Henry Payne Blog

Cartoon: Beto run 2020

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 15, 2019

Cartoon: Media and the Deficit

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 15, 2019

Cartoon: Captain Scandal Hillary

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 15, 2019

Cartoon: College Cheats

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 15, 2019

Cartoon: Budget Body Shaming

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 15, 2019

Cartoon: Sanders Socialist Paradise

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 15, 2019

Cartoon: Job Polarization

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 15, 2019

Payne: Jeep Compass earns stripes in icy outback

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 15, 2019

Jeep country: On icy, uphill Route 9 though the Zion Canyon pass, the Jeep Compass Trailhawk never put a foot wrong.

Jeep country: On icy, uphill Route 9 though the Zion Canyon pass, the Jeep Compass Trailhawk never put a foot wrong. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

At Zion National Park in Utah, the day had dawned grisly with howling winds, blowing snow and icy roads. But Mrs. Payne and I had planned a day trip to Bryce Canyon on the other side of Zion canyon’s snowy cliff tops.

“What’s Route 9 like over to Bryce?” I asked a snowplow driver after rolling down my window. The twisted, mountainous two-lane is the only way to get there.

“No problem. You’ve got a Jeep,” came the reply.

On that kind of confidence Jeep has built one of the most recognized brands on the planet. Beginning with the rock-climbing, terrain-shredding Wrangler, Jeep fields a juggernaut of SUVs perfectly timed for the market’s embrace of all things ute. Every Jeep carries the Wrangler’s DNA, right down to the compact Compass Trailhawk I had acquired for a weekend trip from Vegas into the rocky outback of southern Utah.

The Compass, new in 2017, is part of a Jeep strategy to expand its empire beyond the core Wrangler and Grand Cherokee fan base and into entry-level buyers. Much like Honda hooks customers with  the Fit, Civic and HR-V starters, Jeep has flooded the market with its own compact trifecta — the Renegade, Compass and Cherokee.

My trip from the valley of sin to the summit of snow would be a test of whether Compass is a worthy gateway drug.

First impressions are dynamite.

I like the rebellious Jeep Renegade, but at some point you’ll grow out of it. Eventually your tastes lean from your baseball card collection to grown-up things like art galleries and nice cafes and Grand Cherokees. The Compass’ conservative body, thin headlights and seven-slot grille echo the family patriarch Grand Cherokee.

Budget-conscious shoppers will opt for the Latitude trim. It comes with the typically robust Jeep all-wheel drive that throws torque to whichever wheel needs it most and handles all the nasty weather you’ll find. But the heart isn’t always sensible.

I am a sucker for the Trailhawk trim with its blacked-out hood and roof, two-inch suspension lift, front-and-aft tow hooks and knobby Falken tires. Dress it in Spitfire Orange and my knees turn to jelly.

This beast oozes Jeep authenticity and vaults it above mere-mortal brands. Never mind that the Compass is tattooed with non-functional design touches like a fake seven-slot grille (for enhanced aerodynamics, the engine is fed by a lower intake).

This is the Jeep Wrangler that everyone always wanted as their first car — but without the compromises of rough, noisy ride.

The Trailhawk can go just about anywhere with its impressive front departure-angle, four skid plate and four-wheel drive lock and crawl modes. And I rarely resisted the temptation.

I turned off Interstate 15 from Vegas-to-Zion to test the Jeep’s capabilities in deep snow, dirt and rocky terrain until my wife finally told me to stick to the asphalt if we were going to arrive at the hotel before next week.

I relented, but not before discovering that wet sand (the Southwest is essentially a big, red sandbox) is the most diabolical terrain. Stop moving and it would swallow the tires like quicksand.

Back on asphalt, the Compass is at its most mediocre.

Despite its marriage to a modern nine-speed tranny, the 2.4-liter engine is a dog. Mash the pedal to the floor to pass traffic, and the world seems to slow down as the four-banger labors to pick up steam. Snails have better acceleration. I raced a desert tortoise out of a Utah stoplight and the tortoise won.

