Featured Reviews
There are costlier Mustangs, but the GT Coupe Premium with 460 horsepower and precise handling is more than enough.

Ford conducts intramural Car-SUV duel

The redesigned Edge helps move Ford toward an array of trucks and SUVs, but the best Mustang ever will remain as the only car in Ford's future.

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Comfort and classy features made the Lexus RX350-L a great long-distance ride, but beware of a stubborn nav system.

Lexus RX350-L proper way to test new vehicles

If success in the SUV world depends on luxury and features, the 2019 Lexus RX350-L covers all the bases on a trip to drive other 2019s.

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Tony Swan, looking like he enjoyed the high-tech tools of being an auto journalist, was spotted in the San Antonio airport in April of 2017.

Prominent Minnesota auto writer leaves too soon

For most of the 55 years I knew Tony Swan, he and I were the only two regular auto journalists in the country who were from Minnesota. I stayed, Tony flew to the heights, until h

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The new A4 price reflects its new stature, technology.

Audi A4 matures into sports-luxury sedan

Audi's A4 exemplified the heritage of dedicated performance technology and cost-effectiveness when introduced 23 years ago, and the 2018 model still sets standards.

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Mazda is racing to keep up with its own technology. After an upgraded 2017.5 model, the 2018 Mazda6 becomes a hot performer with a turbo version of its 2.5 engine.

Mazda6 adds turbo power in 2018 model

Mazda is racing to keep up with its own technology. After upgrading the Mazda6 as 2017.5 model, the 2018 beats an impending new model with the addition of a turbocharged engine.

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Top down, windows down, the 124 Spider can help stretch summer into fall.

New Fiat 124 is Miata kin that loves pasta

Fiat has recreated its iconic 124 Spider, with a high-tech Fiat turbo drivetrain in a restyled Mazda Miata body.

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Running swiftly and silently, 2018 Leaf updates world's top-selling EV.

Nissan offers reason to turn over a new Leaf

Nissan introduced the first all-electric Leaf as a 2011 model, and for 2018 it completely renewed the world's top-selling EV with proper style to go with its strong, 150-mile per

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We paused in our test Santa Fe to observe a fly fisherman on a mountain stream.

All-new Santa Fe part SUV and part slot car

Hyundai has sold 1.6 million Santa Fe SUVs since its 2000 inception, and new style, platform and drivetrains for 2019 reaffirms Santa Fe as Hyundai's SUV flagship.

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NX300h wears new Lexus signature styling well, adding sportiness.

NX300h style polarizing, spirit electrifying

Toyota's luxury Lexus line has proliferated in producing a fleet of SUVs, and the new NX300h moves to the top of the group with AWD and a potent hybrid drivetrain.

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Ford's EcoSport looks like a tiny SUV, and with 4WD, it performs like one, too.

EcoSport SES 'deja vu' is not entirely the same

The Ford EcoSport is a mini-SUV, but the SES model, which looks a lot like the FWD EcoSport, offers 4WD, so it even acts like a real all-weather, all-terrain SUV.

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Ford conducts intramural Car-SUV duel

December 18, 2018 by · Comments Off on Ford conducts intramural Car-SUV duel
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Newest Edge takes 2019 center stage for Ford, which is moving toward the Mustang vs. all-truck-SUV lineup.

   If it’s time for a new family car, and your budget is sorted out, and now comes the ultimate decision. Do you buy the car of your dreams, or do you give in to the overwhelming trendiness but expansive versatility of a sports-utility vehicle?

     If you happen to favor Ford Motor Company, you can face the decision in the same showroom:Like a major prize-fight, we have, in one corner, the flashy Mustang GT, with its swept-back roofline and spectacular color, and in that corner, we have the all-newly redesigned Edge midsize SUV. Both have their proper measures of appeal.

    It might depend on your family. With the Edge you can haul the family anywhere, vacation trips, hockey practices, or to the shopping center, with all the comforts of home. With the Mustang GT, you will attract attention every time you start the engine, or cruise the neighborhood, resembling a slightly aging hot-rodder.

 

The Mustang GT Coupe Premium with 460 horsepower and precise handling is the best example of Ford’s car offerings.

There are benefits to both extremes, one of which lures your logical, family-oriented self, and the other which genuinely stirs all those primal juices of emotion. Pragmatic or passionate? You get to choose.

    Maybe we really have gone over the edge in our society — I mean in car selection, not in politics — and maybe we really do prefer trucks and SUVs to cars. Or maybe we don’t, but are victims of auto manufacturers who are eager to build us SUVs and trucks rather than cars because they can push them out the dealership doors for three or four times the profit.

   Whatever, we keep hurtling down that highway to changing the family car for the family truckster, and a perfect example of the whole societal shift is Ford Motor Company.

   Ford can be excused for being truck-crazy, because it builds the F-150, which has become the most popular vehicle in the country, in fact the world, and continues to dominate the hotly competitive pickup segment.

   Where it gets curious is that Ford executives announced several months ago that it will stop building several popular models of cars, and devote more attention to trucks and SUVs. The first word was that Ford would eliminate all but the Mustang and the compact Focus, then we heard only the Mustang will continue, in Ford’s drive to truck nirvana.

 

Sequential taillights, quad exhaust tubes set off GT Coupe among Mustangs.

  We know the Mustang is alive and well as it continues its amazing story of survival that started with its stunning introduction in 1964. The new one came out all new for 2018, so we don’t expect anything major when the 2019 model arrives. Just as well. It’s hard to imagine many improvements that could be made on the 2018 — especially the Lightning Blue GT model that arrived just before winter’s first blast.

