Henry Payne Blog

Cartoon: Joker, Guns and Hollywood

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 12, 2019

Payne: Dodge Charger Widebody turns up wick on family sedan

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 12, 2019

Taking the family sedan on track. At Sonoma Raceway in California, the 2020 Dodge Charger Widebody Hellcat feels right at home.

Taking the family sedan on track. At Sonoma Raceway in California, the 2020 Dodge Charger Widebody Hellcat feels right at home. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

Rounding Sonoma Raceway’s high-speed downhill Turn 6, the 2020 Dodge Charger Hellcat Widebody compresses underneath me on stiffened performance springs and shocks. The 4,500-pound beast’s big rear-end twitches as I slowly feed 707 horses through 11-inch-wide Michelin tires. I open the throttle wide onto the back straight and the Hellcat explodes like a Saturn rocket pointed at the moon.

I love Dodge family sedans.

Since its debut at the 2015 Woodward Dream Cruise, the Charger Hellcat has redefined the full-size car segment. The first four-door to produce over 700 horsepower, the Charger became an instant icon alongside its two-door muscle-car brother Challenger.

More importantly, it did its job as a brand halo, injecting the bloodline with performance steroids that have benefited all Chargers. Not to mention their sales.

While the rest of the big sedan class — Chevy Impala, Ford Taurus, Toyota Avalon — have been buried under an SUV wave, Charger has survived with Captain Hellcat at the helm despite the fact that it sits on one of the oldest hulls in the business.

Dodge isn’t sitting on its laurels.

For 2020 it’s introducing a Charger Widebody variant for top Hellcat and Scat Pack trims. Widebody as in bodybuilding. Similar muscles are available on its brother Challenger.

“I just want to make bad-ass looking cars,” says Dodge designer Mark Trostle. He’s in the right place.

 Looking like pecs rippling from Charger’s torso, the Widebody’s enlarged fenders allow a wider track for the performance sedan. Wider track as in 1.5 more inches of rubber, a significant improvement on a big sedan like this — and a clever way to make the Charger’s chassis more nimble in its twilight years. (Fiat Chrysler CEO Mike Manley says a new platform for Charger is coming next decade.)

More than just flesh and rubber are upgraded for 2020. To deal with the added tire grip, chief engineer Jim Wilder and his team of bodybuilders have imbued both the Hellcat and Scat Pack with significant upgrades for shocks, springs and sway-bars. All this muscle doesn’t come cheap, and Widebody versions add abou$5,000 to the bottom line.

That means a standard Charger Hellcat commands a price just under $70,000, with my fully loaded Sonoma warrior (brooding, black-painted hood and all) clocking in at a nose-bleed $80,555. That tops a price spread not unlike the luxury cars whose specs Charger competes with.

The Charger family can be had from the entry-level $30,965V-6, all the way to Hellcat. Compare that to a BMW M5 which starts at $50,000 and stretches to $135,000.

I don’t imagine BMW and Charger customers will ever attend the same dinner parties, but if they do, Team Charger doesn’t need to be shy.

For $50,000 less, the Charger boasts 107 more ponies than the M5 and crosses the quarter-mile in the same 10.9 seconds. Yeah, M5 will spring to 60 mph nearly a second quicker (2.8 vs. 3.6), but credit that to the BMW’s all-wheel drive. The real mindblower here is Charger Hellcat’s near identical (0.96 vs. the M5’s 0.98) g-load cornering capability, despite weighing 300 pounds more than the state-of-the-art German.

I experienced this capability on twisty, country roads where the Saturn rocket feels strapped to the tarmac by its stiff suspension and giant Brembo brakes (yeah, M5 gets Brembos, too).

Best Charger ever? Not so fast. Hellcat, meet sibling Scat Pack.

Adopting the Hellcat’s same bodybuilding secrets — right down to those Brembos — the Widebody Scat Pack benefits from a lighter, 6.4-liter normally aspirated V-8 up front. Without Hellcat’s extra plumbing to feed more air to its supercharged, 6.2-liter eight-cylinder, the Scat Pack’s lighter weight translates to an M5-matching 0.98 cornering Gs.

I’m not making this up.

The result is a $45,000 Scat Pack Widebody (my loaded tester hit an even $60,000) that is a serious $20,000 cheaper than Hellcat (ahem, $70,000 south of the M5) that is just as sinister-looking in the rear-view mirror.

Sure, the Hellcat’s otherworldly supercharger whine will send chills up your spine, but at full bellow the Scat Pack’s V-8 roar will make grown men’s knees buckle. On-track at Sonoma, the Hellcat outpaced the Scat Pack thanks to the former’s prodigious torque. But with its rippled bod, the Scat Pack is as emotionally satisfying.

But wait, there’s more.

Due to packaging constraints, the Hellcat does not benefit from the latest safety-assist systems — meaning the $45,000 Scat Pack Widebody gets adaptive cruise-control. The Hellcat does not. That’s a huge plus for owners (most of us) who intend to use sedans for daily, family chores.

Is $45,000 still too rich for your stomach? Performance DNA trickles down.

For just $35,000, buyers can opt for the plenty-powerful, 300-horse Charger GT that comes equipped with the same rear-wheel drive handling (exclusive to class), hood scoop, Skittles color palette, brooding cowl … even the 20-inch tires found on its richer brothers.

Entranced by the V-8’s siren call? You can option up to the R/T and still leave the dealership for less than $40,000. The kids will love you when you come pick them up at school.

Speaking of which, all Chargers come with the secret sauce that makes them unique in muscledom: room.

