Articles Blog

Making cars ‘easy for the queasy’

Posted by hpayne on April 25, 2014

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

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

Fortunately, automakers feel your pain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what of the inevitable backseat disaster?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   

Going to school in the 2014 Ford Focus ST

Posted by hpayne on April 24, 2014

ST Octane Academy. Ford performance school, founded 2014.

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

Spring semester curriculum: Racing 101, Professor Ken Block.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2014 Ford Focus ST

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

 

By the Content of Their Character

Posted by hpayne on April 24, 2014

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

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

Posted by hpayne on April 21, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2006 Chevrolet Cobalt SS

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

Bling King: 2015 Cadillac Escalade

Posted by hpayne on April 17, 2014

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

Would you like to ride shotgun in the Escalade

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

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

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

When you rolled up in the Escalade

Saw that dub you gave to the valet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cruisin’ in my Cadillac Escalade trickin’

Sometimes like it easy, sometimes

Like it rugged

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Incentivize nuclear nonproliferation and ratify Kyoto today

You can ride in the motorcade in my hybrid pink Escalade

Paris for President!

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

2015 Cadillac Escalade

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

Q&Auto: Ford’s virtual reality pioneer

Posted by hpayne on April 12, 2014

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

But Silicon Valley has nothing over the Rust Belt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HP: Who makes your system?

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

HP: How do you use the Immersion Lab?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HP: How did you get here?

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

 

2015 Chevy Tahoe LTZ: Nimble ocean liner

Posted by hpayne on April 10, 2014

2015 Chevrolet Tahoe
2015 Chevrolet Tahoe (John Roe)

When we were grade-school gearheads, my friend Tommy Miller and I spent summer afternoons drawing the most versatile, most outrageous vehicles ever.

I would pen a V-12-powered F1 car equipped with dish radar, monster-truck wheels, twin-heat seeking missiles and ocean-skimming water skis (mounted on the side). Tommy would counter with a 427-cubic-inch stock car bristling with a hot tub, tri-wing, tank treads and a rear-mounted, magnaflux laser gun turret to deter aliens.

Neither of us, however, could have imagined the 2015 Chevy Tahoe LTZ.

This pickup-based, 5,700-pound family-sized assault vehicle has it all: Four-wheel-drive. A 355-horsepower, 5.3-liter V-8 engine. Magnetorheological shocks. Six USBs. Rain-sensing wipers. Auto fold-flat seats. Adaptive cruise control. Blind-spot monitoring system. Eight-inch nav screen. Front spoiler. Towing capability of 8,400 pounds. An automatic rear liftgate.

In 2013, the Tahoe and its bigger brother Suburban captured more than 50 percent of the large SUV market (the Tahoe alone more than doubled the sales of the Ford Expedition). The Chevy twins are part of a GM stable that dominates the large truck market. Built on GM’s proven, body-on-frame pickup architecture, they are only getting better.

As night follows day, new ute land yachts are launching this spring just a year after champagne bottles broke over the bow of the redesigned Chevy and GMC pickups.

The LTZ is the Tahoe nameplate’s flagship. The whole enchilada. The showcase for everything Chevy is capable of putting in a truck. Its power and size make it wildly versatile.

Has GM thought about selling it as commercial living space? The LTZ’s interior is bigger than most Manhattan apartments. Its leather seats and climate control amenities are more comfortable than most living rooms.

Approach the front door — er, driver door — and the LTZ unlocks, sensing the key in your pocket. Open the latch and an automatic step swings out to ease entry. Step out of the vehicle at night and the door-mounted mirrors instantly fill the ground below with perimeter lighting to aid your step.

Can your house do that?

Gorgeous interior

Plush is the new language of truck interiors and the LTZ is no exception.

Once inside, acres of gorgeous upholstery accented with wood and chrome stretch to the horizon. Front and second row heated bucket seats beckon. The transmission selector is located — pickup-like — on the steering column, opening the center console to a variety of useful spaces from cup holders to an arm rest compartment that could hide a file cabinet. It’s a mystery to me why automakers neglect USB ports for youth-targeted compact vehicles. There is no such neglect of the families that fill big utes, the 21st century family wagon. USBs are plentiful in the LTZ’s fore and aft decks.

My wee wife was intimidated by the Tahoe’s size — she looked like Tinkerbell at the helm of Captain Hook’s ship — but she was right at home in the rest of the frigate’s cabin. While most third-row seats are smaller than airline coach class, the Tahoe’s third row is as welcoming as its second.

How big is the interior of the seven-passenger Tahoe? Its 94.7 cubic feet of cargo space behind the front seats is 50 percent bigger than a Subaru Outback. It’s more than the entire interior space of a Chevy Cruze. My wife was hanging house plants in the rear windows.

Need to furnish your house? The rear rows will automatically flatten at the touch of a button. And Chevy’s obsession with interior design carries over to the exterior.

Where the Silverado’s front grille has all the appeal of a bulldozer, the Tahoe has integrated its signature twin grille into a wrap-around mask that would look stylish on a Marvel superhero. The inspiration comes from the comely Chevy Impala sedan which has put the ole! back into Chevrolet. The wardrobe upgrade continues with a sweeping, sculpted line running the length of the big fella’s flanks. Like pant creases in Shaq’s tuxedo, it brings elegance to heft.

Price tops out at $71K

Much of the LTZ’s exterior detail, however, is the result of obsessive aerodynamics testing to meet Washington’s 55 mpg-by-2025 fuel economy requirements. This Tahoe spent more time in the wind tunnel than George Hamilton has spent in the tanning booth. The Tahoe sports a .36 drag coefficient which — together with the direct-injection EcoTec3 engine’s active fuel management system (which makes the V-8 a V-4 at cruising speed) — gains the big ute 10 percent better fuel economy.

That savings comes at a substantial cost, however. The hi-tech 2015 LTZ tops out at $71,375, well above the outgoing model’s 59 grand sticker. Is the LTZ worth the price of a convertible C7 Vette? Well, the Vette seats only two ...

Like the rear edges of a Boeing 747, the Tahoe’s hindquarters are a study in how to reduce turbulence and increase fuel efficiency. And what the heck’s a Vette-like air dam doing on the front of a four-wheel-drive truck? Another nod to fuel-efficiency, natch.

But given the Tahoe’s surprisingly nimble handling, I like to think the spoiler provides a little down force as well.

As big as this truck looks, it feels much smaller on the road thanks to some impressive engineering under the skin. The Tahoe’s athleticism defies the ocean liner stereotype.

Where pickups ride like bucking broncos on rear leaf springs, the Tahoe gets a multi-link suspension with coil springs and shocks. And not just any shocks — but the same magnetic system that undergirds the ferocious Stingray. Controlled by a CPU, twin electromagnetic coils at the end of each shock piston can change the viscosity of the magnetorheological fluid within. When the LTZ leans hard, the system instantly stiffens the suspension.

This ain’t your grandpappy’s truck.

Like a kid with a new toy, I found myself rotating the three-way track select to 4WD, scanning the horizon for Michigan’s finest, then throwing the Tahoe into corners — spurring its 355 horses on exit. The big ute loved it. Try that with an ocean liner.

So load in the high school football team, plug ’em into their favorite pregame soundtrack, then stomp the 5.3 liter V-8. What could beat this Swiss Army knife of a vehicle? Stay tuned for the outrageous 6.2-liter 2015 Caddy Escalade that I will review next week.

2015 Chevy Tahoe

Vehicle type: Front-engine, four-wheel-drive, seven-passenger sport utility vehicle Price: $45,890 base (LTZ trim: $71,375 as tested) Power plant: 5.3-liter, direct-injection V-8 engine Power: 355 horsepower, 383 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Six-speed automatic Performance: 0-60 mph: 6.9-7.1 seconds (Car & Driver est.); towing capacity: 8,400 lbs. Weight: 5,683 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 16 mpg city/22 mpg highway/18 mpg combined Report card Highs: Comfortably seats your entire offensive line; sure-footed handling Lows: Beware distracted drivers wheeling three tons of rolling metal; 70 grand for a Chevy truck? Overall:★★★

Review: Second-hand King Accord

Posted by hpayne on April 5, 2014

Last decade I bought a used Dodge Neon that spent as much time in the shop as in my garage. “Big Three sedans keep me in business,” said my repair shop guru, John, who I got to know on a first-name basis. “I never see a Honda or Toyota.”

Ouch.

No wonder the Asian makers have dominated used car sales just as Detroit makers rule used truck sales. No wonder the Honda Accord was the best-selling used car (again) in America in 2013 just as the Ford F150 was the best-selling used truck (again).

We used car shoppers are proud, practical, and penny-wise. We demand reliable, utilitarian, good-handling transport. The Accord, a perennial Consumer Reports pick (the bible of used car buyers), delivers in all three areas. The average buyer prefers Honda. The average used car sells for $15,000. The average 2011 Accord sells for $15,017.

So I moseyed on down to my local used car – er, pre-owned vehicle – dealer and asked for average, please.

At $14,900 with 67,000 miles on the odometer, my 2011 Honda Accord test mule was average only in price. Indeed, the used Accord one-ups its newer sibling. Where the new Accord trails the best-selling Camry by 40,000 in new cars sales, the used Accord leap frogs its Asian competitor. One reason is surely the Accord’s lead in new retail sales — the Camry relies more on fleet sales, notes HIS Automotive analyst Tom Libby — and the used car market is (mostly) retail.

But there’s also the brand factor.

Auto salesmen tell me that Honda’s racing history matters. That when it’s time to buy a used car, buyers want a sense of thrill even as they are buying practical. Kinda like putting fudge swirl in your vanilla shake. So when you’re sitting in your Honda Accord, you feel a connection to those screaming motorbikes. Or Honda engines winning Indy nine of the last 10 years. Ya gotta dream.

