Henry Payne Blog

Cartoon: No Free Speech U

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 24, 2019

CARtoon: Easter Bunny Jeep

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 21, 2019

Payne: Top 10 premieres at New York auto show

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 21, 2019

New York — The Detroit auto show this year was a shadow of itself as foreign luxury automakers fled in droves. Except for BMW, the luxury crowd is well-represented at the New York auto show.

Despite that, Detroit automakers steal Gotham’s show. There’s the Jeep Gladiator pickup, and its off-road experience outside Javits Convention Center that will have the public lining up from Hell’s Kitchen to Brooklyn. And an electric pickup from Plymouth-based Rivian. And the ferocious Ford Mustang GT500.

A variety of vehicles also make their debuts in New York. Here are my favorites.

Koenigsegg Jesko – New York features high-end toys like no other North American show. This year the show attracted such curiosities as the BAC Mono (a single-seat rocketship) and the $2 million Karlmann King (Batmobile meets SUV), but my favorite came from Sweden’s hypercar maker. With a claimed top speed of 300 mph, the Jesko eclipses its 278-mph Agera predecessor as the fastest car in the world. The Jesko manages this feat with (cough) 1,579 horsepower, all-wheel drive and a carbon-fiber tub.

Koenigsegg Jesko, on display at the 2019 New York Auto Show.

Cadillac CT5 – Cadillac takes the mid-size CTS platform downmarket with a thoroughly remade, compact BMW 3-series fighter. Interior room may be best-in-class, but the CT5 still has plenty of hustle from your option of two turbocharged engines. Gone is the fussy, haptic CUE system replaced by your choice of infotainment controls: touchscreen, remote rotary-dial or voice control.

Ford Escape – After a Henry Ford Museum coming-out party this spring, the compact ute makes its first appearance on a show floor. And boy, does thing look good. Located just down the hall from the Porsche Macan from which it takes design cues, it’s sleek and sporty. That magic continues inside with electronic tricks like one-button-activated self-park assist. The Lincoln Corsair — based on the same roomy platform — also debuted at this show, but I’m not sure it’s worth $15,000 over the sophisticated Escape.

Hyundai Sonata, on display at the 2019 New York Auto Show.
Hyundai Sonata – Welcome back, Sonata. After a detour to Vanilla Town with its last-generation sedan, the Sonata is back with a head-turner. The design features such innovations as LED running lights along the hood – and a seamless hood over a rimless grille, usually associated with Aston Martin. Inside, rear-seat passengers get more room than Delta first class.

Ford Mustang Ecoboost High Performance – Despite its awkward name (they couldn’t have called it a Mustang ST?), this pony car is an affordable track toy. Rescuing the throaty 330-horse, 2.3 liter turbo-4 from the Focus RS hot hatch, the Mustang saves 150 pounds up front compared to a V-8 ’Stang. That’ll make it a treat at weekend autocrosses and Waterford Hills track days.

The 2020 Porsche 911 Speedster Heritage Edition is shown at the New York Auto Show.

Porsche 911 Speedster – The special-edition Speedster says auf wiedersehen to the current-generation 911. It doesn’t come cheap at $275,750, but in return you own one of 1,948 copies (Porsche’s founding year) and unique deck “streamers” behind the front seats like the 1950s classics. In the boot is a loud, naturally aspirated flat-6 that also sounds like the good ol’ days.

Subaru Outback at the 2019 New York Auto Show.Subaru Outback – To introduce the latest version of its iconic crossover, Subaru built a spectacular floor display that transports visitors to an outdoor national park. A mainstay of the Subie lineup with station-wagon utility and all-wheel drive, the Outback sits on a new platform which brings new goodies like a big Tesla-like console screen and a torquey turbo-4 that replaces the reliable flat-6.

Mercedes GLS at the 2019 New York Auto Show.

Mercedes GLS – Mercedes showed its first electric vehicle, the EQC, in New York. But it was overshadowed — literally —  by the hulking GLS three-row SUV, which is where the money is made. The GLS has all the expected Mercedes touches: heated rear seats, voice-recognition controls. But my favorite feature is Carwash mode which closes the big ute tight as a turtle, then raises it up high for maximum fender-well cleaning.