Front-wheel drive competitors like the Avalon and Impala offer room without sex appeal. Rear-wheel drive coupes like the Camaro and Mustang offer sex appeal without the legroom (even the roomy Challenger requires hurdling the front seat to get in back).

The Charger sedan stretches Challenger’s wheelbase by 4 inches and puts it all to work in the back seat. My 6-foot-5 basketballer’s frame folded easily into back, letting me take thrill rides around Sonoma with French pro driver Nico Rondet.

You can enjoy this roominess with the best interior in American muscle, period. A simple, sculpted dash cups a standard 8.4-inch screen and intuitive UConnect infotainment system. Apple CarPlay is standard for getting you where you want to go.

The Hellcat adds red-tinted gauges that appropriately mimic the bloodshot eyes of some kind of underworld creature.

Someday Dodge will build Charger on a new, lighter platform. But for now, Detroit’s favorite son has managed to maintain Dodge swagger while dusting it with a personality that only luxury German performance makes (well, and Fiat Chrysler brother Jeep) can match.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I gotta take the family sedan back out on the track.

2020 Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Widebody and Scat Pack Widebody

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan

Price: Base price Hellcat $71,140, including $1,495 destination charge ($80,555 as tested). Base price Scat Pack $47,490, including $1,495 destination charge ($61,445 as tested)

Powerplant: 6.2-liter, supercharged V-8; 6.4-liter V-8

Power: 707 horsepower, 650 pound-feet of torque (6.2-liter); 485 horsepower, 475 pound-feet of torque (5.7-liter)

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, Hellcat 3.6 seconds, Scat Pack 4.3 (mfr.); top speed, 196 mph (Hellcat Widebody)

Weight: Hellcat, 4,596 pounds; Scat Pack, 4,385 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA mpg, 13 city/22 highway/16 combined (Hellcat, est.); EPA mpg, 15 city/24 highway/18 combined (Scat Pack, est.)

Report card

Highs: BMW performance, Dodge price; Scat Pack stick

Lows: Hellcat gets pricey; handle with care, 707 is a lotta ponies

Overall: 4 stars

Cartoon: NBA China Ref

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 12, 2019

Payne: It’s not flashy, but the Honda Passport is practical, roomy and comfortable

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 12, 2019

Life's a beach. But the 2019 Honda Passport is for couples whose kids have flown the coop.

Life’s a beach. But the 2019 Honda Passport is for couples whose kids have flown the coop. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

The last time I took a road trip to South Haven, I was testing a Honda Civic Coupe. It was a nimble, athletic hatchback with polarizing styling that looked like it was designed by a 16-year-old. I couldn’t wait to get some laps on it at Gingerman Raceway, where we had a blast.

This summer I returned to South Haven in a Honda Passport. We never set foot on track.

The Passport is Honda’s entry into the mid-size SUV class occupied by stylish badges like the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Ford Edge and Nissan Murano. Its demographic is a different generation from the Civic Coupe. If the Civic is the first car for 20-somethings who’ve flown the nest, then the Passport is for 40-something empty-nesters who want SUV utility — but with more pizzazz than a three-row family bus.

The Passport and Civic Coupe bookend the enormous demographic that Honda covers today.

While the Civic Coupe shares its bones with other Honda hellions like the Si and winged Type R, the Passport is stablemate to the three-row Pilot SUV and Ridgeline pickups. Passport has picked up traits from both.

Five miles down the road from Gingerman — and a million miles away in lifestyle — is The Fields glamping resort. Glamping as in “glamorous camping,” Passport’s natural habitat.

Think of the Passport as a Glampilot. Glamorous Pilot.

After a cross-state, day’s journey in Passport’s quiet Pilot-like interior, the Passport summoned its inner pickup and happily bounced up the dirt road to the blueberry farm on which The Fields campground is located.

South Haven’s Gingerman has long been a destination for motorheads like me who have a need for speed. It’s one of the Midwest’s safest tracks to exercise your race car or performance sedan. But The Fields is more in line with a South Haven better known as a magnet for Midwesterners wanting to spend a weekend sampling Lake Michigan wineries, sandy beaches and orange sunsets.

Glamping brings style to outdoor camping, with luxury tents lit by chandeliers. The Passport brings Honda practicality to stylish, midsize utes.

Typically, empty-nesters have come to the segment looking for more bling than soccer-mom practicality. The Edge and Chevy Blazer RS are the most outstanding examples of this: rolling sculptures with floating roofs and yuuuge grilles.

Or there’s the Jeep Grand Cherokee and its iconic, seven-slot grille. My personal segment favorite is the Edge, which combines chiseled beauty with a sporty ST trim that I might be tempted to take out on Gingerman to floor its mad 335-horse, twin-turbo V-6 (with shift paddles, natch).

The Passport is a wallflower compared to these Hollywood starlets.

Sure, my Passport tester layered on the mascara — black grille, black wheels, blacked-out pillars — and sported wild, jewel-eyed peepers that would make Elton John jealous. But wipe away the makeup and Passport is a boxy Pilot that’s jacked up 1.6 inches for off-road cred.

Assuming packaging isn’t your top reason for purchase, the Passport’s strengths lie in good-old daily livability and value. In short, it’s a Honda — an obsessively passenger-friendly vehicle.

As butch as Passport appears outside, it will wow female buyers. There’s not a female SUV shopper that I haven’t preached Passport/Pilot/Ridgeline to.