The Camry? It’s just vanilla.

I like the theory. It matters to someone — especially young someones — buying their first car. Could it be that mom and dad buy new Camry? But then budget-conscious junior buys used Accord?

Whatever it is, the Accord doesn’t disappoint even with 67k miles on its legs.

The used 2.4 liter engine purred like a kitten on Detroit’s roads. In performance brand tradition, the car doesn’t sacrifice performance for efficiency. The 4-banger pulls the car’s lightweight chassis with purpose, even as the Honda returns impressive 27 mpg. Handling is sure, never numb.

The Accord’s pleasant lines won’t turn any heads, but the lack of coupe-like roof line pays dividends inside where your long-legged author can easily fold into the backseat with knee-room to spare. In the captain’s chair, the Accord is ergonomically friendly as the EX (thankfully) only has one console screen. Add nav and Accords become a riot of two screens and confusing controls. The EX package is an example of addition by subtraction.

Buying second-hand doesn’t mean second-class service.

Certified pre-owned cars come with a dealer premium, but the piece of mind that they have been reviewed stem to stern. Many dealers have upgraded the experience by building additional showrooms just for used cars.

But that’s not the best part of buying used.

As a certified motor head, I feel comfortable buying used cars from individual owners of sport models (BMW M3s, Ford STs, Honda SIs, and so on) treat their cars like their first-born child. Are you less confident about the owners of popular cars (who treat them like a common frig) but dread a visit to a dealer like you want another root canal? You can buy from individuals with the help of CARFAX records and a list of online price sites like Cars.com as long as your arm.

But that’s still not the best part. Pre-owned ponies like the Accord also come with Honda’s extended powertrain warranty of 7 years/100,000 miles (whichever comes first) on top of the 5-year.60,000 when new. Sure Hondas are bullet proof. Sure 200,000 miles is the new 100,000. But that warranty does wonders for a hand-me-down.

But here’s the best part – the used Accord costs $9,000 less than a new Accord. A 2014 EX goes for $23,700 and for what? Reliability, resale value, and a warranty already built into your not-so-old filly. Three years on a car? Heck, Kentucky Derby thoroughbreds are in their prime at the age of three.

So go forth my fellow second-hand shoppers. The Accord will make you proud, practical, and penny-wise.

2011 Honda Accord

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger sedan Price: $14,900 used Power plant: 2.4-liter, 16-valve, in-line four-cylinder engine Power: 177 horsepower, 161 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Five-speed automatic Performance: 0-60 mph: 9.1 (Car & Driver); Top speed: 127 mph Weight: 3,350 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 23 mpg city/34 mpg highway/27 mpg combined Highs: Ol’ reliable; nimble handling Lows: Stale styling could learn lessons from sleeker Civic; More USBs, please Overall:★★★

 

Best bargain: 2014 Chevy Spark vs. 2014 Mitsubishi Mirage

Posted by hpayne on April 3, 2014

The subcompact Chevy Spark and Mitsubishi Mirage are adorable little juice boxes barely bigger than most Detroit potholes. They are also, according to Cars.com, the two cheapest cars in the U.S. market at $12,995 and $13,790 respectively.

So what does a trip to the automotive dollar store buy you these days?

Quite a bit and not enough. The Spark and Mirage represent the future and past of the subcompact market. Ubiquitous in Europe where gasoline costs an arm and a leg, subcompacts are less popular in a U.S. market where a gallon of gas is just an arm.

Still, the perky Spark is a new puppy of a car that brings attitude to the practical, fuel-sipping small car segment. The three-cylinder Mirage, on the other hand, is a cylinder short and a generation behind.

These five-door shoeboxes are surprisingly roomy inside even for 6-foot-5 auto reviewers with loafers the size of clown shoes. Both are bubble-wrapped in safety features with multiple air bags, traction stability control and anti-lock brakes. Both measure their 0-60 mph times with an hourglass. The Lions will win the Super Bowl before you get to 80 mph. Mail trucks will honk at you. Bicyclists will draft you.

But whereas the Mirage is content to give you fuel-efficient, basic transportation, Chevy goes the extra mile. Details matter. Even in Auto 101, Chevy has learned style. If the Mitsubishi is a Wal-Mart coffee table, then the Chevy is IKEA. Cheap, yes. But without looking like it.

Subcompact cuties

Five-door body styles are common in the subcompact class. They bring utility as these flexible, mini-wagons exploit every inch of their short wheelbases to offer 30-plus cubic feet of interior room for seating five or lugging your some-assembly-required IKEA boxes (though I estimate the Spark could still fit inside the glove box of its mega-wagon stablemate, the Chevy Tahoe). Also standard are color palettes right out of a video arcade. Dude, said my Chevy dealer, the Grape Ice Spark soooo clashes with your gray hair and gray slacks. Obviously, I’m not the target demographic. But how can you resist the Spark’s Lime Green, Lemonade and Denim? Or the Mirage’s Plasma Purple, Sapphire Blue and Infrared?

With its anthropomorphic baby face, the Mitsubishi is cuteness on wheels. This is an infant dressed for a Sunday stroll. Behold its big eyes and little mouth. Its grille should come with a binky.

The Spark is cute too — like a baby shark. Adorable, but with a sense of menace. Its giant, almond-shaped headlights consume the front fenders. The little Chevy’s grille dominates the front end like a leering jack-o’-lantern carved by your 6-year-old. It’s one of the most effective uses of Chevy’s signature fascia in its lineup.

Do a lap around these tykes and Spark’s style really stands out. Where the Mirage is content with a nondescript, boxy rear end, the Spark’s got back. Its integrated rear roof spoiler (the Mirage spoiler looks like it was nailed on as an afterthought) tapers south to a flared bumper, giving the Spark a wide, boxer’s stance. Chevy completes the sculpture with big, cherry-round taillights.

But my favorite Spark detail is its ingenious rear-door “locker” handles. Located high in the black rear window trim, the handles are not only recessed but — by removing the handles from the car’s skin — they give it a more coupe-like appearance.

Spark's superior interior

Chevy’s attention to detail carries over into the interior.

Both of these trikes come equipped with intuitive radio and climate controls, but the Spark adds character with a motorcycle-inspired instrument panel. Where the Mirage gets a plastic dash and cup holders, the Spark’s silver-trimmed interior recognizes that Americans live in their cars. This home-away-from-home bristles with added storage space for phones, food and coins in every nook and cranny — a tray along the dash here, a portal under the side arm-rest there. In the backseat (where I have more headroom than in a Ford Fusion or Chrysler 200) the Spark comes with a nifty center console featuring cup holder and storage tray. The Mirage? A bench seat.

Mysteriously, both cars fail to offer much in the USB port department. Big vehicles these days nod to families of electronics-carrying kids with USBs sprouting both fore and aft. But what of the 20-somethings that pile into subcompacts? More USB ports, please.

Maneuvering with a stick

Two words: Stick shift.

These are base models and their manual transmissions will mystify America’s legions of auto-tranny buyers. Too bad. Once mastered, the automobile’s equivalent of a joystick puts the fun into a small car, and these little windup toys love to be hustled. Your racing-addled car critic found himself double-clutching into corners to keep the revs up, then stomping the gas pedal.

In the case of the Mirage, this has annoying consequences. Neither car will set a land speed record, but the Mitsubishi’s shouty, vibrating 1.2 liter gas engine will be a deal-breaker for many. Turning the key feels like you’ve pulled the cord on a chainsaw. The chassis trembles, your ears buzz. This is the same company that makes the renowned Evo performance sedan?

The Spark’s 1.2-liter four is much more civilized and the cabin noticeably quieter (remember that part about Americans living in their cars?). That helps explain why the Spark is 300 pounds heavier than the 1,973-pound Mirage — though with 10 more horsepower, the Spark equals the Mirage in 0-60 mph acceleration in a snail-like 11 seconds. Both snails deliver the expected, stellar fuel efficiency — 34 mpg for Spark, 37 for Mirage. (Federal rules require that all cars average 55 mpg in just 10 years? And pigs will fly.)

Entry level cars are not just affordable transportation, they are also windows into auto brands. Win over a first-time buyer, and you can keep them for life. Unfortunately for its Japanese parent, the Mirage will turn people away from showrooms that include studs like the Evo and Outlander SUV.

The Spark, on the other hand, advertises a new, more product-focused GM. It’s a bargain. At $12,995 (more detail: they tease it under $13 grand), it shows that affordability and style can live in the same garage.

