Henry Payne Blog

Cartoon: Chauvin Verdict

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 21, 2021

Cartoon: Big Business Subsidy

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 16, 2021

Cartoon: Tlaib Ban Police

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 16, 2021

Payne: Hyundai Veloster N offers N-pressive bang for the buck

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 15, 2021

The brash $35,000 Hyundai Veloster N hot hatch thinks it’s a premium performance car. Slip inside and it hands you your seat belt like a Mercedes S560 Coupe. The seats are bolstered for hard cornering, yet easy on the backside like an Audi RS. The steering wheel bristles with twin drive-mode buttons like a BMW M.

But my favorite luxe imitation is the “push-to-pass” button. You know, like a Porsche.

Porsche called this button “Sports Response.” Veloster, playful pocket rocket that it is, calls it “N Grin Shift.” Luffing along behind slower traffic on a rural, two-lane road south of Hell, Michigan, a dotted-line passing zone presented itself. I pressed NGS.

The 2021 Hyundai Veloster N is a fun little devil with sharp handling, 275-horsepower, and an eye for competitors like the Honda Civic Type R.

Instantly, the dual-clutch transmission skipped from 5th to 2nd gear. Revs pegged on the tachometer. The engine let out a blood-curdling scream. I stomped the accelerator and the Hyundai exploded past two cars in front of me.


Credit this sporty DNA to the South Korea brand’s German infatuation. Its N performance badge, after all, is short for Nürburgring, the world’s most famous, 73-turn race track where the Veloster spent its teething years. Its tutors were Albert Biermann and Thomas Schemera, ex-BMW M-brand engineers who know a thing or two about speed.

It all adds up to a terrific drivetrain package stuffed inside one of the quirkiest cars on the market. The Veloster is the buttoned-up Hyundai brand’s mutant, bulldog-faced, bandy-legged three-door compact hatchback. A rare breed, indeed.

Where the standard Veloster comes with a 132-horsepower hamster wheel under the hood, gearheads can upgrade for a mere five grand to the Turbo R-Spec pumping out a rambunctious 201 horsepower. But the turbo-jacked 275-horse N takes on bigger prey.

How big? It’s aimed squarely at King Hot Hatch, the Volkswagen Golf R. As well as other 30-grand pocket rockets like the Subaru WRX, Mazda 3 Turbo and Honda Civic Type R.

Detroit News auto critic Henry Payne took the 2021 Hyundai Veloster N to Hell (Michigan) and back.

The Veloster N is most akin to the latter in racy performance and style.

The racy performance is backed up by Veloster N’s entry in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Sport Challenge TCR class alongside Type R (and Audi’s RS3 mini-monster). The Veloster won the class last year, showing superb pace.

That pace translates on road. As I flung the Veloster N around Livingston County’s twisted roads, the front-wheel-drive-driver felt surprisingly neutral. Hard left into a 90-degree left-hander and I could actually get the rear end to slide out, then hard on the throttle (contrary to a rear-wheel-driver) to pull the car straight.

No push. No torque steer. N-believable.

Credit sophisticated suspension dynamics and a standard electronic limited slip in this little hellion. The dynamics are similar to the superb Civic Type R but for three grand less, including the optional dual-clutch tranny.

I know, I know. Purists will protest that hot hatches are best with manuals (the Type R’s only offering) and I get it. Manual is standard on Veloster N, but for another $1,500, DCT offers undeniable benefits. Not just the aforementioned N Grin Shift, but also launch control that will rocket this hatchback to 60 mph in just 4.8 seconds, nearly half a second quicker than the stick. That’ll come in handy at the autocross track, which is where N owners should spend their weekends.

Autocrossers will also appreciate N’s macho looks — hungry maw, high rear spoiler. While not as outrageous as Type R (which, rumor has it, was penned by a 17-year-old comic book artist) and its Sopwith Camel tail, N stands out like a tattooed gym rat.

That swagger — along with the quirky three-door setup — will make the N less appealing to many buyers who’ll warm to Golf GTI/R’s ageless good looks or the sexy Mazda3 Turbo’s curves. Indeed, for the same price as Veloster N, the Mazda offers all-wheel drive, four doors, electronics galore and a premium cabin.

