Henry Payne Blog

Cartoon: Batman Robin Trump Pence

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 15, 2021

Cartoon: Gopher loves BMW Grille

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 15, 2021

Cartoon: Biden and MLK

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 15, 2021

Cartoon: MLK Day

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 15, 2021

Payne: Electric or gas? Audi e-tron vs. Audi SQ5

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 14, 2021

Cadillac Lyriq. Ford Mustang Mach E. Polestar 2. New, premium electric cars are coming and they will inevitably be compared to Tesla, the baseline for battery-powered success. But to sell in volume, these challengers must also outperform the gas siblings across the showroom floor.

Take the electric Audi e-tron Fastback and Audi SQ5 SUVs I just drove to Hell and back.

Hell, Michigan, that is. My favorite southeast Michigan drive route, the 120-mile journey tests a vehicle’s tech, handling and range. The gas-powered, $45,000 Audi Q5 is the brand’s best-selling vehicle, and its SQ5 performance version is the e-tron Sportback’s peer in power, looks and handling.

The 2021 Audi SQ5 is playful in the twisties for an SUV with its powerful engine and taut suspension.

Price them with similar features and an SQ5 costs $63,490 compared to my $79,390 e-Tron. For that premium you also get worse range, longer fuel stops and higher refueling prices. Oh.

I took off for Hell in the SQ5 without a moment’s thought. The e-tron, well … not so much. Drive an EV — especially a non-Tesla EV — outside its metro comfort zone and the trip conforms to your car, not the other way ’round.

I started my e-Tron with 174 miles of charge, and … but Payne, I thought the advertised range for e-Tron is 218?

Yes, but the first rule of battery-powered cars is you only charge to 100% when needed. Repeated, full charges compromise battery durability. E-tron’s 174 miles is shy of the Tesla Model Y’s 260 miles (80% of 326-mile full range) — and well short of the gas-powered SQ5’s 425-mile range (full tank, no 80% calculations needed).

The 2021 Audi SQ5 features a 3.0-liter turbo V6 with 349 horsepower.

The dreaded, range anxiety questions crawled into my head. Driving to Hell and back is 108 miles. But I also wanted to detour to Ann Arbor to pick up a Reuben sandwich from my favorite Zingerman’s Deli.

How many miles does that add? Will cold December weather sap my range? Can I make it?

Gah, I hate those questions. Tesla answers them with its proprietary Supercharger network. Not e-tron, which is dependent on third-party chargers.

The SQ5? No worries, even starting on a quarter of a tank. There are gas stations everywhere.

I asked the e-tron nav system to show chargers on my path. “No destinations were found,” came the reply. But I knew from experience that Ann Arbor has chargers in the vicinity, so I pushed the voices to the back of my head and shoved off.

But for its sporty, coupe-like roof, the e-tron looks similar to the SQ5. Silver vs. black grilles. Sculpted, 20-inch wheels. Hatchback.

An S Sport package options red brake calipers for the 2021 Audi SQ5 — one of many goodies available on the performance ute.

The drive experience, however, is very different.

Stomp the 355-horse e-tron’s gas pedal entering I-96 west and a wave of smooth, electric torque vaulted me into traffic. The 349-horsepower SQ5’s turbo-6 growls like a poked beast, but its automatic 8-speed tranny feels like a bucking bronco compared to the e-lightning bolt. The joys of electric driving, however, are often interrupted by the range-anxiety gremlin.

Payne, enough with the lead foot. Do you want to drain the battery?

Thoughts of trips north in my Tesla Model 3 — with serious range degradation over 75 mph — creeped in. Fun time was over. I set adaptive cruise control to 75 mph in “Efficiency” mode and sailed west.

Contrary to Tesla’s (and Mach E and Polestar) radical interior, Audi wants EVs to feel familiar. At first blush the e-tron and SQ5 interiors are similar: lush 12.5-inch digital cluster behind the steering wheel, nav route displayed in Google Earth, same steering wheel controls. Closer inspection reveals the e-tron gains a richer console with two touchscreens and deeper storage.

The Audis are no match for Tesla or Ford EVs in the tech department. Voice commands lag (“Take me to Zingerman’s Deli, Ann Arbor” was translated as “Delhi, Michigan”), and it won’t tempt you to self-drive on interstates.

The 2020 Audi e-tron Sportback makes a quick stop at Zingerman's Deli in Ann Arbor - so that Payne can refuel with a Reuben sandwich.

