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Payne: Mustang Ecoboost High Performance is a wild but affordable stallion

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 26, 2019

The 2020 Ford Mustang HiPo upgrades the base pony car to a 330-horsepower turbo-4, adding a stiffer suspension and bigger brakes for wicked performance for under $40K.

The 2020 Ford Mustang HiPo upgrades the base pony car to a 330-horsepower turbo-4, adding a stiffer suspension and bigger brakes for wicked performance for under $40K. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

Ford Mustang and Focus RS had a baby. Hello, wunderkind.

Actually his name is Mustang Ecoboost High Performance Package, but let’s just call it the HiPo. We all know great athletes by their nicknames anyway. MJ. Gronk. V-Mart.

The HiPo is a prodigy that bears the DNA of its parents — a hot-hatch hellion crossed with an elegant rear-wheel drive pony car. Rotating the RS’ eager turbo-four longitudinally and stuffing it into the Mustang’s forward bay, HiPo has a natural 50/50 weight balance, throaty voice and $35,000 price tag.

That affordability is the car’s secret sauce. It offers hours of fun for sports car owners who can only dream about owning its V8-powered, $60,000-plus big brothers GT350 and GT500.

Where the GT350 and GT500 really have to be taken to a race track to explore their limits, you can explore 80% of the HiPo’s bandwidth through Hell, Michigan’s twisties, Harbor Springs’ Tunnel of Trees or a parking lot’s autocross cones.

I got my first dose on the spaghetti curves of California Route 1 north of San Francisco. I was an instant addict.

BRAAAAAP! The bratty Mustang was off like a shot, its weighted steering rooted to the asphalt. Turn the wheel, and the nimble chassis followed like ink from a pen nib, pulling over an impressive 1G of cornering loads. Readers of this column know I am a disciple of the sixth-gen Camaro, the best-handling pony car devised thanks to Chevy stealing its chassis from the Cadillac ATS, the best-handling compact luxury sedan devised.

Mate the Camaro’s athletic bod to the 335-horse V-6 1LE Track Package and the Chevy is more fun than a free weekend pass to Cedar Point. No Mustang or Challenger or Charger could touch it. Until now.

Somehow, the elves in Ford Performance’s toy shop have conjured a Mustang to match the 1LE.

Credit chassis tricks like thicker sway bars, 10%-stiffer springs and engine-bay cross-braces that strap the pony flat to the road. And there is the famous 2.3-liter, 330-horse turbo engine, rescued from the RS before the pocket rocket left our shores for good.

Motorheads everywhere shed a tear that day as the top-trim RS followed the Focus line back to Europe. But its heart beats on in the Mustang and its is a worthy competitor to Camaro’s V-6 and sharp 6-speed manual box. More than worthy.

With optional 10-speed transmission, the HiPo will stomp a Camaro 1LE V-6 out of a stoplight by over half-a-second, 4.5 seconds to 5.1. I told you this kid was a prodigy.

WRAUUUGGH! I waved a big-boy Mustang GT350 by me on Route 1 and attached myself to his bumper like a sucker fish on an orca. We danced through the curves, the GT350 eventually leaving me behind with its prodigious 526-horse V-8 power. Nice to have four more cylinders. But drive a GT350 like that too long and it’ll turn your hair white. Not to mention wake every cop within a 50-mile radius.

Without the heavy V-8 up front, HiPo can be driven hard without scaring the lunch out of you. Or the dollars out of your wallet.

Yes, the 10-speed transmission is a treat. But for $1,500 less, the six-speed manual box is plenty engaging. It actually ups the visceral thrills since the engine is tuned for a higher rev range than the RS, so you can really row the gearbox. That, and there’s more SNAP CRACKLE POP when you lift off the throttle into a tight bend. Who says manual transmissions are dead?

HiPo also comes with a handling package that engineers refer to as the High Performance Hi — ½-inch wider sticky tires, bigger sway bars, limited-slip differential, magneride shocks — which seems kinda redundant on a special-edition Mustang already outfitted with $4,995 in handling and engine upgrades. It is.

Unless you’re a track-day regular, the standard HiPo is plenty of car. There, just saved you another $1,995.

Ford also offers a convertible version of the HiPo for an extra $5,500 so you can hear the RS engine topless, but chopping the top reduces chassis stiffness by 25%. So stick with the coupe, it’s gorgeous anyway in Grabber Green or Twister Orange (which won’t cost you a thing, either).

All you’ll need to add is leather seats.

GROAAAAAN! That’s the sound you’ll make after emerging from the standard cloth Mustang HiPo seats after a couple of hours of destroying country roads. I’ve found Mustang cloth to be hard on the back, so do yourself a favor and get the leather package — because once behind the wheel you won’t want to get out.

Bottom line, after adding the HiPo package to the base $27,765 Mustang, you have one of the best sports car bargains on the planet for $34,960:  Apple CarPlay and Android Auto standard. Nice touchscreen. Digital instrument display. Good visibility and actual rear seat legroom (though giraffe necks like your 6-foot-5 reviewer will struggle under the fastback roof).

The rear seat may deter Focus RS buyers who have followed their favorite engine to the HiPo. Squared-off hot hatches, after all, offer unique utility with their excellent rear cargo and head room.

But they will find a bargain in the HiPo, which is a cool $7,000 cheaper than the dearly departed $42,000 Focus RS and its manual-only gearbox. Focus fans will like the HiPo’s abundance of Skittle flavors, too — like the aforementioned green and orange, or Race Red, Kona Blue or Orange Fury.

This being one of nine Mustang trims, HiPo can be easily distinguished by its mesh grille, multi-colored rear pony badge and black hood stripes (which I would call whiskers, but this is a pony).

I’ve balked at the government emissions-forced trend toward turbo-4-powered performance cars, including the wispy standard four-banger in the $26,000 Mustang. The RS engine is not that four. Heck, this RS-derived engine has more output than the Mustang GT just a decade ago, and a personality to match. Bury the throttle through a tunnel — say, under Cobo after a long day at work — and hear the active exhaust erupt, gurgle and bang through the big quad exhaust pipes.

Papa Mustang and Mama RS would be proud of their little hellion. Just call him HiPo.

2020 Ford Mustang Ecoboost High Performance Package

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, four-passenger coupe and convertible

Price: Base price $32,760, including $1,095 destination charge ($41,570 Coupe Premium as tested)

Powerplant: 2.3-liter turbo 4-cylinder

Power: 330 horsepower, 350 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual; 10-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.5 sec. (mftr.); top speed, 155 mph

Weight: 3,632 pounds, HiPo manual; 3,797 convertible automatic

Fuel economy: EPA: 20 city/27 highway/23 combined (coupe manual, convertible automatic)

Report card

Highs: Athletic handling, performance at an affordable price

Lows: Cloth seats stiff for long hauls, convertible not as athletic

Overall: 4 stars

Rent a 750-horse Hendrick Motorsports Camaro from Hertz

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 25, 2019

Call it Hertz Rent-a-Beast.

The car rental company has teamed with its NASCAR race team, Hendrick Motorsports, to offer steroid-juiced rentals of Chevy’s most insane Camaro muscle cars, the SS and ZL1.

Cloaked in a menacing black wardrobe with yellow stripes down the hood, the Hertz-Hendrick V-8-powered monsters can be smoked off the airport lot beginning at $99 a day for the SS. The Hendrick car gains 25 horsepower over the standard SS thanks to engine tweaks.

The ZL1, which harbors the same supercharged engine as the 650-horse Corvette Z06, is cranked to 750 ponies thanks to a Hendrick-exclusive Callaway supercharger. The ZL1 can be had for a stiff $299 a day.

Starting this fall, travelers can find the ZL1 at Hertz counters at airports in Charlotte, Las Vegas, Miami, Orlando and Phoenix. The SS will be at those locations as well as Atlanta, Dallas, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Houston, Los Angeles, Nashville, San Diego, San Francisco and Tampa.

Hertz has sponsored Hendrick’s NASCAR No. 24 Camaro — one of four entered by Hendrick in the Monster Energy Series — since 2018 with driver William Byron on board. Hendrick’s supply of Camaros to Hertz completes the marketing loop. Rental companies are healthy markets for Detroit 3 muscle with the Camaro and its Ford Mustang and Dodge Challenger competitors available.

Hertz’s so-called Hendrick “pace cars” are not the rental agency’s first performance car rodeo.

The company rents other performance cars as part of its Adrenaline Collection. The international rental brand rents Maseratis in Italy, Jaguars in England and “Kollektion 7” performance cars in Germany (including athletes like the BMW Z4, Mercedes-AMG GT and Porsche 718 Boxster).

For the U.S. Ford faithful, Sixt Rent a Car offers a 600-horse Shelby Mustang GT-S with 600 horsepower in limited locations.

Renters of the Camaros might want to bring their helmet. They are the most ferocious Camaros on the market. The Hertz-Hendrick ZL1 is part of an elite club of muscle cars that puts out more than 700-horsepower, including the 717-horse Challenger Hellcat and forthcoming 760-horse Mustang GT500.

In addition to the custom paint job and engine upgrades, the Hertz-Hendrick cars will be distinguished by touches like special wheels and embroidered headrests with driver Byron’s signature and No. 24 team logo.

The celebrate the debut of the monster Camaros in Hertz’s fleet, customers can register to win an SS until Nov. 18. Five finalists get a day at Hendrick Motorsports’ Charlotte facilities that includes a ride-along with Byron at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The Hertz partnership will help raise Camaro’s profile at a time when the badge has struggled. Camaro was the best-selling muscle car in the U.S. in 2014, but has since dropped to third.

Hertz customers can find more details at

2020 NACTOY vehicle of the year nominees announced

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 25, 2019

Detroit – Nominees for the 2020 Car, Utility and Truck of the Year Awards were announced Friday, and Detroit SUVs and pickups were heavily represented.

As U.S. automakers abandon car segments, only one Detroiter is in the running for Car of the Year, but the mid-engine Chevy Corvette is the early front runner against a herd of foreign makes.

The trophy for best truck is sure to reside in the Motor City since all five semi-finalists are American-made: Chevrolet Silverado Heavy Duty, Ford Ranger, GMC Sierra Heavy Duty, Jeep Gladiator and Ram Heavy Duty.

Riding a wave of new products, Ford Motor Co. entries will make up a third of the 12 utility nominees. The Ford Explorer and Escape utes will be in contention, along with their luxury brothers from Lincoln — the Aviator and Corsair. Other nominees include: Audi E-Tron, Cadillac XT6, Chevrolet Blazer, Honda Passport, Kia Telluride, Hyundai Palisade, Subaru Outback and Volvo V60 Cross Country.

The $60,000 Corvette — which boasts performance on par with supercars costing five times as much — will try to beat 11 competitors for best car including the BMW 3 Series, Cadillac CT5, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Soul, Mazda3, Mercedes-Benz A-Class, Polestar 1, Porsche 911, Subaru Legacy, Toyota Supra and Volkswagen Arteon.

The NACTOY jury is made up of 50 independent journalists from print, online, radio and broadcast media across the U.S. and Canada, including the author of this article. Jurors winnowed this year’s new offerings to 12 semifinalists in the car and SUV categories, and five in the truck category.

Jurors’ next call of duty is an annual comparison drive in October where they will determine three worthy finalists from each category. Those finalists will be announced at the Los Angeles Auto Show on Nov. 20.

Winners will be announced in early 2020.

2020 North American Car of the Year semifinalists:

BMW 3 Series

Cadillac CT5

Chevrolet Corvette Stingray

Hyundai Sonata

Kia Soul


Mercedes-Benz A-Class

Polestar 1

Porsche 911

Subaru Legacy

Toyota Supra

Volkswagen Arteon

2020 North American Utility of the Year Semifinalists:

Audi E-Tron

Cadillac XT6

Chevrolet Blazer

Ford Explorer

Ford Escape

Honda Passport

Kia Telluride

Hyundai Palisade

Lincoln Aviator

Lincoln Corsair

Subaru Outback

Volvo V60 Cross Country

2020 North American Truck of the Year Semifinalists:

Chevrolet Silverado Heavy Duty

Ford Ranger

GMC Sierra Heavy Duty

Jeep Gladiator

Ram Heavy Duty

Payne: Ford brings back hybrid option for new Escape, and it’s a winner

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 25, 2019

The 2020 Ford Escape Sport Hybrid comes with blacked-out grille and windows, a digital instrument cluster and 198 horsepower.

