Henry Payne Blog

Payne: Who needs luxury? GMC Acadia vs. Mazda CX-9

Posted by Talbot Payne on July 19, 2018

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I’m as weak as the next guy. Set me up with a shapely Audi A7 sedan. Or a cheetah-quick Porsche Boxster GTS. Or an explosively powerful, 707-horse Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat. Ooooooh, I would rob a bank to get them in my garage.

But try to sell me a  three-row family luxury SUV and I’m more rational. Five-door utility and fundamental physics have made some mainstream vehicles as desirable as their premium peers.

Take the upwardly mobile $43,445 Mazda CX-9 and $43,145 GMC Acadia sport utilities I’ve been hanging out in.

These two mainstream brands have translated their (respectively) sports car and truck DNA into family haulers that are easy on the eyes, tech savvy and fun to drive. In so doing they have largely closed the gap with luxury brands costing $15,000 more (the price of a nice, used Mazda 3 for your 16-year-old).

I revisited the GMC and Mazda two years after they first wowed me in 2016. This time around, I found the all-wheel drive family haulers were a blast over the country roads of Michigan and Virginia. Not only did these 4,000-pounders carry my family in style, but they were fun to drive with taut chassis and peppy turbo-4s. You know, the stuff for which luxury vehicles are known.

I rented the Acadia out of Dulles Airport which returned me to the roads where I tested the GMC in May 2016. If you think GMC is just about trucks, this ute will surprise you.

Based on the same bones that support the nimble Cadillac XT5, the Acadia went on a 700-pound diet from the previous generation. It shows. In 2016, I chased an Audi A7 cheetah through Virginia’s twisted hills, the Acadia showing remarkable poise for a big rhino.

This time, country roads took me across the West Virginia line near the famed Summit Point racetrack. The Acadia possesses an excellent all-wheel drive system that includes a mode selector with 4×2, 4×4, Snow and Sport. Yes, Sport. Dial in, hold on to the door handles, dearies, and let’s go Audi hunting.

Mated to GM’s excellent 9-speed transmission, the 193-horse 4-cylinder is up to the task. The Mazda, even more so.

True to its ZOOM ZOOM lineage, inside every Mazda ute beats the heart of a Miata. The CX-9 takes ute athleticism to the next level.

Not that GMC should hang its head. Car and Driver measured identical G-load numbers for both SUVs in its skid-pad test. That’s a remarkable stat for a ute with pickups as parents.

The Mazda simply manages its heft with more aplomb than the GMC. It also wins on style points. Indeed, CX-9 shames most premium vehicles with its fastback styling and runway-model fascia.

Though less butch than previous generations, the GMC could still use another appointment with the plastic surgeon. Look at younger brother GMC Terrain, one of the lookers of the compact class. A Terrain-like wardrobe for Acadia would match the SUV’s upscale, ballroom dance moves.

Inside, the GMC steps up its game.

While the Mazda struts its handsome European wardrobe of rotary dial, tablet screen and expansive dash, design alone won’t get you very far if you get lost in the West Virginia Outback.

Mazda continues to be tardy to the smartphone connectivity dance though it promises the popular feature … um, soon. Just how useful this feature can be was demonstrated by my Acadia.

 Like its GM brethren, Acadia was one of the first in segment with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. They both work superbly in the GMC’s head unit. My experience is that only some luxury models — BMWs, Mercedes S-class, Acura RDX — have navigation systems that can compete with smartphones. And who wants to pay big bucks for the privilege?

My Acadia came with no nav. No problem.

Plug in your iPhone, and bingo! — the GMC’s infotainment system’s Google Maps routed us across the wildest of Wild, Wonderful West Virginia. This is every smartphone-user’s dream — no need to upgrade to an (inferior) auto nav feature. No need to learn a new system. Just enter the destination on your phone before leaving the hotel/home/work. Plug. And play.

The GMC and the Mazda won’t win any awards for interior space, but these are big three-row utes. Space comes standard.

My six-foot-plus sons fit comfortably in the rear of the Acadia where they read books, played computer games, even rested thanks to the GMC’s thoughtful recliner (Mazda has a similar feature). The third row is accessible in both the Acadia and Mazda with easy, one step pull-and-slide second row seats (though the Acadia, for budget reasons, only accesses the third row on the curb side). I was cramped, but I’m a 6-foot-5 circus freak, for goodness sake.

