Arteon poised to lead VW resurgence

December 5, 2019 by · Comments Off on Arteon poised to lead VW resurgence
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Wide, sweeping grille sets off 2020 Volkswagen Arteon sedan.

By John Gilbert

It wasn’t a long trip, just a short jaunt on an interstate near Duluth, Minnesota, but immediately my wife, Joan, and I realized we had found something new to like about the car, beyond its great looks and refined interior comfort.

It was smooth. Not just non-bouncy smooth, but luxury-car smooth, as we headed up the North Shore of Lake Superior totally at ease and with an added blanket of security from that smoothness. A sort of quiet, uninterrupted feeling of a peaceful commute.

This is not to say that the Jetta, or Passat, isn’t smooth, but the 2020 Arteon is my new favorite in the whole VW array.

Volkswagen is in the midst of deciding on its variety of cars with which to try to pump up its numbers in the United States. We hear that the specialty GTI and Golf R will be coming in, but not the normal, garden-variety Golf. We are certain the Jetta will be sold here, and it has proven to be a popular, economical 4-door compact. The larger Passat also remains. Along with the various SUVs, Volkswagen seems to have all the angles covered, and the Arteon replaces the CC, which was a breakthrough with its 4-door-coupe styling a decade ago. The Arteon retains that same silhouette, covering a roomy rear seat and an enormous trunk..

VW also has provided some of the biggest news in the realm of auto shows, because it has shown frequent views of the Golf-e, VW’s new pure-electric vehicle that will take care of the zero-pollution end of it, and talk is that Volkswagen will build the EV at a new wing on the plant in Chattanooga, Tennesee.

Arteon SEL interior features firm, and heated, leather bucket seats, plus upgraded interior.

The Arteon, however, has the chance to give the company a near-luxury sedan that can compete with anybody else’s full-luxury cars. With a 2.0-liter 3-cylinder, an engine with endearing popularity as the engine that makes the GTI the “hot hatch” icon of the industry.

Even though the Arteon is quite large and spacious, the potent little 2.0 can handle it. The test car, in a gleaming black that showed off its artistic grille in high-contrast perfection, has enough power to easily make the Arteon perform like a sporty sedan, even though your neighbors will be convinced you’ve gone upscale to a luxury car.

With direct injection and a turbocharger, run through steering wheel paddles is you want to shift the 8-speed automatic by hand, you are somewhat surprised that such a comfortable, roomy sedan can switch personalities in a flash. It also came with 4-Motion, Volkswagen’s highly efficient all-wheel-drive system, and you can play with the driving mode switch to set yourself up for economcal, or comfort, or sporty settings.

Arteon overcomes the issue of a sleek roofline cutting headroom with spacious rear seat.

The electronic differential lock adds to your stability,. and there is an adaptive chassis control, and electro-mechanical power steering tightens up in the sport setting.

Big, 19-inch alloy wheels are mounted with all-season tires, and with all the contemporary stability and braking equipment, you feel well-prepared for winter driving as well. Inside, the 12-speaker, 700-watt digital Dynaudio Premium audio system keeps you entertained. Outside, LED lights cut sharp focus whether in the adaptive headlights, taillights or daytime running lights. Fully loaded, the Arteon moves up from $44,945 to $46,410.

Car-makers strive to combine performance and luxury, and Arteon aces both tests.

The Arteon might be the aristocrat in VW’s stable when it rises in stature to U.S. buyers. There is an interesting battle going on right now in the government, because when President Trump, in his eagerness to turn back every positive step President Obama made, rolled back the startling legislation Obama attained, which requires automakers to improve fuel economy by 5 mpg each year until we’ve become the world’s vanguard in low emissions and high economy.

Trump’s rule reduces that demand from a 5-mpg improvement each year to 1.5 mpg. At least it’s something, but it’s a weak attempt at a compromise. It also might be an attempt to get automakers behind Trump for the next election, but it won’t do much for California voters, who are solidly behind the move to stick with the Obama-level improvement.

While California was operating within it’s rights to set state standards that are tougher than the national rule, 15 other states adopted the California plan — including Minnesota. Trump realized he had been snookered and would look bad trying to win as the Pollution President, ran through a law that prevents California from splitting off from the rest of the country.

Cockpit view of Arteon SES shows full German emnphasis on driving.

Automakers, who are smart enough to realize they can make the same profit with less cost by Trump’s rule, sounded off behind the President. Those companies include General Motors, Toyota, Fiat-Chrysler, and Nissan.

No time for gloating, however, because California — joined by a posse that now numbers 23 states — filed a lawsuit to refute the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration in its attempt to prevent it from enforcing the stricter law. On top of that, last week, California announced that it would no longer be buying state vehicles from companies that do not adhere to California’s cleaner-air rule, and it would no longer allow any state agencies from such purchases.