    Good thing, because with its 5.0-liter, dual-overhead-camshaft V8 spewing 460 horsepower and 420 foot-pounds of torque to the huge rear tires, your chances of avoiding slippage on a slippery roadway are slim, taking the heart-in-your-throat quotient sky-high in an instant. The 10-speed automatic can harness all that power, but only with judicious use of the gas pedal.

 

Supportive bucket seadts and high-tech controls adorn the Mustang GT interior.

The GT Coupe Premium came in at $52,765 in aptly named Lightning Blue Metallic, and that included $10,000 in optional equipment to enhance performance, handling, sound enjoyment, and connectivity aids with the latest SYNC system. Ford also makes upgrades such as the Bullitt replica of the old Steve McQueen movie that started the craze toward wild car chases in Hollywood, and the Shelby GT.

But the basic Mustang GT is just right for my tastes, and I think from the standpoint of style, steering and handling tightness, and power, this is the best Mustang in over 60 years of trying.

   When it was picked up, the Chicago new-car delivery agency dropped off a new Edge, the loaded-up Platinum model.

  

Midsize Edge comes with adequate 2.0 4-cylinder or potent 2.7 V6, but go for the AWD.

Hopping out of one and into the other made for an interesting comparison, because we already know the front-engine, rear-drive Mustang will remain the icon of Ford’s car fleet now and in the future, and the Edge comes down right smack in the middle of Ford’s SUV herd, which includes the Expedition at the top, then the Explorer above  the Edge, and the more compact Escape and the subcompact EcoSport below the Edge. There are others, such as the squarish Flex and the coming rebirth of the Bronco.

    The Edge wears a stunning new look, which can fool most of the people most of the time, but is really a partial renovation with only the newly restyled front and nicely tapered rear and a redone interior carrying the model into its latest iteration. It wasn’t bad as it was, of course, and the new styling assures the Edge of staying hot.

 

Convenient size aids the Edge in traffic congestion, despite over-sized wheels.

  The test Edge in Stone Gray Metallic had the 2.0-liter Ford Ecoboost 4-cylinder engine, with a twin-scroll turbocharger helping the transition from low RPMs to higher revs, and the Ecoboost scheme delivering 250 horsepower and 275 foot-pounds of torque. That’s a lot, out of a 2.0, and it is sufficient power for a midsize SUV, although if you want more, the ST model offers a larger 2.7-V6 Ecoboost. The 8-speed automatic handled it all well. I was, however, disappointed by the fuel economy, because we registered 24 mpg in mostly city-rural driving, and there are a number of competitors that can reach 30.

   Furthermore, the test Edge came with Titanium trim materials, but with front-wheel drive. No all-wheel drive, unless you opt up, which makes sense, I guess, but makes the meager fuel economy of th FWD model more disappointing.

   I thought the leather seats were luxurious, and the switch work was well done with the latest SYNC plan. The rear seat is also nicely appointed, with a big sunroof overhead and electrical plug-ins, including a household electric receptacle, in between the rear seats.

   One more criticism is the tendency to follow the norm and put bigger and bigger tires and wheels on SUVs. The test Edge had 20-inch wheels and it felt abnormally tall on those wheels, especially with  only front-wheel drive supressing any urge for even mile off-road ventures. It handled well, but I couldn’t escape the idea that 18-inch wheels would provide a lower stance and the feeling of more stability and better handling.

    At about $45,000 — the sticker diplomatically avoided providing the price — the Edge had pre-collision warning and assist, rear camera, lane-keeping assist, and LED headlights, with hands-free tailgate and rain-sensing wipers and blind-spot assist.

    If you want big-time handling, of course, the Mustang is waiting in the wings. New Car Picks reported on the Mustang GT a short while ago, and that one was fun, with a 6-speed stick. The second trial is the very neat blue with all the hot-rod equipment you might want, and the same 5.0-liter V8 with 450 horsepower shifting smoothly among the 10-speed automatic’s impulses.

 

Black-painted alloy wheels accent the sleek Mustang GT’s Lightning Blue paint.

  With the automatic, you can go to a sportier mode that makes for noisier and sportier running, with firmer suspension and heightened shift points, eliminating a couple overdrive gears to give you more punch at any rev range. The sport setting adds a thrill to the exhaust sound, as well. You can get over 20 miles per gallon, and even up to the mid-20s, but you’d want to resist the urge to hammer the gas pedal to do it.

   Comfortable bucket seats, trimmed in leather, and adaptive cruise control, cross traffic alert in the rear, a high-performance package that includes an upgraded audio, LED headlights, and a neat ambient lighting trick that displays a galloping mustang on the street or parking place you’ve chosen, just below the door. A lot of slick electronic choices from the changeable instrument panel add to driving enjoyment.

    There is, however, precious little room in the rear seat, so the Mustang would work if you have no small children, or if your kids are small enough to bring their legs with them.

   The Mustang with touchscreen navigation, costs a bit more than the Edge, but you are choosing between a great disparity in motoring enjoyment. The Edge handles and performs pretty well, but without all-wheel drive or impressive fuel economy; the Mustang handles like a race car on the street, and is built for fun, with potent acceleration and handling, but also without great fuel economy or foul-weather traction.

   Both vehicles strike a pleasing stance, with the Edge sporting its new sheet metal, while the Mustang is obviously equipped to fight for its position in the product line as the only car soon to be left in the corporate jungle of SUVs.

