Henry Payne Blog

Cartoon: Amazon buys Whole Foods

Posted by hpayne on June 20, 2017

061917_AmazonBuysWholeFoods_COLOR

Cartoon: Shooting Blame

Posted by hpayne on June 20, 2017

061717_BernieShootingBlame_COLOR

Cartoon: New York Times

Posted by hpayne on June 20, 2017

061617_NYTPalinAssassin_COLOR

Cartoon: Hillary Strangelove and the Russians

Posted by hpayne on June 15, 2017

061617_HillaryStrangeloveRussians_COLOR

Payne: Acura MDX has the NSX-factor

Posted by hpayne on June 15, 2017

mdx_3-4-front

The Woodward stoplight turns green. I floor the brake pedal with my left foot. Then I floor the accelerator pedal with the right and the tachometer needle flicks quickly to 1,500 rpms. I drop the brake and the three-row Acura MDX Sport Hybrid rockets forward. My right hand flicks off quick, dual-clutch shifts on the steering-wheel paddle like an NSX supercar.

A sport ute with launch control? No (the above procedure is a standard, electronic “rev-cutoff” feature on most modern cars). But I understand if you start exploding out of stoplights. The battery-assisted MDX is a three-row dragster.

When Honda’s luxury brand birthed its second-generation NSX supercar at the Detroit auto show two years ago, some NSX purists moaned. Gone was the raw first-generation Ayton Senna-inspired budget supercar; it had been replaced by a complicated, 3,800-pound $160,000 hybrid robot. The peanut gallery complained the NSX was too exotic to inform a brand whose costliest RLX sedan tops out at $66,000.

Peanuts weren’t the only ones who freaked out. Acura North America boss Jon Ikeda concedes the product team was concerned when CEO Takahiro Hachigo demanded the next NSX get with the 21st century by adopting hybrid technology usually found on million-dollar Ferrari LeFerraris and Porsche 919s.

But as the concept sunk in, the engineers saw a method to Hachigo-san’s madness.

Honda was determined to make exotic hybrid technology applicable to its affordable luxury brand. The ferocious 573-horsepower, all-wheel drive mid-engine NSX supercar showed off hybrid performance for one-10th the price of a Porsche 918. Next step was to bottle the formula and feed it to every newborn sedan and SUV in the lineup.

The MDX Sport Hybrid is the first application. And, by gum, it works.

The idea of translating sports-car halos to SUVs is nothing new, of course. Porsche’s racing spirit breathes in every Cayenne and Macan it makes. And inside every Mazda CX-9 SUV is a playful MX-5 Miata busting to get out.

But the big, three-row MDX is probably the most ambitious application of halo-to-family vehicle that I’ve experienced. After all, a two-row Cayenne — for all its capabilities — isn’t stuffed with the 911’s flat-six turbo. And neither is a CX-9 a drop-top roadster. The MDX Sport, however, rips the whole torque-vectoring electric-motor concept out of the rear-wheel-drive NSX platform and adapts it to the MDX’s front-wheel-drive platform. Now that’s gutsy.

Intoxicated with NSX DNA, the MDX rhino thinks it’s a ballerina.

I threw the big ute around Metro Detroit country roads with abandon. The non-hybrid NSX is already a decent athlete with rooted steering and mechanical torque-vectoring AWD adapted from the TLX sedan. The Sport Hybrid takes this to another level by throwing in adaptive dampers and twin electric motors in the rear to spin up the outside wheel for better rotation of the rhino’s 4,484-pound mass.

With the motors doing the work in the rear there is no need for a driveshaft connecting engine to aft axle, so Acura has cleverly stored all the hybrid hardware in the basement. That makes for a center of gravity that’s an inch lower for the Sport Hybrid.

I toggle the Drive mode to Sport Plus (yes, a three-row SUV with Sport Plus mode) — just like in the NSX — so that the 3-liter engine and 1.6 kWh are at maximum effort. Sport Plus also opens a guttural roar from the exhaust pipes so that the kids in the third row (if I still had tykes small enough to fit in the third row) get the full entertainment experience as I bear down on a poor, unsuspecting Mercedes driver in front of me. Rhino Sport Hybrid comin’ through!

