Henry Payne Blog

Cartoon: Scotland UK Marriage

Posted by hpayne on September 19, 2014

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Roarin’ RC-F coupe wakes up staid Lexus

Posted by hpayne on September 19, 2014

0905140735262015_Lexus_RC_F_015.jpg Lexus is perennially near the top of JD Power's quality ratings. It led a torrid luxury market with the summer's hottest sales gains. Its Lexus EX350 crossover is so prevalent in upscale Naples retirement communities, locals call it "the official vehicle of Florida." Satisfying. Durable. Predictable. Yet Toyota's luxe brand isn't satisfied. Now it wants to be exciting. Mom, hide Dad's retirement savings because Lexus wants to fill the other garage spot with a ground-thumping, ear-shredding, two-door, $70,000 temptress. It makes Homer's Sirens sound like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Lexus dubs it the RC-F. But they want you to think Sex-us. Inspired by Toyota President Akio Toyoda himself — the motor-head grandson of the company's founder — the racy-looking, racy-sounding RC-F wants to wipe your memory banks of boring ol' Lexus design. Akio wants performance. Akio wants style.Akio wants to take on the vaunted BMW M4. What Akio wants, Akio gets. And the Lexus team has have never had more fun. The immediate descendant of the LF-A supercar, the RC-F is the wildest looking luxury coupe this side of the Jetsons' ride. Based on the RC350 coupe version of the IS350 sedan, the RC-F is another in the maddening alphanumeric alphabet soup that has overrun luxury brands. But if you must, I would have named it OMG-F. Japanese luxe makers have struggled with their design language for decades. Acurahad it, lost it, and is now trying the 10-spider eyes approach. The Infiniti Q50's pinched grille looks like Baby Herman's cheeks. Lexus opened as a Mercedes clone in 1989 then settled on boredom. Determined to recast itself as a performance brand, Lexus' new design goes for shock value. In so doing they have thrown the kitchen sink at the RC. The huge, black, hour-glass front spindle grille comes at you like a locomotive cowcatcher. Six LED spider eyes light up the corners. We homo sapiens look for our reflection in our cars. We expect their fascias to be anthropomorphic. Human-like. But the RC-F resists. If anything, that spindly maw looks like a villain's mask. Like the Winter Soldier's dark veil in "Captain America" or Batman nemesis Bane's breathing device. If BMW and Mercedes are the handsome superheroes, then the RC-F is the mad samurai determined to create chaos in our orderly, German-dominated, performance luxury world. Heck, even Lexus coupe ads feature Wes Bentley, the actor who chillingly played Blackheart, the son of Mephistopheles, alongside Nick Cage in "Ghost Rider." In truth, however, the genius of Lexus design is it that it looks like a sculpted weapon. It drips with sci-fi menace. Its bug-zapper grille is shaped by two arrowheads that punctuate the car's heavily creased sides. The headlights echo the Lexus "L" logo. Two trim lights immediately underneath the headlights are also L-shaped. Out back, the coupe is curiously derivative of Scion's (Toyota's youth brand) affordable FR-S sports car. Separated at birth, you might say. A reminder that the RC coupe is aimed at a younger, 40-49 demographic. You a 20-something with an FR-S? You might aspire to the Lexus one day. Double the cylinders, double the fun. These Toyota planners are shrewd. But even Lexus has to learn. As good as the RC-F is, it has has some learnin' to do. Take the base RC350. Please. On the outside, this sleigh is a looker. Where the F's face is a spindled web of terror, its less expensive sister ($42,950 base) is chrome heaven. So bejeweled is the RC that it recalls the 1950s Caddys right down to the little fog lights on its skirt (where the Caddy's chrome bumper would have been). All that's missing is a — AWOOOGAHHHH! — horn on the front fender. Like Cinderella on her way to the ball, the dazzle isn't confined to the face. The RC'sfigure is full of swoops and folds. Its taillights extend beyond the bodywork like the tail-fin lights of yore. You'll want to drive this one to the valet and leave it at the curb for everyone to ogle. You have arrived. Alas, the RC350's beauty is skin deep. The ballroom floor is full of svelte coupes: The BMW 4-series, Audi A5, the athletic new Cadillac ATS coupe. All are taut, quick, athletic dancers. The 3,750-pound RC, by contrast, is less sure-footed. One wrong turn and she'll step on your toes. The steering is light compared to the best-in-class ATS and BMW coupes. Its body roll (watch that diet) more noticeable. The interior is a beautiful landscape of materials — leather, wood — but the Lexus skimps on details that will stand out like CyndiLauper at a Junior League meeting. Where e-brakes have become standard in this high-tech club, the Lexus prefers an old-fashioned, foot brake. Pickup chic? Like the European luxe makers, the coupe eschews the American-car touchscreen (my preference, but then I have freakishly long arms). But rather than a dial, Lexus introduces a cool, mouse-like touch pad. Cool in theory, buggy in practice. I found it almost unworkable over New York roads (my finger dancing across the haptic surface with every road bump), and merely maddening when parked. Buick-like, Lexus decorates the skin with glued-on, non-functional strakes. Details, details. Lexus RC350 2.0 (how's that for an alphanumeric badge?) will be better. But where Lexus has the details right is on the RC-F. Make that eight details. Challenged by stringent international fuel emission rules, the coupe class has gone turbo. Glorious Caddy 4-bangers with kick-in-seat low-end torque. Blown BMW sixes with more power than Zeus. But where are the trumpets? Thank you, RC-F for putting the soundtrack back in luxury. The 5.0-liter, 467-horsepower V-8 is the best music this side of a Jaguar F-Type — but for 30 grand less. Heck, it deserves consideration with my favorite Corvette C7. Same price. Same horsepower. Two more seats. So you can bring your pals along for the ride. On Monticello Raceway's spectacular, 4.1-mile roller-coaster track east of New York, the big, 4,000-pound (psst, Lexus that's the same weight as a Dodge Challenger R/T) even has the personality of a C7 and F-Type — all throaty roars and dazzling power slides. The terrific, rev-matching, eight-speed auto tranny almost made me forget the absence of a stick (a relic of the 20th century). Jerry Seinfeld keeps his Porsche collection at Monticello. I don't think he'll be interested in the Lexus. But arrive behind him at the same restaurant in your RC-F, rev the V8, and I guarantee heads will swivel. What the F? That's a Lexus? 2015 Lexus RC Coupe Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear or all-wheel-drive, four-passenger sports coupe Price: $43,715 base RC350 ($76,565 RC-F V-8 as tested) Power plant: 3.5-liter direct-injection 6-cylinder; or 5.0-liter direct injection 8-cylinder Power: 306 horsepower, 277 pound-feet of torque (V-6); 467 horsepower, 389 pound-feet of torque (V-8) Transmission: Eight-speed automatic (RWD); Six-speed automatic (AWD) Performance: 0-60 mph: 4.4 seconds (RC-F). Top speed: 170 mph (electronically limited) Weight: RC350: 3,748 pounds; RC-F: 3,958 (AWD add 143 lbs.) Fuel economy: EPA 19 mpg city/28 mpg highway/22 combined (RWD V-6); 16 mpg city/25mpg highway/19 combined (RWD V-8) Report card Highs: Howling V8; Wicked styling Lows: Emergency foot brake; porky

