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Payne: Cadillac CT6 Plug-In vs. Tesla Model S

Posted by hpayne on September 21, 2017


At a single-price, $76,090, the Cadillac CT6 Plug-in

Cadillac established itself as the luxury-car standard at the dawn of the 20th century for innovations like electric self-starting, closed-body styling and powerful V-8 engines.

Spin forward 100 years and upstart Tesla has become the 21st-century innovator.

By reinventing the electric vehicle as a sleek performance machine, Tesla’s Model S has captured the imagination of America’s premium buyer to become one of the best-selling luxury sedans in the States. It has forced its chief rivals — BMW, Audi, Mercedes, Cadillac — to develop their own electron-charged chariots to keep up. Indeed, Cadillac is not only a shadow of its former self, it is in danger of being rendered an anachronism. Tesla has transformed the auto into a smartphone on wheels complete with supercar acceleration, iPad-like touchscreen and spacious interior.

Where young Americans once aspired to Cadillacs, today they covet Tesla.

The brand is omnipresent in big, premium-car coastal markets. Mention to my locker-room pals that I have a Tesla tester and they’ll line up like kids at Cedar Point’s Top Thrill Dragster roller coaster. Aware that its future is at stake — from German and Yankee alike — Cadillac has moved its headquarters to New York City, hired Audi-meister Johan de Nysschen and introduced its best luxury sedan ever.

Its Tesla fighter is the $76,090 Cadillac CT6 Plug-In and I took it had-to-head with the formidable Model S in back-to-back, long-distance tests this summer.

With its lightweight construction, gorgeous styling and battery-assist, the plug-in hybrid version of the CT6 is a thoroughly modern Caddy. It’s also a bargain next to similar Mercedes S-class and BMW 7-series hybrids. But next to the state-of the-art Tesla, it feels sooo 15 minutes ago.

To be clear, my Tesla tester was the top-of-the-line, $152,700 P100D. This legend-in-its-own-time speedster can spring from 0-60 mph in just 2.4 seconds in “Ludicrous” mode. That’s the same time as Ferrari’s $1.2 million LaFerrari supercar. But strip away the P100D’s bigger battery, all-wheel drive, carbon-fiber trim and expensive add-ons like “Bioweapons Defense Mode” (ahem, cabin air-filter) and you get a Model S 75 for the same price as the Caddy.

Nothing else is the same. The Model S crushes the Caddy in every metric — performance, interior space, cool factor — save one: range anxiety, the EV’s kryptonite. The CT-6 Plug-In’s 2.0-liter, turbocharged inline-4 cylinder gasoline engine will get you home even if the battery gets low.

The Tesla lets you know immediately it’s not the usual blind-date. Seductive, wide hips taper to a long front hood anchored by almond-shaped LED headlights. Gone is the original ill-considered, plastic faux-grille (EVs need grilles like animals need gills), replaced by a simple, Tesla graphic. The Tesla’s beak is like a falcon trolling for prey.

Step toward the Model S and its flush, silver door handles step out to meet you. Slip inside and it starts itself (assuming you haven’t already prepped the cockpit with a remote app — a feature the Cadillac shares). The design is Apple-like — elegant and spartan. It’s Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s vision of the iPhone on wheels.

The CT6 is the prettiest Cadillac I’ve laid eyes on, the mature realization of the brand’s edgy Art & Science design language. Its pentagon-shaped grille dominates the front canvas, the headlights artfully pushed to the edges. The theme is repeated inside with an 8-inch pentagon screen, crafted dash, and yacht-like T-shifter. But it looks conventional compared to Tesla’s rendering.

With its simple driveline in the floor, the Model S’s luggage space is yuuuge. Where the Cadillac’s front hood is stuffed with an engine block, the Tesla offers a suitcase-swallowing “frunk.” The CT6’s battery eats up half the trunk and freezes the rear seats in place. The Tesla’s hatchback configuration can seat three or fold flat for acres of space for luggage or on-your-back star-gazing.

Six years after its introduction, the Tesla’s giant 17-inch console screen still gets gasps from the neighbors. There’s nothing like it on the market. Also unique is Tesla’s Google maps navigation, just like a smartphone. It’s the best navigation system on the planet. Why every automaker doesn’t contract with Google is beyond me. Instead, they (including Cadillac) insist on inferior, homemade navigation systems complemented by apps that mimic your phone’s nav. Awkward.

I bark my destination to the Tesla and we’re off like lightning. Talk about merging with authority. Floor the pedal and — ZOT! — instant torque shoots the S into traffic like a harpoon from a gun.

The Caddy is more laborious. Even when fully charged to 31-mile EV range, the battery defers to the turbo-four gas engine for hard acceleration causing a momentary balk as the transmission downshifts (the buzz of a four-cylinder doesn’t become a $75,000 chariot, either).

Through the hills, both vehicles feel a size smaller. Like 6-foot-10 Kevin Durant knifing through the lane, these are athletes. Despite topping the lightweight CT6 by 400 pounds, the battery-powered Tesla feels more grounded thanks to its Porsche-like, low center-of-gravity.

But the Tesla’s playpen is only as big as the nearest supercharger. The gas-assisted Caddy’s range is limitless.

After electrifying the Pacific Coast with its handling and acceleration, my P100D drank 157 miles of range while covering 90 miles. Arriving at a Mountain View supercharger at 9:30 p.m., all 12 chargers were used with a waiting line four-deep. I shuddered at the thought of tens of thousands of cheaper Model 3s flooding the market next year — even as Tesla doubles its network. I retreated to my son’s apartment complex where a 240-volt Chargepoint station refueled the S for $21 over 101/2 hours.

The CT6’s charge lasted just past Clarkston up Interstate 75, but then I hoofed it the rest of the way to Charlevoix on gasoline.

A Tesla friend from Chicago met me there, sans Tesla. Up North would be a dead end for his Model S (not to mention the hassle of an hour-long, supercharger delay along the way). Charging the Tesla on the 120-volt socket in our weekend cabin would have taken a lifetime (heck, it took 19 hours to fully charge the 30-mile Caddy!), while recharging it on the local utility’s 240-volt teat would render the car nearly useless for the weekend.

So the Caddy wins the long-distance prize. And everyone else learns the limitations of mass-market EVs.

But for those who can afford a $76,000 Tesla or Caddy, they can also spare change for a second, multi-purpose vehicle. For daily use, Tesla is the 21st-century standard.

Once the teacher, the handsome Cadillac is now the student. It has some learning to do.

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

2017 Cadillac CT6 Plug-In





18.4 kWh lithium-ion battery pack with

AC motor; 2.0-liter, turbocharged,

inline-4 cylinder


Continuously variable automatic


4,530 pounds




335 horsepower, 432 pound-feet

torque (total system power)


0-60 mph, 5.2 seconds (mftr.);

78 mph top speed in EV mode

Fuel economy

31 miles on full charge; EPA est.

62 MPe (34.7 total mpg as tested on

383 mile-trip)

Report card





Disappointing acceleration;

battery robs trunk space


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★

Tesla Model S





75-100 kWh lithium-ion battery with

electric motor drive


Single-speed transmission


4,469 pounds (4,941 P100D as tested)


$74,500 Model S 75 base ($152,700

P100D as tested


382 horsepower, 325 pound-feet

torque (605 hp, 687 torque P100D

as tested)


0-60 mph, 4.3 seconds base model

(mnftr.); 2.4 sec., P100D

Fuel economy

Range: 249 miles, base (315

mi. P100D. 157 miles of range to cover

90 miles as tested)

Report card





Less range when driven to capability;

charging infrastructure limitations


Detroit sedans, Tesla Model 3 missing from NACTOY honors

Posted by hpayne on September 15, 2017

Semifinalists for the prestigious 2018 North American Car, Truck and Utility of the Year were announced Friday morning, and the list is as notable for what did not make it as for what did.

For the first time in the award’s 25-year history, not a single Detroit-based automaker is nominated for Car of the Year — a sign of the massive market shift to sport utility vehicles over sedans.

Since the 2008 recession, SUV sales have surged to over 60 percent of market share, with General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. studying whether to end production of full-size and subcompact autos. No new Detroit Three sedans were eligible for this year’s NACTOY selection process.

Ironically, one of the year’s most anticipated vehicles is a sedan, the Tesla Model 3. But Tesla withdrew the Silicon Valley-made electric vehicle, saying it is focused on scaling up production and could not have a car available for jury testing.

GM leads all manufacturers with four nominees in the truck and utility categories. Up for Utility of the Year will be the midsize Buick Enclave, and GM’s Chevrolet division will have three nominees for the NACTOY trophy. The compact Chevy Equinox and mid-size Traverse will compete for best ute while the Colorado ZR2 pickup truck will vie for Truck of the Year honors against the Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator — the only nominees from the Blue Oval stable.

Ford’s stunning GT supercar was deemed ineligible for NACTOY in July due to its low sales volume, its $450,000 sticker price and lack of availability to the general public. Ford has selected all 750 buyers of the GT through an application process.

Also ineligible was Dodge’s halo, 840-horsepower Challenger SRT Demon coupe that has set a production car record 9.65-second quarter-mile time. With the same drivetrain and structure as Dodge’s 707-horse Challenger SRT Hellcat — introduced for the 2015 model year — the Demon is not sufficiently altered to meet NACTOY’s criteria as a separate model.

Other notables vying for top SUV are the Alfa Romeo Stelvio, Honda Odyssey, and VW Atlas and Tiguan. The Stelvio, the Italian brand’s first SUV, will square off against perennial favorites from Audi and BMW. Minivans have also seen their market share crater in the face of the SUV juggernaut, but Honda has doubled down on its popular Odyssey minivan bringing new tech to market like a horizontally-sliding second-row seat. And VW hopes to put Dieselgate in its rear-view mirror with two three-row SUVs tailored for the US market.

Despite its its diminished status, the car category will feature a face-off between two of the industry’s iconic models — the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. Determined to remain relevant (and maintain their 300,000-plus unit sales) in Ute Nation, the two sedans received major chassis, styling, and tech updates for 2018 that blur the distinction between luxury and mainstream sedans.

They will be clear favorites, but other notables in the car class are BMW’s premium benchmark 5-series, the sexy Alfa Romeo Giulia, and athletic Kia Stinger fastback which the Korea automaker has positioned as a halo vehicle for the brand’s sporty vibe.

The NACTOY award is one of the industry’s most prestigious. Some 60 auto experts from the U.S. and Canada, including the author of this article, will evaluate the nominees in October over a week of grueling testing, flogging and eyeballing in the Metro Detroit area.

Three finalists from each category will be selected and announced at the Los Angeles Auto Show in late November. The winners will be unveiled January 14 at the opening of the 2018 Detroit auto show.

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



2018 Alfa Romeo Giulia

2018 Audi A5 Sportback

2017 BMW 5-series

2018 Honda Accord

2017 Hyundai Ioniq

2018 Kia Rio

2018 Kia Stinger

2018 Lexus LC500

2017 Porsche Panamera

2018 Subaru Impreza

2018 Toyota Camry


2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio

2018 Audi Q5/S5

2018 BMW X3

2018 Buick Enclave

2018 Chevrolet Equinox

2018 Chevrolet Traverse

2018 Honda Odyssey

2017 Jeep Compass

2017 Kia Niro

2018 Land Rover Discovery

2017 Mazda CX-5

2018 Subaru Crosstrek

2018 VW Atlas

2018 VW Tiguan

2018 Volvo XC60


2018 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2

2018 Ford Expedition

2018 Lincoln Navigator

Payne: Athletic Terrain breaks GMC truck mold

Posted by hpayne on September 13, 2017


The compact SUV tourney is where it’s at these days. And the big field vying for the big prize money looks like a multinational U.S. Open tennis draw with everyone dressed in the same outfit — all-wheel-drive, five-door utes riding a half-foot off the ground.

Like tennis nationalities — big-serving Americans, steady Spaniards, flamboyant Frenchman — auto brands tend to conform to stereotype. They know what they do well and they bring their A game to family utes. Jeep Cherokee ruggedness, Honda CR-V efficiency, Mazda ZOOM ZOOM, GMC nimbleness.

Wait. … GMC what?

Isn’t GMC a truck brand? A hunky wall of steel that can break through walls and spit nails? A relative newcomer to the small ute segment, GMC is using America’s SUV transformation to do some transforming of its own. The all-new, 2018 GMC Terrain is a breakout vehicle, softening the brand’s truck-tough image and maximizing its premium-grade swagger.

If the stylish GMC Sierra Denali pickup is a Chevy Silverado in a tux, then say hello to Terrain Denali — the compact Chevy Equinox’s stylish brother. Upscale in taste, this GMC competes at the high end of the compact segment with the VW Tiguan and my segment standard, the Mazda CX-5 — two more well-dressed brands that blur the line between mainstream and lux.