Like its Honda stablemates, Passport forgoes the common tortoise-shell center console for a sliding shade. Combined with the space-saving electronic “trigger” shifter (You’ll get used to it; Corvette is adopting something similar), this gives the console bottom-less space, meaning a purse or computer tablet can fit down there.

Leave the sliding shade open and rummage in your purse for anything. Your days of purse-tossing on the passenger seat are over.

For smaller purses and other items, just keep the shade shut and throw ’em on top. During the course of our drive, Mrs. Payne and I tossed two phones, a purse and a Kleenex box there. Try doing that in any other vehicle.

On top of the center console’s dexterity, the Passport offers room for two cupholders and forward space that can hold and charge your phone.

The Passport’s interior serves passengers well even if it’s not as stylish as competitors. My favorite interior in the segment belongs to the Chevy Blazer with its Camaro-like, adjustable aviation vents.

Passport controls look like, well, other Hondas with standard-issue tablet screen and digital instrument display. But like the console, its excellent ergonomics are all about the customer. Unlike the Chevy, Honda allows you to shut off the annoying stop-start feature where the engine internationally stalls at stoplights to gain credits for federal mpg nannies. Annoy you? Push the button.

The Honda soundly beats its Detroit Three competitors in cargo space, a meaningful statistic as my wife and I dragged around two suitcases, two tennis bags and a cooler in our west-side trip.

But the Passport doesn’t stop there. A hidden cubby under the rear cargo floor provides separate storage for, say, muddy shoes or valuables. And the rear seats fold flat with the floor (unlike, ahem, the Edge) allowing you to easily slide in a bookcase.

There’s value, too. Only the turbo-4-powered Hyundai Santa Fe — at $4,000 less than my comparably equipped Passport — is a better value in the segment. My Elite trim tester clocked in at $44,000, competitive with the turbo-4-powered Ford Edge.

But compared to V-6 powered competitors Blazer and Grand Cherokee, the Passport is thousands of dollars less. When I put my foot into the Passport’s strong, throaty, 280-horse six-cylinder, I even briefly felt a Civic-like urge to boogie.

In this class of 4,000-pound-plus, all-wheel drive rhinos, the Passport handles better than most. With new entries from Honda and Chevy, the mid-size, empty-nest segment feels fresh. Yet, brand traits remain remarkably true.

The Jeep Grand Cherokee and its Trackhawk trim is the class-best dirt-kicker. The Edge’s ST macho and self-park technology are right out of the brand playbook. And like Chevy brothers Corvette and Camaro, the Blazer is the class athlete.

Passport’s ergonomic strengths are undeniable: roomy, powerful, comfortable, with an interior layout that never frustrates. The big ute lacked for nothing and excelled in everything.

Unless, of course, you want to take some laps around Gingerman Raceway. For that, you’ll need a different Honda.

2019 Honda Passport

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

Price: Base price $33,035, including $1,045 destination charge ($44,725 AWD Elite as tested)

Powerplant: 3.5-liter V-6

Power: 280 horsepower, 262 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 9-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.8 seconds (Car and Driver); towing, 5,000 pounds

Weight: 4,237 pounds (AWD Elite as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA mpg, 19 city/24 highway/21 combined (AWD as tested)

Report card

Highs: Best storage console in the biz; eager V-6 mill

Lows: Wallflower looks; not as stylish inside as competitors

Overall: 3 stars

Cartoon: Witch-hunt Part 2

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 2, 2019

Cartoon: Media Cried Russia

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 26, 2019

Cartoon: Rashida Pelosi Impeach Trump

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 26, 2019

Cartoon: Nothing Burger Ukraine

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 26, 2019

Payne: Mustang Ecoboost High Performance is a wild but affordable stallion

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 26, 2019

The 2020 Ford Mustang HiPo upgrades the base pony car to a 330-horsepower turbo-4, adding a stiffer suspension and bigger brakes for wicked performance for under $40K.

The 2020 Ford Mustang HiPo upgrades the base pony car to a 330-horsepower turbo-4, adding a stiffer suspension and bigger brakes for wicked performance for under $40K. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

Ford Mustang and Focus RS had a baby. Hello, wunderkind.

Actually his name is Mustang Ecoboost High Performance Package, but let’s just call it the HiPo. We all know great athletes by their nicknames anyway. MJ. Gronk. V-Mart.

The HiPo is a prodigy that bears the DNA of its parents — a hot-hatch hellion crossed with an elegant rear-wheel drive pony car. Rotating the RS’ eager turbo-four longitudinally and stuffing it into the Mustang’s forward bay, HiPo has a natural 50/50 weight balance, throaty voice and $35,000 price tag.

That affordability is the car’s secret sauce. It offers hours of fun for sports car owners who can only dream about owning its V8-powered, $60,000-plus big brothers GT350 and GT500.

Where the GT350 and GT500 really have to be taken to a race track to explore their limits, you can explore 80% of the HiPo’s bandwidth through Hell, Michigan’s twisties, Harbor Springs’ Tunnel of Trees or a parking lot’s autocross cones.

I got my first dose on the spaghetti curves of California Route 1 north of San Francisco. I was an instant addict.

BRAAAAAP! The bratty Mustang was off like a shot, its weighted steering rooted to the asphalt. Turn the wheel, and the nimble chassis followed like ink from a pen nib, pulling over an impressive 1G of cornering loads. Readers of this column know I am a disciple of the sixth-gen Camaro, the best-handling pony car devised thanks to Chevy stealing its chassis from the Cadillac ATS, the best-handling compact luxury sedan devised.

