New Corolla Adds Hybrid, Global Platform

September 11, 2019 by · Comments Off on New Corolla Adds Hybrid, Global Platform
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Toyota Corolla may have become “green” with Hybrid model, but the blue of 2020 Corolla Hybrid blends with Lake Superior blue.

By John Gilbert
We get hardened to criticism of certain cars by the public, or media, until it almost becomes traditional. Toyota, which sells enormous quantities of all manner of cars and trucks all around the world, might be the biggest victim, because critics became cynics in declaring cars like the Camry and Corolla as dull, boring “appliances,” rather than fun and enjoyable cars.

I understand the criticism, and even engaged in some of it, because once it had reached a certain point of consistency, Toyota seemed more interested in maintaining the status quo than striving for a higher plateau. More recently, I didn’t anticipate that the Prius, Toyota’s standard-bearer of hybrid vehicles, had come under similar criticism, because while I never thought of the Prius as boring, I also gave it room because it was always pushing the barriers of gasoline-electric powertrains. I learned of the cynicism while driving a beautiful dark blue 3030 Toyota Corolla, and we parked at an available parking space in West Duluth. We locked the Corolla with the key fob, and saw a fellow we know, and who knew I evaluated new cars. He nodded toward the Corolla and said, “If that your new test drive?”

I said yes, it was, and added that it was a 2020 Corolla, which is, shall we say, cautiously restyled, and that this particular one was a Hybrid.

“A Hybrid?” he responded, with obvious surprise.

I explained that for 2020 Toyota’s revamped Corolla compact line has a new global platform and a new body with stylish contours carved in. Corollas always have tried to look stylish-on-a-budget, but they haven’t been hybrids. And they haven’t been adorned with this impressive new “Blueprint” exterior paint.

“This one,” I said, “has the same drivetrain as the Prius I had reported on a month or so earlier.”

“Well then,” he shot back, “why would anyone buy a Prius?:”

Corolla Hybrid instruments are adjustable, but prove differences to Prius.

Apparently, the masses might consider the Prius commonplace, even dull and uninteresting. Particularly if they haven’t driven a new one recently, such as the quick and impressive all-wheel-drive Prius from my recent review. I have driven the various Prius models all the way through their existence, and I can appreciate the evolutionary changes to more efficient methods of linking the electric motors to the gasoline engine, which recharges the electric motors as they drive the car.

My acquaintance wouldn’t let up. “If it’s the same drivetrain, then why would you buy the Prius?” he asked. “The Corolla is much more car.”

There you have it. The masses may not be influenced by the latest improvements in technology, but they know what they like. I like the new Prius, particularly the all-wheel-drive model with its new edgy shape and 50-plus miles per gallon.

However, I also had to go back to my notes for comparison sake. The Prius, fixed with its instruments on the center of the dashboard, and its hatchback design, cost a base price of $28,810, and the AWD model I drove was $32,508. Well, I figured, technology costs money, ao that’s not so bad.

Sharper exterior lines add to Toyota attempts to make the Corolla sportier.

Then I looked at the Corolla Hybrid I had in my possession for that late-August week. It had a base price, in LE (middle) trim, of $22,950, and with only a couple of molding and floor mat options, the Hybrid LE sticker read $24,467.

Both the Corolla Hybrid and the Prius were powered by Toyota’s 1.8-liter, 4-cylinder, dual-overhead-cam, engine, with variable valve timing, coupled with the Toyota Synergy Drive nickel-metal-hydride battery pack and electric motors. Both the front-wheel-drive Corolla and the all-wheel-drive Prius, run their 121 combined horsepower and continuously variable transmissions with programmed stepped shift-points that can be manually driven to resemble a 9-speed automatic, if you choose.

The Corolla is not a hatchback. It has a trunk. American buyers have recently indicated that we don’t like hatchbacks, even though I find them often more flexible and useful than cars with trunks. But maybe that’s the secret behind putting the hybrid drivetrain out of the Prius into the Corolla. If you like a hatchback, buy the Prius; if you’d rather have a trunk, buy the Corolla Hybrid.

But I have just enough Scottish ancestry to add another part fo the equation: If you’d rather have $8,000 than commit it to your new car price, buy the Corolla!

The new Corolla looks a little more like a sporty compact than like an appliance. The Camry and the Corolla have looked good for about a decade, but they do have something of a soap-carving-project look to them, when compared to cars like the Mazda3 and the Honda Civic — Corolla’s top two rivals — and emerging challengers like Hyundai Elantra and Nissan Sentra.