Where the CX-9 shows off details like auto high beams and a head-up display, the Acadia responds with thoughtful items like a rear passenger safety check: Exit the car and the GMC reminds you if you have left something like your computer in the back seat. Or, heaven forbid, a child. Clever.

But then GMC takes clever too far. Determined to gain EPA’s favor, the GMC refuses owners the option of turning off its Stop/Start engine feature. Stop/Start is this decade’s equivalent of the 1970s’ automatic seat belt. Annoying.

This is the second Acadia rental I’ve had with the feature and it grates like fingernails on a chalkboard. It drives my wife crazy. The constant stall at stoplights. BRRRUMP. The constant shudder back to life. BRRUPUP. Sure, GM’s Stop-Start is smoother than most, but it’s not smooth enough.

Mercifully, CX-9 does not come equipped with Stop/Start. The minor fuel savings are not worth the expense. Like GMC’s decision to only equip the curbside second row with third-row access.

On such small details can buyers’ purchase decisions hang. Maybe the GMC’s smartphone capability seals the deal for Acadia. Maybe the Mazda’s sexy styling flips your switch.

Either way, the details pale in comparison to that $15,000 it’ll cost you to buy a comparable luxury ute. Maybe that premium badge buys status — but as Acadia and CX-9 prove, it doesn’t buy you a better chariot.

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.

2018 GMC Acadia

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front- and all-wheel drive, seven-passenger SUV

Price: $29,995 base ($43,145 as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter inline-4-cylinder

Power: 193 horsepower, 188 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, NA; towing: 1,000 pounds

Weight: 3,956 pounds (FWD)

Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 21 city/25 highway/23 combined

Report card

Highs: Lightweight, nimble chassis; Smartphone app connectivity

Lows: Can’t turn off Stop-Start; anemic 1,000-pound towing

Overall: 3 stars

2018 Mazda CX-9

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-and rear-wheel drive, seven-passenger SUV

Price: $33,125 base ($43,445 as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter, turbocharged inline-4

Power: 227-250 horsepower (87 or 93 octane gas), 310 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Performance: Zero-60: 7.5 seconds (Car & Driver est.); 3,500-pound towing

Weight: 4,361 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 20 city/26 highway/23 combined

Report card

Highs: One good-lookin’ ute; athletic ride

Lows: No full moon roof; smartphone app connectivity, please

Overall: 3 stars

Cartoon: Trump and McGovern

Posted by Talbot Payne on July 19, 2018

Cartoon: Trump Syndrome Shots

Posted by Talbot Payne on July 19, 2018

Cartoon: Sryzok Bias

Posted by Talbot Payne on July 19, 2018

Cartoon: Trump and Putin

Posted by Talbot Payne on July 17, 2018

Payne: It’s been a wild two years waiting for my Tesla Model 3

Posted by Talbot Payne on July 17, 2018

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More than two years ago, I put down $1,000 to reserve my place in line with 450,000 others to order the most anticipated car of the 21st century. On June 26, I finally configured my Tesla Model 3 for delivery.

No greenie, I’m a speed-addled motorhead who ordered the Model 3 out of lust for its design and electric performance. And because, as a journalist, I wanted to be a part of the most audacious auto startup in memory.

The wild ride hasn’t disappointed.

The Model 3 has proved to be slow to market, hell to manufacture, banned from sale in Michigan, and a stage for the brilliant, maddening, tweeting, disruptive Donald — er, Elon Musk. Yet the car itself has not lost its allure.

Billed as Tesla Inc.’s entry-segment, $35,000 electric car to the Silicon Valley automakers’ premium Model S and Model X chariots, the most-affordable Model 3 trim won’t be available until next year. My rear-wheel drive, big-battery, 310-mile-range sedan will cost $20,000 north of the base 220-mile-range model. It also demands substantial upgrades to my house to meet its charging demands — more than $2,000 worth — a lesson in the challenges for electric-vehicle adoption.

Like all communication from Tesla, my notice came in a simple email: “Your Model 3 is Ready to Order,” followed by a link to tesla.com.

The email came in the middle of my June-August order window for a $49,000 rear-wheel drive, long-range car. That’s a delay of four months from my original February-April window (true to Musk’s promise of “production hell” at the Model 3’s July 2017 unveiling).  Want the standard-range $35,000 car? I’d have to wait another 6-9 months. Want the $53,000 all-wheel driver? Cool my heels until late 2018.

