Henry Payne Blog

Cartoon: NFL Overtime Rules

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 27, 2022

Payne: Chevy Trailblazer Activ compact SUV offers pickup versatility

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 27, 2022

Inside the Chevy Trailblazer Activ is a GMC Sierra AT4 wanting to get out.

Over Christmas, I had the $65,000 AT4 beauty in my driveway (Chevy sells a similar Silverado Trail Boss): all-terrain tires, 6 1/2-foot bed, Multi-Pro tailgate. I hauled my Christmas tree home in it, tore around Metro Detroit’s ox-cart roads without a care in the world.

The 2022 Chevy Trailblazer Activ is the rugged version of the Trailblazer with bigger tires, all-wheel-drive and a white, sporty roof design.

Then along came a Trailblazer Activ that could have done the same thing for half the price.

Off-road capable SUVs are all the rage these days, led by the cage match between the Ford Bronco and Jeep Wrangler. But you don’t have to don the full, lifted, ladder-frame, 33-inch tire, tree-chewing wardrobe to be tough.

My $32K tester rode on meaty high-profile Hankook all-seasons that absorbed every shock area roads threw at them. While not lifted to the sky like big brother Sierra, the GM mighty-mite would have fared just fine on dirt roads, too.

The 2022 Chevy Trailblazer Activ is a compact SUV with excellent interior space in the second row - and good cargo room throughout.

I didn’t need to traverse a dirt road to get my Christmas tree, but having a GMC pickup bed made life easy at Orchard Lake’s English Gardens nursery, where I just tossed a 7-foot tree into the bed. No straining to put the tree on the roof. No fear of it falling off. No fiddling with string.

The Trailblazer didn’t have a bed, but it had a flat-folding front seat, one of my favorite auto features. The Trailblazer’s front seat performs the same trick as its Chevy Trax and Buick Encore kin: It’ll flatten forward as well as recline backward. That means — with the middle seats flat — you can put objects up to 8 1/2 feet long under the wee Chevy’s roof. Hello, Christmas tree.

The 2022 Chevy Trailblazer Activ can drop the front right seat in order to make a full-lenth interior cargo space - kind of like in interior pickup bed.

Of course, that means you’ll have to vacuum a few needles, unlike with the Sierra’s bed. But the Trailblazer comes standard with a roof, so you don’t have to worry about the tree getting wet.

Speaking of roofs, Trailblazer went about its hauling duties in style like the AT4.

The Activ is distinguished by a white top and white-capped mirrors that remind of a Mini Cooper. It’s a nice touch and helps divert attention from the dog’s breakfast Chevy face. Were GMC to do a version of the Trailblazer (GMC builds a Terrain equivalent of Chevy’s Equinox, but nothing smaller) with its classic upright grille, it would be a knockout.

The Mini Cooper look does give the Trailblazer the appearance of a hot hatch and — typical of Chevy vehicles — the ute is no slouch in the performance department. I enjoyed flinging the AWD box around Oakland County’s lake roads, its peppy 1.3-liter turbo engine growling happily under competent management by GM’s nine-speed transmission. When it’s not impersonating a Sierra pickup, the Trailblazer wants to be a Camaro apparently.

The family traits benefit the junior Chevy.

GMC Sierra and Chevy Silverado were knocked this generation for their carryover interiors even as they innovated on tailgates and chassis stiffness. The next-gen trucks will get the trendy big-screen treatment, but lost in the hubbub is the fact that GM’s software is some of the industry’s most intuitive.

The Sierra AT4 system is easy to use, and its trickles down to the Trailblazer.

Consistent with other GM products, the 2022 Chevy Trailblazer Activ has excellent cockpit controls with big knobs and intuitive menus.

I jump in and out of a lot of brands week-to-week, and the GM products are always a quick study with good ergonomics, excellent screen graphics and helpful knob controls. On the way home on a dark and stormy night, I was struck by the detail on Trailblazer’s steering wheel as my thumbs searched in the dark for controls.

GM’s “rollers” — surrounded by push buttons — are ribbed for easy location and use, even at night. With the right thumb, I quickly found the MPH indicator screen on the instrument display ahead of me. Then I found the MPH control for adaptive cruise control on the left spoke. I thumbed it repeatedly without ever taking my eyes off the slick road in front of me.