This, in my opinion, is how hybrids should be: fuel sippers running on battery one minute, deranged electron-torqued animals the next. Why must e-cars be limited to tree-huggers? Didn’t the NSX show us that hybrid drivers can have it all?

Did I mention that the MDX Sport Hybrid gains not only 31 more horsepower than the non-hybrid MDX but 45 percent better fuel economy? It’s like low-cal chocolate mousse. Or diet Haagen-Dazs.

All this goodness comes for just $1,500 more than the MDX non-hybrid. Acura predicts the Sport Hybrid will only make up 5 percent of sales but for that kind of bargain, why not 95 percent?

Acura’s bet on battery technology puts it in rare air with other stylish three-rows like the (imminent) Audi SQ7 and Volvo XC90 that also offer advanced drivetrains but for much more coin. The Audi, expected to start at over $70,000, sports a supercharged twin-turbo diesel V-8 pushing out 435 horsepower while the Volvo’s supercharged turbo 4-banger can reach an eye-watering $105,000.

But while my loaded, $57,475 MDX will go toe-to-toe with these athletes in the ring, style has never been Acura’s forte. So Acura cooked up another halo car, the Precision Concept — unveiled at the 2016 Detroit Show — to craft a wardrobe fitting for the brand’s new swagger.

The most notable feature of the concept was its so-called “diamond pentagon” grille and the MDX Sport Hybrid is the first Acura to wear it. It’s a welcome change from the family’s previous mug which was variously panned as a parrot’s beak, bucktooth, or bottle-opener. But the real problem with the chrome beak was it looked too much like the chrome nose on sister Honda; it compromised the Acura’s claim to be the family’s luxury looker.

Covered with diamonds and jewels (Acura’s signature 10-LED “jewel-eye” headlamps), the front end is a virtual prom queen. The pentagon grille’s detail resembles Mercedes’ “diamond-block” grille and draws you into the car.

The same can’t be said for the Acura’s infotainment system, alas. The confusing, twin-screen system carries over in the MDX with a touchscreen below and a button-controlled navigation screen above (or is it the reverse?). Otherwise the interior design is pleasant if unremarkable.

What is remarkable — as with the Honda Pilot SUV with which the MDX shares a platform — is the family-friendly storage and seats. The configurable central console can swallow a large purse while the one-touch button second row seats make for easy, third-row access for the kids.

Maybe most remarkable about this state-of-the-art hybrid is that Acura doesn’t trumpet its hybrid-ness. But for a blue badge on the front quarter panel and the wee battery gauge on the instrument panel, the MDX modestly absorbs its high-tech geegaws.

Its performance is anything but modest. There’s an NSX inside waiting to get out … as that sports sedan gasping in my dust at that Woodward stoplight can attest.

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

2017 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid

VEHICLE TYPE FRONT-ENGINE, ALL-WHEEL DRIVE, FIVE-PASSENGER SUV
Powerplant 3.0-liter V-6 with electric-motor assist
Transmission Seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic
Weight 4,484 pounds
Price $52,935 ($57,475 as tested)
Power 321 horsepower, 289 pound-feet torque
Performance 0-60 mph, 5.7 seconds (Car and Driver); no towing

recommended

Fuel economy EPA est. mpg: 26 city/27 highway

/27 combined

Report card

HIGHS MORE POWER, BETTER MPG THAN STANDARD MDX FOR JUST $1,500;

EASY THIRD-ROW ACCESS

Lows Generation-old dual-info screens; towing not recommended

Overall:★★★

 

Cartoon: Assassination in the Park

Posted by hpayne on June 14, 2017

061517_AssassinationPark_COLOR

Cartoon: Assassinate Resistance

Posted by hpayne on June 14, 2017

061417_AssassinateResistance_COLOR

Cartoon: DC Versus USA

Posted by hpayne on June 13, 2017

061317_DCvsUSA_COLOR

Cartoon: Tight Airlines

Posted by hpayne on June 12, 2017

061217_AitlineTightDrag_COLOR

Cartoon: Trump Lion and Comey

Posted by hpayne on June 12, 2017

061117_TrumpLionComey_COLOR

Posted by hpayne on June 9, 2017

bolt_hell-saloon

To Hell with Green. Hell, Michigan that is.

