Articles Blog

Is a Cadillac CTS four-banger still cool?

Posted by hpayne on June 15, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so, apparently, they do.

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

I would offer this caveat, however.

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

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

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

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

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

2015 Cadillac CTS 2.0T

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, five-passenger luxury sedan Price: $46,025 base ($65,425 as tested) Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder Power: 272 horsepower, 295 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Six-speed automatic Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.2 seconds (Car & Driver); 133 mph top speed Weight: 3,731 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 20 mpg city/30 mpg highway/23 mpg combined Report card Highs: Miss USA good looks; world-class handling Lows: Rear seat tight long legs; Can’t get that 4-cylinder buzz out of my ear Overall:★★★★

From The Detroit News:

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

Posted by hpayne on June 12, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI

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

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

Posted by hpayne on June 6, 2014

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

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

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

The drivers are no less interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hyundai’s 2015 Genesis belongs in the bigs

Posted by hpayne on May 29, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where’s the logo?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All this for $38,000. Bone stock.

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

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

2015 Hyundai Genesis

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger luxury sedan Price: $38,950 base ($38,950 as tested) Power plant: 3.8-liter, direct injection, V6 engine Power: 311 horsepower, 293 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Eight-speed automatic Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.8 seconds (Top Speed est.); 155 mph top speed Weight: 4,138 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 18 mpg city/29 mpg highway/22 mpg combined Report card Highs: Luxurious bargain; Sculpted good looks Lows: Nondescript rear end; Radar “brick” mars gorgeous grille on premium models Overall:★★★★

Q&Auto: IndyCar star Dixon preps for Belle Isle

Posted by hpayne on May 24, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HP: How do you like Belle Isle?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HP: What’s your daily driver?

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

HP: What’s your dream car?

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


2014 Chevy Impala an ugly duckling no more

Posted by hpayne on May 22, 2014

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

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

Well, the frog has been kissed by a princess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s nice to see boldness rewarded.

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

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

What a difference a year makes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2014 Chevrolet Impala

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger sedan Price: $27,510 base ($39,245 as tested) Power plant: 3.6-liter, direct-injection, V6 engine Power: 305 horsepower, 264 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Six-speed automatic Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.0 seconds (Car & Driver); 149 mph top speed Weight: 3,800 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 19 mpg city/29 mpg highway Report card Highs: Head-turning looks; leg-fitting room Lows: High trunk = low visibility; How about a turbo 4-banger? Overall:★★★★


Happy 65th: Drivin’ the original ’49 Beetle

Posted by hpayne on May 17, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now if I could just find that hubcap.

1949 VW Beetle

Vehicle type: Rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive, five-passenger coupe Price: $1,280 (in ‘49 dollars) Power plant: 1,192 cc, air-cooled, 4-cylinder boxer engine Power: 25 horsepower Transmission: Four-speed manual Performance: 0-60 mph, 28 seconds; 68 mph top speed Weight: 1,800 lbs (est.) Fuel economy: 36 mpg Report card Highs: Roomy; Timeless Beetle shape Lows: Non-synchro gearbox; Cornering is an adventure Overall: Revered like an old friend


2014 VW Beetle GSR: Power supplants flower

Posted by hpayne on May 15, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2014 VW Beetle GSR

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger coupe Price: $29,995 base ($30,850 as tested) Power plant: 2.0-liter, direct-injection, turbocharged inline 4-cylinder engine Power: 210 horsepower, 207 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Six-speed manual Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.0 seconds (Car & Driver); 127 mph top speed Weight: 3,164 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 23 mpg city/31 mpg highway Report card Highs: Turbo-riffic; A treasure of useful gadgets Lows: Mushy manual gearbox; Loud paint job not for everyone Overall:★★★

First ride in Google’s driverless car makes commuting more productive

Posted by hpayne on May 13, 2014

Detroit News auto writer Henry Payne poses with one of Google's self-driving cars in Mountain View, Calif., Tuesday, May 13, 2014. (Sarah Rice / Special to the Detroit News)

Mountain View, Calif. — The great thing about driving a driverless car is that texting is legal. So is checking the Web for news. And taking notes on a pad.

I did all three Tuesday morning while testing Google’s self-driving car on public roads here, near the company’s headquarters. The test was the first time Google has made its car available to the media.

After logging 700,000 test miles on their own, Google Self-Driving Car Project Director Chris Urmson and his team felt their fleet of autonomous Lexus 450h hybrid crossovers was ready for prime time. These guys are bullish on self-driving cars.

“There’s this myth that people love driving,” says Urmson. “But commuting to work in the morning isn’t fun. What if we could let people focus on things like texting that they are already doing in their cars, but do it safely?”

Google's Self Driving Car Is Safer Than You...

Google predicts that self-driving cars could eliminate 90 percent of the 33,000 vehicle fatalities a year, while making commuting more productive and less agonizing.

My three-mile drive through crowded city streets went without a hitch as the driverless Lexus negotiated stoplights, straying city buses, crosswalks — and even the odd jaywalker. Indeed, the experience is familiar to anyone who has driven, say, a new Cadillac or Mercedes with adaptive cruise control. The Google car uses similar radar technology that sets a cruise speed (Google’s technology is pegged to speed limits) and then brakes or accelerates as it monitors other vehicles.

What’s different — and a little freaky — is that the Google car does so much more. Like steer.

Rolling out of the Computer History Museum parking lot (a logical place for our drive to begin, no?), the steering wheel spun right like it was piloted by a ghost. At speed on the four-lane Shoreline Boulevard, the wheel rolled left, changing lanes to prepare for a left turn.

Suddenly a city bus veered toward our lane. The steering wheel vibrated, sensing the moving mass, while the car lightly applied brakes to take potential avoidance action. None was necessary. The Google car picked up speed again, never disturbing my texting.

How does Google car manage all this? Miles of computer code and a Velodyne laser dome.

Befitting the computer nerds who designed it, the laser dome — aka, the lidar — looks like a giant, whirling propeller beanie on top of the Lexus. Containing 64 lasers spinning at 10 revolutions per second, the lidar takes a staggering 1.5 million measurements per second.

In the trunk, a quad-core processor synchs the laser’s 360-degree view with maps of the surrounding terrain (no coincidence that former Google Maps director Andrew Chatham is lead mapping engineer for the car) to navigate a complex landscape of pedestrians, potholes, crosswalks and stoplights — not to mention other vehicles. Cameras at the beanie’s base read stoplights, stop signs and other color-coded cues.

California is one of four states — including Michigan — that authorizes the testing on public roads. By California law, I had to sit in the back seat while two Google engineers monitored up front. But other than answering my questions, the Googlers were wallflowers.

The 450h’s luxurious interior is unmolested save for two computer monitors on the dash that basically take the system’s pulse. An on/off button on the steering wheel allows a driver to switch to manual mode. A giant, red panic button on the center console can reboot everything should the computer have a brain freeze. They say it’s never been needed.

Director Urmson is passionate about the car’s potential. He predicts it will provide mobility to the blind and elderly. But he is mum on its commercial prospects, preferring to perfect the technology first.

“We still have a long road ahead,” he says, acknowledging the system’s high cost. Google won’t discuss development costs.

That said, its use by executives on long daily commutes doesn’t seem far away. California legislation has been fast-tracked to allow use in delivery fleets on predictable routes.

Ex-GM director of Research & Development and University of Michigan Professor of Engineering Larry Burns is a Google consultant who says the driverless car “will bring a period of transformational change.” That means safer, more efficient streets — but with labor disruptions as taxi drivers and other workers are displaced.

While I talked to test-driver Gavino Nestor, the Lexus suddenly slowed as two young jaywalkers hustled across the four-lane in front of us. The braking was smooth. No shrieking tires. No violent avoidance action. When they were gone, we returned to our conversation as the car accelerated to 35 mph and a promising future.

