Posted by hpayne on December 2, 2015I’ve been to some unusual places in automobiles, but none stranger than an autocross course in a Toyota Prius. The green Prius at a demonic place of carbon revelry? Where “hypermiling” is useless and “burning rubber” celebrated? New Prius bumper-sticker: SAVING THE PLANET ONE CONE AT A TIME. But this isn’t Larry David’s tree-hugging, rolling Prius speed bump. This is the all-new, Generation-4, 2016 Prius based on Toyota’s TNGA (Toyota New Global Architecture) global platform with 60 percent more torsional rigidity and — wait for it — independent rear suspension. Yes, IRS. Just like Mustang, Prius has evolved from the stagecoach wagon days. You don’t think Toyota knows what people say about Prius? That its nickname is “Pious”? That it looks like a turtle with wheels? That Californians give them twice as much room because their drivers are more focused on “hypermiling” at 40 mph to maximize fuel efficiency than keeping their eyes on the road? You don’t think Toyota has read Car & Driver’s scathing 2012 Prius review? I quote: “We wonder why a Prius can’t be as interesting to drive as a Ford C-Max. The Prius stands still, this century’s version of a 1990s-era VW Type 1 Beetle.” Ouch. Toyota wants to change that image so they took a herd of journalists to Los Angeles’ El Toro Marine Air Station to drive the wheels off the Prius and prove it’s more than a hybrid drivetrain on a chassis of recycled hummus. Indeed, Toyota provided us with a Gen 3 model just to prove the point. I nailed the 2015 model out of the starting gates, and it immediately panicked as if allergic to pylons. Turn the wheel and the front tires plowed straight ahead, the mulish torsion-beam rear suspension as useless as wings on a penguin. Jump in the new Gen 4 and all is well. No, it doesn’t have Tesla’s Ludicrous mode. No battery upgrade. No improvement in its snail-like, 9.8-second 0-60 time. Stomp on the accelerator and you could read the morning paper before it gets up to highway speed. I never got the front tires to chirp off the line, much less torque steer. But the chassis has been transformed. Steering input is direct, connected — not merely a suggestion. The car goes where you point it instead of plowing like a 19th-century farm implement. It still understeers through corners (no VW Golf torque-vectoring here!), but the multi-link rear suspension now eagerly rotates behind you so that you don’t leave a field of scattered pylons in your wake. My Pious lapped with a look of determination on its face thanks to CEO Aki Toyoda’s demand that every Toyota look like it’s enraged that every model before it has the sex appeal of a grapefruit. Happily, Prius is not as polarizing as the Darth Vader-masked Lexus RX. Compacts should be cute, and Gen 4 looks like an angry Pokemon. Grrrr. Let’s attack some cones. Your carbon-spewing scribe so enjoyed autocrossing the Toyota that I asked for seconds. It was fun. The f-word has been frowned upon in the Cult of Prius, but the faithful need not be concerned. As the lack of rubber marks at the start line suggest, the Prius doesn’t sacrifice green for its new fun factor. The Pious claims (EPA numbers aren’t out yet) to up its class-leading mpg number from 50-52 mpg combined — while maintaining its zero-60 acceleration with less horsepower than before (121 vs. 134). Despite my flogging the Pokemon mercilessly around El Toro then up Orange County’s breathtaking Ortega mountain highway and back, I managed an impressive 58.1 mpg over 78 miles. Indeed, the Prius’ greenness actually complements performance by shoving its lithium ion batteries under the seat (from the trunk), thus helping reduce its center of gravity 1 inch for better handling. But as the all-new (once-shunned) lithium ion batteries suggest this car is about more than looks and mpg. Toyota gambled on the hybrid Prius a decade ago. Its resulting hit, however, obscured the fact that the company invested in an expensive drivetrain on a cereal-box chassis and affordable nickel hydride batteries. Five million Prii sales later, the car has earned its keep and now leads the parade into a global platform and battery pack that will be used on siblings like Corolla. It also means Prius may finally make money. Prius is a model for other hybrid electric brands. Looking at you, Chevy Volt. In a straight fight it is Volt that should be worshipped by greenies, not Prius. After all, Volt sports better technology from drivetrain to interior: A 53-mile range that will get you to work and back without ever visiting Big Oil, and a dashboard that is more user and tech-friendly (think Apple Car Play and Android Auto). But what the Prius offers is a unique personality. At $25,025 the hybrid sports unique styling at a compact price point. I particularly like the sci-fi, tomahawk-shaped rear taillights that are an upscale touch. Volt, on the other hand, starts nearly $10K north of Prius in BMW 3-series territory — yet detunes its styling to look more like a Cruze compact. Moet champagne in a Budweiser bottle. Prius has its own interior, too, which is not as successful. Take the center console made out of toilet bowl-white plastic. Please. The awkward material clashes with an otherwise tasteful, wrap-around interior of black plastic and vinyl trim — a dated attempt at being an iPod, perhaps? At a time when instrument displays are more driver-centric (heck, even Mini moved its Speedo in front of the driver), Prius stubbornly insists on keeping its instrument panel in the center of the dash. Misses like these mean Prius still has room for improvement, but overall it’s not a niche car anymore but a credible competitor against any compact. Do the math. Compared to Ford’s similarly-horsed, green-preening Focus 1.0-liter Ecoboost, Prius won’t earn its $2,500 premium back in $2-a-gallon gas savings for seven years — but Toyota’s dependability and higher retention value (54 percent vs. 48 percent) help close that gap. And while the Prius can’t hold a candle to a $25K Golf GTI ’round the pylons, at least you’ll have fun trying to keep up while nearly doubling the V-dub’s mpg on the way home. SAVING THE PLANET ONE CONE AT A TIME. Catchy. I think I’ll get a few printed up 2016 Toyota Prius Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger hatchback Price: $25,035 ($27,085 Prius Three and $30,000 Four Touring as tested) Power plant: Hybrid drivetrain with 1.8-liter inline-4 cylinder and lithium-ion/or nickel-metal hydride battery-powered twin electric motors Power: Combined 121 horsepower-95 horsepower, 105 pound-feet torque (gas engine); 1.2 kilowatt-hour nickel-metal-hydride/0.75 kWh lithium-ion battery pack Transmission: Continuously variable transmission (CVT) Performance: 0-60 mph, 9.8 seconds (manufacturer) Weight: 3,915 pounds Fuel economy: EPA estimated: 54 city/50 highway/52 combined; 58 city/53 highway/56 combines (Eco 2 model only) Report card Highs: More fun to drive; more fun to look at Lows: White plastic console; distant instrument display Overall:★★★
Posted by hpayne on November 23, 2015“When I lived in Seattle I was a Category 3 racer,” says Gary Evert, chief engineer of the 2016 Honda Civic and an avid bicyclist who has competed in Tour de France-style American events. “One of my better races was Seattle-to-Portland, a 205-miler that I did in about 10 hours and finished well. That’s the thing about cycling — there is always someone better than you.” There aren’t many manufacturers who do a better compact car than Honda. Not only is the 10th generation Civic the best ever, it has set a new class benchmark with class-leading interior room, rear legroom, fuel economy. And it is the first car to offer both Apple Car Play and Android Auto — the much-anticipated apps that allow consumers to double their smart phones as in-car, console infotainment systems. Evert and his Redmond, Ohio team spent long hours benchmarking the Civic to Audi’s nimble A3 in order to re-establish their compact as a sporty badge. When the 50-year-old University of Washington grad needed to get away, he had his bikes. “Because I think about cars all the time, my escape is riding road bikes,” he says. “I have a collection of 11 or 12 the last time I counted.” At the Civic’s media test outside Ann Arbor this October I sat down with Evert to talk Civic, CVTs, and cycling. Q: Who makes the best bike? Evert: There are a lot of good ones right now. Some of the American bikes like Cannondale, Trek, Specialized. Q: Ohio is flat as a board. Where’s an avid cyclist go? Evert: There are a lot of good rural roads in Ohio. Raymond is beautiful — there’s actually a little ski area that makes great climbing right near work. I used to race competitively and am getting back into it. Q: Is amateur racing as cut-throat as depicted in the classic cycling movie, “Breaking Away”? Evert: No. I really enjoy being in that atmosphere. Everyone’s out there to enjoy themselves. I have a great group of guys I race with. Level 1 is pro, 2 is Olympic, 3 is top amateur. In the United States Cycling Federation ... we’re similar to Tour de France pro racing where we get into tight packs because the aerodynamics are better. We’re doing a lot of drafting. Q: The Civic has changed dramatically over 10 generations. What’s different this time? Evert: One of the strengths of Honda is that for each new Civic we have a new team. For this Civic we wanted to get back to that sporty DNA we’ve been known for. Better dynamics, lower seating position, sporty styling. We completely redid the packaging beginning with the hip point. Then we lowered the engine, the floor, the suspension. Move the rear seat back. Gives it a more athletic stance, but at the same time increases head room. Q: Has bringing the Honda Fit to market allowed you to grow the Civic? Evert: Fit gave us the opportunity with the Civic to be a little bit more sporty — and a bit larger. It was an opportunity because we didn’t have to cover too much of the market with the Civic. Q: Was it your goal that the Civic be roomiest in class? Evert: Absolutely. The Europeans aren’t known for the most efficient packaging and that is something that Honda is known for. We are by far the best in class in interior and trunk volume. And best in class fuel economy and acceleration. We’re 1.5 seconds faster 0-60 than competitors like Corolla. Q: The Civic sports Honda’s first production turbocharged engine. Why now? Evert: We wanted to be sporty and also meet Honda’s philosophy of great fuel economy. So the turbo was out of necessity. Q: You’re going to sell more variants of Civic than ever? Evert: We’ve had two different Civics — one for North America, another for Europe. We wanted (the 10th generation) to be sold globally so we developed the coupe and four-door in North America, then a five-door variation in Japan — and sporty derivations like the Si and Type R. There are nine facilities around the world that will be able to make the Civic. Cars sold here will be made in either the U.S. or Canada. Q: CVT trannies don’t have a sporty reputation. Why is yours so peppy, so smooth compared to competitors? Evert: We develop our engines and transmissions in house. So we can develop our algorithms internally. We have the ability to tune the CVT to match it with the engine. The torque converter gets you into power train more quickly. We have the ability to tune it so it feels like you’re shifting.
Posted by hpayne on November 23, 2015Unlike the compact Cobo Center, LA’s convention center puts its displays in two halls on opposite ends of the planet, meaning I had to schlep miles to see all 26 debuts. My dogs are barking. California offers a driver’s bounty of stunning natural views and wide-open spaces (once you get out of LA’s 24/7 traffic jam), meaning customers want everything from green statements to speed skates. It’s not uncommon to see a Prius and a Porsche in the same garage. Here are The Detroit News’ picks as the most significant vehicles in show. Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio “If emotion were a car, it would be an Alfa Romeo,” Alfa CEO Reid Bigland said in his introduction of the compact sedan. You’d be dead not to feel a stirring in the loins when you see this blood red, twin-turbo, 505-horsepower sexpot. Quadrifoglio is not shy about its intentions. It’s determined to make you forget all about that BMW M-whatchamacallit. The all-wheel drive performance model is the most powerful thoroughbred in the compact luxury class and the fastest sedan ever around Germany’s legendary Nurburgring race track. Not just a little faster. Giulia obliterated the lap record held by a Porsche Panemera S, for goodness sake, a six-figure cyborg not even in its class. Priced around $70,000, however, the Q won’t exactly be price accessible to most buyers. Which is why the base model’s also-class leading 276-horsepower turbo four still makes us smile. Ford Escape The Escape is part of an SUV revolution reshaping the face of automobiles. Compact crossovers have overtaken midsize sedans as the autodom’s biggest-volume segment – and the hot-selling Escape, Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV-4 have led it there. Yet while the Honda and Toyota are reliable appliances in the Japanese mold, the technology-laden Escape is evidence of the blur between luxury and mainstream brands. Indeed, while Lincoln stunned L.A. with a gorgeous, new face on its MKZ, the Escape debuted its own chrome kisser. The makeover means Escape rivals cousin Lincoln MKC in looks while offering handling and a suite of engine choices that embarrasses Japanese rivals. With an improved, roomier console (the biggest knock against the old mule), the Blue Oval continues as a pioneer on the crossover frontier. Mazda CX-9 Speaking of blurs, the Mazda’s zoom-zoom midsize crossover may be the most handsome sight in its segment. Luxury or mainstream. Audi Q5, the object in your mirror may be closer than it appears. The 9’s pleasing exterior sheet metal comes with European-like handling and interior layout. And despite a single engine offering, Mazda’s first turbo promises plenty of low-end torque to go with its typically impressive SKYACTIVE fuel efficiency. What’s more, the Mazda comes with three rows of seats – mandatory for the mainstream segment but scorned by similarly sized Audi and Bimmers. So, if it’s European flavor you want – but without having to sacrifice family practicalities and a year’s income, the Mazda is in your sweet spot. Fiat 124 Spider Oh, joy. Already spoiled by Mazda’s best-ever MX-5 Miata in 2015, we get a sequel with the 2017 “Fiata” – the MX-5-based return of the Fiat 124 Spider. Where the original Miata was a retro-homage to the Lotus Elan, the new Fiat is a throwback to the 1966 Spider that Yanks embraced – it sold 75 percent of the 200,000 models produced through 1985. The new model bears an uncanny resemblance to the original (a copy of which was nailed to the wall on the Fiat stand). Fiat’s heritage is more cruiser than Mazda track rat, so the 124 will be 100 pounds heavier and likely less stiff than MX-5. Still, Fiata will have more power than its Japanese partner thanks to the same 160-horsepower, 1.4-liter turbo found in the bratty Fiat 500 Abarth. And with Japanese engineering as its foundation, customers are assured that this Fiat stands for Fix-It-Again-Tokyo. Cadillac XT5 Cadillac’s ferocious V-series sedans have served notice that GM’s luxury brand is serious about taking on the German titans at luxury’s pinnacle. Now the all-new XT5 (formerly SRX) brings the same commitment to SUVs where Caddy has been product-poor. The XT5 goes on a 300-pound diet making it the lightest entry in segment – a full 650 pounds below a Mercedes GLE – that will pay dividends in handling and fuel efficiency. Perhaps more important to frustrated soccer moms who have taken to banging the CUE infotainment system with both fists, the new system is reportedly three times faster — and with more emphasis on touchscreen functions than haptic sliders (Bang! Bang! Bang!).
