Henry Payne Blog

Cartoon: MLK Day

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 16, 2020

Cartoon: Trump and Bloomberg Nannies

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 16, 2020

Cartoon: Democrats Impeach Trump

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 16, 2020

Payne: Big Volkswagen Atlas shrugs off the snow

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 16, 2020

Once upon a time, Volkswagen (translation: people’s car) lived up to its name in America making Bugs and Rabbits and Jettas and other fun fare that appealed to average Americans.

One of them was me. My first car was a Rabbit GTI.

But over the years VW grew detached with odd menu-offerings like the pricey Touareg SUV and Phaeton luxury car.

Now that it’s producing vehicles in America’s Tennessee heartland, the German brand seems to have regained its footing with the Atlas and Tiguan SUVs — schnitzel-and-potatoes utes with a decidedly American accent. Which is good news, because the big, all-wheel drive Atlas arrived in my driveway just as Motown was being buried by a classic middle-America blizzard.

Driving Metro Detroit roads in a snowstorm is an adventure. There are four types of winter drivers: plodders, joggers, speeders and crazies. I saw them all in the course of my winter blizzard adventures.

Winter drivers are a lot easier to negotiate in the towering all-wheel drive Atlas than in the ground-hugging, rear-wheel drive BMW M3 that I arrived in here 20 years ago — a Southern boy (West Virginia, not Tennessee) at the mercy of a Michigan winter.

Where the M3 would beach itself on minor snowdrifts, the Atlas strode boldly out of my snow-socked neighborhood. Merging onto Inkster Road, a plodder inched across my bow at 15 mph — slow even for the snow-covered 45 mph zone.

Flashers on (a sure plodder giveaway), he poked along like an icebreaker in the Arctic — then abruptly decided to stop in the middle of the road. Traveling a safe distance behind, I squeezed the Atlas brakes, felt a hint of ABS assist, then steered nimbly around him. Not bad for a 5,000-pound brute.

Starting at $31,000, my Atlas SEL Premium was nicely equipped with everything for a reasonable $50,320. That’s welcome from a company that has often priced itself above its brand weight. Festooned with the latest safety systems, the Atlas felt confident in my hands.

In addition to ABS, its helpful safety systems included adaptive cruise-control, blind-spot assist and multiple drive modes like Snow. Surrounded by the safety cocoon of the Atlas, I trailed a few steady joggers driving down Inkster while familiarizing myself with VW’s mixed bag of infotainment options.

Mrs. Payne was pleased to learn the Atlas carries Apple CarPlay, because it is vastly superior to VW’s own navigation system in ever-changing traffic conditions. When traffic clotted at an accident site, CarPlay — using its vast cloud resources — rerouted me to another road.

Though VW voice commands and navigation can be lacking, interior ergonomics are first-rate with buttons where they should be, making for minimal distraction in challenging conditions like, well, blizzards. Only VW’s volume knob annoys — mute it and the whole screen goes black.

Transitioning onto the Lodge freeway, my blind-spot assist suddenly blinked. My first snow-speeder of the day! — a hulking Ram pickup knifing in and out of traffic, eager to show off its road-skiing abilities. I watched him fly past, hoping I didn’t see him upside-down against a guardrail.

The 330-horsepower V-6 in the Atlas is nicely mated to its eight-speed transmission. Not overly sensitive on throttle, it smoothly did its job of distributing power to all four wheels. In a family-hauler class where some automakers offer only turbo-4s (the base Atlas offering), the V-6’s low-end torque is welcome, sacrificing fuel economy for confidence-inducing grunt.

Chugging along on adaptive cruise-control at 10 miles per hour under the speed limit, I kept the Atlas in the left lane, avoiding schools of plodders and joggers in the right lanes.

Then I passed crazy, which appeared to wake the SUV driver from his slumber. Crazy sped up to keep pace with me. Was there a finish line he wanted us to cross together? Inspired by the Ford GT40s in “Ford v Ferrari”?

