Featured Reviews

Golf SE Conquers 29 Below, Guided by Wolf Moon

Who needs street lights when you have a gigantic Wolf Moon to guide your Volkswagen Golf SE across Minnesota's sub-zero chill?

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Restyled Ford Edge comes in sportiest ST form to leave Lake Superior ice fishermen out in the cold.

Sporty Edge ST Features Can Fool You

Ford put a new face on its midsize Edge and gave it an ST sporty version, which was the perfect vehicle for facing Minnesota's harsh winter.

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Accord is bigger and bertter for 2019, and the hybrid version adds power and fuel economy.

Accord Hybrid Over-Runs Demands of Family Sedan

With new engines and a new platform and body, the newest generation Accord moves to the upper echelon of midsize sedans with a high-tech hybrid.

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Trusty 2007 family Mini Cooper proved loyal conveyance through all-night blizzard.

Good 'Ol Mini Weathers the Worst Weather

SUVs make sense in winter, but when we were left with only our decade-old 2007 Mini Cooper, it carried through one of Minnesota's heartiest overnight blizzards, with dignity.

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All-wheel-drive platform with 1.6 Turbo and 7-speed dual-clutch are all Kona assets.

High-tech, Low Price Make Kona New Car Pick of the Year

In the surge toward SUVs, the Hyundai Kona is inexpensive, packed with features, fdun to drive -- and is the 2019 New Car Pick of the Year.

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Holiday gifts can come in all sizes, including cars, and topping our suggestions is the duel between the Mazda CX-3, left, and the Hyundai Kona -- both small, inexpensive SUVs.

Holiday gifts range from cars to tires to starters

Holiday gifts can range from costly to inexpensive, including compact SUVs that are in the mid-$20,000 range, including the Mazda CX-3, left, and the Hyundai Kona.

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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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Golf SE Conquers 29 Below, Guided by Wolf Moon

February 21, 2019 by · Comments Off on Golf SE Conquers 29 Below, Guided by Wolf Moon
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Call it Wolf Moon or Blood Moon, the January scene required pulling off for a Hwy. 210 photo.

BEMIDJI, MN.
People in Chicago, or Detroit, or Minneapolis, always nod and say they know what you mean when you say it’s cold in Northern Minnesota. But they don’t. They think “cold” means it was uncomfortably cold, maybe zero, or 10 above, which can be uncomfortable, all right.

Then there’s Bemidji, Minnesota. Paul Bunyan Land, we’re told, and the gigantic statue of Paul and Babe the Blue Ox, which greets you as you enter Bemidji from the south, is their emblem, standing there rigidly on the shores of Lake Bemidji. They are rigid, because it’s 29 below zero outside on this bright and sunny morning in January. Twenty-nine. And we’re not talking wind-chill here, it was minus-29 actual.

Perfect conditions for a test drive of the 2019 Volkswagen Golf SE, a new model to add to the impressive collection of Golf small sedans. We used to be able to say coupes and sedans, but VW decided not to bring even the GTI 2-door to the U.S. this year, so the hot-rod GTI with all its fantastic handling and power comes only as a 4-door.

Of course, there are other Golf models, including the Golf R, which is an all-wheel-drive version of the GTI, and there is the SportWagen, an actual sporty station wagon based on the Golf platform. The Jetta, which began life as a 4-door-with-trunk version of the Golf hatchback, is now separate, although with the same new platform and a unique 1.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder at the base of its powertrain. As a group, Motor Trend named the redesigned Golf as its Car of the Year for 2018.

For 2019, Golf adds the Jetta’s highly efficient 1.4 Turbo engine in base SE.

When I heard the vehicle that would be delivered to me in Duluth, Minnesota, would be the new Golf SE, I was more than just interested. After all the big changes for 2018, there were only some minor alterations for 2019, but among them is that VW has taken the 1.4 and put it into two Golf models — the base S and the nicely upgraded SE. Having driven that engine in the Jetta, and being very impressed, it seemed silly that it wasn’t already put into the Golfs, but what did I know?

Well, I knew that as amazingly consistent and strong as the 2.0 and its 1.8 derivative have been over the years, that the 1.4 is from an all-new engine family, and is even more efficient than the redoubtable 1.8 and 2.0.

My wife, Joan, had been planning on driving across to the western end of Minnesota to visit her sister, who was celebrating her birthday in Fergus Falls, so I came up with the ideal compromise. We could drive up Hwy. 2 from Duluth to Bemidji on Friday, stay overnight, and drive south to Fergus Falls on Saturday afternoon, in time to take everybody out to dinner.

The intriguing part of my plan is that the Minnesota Wild and Fox Sports North television have been collaborating for several years on what they call Hockey Day Minnesota. They set up an outdoor rink in a selected town, then they coordinate to spend the whole day putting on return-to-your-roots hockey games between boys and girls high school teams and a couple of college games for good measure, and get the whole thing done in time for the Saturday night Wild game back in the warm confines of Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul.

We’d had a pretty mild winter through December,

Familiar Golf square rear houses rear seat occupants and storage with roominess.

with temperatures that were about 20 degrees above normal. We knew that when we made our plans, and we also knew a cold front was coming through the state, pushed down like a giant hammer-strike from somewhere up near the Arctic Circle.

