Right tires go beyond all-wheel-drive security

April 5, 2021 by · Comments Off on Right tires go beyond all-wheel-drive security
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Both 2021 Pacifica, left, and Mercedes AMG E53 sedan have all-wheel-drive available, but the tires make huge difference on ice.

By John Gilbert

How many people do you know who have had to call Triple-A to get their car extricated from a bad situation? A lot, I imagine. But how about from their own driveway? Now we’re getting somewhere, he added, raising his hand at his own question.

When springtime comes to the Great White North, we all shift into a celebratory mood, having conquered another round of winter for another year — albeit the weirdest year of our lives. But sometimes we, and the auto companies we know and love, get outflanked when they take Mother Nature for granted.

March arrived like a lamb in Duluth, Minnesota, as we broke a hundred-and-some-year-old record for the warmest temperature on that date, reaching 55 degrees. The two agencies that bring me new vehicles to test drive brought me a succession of three cars. One brought a Mercedes AMG E53 Sedan, and a new Chrysler Pacifica, the Limited version van with an S package. They both, by chance, had all-wheel drive.

The other delivery outfit brought me a new Mazda3, a very neat subcompact with the company’s new 2.5-liter turbocharged engine and, believe it or not, all-wheel drive. I joked to my wife, Joan, that here we were, breaking temperature records for mild weather and we have three AWD cars.

Upgraded Pacifica could be perfect — and escape my driveway — with ice-beating tires.

I was going out to catch a Division III women’s college hockey playoff game, and I decided to drive the Mazda3. I scoffed at the warning of possible snow, but wanted to keep the Mercedes pristine, and the stunning blue Pacifica also out of any weather risk. It did start snowing, gigantic flakes, and they came harder and harder, causing me to leave the game halfway through. The Mazda3 and I slid around a disturbing amount in the deepening and unplowed snow, but I made it home up our rural hill on the North Shore of Lake Superior, and drove in the 100 yards of my straight driveway, parking at an odd angle to allow our incredible neighbors space to work their plowing magic.

Next morning, we were buried under 7.5 inches of the heaviest, cement-like snow I’ve ever shoveled. And shoveled. And shoveled. Joan had to get to work, and she’s an excellent all-weather driver, but I suggested I’d drive her the 10 miles to work, and pick her up. My choice was the Pacifica, being higher off the ground, and a good opportunity to test its new limited-slip all-wheel-drive system, which uncouples the rear axle when the computer tells it there’s no risk of losing traction.

Versatile Pacifica seats fold or disappear into deep rear space.

I backed around the two parked vehicles and got the Pacifica aimed to back straight out of the driveway, and as I started, I figured I’d better get some momentum going for the highway snowplow’s inconvenient pile at the road. I hit the gas, and in an instant, the Pacifica shot sideways — 6 feet to the right and just enough to put the right wheels over the edge of the asphalt lip of the driveway, nestled down into the snow. I was amazed at how the limited-slip concept was overwhelmed by my unlimited-slip snow-covering, resulting in the Pacifica possibly spending the rest of the winter at our home.

I already knew the Mazda’s Bridgestone Turanza tires were not the grippiest, so I said we should take the Mercedes. Its $82,370 sticker priced was no assurance of passing this severe test! We climbed aboard and I set the mode switch to “slippery,” got it onto the straight part of the driveway and I built the speed gradually as we kept moving, churning smoothly to the end of the driveway and through the plowed pile. I turned left to head down the hill, and we drove to Joan’s workplace without ever even spinning a tire.

The Pacifica had no problems, once driveway was plowed!

After returning to our rural home, i called AAA, which was another humbling experience. A pleasant fellow told me his office was in Michigan. As I explained my predicament, he already had our home pinpointed on his computer, and as he was saying a wrecker driver would be dispatched as soon as possible, I felt my iPhone 11 vibrate. Figuring it might be Joan, I was surprised that it was Tony, from Two Harbors Towing and he said he’d arrive within 15 minutes. I was impressed. The driver called before I was through phoning in my need to Triple-A!

He grumbled a bit, three or four times, about our driveway being unplowed, and I told him we have two neighbors who both plow us out, and we are so thankful for that we are not in position to suggest a schedule. So he shrugged and went after it. Because of the new AWD system perhaps, or the lack of a trailer hitch despite a 3,600 tow capacity, there was no place to connect his cable to the rear. So he drove around the stuck Pacifica, turned up the slight grade toward our garage, and hooked the cable under the front. By throwing a switch, his wrecker pulled the Pacifica up and over the edge and back onto our driveway.

I aimed the Pacifica at backing out the driveway, now that there were a couple of tracks through the 7.5-inch snowfall, and I made it with only moderate slithering, up and over the now-battered snowplow ridge at the road. Tony was worried about getting his tow truck stuck, but he, too, made it out. I thanked him and he left, and as he drove down our hill, sure enough, our neighbor Eric drove down his driveway in his trusty F-350 Ford diesel, which he uses to tow a boat or camping trailer, and also for what he calls fun — to clear out driveway.

It got back up into the 40s the next few days, and most of that enormous snowfall went away, and we were able to better test the Pacifica, delaying our time with the very impressive Mazda3, but since the Pacifica and the Mercedes were both being picked up a couple days earlier, we devoted our drive time to them.

