Articles Blog

Payne: Ford GT tested at warp speed. Wow.

Posted by hpayne on May 23, 2017

gt_silver-doors

Stickering at half-a-million dollars, the 2017 Ford GT race car in street clothing is unobtainable, made-from-unobtanium, and unbelievably capable. As I folded myself into its cockpit for a test drive this month at Utah Motorsports race track, I couldn’t help but think of its old man, the legendary GT40.

My favorite racing encounter against the 1966 GT40 came in the mid-1990s at New York’s Watkins Glen race track. Vintage racing in those days brought together the finest sports racers of the 1960s: the GT40, Ferrari 330, Lola T70, Lotus 23, Chevron B16 … and Porsches like my 1966 906.

On this day I was cooking along in second place, locked in a race-long duel for first with a sister 906. But I knew a Ford GT was lurking. Beset by bugs in practice but skillfully manned, it started from the back of the pack — where it wouldn’t stay long.

My 220-horse, 1,350-pound Porsche had dominated the 2.0-liter class at the ’66 24 Hours of Le Mans. But the Ford was a different species — a 7-liter, 2,682-pound, 485-horsepower brute that had finished 1-2-3 overall that same year. Ford would repeat its win four years running.

As I scaled the Glen’s uphill esses with two laps to go, the GT40’s unmistakable, shark-like visage loomed in my mirrors. As we emerged onto the long back-straight, the Ford went by like a freight train, its huge center-mounted twin exhaust nearly blowing me off the road at 150 mph, the deafening V-8 rattling my eardrums.

Inside my helmet, I think I let out a “wow.”

That’s how racers feel about the GT, America’s most revered race badge. So you can imagine the anticipation for this year’s Ford supercar, the first GT in 50 years that’s purpose-built to go racing.

It’s different than the 2005 V8-powered GT made to celebrate Ford Motor Company’s centennial. Capable as it was, that model was meant for production only. The 2017 car was built from the ground up to reclaim the Le Mans title that old-man GT40 won in 1966 — while satisfying rules requiring that the race thoroughbreds be born from a production sire.

A year ago, the GT race car won Le Mans. Mission accomplished. Now comes the production version which I sampled in Utah.

With its state-of-the-art aerodynamics and electronic wizardry, it is 50 light years from its ancestor. Drivers concede that, for all its glory, the 1966 car was a handful. An engine strapped to four wheels. Heavy and cramped, it was a physical experience. The new GT is a 21st-century thrill ride.

Getting into the Ford, I felt like a Jedi pilot strapping into an X-Wing.

Just fore of the car’s signature sci-fi “flying buttress” air scoops, I lowered my 6-foot-5 frame under the scissor door and into a spartan carbon-fiber space capsule.

The cabin’s focus is the digital instrument panel and a steering wheel that contains every function — from driving modes to turn signals to huge batwing paddles that operate the car’s quick twin-clutch seven-speed tranny. Press the starter button and the old GT’s V-8 drama is gone, replaced by the purposeful grunt of a twin-turbo “Ecoboost” V-6. On Utah mountain roads the precision of the carbon-fiber chassis was reminiscent of the $60,000 carbon Alfa Romeo 4C’s scalpel-like precision. A 4C with 647-horsepower, 550 pound-feet of torque and 400 pounds of downforce, that is. Those numbers come into clearer focus at the track.

Thumb the Mode selector to “Track” and the car thunks to 75 millimeters off the ground like it was dropped from IndyCar air jacks. That’s race-car low, just shy of the Le Mans car’s 50 mm. From launch control, the car rockets forward, my right hand flicking off shifts as the car builds speed smoothly. There is no high-rev wail like a Corvette or Porsche flat-6. Just. Relentless. Thrust.

A rear-wheel drive racer with none of the all-wheel, rear-turn steer tricks used by some of its supercar peers (tricks that are illegal in racing), the GT’s handling is familiar to any sports car driver with understeer in low-speed turns and manageable oversteer under throttle as the 647 horses overwhelm the grooved Michelins (note to owners: buy slicks for the track).

Unfamiliar, however, is the tail’s tendency to step out as I brake from high speed into tight bends.

Aussie Ford ace Ryan Briscoe climbs into the cockpit for a few laps and explains. It’s caused by downforce washing off the back of the car as I scrub speed, shifting weight to the front.

All that downforce is the GT’s secret sauce: advanced, active aerodynamic design that makes this supercar at once both physically alluring and wicked quick.

Two years on from its dramatic introduction at the 2015 Detroit auto show, the Ford is still the most head-turning car on the floor. At this spring’s New York Auto Show, I ended a group floor-tour at a twin-striped red GT at the Ford stand. Jaws dropped. Strapped into a similar red car just inches off the track, the car’s beauty takes on a different meaning. It’s an aerodynamic tour de force headlining 50 years of fluid dynamics since a 1966 car that barely knew the term.

The shark nose is still familiar. But where the ’66 car used air largely to feed the hungry mid-engine V-8, the ’17 also uses air to press the body to the ground. My carbon-fiber cockpit is integrated into a narrow Formula One-style “nose and keel” chassis construction with shocks, springs, seats and engine concentrated in the middle of the car. Enormous, forged aluminum A-arms attach wheels to keel and open up huge tunnels between the chassis and rolling bits, which sucks the shark to pavement.

Air rushes out from under the car through a diffuser, working with a top-side wing rising hydraulically above the rear deck as the car gains speed. When I stomp on the huge carbon-ceramic brakes (more unobtanium), the wing snaps up at a 90-degree angle — WHAP! — helping to slow the ground missile.

My tester is only one of 1,000 GTs that will be built — the first rolled off Ford production-partner Multimatic’s Toronto line in December. Multimatic will produce one a day, 250 a year, for four years. Each car starts at $450,000 before options. Every one is spoken for. Unobtainable, yes.

But like its forefather, it represents America’s best.

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

2017 Ford GT

VEHICLE TYPE MID-ENGINE, REAR-WHEEL DRIVE, TWO-PASSENGER,

TWO-DOOR SUPERCAR

Powerplant 3.5-liter, twin-turbo V-6
Transmission Seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic with

paddles

Weight 3,000 pounds (est. for

Competition Series trim)

Price $450,000 base price
Power 647 horsepower, 550 pound-feet torque
Performance 0-60 mph, 2.9 seconds (Car and Driver est.)
Fuel economy EPA est: 11 mpg city/15 highway/14 combined

Report card

HIGHS GALACTIC STARFIGHTER DESIGN;

CARBON-FIBER EVERYTHING

Lows Wavy windscreen glass; only 1,000 made

Overall:★★★★(Do I hear five stars?)

Acura makeover returns brand to its roots

Posted by hpayne on May 16, 2017

With a new look derived from the Precision concept,

To jumpstart stalled sales, Honda’s luxury brand is defying the trend toward robotic cars and returning to the sporty, driver-focused image that inspired Acura’s birth three decades ago. That strategy includes the second coming of its Acura NSX supercar, a return to racing and the introduction this summer of a restyled performance sedan, the TLX A-Spec, based on the Precision concept seen at last year’s Detroit Auto Show.

“We are reinvigorating as a performance brand,” said Acura Vice President John Ikeda in Louisville recently at a media test program for the A-Spec. “That is where our heritage is, and we kicked off the Precision concept to get that image back.”

Acura debuted in the U.S. market in 1986 as the first Japanese luxury brand. Its early success inspired premium divisions from Toyota (Lexus) and Nissan (Infiniti). Acura’s reputation was built on the Legend and Integra sedans, and the innovative NSX supercar which launched to rave reviews in 1990 with Acura’s first V-TEC (variable valve timing) engine and an all-aluminum body.

“When the brand came out it was a breath of fresh air. It was completely different,” says Ikeda, who, as a talented young designer out of Los Angeles’ Art Center College of Design, joined Acura in 1989. “It was the first luxury brand coming out of Japan. It really intrigued me to pack up everything and move to Tokyo.”

Acura sales in the U.S. peaked at 209,610 units in 2005 and haven’t come close since, with sales at 161,360 last year. Meanwhile, rivals like Audi have tripled their sales (to 210,213) since 2005, and Lexus now sells more than twice as many vehicles as Acura.

A changing market brought more demand for SUVs, and Acura tried to change with it. Acura abandoned its NSX halo car and performance variants while adopting a more premium-looking design language.

“We were doing really well in 2005, but somewhere we stopped making the NSX, we stopped racing, the Type-S’s went away,” says Ikeda upon reflection. “And then the market crashed in 2008. At that that point you have moment of self-reflection. There were some pieces that were fundamentally missing.”

One of those pieces, Ikeda believes, is the young culture that attracted him 30 years ago. “The people were so youthful – they had so much energy and passion,” says the Acura veteran. “You have to believe and be that to make that.”

So in 2015 Acura returned to its roots by unveiling the second-generation NSX and naming Ikeda as vice president for North America.

IHS Automotive senior analyst Stephanie Brinley says Acura and Mazda – which has its own halo sports car, the MX-5 Miata – are pursuing similar strategies as throwback, pilot-focused brands.

“In an environment of ride-sharing and autonomous vehicle development, it’s interesting that these two brands are going back to being driver-oriented,” she says.

Acura’s reboot also dovetails with parent company Honda’s renewed emphasis on performance. Criticized for ditching its sporty vibe in the pursuit of retail sales leadership in the volume SUV (Honda CR-V) and sedan (Honda Accord) segments, Honda made waves last year with an Audi A3-baselined extreme makeover of its Honda Civic compact – including the introduction of the ferocious 300-horsepower Civic Type-R to the U.S. market.

Ikeda says Acura should be a logical step up for thousands of Honda customers.

“The Civic is a great, but at some point the customer wants more. We have to be there for those people,” he says. “It’s an obvious transition from Honda to Acura performance.”

The influence of the NSX on the reinvigorated Acura brand is telling. Like the 1990 original, it focuses on innovation – bringing exotic, hybrid-driven tech to market for hundreds of thousands less than similar Porsches and Ferraris. Acura’s new slogan, “Precision Crafted Performance,” even echoes its 1986 tagline, “Precision Crafted Automobiles.”

“NSX is the halo car. And with it we’re going back to racing,” Ikeda says of the supercar’s entry this year in the highly competive IMSA GTD series against rivals like Porsche, Lexus and Audi. “If you’re not racing, you’re just playing around. It sets you up for the A-Spec because it gives it validity.”

The A-Spec is a wicked-looking variation of Acura’s entry-level TLX all-wheel drive sedan. Though its upgrades are largely cosmetic (mechanical changes are limited to gripper tires and a sportier suspension), Ikeda strongly hints it’s a steppingstone to a Type-S badge that will get more power and technology like Audi’s S-line.

“They are doing what they can in the mid-cycle update for the TLX,” says HIS’s Brinley. “They are taking the opportunity to set things up for sportier models down the road.”

Also channeling the NSX’s claim as America’s “affordable” supercar, the TLX will be the U.S. market’s most affordable, V-6 powered luxury sedan at $36,200. Every car will come standard with a suite of safety-assist systems as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity

Made in Marysville, Ohio, alongside the NSX, the new TLX and TLX A-Spec hit dealerships in June accompanied by a new ad campaign. The so-called “Wow” campaign throbs with modern music, features healthy doses of the halo NSX, and is designed to reach young buyers through smartphones and social media.

The Ford GT was almost a Mustang

Posted by hpayne on May 12, 2017

FordGT_display

Salt Lake City, Utah –

Whether winning LeMans or wowing the automotive press at 130 mph on the Utah Motorsport Campus race track, the 2017 Ford GT has realized its lofty dreams.

Built to return Ford to glory 50 years after its fabled drubbing of Ferrari, the GT race car beat all production-based competitors last year at the world’s premier endurance race. This month, the production version debuted to members of the automotive media who came here from across the globe to sample the supercar’s twin-turbo thrust, active aerodynamics and sizzling track performance.

So it’s hard to imagine that the Ford GT might never have happened. Indeed, it was conceived as a Mustang.

