Henry Payne Blog

Cartoon: Bush Dynasty

Posted by hpayne on December 17, 2014

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Cartoon:Isis and Terror in Australia

Posted by hpayne on December 16, 2014

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Cartoon: Rolling Stone Headline

Posted by hpayne on December 12, 2014

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CARtoon: Santa Hellcat

Posted by hpayne on December 11, 2014

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Cartoon: CIA Torture Condemned

Posted by hpayne on December 11, 2014

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Cartoon: Breathe Shirt

Posted by hpayne on December 11, 2014

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Payne: The Lexus NX goes SciFi

Posted by hpayne on December 11, 2014

Lexus created the luxury-utility crossover category

Toyota’s CEO thinks his products are bland. So here comes the radically restyled, nimble-handling, SciFi NX SUV.

Lexus has the most radical styling out there.

Read that again. Say it out loud. Sounds weird, yes? How did Lexus and radical styling find their way into the same sentence? It’s like vanilla ice cream that makes your tongue burn. Or chic styles at the Dollar Store. Or sexy Rick Snyder.

But there sits the Lexus NX. And it is one edgy cat. Or space ship. Or bug zapper. Or whatever it looks like.

Lexus designers’ ears have been burning since 2009 when Toyota CEO — and certified motor-head — Akio Toyoda took the helm demanding more excitement from his cars. “Traditionally, Toyota’s design decisions have been driven by consensus among a large group of stakeholders,” read a Toyota press release at last winter’s Detroit auto show. “Under Akio Toyoda’s stated directive to invigorate Toyota products with energy, passion and “Waku-Doki” (translation: a palpable heart-pounding sense of excitement), the approval process has been streamlined.”

That is, Toyota’s boss thinks his products are boring. A yawn-fest. An auto-sized NyQuil pill. Has there ever been a more candid moment in image-obsessed, self-flattering Autodom?

And so we get the NX.

If early, 1990s Lexi resembled Mercedes, and the 2000s looked like — um, what did they look like again? — then the current Lexus lineup has come into its own. Bold. Slashing. Dissonant. A safe brand pushing the envelope. I like that.

Though I’m not sure history will judge it kindly. Sure, the NX is aimed at younger buyers. But will a SciFi design resonate? The NX looks like a Narn Cruiser from a Babylon 5 episode. And like all SciFi designs, its sharp, technical lines lack warmth. Most car faces are anthropomorphic, reflecting something human with eye-like headlights and mouth-like grilles.

Not Lexus. The NX gains its design inspiration from a spear with long, shaft-like lines ending in two arrowheads at the front end. The grille gets caught awkwardly between the two points. Viewed head on, the grille looks variously like an hour glass (the base 200t) or a giant bug zapper (the sporty F trim). Whatever, the arrowhead (or L for Lexus) theme echoes throughout the vehicle from lights to center console. The obsession reminds of other LOOK AT ME! designs like the 2002 Caddy CTS or the Taurus’s oval period.

As with those iris-burning designs, the NX will surely mellow over time. But for now it demands attention like a gorgeous model wearing a spiked mohawk. Will punk work on a luxury fashion runway that includes elegant models like the Lincoln MKC and BMW X3?

The NX-men are hardly the most radical mutants in the Toyota-wide design experiment. Across the pond in Europe, the tiny Toyota Aygo city car, for example, sports an X-graphic on its animal-esque nose that makes it look like Wolverine with war paint.

You wanted Waku-Doki, Akio-san? You got it.

The design edginess is a conscious attempt to broaden Lexus’ appeal beyond reliability, the trademark of Toyota products. At a coffee shop in Nashville where I drove the NX — would you like your Lexus with a denim interior, Mr. McGraw? — a store manager told me of giving up his BMW 3-series for a Toyota Prius hybrid. Why? Because the BMW was gorgeous but high maintenance. If Toyota/Lexus can deliver looks with practicality, why choose a Bimmer in the first place?

Also in contrast to German luxe-makers, Lexus has never resisted Americans’ interior demands. This Japanese manufacturer gets it: American live in their cars.

Have a car full of coffee quaffers? NX has a car full of cup holders. Have a ladies golf foursome every Saturday? Four golf bags will stack behind the second-row seat. Smart phone need juice? The center compartment sports a wireless charging tray.

And FYI, Lexus boasts the NX is a model of NVH and HMI (that’s Noise Vibration Harshness and Human Machine Interface for those not fluent in industry-speak).

Well … the NVH is A-OK. The HMI? AWOL.

The little ute has been fussed over for quiet and comfort. Its slippery, car-like styling (sure, the C-pillars have blind spots the size of a Ndamukong Suh, but that’s what the affordable, blind spot assist feature is for), and laser spot-welded chassis make for a library-quiet interior.