Traffic loomed in the right lane ahead, but crazy barreled ahead until … it was too late. I canceled adaptive cruise-control and dropped back just in time for him to swerve across my grille and into my lane to pass the jogger-drivers ahead.

Atta boy, Atlas, you modern brute.

While safety systems and a capable chassis allow the driver to deal with the idiosyncrasies of winter drivers outside, occupants can carry on in oblivious bliss. VW has done everything right inside, from comfortable captain’s chairs to tasteful brown leather to easy-access third-row seats.

With its chiseled exterior looks and digital instrumentation, it begs the question: Why would anyone would pay another $20,000 for a similar Audi Q7?

The Atlas isn’t the only looker in the three-row mainstream world. And despite aiming to please, it comes up short on value relative to the Kia Telluride or Hyundai Palisade (two transplants also made in America).

My biggest complaint is the Atlas — like little-brother Tiguan — begs for an injection of performance character from its sibling Golf GTI and Golf R hatchbacks to separate it in the dog-eat-SUV pack. Not that I want to be a winter speeder. But when the roads dried out, I yearned for the athleticism I felt in my old Rabbit GTI.

The three-row Mazda CX-9 has the DNA of its Mazda Miata sports-car sibling. The Atlas could use a GTI infusion.

We’ll hear a lot more about the Atlas. VW has smartly kept the smaller, more expensive Touraeg model at home in Europe. Americans want big, roomy, affordable three-row utes and the people’s car — er, people’s SUV — fits the bill.

New for 2020 also comes the Atlas Cross Sport, a two-row version of the Atlas with a more elegant horizontal grille and taillights complementing a coupe-like roof. You get the idea — Cross Sport plugs the hole between the Tiguan and Atlas to appeal to empty-nesters coveting the room of an Atlas — but with the smaller feel of a Tiguan. Priced competitively at $33,000 to start, the Cross Sport should match up well against competitors like the Honda Passport and Chevy Trailblazer.

But what I like best about it is the Atlas Cross Tour R. “R” as in a real, rough ‘n’ ready Baja racer. Dude, it looks rad. And maybe, just maybe, its racing DNA will rub off on the Atlas to give it a little more speed. For summertime, of course.

2019 Volkswagen Atlas

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front- and all-wheel drive, 5-passenger SUV

Price: $32,565 including $995 destination charge($50,320 AWD SEL as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter turbo-4 cylinder, 3.6-liter V-6

Power: 235 horsepower, 258 pound-feet torque (turbo-4); 276 horsepower, 266 pound-feet torque (V-6)

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.9 seconds (V-6, Car and Driver); towing, 2,000-5,000 pounds

Weight: 4,759 (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 18 city/ 23 highway/ 20 combined (AWD turbo-4); 17 city/ 23 highway/ 19 combined (AWD V-6)

Report card

Highs: Good value in competitive segment; handsome package

Lows: Lacks VW character; so-so voice commands

Overall: 3 stars

Cartoon: Media’s Hair on Fire about Iran

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 13, 2020

Cartoon: Iran Shoots Down Santa

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 13, 2020

Cartoon: Meghan and Harry

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 13, 2020

Cartoon: Trump and Biden

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 13, 2020

Cartoon: Daily Spleen Iran Headlines

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 13, 2020

Cartoon: Tesla in China

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 13, 2020

Cartoon: Iran Responds to Trump

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 13, 2020

Cartoon: Trump Gervais 2020

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 13, 2020

Cartoon: Golden Globes Gervais

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 13, 2020

Cartoon: Democrats on Trump and Soleimani

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 13, 2020

Payne: Subcompact Mazda CX-30 rocks

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 13, 2020

Mazda shoppers might be understandably confused these days.

The charming ads — the ones where the kid whispered “ZOOM ZOOM” at the end — have been replaced by a generic “Feel Alive” lifestyle campaign that might as well be selling you tennis shoes.

And the brand’s latest, four-digit CX-30 SUV is an alphanumeric migraine that doesn’t fit in the brand’s simple, single-digit sedan lineup (Mazda 3,6) or the three-digit SUV silo (CX-3, CX-5, CX-9). Earth to marketing department.

