Featured Reviews
The new "base" Mustang has an EcoBoost 4 as a bargain sporty coupe.

Stick brings Rapid Red Mustang 'Bob' to life

Ford has made all sorts of specialty versions of the Mustang during its six decades of life, but the new base model deserves a nickname, and I'm recommending "Bob."

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Hyundai's use of LG Chem's advanced lithium-ion-polymer hybrid battery is a step toward full-electric.

High-tech Sonata adds higher-tech Hybrid

Striking design of Hyundai's 2020 Sonata, coupled with addition of a Hybrid model, boosts Sonata to the top of the midsize segment.

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Bright leaves no match for Lexus LC500

The new era of Toyota design and performance is nearly upon us, and the Lexus LC500 might be the best example as the pinnacle of Toyota's upscale line,

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amore ground clearance, armor-plated grille and skidplates underneath, Rebel is built for off-road.

Ram vs. Ram in pickup battle

The versatility of Ram pickups have led to competition within the brand, as the Rebel EcoDiesel compares sporty off-road readiness to the iconic V8 Laramie's luxury.

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The Jeep Gladiator strikes a mystical image against Lake Superior at dusk.

Gladiator opens new doors for Jeep

Jeep used to have a utility pickup, and for its long-awaited return as the 2020 Gladiator, it gives the company a full array of useful and fun attractions.

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4. Sloping rear roofline gives the GLC43 a coupe-like shape.

Mercedes blends sports sedan, SUV in GLC43 Coupe

Mercedes has proven to be a master of high-performance sedans and SUVs, but the new AMG GLC43 Coupe combines the best features of both, with even a hot-rod exhaust sound.

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'Hot' CT5-V gets sibling rival in CT5 Luxury

In Cadillac's new model designation, the CT5 Premium Luxury and the CT5 V-Series are very similar, but the V-Series is the racy one.

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In fierce SUV competition, Ford has an Edge

In Ford's vast array of SUVs of all sizes, the 2020 Edge ST fits between the Escape and midsize Explorer, and adds a dose of sportiness with the 2.7 Turbo V6.

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Symbol of luxury, Avalon gets TRD spark

The Avalon remains Toyota's luxury sedan, but new for 2020 is the TRD version, which adds a sporty look and action while retaining luxury.

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Alfa gives Stelvio a little dose of Formula 1 spirit

Everything Alfa Romeo builds has an underlying dose of fun, and that is magnified when the Stelvio SUV adds the Quadrifoglio's Formula 1-engineered 505 horsepower.

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Stick brings Rapid Red Mustang ‘Bob’ to life

January 6, 2021 by · Comments Off on Stick brings Rapid Red Mustang ‘Bob’ to life
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

The new “base” Mustang has surprising pep from an EcoBoost 4 as a bargain sporty coupe.

By John Gilbert

It’s often disappointing when my test-drive week with a particularly neat car comes to an end, but I found a way to ease the pain a few weeks ago, after driving the new mid-engined Corvette Sting Ray. When it arrived at my Duluth home, the Sting Ray was not alone. Also delivered was a very neat new Ford Mustang, painted Rapid Red Metallic with a bright white racing stripe running nose to tail, over the roof, and down the middle.

As if to test my overload skills, I wondered how I would spend adequate time in both cars during the upcoming week, but then I got a message: There had been a mistake, and the Corvette, which was in pre-production short supply, would only be with me for three days. Problem solved. I drove the heck out of the Corvette for that Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday without even getting into the Mustang, knowing that as soon as the guys showed up to take away the Sting Ray Thursday morning, I could climb into the Mustang and drive off over the horizon.

I have driven different Mustang models in recent years, including the Shelby GT500, the Shelby GT350, the Mustang GT, and the Mustang Bullitt, and with the racing stripe and a 6-speed manual transmission, and that new-generation ferocious look, I figured this must be a GT, at least. The information sheet said it was a Mustang “Premium,” which only meant that it had some upscale features, like dual exhausts, a rear spoiler, and other trim things.

Most impressively, when I took off down the road, I noticed the Mustang had excellent acceleration, and it handled with precision. I went back to the information sheet and, to my surprise, noticed that for an engine, it had a 2.3-liter 4-cylinder, with Ford’s Ecoboost system of turbocharging.

I have always regarded the Shelby GT350 and the Bullitt as my two favorite current-generation Mustangs to drive, but I will have to find room to squeeze this one in among them.

Ford has discontinued most of its cars, but the Mustang stays strong as an annual tribute to the pony car Ford brought out in 1965 to revolutionize American driving habits. Here was a 2-plus-2 coupe, very sporty looking and handling, for a bargain price. Everybody wanted one, and every other manufacturer hustled to come out with a competitor.

As power has risen higher and higher on the scope of sporty cars, it has become more and more apparent that we don’t need as much power as can be produced, but we could really have a lot of fun if the car handled as well as a sports car and could parlay adequate power into impressive fuel-economy numbers, especially with that 6-speed, right out of a GT350.