Compare that to, say, the $52K Lexus NX350 I recently drove, which has a good Adaptive Cruise Control system but controls that are flat on the steering wheel, and difficult to locate without looking down.

Lexus also has adopted touchscreens in its products — ditching clumsy touchpads — no doubt due to products from GM that have stuck with touchscreen fundamentals. Sirius XM and its multitude of channels is always a good test of screen planning and the GMC/Chevy system is one of the best, allowing the driver to swipe though channel icons like a smartphone. Select your channel, then add it to favorites. My only ask of the GM designers: a “thumb shelf” at the base of the screen to anchor my thumb while paging.

This attention to detail extends elsewhere in the cabin. The rear window wiper toggle control is at the end of the right stalk, where it should be. The STOP/START, SPORT mode and AWD buttons are above the shifter. Where they should be.

The 2022 Chevy Trailblazer Activ is rugged outside, but comfortable inside with excellent seats and god ergonomics.

Legroom is generous in back — better than some compact SUVs a segment above — and I could easily sit behind myself with my 6’5” knees. Up front, the Activ model even comes with “Oh, crap” handles on the center console for when the going gets tough off-road. Those handles add to the personality of the Trailblazer in a competitive segment.

The competition is formidable. Think the AWD Jeep Compass, Subaru Crosstrek Wilderness, forthcoming Mazda CX-30X … and my 2021 Detroit News Vehicle of the Year, the Ford Bronco Sport, which positively begs to be taken off the grid with its rear cargo lights, sub-rear seat storage and twin rear bike storage.

Good thing Trailblazer has Big Brother Sierra AT4 to learn from.

2022 Chevrolet Trailblazer Activ

Price: $26,820, including $1,195 destination fee ($31,505 as tested)

Powerplant: 1.3-liter turbocharged inline-4 cylinder

Power: 155 horsepower, 174 pound-feet of torque (AWD)

Transmission: nine-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 9.4 seconds (Car and Driver); Towing capacity, 1,000 pounds

Weight: 3,323 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA mpg est. 26 city/30 highway/28 combined

Report card

Highs: Intuitive controls; fold-flat front seat

Lows: Oh, that face; gets pricey

Overall: 3 stars

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

Cartoon: Woke M&Ms

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 22, 2022

All aboard the Nissan Pathfinder for a Payne family holiday

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 22, 2022

Seattle — The holiday season is behind us, and it’s a great opportunity to assess the family SUV.

The holidays demand utility to take on relatives, grocery runs and foul weather. I scored a 2022 Nissan Pathfinder for the Paynes’ Thanksgiving get-together in America’s rain capital. Pathfinder is one of the latest in a series of recent Nissan value hits that include the compact Sentra sedan and Rogue SUV. I first met Pathfinder last summer in Holly, where it came with 6’10” product planner Andrew Molnar showing off its third row.

The simple design of the 2022 Nissan Pathfinder at Seattle's Museum of Pop Culture.

That’s right. Six foot 10. My 6’5” frame fit easily back there as well, giving me confidence that Pathfinder would be up to the job of ferrying three six-foot-plus Payne men and their wives around Seattle’s slippery streets for a packed weekend of outings. Our active family doesn’t lay around, and my Seattle-based older son had prepared an agenda longer than a list of Thanksgiving dinner dishes.

Mrs. Payne and I picked up a loaded $51,790 Pathfinder at the Seattle airport on Wednesday afternoon. I recommend loaded. Not only is Pathfinder full of standard features like blind-spot assist and adaptive cruise control (a tone set for the brand by the Sentra, which includes the same features at a ridiculously low starting price of $25K), but it offers features like 360-degree surround view and panoramic sunroof at a price that won’t break the bank. Only the Korean twins of Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride rival Pathfinder in value.

Surround view and panoramic roof are essential in Seattle, with its narrow streets and gloomy winter weather that makes Michigan seem bright by comparison.

The panoramic roof on the 2022 Nissan Pathfinder lets in light to all three rows of the big ute.