The website added a new trim: a $64,000 all-wheel drive performance model to rival gas-powered rockets like BMW’s M3 and Cadillac’s ATS-V. Tempting, but its sticker would push the price into nosebleed Model S territory.

I stuck to my budget.

Compared to the dizzying array of options available in most cars these days, my 3 was configured in five easy steps.

Step 1: Car. All-wheel drive for Michigan winters? I like rear-wheel drive handling for twisty country roads. The 310-mile range model I chose has a 140 mph top speed and does 0-60 in 5.1 seconds — among the quickest in its class.

Step 2: Exterior. Any color other than plain black costs $1,000. I chose Obsidian Black Metallic with $1,500 19-inch Sport wheels. Gotta have 19s.

Step 3: Interior. To paraphrase Henry Ford on the Model T (which also suffered production pressures due to high demand), you can have any Model 3 interior you like … as long as it’s black leather. Wood trim and that big, beautiful Tesla tablet screen are standard.

Step 4: Autopilot. “Enhanced Autopilot” adds $5,000 for self-driving features like auto-lane change, adaptive cruise-control, self-park assist and a “summon” feature that allows the car to back itself out of a tight parking space without a driver at the wheel. Another $3,000 and the car would be armed for full autonomy (when the software matures) — no thanks, we motorheads want autonomous cars like fish need bicycles.

Step 5: Payment. Bottom line, my Model 3 cost $56,000, comparable to the BMW M2 coupe I also lust for. Subtract the $7,500 federal EV tax credit and I’m under $50,000.

The cost doesn’t end there.

Recharging on a standard, 110-volt wall charger would take longer than the wait for my Model 3 (well, 52 hours). The best bid from two electricians to upgrade my garage to 240-volt was $1,675. Add $500 for a 60-amp Tesla wall charger and I can recharge to 300 miles in seven hours overnight.

Before paying the electrician and my required $2,500 Tesla deposit (the rest due on delivery), I took a long pause. Fifty grand is a lot of money, and the headlines out of Tesla had become increasingly chaotic.

Some of that chaos was to be expected. Musk and Donald Trump may vehemently disagree on the fate of the polar bear, but they are both classic disruptors on a collision course with the establishment. Musk also takes inspiration from digital disruptors like Steve Jobs to upend the status quo on dealerships (Tesla stores) and manufacturing (more automation).

Never shy with a tweet, he’s unloaded on journalists, investors and industry leaders. As I ordered, he even attacked his role model, Ford Motor Co., to deflect criticism about a makeshift tent he had erected outside his California factory to meet production goals.

“Go to Ford, it looks like a morgue.”

Good theater, but worrisome for a luxury-car buyer who fears the consequences of his $50,000 car being built in a tent. By sleep-deprived workers. By a company with a history of defects — and that, by law, cannot have company dealerships in Michigan.

I’m not the only customer with concerns, but I’m philosophical. Tesla is a startup automaker trying to achieve the unprecedented: fill 450,000 standing orders for a single model. To put that in perspective, Mercedes only sells 375,000 units a year in the U.S. across 15 models.

Which brought me back to product.

Despite similar build issues, the Model X SUV and Model S sedan are two of the best vehicles I’ve driven. While chatting with one of Michigan’s first Model 3 owners in Birmingham this spring, I pointed out a sunken hood gap on her sleek red machine.

She and her husband hadn’t noticed. She went on to rave about the car.

I, too, raved about the first 3 I tested. Its spare, iPhone-like design and nimble handling drowned out voices in Model 3 forums complaining of inconsistent paint jobs and electronic hiccups.

Two years on, and the Model 3 is still unique. Which probably explains why — despite the chaos and delays — Tesla sales still dwarf other EVs. There are very good alternatives, after all — like the tidy, reliable, 238-mile-range Chevy Bolt EV. The Model 3 is outselling it 5:1.

Mine is ordered, but delivery is a uncertain. Tesla says it will arrive at its Cleveland dealership for pickup (Ohio allows Teslas to be sold there) between September-November. Based on the experiences of other owners, it could arrive in a month.

