Henry Payne Blog

Payne: 500X Fiat fits U.S.

Posted by hpayne on April 23, 2015

2016 Fiat 500X combines iconic Italian style with American

When the White House Auto Task Force gift-wrapped Chrysler to Italy’s Fiat six years ago, hardly anyone seemed to notice that a full-line American automaker was being taken over by an econobox-builder whose products could fit in the bed of a RAM pickup.

They called it Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. It’s like Mini Cooper took over General Motors and called it Mini Motors.

In addition to gaining iconic brands like RAM and Jeep, Fiat’s brilliant, sweater-model-and-CEO Sergio Marchionne saw the chance to reintroduce his Italian brand to American tastes for the first time in a quarter century. Two years later, Chef Sergio’s Fiat cafes were popping up all over the country featuring … one menu item.

An appetizer. A tiny Italian meatball. The Fiat 500. Tasty. Bite-sized.

The elites inside Washington’s Beltway drooled at the menu, predicting the little meatball was just the kind of fuel-efficient, low-calorie diet obese Americans craved to cure them of their sport ute ways. (These same Washington elites also think pro soccer is going to take America by storm.)

But a cafe cannot survive on meatballs alone. Neither can a car company. The adorable 500 was a blast to drive and a bomb at the cash register. It fit Europe where a gallon of gas costs the gross national product of Greece and roads are as narrow as linguine. But in wide open, $3-a-gallon-gas America? Fiat was the mouse that bored. Cute as a tricycle and just as prone to being Chevy Suburban road kill. Meatball 500sales were half of predictions.

“We thought we were going to show up and just because of the fact people like gelato and pasta, people will buy it,” Chef Sergio told Bloomberg Business. “This is nonsense.” So he went about building a bigger menu.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in the U.S. … build utes.

For all of Washington’s day dreams about small cars saving the planet, Sergio watched as the Jeep Grand Cherokee saved Chrysler. Not just Chrysler, but Fiat as well as Europe’s economy tanked and North America became FCA’s profit engine. The Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango and RAM pickup sold like hotcakes. Sergio embraced SUVs like black sweaters.

He built compact Cherokees. And subcompact Renegades. And Maserati SUVs. And then … get used to the oxymoron “Fiat SUV.”

It had been done before. Mini launched in the U.S. on the back of an iconic compact cutie, which then birthed a four-door and a crossover Countryman. So Fiat made a bigger meatball — the 500L — with the same chassis ingredients as the 500. Now comes a completely fresh, subcompact ute out of the merged kitchen of Fiat and Chrysler.

Hello, 2016 Fiat 500X. Meatball entree with all the fixings. A Fiat fit for the USA.

The adorable family features are all there. Big headlights so cute they should have eyelashes. Soft, baby-faced chin. Round Fiat logo smack in the middle like a child’s binky. ‘Round back a round behind that leans forward like a toddler eyeing a box of chocolates.

But in between the 500X is a grownup’s SUV. The interior dash bears Fiat’s signature plastic dash colored to match the exterior (oooh, I really like the red), but the ergonomics are Chrysler-esque — crisp and logically placed. No Euro-quirks like the 500L’s goofy center armrest. The center console rises from the floor providing cupholders, useful storage space for phones, and surprising elbow room in a segment where front seats can feel as crowded as Delta coach-class. Rear seats are roomy, the cargo hatch configurable, and a nifty, full-cabin moon roof for necking under the stars.

Turn the key and the voice is more grown up as the 2.4-liter Tigershark engine — more Chrysler hardware, thank you very much — barks to life. The X’s 184 horses deliver Fiat’s promised fun factor along with a much tighter suspension than its raw, off-road Renegade cousin. That’s X as in X Games. The AWD is LOL to drive.