The 2020 Ford Escape Sport Hybrid comes with blacked-out grille and windows, a digital instrument cluster and 198 horsepower. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

Ford’s two best-selling vehicles, the F-150 pickup and Escape SUV, may target different customers but they have traditionally relied on the same recipe: high-tech with high-design.

The F-150 is a tech-tastic smorgasbord of industry bests like trailer park-assist and stump-pulling towing. So, too, Escape, which introduced self-park-assist and kick-open tailgate gizmos that took many luxury brands years to emulate.

In 2015 the F-150 introduced its greatest tech confection yet — an eco-friendly aluminum-skin souffle — and customers loved it. Right on cue, here comes the Escape with its own daring entree: a hybrid powertrain targeted not at granola chewers, but at the meat of its customer base.

In fact, the hybrid model isn’t pitched as a green exotic. It simply stuffs the battery-electric, 198-horse drivetrain into its signature Sport model and dares you to like it.

I do.

I’ll leave it to the bean counters as to whether a $29,000 hybrid makes financial sense (Ford has to sell a lot of hybrids to meet federal fuel-economy regulations), but as a vehicle the hybrid — er, Sport Hybrid — is the Escape’s best option.

This is one good-looking geek. It might rival my handsome class-favorite Mazda CX-5 if only it handled like a Mazda. I’ll have to wait on the Escape ST for that, I guess.

The Escape has been a mainstay of small sport-utilities since the turn of the century. But it’s been a distant fourth in sales to the Japanese Big Three of Toyota (RAV4), Nissan (Rogue) and Honda (CR-V).

This despite Escape’s consistently brainiac entries.

That included a hybrid back in 2005, beating that darling of hybrid first-adopters, Toyota, to the menu by 11 years. Alas, Ford squandered the opportunity (an all-too familiar Detroit tale) and abandoned the Escape hybrid in 2012 due to poor sales. No wonder. The ’12 Escape hybrid  (which I recently flogged as a New York City taxi with 400,000 miles on the odometer), was $10,000 more expensive than the standard Escape, with less cargo room due to the battery.

More: Road test: A 2012 Ford Hybrid New York taxi with 400,000 miles

For 2020, the Escape has gone back to the drawing board. The result: an Escape designed from the get-go to take hybrid technology (just as Ford designs Mustangs with the asphalt-pawing GT350 in mind). This greenie is a no-compromise hybrid with the battery stored in the floor so as not to elbow in on cargo or cabin space.

Which is important because the new Escape is every golf foursome’s dream.

I can’t tell you how many women have approached me over the years asking for compact utes that fit four golf bags. Behold, the new Escape (Ford expects a 60%-plus female buyer mix) which will stack four easily and still provide the best rear legroom in class. I’m not making this up.

Thanks to rail-mounted rear seats that slide backward like the fronts, my 6-foot-5 frame could easily sit behind myself. Ford even scallops out the front seatbacks for more knee room.

Better yet, the Sport Hybrid’s electric motor helps make 200 horsepower (16 more than the base 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine) while smoothing out the ubiquitous stop-start stall that is the most hated feature in automotive today. Speaking of smooth, the hybrid mates a sippy CVT transmission to the gas engine, which contributes to seamless (if slower) acceleration compared to the standard, eight-speed tranny.

Ford then wraps this smart package in an exterior shell reminiscent of the Porsche Macan.

The Fusion looked like an Aston, the Explorer like a Land Rover and now Escape does Porsche. It looks sharp. It’s the cure for the common five-door.

I could gaze into Escape’s big, beautiful peepers for hours. Like the Mazda CX-5, this is a car that, unlike the homelier RAV4 and CR-V, won’t make you pine for luxury. It spells out E-S-C-A-P-E across its tookus, an upscale touch. And even the standard 1.5-liter car comes with dual tailpipes. Classy.

Hybrid Sport goes a step further with the best-looking wardrobe of the line. It’s better-looking than the $33,000 Titanium package. Starting at $29,000, the Escape SE Sport Hybrid gets a blacked-out grille, wheels (upgradable to 19-inch dishes) and window trim.

Comparably equipped, my $34,000 Escape tester was cheaper than a RAV4 hybrid while adding upscale touches like leatherette seats and big wheels. Though that’s still a grand above the bargain leather-throned Soul Red Mazda CX-5 hottie (in part because Mazda eschews hybrid for a slick-shifting four-banger).

This being an SUV, Escape is lathered with black fender cladding (ugh). But paint it Velocity Blue or Rapid Red and you’ll be the envy of the block.

Inside, the hybrid comes standard with the Escape’s modern 12-inch digital display stolen right out of a Lincoln Aviator, with cool Drive Mode graphics and readouts tracking hybrid kilowatts/horsepower while you head up a hill. Dude, that’s dope.

Dude, I wish it was as dope to drive.

Where the tight Mazda CX-5 begs to be flogged, the Escape will make you wish you were back in a Fusion sedan. Despite a 200-pound diet over the previous generation and isolated rear subframe, Escape is mid-pack in the handling department.

Most drivers will appreciate the sub-frame’s contributions to cabin quietness and smooth ride — speed-crazed motorheads will buy performance sedans to get their handling jollies.

As the interior quiet and roominess suggests Escape is obsessive about ergonomics. Importing the electronic, rotary shifter from Fusion (similar to Jeeps) opens acres of space for deep console bin storage as well as a deep dish for keys, change or a Big Mac. Lack of console space was a drawback in previous Escapes. No more.

Steering-wheel buttons are intuitive, and the interior design is clean and spare like the exterior — save for the curious, dimpled door inserts.

Sport Hybrid aside, customers can choose the terrific, entry-level turbo-3 cylinder with 180 horsepower — on par with similar class four-bangers (the Mazda CX-5 does 187 ponies) — and a color palette that includes a yummy Dark Persian Green.

For the tech-thirsty, a top-trim, 250-horse turbo-4 Titanium boasts neat Ford tricks like kick-open tailgate and self-park assist.

The Titanium can get pricey, but if you frequent crowded cities with parallel parking, consider it for its self-park ability alone. Escape will meticulously park itself with the touch of a button — no fender rubs, no curb-scarred wheels.

For Ford customers who lament the passing of the prom-queen Fusion sedan, the Escape is worth a look.

2020 Ford Escape

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

Price: Base price $26,080 including $900 destination charge ($34,240 SE Sport Hybrid, $36,025 SEL 2.0L, $40,070 Titanium 2.0L as tested)

Powerplant: 1.5-liter turbocharged 3-cylinder, hybrid with electric motor and 2.5-liter Atkinson 4-cylinder, or 2.0-liter turbo 4-cylinder

Power: 181 horsepower, 190 pound-feet of torque (1.5-liter); 200 horsepower, NA pound-feet of torque (hybrid); 250 horsepower, 280 pound-feet of torque (2.0-liter)

Transmission: 8-speed automatic, continuously variable transmission (CVT)

Performance: 0-60 mph, NA; towing 3,500 pounds (2.0L), 1,500 pounds (hybrid)

Weight: 3,299 pounds base (3,706 AWD Sport Hybrid as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA, 26 mpg city/31 highway/28 combined (1.5 liter AWD); 23 mpg city/31 highway/26 combined (2.0-liter AWD); EPA for hybrid NA — 35.1 mpg observed by Detroit News in spirited highway/back road driving (Sport Hybrid)

Report card

Highs: Sporty looks, hybrid value

Lows: Slow infotainment screen; CVT tranny slows hybrid off the line

Overall: 4 stars

Honda CR-V joins the hybrid compact SUV fray

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 20, 2019

A new CR-V Hybrid to be built at Honda's Greensburg, Indiana plant

A new CR-V Hybrid to be built at Honda’s Greensburg, Indiana plant (Photo: Honda)

Detroit – Honda introduced its first hybrid SUV here Wednesday as government regulations transform the vehicle landscape with mainstream battery-powered options.

The Honda CR-V Hybrid joins the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid and the new Ford Escape Hybrid in the best-selling compact SUV segment.

Long marketed as niche vehicles with sales hovering around 3% of U.S. sales, hybrids are experiencing a resurgence as Washington ratchets up mpg rules on big automakers. The Trump administration is trying to roll back regulations requiring fleets to average 54.5 mpg by 2025.

Honda has pledged that two-thirds of its global lineup will be electrified by 2030, and the CR-V Hybrid – part of an update to its 2020 offerings – is the brand’s biggest volume commitment yet after introducing low-volume, electrified variants in the past like the wee Insight and hydrogen-powered Clarity.

“The CR-V Hybrid signifies our direction to bring Honda hybrid-electric technology to all core models and to invest in the production of electrified vehicles in America,” said Honda U.S. sales executive Henio Arcangeli Jr.

The CR-V will be manufactured in Greensburg, Indiana.

Toyota’s RAV4 Hybrid, assembled in Canada, this year leapfrogged the Toyota Prius Hybrid as the best-selling hybrid in America. Offered in base LE trim with a starting price at a class-competitive $28,945, Toyota has positioned the RAV4 Hybrid model to sell with a starting sticker price just $2,200 above the base LE gas model.

The Escape Hybrid, too, debuts this fall as a volume offering in Ford’s best-selling vehicle outside the F-150 pickup truck. Ford abandoned its first Escape Hybrid after the 2012 model year. Priced $10,000 above the base ute, the ’12 Hybrid offered little bang for the buck and sales tanked despite positive media reviews.

The Escape Hybrid has been reborn this year as a Sport and Titanium offering priced just $2,210 over the base S model at $28,290. Ford expects Hybrid trims to make up over 30% of Escape sales.

“It’s the regulatory environment that pushes you to do things that they customers don’t want – or don’t want initially,” Ford SUV marketing manager Craig Patterson said at the Escape Hybrid’s media test this month. “We anticipate that eventually customers will gravitate toward these cars.”

Honda estimates a 50% increase in CR-V Hybrid fuel economy over the gas-engine model. The hybrid option will be the most powerful offering in the CR-V lineup with 212 horsepower, besting the 1.5-liter gas engine offering by 22 horsepower. While seven ponies shy of the RAV4 Hybrid, it trumps the Escape Hybrid by 14 horsepower. The CR-V also offers a unique two-motor system that operates without a multi-ratio automatic transmission for a smoother, more EV-like drive experience.

The CR-V will be offered in every trim level beyond the base LX. While Honda won’t disclose final pricing until closer to launch early next year, the Hybrid model will likely be priced under $30,000 like its competitors.

Though the Honda, Toyota and Ford strategies mark a notable mainstreaming of hybrid offerings, they aren’t a guarantee of success. Nissan marketed its own Rogue Hybrid since 2017 — a battery-assist variant of the second-best-selling SUV after the RAV4 —for a competitive $28,745, just $2,500 more than base trim. However, tepid sales led to the car’s demise for the 2020 model year.

Honda, too, has tried a hybrid offering of its popular midsize Accord sedan, but sales crawled along at under 4%. Other volume automakers like Chevy and Hyundai have tested the waters with smaller minnows. Chevy sells the niche all-electric Bolt EV, while Hyundai has produced a variety of hybrid plug-in and electric small cars.

Toyota’s success with the popular RAV4 Hybrid — sales are at 15% of RAV4 volume and climbing — gives automakers hope, though industry insiders express concerns the complicated drivetrains are expensive and may dull profit margins.

Cadillac rolls out the full lineup for its new subcompact CT4 sedan

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 12, 2019

Bright exterior accents, along with unique grilles and fascias distinguish the CT4 Luxury and Premium Luxury models.

Bright exterior accents, along with unique grilles and fascias distinguish the CT4 Luxury and Premium Luxury models. (Photo: Cadillac)

The compact Cadillac ATS has been reborn as the subcompact CT4 sedan.

GM’s luxury brand rolled out the full model lineup for its entry-level car Thursday, a rear-wheel drive athlete that will go head-to-head against segment stalwarts like the Audi A3, BMW 2-series, Mercedes A-class and Acura ILX. Like the BMW, the Cadillac is a rare entry in class with rear-wheel drive capabilities.

Cadillac teased the CT4 with two performance variants — the V-series and an as-yet unnamed track monster – at the Belle Isle Grand Prix weekend earlier this year. The CT4 will be Cadillac’s entry-level sedan below the compact CT5 (replacing the ATS) and flagship CT6.