And to throw in one more blind turn on the wild ride, Tesla announced this week it is opening up orders to non-reservation holders. The company assures me that my place in line is secure.

The adventure continues. I’ll let you know when it comes.

Cartoon: Stormy Donald

Posted by Talbot Payne on July 17, 2018

Payne: 700 Club — 710-hp McLaren meets 755-hp ‘Vette

Posted by Talbot Payne on July 17, 2018

The 2019 Corvette ZR1 features an outrageous 755 horsepower

The gorgeous McLaren 720S is one of a fleet of supercars

Requirement for membership: 700 horsepower. It’s an elite group of production vehicles including supercars, Bentleys and Hellcats. I’ve flogged a few. For 2018 the directory gets two new members: the McLaren 720S and Corvette ZR1, and they reflect the club’s diversity.

Not straight-line drag racers like the 707-horse Dodge Challenger Hellcat or 840-horse Demon, these remarkable athletes can harness their power for any discipline from the race track to Woodward stoplights, yet they are very different species raised in different worlds to achieve the same purpose: delivering face-flattening speed in tush-flattering comfort.

The 720S is the road-going manifestation of McLaren’s racing success.

With multiple Formula One titles under its belt, McLaren began distilling race technology into production cars with the MP4 super car in 1984. It now churns out models for three supercar “segments” that it calls Sport, Super and Ultimate. All are built on essentially the same mid-engine, rear-wheel drive, carbon-fiber platform.

My $331,335 tester fills the mid-level Super segment — slotting between the $210,000 570GT that I tested in this space last summer, and the insane, $1 million-plus P1 and Senna Ultimate-class track hellions. They’re all insane, really: carbon-fiber race cars made street legal.

The Corvette ZR1, by contrast is, well, a Chevy — though any relationship to mainstream Chevrolets is a stretch. Yes, it uses the same 6.2-liter pushrod V-8 technology found in a Silverado. Its 4G WiFi-capable touchscreen infotainment system is yanked right out of a Malibu sedan. And its supercar price tag is a Chevy-like bargain at $137,000, meaning you could buy two ZR1s for the price of one 720S and have money left over for a Camaro SS.

But like its predecessors, the seventh-generation C7 Corvette is built on a bespoke rear-wheel drive aluminum chassis with otherworldly capabilities. Then Corvette’s team of mad scientists took a page from McLaren’s book. The C7 was co-developed with GM’s Pratt and Miller race team to prep it for race use.

As the most capable Corvette in the stable, the ZR1 builds on the already-ferocious 650-horse Z06 by adding a bigger supercharger and even more downforce punctuated by a high-wing nailed to the frame out back.

The result is a ‘Vette on ‘roids, like Hulk bursting from Bannerman’s too-small clothes. The supercharger bulges from the hood, carbon-fiber dive-planes sprout from the nose, the bat wing looms like something out of DC Comics.

The McLaren looks like it came from the future.

Squeeze the door sill and scissor-doors glide upward. “Eye socket” headlight ducts suck air into twin radiators. A wing emerges on hydraulic struts when an Active aero button is engaged.

The sinewy bod is even more beautiful than the 570GT. Gone are the side air-intakes, replaced by more subtle channels along the greenhouse. The alien-like insectoid taillights remain, but toasty dual-exhaust pipes split them at hip height (watch those hands, kids!).

Get this thing a starring role in the next “Blade Runner” movie.

Bury the throttle out of M1 Concourse’s hairpin and the sci-fi experience goes into hyper-drive. The engine momentarily hesitates as the turbos spool up inside the 4.0-liter V-8. Then, Alice, it’s to the moon.

The same engine with 562 ponies in the 570S was the best mill I have ever driven.

Add another 148 horses for the 720S, and it’s OMG. Around town the acceleration is electric. With a turbo hiss, traffic vanishes in the rear-view mirror. On track the punch is relentless and linear, the torque curve never leveling off.

I hit 130 mph on M1’s back straight before carbon-ceramic brakes brought the rocket back to earth. Veteran M1 instructor Aaron Bambach says that’s faster than anything he’s seen on track shy of the $900,000, 887-horsepower (800 Club anyone?) Porsche 918 hybrid.

The seven-speed tranny fires off quick shifts, the turbos hiss, the engine howls. And then the twisties rush into view. Coping with the mad rush of a 700-plus horsepower — more than an IndyCar — in a 3,100-pound car is an intense experience. But throw it into a corner and the McLaren shrinks to an oversized go-kart.

