Articles Blog

‘Torquemada’ John Dingell

Posted by hpayne on February 25, 2014

Detroit — At the height of his powers as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in October 1991, Representative John Dingell (D., Mich.) was feted by 800 Washington lobbyists — representing Morgan Stanley, AT&T, Merck, and more — who laid out $600,000 to honor the ruthless congressman nicknamed “Torquemada.” I was a young journalist in D.C., and the glitzy Washington Hyatt Regency event was called a “Tribute to John Dingell.” Any other town might have called it a shakedown. On Monday the 88-year-old Dingell announced his retirement. His media and political allies celebrate him as a populist man of the middle, but the reality of who he is couldn’t be more different. Over his record 57 years in Congress, Dingell has been one of the key architects of centralizing regulatory power in Washington to the benefit of big-business lobbyists — and to the detriment of the little guy. If you’re one of the thousands of coal miners who lost their jobs to EPA emissions edicts in recent years, or if you are one of the millions of Americans who have lost their health insurance because of Obamacare, John Dingell deserves some of the thanks. His 1990 Clean Air Act, passed in defiance of Congress’s own environmental findings, laid the groundwork for today’s job-killing EPA power grabs. A longtime advocate of socialized medicine who introduced a nationalized-health-care bill every term that he was in Congress, Dingell was at Barack Obama’s left hand when the president signed the 2009 Affordable Care Act, the darling of Big Hospital and Big Pharma. The ACA has ripped through Americans’ health coverage like a tornado. A decade after my first encounter with Dingell, I landed at the Detroit News and since then have frequently crossed his path. Also nicknamed “Big John” for his once-imposing 6′3″ frame (he has become stooped in later years, relying on a cane for support), he is a soft-spoken, engaging man with a quick wit. When it comes to federal power, however, he has been a single-minded bully. From emissions mandates to the mother of all regulations, Obamacare, Washington’s powerbrokers now rule vast swaths of America’s economy thought unimaginable when Dingell took office in 1955. In 1990 he led revision of the federal Clean Act At, which brought new controls over coal-burning utilities in the name of reducing acid rain. The legislation defied the scientific conclusions of Congress’s own ten-year National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program (NAPAP) study, which found that claims of lake acidification were overblown and that the proposed regulations to reduce it were excessive. Ignored by Dingell’s committee and his champions in the press corps, the study was shelved, and the expensive regulations passed anyway. Ironically, Dingell has lately lamented the EPA’s use of the same Clean Air Act to unilaterally regulate carbon dioxide, a measure that comes at enormous expense to his backyard auto industry. But the seeds were planted by Dingell himself, as were the roots of today’s massive lobbying apparatus. Many of those lobbyists come from Dingell’s own staff, part of the permanent government of influence peddlers who then return to influence him. Dingell’s legend was that he regulated “anything that moves, burns, or is sold.” And so, at the Dingell tribute in 1991, Merck bought a table for $7,500 because few could do more than Big John to destroy Big Pharma. “The pashas of the Ottoman Empire protected their subjects in return for the right to claim all that they owned,” wrote Paul Gigot in the Wall Street Journal in 1991. “A true congressional pasha doesn’t need to enrich himself, since he never faces a competitive election. Instead he has his favorite charities. Mr. Dingell’s ‘tribute’ was a fund-raising benefit for the Center for National Policy,” a Democratic think tank. Washington power and gerrymandered districts have given rise to congressional dynasties. Dingell succeeded his father and will likely be succeeded by his wife, Debbie, whom Dingell met when she was, yes, a GM lobbyist. There is no better example of Washington’s centralization of power than the Affordable Care Act, perhaps Dingell’s most enduring legacy. President Obama honored the socialized-health-care advocate with a prominent role in his Oval Office signing of Obamacare, a bill written by the health industry’s biggest players. The ACA has wreaked havoc in Dingell’s home state, costing thousands of jobs at Stryker, a medical-device maker, forcing a move toward part-time workforces in venues as diverse as fast food and city governments, and forcing the cancellation of tens of thousands of insurance policies. “It’s affordable, quality health insurance made available to everyone,” Dingell wrote in a recent constituent e-mail even as the non-partisan Office of the Chief Actuary at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has concluded that premiums will increase for two-thirds of American small businesses. A credulous Detroit Free Press reported this week that Dingell was stepping down because of his frustration with Washington partisanship. “The words ‘compromise’ and ‘conciliation’ should not be considered dirty words in Washington,” Dingell says. Yet his precious Obamacare was rammed through on a straight partisan vote. It’s a fitting Washington legacy for a self-declared populist dealmaker who has overseen a Washington that is more partisan and more tilted to special interests than ever.

2014 Chevy SS: Daytona stud on and off the track

Posted by hpayne on February 22, 2014

Chevrolet unveiled the 2014 Chevrolet SS on Thursday that will pace the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 on Sunday at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida. Chevrolet unveiled the 2014 Chevrolet SS on Thursday that will pace the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 on Sunday at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Harold Hinson / Chevy Racing)

This Sunday, a Chevy SS pace car will lead an all-Chevy SS front row to the green flag for the start of the 56th running of the Daytona 500.

The Chevy what?

If the Corvette was the 2014 North American Car of the Year then the four-door SS was the Stealth Car of the Year. This mild-styled wild child of Chevy’s product lineup hides its true nature with a typically understated Chevrolet grille. But behind that inscrutable face are jaws of steel — the same 6.2-liter stump-puller that powered the previous generation, C6 Corvette.

Ummmm, Dad, can I have the keys to the family sedan?

Eager to publicize its muscle-bound sport sedan, Chevy has made the SS its NASCAR brand (replacing the Impala). It’s a good fit. Despite general outward appearances — well, the grille designs are similar — NASCARs share little with the production cars on which they are based. Not body panels. Not engines. Not steering wheels. Heck, even the headlights aren’t real. They’re decals (sorry to break it to you, kids. And Santa Claus isn’t real either). NASCAR is a strict spec series with standardized V8 engines and body templates.

But at least the Chevy SS and NASCAR SS share the same basic architecture. Both are rear-wheel drive. Both use push-rod engines technology. Both engines are based on a Chevy small block engine. The same can’t be said for the NASCAR Ford and Toyota entries. Ever seen a rear-wheel drive Camry V8?

When front-row qualifiers Mark Truex, Jr. and pole-sitter Austin Dillon finish their 500 miles around Daytona’s tri-oval Sunday, their SS steeds will go right into the trailer. But that SS pace car? She’s street legal and good for another 350 miles on a full tank of gas.

Or less, depending on how heavy your right foot is. Don’t let the wrapping fool you. This milk carton is spiked with moonshine.

Idling at the curb, the 2014 Chevy SS I test drove recently wouldn’t turn a head. Unlike the last Impala-based SS that Chevy produced in 1996, the 2014 model gets its own look. Pity the designers didn’t do more with the opportunity. Developed by GM’s Australian brand, Holden — the same mad geniuses that brought us the late, great Pontiac G8 sedan — the car’s lines are unremarkable and might be mistaken for a Malibu. Only the shark gills behind the car’s front fenders — and the chrome tipped dual exhaust — hint at the beast within.

Maybe that’s the way Chevy wants it. Stealthy. A ’Vette in sheep’s clothing.

Turn the key, and the car’s cover is blown. The snarl will raise goosebumps on your back. Hair will sprout from your forearms. Your eyes will glow red. This family carriage is pulled by 415 crazed horses capable of 415 pound feet of torque.

Nail the throttle and you’ll wake the dead. Zero-60 goes by in a just 4.5 seconds. The car’s Brobdingnagian Brembo brakes — concealed behind forged, 19-inch aluminum wheels — will bring the rocket back to earth before the local fuzz can figure out where that thunderclap came from.

What, is there a sports car behind the big sedan?

The stealthiness extends to the SS’s quiet, leather interior where you can listen to Beethoven’s Concerto No. 5 even as you trail sonic booms. GM’s capable MyLink system is voice-activated so you can call your business associate and tell him you’ll pick him up at the airport in the four-door sedan ... um, the Malibu-like car ... the — aw, heck: he’ll know it when you rev the engine.

Muscle-car shoppers will note the Dodge Charger SRT8 comes with a bigger, 6.4-liter, 470 horsepower power plant. But the SS sacrifices brute power for surprising nimbleness. It eases effortlessly through back-road switchbacks, its power always on tap. Like its Corvette cousin, it benefits from perfect 50-50 weight balance and its 3,900-pound girth is a full 400 pounds lighter than the Charger. The result? The SS’s eye-popping .95 lateral G’s in a Car & Driver road test blows away not just the Charger but also the Audi A6 and BMW M5.

All this performance comes wrapped in a $45,770 base price — one more pleasant SS surprise. No leather markups. No thousand-dollar, accessory add-ons. Projecting SS sales of 3,000 units a year, GM hopes the halo super sedan brings spectators to Chevy showrooms after the SS race car brings shock and awe to the track.

2014 Chevy SS

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan Price: $45,770 (base), $46,670 (as tested with sunroof option) Power plant: 6.2-liter, V-8 Power: 415 horsepower, 415 pound-feet of torque Transmission: 6-speed automatic Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.5 sec. (Car & Driver). Top sepeed: 160 mpg (governor limited) Weight: 3,931 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 14 city/21 highway Highs: Bode Miller-like athletic handling; Corvette power Lows: Vanilla styling; Your pals might mistake it for a Malibu Overall:★★★ Grading scale Excellent <z_sym_star> Good <z_sym_star><z_sym_star><z_sym_star> Fair

 

2015 GM Heavy Duty pickups: Refined monsters

Posted by hpayne on February 20, 2014

The 2015 Chevrolet Silverado LT 2500HD with Z71. Detroit dominates the full size pickup truck market, and the new Silverado and its GMC Sierra HD cousin lead the pack. (General Motors)

Cave Creek, Ariz.

At Hogs N’ Horses rodeo, they know tough. Every Friday evening, metro Phoenix’s fearless strap on chaps and lower themselves onto bucking broncos with names like “Satan’s Wish.” It’s a ride to hell and back, and the good ones last more than eight seconds before the possessed animal flings them to the dirt.

These ain’t armchair cowboys.

And when they dust themselves off and head home, they want a ride that’s reliable, rugged, yet comfortable. It’s no surprise then that the parking lot is stuffed with heavy-duty pickups, the behemoths that make up one in every four truck sales in America.

It’s a market that demands towing capability over 10,000 pounds. That demands diesel engines that could pull Excalibur from stone. That demands the solitude of an airport limousine.

It’s a market that the Big Three has dominated. So this is where General Motors brought a herd of auto writers this winter to show off its new, totally redesigned 2015 Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra HD pickup trucks.

Arizona has all the trappings of the Old West with its Stetsons, Saguaro cactus, and rocky landscape. But this is also the New West of high tech, immigrants ... and Asian and German-made vehicles. I walked through Cave Creek’s parking lots filled with Chevy, Ford, and Dodge pickups parked cheek to jowl with Honda, Toyota, and Hyundai sedans and SUVs. Dependability cuts both ways, and far from Motown, westerners decided long ago that foreign makes were more reliable.

GM truck engineers are well aware of this dichotomy. They know Detroit fell behind in the sedan market and they vow the same fate won’t befall their pickups.

“There’s a lot of lessons to be learned,” says Jeff Luke, GM honcho for full-size and midsize trucks.

Good thing. Full-size pickups are Motown’s primary breadwinners. GM sold 600,000 units last year with GMC alone selling more pickups than Porsche sold automobiles. Loyalty towards Chevy, GMC, Ford, and Ram trucks is fierce and no wonder. These bruisers are massive, purpose-built tools that quote engine torque and payload numbers like super sports cars boast 0-60 mph and Nurburgring lap times.

On our test runs through the Tonto National Forest north of Phoenix, we were routinely approached by pickup truck owners asking if that was the new Chevy HD were testing. “Yes,” we would say.

“I like it,” an F-250 driver would reply. “But I’m a Ford guy.”

Big 3 pickups are so close in performance that each new generation model leapfrogs the standard set by a competitor before. Chevy’s 2014 Silverado won North American Truck of the Year in 2013. The 2013 Dodge RAM was Motor Trend Truck of the Year in 2012 (and 2013), the 2010 F-150 won NACTOY in 2009, and so on. You can write the 2014 headline today: 2015 Ford F-150, Truck of the Year.

Detroit’s stranglehold on the U.S. market is best illustrated when comparing heavy duty trucks where performance is at a premium.