The new GMC Acadia I flogged all over Northern Virginia a year ago attempts the same trick in the mid-size space, but its wardrobe falls short when compared to a looker like the Mazda CX-9.

Not so Terrain which the designers have knocked out of the park.

Gone is the first-gen Terrain’s chunky shoulders and square jaw. The bold look is still there — like GMC has been carved from granite. But straying from its truck roots, the Terrain is a riot of expressive details echoing Japanese fashion.

I test drove the compact ute from Pittsburgh to Fallingwater, Pennsylvania — architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece that was heavily influenced by his time in Japan. American animation has also dipped its quill in the Japanese ink well. Add Terrain as a student of Asian fashion.

There’s its “floating roof” C-pillar pioneered by the Nissan Murano and Toyota C-HR crossovers. The canopy’s flowing lines depart from SUV tradition even as it creates a blind spot the size of Rhode Island. Hey, Wright’s Fallingwater created some creature discomforts too. Fortunately, Terrain has the driver covered with safety systems on offer like blind spot assist on all but the base grade.

More Japanese influence appears in back with the Terrain’s signature “C-clamp” taillights bent to stylized “boomerangs” — an echo of Nissan and Honda. The Cs are sprinkled liberally throughout the GMC including the beautifully integrated front fascia with scalloped bodywork cupping the C-clamp peepers and big grille.

Mission accomplished: The designers have our attention.

Inside the design is more truck-like — blocky console screen here, squared-off dash trim there — but I hardly noticed because GMC dug deep to provide a truly untruck-like, high-tech driving experience. Begin with the automatic transmission.

Shift-by-wire systems have liberated engineers from the gated lever (and freed up console space for more storage). Their innovations have run the gamut from balky mono-stable shifters (Chevy Bolt, BMWs) to my preferred rotary dial (Chrysler Pacifica, Ford Fusion Sport). With the Terrain, GMC’s tinkerers have innovated “Electronic Precision Shift” buttons — nicknamed “Trigger” because the reverse and drive buttons are pull tabs.

The buttons are horizontally-arranged on the console — park, reverse, neutral, drive, low — similar to Honda’s vertically-aligned trigger. Simply slip your index and ring fingers into the (most used) reverse and drive slots — then use your thumb and middle finger to access PARK and NEUTRAL buttons. It beats diverting your eyes to a shifter gate.

The nine-speed slushbox at the other end of your DRIVE finger is a treat. While GM’s rear-wheel-drive ten-speed has won huzzahs in the track-stomping Camaro ZL1, the FWD nine-speed has quietly found its way into daily drivers like the Chevy Malibu, Chevy Traverse, and now Terrain.

Mated to either the 1.5-liter or 2.0-liter (an expensive diesel option is also available with the ol’ six-speed) turbocharged engines, it completes a chassis-engine-tranny trifecta that makes this GMC a treat to ride. Sharing the same diet as sibling Chevy Equinox, the Terrain’s chassis has lost a whopping 350 pounds since Gen One. Like Equinox (which proved surprisingly athletic over North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains earlier this year), the Terrain begged to be flogged on the rural roads around Fallingwater.

Through a twisted valley on two-lane, State Route 381, Terrain’s body roll was minimal. Uphill out of a gulch, I encountered traffic, which I obliterated in a passing-line stretch – the tranny downshifting seamlessly to unleash the turbo’s torque.

The experience reminded of my favorite Mazda CX-5 ute — absent the Mazda’s 2.5-liter, normally-aspirated 4-buzzer which shouts under the strain of hard work. You go, turbo. If the Terrain’s handling shatters its trucky image, its VW premium competitor, Tiguan, rebels against family type. Three-row Tiguan is less precise German handlingand more three-row room and comfort.

The GMC hardly neglects the rear passengers, however. My 6’5” inch frame rode comfortably in the backseat with legroom to spare — and if I wanted more the GMC’s front seat will fold flat (a trick borrowed from the Buick Enclave and Chevy Trax) as an Ottoman. Optional rear heated seats and full sunroof further spoil rear-dwellers, making the GMC a nice cross between Mazda sportiness and VW roominess.

Compact ute shoppers will be hard-pressed to find a better value than a fully-loaded Mazda CX-5 (190-horse, adaptive cruise, auto high beam, heads-up display, the works) at $34,060. At that price, GMC offers just the 170-horse, 1.5-liter mill, though its complimentary 9-speed tranny and suite of safety systems makes it a better value than sister Equinox.

Opt for GMC’s chrome-plated Denali edition, however, and it matches V-dub for uptown swagger. Both cars will push north of $40,000, but should make Audi blush for charging $52k for an Audi Q5. The GMC offers Audi Q5 performance (both 2.0-liter turbo-4s produce 252 ponies) and panache for an Audi Q3 price.

Such is the packed draw in today’s five-door ute derby where upstart mainstream brands are as worthy as top, premium seeds. It’s an opportunity for newcomers like GMC — especially newcomers that play way above stereotype.

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

2018 GMC Terrain






1.5-liter inline-4 cylinder;

2.0-liter inline-4; 1.6-liter

turbo-diesel 4-cylinder


9-speed automatic;

6-speed automatic

(with diesel)


3,622 pounds (1.5-liter

AWD); 3,801 pounds

(2.0-liter AWD); 3,815

pounds (diesel AWD)


$28,970 base 1.5-liter

($43,955 2.0-liter Denali

as tested); $32,295

base diesel


170 horsepower, 203

pound-feet torque

(1.5 liter); 252 horsepower,

260 pound-feet torque

(1.5 liter); 137 horsepower,

240 pound-feet torque



0-60 mph, 6.4 seconds

(2.0-liter AWD, Car and

Driver est.); tow capacity:

1,500 pounds (1.5 liter

and diesel); 3,500 (2.0-liter)

Fuel economy

EPA est. 24 mpg city/28

mpg highway/26 combined

(1.5-liter AWD); 21 mpg city

/26 mpg highway/23

combined (2.0 liter AWD);

28 mpg city/39 mpg

highway/32 combined

(diesel AWD)

Report card






“Trigger” shifter not for

everyone; Denali sticker


Payne: Can charging network handle coming EV flood?

Posted by hpayne on September 12, 2017


Chevy Bolt EV sales surged past the Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model X crossover in August, putting it on track to be the best-selling electric vehicle for 2017 after the iconic Tesla Model S sedan.

Now available in Michigan and all 50 states after dealers have received certification since the Bolt went on sale in December, the Chevy’s Tesla-like, 200 plus-mile range for under $40,000 brings a broader demographic of EV buyers.

Yet, the Bolt EV’s estimated 20,000 unit sales volume for 2017 pales compared to the sales tsunami expected from Tesla Inc.’s similarly-priced Model 3 when it goes into production later this year. With over 500,000 pre-orders for the Model 3, Tesla promises production of 20,000 units a month by the end of this year. CEO Elon Musk calls the task of meeting demand “production Hell.”

The flood of new EVs on the road also presents devilish challenges to recharging infrastructure that even now is having a hard time keeping up. Consider my experience in a Tesla Model S P100D last month in Silicon Valley.

I picked up my all-wheel-drive Tesla at the airport with 239 miles of predicted range if driven to the EPA mpg cycle like an overstuffed limousine (Tesla recommends charging to 85 percent of battery capacity to extend the life of the 100 kWh of lithium ion battery pack. The batteries have a 315-mile range).

But the P100D is no limousine. After a day of spirited driving in the four-door rocket ship, I pulled into a Tesla Supercharging Station at 9:30 p.m. having traveled 90 miles but taken 157 miles off the battery, leaving an estimated 82 miles of range. I estimated a half-hour to get my miles back (an advertised 170 miles per ½ hour charging) — but I wasn’t the only one needing juice.

The 12-stall station was full of Model S sedans and Model Xs — over $1 million worth of EVs on electron teets — with a waiting line four deep. One patient owner — she commuted 140 miles a day — said it was typical for a weeknight.

A check of Tesla’s navigation display indicated the nearest Superchargers — in Palo Alto or Fremont (Tesla’s Bay-area manufacturing facility) — were a half-hour away. And this was Silicon Valley, the nation’s EV capital.

A Tesla spokesperson confirmed the high demand the next day. A map in Tesla’s Palo Alto HQ charts the highest-use Superchargers in the world, and nearby Mountain View is No. 1. While Mountain View is a prosperous bedroom community where most owners (average Model S transaction price: $100,000) have installed Level 2, 240-volt chargers at home, many are apartment-dwellers dependent on fast chargers (charging a big battery Tesla on a standard, 120-volt home socket would take four days).

Tesla is doubling its Supercharger infrastructure by the end of this year. But that increase is coming with a ten-fold increase in Model 3 production volume — a buyer demographic more likely to live in apartments.

I retreated to my son’s apartment in neighboring Sunnyvale where I charged overnight at a 240-volt, Level 2 Chargepoint station. After 10½ hours I was back to 282 miles of range at a cost of $21.

“The charging infrastructure is still quite a mountain to climb,” says Karl Brauer, an auto analyst with Kelley Blue Book.

In Metro Detroit there is currently only a Supercharger, in Ann Arbor. Other EVs like the 238-mile range Bolt EV or 150-mile, 2018 Nissan Leaf (an over-200 mile range Leaf is expected next year) must find scarce, Level 3, DC fast chargers which advertise 90 miles of charge in 1/2 hour.

But I only gained 41 miles while recharging a Bolt EV this summer — and was lucky enough to get the only stall (unlike the 12 at Tesla’s Mountain View stable) at the State Street Shell station without a wait.

“There isn’t a gas station solution where EVs can magically recharge in 5 minutes,” says Rebecca Lindland, an auto analyst for Kelley Blue Book. “EVs are a suburban solution where owners with garages can charge at home at night and then at their workplace during the day.”

Lindland sees EVs as much more problematic for urban apartment dwellers where infrastructure is unreliable. It gets more complicated outside urban areas — Michigan, for example, does not a have a DC fast charger north of Pontiac. Take a Chevy Bolt EV or Tesla on a 250-mile trip up north and expect to spend much of the weekend plugged into a 240-volt socket getting recharged for the return trip.

And woe to the buyer who can only find a standard, 120-volt wall socket in their cabin. A Bolt EV will take 51 hours to fully recharge.

“It’s why plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt are far more attractive than EVs,” smiles Lindland. “They are an EV where appropriate — say on a daily commute from home to work. But you can also take them to a gas station for a 5-minute refill if you need to.”

The Volt, too, is under $40,000 with up to 53 miles of EV range before a gas engine kicks in for a total 420 miles of range.

California accounts for over half of U.S. EV vehicle demand. Metro Detroit area dealers say demand has been tepid for Volts, which has been on sale since 2011. Bolt EV deliveries to area dealers began in August. Mike Savoie Chevrolet of Troy, for example, has received three with prices starting at $37,495.

If you buy one, Lindland recommends installing a 240-volt charging plug at home. Dealers estimate a cost of $500 to $2,000 depending on the age of your domicile.

Payne: In the backseat of a self-driving Uber

Posted by hpayne on September 8, 2017

Detroit News auto columnist Henry Payne rode aboard

Pittsburgh —  I am in the backseat of a self-driving Uber vehicle, a Volvo XC90 being tested like a lab mouse through a maze of urban streets.

Cruising south on busy, one-way Penn Avenue heading to downtown Pittsburgh, the Volvo encounters a delivery truck blocking the right lane. A worker is unloading its contents to the curb. But before the XC90’s computer brain can react, an engineer takes over the steering wheel, easing the SUV to the left. The engineer (“operator” in Uber lingo) explains he didn’t want the Volvo to surprise the worker by coming too close before veering left. Unlike a human driver, the self-driving Volvo hasn’t quite learned to acknowledge that it sees the deliveryman by giving him a wide berth early on.

I have done media ride-alongs in controlled Silicon Valley environments in Google’s self-driving Lexus SUVs and its cute “marshmallow” car. Each of those vehicles was equipped with autonomous systems similar to Uber’s Volvo. This drive, however, was not a planned media event, but a ride through Steel City streets in the middle of a busy workday. I was having the same experience as any paying passenger who hails one of Uber’s 40 autonomous vehicles that navigate Pittsburgh 365 days a year.

The experience proves the potential of autonomous vehicles — and how far they still must travel to gain acceptance in the marketplace.

Two women amble across the street in front of the Volvo, oblivious to its presence. The XC90 slows, giving them space. The autonomous car doesn’t honk and doesn’t crowd them. It lets them go on their carefree way.

Such driving subtleties are crucial to Uber as it operates the fleet of autonomous vehicles. Uber’s self-driving SUVs are more than an experiment – they are real-world beta tests in how autonomy can deliver a satisfactory experience to Uber passengers.