Q&Auto: Marketing whiz finds new roads for Chevy

Posted by hpayne on May 10, 2014

Tim Mahoney, chief marketing officer Global Chevrolet at the Chicago Auto Show in February. Tim Mahoney, chief marketing officer Global Chevrolet at the Chicago Auto Show in February. (Steve Fecht / Chevrolet)

Herd Chevrolet’s sprawling product portfolio under one ad slogan. Make Chevy a global brand. Make Chevy a global brand without selling in Europe. Change brand perception after years of inconsistent product. Sell the busiest year of bowtie product launches in 102 years. And if all that isn’t challenging enough for a new Chevy marketing chief. . . .

Then Cobalt happens.

Fortunately for GM’s biggest brand, Chevy has hired one of the best marketing minds in the business, Tim Mahoney. A soft-spoken hobbit with a quick sense of humor, the 57-year old Mahoney has that Forrest Gump-like knack of being around some of the great marketing campaigns of the last couple decades. But unlike Gump, Mahoney’s presence is no accident. A self-described marketing nerd, this 30-year automotive veteran knows his stuff. Porsche defied purists and made an SUV the best-selling Porsche ever? Mahoney was there. Subaru launched the iconic “Share the Love” campaign? Mahoney was there. VW’s Darth Vader ad is the buzz of the Super Bowl? Mahoney was . . . you get the idea.

The recall gorilla in the room doesn’t phase him. “It’s an opportunity if we do it right,” says the marketing man with the Midas touch. And with products like the new, road-shredding Corvette Stingray and the handsome Impala to play with, you don’t doubt him. My Detroit News colleague, Melissa Burden, and I climbed the Ren Cen mountain to talk with Chevy’s global marketing guru about the “Find New Roads” campaign, Apple, and love.

Q: How do you change Chevy’s public perception?

Mahoney: Great brands are built with consistency and integration. I’ll give you an example from Porsche. Porsche values rested on performance, design and exclusivity. That applied to a 911, to a Boxster, to a 356. That also applied to a Cayenne. So we’re setting an expectation.

Q: How long will it take?

Mahoney: It took two years at Subaru for “Love” to rally grab hold. We just celebrated the first anniversary of Find New Roads in March. The beauty of Find New Roads (is) it’s about possibilities. That works incredibly well in the Middle East, in South America, it works well here. We’re saying American optimism and ingenuity without saying it, right? Because we’re the ones as a culture who solve problems and find new roads.

Q: Most of your career has been spent at niche brands like Subaru and Porsche. How do you connect all the dots in a brand as big as Chevy?

Mahoney: You start with a brand architecture that at a ground level is about quality and value — and then at a differentiating level is a combination of design and performance technology and you start to build that into every vehicle. Corvette and Impala clearly embody what we want to be.

Q: In marketing do you ignore Switchgate or do you embrace it as an opportunity to redefine the brand?

Mahoney: Mary Barra said were going to be judged based on how we handled it, not that we had it. She tells the story that she got an email from a customer who was concerned and she picked up the phone and called them. So she really is walking the talk. And we have a chance to change the conversation with the launch of 4G later this year — we’ll have the ability in the cars to connect up to seven devices. And we have to continue to build great cars because the Cruze is not the Cobalt, nor is this Impala what you rented three years ago.

Q: What have you changed?

Mahoney: The carpet tiles (laughs). I learned from the Japanese and Germans to stand back and watch for a while. As Americans we tend to react too fast and wind up having to go back and fix things. (We need to) get the balance right between the three things that go into every purchase: The emotional connection, the rational component, and the economic piece. Apple didn’t launch the iPad talking about what it cost — they talked about how cool it was.

Q: What does China look like?

Mahoney: Chevy is an infant brand. But for the first time, China sales passed Brazil. In the next 8-10 years the market is going to swell to 30 million cars so there’s room for Chevy. The Manchester United sponsorship will help us there because over 100 million Man-U fans live in China. As soon as we go on their shirt in September it will be like Super Bowl Sunday every week when they play in terms of the number of fans watching.

Lux at under $30K: Buick Regal GS vs. Mercedes CLA250

Posted by hpayne on May 8, 2014

Don’t judge a book by its cover, but we judge cars by the cover all the time. It’s called branding. Consider this week’s comparison between the Mercedes CLA250 and the Buick Regal.

You’re already snickering, aren’t you?

The latest entry in the entry-level luxury class, the CLA250 is traffic-stopping, jaw-dropping, mom-I-gotta-have-it-now gorgeous (see, I’m judging). Everyone’s heard of the CLA because everyone remembers the Super Bowl ad that promised that we didn’t have to sell our soul to the devil, aka Willem Dafoe, to afford the unaffordable Mercedes brand. At last, luxury for all. Merc for the masses. The 30 grand Mercedes.

Buick, meanwhile, is still stuck making I-can’t-believe-it’s-a-Buick ads. “Sure doesn’t look like a Buick,” says granny of a red Buick Regal GS. Such is the penance Buick pays for years of mailed-in designs for the blue-haired set. In a recent survey by Strategic Vision, 48 percent of luxury buyers said they would consider buying a Mercedes (second only to BMW’s 51 percent). Buick? Just 11 percent. Ouch. It’s a long way back from irrelevance.

But just as Buick seems to be getting its mojo back, Mercedes has decided to poach on Buick’s entry-level luxury territory. Not content to rule first class, the German uber-brand is roaming the aisles of business class, winking at the customers. A 30 grand Mercedes versus a 30 grand Buick? Not fair, you say. Have the ref call the fight before it starts, you say. You can’t watch, you say.

Well, don’t judge a book by its cover.

Look inside and the Buick Regal is the real deal. Comparing a Regal GS with the formidable CL250 is not a slaughter, but evidence of how far Buick has come. On horsepower, interior ergonomics, and drivetrain, the GS is superior. Indeed, the CLA250’s shortcomings show that it can’t just drop into the entry-lux market and expect a coronation.

Like the midsize sedan segment, entry-lux has suddenly become brutally competitive. Step on the dance floor and you’re engulfed by wannabe dance partners from every corner of the room. You know the traditional players like Buick and Volkswagen. But here come dressed-up Ford Fusions and Chrysler 200s offering all-wheel drive and powerful engines and electronic add-ons. And European luxury makers are no longer content to wait until you’ve been admitted to the country club. They’re putting their iconic logos on CLA250s and BMW 2-series and Audi A3s to lure younger and younger members.

Mercedes is a looker

I invited the fully attired $43,245 CLA250 and $44,975 Regal GS to the ballroom. Let’s dance.

The Mercedes catches your eye like a model that just stepped off a European runway: Flowing lines, great body, mesmerizing eyes. Your heart melts. The CLA250 is stunning. It should come with its own swimsuit calendar and perfume.

The CLA’s looks are in the family DNA. A descendent of the stunning S-class and CLS coupes, the CLA is slumming down-market with the cheaper, front-wheel-drive class. But its looks don’t suffer despite a longer snout to accommodate front-wheel drive. Flared, air intake nostrils add drama to a fascia already distinguished by Mercedes’ three-pointed star logo in a bold grille. The grille is further bejeweled with chrome flecks that spread outward from the logo like ripples in a pond. It’s stunning. From there the body is a familiar symphony of sexy curves and racy fastback.

Wasn’t Mercedes the plump, conservatively dressed, rich aunt of the lux class? Not anymore. Mercedes coupes have made the German dame desirable again. Match Merc up against anything else in the entry lux class and it is a swan among geese.

The Regal GS does a lot of flapping of wings — fake hood vents here, chrome-tipped exhaust tips there — to get your attention, but it’s no swan. The base Regal’s face is indistinctive, a problem the GS addresses with dramatic, vertical intakes on either side of the grille. These T-bone steak-shaped openings add meat to the Regal’s appearance and hint at the toned muscle under the suit.

