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NYC show: Goodbye mid-size Cadillac CTS, hello compact CT5

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 21, 2019

The 2020 Cadillac CT5 - shown here in Sport trim - will compete against the BMW 3-series in the compact car class.

The 2020 Cadillac CT5 – shown here in Sport trim – will compete against the BMW 3-series in the compact car class. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

New York — Cadillac is shaking up its luxury sedan lineup by taking its mid-size car down market.

General Motors Co.’s luxury brand is replacing its CTS sedan with a similarly sized compact car aimed squarely at the German trio of BMW 3-Series, Mercedes C-Class and Audi A4. Badged the CT5, the new Caddy was unveiled Tuesday ahead of its appearance at this week’s New York auto show.

Pricing will likely be thousands of dollars less than the current CTS while retaining its mid-sized proportions and adding exotic technologies like the Super Cruise limited hands-free driving system also found on Cadillac’s large CT6 sedan. With all-new skin, interior and engines, the 2020 Cadillac CT5 marks a bold re-positioning of GM’s luxury maker to take on its compact German competition with a bigger, more luxurious car than the current ATS.

The ATS replacement expected later this year — the CT4 — also will likely go down-market against subcompact luxury cars like the BMW M2 and Mercedes A-class. Its small-for-compacts rear seat should be more competitive in that class.

“The first-ever Cadillac CT5 showcases Cadillac’s unique expertise in crafting American luxury sedans,” said Cadillac President Steve Carlisle, who has re-established the brand’s headquarters in Metro Detroit from New York City. “Its details elevate every drive and reward the senses.”

The CTS badge is retiring after nearly two decades as Cadillac’s premier sedan — a model that set a new, 21st-century course for the tired brand by introducing the angular Art & Science design language.

The CT5 will contrast most notably from the CTS in its console and grille designs. The console sheds the CTS’ controversial, haptic-touch Cadillac User Experience for an all-new system introduced earlier this year on the XT6 mid-size SUV. The new CUE system enables users to choose from multiple controllers.

“We want to be a class-leading user interface,” said Cadillac Chief Designer Andrew Smith. “We made the most logical system so that customers get to choose how to use it: by voice, rotary dial, or touch.”

The sophisticated console complements a cabin lush with natural materials and optional tech features pioneered by Cadillac like a head-up display and Super Cruise — technology that allows hands-free highway driving while the car monitors the driver via steering-wheel-mounted sensors.

Outside, the CT5’s front fascia and racy fastback distinguish it as a CTS successor. The narrow, LED headlights are integrated with the big pentagon grille while the brand’s signature, vertical running lights frame the fascia. The grille can be had in chrome for the Premium Luxury models or black for the Sport model — the two trims available above the base Luxury model on Cadillac’s new “Y-trim” strategy. A Platinum package available on both.

The CT5 is four inches shorter than the CTS, which gives it a more coupe-like appearance in the rear. But the 116-inch wheelbase actually expands by two inches, bringing mid-size rear legroom to the compact class.

“This is a vehicle I’ve really been wanting to show you,” smiled Smith. “We wanted to make a car that looks like it drives.”

To that end the CT5 still will be based on the athletic, rear-wheel-drive-based Alpha platform that has undergirded the CTS and ATS. But in addition to its new wardrobe, it will also get a remade suspension and engine lineup to compete against its nimble class rivals. Cadillac engineers took the CT5 to race tracks including Virginia International Raceway, Colorado’s high Plains Raceway, and GM’s epic Milford facility.

The multi-link front and five-link rear suspension get new bushings, springs and dampers. The Sport model gets performance Brembo brakes. The CT5 features four drive modes standard on both RWD and all-wheel-drive models.

The compact Caddy debuts an all-turbo engine lineup with a standard, 2.0-liter turbo-4 making 237 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, while a bigger, 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6 will crank out 335 ponies and 400 pound-feet of torque. The torque numbers — when translated to Newton meters of torque (a nod to Cadillac’s coming wave of electric vehicles) — will distinguish the two cars with a trunk badge.

Befitting the CT5’s downsizing to the compact class, both engines get less power than current CTS offerings — and will likely gain in fuel economy when EPA figures are finalized as the car approaches its fourth quarter sale date. No electrified powertrain has been announced — nor is there evidence yet of a V-sport performance variant to replace the Corvette-powered, supercharged CTS-V.

Both engines will be married to GM’s 10-speed automatic transmission. The CT5 will be built in Lansing. It will be on public display here at the New York show April 19-28 and will be available to order this fall.

Despite an overall industry decline in luxury compact sales of 15 percent in 2018, Cadillac Marketing Chief Jason Sledjewski says sedans like the CT5 remain important: “Sedans are a part of our DNA. They move consumers into our brand.”

Mid-engine, camou Corvette takes Times Square by storm, debuts July 18

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 12, 2019

Chevrolet Corvette Chief Engineer Tadge Juechter and General Motors Chairman and CEO Mary Barra drive in a camouflaged next generation Corvette down 7th Avenue near Times Square Thursday, April 11, 2019 in New York City.

The worst-kept secret in autodom is out.

The veil was lifted Thursday night when General Motors Co. confirmed the existence of its long-rumored mid-engine Corvette by driving it through the most public place on the planet — Times Square, New York.

With Corvette Chief Engineer Tadge Juechter behind the wheel and GM CEO Mary Barra riding shotgun, the thinly-camouflaged C8 stopped traffic at 7th Avenue & Broadway on the way to the Marriott Marquis Hotel where Barra publicly confirmed the next-generation Corvette.

The mid-engine supercar will officially break cover, sans camou, on July 18 at a yet-to-be-disclosed event.

The first production Corvette to sport an engine mounted behind the driver, the new, so-called C8  ‘Vette (for eighth generation) will debut with the legendary Stingray badge and around 500-horsepower from a push-rod V-8 engine. More engine variations are expected including a twin-turbo V-8 and even a hybrid version with an electric motor up front producing over 1,000 horsepower.

The C8’s Times Square debut was carefully choreographed to take place in the middle of New York rush hour — from 5.50-6.05 PM — and deliver Barra to the annual Footsteps to the Future Gala put on by the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation. The foundation honors New York fireman Siller, who died in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

Juechter and Barra piloted the supercar (its 07.18.19 launch date emblazoned on the side) out of a Barclays Bank garage where it had been secreted Thursday. Accompanied by four giant, black Chevy Suburbans — and one of New York’s finest on a police bicycle — the Corvette motorcade then made its way down 7th Avenue south of 47th Street and the giant Times Square grandstand where TV stations broadcast the New Year’s ball drop.

GM had video and still cameras in place — including high in a Times Square building — to record the C8’s quick jaunt.

A bystander says Juechter behaved himself, resisting the temptation to rev the C8’s big engine for the throngs of people cramming the curbs to get a peak of the camouflaged creature.

After cruising past the Disney Store, Broadway, and a forest of neon billboards, Juechter hung a right at 45th Street (past the Minnskoff Theater where the Lion King is playing) and delivered Barra and the C8 to the Marriott’s front entrance.

A blizzard of Internet media followed.

While Barra addressed the gala, GM posted a not-so-cryptic notice on GM’s website. The company posted to customers: “Don’t get left behind. The Next Generation Corvette is the most anticipated Corvette ever. . . . Sign up to receive updates straight from the source and be the first to know about the Next Gen Corvette. “

The post was followed by GM social media posts and video of the mid-engine Corvette taking the city by storm. The icing on the cake came from GM motorhead and President Mark Reuss — long a champion of the Corvette program — who posted pictures of the C8 on his Facebook page.

Rumors of a mid-engine Corvette have been around for years as the current car pushed the boundaries of front-engine performance — and competitors like Ford and Acura moved to mid-engine platforms. The Detroit News first confirmed the existence of the mid-engine car in August of 2016, and spy photographers have taken multiple shots of the car testing on race tracks and roadways around the U.S.

When the car missed its expected debut at the Detroit Auto Show this January, reports surfaced of program delays caused by electrical gremlins as well as chassis-twisting issues. When Reuss was photographed riding in a thinly-disguised, mid-engine Corvette in Arizona this winter, speculation as to when the car would debut reached fever pitch.

The program is under deadline pressures beyond a rabid fan base waiting to buy it. The C8 brings significant advantages on the race track — the current front-engine race car is getting long in the tooth against mid-engine competitors from Ford and Ferrari —  and Chevy is expected to debut the car for the 2020 IMSA Weathertech racing season at next January’s Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. The racing version of the C8 must be licensed for competition by the end of this year.

Sales of the front-engine C7 have also fallen off a cliff as customers anticipate the arrival of the next-gen car. Sources expect the C8 will be priced a few thousand dollars more than the current gen.

Along with breaking GM’s silence on the C8, Barra announced at the Marriott charity gala that the final front-engine C7 (a black, 650-horse Z06 model) will be auctioned at Barrett-Jackson in Connecticut on June 28 — and all proceeds would go to the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation.

“GM, GMC and Chevrolet support the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation and its commitment to injured and fallen military members, first responders and their families,” said Barra. “The sale of this iconic Corvette will help the foundation continue its good work, and pave the way for the next-generation Corvette that we will introduce on July 18.”

Jeep mega-brand transforms Fiat Chrysler’s future

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 12, 2019

2019 Jeep® Wrangler Rubicon2019 Jeep® Wrangler Rubicon (Photo: FCA US LLC, © 2018 FCA US LLC)

The Detroit auto industry is undergoing historic change as General Motors and Ford place big bets on the future of mobility with bold investments in autonomous and electric vehicles.

But perhaps the most fundamental change in Detroit is coming from the smallest of the Big Three, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, where a new Jeep mega-brand has emerged to put the company on its firmest footing in decades.

Traditionally the most fragile of the home automakers, the now Italian-owned company has needed transfusion from the U.S. government twice in the last 40 years as its volume Chrysler and Dodge brands struggled to stay afloat in a market besieged by cheaper, more reliable Japanese imports.

That has changed dramatically this decade as Jeep has emerged as the company’s volume brand and Chrysler and Dodge have faded to niche status. Indeed, Jeep was the badge that kick-started the SUV revolution three decades ago. Today, it is not only considered the pre-eminent utility brand with the highest transaction prices in segment, it is one of the most recognized brands in the world.

“The foresight that the leadership team had five or six years ago was genius,” says Jeep North America chief Scott Tallon. “It was the right time to make those decisions and let them develop, and we have been very fortunate and we will stay hungry in the marketplace.”

Significantly, this brand-build has been the focus of Fiat Chrysler’s expansion efforts – not autonomy or electrification, like its Detroit peers.

FCA CEO Mike Manley says Jeep is committed to offering autonomous and electric features in its vehicles by 2021, but it is not on the expensive, technological frontier with new brands and platforms like GM (GM Cruise/new EV platform). It appears content, instead, to partner with other companies (Waymo) on autonomy while offering hybrids on existing gas-powered platforms.

Jeep sales numbers tell the story.

As Chevy and Ford retrench — eliminating sedans and closing factories — Jeep is actually expanding into two new high-volume segments and building a new Detroit factory. This spring, Jeep enters the midsize pickup market with the Gladiator, a formidable truck based on the iconic Wrangler SUV — but with significant bed and towing capability. And Jeep will also soon go head-to-head against its Detroit rivals in the super-sized, three-row SUV market with the Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer.

This continues Jeep’s rapid transformation into Fiat Chrysler’s volume brand with sales of nearly 1 million units in 2018, up from just 441,000 15 years ago.

Internationally, Jeep sales have soared to over 1.5 million. FCA CEO – and former Jeep boss – Mike Manley is bullish about Jeep’s position.

“We believe (IHS Markit’s) global industry forecast for 2022 of 37 million,” he told investors last year. “By 2022 we are targeting one Jeep sale for every 12 UVs sold in the world with a future vision of one in five. That compares to 1 in 23 in 2009.”

So rapid is Jeep growth in Europe that it announced a deal with Tesla this week to offset the emissions from its red-hot SUV sales.

Compare apples-to-apples sales of the Chevy and Jeep brands in 2018, and the numbers were very close. Remove pickup trucks (Jeep didn’t sell any) and the three sedans that Chevy is discontinuing (Cruze, Impala and Volt), and Chevy sold a total 974,105 sedans and SUVs in 2018. Jeep sold 973,227 SUVs.

“Our clear mission is to be a full-line SUV brand and expand into segments where it makes sense for Jeep,” says Tallon. “And pickups are a natural extension.”

Veteran Wall Street analyst Joe Philippi of Auto Trends Consulting says that the sky is the limit for Jeep, given its rare status as a brand that appeals to mainstream and premium buyers alike.

“FCA is just starting to leverage the Jeep brand,” he says. “(Ex-CEO Sergio Marchionne) and Manley worked behind the curtain to push the organization to broaden Jeep’s portfolio. Sergio always had a soft spot in his heart for Jeep. He understood what the brand meant.”

Given the brand’s strength, Phillippi also believes that Jeep and Fiat Chrysler don’t need to invest in EVs the way GM and Ford are doing. He says that EVs will become viable when batteries become a  reliable propulsion source.

“When that opportunity comes, then Jeep has the brand strength to develop an EV platform,” the analyst says. “They can let the other guys spend the money on developing battery tech.”

