Henry Payne Blog

Payne: Ford F-150, Swiss Army truck

Posted by hpayne on February 21, 2015

 

635600441000974953-CARtoon-SwiisArmyF150I get this pickup truck thing.

As a lad I played with Hot Wheels and built go karts while other kids played with Swiss Army knives and crafted tree forts. We boys never really grow up. So now I play with sports cars. Those other kids? They drive oversize tools called pickups. Call ‘em Swiss Army trucks. They can do anything.

Take the new, 2015 Ford F-150.

In America’s perennial, ferocious Truck Wars, the light duty F is the latest, greatest, best-selling example of the most versatile tool on earth. Like its Chevy Silverado and RAM 1500 competitors, it’ll ply a stream with a load of mulch in the morning, then comfortably chauffeur the family to evening dinner. The F-150′s a big, lovable, aluminum-skinned Labrador retriever. Man’s best friend.

These days Ford is rolling out fun F-150 accessories faster than Kim Kardashian can take selfies. Which is a welcome relief because the introduction of the F-150 a year ago was soooo deadly serious. When the F-150 was announced at the 2014 Detroit Auto Show, it promised to “preserve the world for generations to come” in the words of Chairman Bill Ford. Global warming was roasting polar bears and gas prices were headed to $10 a gallon. The Ford pickup was made of aluminum, we were told, to prevent the ocean from lapping at our doorstep. Everyone was so dang grim.

But then gas prices tanked and winter temperatures got so cold that polar bears are wearing long underwear. All of which is good news for Ford because they can go back to selling Swiss Army trucks and their cool tools.

I’ve already told you about the F-150′s side mirrors which can pool light on the ground like a theater usher, illuminate the landscape with spotlights, cover your blind-spot, and tie a bow tie (just kidding about that last one). The backseat will fit a boy’s basketball team — or it can be folded flat for a space bigger than Beyonce’s walk-in closet.

But with Detroit under 2 feet of powder this week, Ford’s happy elves showed off the truck’s snow plowing and snowmobiling capabilities.

“We know our customers better than they know themselves,” smiled Brandt Coultas, F-150 Consumer Marketing Manager. Snow plowing has always been the domain of heavy duty pickups like Ford’s F-450, not light duty. Heavy duties have more brawn, more ground clearance, more stump-pulling, diesel-fired torque. But Coultas’ team heard their customers pining for the same capability in light duties.

 

Ford listened and engineered the F-150 from the ground up to take the rigors of plowing.

The Ford F150 equipped with BOSS Snow Plow clears a parking lot in Dearborn.

We sports car guys are obsessive about this sort of thing, too. When Chevy designed the new Corvette C7, they listened to their customers — from Dream Cruisers to race teams — who said they wanted a no-compromise car. So Chief Engineer Tadge Juechter & Co. engineered the C7 to be stiff and aerodynamic. Want a convertible?Voila! Chop the top — no re-enforcement needed. Want to race at LeMans? Behold! Downforce galore.

For my Swiss Army truck adventure, I brought along my neighbor Bob Gulyas, a construction company owner and certified pickup guy. Ford brought the BOSS plow team. With the plow-ready F-150, BOSS just wired up a 430-pound blade and we were good to go. No extra alternator to run the power steering. No suspension changes. No cab limitations.

We had a ball pushing snow around the Adoba Hotel parking lot at Fairlane Mall in a 4×4 V-8. So much fun that I wanted to call in the F-150 owners’ club. Remember the 100 lucky Mustang clubbers invited to Ford Proving Grounds last Dream Cruise to witness the new pony’s line-lock, burnout feature? They went bonkers like kids at a Stanley Cup final.

Now imagine 100 F-150 owners lined up door-handle-to-door-handle to plow the Fairlane lot. But I digress.

Neighbor Bob marinates in F-150 every day, but was still blown away by the pickup’s new tools: Plow option, 360-degree camera, 170-degree SuperCab doors, rear-camera hitch assist, and so on. “The technology is incredible,” he said.

