Featured Reviews
In the ever-expanding Infiniti SUTV stable, the 2019 QX50 is something special -- with variable compression power.

Varied compression makes QX50 constant

Along with its high-tech cars, Nissan's upscale Infiniti line is loaded with SUVs, but the 2019 QX50 might be the best ever, putting the long-awaited variable compression ration

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Headlights are high and foglights low on the unique Kona front end.

Kona gives Hyundai high-caffeine CUV

Hyundai sedans and SUVs have a tradition of providing technology and features at bargain prices, and its new subcompact Kona crossover is the latest evidence.

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Luxury grille sets off all-new 2019 Jetta.

Platform, engine, design turn page on Jetta

The loyal and unexciting Volkswagen Jetta flies to new heights as a 2019 model, with a new platform, new look, amazingly economical new engine -- and a new image.

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Acura made an official debut of the 2019 RDX at the MAMA Spring Rally, raising the technology and performance of the midsiz SUV.

MAMA Spring Rally springs best new vehicles

The 2019 Acura RDX was among 100 new vehicles, and as many auto media types made our annual pilgrammage to Elkhart Lake, Wis., for the MAMA Spring Rally.

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Black alloys, black trim and tiny "392" badge tips off that this is the loaded Durango.

Durango gets racier with SRT 6.4 Hemi

Every manufacturer has its SUVs these days, but if you think large utility vehicles are doomed to be boring, try the SRT 392 Dodge Durango, which is strong, quick and agile.

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Titan a pickup powerhouse before and after Midnight

Nissan's Titan competes at the top level of pickup engineering, and attracts new attention with its black-on-black Midnight Edition.

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New Pacifica Hybrid Limited combines 3.6-liter V6 with electric hybrid power for smooth operation and high fuel economy.

Pacifica now offers electrifying performance

FCA reawakened the minivan industry with its new Pacifica two years ago, and for 2018, it offers a plug-in hybrid system to supplement the V6 power for the highest miles per gall

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Redesigned GMC Terrain might be choice alternative SUV.

Downsizing leads GMC across new Terrain

With its showrooms full of larger SUVs, General Motors made the Terrain more compact for 2018, with new styling and power as attractions.

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At the most-compact end of the spectrum is Ford's new EcoSport, with a 1.0-liter turbocharged 3.

Ford covers the long and short of SUV field

There are so many SUVs of all sizes these days, we may as well give in and accept Ford's long (Expedition) and short (EcoSport) marketplace entries.

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Graceful lines, moderate price should make TourX popular.

New Buick Regal, Avenir stretch expectations

Buick has added an upgraded Avenir to the Enclave, and unveils an all-new TourX wagon to replace the Regal midsize sedan.

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Varied compression makes QX50 constant

June 20, 2018 by · Comments Off on Varied compression makes QX50 constant
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

In the ever-expanding Infiniti SUTV stable, the 2019 QX50 is something special — with variable compression power.

By John Gilbert

    In the long list of Nissan and Infiniti cars, crossovers and SUVs, the new Infiniti QX50 is one of the neatest, best-designed and best-performing of all.

   And that’s before even getting into the amazing technology deployed under the hood.As the driver, you do nothing to make it work except step on the gas. Moderately, please.

    It is called “variable compression” and it actively alters the engine’s compression ratio into a mind-blowing range from the low 8-to-1 figure common to older car buyers who seek high gas mileage, to more than a 14-to-1 ratio that best exemplifies the most high-tech performers. 

    Automotive engineers always have been striving to improve efficiency of internal combustion engines, seeking ways to achieve the magic trio of increased power, increased fuel economy, and decreased emissions. Direct fuel injection and computerized engine operation have helped, and variable valve timing has been a brilliant breakthrough in the last decade, including such tricks as Atkinson Cycle and Miller Cycle to alter valve timing and coax the air-fuel mixture to spend more time combusting.

The engine shroud doesn’t tip off that the 2.0-liter turbo 4 has 268 horsepower and 280 foot-pounds of torque.

   In the four cycles — intake, compression, combustion and exhaust — an engine’s ability to streamline the process and increase the ability to most-thoroughly burn the air-fuel mixture for maximum power and efficiency has included Honda’s stratified-charge engines and decades of refining it, and more recently is Mazda’s Skyactive concept combining all its technology into a clean-sheet, holistic new way to build modern engines.

