Posted by hpayne on May 6, 2015The Ford Focus must feel like Luke, the third Hemsworth brother,at a New York night club. Attractive, but not as visible as his taller, sexier, mega-celebrity brothers, Chris ("Thor") and Liam ("Hunger Games"). The compact Focus, you may have heard, is having trouble landing dates. A small sedan in a sport ute world, it has seen sales slump leading to 700 layoffs at its Wayne Assembly plant. Meanwhile big brothers Escape and Fusion are to die for. Escape is the best compact SUV in autodom's hottest segment, with torrid box office sales that even have the blockbuster Honda CR-V looking over its shoulder. The Fusion, meanwhile, is the sultriest midsize sedan on the planet. With its pouty mouth, muscular torso, and fastback it is the family hauler Aston Martin might have built. But size doesn't always matter. If your taste is for a smaller, cuter, more maneuverable companion, let me introduce you to the new, refreshed 2015 Focus. You'll know it by the facelift. Already possessing signature "boomerang" taillights and an athletic stance, the base Focus gets the family's "Aston" grille, making it as good looking coming as it is going. I emphasize "base" because Focus's performance hatch, the ST, possessed a fearsome maw that made this pint-sized predator look like a Mako shark feeding on a school of tuna. Indeed, considering the relentless advance of functional/affordable/attractive utes, I've been of the opinion that hot hatches are the best reason to buy compacts these days. Utes are that good. Small crossovers have the C-segment sedan cornered. Interior room? Check. Cargo flexibility? Check. All-wheel drive? Checkmate. Only on performance could vehicles like the ST and VW's Golf GTI survive. The ST misses out on my 2015 Car-of-the-Year GTI for one reason: Ferocious torque steer that wants to rip the steering wheel out of your hands on hard acceleration. Keep a firm grip, however, and the ST's 252 horsepower – 32 more than the GTI – is a trip. Despite the V-dub's more refined FWD engineering, Ford's Tasmanian Devil out-dueled the German Schnauzer at Car & Driver's famed Lightning Lap of VIR raceway. But with the refreshed, 2015 Focus, the ST is no longer the most interesting Foci variant. The lineup now possesses some serious engineering that rivals the VW – and should make buyers reconsider the C-sedan segment. Take the extraordinary, turbocharged, 1-liter engine now available in the Focus. King Kong in a can. I first wrote about this overachieving three-banger in the Ford Fiesta – a briefcase-sized power plant with the fuel economy of a Geo Metro and the kick of Ronaldo. But how would it work in the bigger Focus? Surprisingly well. The three-holer barely squeaks off the line (the poor thing has less than 1/6th the piston heft of the 6.4-liter dodge Challenger I just reviewed!), but as soon as the turbo kicks in near 3,000 RPM this mouse wants to roar. Freeway merging? No problem. Cruising at 90? Easy. Pick on BMWs out of a stoplight? Whoa, fella, don't get your hopes up. As in the Fiesta, Ford treats the turbo 1L like an intern ("bring sales, maybe we'll keep ya'") that gets the desk by the coffee machine. It only gets a manual tranny, not the more-coveted 6-speed auto. But with its class-leading 35 mpg (I got 33 mpg around town driving it like a madman), this worker bee should get noticed. But, Payne, isn't a three-banger as buzzy as a cloud of Lake Michigan mosquitos? More engineering braggadocio: The Focus is whisper quiet with all three engines. So quiet, in fact, that I wished the snarly ST had its own audio app to pump in more exhaust sound when I really got into the throttle. The premium, tech-savvy Titanium model that I drove for $26,710 could be mistaken for a luxury car. Its silent interior makes blue-toothed phone conversation a cinch on Ford's SYNC system. Its crisp console gauges are Audi-like, its steering wheel heated, its interior loaded with detail (note the ATM card-slot next to the leather-stitched shifter). Mrs. Payne marveled at the Titanium's auto high-beam feature which dims when it senses oncoming traffic. Got that on your $45k luxe sedan? Heck, Focus will even park itself. Handling, fuel economy, cargo utility, build quality. The Focus is in the Golf's league while looking sexier than its more conservative Euro competitor. But is it enough to attract attention from bigger brothers that also boast the family's good looks and high-tech? The Foci small backseat, for example, just can't compete with the taller Escape. It's tough being a short Hemsworth sibling. But he'll turn a few heads in a Tangerine Scream-painted Focus ST. Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger compact sedan Price: $17,995 base (As tested: $21,035 1.0L Ecobbost SE; $26,710 2.0L Titanium; $29,475 2.0L Ecoboost ST) Power plant: 2.0-liter, inline 4-cylinder; 1.0-liter, turbocharged 3-cylinder; 2.0-liter, turbocharged, inline 4-cylinder Power: 160 horsepower, 146 pound-feet of torque (2.0L 4-cyl); 123 horsepower, 148 pound-feet of torque (1.0L turbo 3-cyl); 252 horsepower, 270 pound-feet of torque (2.0L turbo 4-cyl) Transmission: Five-speed manual with optional six-speed automatic (2.0L 4-cyl): Six-speed manual (1.0L turbo 3-cyl and 2.0L turbo 4-cyl) Performance: 0-60 and top speed numbers not yet available Weight: 2,907 pounds (1.0L turbo 3-cyl); 2,920 pounds (2.0L 4-cyl); 3,223 pounds (ST) Fuel economy: EPA 30 mpg city/42 mpg highway/35 mpg combined (est. 1.0L turbo 3-cyl) Report card Highs: Best-in-class styling; Turbo-riffic Lows: Tight rear quarters; ST torque-steer Overall: ★★★★
Posted by hpayne on April 29, 2015I've seen the first blue bird of spring. It has eyes that burn white, nostrils the size of basketballs, and a song like King Kong snorting jalapeno peppers. Upon closer inspection it's a Blue Pearl-coated, 6.4-liter, 2015 Dodge Challenger Scat Pack with a shaker hood scoop. But its April sighting is just as refreshing. Congratulations, Detroiters, our tribe has survived another Arctic winter, the thaw has come, and muscle cars are awakening from their loooong hibernation. Right on cue, Dodge is bringing another variation of its wicked Challenger lineup. Dodge, of course, is the King of Muscle cars these days, sporting more sinew than any other pony car in history. The flock is led by the insane, 707-horspower SRT Hellcat, a car that sprints the quarter mile as fast as a Lamborghini Diablo. I cruised the Woodward Dream Cruise in a brooding, gray model last year, the monster under its hood betrayed only by the tiny, side-mounted Hellcat logo and three hood scoops rather than the twin openings found on its V-8 R/T brothers. The Scat Pack Shaker is for muscle car enthusiasts who find the Hellcat too subtle. The shaker rises out of the hood like a cobra summoned from a snake charmer's basket. Carbon black racing stripes stretch nose to tail. A black splitter curls along the Challenger's chin like Beelzebub's beard. Turn the key and wake the dead. I rumbled down my neighborhood street in the Shaker on a sunny April Saturday and kids came out of their homes like Dickens orphans who had just seen an ice cream truck. This car should be an amusement park ride at Cedar Point. I buckled in four boys and they were shrieking with joy before I was even out of the cul-de-sac. By the time we hit Telegraph Road they were chanting a chorus of "BURNOUT! BURNOUT!" I laid a 50-foot rubber patch out of a stoplight and it was bedlam. Eight cylinders and four kids roaring at the top of their lungs. Ah, spring. But it's not just the kids that come running at the sight of this blue bird. This beauty is a cop magnet. In a good way. Not one but two police buddies took turns behind the wheel. Want to see a Challenger driven hard? Give it to men in uniform who have taken hours of pursuit training in Dodge muscle cars. These boys can drive. Foot-through-the-floor, lightning-shift, tire-smoking confidence behind the wheel. I'm sorry, officer, but I'll have to ask you to get out of the car. I cruised the Woodward strip on a glorious Saturday Night. Everyone was there. Camaro ZL1s, Corvette C7s, Pontiac GTOs, Mustang GTs. The Blue Pearl Shaker still stood out. The boys at Detroit Area Modern Mopar club flagged me down as I drove by their Dairy Mat hangout. They know what this bad boy represents. The Scat Pack Shaker is muscle car legend after all. When the original Challenger debuted in 1968 to dropped jaws, Dodge promoted the Scat Cat Club featuring a newsletter (for Gen Yers that's like a blog but on paper) – so owners could share their Dodge muscle tips. The Scat Pack even had its own logo — a hot-rodding bee on wheels — which members proudly displayed in their rear windows. When Dodge CEO Tim Kuniskis unveiled the remade Challenger in 2014, he not only introduced the world to the ferocious Hellcat — he re-introduced the Scat Pack legend, complete with updated logo. "If you missed the first muscle car era, don't miss the second," Kuniskis likes to say to anyone within earshot. He should know. The barrel-chested motormouth spits out Challenger facts faster than a nail gun and has just restored his own 383-cubic inch 1971 Challenger complete with shaker. If he weren't running Dodge 24/7 he'd be cruising Woodward Saturday nights talking Scat trash. "I'm amending my previous statement," he says reflecting over his '15 stable. "This IS the Golden Era of the muscle car." Forty-five years ago, a 7.2-liter hemi would trip the 0-60 wire at 6.2 seconds. Today the base V-6 Challenger with half the displacement will match that. Throw the Scat Pack's 6.4-liter hemi under the hood and the 2015 car will get there in 4-point-4. Golden Era indeed. What's more, the Scat Pack Shaker offers an interior as plush as its exterior is aggressive. So while the huge, 9.5-inch tires melt the asphalt on the outside, you can relax in leather seat comfort (complete with orange Scat Pack embroidery, natch) inside. Surrounded by brushed aluminum accents and chrome-bezeled instrument panels that cradle the segment's best, UConnect infotainment system featuring apps like iHeartRadio, Pandora, Travel link, and WiFi hotspot. Oh yes, and a performance app that records your 0-60, 0-100, and ¼ mile times. I can see you might need a few cop friends. But perhaps the most telling figure is the Scat Pack price. After all, few wallets can afford the $60,990 Hellcat. Where some performance cars measure horsepower per liter, the shaker sets the standard for horsepower-per-dollar. Few cars provide this much bang for the buck. The Scat Pack starts at just $38,890, making it the top 400-horses-for-under-$40K on the market. The 426-horsepower, 5.0-liter Camaro starts at $39,295. The 435-horse Mustang at $37,750. Dodge will yammer on about how affordable the Challenger is at the fuel pump too. Twenty-three mpg highway according to EPA. Balderdash. You won't come close. It's like marrying Kate Upton with a vow of celibacy. You drive the Shaker with a lead foot. I got 13.6 mpg during my week with this sexpot. No one will mistake it for a sports car either. Sure it has the latest in 21st century, electronic stability wizardry, but the 4,100-pound behemoth's chassis is dated. It's a pig when the road turns curvy. Want to attack a twisty Up North country road? Drop your $40K on a sporty new 'Stang. Want to snort Priuses through the shaker's twin nostrils on Woodward? This is your pet. "The most outrageous car in our lineup," says Kuniskis. "I can't remember when I had this much fun in a car," said my buddy Tom after 15 fast and furious minutes behind the wheel. The blue bird is singing. Spring is finally here. You're welcome. Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, five-passenger two-door coupe Price: $38,890 base ($45,780 as tested) Power plant: 6.4-liter, HEMI V-8 Power: 485 horsepower, 475 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Six-speed manual (optional eight-speed automatic) Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.2 seconds (4.4 sec. for manual, Car & Driver) Weight: 4,082 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 14 mpg city/23 mpg highway/17 mpg combined Report card Highs: Volcanic acceleration; Heavenly blue wardrobe Lows: Gas guzzler tax; A handfull in the twisties Overall: ★★★★
Posted by hpayne on April 24, 2015On Planet Auto, Fiat and Jeep brands are poles apart. Their customers wouldn't mingle at the same cocktail party. Fiat owners would be inside at the wine and cheese bar while Jeep owners would hang outside quaffing beer and barbecue. Afterwards, the Fiat would take Woodward Avenue home. The Jeep the Rouge River bed. So you'll be floored to know that the new subcompact Fiat 500X and Jeep Renegade utes were separated at birth. They share the same skeleton: the "small U.S. wide 4×4" platform. If that seems incredible, consider this: The two products are the result of Detroiters and Italians working together. Across an ocean. Speaking the same language. Art Anderson is the Auburn Hills engineering vehicle line executive for Renegade and 500X. His Italian counterpart is Fabio DiMuro in Turin. As project leads, they molded the SUVs from the first global platform birthed by the marriage of Fiat and Chrysler. Its bones can shoulder 16 powertrain combinations, be built on three continents and spread the Jeep and Fiat gospels to over 100 countries. Renegades and 500Xs sail to the U.S. from the same plant in Italy. These twins are the face of a new global auto industry. Andersen, 54, is a laid-back, graying, goateed Chrysler veteran. He could be your Uncle Joe. We sat down at the Fiat 500X launch in Los Angeles this month to talk utes, Telepresence and remote start. Q: The 500X and Renegade are FCA's first-born children? A: The Auburn Hills and Turin offices have worked together on programs before like the Fiat 500L adaptation. But the Renegade and 500X platform is really the first time (FCA) did a global project together from the very start. Q: What's a global platform? A: The architecture itself has 16 different powertrain combinations in it. It is configured to meet global requirements, including European pedestrian protection with aluminum hoods and all that. On top of that are customer features for different countries. For example, it's against European laws to have remote start, while that is a price of entry in the NAFTA (North American) market. You can't get there unless two teams get together and put all the cards on the table and say this is what the platform has to do. Q: Why you and Fabio? A: Fabio was part of the industrialization over here of the Fiat 500, so he was an ex-pat in Auburn Hills for a while. He understood the culture. I worked on several international programs based in Europe and so I had the understanding of how to do business that way. Q: The 500X is a particularly important product for Fiat, isn't it? A: The fact that it is all-wheel drive ... allows them to penetrate a market they have not been able to fairly address. A lot of Fiat dealers are located in the sunshine states. This will enable them to come into the Northeast and Denver and the Snow Belt. Q: Will the 500X sell better here or in Europe? A: The volume right now is in Europe (because) there is a higher volume of dealers and an embedded customer base. The thing we've noticed is that they sell Renegades and 500X in the same showroom, yet there is zero cross-shopping between the two cars. The 500X mission is on-road, all-weather capability. The Renegade is on-road comfort and off-road capability. Q: How is 500X different here and abroad? A: In Europe, the volume seller is going to be a 140-horsepower diesel manual, and in NAFTA the volume seller is going to be a 180-horsepower, gas-powered automatic. (The chassis is) set up with a stiff suspension by American standards, yet there's capability in the platform to fit it with all-season tire and open damping to be able to handle the NAFTA potholes and roads. Q: Does a global platform mean you are always traveling? A: We started out 41/2 years ago with a lot of face-to-face travel going both ways. As we've come to know each other really well there are a lot of teleconferences — we have Telepresence, which is a video conference. The partners in the team are the most valuable things. If I call Fabio or Fabio calls me and we say we have a problem, we trust each other implicitly. Q: Fix-It-Again-Tony and Jeep don't have great quality reputations. Was that a development priority? A: It's at the top of the list of things we are keeping a close eye on. The amount of testing miles is unbelievable.