We arrived under a typical cloud of drizzle. My wife wirelessly synced her Apple phone to the Pathfinder and routed us to my son’s apartment in the Queen Anne neighborhood — a close-in suburb (think Royal Oak with San Francisco-like hills). Pathfinder could have taken us to more remote Washington state hills if necessary.

With its all-wheel-drive system, the Nissan was loaded for bear with SNOW, SAND, ROCK, ECO, SPORT and AUTO settings. I would only need AUTO, SPORT and SNOW — the latter coming in handy during torrential rains on Queen Ann hills by cutting torque to the wheels and allowing for easy traction (Michiganians, take note for challenging snowstorms).

Our weekend would be filled with dinner outings — including a grocery run for the Thanksgiving bird. But first up was Sawyer, one of Seattle’s finest eateries. My long-suffering wife drew the short straw for the third-row seat first — but the experience wasn’t bad. The second-row jumps forward at the touch of a button, allowing easy ingress/egress. That entry is tougher for giants like myself, but once seated, the headroom is palatial and the sunroof lets in lots of light.

Detroit News auto critic Henry Payne fits his 6'5" frame into the 2022 Nissan Pathfinder with comfort to spare.

Our third-row needs would prove brief as my younger son caught the COVID bug and spent the weekend shuttered in a bedroom enjoying “Drive to Survive” on Netflix while we fed him a stream of food, Robitussin and sympathetic cheer. His lawyer wife, due to join us Thanksgiving day, stayed home in New York lest she be COVID-compromised for an important legal trial. The rest of us weathered the weekend no problem.

The Pathfinder weathered everything Seattle threw at us, too. Despite the constantly changing forecast, the interior climate system work effortlessly — avoiding fogging and loud blowing like, ahem, some other vehicles.

The Pathfinder’s ergonomics are well thought out with everything at the driver’s fingertips — including an excellent chiclet shifter and sub-console storage for hiding valuables.

Camera views on the 2022 Nissan Pathfinder are important for navigating the big ute around tight city streets.

Heading to Tukwila for some Saturday afternoon go-karting, the Pathfinder plied Interstate 5 with a competent assisted-driving system that kept us lane-centered and distanced from vehicles ahead of us. It’s a system Nissan has touted going back to its “Rogue One: Star Wars” commercials. The system may be able to navigate Star Wars robots, but in an indication of the challenges ahead for a self-driving future, the system would give up in Seattle’s heavy rain — the camera struggling to find road lines.

The Green Church has a big congregation in Seattle, and Teslas are a common sight here (though its Chevy Bolt, Mustang Mach-E and Audi EV competitors are conspicuously few). With regular gas at a lofty $4.38 a gallon — and hydroelectric power-fed electricity a cheap 7 cents a kilowatt hour — this is a town where EVs make sense for local commutes.

Seattle is a good place for EVs with its high gas prices and low utility rates, but the 2021 Nissan Pathfinder is a great road trip vehicle for the state's mountains and outdoors.

For longer trips to Washington’s lovely mountains and rivers, Pathfinder’s 286-horse V-6 offers good grunt combined with 480-mile range that puts your mind at ease. That range is especially important considering the range degradation of EVs in heavy rain.

Pathfinder is also a challenge to Nissan’s luxury brand. Built on the same platform as the Infiniti QX60, the Nissan may not be as pretty as its high-class cousin — but the digital interior is the Infiniti’s match.

You can put 65 grand down on a Tesla. But when it comes to holiday family duties, a $52K Pathfinder has everything you need for a lot less.

2022 Nissan Pathfinder

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

Price: $34,560, including $1,150 destination fee $51,790 as tested)

Powerplant: 3.5-liter V-6

Power: 284 horsepower, 259 pound-feet torque (V-6)

Transmission: 9-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.7 seconds (Car and Driver); Towing, 6,000 pounds

Weight: 4,506 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA est. mpg 21 city/26 highway/23 combined

Report card

Highs: Family-friendly three-row seats; value pricing

Lows: Big thing to park in the city; wireless Apple CarPlay but not Android Auto

Overall: 4 stars

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

Cartoon: Biden’s First Year

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 22, 2022

Payne: Audi e-tron GT is an electrifying, elegant but expensive EV

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 21, 2022

The last time I saw the Audi e-tron GT, it was being mobbed by members of a panting press at the 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show with Iron Man — er, actor Robert Downey Jr. — behind the wheel. The GT hasn’t lost its appeal.