I reached Hell in e-tron after 55 miles — with 66 miles taken off the battery. Remaining range: 109 miles.

Tipping the scales at 5,819 pounds, e-tron is a hefty 1,400 pounds heavier than SQ5 despite their similar dimensions. But with all that battery weight in its belly, the EV was surprisingly stable around Hell’s writhing roads — matching the lighter SQ5.

My Zingerman’s detour left me with 76 miles of battery to travel 40 miles home to Oakland County. The range anxiety gremlins were back again. Not because I couldn’t make it — but because I don’t have a non-Tesla compatible charger in my garage.

I need to top up at a fast charger so I’d have reserve charge when I got home.

Audi’s nav system does not prioritize Electrify America fast chargers (the only 150 kW-plus network comparable to Tesla). I searched Ann Arbor — a Shell station, EV Go station — but their limited stalls and slow, 50 kW charging rate could take hours. Deep in the list, I found a Walmart charger — synonymous with Electrify America — 20 miles away in Novi, a short detour off my I-275 trip home.

The 2020 Audi e-tron Sportback had some trouble disengaging from the charger at the Electrify America fast charger stop.

This sort of thing drives Mrs. Payne crazy. She hates when the car dictates the trip. Not to mention the 25- to 40-minute charging time compared to a five-minute gas stop. Happily for her, she was not along this day.

I arrived at the Novi Walmart to find four state-of-the-art, 150 kWh EA chargers. Assuming the stalls are working.

Which mine wasn’t.

A call to EA confirmed my stall was down, but the others were OK. E-tron filled from 42 miles of battery range (20%) to 158 miles (80%-ish) in 25 minutes. Cost? $22.36 at 43 cents-per kWh. I didn’t need to fill the SQ5 on the trip back, but the equivalent mileage on $2.50 Premium gas would cost $16.10. Oh.

So much for cheap electricity. Happily for buyers, Audi knows it — and is offering free charging up to 1,000 hours.

The Electrify America fast charger reads the 2020 Audi e-tron Sportback at a Novi station.

I pulled on the charger to decouple it from the e-tron, and … it wouldn’t let go. Yank. Stuck. Yank. Still stuck. A call to EA confirmed it was an Audi issue.

“Try pressing UNLOCK on the key fob at the same time you press the charging door UNLOCK button,” said my EA guide helpfully. It worked. I arrived home — 30 minutes later than the same trip in SQ5 — with 144 miles of battery charge left. The SQ5 had 225 miles left on the tank.

“We all know EVs are coming with all the global governments enacting their EV regulations,” an Audi spokesman said this fall. The question is whether customers will be driving SQ5s instead.

The 2020 Audi e-tron Sportback has a more coupe-like roof than the standard e-tron - but the same hatchback utility.

2020 Audi e-tron Sportback

Vehicle type: All-wheel drive, four-door, electric SUV

Price: $70,095, including $995 destination charge ($79,390 as tested)

Powerplant: 95 kWh lithium-ion battery driving twin electric motors

Power: 355 horsepower, 414 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Single-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.5 seconds (mfr.); top speed, 125 mph

Weight: 5,754 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA est. range, 218 miles

Report card

Highs: Smooth performance; luxurious interior

Lows: Low range compared to competitive set; hopscotch charging network

Overall: 3 stars

The 2021 Audi SQ5 is a performance variant on Audi's best-selling Q5 SUV. The SQ5 offers lots of power to go with a comfortable interior and 425 miles of range.

2021 Audi SQ5

Vehicle type: All-wheel drive, four-door SUV

Price: $53,995, including $1,095 destination charge ($71,790 Prestige with S Sport package as tested)

Powerplant: 3.0-liter turbocharged V-6

Power: 349 horsepower, 369 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.5 seconds (mfr.); top speed, 155 mph

Weight: 4,321 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA est. 18 mpg city/23 mpg highway/20 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: All-around performer; long range

Lows: Tranny feels rough compared to EV; poor console space

Overall: 4 stars

Payne: The Acura TLX gets its mojo back

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 14, 2021

Think of great career athletic comebacks and a few come to mind. Tiger Woods at the Masters in 2019. Andre Agassi winning the French Open in 1999. Nike Lauda’s rebound after a fiery crash to win the world Formula One title.

Add Acura to the list.