Posted by hpayne on November 19, 2015We’ve all been waiting for this one. I got my first, tantalizing taste of the all-new, 2016 Camaro at Belle Isle in May, Chevy’s counter to the all-new, 2015 Ford Mustang. It’s always been thus. Over the Muscle Car War’s five decades, Mustang has traditionally made the first move — just as it launched the first salvo in 1965. The latest Mustang is the best ever. Three engine choices, edgy styling, independent rear suspension. Now comes Camaro’s answer. Three engines, edgy styling, independent rear susp ... oh. Camaro’s been there. Done that. For its handling trick this time, Chevy has gone to DEFCON 4. It’s brought in a platform from GM’s luxury performance division, Cadillac. Not just any platform, but the alpha-dog Alpha bones that gird the sublime Cadillac ATS — the best-handling weapon in luxury. Seems a bit unfair, really. Ford doesn’t have Cadillacs and Corvettes laying around the shop from which to borrow technology. Driving Generation 5 and the much-lighter Gen 6 Camaros back-to-back on Belle Isle’s IndyCar course, the difference was instantly apparent. But that was a V-6. How goes the Chevy SS with the pony-car’s signature V-8? The big boat anchor up front? I talked with legendary Chevy mod-guru, Ken Lingenfelter before I went to test the SS from Albuquerque to Phoenix. “Call me when it’s over,” he said anxiously. “I want to know how it goes.” Well, Ken, Gen 6 doesn’t disappoint. Gen 5 was no slouch, but the Alpha platform was designed to compete with BMW and Mercedes, for goodness sake. You know this is the best-handling pony ever from the first turn of the wheel. The electronic steering feels connected to the asphalt as if by a magnet. The twisted Arizona mountain roads to Payson east of Phoenix are a long way from Woodward Avenue’s drag strip — and the days when pony cars were just straight-line muscle. Whether rotating through 120-degree hairpins or blitzing rocky passes, the big coupe felt much smaller than its 3,685-pound girth. My hands moved in small increments. No sawing at the wheel. No sudden corrections. The car goes right where you point it, and the result is a much quicker — and safer — car. Where the Mustang (and previous Camaros) are a ball to drive, you feel them working hard. The Camaro’s handling is effortless. Don’t get me wrong, the Chevy is no ATS — but its DNA is there. As is the Corvette’s. The SS’s LT1 engine is the same 455-horse stump-puller found in the C7 — complete with rowdy, dual-mode exhaust system (unfortunately, the bulky manual trannies feel the same too). Squeeze the throttle and it will effortlessly eclipse triple digits. Both cars are the work of gifted designer Tom Peters. Both are sculpted with hard edges as if cut with a chisel. Both share design elements: Roof “Mohawk,” deeply scalloped sides, horizontal LED daytime running lights. Standard on my Bright Yellow, $38,585 SS, the LEDs are sinister. Coupled with the narrowed front grille and enlarged lower intakes, the Camaro has effectively evolved from the wildly successful, ’60s throwback of 2010 to a modern, halo design for downstream Chevy sedans. With its narrow greenhouse, huge blind spots, massive wheels, and brooding cowl, this is an uncompromised concept car brought to life. “We’ve amplified its proportions,” says the soft-spoken Peters, mobbed by Camaro groupies at the Albuquerque intro. “Like the T-shirt on a muscular physique.” Want to know what a front-engine Lamborghini would look like? This is it. Much has been made of the Camaro’s gun turret-narrow windows. But the Peters’ team boldly emphasized art — letting the car’s digital, driver-assist technology handle the blind spots. Want to see out the back? Buy a Mustang. Want to look like you hijacked a car from a sci-fi movie set? Buy the Camaro. That said, the Mustang’s extreme makeover has been flying off the shelves as existing owners traded in their old ponies for the fresher styling. The Mustang’s gorgeous, less-severe looks should wear better over time. If you want a V-6 cruiser, Mustang gets the nod. If it’s performance you want, the Camaro V-8 will walk all over the Ford — and kick sand in the face of the odd Bimmer as well. Existing Camaro owners unmoved by Gen 6’s sports car handling (“Who pulls Gs in the Dream Cruise traffic jam, man?”) may not feel the urgency given its evolutionary, not revolutionary, styling (though blessedly, the fake side shark gills have disappeared). They should think again. Chassis aside, the most dramatic change to the new Camaro is its interior. This is one muscular smart phone. GM has been on the cutting edge of in-car technology and the Camaro is a digital leap over its rival. For our western journey, the SS came without a nav system. No sweat. My wife just mated her iPhone to Apple Car Play and we were in business. She also worked on her iPad thanks to the car’s standard 4G WiFi. In remote western New Mexico, we called OnStar ($300-a-year subscription) for directions and restaurants. Muscle cars are just for guys? Mrs. Payne lounged comfortably in the quiet, connected passenger seat — only protesting when I explored the car’s .98 G-load capabilities with mountain cliffs just feet away. The dashboard is a big leap over Gen 5 as well, though its spare design leaves little room for storing anything beyond two cups. The instrument cluster is a fully digital display stuffed with useful information, and the aviator-style climate controls anchoring the console are the coolest things this side of an Audi TT. With its sophisticated chassis, Lambo styling (look up the Urus), and interior controls, the SS is a worthy alternative to rear-drive luxury coupes like the BMW M4 and ATS-V — but for $30K less. On my way into Phoenix I stopped by the famed Bundurant School of High Performance Driving where the boys informed me Bondurant is divorcing Chevy for Dodge school cars. A pity that. As much as students will enjoy Hellcat power, it can’t touch the Camaro’s nimbleness around the cones. And not just the SS. At over 30-mpg freeway and just 3,338 pounds – a staggering 390 pounds lighter than Gen-5 V-6 — a coming turbo-4 will make Gen 6 a serious autocross contender. But that’s for another time. For now we revel in the battle of V-8s. Camaro has answered Mustang. Mustang has unleashed its 8,000-RPM Shelby GT350 monster. What say you to that, Camaro Z28? The anticipation builds again. 2016 Chevy Camaro Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, four-passenger coupe Price: $26,695($38,585 SS as tested) Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged inline-4 cylinder; 3.6-liter V-6; 6.2-liter V-8 Power: 275 horsepower, 295 pound-feet of torque (turbo-4); 335 horsepower, 284 pound-feet of torque (V-6); 455 horsepower, 455 pound-feet of torque (V-8) Transmission: 6-speed manual; 8-speed automatic Performance: 0-60 mph, 3.9 seconds (SS V-8, Car & Driver) Weight: 3,685 pounds Fuel economy: NA Report card Highs: Precise handling; Corvette power Lows: Blind spot the size of Rhode Island; useless door storage Overall:★★★★
Posted by hpayne on November 16, 2015I was about eight years old when I had one of my first track hot laps aboard Mr. Coleman’s (when you’re eight, none of your Dad’s friends have first names) late 1960s-model Mini Cooper. Mr. Coleman was a paraplegic club racer who had engineered a custom shifter that not only changed gears, but included hand-operated buttons for braking and acceleration. Despite his disability, Coleman and his Mini made a quick, competitive team. Sitting in the passenger’s seat of the wee Cooper was an unforgettable experience. Coleman operating the stalk like an Arabian swordsman. The 1275-cc engine bawling in my ears. The flying shoebox hurtling around the track defying physics. Forty-five years later and Minis still have outsized personalities. Sitting in my driveway is the 2015 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop, the heir apparent to Mr. Coleman’s rabid Cooper S. It’s a milk carton of quirky fun. Which will be good news to fans of the rebellious brand because the demands of modernity are forcing Mini ever more mainstream. How mainstream? The third generation Mini is based on a BMW platform. You read that right. The Brit brat has been co-opted by the German establishment. Parts of the American South may still wave the Confederate flag, but the Mini-BMW alliance is proof of European unification. The Mini-BMW produced its first rug rat in 2000, but in its third generation Mini now shares the same skeleton as the BMW 2-series. The result is a bigger, more comfortable rebel that all but obliterates its Mini-ness. This evolution is a full foot-and-a-half longer than the ‘60s icon. BMW understands brand management, however, and has loaded its Brit dish with plenty of fruit and nuts. Throw in a torquey, 228-horsepower, turbocharged 2.0-liter engine and the JCW is born – the ultimate throwback Mini. First, some badge housecleaning. In the beginning, there was just Mini. Then its go-kart handling caught the attention of John Cooper, renowned English racing designer. The Mini Cooper was born - a rabies-infected variant of the original terrier that promptly terrier-rized the racing world, winning the Monte Carlo Rally three years running. Thus Coleman’s Cooper S. Thus the Cooper’s continued popularity in vintage car racing circles (that I inhabit) featuring old Coopers still barking at the heels of proper MG Midgets and Triumphs Spitfires that must tire of shoeboxes in their mirrors. In the 21st century Cooper is a reference to the base, three-cylinder model and its sportier, 189-horse S variation. “John Cooper Works” now carries the banner of bonkers Mini performance. Confused? Me too. But the key point is that the spirit of John Cooper lives on in Cooper Works. And despite its more bloated appearance, JCW is more playful than ever. Indeed, BMW’s new chassis and interior has helped iron out some of Mini’s less endearing qualities. Like torque steer. Gen 1 and 2 had loads of it, complicating the already difficult tasks of delivering heaps of horsepower to a front-wheel-drive car. In the new JCW, I’m happy to say, torque-steer under hard-acceleration is all-but eliminated. But stomp the pedal and you’ll hang on for dear life. The turbo, 2-liter is ferocious. Like Mini’s mascot, the bulldog (dealer showrooms shelves are full of adorable stuffed dogs). Or King Kong in a Minion’s body. Yeah, the JCW is still adorable with its big goggle eyes and impish mouth. But where the original Minis (go to Europe and you’ll still trip over the tiny things on city curbs) were dead ringers for Minions, the new Mini’s face is longer, more swept – like a mask stretched over the larger BMW skeleton underneath. Credit European pedestrian impact regs. The front body overhang is considerable, adding to a long hood that makes it look more Golf-like than shoebox. But when I trolled through the neighborhood, the kids still cheered for the car that looks like a comic book character. Bulging eyeballs. Rebel Green paint. Racing stripes. Twin, center-mounted exhaust pipes. A rear deck spoiler the size of a surfboard. Pile the kiddies inside and it gets even more comical. With primary instrumentation behind the steering wheel where it belongs (in a rare, regrettable ’60s throwback, the last gen Mini had the speedo in middle of the dash), the Frisbee-sized console is a veritable disco ball of entertainment. Choose SPORT mode, for example, and the Frisbee’s rim lights up red while a cartoon Mini takes over the display with cartoon bubbles over its head thinking about rocket ships and go-karts. “Let’s Motor Hard!” says cartoon Mini. I’m not making this up. But here’s the thing. Your cartoonist/scribe may be a sucker for cartoon bubbles, but the $41,800 Minion JCW is going to need all its eyelash-batting charm to justify its 10-grand sticker price inflation over bigger hot hatches in the toy department like the Ford Focus ST, VW Golf GTI, or Subaru WRX. Heck, with the money you save buying the snarling, 252-horsepower Focus ST I recently tested for $29,475, you could also find a used Ford Fiesta ST (the JCW’s suit size is more Fiesta than Focus). ST torque steer got you down? The 2015 North America Car of the Year GTI’s conservative styling pales next to the Cooper pinball machine, but the chiseled V-Dub will beat the pricier Brit in nearly every measure: 0-60 mph, handling, comfort, rear seat room. The kids may love Mini – but they are the only ones who will want to climb over the front seats and into its cramped rear quarters. The GTI even comes with four five-door hatch option (that only Cooper S can match). Even the insane, 305-horse, all-wheel-drive, Subaru WRX STI is a $38.5K discount bargain compared to JCW. So as much as I am thrilled to see another pocket rocket on the toy shelf, the JCW is for a special few who covet that special Mini sauce. An empty-nester who fell in love with the Coopers of the 1960s, perhaps. Or a 20-something just back from Oxford, England where he discovered Mini roots in the original Morris Garage. Or a racing fan who just watched a JCW battle Audi A3s and BMWs for second place at Road Atlanta in the Continual SportsCar Challenge. The flying shoebox lives! Somewhere Mr. Coleman is smiling. 2015 Mini John Cooper Works Hardtop Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, four-passenger compact Price: $31,450 ($41,800 as tested) Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged inline-4 cylinder Power: 228 horsepower, 236 pound-feet of torque Transmission: 6-speed manual Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.0 seconds (Car & Driver) Weight: 2,864 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 23 city/31 mpg highway/26 mpg Report card Highs: Mini personality; turbo-riffic Lows: Rear seats fit for grade schoolers; turbocharged price tag Overall:★★★