That may sound like a kid’s game of “I got you last,” but consider that from 2016 to 2018, California bought $58.6-million in GM vehicles for state use, and $55.8-million worth of Fiat-Chrysler vehicles, plus $10.6-million Toyota vehicles. Those companies, in the midst of some tough times for automakers, will not absorb such losses easily.

Winners will be Ford, which supplies $69.2-million in vehicles, Honda, which supplies $565,000-worth of vehicles, and German companies such as Volkswagen and BMW.

Replacing the coupe-shaped CC, new Arteon keeps the long, sweeping silhouette.

The inclusion of Volkswagen in that group is ironic, because while it hasn’t been supplying vehicles to California’s state car pool, it certainly could, and it would represent a huge change from being the bad guy in the recent diesel-emission violation scandal to being a good guy building cars that meet standards the banned companies have chosen to say they can’t meet.

And once they settle into the firm but plush leather bucket seats of an Arteon, state officials might wonder why they hadn’t been buying them all along.

Lexus crossovers cross over, add technology

November 22, 2019 by · Comments Off on Lexus crossovers cross over, add technology
Filed under: New car introductions, Weekly test drives, Autos 

Lexus NX300 puts new-tech 2.0-liter turbo to work for 2020 in compact, AWD form.

By John Gilbert
As we gravitate — some would say “hurtle” — from sedans to SUVs for our vehicles of choice, we have now reached a point that obscures the very definitions of those vehicles. Take Lexus, for example, and think about whether you can identify and tell the difference among the Less RX, the Lexus UX, the Lexus GX, the Lexus NX, and the Lexus LX?

I didn’t think so.

On the off-chance you can, then let’s add in the Lexus GS, Lexus ES, Lexus IS, Lexus LS, Lexus LC, and Lexus RC. The above group are all, officially, SUVs, while the lower group is made up of cars.

The low, sleek 2019 Lexus IS350 is all sedan — but AWD gives 3.5 V6 hints of SUV.

We are not here to discriminate about model nomenclature, though. We’re here to describe a couple of them and how the compare, if it’s possible to differentiate. First off, Lexus is the upscale or luxury segment of Toyota, and nearly all Lexus models began life as a fancy version of a more mainstream Toyota. As years passed, Lexus got more of the upscale stuff, while Toyota absorbed the more mainstream and less expensive equipment.

I had the chance to road-test a couple of these vehicles, for a week each, and they came back to back. First came the 2020 Lexus NX 300 F Sport , a compact SUV, painted Cadmium Orange, a rich but flashy color that exacts a $595 addition to help push the base price of $40,360 to a final sticker of $51,910. Next came a 2019 Lexus IS 350 AWD sedan, painted Ultrasonic Blue Mica — also worthy of a $595 option price, helping boost the base price from $44,095 to $51,875.

Imagine that! With all the features and add-ons, these two vehicles wind up $35 different, even though they are intended for different worlds of driving. Or, are they? Both are all-wheel drive, both have different but potent engines, different transmissions, and both are F-Sport variations with firmer suspension and special features, with one being a low-slung, sporty 4-door sedan, and the other being a quite-sleek compact crossover SUV, also with four doors, and raised a bit for added room and stature.

Here’s my point: If you live in a rural area in snow country, where the county might plow your road in a day or so, you might want the slightly higher stance of the NX 300; if your driving is mostly or all on well-maintained paved roads and you favor a sporty flair to your driving, the IS 350. Both have all the anticipated contemporary safety features, with lane departure warning and assist, rear camera, blind spot monitor, etc.

An interesting evaluation would indicate the SUV handles like a sports car, and the sleek sedan has some of the capabilities of an SUV.

Curves and contours make the IS350 properly sleek, and 311 horsepower make it go.

The IS 350 sedan surprised me a bit because it is low and quite small, and after several stops on a trip to downtown Duluth, I had to climb in and out enough that it seemed that I was more than filling that small door opening more than I hoped to. I must say that the Ultrasonic Blue Mica might be the most stunning paint job I’ve ever seen on a production car. It is not a medium bright blue, nor is it a rich, dark navy. It is a high-metallic color that stirs my soul, every time I look at it. It sis like drinking a strong cup of tea that leaves a lingering aftertaste, only this aftertaste is visual, and when the sun hits the car, you might prefer to stand outside and gaze at it, rather than climb in and drives away

Once inside the IS 350 is plenty roomy in the encapsulating front buckets. It is powered by a 3.5-liter V6, dispensing 311 horsepower and 280 foot-pounds of torque. That is a tried and true old veteran Toyota engine, durable and pretty trouble-free after living through a few hundred thousand Camrys and who knows what? Its 6-speed automatic handles the power well, and you can manually adjust the power with a console-mounted switch that takes you from normal to sport, with a special setting for snow. There also are steering wheel paddles on either side so you can upshift or downshift at the touch of your fingertips.

