Payne Q&Auto: The big cat is back at Jaguar

Posted by hpayne on July 1, 2016


Long derided as an “old person’s car,” Cadillac’s reinvention as an athletic brand has drawn headlines and rave reviews. But it is not alone. Caddy’s Old World English peer, Jaguar, is also shaking off its arthritic image to re-emerge as the track star of old.

It’s more “Chariots of Fire.” Less Duke of York.

Like Cadillac, Jaguar’s resurgence is happening under new corporate governance. Cadillac has separated itself from Mama GM’s apron strings and set up shop in the Big Apple under the experienced hand of Johan de Nysschen – not un-coincidentally the ex-chief of competitor Audi North America. Meanwhile, Jaguar – cast out by Ford – has been adopted by Tata. The Indian conglomerate has given Jaguar a big studio in which to paint and the classic marque is making great auto art again.

Watching over North American operations is another German-badge defector: Joe Eberhardt, 52, a 25-year veteran of Mercedes.

“If you go back in Jaguar history, there is a lot of DNA that is reborn in today’s cars: performance, design, and value. That’s what gave Jaguar a fascinating run in the ’60s and ’70s,” said Eberhardt at the Aspen, Colorado, media launch of the cat’s latest litter, the XE sedan and F-Pace crossover.

“(Then) the cars became more exclusive and … and we had some durability and reliability issues. So it was important in launching these cars that we redefine what Jaguar stands for.”

For all its noble British lineage, Jaguar these days appears a luxury version of Japan’s Mazda: a niche performance brand built on a sports car. Mazda has the Miata. Jaguar the F-Type.

Here’s Mazda spokesman Tom McDonald last June: “There’s a little bit of Miata in every car we make.”

And here’s Eberhardt: “There is a little bit of F-Type in every product. It’s absolutely key and core to the brand.”

With the big cat back and roaming the landscape, Jaguar now follows with its two most important vehicles: the entry-level XE and it first-ever SUV, the F-Pace.

Whether it is the tail lamps on the light, aluminum-bodied F-Pace or side cues or its double wishbone suspension, F-Type infuses F-Pace. “Ian Callum is the one best designers in the business and he is developing a face for the brand,” says Eberhardt.

Cadillac too has bolstered its lineup with the lightweight XT5 crossover, promising more SUVs to come. But though Cadillac and Jaguar benchmark to the Teutonic trio of Merc, BMW, and Audi, Jaguar is less eager to go head-to-head in every niche.

“We debated that internally for a long time,” says Eberhardt. “You have to mention all expectations of a car. We have to cover the luxury portion, have to cover design … but maybe give it more performance just to give someone a reason to try.”

That focus – and the brand’s own elite status as a racing success – allows it to go after the biggest luxury fish in the pond, Porsche, in a way few can. Jag was the 1950s King of LeMans after all. That status undisputedly belongs to Porsche now after its 18th 24-hour win this month.

“The Macan dynamically is a target,” says Eberhardt with a hint of admiration in his voice. “(It) is almost a perfect car. We are almost there, but we are also $12,000 cheaper.”

It’s not just cost where Jaguar smartly conforms to market reality. It also recognizes that being an eccentric Brit has more negatives than positives. Reliability matters. “We needed to take reliability out of equation, so we launched Jaguar EliteCare,” says the Jaguar executive. “We have the best-in-class, bumper-to-bumper 5-year or 60,000-mile warranty.”

The cat’s swagger is back with its best lineup in years. Its success is crucial to taking on – not only the German competition – but the rising costs of government mandates. Short term, Jaguar is confident that it can meet global warming-driven mpg mandates with its Range Rover-proven diesel technology, even as it girds for fallout from VW’s diesel cheating scandal.

“Customers want the benefits of diesel which are greater range and better fuel economy,” says Eberhardt. “We don’t know what the reaction of these segments will be to diesel, but in a couple of months we’ll see.” Already a success in Europe, he expects the F-Pace’s US diesel take to be around 20 percent.

But by 2025 the road will get steeper as California, for example, outright mandates manufacturer sales of zero-emission, battery powertrains.

“That’s 15.4 percent (of sales) to be exact,” says Eberhardt. “We’re in discussion with (California) because the implications for that are much bigger for us given our scale. There will be EVs in our future.”


Payne: Not the same ol’ Jaguar vs. Caddy

Posted by hpayne on June 29, 2016

The 2017 Jaguar F-Pace and the 2017 Cadillac XT5 are

Is it too soon to name the 2017 Automobile All-Rookie Team? Of course not. You didn’t have to wait until season’s end to know that LeBron James would make the cut in 2004. Or that Kyrie Irving would get his votes in 2012 (jeez, no wonder the Cavs just won an NBA championship).

And you don’t have to wait until January for me to tell you that the Jaguar F-Pace and Cadillac XT5are two of the best new players in the luxury game.

Compact crossovers haven’t lacked for drama in the last year as Porsche debuted the asphalt-dicing Macan, Lincoln its stylish MKC, and Lexus handed the design pencil to Darth Vader to sketch the most menacing ship this side of a Super Star Destroyer. But the 2017 model year is notable for two old-world nameplates crafting two distinctive new-world performance crossovers.

Written off as senior citizen brands, the F-Pace and XT5 not only make a statement in the most 21st century of segments — compact SUVs — but they do it with style and athleticism that redefine both nameplates. Both feature innovative, lightweight chassis. Both sport car-like agility. Both are “tweeners”: one-size-fits-all compact crossovers that try to split the difference between the armada of vehicles German competitors throw at the segment. For example, BMW’s X1, X3, X4 and X5. Or Mercedes’ GLA, AMG GLA45, GLE.

Print up the T-shirts. “F-Pace and XT5 Against Everybody.”

The all-new Jag might have the easier path given its family lineage. The F-Pace badge is a nod to the F-Type, the ferocious King of Cats in the vein of storied Jaguar sports cars like E-Type and XJSS. That history gives Jaguar performance cred alongside Porsche, BMW, Mercedes and Audi that are also imprinting their athletic DNA on crossover siblings.

A friend is happily married to her Cadillac. I showed her a picture of the F-Pace. “Ooooooh,” she moaned with desire. Jaguar, you marriage wrecker.

In contrast, Cadillac is an icon of roomy luxury, not track heroism. While the F-Pace’s slit headlamps and round taillights evoke the crouched F-Type, the XT5’s handsome shield grille and vertical LED light signature recall the CTS and CT6 sedans.

F-Sport’s tapered greenhouse and muscular rear shoulders make it the sports car-lover’s SUV. The Caddy is lit up like Saturday night, a sculpture for the well-manicured.

By now some of you may be screaming “Cadillac isn’t a rookie!” with the same passion that 7-footer Arvydas Sabonis shouldn’t have been a 1996 NBA all-rookie pick because he was already an established international star. Fair enough. After all, while the XT5 is a new badge, it follows Cadillac’s first entry in the compact space, the SRX. But the XT5 a different animal. The gym-toned XT5 has shed 278 pounds from its predecessor.

Under the skin, XT5 and F-Pace are more akin.

The XT5 claims the title as class lightweight, but match AWD models and the F-Pace’s aluminum chassis proves slimmer. Still, the Caddy’s C1XX architecture is so good it makes the three-row GMC Acadia feel athletic. Both Jaguar and Cadillac took journalists to some of the most challenging roads in the country to show off their steeds — roads normally reserved for sports car tryouts.

I flogged the XT5 over California’s Lake Elsinore hills. I chased Porsche Cayennes, harassed hot hatches and generally acted like a sedan instead of a tall stagecoach. I got to stretch the F-Pace’s legs over the Colorado Rockies alongside its sedan stablemate, the Jaguar XE. Both are built off the same architecture and both sport double-wishbone front suspensions usually reserved for sports cars.

So unexpectedly delightful was the bigger F-Pace’s handling that it tempted my fellow journalists into three speeding tickets. As the Jag ads say: “It’s good to be bad.”

Part of that naughtiness is Jaguar outfitting its tallest cat (in addition to a base, 2.0-liter diesel) with the same 340- to 380-horse supercharged V-6 engine as its XE R-Sport. Rotate the dial to SPORT mode, stomp the accelerator mid-corner and it will nearly jump off the road. At a Rocky Mountain high 12,000 feet with no guardrails I found this mildly alarming (Jaguar might want to dial back the throttle sensitivity a tad).

The Caddy’s sole V-6 option can’t match the cat’s horsepower, but its 310-horse, 3.6-liter V-6 is no slouch in motivating the lightweight frame. It would be wise for Caddy to follow Jaguar’s three-tier engine strategy (a 2.0-liter turbo is rumored on the way) to broaden the car’s appeal.

But the Brit, too, could learn a thing or two from the Yank’s interior. Assuming you can get into the Jag’s cabin.

With its raked windshield, I had difficulty bending my 6-foot-plus frame into the awkward opening without putting the seat all the way back. Once inside, the Jaguar is surprisingly spartan. I wasn’t expecting an old-world, wood-paneled executive suite, but the Jaguar lacks character save for the dramatic rotary dial that emerges from the center console like Arthur’s scimitar from the proverbial lake. The center stack is featureless and the instrument panel is fitted with a simple plastic hat.

The Cadillac, meanwhile, boasts beautiful dash lines arcing from instruments to glove box, and the all-new CUE system floats above the console. The stitched leather, Alcantara and wood trims in my $62,000 Platinum edition should be in a display window in the Somerset Collection. Jaguar’s stitched black leather looks coach class by comparison.

The Cadillac also makes excellent use of its e-shifter to open up storage — perfect for a small purse or bag — below the console.

Jaguar’s optional heads-up display is a feature Cadillac innovated. But the F-Pace’s regrettable stab at an Audi-like “virtual cockpit” display is half-baked. Better to stick with the standard chrome dials.

Not that the XT5 is perfect. Jeep’s Grand Cherokee roll-away troubles have put a negative spotlight on so-called “monostable” shifters. Cadillac’s version has proper fail-safes in place so you can’t mistakenly leave the car dangerously in neutral. But the monostable’s operation reminds why vehicles like the Jeep and BMW X1 have shed the feature. It’s clumsy. Better to take the Jag’s simpler, rotary-dial route – every bit the space saver and more intuitive to boot

Look out Deutschland, these two rookies have enormous potential. Who gets Rookie of the Year? The Caddy is the better total package. But who am I to deny the animal appeal of the cat? Oooooh.

2017 Jaguar F-Pace


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

Price: $41,985 base ($70,735 V-6 R-Sport as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter inline 4-cylinder; 2.0-liter diesel 4-cylinder; 3.0-liter supercharged V-6

Power: 240 horsepower, 251 pound-feet torque (4-cyl.); 180 horsepower, 318 pound-feet torque (diesel); 340-380 horsepower, 332 pound-feet torque (V-6)

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.1 seconds (V-6 as tested); top speed (governed): 155 mph

Weight: 4,102 pounds (3.0-liter V-6 as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 18 mpg city/23 mpg highway/20 mpg combined (V-6)

Report card

Highs: Gorgeous styling; balanced handling

Lows: Undistinguished interior; half-baked “virtual” instrument panel


2017 Cadillac XT5


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

Price: $39,990 base ($63,845 Platinum AWD as tested)

Power plant: 3.6-liter V-6

Power: 310 horsepower, 271 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.7 seconds (Car & Driver est.); top speed (governed): 130 mph

Weight: 4,257 pounds (AWD as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 18 mpg city/26 mpg highway/21 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Elegant interior; nimble handling for an SUV

Lows: Balky, monostable shifter; more engine options, please



Payne: Best. Cadillac. Ever.

Posted by hpayne on June 27, 2016

Is the 2016 Cadillac CT6 the best car Cadillac has

In the Age of Ute, Cadillac’s decision to roll out a full-size flagship sedan – the CT6 – has been met by rolled eyes from many in the auto press. Tough crowd. But as I tell anyone in the luxe shopping aisle these days: You gotta drive this car.

It is the best. Cadillac. Ever.

The luxury brand’s comeback has been longer and more frustrating than that of Tiger Woods. Like the golfing great, Caddy deems anything short of No. 1 a loss. As Woods benchmarks to Spieth and McIlroy, so has GM’s luxury brand benchmarked to BMW, Audi, and Mercedes – the kings of performance luxury.