If you can get past the CLA’s looks — did I mention it is achingly gorgeous? — the Regal is more than a match for its more-pedigreed rival in performance and interior design.

Both steeds are motivated by direct-injection, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-bangers that provide plenty of torque, though the Mercedes would appear to be overmatched with just 208 horsepower compared with the Buick’s 259 ponies. In practice, however, the compact-size Mercedes is carrying around 600 pounds less than the midsize, all-wheel-drive Regal. So the Regal will get you through Snowmageddon — while the CLA is less thirsty (30 mpg vs. 22 mpg for the GS) and more speedy (0-60 mph in 6.1 seconds vs. 6.2).

Both the Merc and Regal will be looking over their shoulders at the Ford Fusion and Chevy Malibu sedans which also sport 2-liter turbos with comparable acceleration — and less than comparable sticker prices. Didn’t I say this is a competitive segment?

Buick's interior stands out

The comparison gets more interesting on the interior. At first blush, the German’s dramatic, aluminum-brushed theme of oval instruments and air vents sets it apart. But the Mercedes interior is maddeningly inconsistent in its attention to detail.

For example, the Merc’s electronic lane assist is among the best in the business, with a subtle steering wheel tickle notifying the driver of lane drift — yet the CLA’s small, non-touch nav screen is nailed to the dash like a cheap TV in a barber shop. On the one hand, the car smartly shifts to park when you turn off the key — on the other the brake and accelerator pedal are so close together I had to take off my size 15 shoes to operate the car.

In contrast, the Buick is a model of ergonomic competence. From its touchscreen to its sport seats, everything fits like a glove. Neither car gets points for rear seat room thanks to their coupe-like roof lines, but the D-class Regal is much easier on the knees than the C-class CLA.

Young, upwardly-mobile buyers aren’t buying a lux ticket for the back seat, however. They’ve come for the status. Buick and Mercedes covet them. But no matter what the specs say on paper, they want to be seen dancing with dashing Mercedes.

“Branding is an emotional connection,” says Stephanie Brinley of IHS Automotive. “And Buick doesn’t have that button to push.”

Buick is making strides. But the boys in Stuttgart aren’t standing still either.

2014 Mercedes CLA250

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, four-door, five-passenger coupe Price: $29,900 base ($43,245 as tested) Power plant: 2.0-liter, direct-injection, turbocharged inline 4-cylinder engine Power: 208 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Seven-speed automatic with shift paddles Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.1 seconds (Car & Driver); 133 mph top speed Weight: 3,264 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 26 mpg city/38 mpg highway/30 mpg combined Report card Highs: Beautiful lines; torque-on-demand turbo Lows: Cheap nav screen; tight pedals Overall:★★★

2014 Buick Regal GS

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, four-passenger sedan Price: $29,690 base ($44,975 as tested) Power plant: 2.0-liter, direct-injection, turbocharged inline 4-cylinder engine Power: 259 horsepower, 295 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Six-speed automatic Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.2 seconds (Motor Trend); 155 mph top speed Weight: 3,710 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 19 mpg city/27 mpg highway/22 mpg combined Report card Highs: All-wheel drive stability; turbo-riffic Lows: Porky; vertically challenged back seat Overall:★★★

2015 Honda Fit is fitting first car

Posted by hpayne on May 4, 2014

Behold inscrutable automotive nomenclature. Puzzle over Volkswagens named for German winds like Passat, Golf, and Jetta. Smile at the overwrought Rolls Royce Silver Wraith or Aston Martin Vanquish. Try to decipher alphanumeric badges like SS, TLX, and Z06.

Honda just calls its subcompact the Fit.

How simple. How practical. How . . . fitting. Is there any car name that more accurately describes its product? Designed for an active, young demographic, this Swiss army knife of a vehicle adapts to your friends, your stuff, your budget. Priced affordably from $15,525 to $20,800, the Fit is found on the same tool belt as the Nissan Versa, Chevy Sonic, and Ford Fiesta. Yet as smart and utilitarian as it is, this nerd box on wheels retains Honda’s trademark handling.

Honda got the recipe right in 2006 when it first introduced the Fit and sticks to it in the 2015 model, the car’s third generation for the U.S. market.

What should I buy as my first car? young folks ask. The Fit is always on my short list. No coincidence, then, that Honda chose the University of Michigan for the 2015 Fit’s media test drive. Honda parked a dozen of them on University Avenue in central campus. Like oversized iPhones they came in techy-fruity colors like Milano Red, Mystic Yellow Pearl, and Passion Berry Pearl. I’m surprised students hadn’t hijacked them all by day’s end.

Truth is, they didn’t seem to notice. The poor devils walked the Diag like zombies on caffeine. Eyes sunken from consecutive all-nighters. Their spines bent under the weight of backpacks a Marine couldn’t hoist.

But this car is their future. It’s the perfect post-grad vehicle. It’s a rolling backpack, for goodness sake.

Honda credits its interior versatility to rear “Magic Seats.” They tumble, fold flat, and chase sticks (OK, kidding about that last one). But there’s more magic in this car than just the chairs. Improbably, the Fit has gotten smaller while getting bigger. Honda shortened the Fit by 1.6 inches while lengthening the wheelbase by 1.2 inches and increasing the Fit’s best-in-class 52.7 cubic feet of rear cargo room (seats down). By comparison, the ginormous Chevy Tahoe SUV has 51.7 cubic feet behind its second row seat. The best-in-class-interior-room Fit also increases rear legroom by 4.8 inches to 39.3 inches — a number that will make many midsize sedans blush, including Honda’s roomy, 38-inches-of-legroom Accord.

The base Fit is fitter too, shedding 44 pounds and increasing fuel economy to 36 mpg. Yup, that’s best in class, too.

Gotta move boxes and plants into a new apartment? The Fit gives you 4 feet of floor-to-ceiling space. Horizontal room? Fold the front passenger seat flat to open up 7 feet, 9 inches of fore-to-aft space. That’ll swallow a surfboard. Or Shaq O’Neal.

Excuse me while I blab on about that lay-flat front seat. At 6 feet 5 inches I can’t complain about the Fit’s rear legroom. But on a long trip I’ll feel cramped in any car because I can’t stretch my legs. Thanks to Honda’s furniture geniuses, I can sit in the back seat of the Fit and use the front seat as an ottoman. My 6’11” News colleague Bill Wilson loves his 2008 Fit. Buy a ’15 and he can flatten front and rear seats and sleep in it too.

OK, so the Fit has more space than a New York apartment. How does it drive? Like a champ.

If the interior nerds got more room out of a shorter car, you just knew the powertrain wonks were going to squeeze more horsepower from the gerbil wheel up front. Yup, the Fit gains 11 percent more horsepower from the 1.5 direct injection four-banger while also increasing fuel efficiency by 16 percent. Admittedly, the efficiency comes from a droning, Continuously Variable Transmission that has all the soul of a pencil sharpener. But for the easily bored (guilty as charged), the Fit fits paddle shifters behind the steering wheel so you can row the box.

Ricocheting across Ann Arbor, the Fit was plenty nimble. The smaller Ford Fiesta is my favorite subcompact dance partner — but unless you crave the $25 grand Fiesta ST’s power, it’s hard to argue the Fit isn’t the better value.

I will argue with the Fit’s new fascia, which, like the CVT transmission, lacks personality. Where the old Fit greeted you with a smile, the new model’s eye-wear looks like that weird visor X-Men Cyclops wraps around his face. The good news is that other Fit design updates — from elegant door lines to a chrome-accented rear trunk — add character.

Twenty-somethings have enough complexity in their new lives. When they buy a car, Honda is an easy Fit.