Cartoon: Trump Russia Witch Hunt

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 21, 2019

Payne: Kia’s Niro electric SUV shrugs off the cold

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 21, 2019

The 2019 Kia Niro EV has a range of 239 miles and can be recharged on a 100 kWh fast-charger 9though they are rare in the Midwest).

The 2019 Kia Niro EV has a range of 239 miles and can be recharged on a 100 kWh fast-charger 9though they are rare in the Midwest). (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

And now for something completely different. The battery-powered Kia Niro that suffers no range loss in cold weather.

This has been the winter of my battery discontent. I enjoy electric vehicles, from the Chevy Volt to the Hyundai Kona to my Tesla Model 3. They are all mass-market targeted with attractive designs, good cabin room and — in the case of the Kona and Niro (and the Volt’s sister Bolt EV) — utilitarian hatchbacks. They push the class envelope on acceleration, interior design and technology.

But they also push my patience with serious battery degradation when the weather gets frosty outside. Which is often in Michigan.

When the mercury drops below 40 degrees, battery range drops with it. At 30 degrees, range suffers by 25 percent. Under 20 degrees (including the sub-zero polar vortex this winter), range drops a dramatic 50 percent.

Not the Niro EV.

The little Kia arrived in my driveway this March in 31-degree weather with 163 miles of range left (fully charged the Niro promises a Chevy Bolt-like 239 miles). I jumped in for an afternoon’s adventure … but not too much of an adventure, mindful that I likely had just 115 miles of actual range.

The game was on. I logged 77 miles that day while losing just 70 miles off the battery, an unprecedented feat. And I wasn’t babying the Niro, either.

My journey took me across 70 mph interstates (hitting 80 mph at times, and a steady state of 75) as well as Detroit city traffic. Oakland County twisties. Meijer parking lots. I flogged the Kia in Eco, Normal and Sport modes just like every other EV I’ve driven.

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Posted by Talbot Payne on April 15, 2019

Cartoon: Tiger Woods Masters

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 15, 2019

Cartoon: King Obama Hamilton

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 14, 2019

Cartoon: Chicken Little Cortez

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 12, 2019

Cartoon: Socialist Millionaires Sanders and Warren

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 12, 2019

Payne: Mazda 3 hatch has the looks and moves

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 12, 2019

Modern meets classic. The 2019 Mazda 3 shows off its sleek, 21st-century lines in front of a classic from the last century. Photo taken in front of the Sacramento Auto Museum.

Modern meets classic. The 2019 Mazda 3 shows off its sleek, 21st-century lines in front of a classic from the last century. Photo taken in front of the Sacramento Auto Museum. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

In the middle of the New York auto show floor each year sits the exotic car stand featuring the latest from storied makes like Lamborghini, Bentley, Bugatti and Koenigsegg. It’s hard to notice anything else nearby.

Yet Mazda, with its stunning Kai Concept, managed to compete

This luscious, candy-red hatchback was a show-stopper. I didn’t know whether to stare at it or lick it. Like the Cadillac Escala or Buick Avista concepts, the Kai Concept design study signaled the Mazda’s future. But it was hard to believe this work of art could become a $25,000 production car.

Believe it.

The 2019 Mazda 3 is now on dealer lots and is the Kai Concept incarnate save for larger mirrors and smaller wheels. Wrapped in Soul Red, it’s the most stunning hatch the segment has seen. From its long hood to curvaceous rump, it looks like a Mazda compact and a Mercedes GT Coupe had a love child.

With a driver-focused interior, all-wheel drive and manual-box option, the Mazda 3 hatch is just an engine away from enthusiast nirvana.

Not that the 186-horsepower four-banger is a deal-breaker. Smooth and quiet, it lacks the 200-plus horsepower turbo option of some segment competitors. But passing up the Mazda 3 over a turbo is like complaining that Carrie Underwood can’t play a Wurlitzer organ.

It arrives at a time when the sedan segment has fallen out of favor in SUV nation. Ford, Chevy and Chrysler have all pulled out of the compact segment.