   All are worthy, as are any and all the other top world car-makers’ efforts, most of which are aimed at taking best advantage of whatever a car’s compression ratio might be.

   Nissan, however, has a bunch of impatient perfectionist types wearing white smocks who probably would prefer to pass up the chance to take the family to the lake in favor of building their own lake in the back yard. These engineers started 20 years ago to seek a newer and better idea, and make it happen.

   So many of Nissan’s newest cars and engines are impressive to drive, that I always look forward to trying another one. As for this technique, I knew it was coming, I just wasn’t sure when it would find its way to real-world applications. The better idea of varying valve-timing to help combustion instead becomes the best idea of building an engine capable of altering its own compression ratio to take optimum advantage of any valve operation.


Stylish rear design houses room for five in comfort and with storage stuff.

  When a shiny new 2019 Infiniti QX50 showed up in my Duluth driveway, I liked the looks because it is only slightly larger than the sleek and lower QX30, and nowhere as large and, dare I say, bulbous of larger examples of the QX fleet, or the giant Nissan Armada, for that matter. But before starting it up, I sought out the sticker sheet to see whether it had a turbo 4-cylinder or a V6 or V8. Then I read the fine print: “2.0L Variable Compression Turbo 4-cylinder engine, 268 horsepower, 280 foot-pounds of torque. All-wheel drive.”

   Aha! Here it is. I couldn’t wait to drive it, and it was more than merely impressive. Starting from a stop sign to pull onto a freeway stretch northeast of Duluth, I saw a car coming in the distance so I hit the gas hard. The QX50 virtually leaped out from under me. Impressive. A short time later, I was at a stop light on a steep avenue in downtown Duluth, and when I attempted to start up moderately, again it shot across the intersection as if it couldn’t wait to tackle the hill.

   If you gave a ride to an unsuspecting passenger, excuse them for assuming the QX50 has a V8. That’s how good the variable-combustion engine and the turbo operate to turn the QX50 into a screamer.


Roomy and classy interior of the new QX50 is contemporary and classy in use of metal and leather.

  Refinements are everywhere in the vehicle, with fine leather on the seats, neat aluminum trim around the dash and doors, high-tech instrumentation, and a firmness to the ride that conveys stability, which can be amplified by a mode switch to engage normal, sport, personal choice or eco. It has a CVT (continuously variable transmission) which is something Nissan has stubbornly championed over the years, but this one has paddles on the steering wheel that allow you to shift past the usual drone of a CVT and further bring the QX50 to life.

   But after all the high-tech safety features like blind-spot warning, parking sensors and surround-view assurance that you won’t bump into anything front or rear, rain-sensing wipers and all the connectivity you could want, the true magic of the QX50 goes back to the drivetrain.

   In cross-section, we know the pistons are connected by rods to the crankshaft, which spins down below in the block and forces the up and down action of the pistons. In the QX50, the bottom end of the connecting rod is replaced by an odd-shaped thing that seems off-cadence from round, which it is, and it is coordinated via a couple of knuckles and shafts to an electronically controlled “harmonic drive mechanism” which also rotates. The components and all the various links and shafts to coordinate all the components to turn and spin at a precise rate to vary the piston’s stroke.  

QX50 provides ideal combination of comfort, class, and sporty performance.

   Most consumers won’t care or try to understand, and will be more than satisfied to simply know the end result. If you need power, step hard on the gas and the compression ratio plunges to 8:1 and the computer alerts the turbocharger to spin faster to avert unwanted detonation. Let off the gas and the compression ratio smoothy changes, up to 14:1 for maximum fuel-economy at light or normal use.

   In other words, we consumers never realized that the compression ratio of our cars was either too high or too low, and maybe only occasionally right on for the type of driving we do every day. Now Nissan proves you can have a vehicle with any imaginable compression ratio to alter itself and provide perfect operation for however hard you’re seeking power.

   There is no secret to the fact that if an engine burns its fuel more completely, the result is more power, and as a by-product, improved fuel economy. It goes without saying that emissions also improve by the deduction that the air-fuel mix is more completely burned.

   I was able to attain an actual 30.1 miles per gallon while scaling the hillsides of Duluth and showing off the QX50’s remarkable performance.

Huge sunroof sheds some light, if wanted, on the first and second rows.