When Ford’s Performance Team first plotted in early 2013 how to commemorate the GT40’s historic 1966 LeMans win, Ford’s pony car – no slouch in the performance department – seemed the perfect instrument. The LeMans 50th dovetailed with Mustang’s 50th birthday and Ford’s plans to take the iconic Yankee coupe global.

In the end, however, the GT would not be denied as Ford decided it was not only the best race car for the 24 Hours of LeMans, but also a chance to test Ford’s automotive know-how against the world.

“You can’t tell the story of the Ford GT without telling the story of Project Silver,” Ford Performance chief engineer Jamal Hameedi said trackside in Utah. “It (started as) a Mustang. It was called Project Silver after the Lone Ranger’s horse.

“Everyone felt the need to celebrate that win in a very special manner. So we began thinking. Could we align these two anniversaries and use the Mustang to go back to LeMans?”

But as captivating the idea of the Mustang conquering Europe’s greatest race sounded, it soon ran into logistical hurdles.

A race car based on a $30,000 muscle car was a vastly inferior species to Ferrari’s exotic 488-based entry (like 50 years before, Ford eyed the prancing horse as its chief rival) with a much less aerodynamic shape than the low, wide, mid-engine Italian. Production-based cars compete in LeMans GTE-class, which includes Corvette, Porsche, Ferrari, and others.

“We would have been at a significant disadvantage with the Ferrari,” Hameedi said. “We would have needed a few favors from the FIA [Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, the LeMans organizing body] to be an aerodynamically competitive car.”

In the basement of Ford’s Dearborn development facility, Mustang models were sketched and run through powerful computer-aided design programs. Modifying a front-engine coupe to compete in the brutally competitive GT class is not unheard of. BMW, for example, is campaigning its big M6 this year – but it is barely recognizable in race trim with enormous fenders and a steroid-fed drivetrain.

Similarly, Project Silver’s Mustang was becoming unrecognizable.

“Little by little it was morphing into a car that didn’t look so much like a Mustang,” Hameedi said. “It was like fitting a square peg in a round hole. We went all the way up to [Ford CEO] Mark Fields and the project was canceled.”

The 50th anniversary of LeMans loomed and Ford didn’t have a car. Project Silver had burned a lot of time.

“We were were back to square one,” recalled Hameedi. Inevitably, the conversation turned to a mid-engine, GT40 successor. At least his team had an engine to build the car around: the ferocious, 3.5-liter Ecoboost that Ford’s competition partner, Chip Ganassi Racing, had been testing in another race series.

“Every year you get a question and a rumor about the next GT. That was always in the back of our minds,” Hameedi said. “Certainly GT and LeMans are a natural.”

A GT heritage car had been made once before – as a $150,000, 2005 model to commemorate the company’s 100th anniversary. That car’s collector status – it is the only one of its peer group (Ferrari 360, Lamborghini Gallardo and McLaren SLR) that has appreciated in price – appealed to top Ford brass.

But a new GT would require a different level of effort. The 2005 car, powerful though it was, was not designed as a racer to beat thoroughbreds like Porsche and Ferrari. A new GT would have to meet that standard.

“There was some trepidation,” Hameedi said, as his team began GT feasibility studies. “This is such an icon in the company that there is also a fear of not going back. Anything less than a dominant victory would be seen as a failure.”

In December 2013 – just 30 months before the running of 2016’s 24 Hours of LeMans – Hameedi’s team got the green light.

“The timeline was the quickest for a production car that I have worked on,” veteran GT design manager Garen Nicoghosian said. “Even more remarkable when you factor in the co-development of the racer. I have been involved in quick programs, but they were pure race cars like the NASCAR Fusion.”

The result is breathtaking – the most technically advanced, most expensive car a Detroit company has ever made.

Unlike even the Ferrari 488, the $450,000 GT was conceived as a race car first and a production car second. That means it is inherently superior to every other production-based car in LeMans GT class.

It sports a unique “nose and keel” aerodynamic design that forces air through channels under the car. Working in tandem with a sculpted rear deck and wing, the GT’s aerodynamics literally suck it to the ground, generating an astonishing 400 pounds of downforce.

“The FIA had to really penalize the race car just to make the race fair,” Ford race jockey Ryan Briscoe says of the weight and power restrictions imposed on the GT.

Dancing around Utah Motorsport’s writhing, 2.5-mile track just 75 millimeters off the ground, the carbon-fiber 647-horsepower GT is brilliant, yet also surprisingly organic.

Where other supercar cyborgs are equipped with computer-assisted, rear-wheel-steer, all-wheel drive systems that are banned in pro racing, the GT’s rear-drive system was designed with FIA rules in mind.

After driving the race car for two years, Utah was Briscoe’s first taste of the production model.

“It has very similar tendencies (to the race car),” Briscoe says after a series of torrid laps. “(They) really reward smooth driving.”

Building a carbon car of this capability advances Ford engineering, just as the 2005 GT gave the company a headstart on aluminum construction that ultimately informed the aluminum-skin F-150 pickup a decade later.

“The GT creates an organic tech-bookshelf,” Hameedi said of the GT’s state-of-the-art engineering. “We didn’t keep anything out of this car for cost reason. One day someone at Ford will have a problem and say, ‘Didn’t they do something like that on the GT?’”

 

Payne: Kia Soul Turbo thinks outside the box

Posted by hpayne on May 12, 2017

soul_fr3-4

What do I call the boxy Kia Soul? Toaster on wheels? Shoebox? Beach cooler? Fridge?

Whatever. It never really interested me until now. Late to the toaster party that began early last decade, the Soul arrived in 2009 behind the Scion xB, Honda Element and Nissan Cube. How many beach coolers could you sell in the auto mall? Even Kia’s irresistible ad campaign — featuring hip hamsters — stereotyped Souls as an eccentric trend. Good luck selling that pet rock in five years.

But slowly the market shifted to Soul. Its competitors fell by the roadside even as the market demanded everything ute. Suddenly the quirkbox was a subcompact crossover in the hottest new space in autodom. All the corporate bigs — Chevy Trax, Honda HR-V, Buick Encore — flooded the space with their familiar badges and grilles. But if you wanted wee utility that marched to a different drummer … well, how about a little Soul music?

Saved from the trend-shredder by market demand, Kia also recognizes Soul sits at the intersection of hot hatch and utility. You had me at hot hatch.

Like the Mini Clubman, the Soul Turbo injects performance into the common box — a natural place to go given the proximity of compact utilities to sporty, five-door hatchbacks like the VW Golf GTI and Ford Focus ST. While those turbocharged animals are more playful and have a lower center of gravity than the hamster-mobile, the turbo brings plenty of pop. The Soul sports a racy flat-bottom steering wheel, and gets GTI-like red war-paint across the grille and rockers just to make the point.

If a GTI sees a Soul Turbo roll up next to it at a stop light, he’ll know it’s game on.

With 195 pound feet of torque — up from 118 and 150 in the Soul’s normally aspirated (yawn) 1.6 and 2.0-liter offerings — my Soul tester popped off the line, its torque-steer nicely damped. This is the same turbo workhorse found in the Hyundai Veloster and the Kia Forte5.

The Turbo is paired to a seven-speed, dual-clutch transmission which is, um … a bit of a disappointment. With the bit between its teeth on curvy lake roads, the box gets a case of the hiccups in gear changes; it lags in low gear, burps up a gear under throttle, then holds it for too long. I was able to dull this frenetic behavior by toggling “sport” mode, which seemed to act as a sort of Prozac.

Sadly for us hot hatch fans, the Soul doesn’t offer a manual transmission. But in manual mode, the automatic comes to the fore with quick shifts out of Woodward stoplights.

In the niche between hatchback and small sport ute, Kia’s toaster is not alone. Along with the Mini Clubman is the frog-eyed Nissan Juke I reviewed last year with the Veloster in the battle for Captain Quirk.

Now in its second generation, the Kia shows surprisingly mature design. With its bold shape, the grille and rear facias complement the overall design. The big rear lights and panel back are particularly artful. With a full-length sunroof so big the Kia would be a glass-bottom boat if you flipped it, the Soul is a thoroughly modern design. Contrast that with the Juke, which still looks like an alien from another planet.

I was particularly impressed with the Soul’s interior. Content that its exterior is statement enough, Kia made the interior practical, not quirky. This is in contrast to the Clubman with its cute-but-less-ergonomic dinner-plate console and hanger switches. Everything is where it should be in the Soul, from smartphone storage to an easy-to-use infotainment system complete with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphones apps. The stereo system is an artful stack with round speakers at the top — indeed, the interior theme is more round than the outside box would suggest.

There is the obligatory ovoid “mixing bowl” shifter common to all species of quirkmobiles — but form doesn’t upset function. Only the round disco light, which pulsates colors at the passenger’s ankles, reminds you that rappin’ hamsters are this vehicle’s spokespersons.

Mrs. Payne, hardly a hot-hatch nut, echoed my comfort level with the design. The sunroof is a luxurious touch and the hatch utility swallowed any large item she might want to transport. In other quirk vehicles — the bumblebee-colored VW Beetle Turbo or pea-green Ford Fiesta ST come to mind — she felt compelled to explain herself to friends when we emerged, a pair of 50-year-olds apparently stealing one of the Backstreet Boys’ cars.

For all the Soul’s dexterity, Kia says it will come still out with a subcompact crossover to go head-to-head with more conventional members of the small SUV breed. So the Soul must continue to do its niche thing well from affordable shoebox to funky hot hatch.

It’s one cog in an intriguing Kia lineup separating itself from its corporate twin, Hyundai. Kia craves personality. Hyundai has adopted the mainstream for more design harmony from its Sonata and Elantra sedans to its Tucson and Santa Fe SUVs. The exception being the three-door Veloster, which seems more like a Kia that got lost in transit and jumped on the wrong ship.

Each Kia brings its own character. From the funky Soul, buyers can step across the showroom to the upscale-looking Sportage, which appears to be a Porsche Macan-wannabee.

And there’s the Stinger, the brand’s Audi A7-cloning sports sedan that came out of nowhere to star at this year’s Detroit auto show. No mainstream brand has done anything like it — its sleek, sporty lines establishing a performance halo.

No longer the odd relative at the table, the Soul Turbo offers a refined, sporty bot that makes more than a statement that it’s different. It’s a car that you actually want to drive.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News.

2017 Kia Soul Turbo

VEHICLE TYPE FRONT-ENGINE, FRONT-WHEEL DRIVE,

FIVE-PASSENGER HATCHBACK

Powerplant 1.6-liter inline 4-cylinder
Transmission Six-speed automatic
Weight 3,250 pounds as tested
Price $23,500 ($27,620

as tested)

Power 201 horsepower, 195 pound-feet

torque

Performance 0-60 mph, 7.6 seconds

(Car and Driver)

Fuel economy EPA (na)

Report card

HIGHS HOT, 201 HAMSTER-POWER; MATURE

INTERIOR

Lows Manual tranny, please;

transmission hiccups

Overall:★★★

 

Corvette SUV design contest winners

Posted by hpayne on May 12, 2017

1stPlace_VetteSUV_design

What if General Motors Co. built a Corvette SUV? That’s the question we posed in March. While sports car brands like Porsche, Maserati and Jaguar are exploiting their performance prowess to make hugely profitable SUVs, Corvette has remained on the sidelines.

So we did some field research for GM, taking the pulse of prominent former executives like Bob Lutz and Tom Wallace, industry analysts and Corvette owners to gauge whether a Corvette ute would work. We even designed our own Corvette crossover concept called the XC7.

Then we opened the floor to our readers. The Detroit News’ Corvette SUV Design Contest was judged by ex-Corvette boss Wallace, Detroit News design chief Jamie Hollar and News auto critic Henry Payne.

The envelope, please…

First place

Raymond Dong, Dearborn

Our winner is boldly rendered with draftsmanship that pushes the boundaries of Corvette’s current design language with sharp edges and fuller headlights. “The winner is very modern-looking, and has some nice edges,” says Wallace. “A little work on the lower grille opening would make it the perfect Corvette SUV.”