The new Corolla shakes that image somewhat, but still seems bound by stylists who are more worried about losing existing owners than making a move to become more stylish.

Inside, the driving position is improved, with better seats, more contemporary instruments and gauges, changeable at the touch of a button, or two, on the Swiss-Army-belt-like steering wheel.

The exterior has stylish 15-inch alloy wheels with all-season tires, and they support a whole range of contemporary safety and driver-aid features that hoist the Corolla up among the more accomplished models.

Black mesh grille, LED headlights and driving lights are subtle upgrades for C”orolla Hybrid.

Start with a black mesh grille in front, a high-handed move for the usually conservative company, and the new grille spreads out to house LED headlights and daytime running lights, while at the rear, LED lights also brighten the tail and brake lights.

More significantly, the Toyota Safety Sense includes pre-collision aid with pedestrian warning, radar cruise control with full-range speed function, lane departure alert and assist, lane-tracing assist, automatic high beams with road-sign remote, stability control, traction control, electronic brake-force assist, and emergency stop assist.

That accumulation of safety features is impressive enough even if you take them separately, and they are considerably more impressive when all combined into the Corolla package. New for 2019 is the inclusion of Apple CarPlay and a large touch-screen with assorted USB connectivity is all there.

The instrument panel is configurable, so if you don’t see the need for a tachometer in the left binnacle from the speedometer, you can change it over to trip statistics or other car function readouts. Same with the right side. The center touch-screen is particularly useful because you can change that with a touch of a button, or the screen itself, to get things such as the power flow from the gas engine, the electric motor or the combination of both.

We also should avoid talking too much about the fold-down rear seats, because if you fold them down, elongating the trunk’s roomy storage area, you’re getting dangerously close to what hatchback-lovers like and hatchback-haters hate. I will add that at one point, we needed to take our gas can to pick up a couple gallons of lawn-mower fuel, and putting it in a trunk instead of under a hatch precluded any gasoline fumes from taking over the cabin.

We do still have the gauge package, which is directly through the steering wheel and in front of the driver, which I prefer to the Prius and its central location, atop the dashboard. That might be part of the feeling in the Prius that you’re helping carry out a long-term experiment. In that regard, the Corolla being “just a car” might be an asset.

When it’s time to refuel, the similarities with the Prius override the differences. The Corolla, which looks like a nice, contemporary compact, can get 50 miles per gallon, off an EPA estimated high of 53 miles per gallon in city driving and 52 on the highway. We got a pretty consistent mid-40s around town, with a couple spikes to 50, and it didn’t change much when we went on a highway trip.

You’d have to be living in a cave up in the mountains to be unaware that we’re heading rather swiftly toward a society driving electric cars, and we’re probably going to get to that point just about the time full-electric vehicles are ready to meet us with high-mileage batteries. In the meantime, you can shop around for some early-adopter electric vehicles, or choose a highly efficient gas-engine cars, or you can compromise from an ever-expanding list of hybrid cars — which now include the Corolla.

Some buyers might prefer Corolla reputation and trunk to Prius, and Hybrid combines assets.

Some other hybrids compete well, and even favorably, with Toyota hybrids, but we also must acknowledge that Toyota has led the way with almost every step of hybrid growth. The Corolla Hybrid uses nickel-metal-hydride in its battery pack, while many competitors have gone to lithium-ion battery packs, claiming they charge faster, hold a charge longer, and deliver more power than the nickel-metal-hydride.

Toyota has some models that use lithium-ion, but when asked which is better, their engineers simply shrug, and put out the next generation of Priuses, and now Corollas. It’s still something of a secret that the Corolla has a Hybrid model, but for $24,000, it won’t be a secret for long.

Stelvio Is the SUV That Thinks It’s a Race Car

September 4, 2019 by · Comments Off on Stelvio Is the SUV That Thinks It’s a Race Car
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Stelvio Quadrifogliop poised to cruise up Lake Superior’s North Shore drive. .

By John Gilbert
Discussing driving characteristics of new cars is the major part of any car review. Then along comes the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio, and reasonable discussion goes right out the window.

