Henry Payne Blog

Cartoon: US Debt

Posted by hpayne on February 23, 2018

Tesla fighters: Volvo’s Polestar joins EV race

Posted by hpayne on February 23, 2018

Polestar_fr

Here they come.

Spurred on by the success of American electric-car company Tesla, luxury European carmakers are bringing to market a wave of new battery-powered vehicles beginning this year.

Where other start-up companies like Lucid and Faraday Future have struggled to raise the capital to manufacture their sleek electric-vehicle dreams, established automakers like Jaguar, BMW, Porsche, Jaguar and Audi are pouring billions into new EVs. They will rival Tesla in performance, surpass it in initial build quality, and — perhaps most importantly — try to tempt buyers at a time when global governments are forcing the auto industry to go electric.

One of the boldest new entries is Polestar, an EV brand from Volvo.

Like Tesla wannabes Lucid and Faraday Future, Polestar has wowed the public with a jaw-dropping high-performance prototype. Unlike Lucid and Faraday, Polestar comes with the full backing of Volvo, an established Swedish maker with deep Chinese pockets behind it.

“Tesla is the leader in premium electric, but many other people are catching up to that party and there is going to be a lot of choice within it,” Polestar Communications chief J.B. Canton said in an interview. “We’re confident that what Polestar has in store is going to be right up there with the best of them.”

Next month in Geneva, Polestar, which is owned by Chinese automaker Geely, will introduce the production-ready version of the Polestar 1. It will hit dealerships in 2019 to compete against the Tesla Model S and X; Jaguar I-PACE (due this summer); Audi eTron (expected later this year); and Porsche Mission E, Mercedes EQC and Buick EV (all due in 2019). By 2022, major manufacturers — including luxury and mainstream brands — are expected to flood the market with 100 new EVs with ranges in excess of 200 miles.

“Regulatory pressure is driving everything to electric vehicles,” says Canton. “Legislation is going that way — just look at China — and forcing R&D spending towards electrification that needed to happen anyway. Volvo feels a sense of corporate responsibility, and has made an emotional and moral commitment to push Polestar in that direction.”

Canton says Polestar gives Volvo the chance to expand beyond the tailored safety-conscious sedans and SUVs that have defined it for decades. Toyota created Lexus. Hyundai invented Genesis. Volvo’s Polestar brand will forge a new premium path of performance-oriented EVs.

What’s different, of course, is that Volvo is already a premium brand where Toyota, Hyundai and others invented premium brands to complement mainstream models. But Volvo believes the electric revolution is ripe for a new kind of luxury.

“So many other companies have launched … higher-margin products to appeal to more folks than their core-vehicle business,” says Canton. “With the world going to electric cars, it made sense for us to do it now. There is no premium nameplate already above the Volvo brand. So to go performance-electric and use the Polestar brand name … the timing was just right.”

Polestar’s first production car, the Polestar 1, will be a green beast.

 It will come wrapped in an all-carbon-fiber coupe shell with all-wheel drive channeling 600 horsepower with a stump-pulling, 740 foot-pounds of torque — more than Corvette’s V-8 powered supercar.

All that grunt will come from a combined gas-electric plug-in powertrain, the only Polestar offered as a hybrid. After that, all models will be electric-only. After Polestar 1, a Polestar 2 and 3 will follow over two years, with the 2 offered as an entry-level, $45,000 EV.

Why a hybrid halo? “Outright performance, you can do more with both,” Canton said of a no-holds-barred exotic starting at $150,000.

Performance is key to the Polestar brand just as it defined Tesla — not as a slow granola-mobile, but as a zero-60 dragster that could smoke any muscle car out of a Woodward stoplight. The start-up brand gets its name from a familiar Volvo teammate, Polestar Racing. Long successful on the track (Polestar Volvos won Europe’s prestigious World Touring Car Championship in 2017), Polestar was brought in-house by Volvo in 2015 as a Volvo performance badge much like the Shelby moniker for Ford.

