Henry Payne Blog

Payne: Mid-engine Corvette wows as a daily driver

Posted by Talbot Payne on August 8, 2020

The Made in America supercar. The 2020 Chevy Corvette, assembled in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

The Made in America supercar. The 2020 Chevy Corvette, assembled in Bowling Green, Kentucky. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

The Corvette C8.R race car has been an instant success, winning three of its first four races against its formidable Porsche and BMW competition. In no small part that’s due to its mid-engine layout.

“Going to mid-engine C8.R (from front-engine C7.R) is night and day difference. It feels like a proper race car the way you drive it, you can really attack corners and be aggressive with it,” Corvette team driver Jordan Taylor told me ahead of his team’s 1-2 finish at Sebring on July 18.

I can attest to that in the production car as well, which I have driven in anger around GM’s Nevada race track. But the real genius of the first Corvette to put the engine behind its driver can’t be fully appreciated until you’ve lived with it as a daily driver.

At $72,000, my base tester Corvette C8 was drop-dead gorgeous, quick as lightning, yet a practical mule for a weekend road trip up north.

And the next generation is in love with it.

“This is a chick magnet,” said my 20-something friend Kevin (about the same age as Jordan Taylor) as we cruised down M-32 near Traverse City. “I got to take a picture for my brother, he talks about this car all the time.”

Millennials like Kevin and his brother were a big reason GM made the mid-engine Corvette. As the 21st century dawned, chief engineer Tadge Juechter and his elves had stretched the front-engine concept as far is it could go. A new generation had been raised on sexy mid-engine Ferraris, McLarens and Ford GTs. Put a mid-engine Corvette on their dorm wall and they would covet that, too.

Especially since you can buy four C8s for the price of one Ferrari 488. Same rapid-fire dual-clutch transmission, same eight cylinders, same 0-60 time.

“Gaaaah! I love the sound of that engine!” exclaimed Kevin as we used launch control to rocket from 0-60 mph in about 3 seconds.

That’s been Corvette’s genius for years — using GM’s parts bin to create a supercar many times cheaper than its competition. The pushrod V-8 is fundamentally the same small block that powers thousands of Chevy and GMC trucks. The infotainment system is shared with the Chevy Equinox.

But that sharing was a double-edged sword for Corvette, giving it a reputation as a poor man’s sports car. The C8 sheds that baggage. This rocket is one of the world’s best supercars, regardless of cost.

Start from the inside out.

I blanched at the chemical smell that greeted me every time I opened the last-generation C7’s door. It reeked of lack of attention to detail. The smell is gone in the C8 — solved, say engineers, by “pre-baking” materials before installation.

What I notice instead is the jaw-dropping interior. It’s better than the Ferrari 488, the McLaren 570 and the Audi R8 — all cars that cost at least twice as much as C8. The C8 beats these giants in digital switchgear — and personality.

The ’Vette wraps its driver in a unique environment with a square steering wheel (to better see the big digital dash), “trigger” shifter, clever climate controls and an instrument display that changes as you toggle through six drive modes, from Tour to Z mode (more on that later).

It adds luxe touches like the OMG-that’s-cool rear camera mirror and a center “ridge” of climate controls. You can even remove the roof if you want (storing it in back like a Ford Bronco stores its doors).

I could have spent all day inside. And did.

The interior loses nothing in size from the front-engine car, meaning it fits 6-foot-5, 230-pound basketball players like me. On I-75 north of Saginaw I had to pull over to file a breaking news story. In other sports cars, I might have searched for a coffee shop. Not the C8.

So space efficient is the ’Vette that I was carrying a luggage bag in the “frunk,” tennis racquet bag/cooler/briefcase in the trunk, and an iRacing steering wheel/pedals in the passenger foot well.

I turned on the ’Vette’s 4G Wi-Fi and wrote the story on my laptop from the passenger seat in a service station parking lot.

A day later, two 20-somethings towing Jet Skis ogled the Corvette as I emerged from an ice cream shop.

“It looks awesome in the flesh,” exclaimed one.

“You should see the interior,” I said.