Alfa Romeo always deserves a gold star for building cars that capture your senses, in ways that can be flat-out fun, even without going flat-out, literally. When Alfa Romeo decided to re-enter the U.S. market a few years ago, its designers set out to build a fantastic flagship sedan, and it was the Giulia. I’ve driven it both in rear-wheel drive and in all-wheel drive, and with both the 2.0-liter 4-cylinder and the 2.9-liter V6. As I wrote at the time, it is the best-handling sedan I’ve ever driven.

Inspired to drive in the rain? Stelvio has AWD and handles curves with multi-mode settings.

Shortly after the Giulia’s introduction, Alfa Romeo decided that to be fully competitive, it also needed an SUV, and we can all thank the powers that be that Alfa decided to take a shortcut, basically building an SUV body atop the Giulia sedan platform and drivetrain.

Spending a week with a 2019 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio, identifiable as the top model by the neat little white cloverleaf on either side of the body, went beyond fun. That cloverleaf stands out especially on the accompanying paint job, which is “Rosso Competizione Tri-Coat.” In the best interests of Italian car-painting passion, I think it means red, or more accurately competition red.

What sets the Stelvio Quadrifoglio test vehicle above the normal Stelvio is that it has all-wheel drive, and it s powered by the optional upgrade to the 2.9-liter V6. The story of that engine is worth retelling. When Fiat bought out Chrysler, forming FCA for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, we learned a lot about the size and scope of Fiat, which owns Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, and Lancia, along with Chrysler, Dodge, Ram and Jeep. Sergio Marchionne, who was chief executive of Fiat, FCA and all the affiliates, was the one who guided the Giulia through to completion.

Once it was finished, a beautiful sedan from every angle, he called upon the Formula 1 racing engineers from Ferrari and gave them the assignment of designing from the ground up a new and high-tech engine that would match the high standards of design and handling the Giulia had already attained. The chief engineer selected certain engineers and they hand-built the engines for the Giulia.

Clover icon on flank tells you it’s the top-line Quadrifoglio model, watching canoe glide by..

When the Stelvio came along, sharing the distinctive styling and the platform of the Giuglia, the very good 2.0-liter 4-cylinder was joined by the Ferrari F1 designed 2.9 liter V6, turbocharged, to deliver 505 horsepower and 443 foot-pounds of torque. From 2.9 liters! That 2.9 turbo engine causes the price of either the Stelvio or Giulia to jump $25,000 – $30,000, putting the Stelvio test vehicle up into the $90,000 range. But then, all things being equal, if you were a car fancier, having your engine built by a Formula 1 race engineer would be worth anything they ask.

Formula 1 race engineers from cousin Ferrari built 505 horsepower into 2.9 liters.

For what it’s worth, the Grand Prix of Belgium was held Saturday morning, and I got up at dawn to watch it. Charles Leclerc, a Frenchman, won the race at Spa-Francorchamps in a Ferrari in an impressive performance that made me realize that when we talk about the Stelvio engine being built by Formula 1 engineers, it’s not just Formula 1 engineers, but possibly the best race engineers in the world. The Stelvio is not a race car, but you realize it’s an SUV that acts like a race car.

The starter button requires a search at first, because it’s located at the lower left corner of the steering wheel, causing you to grope around on the right for a couple minutes before you spot that large, red round button. Push it and the engine snarls to life. Engage the 8-speed automatic and the Stelvio springs to life. But you can’t settle for just that. You need to experiment with the little puck-shaped switch on the console, with which you can click to normal, eco, comfort and sport, on up to the top button, which is spring loaded, so when you click it you get the race setting.

Then you also can push down on the suspension button in the center of the mode switch and get comfort or firm, on up to race. There remains a little switch with an icon of tailpipes, and when you click that, you get the absolutely heavenly tone from that engine as it goes to full quad, which sends a major chill through the seat of your bucket-seated extreme.

Now you hit the gas and the Stelvio leaps ahead, capable of reaching 60 in a 3.3-second burst, and if you wisely selected the manual side of the shifter gate, you can upshift by clicking the long aluminum shift paddles affixed to either side of the steering column. Run the revs up and click the right one, and you get the next gear, with just a hint of the burble you want from the exhaust.

The Stelvio shifts just fine by itself, in automatic setting, but it’s just so much fun to hand shift it with the paddles, either up or down. Coming down a fairly steep hill from Duluth’s Skyline Drive to the city far below, down-shifting a couple of times holds your speed in control, and also raises the pitch and the note of that splendid exhaust.