Lexus RX350-L proper way to test new vehicles

November 20, 2018 by · Comments Off on Lexus RX350-L proper way to test new vehicles
Filed under: New car introductions, Autos 

More stylish for 2019, the Lexus RX350-L is elongated for a third row of seats.

JOLIET, Illinois

   A long trip is the perfect way to scrutinize a new vehicle, and the new 2019 Lexus RX350-L passed its test on a drive from Duluth, Minnesota, to Joliet, Illinois.

    It was also an enjoyable way to get the opportunity to drive all sorts of other new vehicles on the private road-racing course called the Autobahn Country Club, and on the neighboring streets and roadways.

   My older son, Jack, who assists me with facts and photos of new cars, joined me for the annual trek, and enjoyed everything about the smooth performance and easy cruise-ability of the RX350-L — right up until we got into Illinois and tried to rely on the dash-mounted navigation system to circumnavigate Chicago to reach Joliet, which is located on the southeastern end of Chicago.

   The Midwest Auto Media Association (MAMA) conducts  annual Spring and Fall Rallies for member journalists and this year’s crop of  about 70 new 2019 vehicles was worthy for at least that many journalists to sample.

   We don’t race on the track, but drive in single-file order behind a track pace-setter so that we stay in line without passing, keep the gaps close, and get a good feel for a vehicle’s performance and handling in short doses. In some ways, the surrounding roadways in the truck-farm-loaded region can be just about as effective. The point is, manufacturers bring their top new vehicles all to that one place, and we in the media converge on it.

 

Maserati might be late to the battle, but the new Levante is ready to challenge in SUV tests.

  Some of the most impressive new vehicles include the Maserati Levante, a true Italian SUV with an in-house designed pair of engines, put together meticulously in Maranello by cousin Ferrari’s engineers. The 3.8-liter V6 model starts in the $70,000 range with a 424-horsepower twin-turbo 3.0-liter V6, or in the well-over-$100,000 class that includes a 550-horsepower/538 foot-pounds of torque twin-turbo V8 for power.

 

Mercedes will give you an AMG-GT for a little over $100,000, even in lime green.

  If that was among the more impressive vehicles, there were a lot of familiar-looking vehicles with significant upgrades on hand. The Mercedes AMG-GT Coupe, for example, in a lime-green color called Green Hell, comes with a 577-horsepower twin-turbo V8 or a meager version of the 4.0-liter V8 with only 469 horses, giving the car a price range from $115,000 to $160,000.

Mazda has spread its unique Soul Red Crystal Metallic throughout its models, including the CX-3 and Mazda6, for a mere $595.

    Back in the real world, a couple of my favorites earn accolades from New Car Picks, with the renewed pair from Mazda, the CX3 small SUV and the Mazda3 compact sedan. Both have some mechanical surprises coming, but they also were runaway winners of the best paint job award from us with their Soul Red Metallic color. That paint job came out exclusively on the CX5 when it was redesigned a year ago. Now it’s a stunning upgrade from the other very nice red choices in Mazda’s palette, as it has migrated through all the other models, Mazda6, MX5 Miata, and CX9. It has depth and distinctiveness that is worth a few hundred bucks as an option check-off.

  

No matter what the redone Acura RDX costs, it’s a bargain with the ELS audio.

The Acura RDX is also all new, getting the exclusivity of a new Acura-only platform and a new alteration of its good looks. It also has only one engine, a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder with turbocharging to reach 272 horsepower and 280 foot-pounds of torque through front- or SH-AWD. It is quick, handles in a sporty fashion, and the A-Spec model has further sporty upticks. All of those are worthy, but the best feature might be that Jack and I stayed in the RDX when we returned to the parking area to experiment with the new and revised ELS audio system to hear sounds we had never heard before from familiar songs. We ranked it as the best audio available.

    When it first came out, I thought the Panasonic ELS system was the most sensitive and best audio I’d ever heard. Panasonic has made sure this one is better. It had stored a selection of demonstration musical pieces, ranging back through Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Eagles, The Grateful Dead, Joni Mitchell, and several more recent heavier-metal groups that Jack knew well and I couldn’t identify. We scrolled through parts of one song at a time, and in every single one there were notes and instruments we had never realized existed in those songs, translated with incredible clarity. The loaded RDX ranges up to the mid-$40,000 level, and if the new 9.5 ELS surround audio is included, it’s a bargain.

Nissan’s new Altima has high-tech features, AWD, and a thorough and stylish redesign.

   One of the other vehicles I found intriguing is the new 2019 Nissan Altima. Redesigned to retain the company’s familiar grill and overall look, the new Altima has two fantastic items available. One is all-wheel-drive, and I drove the basic 2.0-liter 4 with AWD, and the other is the revolutionary new variable-compression-ratio 2.0-liter turbo 4. With automatic adjusting from 8-1 to 13-1 compression ratio, that engine came out in the Infiniti Q50 and gave me a thoroughly good impression, and I can’t wait until Nissan can find a way to put such a high-tech engine in all its vehicle.

   There were more, including the new Ram pickup with what I figure is the best interior in the truck biz, and not only cylinder deactivation but a hybrid booster that gives an electric-motor assist when you need maximum power.

   Other new vehicles I’m still getting acquainted with are the Hyundai Kona compact SUV, the new Mustang Bullitt and GT, the Lexus LC Coupe with either 5.0 V8 with 471 horsepower or 3.5-liter V6 with electric boost to 354 horsepower, all in the sleekest exotic coupe shape imaginable. in the just-under-$100,000 category. That is the flagship, although there is a whole fleet of LS, GS, ES and IS models, with all sorts of hybrid configurations.