Cartoon: Space Taxi

Posted by hpayne on September 17, 2014

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Cartoon: Go Pro Slide

Posted by hpayne on September 17, 2014

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Cartoon: ISIS Obamacare

Posted by hpayne on September 17, 2014

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Cartoon: Apple Watch Car

Posted by hpayne on September 15, 2014

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Cartoon: Iraq U-Turn Obama

Posted by hpayne on September 15, 2014

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Q&Auto: Ohio basketball star-turned-Acura TLX czar

Posted by hpayne on September 13, 2014

'It goes back to Mr. Honda's philosophy that we have to manufacture cars in the countries where they are sold,' says Mat Hargett.
It goes back to Mr. Honda's philosophy that we have to manufacture cars in the countries where they are sold,' says Mat Hargett. )
You know LeBron James. But the Cleveland Cavaliers’ prodigal son isn’t the only 6’8” sensation to come out of northern Ohio. Mat Hargett played his high school basketball in Cleveland before anchoring Ohio Northern University’s defense for four years as a shot-swatting center. LeBron was drafted by native Cleveland. Hergett hung up his uniform and took an electrical engineering degree to home team Acura.

Home-team Acura?

That a corn-fed, All-American boy from Ohio is development chief for Honda’s luxury division tells you a lot about the sprawling global auto market. Like GM’s German-based Opel division, Acura is an exclusive North American nameplate not sold in its parent company’s home country. Acura headquarters are in California, while Ohio is home to Acura production.

Call it the United States of Acura. Long before Chrysler was “imported from Detroit,” Acura was “imported from Ohio.” It is a Japanese brand made in America, sold to Americans, run by Americans.

Like Hargett. The imposing, ex-hardwood star is the luxury maker’s vice president for development in Raymond, Ohio. He works under another Midwest prodigy, Indiana-born, Purdue-trained, Acura chief Erik Berkman. The 23-year Honda veteran Hargett is the first electrical engineer to lead a product development team, guiding the superb 2015 Acura TLX to market this summer.