First, however, the object lessons for the week came on all those stylish alloy wheels. Often people buy a car, and several months later if it slips on ice they declare that the car is no good in the winter. In reality, of course, your only connection with the road surface is your tires. In the not-to-distant past, my clear preference was for Nokian tires, because they had great traction no matter how cold it was. The tread design is effective, designed by cold-weather experts in Finland, and the tread compound is comprehensively designed to maintain flexibility no matter how cold it gets. Going above the Arctic circle to test in Finland, and driving in Northern Minnesota, are greatly similar, and I always check what kind of tires are on my test cars.

The Mazda3 had, as I mentioned, Bridgestone Turanzas. Bridgestone makes Blizzaks, the no-compromise ice-driving tires, so they know what they’re doing. But the Turanza, like everything else in the tire business, is a compromise. On the Mazda3, the tires were more prone to spin than stick. If I bought that car — and there are numerous great reasons to consider one — I would quickly invest in top-level winter or all-season tires.

Tread-marks left by Michelin Pilot
Alpin tires on Mercedes E53, after heavy snow failed to cause even one spin.

The Pacifica, with this new scheme of adjusting the two axles based on limited-slip tendencies to spin, should be a real benefit in most driving in most seasons. And it might be very good in Minnesota winters, too, but the Falken Ziex all-season tires were best suited for “almost all-season” duty, rather than Minnesota blizzards.

The Mercedes, with all that power and torque, left a distinctive pattern in the snow, in the melted and refrozen ice, and in the muddy fringes of my driveway. The tires were Michelin Pilot Alpin tires, where, I believe, Alpin is the French version of Alpine. They were excellent on Dulutn’s steep hills and on clear roadways, as well as churning through 7.5 inches of snow to get past that nasty coating of ice underneath.

The Mercedes all-wheel-drive system was impressive too, and you could set the mode to comfort, or sport, or sport-plus, as well as “slippery.” My only remaining question is how well they will last on dry pavement, whether you can leave the Alpins on year-round, or whether you might want to alternate them with summer tires. I found out also that the car came with more high-performance tires, but Mercedes notified Rick Schmidgall at GSchmitz & Associates to install good winter tires before the car went out to media test-drivers.

Mercedes turned its AMG branch loose to create the stylish, hot-performing E53, which kept performing the next day, through 7.5 inches of heavy snow.

Jeff Hofslund, who operates Foreign Affairs in Duluth and was the top-selling Nokian dealer in the country a couple years ago, agreed that most tire manufacturers now make a variety of different-purpose tires, and most of their winter tires do a good job on ice and snow. I have tested top all-season tires from Pirelli, Continental and Goodyear that are very good on ice, even against the Blizzak and Nokian. Now I can add the Michelin Pilot Alpin to that group.

The Mercedes is at an interesting crossroads, similar to Cadillac, because their newest cars, and engines, are the best they’ve ever made, but both are hurrying toward electric power, and the smooth AMG-enhanced 3.0-liter inline 6 is EQ-boosted. The 9-speed automatic transmission has steering-wheel paddles to allow manual shifting. On the console, among other switchgear, there is a button that allows you to open the exhaust up for a wonderful sound enhancement, particularly in sport or sport-plus settings.

They were so impressive that I agreed to let Joan do the test-driving the next couple days, knowing I would have to sneak the key fob to get it back.

Nice to have all the comfort and safety elements standard on everything from Stuttgart these days, buttoned into a car that can still toss off its luxury shroud and become a hot-rod screamer. Joan and I held the Mercedes in check and went for a pre-Easter drive from Duluth to Virginia, Mn., where we could visit Canelake’s Candy shop and load up on the small, sweet gifts we can send to our two sons. And, of course, nibble ourselves.

Pamela and Dennis Matson run the third-generation shop and are doing amazing things to restore its soda fountain to nostalgic usage. We were excited about going there with Easter coming up, because the shop where Pamela and her identical-twin sister Patricia Canelake started this venture is in Knife River, Mn., called Great! Lake Candy Shop. They have the best chocolate, caramel and other candies, made on site, but they always have taken a break during winter, from late December until April, so Easter goes by without their candy. The Virginia shop stays open. And busy.

Pamela and Dennis were busy with their staff creating and filling a load of Easter eggs — light and dark chocolate eggs, about 3 inches long, filled with Maple cream, coconut, vanilla, cherry vanilla, Key Lime pie, chocolate, and maybe a couple more that I missed. But I don’t miss much in that shop.

All the Mercedes controls are within fingertip reach in E53 interior.

Cruising back to Duluth on Hwy. 53, we watched the computer reading rise to 28 miles per gallon, with the setting on comfort and the exhaust system demurely shut off, and my right foot delicately feathering the gas pedal, when I didn’t have the cruise control engaged.

The next day, we dedicated to driving the Pacifica S Limited, with its potent 3.6-liter V6, operated by a 9-speed as well. Performance and handling were very good, now that the snow had gone south, so to speak, and its cornering and stable attitude were impressive. The utility of the loaded Pacifica makes it a great family hauler, and the test van came with four captain’s chairs and a split bench third-row seat. It’s amazing how much interior room there is inside, with a cavernous and deep area behind the third row.

For hauling stuff, you can use electric switches to fold the third row forward, or recline the backrests, which disappear into the cavernous rear area, while the second-row buckets fold down flat or fold forward and tumble into hidden storage areas in the floor.

Pacifica seats provide three rows of comfortable vantage points.

The seats are smooth and luxurious black leather, which complemented the Ocean Blue exterior well. With that potent 3.6, the Pacifica can take off swiftly from a stoplight, and help you appreciate how well it handles. It goes, turns and proves its agility. It will handle nearly anything, with the possible exception of backing out of an ice-covered driveway.