Second place

Andrew Kear, New Jersey

This rendering was impressive for comprehensively imagining a Corvette ute, including three exterior views and interior instrumentation. The attention to detail includes rear fender vents and a digital speedo. “Loved having every view of the Corvette ute including enterior,” says Hollar. “Not sure the concept captures Corvette uniqueness as well as the other entries.”

Third place

Rory Williams, Farmington Hills

Our contest asked for SUV designs, but this skillfully rendered ’Vette wagon was mouthwatering. “We need more wagons with center quad pipes!” exclaimed juror Payne.

 

Payne: 650-hp ZL1 Camaro blows the roof off

Posted by hpayne on May 5, 2017

 

Ah, May at last. Oil temperatures are rising. Woodward Avenue is calling. Songbirds are calling.

We here at The Detroit News prefer a warble that sounds like King Kong gargling razor blades on Skull Island.

That would be the song of the Chevy Camaro ZL1 convertible, Motown’s latest, greatest droptop. The convertible is a sight for sore eyes and a roar for deafened ears. You probably felt it first, an earthquake that made your lights flicker when I stomped the throttle unleashing 640 pound-feet of torque on M1 Concourse’s Champion Motor Speedway just feet from hallowed Woodward ground.

After a long winter’s hibernation, the race track calls for the ZL1 like honey to a bear. It wasn’t always so. The ZL1 badge is the stuff of Camaro legend: rare “COPO” (Central Office Production Order) cars with huge, modified engines for drag racing. The ZL1 was Camaro’s quarter-miler, the Z28 its track star. But with Camaro’s marriage of Corvette’s 650-horsepower Z06 V-8 to GM’s Alpha chassis (shared by the apex-carving Cadillac ATS-V), the ZL1 coupe introduced last fall is an all-around athlete as comfortable in the twisties as it is in a straight line.

Call it a “Cormaro.” I shiver at the capabilities of the coming Z28.

But first, Camaro gives us the $69,135 ZL1 Convertible. How nice, you say. Another ragtop for Florida vacation rentals. But this is no rental-fleet floozy. It’s the coupe with a sun deck.

I first tested the hardtop at Willow Springs Raceway in December and it took to the big track like Kong to a banana grove. Put it on the small, 11/2-mile M1 and it’s like throwing Kong into a high school gymnasium. It can’t contain him.

Despite 12 inches of Goodyear F1 Supercar gummies on the rear, the ZL1 strains for traction when all horses are delivered through M1’s tight corners. I drift the beast across apexes on partial throttle, lest the 4,100-pound missile swap ends and start vectoring in the opposite direction. Even on M1’s curved front straight, I can’t bury the throttle (as I did in the AWD Audi R8 last year).

But M1’s Indy Lights-trained, Super Truck-racing, chief instructor Aaron Bambach is a wizard with the wheel. He takes the reins and drifts the beast at lurid angles.

“Very nice,” he observes after a string of laps. “Tight chassis and Goodyears really make this a nice track car.”

Um, Aaron, you know this is a convertible, right?

Like everything else about the sixth-generation Camaro, this one redefines the concept of muscle-car ragtop. Chevy leaves off the electronic, limited-slip differential (mechanical LSD is fine, thank you) and track timer (only crazy journalists will take it to the track, apparently). But still gets the coupe’s front splitter, magnetic shocks, rear airfoil, 11 heat exchangers — and the first application of GM’s Porsche-beating, 300-millisecond-shifting, manual-defying 10-speed automatic gearbox.

I’m a stick disciple, but the ZL1’s deca-tranny is a must-have.

Out of M1’s hairpin, I drop the hammer on the back straight and hang on. The 10-speed rips off shifts like rifle shots, while the quad-exhaust shatters windows in a 10-block radius. My jacket would have been torn off if M1 didn’t require that convertibles run with the top up. The end of the quarter-mile straight comes up in a heartbeat, the digital speedo clicking 125 mph before massive, 15.35-inch Brembos haul the ZL1 back to Earth.

“I could hear you all the way around the track,” says a pal back in the paddock. And in Ferndale, too, no doubt. The fun continues as we roll out of M1 and onto Woodward — going topless in 14 seconds up to 30 mph.

Stop at stoplight. Engage launch control: left foot floors brake, right foot floors throttle, tach steadies at 2,000 rpms. Release brake — and release the Kraken. Three-point-six seconds later we’re at 60 mph on our way to the moon.

Developed from the ground up to be convertible, the ZL1 soft top, like a Porsche Boxster, gives you aural thrills without chassis compromise. Gone is the cowl tremble of the fifth-generation Camaro convertibles. The Alpha chassis is a rock.

I cruised Woodward with the top down no matter what the temperature (hey, 48 degrees is a balmy Michigan April, no?) just to get the full audio experience. At low revs it’s a quiet cruiser. Put the throttle to the mat and it’s a glorious symphony. The rhythm of wind noise, the supercharger’s rising whine, the quad-pipe brass section — BRAAAAAPPPPP!

The soundtrack makes you forget the interior’s inconveniences.

Console storage is virtually non-existent and the door pockets are nearly in the child-sized backseat. The window ledges are so high that even your 6-foot-5 scribe’s elbow hangs awkwardly by his ear. And, unlike its cousin the Corvette, air vents are low in the console, so when I turn up the fan to keep the open cabin warm, most of the air gets blown on my knees.

But I rationalize the slights. Going topless eliminates the Camaro’s notorious visibility problem. And the rear seats are big enough to accommodate the neighborhood kids who pour from their homes for rides.

My friend Rick gave up his 2012 ZL1 for an Audi S4 a couple of years back. After a run in the Cormaro, he’s ready to go back. The convertible doesn’t come cheap at $7,000 more than the $62,135 coupe — and $8,500 north of a four-door ATS-V. But the Cadillac doesn’t come topless and the ZL1 will blow its doors off out of a stoplight.

“The new ZL1 is a different car than the fifth-gen,” Rick said after ripping off a couple launch-control starts from Woodward stoplights. It’s not the power — the old ZL1 had a healthy 580 horses — it’s the refinement (“the old car was loud all the time”) and the Alpha chassis (“noticeably firmer”). While the convertible is 200 pounds heavier than its coupe stablemate, that still makes it 37 pounds lighter than his old ZL1 coupe.

Rick is inclined to the sleek hardtop and its cheaper sticker. I’ll take the convertible for the audio experience.

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

2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Convertible

VEHICLE TYPE FRONT-ENGINE, REAR-

WHEEL DRIVE, FOUR-PASSENGER, TWO-DOOR CONVERTIBLE

Powerplant 6.2-liter supercharged V-8
Transmission Six-speed manual; 10-speed automatic
Weight 4,100 pounds (est.)
Price $69,135 ($72,325

as tested)

Power 650 horsepower, 640 pound-feet torque
Performance 0-60 mph, 3.6-3.8 seconds

(Car and Driver est.)

Fuel economy TBD (EPA for coupe: 12 mpg city/20 highway/

15 combined)

Report card

HIGHS TOPLESS V-8 SYMPHONY;

FIRM CHASSIS DESPITE ROOF LOSS

Lows Micro interior-storage;

insane V-8 will wake up the neighbors

Overall:★★★★

Tesla rival Lucid rises on home turf

Posted by hpayne on May 2, 2017

Lucid_Air_front

New York — Peter Rawlinson says the Tesla Model S is Electric Vehicle 1.0, and the Lucid Air is EV 2.0. People are listening because he’s been the chief engineer for both.

Following his breakthrough success with Tesla founder Elon Musk on the Model S sedan in 2011, Rawlinson moved on to his second Silicon Valley electric-car startup. At Lucid Motors, the chief technology officer is honing the lessons learned at Tesla to build the Air.

A prototype of the striking battery-powered sedan with a full-glass moon roof stretching the length of the cockpit — hence the name Air — premiered in April at the New York Auto Show. California-based Lucid is ramping up a $240 million fundraising campaign as a first phase toward a 2019 production goal in Arizona. The company aims for a sticker price starting at $60,000, similar to the Model S.

In a field of would-be Tesla fighters that include General Motors Co.’s Chevrolet Bolt, Porsche’s Mission E, BMW’s i lineup and troubled prospects like Faraday Future and Detroit Electric, Lucid has emerged as the badge-du-jour largely on the shoulders of Rawlinson’s resume and the talented team of ex-Tesla engineers he has brought with him.

 Yet, as Lucid attempts to woo capital and put its vision into production, it faces the same question that has vexed competitors: Can electric-car startups be profitable or is Tesla’s success built on the Cult of Elon Musk?

Based in Menlo Park not far from Tesla’s headquarters, Lucid is determined to prove that electric vehicles are the future. Investors have doubts and question whether Tesla’s sky-high market valuation is specific to mercurial CEO Musk. The visionary entrepreneur with a Midas touch created the online payment system PayPal and SpaceX, the private commercial space company that recently launched the world’s first reusable rocket.

“Elon Musk is Tesla,” said Jeff Schuster, vice president of forecasting at LMC Automotive, an auto industry analysis firm. “No one else has his kind of following. The luxury electric vehicle space exists because of him.”

Rawlinson, whose resume includes stints as boss engineering at Jaguar and Lotus, said the electric-vehicle revolution is bigger than one personality. So when Lucid came knocking in 2013, he brought his engineering brain trust to Lucid Motors to create a better Model S.

 The Air would go head to head against the Model S sedan. It promises to have similar gee-whiz tech features such as a touch-screen tablet infotainment display and “over-the-air” software upgrades.

Rawlinson & Co. have created a car that is smaller than the midsize Model S or the Mercedes E-Class, but with the same interior space as a long-wheelbase Mercedes S-Class. With a top trim offering a 130 kilowatt hours or kWh of battery, Lucid said the Air can go 400 miles on a charge. Tesla gets 335 miles on a 100-kWh battery.

 The 1,000-horsepower version of the Air that showed in New York is said to have hit 217 miles per hour in testing. Lucid said Air pricing will be similar to the Model S — starting at $60,000 ($52,500 after a federal tax break) to upward of $100,000.

“What differentiates us (from other EV startups) is that we are the team that did it before. We were largely responsible for the Model S,” Rawlinson said in an interview with The Detroit News in New York. “I brought all the key engineering people who were with me at Tesla.”

Anton Wahlman, a Silicon Valley-based auto analyst with the investment site Seeking Alpha, follows the electric-vehicle market closely. “I love the car,” he said about the Air. “It looks great, and Lucid has a first-rate team. It’s the Model S 2.0. Updated interior and a much more plush backseat. But is there market enough for it?”

Wahlman pointed to first-quarter sales results indicating that Model S and Model X sport utility vehicle sales are flattening out. Indeed, Tesla sales in the United States were down 30 percent from the 2016 third quarter.

Nagging questions

Founded as battery-maker Atieva in 2007 with funding from Chinese electronics billionaire Jia Yueting, Lucid was spun off as a carmaker last October as its Air sedan was readied for public introduction. Atieva has continued as a battery-maker supplying power packs to Formula E racing in Europe.

LMC Automotive’s Schuster said EV startups are risky, but Lucid is among those that could make it: “What they’ve shown in prototype form is encouraging, that they can go after the Model S.”

As Lucid raises money for production, questions continue to dog the company. One concern is that Lucid has been without a chief executive since 2015 (chief technology officer Rawlinson is the senior executive).

Then there is Rawlinson’s insistence that the proof that electric startups can be profitable is that Tesla is making money. This even though Tesla says it has yet to turn a profit — it lost $773 million on $7 billion in revenue in 2016.

“It is a widely believed myth in the industry today that electric cars are somehow unprofitable. That is simply untrue,” Rawlinson said.

“There is potentially a larger profit margin on electric cars than its gasoline counterpart. Tesla is making money on its cars right now — and it very well suits Elon Musk. If you were pre-eminent in that business, wouldn’t it be the smartest play to convince all would-be competitors that it is unwise to enter and compete against you?”

Auto investment analyst Wahlman disputes the claim based on Tesla’s publicly released figures. “Tesla is not profitable; they are losing money hand over fist,” he says. “It’s in Lucid’s interest right now to make the argument that Tesla is making money because their money-raising depends on it.”