At the TLX’s introduction in Bay Harbor, Michigan, I spoke at length with Hargett about Acura-merica.

“It goes back to Mr. Honda’s philosophy that we have to manufacture cars in the countries where they are sold,” says Hargett.

Upon graduation, Hargett was intrigued by the Japanese automaker. “I was told that if you worked in Honda and had an idea for a new position that you could go straight to the president. I couldn’t believe it,” he remembers. “(It) was true. If you want to make a proposal it doesn’t matter if you are Japanese or American. One journalist referred to it as ‘controlled chaos’ which I’m not sure is the correct term. But there’s not a lot of rank here.”

Hargett’s development of the Acura TLX began in 2009 as soon as his team finished the last generation TL.

“We knew right away we were going to replace the car,” says Hargett who began the TLX development process like a startup venture. It was just him and a sheet of paper. From his Ohio office outside Columbus, he began assembling a core team of designers, engineers, and technicians.

It made for long hours and travel to Acura’s Los Angeles-area HQ. “(It) was tough on my wife,” he laments of the time away from family. But he was no stranger to long days after a collegiate career spent juggling an electrical engineering degree with a full basketball schedule.

“I got made fun of a little bit on road trips because I’d be studying on the bus until 1 AM,” he recounts. “After a three-hour practice every day ... I’d do a 7-to-midnight study kill in the library. Sometimes I’d fall asleep and I wouldn’t wake up until 2 or 3 in the morning.”

As the TLX project gained steam it also gained international scope. Auto production is an extraordinarily complex web of suppliers and assembly lines that spans continents and languages. The Acura was designed in L.A., its base 2.4-liter engine developed in Japan, its 3.5-liter powerplant made in Ohio, its 9-speed transmission developed by ZF in Germany, then ... well, let Hargett explain:

“The transmission was then produced in South Carolina, assembled at our engine plant in Anna, Ohio, then transferred to final assembly in Marysville, Ohio.”

“There is so much technology in the car that we can’t do it all ourselves,” he continues. “But I’d say 95 percent of the work is done here. The TLX was developed in the U.S. by our team.”

The sedan is an enormously important product for Acura as it tries to restore lost U.S. market mojo. In typical fashion, Honda has trusted the heavy lifting to its state-side crew. Hargett marvels at being the first EE to lead such a colossal management enterprise.

“A lot of the car is electrified today from the console to the drivetrain,” he says. “Electronics have changed cars dramatically.”

Emerging from the front seat of the TLX, the slim Hargett is all knees and elbows. We swap stories of our college-playing days (all us 6’5”-plus freaks play ball, you know). Does he still play?

“I don’t play much anymore due to herniated discs in my back,” says the 44 year old. “But we do have a fitness center that opened on our R&D campus just a year or so ago with a full basketball court.”

Who knows? Maybe LeBron will shoot an Acura commercial there some day.

 

Cartoon: Obama Election Hold

Posted by hpayne on September 12, 2014

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SRT wannabe: Dodge Dart GT

Posted by hpayne on September 11, 2014

After hours in a local Dodge dealership, I imagine the conversation goes like this:

Challenger SRT Hellcat: Okay, kid, ya gotta get the guys’ attention tomorrow. The boy racers. You know, stir their testosterone. I want you to let out a primal roar. VHHRRROOOOOOOOM! Got it? You try.

Dart GT: Grrrr.

Hellcat: Oh, dear.

The Dodge Dart GT may not be ready to run with the hot hatch crowd — much less its rowdy siblings — but give it time. Chrysler’s first foray into the compact car performance segment — indeed, the first GT since the 1960s Dart — carries enormous potential for both Chrysler and Dodge as they sort out their new family identities.

When Dart first hit dealer lots in 2012, Dodge was a mainstream brand and Chrysler had upscale aspirations. All that changed with Fiat-Chrysler’s May 5-year plan which returns Chrysler to its rightful place as the company’s family brand and gives Dodge free license to explore its wild side.

Dodge dumped its minivan and Avenger models, married SRT, and began spawning ferocious demons like the Challenger SRT Hellcat and Charger SRT Hellcat. From its corner bed, the compact Dart was wide-eyed.

Back in the troubles of 2009 — after the White House auto task force identified Fiat as the best match for an ill Chrysler’s blood transfusion — the Dart got the nod as the first state-side model based on an Italian platform. Dodge meet Alfa Romeo Giulietta.

Dart’s target was as much Washington bureaucrats as consumers. Dodge had dusted off the popular Dart name — dormant since 1976 — to erase memories of its woeful predecessor, the Caliber, and resurrect the brand’s compact car sales. But Fiat first had to satisfy President Obama’s resurrection demands. That is, Fiat had to guarantee a 40 mpg Dart with a U.S-made engine before it could take majority share of the Auburn Hills-based company.

