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Payne: Toned Chevy Equinox vs. Honda CR-V champ

Posted by hpayne on March 30, 2017

The 2018 Chevy Equinox, the automaker's best-selling

Bigger isn’t always better.

That line seems heresy in an American auto market where vehicles have grown with each generation to accommodate bigger performance demands, bigger storage needs and bigger (ahem) waistlines. Ford F-150s are the size of Detroit apartments, sports cars are more muscled than John Cena, and a Mini Cooper isn’t mini at all.

“Bigger is better” is most evident in crossovers. They are station wagons on stilts that are taller, longer and thirstier than the sedans customers have abandoned.

So imagine my shock when America’s brand, Chevrolet — the maker of supersized Suburbans, tremendous Traverses, carnivorous Camaros — put its 2018 Equinox on a diet. The brand’s best-selling SUV has lost a whopping 400 pounds, four inches of length and two cylinders to bring its proportions more in line with Honda’s svelte, class best-selling CR-V. That means an all-wheel-drive Equinox improbably weighs about the same (3,540 pounds vs. 3,523) as my athletic 2001 BMW M3.

Like Nixon going to China or Apple becoming a phone maker, who better than Equinox to challenge orthodoxy? Equinox has worn the bigger-is-better uniform since 2005 and has come up short.

The solution? Another all-American aphorism: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Impressively, the Equinox diet doesn’t compromise interior space but makes it more fun to drive. That’s a designation formerly reserved for niche zoom-zoom manufacturer Mazda and its CX-5 crossover.

“We can do anything, but we can’t do everything,” GM chief engineer for crossovers Rick Spina likes to tell his troops.

But compact crossovers are the Shane Halter (the last Tiger to play all nine positions in a game) of autodom. Customers demand all-around performers that are good at everything from utilitarian shopping needs to road trips through mountain twisties. Spina and team have defied their motto: Equinox and CR-V are good at dang near everything.

In targeting the CR-V — which invented the class way back in 1996 — the Equinox took on a moving target. The CR-V, too, has undergone a complete (if more evolutionary) remake that incrementally increased length, width, height and rear legroom. Honda sells so many models from its Marysville, Ohio assembly plant that it should call it McCR-V and put a big sign out front reading “Over 4 million served” (the actual number they’ve sold to Americans).

Honda’s remarkably taut chassis is based on the same platform as the Audi A3-baselined Civic play-toy that has motorheads drooling. How serious is Honda about SUV handling? CR-V project leader Takaaki Nagadome’s first job at Honda was body engineering for the NSX supercar. It shows.

I first drove the CR-V last fall in flat Marysville farmland and was soon pining for twisty, mountain roads. I’m not saying the CR-V is a Civic hot hatch, but Car and Driver recorded similar skid-pad numbers as the once-untouchable Mazda.

Throw the Honda ute into a 90-degree right-hander and it bites. Even the CR-V’s safety system freaked at the speeds I was taking corners: the auto-brake assist flashed “BRAKE” in the instrument panel as I hurtled into one ess turn.

With its new bod, Equinox goes toe-to-toe with its Japanese rival. Chevy’s confidence was apparent as it set media testers loose on the Blue Ridge Mountains’ serpentine roads. With an aluminum-block, 1.5-liter, base turbo engine up front, the crossover doesn’t plow through corners. The Mazda may still set the standard for this class, but the Equinox turbo has better giddyup than the CX-5’s normally aspirated 2-liter. The giddyup winner of this comparison, however, is the Honda’s 1.5-liter turbo that was first introduced in the Civic.

Heat up this hot tamale over 3,000 rpm and the CR-V really sizzles. Equinox is nearly as spicy, but it’s a 170-horsepower base engine compared to the Honda’s 190-horse premium offering (a normally-aspirated, 2.5-liter is the base mill). The CR-V’s engine strategy emphasizes economy: married to an excellent continuously variable tranny, it boasts 29 mpg (3 mpg more than the Equinox) despite its higher output.

Touting bigger-is-still-better when it comes to performance, Chevy will offer a muscular 252-horse, 2-liter turbo as its prime engine later this year.

It’s worth noting that the sticker on my $38,122 loaded Equinox — with moon roof and Premiere trim — was $3,500 above the $34,635, similarly equipped top-trim Touring CR-V with the premium 1.5-turbo. How expensive will that 2-liter Equinox be?

Chevy says the price is justified by going the extra mile on technology and refinement. For example, the Equinox went shopping at the upscale GKN boutique for a twin clutch-pack system that can move drive torque front to rear. Attack a snowy hill in the dead of Michigan winter and Chevy says you’ll feel the difference.

But will buyers feel enough of a difference to deter them from the tried, true and cheaper CR-V?

Chevy goes the extra mile inside with a more-sculpted interior, more buttons and optional gee-gaws like heated rear seats and surround-vision camera. The CR-V comes away looking cheaper — especially those plasticky steering-wheel controls. But the Honda comes with typically clever ergonomics of its own including versatile center-console storage and rear doors that open nearly 90 degrees for better entry.

Elsewhere, these valedictorian students of American taste are an even match, covering every driver need: hidden rear-storage compartments; grocery-friendly, kick-open rear hatches; fold-flat rear seats.

And Chevy and Honda continue to show why they have been pioneers in smartphone-app connectivity as Android’s Google Maps embarrassed both Honda Navi and Chevy OnStar in navigation tests.

What may ultimately decide your choice between these evenly matched rivals is your design taste. Neither will challenge the pretty Mazda for the title of Miss Crossover.

The Chevy’s sleek shape may earn its best-in-class .336 drag-coefficient, but it’s determined to offend no one — the designers even managed to make the problematic split-grille a generic shape. If the Equinox were ice cream, it would be vanilla.

The CR-V is Chunky Monkey. The youthful design details are familiar — bat-wing taillights, funhouse wheels — but with more attitude. The front grille looks like a bulldog with a pronounced underbite.

Lest you think Chevy still doesn’t value plus-size cars, you’ll be pleased to know that the forthcoming midsize Traverse is XXL. But for its compact SUV, the Equinox matches the CR-V as proof you can do everything with less.

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

2018 Chevrolet Equinox

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

CROSSOVER

Power plant 1.5-liter, turbocharged, inline 4-cylinder
Transmission Six-speed automatic
Weight 3,375 pounds (FWD); 3,540 pounds (AWD)
Price $25,370 ($38,122 Premier AWD as tested)
Power 170 horsepower, 203 pound-feet of torque
Performance 0-60 mph (NA)
Fuel economy EPA 26 city/32 highway/28 combined (FWD)

EPA 24 city/30 highway/26 combined (AWD)

Report card

HIGHS LIGHT ON ITS FEET; TERRIFIC INTERIOR DETAIL
Lows Vanilla styling; Premier-trim sticker shock

Overall:★★★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★

2017 Honda CR-V

VEHICLE TYPE FRONT-ENGINE, FRONT- AND ALL-WHEEL DRIVE, FIVE-PASSENGER CROSSOVER
Power plant 1.5-liter, turbocharged, inline 4-cylinder
Transmission Continuously variable automatic
Weight 3,307 pounds (FWD); 3,508 pounds (AWD)
Price $24,945 base ($34,635 AWD Touring as tested)
Power 190 horsepower, 179 pound-feet of torque
Performance 0-60 mph, 7.6 seconds (Car and Driver)
Fuel economy EPA 28 city/34 highway/30 combined (FWD)

EPA 27 city/33 highway/30 combined (AWD)

Report card

HIGHS FUN-TO-DRIVE SUV; EASY-ACCESS REAR SEATS
Lows Bulldog front end; plasticky controls

Overall:★★★

What if GM built a Corvette SUV?

Posted by hpayne on March 27, 2017

corvetteconceptMAIN

What if Chevrolet made a Corvette SUV?

Maybe that’s not so far-fetched. Corvette is a singular car within Chevrolet, and in many ways is a performance brand unto itself. Almost every performance brand now has its own crossover; the most prominent of which is Porsche’s money-machine, the Cayenne.

If Corvette did make an SUV, what would it look like? Detroit News presentation editor Jamie Hollar drew his own concept car, shown here. And The Detroit News talked to ex-GM big wigs, auto analysts and car enthusiasts for their ideas on what the high-performance SUV should be.

Since the first Jeep sport utility appeared in 1984, the automotive landscape has been transformed by high-riding, five-door SUVs with visibility and utility to spare. Even legendary performance brands that once built only ground-hugging sports cars have jumped in. Beginning with Porsche in 2003, SUVs have become a performance-maker’s goldmine. Nearly every performance badge wants a piece of the lucrative ute market.

Notably absent is the Corvette, America’s V-8-powered workingman’s superhero.

Though technically a Chevrolet product, the Corvette long ago became an iconic nameplate that’s equal to Europe’s elite sports car names. It’s faster than the Porsche 911, Jaguar F-Type, Alfa Romeo 4C and Lamborghini Huracan. And while those brands have all exploited their athletic images to expand into sport utilities — the Jaguar F-Pace, Alfa Stelvio and Lamborghini Urus — the Corvette remains a one-off.

“There’s certainly precedent for non-traditional SUV makers to jump into the market,” says Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book. “Every time one of them has jumped in, it has worked.”

With nearly two-thirds of Porsche buyers opting for SUVs, Porsche makes up a whopping one-third of Volkswagen Group’s profits while generating only 2.3 percent of its sales, according to MotleyFool.com. “The idea of a Porsche SUV still rubs sports-car purists the wrong way, but it has been a spectacularly profitable product for the brand,” says John Rosevear, senior auto specialist for the website.

GM executives won’t talk about future vehicles — and even if they did, there’s no evidence a sport utility is in the works. But everywhere we went, car fans loved the idea. The consensus was if Corvette were to build it, it would be a home run.

So let’s give this dream car concept a name. We called our concept the Corvette XC7: “X” for crossover, “C7” for the sports car’s seventh-generation architecture.

“XC7 and X06 (mirroring the high-performance version’s Z06 name) are great starters for naming,” says Tom Wallace, the retired GM engineer who ran Chevrolet’s Corvette program from 2006-08. “Stingray is off limits.”

It would be essential that any Corvette crossover share the sports car’s DNA.

“Front engine, rear drive, with AWD option. Lots of aluminum in the structure,” muses Wallace. “Aluminum is mandatory to support the theme that Corvette embraces to be the lightest vehicle in its class. The two V-8s from the Corvette stable are also a must.”

That means the 460-horse V-8 shared with the base C7 sports car — or for the Z06 version, the supercharged 650-horsepower V-8 for what might be the fastest SUV ever built. Considering the rear-wheel drive Z06 sports car is slightly slower from 0-60 than its all-wheel drive 540-horsepower Porsche Turbo rival, an all-wheel drive X06 crossover should be competitive with the all-wheel drive Cayenne Turbo’s 3.8-second, 0-60 romp.

“Maximum Bob” Lutz, the ex-vice president of GM product design who is revered for bringing back The General’s design mojo, agrees with Wallace’s assessment: “Like the Cayenne, the appeal of the ’Vette SUV would be RWD proportions. It should, in fact, have a silhouette not too different from a Cayenne.”

Start with the C7’s dramatic, sculpted lines created by Tom Peters and widely recognized as one of the best designs in Corvette’s 54 years. All performance SUVs are essentially vertically stretched, five-door versions of familiar sports coupes, giving them an inherently heavy look compared to low-slung two-seaters.

But angular designs like our mock XC7 or Lamborghini’s Urus show that it’s possible to break with the soap-bar shapes of the Porsche Cayenne and Maserati Levante. With Corvette’s trademark shark nose, scooped hood and quad exhaust pipes, it would drip with menace.

Inside, the XC7 would share the C7’s acclaimed interior: comfortable seats, stitched dash and quality trim materials. Naturally, the signature “oh, crap” passenger grab-handles from the sports car would carry over (for those times when dad is seized by the need for speed).

Other parts like transmissions and all-wheel drive systems could come from common GM parts bins, which has been key in keeping Corvette costs down over the years. “To engineer the vehicle, I would have to combine some of the Corvette team with some of the SUV team,” says Wallace.

Price? “More than the $40,000 Cadillac XT5, but about 10 grand below” a $60,000 base V-6 Cayenne, suggests Lutz.

But the chassis might be a deal breaker. “To be successful, this vehicle would require an all-new RWD/AWD architecture, which currently does not exist,” says Lutz. “That’s high investment for relatively low volume.”

Porsche was able to “lunch off” the VW Touareg chassis, which enabled Porsche to package its V-8 engine longitudinally. GM’s new C1XX platform is the backbone for the Cadillac XT5 and GMC Acadia utilities; it has been lauded for its stiffness and light weight. But its front-wheel drive, transverse engine layout appears ill-suited for our ambitious XC7.

“The Corvette ute probably would be a stand-alone architecture (or a major modification of an existing architecture), so volume would be critical to call it a business success,” Wallace believes.

Cost aside, Lutz says there is another obstacle to an XC7: “The reason a Corvette SUV won’t happen is the business case would be tough. Besides cannibalizing ‘normal’ Corvettes, it can also be expected to damage GMC and certainly the Cadillac XT5.”

And yet, Lutz acknowledges the unique draw of the Corvette: “Corvette is a powerful brand that should be developed. Go upmarket with a mid-engine sedan using big Cadillac CT6 architecture, and maybe eventually something like Cayenne. They would split it off from Chevrolet — nobody makes that connection anyway.”