Mate the Camaro’s athletic bod to the 335-horse V-6 1LE Track Package and the Chevy is more fun than a free weekend pass to Cedar Point. No Mustang or Challenger or Charger could touch it. Until now.

Somehow, the elves in Ford Performance’s toy shop have conjured a Mustang to match the 1LE.

Credit chassis tricks like thicker sway bars, 10%-stiffer springs and engine-bay cross-braces that strap the pony flat to the road. And there is the famous 2.3-liter, 330-horse turbo engine, rescued from the RS before the pocket rocket left our shores for good.

Motorheads everywhere shed a tear that day as the top-trim RS followed the Focus line back to Europe. But its heart beats on in the Mustang and its is a worthy competitor to Camaro’s V-6 and sharp 6-speed manual box. More than worthy.

With optional 10-speed transmission, the HiPo will stomp a Camaro 1LE V-6 out of a stoplight by over half-a-second, 4.5 seconds to 5.1. I told you this kid was a prodigy.

WRAUUUGGH! I waved a big-boy Mustang GT350 by me on Route 1 and attached myself to his bumper like a sucker fish on an orca. We danced through the curves, the GT350 eventually leaving me behind with its prodigious 526-horse V-8 power. Nice to have four more cylinders. But drive a GT350 like that too long and it’ll turn your hair white. Not to mention wake every cop within a 50-mile radius.

Without the heavy V-8 up front, HiPo can be driven hard without scaring the lunch out of you. Or the dollars out of your wallet.

Yes, the 10-speed transmission is a treat. But for $1,500 less, the six-speed manual box is plenty engaging. It actually ups the visceral thrills since the engine is tuned for a higher rev range than the RS, so you can really row the gearbox. That, and there’s more SNAP CRACKLE POP when you lift off the throttle into a tight bend. Who says manual transmissions are dead?

HiPo also comes with a handling package that engineers refer to as the High Performance Hi — ½-inch wider sticky tires, bigger sway bars, limited-slip differential, magneride shocks — which seems kinda redundant on a special-edition Mustang already outfitted with $4,995 in handling and engine upgrades. It is.

Unless you’re a track-day regular, the standard HiPo is plenty of car. There, just saved you another $1,995.

Ford also offers a convertible version of the HiPo for an extra $5,500 so you can hear the RS engine topless, but chopping the top reduces chassis stiffness by 25%. So stick with the coupe, it’s gorgeous anyway in Grabber Green or Twister Orange (which won’t cost you a thing, either).

All you’ll need to add is leather seats.

GROAAAAAN! That’s the sound you’ll make after emerging from the standard cloth Mustang HiPo seats after a couple of hours of destroying country roads. I’ve found Mustang cloth to be hard on the back, so do yourself a favor and get the leather package — because once behind the wheel you won’t want to get out.

Bottom line, after adding the HiPo package to the base $27,765 Mustang, you have one of the best sports car bargains on the planet for $34,960:  Apple CarPlay and Android Auto standard. Nice touchscreen. Digital instrument display. Good visibility and actual rear seat legroom (though giraffe necks like your 6-foot-5 reviewer will struggle under the fastback roof).

The rear seat may deter Focus RS buyers who have followed their favorite engine to the HiPo. Squared-off hot hatches, after all, offer unique utility with their excellent rear cargo and head room.

But they will find a bargain in the HiPo, which is a cool $7,000 cheaper than the dearly departed $42,000 Focus RS and its manual-only gearbox. Focus fans will like the HiPo’s abundance of Skittle flavors, too — like the aforementioned green and orange, or Race Red, Kona Blue or Orange Fury.

This being one of nine Mustang trims, HiPo can be easily distinguished by its mesh grille, multi-colored rear pony badge and black hood stripes (which I would call whiskers, but this is a pony).

I’ve balked at the government emissions-forced trend toward turbo-4-powered performance cars, including the wispy standard four-banger in the $26,000 Mustang. The RS engine is not that four. Heck, this RS-derived engine has more output than the Mustang GT just a decade ago, and a personality to match. Bury the throttle through a tunnel — say, under Cobo after a long day at work — and hear the active exhaust erupt, gurgle and bang through the big quad exhaust pipes.

Papa Mustang and Mama RS would be proud of their little hellion. Just call him HiPo.

2020 Ford Mustang Ecoboost High Performance Package

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, four-passenger coupe and convertible

Price: Base price $32,760, including $1,095 destination charge ($41,570 Coupe Premium as tested)

Powerplant: 2.3-liter turbo 4-cylinder

Power: 330 horsepower, 350 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual; 10-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.5 sec. (mftr.); top speed, 155 mph

Weight: 3,632 pounds, HiPo manual; 3,797 convertible automatic

Fuel economy: EPA: 20 city/27 highway/23 combined (coupe manual, convertible automatic)

Report card

Highs: Athletic handling, performance at an affordable price

Lows: Cloth seats stiff for long hauls, convertible not as athletic

Overall: 4 stars

Cartoon: Biden and his son in Ukraine

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 25, 2019

Payne: Ford brings back hybrid option for new Escape, and it’s a winner

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 25, 2019

The 2020 Ford Escape Sport Hybrid comes with blacked-out grille and windows, a digital instrument cluster and 198 horsepower.

The 2020 Ford Escape Sport Hybrid comes with blacked-out grille and windows, a digital instrument cluster and 198 horsepower. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

Ford’s two best-selling vehicles, the F-150 pickup and Escape SUV, may target different customers but they have traditionally relied on the same recipe: high-tech with high-design.

