Henry Payne Blog

Cartoon: Pro War Democrats

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 18, 2019

Cartoon: Cooper and Debate Journalism

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 17, 2019

Payne: Ford Escape goes hybrid to slip federal mpg knot

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 17, 2019

Louisville, Ky. — Tightening federal fuel economy regulations are forcing difficult choices on automakers as they try to balance the conflicting desires of customers and government agencies.

Consider the 2020 Ford Escape made here in Kentucky. The compact SUV is perhaps the most important vehicle in the Blue Oval’s lineup outside its best-selling F-150 pickup. Aimed at the most popular, non-truck segment in the industry, the comely new Escape shoulders a heavy load for the Dearborn-based brand.

It must not only compete against mega-selling Japanese competitors while trying to retain sedan customers as Ford ditches its car lines. It also must navigate a thicket of fuel economy rules by introducing an expensive, battery-powered hybrid drivetrain strategy.

“Absolutely, each year the regulations get tougher,” says Ford SUV marketing director Craig Patterson. “They become more difficult to meet starting in 2010. This is a 2020 — so the Escape has been four or five years in the making to meet the regs.”

Ford is not alone. Its chief Japanese competitors are using a similar strategy to meet regulations with hybrid SUVs made in the USA. Toyota has long been synonymous with hybrids, but with its 2019 RAV-4 it is aggressively marketing hybrids across its best-selling compact ute line. Indeed the hybrid, assembled in Kentucky, is about 15% of RAV4 sales this year and has often outsold the brand’s iconic Prius hybrid.

Honda just announced that it will be churning out a hybrid version of its best-selling CR-V SUV — made in Indiana and priced to sell against the RAV4 and Escape. Honda promises two-thirds of its lineup will be electrified worldwide by 2030 to meet tightening regulations.

U.S. regulations, controversially imposed by the Obama EPA a decade ago while Detroit automakers were begging for government bailouts, demand that each class of vehicle meet rising mpg numbers depending on their physical footprint. The smaller the car, the tougher the standards.

“This is one of the reasons that Ford’s bond rating got downgraded to junk,” says long-time Wall Street auto analyst Joe Phillippi of Auto Trends Consulting. “You take these business challenges to the ratings agencies and they will not be happy.”

Ford abandoned its first-generation Escape Hybrid in 2012 due to slow sales. Introduced in 2005, the hybrid was encouraged by then-CEO Bill Ford Jr., a passionate environmentalist who remains executive chairman of the Blue Oval, as well as government incentives that paid customers to buy gas-electric hybrids.

“That vehicle was a bit of a science project for us,” smiles Patterson.

But with mpg regs tightening, the hybrid is back for 2020. Once a niche product, this go-round Ford needs the hybrid to sell in volume to satisfy EPA edicts that require its fleet average 54.5 mpg by 2025.

So it has introduced a hybrid powertrain not in a highly equipped green machine with a $10,000 premium over the base model as with the 2005-12 model, but as the mainstay, $28,290 SE drivetrain in the Escape lineup with a premium just two grand over the $26,080 S base model. The ute doesn’t even get a Hybrid trim name — instead adopting Ford’s popular “Sport” badge.

“If there were no regulations, the hybrid would probably not be the solution for the Sport model,” says Patterson. “We’d be looking for other solutions that are more efficient to deliver that sporty feel. It’s the regulatory environment that pushes you to do things that consumers don’t want — or don’t want initially.”

Patterson says that, unlike previous Ford hybrids like the first Escape and recent Fusion, the 2020 Escape hybrid has been designed from the ground up to carry a battery — meaning interior space isn’t compromised by a battery pack.

With the same interior space as the gas version, a healthy, 198 horsepower, and a big bump in fuel efficiency (media here saw a healthy 35 mpg fuel economy), Patterson says the hybrid model will appeal to more than just tree-huggers.

He expects the hybrid drivetrain — which will also be available, standard, on the up-trim Titanium model — to garner a whopping one-third of customers. Sales and regulatory problem solved? Maybe.

Analyst Philippi says the Japanese makers are more established in the market as hybrid sellers — and boast the segment’s best transaction costs, a critical advantage when stuffing a car with more expensive battery tech.

“We’ll likely see a barrage of low monthly lease rates in order to sell the hybrids,” predicts Phillippi. “You’ve got to be able to get the customers out the door to hit your regulatory numbers.”

Further complicating Ford’s push to match the Japanese makers’ segment-leading, 400,000 sales numbers (the last Escape sold 272,228 units in 2018) is the brand’s withdrawal from the entry-level, compact and subcompact sedan segments once occupied by sub-$20,000 Focus and Fiesta models (Ford offers an entry-level, subcompact, $21,000 EcoSport SUV).

Those segments typically pull in first-time buyers — buyers who then, assuming a good ownership experience, choose a more expensive car like the Escape or mid-size Explorer SUV as they gain income/family members. Toyota and Honda have been masters of this strategy by hooking buyers with their best-selling, entry-level Corolla and Civic sedan models.

But the EPA rules were particularly difficult for Ford’s small cars to make.

“It’s what made the business difficult for us to continue” making small cars, says Patterson. “As regulations get higher and higher it gets more challenging to do compact vehicles. The compliance is (easier) for trucks.”

So Ford has plowed more money into its F-series pickups which make big profits and help mitigate tighter Escape margins caused by higher-cost-to-manufacture hybrids. EPA’s encouragement of trucks over smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, says Patterson, is one of the unintended consequences of the federal mpg laws.

“If you go all the way back to the SUV boom, the initial regulations did not cover SUVs,” he says. “That’s what really launched the initial body-on-frame vehicles like Explorer. Those customers were unwilling to make sacrifices necessary to drive a fuel-efficient car.”

Green groups like Greenpeace are determined to reverse that trend to fight global warming, and held a press conference at this week’s Frankfurt auto show calling for an SUV ban.

Some automakers like VW pushed back, but Ford resisted comment. Ford Jr. has been friendly with Greenpeace in the past. Indeed, company insiders say the chairman is a key reason Ford has embraced climate regulation even as the Obama EPA’s own numbers show the 54.5 mpg-by-2025 standard would reduce global temperatures by a negligible three one-thousands of a degree (0.003) Celsius of warming by 2100 (within the margin of error).