Like a Mercedes. The 2021 Hyundai Veloster N hands you your seatbelt when you sit in the car.

The Veloster lags in interior amenities. The rear seats were pleasantly roomy for your giant, 6’5” reviewer, but can only be easily accessed via the right-side rear door. The cabin is heavy in plastics and forgets adaptive cruise control (common in the compact class). On my long interstate drive to Hell, the Hyundai oddly offered excellent lane-keep/drive-assist ability without corresponding adaptive cruise. Quirky, yes?

But for those looking for something different — and who crave constant driving stimulation (guilty as charged), the N is a treat. The premium-grade drivetrain offers multiple modes, screens and combinations to play with.

Notably, the Veloster can’t perform its tricks for long. Porsche’s $90,000 Cayman S, for example, will do launch control and Sports Response sprints all day long. Veloster N not so much.

After blowing by the line of traffic, I pushed the NSG button again for the next gaggle of cars. Veloster was N-ot interested. “N Grin Shift conditions not met” protested the instrument display. Launch control was even more problematic.

But the dual-clutch automatic’s snap, crackle n’ pop exhaust, quick upshifts and rev-matching downshifts never get old. And whether you’re on a long drive or pushing hard through the twisties, Hyundai’s cloth ’n’ leather bolstered seats are outstanding.

The automatic 2021 Hyundai Veloster N is a value hot hatch with capabilities rivaling a Civic Type R or VW Golf R - but for just $35k.

N-gaging stuff from a $35,000 hot hatch.

2021 Hyundai Veloster N

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

Price: $34,745, including $995 destination fee

Powerplant: 2.0-liter turbocharged, inline 4-cylinder

Power: 275 horsepower, 260 pound-feet torque (278 in N Grin Shift mode)

Transmission: 6-speed manual, 8-speed dual-clutch automatic (as tested)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.8 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 155 mph

Weight: 3,186 pounds est.

Fuel economy: EPA 20 city/27 highway/22 combined (DCT as tested)

Report card

Highs: Taut handling; bundle of electronic goodies like N Grin Shift

Lows: Three-door access, lacks some basics like adaptive cruise control, heated seats

Overall: 4 stars

Cartoon: False DC Narratives

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 15, 2021

Payne: SUV OMG — Acura RDX A-Spec vs. Mercedes-AMG GLC 63

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 15, 2021

I like dessert. I’m usually satisfied with a scoop of ice cream or slice of apple pie. Usually. But on occasion, I’m tempted by something more dangerous on the menu. Like a triple chocolate delight warm brownie topped with chocolate chip ice cream and hot fudge sauce. Oh, joy.

Think of our testers this week, the Acura RDX A-Spec and Mercedes-AMG GLC 63, as your dessert choices in the compact luxury SUV class.

Yes, compact utes. Sure, these pandemic times are weird, but they’re temporary. Not so the SUV trend, which appears permanent. Rather than honor the law of physics and drive low-center-of-gravity station wagons, Americans have decided they like their wagons on stilts for better visibility. Which means we have the RDX and GLC SUVs instead of Acura TLX and Merc C-class wagons.

This being the luxury space, there is money to be made (and thrills to be had) by offering performance versions. So, RDX A-Spec and Mercedes-AMG 45 and 63 sport models naturally follow. Hey, the market gets what the market wants, and after adjusting to this new reality, I’ve learned to enjoy these 4,500-pound bowling balls.

It’s also nice to have Acura back in the game.

With speed-addled Formula One fanboy John Ikeda at the helm and a determined strategy in place, Acura has gone back to its roots. It’s dusted off the sporty albums containing hot models like Integra and Type-S and set a path for excitement. The Acura NSX and wicked-looking Acura TLX S-Spec (the new Type-S) are the halo models, and the styling and attitude have trickled down to the RDX.

While motorheads will have to wait for a crazed RDX S-Spec model with upgraded drivetrain (I’m thinking there’s a turbocharged V-6 in Acura’s crystal ball), the A-Spec trim is a nice appetizer — make that scoop of ice cream — to start with.