When a 200-mile-plus range, 60 kWh Chevy Bolt tester arrived in my driveway one Friday, my thoughts immediately turned to Hell’s twisty, driver’s roads. And local autocross clubs. And Woodward stoplight drag-races.

Forget your tree-hugging, lane-clogging hybrids. Big battery EVs are here, and as the Tesla Model S and Bolt EV prove, electrics are about much more than going gas-free — they are a hoot to drive.

They had better be. They ain’t cheap. Teslas are luxury goods, and my compact Bolt hatch’s $43,510 price tag puts it north of five-door toys like the VW Golf R and Ford Focus RS. No wonder GM assigned SCCA-racer, ex-NASCAR-crew Josh Tavel as its chief engineer.

I love the Bolt’s handling and drivetrain dynamics, and I was determined to drive the stuffing out of it like any other pocket rocket. Dour greens advertise electrics as a ticket to sainthood. I say EVs are a gateway drug to devilish fun.

With a 238-mile range, Bolt can reach just about anything I want in southeast Michigan. First on the menu: A Sunday afternoon autocross at Oakland University organized by the fun-loving folks at the Detroit Alfa Romeo Club.

Payne, have you gone mad? Autocross an EV?

I’ll admit, I got some curious looks as I pulled into the Oakland paddock. Tight, pylon-marked, parking-lot autocrossing is the domain of nimble predators like the Mazda Miata, Porsche Cayman and Pontiac Solstice. High-horsepower Corvette C7s or Dodge Challengers are out of their element here — like deploying the USS Nimitz in Walnut Lake.

It’s also home turf for hot hatches: VW Golf, Ford Fiesta/Focus ST, Honda Civic Si. The battery-laden, 3,580-pound Bolt appears a linebacker compared to these sub-3,000-pound sprinters — but the Chevy’s batteries are in the floor, making for a low center of gravity. Add instant torque and single-speed transmission, and the Bolt actually has inherent advantages over much of its competition.

In fact, Chevy’s sister Volt plug-in has been an autocross pioneer, showing respectable results in SCCA H Stock class. My biggest fear was tires.

Where my competitors would bring performance rubber to this knife-fight, my Bolt wears stock, 215/50/17, low-roll resistant Michelins. Maximized for fuel economy, they shrieked under duress in my California hills test last year.

My attempt to swap out the Bolt bagels for stickier Sumitomo performance rubber off my Civic Si was fruitless (holes don’t match), so the stock rubber it was. No matter. My 32-second times were very competitive in H Stock. With stickier tires I would have been breathing down some Ford ST necks.

Didn’t I tell you big-battery EVs were hot rods?

Torquey off the line, the Bolt stayed remarkably flat under G-forces. It pushed through slow corners, natch — but not as bad as an Alfa Giulia 2.0 Ti the factory brought for test runs. How good was the Bolt? My best time in the Giulia was only half-a-second quicker.

My four autocross runs sucked electrons. Each quarter-mile lap drank 3 miles of range. But with 200 miles on tap, that still left me plenty of juice to go drag racing on Woodward.

The beauty of Bolt is it’s also fun to drive slow. Select LOW gear and the electric motor goes into full battery-regen mode, braking every time I lifted off the gas (er, electron?). I coasted to a stop at lights without ever touching the brake pedal.

I watched my miles increase on the odometer’s range predictor. Try that in a gasmobile.

A good day of bad behavior under my belt, I retreated home with 148 miles of juice left. Metropolitan range anxiety may not be an issue, but recharging is.