“Global climate change is real,” the company said in a statement. “We are investing more than $11 billion to put hybrid and fully electric vehicle models on the road by 2022.”

Even as Ford hopes its Escape SE Sport and Titanium trims will help sell hybrids, EPA rules further discourage Ford from offering its signature ST performance trim. An Escape ST would help bring customers in from the discontinued Focus and Fiesta STs to the similarly-sized Escape.

But EPA penalizes fuel-hungry performance.

“I’d love to do a Escape ST and it makes a lot of sense given the SUVs we have as well as customers coming out of Focus and Fiesta. Those are customers most likely to do that,” says SUV marketing chief Patterson. “But … if you do it with a gas engine it really harms overall corporate fuel economy.”

Ford has another trick up its sleeve, however. It will soon introduce a second SUV in the compact segment — paralleling Escape — but with a more off-road temperament. Dubbed by journalists “the baby Bronco,” it would rival the Jeep Cherokee and — like Jeep — bring higher transaction costs.

Greens may frown on another SUV, but Wall Street might warm to the greener dollar margins.

Cartoon: Chairman James

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 17, 2019

Payne: BMW Z4 is drop-top fun

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 17, 2019

The 2020 BMW Z4 is the third evolution of BMW's fun Roadster - though for this generation, BMW shared costs with the Toyota Supra to justify its low-volume production.

You had me at Roadster.

From the nimble Mazda Miata to the Porsche Boxster, convertible coupes are some of the most enjoyable toys on the road today. Drop the top, stomp the gas, and drink in the visceral thrill of sound, wind, and landscape rushing by.

The ground-hugging Boxster is the undisputed athlete of the segment, but the BMW Z4 Roadster has shadowed it for a decade, bringing Bimmer’s uniquely sculpted bod and high-tech interior to the playground.

Most importantly, BMW has retained its signature, inline six-cylinder engine even as Porsche has abandoned its signature flat-six (but for the hard-core, $100,000 Spyder variant). A Boxster without flat-six wail is like a tiger without a roar, and the compromised Porsche — no matter the impressive performance numbers of its turbocharged flat-four — has undoubtedly lost some of its appeal.

Boxster-owning pals with flat-sixes have delayed purchase of the new car (just as some Ford F-150 Raptor customers have held on to their V-8-powered pickups rather than upgrade to the newer-but-less-satisfying twin-turbo V-6). Could this be an opening for Bimmer as well with its all-new, $64,000, 382-horse, inline 6-powered Z4? Surely.

But first BMW has introduced a base, 255-horse, turbo-4 cylinder to go head-to-head against the 265-horse Boxster. Apples to apples. Fours to fours. The Z4, like the Boxster, suffers mightily without its six-holer, but for Roadster fans with deeper pockets, my sky-blue, loaded Z4 M30i tester is a welcome Miata MX5 on steroids — more tech, more room, more zoom zoom.

On a trip up north this summer, the Z4 was a rolling tourist attraction. Longer, wider, and bluer than its predecessor, it was a magnet.

Cool! How fast does it go? Is that a BMW?

This third-gen roadster is a worthy successor to the first-gen, 2005 Z4 that still turns my head. Its ad campaign cutline was “land shark” — and it looked the part. Long nose. Wicked body stampings. Headlights slit like a predator’s eyes. The swept windshield a fin cutting through traffic.

The new car has more conservative styling, but the shark DNA remains. Angular headlights, wide, toothy kidneys — even big gills on either side of the front fenders. And it ruthlessly prowls country roads.

Exiting Interstate 75 for Michigan-31 north of Gaylord, I slowly rolled into a stoplight while easing back the black canvas top with the push of a button. The operation pauses only if I exceed 31 mph.

Through the wooded countryside, the rear-wheel-driver rotated effortlessly through esses and switchbacks. This is no mid-engine Porsche, but you have to really push hard to notice the difference. The suspension is tight, the body-roll minimal and understeer imperceptible despite that long bow. Credit the M Sport package on my tester that added electronic rear differential and adaptive dampers.

Momentary turbo lag gave way to satisfying, 295 pound-feet of torque over 3,000 RPM, but the music is more Miata than luxury sports car. Even Porsche is aware of its visceral shortcomings and tries to lend some menace to its four-cylinder, VW Bug-like drone. At least downshifts in Bimmer’s SPORT and SPORT PLUS modes are accompanied by racy rev-matching.

While the Porsche reigns supreme on handling, the BMW makes its mark when you’ve tired of apex carving.

Hats off to the interior designers (ahem, except for the cup holder which is curiously located in the armrest console, forcing the console lid vertical when the holder is occupied).

A sculpted sheet of glass dominates the center console, pulling the 10-inch infotainment screen high above the dash for maximum driver attention — and opening up tray storage below — an ergonomic nicety conspicuously missing from Porsches and Audis.

Cruising up I-75 (top up, natch), the big, fat console knob makes for easy screen navigations, as does the voice command. But Apple CarPlay-based Google Maps is still the nav program of choice (though BMW will charge $80 a year for it and not offer Android Auto. Yeesh, these persnickety luxe makers).

A drop-top two-seater this may be, but BMW has carved out helpful closet space behind the front seats for an umbrella — or bottle, purse, small briefcase storage in rear panel-mounted fish net. The trunk space is also surprisingly generous — a 50% increase over the prior gen — and a welcome convenience for long trips compared to a much smaller Miata.

BMW has learned fast from Tesla, and the Z4 is a digital tour de force — including recognizing my presence without my having to remove the key from my pocket. Z4 unlocked when I approached and locked when I walked away, mirrors folding tight. Alas, unlike Tesla, this is not a standard feature, but part of the $13,000 of add-ons (the $2,950 M package) on my $63,545 tester.

Like Miata, the fourth-generation Z4 would not be possible were it not for a partner.

Development costs have soared in these regulation-heavy days, forcing small-volume products into partnerships. Mazda found a mate in Fiat which makes its 124 on the same platform as the MX-5 Miata. And BMW paired with Toyota, which makes the Supra coupe off the same architecture.

I couldn’t stop thinking of the Supra as I caned the Z4’s four across Michigan.