The 2020 Acura RDX A-Spec takes the standard RDX, adds AWD, sporty trim, and drive modes to create a fun compact ute for just $47k.

My $47,000 tester was dressed to the nines with Performance Blue paint, black trim and 20-inch black wheels wrapped in all-season tires. All this on top of one of the best standard packages in class with panoramic roof, adaptive cruise control and 10-speed tranny. SUVs suffer from having to think within the five-door box, but Acura’s “Precision Design” language does its best to please with sculpted sides and a signature piece of jewelry in front called the “diamond pentagon grille.”

That precision continues in the handling department, where the RDX brings its rear, dual-clutch pack-equipped “super-handling all-wheel-drive” (call it SH-AWD for short) to rotate this two ton-plus beast when the need for speed seizes you. Which is often, in my case. RDX further tempts such acts of madness by offering a big, fat drive-mode sport dial straight out of the NSX supercar — so you can tune suspension and engine dynamics to Sport and Sport+.

Cruising to Ann Arbor with Mrs. Payne riding shotgun I flung the RDX into a U.S. 23 cloverleaf (my wife instinctively reaching for the roof handle) and steadily dialed in the throttle. The tires squawked at the limit, their racket drowned out only by the rowdy, Sport+-induced exhaust note. Ah, dessert.

With class-topping 279 standard horsepower, the $47,195 Acura A-Spec is a value plate compared with the 469-horse, turbo-8 $79,705 Mercedes GLC in sizzling AMG trim.

That 30 grand difference could buy you a nice starter SUV for your 16-year-old. Like the, ahem, Mazda CX-5 — a 250-horse, luxe-gorgeous mainstream ute that can cut the rug with these premium brands for just $40. That’s a comparo test for another day.

The 2020 Mercedes-AMG GLC 63interior is state of the art with stitched lather, excellent voice commands, signature design, and tech galore.

Slide into the GLC and Merc’s claim to being king of luxury comes into focus. The console is slathered in gorgeous Fortune 500-boardroom wood with upscale aviation vents anchoring the dash. Yeah, this is a Merc all right. For $750 more, a crisp 12.5-inch digital instrument display is available to anchor the electronic “MBUX” system — an infotainment network that is among the best in the business with delicious graphics, precise touchscreen and intuitive voice commands.

MBUX exposes Acura’s biggest weakness: the infotainment display. Controlled by average voice commands and a maddening console touchpad, it is Acura’s biggest misstep in its otherwise meticulously engineered effort to engage occupants in the sport ute experience. Merc also offers a touchpad option for the masochistic — but in this smartphone age, most folks will use the easy touchscreen. Acura would be wise to offer the same duality.

The 2020 Acura RDX A-Spec offers handy sub-console storage space.

But it’s hard to be mad. Apple Car Play and Android Auto smart-phone apps are available in the Acura with state-of-the-art voice and nav. My wife and I were spoiled in heated-and-cooled, red leather thrones with generous under-console storage for her purse. Both Acura and Merc use clever digital shifters that remove the need for a shifter cable, but only RDX takes full advantage with sub-console storage (console genius is in evidence across the Honda/Acura lineup).

If you want a serving of ice cream, the Acura RDX is just fine, thank you. If you want something more, go all the way and get the triple-chocolate $80,000 AMG 63 GLC OMG LOL SUV.

Double the cylinders, double the calories, double the fun.

I first drove the GLC 63’s decadent 469-horse, 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 in the sister GLC 63 Coupe on a trip to Watkins Glen, New York, a few years back. I left western New York’s rural roads in flames after rampaging across them in that four-wheeled devil.

Bull in a china shop. The 2020 Mercedes-AMG GLC 63 is an SUV with a race car inside straining to get out.

Like hot fudge sauce dripping off a sundae, you know this is more than your average GLC as you approach. The AMG is noticeably closer to the ground than the Acura, as if pretending to be a hatchback sedan instead of an upright ute. The front grille gets AMG’s menacing Panamericana treatment, its fenders engorged with huge tires.

