Articles Blog

Payne: Think sedans are sunk? Try a snazzy Mazda 6

Posted by Talbot Payne on July 5, 2018

636663268229950025-my18-m6-sig-46g-machine-gray-env-car-00023.jpg

Here’s the thing about extinction — it concentrates the mind. America has gone ute crazy and sedans are in a fight for their life. It’s survival of the fittest. Evolve or die.

And so we are getting the best sedans I’ve ever seen.

I was ZOOM ZOOM ZOOMing the new Mazda 6 all over Metro Detroit this June and I think I’m in love. It’s the same feeling I had when I got out of the 2018 Honda Accordlast fall. A Rolex watch with a Timex price tag.

Like Honda, Mazda has a lot of mileage under its belt on race tracks and its quick handling is no surprise. What surprises are the luxury amenities.

Fast and luxurious, the Mazda improves on the one gripe I had about the Honda: great bod, but put a bag over its face, please. Not the Mazda. This beauty turns heads from head to tail. My Audi-owning friend Dicran lingered over the elegant, chrome-jeweled front end, the grille smiling seductively.

That is a good looking car!

Yes it is. Better looking than many luxury models. Automakers are taking a hard look at sedan viability in the Age of Ute, but the 6 begs the question: Do we need so many luxury brands?

Regular readers know I’ve been writing about the shrinking gap between mainstream and luxury ’til my fingers turned blue, but you could always count on the premium boys flexing more power.

Take the Mazda CX-5, for example. It’s a heckuva compact ute, right there with a BMW X3 in handling and accessories. But put your foot on the gas and … oh. Just 187 normally aspirated gerbils compared to the Bimmer’s 248 galloping, turbocharged horses — and the sound! Oh, my. Like Maria Sharapova hitting a forehand — HUUGGGH! — you can hear the effort. A silky turbo and the BMW badge will get help you cough up the extra 10 grand for the German.

But now here comes my $36,140 Mazda 6 with a 250-horsepower (on premium gas, 227 on regular) 2.5-liter turbo that goes toe-to-toe with, say, a comparably equipped $56,000, 252-horse Audi A6 out of a stoplight.

Zot! The Mazda 6 hit 60 mph in 6.4 seconds — just shy of the Audi’s 6.1.

Mazda is a stickler for detail and they zeroed in on their noise issues for the sixth-gen 6. Padded panels, recrafted-pillars, the works. Like Noah preparing for the storm, they plugged every leak in the cabin to make it more livable.

The result is a quiet, buttery smooth drivetrain under the cane. But no how matter how many pillows Mazda has stuffed in the cracks, the real story here is the new-for-2018, 2.5-liter turbo-4.

The same powerplant found in the lovely CX-9, three-row ute, the new engine puts out a whopping, best-in-class, 310 pound feet of torque with 63 more horses than the old 2.5-liter, normally-aspirated mill. The new engine is programmed (this is the electronic transmission era) for nearly the same 60 mph run, but then it runs away from the competition where you really want it — in 30-50 and 50-70 acceleration. True to its ZOOM ZOOM roots, the turbo-4 still makes a satisfying thrum at hard throttle — not unlike a turbo-4 Golf GTI, one of my favorite 4-bangers.

The old powerplant is still offered in the 6 as a base-engine $22,845 bargain. But the real bargain here is in the loaded, upper-trim models.

And I do mean loaded. My Signature tester undercuts the Audi A6 price by $20,000 despite boasting a two-tone leather interior, wrapped console, seat memory, head-up display, tablet screen, auto high-beams, and so on. Dicran and went back and forth between an Audi A6 and Mazda 6 interior to see the fine differences.

That’s no accident. Mazda benchmarks its interior to the Audi right down to the remote rotary infotainment controller and piano-key dash buttons. The Audi fits more chrome and wood decoration, but the Mazda gains points with more storage space compared to the Audi’s over-engineered console.

Where the Mazda really wows (did I mention it’s just $36,000) is in the premium details. Allow me to point out three:

1. Blind-spot information system. This is my list of must-have digital innovations. I’ve come to depend on a glance at mirror-based blind-spot system rather than twisting my neck into a pretzel every time I want to change lanes. It’s a technology that, like adaptive cruise control (another must), has rapidly migrated into mainstream cars from luxury.

The Mazda takes it up a notch. Adapting a graphic-based blind-spot system innovated by premium automakers like Tesla, the 6 keeps a digital image of your car in the instrument panel — right in front of you — at all times. Is there a vehicle in your quarter panel? The graphic displays “wavy lines” off your starboard stern so you know another car is there. Cars to your right and left? Twin waves off each quarter.

2. Head-up display. In another steal from cars costing thousands more, the Mazda nixes last generation’s el cheapo, dash-mounted head-up display for a state-of-the-art, windshield-projected system. The configuration includes useful info like mph, speed limit and navigation instructions.

Speaking of nav, the Mazda’s ethic of keeping info in front of the driver extends to the high-mounted infotainment screen — which displays the name of the road you are approaching. On dark nights when street signs are hard to read — or placed on black backgrounds (looking at you, Bloomfield Township) — you won’t miss a turn thanks to Mazda engineers.

3. Air vents. Yes, air vents. Most ventilation system require two controls — one for air direction, the other to close it off. The Mazda 6 cleverly combines them into one, making vent operation a cinch.

It’s details like these that give you confidence that the whole vehicle was endlessly fussed over. Which gets you luxury for $36,000. Speaking of details, Mrs. Payne says the only reason not to buy the peppy, roomy, sexy 6 over the CX-5 ute is all-wheel drive.

And if the CX-5 eventually gets the 6’s 250-horse engine, it’ll be one more challenge sedans will have to overcome. In the meantime, Mazda’s 6 is a 10.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2018 Mazda 6

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

Price: $22,840 Sport base ($36,140 Signature as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter inline-4 cylinder; 2.5-liter, turbocharged inline-4 cylinder

Power: 187 horsepower, 186 pound-feet torque (non-turbo 2.5-liter), 250 horsepower (93 octane fuel, 227 with 87 octane), 310 pound-feet torque (turbo-4)

Transmission: 6-speed manual (base Sport model only), 6-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.4 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed: 149 mph (mnftr.)

Weight: 3,560 pounds as tested

Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 26 city/35 highway/29 combined (non-turbo 2.5-liter); 23 city/31 highway/26 combined (turbo-4)

Report card

Highs: Easy on the eyes; tech-tastic interior features

Lows: AWD please?

Overall: 4 stars

Payne review: Mercedes S560 Coupe, king of beasts

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 28, 2018

636655283076109336-merc-fr3-4.JPG

My former Detroit News colleague, Scott Burgess, once advised that auto reviewers schedule a regular Porsche 911 test — as a reminder of how good a sports car can be. The same might be said of a Mercedes-Benz S-class and its place atop the luxury kingdom.

Everyone is in luxury these days because there’s money to be made. Tesla, Genesis and Alfa Romeo offer new meat; Lincoln and Acura are rediscovering their mojo; Cadillac, BMW and Audi run the Nurburgring like greyhounds.

But for pure majesty, Mercedes rules.

Its perfect cheekbones and polished manners are handed down the family tree all the way to the little CLA. SUVS, sedans and coupes spring from its loins. Its sinewy V-8 inspires the AMG performance badge and GT race cars — muscled mutants that shred tracks like Marvel’s Juggernaut.

S is for Simba on Pride Rock.

How can any other mere luxury brand hope to compete? For pure presence and power, my favorite S is the Mercedes S560 4MATIC Coupe, a vision on wheels. It’s like living in Dwayne Johnson’s tuxedo: handsome, graceful, muscled shoulders out to here.

After some tired styling years in the ’90s, the new century has awakened Stuttgart designers from their slumber. Walking through a Mercedes auto show display (alas, it will visit Detroit no more) is like attending a DIA masters’ sculpture exhibit. The bodies are exquisite. King S560’s bold face — punctuated by a tri-star logo bigger than your head — is backed up by toned flanks and rocker panels with stampings so deep they might have been cut by the Colorado River.

The style is familiar across the brand’s body of work, perhaps most significantly in the entry-level, $32,000 CLA coupe and sedan. The CLA flaunts papa’s DNA right down to the exquisite, jewel-flecked grille. For Mercedes wannabes who can’t yet afford the three-piece suit, the CLA is a lovely jacket.

But the interior is where the S560 Coupe sets the standard. I’m often asked to name the nicest car I’ve driven. The S is it.

Even the $400,000 Rolls-Royce Dawn coupe I sampled last year (only Rolls can make a $157,000 car look like a bargain) can learn from the king. No, the S doesn’t come with umbrellas tucked into its doors (Rolls’ signature), but the Benz offers a more comprehensive, premium experience.

Slip into the quilted first-class leather thrones and be spoiled. An arm extends at the driver’s left shoulder, handing over the seat belt. Visibility is superb thanks to a non-existent B-pillar. The doors are encrusted with stitching and etched stereo speakers, while recessed lighting bathes the cabin in color. Rear-seat space is tight for giraffes like me, but Benz makes the accommodations livable with auto-sliding rear seats and deeply scalloped front seatbacks for the knees.

The cabin is wrapped in premium materials, from the quilted albino seats and mauve dash to an iPhone-like glass pane that stretches across twin 12.3-inch instrument and infotainment displays.

The screen is another brand trademark and can be found across the Mercedes lineup from sport utilities to compact cars.

The decadent interior isn’t just for show. Like furniture in Q’s James Bond lab, the S-class is a showcase for futuristic gizmos.

Fifteen years ago, Burgess took me for my first ride using adaptive cruise control. We marveled at the early autonomous technology as the big Mercedes floated to and fro in traffic, its radar reading traffic speeds up ahead. Today, adaptive cruise control is common on most mainstream cars. For the early 21st century, Benz follows Tesla with self-driving technology that can automatically change lanes with the toggle of a turn-stalk (appropriate, since Tesla borrowed Mercedes’ steering wheel stalks for its Model S).

Neither is the high-class S too proud to adopt other proven technologies: Kick-open rear trunk innovated by Ford. Head-up display from Cadillac. It’s all here. It even has millennial-friendly Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Mercedes’ engineers stretch their creativity with devices like night-vision pedestrian detection and miniature mousepads on the steering wheel. The pads are part of a suite of redundant center console controls, including a touch pad, rotary wheel, even push buttons. My accessory of choice was voice command that understood direct verbal commands — Navigate to Le Petit Dejeuner on Jefferson Avenue — like my smartphone.

With this upholstered apartment stuffed inside, the S Coupe tips the scales at over 4,700 pounds. But don’t let its weight fool you. This beast can move.

Credit an all-wheel drive, all-wheel steer system (the 4MATIC part of the Benz’s dizzying alphanumeric nameplate) that constantly keeps its four paws planted. I took ess-curves in Oakland County much faster than I thought possible, the big locomotive cornering as if on rails.

Mercedes has been dominating GT racing in recent years with ground-pounding V-8s. No sissy sixes for the king of beasts. Under the S560’s breast beats the heart of a lion.

I pressed the throttle of the twin-turbo, 4.0-liter, 463-horsepower V-8 and gulped traffic like Simba running down herd of antelopes. Credit 516 pound-feet of torque and a liquid-smooth, 9-speed automatic for the instant thrust. The transmission was nearly seamless as it swapped cogs to catapult past mere mortal cars. See a traffic opening? Voom! You’re there.

This brute power happens with remarkable calm in the cabin where the eight pistons sound like velvet hammers deep under the hood. Though hardly necessary, the hammer octet can be put on high alert with Sport and Sport+ modes — the latter offering rev-match barks with each downshift.

Whatever. This engine could tow the QE2 in Eco mode and not break a sweat.

Pity the competition which has to cope with not just one, but three S-class coupes on top of its formidable S-class sedan. Lincoln’s Continental interior rivals the Mercedes’ comfort. Cadillac this year unveiled its first twin-turbo V-8 CT6 V-Sport. Fetching, but they must jockey for air space with the S450 sedan, S63 sedan, S65 sedan as well as my S560 tester and its S63 and S65 coupe stablemates. The CT6 doesn’t even offer a coupe — not to mention just three SUV offerings versus Mercedes’ seven.

S560 is a magic carpet with animal thrust. Intoxicated by the quilted-leather seats’ “heated back massage” mode, my wife barely noticed as I pushed 100 mph merging onto I-94.

“I’d be afraid of smudging this gorgeous white interior,” she mused.

Such are life’s trivial worries when being chauffeured by the lead ship in Mercedes’ star fleet.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2018 Mercedes S560 4MATIC Coupe 

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, four-passenger sports coupe

Price: $125,495 base ($152,195 as tested)

Powerplant: 4.0-liter, twin-turbo V-8

Power: 463 horsepower, 516 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 9-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.0 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed: 130 mph (electronically limited)

Weight: 4,751 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 17 city/27 highway/21 combined

Report card

Highs: Rolling Rembrandt; AWD balance

Lows: You can’t afford it — so buy the mini-S-class CLA

Overall: 4 stars

Payne review: More-refined Hyundai Veloster keeps its attitude

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 21, 2018

636649195922299840-veloster-house-fr3-4.JPG

The Hyundais seem like such a nice family. A full-line automaker from the wee Accent sedan to family patriarch Santa Fe SUV, the brand is well-mannered and ranks No. 1 in Kelley Blue Book’s Cost to Own awards. It’s civilized, handsome and reliable.

And then there’s the mutant Veloster hatchback. I’d like to be at the family table when this thing shows up.

Like a three-headed Cerberus hound from hell, the three-door-plus hatch Veloster is a growling, spitting mutt that wants to pick on every sports car in the neighborhood. New for 2018, the compact Veloster is back for its second generation and I guess you could say it’s cleaned up a bit.

The Rottweiler-sized front maw has been tweaked and the severe cuts to the rocker panels and rear hatch have been field-dressed like wounds to Conor McGregor after a UFC cage fight. But saying the Veloster has changed is a little like saying Dennis Rodman dressed down by removing one of his lip rings.

Like Mazda’s Miata, Hyundai’s “reverse halo” sporty car is at the affordable end of the lineup. This hot hatch demands attention.