The electro-hydraulic steering is intuitive, the chassis balanced, the carbon frame flat as a board. I could place the car on a dime around M1.

The McLaren is digital, the Corvette analog.

Of course, electronics is key to the 700 Club. Weapons like these would have been unthinkable 20 years ago without today’s electronic-stability controls, brainiac on-board computers and quick-shifting transmissions.

But as Belle Isle pace-car driver Mark Reuss will be the first to tell you, the ‘Vette can get away from you in a hurry. Pounding downhill through Road Atlanta’s fast esses, the throttle must be treated with care lest 378 cubic inches of piston thrust — 750 pound-feet of torque! — overwhelm the 12-inch rear tires.

Where the McLaren’s rocket builds momentum, the ZR1 comes off the launch pad like the Space Shuttle. The ground shakes. Birds scatter. Car alarms explode. The ZR1 will hit 170 mph on Road Atlanta’s back straight before 15.5-inch-saucers the size of Captain America’s shield haul it into a tight chicane. Unlike the carbon-fiber 720S, you can feel the aluminum ‘Vette flexing, the car moving under you like King Kong unleashed.

But you can feel the 1,000 pounds of downforce — much of it generated by the high wing — pushing down on Kong all the time like a net, keeping him from rampaging off into the forest.

The McLaren computer game is reinforced inside with a digital display that flips over into a narrow, race car-like rpm/mph readout when you choose Track from the console mode selector. A separate knob controls the suspension with Comfort-Sport-Track settings. It’s unique and works instantly to match your needs. The slow infotainment system takes a back seat to the drive dynamics.

The Corvette, by contrast, benefits from its corporate lineage by sporting the brand’s tried-and-true mass-market infotainment system with gadgets like Apple Car Play, head-up display and performance data recorder. Being a Chevy has its benefits.

Both steeds deserve their 700 Club supercar status. The McLaren is simply the best athlete I have driven. The Corvette, dollar-per-pound, is the fastest car ever conceived. What could possibly rival this pair?

I hear the 1,479-horsepower Koenigsegg Regera and 1,479-horse Bugatti Veyreon are starting a 1,000 Club …

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.

2018 McLaren 720S Coupe

Vehicle type: Rear-engine, rear-wheel drive, two-passenger supercar

Price: $288,845 base ($331,355 as tested)

Powerplant: 4.0-liter twin-turbocharged V-8

Power: 710 horsepower, 568 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 7-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 2.8 seconds (mfr.); top speed: 212 mph

Weight: 3,128 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 15 city/22 highway/18 combined (Car and Driver)

Report card

Highs: Supermodel looks; turbo V-8 from the gods

Lows: Slow infotainment system

Overall: 4 stars

2019 Chevy Corvette ZR1

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, two-passenger supercar

Price: $119,995 base ($136,815 as tested)

Powerplant: 6.2-liter, supercharged V-8

Power: 755 horsepower, 715 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 7-speed manual; 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 2.85 seconds (mfr); top speed: 212 mph

Weight: 3,524 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 13 city/19 highway/15 combined (manual); 12 city/20 highway/15 combined (automatic)

Report card

Highs: Comfy daily driver; Herculean torque

Lows: Oily interior odor; poor visibility

Overall: 4 stars

Cartoon: Waters and the GOP

Posted by Talbot Payne on July 17, 2018

Cartoon: Kavanaugh Madness

Posted by Talbot Payne on July 17, 2018

Cartoon: Supreme Kavanaugh

Posted by Talbot Payne on July 11, 2018

Cartoon: Strawless Seattle

Posted by Talbot Payne on July 11, 2018

Cartoon: Restaurant Trump Section

Posted by Talbot Payne on July 6, 2018

Cartoon: Swamp versus Pruitt

Posted by Talbot Payne on July 6, 2018

Payne: Think sedans are sunk? Try a snazzy Mazda 6

Posted by Talbot Payne on July 5, 2018

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Here’s the thing about extinction — it concentrates the mind. America has gone ute crazy and sedans are in a fight for their life. It’s survival of the fittest. Evolve or die.

And so we are getting the best sedans I’ve ever seen.