The Polestar 1 design shares Volvo family traits: “Thor’s hammer” LED headlights, C-clamp rear taillights, Scandinavian interior. And like the Toyota-Lexus creation, Polestars will share the same two platforms as Volvo cars and SUVs. The brand will explore new technologies like a continuously-controlled electronic suspension and twin-rear, torque-vectoring electric motors.

Like Tesla, Polestar will also pioneer new sales strategies. It’s looking at a subscription-ownership experience modeled on smartphones with customers turning in their Polestar for an upgraded model after two or three years.

“Ideally, all Polestars will be owned by subscription,” says Canton of a service called “Care by Volvo.”

 Polestar will create a new network of dealer-owned franchises, unlike Tesla which has tried to sell its EVs directly to consumers. But like Tesla, Polestar will not service cars from dealerships as it plans storefronts in more trafficked environments like city centers.

Canton credits Tesla for spreading the EV gospel, but he expects the market to grow slowly. While Tesla’s Model 3 has roared out of the gates with more than 450,000 pre-orders, Volvo anticipates 1,000 sales a year for the exotic Polestar 1, with the cheaper Polestar 2 selling in the “tens-of-thousands globally.”

Echoing Chevrolet when it introduced its 200-mile-range Bolt EV opposite Tesla’s 200-mile r-nge Model 3, Volvo sees Polestar’s competitive advantage in manufacturing.

In a subtle shot at the Silicon Valley maker, Canton says, “Polestar is not redesigning the wheel. Volvo has these amazing platforms, they know how to build factories, they know how to build perfectly good cars with excellent quality control so we go to market with 100 years of developing cars behind us.”

Big and small, all EV brands will face the same challenge: how to capture more buyers. Sales of electrics and hybrids have stalled at less than 3 percent of the U.S. market.

Cartoon: Florida Shooter Tags

Posted by hpayne on February 23, 2018

Camaro ZL1 crashes the sedan party at Daytona 500

Posted by hpayne on February 23, 2018

camaro_nascar-track

When the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series field rolls to the green flag for the start of the Daytona 500 on Sunday, it will be Ford Fusion and Toyota Camry family sedans versus… the Chevy Camaro ZL1 track beast. Doesn’t seem like a fair fight.

For the first time in NASCAR Cup Series history, Chevy will officially enter its Camaro muscle car in America’s premier racing league.

While the Camaro-Fusion-Camry competitors will still be largely the same under the skin according to NASCAR’s strict vehicle rules, the jarring contrast in car models marks a break from recent manufacturer marketing. And it echoes NASCAR’s 1960s glory days when automakers fielded hot rods like the Plymouth Superbird and Ford Talladega to give superstar drivers like Richard Petty and David Pearson a leg up in the championship fight.

The Camaro ZL1 production car is an earth-pawing athlete

The Camaro ZL1 production car is an earth-pawing athlete following in the tire tracks of this NASCAR prototype. (Photo: Chevrolet)

We are looking forward to bringing the Camaro ZL1 to the race track,” GM Vice President for Motorsports Jim Campbell said at Daytona last month. “We race Camaro in the Xfinity Series, Pirelli World Challenge GTS category, NHRA Stock, Super Stock Sportsman classes and up through Funny Car. This is another logical extension for us with racing.”

On paper, America’s greatest race should be no contest. The Camaro ZL1 production car is an earth-pawing, Nurburgring-tested athlete with the same supercharged 650-horsepower engine that fires the Chevy Corvette Z06. In showroom trim, the Camry and Fusion are 4- or 6-cylinder powered, four-door grocery-haulers with half the Camaro’s horsepower.

 In the 21st century, however, NASCAR has enforced strict aerodynamic and engine rules to make entries from its three marquee manufacturers the same in order to promote tight racing, keep costs down and put a spotlight on individual drivers. Distinct car models have given way to strict body templates with similar V-8 engines under the hood.