Mazda is all-in with the new 3. It’s about the joy of driving. It’s a bright-yellow detour sign off the road to autonomy.

With this fourth-generation compact, Mazda continues like fellow performance brand Volkswagen to split its compact offerings between sedan and hatch. V-dub badges its sedan (Jetta) and hatchback (Golf) separately. Not Mazda. But the four-door and five-door invite different customers.

So different are their exteriors that they only share a hood. The sedan’s nice, but — as readers know — I’m a hatchaholic.

Jumping into the 3 hatch (3 stands for the number of laps you’ll make around this lovely creature before getting in) in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, I enjoyed the car as much inside as outside. The steering wheel is planted, the body controlled, the six-speed tranny like butter.

It begs to be pushed. Pushed to the point that you ask if there’s more under the hood. It’s a question Mazda won’t answer for now.

My favorite car in the segment, the turbocharged 220-horse VW Golf GTI, is not threatened here. Yet.

Though its minimalist good looks, alluring interior and athletic handling appeal to the same customer as the GTI, Mazda stops short of offering a GTI challenger even though it has the tool in the toolbox to do it: Mazda’s 2.5-liter turbo-four that produces 310 pound-feet of torque and 250-horsepower.

But the 3 still has plenty to tempt buyers.

For example, the 2.5-liter inline-4 cylinder that does come standard produces 186 horses and 185 pound-feet of torque. And it blows away every other standard engine in the segment, including Golf — all the while getting good fuel economy (34.7 mpg under my lead foot). Its stylish looks are for all Ford Fiesta and Focus refugees who are aching for an aesthetically pleasing hatch.

There’s not just hatchback utility, but an all-wheel drive system that expands Mazda’s demographic into all-season Middle America. The system is good. Very good. I flogged it around a mountain snow course like a Finnish rally driver, the 3 never putting a foot wrong.

The AWD play is a bold challenge to Subaru’s exclusivity in segment. But the Mazda is a more premium animal than the Impreza while offering similar standard features.

The minimalist, sculpted interior is luxury-class. There is a strong whiff of Alfa Romeo Giulia here, from sweeping horizontal dash lines to analog gauges to remote-rotary-operated info screen. There’s even a delicious Alfa-red interior option.

The ergonomic detail is obsessive. It comes from a development team that studied Princeton psychologist George Miller’s cognitive learning theories about short-term memory in order to assist the 3’s ergonomics.

The 3 hatch is easy to build. Starting at $24,495 (the sedan begins at $21,895) the car comes standard with 8.8-inch screen, push-button start, 18-inch wheels, leatherette seats, adaptive cruise-control and blind-spot assist.

You’ll appreciate that last feature because the hatch’s racy C-pillar could hide New Hampshire. It’s huge.

Like its Mazda 6 and CX-5 siblings about which I’ve raved, 3 comes with i-Activsense, an instrument-display-based graphic that constantly informs you of other vehicles around your car. Innovated by Tesla, Mazda has made this tech its own.

Still, this is where 3 customers might depart from the hatch. Stunning outside, it might not be comfortable for drivers who have to spend a lot of time in traffic — and rear-seat passengers might pine for more sunlight.

Add AWD to your hatch for more grip and Soul Red paint for curb appeal and you’ll be the envy of the block for just $26,490 — competitive with an Impreza but with more everything. Heck, you’ll wonder why people bother to buy a similarly equipped $40,000 AWD Audi A3.

Forget adding a navigation system — phone apps are better. Mazda’s generous center console allows plenty of room to stow your phone and hook in to Apple CarPlay or Android Auto — and the standard 8.8-inch display offers good graphics.

That knee in your back is your rear passengers again — 6-footers cramped relative to, say, a roomy Golf or Civic. But they’ll be reassured by the 3’s well-engineered ride dynamics and quieted cabin.

Credit more attention to detail as the 3’s engineering team calked all the gaps from the previous gen car. The four isn’t buzzy at high revs, but makes a nice warm growl under acceleration.

Dude, you ask, every Mazda is spawn of the Miata sports car — so where’s the manual shifter?