Push the key and the quad exhaust pipes erupt. BRAAAPPP!! Let’s eat. The growl can be turned up further with a console button. That’s not the only way the Merc-AMG encourages bad behavior.

Thumb though the infotainment pages past Phone and Radio and up pops … AMG Track Pace. So you can clock lap times and 0-60 mph runs in an SUV, for goodness sake.

I set launch control and clicked off a few sub-4-second times. The V-8 bellowing. AWD gripping. Nine-speed automatic effortlessly swapping cogs. It’s addictive. And sure to get you in trouble with the local fuzz.

Acura’s dessert offering is plenty. But if you’ve got a bigger sweet tooth — and an extra 30 grand laying around — order the Merc.

2020 Acura RDX A-Spec

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

Price: $46,795, including $995 destination charge ($47,195 as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged inline-4 cylinder

Power: 272 horsepower, 280 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 10-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.6 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed: 113 mph

Weight: 4,015 lbs.

Fuel economy: EPA 21 city/27 highway/23 combined

Report card

Highs: Lotsa standard stuff; fun to drive

Lows: Oh, that touchpad; V-6, please

Overall: 3 stars

2020 Mercedes-AMG C 63

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

Price: $74,745, including $995 destination charge ($79,705 as tested)

Powerplant: 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8

Power: 469 horsepower, 479 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 9-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 3.6 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed: 157 mph

Weight: 4,486 lbs.

Fuel economy: EPA 16 city/22 highway/18 combined

Report card

Highs: Launch control in an SUV; state-of-the-art interior

Lows: Pricey; over-engineered console

Overall: 3 stars

Cartoon: Whitmer Surge Science

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 15, 2021

Cartoon: Woke Highways

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 13, 2021

Cartoon: CDC Yells Fire

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 12, 2021

Cartoon: Biden Free Hummer Plan

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 11, 2021

Payne: Infiniti QX55 brings back X-appeal to the SUV

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 9, 2021

Japanese luxury brands are going back to the future to find their mojo.

First Acura time-traveled back to the 1990s to rediscover its sporty roots. The successful journey brought us the Acura NSX supercar and athletic RDX and MDX SUVs. Infiniti is using the same method to aid its SUV fortunes.

Sporty in looks, the 2022 Infiniti QX55 ain't bad in the twisties, either.

Say hello to the sexy QX55 — created from the frozen DNA of an Infiniti FX found after a trip in the way-back machine. I took it to Hell (Michigan) and back.

QX55 is the first Japanese fastback to brave the compact luxe segment against the German trinity of BMW X4, Mercedes GLC Coupe, and Audi Q5 Sportback. But it’s not the first fastback Infiniti SUV. Indeed, Nissan’s premium brand pioneered the racy SUV concept waaaay back in 2003 with the FX. With a rear-drive layout, a long hood that arrived an hour before the cabin, and salacious looks, FX (which eventually became QX70 under Infiniti’s new nomenclature until it disappeared in 2017) was a German-like SUV hottie before the Germans ever thought of it.

Why Infiniti killed it is a head-scratcher. But now it’s been reborn as the smaller QX55. Talk about your sexy mom car.

My Slate Grey tester oozed sex appeal. Not that the stylish, square-back QX50 is a wallflower. But the QX55 is Kim Kardashian in spandex.

Gotta have the fastback. The 2022 Infiniti QX55 goes for a racier look than the standard QX50 with a coupe-like roof and stylish rear belt. It'll cost a little extra.

Sultry headlights frame a bigger, poutier front mouth. The grille — flanked by big intakes — is laced with an origami-inspired mesh. The coupe-like roof plunges into round rear hips dressed with a bold black belt under exotic LED taillights. It’s the love child of the FX and Q Inspiration Concept that turned heads at the 2018 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Drive up to the school pickup line slowly and let the other parents stare. But under that hot bod, QX55 is less ambitious than FX/QX70.

Gone is the rear-wheel-drive-based architecture. QX55 conforms to the front-wheel-drive-based architecture common to both the QX-50 and cousin Nissan. Gone, too, is the throaty, 325-horse V-6 engine. Sigh. As 21st century emissions regs have forced more turbo-4s, graveyards are filling up with sixes.