The F-150 is a tech-tastic smorgasbord of industry bests like trailer park-assist and stump-pulling towing. So, too, Escape, which introduced self-park-assist and kick-open tailgate gizmos that took many luxury brands years to emulate.

In 2015 the F-150 introduced its greatest tech confection yet — an eco-friendly aluminum-skin souffle — and customers loved it. Right on cue, here comes the Escape with its own daring entree: a hybrid powertrain targeted not at granola chewers, but at the meat of its customer base.

In fact, the hybrid model isn’t pitched as a green exotic. It simply stuffs the battery-electric, 198-horse drivetrain into its signature Sport model and dares you to like it.

I do.

I’ll leave it to the bean counters as to whether a $29,000 hybrid makes financial sense (Ford has to sell a lot of hybrids to meet federal fuel-economy regulations), but as a vehicle the hybrid — er, Sport Hybrid — is the Escape’s best option.

This is one good-looking geek. It might rival my handsome class-favorite Mazda CX-5 if only it handled like a Mazda. I’ll have to wait on the Escape ST for that, I guess.

The Escape has been a mainstay of small sport-utilities since the turn of the century. But it’s been a distant fourth in sales to the Japanese Big Three of Toyota (RAV4), Nissan (Rogue) and Honda (CR-V).

This despite Escape’s consistently brainiac entries.

That included a hybrid back in 2005, beating that darling of hybrid first-adopters, Toyota, to the menu by 11 years. Alas, Ford squandered the opportunity (an all-too familiar Detroit tale) and abandoned the Escape hybrid in 2012 due to poor sales. No wonder. The ’12 Escape hybrid  (which I recently flogged as a New York City taxi with 400,000 miles on the odometer), was $10,000 more expensive than the standard Escape, with less cargo room due to the battery.

More: Road test: A 2012 Ford Hybrid New York taxi with 400,000 miles

For 2020, the Escape has gone back to the drawing board. The result: an Escape designed from the get-go to take hybrid technology (just as Ford designs Mustangs with the asphalt-pawing GT350 in mind). This greenie is a no-compromise hybrid with the battery stored in the floor so as not to elbow in on cargo or cabin space.

Which is important because the new Escape is every golf foursome’s dream.

I can’t tell you how many women have approached me over the years asking for compact utes that fit four golf bags. Behold, the new Escape (Ford expects a 60%-plus female buyer mix) which will stack four easily and still provide the best rear legroom in class. I’m not making this up.

Thanks to rail-mounted rear seats that slide backward like the fronts, my 6-foot-5 frame could easily sit behind myself. Ford even scallops out the front seatbacks for more knee room.

Better yet, the Sport Hybrid’s electric motor helps make 200 horsepower (16 more than the base 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine) while smoothing out the ubiquitous stop-start stall that is the most hated feature in automotive today. Speaking of smooth, the hybrid mates a sippy CVT transmission to the gas engine, which contributes to seamless (if slower) acceleration compared to the standard, eight-speed tranny.

Ford then wraps this smart package in an exterior shell reminiscent of the Porsche Macan.

The Fusion looked like an Aston, the Explorer like a Land Rover and now Escape does Porsche. It looks sharp. It’s the cure for the common five-door.

I could gaze into Escape’s big, beautiful peepers for hours. Like the Mazda CX-5, this is a car that, unlike the homelier RAV4 and CR-V, won’t make you pine for luxury. It spells out E-S-C-A-P-E across its tookus, an upscale touch. And even the standard 1.5-liter car comes with dual tailpipes. Classy.

Hybrid Sport goes a step further with the best-looking wardrobe of the line. It’s better-looking than the $33,000 Titanium package. Starting at $29,000, the Escape SE Sport Hybrid gets a blacked-out grille, wheels (upgradable to 19-inch dishes) and window trim.

Comparably equipped, my $34,000 Escape tester was cheaper than a RAV4 hybrid while adding upscale touches like leatherette seats and big wheels. Though that’s still a grand above the bargain leather-throned Soul Red Mazda CX-5 hottie (in part because Mazda eschews hybrid for a slick-shifting four-banger).

This being an SUV, Escape is lathered with black fender cladding (ugh). But paint it Velocity Blue or Rapid Red and you’ll be the envy of the block.

Inside, the hybrid comes standard with the Escape’s modern 12-inch digital display stolen right out of a Lincoln Aviator, with cool Drive Mode graphics and readouts tracking hybrid kilowatts/horsepower while you head up a hill. Dude, that’s dope.

Dude, I wish it was as dope to drive.

Where the tight Mazda CX-5 begs to be flogged, the Escape will make you wish you were back in a Fusion sedan. Despite a 200-pound diet over the previous generation and isolated rear subframe, Escape is mid-pack in the handling department.

Most drivers will appreciate the sub-frame’s contributions to cabin quietness and smooth ride — speed-crazed motorheads will buy performance sedans to get their handling jollies.

As the interior quiet and roominess suggests Escape is obsessive about ergonomics. Importing the electronic, rotary shifter from Fusion (similar to Jeeps) opens acres of space for deep console bin storage as well as a deep dish for keys, change or a Big Mac. Lack of console space was a drawback in previous Escapes. No more.

Steering-wheel buttons are intuitive, and the interior design is clean and spare like the exterior — save for the curious, dimpled door inserts.

Sport Hybrid aside, customers can choose the terrific, entry-level turbo-3 cylinder with 180 horsepower — on par with similar class four-bangers (the Mazda CX-5 does 187 ponies) — and a color palette that includes a yummy Dark Persian Green.