Hondas’ luxury brand was the choice of motorheads at the turn of the century with such apex-carvers as the Acura Integra and TLX Type-S. Then Acura took a wrong turn and got lost in the wilderness. The quick moves gave way to soft cars as Acura built luxury liners like the RDX and hung big chrome beaks on its bow.

With its all-new 2021 TLX performance sedan, Acura has returned to its roots. The new car — with the first Type-S performance trim in 12 years lurking in the wings — is a toned, powerful, affordable athlete.

Yet in the decade-plus that Acura wandered the wilderness, the market changed.

Acura has once again positioned itself as a value athlete against the German trinity of BMW, Mercedes and Audi. But this go-around, Acura isn’t the only brand that is redefining itself with premium sedans. The $40,000 sedan market is flush with ambitious products for those who are looking for something different than the same ol’ German.

For example: while TLX baselines competitively to the Teutonic trio, the Mazda 6, Kia Stinger and VW Arteon (a mainstream German) baselines to the TLX, undercutting it in price while offering equally compelling specs.

Opt for the A-Spec package and the 2021 Acura TLX gains a luscious red interior.

In this boiling piranha tank of great sedans, I took the TLX predator for a ride.

Acura boss Jon Ikeda and his musketeers realized last decade that Honda’s performance brand had to build a distinctive brand or be left behind. Not for nuthin’ have the Germans achieved their renown. They’ve built reputations at the highest levels of motorsports which trickle down to their performance-studded production lineups.

Take BMW. With the mid-engine, 1979 BMW M1, Bimmer set a performance halo that is the envy of today’s luxe bands. The M badge — now appearing on Olympians like the BMW M4 and M2 — brings track-tuned athleticism that trickles down through every SUV and sedan in its lineup.

So Acura launched the mid-engine NSX in 2015, jump-starting Acura Precision Performance.

Awesomeness had followed. The NSX wowed with its hybrid performance, all-wheel drive and sculpted styling — a $160,000 supercar offering the same tech as a $900,000 Porsche 918. The NSX has spawned a competitive, IMSA GTD race car. And just to be sure no one questions Acura’s commitment to supercar performance, it won the IMSA championship outright in 2019 with a striking Acura DPI entry run by Captain Roger Penske.

The commitment to performance has spread through everything in the lineup. The Acura RDX may be a volume SUV, but its interior style and athletic handling are inspired by Papa NSX. Even the MDX mid-size sedan shared the NSX’s electric, all-wheel-drive system.

The distinctive front end of the 2021 Acura TLX complete with A-Spec, dark trim.

But it’s the TLX that most closely follows the NSX lineage. The world may be moving to SUVs — 70% reckons Acura by 2025 — but the premium brand realizes that buyers still want ground-hugging performance sedans.

Take my friend John, who has eschewed SUVs for a Tesla Model S and now an Audi A6. Why? Because when he leaves the city behind, he wants to have some fun on America’s wide-open roads.

The TLX is the perfect companion to the Acura RDX, one of my favorite SUVs for not only its handling, but its supreme value. This is a $38,000 SUV that offers standard adaptive cruise control, panoramic roof and leatherette interior. Good luck finding that on a German.

For about $700 less than the RLX, the TLX offers all that value with sedan handling.

Using all 272 ponies in TLX’s all-new 2.0-liter turbo-4, I consumed corners over Oakland County’s Old Pontiac Trail. The chassis has 50% more torsional rigidity than the last gen. The 10-speed tranny shifts like butter. The torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system grips like a fly on ointment.

The 2021 Acura TLX comes by its performance naturally - the Acura brand races sedans (far left) as well as it mid-engine, supercar NSX.

But surveying my stallion after my spirited ride, I wondered if that was enough.

For all its race car inspiration, the TLX is conservative in styling. Sure, designers have made a lower, wider, sleeker sedan. But everyone’s doing that these days — have you seen the Hyundai Sonata? At just $26,000, it’s created a rear LED light show that would make the luxe class proud.

TLX’s fascia design is more competitive with the Mazda 6 and Kia Stinger, which offer specs similar to the TLX — but for much less.

Consider that the Mazda — outfitted with a comparable, smooth, 2.5-liter turbo-4 — is the Acura’s equal in style and standard appointments, yet stickers for 7 grand less. Or for really insane value, consider Kia’s flagship AWD Stinger, which boasts 100 more horsepower, better interior and cargo room for a price similar to Acura’s AWD A-Spec model.

As I say, boiling piranha tank.