While Toyota’s Tundra and Nissan’s Titan battle Motown makers in the pickup segment, neither bothers to saddle up against the Big 3 HDs. Here, politics is less of a distraction. Recognizing that HDs must pull massive loads, Washington doesn’t mandate fuel economy rules that put U.S. cars at a disadvantage against foreign small-car makers in the 1980s. Turbo direct-injection diesel engines make up two-thirds of sales in the HD market — not because they get marginally better mpg but because customers covet their torque-on-demand. If the EPA doesn’t force HDs to meet arbitrary fuel efficiency targets, it does require that diesels go on an expensive emissions diet. There are no less than three devices in each GM pickup exhaust to scrub particulates – but owners still pay the $8,000 diesel premium.

I’m a witness. I tow my race car to the track each weekend behind a 2007 Ram 3500.

Weighing in at over 7000 pounds and capable of trailering up to 19,600 pounds, heavy duties are the offensive lineman of vehicles. They are the biggest things bodies on the field, but quickness and technique matter too. Like comparing a 325-pound linemen and a 290-pound lineman, the bigger number doesn’t always predict effectiveness.

Take the new Chevy Silverado 2500 HD. In a drag race between a Silverado, F250, and Ram — each towing 10,000 pounds — the 765 lb.-ft. torque Silverado (the Corvette “Big Nasty” Z06 has 625 lb-feet of torque? Weakling) won despite a nearly five percent torque deficit with its crosstown rivals.

I know what you’re thinking: Dude, you drag-raced pickups?

Being one of the planet’s biggest truck makers gains you some clout in pickup country, and GM made arrangements with highway patrol on Route 87 outside Payson (north of Phoenix) to allow our team of ink-slingers to test towing capability - side-by-side, dragster-style – on the four-lane’s uphill grades. Eat your heart out, John Force.

Boaters pulling Up North in Michigan take heart: These trucks have been tested against Up North Arizona’s most formidable grades.

From 35 mph, the Silverado HD gradually pulled away from both the F250 and RAM 2500 despite its lower torque numbers. Engineers attribute this to a number of factors, primarily the happy marriage between the big diesel and GM’s Allison transmission, available only with the oil-burning engine.

The diesel also shines on the other side of the mountain. Set cruise control and the diesel’s “exhaust braking” takes over, managing the heavy load downhill without pilot ever having to touch the pedals – or the dash for that matter. No more white knuckle rides through brake fade. No more dug in fingernail scratches on the interior.

And that interior is refiiiined.

If refined and heavy duty seem an oxymoron, you don’t know today’s pickups. Like their light-duty kin, HDs are as nice within as they are tough without. Sure, the Silverado’s chassis is all-new with more high strength steel and more reinforced cross-braces than a rodeo cowboy has bruises. Belying their bold, rectangular faces, the Chevys and GMCs have undergone extensive aero work to help their big engines breath – but also to quiet the cab. Together with inlaid doors and triple door seals, these monsters are remarkably quiet even when under load. After his harrying rodeo ride, our cowboy can ease his behind into full leather seats in the LTZ trim Crew Cab with five USB outlets and an 8-inch touchscreen in the center console alone. Where the previous generation Silverado was pooh-poohed for its cheap interior, the 2015 cab earns a blue ribbon.

After a tough night on Satan’s Wish, broncobusters have a decidedly friendlier hoss waiting in the parking lot. Call it heavy duty, but it has the demeanor of Buttercup.

2015 Chevy Silverado 2500 HD

Vehicle type: Front-engine, 4WD, five-passenger, heavy duty, four-door pickup truck Price: $48,230 (base), $61,465 (as tested) Power plant: Duramax 6.6-liter, V-8 turbo diesel Power: 397 horsepower, 765 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Allison 6-speed automatic Performance: Payload capacity, 2,628-3,501 pounds; towing capacity, 10,000 pounds Weight: 7,549 pounds Fuel economy: NA Report card Highs: Quiet interior, stump-pulling diesel power Lows: Not as good looking as GMC twin Overall:★★★★ Grading scale Excellent ★★★★ Good ★★★ Fair ★★ Poor ★

2015 GMC Sierra Denali 2500 HD

Vehicle type: Front-engine, 4WD, five-passenger, heavy duty, four-door pickup truck Price: $48,925 (base), $64,200 (as tested) Power plant: Duramax 6.6-liter, V-8 turbo diesel Power: 397 horsepower, 765 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Allison 6-speed automatic Performance: Payload capacity, 2,628-3,501 pounds; towing capacity, 10,000 pounds Weight: 7,549 pounds Fuel economy: NA Report card Highs: Quiet interior, better looking than Chevy kin Lows: With diesel costing $3.80 a gallon, gotta carry around a box-full of cash Overall:★★★★

Top E-Dog: Tesla Model S or Cadillac ELR?

Posted by hpayne on February 13, 2014

America's biggest and smallest car companies have squared off in the luxury electric vehicle market. GM vs. Tesla. The Cadillac ELR vs. Model S. Old Money Detroit vs. New Money Silicon Valley. (Photo illustration by The Detroit News, Tesla and GM)

America’s biggest and smallest car companies have squared off in the luxury electric vehicle market. GM vs. Tesla. The Cadillac ELR vs. Model S. Old Money Detroit vs. New Money Silicon Valley. These chiseled competitors caused a sore neck epidemic at this year’s Detroit auto show. Displayed in neighboring stands, they turned heads left and right, faster than a Federer vs. Nadal Wimbledon final.

I ached to get them outside to strut their stuff. But it’s the dead of winter, you say. It’s too cold for batteries, you say. Shouldn’t we wait until springtime? Nawww. Not even the Polar Vortex can chill our lust for these hotties.

So bundle up, turn on the heated seats, and unleash the electrons.

The similarities between the companies and their cars are remarkably few. Both GM and Tesla took taxpayer loans and are branded with that Government Motors stigma. Both use lithium ion batteries. But the Caddy shares a compact platform and plug-in-electric powertrain with the Chevy Volt, while the Model S boasts an all-new midsize chassis running on batteries alone.

The silver four-seat Cadillac ELR — with an $82,135 price tag — is a slick vehicle, but the seven-seat (yes, seven) Model S ( $75,520) is jaw-dropping. Game-changing. Stone-cold awesome.

In the Establishment vs. Startup showdown, score one for American entrepreneurial ingenuity as Elon Musk’s first sedan is not just the best electric vehicle ever made but gives the elites of the luxury sport world — Porsche Panamera, Audi A7, Jaguar XF — serious competition for best in class. Subsidies aside (Elon, you had to raid the taxpayer cookie jar to finance this gem?), Musk deserves a place in the Auto Hall of Fame next to irascible pioneers like Henry Ford and Carroll Shelby.

The ELR and Model S are accessible only to platinum club members. But they are serious machines — not just show horses to gain federal fuel economy credits. But Musk’s second act, a 200-mile range Model E that will go head-to-head with the Volt, Nissan Leaf and Prius plug-in, will be more accessible to the masses with a price tag of about $40K and hitting the market in 2016.

EVs to date have worn their green status on their sleeves to attract the crunchy granola crowd. Not the ELR and Model S. No leafy badges. No green-tinted instrument panels. They sell themselves on passion, inside and out.

Interior

“Coolest car ever!” squealed the 20-something at Tesla’s Detroit display. “I’ve gotta have one,” said the 70-something father of my college roommate at Christmas dinner in California.

When a car attracts a demographic that broad, you know something’s different.

Begin with the Model S’s signature 17-inch touchscreen, which works like an iPad maxi. The navigation app is made by Google, the menu icons look like a Mac.

Finally, a car screen that is as intuitive as your smartphone. Better yet, the screen centralizes all controls. No more split-level consoles of competing analog and digital tools that require a tutorial to understand.

Get it? Like the breakthrough Macintosh computer of a generation ago, Tesla brings electronic style to the automobile. With its massive batteries buried in the floor and its one-speed gear-shift on the steering column, the front cabin is uncluttered. The sculpted dash arcs to meet curved, aluminum-trimmed door handles.

While the Model S establishes a unique interior experience, the ELR is determined to make you feel like you are in a Cadillac. Gone are the green-preaching instrument panels of the Volt. In their place are Caddy’s familiar, cool CUE system.

But by building on a midsize platform, the Model S takes EV luxury to another level. Wedged into a compact chassis, the T-shaped ELR battery pack intrudes on the cabin, limiting seating to four adults. The Tesla cabin comfortably seats five adults — and two more in rear-facing child seats just like the flexible cargo bay of my old 1992 Taurus station wagon.

Exterior

The five-door, 196-inch long Tesla is easily mistaken for a Jaguar XF from behind. Yet with no engine to conceal, the low aerodynamic hood — creating a slippery .24 drag coefficient — makes the Tesla even more beautiful overall.This S looks like Kate Upton wrapped in a satin dress.

The ELR, on the other hand, is Caddy’s angular “Art & Design” language perfected. The design is virtually identical to the show-stopping Converj concept unveiled in 2009 with raked windshield and knife-like lines. Think Stealth fighter meets Honda Civic Coupe.

Caddy’s stylish nose could teach the Model S a thing or two about EV grilles, which are decorative since there is no large radiator to cool. The one flaw in Tesla’s otherwise gorgeous bod is its blunt plastic honker. Chief designer Franz von Holzhausen says the design was deliberately conservative for fear that an unconventional face would scare off buyers — but he plans to broaden his palette with future designs.

Performance

With all that battery weight in the belly, surely these EVs suffer in handling? On the contrary. The lower center of gravity (at 17.5 inches, the 4,650-pound Tesla’s CG is on par with super-sports cars) lends these cars noticeably better cornering stability over their gas-powered cousins.

But for an $80K car, you want grunt. That’s where the Tesla really shines.

Bury your right foot and the big sled leaps forward, propelled by instant 317 pound-feet of electric torque. In the base, 60kwh Model S I tested — courtesy of Sean Maloney of Grosse Pointe — 0-60 mph shoots by in just 5.1 seconds. That’s over a half-second quicker than a base $81K Porsche Panamera. At 0-60 mph in 4.4 seconds, the 80 kwh Model S would blow the doors off an Aston Martin DB9.

Yet the Model S achieves these violent acceleration numbers in silence. In a V-8, such an outburst would get Mr. Maloney arrested in the Pointes for disturbing the peace.

But the Tesla allows him to explore his animal instincts without waking up every cop in Motown.

The S brings this razzle dazzle while delivering 150 miles on a charge — in January. Sure, that’s less than the 208 miles advertised (because Tesla advises recharges to ¾of battery capacity for long life), but still plenty of mileage to avoid range anxiety as Maloney travels across southeast Michigan.

The ELR — using the same 16.5 kwh battery/1.4-liter gas engine combo as the Volt — also explodes off the line then quickly plateaus, reaching 60 mph in 7.8 seconds (8.8 in pure EV mode). Many will find this unacceptable at this price — as well as its 30-miles-on-a-winter-charge before the four-banger takes over.

In short, the ELR comes up short in room and performance next to the multi-talented Model S prodigy.

Electrics died a century ago, victims of Henry Ford’s more affordable, more fuel-able Model T. At the dawn of the 21st century, they are back, thanks in part to the determination of another mad genius and his Model S.

2014 Cadillac ELR

Vehicle type: Front engine/battery propulsion, front-wheel-drive, four-passenger coupe Price: $75,000 base, $82,135 (as tested, $74,635 after federal tax credit) Power plant: Electric drive system with 16.5 kwh lithium ion battery pack, and 1.4-liter 4-cylinder, gas-powered generator engine Power: 217 horsepower (motor/engine combined power rating), 295 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Automatic, single-speed transmission Performance: 0-60 mpg, 7.8 seconds electric-with-engine assist mode; 8.8 seconds EV only (manufacturer), 107 mph top speed (governor limited) Weight: 4,050 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 82 mpg EV mode/33 mpg gas mode Report card: ★★ Highs: Retains show-stopping concept design; plush interior Lows: Retains pokey Volt drivetrain; sticker shock

2014 Tesla Model S

Vehicle type: Battery propulsion, rear-wheel-drive, five-passenger sedan Price: $69,900 base, $75,520 (as tested, $68,020 after federal tax credit) Power plant: Electric drive system with 60 kwh microprocessor lithium-ion battery pack Power: 302 horsepower, 317 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Automatic, single-speed transmission Performance: 0-60 mpg, 5.1 seconds (dragtimes.com); 134 mph top speed (governor limited) Weight: 4,647 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 88 mpg city/90 mpg highway Report card:★★★★ Highs: Supermodel body; goes like stink Lows: Plastic nose; good range limited by lack of charging infrastructure

Zoom or zoomier? Mazda3 vs. Mazda6

Posted by hpayne on February 8, 2014

The all-new 2014 Mazda6 will feature even more all-new groundbreaking technology. i-ELOOP, the world's first capacitor-based brake energy regeneration system to power all the vehicle's electrical systems, makes its global debut. The SKYACTIV-D 2.2-liter clean diesel engine and the front collision-detecting Smart City Brake Support (SCBS) system make their first appearance in North America. (Mazda)

“ZOOM ZOOM” reads the Mazda6 ad as I enter Laguna Seca racetrack — aka, the Mazda Raceway. Nothing shows the Japanese automaker’s commitment to selling sporty midsize sedans in the USA like its sponsorship of the legendary 11-turn roller coaster track on California’s’ Monterey Peninsula.