2015 Honda Fit

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-door, five-passenger compact Price: $15,525 base ($20,800 as tested) Power plant: 1.5-liter, direct-injection, inline 4-cylinder engine Power: 130 horsepower, 114 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Continuously Variable Transmission (six-speed manual option) Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.5-10 seconds (Car & Driver est.); 110 mph top speed Weight: 2,642 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 32 mpg city/38 mpg highway/35 mpg combined Report card Highs: Roomy rear; Nimble handling Lows: Tight front seat legroom; Soul-less tranny Overall:★★★★


2014 Camaro SS convertible: Cruiser King

Posted by hpayne on May 1, 2014

Spring has finally sprung in Detroit and the thoughts of restless natives are turning to cars, cruising and Woodward Avenue. Has Chevy got a car for you.

The springtime-edition Camaro SS convertible has arrived on dealer lots. Cancel the European family vacation. Forget the second home up north. Write a check for 50 grand and you’ll be the envy of this summer’s Dream Cruise. They say spring comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. They ain’t lyin’. Turn the key on the SS and it sounds like Simba waking up hungry. Groooowwl. Males will drool. Lionesses will purr. Meoooowwww.

Behold the King of Beasts.

I haven’t driven a car in a long time that stirred interest like the SS. It was like chauffeuring a Hollywood celebrity. Cruising Metro Detroit, men and women alike poured from homes and businesses to admire the Captain America-handsome steed with the voice of James Earl Jones. “I’ll park that for you,” teased one feline who looked like Kate Upton’s brunette sister.

My wife would have been jealous if she weren’t transfixed as well. And she’s normally allergic to the muscle cars I bring home. She wanted to go topless (ahem, the car) and go cruising on Woodward all week.

What makes this alpha male tick?

Two things: Looks and power. The Summit White SS convertible is rolling sinew. Under its massive shoulders bulge 21-inch painted aluminum wheels. These saucers are nearly as large as the 22-inchers on the Cadillac Escalade or Chevy Tahoe SUVs. Captain America could slay four Hydra agents with these shields.

Like a lion’s noble nose and firm jaw, the Camaro’s front end is formidable. Extending for what seems like acres, the great snout gives way to a slim forehead of a windshield topped by a mane of blue tonneau rag top. Up front, the SS sports Camaro’s updated face — aerodynamically sculpted for maximum airflow when exercising. Chevy narrowed the headlight cowl and expanded the lower air opening to increase down force over the big front spoiler. The blue-striped hood bulge is rippled with air intakes that work in tandem with the front ducts to suck air through the engine bay.

Engine roar's addictive

Ooooooh, that engine. Behind the Camaro’s signature maw is Chevy’s signature LS3 V-8 — shared with the outgoing C6 Corvette — producing 426 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque. The growl from the vacuum-actuated dual exhaust headers nestled in the new-for-2014 sculpted rear diffuser doesn’t stop at idle .

Step on the throttle and the growl becomes a throaty roar over 4,000 RPM. And like any addiction, it must be fed. I revved it on the open road. At traffic lights. In the parking lot. Roar, Roar, Roar.

The deafening exhaust note helps you ignore the voices in your head saying this beautiful hunk of muscle can be terribly impractical.

The windows are so narrow you’d have better visibility out of a WW2 pillbox. The convertible’s C-pillar is wide enough to obscure the Grand Canyon.

Backseat legroom is scarce. The ragtop handle requires the strength of Zeus to secure into place. And the car handles like a pig. Throw this athlete into a corner and suddenly it’s wallowing about like a linebacker on a badminton court. Thank goodness for traction control.

Clearly, this isn’t a track car. Like a Hollywood celebrity, it just acts the part.


Comfortable cruiser

There are two kinds of performance car. Exhibit A: Stiffly-sprung sports cars that live for twisty back roads. Slashing Porsche Boxsters, agile BMW M4s — even the SS’s chassis-stiffened cousin, the Camaro ZL1. And there is Exhibit B: Comfortable cruisers that rule the stoplights with raw power. Mighty Mustangs, asphalt-pawing Chargers, the Camaro SS. Unlike the ZL1, the SS doesn’t come with magnetic shocks or stiff springs. This is a dragster, not a road racer. Cheetahs rule the rural prairie, lions rule the urban jungle.

On a 60-degree day this April, the wannabe kings were prowling Woodward.

In Royal Oak, I pulled into to a lot full of big cubic inch alpha males. Marking his territory, a Mustang owner sniffed around my SS — musing, critiquing, dismissing. The side vent gills are faked with decals, he pointed. Four square gauges you’ll never use — oil pressure, oil temperature, transmission temperature, battery voltage — hog the center console. The 21-inch wheels hobble hard cornering, and so on.

This Camaro’s just for show! Well, welcome to the strip.

A Camaro partisan could make the same critique of many Mustangs. Track your Shelby GT500 but bring your gal to Woodward in the red GT Premium Convertible. Like a Mr. Universe contest, the cruise is as much about the muscle oil as the muscle. The Camaro SS plays its part well. Chevy’s media materials don’t hide the fact. They lay on the muscle oil. The sculpted new fascia. The 245-watt Boston acoustic sound system. The comfortable (ahem, for front seat passengers), elegant, stitched dash. The perforated leather seats. The white door inlays with aqua blue LED highlights that glow in the dark.

The Camaro is a body-builder’s physique in a muscle shirt. It may not have athletic moves, but who cares when you have biceps that would make the Hulk green with envy. Deactivate the traction control, rev the needle to 3 grand, pop the clutch, and lay rubber tracks out of a Woodward stoplight. Corralling that power in S-curves, however, isn’t worth the effort. Now you know why my wife loves this car. She knows its muscle is for preening, not for terrifying her on the back roads. The SS is a velvet hammer.

With the top down, the revs up, 21-inch tires spinning, 395-cubic inches growling, the stereo crooning, and the ladies swooning — I challenge you to find a greater spectacle on Woodward than this glorious hunk of beefcake.

May has bloomed. Woodward beckons. Your dream cruiser has arrived.

2014 Chevy Camaro SS Convertible

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, four-passenger coupe Price: $41,955 base ($50,635 as tested) Power plant: 6.2-liter V-8 engine Power: 426 horsepower, 420 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Six-speed manual Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.4 seconds (manufacturer est.); 155 mph top speed Weight: 4,172 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 16 mpg city/25 mpg highway Report card Highs: Rude exhaust music; topless at 4,000 RPM Lows: Could use a diet; handles like a pig (see diet issues) Overall:★★★

From The Detroit News:

Q&Auto: Do the D in a Maserati limo

Posted by hpayne on April 27, 2014

Sam Zahr shows off Luxury Limousines' 28-foot long Maserati Quatrroporte. Zahr runs Metro Detroit's most exclusive limousine service featuring a fleet of unique luxury machines. These aren't your average stretch Lincoln Town Cars. From sports cars to buses to SUVs, Zahr's got it. (Henry Payne / The Detroit News)

What’s the hardest part about building a Maserati Quattroporte limousine?

“The transmission,” says Sam Zahr, owner of Luxury Limousine of Southfield and its one-of-a-kind stretch Maserati. “It’s in the trunk with the clutch. That’s a big modification to extend the driveshaft all the way from the engine up front.”

Zahr runs Metro Detroit’s most exclusive limousine service featuring a fleet of unique luxury machines. These aren’t your average stretch Lincoln Town Cars. From sports cars to buses to SUVs, Zahr’s got it. A Hummer? Yup. A party bus with a dance floor? Sure. A pink Escalade? No problem. Walking Zahr’s lot is like visiting luxury row at the Detroit Auto Show — except everything is 30 feet long.

The interiors of these land yachts are appropriately lush. The converted, 2006 model year, 400 horsepower, 28-foot long Quattroporte sports leather seats, wood trim, flat-screen DVD players, and an elegant, cabin-length wet bar (unstocked, by law, limos are BYOB). Like luxury markets everywhere, the limo business is volatile and Zahr has been riding the rollercoaster since he founded Luxury Limousine in 2005. He soared with the 2006 Detroit Super Bowl XL, then blew a tire in the Great Recession. Wedding parties are his staple (Six hours in the Maserati will set you back $650-$850) but Lux Limo is also on celebrities’ speed dial when they come to town. Zahr has seen ‘em all — Miley Cyrus, Eminem, Kid Rock, Justin Bieber.