“I already looked,” came the reply. “It’s really cool.”

They will be able to afford one in a few years as C8 volumes rise and their used prices drop into the $40,000 range with high mileage. Can’t expect that from a European supercar.

Though the sheet metal is busy, the design should wear well. Proportions are impeccable, the look distinctly Corvette.

Its livability will endear it to 30,000-plus buyers a year. It looks good. Rides great. But for those who want to push it, the C8 also transcends its predecessors in balance and tech.

Engineers managed to squeeze another 35 horsepower from the ol’ V8 nail to a healthy 495. Place it over the rear wheels for better traction, marry it to a lightning-quick eight-speed gearbox, and it’s magic.

Over Charlevoix County’s rural roads I did multiple launch-control 0-60 burnouts. It’s as thrilling as a Cedar Point roller coaster. Where the old C7 felt like you were hanging on to a rodeo bull, the C8 is on rails. Warning: Like a Cedar Point roller-coaster, it wants to go to the moon. Beware instant triple-digit speeds that local cops will frown upon.

Thrills come standard without moving up to the $5,000 Z51 performance track package. Drive modes allow you to explore multiple personalities. Luffing through the quiet town of East Jordan, I kept the Corvette in “My Mode” where I had set the engine to Stealth so as not to attract attention.

Outside of town, the roads turned twisty. Z Mode time.

Pre-programmed in the touchscreen like My Mode, Z Mode allows you to instantly switch to preferred performance settings. I like Track settings — steering, suspension, engine note — but without turning off traction control should I encounter gravel or a slick patch of road.

Over hills and turns, the Corvette was a treat. This is a big car at 182 inches long and 3,647 pounds, so it can’t be flung about like a Porsche Cayman or Alfa Romeo 4C. But its bandwidth as a people-mover outdoes those smaller, comparably priced mid-engine rivals.

That’s Corvette’s secret sauce. Now more than ever.

2020 Chevrolet Corvette

Vehicle type: Mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive, two-passenger sports car

Price: $59,995 including $1,095 destination fee ($72,075 as tested)

Powerplant: 6.2-liter V-8

Power: 495 horsepower, 470 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 2.9 seconds (mfr.); top speed, 184 mph

Weight: 3,647 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA, 15 mpg city/27 highway/19 combined

Report card

Highs: Looks like a Ferrari for the price; superior interior

Lows: Poor rear visibility; no adaptive cruise control

Overall: 4 stars

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Odd couple: Audi S5 Sportback vs. Dodge Charger Scat Pack Plus

Posted by Talbot Payne on July 30, 2020

My comparison cars this week have much in common. They are muscle models from notable performance brands. They bear fresh, head-swiveling colors: one District Green, the other Sinamon Stick red. Both have elegant “T” shifters, sculpted 20-inch wheels, elevated sticker prices and multiple words in their badges.

Yet the stunning Audi S5 Sportback and Dodge Charger Scat Pack Plus will rarely be cross-shopped.

Despite their focus on raw speed, their branding is aimed at entirely different customers. They are monuments to sales savvy, of the ability of marketing geniuses to conjure emotion for sheet metal. If they appeared in the movie “Caddyshack,” the Audi would be driven by Chevy Chase and the Charger by Rodney Dangerfield.

True to those stereotypes, these two hot rods satisfy their customers in dramatically different ways while arriving at 60 mph at the same time: just over 4 seconds.

After flogging them all over Michigan, I found them as divergent as German chocolate and American apple pie with a big scoop of ice cream.

The S5 Sportback is the performance version of the A5 Sportback, one of the most elegant designs in autodom. An offspring of the A7, which combines hatchback utility with fastback sex appeal, the compact-sized A5 is a class smaller while giving away little in the beauty department.

My S5 swan manages to be even more alluring than the standard A5. Credit its color — as irresistible as Jaguar’s British Racing Green — shard-spoked wheels, blacked-out grille and mirror caps, quad pipes. It turned a lot of heads across Oakland County.