The 2014 Mazda6, as you may have heard, is the bomb.

It is Mazda’s new sleek, nimble-handling cure for the boring midsize sedan. It has us auto scribes in a swoon. We love it as much as the new sleek, nimble-handling cure for the boring compact car, the 2014 Mazda3. Indeed, as you descend into Mazda Raceway’s paddock what looks from a distance like rows of comely Mazda6 racing school cars are, in fact, rows of comely Mazda3 racing schools cars. The 3 and the 6 look uncannily similar until closer inspection reveals the 3’s shorter wheelbase and stubbier rear end.

“It’s the best handling small car I’ve driven,” says one Laguna Seca racing instructor. “It’s even better than the old 3.”

So why pay $21,000 for a base 6 over a $17,000 base 3? Or eight grand more for a loaded Mazda6 Grand Touring edition over a 3 Grand Touring? After all, compact cars have evolved. Compacts such as the 3s, Ford Focuses and Honda Civics are as big as 6s, Ford Tauruses and Honda Accords used to be. Which is why we now have subcompacts like Mazda 2s, Ford Fiestas, and Honda Fits. Roomy four-door compacts offer space, handling and fuel efficiency. And looks.

Which to buy? Let’s let the sibling rivals slug it out.

Mazda 3 GT (2.0 liter, $25,000)

The game is over before it’s begun, brother 6. They call you a 6, but you don’t offer a 6-cylinder engine like most midsize cars. So we’re both four-bangers. And your 2.5-liter four has only 30 more horses than my four. And I’m 400 pounds lighter in the butt. Do the math. I go 0-60 in 7.9 seconds — less than a second slower than your 7-flat. I handle better, I get better fuel economy. So why would a hard-working couple fork over $8,000 more for less than a second of acceleration time? Heck, they could buy a nice used 2008 Mazda6 for the money they save and have his and hers Mazdas in the garage.

Oh, I’m not done. Today’s compact is the new midsize. I’m as big as a 2003 Mazda6, can seat five and stow all the luggage for a road trip. And speaking of trips, I am loaded with features that make you think you’re in an Audi A4. I got an Audi-like rotary console nob that controls my touch screen, heated seats, keyless entry, dual climate control, leatherette seats (betcha can’t tell the difference), blind-spot monitoring, traction control, four-wheel disc brakes, rearview camera, and a kitchen sink (just kidding about that last one). And is that 30 horsepower really an issue? I’m optioned with the same 2.5-liter powerplant you have. Beat that.

Mazda6 GT (2.5 liter, $33,000)

Seriously? Just look at me. I’m beautiful. I’m the ultimate realization of Mazda’s Kodo design language. If Marilyn Monroe were a car, she’d be me. Sure, you’re not bad looking yourself, brother 3. The face, the flowing lines. Definitely a family resemblance. But that nose. It’s out of proportion to the rest of your body. You look like that Doberhuahua from the Super Bowl commercial. I’m gonna call you Big Nose.

Remember, little brother — size matters. You’re a C segment platform and I’m a D segment. I have more cubic feet of backseat space than you or a BMW 3-series. And I come loaded with all the electronics that you’ve got — plus luxury upgrades such as variable cruise control and rear cross traffic alert system found in a 3-series. But a Bimmer buyer won’t give you a second look, Big Nose, whereas he’ll fall in love with me. I’m prettier, roomier, e-outfitted, and equipped with real leather (yes, they can tell the difference) — all for 10 grand less than a BMW. I’m the affordable luxury buyer’s dream. You’re good, kid, but you’re coach class. With my looks, I scream First Class.

And by the way, don’t knock my fuel efficiency. My 40 mpg highway is almost your 41 — plus 30 horses.

Conclusion

Okay, okay, boys. Stand down. That’s good stuff. Let me just say it’s nice to hear you Mazda guys talking about good looks. After those last-generation Jack o’ Lantern faces of yours, I was worried you had lost your aesthetic perspective.

So there you have it, folks. Three plus six equals a wealth of choice. As for me? I choose 3 because I want to throw that short-wheel base through some Mazda Raceway corners.

 

Lexus hunters: Acura MDX vs. Cadillac SRX

Posted by hpayne on February 6, 2014

Another year, another gold star for the Lexus RX, the midsize luxury SUV sales valedictorian. Solid interior. Solid reliability. Solid performance. Ho hum. Enough about Goody Two-shoes.

Let’s talk about the brash wannabes.

The Cadillac SRX and Acura MDX — Nos. 2 and 3 with 56,000 and 53,000 in sales, respectively — are rungs below the RX’s staggering 100,000-plus sales score. But with their distinct looks, earth-pawing power, and loaded interiors, these two outsiders are turning heads.

The wannabes can be quirky, sure — especially in the navigation screen department — but Lexus has also veered from plain Jane fashion with its polarizing, inverted-trapezoid upper and lower grilles (now that’s a mouthful). It has not dissuaded buyers, but the pinched-cheek look is an opening for the far prettier faces of Caddy and Acura, especially if their performance features rival the teacher’s pet. And often, they do.

Those details can be game-changers. Take the Acura’s third-row, fold-into-the-floor seats, a crucial feature that moves the MDX to the top of my shopping list. It will attract family buyers accustomed to the roominess of bigger SUVs and minivans but who want the cachet and performance of a luxury brand. This is a game-changer for soccer moms like my wife who demand all-wheel-drive performance as she ferries our young hellions and their pals.

Geometry, art, gym. These superb vehicles excel in most subjects. The report card, please:

Interior

If adding a third-row seat pays dividends for the MDX as a sporty family hauler, the addition of a second center console screen does not.

A central 7-inch touch screen controls infotainment while a separate, 8-inch navigation screen hovers at the top of the dash. In theory, the two screens mean the driver can multi-task between navigation and media without having to change screens. In practice, the nav screen is mediocre with no-touch capability and a limited interface, which makes it hard to discern where traffic is snarled or what street you’re on. Acura’s excellent haptic-feedback touch screen should be enough — especially since thumb scrolls on the steering wheel allow drivers to navigate some options without their hands ever leaving the wheel.

Cadillac also pushes the console envelope with its CUE system. The Droid-like screen’s haptic feedback, movable icons and swipe-menu capability mimic today’s smartphones. But CUE, too, can be maddening as its haptic volume controls are inconsistent. Better to integrate them into a bigger touch screen (see the Tesla Model S) or make them redundant rotary controls as in the Acura.

Both the MDX and SRX get an A for effort, but a C in execution.

In terms of comfort and utility, however, both the MDX and SRX are at the head of the class. Both are wrapped in luscious leather. Their interior lines are pleasing with generous portions of wood trim. Lift gates float upward at a touch of the key fob, and control stalks execute turn signals and wiper commands with a crispness that screams luxury car.

Both vehicles feature adaptive cruise control, a self-driving system with real world safety applications. If you’re doing anything distracting — eating, cruising the radio, umpiring a child squabble — then set the cruise control and the vehicles’ radar will monitor traffic in front of you, braking when necessary. It’s remarkable. Acura’s collision avoidance system is also notable for locating its warnings on the A-pillars. They illuminate when a vehicle is in your blind spot (huge in all SUVs), instantly catching your eye since they are at the edge of your vision rather than outside on the mirrors (as in most luxury vehicles, Caddy included).

Exterior

The Acura and Caddy have spent time in front of the mirror and it shows. Acura’s edgy styling has been a freak show in recent years with its sedans alternatively looking like bottle openers or sharp-beaked parrots. The popular MDX’s looks have always been less severe, but the SUV’s pointy corners have been softened to exude more elegance.

Most striking, however, is the Acura’s handsome use of horizontal cues to give the tall SUV a crouching appearance. At the vehicle’s business end, five LED main beams in each headlamp structure combine with symmetrical lower air vents to create a wide, athletic stance. It’s no Audi, but it’s more artful than most.

Not to be outdone, the SRX boasts its own headlight science project with adaptive lamps that turn in the direction of the front wheels. But if you’re looking for sculpted good looks, the SRX is your baby. Whereas most midsize SUVs are immediately identifiable by their height, the SRX’s sloped curves, low shovel grille, and huge headlights make the car’s pose look more cat-like than horse-like. “Seemingly sculpted from a solid block of steel” hypes Caddy’s press materials. But that steel comes with a price — the SRX is 100 pounds heavier than the MDX.

The vertical lights and sharp creases of Caddy’s “Art & Science” design language have always looked more natural on the taller, heftier SRX with this year’s CTS sedan just catching up to its prettier ute sibling.

Performance

Could you survive a Michigan winter without all-wheel drive? The MDX and SRX both come with snow-churning, road-gripping AWD systems. The MDX adds a base front-wheel-drive option in a bow to the federal mpg gods.

On its third generation, Acura divorced the MDX from its truck brethren and has built the SUV on its own unique, uni-body chassis. With a new multi-link suspension and generous use of lightweight materials like aluminum and magnesium, the result is a fun-to-drive SUV. With a nimbleness belying its high center-of-gravity, this ute tore through Detroit’s snowy landscape, taunting me to turn off the traction control and let the big dog drift through corners.

Acura (and parent Honda) have spent a lot of time on the track and that experience shows. The big ute has run with the sports cars on Germany’s famed Nurburgring, with the new MDX besting the previous generous by a healthy eight seconds. The Caddy makes no such boasts, but it’s hardly a boat. What it lacks in handling, it makes up in typical American style — with brute force. Its 308-horsepower V-6 gulps highway fuel at 18 mpg. Turn you off? The Acura’s smooth 290-horsepower V-6 will get you Lexus-like 21 mpg fuel economy (speaking of Lexus, both of our wannabes leave the 270 horse RX in the dust).

Price

Acura and Caddy buyers might gulp, however, when they see the bill for all this sophistication. My fully-loaded MDX and SRX sticker for $57,400 and $56,465, respectively — nearly 10 grand more than a similarly-equipped Lexus and on par with perennial class beauty queens BMW and Audi.

Are they worth it? Excellence comes in different packages. The jewel-eyed MDX and sculpted SRX are runners up and trying harder.

2014 Cadillac SRX

Vehicle type: Front-engine, AWD, five-passenger, five-door, sport utility vehicle Price: $37,505 (base), $56,465 (as tested) Power plant: 3.6-liter V-6 with direct-injection Power: 308 horsepower, 265 pound-feet of torque Transmission: 6-speed automatic Performance: 0-60 mpg, 7.1 seconds (manufacturer), 130 mph top speed (governor limited) Weight: 4,442 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 16 city/23 highway (18 mpg combined) Highs: Doesn’t look like an SUV; adaptive cruise control Lows: Opaque CUE system controls; no third-row seat Overall:★★★ Grading scale Excellent ★★★★ Good ★★★ Fair ★★ Poor ★

2014 Acura MDX

Vehicle type: Front-engine, AWD, seven-passenger, five-door, sport utility vehicle Price: $42,290 (base), $57,400 (as tested) Power plant: 3.5-liter V-6 with direct-injection Power: 290 horsepower, 267 pound-feet of torque Transmission: 6-speed automatic Performance: 0-60 mpg, 6.8 seconds (Autoweek), 123 mph top speed Weight: 4,332 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 18 city/27 highway (21 mpg combined) Highs: Top-drawer electronic safety controls; third-row seat Lows: Two center console screens are too much; pricey Overall:****

Q & Auto: Simon Taylor on ‘Rush,’ racing, and American muscle

Posted by hpayne on February 1, 2014

Simon Taylor
Simon Taylor
You know that director Ron Howard's "Rush" – acclaimed as one of the best racing movies ever made - was nominated for a 2014 Golden Globe Award as Best Motion Picture. You know that it stars heart-throb Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl as Grand Prix rivals James Hunt and Niki Lauda. But you may not know that one person in the cast was playing himself – indeed, was the only non-actor in the movie.

Simon Taylor is one of the world’s most renowned auto journalists, and was the voice of Formula One in 1976 as BBC Radio commentator. Taylor recreated his role – and served as a film adviser – in “Rush.” Taylor is the former editor of Autosport magazine, author of numerous books, and a competitor on the vintage racing circuit. His latest book is “Motor Sport Greats in Conversation” (Haynes Publishing, 2013). I caught up with Simon on his recent visit to Detroit.

HP: Tell me about “Rush.”