“Things had become so homologized in NASCAR that in 2007 Toyota decided to go racing with the least likely race car of them all, the Camry,” wrote Chris Smith at CarThrottle.com. “(It is) the culmination of the trend in removing any sort of ‘stock’ from stock car racing.”

NASCAR Cup racers bear little resemblance to their production avatars, save for glued-on headlights and badge stickers. As a result, manufacturers have fielded family sedans like the Fusion and Camry and Chevy Impala in order to market their brands to NASCAR’s family-friendly viewing demographic — a fan base that has also attracted household names like Tide, Cheerios and FedEx as sponsors.

Toyota’s 850-horsepower, V-8-powered Cup car has been badged as a Camry. The Japanese brand entered NASCAR in 2007.

“NASCAR has been a great platform for Toyota’s brand,” a spokesperson said ahead of Daytona. “It has introduced our company to a loyal and diverse audience that may not have known what our brand represented before we came into the sport.”

The NASCAR Camaro will pack a V-8 under its hood just like the ZL1 on dealer floors. It marks the first time a Camaro has been on a NASCAR Cup grid since 1971 when Tiny Lund fielded a private entry — but the first time that Chevy has entered the muscle car as a factory effort.

“The biggest challenge translating Camaro to the NASCAR Cup design template was maintaining the strong character of the production car while working with our race teams to create a great aero platform for them to build fastest race cars possible,” says Chevy NASCAR program manager Pat Suhy.

 Camaro’s debut has led to speculation that Ford might counter with its own V-8 powered muscle car, the Mustang. Ford confirms it has gotten a lot of interest in that possibility, but is tight-lipped on future plans.

“This is racing, and we are always working on actions to improve performance and that includes engine, body, aero, everything on the car. We will make an announcement on any future body actions when we are ready,” says Ford Motorsports chief Mark Rushbrook.

Toyota teased the return of its new Supra this week, which will give the Japanese brand its own muscle car for NASCAR consideration.

After fielding the Chevy Impala family sedan until 2012, GM bucked the family car trend for NASCAR Cup cars by entering its V-8 powered rear-wheel drive Chevy SS. Trouble was, the SS — a four-door muscle car — sold just 4,000 cars in the U.S. market. The under-performing SS was discontinued for 2018, and the Camaro — with annual sales just under 70,000 vehicles — took its place.

“(The SS) was the most authentic entry in NASCAR from track to showroom,” said GM Motorsports boss Campbell. “We wanted to keep that principle intact as we went forward, and Camaro was the right place for us to do it.”

Cartoon: Government Bans

Posted by hpayne on February 23, 2018

Cartoon: Trump Immigration Block

Posted by hpayne on February 20, 2018

Cartoon: Le Bron and Trump Derangement Syndrome

Posted by hpayne on February 20, 2018

Payne: Alfa Stelvio sport ute vs. Cadillac ATS sport sedan

Posted by hpayne on February 15, 2018

stelvio-ats_side

The age of the performance SUV is upon us. Porsche, Jaguar, Alfa — even Lamborghini! — put the “sport” in sport utility vehicle. They come with heavy-breathing marketing materials claiming these five-door rhinos bring sedan-like moves to the ute class.

Don’t you believe it.

I recently speed-dated a similarly spec’d five-door Alfa Romeo Stelvio SUV and a Cadillac ATS sedan. Both had turbo-4 power. Sculpted lines. Eight-speed transmissions. Electronic accessories. The works.

The razor-sharp, toned ATS danced rings around the Alfa. The Cadillac begs to be spun around the rumba studio. The Italian ute? Slow the music down a bit, please.

Yet, when I step back from these two luxury partners, the SUV’s overall benefits are hard to deny. Driving-obsessed motorheads like me aside, we are ute nation. It’s no wonder that Alfa — that legendary crafter of the T33 Stradale Prototipo and V8 Montreal — chose to introduce its second U.S. volume vehicle as an SUV. And it’s no wonder that Cadillac is scrambling to complement its lone crossover entry, the XT-5, with s new XT-4 and XT-6 this year.