Like its human drivers, Uber wants autonomous vehicles to earn a five-star customer rating. So nothing is left to chance.

Urban streets are automobility’s most challenging operating environment, which is why Uber is here. Unless and until autonomy can provide a seamless experience, it is not ready for prime time in the hands of a ride-sharing brand that puts a premium on passenger experience.

Atop the Volvo, a head unit containing cameras and a spinning Electrodyne lidar laser-detection array – operators call it the “chicken bucket” – sees a stop sign at a four-way intersection and eases the Volvo to a stop. But before the XC90 turns right, a truck lurches into the SUV’s path. The operator takes over, lest the Volvo accelerate forward and then slam on the brakes.

Uber agreed to give me a ride under the condition that I not quote its operators and not broadcast live video. Otherwise, I was free to report on the experience — which I complemented with rides in “regular” Uber cars with drivers who gave me insight into what it’s like to coexist with the autonomous Volvos.

Two Uber operators occupy the front seats of every XC90, and I was surprised how frequently the driver took control of the robotic car. The operator explained that Uber is determined that autonomous cars learn from — and drive like — humans.

After months on the road, they concede the Volvos are not there yet.

Taking a right off Penn toward Smallman Street, the XC90 encounters a temporary construction site. The concrete New Jersey barriers occupy not just the inside lane, but part of the outside lane as well, bringing us to a stop. The operator takes over, explaining that the computer is confused by the partial lane-blockage – and likely would wait indefinitely, not sure what to do next.

The driver deftly maneuvers around the barrier, taking care that he doesn’t impede oncoming traffic.

Each episode is monitored and logged by the passenger-seat operator who sees the road through the XC90’s eyes on a laptop screen.

That data is then fed to Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group just north of downtown. This is Uber’s national self-driving headquarters (another operation in San Francisco is working on self-driving trucks). Run by ex-Carnegie Mellon University robotics guru Eric Meyhofer, ATG employs some 700 engineers, software developers, and operators.

Their autonomous fleet was recently upgraded from Ford Fusion sedans to roomier Volvo hybrids. The all-wheel drive, super- and turbocharged four-cylinder XC90 with battery-assist is an engineering marvel in itself. What the engineers really like is the 9.2-kWh lithium-ion battery that they use to help power their autonomous hardware.

The big computer and head unit are constructed at ATG and have gone through several evolutions. Uber has mapped four core districts in Pittsburgh — the equivalent to mapping Detroit’s downtown, Corktown, Greektown and Midtown — where the Volvos roam.

They don’t work outside that geo-fence. That means, for example, the self-drivers won’t take you to Pittsburgh’s airport. But Uber considers the interstate-heavy route to the airport light work for autonomous vehicles. They want to master inner-city streets.

Aboard a regular Uber Hyundai Elantra, the driver shared with me some of the Volvo’s tendencies. For example, when the Hyundai tried to drive alongside the XC90, the robot car would drop back. Uber engineers confirmed this safety-first programming, but it also indicated how other vehicles can mess with the Volvo’s path, a concern for Uber as they program behavior.

Such detail only scratches the surface of where autonomous cars need to go to be viable, ride-sharing transportation. Uber says the vehicles have operated well in winter snows and rainstorms. But there is more than just getting a passenger from point A to B.

Smallman Street is lined with stores fronted by 45-degree, nose-in parking like Detroit’s Eastern Market. The area presents navigation challenges involving pedestrians, cars backing out of spaces and double-parked vehicles. Not to mention spontaneous passengers: Could I tell the Volvo to pull over while I ran into a store to get my wife a box of candy? No, because the Volvo has yet to incorporate passenger-to-vehicle communication.

Uber is on autonomy’s cutting edge. But there are other mice in the maze here including Ford-owned Argo. Come snow, rain, gloom of night or pop-up construction sites, they are determined that autonomy complete its appointed rounds.

Payne: Jeep Trackhawk, the Hellcat SUV

Posted by hpayne on September 7, 2017


Last winter I was axle-deep in the muddy bogs of the Mounds Off Road Park in Flint. I was in a rugged Jeep Wrangler Sahara. This summer I’ve been dive-bombing apexes on the hills of New Hampshire’s Club Motorsports race track. This time I was in a supercharged Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk.

Is there any other auto brand with this kind of bandwidth? Jeep is the only brand I know where I have to pack both hiking boots and racing shoes when I go for a test drive.

The Wrangler, of course, is Jeep’s icon — the tough, Rubicon Trail-conquering, off-road warrior with roots in World War II. Its tough DNA is at the core of a brand that pioneered the SUV and is just now reaching its zenith as the whole planet goes ute. But improbably, incredibly, Jeep is translating its off-road performance cred to the track.

Jeep aims to give you capability whenever and wherever you want it. Thus the insane Trackhawk. It’s sleeper Jeep (only the fat tires and quad pipes give it away) stuffed with Dodge SRT’s legendary, 707-horsepower, supercharged, 6.2-liter V-8.

Call it the Jeep Hellcat.

“Jeep is built on capability,” says Jeep brand manager Scott Tallon. “It’s always been the cornerstone of all Jeeps. Every Jeep must be the most capable within our segment. Trackhawk is taking capability to a while new dimension.”

Some folks get their kicks off-road. Others on-track. I’m a track rat who races ground-hugging race cars. I have buddies who go mud-hunting in jacked-up rad trucks. The cultures don’t speak the same language. I don’t go to Moab, the off-road Mecca in Utah. Mudders don’t do Indy. They are as different as boaters and airline pilots.

Yet Jeep not only does off-road and on-road in the same brand — it does them in the same model with the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk and Trackhawk. With the same chassis, same all-wheel drive system, same handsome interiors.

But no, not the same engine.

Borrowing the 707-horse, 645-torque, supercharged engine from Dodge’s SRT performance parts bin and mating it to an SUV may seem like Dr. Frankenstein lunacy. But in many ways it actually works better than in the Challenger and Charger Hellcat.

Like the Dodge brothers, the V-8 fits longitudinally into the Jeep — a rare, rear-wheel drive biased SUV like its three-row Dodge Durango cousin. Add a beefed-up transfer case and driveshafts and the Trackhawk can deliver up to 70 percent of the V-8’s twist to the rear wheels — ideal for a track car — while also gaining all-wheel-drive traction.

That means on Club Motorsports’ roller-coaster track, the Trackhawk is more manageable under power. It puts torque to the road out of apexes with aplomb, where the rear-drive Hellcats are like riding a tiger by the tail.

It also means the Trackhawk launches from zero-60 in 3.5 seconds — a tenth quicker than the Challenger Hellcat coupe according to Car and Driver’s test equipment — though they clocked a Charger Hellcat sedan at 3.4. I got the Trackhawk down to 3.3 at Club Motorsports.

Yes, an SUV quicker than its Hellcat brothers.

That’s not say that the 5,360-pound Trackhawk isn’t a challenge to drive fast. Eight hundred pounds heavier than a Charger Hellcat sedan and with a higher center of gravity courtesy of that big boat anchor in the bow, the hawk plows into corners and does not take sudden movements kindly. But it is shockingly comfortable at speed. After all, this isn’t Jeep’s first rodeo.

Grand Cherokee first tasted the track in 1998 with the 5.9 Limited. It went all-in with the SRT8 in 2006 and SRT in 2012. The latter’s athletic bones are the foundation for the 2018 Trackhawk. The Grand Cherokee SRT has done thousands of tracks laps while selling 2,500 to 3,000 copies a year. With minor tweaks (the aforementioned driveline, stiffer shocks, more heat exchangers), Trackhawk is screwed to the ground with mighty 11.5-inch Pirelli P-Zero tires that offer 30 percent more tread with than a standard Grand Cherokee.

So good is the SRT already, in fact, that it corners at a higher G-force — .90 vs. .88 — than the Trackhawk because its 392-cube, 475-horse mill is lighter up front. With smaller footprints than the bigger three-row Durango SRT that I wheel-hopped at Indy last month, the SRT and Trackhawk are more confident on their feet.

But there is no substitute for horsepower, and the Trackhawk sets a new standard for utes. All that grunt comes at a cost: $94,970 for the track animal I tested at Club Motorsports. But before your eyes water at a six-figure Jeep, consider that Jeepzilla stomps a $158,000 Porsche Cayenne Turbo S from zero-60 and beats it to the quarter-mile by over a half-second (11.7 vs. 12.3).

Simply put, the Trackhawk is the Corvette Z06 of SUVs — a Porsche slayer for a whopping $70,000 less.

I wrote earlier this year that Corvette should follow Porsche’s example and translate its “lunchbox” supercar brand to SUVs. A V-8 ’Vette ute would be a big hit. Well, you snooze, you lose. Jeep has filled the vacuum with the bonkers Trackhawk.

Trackhawk earns its investment inside as well as out. Chrysler does great interiors and the Grand Cherokee is no exception. Fans like to say you can take a Jeep from the outback to the opera. Make that from the race track to the opera. The interior is whisper-quiet until you put your boot in it and awaken the supercharger.

Best-in-the-business Uconnect also gains Apple CarPlay and trounces Porsche’s interior ergonomics with attention to detail. Think steering wheel-mounted controls that allow you to choose adaptive or regular cruise. It has paddle-shifters for manual shifting, but revert to automatic with a simple right paddle hold. There are drive modes for every mood: auto, sport, track, tow and snow.

Yes, snow. This is not just a Hellcat SUV — it’s an all-season ute you can use in winter long after rear-drive Hellcats have gone into hibernation.

With the Trackhawk, Jeep has made the ultimate SUV — a vehicle that can tow your race car to the track and set faster lap times than the car it towed. Expect more to come.

Like the off-road Trailhawk package found on all Jeeps, the Trackhawk should trickle down to its cheaper siblings. May I suggest a Jeep Wrangler Trackhawk? It would be an exclamation point on the most versatile brand in the land.

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

2018 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk





Supercharged 6.2-liter V-8


8-speed automatic


5,363 pounds


$86,995 base ($94,970

as tested)


707 horsepower, 645 pound-feet torque


0-60 mph, 3.5 seconds (manufacturer, though Payne

clocked it at 3.3); top speed: 180 mph (mftr); tow capacity:

7,200 pounds

Fuel economy

EPA est. 11 mpg city/17 mpg highway

Report card




Thirsty; 100K for a Jeep?


Nissan Leaf 2.0: More EV for less

Posted by hpayne on September 5, 2017


Since its introduction in 2010, the battery-powered, 107-mile-range, $30,000 Nissan Leaf has been the best-selling electric vehicle in the United States. But that leadership is under challenge with new, more attractive, affordably priced entries from Chevrolet and Tesla promising longer range for under $40,000.

On Thursday night, Nissan debuted Leaf 2.0. And while it won’t join the 200-like-range-for-under-$40,000 club pioneered by the Chevy Bolt EV and Tesla Model 3, it will increase its range while remaining the EV segment’s price leader.

At just $29,990 – $690 below the 2017 Leaf – the all-new, 2018 Leaf promises a 40-percent bump in range to 150 miles and more mainstream design. Produced in three plants around the globe – including Smyrna, Tennessee, for the U.S. market – the Leaf was jointly developed by a global engineering team, including significant input on autonomous and regenerative systems developed by Nissan’s Farmington Hills Tech Center.

“It’s about the right value,” said Overseas Chief Vehicle Engineer Chris Reed, who led North American Leaf development out of Farmington Hills. “The Leaf was hitting about 90 percent of (customer) usage scenarios, so we made it 40 percent better. We all are dealing with the cost of batteries. We are working on a bigger battery for the customer that wants that range. But for our main customer who wants to be under $30,000, with 40 percent more range, more features, and a mainstream car – the Leaf is the right value relationship.”

While EV sales remain under 1percent of the U.S. market, the Leaf aims to capitalize on increasing government mandates for zero-emission cars. The U.S.’s largest EV market, California, is mandating that 15 percent of vehicle sales by EV by 2025 while countries like England and French will ban the sale of gas-powered cars by 2040.

“When we launched Leaf in 2010, it instantly became the most affordable, mass market EV in the world. We are not walking away from that proposition,” said Jose Muñoz, Nissan North America’s Chief Performance Officer, in Las Vegas where the Leaf’s introduction was simulcast with Tokyo.

Derided for its nerdy styling, the original, egg-shaped Leaf made a green statement with a smooth, grille-less fascia and smooth sides. The 2018 model conforms to the rest of Nissan’s design portfolio with a familiar “V-motion” grille — anchored by its signature, chrome, “bull nose-ring” — as well as boomerang rear taillights and more sculpted rocker panels. The rear c-pillar even gets the racy, “floating roof” treatment pioneered by the stylish Nissan Murano.