Does the Bieb prefer the Maserati or Merc? Neither, says Zahr. With his big entourage, the teen idol likes the party bus.

I sat down with the 39-year old Lebanese immigrant to talk limos, cleaning bills, and the American Dream.

HP: Tell me about your fleet.

Zahr: We specialize in luxury. Each car is unique and one of a kind. We have the Maserati limousine, probably the only one in the world. We have a Mercedes S600 limo, Range Rover limo, BMW 740Li, and Lincoln and Dodge Charger that other limousine companies operate. But they have luxury touches that make us stand out from other services.

HP: What’s the most popular?

Zahr: The Mercedes, though the Maserati and BMW are also very popular.

HP: How do you make a Maserati limo?

Zahr: I design my own limos. A night out in a limo is great — but weddings are the bread and butter for this business. I design these limos with the brides in mind — from the seats to the wet bar to making room for them when they come in (to the cabin) with a big wedding dress. We buy the car, then we cut the car, then we build what kind of leather and lighting and sound system we want inside.

HP: Who builds them?

Zahr: American Eagle limousine in Virginia. I’ve had over 10 years’ experience working with them.

HP: What’s your next creation?

Zahr: I’m in the process of making my first in-house limo. We moved (from Dearborn to Southfield) into this bigger building recently and we want to start building our own. I have something crazy coming. We are working on a double-decker bus with up to 60 people upstairs and downstairs. You can have a bachelorette party and bachelor party in the same bus.

HP: Tell me a wild limo story.

Zahr: Oh, man, I have so many stories. Just a couple weeks ago, after the limo driver had dropped everybody off, he came back to clean the limo and someone was laying inside and right next to him was a gun. My driver thought he was dead, but the guy gets up and starts peeing in the limo. My driver called 911 and the police arrested the guy. So I charge the party $500 to clean the limo and then four days later the guy comes in and wants to argue with me!

HP: Tell me about yourself. How did you get here?

Zahr: I was born in Lebanon. I moved here for the American Dream. I moved here when I was 19 and attended Oakland Community College for an associates degree, then transferred to Eastern Michigan and graduated with a Business Information Systems degree. I started this company after I called a local limo company for a Pistons game. The driver was very late; the limo was not nice; the driver was not well dressed. I felt I was misled and I got in an argument with (the owner), and I said because of this experience I’m going to start a limousine business. I found my first two limos in Boston. The first was a BMW X5.


Making cars ‘easy for the queasy’

Posted by hpayne on April 25, 2014

General Motors engineer Matt Gohlke conducts a test with Urwah Khan, 6, for the Human Factors group during General Motors Annual Kids Day event Thursday at the Tech Center in Warren.
General Motors engineer Matt Gohlke conducts a test with Urwah Khan, 6, for the Human Factors group during General Motors Annual Kids Day event Thursday at the Tech Center in Warren. (Jeffrey Sauger photos for Buick)

Any parent knows the terrors of what General Motors calls the “puke zone” on a long road trip. The children are happily reading, or playing on their laptop, or watching a DVD and the next thing you know, you’ve got a motion sick kid and a huge interior cleaning bill.

Fortunately, automakers feel your pain.

GM has enlisted the children of its own employees to improve the location of its ceiling-mounted, backseat DVD players. And Ford Motor Co. testers are guarding against the inevitable by making vehicles more — um — spew resistant.

DVD players are customarily located in the ceiling or on the back of seats (see the Dodge Durango or Hyundai Equus) because scientific research has determined that if a passenger’s eyes are focused on a fixed point — and can see the passing landscape outside the vehicle — then their brains know they’re moving.

“But if our eyes are at a downward angle and do not see the view outside the vehicle, our bodies become sensitive to motion and increase the chance of sickness,” says Don Shreves, manager of GM’s Human Factors engineering group which studies how customers interact with vehicles.

With GM’s three-row, midsize 2014 Buick Enclave SUV, the Human Factors team took its research one step further. They put kids to work during the company’s Take Your Child to Work Day. The goal: determine the best placement of the DVD screen to increase view-ability and decrease motion sickness.

GM researchers set up a sliding track on the Enclave’s roof that could move the DVD player fore and aft. They then monitored the responses of more than 75 kids to determine when the screen was too close or too far away. After crunching the data, Human Factors turned the results over to Buick’s vehicle engineering team, which integrated the findings into the SUV’s final design.

Chrysler also has done extensive research with the result that the rear-seat entertainment system in the 2015 Dodge Durango has been relocated to the backs of the front seats from the ceiling center console. “Chrysler Group takes seriously the issue of passenger comfort to ‘make things easy for the queasy,’ ” says Chrysler spokesman Eric Mayne.

But what of the inevitable backseat disaster?

Ford has it covered. The company’s researchers pour milkshakes down seats to make sure seat belts buckle, and that upholstery and nooks and crannies can be properly cleaned of grit, drinks, and, yes, vomit.

“Accidents happen,” a Ford spokesman said. “We test crevices with crumbs and crap to make sure seats are easily cleaned.”

Automakers’ sensitivity to rear seat occupants is consistent with the American habit of living in our cars. From soccer moms to family vacations, we spend more time commuting in our vehicles than any other major industrialized nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

As a result, even the back seats of pickups have become more refined, while giant SUVs such as the Chevy Tahoe and Cadillac Escalade are outfitted with sophisticated, magnetic-ride shock absorber systems to cushion backseat occupants who once felt like they were riding a bucking bronco.

Like the old, rear-facing station wagon third-row seat, forward-facing third-row seats are increasingly in demand by SUV-buying families — but the tendency toward lightless caves has widened the puke zone.

Designers for vehicles like the Enclave have responded with optional two-panel sun-roofs, as well as providing third-row passengers with their own air conditioning and audio controls.

The attention to detail will save Americans on cleaning bills — and having to stock the back seats with barf bags.


Going to school in the 2014 Ford Focus ST

Posted by hpayne on April 24, 2014

ST Octane Academy. Ford performance school, founded 2014.

Classroom: Miller Motorsports Park, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Spring semester curriculum: Racing 101, Professor Ken Block.

Course description: Students will master handbrake turns and high-G handling in a Ford Focus hot hatch, then apply in an urban autocross and 2.2-mile race course environment.

If all schools were this much fun, we would never leave.

The academy is open to buyers of Ford STs — the sport models of the popular Focus and Fiesta sedans. Tuition is free. Room and board extra. The school is both a perk for ST buyers and an opportunity to bond with their new steeds in an extreme track environment. As an embedded journalist, my participation in the academy was a chance to explore the limits of the 2014 Focus ST — the turbocharged, 252-horsepower Tasmanian Devil that has been terrorizing imports since its introduction as a 2013 model.

Like the SVT (Special Vehicle Team) badge that graces muscle-bound Mustang Cobras and F-150 trucks, ST (Sport Technologies) brings performance to Ford’s compact lineup. It’s a savvy move for a number of reasons: 1) It adds a sports halo to the Ford brand, 2) lures top engineering talent to the company, and 3) attracts motor head missionaries that will proselytize Ford to the unanointed.

“This car is a gateway drug,” said new convert Matt Anderson, a professor at West Virginia University who attended the academy after buying an ST. “I loved it so much I wanted to learn more about racing it.”

Bored with his Volvo, Anderson’s eye wandered last year to the asphalt-chewing, hot hatch Mazdaspeed3. But while cruising Mazda owner forums, Anderson found online missionaries recommending the Focus ST.

“I had never considered a Ford before,” he said. “I knew Ford by the stereotype of not very good quality. But the Focus was cheaper than the Mazda so I thought I would try it. When I test-drove it, it blew me away.”