I’ve driven the Supra’s BMW-made inline-6, pumping out a generous 350 horsepower, complete with crackling soundtrack. The Z4’s digital sophistication is apparent over the Supra, and Toyota and BMW shoppers will rarely cross paths. But put a Supra and a Z4 next to each other at a Woodward stoplight and the Japanese sports car will smoke it — 4.1 vs. 5.1 seconds, zero-60 —- even with BMW’s easy-to-use launch control.

Happily, the 382-horse Z4 inline-6 is available — with, er, a 14 grand premium over the base 4.

Here, it’s worth noting that the stunning, convertible, mid-engine Corvette V-8 — with nearly 500 ponies — coming next year at a similar sticker.

Add in convertible Camaro and Mustang V-8s and the American customer has a nice menu of choice for drop-top fun. With its sophisticated looks and digital tech, the Z4 remains a sophisticated choice that will offer hours of open-air fun without sacrificing roomy comfort.

That comfort may give the Z4 the biggest bandwidth in the luxury Roadster segment. And a competitive claim as long as the Porsche Boxster cuts back on audio thrills.

2020 BMW Z4

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, two-passenger roadster

Price: Base price sDrive30i $50,695 including $995 destination charge; M40i $64,695 including $995 destination charge ($63,545 sDrive30i as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged, inline-4 cylinder, 3.0-liter, turbocharged, inline-6 cylinder

Power: 255 horsepower, 295 pound-feet of torque (turbo-4); 382 horsepower, 369 pound-feet of torque (turbo-6)

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.2 seconds (turbo-4, mfr.); top speed, 155 mph

Weight: 3,400 pounds(est.)

Fuel economy: EPA mpg, 24 city/32 highway/28 combined (turbo-4); 24 city/31 highway/26 combined (turbo-6)

Report card

Highs: Modern tech; sticks like glue

Lows: Meh, turbo-4; Toyota Supra thrills with BMW turbo-6 under hood for less coin

Overall: 3 stars

Cartoon: California Power Off

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 17, 2019

Payne: First drive, mid-engine Corvette lives up to hype

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 17, 2019

The 2020 Chevy Corvette C8 is the iconic badge's first mid-engine layout. Handling and traction benefit mightily from the new architecture.

Ann Arbor – The book on the Chevy Corvette has long been that it’s the poor man’s supercar. Accept compromises in handling and interior comfort and you can afford a Ferrari-like performance machine for under $100,000.

Throw out the book.

I have driven the all-new, 2020, mid-engine Corvette C8 for the first time, and it is a supercar without compromise. These are early days as the C8 comes to market, but the C8 holds the promise of a supercar paradigm shift: affordable, Porsche Cayman-like handling with the raw power of exotics costing four times as much.

The world’s elite auto car makers should be very afraid.

I will be able to give more detailed critique early next year after a more extensive on- road/on-track test, but on first impression at the North American Car of the Year jury test over twisty Ann Arbor roads and I-94 interstate, the car is fundamentally sound from the inside out.

“This is a Cayman with cargo room,” I told chief engineer Ed Piatek a couple of days later in Road Atlanta where Chevy introduced the C8.R race car model.

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” smiled Piatek. Please do. The Cayman is the best-handling production sports car I’ve driven.

Since we first learned of a mid-engine Corvette in the works, expectations soared. Could it marry the brute force of a small-block Chevy V-8 with the nimbleness of a Cayman? Could Chevy render a pleasing, mid-engine design? Would there be any money left for a livable interior? Yes, yes, and yes.

Start with the handling. I have raced mid-engine, Porsche and Lola sports cars all my adult life. From Le Mans prototypes to Indy Car, the world’s fastest cars are mid-engine. It’s why Corvette’s Pratt & Miller race team has craved a mid-engine vessel to go up against the likes of Ferrari and Porsche that also locate the engine aft of driver.

Let Corvette race driver Tommy Milner explain. “The driver is more centrally located in the car, so we get immediate feedback from understeer or oversteer,” he said in introducing the race car version in Road Atlanta last weekend. “The car rotates around the driver.”

I felt it on the first tight, 90-degree corner on Washtenaw County’s Huron River Road. With the engine behind me, the lighter front end instantly rotated to the corner apex — the rear following like the tail of a dart.

Walking around a naked, cutaway chassis of the C8 at Road Atlanta, chassis engineer Ed Moss explained that the precise handling is much more than just putting the 6.2-liter V-8 behind the driver. Like the C7, the C8 is built around a stiff central spine to allow for easier driver egress (carbon-fiber tub cars like Lambos use tall, wide side sills for stiffness, but are a nightmare to crawl over). But unlike C7, C8 uses 20 — count ‘em, 20 — aluminum castings to complement that spine where C7 had but 4.

For the first time, the mid-engine car uses coil-over springs and shocks for state-of-the-art suspension like European supercars (previous-gen Corvettes used cost-saving, composite “leaf” springs).

Supercar tech, Corvette price. The 3,600-pound Corvette will never be as maneuverable as the lighter, 3,100-pound Cayman. But, then, the C8 has Lambo-like power that the wee Porsche can only dream of.

And it puts it down effortlessly. I experienced auto launch control in a Cayman three years ago. Bury the left brake foot. Bury the right throttle foot. Let revs stabilize at 3500 RPM. Release brake.

FOOM! Cayman shot forward like a rocket. Just like a McLaren 720S. Just like a Lamborghini Huracán. Just like the Corvette C8.

I did multiple launch control starts in the new ‘Vette (starts at $64,995 with Z51 performance package) on unpopulated Michigan country roads. Stable. Blindingly fast. Motor Trend clocked the C8 at a staggering 2.8 seconds — the same as the $288,000, 710-horse McLaren 720S I tested last year .

Credit the engine weight over the rear wheels providing inherently better traction. And a Porsche-like, dual-clutch auto transmission.

Try that in a front engine C7 and hold on for dear life. With the engine in front, the rear tires hunt for traction, squirming nervously.

“It’s having less weight on the front axle, sitting closer to the front axle and having all the weight on the rear. It helps you with standing starts, helps you coming out of a corner,” said Corvette program chief Tadge Juechter when I first saw the car at the Warren design dome in July.

Motorheads like me can babble on about C8 handling dynamics until sundown, but the interior is the real revelation. The Corvette is nicer inside than a $300k Lambo or a McLaren. The standard car is roomy, techy, and coated in leather.