Ford recently announced that it is discontinuing the Shelby GT350, much to my disappointment, brecause the GT350 with 527 horsepower out of its 5.2-liter V8 is a lot of fun, if not as neck-snapping as the GT500 with its supercharged version of the 5.2 developing 760 horsepower.

I am here to suggest that the car I test-drove bridges the gap. The venerable 2.3-liter 4, when turbocharged, produces 310 horsepower at 5,500 RPMs and 350 foot-pounds of torque at 3,000 RPMs. Even with the Mustang having grown to 4,000 pounds these days, that’s enough power to make you not miss the V8’s extra oomph.

Ford has wisely dropped the V6, the previous base engine, and now uses the 2.3 as its base engine. But a look at the accompanying photos will make you realize that if it looks the part, goes with the force that the look promises, and handles great, we can save a lot of money by buying the Ecoboost 4. We liked the little toggle switches at the base of the center stack, controlling various functions including driving modes, from normal to sport.

Hatch has room for several pounds of dark chocolate sea-salt caramels from Virginia, Mn.

Joan and I, with son Jack visiting, discussed driving northward. Jack insisted we should take the Mustang, and that he would curl up in the back seat — which is best kept for kids or short people — and off we went through the back roads to Virginia, Minnesota. We set a destination for Canelake’s Candy shop to get what is by now our standard fountain treats — orange soda for Joan, and turtle sundae for me. And several different selections of their homemade chocolate and caramel.

We had a lot of laughs coming back, stopping for a walk, and then returning to Lakewood. We got 28.7 miles per gallon, and probably could coax more if I didn’t enjoy running up the revs in first, second and third gears so much. EPA estimates say 30 on the road.

During that week, we were impressed that the already departed Corvette Sting Ray was priced in the mid-$70,000 range. We were very impressed that the test Mustang started with a base price of $26,670, with the Premium model starting at $34,755, and loaded with options listed for $35,850.

Very neat toggle switches control functional features, including drive modes.

There are only two issues I can see. First is the sound. There is practically no sound, and certainly not the throaty rumble of the V8. Second, the test-style Mustang is sorely in need of a name. You can call it a “Premium,” just because of the neat leather seats, fancy dash and gloss-black 19-inch alloy wheels. No, it needs something, something so we don’t miss the Shelby GT350, and to pinch-hit for the Bullitt, or the GT.

My suggestion is: “Bob.”

That’s right, I’ll take the Mustang Bob and be happy. Bob is named after a lifelong friend of mine, named Bob Curtis. We both grew up at opposite ends of Lakewood, and we went to school together first and second grades at Congdon Park, third through sixth at the brand new elementary Lakewood school, seventh through ninth at Washington Junior High, and 10th through 12th at old Duluth Central. I had about four circles of friends in those days, and Bob and I were in a non-sports wing, playing chess, appreciating the same music, and enjoying cars. When we graduated from Central, we both went to UMD, and near the end of our sophomore years, we both realized we were in need of transferring to the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Familiar interior includes leather seats and switchgear, just like costlier models.

Bob was going to study architecture, and I was pursuing journalism school, so we decided to room together, along with two other guys we knew from Duluth and UMD. We had a lot of great times, and we both met our wives while we were down there, living in an apartment now located where the U. has built some athletic facilities.

Bob always liked cars, as I did, but I pursued them for reviews. After Bob and Kathy spent a couple years on a major design project in Iran, they returned home and bought a townhouse in Arden Hills, just across I-694 from where we had a townhouse in Shoreview. Our kids grew up there, and we stayed close. I gave Bob a ride in the new Ford Taurus SHO that had just come out, and he bought one, which ran strong and gave him some grief, but he loved it. I had owned a Mustang Boss 302 for years, and he always admired that car, too, so one of the most recent cars he bought was a Mustang. It looked good, lean and clean, and it was really a base model — A V6 engine, stick shift, no fancy stuff, but he enjoyed driving it.

After I had spent 31 years writing for the Minneapolis Tribune, and Star Tribune, Joan and I moved back to Duluth where I had a lucrative job offer from Murphy McGinnis Media’s Up North Newspaper Network. Bob and Kathy would stop to visit when they made annual trips to Grand Marais, but those became less frequent in recent years. We heard Bob had been ill, and we intended to get in touch with them when we went to the Twin Cities for a game, or to visit our older son, Jack.

I still read the Minneapolis Tribune seven days a week, and a couple weeks ago, I spotted an item in the obituaries. Robert Allen Curtis, 78, had died of pancreatic cancer, leaving family, friends, accomplishments — and one very good but now-distant friend in Duluth. When I called, Kathy told me Bob hadn’t been able to drive the last while, but he had gotten over a previous ailment before he was blindsided by inoperable pancreatic cancer.

A late-fall rainstorm brought down colored leaves as Mustang accents.

I’m not over it yet. These things take time. Former classmates of ours will remember Bob and be surprised, too, I’m sure. I wondered what they did with Bob’s old Mustang. Not that it matters.