Doesn’t matter to us, we thought. Having driven the Golf around Duluth most of the week, with one trip to Minneapolis and back, there was nothing to cause hesitation about taking off to Bemidji. The SE model has some nice upgrades to the interior, and a few other refinements, such as satellite radio and power leatherette seats and a lot of storage room under the hatch, and a wheel-tire upgrade. The beauty of the Golf SE is that, along with the base S, you can get the SE with a 6-speed manual transmission, and that’s the way the grey test car came,

We took off on our northwesterly trajectory up Hwy. 2, through Grand Rapids and on to Bemidji, where we had already found good fortune by getting a hotel room in advance because of a cancellation. Hockey Day Minnesota has become such a big deal that people were coming from all directions, even driving a couple hours south to find rooms near Brainerd.

Volkswagen’s ability to make such a solid, strong, and peppy compact car in this SUV era is partially due to German engineering, partially due to the consistency of making a great engine and then refining it, but mostly because the German company is desperate to regain the favor of U.S. car buyers after the weird diesel issue, which seems to have affected every auto-maker that uses diesel engines, but VW was the prime target of fines and retribution. Those TDI golfs and Jettas routinely gave owners over 40 miles per gallon with strong cruising performance and a longevity factor routinely topping 300,000 miles. With diesels effectively eliminated from the VWs sold in the U.S., the company has engineered gasoline engines that are almost as economical.

Golf 2-doors are no longer sold in the U.S., with the roomy 4-door even including GTI.

While the Golf SE displayed predictable stability and excellence where steering and handling come together, its tiny 1.4 engine performed brilliantly. Now, the 1.4 turbo will never be accused of emulating a drag-racer, because it is so small that it doesn’t have a blast of power off the line. The 147 horsepower are more than adequate, and the 184 foot-pounds of torque are more than adequate. You just need to launch, build up the revs, and it can impersonate a hot-rod. For certain, it has enough oomph to accelerate out into freeway traffic without causing any obscene gestures from approaching cars.

But here’s the secret: You can approach or get above 40 miles per gallon in fuel economy with a little judicious use of the gas pedal. I did it, as the photo indicates, with a reading of 36.9 mpg after 408.7 miles of travel. When you break down the fuel companies charge for diesel fuel, compared to the SE’s regular gas, any advantage to the diesel’s edge in mpg is pretty well eliminated.

I still love the feeling of outright power from the turbo-diesel, but it’s remarkable how well VW has adapted to customers who want extremely high mileage.

Of course, the severe cold we hadn’t fully comprehended when we left made an instant impression on us when we got to Bemidji. As Bemidji State defeated Michigan Tech on the outdoor rink Friday night, in a 4-3 overtime classic, the temperature was heading downward. By morning, we learned it had hit an actual early-morning low of 29 below. As they like to boast up north, someone pointed out that International Falls, just a couple hours to the north and east, had 37 below!

Encapsulating comfort from bucket seats includes those in the rear, as well.

The SE didn’t have a heated steering wheel, but it did have heated seats, which we have come to believe is a mandatory option for any car being bought to drive in Northern Minnesota wintertime. They worked quickly and in a matter of a couple miles you were dropping it down from three, to two, to one on its indicator. If you want heated steering wheel, I understand; but wear gloves, and accept the coziness of having a warmed-up posterior.

A highlight of the drive from Duluth to Bemidji was spotting a huge bald eagle perched halfway up a tree along Hwy. 2, and we saw another near Aitkin. But as we were driving eastward along Hwy. 210 near McGregor the true highlight of the entire trip was in front of us. They call it a Blood Moon, and the Ojibways call it a Wolf Moon, but because of its proximity of closeness to the Earth, it rises with what seems to be supernatural hugeness, and it has a distinct red color.

We stopped to shoot some photos, and they are amazing. We cruised along getting 37.1 mpg for a high, and it was fascinating to see the woods and fields and houses along the way, lighted by that glorious moon. And we listened to the NFL playoff game on satellite radio with nary a glitch — except by the officials when the Los Angeles Rams great New Orleans in overtime. We also heard the first half of the New England-Kansas City game in the car before getting home to watch the rest on television. When the Patriots had beaten KC in the second overtime game of the day, we got a call from our son reminding us about the total lunar eclipse that was about halfway done.

Golf SE with 1.4 Turbor registered 39.9 at one juncture, over 40 other times.

Sure enough, that huge, red moon that had served as a gigantic street light all the way home was just going behind the earth’s shadow to be completely obscured. What a sky show, all in one evening.

There was plenty of room for four adults in the 4-door Golf SE, and it has as much comfort and headroom and legroom as it does performance. The soft-touch fabrics on the dashboard and doors gives it a luxury feel compared to the base Golf, which starts at right about $20,000.

The SE starts at $24,145, and includes the new engine in the new platform, with 16-inch alloy wheels and a 10-to-1 compression ratio calling for 87 octane regular. That makes it more of a bargain.

Sporty Edge ST Features Can Fool You

February 21, 2019 by · Comments Off on Sporty Edge ST Features Can Fool You
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Restyled Ford Edge in sportiest ST form leaves Lake Superior ice fishermen out in the cold.

The fellows who carry out the delivery and pickup of test-drive vehicles to auto journalists who drive, evaluate and report on those new cars do an amazingly efficient job, making sure the vehicles are clean, fueled and ready to be driven. But sometimes extenuating circumstances can get in the way.