2014 Chevrolet Spark

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger sedan Price: $12,995 base ($12,995 as tested) Power plant: 1.2-liter, dual-overhead cam, four-cylinder engine Power: 84 horsepower, 83 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Five-speed manual Performance: 0-60 mpg, 11.0 seconds (Car & Driver); 90 mph top speed Weight: 2,269 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 31 mpg city/39 mpg highway/34 mpg combined Highs: Creative design; Functional interior Lows: Molasses could out-accelerate it; USB ports, please Overall:★★★★ Grading scale Excellent ★★★★ Good ★★★ Fair ★★ Poor ★

2014 Mitsubishi Mirage

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger sedan Price: $13,790 base ($13,790 as tested) Power plant: 1.2-liter, dual-overhead cam, three-cylinder engine Power: 74 horsepower, 74 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Five-speed manual Performance: 0-60 mpg, 10.9 seconds (Car & Driver); 102 mph top speed Weight: 1,973 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 34 mpg city/42 mpg highway/37 mpg combined Highs: Fuel-sipper; Roomy interior Lows: Uninspired packaging; Lawn-blower engine Overall:★★
 

Total Recall: GM’s Chance for Rebirth

Posted by hpayne on April 2, 2014

Before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Tuesday, the CEO of America’s biggest auto company will apologize for her company’s negligence in pursuing a defective part that has been linked to the loss of 13 lives. “As soon as l learned about the problem, we acted without hesitation. Whatever mistakes were made in the past, we will not shirk from our responsibilities now and in the future,” Barra will say of the recall of 2.5 million vehicles with potentially faulty ignition switches, according to a copy of her written testimony released Monday. “That begins with my sincere apologies to everyone who has been affected by this recall. My management team and I . . . will hold ourselves fully accountable.” Barra’a contrition is a jarring contrast to President Obama’s arrogant defense of his disastrous Affordable Care Act. America’s CEO lied about his product and has refused to recall it even as millions (including cancer patients) have suffered from the loss of their insurance and doctors. Calling for a full investigation by a U.S. attorney, Barra promises “we will be fully transparent with you, with our regulators, and with our customers.” Obama refuses anything of the sort. Such are the expectations of our political leaders vs. our business leaders. For all GM’s troubles, “Switchgate” — named for the faulty ignition switch that can inadvertently stall cars made between 2005–2011 — could ultimately benefit Barra and her company. As the first female CEO of an American automaker, Barra will benefit from enormous political  goodwill. She is assisted by the fact that none of the cars effected are still in production. They are relics of an old GM — a pre-bankruptcy GM that was burdened by excessive labor costs, pension overhead, and poorly designed sedan products. With the massive recall, Barra can help sever Old GM from New GM, putting in place safety systems (she has already announced a new veep for Global Vehicle Safety) that will assure that Switchgate won’t be repeated. Indeed, the ignition snafu is an anomaly in a company — and an industry — that is quick to recall unsafe products. For example, the 2005 Chrysler Pacifica – of similar vintage to Switchgate star, the Chevy Cobalt — also had a mysterious stalling problem. It was recalled within two years of launch. Conspiracies will abound. Did GM bury Swtichgate because of pressure to keep a new vehicle launch on schedule? Did Chevy resist the recall expense because the company was in increasing financial straits? Perhaps. But GM insiders say there likely is no smoking gun — that the Cobalt’s (and Pontiac Solstice, and Chevy HHR, etc.) ignition was considered by engineers to be a mechanical issue that never rose to the level of safety defect (thus, its part number was never changed even after the ignition was fixed sometime around 2007). The deaths associated with the ignition had muddying factors — drivers were alcohol-impaired or youngsters driving in wet conditions — preventing easy connection of the dots. By the time the ignition was definitively linked to air-bag deployment — circa 2009 – the part had been repaired. Critics — my NRO colleague Jim Geraghty among them — will rightly question whether Switchgate was further buried by a government-run bankruptcy (would NHTSA embarrass its own White House with a recall?). Fair enough. But the White House Auto Task Force was uninterested in liability — only in quickly restructuring the company’s balance sheet so that the UAW could survive andcontinue to feed the Democratic Party campaign cash. It was a UAW bailout, not an auto bailout. In crisis there is opportunity, and GM has a chance to redeem itself under the hot glare of public attention. With the best products it has ever produced in showrooms now (new Corvette, new Malibu, new Tahoe, new Caddies, etc.), a new focus on customer service would do a lot of good.

Q&Auto: CEO Al Gardner, the new face of Chrysler

Posted by hpayne on March 31, 2014

Everything has gone international,” says new Chrysler CEO Al Gardner, when asked how the auto industry has changed since he came on board the company in 1986.

Nothing better illustrates that than Gardner himself.

He is the British-born head of a Michigan-based company that is owned by Italy’s Fiat. The youthful-looking 50-year old — he resembles Beck Bennett, the interviewer in those adorable “It’s Not Complicated” AT&T ads — comes standard with dry English wit. But make no mistake, after management stints in Boston, Vermont, California, and that most American of cities — Orlando — he bleeds red, white and blue.

“I am fully Disney-fied,” he says. “This is home.”

Gardner assumes huge responsibility in his new role: Making Chrysler relevant again in the midsize sedan market with an internationally-bred product: The all-new, Alfa Romeo-based, 2015 Chrysler 200. I sat down with Gardner at a 200 test drive in Louisville, Ky. to talk about “the new face of Chrysler.”

HP: Say I’m a Toyota Camry owner. Sell me the Chrysler 200.

Gardner: It’s a stunningly good-looking car. We take three years, we rip up all our designs, we’re going to build something that no one else can build. We’re going to put a 9-speed transmission in it. We’re going to put a decoupling, all-wheel-drive system in it for better fuel economy. We’re going to have a four-cylinder and a six-cylinder. We’ll give you 35 mpg or (the) raw power of 295 horsepower. You get the style, you get the craftsmanship, you get the elegance. Ford will give you a good looking vehicle and take it off an Aston Martin. We will not take it off a Maserati. We will give you something truly elegant in the midsize segment and then we will pack it with value.

HP: Quality is a key piece of this segment. Does the new Sterling Heights plant help the 200 compete with the Camry and Accord?

Gardner: It has to. You don’t build a brand new, billion-dollar plant if you can’t compete at that level. This is a long-term play, and the quality comes from a state-of-the-art plant. You can eat off the ground at this place. We have put our heart and soul in it.

HP: Ram is the gold standard of trucks. Japanese models are the gold standard of sedans. How does Chrysler become the Ram of the sedan segment?

Gardner: Honda and Toyota ... build tremendous products but they don’t put in any character. They are fairly vanilla. You can beat these guys at their own game by — at the same price point — building (cars) with heart. That’s what Ram does. Jeep Cherokee does the same. It’ll take on a BMW because it’s built with that kind of value. The 200 is no different. We know how to do it — it just takes time, effort, and priority.

HP: Does the Alfa platform help give this car character?

Gardner: The Alfa lineage certainly gives it ... performance since (the platform is) built for performance first. But it’s not the Alfa piece that’s going to make this succeed, it’s the American know-how (speaking as a Brit, naturally) that’s going to build a car for this part of the world. But without Alfa and Fiat we wouldn’t be here today.

HP: Ford talks a lot about a global car with different brands like Mondeo in Europe and Fusion here. Is this a global car?

Gardner: This was designed and built for North America specifically. We looked at going back into Europe, but the reality is that if you do that you have to change the front end on this car — make it taller — to meet Europe’s (pedestrian crash) standards. We didn’t want to compromise. We wanted to build this car for North America so you have the flattened, sporty-looking front end.

HP: You call the 200 “the new face of Chrysler.” How does the 200 inspire the rest of the lineup?

Gardner: The front end is what the image of Chrysler should be going forward — the floating badge, the beautiful silhouette, the headlights that pull everything together. As we look at replacing the 300, Town & Country, and future vehicles ... there’s got to be lineage. We don’t have an easy flow from one vehicle to another. They don’t have to look the same but they have to know each other. Continuity and discipline in how we go to market is important. We do it extremely well in the Jeep lineup. This is a genuine departure to build something different.

2015 Chrysler 200: A contender is born

Posted by hpayne on March 27, 2014

Historic Hermitage Farms outside Louisville, Ky.is a thoroughbred nursery where experienced horse hands raise promising foals into sleek, athletic stallions. These yearlings are the product of expensive bets by racing enthusiasts that the right partnership of mare and stallion will breed the next Kentucky Derby champion.

How appropriate that Chrysler chose Hermitage to launch its all-new 2015 Chrysler 200 this spring.

The offspring of Chrysler design and Alfa Romeo engineering, this thoroughbred is Chrysler's hope for glory in the highly competitive midsize sedan segment. A winner would reward shareholders who have patiently waited for a worthy midsize car to bring more customers to Chrysler showrooms.

Is the 200 worthy? I strapped myself into its stirrups, grabbed the reins of its 3.6 liter, V-6 Pentastar engine and held on for dear life. Actually, I dialed the dual climate control to 70, turned on the Sirius XM Radio, and sipped soda from the sliding cup holder while blitzing the Kentucky countryside. When I was done, the 200 parked itself into a perpendicular parking space.

While the previous-generation stallion is headed for the glue factory, the new 200 runs with the class’s best studs. Galloping over twisty roads, the Sterling Heights-manufactured car instantly exhibited its Italian DNA. This Chrysler is built on the athletic Alfa Giulietta skeleton – what Chrysler calls its CUS-wide architecture —made of 65 percent high strength steel. With a best-in-class 295 horsepower, coupe-like styling and all-wheel drive, the premium 200c edition signals the brand’s intent of becoming a performance leader. Let the Toyota Camry win the science fair for best sewing machine, the 200 wants to win the Derby.

Though shy of the class-leading Mazda6 and the Ford Fusion, the 200’s handling is above average – putting it neck-and-neck with the Honda Accord. And with more ponies than the others, the Pentastar will outrun them down the back stretch.

This stallion is not only fast — it is comfortable, fuel efficient, and easy to use.

The midsize 200 carries a lot of brand responsibility on its back. Unlike crosstown rivals Chevy and Ford, the 200 doesn’t benefit from entry-level compact sedans. Like your peppy Ford Fiesta or Focus? Let me show you the gorgeous Fusion or Taurus under the same dealer roof.

Chrysler’s menu, meanwhile, is a dog’s breakfast. Fiat does subcompacts; Dodge the Dart compact; and Jeep makes SUVs. The 200 is Chrysler’s midsize hauler and entry-level sedan all wrapped in one. Ranging in price from $22,695 to the mid-$30,000s, the 200 is a one-car buffet of sandwich options.

From the front-wheel-drive LX to the all-wheel-drive C, the 200 offers two engines, four trim levels, and an army of safety features (the tenacious lane departure-correcting system is particularly noteworthy).