Like Woods, Cadillac may not make its way back to the top. The competition is formidable. Not just the German gold standards but also a new player named Tesla which has electrified the full-sized sedan market with the Model S.

On its way back Caddy has put up some impressive product. Stuffed with a Corvette Z06 engine, the ferocious CTS-V sedan is a supercharged rival for BMW M5 and Mercedes-AMG S63. The handsome ATS sedan is an asphalt carving knife, challenging its German peers for best handling car in segment. Combine that handling with a 464-horse, twin turbo V-6 and the ATS-V rivals the legendary BMW M3 for best performance sedan.

But with each entry there have been as many minuses as pluses. The Vs’ chain-mail grille and high price tags makes them a tough sell. The ATS’s backseat would cause anyone but small children leg cramps. And all suffered from a CUE infotainment system that had owners running from their cars screaming. To beat the most desired brands on the planet, “as good” isn’t good enough. You have to build superior, transformational (see Tesla) product.

For the first time, Cadillac has done it with the CT6.

The CT6 advantage begins with a look. The Caddy’s loooong hood is a head-turner. Credit rear-wheel drive architecture compared to the outgoing XTS which was less elegant giving its cab-forward, FWD proportions. With most of its bulk set over the rear wheels, the car has a crouched, catlike stance. Gorgeous. Combined with the signature, vertical Caddy running lights and a sculpted face – wide mouth, headlights pushed to the edges – the 6 demands you get to know it better.

You gotta drive this car.

Inside the Caddy is equally impressive. Gone is the (trying-too-hard) cut-and-sewn dash replaced by an elegant, horizontal layout. Significantly, the CUE infotainment system has been overhauled. Its maddening slider controls have been replaced by more workable buttons, and the screen – once lazy to the touch – jumps to your command. The change comes too late for my friend Dicran – he ran screaming from his XTS to buy an Audi A6 after one CUE snafu too many. And after a lease with Audi’s maddening, remote rotary dial control, he’ll come back to Caddy for a second look.

With a workable interface at last, the console’s deeper details impress. Apple Car Play and Android Auto come standard. The imposing, yacht-like gearshift slides easily along its track next to twin upholders. A clever phone slot hides just under the storage console – itself brilliantly designed with a left-and-right hinge so that it is equally accessible by driver and passenger.

The roomy rear seat is a nice place to be even for a 6-foot-5 circus freak like me. Adjustable seats, multi-functional center armrest. I could lounge back there all day – were the CT6 not such a blast to drive.

You gotta drive this car.

Because once Caddy has sucked you in with eye candy, it reveals its transformational trick: a 3,657 pound-chassis that makes this car handle like a sports coupe. That’s 600 pounds lighter than a Mercedes S-Class. Or 1,000 pounds lighter than Tesla. More than any big car I’ve driven, the CT6 demands to be thrown into turns like an oversized Miata.

All this for just $54,490 – or $30,000 cheaper than a BMW 7-series. My only caveat is the base 4-cylinder doesn’t belong in it (well, two caveats – the eight-speed tranny can be curiously clunky at low speeds). Not because it can’t pull 3,600 pounds (it can), but because a 4-banger just doesn’t sound right in this upscale athlete. The CT6 is a no compromise package – so don’t compromise by choosing anything but the superb, all-wheel-drive, twin-turbo V6. Still 900-pounds lighter than a comparable Tesla, still (at $72,170 loaded) $10k less than a base 7-series.

Best Cadillac ever.

“Oh, I thought you were just saying that as a good Detroiter,” said my friend Julie as she slipped into the CT6. “But this really is a stunning car.”

Cadillac has a lot of baggage. Keep building CT6s and it won’t be carrying it around for long.

2016 Cadillac CT6


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

Price: $54,490 base ($72,170 AWD, twin-turbo V-6 as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder; 3.6-liter V6; 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6

Power: 265 horsepower, 295 pound-feet of torque (turbo-4); 335 horsepower, 284 pound-feet of torque (V-6); 404 horsepower, 400 pound-feet of torque (twin-turbo V-6)

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.1 (twin-turbo V-6, Car & Driver est.)

Weight: 3,657 pounds (base, 4-cyl, RWD); 4,085 pounds (Twin-turbo V6, AWD as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 22 mpg city/31 mpg highway (turbo-4); EPA 19 mpg city/29 mpg highway (V-6); EPA 18 mpg city/26 mpg highway (twin-turbo V-6)

Report card

Highs: Athletic proportions; modern, elegant interior

Lows: Turbo 4-banger out of place in this athlete


Payne: BMW M2 the max

Posted by hpayne on June 22, 2016

Detroit News auto critic Henry Payne has fallen hard

As regular readers of this column know, I race Porsches and think Stuttgart’s engineering is second to none. But when it came time to buy my first ultimate-performance car, I walked past a Porsche Boxster/Cayman and bought a 2001 BMW M3. With a young family of four, I needed the rear seats. And with its ginormous grip and 3.2-liter, 333-horsepower straight-six, it was more fun than a free season pass to Cedar Point.

Produced from 2000-2006, the M3’s so-called E46 model is the best car I’ve owned. Fifteen years later and I’ve fallen hard for the blue-and-red M badge again. This time it’s an M2.

But in truth it’s the second coming of my M3.

The E46 was Goldilocks-perfect. Not too hot, not too cold. Just right. I could flog it at Waterford Raceway on Sunday, then drop my boys off at school on Monday on my way downtown. With its state-of-the art chassis dynamics and engine, it promised sports car performance in a luxury package. Yet its $46,045 price tag wouldn’t tempt you to rob a bank. The high-revving engine was ferocious, yet I could put my boot in it over Michigan back roads without scaring myself to death.

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Subsequent generations of M3 — like “X-Men” sequels promising ever more firepower — adopted steroid-fed V-8s and twin-turbo V6s. The current 2016 M4 (as BMW now calls the coupe version of its M3 sedan) rocketship produces 425 horsepower, 406 pound-feet of torque and will set off an entire block of car alarms with a barking, 3.7-second zero-to-60 mph blast. It’s a tornado in a teapot. A Corvette with a Bavarian accent.

And it can cost an eye-watering $83K. Too much car, too much money. At a loaded $56,445 the M2 badge is back in my wheelhouse again. BMW advertises it as a return to its turbo-2002, 1970s roots — but more accurately, M2 re-creates the DNA of the six-bangers that made M legend.

Begin with the walk around of the Long Beach Blue Metallic, 365-horsepower, turbocharged Velociraptor in my driveway. Oh, drool. And I thought a glimpse in the rearview mirror at my E46’s menacing mouth made knees knock. The M2’s front air intakes look like they were taken off an F-22 jet fighter.

It’s not just their size, but the exquisite sheet metal surfacing — integrated with BMW’s traditional kidney grille — that creates one of the most distinctive Bimmer faces since, well, my M3. Unlike current 3-series fashion, the headlights are in their proper, separate place at the corners — not melting into the grille like too-wet risotto into your filet mignon.

In the tradition of my E46, the M2 is superhero version of a 2-series coupe. Muscular flanks. Wheel wells stuffed with sticky Michelin Pilot Sports (now Super Sports) so wide they look like the Hulk’s biceps ripping through Bruce Bannerman’s shirt. The 19-inch, forged aluminum wheels are right off the bigger M4 (as are the aluminum suspension bits), so the Hulk analogy fits.

The greenhouse is set back further than my 2001 steed, lengthening the swollen hood and giving the effect of a greyhound sitting back on it haunches ready to sprint. Those haunches finish in a quartet of exhaust pipes that hint at the power within.

It is the engines that differentiate these beasts.

On a test track in Almost Heaven West Virginia, my E46 is a raspy tenor, its un-boosted scream reaching crescendo at 8,000 RPM redline. The M2 is a throaty baritone revving to 6,500 with buckets of low-end, twin-scroll turbo-assisted torque. Like the latest, turbo Porsche 911, the response is instant. No lag. There’s a rule of racing thumb that, as long as your engine is three liters or less, you can floor the pedal at corner apex without fear of the rear-end stepping out. Disregard that for the M2.

There is so much low-end grunt that I had to modulate its throttle out of corners. SPORT + mode is easier to access (a simple button push as opposed to my M3’s more complicated, at-start procedure) — turning off ABS and increasing engine response.

Engines aside, the two cars feel related. Rowing the gears, both manuals are a bit gummy (inferior to my favorite, tight Porsche and Mazda Miata shifters). The interiors are similar even with the M2’s expected digital advances of navigation, push-button start, keyless entry, satellite radio and so on. (How many trips did I make from Detroit to West Virginia in my old M3 while fishing for radio stations? In the M2 I tuned to the Warriors/Cavs NBA game on Sirius XM and never missed a shot.)

Similar length and width. Same 3,400-pound girth. Same 10-inch rear rubber. Separated at birth. Only the M2 has been improved.

In SPORT mode, downshifts are rev-matched. Upshifts growl like a hungry Rottweiler. Corner grip is astounding — not knife-edge Porsche-sharp but close. The M2 pulls G-loads of .99. My old M3? .87. Acceleration is lip-curling.

The M2’s brakes — shared with Big Brother M3/M4 — are a revelation. My M3 chirps under maximum exertion, its ABS throbbing. The M2 grips instantly, like a bulldog to a postman’s leg.

A modern M3/M4 or Corvette C7 requires big tracks like Mid-Ohio to fully realize their potential. But I can wring the M2’s neck at smaller, local tracks like Waterford or Gingerman and leave satisfied. Same on the road.

On I-64 back to Michigan, a Nissan Z sidles up for a challenge. I downshift to fourth gear. Buckets of torque. Goodbye Z. State Route 35’s two-lane twisties are an M2 playpen along the Ohio River.

In the 15 years since my M3 the choice of performance cars has exploded.

“We’re in the second golden era of performance cars,” Fiat-Chrysler gearhead exec Tim Kuniskis likes to say. There are $40K hot hatch VW Golf Type Rs and Ford Focus RSs and nimble Camaro SSs. And at the top of the heap, the $56K M2 for the same price (inflation adjusted) as my 2001 M3.

I pay a visit to Cedar Point in the M2 to snap some pictures of the car with the park’s epic roller coasters. It brings back memories. Memories of a Dad in an M3 planning a trip with his young family to the famous Millennium Force for the first time.

If that were me today, we’d hop in an M2 and enjoy the coaster ride home.

2016 BMW M2


Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, five-passenger sports coupe

Price: $52,995 base ($56,445 as tested)

Power plant: 3.0-liter, turbocharged, inline 6-cylinder

Power: 365 horsepower, 369 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed manual or automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.2 seconds (Car & Driver)

Weight: 3,415 pounds (manual)

Fuel economy: EPA 18 mpg city/26 mpg highway/21 mpg combined (manual); EPA 20 mpg city/27 mpg highway/23 mpg combined (automatic)

Report card

Highs: Get-outta-my-way styling; buckets of torque

Lows: No Apple CarPlay or Android Auto (c’mon, guys, all the mainstream compacts got ’em)


Payne, Q&Auto: How Porsche 911 stays No. 1

Posted by hpayne on June 22, 2016


The Porsche 911 is a living legend. Now in its 53rd year of production, it is the world’s most iconic sports car badge. It is the dream car of every young gearhead. It is the winningest race thoroughbred on the planet.

And yet, it is an anachronism.

With its engine still hanging out the rear like its Ferdinand Porsche-designed forbearer, the Volkswagen Beetle, the 911’s architecture is a museum piece next to modern, midengine peers from Ferrari, McLaren and Audi. Heck, even today’s front-engine VW Bug has abandoned its great-grandfather’s butt-dragging design.

One might expect the Porsche to be in the Smithsonian next to the corded phone and video cassette. And yet, here is the new, lusty 2017 Porsche 911 setting the bar once again for balanced, jaw-dropping performance. That unmistakable, fast-back shape is the product of years of high performance testing, highly skilled engineers and a tried-and-true architecture.

“We always want to offer our customers the best concept from the best engine, best body and chassis. The combination of all these makes the 911 — including the rear-placed engine,” says engineer Bruno Kistner, 47, based in Weissach, Germany. “Its day-to-day usability, race track performance and design are unique. It’s a Porsche.”

As drivetrain manager, Kistner puts the 911’s so-called boxster, flat-6 cylinder engine through some extraordinary calisthenics to make sure it’s not just production worthy, but track worthy, too.