With Jeep still an SUV brand, Fiat Chrysler is vulnerable should the market shift back to sedans as it did in the 2009 Great Recession. But most auto analysts — as well as companies’ internal predictions — see a permanent shift to SUVs as well as long-term, stable, cheap energy prices.

If that’s the case, says Phillippi, then Fiat Chrysler has another ace up its sleeve with Ram, which has been expanding its truck market share as well as its brand cred.

“With Jeep and Ram as their volume vehicles, FCA is more valuable than ever,” he says. “And they are in apposition to expand Ram as and SUV brand just as GM has done with its GMC truck brand.”

Payne: Mazda 3 hatch has the looks and moves

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 12, 2019

Modern meets classic. The 2019 Mazda 3 shows off its sleek, 21st-century lines in front of a classic from the last century. Photo taken in front of the Sacramento Auto Museum.

Modern meets classic. The 2019 Mazda 3 shows off its sleek, 21st-century lines in front of a classic from the last century. Photo taken in front of the Sacramento Auto Museum. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

In the middle of the New York auto show floor each year sits the exotic car stand featuring the latest from storied makes like Lamborghini, Bentley, Bugatti and Koenigsegg. It’s hard to notice anything else nearby.

Yet Mazda, with its stunning Kai Concept, managed to compete

This luscious, candy-red hatchback was a show-stopper. I didn’t know whether to stare at it or lick it. Like the Cadillac Escala or Buick Avista concepts, the Kai Concept design study signaled the Mazda’s future. But it was hard to believe this work of art could become a $25,000 production car.

Believe it.

The 2019 Mazda 3 is now on dealer lots and is the Kai Concept incarnate save for larger mirrors and smaller wheels. Wrapped in Soul Red, it’s the most stunning hatch the segment has seen. From its long hood to curvaceous rump, it looks like a Mazda compact and a Mercedes GT Coupe had a love child.

With a driver-focused interior, all-wheel drive and manual-box option, the Mazda 3 hatch is just an engine away from enthusiast nirvana.

Not that the 186-horsepower four-banger is a deal-breaker. Smooth and quiet, it lacks the 200-plus horsepower turbo option of some segment competitors. But passing up the Mazda 3 over a turbo is like complaining that Carrie Underwood can’t play a Wurlitzer organ.

It arrives at a time when the sedan segment has fallen out of favor in SUV nation. Ford, Chevy and Chrysler have all pulled out of the compact segment.

Mazda is all-in with the new 3. It’s about the joy of driving. It’s a bright-yellow detour sign off the road to autonomy.

With this fourth-generation compact, Mazda continues like fellow performance brand Volkswagen to split its compact offerings between sedan and hatch. V-dub badges its sedan (Jetta) and hatchback (Golf) separately. Not Mazda. But the four-door and five-door invite different customers.

So different are their exteriors that they only share a hood. The sedan’s nice, but — as readers know — I’m a hatchaholic.

Jumping into the 3 hatch (3 stands for the number of laps you’ll make around this lovely creature before getting in) in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, I enjoyed the car as much inside as outside. The steering wheel is planted, the body controlled, the six-speed tranny like butter.

It begs to be pushed. Pushed to the point that you ask if there’s more under the hood. It’s a question Mazda won’t answer for now.

My favorite car in the segment, the turbocharged 220-horse VW Golf GTI, is not threatened here. Yet.

Though its minimalist good looks, alluring interior and athletic handling appeal to the same customer as the GTI, Mazda stops short of offering a GTI challenger even though it has the tool in the toolbox to do it: Mazda’s 2.5-liter turbo-four that produces 310 pound-feet of torque and 250-horsepower.

But the 3 still has plenty to tempt buyers.

For example, the 2.5-liter inline-4 cylinder that does come standard produces 186 horses and 185 pound-feet of torque. And it blows away every other standard engine in the segment, including Golf — all the while getting good fuel economy (34.7 mpg under my lead foot). Its stylish looks are for all Ford Fiesta and Focus refugees who are aching for an aesthetically pleasing hatch.

There’s not just hatchback utility, but an all-wheel drive system that expands Mazda’s demographic into all-season Middle America. The system is good. Very good. I flogged it around a mountain snow course like a Finnish rally driver, the 3 never putting a foot wrong.

The AWD play is a bold challenge to Subaru’s exclusivity in segment. But the Mazda is a more premium animal than the Impreza while offering similar standard features.

The minimalist, sculpted interior is luxury-class. There is a strong whiff of Alfa Romeo Giulia here, from sweeping horizontal dash lines to analog gauges to remote-rotary-operated info screen. There’s even a delicious Alfa-red interior option.

The ergonomic detail is obsessive. It comes from a development team that studied Princeton psychologist George Miller’s cognitive learning theories about short-term memory in order to assist the 3’s ergonomics.

The 3 hatch is easy to build. Starting at $24,495 (the sedan begins at $21,895) the car comes standard with 8.8-inch screen, push-button start, 18-inch wheels, leatherette seats, adaptive cruise-control and blind-spot assist.

You’ll appreciate that last feature because the hatch’s racy C-pillar could hide New Hampshire. It’s huge.

Like its Mazda 6 and CX-5 siblings about which I’ve raved, 3 comes with i-Activsense, an instrument-display-based graphic that constantly informs you of other vehicles around your car. Innovated by Tesla, Mazda has made this tech its own.

Still, this is where 3 customers might depart from the hatch. Stunning outside, it might not be comfortable for drivers who have to spend a lot of time in traffic — and rear-seat passengers might pine for more sunlight.

Add AWD to your hatch for more grip and Soul Red paint for curb appeal and you’ll be the envy of the block for just $26,490 — competitive with an Impreza but with more everything. Heck, you’ll wonder why people bother to buy a similarly equipped $40,000 AWD Audi A3.

Forget adding a navigation system — phone apps are better. Mazda’s generous center console allows plenty of room to stow your phone and hook in to Apple CarPlay or Android Auto — and the standard 8.8-inch display offers good graphics.

That knee in your back is your rear passengers again — 6-footers cramped relative to, say, a roomy Golf or Civic. But they’ll be reassured by the 3’s well-engineered ride dynamics and quieted cabin.

Credit more attention to detail as the 3’s engineering team calked all the gaps from the previous gen car. The four isn’t buzzy at high revs, but makes a nice warm growl under acceleration.

Dude, you ask, every Mazda is spawn of the Miata sports car — so where’s the manual shifter?

Smartly, Mazda has packaged it with the 3’s premium trim, recognizing manuals are no longer a value play but a feature craved by enthusiasts. Thus equipped, a premium manual (available with FWD only) will set you back $28,395 — competitive with a manual GTI.

And if Mazda sells enough of them — and picks up sales from those suffering Cruze and Focus hatchback customers — the business case for an AWD manual with 250-horsepower would be irresistible.

That would be a sight next to the exotics at the New York show.

2019 Mazda 3

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

Price: $21,895 base sedan, $24,495 for hatchback, including $895 destination fee ($30,390 Premium, AWD hatchback as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter, inline-4 cylinder

Power: 186 horsepower; 185 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic, 6-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.9 seconds (Car and Driver est., AWD); top speed: 130 mph

Weight: 3,255 pounds (AWD hatchback as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 26 city/35 highway/30 combined (FWD auto); 25 city/35 highway/29 combined (FWD manual); 24 city/32 highway/27 combined (AWD auto, as tested)

Report card

Highs: The cure for the common compact; premium interior

Lows: Blind spot the size of New Hampshire; 250-horse turbo-4, please?

Overall: 4 stars

Payne: Jeep Gladiator jacked to the Maximus

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 10, 2019

With locking front and rear differentials and detachable swaybars, the 2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon can go just about anywhere.

With locking front and rear differentials and detachable swaybars, the 2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon can go just about anywhere. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

The fully armored Jeep Gladiator pickup truck has stepped into the Colosseum, and it’s ready to rumble.

If you Google “Gladiator,” the Jeep pickup and the Russell Crowe movie from 2000  dominate the results. That’s appropriate.

Both were wildly anticipated blockbusters from charismatic directors (Ridley Scott and Sergio Marchionne). Both feature buff, rugged stars (Crowe, Rubicon Jeep trim). And both lead characters are real softies inside.

Before we ogle the Gladiator’s impressive biceps, pecs and glutes, behold the interior of this off-road general. Jeep’s pickup is based on another legendary warrior, the Jeep Wrangler. Tough enough to plow through walls, the World War II forged Wrangler has always had swagger, but owners had to suffer its spartan interior. This was a vehicle that was born to carry a rear-seat machine gun after all.

That all changed last year with the fourth-gen Wrangler.

Credit interior designer Chris Benjamin. He arrived at Jeep after years building European luxury suites for BMW, Mercedes and Volvo. His team understands that Jeep is the rare brand that hangs out at the intersection of Rodeo Drive and Main Street with appeal to luxury and mainstream buyers alike.

Jumping into the 21st century with all four tires, the Wrangler gained interior quiet, rear-seat heating and air-conditioning controls, and state-of-the-art electronics while maintaining signature touches like dashboard “oh-crap-we’re-going-over-a-20-degree-rocky-incline!” handle and door nets.

The Gladiator inherits all that and more. This is the Wrangler with a truck bed that enthusiasts have been pining for.

It touts the best interior in a segment where interiors have been an afterthought.

“It’s a truck, it gets dirty,” has been the stock line for midsize pickup interiors. Sure, class leaders like Toyota, Chevy and Ford have introduced modern trucks with high-fidelity infotainment systems and digital dials, but they’ve been surrounded by acres of uninspired plastic (the exception to the rule is Honda’s unibody-based Ridgeline).

The Jeep makes budget with plastic materials, too, but they blend in with careful details like aviator vents, metal-plated bezels and meaty dials. This is an interior you’ll enjoy riding in every day.

Behind the captain’s quarters the ship gets really interesting. Gladiator remakes the Wrangler aft of the B-pillar. The wheelbase gets stretched to a nearly Ram 1500-like 137 inches to accommodate the biggest back seat in segment. The 60-inch steel bed sports easy access and a two-step tailgate drop. The rear axles are pushed back to allow a 25-inch departure angle so I didn’t drag the tailgate down off-road inclines. Which is where Jeeps are happiest.

My 6-foot-5 basketball player’s frame had more room in the back seat than in Delta first class. That seat is a skybox for the Gladiator’s off-road games like my foray into the wilds east of Sacramento. Normal-size humans will appreciate the assist from door-mounted grab handles, since the Gladiator rises nearly a foot off the ground.

Despite its size, the pickup loses none of the Wrangler’s capability or open-air attributes — which women dig as much as guys.

A female friend recently bought a Grand Cherokee SUV and was instantly the star of the playground set.

“My mom got a Jeep!” her kids sang as they piled out of the four-door ute at school. If Mom buys a Gladiator, she’ll be over-run by playground paparazzi. And she won’t lose any utility, as the pickup’s back seat is as big as the Grand Cherokee.

“Want it,” was all an outdoorsy pal responded when I posted Instagram pictures of the Gladiator devouring a mud-choked California off-road trail in the pouring rain.

Jeep has more brand equity than anything this side of Nike, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles milks it for all it’s worth. Loaded with mud-caked swagger, the Gladiator is pricey compared to comparable midsize competitors.

The base Gladiator Sport begins at a lofty $35,040.

Armed with a big seven-slot grille (for heavier breathing during towing and payload duties), the pickup comes with signature plastic fenders, removable roof and doors, double cab, 32-inch tires and a 4×4 system that can climb Mount Rushmore (which should make the family vacation interesting).

 

Throw in useful tech packages for blind-spot assist, adaptive cruise-control and infotainment, and you’ll have a $43,000 Sport pickup that can go anywhere, any season. And it has a best-in-class 1,600-pound bed capacity and and can tow 6,000 pounds (equipped with trailer package, the Sport can tow up to 7,650 pounds).

That’s a couple-grand more expensive than competitive Ford Rangers, Chevy Colorados and Toyota Tacomas. Jeep figures you’ll pay the premium for capability – and because you yearn for the kids’ playground approval.

Roaring into the Colosseum priced just shy of the Gladiator Sport is a Ranger with FX4 off-road package. Unsheathe your swords, warriors!

The $41,000 Ford has similar tow and payload numbers while swinging state-of-the-art technology like auto-crawl mode and self-park (useful when you have a long bed out back). Lower than Gladiator, it’s more athletic on road — and its FX4 bash plates make it a credible off-roader, too.

King of the outback, the Gladiator makes a surprisingly good showing on asphalt thanks to its brother, the Ram 1500. The best-handling light-duty pickup, the Ram shares its coil-over, multi-link suspension tricks with the Gladiator. How’s that for sibling hand-me-downs?

Climb the price ladder and Jeep has no peer.

I tested a loaded $50,000 Overland tester ($40,000 base) with blacked-out wheels, body-colored aluminum fenders and roof, and two-tone interior that belongs on stage if it didn’t work so well in mud. It’s a knockout. Unlike the Ranger and its nifty rotary-shifter, Jeep insists on its signature stick mode-selector that sometimes requires the muscle of a — well, Gladiator — to yank into four-wheel-low.