Better that I view the TLX from the interior — my 6’5” frame and broad shoulders fit easily in a driver’s seat that is noticeably broader (thanks to a wider track stance) than the last gen.

The 2021 Acura TLX is all-new with 50% stiffer chassis, 272-horse turbo-4 engine, double-wishbone front suspension, and sculpted styling.

Here, Acura has constructed a more distinctive landscape. The center console immediately reminds of the NSX supercar with a Drive Mode button so big it could launch a nuke. The clever “trigger” shifter is signature Acura.

The red leather seat option is, well, red leather. It’s irresistible.

More resistible is the touchpad-operated infotainment system. While not as maddening as Lexus’ unworkable mousepad, it’s a distraction. Better to stick with tried-and-true rotary dials (Mazda) or touchscreen (BMW, Merc) that are more intuitive to a generation of smartphone users.

It’s worth noting, too, that Mazda also races a mid-engine IMSA racing prototype that competes against Acura. And the Mazda 3 hatchback is more beautiful than any entry-level luxury compact.

Coming attractions: The Acura TLX Type S will feature a 355-horse turbo V-6. Yum.

But TLX (and TL predecessor) has built impressive numbers over its 25-year U.S. run despite slips along the way. In 2019, TLX was the third-best selling model in compact luxe — behind only Audi and Cadillac. With the 2021 model, Acura is rewarding its fans with the best TLX in three generations. It’s a credit to Acura’s investment in a brand that speaks performance again.

The comeback is complete, but nowhere near done. Just wait until the 350-horse, turbo 6-powered Acura TLX Type S arrives this spring. The Audi S4 should be nervous. But both will struggle to keep up with the Stinger GT.

2021 Acura TLX

Vehicle type: Front- and all-wheel-drive, four-door, five-passenger sedan

Price: $40,525, including $1,025 destination charge ($47,775 A-Spec as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder

Power: 272 horsepower, 280 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 10-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.9 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 131 mph

Weight: 3,920 pounds (AWD as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 22 mpg city/30 highway/25 combined (FWD); 21 mpg city/29 highway/24 combined (AWD)

Report card

Highs: Distinctive interior; taut chassis

Lows: Conservative exterior; glitchy touchpad

Overall: 3 stars

Cartoon: Impeachment and Biden Unity

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 13, 2021

Cartoon: Parler Disappears

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 13, 2021

Ford dominates Car of Year Awards with F-150 and Mustang Mach-E

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 12, 2021

Detroit — And the envelope please. . . .

Ford Motor Co. dominated the first big award of the 2021 automotive season — the North American Car, Truck and Utility Vehicle of the Year — claiming two wins. The Ford F-150 took home Truck of the Year while the Blue Oval’s first all-electric vehicle, the Mustang Mach-E, won Utility of the Year. Hyundai Elantra’s won for Car of the Year.

Ford F-150

The 28th annual NACTOY awards are one of the auto industry’s most prestigious. Selected by an independent group of 50 journalists from across North America (including the author of this article), the prize honors new vehicles that have raised the standards and become new benchmarks for their classes.

“It is always a complex process to bring a vehicle of this magnitude to market,” said Kumar Galhotra, Ford president of the Americas and International Markets Group, on receiving the award for the 14th generation of the best-selling F-150. “It was a process made even more complex by COVID.”

Ford has been the best-selling truck in America for 44 straight years, with a model line that offers models ranging from $30,000 work trucks to luxurious Limited models with sticker prices north of $70k.

The F-150 offers countless configurations across six different powertrains with a hybrid option offered for the first time in 2021. Detroit automakers dominate the pickup segment and the F-150 beat out two other formidable truck models, the off road-oriented Jeep Gladiator Mojave and the first 700-horse pickup, the Ram 1500 TRX.

The SUV category was the year’s most contested as automakers have flooded the market with models to satisfy consumers’ unquenchable thirst for all things ute. Of the 43 new vehicles introduced this year, half were SUVs.

Ford Mustang Mach-E

The ambitious, battery-powered Mustang Mach-E is Ford’s answer to Tesla Inc.’s successful Model 3 and Model Y model line. The first non-sports car from Ford’s Mustang sub-brand, the Mach-E beat out Genesis’s first SUV, the GV80, and the iconic Land Rover Defender.

“This is really special in so many ways,” said Galhotra. “The Mach-E is the first new member of the Mustang family in a long time. It represents the future of our company.”