But its performance was more understated, matching its buttoned-up clientele. Under the hood was a 349-horse turbocharged V-6 — a nice step up from the standard A5’s 228-horse turbo-4, but shy of the ultimate, 444-horse six-shooter in the RS5 Sportback. Like the Cadillac CT5-V I recently tested, the S5 aims to find that performance sweet spot between boulevard cruiser and track monster.

Its behavior is sweet, too. Not too tart, not too bland. Fire it up and the Audi authoritatively clears its throat like the host of a formal meal. I punched the Drive Mode to Dynamic (Comfort, Auto and Individual are also available), and the driveline subtly firmed with a dab of rev match on downshifts. Bravo, sir.

Not the Charger.

Turn the key — SNORRT! — and it’ll wake the neighbors (“What is that noise you’re driving?” asked mine). Growling at idle it sounds like a T. rex that hasn’t been fed for a week. If the Audi is eye-catching, then the Charger is in-your-face. The standard Charger is menacing enough, but Scat Pack turns the dial to 11. The front end is littered with air intakes, topped off by a big ice cream — er — hood scoop.

The fenders are swollen with Dodge’s Widebody treatment, like biceps from obsessive gym workouts. Charger is tattooed with badges — a Scat Pack Super Bee in the front grille, “392-Hemi” on its flanks.

That 392 means 392 cubic inches — 6.4 liters of V-8 muscle — which is the Scat Pack’s secret sauce. Like the S5 Sportback, the 392 is middle ground between the standard V-6 Charger and the insane 707-horse Charger SRT Hellcat which starts at the same price as the Audi S5 ($69,000) and will turn your hair white with its off-the-charts power and demonic supercharger whine at full throttle.

With 485 horsepower and 475 pound-feet of torque, Scat Pack packs plenty of punch.

Prowling the M-32 two-lane west of Gaylord, Michigan, the big V-8’s power was instantly accessible when needed. WAAAUUURRGGH! … and I was past slower traffic in the blink of an eye. The eight-speed transmission clicked off quick shifts while the speedo approached triple digits. The sound was deafening, my goosebumps an inch high.

The Audi’s eight-speed automatic is also silky smooth, but the engine exhibits noticeable turbo lag before its 349 ponies hooked up for quick passes. The American V-8 is an endangered species, long live the American V-8.

Through the twisty bits the mid-size A5 antelope is noticeably lighter, more agile. The Audi is aided by all-wheel drive which helps put down traction on corner exit. It tips the scales at a porky 3,925 pounds — but that’s still 400 pounds lighter than the full-size rear-wheel drive Charger elephant.

Jump in the elephant after the antelope and it’s noticeably more physical. But thanks to modern electronics — and a Scat Pack full of suspension upgrades — Charger is remarkably nimble at speed. The Widebody mod adds 3.5-inches of track width for better stability and fat Pirelli P-Zeros increase confidence with very corner.

With all 485 horses fed through the rear wheels, power application requires more care than the Audi. Charger’s electronic Mode selector tweaks suspension and powertrain dynamics to suit your style. I preferred Individual mode, tuning everything to Track (the steering is magnificent) while leaving the traction-control on to manage torque.

Its remarkable to have these electronic gizmos at your fingertips in a Dodge — same as a German chariot. It’s a big reason the gap between luxury and mainstream has shrunk so dramatically over the last decade.

That and the interior. The Audi cockpit is a lovely place to spend time, but so is the Dodge. Both have consoles wrapped in carbon-fiber trim. Both have Alcantara/leather thrones and useful cubby space. Audi’s premium appeal is in its digital displays which I always geek out over: configurable screens, Google Earth behind the steering wheel … oooooh.

But on trips, I used Android Auto in both cars. The Audi’s nav system isn’t up to speed with smartphones so Google Maps takes over its fancy center screen. Same as Charger.

The Audi’s interior is more serene thanks to its more, um, gentlemanly engine note. But if your passengers don’t mind that, the Charger gives ’em 5 more inches of rear leg space (35 vs. 40 inches). The S5 strikes back with its yuge cargo bay which, thanks to its hatchback design, gains 5 cubic feet of space (21.8 vs. 16.5) over Dodge.