Turn off the traction control, and the little truck slices through gravelly mud ruts like a Roman sword through butter.

Then there’s the peerless Rubicon starting at $43,545. With its extreme 43-degree departure angle and detachable sway-bars and ability to wade through 30 inches of water, the Gladiator Rubicon can go anywhere a Wrangler can. But if you want to throw a couple dirt bikes in the back for off-roading, only the pickup will get you there. The Gladiator Rubicon starts at two-grand north of the Wrangler.

With a spare tire under the bed, throaty 285-horse V-6 and 200 available Mopar mod options, Gladiator should do very well at the box office. One more thing it has in common with its Hollywood namesake.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

 

2020 Jeep Gladiator

Vehicle type: Front-engine, four-wheel drive, five-passenger pickup

Price: Base price $35,040 including $1,495 destination charge ($43,685 Sport S model, $53,380 Overland, and $57,615 Rubicon as tested)

Powerplant: 3.6-liter V-6

Power: 285 horsepower, 260 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic; 6-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.2 sec. (Car and Driver); maximum towing, 7,650 pounds; payload, 1,600 pounds

Weight: 4,450 pounds (5,072 Rubicon as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA: 17 city/22 highway/19 combined (automatic); 16 city/23 highway/19 combined (manual)

Report card

Highs: Hits all the rugged Jeep benchmarks; friendly interior

Lows:No rear-wheel-drive option; $1,495 destination adds to already pricey truck

Overall: 4 stars

All-new, sporty 2020 Ford Escape debuts

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 10, 2019

The is the new 2020 Ford Escape.

Ford took the wraps off an all-new 2020 Escape compact crossover today as the brand ditches sedans and looks to a lineup anchored by SUVs and trucks.

The sporty, lean Escape — the second-best selling Ford after the Ford F-150 — has a lot riding on its sleek back.

It will do battle in the auto industry’s biggest segment against the best-selling Japanese trio of the Toyota RAV4, Nissan Rogue and Honda CR-V – while also trying to attract customers orphaned by the retirement of Ford’s Fusion, Focus and Taurus sedans.

To accomplish these tasks, Ford brings the most versatile Escape yet. The 2020 model features a long list of technology and engine options — including a hybrid and plug-in option -— that has been the Escape’s calling card over four generations. But this Escape also expands its envelope with fetching good looks and interior volume.

The new model has a lower belt-line than the outgoing ute with a sloping, shark-like nose that evokes the premium Porsche Macan SUV. The headlights are level with the hood-line (water-line in Ford parlance), and the Mustang-inspired trapezoidal grille is slung low. Longer, wider, lower, and 200-pounds lighter, the new Escape has a noticeably more athletic presence.

“Like a cat ready to pounce,” designer George Bucca says of an SUV that will boast best-in-class drag coefficient.

The Escape’s more athletic look will share the compact SUV space with a boxier, more off road-capable Ford SUV due in the 2021 model year. The as-yet unnamed model will be built on the same front-wheel drive platform as Escape but be more geared for true off-road capability.

With a lower center of gravity than the outgoing Escape, the new ute should have more sedan-like handling.

“This new vehicle performs like no other Escape before,” says Escape chief engineer Jim Hughes. “It’s quick and a lot of fun to drive.”

Yet, despite its lower-by-a-half-inch-stance, the Ford has more room inside. The new architecture allowed engineers to scallop out more headroom, and rear seats can slide like the front buckets – opening up a whopping 6 more inches of legroom nearly on par with a full-size Expedition SUV. The back seat will be roomiest in class.

Cargo room expands to 37.5 cubic feet. Four passengers can stuff four golf bags in the back for a day at the links. Up front, the Ford’s rotary shifter and SYNC 3 infotainment system will be familiar to Ford customers – but the console space is more generous than before, offering cubby space for phones and French fries alike.

Since it debuted over two decades ago as a 1995 model, the Escape has watched its competitive set grow from six to 22 vehicles, with Japanese and Korean offerings coming loaded with standard features. Ford rises to the task with standard CoPilot 360 (which debuted on the Ford Edge last fall) that includes blind-spot assist, automatic braking and automatic high-beams. Wi-Fi connectivity for up to 10 devices is also standard (which is five more than the number of people that can fit in the Escape).

An available park-assist feature is a reminder of the Escape’s pioneering history that included the first kick-open tailgate and first small SUV hybrid option. Active Park Assist 2.0 allows drivers to automatically parallel or perpendicular park with the simple touch of a button — without having to engage the steering wheel or brake.

For 2020, the hybrid returns (after disappearing since 2012) along with a buffet of turbocharged (Ecoboost) and electric options. The battery-gas engine setup will include a 2.5-liter mill with up to 40 mpg, 550 miles of range and 3,500 pounds of towing capability.

Engine firsts include a standard three-cylinder engine, a 1.5-liter turbo-4 with 180 horsepower, and a plug-in hybrid that can travel more than 30 miles on battery alone – over 50 percent better than the retiring Fusion Energi plug-in sedan.

A fourth powertrain option, available in top-trim models, will be a peppy 250-horse, 2.0-liter turbo-4 capable of accelerating from zero-60 mph in just 6.5 seconds. A carryover from the last generation, it gains 5 horsepower and is tow-rated for 3,500 pounds. All engines are mated to an 8-speed tranny and are available in front-or-all wheel drive.

The new front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive platform is one of five platforms that will gird Ford going forward. The other four are rear-wheel drive (Mustang), van, body-on-frame (trucks) and battery-electric. The platforms, according to Ford, will share 70 percent of their parts for cost efficiency.

The 2020 Escape (and its future off-road segment mate) slots between the entry-level EcoSport and midsize three-row Explorer in Ford’s SUV lineup. It will make its auto show debut in New York City later this month and will be available for media reviews shortly thereafter.

The Escape is assembled in Louisville and arrives at dealerships this fall.

Payne: Jeep Gladiator pickup lives up to its hype

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 2, 2019

King of the Hill. The 2020 Jeep Gladiator is the most capable off-road pickup. Starting at about $35k, it has best-in-class 4x4 towing and payload.

King of the Hill. The 2020 Jeep Gladiator is the most capable off-road pickup. Starting at about $35k, it has best-in-class 4×4 towing and payload. (Photo: FCA US LLC)

One of the year’s most anticipated vehicles, the 2020 Jeep Gladiator, opened to media reviews this week, and the midsize pickup lives up to its hype.

The Detroit News spent a day at the helm of the mighty pickup and will have a full review in Thursday’s Drive section. But with the embargo for drive impressions and pricing lifted this weekend, we couldn’t help but spill some of our initial thoughts on the vehicle, which arrives on dealer lots in May or June.

In our 100-mile-plus adventure from the chilly streets of Sacramento to the rocky, rain-soaked foothills of California’s Sierra Nevadas this week, the Gladiator made a strong case for the best all-around vehicle in its segment. Combining Jeep’s unique off-road capabilities with a longer wheelbase than brother Wrangler, the Gladiator proved nimble when rock-crawling, and comfortable when asphalt-cruising.

Those with $60,815 to invest in a fully-tricked-out Rubicon Launch Edition are rare, to be sure, but the base, $35,000 Gladiator comes loaded for bear with standard four-wheel drive, 285-horsepower V-6, and 6,000-pound-plus towing capability at a price a bit north of segment competitors like the Toyota Tacoma and Chevy Colorado.

More on that pricing. Jeep’s unique off-road tools and stylish interior – not to mention that World War II-forged seven-slot grille that has made it one of the most coveted brands this side of Apple – means buyers will pay a couple-thousand-dollar premium over competitors.

The Gladiator is based on the Wrangler’s body-on-frame platform and carries its familiar 285-horsepower V-6  (a diesel option will arrive in 2020). The pickup benefits from its iconic SUV sibling’s major update for the 2018 model year – an update that brought the Wrangler into the 21st century with modern technology, a quiet interior and properly cooled rear seats.

Cruising the byways of Sacramento in a hard-top Gladiator, it was easy to forget we were driving a pickup. A modern cabin and rear multi-link suspension inspired by the smooth-riding Ram 1500 pickup made for easy conversation and comfort. The same could be said for rear passengers.

Gladiator offers the best rear legroom in class (this 6-foot-5 reviewer lounged comfortably). That’s part of a thorough remake aft of the B-pillar that converts the Wrangler platform into a long-wheelbase, midsize pickup with a 60-inch steel box and 1,600-pound payload capability. Like class competitors, the Gladiator gets sub-rear seat storage capability – then adds locking storage for when owners strip the doors and roof for off-roading.

That open-air vibe has been a signature Wrangler attribute, and the Gladiator exports it to pickups. It’s a reminder of the huge off-road bandwidth this pickup possesses, especially when dressed in Rubicon trim with full swaybar-disconnecting suspension and bash-plated armor.

Gladiator Rubicon owners will generally use their new tool for daily commutes – or leverage its best-in-class towing and payload capacity to haul mulch or motorbikes to weekend escapes.

But to explore the Rubicon’s sizable envelope, it needs to be taken to the far corners of the United States – Nevada’s Rubicon Trail in Nevada, the red rocks of Sedona, Arizona, and the twisted trails of Moab, Utah.

Before the first $35,040 entry-level Sport model is sold, Jeep is offering the exclusive Launch Edition model to order for 24 hours on Tuesday.

Buyers can then enter a contest to win a full year’s salary of $100,000. Entrants will be culled from the 4,190 buyers of the Launch Edition, which is a fully loaded Rubicon trim.

Why 4,190? To honor the (419) Toledo area-code where the rugged rig is manufactured. The special truck will only be available to order on the fourth day of this year’s fourth month (April 4) – a play on Jeep’s 4×4 capabilities.

Entrants for the $100,000 prize will be judged on their submission of a video featuring their Gladiator.

The Gladiator Launch Edition comes with an exclusive stamped tailgate, 17-inch wheels and red-stitched black-leather seats. Buyers get a choice of five colors, including Firecracker Red. Standard features include an 8.4-inch touchscreen, a nine-speaker Alpine sound system and a blizzard of safety systems.

Buyers can go online to build their Launch edition at 12:01 a.m., Jeep 4×4 day at: www.jeep.com/gladiator/launch-edition.html. Then join us at the Drive section Thursday for more impressions.

Payne: Which SUV is more Italian? Maserati Levante vs. Alfa Stelvio

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 28, 2019

Italian stallions: The Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio (left) and Maserati Levante have become their brand's best-selling vehicles. But the Levante's big V-8 makes it feel more like an American muscle car than the fine-tuned Alfa.

Italian stallions: The Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio (left) and Maserati Levante have become their brand’s best-selling vehicles. But the Levante’s big V-8 makes it feel more like an American muscle car than the fine-tuned Alfa.

The marriage of Italy and Detroit is producing some interesting DNA. All you have to do is look at the dashing Maserati Levante and Alfa Romeo Stelvio SUVs I’m hanging out with this week.

That’s right, Detroit, I said Maserati and Alfa SUVs.

Since the Italians bought Chrysler, the Auburn Hills family dinner table has gotten a lot bigger. Christmas dinner would be worthy of a “Saturday Night Live” sketch with Fiat Chrysler papa Mike Manley presiding.

There’s huuuuge Ram 3500 sitting next to a tiny Fiat 500: Yo, tiny, pass the cornbread.

The Chrysler minivan compares notes with the Alfa Giulia Quadrifoglio: OK, OK, so you can fit 505 horses under your hood, but can you fit six kids in your back seats?

Alfa and Jeep swap war stories: Mama mia, was I happy to see your great-grandfather Willys liberating Italy in ’43!

There would be ham and meatballs and potatoes and pasta and beer and wine. There would be Italian mixing with English and arguments about which cultural traditions were richer as the spirits flowed.

But for all the differences, everyone loves a five-door ute. Take the Maserati brand: The house of the Trident. The chariot raced by Fangio. The sultan of style. Its storied racing and luxury past put it in the same league as Italian brands Gucci, Prada and Versace.

Of course, saner heads prevailed. The late company chief Sergio Marchionne intervened. Engineers tore up the Jeep Levante plans and developed it off the Ghibli large sedan’s rear-wheel drive platform. Costs be damned, it must be a Maserati!

But after spending a week with the Doge of Modena, I’m struck with how American the Maserati Levante feels. Interesting, because the Alfa Stelvio feels more Italian.

Yes, this Italian-American marriage is making some interesting siblings.

While Maserati flirted with Jeep-platform cost-saving, the Alfa purposely ignored its American family from the get-go. Without Maserati’s premium brand cache in the U.S. market, the Alfa had to make a splash for its first-ever U.S. luxe-mobiles. There was no talk of chassis sharing, no parts-bin mixing. The Alfa even eschews Chrysler’s best-in-autodom touch screen for an inferior, remote-operated Italian rotary dial.

Taking the stage after Alfa’s opening act — the brilliant, rambunctious, exhaust-farting 4C sports car — the Giulia compact sedan and Stelvio SUV were introduced off the same stiff Giorgio platform and were instantly hailed as the best-handling cars in class.

I first tested the 505-horsepower Stelvio Quadrifoglio at Circuit of the America’s Formula One track in Austin, Texas — proof the world has gone completely mad for SUVs.