Taylor: I only got involved because Ron Howard was doing everything he could to make the motor racing footage as historically accurate as possible. Of the very large cast, there is only one person who actually plays himself – that is me, because in 1976, I was in my first year as the BBC radio motor racing commentator and I was at that famous final race in Japan. It wasn’t covered on television — so the only way that the British audiences could hear what was happening at Mount Fuji was by listening to me. When they were casting the British commentator, somebody said: “Well, I think that old fart Simon Taylor was there all those years ago, so why don’t you ask him?” So I found myself doing four days on set.

HP: You lived that ’76 season. We motor heads are particular about these things. Is the movie authentic?

Taylor: I think it is absolutely brilliant. The point one has to make is that $50 million was being spent. Ron Howard was doing this not just to appeal to a few hundred thousand motor heads, but to a worldwide audience. There was one moment in this little editing suite and I had the temerity to say, “Ron, strictly speaking, I’m not sure that that is quite accurate.” He fixed me with a beady eye and said, “Simon, this movie has to work on a wet Tuesday afternoon in Des Moines, Iowa to an audience of housewives who’ve never heard of Formula One. Do I make myself clear?” I said, “You certainly do.”

HP: Some say the movie downplayed James Hunt’s drug use.

Taylor: No. I knew James pretty well, and to my knowledge, James never took drugs of any sort. He was very, very serious about his motor racing. He had this devil-may-care exterior; he loved pretty girls; he was a very charismatic. But this was a man passionate to win. (He) would be sick before getting into the car before the race.

HP: Did you meet both actors?

Taylor: I met Daniel Bruhl briefly. When Bruhl got the part of Niki Lauda, he rang Lauda up and he said: “I’ve been cast to play you in a movie.” And Niki — you know what Niki’s like — he said: “So?” Bruhl said: “Well, if you don’t mind, I’d like to come and spend some time with you so I can study you.” Niki said: “Well, if you come, you better only bring an overnight bag, because if I don’t like you, I’ll tell you to (expletive) off.” So, Bruhl went and, in fact, Niki liked him and Bruhl spent four nights in Niki’s house in Spain. He caught not only Niki’s voice, but also his very distinctive gestures. Niki is a most unusual man.

HP: Let me switch gears. You’re an Englishman who’s seen the world. What does the American car market look like today?

Taylor: I think that motor cars, all around the world, have become unromantic, sterile, dull. Because now we’re concerned with safety and pollution. The car has become as exciting as a washing machine. Having said that, there are interesting national characteristics. . . I think that American manufacturers have always understood that styling can sell a car, so American cars have always been more extroverted in their styling than perhaps a British or a French or a German car.

HP: In the States you see “statement cars” that you wouldn’t see in other continents?

Taylor: Yes, and I speak as a man who (owns) a 1969 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray. I love American cars. I came to America as a teenager in the early ‘60s, and I looked at Pontiac GTOs and early Mustangs and they were in your face and they made a strong statement. An American car is a guy standing up at the bar buying everybody a drink.

2014 Toyota Tundra, First Team All-American

Posted by hpayne on January 30, 2014

Detroit News auto reviewer Henry Payne spent a week in a 2014 Toyota Tundra CrewMax pickup. Here's the nicely-redesigned business end of the 2014 Toyota Tundra he test drove. (Henry Payne / The Detroit News)

How big is the Toyota Tundra CrewMax pickup? I’ve been picking Fiat 500s and Ford Fiestas out of its grille for the past week. I added a refrigerator and pool table in the backseat. I have to call a tugboat to help me navigate narrow fast-food drive-thru lanes.

I exaggerate, of course. I’m no stranger to big pickups (I tow my race cars to the track behind a big Dodge RAM 3500). They are the workhorse of American sportsmen, construction workers and landscapers. But as auto companies target pickups — like the upscale Tundra 1794 edition I tested — to urban cowboys (and cowgirls) as well as their traditional, more rural audience, drivers should understand the capabilities of the beast at the other end of their reins.

Like the enormously powerful and essentially street-legal race cars from Porsche, Corvette, SRT, et al, big pickups are a fish out of water in an urban environment. If you aren’t trained to handle the Corvette Z06’s 635 pound-feet of torque, you could wind up wrapped around a telephone pole in the blink of an eye. Fail to appreciate the footprint of a Tundra/Chevy Silverado/Ford F-150, and you’ll squash a Smart car like a watermelon.

In short, don’t assume that driver’s license you got at 16 prepares you for a 2 ½ ton, two-story tank with 380 horsepower under the hood. Respect it. Bond with it. Or it might bite you. Witness my neighborhood Popeye’s drive-thru where I nearly took off the side of the building with the Tundra’s supersized tail.

That said, the Tundra and its rivals are wonderfully capable animals. Pickups breed fierce loyalty among brands even as there is little to choose between them. The F-150, Silverado, RAM 1500 and Tundra all are about 140 inches in wheelbase, offer 10,000-pound towing capability and a variety of cab configurations.

Not surprisingly, Japanese trucks have labored in this most All-American of segments. While Ford, GM, and RAM dominate full-size pickup sales, the Tundra is a distant fourth.

Even as American brands have struggled against dependable Asian imports in the sedan segment (see Chrysler’s self-conscious “Imported from Detroit” ad line), Toyota has the opposite challenge with trucks. American pickups are as rock solid as Mount Rushmore, as dependable as Lassie, and as American as apple pie. So Toyota’s every move is a self-conscious attempt to fit in with the home boys.

For example? Toyota chose Texas to build its Tundra. Everything’s bigger in the Longhorn State (Texas joke: What did the Texan say upon visiting Niagara Falls? “We could fix that leak in five minutes.”). Everyone’s more patriotic and everything is done in a pickup. Even the Tundra’s 1794 badge on my high-end Tundra is a claim to American authenticity.

“The new 1794 Edition is a tribute to the ranch, founded in the year 1794, on which the Tundra plant is located in San Antonio,” reads Toyota’s press release. Yeah, these guys are obsessed.

But Toyota competing against Big Three trucks is like a Northwestern vs. Michigan State football game. Sure, Northwestern’s got a Big Ten team, but have you seen the depth of that State squad? Similarly, the Tundra’s quite competent five-model Tundra line must compete against the likes of Ford, which offers 10 variations of the F-150, and 15 variations of its F-250, F-350, and F-450 Super Duty line.

And it ain’t getting’ any easier as the F-150 is investing in more fuel-efficient aluminum trucks and GM is coming after Toyota’s midsize Tacoma with the Chevy Colorado and GM Canyon.

One-on-one in the open field, however, the Tundra 1794 is a match for any truck in class.

My white 1794 features the Tundra’s tougher 2014 look with a bigger, squared-off grille using more chrome than a 1959 Cadillac Eldorado with the Biarritz trim package. The truck’s layout makes it a rolling Swiss Army knife. The roomy CrewMax interior offers leather luxury for the family with a back seat big enough to hold three Big Ten linemen (my 5-foot 5-inch wife needed the running board and side door handle and a painter’s ladder to get in). Yet the vehicle is still rugged as a mule on the outside with terrain-gobbling 20-inch tires and a 5’6” x 5’6” rear short box that has plenty of room for the dogs or a load of mulch. Hook it up and the 5,860-pound Tundra will tow the Space Shuttle. Really. Google it.

On the road, the 1794 rides surprisingly stiff. I could feel the concrete joints along the Lodge, for example. Rivals like the RAM 1500 have added air springs which help smooth out the ride, though as a veteran of stiffly-sprung sport sedans, I found the haptic ride reassuring in a vehicle two-stories off the ground.

If not for the ride, the $50,000 1794 edition’s (the base Tundra starts at $27K) stuffed-with-every-electronic-googaw cab feels like a luxury sedan with twice the acreage. Urban cowboys will appreciate the more fuel-efficient two-wheel drive option in addition to the truck staples of 4WD and 4WD off-road. But in Michigan’s Winter from Hell, I usually traveled in 4WD despite its thirsty 13 mpg.

After a few days of cramped commutes trying to navigate too-small parking places and crowded suburban shopping strips (what was that noise? Dang, I squashed another Smart!), the Tundra pined for tundra and so I took it out to the dirt roads of West Bloomfield’s lake country. I usually tip-toe through these rutted wagon trials in second gear in my compact family sedans, but the Tundra attacks them with relish.

Potholes covered with three inches of fresh snow? No problem. With tires out of the Brobdingnagian shopping catalog, the Tundra manhandled these roads. Turn a 90-degree corner with throttle and the 4WD drive-with-traction control bit hard, catching a power slide then leaping forward. Did I forget to mention that big, 381 horsepower V-8? Bury your right foot out of a stoplight and it sounds like a cattle stampede through a Texas gorge. Glorious.

You can take the pickup out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the pickup.

 

2014 Hyundai Equus: A horse to watch

Posted by hpayne on January 23, 2014

Hyundai redesigned their Equus luxury sedan for 2014 with enhancements to exterior and interior design, vehicle dynamics, material selection, driver technology displays and advanced safety features. (Hyundai)

My neighborhood loses power. A lot.

So when our post-New Year’s Storm from Hell dropped a foot of snow and sub-zero temps on us, my wife and I checked out the back seat of the Hyundai Equus I was testing as a possible refuge if the lights went out. Yes, it’s that comfortable.

Introduced to the U.S. market in 2010, the Equus’ posh proportions had already established it as a popular, chauffeur-driven car for Korean businessmen. This is old-school luxury, complete with ashtrays. Airplane-like video screens installed in the back of the front seats provide in-flight — er, in-car — infotainment. A full control console folds down in the backseat allowing passengers to take over the car’s audio and navigation controls. There are fold-down, illuminated vanity mirrors for grooming, and a motorized rear window shade adds privacy.

This car got more appealing to my wife by the second. “Henry! Time to drive me to my meeting!” She was disappointed to learn, however, that the massaging rear-seats, standard on the first imports to the U.S., have been discontinued for the 2014 year model.

The price for this Carnival cruise liner with 5-liter V-8? Just $68,000.

That’s 25 grand less than a similarly equipped BMW 750 or Mercedes S-Class, and $10,000 less than a Lexus LS460 (though the old-school Cadillac XTS hangs right with the Hyundai on price). A luxury bargain? Yes, if it was a $68,000 BMW Equus, or Mercedes Equus, or Caddy Equus. But it’s a $68K Hyundai, and therein lies the rub.

The badge matters in a segment in which brand is paramount. Luxury is image, and the German, Japanese and American brands speak volumes about their owners when they roll up to a five-star restaurant. Hyundai is not unaware of the image game. The Equus is for “the millionaire next door who wants to make the smart choice for a lot of car,” says Miles Johnson, product public relations manager. That’ll get you 3,500 sales a year in the U.S. — just 30 percent the number of its rivals.

Hyundai wants more and the Equus’ smaller sibling — the stunning 2015 Genesis introduced at this year’s Detroit auto show — promises the Korean automaker is poised for greater success. It’s all about the details.

Introduce yourself to the Equus and she looks a bit homely. A Hyundai Sonata has more sex appeal. The Equus’ front fascia is plain, devoid of BMW’s signature twin-kidneys or the sculpted grilles of the Audi and Caddy. The car is an echo of early Lexus cars, which themselves were echoes of Mercedes. Hyundai intends to address that in the next-generation model with its fresh “Fluidic Sculpture 2.0” design language. You can see it in the new Genesis’s inspired grille, slit headlights, and creased hips.

Sumptuous interior

Back to the Equus.

Sensing the key in my pocket, Equus unlocks the doors and opens the side mirrors like sunflowers opening to the sun. A chime greets you as you enter the cabin. The interior is sumptuous with heated, ivory leather seats and real wood trim around the doors and dash. The digital instrument panel is reminiscent of Cadillac — its many options easily negotiated with a clever, right-thumb-operated dial on the steering wheel. A heads-up display hovers — hologram-like — above the hood, allowing you to monitor your speed without looking down at the dash. You reach for the 9.2-inch center-console screen, but it disappoints. Operated by a rotary dial, it’s not a touch screen as is standard in the class.

Details, details.

Equus is Latin for “horse” and this car has 429 of them. With that kind of power on tap, I found myself groping for steering wheel paddles to gain full control of the herd under the hood — but only the automatic shifter is offered. Never mind. Like a rhino pulling a stagecoach, the big Tau V-8 is more than enough power to motivate the two-ton Equus, though that smart, budget-conscious Equus buyer may blanch at the car’s 18 mpg (I managed just 14.7 on daily commutes). Still, put your boot in it and this big hoss can really stretch her legs ... until you encounter some twisty bits.

More details.

The big sedan feels more land yacht when cornering, its body less taut, its steering less precise compared to its German and Japanese competition. The rear-wheel-drive Hyundai is conspicuously missing an all-wheel-drive option in this option-loaded segment. I can see your arms crossing across your chest. Whaaaaat? Don’t RWD V-8s hibernate with the bears in winter time?