Crisp contours and modern use of signature grille work on QX50.

A premium Bose audio system with 16 speakers complements all the safety items, and the feel of driving the vehicle is enhanced by the neat little contoured ridges rising up on either side of the hood. The signature grille looks quite similar to those found on the larger and smaller Infiniti SUVs, but in my humble opinion, it looks its best on the QX50.

   Standard price on the QX50 is about $45,000, while the test vehicle stickered at $49,685. That includes various packages, and an enormous sunroof that stretches nearly from front to rear. That’s good for those in the rear, who might grow weary on a trip of watching all those trees flash by as dad or mom hits the gas to show off what will surely become the latest definition of high-tech driving pleasure.




Kona gives Hyundai high-caffeine CUV

June 13, 2018 by · Comments Off on Kona gives Hyundai high-caffeine CUV
Filed under: New car introductions, Autos 

New Kona fills out subcompact, high tech end of SUV fleet.

By John Gilbert

DETROIT, Michigan

    Driving in Northern Minnesota requires extra diligence because of the long winters and severe ice and snow circumstances, and while moving toward all-wheel-drive has led to enormous growth of Sport Utility Vehicles segment with AWD, the new preference seems to be for the smallest possible vehicle with the attributes of larger SUVs.

    Actually, that’s where my wife, Joan, and I are at in considering a new vehicle for the wilds of the North Shore near Duluth, MN. It is difficult to make a decision, however, among the many exceptional small crossovers. And now, bursting upon the scene, is the Hyundai Kona, which meets just about every requirement we have on our list of “finalists.”

    Not the least of Kona’s assets is that I attained 33.5 miles per gallon with the optional turbo engine while negotiating the all-terrain roads of suburban Detroit.

    If you think you’re keeping up to date on the auto industry, you’re aware how rapidly SUVs are taking over, and how rapidly compact SUVs are going past midsize SUVs. However, while we weren’t paying close attention, something called “subcompact CUVs” were growing faster than even the compact SUVs in the marketplace.

   While cars of all sizes suffered in the highly competitive market over the last year, midsize SUVs grew by 9.4 percent in sales. Compact SUVs — the popular gang that includes the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Nissan Rogue, Mazda CX-5, Jeep Compass, Ford Escape and others — grew 1.7 percent. Meanwhile, Subcompact CUVs grew at a 4 percent clip, more than twice as fast as compacts.

   That Subcompact CUV group, Hyundai, suggests, includes the Chevrolet Trax, Honda HR-V, Toyota C-HR, Mazda CX-3, Jeep Renegade, Subaru Crosstrek, Ford EcoSport, and Nissan Kicks, and is projected to grow another 16 percent this yearit is that segment that Hyundai has aimed the Kona.

Headlights are high, ruinning lights middle, and foglights low on the unique Kona front end.

   Named after Hawaii’s elite coffee, the Kona drives similar to how a swig of Kona’s caffeine might give you a quick uplift. Its looks are, in a word, quirky but unobtrusive. Contemporary in its collection of accent lines, contours and grooves, the Kona comes in four varieties, which are the base SE, the SEL, the Limited, and the Ultimate, ranging in price from just a shade under $20,000 to loaded form right up there at $30,000.

   Before we get behind the wheel, those choices are intriguing, because you can get all-wheel drive up and beyond the standard front-wheel drive on all four models. You also get a choice of impressive technology, beginning with a totally new vehicle with the enhanced structural rigidity of a body made out of 52 percent high-strength steel, which also requires the notification that Hyundai is the only auto-maker that owns its own steel plant. Along with the rigidity to aid handling stability, that assures top marks from every structural safety measurement. 

   The compact exterior retains Hyundai’s latest “signature” cascading grille of horizontal bars, although it is notable at a glance because the grille is surrounded by foglights down below, the normal light enclosure with its daytime running lights and turn signals on either side, and stylish horizontal slits at the top leading edge of the front fenders for the headlights.

   With body protection outlineing the wheelwells, the Kona looks ready for a bit of mile off-roading, even though buyers undoubtedly won’t confront much beyond the northern-climate potholes. Kona looks stylish, and will fit in well in Hyundai’s array of SUVs, from the top Santa Fe, to the shorter Santa Fe Sport, and the compact Tucson. All of them represent a considerable bargain in the auto market, and the Kona will be the latest example.