The base, “Pop”-trim, 500X gets the spicy, 160-horse, 1.4-liter turbo four found in the raucous Fiat Abarth pocket rocket. But, oddly, Fiat kills the recipe by only offering the turbo in a manual and without the Tigershark’s suspension upgrades. It’s like cooking up a tasty veal cutlet — then smothering it in anchovies and lard. Sigh.

Base hiccup aside, this mouth-watering recipe is courtesy of a first, global, “Small U.S. Wide” platform jointly developed by Italian and American chefs to accommodate the 500X and Renegade (and future vehicles tailored to markets from Italy to China to Brazil to here). And as pioneers in the subcompact ute segment, the Renegade and 500X stand to make an impression on shoppers looking for some spice in their menu.

Want a burger? Buy a Honda HR-V or Chevy Trax. Want camp-fire barbecue? Try Renegade. Pasta? The 500X is your fashion plate.

Fiat will have to prove its quality, of course. But style, too, matters in metro markets where Fiat expects the 500X will be a hit. Fiat debuted the X in Los Angeles where owners wear their cars as a fashion statement. Thanks to the valley’s legendary traffic, Angelinos spend more time in their vehicles — 90 hours a week — than anyplace else. A fellow motor scribe flew into L.A. recently for a 44-mile drive down the 405 to Irvine. It took him four — four! — hours. My co-driver and I drove the 500X from Malibu to Beverly Hills — 25 miles — in 1.5 hours. It felt like a week and a half. We grew beards that would make ZZ Top proud.

All this time in the X means it has to work inside as well as outside. I climbed over the rear seats to the rear. Stretched my legs. Charged my phone in the USB port. Checked my luggage for a razor.

Fiat expects its new menu item to be its best-seller. Its natural competitor is the Mini Countryman crossover cutie. The 500X won’t touch the Mini for sportiness, but its taller stance, AWD and healthy cargo room will make it the practical choice for many. Practical in price, too. Fiat has smartly stickered the 500X from $20,900, which is in line with its mainline competitors — and well below the $22,550 premium buyers hand over for a Mini.

Utility. Room. All-wheel-drive. Oxymoron. Fiat. The Italian immigrant is building a tasty Yankee Ristorante.

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


2016 Fiat 500X

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front or all-wheel drive, five-passenger sport ute

Price: $20,900 base ($30,900 AWD as tested)

Power plant: 1.4-liter, turbocharged inline-4; 2.4-liter inline-4

Power: 160 horsepower, 184 pound-feet of torque (turbo 1.4L); 180 horsepower, 175 pound-feet of torque (2.4L)

Transmission: 6-speed manual (only available with turbo 1.4L); 9-speed automatic transmission (with 2.4L)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.7-8.9 seconds (Car & Driver)

Weight: 2,967 pounds (base)

Fuel economy: TBA

Report card

Highs: Lots of character; unique, functional interior

Lows: Sprightly turbo only comes in manual with less-refined chassis: The ghost of FCA quality past


Cartoon: Binky

Posted by hpayne on April 22, 2015


Cartoon: Obama and Warming in August

Posted by hpayne on April 22, 2015


Cartoon: Greet Hillary Clinton

Posted by hpayne on April 21, 2015


Cartoon: Rubio Big Government

Posted by hpayne on April 21, 2015


Cartoon: Earth Day

Posted by hpayne on April 21, 2015


Payne: Audi-tonomous A8L and the future of self-driving

Posted by hpayne on April 17, 2015

2013 175143208-PAGE_Asec1_1_1_RUHA64A_485~~IMG_m011-Auto_Walk6-0113_3_1_M7HA.jpg

I’m writing this on my laptop while driving the state-of-the-art, semi-autonomous Audi A8L on my way home. Lane-keep assist keeping me between the lines. Cruise control set at 55 mph. Adaptive cruise control following traffic in front of me at a safe distance. Brake mitigation bringing me to a stop at stoplights. Ah, bliss.

Had you going there for a moment, didn’t I?

