

Modest in power

Yet, under the bulging hood, the MX-5 remains modest in power.

Its 158 horsepower (with the automatic transmission, 167 ponies with stick) is not a far cry from the Elan original’s 126. The MX-5’s biceps may awaken the corner cop (my MX-5 got appreciative looks wherever I drove), but its 6.9-second 0-60 mph time won’t. Turbocharged pocket rockets like the VW GTI and Ford Focus ST — even the MX-5’s aging brother Mazdaspeed 3 — will eat the MX-5 for breakfast at a Woodward stoplight.

But the MX-5 doesn’t mind. This sports car wants you to have fun, without tempting you to the limits. Maybe that’s why it’s a favorite of drivers’ schools like Barber at Laguna Seca, Calif.

The MX-5 makes an interesting contrast to the howling, Tasmanian Devil-on-wheels Alfa 4C that I recently tested. Both share a short wheelbase. Both tip the scales at about 2,500 pounds. Both are halos for their respective performance brands. But where the 4C wants to set a benchmark for $65,000 luxury greyhounds, the MX-5 offers inspiration for more modest bank accounts.

At your fingertips

Slip into the MX-5’s nicely contoured seats and the whole car feels like it’s at your fingertips. Stretch out your arm and you … can … almost … reach … the rear wheels. The little, three-spoke steering wheel fits compact surrounds. The gearshift is at your elbow. If they remake the Wizard of Oz, the Mayor of Munchkin City will drive up in an MX-5.

WARNING TO BEANSTALKS: THE MX-5 WILL CRAMP YOUR STYLE. Where mid-engine firecrackers like the Alfa 4C offer plenty of leg room, the MX-5’s two-seat layout means the driver is wedged between a fore-mounted engine and a rear-stowed, removable top. The result is little room for maneuver compared to, say, a rear-seated, 2+2 Subaru BRZ. My knees straddled the steering wheel, my back slumped into the seat, my noggin crowded the hardtop ceiling.

Good thing the MX-5 is such a joy to drive topless.

Release the ceiling latch, press the dashboard button and the MX-5’s metal helmet effortlessly retracts into the trunk in just 12 seconds, leaving an airplane luggage-sized trunk space roomy enough for a small suitcase and two Munchkins. At speed, the cabin is remarkably livable, accommodating easy conversation even as you gallop through the Michigan landscape at 70 mph-plus.

The Mazda doesn’t fear the whip. Rollicking over the knobs and nooks of northern Michigan’s Route 66, the MX-5 begs you to slip into manual shift mode.

Ingenious shift paddles

A word here about Mazda’s ingenious shift paddle design. Where most paddle shifters require two hands on the wheel — downshifts with the left hand, upshifts with the right — the MX-5 locates two pairs of up and down paddles on either side of the wheel depending on your hand preference. Shifting with one hand — upshift with the fingertips, downshift with the thumb — frees the offhand to rotate the wheel. Or just cruise one-handed.

Throw this fun-box into a corner and its 51/49 weight balance rotates easily under rear-drive power. The lightweight chassis rarely makes the tires scream, though the steering could use some firming. At full chat, the hydraulic rack feels floaty, rootless. At the end of a good squawk, you don’t feel beat up by an over-stiff chassis, your knuckles aren’t white, and your passenger isn’t searching the glove compartment for a barf bag. Sure, that Alfa 4C you were chasing is in the next county, but you still have an appetite for dinner.

If anything, the sophisticated auto-manual tranny feels out of place in such a back-to-basics car. In an age where electronically-stuffed consoles make autos seem like airliner cockpits, the MX-5 is simple, spartan. The radio is operated by dials, the mileage is reset by a button.

Old school. Old pleasures. Old country. We love our British throwbacks. Happy anniversary, Miata-san. You do a bloody good interpretation of an English classic.

Report card

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, two-passenger sports car
Price: $24,515 base ($32,735 as tested)
Power plant: 2.0-liter, dual overhead-cam 4-cylinder
Power: 158 horsepower, 140 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.9 seconds (Car & Driver)
Weight: 2,542 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 21 mpg city/28 mpg highway/23 mpg combined
Highs: Handy paddle shifters; no-fuss hardtop convertible
Lows: Abrupt downshifts; numb steering

Can the 2015 Buick Enclave still turn heads?

Posted by hpayne on July 14, 2014

It was 2006. The Detroit Auto Show. Buick was pulling the wraps off a large SUV. Granny gets a truck. I’ll take a truck-full of NoDoz, please. What happened next was entirely unexpected.

Buick hit it out of the park.

The sexy Buick Enclave – yes, I just used sexy and Buick in the same sentence — was proof that the struggling brand had a pulse. Retiring the Rendezvous and Rainier dinosaurs, Buick took the opportunity of GM’s new, unibody Lambda platform to redefine the SUV. The result was a head-turning crossover as the Enclave lit up the Detroit stage like a Baroque beauty out of a Paul Rubens painting: Big-boned, athletic, drop-dead gorgeous.

This was not your grandma’s SUV, but a sensual chassis that inspired future Buicks like the cop-magnet Regal RS and the sassy Buick Encore crossover. Buick’s daring was rewarded (isn’t it always?) as Enclaves flew off the showroom floor faster than a Rubens painting at Sotheby’s. But it’s one thing to wow the world with a new bod — and another to stay fit year after year. Just ask Kirstie Alley.

I recently drove a 2015 Enclave wrapped in $54,185, premium trim. Does it have what it takes to compete over time? The big SUV is still gorgeous, but a closer look reveals cause for concern.

Let the record show that Enclave had its best sales year ever in 2013 with 60,534 units sold. After a 2013 update, the Enclave’s looks are still fresh. Despite its size, the 4,700-pound SUV is beautifully proportioned with firm shoulders fore and slinky hips aft. Standing tall on 20-inch heels — er, wheels — the Enclave beckons you to follow it down the road.

The evening gown competition doesn’t end there. The waterfall grille is flanked by big, almond-shaped headlights. The grille carries a little too much chrome jewelry for my taste. Forget the lights, this bauble is blinding. Around back, the Enclave’s plunging v-shaped window line is exquisite (it is a design shared by the lovely Chevy Traverse, which can be confusing).

Yes, the old dame still has it. But why do I have to say “old”?

Now in its seventh model year, a second generation Enclave redesign is not soon on the horizon. The 2013 refresh is nicely done, but in a competitive mid-to-full-size SUV herd, it’s not enough for the Enclave to rest on its laurels. The Acura MDX, for example, just unveiled its stunning, third generation model after six years.

The Buick’s age is starting to show. It’s rich, much-ballyhooed interior still impresses, but has been equaled by the MDX and up-and-comers like the dashing Hyundai Santa Fe. The Enclave’s swooping dash and ambient lighting accents echo the exterior, but the vehicle is missing basic segment refinements like push-button start — while its haptic-touch console buttons can be quirky. More worrisome are antiquated exterior tics like fake hood intake ports. Once a proud birthmark of the Buick family, that DNA is now a drag on a vehicle that is a symbol of a new generation.

Like Botox on a super model, the addition subtracts from the car’s true beauty.

The Enclave offers but a single power plant — a 3.6-liter, 288 horsepower V6 — to pull its heft. At a time when the Lexus RX offers a hybrid option and fuel-efficient turbos are boosting power in Caddys and Regals to over 100 horsepower per liter, the Enclave is due for an upgrade.

That power would be welcome in a big car that feels so much smaller to drive. Inside, the Enclave sports a palatial, roomiest-in-class third-row seat — accessed with ease by Buick’s “Smart Slide” second-row captain’s chairs. Take the wheel of the big yacht, however, and my all-wheel drive version cut through wavy roads with ease, exhibiting minimal body roll and tight steering. Tip o’ the admiral’s cap to hydraulic power steering and an independent rear suspension.

The Enclave deserves its place as a franchise vehicle. It’s profitable, lists as a Consumer Reports 2014 Top 10 Most Reliable American Car, and attracts younger buyers. Yet by filling a premium niche between Chevy and Cadillac in the GM lineup, Buick’s future seems precarious. Its Regal sits on an Opel platform, the Enclave on a Chevy platform. Will the Enclave remain relevant, or will GM slowly starve it of future investment?

The Enclave’s Rubenesque figure wowed the world in 2006. When Tiger Woods advertised a Buick Rainier we snickered. But when supermodel Marisa Miller pedals an Enclave, we nod. Buick’s challenge is to keep her behind the wheel.

2015 Buick Enclave

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front or all-wheel-drive, seven-passenger sport utility vehicle
Price: $40,775 base ($54,185 as tested)
Power plant: 3.6-liter, direct-injection 6-cylinder
Power: 288 horsepower, 270 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.5 seconds (Motor Trend); 112 mph top speed
Weight: 4,922 pounds (AWD)
Fuel economy: EPA 16 mpg city/22 mpg highway/18 mpg combined (AWD)
Report card

Highs: Elegant inside and out; Cathedral quiet interior
Lows: Oh, those fake intake ports; More grunt, please


Q&Auto: What did the F-150 learn from the F-Type?

Posted by hpayne on July 5, 2014

Kevan Richardson, Jaguar's program manager for sports cars, explains the aluminum construction of the Jaguar F-Type at a media test drive in Los Angeles.

Kevan Richardson, Jaguar’s program manager for sports cars, explains the aluminum construction of the Jaguar F-Type at a media test drive in Los Angeles. (Jaguar)

This weekend we Yankees celebrate our divorce from Mother England. But the families are closer than ever. England’s our trustiest ally, we worship Kate Middleton, and we fancy aluminum in our signature vehicles.

Driven by draconian federal mpg regulations, the best-selling Ford F-150 is Detroit’s first mass production vehicle with aluminum skin. The lightweight pickup can trace its heritage back to Ford’s ownership of England’s lightweight Jaguar sports cars, which helped pioneer aluminum design over a decade ago. The two companies are no longer married, but they share bonds, explains Kevan Richardson, Jaguar’s program manager for sports cars.

“When Ford came in we got a lot of help with quality, processes, and financial discipline,” says Richardson, a wiry, straight-shooting Brit. “And they have transferred (our aluminum skills) back to their homeland.”