Which means you can contemplate the dashboard’s curiously poor HMI in silence. Lexus prefers German-like infotainment systems over superior American designs. Where Yankee consoles (think Jeep) centralize a touchscreen with redundant analog controls underneath, the NX sticks a non-touch screen high on the dash and then insists that you operate it with a touchpad waaaaay down here in front of the shift lever. Coordinating hand and eye works when stationary, but changing radio channels with your finger on a touch pad while driving is a challenge right out of a TV game show.

“Congratulations, Julie, you’ve managed to change from AM to FM and select a new station in less than a minute! You win a trip to Nashville!”

Lexus’s decision to mimic German handling is more understandable. The front- or all-wheel drive NX’s handling is wunderbar. It’s a crossover that looks like a car and aims to handle like one as well. The NX’s electric steering gives the pilot an immediate sense of security despite the ute’s high center of gravity. It’s firm, nicely-weighted, connected to the road.

Owners will likely test the handling limits of their NX only when in trouble, and when it comes they will find a Toyota RAV4-based chassis that is predictable in a corner and refreshingly free of plowing understeer.

While it strains to push the envelope outside, the NX is a reminder that Lexus has always been cutting edge under the hood.

Two fuel-sippers are on offer. A turbocharged 2.0-liter four for the $35,405 base 200t. A gas-electric hybrid powertrain in the NX 300h begins at $40,645. Even the swaggering F Sport ($37.5k) is on a diet. It gets the same, 235-horsepower turbo mill as the base model. What the F? After all, F models are designed to attract males to a female-heavy brand. In a bid for testosterone, Lexus offers a gimmicky active sound control option in the F Sport that allows you to turn up the exhaust volume inside. It’s a turn-off.

Best to enjoy the NX for what it is: A lush, efficient Lexus wrapped in a rad SciFi costume, dude.

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

 

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

Price: $35,405 base 200t ($42,235 for 300h hybrid model)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged inline-4 (200t and F Sport); 2.5-liter dual overhead-cam inline-4 with nickel-metal-hydride battery-powered, AC electric motor assist (300h)

Power: 235 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque (200t, F Sport); 194 hp combined hybrid power rating (300h)

Transmission: Six-speed automatic (200t, F Sport); Continuously variable automatic (300h)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.0 seconds (200t AWD — manufacturer)

Weight: 3,940 pounds (base FWD); 4,050 (AWD)

Fuel economy: EPA 21 mpg city/28 mpg highway/24 mpg combined (200t FWD); 35 mpg city/31 mpg highway/33 mpg combined (300h); 22 mpg city/27 mpg highway/24 mpg combined (F Sport AWD)

Report card

Highs: Polarizing stylin’; Planted handling

Lows: Polarizing styling; Glitchy touch pad

Overall: ★★★

 

Cartoon: CIA Torture

Posted by hpayne on December 11, 2014

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Cartoon: Gruber

Posted by hpayne on December 11, 2014

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Cartoon: News Narratives

Posted by hpayne on December 9, 2014

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Cartoon: Chicken Little Oil

Posted by hpayne on December 8, 2014

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Payne: Q&Auto, Majoros – are sedans dead?

Posted by hpayne on December 8, 2014

Chevy marketing guru Steve Majoros has watched SUVs take over the industry. Now comes tiny Chevy Trax., the small SUV to end small cars?

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Is the sedan a dinosaur?

“We’re not there yet. But . . . the smaller you go (in the market) it’s more of a trend,” says Chevy’s Steve Majoros, one of Detroit’s savviest marketing guys. “(SUVs) have more expression to them, more character to them. They fit the multi-dimensionality that people have in their lives.”

You know that digital technology is changing car interiors from safety systems like adaptive cruise control to consoles screens playing Pandora. But have you noticed that the exterior has received an extreme makeover as well? Sport utes long ago ceased being truck-based behemoths. They are now car-based crossovers with designs that think outside the box. SUV models match sedans segment for segment, from large lux (want a Audi Q7 or Audi A8?) to compacts (Ford Escape or Ford Focus?).

For the first time in history, according to IHS Automotive, SUV registrations this year outnumber sedans, 36.5 percent to 35.4 percent. That flips the table from just five years ago, when sedans led the way — 36.3 percent to 31.4. And it is a sea change since the ’80s when a “ute” was just a Utah college mascot.

From Chevy account manager at Campbell Ewald to Chevy marketing director for cars and crossovers, Majoros has watched this revolution unfold. His latest contribution to the trend? The cute Chevy Trax, the first mainstream ute in the subcompact segment. The youthful, energetic 49-year old has the resume of a grizzled veteran and the chin grizzle of a rock star. I sat down with Majoros at the Trax launch in San Diego to talk utes, Corsicas, and twenty-somethings.