Once up to speed I longed for adaptive cruise-control that is common now on competitors like Subaru, Honda and Toyota. My wife’s $28,000 Subaru Impreza hatchback, for example, comes standard with adaptive cruise and blind-spot assist. As does a $20,000 Toyota Corolla. Not my $35,000 Compass.

Happily, there are cabin features to forgive these shortcomings. Beginning with the best-in-auto uConnect touchscreen infotainment system which benefits most Fiat Chrysler products including Ram, Dodge, even Maserati.

It’s intuitive, quick, easy to navigate — and works with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone apps. In the vast Southwest, navigation is essential, yet the apps mean you get Google Maps navigation that you know and love without having to pay $1,195 for Fiat Chrysler’s inferior navigation system. Within moments of climbing aboard, Mrs. Payne had our route mapped.

Forgiveness abounds. The console is tight on storage, in part because of the unique terrain mode dial with settings for snow, sand, mud, rock and Mars (I made that last one up).

The automatic door locks make a violent sound — WHAP! — when the gearshift moves from park to drive. But inside, accommodations are roomy and your giraffe-sized reviewer could comfortably sit behind himself in the rear seat.

Even the milquetoast engine is forgiven when churning across Route 9 to Bryce in near white-out conditions.

The Compass clawed up Zion’s ice-caked roads without putting a foot wrong. Such competence makes you acutely aware that the danger is not the road but other people on it. States might consider requiring driver’s license tests be conducted in the winter, because I swear many of us have no idea how to drive in snow.

Our path was littered with creative ways to crash at 30 miles per hour and less. In Zion Park, a Cadillac CTS zigged when he should have zagged and T-boned a hapless Toyota Camry that had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In a Route 9 tunnel, a Honda CR-Z pinballed from one wall to the other, breaking its front suspension. In Bryce, a Chevy Cruze pilot miscalculated a 15-mile-per-hour left turn and beached himself in a snowbank.

Common to all these accidents was the drivers’ faith that a car will steer on slick roads as it does on dry. It won’t. It will plow straight ahead. The Compass is no exception. But steer gingerly into a slick bend, then apply throttle on exit and the ute grips like a Rottweiler on a postman’s leg.

Should any of the aforementioned projectiles have come the Compass’ way, I’m confident its traction and brakes would have been up to the task of avoiding them.

Fortunately, about half the vehicles in Utah are capable pickups. And half of the other 50 percent are Jeeps.

A wise choice. Just ask a snowplow driver.

Jeep Compass 

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

Price: $23,340 base, including $1,495 destination fee ($35,160 Trailhawk 4×4 as tested)

Powerplant: 2.4-liter, inline 4-cylinder

Power: 180 horsepower, 175 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual (4×2 and 4×4 models); 6-speed automatic (4×2 only); 9-speed automatic (4×4)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 9.3 seconds (Car and Driver); towing, 2,000 pounds (4×4 recommended)

Weight: 3,633 pounds (Trailhawk 4×4 as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA: 22 city/30 highway/25 combined (24 mpg observed on Utah trip, Trailhawk 4×4)

Report card

Highs: Go-anywhere ruggedness; mature looks

Lows: Milquetoast engine; lacks standard features of competitors

Overall: 3 stars


Cartoon: Omar, Isreal and Goliath

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 9, 2019

Payne: Entry-level Mercedes A220 samples S-class luxury

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 9, 2019

Starting at $33,475, the Mercedes A220 offers an entry-level Merc with the classiness of a $100k-plus S-class.

Starting at $33,475, the Mercedes A220 offers an entry-level Merc with the classiness of a $100k-plus S-class.

Say hello to the entry-level Mercedes A220. Honey, I shrunk the S-class.