In truth my eyes are glued to the road. The Audi is a remarkable beast inside and out with the body of Adonis, the interior of Exxon’s board room, and on-board computers that would embarrass Hal in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But unlike Hal, it’s not self-aware. Which might actually help.

Because the driver-assist features on the Audi are a glimpse of how futuristic autonomous cars work. Except when they don’t. A self-aware car would avoid hitting a cement dividing wall on the Lodge because its instinct would be for self-preservation. But when Audi-tonomous overshot a solid lane marking line, the system merely beeped at me and flashed a message in the instrument cluster: “PLEASE TAKE OVER STEERING.”

What the – ?!

I can see the future, but for now autonomous cars are like Bruce Wayne. Talented, but they need a butler to get through the day. To be sure, Audi doesn’t advertise its driver-assist features as “self-driving” – but its camera and radar technologies preview what self-driving cars will in part rely on. Google is testing self-driving cars. I’ve been a passenger in one. It worked flawlessly at low speeds in Palo Alto, California. It holds huge promise for empowering the transportation-challenged elderly and infirmed. It could transform shuttle services.

Rattan Joea, CEO of California-based, airport-focused Prime Time Shuttle, sees a future of Uber-like ride shares. “Driverless vehicles will change the game,” says the 20-year shuttle veteran. “It will streamline our service by taking the operator out of the equation. It will save on insurance by removing human limitations. Computers don’t get tired. They don’t get sleepy.”

Think of a fleet of autonomous limos. “A beautiful vehicle comes and picks you up,” Joea imagines. “We can send out shuttle like that at the click of a button.”

But no such vehicle yet exists for him to test. No affordable vehicle anyway. An analysis by techie mag Fast Company estimates that Google’s $24K Prius concept costs upward of $320,000 once optioned with necessary autonomous hardware like a $80,000 Velodyne LIDAR system, $10,000 visual and radar sensors, $200,000 GPS array, plus computer and software. Ouch.

It’ll take a lot of airport runs for Mr. Joea to recoup that investment. Which takes me back to butlers. The ever-innovative Tesla will introduce its “Autopilot” system in its Model S sedan later this year. Autopilot is inspired by Boeing’s in-flight system where the operator never leaves the controls but where the plane is programmed to reach a destination.

“It’s better to have an optical system, basically cameras with software that is able to figure out what’s going on just by looking at things,” Tesla boss Elon Musk recently told Bloomberg of his idea for a more affordable hybrid of Google car and Audi A8 technologies. That is, a front and rear camera watching the road. Grille-mounted radar watching vehicles. An array of 12 electronic sensors blanketing the car and watching for everything else.

I’d also propose a big, red “DISABLE” button for motorheads like me who enjoy cars.

Like the A8L. Consider Audi’s 3.0-liter turbo diesel-injection V-6 powerplant. Specs: 250 horsepower and a redonkulus 428 pound feet of torque. This thing has more thrust than Apollo 11. Floor the big German and it surges forward like Charles Barkley at a Shoney’s buffet. But where’s the diesel’s wokka-wokka-wokka thrum? So quiet is the Audi cabin — so buttery smooth its drivetrain — that I actually had to pull over and open the hood to make sure it was a diesel.

Exterior dress is Audi formal. Crisp shoulders creased like Brooks Brothers pants. Tuxedo black greenhouse cradling a moon roof with a gorgeous view of the stars for the rear lounge — er, seat – passengers. Which is where Mrs. Payne got comfortable. Caramel-smooth ride matched by caramel-soft leather thrones. Heated seat and climate controls in the center armrest. Wood-encrusted doors. Headrests fit for a beauty salon. Vanity mirrors drop from the ceiling. As do grab handles for when her husband dips into the neck-snapping torque and AWD handling.

At the wheel I’ve decided I hate autonomous technology. Why let machines have all the fun?