    And that brings us back to the Lexus RX350-L, which has been elongated to allow a third-row seat despite its compact normal size. The seats are exceptional for support and comfort, but we have to get back to grappling with the nav system.

 

Comfort and classy features made the Lexus RX350-L a great long-distance ride, but beware of a stubborn nav system.

  When you drive to Chicago, you generally put up with the inevitable toll roads into town. You can pay up to $1.90 at every stop, and if you hit 10 of them, you’ve spent dinner. So we’ve found that you can drive south on I-94 from Madison and hook up with I-39, staying straight south from Rockport down to I-80, then take I-80 east and bypass Chicago on the south side and taking you right on into Indiana.

   We coded our Joliet destination into the nav system and selected the “non-toll” choice, which I thought was neat. It then gave us three alternative ways to get to Joliet — none of which was what we knew we wanted, and all three were toll-roads. I couldn’t remember which city would signal our turn eastward, but when I guessed it was Normal, the nav refused to give us our straight-ahead intention. So we ignored it, and drove south on 39 until we hit 80, then turned east.

   When we got to Joliet, it gave us a strangely convoluted way of going through town, so we consulted the trusty iPhone navigation, which gave us entirely different directions. Once we hit Joliet, we found that the entire city has its streets torn up, with a few bridges out. It took us an hour and 20 minutes to make it what should have been 20 minutes, because neither nav system could anticipate all the torn-up streets. The Lexus system, however, continued to direct us to the same location, where we were met with a bridge that was closed. Back to the iPhone, and we finally made it, guessing on how to negotiate roadblocks and construction that went right up to a block from our hotel.

   All it meant was that we were an hour late for dinner at the hotel steakhouse, although Jack and I are pretty good at finding a way to improvise. All the entrees had been put away at the MAMA hotel restaurant, but our starving look inspired the head waiter to allow that he had “only” two pieces of salmon to offer us. We took it, and it was quite possibly the largest and tastiest slab of salmon I ever ate. Plus we each got three or four side dishes, of lightly cooked carrots, an endless supply o asparagus, and a huge bowl of spinach — my favorite. By being late, apparently the chef took advantage of us by using up all the remaining veggies.

   Maybe we should have coded in “salmon” as the “point of interest” on the RX350-L nav system.

    

   

   

Prominent Minnesota auto writer leaves too soon

October 7, 2018 by · Comments Off on Prominent Minnesota auto writer leaves too soon
Filed under: Features, Autos 

By John Gilbert

    Those of us who have spent a lot of years writing about new cars lost a star out of our galaxy. just as the September of 2018 was yielding to the changing foliage of October, when Tony Swan died at age 78 after a long and intense battle with cancer,

Tony Swan, looking like he enjoyed the high-tech tools of being an auto journalist, was spotted in the San Antonio airport in April of 2017.

     Weakened to a point of unwilling fragility after trying every potential method of fighting the insidious disease, Tony spent most of his final week in a gentle hospice facility near his home in Ypsilanti, Michigan. After final farewells to his devoted wife and partner, Mary, and insisting his gathered kids from an earlier marriage talk about seeing each other soon, rather than saying goodbye, Tony allowed himself to relax and slip away overnight.

    For most of four decades, Tony Swan and I were the only two automotive writers from Minnesota. Times have changed, with a new generation of social-media types have blogged their way into the business, not always with proper responsibility in our estimation. We always discussed such matters because even though we had taken widely divergent paths to whatever status we attained, we remained close friends for something like 55 years, ever since we attended the University of Minnesota journalism school together back in the 1960s.

   Those divergent paths were because Tony and I shared a love of cars, which led him on an upward spiral from AutoWeek to Popular Mechanics, Motor Trend and Car and Driver. My journalistic drive, so to peak, was split between hockey and sports writing on one hand and auto writing and motorsports on the other, a form of writing ambidexterity that made me determine to stay in Minnesota. In an odd way, we always had each other’s back, regardless of how scarce out time together was during my 30 years at the Minneapolis Tribune and later return home to Duluth for a couple of opportunities and more recent freelancing.

     We always seemed to agree on things of true importance, but even the disagreements were noteworthy. You could debate or even argue with him for a while, remaining respectful and cordial, then suddenly Tony would look you in the eye and say: “Well, you’re wrong!”

    End of discussion.

   Tony lived his life by his own rules, and that carried over to friendships and arguments. Our mutual passion for motorsports led us both to pass road-racing schools at Sports Car Club of America venues when Showroom Stock Sedan racing started in the early 1970s. I did it for a year or two, and to this day employ some of the smart-driving techniques we learned there, while Tony continued racing a little, most recently in the low-budget “24 Hours of Lemons” series for cars with a $500 maximum value. 

    Tony mostly enjoyed keeping things simple behind the wheel. He was an excellent driver, and except for a few speeding tickets now and then, he didn’t overdo it on the streets. His personal car of choice? A Volkswagen GTI, the no-compromise performance model of the Golf. Inexpensive, comparatively speaking, and with a six-speed stick shift because it was most fun that way and, as a simple pleasure, it gave him total control.

    Tony and Mary lived in Ypsilanti, Michigan, close enough to Detroit, the nation’s automotive nerve-center. At age 78, Tony had eased back from his writing at Car and Driver magazine; I was never sure it was his own call, because a new generation was taking over, and he kept free-lancing wherever he could.