Except now. I’ve always joked about how we personalize our cars, often naming them and assigning human tendencies to them. This would be a departure, but if Ford is looking for a special name to give to a surprisingly over-achieving basic Mustang — call it “Bob.”

High-tech Sonata adds higher-tech Hybrid

November 28, 2020 by · Comments Off on High-tech Sonata adds higher-tech Hybrid
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Tiny word “Hybrid” on rear is only indication the new Sonata has 60-mpg capabilities.

By John Gilbert
As Yogi Berra might have said, if he looked out my kitchen window at the shiny new Hyundai Sonata awaiting me: “It’s deja vu all over again.”

It’s OK to quote Yogi, because faithful readers will note that I only recently had written about the newly redesigned 2020 Sonata, which gave us amazing fuel economy in the 40s on a trip across Minnesota, from Duluth to Brainerd and back. I loved the car, so I wasn’t upset when another one — a beautiful dark blue instead of the silver first one — was delivered. I was, however, curious to get a second Sonata so quickly. As I walked a full circle around the car, I got to the rear deckled, finally, and noticed one extra word on the right side: “Hybrid.”

Suddenly I understood, and looked forward to every second I could spend behind the wheel of that Sonata Limited Hybrid. Hyundai always likes to prove it can punch above its class, and the Sonata Hybrid might set new standards for bargain production. The base Sonata Hybrid starts at $35,300, and you have to add all sorts of options, like the Bose audio upgrade, the solar roof, and the inside ambient lighting, to get that sticker up over $40,000.That makes the non-hybrid Sonata a distinct bargain, but the Hybrid shares its dramatic lines and offers the highest of high-tech.

The startling appeal of the redesigned Hyundai Sonata are shared by the Hybrid model.

For the sticker price, you get the kind of gas mileage you want to write home about. The EPA estimates start with a city figure of 45 miles per gallon, with 51 in highway driving, for an overall average of 47. I am here to tell you that you can meet those figures if you drive the car hard, and if you drive judiciously you can easily surpass them. We found that, like most hybrids, you get better fuel economy in city driving, where you exploit every bit of electric energy. On the freeway, holding a steady 70 or 75, the gas engine will be working steadily, which uses more fuel.

We got 46.7 mpg on a trip from Duluth to Minneapolis and back, and the next day, driving up and down the hills of Duluth, I got it up to 62.1 mpg, a figure I found hard to believe.

Hyundai has built the midsize Sonata in Seoul, South Korea, for a couple decades, and rode its totally restructured and reengineered lines in 2011 to a new world of corporate achievement, from which it never looked back. A new engine and a home-built transmission in a slick new body on an all-new platform, turning out good power and great fuel efficiency at a moderate price — no wonder it shot up to the top, right there with Accord, Camry, Altima, Mazda6 and other Japanese standard-setters.

A completely new technique in engine-building powered the upsurge, and Hyundai applied that technology to all its engines, winning awards and customers by backing its cars and SUVs with a 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty. Next it built factories in the U.S., one in Montgomery, Alabama, for itself to build Sonatas and Santa Fe SUVs, and one a few hours to the North for its newly acquired partner, Kia, and between the two plants they built an engine plant, easily servicing both factories.

Richly appointed interior of the Sonata Hybrid gives the feeling of high-tech luxury.

Now, almost a decade later, Sonata has proven it has maintained its stature, and now it is showing it has moved above and beyond its top Japanese rivals. Toyota, we know, set the standard for hybrid technology by installing nickel-metal-hydride battery packs under the very shallow trunk in its Prius. Hyundai learned from Toyota, then went a different direction.

In recenta company cal years, a hugely successful appliance company called LG Chem started developing a new style of battery pack for hybrid cars. General Motors used LG Chem for its Volt, and now its Bolt. Other companies used LG Chem also, and it has built an affiliate factory near Detroit to supply ever-increasing demand. Because it happens to be based in Seoul, South Korea, however, Hyundai built a long, close and nationalistic relationship with LG Chem. The biggest difference is that LG Chem built its batteries of Lithium-ion polymer, proving it to charge quicker, deliver more power and hold its charge longer than nickel-metal hydride. It also constructs the battery packs in a thin horizontal panel, which Hyundai placed on the platform, under the rear passenger seat, when it built the Ioniq compact sedans in hybrid, plug-in hybrid and pure electric.

That had an inherent advantage or two. One, it allowed for a large and spacious trunk, and two, by fitting under the rear seat, the battery pack is located ahead of the rear axle. That places the added weight of the battery pack between the two axles, which, whether by luck or brilliant design, mimics the handling of mid-engine performance cars. The Ioniq, and now the Sonata Hybrid, have startlingly quick steering, partly due to that balance.

Expansive nav screen provides assorted information.

To enhance that, the new Sonata design is definitely sporty looking, and Hyundai wisely added steering-wheel paddles to allow manual shifting of the slick, 6-speed automatic, designed and since refined in-house by Hyundai. I’m not sure about the other models, but the Limited is clearly aiming to capture buyers who prefer some luxury, and the dashboard and interior features, including heated and ventilated light tan leather seats in the test vehicle, certainly provided that.