I habitually plugged in whenever I returned home, but the payoff on a standard, 110-watt outlet is meek. Just 4 miles of range per hour took me 13 hours to get back the 52 miles I burned Sunday. A Level 2, 240-volt charger is preferred, but that will add another $2,500 to your bill.

My Monday trip to Hell (navigated via Google Maps thanks to Bolt’s Android Auto app) would be planned around an EVGo Level 3 DC-charging station — of which there are disappointingly few in the Detroit area. Also disappointing is the cost — a whopping $10.55 for each half hour of charge good for 40 miles. With $3-a-gallon premium petrol, the 25-mpg Golf R is a bargain by comparison.

I plugged in with 137 miles of range remaining, ate dinner across the street at the Macaroni Grill (love the fried cheese, folks) and was on my way to Hell at 7 p.m. with insurance miles depending on how much playtime I’d get.

I got plenty thanks to a frisky Audi TT sports car.

Sinister in black with black wheels, the 220-horse Audi (same engine as the hot hatch GTI) took the bait when I locked on his rear bumper.

I shifted from LOW to DRIVE and we both floored it down fabulous Hankerd Road. The thing about electrics is they GO RIGHT NOW. The Bolt stuck to the TT as we hit (censored to avoid self-incrimination) mph. Just at the speed where the gas engine would pull away, we hit a series of curves which the Bolt EV handled with aplomb, its low center of gravity hugging the crests like peanut butter on a banana.

The Audi never shook its Chevy shadow. My EV hatch was hot enough for Hell.

I reflected on the Bolt’s pros and cons on my fast trip home along the I-696 race track. Traveling at 80 mph didn’t degrade the battery, answering my lingering range anxiety questions even as the odometer dipped below 100 miles. The monostable shifter, while fashionable, is a mixed bag. It’s an easy toggle from LOW back to DRIVE (when I see, say, an eager Audi), but unpredictable when shifting to reverse out of a driveway. And GM missed an opportunity to badge the Bolt as a Cadillac. The pentastar beak would have lifted the car and brand — not to mention its styling.

Still, as I plugged in for another loooong night on the electron teat, my verdict was overwhelming: The Bolt EV deserves a place alongside other hot hatches. It’s quick. It’s got utility. And while it doesn’t have a stick, its LOW drive mode is plenty engaging.

Now, if I can just find some serious autocross tires …

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

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV

VEHICLE TYPE BATTERY-POWERED, FRONT-WHEEL DRIVE, FIVE-PASSENGER

HATCHBACK

Powerplant Single AC, continuous magnetic-drive motor powered

by 60kWh lithium-ion battery

Transmission One-speed direct drive
Weight 3,580 pounds
Price $37,495 ($43,510 Premier as tested)
Power 200 horsepower, 266 pound-feet torque
Performance 0-60 mph, 6.5 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 93 mph
Fuel economy EPA 110 city/128 highway/119 combined MPGe;

238-mi. range on full charge. Detroit News observed:

218 mile range (Maximum: 257 mi. if efficiency-minded.

Minimum: 178 mi. with lead foot.)

Report card

HIGHS ENGAGING DAILY DRIVER (ADDICTIVE LOW MODE); USEFUL

INSTRUMENTATION AND APPLE CARPLAY/ANDROID AUTO NAVIGATION

Lows Charging time/expense; granola tires

Overall: ★★★★

Cartoon: Media Brain Scan

Posted by hpayne on June 5, 2017

060617_MediaBrainScanTDS_COLOR

Cartoon: Terror Van and Obama

Posted by hpayne on June 5, 2017

060517_TerrorVanControlObama_COLOR

Cartoon: Warming Elites and Miners

Posted by hpayne on June 3, 2017

060317_WarmingElitesMiners_COLOR

Cartoon: Paris Warming Withdrawal

Posted by hpayne on June 2, 2017

060217_ParisWarmingWithdrawal_COLOR

Payne: BMW X4 M40i vs. Acura TLX A-Spec

Posted by hpayne on June 1, 2017

acura_vs_bmw

Whoooooo are you? Who, who, who, who?