There I was in the Stelvio — an Alfa Giulia Quadrifoglio on stilts (the two vehicles are nearly identical under the skin) — doing banzai laps on the continent’s most epic race track. Madness, I tell you. But if you’re a performance brand selling SUVs, you have to have performance versions like the Quadrifoglio. The Stelvio is no Giulia (which I first tested on California’s Sonoma Raceway), but with its nimble, quick-ratio steering it’s the best-handling premium compact ute.

The Alfa’s engine speaks with a husky Italian accent. Basically a Ferrari V-12 sawed in half, the twin-turbo V-6 barks and farts with a personality all its own. The acceleration is insane, its 3.4 seconds zero-60 quicker than a Corvette Grand Sport.

“Whoa! That’s too fast” said my motorhead friend Caroline as she mashed the Stelvio’s throttle out of a Southfield stoplight. The red whale gulped traffic like it was plankton.

You think that’s madness? Behold the bigger, mid-size Levante GTS with 550 horsepower, 538-pound feet of torque, and V-8 accent. BRAAGHAGHAGH!

I would walk out of my house and remote-start the Levante in my driveway just to hear the V-8 clear its throat like King Kong. Even muffled by twin-turbos, the V-8 baritone is so irresistible. So naughty. So … American.

Though half-a-second slower to 60 mph than the Alfa at 4.0 seconds, the Maserati felt faster. Perhaps because of its heavier 4,738-pound girth. This time Caroline deferred to me, taking the passenger seat like a soldier bracing for a cannon round.

“Do a zero-60 run!” she said.

Simulating launch-control (only the top-line Trofeo edition, not my GTS, has true electronic launch-control), I floored the brake and accelerator at the same time. Revs bounced to 3,000 rpms, then I released the Kraken. The beast exploded forward like a bullet from a Beretta. BRAGGHHHHHHHH!

The satisfying twin-turbo V-8 is actually made by Ferrari. It’s mated to a silky eight-speed transmission that fires off shifts as effortlessly as Klay Thompson fires three-balls.

Merging with authority onto interstates around town, I found it nearly impossible to keep the car at legal speeds. It’s an Italian with a Hellcat heart.

Which begs the question, why drop $121,475 for a Maserati Levante when a Hellcat-engine 707-horsepower, 3.5-second zero-60 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk (which I first tested at New Hampshire’s Club Motorsports race track, natch) costs $36,000 less?

The Maserati’s interior pales compared to, say, the corner-office-crisp, $100,000 Audi A8 I recently drove. The Levante’s cabin is more Jeep-like, sharing the Grand Cherokee’s windshield-wiper control stalk and Uconnect screen.

Buy the smoldering Italian because trident-badged grilles are irresistible. But that begs another question: If it’s an Italian-American SUV you want, what about Signore Quadrifoglio?

As a compact SUV, the $81,590 Alfa Stelvio Quadrifoglio is smaller than the mid-sized Levante (and Grand Cherokee for that matter), but not uncomfortable. I could still sit easily behind myself in the back seat. And it gives up only one cubic foot in cargo space.

The rotary controller is more continental. The handling tighter. The accent more Italian.

Pass the Quadrifoglio pasta, please.

Side hood vents and big rear haunches define the side view of the Maserati Levante GTS ute, Maserati's first entry in the SUV market.

Side hood vents and big rear haunches define the side view of the Maserati Levante GTS ute, Maserati’s first entry in the SUV market.

2019 Maserati Levante GTS

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

Price: $77,475 base price for V-6 Levante, including $1,495 destination fee ($138,285 V-8 GTS as tested)

Powerplant: Twin-turbocharged 3.8-liter V-8

Power: 542 horsepower, 548 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.1 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 181 mph

Weight: 4,738 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA: 14 city/18 highway/15 combined (GTS as tested)

Report card

Highs: Maserati face; V-8 fury

Lows: Feels like a Jeep inside; megabuck price tag

Overall: 3 stars

 
The Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio is the Italian brand's first five-door SUV.
The Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio is the Italian brand’s first five-door SUV.

2019 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio

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

Price: $41,590 base Stelvio turbo-4, including $1,595 destination fee ($84,390 Quadrifoglio as tested)

Powerplant: Twin-turbocharged 2.9-liter V-6

Power: 505 horsepower; 443 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 3.4 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 176 mph

Weight: 4,360 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA: 17 city/23 highway/19 combined

Report card

Highs: Giulia handling on stilts, Italian vibe inside and out

Lows: Jeep has a better infotainment system; awkward paddle shifters

Overall: 4 stars

Elusive Chevy Corvette C8 starts to come into the open

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 22, 2019

The debut of the mid-engine Corvette C8  has been postponed several times, due primarily to electrical problems, sources say.

The mid-engine Chevy Corvette C8 is the auto industry’s Bigfoot: lots of sightings in the wild, but no confirmation as to when it will be officially revealed.

The 2019 Detroit auto show? Came and went. A springtime reveal at an exotic location? Not looking likely.

But we know the elusive Corvette exists because, well, we just saw video of General Motors President Mark Reuss riding in a caravan of camouflaged C8s in Arizona. And because a group of journalists stumbled across five similar C8s north of San Diego. And then there was the barely disguised mid-engine Corvette that broke down last week at a Speedway gas station near GM’s Milford Proving Grounds and had to be towed.

It’s driving would-be Corvette buyers to distraction.

“It’s a great-looking car, and everybody’s eagerly waiting to be the first to own one on the block. But information about it is just diddling out, and it’s making us all crazy,” says Mike Figueroa of Galena, Illinois, a former Corvette owner.

Figueroa, and many more like him, want to buy the next-generation Corvette — if they just knew when it will arrive.

General Motors won’t comment and officially doesn’t acknowledge that the car even exists. “We do not comment on future product,” Chevrolet spokesman Kevin Kelly said.

But here’s what we know and what’s being reported.

Originally targeted for a coming-out-party at the Detroit show in January, the C8 was reportedly delayed until late spring — and now later in the year, according to several industry sources. The chief culprit? Electrical gremlins, they say.

Observers have speculated that the Corvette C8’s debut could be coordinated with the 25th anniversary of the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky, in late August. The Corvette assembly plant in Bowling Green has undergone an overhaul in the last three years, including a massive paint-plant investment, to prepare for the mid-engine car.

A debut of the C8 in late August would also allow Chevy to showcase the car at Corvettes at Carlisle, a huge annual gathering of Corvette owners in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in late August.

Whatever the venue, the intense speculation speaks to how important this eighth-generation Corvette is to GM — and to the external pressures building on Chevy to produce the car.

Sales of C7 Corvettes have fallen dramatically this year — off 20 percent from a year ago — as buyers anticipate the mid-engine supercar. About 10,000 C7s reportedly languish unsold on dealer lots, sitting for an average of 232 days, unprecedented for the iconic sports car. Potential buyers like Figueroa say dealers are bending over backward to offer deals, which get sweeter the longer the C8 is delayed.

The good news for Chevy is the C7’s stale sales indicate huge pent-up demand for the C8.

The clock is also ticking on Corvette’s race program, which is expected to debut the car for the 2020 IMSA Weathertech racing season at next January’s Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. The current front-engine race car is getting long in the tooth against formidable competition like the mid-engine Ford GT. The race-car version of the C8 has been seen testing at tracks in Florida, Wisconsin and Germany.

While endurance-racing rules are famously opaque when it comes to official recognition of production cars, the Corvette race car effectively has to be licensed for competition by the end of 2019 in order to qualify for Daytona and LeMans next year. GM has traditionally introduced its production car before racing it. The front-engine C7, for example, went into production in September 2013 ahead of the C7-R’s 2014 Daytona debut.

The multitude of sightings of camouflaged cars — from Reuss’ ride in Arizona, to California, Colorado and Florida — suggest a mature exterior design ready for prime time.

The idea of a mid-engine Corvette actually dates back to legendary designer Zora Arkus-Duntov, who considered the layout in the early 1960s. But the program really picked up speed in 2007 when it was green-lighted by GM, only to be shelved by the Great Recession. Post-recession, it was full speed ahead.

But for all its groundwork, the C8 has been a development headache.

“The mid-engine car is the most protracted Corvette ever,” says ex-Car and Driver writer Don Sherman of Hagerty, the automotive publication. Sherman has made a career out of chasing the elusive ‘Vette.

Sherman speculates the C8’s growing pains have their roots in the car’s revolutionary nature: It is not just the first mid-engine Corvette, the C8 is a clean-sheet program.

“Shuffling the engine location isn’t that big a deal,” says Sherman. “But the Corvette team is using the C8 to re-invent the entire car.”

While Sherman’s latest reporting at Hagerty indicates some chassis-twisting issues with the high-horsepower mill, a multitude of sources indicate the biggest source of the C8’s delays involve the electrical system. The issue seems to be GM’s effort to move to a new, common electrical-architecture using a so-called CAN (computer area network). The Corvette has proved difficult to adapt.

Despite its exotic nature, Chevy is still expected to fall back on some familiar tools to keep the base car’s costs in line — a signature attribute of Corvette that has gained it a reputation as “the affordable supercar.” The standard engine is reportedly a good old push-rod 6.2-liter V-8 code-named the LT2, putting the power to wheels through a dual-clutch automatic transmission. The current LT1-base engine’s horsepower is expected to be pushed past the current 460 horses.

So endowed, industry observers expect the C8 to cost $4,000-$5,000 more than the current front-engine model. That would put its starting price in the neighborhood of $60,000 — still well below, say, a $92,000 Porsche 911.

The mid-engine beast may disappoint manual-gearbox customers, but it will still satisfy Corvette traditionalists by fitting two golf bags in the front truck, or “frunk.”

Unless, of course, you get the rumored hybrid model with an electric motor crowding out frunk space. Seems 1,000 horsepower comes with its sacrifices.

Payne: Tough Toyota Tundra tames the suburban frontier

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 22, 2019

The 2019 Toyota Tundra is a great tool for Metro Detroit's rugged frontier roads.

The 2019 Toyota Tundra is a great tool for Metro Detroit’s rugged frontier roads.

The American truck market is where rugged pickups meet refined luxury — pickups like 2019 Toyota Tundra that I tested in Oakland Charter Township.

Which is appropriate because the township north of The Palace in Auburn Hills is where rugged farm country meets the frontier of luxurious development.

Here, successful Michiganians buy acres of farmland and woodland to build dream homes on the edge of Detroit’s metropolis. Huge 10,000-square-foot brick and stone homes spill across deforested yards. Gated communities back up against wooded streams. Modern castles reach for the sky on top of rocky hills.

These cloistered estates are conveniently located just minutes from shopping malls and interstates, yet they can only be reached by diabolical dirt roads that begin where the asphalt ends.

Dirt roads with names like Dutton and Brewster look like they were used in Normandy during the D-Day invasion. In February these arteries have been raked by the elements with bottomless potholes overlapping frozen mud ruts.

These are the byways for which my $46,610 Tundra tester with TRD Off-Road package was built.

I passed some of the most beautiful cribs I’ve seen, their owners struggling to reach them in sporty Cadillac CTS-Vs and lovely Volvo XC60s. A silver CTS-V looked like it would have preferred to be underwater than on this hellscape, its driver crawling along at 5 mph while the potholes beat the unibody chassis to a noodle.

My 381-horsepower, 5.7-liter V-8 Tundra drove by at 35 mph like Blake Griffin through a junior high team. Sitting on big-sidewall Michelins wrapped around 18-inch rims, the Tundra’s body-on-frame construction devoured the frozen mud moguls. The four-wheel-drive system churning like a buzz-saw through stale bread. BRRRAAAAWWWGH!

THONK! A rock thrown up by a tire clanged harmlessly off the steel skid-plate under the engine. The front tires skittered across an iced rut, the rear tires churning behind. This is how you commute to your remote domicile.

But arriving at your estate in a pickup doesn’t mean giving up luxury-car style. The Tundra is a handsome athlete.

Mind you, it’s no Ram 1500, which has all the truck boys drooling down at the rodeo. But its bold chrome grille, Midnight Black body armor and bling-tastic TRD off-road wheels demand respect.

The big fella has character, which is what you want filling up your dream home garage. The interior is as comfortable as your den with leather thrones, leather-wrapped steering wheel and an Entune Premium audio system pumping out your favorite tunes. My wife and her friends need a ladder to get into the rear seat, but once there, the short cab offers plenty of legroom (though I’d prefer a Crew Cab with its palatial backseat room).

The Tundra only pales in comparison to its Detroit competition, which is why the Toyota sold a mere 118,425 full-size pickups in 2018 compared to Ford (over 900,000), Chevy/GMC (over 800,000), and Ram (537,000). I know, I know, the Toyota only sells light-duty trucks while the Detroit Three sell Heavy Dutys and Super Dutys and Mega Kong Colossal Duties.

But the Tundra can’t even outsell its midsize little brother. The Tacoma more than doubled Tundra sales last year at 245,659. That’s right, the same brand that gets young buyers hooked on reliable Corollas/Camrys so that they buy five-door RAV4 SUVs when they have children can’t translate 246,000 Tacoma customers to buy full-size Tundras.

Well, it’s tough in the full-size pickup rodeo.