But there’s nothing confusing about the way the CX-30 subcompact ute drives, looks and feels.

Simply put — and simple is a repeated, positive theme here — this is the best performance subcompact on the market today. Period. So good, in fact, that its comparison set is not the usual mainstream competitors, but luxury subcompacts costing at least $10,000 more.

Based on the same platform as the sensational Mazda 3 compact hatchback, you will know the CX-30 is different the moment you grip its fat steering wheel and fling it into a corner. Poised and balanced, it’s more hot-hatch compact than hatchback ute.

Its 186 horses is best in the mainstream market, as is the buttery six-speed transmission it’s married to. A few years back I sampled the CX-30’s bigger brother, the compact CX-5, against its upscale peers — Audi Q5, Lexus NX, Mercedes GLC — and nothing could dance with it on road. Only a subcompact BMW X1 — a size down in class, but priced in the CX-5’s $40,000 neighborhood — bested it.

Now comes the subcompact CX-30 priced a whopping $15,000 under the premium BMW X1, and I suspect it’s the X1’s match through the twisties. This is the type of subcompact SUV that Volkswagen should make off its superb Golf platform — or that Ford should cook up from its Focus sedan. But they haven’t.

VW offers nothing in its class, while Ford’s cramped EcoSport entry is a boxy eggbeater. One of the hottest aisles in autodom, mainstream subcompacts boast a variety of toys like the off-roady Subaru Crosstrek, rugged Jeep Renegade, roomy Honda HR-V and funky Kia Soul.

Now it’s got a toned $23,000 athlete.

But the CX-30 is much more than a fun-to-drive ute (as refreshing as that is to say). Its simple, timeless design will wear well. It’s no Mazda 3 hatch (the most beautiful compact car ever penned), largely because designers felt compelled to lard the CX-30 with black body-cladding to give it SUV cred. That may protect its fenders from the rare off-road event, but it dulls Mazda’s knife-edge good looks next to full steel-body stallions like the BMW X1.

Still, it’s a looker in Soul Red, and if the cladding bugs you, match it with a darker color like Gunmetal Gray. The simple elegance continues inside with a sweeping horizontal design familiar to the Mazda 3 hatchback — and to BMW and Tesla.

Like Tesla, its broad dash lines are efficient and uncluttered. Like BMW, the instrument and infotainment screen are driver-focused — the result of fussy engineers obsessed with keeping drivers’ eyes glued to the road.

Over the spaghetti roads of southern California’s Cuyamaca Mountains, everything I needed was close. The screen navigation (Apple CarPlay and Android Auto standard) is high on the dash. The deft, multi-way remote rotary-controller (just like BMW) is at my elbow. The i-Activsense surround-view (like Tesla) is in the instrument cluster to monitor cars around me.

More awkward than the CX-30’s four-digit detour from Mazda’s naming convention (imagine if Audi built a crossover between the Q3 and Q5 called the Q30 — huh?) is its suggestion that it is a variant of Mazda’s entry-level subcompact SUV, the slow-selling CX-3.

Yet, the CX-30 is more CX-5 than CX-3. Marketing has its reasons for not calling it a CX-4 in the U.S. (because a different car is called CX-4 in the Chinese market), but they are unconvincing.

Based on a same platform as the Mazda 3 hatchback (not the CX-3), the CX-30 nevertheless gains some room over the 3 thanks to its taller SUV dimensions. Cargo room is a useful 20 cubic feet and swallows four carry-on suitcases. My 6-foot-5 frame fit in the second row thanks to clever scalloping in the front seatback and roof liner.

I conversed with my 4-foot-11 drive partner with ease from the back quarters thanks to better than BMW X1 interior quiet. And despite our Laurel and Hardy body differences, we both found the seating ergonomics excellent.