Posted by hpayne on November 9, 2015For two decades Cadillac and Lincoln have struggled to catch up with the Teutonic Threesome of BMW, Mercedes, and BMW. With its first sedan, Tesla has not only caught the Germans, it has forced them to respond with their own e-vehicles. The top-of-the-line, Model S P90D I drove this fall has BMW good looks, Mercedes room, Audi-like AWD — with the performance of a Porsche 911 Turbo thrown in for good measure. Oh, yeah. And it’s Made in America in Fremont, California. Tesla’s secret is that it went back to the automotive drawing board. Built a new car from the ground up. Where Detroit manufacturers tweaked existing gas-engine platforms to create electric vehicles, Tesla re-imagined the automobile as an electronic product. An iAuto for the iPhone age. As Teslaphiles like to say: “Elon Musk didn’t set out to make the best luxury electric car, he set out to make the best car.” The Cadillac ELR is a luxe plug-in built on GM’s compact Delta II platform. A Chevy Volt in a tux. The Model S is an all-new chassis built for floor-mounted lithium-ion batteries, passenger seating for up to seven, and the acceleration of a Lamborghini Murciélago. Before we go any further, dear readers, let’s address the elephant in the room: Tesla is a wedge issue. Whenever I write about Musk’s company, the comments section erupts in hand-to-hand combat about Tesla’s, um, cozy ties to Washington. Fashionably green, Tesla scored $465 million in taxpayer loans and $7,500 in subsidies for each of its wealthy customers. You didn’t volunteer to fund Musk’s startup with a Kickstarter contribution and a promise of some Model S swag. It came out of your tax bill. Tesla even compromised Consumer Reports, which got so drunk on green Kool-Aid it gave the Model S a super-perfect grade of 103 even as Tesla flunked Reliability 101. Huh? Politics, politics, politics. Musk would be wise to separate car and state. If it had earned its stripes the hard way like Ford’s Model T, the Model S would get more respect. Because let’s face it, Musk-haters, the S is one of the best cars ever made. Take my $139,700 P90D, a performance upgrade of the Model S in the spirit of BMW’s M or Audi’s S badges. After piloting one for a day, you don’t want to drive anything else. It’s like returning to your old flip phone after the first time you used an iPhone. Ho hum. But of course, you say, any car that costs north of $100K is gold. The gorgeous Audi S7, roomy, Merc S-class, techy BMW i8, ferocious Porsche 911 Turbo. But the thing about the Model S — like the smartphone — is it does everything well. It’s gorgeous, palatial, high-tech, and blindingly quick. It’s a S7-S-Class-i811 Turbo. What other car on the planet can pick up a family of five and luggage at Detroit Metro — then snap off a three second 0-60 time at the first stoplight? Gas-free? You’ll want to warn the family first, though. Unlike gas engine 0-60 sprints, the Tesla strikes quietly, violently. Prep a BMW M3 sedan in launch mode requires a checklist before releasing the brake and storming off. It’s exhilarating, loud, and a one-way ticket to the local sheriff’s office. Not the stealthy P90D. Just stomp the gas — er, pedal. Like the base, rear-motor-driven P70, the e-acceleration is instant. Twice as instant. With another motor driving the front wheels and 20 more kWh in the battery pack, the P90D develops a shocking, 1.1 forward G-loads on its way to 60 mph in just 2.8 seconds. I feel a brief sensation of light-headedness. They call it, appropriately, “Ludicrous” mode. I sought out a surgeon friend to explain my dizziness. My race car will build up a neck-taxing 2.2 side-Gs in a long sweeper, but what is an instant 1.1 forward-Gs doin’ to my noggin,’ doc? He explained my inner ear momentarily loses balance due to the sudden thrust. Good to know. I invited Sean Maloney of Grosse Pointe — owner of a 2013 Model S P60 — to the P90D drag races. With theme park ride-like efficiency, we repeatedly stomped dizzying acceleration times. It was Cedar Point in Detroit. Sean also demonstrated the S’s physics-defying athleticism. On top of the already porky Model S, the P90D’s extra motor and battery brings the scales to 4,950 pounds. That’s the same weight as a Ford F-50 pickup. Yet unlike the F150 – or anything else for that matter — Tesla’s design puts all its weight in the floor giving it the same center-of-gravity as a 2,465-pound, Scion FR-S. Sean and I drove the Model S around I-94 cloverleafs like a sports car. That’s not the way he commutes to Dearborn each morning, of course. If driven with discipline, the S overcomes an electric car’s inherent range anxiety. Tesla boasts 240 miles for the base Model S (270 for the P90D), but Maloney conservatively stays within a 160-mile radius — enough to get him to Lansing and back. But push the envelope and the e-generation will bite. A Chicago friend pointed his Model S towards St. Louis at 80 mph on the freeway and soon feared he wouldn’t make the first, Tesla-provided supercharging station along the way. Achieving 240-mile range means driving 65. For all its performance bravado, the P90D doesn’t have to be flogged to be enjoyed. Inside the hushed cabin, the 17-inch — 17-inch! — iPad console is a technical wonder featuring the latest Nvidia graphics chip that renders your route in glorious, Google Earth detail. Just as importantly, Tesla’s digital instrument cluster displays the nav route in addition to mph, range, and music station, so you never have to take your eyes off the road. The Model S has its flaws. Like losing $4,000 per car. And it’s expensive, has limited range, and is reliability-challenged. Owners don’t seem to sweat the reliability given the absurdly low operating costs. Consider a Savannah, Georgia pal who has put 15,276 miles on his S over two years while recharging during Georgia Power’s off-peak rate of 1.3 cents/kWh. That’s a total re-fueling cost of just $65.85. Or the price of gassing up a Porsche Panamera. Once. My iAuto had not yet downloaded the latest 7.0 software upgrade to enable autonomous driving. So I won’t regale you with efforts to drive hands-free. I prefer hands-on, thank you very much. Cloverleaf rim-shots. Zero-60 bursts. Like owner Mahoney says: “It never gets old.” 2015 Tesla Model S P90D Vehicle type: Electric, all-wheel-drive, five- or seven-passenger sports sedan Price: $105,670 base ($139,700 as tested) Power plant: 90 kWh lithium-ion battery Power: 762 horsepower; front motor: AC induction, 221 hp, 243 pound-feet; rear: AC induction, 470 hp, 443 pound-feet Transmission: One-speed direct drive Performance: 0-60 mph, 2.8 seconds (manufacturer) Weight: 4,950 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 84 mpg city/88 mpg highway MPe (Car & Driver est.) Report card Highs: Game-changing performance; iPad console Lows: Range anxiety; plastic grille thingy Overall:★★★★
Posted by hpayne on October 31, 2015What do you get when you combine a 1973 Ford Pinto motor and a 1,100-pound, 1988 aluminum monocoque chassis? One of the most rewarding racing experiences in America. And a neck like a wet noodle. When your speed-addled scribe isn’t flogging production sedans and sports cars, I get my jollies racing an ‘88 Lola 90 on some of this country’s greatest race tracks. With my season finale looming at Circuit of the Americas — an epic Formula One track just outside of Austin, Texas — next week, I thought it would be a good time to “review” this popular, durable, affordable sports racer. First, a quick primer on so-called S2000 racing. Developed in the 1980s for SCCA (Sports Car Club of America, the U.S.’s largest, most competitive, amateur racing club), S2000 racers like my Lola are essentially formula cars with fenders. Formula Ford (or Formula Renault or Formula Mazda depending on the spec motor used) and S2000 have long been both an entree into racing for young drivers with professional ambitions – and an affordable way for motor-heads like me to get our weekend track fix. As a result, fields feature a wide band of ages. Indeed, racing is a Payne family affair ranging from my two 20-something sons to their grizzled, 53-year-old father. After its SCCA heyday in the ’80s and ’90s, S2000 racing has migrated to vintage racing clubs like SVRA (Sportscar Vintage Racing Association) where entries are a healthy 20-40 cars. I race a handful of tracks a year from Virginia International Raceway to Watkins Glen (New York) to COTA – part of a record list of U.S. venues that we amateurs share with pro racing organizations like NASCAR, Formula One and IndyCar. My English-bred Lola is one of a number of chassis built for S2000 by manufacturers including Swift, Carbir, March, Royale, Tiga and Van Diemen. All of them conform to strict rules in order to keep development costs down – including using a largely stock, overhead-cam, carburated Pinto motor wedded to a four-speed, Hewland racing gearbox. With just 150 horsepower, the high-strung, 2.0-liter mill would seem weak milk for the race track. Until you consider it only has to propel an 1,100-pound frame with carbon-fiber bodywork. That’s a 7:1 power-to-weight ratio that bests a Corvette C7 or Porsche Cayman GTS. The Lola can reach 150 mph with my tookus riding just two-inches off the ground. But the real revelation of the 90 is its ferocious cornering grip on 7 and 9 inch-wide (front-to-rear), Avon racing slicks. This thing is an overgrown go-kart making neck-straining, 2.2 G-loads in the twisties. No wonder the pros spend hours in the gym. After a few laps around Watkins Glen’s mighty sweepers and I’m reclining my head against the (small) headrest for (brief) relief in the (all-too-short) straightaways. My kingdom for a neck massage! Like any sports car, the 90 achieves its nimble handling by managing aerodynamics, weight, and balance. The car’s skin is flat – Germans call it a “flounder” shape – in order to speed air across the body. No wings are permitted. I bought my steed from Colorado’s Mark Mercer, a three-time SCCA champion, who added “side fences” to increase stability in high-speed turns by preventing air from washing over the sides. Remove the car’s lightweight skin and the chassis construction is similar to a mid-engine formula car with 50-50 front-to-rear weight distribution. For better center of gravity, shocks and springs are located in the center fuselage just above the pedal box. No frunks here. Speaking of pedals, I have to trade in my size 15 shoes for narrow, size 11 racing boots just so I can get my flippers down the narrow foot well. Normal-sized humans – like my 6’1” son – sit in body-conforming seats so as not to move with the violent g-loads. But 6’5” freaks like me sit on the floor — stuffed between riveted panels in the spartan cockpit. To prevent side movement, my shoulders are contained by a shoulder brace. Driving the 90 is a blast, once its idiosyncrasies are learned. Upshifts are lightening quick and clutchless — since maintaining momentum is paramount with a small-displacement engine. Though not as stiff as state-of-the-art, carbon-fiber racing tubs (the skeleton of Indycars and now super-sports cars like Ferraris), the flex-less chassis pushes the envelope of grip – then quickly lets go when the limit is reached. Perhaps my favorite Lola attribute is its open cockpit. Wearing a full Nomex suit, helmet, balaclava and gloves leaves me a puddle of sweat – so the natural air conditioning is a blessing. I’ll need plenty of air on COTA’s 20-turn, 3.4-mile roller-coaster next week. 1988 Lola 90 Vehicle type: Mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive, race car Price: $30,000-45,000 Power plant: 2.0-liter, overhead-can, dry-sump, inline-4 cylinder Power: 150 horsepower, 135 pound-feet of torque Transmission: 4-speed manual Hewland Mk. 9 Performance: 0-60 mph (NA) Weight: 1,100 pounds (1,335 minimum racing weight with driver) Fuel economy: 12 mpg (est.) Report card Highs: Neck-snappping cornering Gs; Won’t break the bank to race Lows: Neck pain; Cockpit made for midgets Overall:★★★★
Posted by hpayne on October 30, 2015Have I got a Halloween demon for you. Dressed in a devil’s-red suit. Two-hundred-and-twenty turbocharged horsepower. Jack-o-lantern grin. And I went all the way to Hell and back to bring it to you. The 2016 Audi TT is tastier than a cherry red candy apple, and contains more treats than a six-year-old’s trick-or-treat bag. The TT is the third prong in VW’s trident of compact, all-wheel-drive weapons. There’s the best-of-entry-luxe 2015 Audi A3 starting at $33,795. The 2016 king-of-the-hot-hatches VW Golf R ($35,650) that I flogged earlier this year. And now the re-baked TT at $43,825. Find one of these torque-vectoring missiles on your doorstep and you’ll itch to go straight to Hell. Hell, Michigan, that is, where the roads turn from Detroit Mile grids to snaking curves and blind brows — and performance cars can really strut their stuff. With the TT, however, you linger before opening the door just to ogle its comely figure. Built on the same MQB platform as the A3 and Golf R, the TT got the looks in the family. The conservative A3 and sleeper R sail under the radar, whereas the TT attracts attention like Elizabeth Hurley at PTA bake sale. So perfectly proportioned is the front-engine TT — so dazzling is its fastback profile — that you might think it a mid-engine sports car like a Porsche Cayman or Alfa Romeo 4C, two greyhounds priced $10K over the Audi. But then you climb in and notice there is a back seat. Sort of. I didn’t even try to fit back there for fear I would never get out. My wife — a foot shorter than I am at 5’5” — tried it and looked like Wilt Chamberlain in a doll house. Once in, her neck bent like a desk lamp to get under the raked ceiling. WARNING: YOU HAVE TO BE THIS SHORT TO GET ON THIS RIDE. For this reason, the rear seat-less TT convertible may be the more practical choice — and its roll-bar hoops are da bomb. Still, no silhouette can compare to the iconic TT coupe. I can now say iconic because it was at first a bees’ nest of trouble for Audi. Seems the designers neglected Bernoulli’s principle. Or maybe just ignored it in pursuit of their perfect shape. I imagine the conversation went like this: Designer: Our TT design is symmetrically rounded front to rear. Brilliant, ja? Engineer: Nein. Two words: Bernoulli’s principle. The shape will create low pressure above the body and it will lift like an airplane at high speeds. Designer (murmuring under his breath): Stupid engineers, what do they know about beauty? Ignore the engineers at your peril. When the first generation hit the German Autobahn in 1999, the TT became unstable at speeds over 100 mph (yeah, they drive that fast), as its rear end began to lift off the ground. Multiple crashes later, TT designers succumbed (damn those know-it-all engineers!) and added a rear spoiler lip for stability. Problem solved. Still, TT’s curved, pillowy shape gave it a reputation as a chick car. Guys only like Ferrari-like curves with silhouettes like Christie Brinkley in a Tahitian sunset. Otherwise they pine for sharp edges that remind them of swords and spears and stuff. So with is third generation TT, Audi added creases and sharp edges everywhere. And a big, howling mouth. Actually, the TT’s mouth was always agape but it was hidden behind Audi’s Olympian rings. For 2016 the rings have been moved to the hood, and as a result the TT grille now looks like the mask from the movie “Scream.” It’s the jack-o-lantern from Hell. Which is where I drove the Audi. With my long-suffering wife and her already stiff neck in tow. She quickly warmed to the task, however, because the quilted, bolstered front seats of the TT are a glorious place to be. Audi has combined the center console infotainment screen with the driver instrument panel to create a futuristic, cockpit experience. Housed in a binnacle shaped like Wall-E’s goggles, the huge, 12.3-inch display gives the pilot everything he needs so he never has to look away from the road. The steering wheel is a multi-function unit with cruise control buttons and audio controls — but Audi takes it to another level with a compact unit on the left spoke that allows the driver to toggle, page, and reconfigure the screen for navigation, engine performance, and radio settings. It’s a brilliant piece of engineering. The lack of console screen simplifies the center console to essential climate controls, dynamic drive buttons, storage and gear selecting. Intriguingly, the Audi rotary dial survives, keeping Mrs. Payne in mind so that she can still adjust the radio, nav inputs, etc. (the TT isn’t so wide that passengers can’t view the instrument screen). The three, round, aviator-style HVAC controls (not unlike those found in Mercs or Camaros) are lovely to look at and just as functional. Turn them to control airflow. Push their centers to adjust temperature. Additional, singular units anchor either end of the ash so driver and passenger can separately control their cabin climates. The road to Hell was paved with good cruising, but once there, the TT begged to misbehave. I mercifully dropped my wife off at the local cafe, switched the Audi into DYNAMIC mode, and let it rip up Patterson Lake Road. For many cars SPORT mode is a gimmick. Piped-in sound. Or a brattier exhaust note. Not the TT. It’s DYNAMIC mode has bite. The tac jumps 1500 revs as the electronics select the next-lowest-gear for more torque, bias grip to the rear tires, and quicken downshifts with a rev-matching bark. The TT’s sharpened exterior matches the cutting-edge MQB chassis underneath, meaning the Audi dices corners like a knife. Wider and longer by an inch, the TT still sports a throwable short-wheel base with the security of AWD grip — the DYNAMIC mode holding the car in gear through corners so you can punch it on exit. The TT isn’t perfect. An inconsistent nav system, for example, that can’t find Hell, Michigan. And while DYNAMIC mode is a blast, the TT can sound sick — the crankshaft laboring — when AUTO mode keeps the revs too low to save fuel at low city speeds. But with its futuristic interior, wicked styling, and knife-edge handling, my loaded, Tango Red Metallic, $51K TT finds a sweet spot between the $40K Golf R and $60K Porsche Cayman. 