The CT4 will also go head-to-head against its class peers by offering all-wheel drive and Caddy’s advanced Super Cruise self-driving system.

The standard CT4 will be powered by a 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder rated at 237 horsepower with 258 pound-feet of torque (a 350T badge on the car’s trunk translates the English torque rating into the internationally-recognized, 350 newton-meters of torque). The engine will be mated to an 8-speed transmission.

The CT4, like other Cadillacs, will then be available with a Premium Luxury and black-trimmed Sport variants. Only the former will be optioned with the 2.7-liter turbo-four (linked to a class-exclusive 10-speed tranny) that also powers the V-series performance model.

The all four-cylinder lineup means that unlike the outgoing ATS, the CT4 will not have a V-6 engine option as Cadillac aims to meet tighter federal fuel-economy standards. The CT4 also appears to ditch the sleek, two-door Coupe model that the ATS line offered.

Stuffed into the CT4-V, the 2.7-liter turbo-4 will make 325 horsepower and 380 pound-feet of torque.

The exterior of the CT4 adopts the more horizontal design language first seen on Cadillac’s Escala concept. Those design cues also were adopted by the Cadillac XT6 SUV seen earlier this year. Where the ATS was small for the compact class, the similarly sized CT4 should fit better as a subcompact.

The most radical change comes inside, where the CT4 dumps the ATS’s vertical console for a more horizontal stack that’s topped by a tablet-like 8-inch infotainment screen.

“We developed CT4 to appeal to youthful buyers in the luxury market who may be new to the Cadillac brand,” said Cadillac design boss Andrew Smith.

Unlike other recent Cadillacs, the CT4’s touchscreen does not come with the option of a remote, center-console rotary-control knob.

The introduction of Super Cruise on CT4 signals Cadillac’s attempt to use the sub-compact segment to introduce signature high-tech just as Mercedes has done with its MBUX voice-command system. In addition to Super Cruise – which will enable self-driving on geo-fenced, divided highways – the CT4 will also be able to download over-the-air updates.

The CT4 will continue to be built in Lansing on the same Alpha platform as the outgoing ATS. The architecture – which also undergirds the Chevy Camaro – has proved one of the best-handling chassis in the world. At Belle Isle this summer, GM president and licensed race driver Mark Reuss demonstrated a yet-to-be-named track-tuned variant of the CT4. The track car is expected to mirror the capable ATS-V which has proven competitive with BMW’s formidable M-brand.

Cadillac said the CT4 would be available for order later this year. Pricing hasn’t been released, but expect the CT4 to start in the low-$30,000 range. It will be available for order later this year.

Payne: In Outback’s shadow, Subaru Legacy is a bargain AWD sedan

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 12, 2019

The 2020 Subaru Legacy Sport is an aggressive-looking beast with black wheels and trim - but it doesn't come with Subaru's  more powerful turbo-4 engine.

The 2020 Subaru Legacy Sport is an aggressive-looking beast with black wheels and trim – but it doesn’t come with Subaru’s more powerful turbo-4 engine.

Pity the Subaru Legacy sedan.

It has a hard enough time competing for dates in SUV Nation, but it also has to compete against its sibling Outback. Separated at birth, the Outback and Legacy share the same DNA, platform and electronics — except the Outback got jacked up by 8.7 inches to SUV status and became the fun, outdoors-loving, best-selling big man on campus. Its dance card is full every weekend.

To make matters worse, the Outback went out and got plastic surgery.

Legacy was always the better-looking sibling with its sleek roofline and Sport trim and athletic stance. But for its sixth generation, the Outback got Botox shots that cleaned up its lumpy face, toned down its love handles and — this one really hurts — picked up the same Sport trim as Legacy.

The new Outback has cool black highlights, black wheels, blacked-out window pillars, the full Sport treatment. And to rub it in, the Outback calls its sport trim Onyx.

The Legacy could wallow in self-pity, but it knows its strengths and builds on them for its own next-generation makeover.

For 2020, Legacy is more athletic, more attractive and more of an all-wheel-drive bargain than ever. The Outback may have more rugged sex appeal than Russell Crowe, but it comes at a $4,000 premium. The Legacy is a cheap date with quick moves that will get you to dinner and a movie on time.

Sedan sales may be down compared to sport utilities, but the Legacy is evidence they are still the best bargain on the showroom floor. For us aesthetically minded penny pinchers, the midsize sedan is one heckuva deal.

Like the best-in-segment Honda Accord sedan, the Legacy offers standard luxury features and handling for about $25,000. Indeed, these sedans’ amenities are so good that luxury buyers have to think long and hard whether Audi’s four-rings ($54,000 for a base A6) or Acura’s caliper logo ($33,000 for a base TLX) are worth the hit to the bank account.

For the same price as a base Honda LX, the $25,895 Legacy Premium echoes with standard — standard! — adaptive cruise-control, lane-keep assist and 11.6-inch, Tesla-like console screen. Good luck finding those features on equivalent luxury models for under $50,000.

With a press of the adaptive cruise-control button on the steering wheel, the Legacy competently self-drove through heavy California traffic (is there any other kind?), with lane-centering, braking for the car in front of me and accelerating automatically. It allowed me to negotiate the big console screen to adjust temperature, seat heater, navigation directions (Apple CarPlay/Android Auto also standard) and … um, the start-stop button.

For a brand synonymous with its “Love” ad campaign, Subaru is surprisingly obtuse about Americans’ hatred of start-stop, which makes cars stall at stoplights in order to get credits toward federal fuel-economy regulations.

BMW, VW and Mercedes love their customers so much they put the start-stop button right next to the on-off button so drivers can shut it off as soon as they get in the car. Subaru buries it deep in the infotainment screen. Sigh.

Love returns when you hit the gas pedal. Built on Subaru’s excellent new Global Architecture, the Legacy benefits just as the compact Impreza sedan and Outback before it.

With an impressive 70% improvement in torsional rigidity thanks to high-strength steel and lots of glue (the new, new engineering thing), Legacy rotated nicely through California’s Ojai Mountain twisties (like Hell, Michigan, except miles longer).

Venture off-road and the Legacy can go confidently where few other sedans dare with its standard (there’s that word again) all-wheel drive. Muddy, pockmarked national-park dirt roads are no problem with Legacy’s torque-vectoring AWD — all four corners are always spinning to get you out of trouble.

This is Legacy’s secret sauce. And though the sedan segment may be shrinking, Subaru sees it as a tasty alternative as Detroit manufacturers leave the segment. Chrysler long ago headed for the weeds and the fetching Ford Fusion (with Altima, the only other automaker that offers all-wheel drive in the segment) is scheduled for the scrap heap. Only the Subaru comes – yup – standard with AWD in the segment.

If you’re a Midwesterner facing all-season weather, that’s a welcome sight for a $23,000 base sedan.

Dress the Legacy in my favorite Sport trim and it’s ready for a night on the town for about $30,000. And bring friends. I could sit behind myself comfortably in the back seat, 6-foot-6 frame and all. Continuing the interior upgrade, the Legacy has gained a healthy 1.4 inches of rear leg room despite no wheelbase length change.

While the interior has had a full remake, the outside is familiar save for a rimless grille here, a higher beltline there. The biggest exterior alteration is – typical Subaru – value-driven. The rear trunk opening has been stretched allowing for four full-size bags to fit in the trunk where only three did before. Clever.

The conservative styling bucks the segment trend in which Accord, Hyundai Sonata, and Toyota Camry sexed up their offerings to keep their customers’ cheating eyes riveted on sedans. If Legacy were ice cream, it would be vanilla. That’s a gamble, especially in light of brother Outback’s better looks.

Also a gamble is the bet that performance-minded customers (like me) won’t miss its flat-6 engine.

In a crowded segment, the six’s throaty roar was a siren song for customers looking to upgrade from the base 2.5-liter four-banger’s dull buzz. To improve fuel economy, pricier Legacys (designated LX) get turbocharged 2.4-liter fours to match the Accord’s 2.0-liter turbo-4.

But the turbo remains mated to the same CVT transmission as the standard 2.5-liter four-cylinder, whereas the Accord moves to a 10-speed and the Mazda 6 boasts one of the silkiest 6-speeds you’ll ever encounter.

Even King Accord’s own Sport model shows up my favorite Subaru Sport with a more powerful standard engine and optional stick shift. Price? The same. Both cars are made in the midwest (Accord in Ohio, Legacy in Indiana). Both have more rear seat room than Delta Comfort.

So Legacy makes its case with that secret-sauce AWD. It is catnip in the upper Midwest, save for one thing: Sibling Outback also has AWD. And that lah-dee-dah Onyx model, unlike Legacy’s Sport, gets the 260-horse turbo engine.

Curse you, twin brother.

2020 Subaru Legacy

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

Price: Base price $23,645 including $900 destination charge ($30,090 Sport as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter 4-cylinder or 2.4-liter turbo 4-cylinder

Power: 182 horsepower, 176 pound-feet of torque (2.5-liter); 260 horsepower, 277 pound-feet of torque (turbo-4)

Transmission: Continuously variable transmission (CVT)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.1 sec. (manufacturer estimate for turbo-4); top speed, 130 mph

Weight: 3,523 pounds (Sport as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA: 27 city/35 highway/30 combined (2.5-liter); 24 city/32 highway/27 combined (turbo-4)

Report card

Highs: AWD sedan bargain, Tesla-like screen

Lows: Vanilla exterior; start-stop switch off hard to find

Overall: 3 stars

Taycan unveiled: Porsche goes electric with a Tesla-fighter

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 7, 2019

Porsche introduced its first-ever electric vehicle, the Taycan, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019, in Niagara Falls, Canada.

Niagara Falls, Canada – The two most-anticipated performance cars of 2019 are the Chevrolet Corvette C8 and Porsche Taycan — but for very different reasons. While the Corvette reaches for new performance heights with its first-ever mid-engine layout, the Porsche is out to prove its first-ever electric vehicle isn’t compromised by battery power.

As governments from Europe to China to California mandate EV production, Porsche is determined to put its performance stamp on battery-power just as it has for high-horsepower gas engines.

“We want to be the benchmark. That is a good word,” said Porsche executive board member Detlev von Platen as he unveiled the stunning Taycan on the edge of Niagara Falls Wednesday morning. “The Taycan sets a new standard. It is the sportiest EV in class. Just like every other Porsche.”

The performance specs on the all-wheel drive Taycan are nearly as spectacular as the Niagara Falls backdrop. In top Turbo S trim (the EV maintains the brand’s “Turbo” trim nomenclature though it lacks turbochargers), Taycan hits 60 mph in a face-flattening 2.6 seconds. That’s on par with the gas-fed Porsche 911 Turbo supercar.

Credit twin electric motors and the massive 93.4 kilowatt-hour battery that sits under the Taycan’s seats. The battery is nearly on par with Tesla’s 100-kWh Model S sedan which (in Performance trim) can hit 60 mph in just 2.4 seconds.

That electric power was the inspiration for the Taycan’s introduction at Niagara. The hydroelectric plants around the falls produce enough electricity to supply one-quarter of the power used in Ontario and New York state. The Taycan was simultaneously unveiled in China and Europe, two important markets for Porsche where governments are targeting gas engines for elimination.

Porsche is the first foreign automaker to challenge Tesla on performance after the Model S stunned the auto world seven years ago with its electrifying acceleration. But the German automaker does not try to compete with Tesla on price.

Where the Model S starts at $85,000, the cheapest Taycan Turbo that debuted here starts at $152,250 (including $1,350 destination fee). The Turbo S stickers at an eye-watering $186,350.

These prices are in line with top-trim 911 coupes and Panamera sedans, and well beyond that of Tesla’s sedan. Expect a base single-motor, rear-wheel drive version of the Taycan to eventually start closer to $100,000.

Raw speed is where the Taycan seeks to separate itself from Tesla and other EVs like the Jaguar i-Pace and coming Audi e-tron GT (with which the Taycan shares a platform and LG Chem-supplied battery).

“This car does things that no other Porsche has ever done in terms of acceleration, braking and the ability to change direction,” said Porsche North America CEO Klaus Zellmer in reference to the Taycan Turbo S’s prodigious 774 pound-feet of torque, electric motors and 16.5-inch, 10-piston brakes.