Inviting interior of Kona Ultimate shows leather seating, efficient controls.

   Growing families with two or three kids might find the Kona too confining and move up to a larger vehicle, but for those whose kids have flown the coop and who don’t regularly carry rear seat occupants, the need for spacious front buckets and only occasional rear seating should check out the Kona. On our regional test-drive around Detroit, we checked out the rear seat and found that it was only tight getting in and out, and once in, headroom is plentiful and knee and leg room can be negotiated with front-seat occupants. That’s what you expect in the subcompact class, and with a length of 164.9 inches and wheelbase of 102.4, the Kona fits the standard.

   With a 6.7-inch ground clearance, the Kona has 19.2 cubic feet of cargo space, and only the HR-V and Crosstrek can top that. Ride comfort and smooth operation is evident every time you drive the Kona, and the only concession to any jolts might be due to the optional wheel size, which grow by the model, thus reducing the aspect ratio that makes lower-profile tires fit with their inherent less cushioning.

   When it comes to driving, the Kona is quick and agile, with the base engine a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder “Nu” engine with Atkinson cycle ability to hold the valves open for longer duration of the combustion stroke for better efficiency, power and fuel economy. The 2.0 has EPA estimates of 147 horsepower at 5,500 RPMs, and 132 foot-pounds of torque at 4,500 RPMs.

   For the day, my co-driver and I drove the Kona Ultimate, with the optional all-wheel drive powered easily by the smaller, but more potent, 1.6-liter 4-cylinder “Gamma” engine, which is turbocharged to kick out 175 horsepower at 5,500 RPMs, and sustain a torque peak of 195 foot-pounds of torque from 1,500-4,500 RPMs. That means if you stand on it, even moderately, torque rises to its peak at just a tick above idle speed, and stays there until you range up approaching red-line.

   The extra punch of the turbo 1.6 doesn’t flinch from the added requirements of the all-wheel drive system in the Kona, and Hyundai, which made its breakthrough-technology 2.4-liter engine in 2010 for the Sonata, has not only expanded its technique to all its engines, but also started building its own transmissions.

Distinctive cascade grille is surrounded by lights on stylish nose.

   Its 6-speed automatic is smooth and efficient, and operates with the 2.0 engine, and Hyundai’s high-tech 1.6 has the added quick-shifting and flexibility of its newer 7-speed dual-clutch transmission, which switches clutches as you drive, each clutch operating the next gear in progression.

   Handling is fine, with the all-wheel drive versions getting a new multilink rear to replace the beam rear suspension in the FWD Konas. Hyundai has engineered a front-brake operated torque-vectoring system to improve turn-in instincts for more safety, and while the AWD self-regulates the percentage of power from front to rear axles, you can also lock it into la 4×4 system that sends 50-percent front and rear.

   For style, the Kona has its own striking pallette of colors. We drove a bright red model Ultimate, and it didn’t have the optional black roof, which is nice enough, but doesn’t always fit, in my estimation. I liked it, on the other hand, with the darkest of the grey paint jobs, where it looked more appropriate.

   Interior textures are all modern, too, with soft-touch stuff on the dashboard and door panels. The sound system has an Infinity premium upgrade, and moving higher in model status, you can add forward collision avoidance, lane-keep assist, blind-spot collision assist, rear camera with cross-traffic alert, pedestrian detection, high-beam assist, and even driver-alert assist in case you seem to the car to get a bit drowsy.

   Hyundai executives like to say how the company strives to provide luxury and features that are a level up from what buyers might anticipate, and things like a pop-up heads-up display, Blue Link connectivity, remote start and wireless cell phone charging are evidence of that on the Kona.


Compact gauge unit is configurable to show all information.

By the time Konas get out in force to dealerships all over the U.S., it will be time for the fall production start of the Kona EV — for electric vehicle. That will come with a 64-killowatt hour electric system with the equivalent of 201 horsepower and 291 foot-pounds of torque, and, more important than its obvious performance, will have a 250-mile front-wheel drive range and a standard fast-charge system. By then, gasoline might cost $4 a gallon.

   For now, though, the new Kona is futuristic enough to require consideration than any consumer who wants a combined SUV and citified runabout with all-season AWD capability.