For one, the Tundra is long in the tooth compared to the Detroit megatrons. Its 381-horse V-8 and 6-speed transmission are a generation behind, say, the Chevy Silverado’s 420-horse V-8 or Ford F-150’s state-of-the-art 10-speed tranny.

My Tundra’s TRD package is tough as nails with Bilstein shocks. But the ride is a buckboard when on asphalt, unlike the comparable Ram Rebel’s comfy coil-spring rear setup. Throw the Tundra into a cloverleaf and — hold on, Bessy! — the numb steering and loose chassis make the lightweight Silverado feel like a Camaro by comparison.

The 2019 Toyota Tundra

Inside, the Tundra boasts nice wood and aluminum touches, but its dash, steering wheel and instrument layouts are antiquated next to the F-150’s thoughtful architecture. The Toyota’s clumsy automatic shifter feels stodgy. Even better are the Silverado and Ram with transmission solutions that open the center console to all kinds of mobile office space.

Show me a pickup and I’ll show you a neighbor who wants to borrow it — Please? Just for the weekend so I can get some mulch? — but even here the Toyota can’t innovate like the Detroit Three. It doesn’t have corner steps like the Silverado, MultiPro gate like the GMC Sierra or a best-in-class tow rating like the Ford.

What the Tundra does have is good ol’ Japanese value.

The V-8 may not have the Chevy’s low-end grunt, but the engine comes standard starting at just $35,000. Lots of trucks these days sport fuel-sippy four-bangers and V-6s, but a pickup and a V-8 go together like Thor and hammer.

Electronics are fast blurring the difference between luxury and mainstream, and the Japanese makers are at the forefront of this trend. The $19,000 Toyota Corolla sedan is loaded with standard features like adaptive cruise-control, automatic high-beams and lane-departure alert you can’t get on many luxury cars north of $50,000.

The Tundra comes equipped with this safety package at a price well below comparable Big Three competitors (though somehow Toyota hasn’t figured out Android Auto yet). Even the Tundra’s premium TRD off-road package — which includes Bilstein shocks, front tow hooks and floor mats — adds just $70 to the bottom line. Tesla floor mats cost $140, for goodness sake.

It’s all very impressive, and Toyota throws in its usual bulletproof reliability. It was the only full-size truck to get a 9 (out of 10) mechanical Initial Quality Rating from JD Power last year.

That’s reassuring as you ride your chrome-studded truck down the ox-cart roads of north Oakland on the way to your dream home.

Where Third World roads meet First World mansions, the Tundra pickup is an excellent bridge.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2019 Toyota Tundra

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear- or four-wheel drive, five-passenger pickup

Price: $33,015 base, including $1,495 destination fee ($46,610 4×4 Limited Double Cab as tested)

Powerplant: 4.6-liter V-8 (standard engine); 5.7-liter V-8

Power: 310 horsepower, 327 pound-feet of torque (4.6-liter); 381 horsepower, 401 pound-feet of torque (5.7-liter)

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.5 sec. (5.7L, Car and Driver); maximum towing, 9,900 pounds

Weight: 5,530 pounds (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA: 15 city/19 highway/16 combined (4.6-liter standard 4×2); 13 city/17 highway/14 combined (5.7-liter 4×4 as tested)

Report card

Highs: Standard features galore; Toyota tough

Lows:Lacks refinement of Detroit Three competitors; V-8 a generation behind

Overall: 3 stars

Detroit Grand Prix poster contest winner crowned

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 22, 2019

Detroit Grand Prix poster contest winner: Allie Fedak.

Detroit — For the the 30th time this May, the Detroit Grand Prix roars into the Motor City. And for the 30th time it will have a gorgeous, color poster for fans to take home in memory of the event.

This year the official commemorative poster for the 2019 Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear comes courtesy of Allie Fedak, a junior designer at the College for Creative Studies.

Fedak’s festive design of Belle Isle’s Scott Fountain flanked by a race car and winning podium of drivers captured the attention of a panel of seven judges (including this author) — as well as more than 100 IndyCar fans online. Last year’s Grand Prix located the winner’s circle in front of the fountain for the first time, making it one of the most dramatic backdrops in the sport.

“I don’t know how to put into words what winning this competition means,” said Fedak, who let out a shriek when her name was announced. “I wanted to create the most ideal celebration of the Grand Prix possible with the car crossing the finish line and also in the winner’s circle.”

Fedak’s design took the gold out of a field of five strong CCS contenders that included juniors Jonathan Kimble, Gabby Lipski, K. Rose Valerius, and Haley Smith.

Valerius’s design was chosen runner-up, and Smith grabbed bronze.

“The beauty of what these students at CCS create every year in this competition is amazing,” Grand Prix chairman Bud Denker said. “We had five great designs we saw today and it was hard to choose one of them, but Allie is our winner, and she is going to be a great ambassador with her excitement and enthusiasm.”

The posters have become collectors items across the Grand Prix’s four decades, and a switch from Formula One racing on the streets of Detroit to the current IndyCar race course on Belle Isle.

For the last seven years, the Grand Prix has worked with CCS for the poster contest. This year, 18 students from the school’s Intermediate digital illustration class — under the watchful eye of professor Brian Kotulis — submitted entries. The field was then narrowed to five for presentation Wednesday before the poster jury.

In addition to providing a memento for the walls of IndyCar fans, Kotulis says the poster process is a career-building experience for students.

“In addition to developing a contextual narrative with their art,” said the CCS professor, “the designers have to speak to the audience that they are trying to engage. The strongest entries brought a natural interest to the forefront as well doing justice to their client.”

Fedak’s work has just begun. She now will work with veteran Detroit Grand Prix designer Jim Tocco to finalize her design over the next month. The final, official poster will be unveiled April 30 when 2017 IndyCar champ Josef Newgarten comes to town for the annual Grand Prix media lunch with the Detroit Sports Media organization.

The 2019 poster will available for purchase then at www.DetroitGP.com.

Poster contest judges

► Bud Denker, Grand Prix chairman

► Stuart Cooper, GM industrial design manager

► Jeanette Puig-Pey, Lear Corporation global design manager

► Jamie Edmonds, WDIV-TV Channel 4 (NBC) sports reporter/anchor

► Henry Payne, Detroit News editorial cartoonist and auto columnist

► Ryan Ford, Detroit Free Press assistant sports editor

► Vince Carducci, dean of undergraduate studies at College for Creative Studies

Cadillac’s CTS sedan gets a refresh and new name – the CT5

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 20, 2019

The 2020 Cadillac CT5 gets a new name (it formerly was the CTS) and skin.

Cadillac introduced a renamed and reskinned mid-size sedan Monday as the brand reboots under a new president, a new Warren headquarters and a youthful marketing campaign.

The car formerly known as the CTS now carries the CT5 badge, another step in Cadillac’s new alphanumeric system for cars beginning with the CT6 sedan. A CT4 replacing the ATS small sedan is expected this year.

The bones of the CT5 remain the same, but the sedan gets a major cosmetic refresh inside and out. Exterior panels are all new as the CT5 adopts the design cues of the Escala concept car that has wowed auto show audiences. Inside, the plush CT5 adopts a monostable shifter now common in Cadillacs (and the Chevy Bolt EV), as well as a console-based rotary infotainment controller first seen in the XT6.

The rotary controller allows drivers the ability to access the screen by touch or remote. It’s a significant shift away from the haptic-touch CUE system that alienated some customers in the last-generation car.

The CTS was a historic car for Cadillac in 2003 when it replaced the Catera mid-size sedan and signaled Caddy’s shift away from conventional nameplates and toward a more athletic brand competing head-on with German brands like BMW and Audi.

The striking appearance and ambitious technology of the third-generation CTS earned it the 2013 Detroit News Vehicle of the Year award. The performance V-series trim of the current CTS has the same 640-horse 6.2-liter supercharged V-8 as the Corvette Z06 track monster.

The 2020 CT5 will be available with a 2.0-liter turbo-4 or a twin-turbo 3.0-liter V-6. A V-series performance variant will likely follow.

The CT5 follows the XT6 in adopting Cadillac’s new nomenclature that highlights the car’s torque. (Torque is the low-end pulling power of a motor).

Determined to familiarize a new generation of customers with the brand’s transition to electric cars — Cadillac is promising 20 EVs by 2023, and electric cars have  prodigious torque under acceleration) — the rear of the CT5 will carry a badge with with the metric newton-meter measurement of torque.

“We have a foot in two worlds,” says Cadillac President Steve Carlisle, referring to the brand’s near-term push to sell more gas-powered SUVs while it develops a new, electrified platform for next decade.

Once a leader in plug-in hybrid technology, GM is abandoning that strategy for an all-electric future paced by its first EV crossover targeted for 2022.

The reveal of the CT5 comes via Cadillac’s YouTube channel, a first for the brand as it seeks to appeal to a younger demographic with technology, music, and electrification. A video series title the “Sensory Symphony” will tease the CT5 leading up to the vehicle’s coming out party at the New York Auto Show on April 17.

The videos use so-called “autonomous sensory meridian response” or ASMR technology  — which causes the skin of some listeners to tingle — to bring the car’s sounds to life. The videos follow a series of Cadillac ads featuring Childish Gambino to introduce its XT6 SUV at the Oscars.

“We’re going back to the musical part of our heritage that we feel resonates with females and youth,” said Carlisle.

The CT5 comes to market as the brand’s sedan halo, the CT6, is apparently heading out to pasture. The CT6 is in production until next January, after which its Hamtramck production facility is scheduled to idle.

The CT5 will be built at GM’s Lansing Grand River facility, which recently received an infusion of $211 million.

Caddy’s new sedan will be offered in a Premium or Sport trim, with the Sport distinguished by a black-out, mesh grille. More refinement can be added through a Platinum package for both models.

Model 3 with a hatch: Tesla reveals ‘sexy’ Model Y ute

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 15, 2019

Tesla claims the Tesla Model Y ute has the same drag coefficient - 0.23 - as the Model 3 sedan.

Say hello to the Tesla Model Y crossover, the taller Model 3.

The compact SUV was introduced by CEO Elon Musk at the electric brand’s California design studio Thursday night – bringing Tesla’s production lineup to four vehicles: Model S sedan, Model 3 sedan, Model X SUV, and Model Y.

The quartet has been dubbed “S3XY” by Tesla fans, and Musk reveled in the acronym all evening.

“We are bringing sexy back!” he thrilled to an appreciative audience of Tesla employees.

The unveil followed months of speculation as to how the Model Y would differ from Tesla’s popular Model 3 sedan – the best-selling luxury vehicle in the U.S. in 2018 – upon which it is based. After Tesla teased a silhouette of the car, Internet artists speculated on a variety of designs. But in the flesh the Model Y looks very similar to the 3 with its smooth, grille-less front end, high headlights, panoramic roof, and bulbous rear end.

While sitting higher than the Model 3 (think a Subaru Crosstrek SUV compared to near identical twin Subaru Impreza hatchback) the Model Y will still benefit from a low center of gravity thanks to big-battery placement under the passenger compartment. From the event, the Y appears to have the same, austere interior of the Model 3 with most controls in a 15-inch, horizontal, tablet touchscreen. Musk even promises a similar zero-60 time to the Performance Model 3 – 3.5 seconds – from the Model Y’s own Performance trim.

The major differences with the Model Y are interior cargo and storage. Essential for SUVs, the Model Y gains a hatchback opening over the Model 3’s conventional sedan truck lid. Fold the seats flat and Tesla promises 66 cubic-feet of cargo room – significantly more than the 3.

Buyers will also be able to option a third row (add $3,000) for up to seven-passenger seating – unusual for a compact SUV, but made possible by the absence of a driver-train running through the cabin as with conventional, gas-powered cars. You get “frunk” storage under the hood as well.

Why Y? Because the compact SUV is the hottest segment in the market. Musk was bullish on his new ute’s prospects: “I think we’ll do more Model Ys than the X, S, and 3 combined.”

The Model 3 will start at $39,000 with a 230-mile-range, “standard” battery which is $4,000 higher than the price of an entry-level, 220-mile Model 3 sedan.

A long-range, $47,000 version of the Y will be optioned with 300 miles range (10 less than a comparable Model 3) as well as an AWD model and the hyper-quick Performance model which starts at $60,000.

All trims except the standard car are available for order online at Tesla.com with deliveries beginning this fall.

The compact Model 3 broke the Internet when it was unveiled in March 2016 on the same stage. Some 200,000 customers ordered it online over the next 24 hours.

Tesla’s first SUV – the three-row, $82,000 Model X – debuted in 2012 on the same mid-size architecture as the $76,000 Model S sedan. The X added dazzling falcon-wing doors that were head-turning, but caused development delays and have been a reliability headache for service centers.

“We actually got carried away with the Model X,” said Musk on Thursday. “It was a Faberge egg meets a space ship.”

There are no such gizmos on the Model Y given its importance as a mass-production car that — along with the Model 3 — is key to the company’s profitability.

“The Model Y is the first Tesla that really feels like something from a mainstream car brand: a vehicle designed to make a company money, not make a statement,” said Edmunds auto analyst Jessica Caldwell. “Despite its derivative design, it’s not unrealistic to think that the Model Y could end up being Tesla’s best-selling vehicle.”