Smartly, Mazda has packaged it with the 3’s premium trim, recognizing manuals are no longer a value play but a feature craved by enthusiasts. Thus equipped, a premium manual (available with FWD only) will set you back $28,395 — competitive with a manual GTI.

And if Mazda sells enough of them — and picks up sales from those suffering Cruze and Focus hatchback customers — the business case for an AWD manual with 250-horsepower would be irresistible.

That would be a sight next to the exotics at the New York show.

2019 Mazda 3

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

Price: $21,895 base sedan, $24,495 for hatchback, including $895 destination fee ($30,390 Premium, AWD hatchback as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter, inline-4 cylinder

Power: 186 horsepower; 185 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic, 6-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.9 seconds (Car and Driver est., AWD); top speed: 130 mph

Weight: 3,255 pounds (AWD hatchback as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 26 city/35 highway/30 combined (FWD auto); 25 city/35 highway/29 combined (FWD manual); 24 city/32 highway/27 combined (AWD auto, as tested)

Report card

Highs: The cure for the common compact; premium interior

Lows: Blind spot the size of New Hampshire; 250-horse turbo-4, please?

Overall: 4 stars

Cartoon: Democrats 2020, Assorted Nuts

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 10, 2019

Cartoon: Texas Tech Race Quotas and MLK

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 10, 2019

Payne: Jeep Gladiator jacked to the Maximus

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 10, 2019

With locking front and rear differentials and detachable swaybars, the 2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon can go just about anywhere.

With locking front and rear differentials and detachable swaybars, the 2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon can go just about anywhere. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

The fully armored Jeep Gladiator pickup truck has stepped into the Colosseum, and it’s ready to rumble.

If you Google “Gladiator,” the Jeep pickup and the Russell Crowe movie from 2000  dominate the results. That’s appropriate.

Both were wildly anticipated blockbusters from charismatic directors (Ridley Scott and Sergio Marchionne). Both feature buff, rugged stars (Crowe, Rubicon Jeep trim). And both lead characters are real softies inside.

Before we ogle the Gladiator’s impressive biceps, pecs and glutes, behold the interior of this off-road general. Jeep’s pickup is based on another legendary warrior, the Jeep Wrangler. Tough enough to plow through walls, the World War II forged Wrangler has always had swagger, but owners had to suffer its spartan interior. This was a vehicle that was born to carry a rear-seat machine gun after all.

That all changed last year with the fourth-gen Wrangler.

Credit interior designer Chris Benjamin. He arrived at Jeep after years building European luxury suites for BMW, Mercedes and Volvo. His team understands that Jeep is the rare brand that hangs out at the intersection of Rodeo Drive and Main Street with appeal to luxury and mainstream buyers alike.

Jumping into the 21st century with all four tires, the Wrangler gained interior quiet, rear-seat heating and air-conditioning controls, and state-of-the-art electronics while maintaining signature touches like dashboard “oh-crap-we’re-going-over-a-20-degree-rocky-incline!” handle and door nets.

The Gladiator inherits all that and more. This is the Wrangler with a truck bed that enthusiasts have been pining for.

It touts the best interior in a segment where interiors have been an afterthought.

“It’s a truck, it gets dirty,” has been the stock line for midsize pickup interiors. Sure, class leaders like Toyota, Chevy and Ford have introduced modern trucks with high-fidelity infotainment systems and digital dials, but they’ve been surrounded by acres of uninspired plastic (the exception to the rule is Honda’s unibody-based Ridgeline).

The Jeep makes budget with plastic materials, too, but they blend in with careful details like aviator vents, metal-plated bezels and meaty dials. This is an interior you’ll enjoy riding in every day.

Behind the captain’s quarters the ship gets really interesting. Gladiator remakes the Wrangler aft of the B-pillar. The wheelbase gets stretched to a nearly Ram 1500-like 137 inches to accommodate the biggest back seat in segment. The 60-inch steel bed sports easy access and a two-step tailgate drop. The rear axles are pushed back to allow a 25-inch departure angle so I didn’t drag the tailgate down off-road inclines. Which is where Jeeps are happiest.