As the 2015 F-150 shows off its radical aluminum panels, Richardson is touring the U.S. with an aluminum F of his own. A taut, aluminum chassis is the backbone for Coventry’s sleekest, fastest cat yet — the snarling, 550 horsepower, 2015 Jaguar F-Type (read my review here). Will we someday see an aluminum-chassis Ford? I sat down with Richardson to talk materials, the nanny state, and the F-Type/F-150 odd couple.

Q: Is the F-Type the first, all-aluminum Jag?

Richardson: No. We started with aluminum in 2001 when we delivered the XJ. Then XK . . . was delivered in 2006, so that was effectively generation two. With F-Type we are on to the next generation.

Q: Was Jaguar the first production brand to use aluminum?

Richardson: No. Audi has had aluminum for a while. But without being disrespectful to them, their techniques are maybe a little backward compares to ours. We are fortunate (because) Coventry has always had a very good heritage in motor manufacturing — in building high speed cars and airplanes that were aluminum.

Q: Was your conversion to all-aluminum cars driven by performance or regulations?

Richardson: It’s kind of chicken and egg. In the 1990s Ford started to buy a lot of Bauxite mines. They were quite visionary about their material choice for the future. We were their premium brand. They decided that we were going to be the proving ground. We learned an awful lot about aluminum’s structural properties: Fuel economy is better, handling is better, the car is more balanced

Q: Was cost a factor?

Richardson: Aluminum is more expensive than steel. Fact. Carbon fiber — much lighter again — is not practical for high volume production. If you want a one-off performance race car, then carbon fiber is your game. But if you want to make high volume then aluminum is probably the best material. We reckon that if the F-Type were steel, that would be (220 more pounds) which is .3 seconds in zero-60. That’s a big deal when everyone wants to be at four seconds.

Q: How does aluminum challenge you?

Richardson: Aluminum is very difficult to work — especially in a shapely car like the F-Type. A truck (is) a good vehicle to make with aluminum, because it’s got big flat surfaces. Working with the F-Type, we’ve had to create a lot of new techniques to create the shape that we need, But with a truck there isn’t a lot of form.

Q: Regulations increasingly pinch what you can do — you can no longer have a leaping Jaguar hood ornament, for example. Could you make an E-Type today with a long nose?

Richardson: No. If you are in the driver’s seat, there’s something called a “vision angle” that says you have to see a certain distance in front of the car from the driver’s seat. In Europe, if you are unfortunate enough to have a collision with a pedestrian, then they have to meet a certain level of head injury criteria. So . . . in our car the bonnet deploys with a couple of actuators which fire the bonnet which creates survival space between the bonnet and the engine so that if (someone’s) head hits the bonnet you have space. The bonnet rolls them away.

Q: You now have aluminum in Jaguars, Corvettes, F-150s. What’s next?

Richardson: The industry is moving to aluminum. In 20 years, I think aluminum will be the choice for every car. It’ll have to be.


Escape and Equinox bring serious pistols to the fight

Posted by hpayne on July 3, 2014

This is the Year of the Compact Crossover. With Ford Escape, Chevy Equinox, Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 racking up unit sales rivaling the compact sedan market, even the lux makers want a piece of the action. Everybody’s downsizing from the Lexus NX to the Lincoln MKC to the Porsche Macan. Heck, even, Peterbilt is probably working on one.

Given homo sapiens preference for riding up high — Americans conquered the West on horseback and Conestoga wagon after all — I’m wagering it won’t be long before crossover utility vehicles take over the sedan segment entirely. For sure, before the Lions win a Super Bowl. Heck, even Europeans have adopted this most American of trends, with CUV sales doubling over the last six years. Just this year, Jeep announced it will make its Renegade crossover in Italy and Ford will export the Edge. What’s next? Soccer-crazed Brits turning to baseball?

Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and CUVs. And no one understands the Yankee mind better than Honda.

While Detroit led the switch from big cars to big utes, Honda translated its small car success to small crossovers. Debuting an early example of the species back in 1997, the bulletproof, CR-V has led the way — and won class rodeo again in 2013 with more than 300,000 sold. Saddle up, Detroit. Motown is hot on the CR-V’s trail with its own superb crossovers, the Escape and Equinox. Which is better positioned to conquer the West?

Duel at high noon. We put these two pistols back-to-back. Twenty paces, gents.

Thinking outside the box

The CUV separated itself from truck-based SUVs by building on car-inspired, unibody chassis. Now their exterior skins are mimicking sedans as well.

Think outside the box.

Compacts like the Escape, Mazda CX-5, and Kia Sportage lead this wave with raked styling, attractive grilles and curvy hips. Where the Honda CR-V brought Civic-like dependability to the class, the Escape has leap-frogged the Honda in styling. A generation ago, the Escape looked like it was carved from a block of cheese. Now it looks like a Ford Focus on steroids.

From its angular front and rear lights to its full fascia grille (sure to be Aston Martin-ized soon like the rest of Ford’s lineup) to its swept greenhouse, the Escape shows a lot of leg to the passing sedan crowd. Dads who bought the Escape for their soccer moms will find themselves sneaking out to the garage at first light to take it to work instead of their aging (big, boxy ute name here).

The squared-off Equinox is a tidy, attractive interpretation of Chevy’s split-grille, two-box architecture. But next to the Escape it looks a generation behind. Only the muscular wheel wells stir any passion. In the salon chair next to the Equinox is the larger Traverse which has received the full Camaro-inspired, Impala-like extreme makeover. What the Equinox wouldn’t do to get the same stylist.

Surprisingly, the Escape’s sloped greenhouse does not compromise interior room and visibility. Indeed, the Ford’s angular glass carves out room in the D-pillar to improve driver’s rear-corner visibility. The Equinox’s more traditional D-pillar combines with the second-row headrest to make rear visibility difficult. All SUVs, however, suffer from D-pillar blindness. The solution? Blind spot assist on the mirrors. Don’t leave home without it.

Inside, only Sequoias like your 6-foot-5-inch author will notice the slight reduction in rear headroom from the Escape roof while still beating the Equinox in interior room.

Devil in interior details

My neighbor Betsy Walbridge is a stickler for detail. She’s a master chef with a shrewd taste for the right ingredients. She can spot an overcooked entree at 500 paces. And she loves her Escape interior.

Buyers lured by the Escape’s exterior detail will be won over by the high-IQ interior. Ford’s interior design engineers must have hammock-sized circles under their eyes because they sweated every detail. As in the exterior comparison, the Equinox is well-groomed, but just hasn’t spent as much time in front of the mirror as its Dearborn competitor.

May I call your attention to the Escape’s upright center console which is more accessible than the Equinox’s sloped approach. Both screens are high on the dash, necessitating sun shielding. The Escape’s canopy is wonderfully integrated into the interior’s swept design whereas the Chevy visor looks like an aftermarket job.

Ford’s infamous, glitchy SYNC system has been the single best advertisement for the CR-V. The new Escape shows off a much-improved system which, like Chevy’s ubiquitous MyLink system, gives you the world at your fingertips. Nav, radio, blue-tooth phone …

What’s that, Mrs. Walbridge? Oh, yes, the devil is in the details.

To answer the phone, Ford provides a fingertip-accessed tab aft of the wheel. The Equinox sports a standard thumb button by the steering wheel hub. But if you have my neighbor’s small thumbs it’s a stretch.

More details. Foot-activated rear lift gate, three USB jacks, innovative two-shelf glove box, directional fog lights, fold-flat rear seats. … Sure the Equinox comes with sliding rear seats, but when the other dude shows up at the front door with flowers — and a box of candy, and tickets to the Tigers game, and a babysitter for your kid sister, which one are you gonna go with?

Performance options

Both CUVs option with all-wheel-drive, which is not only useful for winter’s wrath but for getting out of the post-thaw potholes. For all the Escape’s interior and exterior eye-candy, however, the real difference-maker is hidden under the hood.

Class-leader Honda offers one engine — a 2.4 liter four banger. The Escape offers three: A standard 2.5 liter, a 1.6 liter turbo, and the terrific, 240-horsepower 2.0-liter turbo in the Titanium model that I drove. The Equinox is pro-choice as well — offering a base 2.4 and a 3.6-liter V6. Like Jeep’s racy Cherokee, Chevy is betting the V6 still has premium cachet.

But the Escape turbo is cutting edge: Quiet, no turbo lag, lots of low end grunt. It’s like a V6 but without the appetite. 24 mpg vs. 19 mpg.

They say the smart phone industry is about convergence. Users want a phone with the screen size of a tablet. The automobile has been around for a century, but it seems to be on the same course: Ute-size with car styling. The Ford Escape is that future.

2014 Ford Escape

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, five-passenger small sport utility vehicle
Price: $23,505 base ($35,741 as tested)
Power plant: 2.0-liter, dual overhead cam, turbocharged 4-cylinder
Power: 240 horsepower, 270 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.0 seconds (Car & Driver); 118 mph top speed
Weight: 3,769 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 21 mpg city/28 mpg highway/24 mpg combined
Report card

Highs: Car-like good looks; high-IQ interior
Lows: Rear visibility; Aston Martin grille, please?

From The Detroit News:

2014 Aston Martin Vantage a supermodel on wheels

Posted by hpayne on June 30, 2014

It’s London weather outside. Driving rain. Puddles the size of Loch Ness. Naturally, the British-made Aston Martin Vantage S is in its element.

On a pylon-choked autocross course in a Troy parking lot, I rapidly toggle the steering wheel-mounted shift paddles — first, second, third — launching 430 unruly horses into the gloom. The 3,500-pound, V8-powered sports coupe romps about like Andre Drummond on a nerf basketball court. The Vantage combines blustery power with cat-quick reflexes to obliterate the tight turns even as its Electronic Stability Control keeps the car’s 11.2 inch-wide rear tires from hydroplaning into the shrubbery.

Moments later, the car’s huge, 15-inch rotors bring it back to earth without drama. Soaked to the bone, the big stallion rests. Even in these torrential conditions, the Vantage is achingly gorgeous. You almost feel like putting the umbrella over the car instead of yourself. The 2014 Vantage may be the runt of the litter — yes, a $117,000 “entry-level” Aston — but it’s every bit as breathtaking as its DB9, Vanquish, and Rapide siblings.