But what if you prefer to play in powder than plow it? Say, in a 4×4 Can-Am Renegadeall-terrain vehicle? Swiss Army Truck will help, natch.

Lightweight, aluminum loading ramps that store on the truck bed sides are available (just screw them into the removable BoxLink cleats. Genius) so they don’t bang around under the ATV. Slide them into tailgate plate, back down the Can-Am, and you’re pounding powder like a motorized lynx.

Will the F-150 save the planet? Nope. But it’ll help you conquer it. The world is your backyard and Swiss Army truck has the tools to explore every inch. I wonder if that bed will fit my sports car?

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

 

2015 Ford F-150 with “plow prep,” spotlight mirrors, BoxLink ramps, trailer hitch, and lord-knows-what-else

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

Price: $26,615 base ($51,270 as tested, $4,600 BOSS plow (est) not included)

Power plant: 5.0-liter V-8

Power: 385 horsepower, 387 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: six-speed automatic

Performance: Towing capacity (4×4): 11,100 pounds

Weight: 4,871pounds

Fuel economy: EPA mpg: 15 city/22 highway/18 combined

Report card

Highs: Plow prep option just $50; Will do everything but tie your shoes

Lows: Can’t sprout wings and fly

Overall:★★★★

Cartoon: Obama War Names

Posted by hpayne on February 21, 2015

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Cartoon: Family at the movies

Posted by hpayne on February 20, 2015

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CARtoon Groundhog Jeep

Posted by hpayne on February 20, 2015

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Payne: Is bargain Scion FR-S the Porsche 944 reborn?

Posted by hpayne on February 19, 2015

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Oh, it’s good to be in my 20s again. Auburn hair. Lightning-quick reflexes. Eyes like a hawk.

Or maybe it’s just this Scion FR-S I’m driving. Dude, it’s dope.

Not since my first sports car 25 years ago — Porsche’s legendary 944 — has a thrifty thoroughbred felt so good in my hands. “Affordable sports car,” after all, is usually an oxymoron.

But for the durable, adorable Mazda Miata roadster (25 years old this year), examples of the breed rarely survive the business bean counters.

I grew up at the track, the oil-stained son of a Porsche race jockey. But on the street, Porsches were exotics — megabuck 911 playthings for middle-aged moguls. Until the 944 broke the mold. Long before Mercedes (CLA 250) and Audi (A3) crafted down-market sedans to lure younger demographics, Stuttgart hatched a $20K, front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 2+2 sports car that set young motorheads’ hair on fire.

At a base price of $22,000 in 1982, the 944 was a bargain. And with sexy styling, torquey four-banger, and balanced handling, it was to die for. “The most seductive combination of economy and performance money can buy,” in the words of motorhead bible Road & Track.

Henry Payne and the Scion FRS

Fresh out of college in 1984, I drove the 944 for the first time. Where my college mates celebrated graduation by traveling to Europe to sip wine and chase French skirts, I rented a 944 (the Euro lot equivalent of a Mustang) with my old man and terrorized Germany. We hit the car’s top speed of 134 mph on the Autobahn. We bought laps at the epic Nurburgring (a must for every gearhead’s bucket list). We chased Mercs.

I was smitten. Six years and a many saved paychecks later, I had my own, used, 1987 Porsche (a 924S, the 944′s streamlined, lightweight option). We did everything together from long trips to track days. As well-behaved as the 944 chassis was on track it was also practical around town with a hatchback and rear seats big enough for little Paynes.

But Porsche would not make the 944 forever.

Margins were small and capital investments high. “When it came time to upgrade, it just wasn’t worth the money,” says Kelly Blue Book managing editor Matt DeLorenzo, former editor of Road & Track. The last 944 rolled off the line in 1991 and the segment withered with it. Its more-powerful 968 sequel exited in 1995. The rotary-powered Mazda RX7 — a 944 copycat — died a decade later. Nissan’s Z got porky and pricey. The Miata’s cuter than quick. Darkness enveloped the Earth.