Efficient and sporty leather seated interior works on IS350, after tight entrance..

The exterior light-show is dazzling, with zig-zag lights up front and artistically designed taillights. Inside, special F-Sport 18-inch alloy wheels are shod with 225/40 R 18 fronts and 255/35 R 18 rears — just for those who think giving up the ability to switch wheels front to rear can be knowingly confounded by the manufacturer. The 10.3-inch navigation screen is combined with an amazing audio system, a Mark Levinson item with 835 watts piped through a 5.1-channel surround system before getting to 15 speakers. And it has a CD player!

I’m always surprised with a new car comes with all the connectivity but without a CD player. Granted, the audio world is going to MP3 players, but my guess is that everybody buying a car for the next decade has a closet-full of CDs, so even as they fade out of style, owners might find it a source of great enjoyment to be able to grab f couple old and new CDs to play on a trip.

The NX300’s “signature” grille further blurs the lines between sedan and SUV.

The high-metallic orange NX 300 was, in some ways, more convenient, both for hauling stuff, and for getting in and out with greater ease. Equally as surprising as the 3.5 V6 in the sedan was that the small SUV had very good power and handling, with its F Sport upgrades, but its power was a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine. This engine is out of the new bin of Toyota engines, with 235 horsepower that is easily adequate in the small SUV, and gave it up to 25 miles per gallon in highway driving, and down around 20 in town, but it does need 91-octane premium fuel with its 13-1 compression ratio. Good for power, not so good for fuel economy.

The same splendid Mark Levinson audio system is included in the F Sport package, and the 835-watt sound system has 14 speakers — one less than the little sedan.

The Lexus method of designing the cons has aole is a touch pad, with a small padded thing for the palm of your hand to rest while you try to move the nav screen cursor around to adjust the audio or the climate control, with varying ease. Interestingly, the NX 300 SUV has a larger screen on the left, or driver’s side, of the console, while the IS 350 sedan has a smaller, narrower pad and a smaller touchpad. No big deal, just different.

Another difference is that the NX has the same size 18-inch wheels and all-season tires. While the sedan has the separate “snow” switch, the console switch on the NX could be turned right for sport or left for normal driving.

Rich leather on cocoon-like bucket seats adds luxury to the 2020 NX 300.

Those of us who have been watching Toyota closely for a few decades have heard about the new attention to less-boring, more-fun driving, and the intention to revise engines. For decades, Toyota has used a 1.8 or 2.5-liter 4 in its cars, and the new 2.0-liter 4 is from the new pallet, which means more sophisticated injection and engine-management devices,. It would not be a stretch to envision that 2.0 being refined when necessary and replace the 1.8, 2.5 and even the venerable 3.5 V6, with the turbocharger turned up as needed to provide more power or torque.

I can see that happening, but in the meantime, while we’re wondering how sedans can vanish to be replaced by small SUVs, the new Lexus models are one jump ahead, with the NX 300 handling like a sedan, and the IS 300 sedan doing what it is that makes SUVs with AWD so popular.

TC Auto Show to feature Truck Summit

November 16, 2019 by · Comments Off on TC Auto Show to feature Truck Summit
Filed under: New car introductions, Weekly test drives, Features, Autos, Uncategorized 

Ford has reintroduced the Ranger midsize pickup, which will make the rounds of auto shows for 2020.

By John Gilbert
If you are able to attend any of the world’s major auto shows — such as Frankfurt, Geneva, Paris, Japan, or the Big Four in the U.S., Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Detroit — the magnitude is amazing. But that doesn’t mean the smaller population centers are any less intense in their interest. And most of them aren’t that small.

That interest in Minnesota will ride a new idea, armed with an impressive economic impact study that shows the auto show may have a financial impact on the region of $19 million every year, with a nine-day run that makes its earnings greater than the Super Bowl or the Final Four.

If you don’t care about the huge congestion at the Big Four shows, you might be able to calm down and enjoy the Twin Cities show., which runs from March 7-15.

A young enthusiast was mesmerized watching drivers take on the Jeep off-road demonstration at the Twin Cities Show.

My fondest memory of the Twin Cities Auto Show came a few years ago, while taking a pre-opening run through the displays at the Minneapolis Convention Center. There was a Jeep display, where a huge hill had been formed and rides were given to show how steep an incline, and descent, the new Jeeps could handle, which was better than some state fair thrill rides. As I watched the demonstration, there in the foreground was a kid, exactly the kind of kid who might spend his spare time playing with a model truck in his backyard sandbox, and he stood there, transfixed as he gazed at the Jeep going up and over.