Forget horsepower. Dodge engineers poured their talents into a 41 mpg, Michigan-made, 1.4-liter turbo to go with Dart’s standard 2.0 and 2.4-liter engines. Its press release boasted of “fuel efficiency” no less than 11 times.

In Dart’s second year of production GT came to market as an afterthought. In a female-heavy segment, it was a nod to the guys — a sportily-outfitted upgrade to the SXT-trimmed 2.4 liter. Original plans for a raucous R/T had been shelved. The targeted demographic was small, they said. Better to concentrate on the base model, they said. The conservative GT was born.

That was then, this is now. There’s no room for “conservative” in the new Dodge. Not with motorhead CEO Tim Kuniskis in the driver’s seat.

No sooner had the burnout smoke cleared from Kunikis’s introduction of the supercharged Challenger SRT Hellcat this summer than he unveiled a Hellcat version of Dodge’s four-door “family” sedan, the Charger. I’m not making this up. True to Dodge’s reborn performance mission, you can now smoke BMWs out of Woodward stoplights while taking the kids to school. Indeed, the family sedan beats the Challenger Hellcat to a quarter mile (11.0 seconds vs. 11.2).

“No kid ever grew up with a poster of a Passat on his wall,” Kuniskis likes to say.

If Dodge is making SRT family sedans, it must have plans for the Dart. Sure enough, buried in General Kuniskis five-year plan for world domination is a 2017 Dodge SRT Dart.

Due in late 2016, Dodge promises a tattooed, all-wheel drive Dart with a blown 4-cylinder engine and more steroids than Barry Bonds’ bathroom cabinet. Subaru WRX and VW Golf R, check your mirrors.

Challenger SRT Hellcat: Good lord, what happened to you?

Dart SRT (gnawing on a VW GTI wishbone): ’Sup, brother? Wanna go pick on some Mustangs?

Okay, I’m getting waaaay ahead of ourselves. That’s 2017. What to make of the 2014 Dart GT?

The nimble, roomy compact portends good things not just for Dodge but for the compact Chrysler 100 — due in 2016 — that will also carry the Dart’s DNA.

In sharing Dart’s 2.4-liter four-banger with the high-volume SXT model, the GT surrendered its claim to the pocket rocket class where compact sharks like the $30K VW GTI and Focus ST get their own high-output drivetrains. Instead, the GT swims in the same pool as the cheaper Hyundai Elantra GT or Toyota Corolla S. That is, they get sexy hard bodies but without the speed.

The upside is the down-market price. For customers who don’t want to pay a 30 grand pocket rocket premium, the $23,000 Dart GT offers beauty without the beast.

Still, the Dart’s Tigershark engine, also found in the Chrysler 200, is no slouch. Its 184 ponies offer a much punchier ride than Elantra and Corolla peers — and is on par with the excellent Mazda 3’s 2.5-liter mill. Promisingly for future generations, the chassis rivals the renowned Mazda in handling. Oh, yeah. A perfectly-weighted electronic, rack-mounted steering and taut chassis make the front-wheel driver a joy to throw around Michigan’s twisty roads.

Inside, the Dart GT really struts it stuff. The compact’s simple, intuitive dials-and-touch screen controls pioneered the best-in-class interior found in the new, midsize 200. Digital, configurable instrument cluster, 8.4-inch touchscreen, soft dash materials, graceful design. Now imagine the next-gen Dart with a Chrysler 100 badge and you have a dynamic duo in the showroom.

One of the roomiest, most affordable cars in class, Dart has seen climbing sales (a record August), glowing reviews, and (crucially) improved J.D. Power ratings — if not yet in the class of Toyota and Hyundai.

To complete its graduation in two years to SRT hellion, the GT needs a styling upgrade from punk to prince. The genes are there. The car’s current snub-nosed, big-butt stance is so 15 minutes ago. Look to its sibling Alfa Giulietta hot hatch for makeover tips. Think swept-back fascia (heck, even the Charger SRT’s elegant nose will do), raked windscreen, and sporty hot hatch.

The Dart GT is the perfect platform for Chrysler family success. I can hear voices in the dealer showroom now. . .

Challenger SRT Hellcat: Ummmm, thanks, by the way, for showing us all how to do classy interiors. How do you like my cool new dashboard bezel?

Dart GT: Not bad. You got my style. Now, would you mind if I borrowed your drivetrain for tonight?