“Porsche thinks differently,” he says. “You won’t see this type of testing at BMW or Audi. They would say it’s a nonsense test.”

It’s this relentless pursuit of perfection that has kept the 911’s rear engine architecture competitive — while at the same time applying its own inherent advantages. Better braking thanks to less weight shift to the front wheels. Better interior room for rear seats. Better, lower center of gravity.

And traction, traction, traction. With more weight over the rear wheels, the 911 has consistently ranked with all-wheel-drive cars for best acceleration off the line.

“We had to use an all-new AWD drive system on our latest 911 to finally make the AWD drive car accelerate any faster over the rear-drive car,” says Atlanta-based Frank Weismann, 35, product experience manager for Porsche Sportscars North America.

That formula also pays dividends at the race track. “Look at Long Beach,” says Weismann, speaking of Porsche’s recent, dramatic victory there. “It’s a street course where it’s essential to accelerate out of a corner. The 911 was all over the Corvette.”

Every 911 is baselined to track performance. And every 911 is baselined to its predecessor. Porsche’s heritage runs deep — and though the company makes midengine Caymans and front-engine SUVs, that heritage is synonymous with the rear-engine 911’s distinctive silhouette.

“The 911 evolved out of the 356 that evolved out of the Beetle. So there is that lineage, and at Porsche a lot of the development has to do with tried-and-true basic layouts and dependability,” Weismann says.

But tradition doesn’t mean ignoring progress. Indeed, even as the 911’s iconic architecture has remained familiar, it has been on the cutting edge of development over the years, from water-cooled engines to turbocharging to rear-wheel steering.

The 2017 911 is no different — for the first time employing turbocharging in its base model.

“It’s a revolution to bring it into the 911 — and not just for the (high performance) 911 Turbo,” says Kistner. “The techniques are just an evolution. To change from a naturally-aspirated engine to a turbo we could have done it differently. But we only changed the displacement from 3.4 to 3.0 — that’s almost nothing. Again because we wanted to figure out the best combination. We don’t call it turbo downsizing — its turbo right-sizing.”

Porsche’s challenges don’t just come from competitors such as Ferrari and Corvette — but from governments as well. Kistner and Weismann see coming global warming regulations as the most challenging the industry ever has faced. And not just the US government’s 54.5 mpg-by-2025 mandate.

“In Europe, a significant revision in 2018 (will be) how the fuel economy cycle is conducted,” says Weismann. “That’s making Bruno’s job a lot more challenging. Emissions mandates are not the only reason (for the 911’s turbo engine) – but government’s an important factor.”

Kistner sees the turbo as a bridge to other technologies as rules tighten. Will we see an electric-hybrid 911 someday? Kistner is mum. But whatever the energy source, you know the 911 will be hanging the engine out the back and leading the pack up front.

Car and Truck… and SUV of the Year Awards

Posted by hpayne on June 21, 2016

Recognizing an altered automotive landscape where SUVs have become the vehicle of choice among consumers, the U.S.’s longest-running, independently judged auto award will honor the year’s best sport utility in its own, separate category.

The North American Car and Truck of the Year Award will henceforth be known as The North American Car and Truck/Utility of the Year (NACTOY). The 2017 prizes for outstanding car, truck and SUV will be announced Jan. 9 at Detroit’s North American International Auto Show.

Previously, SUVs had been lumped together with pickups for truck of the year. But as utes have expanded well beyond their body-on-frame origins, their definition has morphed to include everything from giant, pickup-based Cadillac Escalades to sporty subcompacts like the Mazda CX-3 and Mercedes GLA.

“SUVs’ booming popularity is changing the auto industry,” said Mark Phelan, NACTOY president. “Customers use SUVs for everything from work to family transportation to off-road recreation. The NACTOY jury recognizes that with the new award.”

Some SUVs have also become known as “crossovers” — since they share the high-riding position of trucks, yet are built on unibody platforms like sedans. Discussion among NACTOY’s 60 jurors — an independent group of journalists representing newspapers, magazines, television, radio and websites across North America — had intensified in recent years as the definition of truck did not seem to adequately represent the diversity of vehicles. The author of this article, Henry Payne, is a jury member.

In 2016, for example, the playful, 101-inch wheelbase, 2.0-liter Mazda CX-3 was pitted against the stump-pulling, diesel-powered, 152-inch wheelbase Nissan Titan HD pickup — as well as the soccer mom-friendly Honda Pilot and luxurious Volvo XC-90 — for best “truck.”

It was awkward. In the end, the Volvo took the award.

NACTOY’s award expansion coincides with a change in its stewardship. Founded in 1994, the awards were overseen by an organizing committee until this year, when that structure was replaced with officers: president, vice president and secretary-treasurer.

The officers are: president Phelan, vice president Matt DeLorenzo (managing editor-news, Kelley Blue Book), and secretary-treasurer Lauren Fix (auto critic for multiple television and radio outlets). Former organizing committee members Chris Jensen, Tony Swan and Lindsay Brooke make up a temporary advisory committee.

The jury kicks off its awards deliberations for 2017 models this month by identifying eligible vehicles. The list will be whittled to three finalists by Dec. 6.

Payne: How Fiat saved Mazda’s Miata

Posted by hpayne on June 20, 2016


Thanks goodness for the Fiata.

In partnering with Mazda’s MX-5 Miata to resurrect the classic Fiat 124 Spider — thus the nickname “Fiata” — Fiat Chrysler not only gained a halo sports car for its struggling Italian brand, but likely saved the most celebrated small sports car of the past 25 years.

“The possibility exists that without our partnership with FCA, there may not have been a business case to produce the fourth-generation MX-5 Miata,” says Robert Davis, Mazda’s senior vice president of U.S. operations.

The critically acclaimed 2017 Fiat Spider is the latest addition to an American performance product renaissance. From the Dodge Challenger Hellcat to the Ford Focus RS to the Subaru BRZ, the motoring public has not had such a buffet of affordable performance iron since the 1960s. As Tim Kuniskis, Fiat Chrysler’s head of passenger car brands, likes to call it: “The Second Golden Age of the Performance Car.”

But U.S. automakers are facing the costliest wave of government regulation since the 1970s: So-called CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) gas mileage rules from Washington mandate average vehicle fuel economy of 54.5 mpg by 2025. California mandates that 15.4 percent of vehicles sold by 2025 be electric- or hydrogen-powered “zero-emission vehicles.” Combined with tougher safety regulations and increased consumer demand for navigation and driver-assist features — electronic enhancements unheard of just a decade ago — the cost of developing a new car can run into the 10 figures.

So when Mazda contemplated the fourth generation of the Miata, a green light was not assured, even as the frisky roadster has come to define the Japanese-based manufacturer’s “ZOOM ZOOM” image that covers everything from its 3-model sedan to its mid-sized CX-9 crossover.

The MX-5 is the best-selling two-seat sports car ever with more than 1 million sold since 1989 — but with annual production of just 15,000 cars it’s a relatively low-volume toy. Given the car’s bespoke platform — not shared with any other Mazda — its business case is tenuous. So for the first time in its history, Mazda looked for a partner on Miata production.

“Cars have gotten more expensive with safety and emissions requirements,” explains IHS Automotive Senior Analyst Stephanie Brinley (and an MX-5 owner). “Look at the first Miata compared to the current car; it’s night and day in terms of equipment.”

Meanwhile, partnering with Mazda was an opportunity for Italy’s Fiat which was struggling to gain an identity in the U.S. market after its merger with Chrysler. Like Mazda, capital-starved FCA faces enormous challenges to meet looming government regulations.

“If you look at where FCA is at and where are the most important places to put our money, a 124 Spider heritage car might not be at the top of the list,” said Bob Broderdorf, director of Fiat North America, at the Spider’s media launch in San Diego this month. “Unique partnerships allow us to bring a car like this to market.”

Fiata was born.

Mazda’s rear-wheel-drive soft-top was the perfect platform for Fiat to launch the Spider’s comeback. The MX-5’s proven production record was an added bonus to a quality-challenged Italian automaker stuck with the nickname “Fix it again, Tony.” The two cars roll off the same Hiroshima assembly line and share chassis, switchgear, even infotainment systems – their skins and drivetrains the only significant differences.

“For Fiat it was an easy way to expand the lineup, and they have enough of a history with sports cars to credibly pull off another one,” says Brinley.

The result are two fun-mobiles starting at just $25,000, a throwback to 50 years ago when European sports cars from Fiat, Alfa, Lotus, MG and Triumph were topless fun. In 1989 the Miata resurrected that era and now, ironically, is being sustained by one of the vehicles it aimed to recreate.

But with automakers girding for a harsh decade of regulation, will the Second Golden Age last?

“Performance and tech are . . . intermingling to pay homage to these originals before additional CAFE regulations and changes to the marketplace kick in,” says Broderdorf. “Particularly with electrification.”

FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne has made no secret that he would like to partner with General Motors or another, larger company to share the R&D investment required to meet those challenges. With fewer resources, smaller manufactures are entering into more symbiotic partnerships to sustain lower volume models that are still essential to brand image and youth buyer outreach. Subaru developed the BRZ sports car and rebadges it as a Toyota 86. And Mazda builds the Toyota Yaris iA in Mexico off its Mazda 2 platform.

Fiata may be the future of many more industry marriages.


Payne: The fun-tastic Fiat 124 Spider

Posted by hpayne on June 15, 2016


At a Google media test drive of its marshmallow-shaped, autonomous car last year, an Aussie colleague put it straight to CEO Sergey Brin: “Are you going to take away the fun of driving cars?”

The bearded, elfin tech billionaire didn’t miss a beat. On the contrary, he mused, after the drudgery of a week commuting in a self-driving pod on crowded freeways, drivers will want a sporty getaway car in the garage for weekend romps in the countryside.

Brin might have something like the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider in mind.

Sharing the platform with the grin-inducing Mazda MX-5 Miata, the much-anticipated comeback of the ’60s Italian icon is the antithesis of the Google bot. This sensuous, topless, affordable video-game-on-wheels — call it a “Fiata” — demands to be driven. It’s more fun than a wet Disneyland log flume ride with Kate Upton.

In my own rendition of Brin’s transportation future I endured a traffic-choked, hour-long shuttle ride last week from San Diego airport to my hotel. Then I awoke next morning to drive the Spider across Southern California hills to an autocross course in the parking lot of the San Diego Chargers’ Qualcomm Stadium home. I imagine this is what every day in heaven is like.

Actually, it’s what my weekends were like as a West Virginia youth when I accompanied my father on drives across the mountains in his tiny Porsche to autocrosses in Columbus or Belle Fountain, Ohio. So endures our love affair with the automobile. The winds of time may blow, but the flame never goes out. That was the 1960s Golden Era of the Automobile when muscle cars roamed Woodward and European roller skates ruled parking lot autocrosses. Cars like Fiat 124s, Alfa Romeo Spiders, Lotus Elans, Triumph TR6s, MG MGBs.

It was an epoch that was all but wiped out by the oil crisis and Big Government mpg meteors that imposed huge costs on carmakers. As reduced fuel prices and increased technology have converged, “The Second Golden Era” — as Fiat-Chrysler motorhead exec Tim Kuniskis likes to call it — has bloomed and muscle and mirth once again fills today’s showrooms.

The Miata was the first throwback to the ’60s glory years and has spawned a wealth of imitators from the Honda S2000 to the Subaru BRZ and Toyota 86 (formerly the Scion FR-S). Affordable front-engine roller skates that are as much fun to drive to the autocross as they are between the pylons.

The Fiata fans the flame further.

It is a rich irony that the Miata now sustains one of the cars it was created to emulate. The days of small, niche sports car manufacturers are past. Mazda and Fiat need each other to build enough volume to make their fun-mobiles financially viable — just as Toyota and Subaru team to make the 86 and BRZ twins. Both Miatas and 124s roll off the same assembly line in Hiroshima, Japan.

Should you get a Miata or 124? I dunno. Whatever flips your switch. It’s like a choice between the Wrigley Doublemint twins. You can’t go wrong either way.

These rear-wheel-drive cuties are tossable fun, but drive them back-to-back and their subtle differences echo their different brands. Mazda caters to the edgier, ZOOM ZOOM crowd — the saucier Fiat will attract a more stylish customer.