    Writers rarely talk or write about other writers, but I will. Anyone who read about cars for the last few decades has read something by Tony, in one of those “buff” magazines. Others will write about what a great guy he was, a warm human behind that curmudgeon-like demeanor. I will simply say that he was that, but he also was the most skillful writer for every publication he worked for.

   Tony grew up in the western suburbs of Minneapolis, near Lake Minnetonka.  He was a couple years older than I, and we hit it off because we both had cynical senses of humor, and we could crack each other up anytime we got together. I left for a two-year experience writing at the Duluth News Tribune, then accepted an offer from the prestigious sports department of the Minneapolis Tribune about the time Tony got a job writing sports at the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

    The papers were bitter rivals, but Tony and I stay friends while competing in print, both covering hockey all winter and motorsports all summer. We never told our papers, but when we were sent off to cover Glen Sonmor’s University of Minnesota hockey team for a heated series with Badger Bob Johnson’s Wisconsin outfit, Tony and I would share a drive from Minneapolis to Madison. We kept each other awake, and in stitches, when we drove home through the night after the Saturday game. We’d make a stop for soup, a sandwich, or a piece of pie at Grandma Smrekar’s all-night cafe at Millston, Wis., and invariably we’d end up laughing like fools over something that a normal human might find inconsequential.

   Tony left the Pioneer Press to join an attempt by a suburban paper into a special-edition sports scheme. It didn’t work and was disbanded, leaving Tony out of writing while I was on an upward trajectory writing sports and an automotive column for the Tribune. I was flattered that management, advertising, and, most importantly, readers enjoyed my take on both subjects..

   I was more flattered when Better Homes & Gardens, the huge, slick and world famous magazine, produced in Des Moines, wanted to interview me to take over their monthly auto column. They flew me to Des Moines and made me a very solid offer. I paused, because at the time I was free to cover the best hockey games at every level in Minnesota every all winter, and auto racing all summer, with my auto column year-round. I couldn’t see moving from the Twin Cities to Des Moines and giving up sports and cars for just cars

   So I turned them down, but I suggested that I knew an exceptional writer who might be perfect for their job, and how to reach Tony Swan. He jumped at it, and stayed with it, moving to the West Coast as it morphed into a travel feature, the perfect launching pad to join AutoWeek, then Cycle World, then Motor Trend and Popular Mechanics, before relocating back in the Midwest in Detroit to write for Car and Driver.

    We stayed connected at auto shows and other places. Covering a race at Donnybrooke Speedway stands out, because Tony was doing a lengthy report on a Peugeot diesel, which he drove from Detroit, timing his trip so he could visit his family on Lake Minnetonka and cover the road race. Those of us who regularly made that trek from the Twin Cities to what became BIR took the smaller but faster and less-congested Hwy. 25 north off Interstate 94 and straight into Brainerd. The Peugeot Diesel was a great long-running car but not fast, being before turbocharging came into fashion. So when Tony stepped on the gas, there was no evidence the pedal had any connection to the engine for a mile.

    The only car on the road with him was just ahead, some guy who didn’t want his big American car to be passed by that foreign thing. Whenever Tony pulled out to pass him, the other car would accelerate just enough to stay ahead, then slow down until Tony would try again. It was maddening to Tony, so he plotted ahead, where he knew of one particular 4-way stop in an otherwise deserted rural area. Approaching that intersection, you could see for a mile ahead and both ways on the crossroad. So Tony backed off a bit,  and when the other driver started to slowed down for the stop, Tony had stayed hard on the gas and pulled out, flying through the four-way stop and passing him at 75 just as his tormentor came to a complete stop, settling that issue.

    Swan was one of the founders of the North American Car of the Year award, given out every year since 1993 by a panel of selected journalists. In its second year, Tony called me and invited me to join the jury. It wasn’t out of friendship, but because he respected all I had done as the only person writing about cars in Minnesota. I enjoyed my 13 years on that jury, contributing several suggestions that I thought helped streamline the selection process and gaining publicity for the award. Years later, a fellow decided to cut me from the group, for his own reasons, and Tony fought the move and led a group that argued in my favor. I’m forever indebted to him for his attempts to aid my cause in what had become a hotly political group.

    I was flown to San Antonio for a new vehicle introduction in April of  2017, and as I left my plane and entered the gate area, I spotted Tony sitting in a chair, writing something on his computer while he operated his cell phone, which was plugged in recharging at the same time. I couldn’t resist shooting a photo of it, because Tony didn’t see me, and while he looked like Mr. High Tech at the time, I knew he hated all these new-fangled devices.

   By then, Tony had been diagnosed with cancer, and had explained it to me in considerable detail. He was optimistic about beating it, and continued testing cars, writing about them, and racing in his vintage class as he tried some new procedure. He fought it, and won a few rounds, but it was sinister and kept coming back or worsening. He’d pursue the every suggested treatment, but the dreaded disease would circle back and strike somewhere else.

   All the while, his weight, and his strength, were being diminished, but not his spirit. I tried to cheer him up to keep fighting, knowing well that he would, by phone calls, e-mails, or phone voice-messages.

   In early September, after reading an intriguing article on immunotherapy and its potential to fight cancer, I summoned Tony’s phone number but I didn’t want to disturb him with a call, so I sent him an email and follow-up text message asking if he’d ever tried it. He responded brusquely: “I’ve had experience with two different immunotherapy drugs, with very little luck…Who is this?”

   I apologized and told him who I was, saying maybe my phone wasn’t coded into his, and I had sent a text message because I wasn’t sure the e-mail had gone through. He responded to thank me for the thought and explained he was doing daily radiation for a month, “…to shrink a series of surface tumors marching down my chest…I’m pretty close to out of options. If I’m lucky with these treatments, maybe I’ll see another birthday. (May.)”