Posted by hpayne on April 23, 2015When the White House Auto Task Force gift-wrapped Chrysler to Italy's Fiat six years ago, hardly anyone seemed to notice that a full-line American automaker was being taken over by an econobox-builder whose products could fit in the bed of a RAM pickup. They called it Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. It's like Mini Cooper took over General Motors and called it Mini Motors. In addition to gaining iconic brands like RAM and Jeep, Fiat's brilliant, sweater-model-and-CEO Sergio Marchionne saw the chance to reintroduce his Italian brand to American tastes for the first time in a quarter century. Two years later, Chef Sergio's Fiat cafes were popping up all over the country featuring ... one menu item. An appetizer. A tiny Italian meatball. The Fiat 500. Tasty. Bite-sized. The elites inside Washington's Beltway drooled at the menu, predicting the little meatball was just the kind of fuel-efficient, low-calorie diet obese Americans craved to cure them of their sport ute ways. (These same Washington elites also think pro soccer is going to take America by storm.) But a cafe cannot survive on meatballs alone. Neither can a car company. The adorable 500 was a blast to drive and a bomb at the cash register. It fit Europe where a gallon of gas costs the gross national product of Greece and roads are as narrow as linguine. But in wide open, $3-a-gallon-gas America? Fiat was the mouse that bored. Cute as a tricycle and just as prone to being Chevy Suburban road kill. Meatball 500sales were half of predictions. "We thought we were going to show up and just because of the fact people like gelato and pasta, people will buy it," Chef Sergio told Bloomberg Business. "This is nonsense." So he went about building a bigger menu. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in the U.S. ... build utes. For all of Washington's day dreams about small cars saving the planet, Sergio watched as the Jeep Grand Cherokee saved Chrysler. Not just Chrysler, but Fiat as well as Europe's economy tanked and North America became FCA's profit engine. The Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango and RAM pickup sold like hotcakes. Sergio embraced SUVs like black sweaters. He built compact Cherokees. And subcompact Renegades. And Maserati SUVs. And then ... get used to the oxymoron "Fiat SUV." It had been done before. Mini launched in the U.S. on the back of an iconic compact cutie, which then birthed a four-door and a crossover Countryman. So Fiat made a bigger meatball — the 500L — with the same chassis ingredients as the 500. Now comes a completely fresh, subcompact ute out of the merged kitchen of Fiat and Chrysler. Hello, 2016 Fiat 500X. Meatball entree with all the fixings. A Fiat fit for the USA. The adorable family features are all there. Big headlights so cute they should have eyelashes. Soft, baby-faced chin. Round Fiat logo smack in the middle like a child's binky. 'Round back a round behind that leans forward like a toddler eyeing a box of chocolates. But in between the 500X is a grownup's SUV. The interior dash bears Fiat's signature plastic dash colored to match the exterior (oooh, I really like the red), but the ergonomics are Chrysler-esque — crisp and logically placed. No Euro-quirks like the 500L's goofy center armrest. The center console rises from the floor providing cupholders, useful storage space for phones, and surprising elbow room in a segment where front seats can feel as crowded as Delta coach-class. Rear seats are roomy, the cargo hatch configurable, and a nifty, full-cabin moon roof for necking under the stars. Turn the key and the voice is more grown up as the 2.4-liter Tigershark engine — more Chrysler hardware, thank you very much — barks to life. The X's 184 horses deliver Fiat's promised fun factor along with a much tighter suspension than its raw, off-road Renegade cousin. That's X as in X Games. The AWD is LOL to drive. The base, "Pop"-trim, 500X gets the spicy, 160-horse, 1.4-liter turbo four found in the raucous Fiat Abarth pocket rocket. But, oddly, Fiat kills the recipe by only offering the turbo in a manual and without the Tigershark's suspension upgrades. It's like cooking up a tasty veal cutlet — then smothering it in anchovies and lard. Sigh. Base hiccup aside, this mouth-watering recipe is courtesy of a first, global, "Small U.S. Wide" platform jointly developed by Italian and American chefs to accommodate the 500X and Renegade (and future vehicles tailored to markets from Italy to China to Brazil to here). And as pioneers in the subcompact ute segment, the Renegade and 500X stand to make an impression on shoppers looking for some spice in their menu. Want a burger? Buy a Honda HR-V or Chevy Trax. Want camp-fire barbecue? Try Renegade. Pasta? The 500X is your fashion plate. Fiat will have to prove its quality, of course. But style, too, matters in metro markets where Fiat expects the 500X will be a hit. Fiat debuted the X in Los Angeles where owners wear their cars as a fashion statement. Thanks to the valley's legendary traffic, Angelinos spend more time in their vehicles — 90 hours a week — than anyplace else. A fellow motor scribe flew into L.A. recently for a 44-mile drive down the 405 to Irvine. It took him four — four! — hours. My co-driver and I drove the 500X from Malibu to Beverly Hills — 25 miles — in 1.5 hours. It felt like a week and a half. We grew beards that would make ZZ Top proud. All this time in the X means it has to work inside as well as outside. I climbed over the rear seats to the rear. Stretched my legs. Charged my phone in the USB port. Checked my luggage for a razor. Fiat expects its new menu item to be its best-seller. Its natural competitor is the Mini Countryman crossover cutie. The 500X won't touch the Mini for sportiness, but its taller stance, AWD and healthy cargo room will make it the practical choice for many. Practical in price, too. Fiat has smartly stickered the 500X from $20,900, which is in line with its mainline competitors — and well below the $22,550 premium buyers hand over for a Mini. Utility. Room. All-wheel-drive. Oxymoron. Fiat. The Italian immigrant is building a tasty Yankee Ristorante. Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. 2016 Fiat 500X Vehicle type: Front-engine, front or all-wheel drive, five-passenger sport ute Price: $20,900 base ($30,900 AWD as tested) Power plant: 1.4-liter, turbocharged inline-4; 2.4-liter inline-4 Power: 160 horsepower, 184 pound-feet of torque (turbo 1.4L); 180 horsepower, 175 pound-feet of torque (2.4L) Transmission: 6-speed manual (only available with turbo 1.4L); 9-speed automatic transmission (with 2.4L) Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.7-8.9 seconds (Car & Driver) Weight: 2,967 pounds (base) Fuel economy: TBA Report card Highs: Lots of character; unique, functional interior Lows: Sprightly turbo only comes in manual with less-refined chassis: The ghost of FCA quality past Overall:★★★
Posted by hpayne on April 17, 2015I'm writing this on my laptop while driving the state-of-the-art, semi-autonomous Audi A8L on my way home. Lane-keep assist keeping me between the lines. Cruise control set at 55 mph. Adaptive cruise control following traffic in front of me at a safe distance. Brake mitigation bringing me to a stop at stoplights. Ah, bliss. Had you going there for a moment, didn't I? In truth my eyes are glued to the road. The Audi is a remarkable beast inside and out with the body of Adonis, the interior of Exxon's board room, and on-board computers that would embarrass Hal in "2001: A Space Odyssey." But unlike Hal, it's not self-aware. Which might actually help. Because the driver-assist features on the Audi are a glimpse of how futuristic autonomous cars work. Except when they don't. A self-aware car would avoid hitting a cement dividing wall on the Lodge because its instinct would be for self-preservation. But when Audi-tonomous overshot a solid lane marking line, the system merely beeped at me and flashed a message in the instrument cluster: "PLEASE TAKE OVER STEERING." What the - ?! I can see the future, but for now autonomous cars are like Bruce Wayne. Talented, but they need a butler to get through the day. To be sure, Audi doesn't advertise its driver-assist features as "self-driving" – but its camera and radar technologies preview what self-driving cars will in part rely on. Google is testing self-driving cars. I've been a passenger in one. It worked flawlessly at low speeds in Palo Alto, California. It holds huge promise for empowering the transportation-challenged elderly and infirmed. It could transform shuttle services. Rattan Joea, CEO of California-based, airport-focused Prime Time Shuttle, sees a future of Uber-like ride shares. "Driverless vehicles will change the game," says the 20-year shuttle veteran. "It will streamline our service by taking the operator out of the equation. It will save on insurance by removing human limitations. Computers don't get tired. They don't get sleepy." Think of a fleet of autonomous limos. "A beautiful vehicle comes and picks you up," Joea imagines. "We can send out shuttle like that at the click of a button." But no such vehicle yet exists for him to test. No affordable vehicle anyway. An analysis by techie mag Fast Company estimates that Google's $24K Prius concept costs upward of $320,000 once optioned with necessary autonomous hardware like a $80,000 Velodyne LIDAR system, $10,000 visual and radar sensors, $200,000 GPS array, plus computer and software. Ouch. It'll take a lot of airport runs for Mr. Joea to recoup that investment. Which takes me back to butlers. The ever-innovative Tesla will introduce its "Autopilot" system in its Model S sedan later this year. Autopilot is inspired by Boeing's in-flight system where the operator never leaves the controls but where the plane is programmed to reach a destination. "It's better to have an optical system, basically cameras with software that is able to figure out what's going on just by looking at things," Tesla boss Elon Musk recently told Bloomberg of his idea for a more affordable hybrid of Google car and Audi A8 technologies. That is, a front and rear camera watching the road. Grille-mounted radar watching vehicles. An array of 12 electronic sensors blanketing the car and watching for everything else. I'd also propose a big, red "DISABLE" button for motorheads like me who enjoy cars. Like the A8L. Consider Audi's 3.0-liter turbo diesel-injection V-6 powerplant. Specs: 250 horsepower and a redonkulus 428 pound feet of torque. This thing has more thrust than Apollo 11. Floor the big German and it surges forward like Charles Barkley at a Shoney's buffet. But where's the diesel's wokka-wokka-wokka thrum? So quiet is the Audi cabin — so buttery smooth its drivetrain — that I actually had to pull over and open the hood to make sure it was a diesel. Exterior dress is Audi formal. Crisp shoulders creased like Brooks Brothers pants. Tuxedo black greenhouse cradling a moon roof with a gorgeous view of the stars for the rear lounge — er, seat - passengers. Which is where Mrs. Payne got comfortable. Caramel-smooth ride matched by caramel-soft leather thrones. Heated seat and climate controls in the center armrest. Wood-encrusted doors. Headrests fit for a beauty salon. Vanity mirrors drop from the ceiling. As do grab handles for when her husband dips into the neck-snapping torque and AWD handling. At the wheel I've decided I hate autonomous technology. Why let machines have all the fun? Only the telematics drives me nuts. I don't know which is worse — Audi's rotary dial or the mouse touch pad. In the time it takes to enter a nav destination I could be there. So here's the deal, machine. You set the A8L to where we need to go. Then I'll flog it like Secretariat's jockey getting us there. Everybody's happy. Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne as he reviews the latest toys every week. 2015 Audi A8 Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan Price: $85,100 base ($98,575 as tested) Power plant: 3.0-liter, turbodiesel V-6 Power: 240 horsepower, 428 pound-feet of torque Transmission: 8-speed automatic transmission with steering-mounted paddle shifters Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.3 seconds (manufacturer) Weight: 4,564 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 24 mpg city/36 mpg highway/28 mpg combined Report card Highs: Lounge-like comfort; Fuel-efficient stump-puller Lows: Autonomous features need a butler; Frivolous mouse pad takes up space Overall:★★★★