With a long, lean Audi figure draped over the same bones that carry the Porsche Taycan EV, the e-tron is a rocket ship with four doors.

It’s also a lot more fun with an in-house charger.

Last year, I piloted a wicked-quick Taycan EV around town, but had a shy right foot given the limits of 200 miles of range. I had scant few electrons left after a trip to Hell (Michigan) and back — then faced a lengthy charge at a local (glitchy) Electrify America station.

A Juicebox 240-volt charger (displacing $1,275 in my wallet including installation) now hangs on my garage wall next to a Tesla charger for my Model 3 Performance. The Tesla charger is proprietary and therefore useless to the parade of EV testers now coming to my door. Three years ago, I crawled to Ferndale in a Jaguar I-Pace to recharge (my wife trailing behind in her gas-powered Subaru if I didn’t make it). Sigh.

EVs are still a niche for customers with deep pockets.

If you have the coin for my $115,695 ($108,195 after the federal tax credit!) e-tron tester, it is a sensational metro commuter. ZAP! Squeeze the pedal onto Interstate 696 and merge effortlessly into traffic. ZOT! Stomp the pedal out of a Woodward stoplight and leave muscle cars behind. WHIRRRRR! Creep silently into the American Speed Festival parking lot at M1 Concourse’s Checkered Flag Charity event, and heads swiveled to follow the GT’s supermodel-on-wheels figure.

Well, maybe not the face. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but the Audi’s black-masked face is not as engaging as the Porsche with its unique tear-drop headlights. Without the e-tron’s four rings, the face could be mistaken for the love child of a Dodge Charger and an Audi A5.

The tapered roof and beautifully sculpted tail — anchored by Audi’s direction-arrow-taillights — is what makes this GT stand out from the masses.

The interior will be familiar to Audi customers — just as the Taycan resembles the Porsche family — an indication of the brand’s determination to make the EV experience comfortable, not a leap into the unknown. The interior sits under a Tesla-like full-cabin sunroof that adapts to sunlight overhead. A nifty chiclet shifter negotiates the two-speed automatic transmission.

Otherwise the instrument and infotainment displays are vintage Audi, with haptic touch commands and striking Google Earth navigation displays.

The challenge for Audi buyers is how it stacks up to other vehicles in the showroom. There are a lot of sweets in this candy shop.

My friends Caroline and Jim recently downsized to an RS5 from a RS7 Sportback. Caroline giggled as she squeezed the pedal on Woodard, the e-tron exploding forward as if launching to space. Thrust is similar to the RS7 but without the audio accompaniment of a twin-turbo V-8.

The distant scream of the twin electric motors don’t do justice to the jaw-dropping speed.

Jim allowed how the instant torque made e-tron feel like the quickest Audi he’d driven. A family man, he’s uninterested in the $110,000 Audi R8. But even as his Audi RS5 Sportback tops the A5 range at a heady $68K, it is a loooong throw from the $115K e-tron.

They are the same size, but e-tron does not have the RS5’s handier hatchback utility. Perhaps Audi had to conform to the Taycan’s trunk design to produce two sedans off the same platform.

The e-tron, in other words, is a tease to A5 owners until/if EV prices drop in half (consider the $40K Chevy Bolt vs. the similarly sized Chevy Trax — not even the proposed $12,500 federal subsidy will get you there). Especially since, at 238 miles of range, it is not an easy long-distance car.

Caroline and Jim travel frequently, and they aren’t interested in spending extended periods charging in Meijer parking lots. They, like a lot of electric owners, would use the e-tron as a daily commuter. To attend baseball games — or Iron Man movies. If that isn’t entertainment enough, there is 469 horsepower on tap. ZAP!

Pair the e-tron GT with a gas-powered Audi SQ5 (that can fill up its 500-mile range in five minutes) and you have the ideal two-car garage. Just remember to plug your GT into the Juicebox.