When I got a 2019 Ford Edge ST for a week, it happened to coincide with what might have been the harshest week in the harshest January winter weather to hit Minnesota in at least a couple of decades. The car washes were all closed up, wisely avoiding the 20-below temperature.

The week was long and cold, with heavy snow accenting the sub-zero plunge, and while none of that prevented me from fully appreciating the Edge’s new sportiest model, I had spent most of the week exploiting all the features and appreciating them greatly as we eased through the endless days of nasty weather.

Midsize Edge fits between the larger Explorer and more compact Escape in Ford’s SUV array.

We appreciated the firm chassis, and the upgraded suspension of the ST, and we also noted almost daily, sometimes more than once a day, how swiftly the seat heaters and heated steering wheel seemed to warm up. Some vehicle have heated seats but it seems like you have to drive 5 miles before you feel any warmth. Not the new Edge. It seemed like 8 or 10 blocks and you were feeling cozy through the seat cushion, which is welcome while you wait for the customary heat buildup.

On that start-up front, we also thoroughly appreciated the auto-start, wherein you remotely lock the doors, then hit the proper button on the key fob and the car starts itself. Good for a brief engine warm-up, and also good for getting a head start on loosening up the glacial deposits on the front and rear windows for a quick clearing.

I was getting a little curious, though, because everything about the Edge ST was so impressive, I wondered if we might find at least a nitpick to balance all the superlatives. We couldn’t complain or praise the “Performance Blue Metallic” exterior paint, because even though our older son, Jack, mentioned what an impressive shade of blue it was, we couldn’t really prove it, located as it was under this weeklong buildup of snow/salt/road-glop that we had not been enjoying.

Edge ST firmer suspension and sporty accents separate it from various other models.

Finally, the temperature crept up to 15 degrees last Saturday, and I took a chance. Sure enough, the coin-operated car wash on the eastern edge of Duluth, Minnesota, had taken down its boldly lettered “Closed” sign. I pulled in, and nobody else was risking it, so I flung the door up and pulled inside. I had four $1 bills, which was just enough to get you 4 minutes of heavy soap spray, and then a swift rinse to get rid of all that glop. The timer ticks each second off, and a nasty alarm alerts you that you’re in your final minute, and if you’re smart you’ll add more money so that you don’t wind up with a soapy mess when you finish.

All went well, and in my practiced routine, I went in segments to make sure I didn’t miss the left side, front, right side, and rear with the soap wand. Then I quickly switched to rinse and noted I only had 1:30 left. I took care of the left rear corner, then the left side, then the windshield, hood and left front corner. I knew the time was going, and it was going to be close. Got the black-out grille, the foglight and then the right front fender, right side and on back.

Noticing I only had about 30 seconds left, I hustled, and started rinsing the rear hatch. Moving from right to left, I had just reached the far left side when a sudden little noise startled me, and the entire hatch started to flip up. I tried to change hands and push it back down, but it was resisting. I continued around the left rear corner and the water stopped. Out of time.

Hanging up the wand and tubing, I couldn’t resist shooting one photo in the foggy, muggy car wash with the hatch open. Of course, I realized quickly what had happened. The new war of features that Ford has so energetically engaged in has led the company to come up with a slick thing to aid those carrying grocery bags or armloads of luggage to stow, allowing the hatch to release and spring open just by waving your foot under the rear bumper. If you have the key fob in your pocket, the hatch opens.

…but in a car wash, be careful not to accidently step under the rear bumper!

A convenience is self-opening hatch when you reach foot under rear bumper…

That makes it extremely convenient for arms-full carrying and stowing, and I’m sure it’s an excellent reason to add the $5,585 “Equipment Group 401A” to your sticker price. But it might be something you wouldn’t so eagerly embrace if it guaranteed you a car wash that did the job both inside and out!

At last, I’d found a nit-pick I could challenge on the Edge ST! The rest of that particular option package included auto-start, perimeter alarm, dual-pane, full-length sunroof, touch-navigation, heated rear seats, evasive steering assist, adaptive cruise with lane-centering, and wireless charging pad. That goes over and above the normal features, such as leather seats, lane-keeping assist and the various vehicle control electronics and stability control stuff.

All the options pushed the price from $42,000 up to $49,430 for the loaded Edge ST with all-wheel drive and all the normal top-of-the-line features. The Ultimate might have more, but the ST adds the unmistakable edge, so to speak, of the enhanced suspension and steering that make the vehicle truly a sporty midsize SUV.

There are so many creature features on these new vehicles that in a small way it is justifiable that evaluators might miss proper evaluation of the drivetrain. We won’t do that. The assorted engines in the Edge include the 2.0 turbocharged 4, and the as-tested 2.7-liter twin-turbo upgraded V6 EcoBoost, with 335 horsepower and 380 foot-pounds of torque. I will tow 3,500 pounds in this form, with its 8-speed automatic transmission. And in the tweaked ST form, the Edge will go 0-60 in a scant 5.5 seconds. We got about 17 miles per gallon in the worst wintry city driving, and up to about 22 in short freeway treks.

Perfectly proportioned, the Edge ST is perfect for all but those needing a third row of seats.