Kelley Blue Book’s Brauer says financial analysts would grill GM on creating another brand so soon after it axed Pontiac, Hummer and Saturn in bankruptcy. “But history would suggest there is no downside to a performance brand expanding into SUVs,” he says. “Non-Corvette owners who couldn’t justify a two-seat sports car could finally put a Corvette badge in their garage.”

With the formula laid out here, Wallace says he has no doubt “the product would be a smash hit.”

“Product excellence usually leads to business success,” he says. He grins. “Let’s convince GM to do it!”

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

Corvette XC7 SUV concept

VEHICLE TYPE FRONT-ENGINE, ALL-WHEEL DRIVE, FIVE-PASSENGER, 5-DOOR SUV
Power plant 6.2-liter, push-rod V-8 (XC7); 6.2-liter, supercharged V-8 (X06)
Transmission 10-speed automatic; 8-speed automatic
Weight Est. 4,100 pounds (AWD)
Price $50,000 base est. ($75,000 for X06 performance version)
Power 460 horsepower, 465 pound-feet of torque (V-8); 650 horsepower, 650 pound-feet of torque (supercharged V-8)
Performance 0-60 mph, 3.6 seconds (X06 with supercharged V-8 est.)
Fuel economy Thirsty

Report card

HIGHS ICONIC BRAND EXPANDS TO UTES; 460-HORSE V-8. ’NUFF SAID
Lows Expensive new platform; might cannibalize Cadillac SUV sales

Design your own Corvette SUV

What do you think a Corvette SUV should look like?

Create your own design and enter The Detroit News design contest. Our team of judges — ex-Corvette chief engineer Tom Wallace, Detroit News auto columnist Henry Payne and Detroit News presentation editor Jamie Hollar — will pick a winner. Top entries will be published in The Detroit News and at detroitnews.com.

Entries can be done in any medium: computer rendering, pencil sketch, watercolor, whatever you prefer. Send a high-resolution copy by email to Henry Payne at hpayne@detroitnews.com.

 

Payne: Hydrogen-fuel Honda Clarity, first drive

Posted by hpayne on March 25, 2017

clarity_whites

I’m tooling around the hills of Santa Barbara in a 2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell. Powered by the fusion of hydrogen and oxygen, the Clarity emits only water, which could be the solution to California’s drought issues: drive to work, produce H20, water your garden when you get home.

But that’s not why the Clarity is only available out here in La La Land. Let me explain.

When my motorhead pals visit Michigan, they notice our state is a little different. They remark on the prevalence of Detroit-made cars rarely seen elsewhere — Lincolns, Cadillacs, Buicks. They get it, of course. Motown is the capital of U.S. autos even if they don’t dominate the landscape like they once did.

Visit California and it’s a lot different. Indeed, the Left Coast could be its own country.

Travel to $6-a-gallon Europe and the narrow streets are clogged with tiny tin cans rarely seen on this side of the pond: VW Polos, Mercedes B-Class, Smart ForTwos. The wocka-wocka of diesel engines is everywhere thanks to favorable tax treatment from devout green governments that believe fossil fuels a sin. So too, California.

The Green Church here worships the polar bear, so the tax credits flow — not to nitrogen oxide-heavy diesels but to electric vehicles. There are whole schools of fish rarely seen elsewhere on the continent: the Nissan Leaf, Ford C-Max, lots of Toyota Priuses and hydrogen-powered cars like my Clarity tester. Gas prices here average $3.20 a gallon, but Californians get a fat $5,000 rebate if they choose an electrified vehicle.

California’s GDP would make it the world’s sixth-richest country, and it’s America’s biggest auto market. That gives Sacramento’s green priests enormous market power. By 2025, 15 percent of automakers’ sales here must be “zero-emission vehicles” powered by batteries or fuel cells whether customers want them or not.

Thus my Clarity.

The name will be familiar to green nerds as the 2007 spawn of Honda’s hydrogen experiments. The 2017 is available not just with the moon-shot hydrogen fuel cell, but also in pure electric and plug-in versions like the compact Prius (hybrid/EV/plug-in variants) or Hyundai Ioniq (hybrid/EV/plug-in).

The plug-in Clarity, which starts in the mid-$30,000 range, will take on competitors like the Chevy Volt and Tesla Model 3 in all 50 states.

The Clarity Fuel Cell is a more exotic animal built only for California (the pure-electric will also be for that state only). Though Honda lists a sticker price of $59,365, the Clarity Fuel Cell is only available for lease at an expensive $369 per month. Which is a steal. Let me explain.

The upper-$300s sounds more like a first-class Acura than a coach-class Honda ($200 for a mid-size Accord, $170 for a Civic). But California’s $5,000 rebate reduces the Clarity’s payment by $140 a month, and Honda throws in the hydrogen fuel for free. That’s a $160-a-month fuel savings if you’re the average Accord driver.

Do the math: $369 minus $140 minus $160 equals $69 a month.

My Left Coast media peers took notice. “Are you kidding? I’ll take it for 69 bucks!” said one. “I’ve been paying California taxes through the nose subsidizing Leo DiCaprio’s Teslas and Fiskers. It’s my turn for a break!”

Wise-cracking scribes aside, Clarity suitors are likely to be green nerds. The Clarity is a natural date for the social-climbing owner of a Prius, Accord hybrid or Ford Fusion Energi.

The Clarity’s face makes a good first impression. The familiar Honda grille and jewel-eye headlamps are framed by vertical LED running lights that remind of a Cadillac CT6.

But then its wardrobe gets geeky. Hondas sit on front-wheel-drive platforms, but the Clarity’s front overhang is particularly long thanks to the drivetrain’s front packaging and fuel-efficient aero-ducts.

Green chic runs amok in the rear where the Clarity borrows a dual-window from green icons Prius and Chevy Volt. Covered aero-fenders recall Honda’s ill-fated nerd classic, the compact Insight. Think of the Clarity as a grown-up Insight.

Mature suede and leather materials distinguish the interior. The push-button shifter bridges console storage for smartphones and purses. Honda offers its first heads-up display. There’s seating for five.

But what you really want to know is whether I needed a hazmat suit to fuel this rolling Hindenburg.

The good news: Pumping hydrogen these days is as easy, safe and fast as gasoline. Pulling into a Santa Barbara Shell station, I nuzzled the Clarity up to the hydrogen pump, selected the quicker 10,000-psi setting, locked the nozzle over the Honda’s narrow filler and was done in minutes. The massive hydrogen tank eats into the Clarity’s trunk space (good luck storing big suitcases back there), but Honda assures that it’s built to withstand a punt in the rear by an SUV piloted by an oblivious texter.

The bad news? Hydrogen has serious infrastructure and environmental problems. Where filling stations and cell-tower infrastructure naturally followed the explosive growth of gas cars and portable phones, no one’s lining up to fuel scarce hydrogen cars (only Toyota and Hyundai make Clarity competitors). Which is why the government is building a 100-station infrastructure, one costly $1.5 million pump at a time. And extracting hydrogen from water burns a lot of energy. As environmentalist Joseph Romm bluntly put it: “As a CO2 reducer, hydrogen stinks.”

Back on the road, I stomp the gas — er, electrons — and the result is dynamite.

The fuel cell spins an electric motor which launches the 4,134-pound sedan like a catapult or a slower Tesla Model S. Unlike the Model S, the Clarity is a front-wheel driver, but still manages quick getaways without spasms of torque steer.

I drove the Clarity like a Motor City madman and occasionally explored its 103-mph top speed. Like an electric car, a lead foot quickly degrades the fuel cell’s range. But unlike the 240-mile Tesla and Bolt EVs, the Clarity gets a gas-like 369 miles of range. Under my whip, the digital instrument display still projected 264 miles of range until the next hydrogen station. If you can find one.

Given its limitations, Clarity should meet its modest Republic of California compliance sales goals. That is, until someone figures out how it can also water lawns.

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

2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell

VEHICLE TYPE FORWARD-DRIVETRAIN, FRONT-WHEEL DRIVE, FIVE-PASSENGER SEDAN
Power plant Proton-exchange membrane fuel cell driving AC electric motor
Transmission Single-speed automatic (with Sport mode)
Weight 4,134 pounds
Price $59,365 (only available as lease for $369 a month)
Power 174 horsepower, 221 pound-feet of torque
Performance 0-60 mph, 8.5 seconds (est.)
Fuel economy EPA 68 city/66 highway/67 combined

Report card

HIGHS UPSCALE, ROOMY INTERIOR; EASY FUELING
Lows Where’s the closest pump?; hydrogen isn’t zero-emission

Overall:★★★

Honda takes a gamble on electric

Posted by hpayne on March 22, 2017

clarity_station-close

Santa Barbara, Calif. – Against a tide of low consumer demand for battery-powered vehicles and loosening federal emissions rules, Honda announced this week that it will aggressively pursue vehicle electrification. With a goal of two-thirds of brand sales coming from battery or hydrogen-fuel cell vehicles by 2030, the Japanese manufacturer is bullish on alternative fuels.

Though a pioneer in battery and hydrogen powertrains beginning with its (now defunct) Insight hybrid in 2000, Honda has had little impact on the electric vehicle market and only sold one battery-powered model in 2016, the Accord Hybrid sedan. The move to electrification marks a significant shift for a brand that has built its U.S. success on gauging consumer demand for efficient, gas-powered small cars and crossovers.

In 2016 the Civic, CR-V and Accord were the three top-selling vehicles in the retail market – after full-size pickups – with combined sales of more than one million units.

“This is a long-term vision to make sustainable, electrified vehicles – true volume vehicles for Honda,” says Jim Burrell, assistant vice president for American Honda Environmental Business Development.

To mark Honda’s new product ambitions, Burrell and his team invited national media here to test drive its flagship EV, the Clarity Fuel Cell – the first of three alternative powertrain Clarity vehicles to hit the market this year. The others, a plug-in electric vehicle and full-EV, will be introduced at the New York Auto Show next month. Honda will also announce an all-new hybrid vehicle in 2018.

With its stylish design, roomy interior and 366-mile range, the Clarity Fuel Cell (initially offered only in California) is just the second hydrogen production car in the U.S. market (along with Toyota’s smaller Marij). It ranks with General Motors’ late-1990s EV-1 electric car and Chevy’s 2017 Bolt EV as ambitious efforts to change the course of vehicle propulsion away from gasoline.

Honda press materials say this change is driven by “society’s need for dramatic CO2 reductions (that) are real and immediate.”

“Honda is the only mainstream brand that has set an electrification goal that is this aggressive,” IHS senior auto analyst Stephanie Brinley says of the company’s 2030 target. “This is a statement that will set the tone in this company that this is what matters.”

What matters to American voters, however, seems to be more SUV production and less government regulation. According to a 2016 Gallup poll, global warming ranks 12th out of 13 in problems seen by Americans. Meanwhile, hybrid/electric vehicle sales have dropped to less than 3 percent of vehicle sales. The newly elected Trump administration reflects those priorities and has promised to reduce carbon emission mandates on automakers.

“Washington may not be supportive of (electrification),” acknowledges Honda’s Burrell. But he notes that the Trump administration will likely leave in place the waiver that allows California – the biggest auto market in the U.S. – to set its own greenhouse gas rules.

Burrel added: “If you focus on California, it is … driving a lot of this.”

IHS analyst Brinley agrees that government regulations are behind much of Honda’s product development. “They have to meet these emissions requirements not only in California but also in Japan, China and Europe,” she says. “And they are going to get stiffer.”

Honda long ago embraced the American market, backing up its sales with U.S. production. Honda now makes more cars in the U.S. (1.7 million) than in Japan (1.3 million). And it sells more of its U.S. production (from plants in Ohio, Indiana and Alabama) than any U.S. manufacturer except Ford.

With its electrification strategy, Burrell says that Honda is taking a risk given the apparent lack of consumer demand. But it’s not new territory for Honda.

“We don’t follow the same drummer as the rest of the industry,” he says. “In 1997 we introduced the compact CR-V crossover with unibody construction to what was then a non-existent segment. The car that started that segment was the CR-V.”

He says hydrogen and electric vehicles like the Clarity are also “something we genuinely believe in. Yes, the government requirements are a certain percentage of that, but we are at a point that (electrics) will take on a life of their own. Honda does things because it’s the right thing to do. This is best for the environment, and for Honda in the long term.”

 

Payne: Mazda MX-5 RF’s beauty is more than skin deep

Posted by hpayne on March 22, 2017

Detroit News auto critic Henry Payne played with the

Does anyone remember that Audi introduced a V10-powered, 200-mph drop-top R8 Spyder at last year’s New York Auto Show? I didn’t think so. That’s because the Audi, like everything else that year, was a footnote to the surprise reveal of the stunning Mazda MX-5 Miata RF (for Retractable Fastback) hardtop roadster.

No one saw it coming. After all, the best-selling sports car of all time is autodom’s puppy dog – playful, fun and adorable.

But sexy?

With its flying rear buttress b-pillars borrowed from Ferrari and fully automatic drop top borrowed from Corvette, the RF melted whatever snow was still on the ground in Gotham. In defiance of Soul Red Mazda tradition, the show car was painted Machine Gray – and still I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Baby got back.

A year later and the RF is ready for prime time. A show car no more, it made its much-anticipated media testing debut in San Diego this March. It didn’t disappoint. The RF (or maybe the RF is for Really Fantastic) is a head-turner with specs that make it the most capable Miata ever. And don’t think Mazda doesn’t know it: The RF will come with a $2,600 upcharge from the soft-top Miata compared to the old hardtop upcharge of $800.

Mazda anticipates that the RF will not only make up a healthy 60 percent of sales, but will attract more affluent female buyers to an already female-friendly brand.