Rawlinson said Lucid has attracted investments from the Rockefeller family’s Venrock venture capital arm and Japan’s Mitsui Group conglomerate. One trend is particularly bright for EVs, he said: falling battery costs.

“The reality is battery prices are going to fall dramatically,” Rawlinson said. “You don’t need a ‘Gigafactory’ — the last thing we need is the financial burden of a ‘Gigafactory,’ ” referring to Tesla’s Nevada lithium ion battery plant. “We can rely on the supply base to carry that investment weight. The world is going to swing electric in the next decade as the price for batteries falls.”

Rawlinson said his team has worked with supplier Samsung on a new type of cell chemistry to improve battery degradation from fast charging.

Breaking the rules

Investment analysts like Wahlman are encouraged that Lucid is focused on just being a carmaker without the added infrastructure of a battery factory and charging stations that Tesla has taken on.

“They are not going to integrate as vertically as Tesla,” he said. “That will help them, but you have more established automakers like VW and BMW that are even less vertically integrated. And battery costs are going to come down for them as well — so that doesn’t give Lucid or Tesla an advantage. Samsung will sell any automaker the same (battery) from GM to VW to Hyundai.”

Startups, however, are in vogue. Barring a serious economic downturn, Wahlman and Schuster predict Lucid will reach its $240 million capital goal. “Like Tesla, they are the anti-car company. That has given them some cachet,” said Schuster, who added that Tesla and Lucid are specialty brands that will be swallowed up by larger automakers.

For now, Rawlinson said he is focused on producing a vehicle like no one has seen before.

 “If The Model S hadn’t been an outstanding car, Tesla wouldn’t be the company it is today,” he said. “From that platform, all those possibilities can grow. We must not screw up Lucid Air.”

To that end, Rawlinson lured one of the industry’s acclaimed designers, Derek Jenkins, to pen the Air. An ex-Mazda designer, Jenkins’ achievements include the widely admired MX-5 Miata sports car and CX-9 SUV.

Like Rawlinson, Jenkins found Lucid a liberation from the gas-engine box.

“The transition from the gas engine to electric car is the closing of one book and the opening of another,” Jenkins said in New York. “I can break rules that I couldn’t have done anywhere else.”

Payne: Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid is Uber-riffic

Posted by hpayne on May 1, 2017

iconiq_fr

‘How come Toyota makes such weird-looking cars?” a New York Auto Show visitor mumbled to me this month as we passed by the Prius display. Well, my friend, Hyundai has a hybrid for you.

I like the new Prius. From its goofy Pokeman face to its multiple-screen interior to its huge vertical taillights that were stolen off a ’59 Caddy Eldorado Seville, Toyota’s battery-powered icon is different. It’s a rolling billboard screaming “I saved the polar bear!” But it is polarizing, no doubt.

The 2017 Hyundai Ioniq is the anti-Prius.

Handsomely designed, the Ioniq fits at the Hyundai family table with its hexagonal grille, conventional dash screens and horizontal taillights. Sure, it also conforms to green convention with its slippery, 0.24 drag coefficient “potato” shape (as Car and Driver’s Aaron Robinson aptly describes it), split rear window and tiny, doughnut tires. It wants to be invited to all the Earth Day parties, after all. But like the Chevy Volt, the Ioniq’s aim is to widen its buyer demographic with a mainstream design.

By Jove, it just might work.

Timing is everything in the auto business and we are riding a ride-sharing revolution with well over 300,000 Uber drivers in the U.S. Hyundai unveiled the Ioniq last year at the New York Auto Show in stereotypically green fashion. Gazillionaire environmentalist David de Rothschild, heir to the Rothschild banking fortune, took a moment from globe-hopping to give a sermon declaring Ioniq “the right choice for the environment” to a crowd of rolling eyeballs.

Hyundai executives followed up this performance by conceding to reporters that the Ioniq would help the company comply with government green mandates (Ioniq will also come in pricier plug-in and pure EV versions) while selling Americans the Tucson SUVs they really want.

“We have to create demand where it doesn’t exist,” said then-North America CEO David Zuchowski.

But as it turns out, creating demand may not be so hard after all. Ride-share services crave hybrids.

Prius has proven the point. It is the most registered car in London, for example, for ride-sharing services, and it is ubiquitous in U.S. Uber/Lyft fleets, too. I hail Uber often and frequently end up in the roomy back seat of a Prius. The reasons are obvious enough: Ride-sharing drivers can put as much as 50,000 miles a year on their vehicles which means they prioritize fuel economy, seat and trunk space. It’s a cab, y’know.

Interestingly, it’s not a market that favors pure electrics. On recent rides in Los Angeles, I asked Prius Uber pilots why so few of their brethren drove EVs. Two big reasons: 1) the sticker price for EVs is generally $10,000 north of $25,000 hybrids. And, more importantly 2) EVs and plug-ins assume home garages for overnight charging. Many Uber drivers are apartment dwellers.

Even for those with garages, the plug can be a hindrance if the juice runs out on the road. A $40,000 Chevy Bolt EV, for example, will add 90 miles worth of charging distance in 30 minutes at a fast-charging station. In just five minutes, a Prius is filled with gas for another 600 miles.

So, hybrids it is. And Ioniq is poised to take advantage.

While Prius styling has helped it dominate the green market (more than 50 percent market share), most Uber drivers are in business for the greenbacks.

Where the Ioniq may have a hard time conquering tree-huggers, it should be embraced by ride-share jockeys who learn it has better interior space and gas mileage than Prius. And a cheaper sticker.

I played passenger while my long-suffering wife played Uber driver.

She drove me home from Detroit Metro after a recent trip, my suitcase and briefcase stashed comfortably in the 26-cubic-feet trunk. Your giraffe-necked, knob-kneed correspondent fit nicely in the rear seat (there are two more inches of leg space than the Prius).

Mrs. Payne, a compact car fan, declared herself satisfied with the well-rounded Ioniq except for rear-visibility issues.

After my week behind the wheel, I concur. Rear visibility is generous only of you compare it to a cave-like Camaro. The fashionable split-window and huge c-pillar make it seem like you’re peering out from inside a wedge of Swiss cheese. But otherwise the driving experience is pleasant. The interior is tomb-quiet, the Elantra-based chassis solid.

Despite just 104 gerbils — er, horses (11 more than Prius) — under the hood, the 1.56-kilowatt battery-assist makes for typically peppy hybrid acceleration.

Peppy enough to launch me into 90-degree right-handers at a pretty good clip — at which point the Ioniq’s eco-friendly rubber doughnuts hit the limit and the Ioniq dissolves into a sobbing heap of tire screams. Hey, if you want handling, get a Golf hatchback. Fuel efficiency? Get an Ioniq.

I got 47.9 mpg for the week, a far cry from the advertised 55 mpg. Still, with a range of 654 miles, the only thing I needed a service station for was a newspaper.

The cabin design is so driver-friendly, Ikea could adopt it for lounge furniture. Everything is where it should be: lidded bin, storage cup for wallet or phone, two cup holders, vertical slot for files or laptop. In a neat trick of packaging the Ioniq does away with the 12-volt starter battery. And then there’s Hyundai’s Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity advantage over Toyota — though, judging from Uber forums’ chatter, it’s not yet compatible with the Uber app.

Still, a ride-share winner the Ioniq is. The same qualities will endear it to greens. My wife’s pal Laurie is a longtime Prius owner and the Ioniq fit her like a glove. She liked the styling, increased room and the fuel economy — but balked at the deep well of trunk (compared to Prius) which means awkward lifts of heavy objects over the bumper.

The Ioniq’s $1,275 lower sticker price got her attention. Loaded Prius leases have been creeping into the low $400s-a-month leaving room to steal some customers with savvy pricing. Hyundai also offers a lifetime battery warranty and best-in-auto 10-year/100,000 mile drivetrain coverage.

Once dependent on government credits to sell, affordability and practicality are hybrids’ new secret sauce for owners and Ubers alike.

Toyota has the icon. Hyundai the Ioniq. The hybrid that doesn’t look weird. Game on.

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

2017 Hyundai Ioiq Hybrid

VEHICLE TYPE FRONT-ENGINE, FRONT-

WHEEL DRIVE, HYBRID HATCHBACK

Powerplant 1.6-liter inline 4-cylinder with lithium-ion battery assist
Transmission Six-speed, dual-clutch automatic
Weight 3,172 pounds as tested
Price $23, 035 ($25,910 SEL

as tested)

Power 138 horsepower (combined 104-horsepower gas engine and 32-kW electric motor)
Performance 0-60 mph, 10.5 seconds

(Car and Driver)

Fuel economy EPA 55 mpg city/54 highway/

55 combined

Report card

HIGHS EXCELLENT INTERIOR ACCOMMODATIONS;

55 MPG, ’NUFF SAID

Lows Poor rear visibility;

high mpg, low thrills

Overall:★★★★

The stick shift is dead, long live the stick shift

Posted by hpayne on April 26, 2017

CivicSi_stick

New York — The news of a five-door Porsche Panamera Sport Turismo rocked the New York Auto Show last week. A Porsche station wagon? Hell must have frozen over.

But the indignation from performance purists was tempered by the fact the German sports car manufacturer was bringing back an old friend: the manual gearbox in its Porsche 911 GT3 track animal.

Porsche isn’t the only automaker making manual news as the stick defies its long-predicted demise. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the death of the stick shift has been greatly exaggerated. In the last year Ford, Honda and Hyundai all have touted their manual options as automakers vie for an important niche buyer: the enthusiast.

News that the 911 GT3 was stiffing the stick back in 2014 seemed the nail in the coffin for a transmission option viewed by many as an anachronism in the 21st century. Stick take-rates peaked at 25 percent for cars in 1987, according to EPA figures, and have plummeted to between 3 percent and 7 percent over the last decade. In 2016 just 3.8 percent of sales were manual, according to Edmunds.com.

Once a rite of passage for 16-year-olds to master, the stick shift used to boast better fuel economy and better acceleration than its automatic counterpart. But with the advance of modern, multi-ratio automatic gearboxes, the stick’s advantages have melted away. Automatics do everything better, it seemed.

Except, automakers are learning, stoke passion.

Porsche’s state-of-the-art, dual-clutch, seven-speed PDK automatic transmission vaulted the 2014 GT3 to performance heights unseen by its manuals. Lightning-quick, 100-millisecond shifts, head-snapping launch control, and 3-second zero-60 acceleration — more than a half-second quicker than the previous generation’s stick. But purists complained that the technology was removing the fun factor from the legendary driver’s car.

“Though a lot of our customers want the performance advantage of the PDK, there are still some who want the engagement of the manual over the lap time,” says Porsche Product Experience Manager Frank Wiesmann.

So the 2018 GT3 will offer a six-speed manual for 2018 as well as its automatic PDK. The decision was encouraged by Porsche’s positive response to the recent Porsche Cayman GT4 and Boxster Spyder performance models — both of which come exclusively with sticks.

Honda showed off a whole lineup of manual Civics in New York — including its top-trim, 305-horsepower Type R hot hatch that comes with stick only. The entry-level, $21,300 Civic Sport will come with a manual option, as will the 205-horsepower Civic Si. All three Civics are performance-minded, with the Sport manual a gateway drug to nascent enthusiasts who want to take their Honda to the track and to work.

“A manual transmission in a performance vehicle contributes to the credibility of the product. It’s how you know a Type R, for example, is a hot hatch,” says IHS Automotive senior analyst Stephanie Brinley.

She adds that the move to manuals is also part of a healthy sales market where “automakers are trying to find ways to be more competitive.” Edmunds.com says the percentage of vehicles offered with manuals has climbed from 19 percent in 2012 to over 27 percent today.

As consumers move to SUVs, Ford is trying to keep its small cars competitive by offering performance variants of its hatchbacks — so-called “hot hatch” Focus ST, Fiesta ST and Focus RS models. Sales for the trio — which come in manual only — were up over 21 percent last year.

“Performance cars are the exception to the rule on the sale shift out of cars and into SUVs,” says Ford spokesman Chris Terry. “They are bought by people who want to drive, who want to get the most performance enjoyment out of their vehicles. These are anti-SUV people.”