I was ZOOM ZOOM ZOOMing the new Mazda 6 all over Metro Detroit this June and I think I’m in love. It’s the same feeling I had when I got out of the 2018 Honda Accordlast fall. A Rolex watch with a Timex price tag.

Like Honda, Mazda has a lot of mileage under its belt on race tracks and its quick handling is no surprise. What surprises are the luxury amenities.

Fast and luxurious, the Mazda improves on the one gripe I had about the Honda: great bod, but put a bag over its face, please. Not the Mazda. This beauty turns heads from head to tail. My Audi-owning friend Dicran lingered over the elegant, chrome-jeweled front end, the grille smiling seductively.

That is a good looking car!

Yes it is. Better looking than many luxury models. Automakers are taking a hard look at sedan viability in the Age of Ute, but the 6 begs the question: Do we need so many luxury brands?

Regular readers know I’ve been writing about the shrinking gap between mainstream and luxury ’til my fingers turned blue, but you could always count on the premium boys flexing more power.

Take the Mazda CX-5, for example. It’s a heckuva compact ute, right there with a BMW X3 in handling and accessories. But put your foot on the gas and … oh. Just 187 normally aspirated gerbils compared to the Bimmer’s 248 galloping, turbocharged horses — and the sound! Oh, my. Like Maria Sharapova hitting a forehand — HUUGGGH! — you can hear the effort. A silky turbo and the BMW badge will get help you cough up the extra 10 grand for the German.

But now here comes my $36,140 Mazda 6 with a 250-horsepower (on premium gas, 227 on regular) 2.5-liter turbo that goes toe-to-toe with, say, a comparably equipped $56,000, 252-horse Audi A6 out of a stoplight.

Zot! The Mazda 6 hit 60 mph in 6.4 seconds — just shy of the Audi’s 6.1.

Mazda is a stickler for detail and they zeroed in on their noise issues for the sixth-gen 6. Padded panels, recrafted-pillars, the works. Like Noah preparing for the storm, they plugged every leak in the cabin to make it more livable.

The result is a quiet, buttery smooth drivetrain under the cane. But no how matter how many pillows Mazda has stuffed in the cracks, the real story here is the new-for-2018, 2.5-liter turbo-4.

The same powerplant found in the lovely CX-9, three-row ute, the new engine puts out a whopping, best-in-class, 310 pound feet of torque with 63 more horses than the old 2.5-liter, normally-aspirated mill. The new engine is programmed (this is the electronic transmission era) for nearly the same 60 mph run, but then it runs away from the competition where you really want it — in 30-50 and 50-70 acceleration. True to its ZOOM ZOOM roots, the turbo-4 still makes a satisfying thrum at hard throttle — not unlike a turbo-4 Golf GTI, one of my favorite 4-bangers.

The old powerplant is still offered in the 6 as a base-engine $22,845 bargain. But the real bargain here is in the loaded, upper-trim models.

And I do mean loaded. My Signature tester undercuts the Audi A6 price by $20,000 despite boasting a two-tone leather interior, wrapped console, seat memory, head-up display, tablet screen, auto high-beams, and so on. Dicran and went back and forth between an Audi A6 and Mazda 6 interior to see the fine differences.

That’s no accident. Mazda benchmarks its interior to the Audi right down to the remote rotary infotainment controller and piano-key dash buttons. The Audi fits more chrome and wood decoration, but the Mazda gains points with more storage space compared to the Audi’s over-engineered console.

Where the Mazda really wows (did I mention it’s just $36,000) is in the premium details. Allow me to point out three:

1. Blind-spot information system. This is my list of must-have digital innovations. I’ve come to depend on a glance at mirror-based blind-spot system rather than twisting my neck into a pretzel every time I want to change lanes. It’s a technology that, like adaptive cruise control (another must), has rapidly migrated into mainstream cars from luxury.

The Mazda takes it up a notch. Adapting a graphic-based blind-spot system innovated by premium automakers like Tesla, the 6 keeps a digital image of your car in the instrument panel — right in front of you — at all times. Is there a vehicle in your quarter panel? The graphic displays “wavy lines” off your starboard stern so you know another car is there. Cars to your right and left? Twin waves off each quarter.

2. Head-up display. In another steal from cars costing thousands more, the Mazda nixes last generation’s el cheapo, dash-mounted head-up display for a state-of-the-art, windshield-projected system. The configuration includes useful info like mph, speed limit and navigation instructions.