Posted by hpayne on April 16, 2015We're back in the appliance aisle this week. Looking for a reliable machine that will move family, haul groceries, get us to work, won't pillage the pocketbook. The automobile equivalent of a washing machine. Used to be the aisle was dominated by midsize sedans, but the options have expanded as taller, five-door utes have come to market. The brand names are familiar. Honda (CR-V), Toyota (RAV4), Chevy (Equinox). Durable. Bulletproof. Functional. What else do you need in a washing machine? Quite a bit, I'm happy to say. Midsize sedan appliances have suddenly gained attitude — like your fridge sprouted an exposed carbon-fiber handle or your washer spin cycle plays The Stones Greatest Hits. The Ford Fusion looks like an Aston Martin, the Chrysler 200 is a polished piece of rolling furniture, even Camry has grown a goatee. I like where this is going. Cars are more than appliances, after all — they're public avatars for us. Compact utes have also shed their toaster square image to stand out from the crowd. Ogle Jeep's bullet-nosed Cherokee or Ford's raked Escape. Or salute the GMC Terrain pickup-design swagger. But what if you're the athletic type? Got running shoes and compression pants in your locker? Break into a sweat at least once a day? Then you might like to try on the Mazda CX-5. Mazda, of course, has made athleticism — they call it "zoom-zoom" — their calling card. The Miata sports car is the most outgoing example of a lineup of vehicles that invites you to have fun on your way to the ATM appliance. "There's a little bit of Miata in every Mazda," company spokesman Tom McDonald likes to say. Mazda goes so far as the put its name on race tracks like Mazda Raceway in Laguna Seca, California where it provides a school of Miatas to train new disciples in zoom-zoom. But ask any Miata school attendee for weekend highlights and they will mention the van tour of the fearsome, roller-coaster-like Laguna, one of America's most daunting tracks. After one door-handle-leaning, tire squalling, pro-instructor-piloted lap, you will never look at a four-row, commercial van the same way again. The all-wheel-drive Mazda CX-5 is like that. Make sure the eggs are out of the backseat and have a ball. The Mazda DNA is there. The crisp steering. Predictable chassis. Athletic good looks. That big Mazda grille is grinning for a reason. Introduced in 2014, the 2016 CX-5 showed up for spring training this year looking fitter (tweaked face, LED tail-lights) and with more options than ever. It could be a contender for best all-around ute. Could be. Readers of this column know that I'm a fan of the Ford Escape. Its total package is the benchmark for the segment – a delicious confection of style, high-tech, innovation, and options. The Escape doesn't match the CX-5's handsome face (where's that signature Aston grille, Ford?) but, like the Mazda, its body is surprisingly toned for a ute. Aggressive stance, strong shoulders, car-like style. That panache continues inside with the class's most sculpted interior. Dash instruments are artfully packaged in chrome and matte-black surfaces. The Mazda is sooo Honda CR-V-like. Practical but lacking in the unique appeal that attracted you in the first place. The interior is roomy in front and back for sequoias like me. Empty-nesters tempted by the growing subcompact ute class may reconsider once they have tried a wider, compact ute. Ample center storage space awaits and you aren't wedged in so tightly with your seatmate that you can smell what kind of omelet they had for breakfast. Mazda matches the Ford standard for fold-flat rear seats (others class entries are content with seats that ALMOST fold all the way down) and even introduces remote buttons so you can flatten the seats from the back hatch. But that assumes you weren't already miffed that the Mazda doesn't have the Escape's nifty "kick to open" rear hatch feature — a must for egg crate-carrying grocery shoppers. Even the luxe Audi A8 has copied this Ford innovation. But the engine bay is where the Mazda is curiously zoomless-zoomless. Where the Escape offers a trifecta of engine choices — 1.6-liter turbo, 2.5-liter, and a punchy, 240-horsepower 2.0-liter turbo, the Mazda offers but two normally-aspirated mills: A 155 horsepower, 2.0-liter base engine and the 2.5-liter, 184-horsepower gas-burner found in the Mazda 6 sedan. Nail it and you'll pine for a turbo's quiet torque. The CX-5's 2.5 is a buzz-saw — invading an otherwise quiet cabin. Rumored is a diesel option down the road ... The narrow power plant options are especially curious coming from one of the world's most innovative engine makers. My ears are still buzzing from Mazda's historic 1991 24 Hours of LeMans win in which a non-piston-powered sports car won for the first time in history. Mazda's unmuffled rotary engine created such a racket off the front straight grandstands that a generation of Frenchmen now wear hearing aids. A more civilized rotary powered Mazda's sensational RX for years (more sports car DNA), but Mazda's recent green push — dubbed SKYACTIVE — has been largely one-dimensional. SKYACTIVE technology is green and sexy — but like Ford's signature "Ecoboost" play to the green elites, it could co-exist with more horses. Perhaps I protest too much. That buzzy four only temporarily distracts from a startlingly good value that starts a grand below the Escape. The CX-5's embarrassment of standard riches — cross-traffic alert, blind spot monitoring, collision-brake support, 7-inch touchscreen, full-body massage (just kidding about that last one) — can't be found on a Porsche Macan crossover at more than twice its cost. My "Blue Reflex Mica" tester had a standard features list as long as a CVS Pharmacy receipt — plus moonroof — yet stickered for less than 29-grand. Its 22-grand base bests Honda and Toyota even as its Consumer Reports score is neck-and-neck with its better known Japanese rivals. I'm grateful for the CX-5. The appliance aisle needs its special sauce. Not everyone wants Honda-Toyota-Chevy mayonnaise. The CX-5 won't challenge Big Appliance for best sales numbers but it forces them — witness Honda's lovely new CR-V — to add some nuts and fudge to its recipe. Now if we can just entice Mazda into commercial vans. Zoom-zoom. 2016 Mazda CX-5 Vehicle type: Front-engine, front and all-wheel drive, five-passenger sport utility vehicle Price: $22,465 base ($28,835 AWD as tested) Power plant: 2.0-liter, inline-4 cylinder; 2.5-liter, inline-4 Power: 155 horsepower, 150 pound-feet of torque (2.0L); 184 horsepower, 185 pound-feet of torque (2.5L) Transmission: 6-speed automatic transmission Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.3 seconds (Car & Driver est. 2.5-liter); towing capacity as tested: 2,000 pounds Weight: 3,550 pounds (AWD as tested) Fuel economy: EPA 26 mpg city/35 mpg highway/29 mpg combined (2.0L); EPA 24 mpg city/30 mpg highway/26 mpg combined (AWD 2.5L tested) Report card Highs: Playful for a ute; standard is loaded with extras Lows: Uninspired dash; sporty engine to match sporty chassis, please Overall:★★★
Posted by hpayne on April 10, 2015For most of us, a family weekend in the car means a quiet trip Up North with Dad at the helm of the Suburban and the kids buried in their iPods in the backseat. It’s a little different for the Taylor family. One of motor racing’s most prominent tribes, the Taylors spend their weekends in loud, cramped vehicles doing up to 200 mph. When the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship roars onto Belle Isle next month for the Chevrolet Sports Car Classic – sharing the show bill with the Verizon IndyCar Series – the Taylors will be a favorite to spray champagne in victory lane. Dad Wayne Taylor, 58, is an endurance racing legend, a two-time Daytona 24-Hour winner. But these days, Pops is in the backseat (that would be a metaphor. There is no backseat in a 600-horsepower Corvette DP missile) balancing the books of Wayne Taylor Racing, while his hot-shoe sons – Ricky, 25, and Jordan, 23 – take turns at the wheel. In motorsports culture family dynasties make the Clintons and Bushes look like pikers. Andretti, Unser, Rahal, Petty, Earnhardt, and more have dominated the pit lane over the years. But Ricky and Jordan are rare siblings who pilot Dad’s wheels. Only drag racing’s formidable Force clan – John and daughters Courtney and Brittany – compare. The boys seem to have had a normal childhood. Which is to say, soccer was their first sport. “We grew up (in Florida) around racetracks, but until we were 10 we weren’t really that interested,” says Jordan, the bespectacled one. “We’d be at the track but we would always have a soccer ball to kick around.” But they had oil in their veins. Eventually, the track called. Beginning with go-karts. “It was very low key at the start,” says Ricky. “Not until we were 12-13 did we get our own kart. My Dad started spending more time with us, and that’s how we got more serious about it.” They climbed the podium fast. Barber open-wheel racing, Formula 2000, prototype sports cars. At the improbable age of 18, Rick Taylor joined his father to race a Sun Trust Bank-sponsored, Pontiac Riley prototype in the Rolex 24-Hours of Daytona. Sixteen-year old Jordan made the trip too – entered with a different team in the GT class. Heady stuff. Goosebumps for Dad. “Now, if we can just get my wife, Shelly, in the pace car, we can have the have the entire Taylor family in the race,” quipped Wayne at the time. For the next few years the boys came and went like teenagers do. Rick left the team nest. Jordan came on board in 2013. Then finally, last year, Taylor racing was family. In a sport where team-mates often feud more than speak, the close Taylor boys are more like an Olympic two-man bobsled team. Teamwork. Teamwork. Teamwork. “We’ve never been that competitive with each other which is good because you can take the ego out of it,” Jordan says. “On any weekend if Ricky is faster than me then we used that to our advantage. We‘re talking to each other.” It didn’t take long to nab their first win. Right here in Detroit last May. “For a street course it’s really good,” says Jordan of the twisty Belle Isle circuit. “It’s fast and wide, and compared to Long Beach its miles better. Not as bumpy.” Detroit has better roads than California? Refreshing to hear. “This is a big event for us, especially being the Corvette team with GM headquarters right here,” adds Ricky looking out over a barren Belle Isle when I interviewed the brothers in early March. The place looks different without the leaves of May. Or pit stalls. Or grandstands. But the Taylors came here in winter because racing is about more than driving fast. It’s sponsor dinners, series promotion, and missionary work. The boys love the missionary work. They want other kids to know what a great career racing can be. This day they have proselytized to a rapt audience at Cody High School’s Detroit Institute of Technology. “We were introduced to the sport really young,” says Ricky. “When we were in school other kids didn’t know what we were talking about. It’s cool . . . to share our experience with Cody kids and talk about the technology transfer between the school and what they can apply to the motor sports industry.” They’re still learning themselves. Like how to run the family business someday. “Dad always talks about retiring,” smiles Ricky. “But I don’t think he’s anywhere close to that. It’s hard for him to keep busy outside racing right now.” That, and he’s having too much fun on family road trips.