    Later, I attended another introduction where he had canceled. So I explained some neat technical features on the new vehicle to keep him updated, and I used text messaging again — the rest of my family’s favorite method of communication. Tony responded and talked about other models that had been engineered impressively.

   The he abruptly finished with a comment: “Where did you get this numbered e-mail? Not a good idea, in my estimation.”

   I sent him a gentle response, trying to avoid sounding condescending, and saying: “…this is text-messaging, a seemingly more efficient, if trendy, contact method.”

   Then I realized, here was this master auto reviewer who can understand the finer engineering points of a new car, and he still didn’t like things that were fancier than need be, and he had never heard of text messaging, or willingly engaged in it. Numbered e-mail? I loved it.

   Tony and Mary drove to the Twin Cities to see family member again in late September, and Mary helped him attend a Gopher football game by wheelchair. It was perhaps too much for him. On their drive home, they decided to drive south, which was fortunate, because Tony had some serious issues that caused them to make a side-trip to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. They get him patched together for the rest of the long drive, and Mary noted on his Caring Bridge page that he finally agreed to go right into hospice care upon their return.

   She also alerted us that the end was near a few days later, in midweek. Joan and I talked about it, both knowing that our attempts to send thoughts, prayers, inspiration, and maybe even cosmic energy had become futile. I sent him a final note — by e-mail, this time — recounting Grandma Smrekar’s and other good times from our past. I told him we would keep hoping for a miracle, but if he had gotten weary of the fight, we hoped he could find some pain-free and peacefulway to relax and rest. I closed with: “We love you, man.”

   I went to bed and slept hard, but I woke up four or five times, and each time I was surprised that my thoughts were focused on Tony Swan. When it was time to get up, as the first sunlight ventured across Lake Superior, I noted the trees in our yard blowing back and forth with great force from the persistent wind gusts. Then I spotted the Caring Bridge notification from Mary that said Tony had peacefully ended his battle overnight.

   It called for one final message to Mary, where I offered our sincere condolences, and described the oddity of waking up repeatedly through the night, focused on Tony each time, and then spotting the trees being blown back and forth. I submitted to her that Tony will always be with us, and maybe the wind-blown trees meant it was Tony’s spirit, making one more lap around his beloved Minnesota. 

    Rest easy, Tony.

Audi A4 matures into sports-luxury sedan

September 27, 2018 by · Comments Off on Audi A4 matures into sports-luxury sedan
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

All grown up in its fifth generation, the 2018 Audi A4 is now an entry-luxury sedan.

By John Gilbert

    The first Audi A4 was built back in 1994 and introduced to the U.S. as a 1995 model. That was 23 years ago, and the car remains near and dear to my heart because that also was the year I was invited to join the North American Car of the Year jury.

   Rookie or not, I was fully confident in voting for the all-new Audi A4 because it met and exceeded all the criteria for being new, uniquely styled, for having high technology, and for being a superb car to drive.

   Audi had built great cars in Ingolstadt, Germany, for many years before that, but the A4 was a breakthrough as a moderately priced and moderately sized sedan, combining the luxury of the larger Audi autobahn cruisers and the fuel-efficiency so important to buyers world wide. Audi started out racing cars as Auto Union, which brought several companies together to compete with Mercedes and, later, BMW.

   For a number of years, and through four generations of improved technology, the A4 was one of the best bargains in the automotive world, available starting on the bargain side of $30,000. It was always a well-balanced, safe car, and it had the quattro system of all-wheel drive that Audi had devised and was already acclaimed worldwide. The front-wheel-drive A4 was a good deal, but the quattro model was only a $1,500 hit on the sticker. Wise consumers learned early that for $1,500, you not only gained all-wheel drive, but when you traded it in five years later, it was worth about $3,000 more with quattro.

    The quattro concept was based on performance. When going around a tight curve the outside two wheels have to turn farther than the inside, so Audi’s quattro — lower-case letters, please — provided more torque to the outside wheels in curves. While helping speed and roadholding in racing curves, the quattro system provided improved safety and control on highways and streets in all weather conditions, as an exponent.

   A lot of years have passed since 1995, and the number of fantastic cars has proliferated beyond the scope of what any of us foresaw back then. But it all came back to me recently when I had a chance to spend a week with a 2018 Audi A4 quattro, with a manual 6-speed transmission.

 

A little longer, a lot more stylish and luxurious, the Audi A4 stands out.

  The car, now in its fifth generation, was dark red, called Matador Red metallic, and its understated luxury radiated whenever or wherever you parked it or drove it. Driving the car is a real treat, continuing a trait common to all Audis. The A4 has grown, or maybe matured is the best word, because it’s no longer the company’s efficiently stubby entry-level sedan, a role now filled by the very neat A3, allowing the A4 to age gracefully, retaining its sporty demeanor as it has grown into an “entry-luxury” car — a downsized version of the higher end A5, A6, A7 and A8 models.

   Climbing aboard, you are taken with the feel of security and luxury, from the leather seats and soft-touch dashboard and finely fitted seams everywhere. The supportive bucket seats amplify that feeling, all before you’ve even started playing with the instrumentation, which I find the most impressive of any manufacturer in the world. More on that later.

   The sticker delivered a bit of shock to my system. The A4 quattro listed for $40,500, which wasn’t bad, but as tested the car stood at $51,650. The high-tech stuff that all compiled on board as options can justify even that price, but it is a stretch upward from entry-level.