I have driven the King of Luxury, the Mercedes S560 (S for Simba) 4MATIC, and it is an exquisite thing. Gorgeous looks, smooth all-wheel drive power, an interior fit for a, well, king. It also costs a king’s ransom to own with a sticker that starts — starts — north of $100,000. And that’s before you add fundamentals like blind-spot assist. I tested a S560 Coupe last year that tipped the scales at $152,195 (cough).

Emerge from a drive with your spouse — drunk on luxury, giggling like schoolchildren — in this divan on wheels and you’ll seriously consider blowing your savings for a summer home to afford it.

You: Comfy cabin up north for weekend getaways with a kitchen and porch looking out on God’s green creation … or a Mercedes?

Spouse: Oh, the Mercedes, hands down.

You’ll come to your senses eventually. But the wonderful thing about the new entry-level compact A220 sedan is you can sample S-class luxury in an affordable package. Like one-third the price of that coupe.

Hooking customers on a delicious appetizer to reel them in for the more expensive entrée later in life is not a new idea for Mercedes. Five years ago, the German brand introduced the CLA sedan, the first Mercedes under $30,000.

It was a knockout. A gorgeous, slinky Barbie doll. And just as empty inside. The CLA’s interior seemed an afterthought. Its fit and finish were sloppy, the infotainment screen tacked on to the dash like someone had nailed an Apple tablet there. Reviews were lukewarm even as it warmed new customers to the brand.

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try the A220.

Compact sedan 2.0 is a revelation, a junior S-class. Except for decadent items like seat-belt extenders, quilted seats, night vision and a rear wine-bar (OK, I made that last one up), the A220 cub offers everything Simba has.

Twin configurable instrument and infotainment screens are embedded behind a single 10.3-inch horizontal pane of glass. A row of silver aviator vents line up like champagne glasses. There’s an exquisitely engineered steering wheel with a tiny touchpad on each spoke to control the multipurpose screen in front of you. Panoramic sunroof. Head-up display. Adaptive cruise-control with auto lane-change. Chrome-flecked grille.

(Pause to catch breath)

Nineteen-inch multi-spoke wheels. All-wheel drive. Automatic high-beams. Automatic windshield wipers. Personalized settings including interior lighting. Multi-way seats. And more.

If you want it all, a fully loaded A220 will ring the cash register at $50,660 — a steep bill, but still a third of a loaded S560. And that’s the point. The entry-level buyer gets a real taste of what a five-star luxury menu is like. It’s delicious.

Faced with this smorgasbord of options, customers might naturally separate the caviar from the tenderloin to arrive at their preferred order. Spec a Mercedes A220 with the all-wheel drive AMG package (which gets you that “Diamond Block” grille and multi-spoke wheels), panoramic roof and red-leather interior (well, a little caviar never hurts), and you will walk away with a properly premium Merc for about $43,000.

Regular readers of this column will recognize that price point as VW Golf R territory, my favorite all-around mainstream car. Can the Mercedes justify its three-pointed star snobbery at the same price point as the rockin’ roomy V-dub?

The Golf R exposes the A220’s biggest weakness — powertrain.

Simba 560 boasts a buttery smooth twin-turbo V-8. It’s a velvet hammer, one of the industry’s gems. The A220 literally saws big brother’s mill in half to a 2.0-liter single-turbo four-cylinder.

That’s four cylinders, like the VW.

That’s quite a compromise, and it’s readily apparent when you put the A220’s hammer down. The eight-speed dual-clutch tranny and turbo are buttery smooth under the cane (though oddly balky at low speed, like a young cub still testing its legs). But they can’t hide the dull buzz of four cylinders straining to put out 188 horsepower.

The Golf R, by contrast, pushes out a gob-smacking 288 horses and will run rings around the Mercedes through Michigan hill country.

Still, the new A220 oozes style from that lovely grille to the LED-piped taillights to the first-class cabin inside.

Automakers have been forced to raise their game by Silicon Valley and its revolutionary Teslas. The Model S and Model 3 have thumped German sedans in sales with phone-like operating systems. Mercedes-Benz User Experience (MBUX) is up to the task.