The grille upgrade has gone from Rottweiler to pit bull. See the difference? Me neither. The (slightly less) rounded haunches are still there. The (slightly less) muscled rockers. The twin tailpipes (why not three?) out the back. The squashed greenhouse with the visibility of a tank turret. The huge nose sniffing the ground hunting for the scent of prey.

The Veloster comes in a base model with a 147-horse, 2.0-liter inline-4 and a $29,000 Ultimate trim with 1.6-liter turbo and more options than a Mercedes: head-up display, rain-sensing wipers, auto-headlights, smartphone app connectivity, Alexa connectivity and so on.

Nice. But if you’re in the market for a rowdy pocket rocket, I recommend the R-Spec turbo.

Hyundai is the rare brand that splits its compact offerings between hatch (Veloster) and sedan/coupe (Elantra). Most competitors — Honda Civic, for example — offer a stepladder of variations on their compact car — Sport, Si, Type-R — to satisfy more performance-oriented customers. Hyundai says the heck with that and spliced DNA to mutate a different pet. So if you’re gonna opt for Veloster quirkbox over conventional Elantra sedan, I say go all the way.

Though not as spec’d out as the Ultimate, R-Spec is still a recipe for fun: black 18-inch wheels, blind-spot detection, heated seats, wireless phone-pad charger, AppleCarPlay/Android Auto connectivity to navigate where you’re going.

And then comes the icing: a 201-horse/195 torque, 1.6-liter turbo-4 mated to a six-speed manual for just $23,785.

That’s a grand below the manual Civic Si coupe and $3,500 shy of the VW Golf GTI while offering the same performance as the Si and the hatchback utility of the Golf. It’s a steal.

A car this unique demands engagement — no autonomous features here — so the R-Spec only comes in a manual. The six-speed isn’t as precise as the V-dub or Honda (call it Ford Focus-like right down to the pull-up-ring reverse gear) but it’ll do just fine for Michigan country roads or a weekend autocross.

The pedals are nicely placed for heel-and-toe downshifting, and the meat of the torque is at low rpms (unlike my ol’ high-revving, 2006 Civic VTEC). Rowing through the gears on to Interstate 75, my pit bull sprinted past 100 mph without breathing hard. A Drive Mode switch offers 500 more revs in Sport mode and the Michelin Pilot Sports — gummy tires unique to R-Spec — provide tenacious grip in the twisties.

The driver’s seat is comfortably bolstered (compared to, say, the Camaro 1LE I recently tested that hugs like a girdle) and the ride comfort noticeably improved from Veloster 1.0, which felt like it might rattle apart on Metro Detroit’s washboard roads. I expected more bark from those twin pipes out the rear, but the interior insulation is much improved. The electronic steering is firm, if numb, but the short wheelbase R-Spec is wonderfully tossable thanks to a multi-link suspension upgrade from Gen One’s torsion beam.

Aiding in that grip is front torque-vectoring which brakes the inside wheel for better rotation. I’d prefer a proper, mechanical, limited-slip differential (you’ll miss it under hard acceleration around autocross pylons) like the Civic Si, but that’s the budget sacrifice a $23,000 sticker requires.

Hyundai buyers will have to wait for the top spec, Civic Type-R-fighting Veloster N for limited slip — which will be key to reining in its expected 275 ponies.

R-Spec customers will find other corner-cutting details like a hard-plastic dash and door sills. But the carefully tailored surfaces mask the hard plastic. And the interior ergonomics are surprisingly good for such an unconventional car.

The 8-inch tablet screen is intuitive, as are the crisp dash buttons. The rear seat is accessible only via the right rear since Hyundai forgot to install a left rear door. Hyundai says this was done on purpose — you know, to give the car the dual personality of a coupe that still welcomes rear passengers.

Whatever. The curb access-only doesn’t seem so odd now that I’ve been in GM’s midsize SUV triplets — Buick Enclave, Chevy Traverse, GMC Terrain — that only allow third-row access via the curb-side middle seat. Maybe the GM models should also only come with three passenger doors.

Open the back door and Hyundai makes good on its rear-seat promise. After sliding all the way across to the left-side seat, my 6-foot-5 frame actually fit! … though my neck wouldn’t fancy a long journey stuffed into the headliner. Even more encouraging, the hatch manages to swallow as much cargo as the Jeep Renegade or Chevy Trax SUVs despite a roofline that looks like it was sat on by Andre the Giant.

I love pocket rockets and Hyundai’s all-new Veloster is a wonderful addition to the genre. It may fall short of the Golf GTI and Civic Si in pure driving ability, but its unique wardrobe and outstanding ergonomics complement the segment’s best value play.

Heck, its fun-loving nature has even caught the attention of Hollywood, where it will be starring in Marvel’s “Antman and the Wasp” this summer alongside the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer and Paul Rudd. “The Veloster totally exemplifies the energetic, no-holds-barred attitude that accompanies this franchise,” says a Marvel Comics representative.

Totally. Dude, having a mutant in the family ain’t a bad thing at all.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2019 Hyundai Veloster

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, four-passenger sport hatchback

Price: $19,385 base ($23,785 R-Spec and $29,160 Turbo Ultimate as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter inline-4 cylinder; 1.6-liter turbo-4

Power: 147 horsepower, 132 pound-feet torque (2.0-liter); 201 horsepower, 195 pound-feet torque (1.6-liter turbo)

Transmission: 6-speed manual; 6-speed automatic; 7-speed automatic (with Turbo and Turbo Ultimate only)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.2 seconds (Car and Driver est., Veloster Ultimate); top speed, 135 mph

Weight: 2,912 pounds (R-Spec); 2,987 (Turbo Ultimate automatic)

Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 27 city/34 highway/30 combined (base 2.0-liter); 26 city/33 highway/29 combined (1.6-liter R-Spec); 28 city/34 highway/30 combined (1.6-liter R-Spec)

Report card

Highs: Hatchback utility; distinctive styling

Lows: Mediocre manual shifter; limited-slip differential, plastic dash are sacrifices for affordability

Overall: 3 stars

Payne review: Camaro 1LE is a joy to drive hard

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 19, 2018

636643324139702334-camaro-rr.jpg

I usually review a sexy coupe each May to celebrate the first muscle car of spring. Like a Mustang convertible galloping across a green landscape. A colorful Dodge Challenger on Woodward. Or a drop-top Camaro with its V-8 singing like a robin.

But spring never came this year. Michigan went straight from winter to summer.

April was a cruel, cold, wintry mistress, the coldest in 140 years. As May tentatively stuck its head out the front door, temps jumped from 40 to 80. One day the branches were barren, the next they were covered in leaves.

In part that’s because May brought more rain across the middle states than Noah’s worst nightmare. A weekend race of mine was canceled at Summit Point, West Virginia (old slogan: Take me home country roads. New slogan: Take me home swollen rivers.) due to flooding. Never seen that before.

So I’m still a little shy about the convertible thing. A hard-top Camaro SS 1LE will do, thank you very much.

In fact, its brooding, black hood — the 1LE’s signature — suits my mood.

Once inside this beast, my outlook brightened. Which is odd since the Camaro is an ergonomic nightmare. I can’t see out of it, the infotainment screen is cantilevered down and the front door pockets are in the back seat. Speaking of the back seat, there isn’t one — unless you take your legs off, because there is zero room. Think of the seats as shelf storage.

Then I push the starter button and all is forgiven.

The 6.2-liter eight comes to life like a bear out of hibernation. GRRRUMBUMBUMBUM. The earth shakes.

“What’s that?” a friend exclaimed as he drove tentatively into my driveway — the black-hooded, musclebound Camaro guarding it like a 3,700-pound Doberman.

But the real thrills begin when the 1LE hits the road.

Chevy introduced the 1LE package back in the third-generation 1988 car to make it more competitive in showroom stock racing. By the fifth-generation, the package had matured to a bona fide “track package” complete with that matte-black hood fronting a big V-8, stiffened suspension and fat (10-inch front, 11-inch rear) tires.

The sixth-generation $37,000 V8-powered Camaro SS options the $7,000 1LE package with magnetic dampers, Brembo brakes, electronic limited-slip differential, Recaro seats, and 11-inch front and 12-inch rear Goodyear gummies.

But the 2018 1LE’s secret sauce is GM’s Alpha architecture, the same bones that make the Cadillac ATS the best-handling compact premium sedan.

The car is simply a joy to drive hard. Only the deliberate, manual six-speed transmission seems out of step with the car’s athleticism.

My week with this toned athlete was enormously unproductive as every trip turned into an excuse to find interesting roads where I could stretch the 1LE’s legs. Trip to the grocery store? Tack on a half hour while I detoured through lake country in search of side-Gs. A trip to the art supply store? Tack on a half-hour while I cruise Woodward, lay rubber at stoplights, and acknowledge the muscle brotherhood.

With rear-wheel drive and a wheelbase just an inch longer than the Cadillac ATS, the SS 1LE is always composed. Always nimble. Always easy to control around corners. In short, it’s more in the competitive class with a BMW M4 than the Ford Mustang and Dodge Challenger.

I didn’t take it to M1 Concourse for test laps, but Car and Driver did track it at their Virginia International Raceway Lightning Lap. The numbers tell the story. The loaded, $46,295 SS 1LE threw down lap times around the epic 4.1-mile “American Nürburgring” comparable to a $97,000 Porsche Cayman GT4 and $194,000 Audi R8 V-10. I’m not making this up.

That’s what marrying a premium sports chassis to a 455-horse, push-rod V-8 gets you. Take a bow, Chevy. But also take a look at lil brother Camaro V-6 1LE.

Offered for the first time in 1LE track trim, the V-6 wowed Car and Driver’s Lightning Lap, blowing away other $40,000-something competitors like the Nissan 370Z NISMO, VW Golf R, and, ahem, Mustang.

“(The Camaro V-6 1LE) absolutely stomps its current Blue Oval rival, the Mustang EcoBoost equipped with the Performance package,” thrilled the buff mag. “And it gets worse for Mustang acolytes: Despite a 100-hp deficit, the 1LE laps VIR faster than the eight-cylinder Mustang GT.”

Ouch. Camaro has taken muscle-car performance to a new level, but — now that it’s dicing with the elites — it also begs the question: Is it a better value than a Caddy?

My SS 1LE certainly answers the question: What would an ATS coupe be like with a V-8? Around Lightning Lap the $46,000 Camaro bests the $65,000, twin-turbo V6-powered Cadillac ATS-V, the best driver’s car Cadillac has made.

But all things considered, the V-6 1LE would be my choice as a daily driver.

While the SS 1LE puts up the gaudier track numbers, the V-6 is much more balancedwithout the V-8 boat anchor up front. Its manners are like the V-6 Cadillac, and though it gives up 100 horsepower to the ATS-V (335 vs. 446), that’s still a lot of grunt for the street — or a weekend track day.

Not only is the V-6 1LE $20,000 cheaper than the ATS-V (that’ll buy you a Chevy Trax ute for the 16-year-old), it’s also well shy of a comparably equipped, $53,000 ATS coupe with performance suspension and the same 335-horse engine. Apples to apples, it’ll also save you $4,700 over the V-8 while offering the same wicked matte-black wardrobe.

Of course, there’s more to sport coupes than performance numbers. Like interior comfort.

The Cadillac ATS somehow manages four more inches of rear legroom than the Camaro despite its shorter wheelbase. But I am also a fan of the Camaro’s unique console — aviation-style temperature vents and tablet touchscreen. And this being GM, the Camaro shares a head-up display and 4G Wi-Fi and smartphone connectivity found on the Cadillac.

Ooooh, I’m feeling warmer already. Spring — er, summer — is finally here and the Chevy Camaro SS and V-6 1LE track editions are here to play.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2018 Chevy Camaro 1LE 

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

Price: $40,590 V6 1LE base ($46,295 SS 1LE as tested)

Powerplant: 3.6-liter, V-6; 6.2-liter V-8

Power: 335 horsepower, 284 pound-feet torque (V-6); 455 horsepower, 455 pound-feet torque (V-8)

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.2 seconds (V-6 1LE, Car and Driver), 4.1 seconds (SS 1LE, Car and Driver); Top speed, 155 mph (V-6), 165 mph (SS)

Weight: 3,532 pounds (V-6); 3,747 pounds (SS)

Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 16 city/28 highway/20 combined (V-6); 16 city/25 highway/19 combined (V-8)

Report card

Highs: Affordably wicked; athletic V-6 1LE balance

Lows: Can’t see out of it; can’t fit in rear seat without removing legs

Overall: 4 stars

More-lethal Mustang Shelby GT350 debuts for ’19

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 12, 2018

636643237150580715-gt350-fr3-4.JPG

Pontiac – The Snake is back, and it’s more poisonous than ever.

For the first time since it was unveiled for the 2015, the Ford Mustang Shelby GT350 gets upgraded performance for the 2019 model year. The patriarch of the Mustang family, the ferocious GT350 gets improved tires, suspension tuning and aerodynamics to improve its on-track performance and keep up with the Joneses. Make that the Chevys.

In its muscle-car war with cross-town rival Camaro, Mustang has come up shy in performance compared with Chevy’s holy trinity of 1LE, ZL1 and winged ZL1 1LE performance grades. The Camaros have consistently bested the Shelby in on-track comparison tests.

Introduced at the M1 Concourse’s Champion Motor Speedway on Monday, the 2019 GT350 aims to close that gap.

“This car brings more grip with better tires,” said Mustang Chief Engineer Carl Widmann, citing new Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires developed specifically for the car. “We can integrate the (magnetic) shock tuning with the tire with the ABS brake system to really get something that’s a step forward.”

Performance comparisons haven’t slowed sales. Since its introduction, the sixth-generation Mustang has re-established itself as the best-selling pony car in the 50 states with overall sales besting 100,000 units in its first two sales years, and topping the Camaro by 81,866 to 67,940 last year.

Though the GT350 makes up less than 10 percent of Mustang sales, its wicked looks and Ferrari-like, high-revving, flat-plane crank V-8 has set it apart as one of the sexiest ponies ever made.

Ford has sold them as fast as they can be made.

“There’s more than pure numbers to selling a muscle car. There’s also pure emotion,” said Mustang Product Manager Mark Schaller as the Snake’s V-8 raged by on M1’s back straight.