Like a good basketball coach, however, Infiniti squeezes every bit of talent out of its small, four-piston lineup. The QX55 drivetrain gives 110%.

Rotating through a 90-degree left-hander onto Unadilla Road outside Hell, I drifted the QX55 across the asphalt, the all-wheel-drive system scrambling for traction as I floored the throttle on exit. Smartly, Infiniti has made AWD standard on halo QX-55 (the volume QX50 comes standard with front-wheel-drive) so drivers can take full advantage of the torque on hand.

We motorheads pooh-pooh continuously-variable-transmissions, but Infiniti’s is an exception. It mimics a proper automatic tranny’s stepped shifts — but without the often rude, jerky downshifts.

The chassis shivers a bit under this duress — the QX55 can’t match the exquisite Mazda CX-5 or BMW X3 for handling — but the drivetrain, like the exterior, is all about emotion. Dialed into SPORT mode, the turbo-4 roars its approval through twin rear pipes. I wrung the QX55’s neck across Hadley and Hanker roads.

This emotional satisfaction comes a healthy $6,000 beneath competitors BMW and Mercedes, offering Infiniti as a value play in the segment (while offering a more premium coupe appearance than its Acura RDX A-Spec and Lexus NX F-Sport trim competitors).

Those savings have to come from somewhere and it’s the interior where the QX55 lags its German peers.

Nissan COO Ashwani Gupta once called Infiniti “Nissan-plus” and the interior of the QX55 doesn’t pop like other digitized luxury cabins. Sure, there is nice stitching and a Monaco Red leather option, but the knockout, $25K Nissan Sentra compact car has more character inside. The dual, stacked touchscreens remind of a last-decade Honda Accord — the tiny top screen often difficult to read in daylight due to reflection.

The 2022 Infiniti QX55 is nicely put together - but its interior is behind segment rivals from Audi and BMW.

The rear seats were friendly to this 6-foot-five-inch reviewer, thanks to their ability to recline and slide 6 inches. Think Ford Escape, which employs a similar feature. Mainstream vehicles are killing it these days. Next to my $59K QX55 tester in the driveway was a $39K Mazda CX-5 Turbo, which matched the Infiniti feature-for-feature — head-up display, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot assist, auto wipers, sunroof, all-wheel-drive, turbo-4, the works. Talk about value.

Among its luxe peers, however, the QX55 puts Infiniti back in the spotlight. Just like the good ol’ days. “The QX55 is daring, unconventional,” says QX55 planning chief Eric Rigaux.

Here’s hoping QX55 continues the momentum with a performance, Red Sport variant stuffed with more horsepower to take on a BMW X4 M or Audi SQ5 Sportback. More daring. More sex appeal. More value.

After my fling through Hell, I picked up my favorite pastrami Rueben at Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor and set course for home on I-96. Those twin screens came in handy — the upper for Android Auto navigation (if you have an iPhone, the connection is wireless) — the lower for radio. I barked nav instructions to the phone and was off.

Like Acura, Infiniti puts its blind-spot warning on the A-pillar rather than at the edge of the mirror, where it can be more difficult to see. Blind-spot systems have become so good these days, I’m probably saving thousands on disc surgery by not craning my neck to check blind spots.

Nissan has milked good publicity from its ProPilot driving assist features (remember the Star Wars ads?), and the same system is imported into QX50. While not ready for prime time on secondary roads, it works competently on busy four lanes … until I came to a stoplight.

Like Nissan’s system, the QX55 waits until the last minute to brake for vehicles in front of you. So late, that my tester would activate the vehicle’s emergency vehicles braking system.

Glancing at my trip data, I registered 18.5 mpg on the 150-mile round trip to Hell. That’s a long way from the advertised 26 mpg, and more on par with the 18 mpg in the good ol’ FX’s V-6. I must have been having fun.

The 2022 Infiniti QX55 resurrects the brand's fast-back FX SUV that was so pleasing to looks at. Except the QX55 is a size smaller, only has 4 cylinders, and is front-drive-biased - not rear-wheel.