I love the soft-top Miata. Unmoor the ragtop from the windscreen and it stows behind me as easily as throwing off a blanket. Feel raindrops? Reach back and pull it overhead like a quilt on a cold night. But I’m a long-armed ape. Smaller drivers will prefer the reduced air turbulence of the Targa top, and the simple, auto toggle-switch in the console that stows the roof in just 13 seconds (while creeping along at up to 6 mph in traffic).

Did I say Targa? Mazda can’t utter that copyrighted Porsche term but the comparison to the iconic 911 variant is deserved. Wee though it is, the RFs (Real Ferrari-like?) will also remind enthusiasts of 1960s lookers like the Ferrari 275 GTB. Such comparisons, Mazda hopes, will attract richer demographics as well. The sports car attracted plenty of gawkers during my morning sprint though the hills of Southern California.

But the RF’s beauty is more than skin deep.

Mazda claims much better aerodynamics which will perk the ears of Mazda’s driver enthusiast core. This is the most raced car in America after all. Mazda says that roll-hoop requirements will keep the Targa-top out of more serious SCCA club racing, but weekend warriors will no doubt notice higher straightaway speeds with the reduced drag coefficient. Mazda isn’t releasing numbers yet, but I’m betting the car-nut mags already have their testing equipment strapped to the car.

The Targa top is also a marvel of packaging – adding just 113 pounds to the 2,332-pound base Miata’s lithe frame, maintaining the car’s superb weight balance, and poaching not an inch on trunk space.

Otherwise, the Miata remains unchanged from the acclaimed fifth-generation roller skate that thrilled us just two years ago.

My RF date came after knee replacement surgery on my 6-foot-5 frame. I told my surgeon and physical therapist (who has suffered through four knee surgeries with my demands) that I had to have the strength and range-of-leg-motion to get into the smallest sports car made in just five weeks. She took the challenge in stride (probably because it didn’t sound as bonkers as a previous request that I had to race a Porsche just two weeks after arthroscopic surgery).

She got me to 110 degrees range of knee motion. That was (just) enough to fold into the MX-5’s cockpit which is the size of a large suitcase. Worse is the passenger compartment and its cramped dash. The glove compartment is between the seats, meaning I have to dislocate my shoulder in order to reach it. Going topless, my head stuck out of the roof, making my cranium the roll bar.

Once behind the wheel of MX-5, however, all ergonomic concerns are forgiven. Few cars are as fun to drive. Over Southern California’s twisted hills, the short-wheelbase RF was a tossable toy.

Mazda has set the table with all the tools right where they should be: Steering wheel straight ahead. Three gauges, tach in the middle. Short-throw, six-speed box. Peppy, 155-horse inline-4 engine. Accelerator and brake pedals perfectly spaced for heel-and-toe downshifts.

Those flying-buttress rear pillars might make a serious blind spot on a bigger car, but they’re not an issue in this go-kart. I can practically loosen the lug nuts on all four wheels without ever leaving the driver’s seat.

With its higher price point, Miata won’t bother with the base Sport trim – offering the RF only in Club and Grand Touring trims. My tester was the posh, leather- and nav-equipped GT, which is going to make life hard on the more upscale brand buyers looking at the Fiata (Fiat’s 124 Spider which shares a chassis with MX-5). My preference, though, is for the Club version with its stiffer Bilstein shocks and track-must, limited-slip rear differential.

The fifth-gen MX-5 is an important step for America’s favorite sports car. Iconic as it may be to Mazda’s ZOOM-ZOOM brand, the Miata had to be co-developed with Fiat in order to justify the enormous costs of a small production car. Sixty years on from European sports car nostalgia, the Mazda now has to set expectations for a new generation of buyers. The sharp, Mazda-esque styling of the soft top was bold – and now RF (for Reach Forward) sets a new bar.

Happily, Mazda’s crack team of engineers and marketing gurus seem up to the challenge of all that heavy lifting. Which means the toughest question you and I have to answer when we jump into the RF is: Should I buy it in Machine Gray or Soul Red?

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

2017 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF

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

SPORTS CAR

Power plant 2.0-liter, dual overhead-cam 4-cylinder
Transmission 6-speed manual; 6-speed automatic
Weight 2,445 pounds
Price $32,430 base
Power 155 horsepower, 148 pound-feet of torque
Performance 0-60 mph, 5.9 seconds (Car and Driver)
Fuel economy EPA 29 city/33 highway/29 combined (manual); 29 city/35 highway/29 combined (auto)

Report card

HIGHS FLYING BUTTRESS, FASTBACK DESIGN; FULLY AUTOMATIC DROP TOP
Lows Tight for 6-footers; limited-slip only in Club

trim

Overall:★★★★

Buick reboots brand with a shift toward SUVs

Posted by hpayne on March 13, 2017

2017-Buick-Encore-008

Buick made the list of Top 10 brands in the Consumer Reports 2017 Annual Top Picks list. It’s second only to Porsche in J.D. Power’s Vehicle Dependability Study. And it was the only General Motors brand to gain sales last year, up 2.9 percent.

To paraphrase the brand’s popular TV ads: That’s Buick?

Saved in GM’s 2009 bankruptcy largely for its strong presence in China, Buick has justified GM’s decision by becoming America’s comeback kid. With a consistent message, dependable products and crossovers perfectly timed to slake America’s thirst for all things sport-utility, the 118-year-old brand is shedding its stodgy, sedan image.

“We know from research that when people find out we make SUVs, they think we are a modern, contemporary brand,” says Buick Marketing and Advertising Director Molly Peck. She the brand’s first female marketing chief and a key player in its resurgence.

“We have a full SUV lineup. It started with Enclave in 2008,” she says, referring to Buick’s mid-size SUV. “It really wowed people. It filled the need for a beautiful vehicle that also had cargo capability — so it was a good alternative to the big SUVs on the road. Second, we introduced Encore, and got a lot of people to consider Buick. Now we love what the Envision brings to the brand.”

The cute Encore continues to roll out of showroom as not only the best-selling premium small SUV — but one of the best-selling subcompact crossovers, period. The Envision debuted late last year to strong sales in America’s hot compact ute segment.

All but forgotten are Buick cars like the LaCrosse and Regal, which have seen sales decline with the rest of the U.S. sedan market. The all-new Regal’s introduction next month promises a catwalk stunner that will further elevate the brand’s design turnaround.

But Peck says its Buick’s gamble on SUVs that has really paid off.

“We got it right,” she says of Buick’s strong presence in a market where SUVs now make up over half of sales. By contrast GM stablemate Cadillac — despite a wave of critically acclaimed performance sedans — has struggled with only one crossover to offer. The giant Escalade is built on the Chevy Silverado pickup frame.

Peck credits Buick’s timing to “a lot of open-mindedness. We needed a home run. We didn’t think of ourselves as a car-only brand. We recognized the market is changing and evolving.”

Buick’s new product focus was built on a strong foundation of vehicle reliability. That’s why it consistently rubs shoulders with brands like Lexus and Porsche in Consumer Reports and J.D. Power studies. Buick has been in the Top 10 of J.D. Power’s vehicle reliability study for more than 15 years.

It’s that consistency that is essential to brand marketing, says Peck. The stylish, married mother of two teenagers fits Buick’s target demographic of a successful executive with family.

“We keep pushing and pushing — it’s a job that requires a lot of patience and consistency,” says Peck, who has an MBA. “I like the challenge of changing Buick’s image. I think we are turning the corner, and as you turn the corner it gives us more momentum and you get more energized by it. We see it in the research. You can sense in the focus groups that people are becoming more open to the brand.”

She is patient with the prospects of Buick’s sedans, which have taken a hit even as the LaCrosse, for example, has received raves for its style and an athletic all-wheel drive system found only in the Ford Focus RS hot hatchback.

“The sedan segment is rebalancing with SUVs, but large lux is still 20 percent car sales,” says Peck, who points hopefully to the Avenir and Avista car concepts that wowed Detroit Auto Show goers over the last two years. “Avista has been a phenomenal success, the year before was Avenir. Elements of the vehicles do translate — the Avenir showed our new grille and tricolor badge. So there are elements that foreshadow things to come.”

Payne: Alfa’s Giulia put to test on Detroit streets

Posted by hpayne on March 13, 2017

alfa_fr3-4-low

One of my favorite local restaurants is Bacco. This is no Olive Garden. From the fresh mozzarella and to the house-made pasta, the eatery on Northwestern Highway is an immersion in Italian flavor.

The compact luxury sedan market just got its own shot of authentic Italian goodness.

While our market has been rich in international choices — Japanese (Lexus, Infiniti, Acura), German (BMW, Mercedes, Audi), British (Jaguar), Korean (Genesis), American (Cadillac and Lincoln) — it has been lacking an Italian dish until 2017’s eagerly anticipated Alfa Romeo Giulia.

Like Bacco, its unique personality will satisfy its owner’s appetite. Alfa, of course, is Fiat Chrysler’s luxury brand — but you won’t find any American ingredients in this Italian. You can’t help but root for the latest member of a Chrysler family that’s been an underdog through years of adversity.

I don’t normally review a car twice in a year, but Giulia’s improbable odyssey in the boiling waters of America’s luxury market has begun remarkably well. Eyes rolled when mad genius CEO Sergio debuted not a base sedan like other automakers would, but the top-dog, 505-horse Quadrifoglio to take on King BMW M3.

Then the Giulia went out and set the Nurburgring lap record for sedans. Both Car and Driver and Motor Trend knighted it the best performance sedan on the market. Period. Better than the Cadillac ATS-V, Mercedes AMG and BMW M3. When the Giulia flashed across our screens in the Super Bowl ads, no one was snickering anymore. This rookie is an all-star.

Now it’s the customers’ turn and Giulia is on the menu at dealers. The spicy Quad debuted in December and the 2.0-liter models in recent weeks. A Quadrifoglio from the Detroit test fleet landed in my driveway in late February in a very different environment from where I tested it last fall in balmy Sonoma Valley, California. There, my fellow auto scribes and I tossed the Italian dish exuberantly over ribbons of sun-kissed California roads. Then we whipped it some more around the billiard-smooth Sonoma Raceway Park. Boot to the floor. Edge of the envelope. Throttle wide open.

We salivated over our Italian meal. But what is the saucy dish like (if you don’t mind my stretching the metaphor) to eat day after day?

Detroit in February is cold with rough roads and racetracks closed until summer. Would the Giulia wear me down? Would its bark cause heartburn? Its rigid suspension toothaches? Its rotary infotainment dial dementia?

With its raked stance, huge lower air vents and engorged wheel wells, the Quadrifoglio waited crouched to the ground. My wife’s friends were entranced by its sexy masculinity. Four tailpipes straddle a huge diffuser out back, telegraphing the car’s raw power. Angled headlights are spears poised behind a knight’s shield, Alfa’s signature “Trilobo” grille.

The steering wheel feels like a medieval weapon, too, with Alfa’s serpent and cross logo emblazoned across it, and a blood-red starter button on the left spoke ready for battle.

Push the button and the Alfa barks to life with that most Italian ingredient of all: a Ferrari engine.

It’s a variation on the V-8 howler from Ferrari’s California. With two cylinders sawed off, it’s a twin-turbo V-6. The resulting wail reminds one not of the prancing horse, but of that snarling little Alfa 4C sports car. I turn the driving mode dial to “dynamic,” nail the throttle and never want to lift my foot again. Initially muzzled by the turbos, the snarl builds, growling and spitting with each upshift until peaking at a deranged, 6,500-rpm yawp.

That redline comes fast.

Waves of twin-turbo torque rolled in over 3,000 rpm —as the landscape suddenly rushed by. Want to activate launch control at a Woodward stoplight? Simple. Left foot brake, right leg full throttle, let revs even out 2 grand, drop the brake. Pow. Zero to 60 in 3.8 seconds.

Though the sinewy steel chassis won’t be confused with the 4C’s race car-like carbon fiber skeleton, the Giulia felt small in my hands. Its easy maneuverability was enhanced by a steering wheel with just 2.3 turns lock-to-lock. Beat up after miles of Motown roads, I just punched the thoughtful, suspension-softening button on the MODE dial to ease the ride punishment without softening the V-6’s fury.

Blowing through Metro Detroit lake country, rapid closing speeds would occasionally set off the collision warning system. The accented chime — toot, toot, toot — is unmistakably Italian. Fortunately, my tester was dressed in stealthy “Vulcan Black.” Had it been painted the very Italian “Competizione Red” I drove at Sonoma, I would have attracted every patrolman in town.

Like a Yankee in Old Europe, I have my quibbles. The rear seats are built for small Romans. The stop-start system annoys. There is no manual transmission option. Italian authenticity is crucial to the brand, but I pine for Chrysler’s superb Uconnect infotainment system over the Italian’s lesser, rotary dial-controlled unit.

For all of its unique flavors, however, Quadrifoglio is no quirky daily driver. Quite the opposite. The tomb-quiet interior is luxurious. Dial the mode selector to ECO and you can rock a baby to sleep in the back seat. Red-stitched interior materials flow easily across horizontal dash lines.

My full-course meal Quadrifoglio topped out $83,000, complete with extravagant carbon touches like $5,500 carbon-ceramic brakes. But the volume-selling Giulia Ti can be had for almost half that and still salve your Italian palette. It has the same sexy design. Same hot wheels.

The Ti’s turbo-4 may not have 443 pound-feet of torque that the V-6 has (though most will find its 310-pound feet plenty, thank you), but it does come paired with something the Quad can’t offer: all wheel-drive for when the Michigan snows come.

Bravissimo!