The CX-30 bristles with such clever human details, typical of those fussy Mazda engineers. Consider:

  • The rear hatch opening punches a big hole in back for better loading.
  • Engineers tuned the car’s ride to mimic the 5 mm head bob of a human walking.
  • Owners can monitor their car via a phone app.
  • Stereo subwoofers are packed in the car’s corners — just as you would in your house for better sound clarity.
  • Take a corner too fast when in adaptive cruise-control, and the car will automatically sense the high G-loads and slow mid-corner.
  • The exquisite sculpting of the side panels always reflects an S-curve. Zoom zoom.

Standard features include adaptive cruise-control, automatic high beams and other items that you’ll have to pay extra for on a BMW X1.

Such standardization also aids simplicity. In an online-buying age when millennials expect efficiency, the Mazda CX-3 configuration page is blessedly easy with four trim options — each building on the last. My favorite Preferred trim (heated, power seats) can be had for $28,645.

Such obsession with detail exposes the odd flaw. A black wheel option would better complement the black cladding. Voice recognition is poor. The car’s athletic nature screams for a second engine option like Mazda’s 2.5-liter turbo.

What to do? The black wheels can be bought used off a Mazda 3. Voice recognition is excellent if you plug in Apple CarPlay/Android Auto. And that turbo-4 terror with 250 ponies and whopping 310 pound-feet of torque? I’m betting sales of the CX-30 will be so strong that will allow Mazda to offer another trim (just like they’ve done with the Mazda CX-5, which can be had for less than $40,000 with a BMW-beating turbo-4).

And when that day arrives, maybe they’ll have figured out how to call it CX-4.

2020 Mazda CX-30

Vehicle type: Front engine, front- and all-wheel drive, 5-passenger subcompact SUV

Price: $22,945 including $1,045 destination charge($31,240 AWD Premium as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder

Power: 186 horsepower, 186 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.2 seconds (Car and Driver est.); top speed, 123 mph (est.)

Weight: 3,408 pounds (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA est. 24 city/31 highway/26 combined (AWD)

Report card

Highs: Sharp handling; premium interior

Lows: Heavy black cladding; turbo-4 engine option, please

Overall: 4 stars

Cartoon: Trump Kills Iranian General

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 3, 2020

Cartoon: DeBlasio and Crime

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 3, 2020

Cartoon: Pelosi New Year Resolution

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 3, 2020

Payne: 10 vehicles that defined the decade

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 2, 2020

Years from now, historians may rank the past decade as one of the auto industry’s most important.

The 2010s began with the United States crawling out of the worst recession since 1982. SUV sales fizzled as cash-starved consumers opted for cheap cars. Uber and Spotify didn’t exist. Tesla’s lone product, a Lotus-based sports car, was best known for a “Top Gear” episode showing it running out of juice.

But as the economy righted itself, the 21st century’s trends went into hyperdrive: sport-ute mania, digitization, horsepower, regulation, electrification.

These 10 vehicles defined the decade.

Ford F-150

The more things change, the more things stay the same. Nothing outsold the Ford F-150 in the last decade. Just like the previous three decades. But the pickup’s significance grew beyond sales numbers. With the enormous technological challenges facing automakers, F-150’s outsize profits became key to underwriting Ford Motor Co.’s investment in expensive, unproven autonomous and electric vehicles. The pickup itself became a change agent as turbocharged V-6s displaced V-8s as volume sellers, and lightweight aluminum replaced steel construction.

Google car

The “Skynet Marshmallow Bumper Bot” (as the Oatmeal.com website called it) announced Silicon Valley as a mobility leader. Self-driving cars suddenly seemed within reach. Without a steering wheel, the Livonia-built Google car felt like riding in a four-wheel subway car. The pioneering robot plied city streets in San Francisco and Austin for a time before giving way to more practical people-movers like Waymo (Google) minivans, Uber Volvos and Cruise Automation Chevy Bolts.

Chevy Volt

Before the battery-powered Chevrolet Bolt EV, there was the 2011 plug-in Volt. It was General Motors Co.’s answer to the Toyota Prius hybrid. With battery range of 50 miles, the Volt could cover most daily commutes — yet it eased range anxiety with a small gas engine that could kick in to get you home. Consumers didn’t understand it, and the Volt didn’t survive the decade. The 2012 Cadillac ELR, kind of a Volt-in-a-tux, should have held more promise — but GM priced it at a nose-bleed $80,000. If Cadillac had introduced it for $35,000 (beating the Model 3 to market by five years), history might have been different.