I couldn’t get Pete Townshend’s lyrics out of my head as I hammered a 2017 BMW X4 M40i to Louisville as part of a comparison with the new 2018 Acura TLX A-Spec. Alphabet-soup badges aside, these brands are at opposite ends of the compact luxury department these days. The mighty Bimmer: most expensive, most purchased, most coveted — a brand at the peak of its powers. And the Acura: least costly, less purchased, less known — a badge rebooting its identity after a decade in the wilderness.

And yet, in the diabolically complicated premium market, both cars beg the question: Who are you?

Are these two vehicles representative of their brands? And would I — a middle-aged (can’t you tell by my musical proclivities?) motorhead shopper squarely in the cross-hairs of the marketing departments of these performance brands — want either one in my garage?

The Louisville convergence of this pair seemed appropriate. It was Kentucky Derby season and the town was abuzz with well-to-do gamblers scouring bloodlines for the best horse. If the thoroughbreds were named BMW and Acura, you would bet on the former, given the Bavarian breed’s extraordinary run of winners: 3-series, M3, 7-series sedan, i8 mid-engine supercar.

But with the TLX, Acura is plotting a comeback.

Acura exploded on the luxury scene in the late 1990s with its sure-fire trifecta: the halo supercar NSX, Legend sedan and sporty Integra. Fun, fast and hip, the brand attracted Formula One superstars like Ayrton Senna who flung the NSX around Japan’s famous Suzuka race track like a rag doll. Oh, how we groupies buzzed about that one. It also attracted talented designers like Jon Ikeda from the University of California’s Pasadena School of Design.

“They brought me to Suzuka and there’s Senna and the whole team and it was insane,” Ikeda recalled in Louisville. “I was like a girl going to a Beatles concert. I got weak in the knees. It really intrigued me, and inspired me to pack up everything and move to Tokyo.”

But Acura lost its way a decade ago. Blame the Great Recession. Blame the Japanese earthquake. Blame global warming. Whatever. It also infected parent Honda and the company began rolling out products with all of the sex appeal of vanilla cones.

Honda was the first to wake up with its swaggering 2015 Civic that was designed to take on the Audi A3.

Now Acura is returning to its roots with another promising trifecta: supercar NSX, Precision design concept and sporty TLX A-Spec sedan. The luxury-maker has even appointed child wonder-Ikeda — now all grown up at age 52 — as its CEO. He hasn’t disappointed.

Ikeda recognizes that Honda’s Gen X buyers are the perfect recruiting class for a youthful luxury brand. Hundreds of thousands of Civic fans may not be able to afford a BMW, but they can reach the Acura. Especially an Acura with the DNA of the track-carving NSX hellion and the sexy face of the Precision.

Meet the TLX A-Spec.

Importantly, it doesn’t look like past Acuras. Gone is the chrome beak that was derisively referred to as (take your pick) the bottle opener, parrot’s beak and buck tooth. It’s replaced by an all-new Precision-inspired “diamond pentagon” grille. Where the old chrome beak was too Honda, the new face is reminiscent of Mercedes with diamond-shaped flecks emanating from the Acura logo like ripples in a pond. Together with Acura’s signature LED headlights (heavy with black mascara to appeal to those Honda boy-racers) it’s a distinctive look.

I hope Acura learns from BMW and sticks with it. Generations of buyers have coveted Bimmer’s iconic, twin-kidney grille because it symbolizes prestige and performance. So, too, the Cadillac’s shield grille. And Audi’s giant cow-catcher grille.

What is Acura’s look? Whoooo are you? Like Lexus, Infiniti and Lincoln, it hasn’t had an identity. Here’s to the diamond pentagon.

Speaking of identity, my Louisville aunt’s (we Paynes are thick in the South) first reaction to the X4 M40i was: “That’s a BMW? It looks like everything else until you see the grille.” Ouch.

Welcome to the Age of the SUV when everything is a five-door hatch. It’s a conundrum for BMW which built its reputation on sleek, coupe-shaped sedans. Whoooo are you?

Thus the X4.