2016 Audi TT Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, four-passenger sports car Price: $43,825 ($50,600 coupe as tested) Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged inline-4 cylinder Power: 220 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque Transmission: 6-speed automatic Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.3 seconds (coupe - manufacturer); 5.6 seconds (roadster) Weight: 3,186 pounds (coupe); 3,384 (roadster) Fuel economy: EPA 23 city/30 mpg highway/26 mpg Report card Highs: Sharp styling; driver-centric instrument display Lows: Rear-seats workable only if legs and
Posted by hpayne on October 25, 2015I think I speak for all Honda pocket-rocket owners when I say that — as a lead-footed, rev-it-’til-it-screams owner of the punchy, 100-horsepower-per-liter 2006 Civic SI — I think Honda should launch the all-new Civic with the Type R performance version. Anticipation for the rabid super-Civic has reached such a fever pitch that we fans are gnawing through our bed blankets. Have a little mercy, please, Honda. But as product cadence dictates, Honda is releasing its volume-selling Civic sedan first. It’s hard to be mad. Already the retail sales segment leader for the 500th year in a row, the 10th-generation Civic sedan is simply the best thing the compact sedan segment has ever seen. How good? This car has the most interior room, biggest backseat, best fuel economy, best center console, most interior room, most (well, almost) horsepower, and is the first car in Autodom to offer both Apple Car Play and Android Auto (my Car Play-starved wife is already halfway to the dealership as I write this — she’ll be disappointed that it’s not on dealer lots until November). Oh, yes, and the Civic has its handling mojo back too, meaning it’s a challenger for best-handling car in segment. Have a little mercy on the competition, please, Honda. If there is a flaw in the Civic juggernaut, it’s styling and all-wheel-drive. Or the lack of it. Want four-clawed security in Michigan blizzards? Buy a Subaru Impreza. Civic will refer you to its crossover sibling, CR-V. As for styling, Civic redefined compact good looks two generations ago with a futuristic, bullet-shaped bod. From raked windshield to sculpted tail, the eighth-gen’s slippery shape and economy of line looked like it has been penned by a German master. Son of Audi? With time, alas, it became misshapen and the new Civic is more traditional with an upright windshield and fat butt. As a consequence it takes on a more familiar family look and is harder to distinguish from big brother Accord — much less compete with class lookers like the Mazda 3 and Ford Focus. With its conventional lines, the Civic adopts a flashier wardrobe. It’s a mix of the good, bad, and ugly of current Japanese fashion. The good: Chrome, wrap-around front grille and headlights borrowed from Cyclops’ X-Men eyewear. The bad: Nissan-wannabe, rear boomerang taillights. The ugly: Stuck-on, Mr. Potatohead, plastic rear ducts a laLexus RC350. In a fleet of media testers in Dexter, I was eager to get around other Civics to spare my eyes those plastic ducts. Fortunately, overtaking isn’t a problem because this Honda isquick. Stung by media criticism that the ninth-gen was a drunken bucket of lard (we exaggerated a bit), Honda engineers got mad. “We’re returning Civic to its roots as a fun-to-drive car,” admits Honda Product Planner Jenny Gilger. Her team benchmarked the Civic to European performance sedans like the Audi 3. Ambitious little bugger. While I love any compact sedan for its throwable short-wheel base, Civic takes handling up a rung. Reducing the center of gravity — engine and seats are an inch lower — Civic is planted and intuitive. Over Dexter’s serpentine roads, the FWD Civic may not have been an A3 all-wheel-driver (ahem, another AWD hint, Civic) but it gained my confidence with every tire-squalling turn of the wheel. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Not content with agility, Civic also packs a punch with Honda’s first turbocharged engine. Civic restores Honda’s reputation as an engine company. And none too soon as Ford has been on a roll with its Godzilla-in-a-can, 1.0-liter Ecoboost entry-level engine for the Ford Focus. Civic’s turbo is its premium mill, and — like Ecoboost — does a lot with a little. With just 1.5-liters, the “Earth Dreams” engine (Ecoboost, Earth Dreams ... jeez, what’s next: “Brawny Treehugger”?) is wired on turbo caffeine. Nail the throttle and it jumps like a scalded cat. And unlike my 2006, 2.0-liter V-TEC terrier, it betrays little torque steer. The torque comes on like a fever at 1,800 RPM making it a blast to drive with 174 horsepower — a whopping 31 more than the outgoing 2.0-liter. Honda loves feeding red meat to its motorhead base — but the biggest Civic advance over last-gen (and everyone else in class) is the interior. I crossed swords in parking lot autocrosses with the wee Honda Civic CR-X hatch in the ’80s in my compact VW Rabbit (now Golf) GTI. A lot has changed in 30 years. While the Golf has grown slightly from a 97-inch wheelbase to 103, the once-diminutive Civic has ballooned from 90 inches to 106! Haven’t seen a growth spurt like that since Shaq O’Neal in high school. Most cars have grown, of course, but the Civic’s spurt was spurred by the introduction of the roomy Honda Fit subcompact in 2007 (now the Golf’s natural competitor). The ’16 Civic may not be Audi’s equal in the handling department, but it’s pole-vaulted it in size. The Civic is the roomiest compact car — luxury or mainstream — that I have tried on with 6-foot-5-inch frame and size 15 shoes. I can “sit behind myself” in the rear seat with ease. Knees forward, head upright. Try that in a Mazda 3. Ouch. I dig the console too. Credit the diminished windshield in the tenth-gen which forced interior designers to rethink the space. Where the ’15’s console looked like a library of stacked shelves, the ’16 is smartly laid out with a digital instrument panel and flush, iPad-like infotainment screen. Upon entering Civic I immediately synched my Samsung to Android Auto (which requires a little more patience than Apple Car Play), then stashed my phone under the console. Yes, under. Like those clever sub-trays in the Lincoln MKC and MKZ. Honda’s versatile center console includes sliding cup-holders on top — and a deeper one for Big Gulp drinks that will enrage soft-drink despot Michael Bloomberg. From Pilot SUV to Civic, give Honda interior designers a blue ribbon. From losers to winners in one generation. Civic is such an all-around athlete, its omissions are curious. Winter warriors (like Mrs. Payne) will stick with their AWD Subarus no matter how loud the Apple Car Play sirens sing. As for me, I’ll keep patiently waiting for the SI and Type R performance variations. I love big back seats — but the driver’s seat is where I live. Vehicle specs. Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger compact sedan Price: $19,474 ($25,535 as tested) Power plant: 2.0-liter, inline-4 cylinder; 1.5-liter, turbocharged, inline 4-cylinder Power: 158 horsepower, 138 pound-feet of torque (2.0-liter); 174 horsepower, 162 pound-feet of torque (2.0-liter) Transmission: 6-speed manual; Continuously variable automatic Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.4 seconds (manufacturer) Weight: 2,742 pounds base (2,899 EX-T trim as tested) Fuel economy: EPA 27 city/40 mpg highway/31 mpg (manual, 2.0-liter gas); 31 city/41 mpg highway/35 mpg (CVT, 2.0-liter gas); 31 city/42 mpg highway/35 mpg (CVT, 1.5-liter turbo) Report card Highs: Super-sized rear seat; Turbo-riffic Lows: Those plasticky, rear-duct thingies; AWD option, please Overall:★★★★
Posted by hpayne on October 10, 2015I love car niche wars. Pickup wars, sports-car stand-offs, pony-car clashes. They are the automotive equivalent of division sports rivalries: Big Ten football, NBA East, AL Central. Lock the owners of a Ford F-150, RAM 1500, and Chevy Silverado in a room together and they may not come out alive. Invite the proud owners of a Chevy Corvette, Porsche 911 and Dodge Viper over for dinner and feel the temperature drop 20 degrees. Ask a bar-full of Ford Mustang, Chevy Camaro and Dodge Challenger drivers which is king and watch the stools fly. Typical niche owner conversation: “Mustangs suck!” “Camaros are pieces of junk!” “My grandmother’s walker corners faster than a Challenger!” In the last decade a new niche scuffle has broken out in Autodom: The Green Wars featuring the Toyota Prius, Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt. Fans of these battery-powered gizmos, however, are a different lot. Contrary to the testosterone-fueled, brawling niches I’m used to, these folks are more likely to share wine and hummus while complimenting each other on saving the planet. Typical green niche owner conversation: “Can I go for a ride in your Volt?” “My first car was a Prius, too!” “Al Gore autographed my Leaf!” Car manufacturers are horrified at this civility. Especially in a market where the Prius family outsells Volt and Leaf combined nearly 5-to-1. Time to take the gloves off. Or at least the mittens. With the all-new 2016 Chevy Volt, General Motors is coming out swinging with an ad campaign featuring real folks dissing the competition. The campaign rightly touts the lithium-ion powered, plug-in Volt as the highest-tech, most practical green solution on the lot. Want a nickel-metal hydride-powered, gas-sucking Prius hybrid? Chevy scoffs that you must still listen to CDs and correspond by fax. Want a pure electric, 83-mile range Leaf? Hello, range anxiety. Chevy’s bold campaign finally explains to the public the Volt difference. An admitted late-comer to the green battlefield, GM had a lot of ground to make up on Prius — so its Volt solution was necessarily brilliant: An EV with range-extending gas engine. Despite enormous expectations and the blessing of electric-car-skeptic, car-guy-legend Bob Lutz, however, the Volt hit the ground plodding. Its car shell was a miscalculation at a time when the market was crossing to crossovers. What’s more, its styling caused an epidemic of yawns, the cabin-splitting battery limited seating to four, and it stickered at $40,000. Cough. A $40K Chevy compact? But an extended drive through Marin County north of San (AKA Greenville) Francisco in the Gen-two Volt is a reminder of plug-ins’ ingenuity. With its T-shaped battery driving twin-motors up front, my torque-y, silver-metallic Volt took off up California Route 1 on full electric power like a Leaf or Tesla. Unlike other EVs, however, I didn’t sweat the trip’s mileage or check if there was a supercharger en route. Whenever my 18.4-kilowatt-hour battery ran out of charge, the 1.5-liter gas engine — er, range extender — would kick in ensuring another 240 miles and Big Oil’s limitless infrastructure should I need more gas. Green meets practical. Is “greenical” a word? Wait, Payne, you’re thinking, you did the iconic, curvy, Route 1 in an electric appliance? On purpose? Sure, at 3,543 pounds the Cruze-based Volt is no 3,100-pound VW GTI (the last compact I flogged on Route 1). But like the porky Tesla, the Volt’s battery is on the floor, making it surprisingly nimble for its girth. Fifty-four miles into the trip, the gasoline engine took over with such stealth that I had to check the instrument panel to be sure. Wrapped in a cocoon-quiet interior, the plug-in is nearly as silent in gas mode as in electric. On the downhill, interstate grade back to Golden Gate Bridge, I played with the regenerative paddle behind the steering wheel, preserving brakes while also charging electrons. I have two quibbles: It’s still not a crossover, and it looks like a Cruze. On the former, GM Chief Engineer of EVs Pam Fletcher says the forthcoming Chevy Bolt will satisfy the ride-high itch. I like the idea that an EV will be in the new, sub-compact crossover market, but isn’t the compact crossover market the hottest thing this side of bacon? And won’t the Bolt suffer from the same range anxiety that makes the Volt convulse in derisive laughter? I asked Steve Majoros, GM’s marketing guru, about quibble two. You should know that Majoros is an irresistible force of nature. The guy could sell a bicycle to a fish. So when he told me that exhaustive customer research has shown that “we’re past the point where electric cars need to make a statement,” and customers “just want a car that’s less look-at-me and more just-drives-well”... well, he almost had me convinced. Almost. Because I’ve never met a niche car that didn’t need to make a statement. Since man invented the wheel, muscle-car owners want muscly fenders, sports car guys want sporty curves ... and now greens want cool tech pods. iPhone-sleek package, iPhone-user-friendly guts. Gen-two gets it half right. Inside, Volt’s e-drivetrain marries Chevy’s e-savvy console to produce a tech-topia: 4G WiFi, Apple CarPlay, voice recognition. Steve Jobs would have approved. But the exterior looks like Jobs outsourced the iPhone to, well, Chevy. Chevy does vanilla. Like Toyota, like Hyundai. In a Sausalito parking lot of Corollas and Elantras, Volt blended right in. On the other hand, GM does great niche. Camaro. Corvette. The, um, Caddy ELR version of the Volt. Imagine if Volt had done an ELR wedge! I’m told there was a showdown over which fork to take. Vanilla won. I parked next to a Prius. The owner didn’t give the Cruze — er, Volt — a second look until I told him it was the new Volt. “Oh, nice,” he said. “I’d consider one but they are way too expensive.” That’s another reason to make the Volt look more expensive: It’s expensive. The base model starts at $33,995 — nearly $10K above Prius. Buy the “Premier” trim and you’re pushing the $40K club where bejeweled BMWs and Audis preen. Grab that $7,500 federal subsidy because it won’t last forever. Prius, meanwhile, has gone the opposite direction with its look-at-me 2016 makeover. Maybe their marketing is telling them something different. Or maybe it’s the result of CEO Aki Toyoda stalking the halls with a one-way ticket to the North Pole if anyone makes another vanilla Toyota. Whatever. It will stoke debate. Competition. Niche warfare. C’mon, Volt owners, altogether now: “Prius sucks!” 2016 Chevrolet Volt Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger hatchback electric vehicle Price: $33,400 ($33,995 as tested) Power plant: 18.4 kWh, lithium ion battery driving two electric, AC motors plus 1.5-liter, dual-overhead-cam, inline-4 cylinder Power: 149 horsepower, 294 pound-feet of torque (in electric mode); 101 horsepower (gas engine mode) Transmission: Continuously variable automatic Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.4 seconds (manufacturer) Weight: 3,543 pounds (six-speed automatic as tested) Fuel economy: EPA 106 MPGe (combined electric/gas); 43 city/42 mpg highway/42 mpg (gas engine only) Report card Highs: Console tech-topia; Regen paddle Lows: Looks like a Cruze; Priced like a BMW Overall:★★★