I’m a big fella’ at 6’5” and was sedan comfortable. Curiously, for a big sports car meant for long-distance driving as well as track days, the C8 lacks adaptive cruise control.

Otherwise, the driver-centric cockpit is state-of the-art — an amalgam of the best supercars in the world. The digital dash reminds of McLaren with its configurable drive modes (I like Track Mode and its racing tachometer). A Formula One-like square steering wheel allows unobstructed instrument visibility. The console — “beach-front real estate” as engineer Piatek likes to call it —  is a masterpiece of space management. Chevy’s excellent touchscreen infotainment is within easy reach.

Then Corvette pairs an efficient, Acura-like “trigger” shifter with the Drive Mode dial for easy operation. Corvette faithful may struggle to learn the trigger at first (I use a three-finger approach), but once mastered it’s intuitive.

Only a central sleeve of buttons interrupts this digital vibe. The concept is taken straight out of the last-gen Porsche 911 and allows for easy climate control.

Corvette designer Kirk Bennion and his team have wrapped this technical tour de force in a mid-engine shell that is nicely portioned  — and looks wicked on the road.

Even some of my most jaded Car of the Year jury peers allowed how it looked better than the Audi R8 or Acura NSX —  cars costing tens of thousands of dollars more.

Details have been sweated over right down to the, er, smell. Climb into the ol’ C7 and you got a nostril-full of the polymers used to make the dash and interior inserts. It smelled like a poor man’s supercar. For the C8, the engineers “pre-baked” the materials to eliminate odors.

I got an hour in the C8 this time. Stay tuned for much more. Corvette is just getting started.

2020 Chevrolet Corvette C8

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

Price: Base price $59,995 including $1095 destination charge ($88,895 with Z51 package as tested)

Powerplant: 6.2-liter V-8

Power: 495 horsepower, 369 pound-feet of torque (with $5000 Z51 performance package)

Transmission: 8-speed, dual-clutch automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 2.8 seconds (Motor Trend); top speed, 194 mph

Weight: 3,600 (est.)

Fuel economy: NA

Report card

Highs: Good interior ergonomics; intuitive handling

Lows: No adaptive cruise control; Trigger transmission takes getting used to

Overall: 4 stars (out of 4)

Cartoon: Joker, Guns and Hollywood

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 12, 2019

Payne: Dodge Charger Widebody turns up wick on family sedan

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 12, 2019

Taking the family sedan on track. At Sonoma Raceway in California, the 2020 Dodge Charger Widebody Hellcat feels right at home.

Taking the family sedan on track. At Sonoma Raceway in California, the 2020 Dodge Charger Widebody Hellcat feels right at home. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

Rounding Sonoma Raceway’s high-speed downhill Turn 6, the 2020 Dodge Charger Hellcat Widebody compresses underneath me on stiffened performance springs and shocks. The 4,500-pound beast’s big rear-end twitches as I slowly feed 707 horses through 11-inch-wide Michelin tires. I open the throttle wide onto the back straight and the Hellcat explodes like a Saturn rocket pointed at the moon.

I love Dodge family sedans.

Since its debut at the 2015 Woodward Dream Cruise, the Charger Hellcat has redefined the full-size car segment. The first four-door to produce over 700 horsepower, the Charger became an instant icon alongside its two-door muscle-car brother Challenger.

More importantly, it did its job as a brand halo, injecting the bloodline with performance steroids that have benefited all Chargers. Not to mention their sales.

While the rest of the big sedan class — Chevy Impala, Ford Taurus, Toyota Avalon — have been buried under an SUV wave, Charger has survived with Captain Hellcat at the helm despite the fact that it sits on one of the oldest hulls in the business.

Dodge isn’t sitting on its laurels.

For 2020 it’s introducing a Charger Widebody variant for top Hellcat and Scat Pack trims. Widebody as in bodybuilding. Similar muscles are available on its brother Challenger.

“I just want to make bad-ass looking cars,” says Dodge designer Mark Trostle. He’s in the right place.

 Looking like pecs rippling from Charger’s torso, the Widebody’s enlarged fenders allow a wider track for the performance sedan. Wider track as in 1.5 more inches of rubber, a significant improvement on a big sedan like this — and a clever way to make the Charger’s chassis more nimble in its twilight years. (Fiat Chrysler CEO Mike Manley says a new platform for Charger is coming next decade.)

More than just flesh and rubber are upgraded for 2020. To deal with the added tire grip, chief engineer Jim Wilder and his team of bodybuilders have imbued both the Hellcat and Scat Pack with significant upgrades for shocks, springs and sway-bars. All this muscle doesn’t come cheap, and Widebody versions add abou$5,000 to the bottom line.

That means a standard Charger Hellcat commands a price just under $70,000, with my fully loaded Sonoma warrior (brooding, black-painted hood and all) clocking in at a nose-bleed $80,555. That tops a price spread not unlike the luxury cars whose specs Charger competes with.

The Charger family can be had from the entry-level $30,965V-6, all the way to Hellcat. Compare that to a BMW M5 which starts at $50,000 and stretches to $135,000.

I don’t imagine BMW and Charger customers will ever attend the same dinner parties, but if they do, Team Charger doesn’t need to be shy.

For $50,000 less, the Charger boasts 107 more ponies than the M5 and crosses the quarter-mile in the same 10.9 seconds. Yeah, M5 will spring to 60 mph nearly a second quicker (2.8 vs. 3.6), but credit that to the BMW’s all-wheel drive. The real mindblower here is Charger Hellcat’s near identical (0.96 vs. the M5’s 0.98) g-load cornering capability, despite weighing 300 pounds more than the state-of-the-art German.

I experienced this capability on twisty, country roads where the Saturn rocket feels strapped to the tarmac by its stiff suspension and giant Brembo brakes (yeah, M5 gets Brembos, too).

Best Charger ever? Not so fast. Hellcat, meet sibling Scat Pack.

Adopting the Hellcat’s same bodybuilding secrets — right down to those Brembos — the Widebody Scat Pack benefits from a lighter, 6.4-liter normally aspirated V-8 up front. Without Hellcat’s extra plumbing to feed more air to its supercharged, 6.2-liter eight-cylinder, the Scat Pack’s lighter weight translates to an M5-matching 0.98 cornering Gs.