In 2013, the FR-S rose from the ashes. Courtesy of Toyota’s youthful Scion brand. The budget bullet was back.

Shades of 944, Scion’s skin is aggressive yet timeless. Eschewing boy toy wings or flared fenders, the fastback design is purposeful, not showy. Inside the cockpit, FR-S transports pilot back to the 944′s low-slung, driver-centric layout. With its long snout and rear seats, even beanpoles like yours truly fit comfortably under the squat roof (I need a giant shoe horn to get in the wee Miata).

Scion controls are light years beyond the 944, courtesy of 21st-century strides in digital audio. Scion comes with 6-inch LCD touchscreen, Bluetooth, USB connectivity, nav, apps, Pioneer AM/FM/CD, woofer, and a partridge in a pear tree. It’s a veritable rolling opera house compared to my old Porsche and its radio and tape deck (Look it up, kids. You’ll find one in the Smithsonian).

In truth the only audio I need in the Scion is the exhaust note.

Light the wick with the push-button starter and the FR-S comes to life like a kicked wolverine. HAWRAWRP! It’ll make your tail tingle. You want a quiet car? Buy a Camry. The FR-S is loaded for bear.

At the other end of this deranged growl is a 200-horse, 2.0-liter Boxer engine. The compact power-plant is the perfect complement to the crouched Scion chassis (its center of gravity is lower than a Porsche Cayman).

With cost in mind, Scion co-developed the FR-S with Subaru (thus the twin Subaru BRZ), just as Porsche co-produced its bargain sports car with Volkswagen. But Porsche’s first take, the 924, was a disaster. Porsche delivered the styling goods, but VW delivered, well, a VW drivetrain. Duh. The result was, in order: 1) the little engine that couldn’t, 2) ridicule from Porschephiles, 3) an extreme makeover called the 944.

Toyota made no such mistake. The Scion chassis and Subaru drivetrain connect like Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson. The FR-S Boxer engine is a rarity — a non-turbo that spits 100 horsepower-per-liter.

Even in January on Seven Mile’s Washtenaw County twisties, the Scion thrills.

While modern sports cars have put on weight (haven’t we all?), the 2,770-pound FR-S weighs less than its 2,900-pound, 158-horsepower Porsche forebear (and the same as my 924S version). More remarkably, the FR-S — at $25,670 — is barely more expensive than the 944 three decades ago.

With a quarter century of materials and suspension advancements, the Scion is noticeably stiffer than the Porsche. It cuts through corners like a knife through capellini. I pine only for the optional manual transmission (though the auto tranny’s rev-matching tries hard to make me forget).

Following Payne tradition, I too have a hot-shoe, young college grad. He too lusts for bargain speed. He too is eying the FR-S. But here’s the thing: He has more choices than I did a generation ago.

So when he joined me for a taste of Scion, we took along a Honda Civic SI coupe as well. With its own high-revving, 200-horse, 2.0-liter chainsaw, the nimble, identically-priced SI represents a pocket rocket breed that didn’t exist three decades ago. And while the front-wheel driver can’t match the RWD FR-S’s athleticism, it holds its own while also holding more cargo.

Tough neighborhood. Though he’ll miss the FR-S on track days, my son might find the fun SI — or the VW GTI, or the Subaru WRX, or the Ford Fiesta/Focus ST — delivers more utility 24/7. If the FR-S wore the iconic Porsche badge? That might change the dynamic. The 944 undeniably benefited from the family crest. Scion lacks LeMans trophies on its mantle.

For over a decade Porsche thrilled the entry segment with 4-cylinder variations of the 944 including the 924S, 944S, Turbo, and 968 (I eventually stuffed a 3.0-liter, 240-horse 968 mill into my featherweight 924S for the ultimate 4-banger Porsche). Fingers crossed that the FR-S hangs around.

Because this budget-friendly, asphalt-chewing coupe is, like, the fountain of youth.