Hatches are one of my favorite things — but they’ll cost ya given their extra engineering. On such little things do these utilitarian muscle cars differ.

But the yawning marketing gap remains. Turbo-6 vs. V-8. Audi vs. Dodge. Violin vs. electric guitar. I think Chevy Chase and Rodney Dangerfield will be very happy with their choices.

2020 Audi S5 Sportback

Vehicle type: Front-engine, five-passenger performance hatchback

Price: $52,895, including $995 destination fee ($69,240 as tested)

Powerplant: 3.0-liter, turbocharged V-6

 Power: 349 horsepower, 369 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.2 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 155 mph

Weight: 3,925 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA, 20 mpg city/27 highway/23 combined

Report card

Highs: Sleek bod; excellent hatchback utility

Lows: Gets pricey; nav system still not up to Google Maps standard

Overall: 3 stars

2020 Dodge Charger Scat Pack Plus

Vehicle type: Front-engine, five-passenger performance sedan

Price: $41,990 including $1,495 destination fee ($54,065 as tested)

Powerplant: 6.4-liter V-8

 Power: 485 horsepower, 475 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.3 seconds (mfr.); top speed, 175 mph

Weight: 4,373 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA, 15 mpg city/24 highway/18 combined

Report card

Highs: Family muscle car; great soundtrack

Lows: Heavy; drinks fuel

Overall: 4 stars

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Payne: Cadillac CT4-V is the best small-luxury driver’s car

Posted by Talbot Payne on July 25, 2020

The 2020 Cadillac CT4-V is a new performance variant of the CT4 - which itself replaces the ATS sedan and debuts in the subcompact segment.

The 2020 Cadillac CT4-V is a new performance variant of the CT4 – which itself replaces the ATS sedan and debuts in the subcompact segment. Henry Payne, The Detroit News

The Cadillac ATS was the best-handling luxury sedan in the compact segment. Only the Alfa Romeo Giulia matched it with rear-wheel drive, scalpel-like handling and chiseled looks.

Yet buyers ignored it.

So Cadillac has rebadged ATS as the CT4, added a V-performance version and dropped it into the subcompact sedan segment where its tight rear legroom isn’t a liability.

I took the 2020 CT4-V to Ohio’s racing mecca, Mid-Ohio race track, to see if would get any attention.

“I love it when you drive up in this car. It’s cool-looking,” said a Mid-Ohio gate attendant as I entered the track Saturday morning for qualifying.

I was racing my own 1990 Lola race car at the annual SVRA Vintage Grand Prix of Mid-Ohio, and I had driven the CT4-V the three hours from Detroit to Lexington, Ohio. For four days, the CT4-V and I came and went from the racing paddock and got plenty of comments. Mostly positive.

The CT4-V performance badge is, like everything but the chassis, new for 2021. The V allows Caddy to compete against the likes of the Audi S3 and the BMW M235i — performance upgrades to standard subcompact models — but without breaking the bank like uber-high performance Audi RS3 and BMW M2 models (Don’t worry speed freaks, the CT4 will eventually get a steroid-fed, $70,000, twin-turbocharged V-6 animal, too).

The CT4-V starts at $45,490 — an $11,500 leap above the entry-level $33,990 CT4. My loaded all-wheel drive tester stickered at $52,640, including the key ingredient: a new, 2.7-liter turbocharged inline-4.

That’s a lot of coin. It’s noticeably more than loaded, comparably equipped performance trims like the $48,300 BMW M235i Gran Coupe, $49,500 Audi S3 or $49,490 Tesla Model 3 AWD.

The sticker price caused pause among my pals. Can Cadillac support that kind of brand premium? Well, no. The CT4-V model should be priced below its German competitors in order to give it a fighting chance against stronger brands.

It does, however, more than match them for performance.

With best-in-class 325 horsepower and face-flattening 380 pound-feet of torque married to a lightning-quick 10-speed transmission, the V in CT4-V stands for “very fun to drive.” Especially on Lexington’s roller-coaster roads.