2021 Audi e-tron GT

Vehicle type: Battery-powered, all-wheel-drive, five-passenger sedan

Price: $103,445 including $1,045 destination fee ($115,695 Premium Plus as tested)

Powerplant: 93.4 kWh lithium-ion battery with twin electric-motor drive

Power: 496 horsepower (522 in Boost mode), 464 pound-feet torque

Transmission: Single-speed direct drive/front axle and two-speed/rear axle

Performance: 0-60 mph, 3.9 seconds (mfr.); top speed, 152 mph

Weight: 5,060 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA MPGe 82 city/98 highway; range, 238 miles

Report card

Highs: Awesome acceleration; lovely profile

Lows: Challenge to charge beyond home charger; oh, that face

Overall: 3 stars

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

Cartoon: Dr. Faucistein

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 18, 2022

Cartoon: Djokovic and Sports Activism Media

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 18, 2022

Cartoon: Supremes No Biden Vaccine Mandate

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 14, 2022

Cartoon: Biden Vaccine and Civil Liberties

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 14, 2022

Payne: Ford Bronco Sasquatch vs. Land Rover Defender 90 in the Dirt Bowl

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 13, 2022

Holly — What’s better than taking an off-road beast over snowbound Holly Oaks ORV Park? Taking two off-road beasts.

I flogged the Land Rover Defender 90 and Ford Bronco First Edition two-door models over southeast Michigan’s premier adventure park for grins — and to see how the two warriors compared. The Bronco has wowed in comparison tests with its arch-rival Jeep Wrangler.

But so good is Bronco that it also matches up against His Highness of Rugged Royalty, Land Rover.

It’s good to have the Brit and Bronc back. They are iconic names that disappeared from the U.S. market for years. Defender last sold here in 1997, the Bronco 1996. Credit Wrangler’s wild success as a brand halo for Jeep in the Age of Ute for bringing these two legends out of retirement.

Like Wrangler, Defender and Bronco have their roots in World War II. They were first built as rugged, battle-ready General Purpose (GP — or Jeep for short) vehicles. But the Brit and Yank have diverged dramatically since then. Aimed at Land Rover’s First Class clientele, Defender now rides on a — la-de-da — air suspension and crisp unibody SUV chassis contrary to the truck-based bruiser of safari legend. The Americans are still based on ladder frames and can be stripped naked of their doors and roof to get even closer to Mother Nature.

Wrangler and Broncos are natural predators and will be hunting each other for years across Holly Oaks and other U.S. adventure parks. But, in a challenge to Jeep, Bronco has updated the off-road formula with state-of-the-art tech — rotary mode shifter, single-button sway-bar disconnect, fully digital instrument displays, independent front suspension.

Its sophistication not only challenges Jeep — but puts it in the same neighborhood as Land Rover for $20,000 less.

A consistent theme of these columns is how the electronics age has shrunk the gap between luxe and mainstream (see Mazda CX-50 vs. BMW 2-series, VW Golf R vs. Audi S3, Corvette vs. Porsche), and Rover v. Bronco is another example. Game on.

The 2021 Land Rover Defender 90 is comfortable on and off-road, though its electronics keep a tight rein on the Bond SUV's abilities.

Punching the Rover 90’s 395-horse, supercharged-and-turbocharged inline-6 across Holly Oaks’ frozen tundra, I slewed the 5,000-pound beast into The Sandbox — an undulating sea of sand that tests vehicles’ stability and strength. The Defender was solid as a rock (despite an eerie wail from the brakes which my pal, Tom — riding shotgun — surmised was sand in the discs) on its unibody chassis.

The unibody choice raised eyebrows at the Rover’s introduction in 2019 — Heresy! Off with the engineers’ heads! — but it’s more rigid than the old ladder frame and never flinched through Holly Oaks’ unsparing terrain.

Defender knows its clientele. For all its off-road chops, Land Rovers are show horses. They spend their time ferrying its occupants to country clubs, not ORV parks.

Roll out onto the Holly Oaks battlefield and Rover intuitively recognizes the incongruity of the task at hand.

“Um, do you really know what you’re doing? I’ll take it from here.”

What ensues is a heavily managed trip around the grounds, the 90’s electronics always present to ensure you don’t get too far over your skis. For clearance over rocks Defender’s air suspension rises to 11.5 inches.