That was a couple years ago, and I should have realized then exactly why our country, and particularly our state, had started on a transition from cars to trucks.

It has happened, of course. And when the Twin Cities Auto Show opens February 7, 2020, the focus will be on its Truck Summit on February 6 to break down the reasons for the shift.

Chevrolet brings back the Blazer — old name, all-new SUV.

There are a lot of other significant vehicles that will fill the huge site, with particular emphasis on the emerging electric car phenomenon that could change the world’s auto industry. But there also will be dozens of trucks, from Ford, Ram, Chevrolet, Toyota, Nissan, Honda for pickups and all the newest SUVs and crossovers being shown by virtually all manufacturers.

Sleek lines set off the all-new Lincoln Aviator, another old name redone.

We are fast closing in on the start of the U.S. major auto show season, which begins later this month with the Los Angeles show, and continues with Chicago in February, New York in April, and Detroit in June. The Detroit date is the major departure, because it always has been in early January, but has shifted to summertime.

A lot of people in the auto industry are curious and anxious about that shift, moving the traditional mid-winter Detroit exposition to summer, and the anxiety is because a number of hard-core auto observers are concerned that the once-heralded major shows have faded in the intensity of interest by both auto makers and consumers. The question for us in Minnesota is, where does all that leave us, here in flyover land?

Jeep’s popularity led to the new Gladiator, sort of a Wrangler with a pickup bed.

The Twin Cities Auto Show has always been a solid attraction for consumers, coming in early March, with the major difference being that while the four majors are manufacturer-backed shows, the rest of the nation’s shows are dealer-created. There are some large ones, such as Miami, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., Denver, Atlanta, and Minneapolis, among others, but instead of luring the hottest and newest concept cars and new introductions that the manufacturers save for the Big Four, the smaller shows are limited by whatever the local dealerships are willing and able to provide for display.

For 2020, the Twin Cities Auto Show is taking a proactive approach, for two good reasons. First, the Twin Cities dealerships — the Greater Metropolitan Auto Dealers Association — want a larger piece of the usually picked-over pie. Second, and perhaps more significant, the entire nation is being taken over by truck and SUV purchases leaving cars behind, and the Minnesota region is outstripping the rest of the nation in our hunger for trucks.

So the Twin Cities show organizers have come up with a plan and will hold an industry first, a National Truck Summit. The show itself will run from March 7-15 at the Minneapolis Convention Center, and on the eve of the show, Thursday, March 6, the GMADA will join up with Automotive News, the industry’s leading worldwide source for automotive information, to focus the industry’s attention on the show as the focal point for the truck and SUV industry.

“We love our trucks in Minnesotans,” said Scott Lambert, GMADA president, who produced some surprising documentation to back up what seems like a general claim. “We use them to pull our boats in the summer an to get home safely despite the snow and ice in the winter.”

Honda unveils a new-generation CR-V in all forms, including electrified.

Nationally, SUVs and pickup trucks now comprise 69 percent of all vehicles sold, which is a startling fact if you haven’t paid attention to the classification of vehicles joining you at the stoplight. In Minnesota, however, that number is over 82 percent — 82 percent trucks and SUVs, leaving only 18 percent for cars of all sorts.

“Minnesota is uniquely positioned to host a national discussion on consumer interest in trucks,” Lambert said. “They are really part of how we live and work here. We think we can make a dent in the truck market.”

Mary Velline, the Twin Cities Auto Show director, and Lambert approached the University of Minnesota’s department of economics and found precisely the right person. Professor Amil Petrin, who grew up in Michigan and got his doctorate at the University of Michigan, has been a professor at Minnesota for the past decade, and readily acknowledges he is a car fanatic.

Cars won’t be overlooked, particularly specialty cars like the 2020 Toyota Supra.

“I come to the show here every year, just to see what’s new,” Petrin said, adding that he also has observed with some curiosity how major events such as the Super Bowl and the NCAA Final Four in basketball seem to readily pull out impressive numbers for their economic impact on the region, and, he noted, sometimes they get in trouble when the numbers are proven over-optimistic.

“Part of the reason I took this on is because in most cases, you can’t tell where they came up with the numbers,” Dr. Petrin said. “So when Scott and Mary contacted me last year and said they wanted to see an accurate appraisal of what the economic impact of the show was, I was eager to take it on. First of all, I love talking about cars.”

Petrin said there are internet surveys and various types of research that can be done, and he insisted his research would be both accurate and transparent. “That was part of what we did,” he said. “We studied how we could come up with with the most accurate way to measure better, and we rigorously set out to get the right raw data as an aid to the community.

Hyundai’s Palisade, the largest SUV ever from the South Korean builder, has been a huge hit.