I’m not making this up.

The result is a $45,000 Scat Pack Widebody (my loaded tester hit an even $60,000) that is a serious $20,000 cheaper than Hellcat (ahem, $70,000 south of the M5) that is just as sinister-looking in the rear-view mirror.

Sure, the Hellcat’s otherworldly supercharger whine will send chills up your spine, but at full bellow the Scat Pack’s V-8 roar will make grown men’s knees buckle. On-track at Sonoma, the Hellcat outpaced the Scat Pack thanks to the former’s prodigious torque. But with its rippled bod, the Scat Pack is as emotionally satisfying.

But wait, there’s more.

Due to packaging constraints, the Hellcat does not benefit from the latest safety-assist systems — meaning the $45,000 Scat Pack Widebody gets adaptive cruise-control. The Hellcat does not. That’s a huge plus for owners (most of us) who intend to use sedans for daily, family chores.

Is $45,000 still too rich for your stomach? Performance DNA trickles down.

For just $35,000, buyers can opt for the plenty-powerful, 300-horse Charger GT that comes equipped with the same rear-wheel drive handling (exclusive to class), hood scoop, Skittles color palette, brooding cowl … even the 20-inch tires found on its richer brothers.

Entranced by the V-8’s siren call? You can option up to the R/T and still leave the dealership for less than $40,000. The kids will love you when you come pick them up at school.

Speaking of which, all Chargers come with the secret sauce that makes them unique in muscledom: room.

Front-wheel drive competitors like the Avalon and Impala offer room without sex appeal. Rear-wheel drive coupes like the Camaro and Mustang offer sex appeal without the legroom (even the roomy Challenger requires hurdling the front seat to get in back).

The Charger sedan stretches Challenger’s wheelbase by 4 inches and puts it all to work in the back seat. My 6-foot-5 basketballer’s frame folded easily into back, letting me take thrill rides around Sonoma with French pro driver Nico Rondet.

You can enjoy this roominess with the best interior in American muscle, period. A simple, sculpted dash cups a standard 8.4-inch screen and intuitive UConnect infotainment system. Apple CarPlay is standard for getting you where you want to go.

The Hellcat adds red-tinted gauges that appropriately mimic the bloodshot eyes of some kind of underworld creature.

Someday Dodge will build Charger on a new, lighter platform. But for now, Detroit’s favorite son has managed to maintain Dodge swagger while dusting it with a personality that only luxury German performance makes (well, and Fiat Chrysler brother Jeep) can match.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I gotta take the family sedan back out on the track.

2020 Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Widebody and Scat Pack Widebody

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

Price: Base price Hellcat $71,140, including $1,495 destination charge ($80,555 as tested). Base price Scat Pack $47,490, including $1,495 destination charge ($61,445 as tested)

Powerplant: 6.2-liter, supercharged V-8; 6.4-liter V-8

Power: 707 horsepower, 650 pound-feet of torque (6.2-liter); 485 horsepower, 475 pound-feet of torque (5.7-liter)

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, Hellcat 3.6 seconds, Scat Pack 4.3 (mfr.); top speed, 196 mph (Hellcat Widebody)

Weight: Hellcat, 4,596 pounds; Scat Pack, 4,385 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA mpg, 13 city/22 highway/16 combined (Hellcat, est.); EPA mpg, 15 city/24 highway/18 combined (Scat Pack, est.)

Report card

Highs: BMW performance, Dodge price; Scat Pack stick

Lows: Hellcat gets pricey; handle with care, 707 is a lotta ponies

Overall: 4 stars

Cartoon: NBA China Ref

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 12, 2019

Payne: It’s not flashy, but the Honda Passport is practical, roomy and comfortable

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 12, 2019

Life's a beach. But the 2019 Honda Passport is for couples whose kids have flown the coop.

Life’s a beach. But the 2019 Honda Passport is for couples whose kids have flown the coop. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

The last time I took a road trip to South Haven, I was testing a Honda Civic Coupe. It was a nimble, athletic hatchback with polarizing styling that looked like it was designed by a 16-year-old. I couldn’t wait to get some laps on it at Gingerman Raceway, where we had a blast.

This summer I returned to South Haven in a Honda Passport. We never set foot on track.

The Passport is Honda’s entry into the mid-size SUV class occupied by stylish badges like the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Ford Edge and Nissan Murano. Its demographic is a different generation from the Civic Coupe. If the Civic is the first car for 20-somethings who’ve flown the nest, then the Passport is for 40-something empty-nesters who want SUV utility — but with more pizzazz than a three-row family bus.

The Passport and Civic Coupe bookend the enormous demographic that Honda covers today.

While the Civic Coupe shares its bones with other Honda hellions like the Si and winged Type R, the Passport is stablemate to the three-row Pilot SUV and Ridgeline pickups. Passport has picked up traits from both.

Five miles down the road from Gingerman — and a million miles away in lifestyle — is The Fields glamping resort. Glamping as in “glamorous camping,” Passport’s natural habitat.

Think of the Passport as a Glampilot. Glamorous Pilot.

After a cross-state, day’s journey in Passport’s quiet Pilot-like interior, the Passport summoned its inner pickup and happily bounced up the dirt road to the blueberry farm on which The Fields campground is located.

South Haven’s Gingerman has long been a destination for motorheads like me who have a need for speed. It’s one of the Midwest’s safest tracks to exercise your race car or performance sedan. But The Fields is more in line with a South Haven better known as a magnet for Midwesterners wanting to spend a weekend sampling Lake Michigan wineries, sandy beaches and orange sunsets.

Glamping brings style to outdoor camping, with luxury tents lit by chandeliers. The Passport brings Honda practicality to stylish, midsize utes.

Typically, empty-nesters have come to the segment looking for more bling than soccer-mom practicality. The Edge and Chevy Blazer RS are the most outstanding examples of this: rolling sculptures with floating roofs and yuuuge grilles.

Or there’s the Jeep Grand Cherokee and its iconic, seven-slot grille. My personal segment favorite is the Edge, which combines chiseled beauty with a sporty ST trim that I might be tempted to take out on Gingerman to floor its mad 335-horse, twin-turbo V-6 (with shift paddles, natch).