Stylish rear contours incorporate quad tailpipes, which are for more than show.

The bucket seats are firm and well-bolstered, and the rear seat is roomy and comfortable for adults, leaving a generous storage area for luggage behind the second row seats. The luggage area has helpful little strips for adjustable tie-down locations to help secure your worldlies as you head off on a cross-country venture.

And believe me, the Stelvio will provoke you into making cross-country trips as often as possible, and you may look for as many curvy roads all along the way.

Leather seats and accents add luxury feel, shift paddles sportiness to Stelvio interior.

The word “Stelvio” is named after a village and mountain pass in South Tyrol in the Italian Alps, known for its tightly twisting highway. Appropriate, I’d say, because the Stelvio not only would flash through that pass with grace and speed, but it would sound other-worldly doing it.

The Stelvio can’t match the all-out race-car handling of the Giulia, because nothing can — including some race cars — but the Stelvio comes close, giving you an upper-class riding position on those electronically firmed-up dampers and the “race” settings on your exhaust, power delivery and shift points.

I’m not sure how the Italians do it, but the steering and the suspension in the Stelvio are so precise that, like the Giulia, the car seems always poised to react in an instant to your steering inputs

The wide, low profile Pirellis ride on 20-inch black alloy wheels that are artistic themselves, and the huge red calipers for the Brembo brakes carry the “Alfa Romeo” script. The 2019 Stelvio adds Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connections for 2019, and boasts all the newest safety electronics, such as remote start, stop-start at stoplights, full speed forward collision warning and rear back up camera for blind-spot and cross-path detection, park assist, and there is a hill-descent control and heated wipers, mirrors and headlight washers.

From a driving standpoint, you’ll appreciate the active suspension and the torque-vectoring differential, and you may be impressed to know it has a carbon-fiber driveshaft, and carbon-fiber also is used for interior trim on the dashboard and console.

An 8.8-inch screen on the dash relays navigation and audio controls, and a 7.0-inch color cluster display augments that. The audio system is Harmon Kardon and fills the cabin with sound, although changing frequencies remained a challenge for us as the week went along. We didn’t really care, because unless there was a good ballgame on, our top alternative was to shut it off, and open the windows to hear those two-stage quad pipes bark.

Easily adjusted modes and settings are within reach.

High-performance bi-Xenon headlights and LED taillights and accent lights give you a light show whenever you turn on the lights, or leave the automatic setting for high and low beams. The driver assistance package adds lane-departure warning and adaptive cruise control with adaptive following.

The Stelvio options lifted the price from $80,245 to $96,540 with all the Quadrifoglio trim and features — a staggering amount if you’re used to normal midsize SUVs, but another one of those vehicles that performs better and quicker than any other SUV you might be interested in. Maybe you can find one that handles as well, although I’m doubtful.

And I am sure you won’t find another SUV that produces the exhaust sound thrills of the Stelvio Quadrifoglio.

Anyone who has been able to experience an assortment of the current breed of SUVs can attest to the fact that there are countless new models that exceed your highest hopes. But not all of them are fun. Some are roomier, but no more comfortable. Some can tow more than the 3,000 pounds listed for the Stelvio, but I don’t know if I’d want to tow anything with it, let alone more.

Logo adorns steering wheel, aluminum shift paddles are fixed to the column.

If you could line up a half-dozen of your final candidates, all in a row, for a final examination, just don’t make your choice without starting the Stelvio and clicking the exhaust to make use of the “dual” part of the dual-mode quad exhaust. Heck, if you were wealthy enough you might want to buy a Stelvio and set it up on a treadmill outside your screen window so that you can start it up and hear that heavenly sound remotely.

Storage space is generous, adjustable tie-down strips are ingenious.

Tragically, Sergio Marchionne died from complications of surgery about a year ago. I’ve met him and talked to him several times at car introductions. And I would love to ask him if he believes the Ferrari Formula 1 engineers met their assigned task to build an engine as good as the rest of the Stevio. I’m also pretty sure I know the answer.

How Much is Too Much? GT350 Just Right

September 1, 2019 by · Comments Off on How Much is Too Much? GT350 Just Right
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Menacing grille, LED lights, 526 horsepower enliven the Mustang Shelby GT350.

By John Gilbert

Car-buyers have made a dedicated swing to trucks and SUVs, but there remains a market for cars, and within that segment is a stubborn sub-market for hot cars. High-performance cars. Fun cars.