Eager to make its mark in the enthusiast world, Korean-automaker Hyundai last year introduced the 2017 Elantra Sport featuring a 201-horsepower turbo engine, sophisticated dual-clutch automatic transmission — and a stick. Hyundai showed off the manual version to media at an autocross course in Indiana.

The Sport’s stick has been a success, with a consumer take rate of 25 percent. Hyundai’s three-door “hot hatch” Veloster Turbo has achieved similar success since its launch as a 2012 model.

“Manual transmissions have become a tool to attract enthusiasts rather than price-point or fuel economy,” says Mike Evanoff, chief of Hyundai product planning. “The manual take on the base, non-turbo configuration is much lower.”

That conforms with Ford’s experience, which says the take rate for base price, non-performance versions of its Focus and Fiestas is a lowly 5-6 percent.

In courting performance customers with manuals, Ford says they are bringing in a younger, more affluent, more educated buyer who also tend to be evangelists for the brands they adopt.

 

$34K Mazda CX-5 vs. $54K Volvo XC60: the Mazda wins

Posted by hpayne on April 20, 2017

636282354876062932-Mazda-vs-Volvo.jpg

Welcome, dear reader, to another edition of “What’s it Worth to Ya?” It’s a little game I like to play comparing the ever-shrinking gap between luxury and mainstream brands.

We’ve played this game before with the Audi A4 and Ford Fusion. The latter’s roomier, more powerful, more affordable design really makes one think twice about paying a $15,000 premium for a four-ring grille.

C’mon, Payne, no one will ever cross-shop such cars.

Stay with me and you may reconsider.

Affordable electronics like heated seats and head-up displays are as easy to replicate in Mazdas as in Cadillacs. Meanwhile, five-door SUVs may be sweeping the planet for their practicality, but the resulting box-on-stilts restricts the tools available to designers to distinguish one brand from another. SUVs have turned dealer lots into the automotive equivalent of tract housing. How do you make your house stand out?

Take our compact-ute testers this week: the all-new, $34,000 2017 Mazda CX-5 and the $54,000 2017 Volvo XC60.

I won’t beat around the bush. The Mazda is the superior vehicle.

The XC60’s 2018 successor — introduced at last week’s New York Auto Show and due on dealer lots later this year — will finally get a platform upgrade after eight years on the U.S. market. It comes none too soon when you consider how the $20,000 cheaper Mazda has caught up — and often surpasses — the Volvo in metric after metric.

This is not to shame the Volvo, which is a lovely sculpture chiseled out of Scandinavian beech wood. Few luxury makes can hold a candle to the CX-5 in handling and design, not to mention value. Like its big brother, the CX-9 — the best-looking large SUV on planet Earth — the CX-5 is the prettiest, most athletic small ute this side of the seductive BMW X1. Dip it in Soul Red Chrystal paint and it’s more tempting than Elizabeth Hurley playing the devil in “Bedazzled.”

You feel the Mazda difference the moment you seize the steering wheel: It feels rooted to the pavement. It’s a sensation more often associated with a performance sedan. Not that the outgoing CX-5, which debuted in 2012, was a dog. Like Porsche’s SUVs and Panamera sedan, Mazda’s entire lineup is inspired by a sports car – in this case, the Miata. It’s a little like Mowgli being raised by wolves: He’s got their instincts. The CX-5’s father is Dave Coleman, a motorhead veteran of rally and sports car racing who also happens to be Mazda North America’s chief engineer.

Throw the CX-5 into an interstate cloverleaf and its Haldex-like AWD system bites like a Rottweiler on a postman’s leg. There’s push, sure — this is a front-wheel-drive biased chassis. But the finely tuned suspension (MacPherson strut up front, independent multi-link in rear) rotates with minimal body roll, tires protesting only at their limit. This little SUV thinks it’s a Miata.

The Mazda is not only the best-handling mainstream compact crossover, but it’s superior to everything short of high-performance crossovers like the Macan and Jaguar F-Pace. You’ll have to go a size smaller — subcompact utes like the BMW X1 or Audi Q3 — to find comparable handling. Yet even those vehicles are $10,000 north of the CX-5’s modest price tag.

The Volvo XC60, meanwhile, rolls leisurely through turns. Its steering chatters rather nervously as you approach the limit, then dissolves into a wail of tire screams as it senses the envelope’s edge.

Volvos have always been safety leaders and the XC60 is a Secret Service agent on wheels, always ready to protect with its state-of-the-art City Safety automatic braking. But the Mazda is hardly a potted plant: Using similar radar and camera tech, it is ready to intervene in perilous situations. The emergency-assist system isn’t standard like the Volvo’s, but the optioned Mazda still costs considerably less.

Volvo understands its brand is synonymous with safety and goes the extra mile. It boasts integrated child booster seats in the rear. Dogs are members of the family, too, and can be housed in a cage that has been crash-tested for safety.

But is the difference worth $20,000?

Perhaps Mazda’s most shocking accomplishment is in the beauty department. Design is what’s supposed to separate luxury from mainstream. The once-boxy Volvo has come into its own in recent years with sculpted lines and sultry grilles. Next year the new XC60 will get the cool Thor’s-hammer headlamps seen on the XC90.

But it’s the Mazda that has the luxury looks. Avoiding the grille clutter that defines many mainstream brands (I’m looking at you, Honda CR-V and Chevy Equinox), the CX-5’s face is a work of art. The headlights pierce the five-point grille like arrows; the LED work is evocative of Audi’s designer peepers. The body sweeps backward over high wheel-arches and deeply scalloped rocker panels — under blacked-out B and C pillars — to a chrome-punctuated fastback.

And did I mention it’s wearing a Soul Red Chrystal dress?

Inside, the Mazda is as whisper-quiet as the Scandinavian, but can’t match the Volvo’s carved-wood console. The CX-5’s design is more businesslike (think Audi) with attention to detail and material.

The XC60 and CX-5 both have meek infotainment systems that neglect Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. These oversights that are common among luxury brands. Despite these blind spots, the Mazda still one-ups its more expensive opponent with heated rear seats and a head-up display.

My favorite detail is the Mazda’s rear doors: They open to 80 degrees for easy rear egress. That solves a common ute challenge.

I have left the powertrains for last, because that is where the Volvo’s 300-horse, super- and turbocharged inline-4 clearly separates itself from the Mazda’s normally aspirated, four-cylinder 187-horse unit. But in practice, the CX-5 — though much buzzier under the cane — is a joy thanks to “G-vectoring control,” which cleverly manages engine-torque inputs for smoother acceleration and steering inputs.

Mazda execs call their strategy “moving to premium,” and it has all but eliminated the gap with more expensive SUVs. The high-tech Ford Escape and nimble Honda CR-V also play in the luxury league for thousands less. The pressure is on Volvo & Co. to justify their worth.

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

2017 Volvo XC60

VEHICLE TYPE FRONT-ENGINE, FRONT- AND

ALL-WHEEL DRIVE, FIVE-PASSENGER SUV

Power plant 2.0-liter, turbo- and supercharged

inline 4-cylinder

Transmission Six-speed manual or automatic
Weight 2,875 pounds; 3,046 pounds

(with manual transmission)

Price $41,945 ($53,555 Inscription

as tested)

Power 302 horsepower,

295 pound-feet of torque

Performance 0-60 mph, 6.4 seconds

(Car and Driver)

Fuel economy EPA 20 city/27 highway/

22 combined

Report card

HIGHS VAULT OF SAFETY SYSTEMS;

SCANDINAVIAN WOOD ACCENTS

Lows Dull to drive; aging chassis has us

longing for update

Overall:★★★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★

2017 Mazda CX-5

VEHICLE TYPE FRONT-ENGINE, FRONT- AND

ALL-WHEEL DRIVE, FIVE-PASSENGER SUV

Power plant 2.5-liter, inline 4-cylinder
Transmission Six-speed automatic
Weight 2,875 pounds; 3,046 pounds

(with manual transmission)

Price $24,985 ($34,060 Grand Touring

as tested)

Power 187 horsepower, 185 pound-feet

of torque (2.0-liter)

Performance 0-60 mph, 7.6 seconds

(Car and Driver est.)

Fuel economy EPA 23 city/29 highway/

26 combined (AWD)

Report card

HIGHS AN SUV THAT HANDLES;

PREMIUM FEATURES

Lows Tardy off the line; Apple CarPlay

and Android Auto, please?

Overall:★★★★

NY Auto Show: Payne’s top picks

Posted by hpayne on April 15, 2017

Dodge_Demon2

The New York Auto Show is North America’s most-attended: More than a million New Yorkers are expected to rush the Javits Convention Center’s gates from now through April 23.

They won’t be disappointed. This year’s show is a new-car feast with a menu longer than Carnegie Deli.

These are my favorites.

Dodge Challenger SRT Demon

This will be remembered as the Demon’s show. The smoke from its huge tires obscured every other reveal. The 840-horse dragster is for the enthusiast who finds the Hellcat’s 707 ponies wanting. It’s also savvy marketing for an aging brand that can’t compete against the new, more nimble chassis of its Camaro and Mustang competitors. So the porky 4,223-pound Demon obliterates them in a straight line, racking up 9.65-second quarter-mile and 2.3-second 0-60 times that are unheard of in a production car. How fast is 2.3 seconds? The 1,380-horsepower, 3,075-pound Koenigsegg Agera RS1 supercar across the hall from the Demon huffs and puffs to 60 mph in 2.8 seconds.

Buick Regal Fastback and TourX

 The Regal’s introduction came a week ago in Detroit to clear the way for the Enclave SUV’s reveal in New York. Utes are where the money is and the Enclave is another lightweight winner from GM’s engineers. But the sleek Regal is still the more interesting vehicle: The Tesla Model S-like hatchback model and stunning TourX wagon variant are relevant in a SUV-crazed world.
 Honda Civic Type R
 This is what we’ve been waiting for since the Audi A3-baselined Civic debuted in 2015: That stiffened chassis was built for a VW Golf R-fighter, and the Type R is just that. With more headlight mascara than Kim Kardashian and a whale-tail that will make Subaru’s WRX STI jealous, the only question is whether the R’s front-wheel drive can manage the 2-liter turbo’s 305 horsepower. Is the Type R’s $40,000 too pricey? Try its terrific, 180-horse Sport cousin for just $22,000.

Lincoln Navigator

 “This thing is huuuuge!” Subaru exec Tom Doll crowed in introducing the biggest Subaru ever — the three-row Ascent. Such is the market demand for big SUVs that even Subaru has one now. But you ain’t seen huuuuge until you’ve saddled up a Navigator: Built on the same frame as the ginormous Ford F-150 pickup, this behemoth dwarfs the Ascent. The Navigator has the biggest head-up-display and moon-roof in autodom, a 10-speed tranny and more seats that Radio City Music Hall (well, almost).

Lucid Air

 Silicon Valley startup Lucid pinched Tesla chief engineer Peter Rawlinson and Mazda designer Derek Jenkins to out-Tesla the Tesla. The result is the stunning Lucid Air electric sedan that is bigger and more beautiful than Elon Musk’s pioneering Model S. Jenkins really explores the envelope of a battery platform without a gas engine under the hood. The result is a cavernous interior draped with a tinted moon roof that changes tint when exposed to the sun. It’s billed as being capable of 217 mph.

Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk

 Sharing the same 707-horsepower, supercharged V-8 as the Dodge Challenger and Charger Hellcats, the Trackhawk seats five in comfort while assaulting the quarter-mile at 116 mph. The Jeep’s performance numbers measure up to the $100,000 Porsche Cayenne Turbo and BMW M X5, but without the sticker shock. Like the Corvette, the Trackhawk is the affordable supercar — er, superute.

Porsche 911 GT3

 This is the purist’s 911. The new-generation 911 has gone to automatic tranny-driven turbo power for more grunt and better fuel economy. The track-oriented GT3 is the outlier. With a six-speed stick and normally aspirated 500-horse, 4-liter flat-6, the GT3 promises the full Porsche visceral thrill.