For the tech-thirsty, a top-trim, 250-horse turbo-4 Titanium boasts neat Ford tricks like kick-open tailgate and self-park assist.

The Titanium can get pricey, but if you frequent crowded cities with parallel parking, consider it for its self-park ability alone. Escape will meticulously park itself with the touch of a button — no fender rubs, no curb-scarred wheels.

For Ford customers who lament the passing of the prom-queen Fusion sedan, the Escape is worth a look.

2020 Ford Escape

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

Price: Base price $26,080 including $900 destination charge ($34,240 SE Sport Hybrid, $36,025 SEL 2.0L, $40,070 Titanium 2.0L as tested)

Powerplant: 1.5-liter turbocharged 3-cylinder, hybrid with electric motor and 2.5-liter Atkinson 4-cylinder, or 2.0-liter turbo 4-cylinder

Power: 181 horsepower, 190 pound-feet of torque (1.5-liter); 200 horsepower, NA pound-feet of torque (hybrid); 250 horsepower, 280 pound-feet of torque (2.0-liter)

Transmission: 8-speed automatic, continuously variable transmission (CVT)

Performance: 0-60 mph, NA; towing 3,500 pounds (2.0L), 1,500 pounds (hybrid)

Weight: 3,299 pounds base (3,706 AWD Sport Hybrid as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA, 26 mpg city/31 highway/28 combined (1.5 liter AWD); 23 mpg city/31 highway/26 combined (2.0-liter AWD); EPA for hybrid NA — 35.1 mpg observed by Detroit News in spirited highway/back road driving (Sport Hybrid)

Report card

Highs: Sporty looks, hybrid value

Lows: Slow infotainment screen; CVT tranny slows hybrid off the line

Overall: 4 stars

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Payne: Ford brings back hybrid option for new Escape, and it’s a winner

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 20, 2019

The 2020 Ford Escape Sport Hybrid comes with blacked-out grille and windows, a digital instrument cluster and 198 horsepower.

The 2020 Ford Escape Sport Hybrid comes with blacked-out grille and windows, a digital instrument cluster and 198 horsepower. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

Ford’s two best-selling vehicles, the F-150 pickup and Escape SUV, may target different customers but they have traditionally relied on the same recipe: high-tech with high-design.

The F-150 is a tech-tastic smorgasbord of industry bests like trailer park-assist and stump-pulling towing. So, too, Escape, which introduced self-park-assist and kick-open tailgate gizmos that took many luxury brands years to emulate.

In 2015 the F-150 introduced its greatest tech confection yet — an eco-friendly aluminum-skin souffle — and customers loved it. Right on cue, here comes the Escape with its own daring entree: a hybrid powertrain targeted not at granola chewers, but at the meat of its customer base.

In fact, the hybrid model isn’t pitched as a green exotic. It simply stuffs the battery-electric, 198-horse drivetrain into its signature Sport model and dares you to like it.

I do.

I’ll leave it to the bean counters as to whether a $29,000 hybrid makes financial sense (Ford has to sell a lot of hybrids to meet federal fuel-economy regulations), but as a vehicle the hybrid — er, Sport Hybrid — is the Escape’s best option.

This is one good-looking geek. It might rival my handsome class-favorite Mazda CX-5 if only it handled like a Mazda. I’ll have to wait on the Escape ST for that, I guess.

The Escape has been a mainstay of small sport-utilities since the turn of the century. But it’s been a distant fourth in sales to the Japanese Big Three of Toyota (RAV4), Nissan (Rogue) and Honda (CR-V).

This despite Escape’s consistently brainiac entries.

That included a hybrid back in 2005, beating that darling of hybrid first-adopters, Toyota, to the menu by 11 years. Alas, Ford squandered the opportunity (an all-too familiar Detroit tale) and abandoned the Escape hybrid in 2012 due to poor sales. No wonder. The ’12 Escape hybrid  (which I recently flogged as a New York City taxi with 400,000 miles on the odometer), was $10,000 more expensive than the standard Escape, with less cargo room due to the battery.

More: Road test: A 2012 Ford Hybrid New York taxi with 400,000 miles

For 2020, the Escape has gone back to the drawing board. The result: an Escape designed from the get-go to take hybrid technology (just as Ford designs Mustangs with the asphalt-pawing GT350 in mind). This greenie is a no-compromise hybrid with the battery stored in the floor so as not to elbow in on cargo or cabin space.

Which is important because the new Escape is every golf foursome’s dream.

I can’t tell you how many women have approached me over the years asking for compact utes that fit four golf bags. Behold, the new Escape (Ford expects a 60%-plus female buyer mix) which will stack four easily and still provide the best rear legroom in class. I’m not making this up.

Thanks to rail-mounted rear seats that slide backward like the fronts, my 6-foot-5 frame could easily sit behind myself. Ford even scallops out the front seatbacks for more knee room.

Better yet, the Sport Hybrid’s electric motor helps make 200 horsepower (16 more than the base 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine) while smoothing out the ubiquitous stop-start stall that is the most hated feature in automotive today. Speaking of smooth, the hybrid mates a sippy CVT transmission to the gas engine, which contributes to seamless (if slower) acceleration compared to the standard, eight-speed tranny.

Ford then wraps this smart package in an exterior shell reminiscent of the Porsche Macan.

The Fusion looked like an Aston, the Explorer like a Land Rover and now Escape does Porsche. It looks sharp. It’s the cure for the common five-door.