Ford’s arsenal of SUVs have not been often enumerated, but in view of the company’s recent disclosure that it intends to eliminate cars such as the Focus, Fiesta, Fusion and Taurus, leaving only the Mustang among cars that will be salvaged to join the surge toward SUVs and trucks, it is important to not that the SUV array includes the tiny EcoSport, Escape, Edge, Explorer and Expedition. The puts the Edge smack in the middle, and it is well placed as the largest of the two-row-seat SUVs. You need a third row, go on up to the Explorer.

In most cases, three-row-seat SUV buyers tend to fold down the third row seat for luggage and hauling, so in reality, the Edge takes care of that for you.

Oh, and by the way, while making sure you don’t accidentally open the hatch in a car-wash, we really did love the unusual blue paint job.

Accord Hybrid Over-Runs Demands of Family Sedan

February 16, 2019 by · Comments Off on Accord Hybrid Over-Runs Demands of Family Sedan
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Accord is bigger and bertter for 2019, and the hybrid version adds power and fuel economy.

By John Gilbert

BELLINGHAM, WASH.

My first after-Christmas auto review was going to be on the 2019 Honda Accord Hybrid, with the spectacular backdrop of the Pacific Northwest and Mount Baker. But that was before I got carried away describing the life-saving performance of our family Mini Cooper, making it home from Minneapolis to Duluth in a 6-hour battle against ice and whiteout conditions.

There’s still time. We can go back and evaluate the Accord Hybrid, but I must admit to being distracted by the spectacular scenery. No, not distracted driving; we stopped to admire the breathtaking views.

Without a doubt, the new Accord makes a strong impression, whether looking at it, riding in it, or driving. The EPA estimates for gas mileage is 47 miles per gallon city, 47 highway, and 47 combined. Makes sense. The Accord also performs with a strong, sporty flair that parallels the new looks.

Sleek look of luxury has contours that tie Accord design together.

The tenth generation Honda Accord came out as a 2018 model, and it is a curvaceous, attractive sedan that seems bigger than midsize. With styling cues from the exotic NSX sports car, the virtually unchanged 2019 stops folks in their tracks with its looks, especially from the front, where its thin string of LED headlights underscores the exotic appearance.

You could say this isn’t your daddy’s Accord, except that I was playing the daddy role during the trip.

I got a chance to test drive the new Accord Hybrid on our family’s Christmas trip to the Seattle-Bellingham areas of Washington, and several things jumped out at us immediately. First, there is enough room in the rear seat to hold a small convention, and the roominess is better than some large cars.

Stunning sunsets illuminate the shadows of Bellingham’s harbor and the San Juan Islands off to the West.

Second, there is considerable power from the hybrid system, which has a combination of a 2.0-liter VTEC 4-cylinder engine and a rechargeable electric motor device that, combines, produces 212 horsepower. I have no doubt the Accord Hybrid could have handled our venture from Bellingham up to the ski stations at the top of Mount Baker, but since the area had just been hit by over 2 feet of snow, we would be wiser to make the trek in younger son Jeffrey’s 4×4 Tacoma pickup.

The third noteworthy feature was that Honda is going with a continuously variable transmission, an electrically operated unit that uses belts and pulleys to enlarge or diminish in a system of never-shifting but always-shifting. CVTs have the nagging tendency of droning like a one-speed outboard instead of the stepped peaks of a normal automatic transmission. Honda wisely adds paddle shifters on the steering wheel to allow the driver to simulate manually controlled shifts and alleviate some of that inherent boredom.

I would grade Honda’s effort at B-, for at least trying to make it sporty.

The best part of a hybrid is to approach the spirit of a gasoline engine and provide a large increase in fuel economy from the electric motor input, knowing that the gas engine can spend its spare time recharging the electrical power.

Going back a couple of decades, to when Toyota and Honda were ferocious rivals to establish the major footprint on the hybrid market, Toyota had the Prius and Honda the Insight, and both tried to figure out how to turn their immensely popular midsize sedans into hybrids, so Honda put its system into the Accord, ahead of Toyota putting its system into the Camry.

It was fun talking to engineers of both companies, and I recall attending the earlier Accord Hybrid introduction when I questioned the engineers about why — when the gas engine’s primary duty is to recharge the battery pack — Honda didn’t use its exceptional 4 instead of the larger V6. They had their reasons, but I followed by asking what would happen if Toyota used its 4 with the hybrid when the Camry came out. That’s what happened, and when the Camry flashed better fuel economy, Honda was quick to discontinue the Accord Hybrid.

Luxurious comfort from the supportive bucket seats make long-distance driving easy.

Hybrid technology has advanced all along, and the newest hybrids are remarkable in their smoothness and performance. Plug-in hybrids are even more efficient, and a logical step up as we transition toward all-electric vehicles. German hybrids from Audi, BMW and Mercedes have made their mark, and Hyundai has made amazing strides with among the highest technology in hybrids with the Ioniq and Sonata sedans, and the new Kona CUV.

Honda’s strategy is to bring out a newly designed Insight, while powering the rear wheels of its exotic NSX with electric motors, and bring back the Accord as a hybrid model. Most impressive, given that history, is that the new 2019 Accord Hybrid uses the potent corporate 2.0 4-cylinder engine to work with the electric power.

Because hybrid power is most efficient in stop and go traffic, city miles per gallon is usually higher than highway cruising — the opposite for gas-engine driving. Driving moderately can keep the gas mileage up near that magical 50 mark, and you certainly could top it with extra care.