My 6-foot-5 basketball player’s frame had more room in the back seat than in Delta first class. That seat is a skybox for the Gladiator’s off-road games like my foray into the wilds east of Sacramento. Normal-size humans will appreciate the assist from door-mounted grab handles, since the Gladiator rises nearly a foot off the ground.

Despite its size, the pickup loses none of the Wrangler’s capability or open-air attributes — which women dig as much as guys.

A female friend recently bought a Grand Cherokee SUV and was instantly the star of the playground set.

“My mom got a Jeep!” her kids sang as they piled out of the four-door ute at school. If Mom buys a Gladiator, she’ll be over-run by playground paparazzi. And she won’t lose any utility, as the pickup’s back seat is as big as the Grand Cherokee.

“Want it,” was all an outdoorsy pal responded when I posted Instagram pictures of the Gladiator devouring a mud-choked California off-road trail in the pouring rain.

Jeep has more brand equity than anything this side of Nike, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles milks it for all it’s worth. Loaded with mud-caked swagger, the Gladiator is pricey compared to comparable midsize competitors.

The base Gladiator Sport begins at a lofty $35,040.

Armed with a big seven-slot grille (for heavier breathing during towing and payload duties), the pickup comes with signature plastic fenders, removable roof and doors, double cab, 32-inch tires and a 4×4 system that can climb Mount Rushmore (which should make the family vacation interesting).


Throw in useful tech packages for blind-spot assist, adaptive cruise-control and infotainment, and you’ll have a $43,000 Sport pickup that can go anywhere, any season. And it has a best-in-class 1,600-pound bed capacity and and can tow 6,000 pounds (equipped with trailer package, the Sport can tow up to 7,650 pounds).

That’s a couple-grand more expensive than competitive Ford Rangers, Chevy Colorados and Toyota Tacomas. Jeep figures you’ll pay the premium for capability – and because you yearn for the kids’ playground approval.

Roaring into the Colosseum priced just shy of the Gladiator Sport is a Ranger with FX4 off-road package. Unsheathe your swords, warriors!

The $41,000 Ford has similar tow and payload numbers while swinging state-of-the-art technology like auto-crawl mode and self-park (useful when you have a long bed out back). Lower than Gladiator, it’s more athletic on road — and its FX4 bash plates make it a credible off-roader, too.

King of the outback, the Gladiator makes a surprisingly good showing on asphalt thanks to its brother, the Ram 1500. The best-handling light-duty pickup, the Ram shares its coil-over, multi-link suspension tricks with the Gladiator. How’s that for sibling hand-me-downs?

Climb the price ladder and Jeep has no peer.

I tested a loaded $50,000 Overland tester ($40,000 base) with blacked-out wheels, body-colored aluminum fenders and roof, and two-tone interior that belongs on stage if it didn’t work so well in mud. It’s a knockout. Unlike the Ranger and its nifty rotary-shifter, Jeep insists on its signature stick mode-selector that sometimes requires the muscle of a — well, Gladiator — to yank into four-wheel-low.

Turn off the traction control, and the little truck slices through gravelly mud ruts like a Roman sword through butter.

Then there’s the peerless Rubicon starting at $43,545. With its extreme 43-degree departure angle and detachable sway-bars and ability to wade through 30 inches of water, the Gladiator Rubicon can go anywhere a Wrangler can. But if you want to throw a couple dirt bikes in the back for off-roading, only the pickup will get you there. The Gladiator Rubicon starts at two-grand north of the Wrangler.

With a spare tire under the bed, throaty 285-horse V-6 and 200 available Mopar mod options, Gladiator should do very well at the box office. One more thing it has in common with its Hollywood namesake.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.