At that, it went off with a certain acquiring of style points, and if you mounted great all-season tires like those Michelin Pilot Alpins, or Nokians, you could do all sorts of tricks all winter long, without being tempted to simply make up and blame those slithery tires. I promised that I would not attribute my problems by saying, “It’s just those Falken tires.”

‘T-Rex’ devours competition — including Raptor

March 31, 2021 by · Comments Off on ‘T-Rex’ devours competition — including Raptor
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Built to conquer any on- or off-road challenge, the new Ram TRX is armed with a 6.2-liter supercharged V8 with 702 horsepower.

By John Gilbert

Before the surprising warm-up of March descended on the Upper Midwest, it seemed as though we might be headed for the most severe winter ever, with ice-fishing houses out a mile or so from the North Shore of Lake Superior, and wind-chills down in the 40 or 50 below range. A light covering of lake-effect snow had descended as I reached for the door handle of the shiny black Ram TRX pickup I was driving, and a fellow trudging to his pickup nearby said, “Does that thing go through the snow?”

“As fast as you’d like,” I answered.

And that is an accurate assessment. The TRX will go wherever it wants, and you almost feel as though hanging on is the major part of driving it, if only it wasn’t so surprisingly manageable.

Ford has not made many mistakes when it comes to building pickup trucks of all shapes and sizes and potential, but the Dearborn builder of the top-selling vehicle in the country may have misfired on the latest Ford Raptor — the standard of high-performing and rugged pickups specially built to be undisputed King of the Road, or maybe King of the Off-Road.

Enter “dispute,” where none previously existed, because Ram, the brash challenger, has delivered the TRX, which you know is a big hit because its unofficial nickname preceded it: “T-Rex.”

Especially ferocious looking in black, the TRX declares itself the rung of Rams.

If you look closely, the stylized “R” in TRX wraps around the lower-right corner of the “T” in a manner that just might be intended to look like something out of the Umpteenth Jurassic Park movie, where a giant T-Rex opens its jaws to consume a giant bird — a Raptor, perhaps? — and it holds that pose wherever you spot the TRX logo. Which is on virtually every flat surface, from the engine cover to the tailgate lid and elsewhere. The flair was subdued a bit by the Diamond Black Crystal Pearl-Coat exterior, and black-on-black seems to fit the TRX’s mood.

We are talking prehistoric stuff here, and in a lot of ways the pickup truck wars are somewhat prehistoric. Used to be everybody wanted a car, and the only people who bought pickup trucks were those who needed them, for hauling, farming or towing. So it was easy to distinguish: You bought a car because you wanted one; you bought a truck because you needed one.

That equation has long since vanished, as more and more people want pickups, not only for utilitarian purposes but because they have risen to the upper reaches of style and function, with an over-riding amount of macho attractiveness. Ford’s Raptor has become the favorite among off-roaders, because it comes loaded from the factory with high-output shocks, suspension, front and rear end sustainable parts, and lots of power. The whole Raptor is built wider than the normal F-150. For 2021, a lot of Ford fans were awaiting the new Raptor, and it showed up with Ford’s most potent member of the EcoBoost engine family, a 3.5-liter turbocharged V6 with 450 horsepower and 510 foot-pounds of twin-turbo torque.

Now, 450 horses and 510 foot-pounds are impressive numbers, until you hear the TRX numbers. The spectacular 6.2-liter SRT Hemi V8, supercharged, delivers 702 horsepower and 650 foot-pounds of torque.

Badge on console shows 702 horsepower and stylish “R: devouring the “T next to it.

That’s on top of the new T-Rex doing the same thing with all the heavy-duty stuff underneath and the rugged, widened demeanor. That 702 horsepower is even brought to life subtly, on a small plaque fastened to the console, for all the world to see. The 702 horsepower is slightly less than the same drivetrain delivers when plunked into the Dodge SRT Hellcat Charger or Challenger sedans/sports coupes, for which it was built, to show dominance against Mustangs and Camaros. But then, the power had to be restrained somewhat in order to resist the mechanical urge to tear away from the heaviest of heavy-duty driveline elements, if you go charging off through the underbrush.

Most buyers might be tempted to do some serious off-roading if they invest in the mortgage-sized tally for a TRX, but obviously most buyers will be satisfied just rumbling down the avenues and highways of our neighborhoods and maybe hit the local shopping center now and then, so being able to handle itself with sophistication on such docile trips is eminently important.

The Ram 1500 TRX Crew Cab 4X4 that I test drove had a base price of $69,995, and was $91,205 once you get it optioned out with the a fifth 365-65 by 18-inch off-roading tire mounted on another 9-inch-wide aluminum wheel at a jaunty angle in the pickup bed, where it is sure to attract attention as well as restrict the amount of stuff you can bring home from Target. Of course, you have the huge rear seat, which also houses more storage underneath, if you can avoid filling the seats with neighbor kids who will want to go for a ride every time they hear that big engine roar to life.

Enormous wheels and tires support the widened and raised TRX, and the fastened spare fills much of the bed.

When the fellows from GSchmitz in Chicago delivered the TRX to my house, they said it took them a little longer, because when they paid for the full-service car wash downtown, the crew apologized and said the enormous wheels and tires on the beast were so large, they wouldn’t fit into the car-wash tracks. So they had to wash it by hand. And none of the young guys in the crew complained, because after dozens of cars and SUVs, the TRX was a true attraction, and they all wanted to get their hands on it, even if just to do some polishing.