The Passport is a wallflower compared to these Hollywood starlets.

Sure, my Passport tester layered on the mascara — black grille, black wheels, blacked-out pillars — and sported wild, jewel-eyed peepers that would make Elton John jealous. But wipe away the makeup and Passport is a boxy Pilot that’s jacked up 1.6 inches for off-road cred.

Assuming packaging isn’t your top reason for purchase, the Passport’s strengths lie in good-old daily livability and value. In short, it’s a Honda — an obsessively passenger-friendly vehicle.

As butch as Passport appears outside, it will wow female buyers. There’s not a female SUV shopper that I haven’t preached Passport/Pilot/Ridgeline to.

Like its Honda stablemates, Passport forgoes the common tortoise-shell center console for a sliding shade. Combined with the space-saving electronic “trigger” shifter (You’ll get used to it; Corvette is adopting something similar), this gives the console bottom-less space, meaning a purse or computer tablet can fit down there.

Leave the sliding shade open and rummage in your purse for anything. Your days of purse-tossing on the passenger seat are over.

For smaller purses and other items, just keep the shade shut and throw ’em on top. During the course of our drive, Mrs. Payne and I tossed two phones, a purse and a Kleenex box there. Try doing that in any other vehicle.

On top of the center console’s dexterity, the Passport offers room for two cupholders and forward space that can hold and charge your phone.

The Passport’s interior serves passengers well even if it’s not as stylish as competitors. My favorite interior in the segment belongs to the Chevy Blazer with its Camaro-like, adjustable aviation vents.

Passport controls look like, well, other Hondas with standard-issue tablet screen and digital instrument display. But like the console, its excellent ergonomics are all about the customer. Unlike the Chevy, Honda allows you to shut off the annoying stop-start feature where the engine internationally stalls at stoplights to gain credits for federal mpg nannies. Annoy you? Push the button.

The Honda soundly beats its Detroit Three competitors in cargo space, a meaningful statistic as my wife and I dragged around two suitcases, two tennis bags and a cooler in our west-side trip.

But the Passport doesn’t stop there. A hidden cubby under the rear cargo floor provides separate storage for, say, muddy shoes or valuables. And the rear seats fold flat with the floor (unlike, ahem, the Edge) allowing you to easily slide in a bookcase.

There’s value, too. Only the turbo-4-powered Hyundai Santa Fe — at $4,000 less than my comparably equipped Passport — is a better value in the segment. My Elite trim tester clocked in at $44,000, competitive with the turbo-4-powered Ford Edge.

But compared to V-6 powered competitors Blazer and Grand Cherokee, the Passport is thousands of dollars less. When I put my foot into the Passport’s strong, throaty, 280-horse six-cylinder, I even briefly felt a Civic-like urge to boogie.

In this class of 4,000-pound-plus, all-wheel drive rhinos, the Passport handles better than most. With new entries from Honda and Chevy, the mid-size, empty-nest segment feels fresh. Yet, brand traits remain remarkably true.

The Jeep Grand Cherokee and its Trackhawk trim is the class-best dirt-kicker. The Edge’s ST macho and self-park technology are right out of the brand playbook. And like Chevy brothers Corvette and Camaro, the Blazer is the class athlete.

Passport’s ergonomic strengths are undeniable: roomy, powerful, comfortable, with an interior layout that never frustrates. The big ute lacked for nothing and excelled in everything.

Unless, of course, you want to take some laps around Gingerman Raceway. For that, you’ll need a different Honda.

2019 Honda Passport

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

Price: Base price $33,035, including $1,045 destination charge ($44,725 AWD Elite as tested)

Powerplant: 3.5-liter V-6

Power: 280 horsepower, 262 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 9-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.8 seconds (Car and Driver); towing, 5,000 pounds

Weight: 4,237 pounds (AWD Elite as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA mpg, 19 city/24 highway/21 combined (AWD as tested)

Report card

Highs: Best storage console in the biz; eager V-6 mill

Lows: Wallflower looks; not as stylish inside as competitors

Overall: 3 stars

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Payne: Mustang Ecoboost High Performance is a wild but affordable stallion

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 26, 2019

The 2020 Ford Mustang HiPo upgrades the base pony car to a 330-horsepower turbo-4, adding a stiffer suspension and bigger brakes for wicked performance for under $40K.

The 2020 Ford Mustang HiPo upgrades the base pony car to a 330-horsepower turbo-4, adding a stiffer suspension and bigger brakes for wicked performance for under $40K. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

Ford Mustang and Focus RS had a baby. Hello, wunderkind.

Actually his name is Mustang Ecoboost High Performance Package, but let’s just call it the HiPo. We all know great athletes by their nicknames anyway. MJ. Gronk. V-Mart.

The HiPo is a prodigy that bears the DNA of its parents — a hot-hatch hellion crossed with an elegant rear-wheel drive pony car. Rotating the RS’ eager turbo-four longitudinally and stuffing it into the Mustang’s forward bay, HiPo has a natural 50/50 weight balance, throaty voice and $35,000 price tag.

That affordability is the car’s secret sauce. It offers hours of fun for sports car owners who can only dream about owning its V8-powered, $60,000-plus big brothers GT350 and GT500.

Where the GT350 and GT500 really have to be taken to a race track to explore their limits, you can explore 80% of the HiPo’s bandwidth through Hell, Michigan’s twisties, Harbor Springs’ Tunnel of Trees or a parking lot’s autocross cones.

I got my first dose on the spaghetti curves of California Route 1 north of San Francisco. I was an instant addict.

BRAAAAAP! The bratty Mustang was off like a shot, its weighted steering rooted to the asphalt. Turn the wheel, and the nimble chassis followed like ink from a pen nib, pulling over an impressive 1G of cornering loads. Readers of this column know I am a disciple of the sixth-gen Camaro, the best-handling pony car devised thanks to Chevy stealing its chassis from the Cadillac ATS, the best-handling compact luxury sedan devised.

Mate the Camaro’s athletic bod to the 335-horse V-6 1LE Track Package and the Chevy is more fun than a free weekend pass to Cedar Point. No Mustang or Challenger or Charger could touch it. Until now.