“This car is a vital piece,” says Chrysler CEO Al Gardner. “It’s our first touch point. The first connection to the brand.”

Please, Papa Marchionne, you can hear Chrysler marketers begging, can we build a compact 100? Have an Espresso and I’ll get back to you. Meantime, the 200 must wow cost-conscious, youngsters as well as performance-hungry elders. That’s pressure.

 

It makes its sales pitch with an elegant exterior hailed as the “new face of Chrysler.” By contrast, the 200’s big brother 300 loudly arrived on America’s doorstep last decade with a Rolls Royce mug and ripped muscles like a warrior in the movie that shares its name. Its masculine pose has made it an icon among rappers and pro ballplayers. Will the 300 follow the 200’s new softer design direction? Chrysler’s designers are mum.

If the 300 was Rolls Lite, then the pretty 200 and Lincoln MKZ appear separated at birth. Like the Ford luxury brand, its thin, swept front grille is inspired by the wings in its company logo. Its rhythmic, organic lines ripple across the car’s flanks, tapering into a stepped rear end that is very MKZ.

But just as the MKZ shrinks in the shadow of an Audi A6, the 200 may get lost amid the bold stylings of the Ford Fusion or Hyundai Sonata. They light up the stage with big pouty lips and grinning grilles. Chrysler wants the sexy new 200 to rock your world, but she comes on like Sade, not Beyonce.

Form follows function, however, and the 200’s slippery lines give it a best-in-class .26 drag coefficient — part of Chrysler’s comprehensive theme of power and fuel economy. To save fuel, the 200 boasts an innovative 9-speed transmission and AWD system that engages only when needed.

But where this thoroughbred really shines is in the saddle.

Like Chrysler’s legendary minivans, the 200 brings innovation, style, and meticulous attention to detail to the cockpit. At its center is a rotary e-dial shifter and electronic parking brake. With no linkage to house, the center console is liberated as a multi-use piece of furniture with huge storage space (decorated with Detroit skyline artwork) under the shifter perfect for my wife’s stuffed purse. Sliding cup holders reveal a pass-through to more space behind the shifter where she can recharge the smart phone in her purse via a USB port.

Her smartphone effortlessly syncs with Chrysler’s Uconnect touchscreen, the planet’s best infotainment system. It anchors a sweeping, two-toned dashboard that is as elegantly designed as the car’s exterior. Its intuitive display and climate dials are a refreshing contrast to the Accord’s madhouse stack of screens and buttons. Its high-grade buttons shame the Fusion’s rubberized controls.

The 200’s backseat is less friendly. For a 6-foot 5-inch freak like myself, rear seat entry is a calisthenics class of deep neck bends and leg tucks. So scarce is knee-room that Chrysler designers carved recesses into the back of the front seats. This is by design. Chrysler marketers calculate that 80 percent of rear, midsize passengers are kids. Got teens? Buy a Chrysler minivan. The 200’s marketing sweet spot is 35-year-olds with no kids who crave the 200’s sporty, coupe-like lines.

I asked 200 marketing chief and unreformed motorhead Andy Love if Chrysler would entertain an SRT performance version. His answer: With Subaru WRX-like all-wheel drive and horsepower, the 200 is already there.

The pairing of a Chrysler mare and Alfa stallion has bred a promising foal. Raised by 1,000 shiny new robots in Chrysler’s historic, revamped Sterling Heights assembly plant — call it Pentastar Farms — this stallion deserves a look in the midsize Derby.

2015 Chrysler 200

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front- or all-wheel-drive, five-passenger sedan Price: $22,695 base ($25,940 (4-cyl, FWD) and $34,675 (6-cyl, AWD) as tested) Power plant: 2.4-liter, 16-valve, in-line four-cylinder engine; 3.6-liter, 24-valve, dual-overhead cam V-6 engine Power: 184 horsepower, 173 pound-feet of torque (4-cyl); 295 horsepower, 262 pound-feet of torque (V-6) Transmission: Nine-speed automatic Performance: 0-60 mph: 6.3/8.3 (Car & Driver); Top speed: 130 mph Weight: 3,473 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 23 mpg city/36 mpg highway/28 mpg combined (four-cylinder); EPA 18 mpg city/29 mpg highway/22 mpg combined (all-wheel-drive V-6) Highs: Brawny V-6 power; fresh styling will help you forget the old mule Lows: Tight back seat; modest face may get lost in bold field Overall:★★★

The Obama Administration’s Defective Toyota Shakedown

Posted by hpayne on March 24, 2014

  “The verdict is in. There is no electronic-based cause for unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in February, 2011 upon releasing an exhaustive study by NHTSA and NASAabsolving Toyota of allegations its vehicles were unsafe. Three years later, the U.S. Justice Department this week fined Toyota a record $1.2 billion for failing to warn customers of unsafe vehicles. Huh? Americans can be excused if they feel they’ve fallen down Alice’s rabbit hole. “The problems gained public attention (in 2009) when a highway patrolman and his family were killed in an accident in San Diego,” reported a Reuters story typical of media coverage. “Toyota responded with a recall of millions of vehicles but left on the road some vehicles. . . having among the worst problems with floor mats that trapped acceleration pedals.” Like pictures Photoshopped of their most critical details, these reports rewrite history. As such they are cover for a Justice Department kangaroo court that handed down fines bearing little relation to the original allegations against Toyota. In truth federal probes were part of a massive effort by the trial-lawyer community, the safety advocates they fund, and Democratic politicians to open a broad new litigation front against Toyota (and by extension all automakers) claiming that buggy electronic throttle controls cause deadly, unintended acceleration. Rep. Henry Waxman (D., Calif.) called 2010 House hearings to take “a serious look at the possibility that electronic defects could be causing the problem.” And tort lawyer–funded safety advocate Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety told a Senate hearing that “the Toyota unintended acceleration crisis” had been caused by “electronic controls.” The circus hearings paralleled a media panic that featured almost daily claims of electronically induced sudden acceleration accidents — including footage of a “runaway” Toyota Prius in San Diego that gripped cable news and a faked report by ABC’s Brian Ross alleging how Toyotas could accelerate without warning. Toyota denied any electronic defects, instead claiming — to widespread Washington snickering — the incidents were caused by faulty floor mats, a sticky plastic pedal piece, or pedal misapplication (i.e., mistaking accelerator for brake). In late 2009 and early 2010, Toyota announced two recalls totaling nearly 7 million vehicles to replace floor mats and the plastic piece. The company also revamped its U.S. safety management admitting it had grown complacent in the face of customer concerns. A year later, the NHTSA/NAA study of Event Data Recorders (a.k.a., the “black boxes” found in modern cars) confirmed Toyotas were mechanically sound. While a handful of incidents involved accelerator-trapping floor mats, NHTSA saidit “believes that the most likely cause of (most) incidents was pedal misapplication.” The tragic death of the officer and his family? The result of a dealer having installed the wrong floor mat in a loaner Lexus ES350 sedan. The family makes up four of five confirmed Toyota vehicle deaths (the fifth also allegedly floor mat related). Yet Holder & media have ignored this history. Incredibly, this week’s coverage approvingly quoted discredited former NHTSA chief Joan Colebrook – whose Carter-era airbag mandate for front seat passengers led to dozens of child deaths – who told Reuters that the Justice fine “means at the highest levels of the auto company, they have to worry about going to jail if they don’t report a defect.” Having invested so much into charging Toyota with fictional electronic gremlins, Washington’s Iron Triangle — Justice, media, and safety lobby — convicted the company anyway. Significantly, Toyota admitted no wrongdoing in an opaque public statement accepting Holder’s penalty. Profitable and with its Lexus and Toyota brands ranked Nos. 1 and  2 by Consumer Reports for reliability, the company has made a calculation to put Justice’s Inquisition behind it. Legal experts were troubled by the fine, seeing it as part of a larger, anti-business Obama administration campaign narrative. “The timing of the original (2010) investigation seemed a bit suspicious, because it was in the midst of the American car companies’ woes,” David Skeel, Professor of Corporate Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, told me. “As for the new fine one possible explanation is a desire to appear tough on global corporations in the wake of the Attorney General’s much criticized suggestion that some of the big banks are ‘too big to jail.’” Whatever the motivation, Holder’s action sets a disturbing precedent for auto companies whether they are guilty or not. “Sentence first, verdict afterwards,” said the Queen in Alice in Wonderland.

Lean, mean, pothole-fighting machine: 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland

Posted by hpayne on March 22, 2014

If autos were steaks, the EcoDiesel-powered Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland would be USDA Choice filet mignon: Expensive, high grade, mouth-watering.

And lean.

Thick cut and marbled with leather, the 24-mpg diesel still promises healthy fuel economy numbers for the diet conscious. You gotta admire the breadth of Grand Cherokee’s menu. From flank steak to filet mignon, it’s got it all. The entry-level Laredo competes against Ford Explorers and Toyota 4Runners. The luxurious Overland against the Audi Q7 and BMWX5. And the earth-pawing SRT against the Porsche Cayenne Turbo, for goodness sake.

The Grand’s ambition reflects a brand that transcends class.

Consider Jeep’s new offerings this year. The small, $20K Renegade which (I predict) will suck 20-somethings out of Kia Souls and Nissan Cube’s like a vacuum cleaner. And the $50 grand Grand Cherokee Summit for 50-somethings which tops even the Overland in luxury. When my lux-minded friends ask what midsize SUV to recommend, I respond: Lexus, Acura, BMW, Jeep. They don’t bat an eye. Imagine a product driven by the board room and boiler room alike. Imagine Jeep.