Aston Martin makes the most beautiful cars on the road today. Period.

 A walk through Aston’s Troy showroom is like walking through a Sports Illustrated supermodel shoot. Miss DB9, Miss Vanquish, Miss Rapide. Pardon me for staring. The Vantage is lust on wheels. The sentiment transcends gender. I ask a female News colleague the one car she would kill for. “An Aston Martin,” she replies without hesitation.

Seven deadly sins? They’ve probably all been committed for an Aston. Emotion drives the Aston purchase, because goodness knows there are more capable rides out there.

The forthcoming, musclebound, 650 horsepower Corvette Z06 will kick sand on the Vantage for under $100 grand. Load a nimble Porsche 911 with $100 grand in goodies and it will stomp the Vantage from zero-60 while dancing a minuet on its hood (both the Detroit and Stuttgart products have gone through two full redesign cycles since the Vantage debuted in 2006).

“We won’t always be the quickest,” says Aston Martin of Troy Sales Manager Brian Bucholtz, “but the lines and the beauty and the soul are what make this car.”

That’s not to say this English knight in aluminum armor (and fiber-composite skin) doesn’t swing a mean axe in battle. The Vantage is Aston’s sportiest model — complimented by a massive company investment in road racing. The effort was rewarded with a LeMans 24-Hour GT-class victory this year as the Vantage outlasted competitors from Ferrari and Porsche. On the street, the Vantage’s light, stiff aluminum chassis cradles a mid-ships front engine that gives the car a near perfect 51-49 weight balance. The almost two-ton athlete moves around on a compliant, not-too-harsh suspension, but never feels unstable.

Not surprisingly, the Vantage feels a lot like its 550-Horsepower English cousin, the 2015 Jaguar F-Type that I reviewed this week. The Aston’s Gaydon, England home is just over the moor from the Jaguar’s Coventry lair. Both cars share aluminum chassis. Both are powered by throaty V8s. Both offer driver’s seats with the comfort of the English throne — and lots more power at your disposal.

Indeed, the $99,000 F-Type Coupe’s popular debut on the red carpet this year has put some pressure on Aston’s pricing. Where the awesome Vantage Coupe S I drove in Troy begins at $136,700, a new GT offering this fall will start at $102, 725 — a nod to an increasingly crowded field at $100k. (If budget is no object, then the $186,000, 565-horsepower, 205-mph V-12 Vantage is also available.)

Fierce as the engine compartment may be, the driver’s cabin is serene. Stitched black leather wraps the interior. Piano black keys make for a classy console, even if the Aston’s features are sparse compared to competitors. A navigation screen rises form the dash like Excalibur from the proverbial rock.

The Vantage also comes in a Roadster.

Sans roof, the car adds 350 pounds in body stiffening — but the cabin loses none of its serenity. Knifing through the wet autocross course pylons, I gain increasing confidence in the vehicle’s stability control, actually flooring it in third gear while the electronics tidy up the tail. Electronics also help huge, 6-piston front brake calipers bring the leaping lion to a dead stop on four, 19-inch paws. Puddles? What puddles?

Back at rest again, you can’t walk away from a Vantage. I backpedal savoring the sculpted, sleek lines. Some say that when Ford stole the look of Aston’s grille for its Fusion, it cheapened the English brand. Nope. With just 4,200 Astons sold across the globe last year, the allure of its rare beauty is intact.

2014 Aston Martin Vantage

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, two-passenger sports car
Price: $138,700 base (Roadster $155,000 as tested)
Power plant: 4.7-liter, dual-overhead cam V-8
Power: 420 horsepower, 346 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Seven-speed SportShift II automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.5 seconds (manufacturer); 180 mph top speed
Weight: 3,850 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 14 mpg city/21 mpg highway/16 mpg combined
Highs: Lust on wheels; Husky exhaust note
Lows: Price tag; Minimal console features


Jaguar roars once more with F-Type Coupe

Posted by hpayne on June 26, 2014

I know, you covet the iconic, ’60s Jaguar E-Type with a majestic hood that starts here and stretches into the next zip code. You fell in love with it when you were a kid and wish that they would make it again.

Well, you can’t have it. Government nannies these days prohibit taffy-stretched hoods under driver vision regulations. Write your congressman.

Meanwhile, you’ll just have to settle for the 2015 F-Type Coupe. Oh, you lucky dog.

This vicious, road-eating, ear-splitting cat is the first true sports car Jaguar has made since the E-Type died in 1974. It is glorious. Its bloodline runs straight back to the C- and D-Types that crossed the English Channel and conquered French LeMans. You thought that the Jaguar had gone the way of the British Empire? A once irrepressible power that you can only read about in history books?

Well, the empire is back — and the pride of England has one of its former colonies to thank. Credit Indian industrial giant Tata with giving Jaguar the means to rule the world stage once more with an armada of high-powered vessels. The irony is delicious, yes, m’lord?

When Ford cast off Jaguar and Land Rover in 2008 (part of its own empire downsizing to return to its core brands), the fading giants were gobbled up by Tata. We snickered at the time. Tata? The maker of tiny Indian econoboxes was going to save Jaguar? Would it run on curry?

We’re not snickering anymore. The colossus of India has poured capital into the English make and given legendary Jaguar designer Ian Cullum and his engineers the freedom to create magic again. The results are the sleek XF and XJ sedans and now the athletic F-Type.

Thank you, India. Just don’t call it a Tata F-Type. This beast roars with an English accent.

“This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,” intones English bad boy actor Tom Hiddleston (Loki in “Thor”), quoting Shakespeare in Jaguar’s “It’s good to be bad” ad campaign. The Jaguar lineup is unabashedly nationalistic — waving an English flag that has produced some of the greatest motorcars of all time. This is a proud beast that has recaptured its swagger (though not its leaping Jaguar on the hood — another casualty of the regulatory state. Something about European pedestrian crash rules).

The F-Type replaces the elegant but decidedly domesticated XK cat. The wild F is obsessed with style and power. Especially power. “We have an insatiable appetite for power,” says Hiddleston in Jaguar’s super Super Bowl ad. And where the E-Type was a smooth V12 wrapped in satin, the F-Type is a blunt V8 with all the subtlety of a ship cannon.

Sure, the base F-type starts at $65,000 with a dandy, 340 horsepower, supercharged V6. But the lead ship in this fleet is the 550-horsepower, V8-powered R-Coupe. You’ll know it by the four, cannon-like exhausts at the aft of the ship. Light the F off and you’ll trigger car alarms. For a minute you wonder if the Brits sneaked a Camaro SS engine under the bonnet. Rev it once at idle and you can’t stop. VROOM! VROOM! VROOM! And it gets better once you toggle the eight-speed tranny to “D.”

For maximum effect, select “Sportshift.” See ya’.

Stomp on the gas pedal — WAAAUUUGGGGH! — and the great cat bellows with delight. Under braking the pipes crackle like a July 4 fireworks show. What the F? Is this legal? Don’t you need a permit to make this much bedlam?

This heavy artillery comes courtesy of a direct-injected, Eaton-supercharged power plant that delivers 502 pound-feet of torque at 2500 RPM and just keeps hauling right to its 6500 RPM redline. The big cat is rated at 18 mpg fuel economy — unless you’re a speed maniac like yours truly who locks it in Sportshift mode using the helm-mounted paddles to maintain maximum spinal tap. Then you’ll consume half the North Sea’s oil reserves in an hour.

But that’s the beauty of the F. You don’t need to flog it to enjoy it.

This elegant animal purrs as sweetly as it roars. Toggle the “Eco” switch and the big cat will even go to sleep at stoplights, saving fuel. The interior is as comfortable as the royal box with leather stitching and heaping handfuls of carbon fiber accents. With its growling V8 and plush interior, the Jag seems to own its own niche in a world of 6-cylinder Porsches and expensive Audi R8s and Aston Martins.

Indeed, the F-Type reminded me most of the Corvette C7 with which it shares many attributes despite vastly different bloodlines. The Duke of Coventry, meet the dude from Detroit.

Maybe their customers don’t cross-shop, but they should. Eliza Doolittle has learned a thing or two from Henry Higgins. Consider: Both LED-lamped silhouettes are stunning in the moonlight. Both sport rigid, light-weight aluminum chassis. Both harbor throaty, big block V8s. And both feature comfortable, roomy interiors right down to dual climate controls and dual hand grips for the passenger (when their drivers want to explore the car’s .94 side-g limits). Even the tapered, fighter-jet greenhouses look similar.

But ’Vette will provide you all this for $10 grand less with 95 more horses and better fuel economy.

The two differ dramatically in design, however. The Stingray is knife sharp, the F-Type wave-smooth. The R-Coupe sits catlike on big haunches stuffed with 20-inch, multi-spoke, “Cyclone” wheels. Its sleek, pillar-less roofline is gorgeous — if tough on driver visibility due to massive fore and aft beams. A single, stunning piece of cold-formed, stamped aluminum makes the car’s side-panel. The shark-gilled grille will inevitably be found wanting compared to its E-Type forbear. But it commands respect in the rear-view mirror.

Unleash the beast on track and give thanks for big brakes.

Four-pot front calipers and massive, 15-inch rotors (eyeball-sucking, chest-caving, carbon ceramic discs are ahem, a $12 grand option) are essential to hauling this 186-mph freight train back to earth. Rotate the F into a corner and mind the mass — the R Coupe’s 3,671 pounds will move around. Nevertheless, the aluminum, Boron-riveted chassis is 80 percent more rigid than the breathtaking F-Type convertible that caused a jaw-dropping epidemic when it debuted a year ago.

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” wrote Shakespeare. Yes, few will be able to afford the F-Type. But the rest of us can fall in love with a Jag again.