Leaf 2.0 will initially come equipped with a 40 kWh battery with the upped 150-mile range that will eclipse other low-priced EV options like the Volkswagen e-Golf, the Hyundai Ioniq Electric, the Honda Clarity Electric, and the Ford Focus Electric. With a longer-range, 60 kWh battery similar to that found in the Chevy Bolt — which should push the range past 200 miles.

Plug the Leaf into a 240-volt, Level 2 wall charger and it will fully recharge in about eight hours. The new Nissan is also Level 3 (so-called “DC fast charger”) capable, which can recover 90 miles of range in 30 minutes. But Level 3 chargers are rare in Metro Detroit with locations in Ferndale, Dearborn, Ann Arbor and a few other locations.

The Leaf also introduces new, innovative technologies that the Bolt and Tesla have made synonymous with EVs like single-pedal driving — Nissan calls it the e-Pedal — and autonomous driving capability. In DRIVE mode the e-Pedal is activated by a switch on the dash that allows for single pedal driving — that is, when lifting your right foot off the accelerator, the car will start braking. Like the Bolt EV’s LOW mode, the Leaf can come all the way to stop if the e-Pedal is not applied for acceleration.

The e-Pedal idea was a product of Reed’s Farmington Hills engineering team.

“If we didn’t start that conversation here that wouldn’t have happened. We’re always listening to customer feedback through customers clinics and frontline feedback,” said Reed. “They understood regeneration and they asked if it couldn’t do more. So that is where idea started and so the people running the clinics brought it back to the engineers.”

He says the team saw the e-Pedal’s greatest benefit on hills for parallel parking and stop-start situations such as on the steep hills in San Francisco.

“Nissan a global operation … and all these little details differ from region to region. We did a lot of work on the hills of San Francisco,” Reed continued. “What is unique is the seamless connection between the regenerative brake side and the actual friction brakes. We call it stop-and-hold. You take foot off the pedal as it eases to a stop and it holds.”

Chevy’s Bolt has outsold the Leaf in the U.S. this year while Tesla’s Model 3 — due this fall — has created a global sensation with more than 500,000 pre-orders. But Nissan executives touted the Japanese brand’s reputation for reliability with a shot across the bow of Tesla, which has experienced quality issues and some highly publicized crashes.

“We have advantages that Tesla does not,” said Daniele Schillaci, Nissan executive vice president of global sales. “It’s easy to introduce technology that grabs headlines, but it’s harder to engineer it safely to makes people’s lives better.”

Engineer Reed says Nissan has never had a safety issue with the Leaf in its eight years on the market.

“We gouged the battery with a nail then started it right away. We shot it with a bullet. Crazy things can happen on the road. We focus all our engineering experience on everything we do,” he said.

Payne: Honda Fit punches above its weight

Posted by hpayne on August 31, 2017


‘Let Reagan be Reagan,” Sen. Paul Laxalt famously said in 1984 after his friend and incumbent President Ronald Reagan got stomped by challenger Walter Mondale in their first presidential debate. Over-schooled by his debate handlers, Reagan had looked hesitant and out of sorts. Laxalt’s prescription? The president should be his “aw, shucks” amiable self, not some pre-programmed autobot. He won debate No. 2, and a second term was no longer in doubt.

Honda might be taking that lesson to heart as it tries to make its small cars relevant at a time when buyers have gone ga-ga for crossovers. Honda’s answer? Let compacts be compacts.

The all-new 2016 Honda Civic compact doubled down on what separates cars from SUVs by lowering its center of gravity, increasing fuel economy and penning a wicked design. The result was Civic’s best sales ever as customers lined up for the showy athlete and its apex-carving variations: Sport, Si and Type-R. Honda’s CR-V crossover may be leading the ute revolution, but the Civic was a reminder that Honda knew what moved car-lovers, too.

Now it’s the 2018 Fit subcompact’s turn for a makeover and Honda is applying the same formula.

The Fit is only up for a mid-cycle refresh — the third-generation hatch debuted in 2014 — but it’s a racy redo. The wee Honda’s specs are unchanged — same 1.5-liter engine, same multi-purpose comfortable interior, same sippy fuel economy — but this is not the same adorable hatch. Fit gets a new outfit.

It’s called Honda Factory Performance, HFP for short. The racy package can be applied to any trim except the base $17,065 LX. New springs and shocks lower the hatch 10 millimeters, reinforcing a crouched stance signaled by a wider fascia and added rocker skirts. Borrowing the Civic’s mascara stick, the Fit takes its black eyeliner makeup tips from the Joker.

HFP Fit tops off its bad-boy look with black 16-inch wheels and a big, rear aerofoil that could shade my back porch. The package takes its inspiration from Fit’s successful history in motorsports where it’s competed for years.

The racing-obsessed brand has tracked everything from the supercar Acura NSX to the Civic in Pirelli World Challenge. If Honda announced it was entering its Honda Odyssey minivan in the 24 Hours of LeMans, I don’t think anyone would be surprised. As Honda founder and chief motorhead Soichiro Honda put it: “If Honda does not race, there is no Honda.”

I threw the eager, HFP-equipped Fit Sport — painted in its new “Orange Fury” war paint — into the twisty canyon roads northeast of Los Angeles.

The car was shockingly, pleasantly stiff thanks to its suspension upgrades. Its road-hugging qualities reminded of the Civic Type-R track fiend that I tested only weeks before, its front end porpoising purposely as the short-wheelbase subcompact tracked each undulation in road surface. True to Honda’s class-leading ergonomics, the steering was responsive, seats comfortable, and console roomy. Despite its subcompact size, your decidedly uncompact 6-foot-5 reviewer got generous knee-room.

The Sport version comes equipped with an excellent six-speed manual (the shifter topped off with a Civic Si-like silver ball). That’s important because the Fit needs constant rowing to maintain pace.

The meek, 130-horsepower (with manual, 128 with automatic), 1.5-liter, normally-aspirated gerbil wheel is Fit’s familiar engine, but it seems especially wanting now that the Civic’s 1.5-liter mill has received a dynamic, turbocharged upgrade.

The engine doesn’t do the Fit’s athletic new vibe justice. Readers of this column know I prefer manuals, but so wanting was the Fit for revs that I came to prefer the car’s CVT-with-paddles option. Stuff the shifter into manual mode, finger the steering wheel paddles, and the car will stay in manual. That allows for quick upshifts and downshifts as the CVT keeps the engine in the meat of the rev band. Nobody makes CVTs better than Honda.

The little fella badly needs a turbo like its bigger Civic sibling, and it is surely in the works when Fit gets its fourth-generation makeover in 2019. A turbo three-cylinder turbo is rumored to be on deck.

As the Fit turtled from zero-60 in an eternity, its four screaming gerbils nicely muffled by the cabin’s increased noise insulation, my mind wandered to the Civic Sport hatch. At just $2,000 north of the HFP-laden Fit, the Civic Sport would be the better buy for budget-minded motorheads. Or Ford’s turbo-3-powered Fiesta — Godzilla in a box — for just $18,000.

The Fit’s sporty trimmings are a nicely separate it from popular, subcompact sibling HR. But the best reason to buy a Fit remains its spacious, uniquely configurable interior.

Thanks to a clever packaging that moves the gas tank from under the rear to below the front seats, the Fit’s “magic” rear seats can flattened or flipped up in order to make room for, say, a bicycle behind the front seats. The deep cavity also benefits backseat occupants who will find substantial legroom despite the Fit’s short wheelbase dimensions.

And, of course, there is the equally magical front seat which can be flattened backward, creating a sort of BarcaLounger for the right-rear passenger. Readers will remember the Fit won my Best Post-Surgery Getaway Vehicle award a couple of years back. Unable to bend my heavily-sedated new knee, the Fit’s Magic Seat configuration was the perfect way for Mrs. Payne to get me around town.

The Fit’s interior versatility can also swallow a surfboard, grandfather clock or other long objects. You won’t pine for an SUV. What you might pine for is an Apple smartphone, because my Android Auto app connection proved unworkable. Honda was one of the first automakers to dangle the prospect of smartphone-connected Google maps in its infotainment systems, but the apps have proved glitchy. The Apple product pairs better with the Honda console.

Otherwise, the Fit is a fitting member of Honda’s all-star console lineup with a center console that easily accommodates phones, cups and more in its center-console box — a rarity in a subcompact ute or car. The Fit even throws in a flip-out cup holder at the driver’s left hand, a useful feature when you are trying to both sip and keep your eyes on the road.

Cute, maneuverable and cavernous, the Fit is a reminder of why we still love subcompact hatches. Turbocharge the gerbils and it has a bright future.

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

2018 Honda Fit





1.5-liter inline-4 cylinder


6-speed manual;

continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT)


2,604 pounds


$17,065 base ($20,175 Sport as tested)


128 horsepower, 113 pound-feet torque (CVT)


0-60 mph, 7.7 seconds (Car and Driver est.);

top speed: 120 mph

Fuel economy

EPA est. 31 mpg city/36 mpg highway/33 mpg combined

Report card





Needs a turbo; just 10.6 gallons of fuel capacity

reduces range

Jeep Trackhawk first drive: Hellcat SUV

Posted by hpayne on August 31, 2017


Tamworth, New Hampshire — First things first. What you want to know is whether the 707-horsepower Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk — the one with the Hellcat engine — is quicker than Dodge’s signature Challenger Hellcat. The answer is yes, with the SUV breaking the zero-60 mph tape at 3.5 seconds versus the coupe’s 3.6. I managed multiple 3.4-second runs — with a best of 3.3 seconds — using launch control at Club Motorsports race track here for Trackhawk’s first media test.

Credit all-wheel drive traction vs. the Challenger’s rear-driven power.

But there is also this: The Jeep is quicker to 60 than the 3.8-second all-wheel drive Porsche Cayenne Turbo S, which costs $75,000 more than the Jeep and was until now the benchmark for SUV insanity.

The Trackhawk bookends an SUV brand that now offers the widest performance bandwidth of any nameplate. Where full-line brands like Toyota and Chevrolet offer everything from sports cars to SUVs, Jeep’s utes spans the terrain from its king-of-the-outback Wrangler Rubicon to the apex-carving Grand Cherokee Trackhawk.

“When you say Jeep, everyone sees a Wrangler. It’s the most capable off-road production vehicle on the planet,” Scott Tallon, Jeep brand director, said at the Trackhawk’s media meet-and-drive. “Now the Trackhawk has done the same thing, but at a different level of capability. Driving a Jeep on the track that fast is probably not something anyone expects. The breadth of the Grand Cherokee lineup is incredible — the price point starts at $30,000 and winds up at $85,000 in a single nameplate.”

Around Club Motorsports’ serpentine, 2.5-mile roller-coaster — with elevation changes of 250 feet over a single lap — the Trackhawk is a rhino on rails, an improbable track animal that Jeep has tamed with stiff Bilstein shocks, 11.5-inch Pirelli tires and Brembo brakes the size of Captain America’s shield.

Hurtling down the front straight — the V-8 roaring in my ears, the eight-speed TorqueFlite transmission firing off shifts like cannon shots — the thought crosses my mind that this nearly three-ton meteor could ignore the looming, 45-degree Turn 1 and simply burn a hole thought the surrounding Presidential Mountains. Then I stomp the brake with my racing shoe — racing shoes in an SUV! — and the 15.75-inch Brembos slow the Jeep like a steel net thrown over a charging rhino.

Jeep has been playing in this performance space since 2006 with Chrysler’s SRT performance package, first with the SRT8 and then the current generation, 475-horse SRT. Not satisfied to be a performance player, Jeep now applies the Wrangler’s best-or-go home expectations to Trackhawk.

It wants to win the space.

“SRT has been in the market since 2006 and has served as a really nice halo for the Jeep brand. But the performance segment among utility vehicles has surpassed what the Jeep has been for the last 12 years,” continues Tallon. “It was the most capable SUV, now a lot of European luxury marques offer phenomenal levels of performance. So we said let’s redefine what capability is. It has to be the ultimate vehicle, not just competitive.”

The numbers tell the story: best zero-60 ute short of the Ludicrous-mode electric Tesla Model X, best quarter-mile at 11.6 seconds, best top speed at 180 mph.

But for all its Hellcat-like numbers, the Trackhawk is no Hellcat. Dodges and Jeeps are for different demographics. The more family-oriented Trackhawk customer demands refinement for a family of four riding to the race track while towing, say, a race car. Even if the Trackhawk might lap the track faster than the racer on the trailer.

So Jeep has toned down the supercharger’s drama with a Helmholz resonator to keep the 707-horse monster at a dull roar. Or at least until you floor the throttle. It has swathed the interior in Trackhawk-monogrammed leather — offered in base black or sepia suede inserts or premium black and red leather — for miles of driving comfort. Cruising back to the Maine coast, I dialed the Jeep’s drive mode back from Track to Auto. The cannon-shot shifts turned buttery smooth, the V-8 stereo was replaced by soothing notes of a Harman Kardon stereo system.