Only the telematics drives me nuts. I don’t know which is worse — Audi’s rotary dial or the mouse touch pad. In the time it takes to enter a nav destination I could be there. So here’s the deal, machine. You set the A8L to where we need to go. Then I’ll flog it like Secretariat’s jockey getting us there. Everybody’s happy.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne as he reviews the latest toys every week.


2015 Audi A8

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

Price: $85,100 base ($98,575 as tested)

Power plant: 3.0-liter, turbodiesel V-6

Power: 240 horsepower, 428 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic transmission with steering-mounted paddle shifters

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.3 seconds (manufacturer)

Weight: 4,564 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 24 mpg city/36 mpg highway/28 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Lounge-like comfort; Fuel-efficient stump-puller

Lows: Autonomous features need a butler; Frivolous mouse pad takes up space


Payne: Mazda CX-5 gives zoom-zoom to ute-ute

Posted by hpayne on April 16, 2015

For the 2016 model year, Mazda is bringing new levels

We’re back in the appliance aisle this week.

Looking for a reliable machine that will move family, haul groceries, get us to work, won’t pillage the pocketbook. The automobile equivalent of a washing machine. Used to be the aisle was dominated by midsize sedans, but the options have expanded as taller, five-door utes have come to market.

The brand names are familiar. Honda (CR-V), Toyota (RAV4), Chevy (Equinox). Durable. Bulletproof. Functional. What else do you need in a washing machine? Quite a bit, I’m happy to say. Midsize sedan appliances have suddenly gained attitude — like your fridge sprouted an exposed carbon-fiber handle or your washer spin cycle plays The Stones Greatest Hits. The Ford Fusion looks like an Aston Martin, the Chrysler 200 is a polished piece of rolling furniture, even Camry has grown a goatee. I like where this is going. Cars are more than appliances, after all — they’re public avatars for us.

Compact utes have also shed their toaster square image to stand out from the crowd. Ogle Jeep’s bullet-nosed Cherokee or Ford’s raked Escape. Or salute the GMC Terrain pickup-design swagger.

But what if you’re the athletic type? Got running shoes and compression pants in your locker? Break into a sweat at least once a day? Then you might like to try on the Mazda CX-5.

Mazda, of course, has made athleticism — they call it “zoom-zoom” — their calling card. The Miata sports car is the most outgoing example of a lineup of vehicles that invites you to have fun on your way to the ATM appliance. “There’s a little bit of Miata in every Mazda,” company spokesman Tom McDonald likes to say. Mazda goes so far as the put its name on race tracks like Mazda Raceway in Laguna Seca, California where it provides a school of Miatas to train new disciples in zoom-zoom.

But ask any Miata school attendee for weekend highlights and they will mention the van tour of the fearsome, roller-coaster-like Laguna, one of America’s most daunting tracks. After one door-handle-leaning, tire squalling, pro-instructor-piloted lap, you will never look at a four-row, commercial van the same way again.

The all-wheel-drive Mazda CX-5 is like that.

Make sure the eggs are out of the backseat and have a ball. The Mazda DNA is there. The crisp steering. Predictable chassis. Athletic good looks. That big Mazda grille is grinning for a reason.

Introduced in 2014, the 2016 CX-5 showed up for spring training this year looking fitter (tweaked face, LED tail-lights) and with more options than ever. It could be a contender for best all-around ute. Could be. Readers of this column know that I’m a fan of the Ford Escape. Its total package is the benchmark for the segment – a delicious confection of style, high-tech, innovation, and options.

The Escape doesn’t match the CX-5′s handsome face (where’s that signature Aston grille, Ford?) but, like the Mazda, its body is surprisingly toned for a ute. Aggressive stance, strong shoulders, car-like style. That panache continues inside with the class’s most sculpted interior. Dash instruments are artfully packaged in chrome and matte-black surfaces. The Mazda is sooo Honda CR-V-like. Practical but lacking in the unique appeal that attracted you in the first place. The interior is roomy in front and back for sequoias like me. Empty-nesters tempted by the growing subcompact ute class may reconsider once they have tried a wider, compact ute. Ample center storage space awaits and you aren’t wedged in so tightly with your seatmate that you can smell what kind of omelet they had for breakfast.