2015 Scion FR-S

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, four-passenger sports car

Price: $25,670 base ($29,742 as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, dual-overhead cam Boxer 4-cylinder

Power: 200 horsepower, 151 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: six-speed automatic or six-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.0 seconds (Car & Driver)

Weight: 2,770 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 25 mpg city/34 mpg highway/28 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: A tossable treat; throaty boxer

Lows: Rugrat-sized rear seats; turbo option, please?

Overall:★★★★

Cartoon: Homeless Climate Deniers

Posted by hpayne on February 18, 2015

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Cartoon: President’s Day

Posted by hpayne on February 13, 2015

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Cartoon: Valentine’s Chocolates

Posted by hpayne on February 13, 2015

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Cartoon: Valentine’s Card

Posted by hpayne on February 13, 2015

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Cartoon: Obama and Isis

Posted by hpayne on February 12, 2015

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Payne: Brawny, brainy Chrysler 300

Posted by hpayne on February 12, 2015

New Chrysler 300 sedan's iconic and unmistakable exterior

Everyone remembers their first 300.

Mine was at Newark airport in 2005. The everyman Rolls — slab-sides, egg-crate grille, broad shoulders — was taking autodom by storm. In an age of soap-bar sedans, the Chrysler 300 stood out like Hulk Hogan at a tennis tournament. Eager to get my hands on the big beast, I booked the “full-size” car from a rental company.

I drove up to the arrivals curb to pick up Mrs. Payne and our luggage. “Good lord,” said my wife, shooting me the have-you-lost-your-mind look. “How much did this thing cost?”

That’s 300. Dunhill threads at a Kmart price. I could have driven it up to Buckingham Palace’s gates and they would have waved me through. If Corvette is the All-American, affordable supercar, then 300 is All-American, discount luxury.

Though the 300 badge had been around since 1955, the reborn, rear-wheel sedan was an instant American icon. Looking like it had just rolled off the set of “Sin City,” the big palooka was gangsta chic. It displaced the Caddy Escalade as the bling choice of rappers. “What I gotta do to get that brand new 300 up outta you?” said one famous rapper on Chrysler’s West Coast office voice mail. “This is Snoop Dogg. Preach!”

The second generation 300 rolled out with more tailored sophistication. The egg-crate grille gave way to a smaller, sculpted face. The first generation’s exterior swagger was extended to the interior with standard leather seats and a gym-toned suspension.

The refreshed, 2015 S model in my driveway solidifies 300 as the most mainstream car on the street. With loud, redline suit and 20-inch wheels, it’s dressed for the red carpet.

For a bargain $41,000 — less than half the price of a similarly-sized BMW 7-series or Audi A8 — my 300 combines head-turning looks with muscle-car power. The 300 is the third ’15 model update on Chrysler’s LX platform following the Dodge Challenger and Charger.

I am not enamored with full-sized car chassis. Whether the Chevy Impala, Toyota Avalon or Chrysler LX triplets, they feel big, top-heavy. Weighing more than the Pentagon, they are barely more nimble than the midsize crossovers that are slowly hunting them to extinction (though their high seating position is a nice compromise between SUV and low-slung luxe sedan).

But what they lack in handling, the triplets make up for in attitude. Squeezed by roomy midsize sedans and the SUV juggernaut (300 sales are just one-third of what they were a decade ago), the Auburn Hills threesome have amped up the personality. Looks? Horsepower? Hips? These plus-sized sexpots got it in spades.

Most full-size sedans are nice rides for a date at the movies. The tire-shredding Dodge Charger wants to drag on Woodward. The 300 aches to be valeted at Fleming’s for a seven-course steak dinner.

This is not a shy automobile. The 300 bears an unmistakable resemblance to the current Bentley Mulsanne.

Keeping up with the Mercs, the 2011 model bore horizontal, chrome grille stripes. The new model adopts the trendy, “chain-link” grille made fashionable by the Mulsanne and Jaguar XJ. Fashion trends aren’t for everyone, and I’m not a fan of the chain link look any more than I’m into skinny Euro-pants.