2015 Jaguar F-Type

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, two-passenger sports car
Price: $65,000 base ($103,225 as tested)
Power plant: 5.0-liter, direct-injected, supercharged 8-cylinder
Power: 550 horsepower, 502 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Eight-speed, “Quickshift” automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.0 seconds (manufacturer); 186 mph top speed
Weight: 3,671 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 16 mpg city/23 mpg highway/18 mpg combined
Highs: Cat quick; Comfortable interior with intuitive controls
Lows: Impaired driver visibility

From The Detroit News:

Alfa Romeo 4C is one spicy meatball

Posted by hpayne on June 19, 2014

If Dustin Hoffman’s character had received an Alfa Romeo 4C as a graduation present in the counterculture 1960s film, “The Graduate,” he wouldn’t have had free time for Mrs. Robinson. Ben would have been addicted to California’s twisty public roads and legendary racetracks in the gorgeous, insanely fast Italian machine.

Ms. Romeo, are you trying to seduce me?

Consider me smitten. Alfa is back in the U.S. after nearly three decades away and it’s well worth the wait. The 4C is a rolling video game console. Thank the wedding of Chrysler and Fiat for this child prodigy. You’ll find it at 86 Fiat-Alfa dealerships this fall. Just follow the squealing groupies.

“The Graduate” made Alfa an American cultural icon. But the 2015 4C is nothing like the cute, underpowered, convertible 1967 Alfa Duetto Spider of movie fame. The 4C is the direct descendent of another 1960s Alfa legend, the curvaceous 1967 33 Stradale. Like the Stradale, the 4C is a track-developed missile that brings race-car technology to the street.

Simon and Garfunkel, get me rewrite. The sound of silence has been shattered by the bedlam of 237 stampeding horses.

Where the Duetto was an affordable Italian sports car, the pricey Stradale was an exclusive rocket ship for the few (only 18 were made). The 4C splits the difference. Starting at $55,195, the Italian roller skate brings Ferrari technology at a Corvette price — though production capacity will initially be limited to 1,000 units a year. This is a raw, mid-engine driver’s car with manual steering, a howling 4-cylinder on turbo-roids, and a taut, 2,465-pound carbon fiber chassis.

Small though it may be, the 4C portends big things for Alfa in America. It leads an invasion of eight new vehicles in five years as Fiat-Chrysler positions Alfa as its premium luxury brand against sporty lux heavyweights like BMW, Audi and Cadillac. It’s an ambitious menu for Turin’s Italian kitchen. The 4C is just the appetizer.

But what a dish. This is one spicy meatball.

Designed by legendary Pininfarina designer Lorenzo Ramaciottie, the 4C’s shape bears the unmistable echo of the sexy Stradale with is tapered front end, narrow greenhouse, and rear air intakes for engine cooling. Beneath covered headlamps, the signature triangle on the nose is flanked by two gaping horizontal scoops — the legendary Alfa “Trilobo.” It’s the face of a bobcat ready to pounce. As I drove through San Francisco on a June test drive, locals flashed thumbs-up at the unmistakable visage. Welcome back, Alfa.

Catch up with a 4C (if you can) and the rear end recalls mid-engine Ferrari designs with its round taillights, aggressive stance and glass engine cover giving a glimpse of the epic power plant within.

Deeper within the Ferrari parallels get more interesting. The 4C employs a similar lightweight carbon fiber tub found in the Italian stallion’s Formula One cars. Carbon fiber’s expense means it’s usually found in half million-dollar supercars, but the 4C is the first under six figures. The diet come at a price, however. Alfa has sacrificed amenities for weight (600 pounds less than a Porsche Cayman).

The 4C may look like a junior Fezzaz on the outside, but inside it’s just junior. Its tight interior pales in comparison to the comfortable surroundings of a Corvette C7 or Cayman, much less a Ferrari. This hot rod makes a Subaru STI feel like a stretch limo. The narrow interior contains no glove box or door storage. Doors stuffed with sound-deadening material? Double-laminated glass? You want the Maserati dealer next door.

Mind the low roof, climb over the high, exposed carbon fiber sills, and the manually adjusted, bolstered seats are surprisingly roomy. A motorcycle-inspired instrument cluster hides behind the tiny, flat-bottomed steering wheel. The cramped passenger seat is an afterthought, like a motorcycle side pod. The narrow center console is a model of efficiency. A cluster of buttons determine shift modes (manual sticks are soooo 20th century) for the wheel-mounted paddles.

A tiny radio is angled 30 degrees to the driver. I never turned it on. The engine is all the music you need.

The 1750 cc, turbocharged four is an aural delight.

It has more percussion than a Jennifer Lopez concert. Lope through town and the turbo whistles under acceleration, the downshifts bark, the turbo’s wastegate spits.

Koo-koo-ka-choo crackle-pop-vrooooom, Mrs. Robinson.

Mash the pedal and the engine wails — its 258 pound feet of turbo torque arriving like a tea kettle blast after a moment of … um … turbo lag.

Turbo lag?

Isn’t that a relic of the 20th century? From blown BMW sixes to Subaru fours, modern turbos deliver their torque seamlessly. Not the 4C. Even with advanced scavenging (a control unit maximizes cylinder air flow), the lag means you have to anticipate acceleration as you depart turns. The delayed explosion doesn’t unsettle the 4C thanks to the carbon monocoque’s exquisite firmness, but it does retard the car’s fun factor.

California’s high speed Sonoma Raceway magnifies this personality tic. It’ll keep you as busy as a chainsaw juggler. Rotate the go kart-precise steering into a corner and the chassis won’t necessarily follow, sometimes showing oversteer. Hit the apex right and hang on for 1.1 g side loads — until the turbo’s hesitation forces you to thumb the paddle shifters to maintain momentum. I found myself longing for the instant power of a Cayman S’s normally-aspirated flat 6.

Once the boost arrives, however, the 4C’s acceleration is gelatto-smooth. The digital tac blurs — 90-100-110-120 mph — as the car accelerates in 4th gear down the Sonoma main straight. Peg the revs at 6 grand with launch control and the 4C will go 0-60 mph in the same 4.5 seconds as the Cayman — despite having half the displacement. Mama Mia, that’s a hot espresso.

Over 50 years, Porsche sports cars built a foundation for performance that launched a showroom-full of sporty SUVs and four-door coupes. The Alfa Romeo 4C will try to duplicate that narrative for 8 sedans and SUVs in just five years.

Crazy? Perhaps. But whether it succeeds or not, Alfa’s ambition will be entertaining to watch. Personally, I’m hoping for a sequel to “The Graduate” featuring the Alfa 4C. Scene: Party at parents’ home, Take One.

Mr. McGuire: Ben, I just want to say one word to you — just one word: Plastics.

Ben (wearing sunglasses, a leather jacket, and an Italian model on his arm): Way ahead of you, sir. Ever done 0-60 in a carbon fiber Alfa?

2015 Alfa Romeo 4C

Vehicle type: Mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive, two-passenger sportscar
Price: $55,195 base ($64,845 as tested)
Power plant: 1.7-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder
Power: 237 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Six-speed, sequential Alfa TCT with dual-clutch, paddle shifters
Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.5 seconds (manufacturer); 160 mph top speed
Weight: 2,465 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 24 mpg city/34 mpg highway/28 mpg combined
Report card

Highs: Go kart-quick handling; Italian good looks
Lows: Cramped passenger seat for your hot date; Turbo lag


Is a Cadillac CTS four-banger still cool?

Posted by hpayne on June 15, 2014

The 2014 Cadillac CTS arrived again in my driveway this month like some sort of intergalactic space ship. Silvery. Swoopy. Otherworldly. It’s been half a year since I was last visited by this visage, but it has lost none of its wonder.

My 2013 Detroit News Vehicle of the Year is still the most stunning, midsize luxury sedan on the road. It’s perfectly-proportioned, angular face looks like it was designed by Angelina Jolie’s “Maleficent” makeup team. Beauty with a touch of menace. The LED headlights glow. The key in my pocket automatically opens the locks. Like a magnet, the CTS pulls me into its space-age interior. I push the start button and blue ambient lighting shimmers through the cabin as the Cue infotainment system awakes with a chime right out of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” The auto-tightening seatbelts conform to my torso. Take me to the moon.

But when I stomp on the pedal to initiate Warp Speed something is different. This starfighter is motivated by a, um . . . four-banger?

Sure enough. Where my $63,895 Vehicle of the Year came with a lusty, 3.6-liter, direct injection V6, my new, $65,425 steed bears the four’s coarse, unmistakable woodpecker-like thrum as the CTS rapidly pulls away from dock and into the stratosphere. Packing 272 turbocharged horses, the four doesn’t lay about, vaulting its cargo from 0-60 in 6.2 seconds – just .2 seconds shy of the V6 (numbers courtesy of our pals at Car & Driver). Impressive. But the sticker price still begs the question: Does four belong in a first-class, midsize sedan?

 In autodom these days four is the new six. Under relentless pressure from Washington’s righteous greenies, automakers must meet fuel-sipping, 52-mpg fuel efficiency mandates by 2025 while still satisfying performance-hungry customers. The powerful, fuel-efficient 2.0-liter turbo has been the popular answer, powering everything from compact VW hot hatches to midsize Ford Fusions.

But Caddy is a rare four-pot pioneer in big car luxury (joined only by BMW and its five-series). Other automakers shy from equipping their luxes with quads. “Our luxury customers want the performance of a six or eight-cylinder engine,” said Hyundai Motor America Chief Dave Zuchowski upon introducing the Korean automaker’s gorgeous 2015, $38,000-base Genesis with a silky-smooth V6 this spring.

“But that’s a Hyundai!” I can hear Caddy marketers murmuring. They have to sell V6 luxury to gain separation from their econobox stereotype. GM, on the other hand, has been selling dynamite 2-liter turbos in its upscale Buick Regal GS and entry-level lux Caddy ATS. Our customers know our performance brands. They trust our technology.

And so, apparently, they do.

Since its launch last year, Caddy has sold two turbo-fours for every six-cylinder (60 percent of sales, compared to 30 percent for the V6 with the wicked, neck-snapping, twin-turbo V6 gobbling the last 10 percent). It seems the four belongs with the swells. Welcome to the ball, Cinderella.

I would offer this caveat, however.