I could gaze into Escape’s big, beautiful peepers for hours. Like the Mazda CX-5, this is a car that, unlike the homelier RAV4 and CR-V, won’t make you pine for luxury. It spells out E-S-C-A-P-E across its tookus, an upscale touch. And even the standard 1.5-liter car comes with dual tailpipes. Classy.

Hybrid Sport goes a step further with the best-looking wardrobe of the line. It’s better-looking than the $33,000 Titanium package. Starting at $29,000, the Escape SE Sport Hybrid gets a blacked-out grille, wheels (upgradable to 19-inch dishes) and window trim.

Comparably equipped, my $34,000 Escape tester was cheaper than a RAV4 hybrid while adding upscale touches like leatherette seats and big wheels. Though that’s still a grand above the bargain leather-throned Soul Red Mazda CX-5 hottie (in part because Mazda eschews hybrid for a slick-shifting four-banger).

This being an SUV, Escape is lathered with black fender cladding (ugh). But paint it Velocity Blue or Rapid Red and you’ll be the envy of the block.

Inside, the hybrid comes standard with the Escape’s modern 12-inch digital display stolen right out of a Lincoln Aviator, with cool Drive Mode graphics and readouts tracking hybrid kilowatts/horsepower while you head up a hill. Dude, that’s dope.

Dude, I wish it was as dope to drive.

Where the tight Mazda CX-5 begs to be flogged, the Escape will make you wish you were back in a Fusion sedan. Despite a 200-pound diet over the previous generation and isolated rear subframe, Escape is mid-pack in the handling department.

Most drivers will appreciate the sub-frame’s contributions to cabin quietness and smooth ride — speed-crazed motorheads will buy performance sedans to get their handling jollies.

As the interior quiet and roominess suggests Escape is obsessive about ergonomics. Importing the electronic, rotary shifter from Fusion (similar to Jeeps) opens acres of space for deep console bin storage as well as a deep dish for keys, change or a Big Mac. Lack of console space was a drawback in previous Escapes. No more.

Steering-wheel buttons are intuitive, and the interior design is clean and spare like the exterior — save for the curious, dimpled door inserts.

Sport Hybrid aside, customers can choose the terrific, entry-level turbo-3 cylinder with 180 horsepower — on par with similar class four-bangers (the Mazda CX-5 does 187 ponies) — and a color palette that includes a yummy Dark Persian Green.

For the tech-thirsty, a top-trim, 250-horse turbo-4 Titanium boasts neat Ford tricks like kick-open tailgate and self-park assist.

The Titanium can get pricey, but if you frequent crowded cities with parallel parking, consider it for its self-park ability alone. Escape will meticulously park itself with the touch of a button — no fender rubs, no curb-scarred wheels.

For Ford customers who lament the passing of the prom-queen Fusion sedan, the Escape is worth a look.

2020 Ford Escape

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

Price: Base price $26,080 including $900 destination charge ($34,240 SE Sport Hybrid, $36,025 SEL 2.0L, $40,070 Titanium 2.0L as tested)

Powerplant: 1.5-liter turbocharged 3-cylinder, hybrid with electric motor and 2.5-liter Atkinson 4-cylinder, or 2.0-liter turbo 4-cylinder

Power: 181 horsepower, 190 pound-feet of torque (1.5-liter); 200 horsepower, NA pound-feet of torque (hybrid); 250 horsepower, 280 pound-feet of torque (2.0-liter)

Transmission: 8-speed automatic, continuously variable transmission (CVT)

Performance: 0-60 mph, NA; towing 3,500 pounds (2.0L), 1,500 pounds (hybrid)

Weight: 3,299 pounds base (3,706 AWD Sport Hybrid as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA, 26 mpg city/31 highway/28 combined (1.5 liter AWD); 23 mpg city/31 highway/26 combined (2.0-liter AWD); EPA for hybrid NA — 35.1 mpg observed by Detroit News in spirited highway/back road driving (Sport Hybrid)

Report card

Highs: Sporty looks, hybrid value

Lows: Slow infotainment screen; CVT tranny slows hybrid off the line

Overall: 4 stars

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Cartoon: McCarthy NYTimes and Kavanaugh

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Payne: In Outback’s shadow, Subaru Legacy is a bargain AWD sedan

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 12, 2019

The 2020 Subaru Legacy Sport is an aggressive-looking beast with black wheels and trim - but it doesn't come with Subaru's  more powerful turbo-4 engine.

The 2020 Subaru Legacy Sport is an aggressive-looking beast with black wheels and trim – but it doesn’t come with Subaru’s more powerful turbo-4 engine.

Pity the Subaru Legacy sedan.

It has a hard enough time competing for dates in SUV Nation, but it also has to compete against its sibling Outback. Separated at birth, the Outback and Legacy share the same DNA, platform and electronics — except the Outback got jacked up by 8.7 inches to SUV status and became the fun, outdoors-loving, best-selling big man on campus. Its dance card is full every weekend.

To make matters worse, the Outback went out and got plastic surgery.

Legacy was always the better-looking sibling with its sleek roofline and Sport trim and athletic stance. But for its sixth generation, the Outback got Botox shots that cleaned up its lumpy face, toned down its love handles and — this one really hurts — picked up the same Sport trim as Legacy.

The new Outback has cool black highlights, black wheels, blacked-out window pillars, the full Sport treatment. And to rub it in, the Outback calls its sport trim Onyx.

The Legacy could wallow in self-pity, but it knows its strengths and builds on them for its own next-generation makeover.

For 2020, Legacy is more athletic, more attractive and more of an all-wheel-drive bargain than ever. The Outback may have more rugged sex appeal than Russell Crowe, but it comes at a $4,000 premium. The Legacy is a cheap date with quick moves that will get you to dinner and a movie on time.