2022 Infiniti QX55

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

Price: $47,525 including $1,025 destination fee ($58,770 as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter turbocharged, inline 4-cylinder

Power: 268 horsepower, 280 pound-feet torque (turbo-4)

Transmission: Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.4 seconds (Car and Driver est.); top speed, 137 mph

Weight: 4,065 pounds (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 22 city/28 highway/25 combined

Report card

Highs: Hot bod; fun drivetrain

Lows: Dated interior; performance model, please

Overall: 3 stars

Cartoon: All Star Game Wokeball

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 7, 2021

Cartoon: Delta Voter ID Georgia

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 7, 2021

Cartoon: Easter Bunny 2021

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 5, 2021

Payne: Big BMW M440i Grille-zilla still has the moves

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 5, 2021

The compact-class, BMW 3-series has grown a lot in the past 20 years. Check out the all-new 2021 BMW M440i Coupe prowling my driveway.

Once the 3-series was offered as both a coupe and a sedan, but in 2014 the coupe grew its own dedicated 4-series badge. That new line grew M trims like my 6-cylinder M Performance tester (in addition to a turbo-4-powered M Sport and fire-breathing M4). Its pant size grew, too. The ’21 coupe’s wheelbase has grown nearly half a foot and 450 pounds over my 2001 BMW M3 Coupe. Its wheelbase and weight are about equal to a 2004 5-series, for goodness sake.

And then there’s the twin-kidney grille.

The 2021 BMW M440i gets goodies like a powerful inline-6 engine, rear differential and taut suspension. It's not quite the 503-horse M4 monster, but it's got plenty of giddy-up.

M440i is the first car model to feature grille-zilla — full-fascia kidneys that look like they were taken off the X7 SUV. They are huge. They provoke heated arguments among BMW faithful about whether the grille makes the 4-series look bold — or like a buck-toothed gopher.

But one thing hasn’t changed. The BMW 3/4 series is still the compact class’ performance standard.

Hustling over Doyle Road’s rollercoaster turns west of Hell, the M440i was true as an arrow. The comfortable suspension that carried me on a magic carpet west from Detroit on I-96 was now taut — like the sinewy thighs of a greyhound — in Sport Plus mode. The balanced torso is an extension of my hands. Turning in to a hard, 90-degree left-hander, the car slid effortlessly across the apex to the edge of the road. Right where I placed it.

The car’s added girth is apparent. Its two tons tip the scales like the 4,068-pound, 2004 5-series of old. But the 4’s modern chassis feels smaller. About 2,000 pounds of that weight gain is the addition of all-wheel-drive, which means more grip. Lots of grip.

On a lonely patch of Doyle, I do a launch control-assisted, 0-60 mph sprint. The grip is instant (Car and Driver recorded an impressive 3.8 seconds). The drivetrain roars like a cheetah unleashed.

Ah, BMW’s unparalleled drivetrains. At the heart of M440i is another terrific 3.0-liter inline-6. This one is blown to 382 horsepower with a single turbo — 52 more horses than my 2001 M3 Coupe. The new M4 Coupe (formerly the M3 Coupe — sorry, the alphanumerics will make your brain hurt) now makes up to 503 horsepower by adding a second turbo.

The 2021 BMW M440i weight nearly two tons thanks to all-wheel-drive and lots of electronics - but it can still shred the twisties.

I’ll have a chance to test the M4 sometime soon, but for now 382 horses will do. They make beautiful music.

Sport Plus mode cranks up the volume, filling the cabin with fury. The 8-speed automatic throws off effortless, quick shifts. Diving into a tight right-hander, dual pipes out back bark in rev-marching unison with automatic downshifts. It’s effortless, smooth, intoxicating.

Two years ago, I tested a small-kidneys 2019 turbo-4 BMW 330i M Sport against my (then) brand-new electric Tesla Model 3. Both 55-grand compact sedans. Both rear-wheel drive. Both hot-selling performance compacts.

After flogging them around M1 Concourse’s 1.5-mile Champion Motor Speedway, M1 instructor Alex Della Torre and I emerged with big grins under our helmets. But the question hung in the air: which car handled better?