The image is definitely macho, as though Ram folks decided that if you’re going to build a truck for the guy or gal who wants an over-aggressive and ferocious pickup, you might as well build one that will stand as the baddest vehicle in the neighborhood. It does have a unique rear backup camera assist that will guide you to backing directly over the tow hitch precisely.

Inside, you are greeted with an 8-speed transmission that will control the SRT, with familiar Ram features such as the huge console, and the large, vertical iPad-style center stack screen for all sorts of information, responding to whatever input you might enter from the remote buttons and switches that pretty well fill the console’s available space and the steering wheel, which is comfortably flattened along the bottom to ease the entry and exit after you’ve climbed — or jumped — aboard. It also has firm-feeling aluminum shift paddles to let you downshift or upshift manually.

For as rugged as it looks, and is, the great refinement built in is much appreciated. I often find the running boards bolted onto pickups are comparatively useless in most cases, but sometimes they help you hop in, or exit without fear of breaking your ankle after the drop when you exit. On the TRX, there is a handy looking cylindrical bar that runs along the bottom of both doors on both sides, but for sturdiness in off-roading, it is so close to the frame that you’d need toes on your boots that are a lot thinner than mine in order to get a foothold. No matter. I mentioned to my wife, Joan, that I felt like I was in better shape after all the high-jumps in and agility-drill exits of the TRX during our week.

Ram’s win every pickup comparison for interior features, and the TRX upgrades add to the comfort and class.

The lights themselves are a show, with some extra lights for clearance purposes, or maybe because they just look great as accents, glowing out from the functional hood scoop. Up in the cabin, you also have a control knob to select Rock, Baja, Mud/Sand, Custom, Tow, Snow, Auto, and Sport. We dealt mainly with Auto and Sport until the cold was penetrated by a couple of scenic lake-effect snowfalls that tended to glaze the area. The Snow selection left us with no worries.

Same with other high-tech safety things, such as adaptive cruise with stop-and-go, lane-keep assist, pedestrian-cyclist emergency braking, lane-keep assist, blind-spot and cross-path detection, plus real leather on the widened bucket seats, and real carbon-fiber accents, a 19-speaker Harman-Kardon premium audio system, a dual-pane, panoramic sunroof, and enough creature-comforts to tempt you to ignore a cheap motel and sleep in the cabin on a long trip.

If such a trip doesn’t have the convenience of roads or highways, well, the TRX can go through water 32 inches deep, and the special Bilstein shocks coordinate with special coil-spring suspension to allow 13 inches of front-wheel travel and 14 inches at the rear. Ram has always had a clear-cut edge on the competition with its coil springs, which mean the ride, loaded or empty, is always compliant and never harsh.

Instead of roof-mounted clearance lights, the TRX has them positioned inside the active hood scoop.

Harsh no, excessive? Maybe a little. Everything is almost properly excessive with the TRX, including the 11.8-inch ground clearance, and a 33-gallon fuel tank, which is handy, because while you can hammer the TRX for on-road acceleration runs, or take advantage of the 30.2-degree approach and 23.5-degree departure angle off-road, and as the old saying goes, it will pass everything — except a gas station. The EPA estimates are 10 miles per gallon city, 14 highway, and driving somewhat sedately you can coax the on-board computer to top 14. But not by much.

Then again, if you want the baddest of all pickup trucks, and you can spend $91,000 to obtain it, fuel economy may not be high on your list of requirements.

New diesels take on traditional pickups

March 14, 2021 by · Comments Off on New diesels take on traditional pickups
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Jeep Gladiator has been a hit, and it hits harder with a 3.0 EcoDiesel as water-sport tender.

By John Gilbert

The “Big Three” phrase refers to American vehicle competition among General Motors, Ford and Chrysler Corporation, which remains heated today, particularly regarding pickup trucks. The Ford F-150, Chevrolet Silverado and Dodge Ram — just Ram, now, thank you — which are all very capable and competitive full-size pickups.

As fun as it has been to examine and evaluate the newest things from those three every year, there also have been new-age competitors, such as the Toyota Tundra and Nissan Titan, which came on the scene a couple decades back and offer new threats, and the midsize Honda Ridgeline.

The most exciting thing in the past couple of years, though, has been the quest for new economical powertrains. Most recently, Ram passed the Silverado for second place to the all-winning Ford F-150, and then Ram added a couple new diesel-powered models. My favorite was the 3.0 Eco-Diesel, taking advantage of Ram being owned by Fiat, which has all sorts of connections with car and truck makers in Europe, and provided the new turbo-diesel.

Ford, which also has a diesel made in-house, made the most-recent wave, with a new hybrid version of its 3.5-liter V6 EcoBoost twin-turbo, coupled to electric supplemental power.

Familiar Chevy Silverado adds a 3.0-liter DuraMax turbodiesel for 2021.

But there are more. A surprise emerged from Chevrolet, another surprise from Fiat-Chrysler-Ram with their new Jeep Gladiator, both of which can be fitted with compact, 3-liter diesels. The irony of it all is that the Toyota Tundra must now be considered the most tradition-bound in the segment, as the Tundra relies on sticking with the proven product’s excellence and making it better to impress new buyers. We can examine those three new models.