Jaguar F-Type, 4-cylinder

The F-Type is designer Ian Callum’s Mona Lisa. So this mid-cycle refresh gets minimal tweaks — you’ll know it by the single outer air intakes on the front fascia rather than the old three-slot “shark gills.” The real story here is the first four-banger under the hood of an F-Type. The four not only helps the big cat meet emissions mandates, but it also drops its entry price below $60,000 so it can compete against Porsche’s full lineup of Caymans, Boxsters and 911s. But will four cylinders make a suitable Jaguar growl?

Lucid Air and Jaguar I-Pace take on Tesla

Posted by hpayne on April 15, 2017

lucidair1

New York — The Tesla Model S sedan and Model X SUV have pioneered the luxury electric-vehicle segment. But now they have company on both fronts.

The Lucid Air, a Model S-fighter, debuted at the New York Auto Show this week, just five months after the curtain rose on the Model X-fighting Jaguar I-Pace at the Los Angeles Auto Show. Beautifully styled by two of the industry’s leading designers to take on Tesla, the new models — one from a startup, the other from an established automaker — come from dramatically different business backgrounds.

“All credit to Tesla. They have pioneered electric vehicles, but now they know that other brands are on the march. There’s not a car brand at this show that’s not working on a (full-electric) vehicle,” said Andy Goss, Jaguar director of sales and marketing, in an interview. “BMW, Audi, Mercedes, Porsche all have product coming.”

But it’s Lucid, headquartered in Silicon Valley near Tesla, that is pushing the envelope of EV capability. With a clean sheet of paper, Lucid is coming to the auto market with the intent of redefining it with more versatile EV platforms.

“The establishment (automakers) still have the majority of their focus on maintaining their internal-combustion lines,” says Lucid design chief Derek Jenkins, who in his previous role with Mazda designed such lookers as the Miata and CX-9 sport ute. “That’s their bread and butter — it defines their segments and their brands.”

Jaguar admits as much. Its I-Pace will help the automaker meet looming government emissions rules even as it chases coveted luxury consumers.

“Compliance issues have something to do with this, especially in China and Europe,” says Goss of those nations’ increasingly strict greenhouse gas limits. Battery-electric vehicles are a massive contributors to getting your average (fuel-economy ratings) down.”

With a development team led by Chief Technology Officer Peter Rawlinson — Tesla’s former chief engineer — the gorgeous Air has the same exterior dimensions as the Model S but is larger inside. Where Tesla conformed to design standards of a long hood and tapered rear, the Lucid fully exploits the lack of gas engine for interior space. The Air’s premium model sports a full-glass moon-roof from stem to stern — hence its name.

“We can extract the full potential of the electric car. I couldn’t have done that at Tesla,” says Rawlinson. “Because the batteries are in the floor, this car has the exterior dimensions of a Mercedes E-Class and the interior dimensions of an S-Class long wheelbase.”

The Mercedes S-Class starts at $96,000. The Lucid, slated for 2020 sale, hopes to bow at just $60,000 — similar to the Model S. Lucid is in the process of raising $240 million to build its Casa Grande, Arizona, production plant.

Jaguar’s I-Pace, due next year, will likely start higher given its brand equity. Much of that value comes from the pen of legendary designer Ian Callum, father of the Jaguar F-Type, arguably the prettiest sports car in production. Yet Callum, like Lucid’s Jenkins, has turn away from the long hoods that Jaguar made famous (the signature 1960s E-Type is practically all hood) in order to take advantage of the 90 kWh battery pack stowed in the floor.

“I think we have an advantage because Jaguar has a design pioneer in Ian Callum and his existing design cues are particularly suited to electrification,” says Goss.

While similar in length to Jaguar’s popular F-Pace SUV, the I-Pace rides on its own platform and promises considerably more interior space thanks to its 4.6-inch longer wheelbase. Though nominally a crossover, Jaguar expects the I-Pace to draw both Model S and Model X customers.

Lucid’s product line more closely tracks Tesla’s model with a variety of battery options. Like Tesla, its base model with be rear-wheel drive with 240-mile range battery (kWh yet to be determined). Then battery sizes jump to 315-mile-range 100 kWh (equivalent to the current top-of-the-line Model S P100D), and a huge 130 kWh pack with 400-mile range and all-wheel drive.

“We’re the team that did it before. I’ve got the key brains behind the Tesla Model S,” says Rawlinson.

The Demon’s in the details with Dodge’s terrifying car

Posted by hpayne on April 15, 2017

demon_movie

New York – Forget muscle cars. No one does steroid-enhanced cars like Dodge.

Fiat-Chrysler’s performance brand introduced the much-anticipated sequel to its 707-horsepower, 6.2-liter, supercharged V-8 Challenger SRT Hellcat here Tuesday night ahead of the New York Auto Show: the 840-horsepower Challenger SRT Demon.

By now you know the Demon’s record-setting numbers: Fastest production car ever, zero-60: 2.3 seconds. Fastest 0-100: 5.1 seconds. Fastest quarter-mile: 9.65 seconds. But these numbers don’t tell the whole story.

What about that record 2.28-second Tesla Model S P100D zero-60 time?

According to Dodge boss Tim Kuniskis, Motor Trend’s independent test of Tesla’s super-EV included a roll-out — not an absolute standing start test. “Roll-outs aren’t a fair way to do zero-60, honestly. A real zero-60 is from a dead stop. But we included (a roll-out) anyway because we knew that question would come up,” said Kuniskis in the Big Apple. “You include roll-outs in our times and it’s 2.1 seconds.”

Remarkably, the Demon manages such feats with just rear-wheel drive versus the Tesla’s all-wheel drive

Circus-master Kuniskis

Dodge’s motorhead-in-chief is a rare bird. A drag racer himself, Kuniskis walks the talk. His words drip with scorn for the self-driving car trend, referring to its advocates as “the autonomous anonymous.” Kuniskis wants to make drivers’ cars.

“I want to walk you through a virtual run of what’s it’s like to run a Demon,” he said. “Activate your line lock. Start spinning your drag radials — get them hot and sticky. Over 200 degrees. You will literally have dripping rubber off of your tires. It’s pure car porn.” Does any other auto exec talk like this?

Demon from Hell

Dodge chose Pier 94 in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen district to introduce the Demon. Subtle.

A sequel for a sequel

Before the Dodge reveal on Pier 54, Dodge hosted an exclusive pre-screening for “The Fate of the Furious” at AMC Loews Lincoln Square Theater on Broadway. The eighth installment of the “Fast and Furious” movie franchise co-stars Vin Diesel and (natch) the Challenger Hellcat’s sequel, the Demon.

Co-stars unite

Speaking of Vin, the muscled celebrity was on hand for the Demon’s reveal, striding on stage after Kuniskis in a leather racing jacket. Diesel will tell you he prefers motorbikes, but he has a soft spot for Dodge. “I realize that I am part of a brotherhood,” he said. “The brotherhood of muscle that goes back to the Dodge Brothers.”

Skinny, not fat

That record-breaking 9.65 quarter-mile time was set on skinny, front dragster “runners” – just like the front tires you see on NHRA funny cars. The tires come in an available “Demon Crate” of drag-mod goodies, The runners store neatly in a foam insert in the trunk for transport to track. Leave the standard, 12.4-inch radials on the front and the Demon will be a bit slower — but still sub-10 seconds.

Wheelies on Woodward?

You bet. The Demon’s acceleration torque is so violent (a record 1.8 g-loads for a production car) that it will lift the front wheels in the air through first and second gears.

Banished Demon

The National Hot Rod Association certified the Demon’s production-record setting quarter-mile time and then promptly banned the Demon. How come? “The elapsed time and the speed (140 mph) on this run exceeded the limits … of our rules,” wrote the NHRA. “The car exceeds 9.99 seconds and 135 mph.”

That is, Demon should have a roll bar to legally run at those speeds.

Icebox

To pack the 2.7-liter supercharger with enough cold air to make 840 horsepower, the Demon actually diverts its air conditioning to the intercooler to chill the air by 45 degrees. “So hot. Yet so chill” as Dodge puts it.

Options

The Demon may be a stripped-down dragster (saving 200 pounds) to optimize performance, but it still comes with familiar options like power sunroof, heated leather seats, heated steering wheel.

Less familiar are for the missing front and rear passenger-seat options. You can have both for $2.

Price?

Dodge is mum for now, but chances are it won’t be much different than the $62,495 Hellcat because the Demon comes with so few amenities. If you’re one of the lucky 3,000 customers to own one, however, it should be worth every penny.

180-mph Jeep Trackhawk is a ‘Hellcat SUV’

Posted by hpayne on April 15, 2017

JP018_042GCnrkf8d9gdncqhrclmai0465lr2

New York — What would happen if Fiat-Chrysler Automobile’s iconic Detroit brands — Jeep and Hellcat — had a love child? Say hello to the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk SUV.

In a dramatic New York Auto Show unveiling before a packed house Wednesday, Jeep introduced the most powerful sport-ute ever with 707 horsepower and 645 pound-feet of torque. Perched on a four-wheel dynamometer on the Javits Convention Center stage, the blood-red, V-8 powered monster roared to life and proceeded to accelerate — in place — through the SUV’s record-setting numbers: zero-60 in 3.5 seconds; the quarter-mile in 11.6 seconds at 116 mph; then onwards to just shy of its 180 mph top speed.

The third FCA vehicle to receive its supercharged 6.2-liter Hellcat engine, the Trackhawk sports super sports-car acceleration and stopping power. With massive Brembo performance brakes, soccer moms can still bring the 5,550-pound behemoth to a stop and let the kids out for school.

“The Jeep calls out to the inner race-car driver we always wanted to be,” Jeep boss Mike Manley proclaimed.

Where the Dodge Challenger Hellcat coupe and Charger Hellcat sedan drip with menace, the Trackhawk attracts less attention. You’ll know it by the black mask surrounding the trademark seven-slot grille, twin-scoop hood heat extractors and quad-exhaust pipes out the rear.

“Our heritage and history is off-road capability, but the key word is capability,” Manley said in an interview with The Detroit News. “We have a history of producing high-performance SUVs. There’s been quite a big following within the Jeep community for extreme off-road with our Trackhawk, but also on-road capability as well. Grand Cherokee is now the most powerful and quickest SUV.”

The Trackhawk is the third evolution of the Jeep muscle-ute based on the popular Grand Cherokee, the second-bestselling midsize SUV behind the Ford Explorer. The first generation debuted in 2006 as the 420-horse Grand Cherokee SRT8 that was in production until 2011. Since 2012, Jeep has produced the $67,890 Grand Cherokee SRT. It features a 470-horsepower, 6.4-liter V-8 shared with the base Dodge Challenger SRT.

The Trackhawk, says Manley, will go above and beyond SRT with Hellcat power. That makes it an affordable competitor to SUV luxury beasts like the Porsche Cayenne Turbo and BMW M X5.

“The SRT and Trackhawk are very different,” says Manley. He ticks off the list: The Trackhawk is supercharged with much-higher horsepower. Fog lamps are removed, brakes are upgraded significantly, quad pipes added. But still packed with safety security features, and can still tow 7,200 pounds.

Jeep literature features the Trackhawk photographed at Atlanta Motorsports Park race track, where the big SUV can pull 0.88 g-loads in turns. That’s comparable to a Challenger R/T.

Despite weighing 1,000 pounds more than the Charger Hellcat, the Trackhawk boasts similar zero-60 times thanks to all-wheel drive and a so-called “Torque Reserve” launch-control feature that helps limit torque before the brake is released. It’s the same tool that launches the Challenger SRT Demon, which is sharing FCA-muscle billing at this year’s show.

The Trailhawk’s supercharged drivetrain — aluminum-alloy cylinder heads, all-wheel-drive, limited-slip differential, the works — is state-of-the-art, as are its interior and safety systems.

The award-winning, 8.4-inch Uconnect touchscreen anchors the console featuring, for the first time, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity. The standard black “Trackhawk” logo-embossed Nappa leather and suede seats are heated in the front and rear. Dark Ruby Red seats and seat belts, and a dual-pane panoramic sunroof are available options.