Musk gave a typically disjointed press conference. His unique, even geeky, stage appearances have become as anticipated as the late Steve Jobs’ introduction of Apple products. Hailed by pundits as a real-life Tony Stark, Musk’s companies — including Tesla, the SpaceX re-usable rocket maker, and the tunnel-making Boring Co. — have captured the imagination of millions.

Tesla’s CEO recounted the company’s history, touching on its interaction with Detroit manufacturers like GM (whose California assembly plant he inherited) and Ford.

“We thought it would be great to have a Model E,” he laughed referencing the Model 3 sedan’s initial badge cribbed from Ford’s legendary “Model” naming convention. “But Ford threatened to sue. Ford killed SEX!”

While the Model Y should be a volume-seller, it enters the market with plenty of question marks, foremost being where will it be manufactured. Musk did not offer any answers to that riddle. Tesla’s Fremont assembly plant outside San Francisco is the likely source despite its capacity issues – Tesla has erected a tent in the parking lot to meet demand for the Models 3, S and X.

The Model Y enters the U.S. market after Tesla hit its federal tax credit sales ceiling at the end of last year. After selling 200,000 cars, the $7,500 credit will gradually disappear this year. Sales of the Model 3 have apparently already been impacted. The sedan reportedly sold 6,500 and 5,750 cars in January and February, respectively, compared to 18,650 and 25,250 in the last two months of 2018 (Figures come from InsideEVs.com; Tesla does not publish its sales figures.).

The Model Y debuts as the Model 3 makes its first foray into Europe, with sales especially strong in Norway which gives away massive tax breaks to EV buyers.

Tesla is also expected to introduce a pickup later this year as the brand tries to maintain its gaping lead in EV sales as competitors like Rivian, Polestar and Audi bring electrics to market. Anticipating the flood of Tesla SUVs hitting the road, the Silicon Valley company is also ramping up its charging infrastructure by introducing its 250 kW Version 3 chargers which boast delivery of 75 miles of range in just five minutes.

Current Tesla chargers have 120 kW of power.

Cadillac’s new badging system torques comprehension

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 15, 2019

That 400 that will be on the back of the new Cadillac XT6 SUV designates the newton-meters of torque the engine produces. Torque represents the low-end pulling power of an engine.

That 400 that will be on the back of the new Cadillac XT6 SUV designates the newton-meters of torque the engine produces. Torque represents the low-end pulling power of an engine. (Photo: GM)

As Cadillac moves its headquarters from New York to Warren, its ZIP code isn’t the only alphanumeric that’s changing.

The brand is undergoing a wholesale shift in auto re-badging. Again.

In a luxury auto market notorious for alphabet-soup badges, Cadillac will thicken the stew even further. In addition to changing its XT-badged SUVs and CT-badged sedans and introducing a “Y-brand” trim strategy, vehicles beginning with the XT6 SUV will get a new engine designation in order to signal the brand’s transition to full-electric over the next decade.

Look out Mercedes-AMG GLC 63 S, here comes the Cadillac XT6 AWD 400.

Beginning with the XT6 SUV, the new alphanumeric on the rear of the car will designate torque and engine type, such as 400 for the XT6. That’s 400 newton-meters of torque — not pound-feet for us Americans — because most of the markets Cadillac sells in are metric. (Torque, for the uninitiated, measures the low-end grunt of an engine. Horsepower is a measurement of power that peaks at higher engine rpms.)

Cadillac is determined to convert us to the metric system. And to electric cars.

CEO Mary Barra has declared that General Motors’ future is “zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion” as it moves to electric autonomous cars. The engine badging is a nod to that transition.

Its purpose it to communicate power and performance not just for internal combustion engines, but for electric propulsion, Cadillac President Steve Carlisle said.

“What we’re seeking to accomplish with this strategy is starting a conversation about the transition in drivetrain technology. When you think about electric propulsion – when you think about a convention for engine naming — you’re not talking about displacements anymore.”

The new torque convention replaces designations like the “2.0T” that currently appears on a CTS sedan which emphasized an engine’s displacement in liters (that’s 2 liters, more metrics) and turbocharging. The new torque-badging will keep the “T,” by the way — for turbo, not torque. Got it?

The engine designation comes as Cadillac is in the midst of wholesale change of its model alphanumeric for the second time since just the turn of century.

As Cadillac repositioned itself as a high-tech, high-performance Nürburgring-tested brand to do battle against the Germans, the CTS replaced the Catera mid-size sedan in 2002. It started a trend that broomed classic car names like Seville and Deville in favor of more athletic sedans. Only the three-row bling-tastic Escalade badge — a nod to old-world Cadillac land yachts — remained.

With the SUV revolution came the SRX ute. But badge convention has also been upended as Cadillac tries to catch up with the German alphanumeric trifecta of BMW (the X1, X2, X3, X4, X5, X6 and X7), Audi (the Q3, Q5, Q7 and Q8) and Mercedes-Benz (the GLA, GLC, GLE and GLS).

Caddy SUVs now begin with XT (the XT4, XT5 and XT6). Sedans begin with C.

Thus, while you catch up with SRX badge change to XT5, it will also get a “400” designation since is shares the same 400 newton-meter (that’s 271 pound-feet) 3.6-liter V-6 engine as the XT6.

Your head hurt yet? There’s more.

Cadillac is also changing its trim convention to the alphanumeric “Y strategy” to simplify its buffet of Luxury, Premium, Premium Luxury, Premium Performance and Platinum.

From here on, the XT6 will only be available as a Sport or Premium model. Want some good ol’ Caddy bling? You can add a Platinum package to either.

Mercifully, the AWD badge (all-wheel drive) will remain unchanged. When the XT6 arrives at dealers in June, here’s a handy tailgate translator: The XT6 badge will be to the northwest. AWD (if optioned) will be below that in the southwest corner. The 400 (newton-meters) will be at the northeast corner.

Cadillac’s fickle badge allegiance is not unusual in the Motor City. It seems to be in the water. After changing its proper-name badging to alphanumerics last decade, Lincoln is changing back traditional names like Nautilus and Aviator.

The ever-changing name-game drives auto analysts crazy, who complain it muddies consumer loyalty compared to the consistency of, say, BMW’s 3-series (since 1975) or its X3 ute (since 2003).

Fans of Cadillac’s Performance V-series badge can breathe easy. A 464-horsepower, 445 pound-feet torque (aka, 600 newton-meters) model will get no torque badging because, well, an ATS V-Series 600TT would be overkill. Everyone knows a V-series has grunt.

But just you wait. Because later this year, Cadillac will be replacing the ATS with a re-badged CT4.

Payne: Jeep Compass earns stripes in icy outback

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 15, 2019

Jeep country: On icy, uphill Route 9 though the Zion Canyon pass, the Jeep Compass Trailhawk never put a foot wrong.

Jeep country: On icy, uphill Route 9 though the Zion Canyon pass, the Jeep Compass Trailhawk never put a foot wrong. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

At Zion National Park in Utah, the day had dawned grisly with howling winds, blowing snow and icy roads. But Mrs. Payne and I had planned a day trip to Bryce Canyon on the other side of Zion canyon’s snowy cliff tops.

“What’s Route 9 like over to Bryce?” I asked a snowplow driver after rolling down my window. The twisted, mountainous two-lane is the only way to get there.

“No problem. You’ve got a Jeep,” came the reply.

On that kind of confidence Jeep has built one of the most recognized brands on the planet. Beginning with the rock-climbing, terrain-shredding Wrangler, Jeep fields a juggernaut of SUVs perfectly timed for the market’s embrace of all things ute. Every Jeep carries the Wrangler’s DNA, right down to the compact Compass Trailhawk I had acquired for a weekend trip from Vegas into the rocky outback of southern Utah.

The Compass, new in 2017, is part of a Jeep strategy to expand its empire beyond the core Wrangler and Grand Cherokee fan base and into entry-level buyers. Much like Honda hooks customers with  the Fit, Civic and HR-V starters, Jeep has flooded the market with its own compact trifecta — the Renegade, Compass and Cherokee.

My trip from the valley of sin to the summit of snow would be a test of whether Compass is a worthy gateway drug.

First impressions are dynamite.

I like the rebellious Jeep Renegade, but at some point you’ll grow out of it. Eventually your tastes lean from your baseball card collection to grown-up things like art galleries and nice cafes and Grand Cherokees. The Compass’ conservative body, thin headlights and seven-slot grille echo the family patriarch Grand Cherokee.

Budget-conscious shoppers will opt for the Latitude trim. It comes with the typically robust Jeep all-wheel drive that throws torque to whichever wheel needs it most and handles all the nasty weather you’ll find. But the heart isn’t always sensible.

I am a sucker for the Trailhawk trim with its blacked-out hood and roof, two-inch suspension lift, front-and-aft tow hooks and knobby Falken tires. Dress it in Spitfire Orange and my knees turn to jelly.

This beast oozes Jeep authenticity and vaults it above mere-mortal brands. Never mind that the Compass is tattooed with non-functional design touches like a fake seven-slot grille (for enhanced aerodynamics, the engine is fed by a lower intake).

This is the Jeep Wrangler that everyone always wanted as their first car — but without the compromises of rough, noisy ride.

The Trailhawk can go just about anywhere with its impressive front departure-angle, four skid plate and four-wheel drive lock and crawl modes. And I rarely resisted the temptation.

I turned off Interstate 15 from Vegas-to-Zion to test the Jeep’s capabilities in deep snow, dirt and rocky terrain until my wife finally told me to stick to the asphalt if we were going to arrive at the hotel before next week.

I relented, but not before discovering that wet sand (the Southwest is essentially a big, red sandbox) is the most diabolical terrain. Stop moving and it would swallow the tires like quicksand.

Back on asphalt, the Compass is at its most mediocre.

Despite its marriage to a modern nine-speed tranny, the 2.4-liter engine is a dog. Mash the pedal to the floor to pass traffic, and the world seems to slow down as the four-banger labors to pick up steam. Snails have better acceleration. I raced a desert tortoise out of a Utah stoplight and the tortoise won.

Once up to speed I longed for adaptive cruise-control that is common now on competitors like Subaru, Honda and Toyota. My wife’s $28,000 Subaru Impreza hatchback, for example, comes standard with adaptive cruise and blind-spot assist. As does a $20,000 Toyota Corolla. Not my $35,000 Compass.

Happily, there are cabin features to forgive these shortcomings. Beginning with the best-in-auto uConnect touchscreen infotainment system which benefits most Fiat Chrysler products including Ram, Dodge, even Maserati.

It’s intuitive, quick, easy to navigate — and works with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone apps. In the vast Southwest, navigation is essential, yet the apps mean you get Google Maps navigation that you know and love without having to pay $1,195 for Fiat Chrysler’s inferior navigation system. Within moments of climbing aboard, Mrs. Payne had our route mapped.

Forgiveness abounds. The console is tight on storage, in part because of the unique terrain mode dial with settings for snow, sand, mud, rock and Mars (I made that last one up).

The automatic door locks make a violent sound — WHAP! — when the gearshift moves from park to drive. But inside, accommodations are roomy and your giraffe-sized reviewer could comfortably sit behind himself in the rear seat.

Even the milquetoast engine is forgiven when churning across Route 9 to Bryce in near white-out conditions.

The Compass clawed up Zion’s ice-caked roads without putting a foot wrong. Such competence makes you acutely aware that the danger is not the road but other people on it. States might consider requiring driver’s license tests be conducted in the winter, because I swear many of us have no idea how to drive in snow.

Our path was littered with creative ways to crash at 30 miles per hour and less. In Zion Park, a Cadillac CTS zigged when he should have zagged and T-boned a hapless Toyota Camry that had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In a Route 9 tunnel, a Honda CR-Z pinballed from one wall to the other, breaking its front suspension. In Bryce, a Chevy Cruze pilot miscalculated a 15-mile-per-hour left turn and beached himself in a snowbank.

Common to all these accidents was the drivers’ faith that a car will steer on slick roads as it does on dry. It won’t. It will plow straight ahead. The Compass is no exception. But steer gingerly into a slick bend, then apply throttle on exit and the ute grips like a Rottweiler on a postman’s leg.

Should any of the aforementioned projectiles have come the Compass’ way, I’m confident its traction and brakes would have been up to the task of avoiding them.

Fortunately, about half the vehicles in Utah are capable pickups. And half of the other 50 percent are Jeeps.

A wise choice. Just ask a snowplow driver.

Jeep Compass 

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

Price: $23,340 base, including $1,495 destination fee ($35,160 Trailhawk 4×4 as tested)

Powerplant: 2.4-liter, inline 4-cylinder

Power: 180 horsepower, 175 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual (4×2 and 4×4 models); 6-speed automatic (4×2 only); 9-speed automatic (4×4)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 9.3 seconds (Car and Driver); towing, 2,000 pounds (4×4 recommended)

Weight: 3,633 pounds (Trailhawk 4×4 as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA: 22 city/30 highway/25 combined (24 mpg observed on Utah trip, Trailhawk 4×4)

Report card

Highs: Go-anywhere ruggedness; mature looks

Lows: Milquetoast engine; lacks standard features of competitors

Overall: 3 stars

 

Mustang state-of-the-art: ‘Not your grandpa’s GT500’

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 15, 2019

Ford engineers grafted a 3-D printed mockup of the front of the 2020 Ford GT500 onto a standard Mustang GT for wind tunnel testing.