Though sedans make up a diminishing share of the U.S. auto market, Asian manufacturers like Hyundai continue to devote resources to compact cars as a way to attract entry-level buyers and appeal to consumers who prefer to think outside the SUV box. With its 2021 Elantra, Hyundai offers a comprehensive compact lineup to battle segment leader Honda Civic.

“With bold styling and an impressive list of standard high-tech features, along with multiple configurations that include hybrid and high-performance models, the Elantra confirms Hyundai’s serious commitment to the compact car segment,” said NACTOY juror and board member Gary Brauer, executive publisher of CarExpert.com.

North American Car, Truck and Utility Vehicle of the Year Awards are one of the industry's most prestigious.

The nine finalists for the 2021 model year were weaned from a competitive group of 27 semifinalists judged on criteria including: innovation, design, safety, performance, technology, driver satisfaction, and value.

The selection process takes place over 12 months of jury testing and three separate votes. This year was the first time the winners were announced via a virtual event due to the ongoing challenges of the coronavirus. The event was initially scheduled to be held at Detroit’s TCF Center.

Cartoon: Trump Sore Loser

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 8, 2021

Cartoon: Olive Garden Cooper Free

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 8, 2021

Cartoon: Cooper Olive Garden

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 8, 2021

Cartoon: Trump Law and Order Statue

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 7, 2021

Cartoon: Trump Riots

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 7, 2021

Cartoon: Capitol Police Mob

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 7, 2021

Payne: Sorento SUV is luxe ute in Kia clothing

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 7, 2021

Kia is on a roll these days with the sensational Stinger Sportback and Telluride SUV. Mainstream products with premium flair, they beg the question: Why pay 70 grand for a luxury brand when you can have the same vehicle for $45,000 under a mainstream badge?

Kia asks the question again with its all-new, mid-size Sorento SUV.

Remade from bumper to bumper, the fourth-generation Sorento takes its cues from big brother Telluride and offers a brawny bod with a brainy interior. Kinda that bearded Hugh Jackman lumberjack look.

The Telluride did it so effortlessly. You remember the ads. The three-row Telluride roguishly running with the bulls while a narrator intoned: “When we designed Telluride we asked ourselves: Would it be ruthless or beautiful? Muscular or sophisticated? Down to earth or a work of art? The answer was simple: Yes.”

Oh, we swooned over that one. And the Telluride flew off the shelves. Its value equation was absurd — a three-row SUV that looked liked a Cadillac but priced five grand less than a comparable Ford Explorer. Kia was giving away candy.

“By aiming high, Kia has created a premium product at nonpremium prices. It’s what we call a (Lexus) LS400 moment and that’s significant. Get one before Kia realizes what it’s done and raises the price,” writes Car and Driver this year in naming Telluride one of its 2020 10 Best.

Sorento copies the same formula. Not that the last-gen Sorento was a dog. It scored 11 on value, too. But with Telluride halo raising the bar, mid-size Sorento rises with it. It’s slotted between the compact Kia Sportage and Telluride and targeted at the Ford Edge, Chevy Blazer, Hyundai Santa Fe, Nissan Murano and Honda Passport among others.

For 2021, the Kia Sorento gets a more aggressive front end.

As automakers try to slake our SUV thirst, the differences between multiple segments are thin. Kia is particularly adept at slicing the roast with a buffet of choices including Soul, Seltos, Niro, Passport, Sedona (minivan), Sorento and Telluride.

But Telluride has really changed the game for the brand.

It’s enormous popularity — “we are getting customers trading in Land Rovers, Mercedes and Volvos for this SUV,” says product manager Mark Sovino — has forced Sorento to re-imagine its personality. Once Kia’s three-row family SIV, Sorento has surrendered that mantle to Telluride.

It’s now tasked to pitch empty nesters like myself and Mrs. Payne. No longer in need of a big family hauler, folks like us still covet the room of a big SUV but don’t want to show up at the dinner party driving the same ol’ Ford Explorer/Chevy Traverse/Telluride family bus.

My Sorento SX and X-line testers looked hot.

Not as hot as the Chevy Blazer RS — which appears to have been designed by Marvel Comics as Iron Man’s daily driver — but certainly a step above Passport or conservative Korean cousin Santa Fe. Gone are the rounded edges (love handles?) of the previous generation, replaced by a sculpted, high belt-line and gritty, full-sized grille. Off-road, X-line trim? Check. Sexy black wheels? Check. Distinctive LED light front and rear? Double check.