Atop Mazda’s short 90.9-inch wheelbase, the 124’s driver’s seat is a happy place to be even for a 6’5” giant like myself. The passenger seat is another matter — with my knees pressed against the dash, it’s as cramped as Delta coach class.

When rain threatens? With a sweep of my arm, I covered the cabin with the soft-top as easily as pulling over a down blanket in bed. On road the familiar Miata steering, switchgear, short-throw gearbox (the best manual this side of a Porsche), and suspension make for hours of topless driving pleasure.

Fiat has mated that box to its own MultiAir, 1.4-liter, 160-horse, turbocharged engine (to accommodate the extra turbo torque, Fiat actually used the last-gen Miata tranny — but I defy you to tell the difference) also found in the more raucous Fiat 500 Abarth. Despite sporting one more tailpipe than Miata, the Fiat’s quieter tone is instantly apparent. The MX-5 wants to make noise. I am boy racer, hear me roar!The Fiat is more refined, less intrusive for long drives through the Italian — er, American — landscape.

The Miata’s suspension setup is a tad edgier too, as is its styling. With its angular headlights and sharper lines, this Japanese Rottweiler looks to be in permanent attack mode. The 124 is curvier, sultrier. Its long hood and flanks add five inches in length — like stilettos on an Italian model. The car’s thin mouth, sculpted hood, and curved hips faithfully trace the 1966 original’s lines — stirring older buyers’ nostalgia — while the modern headlamps and aggressive lower intake update the car for younger buyers.

Trim levels run from the base, $25,990 Classica to the $28,490, leather-upholstered Lusso to the spiciest meatball on the menu: The $29,190 Abarth.

I jumped in the latter — which gains Bilstein shocks and meatier anti-rollbars — for a few spins around the Qualcomm course and it was sizzling, mouth-watering fun. My preference is for the stiffer chassis of a Subaru BRZ, but the softer, shorter-wheelbase Fiat can be tossed around like a ragdoll.

Loaded up, however, my mouth-watering Abarth reached an eye-watering $37K. So I’m happy to report that the base model is just peachy. With the same engine — and only shy some non-essential style bling — the Classica is as raw and sporty as its pricier brothers. Even its wheels are sexy. The bane of base models (lookin’ at you, Chevy Cruze), wheels alone often force me to up-trim. Not the 124. Though an inch smaller than the Lusso, the Classica’s 16-inch discs are just as cool.

The boot will hold two bags more comfortably than the seats hold two basketball dudes, so weekend dates Up North are doable compared to other favorite, trunk-challenged Italian sports cars (lookin’ at you, Alfa 4C Spyder).

Maybe we’ll all be imprisoned in self-driving Google bots one day — but the Fiat 124 will offer an escape. Now if Mazda would agree to build Alfa Romeo Spiders, Lotus Elans, Triumph TR6s, and MGBs on that marvelous Miata platform …

2017 Fiat 124 Spider


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

Price: $25,990 base ($33,635 Lusso as tested)

Power plant: 1.4-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder

Power: 160 horsepower, 184 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed manual or automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.8 seconds (manufacturer)

Weight: 2,436 pounds (manual); 2,476 pounds (auto)

Fuel economy: EPA 26 mpg city/35 mpg highway/30 mpg combined (manual); EPA 25 mpg city/36 mpg highway/29 mpg combined (automatic)

Report card

Highs: Nimble handling; attractive base model

Lows: Cramped passenger seat; sure those plasticky cupholders will hold up?


Payne: Chevy Cruze geeks out

Posted by hpayne on June 8, 2016

Detroit News auto critic Henry Payne drove a 2016 Chevrolet

I attended the 100th Indy 500 on Memorial Day weekend and it was a flag-waving, eardrum rattling spectacular. It was also a Chevrolet theme park.

Chevy sponsors the 500 and promotes its performance products in every corner of the event.

I took 140 mph hot laps in a Chevy SS driven by IndyCar star Sebastien Bourdais. Bourdais and his 32 co-competitors were each ferried by a blue Camaro convertible in the Indy 500 parade — which was anchored by a squadron of Corvettes. Roger Penske led the field to the green flag in a white Camaro SS. Chevy engines powered half the IndyCar field. Heck, even Honda-powered 500 winner Alexander Rossi did his victory lap in a Camaro. It was the most awesome display of Chevy chest-thumpin’ testosterone I have ever seen.

There wasn’t a Chevy Cruze sedan in sight — including the new, 2016 tester I had left behind at my hotel. It was like the scrawny kid with his nose pressed up against the glass looking in at all the cool kids at the car prom.

Tracks aren’t this brainy compact’s thing. High school has its jocks and geeks — and so does Chevy.

The Chevrolets have always taken pride in their gym-toned, V-8-muscled athletes — but these days there are geeked-out, tech-savvy sedans at the family reunion as well. You’ll find Car & Driver on the living room table — and Wired magazine. The Camaros and ’Vettes cut a dashing figure on the playing field, but the Cruzes, Volts, Malibus, Sonics and Sparks have an eye on Silicon Valley with their smart-phone apps, 4G WiFi and driver assist wizardry.

I’m happy to report that the nerds are taking fashion tips from their stylish siblings.

Cruze has borrowed tastefully from big brother Camaro’s fascia with its thin, wrap-around upper grille. (Could it borrow Camaro’s base wheels too? Those things on the Cruze just gotta go.) It’s a marked improvement over the mid-size Malibu sedan’s plastic surgery, which deserves an episode on “Botched.”

Japanese makes may dominate West Coast roads but the Midwest is still Big Three country and my trip to Indianapolis was full of last-generation Cruzes. With their boxier shape and plain, split grille, they looked tired next to my sleeker, coupe-like ’16.

Millennial-friendly interior

Like its Cadillac and Camaro siblings, Cruze lost 250 pounds at the gym. Inside, the instrument binnacle is straight out of a Camaro with ribbed cowl and racy gauges wedged between the RPM and MPH discs.

That’s as sporty as Cruze gets. This Chevy wears Dockers to work, not Air Jordans.

Compact sedan competitors Honda Civic, Ford Focus, VW Golf and Subaru Impreza offer wicked performance variants — but Chevy’s Super Sport cape has been hung in the closet. Motorheads have been buoyed by Chevy’s decision to make a five-door Cruze (coming this fall). Might there be a GTI-like hot hatch in the future? Not likely. Cruze wears a solid rear axle which pretty much telegraphs that it’s not interested in young rubber-burners. Cruise the Cruze over a harsh road dip and you’ll bounce like a basketball off your seat — unlike a more-poised, independent-rear-suspension Civic.

The youth that interests Cruze are millennial techies — for which Cruze is a rolling iGadget. The interior designers must have bunked with millennials for a year because the console fits ’em like a glove. The $20K LS and the $26K Premier editions I drove featured Apple Car Play, Android Auto and 4G WiFi. And to show that jocks think tech is cool, too — the Camaro, Corvette and SS get the same.

The connectivity feature is customer-friendly — and a nod to the reality — that Americans love their phones, their music and their nav systems.

Besides, Google maps blows away every car system I’ve ever used.

On my way back from Indy, I asked MyLink to find the Chick-Fil-A on Interstate 475 west of Toledo. After a multistep process through a variety of menus I … couldn’t find it. I plugged in my Android phone, awoke “Ask Google” and — presto! — found it. Oh, Google you’re good. And so are you, Chevy, for letting it take over your console.

My wife’s Apple Car Play was less impressive if only because the app defaults to Apple’s nav system — which is less capable than the Google app she’s downloaded. Another tech detail likely to rub some the wrong way is Cruze’s stop-start feature, which shuts down the engine at stoplights. Most manufacturers make this feature an option — but nerd Cruze puts fuel economy first.

Fuel efficiency paramount

Still, Cruze is hardly a slug. The straight roads between Detroit and Indy will barely get your heartbeat up, but when passing grunt was needed (like to get around Left Lane Lollygaggers) the 1.4-liter turbo proved impressively punchy. That punch made me pine for more engine options.

While Chevy performance is synonymous with V-8 pushrod power, GM has been birthing an impressive team of small-displacement turbos such as the 260 horse-plus, 2.0-liter mills found under the hood of the Camaro, Buick Regal GS and Cadillac ATS. These athletes have made each other better by sharing their skills — Camaro, for example, is king of the muscle car segment in part because it shares the ATS’s four-banger and taught Alpha platform.

But rather than bringing more muscle to the fight with segment-king Civic and its four, increasingly-capable engine options, Chevy takes the geek route in emphasizing fuel efficiency and alternative powertrains.

Like the Chevy Spark (electric option), Malibu (hybrid-electric) and Impala (natural gas), Cruze is expected to offer a sippy, 1.6-liter diesel … and, of course, the Chevy Volt — a Cruze with a silver beak, electrified powertrain and a high price tag.

In the crowded compact aisle, brands need identity to stand out. Subaru’s Impreza gets noticed with all-wheel drive (note to Chevy: Nerds love this, too). Mazda does its ZOOM ZOOM thing. Ford and Golf flex performance. Civic offers so much variety it can’t be ignored. Motorheads like me might pine for speed, but Cruze is carving its place as a techie superior to Toyota’s Corolla and on par with the Hyundai Elantra.

Let Camaros and Corvettes rule Indy and Belle Isle race tracks. Cruze is starring in “Revenge of the Nerds” — now playing at a dealer near you.

2016 Chevrolet Cruze


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

Price: $17,445 base ($19,995 LS and $26,855 Premier as tested)

Power plant: 1.4-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder

Power: 153 horsepower, 177 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed manual or automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.7 seconds (manufacturer)

Weight: 2,932 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 30 mpg city/40 mpg highway/34 mpg combined (automatic Premier as tested)

Report card

Highs: Loaded with tech; functional, roomy interior

Lows: Cringe-worthy base wheels; a performance option, please?


Lutz’s delicious Destino delivered

Posted by hpayne on June 6, 2016

Billed as the world's fastest four-door sedan, the

The hotly anticipated VLF Destino is being delivered to customers at last. One of its first stops: VLF founding partner and legendary octogenarian motorhead Bob Lutz.

Billed as one of the world’s fastest four-door sedans, the 200-mph Destino is the gorgeous offspring of the marriage of a Fisker Karma chassis and supercharged Corvette ZL1 V-8 engine. Stripped of its original hybrid powertrain, the low-slung, leather-lined four-door is now stuffed with a 6.2-liter, 638-horsepower V-8 hammer under its long front hood that will rocket the 4,300-pound GT from 0-60 in just 3.9 seconds.

The Destino — first seen as a concept at the 2013 Detroit auto show — is the opening product of a partnership between ex-General Motors product chief Lutz, former Aston Martin designer Henrik Fisker and entrepreneur Gilbert Villarreal. While the original Karma chassis was produced in Finland, the Destino is assembled in Auburn Hills.

“I’m over the moon with how the car turned out dynamically — steering, brakes and, of course, Corvette ZR-1 power, coupled with the convenience of a paddle-shifter automatic,” 84-year old “Maximum Bob” said of his new ride. “I’m really happy with color and trim, as well as the spectacular proportions.”

Lutz’s Destino joins his stable of cars, which includes such rarities as a 1971 Monteverdi and a 1952 Cunningham C4-R.

VLF says other customers for the Destino include a “well-known music celebrity” rumored to be Carlos Santana. The Destino carries a sticker price of $229,000, with production planned to be only a few dozen per year. VLF also is tooling its Auburn Hills shop for the ferocious VLF Force One that rocked this year’s Detroit auto show.

Also with a skin designed by Fisker, the Force One is based on a 745-horsepower Dodge Viper skeleton.

Payne: Civic Coupe’s a hoot

Posted by hpayne on June 3, 2016


Spectators usually come to race tracks to ogle race cars. But on a recent visit to South Haven, Michigan’s Gingerman Raceway to flog my Lola 90, the Honda Civic I parked in the paddock got plenty of eyeballs. Is that the new Honda Civic Coupe? When is it coming out? What’s it like?

The paparazzi are starved for the reborn Civic.

After years in the wilderness, Honda got its performance mojo back in 2015 with the introduction of a lower, wider, hotter, bigger, better compact Civic sedan benchmarked to the Audi A3. Civic’s retail sales may not have showed it, but even Honda admitted that they had betrayed the faithful. To make amends, Honda has promised not only the sedan – which has debuted to rave reviews – but a Coupe, five-door wagon, Si, and mouth-breathing, road-eating Type R. No compact lineup can touch King Civic.