Q: How did you get here?

Majoros: I am a marketing guy first and a motorhead second. I worked at Campbell Ewald for 25 years in Detroit. I was on the Chevy account, I love GM; I bled GM. Then Campbell Ewald lost the Chevy account, and that stung. I did a lot of new business in non-auto categories and it just wasn’t as interesting. I had to get back into (auto), and was fortunate enough to join GM.

Q: What was your first car?

Majoros: My first car was the family Impala. First car I purchased was a Chevy Corsica, small sedan. Then I’ve had an S-10 pickup, Blazers, Tahoes . . . .

Q: You and I are typical of our generation. First car a sedan. An SUV meant a truck. Now your 22-year old kid wants a small SUV as his first car. Why?

Majoros: The younger generation would rather have a sense of style and technology than other things. There is an emotional appeal to these vehicles. Our Global Connected Consumer team has a saying: “Young people want to bring their digital life into their vehicle and they want to bring their vehicle into their digital life.” I think my son’s generation has rejected the notion of the big vehicle – he’s not in a Tahoe state of mind. But he’s in a state of mind that he looks at this vehicle and it doesn’t look out of touch with what (his) friends are doing, what society’s doing, what the culture’s doing. He’s in a band. He’s taking two guitars, and drums, and it fits what he needs, and he doesn’t have to make an excuse for it. It checks a lot of boxes pragmatically and emotionally.

Q: Isn’t this trend perfect for Detroit which excels in SUVs but has struggled with sedans?

Majoros: Absolutely. Tahoes and Suburbans are great vehicles. I want that same sense of connection — that sense of pride — in small cars. It’s not the car I got because I had to, it’s the car I got because I wanted it. If you can connect that brand and then move them through portfolio? That’s a pretty good recipe.

Q: GM is first into the subcompact ute segment with the Buick Encore and now the Trax. How did Chevy decide to make this car?

Majoros: One, We’ve got an awful lot of smart people in product planning and product forecasting that knew what was going to happen. Two, we look at our dealer body and we ask them: what’s moving? Three, if we want Chevy to succeed then you ask: How do we bring people into the portfolio? The number one vehicle bringing new people to Chevy is Volt. Numbers 2-4 are Sonic, Spark, and Cruze. I fully expect Trax will do the same thing.

Cartoon: Santa Cheap Gas

Posted by hpayne on December 8, 2014

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Payne: Subaru Outback’s sensible chic

Posted by hpayne on December 8, 2014

Outback has maintained the loyalty of Ben & Jerry’s-Chunky-Monkey-eating hipsters while making the most vanilla-looking cars on the planet. Who needs heels to climb Mt. Everest?

2015 Subaru Outback

‘There’s nothing I can’t reach in my Subaru,” goesthe Subaru ad. I get carried away with that sometimes.

A new, 2015 Subaru Outback crossover arrived in my driveway just as the first winter storm pummeled Detroit last month. Armed with a ‘Ru, I was determined to pummel right back.

I jumped in. It fit like a glove. Surveyed the cockpit. All-wheel drive. Yup, it’s a Subaru all right. Tore out of my driveway through three inches of snow, stabbed the brakes, rotated the Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive with X Mode system (that’s AWD for short) at the apex, and … plowed straight across the road, through my neighbor’s lawn, and into a drainage ditch.

Dang. Fortunately, there nothing a Subaru can get me into that it can’t get me out of. With Outback’s healthy, 8.7-inch ground clearance and all four wheels churning, I straddled the ditch and eased effortlessly back onto the main road. A minor detour. No harm done.

Mrs. Payne called me at work a short time later. “Were those your tire marks across the neighbor’s lawn?” (Sigh. Murphy’s second law: Your wife or a cop will always be there when you screw up.)

I blame Subaru marketing.

The new Outback comes shod with the same torque-vectoring technology as their all-wheel drive sports sedan, the WRX STI. You’ll recall I blew up Laguna Seca Raceway in this $38K, heat-seeking missile last February thanks to its apex-hugging AWD system. Arm the more rugged Outback with the same technology? Banzai!

Thanks to the affordable off-road Outback and on-track STI, Subaru has managed the unusual feat of making loyalists (“evangelists” Subaru likes to call them) out of tree-huggers and motor-heads alike.

With its rugged, all-wheel personality, the versatile Outback has long been a favorite of liberal bark-munchers from Maine to Washington state. Meanwhile, the fire-breathing, Sopwith Camel-winged STI has been the envy of carbon-swigging, beer-belching hot rodders from California to the Carolinas.

The bipolar personality is not as illogical as it appears. The Outback caters to athletes who enjoy exploring the outdoors — the WRX to rally jocks who enjoy conquering the outdoors. But it all makes for some interesting bedfellows.