That’s music to a marketing chief’s ears.

The 2014 ST is one focused Focus. It takes the base model’s natural athleticism to the Kronk Boxing Gym. This muscular bantamweight can dance around a ring and deliver a serious punch. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.

Standing on four soft 235/40R-18 tires and nearly half-an-inch lower to the ground than a stock Focus, the ST looks ready to pick a fight. Like a gym rat in a sleeveless neon T-shirt, the Ford advertises its toned bod with color options like Tangerine Scream, Performance Blue and Race Red. Though the ST’s face bears the Ford family’s Aston Martin-like features, the corners of its mouth are unsmiling. Its headlights seem to narrow. Its big, meshed maw snarls.

 'Hoon-Stick' tricks Under the hood, the snarl gains volume. Ford has equipped the ST with a 2.0-liter Ecoboost engine that spits out a staggering 252 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque. The ST may be a bantamweight, but outside of the 263-horsepower Mazda it outmuscles everything in its class, including the 200-horsepower Honda Civic SI and the 210-horsepower Volkswagen GTI. Indeed, at $29,000, the fully loaded Focus invites comparisons to $35,000, all-wheel-drive, 300-horsepower gorillas like the Subaru WRX and Golf R.

But at the ST Academy, it’s the Focus that’s looking over its shoulder — at its playful, 197-horsepower, little brother Fiesta ST.

Inspired by rally race driver, gymkhana stunt sensation and all-around cool dude Ken Block, the ST Academy is not your typical weekend race school. At Miller Motorsports Park (not uncoincidentally, home to founder Larry Miller’s collection of historic Ford GT40s), Block’s Hoonigan Racing Division has put together a program that is part racing school, part Autocross meet, part Dukes of Hazzard stunt film. The sum of the parts is adrenaline-pumping fun.

Car and driver get their first test in Miller’s paddock doing trick, hand-brake turns. The academy STs come with a vertical, hydraulic handbrake the size of a 2x4 (Block dubs it a “Hoon-Stick”) that can spin a car on a dime (a standard handbrake is less precise). Aim the Focus ST at a parallel parking space, punch the accelerator, yank the brake stalk while disengaging the clutch, and the pocket rocket rotates effortlessly into its parking spot.

Stop. Grin. Rinse. Repeat. Note to Ford: Make the Hoon-Stick an ST option.

The addictive fun continues with a 180-degree maneuver, right-out-of-a-cop-show car chase. And then a reverse 180. And now you understand why owner Anderson says the ST is a gateway drug.

The only complication is that sibling Fiesta ST, with its shorter wheelbase and lighter chassis, does these tricks better (maybe that’s what Ford is up to in inviting Focus owners to the academy — they’ll go home and add a 25-grand Fiesta ST to their garage).

The Fiesta’s nimbleness becomes more pronounced on the academy’s tight autocross course where students must employ the 180, negotiate slaloms and navigate figure-eight turns. Here the Focus ST’s raw edges show as the car blusters about, its 252 horses stampeding the front-wheel drive system, the car’s 3,223 pounds pitching through the slalom. If the Fiesta is a pirouetting matador, the Focus is a raging bull.

But once liberated from the tight parking lot, the Focus really shines.

Eager to tackle Miller’s 2.2-mile East course, the Focus ST roars out of the pits, its prodigious power causing brief torque steer. At speed the Ecoboost engine is a gem — exhibiting no turbo lag while offering power throughout the rev range. Where the overpowered front tires loudly protest in the autocross, the car is easy to rotate through Miller’s long radius corners.

Inside the cockpit, I could tell you the ST sports excellent ergonomics, instrumentation, yada yada — but frankly I didn’t notice. What will matter to its speed-hungry owners is its driveability. Are the seats bolstered? Absolutely. The partial-leather Recaros hold you like a glove under high-G but don’t leave bruises afterward. The shifter? Intuitive. Its throws are short, allowing you to maximize revs in the 2-liter motor as you leap from corner to corner.

“The Focus is so exciting, you can’t help but fall in love,” Anderson said. If all drivers were as well trained at Octane Academy graduates, our roads would be a lot safer. As long as they don’t do too many 180 degree-handbrake turns on Eight Mile.

2014 Ford Focus ST

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger sedan Price: $24,495 base ($29,780 as tested) Power plant: 2.0-liter, direct-injection, turbocharged inline 4-cylinder engine Power: 252 horsepower, 270 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Six-speed manual Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.3 seconds (Car & Driver); 148 mph top speed Weight: 3,223 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 23 mpg city/32 mpg highway/26 mpg combined Report card Highs: Head-turning hot hatch; Turbo-riffic Lows: Torque steer; Chassis could use a diet Overall:★★★★


By the Content of Their Character

Posted by hpayne on April 24, 2014

Detroit — Jennifer Gratz is a model of diversity. The daughter of a policeman and a secretary in Southfield, Mich., she was the first person in her family to apply to college, sporting a résumé that included a 3.8 grade point average, 25 ACT score, and membership in the National Honor Society and student council. She was class vice president. Yet she was denied admission to the University of Michigan because racial preferences stacked the deck against her and her white, Asian, Indian, and Jewish peers by granting 20 points to black or Latino students, on an 80-point scale; a perfect standardized test score, by comparison, was worth 12 points. To end this injustice, Gratz led an ultimately successful ballot initiative in 2006 that wrote into Michigan’s constitution the words of the 1964 Civil Rights Act: “[Public universities] shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin.” No one in recent years has done more than Gratz (and her black colleague Ward Connerly) to advance Martin Luther King’s dream of a racially blind society where students are judged not “by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Courtupheld Gratz’s achievement, and yet this civil-rights pioneer is vilified by Democrats and their media allies as an enemy of civil rights. Such is the intellectual poverty of the modern Left, which argues, in defiance of all evidence, that minorities cannot advance without racial discrimination. ACLU attorney Mark Rosenbaum, who argued before the Supreme Court in favor of racial preferences, said Tuesday that “the big losers are the citizens and the students of the state of Michigan. It’s going to put true educational diversity out of reach.” Rosenbaum’s objection ignores reality. In truth, as Michigan admissions officers will attest, U-M, Michigan State, and other elite Michigan universities have historically benefited minority children of privilege in order to meet their racial quotas, because not enough qualified minorities from the awful inner-city public schools of Detroit, Pontiac, etc. apply to higher ed. What is more diverse? A black private-high-school grad and daughter of a GM executive going to class with a white private-high-school grad and son of a GM executive? Or either of the above attending school with a peer, like Gratz, from a very different socioeconomic background? The New York Times in its coverage (echoing the AP and other news outlets) also chided the decision for allegedly harming minorities: “States that forbid affirmative action in higher education, like Florida and California, as well as Michigan, have seen a significant drop in the enrollment of black and Hispanic students in their most selective colleges and universities.” The Times’ “reporting” ignores the real picture. In truth, racially blind admissions have helped minorities gain that most significant of collegiate rewards: a diploma. Since Michigan banned discrimination in college admissions, the black graduation rate at U-M Ann Arbor has risen from 71 to 78 percent — though it is still short of the white and Asian graduation rates of 90 percent. Students with diplomas are more marketable than dropouts. According to the extensive research of UCLA law professor Rick Sander, the effect of Prop 209 — a similar ban on race preferences passed by California voters in 1996 — has been to increase the number of minority graduates overall despite reduced numbers of minority entrants at elite Berkeley and UCLA. Minority students have entered colleges for which they were better matched — with the result that four-year graduation rates for blacks at UC San Diego, for example, have doubled from 26 percent to 52 percent. That’s a rate nearly on par with the rates for whites and Asians. Prop 209 “has produced better students all around,” notes Sander. Yet the mainstream media ignore this good news because it does not fit their narrative. “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” says Justice John Roberts. That was the promise of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That’s the promise of the 2006 Michigan Civil Rights Initiative. Thank you, MLK, and Jen Gratz.