I can’t wait for the Type R, but the Coupe at least foreshadows its styling. If the reaction to my wicked looking, six-speed manual, blood-red tester is any indication, the tuners will be lined up 10 deep at Honda dealerships by the time the R arrives.

My Coupe date didn’t start well actually. Only because it arrived in my driveway the day after I returned from testing the new, immortal 2017 Porsche 911 in northern California. It’s like dancing with Beyonce followed by a dance with, well, anyone. Back to Planet Earth.

Among mere mortal compact cars, Civic is impressive even in base form. The manual feels crisp – even after the Porsche’s magic box – making the perky, 158-horse 2.0-liter engine fun to row.

My three-hour journey to Gingerman was pleasant in the quiet cabin, the Civic’s soft-seat and door-rest materials transporting me in comfort. The trip was marred, however, by details Chevy’s upstart Cruze does better: Cruze control (pun-intended) and Apple Car Play and Android Auto. Chevy offers the latter standard, meaning I could have used my Samsung to navigate the Michigan west side’s unfamiliar roads. Kudos to Honda, however, for the (typically) excellent console which gave me not only plenty of space to drop my phone – but a pass through space to charge below.

As for cruise control, the Honda’s steering wheel-mounted plastic buttons not only looked like they had come off a kids toy – the acted cheap as well. Press the PLUS button to increase speed and the car reacted slower than a sloth to an alarm clock.

Lunch hour at race events can be a wonderful time to show family around the track – and test a street vehicle’s envelope. At Gingerman the A3-baseline Coupe showed off its athletic prowess. One of four cars in class (Mazda 3, Subaru Impreza, and Ford Focus are the others) to feature an independent rear suspension, the Civic was noticeably more nimble through comers – even compared to my wife’s all-wheel drive Impreza.

Over an half-hour the Civic showed no signs of brake fade or upset, while the Subaru eventually panicked – hysterically flashing its engine light (an oxygen sensor failure) that led to it shutting off its traction control. Eek! Too many g-loads.

“Pshaw! Amateur!” You could almost hear Civic mocking its Japanese brother.

Point taken, but where the Coupe rally shines is in the paddock. Park it next to a last generation Civic and it is Cinderella transformed.

The new Coupe’s boomerang, arched taillights are a neon Times Square billboard. And while I still prefer the old Civic’s simpler, bullet-shaped profile, the 2016 Coupe’s designer jewelry and “Hot Wheels” rims make it the most dramatic car in class now that the Hyundai Elantra went all conservative on us.

My devil in a red dress, however, remains plenty practical on the inside. Your outsized 6-foot-5 car critic easily folded into the rear seat thanks to Coupe’s easy-slide front seat. Once in back, the Civic’s best-in-class rear leg room is as roomy as the sedan. Which means the Honda can have its dramatic fast back and also fit me. Try that in, say, a Hyundai Veloster.

All my thrashing about on track, of course, made for a less-than-advertised 27.1 mpg on my 400-mile, journey. But (ahem) assuming you don’t fling the Civic around tracks on a regular basis, the little car should be good for 31 mpg – a budget-friendly item for the Coupe’s twenty-something core audience.

I still don’t like the Coupe’s tack-on plastic wear, like the lower rear vents. But then, my styling preferences lie with stealthy Golfs, not (previous-gen) Elantra and Civic drama queens. For those who do, the Honda is your toy.

Wait another year, and that drama shape will come with 300 horsepower under the hood too. It’ll need security guards to keep the paparazzi away at the track.

2016 Honda Civic Coupe


Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, 5-passenger compact coupe

Price: $19,895 base (Manual LX as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter, 4-cylinder

Power: 159 horsepower, 138 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Performance: Zero-60: 6.8 seconds (Car & Driver est.)

Weight: 2,739 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 26 mpg city/38 mpg highway/31 combined

Report card

Highs: Head-turner; roomy back seat

Lows: Platicky controls; sleepy cruise control


Payne: Belle Isle course offers plenty of bang and buck

Posted by hpayne on June 3, 2016

Detroit News columnist Henry Payne poses for a photo

Detroit — The back seat of an IndyCar is a spartan place to be. No cupholders, no climate controls, no legroom.

But the infotainment system is like none other.

Flying at 145 mph down the back straight at Belle Isle in a two-seat, demonstration open-wheel racer, I am struck by the violence of the experience. As a weekend racer of very quick Lola and Porsche sports cars, I am no stranger to racing. But on Belle Isle’s concrete street course bordered by high curbs and unyielding concrete walls, the IndyCar is a bucking, seething bull in a rodeo ring.

My chauffeur in this 2,000-pound, 500-horsepower beast — specially-built to give race fans a front, er, backseat taste of what it’s like to be in an IndyCar — is Gil de Ferran, 48, a retired IndyCar champion who won poles here twice between 1995-2001.

The Brazilian knows the course like the back of his hand. At the end of the straight he hits the brakes like a brick wall — the nearly 3 forward G-loads of braking force pulling the eyes from my sockets — then flings the car right then left through the brutal Turns 7-11 complex. Halfway through the lap, de Ferran and I would be bruised black-and-blue were we not lashed down with five-point seatbelts and our helmeted heads held in place by cockpit liners that resemble giant airline neck pillows.

From Indianapolis’ billiard smooth, 2.5-mile oval, IndyCar racers transition in less than a week to the Dual in Detroit — exhausting, back-to-back, Saturday-Sunday races on the demanding public roads of downtown’s Belle Isle park.

“It’s a street fight,” said IndyCar points leader Simon Pagenaud, who hopes to join a long line of Team Penske talents who have won the series championship, including de Ferran, Johnny Rutherford, Rick Mears, and Will Power.

Twister road

I lapped Indianapolis a week ago with IndyCar driver Sebastien Bourdais. In the front seat of a V8-powered Chevrolet SS sedan. With cupholders. But even though our lap speeds of 130 mph were a full 100 mph below the IndyCars’ breathtaking 230 mph pace, the all-left turn, smooth, banked oval is noticeably easier on the body than Belle Isle’s twisty, concrete road

“That’s what’s challenging about this series,” de Ferran said. “In order to be champion you have to be at a high level at all of these disciplines. It’s not easy to change the chip in your head from one week to the next.”

Coming through the last turn before the pit straight nearly flat out, the IndyCar really bucks over concrete undulations (the only asphalt on the track is the straightaway between Turns 2 and 3). This is one of de Ferran’s favorite two turns on the track — the other is Turn 1 — where he can explore the envelope of the state-of-the-art, carbon-fiber Dallara chassis.

The two-seater is based on the same bones as the IndyCars that will race this weekend. Only the chassis has been lengthened – to accommodate an extra seat — and the driveline changed to house a more durable, quieter, 500-horsepower, 2.8-liter twin turbo V-6 Honda engine with a redline at 7,500 RPM. The current IndyCar engine — a 2.2-liter twin-turbo V-6 — pumps out over 600 horses at a screaming 12,000 RPM.

Helio’s on board

At the Indianapolis 500, I watched on the grid as Lady Gaga slipped into the same two-seater for pace laps with Mario Andretti at the wheel. The car has become a staple at IndyCar events and a celebrity magnet.

Before my go with de Ferran on Thursday at Belle Isle, Red Wings rookie Dylan Larkin suited up for his own ride. With a TV camera shadowing his every move, he flashed a thumbs up before de Ferran lit up the tires and peeled away into Turn 1. Both Gaga and Larkin fit comfortably in the backseat, whereas my 6-foot-5, 220-pound frame is at the limit of the 6-5, 250-pound seat limit.

While the twin-seater is a neck-stretching simulation to what an IndyCar driver feels, the racing thoroughbreds take the game to another level. At 1,610 pounds the single-seat IndyCars are considerably lighter as well as more powerful than the demo. They will pull a neck-snapping 2.5 G-loads in corners — compared to my run’s 1.5 — and over 3 Gs in braking. Put a radar gun on them on the back straight and they will hit 175 mph.

“This track is exhausting,” said Penske driver Helio Castroneves, flashing his trademark smile as he walked by before my run. “But I love it.”

Payne: Escape shows off

Posted by hpayne on June 1, 2016

The Ford Escape sets the standard for the small SUV

When I get a sports car to test, I want to give my motorhead friends a neck-wringing handling demo. When I get a pickup, I want to ford the Manistee and climb Sleeping Bear Dune. When I get a Ford SUV, I want to be in fifth grade again doing show-and-tell.

Check out the kick-open rear hatch. And the self-parking feature. And the hands-free calling. And rear traffic alert. Cool, right?

Well, Ford is back with its latest, 2017 Escape — and it’s time for more show-and-tell.

The Escape is where I always start in the compact crossover shopping department. Now the most popular aisle in the store, small SUVs have leapfrogged sedans as the vehicle of choice thanks to their high ride, roomy backseats and hatchback utility. Add to that Escape’s sporty platform, car-like styling, buffet of engine choices and toy store of tech-tosterone and you have the segment standard.

But in this constant crossover audition, you’ve got to scrap to stay on top as Honda, Hyundai, Kia and Toyota have all presented new products since Escape’s last act.

Does the new Ford keep its crown?

My little sister is all grown up and in the market for a family ute. I made the 400-mile road trip to Charleston, West Virginia, to get her opinion (mine too).

Escape show-and-tell actually begins with a smartphone — not the car. Everything runs on apps these days, including automobiles. Download FordPass from the Google Play store (simple) and you can fire the crossover right up. From anywhere. It’s a handy tool to have in winter when you land at, say, Metro Airport and your frigid vehicle is more suitable for freezing meat than hosting a human being.

A $30K car that remote-starts? Impressive first impression. It gets better.

Okay, sis, let’s do the exterior walkaround. It’s a handsome little devil. The third-generation 2013 Escape was one of the first crossovers to think outside the boxy shape and adopt a more car-like, streamlined figure. But as others followed, the Escape’s mug — apparently inspired by a hotel air-conditioning unit — lacked character. Ford’s mid-cycle refresh has replaced all sheet model forward of the A-pillar to finally give it the handsome, happy grille it deserves.

We climbed in and hooked up Android Auto. Ford and Toyota have lagged rivals Chevy, Honda and Hyundai in introducing apps that let your familiar smartphone take over the console — a rare misstep for the tech-savvy Blue Oval. By introducing Android and Apple Car Play in its highest-volume vehicle, Ford goes a long way to catching up with the pack.

Ford’s whiz-bang cred was quickly redeemed with a self-park demo. Futurists are wowed these days with “self-driving” features like auto-lane changing, lane-keep assist, adaptive cruise control. But for my money there is no better demonstration of auto-ficial intelligence than self-park — a feature the Escape pioneered, and that has even luxury manufacturers playing catch up.

My sister tapped the self-park icon, cruised by an empty space, then sat back as the Ford detected the opening and, well, took over.

Steering wheel possessed by unseen hands, the CUV cut backward, slotting the car perfectly into place. So bewitched was sis that she almost forgot to brake before slamming into the parked car behind us. Self-park is only semi-autonomous after all.

Show-and-tell me more. Well, of course. Return to the vehicle and it will (semi-autonomously) extract itself, too. In the tight confines of cities from Charleston to Detroit, the feature is a ding-saver (if only every parking-challenged idiot had the same ability).

I can’t speak to the MyFord Touch infotainment issues that dogged previous Escapesand drove owners to blow shotgun holes in their center consoles. So infamous was the system that Ford has put MyFord Touch in the witness protection program, never to be heard from again. The Escape boasts a SYNC infotainment update called SYNC 3, which gave us no trouble.

It’s been 15 years since the iPod revolutionized gadget design — but I still enjoy the Escape’s Pod-like infotainment controls which power the console along with attractive climate control graphics. But if the old Escape console looked like an Apple device, it forgot that we need a place to put them. The new Escape happily lifts the control stack — opening up a needed cubby for phones, money, French fries (whatever flips your switch) to go with a bottomless center storage bin that will shame many larger, midsize crossovers.

Ford lives by more than tech alone.