We did a direct electronic exit survey and that was extremely helpful in determining how many people came for several days. At $19 million for an event that lasted only nine days, the economic impact of this show is both significant and wide-reaching. It indicated that in addition to ticket, concession and parking revenue, many visitors stayed overnight, to also attend sports events or for other tourist activities, like theater, or shopping downtown or at the Mall of America.”

Petrin’s study confirmed that the show attracts the obvious ticket revenue, and $670,000 in parking, and also generated over $10.5 million on food, lodging at hotels and Airbnb locations, and on other activities.

Show director Mary Velline pointed to the two-weekend run of the show, and said: “Each year, the Twin Cities Auto Show brings a large and reliable crowd of people from all over the country into downtown Minneapolis for two weeks. Besides show attendees, the downtown is filled with the people responsible for the set-up, take-down and display of the show.”

Ford has revised the Explorer and offers a new sporty version of it for 2020.

The day before the show opens, the Truck Summit will take over the Convention Center, with a luncheon, consumer focus groups, manufacturers representatives, the latest new trucks, and various demonstrations, including a panel of automotive experts and the release of two years of consumer data that indicates just why we’ve all become so crazy about trucks.

Mini tradition endures, even in “Maxi” form

November 12, 2019 by · Comments Off on Mini tradition endures, even in “Maxi” form
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

The 2020 Mini Countryman is larger and more powerful but proved its kinship with our 2007 model during an impromptu road-test.

By John Gilbert
Ever since I was a little kid, our family gave our cars nicknames. Betsy is the one I remember best, for a sturdy old 1946 Dodge . Since then, I’ve always had relationships with cars I’ve owned, some great, some not so great. For the last 10 years, however, the most memorable car we’ve had has been a little red 2007 Mini Cooper.

It has been so loyal, trustworthy, and dependable, it could earn a Boy Scout endorsement. I last wrote about how it carried my wife, Joan, my older son, Jack, and me home from the Twin Cities airport through the worst overnight blizzard of the winter, to the safely and securrity of the Gilbert Compound, up on the hill just up the North Shore of Lake Superior from Duluth. The joke was on us, to a point, because I couldn’t readily see the tiny switch on the other side of the floor shift lever and was unaware the switch indicated that the traction control was off. I just thought the icy undercoat of all the snow made our trek extremely slippery and hazardous. All the way from the Twin Cities, slithering around on the freeway in whiteout conditions, my adrenaline on red-alert, and we made it! Imagine how easy it would have been had the traction control been turned on!

I’ve test-driven a couple of Mini Coopers in the decade since we bought that Mini with only a few miles on it, and I’ve been impressed. The 2007 model came out a year after BMW had taken ownership of the proud marque and smoved its production to Europe, with a BMW 4-cylinder.My wife, Joan, has pampered that car, hand-washing it to be put  back in the garage. Next time I see it, she’ll be hand-washing it again. It took a lot of convincing to get her to allow regular or mid-grade gas into it, instead of the premium she prefers.

Our 2007 Mini Cooper has been a loyal friend for a decade of winters — odd key fob and all.

As it turned out, our 2007 Mini secured for us a few days in a 2020 “Mini Cooper S Countryman, ALL4,” courtesy of Motorwerks BMW in the Minneapolis suburb of Golden Valley. There is no dealership in Duluth, so we make periodic trips to Motorwerks when we need to give our Mini factory scrutiny, if it can’t be handled by Foreign Affairs in Duluth. We didn’t want to leave our Mini with a babysitter, even a factory-supported babysitter, but we agreed to swap it for a 2020 test-drive for a few days. Here’s why:

The Mini has the weird little electronic ignition switch and door key. You hit the tiny edge of the key fob to unlock or lock the two doors, and then you insert the fob into a little slot on the dash, next to the push-button to start the car. Or shut it off. Our key fob has taken a beating over the decade, and we only had one.

Joan, who does most of the Mini driving because I’m usually in test-drive vehicles, also likes to do work around outside our rural hilltop home, and she was digging around one day in July and got some honest dirt on her jacket. When she came in, she tossed the jacket into the washing machine with the next load. Came out clean as a whistle. And so did the Mini key fob, which happened to still be in the pocket of her jacket.

We agreed that going through the washing cycle was probably not on the list of accepted maintenance tricks for that key fob. Joan carefully dried it out, opening it and using a hair dryer, and bought it a new tiny battery, and we tried it. Hitting the little switch made a meaningful click, but would not unlock the doors or the hatch. it would, however, start the car. Strange. When we hit the lock part of the switch it worked. Too well. We stood there, marooned, with the key fob in hand and the Mini parked in the garage in its well-scrubbed red paint, and its doors and hatch locked. We had no choice but to ultimately call AAA. Impressively, they had a fellow at our garage door within minutes, and he pried his way to slightly open the window and reach a long rod inside the Mini to unlock the door.