2014 Dodge Dart GT

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, four-door sedan Price: $20,995 base ($23,735 as tested) Power plant: 2.4-liter, 16-valve, inline 4-cylinder Power: 184 horsepower, 174 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Six-speed automatic Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.7 seconds (Motor Trend) Weight: 3,215 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 22 mpg city/31 mpg highway/26 mpg combined Highs: Nimble handling; Award-winning interior Lows: Jerky six-speed; Hot hatch, please Overall:★★★

Cartoon: Self Drive Caddy

Posted by hpayne on September 9, 2014

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Cartoon: Nude Celebs Minnie

Posted by hpayne on September 8, 2014

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Rein-car-nation: 2014 BMW M235i vs. 2001 BMW M3

Posted by hpayne on September 6, 2014

Do you believe in reincarnation?

Last month my favorite, 2001 BMW M3 reappeared in my driveway calling itself an M235i. I nearly called Shirley MacClaine’s agent. What does she know about rein-car-nation? Pun intended.

BMW enthusiasts have been griping in recent years that the celebrated M3 (now called an M4, I’ll explain) has gotten, well, fat. Not Marlon Brando fat. Barry Bonds fat. Muscle-bound. Loaded up on steroids. Look close at those headlamps . . . do I detect a hint of yellow? It’s a fighter jets on wheels. But a long way from the nimble, tossable E36 and E46 M3s that defined performance luxury at the turn of the century.

BMW didn’t reach the pinnacle of performance luxury by sticking cotton in its ears, of course. It’s heard the grumblings. So it added the M235i to the menu. It’s one tasty heisse-wurst.

We interrupt this review for a brief word on nomenclature. The 2-series is the latest update of the Bavarian automaker’s new, even-odd, sedan-coupe nomenclature. Odd numbers are sedans, even numbers coupes. So the once 3-series is now exclusively four-doors, and the two-doors are segregated as 4-series. Thus the M4 – formerly the M3.

Got it? Good.

So when the Bavarian automaker introduced the 2-series to the U.S. this year, the M-badged M235i would seem to be the logical next step of an M performance vehicle. Except it’s not. The M235i is a tweener. A stepping stone. A product of BMW’s separate M performance division, but without the total, full-moon transformation from base coupe into a howling M2 werewolf.

“It’s the first type of this M package that we’ve introduced,” explains BMW spokesman Dave Buchko. “It’s not a full blown M.”

A full-blown M, you see, would get lighter suspension components bolted directly to sub-frame, aluminum-center hubs, carbon fiber body panels, carbon fiber driveshaft, heat-seeking missiles (just kidding). The works.

Though BMW is mum, the M2 is coming, rest assured. Complete with $10,000 premium. In the meantime, however, enthusiasts get a cheaper M235i with suspension, brake, and steering upgrades - that make your hairs stand on end. Just like the M3 of old.

How alike? Consider:

The 2001 M3 featured a 3.2-liter straight-6 cylinder with 333 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque. The 2014 M235i? 3.0-liter straight-6 turbo with 320 horsepower, 330 pound-feet. - Where the 2015 M4 has expanded to 184.5 inches long and 73.6 inches wide, its older, 2001 sibling is eight inches shorter and just 70.1 inches wide. Ditto the M235i (174.5 inches wide, 69.8 across).

- 0-60 seconds? Both trip the wire at 4.8 seconds.

- Both feature stability control, 18-inch rims, battery in the trunk.

- Price? The base M3 cost $46,045 in 2001. The base M235i stickers for $43,100.

But that similarity is actually the most striking dissimilarity. Get out your inflation adjust-o-meter and the old M3 would set you back $61,076 in today’s dollars (at $63k the new M4 is not far off). So for nearly 20 grand less, you get the M3 reborn as an M235i.

And more.

The M235i’s turbo packs 25 percent more torque and 40 percent better fuel economy. This six is a caged bull. Kick the stirrups and hold tight the reins. The twin-scroll turbo delivers peak torque at just 1300 RPM.

I admit nostalgia for the manual, non-turbo, high-revving, 106-horsepower-per-liter six of old (Pop Quiz: In 2001 what other normally-aspirated engines were in the 100-ponies per liter club?*). Its glorious, raspy exhaust note at 8000 RPM crescendo should have a Grammy. But you have to rev high to go fast. Not the turbo.

Never mind those 0-60 numbers. In my fender-to-fender stoplight tests, the M235i trampled the M3 every time (I tested against both the 2001 coupe and the heavier convertible, which clocks 0-60 in 5.1 seconds). Credit the M235i’s dynamic duo of turbo and lightning-fast, paddle-shifted, 8-speed, automatic transmission.