With its coupe-like roof, it’s supposed to make the boxy X3 crossover look more, um, sedan-like. Ask my aunt if it works. But BMW has more tricks up its sleeve to make the SUV feel like the ultimate driving machine. An M-Sport package adds stiffer springs, bigger anti-roll bars, adaptive dampers and a ferocious, 355-horsepower, turbo inline-six stolen out of my favorite Bimmer, the M2 coupe.

The results are stunning for a crossover, with the 4,272-pound X4 M rocketing to 60 mph in just 4.4 seconds and hitting 0.95 Gs on the skid pad. That’s a whole G more than the Acura sedan. Heck, it destroys the Porsche Macan ute’s 0.87 G.

So entertaining was the snorting, quick-shifting, dual-clutch automatic X4 M to drive that I almost called the boys at Pontiac’s M1 Concourse for some hot laps, but then caught myself: Hot laps in an SUV?

That’s the problem it. If I want M performance, I want it in a sedan with optimal physics. A sedan like, well, the TLX A-Spec. Alas, for its wicked styling and sophisticated torque-vectoring AWD system, the rebooted Acura can’t yet justify a performance version. CEO Ikeda suggests a Type-S — just like the glory days! — is in the offing. But Acura has to walk before it can run.

A big help is its value. For a segment bargain of $33,500 the base front-wheel Acura comes standard with safety-assist systems and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto. My alluring $45,000 A-Spec adds all-wheel drive and blind-spot assist.

At $20,000 north of the A-Spec, the Bimmer was barren of safety assists — not even adaptive cruise, a puzzling oversight for a $67,000 chariot. And with its coupe-style roof it had less backseat headroom than the four-door Acura.

Bottom line? I’d pass on both these cars in their current form. I love the x-plosive X4’s engine — but would buy it in the M2 first. And I’ll wait for a TLX Type-S with more power to match the A-Spec’s sexy design.

We shouldn’t have to wait long. Acura knows who it is again.

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

2017 BMW X4 M40i

VEHICLE TYPE FRONT-ENGINE, ALL-WHEEL DRIVE, FIVE-PASSENGER SUV
Powerplant 3.0-liter, turbocharged, inline

6-cylinder

Transmission Eight-speed automatic
Weight 4,272 pounds as tested
Price $58,100 ($67,495 as tested)
Power 355 horsepower, 343 pound-feet torque
Performance 0-60 mph, 4.4 seconds (Car and Driver)
Fuel economy EPA est. mpg: 19 city/26 highway

/21 combined

Report card

HIGHS SPORTS SEDAN HANDLING; SAME

355-HORSE

HEART AS M2

Lows Still looks like an SUV; where are premium features?

Overall:★★★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★

2018 Acura TLX A-Spec

VEHICLE TYPE FRONT-ENGINE, ALL-WHEEL DRIVE,

FIVE-PASSENGER SEDAN

Powerplant 3.5-liter V-6
Transmission Nine-speed automatic
Weight 3,850 pounds (est.)
Price $43,750 A-Spec base ($45,750 AWD

as tested)

Power 290 horsepower, 267 pound-feet

torque

Performance 0-60 mph, 5.7 seconds

(Car and Driver)

Fuel economy EPA est. mpg: 21 city/31 highway/25 combined

Report card

HIGHS GOODBYE BEAK, HELLO DIAMOND PENTAGON GRILLE; STATE-OF-THE-ART

AWD

Lows Confusing, dual-screen infotainment system;

more power, please

Overall:★★★

Cartoon: DC Blood Sport Trump

Posted by hpayne on June 1, 2017

060117_DCBloodsportTrump_COLOR

Cartoon: Griffin Head

Posted by hpayne on June 1, 2017

053117_GriffinHead_COLOR

Cartoon: NBA Blowout Association

Posted by hpayne on May 31, 2017

053117_NBAPlayoffBlowouts_COLOR

Cartoon: Wall Street Ford Tesla

Posted by hpayne on May 31, 2017

052917_WallStreetFordTesla_COLOR