Posted by hpayne on April 9, 2015Left-lane lollygaggers drive me crazy. Americans take hours of driver's ed classes with instructions to travel in the right lanes unless they need to pass. Then we get our driver's license, develop instant amnesia, and spend the rest of our lives in the left lane driving like snails with a tail of road rage in our mirrors. Say hello to the cures for the common lollygagger: The Porsche Panamera S and Audi S7 four-door coupes. A brief sketch of the "four-door coupe" is in order. It's a freak of nature. An oxymoron. A rare breed of sedan that includes the e-mazing — if distance-limited — Tesla Model S that I fell hard for last year. Or the achingly gorgeous, painfully pricey Aston Martin Rapide. Like Grace Kelly, it offers unmatched beauty afforded only by Monaco royalty. At half the price of the Aston with twice the range of a Tesla, the Panamera S and S7 may be the best all-around athletes in the auto gymnasium. The performance variants of the already potent Panamera and A7 models, the Panamera S and S7 share their siblings' gorgeous lines and lush interiors. Just add steroids. About 420 horsepower will do. These thoroughbreds were raised on the German Autobahn where they cruise comfortably in the left lane at 120 mph in a disciplined automotive culture where lollygaggers are locked away for life. On this side of the pond these lithe sprinters will find the fast lane clogged with obstacles — like Usain Bolt stumbling upon a pack of 1,500-meter runners mid-dash. One second you're zipping along, then — bam! — your grille's full of L.L. Lollygagger III talking to his broker at 55 mph. Drive the Porsche and Audi home in heavy traffic and they will grow more impatient than Chris Christie at a vegetarian buffet. Cruising at 55 with the left-lane lollies feels like standing still. If the duo were sharks they would suffocate. No problem. Move to the right lane, punch the throttle, and surge forward like an F-14 shot off a carrier deck. It's hard to decide which cure I'd recommend more. On the Lodge, the S7 ate traffic like a humpback whale feeding in a school of plankton. One gulp and they're gone. The S7's insane, turbocharged, 420-horse V-8 has more torque than anything this side of a Tesla. The electric car-like kick is enhanced by the high-tech, cocoon-quiet interior. Its heads-up display and Google Earth nav system are futuristic. Its pin-striped accents, chrome cupholders, and quilted seats are boardroom luxe. Even with the V-8 engine exhaust set to DYNAMIC (other options: NORMAL and COMFORT), the rocket's thrust sounds distant, muffled. The landscape moves past your windows as if you had pressed a fast-forward button — dizzyingly fast, but silent. The Panamera has other ideas. This is a Porsche after all. Start button on the left side of the steering wheel. Instrument cluster with tac front and center. Quirky, fold-out cup holders. The Panamera is posh — but with 60 years of racing heritage at your fingertips. Literally. The Porsche has more buttons than an airliner cockpit. Want SPORT or SPORT PLUS mode? Hit the button. Want to hear the roar of your 420-horse twin turbo as it devours lollygaggers? Push the "dual exhaust" avatar and open the gates of Hell. Springing to the right of a herd of lollygaggers on the Left Coast's arching San Diego Coronado Bridge, my Panamera tester erupted with a roar that sounded like Cerberus gargling with razor blades. The speedo spiked as I launched up the five-lane span, the exhaust barking with each lightning-quick paddle shift. If I had kept my foot in it I surely could have hurdled downtown San Diego and returned to Earth near Palm Springs. And attracted every cop west of Vegas. The 3.0-liter, twin-turbo V-6 replaces the previous gen V-8 — but, thanks to the exhaust special effects, it retains much of the eight-holer's aural pleasure. Porsche styling is behind the eight-ball compared to the S7, but Porsche if it cares. No. It's about tradition. A motorhead pal quips that the Panamera looks like a 911 stretch limo. The 911 sports car is Porsche's signature. The iconic, fast-backed shape. The countless racing titles. Vehicle styling trends come and go, but the 911 is the Rock of Gibraltar, impervious to the winds of time. Porsche might have called the Panamera the 911 sedan, but this is no 911. The Panamera kicks the engine from the rear to the front. The addition of two, surprisingly roomy rear seats interrupts the coupe-like greenhouse, making the sedan appear butt-heavy. It's attractive like Kim Kardashian — if you don't mind the caboose. The effect is unmistakably Porsche, however, and — along with the Cayenne SUV — has hugely expanded the sports car maker's consumer demographic from motorhead to luxe. In a Birmingham parking lot recently I asked a well-dressed gentleman emerging from his Panamera what engine he had under the hood — a question every 911 owner could instantly answer. He had no idea — and admitted he didn't know what was under the hood of his wife'sPanamera either. Porsche is smiling all the way to the bank. The S7, meanwhile, reaches for motorheads beyond Audi's core luxe buyer. Squint hard and an Audi A4 bears a family resemblance to the VW Jetta. The 7 is a breed all its own. Its sloping ducktail is revered. That pretty new Chevy Malibu unveiled in New York? Audi S7 inspired. Ditto the fast-backed Ford Fusion. If you want the prettiest four-door coupe, buy the S7. If you want a four-door Porsche, the Panamera is your drug. Allow me to recommend all-wheel-drive in both. Despite their slender lines, these coupes are heavyweights, tipping the scales over 4,500 pounds. Driven hard, my rear-wheel-drive Panamera could be a handful, its long front end in a different time zone from the rear. For $5,100, the Panamera 4S adds AWD. The S7 is the bargain with AWD standard. Ah, handling. It makes these predators enjoyable even after you've left the expressway. After a long squawk up north on I-75, take a left at Gaylord and treat your S-of-choice to the S turns of Route M-32. Just hope the lollygaggers don't exit with you. 2015 Porsche Panamera S Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, four-passenger sport sedan Price: $93,200 base ($116,140 as tested) Power plant: 3.0-liter, twin-turbo V-6 Power: 420 horsepower, 384 pound-feet of torque Transmission: 7-speed PDK automatic transmission with steering-mounted paddle shifters Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.6 seconds (manufacturer) Weight: 4,586 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 17 mpg city/27 mpg highway/21 mpg combined Report card Highs: Comfy backseat buckets; engine special effects Lows: Old-school European, fold-out cupholders; price Overall:★★★ 2015 Audi S7 Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, four-passenger sport sedan Price: $82,500 base ($88,875 as tested) Power plant: 4.0-liter, turbocharged V-8 Power: 420 horsepower, 406 pound-feet of torque Transmission: 7-speed automatic transmission with steering-mounted paddle shifters Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.5 seconds (manufacturer) Weight: 4,508 pounds base Fuel economy: EPA 17 mpg city/27 mpg highway/20 mpg combined Report card Highs: Gorgeous; liquid-smooth power Lows: Tedious, rotary dial-operated infotainment screen; steering-stalk triplets can confuse Overall:★★★★
Posted by hpayne on April 6, 2015New York votes as blue as California but it isn’t as green. New Yorkers like to think they are saving the polar bear — look, we have Prius cabs! — but when it comes to cars, they are as politically incorrect as we purple state, ute-addicted Midwesterners. California’s status symbol is Tesla, New York’s is Mercedes. As BMW North America President Ludwig Willisch said about electric vehicles: “(New Yorkers) couldn’t care less.” These stereotypes play out on the U.S. auto show circuit. The Detroit Auto Show is the All-American, muscle car and truck-palooza. Los Angeles preens green. New York showcases luxury. We aren’t the Motor City for nothing. Cars are Michigan religion. We put the world on wheels and worship men like Ford, Dodge and Shelby. Green is California’s faith. Carbon is a sin and natives frown on gas-guzzlers like Puritans on Hester Prynne. New York? New York’s creed is money. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. If you can’t, you commute from Jersey. New York is so expensive that, if I put an Escalade on blocks, I could rent it out for $8,000 a month as a penthouse apartment. One of my book editors at Penguin Random House — the world’s largest publisher, with its headquarters on Broadway — lives on Manhattan’s east side. Without children. She says only One Percenters can afford to raise kids in Manhattan. The middle class lives in north Jersey. Or Long Island. Space is simply too expensive. Just down the street from the Javits Center (the sprawling convention complex that hosts New York’s show on Manhattan’s west side), a new development is rising with condos for sale between $2 million and $21 million. Twenty-one million for a condo? You could buy all of northeast Detroit for $21 mil. The Big Apple is choked with million-dollar cribs. With $1,000-a-month parking underneath. So it’s no wonder that the Javits Center show floor caters to luxury. If you want to introduce a luxe sedan, sports car or SUV, New York is your bazaar. Walk onto Javits main floor and luxury chariots abound. There are Rolls Royces and Maseratis and Aston Martins. Acres of Astons. The classic Vanquish. The four-door Rapide. The track-pulverizing Vulcan. James Bond’s jaw would drop. Surrounding the Aston corral is Porsche, Lamborghini, Koenigsegg, Bugatti, and McLaren. Heck, McLaren — which makes nothing under $185 grand — has its own stand. Last year it sold fewer than 500 cars in the U.S., probably to a block of $21 million condo owners. I wonder what you would do with a 1,200-horsepower, 268-mph Bugatti Veyron in Manhattan. In cross-town traffic it’s not going to get you to LaGuardia any quicker than a Chevy Tahoe. And it won’t have room for your luggage. I haven’t seen these cars on Cobo’s floor in years. (They usually have an exclusive, off-site casino showing.) In New York the luxe divisions of mainstream companies — Lincoln, Cadillac, Lexus — split from their corporate parents to show off for the gold chain crowd. “Ford? Never heard of it. The name’s Lincoln Continental III, Esquire. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Trump.” The mainstream brands still share the palatial main floor — like coach sharing the same plane with first class. Indeed, the Ford GT and Chevy Corvette Z06 would stomp most Astons. But pickups are relegated to the basement. The only people who drive pickups in Manhattan are condo construction crews. And then there’s third class. The North Hall. Walk out the door from the main floor. Down the North Concourse. Through the connector to North Hall from North Concourse. Or you could take a cab. It’s as if Cobo’s Detroit show also used Joe Louis Arena for exhibit space. Four automakers are stuck in North Hall Siberia: Mitsubishi, Fiat, Scion and Subaru. They make small, affordable vehicles. You know, bought by people who commute in from Jersey.