Taycan has already set the fastest, four-door EV time around Germany’s legendary 12.8-mile Nurburgring race track at 7 minutes, 42 seconds. That’s just 10 seconds off the fastest gas-engine production sedan record clocked by the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio.

This despite the Taycan weighing a porky 5,132 pounds, nearly a ton more than the Alfa and on par with a Ford F-150 Super Crew.

Unlike the Model S which has famously struggled to make laps around U.S. tracks, Taycan was designed to run blistering track laps with its Porsche kin.

The hardware required to do that — extensive liquid-cooling for the battery and massive electric cables — takes up significant space in the 194-inch long sedan. Yet, despite being 3 inches shorter than the Panamera (Porsche’s gas-powered sedan with which the Taycan is competitively priced), the EV has similar interior space due to the lack of gas engine under the front hood. Similar to Tesla’s skateboard chassis, the Taycan’s battery is located under the floorboards.

Like all EVs, Taycan will face consumer resistance on range and charging infrastructure.

The German maker seeks to quell these concerns with a range of up to 279 miles (compared to the Model S’s 370) and the unique ability to charge at 270 kilowatts (Tesla can charge up to 200 kW) on Electrify America’s nascent U.S. charger network. Porsche says that at 270 kW, the Taycan can charge to 80% of capacity in 22.5 minutes – or about 9 hours on a home, 240-volt plug.

Outside, the EV sedan is unmistakably Porsche with its blunt nose and sleek coupe roofline. The production car largely adheres to the signature elements of the futuristic Mission-E concept car that dropped jaws when it debuted at the 2015 Frankfurt Auto Show. Aerodynamic gills flank the front, four-point optic headlights and a horizontal taillight spans the rear deck lid.

But physical changes required to meet regulatory rules and budget ceilings have compromised the production design. Gone are the Mission-E’s doors; the racy, conceptual rocker panels have been trimmed.

Inside, Porsche has crafted a sci-fi digital cockpit to match the car’s futuristic ambitions. The console is adorned with digital touchscreens including an industry-first, curved-glass instrument display. Porsche teamed with Apple to create the first Apple streaming service with access to over 40 million songs. “Foot garages” are carved in the rear floor between batteries for for better foot room, and the trunk and “frunk” combine for 15.7 cubic feet of cargo space.

Taycan development set Porsche back $6.6 billion, the most expensive project the automaker has ever undertaken.

To spread costs, Taycan shares its EV platform with Audi. Porsche promises more electrics in the years to come: first up, the Taycan Cross Turismo, a crossover due next year.

“By 2025, 50% of Porsches will be sold with a plug,” says Zellmer. “(Taycan is) more than just one new model. It’s a milestone as Porsche enters the age of full electrification.”

As Porsche test-drives an EV future, Taycan is one leg in a three-legged drivetrain strategy that includes EVs, hybrids and Corvette-fighting, gas-powered sports cars like the 911.

Road test: A 2012 Ford Hybrid New York taxi with 400,000 miles

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 7, 2019

You've come a long way, baby. On its tour of downtown Detroit, the 2012 Ford Escape Hybrid NYC Taxi stops by Ford's original Highland Park plant where the Model T was assembled.

You’ve come a long way, baby. On its tour of downtown Detroit, the 2012 Ford Escape Hybrid NYC Taxi stops by Ford’s original Highland Park plant where the Model T was assembled. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

Talk about built Ford tough.

I’ve been tooling around Detroit in a bright yellow 2012 Ford Escape Hybrid New York taxi with 400,000 miles on the odometer. Four-hundred thousand. I’ve never owned a car with 200,000 miles, much less a cab that survived New York’s street of Hades for all that time.

With Ford about to launch the first new hybrid option of its popular Escape model in 13 years, the cab that the automaker loaned to me is a revealing artifact of the promise and drawbacks of battery-powered vehicles.

The early 2000s were high times for hybrids as the Toyota Prius accelerated in sales while pundits predicted peak oil, and politicians declared hybrids Earth’s best friend. Leading the way was New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg who tried to force yellow cabs to go hybrid.

Bloomberg predicted all city taxis would be hybrid by 2012 and piled on incentives for cab drivers to get there (on top of $3,000 tax credits offered by the federal government). A leader in hybrids under Bill Ford, the Blue Oval was poised to take advantage of Bloomberg’s activism and, in 2007, yellow Escape hybrids starting hitting the city streets.

Or should I say bump-bump-bumping city streets.

I’ve driven Gotham byways for decades going back to my ‘80s Jersey college years, and they make Detroit’s oxcart paths seem smooth by comparison. Throw in city tempers and traffic thicker than Andrew Dice Clay’s Brooklyn accent, and a mile in a city cab can feel like you’re on an amusement park thrill ride.

 Now do it for 400,000 miles.

I can only imagine what this Escape Hybrid has been through, and I admire its durability. No, not the interior which looks like it hosted a party of 6-year-olds. The ripped seats are patched with tape. The controller-knob graphics are worn to nothing. The driver’s-side visor kept dropping into my face. The driver’s-door window didn’t work, the radio wheezed and the interior had more rattles than a haunted house.

But the hybrid drivetrain was healthy as horse. This is remarkable because we all suspect that car batteries will one day expire like our phones.

Nope. Ford confirmed that the 400,000-mile drivetrain contained the original nickel-metal hydride battery mated to a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine and continuously variable transmission. Indeed, the combination of low-end electric-motor torque and smooth CVT shifting made for a drivetrain that had no business being competent after nearly half-a-million miles on Gotham roads.

Rated at 30 mpg new, my cab was still clocking 24.7 mpg in my two days in Detroit.

Alas, this reliability had little effect on the Escape Hybrid’s sales durability. After debuting to media acclaim – it won the 2006 North American Car of the Year – Escape Hybrid sales dropped by 60% by 2012 even as the Escape overall achieved record sales. With a whopping $9,000 premium over a comparable gas-powered model, not even government subsidies could make up the difference

A 2006 Roadshow review foreshadowed the steep hill Escape Hybrid had to climb: “Commanding a serious premium over a comparable gas-powered Ford Escape, our front-wheel-drive 2006 Ford Escape Hybrid came in at $31,080. At this list price, the Escape Hybrid runs into a lot of competition, and the novelty and reduced consumption for its size may not be enough to make it a winner.”

But the argument for the Ford Escape Hybrid as a taxi (or Uber as we say these days) is much more compelling. Especially with Ford’s upgrade to lithium-ion batteries in its most recent Fusion Hybrid and subsequent narrowing of the hybrid price premium.

While we won’t see the slipper, new Ford Escape Hybrid — one of my New York Auto Show 10 Best new products — until later this fall, we do know it will only cost $28,255. That’s just $3,370 more than the base gas-powered ute. Furthermore, it will likely return fuel economy numbers similar to the $28,000 Fusion Hybrid’s 42 mpg combined, a whopping 70% better than the standard $23,170 Fusion at 25 mpg.

Driving an average of 10,000 miles a year, a normal Fusion hybrid owner would take 10 years to make up that $5,000 premium at current $3-a-gallon gas prices. But cabbies aren’t average.

The average NYC cab driver puts on 50,000 miles a year (my taxi averaged 57,000 a year to clock its 400,000 total), which means they’d get the premium back in a cool 24 months.

No wonder so many Uber drivers tell me they are looking at hybrids. They’re economical – even compared to EVs which may never require a visit to the filling station, but need constant charging. Not so the gas hybrid.

The beauty of hybrid taxi-nomics is they just make sense, which means manufacturers shouldn’t have to rely on cockamamie political schemes to sell them.

That was not always the case. The nickel-hydride battery in the 2012 hybrid cab only delivered about 28% better fuel economy compared to Escape’s standard 2.5-liter mill. So it didn’t make up the $9,000 premium on my Ford Hybrid taxi until, well – last year. That’s a long time.

We’ll see if the new Escape Hybrid lives up to its potential.

In the meantime, I didn’t do the 2012 taxi any favors by taking it through the streets of Detroit. An NYC-mobile with 400,000 miles on its bod deserves to retire to Florida like other senior citizens.

But I put the ol’ boy to work up and down the Lodge and I-75 and then up Woodward to visit Ford’s birthplace at the Highland Park factory. It was about a century ago, of course, that Henry’s gas engine defeated the electric vehicles of the time on cost and practicality.

A century later, Ford is betting battery power can compete with the gas engine. At least we know the battery can last as long as its gas engine.

Payne: Mercedes-AMG G63 is like a Wrangler on steroids

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 7, 2019

Vroom. With all-wheel-drive capability, locking differentials, and big departure and approach angles, the 2019 Mercedes-AMG G63 likes to hang out with ATVs.

Vroom. With all-wheel-drive capability, locking differentials, and big departure and approach angles, the 2019 Mercedes-AMG G63 likes to hang out with ATVs. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

If I didn’t know better, I’d think Mercedes was an aftermarket performance-mod shop for Jeeps.

Consider the fire-breathing all-road beast prowling my driveway, the 2019 Mercedes-AMG G63: Boxy shape like Jeep Wrangler. Ladder frame like a Wrangler. Round headlights. Square fenders. Locking differentials. Rear-door mounted spare. Dash-mounted grab handle. Even the door locks go WHAP!  when you shift into Drive.

A Wrangler, yes?

If I didn’t know better, I’d think Mercedes shipped the Jeep off to Austria, gutted it, and then rebuilt it as a luxury hot rod. It has gorgeous twin digital screens, remote rotary controller and touchpad and red leather and Nappa seats (oooohh!). The engine compartment is stuffed with a twin-turbo 4.0-liter V-8 that churns out 577 horsepower. Quad exhaust pipes exit the side rocker panels like a Dodge Viper, and let out a VROOOOMMM! when you press the start button.

If I didn’t know Mercedes-Benz was a Stuttgart-based luxury automaker, I’d think they were the Jeep equivalent to the Lingenfelter, Callaway and Roush mod shops that inject steroids into Dream Cruisin’ Chevy and Ford cars and trucks.

But the G63 is German from the ground up.

It was just a year ago that Mercedes stole the Detroit auto show with the all-new G-Class truck on which the AMG G63 performance model is based.

The first remake of the iconic truck in three decades, the 2019 G-Class — popularly known as the G-Wagen — was thoroughly reworked from stem to stern with Mercedes’ state-of-the-art drivetrain, interior and electronics.

If the Land Rover Sport is the $100,000 equivalent of the Jeep Grand Cherokee for well-heeled customers, then the G-Wagen is the six-figure Wrangler for the well-to-do. At a nose-bleed price of $125,000, the base G-Wagen is a Wrangler in a tuxedo with an interior so rich you want to lick it, and a 417-horse V-8 to hammer asphalt into submission.

But, God bless them, Mercedes is not content with a base G-Class. Like the Challenger Hellcat, the BMW M or the Audi RS, the German luxury-maker has gone off and made a fiendish AMG performance version of the G-Class called the G63.

My $166,000 tester is the most bonkers vehicle I have driven. Ever. It’s even more insane than the Hellcat-engine-infused, 707-horse Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk or GMC Hummer that migrated from Mideast battlefields to American roads.

Interestingly, the latter was popularized by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who also debuted the G-Wagen in Detroit in 2018. Seems they share an Austrian birthplace. Nothing says intimidating like the Terminator.

The G63 is no mere Jeep Trackhawk that wants only to terrorize race tracks. Not content to set asphalt on fire with 3.9-second zero-60 launches, G63 also wants to go off-road with three — count ’em, three — locking differentials. It’s the first vehicle that I’ve taken to the Mounds Off-road Vehicle Park in Flint and drag racing on Woodward … in the same day.

The G63 is pure conspicuous consumption. (Maybe that’s why Mercedes has debuted its Q-class EV: to atone for its sins). On my hour drive to the Mounds, I blew a Challenger off the road, idled loudly in a construction zone and consumed about half of Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves.

But I didn’t sweat the 12.7 mpg because I knew there would be gas stations just miles from the Mounds. When Rivian comes out with its $150,000 all-electric, all-terrain SUV next year, the G-wagen will be tough competition.

Entering the Mounds, I armed my off-road tank for battle. Toggle the low gear setting, shift into neutral, then lock up all three differentials. I’ll leave the why of three differentials to the engineers, but all I know is this thing will climb trees.