Posted by hpayne on October 10, 2015If the new, 2016 Honda Civic is benchmarked to luxury performance sedans like the Audi A3, then what’s left for the Civic-based Acura ILX? It’s as if Pei Wei announced it’s serving the same ingredients as upscale P.F. Chang’s. Or Hampton Inn did bellboys like posh Hilton. Why would anyone pay luxury prices if mainstream brands offered the same goodness? It’s a non-issue for exclusive automakers like BMW and Mercedes. But for luxe siblings in large corporate families, the answer is crucial. What justifies a luxury brand’s higher price if it shares DNA with a mainstream badge? Why Cadillac over Chevy? Why Lexus not Toyota? Audi over VW? Acura not Honda? Indeed, to re-establish its luxe cred, Cadillac divorced itself from the rest of GM so it could craft elite, rear-wheel-drive platforms like the Alpha-chassis. It’s for first-class compact sedans like the Caddy ATS. Chevy Cruze? You’re back in front-wheel-drive, Delta-platform coach class, fella. Pull the curtain, please. Lexus (obsessively good dealer service) and Audi (styling, all-wheel-drive performance) have successfully established their brands. Acura not so much. Exhibit A: The new 2016 ILX. With a reworked fascia, Acura’s signature Jewel Eye LED headlights, and eight-speed auto tranny, the ILX took a bow earlier this year ... and was promptly drowned out by parent Honda’s New York Auto Show announcement that an all-new, all-star, all-wonderful 2016 Civic was coming. Not just a Civic sedan, but a first-ever five-door Civic wagon, SI performance model, and (drum roll, please) the rocking’, sockin’ Civic Type R. Standing O! ILX who? Pity the little Acura for its heart is in the right place. It dares to enter the compact luxe arena against names like the Mercedes CLA250, BMW 2-series and Audi A3 with a lot of standard value for under $30k: sunroof, push-button start, 17-inch wheels, audio connectivity, etc. And it’s prettier than Civic – not that that helps much. Because the CLA is Angelina Jolie on four wheels and the A3 is Brad Pitt. And they just get sexier. Both cars option all-wheel-drive and sensational, AMG and S3 performance models with higher-horsepower turbo engines. The ILX is a match for the Germans in base, FWD mode, but equip the CLA and A3 with AWD and they not only will dance pirouettes around the ILX (I’m still grinning from flogging the A3 through Hell, Michigan, last year), but they will pulverize snow drifts in Michigan winters. The ILX’s free-revving, 2.4-liter, 201-horse four-banger is the same engine that motivates the Civic SI – but then Honda starves the ILX of other engine options while the new Civic Type R is promised a two-point-oh-my-goodness-liter, turbocharged mill worthy of a reported 300 horsepower. Mommy, why did Santa leave more presents in Civic’s stocking? Even as ILX gives new Civic design hints, it will have to suffer through the next model year(s) on the old Civic platform while the Honda preens on the aforementioned, benchmarked-to-A3 global platform. Mommy, was it something I said? That means my $35,810 ILX tester will have less chassis capability, less rear seat space and ... an inferior console compared to cousin Honda priced maybe $8,000 cheaper. Yup, the new Civic ditches Acura’s antiquated multi-screens for a single, iPad-like touch screen. Even Merc should take a hint from its attractive layout. Load up CLA and A3 with AWD, navigation and driver-assist features and they start to bump the $40 grand ceiling. Opportunity for my similarly equipped (AWD aside) ILX then, yes? Er, well ... The thing is Acura is not alone as an entry-luxe price leader. The sleek, $28k Buick Regal is there too – and with Teutonic upgrades like AWD and a 259-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbo that will have ILX knocking on Honda’s door in the middle of the night wanting to know when the #@!!** that Type-R, 300-horse motor will be ready. Not only is Acura dissed by the uppity Civic – but also by the larger Accord sedan. For the same price as my Acura tester the Accord comes with leather seats, navigation, a palatial back seat, and a 278 horsepower, ILX-eating, V6 engine. Holidays around the Honda dinner table must be tense. Adding insult to injury, Accord has also borrowed Acura’s Jewel Eye headlights. Add the BMW-like, LED taillights and, well, can I take the Honda to the prom instead, mom? What to do? Acura’s forthcoming NSX halo supercar shows the way. All-wheel-drive, twin-turbos. Apply that formula to the whole lineup and we’re talkin’ blown, AWD ILXs. So even if the Acura isn’t as pretty as the rest of the class, it will never get bullied. Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com and Twitter @HenryEPayne. View all his work at HenryPayne.com. 2016 Acura ILX Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger performance sedan Price: $28,820 base ($35,810 as tested) Power plant: 2.4-liter, dual-overhead-cam, inline-4 cylinder Power: 201 horsepower, 180 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Eight-speed, dual-clutch automatic Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.6 seconds (Car and Driver) Weight: 3,134 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 25 mpg city/36 mpg highway/29 combined Report card Highs: Nimble handling; Snazzy LED headlights Lows: Sits on old Civic chassis while Accord steals its headlights; AWD turbo, please? Overall:★★
Posted by hpayne on October 10, 2015When Pope Francis arrived at the White House in a Fiat 500L station wagon last month, media reports buzzed about his humble, fuel-sipping, little ride. Well ... maybe “little” when compared to the giant, Secret Service Chevy Suburbans that usually ferry Washington dignitaries. Or the custom-built, gas-guzzling Cadillac limo — Secret Service code-name “The Beast” — that President Obama tools around in (when he’s not in one of two, presidential-sealed Suburbans). Or maybe the pope’s Vatican team went out and found the biggest Italian car sold in the States. As prominent members of the Save the Polar Bear Club, the pope and the president might prefer, say, a battery-powered Fiat 500e subcompact (EPA rating: 116 MPGe) and a plug-in electric Chevy Volt sedan (EPA rating: 106 MPGe). But circumstances demand the opposite. Our leaders, it turns out, are no different than the rest of us when it comes to selecting their transportation in cheap-gas, big-avenue America: They prioritize practicality and comfort (and if they can wave the flag of a domestic brand, all the better). I drove a 500L and a Chevy Suburban side-by-side for a week to gain the perspective of pope and prez (or at least their chauffeur) — and the vehicles they are endorsing for America. Two feet longer and a half-foot taller than a Fiat 500, the L (for Large, introduced in 2013) got the free-advertising gift of a lifetime: A papal ride before a TV audience of millions. Truth be told, Fiat dealers would probably have preferred the pope in the all-new, 2016 Fiat 500X small ute which promises more success for the beleaguered brand — even though it’s marginally smaller than the Large. We Yanks are ga-ga for crossovers. Still, the pope’s visit has given the tepid-selling L a shot in the arm. Kelley Blue Book’s website recorded a 50 percent spike in searches for Fiat and the 500L after the pope’s visit. “We’ve been inundated with calls,” Kathy Finn, brand manager for Fiat Chrysler, told Bloomberg News. “Customers are calling surprised at how spacious the car is.” Francis isn’t the first headliner to endorse the 500L (remember P. Diddy’s desert mirage ad?), proving products aren’t sold on celebrity alone. Still, the 500L is worth a drive. Like its competitors in the Multi-Purpose Vehicle (FCA’s preferred name —anything but “station wagon”) segment, the L is a different animal. Take its upright, toaster shape. While the 500L bears Fiat’s familiar, baby-cute face (is that a pacifier stuck in its grille?), the body behind it is less Fiat 500 and more Chrysler Town & Country. Honey, I shrunk the minivan! The massive greenhouse has more glass than Notre Dame. And unlike the Paris cathedral’s stained panes, you can see right through the Large, making for excellent driver visibility — and views of waving popes. Fiat even added windows on the corner A- and C-pillars for better visibility. Include the optional moonroof on my tester and the pope has an unobstructed view of heaven from the backseat. Speaking of rear seats, the L has plenty of room for this 6’5” ex-basketball player, much less the 5’9” Francis. They’ll tumble or fold flat, too, opening up the already ample 23 cubic feet of trunk volume. And the L comes with an excellent Beats stereo system — in case the pontiff wants to chill to some Diddy. From a distance, both the Suburban and 500L look like shoeboxes. And that’s about the only thing they share. “Hey, Mark Wahlberg. Shut up!” yells an annoyed theater-goer trying to get the attention of Amy Schumer’s noisy, muscular boyfriend in “Trainwreck.” “‘Mark Wahlberg?’” the boyfriend shouts back. “I look like Mark Wahlberg ate Mark Wahlberg.” That’s the Suburban. If the 500L is a supersized 500, the Chevy’s rear hatch looks like it could swallow it in one bite. Where the L let’s the sunshine in, the Silverado truck-based Suburban’s interior is cavernous, with dark-tinted rear windows and out-of-sight back corners. President Obama could sit in the second row bucket seats, the pope comfortable in the third row bench behind — and there would still be room for their luggage in the 40 cubic feet of rear cargo space. The Suburban LTZ I drove is nearly as luxurious as its cousin, the Cadillac Escalade. Heated and air-conditioned leather seats, flip down movie screen, sun roof, 4G LTE Wi-Fi — even cool toys like Apple Car Play. Even before the Secret Service installs bulletproof glass the Suburban is loaded with safety systems like pre-collision automatic braking, blind-spot alert, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-keep assist, 360-degree radar, and anti-aircraft missiles (just kidding about that last one). I managed to park in absurdly tight spaces thanks to the 360-view. Take this bad boy to Rome’s tight streets and it would be still be able to maneuver. And if you gotta’ run from the bad guys? Both vehicles are surprisingly nimble for their girth. While the Holy Father might have needed a barf bag if he were aboard, I had a blast flogging the balanced L through Oakland County — only betrayed by a wee 1.4-liter turbo engine that’s not up to the task of the 3,200-pound MPV. The Suburban, meanwhile, is a revelation. Just shy of three tons, the LTZ is an elephant in ballet slippers. With coil-over springs front and rear and Magnetic Ride Control shocks, it glides along, taking corners with surprising confidence. On dark, slick Pontiac Trail one Saturday night, the Chevy was sure-footed as I chauffeured Mrs. Payne to a wedding reception. Nail the throttle out of a corner with 4WD churning and the 5.3-liter V-8 pulled like a farm ox. Catch me if you can, ISIS. The Fiat puts the Chevy in its rear view mirror when it comes to fuel economy (duh): 25 mpg to 18. Still, the Suburban has a green safety net: It can run on good ol’ American-made, corn ethanol. When I was a reporter in Washington a couple of presidents ago, I asked if the Secret Service filled the Suburbans’ tanks with ethanol. My inquiry was met with, um, suspicion. Awkward. I swear I was followed for the next month. Still, the president might insist on it. It would give him a hole card should the pope ever claim that he has the greener ride. 2016 Fiat 500L Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger station wagon Price: $20,800 ($26,895 as tested) Power plant: 1.4-liter, 16-valve, turbocharged inline-4 cylinder Power: 160 horsepower, 184 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Six-speed manual; six-speed, twin-clutch; six-speed automatic Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.9 seconds (Car & Driver) Weight: 3,254 pounds (six-speed automatic as tested) Fuel economy: EPA 22 mpg city/30 mpg highway/25 mpg combined (FWD manual) Report card Highs: Excellent visibility; lotsa’ personality Lows: Peaky turbo engine; third row, please? Overall:★★★