Nossir. This is 21st century. Indeed, there is no better illustration than the Equus of how electronics have utterly changed vehicle safety. I not only drove the Equus through the teeth of Old Man Winter’s January tantrum, I taunted him with it. Like a skier in fresh powder, I tackled southwest Detroit’s unplowed streets. I turned into corners hard. I stomped on it. I lived to tell the tale. In fact, I enjoyed it. The rear end would wag, but the Electronic Stability Control system would instantly bite, cutting throttle and wheel spin. No drama, no mess.

Even at full throttle, the electronics would virtually stall the engine, taming the beast. All hail the engineers.

'Elevate the brand'

In the late 1980s Toyota, Honda, and Nissan targeted the U.S. market with new name-brands — Lexus, Acura, and Infiniti — to sell luxury cars without the stigma of their more pedestrian parents. They made their mark, at huge marketing cost. By contrast, Hyundai has eschewed a high-cost strategy and launched its luxury models under the good ol’ Hyundai name. “We’re not pouring money into a establishing a new luxury channel,” says Hyundai’s Johnson. “We’re looking to elevate the brand.”

It’s a riskier strategy than Hyundai’s Japanese forebears, but the tactic is the same: Provide a quality luxury experience at an affordable price. Hyundai will deliver your Equus to your home. It’ll pick it up for maintenance. It’ll provide you a substitute while your car is being repaired. Heck, they may even bring you a massaging recliner if you ask. The result is that the Equus now out-Lexuses Lexus as the luxury bargain.

Can Hyundai become a top-selling luxury brand? Can Equus and Elantra both thrive under the same dealership roof? Time will tell. But one thing’s for sure: With Genesis styling and better attention to detail, the next Equus won’t take a backseat to anyone.

Fuel-Efficiency Rules Are Already Raising Costs in Detroit

Posted by hpayne on January 22, 2014

Electric cars are a sideshow. The real story is Ford's big bet on aluminum and other expensive design changes. By Henry Payne Jan. 22, 2014 7:19 p.m. ET Detroit  At the dawn of 2014 the federal government has exited  General Motors  GM -0.19%     and Chrysler. Both companies have repaid their auto-bailout loans and  Fiat  F.MI +1.97%     is purchasing Chrysler outright. But federal carbon limits imposed on the auto industry in the depths of the Great Recession—when it was powerless to resist—will haunt manufacturers for years to come. The re-election of Barack Obama has cemented EPA fuel-efficiency regulations requiring that, by 2025, auto makers' products average 54.5 miles per gallon. On the floor of the 2014 Detroit Auto Show, which is open to the public until Jan. 26, there is ample evidence that the regulations are starting to bite. Detroit temperatures have hovered in the single digits after hitting a record low, minus-14 degrees, in the first week of January—temperatures consistent with a planet that hasn't warmed in more than a decade. Yet the gods of global warming must be satisfied, and the sacrifices to the EPA's climate ideology come with a big price. While auto makers are once again parading cars and trucks their customers want to own, company strategies are nevertheless being driven by government fuel-economy rules. Behind the glitzy displays, gorgeous vehicle introductions and relief that vehicle sales are almost back to 2007 prerecession levels, there is worry about the costs the fuel-efficiency rules impose. Take the radical, expensive redesign of the Ford F150 pickup, America's best-selling vehicle. The F150 is the talk of the show because it is the first truck—and the first large-volume vehicle—to have its body made entirely of aluminum to save weight and reduce fuel consumption. The driving force behind Ford's decision was the EPA standards that will force full-size trucks to get upward of 30 mpg in 10 years—up from 20 today. Ford had already made significant gains in efficiency by redesigning its powertrains to add less-thirsty turbo V-6s to its lineup, but the step to aluminum is an indication that the EPA rules will require much more than squeezing engines. The switch to costlier, lighter aluminum means a massive capital investment that involves the retooling of factories and the remaking of Ford's material supply stream as it shifts away from steel sheet for body panels. Ford won't disclose the investment, but it runs into the billions. Ford sells 700,000 F150 trucks a year, so industry experts say it could overnight become the second-biggest aluminum customer outside of the U.S. military. The change brings significant risk to a truck class where buyers put a premium on durability and toughness. While Ford is confident that its aluminum alloy will match steel for strength, its move is also a gamble given the higher cost of aluminum to repair and the subsequent insurance cost to customers. What is the hardest thing about launching a new car today? "The new government regulations—whether it be fuel economy, safety or whatever—are very difficult and pose a significant challenge to the development of any new vehicle," Ford Mustang engineer Dave Pericak tells Car & Driver. The mighty muscle car will offer a turbocharged four-cylinder engine for the first time in a bow to federal regulations. Ford's strategy is not to criticize the regulations, calculating that they are here to stay and it's a marketing nightmare to fight government and media campaigns for better fuel efficiency. So Ford is trying to turn the rules to its advantage, playing to its marketing strengths in selling vehicles like the Mustang and the best-selling F150 as the most innovative products in their segment. The F150, for example, will be 700 pounds lighter, 3-4 mpg more efficient, and therefore save customers—especially companies with truck fleets—millions in fuel costs. Aluminum's costs are significantly higher than steel, and Ford won't disclose how much the changeover will erode its profit margins. Those F150 margins are significant, with each truck sale adding $10,000 to the company's bottom line. In the highly competitive truck segment, however, Ford will likely swallow those costs to maintain a competitive sticker price and hope that increased sales will bring more cash. GM, by contrast, is banking on a different path that it thinks is less disruptive and less costly. Less costly is a relative term, of course. The company plans to introduce an entirely new vehicle for the midsize truck segment that Detroit auto makers had abandoned. GM hopes that the sales gains of the Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon will mitigate the costs of regulatory compliance—and fill its coffers so it can invest in any changes necessary (an aluminum body perhaps?) to keep the steel-skinned, full-size Chevy Silverado compliant with EPA rules. Chrysler, meanwhile, has invested heavily in nine-speed transmissions and diesel engines. Its RAM pickup diesel competes against the Ford F150 and gets an impressive 25 mpg. One of Ford's Great Recession advantages, reports Karl Henkel of the Detroit News, is that by avoiding bankruptcy it could invest in aluminum. GM insiders say the government penalties of not meeting the regulations are too steep not to make new product investments. Bob Lutz, former product guru of General Motors, once predicted that the 54.5-by-2025 EPA regulations would cost consumers an additional $5,000 per vehicle—essentially the cost of making every car a hybrid. Auto makers have spent billions on Washington lobbyists, as well as engineering research and development, to help carve loopholes in the EPA rules. Significantly, auto makers receive mpg credits for producing so-called zero-emission vehicles—that is, coal-burning electric cars. Barack Obama once predicted that there would be one million EVs on the road by 2015 in the quixotic hope that if auto makers just built electrics, buyers would come. This year's show is confirmation that battery-powered vehicles are a niche vehicle—like sports cars—not a mainstream choice. With a 3% market share, hybrids and EVs, like sports cars, are pricey, with Cadillac and Tesla showing new offerings beginning at $70,000 while  BMW  BMW.XE -1.87%     is marketing its new i-Series of electric cars at anywhere from $40,000 to $105,000. These cars will be costly to taxpayers as well, as each of their well-heeled buyers will get a $7,500 government tax credit.    

Detroit swagger: Your guide to the greatest show on wheels

Posted by hpayne on January 17, 2014

MIDSIZE SEDANS -- Chrysler 200: The only thing notable about the previous 200 was that Eminem introduced it in a Super Bowl ad. The sleek new 200 won't need a rapper to sell it. (Chrysler)

The Christmas holiday is over, but the shelves are full of automotive toys at Cobo Center for the 2014 North American International Auto Show. If November’s Los Angeles Auto Show is all about Hollywood green and April’s New York show bows to Park Avenue luxury, then Detroit honors corn-fed American swagger. It’s where the world’s automakers come to show off their trucks, performance cars, and family haulers.

Detroit has gone from zero-to-wow in four short years.

Reborn from the ashes of the Great Recession, American automakers are leading an extraordinary convergence of automotive hardware and electronic technology. The dashboard embraces iPad design. Horsepower joins chip power. The Industrial Revolution meets the Digital Revolution.

Where taxpayer-funding compelled companies to show half-baked green displays (who can forget GM’s push for ethanol power?) in lieu of their meat-and-potatoes products, automakers this year are bringing innovation on their own terms to pickups, sports cars and luxury vehicles. The Detroit show offers everything to every customer with displays of tech, power and connectivity in vehicles across every segment. Increasingly, all those things can be found in a single vehicle.

Take the new Ford F-150, which sports an all-aluminum skin (once found only in small-volume super-cars), all LED lights (once found only in luxury sedans) and a powerful, turbocharged V-6 engine (once found only in sports sedans). Or the luxurious, dual-climate control, 625-horsepower Corvette Z06. Or the loaded, rotary-dial shifting, roomy, sculpted Chrysler 200 ... That’s right, even the midsize grocery haulers are sexy. So grab the kids and get down to the Greatest Show on Earth. Here’s your program. Here are the highlights:

Living large

After ogling Cobo’s airy, Metro Airport-like makeover (you half expect a 747 to be parked at the south bay window), plunge into the show at the central Macomb Hall entrance.

Behold the most beautiful sedans on the planet.

Acura, Cadillac, Tesla, BMW, Audi, and BMW displays flank the carpeted aisle. It’s like you’ve died and gone to luxury heaven. Did I mention Bentley is wedged in there too? Its land yachts seem old school in such athletic company.

The stunning Caddy CTS was my 2013 Detroit News Car of the Year and it holds its own in this rare air. Indeed, Cadillac’s show introduction of its more modern logo complements the sedan’s cutting-edge styling. The logo adorns the grille of the new ATS coupe, but the two-door is a reminder of how much ground is still to be made on class-leader BMW and Audi. The German brands not only have coupe versions of their best-selling 3-series and A4 sedans, but that they have created whole new numerologies to market the coupes (4-series for BMW coupes, A5 for Audi) and their earth-pawing BMW M and Audi S sports versions. BMW chose Detroit to debut its new M3 and M4, stealing Caddy’s thunder.

The competition is also stiff for Cadillac’s sharp, new $75K ELR plug-in — call it a Volt in a tuxedo. Next door lurks the $70K Tesla Model S, the darling of the country club, and BMW’s electrified i-series. The 357-horsepower i8, Bimmer’s first super-car in 35 years, will bring grown men to their knees.

Cute corner

Hang a right at BMW and gold chains give way to beach balls. Literally. Volkswagen offers a Beetle Dune Concept, an update on VW-based dune buggies that kicked sand in the seventies. Next door, the Mini Cooper stand gives the Bug stiff cuteness competition — even its muscular John Copper Works concept is huggable. Not to be outdone, Kia sports the redesigned Soul — its diet-conscious hamsters never far away.

Kia’s got Soul, and much more. The nominal budget brand from Korea stole away Audi’s chief designer a few years back and the brand has been transformed into one of the hippest lineups on the floor.

The titans

The rear, west wall of the exhibit is dominated by the titans, Toyota and GM, which perennially vie for the title of biggest global automaker. Toyotaville’s avenue of Prius, Camrys, Scions, and SUVs gives way to miles of Chevys, Buicks, and GMCs. They should hand out Segways to explore them all. But notable in the acres of smart vehicles are two sports cars that burn with passion.

The Toyota FT1 concept is a ruby red roller-skate that will get speeding tickets standing still. Toyota calls it a concept, but its racy lines hint at the second-coming of the late-’90s Supra, the stallion that brought to the street Toyota’s years of racing experience. The Chevy Corvette Z06 is so closely aligned with the General’s racing program that it debuted alongside the Chevy C7.R race car that will take the green flag at the 24 Hours of Daytona later this month.

The 625-horsepower Z06 joins a lineup that already boasts a 455-horsepower base model and a convertible. You could buy all three for the price of a Lamborghini.

The underdogs

The exhibit space’s core features the smaller American and Japanese companies that try harder because they have to stay ahead of the titans galloping hooves. Nissan’s flowing Maxima concept and Mazda’s nimble 3 are the heart of these sporty brands while nearby Subaru’s AWD commitment has bred a cult of followers.

Detroit’s underdog, Chrysler, has rebounded from bankruptcy led by workhorses like the Grand Cherokee and SRT Viper GTS. This year, the company births a new entry into the midsize sedan segment. Want to see the child of an Italian-American marriage?

The Alfa Romeo-based Chrysler 200 is sleek, roomy, and loaded with tech — including a nifty rotary dial shifter that frees up the center console.

The engine boys

Anchoring the east wall of Cobo are Honda and Ford, a fitting couple. No two companies have been more innovative in bringing new drive-train technology to market. Both have storied racing histories. Both also bleed green. This year they add to their legends.

Honda shows the Honda Fit, a remarkably versatile tool for the compact car market with a cute face yet interior room that would make a minivan proud. Ford’s light-weight, turbocharged F-150 is the most talked about vehicle in town, a daring truck that refuses to sit on its laurels.