Ford engineers grafted a 3-D printed mockup of the front of the 2020 Ford GT500 onto a standard Mustang GT for wind tunnel testing. (Photo: Ford)

Allen Park — You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. But you can teach an old Mustang.

The ferocious 2020 Ford Mustang GT500 is one of the most anticipated products of the year. It was one of the main attractions at January’s Detroit auto show, packing the Ford display with rubberneckers. Only the third evolution of the legendary GT500 badge, the beast boasts the obscene horsepower numbers and muscular stance that owners have come to expect.

But this pony is a 21st-century winged cyborg. It’s the product of extensive aerodynamic and thermal development processes alien to its comparatively crude 1967 ancestor.

The latest GT500 was developed using a network of testing facilities: supercomputers, 3-D printers, race simulators, wind tunnels and race tracks.

When it goes on sale this summer, the GT500 will be a ground-hugging, ear-splitting track monster with an electronic, dual-clutch automatic transmission and 440-pound feet of downforce to keep it on the ground.

“This is not your grandpa’s GT500,” says Shelby Mustang marketing chief Jim Owens, who notes that the original ’67 car came to market without the benefit of wind-tunnel testing – much less supercomputers.

“The original Cobra GT500 was a straight-line monster. This new model can do a sub 11-second quarter-mile, but also carve apexes on race tracks. With modern technology like supercomputers, our gifted engineers can develop the car more quickly.”

Engineers like Matt Trantor, vehicle dynamics supervisor for Ford Performance, who oversaw the GT500’s development. Thanks to the latest electronic tools, his team compressed the typical two-year development process to six months.

“That allows us to make the right decisions — we don’t have to wait until we create a tool and part,” says Trantor. “We start in computational fluid dynamics programs to figure out all the cooling and aero requirements of the car. They point us to the directions of the best parts. We use the latest technology to print those parts. We put them on the car and take them to a … wind tunnel.”

Early aero mockups of the GT500 depended heavily on 3-D printed parts, crafted at Ford’s Advanced Manufacturing Center in Redford, that were fitted to the front end of a standard Mustang GT. It then underwent extensive aerodynamics testing at Ford’s wind tunnel facility in Allen Park, and on the country’s most sophisticated wind tunnel: the Windshear facility built by the Haas Formula One racing team in Concord, North Carolina.

So sophisticated have production vehicles like the GT500 become that they need Windshear’s so-called “moving ground plane” engineering that can simulate ground effects on a moving surface while accelerating the car to 180 mph. The Haas simulator is used by F1, NASCAR and high-end production sports cars.

Aerodynamic engineer Matt Titus races a Spec Mazda Miata when he’s not honing the GT500 in wind tunnels. “We did over 300 simulations in the virtual world, then we 3-D printed car parts and took it in the wind tunnel,” he says.

The technology is light years beyond the ’60s science used on the original Cobra. Aerodynamic terms like “wings” and “splitters” were still in their infancy. On the high bankings of the Daytona International Speedway 50 years ago, Porsche racing prototypes would shift lanes involuntarily as they reached speeds of 190 mph.

Those speeds were alien to a high-performance production car like the 1967 GT500 that was equipped with a 355-horsepower 7-liter engine and a top speed of 150 mph. Today’s production GT500, by contrast, will double the original car’s horsepower while topping out at speeds in excess of 180.

Armed with gigabytes of wind tunnel data, the Ford Performance team then fed their results to North Carolina-based car simulators where race drivers tested the digital car on multiple tracks.

The time for building prototypes had come.

Sculpted by designer Mel Betancourt and his team, the GT500 is new from the A-pillar forward. The front end is engineered to feed the hungry, supercharged 5.2-liter V-8. Where the original Snake counted on a single, oversized radiator to cool its V-8, the 2020 car uses six strategically located heat exchangers across the front clip, including the main radiator.

The prototype began a national track odyssey to be tested on Virginia International Raceway and Charlotte Motor Speedway. It would also visit NOLA, Gingerman Raceway in west Michigan, and Ford’s Dearborn Proving Grounds.

Test-driver and vehicle-dynamics engineer Steve Thompson and racer Billy Johnson flogged the pony mercilessly to push the limits.

“When we built the first prototypes and took them to the track, I think most of the team was just amazed at how spot-on the car was,” says Trantor. “How good it handled. How good the aero was. How good the sustainable power was.”

The GT500 track edition uses the same high rear-wing off the Mustang GT4 race car that won the 2018 Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge championship.

But there is still a little old school in the Mustang parts bin.

“A 20-minute track session generates the same heat rejection as F-250 diesel pulling 35,000 pounds up a grade,” says Trantor. “That’s serious cooling capability in a much smaller front-engine package. To get the flow rates up for the cooling system, they actually share the same dual thermostat.”

Expect the high-tech GT500 to cost north of $70,000 when it goes on sale later this year. The original ’67 car stickered for $4,195.

Born of high expectations, Chevy Cruze hits the end of the line

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 9, 2019

An American flag drapes the hood of the last Chevrolet Cruze as it comes off the assembly line at a General Motors plant where 1,700 hourly positions are being eliminated perhaps for good, on Wednesday, March 6, 2019, in Lordstown, Ohio. The factory near Youngstown is the first of five North American auto plants that GM plans to shut down by next year.

An American flag drapes the hood of the last Chevrolet Cruze as it comes off the assembly line at a General Motors plant where 1,700 hourly positions are being eliminated perhaps for good, on Wednesday, March 6, 2019, in Lordstown, Ohio. The factory near Youngstown is the first of five North American auto plants that GM plans to shut down by next year. (Photo: AP)

So long, Chevy Cruze, you burned so very brightly.

The last Cruze came off the Lordstown assembly line in Ohio on Wednesday as General Motors Co. shut down the plant and abandoned the compact sedan segment. The move comes as GM has signaled a shift away from sedans and into SUVs and electric vehicles as it idles five plants in the U.S. and Canada that make the Cruze, Chevrolet Impala, Chevrolet Volt, Buick Lacrosse, Cadillac XTS and Cadillac CT6.

The Cruze leaves behind 142,617 customers who bought the car in 2018 – a mid-level talent in a robust, if shrinking, 2.5-million small-car sales segment in the U.S.

The Cruze enjoyed a short but thrilling roller-coaster ride over its eight-year career.

Slotted between the subcompact Sonic and mid-size Malibu, the Cruze was Chevrolet’s third compact entry in three decades, following the Cavalier and Cobalt. It debuted in 2011 at an opportune time, riding America’s shift to small sedans as the Great Recession squeezed incomes, and memories of $4 a gallon gas were fresh.

Its debut was emotional for GM, coming as the most significant model launch since the company’s reorganization under a federally led bankruptcy.

“This is everything for us,” then-GM President of North American operations Mark Reuss said at the car’s Ohio launch in 2010. “The rebirth of the American economy starts right here at Lordstown with a world-class, high-volume car built in the heartland of America.”

Getting up to 48 miles per gallon on the highway, the Cruze cruised to a peak of 273,060 sales in 2014 before crashing to earth as the U.S/ economy rebounded, gas prices stabilized at around $2 a gallon and America fell back in love with sport utility vehicles.

The new badge proved a nice diversion for the brand, too, as the discontinued Cobalt became a lightning rod for bad news after a faulty ignition switch caused multiple fatalities. And with consistent volumes over 200,000 sales, GM invested in multiple variations including diesel-powered and hatchback models.

“The Cruze stands out by providing a comfortable ride, a surprisingly large trunk and several high-tech, luxury-adjacent features,” Car and Driver magazine enthused at the time. The Cruze was an early adopter of technology features like like 4G WiFi and smartphone app connectivity that were popular with young buyers. Despite its strengths, the Cruze never broke the magazine’s Top 10 picks like segment icons Honda Civic and Volkswagen Golf.

The $18,870 Cruze’s disappearance leaves a hole in Detroit’s entry-level compact car lineup, as Ford’s compact Focus also ends production this year and Dodge’s Dart long ago left the playing field.

“We’ve already seen those Cruze customers migrating to the Trax. And we’re seeing an uplift in sales to the Equinox also,” said a Chevy spokesman. The Trax is a subcompact SUV that starts at $22,195, and the compact Equinox starts at $24,995

Analysts say that the price-jump to equivalent SUVs – and reliable sedan entries from Asian automakers – poses a risk for the brand.

“Chevy hopes most of those customers will go to utility vehicles,” says IHS Markit senior auto analyst Stephanie Brinley. “But there are people who still prefer sedans, so there is the risk they will buy a Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla instead.”

The Civic and Corolla have been the perennial best-sellers in the segment at over 300,000 units sold annually in the U.S. Both are manufactured in America’s heartland by non-union labor – the Civic in Indiana and the Corolla in Mississippi – even as Cruze’s Ohio home lays off its UAW workforce.

The Japanese badges proved formidable for upstarts like the Cruze, which spanned two generations over eight model years. The Corolla (11 generations of new cars) and the Civic (10 generations) have been in the U.S. market for about 50 years.

“That could be part of the Japanese success,” says IHS’s Brinley. “Chevy had to retrain the automotive buyer whenever they came out with a new model name.”

That branding will continue to be a challenge moving forward, experts say. The Cruze’s demise is part of a larger shift for GM away from gas-powered vehicles towards a future of electric and autonomous vehicles. CEO Mary Barra envisions an all-electric future she refers to as “zero accidents, zero emissions and zero congestion.”

The company’s autonomous-vehicle development unit GM Cruise LLC is  is working on an autonomous vehicle called the Cruise AV that will compete against established ride-sharing brands like Uber and Lyft. And GM is putting enormous capital into 20 new, all-electric, zero-emission vehicles by 2023.

For now, GM electric vehicles like the $37,000 Chevy Bolt EV are well out of the reach of Cruze buyers.

“The conversion to electric is not going to be a straight transition,” says Brinley. “You can’t move compact Cruze buyers into Bolt EVs. It’s going to be the next generation of buyer that’s going to switch to EVs. A lot is expected to happen between now and then.”

For now, then, Cruze buyers who want to stick with Chevy sedans will have to move down to a smaller $16,295 subcompact Spark or up to a $22,685 midsize Malibu – the Malibu starting at about the same price as a subcompact Trax SUV.

The good news for GM, say Brinley and GM representatives, is sedan buyers increasingly are comfortable with switching to SUVs. A GM spokesman said there is no wall anymore between sedan customers willing to shop for SUVs.

Versions of the Cruze will continue to be sold in foreign markets with production in Argentina, China, Mexico and South Korea.

What a 45-cent Michigan gas tax would cost you annually

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 9, 2019

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s state budget proposes an additional 45 cents-per-gallon gas tax to fix Michigan roads, which would make the state’s fees the highest in the nation. So how big a hole would that put in your wallet?

Depending on what you drive and how far you drive, it would vary. But for a driver in an average vehicle racking up the average number of miles per year, there’s an answer: an additional $255 annually.

The Detroit News calculated the annual cost for owners of a variety of vehicles, from that hypothetical average car, to popular SUVs, pickups and electrics.

Michiganians drive an average of 14,121 miles per year, according to the Federal Highway Administration. The average vehicle fuel economy for 2017 model-year vehicles was 24.9 miles per gallon, according to Environmental Protection Agency figures released Wednesday.

Do the math, and a 45-cent surcharge would add up to that $255 per year. That’s on top of the average current fuel bill of $1,389, assuming gasoline stays at the current $2.45 per gallon average price around the state.

Think you’re off the hook if you drive a battery-powered vehicle? Think again.

Under Gov. Rick Snyder’s tax plan of 2015, a byzantine formula cooked up by the state made sure electric cars didn’t escape paying their fair share to fix the roads. We’ll spare you the details, other than this: The annual fee for a hybrid-electric would jump from $47.50 to $160 under the Whitmer plan; for a pure EV, that fee would jump from $135 to $360.

Here’s the additional cost that would be incurred by drivers of five popular models. (All calculations assume they will be driven the average 14,121 miles per year.)

The best-selling vehicle in Michigan – the 27-mile-per-gallon all-wheel drive 1.5-liter Chevy Equinox – currently costs $1,281 annually to fuel up. The new gas tax would add $235 a year. Take the family to from Detroit to Mackinac Island to ride the horse-drawn carriages (unaffected by the gas hike), and your gas bill would rise by $4.80 to $30.47.

If you own the best-selling pickup in the land – the 19 mpg Ford F-150 with its popular 3.5-liter Ecoboost V-6 – you’re currently shelling our $1,820 at the pump annually.  With the new tax, you’d need to carry another $334 in your jeans.

Drive a diesel? You’d pay the same 45-cent per gallon surcharge. That means a 22 mpg 2018 Ram 1500 turbo V-6 would cost $289 more to operate a year over the current $1,957 you’d pay if diesel fuel stayed steady at $3.05 per gallon.

For the 52 mpg Toyota Prius, the perennial best-selling hybrid car, the new gas tax would hit twice – on fuel (a $122 annual increase) and registration fee (a $112.50 increase) for a total of $234.50. That’s on top of the $712.50 combined cost of fuel ($665) and registration fee ($47.50) paid today.