The 2021 Land Rover Defender 90 sports an elevated shifter for its 8-speed transmission that opens console space and is easily worked next to drive mode controls.

The big rotary dial on the dash allows easy access to Defender’s multiple modes: AUTO, GRASS/GRAVEL/SNOW, MUD, SAND, ROCK CRAWL. But no matter the mode, Defender won’t let you tune the nannies off. As our friends at Car and Driver put it: “Non-defeatable stability control occasionally stifles off-roading.”

The Bronco wants you to push the envelope. Four exposed tow hooks come standard — on the Rover, exposed tow hooks are optional. That tells you something.

The 2021 Ford Bronco 2-door can go down as well as up with trail crawl assist feature that manages steep grades with a sort of off-road cruise control.

Bronco achieves its 11.5” ride height the old-fashioned way — by slapping on huge 35-inch Goodyear Territory tires, part of a Sasquatch package that includes dual-locking differentials and performance shocks.

The heck with air suspension, these balloons with teeth not only jack up the car, they can claw up Rushmore’s face. Ford encourages its drivers to play with the firepower on hand. High on the dash are buttons to turn off stability control, disconnect sway bars, turn on lockers, even toggle Turn Assist for extra-tight turning radius.

The Ford swaggered up to Holly Oaks’ intimidating, snowy, slick Mt. Magna rock face. With 43-degree approach angle, lockers on and sway bar disconnected, I waltzed up Magna as easy as Gretzky stuffing a power-play goal.

The Defender struggled. Never mind its lack of suspension articulation (the Defender doesn’t offer sway bar disconnect), traction control forced multiple attempts to find grip. Its 37.5-degree approach angle and 32-inch Goodyear Wrangler tires also were relatively limited.

Oh, how I pined for Bronc’s button controls and Territory 35s. The sequence repeated itself across Holly Oaks — the Ford attacking, the Rover managing. Ultimately, the Bronco’s incredible capabilities took me places the Defender wouldn’t dare.

How different might “No Time to Die” have turned out if the bad guys had Sasquatch package to pursue Bond?

The beauty of the Ford is that, thanks to modern electronics, its controls are as easy to use as Rover’s. The Bronco’s horizontal all-digital dash is surprisingly similar to the luxe Rover — then Bronco ups the ante with a giant center screen and wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

A 12-inch dash screen dominates the handsome horizontal interior of the 2021 Ford Bronco 2-door.

Drive modes — NORMAL, ECO, SPORT, MUD/RUTS, SLIPPERY, SAND/SNOW, ROCK CRAWL, BAJA, and MARS (just kidding about that last one) — are accessed via similar rotary dial. No muscling a second transfer case shifter as in Wrangler. Modes are then refined using the aforementioned dash buttons.

Bronco also matches Rover for visual drama. The two-doors are athletic looking — the Defender in Pangea Green, the Ford in Area 51 Blue — compared with four-door models. Bronco’s Sasquatch package made my truck pal Scott’s knees weak when he saw it in the parking lot.

“I gotta take a picture for my daughter,” he smiled.

Yeah, chicks dig these brutes. But those 35s come at a cost to comfort. On road, Defender is noticeably quieter. Put your right foot down and the Defender’s 395-horse supercharged-and-turbocharged inline-6 will get you to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds.

Big claws. The 2021 Ford Bronco 2-door options a Sasquatch off-road package that includes serious, 35-inch Goodyear Territory off-road tires.

Hit the gas in the 330-horse Bronco and the turbo V-6 hits 60 mph in 6.3 seconds, but with a roar: WAAUUURRGHH!

If you want a rugged-looking Land Rover, the $66,000 Defender is the summit. If you want to go off-roading, the $49,000 Bronco is the bomb.

And you can put the 17 grand you save toward a $21K Ford Maverick pickup.