Mazda matches the Ford standard for fold-flat rear seats (others class entries are content with seats that ALMOST fold all the way down) and even introduces remote buttons so you can flatten the seats from the back hatch. But that assumes you weren’t already miffed that the Mazda doesn’t have the Escape’s nifty “kick to open” rear hatch feature — a must for egg crate-carrying grocery shoppers. Even the luxe Audi A8 has copied this Ford innovation.

But the engine bay is where the Mazda is curiously zoomless-zoomless.

Where the Escape offers a trifecta of engine choices — 1.6-liter turbo, 2.5-liter, and a punchy, 240-horsepower 2.0-liter turbo, the Mazda offers but two normally-aspirated mills: A 155 horsepower, 2.0-liter base engine and the 2.5-liter, 184-horsepower gas-burner found in the Mazda 6 sedan. Nail it and you’ll pine for a turbo’s quiet torque. The CX-5′s 2.5 is a buzz-saw — invading an otherwise quiet cabin. Rumored is a diesel option down the road …

The narrow power plant options are especially curious coming from one of the world’s most innovative engine makers. My ears are still buzzing from Mazda’s historic 1991 24 Hours of LeMans win in which a non-piston-powered sports car won for the first time in history. Mazda’s unmuffled rotary engine created such a racket off the front straight grandstands that a generation of Frenchmen now wear hearing aids.

A more civilized rotary powered Mazda’s sensational RX for years (more sports car DNA), but Mazda’s recent green push — dubbed SKYACTIVE — has been largely one-dimensional. SKYACTIVE technology is green and sexy — but like Ford’s signature “Ecoboost” play to the green elites, it could co-exist with more horses.

Perhaps I protest too much. That buzzy four only temporarily distracts from a startlingly good value that starts a grand below the Escape.

The CX-5′s embarrassment of standard riches — cross-traffic alert, blind spot monitoring, collision-brake support, 7-inch touchscreen, full-body massage (just kidding about that last one) — can’t be found on a Porsche Macan crossover at more than twice its cost. My “Blue Reflex Mica” tester had a standard features list as long as a CVS Pharmacy receipt — plus moonroof — yet stickered for less than 29-grand. Its 22-grand base bests Honda and Toyota even as its Consumer Reports score is neck-and-neck with its better known Japanese rivals.

I’m grateful for the CX-5. The appliance aisle needs its special sauce. Not everyone wants Honda-Toyota-Chevy mayonnaise. The CX-5 won’t challenge Big Appliance for best sales numbers but it forces them — witness Honda’s lovely new CR-V — to add some nuts and fudge to its recipe.

Now if we can just entice Mazda into commercial vans. Zoom-zoom.

2016 Mazda CX-5

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front and all-wheel drive, five-passenger sport utility vehicle

Price: $22,465 base ($28,835 AWD as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, inline-4 cylinder; 2.5-liter, inline-4

Power: 155 horsepower, 150 pound-feet of torque (2.0L); 184 horsepower, 185 pound-feet of torque (2.5L)

Transmission: 6-speed automatic transmission

Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.3 seconds (Car & Driver est. 2.5-liter); towing capacity as tested: 2,000 pounds

Weight: 3,550 pounds (AWD as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 26 mpg city/35 mpg highway/29 mpg combined (2.0L); EPA 24 mpg city/30 mpg highway/26 mpg combined (AWD 2.5L tested)

Report card

Highs: Playful for a ute; standard is loaded with extras

Lows: Uninspired dash; sporty engine to match sporty chassis, please


Cartoon: Sniper Burning

Posted by hpayne on April 16, 2015


Cartoon: Reid Forcast

Posted by hpayne on April 16, 2015


Cartoon: April 15th Green Fat Cats

Posted by hpayne on April 15, 2015


Cartoon: Billary 2016

Posted by hpayne on April 14, 2015


Cartoon: Darth Lexus

Posted by hpayne on April 14, 2015


Payne: For Taylors Detroit race is all in the family

Posted by hpayne on April 10, 2015


For most of us, a family weekend in the car means a quiet trip Up North with Dad at the helm of the Suburban and the kids buried in their iPods in the backseat.