Posted by hpayne on October 5, 2015If the classic, 1970s Chevrolet TV ad were recast for the 21st century, it might go like this: “Baseball, berries, crunchy granola, and Chevrolet Volt.” So pervasive is the stereotype of Chevy’s green plug-in that the “Father of the Volt” himself, Bob Lutz, once joked to Stephen Colbert that it would attract “a lot of very nice, no-makeup, environmentalist women.'' “A little crunchier,” joined in Colbert. Yet, the “Government Motors” car once derided by Republican candidate Herman Cainas “Obama’s baby” is hardly the product of sandal-wearing, anti-car hippies. Indeed, Lutz and Chief Engineer Andrew Farah are unabashed motor heads who cut their teeth on fast cars and fossil fuels. As its founding fathers suggest, the peppy, high-tech Volt is more than meets the eye. Four years after the electric vehicle’s launch, the tire-smoking, MIG-flying Lutz has moved on, but the formidable Farah remains. Their off-spring has evolved from apolitically-charged “moon shot” to a second-generation Chevy mainstay. If Corvette is a supercar for the masses, then the 2016 Volt is an EV for the average buyer. It is the pinnacle of the 55-year-old Farah’s career as one of the nation’s foremost EV innovators — a logical marriage of his U-of-M-honed computer engineering degree and his childhood passion for tinkering with go-karts. I sat down with the 30-year GM veteran at Volt 2.0’s launch in Sausalito, California, to talk electrics, EV-1, and farms. Q: What was your first car? Farah: 1976 Chevrolet Blazer K5, four-wheel-drive with a 400-cubic inch small block and a 400 Turbo-Hydromatic 3-speed transmission and a two-speed gear case. Q: Spoken like a true motor-head. Farah: Well, I took it apart a number of times to fix ... my own damage. I really enjoy cars. As a kid I had a number of go-karts, snowmobiles, motorcycles. I had the greatest advantage: My grandmother had a farm (Ed. note: in Davidson, Michigan). And on a farm you have a lot of space and everything needs fixing. Q: Did you want to be an engineer when you went to University of Michigan? Farah: When I first got to college I was a physics major. Then I figured out that getting a job might be a little difficult so I went to my next favorite thing which was ... computer programming. So I’m actually a computer engineer by training, and my masters is in electrical science for the application of computers — specifically embedded systems like microcontrollers and engines, transmissions, batteries. I used to hate the question: “Hey, I want a computer — which one should I buy?” And I’d say: “What are you going to do with it?” “I don’t know.” I’d say: “Don’t buy one.” This was all before networking. What has really cracked that market open is the getting and sharing of data — specially embedded systems like the ability to network in the car which has opened up great, new possibilities. So I am really doing what I set out to do. Q: The first-generation Volt introduced an advanced computer-driven powertrain, but now you are the intersection for other digital applications like 4G WiFi and Apple CarPlay. Farah: A pipeline to the car. It’s like I said, PCs were nothing until you had connectivity to other PCs. Now that the car can share data with X, it’s going to open up some additional things I’m sure. Q: Before Volt you worked on the ill-fated EV1? Farah: EV-1 was a great car for what it was. It was a two-seater, had limited range, was a bit eclectic looking, and people either loved it or hated it. The first generation Volt had a sort of moon shot mentality: We’re going to take everything we know about electrification and move it to the next step, The Gen 2 refines all that . . . and expands it into a mainstream vehicle. Q: Will the plug-in move beyond the Volt just as Toyota has put hybrid in all its vehicles? Or will Volt always be a singular GM model? Farah: I definitely see the technology moving into other parts of the GM/Chevy family, specifically the Malibu hybrid. That only makes sense. Q: What’s next? Farah: Electrification still has a long way to go. But there are other areas important in the industry (as we) move to a more urban society. The concepts of car-sharing, automated driving, others sources of energy. . . . I want to continue to be on that cutting edge.
Posted by hpayne on October 2, 2015Imagine if Abe Lincoln had had the opportunity to drive in his namesake, the Lincoln MKX sport ute. At 6-foot-4, our 16th president would have slipped easily into the passenger seat of the two-row SUV as a Secret Service agent drove him down Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day. With the “Panoramic Vista Roof” open, Abe’s stove-pipe hat would have stuck out like, well, a stove pipe. On occasion, he might have stood on the seat and emerged from the roof waving a long arm to the madding crowds. Far from the awkward-looking Lincoln MKT large SUV or the last-generation, prison-bar-grille MKX, the ’16 mid-size MKX is the most elegant ute in its class. Dead last in U.S. luxury market sales, Lincoln is showing signs of life. Following in the tire-treads of its smaller MKC stablemate, the X’s design is noble. With the bars turned pleasingly horizontal, its signature, double-grille spreads like the wings of a bald eagle. I lived for 13 years in the nation’s capital, and the stately Lincoln would have been at home on its grand boulevards, the picture of class. No doubt, if 19th-century Abe had encountered an MKX he would have reacted like he had seen a UFO. Returning from a trip to Chicago on a Saturday night, I descended on an I-94 interchange service center outside Kalamazoo like an alien spaceship in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” An MKX SUV UFO, if you please. The X’s 12 LED headlights and distinctive, tubular LED running lights — front and rear — are so sci-fi a group of locals hanging out on the curb might have expected aliens to emerge from inside. They got Mrs. Payne and me instead. “What did you do just then?” one local exclaimed pointing at the front of our spaceship. He had seen the Lincoln star logo rise up and a small camera emerge as I inched forward into the parking space. I had actuated the front camera (which has its own washer, natch) with a console button so I could dock closely to the curb without hitting it. Gather ’round, my earthly pals, there’s more. They crowded around the driver’s door like kids who had just been invited into an airliner cockpit for the first time. The button-festooned MKX interior was a century-removed from the old Ford F150 pickups and compact cars in the parking lot. I demonstrated how the forward lens — combined with two under the mirrors and one aft — give the driver a bird’s eye view of the vehicle in order to place it exactly in a parking space. If the Lincoln had gull-wing doors like inventor “Doc” Brown’s DeLorean in “Back to the Future” (or the Tesla Model X introduced this week) the scene would have been perfect. But the MKX doesn’t have gull-wings. Nor does it have 5,000 horsepower like an SRT Jeep Grand Cherokee. Or 11-inch rear tires like the BMW X5 M. Or an F-Sport badge like the Lexus RX. Now that SUVs ride on car chassis, manufacturers are keen to load them with testosterone to grab headlines and quicken the pulses of auto show crowds. The MKX doesn’t care about any of that stuff. “Quiet luxury” is its mantra. Indeed, the latest Matthew McConaughey ads are notable for the hunky Hollywood star never uttering a sound — much less the vehicle. For all of the MKX’s gadgetry, though, its Kalamazoo fans — or President Abe — would have quickly been at ease behind the wheel. Its 22-way adjustable leather seats fit like thrones — including a massage if one so desires. Dial in a 20-minute back rub, turn on the optional Revel audio system and some soothing music and you might be carried away into a sauna-like coma. Until the beeping begins. MKX may be a rolling Barcalounger, but it’s also obsessively concerned about your safety. Stray toward your lane lines and the steering wheel vibrates. Approach a curb and the car beeps hysterically. Rush the car in front too quickly and lights flash like you’re in a disco. What a nag. But then I spoke with a nurse friend in Chicago whose No. 1 concern was vehicle safety. When I told her she’d be more secure inside an MKX than the Crown Jewels, she was sold. If I paid 50 grand for something this elegant, I’d want a Brinks security system too. Smart shoppers will note that the Lincoln is built on the same bones as the all-new, 2015 Ford Edge that I reviewed in March, which can be had for 10 grand less and is itself no slouch in the gizmo department. Similar 3.5-liter V-6 and 2.7 twin-turbo V-6 (though the MKX gets more horses). Same moon roof, same driver assist systems, same liftgate-kick feature, same self-parking assist. Oh, was that handy around Chicago where cars are stuffed into parallel parking spaces like grocery-shelf soup cans. But the Edge-in-a-tuxedo Lincoln is a bargain itself compared to the luxury competition. Only the Volvo XC90 — 10-large more expensive than the MKX — can compete with the Lincoln’s thoughtful, graceful interior design. While Lincoln has long used buttons for its transmissions, the arrangement — coupled with a touchscreen infotainment system — seems suited to the 21st century digital age. The center console sweeps between the seats unbroken by shelves or gear knobs that clutter. Need to store an iPad or handbag? Ample storage lies underneath where hydraulic cables once ran. Lincoln has been in the wilderness so long, I’d forgotten what it stood for. “Quiet luxury” is a good place to start alongside price-competitive, sales-leading Lexus RX, which has gone Ted Nugent-loud with its radical, Darth Vader grille. Acura’s MDX will remain the SUV of choice for those who need three rows. And Audi will gain the sporty crowd. Let Tesla’s Model X and Audi’s Q7 fight for the $80,000 eclectic electric buyer. Lincoln needs a practical SUV in the meat of the market that can build a solid base. Lincoln the pol would get that. And in my week-long drive from Chicago to Kalamazoo to Detroit, the $40-60K MKX spaceship earned plenty of supporters. 2016 Lincoln MKX Vehicle type: Front-engine, front- or all-wheel-drive, five-passenger sport ute Price: $38,995 ($61,760 as tested) Power plant: 3.7-liter, 24-valve V-6; 2.7-liter, twin-turbocharged V6 Power: 303 horsepower, 278 pound-feet of torque (3.7-liter); 335 horsepower, 380 pound-feet of torque (turbo) Transmission: Six-speed automatic transmission Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.0-6.7 seconds (Car & Driver estimate) Weight: 4,447 pounds (AWD turbo as tested) Fuel economy: EPA 16 mpg city/23 mpg highway/19 mpg combined (3.7-liter AWD); EPA 17 mpg city/24 mpg highway/19 mpg combined (turbo AWD) Report card Highs: Best console in class; hi-tech gizmos Lows: Similar Ford Edge is 10 grand cheaper; third row, please? Overall:★★★★
Posted by hpayne on October 2, 2015Mountain View, California — Driving in the autonomous Google electric car is a very different experience than its predecessor, the Lexus RX350 Hybrid equipped with Google self-driving equipment that I tested here over a year ago. For one thing, there’s what to call it. Google has yet name it so the public has been filling the void. It’s been variously referred to as a “marshmallow,” “nerf car,” and “koala ball.” My favorite? The “Skynet Marshmallow Bumper Bot” (courtesy of The Oatmeal.com). But the other difference is the car doesn’t feel like a car at all. It feels more like a Disneyland ride. The interior is devoid of traditional car tools. No pedals. No instrument panel. No steering wheel. The absence of the latter is transforming, actually. Rather than making me feel less safe, it is comforting not to see the pilot-less steering wheel spinning around like car is possessed. My wife won’t get in a self-parking, steering wheel-spinning Ford Focus, much less a possessed, self-driving Google Lexus. I felt like I was in a Disney monorail, or the front of a New York subway rail-car. But without the rails. Government regulations still demand that autonomous vehicles have a safety engineer sitting by in the driver’s seat if they are let loose on public roads. Which is why I was driving in the Google Lexus on public roads last year — and on the parking-lot roof of Google’s X-lab in the Marshmallow Bumper Bot. But Google did everything to make the roof seems like a public road. They threw pedestrians across our path. Bicyclists. A merging Ford Fusion. Not to mention the fixed rooms, light poles, and walls that make the X-lab roof look like a maze. The Google car navigated them all — braking, stopping, steering. By my second ride, I was comfortably glancing at my phone and checking email. There’s another big difference with the Lexus. The Marshmallow Bot is Made in Detroit. Google has partnered with Roush which manufactured my tester in Livonia. There the car is hand-built with the same roof-mounted “LIDAR” dome (a package of lasers, radars, and cameras), sensors, and software as the Google Lexus — but packaged about the size and shape of a VW Beetle. Then it’s shipped to Mountain View for final software updating by Google engineers. The engineers say the Google car looks so cute because it was designed from the ground up with round corners so the LIDAR can see 360 degrees around the car. “We wanted to re-imagine the car without the steering wheel,” says Lead Systems Engineer Jaime Waydo. “When we do that we want to build a car that can see 360 degrees.” But Google also admits its cuteness has the effect of helping the self-driving car gain public acceptance. It’s reassuring that the autonomous car heading down the street looks like a friendly kid’s play toy and not Darth Vader (like, ahem, the new Lexus RX’s grille). Significantly, the LIDAR dome — which looks like a spinning bubble gum machine with legs on top of the Google Lexus — has been greatly modified to resemble the blue dome on Andy Griffith’s Mayberry police car. Indeed, from a distance, the Google car can look like a VW meter maid. This attention to detail means Google car is serious about coming to the market. Soon. While Google founder Sergey Brin won’t put a date to the Google car’s ambitions, he says Google is working closely with regulators. The Marshmallow Bot is also a regular fixture on public roads — approved for testing by the government of Mountain View and Austin, Texas. Google is testing the cars furiously, having already logged 1.2 million miles. Safety is a first priority, and the Google car has been limited to 25 mph on local streets. The few accidents it has been involved in have been almost entirely caused by human drivers running into it. “We were surprised by the frequency of times we’ve been rear-ended,” says Brin. It’s much higher than we first thought. Human drivers are not paying attention. It speaks to the challenge of people driving with cell phones and other distractions. And that’s the safety issue that a self-driving car solves.” Brin says the Google car will make driving safer, but will never replace the fun of driving. “There is a future for both worlds,” he says. “There’ll always be the pleasure of the open road.” But for the daily drudgery of metro commuting — Brin says the average work commute is 50 minutes — the Google car’s technology will be a revolution. Driving in the Google car, its immediate future is evident: It will be a boon to taxi services like Uber and commercial fleets like airport shuttles. My tester was roomy with heated seats, a tasteful stitched vinyl interior, and luggage room where the dashboard and console used to be. “Driverless vehicles will change the game,” says Rattan Joea, CEO of California-based, airport-focused Prime Time Shuttle, who sees a future of Uber-like ride shares. “It will streamline our service by taking the operator out of the equation. It will save on insurance by removing human limitations. Computers don’t get tired. They don’t get sleepy.” Such commercial services might initially be able to afford the huge up-front costs of the Google technology given its long-term labor savings. But ultimately, Goggle’s Brin sees the rolling marshmallow — or whatever its name will be — as affordable transportation so that the elderly (like his Parkinson’s afflicted mom) can get around even after they are no longer fit to drive.