“The Jeep Trackhawk is a no-compromise vehicle,” emphasizes Tallon. “It’s comfortable and quiet on the road, tows 7,200 pounds, yet you get close to supercar levels of performance.”

No compromise means a base price $24,000 north of the Hellcat, $20,000 above the Grand Cherokee SRT and $24,000 above the Grand Cherokee’s luxurious Summit ocean-liner.

“We know that our more premium trims get cross-shopped with other premium makes,” says Tallon of the $86,995 Trackhawk. “Yes, this is the most expensive Jeep we’ve ever brought to market — but for that level of performance it’s really not that expensive.”

Performance peers from Porsche ($160,650 for the Cayenne Turbo S) and BMW ($101, 695) are pricier — even above my full-bling, full-sunroof, Bright White $94,970 tester. The Trackhawk will only get quicker as Jeep brings a new — and surely much lighter — chassis to market by the end of the decade. Is a sub-3-second 0-60 possible?

With a price walk of nearly $70,000 from its base model to the top-trim Trackhawk, Jeep is a money-making machine. In the last year, the off-road Trailhawk trim has trickled down to all Jeep models. Trackhawk is poised to do the same — expanding brand bandwidth even more.

No wonder the Chinese reportedly want to buy Jeep. The Germans no doubt covet it, too.

Payne: Dodge Durango SRT is one racy workhorse

Posted by hpayne on August 23, 2017


I’m riding shotgun with IndyCar veteran Gabby Chavez around Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s infield Formula One track. In a Dodge Durango SRT.

On Turn 7 leading onto the back straight, the 5,510-pound, three-row SUV experiences “wheel-hop” as the extreme g-loads, adaptive dampers, high vehicle center-of-gravity and skill of one of the world’s racing elite overwhelm the sidewalls of the screaming tires, sending them hopping across the asphalt.

I just thought you’d like to know the limits of the Durango SRT. Because there aren’t many.

At $64,090 — or about the same price as a truck-based Chevy Tahoe or BMW M X430i sport crossover — the Durango manages to combine the skills of both into one brawny, athletic package. Imagine ol’ Farmer McDonald breeding an ox that would pull his plow during the day and then go into the town rodeo and compete against the horses in barrel racing at night.

With a 392-cubic-inch V-8 under its wicked air-scooped hood, the SRT is the most powerful three-row SUV ever, with 475 ponies and 470 pound-feet of torque. Hook it up to a trailer and it will tow up to 8,700 pounds — more than the Tahoe or any other three-row ute in class. Unhook the trailer and it’ll charge from zero-60 in 4.4 seconds and hit 138 mph in the quarter-mile in an astonishing 12.9 seconds. Pull up the third-row seats and Durango SRT will comfortably seat six with best-in-class third-row legroom for basketball players like me.

From the high-speed curves of Indy to the twisted country roads of Indiana to towing a boat, I explored the envelope of a weekend racer’s dream truck: a cool-looking vehicle that makes commuting fun, tows your toy to the track on Saturday and then takes three couples to dinner Sunday night to celebrate the win.

Only GMC’s Corvette-powered, 420-horse, magnetic-shock equipped Sierra Denali pickup can match the Durango SRT’s bandwidth — though that weapon favors mulch-transport over three-row people-hauling.

Taking the flat-bottomed steering wheel from Gabby in the Indy pits, I programmed the ute for launch control. Floored the accelerator with my right foot. Then, as the tach needle trembled at 3,500 rpms, I released the brake. Durango shoots down the pit lane like a boulder thrown from a catapult. Yes, this three-row SUV has launch control.

In the Age of the SUV, that’s a tempting thought.

For the consumer torn between three-row utility and sedan muscle, Durango offers the no-compromise solution. And it looks upscale to boot. For 2018, Durango gains a sexy, pouty-lipped mesh grille to complement its unique “race-track” LED taillights. In between are the distinctive hood scoops and heat extractors, bulged wheel wells, stylish rocker panels, black 20-inch wheels and 392 side badge.

As I throw the big rhino around Indy Speedway, I chose Track mode, which lets me send up to 75 percent of the driveline’s torque to the rear wheels for better grip. If this was January, I might choose Snow mode — one of seven available, including Eco (yeah, right) and Tow (more on that later).

Caning the Durango with brutal, mule-kick-in-the-back, 140-millisecond shifts, I hit 140 mph on the main straight before giant Brembo brakes hauled the triceratops back to earth. Given the Durango’s three tons of heft, it can be a brutish experience. But on public roads, these same elements make for an easy driver. In Sport mode, the upshifts are buttery-quick, with pleasing rev-matching accompanying downshifts.

The black leather-and-suede interior is not only comfortable but further blurs the lines between luxury and mainstream. This is an attractive, quiet, smooth vehicle. Above the stylish T-shifter is a UConnect console superior to anything in luxury this side of Audi’s Virtual Cockpit display. After weeks in cars with cumbersome rotary dials (Alfa Romeo) or Uconnect-wannabe touchscreens (VW Tiguan), the UConnect is easy to use and carefully detailed. I especially like the shelf below the touchscreen that allows for anchoring your thumb while you navigate the screen with your index finger.

And, unlike the Audi, the Durango’s touchscreen allows for better use of console space meaning there is plenty of room (well, not quite Tahoe room) for keys, French fries, smartphones and all the other accessories we Americans take with us in our cars.

Beauty and the beast come together nicely at the front of a 5,500-pound boat and trailer.

Use Durango’s backup camera to back up to the hitch, and the ute and boat are an attractive pair. Yet with 470 torques under the hood it still manages pickup-like towing abilities. Its 8,700 pounds is respectable next to the 11,700-pound, body-on-frame GMC Sierra’s spec — and well north of a BMW M X5 or Cayenne.

Stomp on the gas — no launch control this time — and the big V-8 effortlessly pulled the boat along.

Ditch the trailer and Durango feels like a sports car more than ever before. Include in that a guzzling 18 mpg according to the EPA. Want a fuel sipper? The torquey, Acura MDX Hybrid three-row will do nicely, but it can’t tow. SRT’s exhaust note makes a macho growl — courtesy of hanging around those Hellcatters — while the upshifts bark like a Porsche PDK.

Dodge offers a one-day Bob Bondurant driver’s school in Phoenix with purchase of the Durango SRT. I’d recommend it. Who knows, maybe Gabby Chaves will be there to take you for a spin.

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

2018 Dodge Durango SRT





6.4-liter V-8


8-speed automatic


5,510 pounds


$64,090 base


475 horsepower, 470 pound-feet torque


0-60 mph, 4.4 seconds (mftr);

towing: 8,700 pounds (mftr)

Fuel economy

EPA est. 13 mpg city/19 mpg highway/15 mpg combined

Report card





Thirsty for fuel; Apple CarPlay, please


Detroit’s Big 3, Japan diverge on small cars

Posted by hpayne on August 22, 2017


Los Angeles — Amid a market shift away from sedans to SUVs, major Detroit and Japanese automakers appear to be charting different courses for the future of their entry-level compact-car lines.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has stopped production of both its small cars, the Chrysler 200 and Dodge Dart. And The Detroit News has reported that General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. are looking to end production of compact cars as they see a fundamental shift to more profitable five-door crossovers.

But while Japanese giants Honda and Toyota have capitalized on the ute craze with hot-selling crossovers like the CR-V and RAV-4, they remain bullish on the future of small cars. Toyota is even expanding it compact offerings, for what it and Honda see as continued demand for cars, especially among young, first-time buyers.

“We established our roots in this market with sedans,” said Jeff Conrad, executive vice president of American Honda, as the Japanese carmaker introduced its refreshed Fit subcompact for media here. “Sedans have always been the mainstay of our business. They continue to do very well. We intend to build sporty, performance-oriented cars, and we think there are a large group of buyers for it.”

The versatile Fit hatchback is getting a mid-cycle update for 2018 even as Ford may quit selling its subcompact Ford Fiesta in the U.S.

“It comes back down to shareholder value,” said Joe McCabe, CEO of AutoForecast Solutions. “If you can push more-profitable crossovers, SUV and trucks, basic math says that you’re going to improve profitability and therefore shareholder value.”

Industry analysts say Detroit automakers don’t find it makes economic sense to build small cars amid changing demand and cheap gas.

“GM is looking at every aspect of its portfolio, and if it’s not making money then they are going to get rid of it,” said AutoPacific auto analyst Dave Sullivan. “There’s no reason pickup truck sales should subsidize low-margin small cars. Dealers don’t want them because they can’t sell.”

Both GM and Ford declined comment, saying they don’t discuss future product plans.

Yet, amid the same market realities and slackened sales for their small cars, Toyota has added two entries this year: the subcompact Yaris iA and compact hatchback Corolla iM. The additions come as Toyota shifted product from its axed Scion youth brand experiment.

The $16,816 Yaris iA sedan gives Toyota a double threat in the subcompact segment along with the tiny Yaris hatchback. Toyota also introduced a subcompact crossover this year, the $23,460 C-HR. Despite its name, the Yaris iA shares little with the Yaris and is built on a different platform shared with the Mazda 2 (that Mazda is not sold in the U.S.).

“You need product across all economic status,” Toyota spokesman Curt McCallister said. “Small cars get our buyers hooked from cradle to grave. If you get them into the family early, then you can keep them on up the family tree.”

Honda’s Conrad echoed that strategy for the $17,065 Fit which has gained a “Sport” trim to take advantage of the subcompact’s inherent handling advantages over taller compact SUVs.

“Seventy percent of Fit buyers are first-time buyers,” he said. “It is critical to bringing youth into the brand. We’re interested in an entry point for cars and trucks. The Fit is that product for cars and H-RV is that for trucks.”

Last year Fit sold 56,630 units while the HR-V sold 82,041.

Many analysts feel a sense of déjà vu as U.S. automakers retreat from small cars. They remember the early 1980s when Japanese automakers made huge inroads into the U.S. by capitalizing on American demand for small, fuel-efficient cars amid rising gas prices and a dearth of reliable offerings from Detroit’s Big Three.

But Kelley Blue Book auto analyst Karl Brauer said that that was then and this is now. He said that Detroit automakers are correct in assessing a fundamental change to SUVs — and not just because they ride high for better visibility. Compact utility vehicles are filling a niche formerly dominated by small cars.

“The next time an economic shift comes, I think a careful analysis will reveal consumers won’t lose much mpg with modern CUVs,” he said. “Crossovers now are much more car-like in their engines and in their mpg.”

AutoPacific’s Sullivan agrees. He points to the runaway success of Fiat Chrysler’s strategy in producing more small Jeep compact utilities — the compact $18,990 Jeep Renegade and $22,090 Compass have both debuted in the last two years — as the automaker abandoned small cars. Even if gas prices top $4 a gallon as in 2008, he said buyers will stick with compact utilities because they get similar gas mileage as cars. A 4-cylinder Renegade, for example, gets 25 mpg combined city/highway; that nearly matches the fuel economy of Fiat Chrysler’s outgoing, comparably priced 27 mpg Dart sedan.

“Fiat Chrysler doesn’t have small cars? Oh, yes they do,” said Sullivan. “Subcompact crossovers like the Renegade have displaced the small car. Renegade sales are far exceeding Jeep’s expectations.”

Honda’s Conrad still likes to have small cars in his lineup if gas prices rise. “In today’s environment I don’t think people look at CUVs vs. sedans as a fuel economy argument,” he said, echoing auto analysts. “But there are buyers who have seen peaks and valley in gas, so some… want the highest fuel efficiency they can get. Sedans still get better fuel economy.”

KBB’s Brauer said a Big Three abandonment of compact segments could be risky.

“Even if the sedan market doesn’t come back, the Japanese are making a good investment,” he continued. “If you make a good product, customers will come. Companies like Honda and Toyota and Nissan are very good at making cars that sell at high volumes. And that breeds customer loyalty from an early age.”

Honda’s Conrad looks at the market as an endurance race, with Honda’s patience paying off as trends come and go.

“People have abandoned segments for a long time,” he said. “A few years ago a lot of manufacturer sold minivans. How many manufacturers really make a serious run at selling (them) anymore? Not many, but we’re still in it and we sold over 120,000 last year.”

The Fit has also sold steadily, holding on to the No. 3 spot in the segment behind Nissan’s Leaf and Hyundai’s Accent. “We think you need balance in your business,” said Conrad. “People run towards what’s hot — the shiny object — on one side of the ship and abandon something else. Well, we like to keep the ship from listing.”

KBB’s Brauer said that, as the market undergoes a fundamental shift to SUVs, different automakers are taking different approaches: “We’ll find out who did it right.”