Even outfitted with low-profile, sporty Goodyear Eagle 22-inch tires (for Woodward burnouts) rather than more appropriate off-road knobbies, the G63 grunted around the Mounds like it was its backyard sandbox. The Jeepish grab-handle is wrapped in leather (natch), so if Mrs. Payne were along for the ride, she’d have something to hold on to.

The Mounds is Wrangler, ATV and dirt bike territory. Jaws dropped as I rumbled by, rear-end slewing sideways, quad side pipes snorting obnoxiously. I don’t think anyone had ever seen a Mercedes there before.

“That is a gorgeous vehicle,” said one mud-caked ATV rider, drinking in my equally mud-caked chariot.

Too bad more G-Wagen owners don’t exercise their $100,000 animals up here. Maybe it’s because they would get the red leather interior muddy. With a whopping 9.5 inches of body clearance between the axles and 38-degree departure angle up front, the AMG 63 bounced along the Mounds moguls like a big puppy.

Its appetite for mud satisfied, G63 headed south for Woodward.

The G-Wagen is outfitted with Mercedes’ latest interior — twin instrument and console screens under one horizontal plane of glass, silver steering-wheel spokes festooned with controls including mini-touchpads to scroll the instrument display, rotary air vents, rotary infotainment controller with a touchpad that can read your handwriting.

But the G-Class doesn’t have the state-of-the-art infotainment system — triggered with a hearty “Hey, Mercedes!” — that debuted on the A-class this year allowing for direct, phone-like navigation commands. I entered an address on Woodward, then settled back into rouge-seated luxury.

The G63’s new electronic systems are oddly nervous for a car so indestructible. Proximity sensors went berserk at the sight of curbs, walls and drive-thru windows. I turned off the auto lane-keep system given its annoying habit of slamming the brakes whenever I diverged from a lane.

I’m particularly grateful for Merc’s placement of the engine start-stop button right next to the ignition button — so I can immediately turn off the annoying stall feature when I get in.

The G63’s handling is remarkably good for a rolling, solid-rear-axle shoebox, and I enjoyed some twisties on my way to Woodward Avenue.

Woodward is all about stoplight hole-shots.

A Mercedes-AMG CLA45 sedan, recognizing its big brother, shadowed me at a stoplight. On paper they do similar 0-60 times. But my V-8 monster got the jump and that was that.

Other muscle cars were less suspecting of the might beneath the skin of the big toaster. I dragged a Camaro SS and Audi RS5 that disappeared in my mirrors before they knew what hit them.

With its boxy proportions, the cabin comfortably fits four. Who knows, maybe Mercedes will bring a G-Wagen pickup to the U.S. someday just like a Jeep Gladiator.

With 577 horsepower.

2019 Mercedes-AMG G63

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, luxury sport utility vehicle

Price: G-Class base price $125,495 including $995 destination charge ($166,095 AMG G63 as tested)

Powerplant: 4.0-liter, bi-turbo V-8

Power: 577 horsepower, 627 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 9-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 3.9 sec. (Car and Driver); top speed, 137 mph

Weight: 5,842 pounds base

Fuel economy: EPA: 13 city/15 highway/14 combined (12.7 mpg observed)

Report card

Highs: On- and off-road power, state-of-the-art interior

Lows: What, no Wrangler-like swaybar disconnect? Needs its own fuel tanker

Overall: 4 stars

Subaru and other small carmakers squeezed by EV mandates

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 3, 2019

Peter Tenn is Subaru planning manager for its Legacy sedan and best-selling Outback SUV models. He says California attempts to mandate battery power are a tough sell to green Subaru customers, given the cost and limited range of EVs.

Peter Tenn is Subaru planning manager for its Legacy sedan and best-selling Outback SUV models. He says California attempts to mandate battery power are a tough sell to green Subaru customers, given the cost and limited range of EVs. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

But with California and 13 other states mandating that about 8% of each automaker’s sales be battery-powered, zero-emission vehicles by 2025 — within the product cycle of Subaru’s current lineup — the maker of affordable, all-wheel-drive vehicles is caught in a vise.

Like other carmakers from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to Mazda Corp., it will have to make cars that customers don’t want — or buy carbon credits for up to $8,000 for every EV they don’t sell to meet their quota.

The primary seller of credits has been California automaker Tesla Inc. Because it only produces electric cars, Tesla has amassed a vault of credits. In 2018, Tesla made $103 million on credits sold to other manufacturers.

By 2035, the California Air Resources Board regulatory body has indicated it wants 100% of vehicle sales to produce no emissions. CARB determines the state’s emissions goals.

The disconnect between what customers want and what the government demands — echoed by even stricter mandates from Europe and China — has some analysts wondering how it will all shake out.

“It’s insanity to invest in auto companies under these conditions,” said Anton Wahlman, an investor and Seeking Alpha auto analyst. “Governments are ensuring that these companies will make limited profits. California is practicing socialism by mandate and telling private companies what they have to sell.”

The mandates are particularly burdensome for smaller auto companies, such as Subaru Corp. and Mazda that don’t have the vast research and development resources of a Toyota Motor Corp. or Volkswagen AG. And they don’t have profitable pickup lines like Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. to subsidize unprofitable electric vehicles.

“We have limited manufacturing facilities, limited engineers that can work on multiple programs,” Subaru’s Tenn said. “We’re trying to launch everyday cars. It’s tough to take those people off and put them on EV programs if we want to give our customers the kind of vehicles they expect from us.”

Fiat Chrysler has seen little demand for EVs such as the tiny Fiat 500e that former CEO Sergio Marchionne famously pooh-poohed as a California-compliance vehicle. So it has thus far paid millions in credits to Tesla in order to keep selling vehicles in California. Through 2023, Fiat Chrysler has committed to paying nearly $2 billion in emissions credits to operate in U.S. and European markets. It also has pledged more battery-powered vehicles.

California has long had an exemption from the federal government to set its own emissions rules, an authority now being challenged by the Trump administration, which is attempting to relax gas-mileage rules. Four large automakers — Ford, Volkswagen, Honda Motor Co. and Mercedes-Benz — have defied the White House’s efforts by coming out in support of California’s more stringent rules.

All four of those carmakers have made substantial investments in electrification.

Ford, for example, is making a big bet on a yet-to-be-seen Mustang-inspired EV, while VW is rebranding itself an electric automaker after the Dieselgate scandal.

When Colorado adopted California’s EV mandates this year, auto dealers pushed back.

“Seventy-seven percent of Coloradans said in a May survey … that California should not be able to determine what kinds of cars can be sold in other states,” Colorado Automobile Dealers Association CEO Tim Jackson wrote in the Colorado Sun. “Seventy percent of Coloradans agreed that electric cars might be a good choice for some, but those purchases should not be paid for by other consumers.”

Electrification comes a price premium.

Subaru currently offers only one plug-in, the compact Crosstrek SUV Hybrid priced at $34,995. That’s $13,100 more — a 60% premium — over the standard gas-powered Crosstrek. Through July of this year, U.S. sales of Crosstrek Hybrids represented just 1.5% of all Crosstreks sold, and just 0.26% of Subaru’s overall sales.

The battery premium is costly across the industry.

A Chevy Bolt EV in LT trim costs $36,620 compared to a similar-sized and equipped, similar-equipped, $22,395 Chevy Sonic Premium. Among luxury vehicles, Lincoln’s $68,880 plug-in Aviator SUV carries a premium over a comparably equipped, $58,700 turbo-V6 gas-engine version.

“Big automakers can sell high-margin vehicles that deliver a profit, but they’re going to lose some of that high margin to subsidize EVs,” said Matt DeLorenzo, the veteran Kelley Blue Book senior managing editor and veteran auto analyst. “Subaru’s quandary is one of many reasons why California shouldn’t be allowed to set de facto emission standards for the U.S.”

Limited by resources, Subaru has partnered with industry giant Toyota to make a subcompact, electric SUV platform. Toyota indicates that development is targeted for 2025, but that won’t help Subaru meet targets until then.

“Credits are a short-term solution because the mandates just get more onerous,” investor Wahlman said.

“Most automakers would rather lose money on selling an EV rather than depending on credits. Because there is always the chance that the customer will change.”

Dodge unleashes snarling 10th anniversary Mopar Challenger

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 3, 2019

The Mopar ’19 Dodge Challenger muscle car is painted in Pitch Black (left) or White Knuckle. Based on the 485-horse Challenger R/T Scat Pack, the Mopar Challenger is festooned with Mopar Blue-striped tattoos around a "Shaker" hood scoop.

The Mopar ’19 Dodge Challenger muscle car is painted in Pitch Black (left) or White Knuckle. Based on the 485-horse Challenger R/T Scat Pack, the Mopar Challenger is festooned with Mopar Blue-striped tattoos around a “Shaker” hood scoop. (Photo: FCA US LLC, Dodge)

The 25th Woodward Dream Cruise is over, but Dodge is still celebrating American muscle.

To honor the 10th anniversary of Mopar-branded cars, Fiat Chrysler’s performance brand is dressing up its 485-horsepower Dodge Challenger R/T Scat Pack in wicked Pitch Black or White Knuckle warpaint – and then covering it with tattoos.

The signature touch is a “shaker” scoop bulging from the hood like a bicep and surrounded by Mopar Blue center stripes that run from the front fascia along the Challenger’s spine to its rear spoiler.

“We’re commemorating our 10th Mopar build with another collectible Dodge Challenger, which continues to be the modern muscle-car every bit as beloved today as the first generation vehicle 50 years ago,” said Mopar boss Mark Bosanac.

Beloved is right. The roomy, retro-styled Challenger is coming off its best sales year in over a decade, soaring to America’s No. 2 muscle car behind the Ford Mustang.

For years Mopar has been Chrysler’s mod parts shop, offering upgrades to existing models – but production cars weren’t badged Mopar until 2010 when Dodge rolled out the Mopar ’10 Challenger.

In the last 10 years, limited-edition Mopar chariots have included the Mopar ’12 Chrysler 300, Mopar ’13 Dodge Dart, Mopar ’16 Ram Rebel, and Mopar ’18 Dodge Durango.

In addition to its unique body art, the Mopar ’19 Challenger will feature the usual array of Scat Pack upgrades that make the 6.4-liter monster the most powerful car in Challenger’s lineup this side of the iconic SRT’s unholy trinity of Hellcat, Redeye and Demon: 20-inch black forged wheels, Pirelli P Zero summer tires, a limited-slip differential, cold-air intake, aerodynamic spoilers and more.

Inside, more tattoos. A Mopar logo will be embroidered on the cloth seatbacks.

Dodge will make 90 for the U.S. market and 10 for Canada. With a standard 6-speed stick shifter and optional 8-speed auto transmission, the Mopar Challenger starts at $45,835 with dealer orders opening next month. The cars will be delivered ready to burn rubber in the fourth quarter.

Payne: It’s the most powerful VW GLI ever — and it has a stick

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 3, 2019

The 2019 VW Jetta GLI on the long, flat, 300-mile trip to Indy from Detroit. The seats were comfortable, the Apple CarPlay nav unflappable, and the turbo-4 sippy.

The 2019 VW Jetta GLI on the long, flat, 300-mile trip to Indy from Detroit. The seats were comfortable, the Apple CarPlay nav unflappable, and the turbo-4 sippy. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

You could hear the teeth gnashing this summer when Chevy introduced the eighth-generation Corvette without a manual transmission option.

Heresy! Off with their heads! God save the manual!

But to paraphrase Mr. Twain, the death of the manual has been greatly exaggerated.

For those willing to pay less than half the price of a new Corvette, the next-generation Volkswagen Jetta GLI is not only the most powerful GLI ever — it also comes with a stick.

Not that I don’t understand the concerns of the Corvette faithful. Super sports-cars with manuals are surely on their last legs. There is something deeply satisfying about being able to slowly unleash 500 horsepower at a stoplight, the rear wheels smoking as you work throttle and clutch together like bow and strings. WAAAWWHHRRGH!

Or the satisfaction of a buttery, 4-to-2 downshift into a 90-degree turn after a perfect heel-and-toe downshift. AWROOOMYEAHHH!

But high-end dual-clutch automatic boxes do it all so much better that it’s pointless to resist. The faithful want 2.9-second zero-60 runs? Gotta have a dual-clutch automatic tranny. Want a car that stops on a dime with lightning quick downshifts? Same answer. Want a $70,000 ‘Vette that can compete with a $190,000 Porsche on track day? Once you’ve gone dual-clutch auto there is no going back.