When driving a hybrid, you want to let off the gas before needing to clamp hard on the brakes, and easing the brakes on for a slow stop enhances the recharging characteristics. Same with going down hills. In Duluth, for example, you might use a lot of available power zooming up the hills, but you also can recover a lot by braking lightly as you come back down.

The next most impressive thing about the Accord Hybrid is that it comes in a pretty loaded form, so no added options were necessary on our test vehicle, which had a bottom-line sticker of $35,605, decidedly reasonable because the standard roomy Accord sedan would cost just about the same, with the same features.

Those features include all the current items: rear camera, cross-traffic alert, lane keeping and lane departure assist, road-leaving mitigation, collision mitigation, remote start, front and rear parking sensors, and adaptive cruise. And it also adds some features that are pretty unique. Twelve-way power driver seat should keep you alert, but there also is a driver attention monitor to help keep you tuned in. Another is “walk-away locks,” which I wasn’t familiar with. But when we left the car unlocked briefly and came back to find it had locked itself, I was impressed. Honda always has been adept at unobtrusively making cars idiot-proof.

New-generation style, plus increased air-intake for hybrid engine cooling give Accord a distinctive look.

Honda always has been at the forefront of great handling and steering, too, and the Accord Hybrid takes that to a new level, with firm suspentsion and precise, line-carving trajectory around curves making full use of the well-tuned MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension, and proving it is possible to coordinate electric steering and shift control.

It would take longer than we had to get comfortable with tuning tricks for the audio system, where Honda seems to have subscribed to rivals who make the simple tasks that used to be operated by round knobs for volume and selection needlessly complex.

Wherever you look, though, you realize that if you just bought a contemporary, roomy 4-door sedan, you could pay $35,000; if you bought a different vehicle with a contemporary hybrid system, you could easily pay $35000. The Accord Hybrid gives you both — a roomy super-sedan that is quick and handles well, and a hybrid powertrain that meets all requirements and delivers exceptional economy.

Good ‘Ol Mini Weathers the Worst Weather

February 15, 2019 by · Comments Off on Good ‘Ol Mini Weathers the Worst Weather
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Trusty 2007 family Mini Cooper proved loyal conveyance through all-night blizzard.

‘Twas the night after Christmas  — OK, second night after Christmas — and all through the windblown snow not a creature was stirring on Interstate 35 between Minneapolis and Duluth, except for about a dozen other souls who had the same need to get there as we did.

Those others were in new pickup trucks or SUVs, mostly, and my wife, Joan, and I were in our trusty 2007 Mini Cooper, which has been our beloved companion for a decade and which has never let us down.

But this time was different. This time we were setting out from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport at 11 p.m. for what would normally be a two and a half hour drive. Maybe three. But if you recall the second day after Christmas this year, it rained in the Twin Cities, which equated to about 15 inches of nasty, windblown, crusty snow on the North Shore outside of Duluth, and the trip from the Twin Cities to Duluth displayed every mixture of the rain/snow extremes, as Mother Nature seemed intent on playing tricks on anyone foolish enough to drive through it.

Driving new cars is a pure joy, even when the evaluation process might add a harness on the outright pleasure I could otherwise derive from test-driving the newest vehicles from any and all manufacturers. I also have always loved the adrenaline high of driving through the worst possible winter conditions.

As challenging and enjoyable as it is to drive the newest cars through all conditions, there is no doubt that  the idea of owning a car means it must have all the attributes of a good Boy Scout — friendly, trustworthy, honest, loyal, thrifty, and all that.

Driving a car for a decade or so is one thing, and it is diametrically opposed to the switching from one new vehicle to another week after week for Newcarpicks test-drive reviews. Our family has found a reasonable solution, and that is to own a car that will work for the long haul. Joan generally does most of the driving in that vehicle, while I continue to test-drive new stuff, always encouraging her, and my sons, to also try the new cars and give me varied feedback.

At Christmas this year, we did what we’ve always wanted to do but have never before accomplished. I gathered up enough Delta SkyMiles coupons to get three round-trip tickets for Joan, our older son Jack, and me, to Seattle and back, to spend Christmas with our younger son, Jeff, in Bellingham, Washington.

Atop Mount Baker, the Gilbert Clan gathered: Joan, Jack, your faithful author, and selfie-shooter Jeff.

After talking over the most reasonable and efficient ways to pull it together, Joan and I decided to drive our 2007 Mini Cooper to pick up Jack on the way and head for the MSP air terminal. We did it and, thanks to Park and Go, we secured the car and got shuttled to the airport. It was a quick trip, as it always seems to be when you get your family together. The plan came about because Jeff was house-sitting — and mainly dog-sitting — for a good friend’s family, and they suggested inviting us out to stay at their place as well.

Wonderful time, with time to think amid the clamoring of the three household dogs. We’re getting to the age when we’ve stopped bugging our sons to get married and start families of their own. Apparently they’re having too much fun being single. But because of the unusually high number of close friends who have met untimely deaths in the past year, we need to savor every opportunity we have for the four of us to spend time together.

The majestic Mount Baker rises like a snow-covered beacon just east from downtown Bellingham.

We enjoyed seeing the sights of Bellingham, with the seaside sunsets to the West and the majestic Mount Baker to the East, and Jeff showed off his new Tacoma pickup by driving us to the top of the Mount Baker ski area, where we had a great lunch and more sightseeing. They went from not having enough snow to being dumped on for about a 3-4 foot base now.