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

2017 Alfa Romeo Giulia

VEHICLE TYPE FRONT-ENGINE, REAR- AND ALL-WHEEL DRIVE, FIVE-PASSENGER

SPORTS SEDAN

Power plant 2.0-liter, turbocharged inline-4 cylinder; 2.9-liter,

twin-turbo V-6

Transmission 8-speed automatic
Weight 3,500 pounds (base Giulia); 3,822 pounds (Quadrifoglio)
Price $41,185 base ($83,000 Quadrifoglio as tested)
Power 280 horsepower, 310 pound-feet torque (turbo-4);

505 horsepower, 443 pound-feet of torque (V-6)

Performance 0-60 mph, 5.0 seconds (turbo-4, Car and Driver est.);

3.8 seconds (V-6, mfr.)

Fuel economy EPA 24 city / 33 highway /27 combined (turbo-4);

17 city /24 highway/ 20 combined (V-6)

Report card

HIGHS UNIQUE LOOKS; SOFT-SUSPENSION MODE FOR HARSH

DETROIT STREETS

Lows Small rear seats; manual option, please?

Overall:★★★★

Tiny Mazda stands tall among giants

Posted by hpayne on March 6, 2017

4Mazda_MX-5RF

In the land of automotive Goliaths, David is still holding his own.

This week Consumer Reports released its widely consulted 2017 Annual Top Picks, and once again luxury automakers and corporate leviathans dominated the Top 10 brands list: Audi and Porsche (both owned by giant Volkswagen Group), BMW, Lexus (colossus Toyota’s luxury brand), Honda and General Motors’ Buick.

But at a time when emissions regulations, safety rules and driver-assist features have driven auto developments costs sky-high, the smallest mainstream automaker in the U.S. — Mazda — stood out at No. 7. Mazda was one of only three brands — luxury titans Porsche and BMW being the others – to land a Consumer Reports recommendation on every vehicle it produced.

Like Japan’s Subaru at No. 5 among brands (an independent whose 615,132 cars sold in the U.S. last year was roughly double that of Mazda), Hiroshima-based Mazda has made its mark with outstanding quality and distinctive products. It’s a business model that holds lessons for other automakers in the dog-eat-car U.S. market, says Jake Fisher, Consumer Reports’ director of auto testing.

“Mazda both benefits and is hurt by its small size,” says Fisher. “Its size makes it a challenge to work out the resources to produce new cars and new platforms. But the benefit to not being a full-line automaker is that they can concentrate on getting a few powertrains and platforms right.”

Fisher contrasts Mazda’s success with the small Chrysler brand, which has struggled to break Consumer Reports’ Top 20 even with the resources of Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles. The Detroit brand rose seven places in this year’s survey to No. 19 on the strength of the Chrysler Pacifica, just one of two vehicles it still produces (the Chrysler 300 is the other). Its sister Fiat brand came in dead last on the list.

“Chrysler’s potpourri of platforms are all over the map,” says Fisher. “Some are home-grown, some were built with Mercedes, others with Fiat. Their crazy history has made it more difficult to build consistency.”

Mazda’s brand is built on core platforms, on the iconic Miata sports car and on a Japanese brand-philosophy — hashiru yorokobi — that translates to “the joy of driving.”

“It’s a philosophy based on human-centered development,” says Mazda research and development engineer Stan Hortinela. “We look at all the senses: touch, smell, sight, sound. How do you take an inanimate object and communicate to the driver in such a way that they don’t have to do so much work?”

Hortinela continues that “we focus on things like minimum jerk theory that is about the rate of change of acceleration. That determines smoothness. It’s like Japan’s high-speed trains — they get up to speed very quickly but you never recognize the speed from zero until you’re going over 100 miles per hour. We want to get the car to react in a way to tell your body to be prepared for movement — but not in a way that you’re surprised.”

It’s this attention to detail that has given Mazda consistently strong scores across all factors Consumer Reports looks at, from customer satisfaction to road tests to safety to reliability.

“Even the Miata sports car has excellent long-term reliability and fuel efficiency,” says Consumer Reports’ Fisher,” which are not normally high on the list of sports car buyers.”

Mazda’s halo vehicle, the best-selling sports car ever, is an example of the cost pressures on the small company. Vice President of U.S. Operation Robert David says Mazda could not have built its latest-generation Miata without partnering with Fiat. Mazda has entered other partnerships with big players like Toyota to share costs on new self-driving and battery technologies.

Meanwhile, its core investment goes to critically acclaimed “driver’s cars” across an eight-vehicle range that includes sedans and its best seller, the CX-5 SUV. Mazda uses its cache as a performance brand to play in a more premium space occupied by luxury brands, while keeping costs down.

“Mazda takes a much more conservative approach than other companies, but often with the same benefits,” says Fisher. “Ford, for example, made huge fuel economy investments in transmissions and turbochargers which have not panned out in reliability and fuel efficiency. Mazda has been making do with six-speed transmissions and non-turbos while still delivering on performance and mpg results.”

“Sometimes,” he concludes of Mazda’s David vs. Goliath act, “it helps to do more with less.”

Payne: Best post-surgery getaway vehicle, part II

Posted by hpayne on March 6, 2017

finalists_payne-3-4

I’ve upgraded a vintage Porsche with a state-of-the-art, fuel-injected Porsche GT3 motor. My uncle converted his ’60s sports car to a Tesla-like, all-electric drivetrain. But why should vintage cars have all the fun?

My 1962-vintage frame is wearing out, so in January I replaced my left knee to keep playing racquet sports into old age. I am now fully bionic, having replaced my other knee two years ago with the same made-in-Michigan Stryker suspension piece.

Unlike modern, smart automobiles, my new knee is decidedly old school. There’s no chip inside. No remote app so I can warm it up in the morning. It’s just chromium and polyurethane.

Also, unlike an auto repair, I can’t just drive it off the lot after surgery. Knee recoveries are a laborious process. Not only will it be six months before I pick up a racquet, but I couldn’t drive a car for three weeks due to knee stiffness (and the cocktail of pain-killing narcotics I was on).

Transporting a knee patient in the dead of Michigan winter isn’t an easy challenge. Stiff as a two-by-four, my knee needs to be comfortable, as does my driver. Surgery is a team sport. So my tireless chauffeur, the saintly Mrs. Payne, and I set about finding the best post-surgery getaway vehicle.

Seating access and comfort is key for any patient — especially leg invalids — so award candidates are inevitably an advertisement for seat innovation. And versatile seating is not just a solution for stiff knees — it’s good for other challenges as well (carrying wide-screen TVs, giving birth while stuck in LA traffic, etc.).

In addition to class-leading seats, all-wheel drive was preferred — getting stranded in a snowstorm was not an option.

The envelopes, please.

1st runner-up: Acura MDX

Acura’s three-seat, midsize crossover shares a platform — and ingenious seating — with a 2015 best post-surgery finalist, the Honda Pilot. Nothing in the luxe market rivals MDX’s third-row access. Push a button and the middle seat collapses forward like Rhonda Rousey after an Amanda Nunes’ punch. Better yet for stiff-legged third-row passengers, the middle seats fold flat. I simply dragged myself over the second row and spread out like I was on a fold-out couch.

Well, not simply. The SUV’s “stadium seating” meant that I had little headroom either for entry or for when I was settled in back. The Acura is also, oddly, a generation behind Honda products in console features. While my wife liked the Acura’s signature, push-button gear selector, the twin infotainment screens made for a blizzard of buttons — none of which features Apple CarPlay or Android Auto smartphone connectivity like the Honda CR-V that I recently drove.

That said, the $59,340 MDX was a beauty inside and outside. Its face has ditched the much-maligned “bottle-opener grille” for a more pleasing design adopted from the Acura Precision Concept.

Runner-up: Chrysler Pacifica

Speaking of pretty faces, the stunning $49,450 Pacifica Limited is once again on a best-of list. I voted it North American Utility of the Year this year as well as 2016 Detroit News Vehicle of the Year.

For old peg-leg here, the minivan’s seating access is unmatched. A sliding side door means no entry barrier. Stow ’n’ Go second-row seats mean no obstacle to crawling into the third row. Once there, the middle seats can be reconfigured as ottomans — or I could just keep them in the basement and stretch my legs.

Up front, Pacifica’s console is state-of-the-art with plenty of storage space for my wife’s purse and accessories. What the big Chrysler does not have, alas, is smartphone apps or all-wheel drive.

Winner: Buick Encore

The Encore is not only our No. 1 pick but is also the cheapest of our three finalists. At $35,757 fully loaded, Buick’s wee ute matched its larger competitors in amenities with heated seats, moon roof, leather appointments — plus crucial Apple CarPlay connectivity and all-wheel drive. Add Buick’s updated “wing” grille (giving the upright Encore a more horizontal appearance), and it’s no wonder Encore has led a brand renaissance.

Most important to my aching leg, however, is a feature the Encore shares with Chevy sibling Trax: a passenger seat that folds forward flat. The Trax advertises this feature to millennials as a way (with middle seats also leveled) to carry a surfboard. For older, empty-nest Encore buyers, perhaps it’s an advert for a grandfather clock?

It’s not quite as nifty as 2015 winner Honda Fit’s unique, back-folding front seat, but it had the same effect — a continuous, forward-facing bench on which to extend my aching knee.

Encore’s looks, maneuverability and sippy fuel mileage won over my practical wife. And I had my ottoman with an unobstructed view out the windshield. The trophy, please.

Payne: Infiniti QX70, the cure for the common ute

Posted by hpayne on March 6, 2017

qx70_fr3-4 (2)

I first encountered the Infiniti QX70 at a rental counter at Christmas in St. Louis. Normally $125, it was the daily special at just $30 a day — just $10 more a day than my usual Nissanfordyota Altimafusionry sedan. Best gift I could have given to myself.

The SUV arrived around the rental building like Jim Carrey’s limo in “The Mask” — headlights followed by five miles of hood. That’s a crossover?

The QX70 is Infiniti’s cure for the common midsize ute. Like BMW X6 or Maserati Levante, its rear-wheel drive platform and coupe-like roof defy SUV convention. Initial impressions are that Frankenstein tried to make a sports car out of SUV parts. Shark-like gills (for better brake ducting) aft of the front fenders and tapered C-pillar (who needs rear quarter visibility?) add to the effect.

Like a cat set to spring on its haunches, the ute draws you near. The “3.7” stamped on the front fender suggests the stance is backed up by engine-room muscle. I turn the key and the big, 325 horsepower V-6 jumped to life with a growl of the twin tailpipes.

QX70 was built to boogie.

Which is in keeping with the market positioning of Nissan’s luxury brand as the sporty Asian. Cruise the internet and you’ll find, say, Acura dealers comparing RDXs against the QX70s. Japanese luxe vs. Japanese luxe. Their 28 mpg RDX fuel economy vs. QX’s 24. Roomier RDX interior. Cheaper sticker. But you might as well be comparing Miso soup and fried ice cream.

The QX70 is a different meal meant for a spicier, more European appetite. The QX70 V-6 has a whopping 46 more ponies than the RDX V-6. Infiniti once referred to it as the “bionic cheetah.” This cat moves.

The $48,645 QX70 is best compared as a more affordable $60,650 Porsche Cayenne, which launched in the same year — 2003 — as the Infiniti. Yes, the Cayenne. You know the Porsche, but the Infiniti — first known as the FX45 — was also an early 2-st century pioneer of the sporty sport ute (since followed by BMW, Mercedes and Maserati with their own snarly utes).

The German and Asian even look alike from the side with their soap-smooth lines and fastback shapes. As the QX70’s cheaper sticker suggests, the Infiniti is less ambitious in the drivetrain (though it once optioned a V-8)) and chassis engineering departments.

Nissan/Infiniti makes for an interesting banquet table. Parent Nissan’s core offerings are standard-issue appliances — Sentra, Altima, Rogue, Pathfinder — that excel at utility if not at accelerating your heartbeat. For that duty the Nissan family has a fleet of bad boys: the Juke, 380Z and the earth-pawing GT-R beast (better known to motorheads as “Godzilla”).

These hellions would seem better suited to Infiniti’s sporty lineup with their growly exhaust notes and muscled haunches. Infiniti even shares its engine with the Z. It’s not hard to imagine a Godzilla version of my QX70 tester: All-wheel drive. Twin-turbo V-6. Rear wing on the roof. Call it QX70 GT-R and sic it on a BMW X6 M.

Infiniti has dabbled in racing over the years with IndyCars, sports racers (a racing pal stomps around the vintage circuit in an Infiniti-powered V-8 IMSA prototype) and Formula One. The experience is rubbing off on its production lineup: the sexy Q50 sedan, racy Q60 coupe and curvy QX30. The QX70 may be the most head-turning of the family.

It’s not just the long hood and big engine. Approach QX70 from the rear and it looks like something that rolled out of a spaceship. The round shape (are those Martians peering out of the rear window?) takes in swollen rear-wheel wells, giving the car a planted stance. Artistic, angled rear lights decorate the shoulders.

Inside, these visual effects demand compromise. With its long hood and huge front fenders, the Infiniti looks like it was inspired by a 1960s Jaguar. “That’s not a hood, it’s a bow,” commented Mrs. Payne, straining to see over the Q-ship.

With the QX70 sitting so far back on its haunches, the rear wells encroach on rear seat egress. A long-legged 6-foot-5, I had to turn sideways to get my legs out of the narrow door opening. The coupe-like roof does not sacrifice as much head space as you might think, but the rear blind spot (as already suggested) is as big as Alaska. Thankfully, the Infiniti comes with blind-spot detection as part of a safety package.