But in Budgetville where most car enthusiasts still live, dual-clutch automatics are unaffordable and sticks are still where it’s at for the enthusiast.

The new Mazda 3 is offering the manual as a premium option, the Mazda Miata is a manual icon, and VW’s Jetta may be the best bargain this side of — well, its sibling Golf GTI.

As readers of this column know, the GTI is my favorite all-around player. For four decades the total package of hatchback value, interior comfort and performance fun.

The Jetta has always been the more affordable, sedan version of Golf. It’s the nerd to Golf’s party boy, the vanilla to Golf’s Rocky Road, the Teller to Golf’s Penn. Jetta never got a GTI performance equivalent.

That changed in 2011 with the first Jetta GLI stuffed with GTI goodies. For its seventh generation, Jetta has brought back the GLI again. I took the manual version on a road trip to Indianapolis Motor Speedway where I was racing my (manual, of course) Lola sports racer.

I expected the trip to measure Jetta GLI’s relevance compared to the GTI — and to automatic transmissions in general.

From the first press of the Jetta GLI’s clutch pedal, it was a different barrel of monkeys. Forget to press the clutch pedal and brake pedal, and the car won’t start at all (automatics require only pressing the brake to start). With a whopping 258 pound-feet of torque from its 2.0-liter turbo-4 and a tidy six-speed box, the GLI rekindles the joy of manuals.

It’s the same torquey 228-horse engine found in the Golf GTI. Torque comes on strong at 3,000 rpms, and with the Sport mode engaged (is there any other?) the turbo-4 makes a satisfying grunt when flogged. Unlike high-horsepower manuals (the Camaro ZL1) that require the strength of Zeus to shift, the VW six-speed is light to the touch for quick shifts.

Mrs. Payne was my co-driver. Though she prefers automatics (especially on long trips to, um, Indy, where an automatic transmission and adaptive cruise-control is particularly handy) she was content with the GLI stick, especially the hill-assist feature which makes first-gear hill starts a cinch.

Only the second to third shift is mushy (careful, or you’ll grab fifth by mistake and bog the engine). Rush a corner, and the gas and brake pedals are nicely aligned for heel-and-toe downshifts. The Jetta rotates nicely on it its award-wining MQB chassis screwed down with a stiffer suspension than the base Jetta.

The recipe is all GTI including multi-link rear suspension, flat-bottom steering wheel, limited-slip differential (perfect for autocrossing) — even big 13.4-inch brakes borrowed from the top-of-the-line, all-wheel drive, smokin’ hot-hatch Golf R.

Whew! You can see the vanilla melting. Especially as my GLI tester was wrapped in a very GTI-ish red coat with red war-paint grille. Twin pipes in the rear also signal competitors to keep their distance.

All this… and less.

True to Jetta’s entry-level spot in V-dub’s lineup, VW offers this manual treat at just $26,890, a significant $1,600 discount over the 2019 GTI. Trade up to the loaded, GTI Autobahn edition, and the delta between GLI and GTI grows to a yawning $5,000.

So is the GLI worth it?

On my 600-mile round trip to Indy, the differences reveal themselves. In between the handsome silver-rimmed gauges, the GLI gets away with a cheaper, pixelated digital display. The cloth seats never chafed, but they aren’t the bolstered, plaid thrones of the GTI. That means less body grip on high-G turns.

But the big differences are body style, and here’s where the GTI earns its premium. The Jetta is a big car with the same cargo and rear leg room as the mid-size Passat of just two generations ago. But while its cavernous 14.1 cubic feet of trunk space made for excellent airport runs (to pick up my sons and a friend), it paled in dexterity to the GTI’s 22-cubic-feet hatchback.

The GLI back seat gains two inches on the GTI but gives up an inch of precious headroom. And while VW has tried hard to sex-up the Jetta’s exterior with some nicely sculpted shoulder lines, it doesn’t have the character of the Golf classic.

I’ll pay the extra $1,600 for GTI, but I won’t pay the extra 800 clams for the GLI’s automatic transmission.

The six-speed manual was a reminder of the joys of the stick. Unless you’re stuck in three-hour Los Angeles traffic jams, the manual is a wonderful way to explore the torque range of the excellent VW engine.

The GTI/GLI torque numbers dwarf anything else in class, especially the manual Mazda 3 which soars in aesthetic appeal at just $28,420 — but then doesn’t offer an engine option beyond the merely competent standard 2.5-liter four-banger. Talk about vanilla.

By combining a sporty chassis, good power and a stick, the Jetta GLI is a cure for the common SUV. Or the $60,000, automatic Corvette.

2019 Volkswagen Jetta GLI manual

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

Price: Base price $26,890 including $895 destination charge ($26,890 as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter turbo-4 cylinder

Power: 228 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.8 sec. (Car and Driver); top speed, 126 mph

Weight: 3,217 pounds base

Fuel economy: EPA: 25 city/32 highway/28 combined

Report card

Highs: Manual fun, torque-tastic turbo-4

Lows: Vanilla styling, not a hatchback GTI

Overall: 3 stars

Payne: Lush Lincoln Aviator is an all-American land yacht

Posted by Talbot Payne on August 23, 2019

Back to the future. With big engine power, a palatial interior and bling-tastic design, the 2020 Lincoln Aviator resurrects the Detroit land yachts of yore. But as a hi-tech SUV.

Another Dream Cruise is in the books, and it was a glorious indulgence of 1940-1970 muscle cars and land-yacht nostalgia.

For American muscle, the nostalgia is sweet because Detroit continues to lead into the 21st century with updated versions of the Corvette, Camaro, Challenger and Mustang.

But land yachts have always left me wistful because U.S. luxury makers surrendered their crowns decades ago. Cadillac Brougham tail fins no longer slice through downtown traffic. Oldsmobile Ninety-Eights the length of oil tankers are gone. Huge Chrysler New Yorkers have sailed into the sunset. The boulevards today are ruled by sleek, athletic Germans.

But I’m happy to report there is hope.

The Lincoln Aviator SUV is here and is a welcome throwback to the future. Aviator is an unabashed embrace of all that once made American luxury great: design, size, power and comfort, updated for the 21st century.

Aviator leads an army of real names. Gone is the German-like alphabet soup of MKC, MKX, MILK (OK, I made that last one up). They’ve been replaced by proper names like Navigator, Nautilus and Corsair.

Turbo-4s are for politically correct Euro-utes. The new Aviator swaggers into your rearview mirror with a standard 400-horsepower (best in class) twin-turbo V-6, and a rear-wheel drive based chassis, gaping chrome grille and an interior quieter than a public library and more wooded than an Upper Peninsula forest.

Where 1940s Lincoln Continental Cabriolets lowered a massive 292-cube V-12 into their engine room, the Aviator boasts a range-topping, twin-turbo V-6-powered Grand Touring model mated to an electric motor generating a stump-pulling 630 pound-feet of torque. Post-war luxury owners wanted a big V-8 to drag home the bear strapped to their rooftop. Today’s 21st-century scion is more woke — they want to bag the bear and save the planet.

So Lincoln gives ’em power with a conscience. I got 22.1 mpg in the hybrid versus 18.7 mpg in the standard V-8. Drive like there’s an eggshell on the accelerator and you can do 20 miles on the battery alone. But make no mistake, this hybrid is no pious Prius.

With its massive torque, the Grand Touring model came out of stoplights like a steam locomotive. Indeed, the hybrid’s general character differed little from its standard little brother, except that it sucked the world’s oil reserves through a smaller straw.

Flying low through the California wilderness, Aviator struck fear in slower traffic just like the chrome-caked grilles of Motor City yore. Of course, this being a Ford product, the grille these days looks more Bentley than Continental Cabriolet. Blue Oval designers have fallen in love with Brit designs of late. Fusions look like Astons, Mustangs like Mondeos, Explorers like Range Rovers — but it could be worse; they could look like a Lexus.

Besides, Lincoln is trying to inspire brand cred, so borrowing from gold-standard Bentley is shrewd.

Design is just one part of a long journey by Lincoln that has culminated in the Aviator. Like the brand-redefining Acura RDX that was the spawn of the Acura NSX supercar and two design concepts, the Aviator is the most important Lincoln this century. On its back it carries the hopes of a new Lincoln generation.

I like to call it “Baby Navigator” because the similarities to Lincoln’s flagship are unmistakable: bling-tastic grille, tablet infotainment screen, luxurious graphics.

But the significance of Aviator is more than skin deep.

Along with the Ford Explorer, Aviator debuts a state-of-the-art rear-wheel drive based architecture. The platform allowed Explorer to introduce the apex-carving ST model that I raved about in July. But Lincoln chief engineer John Davis makes clear that Aviator was the impetus for the new platform.

The longitudinal engine layout takes Lincoln back to its rear-wheel drive glory days when land yacht sedans ruled Woodward. This being the 21st century, of course, SUVs are the new land yachts. But rear-wheel drive brings luxury cred — just ask European hits like BMW and Rover.

Next to Bentley, Range Rover is Lincoln’s (and just about everybody else’s) favorite Brit with its saucy proportions, short front overhangs and loooooong roofline. The Aviator (and Navigator) has been to Rover school and has the sculpted bod to prove it.

But unlike the truck-based Navigator, the Aviator sits on a more athletic unibody made of aluminum and high-strength steel that can cut some rug on the dance floor. It’s not as athletic as the lighter, tighter Cadillac XT6 I recently flogged — but the Aviator is a far more comprehensive vehicle. I love the Cadillac’s design and handling, but it’s just another ute in Caddy’s lineup. The Aviator is Lincoln’s masterpiece.

The Cadillac raids the GMC/Chevy toolbox for the workhorse 310-horse, 3.5-liter V-6. The Aviator starts with the aforementioned 400-horse twin-turbo V-6, and  then goes to a different level with a hybrid asphalt pounder.

Inside, Aviator brings in the Vanderbilt’s interior designers.

Ditching the old Lincoln’s nice-if-dated vertical dash, Aviator’s horizontal interior has more layers than a wedding cake. Acres of wood laid over stitched leather are set off by delicious color combos like mocha and ebony.

Class-leading 30-way adjustable thrones will massage you to jelly. Second-row seats are hardly second-class with their own climate screen and available console island. Roomy third-row seats are accessed as easily as pulling a tab, and — with the rear rows folded — you can gaze up at the stars through the yawning panoramic roof.

Which reminds me of my biggest Aviator complaint, the lack of a wow standard feature. The panoramic roof isn’t standard. Why not? It is on a $38,000 Acura RDX. Lincoln’s answer is, you have to climb the price ladder to $60,000 before Audi or Volvo will offer you a 300-horse engine option.

At $52,000. Lincoln gives you 400 horses standard mated to a class-exclusive 10-speed tranny. It’s good ol’ American power at a good ol’ American value.

Lincoln has its own personality again. Open the driver’s door and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra welcomes you with a chime. Dealers provide red carpet, door-to-door service.

Will it work? Stay tuned. For this year’s Dream Cruise, the 1993 Lincoln Mark VIII coupe qualified for its antique plates. When it debuted that year, the Mark VIII claimed dramatic proportions and a daring, wraparound interior. It died five years later.

Now comes Aviator. It’s not a coupe. It’s a three-row ute aimed at the meat of the market. Motor City luxury is back, baby.

2020 Lincoln Aviator

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear- and all-wheel drive, 6- or 7-passenger SUV

Price: Base price for standard V-6 model $52,195, including $1,095 destination charge ($83,540 Black Label AWD as tested); hybrid model $69,895 including $1,095 destination charge ($83,670 Grand Touring Hybrid AWD as tested)

Powerplant: Twin-turbo, 3.0-liter V-6; twin-turbo V-6 hybrid mated to DC electric motor/lithium-ion battery

Power: 400 horsepower, 415 pound-feet of torque (V-6); 494 horsepower, 630 pound-feet of torque (hybrid)

Transmission: 10-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.3 seconds (V-6); maximum towing, 6,700 pounds (V-6)

Weight: 4,892 pounds (AWD V-6 as tested); 5,673 pounds (AWD hybrid as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA: 17 city/24 highway/20 combined (AWD V-6); Hybrid — 400-mile-plus range

Report card

Highs: All-American value, power; good looks

Lows: Pricey hybrid; standard adaptive cruise, please

Overall: 4 stars

Three future Dream Cruise classics: BMW i8, F-150 Raptor, any Tesla

Posted by Talbot Payne on August 23, 2019

The Woodward Dream Cruise is a celebration of Motor City past with earth-shaking V-8s, chromed cruisers and modified rat rods.