2020 Jeep Gladiator

Vehicle type: Front-engine, four-wheel drive, five-passenger pickup

Price: Base price $35,040 including $1,495 destination charge ($43,685 Sport S model, $53,380 Overland, and $57,615 Rubicon as tested)

Powerplant: 3.6-liter V-6

Power: 285 horsepower, 260 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic; 6-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.2 sec. (Car and Driver); maximum towing, 7,650 pounds; payload, 1,600 pounds

Weight: 4,450 pounds (5,072 Rubicon as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA: 17 city/22 highway/19 combined (automatic); 16 city/23 highway/19 combined (manual)

Report card

Highs: Hits all the rugged Jeep benchmarks; friendly interior

Lows:No rear-wheel-drive option; $1,495 destination adds to already pricey truck

Overall: 4 stars

Cartoon: Creepy Uncle Joe Biden

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 2, 2019

Cartoon: Trump Liberty Lawn

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 2, 2019

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Cartoon: Democrat Fishing Expeditions

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 29, 2019

Payne: Which SUV is more Italian? Maserati Levante vs. Alfa Stelvio

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 28, 2019

Italian stallions: The Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio (left) and Maserati Levante have become their brand's best-selling vehicles. But the Levante's big V-8 makes it feel more like an American muscle car than the fine-tuned Alfa.

Italian stallions: The Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio (left) and Maserati Levante have become their brand’s best-selling vehicles. But the Levante’s big V-8 makes it feel more like an American muscle car than the fine-tuned Alfa.

The marriage of Italy and Detroit is producing some interesting DNA. All you have to do is look at the dashing Maserati Levante and Alfa Romeo Stelvio SUVs I’m hanging out with this week.

That’s right, Detroit, I said Maserati and Alfa SUVs.

Since the Italians bought Chrysler, the Auburn Hills family dinner table has gotten a lot bigger. Christmas dinner would be worthy of a “Saturday Night Live” sketch with Fiat Chrysler papa Mike Manley presiding.

There’s huuuuge Ram 3500 sitting next to a tiny Fiat 500: Yo, tiny, pass the cornbread.

The Chrysler minivan compares notes with the Alfa Giulia Quadrifoglio: OK, OK, so you can fit 505 horses under your hood, but can you fit six kids in your back seats?

Alfa and Jeep swap war stories: Mama mia, was I happy to see your great-grandfather Willys liberating Italy in ’43!

There would be ham and meatballs and potatoes and pasta and beer and wine. There would be Italian mixing with English and arguments about which cultural traditions were richer as the spirits flowed.

But for all the differences, everyone loves a five-door ute. Take the Maserati brand: The house of the Trident. The chariot raced by Fangio. The sultan of style. Its storied racing and luxury past put it in the same league as Italian brands Gucci, Prada and Versace.

Of course, saner heads prevailed. The late company chief Sergio Marchionne intervened. Engineers tore up the Jeep Levante plans and developed it off the Ghibli large sedan’s rear-wheel drive platform. Costs be damned, it must be a Maserati!

But after spending a week with the Doge of Modena, I’m struck with how American the Maserati Levante feels. Interesting, because the Alfa Stelvio feels more Italian.

Yes, this Italian-American marriage is making some interesting siblings.

While Maserati flirted with Jeep-platform cost-saving, the Alfa purposely ignored its American family from the get-go. Without Maserati’s premium brand cache in the U.S. market, the Alfa had to make a splash for its first-ever U.S. luxe-mobiles. There was no talk of chassis sharing, no parts-bin mixing. The Alfa even eschews Chrysler’s best-in-autodom touch screen for an inferior, remote-operated Italian rotary dial.

Taking the stage after Alfa’s opening act — the brilliant, rambunctious, exhaust-farting 4C sports car — the Giulia compact sedan and Stelvio SUV were introduced off the same stiff Giorgio platform and were instantly hailed as the best-handling cars in class.

I first tested the 505-horsepower Stelvio Quadrifoglio at Circuit of the America’s Formula One track in Austin, Texas — proof the world has gone completely mad for SUVs.

There I was in the Stelvio — an Alfa Giulia Quadrifoglio on stilts (the two vehicles are nearly identical under the skin) — doing banzai laps on the continent’s most epic race track. Madness, I tell you. But if you’re a performance brand selling SUVs, you have to have performance versions like the Quadrifoglio. The Stelvio is no Giulia (which I first tested on California’s Sonoma Raceway), but with its nimble, quick-ratio steering it’s the best-handling premium compact ute.