A220 comes with multiple infotainment controllers — touchscreen, the aforementioned steering-wheel mini touch-pads and console touch-pad. But the MBUX voice commands are so good — so phone-like — I usually ignored the hardware. I drove around town talking to the car — its “Hi, Mercedes” command like Android’s “Hey, Google” — and rarely took my hand off the wheel.

Hi, Mercedes, set the temperature to 72 degrees.
Navigate to Detroit Metropolitan Airport.
Play Sirius XM Comedy Greats channel.

It understood my hillbilly West Virginia accent like an old friend.

That luxury separates the A220 from the mainstream. Sure, it looks stubby next to Simba (what doesn’t), but the cub has the family DNA, and that’s what counts.

Visuals matter, too. The Golf R is a VW hatchback. The A220 is a gem smoothed by Mercedes craftsmen.

Even the CLA has benefited from the A220’s transformation as it will now be offered as the compact-class “coupe” version with the same interior. So if the A220 is too conservative and underpowered, then let the pricier CLA turn up the heat with its raked roof and 221 ponies.

The beauty of Michigan, of course, is it can test any beauty’s temperament in winter weather. The A220 proved it was no diva, but an all-season athlete. German politicians have spent the last three decades warning of global-warming induced snowless winters. Thank goodness German engineers ignored them.

As Michigan February dumped snow and ice, the A220 and I took to the roads like skiers to Pine Knob. The all-wheel drive system is superb under throttle, allowing me enough juice to power-drift around snowy corners (unlike many nanny systems out here) — and then stopping with superb anti-lock brakes.

At $42,000, that is quite a cub. And you’ll still have money left over for that little cottage up north.

2019 Mercedes A220

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

Price: $33,475 base, including $975 destination fee ($50,660 4MATIC model as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged, inline-4 cylinder

Power: 188 horsepower; 221 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.1 seconds (mfr.); top speed: 130 mph

Weight: 3,285 pounds (3,417 4MATIC as tested)

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

Report card

Highs: Intimate MBUX connectivity; first-class interior

Lows: Weak turbo-4; price tag may have you looking to upgrade to C-class instead

Overall: 3 stars

Cartoon: Trump Investigations

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 9, 2019

Cartoon: Kim Warhead Trump

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 2, 2019

Cartoon: Cohen Testimoney

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 28, 2019

Payne: Ram 3500 Heavy Duty is king of the beasts

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 28, 2019

King of the Beasts. The Ram 3500 Heavy Duty boasts Herculean towing ability — yet is still comfortable to drive with a quiet interior.

There are the horsepower wars and there are the torque wars.

At the horsepower end we have a sports-car arms race to 1,000 horsepower: Dodge 717-horse Hellcats, 755-horse Corvette ZR1s, 759-horse Lamborghini Aventador SVJs, 840-horse Dodge SRT Demons. And at the top of the heap, the 1,500-horsepower Bugatti Chiron, which is more expensive than Buckingham Palace, goes zero-60 mph in 2.3 seconds and will hit 261 mph if you can find an airport runway long enough.

I was born with the need for speed. I drool over these numbers, but I’ll admit they are irrelevant to daily driving. There’s not a public road in Michigan where you can explore these vehicles 200-plus mph magnificence. Boasting more horsepower than a NASCAR, they must be tracked to be appreciated — and even then, they’ll bite your head off if you aren’t careful.

The torque wars, on the other hand, are much more practical, as evidenced by their more sober model nomenclature. Think 250, 350, 3500, 4500.

Consider the new 2019 Ram 3500 Heavy Duty, the first pickup to reach the holy grail of 1,000 pound-feet of torque.

That low-end grunt translates into figures as gob-smacking as the horsepower kings. The Ram can tow 35,100 pounds, which is about the weight of a Class A mobile home.

Or a Case 580C front-loader backhoe and a pallet of bricks on a flat-bed, gooseneck trailer. I know that because I just hauled it up a 5-degree grade for four miles in Nevada. At 40 mph. On a two-lane public road.