Posted by hpayne on April 2, 2015We are fascinated by identical twins. The Zuckerberg-suing Winklevosses. The adorable Olsens. The tennis-playing Bryans. And we like twins with a bit of mystery. Did you know that gorgeous supermodel Gisele Bündchen is a twin? Did you see the twins twist coming in the magician film classic, "The Prestige"? Me neither. We've watched the careers of autodom's twins. Mercury and Ford. Dodge and Chrysler. Chevy and Olds and Pontiac and Buick (um, that's actually quadruplets, isn't it?) But the mystery duo of the moment are the Koreans, Hyundai and Kia. The pair share a corporate parent (Hyundai), U.S. assembly plant (Georgia), and chassis — yet this is hardly a Bryan-like, high-fiving, doubles team. Indeed, they barely acknowledge each other. When I ask Hyundai and Kia about the other, they are curt. "We view them as a direct competitor, just like Honda or Toyota," a Kia rep says. Feel a chill, bro? Yet, like the Bryans, parent Hyundai is proud of its kids. They are affordable. Reliable. Both are celebrating record sales as they slake America's insatiable thirst for everything ute. Take the Kia Sorento I've been flogging about town. The Sorento is an all-new 2016 model following the all-new, 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe. Midsize utes are cargo haulers, so I was pleased my test mule was equipped with a V-6 engine and AWD. Want a 4-pot fuel-sipper? Buy a compact SUV. Like its crib-mate, Sorento delivers family-friendly, midsize utility. Yet only theatrical parents would dress their twins the same after, say, their second birthday. Twins need a chance to breathe. A chance to find their own identities. Sorento and Santa Fe are no different. Kia has traditionally been the more affordable brand, and — sho'nuff as they say in Georgia — the Sorento V-6 is the bargain buy at $31,890 base. That's almost $2,000 less than sister Fe (I'm mixing brother and sister metaphors, so humor me). Similarly equipped Toyota Highlander or class-sales leader Ford Explorer will command another $500-1,000 above that. Yet Sorento is no Cinderella in rags. It sports a striking wardrobe compared to stepsister Santa Fe. Leather seats. Nav system. Lots of digital bling like Bluetooth connectivity, blind-spot assist, rear-camera assist, and so on. In fact, the swankiest trim Sorento Limited stickers for $44,890 — six grand north of Santa Fe Limited. My steed stickered at $40,595. Sorento is like walking into Pei Wei and finding the same decor and menu as upscale sister-chain P.F. Chang's. Seems the sisters have similar tastes. The names tell you something. Santa Fe gets its moniker from the chic New Mexico burg. Not to be outdone, the Kia borrows its name from Sorrento, chic Italian tourist trap (dropping one r for some reason). Kia likes the European market and its badge was conspicuous on my last trip across the pond. Sorento's European pretentions are more than just a subscription to Elle. Kia hired Audi fashion legend Peter Schreyer to bring flair to the Korean brand. The result is a family of distinctive, "tiger-nosed," grilles with sleek sheet metal. My Sorento greeted me with spreading mirrors and a chime upon entering the cabin. Red calipers wink at me behind the snowflake-shaped wheels like the trendy, red-bottom heels of Paris runways. Well, hello. The charm offensive continues inside. The instrument cluster is right out of Schreyer's VW/Audi stylebook — white on black dials, chrome accents. Pepper and salt interior decor, leather stitching. Nice. I like to jump into a test car and test its ergonomics on the fly. Controls should be intuitive, and everything in the Sorento is where it should be. Here's to you, interior design team. Sorento may speak with a European accent, but it's fluent in American ergonomics. The console is shorn of the worst Euro bad habits (looking at you, Audi) of button acne or rotary screen controls. Chrome-bezeled islands holding the controls like the Dodge Challenger. The upright touch screen is easy to reach (not all drivers have orangutan arms like your scribe). Radio stations, seat heaters, climate dials, gas cap release, USB and 12-volt plugs are all right in front of me. Kia offers a new eService called UVO that — among other things — will play nanny to your teen-driver on speed and curfew. Which they might find more annoying than the Olsen twins' fashion line. Mrs. Payne has embraced nimble hatchbacks in our empty-nest years, but the Sorento might have been tempting back in her soccer-mom days. Especially since it offers her essentials: AWD, heated seats, third-row seats. She'd prefer the roomy second row be captain's chairs — easier rugrat access to the third-row — but credit an available, full-cabin length sunroof in making that last row seem less basement-like. Step 'round back and that third row can be flattened — together with the second — with clever switches that open up maximum, I-hope-this-big-screen-TV-fits cargo space. Wrap all this in a quiet cabin and it's no wonder that the Korean twins sell more midsize utes (210,000 in 2014 even before the new Sorento debuts) than any other car company outside Ford's dominant Explorer and Edge tag team. With its European style and car-like chassis, the Sorento is a reminder — not just in how far Korean vehicles have come — but in how far SUVs have come. Though not as firm as the crisp Edge, I drove Sorento around town with the confidence of a sedan. When your friends get all teary about the good ol' days, remind them what land yachts SUVs used to be like. Only the drivetrain betrays the Sorento's discount price. The 6-speed auto tranny has all of the finesse — YUMP! — of a garden tractor. The touchy accelerator doesn't roll on so much as — YIP! — jerk the machine to life. Upshifts came as abruptly — YUNK! — as a mule kick. Happily, the 290-horse, 3.3-liter V-6 provides plenty of muscle to move the Sorento's 4,343 pounds. I wouldn't want to be at the dinner table with the Korean twins. The brands are spending daddy's money following the same business strategy: More high-margin utes, more brand-polishing, upscale, luxury cars. And while Hyundai attracts a higher income demographic, the Sorento's youthful styling is turning more heads. Naturally, then, Hyundai has appointed Kia's Schreyer to be its designer as well. The twins are dating the same stylist? Let the fur fly. Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. 2016 Kia Sorento Vehicle type: Front-engine, front and all-wheel drive, seven-passenger sport utility vehicle Price: $25,795 base ($40,595 AWD V-6 as tested) Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbo inline-4 cylinder; 2.4-liter, inline-4; 3.3-liter V-6 Power: 185 horsepower, 178 pound-feet of torque (4-cyl); 240 horsepower, 260 pound-feet of torque (turbo 4-cyl); 290 horsepower, 252 pound-feet of torque (V-6) Transmission: 6-speed automatic transmission Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.8 seconds (Car & Driver est. V-6); towing capacity as tested: 5,000 pounds Weight: 3,704 pounds base (4,343 AWD as tested) Fuel economy: (all figures with AWD) EPA 19 mpg city/25 mpg highway/22 mpg combined (4-cyl); EPA 21 mpg city/26 mpg highway/23 mpg combined (turbo 4-cyl); EPA 18 mpg city/26 mpg highway/21 mpg combined (V-6) Report card Highs: Versatile, three-row player; intuitive console Lows: Jerky drivetrain; looks chunkier than Santa Fe twin Overall:★★★
Posted by hpayne on March 31, 2015If you loved Kenner Products' remote control "Ricochet" toy car as a kid and covet the new Ford Edge as an adult, meet Kevin George. He designed both. George, exterior design manager for the 2015 Edge crossover, came to Ford through an unusual route: the toy business. For a dozen years, he designed some of the most beloved toys on kids' wish lists — Ricochet, "Jurassic Park" movie figures, "Batman" vehicles, NASCAR models — for Kenner before he realized his life's dream and crossed over to the auto industry in 2001 to sculpt cars. Where he once worked closely with Hollywood legend Steven Spielberg on Jurassic Park vehicle designs, he now pens cars for the legendary Blue Oval. "The passion that kids had for their toys — I want them to grow up and have that same passion for their cars," says the 48-year-old, who has just completed a media tour for the Edge as it debuts in dealer showrooms this month. Growing up in Kettering, Ohio, Kevin George's passion for autos started young. His father, a General Motors engineer, brought home a steady diet of development vehicles. He learned the language of car design. The lights. The lines. His friends wanted to play baseball or soccer. "I wanted to draw cars," he says. But when it came time to choose a university, the budding designer eschewed the traditional auto design factories of Detroit's College for Creative Studies or California'sArt Center College of Design. He chose the University of Cincinnati. Once more, he learned from his father. "He encouraged me to get an industrial design degree because he said I can always get a product design job," reflects George. "He warned me that the auto business was very cyclical." After graduation in 1987, George took his "book" — portfolio — to Cincinnati's Kenner, a little toy company once known for Play-Doh and Easy Bake Ovens that had struck pay dirt by landing the "Star Wars" contract to produce action figures. The Hollywood connection was a gold mine for Kenner as it became the go-to company for movie merchandise. Nearly every movie project had vehicles and young George lobbied for the assignment. His first project: "Ghostbusters" in 1989. Then came Jurassic Park. "We gave away free movie design work," laughs George, because the lead time on making toys — design, materials, Chinese production, shipment to market — was longer than making a movie. So George and his team became de facto designers for Spielberg props like the park's tour trucks. George read Michael Crichton's original novels. Worked with Hollywood designers. Spielberg came to Cincinnati. "The trucks were initially based on the Ford Explorer. But I didn't like the vehicles, so we did a different design," remembers George, aware of the irony that he's now a Ford designer. He changed the roofs to clear glass. Added numbers. Spielberg approved. Other blockbusters followed. Batman. NASCAR. The game-changing, all-wheel drive "Ricochet" design that introduced a remote control car that would always land on its feet — saving kids the trouble of rescuing cars turtled on their roofs. The Ricochet, as its packaging promised, was "virtually unstoppable." But George's toy design career was not. Kenner was bought by Hasbro. The Cincinnati division was closed and George took a different job in Rhode Island. The "non-cyclical" product design industry had suddenly hit a cycle. George faced a crossroads. "My wife asked me: 'What is it that you want?' " he recalls. "'Follow your dream.'" Ricochet's designer sent his book of toy vehicle designs to Ford North America Design Director Moray Callum — including a hot rod, '32 Ford split window. "I think he liked that car," smiles George. He was hired. His first assignment: chief interior designer for the 2005 Mustang. Now that's hitting the ground running. "It's great to have designers that come from a different background on our team," says George's boss, Chris Svensson, design director of the Americas. "They bring a different perspective to addressing a design challenge. It ensures we are evaluating every possibility." George never looked back. He worried that car design might be different, more high-tech. But he's found that while the tools have evolved — CAD computer design, Oculus Rift virtual reality helmets — craftsmanship remains paramount. "They do things the same way we did at Kenner," he says. "With a movie toy you ask yourself: 'What is the core fantasy of this film?' With a car it's the same. 'What is it that people like about a '67 Mustang?' I knew what to do. I knew how to capture the essence of the Mustang.'" The same principle applied to remaking the Edge, a pioneer of the crossover segment and one of Ford's most familiar shapes. "Just because you can change everything doesn't mean you should," he says of a design that integrates Ford sedan family cues like a Taurus-like grill and Fusion-like taillights — yet retains Edge's signature, sculpted stance. George says he particularly enjoyed working on Edge's full-size clay model in the design studio, carving out big scoops of clay from the ute's slab sides to give it a leaner look. Playing with clay. Drawing cars. Just like when he was a kid. He's living his dream.