Fun, of course, returns lousy fuel economy — your scribe’s daily, lead-footed antics returned (ahem) 13 mpg. More sensible driving will get you EPA-rated 25 mpg (and fewer traffic tickets), an improvement over the old nail’s 17 mpg.

Chassis and suspension advances also allow the new, nimbler Bimmer to achieve .97 skid pad g-loads compared to the M3’s .87. This despite the M235i’s extra 100 pounds over the 3,415-pound M3 (though less than the porky 3,835-lb. convertible) – courtesy of a decade’s blizzard of safety regulations. Metal forming has advanced as well, however, and the new M is more gorgeous than ever. The hips are sleeker, the lower front air nostrils more menacing, the headlights more alluring.

I’ll have to look into this reincarnation stuff. Maybe I’ll come back as Helio Castroneves.

*Answer: The Honda S200 and Ferrari 360 Modena

2014 BMW M235i

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, four-passenger sports coupe Price: $44,025 base ($46,575 as tested) Power plant: 3.0-liter turbocharged 6-cylinder Power: 320 horsepower, 330 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Eight-speed automatic with paddle-shifters Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.8 seconds (manufacturer) Weight: 3,535 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 22 mpg city/32 mpg highway/25 mpg combined Highs: Aggressive styling; white-knuckle acceleration Lows: Ticket magnet Overall:★★★★ Excellent ★★★★ Good ★★★ Fair ★★ Poor ★

2001 BMW M3

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, four-passenger sports coupe Price: $46,045 base ($52,995 coupe as tested) Power plant: 3.2-liter dual-overhead cam 6-cylinder Power: 333 horsepower, 262 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Six-speed manual Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.8 seconds (manufacturer) Weight: 3,415 pounds (coupe); 3,838 pounds (convertible) Fuel economy: EPA 15 mpg city/22 mpg highway/17 mpg combined (revised from 2001 figures: 16 mpg city/24 mpg highway/19 mpg combined) Highs: Sticks like glue; 8,000 RPM symphony of sound Lows: Ticket magnet Overall:★★★★

Cartoon: School

Posted by hpayne on September 4, 2014

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Cartoon: Auto Sales Boom

Posted by hpayne on September 4, 2014

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Cartoon: Joan Rivers RIP

Posted by hpayne on September 4, 2014

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TLX makes Acura X-citing again

Posted by hpayne on September 4, 2014

Behold the irrepressible X.

Once the most neglected letter in the English dictionary. Once the mark of illiterates. Once only whispered in close quarters like “It’s X-rated” or “Hey, pal, XYZ.” Now it is proudly displayed from every facade in America. X-Men, X Factor, X Games, Xbox, Brand X. My cable company wants me to buy Xfinity. I apply Rain-X to my windshield. The No. 24 letter in the alphabet is No. 1 in the hearts of marketers everywhere.

In the auto industry X branding is an epidemic. SRX, XTS, Model X, xB, MKX, XL, XF, XJ, XC60, XC90, X1, X3, Xenophobia (okay, not that last one — but it would make a fine product for import haters).

X is the mark of youth, sportiness, edginess. But not necessarily success. Lincoln MKX hasn’t X-actly set the world on fire. Scion’s X-line may soon X-pire. And Acura’s X-vehicles haven’t X-ited either.
Until now. The MDX was 2013’s hottest luxury SUV in the scorching, midsize SUV segment with a 29 percent sales jump vaulting it to No. 3 behind — what else? — the RX and SRX from Lexus and Cadillac, respectively. With Acura’s small RDX a sales hit too, Acura wants to translate ute sales gains to its moribund sedan lineup.

Say hello to the new, 2015 Acura TLX. It is X-cellent.

The Acura is an All-American, designed and built in the USA. TLX product chief and former Ohio Northern U. basketball star Mat Hargett assembled a team of California designers and Ohio engineers to compete against the world’s best. With a fresh game plan, the imposing, 6’8” Hargett hopes to replay Acura’s sedan glory days.

Returns to fundamentals

It was just ten years ago that the Acura TL was the No. 2 best-selling, small lux four-door in the U.S. — its 71,000 in sales trailing only the vaunted BMW 3-series. “I think in 2005 the TL took the market by storm with great technology and stylish looks at an affordable price,” Hargett told me at a TLX test flog through Northern Michigan.

With the TLX, the Acura returns to those fundamentals after a series of marketing and styling miscues.

 Alphabet soup lineup

Despite doubling its entry lux offerings — the TL was joined by the TSX — Acura’s sales fell by half since 2005. By replacing the bigger TL and smaller TSX, the TLX is Acura’s focus against the 3-series, Audi A4, and Cadillac ATS. The GLX fights on in the midsize category, while the Honda Civic-based ILX — launched in 2013 — tries to wrestle entry-level lux buyers from the Audi A3 and Mercedes CLA.