For a week, I had the chance to live with one — a 2019 Mustang GT350, in “race red,” which is a slightly more subtle name than “arrest-me red,” but the same implied warning accompanies this sleek, fastback descendent of the original Mustang-inspired ponycar craze of the 1960s and ’70s. The shape of all those is roughly the same, whether you preferred the Mustang, Camaro, Challenger, or the old-breed Firebird Trans-Am, Barracuda, or Javelin. All shared a long hood, short rear deck, fast-sloping roofline, and room for two in the front buckets and only those who will put up with the pain of limited legroom in the rear for the thrill of going for a drive.

Driving the Shelby GT350 is thrilling, starting just by starting. Make sure the clutch is in on the 6-speed stick shift, then hit the push-button starter and the crackling roar of the engine gives you a bit of a chil. Rev it and it sounds better, and flip the little toggle switch at the far right of the lower center-stack panel, the one with the little icon of dual exhaust pipes, from normal to “sport,” and the sound changes from light, grey-cloud thunder to dark, almost black, severe-weather thunderclaps of ground-shaking roar.

Rear wing, quad piped, sequential turn-signals rise above the basic Mustang.

Having fiddled with various other switches to get to sport — but maybe not race or track-day — you take off, with the acceleration pushing you back into those form-fitting Recaro bucket seats, which encapsulate you in all manner of turns and twists. Those thrills are there, included and waiting for you, in every Shelby GT350. And still, I was able to coax it up from the normal 16-miles-per-gallon in city driving to a peak of 22 mpg on a freeway trip from Duluth to Minneapolis and back to Duluth, including a few slaloms around construction barrels.

The GT350 gets its startling power from a 5.2-liter, dual-overhead-camshaft V8, normally aspirated, with the flat-plane-crankshaft engine turning out 526 horsepower at 7,000 RPMs, and 429 foot-pounds of torque. That is an impressive amount of power, regardless of your intentions, even if you realize you can get a supercharged version of the same engine in the still newer Shelby GT500 — with a ludicrous 750 horsepower and 700 foot-pounds of torque.

As it is, the GT350 takes the sticker price up to $64,860. Such is the cost of precise engineering refinement these days. Almost as much as a loaded pickup truck!

Just like in the Muscle-car days of yore, the “Big Three” are in hot competition. Ford has clearly been influenced by Dodge, which shocked hot-car buyers with a Challenger Hellcat, then upgraded to a Demon, and then a still-hotter Redeye, with a monster supercharged 6.2-liter, 797 horsepower, 707 foot-pound screamer. Chevrolet was scurrying to build a hotter Camaro with the Corvette engine, and now a new mid-engined Corvette, so Dodge kept upping the ante to keep its spot atop the power tests.

Basic 6-speed shifter joins high-tech switchwork.

Ford, naturally, was not about to concede anything, so it brought out the new Shelby models.

There is a little nostalgia involved, whenever I drive a Mustang Shelby GT350, and my most recent occasion was a gorgeous week in mid-August, where the blue of Lake Superior’s water and the sky rising up from the Wisconsin horizon harmonized, just as the newest GT350 seemed properly frisky for harmonized with the curves of the North Shore Drive.

The nostalgia dates back to the mid-1970s, when my wife, Joan, and I, decided between buying a Shelby Mustang GT350, or a new 1970 Boss 302 Mustang. Tough decision, until I drove a Boss 302 and it won out as a “family car” for our young family. We drove it hard, but not abusively hard. We put a lot of miles on it in a few short years, and I had gotten it repainted into the Dodge hot color of the day, a dark purple called “Plum Crazy.” The Vikings would have loved it.

LED lights carve darkness the way the GT350 carves curvy roads.

Writing at the Minneapolis Tribune at the time, I was driving out to Fairmont to do a late-summer feature on the thriving dirt-track stock car racing facility there. I stopped for a flagman at a road-construction site, and was rear-ended by a large truck, whose driver had neglected to pay attention, or to hit his brakes, after he belatedly realized the car ahead of him was stopped. I let out the clutch like a drag-racer and lurched forward in a 20-foot burnout before the impact, which probably saved my life. Saved most of the car, too, although the left rear corner was turned to shrapnel. Amazingly, a shop in Blue Earth was able to pry and bend the metal to clear the spare tire by enough so I was could limp back to the Twin Cities.