   Under the hood, the tried and true 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine is turbocharged to deliver 252 horsepower and 273 foot-pounds of torque. The 6-speed stick is a treat, especially with the quattro system’s ability to cling to the roadway when you drive aggressively around curves.

The 2018 A4 Sport quattro has a personal cockpit style and dashreplicated nav screen.

    It also comes with start-stop to save you some gas at stoplights, leather seats, a power panoramic sunroof, and all the safety stuff, such as multiple airbags, Audi’s antilock brakes with accompanying electronic brake-force assist and the ability to prevent low-speed collisions in city driving. Full stabilization control also joins the standard equipment list.

   The Premium Plus package adds 18-inch styled wheels, a Bang & Olufsen sound system with 3D sound, a built-in alarm with motion detector, LED headlights (to go with the standard LED taillights), and the Navigation and Telematics package with Audi’s unique navigation system for the virtual cockpit, boost the price by over $6,000. And the Sport Plus package is worth another $3,400, with dynamic steering, sport seats and adaptive sport suspension, plus the S-Line interior trim to set your car apart from other A4s.

   While the driving is what leaves the best impression, there are some surprises there, too. The coordination between the impressive turbo power, the transmission, and the direct fuel-injection feeds the computer and allows tremendous flexibility in performance. You can take off as hard as you want, and even with a stick, you can enjoy shifting a lot or relax and shift only a little.

  

The new A4 price reflects its new stature, technology, and style.

If you approach an intersection in, say, fourth gear, as you decelerate and see there’s nothing coming, you can downshift and get more revs immediately, or simply step on the gas and let the computer pull out a bit more torque for a smooth and easy rise from crawl speed.

   Also, more than once I got onto the freeway, shifting up to fourth gear, and then, hearing no complaints from the engine, forgetting to go up to fifth or sixth because it cruised so easily at 70 that I forgot I was only in fourth. Even with a few of those brain-fades, we got over 30 miles per gallon, and a couple times reached the EPA highway estimate of 33.

   If you chose the front-wheel-drive A4, you might get more gas mileage, with EPA highway estimates of 37, but I would bet in many cases the mileage would be almost identical. And if you’ve ever driven up the hills of Duluth, Minnesota, and realize what winter storms can be like, you might trade a couple mpg for the all-wheel drive quattro.

   My favorite feature might be the aforementioned nav screens. The normal center-stack screen does a good job, and can have its information screens altered easily by a console knob. Playing around with it, I found that you can have a flat map of streets and so forth, or you can switch it and come up with a Google Maps screen, which is from actual satellite photos, with building, street and tree detail. Impressive. And very neat.

   Meanwhile, the steering wheel is loaded with technology itself, and one of the features is that you can alter the look of the instrument panel, which starts with  the normal large tachometer on the left and large speedometer on the right, with a panel between them for various items you select. One of those items is to duplicate the nav screen.

   Sure enough, you get the nav map between the tach and speedometer. But if you click it again, it goes to the Google Map real-life satellite view. And if you click it still more, the large tach and speedometer shrink to about one-fourth their size, out on the extremities of the whole instrument panel, and the Google Map screen spans from left to right, a panoramic view of the area ahead of your car, only much clearer.

Panoramic view shows home, neighborhood.

Normal gauges can be reduced in size.

Navigation can select Google Maps view.

It is so amazing, I parked in my driveway and played with it for several minutes after getting to my rural home. I enlarged the panoramic view of my location until it showed my position in my driveway’s turn-around area, as well as my house and garage and tree-lined driveway. I magnified it more until it felt like I was parachuting down into my property.

    Come to think of it, you can have your autonomous self-driving vehicle. I’ll take the A4; I believe you could tape over the windshield and drive from here to Chicago by using only the nav screen on the instrument panel for your forward vision.

   By the way, I still believe I was right voting for the Audi A4 as Car of the Year back in 1994. Nobody can remember what actually won, but the A4 was the best and most enduring car of that year, and it is still among the best cars in the world.

   

Mazda6 adds turbo power in 2018 model

September 21, 2018 by · Comments Off on Mazda6 adds turbo power in 2018 model
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 
An all-new Mazda6 is due in 2019, but Mazda couldn't wait, spiking the 2018 with a turbocharged engine.

After an upgraded 2017.5 model, the 2018 Mazda6 becomes a hot performer with a turbo version of its 2.5 engine.

By John Gilbert

    It’s easy to poke fun at Mazda’s trademark “Zoom-zoom” catch-phrase, but for the 2018 Mazda6, the company could simplify it to “ZOOM!”

   The sportiness inherent in all Mazda products is real, and while the bold-face type and italics are mine, the new Mazda6 has earned them by spiking the previous Mazda6’s personality with a turbocharger to turn the top model with the enhanced 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine into a sizzling performer.

   Mazda resisted turbocharging since redesigning its 2.0 and 2.4 with the company’s revolutionary Skyactiv engine concept, which calls for holistic, clean-sheet design incorporating all the latest techniques in harmony to extract every bit of power and fuel-efficiency. The finished product came with a 13-to-1 compression ratio but still burned best with 87 octane regular fuel.

   When the company’s largest SUV, the CX-9 was redesigned, Mazda, which had dropped its V6 engine, still had to compete with the V6es in comparative Honda, Toyota, Nissan and U.S. vehicles. Easiest way to do that was to turbocharge the 2.5 in the CX-9, and it worked more than just satisfactorily.