All the other features that make the standard Sonata so impressive work in spades on the Hybrid, such as the slick lane-departure warning and assist, and the extra safety of the blind-spot warning works overtime to detect vehicles coming from the rear after you’ve parallel parked, preventing rear-seat passengers from opening the door into danger. It also allows you to code the car’s remote key features into your smartphone, which adds to capability to start your engine and unlock your doors at the touch of a phone screen switch.

Hit the directional light and a dash instrument converts to give approaching-vehicle view.

The large 10.25-inch-wide navigation and information screen fits into the horizontal theme of the dash, and an option is a roof that replaces the sunroof with a large solar panel, which can turn sunlight into electric energy to replenish the batteries, and reportedly will add about two miles a day to your pure-electric driving range.

In a step toward too-much nanny-ism, the Sonata Hybrid’s features include a bit of intrigue, too. I wanted to move the car a few feet in our driveway so my wife, Joan, could pull our car out of its garage lair. So I climbed in, started the engine, but couldn’t get the shift to engage drive — or reverse, for that matter. After several minutes of thinking I had done something to foul up a really neat car, I realized that I hadn’t put my seat harness on. That proved to be true; if you don’t buckle up, you can’t put this car into gear!

The sweeping aerodynamic lines of the newly restyled Sonata undoubtedly help slice through the air, and the Sonata puts every bit of it to good use. Under the hood is a 2.0-liter, dual-overhead-camshaft 4-cylinder engine, built to operate on Atkinson Cycle, which leaves the valves closed or opened longer to enhance more complete burning of all the fuel. All cars would benefit by using the technique, except that it can make an engine feel a little hesitant.

Hyundai’s LG Chem lithium-ion-polymer hybrid battery moves toward full-electric.

To take care of that, Hyundai engineers augment the useful 150 horsepower and 139 foot-pounds of torque from the direct-injection 2.0 engine with a 270-volt LG Chem Lithium-ion polymer battery pack’s power — an impressive addition of electrical power, which peaks in torque from 0-1,800 RPMs, and increases the combined engine power to a potent 192 horsepower at 6,000 RPMs.

With all that’s going on under the hood, as a driver, you feel no complications, just smooth and uninterrupted power. You can push it into a corner, and the firm suspension and precise steering take you around even abrupt curves without drama, and the low-profile tires on those styled 17-inch “EcoSpoke” wheels coax the suspension into full duty.

As the test week went along, we found more and more features to appreciate, including the brilliant LED headlights and stylish taillight halo. Also, that accent light strip that underlines the headlights continues with diminishing LED glow as it follows up the seam between the hood and fenders.

In silhouette, the new Sonata delivers a sleek and sporty profile in Lake Superior blue.

My belief, since driving the first Honda and Toyota hybrids, is that we will all be driving electric cars someday, and testing the pure-electric Ioniq with its almost 175 miles of range between recharges, is pretty convincing. Meanwhile, hybrids or plug-in hybrids are the perfect way to cover the transition as we move from gas engines toward that EV future. The Sonata Hybrid has done nothing to alter my viewpoint. They don’t have a pure-electric Sonata yet, but when they do, I want to drive it.

Bright leaves no match for Lexus LC500

October 5, 2020 by · Comments Off on Bright leaves no match for Lexus LC500
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Even dusk over Lake Superior can’t dim the Flare Yellow of the Lexus LC500.

By John Gilbert

The timing was perfect, although it’s difficult to think of a bad time for a week-long test drive of the 2020 Lexus LC500 Coupe. The LC500 is one of the most strikingly beautiful car designs on the market, but the perfect timing was explained because we beat any threat of early snow around our Duluth location on Lake Superior’s North Shore.

The LC500 comes with rear-while drive, and while the latest traction-control gizmos all work impressively, I would rather drive it in dry or wet conditions, and I prefer front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive when the roadways get icy. Besides, the timing included catching the foliage throughout Northern Minnesota at nearly peak change of colors, with the bright golds, reds and oranges replacing the summertime’s green leaves.

The LC500 arrived wearing “Flare Yellow,” a new Lexus color this year, with a highly metallic base and a brilliant yellow that made even the brightest trees look a little less bright. I often admire yellow cars when other people buy them, but it’s not my personal favorite. I might, however, have to re-evaluate to make an exception with the LC500, because of the constantly positive reactions we got while driving around. We became a regional attraction without intending to be, just because of that car in that color.

The inviting interior of the LC500 is firmly comfortable, from seats to electronic controls.

It is loaded with all the latest electronic gadgets and features, and as the top of the Lexus line — which is altogether at the top of the Toyota line — the LC500 is the pinnacle. Base price is $92,950, which seems reasonable after all the options on the test car raised the ante to $106,440.