Payne: Dodge Viper saves best for last

Posted by hpayne on August 17, 2017


You don’t see a Dodge Viper for the first time. You feel it.

My first time was on Woodward 17 years ago, shortly after my arrival in Michigan to work for The Detroit News. My rib cage started rattling as a first-generation, 488-cubic-inch — 488! — Viper Roadster pulled up alongside me at a stoplight. Ten cylinders pounded the asphalt like jackhammers. I was smitten.

Looking out my right window, all I saw was hood. The Viper’s red front end was so long it seemed to have come out of a Tex Avery cartoon. The exhaust pipes exited under the doors, soaking the non-air-conditioned cabin in heat. All that was missing was nitrous fuel to make my eyes water.

The Viper was the most visceral car on the road. It was a locomotive engine strapped to four wheels, a throwback to raw muscle cars of the 1960s like the legendary 427 Shelby Cobra I worshipped as a kid.

At this year’s Dream Cruise we celebrate the mighty beast’s end. After 25 years, Dodge is retiring the snake.

I joined 200 Viper owners for a trip up memory lane last Saturday to open Dream Cruise week. The parade kicked off at Detroit’s Conner Avenue plant (where the snake has been made since 1995) and finished at M1 Concourse’s Champion Motor Speedway in Pontiac — one of 15 U.S. tracks (and counting) where Dodge’s supercar owns the lap record. That statistic is testament to how far Viper has come in 25 years while still holding true to its roots as the rawest, baddest, fiercest sports car on the planet.

Fittingly, the last Viper is the best of the breed. Where today’s supercars — the Porsche Turbo, Audi R8 and Acura NSX — are digitally tuned, all-wheel drive cyborgs from the future with paddle-shifting, millisecond-quick dual-clutch transmissions and quick-revving, overhead-cam engines, the 2017 Viper ACR is a relic.

It sports a brutish, big-block, push-rod V-10 mill mated to a six-speed manual shifter driving the rear wheels. Yet its brute power, ginormous brakes and extensive aerodynamics — generating 1,300 pounds of downforce at 150 mph — lick all comers on track.

In short, the Viper ACR is a race car. A raw, no compromise weapon.

It was always such. First shown as a concept car at the 1989 Detroit Auto Show, the Viper was an instant sensation. It stole the show. It had to be built. And two years later it rolled off the assembly line as a 1992 model virtually unchanged from the roadster concept. If superheroes were cars, Porsche would be Iron Man — smart, high-tech, well-dressed — and Viper would be the Hulk. Powerful. Simple. Half-naked.

The first gen Viper came topless, sans exterior door handles or air conditioning, with an interior as Spartan as a bachelor’s first apartment. The side exhaust pipes would burn your calves, the heat from the front-mounted engine would soak your shirt, and its bellow would make your ears bleed.

“The Viper is a raw, unique car,” said parade-participant Peter Peia, owner of four Vipers – including an ACR with “Downforce” on the license plate. “Particular people want it. It’s a driver’s car. I’m glad they always made it in a manual.”

As I paraded behind “Downforce” up Woodward in my Viper tester — our stiff suspensions porpoising over every road imperfection — I reflected that Viper’s purity of purpose was surely its undoing: The $60,000 Corvette has made giant strides over seven generations to become a dual-mode track-it-Sunday, drive-it-to-work-Monday sports car that sells 30,000 in a year. Meanwhile, the $90,000 Viper has remained stubbornly one-dimensional. Last year it sold 630 cars.

Sure, the fifth-generation Viper has automatic windows, a coupe roof and air conditioning. But the side pipes still barbecue your legs, manual-shifting effort requires Thor’s forearms, and the V-10 drinks like a fish.

I got 10.8 miles per gallon in my Viper this week, which meant that — at 184 miles on a full tank — I had less range than a Chevy Bolt EV. Without America’s extensive filling-station infrastructure, Vipers would need airborne tanker support like Air Force fighter jets.

It’s worth every gallon. Press the red starter button and the Viper gurgles like a hungry T. Rex. Nail it over 4,000 rpms and the predator really hunts. Get off Detroit’s ox-kart roads to M1’s smooth track and the snake is in its element; its stiff, race car-flat handling chews up corners as fast as the V-10 devours straightaways. At the hands of M1 chief instructor and pro race jockey Aaron Bambach, the Viper lapped M1 in a stupefying 1:08.

Such performance attracts fans from every corner of the world. Like Romanian-born Peia. Or Dodge designer and snake owner Tome Joranowski, whose family gave him a scale-model Viper in his home country of Macedonia when he was 8; thus began a life-long dream to come to the USA and work for Chrysler.

Detroit chief of police and chief motorhead James Craig led the parade up Woodward in a new, black-and-white ACR (“Dodge Law” emblazoned on its hood and doors). He was like a kid in a candy store. Craig once worked for a Los Angeles police department that was gifted a black-and white Lamborghini, but he’ll take the Viper, thank you very much.

“This is a truly iconic Detroit muscle car,” he said at the Conner facility. “But this is also a bittersweet occasion because it marks the closing of the plant.”

Viper will be gone but not forgotten. As the chief led us up Woodward, workers poured from businesses along the route to record the moment on smartphones and cheer us on. We responded with lots of ground-shaking engine brap-brapppa-braps. Viper has inspired a visceral Dodge brand that now includes Scat Packs, Hellcats and a new icon to replace Viper: the insane, 840-horsepower Demon that stole the New York Auto Show this year like the Viper stole Detroit in 1989.

My 20-something motorhead son flew through Detroit from California Monday and I met him at the airport in the Viper just so he could get a taste behind the wheel. And to pass the torch.

When I was growing up in the late 1960s, I was awestruck by the raw, 427-cubic-inch Shelby Cobra. It was obscenely fast. Loud. Visceral. Today my peers collect originals, make Cobra kit replicars, and take them to the Dream Cruise. The Dodge Viper will be that car for a new generation.

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

2017 Dodge Viper





8.4-liter V-10


6-speed manual


3,400 pounds (est.)


$95,895 base ($154,885 GTC with ACR aero package

as tested)


645 horsepower, 600 pound-feet torque


0-60 mph, 3.4 seconds (Car & Driver);

top speed: 177 mph (mftr)

Fuel economy

EPA est. 12 mpg city/19 mpg highway/14 mpg combined

Report card




Loud, stiff, hot; gulps fuel


Chevy casts net for new Traverse SUV buyers

Posted by hpayne on August 16, 2017


Bigger and lighter, the second-generation 2018 Chevrolet Traverse reboots Chevy’s midsize SUV. The three-row Traverse, available now, is aimed squarely at the Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Toyota Highlander which have dominated the midsize SUV segment in recent years.

The Lansing-built Traverse is one of General Motors Co.’s most important launches of the year. The first full redesign since debuting as a 2009 model, its sportier exterior and premium amenities are intended to better compete with the Explorer and Grand Cherokee, said Steve Majoros, marketing director for Chevy crossovers. Those SUVs have doubled the Traverse in annual sales and Majoros is hoping he can break through to some new buyers, including more men in the growing but crowded three-row SUV segment.

The redesigned Traverse, now on sale, adds new trim levels including a sporty RS, top-of-the-line High Country and Redline package featuring black with red accents that Majoros says will bring in new owners and push manufacturer’s suggested retail prices higher. The Traverse now trails the segment median of $41,200 by about $2,500.

“I think that’s the big challenge for us,” he said. “How do we become a product that handles all the great things it has done up to this point, but how do we break into a category or a dimension of the category that’s like, hey, I just want it because it’s a great looking car and it’s got some cool stuff and it fits what I need to do.”

LMC Automotive has predicted Traverse could see a slight boost in sales volume over the next two years to 120,000 to 125,000 annually. Traverse’s best sales year was 2015 when it sold nearly 120,000.

Most Traverse advertising will come early next year and will be more overt and direct against the competition, Majoros said. Part of that will be to boost familiarity of the Traverse.

Ditching the familiar “boat bow” rear window and wrap-around, Impala-like front grille, the Traverse sports a more squared-off shape, giving it a boxier appearance than the outgoing generation and bringing it more in line with the styling of its smaller Equinox sibling. The result is a less expressive SUV, especially when compared to its stylish GMC Acadia cousin, built on the same platform.

But the real focus of this family hauler is its inside creature comforts. The 2-inch longer wheelbase mostly benefits passenger space (cargo room is slightly diminished from the previous generation). Second-row seating is optional as a bench or twin captain’s chairs, with the latter offering a nifty, one-step tumbling feature for easy third-row access for the rugrats — while not affecting an installed child seat, rear or forward facing. The feature rivals competitor Honda Pilot’s one-step button feature, although Chevy only offers the tumble seat on the curbside of the vehicle.

The interior also features GM’s patented interior connectivity with 4G Wi-Fi and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. In addition to a suite of infotainment apps that include iHeart Radio and Audiobooks, GM’s touchscreen infotainment system will offer over-the-air connectivity — to date an exclusive feature of Tesla — for future app upgrades.

The Traverse’s added size does not come at the expense of fuel efficiency, however, as the big Chevy goes on a 351-pound diet. The lighter chassis complements the Traverse’s familiar, 310-horsepower V-6 engine which gains 5 miles per gallon in fuel economy (and up to 27 mpg on the highway for a front-wheel drive model) and a full second in zero-60 acceleration. The fuel economy gain can largely be attributed, however, to Chevy’s 9-speed automatic transmission, the first application in a large, front-wheel-drive SUV. A smaller, 2-liter four-cylinder turbocharged engine also will be offered – but only in the RS trim with front-wheel-drive.

“It’s the biggest car in the segment but also one of the lightest,” GM Light Truck Chief Engineer Rick Spina said. “We’ve put together a package with good aerodynamics and fuel economy, good ride and handling dynamics.”

Remade from the ground up on GM’s C1Y platform, the Traverse — which shares architecture with the GMC Acadia, Cadillac XT5, and forthcoming redesigned Buick Enclave — continues the General’s transformation to lighter, more maneuverable vehicles across its vehicle lineup. Despite its bigger dimensions, the Traverse’s predictable, smooth, AWD handling and drivetrain gives it the road confidence of a large sedan.

The Traverse’s premium High Country trim comes standard with the same sophisticated, torque-vectoring system found in the smaller Acadia and Cadillac — helping the large SUV’s on- and off-road maneuverability.

The Traverse starts at $30,875, including destination charge.

Corvette dragster crowned ‘King of Woodward’ after Roadkill washout

Posted by hpayne on August 13, 2017

Pontiac – Gary Box of Cleveland, Ohio was crowned the King of Woodward Avenue Saturday night after a downpour washed out Roadkill Nights’ Final Five drag racing shootout.

After a full day of legal street racing down Woodward Avenue (closed north of South Boulevard for the event) next to the M1 Concourse, five drivers qualified for the finals: Box, John Paul Delisi of Eastpointe, Michigan; Brian Goidstone of Osceda Michigan; Jim Kline of Wyoming, Michigan; and Lenny Milton of Salisbury, North Carolina.

By virtue of posting the fastest qualifying time, Box was crowned the winner after the skies opened at 8 PM and rendered the 1/8 mile strip too wet to race. Box took home the $10,000 first prize.

Roadkill Nights Powered by Dodge opened Dream Cruise week and, in keeping with the democratic spirit of the Cruise, the race cars were all street legal and piloted by amateur enthusiasts. The packed stands were also treated to an exhibition run by NHRA pro racer Leah Pritchett in her 11,000-horsepower Top Fuel dragster.

Box, 63, was the only competitor to clock a run under 6 seconds in the 1/8 mile in his outrageous, black, 1960s-vintage Corvette Stingray — a towering blower sticking out of its front hood. He exploded down the southbound lanes of Woodward in a stupefying 5.7 seconds, drawing gasps from the drag racer faithful who were stunned that any car could break 6 seconds on a public road.

“This is cool as hell, man,” said Box before the rains came, Woodward turned jet black under his feet from a day of burnouts. “This surface really sucks – there are a lot of stones in this asphalt. But this is real street racing.”

Box should know – he got his stripes street racing in Cleveland. He built his monster ‘Vette — he estimates the 522-cubic inch Chevy puts out 1,300 horsepower — in 1999 and has put 40,000 miles on the odometer driving around town. The side pipes put out a deafening 99 decibels, but, like everything else here, the car is street legal.

Not so fortunate was Tom Joycey of Waterford Hills, Michigan, whose very quick 1977 Camaro Z28 was considered one of the favorites for the Final Five before he blew a skinny, front “roller” tire on his second qualifying run.