But credit Chrysler for a clever riff on the style. Look closer and the grille texture is more than cross-hatched metal — it’s a weave of winglets echoing the winged Chrysler logo that floats in the middle of the big maw (supersized 32 percent as a nod to the 2005 original). Out back, 300′s upright, scalloped rear quarter-panels are right out of the Bentley catalog.

One of the most recognizable brands on the market, the 300 could be its own franchise — the Mini Cooper of big sedans. Think a 300 small crossover, or Escalade-challenging 300 ute, or big 300 roadster. But the 300 is Chrysler family.

That shared DNA makes the 300 surprisingly practical for all of its 5th Avenue eccentricities.

Little brother 200 is an ergonomic wonder with an interior fussed over for maximum driver convenience. Ditto 300. Its center console is a vertical design masterpiece. Best-in-class UConnect touchscreen. Essential climate dials. A simple, rotary shifter (with Sport mode, yum) that allows room for a smart phone holder. Maximum use of space, minimum fuss. All wrapped in soft-touch vinyl and carbon fiber accents. A classic, analog clock is cherry on the cake.

I drove the 300S back-to-back with a gorgeous, similar-size, $100K Audi A8. It also has an analog clock. But the Audi console is a maze of knobs, buttons, and shift stalks. It makes your eyes cross after the simple 300 system. Valedictorian, full-size luxe meets top-of-the-class, full-size luxe wannabe.

Impress me some more, 300.

With laminated glass, the 300 matches the A8′s tomb-quiet interior. Both sport smooth, 8-speed trannys by ZF. Both score high in Consumer Reports (Audi 91 score, 300, 82). Drivetrain warranty? Chrysler: 5 years/100,000 miles. Audi: 4 years/50,000. Stomp on the S’s 368-horsepower, hemi V-8 and the big rocket wants to go to the moon — just like the 435-horse, twin-turbo A8. Want inlaid wood like the Audi? The 300C Platinum’s got it. Phone connectivity? Check. Blind-spot assist? Check.

Only the chassis betrays different breeding. Fling the 4,500-pound, AWD Audi into a 90-degree corner and it’s a locomotive on rails. Chassis settles, tires bite, all four corners stay on the same page.

The less-sophisticated, RWD 300S is like a rodeo bronco. Big tail swishes, rear hoofs stamp, you feel the 4,200-pound beast shift under your saddle. But what’s this? My bronco comes with electronic stability control? I’ve experienced this system before on the insane, 700-horsepower Hellcat and it. Is. Remarkable.

If ESC keeps the Hellcat from killing you, it makes the 300 eminently controllable. But there’s more. And this is where it really gets good, dear reader. Because the zoot-suit, ticket-me-red, nail-gargling 300S can also be had as a sinister, black, all-wheel drive stealth-mobile just like the Audi. For less.

Trade the $3,000 V-8 option for the 300-horsepower V-6 with $2,500 all-wheel-drive (AWD is only paired with the 6). Good grunt. Better handling. Better snowmobile (30 percent of 300 sales are AWD). With black leather inside and “Phantom Black” outside (like the Rolls Phantom, yes?) and you see only the “C” LED running lights coming, and the red-LED-tubed taillights going.

Is there a more affordable, powerful, fashionable, usable, AWD, roomy sedan on the market? Drive this baby up to the curb and my wife will happily slip in. If Snoop Dogg doesn’t jump in first.

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

 

2015 Chrysler 300

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

Price: $32,390 base ($41,580 300S as tested)

Power plant: 3.6-liter, dual-overhead cam V-6; 5.7-liter Hemi V-8

Power: 292 horsepower, 260 pound-feet of torque (3.6-liter, base V-6); 300 horsepower, 264 pound-feet of torque (3.6-liter, V-6 in 300S); 363 horsepower, 394 pound-feet of torque (5.7-liter V-8)

Transmission: eight-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.5 seconds (Motor Trend estimate, V-8)

Weight: 4,029 pounds (V-6 RWD); 4,326 pounds (V-8 AWD)

Fuel economy: EPA 19 mpg city/31 mpg highway/23 mpg combined (V-6); 16 mpg city/25 mpg highway/19 mpg combined (V-8)

Report card

Highs: The bargain Bentley; Ward’s 10 Best interior

Lows: Bold styling not for everyone; bring back the SRT

Overall:★★★

Cartoon: Stewart Jester Leaves

Posted by hpayne on February 11, 2015

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Cartoon: Obama and Williams

Posted by hpayne on February 11, 2015

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Cartoon: Obamacare Deadline

Posted by hpayne on February 10, 2015

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Cartoon: Grammy War on Women

Posted by hpayne on February 9, 2015

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Payne: Can Caddy’s comely coupe cope in winter?