The rugged, leather-wrapped Grand Cherokee Overland could be driven through a creek bed to a black-tie dinner at the Townsend Hotel.

The SUV’s exterior is unmistakably Jeep with its toothy grille, stocky stance, and square wheel wells. The Overland edition garnishes this slab of tenderloin with tantalizing touches like daytime LED headlights, an automatic lift gate, and gorgeous, 20-inch forged aluminum wheels. I wheely, wheely, wheely like these Hot Wheels for grown-ups. Their masculine appearance advertises ute with attitude.

And the high-profile Goodyear tires make mincemeat of potholes in Michigan’s post-Apocalyptic winter landscape. This January, I’ve been dodging craters in my Honda Civic SI like Bode Miller skiing Olympic slalom. One misstep and I’d be swallowed whole. Since I’ve been testing this Grand Cherokee I’ve forgotten potholes exist. The Overland goes through them like a Lake Michigan gnat cloud. The state legislature can either fix the roads by hiking the gas tax – or it could just buy everyone a Grand Cherokee.

I found myself cursing the dry weather this week. Fully armed and no blizzards? I began assaulting the plow-stacked, three-foot snowbanks in my neighborhood out of boredom. The Selec-Terrain 4x4 is Jeep’s trademark, its secret Coca-Cola formula, its nuclear core. It is what gives the legendary brand – “Since 1941” is tattooed on the headlights and steering wheel of the Overland – the mojo to go head-to-head against Olympians like BMW and Audi costing $10 k more.

“Jeep’s off-road capability is the factor that levels us with pricier brands,” says Jim Morrison, director of Jeep product. “We have crossover BMW customers who come back to us when they realize what they have given up in off-road capability.”

Where the BMW’s console sports the maddening iDrive control dial, the Jeep comes with a rotary dial for any terrain you please: Snow, mud, rock, sand, lava (OK, I made that last one up). Meanwhile, the infotainment system won’t iDrive you bonkers. Jeep’s 8.4-inch UConnect touchscreen is the best in the business — intuitive to navigate with just the right number of redundant climate control buttons. Unlike most systems, UConnect synched my phone the first time — and recognized me for ever after. As you would expect for a $55K product, the Jeep comes engorged with blind spot assist, adaptive cruise control, heated and cooled front seats, heated wheel, twin backseat DVD players, leather-stitched interior, and a butler (I’m making stuff up again). I will bellyache about the Grand’s pinched backseat which is no bigger than a VW Jetta — surprising given the SUV’s boxy roof and lack of third-row option. Waiter! Doesn’t this price get me a 12-ounce filet, not an 8-ounce?

It’s the diesel that puts the meat in this steak.

Like the Nurburgring-blitzing, 470-horsepower, 6.4-liter Hemi V8 that launches from 0-60 mph in an eye-watering, Porsche Cayenne-roasting 4.6 seconds, the Overland’s Italian-made, 3.0-liter diesel offers Euro-class cachet and good ol’ Yankee torque. Toggle the paddle to first gear (oh, yeah, she’s got paddle-shifters), mash the pedal, and you’ll create four potholes of your own as the 4x4 channels 420 pound feet of asphalt-shredding torque.

Chrysler brags about its fuel efficient, 8-speed auto transmission while we motorheads complain it sacrifices acceleration. The 730-mile-range, stump-pulling diesel solves both problems. With towing capability of 7,400 pounds, it will also efficiently drag your boat to the shore. Ditch the trailer, turn Selec-Terrain to “sand,” and you can race boats down the beach.

Is the $4500 diesel option worth it? Is filet mignon worth more than a flank steak?

2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland 4x4

Vehicle type: Front-engine, four-wheel-drive, five-passenger sport utility Price: $46,195 base ($55,680 as tested) Power plant: 3.0-liter, dual-overhead-cam, EcoDiesel engine Power: 240 horsepower, 420 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Eight-speed automatic Performance: 0-60 mpg, 8.0 seconds (Car & Driver); 119 mph top speed Weight: 5,393 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 21 mpg city/28 mpg highway/24 mpg combined Highs: Here-to-eternity fuel range; User-friendly controls Lows: Rear seat skimps on room; No third-row seat Overall:★★★★

 

2014 VW Jetta TSI: Turbo-riffic

Posted by hpayne on March 20, 2014

The Jetta 1.8T SE and SEL models feature a new EA888 Gen 3 turbocharged and direct-injected four-cylinder engine that is made in Silao, Mexico. This 1.8-liter engine produces 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque - the same power, but seven pound-feet more torque, delivered lower in the engine speed range than the 2.5-liter five-cylinder powerplant. (Volkswagen)

Auto watchers have long predicted the demise of gas engines. The rising cost of fuel justified the premiums of diesel and hybrid engines. But as the turbocharged 1.8-liter 2014 VW Jetta TSI I’ve been flogging around Detroit shows, gas power is a moving target. It just keeps getting better.

The gas engine is dead. Long live the gas engine.

The 1.8-liter gas turbo replaces the unloved five-cylinder 2.5-liter gas engine with better fuel efficiency but without sacrificing any grunt. Indeed, the new, smaller displacement engine actually gains seven more pound-feet of torque over the old nail. The bigger news, however, is the new gas model gives up just 13 percent in fuel economy to the Jetta’s 34 mpg diesel offering.

That means my Jetta SE gas turbo, with 30 mpg and a sticker price of $21,240, costs about the same as my $21,295 Jetta diesel turbo — but causes less pain at the pump. Do the math.

Conventional wisdom says Americans have resisted popular European diesels like the 2.0-liter VW Jetta TDI because they are haunted by the black smoke-belching oil-burners of the 1970s. Don’t you believe it. The real reason is price. Diesel’s high fuel costs negate the 25-40 percent better fuel economy advantage they have traditionally enjoyed over their gas-juiced counterparts. You had to rack up a lot of miles to earn back diesel’s $4-a-gallon premium over $3.40-a-gallon gas.

Only Volkswagen has been able to translate its diesel success in Europe to the States, where diesels made up a paltry 2.7 percent of new vehicle sales (similar to hybrid sales, incidentally) in 2013. VW owns the American diesel market with 75 percent of sales. They hope to grow that market if only ... they can overcome their own turbo-riffic gas engines.

TDI vs. TSI

Before we go any further, a brief lesson in acronyms.

VW brands its turbo (T), direct-injection (DI) diesel a TDI and its turbo (T), direct-injection (DI) gas engine a TSI. Huh? Both are direct-injection turbos so both deserve the TDI label. To sort things out, VW bestows the TDI label on the diesel, while calling the gas version TSI (for Turbo Stratified Injection). There’ll be a quiz at the end.

The TDI has long been a favorite of truckers with two-thirds of heavy-duty pickup sales powered by diesels. Truck buyers love the TDI’s inherent low-end torque for pulling boats up a ramp out of Lake Michigan. In an ice storm. With a full bed of mulch. With Chris Christie riding shotgun.

The Jetta’s TDI will run rings around the TSI in torque with a jaw-dropping 236 pound-feet vs. 184. But unless you’re planning to trailer boats (or Chris Christie), torque is less a priority for sedans. Meanwhile, the TSI’s mpg gains are a game-changer — and you don’t have to consult Google Maps to find scarce diesel stations.

Beyond the fraternal TDI vs. TSI competition, you’ll find the Jetta stands up well to its compact class competition. In part, that’s because the Jetta’s interior feels less compact — and more midsize. The Jetta’s rear seat leg and headroom is second in class only to the new Toyota Corolla. Indeed, it’s on par with a midsize Honda Accord — with a trunk bigger than a Toyota Camry. Really.

That means ex-college ball-playing, 6-foot, 5-inch author can do his bracketology in the backseat in comfort.

Quiet interior

But if the Jetta cabin has midsize room, its quiet is luxury quality. This particularly benefits the diesel’s loud WOKKA-WOKKA-WOKKA at idle that sent owners of previous generation models to the mental ward. At 80 mph in the 2014 Jetta’s serene cockpit, you can turn on the Fender Premium Audio System — the same Fender that put guitars in the hands of rock legends like Springsteen, Clapton and Hendrix — and hear every note.

The rest of the Jetta’s interior is nicely appointed with aluminum trim and intuitive controls. The climate dials are especially helpful, allowing the driver to control the ratio of air/defrost to the feet and head compared to most systems that simply switch between the two.

Such attention to detail goes missing, however, when it comes to USB ports. The Jetta offers none for its iPhone generation buyers. Once clueless about the live-in-my-car American’s demand for cup holders, German manufacturers (though they aren’t the only ones) seem slow again to the demands of the digital crowd. LOL-texting BFFs need USBs ASAP.

Anchoring the Jetta SE’s interior is a little German joystick called the stick shift.

The thought of it will give stick-averse Yanks the yips. But master it and you will not only save a healthy five grand over the automatic Jetta SEL, but you will become one with VW’s wunderbar turbo engine. Volkswagen — and its athletic cousin Porsche — build the best manual trannys in the business. Precise and predictable, they fit your hand like a glove.

Natural resources poor, Germans are paranoid about their reliance on outside energy sources (see Vlad Putin), and have taxed their fuels to $8 a gallon to force engine efficiency. VW engineers have mastered the art of squeezing power out of small engines with four valves per cylinder, lightweight materials, turbochargers and direct injection. All this wizardry is at work in the 170-horsepower TSI which beats its bigger 2.5 liter predecessor in torque while saving 4 mpg.

Row the box and you’ll feel a kick in your pants and a smile creep across your face.

Homely mug returns

But, oooooh, that face (no, not you; the Jetta).