Posted by hpayne on September 27, 2015I’ve played tennis for over 40 years and have used a version of the Wilson Pro Staff for the last 25. No matter how long I’m away from the game (as now after getting a new knee), when I return the Wilson feels just right in my hands. The right balance. The right power. The right weight. The 2016 Cadillac ATS is a Wilson on wheels. Since I first drove Caddy’s compact performance coupe at its maiden test launch a year ago, we’ve played together a number of times. And each time it feels like we never parted. The right balance. The right power. The right weight. It’s the best-handling tool in the segment when the testosterone rises (eclipsing even you, my old flame BMW 3), yet is a comfortable commuter as well. When the ATS-V performance version debuted in May, GM invited media to Austin’s epic Formula One track, Circuit of the Americas, to test Caddy’s BMW M3 fighter in the most demanding environment. The twin-turbo, 464-horse, carbon-fiber-trimmed V passed with flying colors, gobbling the curves like it was possessed by Teutonic engineering itself. But back on Planet Earth, the average ATS-V shopper will never lap their V on COTA. Will never take it to a racetrack, period. Poor V will never feel the wind across its back at 150 mph. Never get to feel .97 Gs through the esses. Never get to use its Performance Data Recorder to snap off fast laps. Alas, it will mostly sit in a garage for hours on end, just as my Phantom Grey Metallic tester did for a week this September. A $74,635 weapon without a war. And that’s what makes the ATS-V so good. It doesn’t have to go nuclear to be appreciated. It’s a perfectly civilized, date-night-with-Mrs. Payne mobile. Like my Wilson racquet, it always feels comfortable in my hand. The leather-scented, Alcantara-lush interior fits just right. The instrument display is intuitive. The engine purrs like a leopard, the magnetic shocks absorb road bumps with grace. I could drive for hours without thinking about the performance-enhancing, aluminum chassis brace hidden underneath. Or the titanium-aluminide turbochargers that can stuff the cylinder heads with 444 foot pounds of tire-smoking torque. By contrast, two competitive vehicles in the ATS-V’s price range that I’ve tested recently– the $81,425 BMW M3 and $76,465 Corvette C7 with Z51 trim package – don’t have as polite daily table manners. The M3 and C7 want red meat all the time. Turn the key on the washboard-stiff Bimmer and it growls like an empty stomach. Its gaping front air intakes are King Kong’s nostrils. The car itches like a case of poison ivy to be floored. The C7 is worse. The interior has a chemical smell. Like a boxer oiled for a fight. Its shark-like visage attracts police radar guns up to 10 miles away. Nail the throttle over 3000 RPM and unleash the Kraken’s roar. The ATS-V is more subtle, yet every bit as lethal when force is required. Approaching Telegraph Road on Lone Pine, a modified Mustang with a hood bulge the size of Mount Everest spied the V-badge on the back of my Caddy and glued himself to my rear end spoiling for a fight. Just before the 90-degree turn onto Telegraph I downshifted into second – like butter with the V’s digital rev-matching – then danced the beautifully-balanced Alpha chassis across the apex under power. Glancing in the rear view mirror, I saw the ’Stang strain to keep up, its tail slewing right to left like it was swatting horse-flies. My eyes got back to the tac in time to see the needle rocketing to the 6,500 redline. Third gear. Fourth. I was gone. Living with V isn’t all wine and roses, though. Optimized for dry-weather performance, its low-ground clearance and rear-wheel-drive won’t be much fun come winter. For those who covet an all-season performance ATS, the AWD, 321-horse V-6 Caddy is a tasty alternative for $20K less. The V’s chiseled body is pleasingly athletic, but the fearsome, chain-link grille is too severe to look at every day. Inside, the haptic-touch, CUE infotainment system quickly wears out its novelty. Especially when GM’s coach-class brand, Chevy, has upgraded its infotainment system with First Class Cadillac systems like 4G WiFi and Apple Car Play — not to mention a much more intuitive touchscreen with redundant dials. Anyone do console transplants? But every marriage has its compromises. If those details don’t bother you, then Cadillac has built the best all-around, small luxury performance sedan on the market today. It’s a car you can live with. And play with. 2016 Cadillac ATS-V Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, four-passenger coupe/sedan Price: $61,460 base ($74,635 as tested) Power plant: 6-liter, twin-turbo V-6 Power: 464 horsepower, 444 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Six-speed manual (optional eight-speed automatic) Performance: 0-60 mph, 3.8 seconds; 189 mph top speed (manufacturer) Weight: 3,750 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 16 mpg city/24 mpg highway (auto transmission); 17 mpg city/23 mpg highway (manual) Report card Highs: Nimble handling; Comfortable daily driver Lows: Metal-mouth smile; No fun in the snow Overall:★★★★
Posted by hpayne on September 24, 2015I’m a 25-year-old hiding out in a 53-year-old body. Which is why I just got a knee replacement so I can keep playing tournament tennis. Which is why “Minions” is my favorite movie of 2015 (OK, maybe I’m a 12-year old). Which explains why I’ve been a fan of Toyota’s youth brand, Scion. I like their bookshelf-style auto show display. Their Apple-like, lower-case-upper-case alphanumeric badges like tC and xB. Saturn-like, mono-spec, no-haggle pricing. And don’t even get me started on the sensational, tossable, pure-sports car FR-S. So am I a fan of the new iM and iA? iThink. iShouldbe. iDunno. Scion is in transition. Gone for 2016 is the square xB (boxy is soooo 15 minutes ago). Gone is the iQ (another mini-car ignored by Americans). Replaced by the more mainstream iM and iA sedans with a third player to be named later (I’ll get to that). I understand. Because not only did Toyota create the brand to bring new customers to its doors, it’s also an incubator. A test tube for ideas, misfits, mutants. Call it Frankenscion. The sporty, Toyota-conceived FR-S is a rebadged Subaru BRZ. And now the iM and iA twins are Scion’s first entry in the small sedan and hatch market. Except, in typical Scion fashion, they aren’t a pair at all — but two very different bots assembled from different parts bins. Start with the five-door iM. The hatch. Readers of these columns know I’m hip to hatches. To the point of irrationality. As a juror I voted the Volkswagen GTI the 2015 North American Car of the Year over the all-new, all-cool Mustang GT. Even though the V-dub hasn’t changed much in three generations. Oh, yes, some of you gave it to me good and loud. No matter, hatches are the best combination of utility and fun and the GTI is the standard. But I’m preaching into a prairie wind. What most Americans want are hatches on stilts. Crossovers. So iM puzzles: Why a Scion hatch and not a crossover to compete in the hot-as-Hades subcompact ute segment against the Jeep Renegade, Fiat 500X, Honda HR-V, et al? Trendy, youthful. Heck, another struggling youth brand, Fiat, has figured it out with its massively cute Fiat 500X — a 500 on stilts that is finally connecting the brand to what Yanks want. No doubt, the Scion crossover is on the way (that player to come) along with Toyota’s own late-to-the-party offering. But driving the iM I can’t help but think Scion missed its moment. Enough. As they say back home in Appalachia: Ya’ dance with who brung ya’. The Frankenscion iM is a U.S. variant of the Japanese Auris which is built on the Corolla chassis. The front and rear ends sport jaunty angles, aggressive intake gills, topped off with a boomerang grille (side-skirt cladding optional). Sure, the Toyota Yaris and Corolla S have received recent upgrades after Akio Toyoda’s demand that his cars get more stylish or there were gonna be some whoopin’s. But the iM is even sleeker, more European. When I ask patient Toyota reps why the brand doesn’t make a pocket rocket like the Ford Focus ST or VW GTI, the answer is: “We have Scions.” But despite its come-hither wardrobe, the iM is hardly a hot hatch. Reach for the leather-webbed gear knob (nice), stomp on the accelerator pedal and ... a little 1.8 liter 4-banger howls with all the conviction of 137 rodents in a gerbil wheel. Sigh. In “Young Frankenstein” Marty Feldman’s Igor (iGor?) mistakenly fetches an “Abby Normal” brain to power the good doctor’s creation. The iM is like that. The drivetrain doesn’t fit the iM’s ambitions. The underpowered 4-holer will buzz like a bee’s nest under power, but once up to highway speeds it’s easy on the ears and gas. Despite my lead foot, gas mileage was excellent at 31 mpg around town. Inside, Scion is a Toyota. For better or worse. The interior is nicely appointed with soft touch materials and intuitive, matte-black console buttons. And the voice recognition system on my tester was superb — and had no problem with my hillbilly drawl. Other details annoy. The hard console edges that cut into my knees. The cruise control stalk that takes me two days to figure out. For anyone who wishes for a Corolla hatch, the iM is it. For those who wished Mazda would bring its ZOOM ZOOM to the U.S subcompact market, say hello to the iA. Scion went to Mazda’s Mexico plant, skinned a Mazda 2 and brought it across the border disguised as a Scion. Same pop-up infotainment screen. Same console-mounted rotary dial. Same horizontal dash vents. The drivetrain is all Mazda too — a 1.5-liter Skyactiv engine that is both peppy and a sippy 42 mpg. So why does the iA look so grumpy? Ditching the Mazda’s pleasant facade, the iA gets a polarizing, Lexus-like maw. Frankenscion with Frankenstein’s face. The gaping mouth doesn’t fit the shapely Mazda behind it. If only Scion offered a Mazda-like smiley grille with its healthy list of standard features. Features like backup camera, push-button start, and 7-inch touch screen. Those features — and Scion’s unique mono-spec pricing strategy — are Scion’s biggest strength. In a brand with a complicated quilt of body styles, Scion’s defining trait is its simple “Pure Process” sales experience. It’s like putting together a Dell computer online. I went to Scion.com late on a Sunday night to simulate buying an iM. “Possibly the Easiest Car Buying Process in Three Simple Steps” boasts the website — and iWas impressed. I watched a quick video then picked the color, tranny, and a la carte accessories I wanted. Just like adding a printer, monitor, warranty, etc. to your Dell order. When I had questions about anything, I just asked for an online expert (Adrian was mine) who helpfully guided me around. When done, I picked the dealer closest to me — and a salesman called me Monday morning. No kidding. Like the Saturn experience of yore, Scion buyers might actually enjoy the buying process. What a concept. Still ... to feed my inner 25-year-old, I FR-Sure want the Scion sports car. Would I pick a Scion hatch over a 170-horsepower VW Golf? iM not sold. Can Scion compete with a 37-mpg, turbo 3-banger Focus? iAin’t convinced. 2016 Scion iM Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger hatchback Price: $19,255 base price ($20,603 manual as tested) Power plant: 1.8-liter, dual overhead cam 4-cylinder Power: 137 horsepower, 126 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Six-speed manual; Continuously Variable Transmission Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.8-9.5 seconds (Car and Driver) Weight: 2,943 pounds (manual); 3,031 (CVT) Fuel economy: EPA 28 mpg city/37 mpg highway/32 mpg combined Report card Highs: No-haggle buying experience; standard options Lows: iMeh styling; iMeh performance Overall:★★
Posted by hpayne on September 20, 2015When I tell Brian Bolain, marketing manager for Toyota’s Lexus luxury brand, that the new, radically-styled Lexus NX and Lexus RX utes are the most polarizing vehicles I have driven, he beams. “Lexus is no longer just a rational brand,” he likes to say of its emotional “L-Finesse” styling. Irrational? Emotional? Lexus? Those words once never appeared in the same sentence together, much less the same page. Introduced to the U.S. market in 1989, Lexus had its share of innovation – “with the RX we created an entire segment,” notes Bolain – but its reputation was built on appliance-like customer service and reliability. The result has been a fanatically loyal owner base that has made Lexus one of the Big Three in luxury sales along with the German titans, Mercedes and BMW. But in the trendy, mercurial luxury market image is everything. Brands can’t rest on their laurels, and Bolain’s team sensed a shift in the wind. “It’s not uncommon for owners to have had four or five RXs,” he says of the ute that debuted in 1998. “And they say (they) wouldn’t mind if there was a bit of the change. It’s kind of like eating the same meal every day. I’d really like the chicken instead of the fish today. I think that’s where we are with RX. It’s time to give them something more.” I sat down with Bolain, 55, at RX’s Portland, Oregon media launch this month to talk spindle grilles, shoveled driveways and three-row seating. Q: The NX was the first Lexus ute to get the spindle grille last year. How’s that working out? Bolain: The NX is going great. We do about 4,000-4,5000 (sales) a month and that’s pretty much all we can get from the factory (Ed. note: NX built in Japan) because that segment is on fire. First time in my career I can remember one segment being in such high demand virtually everywhere in the world. Consumer acceptance is quite high — and we’ve got more feedback that owners of some of the German competitors would now consider NX because of F-Sport. Q: My Lexus-owner friends rave about the owner experience. What’s different? Bolain: From the beginning our tagline has been “The Pursuit of Perfection.” And our dealers adopted that as a personal mantra. It’s just going that extra mile. We could talk about . . . stories we hear about a sales person who - when somebody’s car had a flat tire - goes to get them. Or the sales person who shoveled someone’s driveway. Sales people who go far beyond “here’s my check and here’s your keys” to have a personal relationship with their buyers. That’s why we have the loyalty, because you get used to that and hate to give that up. Q: Why not a turbo 2.0-liter for the U.S. market RX as in Japan and Europe? Bolain: It could. Right now we’re just dipping our toe in the turbo waters. We just introduced it in NX. First turbo in our history. We’re just putting it in IS . . . and RC and we’re also putting it in GS. So we’re learning how acceptance goes. This market still desires to have a V6 engine - our gas prices are certainly lower than Europe and parts of Asia. Q: What’s Lexus doing to advance beyond styling? Bolain: We’re rounding out our lineup nicely not only in terms of product, but now in terms of engine choices. So that “personalizability” – I’m going to make up a word – means your Lexus isn’t the same as your neighbor’s. Q: The two-row RX’s Toyota platform mate, the Highlander, has three row seating. Mainstream, mid-size ute buyers demand three rows, yet it’s rare in luxury mid-size. Why? Bolain: As Baby Boomers became empty nesters, RX became a fantastic alternative for them. We now have a whole new generation of buyers coming into luxury at a fast rate – but they’re young families. So we’ve moved from Baby Boomer, empty-nesters buying this vehicle to the young family. We know there is a need for third row. Our dealers have made it very clear that if there was one wish they could have it would be a third row in the RX. So we took our truck-based, three-row, midsize, GX SUV (and repriced it) at $49,995 to test the waters. It used to sell 700-800 a month – we now sell 2,000-2,200 a month. So we’ve proven to ourselves that what we’ve heard is true. So next move for Lexus is to have a car-based SUV with three rows.