In replacing the CTS’s old, 270 horsepower, 3.0-liter six, the blown four has given the lightweight, 3,731-pound midsize a base engine with plenty of get-up-and-go and better fuel economy to boot. But not that much better. Surprisingly, the turbo four gains only one mpg (23 vs. 22) on the new, 320-horsepower V6 as Caddy engineers have tuned the fab four for low-end torque over fuel efficiency.

Load up the $46,025 base four with the same futuristic options as the six – road-hugging magnetorheological dampers, blind spot assist, and so on – and the fuel savings will seem negligible compared to the $60 grand sticker price. And that four-banger buzz in your ear may start to annoy you. Four may belong in mid-size lux, but six is still worth the price.

Speaking of annoying, I can’t bid adieu to my second CTS date without a comment about her Cue system. The unique, space-age, touch-operated system is the most radical infotainment console this side of the Tesla Model S “iPad” console. It is also the most controversial given its steep learning curve and sometimes inexact haptic response.

But just as the haptic keys on my Samsung Galaxy smartphone sometimes betray me, Cue’s faults pale compared to its cool factor. While gripping the road with BMW-like tenacity, the touchscreen CTS has left Caddy’s senior-citizens’ image on Planet Fuddy Duddy.

The new generation of Cadillac is a LED-lit, e-operated, magnetic-riding UFO. But I’ll still take mine with a six, please.

2015 Cadillac CTS 2.0T

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, five-passenger luxury sedan
Price: $46,025 base ($65,425 as tested)
Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder
Power: 272 horsepower, 295 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.2 seconds (Car & Driver); 133 mph top speed
Weight: 3,731 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 20 mpg city/30 mpg highway/23 mpg combined
Report card

Highs: Miss USA good looks; world-class handling
Lows: Rear seat tight long legs; Can’t get that 4-cylinder buzz out of my ear

From The Detroit News:

2015 VW GTI: Hail the (still) King Hot Hatch

Posted by hpayne on June 12, 2014

How good is the 2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI? While testing Wolfsburg’s latest pocket rocket on California’s notorious, twisty Route 1, I was picking fights with Ferraris.

Parked at a scenic Pacific overlook somewhere north of the Golden Gate Bridge, I heard a symphony of 12 cylinders blow by, waking me from my ocean reverie. Now here’s a test, I thought. Moments — and a bent speed limit — later I had caught up with the blood-red 1968 Ferrari 330 GT in a traffic clot on Route 1’s two-lane artery. California drivers instinctively know what to do when their mirrors suddenly fill with the prancing horse logo: Get out of the way.

Traffic scattered to the shoulder, and we were off. The skilled Ferrari driver clearly knew the terrain and we danced from corner to corner — shredding short straightaways, straightening out ess turns, dive-bombing hairpins — the front wheel-drive GTI effortlessly keeping pace with the rear-wheel drive Italian legend. After a few miles of this, my dance partner signaled to pull over.

“I wanted to find out how a VW could keep up with a Ferrari,” he said, smiling broadly.

Seven generations after VW wowed the world with its first hot hatch, the GTI is still wowing. It’s a testament to the relentless advance of auto engineering that a compact sedan can do battle with a supercar that 40 years ago would have blown it off the cliff. But it’s also a testament to the competition in the modern hot hatch segment.

To maintain its crown — and the new GTI does — it must constantly improve to stay ahead of the hungry contenders nipping at its heels: Ford Focus ST, Honda Civic SI, Subaru WRX, and so on. The GTI may have invented the pocket rocket market, but its competition wants to own it.

You should be warned, dear reader, that your speed-addled reviewer is hardly objective on such matters. My first car was a 1984 GTI. Yes, the Alpha Dog itself. Or rather Alpha Rabbit. Back then, the little VW was sold under the Rabbit badge on this side of the pond. Maybe the marketing department didn’t think Golf — named for the Gulf Stream’s warm winds —would translate to America. Whatever. My Mark 1 went like a scalded hare with an ocean tail-wind.

And it’s a tortoise compared to the new Mark 7. To prove the point, VW brought along representatives of all seven generations to California to celebrate the car’s 30th U.S. anniversary. There was my 1984 GTI, just as I remembered it. The flying shoebox that filled a shoebox full of speeding tickets. But aside from the golf ball shifter (Golf ball, get it? And they say Germans have no sense of humor), the Mark 7 has been transformed over the last three decades.

The Mark 7 is more refined yet has lost none of the spirit of the original. Comfortable in its skin, the GTI’s distinctive package has evolved subtly over time. What’s the German translation for “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”? Squint and you’ll see the changes from the outgoing Mark 6. The new gen is lower and wider (producing a lower .31 drag coefficient) which translates to the car’s graphics as well. The grille and headlights are narrower, more horizontal. The classic phone dial wheels have grown more angular. Red highlights splash the grille and brake calipers for a touch of menace. From headroom to toe-in, this randy rocket has been crafted with attention to detail.

Begin with that bane of front-wheel drive rockets: torque-steer. Stomp on the accelerator of the eager Ford Focus ST, which I recently had the pleasure of flogging around Miller Motorsports Park in Salt Lake, and the steering wheel wants to leap from your hands as 250 horses stampede the front wheels.

Not so the GTI. Jump on the V-dub when exiting a tight corner — when chasing a Fezzaz on a windy road, for example — and this German hare leaps forward without resistance. It’s this precision that allows the GTI to match the ST’s sub-6 second 0-60 mph time despite giving up 40 horsepower.

The 2.0-liter engine is a joy, pulling smoothly throughout the rev range thanks to a remarkable 25 percent boost (to 258 lb.-feet) in torque. Credit Wolfsburg’s mad scientists, says VW North America Quality Chief Marc Trahan, and their cocktail of single-scroll turbo, variable cam timing, and direct fuel-injection that delivers juice to the cylinder heads at a brisk 2,900 pounds per square inch. Oh, yes: It also manages 29 mpg. This supple engineering is matched by superb handling dynamics, courtesy of a lighter chassis and the GTI’s strut front and multi-link rear suspension.

Crouching a half-an-inch lower on 18-inch wheels than the standard Golf, the GTI benefits from an electronic differential system that monitors all four wheels for slip to reduce understeer inherent in FWD cars. The result is a fun-box that feels as planted as a California redwood through Route 1’s intimidating switchback turns.

So the GTI is a boy toy delight. So it’ll feed your need for speed. So is it a livable daily driver?

If the GTI is all fangs and sinew on the outside, it cups you like a soft glove on the inside. Even at full song, the interior is remarkably hushed, secured with laminated glass and an enclosed undercarriage. The interior is simple, elegant — its utilitarian knobs, touch screen, and six (six! This is a German vehicle?!) cup holders integrated by sweeping lines and red highlights that echo the exterior.

Unlike cramped two-seat sports cars or four-seat coupes (looking at you, Mercedes CLA250), the GTI has plenty of rear head and trunk room. Hail the hatch. Where my 1984 original was a three-door, most Mark 7’s will be sold with five thanks to a 103.6 inch wheelbase stretched over a stiffer chassis that doesn’t sacrifice performance for room. The trunk space (a bicycle-swallowing 52.7 cubic feet with the seats down) rivals mid-size sedans.

More power, more room, more comfort will also leave you with more in the wallet. The 2015 GTI hits dealer lots this month $700 cheaper than its predecessor. My Tornado Red, SE-trim, automatic, five-door tester stickers for a sweet $30,910.

The GTI has matured nicely. And who knows? If I live another four decades, I may be hounding a 2014 Ferrari F12 Berlinetta down Route 1 … in a 2060 GTI.

2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger hatchback
Price: $25,215 base ($30,910 as tested)
Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged, direct injection, inline-4 cylinder engine
Power: 210 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.6 seconds (Car & Driver est.); 153 mph top speed
Weight: 3.086 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 25 mpg city/33 mpg highway/29 mpg combined
Report card

Highs: Hushed cabin; wicked quick handling
Lows: More USB ports, please

Q&Auto: Racing scion, middle-aged dad show off Detroit GP’s variety-pack of drivers. . . and cars

Posted by hpayne on June 6, 2014

Arie Luyendyk, Jr. and Al Carter came to auto racing from very different places.

Luyendyk Jr., the dashing, Netherlands-born, 32-year old son of Indy royalty (his father Arie is a two-time winner of the Indy 500), was born into racing. Carter, by contrast, is a 47-year old Delaware father of three teenagers who didn’t turn a wheel in anger until seven years ago.

They are as diverse as the cars that will be running at Chevy Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix this weekend. From open-wheel IndyCar racers to huge, 600 horsepower Stadium Super Trucks to the TUDOR Sportscar Championship’s earth-shaking Corvettes, Porsches, and Aston Martins, fans will see the full diaspora of modern race cars.

The drivers are no less interesting.

The Indy superstars – Castroneves, Montoya, Power – got the headlines for their autograph session in Campus Martius Park downtown Thursday. But dozens of racers were everywhere in Metro Detroit this week, all players in the sprawling, traveling circus that is pro racing.

Luyendyk appeared at Kart-2-Kart in Sterling Heights for the Inaugural Doug Guthrie Kart Challenge sponsored by Quicken Loans. In the limelight with his father since he began racing go-karts at age 11, Junior is as much a celebrity off the track as on. His reality TV exploits on Hell’s Kitchen and The Bachelorette have made him a heart-throb and he was trailed by gal groupies. He made easy small talk with fans, raced karts with IndyCar’s Mike Conway, and clowned with a TV sports reporter.

He will compete in the Super Trucks Series, which will transform Belle Isle into a sort of automotive pro wrestling ring – with trucks jumping 130 feet in the air over ramps, sliding through turns, and slamming into each other like bulls through the streets of Pamplona. His career has careened from Indy Lights to the Indy 500 to European sports cars to trucks. Racing is his home. He knows its winding, unpredictable life road like the back of his hand.

For Carter, on the other hand, racing was a sort of mid-life crisis.

“I was a lifetime race fan,” says the former Wall Street trader. “Then I went to the Skip Barber Racing School with some fast young guns and next thing you know I have a full-series ride in the TUDOR series.”

It was hardly that simple, of course. Carter was a natural racer, all right, winning two Skip Barber Masters Series Championships in a row. And that got him attention to compete in the Continental Tire Sports Car series where he has successfully raced since 2010 (this year in a Porsche). But racing was also becoming a necessary career.