The dogs were predictably crazy. The big one, Nova, a mixture that resulted in her looking a lot like the old RCA Victor dog, had been around the two tiny dogs — Beckham and Barbara — so much we think she thought she was a lot smaller than she is, and could play too rough with her adopted siblings. But we enjoyed them, with room to let them run every day.

The dramatic scenery from atop Mount Baker formed the backdrop for Jeff, Joan and Jack Gilbert.

When it came time to leave, Jeff went off to work, and we said our good-byes to the dogs, locked up, and hi tthe road for Seattle, a couple of hours away. All went well, but I had seen the forecast on my trusty iPhone’s weather app. We landed at MSP and got shuttled to our car and the driver told us it had snowed early, but then just rain, which washed away most of the snow. We loaded everything into the Mini’s astoundingly spacious capacity and headed up I-35E. After we dropped Jack off at his house, the rain had turned to what they call a “wintry mixture,” and by the time we got up to North Branch, it was snow, blowing horizontal.

I noticed the Mini’s tiny engine never hesitated, but I also noted that our Nokian WGR-3 tires must be showing signs of age, because the car’s front end wanted to wander a bit. That is not a good thing, on an icy and snow-covered surface.

At North Branch, we found ourselves behind two plow-trucks who were running side by side at about 35 miles per hour. That was fine with us, although a couple of aggressive drivers passed us and seemed impatient to go that slowly. The plow trucks exited at Pine City, and we were on our own. We were particularly on our own when the three or four cars that had been with us all took off and  disappeared in a cloud of blowing snow.

My sons both messaged us, urging us to stay at Jack’s, or at an inexpensive motel, but we wanted to get home — and to make a true confession here, I actually love to drive in severely harsh winter storms. That’s foolhardy, but ever since I learned to drive in winters on the Duluth hillsides, the adrenaline high I feel from the mandatory sharpened and heightened senses makes for a weird sense of achievement.

This was different, however. I apologized to Joan, because when she said she thought our tires might be wearing out, I scoffed that nearly worn-out Nokians were probably better than newer other tires. Curiously, the next day I stopped to see Jeff Hofslund at Foreign Affairs and told him of my concern, and that I was betting we’d gotten those tires five years ago. He looked it up on his slick computer and found that one day earlier was the five-year anniversary or our purchase of those tires. Driving them winter and summer, for about 50,000 miles, certainly had lessened their effectiveness.

That, of course, was after the fact. During the drive, we found no other cars out. The few who had driven off ahead were gone, and we never caught up to any others, and only two or three cars eased up behind us and passed, soon disappearing.

We didn’t keep up because the front end was wandering a bit, feeling like the bow of a speedboat in rough water. This wasn’t rough, it was completely smooth, but it also had a thorough covering of snow over the ice base underneath. We were driving with no lines visible, no side lane lines, no dotted center line, and no other tracks, with the passing cars tracks swiftly covered over.

Joan drifted off to sleep, assured that I was riveted to the task at hand, and I was glad she did. At least one of us could rest. The challenge of driving through what amounted to complete whiteout conditions presented interesting problems.

For example, there was no way to tell how much room there was on either side between the Mini and the edge of the road. So a few times, I eased over to the right until my tires caught the corrugated warning line for lane-departure, then I could ease back to what I figured was the center of the two lanes.

The Mini looked pretty sedate the morning after our ordeal.

I glanced at the clock on the Mini dashboard and it said 3:30, and we were a long way from home yet. When I got near the Cloquet exits, I knew we were almost there. Coming down Thompson Hill, another car approached from behind, apparently unaware of the icy coating under the snow on the freeway. We pulled over and let him go.

The biggest challenge was yet to come. I headed out onto the highway heading East out of Duluth, and got to our road. All that was left was two miles of a long incline and we’d be safe and at home. However, it was obvious that the road had been plowed, but it had to be hours earlier, and it surely needed another plowing. What was left was a crazy pattern of rough, rugged lanes carved by tires to leave hard ridges about a foot high running longitudinally like ribbons

The poor Mini was churning onward and upward, with the front end, led by the license plate, actually plowing up snow that flew over the hood. I kept going, and as we headed up our final hill, the traction-control warning light flashed repeatedly, meaning we were spinning more than we were moving. We made it up most of the final hill, but the spinning increased and the movement decreased, right up until we were sitting motionless in the middle of our road. I backed down, carefully, and tried again, but the same thing happened again.

Then I had an idea. I backed down to the bottom or our hill, where I trusted that a neighbor across the road might be plowed out. He was. So I swung the rear end into his driveway and backed in. Then I pulled out, carefully, aimed down the road. At that point, I shifted into reverse and started calmly and smoothly to back up the hill.

Now, front-wheel drive is good for almost every driving condition, but going up a hill, there is a slight weight transfer from front to rear, lifting the downforce from the front drive wheels. So when you back up, any weight transfer goes to the front end, where more weight it a benefit over the drive wheels.

Sure enough, I backed up the hill, watching carefully to see if any headlight glow ight be approaching, but there was none. Our neighbors are smarter than to venture out in those conditions. I kept backing up, closer and closer to our driveway, until I could back through the final 90-degree turn and make it. I backed in about two-thirds of the way into the driveway our neighbor had graciously tried to plow into the 15-inch depth that was there.