Somehow, the elves in Ford Performance’s toy shop have conjured a Mustang to match the 1LE.

Credit chassis tricks like thicker sway bars, 10%-stiffer springs and engine-bay cross-braces that strap the pony flat to the road. And there is the famous 2.3-liter, 330-horse turbo engine, rescued from the RS before the pocket rocket left our shores for good.

Motorheads everywhere shed a tear that day as the top-trim RS followed the Focus line back to Europe. But its heart beats on in the Mustang and its is a worthy competitor to Camaro’s V-6 and sharp 6-speed manual box. More than worthy.

With optional 10-speed transmission, the HiPo will stomp a Camaro 1LE V-6 out of a stoplight by over half-a-second, 4.5 seconds to 5.1. I told you this kid was a prodigy.

WRAUUUGGH! I waved a big-boy Mustang GT350 by me on Route 1 and attached myself to his bumper like a sucker fish on an orca. We danced through the curves, the GT350 eventually leaving me behind with its prodigious 526-horse V-8 power. Nice to have four more cylinders. But drive a GT350 like that too long and it’ll turn your hair white. Not to mention wake every cop within a 50-mile radius.

Without the heavy V-8 up front, HiPo can be driven hard without scaring the lunch out of you. Or the dollars out of your wallet.

Yes, the 10-speed transmission is a treat. But for $1,500 less, the six-speed manual box is plenty engaging. It actually ups the visceral thrills since the engine is tuned for a higher rev range than the RS, so you can really row the gearbox. That, and there’s more SNAP CRACKLE POP when you lift off the throttle into a tight bend. Who says manual transmissions are dead?

HiPo also comes with a handling package that engineers refer to as the High Performance Hi — ½-inch wider sticky tires, bigger sway bars, limited-slip differential, magneride shocks — which seems kinda redundant on a special-edition Mustang already outfitted with $4,995 in handling and engine upgrades. It is.

Unless you’re a track-day regular, the standard HiPo is plenty of car. There, just saved you another $1,995.

Ford also offers a convertible version of the HiPo for an extra $5,500 so you can hear the RS engine topless, but chopping the top reduces chassis stiffness by 25%. So stick with the coupe, it’s gorgeous anyway in Grabber Green or Twister Orange (which won’t cost you a thing, either).

All you’ll need to add is leather seats.

GROAAAAAN! That’s the sound you’ll make after emerging from the standard cloth Mustang HiPo seats after a couple of hours of destroying country roads. I’ve found Mustang cloth to be hard on the back, so do yourself a favor and get the leather package — because once behind the wheel you won’t want to get out.

Bottom line, after adding the HiPo package to the base $27,765 Mustang, you have one of the best sports car bargains on the planet for $34,960:  Apple CarPlay and Android Auto standard. Nice touchscreen. Digital instrument display. Good visibility and actual rear seat legroom (though giraffe necks like your 6-foot-5 reviewer will struggle under the fastback roof).

The rear seat may deter Focus RS buyers who have followed their favorite engine to the HiPo. Squared-off hot hatches, after all, offer unique utility with their excellent rear cargo and head room.

But they will find a bargain in the HiPo, which is a cool $7,000 cheaper than the dearly departed $42,000 Focus RS and its manual-only gearbox. Focus fans will like the HiPo’s abundance of Skittle flavors, too — like the aforementioned green and orange, or Race Red, Kona Blue or Orange Fury.

This being one of nine Mustang trims, HiPo can be easily distinguished by its mesh grille, multi-colored rear pony badge and black hood stripes (which I would call whiskers, but this is a pony).

I’ve balked at the government emissions-forced trend toward turbo-4-powered performance cars, including the wispy standard four-banger in the $26,000 Mustang. The RS engine is not that four. Heck, this RS-derived engine has more output than the Mustang GT just a decade ago, and a personality to match. Bury the throttle through a tunnel — say, under Cobo after a long day at work — and hear the active exhaust erupt, gurgle and bang through the big quad exhaust pipes.

Papa Mustang and Mama RS would be proud of their little hellion. Just call him HiPo.

2020 Ford Mustang Ecoboost High Performance Package

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

Price: Base price $32,760, including $1,095 destination charge ($41,570 Coupe Premium as tested)

Powerplant: 2.3-liter turbo 4-cylinder

Power: 330 horsepower, 350 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual; 10-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.5 sec. (mftr.); top speed, 155 mph

Weight: 3,632 pounds, HiPo manual; 3,797 convertible automatic

Fuel economy: EPA: 20 city/27 highway/23 combined (coupe manual, convertible automatic)

Report card

Highs: Athletic handling, performance at an affordable price

Lows: Cloth seats stiff for long hauls, convertible not as athletic

Overall: 4 stars

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Posted by Talbot Payne on September 25, 2019

Payne: Ford brings back hybrid option for new Escape, and it’s a winner

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 25, 2019

The 2020 Ford Escape Sport Hybrid comes with blacked-out grille and windows, a digital instrument cluster and 198 horsepower.

The 2020 Ford Escape Sport Hybrid comes with blacked-out grille and windows, a digital instrument cluster and 198 horsepower. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

Ford’s two best-selling vehicles, the F-150 pickup and Escape SUV, may target different customers but they have traditionally relied on the same recipe: high-tech with high-design.

The F-150 is a tech-tastic smorgasbord of industry bests like trailer park-assist and stump-pulling towing. So, too, Escape, which introduced self-park-assist and kick-open tailgate gizmos that took many luxury brands years to emulate.

In 2015 the F-150 introduced its greatest tech confection yet — an eco-friendly aluminum-skin souffle — and customers loved it. Right on cue, here comes the Escape with its own daring entree: a hybrid powertrain targeted not at granola chewers, but at the meat of its customer base.

In fact, the hybrid model isn’t pitched as a green exotic. It simply stuffs the battery-electric, 198-horse drivetrain into its signature Sport model and dares you to like it.

I do.

I’ll leave it to the bean counters as to whether a $29,000 hybrid makes financial sense (Ford has to sell a lot of hybrids to meet federal fuel-economy regulations), but as a vehicle the hybrid — er, Sport Hybrid — is the Escape’s best option.

This is one good-looking geek. It might rival my handsome class-favorite Mazda CX-5 if only it handled like a Mazda. I’ll have to wait on the Escape ST for that, I guess.