It’s a little different for the Taylor family.

One of motor racing’s most prominent tribes, the Taylors spend their weekends in loud, cramped vehicles doing up to 200 mph. When the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship roars onto Belle Isle next month for the Chevrolet Sports Car Classic – sharing the show bill with the Verizon IndyCar Series – the Taylors will be a favorite to spray champagne in victory lane.

Dad Wayne Taylor, 58, is an endurance racing legend, a two-time Daytona 24-Hour winner. But these days, Pops is in the backseat (that would be a metaphor. There is no backseat in a 600-horsepower Corvette DP missile) balancing the books of Wayne Taylor Racing, while his hot-shoe sons – Ricky, 25, and Jordan, 23 – take turns at the wheel.

In motorsports culture family dynasties make the Clintons and Bushes look like pikers. Andretti, Unser, Rahal, Petty, Earnhardt, and more have dominated the pit lane over the years. But Ricky and Jordan are rare siblings who pilot Dad’s wheels. Only drag racing’s formidable Force clan – John and daughters Courtney and Brittany – compare.

The boys seem to have had a normal childhood. Which is to say, soccer was their first sport.

“We grew up (in Florida) around racetracks, but until we were 10 we weren’t really that interested,” says Jordan, the bespectacled one. “We’d be at the track but we would always have a soccer ball to kick around.”

But they had oil in their veins. Eventually, the track called. Beginning with go-karts.

“It was very low key at the start,” says Ricky. “Not until we were 12-13 did we get our own kart. My Dad started spending more time with us, and that’s how we got more serious about it.”

They climbed the podium fast. Barber open-wheel racing, Formula 2000, prototype sports cars. At the improbable age of 18, Rick Taylor joined his father to race a Sun Trust Bank-sponsored, Pontiac Riley prototype in the Rolex 24-Hours of Daytona. Sixteen-year old Jordan made the trip too – entered with a different team in the GT class.

Heady stuff. Goosebumps for Dad.

“Now, if we can just get my wife, Shelly, in the pace car, we can have the have the entire Taylor family in the race,” quipped Wayne at the time.

For the next few years the boys came and went like teenagers do. Rick left the team nest. Jordan came on board in 2013. Then finally, last year, Taylor racing was family. In a sport where team-mates often feud more than speak, the close Taylor boys are more like an Olympic two-man bobsled team. Teamwork. Teamwork. Teamwork.

“We’ve never been that competitive with each other which is good because you can take the ego out of it,” Jordan says. “On any weekend if Ricky is faster than me then we used that to our advantage. We‘re talking to each other.”

It didn’t take long to nab their first win. Right here in Detroit last May.

“For a street course it’s really good,” says Jordan of the twisty Belle Isle circuit. “It’s fast and wide, and compared to Long Beach its miles better. Not as bumpy.”

Detroit has better roads than California? Refreshing to hear.

“This is a big event for us, especially being the Corvette team with GM headquarters right here,” adds Ricky looking out over a barren Belle Isle when I interviewed the brothers in early March. The place looks different without the leaves of May. Or pit stalls. Or grandstands.

But the Taylors came here in winter because racing is about more than driving fast. It’s sponsor dinners, series promotion, and missionary work. The boys love the missionary work. They want other kids to know what a great career racing can be. This day they have proselytized to a rapt audience at Cody High School’s Detroit Institute of Technology.