Posted by hpayne on February 7, 2015

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he last time the 2015 Cadillac ATS Coupe and I met it was August in northern Connecticut. We had a ball. The BMW-fighter romped through the countryside, its balanced chassis a trained athlete. We were Rogers and Astaire in “Swing Time.” Julianne Hough and (name your celebrity du jour here) in Dancing with the Stars. Partners in synch on an asphalt dance floor.

What a difference six months and 70 degrees make.

With snow falling and the mercury plunging to single-digits in early January, dancing was the farthest thing from my mind. The ATS parked in my downtown parking garage was A) my refuge from the arctic weather, and B) my snowmobile home. Where I compared the comely coupe last summer to a sure-footed Labrador locked on a fox’s scent, this time I needed it to be a St. Bernard in an Alpine blizzard: Could it keep me alive?

When I reached the parking garage, my extremities were numb. It was so cold outside that Gary Peters was burning his Sierra Club membership card for warmth. Polar bears were sleeping on heat grates. Asphalt had turned to ice-phalt.

At the car door I dared not remove my thick gloves. No problem, ATS sensed the fob in my pocket and opened with a squeeze of the handle button. Nice. No need to remove the key to start the engine either thanks to push button start. But the cabin was an icebox (Dummy. With time, I’d learn to use remote start to heat ‘er up). Fortunately the Cadillac passes my wife’s first auto rule: “If it doesn’t have heated seats and a heated steering wheel, I’m not interested.”

She’s interested in the ATS. Thanks to heating coils, steering wheels and seats come to boil much quicker than air circulation systems. Ain’t the 21st century grand? I immediately pressed the steering heater button, then reached for the seat heater button on the console.

Ahem. Let me say here that I have been a fan of Cadillac’s CUE system. Its flush surfaces and dial-free, haptic feedback controls are elegant and modern – a welcome departure from Caddy’s stodgy, conservative past. But haptic controls read the heat from your fingers – which is a problem when your digits are colder than a penguin’s arse.

I pressed hard on the console’s haptic-thingy and brought the seat to simmer – but the process of firing up the radio and hapt-o-selecting AM 950 for traffic updates looked like a more daunting task. Not to worry, the hi-tech Caddy has more redundant communication systems than a nuclear-class submarine has redundant missile launch protocols.

In fact, my hands needed never leave the toasty steering wheel. Which is nice since at this point I was gripping it hard in order to prevent gangrene from setting in. Not only can the wheel buttons operate the Bluetooth phone connection (“Honey, can I get you anything on the way home? A parka? Ticket to Jamaica?”), they command every radio function. What’s more, the station list appears in the instrument panel, meaning I can keep my eyes straight ahead on a snowy night when Detroiters’ driving skills are no better than, say, your average shellfish.

I mean, seriously people?

On my way home I encountered 1) a car parked in the left lane shoulder (a problem since there is no shoulder on the Lodge’s left lane), 2) a chronic tailgater, and 3) countless macho pickup trucks driving as if they were on the last lap of the Indy 500.

Thankfully, my ATS came equipped with all-wheel drive and all-season tires so that I could navigate this wintry “Mad Max” landscape with confidence. By the time I reached Oakland County’s surface streets, traffic had thinned, my body temperature had warmed, and I could push the car’s abilities. The ATS’s AWD system is superb, allowing controlled four-wheel drifts. My wife owns an AWD Subaru Impreza (Second auto rule: “Cars must come equipped with all-wheel drive”) which is quite good, but the Caddy – befitting its higher price – is better, with tighter stability control.