Like the race track that has made Mid-Ohio an international destination for racers from IndyCar to Trans Am to vintage racing, Lexington’s roads are a twisted delight. Exit flat-as-a-board, four-lane Ohio Route 30, take a two-lane south toward the Clear Fork Reservoir and the driving experience is suddenly transformed. Undulating straightaways meet blind crests that suddenly fall away into sharp downhill turns on the other side.

My athletic CT4-V was made for this. It never put a wheel wrong as I gulped country terrain.

Adding to its capabilities is V-mode, a button on the steering wheel — ripped right out of the mid-engine Corvette (which calls the feature Z-mode) — enabling me to pre-program the chassis settings so they could be changed in an instant from Route 30 cruiser to backroads cheetah. Steering: Track. Drivetrain: Track. Brakes: Sport. A sub-menu accessed by turning off traction control allowed even more electronic tweaking of the suspension and engine systems.

My friend and fellow Lola racer Mark was as addicted to V-mode as I was. He punched the button and the steering noticeably firmed, the Magneride shocks firmed, and the engine note dropped a couple octaves. Hard on the throttle out of a 90-degree turn and the transmission cracked off shifts — BRAP BRAP BRAP — while the torque pinned us in our seats.

Want more? Try launch control, another benefit of Corvette electronics: Toggle to Track mode. Hold the brake at a stoplight. Bury the throttle. Release the brake. The CT4-V rockets to 60 mph in just 4.9 seconds, nearly a full second better than the last-generation ATS equipped with a 325-horse V-6 (though the CT4-V is still shy of the BMW M235i’s 4.7 seconds).

Not as thrilling, though, is the turbo-four engine note, which suffers compared to the old six. Federal nannies are strangling multi-cylinder engines these days (on their way to mandating we all buy Tesla-like EVs), but six-cylinders are still available at this price point — most notably in the rabid Toyota GR Supra that I recently flogged through northern Michigan. A six will eventually be available in the top-line CT4 but it’ll cost ya.

The four-banger’s growl gets digital enhancement inside the CT4 because the thing is so danged quiet.

The cockpit was a pleasant place to be on my trip down to Mid-Ohio. The CT4 is all grown up from its too geeky ATS predecessor. The console has been remade with a touchscreen tablet infotainment display and multiple friendly control points including dial control-knobs for climate controls and a rotary dial to access the screen for those who find touchscreens distracting. Throw in Caddy’s head-up display and it’s all quite useful.

It will all appeal to my Caddy owner friends who have gone noticeably gray dealing with previous, maddening, too-clever haptic-touch systems.

But compared to its competition, the Cadillac noticeably lags in tech.

The voice-command systems of the BMW and Mercedes CLA are noticeably more refined, as are their crisp digital instrument displays. The Audi wows with is configurable instrument display. And then there’s Tesla with its game-changing, minimalist design. It’s a murderer’s row for the relatively average Cadillac interior to face.

And puts a lot of pressure on the rear-wheel drive CT4-V platform.

It’s the driver’s car of the lot, no doubt. Indeed, I’d be tempted to ditch the V-series AWD option were the winters in Michigan not so brutal. The rear-wheel drive system is 130 pounds lighter, which makes CT4 even more athletic. More tossable.

Now in its proper subcompact segment, the rear seat is no longer annoyingly tight. It’s competitive in its segment, and malleable enough to fit my 6-foot-5 stork legs. The exterior design is elegant — it looked like its belonged next to Mark’s Porsche 911 — and the geeky interior console a distant memory.

But there’s a new American kid on the block, Tesla, that’s turning heads now. And those Germans just won’t go away. Keep working at it CT4. V is for “very nearly there.”

2020 Cadillac CT4-V

Vehicle type: Front-engine, five-passenger performance sedan

Price: $45,490 including $995 destination fee ($52,640 AWD as tested)

Powerplant: 2.7-liter, turbo-4

Power: 325 horsepower, 380 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 10-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.9 seconds (AWD CT4-V, mfr.); top speed, 165 mph

Weight: 3,600-3,750 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA, 20 mpg city/28 highway/23 combined

Report card

Highs: Good looks; best-in-class handling

Lows: Infotainment system lags; cheap rotary controller

Overall: 3 stars

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