“At 40, I was a derivative trader on the stock exchange,” he says. “Unfortunately, I got replaced by a computer, so I needed to find a different occupation and found myself doing this.”

“Doing this” means building a racing career that puts food on the table.

“I wish I could say I had a pile” of money in the market and then went racing, he muses, “but I was able to afford an entry into the sport so that I could get noticed. My wife would attest that driving a race car is a struggle and it’s hard to be financially independent doing it.”

His hard work included a meeting with his Aston Martin sponsors in Troy this week, entertaining their clients, and promoting his Royal Purple/B-Positive Foundation/Jetset Magazine/Caramba Tequila/Eagle Tech Systems/Sideskinz/ Adobe Road Winery-sponsored (whew, that’s a lotta sponsors!) TRG-Aston Martin Vantage to media. His steady progress in racing caught the attention this year of the successful TRG race team and their entry in the most exciting GT series in America.

Carter was hired alongside James Davison (a twenty-something Aussie from a long line of racers who competed at Indy last week). Carter acknowledges that his younger partner is the team “shoe.”

“He’s maybe a second quicker than I am,” says Papa Carter. He also acknowledges racing is a tough racket as his own racing outfit (B-Positive Foundation) assists TRG-Aston in competing with a new car while wooing sponsors that pay the bills.

TUDOR is the big time. Carter’s Aston crew must compete against major manufacturer-backed teams like the vaunted Pratt and Miller Chevy Corvette.

Like Luyendyk, Carter lives race to race. What have you won for me lately? might be the sport’s credo. Like actors, they are always auditioning for their next role. The TV heartthrob and Delaware dad have come to Belle Isle on different boats. But their fast smiles indicate they are both exactly where they want to be.

“It doesn’t suck,” says Carter of his new profession.


Hyundai’s 2015 Genesis belongs in the bigs

Posted by hpayne on May 29, 2014

Genesis. The term conjures big beginnings on a biblical scale. Profound starts. New dawns (though if I Google “genesis,” the legendary rock band is the first term to appear. But I digress).

It’s an apt name for Hyundai’s totally remade 2015 midsize luxury sedan.

Following the Korean brand’s tentative, 2009 audition in the segment, the new Genesis is a swaggering, Nurburgring-tested, tech-savvy cyborg locked in on the segment’s top dogs. But can Hyundai really go toe-to-toe with Mercedes? Can Wal-Mart create a luxury aisle and really draw customers away from Neiman Marcus?

New beginnings in a hyper-competitive lux club dominated by some of the most coveted brand names in the world — Mercedes, BMW, Cadillac — used to mean carmakers had to create alternative personalities to compete. Toyota invented Lexus, Honda transformed into Acura, Nissan became Infiniti (and Ford is trying to breathe life back into Lincoln).

 Hyundai has bucked the trend. It decided to forego the colossal expense of developing a new brand (separate dealer network, separate marketing campaign) to sell its premium Genesis and Equus suits in the same showrooms as working-class threads from Sonata, Elantra and Tucson. Hyundai is convinced (or at least wants to convince us) that mingling first and coach class is the American way. That the Great Recession taught us that too much was gauche. That smarts trumps status. That greed isn’t good.

“The definition of what premium is changed after the Lehman collapse,” says Hyundai Motor America CEO Dave Zuchowski. “Americans want affordable luxury.”

It’s a tricky sell. My favorite automotive analyst curmudgeon, Michelle Krebs, rolls her eyes at Hyundai’s luxury pretensions. Taking on the Titans of Taste is a formidable task. After reinventing itself under the “Art and Science” banner in 2002, for example, Cadillac’s market share has barely budged even as it has produced its best product in its history. Hyundai knows all that. They say they’re in it for the long haul.

So how’s the new Genesis? It’s a knockout.

Where Genesis 1.0 was a conservatively styled lux wannabe, the second-gen Genesis belongs in the bigs. Hyundai designers call it Fluidic Sculpture 2.0 — a benchmark for the brand. It’s a benchmark for the class as well. Like a thick-necked racehorse, the Genesis’ long, muscular front hood flows into an athletic fast back. Walk around this sleek animal and comparisons to the gorgeous BMW 5-series silhouette slip off the tongue. Not bad company for a Hyundai.

The front end is equally striking with aggressive headlamps tapering to a bold, full-fascia hexagonal grille. Belted by six thin, horizontal chrome lines, the bold mouth echoes the Audi A6. But something is missing. Where the Audi — and Mercedes and Caddy — decorate their big grilles with their iconic logos, the Hyundai’s maw is naked.

Where’s the logo?

Genesis may sleep under the Hyundai roof, but the traditional Hyundai “H” logo is hidden ’round back. Genesis has earned its own logo — an attractive (if derivative) icon with wings surrounding a Genesis shield.

Logos are signatures. Mercedes’ schnoz welcomes you with a huge, three-pointed star. Cadillac bears its shield like a warrior. Audi wears its four rings like an Olympic athlete. BMW’s trademark twin kidney grille (forget its four-rotor logo) adorns every face. By contrast, Genesis has chosen to downplay its wings on the hood of the car. But what then makes a Genesis? Without a bold logo the hexagonal grille might be confused with a common Mazda 6. The lack of grille adornment gets more awkward when up-trim Genesis (or is that Genesi?) add front radar for adaptive cruise control. Where Mercedes and Cadillac hide the radar behind their logos, the plastic radar “brick” sticks out like a sore thumb in the Genesis grille. Ugh.

I obsess about such details because the Genesis team got most details right in this detail-obsessed segment.

Barreling through Waterford Township’s lake roads, the Genesis is a toned athlete. Hyundai benchmarked the Genesis to Germany’s finest and it shows. Assisted by dynamics experts at legendary Lotus Engineering, Genesis engineers equipped the chassis with more than 50 percent high-strength steel, giving it a higher torsional rigidity than the 5-series. The car features all-new, multi-link suspensions front and rear, a longer wheelbase, reduced camber angles, and optional all-wheel drive. Then Genesis took this rockin’ gym bod and put it on the track, circuit-testing it around Korea’s Yongam Formula One track and the formidable, 15-mile, Nurburgring Nordschliefe. Gott in Himmel, is that a Hyundai catching me on der Nurburgring?

The details continue to stack up inside the beautifully-trimmed cabin. Best interior volume in class. Superb 12-way, double-stitched power seats with 4-way lumbar support. An intuitive center console stack with 9.2-inch touchscreen (on premium models) with just the right number of redundant button controls, including (if you prefer) a German-like rotary knob at your elbow. Your backseat passengers will tip you on exit for the yacht-like legroom — especially if you chosen the cabin-length, blue sky-revering, panoramic sunroof.

You’re impressed, I can tell. Perhaps Hyundai truly belongs in lux class, you concede. Still, you hedge, what separates the Genesis from the pack in this high-tech, high-gloss, high performance segment?

May I present the best base model luxury car on the planet.

In crafting its new beginning, Genesis did not forget Hyundai’s roots: Affordable quality. Where entry-level lux is often just a frame on which to build a mansion, the base Genesis is the total package. You get the same sleek looks down to the 15-spoke wheels that match luxury trim rims in appeal. Shorn of the premium model’s awkward, radar brick, the front grille pops. Inside, the cathedral-like room and plush thrones are standard, while the touchscreen only shrinks by an inch (and anyway you lose the annoying rotary dial, hoo-ray!). Pulling this chariot is the standard, best-in-class, 311-horsepower, 3.6 liter V6.

All this for $38,000. Bone stock.

That’s seven grand less than the turbocharged 2.0-liter base Caddy CTS. Ten grand less than the entry Lexus GS350. And (cough) $14k less than the base Mercedes E350. But wait, there’s more. Factor in Genesis’ quality reputation — the existing model received JD Power’s prestigious, five-star Quality Award (Lexus? Just four stars) — and 10-year/100,000 mile powertrain warranty, and you save serious coin without sacrificing style.

The 2015 Genesis is a bold beginning. How about an equally bold ad theme song? May I suggest Genesis’ “Follow You, Follow Me”?

2015 Hyundai Genesis

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger luxury sedan
Price: $38,950 base ($38,950 as tested)
Power plant: 3.8-liter, direct injection, V6 engine
Power: 311 horsepower, 293 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.8 seconds (Top Speed est.); 155 mph top speed
Weight: 4,138 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 18 mpg city/29 mpg highway/22 mpg combined
Report card

Highs: Luxurious bargain; Sculpted good looks
Lows: Nondescript rear end; Radar “brick” mars gorgeous grille on premium models

Q&Auto: IndyCar star Dixon preps for Belle Isle

Posted by hpayne on May 24, 2014

Scott Dixon rounds turn 8 at the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix in 2012.

Scott Dixon rounds turn 8 at the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix in 2012. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News, file)

Memorial Day weekend belongs to the Indianapolis 500. Next week belongs to the Belle Isle Grand Prix. Last year belonged to Scott Dixon.

IndyCar’s defending champion — and most accomplished driver — will come to the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix as a child phenom-turned-grizzled veteran. What hasn’t changed is the winning. At 33 Dixon’s accomplishments would make Mozart jealous.

Maybe it’s in his DNA. His parents were both dirt track racers in New Zealand, after all. Dixon’s prodigious talent and fiery competitiveness were recognized early. At age 13, he was granted a special competition license to jump from go-kart racing to New Zealand sedan racing — even though he was two years shy of the legal age to drive a car. He would go on to win everything he entered.

National Formula Vee champion at 14. National Formula Ford champion at age 15 and so on. He was given a ride stateside at the age of 19 after shattering the Sebring Raceway, Florida, lap record at his first Indy Lights test in 1999. He won Indy Lights the following year. At age 20, he had an IndyCar seat (then called CART) and became the second youngest driver ever to win an Indy car race. Championships followed in 2003, 2008, and 2013 with Chip Ganassi Racing. He sits fourth in the standings as the series enters Memorial Day.

He’s won Indy. And Detroit. And the 24 Hours of Daytona (in a sports car). Autosport named him one of the 50 greatest drivers to have never raced Formula One. He is a national hero in New Zealand, yet when I sat down with him courtside at a Detroit Pistons game, few recognized this modest father of two. We talked Belle Isle, Corvettes, and more.