We climbed out, carried all our luggage, and made it into the house, warm and secure as it awaited our arrival. It was 5:30 a.m., and the trip that I have often made in a bit less than 3 hours had taken 6 and a half hours.

Jack said an emotional goodbye to, from left, Nova, Beckham, and Barbara, as we departed.

Both of our sons stayed up all night, texting Joan to check on our progress. They couldn’t believe we made it, and they couldn’t believe how long it took us. They are both great people, but, of course, I’m prejudiced. There’s also a sensitivity factor involved. As we were leaving for the Seattle airport, Jeff had already left for work. We all gave each dog a final petting, and I must admit that they could be nuisances for much of the time we were there, but we had become attached in four days. In fact, when Jack made his final rounds of petting, I detected a tear in his eyes at the sadness he felt for leaving those dogs.

And now we were home. It occurred to me, though, that the severe spinning I encountered trying to make our hill might have been an indication that I had caused some damage to the transmission, and that it was the transmission slipping rather than the tires. Worrying about that, I also realized we had to make it, as  matter of survival with each passing mile. We had to trust the Mini to carry us home, and it did.

Post-blizzard wash and our trusty Mini Cooper was ready to tackle winter anew.

At about noon, I ventured out to shovel my way to the car, worrying that there might be some damage to assess. I started it up, and it sprung to life. By then the roads and highways had been completely plowed, and I drove smoothly out onto our road, down the hill, and onto the freeway heading into Lester Park. I took it up to Foreign Affairs just to be reassured, and Jeff Hofslund laughed and said he knew the car would do the job, because he, too, owns one, which his wife likes so much she won’t let him sell it or trade it in.

If those rugged foot-high ruts of ice-hardened snow had broken something on the underside of the Mini, we would have had to consider it a necessary problem for getting home. I made an appointment to get some new tires, and an oil change, because the Mini was tougher than Old Man Winter’s icy blast. But it seemed the Mini had healed itself.

Because I rarely drive the car, I hadn’t realized there was a tiny little button on the console, just behind the shifter, where a driver couldn’t possibly see it. It was a button to engage the traction control. All the flashing lights I noticed blinking as we swayed on the icy freeway were blinking to notify me I was driving with the traction control inadvertently disengaged! I was blaming those aged Nokians  and the Mini itself, and now I realize both were blameless. A less-clueless driver might not even have lost traction.

Still, getting it thoroughly checked is the least we could do to pay the Mini back for such superb loyalty. And maybe we’ll get a dog.

High-tech, Low Price Make Kona New Car Pick of the Year

January 17, 2019 by · Comments Off on High-tech, Low Price Make Kona New Car Pick of the Year
Filed under: Features, Autos 

The Kona is Hyundai’s compact SUV, but it’s loaded with all the features of costlier vehicles.

By John Gilbert

   The Hyundai Kona has earned the unprecedented honor of being named the 2019 “New Car Pick of the Year,” satisfying both the nation’s insatiable appetite for SUVs with restraint provided by the rational input from those of us at the website newcarpicks.com.

   Among the numerous impressive and worthy vehicles filling every automotive segment these days, there are a number of worthy attractions for car buyers. But U.S. consumers have turned away from the lengthy list of outstanding new sedans and choosing to go with SUVs, the contemporary version of what we used to know as station wagons. Decades ago, we moved on to minivans, then to large SUVs, before falling back a bit to more reasonably sized sport-utility vehicles.

   Hyundai, the South Korean conglomerate that has spent less than a decade vaulting from a mediocre bit player in the economy car business to a sensational company that learned the secrets of high technology, styling, and mechanical wizardry and has combined them all into attractive and appealing vehicles.

   With the larger Santa Fe and Tucson SUVs finding success above a battery of fine cars from subcompact to luxury, the Kona is in a unique position to blend advanced styling and safe structure into a compact SUV — called CUV, for Compact Utility Vehicle. It is the perfect combination of all-weather all-wheel drive in a compact package large enough to carry some people, some luggage and equipment and yet small enough to be maneuverable — dare we say sporty? — in traffic congestion or twisty road regions. All of it comes in at a price that is remarkably reasonable, from $20,000-$30,000, which is just about half of what slightly larger SUVs try to command, even though they don’t have nearly the technical features that virtually fill the Kona.

 

Attractive contours highlight contemporary Kona, defying under-$30,000 price.

  This selection has no connection with the North American Car, Truck and Utility of the Year named this week at the Detroit International Auto Show. I was a member of that august jury for about a decade and a half, starting back when I spent 30 years writing about sports and cars at the Minneapolis Tribune. The North American Car of the Year jury decided to expand from a car of the year to add a companion truck of the year, and three years ago it added a separate SUV category, further diluting its choices.

    For the record, that group also named the Kona its Utility of the Year, joining the Ram 1500 as Truck of the Year, and the Hyundai G70 sedan as Car of the Year. It is nice timing that Hyundai just recently decided to branch its largest sedans off under the name of its Genesis sedan, so those who might discriminate may not even realize that Hyundai, from South Korea, just claimed two of the three biggest prizes at Detroit.