Posted by hpayne on March 30, 2015Lincoln just crashed the swank, 2016 New York Auto Show. This was supposed to be the Cadillac CT6’s party, meticulously planned since the debutant’s elegant coming out at the Super Bowl. But with the quiet of a Lockheed stealth fighter and the beauty of Cinderella, the Lincoln Continental Concept stormed New York Monday with the new face of Lincoln. Goodbye elegant bow wave, hello bold center grille. Get use to that term. Bold. Bold, bold. It’s a term that has been sorely missing in Lincoln’s lexicon. Where the wispy, waterfall, winged-grille of recent vintage has struggled to find friends, the bold new face and slab sides of the Continental are a return to American muscle. Or maybe English muscle. The powerful lines of the big sedan harken back to prez limos – but also echo the powerful face and loins of, say, the Bentley Continental GTS. There are lots of familiar, exterior design cues here from the Acura-like, LED spider eyes to the Kia “tiger-nose” grille to the signature, horizontal, Lincoln tail. But the Continental is more than a new face. Its cutting edge rear seats (Asian executives are high-fiving right now) are 30-way, 11-bladder, reclining thrones fit for a king. Or at least The Donald. Will this be the new direction that reignites a stale brand? Lincoln could have totally reinvented itself as a digital-age, cutting edge, electric-maker. But Green Elon Musk beat Green Bill Ford to market with the Tesla Model S, the most exciting American luxe car in memory (it must be galling to Ford’s green scion that Musk even stole his great grandfather’s “Model T” badge language). So Lincoln has chosen to go back to the future instead. Continental resurrected – powered by 3.0-liter Ecoboost. Ford is getting good at this stealth stuff. Remember the shocking reveal of the LeMans-bound, GT supercar at the Detroit Auto Show? And don’t be confused by that “concept” label. One look at the finished, signature Lincoln, push-button console and this beast looks ready for the street. Expect it to roll into showrooms next year as Lincoln’s flagship sedan. (Photo courtesy of Lincoln Motor Co.) Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Follow him on Twitter @HenryEPayne. WEB: http://www.detroitnews.com/staff/27083/henry-payne/. EMAIL: firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted by hpayne on March 28, 2015"Everything goes better with bacon." Everyone has their own favorite condiment. Some folks like bacon. Others ketchup. My favorite is guacamole. Sure, it's popular with chips. But a smear will improve just about anything from burgers to beans. All-wheel drive is like that on autos. Racers know that AWD is the supreme advantage — which is why it is banned in most forms of motorsport. For off-roaders, AWD is a must. Jeep swears by it. AWD gives modern supercars better grip off the line. But like guacamole, I find AWD valuable beyond its traditional places. Everything goes better with AWD. Take the 2015 Chevy Trax I've been driving. It's one of a herd of subcompact SUVs that has carved out a new segment right before our eyes. It's hip. It's growing. It attracts young people to the brand. It's . . . sooooo boring. Don't get me wrong. I don't mean "boring" as in nothing to offer. The Trax is cute. Loaded with amenities. A very practical entry-level car. But its highest purpose is affordable transportation. It only comes with a 138 horse, 1.4-liter turbo engine, for goodness sake. It has the low-end torque of a gerbil wheel. I've seen better 0-60 times from lawn tractors. It moves slower than the last two minutes of an NFL championship game. And without a sporty, SS version there's no horsepower savior on the horizon. But opt for the Trax's affordable, $1,500, AWD option and this unsalted cracker comes to life. Throw the Trax into a 90-degree right-hander and it rotates like a champ. Like Dumbo on skis, it slides, but stays on course. The more you do it, the more addictive it becomes. At 3,208 pounds (700 pounds lighter than a BMW X1!) the Trax is predictable, throwable — its weight never causing undue body roll despite its upright stance. The experience heightens your senses and awakens you to the metal egg's other idiosyncrasies. Like storage. The Trax has more hiding places than a jewel thief. Two smart phone holders on either side of the center stack — a lidded compartment above it. Two gloveboxes like a VW Bug. Slide your hand under the passenger seat and a drawer pops out. The doors contain more bins. If my kids were little, we'd do Easter egg hunts in the Trax. Now play "Find the USB." For all the storage Trax offers it only provides one USB port to recharge your phone. Where would you put it? Behind the shifter? Above the console? The upper glovebox? Bingo. The only place the Trax doesn't have a storage is between the seats because the Trax is so darn narrow. My long knees and tall noggin are comfortable in the front chairs, but put another tall guy next to me and it's claustrophobic. Like airline seats that share an arm rest, you'll be fighting for elbow room the whole trip. If you're overweight, forget it. Mike&Molly couldn't do their show in this car. Molly would have to sit in the back seat. At least she wouldn't create visibility issues. The Trax already has the worst blind sport in any small vehicle I've driven. The president's energy policy doesn't have blind sports this big. Mind the (standard) rear park-assist camera or you'll be backing over your mailbox every two weeks. Technology is a mixed bag. The 4G LTE Wi-Fi hot spot is brilliant. Infotainment ergonomics not so much. The touch screen is slow, the ON-OFF button is Son of Cadillac Cue. It's so vague, I nearly broke my finger jabbing at it. But all is forgiven when I fling the AWD bowling ball through another bend. Subcompacts were never this much fun. Remember them? Cars like the Chevy Sonic get good gas mileage. Front wheel drive. No AWD. Booooring. But add bacon and guacamole and it's transformed. Here's the Trax recipe: Take Chevy Sonic chassis. Jack it up. Add AWD. Call it a ute. Bang! You're selling 4,000 a month. Just like the Buick Encore. Buick gets the premium crowd, but the Trax is plenty of subcompact for $4 grand less. It sports a surprising amount of rear room — even for giraffes like me — thanks to its hatchback configuration. Need storage? Flatten the front and rear seats and you can throw in a dining table. Which we'll need for that Final Four feast we're planning. Pot luck style. I'll bring the guacamole. Can someone bring 50 more horsepower for the Trax? 2015 Chevrolet Trax Vehicle type: Front-engine, front and all-wheel drive, five-passenger SUV Price: $20,995 base ($27,405 LZ AWD as tested) Power plant: 1.4-liter, turbo inline 4-cylinder Power: 138 horsepower, 148 pound-feet of torque Transmission: 6-speed automatic Performance: 0-60 mph, 9.4 seconds (Car & Driver) Weight: 3,048 pounds base (3,283 AWD as tested) Fuel economy: EPA 24 mpg city/31 mpg highway/27 mpg combined Report card Highs: LOL AWD fun; Storage galore Lows: Vague screen controls; Accleration of a garden snail Overall:★★★
Posted by hpayne on March 26, 2015I have a soft spot for pizza, and one of my favorite pie joints is Primo's, a small Birmingham convenience store just around the corner from the luxe showrooms of Auto Europe and Fred Lavery Porsche-Audi. Primo's has been in business since the Cretaceous Period, and its loyal, crusty employees have seen a world of exotics drive by their big, front window. I have come to their store in countless vehicles. I pick up my box, exchange pleasantries, head back to my ride. But a recent visit was different. The cashier couldn't take his eyes off the Polaris White, Jaguar XF I had parked in front. "Wow, that's a pretty car," he ogled. Yes it is. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. The Ford Fusion copied the Aston Martin's grille because the Brit-mobile has the best-looking face in the business. Tesla copied the XF sedan's profile for its Model S sedan because the Jag sets the standard for four-door beauty. Like its animal namesake, the Jaguar's blunt nose is the only feature on this cat that isn't poetry in motion. Narrow headlights sweep around the front corners. Curvy, chrome, lower-air intake accents frame the face like cat whiskers. From this crouched cowl, the vehicle's body angles upwards across muscular wheel haunches, meeting a tapered roof in one of the auto kingdom's most admired rumps. This column's reader comments are often peppered with comments scolding me for reviewing 60 grand chariots afforded by the fatted few. But rolling sculptures like the XF are the industry's artistic standard. A young architect studying Frank Lloyd Wright may not re-create Fallingwater, but he can transform neighborhoods with attractive, affordable, Prairie style housing. So too the Jag. Its first-class taste inspires every segment. There's the aforementioned Fusion with a fastback that is oh-so-XF-like. Or the forthcoming Chevy Malibu which GM has teased with an XF-like (or is it Audi A7-like?) silhouette. My tennis game pales compared to Pete Sampras, but my serve benefits from mimicking his classic stroke. Seems the 2015 Jaguar XF I've been flying around in has done a little mimicking of its own. Truth be told, despite Jaguar cars' Gwyneth Paltrow-good looks, they had always left me cold. Detroit-winter cold. Back when the brand was part of the Ford stable, I felt sorry for Blue Oval execs slip-slopping through Detroit winters in their rear-wheel drive, two-ton Jag sleds. Like Gwyneth in high heels on ice, winter driving in Jaguars seemed an exercise in caution. Where's the joy in that? But since the English cat was freed from Ford's zoo, the beast has thrived in the backyard of India's Tata. Jaguar is shedding its caricature as a rolling, wood-paneled London business office — with handling to match. Jaguar introduced the snarling, V-8, all-aluminum F-Type coupe. Then the aluminum, BMW 3-series-fighting XE bowed at the Detroit Show this January. And when the 2016 XF takes center stage in New Yorknext week, it too will get an aluminum structure. The gorgeous, Ford-developed XF got the brand back on track in 2008, but it was not until 2013 that Tata green-lighted AWDfor the XF to match its midsize luxe competitors: BMW xDrive, Audi Quattro, and Mercedes 4MATIC. A Jaguar powered by all four paws. Now that's more like it. The XF is a sure-footed cat in snow and dry. February threw everything at it, yet this kitty eagerly attacked the elements every day. Claw-like brakes. Instinctive all-wheel drive. Predictable steering. The big cat was as comfortable in powder as Lindsey Vonn. The all-wheel drive system flatters the rear-wheel-drive-biased XF in the dry as well. Despite its heft, I could throw the sedan through corners, its rear tail naturally rotating into place. At stoplights, the AWD grip is a perfect mate for the ferocious 340-horse, supercharged V-6 under the hood. Short of an electric Tesla, there isn't a sedan on the market that will pin you to the back of your seat like the torquey, 320 pound-feet V-6. Locate the steering-mounted paddle shifters, grip the wheel and hang on for dear life as the buttery, eight-speed tranny launches the carnivore forward like it's spied a pack of peccaries. If this Jaguar had spots they would fly off under acceleration. But climb inside this panting predator and you feel 100 miles from its engine's violence. Indeed, you can barely hear its throaty roar thanks to acres of sound-deadening material. If the XF's chassis is a trained athlete, the interior is a high-calorie buffet on a silver platter. My XF came with delicious materials including Barley leather seats, Truffle upper fascia in Soft Grain Leather, accented with Knurled Aluminum with Gloss-figured Ebony. I gained 10 pounds just looking at it. But I'm just getting started. Look up and the ceiling is swathed in "Canvas Jaguar Suedecloth Premium Headlining." Including the sun visors. I stroked the A-pillars like a Jaguar's pelt. If the XF ever rolled over on its roof, I would be tempted to stay in the car, take off my shoes, and walk around on the soft ceiling barefoot. But wait there's more. The front windshield is heated with an extraordinary embroidery of microscopic heating wires. Push the starter button and the dash's flush, aluminum air vents spin open, the navigation screen illuminates, and a gear selector dial rises out of the center console like a game-show button. To the moon, Mr. Bond. Yet for all this eccentric luxury, the Jaguar's is surprisingly practical. Its Human Machine Interface — ergonomics to we laymen — is superb. Most luxury consoles these days require a six-week course to operate. The XF is as user-friendly as a Chrysler 200. Ample center console storage space that will actually hold (shock) a big screen iPhone 6. Intuitive climate buttons. Touch-screen infotainment system. Everything is designed to fall in your field of view from the console-centered, door unlock buttons to the heads-up display hovering over the hood. Underneath its racy hind quarters is adequate rear passenger room and enough luggage space to store Big Ben. Next week in the Big Apple, the 2016 XF will catch up to state-of-art electronics and aluminum structure. But its basic wardrobe will remain largely unchanged. It's already the standard. Just ask Tesla ... or your local pizza guy. Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. 2015 Jaguar XF Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear and all-wheel drive, five-passenger luxury sedan Price: $52,100 base ($61,175 AWD, supercharged V-6 as tested) Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbo inline-4 cylinder; 3.0-liter, supercharged V-6; 5.0-liter, supercharged V-8 Power: 240 horsepower, 251 pound-feet of torque (4-cyl); 340 horsepower, 332 pound-feet of torque (V-6); 470-550 horsepower, 424-502 pound-feet of torque (V-8) Transmission: 8-speed automatic transmission with steering-mounted paddle shifters Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.1 seconds (V-6 AWD, manufacturer) Weight: 3,660 pounds base (4,145 AWD as tested) Fuel economy: EPA 19 mpg city/30 mpg highway/23 mpg combined (4-cyl); EPA 17 mpg city/27 mpg highway/20 mpg combined (V-6); EPA 15 mpg city/23 mpg highway/18 mpg combined (V-8) Report card Highs: Simply gorgeous; intuitive controls Lows: Small nav screen; um, seat heater buttons buried in console display? (I'm really reaching here) Overall:★★★★
Posted by hpayne on March 19, 2015We've all had that fashion hiccup we regret. The used-car salesman mustache. The Elton John-sized sunglasses. A decade of 1970s leisure suits. I wore a pair of plaid pants in my middle-school years that haunt me to this day. Not just plaid, but too-short plaid. "Hey, Payne, expecting a flood?" my buddies would ask of pants that showed plenty of ankle. I blushed like Michael Keaton in "Birdman" walking across Broadway in his underwear. Auto companies have their glitches too. The Ford Motor Co. is finally putting its fashionfaux pas behind it. You remember the original Ford Fusion. The one that debuted Ford's "three-bar" grille in 2006? Bold, chromed, and very American, tri-bar fashion looked awesome on big trucks. But just because a shaved pate on Michael Jordan looks cool doesn't mean it'll flatter Britney Spears.