HP: How much of a role does fitness play in your job?

Dixon: We’re pulling up to 4 Gs on some of the short ovals and road courses. In the winter it’s weights, biometrics, reactions — high intensity stuff. Once spring hits, you do a lot more cycling, running, swimming. You start to get race fit as well (with) your neck. You go to a track like Barber (in Alabama) and by the end of the day your head is starting to lay over in the corners.

HP: You do sports car endurance racing as well. How does that compare physically?

Dixon: It depends. At Daytona you have so many straights you get to relax. But the heat is tougher in those cars, whereas the open Indy cars have built in air conditioning when you go 200 mph.

HP: How do you like Belle Isle?

Dixon: It’s actually quite a technical circuit. The turn I really love is the fast corner onto the front straight. It’s pretty crazy there — quick, and very bumpy. Turns one and two are quite tricky too because of the surface change and bumps. The new track layout creates better passing which last year was a great addition.

HP: You do back-to-back weekends with Indy. Is Belle Isle more demanding?

Dixon: Indy is very mentally tough because of the emphasis that’s put on it. All your sponsors are there. The team is really pushing itself to win. It’s such a long three weeks and the fact that, when you’re on the oval, it’s not as physical — but you’re on the edge so often. Detroit is really physical and with the (Saturday and Sunday races) it makes it twice as hard.

HP: When you were young was it your dream to race in the U.S.? Or in Formula One?

Dixon: I watched all racing, but New Zealand has a rich heritage with Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme and Chris Amon in F1. But I still watched the Indianapolis 500. At a young age you think racing just happens. You don’t know the financial risks your parents are taking or the sponsors who are trying to help you. Did I ever think it would get to this point? Not really.

HP: Was it a conscious decision to come to the U.S. over Europe?

Dixon: We were heading to Europe and Formula 3. But Kenny Smith, my mentor and manager when I was in New Zealand, knew Vern Schuppan who was running Stefan Johansson’s Indy Lights team at the time. He said they’ll give us a test. That changed my career path.

HP: What’s your daily driver?

Dixon: A Chevy Tahoe. I’m a little tight with my money. Whenever I buy a flashy car I feel like I’m wasting money.

HP: What’s your dream car?

Dixon: I have an appreciation for older cars. The American muscle cars. But it will take me a long time to figure out which one. I have the Corvette pace car (I won at) Indy 2008. But I’ve only driven it twice. It’s in storage.


2014 Chevy Impala an ugly duckling no more

Posted by hpayne on May 22, 2014

The 2014 Impala is new from the ground up, with muscular design elements that provide a nod to the past while embracing Chevy’s modern styling. (Henry Payne / The Detroit News)

Remember when the most memorable thing about a Chevy Impala was its elegant logo of a leaping impala? It was like Shrek modeling a Rolex watch. Or a frog wearing a bejeweled crown.

Well, the frog has been kissed by a princess.

Improbably, Chevy has transformed the perennial bane of the rental car lot into a handsome prince. At last, the Impala deserves the logo that has always graced its skin. The result is a big, graceful sedan that deserves to headline the Chevy brand.

“Corvette and Impala clearly embody what we want to be,” Chevy’s global marketing guru Tim Mahoney said when describing the brand’s touchstones of design and performance technology. Get out the smelling salts. Did he just mention Corvette and Impala in the same breath? Get used to it. Impala is that good.

While GM recall woes are a reminder of The General’s haphazard past, Chevy’s cornucopia of 2014 product show the promise of its future. If the elegant Cadillac CTS (The Detroit News 2013 Vehicle of the Year) and the cute Chevy Spark are proof that GM can compete at the high and low ends of the market, then the Impala is evidence that the company is serious about its flabby middle.

Impala is the answer to the long-asked question: Why can’t Chevy translate the sex appeal of its smoldering Corvette and Camaro sports cars to its sedans?

The big sedan’s head-turning grille and surly rear shoulders are unmistakable echoes of the Camaro. Impala designers gave it the pony car’s simple, elegant grille line — while smartly resisting the deep-set cowl that gives the Camaro a touch of menace. Add LED lights along the front lip and the visage commands immediate respect in your rear view mirror.

The attention to detail continues along the big animal’s flanks with aerodynamic touches that reduce the car’s drag coefficient to a slippery .29. Where the Impala’s sweeping greenhouse and strong shoulders taper into a square back, small winglets sprout from the corner taillights to separate laminar flow, making for less rear turbulence. Better for sprinting across the Serengeti.

Where the old Impala was ignore-me vanilla, the 2014 is lick-me double chocolate fudge swirl. This sudden obsession with style may seem out of place in a large midsize sedan market traditionally catering to stodgy seniors. But this ain’t your grandfather’s midsize sedan market.

The 30-40 grand neighborhood has become an open grassland of eager predators from all-wheel drive Fusions, to loaded Chrysler 200s to base Audi A2s. If the traditional herd of large sedans don’t evolve, they’ll be eaten. Impala was not the first to adapt to this new ecosystem, but it’s at the front of the pack. It joins the Dodge Charger, Chrysler 300 and Ford Taurus SHO in bringing swagger to the segment. They make a stark contrast to the modestly competent Toyota Avalon-Hyundai Azera-Kia Cadenza.

It’s nice to see boldness rewarded.

The Impala has done a complete flip-flop in market appeal. Where 78 percent of its sales used to go to rental fleets, now 70 percent of its sales are retail customers. Consumer Reports gave Impala its highest rating — 95 — of all sedans. Indeed, it placed third among all vehicles behind the luxurious Tesla Model S (99 score) and BMW 1-series coupe (97). That’s heady company.

“No other domestic car has topped the sedans ratings since we began tracking scores in that fashion over 20 years ago,” reports the consumer group. The same outfit judged the outgoing Impala as “a woefully uncompetitive and outdated model that was to be avoided even as a free upgrade at the rental-car company.”

What a difference a year makes.

The extreme makeover continues under the skin where the Impala’s haunches sit on GM’s front-wheel drive Epsilon chassis architecture featuring improved shock and suspension tuning. The result is a nimble, 3,800-pound athlete that turns into corners without panic and withstands g-loads without keeling over like a yacht in a windstorm. The looks and handling add class to what big sedans do best: Size and power.

The Impala packs 105 cubic feet of room, including best-in-class front legroom and a trunk that could hide Godzilla. The base Impala comes with an adequate 4-banger, but the 3.6-liter, direct injection V6 is the engine of choice for hauling this sleek beast. And, despite its girth, the V6-powered chariot returns a competitive 23 mpg fuel economy.

Big shoulders. Best-in-class-horsepower. Fast-back. If all that sounds like an advertisement for male testosterone, you’re right. Sales skew 65-35 male. I stuck a couple petite gal pals in the Impala and they instantly commented on its size and daunting rear blind spots. That roomy fast back architecture may look good on the outside, but from the driver’s seat it’s a narrow-windowed turret.

That’s where Chevy’s portfolio gets interesting, because right across the showroom is an Impala on stilts. The Traverse SUV shares the Impala’s handsome front fascia while affording smaller drivers a more commanding view of the surrounding landscape. The Traverse’s higher, 47 percent female demographic nicely complements the Impala. Want rear-wheel drive power? The big Chevy SS offers Impala-like room and a 6.2-liter Corvette engine. Want better fuel economy? Let me show you the Chevy Malibu.

It’s an impressive toy cabinet — though, ahem, the SS and Malibu could benefit from the Impala/Traverse’s design cues.

The Impala’s interior is as plush as it is roomy with a stitched dash, aluminum accents and wood inlays surrounding Chevy’s competent MyLink infotainment system. Pay 35 grand and you get leather seats (no, not Impala hide). As on the exterior, the Impala team has thrown out the old rent-a-bucket template with a new standard of detail. Press the center console, and it opens to reveal a secret space for storing valuables. The automatic gearshift operates like butter, and Impala brings crash imminent braking to the segment. This nifty, radar-controlled safety technology — usually found on pricier vehicles — will hit the binders to avoid a crash if driver’s reflexes are too slow.

How confident is Chevy about the Impala? They gave the NASCAR badge to the sporty SS. Let Fusion and Camry pretend to be 200 mph sports sedans on the steep bankings of Daytona. The Impala is so secure in its new skin, it figures its buyers will find it anyway.

Heck, they’ll be demanding it at the Hertz counter.

2014 Chevrolet Impala

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger sedan
Price: $27,510 base ($39,245 as tested)
Power plant: 3.6-liter, direct-injection, V6 engine
Power: 305 horsepower, 264 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.0 seconds (Car & Driver); 149 mph top speed
Weight: 3,800 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 19 mpg city/29 mpg highway
Report card

Highs: Head-turning looks; leg-fitting room
Lows: High trunk = low visibility; How about a turbo 4-banger?


Happy 65th: Drivin’ the original ’49 Beetle

Posted by hpayne on May 17, 2014

Come ride with me in a time machine back to 1949. No, not Doc Emmett Brown’s flux capacitor-equipped DeLorean DMC-12 – but the original 1949 VW Beetle Type 1.

This year marks the 65th anniversary of the iconic Bug’s appearance on these shores. In the decades since, the Beetle has become an icon: The most recognizable silhouette in all of Autodom, a symbol of the hippie movement, and car that spawned the wildly popular Love Bug movie and TV series. Though it sprung from the brain of an irredeemable Fuhrer, the irresistible Beetle has found a place in every Yankee’s heart.

But a drive in the original Beetle is a reminder of its humble beginnings.

If the direct-injection, water-cooled, front-engine 2014 Beetle is a $25,000 accessory for the fashionable female or sporty male (see my Thursday Drive review of the powerful, Beetle GSR), the single carburetor, air-cooled, rear-engine original was a simple tool for everyone.