First, let’s check out the Gladiator, which honestly appeared to me to be a bit of a novelty — almost a Wrangler with a bed — when I first checked one out. It turns out to be very popular, and people who have always wanted a Jeep for its obvious ruggedness and outdoorsy image, can now get a Jeep and a pickup too, with the Gladiator.

Having driven and reviewed the Gladiator with Chrysler’s tried and true and powerful 3.6-liter V6, I was presented with another one, a 2021 model, in dazzling Firecracker Red that was close to red-orange, and easy to spot coming at you or in a parking lot.

Smooth leather seats
boost the sticker, but enhance Gladiator.

The beauty of the new test Gladiator was under the hood, where that 3.0-liter EcoDiesel from the full-size Ram 1500 is also available in the new Gladiator. The regular 3.6 V6 is a strong and durable engine, with 285 horsepower and 260 foot-pounds of torque. The 3.0 EcoDiesel is turbocharged with 260 horsepower — 15 less than the gas V6 — but with an amazing 442 foot-pounds of torque — 182 more than the 3.6 gas — peaking at a mere 1,400 RPMs.

Quirky look is a plus for Gladiator, and passing chilly Lake Superior kayaker.

That low-end torque gives the Gladiator big-boy towing capability.  Owners can have fun doing the off-road things that Jeeps like to do, or use the Gladiator for grocery store runs, and also tow boat or camping trailers with relative ease. The price for all that starts at $40,395 but zooms up to a sticker of $61,435 with the turbo-diesel and all the high-tech electronic stuff that contemporary vehicles have to have these days. Fuel economy s listed as 22 city 28 highway, and I think the highway number is reachable pretty much everywhere with the slick, Italy-sourced turbo-diesel V6.

With a smooth 8-speed automatic, the Gladiator also gives the corporation a new warrior for the pickup battles, and with that engine, it joins the various Ram models as a new sibling alternative.

Simple interior has drawn criticism of Silverado.

The Chevrolet Silverado has become something of a punching bag for truck critics. I think the styling is very neat, and I like the interior and the comfort of the truck, but truck zealots look at the tried and true F-150 and the surging Ram and declare the Silverado interior to be seriously lacking. I’m not sure, but I think Chevy folks think the Silverado is just fine, and wouldn’t consider a Ford of any stripe, or a Ram, even if they might take a second glance at a Gladiator.

So the test Silverado showed up, and, guess what? It came equipped with a 3.0-liter Dura-Max turbodiesel. Caught me by surprise, but here we have the truck most critics say is trapped by tradition with its pushrod V8s, branching out to join the mini-trend to compact-size diesel engines, turbocharged to add the necessary punch.

Silverado styling updates are subtle improvements.

The test Silverado came in Cherry-red tintcoat paint, a most beautiful shade of dark, cherry-red I’ve ever seen. I don’t know what they call the color on the new red Corvette, but given a choice, I think the Silverado’s Cherry-red tintcoat is the best red I’ve ever seen on any General Motors product.

Diesel engines always run strong and are extremely durable and trouble-free, if you maintain them properly. This one had a very plain and businesslike interior in black, but the bucket seats were supportive and comfortable, and the 10-speed automatic transmission worked well with the U.S. built engine, and the full-size Silverado has excellent acceleration and cruising capability.

With all the current safety equipment, such as lane-change assist, blind-spot detection, and all the imaginable connectivity, the Silverado seemed to add capability to the standard gas-engine pickup. Base price was $52,400 standard, and as tested $60,265. Fuel economy lists as 22 city and 26 highway, which is, of course, the other major asset of a turbo-diesel — delivering such great torque and also executing a big edge over gasoline counterparts in fuel economy.

Big Three stalwarts tend to scoff at the Tundra, but when Toyota moved its home office to near Spring, Texas, it verified how serious the company was in building on its cult-like slice of the pickup market. The test Tundra was the “1794” model, with a plaque on its flanks to commemorate the date of the start of the historic JLC Ranch, the oldest working ranch in Texas, obtained by Toyota as the site of its new truck factory. Both the Tundra and Tacoma are built there.

Tundra sticks with traditional style, features.

Already at the top of its game with cars and SUVs, Toyota has steadfastly stuck with its proven truck designs, and its powerful and smooth dual-overhead-camshaft V8 in the Tundra. Strong and impressive, the Tundra, and its midsize sibling Tacoma, have added high-tech features to the legendary comfort and style inside, and the two annually score at the top for buyer satisfaction and resale value among all trucks.

Toyota doesn’t follow the traditions of Ford, Chevy or Ram pickups, and doesn’t change interiors or sheet metal for superficial reasons, preferring to stick with its pleasing design and interior features. When you first climb aboard the Tundra, you are taken by the rich leather, and the real wood on the steering wheel and trim. This, you immediately realize, is the Lexus of pickup trucks.

Tundra interior earns “Lexus of pickups” tag.

The 5.7-liter V8 was originally designed for the biggest Lexus luxury LS sedans, but it worked well enough — even if more smooth than truck-rugged-feeling — it found an alternate home in the Tundra. Now aging, the engine may be in need of being upgraded, but Toyota undoubtedly is looking ahead to adding hybrid or electric power to the Tundra. For now, the Tundra satisfies all the demands Toyota has for it as a niche vehicle among pickups.

A neat alternative is the rugged structure of the Tundra, which comes in extended cab or CrewMax, with front-hinged rear doors even on the extended-cab model. The reasoning is that the pillar located at the front of the rear door makes a stronger structural cab. While its dual overhead cam V8 is not as fuel efficient as a diesel, with figures of 13 city and 17 highway driving, it has a great, racer-like sound as it revs, and traditional pickup buyers might prefer it.