The last-generation Jetta (along with its sibling Golf) broke from family tradition with a sexy, full fascia grille. The once homely Jetta was suddenly picking up chicks with its chrome “soul patch” under the upper grille opening. Alas, the conservative styling returned in 2011, meaning the front end has all the appeal of — dare I say it? — a 2004 Chevy Malibu.

Fortunately, the Jetta gets more interesting further back with sharply-creased flanks sweeping over nicely sculpted wheel wells into a curvaceous caboose that will get whistles from Audi lovers.

Conventional wisdom says that TDI and hybrid engines will inevitably be a big chunk of the U.S. market. Just as Toyota rules hybrid sales, VW is positioned to corner the diesel market. Twenty-four percent of VW sales were diesel last year. Only, um, the success of its own TSI diesel beaters stand in the way.

All hail the gas engine.

2014 VW Jetta TSI

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger sedan Price: $20,420 base ($21,240 as tested) Power plant: 1.8-liter, turbocharged, direct-injection, in-line four-cylinder engine Power: 170 horsepower, 184 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Five-speed manual Performance: 0-60 mpg, 7.2 seconds (Car & Driver); 126 mph top speed Weight: 3,040 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 26 mpg city/36 mpg highway/30 mpg combined Highs: Easy-on-the-legs backseat; Turbo power Lows: Vanilla styling; USB ports, please Overall:★★★

The War on Julie Boonstra

Posted by hpayne on March 16, 2014

Michigan is a crucial piece on the 2014 U.S. Senate chessboard, and Republicans have a good shot at gaining retiring Democrat Carl Levin’s open seat, given Democratic nominee Gary Peters’s unpopular House vote for the Affordable Care Act. Yet Peters has hope. The president’s unilateral delays in Obamacare mandates have eased planned layoffs by local governments and businesses. Moderate GOP governor Rick Snyder supports the ACA’s Medicaid expansion. And the state’s liberal news media have largely ignored the estimated 225,000-plus canceled individual policies and the job losses at medical-device maker Stryker. But Julie Boonstra won’t be ignored. So she must be destroyed. The Dexter, Mich., leukemia victim lost her coverage last fall and now stars in a devastating ad fingering Obamacare — and Peters — for her resulting distress. In an extraordinary media counterstrike, Boonstra, a schoolteacher, has come under assault from Democrats and their media allies decrying her as a liar and an ignoramus for failing to embrace her new, Obamacare-approved plan. As with outspoken female Obamacare cancer victims in other states, the intent is to intimidate critics from coming forward. Senator Harry Reid’s outrageous Senate-floor claim that all Obamacare horror stories “are untrue” is the mantra of the Democrats’ scorched-earth campaign to elect Peters and preserve a Democratic Senate. Boonstra’s ad, backed by Americans for Prosperity, says her policy was “canceled because of Obamacare” and that she fears her “out-of-pocket costs are so high they are unaffordable.” Health-care experts like the Manhattan Institute’s Yevgeniy Feyman say Boonstra “has legitimate concerns.” “It comes down to uncertainty,” Feyman says. “Cancer treatment is a very personal decision. Her new treatment may not take into account out-of-pocket costs. If her drugs are off the formulary, then [an ACA-mandated cost cap on out-of-pocket drug costs] doesn’t apply.” “If I do not receive my medication, I will die,” worries Boonstra, who was invited to the State of the Union address as the guest of Representative Tim Walberg (R., Mich.). “I believed the president when he said I could keep my health-insurance plan. I feel lied to. Congressman Peters, your decision to vote for Obamacare jeopardized my health.” Peters and the media have come out swinging, claiming Boonstra is a right-wing Koch-brothers tool (the Kochs donate to AFP). Like their fellow Democrats in office, newsrooms have long been sympathetic to universal health care. “No doubt that was a difficult experience,” patronized Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler before knocking Boonstra’s lack of enthusiasm for a lower-premium, higher-out-of-pocket-cost Blue Cross plan that Democrats insist is more affordable. Michigan’s media piled on. The Detroit Free Press trumpeted Kessler’s claim that Boonstra was a liar deserving “two Pinocchios.” “A Dexter woman’s claims in a political ad criticizing U.S. Rep. Gary Peters don’t add up,” echoed MLive.com (a consortium of Booth newspapers in the state), faulting Boonstra’s math skills. These organizations have ignored the details of Boonstra’s plan — instead using numbers from Blue Cross (an advocate for Obamacare) numbers to attack her. Through AFP spokesman Scott Hagerstrom, Boonstra communicated her concerns with her new plan. Uncertainty dogs her — especially having been lied to once by the president. Where her canceled plan’s premiums once covered all her costs, she now must plan for out-of-pocket expenses. Those expenses are capped but will double to $10,200 if she goes out of her network — a not-uncommon need for cancer patients, whose treatment often changes — for a doctor or tests. Of her five cancer drugs, she has already discovered that one (Loratadine) is not covered. Detroit News columnist Dan Calabrese also unearthed the fact that glaucoma and “long-term care and nursing care are not covered.”

Q&Auto: Hyundai Veep talks transformation, Toyota, and woman drivers

Posted by hpayne on March 15, 2014

In the last decade Hyundai Corp. has gone from zero-to-hero in the U.S. auto market. Frank Ferrara, now executive vice president of customer satisfaction for Hyundai, is fourth from from left. In the last decade Hyundai Corp. has gone from zero-to-hero in the U.S. auto market. Frank Ferrara, now executive vice president of customer satisfaction for Hyundai, is fourth from from left. (Hyundai)

In the last decade Hyundai Corp. has gone from zero-to-hero in the U.S. auto market. At the 2000 Detroit Auto Show I rolled up an imported Hyundai Accent’s windows with manual, door-mounted cranks. Since then, Hyundai has rolled up market share as one of America’s fastest-growing brands — producing polished, stylish vehicles like the U.S.-made Santa Fe SUV and Sonata sedan.

What happened? In part, Hyundai went native.

They put down roots in California, built a tech center in the Big Three’s backyard, hired good ol’ boys to build cars in ‘Bama, and recruited Toyota’s top American executives. One of those execs is Frank Ferrara, now executive vice president of customer satisfaction for Hyundai.

Born in Brooklyn, Ferrara was raised on the other side of the world from his Korean employer. Sixty-three years later, he is a key Hyundai honcho. Brooklyn’s got Seoul. The East River meets the Pacific. That’s a global automaker. Ferrara is head poobah for dealer customer service and parts activities. From the luxurious backseat of a Hyundai Equus cruising to a Phoenix strategy conference, the 28-year Hyundai veteran talked with me about transformation, Toyota, and woman drivers.

HP: Hyundai is perceived differently from a decade ago. How did that happen?

FF: It begins with our Chairman Mong-Ku Chung, who basically took over our corporation in 1997. It was his laser focus on quality. He elevated quality management to a president’s position by 2000 and within a couple more years elevated that to a chairman’s level so the quality guys really had the authority to say “Stop!” — we’re not launching this vehicle until we get this right. (Then) we won the J.D. Power quality award in 2004and that became a rallying cry for the entire corporation – a focal point that said here is what consumers want. We hired J.D. Power a long time ago and got them involved early in the vehicle development process to help us identify the issues in a vehicle that might not be consumer friendly. We’ve talked a lot about Toyota’s issues in recent years as they took their eye off the ball because they wanted to become #1 in volume. We’re going to focus on quality and the rest will come naturally.

HP: Hyundai followed Toyota’s model of building ‘em where ya’ sell ‘em. How has manufacturing in the U.S. changed Hyundai?

Ferrara: The reality is that unions in Korea are pretty tough. They really drove some of the activity to move production out. (Korea) had a number of years in the mid-‘90s where we had an annual strike. And you also had issues with currency fluctuations (and) a realization that we needed to get closer to the customers. We have design centers globally now — in Germany and here in Irvine as well as Korea. And once you get factories then you have quality teams in factories and . . . more people in the local market feeding back to corporate in Korea.

HP: How is the American consumer different?

Ferrara: We’re in the middle of this shift from the auto as a mechanical vehicle to being an electronic machine. Americans have a lot more content in (their) cars. There’s the old story about how Germans were criticized for not putting multiple cup holders in their cars. We live in our cars. We want to eat breakfast in our cars. And lunch and dinner. And women are a big part of our market. When I first started at Hyundai women didn’t drive in Korea.

HP: Is Hyundai looking for more U.S. opportunities? NASCAR for example?

Ferrara: The next big move for Hyundai is that we are entering the Mexican market. We’re going to sell in Mexico for the first time in May under the Hyundai name. Hyundai cars were sold under the Chrysler brand in the past. Some of those cars will come from Alabama.

HP: How about product?

FF: The new Genesis is absolutely killer. That’s a phenomenal step from where we were. We’re looking – like everybody else — at a small SUV, something under the Tucson.

HP: Hyundai has not followed the Toyota model in creating a luxury brand. Why?

Lexus is an anomaly. They are probably the only (Japanese) brand that really makes money. If you look at Infiniti and Acura, my guess is they aren’t making much money. You’re not going to sell enough cars to support an independent franchise. The real value of (luxury) cars is they add a halo effect to the Hyundai brand.

HP: Honda is an engine company. BMW is a style leader. What is Hyundai?

FF: We use to be a challenger brand. I’d say we have arrived.

Class clash: Audi A4 vs. Ford Fusion Titanium

Posted by hpayne on March 13, 2014

Like Dug, the golden retriever — SQUIRREL! — in Pixar’s classic movie “Up,” I am easily distracted. Especially by attractive vehicles. I’ve been driving this terrific AWD Audi A4 with the S-line package — FUSION! — but I find my eyes wandering to gorgeous, AWD Ford Fusion Titaniums.