Sedan sales may be down compared to sport utilities, but the Legacy is evidence they are still the best bargain on the showroom floor. For us aesthetically minded penny pinchers, the midsize sedan is one heckuva deal.

Like the best-in-segment Honda Accord sedan, the Legacy offers standard luxury features and handling for about $25,000. Indeed, these sedans’ amenities are so good that luxury buyers have to think long and hard whether Audi’s four-rings ($54,000 for a base A6) or Acura’s caliper logo ($33,000 for a base TLX) are worth the hit to the bank account.

For the same price as a base Honda LX, the $25,895 Legacy Premium echoes with standard — standard! — adaptive cruise-control, lane-keep assist and 11.6-inch, Tesla-like console screen. Good luck finding those features on equivalent luxury models for under $50,000.

With a press of the adaptive cruise-control button on the steering wheel, the Legacy competently self-drove through heavy California traffic (is there any other kind?), with lane-centering, braking for the car in front of me and accelerating automatically. It allowed me to negotiate the big console screen to adjust temperature, seat heater, navigation directions (Apple CarPlay/Android Auto also standard) and … um, the start-stop button.

For a brand synonymous with its “Love” ad campaign, Subaru is surprisingly obtuse about Americans’ hatred of start-stop, which makes cars stall at stoplights in order to get credits toward federal fuel-economy regulations.

BMW, VW and Mercedes love their customers so much they put the start-stop button right next to the on-off button so drivers can shut it off as soon as they get in the car. Subaru buries it deep in the infotainment screen. Sigh.

Love returns when you hit the gas pedal. Built on Subaru’s excellent new Global Architecture, the Legacy benefits just as the compact Impreza sedan and Outback before it.

With an impressive 70% improvement in torsional rigidity thanks to high-strength steel and lots of glue (the new, new engineering thing), Legacy rotated nicely through California’s Ojai Mountain twisties (like Hell, Michigan, except miles longer).

Venture off-road and the Legacy can go confidently where few other sedans dare with its standard (there’s that word again) all-wheel drive. Muddy, pockmarked national-park dirt roads are no problem with Legacy’s torque-vectoring AWD — all four corners are always spinning to get you out of trouble.

This is Legacy’s secret sauce. And though the sedan segment may be shrinking, Subaru sees it as a tasty alternative as Detroit manufacturers leave the segment. Chrysler long ago headed for the weeds and the fetching Ford Fusion (with Altima, the only other automaker that offers all-wheel drive in the segment) is scheduled for the scrap heap. Only the Subaru comes – yup – standard with AWD in the segment.

If you’re a Midwesterner facing all-season weather, that’s a welcome sight for a $23,000 base sedan.

Dress the Legacy in my favorite Sport trim and it’s ready for a night on the town for about $30,000. And bring friends. I could sit behind myself comfortably in the back seat, 6-foot-6 frame and all. Continuing the interior upgrade, the Legacy has gained a healthy 1.4 inches of rear leg room despite no wheelbase length change.

While the interior has had a full remake, the outside is familiar save for a rimless grille here, a higher beltline there. The biggest exterior alteration is – typical Subaru – value-driven. The rear trunk opening has been stretched allowing for four full-size bags to fit in the trunk where only three did before. Clever.

The conservative styling bucks the segment trend in which Accord, Hyundai Sonata, and Toyota Camry sexed up their offerings to keep their customers’ cheating eyes riveted on sedans. If Legacy were ice cream, it would be vanilla. That’s a gamble, especially in light of brother Outback’s better looks.

Also a gamble is the bet that performance-minded customers (like me) won’t miss its flat-6 engine.

In a crowded segment, the six’s throaty roar was a siren song for customers looking to upgrade from the base 2.5-liter four-banger’s dull buzz. To improve fuel economy, pricier Legacys (designated LX) get turbocharged 2.4-liter fours to match the Accord’s 2.0-liter turbo-4.

But the turbo remains mated to the same CVT transmission as the standard 2.5-liter four-cylinder, whereas the Accord moves to a 10-speed and the Mazda 6 boasts one of the silkiest 6-speeds you’ll ever encounter.

Even King Accord’s own Sport model shows up my favorite Subaru Sport with a more powerful standard engine and optional stick shift. Price? The same. Both cars are made in the midwest (Accord in Ohio, Legacy in Indiana). Both have more rear seat room than Delta Comfort.

So Legacy makes its case with that secret-sauce AWD. It is catnip in the upper Midwest, save for one thing: Sibling Outback also has AWD. And that lah-dee-dah Onyx model, unlike Legacy’s Sport, gets the 260-horse turbo engine.

Curse you, twin brother.

2020 Subaru Legacy

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger midsize sedan

Price: Base price $23,645 including $900 destination charge ($30,090 Sport as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter 4-cylinder or 2.4-liter turbo 4-cylinder

Power: 182 horsepower, 176 pound-feet of torque (2.5-liter); 260 horsepower, 277 pound-feet of torque (turbo-4)

Transmission: Continuously variable transmission (CVT)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.1 sec. (manufacturer estimate for turbo-4); top speed, 130 mph

Weight: 3,523 pounds (Sport as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA: 27 city/35 highway/30 combined (2.5-liter); 24 city/32 highway/27 combined (turbo-4)

Report card

Highs: AWD sedan bargain, Tesla-like screen

Lows: Vanilla exterior; start-stop switch off hard to find

Overall: 3 stars