The Trackhawk features “Trailer Hitch Camera View at Speed” so passengers can keep an eye on the speedboat through the rear-mounted camera while moving. Other safety systems include adaptive cruise control, blind-spot assist and lane-departure warning.

Are there more Trackhawks in Jeep’s future?

“For now it’s a Grand Cherokee thing,” said Manley. “There’s opportunities with some of the others, but no plans at the moment. Grand Cherokee has a halo-effect for the brand.”

The Trackhawk joins a Jeep lineup — Cherokee, Compass, Grand Cherokee, Renegade and Wrangler — that sold a record 1.4 million vehicles globally in 2016. The Trackhawk will be built in Detroit at the Jefferson North Assembly Plant and arrive in showrooms in the fourth quarter of 2017.

Auto industry: Trump will mend, not end, mpg mandate

Posted by hpayne on April 15, 2017

New York – The Trump administration may have been elected to drain the Washington swamp, but it will not drain federal fuel economy laws.

That was the consensus of a panel of auto industry representatives convened before the New York Auto Show on Tuesday to discuss regulations.

“The talk of a rollback is fallacious,” said Mitch Bainwol, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, in reference to the Environmental Protection Agency’s goal that all vehicles average 54.5 miles per gallon. “The pressures to meet fuel economy goals are global. The question is whether the slope is consistent with consumer demand.”

Candidate Donald Trump campaigned on scaling back the Obama administration’s global warming regulations. He called them a threat to job growth. He has wasted no time following through on his promise since entering office and fueled expectations that he might throw out the ambitious goal altogether by calling into question the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gasses under the Clean Air Act.

But Bainwol agreed with Global Automakers trade group President John Bozzella and National Association of Auto Dealers President Peter Welch that – campaign rhetoric aside – the Trump administration would more resemble the George W. Bush administration in its approach to fuel economy laws in trying to broker agreements between industry and environmental players.

 “The administration has signaled that they are going to broker a process to bring… affected parties together to try and negotiate something,” said Bainwol, who talks regularly with EPA administrator Scott Pruitt and other officials.

The Obama EPA’s decision to abrogate the so-called unilaterally “mid-term review” at the end of President Obama’s term enraged automakers. Agreed upon by the agency and automakers in 2009 as part of the auto bailout, the midterm review required that market data be reviewed in 2018 to determine whether the 54.5-by-2025 was attainable.

“The government violated a promise,” Ford CEO Mark Fields said at the Detroit Auto Show in January.

The Trump administration’s rollback of the EPA’s decision was a victory for automakers. Bainwol says that while there may be voices in the administration that favor further steps to review the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gasses, the political reality is that Senate Republicans do not have 60 votes to enact a change in legislation.

As a result, the panel agreed that the Trump administration’s focus will be on crafting one set of mpg rules that automakers can meet nationwide. Once the midterm review data is in, the panel expects new rules by April of next year.

“The question is can we have one clear set of running rules and have the time to get the job done. Right now, we don’t have that,” said Bozzella. “We have three sets of rules, run by two federal agencies and the state of California. It’s a crazy patchwork.”

California, the panel agreed, will be the wild card. Granted a long-standing waiver to set its own emissions targets because its environmental rules pre-date federal laws, California has pursued an aggressive campaign to mandate that automakers not only meet 54.5-by-2025, but that 15 percent of their sales be zero-emission vehicles by that date. Currently, only 3 percent of California sales are electric vehicles – about double the national number.

“California has 43-page bible on how they are going to make the zero-emission vehicle mandate work. But when you look at the numbers, only a small percentage of Californians are buying EVs even with state incentives,” said Kelley Blue Book auto analyst Rebecca Lindland.

Panel members said their automotive clients are committed to greenhouse gas reduction. “The name of the game is the reduction of carbon,” Welch said, but it needs to conform to consumer buying habits.

Glitz meets Muscle at NYC Show Preview

Posted by hpayne on April 15, 2017

The curtain rises on the New York Auto Show this week with the usual Broadway scene-stealers: Finely tuned supercars with deep baritone pipes, gorgeous luxury sedans, land yachts as tall as skyscrapers. But like a Shakespeare play, there will be plenty of meat for the masses at the Jacob J. Javitz Convention Center including a dragstrip-ready Dodge Demon and a track-ready Jeep Grand Cherokee.

To keep customers coming to the box office, automakers are introducing new variations of popular crossovers at the show which opens to the public on Saturday.

Luxury crossovers in particular will have their day in spotlight: Shoppers from the Empire State and California buy a quarter of all luxury vehicles sold in the U.S, according to IHS Automotive. New York City alone accounts for 14 percent of national luxury sales, so Javits — like the Los Angeles Show in the fall — is an epicenter for pricey new toys.

Buick has been setting the auto world on fire in recent shows with the introduction of gorgeous car concepts like the Avenir and Avista. But it’s innovative SUVs that have redefined the brand. The wraps will be taken off the second generation of the full-sized Enclave SUV this week. A new Avenir edition should take Buick to a new level of luxury.

Buick’s successful risks in the sport-utility segment have emboldened it with sedans, too. The Regal Sportback and TourX, unveiled last week at GM headquarters to dropping jaws, will make their public debuts in New York. The slinky, five-door hatchback and wagon designs deserve billing alongside the BMW Gran Sport hatch and Volvo V90 Cross Country wagon.

Lincoln is expected to introduce the latest generation of the Navigator full-size SUV. Three New York blocks long and taller than Radio City Music Hall, the big Lincoln will be hard to miss.

Infiniti is teasing its big hunk, the QX80 sport ute concept, with a refreshed wardrobe for its plus-sized bod.

“The incredible popularity of SUVs and crossovers right now make even niche models a worthwhile risk,” says Edmunds auto analyst Ed Hellwig. “These variants create a winning scenario for automakers: They require minimal additional R&D investment, are typically very profitable and create a halo effect that has the potential to boost sales across the entire model line.”

Landing in the middle of New York’s sparkling pool of luxury will be two cannonballs from Detroit: the Dodge Challenger SRT Demon and Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk.

Dodge has been teasing weekly hints of a Hellcat successor (isn’t 707 horsepower enough?) with short videos previewing details of its new Demon. It will debut Tuesday night before the show. You’ll hear its roar from the Hudson River all the way to Detroit.

The Trackhawk, meanwhile, gets stuffed with the Hellcat’s 707-horse engine and will hit a top speed of 180. That should get the kids to soccer in time.

Javits’ first-class seats are more crowded than ever as new brands like Genesis try to carve out sales in a space defined by Mercedes and BMW. Hyundai’s luxury division rocked the show in 2016 with a “New York” concept (naturally) meant to show the design future for the fledgling brand. Genesis will debut an all-new sequel to that show-stopper this year.

Mercedes will not rest on its laurels as it unwraps a squadron of new cars: the Mercedes AMG GLC, Mercedes E-Class Cabriolet, Mercedes AMG GT, and a sedan concept

The GLC compact SUVs are particularly noteworthy on how much popular compact utes are now getting the same sport trimmings as sedans that were once the Europeans’ bread and butter. The GLC and GLC Coupe will both get the Mercedes AMG performance badge complete with insane, 4-liter biturbo V-8 engines producing up to 503 horsepower.

After a much lamented styling detour that stuck Acura with the infamous “bottle-opener grille,” Acura is re-making the brand from its Precision design concept introduced in Detroit a year ago. The TLX sedan will showcase the latest Acura design look, first seen on it MDX crossover last year

Amidst all the Broadway glitz and muscle, some smaller-size players will also get their time in the spotlight.

Honda will drop yet another variation of the all-new Civic: the Si sports coupe and sedan. The Si is a young motorhead’s wall poster come to life with a rear wing and huge front air scoops feeding a 205-horsepower turbo under the hood.

Subaru will show an all-new version of the Crosstrek crossover which has vaulted to stardom in crossover-crazed America. Basically a jacked-up Impreza wagon that debuted at last year’s New York Show, the Crosstrek is built on the same global platform and gains significant technology upgrades like smartphone apps. The Japanese maker will also show a refreshed version of its popular Outback wagon.

Other expected reveals of note:

Porsche will drop not one, but four U.S. premieres this week including the 911 GTS, 911 GT3, Panamera Sport Turismo and Panamera Turbo S E-Hybrid. Jaguar’s F-Type, too, will purr into town with a minor tweaks to designer Ian Callum’s coupe masterpiece.

Toyota will reveal its FT-4X urban utility concept. Hyundai and Volkswagen will stick to basics with a refreshed versions of their Sonata and Golf cars.

The Mercedes E-class cabriolet will get four-wheel drive for the first time – in addition to the expected headrest heaters.

Payne: Mazda 3 is a charm

Posted by hpayne on April 10, 2017

Though a front-wheel driver, the hatchback Mazda 3's

When I turned off my Mazda 3 tester at 10 p.m., the last thing to fade into darkness was the tachometer.

That was fitting, because I had been rowing the terrific 3’s gearbox all day.

Finding fun driving opportunities in the middle of winter isn’t easy. The weather doesn’t cooperate. The Mazda arrived in my driveway the morning of an ice storm. Walking across the asphalt to the 3 was more treacherous than Washington’s crossing of the Delaware. But even in such conditions, the 3 begs to be driven aggressively.

Start with design. Like all Mazdas these days, the compact hatch is gorgeous. Since its jack-o’-lantern crisis (designed by a kid with a crayon and carving knife as I recall) of the mid-2000s, Mazda visited a proper stylist and cleaned up its act.

My hot-hatch preference is for the Volkswagen GTI (for reasons to be detailed later), but there is no better-looking compact car out there than the 3 — even when painted gray to match the weather. It has a shark nose, flowing lines, slit headlights. The 3 is a front-wheel driver with the expected long front overhang — yet with its long hood, the Mazda hatch sits back on its haunches like a rear-wheel-drive BMW Z4 coupe.

Mazda calls its design philosophy “Kodo” — which translates to “soul of motion.” That is, Mazda’s designers look at their cars as living creatures. They have soul, all right. Even on the biggest car Mazda makes, the CX-9 crossover (a finalist for 2017 North American Utility of the Year), the design stands out.

For 2017 the 3 has been lightly tweaked with Kodo-rific exterior detail and a quieter interior. The Mazda brand is all about the joy of driving. Zoom-zoom-zoom go the ads. Where other brands add a sporty car as a brand halo, Mazda starts with its MX-5 Miata and grows from there. Every vehicle shares the MX-5’s drivable DNA. As my colleague Ron Sessions likes to say when we do Mazda test drives: “I don’t think we’ll be talking autonomous much today.”

Yet, Mazda is also building a reputation for rich content — part of its philosophy that cars should make the time we spend with them enjoyable.

I approach my 3 with key in pocket and depress a small, door-handle button to unlock the doors. That’s a slick detail for an entry-level vehicle.

Inside, the Japanese car speaks with a German accent: It has a tight, predictable stick shift with short throws. Closely placed pedals for double-clutch downshifts. Tablet infotainment display controlled by remote rotary dial (happily, for this touchscreen fan, it can also be controlled by fingertip when the car is stationary). Gauges accented by chrome like Porsche-Audi premium models.

It’s the little, fussy details that impress: Head-up display. Push-button start. Dual-climate control. Auto-adjust high beams. The sticker price says $28,450, but these are touches you expect (and often don’t find) on luxury mules costing twice as much.

The high-beams are particularly useful this wintry day because my schedule will take me through the pocked, wet streets of Detroit well after dark.

Over Motown’s dreadful roads, I probably should have brought a right-seat rally navigator. Google Maps would have to do. Driving I-94 to the Grosse Pointe War Memorial is a stage on the Dakar Rally. But the predictable, balanced 3 makes every rut and slick patch manageable.

It’s a landscape that needs maximum lighting, so I flick on the high beams — and leave them there. With the auto high beam feature, they smartly read oncoming traffic and turn off when another car comes into view. That’s one less thing for me to worry about as I negotiate streets that are rougher than Normandy Beach.

I turn off the traction control for maximum fun, and here I pine for my favorite GTI for the first time.