Joycey has been a Top Ten drag racer in the National Muscle Car Association for years. Like Box, this is his first year at Roadkill and that’s by design. In its inaugural year, organizers from the Roadkill Nights internet show and Dodge took entrants on a first-come, first-served basis. This year, to encourage better racing — and to guarantee competitors know what they were doing at 150 mph between two concrete walls — drivers had to apply for entry.

“I filled out an application and they accepted me,” says Joycey, whose Camaro puts out 1,500 ponies and needs rear wheelie bars to keep the front end planted when he launches off the line. He will come back next year if approved.

“This is just crazy – it’s hard to believe they can pull this off,” he said before heading home, nursing his eog and frayed front tire. “There are more people in these grandstands than there are at a track drag race.”

Joycey pointed to his 10.5-inch, DOT-approved, street legal tires (with all of three grooves) on the back of his Camaro. “I run slicks at Milan (drag strip),” he smiles.

Box didn’t realize there is another week of cruising after Roadkill nights. “I would have stayed for the week and done some cruising in my car,” he says.

Pro drivers show Dodge muscle at M1 Thrill Rides

Posted by hpayne on August 12, 2017


A Dodge Viper takes a break from Thrill Rides while a Charger and Challenger Hellcat do hot laps.(Photo: Henry Payne / The Detroit News)

Pontiac – Drag racing headlined Roadkill Nights Saturday night as hot rods burned down Woodward to open Dream Cruise week. But the hottest ticket was for the Dodge Thrill Rides on nearby M1 Concourse’s Champion Motor Speedway.

Millenium Force rollercoaster at Cedar Point doesn’t see lines like this.

Thrill seekers waited up to four hours this afternoon to take a spin around M1 in a Dodge muscle car driven by experienced pro drivers. Families of four jumped into the 707-horsepower Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat (kids in the front seat, please!). Couples got squeezed into the Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat coupe.

I took a spin in a Dodge Viper GT piloted by stock car racer Andy Thurman – and I’m still dizzy. I’ve driven M1’s track in everything from a McLaren 570GT to a Lexus LC 500 – and M1 Chief Instructor has taken me around M1 at some pretty lurid angles in a Charger Hellcat – but I’ve never done a lap with as much sustained aggression as with Thurman.

“I piloted the Thrill Rides last year in M1’s skid pad,” Thurman told me. “But using the M1 track is way better. These cars are a heckuva lot of fun with tons of horsepower and lots of torque.”

In the Viper’s case, that’s 645 ponies and 600 torques. Which Thurman put down all at once out of the gates. We entered M1 Concourse’s first turn at a 30 degree angle to the apex – Thurman skillfully controlling throttle and clutch. The rest of the lap would be more of the same -with a brief burst to 100 mph on the back straight – as Thurman threw the beast from apex to apex, and between pylon after pylon.

“The Viper likes to be stuck to the track,” says Thurman. “So it’s against its nature to throw it into all those slides.”

The Hellcats, on the other hand, need little goosing to break traction and it was something to watch the drivers manage their 4,500-pound girth around M1’s narrow asphalt.

Such extreme driving takes its toll on tires, and, behind the scenes, Thrill Ride crew members were working furiously to keep up with the tire wear. One tire changer said the seven Thrill Ride cars would go through 80 sets of tires on Saturday.

The crew, rivers, and staff are a tight group – a big horsepower circus going from event to event across the US showing off Dodge’s halo cars (and other muscle cars as well). If there is a Roadkill Nights 3 on Woodward next year, they’ll be back. You might want to get in line now.

Roadkill Nights brings drag racing to Woodward Ave.

Posted by hpayne on August 12, 2017

Driver Mike Finnegan warms up the tires on his 1955

Pontiac – And then there were four.

After a full day of drag racing down Woodward – yes, Woodward Avenue – next to M1 Concourse here, four cars have qualified for the finals and a shot at $10,000. Roadkill Nights Powered by Dodge opens Dream Cruise week and, in keeping with the democratic spirit of the Cruise, the race cars are all street legal and piloted by amateur enthusiasts.

The fastest driver today – in the only car under 6 seconds on the 1/8 mile strip of public road – is Gary Box of Cleveland, Ohio in his outrageous, black, 1960s-vintage Corvette Stingray. Not so fortunate is Tom Joycey of Waterford Hills, Michigan, whose very quick 1977 Camaro Z28 blew a skinny, front “roller” tire and won’t be sticking around for the Final Four.

The fastest qualifier is Gary Box's 1300-hp Corvette

The fastest qualifier is Gary Box’s 1300-hp Corvette Stingray which turned a 5.7 sec 1/8 mile (Photo: Henry Payne / The Detroit News)

Box exploded down the southbound lanes of Woodward in a stupefying 5.7 seconds, drawing gasps from the drag racer faithful who were stunned that any car could break 6 seconds on a public road.

“This is cool as hell, man,” said Box at the starting line, Woodward’s surface jet black from a day of serious horsepower and serious burnouts. “This surface really sucks – there are a lot of stones in this asphalt. But this is real street racing.”

Box should know – he got his stripes street racing in Cleveland. He built his monster ‘Vette – he estimates the 522-cubic inch Chevy puts out 1,300 horsepower – in 1999 and has put 40,000 miles on the odometer driving it around Cleveland. The side pipes put out a deafening 99 decibels, but – like everything else here – the car is street legal.

Box’s son Corey races with him and is building his own car. He’s happy to give dad the glory this weekend. “He’s been racing that car for 18 years and he deserves it,” smiles the son. He also credits NHRA Top Fuel champion John Force. “He signed the glovebox – I think that’s our secret.”

Tom Joycey and his 1500-hp, 1977 Camaro Z28

Tom Joycey and his 1500-hp, 1977 Camaro Z28 (Photo: Henry Payne / The Detroit News)

Camaro driver Joycey has been a Top Ten drag racer in the National Muscle Car Association for years. Like Box, this is his first year at Roadkill and that’s by design. In its inaugural year, organizers took entrants on a first come, first serve basis. This year, to encourage better racing – and to guarantee competitors know what they were doing at 150 mph between two concrete walls – drivers had to apply for entry.

“I filled out an application and they accepted me,” says Joycey whose Camaro puts out 1,500 ponies and needs rear wheelie bars to keep the thing on the ground when he launches off the line. He will come back next year if approved.

Joycey pointed to his 10.5-inch, DOT-approved, street legal tires (with all of three grooves) on the back of his Camaro. “I run slicks at Milan (drag strip),” he smiles.

Box didn’t realize there is another week of cruising after Roadkill nights. “I would have stayed for the week and done some cruising in my car,” he says. But tonight he’s focused on the prize.

“I think I can do a 5.2 second run,” says the tall, gray-haired Ohioan. “I want that $10 grand.”

Chief Craig leads Viper parade into Pontiac

Posted by hpayne on August 12, 2017

Detroit Police Chief Craig – a serious motorhead –

Pontiac – Celebrating its 25th – and last birthday – the Dodge Viper got a police escort up Woodward Avenue Saturday to kick off the 2017 Dream Cruise.

The last Vipers are rolling off the line as Dodge discontinues production of its legendary supercar this fall. Some 200 Vipers – including yours truly in a 2017 Viper GTC/ACR – showed up for the party at Dodge’s Connor Avenue plant in Detroit. Then they were led by Detroit Police Chief Craig – a serious motorhead – in a black and white Viper police car (a “Dodge Law” sign on each door) all the way to Pontiac for the second annual Roadkill Nights Powered by Dodge at M1 Concourse car club in Pontiac.

“I love the black and white Viper,” said the chief. “I used to work for the Los Angeles Police Department and they got a black and white Lamborghini. But I’ll be driving real Detroit muscle.”

Craig led the parade across 8 Mile and up Woodward Avenue with a full police escort – bringing traffic to a standstill and wowing gawkers along the route. I revved the Viper’s ground-shaking, 645-horse, 8.4-liter V-10 engine for go effect at appreciative passersby.

The Viper sports a top speed of 177 mph, but we never got out of first gear – 30 mph – on the long trek up Woodard. Fittingly, the parade’s terminus was M1 Concourse and its Champion Motor Spedeway race track. The Viper ACR is M1’s school car and owns the track’s lap record.

The procession north along Woodward Ave. could be viewed

t’s bittersweet,” said Tome Joranowski, 34, a Dodge designer who drove his 2017 Viper in the parade, about the Viper’s last year of production.

“This is the car that got me into the industry. It was the first scale model I built, and it was the first car I drew when I was eight years older.”

Joranowski is a testament to the Viper’s world-wide appeal. He came to the US from Macedonia to attend the College for Creative Studies as a young man. His goal: to work on the Viper. His GTC badged Viper is a custom model painted in Grigio Silverstone.

The Roadkill Nights drag races kicked off Saturday morning at 11 AM, but ran into a glitch when one competitor ran off the end of the 1/8 mile Woodward dragstrip and crashed into the end barrier.

No one was hurt but the incident – the first in the two-year running of Roadkill – set back the schedule of the drag races. About 150 cars are signed up for the drag runs, each receiving three runs. After their three qualifying runs, the fastest eight cars will compete for top time this evening.

The evening will also feature celebrity drag racing – including NHRA Top Fuel female star Leah Pritchett – at 6.15 PM in Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcats. They are also expected to drag race the 840-horsepower SRT Demon for the first time also.

Payne: Lexus LC, zero-sexy in 4.4 seconds

Posted by hpayne on August 9, 2017


“Love the sound of that V-8!”

“Really like the handling!”

“This thing is a beauty!”

It was all high-fives for the Lexus LC 500 from the boys at M1 Concourse, Michigan’s premiere auto-enthusiasts club, after I brought it out for a few track laps. Yes, Lexus.

For 30 years Toyota’s luxury car brand has impressed with its cold efficiency, reliability and affordability. But it has never stirred the loins. Whetted the lips. Tickled the irrational heartstrings of lust like its American, German and English competitors. Until now.

The LC 500 strutted down the catwalk at the 2016 Detroit Auto Show as the ultimate show car. Tri-LED front headlights, curvy hips, 21-inch wheels. Now it’s stepped down to mingle among us. Unlike its 2010, $350,000 LFA predecessor (edition of just 500), the LC 500 is a true, $100,000, showroom-production sports car priced to take on the best rear-wheel drivers in the game: Porsche 911, Jaguar F-Type, Corvette Z06.

Sure, the red leather heated and cooled seats are decadent thrones. And the red alcantara lining of the doors looks like it came out of the Queen of England’s bedroom. And the analog clock seems ripped from a Rolls.

But those twin handles are straight out of the Corvette Z06 track monster. They are a warning that the LC wants to boogie.

Turn the key and the beast awakens. With an annoyed gurgle, the eight-holer growls to life like a hungry lion. It’s not the obnoxious, car-alarm triggering bark of an F-Type, but it means business. Sweeping through M1’s Turn 3 and 4, the Lexus’ Michelin Pilot Super Sports stick. Big Brembo brakes haul it to earth into the hairpin, then the car rotates (with an assist from rear-steering) on a dime and thunders down the back straight as I flick off lightning shifts from the 10-speed automatic.

The car’s girth is noticeable — it weighs as much as the Dodge Hellcats in M1’s track-school fleet — but this is no boulevard cruiser. If you buy it, track it. M1 instructor and pro racer Aaron Bambach smiled the whole way ’round in his stint, the V-8 howling.

As its first entry in the flagship sports-car space, Lexus has brought a lot to the table. Some of it is undercooked.

The 10-speed is the first in the luxury space, and only the second on the market after the jointly developed, GM-Ford cog-swapper that debuted this year in the Chevy Camaro ZL1 and Ford F-150 Raptor. Like the Camaro, the single-clutch Lexus deca-box snaps off upshifts with the speed of a dual-clutch Porsche PDK. Downshifts use smooth rev-matching.

But the in the lower ratios, the LC500 is not as confident as the Chevy. Downshifts will sometimes happen with a clunk. Out of a stoplight, the car hesitates as the CPU seems to ponder which ratio to engage.

I engaged a playful 455-horse, 8-speed automatic Camaro SS on Telegraph, and the two V-8s in stereo were glorious. But out of green lights, the Lexus was a tick slower despite 16 more horsepower and two more gears. Sure enough, a check of Car and Driver’s zero-60 tests finds the Lexus lags the Camaro to 60 mph – 4.4 seconds versus 3.9. And the SS is less than half the price.

The Camaro invites other comparisons. Both cars locate their V-8 boat anchors well back in the front bay for weight balance with the Lexus achieving an impressive 52/48 split. With its shorter, 108-inch wheelbase, the Lexus rear seats, however, make the Camaro seem roomy. As in the Porsche 911, think of the LC 500 rears as more luggage space.

As for interior display panels, the Lexus takes a back seat to the competition. The instrument screen is clever — the analog speedometer movable depending on how much information you want — but digital systems from Audi and Tesla are vastly superior.