The GT350’s drivetrain remains unchanged for 2019: a 526-horsepower (the most from a normally aspirated Mustang ever) 5.2-liter V-8 mated to a 6-speed manual transmission. At full cry, the unique eight-holer hits an ear-rattling 8,250-rpm redline.

Schaller says the focus of the 2019 changes was on tweaking tires, springs, roll bars, magnetic shocks and a more aero-friendly rear spoiler to increase handling.

“The new Shelby flatters the novice and rewards the professional,” he quipped.

The GT350 R – a lighter, even more track-focused version of the Shelby – remains unchanged for 2019. Engineers say the tweaks to the standard GT350 bring it closer to the R-spec car.

Named after the legendary Carroll Shelby’s mod shop, the current Shelby car was the first GT350 to be manufactured in-house by Ford since 1968. How to tell the 2019 from the 2018? The rear spoiler and gray pinstripe separating the signature, dual Shelby stripes.

The price for the new car increases by about $3,000 to $61,340 ($69,325 for the R) as it gains standard options like SYNC 3 infotainment, 4G WiFi and a wrapped center console.

The updated Snake goes on sale in the first quarter of 2019.

Payne: Nissan GT-R and Lexus GX show their age

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 12, 2018

636638900954341185-nissan-gtr-370z.JPG

As we approach 2020, evolution is delivering us a new species of automobile.

Thanks to advancements in electronic and materials engineering, new cyborgs have emerged from the lab with light-speed performance capabilities outside, tranquil cabins inside: the Audi R8, Porsche 911 Turbo, Chevy Corvette ZR1, Mercedes GT AMG 63. Next to them in our garages are three-row premium SUVs sitting on car-like chassis that can haul a soccer team to practice while deftly carving country roads on the way: Mazda CX-9, Audi Q7, Acura MDX, Buick Enclave.

But dinosaurs from a decade ago still roam the Earth.

Two of these museum pieces fit neatly in my stable recently: the 2018 Nissan GT-R Track Edition supercar and Lexus GX 460. They are the perfect family couple — the Lexus a three-row daily workhorse, the GT-R a dazzling thoroughbred. Take the Lexus up north to the cabin; take the Nissan up Woodward to the M1 Concourse.

In a fast-evolving era where premium nameplates get new bones every six years, they are relative fossils. The GT-R has been around since 2009, and the truck-based Lexus since 2003. My high-class couple is determined to stay hip even as their age is showing.

Start with the GT-R, aka Godzilla, whose nickname is ready made for my prehistoric metaphor.

This beast still roars. The U.S. isn’t the only country with a muscle car tradition. The Nissan Skyline GT-R is Japan’s Mustang, a legend that dominated Japanese touring racing for decades. Thus its nickname.

Nissan put the GT-R on steroids for international export in 2008. It waded across the Pacific and came aboard U.S. shores like no monster we had seen before. It shredded roads, ate Porsches and spit out ‘Vette bones.

Back then at Car and Driver’s benchmark Lightning Lap competition — who is fastest around International Raceway’s formidable 4.1-mile track? — the new kid from Tokyo destroyed the Viper SR-10, Audi R8, Corvette Z06 and Porsche 911 GT3.

It achieved this feat with technology stolen from the future: torque-vectoring all-wheel drive, almost 500 horsepower, twin-turbo V-6 and telepathic handling. Nearly a decade later, Godzilla has been surpassed by many of its peers, but it still remains relevant as one of the most thrilling acts on the supercar stage. Credit consistent cosmetic, interior and performance upgrades.

The result is still waaaay too much money, but if Godzilla is your kind of show, this is the ticket.

At M1’s Pontiac test track, the heavy, 3,915-pound GT-R shrunk in my hands. The steering is laser-focused, the stiff chassis balance 50-50 front-to-rear. Only at the limit does the car push, but the all-wheel drive system’s massive grip means it’s easier to put down the car’s nearly 565 horses. M1 chief instructor and pro-race driver Aaron Bambach had never had a GT-R on track and he emerged beaming.

Of course, maximum track response means switching on all three GT-R drive settings — engine, suspension and AWD — to R-mode (RACE) for hair-trigger response.

Try that on Michigan’s battered roads, and you’d better wear a mouth guard. I tried navigating the M-10 Northwest Highway Service Drive — its pocked roads look like London after the blitz — and nearly lost my teeth. Even on smooth roads it’s unhappy at low speed, bucking and whining until you turn it loose.

Driving the GT-R in NORMAL mode lessens the harshness (and the temptation to do 2.9-second zero-60 sprints since launch control can only be activated in R-mode) and allows a look around the cabin.

GT-R ergonomics have evolved nicely, its knob-drunk dash upgraded with spare controls and a tablet touchscreen. Alas, the touchscreen is slower than Heinz ketchup, doesn’t come with smartphone connectivity and hasn’t a clue what you’re saying when you activate voice command.

Frankly, I was so enamored by Godzilla’s roar — WAAAAAHHHHHRGH! — over 3,000 rpm that I didn’t need infotainment.

Alas, the Lexus GX 460 provided no such diversion to take my mind off its old age.

Built on the same body-on-frame ladder that braces the aging Toyota 4Runner, the midsize Lexus’ chassis is in the Mesozoic Age compared to similarly priced, unibody competitors like the Acura MDX and Buick Enclave.

These modern, nimble SUVs run rings around Lexusaurus which doesn’t so much drive as lumber. Happily, a good ol’-fashioned V-8 lurks under the hood providing class-leading torque and 6,500-pound towing capability (useful for when the GT-R just becomes so dang jarring to drive on Detroit’s roads you only want to tow it to Waterford Hills weekend track days).

GX’s polarizing, full-fascia, window-blind grille says Lexus all right — but it can’t match the sculpted MDX or the gorgeous Enclave. Interior aesthetics are dated, as are neglected safety systems like blind-spot assist and adaptive cruise-control that come standard on the MDX (if not, ahem, the Buick).

But the interior of the Enclave is otherwise a modern studio with Apple CarPlay and Android connectivity, roomy cargo, 9-speed tranny and easy third-row seat access that the 6-speed Lexus lacks. Even a unique feature like the Lexus rear swing gate (just like the old Buick Roadmaster wagon!) is a head-scratcher.

The swing gate is pregnant with features like a toolbox and pop-open window so you can reach into the boot without opening the gate.

But when you pull up to the curb to unload that big flat-screen TV, the swing gate opens … the wrong way. Against the curb. So you have to walk around to the traffic side of the car and unload. That works in left-side-of-the-road Japan where the GX was designed — but how many three-row SUVs are sold back home?

The GX 460 is tough and Lexus-dispensable, but it’s even been lapped by the 10-grand cheaper Toyota Highlander. The scintillating, timeless Godzilla GT-R, however, endures.

Still, when the Track Edition got thumped in Car and Driver’s 2017 Lighting Lap by both the $80,000 Corvette Grand Sport and $63,000 Chevy Camaro ZL1, some will surely ask: Why did I just pay $131,000 for a Nissan?

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2018 Nissan GT-R

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, four-passenger sports car

Price: $101,685 base ($131,605 Track Edition as tested)

Powerplant: 3.8-liter, twin-turbocharged V-6

Power: 565 horsepower, 467 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 6-speed, dual-clutch automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 2.9 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed: 195 mph

Weight: 3,915 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 16 city/22 highway/18 combined

Report card

Highs: Still state-of-the-art AWD handling; wicked acceleration

Lows: Heavy; needs more refinement for the price

Overall: 3 stars

2018 Lexus GX 460

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, 7-passenger SUV

Price: $53,450 base ($54,380 as tested)

Powerplant: 4.6-liter V-8

Power: 301 horsepower, 329 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.8 seconds (manufacturer); towing capacity: 6,500 lbs.

Weight: 5,130 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 15 city/20 highway/17 combined

Report card

Highs: Lexus service and reliability; nifty rear window

Lows: Boat-like handling; dated interior

Overall: 2 stars

Why the next Corvette pace car will be mid-engine

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 12, 2018

636637286371359641-corvettec8-fr3-4.jpg

Pace driver and General Motors executive Mark Reuss wasn’t the only driver to spin in Belle Isle’s tricky Turn 2 on Sunday. IndyCar’s Santino Ferrucci came out of the pits too hot later in the race and spun, damaging his open-wheel race car’s front wing.

But Reuss’ Corvette ZR1 pace car’s crash is Exhibit A as to why Chevrolet is developing an all-wheel drive, mid-engine Corvette.

More: Mark Reuss says no excuses for pace car crash

While putting 755 horsepower to the rear wheels, GM”s product boss spun the most powerful front-engine ‘Vette ever into the retaining wall, scattering debris across the track and delaying the start by a half-hour.

It could have happened to anyone. But engineers and auto analysts say Reuss’ fortunes likely would have been better in a mid-engine, all-wheel drive car. Which is one of the many reasons Chevy, as The Detroit News reported two years ago, is bringing a mid-engine Corvette to market for model-year 2020.

“Sunday’s incident would have been less likely to happen from a fundamentals perspective if he had been driving a mid-engine car,” says retired GM engineer Tom Wallace, who ran the Corvette program from 2006-08. “A mid-engine would allow more tolerance so it’s easier to put the traction down, while a front-engine car is going to shift to oversteer sooner.”

Reuss, who wasn’t injured, is hardly an inexperienced Sunday driver. He is a skilled, race-licensed pilot with countless hours on tracks around the world including Germany’s formidable Nürburgring. He has put the top-dog $135,000 ZR1 through its paces on tracks from GM’s challenging Milford Proving Grounds to the epic Road Atlanta Raceway.

He had done multiple practice laps around Belle Isle last week in preparation for his pace stint. No stranger to the rough, twisty street course, Reuss paced the IndyCar field two years ago aboard the ZR1’s sibling, the 650-horse Z06.

Yet, when confronted with a “green” track free of sticky rubber after a day of rain, he made the same mistake as many others – including A.J. Almendinger who infamously crashed his Penske team IndyCar in Turn 2 on Lap 1 in 2013.

Reuss was apologetic in a Facebook post after the incident: “I have paced this race in the wet, cold, hot, and calm. On Z06s, Grand Sports, and other things. Today I let down my friends, my family, Indycar, our city and my company.”

The IndyCar field behind him was sympathetic.

“The track changes surfaces there,” Scott Dixon, who finished first and fourth in the weekend doubleheader, said in an interview with The Detroit News. “There’s actually a bit of elevation change there, too, which is what typically catches people out. We had a couple (IndyCars) spin out there this weekend.”

Turn 2 is a blind, off-camber left-hander. Coming out of the pits under hard throttle, it’s easy to apply too much thrust as the car gets light over the turn’s crest, get the rear end loose and swap ends.

Said Team Penske IndyCar driver Will Power: “I felt really bad for whoever was in the pace car. Where it happened is such a bad corner. It’s real easy to do.”

And even easier when it’s a 3,600-pound production car with a supercharged V-8 boat anchor up front.

As horsepower numbers have skyrocketed in recent years, supercars have gone to mid-engine, all-wheel drive configurations for better stability and better traction. In recent years the Porsche 918, Acura NSX and Lamborghini Huracan have all been introduced as all-wheel drive, mid-engine cars.

Ex-Corvette engineer Wallace says that “mid-engine cars are a more comfortable way to get close to the limit in turns.”

That benefit is important, too, for Corvette’s racing program which increasingly has to deal with more sophisticated mid-engine competitors in the IMSA Weathertech Sports Car Championship like the Ford GT and Ferrari 488. Even Porsche’s iconic rear-engine 911 race car has moved its powerplant forward of the rear axles.

“Why mid-engine (Corvette)? Because the C7 Corvette … is tapped out,” wrote Car and Driver magazine, which has closely followed the mid-engine car’s development – code-named “Emperor” – since 2014 with details and spy shots. “Adding more power to a front-engine design only accelerates the conversion of rubber into smoke at the rear. Moving the engine’s mass closer to the drive tires is the most effective means of improving Corvette acceleration and braking.”

The magazine reports that the mid-engine 2020 Corvette C8 – which has been seen roaming the streets near GM’s Milford test track – will carry the marque’s familiar push-rod V-8 (married to a quick-shifting automatic transmission) and will carry a familiar, affordable supercar entry price.

But higher-trim, $100,000-plus models, writes Car and Driver’s Dan Pund, will push hypercar performance with all-wheel drive, turbocharging and electrified options.

Options are said to include  a twin-turbo 5.5-liter V-8 driving the rear wheels and a 200-horsepower electric motor turning the fronts. Horsepower numbers over 1,000 demand– the traction and balance of mid-engine, all-wheel drive to stay on terra firma.

“With today’s horsepower numbers, every supercar is moving towards AWD and mid-engine chassis,” says Karl Brauer, an auto analyst with Kelley Blue Book, and owner of a mid-engine Ford GT and front-engine 840-horsepower Dodge Demon.

The Demon, the fastest production car ever through the quarter-mile, stirred consternation when it was launched last year with Automotive News editorializing that the rear-wheel drive coupe was so unsafe “that its registration as a road-worthy automobile should be banned.”

Brauer says the Demon has to go to extraordinary technical lengths to keep its rear tires from spinning like a bandsaw, including mechanical and electronic tricks to the suspension, transmission and engine.

When the mid-engine Corvette debuts next year, Wallace is confident that “it will be fundamentally quicker with less chance of going sideways.” But, adds the veteran GM engineer with dozens of laps around Belle Isle, “if you’re not careful through Turn 2, a mid-engine Corvette could still lose it.”

Santino Ferrucci and Mark Reuss no doubt would agree.

GM’s Reuss offers no excuses for pace car crash

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 12, 2018

636636403595767118-tdndc5-6zsbtezzfi91a8ld330v-original-1-.jpg

Forgive General Motors product boss Mark Reuss if he wanted to call in sick Monday.

Reuss was the talk of Twitter when he put the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 pace car into the wall Sunday, creating IndyCar gridlock behind him, and delaying the start of the race by a half-hour while Corvette bodywork was swept off the track.

Win on Sunday, sell on Monday? Not this time. The unusual pace car crash of Corvette’s $135,000, 755-horsepower pride and joy capped off a tough weekend for Chevy that saw Honda dominate the IndyCar engine wars.