There are countless pickup options out there these days, and these three are just among the latest.

WRX STI still sets pace for Subarus

March 2, 2021 by · Comments Off on WRX STI still sets pace for Subarus
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

The air was colder than Lake Superior’s water, creating steam as the Subaru WRX STI paused on the North Shore.  — Photo by Jack Gilbert.

BJohn Gilbert
The sun was shining brightly out of the pure blue sky, helping define the phenomenon of wispy clouds of “sea smoke” rising off the North Shore of Lake Superior. My older son, Jack, who often assists my car-testing and photography couldn’t pass it up, getting me to park just right so he could shoot some photos of my test-drive car of the week, a 2021 Subaru WRX STI.

Parking it facing away from the water made the pure-white vehicle appear almost mystical, as if it was a motorized monster rising out of the sea. The attraction, for Jack and for me, was that the WRX STI is a no-compromise screamer, a true hot-rod that dates back decades and still sticks stubbornly to that identity. The photos speak for themselves.

Prominent rear wing may aid downforce at higher speed than the law allows.

One of the most exciting parts of being able to test-drive the newest models of cars from all over the world is to get an advanced, week-long taste of the delicacy of new designs and new technology — an element that has taken on more significance as we move toward hybrids and all-electric vehicles.

At the same time, sometimes you’ve eaten so many delicacies that it’s time to “clean your palate” between courses by forgetting all the latest high-tech stuff and gorging yourself on “comfort food.” That’s what the 2021 Subaru WRX STI represents. Meatloaf and mashed potatoes, with some sort of vegetable and a salad.

When Subaru went from making somewhat odd flat-opposed engine subcompacts and sedans four decades ago, or so, I watched and drove Subaru models as they strived to make deeper inroads in the standard U.S. car scene, and then it branched off into making a true hot-rod. At the time, Mitsubishi, one of Subaru’s Japanese rivals, was competing in all-terrain endurance racing, and that was where Subaru made its bid.

There were various Subaru models that had grown up before Subaru made its first Impreza subcompact sedan. When going to high performance became a trend, Subaru rebuilt an Impreza with a much more powerful engine, a special manual transmission, greatly strengthened springs and shock absorbers, and they also decided to give it some flash, by adding various air vents and identifiably unique contours. For good measure, Subaru plunked a gigantic airfoil on the rear deck while also carving a gigantic horizontal vent in the hood. Inside, firmer seats and driver-centered instruments made it a unique four-seat, four-door sedan.

It wasn’t totally unique, because Mitsubishi had similarly built its Lancer subcompact up into a four-door screamer called the Evolution. Both of them had all-wheel drive, and both extracted amazing power out of their little 4-cylinder engines. The two battled ferociously in endurance racing, and it wasn’t long before they also took it to the road-racing tracks of summertime. There were two distinct camps dividing those who liked the WRX STI and those who loved the Lancer Evolution.

Recaro buckets and upscale fabrics line the interior. Note he 6-speed shift lever.

The Evolution has long since passed on, but Subaru keeps building the Impreza, and the WRX STI, which has branched off to become its own brand in recent years. It has remained unchanged, in style and purpose, for most of the past decade, and word is, Subaru is planning to make an all-new designed WRX STI for 2022, which caused some to figure there would not be a 2021 model.

For example, Motor Trend came out with its new-car issue and grouped together all the cars, trucks and SUVs of assorted sizes and shapes. It ran little capsules on 224 vehicles, by my count, including all manner of Subarus — the Legacy, Crosstrek, Forester, Outback, Ascent, the Impreza and the BRZ. But there was no mention of the WRX STI, even as a special spinoff model of the Impreza.

But as these photos attest, the WRX STI is alive and well, even if it now stands out as if it is a retro hot-rod in a parking lot full of highly sophisticated and trendy high-tech vehicles.

Under that hood with its large scoop there is a flat-opposed 2.5-liter engine, turbocharged to send 310 horsepower and 290 foot-pounds of torque to all four wheels. Climb inside and settle into that very supportive and tight-fitting Recaro bucket seat and the straightforward instrumentation and controls are overshadowed by the stalk sticking up from the console — a stick-shift lever for the 6-speed transmission.

Push-button start is nice, and the engine roars to life and lets you engage that hair-trigger clutch just right, after some practice that might involve killing the engine a few times as you let it out and suddenly realize that if you give it enough gas to make sure you don’t kill it, the vehicle wants to blast out from under you.

It is swift and firm, and a lot of folks who don’t recall those retro hot-rods like Challengers and Mustangs might refer to the feeling as harsh. While the standard Impreza also has evolved to have a WRX model without the STI portion, and which is much more comfortable to drive and ride in, but for the uncompromising, the WRX STI is the one to have.

It takes off like a scalded cat, corners and handles with flat disposition, and makes you feel as though you could probably whip just about any other car on the road. And it almost can.

You also can do some light off-road-type venturing, because it has a few extra instruments to tell you how far you’re leaning and how much gravity you’re defying. There is also a mode switch to give you the ability to adjust the center differential on the all-wheel-drive arrangement, while you are driving, which is handy.