Posted by hpayne on September 20, 2015Hell must be freezing over. I’m recommending SUVs. I worship at the altar of physics. A car with a low center of gravity is optimum. If not the road-hugging-if-space-limited sports coupes I own, then a four-door sedan. The lower the center of gravity, the better the car’s handling and reactions when you find yourself in extreme conditions: A sudden swerve, a wet mountain descent. Lower center of gravity also benefits aerodynamics and fuel efficiency. Need cargo space? Buy a hatchback. Sport utes defy my physics textbook. They totter in the air, half-a-foot higher than sedans. They are the auto kingdom’s water buffalo: Heavier, less nimble, and requiring more grassland to feed. Take the Subaru XV Crosstrek I reviewed last week compared to the Subaru Impreza hatch. They are the exact same vehicle except the Crosstrek sits 4 inches higher, gulps more fuel, and makes the Impreza feel like you’re driving a Porsche. And yet I’ve been recommending utes like Slow’s Bar BQ to foodies. I’d consult my racing buddies about my apparent insanity, but half of them are driving SUVs to the track. What gives? There is method to my madness. Begin with the fact that sport utes have rendered station wagons all but extinct. In the wagons’ absence, ute hatchbacks are the most versatile cargo haulers on the lot. What’s more most SUVs now sit on unibody car chassis, making them more nimble than their body-on-rail, truck-based ancestors. And as ute chassis have followed cars, so have their body styles. Today’s Ford Escape looks like Maria Sharapova next to its boxy, 2012 predecessor. Which is why the Escape’s mid-size ute segment is the hottest thing this side of the iPhone 6 Plus. Which is why I’m recommending the Jeep Cherokee to my neighbor on the physical therapy table. He likes Jeeps. He doesn’t need three-rows. He’s got bad knees (been there) and balks at bending down into sedans. Which is why I just gave my friend, Judy, a walk around this week’s review: The handsome, all-new Hyundai Tucson. I admit that when she first asked what car she should get I said a Mazda Miata. Judy’s sporty after all. But when she looked at me like I had just recommended she try cliff diving, I also realized she’s a sixty-something and prioritizes practical things like cargo versatility and visibility. Physics has to live with convenience. Judy loves the higher seating position of the Tucson — and not just because she’s 5-foot-2. The ute is infinitely easier to slide into compared to her Honda Accord sedan. Last weekend I ate with middle-aged friends at a Japanese restaurant — it took us all five minutes to get up off the Tatami mats. The 2016 Tucson’s looks have also bloomed. While no Miata, the Tucson’s raked windshield, streamlined stance, and sculpted dash make it a class hotty. Like the Genesis luxury sedan, the Tucson continues Hyundai’s run of pleasing designs including the Sonata and Tucson’s midsize SUV sibling, the Santa Fe. Sure, Hyundai is derivative. The Genesis is an Audi knock-off and the Tucson borrows its face from the Ford Edge. But, hey – like Ford’s Fusion taking its grill inspiration from Aston Martin, at least the Korean maker has the good sense to ape the best. The brand once known only for class-leading affordability and a 10-year/100,000 drivetrain warranty (yes, wow) has grown into so much more. Yet Hyundai hasn’t forgotten its roots. The handsome, $23,595 base, front-wheel-drive Tucson SE is still one of the cheapest in class (along with precocious cousin Kia Sportage), yet doesn’t look the part. Throw on essential all-wheel-drive for our brutal winters, and only the homelier, standard-all-wheel-drive Subaru Forester is a better bargain. Even where the SE comes up short — its 2.0-liter engine can’t keep up with competitors’ 2.5-liter mills — refinement comes to its rescue. Extensive upgrades of body mounts, bushings, adhesives, and other engineering tricks throw a blanket over the buzzy four-banger. The hushed interior punches several classes above its weight. I’ve taken to showing folks photos of Audi and Tucson dashes and asking them which is which. So tasteful is Hyundai’s use of simple lines, matte-black buttons, and aluminum-trim that you have to squint to confirm it’s not wrapped in luxury leather. The insides are festooned with smartly-located cubbies for that plus-sized phone — a trend the Lexus RX350 (double the Tucson’s price) is apparently unaware of. The Tucson complements the cubbies with a USB charger and twin driver-passenger 12V ports — even the gearshift looks hip with a leather sleeve hiding the shift gate. Around back, the Hyundai is crisp and stylish. Indeed, I defy you to distinguish the arse of many of the SUVs in this class — Escape, Cherokee, Audi — from the other. Helping our son move, Mrs. Payne and I stuffed the Tucson to the rafters. Boxes, books, clothes, shoes, the kitchen sink. Despite its redesign, the Hyundai still falls well short of class leaders like the Forester and Toyota RAV-4 in interior cargo room — yet the Tucson loads easily courtesy of its fold-flat seats while stowing a full spare tire under the floor. The SE’s a competent, utilitarian base model. But can it be upgraded to do tricks? The Mazda CX-5 offers a nifty button so you can flatten second-row seats from the rear. The Escape allows you to raise the back hatch by kicking the rear bumper if your arms are loaded with groceries, small children, and ... well, so does the Tucson. Hover behind an upper trim Hyundai with an armful of groceries and the “Smart Power Liftgate” reads the key fob in your pocket and opens. The trick is a prelude to the boatload of features (including a more powerful turbo-4) that can dress a Tucson Limited in an all-leather, all-LED wardrobe costing $32,195. Hyundai calls its little ute “Tucson” because it wants me to daydream of the rugged outdoors of Arizona where utes climb sheer rock faces and hurdle rocks on the way back down. Nonsense. Judy’ll sooner go cliff-diving than I’ll explore the Outback in this thing. That marketing machismo used to turn me off of utes, too. Not anymore. Hell has frozen over. Save your knees. Load your arms with groceries. And stuff a cute trucklet to the rafters. Vehicle specs Vehicle type: Front-engine, front or all-wheel-drive, five-passenger sport ute Price: $23,595 ($23,720 as tested) Power plant: 2.0-liter, inline-4; 1.6-liter, turbocharged inline-4 Power: 164 horsepower, 151 pound-feet of torque (2.0-liter); 175 horsepower, 195 pound-feet of torque (turbo) Transmission: Six-speed automatic transmission Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.1 seconds (Car & Driver estimate) Weight: 3,186 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 23 mpg city/31 mpg highway/26 mpg combined (2.0-liter FWD); EPA 24 mpg city/28 mpg highway/26 mpg combined (turbo AWD) Report card Highs: Ugly duckling no more ... yet still a cheap date Lows: 2.0-liter underwhelms next to competitors ... as does cargo room Overall:★★★
Posted by hpayne on September 18, 2015The sedan isn’t dead yet. On Wednesday Honda launched its completely remade, 2016 Honda Civic compact car as America’s best-selling compact sedan strains to stay relevant in a market where crossover sales are surging. Built on Civic’s first global platform, the new sedan is larger, sportier, and more digitally-connected than any previous Civic. “This is our most ambitious Civic yet,” said Executive Vice President of American Honda John Mendel from downtown Detroit, which shared the media spotlight for the Civic’s introduction with a live YouTube event Los Angeles. While the Civic has stood atop retail compact car sales since 2007, the challenge to its sales growth is evident inside Honda itself, where the Honda CR-V crossover — built on the same platform as the Civic — has become the hottest-selling vehicle in the hottest segment in America. CR-V sales jumped 10.9 percent to a record 335,019 in 2014 and are up 6 percent this year while Civic sales slid by 4 percent. “The new Civic comes right at the time the (compact) sedan segment is struggling,” says Dave Sullivan, manager of Product Analysis at Auto Pacific. This car is a test as to whether sedans can compete against crossovers. Indeed, can this car hold a candle to the CR-V?” To prove its relevance, the U.S.-developed, tenth-generation Civic throws everything and the kitchen sink at the market. It will come in the most diverse packaging in the Civic’s 43-year history: Sedan, coupe, five-door hatchback, performance Si models, and a hot-hatch, 300-horsepower Civic Type-R. A suite of driver-assist features will be available including Collision Mitigation Braking, Road Departure Mitigation, and Adaptive Cruise Control as well as a buffet of digital features from a 7-inch touchscreen to apps for Apple Car Play and Android Auto. But stung by criticism that the ninth generation, 2012 Civic had grown fat, Honda executives are “emphasizing the sporty element” as Civic returns to its nimble-handling, performance roots, says Mendel. “Two key words,” he adds. “Low and wide.” New from stem to stern, the new Civic features shorter overhangs and a longer wheelbase making it the largest car in its class with cavernous rear seat space. An inch lower than the previous model, the car bears a more athletic stance with a meaner, mono-brow front chrome grille accent and edgy, boomerang taillights. The base car will be available with two engines promising 40 mpg on the highway: A 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder mated to a manual or Continuously Variable Transmission or a 1.6-liter turbo-4 — Honda’s first turbocharged engine for the U.S. “The 10th-generation Civic reflects styling trends emerging in the industry: fastback design elements (Audi A7), bulging fender flares (Nissan Maxima), bold tail lamps (Toyota Prius) and a shrinking front grill (Chevy Volt),” says Eric Lyman, TrueCar’s vice president of industry insights, who suggests that — as gas prices have dropped — styling will be more important to differentiate the car in the compact segment. Honda’s new styling changes to the Civic likely are intended to attract more millennial buyers, he said. Boasting to be the “world’s best C-segment vehicle,” Honda engineers baselined the Civic’s development to Germany’s best luxury compact sedans — specifically the Audi A3. “This Civic is an about-face from the last one,” says AutoPacific’s Sullivan. Built in 11 locations worldwide on the same platform, U.S. Civic production will come from plants in Greensburg, Indiana, and Ontario, Canada.