Speaking of nav, the Mazda’s ethic of keeping info in front of the driver extends to the high-mounted infotainment screen — which displays the name of the road you are approaching. On dark nights when street signs are hard to read — or placed on black backgrounds (looking at you, Bloomfield Township) — you won’t miss a turn thanks to Mazda engineers.

3. Air vents. Yes, air vents. Most ventilation system require two controls — one for air direction, the other to close it off. The Mazda 6 cleverly combines them into one, making vent operation a cinch.

It’s details like these that give you confidence that the whole vehicle was endlessly fussed over. Which gets you luxury for $36,000. Speaking of details, Mrs. Payne says the only reason not to buy the peppy, roomy, sexy 6 over the CX-5 ute is all-wheel drive.

And if the CX-5 eventually gets the 6’s 250-horse engine, it’ll be one more challenge sedans will have to overcome. In the meantime, Mazda’s 6 is a 10.

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.

2018 Mazda 6

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

Price: $22,840 Sport base ($36,140 Signature as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter inline-4 cylinder; 2.5-liter, turbocharged inline-4 cylinder

Power: 187 horsepower, 186 pound-feet torque (non-turbo 2.5-liter), 250 horsepower (93 octane fuel, 227 with 87 octane), 310 pound-feet torque (turbo-4)

Transmission: 6-speed manual (base Sport model only), 6-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.4 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed: 149 mph (mnftr.)

Weight: 3,560 pounds as tested

Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 26 city/35 highway/29 combined (non-turbo 2.5-liter); 23 city/31 highway/26 combined (turbo-4)

Report card

Highs: Easy on the eyes; tech-tastic interior features

Lows: AWD please?

Overall: 4 stars

Cartoon: Kennedy Supreme Speech

Posted by Talbot Payne on July 5, 2018

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Payne review: Mercedes S560 Coupe, king of beasts

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 28, 2018

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My former Detroit News colleague, Scott Burgess, once advised that auto reviewers schedule a regular Porsche 911 test — as a reminder of how good a sports car can be. The same might be said of a Mercedes-Benz S-class and its place atop the luxury kingdom.

Everyone is in luxury these days because there’s money to be made. Tesla, Genesis and Alfa Romeo offer new meat; Lincoln and Acura are rediscovering their mojo; Cadillac, BMW and Audi run the Nurburgring like greyhounds.

But for pure majesty, Mercedes rules.

Its perfect cheekbones and polished manners are handed down the family tree all the way to the little CLA. SUVS, sedans and coupes spring from its loins. Its sinewy V-8 inspires the AMG performance badge and GT race cars — muscled mutants that shred tracks like Marvel’s Juggernaut.

S is for Simba on Pride Rock.

How can any other mere luxury brand hope to compete? For pure presence and power, my favorite S is the Mercedes S560 4MATIC Coupe, a vision on wheels. It’s like living in Dwayne Johnson’s tuxedo: handsome, graceful, muscled shoulders out to here.

After some tired styling years in the ’90s, the new century has awakened Stuttgart designers from their slumber. Walking through a Mercedes auto show display (alas, it will visit Detroit no more) is like attending a DIA masters’ sculpture exhibit. The bodies are exquisite. King S560’s bold face — punctuated by a tri-star logo bigger than your head — is backed up by toned flanks and rocker panels with stampings so deep they might have been cut by the Colorado River.

The style is familiar across the brand’s body of work, perhaps most significantly in the entry-level, $32,000 CLA coupe and sedan. The CLA flaunts papa’s DNA right down to the exquisite, jewel-flecked grille. For Mercedes wannabes who can’t yet afford the three-piece suit, the CLA is a lovely jacket.

But the interior is where the S560 Coupe sets the standard. I’m often asked to name the nicest car I’ve driven. The S is it.

Even the $400,000 Rolls-Royce Dawn coupe I sampled last year (only Rolls can make a $157,000 car look like a bargain) can learn from the king. No, the S doesn’t come with umbrellas tucked into its doors (Rolls’ signature), but the Benz offers a more comprehensive, premium experience.