The Alfa’s engine speaks with a husky Italian accent. Basically a Ferrari V-12 sawed in half, the twin-turbo V-6 barks and farts with a personality all its own. The acceleration is insane, its 3.4 seconds zero-60 quicker than a Corvette Grand Sport.

“Whoa! That’s too fast” said my motorhead friend Caroline as she mashed the Stelvio’s throttle out of a Southfield stoplight. The red whale gulped traffic like it was plankton.

You think that’s madness? Behold the bigger, mid-size Levante GTS with 550 horsepower, 538-pound feet of torque, and V-8 accent. BRAAGHAGHAGH!

I would walk out of my house and remote-start the Levante in my driveway just to hear the V-8 clear its throat like King Kong. Even muffled by twin-turbos, the V-8 baritone is so irresistible. So naughty. So … American.

Though half-a-second slower to 60 mph than the Alfa at 4.0 seconds, the Maserati felt faster. Perhaps because of its heavier 4,738-pound girth. This time Caroline deferred to me, taking the passenger seat like a soldier bracing for a cannon round.

“Do a zero-60 run!” she said.

Simulating launch-control (only the top-line Trofeo edition, not my GTS, has true electronic launch-control), I floored the brake and accelerator at the same time. Revs bounced to 3,000 rpms, then I released the Kraken. The beast exploded forward like a bullet from a Beretta. BRAGGHHHHHHHH!

The satisfying twin-turbo V-8 is actually made by Ferrari. It’s mated to a silky eight-speed transmission that fires off shifts as effortlessly as Klay Thompson fires three-balls.

Merging with authority onto interstates around town, I found it nearly impossible to keep the car at legal speeds. It’s an Italian with a Hellcat heart.

Which begs the question, why drop $121,475 for a Maserati Levante when a Hellcat-engine 707-horsepower, 3.5-second zero-60 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk (which I first tested at New Hampshire’s Club Motorsports race track, natch) costs $36,000 less?

The Maserati’s interior pales compared to, say, the corner-office-crisp, $100,000 Audi A8 I recently drove. The Levante’s cabin is more Jeep-like, sharing the Grand Cherokee’s windshield-wiper control stalk and Uconnect screen.

Buy the smoldering Italian because trident-badged grilles are irresistible. But that begs another question: If it’s an Italian-American SUV you want, what about Signore Quadrifoglio?

As a compact SUV, the $81,590 Alfa Stelvio Quadrifoglio is smaller than the mid-sized Levante (and Grand Cherokee for that matter), but not uncomfortable. I could still sit easily behind myself in the back seat. And it gives up only one cubic foot in cargo space.

The rotary controller is more continental. The handling tighter. The accent more Italian.

Pass the Quadrifoglio pasta, please.

Side hood vents and big rear haunches define the side view of the Maserati Levante GTS ute, Maserati's first entry in the SUV market.

Side hood vents and big rear haunches define the side view of the Maserati Levante GTS ute, Maserati’s first entry in the SUV market.

2019 Maserati Levante GTS

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

Price: $77,475 base price for V-6 Levante, including $1,495 destination fee ($138,285 V-8 GTS as tested)

Powerplant: Twin-turbocharged 3.8-liter V-8

Power: 542 horsepower, 548 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.1 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 181 mph

Weight: 4,738 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA: 14 city/18 highway/15 combined (GTS as tested)

Report card

Highs: Maserati face; V-8 fury

Lows: Feels like a Jeep inside; megabuck price tag

Overall: 3 stars

The Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio is the Italian brand's first five-door SUV.
The Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio is the Italian brand’s first five-door SUV.

2019 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio

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

Price: $41,590 base Stelvio turbo-4, including $1,595 destination fee ($84,390 Quadrifoglio as tested)

Powerplant: Twin-turbocharged 2.9-liter V-6

Power: 505 horsepower; 443 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 3.4 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 176 mph

Weight: 4,360 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA: 17 city/23 highway/19 combined

Report card

Highs: Giulia handling on stilts, Italian vibe inside and out

Lows: Jeep has a better infotainment system; awkward paddle shifters

Overall: 4 stars

Cartoon: Smollett Privilege

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 27, 2019