“The BMW, no doubt,” we both said in unison.

As my 2021 M440i tester confirms, the magic endures. But Tesla has set a new benchmark in technology. The Silicon Valley maker has rewritten the rules with its smartphone-on-wheels experience: voice commands, navigation, screen graphics. Tesla has ridden that experience to the best-selling luxe brand in the U.S.

Everything at your fingertips. The 2021 BMW M440i surrounds the driver in buttons and visual displays to help keep your eye on the road.

For the first time in a long time, the Germans have had to play catch up. M440i is a solid response.

Rather than copying Tesla, BMW has played to its strengths. The California automaker is Apple iPhone simple. The Bimmer is Neuschwanstein Castle posh.

Slip into the M440i and I was wrapped in 14-way, Cognac Vernasca leather thrones. A robotic arm handed me my seat belt (“Your seat belt, mein Herr”) and Mrs. Payne’s on the passenger side too. I expected the coupe’s 112.7-inch stretched wheelbase to add more room to the rear seats, but my 6’5” was a tight fit — though not as tight as a Mustang that requires six-footers to first remove their legs.

The interior of the 2021 BMW M440i is a comfortable place to be with leather seats, sunroof, and layers of digital tech.

In contrast to Tesla’s minimalist three-button cabin, the BMW is littered with buttons. For the starter. For drive modes. Adaptive cruise control. Favorite radio stations. Lights.

Everything but that annoying stop/start button for when the engine stalls at stoplights to gain mpg credits from government regulators. Instead, M440i is equipped with a 48-volt battery (ditching the common 12-volt) to make the transition between stop and start smoother. Mostly, however, it’s there to support the electronic funhouse.

The sculpted dash is dominated by colorful digital instrument and infotainment screens — the latter operated by (take your pick) touch or remote rotary iDrive. Notably, BMW seems to have punted on voice recognition.

“Go to Hell, Michigan,” I commanded.

“Please don’t speak to me like that,” shot back a female voice.

Um. I’m sorry? Stymied, I connected my Android phone, with which I have a better relationship. “Go to Hell, Michigan” was not only immediately recognized by Android Auto (Apple Carplay also comes standard) in the console screen, but it was done wirelessly. What’s more, directions then appeared on the instrument and head-up displays.

That’s a first. Every other smartphone app-capable vehicle I’ve driven segregates smartphone apps to the console screen. In M440i, it’s integrated into all three displays — heads-up, instrument and console — making for a state-of-the-art, visual and voice experience to Hell and back.

The head-up display had other talents. Like scrolling my favorite radio stations via (yet another) button on the steering wheel. The more features in heads-up displays, the better to keep your eye on the road.

Most passersby kept their eyes on that big, fat kidney grille. To my surprise, most approved. I like its retro vibe recalling the sleek 1940 BMW 327 Aero or ’65 2000CS.

Cool peepers. With the 2021 BMW M440i, the German brand brings laser headlights to America.

Shocking as they appear in photos, the kidneys in the flesh are nicely integrated with the nose. Striking blue laser headlights bracket the grille. A lower spoiler and vents frame it like a goatee. Many passersby compared it favorably to the Alfa Romeo’s similar full-faced, tri-logo grille.

Which is appropriate since the Alfa is the rare performance car that can dance with the M440i. The compact Bimmer isn’t so compact anymore, but it’s still got the moves.

2021 BMW 4-series

Vehicle type: Front engine, rear- and all-wheel-drive 5-passenger compact sedan

Price: $46,595, including $995 destination fee ($70,470 M440i as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter turbocharged, inline 4 cylinder; 3.0-liter turbocharged, inline 6 cylinder

Power: 255 horsepower, 294 pound-feet torque (turbo 4); 382 horsepower, 364 pound-feet torque (turbo 6)

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 3.8 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 157 mph

Weight: 3,977 pounds (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 22 city/31 highway/25 combined (M440i xDrive as tested)

Report card

Highs: Grille-zilla ain’t so bad; handling and agility

Lows: Porky curb weight; gets pricey

Overall: 4 stars

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