2021 Ford Bronco First Edition Advanced

Vehicle type: Front engine, all-wheel-drive, five-passenger two-door compact SUV

Price: $49,180, including $1,495 destination fee as tested ($31,490 for standard two-door)

Powerplant: 2.7-liter twin-turbo V-6

Power: 330 horsepower, 415 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 10-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.3 seconds (Car and Driver); towing capacity, 3,500 pounds

Weight: 4,871 pounds

Fuel economy: 17 city/17 highway/17 combined

Report card

Highs: Off-road beast; easy-to-use controls

Lows: Hard-top leaks; noisy ride

Overall: 4 stars

2021 Land Rover Defender 90 First Edition

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger two-door compact SUV

Price: $66,475, including $1,350 destination fee as tested ($50,050 base model)

Powerplant: 3.0-liter supercharged turbo-inline 6-cylinder

Power: 395 horsepower, 406 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.7 seconds (mfr.); towing, 8,201 pounds

Weight: 5,000 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA, 17 mpg city/22 highway/19 combined

Report card

Highs: Standout style; composed ride on- and off-road

Lows: Undefeatable off-road nannies; no wireless Apple CarPlay/Android Auto

Overall: 3 stars

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

Cartoon: Georgia Bulldogs and Yale Bulldogs

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 12, 2022

Cartoon: Harris, January 6, Memorial

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 11, 2022

Cartoon: Trump January 6 Legacy

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 11, 2022

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Posted by Talbot Payne on January 7, 2022

Cartoon: I 95 Back Up and Global Warming

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Posted by Talbot Payne on January 6, 2022

Cartoon: College Omicron Class

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 6, 2022

Payne: Subaru WRX gets fancy new duds, still wants to play hard

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 6, 2022

Santa Rosa, California — An old stagecoach trail running through Mendocino County called Mountain View Road is hell. Its blind, narrow, asphalt path is pocked with patches and neglect. It snakes below a canopy of redwood trees, the perpetually damp surface iced with pine needles making the road surface even more challenging.

My 2022 Subaru WRX tester was in heaven.

Rally bred, the WRX (short for World Rally Cross) cut across the challenging terrain like Barry Sanders through a defensive line. Stiffly damped, its suspension absorbed road irregularities. Barreling into a tight series of S turns, I flicked the stick into second, then blasted out of the corner — the all-wheel-drive system propelled by 271 ponies.

A road that would be a nightmare in the average family SUV turns into a grin-inducing playground at the wheel of the WRX.

The swift Subie is the latest remade entry in my favorite automotive segment: pocket rockets. These talented hellions will happily do daily chores all week, then gleefully devour country roads on the weekend. It’s a segment apparently sheltered from the SUV revolution — so passionate is its fanbase (guilty as charged), so capable are the players.

Each athlete brings a unique skill set to the arena, with the Subaru flaunting manual-shifting, all-wheel-drive DNA born of some of the toughest rally-racing terrain in the world. Mountain View Road? Ha, have you seen Motu Road Gorge in New Zealand? Like the Volkswagen Golf GTI, WRX is a segment icon.

And like the GTI, the ’Ru got a total makeover for the new model year.

The remake is timely given the all-out assault by its competitive set on the market. Notably, WRX has been challenged by the Mazda3 Turbo as the only segment competitor offering AWD — a boon to those of us living in snow country.

The Mazda has set segment benchmarks for looks and interior panache. Its gorgeous tablet-topped dash and hatchback utility make it a formidable rival.

Subie answers with its most daring exterior style ever, its boomerang headlights bracketing the familiar hexagonal grille while also emphasizing the compact car’s wider stance compared with the standard Impreza compact car. Indeed, while WRX shares the Global Platform that undergirds Impreza, the WRX has divorced itself (even dropping the Impreza family name!) from its underpowered sibling and adopting its own unique body panels. The blistered rear fenders and huge quad-pipe-engorged rear diffuser instantly send a message as you come upon a WRX: do you know who you are tangling with?

More controversial are blocky black fender claddings that echo other, more-off-road oriented Subaru Wilderness models. The cladding is unusual. But given WRX’s rally focus and liberal use of black makeup, the styling works remarkably well.

The cockpit of the 2022 Subaru WRX changes dramatically with an available 11.6-inch center touchscreen.

Inside, the ’Ru brings a trendy new 11.6-inch center screen copied from its Outback and Legacy siblings. The touchscreen (complete with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity) is easier to use than the Mazda’s sometimes quirky remote rotary controller, but it isn’t as driver-focused as the 3’s high-mounted tablet.