   Mazda technology is unfolding almost too fast, and a totally redesigned Mazda6 is scheduled for sometime in 2019, but meanwhile, the already sleek Mazda6 got a feature and interior upgrade for mid-2017, called the 2017.5 model. The 2018 Mazda6 doesn’t look different at a glance, but to take on competition such as the all-new Honda Accord the latest Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry, Mazda figured to shift the turbo 2.5 from the big SUV into the Mazda6 midsize sedan.

   The very classy 2018 Mazda6 Signature model I got for a Labor Day week’s test drive was equipped with the 2.5-liter turbocharged 4, and the turbo’s 225 horsepower and 310 foot-pounds of torque — which would have been impressive for a V6 just a couple of years ago — were startling upgrades from the 184 horses and 185 foot-pounds of the normally aspirated 2.5.

As midsize cars stretch into the larger segment, the Mazda6 displays the class of a luxury car.

   A footnote to the preferences of U.S. buyers to go after SUVs, pickup trucks, or compact cars, my suspicion is that the sedan category might be streamlining itself in the future, because the newest midsize cars are as big and roomy as large cars have been. And the midsizers outperform their heftier relatives with ease.

   I love to drive hot cars that might be overpowered but fun, but I also can appreciate the fine engineering of certain high-tech advancements in whatever size. I always was aware the previous 2.5 lacked the sudden jolt of larger engines on initial takeoff, but it also revved easily and readily to real-world levels. So I found the normally aspirated 2.5 more than adequate in the 2017.5 model I reviewed early in the 2018 calendar year.

   In fact, that one was a stunning red color, so when the new grey Mazda6 appeared — called, boringly, “Machine Gray Metallic” — I was a bit let down, thinking it was just more of the same car.

   The car looked classy, so classy that I thought it had traded sportiness for class in the exchange. Then I opened the door and saw the deep-chestnut Nappa leather seats and the revised interior. More class, without depicting sportiness. After that, I climbed behind the steering wheel into the well-supported driver’s seat and hit the start button. Shifting into “D,” I hit the gas, and, without question, instead of “Zoom-zoom” I had “ZOOM!” at the touch of my right toe.

 

Comfort and features join in the revised Mazda6 interior appointments.

  The largest and roomiest of Mazda’s sedans is clearly designed and built to take on the best from Honda, Toyota and Nissan, and even their upscale arms of Acura, Lexus and Infiniti, for zip, and still provide over 30 miles per gallon when you keep your foot off the gas.

   By Skyactiv tradtion, Mazda engineers go well beyond mere engine power. The new Mazda6 handles with quick-steering and firmed up suspension front and rear, bolstered by stabilizer bars at both ends, and you the little toggle switch on the console is a big benefit if you want to delve deeper into sporty handling. Switching it without even looking, you can alter suspension firmness, the Mazda-built automatic’s shift points, and the quick and precise steering to comfort or sporty choices. I never found the sporty settings to be harsh, and at its sportiest, they do noticeably add performance and handling quickness to the car.

    Quite amazingly, the tightening of the settings combined with the instant power of the turbocharged engine makes the 2018 Mazda6 perform much more like a sports sedan than a luxury car, despite its classy good looks.

    Sticker price was $34,750 on the loaded Signature model, with virtually all features standard. Not only does that include about every imaginable comfort and safety feature, it also includes the subtle G-vectoring system, which ingeniously alters power to the outside front drive wheel to create an almost-instinctive inducement when making a sharp turn, resulting in far less need for steering correction.

Shifter is joined by a control knob for display features, and a toggle to alter handling levels.

    There is never any doubt that the focus is on driving precision and astute control, and the features on the Signature model reflect that. Dynamic stability control, traction control, hill-launch assist, and the battery of recent driver/safety  aids such as blind-spot monitoring, radar cruise control, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist, the suite of antilock brakes and electronic braking assist, with smart braking assist, are all present and appreciated.

    Structurally, the Mazda6 feels stronger because of the improved Skyactiv body ring structure, which encircles the occupant compartment with high-strength steel rings, improve the structural rigidity and secure feel that’s relayed through the steering wheel.

   The LED headlights are bright and feature a precise cutoff, and also have automatic on and off when set to operate it, and are supported by LED taillights and daytime running lights, and adaptive headlights also bend around curves up ahead. Tire-pressure monitors let you know if any tire loses a few pounds of air pressure.

   The manual mode on the console-mounted shifter are useful, although the steering-wheel paddles are my choice for manually shifting up or down without taking your hands off the wheel. Great for accelerating, and also excellent for dropping down a couple gears to help slow you descending hills.

   All the latest connectivity items also came on the Signature model, with a navigation system, USB audio, and trip computer all readily spotted on the heads-up display or the 8-inch color touch-screen, and all important controls are remotely operated with steering wheel buttons. The only place Mazda might have gone overboard is in eliminating its previous simplicity in offering a simple round knob or two to adjust volume and station selection.

Steering wheel remote switches enhance driving control, and heads-up display helps you spot deer crossing the road.

   Ventilated and heated front buckets are power operated, with two preset settings. The 19-inch wheels are fitted with all-season tires, and rain-sensing and de-icing wipers are appreciated.

   When all of those features are combined in one very attractive sedan, the case could be made to find a Mazda dealer and negotiate for the 2018 model. We can assume, based on Mazda’s creative styling studios, that the 2019 will be spectacular. We can wait for whatever surprises Mazda might have coming next year, but for now, all of the latest high-tech features are already out, on the 2018 Mazda6.

   Including Zoom-zoom tweaked to full “Zoom!”

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