    Those three winners had been predicted in this column a couple of months ago, although we at newcarpicks.com remained undeterred about naming just one vehicle Car of the Year and taking it on as a project for the coming year to verify the choice. While test-driving every new vehicle that I can get my hands on, we will have our own Kona to run through long-term testing, with my wife, Joan, keeping track of every expense and describing little tidbits of pleasure or nitpicks we can find from driving and living with the vehicle. Occasionally our sons, Jack and Jeff, will provide further input.

 

Array of lights include LED headlights, with foglights, driving lights and foglights separated stylishly on Kona’s front end.

  The trend to go from cars to large SUVs never connected with us. My theory is “anything bigger than big enough is too big,” which was first aimed at gas-guzzling giant SUVs capable of hauling lots of large objects, even when you were commuting alone to work with no load.

    Coming down to midsize SUVs made a lot more sense, and the recent surge of compact or crossover SUVs, built on efficient and economical car platforms, started proving to be viable alternatives to cars. The fact that the reduced price of regular gas reaching down to under $2.15 per gallon, was mere coincidence, although some companies were able to capitalize doubly because they were building much more efficient powertrains to take on the costlier fuel prices.

   Now a fleet of compact SUVs or CUVs have captured the hearts of consumers, leading the way to the astounding fact that something like 72 percent of all the vehicles sold in 2018 were SUVs. No wonder Ford, General Motors and FCA are reducing the number of cars they build in favor of SUVs and pickups. When oil companies again find a way to raise prices, those who thought it was OK to buy larger and less efficient SUVs will unload them in a hurry for compact SUVs, which are almost as inexpensive to operate as compact cars. Of all of these, we think the Kona is the best new one, and a technological breakthrough besides.

   The Kona comes in a variety of models, from the base SE, which starts with front-wheel drive, and a highly efficient 2.0-liter engine that delays valve opening by Atkinson cycle to give optimum economy with its 147 horsepower and 132 foot-pounds of torque. A 6-speed automatic and all-season tires on 16-inch alloy wheels make the SE look almost identical to the upscale models, and stability management and traction control, plus hill start assist and downhill braking control and all necessary connectivity makes it a bargain, bolstered by 33 mpg highway EPA estimates.

   Moving up to the SEL, Kona adds 17-inch alloy wheels and a host of high-tech things, such as anti-theft immobilizer, blind-spot alert, lane-change assist, cross-traffic and side collision warning, push-button start, leather wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, heated front seats, HD and satellite radio and a hidden cargo area at the rear.

 

Clean, intuitive instrumentrs and controls highlight Kona Ultimate interior.

  Move still higher and you get to the Limited, which accumulates all the SE and SEL features and adds the option of my favorite Hyundai engine — the 1.6-liter direct-injection 4-cylinder with a turbocharger, good for 175 horsepower and 195 foot-pounds of torque, operating through a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission.

   The top-level Ultimate has all the attributes of the Limited, plus 18-inch alloy wheels, power tilt and slide sunroof, LED headlights and taillights, foglights, leather seats and automatic temperature control. Also standard on Ultim

All-wheel-drive platform with 1.6 Turbo and 7-speed dual-clutch are all Kona assets.

   All four models offer the option of all-wheel drive over the standard front-wheel drive. The small but potent turbo 1.6 has Hyundai’s own 7-speed dual-clutch transmission, in which two internal clutches alternate which one is engaged, with one handling first, third, fifth and seventh and the other shifting into second, fourth and sixth. You can do it manually, by moving the floor shift lever into the manual side, or you can let it shift for itself, precisely and swiftly.

    We will devote our Car of the Year evaluations to the Ultimate model with AWD. We selected the Kona despite the obvious situation that the rear seat room is tight, compared to larger midsize SUVs. Son Jack climbed back there, and at 5-foot-10, he declared it to be a bit tight climbing in, but once inside, it was adequate for head and legroom and surprisingly comfortable. We could say the same, for certain, about the leather front bucket seats, very supportive and comfortable.

   Within the overall length of 164 inches, the Kona has 39.6 inches of front headroom dropping to 38 inches with the power sunroof, with rear headroom of 37.8, and front legroom of 41.5 inches with 34.6 inches in the rear. Cargo capacity is a modest 19.2 cubic feet with all seats in place, expanding to 45.8 with the rear seats folded down.

    Among the Star-Wars-y features is the Blue Link, which allows us to program the car’s connectivity with our iPhones. You of course can use the key fob to lock and unlock the doors or pop the rear hatch, but you’ll want to download the free Hyundai app. Summon it, and you can lock, unlock, open the hatch, and also activate the auto-start by clicking the proper icon and executing by Wi-Fi!

   In Duluth, Minnesota, where the all-wheel drive works wondrously on all the hills, being able to fire up the car for a warm-up of up to 10 minutes is greatly appreciated when the temperature occasionally dips below zero. There are stories such as the woman leaving her key fob in the console and realizing it as she headed out into the cold. She called her husband, who was out of town on business and explained her predicament. No worries. He used his iPhone to lock the doors and remotely start the car, a couple hundred miles away, and set the interior temperature to 71 degrees. She walked to the car and called him again, and he unlocked the car from long-distance and she got in and drove away.

   There are other manufacturers that build such features into their vehicles, but generally they cost at least twice as much as the Kona. Being a person who loves high-tech gadgetry but also is always looking for a bargain, finding the Kona with all those features for under $30,000 made it the overwhelming choice as our Newcarpick of the Year.

    

   

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