As far as drawbacks go, I found the QX70’s technology is lacking relative to similar-priced bionic cheetahs. Infiniti’s infotainment layout reminds me of the Ford Escape crossover. But the Escape’s screen is more responsive and its infotainment choices more robust, including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

I warmed quickly, however, to QX70’s seat-temperature controls — heating and cooling all on one rotary dial just like air-temperature controls.

For 2017, Infiniti has rolled out a Limited edition which introduces a new mesh grille, wicked black 21-inch wheels and a Vegas penthouse of interior materials including black quilted doors, white quilted seats and “aluminum flake” console trim. What, no mirror on the ceiling?

Under the skin, however, nothing changes, which will be the challenge for this sports ute in a midsize class that now features a pair of famous sports brands, Jaguar and Alfa Romeo, whose respective F-Pace and Stelvio are also rear-wheel-drive platforms with AWD capability.

I drove the F-Pace last year and its handling is superior even as its interior lacks inspiration compared to other luxury class leaders.

The Stelvio may be a tougher opponent. I have yet to drive Alfa’s crossover (first tests are later this year), but it is essentially the taller brother of the Giulia sedan, which is one of the best-handling chariots made. The Alfa’s interior is luxury-grade with sweeping lines and a superb BMW-like rotary dial. Add the Italian’s two engine choices, and suddenly the Infiniti’s $48,000 price tag (already north of Jaguar) is going to roll eyeballs.

Credit the Infiniti for being easy on the eyes, though. With its strong legs and Ashley Graham lines, it was an early indicator that plus-size SUVs can be sexy, too.

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

2017 Infiniti QX70

VEHICLE TYPE FRONT-ENGINE, REAR- AND ALL-WHEEL DRIVE, FIVE-PASSENGER

CROSSOVER

Power plant 3.7-liter, port fuel-injection V-6
Transmission 7-speed automatic
Weight 4,376 pounds
Price $48,645 AWD base ($58,480 as tested)
Power 325 horsepower, 267 pound-feet of torque
Performance 0-60 mph, 6.0 seconds (Car and Driver)
Fuel economy EPA 16 city/22 highway/18 combined

Report card

HIGHS HEAD-TURNING, REAR-DRIVE PLATFORM; THROATY ENGINE
Lows Pinched rear-seat ingress; sticker shock next to newer

rivals

Overall:★★★

Payne: Subaru Impreza stakes claim for best AWD wagon

Posted by hpayne on February 27, 2017

subaru_blue

Jack Sprat could eat no fat.

His wife could eat no lean.

And so between them both, you see,

They licked the platter clean.

Sprats, meet the Paynes. My wife likes her meat rare, I like it well done. She orders shellfish, I order fish. She prefers turf, I’d rather surf. When it comes to cars, I covet sportiness, she values utility.

Downsizing from a three-row crossover when our kids flew the nest in 2011, we went looking for a compact, all-wheel-drive station wagon. Five-door wagons satisfied her utilitarian needs, their low center of gravity my need for speed. We needed all-wheel drive so we could get up our driveway in Michigan blizzards.

Alas, wagon options are limited in crossover-crazy America. The menu consists mostly of foreign luxury makes: Mercedes E-class wagon, BMW 3-series, Audi All-Road. All are north of $40,000.

The exception was the Subaru Impreza wagon. At just $23,000, it had everything we needed for half the price of the premium competition: AWD, fuel economy, style, heated seats. Well, almost everything. Its 148-horse engine paired with a continuously variable transmission had all the excitement of a farm tractor. But marriage — and car-buying — is about compromise, yes? Besides, with Subaru’s bulletproof reliability reputation, Impreza promised relief after my wife’s four years with the multi-talented (but multi-glitch) Chrysler Pacifica. And with a BMW M3 on my side of the garage, I could get my speed fix elsewhere.

Five years on, we’ve never second-guessed the decision. Impreza has impressed.

As my wife and I contemplate a new ride, however, a Subaru sequel is not a cinch. Impreza wagon has a challenger in the mainstream aisle: the 2017 VW Golf.

Loyal readers of this column know I am a Golf disciple. The 2015 North American Car of the Year is the best-engineered, best-packaged, best-handling compact in its class. The hatchback architecture is the basis for the dynamic duo of Golf GTI and AWD Golf R, perhaps the best all-around cars built today. Would I like a Golf wagon? Does Mr. Sprat like lean?

I flipped for Golf’s AWD wagon (Alltrack or SportWagen variant) at its introduction this fall. Not to be outdone, Subaru also has a new Impreza. Not just new, but all-new with chassis and tech upgrades to match the German. Mrs. Payne and I put it to the test.

VW may be the biggest automaker on Planet Earth, but in this market it’s a junior player to Subaru. While VW has struggled, the Tokyo-based automaker has prospered: Its sales have tripled from 200,000 to 600,000 since 2008. The Tokyo-based carmaker credits a host of factors from its “love” ad campaign to its value to its appeal to active Gen Y-ers.

Maybe. But I think it’s about looks.

Subaru was once the ugly duckling of autodom. Talk AWD engineering all you want, but it had a face only “Shallow Hal” (a Jack Black movie classic, look it up) could love. That changed with the 2010 Impreza. Aerodynamic bod, Pentagon grille and wing-like logo accents turned Eliza Doolittle into a much comelier compact.

For 2017 Subaru has continued to refine its look. To complement a stiffer platform (more on that later), Impreza’s design has been trimmed to look thinner, more athletic. The grille “wings” have been trimmed, side wheel-humps liposuctioned, rear taillights widened. I miss the old Impreza’s unique, chunky accents but astute designers have taken a page from Golf by outfitting the (best-selling) Limited and Sport trims with standout wheels. The 18-inch pinwheels on our blood-red, Sport tester were knockouts. At a posh restaurant, the valet kept our Impreza parked at the curb along with a Maserati and Audi S4. You’ve come along way, ugly duckling.

But Mrs. Sprat barely noticed the changes.

The styling is pleasant enough to get her inside — because that’s where she lives. Once plasticky and subpar, interior materials are now soft and stitched. The ergonomic console layout is familiar (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it), but the infotainment system is state-of-the-art with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. CarPlay worked flawlessly. In an all-day drive through rural terrain, the app never lost signal and its audio commands never confused commands. Superior to Subaru’s own navigation system, it’s yet another reason why the gulf between luxury and mainstream cars has shrunk dramatically.

Impreza’s all-new platform has earned it a coveted, IHS Top Safety Pick trophy and will be the basis of every Subaru from here on — from Outback to coming, three-row ute. A marvel of clever packaging, the new bod allows for an inch more cabin width and rear seat room — even a wider hatch opening for your stuff. All-told Impreza is No. 1 in its class in interior room even as its overall dimensions are average.

Already blessed with a low center of gravity thanks to its four-cylinder boxer engine, the wider, lower chassis is now 70 percent stiffer via more high-strength steel. Under the cane through the twisties, the Impreza is a blast to drive — the stiff chassis and torque-vectoring all-wheel drive system (exclusive to Sport and Limited) rivaling the benchmark V-dub. Like the Honda Civic and Ford Focus compacts, Impreza and Golf have good reason to build athletic chassis — their bones must ultimately support performance cars. In the case of Subaru, it’s the WRX and STI hellions.

Only the engine and CVT tranny (replaced by turbo-4s and automatics in the WRX and STI) are noticeably outclassed by the Alltrack’s 170-horse turbo and superb, 7-speed, dual-clutch automatic. The old CVT’s drone was so depressing I had to take Prozac before driving. No more. Impreza’s four-banger gains just 4 horsepower over the last generation, but the CVT now mimics an automatic with “shift steps.”

Ask my wife if she cares.

Crucial to her is Subaru’s 30 mpg EPA rating (27 city/35 highway) which stomps the peppier Alltrack’s 25 (22/30). Fewer stops at the gas station are almost as valuable to her reliability — another metric where Subie is top drawer. And though the domestic makers have no dogs in the AWD wagon fight, the built-in-Indiana Subie does have a Midwest accent.

There’s one more metric for buyers to consider. Similarly equipped, the stylish $28,000 Alltrack costs about $2,000 more than Impreza.

With that kind of value for under $30,000, the Sprats — er, Paynes — won’t be looking in the luxury aisle for their next car.

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

2017 Subaru Impreza Wagon

VEHICLE TYPE FRONT-ENGINE, ALL-WHEEL DRIVE, FIVE-PASSENGER, 5-DOOR WAGON
Power plant 2.0-liter, direct-injection, boxer 4-cylinder
Transmission Continuously variable transmission
Weight 3,183 pounds
Price $24,015 base ($27,060 as tested)
Power 152 horsepower, 148 pound-feet of torque
Performance 0-60 mph, 8.5 seconds (est., Car and Driver)
Fuel economy EPA 27 city/35 highway/30 combined

Report card

HIGHS STANDARD, WINTER-READY AWD; ROOMY INTERIOR
Lows Miss the Sport model’s practical roof rails; engine still underpowered

Overall:★★★★

Payne: Sinking Smart ends gas car sales, turns to EVs

Posted by hpayne on February 27, 2017

smart_detshow

In 2008, Germany’s Smart Automobile, the maker of the two-seat ForTwo microcar, opened the first of 85 U.S. dealerships in Bloomfield Hills. The company hoped to catch a wave of customer sentiment for small cars amid rising gas prices. That wave never came.

Mercedes-Benz, which owns Smart, last week announced it is discontinuing sales of gas-powered Smart cars in the United States. Only electric Smart cars, which have been available since 2011, will remain.

Smart was never a good fit from the beginning for the U.S. market – and that was before gas prices fell and Americans increasingly snapped up sport utility vehicles. After early adopters snatched up the first 25,000 ForTwos, sales of the Smart never exceeded 10,000 in a year. Only 6,211 were sold last year.

“Gas prices were heading higher at the time, and Mercedes thought that a small car would appeal to millennials as we become a more urban society,” says Kelley Blue Book Senior Auto Analyst Rebecca Lindland. “It didn’t happen at all.”

An all-new Smart electric car is due this summer. In an echo of its 2008 strategy, Mercedes hopes that Smart EVs will ride a new trend for electrics, despite equally daunting signs that Americans are no more enthusiastic for EVs than subcompacts. Despite over 50 new entries in the market since 2009, sales of battery-powered cars are less than 2 percent of the market.

“In 2008 gas prices were headed to $4 a gallon, now they’re half of that. The entire small car segment is down 35 percent,” says Bob Gabardy, General Manager of Suburban Mercedes/Smart of Ann Arbor, which took over Michigan’s Smart franchise last year. “But Mercedes always planned Smart to be a progressive brand and the EV is a step to a sustainable, zero emissions future.”

The new electric strategy, says KBB’s Lindland, “makes sense only as a way to help Mercedes meet California’s strict zero emissions mandates for 2025. The Smart gas cars also made sense to Mercedes as way to meet federal fuel economy standards.”

Skies looked brighter in January 2008 when Smart planted its flag on Telegraph Road just south of Pontiac. The eight-foot long Smart – a common sight in cramped European cities where it can legally park nose-first into curbs – was cute. It even had the blessing of Roger Penske, the Troy entrepreneur with the golden touch whose dealership network, Penske Automotive Group, was given exclusive rights to sell the microcar.

“Penske and Daimler AG could not have chosen a better time to launch Smart here,” The Detroit News wrote in late 2007. “The recent precipitous rise in fuel prices … have made a small, economical car more attractive to Americans than at any time since the 1970s oil crisis.”

Mercedes’ choice to launch Smart in Metro Detroit seemed bold, given that the sprawling freeway city is a long way from the dense streets of Europe where ForTwo had achieved moderate sales success since its 2001 launch. Smart offered two variations of the ForTwo: a coupe starting at $11,590 and a $16,590 cabriolet.

Dave Schembri, president of Smart USA, told The News in 2007 that Americans were attracted to Smart “because there are very few other vehicles outside the luxury segment that have emotional appeal.”

By 2011, Penske turned the franchise over to Mercedes after sales fell off a cliff to 5,927 units in 2010. Mercedes-Benz of Bloomfield Hills on Woodward was the sole Michigan seller of Smart cars before the franchise moved to Suburban Mercedes in Ann Arbor.

Despite its small size and three-cylinder engine, the ForTwo got just 40 mpg, not much payback for a car with the storage space of a grocery cart. And the automotive press reviews were brutal.

“The (Smart) is plagued by (a) slow-shifting transmission, a lack of power, excessive squat and dive, and sensitivity to gusts of wind,” wrote Car and Driver in one of the kinder write-ups.

Mercedes was not alone in its misreading of the market: Toyota’s Scion IQ, the Fiat 500 and the Mazda 2 also did bellyflops.

“It turned out the last thing millennials wanted was a microcar,” says auto analyst Lindland, who has been a Smart skeptic.”Gas prices came down to earth, crossovers became more fuel efficient, and it turns out millennials wanted functional crossovers just like everyone else.”

Smart even struggled in Mercedes’ ride-share service, Ride2Go. “If customers wanted a two-seat car in the city, they would just call a taxi,” says Lindland. “And they weren’t going to go to Ikea in it. Ride-share services have found that even their customers want four-doors with room.”

In January, Mercedes announced it was replacing Car2Go’s Smart cars with larger, gas-powered Mercedes GLA crossover and CLA sedans – a sign the writing was on the wall for Smart.

For all its setbacks, Mercedes Ann Arbor’s Gabardy is bullish on the electric ForTwo’s future in politically green Ann Arbor. Built on an all new platform, the EV will arrive this summer with an estimated $25,000 price tag (before government tax credits) and 80-mile battery range.