 Ram’s designers have supersized to 2500 and 3500 Heavy Dutys without losing the light duty’s DNA. (Housekeeping note: Heavy Dutys come with a smorgasbord of options — six trims and three engines — which would take us all day to discuss. So this missive concentrates on the top-dog 3500 with 1,000-torque oil-burner.)

The grille is taller and wider — 30 percent wider than the last-gen 3500 — but still dripping with chrome and nicely integrated with the headlights. There is a wonderful simplicity of form in the Ram compared to its competitors. The Chevy Silverado’s design, for example, has inspired its own social media memes as people try to figure it out. There is no such confusion with Ram, a result exterior designer Mike Gilliam credits with Ram’s divorce from Dodge a few years back — a split that forced Ram to come up with its own identity.

 The attention to detail is admirable. Sensors were carefully hidden, for example, in plastic fog-light housings so as not to distract from the larger aesthetic.

Speaking of distractions, the interior is a rolling living room isolated from the heavy lifting going on outside. It’s a different animal from my trusty 2003 turbo-diesel Ram 3500 race-car hauler with its unmistakable wokka-wokka-wokka diesel soundtrack.

The new Ram is whisper-quiet by comparison, the diesel only noticeable under heavy throttle. Chief engineer Rod Romain says comprehensive sound deadening — laminated front and side glass, anti-vibration devices, active noise-cancellation, the works — has cut interior noise by 10 decibels, or half that of the previous truck.

Cupped in silence, passengers can admire the interior details like twin glove boxes and branded dash logo on the upper-trim Longhorn model. There are sub-floor rear storage buckets, a 12-inch quick-response, Tesla-like screen is available in the Limited and Longhorn models.

My favorite interior detail is the Mega Cab, which suits this truck’s mega-capabilities. If you’re not content with the already-palatial Crew Cab, the mega-cab will allow your worn-out construction mates to man-sprawl in the backseat, complete with reclining seatbacks.

This interior refinement is in contrast to the raw muscle under Kong’s skin.

Drive around town in an unladen diesel Ram 3500 and it instantly feels different from the light-duty. The shifter is on the steering column, not the console as with the 1500’s rotary version. The stalk is necessary to accommodate the 6-speed Aisin transmission that’s designed to tame the 6.7-liter Cummins gorilla under the hood. The ride is choppier, too, thanks to good ol’ rear-leaf springs (coupled with an air suspension) to deal with the Herculean loads. There is no maddening stop/start system, hooray — but plenty of mpg-friendly tweaks like cylinder deactivation and class-best drag co-efficient.

Put your foot in it and the Cummins responds with low-end diesel grunt before the turbo kicks in above 2,000 rpms. The 8,000-pound truck practically explodes down the road. My old 2003 model peters out over 2-grand, but the new truck is just getting interested.

Hook this locomotive up to a 16,000-pound horse trailer on a long grade and it’ll pull to the moon.

From a full stop on a graded two-lane near Lake Mead, the Ram heavyweight clean-and-jerked the trailer like an Olympic gold medalist. Then it kept going: 30 mph. 40 mph. 50. Good grief, what a specimen.

Riding shotgun with me was Ram boss Jim Morrison, who tows horses with his Ram HD. Romain, Cappa, Morrison … this is a truck developed by people who use them.

Under the full load of 35,100 pounds, Kong pulled at a steady 40 mph up the four-mile grade before finally tailing off to 33 mph at the top.

Tow these kind of numbers with 1,000 pound-feet of torque and businesses become more efficient. More horses can ride in trailers. And auto racers can tow more sport cars to the race track where we can safely push the limits of 700 horsepower.