Okay, so Acura’s model lineup is an alphabet soup. So counting by numbers (Audi’s A3, A4, A5, for example) makes more sense. So at least Acura, like Cadillac, has learned the glories of plastic surgery.

While Caddy has leaned its bulges with liposuction, Acura got a nose job. Remember the beak? The previous generation TL’s signature chrome grille was variously compared to a parrot’s bill, a buck-toothed bumpkin, or a locomotive cow-catcher. None of them flattering.

'Red carpet athlete'

The TLX’s new honker would make a Hollywood plastic surgeon proud. The softened septum concentrates attention on the eyes. And the TLX peepers are a marvel. Like the MDX and GLX before it, the TLX gets 10 — ten! — “Jewel Eye” LED headlights. These are celebrity spectacles. Elton John would kill for these rims. Bono, get yourself an Acura.

Maybe the celebrity specs are why Acura press materials refer to the TLX as a “red carpet athlete.” But lux can’t live on looks alone. Indeed, the $30,000-$40,000 sedan segment has become the industry’s fiercest battleground.

We’ve had this conversation before. Earlier this year, I compared a $44,000, AWD Audi A4 with a $36,000 AWD Ford Fusion Titanium. Both 4-banger turbos. Both leather. But with the premium Fusion packing similar options to the Audi, it was hard to justify the extra cash unless you are brand obsessed.

So too the Acura TLX. At $31,890 base it compares nicely to a $33,700, starter BMW 3-series. But compare to its sibling Honda Accord — made on the same platform in Marysville, Ohio — and the math gets ugly. Observe: A loaded $35,025 TLX comes with a 206-horsepower, 2.4-liter, 4-cylinder (what, no turbo?) engine, while a $32,910 2014 Accord is topped up with nav, driver assists, and a throaty, 276-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6.

Whoa. You’ve gotta be seriously hypnotized by the Acura’s headlights — look into my eyes-eyes-eyes-eyes-eyes — to justify the lux brand.

Step up to Acura’s tech package, however, and the TLX value gets X-citing. Beginning at $41K, Acura offers its so-called Super Handling-All Wheel Drive option. That’s a TLX SH-AWD, FYI. A mouthful, but the SH-AWD system is worth every letter. It’s one of the best in the business.

Fan boys of Subaru’s torque-vectoring, 38-grand WRX STI take note. If you want a refined luxury ride to go with your sensational handling, the TLX is your cup o’ nitro. Acura was an early pioneer of the AWD system that speeds up the outer wheel — while slowing inner ones — to assist rotation through corners. So Michigan drivers can not only tear up twisty, Up North roads like M-119 in summertime — they can also conquer winter snows.

Against its formidable BMW 328i and Audi A4 classmates, the TLX more than held its own. Its AWD is superior to the Audi and the equal of BMW’s X-Drive (I told you this X thing is outta control) system. Though exhibiting more body roll than BMW’s superb chassis, the TLX rotates through corners with savage aplomb.

Inside the hushed cabins, space is surprisingly plentiful. With smaller entry-lux vehicles like the A3 and ILX in play, our test class has been given room to grow. The backseats of the TLX, 328i, and A4 all nicely accommodated my 6-foot-5-inch frame (Hargett the Giant was still pinched), a clear improvement from previous generations.

In interior quality, the Acura again beats the Audi — if not BMW’s gorgeous trim and architecture. But the Acura’s twin infotainment screens are more intuitive — and TLX is wired with tech-savvy blind spot warning, lane assist, brake assist — everything but X-ray vision.

Bottom line? The BMW is prettier, a hair-more-agile, less-user friendly for 52 grand — or a whopping $6K more than the Acura.

How much is a brand name worth? Which car do you want to park at the country club? You’ll have to answer those questions yourself. The TLX deserves your X-amination. And it’s just in time for Xmas.

2015 Acura TLX

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front or all-wheel-drive, five-passenger sports coupe Price: $31,890 base ($46,685 AWD V-6 as tested) Power plant: 3.5-liter direct-injection 6-cylinder; 2.4-liter direct injection 4-cylinder Power: 290 horsepower, 267 pound-feet of torque (V-6); 206 horsepower, 182 pound-feet of torque (4-cyl) Transmission: Nine-speed automatic Performance: 0-60 mph: 6.0 seconds (est. for V-6). Top speed: 125 mph (governor limited) Weight: 3,774 pounds (AWD V-6) Fuel economy: EPA 21 mpg city/31 mpg highway/25 combined (AWD V-6); 24 mpg city/35 mpg highway/28 combined (4-cyl) Highs: Tech-savvy; awed by SH-AWD Lows: Bland rear styling; Turbo-4, please Overall:★★★★