On the bright Saturday morning of our Lexus week, my wife, Joan, and I wanted to hit our area Farmer’s Market for the peak of the delectable harvest. Then we’d make a stop at Target, and then take some less-busy highways north for a scenic drive to the Iron Range. Joan went into Duluth’s Target store, as I parked in an obvious spot near the entrance, to listen as the Minnesota Twins battled through one of the final games of their abbreviated regular season. I noticed that nearly everybody walking past gazed at the car so regularly that I had to affect a nonchalant demeanor.

A young guy walking back to his car angled diagonally to approach my open window, and said, “Sorry to bother you, but — great pick! That is an absolutely beautiful car.” I smiled and thanked him, without time to explain that it wasn’t my car.

We started toward the highway, and as another car passed us, a kid in the passenger seat yelled, “I like your car, man!”

That became a pattern of admiring comments attracted by the LC500, and its Flare Yellow paint job.

Exotic styling comes together at rear in dramatic fashion, accenting colorful leaves.

It is not just the paint that attracts attention. The sweeping roofline that connects the busy but distinctive signature spindle grille up front, all the way back to the neatly shaped collection of vents and contours that comprise the rear, come together to make the LC500 the most perfect example of how a manufacture can combine the best attributes of a traditional sports car and the comparatively exotic design of an exotic sports car.

For the LC500 to accomplish that feat in the Toyota-Lexus stable is noteworthy, because during its obvious changeover in styling and performance to modernize the company, there are several startling new sports cars, including Toyota’s own Supra, and assorted other Lexus coupes. I find the new Supra to be interesting, but I think the LC500 is more attractive. Maybe that’s the traditionalist in me coming out, but this is a design that would dazzle owners of a Corvette, Porsche, of even an Italian sports car.

Its performance meets all requirements, too. It comes with a 5.0-liter V8, with dual-overhead camshafts, high-tech variable valve timing, and a 10-speed automatic with large magnesium steering-wheel paddles. It develops 471 horsepower with 398 foot-pounds of torque, which is plenty to make you overlook the heft that helps keep the low-slung Lexus planted.

From every angle, Lexus LC500 evokes new philosophy of
Toyota design.

It also has some technical tricks to help you maneuver through traffic or twisty curves without any concerns. It has an adaptive exhaust that resonates on call. And adaptive variable suspension and adaptive rear-wheel steering that guides you around curves with greater precision but without any perceptible feeling of complexity.

As fun as the LC500 is to drive, from those specially formed sport bucket seats, the biggest concern you have is to keep your eye on your speed, unless you would like your Flare Yellow to attract any assorted highway patrolmen, police, or sheriffs in the region. That is not as simple as it sounds, either, because the car accelerates in a flash, and when you glance down, you have to be disciplined to readily spot the digital speed number imbedded in the large and prominent tachometer.

The LC500 has rear jump seats, but only for tiny people.

You can alter the location of the big gauge and other ancillary features, but I came up with a nitpick in the process. With 10 speeds, and so much power, you are turning only about 1,700 RPMs on the tach when cruising at 65 or so. In other words, unless you are in sport or sport-plus settings and feeling racy, you aren’t about to over-rev it so there really is no critical need to keep watching your revs, compared to the urgency with which you want to spot the speed at a glance.

That is a minor point, although there are a couple of other nuisance items with the car — and it’s always appropriate to point them out when there is so much to gush over. Clean and sweeping as the shape and design are, the complexity of trying to tune the audio system is somewhere beyond my common sense, as well as my tolerance level. You can’t seem to simply get a panel on the screen with preset stations, which you might alter up or down with ease. It takes more attention than it deserves to make such a simple change.

The LC500 also refused to let me do the simple Bluetooth programming of my iPhone into the audio system, which is a distinct safety feature. After one frustrating attempt, I gave up, and went out the next day to dedicate a half-hour to this electronic wrestling match, trying to connect. It kept notifying me that there was “no phone connected” each time, and at the peak of my frustration, the in-car phone rang. I pushed the accept button, answered it, and it was my wife, Joan! She called to see what was taking me so long, and I had to tell her I couldn’t hook up the phone. “But you’re on your phone, aren’t you?” Hmmm. Yes. Indeed, the phone connection it refused to give me was working and had connected me, it just kept telling me it wasn’t connecting, as if it wanted to keep it a secret.

Forget all that stuff. We thoroughly enjoyed our drived to Virginia, Minnesota, which allowed us to stop at Canelake’s Candy shop. Renovated to feature the original fountain from nearly a century ago, we picked out stools at the old-fashioned fountain, with Joan revisiting her youth with a soda, while I settled for a turtle sundae. Afterward, we drove through town and into neighboring Eveleth, just to make sure the 50-foot hockey stick was still in place downtown.

Back on Highway 53, headed south, we saw a small sign indicating the memorial site for the late Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone. We drove the few miles east to near the site where he died in a 2002 plane crash, just a week or two before what we assumed would be the certain re-election of one of the state’s most popular senators. We spent quite an emotional while on the walk paths admiring the trees, and reading the biographical signs along the way.

A stop for a woodsy trail walk at the Paul Wellstone Memorial.