I was honestly surprised at how pedestrian the Alfa felt next to the ATS. The Stelvio, after all, is based on the same Giorgio architecture as the Giulia sedan which is neck-and-neck with the ATS for best compact athlete. The Alfa siblings share engines, gearboxes, even independent, multi-link suspensions. And the Stelvio costs 10 grand more than the ATS with similar amenities.

The Stelvio is as good as it gets in compact SUVs. Like the Porsche Macan and Jaguar F-Sport and BMW X2 (and, while we’re at it, the terrific, premium-wannabe Mazda CX-5) it is fun to drive, balanced on corner turn-in.

But the ATS is an Olympian.

You know this is a different animal as soon as you turn the wheel. The ATS fits like a tennis shoe, changing directions as quickly as Seth Curry. Heading north on Telegraph Road, I take the long way home through Oakland County’s twisty lake country. I push the Sport mode button for a throatier soundtrack to match my mood, stomp the throttle, and enjoy the quick, buttery, eight-speed tranny.

 It reminds me of the first time I drove the Cadillac in rural Connecticut, sprinting over hills and never putting a foot wrong.

Its Alpha chassis (that’s Alpha with a “ph”) was bred to compete against Germany’s finest at the highest levels. Drop in a twin-turbo V-6, slap on some Michelin Super Sports, and the ATS-V performance model can go toe-to-toe against a BMW M3 around any track. It was part of Cadillac’s rebirth as a performance brand as it threw an army at the Teutons: Cadillac CTS-V, CT6 large sedans, CT6 plug-in hybrid.

So good is the Alpha chassis that GM also built the Chevy Camaro on it, which not only gave the Camaro bragging rights over the Ford Mustang — but made the Camaro competitive with BMW’s M4 coupe, for goodness sake.

Trouble is, customers wanted SUVs.

“People want to ride up high for better visibility. And SUVs also give them all-wheel drive and five-door utility,” says IHS senior analyst Steph Brinley.

Cadillac only offered one — the XT5 — and the Germans offered dozens. Alfa watched, learned and introduced Stelvio within a year of the Giulia. Stelvio sales have been slow out of the box, selling two-thirds as many units as the sedan. But give it time. Caddy’s lone XT5 outsells the ATS 5-to-1 — and it’s not even based on the same rear-wheel drive skeleton (it shares its bones with the front-wheel-drive GMC Acadia).

Jump in the Stelvio and it’s not immediately obvious why an SUV would outsell a sedan. Like its compact car counterparts, the backseat is small and its coupe-like styling negates the fundamental hatchback design advantage by squashing my 6-foot-5 frame into the ceiling.

Then it started to snow.

The white stuff negated all of the handling advantages of the ATS. My rear-wheel drive ATS couldn’t make it up my driveway. The Alfa climbed it like Sir Edmund Hillary.

The Stelvio comes standard with all-wheel drive — but four-wheelin’ is an option on the ATS which would bring its price to $52,000 (and make it even quicker to 60 mph with the added traction). That’s still $4,000 shy of the Alfa. But the average consumer has already signed the sedan divorce papers.

The standard all-wheel drive Stelvio rides higher for better visibility. It has nearly double the rear cargo space (18 cubic feet) compared to the Caddy’s 10. And then there’s the Alfa engine.

Most drivers don’t know an apex from a cortex — but they know how to mash a throttle out of a stoplight. Here the Alfa shines. Its 280-horsepower turbo-4 had just five more horsepower and 10 more pound-feet of torque than the Cadillac, but it feels like more. The Stelvio also feels smoother in the high-rev ranges where the Caddy shouts, sounding more like a mainstream four-banger than a luxury chariot.

More telling, fuel efficiency is almost identical despite the Alfa weighing some 500 pounds more than the sedan and lugging around all-wheel drive. That’s impressive — and also indicative of the leap that SUVs have made to become more competitive with cars. These aren’t your grandad’s gas-guzzling light trucks.

“Customers want it all,” says Brinley. “They expect utility and fuel economy.”