Slip into the quilted first-class leather thrones and be spoiled. An arm extends at the driver’s left shoulder, handing over the seat belt. Visibility is superb thanks to a non-existent B-pillar. The doors are encrusted with stitching and etched stereo speakers, while recessed lighting bathes the cabin in color. Rear-seat space is tight for giraffes like me, but Benz makes the accommodations livable with auto-sliding rear seats and deeply scalloped front seatbacks for the knees.

The cabin is wrapped in premium materials, from the quilted albino seats and mauve dash to an iPhone-like glass pane that stretches across twin 12.3-inch instrument and infotainment displays.

The screen is another brand trademark and can be found across the Mercedes lineup from sport utilities to compact cars.

The decadent interior isn’t just for show. Like furniture in Q’s James Bond lab, the S-class is a showcase for futuristic gizmos.

Fifteen years ago, Burgess took me for my first ride using adaptive cruise control. We marveled at the early autonomous technology as the big Mercedes floated to and fro in traffic, its radar reading traffic speeds up ahead. Today, adaptive cruise control is common on most mainstream cars. For the early 21st century, Benz follows Tesla with self-driving technology that can automatically change lanes with the toggle of a turn-stalk (appropriate, since Tesla borrowed Mercedes’ steering wheel stalks for its Model S).

Neither is the high-class S too proud to adopt other proven technologies: Kick-open rear trunk innovated by Ford. Head-up display from Cadillac. It’s all here. It even has millennial-friendly Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Mercedes’ engineers stretch their creativity with devices like night-vision pedestrian detection and miniature mousepads on the steering wheel. The pads are part of a suite of redundant center console controls, including a touch pad, rotary wheel, even push buttons. My accessory of choice was voice command that understood direct verbal commands — Navigate to Le Petit Dejeuner on Jefferson Avenue — like my smartphone.

With this upholstered apartment stuffed inside, the S Coupe tips the scales at over 4,700 pounds. But don’t let its weight fool you. This beast can move.

Credit an all-wheel drive, all-wheel steer system (the 4MATIC part of the Benz’s dizzying alphanumeric nameplate) that constantly keeps its four paws planted. I took ess-curves in Oakland County much faster than I thought possible, the big locomotive cornering as if on rails.

Mercedes has been dominating GT racing in recent years with ground-pounding V-8s. No sissy sixes for the king of beasts. Under the S560’s breast beats the heart of a lion.

I pressed the throttle of the twin-turbo, 4.0-liter, 463-horsepower V-8 and gulped traffic like Simba running down herd of antelopes. Credit 516 pound-feet of torque and a liquid-smooth, 9-speed automatic for the instant thrust. The transmission was nearly seamless as it swapped cogs to catapult past mere mortal cars. See a traffic opening? Voom! You’re there.

This brute power happens with remarkable calm in the cabin where the eight pistons sound like velvet hammers deep under the hood. Though hardly necessary, the hammer octet can be put on high alert with Sport and Sport+ modes — the latter offering rev-match barks with each downshift.

Whatever. This engine could tow the QE2 in Eco mode and not break a sweat.

Pity the competition which has to cope with not just one, but three S-class coupes on top of its formidable S-class sedan. Lincoln’s Continental interior rivals the Mercedes’ comfort. Cadillac this year unveiled its first twin-turbo V-8 CT6 V-Sport. Fetching, but they must jockey for air space with the S450 sedan, S63 sedan, S65 sedan as well as my S560 tester and its S63 and S65 coupe stablemates. The CT6 doesn’t even offer a coupe — not to mention just three SUV offerings versus Mercedes’ seven.

S560 is a magic carpet with animal thrust. Intoxicated by the quilted-leather seats’ “heated back massage” mode, my wife barely noticed as I pushed 100 mph merging onto I-94.

“I’d be afraid of smudging this gorgeous white interior,” she mused.

Such are life’s trivial worries when being chauffeured by the lead ship in Mercedes’ star fleet.

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.

2018 Mercedes S560 4MATIC Coupe 

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, four-passenger sports coupe

Price: $125,495 base ($152,195 as tested)

Powerplant: 4.0-liter, twin-turbo V-8

Power: 463 horsepower, 516 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 9-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.0 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed: 130 mph (electronically limited)

Weight: 4,751 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 17 city/27 highway/21 combined

Report card

Highs: Rolling Rembrandt; AWD balance

Lows: You can’t afford it — so buy the mini-S-class CLA

Overall: 4 stars