We got back on Hwy. 53 and started discussing dinner. I made a suggestion that was an easy one: We were at the shortcut west off Hwy. 53 to Hibbing, where we could stop at the original Sammy’s Pizza, the birthplace for the legendary Duluth pizza chain. To celebrate a wonderful day, we ordered sausage, onions, green peppers and sauerkraut, and it was a delicacy. As we sat near the window, we could watch every passerby across the street stop and gaze at the Flare Yellow Lexus LC500.

Lots of attention, lots of style, lots of pending excitement, and yes, lots of money. But we were the ones in town who were able to climb inside and head on home in such a special vehicle.

Ram vs. Ram in pickup battle

October 5, 2020 by · Comments Off on Ram vs. Ram in pickup battle
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

The Ram 1500 Laramie Crew Cab has a luxury interior and 5.7 V8 with mild hybrid.

By John Gilbert
One of the biggest success stories of the 2019 model year was the amazing upsurge in sales of Ram pickup trucks, which sailed right past the enigmatic Chevrolet Silverado to displace it the No. 2 spot behind the almighty Ford F-150.

Engineers and designers at Dodge had been doing a commendable job on the Ram before Fiat took over to create Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and establish Ram as its own division, but since then, Ram has established new heights for pickup style and sophistication.

Ram buyers have been quick to boast of their perceived superiority. Such elements as coil spring suspension in the rear, which makes the Ram by far the most comfortable to ride in on roads and highways, and constantly upgraded interiors, which set new standards for attractiveness as well as function.

It may be that Ram has no illusions about overtaking the Ford, but its array of models, loaded with impressive features, puts Ram on a high plateau that deserves evaluation by anyone looking to buy a big truck — a full-size pickup — for hauling stuff, towing stuff and carrying the family in comfort as well as safety and efficiency.

If auto sales followed election-year protocol, we could all vote by November 3 with our loan or lease budgets on which pickup truck is the best. As it is, the preference hinges greatly on family tradition. Whatever the process, the Ford F-150 traditionally wins the popular vote, over the Chevrolet Silverado, the Ram, Toyota Tundra, Honda Ridgeline, Nissan Titan, and midsize gems such as the Toyota Tacoma, Chevy Colorado and its GMC twin, Ford Ranger, and, if you can find one, a Nissan Frontier — plus, the newcomer on the scene, the Jeep Gladiator.

But Ram has upset the form chart to become top challenger for the F-150, and might be looking for more. For 2020, there is stiff competition within the Ram garage. It’s sort of like holding a national intramural tournament, while the varsity is on Coronavirus hiatus.

The Ram Rebel shares Crew Cab style but adds 3.0-liter EcoDiesel with even more power.

For example, the Ram 1500 Laramie Crew Cab 4X4 is the company icon, but what about the Ram Rebel?

The Laramie has a potent Hemi 5.7-liter V8 that delivers 395 horsepower and 410 foot-pounds of torque. The horsepower peaks at 5,600 RPMs, and the torque hits its peak at 3,950 RPMs.

The ride and interior accommodations are luxury-car-like — no other way to put it. The technology in this huge, Flame-red Ram is mostly unseen, such as the 5.7 V8 getting variable valve-timing and an electric boost from its E-Torque engine, using a mild hybrid input to help keep all the electrics charged. It also has an enormous, dual-pane sunroof that covers the front and rear seats. Along with the classy leather upholstery, the front is dominated by a large console and an enormous, iPad-size 12-inch center stack screen.

Both Rams have side storage in the beds and a split rear door that opens two ways.

With all the safety and security features, the big Ram rides on 22-inch styled wheels, plays tunes through a 19-speaker Harman Kardon audio upgrade, and has a running board that promptly unfolds and drops down to help you in or out upon stopping and opening a door.

Huge information screen adorns Laramie control-oriented dash.

A 33-gallon fuel tank means that with fuel economy of 17 city and 22 highway, you can beat most of the competition and also not have to worry about frequent gas stops while you’re towing trailers of up to 12,750 pounds.

With a base price of $46,740 boosted up to $68,615 with all the features, the big Ram makes the case that if you’re going to spend a lot of time in your truck, you may as well enjoy every facet.

So what can the 1500 Rebel Crew Cab offer to compete with its big brother?

To begin with, my test Rebel, in Billet Silver Metallic, came equipped with the highly acclaimed, Fiat-sourced 3.0-liter EcoDiesel, a turbodiesel V6 — a Generation-3 version of that proven European engine. It runs quietly, and makes extraordinary power. For a V6, about half the size of the 5.7 V8, this EcoDiesel develops 260 horsepower and a whopping 480 foot-pounds of torque.

Extra ground clearance, armor-plated grille and skidplates underneath, make Rebel ready for off-roading.

Compared to the impressive 5.7 Hemi, the EcoDiesel’s horsepower peaks at 3,600 RPMs compared to the gas V8’s 5,600, and its full torque peaks at only 1,600 RPMs for 480 foot-pounds, compared to 3,950 for the V8’s 410 foot-pounds. The Rebel diesel also has the 33-gallon fuel tank, and boasts EPA estimates of 29 miles per gallon in highway driving and in city driving it matches the Hemi’s highway 22 miles per gallon. The Rebel towing maximum is 12,560 pounds — 210 pounds less than the gas V8.