Still, the A4 is a luxury car and the — FUSION! — Titanium is a mainstream midsize, right? First class vs. coach class. Rolex vs. Timex. Ginger vs. Mary Ann. Think again. Though Ford has been coy about the inspiration for the Fusion’s Aston Martin-cloned grille, company execs have made no secret that the Fusion sets an upscale standard for Ford family design.

“Our new styling is about bringing in a more premium look,” says Naj Nair, Ford Motor Co.’s group vice president, Global Product Development.

The exterior pairs with an interior strategy that stuffs Fords — from Fiesta to Fusion — with electronic entertainment and safety systems, thus encouraging buyers to pay a premium or even cross-shop against more expensive luxury offerings. Works for me.

Consider the specs shared by the $43,845 Audi A4 and the $36,285 Ford Fusion Titanium I drove: AWD, 2.0-liter turbocharged engines, traction control, ABS, backup alert cameras, voice-activated navigation systems, Bluetooth connectivity, and reclining Barca lounge rear seats with digital massage (just kidding on that last one).

Now consider what the midsize Fusion has that the compact-size Audi doesn’t: 15 more cubic feet of interior space, USB ports, lane-assist, and blind-spot warning. Replace the blue oval on the Fusion’s trunk with Audi’s four ring badge and you’d snap up the Fusion in a heartbeat, yes?

Ahhh, but that’s the beauty of marketing. Only the Audi gets the four rings. But are they — FUSION! — worth $7,500? Drivers, start your engines.

Exterior

For under $80 grand, the Audi and Fusion are my pick for Miss Sedan. Audi’s full fascia grille and LED headlights revolutionized the luxury segment, while the Fusion looks like a $200,000 Aston coming and a $90,000 Tesla Model S going.

Only by the sheer volume of Fusion sales will its gorgeous face and sleek body become commonplace. If the Aston Martin Rapide is the prettiest sports sedan made (the Porsche Panamera looks like a station wagon by comparison), then the Fusion is the mainstream sedan that Aston Martin would make if it were a mass manufacturer.

Is it any coincidence that Ford once owned Aston?

You could decorate the interiors of a Toyota Camry or Chevy Malibu with gold-leaf trim and a Steinway piano and you couldn’t get luxury buyers past their vanilla wrapping. But just one look at that pouting Aston grille and Audi-like creased flanks and the Fusion could start a conversation with Robin Leach.

The Fusion’s architectural detail is startling for a car in this class. From its slit eyes to its tapered front skirt, the Fusion matches the Audi’s sultry good looks. Marketed globally, both cars even share front skirt “fangs” that comply with Europe’s pedestrian safety rules. Finally, a government regulation that actually looks good.

But the rear quarters are where the comparison really gets interesting. I have swiveled my head more than once at a receding Titanium, confusing its caboose for a Jaguar XF or Tesla Model S. These cars look like Beyonce in heels. In comparison, the cute A4 is Mary Ann to Titanium’s Ginger. Even the Fusion’s tail-pipes exude luxury with fully integrated, dual, chrome-tipped pipes. The Audi? A single pipe protrudes ingloriously from the left rear.

I’m sorry, madam, but that violates our dress code here at Chez Premium.

Tapered rooflines on the A4 and Fusion are pleasing to the eye, but a detriment to tall rear seat passengers. My 6-foot-5-inch giraffe neck hit the ceiling in both cars, though that’s less of a concern in the Fusion because of its ample legroom. It is, after all, a midsize car on a D-segment platform, while the A4 rests on a C-segment, compact chassis.

And that, my friends is the Fusion’s piece de resistance.

Interior

At 118.8 cubic feet of interior volume, the AWD Fusion is a class above the Audi in space. Indeed, the Audi’s 103.4 cubes of interior room is barely bigger than the Fusion’s compact, 103.1-cubic-feet sibling, the Focus.

So stretch your legs, spread your knees, and enjoy a leather-appointed interior that is not just as plush as the Audi, but is more functional as well. With a touch screen and redundant console buttons, the Fusion is more intuitive in negotiating the console’s infotainment systems. The Audi, by contrast, insists on a single rotary control. While a cool toy, it is impractical in a moving automobile — especially as it is located below the driver’s eyeline in back of the shift stalk.

The rotary dial is most annoying when used to enter an address in the navigation system. Every blasted letter must be located in the alphabet by the rotary wheel. Not that I use the nav system in the Fusion either. In fact, both these high-tech cars are evidence of how clunky, proprietary auto nav systems lag the simple smartphone.

“Use the nav system to find where we are going,” I ask my long-suffering wife upon entering each new car I test. “No thanks,” is her patient reply, “I can do it faster with Google Maps.”

And carmakers want $800 for the nav option?

Performance

Size matters, and the smaller A4 is more nimble than the Fusion. But with its Audi-like AWD churning, the Fusion is a wonder in the snow and a blast to drive in the dry. Attack a 180-degree interstate entrance ramp and you’ll merge with a grin on your face and your foot through the floor.

And what’s this? Only the Fusion offers sporty paddle shifters to row its 6-speed gearbox. Audi declines. Good thing, actually. Using the A4’s manual shifter option, I got lost in the eight gears and happily reverted back to automatic mode.

Both makers brag about their efficient, turbo power plants, and rightly so. The 3,516-pound Audi’s 2.0-liter engine returns 220 horsepower and an impressive 24 city/32 highway mileage. Ford’s Ecoboost 4-banger, carrying the 150 pounds heavier Fusion on its back, boasts 240 ponies and 22/31 mileage.

Stomp these babies over 3,000 RPM and hooooold on, Nelly. Both will blow through 60 mph in a little over 6 seconds.

A near dead heat, just like their overall specs. Yet the Fusion will leave $7,500 in your pocket. So you gotta ask yourself: How important is that four ring logo? With the cash you save on the Titanium, you can also buy a — SQUIRREL! — used 2004 AWD Audi A4 with 100,000 miles. Hubbah hubbah.

2014 Audi A4 Quattro Tiptronic

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, five-passenger sedan Price: $35,900 base ($43,845 as tested) Power plant: 2.0-liter turbocharged, direct-injection, inline four-cylinder engine Power: 220 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Eight-speed Tiptronic automatic Performance: 0-60 mpg, 5.7 seconds (Car & Driver); 128 mph top speed Weight: 3,693 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 22 mpg city/29 mpg highway/24 mpg combined Highs: Looks great day or night; tight handling Lows: Rotary dial-controlled infotainment; Where are the USB ports? Overall:★★★

2014 Ford Fusion Titanium AWD

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, five-passenger sedan Price: $32,500 base ($36,285 with options) Power plant: 2.0-liter Ecoboost, direct-injection, inline four-cylinder engine Power: 240 horsepower, 270 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Six-speed automatic Performance: 0-60 mpg, 6.5 seconds (Car & Driver); 120 mph top speed Weight: 3,681 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 22 mpg city/31 mpg highway/25 mpg combined Highs: Aston Martin good looks; roomy interior Lows: Drab, rubberized console buttons; roomy — except rear headroom Overall:★★★
 

How Hyundai found its way in Santa Fe

Posted by hpayne on March 8, 2014

Take a trip with me to a different age in a Hyundai time machine. January, 2000, to be exact. My first Detroit Auto Show.

After shedding two coats, four sweaters, three scarves, a hat, ear muffs, and galoshes - we native Virginians don't adapt well to coooooold Detroit winters — I led my little family through Cobo's cozy toy store of automotive delights. Over here Corvettes with wicked torque. Over there Ferraris surrounded by half-dressed supermodels. Over here Ford Expeditions the size of Bill Gate's yacht. And last and certainly least. . . the Hyundais, cheapest cars in show.

No torque. No supermodels. No room. Just simple affordability. We marveled at the affordable throwbacks, a generation behind everything else on the floor. The tinny doors of the Accent. The no-frills dash of the Sonata. The nerdy, four-eyed Tiburan coupe.

Fast forward to 2014 and the Hyundai duckling has become a swan. Looking back, the seeds of this transformation were there 14 years ago with the newborn 2001 Hyundai Santa Fe. The fledgling SUV was the first Hyundai recipe cooked up with American tastes in mind — a harbinger of the enormous investment that the Korean maker would make in the world's most competitive market: California design center and proving grounds, a Michigan test facility, full-blown assembly plant in Georgia. . . the works.

"This (product's) directive was to come up with a design that had originated in North America as opposed to having either a European or Korean concept of what North Americans would like," CEO Finbarr O'Neill of Hyundai USA told Car & Driver then. And credit him with not insisting that the car be badged with another nerdy name like, um, the Finbarr.

The car had more than a good American moniker. Resisting the cheap temptation of building SUVs on a truck platform, the Santa Fe took its skeleton from the Sonata sedan, spearheading a trend towards more nimble, crossover SUVs. "From the cowl forward, the Santa Fe is more sports sedan than sport-ute, with a snouty grille and bubble fenders that give it a snarly look," raved the boys at C&D.

Santa Fe inspired a generation. The Elantra and Sonata sedans have not only matured mechanically, but they have taken well-received risks with swoopy, segment-challenging designs. The nerds became hip.

Now a 2014 AWD Limited edition Hyundai Santa Fe has landed in my driveway in the midst of another 3-scarves winter in Detroit - and has raised the bar again. This baby is loaded with goodies. Call it Santa Claus Fe.

"The (exterior) invokes the impression of irrepressible motion through a new design concept called Storm Edge, which captures the strong and dynamic images created by nature during the formation of a storm," hyperventilates Hyundai's literature. Whatever. Let's just say it's doggone attractive.