 

Cartoon: Arctic Gore

Posted by hpayne on September 3, 2014

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Cartoon: Sharpton Liaison

Posted by hpayne on September 3, 2014

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Q&Auto: The design guru behind Caddy’s curves

Posted by hpayne on August 30, 2014

Cadillac Director of Exterior Design Bob Boniface stands with the new ATS coupe. Cadillac Director of Exterior Design Bob Boniface stands with the new ATS coupe. (Henry Payne / The Detroit News)

The Woodward Dream Cruise is a rolling art museum, showcase for an age when American design ruled the continent. Masterpieces include 1950s Cadillac Eldorados with jet-aircraft-inspired tailfins swimming like sharks through an urban ocean. Drawn by legendary GM designer Harley Earl, these sculpted vessels symbolized American post-WW2 optimism.

After decades in the wilderness, that Caddy swagger is back.

Cadillac Director of Exterior Design Bob Boniface and his team are producing tomorrow’s classics today: The imposing Cadillac Escalade, elegant CTS (2013 Detroit News Vehicle of the Year), and sensual 2015 ATS Coupe.

As agile as they are beautiful, these vehicles stand with the best of BMW and Mercedes. The CTS and ATS are the sum of Cadillac’s decade-long design resurgence. They are bold. All-American. The product of a design chief who has sketched cars since he was a tike on a trike. His credits include Jeep Liberty and Chevy’s Volt. Get him talking about cars, and the soft-spoken 48-year-old is a kid again, reeling off his favorite designs. I sat down with Boniface in Litchfield, Connecticut to talk about the ATS, tail fins, and the Cruise.

Q: The Art & Science design language has matured since the breakthrough 2002 CTS. What changed?

Boniface: In the late 1990s we introduced a concept car called the Evoq. That car pointed the way toward Art & Science design language with a lot of creases. The CTS which was the first production car to use that language. I think it was the right thing at the time . . . to say that this was a different kind of Cadillac. It got people’s attention. But it was a severe design language. Since then we’ve taken the things that are good about it: The vertical light signature, the shield-shaped grille, the precise creases on the car. We’ve kept these but the surfacing between the creases is more sophisticated. (The cars) are prettier now.

Q: This is a conscious decision to evolve the design language?

BB: Yes. And in the case of the ATS Coupe, we listened to the customer. We had an earlier version which is more severe with a lot more wedge and rake to the belt. The side body was thicker. The grille . . . more severe. Customers told us that it looked heavy, inefficient - it didn’t look fun to drive. So we brought that information back to the studio and we took as much visual mass out of the car as we could.

Q: Look at the luxury segment today and there seems to be a German style, a Japanese style. Is there an American style of design?

BB: I think so. Our cars are very American. A lot of it is the vertical light signature, front and rear. They aren’t tail fins, but it harkens back to that - the blade-like corners of the . . . late ‘60s and ‘70s. We own that vertical light signature. It’s not everyone’s taste, but we’ve evolved it to the point that it’s very tasteful.

Q: The ATS is made for international markets. How much do pedestrian safety standards influence the front of the car?

BB: Quite a bit. Fortunately . . . we can pay for things on a Cadillac. We put pyrotechnics on the hinge of the hood (Ed. note: in Europe) so if a pedestrian’s head hits the hood, they’ll be safe. But it is a minefield on the front of the car: The sensors, the cooling requirements, the pedestrian safety requirement . . . . That’s why I’m so happy the car looks like a Cadillac because if you just followed the letter of the law – and we do – you could very easily come up with a very generic, jellybean front end.

Q: What distinguishes a luxury design from a mainstream design?

BB: Proportions. Detail. Cadillacs – with the exception of the XTS - are rear-drive vehicles. The wheels are forward, the windshield is back, the rear overhang is longer. The cars have this swept-back feeling. The details – that’s where the money is. The details on the headlamp, the machining on the wheels, even the brake calipers. (The luxury segment) is more than transportation. Cadillacs are a means of self-expression.

Q: At the Dream Cruise, what stands out to you?

BB: The designs that stand the test of time: The ‘60s American designs. Look at, say a 1966 Impala, or a ‘69 Camaro or a ‘69 Super Bee. They were basically stylized boxes – but, the subtlety of surfacing to get light to cascade across the body . . . are just beautiful. It’s harder today to design a car because of all the regulatory pressure — the pedestrian safety, the fuel economy rules, the crash-worthiness. But we have materials to do those things. Back then, they basically had a body on frame and wrapped sheet metal around it. They had to make a big ol’ box look good and they did.