Being the Rebel means it has black rubbery stuff protecting the grille and offering a menacing look in the process. It has fixed running boards, and skid plates underneath protecting the fuel tank, the transfer case and the front suspension, in case you want to go thrashing off-road.

Split tailgate opens with two doors for easy loading with one latch…

Both vehicles share the safety and convenience items, including the big fuel tank and the high-powered audio, although the Rebel is nowhere near as luxurious as the Laramie, opting for a sportier

…or, an alternative latch opens a conventional tailgate — your choice.

demeanor. That includes the very convenient storage areas in the sidewalls of the bed. To challenge Ford’s exceptional fold-down step for ease in climbing into the bed, Ram has a very neat multi-function tailgate, You can fold it down to open the entire width of the bed, or, by activating an alternative handle, you have a pair of side-opening doors, like an old-time saloon in the cowboy movies. That is very efficient for loading, unloading, and reaching in for stuff because you can get your body right up next to the vehicle.

I personally love the bright red on the Laramie, but the rich silver of the Rebel, with all that black trim, makes it a tossup, in my mind. Maybe I’d take the fixed running board and the skid plates of the Rebel. Tough choice. Ram may have a great idea: By offering two such impressive vehicles under the same badge, any potential customer may get caught up comparing the two and completely forget he was on his way to Ford, Chevy, and Toyota dealers for comparison shopping.

Gladiator opens new doors for Jeep

September 21, 2020 by · Comments Off on Gladiator opens new doors for Jeep
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

The Jeep Gladiator strikes a mystical image against Lake Superior at dusk.

By John Gilbert
The first time I saw a Jeep Gladiator in the flesh, it was almost surreal, as though I was looking at a cartoon and it suddenly sprang to life. Ever since World War II we’ve had Jeeps, best identified by the go-anywhere Wrangler, and the new Gladiator looked as though some Jeep designer thought he might play a prank by taking the rough, squarish outline of a Wrangler, fit a pickup bed on the rear, and put it out as a “concept car” to attract attention and stir conversation.

It’s possible that nobody at FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) would admit it if that were true, but if so, the resulting acclaim and fanfare from the public might have inspired FCA to order Jeep to make the vehicle.

At a large Midwest Auto Media gathering at Elkhart Lake, Wis., a year and a half ago, there was a prototype Gladiator there for us to drive, briefly, around the area highways. I did that, and was anxious to get my hands on one for a thorough test drive.

That took awhile, as in over a year, during which time demand skyrocketed and manufacturing took more time. By the time one was driven to my driveway up on the hill just north of Duluth, Minnesota, I was more than eager to get into it. Even then, the surreal overtones continued. It caught me off-guard, just by its color — “Gator” clear-coat — a most-unusual flat grey, unlike any gator I’ve ever seen, but certainly unique.

Bold and stylish in its Gator paint job, Gladiator has created its own demand.

The Gladiator is not a scaled-up version of a Wrangler, as I had expected. It has its own chassis, and don’t forget parent FCA also makes the award-winning Ram pickups, which is where a lot of the Gladiator basics come from. A 4-door pickup Jeep, and the name Gladiator fits its aggressive outlook on life.

At that time, I hadn’t seen a Gladiator on area highways or in Duluth. I’m sure there must have been a visitor-driven model somewhere along the line, but we just hadn’t seen one. My first impression was that it lacked the steering tightness of the new Wrangler, and the slight looseness made you feel that you had to pay special attention to avoid wandering. That made it a little unsettling as my wife, Joan, and I took off for a drive up the North Shore of Lake Superior.

Among other bits of lunacy, our family has a tendency to humanize our vehicles, and in my case, it’s a frequent changeover because it’s important to spend my week-long road-tests immersed into whatever car I’m testing, to observe how it fits into our lifestyle. Sort of like a short-term adoption. Sometimes, it seems that the car takes control. I joke about how any car I’m driving prefers to cruise up the North Shore Drive, which takes us through the tiny sailboat haven of Knife River, Minnesota. As we drive through Knife River, whatever vehicle I’m driving takes over and turns immediately into the small parking area out front of the Great! Lakes Candy Company. I’m powerless to prevent it. And why would I?

On that day in the Gladiator, it happened, and it just turned in, and parked, so we could follow the coronavirus protocol to submit our order online, via my iPhone, to get a selection of the absolute best homemade chocolate stuff, in this case, dark chocolate covered almonds with tiny toffee bits imbedded in the chocolate, and some almond bark. Once submitted, you get a response time for when the staff will set out a white paper bag with your name on it on a front porch table.

We were waiting for our proper time to arrive as we sat in the Gator Gladiator, when a white vehicle pulled in and parked alongside us. It was a husband and wife, driving a pure white Gladiator. You want surreal? We hadn’t seen a Gladiator in real-world driving, and here were two of them, identical, next to each other. They wanted to try the candy shop and didn’t understand the online bit, and I was unsuccessful helping them put in an order, even though I stressed that if they tried it, I knew they would be coming back.