Platform, engine, design turn page on Jetta

June 13, 2018 by · Comments Off on Platform, engine, design turn page on Jetta
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Luxury-look grille sets off all-new 2019 Jetta.

By John Gilbert

   For decades, I’ve been a loyal fan of Volkswagen. It dates back to when I was a kid and my mom bought a 1960 Volkswagen Beetle, equipped to survive Northern Minnesota winters with an add-on gas heater, which was an amazing device that could transform 20-below winter nights — at the pull of a switch to activate the 747-like roar of the under-dash device —  to 90 above tropical temperature in about  minute, after which you could choose 20 below or 90 above, with no intermediary stops.

   Following along through the era of Rabbits, then Golfs, GTIs, Jettas, Passats, with side-trips to a Scirocco or Corrado here or there, our family, and particularly our two sons, got exceptional service from such VWs.

   So it was with considerable distress that I followed along with the incredible world-wide scandal of the alteration of VW’s 40-plus miles-per-gallon turbo-diesels, which were configured to disable the emission-control stuff except when being tested by the EPA. It turns out, there have been various other companies caught in the same scandal — including virtually all turbo-diesel pickups from the U.S. — but because of the mountain of publicity, it is VW’s to own, and be fined for.

    Most impressive, though, is that Volkswagen didn’t just pull out of the U.S., it made an enormous corporate changeover to rally and stay in the market as a solid performer. Adding SUVs, such as the Tiguan, and the Atlas, helped immeasurably. But with the 2019 Jetta compact sedan, we get to experience the best in German engineering, from a high-tech plant in the U.S., at an amazing bargain price.

Quick, agile Jetta is still roomy family bargain.

SEL Premium Jetta has angled cockpit dash, excellent leather buckets.

   Volkswagen, which owns Audi, has worked with them to develop and perfect a couple of 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engines, with and without turbochargers, depending upon the application. VW also reduced the displacement of the 2.0 to 1.8 and got almost as much performance with even better fuel efficiency. In the process, Volkswagen created an all-new platform, called the MQB, which, after translation, stands for Modular Transverse Matrix.

   An all-new platform can be significant, allowing a vehicle’s unerpinnings to be designed for stiffness from which high-tech suspension and steering geometry can be engineered to be firmed up, balanced, and safer.

   With that MQB basis, the new Jetta adds a striking design. The sixth generation served VW well, outselling the popular Golf in the U.S., but its styling was unobtrusively boring, at best. It looked like a child’s soap-carving — and I liked the car! The new Jetta, hitting showrooms by the end of June, 2018 as a 2019 model, has a neater shape, and a very stylish front end and grille.

   It resembles the more costly Passat quite a bit, except that I think the new Jetta leaves Passat and all other VW sedans behind in styling. Interior redesign also has been significant, with a very neat and contemporary instrument panel joined by a center screen, all encircled in a capsulized manner and tilted toward the driver, for a true cockpit design.

   With the 1.8 sitting there, awaiting the call to be inserted in the Jetta, Volkswagen went a new direction, creating a 1.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder that is the jewel of a whole new family of 4-cylinder engines from VW. The 1.4 TSi doesn’t have the snappy low-end power of the 2.0, but it does have more meaningful torque numbers — peaking at 184 foot-pounds — which overcompensates for the mild 147 horsepower number. It is torque that launches a car’s drive wheels, and while the Jetta isn’t going to be entered in any drag-races, it does take off with adequate punch if you step on it hard enough.

   My first chance to drive the Jetta came after I was unable to locate a spot on five waves of its introduction. So when I attened the Midwest Auto Media Association Spring Rally at Elkhart Lake, one new Jetta was assigned there, and it had been arranged that I would drive a 2018 Passat from Duluth to Elkhart Lake, and then get the chance to drive home in the unreleased 2019 Jetta.

Larger and roomier 2018 Passat remains a fixture, but now trails Jetta restyling.

   It was the opportunity to verify my trust in all things Volkswagen. As gasoline climbs inexorably to, and past, $3 per gallon, you can appreciate this. Driving down from Duluth to the Twin Cities to pick up my older son, Jack, and then drive across Wisconsin to Elkhart Lake, we covered 520 miles — and never needed to fill up the gas tank! It must have a huge tank, but we got a computer suggested 36 miles per gallon with the 2.0 turbo engine.