And then there’s the iconic Ford Mustang. The muscle car turns 50 this year with a plan to the conquer the world with more European styling and fuel economy while retaining its muscular attitude. Transformed, but still a pony car. Efficiency, but on Mustang’s terms.

That Detroit attitude is back.

 

Cartoon: Global Warming Ship Stuck

Posted by hpayne on January 6, 2014

010614_StuckShipWarming_UFSCOLOR

2014 Formula Skip Barber: America’s entry-level race car

Posted by hpayne on January 4, 2014

The Payne family goes racing. From left: Sam Payne, Henry Payne Sr. (News auto critic), and Henry Jr.
The Payne family goes racing. From left: Sam Payne, Henry Payne Sr. (News auto critic), and Henry Jr. (Henry Payne / The Detroit News)

If the Honda Civic is America’s best-selling entry level sedan, then the Formula Skip Barber is our most popular entry-level race car.

Every year, some 10,000 drivers with the need for speed sign up for Barber driving school programs to experience high-performance cars on major U.S. race tracks. Over 500 of them will belt themselves into Barber’s open-wheel, so-called formula cars for a 3-day, $4000 racing school that will teach them how to race a purpose-built race car. The school attracts a menagerie of motor heads from enthusiasts checking their bucket list to boy racers climbing the racing career ladder. All receive a race license qualifying them for entry in Barber’s own racing series. In last year’s Indy 500 field, 66 percent of the car jockeys got their start in one of Barber’s race mules.

This Christmas holiday, the Payne family got behind the wheel for a test on Mazda Raceway in picturesque Laguna Seca, California.

Video: Henry Payne: Barber School The Barber car was originally manufactured in 1986 by Mondiale for the racing school but has since been made in-house. The current car – there are 90 in Barber’s stables nationwide – was last modified in 2000 and is powered by the old, 2.0 liter Dodge Neon engine. The four-banger produces 132 horsepower and is the only thing the car shares with your average grocery-hauler.

The cockpit is all business. The single-seater has no navigation screen, no radio, no cup-holders. All you get are the essentials: a tachometer and dials for monitoring oil and water temperature. Cloth seats? Fuhgetaboutit. A hard plastic bucket is standard. Back problems? Shove in as many foam inserts as you like. If there is a convenience to formula cars it’s that the steering wheel is removable – in order to help giants like your 6’5” author to get his knees under the dash. The inconvenience is no eight-way adjustable seats. Zero-adjustable, in fact. Pedals too close? The mechanics will have to find you another car with deeper pedals.

Where the 2.0-liter egg-beater originally resided in a 2,600 pound Neon with steel unibody and panels, the Barber car’s bullet-shaped, fiberglass body is mated to an aluminum tube frame weighing just 1,400 pounds. That makes for a nice 1:10.6 power-to-weight ratio - significantly better than the best compact pocket rocket today (the 247-horse Ford Focus ST’s ratio is 1:13) but well shy of an Indy racer at 1:2.5 (1,600 pound rocket ships lit with 650 hp).

Barber drivers can acclimate to a racing environment with enough power to thrill, but not enough to get them in serious trouble around Laguna’s legendary 2.2 mile, 11-turn roller coaster.

Our 16-man Barber school was a typically diverse lot ranging from a 15-year old karting ace to a 50-something who had never turned a wheel in anger to your racing-addicted scribe and his two sons. Track sessions over the three-day school are preceded by classroom instruction explaining everything from vehicle dynamics to course layout.

Suited up and safely secured in a five-point safety harness, you find a car surprisingly amenable for even those with little experience depressing a clutch pedal. The gearbox is a sturdy, 5-speed sequential that requires a pull for up-shifts and a push for downshifts. No mis-shift prone H-pattern to labor through, no double-clutching required for downshifts (though instructors urge a simultaneous blip of the accelerator with clutch depression to smooth downshifts under braking).

Press the starter button and the engine roars to life (burbles to life is more accurate - a can muffler swallows the end of the tailpipe, choking sound to preempt NIMBY nabobs from shutting down the track for disturbing the peace, destroying the planet, etc.). Row the gears on Laguna’s humped main straightaway and you’ll hit 120 mph before plunging into Turn 2, a daunting, 190-degree, second-gear, double-apex left hander. It is here that the race chassis really shines. The track demands driver precision and the car’s stiff frame and multi-link suspension takes you where you want to go with none of the drama of a sedan chassis (Barber offers a parallel school with race-prepared Mazda MX-5s and the formula cars run rings around the sports cars despite the Mazda’s 45 HP advantage). This predictability builds trust between driver and car — essential for the track’s signature, blind, downhill, corkscrew Turn 8 that would make a hardened Cedar Point roller coaster rider scream.

Armed with walkie talkies and strategically placed around the track, the school's Barber-graduate instructors supplement the track experience with immediate input. Early track sessions bring each car to a “stop box” after each lap to review a driver’s mistakes and improvements. The advice is offered with a mix of instruction and fun. “If you’re going somewhere you don’t want to go, don't go there faster,” quips one.

By Day Three, you and car are one. The final checker falls and the spell is broken. Back to real life. Back to work. Back to the Civic. Hmmm, how many Barber schools could I sell it for?

From Burgundy to Benz: Best (and worst) of 2013

Posted by hpayne on December 29, 2013

Ron Burgundy, Will Ferrell
Will Ferrell as 'Anchorman' Ron Burgundy pitches Chrysler's Durango. (AP)

It’s been a heckuva ride and we were there every click of the odometer. With 2013 in the rear-view mirror, The Detroit News’ expert auto team reflects on the most memorable developments of the last 12 months.

The Burgundy backfire

Bryce Hoffman

Auto reporter

Chrysler Group LLC kept it classy in 2013 by tapping Ron Burgundy to peddle its new 2014 Dodge Durango to the masses. Sales soared with the comedic clout of Will Ferrell. But Chrysler also learned why other automakers had not gone this way before when Burgundy bit the hand that fed him and lampooned the ute’s quality for an easy laugh on Conan O’Brien’s late night show.

VW OMG

Daniel Howes

Business columnist

Global domination is not as easy as it looks. Just ask the world-beaters from Wolfsburg, the Teutonic horde that would use its (maybe soon-to-be-union) assembly plant in Chattanooga to take the rich American market by storm. Instead, Volkswagen AG’s eponymous brand is on track to post a down year in a rising U.S. market, with sales off for each model in its lineup. VW’s North American boss, General Motors Co. refugee Jonathan Browning, is out to pursue other interests. VW’s Passat midsize sedan, dulled of overtly German cues to satisfy stereotypical American tastes, is falling short of expectations. And VW’s boast that it would be the next new-new thing in the States is proving hard to realize.

Turbos take over

Karl Henkel

Auto reporter

Automakers sold some three million vehicles with turbocharged engines in 2013, up from 2.1 million in 2012. That number will almost certainly grow, especially since two major automakers plan to make turbocharged engines their standard option in future vehicles. A top Volkswagen AG executive said earlier this year that the automaker plans to replace its three remaining, conventional gas engines with a completely turbocharged lineup in “three, four years maximum.” Turbocharged engines are more powerful and efficient than naturally-aspirated engines because more air and fuel is forced into the combustion chamber. Ford Motor Co. Vice President of Powertrain Engineering Joe Bakaj says conventional engines could soon become extinct in Ford’s lineup.

The year of Tesla

Henry Payne

Auto critic

For better and worse, 2013 was the Year of Tesla. The Palo Alto-based automaker proved that an auto startup could successfully launch in the highly regulated, capital-intensive industry while its luxury-electric compatriot Fisker sunk beneath the waves. Tesla’s mercurial CEO Elon Musk laid claim to becoming one of America’s great auto entrepreneurs even as he threw infantile temper tantrums when even friendly media (cue the New York Times) found flaws in his product. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration awarded the production Tesla S its highest safety rating, then announced the model was under investigation after two vehicles burned to the ground. And Tesla’s stock soared, then came back to earth when closer inspection revealed profits were based on fuzzy math like counting cash from leases and California global warming credits. Whatever the headline, Tesla demands to be watched.

From Government Motors to alternative motors

David Shepardson

Washington bureau chief

Best: The year 2013 was when the U.S. Treasury finally exited General Motors Co., ending the historic five-year bailout and partial government ownership of the Detroit automaker. Both the government and GM were eager to see the partnership end — even if it meant that taxpayers lost $10.5 billion.

Worst: Lots of hype for alternative fuels and technologies that may be a long way away from use in significant numbers: Cellulosic ethanol, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, E15 ethanol, and self-driving cars.

Caddy in the fast lane

Melissa Burden

Auto reporter

The new, midsize luxury Cadillac CTS truly made me want to drive fast. I test drove a model with the 2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine under the hood and found it highly capable. But Cadillac designers also did a lovely job with the entire package, from interior features to outside styling. No wonder my colleague Henry Payne named it his 2014 Vehicle of the Year. Sadly, this sedan — starting at about $46,000 — is not in my price range.

Driverless Benz

Neil Winton

Detroit News contributor

The most memorable moment of 2013 came at the Frankfurt Car Show when Dieter Zetsche, CEO of Daimler AG and Mercedes Cars, emerged from the rear of an S-class Mercedes limo which had driven on to the stage without no one at the wheel. Its computer had driven it there. Cynics who think the moon landings were filmed in New Mexico will look for signs of cheating, but I think this clever advance in technology will have huge ramifications. Accidents will be slashed, as will insurance premiums. Mothers Against Drunk Driving will disband. Infirm old people will be liberated. If you can move from your home to your destination in the back seat of your car, who’s going to take the train or plane? Highway speed limits will be raised when the new technology demonstrates it can eliminate accidents, cutting journey times.

Q&Auto: Tom Peters, Corvette designer

Posted by hpayne on December 22, 2013

Tom Peters, 2014 Corvette Stingray Director of Design Exterior, poses with his prodigy. (Photo by Steve Fecht for Chevrolet)

Brawny, bold, and brash, the Corvette is the iconic American sports car. When Chevy debuts a new design, the car has the presence of a rock star. Men's knees buckle. Women swoon. Yet its lead designer, Tom Peters, is an unassuming, soft-spoken man who you would probably walk past at a fancy cafe as if he were any other patron.

Which is how I first encountered Peters, 59, in Palm Springs, Calif., this winter at the unveiling of Corvette's new convertible. Thin and bespectacled, with a chin of grizzled whiskers that matches his balding pate, Peters sat alone studying a menu. Just a week into my new gig as Detroit News auto critic, I had to aska table-full of colleagues to identify him.

Peters (officially Chevy's director of full-size truck and performance car exterior design) is as modest in demeanor as he is in appearance. There is no braggadocio. No bling. No hiding behind dark sunglasses. But when he talks cars, he is passionate and precise. I interviewed him about his latest prodigy, the 2014 Corvette C7.

HP: Let me start with the question that every motorhead asks every time we get a Corvette redo. Why stick with the front engine architecture as opposed to going mid-engine?

Peters: In addition to the balanced platform from a performance standpoint, there is usability: Where the passenger sits, the ability of getting in and out, and the usable storage space in the rear. I think it has become a kind of a brand key and a level of expectation for the Corvette customer. There’s something about a V-8 with a front location with the proportional fenders, that I like to refer to as a fire canopy on a fuselage. It's part of Corvette's DNA.

HP: How do you guys produce a car that performs on par with Ferraris and Porsches for half the price?

Peters: I don’t know if I can answer that completely. I think there is an element of scale. That engine is derived from our aluminum 6.2 liter engine that we utilize across platforms — most notably the trucks, actually. So it's amortized over several platforms. Not having a multi-valve engine keeps prices down. And this is a production vehicle. There’s automation involved. There’s all those efficiencies.

HP: Why update the Stingray design? What is it about Stingray that made it right to do now?

Peters: The reason I’m in the business is because you always remember the first car you were involved with. I loved cars when I was a kid. Way back in third grade, I remember the local rich kid — his father one day pulled up in a silver, split-window Stingray. It was like a spaceship had landed. That left quite an impression over the course of my life growing up through the muscle car era. I’ve been trying to get Stingray on a car since the C5. But Ed Welburn (GM V.P of Global Design) said we’re not going to call this a Stingray unless we are confident that it lives up to the name.

HP: The front of the Stingray and the Ferrari F12 and the new Viper seem to share an international design language. True?

Peters: There might be, yes. We didn’t consciously look at them, but I think there are certain levels of functionality and where they need to be optimized. Our design challenges are universal.

HP: Talk about the Corvette racing program's influence on the production car.