“We were introduced to the sport really young,” says Ricky. “When we were in school other kids didn’t know what we were talking about. It’s cool . . . to share our experience with Cody kids and talk about the technology transfer between the school and what they can apply to the motor sports industry.”

They’re still learning themselves. Like how to run the family business someday. “Dad always talks about retiring,” smiles Ricky. “But I don’t think he’s anywhere close to that. It’s hard for him to keep busy outside racing right now.”

That, and he’s having too much fun on family road trips.

Cartoon: Economy Falling

Posted by hpayne on April 10, 2015


Cartoon: Iran Nuclear Program

Posted by hpayne on April 10, 2015


Cartoon: War on Women

Posted by hpayne on April 10, 2015


Payne: Four-door freaks, Porsche Panamera S vs. Audi S7

Posted by hpayne on April 9, 2015

German automakers are mating athletic performance with

Left-lane lollygaggers drive me crazy.

Americans take hours of driver’s ed classes with instructions to travel in the right lanes unless they need to pass. Then we get our driver’s license, develop instant amnesia, and spend the rest of our lives in the left lane driving like snails with a tail of road rage in our mirrors.

Say hello to the cures for the common lollygagger: The Porsche Panamera S and Audi S7 four-door coupes.

A brief sketch of the “four-door coupe” is in order. It’s a freak of nature. An oxymoron. A rare breed of sedan that includes the e-mazing — if distance-limited — Tesla Model S that I fell hard for last year. Or the achingly gorgeous, painfully pricey Aston Martin Rapide. Like Grace Kelly, it offers unmatched beauty afforded only by Monaco royalty.

At half the price of the Aston with twice the range of a Tesla, the Panamera S and S7 may be the best all-around athletes in the auto gymnasium.

The performance variants of the already potent Panamera and A7 models, the Panamera S and S7 share their siblings’ gorgeous lines and lush interiors. Just add steroids. About 420 horsepower will do.

These thoroughbreds were raised on the German Autobahn where they cruise comfortably in the left lane at 120 mph in a disciplined automotive culture where lollygaggers are locked away for life. On this side of the pond these lithe sprinters will find the fast lane clogged with obstacles — like Usain Bolt stumbling upon a pack of 1,500-meter runners mid-dash. One second you’re zipping along, then — bam! — your grille’s full of L.L. Lollygagger III talking to his broker at 55 mph.

Drive the Porsche and Audi home in heavy traffic and they will grow more impatient than Chris Christie at a vegetarian buffet. Cruising at 55 with the left-lane lollies feels like standing still. If the duo were sharks they would suffocate. No problem. Move to the right lane, punch the throttle, and surge forward like an F-14 shot off a carrier deck.

It’s hard to decide which cure I’d recommend more.

On the Lodge, the S7 ate traffic like a humpback whale feeding in a school of plankton. One gulp and they’re gone. The S7′s insane, turbocharged, 420-horse V-8 has more torque than anything this side of a Tesla. The electric car-like kick is enhanced by the high-tech, cocoon-quiet interior. Its heads-up display and Google Earth nav system are futuristic. Its pin-striped accents, chrome cupholders, and quilted seats are boardroom luxe. Even with the V-8 engine exhaust set to DYNAMIC (other options: NORMAL and COMFORT), the rocket’s thrust sounds distant, muffled. The landscape moves past your windows as if you had pressed a fast-forward button — dizzyingly fast, but silent.

The Panamera has other ideas.

This is a Porsche after all. Start button on the left side of the steering wheel. Instrument cluster with tac front and center. Quirky, fold-out cup holders. The Panamera is posh — but with 60 years of racing heritage at your fingertips. Literally. The Porsche has more buttons than an airliner cockpit. Want SPORT or SPORT PLUS mode? Hit the button. Want to hear the roar of your 420-horse twin turbo as it devours lollygaggers? Push the “dual exhaust” avatar and open the gates of Hell.