The interior is a simple landscape of cloth seats (two unadjustable buckets in front, a bench in the rear) a metal dash with a speedometer bookended by two glove boxes. Stitched leather dash and nav package? You’re in the wrong segment, mein freund. The car is surprisingly roomy, however, swallowing my 6’5” frame with plenty of headroom. Three small pedals – clutch, brake, and accelerator – sprout from the floor like typewriter keys from an antique, manual Underwood typewriter. A four-speed corn-stalk of a shifter grows out of the floor, a four-wheel emergency brake squatting behind it. Crank handles operate the windows. Rear visibility is minimal through the rear split screen.

The exterior? It’s a Beetle. ‘Nuff said.

The oily bits are equally, intentionally simple. One of the first rear-engine, rear-wheel vehicles produced (it was designed by the father of the Porsche, Ferdinand Porsche, after all), the chassis is designed for minimal maintenance. An air-cooled engine. Mechanical drum brakes. An interior heated by the engine via an air-air exchange manifold. No air conditioning. Heck, a cactus needs more maintenance than this car.

“Upkeep? I give it an oil change and lube job every 3,000 miles,” says Bob Ellis, proprietor of Der Vintage Werks in Ortonville, Michigan, who looks after the ’49 car for VW.

Conceived by Porsche in 1938, the Bug didn’t enter mass production until after WW2 under Allied supervision. In 1949 it crossed the pond for the first time via Dutch importer Ben Pon. Sales, says Ellis, were slow at first given bitter memories of the war. But over time the cute, $1,280 Bug proved irresistible.

I met Ellis on the Cranbrook campus where I could drive the seatbelt-less VW on private roads. Like any 65-year old, the old boy was a bit creaky. The brake lights and the “semaphore” turn signals (which pop out from the car’s b-pillars) didn’t work and this Bug moves like snail. Uncle Ferdinand designed its slippery shape for sustained speeds on the Autobahn, but that was a different era. Put her on Woodward and it might get run over by a mail truck.

Slam the door shut (“You really gotta slam it!” says Ellis), turn the key, open the choke, crank the starter button, and . . . oh, yes, it’s unmistakably a Beetle. How many Americans learned to drive a stick on a Bug? The gearbox lacks synchro rings so shifts are rough (hard acceleration before upshift or even engaging the clutch helps a smooth stir of the stew), but the tin tub slowly accelerates with a familiar Beetle thrum that sounds like an over-caffeinated woodpecker. Zero-60 feels like it should be measured in hours (officially its 28 seconds). Top speed? Just 68. C’mon, Herbie!

I never got out of third gear on Cranbrook’s two-lane roads, but with gears thrashing, the woodpecker pecking and the odd hubcap popping off, the little bugger felt plenty peppy – as long as I didn’t notice the co-eds jogging past.

After 21 million in sales and multiple enhancements, VW knew in 1974 it was time to retire the formula and the front-engine, front-wheel drive Golf was anointed to replace the Beetle. The last rear-engine Bug rolled off a Mexican assembly line and into the sunset in 2005. When VW, eager to milk Bug nostalgia, launched the New Beetle in 1998, it did so on the modern, nimble Golf platform.

Engine in the front? Trunk in the rear? That’s not a Bug. But it’s progress, so we welcome the new Beetles to the family. Still, it’s a treat to get back in the time machine to relive the way it was.

Now if I could just find that hubcap.

1949 VW Beetle

Vehicle type: Rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive, five-passenger coupe
Price: $1,280 (in ‘49 dollars)
Power plant: 1,192 cc, air-cooled, 4-cylinder boxer engine
Power: 25 horsepower
Transmission: Four-speed manual
Performance: 0-60 mph, 28 seconds; 68 mph top speed
Weight: 1,800 lbs (est.)
Fuel economy: 36 mpg
Report card

Highs: Roomy; Timeless Beetle shape
Lows: Non-synchro gearbox; Cornering is an adventure
Overall: Revered like an old friend


2014 VW Beetle GSR: Power supplants flower

Posted by hpayne on May 15, 2014

The Volkswagen Beetle has come a long was since the “people’s car” was introduced to the U.S. market in 1949. In celebrating the Beetle’s 65th birthday this year, VW gives us a turbocharged, 210-horsepower bug aimed at more male-oriented consumers. (Henry Payne / The Detroit News)

Introduced in the States in 1949, Volkswagen translated literally as “people’s car.” So what’s German for “boy toy”?

In celebrating the Beetle’s 65th birthday this year, VW gives us a turbocharged, 210-horsepower bug aimed at young lead-foots. Did I say bug? This limited edition yellow and black-striped compact is a bumblebee with sting.

The GSR completes the Beetle’s third-generation transformation from chick car back to everyman car. Emphasis on “man.” Where the iconic, rear-engine 1949 Beetle Type 1 (the original design debuted in Germany in 1938) was a no-frills tool for buyers who needed affordable transportation, the front-engine New Beetle launched in 1998 quickly gained a reputation as a “chick car.”

If the original was a sexless utility vehicle, Beetle 2.0 became a statement car for the independent female. At its peak of 80,000 in sales, New Beetle’s buyer demographic skewed heavily female, 72 percent-28 percent. How could it not? It came complete with a flower vase on the dash, for goodness sake.

But as any Woodward cruiser will tell you, chicks may buy a dude car, but dudes will shy from a chick car. Thus, Beetle 3.0 was launched for model year 2012.

The redesigned, more manly bug was stretched (by 6 inches), flattened (a half-inch lower), widened (by 3.3 inches), and squared off to broaden its demographic appeal. The fenders are still round, but less like a grapefruit and more like a bicep. Its windowsill lines rose, its roof got squashed — like Charles Atlas had leaned on it. Its face got more masculine. Its chin bore a toothier, wider grin. Heck, with the round lights it almost looks — dare I say it? — Porsche-like. More to the point, the vase disappeared and the Beetle got a turbo. Power supplants flower.

And if anyone didn’t get the hint, here comes the limited edition GSR for 2014.

Volkswagen has blessed Beetle with a sporty R-edition design package, which is also found on the upmarket Volkswagen CC, Tiguan, and Toureg. The Beetle R-line is basically a rebadged 2013 Turbo, and the GSR is the queen — er, king — bee. In keeping with the nostalgia brand, the GSR is a throwback to the 1973 “yellow black racer” (that’s gelb schwarzer Renner in the mother tongue, thus the acronym GSR) sold only in Europe. The 2014 GSR engine gets 10 more horsepower over last year’s turbo. Its butt gains a spoiler. Its fenders are stuffed with 19-inch, 10-spoke “tornado” wheels that look like turbine blades on a jet engine.

This is a bug on testosterone. A He Beetle. Heck, its chin is practically growing stubble. It begs to be taken to the track. So I obliged.

While race testing on a crisp May weekend at Autobahn Raceway outside Chicago, I took a few hot laps in the Bug as well. As a young lad, I watched “The Love Bug” perhaps 2,000 times. It was one of my favorite flicks, a Disney fantasy about a David among Goliaths. But outside the movie theater, I never imagined I’d see a trackable Beetle. Until now.

Lumped into a track group with other sports sedans — Porsche Boxsters, Chevy Corvettes, BMW Z3s — the Beetle was overmatched, but hardly a misfit. From a standing start, the torquey turbo burdens the front-wheel drive bug with ferocious torque steer. But at speed, all that low-end torque helps launch the car from corner to corner like a scared rabbit. The car’s 6-speed manual shifter (topped with a bumble-bee colored knob, natch) is a might mushy, but with power on demand, I didn’t need to row the box like, ahem, some 8,000 RPM, 2.0-liter Civic engines I know.

Ferdinand Porsche designed the Beetle’s slippery shape for the Autobahn nearly a century ago, but today that shape is hardly state-of-the-art at .36 drag coefficient. Fortunately, however, the chassis is. The GSR shares the Golf GTI’s nimble front strut and multi-link rear suspension architecture. Stir in precise electronic steering and the Beetle was a hoot to throw around.

That said, it is hard to place the GSR. At 30 grand it is in the same shopping aisle as the sporty Ford Focus ST or Subaru WRX, yet not as racy. Its performance is more comparable to a Fiat Abarth or Mini Cooper S, yet its larger chassis — based on the VW Jetta — offers substantially more interior room than its little Euro-brothers.

The GSR is a unique car for the uniquely style-conscious boy racer who likes tooling around town in a Beetle with an exterior louder than Jim Carrey’s suit in “The Mask.” Which is why VW is only making 3,500 of ’em (mine was #216).

But hang up the suit, and the GSR shares the Beetle R-line’s exquisite attention to detail.

Men and women alike will admire a vase-less interior that is luxurious yet practical — with a nod to the Beetle DNA. The instruments are big and easy to read (including old-school odometer reset button, bless you). The dash embeds VW’s familiar, ergonomically friendly controls, yet sports two glove boxes in a nod to the ’49 original. The seats are black leather yet manually adjustable. The side pockets are made with elastic straps to store a 1-liter bottle if necessary. Unlike other two-door coupes, the Bug’s backseat has loads of headroom for the over-6-foot crowd.

At night, LED lights wreath the headlights. Turn a corner and the GSR’s inside fog light illuminates — better to see the apex, my dear. It’s all attention to detail one would expect from a car company determined to broaden an old brand’s appeal. So how’s the He Beetle doing? Not bad, thanks for asking.

I asked males young and old what they thought of the GSR during my test, with near universal approval. Still, it’s an acquired taste. “Love the look, but its shape is still buggy,” said one 20-something. Well, yes. The cold, hard numbers? In its second year of release, the Beetle sold more than 43,000 units — its best performance since 2004. Not on pace to sell 21 million like the original, but a healthy niche vehicle nonetheless. Males are coming back to the brand — if gingerly. Dudes are now 35 percent of buyers and with the turbocharged R-line, VW hopes to keep ’em coming.

Now how about stuffing the Porsche 911’s 520 horsepower, twin turbo under the hood?

2014 VW Beetle GSR

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger coupe
Price: $29,995 base ($30,850 as tested)
Power plant: 2.0-liter, direct-injection, turbocharged inline 4-cylinder engine
Power: 210 horsepower, 207 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.0 seconds (Car & Driver); 127 mph top speed
Weight: 3,164 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 23 mpg city/31 mpg highway
Report card

Highs: Turbo-riffic; A treasure of useful gadgets
Lows: Mushy manual gearbox; Loud paint job not for everyone