The 3 may shout zoom-zoom, but it lacks limited slip-limited slip. The limited-slip differential, like the one on the GTI equipped with its performance package, is a clever bit of engineering that distributes torque to help maintain grip under hard acceleration. It is particularly useful in front-wheel drivers, especially when the roads are 40 degrees and slick as David Beckham’s hair. For the same price as the 3, the GTI will deliver its performance package — limited-slip differential and all. So will the Honda Civic Si for that matter. If you plan on having fun (and isn’t that why you buy Mazda?) the lack of this feature will be missed.

Until 2013, Mazda made a direct GTI competitor called the Mazdaspeed 3 properly equipped with the feature. Bring it back, pretty please?

Happily, the 3 does come equipped with an independent rear suspension like the VW, Honda and Ford Focus. Which is a good thing when you are humming along at 60 mph and hit an unexpected Detroit road defect. On a solid rear-axle Hyundai Elantra or Chevy Cruze this might send your head through the roof. The Mazda just shrugs.

The 3’s sculpted rear-hatch looks cool but would appear to offer less headroom for rear passengers than the squared-off — if less pretty — Golf. But inside, the 3 was surprisingly roomy for your freakishly tall reviewer. Even with moon roof, I could sit up straight in the 3’s rear seat.

Need cargo room? The rear seatbacks neatly flop flat with a pull of a latch at the seats’ top.

Fortunately, I wasn’t carrying delicate cargo this night as my briefcase slapped back and forth across the rear hatch like a pinball. Rowing the box with abandon to 6-grand, the front tires howling under too much torque, I kept the revs up for maximum response.

Mazda has thus far resisted the industry stampede to turbo engines, opting instead for a less-torquey, 2.5-liter four-banger.

I emerged from the Mazda 3 at the end of the evening refreshed. It’s a high I always feel after driving a fine hatch — but for all I know it might have been enhanced by something Mazda calls “G-vectoring control,” a subtle, computer-assisted coordination of engine inputs and steering to make for smoother cornering.

It’s this obsessive, Jeeves-like care for driver comfort that rewards Mazda customers. From Kodo to G-vectoring to seats that hold you like a mother’s arms, the Mazda is about enjoying every minute of driving time.

Even on roads fit for the Dakar.

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

2017 Mazda 3

VEHICLE TYPE FRONT-ENGINE, FRONT-WHEEL DRIVE, FIVE-PASSENGER

HATCHBACK

Power plant 2.0-liter, inline 4-cylinder; 2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder
Transmission Six-speed manual or automatic
Weight 2,875 pounds; 3,046 pounds (with manual transmission)
Price $19,970 ($28,450 as tested)
Power 155 horsepower, 150 pound-feet of torque (2.0-liter);

184 horsepower, 185 pound-feet of torque (2.5-liter)

Performance 0-60 mph, 7.4 seconds (2.5-liter, Car and Driver)
Fuel economy EPA 27 city/37 highway/31 combined (2.0-liter manual)

EPA 25 city/33 highway/28 combined (2.5-liter manual)

Report card

HIGHS SCULPTED STYLING; UPSCALE FEATURES
Lows No limited-slip differential; bring back Mazdaspeed 3

Overall:★★★★

Buick unveils its new Regal

Posted by hpayne on April 10, 2017

2018_Buick_Regal_DISPLAY

Buick unveiled an all-new Buick Regal on Tuesday as the once-sleepy brand continued its surge back to relevance in the U.S. premium market.

Based on the stunning Opel Insignia that debuted at the Geneva Auto Show in March, the 2018 Regal Sportback sedan boasts an innovative, roomy, Tesla Model S-like hatchback.

For customers who want even more rear utility, the Regal will also be available in five-door wagon trim just like its European counterpart. Called the Regal TourX, the five-door, crossover-inspired, all-wheel drive variant will go head-to-head with the fashionable Volvo Cross Country or Audi’s Allroad. It will ride about an inch higher than the Sportback and features more rugged fender cladding.

Though Buick isn’t releasing pricing yet, it will likely be thousands of dollars less than those European competitors. Both the Sportback and TourX will be available in the fourth quarter of this year.

“These are expressive cars like the Audi and Volvo and BMW 4-series coupe, but the pricing will be a real advantage for us,” said Buick Marketing Manager Doug Osterhoff. “With the TourX you get the five-door aspect with the sporty handling, but don’t have the trade-off of having to spend thousands of dollars more.”

 Buick has gotten its mojo back by presciently reading U.S. demand for crossovers. With a full SUV lineup — including the wildly popular, segment-first subcompact Encore — Buick is on a roll. In an industry with flat sales last month, Buick surged 15.1 percent over last year. Its three crossovers and three sedans are the most modern lineup in the industry, all having come to market in the last 21 months.
2018 Buick Regal TourX
The midsize Regal will serve double-duty for the brand: It will replace both the outgoing Regal and the Verano compact, the brand’s entry-level car that was discontinued last winter. Osterhoff says the Regal will serve a broader price band (dropping its base price to include cloth seats, for example) to help pick up Verano customers.

The reduced car lineup is also an acknowledgment that the sedan market is shrinking. Regal sales last year gained just 1.7 percent compared to the Encore’s 16.3 percent, for example. The Regal’s sister sedan, the larger Lacrosse, saw sales plummet 34.4 percent despite introducing an all-new vehicle.

But sedans remain the style leaders for car brands and the much-anticipated Regal is a head-tuner.

“You have to get noticed to stand out in the sedan market, and this car’s hallmark is its sculpted beauty,” said GM Vice President for Product Development Mark Reuss.

The Regal is the most concrete example of Buick’s new design direction inspired by the gorgeous Avenir and Avista concepts that headlined recent Detroit auto shows.

Based on GM’s new, front-wheel-drive Epsilon architecture, which undergirds the roomy Chevy Malibu, the Regal is considerably larger than the last generation with a three-inch-longer wheelbase that translates into almost that much more room in the rear seat. The Sportback also allows much more cargo versatility than the outgoing car with rear seats folding flat to allow trunk-to-front seat storage room. The sedan will come standard with front-wheel drive, with all-wheel drive available as an option as on the current Regal. Expect a high performance version to come later.

The 2018 Regal has a new, turbocharged mill under the hood, scrapping the old model’s normally aspirated, base 2.4-liter engine. A 2-liter turbo-4 will power both the Regal Sportback and TourX space and will be mated to GM’s sippy, nine-speed automatic transmission. The same engine that powers the Chevy Malibu, it will pump out considerably more muscle with 250 horsepower and 265 pound-feet of torque. That torque figure climbs to a whopping 293 pound-feet in the all-wheel-drive option for both Sportback and TourX. The latter will also feature a cavernous 73.5 cubic feet of storage.

The Regal was designed in Germany by Opel, which GM recently sold to PSA Group, owner of Peugeot and Citroen. Buick designer Bob Boniface, recently of Cadillac, said the Opel-Buick design partnership will continue to inform Buick design, with the inevitable transition stateside coming as Buick rolls pout 12 more vehicle updates by 2020.

Power outages hit home for electric car drivers

Posted by hpayne on April 3, 2017

2017-0331-ctj-bu_EVblackout109crop

Owners of battery-powered cars face challenges like battery-charging times and running out of juice on the highway. But here’s another problem that potential buyers may not have considered: What happens when the electricity goes out?

When strong winds hit Metro Detroit on March 8 and knocked out power to about 1 million DTE Energy and Consumers Energy customers at home or work, owners of electric cars scrambled to recharge their Teslas, Volts and Leafs. While it’s not as simple as topping off a cellphone at a coffee shop, most owners of electric vehicles managed.

“I had access to public charging while the power was out,” said Stanley Rivers, a plug-in Chevy Volt owner who commutes to Dearborn from Detroit. “Dearborn has good charging stations: three at the Dearborn Transit Center, one in west Dearborn and six in east Dearborn.”

With battery-powered car sales numbering some 400,000 a year in the U.S. (more than 2 percent of sales), an infrastructure is taking shape that includes public-utility and private enterprise-provided charging stations, dealerships, Tesla-installed superchargers — not to mention wall sockets at home and work.

“Our power went out, but our home generator is powered by natural gas and kicked on automatically,” said Grosse Pointe Farm’s Sean Maloney, who owns a Tesla Model S. “No issues after that.”

The Motor City might more accurately be called “The Engine City”: cars with electric motors are nowhere near as popular as in California and the Northeast. Even though the first all-electric car under $40,000 to promise more than 200 miles per charge — the Chevrolet Bolt — is assembled in Orion Township north of Detroit, Michigan dealers have not yet received Bolts. The first Bolts were delivered to dealers in California and Oregon late last year, and dealers there and in eastern states like New York, Massachusetts and Virginia take priority.

Electrics are “a California thing,” a spokesperson for one area Chevy dealer said when contacted about local interest. Other all-electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf have sold poorly here. A spokesman for Suburban Nissan in Troy says the dealership moves just one or two a year.

The most prominent EVs in Detroit are all-electric Teslas and plug-in Volts, which sport a gas engine that takes over when the battery loses charge. With an electric-only range of 35-50 miles, however, many Volt owners take pride in never visiting a gas station.

“My home in Plymouth was without power for 48 hours, but my office in Novi never lost power,” said Volt owner Nate Dort. “I charge there for free — and usually do daily — so my charging routine didn’t really change.”

Dort echoes Leaf owner Cari Meabrod Sinke of Hartland, who said she has plenty of charging options: “If I had lost power, I would have used my generator to charge — or work or hit my dealership on my way to work.”

But for Volt owners like Joe Lopez of Detroit, the plug-in’s battery/gas duality is tailor-made for blackout Armageddon: “The beauty of having a Volt is you have the gasoline backup.”

Gas-station pumps are also vulnerable to power blackouts. But the service station infrastructure is so ubiquitous that fuel providers like Barrick Enterprises reported minor inconvenience for customers.

“About 10 percent of our customers lost power for an extended period,” said founder Bob Barrick, whose company delivers fuel to some 200 gas stations in the Detroit area. “For those without, it was a tough week. I had one customer without power in Highland Park and another with power just across Woodward Avenue. He doubled his sales.”

Jeff Sturm of Taylor is looking at a home-based solar panels to deal with emergencies.

“I’d like to cover my garage with panels but have not decided if I want grid-tied or off-grid,” said Sturm. “The latter would give me enough power to charge my car on many days, but would need battery storage to be useful.”

Connie Howe of St. Clair Shores, who winters in Fort Myers, Florida, was out of town during the power outages, but was still concerned about her Tesla Model S.

“I have a Tesla plugged into the 110 wall-socket in Michigan,” she said. “I just call up my Tesla app to make sure it’s still fully charged.”

Winning poster designer will see her first Grand Prix

Posted by hpayne on April 3, 2017

Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear Official

Every great auto race is remembered for its winner — and its poster.

We won’t know the victors of IndyCar’s doubleheader at the 2017 Detroit Grand Prix until the weekend of June 4, but we do know what the poster will look like that will adorn fans’ walls for years to come.

Kaylin Mahoney, a junior at the College for Creative Studies, won the fifth annual Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix Official Poster Competition with a gorgeous watercolor featuring two open-wheel IndyCars splashing through the rain on Belle Isle with the Detroit skyline as a backdrop. Given that IndyCar —unlike NASCAR — races rain or shine, the poster is appropriate for a brutal street race that has often tested drivers’ nerves in the wet.

Mahoney took the podium from a field of five finalists culled from 19 CCS student entries. Lexi Pape and Dan Rees place second and third respectively with strong compositions.

“This is the most diverse field of entries we’ve had yet for this competition,” said Bud Denker, Grand Prix chairman and one of seven judges to award the prize at CCS Thursday. “This contest is a special part of the Detroit Grand Prix.”

Mahoney won $1,000 for her entry, which she will further tweak with Grand Prix design staff to be presented in official form on April 26. The poster image will be on sale at the race events.

“This process was a lot of fun,” said Mahoney, who specializes in CCS’s Illustration program. “It was great to see everyone’s design come to life.”

She is a veteran of the Woodward Dream Cruise — but has never been to the Detroit Grand Prix. She will attend this year —as will the other four finalists. Their work will also be on display at the Grand Prix’s June 2 charity gala.