This is a company full of race jocks who take pride in engine development — and the Escape is in a different class with more engines choices than I have socks

You can have any engine in a Honda CR-V as long as it’s a 185-horse, 2.4-liter inline-4. Ford offers a base 2.5-liter 4; a 1.5-liter turbo-4; a 2.0-liter turbo-4; and the 5.0-liter, flat-plane crank, 526-horsepower V-8 that comes in the Mustang GT350 (just kidding about that last one — but it doesn’t hurt to dream).

The new 2.0-liter turbo ups Escape’s already best-in-class horsepower rating to 245 — which, when bolted to Ford’s all-wheel drive system is a real stump-puller (and avoids the legendary torque steer found in the 252-horse Focus ST front-wheel driver). Despite the Ecoboost label, however, the two-oh drinks like a fish (my tester gulped 16.1 mpg under my lead foot). Fuel-conscious drivers will prefer the blown 1.5-liter which was plenty peppy scaling the West Virginia mountains — yet returned in a budget-friendly 25.1 mpg on my trip to Charley West and back.

Speaking of back, the Escape is also the rare SUV that makes the effort to fold its rear seats bone flat — making the interior configurable for a variety of objects. With your arms loaded with said objects, the Escape’s kick-gate feature is invaluable (and has been copied by exotic rides like the Audi A8 and Cadillac CT6). I’ll take issue with the new Escape’s taillights, however — formerly distinctive shards that have been squared off to make the rear look bigger.

Not big enough for my sis, though, who decided that she probably needs the space of … hey, how about that three-row Explorer over there? That’s what Escape show-and-tell innovation does: It gets shoppers into the store.

2017 Ford Escape

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

Price: $29,995 base ($34,875 Titanium FWD and $37,515 Titanium AWD as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder; 1.5-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder; 2.0-liter turbo 4-cylinder

Power: 168 horsepower, 170 pound-feet of torque (2.5L): 179 horsepower, 177 pound-feet of torque (1.5L); 245 horsepower, 275 pound-feet of torque (2.0L)

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Performance: Zero-60: 7.0-9.3 seconds (Car & Driver est.); 1,500-3,500-pound towing (manufacturer)

Weight: 3,552-3,765 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 21 mpg city/28 mpg highway/24 combined (2.5L); EPA 22 mpg city/28 mpg highway/24 combined (1.5L); EPA 20 mpg city/27 mpg highway/23 combined (2.0L)

Report card

Highs: Nice nose job; tasty engine buffet

Lows: 2.0L can get thirsty; can we have the old taillights back?


‘Captain’ Penske will set brisk pace at Indy 500

Posted by hpayne on May 28, 2016


Indianapolis – In celebration of Team Penske’s 50 years in motor sports, 79-year old team owner Roger Penske will bring the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 field around to the green flag Sunday afternoon. Do his four drivers have any advice for him on how to pace the field?

“I told them I’m just going to do my best to keep it off the wall,” chuckled “The Captain,” as he’s affectionately known to his crew.

The Birmingham resident and winningest-ever Indy owner held forth at the traditional Saturday press conference for the pace car driver. Penske will be driving a 455-horsepower, 2017 Chevy Camaro SS. The car will wear an Abalone White livery developed exclusively for this weekend featuring “100th Running of the Indianapolis 500” graphics on the doors and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway wing-and-wheel logo on its quarter panels. The ’17 Camaro bears aerodynamic upgrades that make it capable of a staggering 184-mph top speed.

“The first thing I had to do was pass the physical,” laughed Penske, himself a former race driver, before he could get into the SS.

Penske said he will pace the field for four laps at gradually increasing lap speeds before cranking it up to 100-105 mph on the last lap.

“On the back straight I’ll take it up to maybe 130 to pull away from the field then come in the pits and turn the lights off,” he said. “To think that the drivers are competing at 100 mph faster than that is amazing. As you come down the straightaway it’s narrow. It’s not a big track like Daytona or Michigan or places like that.”

James Hinchcliffe set the pole this year at over 230 mph. After entering the pits, Penske will jump out of the Camaro then up into his pit box and try to help Helio Castroneves to a record fourth win – and extend his own record to 17 wins. A who’s-who of Indy racing talent – Will Power, Juan Pablo Montoya and IndyCar series points leader Simon Pagenaud also will be piloting Penske cars for their captain.

The ageless Penske spent race eve at a typically break-neck pace – attending multiple press conferences, preparing his team, and driving in the annual Indianapolis 500 Parade through downtown.

“Someone will be the winner and I hope it’s us,” said Penske when asked about the significance of the 100th running of one of the world’s most iconic sporting events. “To say you competed here, and you were one of the teams to beat on the 100th goes down in history for our company.”

1 Payne: Q&Auto with Indy elder Kanaan

Posted by hpayne on May 27, 2016


In its 100 years, the Indy 500 has changed lives. And arms.

When Tony Kanaan realized his “dream achievement” by winning the 500 in 2013, the Brazilian star had the Borg-Warner winner’s trophy tattooed on his right shoulder and bicep.

“It’s the race I always wanted to win. The most important race of my career,” says the diminutive, 5-foot-5 car jockey as we sat courtside at a Detroit Pistons game surrounded by basketball giants. Already an IndyCar series champion (in 2004), the win made him a legend in his native Brazil where he has joined a pantheon of racing greats including his childhood idol, Formula One superstar Ayrton Senna. Heck, next to the 500 win, meeting Senna might be his career highlight.

“I first met him at his farm in a go-kart race,” recalls Kanaan “He invited a bunch of guys, and I won and he finished second. I was 16. I beat Senna at 16 on his farm!”

He’s back in Indianapolis this year to vie for another win as part of an elite squadron of drivers racing at 230 mph for the Target Chip Ganassi team: Scott Dixon, Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton. After the 500, he’ll be back in Detroit for the 14th time at one of his favorite street tracks, the Belle Isle Grand Prix.

I talked with IndyCar’s 41-year old senior statesman about Detroit, Corvettes and what the future holds.

Q: Do you like Belle Isle’s “Duel in Detroit,” two-race format?

Kanaan: Double-headers are extremely stressful for the not just the drivers but for the (crew) guys. It’s possible to make a mistake really easy. Glad there is only one and that it’s here.

Q: Do you regret not going to Formula One?

Kanaan: If I had gone to F1, I might not have won a race because if you’re not on the right team it would have gotten old. Competing not to win is hard for me to understand. In Indy, any team can win.

Q: You’re the oldest in the sport at 41? Does that make you the dean of the college?

Kanaan: Me and Helio (Castroneves) are the oldest. I’m president of the drivers’ association – they try to pick the most experienced guy to run. I’ve become the guy young drivers look to for advice. I’m really approachable, not the type of guy who would hide anything from anybody. I looked to Mario Andretti, Bobby Rahal and Al Unser Jr. when I can in 20 years ago.

Q: Talk about Senna and your place in Brazil’s racing culture.

Kanaan: I was always a big Senna fan. My racing hero. I got a chance to meet him and become friends before he passed. He helped me out in the beginning of my career. We can’t replace him, but with the 500 win and my popularity down there, we do a lot of charity events trying to put kids into sports – not just go-karts. It’s good to give back. He built up a legacy there that we can’t afford to let die. You can’t forget your roots.

Q: Where do you live now?

Kanaan: I spend a lot of time in Indianapolis, but my home is Florida. My life is in America now, my kids are American. Although I love my home country, this is where I’ll live the rest of my days. The U.S. is a benchmark for us – we are much more advanced here than in Brazil – so I can take it back and forth.

Q: What’s changed in IndyCar in your 20 years?

Kanaan: We’re the benchmark on safety, which is good. That’s the price you pay to make it better. We’re one of the safest series in the world right now. We create lot of measurements that are used everywhere.

Q: Should IndyCar be competing against F1 globally?

Kanaan: IndyCar is a lot more popular here. We should stick to North America.

Q: What’s your future after IndyCar?

Kanaan: I haven’t thought about when. I’m still very committed to IndyCar. It would be interesting to do endurance racing.

Q: What’s in your garage?

Kanaan: I love every type of car. But one of my favorite cars right now is the new Corvette Z06. It’s yellow. And I have a Mercedes C63 AMG Black Series which is a fun car to drive. The 2013 pace car I won with Indy is the blue Stingray.

For 50 years, Penske has set the pace in auto racing

Posted by hpayne on May 27, 2016

Honda Indy Toronto

When the green flag falls on the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, Roger Penske marks his team’s 50th year in racing.

“The Captain,” as the 79-year-old Birmingham resident is affectionately known, will celebrate the milestones where he always does: on the pit wall. Headset on. Helping manage race strategy for his four drivers — three-time winner Helio Castroneves, Will Power, defending champion Juan Pablo Montoya and Simon Pagenaud.

“I’m not a guy who sits in the suite having a cold beer,” said Penske, who calls the race for Castroneves (Team Penske president Tim Cindric calls the race for Power, Jon Bouslog for Montoya and Kyle Moyer for Pagenaud). “I want to be on the ground.”

Said Pagenaud, IndyCar points leader: “Roger knows everything about everything in the race team. It’s incredible knowing how busy he is. He’s got more passion than anyone I know.”

It’s fitting America’s most iconic track shares an anniversary with its most revered sportsman. A legend who has won at every level of motor sports, Penske also has built the second-largest auto dealer network in the world.

Ironically, the billionaire businessman — a successful amateur racer in his 20s — might have been an Indy driver had his business ambitions not intervened.

“I had a chance to go to Indy and take a rookie test in the early ’60s, but I was working for Alcoa and couldn’t get the time off,” he said. “Mario Andretti took my place. Then in ’65 I became a Chevy dealer in Philadelphia and one of the prerequisites was that I (couldn’t) be a race driver.”

The rest is history.

Penske entered his first, Sunoco-sponsored, car at the Brickyard in 1969, with his first win coming three years later.

“The decision to become a dealer … has really turned out to be the foundation of our company,” he says. “The racing has been a common piece through all our businesses, and has helped build our brand.”

When America’s Super Bowl of motor sports celebrates its anniversary, Penske will be at the helm. He will pace the 33-car field to the green flag in a 2017 Chevrolet Camaro SS — then scramble to the pit wall and try to help Castroneves navigate the grueling 500 miles to a record fourth victory — and give Penske, the winningest owner in Indianapolis 500 history, his 17th.

Adding the Camaro to his collection — Penske paraded all 16 honorary pace cars he’s won at the Woodward Dream Cruise last August — would be “pretty special,” he said. He will stake his claim with arguably the most talented group of drivers he has assembled.

“Juan Montoya is tougher than nails,” Penske said. “Will Power is a series champion. Castroneves with three wins going for his fourth — and now Pagenaud leading the series and has the hottest hand of anybody.”

His best Indianapolis 500 memory? True to his savvy business demeanor, Penske cites a teachable moment — not a triumph.

“In 1994 we took the pole and led every lap but two and won,” he said. “Then we came back in ’95 (and) didn’t make the race. That made us a much better organization. That taught us the lesson: It’s not what you did yesterday, it’s what you do today.”

It’s a lesson he carries with him.

After Jordan Spieth’s final round collapse at this year’s Masters, Penske — who befriended the 22-year-old golf phenom — sent him a letter.

“I wanted to tell him about the problem I had in a similar situation — Indy is the Masters of our sport — and we came back stronger than ever,” he said. “Those experiences in your life that are so public really makes you a better competitor and a better person.”

In a half-century at Indy, Penske has witnessed transformational changes.

“We were running lap times of 150 mph in the ’60s,” he said. “Qualifying was over 230 mph this year. The aerodynamics have changed, which give us downforce so that (cars are) like airplanes upside down. That gives us speeds of 225 through the corners.”

Yet, paradoxically, that speed has come with safety improvements that have made a race once synonymous with fiery crashes a model of safety.

“Soft walls, Hans devices, Nomex suits … the sport has become a technical exercise,” Penske said approvingly.

Though a native of Cleveland with business interests worldwide, Penske has adopted Detroit as his home. A week after the Indianapolis 500, he will be back in the Motor City preparing for a race perhaps even closer to his heart: the Belle Isle Grand Prix.

“In 2007 when we decided we wanted racing back in Detroit, we took on the role as promotor for the city,” he said. “Detroit is the heart of the auto industry in the U.S. and coming here right after Indy … we get two days of national TV, which showcases our city. It’s our ability to give something back.”

This weekend, however, it’s all about the 100th.

And the 50th.