   Returning, two days later, the Jetta felt light and agile, and I cut a few miles off by following the Nav Lady’s recommendations for the shortest routes. Driving across Wisconsin and then Minnesota, we covered 452 miles, and found a way to beat 36 mpg — our trip computed to 44.0 miles per gallon.

   Maybe some consumers aren’t yet concerned about gas prices, but I was doubly impressed when I noticed the Jetta calls for regular gas. In our part of the world, premium gas costs about 50 cents more per gallon, and while premium-burning cars run much better on premium, you save a lot at every tankful if it’s $5 cheaper every time you fill.

Jetta configurable instruments showed 44 miles per gallon of regular fuel.

   More important, to every consumer, is the interior of the Jetta, which is filled with very supportive bucket seats that seem much more premium than the always-good previous seats. Having a comfortable basis for driving helps, and the quick-steering and firm handling Jetta’s performance seemed even better because of them.

   Another huge plus for the Jetta comes when you first choose your model. The seventh-generation Jetta starts with the S at $18,545 with a stick shift ($19,345 with automatic), and then goes up to SE at $22,165, R-Design at $22,995, $24,415 for the SEL, and $26,945 for the loaded SEL Premium, which we were driving.

   With 17-inch wheels, LED head and tail lights, electronic parking brake, leather seats — the test car had “Storm Grey” leather — ventilated for air cooling as well as heated, lane assist and light assist (self dimming), plus the same soft material on the dashboard, that resembles the leather on a football after Aaron Rodgers deflates it just a tad. The 6.5-inch touchscreen grows to 8 inches in the top model, and the display is 10.25 inches. That’s above and beyond the current norm for safety stuff, such as back-up camera and blind-spot monitor.


Upgraded interior has vastly improved seats.

  The transmission is either a 6-speed stick or an 8-speed automatic, and I would like to check if the R-Design adds steering wheel paddles, which would mean you could operate more quickly than by stomping on the gas pedal to get the torque spooled up.

   Factory specs show that the 1.4 turbo — which is the only engine available in the 2019 Jetta — measures 30 mpg in town and 40 on the highway, for an impressive 34 combined. But my near-weeklong drive showed the aforementioned 44.0 mpg on the highway, and still 39 and up in town.

   That MQB platform, incidentally, will migrate until it underpins everything in the Volkswagen line, simply because it is a technical advancement. That includes some of the SUVs, such as the Tiguan or SportWagon, which might satisfy the consumer demand for SUVs instead of cars.


Sleek, attractive new Jetta.

  But the smaller Golf hatchback is still there, and the larger Passat, which has optional all-wheel drive, flanks it on the upper side, it’s difficult to imagine a better bargain for any and all kind of driving short of off-road than the 2019 Jetta, with its new engine, new platform, new seats, and new instrumentation layout. For $25,000 or less.

   The Jetta is good enough, and gets enough gas mileage, to make consumers forget about the TDI of the past. I will always remember those TDI diesels fondly, but the new Jetta will turn a page to a whole new chapter in Volkswagen’s automotive story.

MAMA Spring Rally springs best new vehicles

June 5, 2018 by · Comments Off on MAMA Spring Rally springs best new vehicles
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Acura made an official debut of the 2019 RDX at the MAMA Spring Rally, raising technology and performance of the midsize SUV.

By John Gilbert

    The opportunity to test drive a car or two every week adds unquestionable zest to the life of an auto journalist. And then there is the MAMA Spring Rally, which sets new standards every spring for members of the Midwest Auto Media Association. True, I’m prejudiced, but I believe the MAMA spring and fall rallies are the best functions any auto membership outfit offers.

   This year’s Spring Rally was conducted on the week leading up to Memorial Day. Over the course of the two days, I drove 17 different vehicles, on the Road America race course, on surrounding rural roads, and on a very challenging autocross circuit. And I still left almost that many more I wanted to get into, but ran out of time. I will be reporting on almost all the new vehicles that were provided for the Rally when they get to the press fleet, but it was good to get a taste of some of the more enticing cars.

   MAMA also has its members vote for Family Car of the Year, and to qualify a car must cost less than $50,000 and have four doors and be aimed at hauling a family. This year, they added a Luxury Family Car of the Year. It won’t be announced until next February at the Chicago Auto Show, but the candidates this year are many.