I stopped in an empty school lot to do some donuts with the traction control off (don’t tell Mrs. Payne) before arriving home – the AWD system gripping like polar bear claws through my neighborhood’s unplowed streets.

So went the weekend. With its “Black Raven” paint coat covered in salt and snow, I never noticed the ATS’s chiseled beauty. With my eyes fixed on the road, I ignored the sumptuous, stitched leather dash. To me the measure of a luxury car is more than sport and comfort. All of those details will be there come summer when ATS and I can dance once again.

In the meantime, this St. Bernard got me home warm and in one piece.

2015 Cadillac ATS Coupe

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

Price: $38,990 base ($51,345 AWD, turbo-4 as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder

Power: 272 horsepower, 295 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: six-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.6 seconds (manufacturer)

Weight: 3,418 pounds (RWD)

Fuel economy: EPA 20 mpg city/28 mpg highway/23 combined

Report card

Highs: State-of-the-art instrumentation; Bear claw, AWD grip

Lows: Clumsy CUE; Snow boots a tight fit in rear seat

Overall:★★★

 

Cartoon: Jeb Bush and Immigration

Posted by hpayne on February 6, 2015

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Cartoon: Williams Helo Attack

Posted by hpayne on February 6, 2015

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Payne: Car of Year Golf R encore

Posted by hpayne on February 5, 2015

With 292 horsepower from its turbocharged and direct-injection

The sleeper R is for the speed jockey who doesn’t need a muscle shirt to show off his pecs.

How did the VW Golf respond to winning the 2015 North American Car of the Year at the Detroit Auto Show?

By rolling out the new Golf R two weeks later: The biggest, baddest, fastest Golf ever.

It’s like Pixar bettering “Toy Story” with “Toy Story 2.” Like Verlander following a five-hit gem with a shutout. Like Apple introducing a new iPhone 6, then eclipsing it with a big screen iPhone 6 Plus.

The R is for those who don’t think the sensational Golf GTI is enough.

The GTI, of course, is what we North American Car of the Year jurists really mean when we say Golf was the best new car to hit U.S. roads last year. The $25K GTI is no boy toy indulgence, but an affordable, practical pocket rocket that makes up a full 50 percent of U.S. Golf sales. And for good reason. The GTI’s performance is legendary. Wolfsburg’s wizards conjured a front-wheel-drive chassis that rotates like a rear-wheel-driver thanks to an ingenious limited-slip front differential. Driving this fun box is a 210-horsepower, turbo 2.0-liter with a staggering 258 pound-feet of torque. Unleash this puppy on tight roads and it’s more fun than a Platinum Pass at Cedar Point.

With hatchback utility and a refined interior worthy of coaches priced 10 grand higher, the GTI is gift enough for the fun-starved compact car buyer. But like Corvette’s insane Z06, the gonzo Golf R takes GTI to another level.

Is R short for ‘roids? This hormone-fed hot hatch squeezes another 82 horses (292 total) and 280 pound feet of torque out of the same four-cylinders that motivate the GTI. Then it connects this bag of bobcats to the road with a torque-vectoring, all-wheel drive system that grips like a locomotive on rails.

But when I asked Hans Stuck — the legendary German race ace who assisted VW on Golf R development — what he likes best about the R, he replied with a wry grin: “Iss zee brakes.”

Zee man doesn’t lie. On paper, the oversized 13.4-inch front and 12.2-inch rear rotors available only on GTI’s Autobahn Performance Package come standard on the R. On road, stomping the brake pedal feels like someone chucked a boat anchor out the hatch. I took the R out on the twisty Route 78 in the Cuyamaca Mountains east of San Diego. Flinging the R over the gnarly, knotted road took me back to Hell, Michigan’s exquisite Route 32 loop where I last enjoyed Audi’s 2015 Audi A3 — my favorite handling car on last year’s Car of the Year short list.

That’s no coincidence.