Then we found a quirk in the Mini’s personality, fortunately when it was still warm enough outside that we had the driver’s window open. If you very carefully left the doors unlocked, when you walked away it might lock itself. We left the driver’s door window open 4 inches so we could reach inside without calling AAA again. You might even hear it click from 30 feet away, and feel thankful the window was slightly open.

Roomy interior, AWD lift Countryman above normal Mini Cooper coupe.

We also knew we would have to get set up with a reconfigured or new switch, so we tried everywhere, but everyone told us it could only be done at a Mini dealership. We made an appointment at Motorwerks, which I had to cancel, and they said not to worry, we could just drive up and have it taken care of.

It became our ritual to leave the driver’s side window down those 4 inches — just enough to fit my forearm through to reach in and unlock the door with the inside latch. We figured we would have the switch reconfigured, but it wasn’t that easy. To reconfigure the key,  we had t0 go to a dealership, and have your title, driver’s license, credit card, and all the meaningful information required to, I suppose, change citizenship or travel to Canada and return some day. We had a section of old carpeting we carried on the floor of the back seat, so that if it rained, I could drape the grippy bottom of the carpet piece on the roof and let it hang over the open part of the window to keep it dry inside. You could drive it anywhere, but if you closed the window, you realized the importance of reopening it before exiting. So we fixed a little steick-on note onto the door as a reminder.

If car-buyers are turning to trucks and SUVs, BMW-owned Mini Countryman meets the test.

When it got cold enough to not leave the window open, Joan and I informed Motorwerks we were coming, and drove down from Duluth to the Twin Cities. When we pulled in, they carefully examined the key fob and were very puzzled. Why would the key operate the ignition, lock the doors, but not unlock them?

Then we learned that Mini key fobs cannot be reconfigured. Jake, our service writer, was very patient and accommodating as he fetched the service manager to discuss it with this unhappy customer. They explained that when the car is new, you plug the key fob into the ignition for the first time, and it is electronically configured for life. Matched to that car. We had no choice but to get a new one, which was really available — in Chicago, for a mere $284!

It would take a day or two to get it to Motorwerks, and they generously offered us the option of taking a “loaner” car until ours was ready, so we could drive home and then drive back down in a few days to get our Mini.

We also found out that there was never the need to bring the car to Motorwerks! They could have mailed the new key to us in Duluth, because the first time we plugged it in, it would configure itself. But if it didn’t work…well, we didn’t want to risk it. It was more than impressive when Jake rolled out our loaner — a brand new 2020 Mini Countryman — equipped with a supercharged 2.0-liter engine and all-wheel drive. We didn’t need the extra room, but it was very nice to have the quite enormous second seat and storage area, and the Mini Countryman performed very well for the four days we drove it like our own.

Comfortable leather bucket seats and modern connectivity are new Mini assets.

There are some significant design differences. One is that the old Mini has the oddity of a giant speedometer in the center of the dashboard; the driver gets a tachometer in front of his line of vision. The new car has the speedometer in the customary location, straight ahead, and a large navigation screen in the middle. Excellent comfort, good, responsive power, nice balance, and I had to think that AWD would be fantastic when snow and ice reach the North Shore.

Jake called, our car was ready, and everything seemed to work well. I drove down, dodging cones and barrels on the freeway-construction maze to get there. I was able to register 28.9 miles per gallon for the time I had the Countryman, curtailed as it was, under the circumstances. The new Mini Countryman would be fun to own, and a worthy Minnesota vehicle in the Great White North — although our much lighter, if older, Mini delivers over 36 miles per gallon on the freeway.

Modernized instruments on 2020 Mini show nav and back-up screens where speedometer used to be.

Motorwerks did a comprehensive job of going over everything in our trusty Mini, and we appreciated the recommendation for noticing the need for a little exhaust work, a reminder that our Nokian all-season tires are showing wear — down to 5/32 of remaining tread, and the engine air cleaner and the cabin microfilter needed changing. We had them replace the filters, and climbing in, the Mini felt like coming home. No satellite radio, but a CD player, and I had brought along a dozen of my best CDs to play on the way home.

When we got to November, the daily absurdity of being 25 degrees below normal because of our Arctic air mass meant it was a relief to no longer need to keep the driver’s window open a fourth of the way, because hypothermia is not on my most-wanted list. And the new key fob is really new-looking and gives us functions that have never been used. Also, the key fob is so clean,  there’ll be no need to run it through the washing machine.

No fiddling while Niro electrifies driving

November 5, 2019 by · Comments Off on No fiddling while Niro electrifies driving
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Kia’s Niro EV looks like a normal compact SUV, but is an all-electric view of the future.