   Starting in reverse order here, the top vote-getters for Family Car of the Year established the early top candidates: the Hyundai Kona compact SUV, the Ram 1500 full size pickup truck, the new-for-2019 Volkswagen Jetta, the renovated Mazda6 sedan, the Buick Regal Tour-X station wagon, and the Ford Expedition large SUV. In the companion Luxury Car of the Year category, the early favorites are the Volvo XC40 compact crossover SUV, the Acura RDX midsize SUV, the Kia Stinger large performance sedan, and the Range Rover Velar SUV. These are not in order of votes, but make a preliminary list of favorites for the two categories, awaiting final vote-offs at the MAMA fall rally. 

   My personal picks were the Kona, the Ram 1500 the Jetta and Mazda6. Among luxury vehicles, the Volvo XC40, the RDX, and the Jaguar E-Pace were my anticipated favorites, but the vehicle that stole the show for me was the new BMW X2, a low and flashy new compact SUV with a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine. Maybe it’s too new, but it somehow escaped the scrutiny of most voters.

BMW showed up with its new M5 sedan, left, and newly created X2 compact crossover.

   What we do is gather at the Osthoff Resort in the tiny southeastern Wisconsin town of Elkhart Lake, which includes the legendary 4-mile road-racing circuit in the rolling hillside just outside of town. Our esteemed group’s board of directors stays in running contact with all the auto manufacturers, and they work out agreements to bring their newest vehicles to the track, where close to a hundred media types get to take turns driving nearly a hundred vehicles for one-lap circuits around the track.


Cadillac’s ATS-4 is a coupe version of its hot new turbo-4 sedan.

  Driving all these new cars on the nation’s most legendary road-racing track would be highlight enough for us, but we also get to make some real-world road tests around the winding roads outside the track, and, for good measure, some hot laps around a special autocross track located within the track’s borders. In addition, the folks from Range Rover have set up a special inside off-road track amid the hills and trees of the far side of the track property to test off-road vehicles. Read more

Durango gets racier with SRT 6.4 Hemi

May 31, 2018 by · Comments Off on Durango gets racier with SRT 6.4 Hemi
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Durango always looks aggressive, and its new SRT with the 6.4 Hemi is more potent than it looks.

By John Gilbert

    Memorial Day weekend is celebrated by many as the ultimate race weekend, mainly because of the Indianapolis 500. Fittingly, then, our subject during Indy week is a vehicle that not only embraces the American drivers’ love of speed with the American family’s current love of SUVs

   We’re talking the Dodge Durango SRT 392, and the test vehicle came in a gleaming white paint exterior, called, cleverly enough, “White Knuckle,” a clearcoat finish that makes its point: Drive this beast, but be ready for lightning quick power requiring maximum driver attention.

   If this all seems familiar, it might be because loyal readers of New Car Picks may recall seeing an all-white hot-rod Dodge Durango, just a few months ago. It was the Durango GT, which came with almost all the visual tricks of the SRT, and with a properly spunky 3.6-liter V6 and an option available up to the 5.7-liter Hemi V8.

Spacious rear can be filled with all that’s needed to move the family — swiftly!

  But it is time to give the Durango SRT 392 its moment in the sun, partly because of the tie-in with Race Weekend, and because the SRT 392 could leave all other Durangos in the weeds. This is more like a Dodge Charger SRT with three rows of seats and a bit more road clearance. And it is just as hot as the car-version Charger or Challenger SRT, because it has the same powertrain.

   The SRT — for street, racing technology — gang hangs out behind the scenes at Dodge, thinking up ingenious ways to get more power out of its pride-and-joy Hemi V8 engines. The “392” is the monster engine, a 6.4-liter V8 fastened to an 8-speed heavy-duty transmission and steering wheel paddles, just in case the highly efficient transmission doesn’t up- or downshift quickly enough.

   Trust me on this: Everything the Durango SRT 392 does it does swiftly enough for any normal performance-driving zealot. With all the firming-up and strengthening of the powertrain and suspension, the SRT 392 sticker price was $75,550. That’s a healthy leap from the more basic models’ range of mid-$30,000 to $60,000, but those who select it are not interested in moderation from a vehicle or its drivetrain or its image. And yet, while the more basic Durango won’t do what the sizzling SRT will do, the SRT 392 will easily settle in and do what a family hauler will do. Read more

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