Frankly, the family Telluride still looks better, its signature square headlights and vertical taillights noticeable from miles away. I wish Sorento got the latter just as every Volvo gets vertical taillights. Where Sorento really channels Telluride’s vibe is under the sheet metal.

The 2021 Kia Sorento options a panoramic sunroof on this $43,000 SUV.

Indeed, it laps the Telluride when it comes to powertrain options.

Where Telluride offers a competent 291-horse, 3.8-liter V-6, little brother Sorento has a toolbox of 2.5-liter 4-banger, turbo-4, hybrid, and plug-in hybrid. This is a luxe-worthy lineup. Speed-addled monster that I am, I prefer the turbo-4 with 311-pound feet of torque that exceeds even the Telluride’s 262 number. Heck, it’s even on par with the Mazda CX-9 and its stump-pulling four (more on the Mazda in a moment).

But for those without my size 15 lead foot, the Sorento hybrid is just $39,000 — $5,000 less than a comparable SX turbo-4 model that I tested. Both boast front-wheel drive, panoramic sunroof and interior amenities galore, but the hybrid model gets a whopping 650 miles of range.

That’s on par in price and range with a Toyota RAV-4 hybrid that is a class smaller. Under the roof, Sorento brings Telluride refinement.

A slick, available digital instrument panel bleeds into a wide infotainment dash display. Clever details abound like abundant console storage and six USB ports throughout the cabin, including one each on the front seat sides so they are accessible to front and rear passengers depending on need. Soothing media sounds lurk in the console touchscreen — Lively Forest, Calm Sea Waves, Warm Fireplace — for when the news of the day just gets too nuts.

A hybrid Volvo XC60 in my driveway at the same time I tested the $43,000 Sorento noticeably lagged in tech and interior amenities despite its $70,000 price tag. The Kia is that good.

The 2021 Kia Sorento comes standard with front-wheel drive, left, or optional all-wheel drive, right. The AWD version includes an X-line appearance package for a tougher, off-road look.

Sorento’s natural enemy is Mazda, another mainstream brand that has vaporized the gap between mainstream and luxury. Mazda’s affordable, capable CX-5 compact is my pick of the compact segment, but Mazda doesn’t not offer a tweener, mid-size SUV like the Sorento. Its CX-9 dimensions compete with Telluride.

Still, Sorento could learn a thing or two from the voluptuous Mazda, primarily in the engine room. Both Kia and Mazda offer responsive, torquey turbo-4s, but the Mazda responds instantly to my right foot, its 6-speed tranny smooth as silk. The Kia is rougher, less confident.

And the CX-9, loaded to the gunwales like the Kia with standard adaptive cruise control, leather seats, blind spot assist and invisibility shield (kidding abut that last one) comes in two grand south of the Sorento.

Apple to apples, Sorento is the value pick of the mid-size SUV litter with a volume, front-wheel-drive model with all the goodies clocking in at $42.2K — or about $2,000 less than comparable chariots from Nissan, Ford and Honda. And, ahem, Sorento still offers a useful third-row that the others don’t.

But the real eye-opener here is the apples-to-caramel apples luxury comparison.

My favorite, $43,960, X-line trimmed Sorento goes toe-to-toe with the best-selling mid-size SUV, the Lexus RX350. With similar horsepower and more torque from its turbo-4, the Sorento matches a $55,595 Lexus with panoramic roof, heated-cooled front leather seats, all-wheel drive, adaptive cruise, heated steering wheel, even 20-inch alloy wheels — while offering a more satisfying touchscreen infotainment experience.

Sorento asks if you want affordable or luxurious? The answer is yes.

The 2021 Kia Sorento is edgier, more upright than the outgoing model. The new wardrobe brings the Sorento up to speed with Kia's range-topping, popular Telluride.

2021 Kia Sorento

Vehicle type: Front- or all-wheel drive, four-door, six- or seven-passenger SUV

Price: $30,560, including $1,170 destination charge ($42,205 FWD SX Prestige and $43,960 AWD SX Prestige with X-line package as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder, 2.5-liter turbo-4, Hybrid 1.6-liter turbo-4 mated to FWD electric motor

Power: 191 horsepower, 181 pound-feet of torque (2.5-liter); 281 horsepower, 311 pound-feet of torque (2.5-liter turbo-4); 227 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque (hybrid)

Transmission: 8-speed automatic; 6-speed automatic (hybrid only)

Performance: 0-62 mph, 7.6 seconds (mfr., X-line); towing, 3,500 lbs.