The more I drove the ATS and Stelvio back-to-back, the more I wanted to combine their strengths into one vehicle.

From the ATS: lower center of gravity for better handling, lighter weight, touchscreen infotainment. From the Stelvio: hatchback utility, all-wheel drive, beefier turbo-4.

Now that would be the perfect car. Call it the Alfallac ATStelvio.

Or call it the VW Golf R, one of my favorite hot hatches that combines the best of the sedan/ute worlds: hatchback (with 4 more cubic feet of cargo room than the Stelvio), a 2.0-liter turbo-4 (with 12 more horsepower than the Alfa), low center of gravity, monster brakes, lightweight (700 pounds lighter than Stelvio), all-wheel drive for snow and grip (a half-second quicker to 60 mph than the luxe twins), 25 mpg (same as the ATS), plus standard leather and safety systems.

And a loaded Golf R costs just $41,000 — 5,000 grand south of an ATS and $15,000 cheaper than the Stelvio. It’s a bargain.

Just thought you’d like to know.

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-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2018 Cadillac ATS

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

Price: $36, 490 base ($47,255 RWD as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged, 4-cylinder

Power: 272 horsepower, 295 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.7 seconds (Motor Trend); top speed, 150 mph

Weight: 3,373 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 22 mpg city/31 mpg highway/25 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Slot-car handling; unique styling

Lows: Cramped backseat; shouty four-banger

Overall:★★★

2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio

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

Price: $43,190 base ($54,090 Sport Ti AWD as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged, 4-cylinder

Power: 280 horsepower, 306 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.4 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 144 mph

Weight: 4,044 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 22 mpg city/28 mpg highway/24 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Quick engine-tranny combo; sedan-like mpg despite added girth

Lows: Cramped backseat; high CUV stance compromises handling

Overall:★★★

Cartoon: Jeep Stream Ban

Posted by hpayne on February 15, 2018

Cartoon: Olympic Lingo

Posted by hpayne on February 14, 2018

Cartoon: The Post Cover Up

Posted by hpayne on February 14, 2018

Cartoon: Trump and a French Parade

Posted by hpayne on February 13, 2018

Cartoon: Wall Street Roller Coaster

Posted by hpayne on February 11, 2018

Cartoon: Tesla Orbit

Posted by hpayne on February 9, 2018

Audi TT RS: A sports car for all seasons

Posted by hpayne on February 8, 2018

For 2018 the Audi TT gets an RS badge that upgrades

When I couldn’t make it to the Audi TT RS media test at Lime Rock race track last summer, I was bummed. I read report after report about the nimble TT’s raspy five-banger at full throttle around the challenging Connecticut race track.

“It’s an easy little car to toss and place with precision,” wrote Car and Driver. “Putting the power down on exit is easy with the quattro system deciding where to send torque,” thrilled Autoweek. “The Audi devours straight lines with a manic burble, and grips hard in high-speed turns,” raved Motor1.com.

But none of them got to do doughnuts in driving snow.

My TT RS tester arrived in my driveway in January in the teeth of Michigan winter. Day after chilling day of single-digit temps. Icicles longer than hockey sticks hanging off my roof. Even local Sierra Club groupies are burning their copies of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” for warmth. A sports car?

I had put my sports-car fantasies into hibernation two months previous. This time of year I crave all-wheel drive — not for quick zero-60 launches, but to get me through snow drifts. Indeed, local sports-car test fleets usually fly south for the winter with the geese so they can frolic on warm asphalt and wink their headlights at cute beach bunnies.

 Yet here was a ferocious, sporty coupe in my driveway covered in snow.

I’m no stranger to the TT as readers of this column know. I took the base 220-horse, 2.0-liter turbo-4 car — little different from the RS save the insane, 400-horsepower, rally-derived, five-cylinder hornet’s nest under the hood and a wing out back — straight to Hell a couple of years back and had devilish fun on the best roads in Michigan.

But in January Hell freezes over. Ain’t going there. Which is OK, because the closest parking lot is all you need to enjoy a TT in winter.