More: Why the next Corvette pace car will be mid-engine

Reuss made no excuses. Taking to Facebook, he apologized for an incident that fortunately left everyone unscathed:

“I want to thank you all for your well wishes today. I am ok. I have driven this course many many many times. I have paced this race in the wet, cold, hot, and calm. On Z06’s, Grand Sports, and other things. It is never a casual thing for me, but an honor to be asked. Today I let down my friends, my family, Indycar, our city and my company. Sorry does not describe it. I want to thank our engineers for providing me the safety I know is the best in the world.”

If it’s any consolation, the pro drivers behind him were sympathetic. Scott Dixon, who had a good view of the crash from his fifth spot on the grid, observed that the Corvette wasn’t the only car to get sideways in tricky Turn 2.

“The track changes surfaces there,” said Dixon, who eventually finished fourth. “There’s actually a bit of elevation change there, too, which is what typically catches people out. We had a couple (IndyCars) spin out there this weekend.”

It’s not the first time a pace car has had trouble, Dixon mused to The Detroit News over breakfast Monday: “I think Toronto in 2014 was the last one with Arie Luyendyk (the two-time Indy 500 winner, not his “Bachelor” star son) spinning the Honda pace car in the rain.”

IndyCar’s E85 fuels competition, if not acceptance

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 12, 2018

636633924728894448-Castroneves.jpg

The IndyCars racing in the Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle this weekend will carry the logos of Chevrolet, Honda, Firestone and others. With 100,000 in attendance on the island and nearly 2 million more watching on TV and the Internet, these brands benefit from their association with high-performance motor racing.

One product that hasn’t benefited is E85 ethanol fuel.

Politically popular in Washington and in Midwest presidential primary states like Iowa, the corn-based kindling has been the fuel of choice in IndyCar racing since 2012. But it has failed to catch on with consumers given its higher cost and decreased fuel efficiency.

E85 – a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline that’s also known as flex-fuel – is one of a number of fuel-centered public relations moves that major racing series have made.

Despite its lack of traction with the public, E85 has helped shield IndyCar from the wrath of green groups, proved a workable fuel for racing teams and delivered competitive racing. By being politically pro-active, American racing has managed to stay a step ahead of regulators even as production vehicles have become one of the most heavily regulated industries in the U.S.

“There have always been politicians and environmental groups that decry auto racing as a waste of fuel,” says Stephen Cole Smith, a veteran racing writer with Autoweek. “E85 fuel has been great PR for IndyCar and with which to answer their critics.”

The same can’t be said for other series like Formula One and the World Endurance Championship for sports cars. They have tried to currying favor with global governments by using trendy diesel and electrified racers, only to be burned by high costs and shifting political winds.

Under domestic political pressure to make the U.S. more oil-independent during the Iraq war, the Bush Administration embraced ethanol fuel in 2005 by mandating that gasoline be mixed with 10 percent ethanol. That’s what you filled your gas tank with this week.

With its biggest race, the Indy 500, in the Midwest farm belt and manufacturers in the Iraq war limelight, IndyCar quickly shifted from natural gas-based methanol to pure corn ethanol in 2007.

Chevrolet, an IndyCar sponsor, has lobbied for more ethanol alternatives, and its large pickups, SUVs and Impala sedan are all E85 capable (so-called flex-fuel vehicles). By 2012, IndyCar followed suit, embracing E85 for its new, twin-turbo V-6 engines which it continues to run today.

“Partners like Chevrolet and Honda have been very supportive,” says IndyCar spokesman Curt Cavin. “Both are comfortable with the program, and certainly everything that happens around our event at the Iowa Motor Speedway is good for ethanol. It’s the best way for us to contribute to green initiatives and be good public citizens.”

IndyCar’s embrace of ethanol a decade ago buoyed hopes that it would become the fuel of choice for consumers.

“This shows average Americans what they can do to help meet the energy challenge our country faces, and it makes the point in a way a politician never could,” Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Indiana, told The Washington Post at a celebratory, handshake ceremony with Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony George. “If a race car going 220 miles an hour can be powered by 100 percent ethanol, the family car can be, too.”

Yet, ethanol fuel has failed to catch on with the public.

Today, E85 is available in around 300 gas stations in Michigan, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, while just 3 percent of stations nationwide are equipped with the fuel. Studies have shown that few Americans choose E85 fuel at the pump. Sunoco, the official E85 fuel supplier to IndyCar offers, sells E85 at some of its Michigan stations.

IndyCar’s international brother, Formula One, meanwhile, has adopted hybrid-electric powertrains as it tries to stay in step with European governments’ promotion of battery-powered vehicles. The move, however, has been expensive and has led to a stratification of the sport as only a few teams can afford to develop expensive hybrid technology.

Attendance is down and drivers lament that the sport has lost its luster. While IndyCar celebrated another gripping Indy 500 finish over Memorial Day, Formula One star Fernando Alonso lamented “the most boring race ever” at Formula One’s iconic Monaco Grand Prix the same weekend.

“(Formula One) is facing an existential crisis,” wrote Wheels.ca, one of a wave of media examining the sport’s troubles. “The dismal performance of turbo hybrids – and the tepid reception from fans – should be more than enough impetus to make the changes necessary to restore the exhilarating noise and performance motorsport fans crave.”

Formula One’s struggles come on the back of difficulties in Europe’s major sports car series, the World Endurance Championship, and its signature race, the 24 Hours of LeMans. Europe’s green demands have wreaked havoc on that sport as well as the cost of fielding a hybrid-powered team climbed into the nine figures.

Manufacturers like Audi had used the series to showcase turbo-diesel engines (which combined with batteries made for exceptionally powerful, efficient endurance engines) favored by Euro tax policy since the 1990s. But with Dieselgate and global warming concerns, the fickle political winds turned against diesel and gas engines. Audi and Porsche have dropped out of the WEC to pursue the all-electric Formula E Series.

IndyCar has benefited from this turmoil as its ethanol strategy has kept costs stable. Despite the fact that E85 is 25 percent less efficient than gas, it can still be used (with some technical tweaks) in familiar V-6 racing engines.

“Though E85 fuel can only do about 30 laps at Indy, that’s about the life of the tires as well,” says IndyCar’s Cavin. “So it works out pretty well.”

While Formula One and WEC have struggled, IndyCar is on the upswing thanks to cost-friendly engine specs and close racing. Ticket sales at the Detroit Grand Prix, for example, are up 12 percent this year.

IndyCar’s engine/fuel rules are set to run through 2021. With states like California mandating electric car sales and E85 a sliver of U.S. fuel sales, is IndyCar thinking of changing its fuel formula to whisper-quiet hybrids for 2021?

“We’ve heard no encouragement from manufacturers,” says Cavin. “Our fans like their racing fast and loud.”

2 Payne: Acura reboots with X-cellent RDX ute

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 12, 2018

636631312628438989-acura-fr-farm.JPG

Three years ago, Honda got sick of criticism that its cars had gone soft.

So its product team rebooted the brand with the sensational Civic compact sedan. Benchmarked to the Audi A3, for goodness sake, Civic carved its own segment benchmark with best-in-class everything. Not content with that high bar, the Hoosier-built hottie then went about spawning whiz kids like the Sport, Si and Type-Rthat sent speed junkies running — nay, sprinting — to dealerships to get their fixes.

But wait, there’s more. So no one missed the message, Honda invested in Formula One, IndyCar racing and Pirelli World Challenge to taunt its competitors on-track as well as on-road. When the new Honda Accord arrived last year, it was no longer enough to be best in mainstream sedans, the fast-back four-door’s content rivaled luxury sedans.

Jeez, we get it, Honda. You’re back. Now get ready for the Great Awakening, Part II: Acura Gets Ticked.

Like Honda, the Acura brand had lost its way in the last decade as it strayed from its fun Integra and Type-S roots. It grew ponderous. Sprouted a chrome beak that looked like it should be opening bottles rather than gracing the front of a premium vehicle. Weird.

Acura listened, put designer and F1 fanboy Jon Ikeda at the helm, and got serious.

This being the Age of Ute, Acura chose to re-introduce itself with a compact SUV. Motorhead that I am, I might have preferred the ILX sedan (Civic’s luxury sibling), but utes are where it’s at these days.

With its stylish RDX, Acura has dropped the mic.

Benchmarked to class valedictorian BMW X3, RDX lays down some impressive class bests of its own. Best-in-class horsepower (not including niche players like Porsche Macan, Jaguar F-Pace, Alfa Stelvio). Best front passenger room. Best rear passenger room. Best cargo room. Best console room.

(Pause while I take a drink of water)

Best head-up display. First-in-class 10-speed transmission. Best torque-vectoring, twin-clutch-pack, off-road-shredding all-wheel drive (not shy, Honda calls this system Super Handling All-Wheel Drive. Or SH-AWD, for short).

Dude, Acura is back.

You knew it was coming. And not just because Roger Penske’s Acura prototype racers ran the competition outta town at Mid-Ohio raceway this month (yeah, Acura is doing the racing thing just like Honda). Acura methodically laid the groundwork for its RDX resurgence with the halo Acura NSX supercar, Precision Design Concept (2016 Detroit auto show) and Precision Interior Concept (2016 LA Auto Show).

Don’t believe in trickle-down? Acura concept innovations are all over the RDX from the “diamond pentagon grille” outside to the sci-fi “trigger” transmission inside. But the real tell is when you get behind the wheel.

This ute’s got NSX soul.

Barreling over the roller-coaster roads of Whistler, British Columbia ski country, the RDX’s only peers are the BMW and premium-wannabe Mazda CX-5. The latter’s buzzy, 187-horse drivetrain can’t play in the luxury class, so Bimmer ‘n’ RDX walk away when the road straightens out. Credit, too, the Acura’s buttery 10-speed tranny and NSX-inspired Sport Plus mode.

Push the  trigger tranny’s center button and the little ute quivers with anticipation. The steering tightens. The exhaust rasps. Floor me now!

This eagerness is especially noticeable in the A-Spec model I tested. Like cheek paint on Tom Brady, A-Spec’s black trim means it’s game-ready. It also telegraphs a future Type-S model, the earth-pawing Acura equivalent to Honda’s insane, track-ready Type-R. Don’t expect a garish Type-R rear wing — but count on a new turbo V-6 for the S to hunt down the X3’s M-performance variant.

While Acura has followed the Civic playbook, the premium class is a different animal. Here, brand rules.

BMW, Audi, Mercedes and Volvo have earned their status with decades of consistent product. In turn, customers save for decades so they can afford, say, the coveted BMW kidneys.

Having matched (and exceeded) the competition in performance, Acura will have to consistently execute its signature jewel-eye headlights, grille and dragon’s tail-lights to stir the same passion in buyers.

Until that happens, Acura has other cards to play. Like value.

Acura takes top honors in the Kelley Blue Book Cost of Ownership Awards in a premium class where customers often pay through the nose for maintenance. A loaded $48,000 RDX Advance trim is $8,000 cheaper than equivalent BMW X3 or Audi Q5. At just $38,000, the base model gets a $4,000 jump on the competition with standard — standard! — panoramic sun-roof, 19-inch wheels, 10-speed tranny and a suite of safety systems including adaptive cruise and auto braking. It’s like Fleming’s merged with Cracker Barrel and served you filet mignon with a complimentary soup, salad and two sides.

RDX also aims to play with the big boys with its own, unique infotainment system. This is the price of entry in luxe and it’s Acura’s biggest gamble.

BMW debuted its iDrive, remote screen controller and perfected it only after years of struggle. Cadillac and Lexus have not been so successful, their unique CUE and touchpad systems causing customers to run from their cars screaming.

Acura’s Precision Touch system won’t cause any emotional breakdowns (I think Lexus’ touchpad phobia is actually a thing) but it requires patience. To keep the driver’s attention to the road, the screen is high on the dash and operated with a remote touchpad. I found it cumbersome, my finger hopping with the vehicle in motion. In an age when automakers are trying to be an extension of smartphones (Alexa, smartphone connectivity, etc.) I prefer the phone’s tried-and-true touchscreen.

Indeed, with its unique touchpad approach, Acura loses Android Auto capability — which Honda Corp. pioneered in its vehicles — because it’s still in development for touchpads (Acura says its coming, and Apple CarPlay is available now).

It’s a reminder that every luxury-maker has its quirks. BMW’s monostable shifter vexes many buyers. The over-engineered Audi Q5 console leaves no room for cubby storage. Cadillac still hasn’t perfected CUE. And so on.

Touchpad aside, RDX ergonomics are excellent. Screen icons can be personalized like a smartphone and voice commands are direct (Example: Take me to the nearest Starbucks). The trigger tyranny opens up a cavern of sub-console space for purse/tablet/Kleenex/whatever storage.

Made right down the road in East Liberty, Ohio, the RDX is the total package, pushing Acura to the head of the class. And the tail. Check out the thoughtful, deep, three-cubby storage under the rear cargo hold. It’s right above the A-Spec’s massive twin tailpipes.

Yup. Acura is back.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2019 Acura RDX

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

Price: $38,325 base ($46,495 A-Spec trim and $48,395 Advance trim as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged inline-4 cylinder

Power: 272 horsepower, 280 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 10-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, NA; towing, 1,500 pounds

Weight: 4,015 pounds (AWD A-Spec as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 21 city/27 highway/23 combined (AWD A-Spec)

Report card

Highs: Spacious, comfortable utility; a ute that’s fun to drive

Lows: MPG trails competitors; inconsistent touchpad controller

Overall: 4 stars

Payne: Jeep Cherokee grows up

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 12, 2018

636625149634660300-cherokee-fr-tree.JPG

We all have to grow up sometime.

Like the college grad who trades his AC/DC T-shirt and jeans for a button-down shirt and slacks on his first day at the office, the 2019 Jeep Cherokee has gone respectable.

The brand’s wild child debuted back in 2013 with a shark nose, three tiers of lights and its license plate hanging below its bum. Polite society was shocked – and couldn’t stop ogling it. The Cherokee eclipsed 200,000 in sales in 2015 and took the crown as Jeep’s best-selling vehicle. Big brother Grand Cherokee was so proud.

But as the novelty wore off, sales steadily declined to under 170,000 last year. Time for a wardrobe upgrade  –  but happily, not a lifestyle change.