Peters: Incredible. I remember the day that former design executive director, Jerry Palmer, started the C5 program — I want to say 1996ish — they wanted a vision for Corvette and LeMans. I remember Jerry saying, we want the Z06 to be a race car for the street and we want brutal functionality. That set the tone. We spent more time together with the race team. The hood vent came from the race car; the radiator angle, the corner intakes, and moving the trans coolant to the rear had direct influences from the race car. That’s why this stuff is true design. Everything is done to feed the beast. When (the race team at Pratt & Miller) came and first saw this design, I kind of bowled them over.

Wagon wars: Subaru Impreza vs. BMW 328xi

Posted by hpayne on December 18, 2013

The Impreza is powered by a 2.0-liter DOHC aluminum-alloy 16-valve horizontally opposed SUBARU BOXER engine with Dual Active Valve Control System. It delivers 148 hp at 6,200 rpm and 145 lb-ft of torque at 4,200 rpm. Performance: 0-60 mpg, 8.0 seconds; 119 mph top speed (Car & Driver) (Subaru)

Seriously? I’m going to put the modest Subaru Impreza wagon up against the BMW 328xi uberwagon? The same 3-series that has made mincemeat of the luxury division? That has set the standard for sporty opulence? That has made Car & Driver’s Top Ten list for the last decade? Yes, I am. Why would I do it? Not to embarrass the little ’Ru, but quite the contrary.

If the all-wheel-drive 328xi is the gold standard, then at $20,000 less than King Bimmer, the AWD Impreza is simply the best bargain in all of Autodom.

My Subaru versus Bimmer test is not really a buyer’s guide, as shoppers for these cars will likely never step on the other’s lot. Rather, like comparing a Timex and Rolex, this face-off weighs the value of brand name and engineering in two products that occupy opposite poles of the midsize, C-wagon segment. It’s a diverse-price segment that, at its core, provides sporty, all-wheel-drive transportation to carry a family of four over the river, and through the woods (and up a steep, snowy driveway) to grandmother’s house.

First, a few comments on station wagons. I’m a supersized, 6-foot 5-inch Yankee, yet I’ve resisted America’s love affair with sport utes over wagons. I prefer low and fast. Our low speed limits and high seating preference has bred a car culture in which light trucks own over 50 percent of the market. In Germany, by contrast, sky-high gas prices and unlimited Autobahn speeds have favored smaller vehicles with a lower center of gravity. As a result, the American wagon has all but disappeared but for the luxury segment which is, naturally, dominated by European imports.

Hit the American motor mall in search of a wagon and you better pack gold bricks in your purse as most vehicles start north of $30,000, including non-German entries from Volvo and Cadillac. Enter the remarkable Japanese entry, Impreza wagon, which adheres to Subaru’s cult of four-wheel locomotion while sporting a base sticker price of $23K. With a nav system and sports trim, the 2.0i Sport Limited model tops out at just $26,600.

The ’Ru achieves this miracle even as it matches the luxury, $46,575 BMW 328xi on all-wheel drive, electronic stability control, heated seats, all-wheel disc brakes, anti-lock braking, an automatic tranny with steering-wheel mounted paddles, and a four-cylinder engine.

Behind the wheel, the low-slung Impreza combines Bimmer-like agility with all-wheel grip that could climb the face of Mount Rushmore. But step hard on the pedal and the BMW comparisons slow down. That’s because the Subaru’s 2.0 liter, 4-cylinder power plant shares the same displacement as the BMW — and not much else.

Possessed with almost 100 more horsepower than Subaru’s noisy boxer four, the gutsy Bavarian turbo blows the doors off the Impreza’s 148 horsepower on its way to 60 mph in just 6 seconds. It feels even faster than that thanks to the BMW’s smooth, 8-speed automatic while the Subaru’s continuously variable transmission (CVT) feels like its stuck in molasses, ponderously compelling the car forward.

So what? replies my long-suffering wife, pulling her motorhead husband back to earth. Her needs are more practical. Indeed, she celebrates the ‘Ru’s engine because it delivers better fuel economy (30 mpg) than the Bimmer (26). If it were up to me, we would have lugged the kids on family trips cramped in the backseat of a high-revving BMW M3 coupe. A typical car conversation in my family goes like this:

Me: It has a 330 horsepower and a Sport mode where you can override electronic stability control and really test the limits.

Her: Does it have cupholders?

The Impreza has common sense in spades. Where BMW has long resisted the American commuter culture’s demand for cup holders, Subaru (from a country that also features a train-bound commuter culture. One Japanese correspondent tells me he has never seen a drive-thru restaurant in Japan) provides two in the center console and one at the ankle of both driver and passenger. Rear passengers also get cup holders in the doors. BMW grudgingly succumbed to cup holders only with this year’s model, finally providing center-console/door holders after years of offering a single, flimsy, fold-out, dash cupholder that only Mayor Bloomberg could have loved. It barely held a Styrofoam cup much less a 32-ounce Big Gulp.

The Impreza also offers better rear headroom (I can sit up in the Impreza’s rear seat, a rare C-segment accomplishment) and cargo space than the Bimmer. And the instrument cluster is intuitive and aesthetically refined, even as the Impreza can’t compete with the German car’s beautifully trimmed, wood and silver design. Included in the Impreza’s bargain-basement price is a very competentnavigation system. BMW’s iDrive system takes the multimedia experience to another level, allowing coordination of phone, nav system, and car settings with a single dial located aft of the gearshift. Where its complexity once drove grown men to the nut farm, it has evolved into an impressive piece of digital equipment. That sophistication extends to a heads up driver display and a rear hatch where you merely need wave your foot under the bumper to open it.

But where it lacks electronic wow, the Impreza achieves its biggest victory in curb appeal.

Where BMW boasts the head-turning appeal of Heidi Klum, Subaru long turned off the uninitiated with its lumpy designs. If BMW has been tardy in recognizing the necessity of cup holders, Subaru has been late to recognize the importance of looks. But the current model is a huge step forward.

Like Elisa Doolittle in Pygmalian, the Impreza has learned the BMW’s aggressive stance and forward lines that converge in a front end with a pleasant, chrome accented grill and sculpted headlamps.

No one will mistake the poised duckling for the swan — and that difference is crucial to the German car’s luxury premium — but neither is the Subaru second class. Where ’Ru owners once hustled their passengers inside to show off the car’s road-hugging practicality, they can now proudly linger on its exterior.

Overall, the BMW is better looking and better equipped. Is it worth $20K more than the Impreza? That is the beauty of marketing and technology, and BMW is king because it sells automobiles as symbols of social status and athleticism. But the Impreza is a testament to the fact that you don’t need a luxury badge to drive an attractive and extremely capable sport wagon.

 

2014 Corvette Convertible: Christmas just got merrier

Posted by hpayne on December 12, 2013

Sitting on top of 6.6 million pounds of thrust (44 million horsepower), it’s been said that the manned Space Shuttle launches were the most exhilarating 0-60 times ever recorded. But astronauts didn’t get to do them with the top down.

Buckle up for launch in the 2014 Corvette C7 Stingray convertible.

Depress the clutch. Select first gear. Rotate the driving mode dial next to the shifter to “Track.” Stab the button — once, twice — on the top of the dial putting the car in “launch control” mode. With the clutch still depressed, floor the accelerator. No, really. The great beast howls, its RPM redlines at 6,000, its 460 horsepower and 465 pound-feet of torque straining at the leash.

Like the shuttle astronauts, you’ll feel like you’re strapped to a bomb. When the revs modulate to 4,000 RPM that’s your signal to drop the clutch and hang on for dear life. No wonder the new C7 comes equipped with two “passenger assistance grips” on the door and dash.

Incredibly, the C7’s 11-inch wide rear tires claw the asphalt and throw the car forward with no wheel spin, the space-age electronic traction control working beautifully. But the speed is breathtaking. Grab second. Your field of vision narrows. Your hair stands on end. A mere 3.8 seconds later you are at 60 mph and heading for orbit fast.

Thanks to the Vette's massive Brembo brakes, you can quickly haul yourself back to earth then slink innocently away before the local city police department empties out looking for the source of the sonic boom they just heard.

"The wives always urge me not to tell their husbands about the launch control. But that's always the first thing their husbands want to know about." says Harlan Charles, Corvette’s product marketing manager who has been introducing loyal Corvette customers to the drop-top Stingray as it hits dealer lots this December.

I see the husbands nodding their heads. But they're scratching them too. What's that? Corvette has introduced its Corvette convertible in December?

Sure, the sleek toy makes for an excellent Christmas gift under the tree (especially in "adrenaline red," the color of the car I tested), but shouldn't convertibles be hibernating in the winter? Fear not, inhabitants of Snowtown, because one of the revelations of the 2014 Vette is not just its launch control but its cozy convertible cabin.

This is the 21st century after all. With its top up, the Stingray is not just secured tightly against the elements, but it's quieter than the coupe. Where the Corvette's cabin normally segues into the rear luggage compartment, the convertible top requires a separate space for storage when its down. That means a loss of luggage space (though your golf clubs will still fit comfortably), but better cabin quiet since you are now segregated from the trunk.

But I wouldn't call you crazy (your wife might be another matter) if you tooled down Woodward topless on a 32 degree days either. That's because the Vette's raked windshield, ridiculously low .29 drag coefficient, dual cabin temperature controls, and heated seats make the interior surprisingly comfortable. Too chilly? No problem. Slow the car down to under 35 mph in the right lane, press the button, and the roof will deploy in a mere 20 seconds.

In my test of the convertible on a brisk, sub-60 degree California morning, I put on a cap to go with a light jacket, lit the heated seat, cranked the temperature control (located at my right knee on the dash) to 82 degrees, and sat comfortably in the passenger seat as a media colleague and I zipped along at 70 mph — talking easily despite an open top and a V-8 the size of a TRex at our feet.

Officially, Chevy says the convertible is appearing in dealerships now because the coupe model hit stores in September and the manufacturer wants to keep the product flowing. But the beauty of the drop top Stingray with electronic traction control is that it's mobile 12 months of the year.

What can be said about the convertible that hasn't already been said about the coupe?

It's an all-business exterior, all-luxury interior two-door that delivers supercar performance at a quarter of the price of a Ferrari 458 Italia and half that of a Porsche 911. The Stingray I tested included stocking stuffers like 10-speaker Bose audio, heads-up display, active exhaust, MyLink navigation and those red Brembo calipers (hey, the socks gotta match the jersey) —goosing the $56 grand base price to $63,790.

It's also surprisingly svelte given that this is a convertible - tipping the scales by just 70 pounds over the 3,298 lb coupe. This is achieved, says Corvette Chief Engineer Tadge Juecheter, thanks to the Corvette's strong, backbone architecture, eliminating the need to add body reinforcement because the convertible's severed B-pillar hoop isn't structural. With an all-aluminum chassis and carbon-fiber hood, the Stingray's weight and 50-50 balance make this one nimble athlete.

But for all the raw animal instincts the Stingray provokes, it exudes practicality. Thanks to its 7-speed transmission, it sports an EPA fuel economy rating of 17 city and 29 highway. Five different performance modes — Weather, Eco, Tour, Sport and Track — allow drivers to match the car to their mood. Most impressive is Corvette's "rev-matching" technology which makes the roughest novice seem like a pro when downshifting. Don't know how to heel-and-toe? No problem — the electronics will smooth out rough downshifts for you.

The car's exterior is influenced by international style cues and Corvette's racing program. The low front maw evokes Ferrari's front-engined beauties and its day-glow LED lamps remind of its German competitors. But further back, the car's extensive air venting to cool brakes and oil-systems is a direct result of its successful, LeMans-winning racing program with the legendary ZR1.

The 610-horsepower ZR1 briefly made an appearance in production form in 2008 and I had the chance to ring its neck around GM's awesome Milford race track. My test of the new C7 convertible did not include track time, but Chevy engineers say that' its 1.03-g skid-pad performance is already on par with the old, track-prepared, Z06 sport version.

I've noticed grown men in line to see Santa at the Somerset Collection. No doubt they're asking for an adrenaline red Corvette convertible Stingray for Christmas.

2014 CORVETTE STINGRAY CONVERTIBLE

Vehicle type: Front engine, rear-wheel drive, two-door, sport convertible with eletronic retractable top Price: $56,000 base ($63,790 as tested) Engine type: 6.2 liter, aluminum V-8 with direct injection and dry sump, gas-power Power: 460 horsepower, 465 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Seven-speed manual, seven-speed automatic Performance: 0-60 mpg, 3.8 seconds; 190 mph top speed (manufacturer) Weight: 3,362 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 17 mpg city/29 mpg highway Highs: Comfortable cabin, best performance-to-price ratio in class Lows: Might get you thrown in jail Grade:★★★★

Camaro ZL1 is a Mustang-tamer

Posted by hpayne on December 7, 2013

ZL1 shares DNA with sibling Corvette (behind).