After clearing the snow from the Audi’s shapely rear hatch and chiseling away the snow packs already encrusted like barnacles around the wing struts, I worked my way down the check list. Heated steering wheel? Check. Traction control turned off? Got it. Dynamic Mode selected? Always. 245/35/19 Continental ContiWinterContact snow tires? Heck, yeah.

 I hit my favorite empty neighborhood lot, spinning like a top. TT’s taut chassis and short wheelbase make it more playful than the odd SUV I usually take out for snow doughnuts.

This has never appealed to me before in other performance rear-wheel drive cars. My old Porsche 944? Tucked away in storage until spring. My favorite BMW M3? Same. The Audi even has me rethinking my rear-wheel drive Tesla Model 3 order.

The Tesla also comes in an all-wheel drive variant, but I checked the box for rear-wheel drive — both because Tesla might not deliver all-wheel drive versions of the Model 3 until my hair’s grown white, and that I like the lightweight, tossable handling of rear-wheel drive.

The TT opens new worlds as an all-season plaything.

Audi, along with spartan Tesla, is the most innovative automaker when it comes to re-imagining the dashboard. The TT has a big, 12.3-inch “Virtual Cockpit” instrument display entirely configurable from the steering wheel: gauge placement, radio channels, navigation, the works.

The driver-oriented display clears out the center console for a clean, aesthetically pleasing dash anchored by huge, aviation-style air vents controlled with a twist of their rotary rims or a tap on their center temp controls. Slick. With the console screen gone, the only thing left of an infotainment system is Audi’s familiar rotary console knob. I never touched it.

It’s there for passengers like my wife to use when she wants to spin the dial to her favorite radio station. So big is the Virtual Cockpit display behind the steering wheel that she can easily see the station lists.

After my daily playground calisthenics, the TT RS and I took Mrs. Payne for a night on the (frigid) town. As beautiful as the Audi’s Nvidia graphics chip-driven navigation display may be, its search function is not as intuitive as Tesla’s smartphone-like Google Maps system. I couldn’t just bark the name of our restaurant at the car — I had to first look it up on my Samsung, then bark the exact address at the car. Smartphones: never leave home without ’em.

Despite its 2+2 seating design, the TT is not a car for double-dating. Like the similarly-priced rear-wheel drive Camaro and Mustang V-8 coupes — or the much pricier Porsche 911 — TT’s back seat is for storage only. Or maybe for misbehaving children. Roald Dahl’s the Trunchbull might have used it.

Matilda! I’m putting you in the Chokey — no, make that the TT back seat!

 That roomy Tesla Model 3 back seat sounds appealing, by contrast, but the 3 does not come with big brother Model S’s hatchback. The TT does. The wee Audi started life with a symmetrical front-to-rear wing shape (an aerodynamic development that also had unforeseen, um, flying consequences, but I digress). But with the second generation, saner heads prevailed and Audi’s hatch grew longer into its current wonderful, utilitarian shape.

This, in my opinion, is the TT snow leopard’s other key ingredient given its sibling competitors, Porsche and VW.

As good as its chassis shared with the Volkswagen Golf may be, the TT can’t hold a candle to the $60,000 Porsche Boxster/Cayman in the handling department. The Porsche is an athlete without peer under $100,000.

 But with the engine amidships, the Porsche lacks the front-engine TT’s hatchback roominess — not to mention its all-wheel drive dexterity. Throw in the RS (for rocket ship) 5-cylinder mill and the TT RS is a compelling alternative for a similar $60,000. For the more aesthetically minded, the hatch also makes the base TT compelling against a similarly priced — if very boxy — all-wheel drive Golf R hatch.

By week’s end the weather gods gave us a brief thaw between deep freezes. The respite let me do a couple of zero-60 launch control runs in the TT RS just like my buddies enjoyed in Lime Rock: the seven-speed tranny barked off shifts, the 5-holer screaming like a possessed buzz-saw to 7,000 rpms.