Beneath its mature, upright seven-slot waterfall grille (just like big brother!), proper headlights (running lights and headlights under one cover) and tidy rear end (plate on tailgate, shirt tucked in), the Cherokee is still a tattooed, nature-loving four-wheeler that wants nothing more than to go off-roading.

And by off-roading, I mean navigating Detroit streets without fear.

The 2019 Cherokee arrived in my driveway after another Detroit winter from hell. Make that from the Arctic. A brutal winter and delayed spring wreaked havoc on the region’s feeble roads. One crater swallowed a wheel on a Genesis G80; my teeth barely survived a recent week in a hard-sprung Nissan GT-R.

That means you don’t have to go to Moab to appreciate the Cherokee’s ruggedness. There are stretches of pavement I try to avoid: the Lodge service drive, Mound Road, Lone Pine. I use to think wealthy neighborhoods in Oakland County were unpaved to slow folks down; now I know it’s because dirt is smoother than Michigan pavement.

But the Jeep doesn’t care. Riding on thick-sidewall tires and a unibody chassis hewn from Thor’s hammer, my Jeep Overland shrugged off bad pavement like Deadpool absorbs bullets.

I’m pretty sure the Cherokee could’ve handled the wet, gravel and sand beach I got stuck in last year in little brother Compass Trailhawk. Jeep’s trail-rated Trailhawk trim (and countless ads of Jeeps scaling cliff faces) is a temptation to take on Mother Nature. I found myself charging around the beaches of Lake Michigan in the Compass – until I decided to stop and take a picture.

 The Compass sunk – not far, but enough  –  into the sand and I couldn’t get out. I tried Sand, Mud, Rock, Snow and Mars traction modes (OK, I made the last one up). I tried traction control Off and On. The only thing that worked was flagging a nearby Ford F-150 to tow me out.

The Cherokee Trailhawk, however, comes with a standard locking rear-differential borrowed from the Wrangler. My Jeep friends tell me this would have been my ticket out (that, and never stop in sand).

My Overland tester was not equipped with a locker. Which begs the question: Why pay $41,000 for a compact Jeep – over, say, the $35,000 Honda CR-V or Mazda CX5 – I tested last year if not equipped with the best 4×4 system?

The Japanese entries are equipped with all-wheel drive systems suitable for our ox-cart roads even if they don’t come with Jeep’s multiple terrain settings. Like Jeep’s optional Technology Group, they also come packaged with the latest electronics – blind-spot assist, adaptive cruise-control, automatic headlights – which shame more expensive premium sedans (looking at you, $67,000 BMW X4).

The competitors are also more nimble. The Mazda is downright sporty and the lightweight Honda shares a 1.5-liter turbo-4 and platform with the athletic Honda Accord.

Jeep boasts beefier engine numbers to complement its beefy, off-road vibe. The Cherokee debuts a premium turbo 2.0-liter with a healthy 290 pound-feet of torque (compared to Honda’s 176), but my tester sported the tried-and-true, 3.2-liter, 271-horse V-6. Nitpickers will naysay its 22 mpg (versus CRV’s 29), but only the Cherokee V-6’s 239 pound-feet of torque will tow a class-leading 4,500 pounds.

Unfortunately, it is paired with the tried-and-less-true Jeep nine-speed transmission which grumped and hiccupped through its daily chores. I’m a fan of high-ratio trannies in competitors like the nine-speed GMC Terrain, but Jeep’s effort has been trouble from the start.

“(Cherokees) have transmissions that suffer from hard shifts, odd shift points and sudden shutdowns,” reported jeepproblems.com back in 2016 – and though the new generation promises better reliability on that shutdown bugaboo, the quirky shift behavior remains.

Speaking of reliability, Jeep’s record continues to keep lemon lawyers in business.

But like quality-challenged Tesla, Jeep’s highly anticipated Cherokee will be a hit because brand matters. In the lookalike world of today’s autos, Jeep sends a message. That grille. That terrain-conquering dial. That “since 1941” World War II legacy carved into the steering wheel. The brand that invented SUVs screams authenticity.

And despite its flaws, the package screams quality. Like GMC’ s Terrain (which comes from premium truck DNA), the Jeep brand is the rare mainstream badge that gets considered alongside premium brands.

While the Cherokee’s outside is cleaned up – “We took the geekiness out of it,” designer Mark Allen likes to say – the inside has been mature since generation one.

The tidy instrument display with chrome bezels is first-class, as is the Uconnect infotainment system. Already the industry standard with easy-to-use menus, Uconnect has been updated with faster, bigger screens (even the base Latitude trims gets a 7-inch pane) and smartphone connectivity. Google Maps is far superior to any car navigation system.

Even the rear cargo space has been improved. Engineers carved out an extra 3 inches of width and more than two more cubic feet of storage. It’s good for two golf bags.

In an age when electronics are narrowing the gap between mainstream and luxury, Jeep bridges the gap with its macho vibe, powerful engines, and upscale interior. And now that it’s out of that awkward geek phase, you can take it on a date to the country club.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2019 Jeep Cherokee

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

Price: $25,440 base ($41,510 Overland 4×4 as tested)

Powerplant: 2.4-liter, Tigershark inline-4 cylinder; 3.2-liter Pentastar V-6; 2.0-liter, turbocharged inline-4

Power: 180 horsepower, 171 pound-feet torque (2.4-liter I-4); 271 horsepower, 239 pound-feet torque (V-6); 270 horsepower, 295 pound-feet torque (turbo-4)

Transmission: 9-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.6 seconds (Car and Driver est. for turbo-4); towing: 4,500 pounds (V-6 with Trailer Tow Package)

Weight: 3,960 pounds (V-6 4×4 as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy (all figures for 4×2, front-wheel drive mode): 22 city/31 highway/24 combined (2.4-liter I-4); 20 city/29 highway/23 combined V-6); 23 city/31 highway/26 combined (2.0-liter turbo-4)

Report card

Highs: Classic Jeep exterior; high-class interior

Lows: Uneven 9-speed tranny; can get pricey

Overall: 3 stars

‘Alexa, start my car’: Latest app for auto revolution

Posted by Talbot Payne on May 22, 2018

alexa_NEWecosport

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto? Dude, that’s so 15 minutes ago.

Amazon’s Alexa assistant is the latest must-have vehicle app as carmakers rush to put connectivity on wheels.

Alexa offers similar conveniences for the car that Amazon Echo users have come to expect in the home. In fact, most of the dozen brands with Alexa connectivity limit its use to the home Echo device to communicate with the car: Alexa, start my car. Alexa, lock the car doors.

But Ford Motor Co. (and its luxury arm Lincoln) takes it a step further, expanding those in-home commands to in-car demands. Called “Ford + Alexa,” the feature can be used to ask for directions on the road or play music. Sample commands include:

Alexa, where is the closest barbecue restaurant?

Alexa, play my workout playlist.

Alexa, what’s on my calendar tonight?

The in-car feature can also be used to communicate with smart-home systems. Mike Severson, Ford’s marketing manager for connected vehicles and technology, says that effectively makes a round trip from home to work seamless: Users can pre-heat the interior of the car from inside the house for a commute to work, then boost the thermostat of the house from inside the car on the return journey.

“Technology is something a lot of people crave,” says Severson. “We partner with the big boys to deliver that to the customer. People are very passionate about (their apps). Technology is increasingly more important on the vehicle purchase decision.”

From Bluetooth to Wi-Fi to music apps like Pandora, automobiles have become extensions of smartphone apps. Apple CarPlay first rolled out in upscale cars like Ferrari and Mercedes in 2014, allowing smartphones to take over a vehicle’s infotainment display. The app was slow to catch on.

But as major brands like Chevrolet — the first to introduce both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto in late 2015 — integrated the technology, it took off and has become an expected feature. Phone apps are now standard in everything from a compact Honda Civic to an Audi A8 luxury liner.

Amazon’s Alexa app appears to be following a similar path as CarPlay and Android Auto, spreading across the industry to more than a dozen brands and counting.

“It was creepy at first,” says Kelley Blue Book auto analyst Rebecca Lindland, a self-professed early technology adopter. “But new generations who grew up with their personal phones will expect their cars to be fully integrated with their phone and their home.”

Lindland says that as phones have become the center of the personal digital universe, car owners expect a seamless transition from home to mobility.

Infiniti even headlines the Alexa feature in a national ad campaign. “Alexa, start my Infiniti QX50,” a woman says on a commercial as she and her partner rush from the house to attend a film premiere.

Genesis, Hyundai’s luxury brand, was the first automaker to offer Alexa home-to-vehicle connectivity. It debuted in late 2016 on the Genesis G90 sedan, two years after Amazon introduced Alexa on its Echo home device. The feature is now available across the Genesis and Hyundai model lines. Downloaded as an app on a smartphone and requiring minimal setup, it comes with a number of commands such as: Alexa, ask my Genesis to start the car and set the temperature to 72 degrees.

“We’ve received good feedback from our customers who appreciate that we have the latest technology,” says Yuval Steinman, a product strategy manager for Genesis. He expects the feature to grow in popularity as it becomes more ubiquitous in homes and as competitors come to market. The Genesis and Hyundai systems, for example, are now also compatible with Alexa competitor Google Assistant.

As Alexa proliferates, automakers say they are collecting data on what features are most popular. Ford says, not surprisingly, the in-car Alexa app is most used to play music (as with the home-based Amazon Echo). The multitude of personal assistant options offers drivers a variety of butlers to execute car commands. Ford + Alexa competes with Sync — the company’s own in-car voice command system — as well as Apple CarPlay or Android Auto voice commands to provide navigation.

“We find customers want a choice,” says Ford’s Severson. “They love Apple, they love Android, their Google maps. One of the key philosophies of Sync is providing choice … to customers.”

As with any in-car technology these days, safety is an issue. The Hyundai-Genesis system, for example, will not start the car remotely unless it’s locked. Owners must also provide a four-digit PIN — as an extra layer of security — whenever Alexa commands are given.

Recent news reports have highlighted 13 cases of asphyxiation resulting from cars with push-button starters not shutting off in garages. To prevent this from happening, if a car is started with the Genesis-Hyundai Alexa app, it will shut the engine down after 10 minutes if the car has not been unlocked.

Hybrid vs. hybrid: Honda Clarity and Toyota Camry

Posted by Talbot Payne on May 22, 2018

clarity-camry_fr3-4deep

The Toyota Prius became a sales sensation after it was introduced in the U.S. in 2000, provoking media predictions that hybrid cars would soon take over the market. As it turned out, folks didn’t want hybrids — they just wanted Priuses.

With its aero shape, split-window grille, eco-console and leafy badge, it was a personal statement. It was the green preener’s car. Nickname: Pious.

But what if you didn’t want to shout your moral intentions to the world? What if you didn’t need to show off your green chic at the Academy Awards? What if you simply wanted an affordable, family hybrid with the utility of a best-selling sedan?

The Toyota Camry hybrid was your answer. It was affordable, fuel-efficient and as plain as a quart of vanilla ice cream.

It sold modestly compared to the Prius, but it was part of Toyota’s strategy to leverage the halo status of the Prius and hybridize everything in its lineup from sedans to sport utilities to Lexus premium vehicles. Other brands followed the Camry hybrid — notably the Ford Fusion Hybrid and plug-in Energi, and Honda Accord Hybrid — with only moderate success compared to their gas-only counterparts.

But here comes Honda with a new strategy. Determined to electrify its entire lineup just like Toyota (Honda says two-thirds of vehicles it sells in 2030 globally will be electrified), Toyota’s Japanese rival has introduced its own green-geek halo: the plug-in hybrid Clarity.

Aero shape, split rear window, funky console, leafy badging. And it’s aimed, not at the Prius, but at the plain-vanilla Camry Hybrid.

In fact the Camry and Clarity in my driveway are as closely matched as Ali vs. Frazier: They’re the meat of the U.S. sedan market at $37,000 (before incentives — more on that later) with similar dimensions, leather interior, heated seats, automatic headlights, automatic braking and blind-spot assist.

Oh, it’s on.

First impressions favor the handsome Camry. No, that’s not a misprint. The eight-generation sedan is a quantum leap from the last wallflower. Remade from the ground up, it is visually sleek with sculpted rocker panels and strong rear shoulders. Unlike its sporty, mascara-caked XSE V-6 stablemate whose face deserves an episode on “Botched,” my XLE hybrid tastefully presents Camry’s new look with subtle, chrome grille lines artfully echoed in the headlamp LED signature.

The result is a Camry that is well-proportioned with a widened stance. The athletic look extends to the driving experience while the TNGA-global platform is wider, firmer and more balanced.

The Clarity is no boat — especially with 17-kWh of battery lowering its center of gravity — but neither is it an Accord. The Accord is a handling sensation (North American Car of the Year, take a bow), eclipsing even the improved Camry. The Clarity is built on its own separate platform to handle multiple model trims from plug-in to EV to the expensive California-only hydrogen chariot. Want all-wheel drive? Move up to an SUV.

Honda hopes you’ll warm up to the Clarity’s unique styling. The front end (particularly in white) is a dead ringer for a “Star Wars” stormtrooper, its jewel-eye LED headlights surrounded by a black mask. Aft of the mask the Clarity geeks out with a long front overhang (complete with aerodynamic front-wheel air curtains), partially covered rear tire-wells, and aforementioned Prius-like dual rear window.

The split window aids visibility to overcome the Honda’s tall, roomy rear trunk. Cargo space is cavernous compared to the hydrogen car I tested a year ago (no hydrogen fuel tank, natch). The Camry, too, has gained trunk space over its predecessor thanks to cleverly packaging the battery under the seat instead of the trunk. Alas, neither car is a hatchback, meaning that — despite lay-flat second-row seats — the pass-through opening is too narrow to be bicycle-friendly.

Covet a hatchback sedan? Ditch your green ambitions and buy a Buick Regal or Kia Stinger for the same price.

Both cars sport distinctive interiors, with the Camry once again getting my nod for most user-friendly. As with all new Camrys, the console’s unique “Z-dash” offers helpful knobs for volume, storage space and easy shifter.