ZL1 shares DNA with sibling Corvette (behind). (Henry Payne / The Detroit News)

The lower, wider, sleeker 2015 Mustang debuted this week to broaden its appeal to European and Chinese markets. “We’ve benchmarked it to the BMW M3 and the Porsche Cayman,” says Frank Davis, Executive Director of Ford North American Product Programs. But it’s not just foreign-born stallions that the iconic pony will be chasing.

It will also be hoofing after the Chevy Camaro.

Since the latest evolution of the Camaro in 2010, the chiseled sports sedan has displaced the mighty Mustang as America’s muscle car of choice. The Camaro appears poised to retain its title in 2013 with 77,000 in sales so far this year, a healthy 4,000 more than its rival. Just as significantly, the Camaro has carved out its own pop culture niche as star of Hollywood’s “Transformer” movies to counter Mustang’s celebrity status as a star of screen (“Bullitt”) and song (“Mustang Sally”). “The Transformers movie has made Camaro very popular in China,” says David Leone, GM Executive Chief Engineer for Performance Programs. High import duties keep sales low at 500 units a year, but the car’s celebrity gets new Chinese buyers inside showrooms.

But Camaro doesn’t succeed on good looks alone. Its independent suspension-induced athleticism has forced Mustang to abandon its solid rear axle for the first time in 50 years. Where the powerful Mustang made its name pulverizing the competition into submission, the Camaro floats like a butterfly and stings like a behemoth.

“If it were only about straight-line acceleration, we would take our fallout-shelter time machine back to the ’60s and stay there,” wrote Car & Driver in crowning Camaro best muscle car in 2012. “The Camaro does almost everything with more refinement and with more empathy for its driver. One’s a gorilla, the other’s a racehorse. Which one would you rather ride?”

A ride in the two bloodline’s top performers, the Mustang Shelby GT500 and Camaro ZL1 confirms that conclusion. The awesome, 662 HP GT500 is a ball in a straight line, but turn the wheel and the adventure begins. Thanks to electronic stability control, you can do lurid things in the $55K Shelby and never lose control. But I still wouldn’t recommend riding that wild horse on a country road without lessons first.

Not so Camaro’s ZL1 which I drove in Palm Spring’s intimidating San Bernardino Mountains recently.

With 580 HP and 556 lbs-ft of torque at its disposal from a 6.2 liter, supercharged V-8 (getting goose bumps, aren’t you?), the ZL1 can gobble up plenty of road, but throw it into a corner and you won’t be reaching for the ejector seat button. Thanks to magnetic ride shocks and supple suspension, the Camaro shares more DNA with its Corvette sibling than just an engine. The result is behavior more akin to a sports car than a bucking bronco. With the first rule of torque in mind — modulate, don’t floor, the pedal on a car with more than 3 liters out of corners — the big ZL1 blasted nimbly through the hills of California.

There are flaws, sure. For drive-in lovers the big Camaro’s tight back seat is not much of an option, and rear visibility is compromised by the car’s high window sills and big corner pillars. And the hand brake is on the passenger side of the center console. Huh? But even Arnold Schwarzenegger had gapped front teeth.

Competition lifts all boats — er, horses — and the Camaro-Mustang rivalry has delivered a class of muscle car almost unrecognizable 40 years ago. My $61,140 ZL1 came with accessories like leather Recaro sports seats, a grippy suede steering wheel, smoldering ring-white LED lights, and huge Brembo brakes hiding behind wide, 20-inch wheels front and rear.

Mustang will counter this weapons assault with a more fuel-efficient, 2.3-liter turbo engine in its entry-level 2015 pony to go with its more European face. That attention to the muscle car’s base customer looking for affordability — not just brawn —in their sports sedan should pay dividends with both women and foreign buyers (where ya’ gotta’ rob banks to afford gas). Will Camaro counter when it redesigns its icon? Will it reveal its own small-block turbo? Will it soften its menacing front cowl?

For now, the new Mustang has had to adapt to the Camaro, which, as the ZL1 proves, sets the standard for American muscle.

 

2014 Fiesta ST: The mouse that roared

Posted by hpayne on December 5, 2013

I love pocket rockets. These sedans-on-steroids for drivers with a lead foot but not enough silver in the bank to afford a Porsche have been around for decades. The offerings have included such icons as the Volkswagen GTI, the Ford Focus SVT, and the Honda Civic SI (I’ve owned two and came within a hair of owning an SVT). Well, pocket rocket lovers rejoice, because now they’re available in subcompact size too.

Meet the Ford Fiesta ST, which joins the Fiat 500 Abarth and Mini Cooper S in this rambunctious niche.

I’m already a fan of the base Fiesta which I like to rent when I’m on the race circuit, traveling to tracks to pilot my Ford-powered Lola sports racer. The stylish little four-door has plenty of room for my 6-foot 5-inch frame and luggage, while providing rear seating and superb fuel mileage (race trips are expensive enough without guzzling gas). But let’s face it: Despite its name, the Fiesta is hardly a party on wheels.

Enter the ST (a member of the Blue Oval’s Sport Technologies brand), which finally lives up to the car’s name — and not because it’s made in Mexico. With nearly 200 horsepower driving the front wheels, this five-door hot hatch brings performance to this segment without sacrificing roominess. Indeed, the car’s five-door configuration is an improvement even on the base four-door, with ample cargo room (even with a spare tire in the rear quad).

The ST’s fascia conforms to the Ford line’s attractive, Aston-mouth theme that adorns everything from the Fusion to the Fiesta to the coming 2015 Mustang (brace yourselves, pony car faithful). The ST version says hello with a tinge of menace, its slit headlights peering out over a honeycomb-mesh black grille. Its stance is aggressive, its body lowered by almost an inch from the base model, its rear haunches raised like a cat — well, kitty — ready to spring. The ST begs to be noticed from its snout to its rear spoiler to its color palette.

My ST came in lime green. Ford calls it Green Envy.

“Not my color,” my wife said when Ford delivered it to my driveway (would you prefer Molten Orange, dear? Race Red, maybe?). But if the outside screams “boy toy,” the inside is very passenger-friendly. Sure, the ST is built for speed, but it comes with a generous helping of accessories.

The grey-toned, ST-badged Recaro seats have hefty hip huggers to keep you centered when pulling Gs. But the interior’s built for comfort, too. Heated seats. Convenient cupholders in the center console and door pockets. My wife quickly warmed to this hot hatch.

A useful MyFord Touch screen sits atop the center console with dial-themed climate and radio controls. The screen itself is easily programmed for your favorite radio stations and smartphone. Indeed, I found the Sync system to be one of the easiest in any car I’ve driven to set up. An iPod jack and two USB ports are within easy reach, at the driver’s elbow. The Fiesta knows its digitally connected young shopper.

Open the rear doors and the ST is surprisingly roomy. My head hit the ceiling, but no more so than in the rear seat of a BMW 3-series. If you’re not a circus freak like me, you’ll fit comfortably. You’ll also find the door grips useful for your maniacal driver. Because once the pilot pushes the start button (just like a C7 Vette!), this little tamale wants to boogie.

You’ll find yourself picking fights against bigger game. I hooked up with an aggressive, brand-new BMW 320 on Southfield Road. My Green Goblin slimed him out of the next light, surprising the Bimmer with its torque. The ST comes in stick only and the compact throw shifter and closely placed pedals are perfectly situated for combat. Shift throws are compact, heel-and-toe downshifts easy. Like all pocket rockets, the horsepower is delivered to the front wheels, which takes some getting used to given the power on demand. In low gear on Michigan Avenue, the furious front paws feel like they are throwing bricks left and right as I row the gears.

My gold-standard for pocket rockets is the 2003 Honda Civic SI and its 100-horses-per-liter, normally-aspirated 8,000 RPM engine. The Fiesta’s 6,000 redline can’t rival the SI’s glorious exhaust note above 6,000 RPM, but the ST’s turbocharged engine provides its own charm with plentiful torque from 2,500 RPM where the Honda is wanting. Indeed, that the ST is comparable to the larger, one-generation old Civic SI is testimony to how capable Ford’s subcompact is. The little Ecoboost engine may be the same power plant that inhabits the Ford Fusion and Ford Escape — but tweaked for 20 more horses and beating inside the Fiesta’s lighter, 2,700-pound body, it acts like a different animal.

This is the mouse that roared.

The ST leaves its subcompact competition panting. At a mere $25 grand fully loaded, it’s about $5,000 cheaper than its competition, the Fiat Abarth and Mini Cooper S. Its 0-60 mph acceleration is just shy of the Mini and a half-second faster than the Fiat. Cargo space? Fuhgettaboutit. The ST’s five doors mean you can fill it with friends and baggage.

The subcompact ST’s performance will force shoppers for bigger, compact hot hatches to take a look. Even the Fiesta’s big brother — the snarling, 252-horsepower Focus ST — should be nervous about the Fiesta’s better brakes and nearly comparable, .92 G skid pad handling according to Car&Driver testing (though big brother is a bargain too at just $2,500 more). My standard, rental Fiesta returns an impressive 36 mpg, but even as I flogged the Fiesta ST from stoplight to stoplight across Metro Detroit, it still returned a handsome 28 mpg.

The fun of a sports car without the thirst. Hey, Honda Fit, Chevy Spark, Mazda 2 ... won’t you join the subcompact party?

As Obamacare implodes, what’s the GOP alternative?

Posted by hpayne on November 5, 2013

Robert Young, a 29-year old independent filmmaker in Lansing, had his health insurance plan canceled. In Sherman Oaks, Calif., meanwhile, Anthem Blue Cross has canceled 64-year old Yale Goodman’s policy after 20 years, offering him a replacement plan with a $1,129 monthly premium, up from $594.

From young to old, from heartland to coast, millions of Americans are feeling the effects of President Obama’s fraudulent Affordable Care Act that promised lower costs and no loss of coverage.

But in crisis there is opportunity, and Obamacare’s pain has created a Republican opening for a workable alternative that actually addresses the twin problems of high costs and the uninsured. Despite a conservative consensus on free-market health care reform, Republican leadership has so far been content to point out the ACA’s flaws. But if America is to be rescued from Obamacare’s botched, centrally-planned surgery, Republicans must pivot to a positive solution.

Like Young and Goodman, the policies of some 15 million people in the individual health market are threatened (ironic since the ACA remade the entire health system to address an estimated 12-32 million uninsured). But they are just the first wave of ACA casualties. An estimated 129 million Americans will ultimately see their plans canceled or premiums hiked, finds Duke University economist Christopher Conover, due to mandates on employer-provided insurance. But what is also clear is that a return to the pre-Obamacare status quo is unacceptable.

Fortunately, GOP-sponsored plans are shovel ready and straightforward in implementation.

Michigan representatives Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls, and Mike Rogers, R-Brighton, are at the forefront of legislative proposals that build on President Bush’s 2007, consumer-based insurance reform. Indeed, Dubya’s plan would likely be the law of the land today had he not been weakened by his own over-reach into Iraq. As it was, his health reform was DOA in Nancy Pelosi’s Democratic House.

The Galen Institute’s Grace Marie-Turner, a health care expert who recently met with GOP leadership on health reform, says the GOP plans share three basic elements:

- Federal dollars to incentivize states to create high-risk pools/exchanges for individuals with pre-existing conditions (Utah already had implemented a state exchange for small business and scholars like Shikah Dalmia at Reason have advocated deregulating Obamacare’s exchanges to include Medicaid and Medicare recipients).

- Extending employer-based tax credits to individuals so that health tax benefits follow the individual, not the job (most uninsured are between jobs).

- Allow states to create interstate insurance pools, broadening the individual and small business marketplace.

These reforms are at the center of the Empowering Patients First Act, co-sponsored by physicians Benishek and Rep. Tom Price, R-Georgia, a comprehensive alternative that Price first introduced in 2009. The bill extends health tax credits to individuals, which would grant consumers the same buying power as businesses.

“Dr. Benishek has consistently argued in support of replacing Obamacare with patient-centered reforms like allowing insurance to be sold over state lines (and) making health insurance portable,” says a spokesman.

Rep. Rogers’ reform, the 2009 American Health Care Solutions Act, includes similar provisions and echoes Bush’s plan in directing federal health dollars to the states to set up high-risk pools covering pre-existing conditions.

Josh Archambault, a health policy expert with the Pioneer Institute in Massachusetts, has embraced similar solutions as Romneycare — Obamacare’s troubled model — has goosed premiums and reduced choice. However, he says that Romneycare was successful in addressing pre-existing conditions. How? By extending employer rules to individual policies prohibiting insurers from asking about pre-existing conditions.

It is not enough for Republicans to watch as the Obamacare Hindenburg explodes. “My goal is always to have a positive alternative if the current system isn’t working,” Rep. Price tells National Review. “And in health care, the current system clearly isn’t working.”

Republicans have the tools. Time to lead.

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