Behind the wheel of a pre-recall, 2006 Chevy Cobalt

Posted by hpayne on April 21, 2014

"I would allow my son . . . to drive" a Chevy Cobalt, General Motors CEO Mary Barra told a Senate Committee recently. “As long as he only had the ignition key. If you take all the keys off the ring, or use just the ignition key, our analysis is that it is safe to drive." Shot back Florida Sen. Bill Nelson: "I suspect Cobalt drivers would not take comfort from that advice."

Beyond the Beltways’ political fireworks over Switchgate are thousands of Cobalt drivers who are worried about their daily driver.

GM has recalled 2.6 million Cobalts, Saturns, Pontiacs, and other Chevys to replace their ignition switches. I suggest owners do so immediately. But if they must wait (either because of busy schedules or because dealers have not received the replacement part due to production backlogs) I tested a 2006 Chevy Cobalt this week with the original, faulty ignition switch to both verify Barra’s claim as best I could – and to help owners understand how an ignition-induced stall affects their vehicle.

Come with me for a drive in one of those 2.6 million vehicles.

I'm no stranger to vehicle stalls. My wife and I owned a 2005 Chrysler Pacifica with occasional stall issues (ultimately recalled for a faulty power train control module). My Lola race car has gagged with competitors bearing down on me at 120 mph.

I dropped in without warning on the fine people at Paramount Motors in Taylor and asked if they had any used Cobalts for sale from the 2005-07 model years (GM updated the switch sometime in 2007). Yes, they said. With the recalled ignition switch still in place? Yes. Could I take it for a while? Yes.

Perfect. Moment later, I was in the driver's seat of a black, manual-transmission 2006 Chevy Cobalt SS two-door with 112,812 miles on the odometer. I drove it according to GM specs: Key in the ignition and only a companion fob hanging from the chain. I drove it hard over Metro Detroit's pothole-scarred highways and back streets. I drove from Taylor to Detroit to Oakland County and back. At 70 mph on I-94 and the Lodge. Through Detroit’s rugged Hamilton Avenue corridor. I even flogged it over the gutted, gritty gravel of Bloomfield's lake roads (which, ironically, are the addresses for some of Metro Detroit’s most beautiful homes).

During my test, the ignition switch never faltered. The key never slipped back to ACCESSORY from the ON position.

Not involuntarily, that is. Your curious scribe forced it back to ACCESSORY many times to duplicate a stall situation. Click. Or rather: Shloop. One of the problems with the faulty Cobalt switch is that it slides softly from the ON to ACCESSORY compared to 2006 peers like the Honda Civic – or later model Cobalts (I also tested a 2010 model) -- which transition with a firm CLICK. Could the 2006 Cobalt key slide backwards with a lot of weight on the chain? No doubt.

When I simulated the key falling back to ACCESSORY, however, the car did not fly out of control as many GM critics allege. In fact, as the prone vehicle slows it remains drivable with brakes and steering still operable. But the electrics vanish -- radio, instrument panel, airbags, and power steering. Power steering is the crucial loss. For small or elderly drivers – or victims who were possibly impaired - the lack of power steering was surely disorienting. The car takes a lot more effort to maneuver. For that, GM will be held accountable.

Quickly turn the key back to the ON position in a manual transmission and the car continues merrily on its way with all electrics restored. Cars equipped with automatic transmissions are not so forgiving. Unless you have the presence of mind to shift the car back to neutral, power will not be restored when you switch the ignition back to ON. Better to guide the car to a stop by the side of the road. Shift to park. Restart the vehicle.

If all this makes you more uncomfortable than reassured, park it.

The Cobalt’s soft ignition switch is symptomatic of the larger product issues that plagued Old GM and its uncompetitive sedans. Don't get me wrong. The Cobalt SS is a fine car. It's peppy. It's attractively dressed in a rear wing and coupe duds. It’s affordable at $8,000, used. But a comparable Honda Civic SI with 110,000 miles has a resale value of $5,000 more. Why? Because the Honda SI beats it on every detail but power (the supercharged SS equaled the SI’s 200 hp). Its sleek styling. Its intuitive, sculpted interior. Its precise handling. Its reliability.

The Cobalt is history — discontinued in 2010. It has been replaced by the superb (if still aesthetically challenged) Chevy Cruze, which now gives the vaunted Civic a run for its money. . . except Chevy no longer offers the sporty SS for car jocks. Sigh.

2006 Chevrolet Cobalt SS

Vehicle type: Front-engine, two-wheel-drive, five-passenger coupe Price: $7,995 (As tested: 112,812 miles used) Power plant: 2.4-liter, dual-overhead cam 4-cylinder engine Power: 171 horsepower, 163 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Five-speed manual Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.1 seconds (Motor Trend); 139 mph top speed Weight: 2,991 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 25 mpg city/34 mpg highway Report card Highs: Racy styling, roomy interior Lows: Numb handling; drab interior Overall:★★

Bling King: 2015 Cadillac Escalade

Posted by hpayne on April 17, 2014

Would it be inappropriate to cruise through genteel Grosse Pointe with the base cranked and Kanye West’s “Wouldn’t You Like To” blaring?

Would you like to ride shotgun in the Escalade

So why don’t you and your friends get with me and my friends ...

Not if you’re blaring it through the Bose sound system of the luxurious 2015 Cadillac Escalade. Is there any luxury vehicle today with a broader buyer demographic than Caddy’s flagship SUV? From West Coast celebrities like Kanye, Jennifer Lopez and Kobe Bryant to well-to-do East Coast families, the Escalade has become synonymous with cool lux.

As it happens, I was riding shotgun recently ... with Cadillac Escalade Global Product Manager David Schiavone, who says that the high society poles of Escalade buyers don’t seem to repel one another. Celebrities love the cachet of Cadillac; families love the utility.

When you rolled up in the Escalade

Saw that dub you gave to the valet

- Jennifer Lopez, “Love Don’t Cost a Thing”

“And the kids like that Dad drives the same car as the celebrities they watch,” says Schiavone with a smile. After all, how many vehicles come with their own soundtracks?

Escalade buyers have been both the richest and the youngest — average age 52 — among Cadillac customers, defying Caddy’s image as the Geritol brand. Since the Escalade was introduced in 1999, Caddy has poured billions into updating a once stodgy lineup.

The Cadillac CTS sedan now runs stride-for-stride with the best German luxury thoroughbreds and won the 2013 Detroit News Vehicle of the Year. And the 2014 Caddy ATS is the crucial, entry-level sedan that the brand needs to pull in first-time buyers.

But the Escalade is still the bling king. Part sculpture, part truck, part upscale condo, the roomy Escalade is Detroit’s most over-the-top status vehicle. It is the standard bearer of Cadillac’s Art & Science design philosophy that combines edgy styling with advanced chassis engineering. And the brand new fourth-generation Escalade lives up to the legend.

The big yacht gets its superstructure from GM’s body-on-frame pickup and shares many of the same features — auto lay-flat third-row seats, magnetic shock ride control, adaptive cruise control — with the premium Chevy Tahoe LTZ that I reviewed last week. But the $72,700 Escalade is much more than a Tahoe in a tux. It puts OMG in SUV.

“The Escalade is for extroverts,” deadpans one GM engineer. Shall we begin with the lights?

A stack of five LED bulbs illuminate the Escalade’s path — each separated by heat-dispersing heat fins. The vertical light show continues round back where giant LEDs anchor the corners like the red neon signs on Radio City Music Hall. Tail-finned dream cruisers meet the new kid on Woodward’s block. These vertical masterpieces set the tone for the Escalade’s bold, severe, handsome architecture. This is a masculine vehicle.