Clarity goes nerd with an Acura-borrowed trigger shifter bridging cavernous sub-console space (great for purse storage). A knob-less infotainment screen will annoy in the middle of a white suede dash (now, that will dirty easily!), though some will find Camry’s lack of smartphone app connectivity less forgivable.

Grin and bear the Clarity’s styling. Learn the trigger shifter. Because the Clarity’s real sci-fi payoff comes with the drivetrain.

The Camry’s camel-like 611-mile range may get you to Chicago and back on a single tank of fuel. But with its 17.4-kWh battery’s 40-plus mile range, Honda’s plug-in will make you a stranger to the cashier at your local gas station.

I never visited a pump during my week-long date with the Clarity. After a round-trip 65-mile airport run, I dipped into the gas engine briefly, then recharged at home on a pathetic, 4-miles-per-hour-charging, 110-volt wall plug. Still, that was enough to get back to full-charge overnight.

The driveline is optimized for efficiency, so stoplight burnouts are brief (despite its bigger battery, the Clarity barely beats the Camry Hybrid zero-60 in 7.6 seconds versus 7.9). The gas engine will even come to the rescue over 50 mph to keep the battery from over-exerting itself.

The Honda also has a clever, steering wheel-mounted, regen paddle like the Chevy Volt plug-in to recharge the battery under braking. In Ecomode (Sport mode is also available, but lord knows why, given the Clarity’s conservative nature) and generous use of regen paddle, I managed 55 miles on a single charge — out-performing the system’s advertised 41 mpg.

Clarity offers other useful Easter eggs like the HRV button which switches the system exclusively to the gas engine on long 80-mph highway trips to preserve the battery for when you want it around town. All of this information can be watched on the Clarity’s colorful, digital instrument display.

Geeky stuff, but useful.

Oh, and there’s a geek sweetener. Only the Honda comes with a $7,500 EV tax subsidy. Which means its bottom line sinks below $30,000. That’s a greenback bargain that any green will understand.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2018 Toyota Camry Hybrid

VEHICLE TYPE

FRONT-ENGINE, FRONT-WHEEL DRIVE, FIVE-PASSENGER SEDAN

Price

$28,695 base ($37,363 Hybrid XLE as tested)

Power plant

2.5-liter, inline 4-cylinder with 1.6-kWh nickel metal-hydride battery and AC motor-assist

Power

208 total system horsepower

Transmission

Continuously variable transmission (CVT)

Performance

0-60 mph, 7.9 seconds (Car and Driver); range: 611 miles

Weight

3,571 pounds (as tested)

Fuel

economy

EPA fuel economy: 44 city/47 highway/46 combined

Report card

Highs: Nice duds, Camry; 600-plus mile range

Lows: Toyota hybrids don’t get tax breaks; wish it had a hatchback

Overall:★★★

2018 Honda Clarity Plug-in

VEHICLE TYPE

FRONT-ENGINE, FRONT-WHEEL DRIVE, FIVE-PASSENGER SEDAN

Price

$34,290 base ($37,490 Touring trim as tested)

Power plant

17-kWh nickel metal-hydride battery and AC motor with 1.5-liter, inline 4-cylinder assist

Power

212 total system horsepower

Transmission

Single speed

Performance

0-60 mph, 7.6 seconds (Car and Driver); Range: 340 miles (47 EV only)

Weight

4,059 pounds

Fuel

economy

EPA fuel economy: 110 MPGe (combined electric/gas); 42 mph gas only

Report card

Highs: Good EV range for a big car; trunk space

Lows: Geeky styling; wish it had a hatchback

Overall:★★★

Cadillac breaks old assumptions with racing program

Posted by Talbot Payne on May 11, 2018

caddy_taylor

For Cadillac, 2018 may be the Year of the SUV — but it’s also the Year of Performance.

GM’s luxury brand is playing catch-up to SUV-rich BMW, Mercedes and Audi with the first of three new crossovers to be introduced by 2021. But even as Cadillac announced this week the cancellation of its ATS sedan — billed as its BMW 3-series fighter — it also made clear that its goal to be the American alternative to the Teutonic threesome is about more than five-door family-haulers.

Despite the revamping of its sedan lineup and dismissal of product architect and CEO Johan de Nysschen, Cadillac says it has its pedal-to-the-metal on a long-term strategy promoting the brand’s athleticism.

Cadillac is accelerating its performance programs as it goes wheel-to-wheel against some of the world’s greatest track marques. The premium automaker has a new halo CT6 V-Sport sedan, new ad campaign and special Championship Edition V-series cars to celebrate the brand’s historic world endurance racing championship in 2017.

“We have an overall product ladder to continue filling out,” said Matt Russell, Cadillac’s marketing manager for racing and its V-series performance-car lineup. “But I want to make a clear statement that we are — particularly in the effect we get from motorsports and building sporty cars — committed to the sport-luxe compact car business.”

Continued Russell: “We may be entering a period of generation change for those models — particularly for the ATS sedan — but we are not walking away from those segments. Racing is an accelerant for conversation for our compact and midsize performance cars.”

As if to punctuate the point, Cadillac race driver Jordan Taylor campaigned the IMSA 2017 Championship Edition CTS-V across Michigan this week, leading up to the home team’s defense of its IMSA Weathertech Sportscar win here last year.

 While the CTS is expected to get a name change (possibly to CT5, following Cadillac’s new nomenclature introduced with the full-size CT6 sedan in 2016), the current car has another year to run in its product cycle.

CTS is a poster child for how closely Cadillac’s engineers work with their racing programs. V-series development programs have translated racing technology to the street with features like traction-assisting Performance Traction Management.

Only 200 Championship Edition vehicles — encompassing the CTS-V, the ATS-V sedan and ATS-V coupe — have been made for sale in the U.S., Canada and Middle East. They are distinguished by special graphics including an outline of the sleek, IMSA DPi racing prototype that won last year’s championship.

And while the ATS-V Championship Edition represents the last hurrah for the small sedan, expect more performance cars like the 550-horsepower, twin-turbo V-8 CT6 V-Sport unveiled at this year’s New York Auto Show.

Race-driver and Cadillac ambassador Taylor left Belle Isle in the Championship Edition CTS-V for Grand Rapids on Monday afternoon to wow dealers and customers. Cadillac says the racing program has attracted new customers and younger people. Twenty-somethings come out to see Taylor, 26, sign autographs in the “Cadillac Corral” at races like Detroit.

“There are a lot of similarities between the race car and street car,” says Taylor who arrived in Detroit fresh from a fifth-place showing Sunday at the the IMSA Weathertech series’ stop at Mid-Ohio race track. “They have the same wheel design, same push-rod V-8 and same rear camera mirror.”

The race car and CTS-V share center stage — alongside the new XT4 crossover and Super Cruise self-driving technology — in the new Cadillac ad campaign, “The Future is Here.” The DPi V.R racer and the CTS-V roar across the screen on a race track accompanied by blaring rock music.

Russell says the emphasis on racing is part of a conscious decision by GM to break the Cadillac mold.

“When you’re 116 years old, there are certain elements of your brand and product that are established,” he says. “People know we can do comfortable. So where do we stretch our legs? We demonstrate that we have engineers that compete with all other engineers when it comes to safety, connectivity and racing.”

Taylor and steed will return to Belle Isle June 1-3 for Detroit Grand Prix weekend. Acura, Mazda and Nissan have all joined the IMSA Weathertech Sportscar prototype class with similar winged 600-horsepower beasts. Troy-based Team Penske manages the Acura team that won its first race at Mid-Ohio. The series also features production-based GT cars from BMW, Audi, Lexus, Ford, Ferrari and Porsche. Chevrolet is a GT competitor but will miss Detroit as it ships its Corvette racers across the pond to June’s 24 Hours of LeMans.

Cadillac cut its teeth in GT racing back in 2004 before taking the leap to prototype racing last year.

“We had won so much on the GT front with the V-series, you can’t allow it to become old news that you are good at something,” says Russell of the brand’s successful move to the DPi format last year. “It’s a way to keep ourselves relevant using racing as that stimulant for our street car business.”

Taylor finds his new CTS-V Championship Series plenty stimulating. Indeed, the supercharged, 6.2-liter V’s 650 horsepower actually exceeds that in his race car (competition rules limit power to 600 ponies).

“It’s funny driving my street car around and lighting up the tires by accident, and then getting in the race car with so much (aerodynamic) down-force you don’t feel like you’re going anywhere sometimes,” Taylor said. “It’s awesome to see Cadillac developing this side of the brand again and using racing to develop it.”

Late to the SUV party, a safari-ready Rolls-Royce

Posted by Talbot Payne on May 10, 2018

rollroyce

Ford is eliminating its sedan lineup, Porsche sells three times as many crossovers as sports cars and Ferrari is making a sport utility.

But for the ultimate proof that we are now an SUV world, look no further than Rolls-Royce’s first-ever SUV, the Cullinan.

Named after the planet’s largest diamond that currently resides in the British Crown Jewels, the $325,000 Cullinan was unveiled by the English carmaker Thursday as a 2019 model. The Cullinan shares elements with Rolls’ flagship sedan, the $417,825 Phantom that wowed Detroit Auto Show with its North American debut in January. Weighing in at a Ford pickup-like 5,864 pounds, the all-wheel drive land yacht comes with the expected luxury appointments that have made Rolls-Royce the standard for luxury: rear-seat refrigerator, drinks cabinet, V-12 power, smooth air suspension.

But the Cullinan SUV promises another dimension: off-road capability. Offering what it calls the world’s first “three-box” SUV, Rolls separates the cabin into three distinct compartments by placing a partition of glass between the rear seats and the luggage compartment. Not given to understatement, Rolls says the ute has been “tested to destruction all over the planet” so that its occupants can reach far-flung safaris “at the end of the earth.”

Once passengers get there, Rolls has equipped the cargo bay with a “Recreation Module” – a motorized stowage-bay that packs your favorite recreational items: polo accessories, fly-fishing gear or whatever flips your switch.

“The label ‘SUV’ is now applied to anything with a two-box silhouette, and the least suggestion of going off tarmac,” said Rolls Chairman Peter Schwarzenbauer. “We envisioned an authentic, three-box high-bodied all-terrain car with a convention-challenging design and absolute capability that would satisfy the adventurous urges of our clients.”

With a 130-inch wheelbase and 85-inch width, the two-row, aluminum-unibody Cullinan is the same size as a three-row, truck-based Lincoln Navigator. The high-riding Rolls uses its air suspension to kneel to its passengers, lowering itself 1.5 inches closer to the ground for better access. Whereas other premium SUVs like the Lamborghini Urus – which debuted at the 2018 Detroit Show – have had to compromise signature features like scissor doors for the five-door ute layout, Rolls offers the full Monty. The Cullinan features the first “suicide doors” on an SUV (Rolls prefers the term “coach doors”) which open wide like cabinet doors.

Once aboard, passengers will be whisked to their destination in a hurry thanks to a 563-horsepower 6.75-liter twin-turbo V-12 that sits behind the Rolls’ familiar, upright chrome grille and “Spirit of Ecstasy” hood ornament.

Inside, the Cullinan is swathed in Old World luxury that’s complemented by state-of-the-art electronics courtesy of Rolls’ parent company BMW, with which the Cullinan shares many infotainment system features. The huge dash screen can be controlled both by touch and by a remote console rotary dial.

The controls are familiar to the Phantom flagship, though the SUV will not get the sedan’s “gallery” feature that allows owners to personalize the dash with, say, an image of their favorite Van Gogh painting.

Rolls says the Cullinan’s calling-card is “effortless, everywhere,” and its one-mode drive button promises that. Unlike Jeeps and Land Rovers, which offer multiple off-road modes from SNOW to SAND, the Rolls simply offers a large OFF ROAD button on the console. Press it, and the Rolls promises that it will adapt to any condition.

“We knew we had to offer our clients what they couldn’t find in the SUV market,” says Rolls CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös. “They do not accept limitations or compromises in their lives. They are the new pioneers, and for them it’s about their sense of adventure and daring in how they live their experiences. This approach to life demands a motor car that can go anywhere in ultimate luxury and style – Rolls-Royce style. Hence Cullinan.”

Small cars: Detroit 3 pull back, foreign rivals all-in

Posted by Talbot Payne on May 9, 2018

Imprezzas-01

Detroit carmakers and their foreign counterparts are taking different roads when it comes to small cars.

Ford is parking its sedan lineup, including the entry-level Fiesta and Focus compacts, as the carmaker follows the market-shift to SUVs. Only the Mustang and a Focus-based crossover will remain. Fiat Chrysler killed its mid-size Chrysler 200 and compact Dodge Dart two years ago. And Chevrolet is expected to thin its compact offerings from three to two by dismissing the Sonic subcompact.

Their Asian and German competitors, in contrast, see small cars as ways to introduce younger buyers to the brands. They are doubling down on compact passenger cars while also expanding their SUV lineups. The dueling strategies are not just apparent in product but also in plant location as Asian makers invest in U.S. plants that build sedans.

Take Subaru, for example.

Following Subaru’s strategy of jacking up a compact car (the Impreza) and calling it a crossover (the Crosstrek), Ford next year will introduce the Focus Active crossover that’s based on the discontinued Focus compact. But while Ford will import the Active from China and discontinue Focus production here, Subaru has moved production of its all-new Impreza compact to Indiana to free up production capacity in Japan to build the Crosstrek. Honda also builds it all-new compact Civic in the Hoosier state.

“Compacts are gateway cars to our brand,” says Peter Tenn, Subaru’s planning manager for passenger cars. “We want to keep people for life. We want to get people early in the buying process who might eventually buy SUVs like our new three-row Ascent. We take a long-term view that we want to sell folks on our total portfolio.”

New for the 2017 model year, the Impreza joins the Civic, Toyota Corolla, Hyundai Elantra and Volkswagen Jetta as clean-sheet new products for the U.S. market. Their introduction hasn’t slowed investment in SUVs where Toyota (RAV4), Nissan (Rogue) and Honda (CR-V) are the three best-selling SUVs in America.

“The (compact) market serves as a foundation for growing people through the brand,” says John Morel, Honda’s senior manager for business intelligence and strategy. “Civic buyers are tremendously loyal; more than 60 percent return to the Honda brand, which is among the best in the industry, and that feeds future volume to future Civic sales, CR-V sales and eventually across the line.”