But it’s also a buffet table of everything automotive.

While we revelers bow to 20th-century majesty, we also hail the 21st century’s future classics. Like the 1960s, the 2010s are a historic period of innovation, performance and good old-fashioned over-indulgence.

This year, I hot-footed three modern, instant classics down Woodward that — 25 years hence — will be remembered as fondly as the epic Ferraris, Continentals and DeLoreans of yore.

BMW i8

“I thought that was a new Ferrari!” yelled a cruiser as he rolled down his window next to my 2019 BMW i8 Roadster.

Born in 2014, the sexy i8 is easy to mistake for mid-engine Italian supercars. It’s the first mid-engine BMW since the iconic Giorgetto Giugiaro-penned 1978 M1. Like the M1 — which launched BMW’s performance M badge — the i8 has big ambitions. Where the spartan M1 was about raw speed, the exotic i8 is about signaling BMW’s electrified future.

It’s a rolling technology lab. The three-cylinder turbo engine is mated to electric motors front and rear, with a lithium-ion battery running down the the car’s spine. Like the Ford GT or McLaren supercars, the central chassis is a lightweight carbon tub. Interior is state of-the-art from its Pixar-perfect digital graphics to flowing dash lines.

Expensive and complex, the future of plug-in drivetrains is uncertain. It’s the sci-fi design that ensures this $164,298 car will be coveted for decades.

Like a space pod, butterfly doors rise for passenger entry. With the push of button, the roof disappears into the rear deck making the i8 a topless Dream Cruiser in just 15 seconds.

“It’s something out of the movie ‘Tron,’” shouts another cruiser-by.

Dressed in copper tone, the i8 was a Cruise showpiece. I rolled into Birmingham’s annual D-MAN Foundation charity rides for the disabled and was swarmed. I could have given rides all weekend.

Ford F-150 Raptor

Cruise in traffic in the low-slung i8 and you feel like you’re in a canyon next to all the Dodge Challengers, Chevy Bel Airs and tail-finned Cadillacs. The canyon walls are getting taller.

Americans buy nearly 3 million new pickups a year. With a growing subset catering to us muscle car fans, pickups are changing the topography of Woodward. There are the jacked-up swamp monster, knobby-tired Jeep Gladiator, and the king of off-road speed, the 450-horse Raptor.

The $55,000 Raptor, based on the best-selling F-150, is outfitted with intimidating grille graphics, hood scoop and terrain-shredding tires. The body armor hints at the capable technology underneath. Ten times cheaper than the epic Ford GT supercar, the Raptor is no less fun in its element. The Raptor bristles with skid plates, upgraded suspension and Baja-worthy Fox shocks that can propel the three-ton truck to obscene outback speeds. On-road, its EcoBoost V-6 provides plenty of thrills.

Hitting Woodward, I stomped the throttle and the twin-turbo V-6 roared like, well, a prehistoric reptile. “Awwwwesome!” squealed a young passenger riding shotgun.

But not as awesome as the T-Rex-roar of the previous generation Raptor’s 411-horse V-8. Though down on power to the EcoBoost V-6, many Raptor faithful prefer the original eight-cylinder. Either way, it’ll be ripping up Woodward asphalt for decades.


In the early 1980s, ex-GM wunderkind John DeLorean sought to shake up the auto industry with his gull-winged DMC-12 sports car. Decades later, the stainless-steel wonder still wows even if its business model didn’t.

DeLoran’s spiritual successor, Elon Musk, has sold more cars than DeLorean ever dreamed. He has created some of the most coveted luxury cars on the planet, with the battery-powered Model 3 even besting Mercedes and Lexus last year as America’s best-selling luxury vehicle.

Behind the wheel of my own Model 3, I joined a squadron of Model 3, S and X variants at Catalpa and Woodward for a Friday evening cruise. The intersection was particularly meaningful because it was also the site of Ford’s Cruise display — Musk’s badges are inspired by Henry Ford’s transformational Model A and T designations of a century ago. Tesla fashions itself the 21st-century Ford.

“You know these are the fastest cars on Woodward!” exclaimed one lawnchair-bound bystander as we rolled past.

Yessir. The instant-torque Teslas are shockingly fast from a standstill. Sub-3 second zero-60 times for performance Model S sedans are not uncommon. I nailed a few silent burnouts that shamed tire-burning, ear-splitting Ford V-8s.

Like Ford, Tesla has created a brand that will resonate for years. But like DeLorean, Tesla needs to figure out how to survive without government subsidies.

Folks often ask if the Dream Cruise will outlast the baby boom generation that created it 25 years ago. If my classics-of-tomorrow are any indication, it has a healthy future.

Ram 1500 EcoDiesel is new light-duty diesel towing champ

Posted by Talbot Payne on August 20, 2019

The 2020 Ram 1500 Ecodiesel leads the class in towing with 12,560 - a major upgrade over the previous Ram diesel's 9,300 pounds. The diesel truck will start at $38,585.

The light-duty pickup wars have a new diesel towing champ.

Ram says its all-new 2020 Ram 1500 EcoDiesel will pull 12,560 pounds thanks to class-leading 480 foot-pounds of torque. That’s a big leap from the previous-generation truck’s 9,300 pounds and clears the Ford F-150 Power Stroke diesel’s previous best 11,400 pounds.

Introduced in 2014, Ram’s Ecodiesel was a pioneer in the light-duty truck segment but has since been joined by products from Ford and Chevy.

Ram also announced that pricing for its diesel truck will start at $38,585 – a $4,995 option, or $3,000 premium over the 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 eTorque engine in Ram’s lineup.

The EcoDiesel is available across all models of the Ram 1500, including for the first-time in its rambunctious, off-road Rebel.

The Chevy Silverado Duramax diesel pulls 9,300 pounds but is the class leader in fuel economy — another closely-watched diesel metric — with 27 mpg average. Ram says it will publish the Ecodiesel’s mpg numbers closer to its on sale date in the 4th quarter.

Corvette mid-engine supercar starts at $59,995

Posted by Talbot Payne on August 15, 2019

Chevrolet announced pricing for its first mid-engine Corvette Stingray today and as promised, it will — like the outgoing, front-engine Stingray — start at less than $60,000.

Just barely.

Including a destination charge of $1,095, the 2020 C8 Stingray starts at $59,995 for the 1LT base trim, making it by far the most affordable mid-engine supercar on the planet. Competitors include the Acura NSX at $159,300 and the McLaren at $195,000.

Equip the rear-wheel drive ‘Vette with the $5,000 Z51 performance package and it will run sub-3 second zero-60 times alongside an all-wheel drive $204,000 Lamborghini Huracan. Top speed for the Stingray? 194 mph.

“Most people thought when we moved the Corvette to mid-engine it would no longer be attainable, but we knew we couldn’t mess with a winning formula and the 2020 Stingray proves it,” said Brian Sweeney, Chevrolet U.S. vice president.

The out-going front-engine C7 Corvette starts at $56,945.

Two more trims are offered above the base model: the 2LT starts at $67,295 and the top-level 3LT begins at $71,945. All are available with the Z51 package.

“We’ve packed a lot of performance into the Corvette Stingray at this price when you consider an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission, small-block V-8 and engine-mounted dry-sump oil system are all standard,” said Corvette chief engineer Tadge Juechter.

Interested Chevrolet Corvette Stingray shoppers can view a pricing guide with available options to pre-order their car by visiting the 2020 Corvette reveal page at

The 2020 Corvette Stingray goes into production at GM’s revamped Bowling Green Assembly plant late this year.

Payne: The new Dream Cruise classics, Class of ’93

Posted by Talbot Payne on August 15, 2019

It’s Dream Cruise reunion time, and that means we welcome the great Class of ’93 as the new antiques.

When your classic turns 26 years young, Michigan’s Secretary of State office extends historic license privileges and eligibility for more-affordable car collector insurance. In exchange, the state frowns on using your collectible as a daily driver — except in August when antiques take over Woodward.

So slip Meat Loaf’s ’93 hit “I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)” in the ol’ CD player, slip on your “Myst” computer game shirt, and watch out for these ’93 notables.

Pontiac Firebird

Emerging from the horsepower-strangling government mandates of previous decades, early ’90s muscle cars got sexy again. The fourth-generation rear-wheel drive Firebird and kissing cousin Camaro were outfitted with V-6s, snarling V-8s and anti-lock brakes. The Pontiac, taking design cues from the outrageous Banshee XII concept car, was particularly striking with its anteater nose and recessed headlights.

With sleek aerodynamics and lightweight, composite body panels, the Firebird was optimized for speed.  A 160-horse V-6 came standard. Upscale Formula and Trans Am models were stuffed with a 275-horsepower V-8 shared with big brother Corvette.

Ford SVT Mustang Cobra

What’s a Dream Cruise without a new Mustang antique? The iconic Ford badge has been in production since 1964, but the ’93 model introduced a new performance badge from Ford’s Special Vehicle Team (SVT) positioned above the GT.

Using the same 5.0-liter V-8 as the GT, the SVT turned up the wick to 235 horsepower, which was good for 5.9 seconds zero-60. (In a sign of how far engineering has come, a modern Focus RS cranks out 350 horsepower from a turbo-4 and hits 60 mph in just 4.5 seconds). Ford sold nearly 5,000 in 1993. For more exclusivity, a SVT Cobra R was offered stripped of niceties like radio and power windows, and strapped down with chassis-stiffening braces to take on the race track. Just 107 were sold.

Mazda RX-7

In the 1990s, Mazda’s wee Miata had a big brother, the RX-7. Featuring Mazda’s signature rotary engine — boosted with twin turbos to 255 horsepower — the third-generation RX-7 was the last, and most sophisticated, of its breed (an RX-8 would follow in 2002).

A mid-level sports car similar in price to the Porsche Cayman/Boxster today, the RX-7 was a tempting package of speed and style. Outfitted in base, touring or track-ready R1 trims, the ’93 RX-7 ditched the previous generation’s wedge shape for a jellybean body and modern trunk-width mono taillight.

Ford Probe

Speaking of jellybeans, the Probe was Ford’s entry-level front-wheel drive coupe. Cheaper than the revered, RWD Mustang, the second-gen Probe started at just $13,000 (about $4,000 under the pony car). Other than its awkward name — which made its way into Jay Leno’s stand-up act — the Probe was notable for its GT version, which upgraded to a 2.5-liter V-6 pumping out 164 horses.

The GT earned Motor Trend’s 1993 Car of the Year award and also landed on Car and Driver’s 10 Best list. A joint collaboration between Mazda and Ford, the Probe was axed in 1997.

Chrysler Concorde/Dodge Intrepid/Eagle Vision

Ah, the days when Chrysler made sedans! The creative LH platform created a sensation with its cab-forward styling, sleek aerodynamics and roomy interiors. Coming on the heels of the aging K-car platform, the LH sent departing chief Lee Iacocca off in glory.

The cars immediately landed on Car and Driver’s 10 Best List. The magazine called them “the all-round best execution of the classic American sedan that we’ve yet seen.” The cars still turn heads today, even as Eagle is no more — and Chrysler and Dodge (Charger hellion excepted) have largely abandoned sedans.

Jeep Grand Cherokee

Chrysler president Bob Lutz memorably debuted the Grand Cherokee at the 1992 Detroit auto show by driving it through Cobo Center’s front window with Mayor Coleman Young riding shotgun. The rest is history. An upsized version of the Cherokee, the unibody-based Grand Cherokee went head-to-head with the popular truck-based Ford Explorer to ignite an SUV revolution.

Available with a 190-horse straight-6 engine and two four-wheel drive systems, the Grand Cherokee was an instant hit, selling 84,600 copies in its first calendar year. By 1994, it had sold more than 212,000. In a portent of things to come, the Grand dropped its manual tranny after just two years.

Lincoln Mark VIII

The luscious Mark VIII coupe was the last of the brand’s halo-badge Mark cars. Draped across a 113-inch wheelbase, the luxury diva was longer than today’s Mercedes S-class coupe. The distinctive, wraparound front end mirrored the innovative interior with a wraparound dash stuffed with modern electronics including keyless entry.