“Being familiar with the parking situation here in Ann Arbor, I can park three ForTwos in one parking space,” he says. “People are more progressive thinkers down here, and I think young folks are going to like the EVs.”

Historic Daytona win redefines Cadillac

Posted by hpayne on February 27, 2017

Caddy_leads-other-Caddys

Since its founding 115 years ago, Cadillac has been synonymous with luxury, even frivolous opulence. High-end products were referred to as “Cadillac models.” Athletes are nicknamed “Cadillac” for their stylish play. Even Obamacare took on expensive insurance coverage it called “Cadillac plans.”

Now Cadillac is setting a new standard by which it wants to be judged: speed.

In winning the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona last month, General Motors Co.’s luxury marque has joined an elite group — Porsche, Ferrari and Jaguar — of high-performance brands to have won America’s Super Bowl of endurance racing. Name-dropping in such company may be jarring to those who once dismissed Cadillac as a manufacturer of overstuffed land yachts. But the 21st-century Cadillac isn’t your grandfather’s Eldorado.

The Cadillac DPi-V.R’s dominating Daytona 1-2 win is an important marker in the transformation of GM’s luxury brand from a builder of boulevard cruisers to a sculptor of four-wheel athletes. While the media buzz for Cadillac’s transformation has largely centered on the edgy “Art and Science” design language that breaks with the bloated past, Cadillac’s commitment to racing at the sport’s highest level is also a key piece of the new DNA.

“Racing is beautifully connected to the passion at the center of Cadillac brand,” said Matt Russell, marketing manager for V-Series, Cadillac’s performance badge. “In the 21st century our high-performance cars and race cars have been the change agents for the brand. They have allowed us to capture the attention and the passion of … the car enthusiast and car-buying community.”

Cadillac dabbled with racing in the past, most notably its 1950 entry at LeMans with the legendary Briggs Cunningham racing team. But the sedan-maker’s commitment paled next to sports car companies like Ferrari and Porsche. In 1968 Porsche scored its first-ever endurance win at Daytona — the first of a record 22 overall wins that has helped make the Stuttgart, Germany-based carmaker a performance icon. Even mainstream manufacturers used Daytona to establish their speedy bonafides as Ford did 50 years ago when the storied GT40 won back-to-back trophies.

Cadillac’s pivot to performance with the new century has coincided with a major commitment to racing. From 2000-02 it flirted with prototype racing at Daytona and LeMans, then won five Pirelli World Challenge championships with a production-based CTS-V. This year’s Daytona program took it up a notch.

Caddy’s quest began just over a year ago with the IMSA racing series’ change of its so-called prototype format that governs the fastest cars in American sports car racing. General Motors had previously flown its Chevrolet Corvette flag in IMSA in both the prototype and GT classes.

“It was a strategic decision for Corvette to focus on its GT presence, sunset the Corvette prototype, and launch Cadillac,” said Russell.

For its assault on Daytona — and IMSA’s 11-race 2017 championship — Cadillac partnered with some of the premier names in motor sport. It went to Italy to have the DPi-V.R’s chassis made by Dallara. Three 600-horsepower, V-8 powered prototypes were entrusted to a pair of premier racing teams: one with Wayne Taylor Racing, two with Action Express Racing. Behind the wheel would be some of the top jockeys in the business, with the winning Taylor entry including teammates Jordan and Ricky Taylor, Max Angelelli and ex-NASCAR superstar Jeff Gordon.

“Cadillac really got behind the styling and the bodywork in the last year,” said Jordan Taylor. “It was cool to be there from the ground up, through the whole design and development process, to see the aggressive styling coming from Cadillac.”

Dillon Blanski, 33, an exterior designer in Cadillac’s Warren studio, racked up frequent-flier miles between Michigan and Italy for months as he worked with Dallara to craft a wicked-looking, world-class weapon.

“Our designer spent many, many hours alongside Dallara making sure the design was as productive as emotive,” said Russell. “The car is a wonderful ambassador for the Cadillac brand, because it almost serves as a concept car.”

It’s no coincidence that the prototype program blossomed under new Cadillac boss Johan de Nysschen. As head of Audi North America until 2012, De Nysschen was part of a brand that soared to global prominence in part on the shoulders of a race program that won the 24 Hours of LeMans 13 times. After a brief stint at Infiniti, De Nysschen came to Cadillac in 2014 and found a kindred spirit in GM product development czar and motorhead-in-chief Mark Reuss, a race-licensed driver. Reuss has made performance cars — from Corvette to Camaro to Cadillac — central to GM’s image.

With Cadillac in the winner’s circle, the race track is becoming an extension of the showroom. Customers want to be around a winner, and Cadillac hopes that will translate to sales. The brand is coming off its best global sales year since 1986.

“We have been enjoying increased participation from our dealer group in metro areas where we have IMSA races — Long Beach, Laguna Seca, Connecticut,” said marketing chief Russell. “Dealers see racing as an instrumental experience that they can bring their guests to for an immersion in what Cadillac is and where is it going.”

The Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix on June 2-3 is one of those races.

“When you connect with most enthusiastic customers, you get a multiplying effect,” said Russell. “It helps when you have proven your engineering prowess on the race track; it goes a long way to convince enthusiasts that your car deserves consideration.”

He said Cadillac has not ruled out a return trip to LeMans — though the European and IMSA series currently run under different rules.

Russell said brands like Cadillac need to keep reinventing themselves.

“We can’t give up on our traditional values of making a comfortable, powerful car,” said Russell. “We have a good (racing) technology transfer story to tell that’s made it into our production cars. We have confidence in engineering that I think is unique to our brand in the 21st century.”

Payne: Ford F-250 Super Duty is huuuge

Posted by hpayne on February 27, 2017

At 6'8" tall, the 2017 Ford F-250 Superr Duty makes

You think politics is partisan these days? You ain’t see nuthin’. Big Three truck owners make the Senate floor sound like an afternoon tea social. Invite three in-laws who own a Ford, Chevy and Ram for dinner and ask them to debate pickups.

You’ll wish you had stuck to Trump vs. Hillary.

There will be broken furniture, gouged eyes and bruised feelings. Call 911, but then be very afraid the ambulance isn’t a Ford, Chevy or Ram, lest the war start all over again.

I don’t know where these loyalties come from. Maybe they start at birth like religion. I was born Presbyterian, will always be a Presbyterian. Once a Ford guy, always a Ford guy. My neighborhood truck expert, Pickup Bob, is a Ford F-series guy. Show him a Silverado or a Ram and he’ll circle it with interest, considering strengths and weaknesses like a New England fan comparing quarterback Brady to Ryan, Rogers and Stafford. But would he trade his for theirs? Dude, are you mad?

Which brings me to this week’s tester, the 2017 Ford F-250 Super Duty. The biggest, baddest heavy-duty truck that anyone has ever introduced.

This thing is, to quote The Donald, huuuge. I’m 6-foot-5 and can’t see over it. The truck lists at 6-foot-8 but feels taller. It dwarfed the Cadillac Escalade (which shares its steel frame with the Chevy Silverado pickup) that I was also testing at the time. When Mrs. Payne (who needed a full mountain-climbing harness just to get in) and I headed out to the movies, we chose the Escalade simply because I feared the F-250 might not make it into the theater parking garage (it would have barely cleared the 6-foot-10 entrance).

The F-250, of course, wasn’t built with movie night in mind. Based on the already supersized, all-new-for-2015 F-150 light-duty, the six-inch-taller Super Duty shares little brother’s revolutionary, all-aluminum skin and robust steel frame — but beefs it up to tackle the daily chores apparently expected of a heavy-duty these days. Like mulching The Henry Ford, fording Lake Michigan, towing the space shuttle.

The aluminum body shaves 350 pounds off the last-generation heavy-duty, but that’s well shy of the 700-pound savings in the F-150 due to extensive strengthening of the F-250’s steel skeleton. The fully boxed frame gets nine cross-beams and 95 percent high-strength steel. Sir, need help pulling your tank out of the mud?

When mated to the F-250’s preferred (60 percent of sales) 6.7-liter, V-8 turbodiesel — with a redonculus, class-leading 925 pound-feet of torque — the fortified F-chassis can pull 32,500 pounds in dually, F-350 trim. My single-rear wheel tester was rated at 18,000 pounds. That’ll do.

And like Superman, Super Duty has a handsome face to go with the buff bod. So well received has been F-250’s “double I-beam” grille that the F-150 has adopted it for its mid-cycle, 2017 refresh. Little brother has also adopted the heavy-duty’s letter stamping on its rear end.

Beauty is more than skin deep. My Platinum F-250’s interior won’t be mistaken for Donald Trump’s apartment, but its liberal use of fine materials make it a luxurious office for anyone. There was wood trim, silver accents and so much leather that I half expected a raucous, animal-rights protest. For all the fancy frocks, the interior’s blocky style is male butch with two-by-four arm rests and Lego-block console cut outs. There are no swoopy lines like that Escalade. It looks like Patriot tight end Gronk modeling Dior.

I’m a sports car guy, but I get why truck guys get all sweaty around heavy-duties. Like supercars, modern trucks boast eye-bulging performance numbers, yet are remarkably compliant daily drivers.

After adapting myself to the F-250’s ride height (Hey, I can see in the second floor of that office building!), I found colossus remarkably comfortable. The diesel clatter is a distant roar given extensive sound-proofing, the heated/cooled seats fit like BarcaLoungers — even the leaf-sprung, solid rear axle jounce was contained.

My friend Scott saw the F-250 and sank to his knees. A businessman, avid outdoorsman and Ford partisan, the diesel F-250 is his dream truck. The behemoth is a Brobdingnagian Swiss Army Knife for his every need. It’s a rolling office, family camper, fishing trip vehicle, farm implement. Given the cost of my Platinum F-250 — a cool $77,600 — he could use its palatial confines as a second home.

What has always distinguished Ford for truck guys like Scott is technology, and my F-250 Platinum doesn’t disappoint. Like its car and crossover cousins, Super Duty is available with everything shy of self-park assist (parallel parking still requires a tugboat). There’s adaptive steering, blind-spot assist, SYNC 3 infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone capability, 360-degree camera, trailer-hookup guidance and dual-zone climate control. Innovation doesn’t need a chip, either — the pickup box comes with the F-series’ clever BoxLink Cleat tie-down feature.

What are the F-250’s shortcomings? I’m sure your friends driving competing brands could come up with something (“It rides like a washboard compared to my coil-sprung Ram!”), but flaws aren’t obvious.

I defer to my colleagues at the enthusiast mags who’ve done the towing tests — and they are in awe of F-250. Motor Trend named it their 2017 Truck of the Year. PickupTruck.com calls it “revolutionary (with a capital R).” You get the idea.

As docile a daily driver as the diesel F-250 has become, its super-size girth and price still mark it as an exotic. Most buyers will choose this truck as a business tool — a mechanical ox for tow and work.

There are still individuals who will covet the truck for its diesel chops — but that case is tougher now that the F-150 is offered with a diesel for the first time. Granted, little brother’s 3.0-liter oil burner is a shadow of big brother’s ship engine, but it still brings plenty of torque without Super Duty’s price tag. For those who don’t need the F-250’s extra towing bravado the light duty’s 10,000 pounds-plus of towing will do fine, thank you very much.

That’s a lot for F-series to boast about. But remember, be careful talking politics or pickups in polite company.

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

2017 Ford F-250 Super Duty

VEHICLE TYPE FRONT-ENGINE, REAR- AND FOUR-WHEEL DRIVE, FIVE-PASSENGER, HEAVY-DUTY PICKUP
Power plant 6.2-liter V-8; 6.7-liter turbodiesel V-8
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Weight 7,898 pounds (diesel as tested)
Price $33,657 base ($77,600 as tested)
Power 385 horsepower, 430 pound-feet of torque (V-8); 440 horsepower, 925 pound-feet of torque (diesel)
Performance 0-60 mph, 6.9 seconds (diesel, Motor Trend)
Fuel economy No EPA rating

Report card

HIGHS LUXURIOUS INTERIOR, SUPER TECHY
Lows Size of a pet dinosaur; tech options will cost you

Overall:★★★★

Payne: Prodigy Genesis G80 vs. Master Audi A6

Posted by hpayne on February 9, 2017

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These days, luxury titan Lexus sports the most radical design language in autodom. After 40 years of success in the U.S. market, Lexus feels confident in its own skin. So it’s hard to peer back through the mists of time and remember 1989 when neophyte Lexus debuted its very first LS sedan at the Detroit auto show. It was a shameless Mercedes knockoff — but for thousands of dollars less.

The lesson: If you want to beat ’em, first you have to join ’em.

It’s a lesson Hyundai took to heart when it introduced its own luxury bargain for model-year 2015. The mid-size sedan took its grille from the Audi A6, giving it instant respectability in the luxury world.

Wow, look at that new Audi!

It’s a Genesis.

Cool. What’s a Genesis?

Good question. Genesis didn’t stop there. A quick learner, it cribbed the best nuggets from other luxury manufacturers, too. From BMW it borrowed its rear-wheel drive and long hood profile. From Cadillac it took a heads-up display. The center console? Borrowed from Yankees and Europeans alike. You could access its infotainment system as a touchscreen — or from a center rotary dial.

For $10,000 less than Audi, the Genesis was a bargain. I loved it, voting the sleek barge one of The Detroit News’ 2014 Vehicle of the Year picks. Like Lexus four decades prior, customers loved the German-inspired Korean, too.

Hyundai now has spun off Genesis as its own luxury marque, added a flagship sedan called the G90 and rebadged the original midsize Genesis as the G80. With two more cars and two more SUVs due by 2020, Genesis is here to stay.