Ford’s canceled Focus was introduced for the European market in April but will not be sold here. When it debuts next year, the Focus Active will chase the Crosstrek — new this year — and VW Golf Alltrack in the compact crossover market.

Ford’s absence from the small-car segment puts a Japanese stranglehold on a 2.6 million-vehicle market it first entered 40 years ago with small sedans such as the Civic and Corolla. The only remaining mainstream entry-level compact sedans offered by U.S. brands are the Chevrolet Cruze and Spark.

“Detroit automakers have never really had their heart in small cars,” says Auto Trends Consulting’s Joe Phillippi, a veteran Wall Street auto analyst. “They only had to focus on them after the 1973 oil crisis. Compact cars get swept over by the enormous profits they make on big trucks and SUVs.”

When Ford’s Focus exits the Michigan Assembly Plant later this year, Japanese manufacturers will dominate mainstream small-car production in the U.S. (Chevy’s Cruze and Hyundai’s Elantra are the two exceptions.)

“Honda has a philosophy of building cars in the markets we serve,” says Morel. “We build a lot of our cars across all segments in North America, and we intend to continue that. The proportion of Honda products made in the U.S. for the U.S is very, very high. Honda is second only to Ford in using domestically sourced parts — 65 percent of vehicles sold in the U.S. were also made here.”

The Civic is the best-selling retail car in America with 377,286 sold here in 2017. Honda built 146,580 of those Civics at its plant in Greensburg, Indiana, employing 2,500 workers. Subaru produced 117,000 Imprezas last year in Lafayette, Indiana, employing 5,600.

Though it is exiting the sedan market, Ford says it is still committed to affordable vehicles.

“Affordability is really always a part of our brand promise,” Ford president of global markets Jim Farley told The News last month. “The price point that’s affordable to most Americans is still important. Our ambition is to grow (our lineup) and hit all the price points. The only thing that’s changing is how they’re going to look.”

But without the $15,080 Ford Fiesta and $17,650 Focus sedan, Ford will not have a vehicle in the market for less than $20,000. Ford’s entry-level SUV, the Ecosport, starts at $20,990 including destination fee. SUVs generally sell at a premium over comparable sedans. Subaru’s higher-riding Crosstrek, for example, is $2,500 more expensive than the virtually identical Impreza.

Honda also sells a $21,000 sport utility, the HR-V, but Morel still sees opportunity for sub-$20,000 cars such as the $17,085 Fit subcompact and $19,835 Civic.

“If you look at overall price distribution of the marketplace, you see a significant portion of volume under $20,000,” he says. “In fact, when you look at age comparisons, younger buyers disproportionately buy cars instead of SUVs. So if we abandoned that part of the market, it would put us at a disadvantage.”

Auto analyst Phillippi is concerned that Ford’s decision is being driven by Wall Street and not its product portfolio.

“The pressure for maximum return on investment has driven Detroit’s automakers’ business decisions,” says Phillippi. “You have to eliminate the losers … and Detroit can’t quite seem to come up with a consistent portfolio of small vehicles.”

Since Honda introduced the Civic to the U.S. in 1975, Ford has gone through three compact nameplates: the Pinto, Escort and Focus.

“Honda is built on conservative values doing things in the long run,” says Morel. “Part of that are that Civic and Accord are long-standing brand names. They are tremendous assets to the company, and we take pride that they have been successful for a long period of time.”

Subaru’s Tenn says that Subaru’s sedan lineup, which includes the midsize Legacy, are also an insurance policy against higher gas prices.

“Economy cars are easier to sell to customers with higher gas prices,” he says, contradicting an industry meme that SUV fuel economy has caught up with cars. “(SUV fuel efficiency) is closer, but it’s easier to get better fuel economy with a sedan.”

Payne: Stealthy Ford F-150 diesel is tech-tastic

Posted by Talbot Payne on May 3, 2018

f150_offroad-frSKY

In Broomfield County, home to Colorado’s “Creative Corridor” 30 minutes north of Denver, the disparate forces of high-tech office parks, traditional oil and gas development, and farmland collide like oil paint on a Jackson Pollock canvas. The result is a dynamic co-existence of cultures in one of the fastest-growing communities in America. It’s Washtenaw County on steroids.

Appropriately, Ford chose Broomfield for its media debut of the 2018 F-150 Power Stroke Diesel pickup — a tech-tastic, old-world oil-burner built for the open spaces of rural America.

It’s the Blue Oval’s first diesel in the light-duty segment, expanding on its years as the stump-pulling, steroid-fed heavy-duty champ. But this is a kinder, gentler light-duty.

Start with the technology. It will unite families and save marriages.

The Power Stroke was my first opportunity to drive the F-150 since its 2017 mid-cycle refresh that brought even more innovation to this oversized Swiss Army Knife. There is 10-device 4G Wi-Fi and smartphone app connectivity and automatic braking. But most notable is Pro Trailer Backup Assist. Married couples of the word, rejoice.

 My grandma used to say the greatest threats to marriage are finances and mixed doubles. Add backing a trailer to a boat slip.

How many unions have been strained when Spouse A tries to line up the trailer with Spouse B at the wheel? Nerves are rubbed raw as the driver tries to align trailer with boat. A miss there. A jack-knife here.

Just turn the wheel to the left. No, the other left! No, right, now left …

Dang it, just start over!

All the while dozens of boaters look on at the town idiots, ridiculing, correcting … and dreading their own moment in the backup spotlight.

After an initial calibration of truck-to-tow vehicle involving grade-school math and camera guidance stickers, the F-150 will self-steer to the desired spot. Just point the truck in the right direction using the console knob, then sit back and let technology do the rest. My tester parked a 6,240-pound car trailer into a perpendicular parking spot. Take a bow, big fella.

The autonomous wonder is similar to self-parking (first seen on the Escape SUV) — a whizzbang feature also optioned on the F-150. Get them both. Trailer backup-assist comes with the tow package for $995.

These are must-buys because diesel trucks are aimed at people who tow. A lot.

I’m thinking about my buddies, Chris and Tom, who have contracted the Airstream bug. Nature nuts, they want to see the country — Yellowstone! Georgian Bay! The Grand Canyon! — up close. No hotels. No restaurants. Just man, nature, campfire … and a diesel truck.

Diesel? The scourge of VW? Isn’t diesel dead? What outdoorsman would invade the Outback with a smoke-belching, old-world dinosaur?

Well, Phoenix-saurus has risen from the ashes because customers love it. It’s powerful, fuel-efficient … and clean. Credit technology again.

Contrary to popular perceptions of diesel as dirty clatter-traps (right there with other perceptions like “toads cause warts” and “broken mirrors mean seven years bad luck”), modern common-rail-injection diesel cleaning-fluid scrubbed diesels are quiet workhorses.

Last year, sales of diesel trucks nearly matched the combined sales of hybrids, plug-ins and electric cars: 537,000 diesels to 553,000 battery-mobiles.

Oil-burning giants like the Ford F-450 and Silverado 3500 and Ram 3500 in the heavy-duty segment have long clashed like robots in “Pacific Rim: Uprising.” Sporting sick specs like F-550’s 935 pound-feet of torque, these behemoths throw around 30,000-pound trailer rigs like matchsticks.

But the light-duty Power Stroke is hardly Heavy-Duty Jr. Where the 6.7-liter big brother is the ripped clean-and-jerk towing champion of the world, the F-150 diesel is happy with efficient refinement.

With its low 1,750-rpm peak torque and 10-speed transmission, my 3.0-liter diesel effortlessly towed a 3-ton trailer. It delivered power more smoothly and predictably than the higher-strung, twin-turbo V-6. It’s the V-6, not diesel, that boasts best-in-class 13,300-pound towing capacity. The Power Stroke is content with 11,400 pounds of capacity. If you want to pull a house, let Ford show you the heavy-duty aisle.

Through the Rocky Mountain foothills, the 3.0-liter Power Stroke was whisper-quiet. So quiet that if I did a blindfold test (not recommended at 60 mph), I couldn’t tell it was a diesel without reading the 4,500-red line tachometer. Even under the cane, the Power Stroke sounds like a gas V-6. Contrast that to my old 2003 Ram 2500 that sounds like a cement mixer.

Quieting the diesel beast ain’t cheap. The Power Stroke up-charge is $4,000 on the Lariat (versus the 3.5-liter, twin-turbo V-6’s $1,600), and diesel cleaning fluid refills will set you back $24 every 7,000 miles. So Ford only offers the diesel to individual buyers on premium trims — Lariat, King Ranch and Platinum — a space where customers likely own other pricey toys like Airstreams and horses.

The payback, I tell Airstream Tom, is in convenience rather than recouping lower fuel costs.

The diesel gets about 20 percent better fuel economy than the twin-turbo V-6, which translates to about 400 miles of range at 15 mpg highway (trucker rule of thumb: towing a 6,000-pound trailer cuts gas mileage in half. The Power Stroke’s EPA rating is 30 mpg). The V-6 will stop every 310 miles — or worse, given turbo’s notorious thirst under load.

Diesel means fewer stops on your way to Shangri La, U.S.A.

Speaking of paradise, my $63,435 Lariat interior was a luxury suite. Only luxe sedans rival Detroit trucks for premium cabins. Heck, with the Airstream, the whole family can fit easily in the palatial SuperCrew cab. Take a $70,000 King Ranch Power Stroke up north and its interior will rival nearby yachts.

The light-duty Power Stroke takes aim at the Ram 1500 diesel. Ford has thrown down the gauntlet with its record-setting 30 mpg highway, besting Ram’s 27. Chevy and GMC have their own diesels suiting up in the locker room for 2019. Ram, too, will counter with its own upgraded, 2019 diesel.

I got a preview of Ram’s upscale platform when I test drove the 2019 gas model last month. It sees the F-150’s tech and counters with a Tesla-like tablet interior display and a digital rotary shift knob opening more console space. Oh, yeah? Ford’s console knob will autonomously back up its trailer. Game on (if you’ve got $50,000 to play).

Premium sedans once introduced new technology. Now big, bold, diesel pickups are the new canvas for tech innovation.

2018 Ford F-150 Power Stroke Diesel

VEHICLE TYPE

FRONT-ENGINE, REAR- AND FOUR-WHEEL DRIVE, FIVE-PASSENGER PICKUP

Price

$46,410 base ($63,435 4WD Lariat and $70,360 4WD King Ranch as tested)

Power plant

3.0-liter, turbo diesel V-6

Power

250 horsepower, 440 pound-feet of torque

Transmission

10-speed automatic

Performance

0-60 mph, 7.2 seconds (Car and Driver est); towing capacity: 11,400 pounds; payload: 2,020 pounds

Weight

5,077-5,335 pounds (diesel adds 350-pounds to comparable gas-powered trucks)

Fuel economy

EPA fuel economy: 22 city/30 highway/25 combined (4×2); 20 city/25 highway/22 combined (4×4)

Report card

Highs: Diesel fuel economy; self-driving towing, parking features

Lows: Diesel $3,000-$4,000 premium; diesel does not out-tow cheaper, twin-turbo V-6

Overall:★★★

Roush unleashes the beast in the Ford Super Duty F-250

Posted by Talbot Payne on May 3, 2018

roush_fr3-4

In China, 2018 is the Year of the Dog. In the United States, it’s the Year of the Truck.

With U.S. pickup sales totaling more than 2.8 million last year, automakers are beefing up lineups with new trucks. At January’s Detroit auto show, the Detroit Three debuted an all-new Ford Ranger, all-new Chevy Silverado, all-new Ram 1500 and first-ever Ford F-150 diesel.

Not to be left out, renowned Ford mod-shop Roush Performance is introducing the first Roush Super Duty F-250.

The ferocious-looking truck, outfitted with giant 35-inch bead-locked off-road tires and a blacked-out grille, will make grown men whimper.

The heavy-duty Roush F-250 follows in the footsteps of the Livonia-based company’s lineup of three modified light-duty F-150 pickups which run from the wardrobe-enhanced Roush F-150 to the high-horsepower Roush Nitemare. Roush also makes a modified version of the off-road F-150 Raptor beast.

An aftermarket performance parts shop, Roush has a unique arrangement with the Dearborn automaker where its upgraded vehicles are sold to customers through Ford dealers. Founder Jack Roush’s long history of success in auto racing — from IMSA Ford Mustangs to providing V-8 engines to NASCAR teams — has helped elevate Roush to one of the most recognizable mod brands in the United States.

Roush-badged Mustangs and F-150 pickups swagger across American roads with fearsome fascias and rib-rattling exhaust notes. Roush’s signature vehicle has long been the Mustang pony car, which Roush brought to market in 1995.

The latest version, birthed in 2016, features a menu of mods which dial up the performance volume — from hood stripes to high-horsepower engine tweaks. The supercharged, 670-horsepower Stage 3 Mustang is Roush’s signature.

But the pull of big F-series pickups, which sold almost 900,000 units in 2017 alone, has proved irresistible. F-series pickups are sold in five configurations from base XL to luxurious King Ranch, plus the 450-horsepower Raptor. Since 2001, Roush has added to that stable with F-150 modifications to compete in a market that includes competitor off-road pickup trims like the Ram Rebel and coming Chevy Silverado Trailboss.

The Roush F-250 Super Duty resembles Roush’s entry-level F-150 and F-150 FC models with its Roush-stamped black grille, flared fenders, upgraded suspension, black hood and off-road tires.

A throaty dual exhaust makes the Roush instantly identifiable from the rear. Customers can use a vehicle configurator to pick additional options like body color and Roush badging, then take delivery of the pickup at one of 200 dealers around the world.

“Roush’s entry into the Super Duty market is a game-changer for drivers who crave an aggressive, no-compromise look,” said Roush Performance sales chief Taylor Bloor. “The 2018 Roush Super Duty F-250 looks incredibly intimidating with an off-road stance and isn’t afraid to get dirty. It’s reliable, functional and just plain cool.”

Unlike Roush’s F-150 Nitemare edition — or the Stage 3 Mustang — Roush doesn’t touch the Super Duty’s V-8 or Power Stroke diesel engines, both of which are available in the Roush wrap. The 6.7-liter Power Stroke puts out an eye-popping 925 pound-feet of torque and is the industry standard in towing and payload. Like any other Ford product, the Roush comes with full drive-train warranties and an additional 3 year/36,000 mile guarantee for the Roush extras.