2019 Ram 3500 Heavy Duty

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

Price: $35,090 base, including $1,695 destination fee ($86,300 3500 Laramie Dualie as tested)

Powerplant: 6.4-liter Hemi V-8 (standard engine); turbocharged, 6.7-liter, inline 6-cylinder Cummins diesel

Power: 410 horsepower, 4,429 pound-feet of torque (Hemi V-8); 370 horsepower, 850 pound-feet of torque (standard diesel); 450 horsepower, 1,000 pound-feet of torque (high-output diesel)

Transmission: 8-speed automatic (Hemi V-8); 6-speed Torqueflight automatic (standard diesel); 6-speed Aisin automatic (high-output diesel)

Performance: 0-60 mph, NA; maximum towing, 35,100 pounds

Weight: 5,477-8,396 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA: NA (Heavy-duty trucks are outside EPA weight classes)

Report card

Highs: Monster with manners; 35,100-pound towing — need we say more?

Lows:Have to pay for standard safety features found on a $25,000 sedan; towing fuel consumption will suck your wallet dry

Overall: 4 stars



Cartoon: Colman Oscar Best

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 28, 2019

Cartoon: Oscars Diversity

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 25, 2019

Cartoon: McCabe Birther Trump

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 25, 2019

Cartoon: Green Deal Flintstone Car

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 25, 2019

Cartoon: Manchurian Trump and McCabe

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 21, 2019

Payne: Best bargains, Mazda CX-5 vs. Subaru Forester

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 21, 2019

Henry Payne compares the 2019 Subaru Forester Sport, left, with the 2019 Mazda CX-5 Signature.

The $30,000 price point is the meat of the U.S. market. It’s where America lives. The average cost of a new vehicle is just over $35,000 and the average vehicle is a compact crossover, the biggest segment in all of autodom.

So it figures that two of the best bargains to be found are at opposite ends of the $30,000-$40,000 aisle: the near-premium Mazda CX-5 and the blue-light special Subaru Forester.

If neither of these vehicles flips your switch, then you need to get your switch fixed.

Pound-for-buck, the Mazda CX-5 is the best SUV on the planet. With premium looks to rival any luxury entry, consider how my CX-5’s top grade, new-for-2019 Signature trim stacks up against luxury’s best-selling compact ute, the Audi Q5.

The $39,155 CX-5 offers the same high-tech standard features — all-wheel drive and leather interior — as a comparable $54,795 Q5, but has more interior room, more cargo room, more horsepower and more torque. That’s right, more horsepower and torque.

At a time when electronics have quickly narrowed the gap between first class and coach, there are many mainstream cars that exude a luxury vibe with premium accessories like adaptive cruise-control, digital instrument displays and sculpted bods. But power has always been the separator.

Until now.

In addition to its trusty 2.5-liter four-banger, the CX-5 is now optioned with the same terrific 2.5 liter turbo-four with 250 horses and 310 pound-feet of torque that’s found in big-brother CX-9. That means two more ponies than Audi, 22 more pound-feet of torque, and .02 seconds quicker to 60 mph. For $15,000 less. Mazda drops the mike.

Through the twisties of Oakland County, the CX-5 is a joy. I flatten the throttle and the 6-speed — despite being a smaller-ratio box than the 8-9 speeds increasingly common today — effortlessly downshifts to the necessary gear, before popping off buttery-smooth shifts as I increase throttle.

The response is aided by that gob-smacking torque number — more than a $50,000 Porsche Macan — and a nimble, 3,825-pound chassis that is 300 pounds lighter than a BMW X3.

But I know what you are thinking, dear reader. That $39,000 is still a lot to pay for an SUV. Especially if exiting apexes under full throttle is not high on your list of ute priorities. You’re just looking for an attractive, daily commuter that can deliver you to your destination sun, sleet, or snow.

If the CX-5 is a bargain Audi Q5, then the Subaru Forester is a bargain CX-5.

Start with looks: The Sport model in my driveway has come a long way from the rough Subaru Tribeca that used to be the face of Subaru. The Forester isn’t in the Mazda’s league — long nose, athletic shoulders, narrow greenhouse — but the Forester is nice to look at.