We did, however, get the opportunity to compare Gladiators. We had a nice conversation, and I asked the fellow driving how he liked his new vehicle. He loved it. I asked if he had the 3.6-liter V6 engine, and he did. I told him that I had also driven the Wrangler, on which the Gladiator is loosely fashioned, and in it you can get the new 2.0-liter turbocharged 4, which has a lot of power and could easily handle the Gladiator, plus get better fuel economy. He said he would prefer the 3.6 anyway, because he and his wife haul a camping trailer and the extra torque of the V6 is a big benefit for ease of towing. In fact, it has the most towing capability in its segment.

The rare opportunity to interview someone driving the same vehicle I was testing prompted me to obtain a scouting report, about various issues I had heard might discourage some buyers. What about the ride: Is it too harsh?; some thought there might be a lack of refinement; there was some suggestion that the difficulty in building the Gladiator as a compromise between a smooth family vehicle and a rugged off-roader might have missed on one extreme or the other. But my new acquaintance denied any of those things were valid complaints, in his experience. Valuable input.

With that, the fellow and his wife headed back to their North Shore campsite in the White Gladiator, and we took our bag of homemade dark chocolate confections, and headed up the Shore in the Gator-colored Gladiator.

His input backed me off a bit, and as a few days passed, I found the initial looseness less of an issue, probably because I became accustomed to it with a few days’ experience.

Room in the rear seat is decent, although better for the two kids you’re taking camping than for two full-sized adult passengers. But the sophistication of the interior is impressive and converts your ideas of a rugged truck into a decent family pickup.

Jeep’s Wrangler is the best at uncompromising off-roading, but traditionally has been not-so-smooth on the road, although the most recent generation of Wranglers has bridged that gap, and it has become smooth and easy to handle on the highways, with quick, taut steering. That is what unnerved me about my perceived steering-wheel play in the Gladiator.

Gladiator interior is simple but inclusive for controls and features.

So maybe it was training me to become accustomed as much as I was training it. Sort of like the short-term adopted kid being stubborn enough to prove convincing.

The 3.6-liter V6 is a mainstay of all Fiat Chrysler Auto vehicles, from Challengers, Chargers and Chryslers to Durangos and pickup trucks. It is durable, dependable and matches up to the power and efficiency of similar-sized engines from General Motors and Ford. The dual-overhead-camshaft powerplant has 285 horsepower and 260 foot-pounds of torque, with an 8-speed automatic, with Command-Trac part-time 4-wheel drive that you can lock into strict 4-by-4. It has heavy-duty Dana 44 front and rear axles with the 3.73 axle ratio replaced by a steeper 4.10 unit. Skid-plates protect the fuel tank and transfer case from off-road irregularities, and it is also equipped with electronic trailer sway-control, stability control, and roll mitigation.

As with all modern Jeeps, the Gladiator Sport 4X4 I test-drove came loaded with all the contemporary safety features: Back-up camera is standard, and options include power tailgate, automatic headlights, 7-inch reconfigurable color display, heated seats, remote start, park-sense assist, blind-spot detection, adaptive cruise, and front collision warning, plus an Alpine audio upgrade. Base price of the test vehicle was $33,545, and loaded up the sticker is $50,540.

Because of the squarish design, the windshield is a lot closer to vertical than the swept-back windshields of normal cars or most SUVs and trucks. Driving along into the sun, I would occasionally spot flashes of reflections, and I wondered if they might be troublesome to oncoming drivers. When the sun hits the windshield, it reflects a spotlight-like beam of light that can light up reflective road signs. I found it interesting more than problematic, but I could see how it could momentarily flash in the eyes of oncoming drivers.

Hwy. 61, revisited.

Sun’s reflection off Gladiator windshield lights highway sign.

The amazing loyalty that lures Jeep owners to come back for more in future years is at least partly because of Jeep’s cool image. You may work all day in an office, but if you drive home in a Jeep — a Grand Cherokee, a Cherokee, a Compass, Patriot, Renegade, or Wrangler — you are perceived as being a rugged individualist. Even if you never go farther off-road than the gravel road to the cabin Up North or a driveway to the corner store.

For that image, the Gladiator has been met with an intense response and seeking by customers. The ride is good on-road, the back seat is good enough for two or three, the bed in back can haul all sorts of worldly goods — including a vacation-trip supply of homemade candy — and it attracts an amazing amount of attention.

For those who don’t do serious off-roading, it may seem strange that anyone would want a tight, stylish vehicle like the Gladiator, and then expose its neat paint job to the dust and other elements that Jeeps tend to find and conquer in a normal off-roading venture.

The utility of a pickup bed adds to the Gladiator’s versatility.

But if you are familiar with off-roaders, you know that the Gladiator might offer a step up from the Wrangler, and while it may or may not be attractive for all the right reasons, it is incredibly cool.

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