So when a G80 and an Audi A6 became available this winter, I took both for a comparison test to see how Genesis measures up to its teacher.

G80 makes a good first impression.

That big cow-catcher Audi grille gives it immediate presence, backed by a long hood and signature rear taillights. Hyundai badging has been removed entirely from the car, its Genesis wings proudly spread to signify its own brand. The other big change is price: the G80 is up $2,650 over its Hyundai days. Happily, that allows it to pack in even more standard safety features for its $42,350 base price. Goodies like automatic braking and lane-keep assist that even Audi (itself a notorious bargain compared to other Germans) doesn’t offer standard.

Add in a premium package for both Genesis and Audi and they arrived comparably equipped at $51,300 for the G80 versus $56,875 for the German beauty. Well, almost comparably equipped. The Genesis featured rear-wheel drive, the Audi AWD. Genesis’ “ultimate” package ices the cake with a full sunroof to let the day shine in on acres of leather, wood trim and silver-rimmed instruments that could have come right out of the Audi.

Nice. So can Genesis pass the taste test?

Before you are the leading ice creams with their labels removed. Take a bite of each.

Mmmmm. That’s good — but not as creamy as the other one.

That’s the Haagen-Dazs difference.

Slip the Genesis into drive, nail the throttle through a sweeper and no one will mistake it for an Audi. The 4,290-pound Genesis is a good daily driver. The much lighter (even with the added weight of AWD) 3,957-pound Audi is an athlete.

Built on Audi’s front-wheel drive, MLB platform shared with the A4 and A8, the A6 feels a class-size smaller with its laser-like handling. Like Genesis, the Audi is a comfortable tourer that you could drive Up North to Harbor Springs and emerge no worse for wear. But so inspiring is A6 to drive that you might just blow through town and keep on driving to M-119 (or as motor heads know it, the Tunnel of Trees) — that gloriously twisted piece of asphalt that’s Michigan’s best road north of Hell.

But luxe drivers don’t care about handling, you say. Luxury buyers will never do more than 40 mph on their way to the country club, you say. I beg to differ.

Drop 50-large on a car and you expect the best. My pal Dicran has never diverted his wife from a nice French vacation to watch 200-mph supercars tear down LeMans race track’s Mulsanne straight (I’m guilty as charged. Sorry again, hon) — yet Dicran knows the benefits that nine-time LeMans-winning Audi engineering brings to its production vehicles.

He can feel the difference between his A6 and the G80 instantly. It’s an inherent sharpness. It says he bought the best.

That sharpness informs every corner of the car. The crispness of the turn signal stalk. The lightning-quick upshifts of the 8-speed automatic. Audi’s base, 2.0-liter turbo-4 gives up 60 horsepower to the G80’s base, 311-horse, 3.8-liter V-6, yet beats it to 60 mph by a healthy half-second. The effort makes the G80 thirstier, too — getting just 22 mpg compared to the A6’s sippier 25.

So the student still has something to learn from the master. But, then, the new generation can teach lessons too.

Like a 100,000 mile/10-year power-train warranty — double that of Audi and just about everything else in luxury these days. For leasers like Dicran this is superfluous but the promise is added comfort for potential buyers like my pal Joe. A former Lexus client, he’s been blown away by Genesis’ service. That and they sent him a fancy invite to come try the new G90. At a private event. In New York City.

When you’re the new kid on the block, you try harder. Genesis doesn’t hide its interior Audi-envy — but it goes further with a bigger console screen and redundant controls. Touchscreen (for those who like an American feel) or rotary dial (for you Euro cats). And Genesis doesn’t slavishly adopt Audi’s clunky rotary, preferring the more dexterous, BMW-type dial and its nifty, bump-to-the-next-screen feature.

Neither does Genesis overindulge in technology as Audi does with its largely useless, center-console touch pad. Instead, it keeps its eye on practical details — like (ahem) better rear-seat cup holders.

That said, the A6 is at the end of its product cycle with a new thoroughbred due soon featuring updates like the Google map-driven Virtual Cockpit instrument display (drool) that makes everything else in class feel sooo 20th century. So the master still inspires.

With its bold looks, room and value, G80 is a tempting new dish. For those who want the best, Audi earns its four rings.

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

2017 Genesis G80

VEHICLE TYPE FRONT-ENGINE, REAR-WHEEL DRIVE, FIVE-PASSENGER PREMIUM SEDAN
Power plant 3.8-liter V-6
Transmission 8-speed automatic
Weight 4,290 pounds
Price $42,350 base ($51,300 as tested)
Power 311 horsepower, 293 pound-feet of torque
Performance 0-60 mph, 6.6 seconds (manual, Car & Driver)
Fuel economy EPA 18 mpg city/28 mpg highway/22 mpg combined

Report card

HIGHS INFOTAINMENT CONTROLS WHICHEVER WAY YOU PLEASE; LUXURY BARGAIN
Lows Delayed transmission response; Apple CarPlay and Android Auto with Ultimate package, please

Overall:★★★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★

2017 Audi A6

VEHICLE TYPE FRONT-ENGINE, ALL-WHEEL DRIVE, FIVE-PASSENGER PREMIUM SEDAN
Power plant Turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder
Transmission 8-speed Tiptronic automatic
Weight 3,957 pounds
Price $48,550 base ($56,875 AWD as tested)
Power 252 horsepower, 273 pound-feet of torque
Performance 0-60 mph, 6.1 seconds (manual, Car & Driver)
Fuel economy EPA 22 mpg city/31 mpg highway/25 mpg combined

Report card

HIGHS FOUR-DOOR ATHLETE; RAGER DRIVERTRAIN
Lows Rotary dial is balky distraction; cheap rear cupholders

Overall:★★★★

Mitsubishi debuts Outlander Sport Limited Edition

Posted by hpayne on February 7, 2017

2017 Outlander Sport LE Night

 

With a new owner in Renault-Nissan, new style language and a new crossover in the oven, Mitsubishi is a brand in transition. But while Japan’s oldest auto company prepares its new menu, it’s not ignoring its bread-and-butter products — the Outlander and Outlander Sport crossovers which make up 65 percent of the company’s U.S. sales.

Ahead of Chicago Auto Show media days this week, Mitsubishi is introducing a Limited Edition package for its best-selling Outlander Sport compact utility vehicle.

Though it shares a name with its bigger brother, the five-passenger Outlander Sport is a more athletic, shorter-wheelbase offering than the three-row, seven-passenger Outlander. The Sport Limited Edition will be positioned directly above the ES base model. While sharing a 148-horsepower, 2.0-liter, 4-cylinder engine and continuously variable transmission drivetrain with the ES, the Sport Limited will be distinguished by design and technology upgrades.

You’ll know it by its Limited Edition badge, alloy fuel door, black-painted mirrors, 18-inch alloy wheels, fog lamps and high-intensity discharge headlamps. Inside, the Limited Edition gets a custom design with black fabric and red stitching on the steering wheel, shift knob and brake lever. Other interior features include aluminum pedals, heated front seats, backup camera and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity.

Look for the Sport Limited Edition at dealers later this month starting at $21,995. True to its Limited badge, it will only be available through the end of the model year.

“As the brand sales leader, Outlander Sport does an exemplary job of offering consumers unmatched value at an attractive price,” Don Swearingen, Mitsubishi North America executive vice president, said in a statement. “We’ve now taken that approach one step further by integrating additional standard equipment and technology into the Limited Edition at a price point that is unprecedented within the broader CUV segment.”

Mitsubishi also sells the subcompact Mirage hatchback — boasting best-in-industry mpg for a non-hybrid vehicle — and the Lancer compact sedan. But the Lancer will end production this year as the company focuses on more sport utility offerings to slake Americans’ thirst for all things CUV.

To that end, Mitsubishi will show a new compact ute at the Geneva auto show in March. That vehicle will debut the brand’s new “Dynamic Shield” design as seen on the eX electric sport coupe and the GT plug-in hybrid concepts briefly shown before the Detroit auto show in January.

Mitsubishi, however, did not rent floor space in Cobo Center, choosing instead to attend auto shows in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York that are closer to its 360-dealer U.S. network. Mitsubishi hopes to celebrate its 100th year producing automobiles by going over the 100,000 U.S. sales mark for 2017.

Payne: Elantra Sport is Hyundai’s joy ride

Posted by hpayne on January 27, 2017

Detroit News auto critic Henry Payne flogged the Hyundai

I’m a fan of fast-food joints that take burgers to a higher sizzle — places like Shake Shack, Five Guys, Culver’s, In-N-Out, Smashburger. Fast, flavorful and affordable, they each have their own twist on the meat (pun intended) of the American market.

Compact sport coupes and sedans are my favorite cars for the same reason.

They take the most common of auto appliances and turn them into treats for the average enthusiast: Ford Focus ST, Volkswagen Golf GTI, Volkswagen Jetta GLI, Hyundai Veloster. So I’m happy to announce a delicious new entry in this sedan-eat-sedan world: the Hyundai Elantra Sport.

My preference is for the hot-hatch versions of the breed. The ST and GTI are the best of a group that marry sport with sporty utility — that is to say, roomy storage in the rear without an SUV’s performance-killing ride height. I mourned when Subaru nixed the all-wheel-drive WRX hatch for the current generation.

But for those who prefer sleek coupe shapes to boxy backs, the sport sedan is more aesthetically pleasing while offering similar performance punch. My favorite sport sedan (actually the coupe version) of all time sits in my garage: the Honda Civic Si. Maybe “PR” is a better badge — for “pocket rocket.”

My mouth is watering over the next-generation Si revealed at the Los Angeles Auto Show. Based on Civic’s superb, all-new chassis, the racy-looking Si will be turbo-powered. Honda is being stingy with further details, but last-gen Si’s are a healthy baseline on which to measure Hyundai’s entry.

The Elantra Sport has been around, too. But like the Toyota Corolla S and Chevy Cruze Sport, it was a pretender — a frozen patty burger dressed up with onions, cheese, special sauce and pickles. With this sixth-generation Elantra, Hyundai has gotten some serious nutrition to keep up with King Civic.

Complementing this progressive decision is Elantra 6.0’s inherent goodness. With chassis stiffness improved 40 percent over 5.0 thanks to more high-strength steel and structural adhesives, the new compact is rock solid. And Hyundai knows it.

For the base Elantra test drive, Hyundai handed us the keys and unleashed us on the intimidating twisties of California’s Cuyamaga Mountains. In this sports car-friendly testing ground the front-wheel drive Elantra passed with flying colors. Only its solid-rear axle and huffing-puffing 2.0-liter, 147-horse four-banger were lacking

So for Elantra Sport, the engineers ripped out the four-banger and rear torsion beam and strapped in a 201-horse, 1-6-liter turbo-4 and multi-link suspension. Interestingly, this is the same drivetrain that outfits the Veloster, Hyundai’s scrappy, three-door hot hatch. Hyundai has high hopes for its uber-Elantra, so it handed media the keys and unleashed us on Tire Rack’s diabolical autocross course outside South Bend, Indiana. Our testers had a manual transmission, bolstered seats and flat-bottom steering wheel.

Now these Hyundai boys are really getting cocky. Maybe too cocky.

The one performance tweak the Elantra is missing is a limited-slip differential; autocross courses punish cars without them. I’ve autocrossed the front-wheel driven VW GTI and Civic SI and they are sensational — their limited-slip differentials distributing torque, mitigating front-wheel spin and launching their funboxes from corner to corner.

So good is the Honda that both my sons got their start in track-racing at Waterford Raceway at the wheel of an Si. But the GTI hatch is particularly noteworthy. Throw in torque-vectoring (to cancel out the inherent push in front-wheel drive), an Audi A3-based MQB chassis and a jaw-dropping 258-pound-feet of torque, and the unfair V-dub just isn’t even playing by the rules.

You gotta love the Elantra for competing. Sure, the open-diff Elantra is a tire-squealing mess out of corners with its front claws squirming to gain traction. But its turbocharged, 1.6-liter delivers a back-slapping 195-pound feet of torque compared to the Civic’s 174 to help make up some of the difference. More importantly, its specs stack up well against other class competition — the Mazda 3 (also with an open-diff) and the 210-horse Jetta GLI sedan.

So give the Sport a B for performance effort. Which ain’t bad since everything else about it is an A.

Where the SI and GLI’s narrow grilles telegraph their subcompact class, the Elantra’s fascia strives for more. The V-dub may share Audi bones, but the Elantra has stolen the Audi’s wardrobe.

The Sport’s big Audi grille comes at you with more war paint than the base model — darker lips, blood-red eyes and swollen gills channeling more air for the turbo within. The muscular flanks and coupe-like roof taper to sophisticated taillights and a duck tail. This Eliza Doolittle talks high class.

It’s classy inside, too. The $20,000 Elantra recently snagged a trophy for one of Ward’s 10 Best user experiences — the cheapest car to do so in a class with an average price of $60,000. Everything is intuitive, from the crisp German-like display gauges to the excellent knob-assisted touchscreen. Want clever touches? Hyundai goes the extra mile with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity (which not even its luxury brand Genesis yet offers) and an ample forward space to set your smartphone, change, snack, whatever.

Then Hyundai wraps all this goodness in the class’s quietest interior. Maybe it’s too quiet for the Sport.

Despite modifications that allow the exhaust system to growl, it’s still channeling a whispery turbo. This bad boy could use a little more personality — like my Si’s exhaust flap that opens over 6,000 rpm — BWAAAAGHHHH! Or maybe the Sport’s terrific double-clutch automatic tranny could bark on upshifts and rev-match on downshifts like the V-6 Camaro. Every burger should have some spicy sauce.