Carrying Subaru’s standard, signature all-wheel drive, the Forester has the upgraded brand look that attracted Mrs. Payne to the Subaru Impreza back in 2014. An ugly duckling no more, Subaru finally settled on a wardrobe that wouldn’t scare customers. It gets them inside to experience the brand’s wholesome goodness.

My Sport model was aggressively outfitted with a blacked-out grille and red rocker-panel highlights. That sporty look doesn’t translate to the drivetrain, which is a familiar 182-horse four-banger mated to a continuously variable transmission. Though 250 pounds lighter than the Mazda, the Forester won’t inspire you to consume asphalt — but it might encourage you to leave the road entirely.

With multiple off-road modes, the Forester gives off a rugged vibe that will instill confidence in Subaru’s core audience of weekend hikers.

I grunted around a sprawling construction site with the Forester — the Mazda’s pretty chrome kisser and Audi’s expensive price tag discourage such activity — dialing its mode selector to Mud.

The cloth-seat Forester comes standard with the same safety-assist goodies as its more expensive competitors — adaptive cruise-control, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity, blind-spot assist — though the leather-wrapped Mazda’s refinement is a step above with its Audi-like dash. The QX-5 copies the Audi’s tablet-like infotainment screen controlled by a remote rotary knob — but offers better ergonomics versus the German’s overengineered console.

The Mazda’s i-Activsense driver-assist system is terrific. Located in the center of the instrument cluster, it creates an electronic cocoon that keeps you informed as to where other vehicles are lurking (in your blind-spot, for example). Premium looks, premium tech.

The Subaru’s dash is chunkier, its touchscreen within reach for those who prefer jabbing with their fingers. What the Forester lacks in design sophistication it makes up for in customer-friendly ergonomics.

Subaru adds a second console screen above the dash with car-related details of your choice. That thoughtfulness abounds through the cabin as the Subaru bests the Audi and Mazda in nearly every interior metric (Mazda just nips the Subaru in rear leg-room) — most importantly, cargo room.

Where the Audi and Mazda opt for more athletic looks, the Subaru adds a fat caboose for more storage. It’s a reasonable priority, given the five-door-hatch SUV advantage. Even with the shortest wheelbase of the three cars, the Forester’s roomier interior packaging is optimized for the SUV customer.

Brand matters, and the four-ring Audi Q5 has ridden its good looks, athleticism and German engineering to 69,750 in 2018 sales — second only to the iconic Lexus RX as best-selling luxury SUV.

But $55,000 is a lot of dough, and the Mazda and Subaru bring their own brand credibility at a much lower price. Mazda has invested heavily in motor racing over the years to polish a reputation for fun and sex appeal. The influence of the Miata sports car is everywhere, even in this SUV. The only thing missing on my Machine Gray CX-5 Signature tester was Mazda’s sexy Soul Red paint scheme. For another $595, it’s worth it.

The Subaru looks better in mud than in red, and that’s a compliment. As the best compact SUV value money can buy, it sacrifices nothing in utility while still offering a distinctive personality.

Thanks to vehicles like the CX-5 and Forester, customers can shop for the average car without feeling average.

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

2019 Mazda CX-5 Signature

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

Price: $37,885 base, including $995 destination fee ($39,155 as tested)

Powerplant: Turbocharged, 2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder

Power: 250 horsepower (227 on regular gas), 310 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.2 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 130 mph

Weight: 3,825 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA: 22 city/27 highway/24 combined

Report card

Highs: Luxury ute at mainstream price; terrific i-Activsense surround safety-assist

Lows: Less cargo room; could use a bigger console screen, but I’m reaching here

Overall: 4 stars

2019 Subaru Forester Sport

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

Price: $29,770 base, including $975 destination fee ($31,815 as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder

Power: 182 horsepower; 176 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Continuously variable transmission

Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.5 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 127 mph

Weight: 3,531 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA: 26 city/33 highway/29 combined

Report card

Highs: Standard features galore, tough off-road and on

Lows: Acceleration requires patience; chunky interior design

Overall: 3 stars