Weight: 4,120 pounds (X-line as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 21 mpg city/28 highway/24 combined (AWD turbo-4); 39 mpg city/35 highway/37 combined (hybrid)

Report card

Highs: Sexier Sorento; affordable, multiple drivetrains

Lows: Drivetrain hiccups; handsome big brother Telluride can be had for similar price with same options

Overall: 3 stars

Payne: Two good to be true, VW Arteon and Honda Accord Hybrid

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 7, 2021

The 2020 VW Arteon R-line model is the brand's priciest sedan at nearly $50,000 — but that's nearly $20,000 south of a comparable Audi A7 with similar hatchback utility. The sedan is one of the most beautiful shapes on the market.

It’s just gorgeous.

Sleek sedan lines. Clamshell hood. Black, 20-inch turbine wheels. Coupe-like roof tapering to a huge, utilitarian hatchback. No, I’m not talking about the Audi A7. I’m ogling the Volkswagen Arteon, the prettiest midsize car in the U.S. market.

This week’s $49,100 Arteon tester is a prime example of a wave of mainstream cars in the market that are as good as their luxury peers — but for thousands of dollars less.

The 2020 VW Arteon's hatchback can easily swallow large cargo like TVs and bikes — especially with the rear seats folded.

You want beauty and power in a big sedan? You don’t have to pay the comparably equipped Audi A7’s $72,340 price tag. The VW will do nicely, thank you very much. And it upends the brand hierarchy since the two all-wheel drive lookers come from the same VW Group stable.

Another example is the $36,795 Honda Accord Hybrid I just flogged all over Washtenaw County. Is your idea of luxury a sippy 44-mpg Lexus ES 400e hybrid with a mega front grille? Save $10,000 and buy a loaded, 43-mpg Honda Accord Hybrid with a kisser you can see coming a mile away.

Credit the electronics revolution or manufacturing advancements or feng shui, but my twin testers have all but shrunk the mainstream/luxury gap to nothing. I’ll get to the gaps that remain in a moment.

But first, let’s take another lap around the Arteon.

Audi A7 designer Sebastiano Russo is a genius, and his protégés appear to have designed the Arteon. The symmetry of the car is perfection. Once upon a time, it was the wheels that separated luxury from mainstream, but my VW R-line’s turbine pinwheels are the most stunning thing this side of a Tesla Model S.

The interior of the 2020 VW Arteon is not quite as stylish as the car's ambitious exterior, but the digital screens and ready knobs make for easy usability.

The Arteon’s fastback is not only lovely, but it’s a hatchback just like the Audi, bringing SUV-like utility to a sedan. That’s crucial in my book. SUVs have eaten sedans for lunch thanks to their easy hatch-storage and high seating position. But that utility has come at the sacrifice of appearance. Boxy, five-door ute profiles are hard to distinguish.

I recently drove a refined, athletic Audi SQ8 — its profile virtually indistinguishable from every other SUV in the parking lot despite its $95,495 price tag. Sedan designers have been quick to take advantage. There’s no mistaking the Arteon.

Or the Accord. Introduced in the 2018 model year, the Accord wowed with its stunning interior, dramatic sportback and chiseled physique. Its cheaper price compared to the Arteon owes in part to the car’s normal boot opening, as Honda avoided the considerable expense of fortifying the rear end for a hatchback. Additionally, the Accord does not offer all-wheel drive like Arteon.

But when compared to a $47,635 Lexus ES 300h, the bargain Honda is superior in every way. Its exterior is more elegant and its huge maw nearly as intimidating as the Lexus (if that’s your kind of thing).

With digital screen displays and excellent navigation tools including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, the 2021 Honda Accord Hybrid is better than a Lexus ES for thousands of dollars less.

The interior is a tour de force with digital instrument display, tablet display and acres of room (roomier than Lexus and on par with the Arteon, with palatial 40.4 inches of rear legroom) that allowed a giraffe like me more space than a living room Barcalounger.

Under its sunroof, it goes toe-to-toe with the Lexus on 12-way memory leather seats, heated steering wheel and trigger shifter. Then it pulls away with Honda’s typical, obsessive attention to interior ergonomics: better infotainment controls, head-up display and wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone compatibility.

A word on those last items.