The insurance company declared the car totaled, and my feelings were soothed when I found a 1969 Shelby GT350 that had not been treated well. The engine was a 351 V8, not the “hot” Cleveland engine, but the mundane Windsor 351, dressed up with flashy valve covers. We were able to buy the Shelby GT350 and hire Bill Schifsky — who raced a Funny Car out of White Bear Lake — to do the transplant in his high-performance shot, all out of the insurance settlement.

We had a custom paint job on the car: four coats of white over four coats of black, and then eight coats of cobalt blue over the whole thing. If you could get that paint job today, it would cost $10,000, at least. Anyhow, no Shelby GT350 ever had an engine like that sizzling Boss 302, and the performance clutch and suspension improved with Kona shocks, all under the sleek fiberglass Shelby body.

Control center of GT350 includes Recaro seats, flat-bottom steering wheel.

Through the years, I’ve driven and written about every Shelby model that has come along, and we didn’t sell our “Boss/Shelby” until Ford had vaulted into the modern era by leaving the pushrod-engine-powered competition behind and engineering a dual-overhead-camshaft V8 that made the Mustang sing. It wasn’t quite as swift as the Boss 302, but it was technically advanced enough that we could part with our beloved car, even though it was like selling the third son Joan and I never had.

The new fleet of Mustangs are of particular interest, because Ford has said it was going to stop producing most of its cars, turning those plants into SUV-makers. The Taurus, the Fusion, and even the Focus and Fiesta are all headed for closeout status, and the only car Ford will continue making will be the Mustang.

Styling pushes the GT350 to the edge of exotic super-car look.

At least that consists of a pretty thorough array. You can get a base Mustang with a 2.3-liter turbo 4-cylinder that has 320 horsepower, move up the high-performance steps to the Ford GT, with beefed up suspension and a 5.0-liter DOHC V8 with 460 horsepower and 420 foot-pounds of torque. Next up is the Bullitt, a well-balanced and fun machine with the same 5.0-liter V8 up to 480 horsepower and 420 foot-pounds. Then comes the GT350, switching to the hotter, more high-tech flat-plane-crank 5.2-liter V8, also with dual overhead cams, and 526 horsepower with 429 foot-pounds of torque. Up on top is the GT500, with the same 5.2 V8 engine but supercharged up to 760 horses and 700 foot-pounds.

I have not yet driven the GT500, but impressive as its numbers are, the figures attained with a normally aspirated 5.2 is an engineering gem. Car and Driver magazine did a recent comparison in performance between the Camaro SS1LE and the Mustang GT, and it gave the nod to the Camaro. Interesting. The Camaro had a 6.2-liter pushrod V8 with 455 horsepower at 6,000 RPMs, while the Mustang had the 5.0-liter V8 with 460 horsepower at 7,000 RPMs. Nowhere do they point out that with dual-overhead cams, the Mustang can give up more than a full liter of displacement and still produce more horsepower at higher revs.

In addition, they could have moved up to the Bullitt for 20 more horses, or to Ford’s flat-plane-crank 5.2 V8 in the GT350 for still more. I will eagerly await the chance to drive the GT500, although the runaway power fight at the top of the rejuvenated muscle-car battle has gotten out of control, I’d say.

Silhouette resembles normal Mustang, but Shelby GT350 is giant step above.

But except for that muscle escalation, I would say the GT350 has just about the right combination of stay-alert power and performance handling, while the GT500 seems to be over-the-top for power. The feel, refinement, and comfort of the seats — front, at least — and the steering/handling, exhilarating sound, plus the look, make the GT350 the perfect car for Ford fanatics, muscle-car fanatics, and one-upmanship gambits.

And did I mention nostalgia?

Don’t Go Off-Road Without Your Passport

August 21, 2019 by · Comments Off on Don’t Go Off-Road Without Your Passport
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Like the woodsy green background? You’ll love the 2019 Honda Passport in Black Forest green.

By John Gilbert

It was a novel idea, back when Honda was making better and better small cars and wanted to add a compact utility vehicle to its model line, which led them to an arrangement with fellow-Japanese manufacturer Isuzu to rebadge the Isuzu Rodeo as the Honda Passport.

It was a reasonable success until Honda dropped the Passport in the 1990s and produced its own CR-V. And Pilot, and HR-V, and the Acura upscale RDX and larger MDX.