Everyone in the Penske pit knows what it means to their “Captain.”

“It’s not something we talk about all the time because it would freeze you,” Pagenaud said. “Indy is special, but anytime you win for him it’s special.”

Said Penske: “If you can run at Indy — the greatest race in the world — it can change your life and your business.”

Getting to know … Roger Penske

Position: Chairman of the board and chief executive officer, Penske Automotive Group.

Birth date: Feb. 20, 1937 (Shaker Heights, Ohio)

College: Lehigh (BA, 1959)

Family: Wife Kathryn; five children

Career: Alcoa Aluminum (sales engineer), 1959-63; George McKean Chevrolet (general manager, owner), 1963-65; owner of several car dealerships, a truck-leasing operation, and two racing-tire distributors, 1965-69; Penske Corp. (chairman and CEO), 1969-present; United Auto Group (chairman and CEO), 1999-present

Awards: SCCA driver of the year (Sports Illustrated, 1961), driver of the year (New York Times, 1962)

Teams: NASCAR — Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. IndyCar — Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power

Series titles: NASCAR — One (Brad Keselowski, 2012). IndyCar — Two (Sam Hornish Jr., 2006; Will Power, 2014). CART — Nine (Rick Mears, 1979, 1981, 1982; Al Unser Jr., 1983, 1985, 1994; Danny Sullivan, 1988; Gil de Ferran, 2000, 2001)

Indianapolis 500

Track: Indianapolis Motor Speedway (oval, 2.5 miles).

Schedule: Today, Carb Day (NBCSN, 11 a.m.); Sunday, race, noon, ABC

Distance: 500 miles (200 laps)

Pole: James Hincliffe

Defending champion: Juan Pablo Montoya

Payne: SUV Smackdown, Acadia vs. CX-9

Posted by hpayne on May 25, 2016

It's the battle of the sporty midsize SUVs:  The 2017

I’m on the country roads of northern Virginia horse farm country chasing an Audi S7. Through the twisties. Over fox-hunt hills. In a three-row GMC Acadia SUV.

Payne, have you gone mad?

Some background: I lived in northern Virginia for a good chunk of my young adult life. Its Blue Ridge Mountains and leafy forests sprawling west of the nation’s capital make for some of the East’s most beautiful vistas. I would take my first sports car — a little red Porsche 924S — to these roads to play like an unleashed pet liberated from Metro DC’s streets. There were two kinds of cars in the Virginia countryside: galloping sports cars and trucks that got in the way.

Not anymore. These days it is fashionable to write that we’re in the midst of an electrified auto revolution. Maybe. The Tesla Model S is a glorious car though challenged by the same physical realities that doomed EVs a century ago: cost and range anxiety. Meanwhile, a quieter revolution is transforming the light-truck world.

Twenty-five years ago SUVs were built on the same simple, body-on-frame platforms as pickups. Ford Explorers and Chevy Blazers offered utility but were moving roadblocks on back roads. As utes have displaced sedans as Americans’ chariots of choice, however, demand has grown for car-like handling. The 2003 Honda Pilotsparked a stampede to unibody, midsize construction.

Now comes the next generation of chassis. Behold the 2017 GMC Acadia and 2016 Mazda CX-9: They are wolves in sheep’s clothing, sporty midsize SUVs (that is not an oxymoron) on stiffened spines.

I came up fast on the Audi S7 near Hume, Virginia, the big GMC Denali grille filling his mirrors. When traffic cleared, the Audi took my bait. He leaped forward to shake my shadow. But this isn’t your average, hulking SUV. Or even the first-generation, hulking Acadia.

For its Gen-Two Extreme Makeover, Acadia shed an eye-popping 700 pounds through downsizing and chassis light-weighting. At about 4,250 pounds, a three-row, AWD, unibody Acadia is actually lighter than an all-wheel drive, 4,500-pound S7 cruise missile. Over rainy hill and dale, Audi and GMC danced an unlikely duet.

Did I stay with him? Are you kidding?

The $85,000 Audi has 500-gazillion horsepower, tires as wide as the Potomac River and a driver who knew these roads like the back of his hand. He gradually pulled away. But not without a fight. When he turned into the driveway of his multi-million-dollar horse ranch — its house bigger than the Pentagon — I tooted at him. He’d remember this $40K SUV.

That’s because his Audi and my Acadia share more than he knows. Sure, the GMC’s high saddle makes it look like a camel next to the S7 cheetah, but underneath the GMC is built on the same bones as the athletic Cadillac XT5, a midsize ute to rival Audi’s Q5. You’ll recall I flogged the featherweight XT5 — itself 650 pounds lighter than a comparable Mercedes GLE — across California’s curves earlier this year chasing Porsche Cayennes.

The GMC also shares the Caddy’s 310-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6. I like these sibling hand-me-downs. Maybe Corvette will share its 6.2-liter V-8 (as it does with GMC’s hot-rod Sierra pickup) with the Acadia and the next time I’ll put tire tracks over that Audi’s hood. This chariot is a long way from the ox carts I used to see on Virginia roads.

Mazda’s impressive CX-9 is all the more remarkable because it has no luxury jock bro’ with which to share hand-me-downs.

Mazda bakes its ZOOM ZOOM DNA into everything it makes — even its biggest vehicle. The midsize ute goes through the same bonkers performance training as the wee MX-5 Miata sports car.

“Our suppliers look at us kind of funny,” says Dave Coleman, Mazda engineering manager and chief car flogger. “Other companies don’t put their crossovers through the things we do.”

At Mazda’s media demo in San Francisco — where the big ute tamed the challenging Pacific Coast Highway — Coleman showed off pictures of his CX-9 trailering his MX-5 race car. It’s the loveliest tow vehicle (again, no oxymoron) you’ll see. Though the turbo 4-powered Mazda’s tow rating is 3,500 pounds — compared to the V-6 Acadia’s 4,000 pounds — that’s enough for small racers and watercraft.

And when you unhook the trailer, you have a sexy ute to play with — not a big fridge like every other appliance on the road. I regret to say that includes the GMC Acadia, once one of the most distinctive-looking utes at the prom.

While CX-9 and Acadia are trim haulers (the front-wheel drive GMC edges Mazda for class lightweight at just 3,956 pounds), only the CX-9 looks the part.

In downsizing to a more class-competitive size Acadia understandably ditched its pickup-like exterior styling — keg grille, muscular wheel wells, slab sides. But designers also softened the hard edges that make a GMC a GMC. The lack of flair (what, no muscle shirt?) does no justice to the toned bod beneath. Sigh.

The sleek Mazda, meanwhile, is the sultriest three-row ute this side of a Volvo XC90 or Audi Q7. Long hood, shark-like nose, narrow, wrap-around headlamps. Are utes supposed to stir the loins? Its supple curves makes a BMW X5 look like a Bavarian housewife.

Not that mid-size ute customers will cross-shop a CX-9 and X5 — but at nearly half the price, the Mazda gives off a decided European vibe (including best-in-class fuel economy via that turbo-4). It continues inside the cabin where the CX-9 sports an Audi-like, horizontal dash with lush materials and the artful attention to detail of a Japanese artisan (the center console’s interplay of wood and aluminum is pure eye candy).

Nice, yes. But Euro-style has its drawbacks compared to Acadia’s familiar, superior GM interior ergonomics. Acadia’s intuitive touch screen is the tip of an iceberg of useful details: Apple Car Play and Android auto capability, rear-seat alert (if you left a laptop or — ahem — child), second-row captain’s chairs, and a full moon-roof so that third-row passengers don’t feel like they’ve been shoved into an airless basement.

Mazda decided against a full, “dual” sun roof because its top-heavy weight would have thrown off the car’s performance balance. Seriously. That’s how obsessive Mazda is in its commitment to ZOOM ZOOM. It’s not an obsession everyone will share. In which case there is the more livable, luxurious, plenty-athletic Acadia.

When you valet at the horse ranch, however, don’t expect her to turn heads like sweet CX-9’s 10.

2017 GMC Acadia

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

Price: $29,995 base ($35,375 SLE 4-cyl AWD and $47,845 Denali AWD as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter inline-4 cylinder; 3.5-liter V-6

Power: 194 horsepower, 190 pound-feet of torque (4-cyl.): 310 horsepower, 271 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Performance: Zero-60: 6.8 seconds (V-6, Car & Driver est.); 4,000-pound towing (manufacturer)

Weight: 3,956 pounds (base, FWD 4-cyl.)

Fuel economy: EPA 21 mpg city/25 mpg highway/23 combined (AWD 4-cyl); EPA 18 mpg city/25 mpg highway/20 combined (AWD V-6)

Report card

Highs: Lightweight chassis; loaded interior

Lows: Muted styling compared to bold Acadia of old


2016 Mazda CX-9

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

Price: $32,420 base ($41,370 GT and $45,215 Signature AWD as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter, turbocharged inline-4

Power: 227-250 horsepower (87 or 93 octane gas), 310 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Performance: Zero-60: 7.5 seconds (Car & Driver est.); 3,500-pound towing

Weight: 4,054 pounds (base FWD)

Fuel economy: EPA 21 mpg city/27 mpg highway/23 combined (AWD)

Report card

Highs: Easy on the eyes; nimble handling

Lows: No second-row captain’s chairs; glitchy infotainment usability


Will your next pickup have a unibody?

Posted by hpayne on May 23, 2016


Once upon a time, midsize sport utility vehicles like the Ford Explorer meant truck-like, body-on-rail construction. Not anymore. Today, there isn’t a truck-based midsize ute to be found as SUVs dominate vehicle sales and consumers demand the same ride quality as the sedans they replaced.

Will midsize pickups follow suit?

The unibody 2017 Honda Ridgeline, now in its second generation, has reignited speculation among manufacturers and industry analysts that the next generation of midsize pickups won’t be based on traditional truck platforms, but on car-like unibodies like their SUV siblings.

“It’ll be a long trend, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see competitors with unibodies,” says James Jenkins, ex-Honda product planning manager and new Honda public relations chief. “Ten years ago, the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander were the only SUV unibodies, and now you can’t find a body-on-frame in that segment. The benefits of unibody far exceed body-on-frame for midsize pickups, too.”

Kelley Blue Book analyst Karl Brauer agrees.

“You once needed body-on-frame to get the stiffness you needed in a truck,” he says. “You now have the engineering and CAD/CAM (computer) capability to create a very stiff unibody that’s as capable as any body-on-frame. Yet it’s lighter and has better ride quality.”

The Ridgeline debuted to rave media tester reviews in San Antonio last week as it demonstrated best-in-class ride, cabin room, quietness and V-6 fuel efficiency while holding its own against class leaders Toyota Tacoma, Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon in off-road ruggedness and towing capability.

But, industry insiders caution, it’s too soon to write off the body-on-frame truck. Its inherent benefits mean the unibody won’t be the slam dunk it was in SUVs.

Not coincidentally, Ridgeline is based on the Honda Pilot, which revolutionized three-row family SUVs in 2003. While the “original SUV” 1984 Jeep Cherokee wowed customers with its unibody chassis, most manufacturers used existing truck platforms as the backbone for popular SUVs like the Explorer, Chevy Blazer and Toyota 4Runner.

“A unibody pickup was born out of necessity for Honda,” says IHS Senior Analyst Stephanie Brinley, because Honda did not have a truck division. To meet growing sport ute demand, the Japanese company turned to the car-like technology it knew best.

By 2011 even the best-selling Explorer was forced to follow suit as customers flocked to the more spacious, smoother-riding unibody competitors.

Toyota and Detroit’s Big Three would not comment on whether they are developing unibody pickups, though GMC showed a Denali XT hybrid concept truck with unibody architecture at the Chicago auto show in 2008.

Brauer and other analysts say that the towing demands of the full-size truck market mean that Ford F-150s and Chevy Silverados will be body-on-frame for the foreseeable future. Yet, the capabilities of these rugged big trucks will make it hard to convince customers that smaller trucks can get the job done on a unibody chassis.

“Die-hard truck guys will say it isn’t a truck unless it’s body-on-frame,” says Jason Gonderman, editor-in-chief of Truck Trend magazine. Indeed, the first Ridgeline, introduced in 2006, was met with lukewarm sales.