Cruisin’ in my Cadillac Escalade trickin’

Sometimes like it easy, sometimes

Like it rugged

But like Pink, who penned those lyrics, the Escalade is surprisingly popular with the ladies.

Forty percent of base Escalade buyers are female — a number that jumps to 50 percent with the stretched Escalade XL, which can fit soccer mom’s whole soccer team. Intimidated by the Escalade’s huge five-point chrome grille (which bears a family resemblance to James Bond’s nemesis Jaws), my wife softens to the big hunk when she passes her foot under the rear bumper. The hands-free liftgate rises like a garage door revealing an interior space so large you expect a Caddy ELR to come driving out of it.

Step inside and the macho lines melt into a plush interior. Sure, there are artistic echoes like the five-point design of the CUE infotainment system — imitating the grille outside. But the dash is swathed in hand-crafted, cut-and-sewn leather.

Wood accents abound. And the interior bristles with family-friendly USB ports essential for digital Gen Y. The interior reveals why the Escalade is in a class of its own.

The Mercedes GL gets the trophy as best-selling truck in the large SUV class, but the car-based GL can’t compete with the Escalade’s interior room and truck toughness. Huge storage spaces abound — a center storage bin can swallow a laptop for charging. Really. This isn’t a car; it’s a home away from home, where hectic families can catch up on their way to their next appointment. The Escalade is a 21st century family kitchen table.

At the center of this rolling domicile is the front seat. Calling them seats doesn’t do them justice. Call them thrones.

The most complicated assemblies in the Escalade outside the powertrain, these thrones deserve their own showroom. Heated and cooled, these plush recliners are 12-way adjustable with 4-way lumbar support (what, no pop-up foot rest?). And ... parents, I’ll wait while you take the kids out of the room ... because side impacts often result in deadly temple-to-temple front passenger head collisions, the front driver’s seat comes with its own side airbag that instantly fills the space between the front seats. Genius.

OK, you can come back, kids, because you’ll want to play with the cool, haptic-touch buttons on the console’s CUE infotainment system, now standard in Cadillac products.

Also standard is the 6.2-liter pushrod V-8 that must motivate the Caddy’s three tons of steel, chrome and bling. Segregated from the cabin by yards of sound-deadening material, inlaid doors and laminated window panes, the big pushrod motor quietly goes about its business without a bead of sweat.But if you need a reminder of its awesome 460 pound-feet of yacht-pulling torque, just stomp on the adjustable accelerator pedal and the beast will roar off the line on its way to 60 mph in under six seconds.

Celebrities are a trendy lot, and as the 2015 Escalade rolls into showrooms this spring, an unscientific Jalopnik review of today’s music charts finds that Bugatti and Versace have replaced Escalade as pop icons. Whatever. The Escalade’s place in cool culture is cemented. And perhaps we’ll be spared from some of the less-memorable Escalade lyrics like this ditty from Paris Hilton:

Incentivize nuclear nonproliferation and ratify Kyoto today

You can ride in the motorcade in my hybrid pink Escalade

Paris for President!

Ugh. No wonder GM discontinued the Escalade hybrid for 2015.

2015 Cadillac Escalade

Vehicle type: Front-engine, four-wheel-drive, seven-passenger sport utility vehicle Price: $72,700 base ($83,790 as tested) Power plant: 6.2-liter, direct-injection V-8 engine Power: 420 horsepower, 460 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Six-speed automatic Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.96 seconds (manufacturer); towing capacity, 7,900 lbs. Weight: 5,840 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 14 mpg city/21 mpg highway/17 mpg combined Report card Highs: Sculpted design; penthouse-comfortable interior Lows: Theft magnet; where can I park it in the city? Overall:★★★★

Q&Auto: Ford’s virtual reality pioneer

Posted by hpayne on April 12, 2014

Elizabeth Baron is a Ford Motor Co. specialist in virtual reality technology.
Elizabeth Baron is a Ford Motor Co. specialist in virtual reality technology. (Ford)
At San Francisco’s Game Developer’s Conference in March, virtual reality stole the show with Facebook icing the cake with its purchase of virtual reality startup and goggles maker Oculus for a staggering $2 billion.

But Silicon Valley has nothing over the Rust Belt.

Meet Elizabeth Baron, Ford’s virtual reality and advanced visualization technical specialist, whose team used their Immersion Lab to help develop the heart-stopping 2015 Ford Mustang, introduced at January’s Detroit Auto Show. Deep in the bowels of Ford’s Dearborn tech center, Ford engineers wearing Oculus helmets immerse themselves in real time with colleagues in other labs across the globe. Sitting in virtual cars, they critique and alter everything from windshield wipers to dashboards. Watch a video here.

I strapped on goggles myself for an eye-opening look at the future of car design and American leisure. I crawled over, under, and through a ’15 pony car that existed only virtually. Where gamers might use VR to escape into characters and worlds imagined (a date with Kate Upton? You got it), Ford’s engineers use the virtual world to shape the real one.

I spoke with guru Baron about immersion, Oculus, and the future of VR.

HP: Virtual reality is cutting edge in video gaming and auto design. How are they similar?

Baron: When you are immersed in virtual reality, things respond the way you would expect in the real world. In gaming it’s a level of abstraction because you control what you do, but navigate with a game controller. In our environment you are immersed the same — in an Oculus, for example — but the way you are navigating that environment is exactly like the physical world. You are the game controller. If you take three steps in our virtual world, you are taking three steps in the real world.

HP: Do you see Ford’s technology applied to gaming?

Baron: I would humbly say that there are some things gaming could do to improve simulator sickness. But the limiting factor is cost. The cost of our immersion lab is definitely higher than an Xbox 360 with an Oculus. Oculus is doing a really good thing by putting a rotational tracker in their device and (others are) making you use your body so you are the controller — which is very similar to what we have laid out.

HP: Who makes your system?

Baron: We buy the hardware and integrate it into our systems around the world. We have a lab in Dearborn — soon to be two in Dearborn — and another in Australia and we have satellite centers in Germany, Mexico, Brazil, China, and India.

HP: How do you use the Immersion Lab?

Baron: We create a virtual space so we are tracking you in a volume. The way we track you is with motion capture cameras that are set up around the room. And we track your eyes through the headset and then we present you with a stereoscopic view of the virtual world in real time at 30 frames a second.

HP: The Mustang was the first car developed with this tool?

Baron: We’ve been doing this since 2007, but the Mustang was the first with our new software.

HP: Why is a virtual Mustang better than building an actual Mustang prototype?

Baron: We don’t have enough money to build all the prototypes we need to cover all the variation in our vehicles. Because we can bring the manufacturing process back into the design we can change the look of the vehicle, we can change paint colors, we can change lighting ... and do it all in an hour’s time. It’s incredibly efficient over building a prototype. An engineer can say: “I want a new mirror.” On a physical prototype you’d have to go and order a new mirror and by the time you get the mirror other things have changed. Now you can make those changes instantly.

HP: Multi-player gaming is global with players interacting across oceans. How does Ford VR work between Australia and Dearborn?

Baron: We do a lot of cross-continent design and engineering. So people might be working on an interior for the Chinese market and the same car for the American market. There’s a right-hand drive Mustang there and left-hand here. We do reviews in the virtual space, all the regions are dialed in. If somebody in Australia is immersed with (me here), I can literally look at their head-mounted display floating in space so I know where they are on the car and they know where I am.

HP: In the gaming world, developers have made gloves that allow you to pick up virtual objects. Do you have similar tools where you feel haptic feedback opening a car door?

Baron: We use passive haptic right now with virtual physical alignment. We also have gloves that track your hand and the articulation of your fingers. So you can put your hand around a steering wheel, for example, or touch all the components in an interior study.

HP: How did you get here?

Baron: I’ve been with Ford for 26 years. My background is computer science — I’ve always been an odd duck in a car company. I asked to be the virtual reality technical specialist. I had to earn my stripes ... like a startup company inside a major manufacturer.