With its muscled stance and raised suspension, the Roush F-250 is wider (4-6 inches) and taller (by 2 inches to 82.5) than the stock truck.

Now on sale, the Roush F-250 package starts at $13,880. Added configurations top out at over $15,000. Ford’s V-8 powered F-250 starts at about $52,000 and the diesel at about $65,000 before Roush modifications.

Payne review: Flamboyant Lexus LS 500 lives large

Posted by Talbot Payne on May 3, 2018

lexus_fr3-4_bush

In 1989, “The Simpsons” debuted on television, the Tigers were mired in a rebuilding year and the fall of the Berlin Wall promised the end of the Cold War. Thirty years later, and the Simpsons are still America’s family, the Tigers are again reinventing themselves and Russian relations are colder than a Michigan spring.

But before you think we’re in a “Groundhog Day” movie loop, gaze upon the all-new Lexus LS 500 sedan. This is not your father’s LS.

The year 1989 was also notable, of course, for the debut of the LS 500 — at the Detroit auto show — as Lexus’ flagship. True to Japanese stereotype, the LS was a cheaper knock-off of the luxury segment’s state-of-the-art Mercedes S-Class. Same upright grille with rectangular, encased headlights. Same long, slab sides. Same gray rocker panels, same rectangular taillights, same leather-wrapped interior.

Toyota’s premium brand built its reputation on bulletproof reliability, slavish customer service and wallet-friendly pricing. Design was an afterthought.

Not anymore.

Once again using Motown’s show as its backdrop, Lexus’ all-new, fifth-gen LS hit the stage in January like Bette Midler belting out “Hello, Dolly!” This Lexus had brass, sass and a personality all its own. And like any Broadway diva, the result is a polarizing talent that won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

My 2018 tester arrived in the driveway with a cowcatcher grille bigger than a steam locomotive.

The spindle grille has become Lexus signature. It graces everything from the enormous mask on the RX ute (a face only Darth Vader could love) to the artful sculpture on the racy Lexus LC 500 sports coupe. The LS’s sci-fi grille is somewhere in between — neither pretty nor hideous. Flanked by “Z” headlights, it is a galaxy away from the Mercedes’ classic facial bone structure.

“It’s a handsome car except for the grille,” said a friend. “The grille’s ugly, but the back is nice,” another friend said of the derriere’s bold, horizontal lines interrupted only by a chrome drip (another Lexus signature) at the corner taillights.

Indeed, the Lexus is a bit of a split personality, like Tommy Lee in a tuxedo. Elegantly radical.

In between its “ugly” face and “nice” tush are a coupe-roofed, rear-wheel-drive-proportioned sedan draped over a 123-inch (a foot longer than the 1989 model) wheelbase. In contrast with the RX which demands an opinion from every angle, the rocker panels and door handles are conservatively conventional.

The dual personality continues inside. From the get-go the LS was a tech geek, sporting breakthroughs in 1989 like an automatic tilt-and-telescope steering wheel and vibration-insulating rubber mounts. My loaded, all-wheel drive $103,635 tester checked every box on the car geek’s wish-list including kick-open rear trunk, world’s-largest heads-up display, drive modes, air suspension, 28-way massaging seats and flux capacitor (just kidding about that last one, “Back to the Future” fans).

But then Lexus goes too far with a touch-pad operated infotainment screen that will drive you bonkers. Mrs. Payne nearly took a tire iron to the mouse-controlled display of the Lexus GS on a recent journey to West Virginia so, naturally, Lexus made the LS controls even more diabolical.

Trying to navigate the haptic touchpad while traveling is like moving target practice. To make matters worse, Lexus buries features in the screen like heated seats that most automakers locate on the console. The LS console is a sleek piece of uncluttered art — at least until frustrated passengers start gouging it with blunt objects.

My wife tried adjusting her heated seats with the touch pad while I drove and soon threw her hands up in frustration. Naturally, the Lexus features an advanced safety system — no doubt to help drivers distracted by the maddening touchpad — that has its own issues. Like other Level 2 systems, “Safety System Plus” triangulates adaptive cruise-control, lane-keep assist and blind-spot assist to create a cocoon of self-driving comfort on freeways. Until it doesn’t.

Like Tesla’s Autopilot, SS+ will simply stop working when it can’t make out road lines or center itself in the lane. That means you have to be alert, lest the system takes a coffee break. It’s a toy, not a tool.

Happily, there is the back seat for when the front gets too stressful. In fact, I would recommend going everywhere with two couples to gain the full LS experience. Touchpad driving you batty? Time to switch with the rear passengers!

Equip your LS with the $12,270 luxury package and you won’t regret it. In addition to the aforementioned, 28-way front thrones, you get reclining, 18-way heated rear sofa chairs with power window shades, a seven-inch touchscreen controller (Hooray, no touchpad!) and Ultrasuede liner.

My chocolate Ultrasuede door liner looked like it had been applied with a cake knife, its sugary material shaped with scalloped swirls. I gained 10 pounds just looking at it.

The touchscreen controller not only heats and reclines your own seat, but moves the front passenger seat forward for extra space (oops, still got room up there?) and controls the front radio (“CNN? I’ll switch to Fox News, thank you very much!”). Opt for the $1,000 panoramic roof and you can also control how much sun you get. Aaaah, that’s the life.

The Adaptive Variable Suspension also makes for a carpeted ride back there, electronically adapting to Detroit’s worst roads. On a double date, our chauffeured friends paused from licking the chocolate suede to notice how uncommonly smooth was the drive down the pothole-pocked Lodge service drive.

Naturally, the Lexus also has split driving personalities.

Determined to match its hair-raising design with goosebump-raising performance, the all-new architecture is lower, lighter and more nimble. Give the big bull’s right horn (sprouting from the cockpit cowl) a twist and you are in Sport Plus mode: springs-stiffened, 10-speed tranny optimized, growling 3.5-liter twin-turbo V-6 at the ready.

Open the throttle gates and the 4,938-pound heifer is on the loose, its 442 pound-feet of V-6 torque stampeding across the landscape.

It’s not a the V-8 roar of old — hey, its’ not 1989 anymore. But it has personality, just like the rest of this big, ugly, handsome, relaxing, maddening Japanese land yacht. The new Lexus is still cheaper than a Mercedes, still leads five-year cost-of-ownership listsand still speaks geek. But it’s never boring.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2019 Lexus LS 500

VEHICLE TYPE

FRONT-ENGINE, REAR AND ALL-WHEEL DRIVE, FOUR- OR FIVE-PASSENGER LUXURY SEDAN

Price

$75,995 base ($103,635 AWD with luxury package as tested)

Power plant

3.5-liter, twin-turbo V-6

Power

416 horsepower, 442 pound-feet of torque

Transmission

10-speed automatic

Performance

0-60 mph, 4.6 seconds (mfr.); top speed: 136 mph (electronically limited)

Weight

4,751 pounds (5,093 pounds as tested)

Fuel economy

EPA fuel economy: 19 city/29 highway/23 combined (RWD); 18 city/27 highway/21 combined (AWD)

Report card

Highs: Unique design; palatial back seat

Lows: Maddening remote touch-pad screen controller; clunky auto downshifts at low speed

Overall:★★★

Payne: Yankee-fied VW Jetta goes big, stays nimble

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 19, 2018

jetta_sel-grass-fr

We Americans are getting so fat that the compact 2019 VW Jetta is bigger than Volkswagen’s 2004 mid-size Passat. And don’t even ask how big the new Passat has become (hint — New Yorkers are using them as apartments).

The all-new, Mark 7 Jetta has more headroom, shoulder-room, belly-room, and leg room than its predecessor. But, I am happy to report, it has lost none of its spunk.

Indeed, despite its girth, the nattering of government mpg nannies, and Americans’ demand for a rolling arcade of electronic gizmos (guilty as charged), the Jetta has not lost its athleticism.

Credit its stiff, new, MQB chassis and a fearsome squadron of competitors that have also upped their game, and — WHUMP! Didn’t see that railroad crossing in Middle-of-Nowhere, North Carolina coming.

Despite my flogging the Jetta at high speed along a hilly country road outside Durham, the V-dub’s new, torsion-beam, rear suspension was barely ruffled by the uneven crossing. A V-dub without an independent rear suspension? Gott in Himmel! Happily, my 6’5” head — and that of my tall driving partner, Seyth Miersma — didn’t pogo-stick into the roof.

Indy-rear compacts are an elite club of which Jetta was once a part (Jetta’s sportier cousin VW Golf is still a member as is the Honda Civic). But in the ferociously competitive, $19,000-$26,000 compact segment every bolt counts and IRS is a luxury. Even the forthcoming, zoom-zoom Mazda 3 will succumb to the cheaper beam to cut costs.

Used to be VW thought it was enough to wave around IRS and German engineering and then have Yanks swoon at their feet in homage. Such arrogance led to woeful sales — and to Dieselgate. Humbled, it is now Volkswagen’s turn to grovel at the feet of us Yanks — and they are doing a fine job of it.

VW these days is talking with a very American accent. A southern, Tennessee drawl.

Ignore the cocktail party talk of an electric future, saving the planet, blah, blah, blah. Herr Volkswagen is leaving the party in a 3.6-liter, gas-powered Atlas SUV. Built in Chattanooga. And he wants to build a two-row Atlas and an Atlas pickup too, ya’ll.

The same XL theme carries over to VW’s compacts. Wolfsburg doesn’t even bother sending us its Pop and Polo subcompacts because they know they’d sit on the shelves like a Hillary Clinton campaign tome. Instead, they made a better, bigger, cheaper Jetta. Yes, cheaper (see axing that expensive, multi-link, IRS rear suspension).

Suddenly, über-engineered VW is a value brand in America, the only country where Jetta will be sold.

The volume SE model comes equipped with best-in-class, transferable, bumper-to-bumper warranty of 6 years/72K miles, smartphone app connectivity and blindspot assist, which — at $23,005 — is on par with compact peers.

Take the comparable Mazda 3 Touring — one of my favorite value models — and Jetta goes toe-to-toe on blind spot-assist, torque and handling. The Mazda jumps ahead with sexier looks and auto-headlights (something some luxe brands don’t offer) — only to see the VW claw back with a bigger, quieter interior and smooth-shifting eight-speed tranny (also shaming some premium entries).

Ultimately, cars in this segment must be judged against King Civic, which set a new bar in 2016 for fuel economy, handling, rear legroom and techno-smarts. Jetta doesn’t flinch from the challenge, nearly matching the best-selling, benchmark Honda in all respects.

But it also separates itself in two crucial respects: powertrain and looks. Under the hood, the 1.4-liter turbo-4 never starves for power with a stump-pulling, 183-pound feet of torque compared to the Civic’s 153.

As for curb appeal, the mascara-smeared, boomerang-taillight Civic looks like something on its way to a Mötley Crüe concert. Conservative Jetta can be taken home to mother with its nicely creased flanks and groomed front end. Brahms, anyone?

Actually, the V-dub secretly likes to rock out. Jetta brought Beat reps to its media debut, who had designed an audio system for (upper trim SEL) Jetta in collaboration with rapper and Eminem producer Dr. Dre. That’s right, Dr. Dre rappin’ in a Jetta.

Jetta is a fully Yankee-fied product in other ways, too. It’s made in Mexico just like The Donald’s suits. Its redesigned console sports plenty of cubby space for fries, smartphones and other daily necessities. Its big grille is a dead ringer for a Dodge Charger right down to the C-shaped LED running lights.

The V-dub even adopts the American habit of non-functional design cues tacked on just for show. Think fake engine ports. Or fake hood scoops. The Jetta’s contribution to the wardrobe malfunction club is rear, “floating” dual chrome exhaust tips. Except that there are no exhaust pipes behind them (the actual pipe is hidden behind the left fender). They are, ahem, just for show.

Exhaust tip bling also perfectly illustrates the difference between Jetta and its kissing cousin, Golf.

VW is unusual in splitting its compact models by body style: Jetta sedan and Golf hatch. Other auto models (Civic, Focus, Cruze) are content to change their wardrobe while maintaining the same badge. Readers of this column know I’m a hot hatch hooligan and prefer the Golf GTI to just about everything on the market.

I fit VW’s demographic stereotype perfectly. The $27K GTI embodies the Golf spirit with a different engine (turbocharged 2.0-liter) and accounts for some 50 percent of sales reaching well above 30 grand.

The Jetta, meanwhile, is marketed toward a more budget-conscious, more interior-oriented customer (an IRS-equipped GLI model sharing the GTI engine comes later). So the $20K S and SE models are the volume sellers with top, $27K-trim, SEL and SEL Premium trims getting exclusive touches like 10-inch digital instrument display, moonroof and heated rear seats.

The Jetta-Golf personality split is even evident in Jetta’s “sporty” trim, the R-Line. For just $23,845 its brooding black grille and racy wheels appear ready to rumble. But look closer and R-Line is not available with paddle shifters, or a manual transmission, or even a SPORT drive mode.

That autocross-friendly, limited-slip diff is a tech orphan.

But the Jetta lineup should find plenty of homes. Wolfsburg finally gets it and has produced a sculpted, roomy, techy Teuton aimed squarely at the heart of the American market. Or perhaps I should say, squarely at our big, fat behinds.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2019 Volkswagen Jetta

VEHICLE TYPE

FRONT-ENGINE, FRONT-WHEEL DRIVE, FIVE-PASSENGER COMPACT SEDAN

Price

$19,395 base ($23,845 R-Line and $27,795 SEL Premium as tested)

Power plant

1.4-liter, turbocharged inline-4

Power

147 horsepower, 184 pound-feet of torque

Transmission

6-speed manual; 8-speed automatic

Performance

0-60 mph, 8.0 seconds (Car and Driver est.); top speed: 127 mph

Weight

2,970 pounds as tested

Fuel economy

EPA fuel economy: 30 city/40 highway/34 combined (automatic as tested)

Report card

Highs: Nimble handling with peppy turbo; roomy interior

Lows: Fake, floating exhaust tips; volume knob mute, please?

Overall:★★★