Happy at zero degrees or zero-60 launches: That’s all-wheel drive bandwidth. When I shut down my salt-caked Audi TT it would make a signature, heartbeat chime: BUM-BUM.

An echo of my racing heartbeat.

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-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2018 Audi TT RS

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, two-passenger (honestly) sports car

Price: $65,875

Power plant: 2.5-liter, turbocharged, 5-cylinder

Power: 250 horsepower, 295 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 7-speed, dual-clutch automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 3.6 seconds (mftr); top speed, 155 mph/optional 174 mph

Weight: 3,306 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 19 mpg city/29 mpg highway/22 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: All-season athlete; dashboard re-imagined

Lows: Back seat is more storage than seat; frankly, a $20,000-cheaper TT is just fine, thank you

Overall:★★★★

FBI Spy Double Standard

Posted by hpayne on February 8, 2018

Eagle Goliath Super Bowl

Posted by hpayne on February 8, 2018

Cartoon: FBI Black Eye Memo

Posted by hpayne on February 2, 2018

Cartoon: Groundhog Shumer and Economic Growth

Posted by hpayne on February 2, 2018

Payne: X-ceptional Buick TourX wagon

Posted by hpayne on February 1, 2018

636525734246076054-tourx-red-fr-rock.JPG

And now for something completely different.

Buick calls the five-door version of its Buick Regal a “crossover with car-like driver characteristics.” The Environmental Protection Agency calls it a station wagon, and millennials say it’s a hatchback. The badge says it’s a TourX. I call it gorgeous.

The long-awaited stunner finally brings Detroit onto the premium crossover-wagon catwalk alongside European beauties like the $45,475 Audi Allroad and $52,300 Volvo V90 Cross Country. Not surprisingly, the design comes courtesy of General Motors’ European Opel/Vauxhall sisters that have a knack for sexy wagons (across the pond, the TourX is badged the Insignia Country Tourer). Surprisingly, it debuts here as a Buick, the once-dowdy seniors brand that has transformed from ugly duckling to swan.

SwanX. Yeah, let’s call it that.

It’s not only the most bodacious-looking Buick in a long while, but the $29,995 wagon rivals its expensive European competition in looks while trouncing them in utility. In Americanizing the Insignia for us Yanks, nothing has been lost in translation. Indeed, the crossover effect improves on the Regal Sportback sedan (built alongside the X in Russelsheim, Germany) I reviewed earlier this year. Like mascara on Gal Gadot, the charcoal body-cladding enhances Regal’s naturally attractive features. Fascia makeup helps the eyes — er, headlights — stand out. Fender highlights tone TourX’s long flanks. And then there’s that hatch.

Ohhhh, the hatch. As I photographed the TourX, I kept returning to its profile. It’s like a 150-foot yacht sailing by that you can’t take your eyes off.

More: Station wagons are back – in crossover disguise

The Regal Sportback is pretty, but based on a front-wheel drive platform, its stunted front can’t compete against long-hooded rear-wheel drive models. TourX designers have pulled its rear deck waaaay back to here, so that — despite the same dash-to-axle proportions as Sportback — the wagon looks like it’s resting on its haunches.

For emphasis, a chrome roofline arcs over the narrow greenhouse and doesn’t stop until the taillights. It’s punctuated by chrome tailpipe tips embedded in the rear fascia.

The exquisite tailoring hides acres of interior room.

Kick your foot under the bumper, and the automatic hatch opens, revealing a cavernous, 73.5-cubic-foot cargo hold that beats the Audi, Volvo, and even a three-row Acura MDX ute (68 cubes). I know — I stuffed 25 athletic bags into the back of the Buick — six more than Allroad holds.

This is the wagon that didn’t exist when Mrs. Payne and I were shopping to replace our Ford Taurus wagon in 2008. Taurus was kaput, as were most mid-size wagons amidst a rush to utes. Sporty luxury-wagons were all that was left — and their price tags were too big, their confines too small for our family of four.