By John Gilbert
If you have an odd sense of humor, you can use it to fool and confuse your friends when you’re driving a Kia Niro EV. Park it in a parking lot and ask if anyone can help locate the gas filler. They can walk around the car, several times, but they won’t find one. There isn’t one.

Then ask if any of them hear anything unusual as you drive away. Hit the gas pedal and Zap! You have accelerated away. When you come back, they will tell you they didn’t hear anything odd, because they didn’t hear anything at all. There is no sound, because there is no gasoline engine. The Niro EV is pure-electric, going beyond the hybrid Niro and plug-in hybrid Niro.

The Niro is Kia’s newly introduced compact SUV, sort of. It looks like a crossover SUV, it has the room of a compact crossover SUV, which it resembles far more than any rank-and-file car. The major hint is the terminology “EV.” That stands for Electric Vehicle. So there is no place for a gas filler, because there is no gasoline engine under the hood.

It’s not a Tesla, or any of those exotic, $100,000-plus luxury vehicles. It is an under-$50,000 wagon that looks like a compact SUV, which aims to show us where our cars of the future are heading. It’s “fuel economy” figure on the sticker shows 123 miles per gallon city, 102 highway, or 112 MPGe combined. The lower-case “e” after MPG stands for “electric.” It is a symbol of a changing world, which is fast approaching.

Stylish front of the Niro EV conceals outlet for plugging in electric plug.

The Niro is silent-running, and when you switch it on, don’t wait for an engine sound, just look for the little sign on the instrument panel that says “ready to drive.” Switch the rotary knob on the console to “D” and you’re off. There is also an “R” indicator to the right, and an “N” for neutral, and the little round circle with a “P” on it in the middle of the shift knob is for park. When you stop, or park, make sure you hit the P, and you might want to make sure it is shown on the instrument panel, or the silent-running Niro might go home without you!

The Niro is very comfortable for four or five, and it is both quick and good-handling both in city driving or cruising on a freeway, where you are amazed at how quick it is, and pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to hear conversations, or the fine audio system, because there is no engine noise.

The Niro seems to be facing its own identity crisis, possibly trying to decide if it is a luxury car, a sporty car, or an SUV. Think I’m exaggerating? Motor Trend runs an annual issue with capsules showing all the new cars, and a different issue showing all the new SUVs. I checked it out for the Niro among the small SUVs, but it wasn’t there. Then I pulled out the car issue, and, sure enough, Motor Trend showed the Niro among the cars. There are other compact crossovers without all-wheel-drive that don’t get insulted by being placed with cars, but the Niro seems OK with it.

Self-contained charge cable has a locking plug that can install electricity for 260 miles.

My appreciation of hybrid vehicles has been increasing at about the same rate that coordinated gas-electric hybrids have been moving into increasingly prominent roles in the auto industry. Knowing that the gas engine will recharge the electric motor is comforting, but I have had trouble getting my hands on anything from one elusive segment, up on the great North Shore of Lake Superior, and that is an EV — a pure electric vehicle.

Brief drives in vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf, left a strong impression, although its earliest models had a modest range of 20-something miles. There were others, too, but the manufacturers who build pure electric vehicles, with real-world driving range capabilities, pretty much ignore what we endearingly call “flyover land.” The reason is obvious on a couple of counts.

One, the expense of installing rapid charging stations naturally placed them in high-population areas like Los Angeles, or San Francisco, or the New York-Boston area of the East Coast. Maybe Florida. Second, it gets cold in the Great White North, really cold, and that can knock the starch out of the driving range of battery packs.

But EV-makers shouldn’t overlook the Upper Midwest. I keep writing that we’re all headed toward a world of electric-powered cars, and we’ve done well with hybrids and plug-in hybrids. Not only that, but we have a few EV charging stations in Minnesota — mostly in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, but a few in Duluth, right up here on the often-freezing tip of Lake Superior.

When I was notified that a vehicle would be delivered from a press fleet operation in Chicago, and it would be the Kia Niro EV, they informed me that it would be delivered to my house up the hill from the North Shore in rural Duluth, in an enclosed trailer.

Simple rotating shifter leaves room on console for needed switchwork.

Sure enough, the vehicle was a 2019 Kia Niro EV, in EX Premium trim. That’s a lot of suffixes, but the EX and Premium tags just denote various creature comfort packages on the particular vehicle coming my way. The car is Kia’s version of a similar drivetrain in the Hyundai Ionic, and more recently the Hyundai Kona compact SUV.

The Niro resembles a compact SUV, but it really is an example of how the South Korean partners are now differentiating their models. The Ionic is a slick compact sedan with large-car interior space, while the Kia designers took the same platform and built it up into an SUV-style vehicle using the same powertrain.