General Motors pioneered head-up displays a couple decades ago in high-end vehicles like Cadillac and Corvette, and Honda is the only automaker to my knowledge to match Caddy in enabling head-up adjustment on the dash — a detail (remember that obsessive ergonomics?) consumers will appreciate.

As for the wireless smartphone apps, Mrs. Payne nearly bought the car on the spot. One of the electronic revolution’s greatest advancements, smartphone apps have enabled $25,000 cars the ability to navigate on Google Maps — and that’s superior to any navigation system that luxury-makers can produce. Wireless compatible means you simply have to enter the car to sync it to your phone’s nav/text/email. Coming soon to every vehicle.

The comfortable, quiet interior of the 2021 Honda Accord Hybrid features optional leather seats and sunroof. Console ergonomics are excellent for storage and usability.

The gap to luxury is still evident in the VW Arteon’s interior. Not that it’s bad — it just doesn’t measure up to the car’s exterior ambitions even as it supplies a standard digital instrument display, Wi-Fi connectivity, mobile-app connectivity and panoramic moonroof for stargazing.

Arteon matches Audi with its torque-vectoring all-wheel drive drivetrain. Shy of the Audi A7’s 335-horse turbo-6, Arteon’s 268 horses and 258 pound-feet of torque are good enough for a 0-60 mph sprint in 6 seconds compared to the A7’s 5.2.

Step on the throttle through the twisties and the big VW hatchback rotates with precision, the turbo-4 growling happily. It’s athleticism that VW has honed across hatchbacks like the peerless Golf GTI and R for years. In between retail store stops where the Arteon preened in parking lots next to cookie-cutter SUVs — boooring! — I enjoyed miles of social distancing across the country roads of northern Oakland County.

That athleticism is found in the Accord as well. Honda is a racing brand with deep roots in Formula One and IMSA racing championships. The DNA trickles down to the Accord. With its planted steering and stiff bones, it is a joy to throw around.

That joy is numbed a bit by the Accord hybrid’s one-speed drive and its unrelenting CVT-like drone. Ugh, the sacrifices of driving green.

But the numbers are undeniable. Compared to the luxe-class Lexus, Accord boasts 614 miles of range on the highway compared to the ES 300e’s 568. Yet the Honda sprints to 60 mph a noticeable 2 seconds quicker. Thrills for less dollar bills.

Of course, brand matters. Lexus exclusivity means you’ll see fewer of them on the road compared to the 250,000-plus units Accord moves every year. Giving the Accord Hybrid a unique grille treatment — or two-tone roof — might help. But so superior is it to the Lexus that it’s hard to justify another $10,0000 for a badge.

My sultry Manganese Gray Metallic Arteon had no such issue. Given its pricing as VW’s halo car, its sales numbers aren’t much different than the A7, meaning you won’t see many of them. Roll down the block and jaws will drop.

And with the $33,0000 you save by buying it instead of an A7? You can buy a Honda Accord EX-L Hybrid.

The 2021 Honda Accord Hybrid is a sleek, mainstream sedan with many of the same amenities as luxury cars costing thousands more. The hybrid starts at about $1,500 more than a gas-powered Accord. This loaded Touring model lists for $36,795.

2021 Honda Accord Hybrid

Vehicle type: Front-wheel drive, four-door, five-passenger sedan

Price: $26,370, including $955 destination charge ($36,795 Hybrid Touring as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter 4-cylinder mated to AC motor and 1.3-kWh battery

Power: 212 horsepower, 232 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: One-speed direct drive

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.5 seconds (mfr.); top speed, 115 mph

Weight: 3,803 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 44 mpg city/41 highway/43 combined

Report card

Highs: Good looks inside and out; loaded with premium features

Lows: CVT drones; polarizing, big front grille

Overall: 3 stars

The 2020 VW Arteon R-line model is the brand's priciest sedan at nearly $50,000 — but that's nearly $20,000 south of a comparable Audi A7 with similar hatchback utility. The sedan is one of the most beautiful shapes on the market.

2020 Volkswagen Arteon

Vehicle type: Front- and all-wheel-drive, five-door, five-passenger hatchback

Price: $37,015, including $1,020 destination charge ($49,100 Premium R-Line as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder

Power: 268 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.0 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 127 mph

Weight: 3,854 pounds (AWD as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 20 mpg city/29 highway/23 combined

Report card

Highs: Stunning exterior; roomy cabin and cargo space

Lows: Conservative interior; lacks a GTI-like performance model

Overall: 4 stars

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