Detroit auto critic Payne reviews the new Ford Edge. Henry Payne
Posted by hpayne on March 14, 2015I feel like a TV infomercial pitchman when I tell folks about the Subaru Legacy. If I told you you could have an all-wheel-drive, midsize sedan with a V-6 engine and the biggest cargo room in class what would pay? $34,000? But wait, that's not all! This car has all that and more! Heated seats, blind-spot assist, nav screen, torque vectoring! So NOW what would you pay? $36,000? But wait, there's more! Not just FRONT heated seats, but rear heated seats, too, plus keyless entry and wood trim that you would expect in a luxury German car! So now what would pay? $38,000? Well, folks you can have all this in the stylish new, 2015 Subaru Legacy for just $32,500! You heard me, just THIRTY-TWO FIVE! Subarus are autodom's bargain kings. Their fans are legion – including my Impreza-disciple wife. They make you question brand hierarchy. Why should I pay $30 grand more for an AWD, BMW 5-series when I can get the same package in a $30k Subie Legacy? Including lane-change assist and rear cross-traffic alert (this nifty innovation saved me a kick in the can when backing out of my claustrophobic, neighborhood service station). Would you pay $40 for filet mignon at Fleming's if you could get the same steak for $20 across the street at Outback? What's that? Of course, presentation matters. That Fleming's steak will taste better if it's drizzled in Merlot sauce in a private booth – rather than dropped on a table next to a flustered family at wit's end with their rugrat. Like restaurants, like cars. Upscale brands ooze style and substance. But the latest Legacy – nay, the new generation of mainstream sedans – are punching above their weight. Consider styling. Led by the sultry Ford Fusion and Chrysler 200, midsize sedans aren't the vanilla-mobiles of old – even sales leader Toyota Camry has gotten an extreme makeover. In the past Subaru has tried to push the style envelope with frightening results. Remember the 2006 Tribeca? It looked like a refugee from Planet Ork. Smartly, Subie designers decided to conform the new Legacy to the latest styling trends rather than blaze new trails. The result is quite pleasant (and distinguishes the sleek sedan from its more-popular-but-homelier Outback cousin). Trendy, hexagon grille (see Ford Edge, Hyundai Santa Fe). Coupe-like roofline. Creased flanks. Hooded headlamps like a 5-Series. Go on. Park it next to the midsize Bimmer. Years ago, you would have perished the thought. In fact you would have hidden the Legacy on the other side of the restaurant lot from Bavaria's finest. You couldn't bear the humiliation. Like Billy Joel dating Christie Brinkley, it violated nature's order. But my new 'Ru in Ice Silver Metallic is Pygmalion's sculpture. She belongs. The eyes are dazzling, the shoulders defined. On the dance floor, you might notice the difference. If you're Fred Astaire. But like driving, most people are content with the basic waltz. The Legacy's 3.6-liter, Boxer 6 packs plenty of oomph – even when mated to a continuously variable tranny. Want to slam through the gears? Paddle shifters are at your fingertips. Unless you're an adrenaline-guzzling, speed freak like me, you'll likely never push the limits of a sedan chassis. And even if you do you'll find the Legacy's torque-vectoring, all-wheel drive system a marvel in wet or dry. AWD is Subaru's DNA, of course. As standard on every Subie as a kidney grille on a BMW. No one else can say that. The interior is what separates Fleming's from Outback. Mid-size from lux. Legacy from 5-Series. The Subaru's instrumentation is practical, not fancy. Though not as innovative as a 200, the Legacy nevertheless learns from the best-in-class Chrysler console with intuitive knobs, large buttons and useful storage space. Most useful is a phone cubby, which, paradoxically, exposes the Legacy's biggest weakness: Connectivity. It's a challenge for any automaker in the smartphone age. With giant phones like the iPhone6 and (my) Samsung Note 3, the small Legacy cubby is outdated. As is the car's Bluetooth system (which repeatedly failed to understand my voice commands perhaps because the Legacy interior is not as quiet as competitors) and the nav system which pales next to the latest Google app. Which means I wanted to use my phone navigation . . . um, if I could fit my phone in the cubby. Details, details. She's still a steal. What if I told you this stylish sedan has the best interior room in class! Just THIRTY-TWO FIVE! Order now! 2015 Subaru Legacy Vehicle type: Front-engine, All-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan Price: $23,285 base ($32,585 Limited as tested) Power plant: 3.6-liter, boxer 6-cylinder Power: 256 horsepower, 247 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Continuously variable transmission Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.4 seconds (Car & Driver est.) Weight: 3,662 pounds (as tested) Fuel economy: EPA 20 mpg city/29 mpg highway/23 mpg combined Report card Highs: 21st century design; AWE-some AWD Lows: A-pillar wind noise; poor connectivity Overall:★★★
Posted by hpayne on March 12, 2015Buick and Mercedes are slumming down segment for the same reason: To attract new buyers to their upscale brands. But their small ute solutions are different to suit different brand reputations. Buick's Encore is an affordable cutie because young buyers think Buicks are overpriced boringmobiles driven by their grandmothers to bridge games. Merc's GLA250 is sporty eye candy because young professionals think Mercs are sleds the length of 5th Avenue driven by Park Avenue billionaires. The result is a pair of segment-busting new toys. These new toys come courtesy of an all-new segment that is blooming in front of our eyes: The subcompact SUV. Once upon a not very long ago, the world was split into orderly halves. Small, egg-shaped sedans were for youngsters. Big, boxy SUVs for when they got kids to haul around. But as SUVs take over the world they are poaching on small sedan territory. The death of the sedan could mean the rebirth of Buick. Buick has been making some pretty nifty sedans of late like the elegant LaCrosse and nimble Regal. But let's face it. Buick has defined dog sedans for so long that consumers only see the LeBoring and Beagle. But what happens if Buick pioneered a new crossover segment? Like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir suddenly cutting a hip-hop album. Or Shoney's debuting a menu of Skuna Bay Salmon with roasted couscous. Buick SUV? Duuuuude. Cool. The 2015 Encore is not only hip but easy on the hip pocket with a starting price at just $24,990. A Buick ad has cleverly captured this new direction with an embarrassed 20-something hopping into the wrong car thinking it's her friend's stuffy Buick. "Wow," she exclaims when she finally finds the Encore. Yeah, it's that different. At 4 grand north of its engaging Chevy Trax stablemate, however, the Encore will lose some millennials to budget considerations. But with sharper styling, European vibe, and a suite-full of digital goo-gaws, the middle-aged empty nester may find the Encore irresistible. Take Mrs. Payne's friend, Julie, an active, post-soccer mom who could star in her own ad. Buick was not her first premium choice. But both Cadillac and Lincoln are AWOL in the subcompact ute segment. BMW and Merc are present, but — determined to Buy American — Julie kept walking to Buick. She was smitten with the Encore at first sight. "It's adorable," she says. But adorable is more than skin deep. With all-wheel drive, fold flat seats, sunroof, and nav, the Encore is bejeweled with amenities once found only in large luxe offerings. Throw in 4G LTE Wi-Fi connectivity, Bluetooth phone capability, remote start, blind-spot assist, and she was sold. You had her at "4G LTE WiFi." With Julie's 24/7 job demands, the rolling, Wi-Fi hot spot allows her to work from anywhere, anytime when she and her husband are on the road. Had she considered a Chevy Trax? Yes, but the Encore is more sophisticated. A Chevy Sonic (which shares the Encore's platform)? She's never heard of it (did I mention sedans are dead?). Out the door, Julie will pay just $32,000 for her loaded Encore — the price at which the 2015 Mercedes GLA250 enters the fray. The Merc earns its higher price tag with typical Teutonic swagger. This is the hottest looking ute in the segment. While not as seductive as its sedan sibling, the S-Class-inspired CLA250, the GLA (in Merc alphabet soup, C is for sedan, G is for SUV. Got it?) is as sporty-looking as utes come. By comparison, it makes the boxy GLK — Mercedes' bigger, compact ute entry — look as sexy as a shoebox. What distinguishes the GLA beyond the signature, tri-star grille is a squashed greenhouse. This ute looks like it was formed in a giant Panini maker. Or as the bastard love child of a GLK and Hyundai Veloster. The result is a chopped ute with attitude. Indeed, the GLA's low, bullet-like shape contradicts the norm of high-riding utes with commanding visibility. This Panini is loaded with meat. Two liters of 208-horsepower, turbocharged schnitzel to be exact. The AWD GLA will leave the 138-horse, 1.4-liter Encore choking on dust. Opt for the GLA's $49k, AMG45 sport version — with its insane, 355-hp power plant — and you'll be picking Buick Regals out of your teeth. But if handling and horsepower aren't on your subcompact shopping list — then the GLA's sticker price is hard to swallow. A fully-loaded GLA will top the charts at $45,000 yet feel cheap next to the $32K Encore's richer amenities. American manufacturers make more livable consoles than their German counterparts. Despite elegant touches like wood accents and pin-wheel climate vents, the Merc's knob-controlled, tacked-on console screen will drive you mad to operate. Interestingly, Buick has mimicked the Mercedes rotary dial to appear more European. I cringed when I first saw it. But in placing the dial in the middle of the dash (not out of sight by the armrest) surrounded by complementary buttons, the Buick system avoids the worst aspects of the German system. Encore instrumentation is intuitive and safe. And — despite its gerbil-driven power plant — the Encore is more fun than expected thanks to AWD. Adorable the Encore may be, but it doesn't mind getting dirty. I whipped it hard on California mountain roads this winter. Dirt trails. Motor bike country. The Encore had a ball. What's more, JD Power has awarded it Mercedes-like reliability with a 2014 Best-in-Class Initial Quality Study rating. Like spam vs. steak, the little Yank starts at the opposite end of the brand respectability scale from Merc. But its price point and utility demand recognition.The Encore has a hit on its hands because it has exploited a void in the market: The affordable, premium small SUV. The Mercedes is sexy, sporty. But its price pushes it into competition with not just the BMW X1 but also the Audi Q3 and Lincoln MKC. At the mainstream end of the sub ute segment, the Chevy Trax has its own mirrors full of the Honda HR-V, Mazda CX3 and Jeep Renegade. The Enclave stands alone, straddling the bridge between luxe and bargain. America craves small utes and the Encore and GLA are talented entrees on a new menu. Heck, Buick could even learn a new recipe from the talented German. How about a sporty, 200-plus horsepower version of the Encore? 2015 Buick Encore Vehicle type: Front-engine, front or all-wheel drive, five-passenger sport ute Price: $24,990 base ($32,595 AWD as tested) Power plant: 1.4-liter, turbocharged, inline 4-cylinder Power: 138 horsepower, 148 pound-feet of torque Transmission: six-speed automatic Performance: 0-60 mph, 10.0 seconds (Car & Driver) Weight: 3,358 pounds (AWD) Fuel economy: EPA 23 mpg city/30 mpg highway/26 mpg combined Report card Highs: Loaded with tech; not your grandma's Buick Lows: Narrow interior; glacial acceleration Overall:★★★
Posted by hpayne on March 5, 2015You know you're not in a normal SUV when you have six — count 'em, six — grab handles in the cockpit. In layman's terms: "Oh, crap! handles." You usually find them in the shot-gun seat of powerful sports cars (the new Corvette Stingray has two) for those moments when the driver pushes the envelope and the surprised passenger's instincts are to scream — "Oh, crap!" — and grab for something to hold on to. Rollercoasters are festooned with grab handles. But why are they in a midsize, four-door family ute? Because it's a 2015 Porsche Cayenne S. You'll need them, believe me. Because at some point while you're cruising down the road in your comfy, luxe ute — Mom dozing off in front and the kids playing smartphone games in back — Dad is going to be possessed with the Ghost of Racing Legends Past that haunt every Porsche. He'll be overcome with the desire to test the limits of the Teutonic handling and horsepower that lurks beneath. And there is plenty beneath the Cayenne S. A twin-turbo V-6 with 420-horsepower and bless-my-soul 406 pound-feet of torque. Sport mode-damped suspension. Sophisticated sub-frame. Torque-vectoring, electronic center diff. All-wheel drive grip. Here comes an ess curve. The ghost seizes Dad. His eyes glaze red. His chest swells. Shirt buttons pop. Hair grows like ivy up his forearms. He grips the wheel. Floors the throttle. RHAAAWWWRRRRGHH! Goes the V-6. And the great Cayenne surges like Ndamukong Suh seeing an unprotected quarterback. Oh, craaaaaaaaap! The family grabs for all six handles. Inexplicably, even the driver gets two (lest the steering wheel snaps off in Dad's Hulk-sized hands, I can only suppose). I have witnessed this possession. A good friend — a brilliant, law-abiding Lansing economist — emails me audio files revving his Cayenne in his garage. The Porsche ute is pure automotive brilliance.