But these are small details in an otherwise impressive debut. The Sport is a well-rounded meal loaded with standard features: heated front seats, connectivity apps, 18-inch wheels, push-button start, leather seats, 7-inch touchscreen and rear-seat tables with tea set (not that last one, just seeing if you were paying attention).

With the Sport, Hyundai proves it’s more than an appliance maker. This is a burger with sizzle.

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

2017 Hyundai Elantra Sport

VEHICLE TYPE FRONT-ENGINE, FRONT-WHEEL DRIVE, FIVE-PASSENGER SPORTS SEDAN
Power plant Turbocharged 1.6-liter 4-cylinder
Transmission Six-speed manual, 7-speed, dual-clutch automatic
Weight 3,042 pounds (manual)
Price $22,485 base ($24,855 manual with Premium package as tested)
Power 201 horsepower, 195 pound-feet of torque
Performance 0-60 mph, 6.4 seconds (manual, Car & Driver)
Fuel economy EPA 22 mpg city/30 mpg highway/25 mpg combined (manual); EPA 26 mpg city/33 mpg highway/29 mpg combined (auto)

Report card

HIGHS PEPPY TURBO-4; EXCELLENT FEATURES
Lows Limited-slip differential, please; pocket-rocket junior varsity

Overall:★★★

Cadillac ready for racing’s Super Bowl in Daytona

Posted by hpayne on January 22, 2017

daytona_car-front

Detroit – The NFL’s Super Bowl will once again be played in February without a Detroit team. But next week the Super Bowl of US endurance racing will take place with three iconic Motown brands vying for glory.

For the first time since the turn of the century, Cadillac will join GM corporate sister Chevrolet’s Corvette on the grid for the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona. Ford will also enter a formidable fleet of four GTs, the same car that placed first in class in last year’s 24 Hours of LeMans.

Corvette’s GTLM cars have been a fixture in Daytona’s victory lane for years, including a dominating 1-2 finish in last year’s race. But for Cadillac, the 2000 event – and three subsequent races at the 24 Hours of LeMans in France – were disappointments. Caddy’s return to prototype racing is a major commitment to perform at the very pinnacle of motorsport. It is also a further step in positioning the brand as an elite production brand on par with Audi, Porsche, and Mercedes.

After two years of developing its V8-powered DPi-V.R racer with chassis-maker Dallara and Wayne Taylor Racing, Cadillac is ready for kickoff after weeks of winter testing.

“We have a lot trust in the guys at Dallara and Cadillac, and we’ve done a great job building this car for Daytona and getting ready for the rest of the year,” said driver Jordan Taylor, who visited the Detroit Auto Show (along with brother and teammate, Ricky) Friday morning.

Including Daytona, the Cadillac team is entered in all 11 rounds of the IMSA Weathertech sports car series with a June stop in Detroit for the Chevrolet Sports Car Classic. Held on Belle Isle, the race is part of a weekend of racing that includes IndyCar.

In addition to the Taylor boys Cadillac has assembled an all-star team of drivers for its Daytona run. NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon and endurance Max Angelelli will also be in the lineup when the Cadillac takes the green flag at 2.30 PM, January 28.

Jordan Taylor, 26, says it’s been a blast testing with the 45-year old Gordon.

“He loves the car – it’s new to him. NASCARs are big and heavy,” said Jordan from the Cobo Center floor. “This car is way stiffer and more responsive to what he’s used to. The carbon brakes are night-and day-different. He said he hit the brakes the first time and felt light-headed they stopped so fast.”

The Cadillac program is part of a total reset of the IMSA prototype class – the quickest of four groups that includes a slower “Prototype C” class and two GT classes, GTLM and GTD. Dallara, Ligier, Riley, and Oreca all provide chassis. Cadillac added its own unique body to the Dallara platform and will run against other manufactures like Mazda and Nissan.

Taylor Racing is one of the most experienced teams in pit lane and had run a Corvette DP prototype (separate from the GTLM car) since 2012 before taking on the Cadillac program.

Jordan Taylor says the carbon-tub Cadillac is in another league from the old, tube-framed ‘Vette.

The new chassis, says, Jordan, is “very safe, very stiff. The Corvette DP car felt like a big GT car – it moved around. This car is much more aerodynamically driven. It’s incredibly fast.”

Purpose-built race car though it is, the DPi-V.R shares signature pieces with Cadillac production models – for example, the same 6.2-liter engine block found in the Escalade SUV, Brembo brakes, and a rear camera mirror first introduced on the CT6 sedan.

The race car is part of a larger Cadillac performance narrative. Team Taylor’s job doesn’t end trackside, but continues into the marketplace.

“It’s interesting how much Cadillac has redefined itself,” says Jordan’s brother Ricky, 27. “Cadillac is poised for growth. To be part of that now as it gets into sports car racing is very exciting.”

The Taylors commitment includes interacting with customers at Cadillac’s “V Academy” where owners get to track test V-series Cadillacs like the 464-horsepower ATS-V.

“The thing that Cadillac really hangs their hat on is that it’s the American luxury brand,” says Ricky. “Cadillac owns American optimism. For us as young American drivers that message really speaks to us.”

Of course the real message will be sent on track.

At the “Roar before the Rolex 24” test January 6-8, the Cadillac was eighth fastest of 12 entries, though only 1.3 seconds separated the field. Mazda and Dragonspeed (a private entry) were quickest.

“It’s hard to tell how we measure up because we were doing reliability testing,” said Jordan. “We didn’t’ seem that fast compared to Mazda and Dragonspeed but once we get to the race weekend we can work on that and we’ll be OK.”

The Corvette team will be defending its Super Bowl title in the GTLM class against Ford’s GT and BMW and Porsche competitors. The Chevy team is managed by Pratt and Miller Racing out of New Hudson, Michigan.

The Rolex 24 at Daytona runs Saturday-Sunday, January 28-29. Tickets for the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix, June 2-4, can be purchased at detroitgp.com.

 

Detroit auto show a tale of haves, have nots

Posted by hpayne on January 22, 2017

mitsu_concept-press

On a frigid Thursday before the Detroit auto show, Mitsubishi Motors hosted a media reception just up-river from Cobo Center at the Detroit Port Authority. Japan’s oldest automaker showed off two crossover concepts for the U.S. market, then packed them up and left town.

Like a child’s face pressed to a toy store window, the symbolism of Mitsubishi outsider status at the North American International Auto Show is undeniable.

While big manufacturers like General Motors, Nissan and Ford invest billions in battery-powered cars and the driverless transportation of the future, smaller manufacturers like Mitsubishi, Mazda and Fiat Chrysler are literally being left out in the cold.

Mitsubishi hasn’t had floor space in Cobo since 2006, much less had an executive sit on a panel speaking about robot cars. With U.S. sales under 100,000 last year, Mitsubishi is desperately trying to keep up with a market that has gone whole-hog for SUVs. But while it retools to make new utes, it must also keep up with exploding regulatory costs in the U.S. that it can’t absorb as easily as bigger manufacturers.

“Clearly in the U.S., emissions and safety rules are huge costs,” said Mitsubishi North America Executive Vice President Don Swearingen. “Those regulations are starting to grow and be as restrictive in the rest of the world. When we look at bringing a product into market with a smaller volume, it’s very difficult to make a strong business case.”

So Mitsubishi has sold a 34 percent ownership stake to Japanese giant Nissan. “Our partnership with Nissan makes life a lot easier,” adds Swearingen. “Being able to share a platform in the future (with Nissan) will help us better share costs.”

Other small automakers like Mazda and Fiat Chrysler can be found on Cobo’s floor this week. But they, too, are seeking partnerships to keep up with the rapidly changing environment that demands investment in new vehicles whose market viability is not yet proven.

“Chrysler did not have the funds” to invest in electric cars before its 2009 bankruptcy, says ex-GM and Chrysler product guru Bob Lutz: “Even now they can’t divert scarce capital and engineering money for these money-losing compliance vehicles.”

Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne has openly courted a partner.

In November, Mazda announced it would partner with Toyota, an established maker of hybrid-electric vehicles, to produce an electric car by 2019. Mazda is known for sporty small cars like the MX-5 Miata and CX-9 crossover. But Mazda CEO Masamichi Kogai said at a media roundtable that an EV is necessary to “accommodate the zero-emission vehicle regulations in North America.”

IHS Auto Analyst Stephanie Brinley says, “For a smaller automaker, a partnership or a supplier relationship to get the technology they need can be the most expedient and prudent way to reach the necessary technology. It can benefit the larger partner as well, in that the partner can spread costs out further.”

But it’s not just regulations that are widening the gap between haves and have-nots. Witness the voluptuous Vmotion concept that’s the centerpiece of Nissan’s sprawling Cobo floor display. With a configurable interior and “cabinet” doors, it is part of Nissan’s vision of a self-driving future.

Meanwhile, little Mitsubishi just needs Americans to notice its SUVs. Swearingen says the company has moved on from performance sedans like the Evo: “Everybody knows that the CUV market is continuing to grow and sedans are dropping off. Clearly, our focus in on the CUV market. We had an SUV on drawing board even before the Nissan alliance.”

Mitsubishi will show a compact SUV — based on the EX Concept shown in Detroit — in Geneva this year. Mitsubishi plans to bring it to the U.S. in early 2018 to complement the Outlander and Outlander Sport, its SUVs that account for 65 percent of sales

If successful, the automaker that’s been making cars since 1917 might have enough money to come in out of the cold.

“We reduced the number of auto shows as one cost-saving measure,” says Swearingen. “We’re hoping we’ll bring our presence back to Detroit auto show in the near future.”

 

Racing takes spotlight at Detroit auto show

Posted by hpayne on January 22, 2017

The Detroit Auto Show is a showcase for the future of autonomous transportation. With thousands of attendees and dozens of companies, Mobili-D continues a show trend in which automakers demonstrate the latest in hands-off driving.

But shows are also increasingly forums for the automobile’s most hands-on application: track racing.

IndyCar, which holds its “Chevrolet Dual in Detroit” on Belle Isle in June, staged a news conference in press week announcing its new car design for the 2018 season. The announcement, from IndyCar’s stand wedged between the Volvo and VW displays, followed Toyota’s unveiling of its new NASCAR racer just two months before Daytona’s 500.

At the Los Angeles show in November, journalists streamed from “Automobility LA” panels on autonomous cars to Porsche and Mazda press conferences announcing their new race cars for the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona in late January. Acura announced its new NSX thoroughbred for the Rolex 24 in New York last spring.

With thousands of journalists on hand for auto reveals — and tens of thousands of public attendees to follow during public week — auto shows are perfect venues for race leagues and manufacturers to be heard. And with their state-of-the-art speed, race cars are brand halos not unlike autonomous vehicles at the other end of the driving spectrum.

In Cobo Center, IndyCar is at the intersection of media, a ticket-buying public and industry sponsors.

“The timing is perfect for us,” said Jay Frye, IndyCar President of Competition in Operations.

IndyCar’s new, clean aerodynamic design will debut next year and continue until 2021, offering both better racing and more certainty for team budgets. That business certainty, IndyCar believes, will attract more manufactures to the sport in addition to engine providers Chevrolet and Honda.

For manufacturers, racing and production vehicles are increasingly intertwined.

“Because our production vehicles are so closely tied to motorsports, auto shows are the ideal venue for us to show off our racing technology,” says Tom McDonald, a Mazda spokesman.

Mazda introduced its sleek, 600-horsepower RT24-P prototype in Los Angeles, part of a new race class that will be the front-runners at the Rolex 24 later this month. Cadillac and Nissan will also be competing with Mazda all year in the IMSA Weathertech Series. The RT24-P was shown in LA alongside the Mazda MX-5 Miata Cup car — the most raced production car in the world.

“Our identity is closely linked to racing,” says McDonald. “The RT24 porotype comes in the Soul Red that is Mazda’s feature color and it incorporates elements of our KODO design style found in our production cars. I think it’s the most beautiful race car out there.”

Toyota’s Camry racer — built to NASCAR’s V8-powered template — shares nothing with the new, inline-4 cylinder/V-6-powered production car except its sportier styling. But NASCAR dovetails perfectly with Akio Toyoda’s plan — the Toyota chairman personally introduced the new Camry and its NASCAR variant in Detroit — to reinvent the best-selling sedan as a sportier entry in the mid-size segment.

Competition is also important to Porsche (which sat out this year’s Detroit Show) and Acura in establishing their 911 and NSX supercars as premier performance vehicles. Chevrolet too, puts a heavy emphasis on racing, and the Rolex 24-entered Corvette C7.R was developed in unison with the production car.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the Corvette C7.R race car,” announced GM President Dan Ammann at the Detroit Show in 2014. “The relationship between the Corvette Stingray, Z06 and C7.R is instantly recognizable. The race drivers tell us they immediately noticed how the stiffer structure improved the C7.R’s handling, especially on rough tracks.”

A Chevy race driver was on hand for this year’s IndyCar announcement, as Josef Newgarden — of Roger Penske’s Chevy team — joined Honda Racing’s Alexander Rossi to extol the new design’s virtues.

“It’s what the drivers have been screaming about — we want more downforce under the car,” said Newgarden, 26, who lives in North Carolina.

The two star drivers then traded opinions on the best production cars on the floor. Rossi, the 2016 Indy winner, liked the Honda Ridgeline pickup Black Edition.

“It’s not as cool as the Chevy Traverse, but that’s OK,” smiled Newgarden.