Volkswagen owns Audi and the Golf R and A3 dine at the same family dinner table. Same MQB platform. Same AWD system. Same engine block. The A3 shares the GTI’s eager engine while its sister hot rod, the S3, shares the R’s 292-horse rocket. Which is to say, the Golf R is the Audi S3 in sheep’s clothing. Good grief, no wonder this thing has more moves than Derrick Rose.

VW lists the $37,415, base Golf R’s competitors as the $35,290 Subaru WRX STI, $44,025 BMW M235i, and $48,375 Mercedes GLA45 AMG. Obviously, the $42K S3 belongs on that list as well. And the forthcoming Ford Focus RS. That’s rare air.

What makes the R stand out in such company is that it doesn’t stand out.

If I’m an alpha male with 40,000 quid to throw around I want to enter I-696 like I own it. With a gaudy hood scoop and rear wing that looks like it was torn off a World War I biplane, Subaru’s STI comes down the on-ramp like Rickenbacker diving out of the sun. The Focus RS (can’t wait) appears in the rear-view mirror with a maw like a Great White at dinner time. The Audi S3? It wears its four rings on its massive grille like Usain Bolt wears his chest-full of gold medals. The M and the AMG are a Bimmer and a Merc. Say no more. You can smell the expensive cologne.

The R, on the other hand, is the sleeper of the bunch. From a distance it doesn’t look much different than the base Golf. Hmm. … Air-gulping lower gills seem oddly large. The wicked glow of LED running lights. But by the time you’ve digested this information the thing is by you with a bark like a hyena. Hawp! Only then do you see the signature, quad tailpipes receding in the distance. What the hell was that?!

The R, then, is for the speed jockey who doesn’t need a muscle shirt to show off his toned body. The predator who likes to sneak up on his prey. The practical Tasmanian Devil.

I covet the Audi S3, but would happily buy an R — and not because it would save me five grand and a hat-full of speeding tickets (“Don’t tell me, officer. The big Audi grille tip you off again?”). Both all-wheel-drivers would taunt a Detroit blizzard — but the five-door hatchback (a first for R which in previous generations has only been offered as a three-door) is much more utilitarian than the low-roof, cramped rear quarters of the S3 sedan. And VW’s intuitive, touchscreen console will save you the daily torture of the Audi’s rotary dial.

Audi, however, could teach VW a thing or two about marketing.

While the mother ship’s luxury brand has seen rapid growth in the U.S. market, V-dub has stalled. Indeed, Audi’s 182,010 in sales is roughly half VW sales — despite the former being a niche luxury automaker. That’s shocking underperformance for Volkswagen’s signature nameplate.

Did VW miss the boat on SUVs? Are VWs over-engineered for the U.S. market? Do hatchbacks only sell on crossovers? A combination of the above. Witness Audi leading in the shark-eat-shark luxe segment with bold styling, pricing, and segment-busting SUVs. While Audi wowed the compact SUV market with the entry-level Q3, for example, VW is MIA in a fast-growing subcompact segment featuring the Honda HR-V, Mazda CR3, and Chevy Trax.

Ex-Audi communications chief John Schilling has come across the aisle to help solve the mystery. And VW’s invested billions in a new Tennessee plant to churn out crossovers. In the meantime, we can thank them for the Golf. And the Golf GTI. And the Golf R.

Like Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” movie trilogy, each sequel gets better than the last. So will Golf stand pat with the R? Not likely. VW teased a 400-horsepower Golf R400 concept last spring. Please?

2015 Volkswagen Golf R

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

Price: $37,415 base ($39,910 as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbo, inline 4-cylinder

Power: 292 horsepower, 280 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: six-speed DSG automatic or six-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.9 seconds (auto); 155 mph top speed (manufacturer)

Weight: 3,340 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 23 mpg city/30 mpg highway/26 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: AWD all-weather performer; stealth fighter

Lows: Worth the premium over superb GTI?; bigger European console screen, please

Overall:★★★★

 

Cartoon: Measles Science

Posted by hpayne on February 4, 2015

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