Subaru is as at home partnering with environmental groups like the National Park Foundation as it is with high-performance oil companies like Motul. Heck, my wife and I have as much use for greenies as a fish does for a bicycle. Yet we own a compact Impreza wagon because it is the perfect intersection of sport and utility — it shares the same platform as the WRX, yet provides my wife the winter security of AWD.

The Outback, on the other hand, should never be mistaken for a sports car. My accidental, off-road antics being Exhibit A.

I attacked my snowy, cul-de-sac turn like a STI might attack a dirt road. But the Outback is 10 inches longer and walks around on stilts compared to the squat STI. Result? Neighbor’s-lawn-exploring understeer. Oops.

Once I stopped treating the tree-hugger like a motor-head, the Outback is a joy.

It is affordable and competent. Night or day. Sun or snow. Its buttons are where they should be. Roomy, heated front seats. Plenty more room in the heated rear seats to seat more. Lotsa cargo space in the hatch for their stuff. The Outback isn’t so big that you have to worry about collecting a wall while backing out of a parking space — and isn’t so small you have to worry about getting flattened against a wall by a wayward pickup. It does what you ask. It’s as loyal as a beagle.

“It’s not every day you find a companion as loyal as a Subaru,” goes another adorable ‘Ru ad. “Love. It’s what makes a Subaru a Subaru.”

Which is a good thing too, because only a mother could love something as homely as the Outback.

Not ugly, mind you. Just homely. Which is a major improvement from the turn-of-the-century Subarus which were as frightful to look at as a bulldog in an argyle sweater. Indeed, one of Subaru’s most remarkable attributes is that it has maintained the loyalty of Baby Boom, Ben & Jerry’s-Chunky-Monkey-eating hipsters while making the most vanilla-looking cars on the planet.

Mindful of this shortcoming, Subaru has been making regular trips to the beauty parlor, and the 2015 Outback — like the remade WRX and Legacy sedan before it, has received a fashionably handsome hexagon grille.

Outback is part of a Subaru lineup that crams the mid-size segment with remarkably affordable vehicles. At a ridiculously low $26,995, the Outback sits on the same chassis as the Legacy sedan. For five grand less you can get the Subaru Crosstrek crossover which is similarly twinned with the compact Impreza sedan. Crammed between them is the Forester crossover. That’s a lot of product in a $22K-$27K space.

Outback owners swear by its bulletproof dependability, AWD durability, and award-winning safety credentials (run one off a Lake Michigan pier and it’ll probably float to safety on its eight air bags). So they can be forgiven its shortcomings.

The Outback (like Brother Legacy) is noticeably noisier than its competition despite an acoustic glass upgrade. The 2.5-liter BOXER engine buzz is drowned out only by the wind howling across the slim A-pillars. Despite its friendlier grille, the Outback’s flanks are plain while the black cladding along its skirts is as out of place as knee pads on a cheerleader.

“So what?” an Outback would say if it could talk.

Plain is hip, people. Do rock climbers wear heels? Do mountain climbers pack Perrier in their canteens?

The Outback is the anti-brand brand. If you lust for brand identity then you can pay $52,000 for a BMW X5 with 13-cubic feet less interior volume. Or $31K for a much smaller Jeep Cherokee. The Outback was a hip crossover before anybody knew what a crossover was. In fact, the Outback is really a station wagon sitting 8.7 inches off the ground.

As for me and my wife, we’ll stick with our Impreza wagon. Though come spring I’ll keep my eye out for a mouth-breathing, 305-horsepower WRX STI in my driveway. I wonder what my wife will say when she sees I’ve been doing doughnuts in our lawn …

2015 Subaru Outback

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

Price: $26,995 base ($31,535 as tested)

Power plant: 2.5-liter, dual overhead-cam, BOXER 4-cylinder

Power: 175 horsepower, 174 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Continuously-variable automatic transmission with six-speed manual paddles

Performance: 0-60 mph, 9.3 seconds (manufacturer); towing: 2,700 lbs.

Weight: 3,593 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 25 mpg city/33 mpg highway/28 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Gobs of interior room; all-wheel drive

Lows: Noisier than most; vanilla styling

Overall: ★★★

Cartoon: Fat Cats and Obama

Posted by hpayne on December 8, 2014

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Cartoon: Riots Burn Businesses

Posted by hpayne on November 25, 2014

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Cartoon: Ferguson Gas

Posted by hpayne on November 25, 2014

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Cartoon: Turkey to Canada

Posted by hpayne on November 25, 2014

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Cartoon: Thanksgiving Executive Order

Posted by hpayne on November 25, 2014

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Cartoon: GOP Brain

Posted by hpayne on November 23, 2014

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