While the engineering tweaks have kept up, adding the electronics and safety devices we need these days, the price has also worked its way upwards. Motor Trend says the standard Impreza lists for between $19,500 and $20,000, the WRX STI has a base price for the Limited version of $38,170, and the as-tested price on my test car was $42,870. That means it is more than double the price of the basic Impreza, which makes sense, since the transmission, powertrain, handling and brash and outright thrust of the WRX STI is far beyond doubling its sedate stablemates.

Set your choice of drive modes, and AWD center differential., even while moving.

We took the WRX STI on a trip from Duluth to St. Paul and back, and I figured no matter how much power it had, we should get decent fuel economy because it is small and aerodynamic, and it has that huge rear wing. I was wrong. On the way down, I tried to match the traffic flow at about 74 miles per hour, and we registered 18.7 miles per gallon. That, frankly, is not good enough. It has been my experience that Subarus rarely if ever match the EPA estimates, but they never do if you cruise at anything over 70.

So on the way back, I refilled it — with premium, thank you — and kept it as close to 70 as possible while also feeling like I was not being a roadblock. The difference was that on the return trip I got 18.9 mpg instead of 18.7. That, also, is not good enough.

It also was very cold the week we spent together, but I couldn’t waste any fuel by using the remote start, because there was no auto-start with the stick shift. It’s a great comfort to start the vehicle with your key fob from the kitchen and let it run long enough to be warm when you climb aboard, although without it, I hopped in and took off.

Sea Smoke provided the mystical backdrop for the WRX STI.

There was a CD player, though, a feature I much appreciate. Very few cars have them any more, even though every car-buyer nowadays still has a few hundred CDs now virtually unplayable because manufacturers don’t provide players. Having a little Guy Clark, or Waylon Jennings, or Neil Diamond concert stuff serenading us was a nice break from the satellite radio’s always available stuff.

It was a fun week, and great photo-op weather, and while driving the WRX STI felt like throwback time, it was impressive to hammer that thing with its winter tires mounted on all four corners, and try to imagine what Subaru has in mind for 2022. And whether Motor Trend will notice.

Accord Hybrid vs. severe cold in novelty duel

February 25, 2021 by · Comments Off on Accord Hybrid vs. severe cold in novelty duel
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

The 2021 Honda Accord Hybrid glistens in the whiter-on-white snow.

By John Gilbert
The novelty has worn off. Living in the Great White North of Duluth, Minnesota, is almost always fulfilling, but after two weeks of daily temperatures of, say, 22 below actual and 39 below windchill, and notifying our friends and relatives living elsewhere of such extremes, we’ve have enough. The saving grace for me is that it was a great time to evaluate the severe-cold worthiness of the 2021 Honda Accord Hybrid.

As we hurtle toward a future of electric cars, soonere rather thn later, there is one serious issue still to be solved for vehicles powered by electric power, and that is severe cold, which tends to drain the power from battery packs, and in cars can greatly reduce the driving range of electric power. It affects camera batteries, and it cuts down the range of function of the late and comparatively unlamented Chevrolet Volt, which saw its range drop from mid-20s to mid-teens before the gasoline engine would have to take over.

While we await the sooution for electric cars in the cold, hybrid cars, which have a limited pure-electric range but can be recharged via the affiliated gasoline engine, make a lot of sense. The 2021 Accord is typical Honda, with striking appearance and features and a choice of power. You can get asimple and strong gas engine version, a 1.5-liter turbo 4-cylinder with a hybrid, or the third alternative of a 2.0-liter 4 coupled with the Honda hybrid system. Door No. 3 was the one we opened for a grigid week of driving.

Longer and sleeker, the Accord is called midsize but now has added luxury.

The 2.0-liter 4-cylinder stands at an adequate if not racy 143 horsepower, and the boost from the hybrid electric system lifts that tally to 212 horsepower. That is more than enough to whisk the Accord along in a sporty fashion. The transmission in the test car was a CVT, the somewhat boring “one-speed” systdem of internal pulleys that keep the revs the same and increase the constantly varying transmission to meet demands of your right foot.

I am not a fan of CVTs, but Honda has an interesting way to make them satisfying, which is to offer steering wheel paddles to manually control shift points if you so choose, using the right paddle to improve the ratio upward, or the left paddle to squeeze it to a lower range — almost making it feel like a normal automatic transmission. Much more fun to drive, I think.

The week I had the Accord Hybrid to test, the temperature never rose as high as zero. Think about that. It dropped to nasty minus numbers overnight as something called a Polar Vortex circled down from northern Manitoba as far as central Wisconsin, then circled back up over Lake Superior and rejoined the seemingly endless cycle somewhere above my home on the North Shore. It was sort of like keeping track of the Daytona 500 without the crashes, when they just went around and around, reloading with frigid air to bring back our way on the next lap.

Upscale leather and luxury-car features makes the Accord interior inviting.

The weather guys on television went haywire, making me certain many of them were not from Duluth and couldn’t believe their good fortune at having such extremes to tell us about breathlessly as their work grew to three or four segments on the half-hour 10 o’clock nightly newscast. After they told us how cold it was all across Northern Minnesota, then — ta-da! — they could tell us about the windchill!

At our house, located up on a hill above the North Shore of Lake Superior, the nastiest I saw on our thermometer as we entered February 2021 was 23 below overnight, with a windchill of 39 below. Up near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, nearer the Canadian Border, the temperature hit 50 below one night in Ely, Minnesota, causing one rookie weather guy to claim that was a windchill reading, when it was an actual temperature. We don’t really know what its windchill was.