Reluctantly, we crossed over to crossovers and the first Chrysler Pacifica, a lovely (if reliability challenged) SUV. I can’t say I was ever tempted to carve a corner in the higher-riding Pacifica.

Call us wagon orphans.

Buick is targeting orphans who bought an Acura TSX sport wagon or Cadillac CTS wagon or Saab 9-5 wagon a decade ago and now find … hey, where’d everybody go? Buick to the rescue.

Buick’s savvy product-marketing has already rescued its nearly forgotten brand. Saved in GM’s bankruptcy by the Chinese market, Buick has radically transformed its portfolio here by thinking outside the box. Near-death experiences will do that for you.

The Enclave was one of the first three-row SUVs. It was followed by the pioneering Encore cute-ute. The Encore filled the “white space” in a market where emptynesters were downsizing from, well, Enclaves, yet didn’t want to go back to sedans. Especially Buick sedans with “has-been” stamped on their foreheads.

Buick thinks it’s found that white space with the TourX. While young families will still gravitate to Buick’s utes, X marks the spot for orphans, emptynesters and outdoors people who value handling and style.

I tested the TourX in that outdoor mecca, Sedona, Arizona. There’s not a lot of white space here. Surrounded by towering pillars of red rock, the Arizona town is one of the most beautiful spots on the planet. My red TourX fit right in.

True off-roaders will opt for Jeep Wranglers in this rugged environment, but with its sophisticated all-wheel drive system, low roof (the better for wee Mrs. Payne to fetch things from) and cavernous cargo-hold, the TourX will appeal to many.

The same applies in Michigan winters. Other than riding high, all-wheel drive has been a primary attraction for SUVs in grisly weather. All-wheel drive comes standard on TourX, along with a host of other goodies like roof rails, 18-inch wheels and cruise control.

I pounded across Arizona Route 152 — looking up at red rock skyscrapers through the X’s full-length sunroof — turning the traction control off for all-wheel drifts through switchbacks. At 3,708 pounds, the TourX is less than 100 pounds heavier and less than an inch higher than the Regal Sportback. For all its crossover cladding, its handling says sedan. I tried taking it farther off-road, but this is no Subaru Outback or Volvo Cross Country — both of which have been jacked to more ute-like heights. Stick to dirt, not rocks.

Lighter than the Audi All Road by 100 pounds, the TourX is nicely motivated by GM’s workhorse, 2.0-liter turbo-4 mated to a smooth, 8-speed box. A healthy 295 pound-feet of torque — 20 more than the Audi — comes in early (the Buick only revs to 6,500 rpms) like you want for a cargo-hauler.

Determined to compete with its higher-priced peers, Buick’s engineers labored to make the TourX whisper-quiet. “We’re doing 100 miles per hour?” exclaimed a colleague as I mashed the throttle on Interstate 17. The quiet interior never betrayed the higher speed.

Buick’s cheaper sticker-price is evident only when you’re inside the cabin.

The layout is nice but uninspired. The monotone black dash of my loaded, $41,550 tester lacked the personality of the exterior. The spacious console has but one USB port. Visors lack extenders for the long side windows exposed to the sun. The TourX doesn’t have GM’s innovative heads-up display, despite similar features that are included on cheaper, mainstream models like Honda’s Accord. Even GM’s progressive connectivity was slow here with Android Auto slow to engage.

Having built an architectural masterpiece, Buick seems to want to see if the house sells before fully decorating all the rooms. But a showpiece it is. Like a Frank Lloyd Wright home with poorly lit hallways, its missteps can be fixed retroactively.

Buick has crafted a flowing sculpture with easy roof access and endless, quiet living space. Welcome home, orphans.

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-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2018 Buick Regal TourX

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

Price: $29,995 ($41,550 as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged, inline 4-cylinder

Power: 250 horsepower, 295 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph (NA)

Weight: 3,708 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 21 mpg city/29 mpg highway/24 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Cure for the common crossover; room everywhere

Lows: Interior not as inspired as exterior; visor extenders, please

Overall:★★★★