In fact, the $41,000 Santa Fe (base is $29,000) arrived for testing at the same time I had a $57,400 Acura MDX in my driveway. From its three-bar hexagonal grille to its rising beltline to its wraparound taillights you would have thought the Santa Fe was the luxury-class entry. Where you once bought Hyundais because you couldn't afford anything else, now you buy them because they make you look high class.

"It's hard to justify buying the MDX based on the differential in price," says Consumer Reports Director of Auto Testing Jake Fisher. "The Santa Fe’s comfortable, roomy, drives nice, and has an excellent infotainment system."

A word on that roominess. With its third row seat, the 4,300 pound, AWD Hyundai can haul seven while dicing snow like a ginsu knife. That's a soccer mom's best friend. Heck, with its second row heated seats and heated steering wheel, you can’t get my wife out of this thing in the winter.

This attention to Yankee wants inside and out came from Hyundai's commitment to the U.S. market. "They followed the Japanese example that you build 'em where sell 'em," says auto analyst Michelle Krebs. "That helps you see better what's going on locally." With the Sonata, Elantra, and Santa Fe all made in the southern U.S., over 60 percent of Hyundai U.S. sales are American-made. The Sante Fe was designed in California, power-train tested in Ypsilanti, assembled in Georgia.

Its 290 horsepower V6 is muscular and fuel efficient. Its AWD system uses sophisticated torque monitoring like the Subaru STI cruise missile that I destroyed at Laguna Seca Raceway with last month. Its 146.6 cubic feet in interior room is easy on the elbows. And it's Consumer Reports quality rating? An impressive 83, besting other star students in its class including the best-selling Ford Explorer (63).

Roomy, fast, durable, and high tech. Hyundai's All-American specs have made it appealing to all Yanks. Not just those on a budget.

2014 Hyundai Santa Fe

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, seven-passenger sport utility Price: $35,450 base ($41,290 as tested) Power plant: 3.3-liter direct-injection, dual-overhead-cam, V6 engine Power: 290 horsepower, 252 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Six-speed automatic Performance: 0-60 mpg, 7.9 seconds (Car & Driver); 128 mph top speed Weight: 4,297 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 18 mpg city/24 mpg highway/21 mpg combined Highs: Knockout looks; third-row seats Lows: City mpg lower than advertized (but then, what isn’t?); cramped third-row seats Overall:★★★★

Taste test: McCamry or McMalibu?

Posted by hpayne on March 6, 2014

Toyota's midsize Camry is the reigning segment leader but the Chevy Malibu has had an extreme makeover for 2014. (Toyota and GM)

When I think midsize sedans, I think fast-food hamburgers.

The burger is America’s meal. From state to state, the humble patty is never flashy, always decent. It comes in different styles – McDonald’s round, Wendy’s square, Burger King’s flame-broiled, Hardee’s jumbo — and it’s always cooked, tasty and safe. Get it wrong — remember Jack in the Box’s undercooked patties E. coli crisis in the 1990s — and your brand will fall faster than January temps in Escanaba. The same holds for America’s midsize car market.

More sedans are sold in this segment than any other, and every major automaker wants a piece.

Cost of entry: All must deliver a reliable, no-fuss product. Busy Mrs. Soccer Mom is in no mood for surprises. Ford lost my wife in the 1990s after two Taurus models and too many repair shop visits. Toyota’s midsize Camry burger is the reigning segment leader — call it McCamry — delivering a product that satisfies most tastes with less hassle. Toyota (with Asian brethren, Honda and Nissan) stole the segment’s top spot after years of unreliability from Detroit manufacturers.

Now, the Detroit Three are on the comeback trial, with Ford’s flavorful Fusion winning raves and Chrysler tickling taste buds with this year’s much-anticipated 200. But the car most like the Camry is Chevy’s Malibu. If the Fusion aims for a richer taste — think char-grilled beef — the Chevy competes with the Toyota with the same, nothing-fancy formula.

How is the GM product doing? I conducted a taste test: McCamry vs. McMalibu.

Reliability

Reliability is the coin of the midsize realm.

Back in the Dark Ages — circa 1990 to 2000 A.D. — Detroit automakers could compete with the Japanese only by undercutting them in price. Quality was that bad. At century’s turn, the Chevy Malibu tallied a distant 65 score (on a scale of 1-100) in Consumer Reports’ testcompared to Camry’s 78 and Honda Accord’s 79. That it outscored sibling class clowns Impala (39) and Saturn (38), and the slothful Ford Taurus (51), was small consolation.

So GM hit the books and the results have been dramatic.

“The 2014 Malibu is catching up quickly,” says Jake Fisher, director of auto testing for Consumer Reports, after it scored an 84 compared to Toyota’s 88 (the Honda Accord still wins class brain at 90).

Like Cadillac — which earned my Car of the Year vote for its more-German-than-the-Germans, third-generation CTS — Chevy has committed to putting in the long hours to catch up. When its mid-cycle 2013 refresh failed to impress customers, Malibu went back to the plastic surgeon, emerging with a face-lift just months after launch.

“The turning point for Malibu came when they didn’t have to sell cars at tens of thousands less than their Japanese competition. That has changed,” Fisher says.

Indeed, the $29,900 Malibu 2LT I drove is more expensive than a similarly equipped $28,000 Camry SE.

“Malibu is right there at this point,” Fisher adds. “There are just a couple of things holding them back.” Those couple of things are significant for the much-improved Chevy — after all, you have to knock out the champion to get noticed, not just extend him to the 15th round.

Exterior

Beauty has never been a strong suit in the Chevy family, but in a segment where average looks have been the norm that never seemed important. Times have changed.

Cars such as the Ford Fusion, Mazda6 and Hyundai Sonata have raised the bar, and the homely Camry and Malibu look dated. When you’re blessed with the Camry’s quality reputation, you can afford to be complacent. Not so the Malibu.

No. 2 must try harder. Give Chevy credit for the 2014 model’s Extreme Makeover. But the Chevy SS-esque face is hardly a head turner. I blame the brand’s split-grille theme which looks bold on big pickups and aggressive on wee Sparks. But on well-proportioned four-doors like Cruze and Malibu sedans it looks odd. Two grille openings is one too many — like your six-year-old put too many mouths on Mr. Potatohead.

Why should the Chevy Impala get all the good looks in the family? Give ’Bu big brother’s handsome smile to match its new, family-themed tail lamps (courtesy of sexy siblings Camaro and ’Vette).

Then buyers might slip inside where Chevy has the details right.

Interior

Open the Camry and Malibu doors, and it’s hard to distinguish between the two. Both are handsomely wrapped in dark plastic with premium trim, and the interiors are comfortably equipped. Everything is market tested: Comfy seats, good backseat legroom, clear instrumentation, cup holders, and USB ports where you need them. Feels like home.

Get comfortable, however, and Chevy’s details win you over. Begin with the center console, one of the best in the business. Organized on one sloped plane, the flush buttons and large knobs are intuitive, complementing the MyLink touch screen. “Knobs still matter,” says Mark Meyer, Malibu group leader. That’s a telling comment from an engineer whose colleagues at Cadillac have ditched knobs in their CUE system much to the confusion of customers.

The Malibu’s shifter beats McCamry’s clunky gates and its interior is library quiet, the product of body panel insulation and double-laminated windows. In an age when federal mpg nannies are forcing manufacturers to adopt inherently rougher 4-cylinder engines, such measures are welcome.

But my favorite Malibu detail is the windshield washers.

In most cars, including McCamry, nozzles dump their fluid in puddles in the middle of the screen and then expect the wipers to distribute the cleaner via multiple sweeps. Not the Malibu. Toggle the steering stalk (did I mention the stalks are crisp as an Audi? Another nice detail) and the washer team spits a fine mist across the entire windshield, necessitating just one wipe (maybe two) from the blades to finish the job. That’s teamwork. And much appreciated in a Detroit winter in which I’ve gone through gallons of fluid to stave off a muck assault from platoons of interstate-plying semis.

Performance

Malibu handling — though shy of the Mazda-Ford segment leaders — bests the Camry. Give particular credit to the Chevy’s mature stability control in icy conditions. Both vehicles come with peppy, fuel-efficient 2.5 liter engines. This is where the Malibu’s attention to detail again pays dividends. With engine stop-start technology standard, the heavier and more powerful Malibu still bested the Camry in EPA mpg rating, 29 to 28.

Safety systems in both cars are superb. Example: Leaving downtown on a hazy, darkened Lodge one night, a tail-lightless car limped along in the center lane. Without the Malibu’s collision alert system – FWEEEE! went the flashing red light on my dash – I might have rammed it.

In sum, objects in Toyota’s rear view mirror are closer than they appear. Chevy has caught up. Score some outright wins in the looks and quality — best-in-class windshield wipers aren’t enough — and McMalibu can be the new standard.

2014 Chevy Malibu

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger sedan Price: $25,215 base ($29,900 as tested) Power plant: Ecotec 2.5-liter direct-injection four-cylinder engine Power: 196 horsepower, 186 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Six-speed automatic Performance: 0-60 mpg, 7.9 seconds (Car & Driver); 128 mph top speed Weight: 3,532 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 25 mpg city/36 mpg highway/29 mpg combined Highs: Intuitive interior controls; love those wiper jets Lows: Still playing catch-up in quality; Plain Jane styling Overall:★★★

2014 Toyota Camry

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger sedan Price: $24,550 base ($28,038 with options) Power plant: 2.5-liter twin-cam four-cylinder engine Power: 178 horsepower, 170 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Six-speed automatic Performance: 0-60 mpg, 8.1 seconds (Motor Trend); 117 mph top speed Weight: 3,275 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 25 mpg city/35 mpg highway/28 mpg combined Highs: Runs like clockwork; spacious interior Lows: Plain Jane styling; Clunky shifter Overall:★★★