For 2015 Porsche Cayenne engines have been upgraded and optimized to consume less fuel than their immediate predecessors while offering improved performance. Max Ortiz
Posted by hpayne on February 28, 2015Over the next month, Carpenter will work furiously to prepare two team cars (each car requires a budget of at least $6 million). As a driver he trains daily. In between he promotes IndyCar. Like hosting a pre-screening of the movie "Focus" —starring Will Smith, Margot Robbie, and IndyCars — in Detroit this week. I sat down with the affable, soft-spoken oval-track master to talk speed, Super Bowls, and Suburbans. Q: What's it like to be the fastest man on earth? Carpenter: It's a lot of fun. Speeds like that are what focused me on motorsports, especially Indy. I've been the fastest the last two years and now I'd like to get to the track record (Ed. note: The track qualifying record is 237 mph set back in 1996 by Arie Luyendyk under different car rules). Q: What's constant, 230-plus mph like? Carpenter: The first lap feels really good at that speed. But we take out a lot of down-force (wing angle) to run at that speed and that's tough on the tires. We wear through a set in four laps — by lap four the tires are really sliding around. We're right on the limit of adhesion. What has gotten us on pole is the ability to run 230 consistently over four laps. Q: You've joined forces with Sarah Fisher? Carpenter: We talked about it in the past. We had each been trying to grow (to two car teams), but it's a challenge — a lot of money to raise. So now we're Carpenter Fisher Hartman Racing, operating as a two-car team. I'll be driving ovals. And Luca Filippi will be driving the street courses. Q: Your sponsors? Carpenter: On the No. 20 car it's Fuzzy's Ultra Premium Vodka who's been with me full-time for four years. On No. 67 car Hartman Oil is the primary sponsor. Our engines are Chevy. Sarah hired me in 2011 for her team when she retired. Dollar General was sponsoring that car and didn't want the confusion of Fuzzy's on their cars because they weren't selling any alcohol. Q: TUDOR and NASCAR do their "Super Bowls" early in the year. You do yours — the Indianapolis 500 — over Memorial Day. Is that a good idea? Carpenter: I like the way we're set up. A lot of Indy is about tradition. It's the focal point of our season and it's been Memorial Day weekend forever. Q: Detroit comes right after Indy. How important is it? Carpenter: Detroit is the only doubleheader (Saturday and Sunday races) on the schedule which makes it important. You can make a lot of points. It's hard coming (after Indy) because there's one team that's really happy and everyone else is licking their wounds. So everyone shows up in Detroit a little hung over in one way or another. Q: Formula 1 costs have gone into the stratosphere after pressure from manufacturers to go to hybrid power plants. Do you feel pressure from manufacturers? Carpenter: A bit. Chevy left (in 2004) and came back because IndyCar went to a smaller displacement, twin turbo, direct injection fueling. The formula is more in line with what they are building for production cars. They pull engineers from the production side and get them involved in racing to see our approach to problem solving. Q:You leave the high speeds at the track. Still driving a Chevy Suburban at home? Carpenter: Just got my new one a couple weeks ago. I've got three kids so I'm always dropping somebody off.
Posted by hpayne on February 26, 2015We Americans don't like station wagons or hatchbacks. But jack 'em up, stick high chairs inside, and change their name to "sport utility vehicles," and we'll buy them faster than Garth Brooks concert tickets. The station wagon is dead, long live the station wagon. Once a popular hatchback version of the common sedan, the wagon has risen from the ashes as a full-blown class of its own: The SUV. So popular have wagons — er, utes — become that sedans are now the endangered species. Go figure. The compact Honda CR-V sport ute is Exhibit A in this turn of events. Don't be surprised if you wake up some morning soon to find that the CR-V has outsold the Toyota Camry sedan as the best-selling non-pickup in America. Surprise! It just did.December 2014 sales: CR-V 32,369, Camry, 31,618. Camry still won for the year, but ... when and if the CR-V passes it, it will only confirm a long trend. SUVs — can we call 'em SWIDs (Station Wagons In Drag)? — outsold sedans for the first time in 2014 and now share the same clothing racks as sedans from SMALL (Honda HR-V vs. Honda Fit) to XL (Ford Explorer vs. Ford Taurus). I ruminated over this phenomenon with marketing guru Jim Morrison of Jeep, the company that birthed the car-based SUV. In Europe, theorizes Professor Morrison, the station wagon is still the family choice because the daily, no-speed limit Autobahn commute is done at the average speed of the Daytona 500. Performance is at a premium. In the 70 mpg U.S.? Not so much. Which means Euros want a wagon's low center of gravity, while Americans want to sit up high so they can see what neighboring drivers are texting on their iPhones. No doubt. But Europe is also experiencing its own SUV revolution — witness Morrison making the subcompact Jeep Renegade in Italy for European consumption. Yes, the Continent has the ute bug. Sure, the Euros will drive smaller SUVs (the Renegade could fit in the center arm rest of a Chevy Tahoe) given their wallet-flattening $8-a-gallon petrol prices, but they're human too. And humans like sitting up high. Why? Sport Ute 101, Chapter 1: The H-Point. In industry speak, the H-point is the height of your hips off the ground. Humans like to sit with their hips no higher than their knees (look at that armchair you're in). Sedans are unnatural, people. No one understands this better than Honda, a company once known for quirky fun-mobiles like CR-Xs and S2000s — but that now makes payroll by selling everycars to everyman. The CR-V was the first compact SUV in the business and is Exhibit A in how Honda creates customers for life. The 2015 in my driveway is the fourth generation of CR-V, following its segment-busting intro in 1997. The CR-V hit the market G-SPOT: A roomy, all-wheel-drive, family friendly recipe still small enough to maneuver in tight urban canyons. Marinate in legendary Honda reliability and the vehicle was crack for the middle-class. The CR-V cuts a wide demographic swath: Soccer moms, young urban dwellers, arthritic boomers who can't get out of a sedan without calling 911. And when the lease was up, why risk another brand when the CR-V is so doggone reliable? The formula is being tested, however, as competitors have gained in durability and surpassed the shoebox-shaped CR-V in sex appeal. In its ambition to become a sales volume leader (Honda is the retail sales leader in a remarkable four of the six segments in which it competes), Honda forgot the fun factor somewhere back at that rest stop near Sandusky. It's as if Kid Rock began playing Brahms. Frisky Honda had gone nerd. Ford filled the vacuum with ST hot hatches and creative Escape utes. The AWD Escape was a pair of Air Jordan high-tops to the CR-V shoebox. So just three years after its 2012 do-over, CR-V designers got a 5 a.m. reveille. Honda calls it "the most significant mid-model cycle redesign in the CR-V's 17-year history." It shows. The makeover begins with a Kia Optima-like wraparound grille and headlamps. Ol' four eyes used to look as homely as a pimply teen. Now the chrome, bezel-wrapped specs look like something out of the X-Men's Cyclops catalogue. The ute's chin mirrors the bezel line — giving the CR-V an aggressive, bullet-like nose with plenty of curb clearance. In back CR-V takes a page from the cool hatch crowd with tapered C-pillar glass. Damn the rear-quarter visibility. That's what blind spot assist is for ("Engage the deflector shield, Scotty!" The CR-V is wrapped in high-tech safety systems). Inside, the exterior cues translate nicely to a flowing dash converging in a narrow, center-shifter exclamation point. Function follows form, and the dash curves opens plenty of space for this tall passenger's knobby knees. Unfortunately, the CR-V's instruments team didn't get the wake-up call. Instrumentation feels a generation behind interiors in the Escape, Chevy Equinox (or Camry sedan for that matter). The seat-heater buttons look glued on. You need a magnifying glass to see the telematics-control buttons. And Honda insists on a second dash screen that contains ... the time and date? Typical of Honda there are driver-friendly touches like multi-shelf door storage, console dishes for smartphones, and sliding cup holders. But Escape still feels a step ahead. Its rear seats fold flush for optimum storage — for, say, that 20-something's first flat-screen TV. CR-V seats stubbornly refuse to flatten. And once you've used the Escape's "foot kick" rear hatch opener there's no going back. The Ford is pushing CR-V for best-selling ute in America. That's a good thing. Look out, Camry, you may have eight sets of tire marks over your hood. Navigating Metro Detroit in 2 feet of snow, I could count off the CR-V advantages over a Camry or Honda Accord sedan. Sure-footed AWD. Better passenger access. More head room. More hatchback utility. Comparable fuel economy. And perhaps most significantly to this longtime sedan snob: A tight CR-V chassis. Despite its higher center of gravity, body roll wasn't intrusive until I pushed the envelope. And envelope-pushing benefits the CR-V's all-wheel drive. Warning to sedans: The SUV in your mirror is closer than it appears. 2015 Honda CR-V Vehicle type: Front-engine, front and all-wheel drive, five-passenger SUV Price: $24,325 base ($33,600 Touring AWD as tested) Power plant: 2.4-liter, direct-injection, inline 4-cylinder Power: 185 horsepower, 181 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Continuously variable transmission Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.5 seconds (Car & Driver) Weight: 3,358 pounds, base (3,624 AWD as tested) Fuel economy: EPA 26 mpg city/33 mpg highway/28 mpg combined Report card Highs: Stylish new design; AWD winter warrior Lows: Dated ergonomic switches; rear seats won't flatten Overall:★★★