The Escape has been a mainstay of small sport-utilities since the turn of the century. But it’s been a distant fourth in sales to the Japanese Big Three of Toyota (RAV4), Nissan (Rogue) and Honda (CR-V).

This despite Escape’s consistently brainiac entries.

That included a hybrid back in 2005, beating that darling of hybrid first-adopters, Toyota, to the menu by 11 years. Alas, Ford squandered the opportunity (an all-too familiar Detroit tale) and abandoned the Escape hybrid in 2012 due to poor sales. No wonder. The ’12 Escape hybrid  (which I recently flogged as a New York City taxi with 400,000 miles on the odometer), was $10,000 more expensive than the standard Escape, with less cargo room due to the battery.

More: Road test: A 2012 Ford Hybrid New York taxi with 400,000 miles

For 2020, the Escape has gone back to the drawing board. The result: an Escape designed from the get-go to take hybrid technology (just as Ford designs Mustangs with the asphalt-pawing GT350 in mind). This greenie is a no-compromise hybrid with the battery stored in the floor so as not to elbow in on cargo or cabin space.

Which is important because the new Escape is every golf foursome’s dream.

I can’t tell you how many women have approached me over the years asking for compact utes that fit four golf bags. Behold, the new Escape (Ford expects a 60%-plus female buyer mix) which will stack four easily and still provide the best rear legroom in class. I’m not making this up.

Thanks to rail-mounted rear seats that slide backward like the fronts, my 6-foot-5 frame could easily sit behind myself. Ford even scallops out the front seatbacks for more knee room.

Better yet, the Sport Hybrid’s electric motor helps make 200 horsepower (16 more than the base 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine) while smoothing out the ubiquitous stop-start stall that is the most hated feature in automotive today. Speaking of smooth, the hybrid mates a sippy CVT transmission to the gas engine, which contributes to seamless (if slower) acceleration compared to the standard, eight-speed tranny.

Ford then wraps this smart package in an exterior shell reminiscent of the Porsche Macan.

The Fusion looked like an Aston, the Explorer like a Land Rover and now Escape does Porsche. It looks sharp. It’s the cure for the common five-door.

I could gaze into Escape’s big, beautiful peepers for hours. Like the Mazda CX-5, this is a car that, unlike the homelier RAV4 and CR-V, won’t make you pine for luxury. It spells out E-S-C-A-P-E across its tookus, an upscale touch. And even the standard 1.5-liter car comes with dual tailpipes. Classy.

Hybrid Sport goes a step further with the best-looking wardrobe of the line. It’s better-looking than the $33,000 Titanium package. Starting at $29,000, the Escape SE Sport Hybrid gets a blacked-out grille, wheels (upgradable to 19-inch dishes) and window trim.

Comparably equipped, my $34,000 Escape tester was cheaper than a RAV4 hybrid while adding upscale touches like leatherette seats and big wheels. Though that’s still a grand above the bargain leather-throned Soul Red Mazda CX-5 hottie (in part because Mazda eschews hybrid for a slick-shifting four-banger).

This being an SUV, Escape is lathered with black fender cladding (ugh). But paint it Velocity Blue or Rapid Red and you’ll be the envy of the block.

Inside, the hybrid comes standard with the Escape’s modern 12-inch digital display stolen right out of a Lincoln Aviator, with cool Drive Mode graphics and readouts tracking hybrid kilowatts/horsepower while you head up a hill. Dude, that’s dope.

Dude, I wish it was as dope to drive.

Where the tight Mazda CX-5 begs to be flogged, the Escape will make you wish you were back in a Fusion sedan. Despite a 200-pound diet over the previous generation and isolated rear subframe, Escape is mid-pack in the handling department.

Most drivers will appreciate the sub-frame’s contributions to cabin quietness and smooth ride — speed-crazed motorheads will buy performance sedans to get their handling jollies.

As the interior quiet and roominess suggests Escape is obsessive about ergonomics. Importing the electronic, rotary shifter from Fusion (similar to Jeeps) opens acres of space for deep console bin storage as well as a deep dish for keys, change or a Big Mac. Lack of console space was a drawback in previous Escapes. No more.

Steering-wheel buttons are intuitive, and the interior design is clean and spare like the exterior — save for the curious, dimpled door inserts.

Sport Hybrid aside, customers can choose the terrific, entry-level turbo-3 cylinder with 180 horsepower — on par with similar class four-bangers (the Mazda CX-5 does 187 ponies) — and a color palette that includes a yummy Dark Persian Green.

For the tech-thirsty, a top-trim, 250-horse turbo-4 Titanium boasts neat Ford tricks like kick-open tailgate and self-park assist.

The Titanium can get pricey, but if you frequent crowded cities with parallel parking, consider it for its self-park ability alone. Escape will meticulously park itself with the touch of a button — no fender rubs, no curb-scarred wheels.

For Ford customers who lament the passing of the prom-queen Fusion sedan, the Escape is worth a look.

2020 Ford Escape

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

Price: Base price $26,080 including $900 destination charge ($34,240 SE Sport Hybrid, $36,025 SEL 2.0L, $40,070 Titanium 2.0L as tested)

Powerplant: 1.5-liter turbocharged 3-cylinder, hybrid with electric motor and 2.5-liter Atkinson 4-cylinder, or 2.0-liter turbo 4-cylinder

Power: 181 horsepower, 190 pound-feet of torque (1.5-liter); 200 horsepower, NA pound-feet of torque (hybrid); 250 horsepower, 280 pound-feet of torque (2.0-liter)

Transmission: 8-speed automatic, continuously variable transmission (CVT)

Performance: 0-60 mph, NA; towing 3,500 pounds (2.0L), 1,500 pounds (hybrid)

Weight: 3,299 pounds base (3,706 AWD Sport Hybrid as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA, 26 mpg city/31 highway/28 combined (1.5 liter AWD); 23 mpg city/31 highway/26 combined (2.0-liter AWD); EPA for hybrid NA — 35.1 mpg observed by Detroit News in spirited highway/back road driving (Sport Hybrid)

Report card

Highs: Sporty looks, hybrid value

Lows: Slow infotainment screen; CVT tranny slows hybrid off the line

Overall: 4 stars

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