The 2022 Subaru WRX comes with a six-speed manual transmission. An auto CVT is also on offer, but the manual makes up 85% of sales for the driver-focused car.

Style marks go to the automatic-shifting Mazda, but the Subaru is intensely performance driven, starting with a tight six-speed shifter.

Plunging through the redwoods, I never missed a shift. The throws are short, the pedals conveniently placed for heel-and-toe downshifts, even for my size 15s. The arrangement is better than the Golf GTI’s stick, if not on par with the Honda Civic Si’s terrific shifter — one of the best I’ve experienced this side of a Porsche.

Unlike the GTI and SI, however, WRX is curiously emotion-less. There is no rev match on downshift, no growl, not even a SPORT drive mode selector (though the top model GT trim will get six driving modes with its automatic tranny). Odd choice that.

With a quieter cabin that the last gen, the WRX engine feels curiously removed from otherwise pulse-pounding performance. Take the AWD system, for example.

While the Si and GTI bring superb front-wheel-drive, limited-slip differentials that help rotate them through the twisties, the ’Ru goes all out with a rear-wheel-biased, longitudinally mounted low-center-of-gravity Boxer engine that feeds all that power to all four wheels all the time. You know, like an Audi.

Adding nearly another half-liter to last gen’s 2.0-liter engine, the Subie pulls hard. Past quibbles about turbo-lag are forgotten. As I overcooked it into a mountain switchback, the rear end came around nicely as I applied throttle.

The 2022 Subaru WRX gains displacement with a 2.4-liter turbo-4 engine. But output remains the same as last gen with 271 horsepower and 258 pound feet of torque.

So proud is Subaru of its AWD drive grip that it provides sticky summer tires — standard — for WRX.

I’m a sucker for hatchbacks, and the Golf’s hatch utility gives it a leg up over WRX and Si. Subarus are traditionally strong on the standard feature front, but the manual WRX oddly overlooks adaptive cruise control (reserving it for the automatic, even though manuals make up 85% of WRX’s sales volume). ACC — especially for the young (average age 37) WRX buyer — is becoming an essential feature. Both GTI and Si offer it on their manuals.

Not overlooked is seating comfort. Over four hours of aggressive driving, my big 6’5” frame never felt uncomfortable.

The WRX’s new thrones have been extensively reworked, and my Premium trim’s (the meat of WRX sales) cloth seats were as comfortable as if they had been leather while keeping me in place though the curves.

The base WRX starts at $28,315 and goes up in price across Premium, Limited, and GT model lines that offer leather seats, moonroof, big screen, auto transmission, and other goodies. Fun and AWD are standard.

Rear legroom is admirable, too. The ’Ru has put its extra inch of wheelbase to good use, and could fit my giraffe legs easily behind myself in the backseat. But for the tight Mazda, roomy rear seating for four has become a segment staple — though your passengers may squirm when you point at the S curves ahead.

So iconic is the WRX that Subaru no longer feels the need to enter it in a high-profile race series. It exited the World Rally Championship (recording a record 46 wins) over a decade ago, and American Rallycross expired during the pandemic. The WRX is not alone in the Subaru performance lineup, sandwiched between the BRZ and the winged STI.

As engaging as the rear-wheel-dive BRZ is, however, WRX — for about the same price — shows off its value with winter-friendly AWD, comfy seating for four, deep trunk space and big-screen ergonomics.

If you were hoping for a WRX for Christmas, however, you were disappointed. Production was delayed until January.

2022 Subaru WRX

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

Price: Est. $29,000 (est. $32,000 Premium trim, Solar Orange Pearl paint as tested)

Powerplant: 2.4-liter turbo-4 cylinder Boxer engine

Power: 271 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual, continuously variable transmission (CVT)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.4 seconds (Car and Driver est., manual); top speed, 145 mph

Weight: 3,320 pounds (premium as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA, 19 mpg city/25 highway/21 combined (auto); 19 mpg city/26 highway/22 combined (manual)

Report card

Highs: Upgraded looks; AWD OMG

Lows: Emotionless engine note; no adaptive cruise control with manual

Overall: 3 stars

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

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