The infotainment system in the LC 500’s case is operated by a touch pad — not the mouse as found in, say, a Lexus GS sedan — but it is equally unworkable. Trying to negotiate the screen when parked is difficult; when moving it’s a road-distraction nightmare. Mrs. Payne tried operating it from the passenger seat and threw her hands up in frustration.

I distracted her by burying the throttle through some twisties so she’d grab the “oh,crap” handles. Which nicely summarizes the LC 500 experience. Whatever its shortcomings — weight, gear hiccups, infotainment — the LC is always forgiven given its looks and sound.

Pictures don’t do the LC 500 justice. Lexus’ polarizing spindle grille has been awkward on many vehicles, especially the huge bug-catchers on the RX and NX utes. But on the LC it’s an extension of the car’s flowing lines. The coupe’s sexy hips define this car, not the grille. Only the pinched rocker panels disrupt the car’s flow, but they are complemented by functional inlets for rear brake cooling.

The defining characteristic of this car, however, is the V-8.

In an age when engine displacement is under attack from government nannies, the LC 500 is a reminder of what a V-8 soundtrack adds to the sports-car experience. A turbocharged V-6 with 600-plus horsepower is expected for the LC’s imminent, top-trim F-Sport model. But sometimes numbers aren’t enough when you’re putting down six figures on a performance automobile.

Feel your pulse quicken when an F-Type lights up. Or the ground shake when a Z06 hammers by. With its libidinous form and V-8 purr, the Lexus will be loved, not just admired.

That’s a high-five for the Lexus brand. Now if we can just get it on a diet.

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

2018 Lexus LC 500





5.0-liter V-8


10-speed automatic


4,380 pounds


$86,090 base


471 horsepower, 398 pound-feet torque


0-60 mph, 4.4 seconds (manufacturer); top speed: 168 mph

Fuel economy

EPA est. 16 mpg city/26 mpg highway/19 mpg combined

Report card




Maddening touch pad infotainment controller;

10-speed tranny slow off the line


Payne review: VW’s Tiguan gets American-ized

Posted by hpayne on August 3, 2017


Has anyone else noticed that fast food isn’t fast anymore? Driving through a McDonald’s for breakfast on the way to work, I sat for 20 minutes waiting for an Egg McMuffin. On an Indianapolis road trip date with this week’s tester, the 2018 VW Tiguan SUV, I waited 23 minutes (I’ve got the stopwatch out by now) for a lunch order at KFC/Taco Bell. By the time I reached the window, I had shaved, finished “War and Peace” and the line behind me was backed up into Ohio.

I’m convinced this inconvenience is the result of fast-food restaurants adding waaaay too many features to their menu beyond their core competence.

Feature-mania has also hit the family SUV which, like fast-food restaurants, are falling all over themselves to be all things to all family. USB ports, 4G Wi-Fi, moonroofs, heated seats, smartphone apps, Sirius XM, fold-flat seats, all-wheel drive, performance drive modes — the SUV interior is a rolling home basement theater except for the minibar. That should be an option soon.

So it is with trepidation that I approach family SUVs expecting the things to go into sensory overload. But I’m happy to report that, by-and-large, they work.

Take the new Tiguan, Volkswagen’s ground-up remake of its entry-level SUV. Like many German makes, previous Tiguans suffered from a superiority complex as VW tried to impose its standard of premium sportiness and minimal interior room on an American buyer who could do without the former and demanded the latter.

Predictably, this sales approach went over like Donald Trump at the Sundance Film Festival. The Tiguan bombed at the box office next to offerings like the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape that put the customer first with affordable comfort and gizmos galore.

For 2018 VW has wised up and offered a roomy, Americanized SUV with more offerings than a McDonald’s breakfast. After (finally) getting my KFC, I rolled across the Midwest in a loaded Tiguan SEL tanning under a full sun roof, enjoying my Chicken Little sandwich, thumbing through XM stations with steering wheel controls, while adaptive cruise-control monitored the distance to the semis in front off me lest I be distracted from driving.

So thoroughly Americanized is the McTiguan that it has been supersized.

The 2018 model is a full foot longer and 176 pounds heavier than the outgoing model, gaining a third row of seats usually found in full-size SUVs like the Chevy Tahoe. Readers of these columns know that I am a Golf GTI disciple — the hot hatch that offers everything from five-door utility to apex-carving dance moves.

Where the previous Tiguan seemed separated at birth from its nimble brother, the new model comes from a different birth mother altogether. Never once on my Indy interstate trip was I temped to take the Tiggy off-route to play. Give me a performance ute/car and I’m often tempted to twisty country roads. My route to Mid-Ohio race track this year in a McLaren 570GT looked like a piece of spaghetti.

The Tiguan cedes the sporty SUV high ground to athletes like the Mazda CX-5 and Honda CR-V. This VW is about style, size and sizzle.

There are two kinds of ute styling these days: the coupe wannabes and the Rover groupies. With racy hoods and sloped rumps, the coupe wannabes look sleek at a sacrifice to rear head room and cargo room. That’s not Tiggy’s style. He’s a Rover groupie — a student of the tall, square shape pioneered by the luxury Land Rover brand, and followed by other swank SUVs like the Ford Explorer and Mercedes GLC.

The new look becomes Tiggy. Where the old Tiguan was a hippy, rounded Golf on stilts, the new generation is a luxe toaster. The finely detailed, Rover-esque grille and nicely creased sides (a hint of corporate cousin Audi there) kept my silver V-dub from looking simple, but inside is where this family vehicle really shines.

The dash and console are among the most elegant in the segment — bordering on luxury — with handsome proportions and Audi Q5-like attention to detail with chrome outlines and an optional digital gauge cluster. But Tig speaks with an American accent. Where the Audi’s console space is swamped by a remote rotary button operating infotainment, the V-dub bears an almost-as-good-as Chrysler UConnect touchscreen and multiple compartments for storage.

At Indy’s Mug ’n’ Bun drive-in (instant service with a smile), the Tiguan’s console was as useful as a sectioned high school cafeteria tray. I put my burger in the dashtop cubbie, my fries in the center console, drink and shake in twin cupholders, and smartphone in the fore cubbie. The CR-V still owns best-in-class console but VW is doing its homework.

As for seating, there is none better. Even after a nightmarish, 71/2-hour return trip from Indy stoked by multiple wrong turns due to VW’s helpless nav system and my Android Auto app going AWOL (one of those new menu items that is not working), my backside was no worse for the wear. The roomy back seat also wins raves thanks to that Rover styling.

Your 6-foot-5 scribe could sit bolt-upright even with a full moonroof adding an inch of roof space. And I could recline my seat. And there’s that (viable) third-row option should your rugrats emerge from school with five more rugrats for a sleepover.

Having solved the U.S. family market mystery, the VW only comes up short in one glaring area: price. My loaded SEL priced out at $40,000, well north of the Honda CR-VFord Escape and Mazda CX-5 that I also admire in this class. The more athletic Mazda even comes with more features like dual-mode cruise and a heads-up display — yet weighs in at $6,000 less.

That’s a lot to pay for the Tiguan’s room.

But at least the Tiguan is now a mainstream player in the segment with a menu of offerings that will make any fast-food-eating, smartphone thumbing, plus-size American feel right at home.

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

2018 Volkswagen Tiguan





2.0-liter, turbocharged, inline 4-cylinder


8-speed automatic


3,777 pounds (3,858 AWD as tested)


$26,245 base ($39,250 AWD 4-Motion as tested)


184 horsepower, 221 pound-feet torque


0-60 mph, 8.2 seconds (Car and Driver est.); towing capacity:

1,500 lbs.

Fuel economy

EPA mpg: 21 city/27 highway/23 combined (AWD)

Report card





Can get pricey;

Tow capacity down from last-gen: 2,200 to 1,500 lbs.


Payne: Why I’m all in on Tesla’s Model 3

Posted by hpayne on August 1, 2017


Apple’s Steve Jobs made a career of re-innovating familiar products (the music player, the cellphone, the newspaper) for the digital age with sleek models (the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad). Tesla’s Elon Musk is walking in Jobs’ footsteps with the automobile.

Taking a page from the Apple genius and his “Stevenotes,” Musk likes to introduce his creations on stage before thousands of adoring fans. But unlike silver-tongued Jobs, the geeky Musk’s “Elonnotes” are halting, disjointed affairs. The products, however — Model S, Model X, Model 3 — are no less spectacular.

Almost 18 months ago I put down a $1,000 deposit to buy an electric Tesla Model 3. I was intrigued not only by its Model S-on-a-budget performance but by the most audacious auto startup since the Ford Model T. Friday night I watched with anticipation as Musk rolled on stage and introduced the first Model 3s into the wild.

Am I ready to write the balance of the check? You betcha.

Like the iPhone, the roomy Model 3 is a premium (read more expensive than you think) product with sleek, minimalist design, excellent performance and a different user experience. Unlike the iPhone, it enters a highly competitive auto market where it will stand out in some areas and lag in others.

Billed as a sports sedan, the Porsche-lookalike Model 3 lives up to its promise. I have driven the rear-wheel drive Model S in everything from its base trim to its full blown, all-wheel drive P90D “Ludicrous” drag-racer mode. It is a uniquely capable automobile worthy of its reputation.

I will test drive the Model 3 later this fall, but a handful of media peers got some time with the Model 3 last week before Friday’s “Elonnotes,” and have confirmed to me that the 3 is the S Junior.

 You already know that electric means 100-percent torque off the line, and big-battery EVs like the 75- to 100-kWh Model S and 60-kWh Chevy Bolt showcase neck-snapping acceleration. In the case of the Model S P90D that acceleration is so violent as to cause inner ear dizziness. The Model 3? Motor Trend’s Kim Reynolds and CNET’s Tim Stevens both tell me the acceleration to 60 mph is quick — at low-5 seconds, somewhere between the Bolt EV and base 75-kWh Model S.

But the real revelation of electrics is their handling.

With battery mass under the floor of the car, they have a very low center of gravity. Indeed, the Model S has the lowest CG — along with the Subaru BR-Z sports car — in autodom. This means I can drive it around cloverleafs like a mad man on rails.

The 3 goes one better than the S: It weighs a whopping 600 pounds less at 3,814 pounds (or about the same as a similarly sized V-8 Chevy Camaro SS but with a lower CG).

“I was surprised at how nimble it was,” says Motor Trend’s Reynolds, who tested the car hard through mountains of Malibu, California. “It has little body roll. The harder I pushed it, the smaller the car felt.”

That’s what we reviewers say about Camaros and BMWs, too.

I enjoy the hot-rod, hot-hatch Chevy Bolt. But with rear-wheel drive, the Model 3 puts down the power better and is easier to rotate through corners. That’s a key attraction to gearheads like me who has been looking at, say, a BMW M2. Model 3 will carry a similar, $50,000 price tag, too.

The 3 may be Tesla’s first 200-mile-range-for-under-$40,000 car, but the “Long Range” Model 3 I reserved Saturday (just after the news conference) will cost me at least $49,000 after adding $9,000 for the 310-mile-range battery and $5,000 for leather seats and tinted, permanent sun roof. That, and Tesla won’t start delivering base models until the middle of next year.

How many of the 500,000 customers who have put down $1,000 deposits will turn to a Bolt EV in the meantime? After all, at just $43,510 a fully loaded the Bolt has better range than the base 3 (238 miles vs. 220) and more features like Android CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone app connectivity and leather interior.

Car guys will pay the 3’s premium.

And not just for performance; what is really transformative about the Model 3 is its interior. Again taking a page from Apple, Tesla has created a minimalist interior space with no gauges, and a big, 15-inch horizontal (the Model S goes 17-inch vertical) touchscreen. Others have tried this — notably another startup automaker named Saturn (Detroiters may remember) with its Ion model — but Tesla is a brand designed for the iPhone age.

But isn’t Tesla swimming against the trend to head-up, driver-centric displays? Yes, and when I’m eating up twisty roads in Hell, Michigan, that could be a distraction. But both Reynolds and CNET’s Stevens say they didn’t find it an issue since EVs don’t require a tachometer — just a digital readout for speed.

One gauge that will require checking in the screen, however, is battery range. At 310 miles, my $50,000 Model 3 will get to Lansing-and-back with plenty of room for a detour through Hell for some misbehaving. But take it 180 miles to Gingerman Raceway on Lake Michigan with my buddies for a track day and I’ll suffer. Where do I find a Supercharger (or even a fast DC charger) to get back? And will the Model 3 — like the Model S at Car and Driver’s Lightening Lap test last year — go into limp mode?

Those are questions for extreme use, of course. But for now, they are not disqualifiers. Just as BMW laid down the benchmark for entry-luxe performance with its 3-series, so has Model 3 set the bar for EVs.

Mine should arrive first-quarter 2018.