That powertrain is a 64 kilowatt-hour Lithium-Ion Polymer battery pack, built low and streamlined by LG Chem, a South Korean electronics innovator, and it produces 150 kilowatt-hours — or 201 horsepower — through an AC synchronous motor. It also has a 7.2 kilowatt on-board charger, and a DC fast-charge port for 480 volts in the front grille. It is concealed behind a small horizontal trap door on the end of what looks like a trim bar. Pop it open, pull the charge cable out from its receptacle under the hatch, and you can plug it into a normal household outlet, or a high-voltage outlet, or a special quick-charge outlet if you can locate one.

Though silent, Niro has sporty performance and controls to match.

I plugged the Niro into an outdoor plug-in and recharged it over night. But the most astounding thing about the whole week came when I clicked onto Google with my iPhone and asked for “EV car-charging stations in Duluth, Minnesota,” and it came back with several. The one that most interested me was at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, in the lot near the administration building, where two charging stations were located at the end of a long row of parking meters. Charge-Point, the company that makes the charging units, worked out an arrangement with UMD to install the two chargers, one normal and one fast-charge, and for its part of the bargain, UMD offers free usage of the charging stations for up to 4 hours at a time. That’s for students, faculty, visitors, and any residents who might come and plug in.

A small horizontal spring-loaded trap door in the grille reveals the covered connector, and you simply plug in the cable in the trunk floor, or the connector from a charge station, and as simply as you might use a credit card to plug a coin meter you’re set for as long as you want to charge. The connector locks in, and can’t be removed without the coded card from ChargePoint, to prevent the bad guys from stealing your car.

Heated and cooled leather seats add to the luxury interior featires.

When the Niro was delivered, it showed a workable range of 268 miles. That’s a lot. If yuo drive it precisely, you could get more, or less, if you want to hot-rod around. I charged mine at home, overnight, on a normal outlet. It showed I had reached 54 percent of capacity. I was disappointed I didn’t get more, but then I read that the most efficient way to insure long life for your battery pack is to charge it up to about halfway, then drive it.

The price of the Niro is $44,000, and if you add the numerous features of the test vehicle, such as the sunroof, Harmon Kardon audio upgrade, navigation and perforated leather seats, it rises to $47,155.

Friends mostly said, “I don’t want an electric car.” So I asked how much they pay a week for gasoline, and the norm was about $20 a week, to to work and back. I pointed out that 268 miles of range would get me through a whole week easily, and on the weekend, I could go to a UMD football or volleyball game, plug in the car at the free charge station, and recharge it enough to make it through the next week. If you did that, you would switch from paying $20 per week for gasoline, to paying $0 per week, for the year. That’s right — absolutely nothing for fuel for your car if you use the free-charge device. If you don’t, you can always go to one of the available credit card pay-recharge stations.

It’s common to drive from Duluth to Minneapolis and back in a day for business, or for a weekend, and it’s about 140 miles away. So you make it one way with ease, and if you don’t recharge in Minneapolis, you could head back home and stop for a little dinner along the way, getting enough of a charge while you’re eating to make it the rest of the way.

The Niro handles remarkably well, because the mostly flat, horizontal battery pack runs longitudinally, up the middle under the rear seat, sort of like a spine. It also locates a large portion of the car’s weight between the axles, giving the Niro the same benefit a mid-engine sports car gets from such placement.

Along with the expected safety features and electronic convenience and security items, the test Niro EV has a cold weather package that includes a battery heater and a heat pump that forces heated liquid to the battery pack to greatly reduce the normal power loss severe cold can do to battery packs. Warming up the battery pack makes it easier to operate in cold, as well.

Kia’s owner’s manual states that using normal AC charging ensures optimal battery life and is preferable to DC charging. Also, charging for the amount of range you need is better than fully charging, it says here, and you can set the Niro to shut off charging when the optimum charge is reached. Among other of its numerous safety fittings, such as lane-change, lane-departure, lane-following, collision-avoidance, etc., there are also fun features such as a mode switch that lets you instantly click to sport for improved acceleration.

From the side, Niro displays its capabilities for interior roominess alongside Lake Superior.

Kia also resisted the urge to install a continuously variable transmission, and instead uses the superb in-house 7-speed dual-clutch automatic that adds to the sporty feel. Shift paddles on the steering wheel enhance that feel even more.

My favorite Kia contact says the Niro has been selling on the West Coast for almost six months, and they are selling so fast that Kia has held off introducing its Soul-E, its next electric vehicle. I think the fact that the charging stations are already showing up in such outposts as Duluth, the logical move to sell more pure-electric cars in the Upper Midwest has got to be coming. We’re all going to be driving electric, sooner or later, so we might as well get on with it.

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