Springing to the right of a herd of lollygaggers on the Left Coast’s arching San Diego Coronado Bridge, my Panamera tester erupted with a roar that sounded like Cerberus gargling with razor blades. The speedo spiked as I launched up the five-lane span, the exhaust barking with each lightning-quick paddle shift. If I had kept my foot in it I surely could have hurdled downtown San Diego and returned to Earth near Palm Springs. And attracted every cop west of Vegas.

The 3.0-liter, twin-turbo V-6 replaces the previous gen V-8 — but, thanks to the exhaust special effects, it retains much of the eight-holer’s aural pleasure.

Porsche styling is behind the eight-ball compared to the S7, but Porsche if it cares. No. It’s about tradition.

A motorhead pal quips that the Panamera looks like a 911 stretch limo. The 911 sports car is Porsche’s signature. The iconic, fast-backed shape. The countless racing titles. Vehicle styling trends come and go, but the 911 is the Rock of Gibraltar, impervious to the winds of time.

Porsche might have called the Panamera the 911 sedan, but this is no 911. The Panamera kicks the engine from the rear to the front. The addition of two, surprisingly roomy rear seats interrupts the coupe-like greenhouse, making the sedan appear butt-heavy. It’s attractive like Kim Kardashian — if you don’t mind the caboose.

The effect is unmistakably Porsche, however, and — along with the Cayenne SUV — has hugely expanded the sports car maker’s consumer demographic from motorhead to luxe. In a Birmingham parking lot recently I asked a well-dressed gentleman emerging from his Panamera what engine he had under the hood — a question every 911 owner could instantly answer.

He had no idea — and admitted he didn’t know what was under the hood of his wife’sPanamera either. Porsche is smiling all the way to the bank.

The S7, meanwhile, reaches for motorheads beyond Audi’s core luxe buyer. Squint hard and an Audi A4 bears a family resemblance to the VW Jetta. The 7 is a breed all its own. Its sloping ducktail is revered. That pretty new Chevy Malibu unveiled in New York? Audi S7 inspired. Ditto the fast-backed Ford Fusion.

If you want the prettiest four-door coupe, buy the S7. If you want a four-door Porsche, the Panamera is your drug.

Allow me to recommend all-wheel-drive in both. Despite their slender lines, these coupes are heavyweights, tipping the scales over 4,500 pounds. Driven hard, my rear-wheel-drive Panamera could be a handful, its long front end in a different time zone from the rear. For $5,100, the Panamera 4S adds AWD. The S7 is the bargain with AWD standard.

Ah, handling. It makes these predators enjoyable even after you’ve left the expressway. After a long squawk up north on I-75, take a left at Gaylord and treat your S-of-choice to the S turns of Route M-32.

Just hope the lollygaggers don’t exit with you.

2015 Porsche Panamera S

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

Price: $93,200 base ($116,140 as tested)

Power plant: 3.0-liter, twin-turbo V-6

Power: 420 horsepower, 384 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 7-speed PDK automatic transmission with steering-mounted paddle shifters

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.6 seconds (manufacturer)

Weight: 4,586 pounds

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

Report card

Highs: Comfy backseat buckets; engine special effects

Lows: Old-school European, fold-out cupholders; price


2015 Audi S7

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, four-passenger sport sedan

Price: $82,500 base ($88,875 as tested)

Power plant: 4.0-liter, turbocharged V-8

Power: 420 horsepower, 406 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 7-speed automatic transmission with steering-mounted paddle shifters

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.5 seconds (manufacturer)

Weight: 4,508 pounds base

Fuel economy: EPA 17 mpg city/27 mpg highway/20 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Gorgeous; liquid-smooth power

Lows: Tedious, rotary dial-operated infotainment screen; steering-stalk triplets can confuse


Cartoon: 2016 Final Four – GOP Regional

Posted by hpayne on April 8, 2015


Cartoon: Rand Paul Frodo

Posted by hpayne on April 8, 2015