“You have to change consumer perception that a truck that rides as good (as the Ridgeline) on the road is as capable in other things,” says Brauer. “Ninety-five percent of truck buyers will never come up with a situation that this truck can’t handle better. And when you’re not doing trucky stuff, this vehicle is far better.”

Yet even as it shows unibody promise, the new Ridgeline shows its limitations. Unlike its competitors, which can adapt body-on-frame to different cab and pickup box configurations, the Ridgeline will be offered only in a crew cab with a 5-foot box beginning at $27,000. In so doing it concedes 30 percent of the midsize pickup to the smaller, cheaper, “extended cab” offerings from GM and Toyota that start at $20,000.

“The retooling for a unibody is just too expensive to offer different cab alternatives,” says Honda’s Jim Loftus, Ridgeline performance manager.

Nevertheless, Honda is bullish on a segment it sees as part of the broader U.S. market transformation to SUVs.

“The truck segment is up to 60 percent of sales — mostly driven by crossovers,” says Honda’s Jenkins. “Midsize pickup demand is up to 350,000 in unit sales, and I see it growing. People look in their garage and say, ‘I don’t need a big pickup truck.’ ”

Who will be next to go unibody?

Analysts agree that a midsize unibody truck makes the most economic sense for GM — once its generation of Colorados and Canyons cycles out — because the company already makes so many SUVs on its midsize, Lambda and C1XX unibody platform.

But KBB’s Brauer thinks a Fiat Chrysler brand will be the first to jump, given its history of innovation — like Ram’s first-in-class coil-spring 1500 pickup. “I think we might have a unibody Jeep Comanche,” he says. “If you give (FCA’s Sergio) Marchionne a good business case, he’ll take it.”

“Hyundai really wants to get into this segment,” says IHS Automotive’s Brinley of another Asian manufacturer that does only unibody construction. “The Hyundai Santa Cruz concept [a pickup] is out there. Hyundai may be next.”

The answer is not whether, but when. “There is potential there. Trucks don’t need to be body-on-frame,” says Brinley. “You don’t get as beat up with the unibody. There’s space for both.”

Google revs up auto-based Android

Posted by hpayne on May 20, 2016

Google's showcase at its annual Google I/O developers-palooza

Mountain View, California – Google announced a blizzard of car-based Android operating system updates Wednesday as the Silicon Valley tech giant tries to accelerate the convergence of automobiles and computer networks.

Google’s Android Auto app — a sort of digital patch which helps integrate smartphones into more than 100 models of cars — will add the traffic and navigation app Waze. It also brings its Hotwording feature, similar to Apple’s popular Siri personal assistant. Hotwording triggers voice recognition with the words “OK Google.” Users can also utilize Android Auto features outside the car, including voice-enabled calling, messaging and navigation.

The company’s showcase at its annual Google I/O developers-palooza in Mountain View, California, is a Maserati Quattroporte with its infotainment system run by Android’s latest operating system, Android N.

The introduction of Android N, an open-source operating system — giving the car’s console the functionality of an Android phone or Chrome-operated computer tablet — provides a glimpse at a future in which manufacturers may be able to more affordably develop in-car technology, and where autonomous cars will be able to communicate with one another.

“Our open-source Android N system will lower the cost for carmakers to develop AM-FM radio, HVAC, Bluetooth calling, navigation and other features,” said Patrick Brady, director of Android Engineering.

Google’s gambit is not the first attempt by a tech titan to develop an in-car operating system. Microsoft hooked up with Ford to develop its Sync infotainment system in 2007, for example. But Google’s massive investment in automobiles — from the self-driving Google car to its partnership with Fiat Chrysler to test a self-driving Pacifica minivan — points to an effort to make Android the foundation of everything from phones to tablets to cars in order in order to provide a seamless experience from one platform to another.

“This is just the tip of a larger spear,” Kelley Blue Book auto analyst Karl Brauer of the Android N. “It’s an attempt to make Android the default system for vehicle development and lays the groundwork for the self-driving car features we all see coming — such as allowing cars to travel more safely together by talking to each other.”

Gone are the modular component days when consumers could just switch out their radio/CD module for the latest product. But automakers still must develop their own infotainment systems — Chrysler’s UConnect and Ford’s Sync, for example — and then pair them with outside operating systems like Google’s Android or Apple’s iOS. Android N would allow automakers to more affordably develop — and update — car technologies on a standardized platform.

“Automakers seem excited about it,” said Android’s Brady, who added that Google has not yet signed a contract with an automaker. “This will lower their development costs.”

As with its smartphone operating system, Android has partnered with Qualcomm — the dominant manufacturer of smartphone processors — to make its Maserati-based demo. Google’s infotainment system is displayed in a 15-inch screen in the car’s center console and features an Android user interface.

Anton Wahlman, an independent auto analyst who tracks vehicle technology, says automakers might be leery about hitching their horse to one operating system in an industry that has seen volatile change in the last two decades. But he also sees Google’s announcement as evidence of more integration between Android and manufacturers like Fiat Chrysler (which owns Maserati).

Egil Juliussen, an infotainment analyst with IHS Automotive, is more bullish on Google’s technology: “An Android OS for infotainment will have a significant impact on the auto industry. It will take an increasing market share after 2017 and could reach 35 percent sometime after 2020.”

Google also is showcasing a Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra and Mercedes E-Class, which are three of 40 brands with Android Auto capability.

In addition to Waze and Hotwording, Google Android Auto app upgrades will allow automakers to use the platform to develop their own programs. Honda and Elantra will both display their own apps. Google has been slow to roll out apps for use with Android Auto out of concern for driver distraction, says Google’s Brady.

The Google I/O conference is held in Mountain View near the company’s California headquarters in order to update developers on the latest Google wizardry from virtual reality to transportation. Google has been active in the auto space since its marshmallow-shaped autonomous Google car made headlines.

KBB’s Brauer sees Google’s Android operating as a key step toward self-driving vehicles. Though fleets of operating system-sharing, autonomous cars are sci-fi stuff for now, industry insiders predict a future of dedicated lanes for autonomous cars that can safely travel at 100-plus miles per hour while networking with one another to travel just inches apart.

An Android N-equipped car could also communicate with surrounding businesses, allowing passengers to better locate restaurants, hotels and other points of interest.

Payne review: Buick’s sexy, topless Cascada

Posted by hpayne on May 19, 2016

With its raked windshield, sculpted sides and huge,

If you’re a Southern boy (me) or a convertible (the 2016 Buick Cascada that I tested), May in Detroit can be the cruelest month. The calendar trumpets summer, but the weather gods blow winter. My first Memorial Day here in 2000, my Virginia-transplanted family and I packed swimsuits for the beaches of Charlevoix and wound up freezing under blankets in a 40-degree chill. Sheesh. Won’t make that mistake again.

But Mrs. Payne and I did have plans to cruise Woodward topless (the car, not us) when the Cascada arrived May 2. Right on cue, Mother Nature delivered a 45-degree blast. Fortunately, we were prepared.

Rolling up to Woodward at under 30 mph, I toggle the high-tech soft-top down and it disappears under its body-colored tonneau cover. Windows up. Turn on the heated steering wheel. Heated seats at three bars. Climate control dialed to 80 degrees.

Oh, yeah. We’re cruisin’ the boulevard in style.

Heads turn. Mouths gape. And not just because we’re topless in polar bear weather. Or because the 17-second roof stow is the coolest thing this side of a Porsche Boxster or Chevy Corvette convertible (which shares the Cascada system). But because this is one bodacious Buick. Short of the gorgeous Avista coupe which sashayed down the Detroit Auto Show runway last January, the Cascada is the sexiest Buick made.

I fell for it in February when I saw a fleet test car on the road. Attractive on a static show stand, Cascada has a more distinct presence on the road. With its raked windshield, sculpted sides and huge, standard 20-inch wheels, the Buick bears a resemblance to the stunning Cadillac ELR, the best-looking (and worst-marketed) compact car in the GM stable.

That said, my Toasted Coconut-colored Buick convertible is as out of place in Michigan in May as a Southerner in a bathing suit. Cascada’s tanned beach bod debuted to media test drives in Florida for a reason: GM wants the coasts to take notice.

Buick survived the Great Recession because it’s the darling of the Chinese. The brand has been reborn stateside as its Encore and Enclave SUVs dovetail perfectly with our ute love affair. But at its core, Buick is a luxury brand that sells style. And no one knows style like GM’s European Opel design shop, which cooked up the Cascada (Spanish for “waterfall”) in 2013.

With the U.S. market starved of mid-market convertibles, Buick saw an opening.

My Southern buddy, Robert, in West Virginia craves convertibles. His open-top Toyota Solara coupe (last made in 2008) is long in the tooth and his options for convertible replacements are Mustang and Camaro muscle cars. Not his style. The Buick is prettier than the Solara and the brand impresses Big Bob with its bulletproof quality. Buick has quietly been racking up Consumer Reports huzzahs.

His Solara has been trouble free for 10 years. Cascada, you had him on looks and reliability. So, Brother Withrow wants to know, how’s the Buick drive?

Europeans pride themselves on trim figures born of healthy diets. Obesity is so American! Not so our European Cascada beauty. Based on GM’s aging Delta II platform, Cascada is a porker next to newer chassis like the svelte Cadillac ATS and diet-conscious Chevy Cruze (I lost 250 pounds in one generation!).

The Cascada weighs in at a hefty 4,000 pounds — 1,000 pounds heavier than the similarly sized Cruze. That weight is partially explained by extensive bracing to make the convertible more athletic. Throw it around Oakland County’s rolling hills and the Cascada’s compact dimension are rewarding. Over Detroit’s signature rough roads, the big 20-inch wheels can jar loose a little cowl shake — but sunshine states’ smooth asphalt will be much kinder.

Bury the throttle out of a Long Lake ess curve and Cascada exposes another European trait: small engine-itis. With gas at $8 a gallon, the Europeans fitted Porky Pig with a torque-challenged, 200-horse 1.6-liter turbo engine. Put your boot in it, and the four-banger screams away to … a … lethargic … 8.3-second zero-60 time. Oh, how I pined for Solara’s 250-horse V6.

The aged platform also robs the Cascada of talking points like GM’s Android Auto and Apple Car Play apps — standard features on a Cruze, for example, that lists $15K cheaper. Not that I complained much about GM’s old interiors — it’s just that the new ones are so good. So Cascada’s blizzard of console buttons looks like an airline cockpit next to the newer, cleaner system. And the tiny touchscreen display is so recessed that even my orangutan arms have trouble reaching it.

I had to move my seat forward to comfortably fiddle with the controls. My 5-foot-5-inch wife had to use a broomstick. It would have been easy for Buick to shrug off such idiosyncrasies as the compromises necessary for a low-volume, convertible. But happily they added some sweet chunky bits to whet the appetite.

Consider the rear seats. In a Camaro these are leg-chewing benches suitable only for small children. But the Cascada invites rear passengers with an easy, single-pull handle on top of the front seats that automatically moves the seat forward. Climb in, toggle the handle again and the seat floats backward — seat sensors stopping short of your knees. Robert will be flattered by the service — even if the legroom can’t rival the bigger, Camry-based Solara.

Where the drop-top show shames the Solara, it also swallows most of Cascada’s trunk. Where will Floridians put their golf bags? GM caddies to the rescue: Flatten the rear seats and a cavernous pass-through opens to the trunk. Golf bags easily fit in the gaping space.

The beauty of the Cascada and ELR make them prime meat for the coastal sunbirds GM craves. They are also missed opportunities for the General’s excellent plug-in hybrid system that languishes in the non-luxe confines of the Chevrolet Volt. Offer a plug-in Cascada at $40K and it would instantly put dowdy Buick sedans on the hip coastal green list.

Until then, Buick’s crossover lineup will continue to wow — and the $33,990 Cascada will satisfy Southerners’ cravings for a coupe convertible. For those of you cruising Woodward topless in May, just keep the wick turned up to 80 degrees in the cabin — summer should be here around, ummmm, July or so.

016 Buick Cascada


Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, 5-passenger convertible coupe

Price: $33,990 base ($37,385 as tested)

Powerplant: 1.6-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder

Power: 200 horsepower, 221 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Performance: Zero-60: 8.3 seconds (Car & Driver)

Weight: 3,979 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 20 mpg city/27 mpg highway/23

Report card

Highs: Beach beauty; high-tech drop top

Lows: Not enough engine for its girth; trunk challenged