Tesla Model 3

Elon Musk introduced the $35,000 Model 3 at a 2016 news conference. An affordable alternative to Tesla’s $80,000 Model S sedan that had wowed luxury-buyers with its Ludicrous electric acceleration, the Model 3 was an instant sensation. Tesla Inc. was deluged by 400,000 pre-orders. In its first full year on the market in 2018, the made-in-USA sedan was the luxury market’s best-selling chariot, beating even the Lexus RX350 SUV. More than an EV, the Model 3 wowed buyers with such technology as a giant tablet screen, Autopilot driving and over-the-air software updates. Manufacturing consultant Sandy Munro declared its electronics “generations beyond what any other manufacturer is doing,” and the industry mobilized to catch up.

Toyota RAV4

No one could catch the RAV4 compact SUV, which became the best-selling non-pickup in America — dethroning perennial-champ Toyota Camry. In so doing, the RAV4 became the first SUV to reign at No. 1. Not only did the RAV4 displace Camry, it also felled cousin Prius as the best-selling hybrid in America as battery technology moved to mainstream vehicles.

Jeep Wrangler

If the RAV4 was the undisputed best-seller, then Jeep was the king of utes. The World War II-inspired Wrangler had long headlined the off-road niche brand, but all that changed with the Fiat-Chrysler merger of 2009. Call it Fiat-Jeep. Visionary execs Sergio Marchionne and Mike Manley saw the Jeep’s potential as a global brand on a planet embracing all things SUV. More capable, comfortable and high-tech, the 2018 Wrangler doubled its sales. Jeep sales overall? Tripled since 2010 to nearly a million units a year.

Dodge Charger Hellcat

While the Detroit Three ditched poor-selling car lines, one sedan defied gravity. The Charger proved the power of bold marketing. President Tim Kuniskis and his merry band of elves took an aging chassis, injected it with unheard-of horsepower and called it the Hellcat (along with sister coupe Challenger). The Hellcat showcased how modern electronics have benefited not just infotainment systems, but the ability of family sedans to safely put 707 horses to the road.

Ford GT

Fifty years after the legendary Ford GT40 won LeMans, the GT celebrated by winning the storied 24-hour race again. The 2016 GT is a state-of-the-art, carbon-fiber weapon. It demonstrated the important role motor racing plays in the industry. Nearly every major brand now races, from the exotic Cadillac IMSA prototype to the common Mazda Miata. Popular culture embraced Ford’s achievement, too, as “Ford v Ferrari” — a movie chronicling the 1966 GT40’s success — became a Hollywood blockbuster.

Ford Mustang

The Mustang was birthed alongside the GT40 in the 1960s, becoming a symbol of Dearborn’s commitment to affordable performance. Ford observed its 50th anniversary in 2015 by taking the pony to new heights. With its daring redesign, the ‘Stang went global with sales in 146 countries. The muscle car took back its sales crown from the Chevy Camaro, then looked toward the next half-century by expanding as a sub-brand with its first electric SUV — the Mustang Mach-E.

Volkswagen Golf

Diesel-engine tech, which began the 2010s as the globe’s answer to fuel efficiency, became a pariah. Cars like the Golf were found in 2015 to have systems that cheated on emissions tests in order to circumvent regulations. The so-call Dieselgate scandal inspired a historic transformation of the world’s largest automaker from a diesel-focused company to an electric-vehicle evangelist. Governments forced VW to build a national battery supercharger network as penance for its sins — and to power politicians’ pet drivetrain, electric motors. As the 2020s dawn, however, buyers of trucks and commercial vehicles still prefer the advantages of diesel range and infrastructure. Will EVs conquer the passenger car frontier? The next decade will tell the tale.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

Cartoon: Trump Economic Boom and Tariffs

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 2, 2020