Powered by a smooth 4.6-liter V-8, the rear-wheel drive coupe received critical raves at its New York debut as a European luxury-fighter. Alas, the Mark VIII would not live past 1998.

Mercedes C-class

Speaking of Mercedes, the C-class made its debut as the successor to the brand’s successful BMW 3-series fighter, the 190. The C-class would be the Stuttgart marque’s entry-level U.S. sedan until the CLA 4-door coupe debuted in 2014.

The ’93 C-class was powered by a 148-horse four-banger — about the same ponies as a Subaru Impreza today. The original C was stodgy, but it had softer lines than the boxy 190 and started the evolution to the sexy, swoopy Mercedes of today.


Here’s a neat little secret. In addition to Michigan’s antique license law, the federal government will allow you to import 25-year-old cars that were previously ineligible. For the Class of ‘93, that means you can now bring in an MG RV8 (among other things).

Built by the Rover Group as a successor to the famous MGB, the RV8 hottie was stuffed with a throaty 190-horse V-8 and rocketed to 60 mph as fast as the Mustang SVT Cobra. Rear leaf-springs and drum brakes made its handling diabolical. But, hey, it’s British.

Payne: Mid-engine Corvette is cool, but where’s the ‘Vette SUV?

Posted by Talbot Payne on August 14, 2019

Car and Driver's design sketch of a Corvette SUV.

The launch of the first-ever, mid-engine Corvette is the car event of the year. With similar specs as supercars costing three times more, the $60,000 C8 promises less expensive performance for a new generation of buyers.

But the eighth-generation Corvette’s debut has also turned up the volume on whether Chevrolet should also be expanding its performance icon to other segments.

In short, when will there be a Corvette SUV like nearly every other sports car make?

Beneath the V-8 roar of the C8’s introduction in California last month was a buzz among industry titans, car-magazine writers and analysts about the prospects of a ute ‘Vette.

The speculation had been rekindled in June when Bob Lutz, ex-General Motors vice chairman for product development, told Automotive News: “If I were there, what I would do is develop a dedicated architecture, super-lightweight, super-powerful, Porsche Cayenne-like, only much better and a little bigger, medium-volume Corvette SUV.”

Lutz’s interview expanded on his comments to The Detroit News two years ago in a story looking at whether Corvette should follow sports car makers like Porsche that have made millions by expanding their brands into popular SUVs.

The story went viral.

Porsche started the sport-ute revolution with the 2003 Cayenne. It’s been followed over the last decade by Maserati, Jaguar, Alfa Romeo — even Lamborghini. Porsche added a second ute, the Macan, in 2014. In every case, the SUV quickly became a hot seller, outselling the brands’ core sports cars and expanding their buyer demographic.

“Like the Cayenne, the appeal of the ’Vette SUV would be (rear-wheel drive) proportions. It should, in fact, have a silhouette not too different from a Cayenne,” Lutz told the News in 2017 as we consulted experts on what a Corvette SUV should look like.

Our rendering imagined a longitudinally mounted V-8 powered Corvette SUV on a rear-wheel drive/all-wheel drive platform. (The engine would be up front, because mid-engine placement would put it in an SUV’s back seat.)  It would have similar capabilities to $100,000-plus mega-utes from Lamborghini and Porsche, but, in typical Corvette fashion, for much less coin.

“More than the $40,000 Cadillac XT5, but about 10 grand below” a $60,000 base V-6 Cayenne, suggested Lutz.

His Automotive News interview inspired more renderings from other publications, most significantly from Car and Driver.

Car and Driver backed up its muscular sketch — complete with signature Corvette touches like a hood scoop and coupe-like roof — with specs like a standard twin-turbo-6, optional V-8, luxurious interior, generous cargo room and a starting price point of around $70,000.

“We also think it’s a no-brainer for Chevy to expand the Corvette brand beyond just the titular model,” concluded the influential publication.

When asked whether GM is considering the idea of a Corvette model expansion, a Chevy spokesperson told The News the automaker could “not comment on potential future product.”

Yet, retired GM engineer Tom Wallace — who ran Chevrolet’s Corvette program from 2006-08 — confirms the company has tracked the huge success of other sport SUV models.

“When I was Corvette chief, we often studied the Porsche business model and product line-up, and were generally impressed,” he told The Detroit News. “The fact that they have done the Cayenne and stuck with it is a vote of confidence that such a vehicle can be a success.”

The roadblocks, however, are formidable.

Two stand out, say experts: 1) Corvette is a Chevrolet badge, not a separate brand like Porsche or Jaguar. And 2) GM would have to develop a longitudinal-based rear-wheel drive/all-wheel drive platform for a performance ute.

“Producing a Corvette SUV assumes that GM would also have to split off Corvette as its own brand,” says veteran Kelley Blue Book auto analyst Karl Brauer. “You have to first decide if Corvette is powerful enough to sustain its own brand.”

Lutz told the News in 2017 that the Corvette brand business case would be tough because it could damage GM’s other premium brands like GMC and Cadillac. But in light of Cadillac’s struggles to compete as a luxury brand, his opinion evolved in the Automotive News interview.

“Let’s not try and take Cadillac upmarket. It has a price band of about $450 a month. That’s what it’s worth. Corvette brand has unlimited daylight on the upside,” he said. “Target worldwide 20,000 to 30,000 units, and price it starting at $100,000. It has to be the stellar premium sport-utility made in the United States, and the Corvette brand could pull that off.”

Even at 30,000 vehicles per year, though, a Corvette SUV would be a low-volume vehicle. Lutz and Wallace acknowledge that committing the millions needed for such an investment would be a high hurdle unless another GM vehicle could share the platform. The Porsche Cayenne, for example, shares its architecture with its VW Group sibling, the Audi Q7.

“The Corvette ute probably would be a stand-alone architecture (or a major modification of an existing architecture), so volume would be critical to call it a business success,” Wallace says.

The upside is that sport utes print money. The Lamborghini Urus outsells all other Lambos combined. The Jaguar F-Pace is easily the brand’s best-seller. estimates that while generating just over 2% of VW Group sales, the SUV-rich Porsche brand makes up an eye-popping one-third of profits.

With the mid-engine ‘Vette poised for glory, the attraction of an SUV line is undeniable. The key is in execution.

“It would be a fine line to walk,” says KBB analyst Brauer. “Performance capability is critical. If done correctly, you could sell a lot of them, no doubt.”

Roadkill Nights rocks Woodward with dragsters, burnouts

Posted by Talbot Payne on August 14, 2019

Two classic muscle cars drag race against each other.

Pontiac – The run-up to the 25th annual Dream Cruise opened with a roar Friday as MotorTrend Group’s Roadkill Nights Powered by Dodge took over the M1 Concourse.

Muscle-car fans poured into the motorsports track to ogle 700-plus-horsepower Challenger and Charger Hellcats, take thrill rides and witness dyno and smokey-burnout contests.

For the fifth year, the Dodge-sponsored event officially kicks off two weekends of Woodward Dream Cruise mania that culminates Aug.17 in America’s longest traffic jam as auto enthusiasts cruise from Pontiac to Ferndale.

The festivities ramp up Saturday, Aug. 10, as Roadkill Nights extends the fun to Woodward Avenue. The street north of St. Joseph Mercy Oakland hospital in Pontiac is shut down at 11 a.m. for a day of street-legal,one-eighth-mile drag racing.

Thousands of attendees will cheer on 140 licensed drag racers into the twilight Saturday as they vie for a $30,000 purse. They will get an earth-shaking exhibition from NHRA superstars Leah Pritchett and Carl Hagan when they do slingshot runs in their 10,000-horsepower dragsters.

Even local law enforcement will join the fun as Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard and Macomb Sheriff Anthony Wickersham face off for a drag-racing duel in 797-horse, Dodge Challenger SRT Red Eye Widebody monsters.

“It’s nice to be part of kicking off the Dream Cruise,” said Dodge Challenger brand manager Kevin Hellman (yes, he drives a Hellcat). “We get to show what our cars are capable of up here. And after some rain the last two years, we’ve got a really good weather report for the weekend.”

Saturday’s drag racing will be hosted by TV car guys David Freiburger and Mike Finnegan of the popular Motor Trend Channel show “Roadkill Nights.” The pair will record an episode of their show at 6:15 p.m. Saturday on the Woodward drag strip.

“This event is one of the highlights of our year,” Freiburger said in the Roadkill paddock Friday surrounded by Dodge muscle. “The top moment is when Leah and Carl pull out (their) dragsters and explode down the strip.”

Pritchett and Hagan return this year in, respectively, their Dodge Top Fuel and Funny Car dragsters that rattled eardrums and watered eyes last year. Burning nitromethane fuel in specially built Hemi V-8 engines, the two dragsters are a visceral sensation down the 660-foot Woodward strip.

Hagan’s car will debut the Hellcat Widebody on his Funny Car dragster (Funny Cars have full bodies, unlike Top Fuel dragsters). That Widebody look was ubiquitous around the M1 Concourse grounds as both of Dodge’s iconic Challenger coupe and Charger sedans are now available with the muscular wheel-well additions.

Fans lined up to get tire-shredding thrill rides in high-horsepower Hellcats – the 717-horse Challenger and 707-horsepower Charger – with pro drivers like Jason Quinn, who steered his beast effortlessly around pylons in M1’s skid pad Friday.

“These cars are just so capable,” he said after a growling, tire-screeching lap. “We go through a set of rear tires every two hours, but the fronts will last all day.”

From the Woodward grandstand Saturday, fans will get to watch drivers compete for $30,000 in prize money split between two classes, Big Tire and Small Tire. Another $10,000 purse will be donated to the United Way as part of a Celebrity Showdown Drag Race that will include Freiburger, Finnegan and other top drivers.

Behind the fun, of course, is a business plan as Dodge hopes the thrills will lead to sales in the showroom. Roadkill Nights has been a hit since it moved to M1 four years ago from the Pontiac Silverdome. Last year, 44,000 people walked through the gates and another 4.1 million tuned in via Dodge’s social media channels.

Roadkill’s popularity inspired Dodge to expand the event to Friday this year as a two-day affair.

Families who experience the Hellcats will be pleased to know that there are Challengers and Chargers with less, um, hellish capabilities. While the Dodge siblings are available in three different  Dream Cruise-friendly V-8s, they can also be had in a more-civilized, 300-horse all-wheel drive V-6 package for all-season driving.

Dodge Charger Brand Manager Ashton Munoz says the all-wheel drive muscle cars have proved popular with all-wheel Charger sales hitting 18% of sales volume last year.

But there is no doubt the bad-boy Hellcat has remade the brand, vaulting sales to No. 2 in the segment behind only the Ford Mustang.

“I see more and more moms with kids driving around in Hellcats,” Munoz says.

They’ve no doubt been infected by Roadkill’s need for speed. When they aren’t watching drag racers launching down Woodward, drifting in a Hellcat, watching freestyle motocross stunt shows — or bellying up to food trucks across the grounds — fans can climb into a simulator and test their skill behind the wheel of an 840-horsepower Challenger DSRT Demon, the most powerful Dodge on the road.

MotorTrend Group’s Roadkill Nights Powered by Dodge

Events take place on Woodward Avenue near St. Joseph Mercy Oakland in Pontiac, and at the nearby M1 Concourse motorsports track.


Through 9 p.m.: Events at M1 Concourse


10 a.m.: Gates to M1 Concourse open, with muscle, vintage and classic cars; Dodge Challenger and Charger SRT Hellcat thrill and drift rides; and dyno testing

11 a.m.: Drag racing begins on Woodward with open qualifying sessions

11:30 a.m.: Freestyle motocross show (behind bleachers)

4 p.m.: Open drag racing qualifying concludes

4:15 p.m.: Leah Pritchett and Matt Hagan top fuel exhibition burnouts on Woodward

4:45 p.m.: Celebrity shootout begins on Woodward Avenue

5:45 p.m.: Top 8 shootout driver announcements

6 p.m.: Sheriff Showdown: Macomb County’ Sheriff Wickersham and Oakland County’ Sheriff Bouchard will compete in a drag-racing grudge match

6:30 p.m.: Flamethrower and wheelstander exhibition run

8 p.m.: Freestyle motocross show

8:30 p.m.: Top 8 shootouts begin (small tire and big tire)

9 p.m.: Dodge Challenger and Charger SRT Hellcat thrill and drift rides conclude; top 8 winners awards ceremony