What I will tell you was that the Accord was a worthy companion, parked outside in that setting. It looked fantastic in pure white metallic with a lot of highlights reflecting the bright sun that shown down from beautiful blue skies every day, defying logic by producing absolutely no appreciable heat. Still, it was fitting to have a white car on the white ice driving past fields of white snow. To do that, of course, you have to start the car, and for that I am eminently thankful for auto-start. A push-button feature on the key fob, so once you’ve locked the doors from the fob, you to push a special button and the car blinks at you briefly to notify you that it got your message and yes, it will start its engine.

A few minutes later, you have your hooded sweatshirt on under your down parka and your warm gloves, and you trudge out to the driveway reminiscing, perhaps, about being a kid in the same vicinity and listening to the radio renditions of “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon,” where the intrepid Mountie used dogsleds to catch the bad guys all across Canada’s version of Minnesota. It’s only a few seconds until you’ve unlocked the Accord and climbed in, thankful that if you left the heater and fan blowing, it will resume with the auto-start, making it not bad inside.

Pay attention to uyour instruments, including the changing panel to alert you to cold-affected power in the battery pack.

On the instrument panel, the left-side gauge can be changed to give you all sorts of information, including a message on the coldest mornings that said, in red: “Power Reduced,” and adds that because of low temperature, the power may be reduced until this baby warms up. That means, until the electric part of the hybrid gets warmed up to full function, I would guess.

The heater took its time blowing sufficient heat, but the seat-heaters came through admirably until everything got functional. Power for driving was excellent, on Duluth’s steep avenues or on the level East-West streets. The bucket seats were excellent and while we didn’t use the back seat, room was spacious on the classy leather seat coverings.

The Accord Hybrid we test drove was loaded with enough options to boost the price up to nearly $40,000, but the car — which has maintained a position among the top-selling midsize favorite purchases — has evolved into a near-luxury vehicle that can challenge Honda’s own Acura upscale sedans for looks and features.

This car had everything, from lane-departure alert and warning to full back-up camera and front and rear parking assistance. Another feature of severe winter driving is that the tires tend to feel like they might be square when you drive on uneven pavement, but the Accord suspension was smooth and the car took the roughest sections without harshness. We even took a drive up the North Shore to gaze out over the serious blue water of Lake Superior as we headed up to Castle Danger and our favorite Rustic Inn restaurant, which has opened for limited seating, but not limited pie, during the pandemic.

You would think that maybe the severe cold might prevent COVID-19 from surviving in the area, but no such luck.

On another day, as we drove downtown from our house, we were startled to see dozens of dark objects out on the ice that blanketed Lake Superior out from our shore across to Wisconsin. Most of the big lake is still open water, but at the western arrow-like tip of the big lake, it was all iced over, and almost immediately it was sprinkled with ice-fishing houses. You can’t stop those intrepid ice-fishermen, who have amazingly efficient portable ice-fishing houses they set up in seconds to offer shelter against the bone-chilling cold while they drill their holes and watch their lines deliver everything from walleyes, to lake trout, to steelheads, to herring, and maybe even a wayward salmon. We just weren’t sure the ice had been in place long enough to be secure.

We drove by the other way, and they were still out there, and while protecting occupants from bone-chilling cold it might be more accurate to say they protect them from bone-chilling winds. They still are sitting on a giant ice sheet and the term “bone-chilling” prevails unless they also have a space heater.

The next morning we heard the news: A few of those ice fishermen sitting in their dark tent-like huts heard a strange cracking sound and when they looked out, not unlike Puxatawny Phil, they were properly horrified to see open water where ice used to be. Quite a wide swath of it, and getting wider. One fellow acted quickly and made an Olympic-style leap to make it back to the “mainland” ice, but 27 others, complete with their fishing equipment and ice houses, were being blown by the just-changed westerly winds up the shore, toward Two Harbors.

It took a Fire Department rescue crew, DNR folks, Coast Guard and police to act promptly and take some small inflatable boats out to rescue all 27 of them, bringing them back two at a time until all of them were safe. One asked what about the thousands of dollars of expensive fishing gear, and some were allowed to get their own boats and chase the still-moving ice floe to retrieve their gear.

They could have waited for the wind to shift again, which it did, and when it came blowing out of the northeast, the big ice floe sailed back toward Duluth, smacking into the existing ice and buckling into large and artistic geometric shapes of ice. It is an occasional treat for those of us who might otherwise be wondering why we haven’t left the Great White North for Arizona, where there are actual clubs of expatriate Minnesotans who gather and wear sweaters when the temperature dips to 60. Above.

The Accord Hybrid fuel economy dipped down into the 20s if we warmed it up a bit each time we went out, but it has EPA estimates of up to 48 miles per gallon, both in city driving and combined operation, and just slightly less on the highway.

In its never-ending duel with Toyota’s Camry and facing new challenges from the likes of South Korea’s Hyundai Sonata — which also has a fantastic hybrid — the Accord holds its prestigious place up among the most desired and most owner-satisfying vehicles available anywhere.

Smooth seams and striking design give the new Accord another annual upgrade in style.

And while we still are unsure how much range might be reduced  from a pure EV (Electric Vehicle), we do know that a good hybrid not only relieves us of such “range anxiety,” but also can be tuned in contemporary form to have the electric power bolster the gas engine for a horsepower boost. And that will more than suffice while manufacturers such as Honda figure out how to move us to the next level of pure electric, seamlessly.

For now, I’ll take a hybrid. With seat heaters and auto-start.

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