The Chevy Bolt EV, of course, never visits a gas pump. Charge it at home at DTE Energy’s regular residential rate of 15 cents per kWh and it’ll cost you an unchanged $593 on your electric bill (install an additional, 240-volt fast charger and dedicated electric meter,  and the utility will reduce that to $431 a year). The added registration fee, as we noted earlier, would jump from $135 to $360.

Payne: Entry-level Mercedes A220 samples S-class luxury

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 9, 2019

Starting at $33,475, the Mercedes A220 offers an entry-level Merc with the classiness of a $100k-plus S-class.

Starting at $33,475, the Mercedes A220 offers an entry-level Merc with the classiness of a $100k-plus S-class.

Say hello to the entry-level Mercedes A220. Honey, I shrunk the S-class.

I have driven the King of Luxury, the Mercedes S560 (S for Simba) 4MATIC, and it is an exquisite thing. Gorgeous looks, smooth all-wheel drive power, an interior fit for a, well, king. It also costs a king’s ransom to own with a sticker that starts — starts — north of $100,000. And that’s before you add fundamentals like blind-spot assist. I tested a S560 Coupe last year that tipped the scales at $152,195 (cough).

Emerge from a drive with your spouse — drunk on luxury, giggling like schoolchildren — in this divan on wheels and you’ll seriously consider blowing your savings for a summer home to afford it.

You: Comfy cabin up north for weekend getaways with a kitchen and porch looking out on God’s green creation … or a Mercedes?

Spouse: Oh, the Mercedes, hands down.

You’ll come to your senses eventually. But the wonderful thing about the new entry-level compact A220 sedan is you can sample S-class luxury in an affordable package. Like one-third the price of that coupe.

Hooking customers on a delicious appetizer to reel them in for the more expensive entrée later in life is not a new idea for Mercedes. Five years ago, the German brand introduced the CLA sedan, the first Mercedes under $30,000.

It was a knockout. A gorgeous, slinky Barbie doll. And just as empty inside. The CLA’s interior seemed an afterthought. Its fit and finish were sloppy, the infotainment screen tacked on to the dash like someone had nailed an Apple tablet there. Reviews were lukewarm even as it warmed new customers to the brand.

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try the A220.

Compact sedan 2.0 is a revelation, a junior S-class. Except for decadent items like seat-belt extenders, quilted seats, night vision and a rear wine-bar (OK, I made that last one up), the A220 cub offers everything Simba has.

Twin configurable instrument and infotainment screens are embedded behind a single 10.3-inch horizontal pane of glass. A row of silver aviator vents line up like champagne glasses. There’s an exquisitely engineered steering wheel with a tiny touchpad on each spoke to control the multipurpose screen in front of you. Panoramic sunroof. Head-up display. Adaptive cruise-control with auto lane-change. Chrome-flecked grille.

(Pause to catch breath)

Nineteen-inch multi-spoke wheels. All-wheel drive. Automatic high-beams. Automatic windshield wipers. Personalized settings including interior lighting. Multi-way seats. And more.

If you want it all, a fully loaded A220 will ring the cash register at $50,660 — a steep bill, but still a third of a loaded S560. And that’s the point. The entry-level buyer gets a real taste of what a five-star luxury menu is like. It’s delicious.

Faced with this smorgasbord of options, customers might naturally separate the caviar from the tenderloin to arrive at their preferred order. Spec a Mercedes A220 with the all-wheel drive AMG package (which gets you that “Diamond Block” grille and multi-spoke wheels), panoramic roof and red-leather interior (well, a little caviar never hurts), and you will walk away with a properly premium Merc for about $43,000.

Regular readers of this column will recognize that price point as VW Golf R territory, my favorite all-around mainstream car. Can the Mercedes justify its three-pointed star snobbery at the same price point as the rockin’ roomy V-dub?

The Golf R exposes the A220’s biggest weakness — powertrain.

Simba 560 boasts a buttery smooth twin-turbo V-8. It’s a velvet hammer, one of the industry’s gems. The A220 literally saws big brother’s mill in half to a 2.0-liter single-turbo four-cylinder.

That’s four cylinders, like the VW.

That’s quite a compromise, and it’s readily apparent when you put the A220’s hammer down. The eight-speed dual-clutch tranny and turbo are buttery smooth under the cane (though oddly balky at low speed, like a young cub still testing its legs). But they can’t hide the dull buzz of four cylinders straining to put out 188 horsepower.

The Golf R, by contrast, pushes out a gob-smacking 288 horses and will run rings around the Mercedes through Michigan hill country.

Still, the new A220 oozes style from that lovely grille to the LED-piped taillights to the first-class cabin inside.

Automakers have been forced to raise their game by Silicon Valley and its revolutionary Teslas. The Model S and Model 3 have thumped German sedans in sales with phone-like operating systems. Mercedes-Benz User Experience (MBUX) is up to the task.

A220 comes with multiple infotainment controllers — touchscreen, the aforementioned steering-wheel mini touch-pads and console touch-pad. But the MBUX voice commands are so good — so phone-like — I usually ignored the hardware. I drove around town talking to the car — its “Hi, Mercedes” command like Android’s “Hey, Google” — and rarely took my hand off the wheel.

Hi, Mercedes, set the temperature to 72 degrees.
Navigate to Detroit Metropolitan Airport.
Play Sirius XM Comedy Greats channel.

It understood my hillbilly West Virginia accent like an old friend.

That luxury separates the A220 from the mainstream. Sure, it looks stubby next to Simba (what doesn’t), but the cub has the family DNA, and that’s what counts.

Visuals matter, too. The Golf R is a VW hatchback. The A220 is a gem smoothed by Mercedes craftsmen.

Even the CLA has benefited from the A220’s transformation as it will now be offered as the compact-class “coupe” version with the same interior. So if the A220 is too conservative and underpowered, then let the pricier CLA turn up the heat with its raked roof and 221 ponies.

The beauty of Michigan, of course, is it can test any beauty’s temperament in winter weather. The A220 proved it was no diva, but an all-season athlete. German politicians have spent the last three decades warning of global-warming induced snowless winters. Thank goodness German engineers ignored them.

As Michigan February dumped snow and ice, the A220 and I took to the roads like skiers to Pine Knob. The all-wheel drive system is superb under throttle, allowing me enough juice to power-drift around snowy corners (unlike many nanny systems out here) — and then stopping with superb anti-lock brakes.

At $42,000, that is quite a cub. And you’ll still have money left over for that little cottage up north.

2019 Mercedes A220

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

Price: $33,475 base, including $975 destination fee ($50,660 4MATIC model as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged, inline-4 cylinder

Power: 188 horsepower; 221 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.1 seconds (mfr.); top speed: 130 mph

Weight: 3,285 pounds (3,417 4MATIC as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 25 city/33 highway/28 combined

Report card

Highs: Intimate MBUX connectivity; first-class interior

Lows: Weak turbo-4; price tag may have you looking to upgrade to C-class instead

Overall: 3 stars

Payne: The fun and frustration of a Tesla Model 3 owner

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 9, 2019

Despite 302 miles of range when Henry Payne left home in Oakland County, Michigan's cold weather would degrade the battery so that the Tesla Model 3 would only have 48 percent of range left when it arrived in Marshall, Michigan, 114 miles away (228 mile round trip).

Despite 302 miles of range when Henry Payne left home in Oakland County, Michigan’s cold weather would degrade the battery so that the Tesla Model 3 would only have 48 percent of range left when it arrived in Marshall, Michigan, 114 miles away (228 mile round trip). (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

Tesla announced last week that my Model 3 sedan will soon get a 5 percent increase in power and 15-mile extension in range. In a software update. Delivered over-the-air while my car sits in the garage.

I’ve never owned a car that did that before.

But I’ve also never had to wait two months for a simple parts repair due to Tesla’s Michigan service model of Mobile Repair Units. With Tesla dealer-service centers banned in the state, a front-bumper sensor repair dragged on for weeks.

My first Michigan winter with the Model 3 has been full of such paradoxes in a premium brand that has defied industry convention. I crave its electric torque, yet am anxious about its range limitations. I marvel at its electronic advances, yet worry about quality issues. It’s the coolest car I’ve owned, yet I caution potential buyers on its limitations.

Re-imagining the auto business is central to Tesla’s appeal and a key reason I ordered a $57,000 Model 3 in 2016. From online ordering to smartphone-like updates to electrification to its own dealer network, the start-up automaker is challenging industry norms just as tech peers Apple and Amazon upended cellphone and retail markets.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and Mercedes-Benz and Volvo’s Polestar brand have followed the Silicon Valley-based company’s lead in connectivity and electrification. But as my experience suggests, the jury is still out on innovations like battery-power and mobile service.

 I left my house on Dec. 4 for a business appointment in Marshall, Michigan, in a Model 3 pregnant with electrons and a significant over-the-air update for autonomous driving.

I had charged my car to near-capacity, 302-miles range (310 is the max) overnight for the 228-mile round-trip.

“Navigate to Eaton Corporation, Marshall, Michigan” I barked at the car just as I would Google Maps on my Android phone, and it quickly charted my route. It also told me I would have less than half of battery capacity remaining when I arrived and would have to recharge at a Tesla Supercharger station nearby to get back home.

What?

The car’s computer was honest enough to tell me what most EV advocates only whisper — that battery range degrades significantly in cold weather. At the speed limit in 30-degree December temps, I would only get 70 percent of battery range, burning 154 miles of range to roll up 114 miles on the odometer.

As the mercury dropped below 20 degrees in this winter of the polar vortex, my range has degraded as much as 50 percent.

This is a common problem for all EVs and why the public has been shy to embrace the technology. They plug into your home and are simple to operate, but can they get you where you want to go on time?

The drive to Marshall was typically invigorating. Not just because of the Model 3’s wicked acceleration and handling (cloverleafs are a blast), but because of the opportunity to test the car’s latest upgrade: navigate on Autopilot.

Autopilot has been controversial (not least because its name suggests airliner-like full self-driving) for allegedly being engaged in numerous accidents. Properly driven as a semi-autonomous Level 2 system, it is quite good. And it got better with the upgrade.

Once on the highway, I put the Model 3 on Autopilot, rested my hand on the steering wheel (the car will squawk at you if you go hands-free) and relaxed. When I reached my off-ramp the Tesla’s big center screen displayed a blue line suggesting I move right to exit.

I toggled the right turn signal and the Model 3 automatically changed lanes — but not before my blind-spot indicator lit up red to warn me I should let another car pass first. Both features were unavailable before the software update the night before.

The Model 3 computer had accurately predicted my cold-weather range degradation. With just 148 miles of range left, I would not be able to return home without recharging on the Marshall Supercharger.

I charged for 45 minutes, adding 110 miles of range for insurance should I need to make a detour. Two other Model 3s shared the station with me, one of them a businessman from Chicago who regularly makes 500-mile round trips to Ann Arbor, stopping twice for lengthy Supercharger refills.

“Best car I have ever owned,” he said. “But these long recharging stops are wearing on me.”

He was considering switching to a gas-powered vehicle to make the trip, leaving the Tesla behind in Chicago as an urban commuter.

For all of Tesla’s ambitions as a mass-market automaker, such inconveniences are why many believe EVs are niche vehicles limited to urban commuters or luxury enthusiasts with other cars in the stable.

Two more days passed before my first Model 3 service issue since taking delivery in late October.

Automatic lane-change stopped working, as did Summon (another neat trick where you can remote-control-drive the Model 3 out of a tight parking space). I called my service center … in Cleveland.

Michigan is one of 27 states at war with Tesla dealer/service centers (though it allows Tesla “galleries” where cars can be seen but not ordered). If I was to get serviced, it would be by house-call from a Mobile Unit.

The good news was the service center knew what was wrong (and my car was otherwise perfectly driveable).

 “Your front-left sensor is out,” said the tech. A rock had knocked it senseless.

“How do you know that from Cleveland?” I asked.

“Because I’m looking at your car on my computer just like a smartphone.”

The bad news: I would have to wait weeks for a Mobile Repair Unit to show up at my house.

In Tesla’s backyard where its cars are common, the company uses a mix of dealerships (“stores” in Tesla parlance), over-the-air fixes and mobile units for repairs. But in Michigan, where Tesla’s suit overturning the Legislature’s ban on company-owned stores is pending in the state Supreme Court, the automaker is dependent on over-the-air and traveling technicians.

Given the rapid growth of Model 3 sales to all 50 states, service has been strained and there have been long waits for parts from the mothership.

“My top priority this year is making service amazing,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk said in a conference call with journalists last week.

That promise, too, may be paradoxical, as Tesla plans to shut down some service centers to cut costs so it can deliver the long-promised base Model 3 at $35,000. That will make the company even more dependent on mobile housecalls.

My friendly traveling mechanic replaced the sensor as well as an LTE Wi-Fi card that had gone bad after just 1,700 miles.

Tesla owners are beta-testers for the most audacious automotive start-up in my lifetime. While waiting for service I got an over-the-air software update for security, climate controls … and an electronic whoopee cushion to prank passengers.

Such details help make the sometimes-bumpy journey worthwhile.