Nowadays it seems as though no manufacturer can have enough crossover SUVs, so Honda has added another new one, borrowing from the Pilot’s platform and powertrain gaining a more aggressive utility attitude, and squeezing in between the CR-V/HR-V and the Pilot in pecking order. Somebody came up with the idea of naming it (drumroll, please) the Passport!

U.S. customers have evolved into this near-crazy emphasis on SUVs of all shapes, sizes and styles, so Honda engineers created the midsize Passport, capable of light off-road duty. A stylish, more-than-just-user-friendly vehicle emerged. It hit the market in time for this year’s auto-show circuit, and it made a favorable impression, even if it seemed to be a niche vehicle for which there may not be a niche.

Pilot power in a more com[pact, off-road capable Passport works.

The Pilot is one of the best larger, 3-row-seat family haulers on the market, and the CR-V is a runaway best seller as a compact. If the Passport had to be a potent performer, it had a head start with the potent 3.5-liter V6 out of the Pilot, giving it 280 horsepower and 262 foot-pounds of torque. That’s all harnessed by a 9-speed automatic transmission with steering wheel paddle shifters.

The Passport has 20-inch wheels — at least on the Elite test model — and a tad more ground clearance. But let’s face it, the Passport has a sporty demeanor and an aggressive appearance, but there’s a good chance 90 percent of them are never going to go farther off-road than that driveway to the cabin that has a little grass growing between the two tire lanes.

At $45,695, the Passport is priced right there with prime competitors such as the Ford Edge, the new Chevrolet Blazer, and numerous others. However, some rivals are less expensive, such as the very competent and high-tech Hyundai Santa Fe.

But Honda’s slick reputation will help the Passport carve out some sales. With so many crossover SUVs on the market, it gets difficult to impossible for any of them to stand out, but the Passport strikes a meaningful pose.

The Passport Elite that I drove appeared to be black in subdued light, but when you got close to it, or the sun came out, you realized that it actually is a spectacular Black Forest metallic that will warm the hearts of any folks who wonder why there aren’t more green vehicles on the road.

My family loves green, although my wife, Joan, avoids even looking at that new neon green that has become a popular shock shade. My older son, Jack, likes all greens, and favors the bright Kawasaki racing green that used to adorn their motorcycles. Younger son, Jeff, might lean toward the darker forest green of Bemidji State University’s athletic teams, perhaps because he graduated from there.

Generopus cargo area includes under-floor bins under foot-controlled hatch.

My preference is like Jeff’s, the darkest green possible. So while Joan and Jack thought the Passport was surprisingly stunning, I thought it was the perfect paint job from first exposure. The metallic that made the green modulate in sunlight makes the dark green just that mucn better. Besides, Jack likes the idea of blacking out all trim, so the black alloy wheels were an added attraction on the Passport’s Black Forest paint.

The 3.5 V6 is quick, and the 9-speed transmission is efficient, and you can paddle it for quicker performance if you put the shift thingie into manual mode. Good stability in cornering, quiet running, an attractive interior, and all the requisite creature-features make a solid family package.

There are countless features packed in. Honda markets it as a more-aggressive SUV but knows even compact SUV buyers want luxury and high-tech features whether on or off the road.

A hands-free tailgate can be activated by your foot while carrying parcels, and once open, there is under-floor storage space, and the foldable rear seats can expand storage greatly. The rear seats have window shades, and the front buckets are heated and ventilated, while the rear seat gets heat only.

The grey leather interior also is a nice touch with the Black Forest exterior, and the 10-speaker premium audio and navigation screen offer all the connectivity alternatives so important to contemporary buyers. Stability control, Honda’s ACE safety cage, lane detection, rear view camera with cross-traffic assist, a large sunroof, and push-button start, hill-start assist and being a mobile hot-spot are added items.

Straightforward controls from driver’s view.

Shifter is logical if not intuitive in push-button form.

In Honda’s relentless pursuit of push-button controls, it has freed up space on the console by eliminating the gearshift lever, replacing it with a little rectangle that houses a push button for getting shifted into drive, into neutral, in the middle, and into reverse up at the top. The first few times you drive it, however, you may search for a while before you find park, which is a separate button.

I have this concern that veteran drivers who are used to conventional shift patterns might stop, shifting up to the top of the panel to find park, and then overlook the stop-start feature, which cuts power to save fuel and emissions at stoplights. In a hurry, you stop, shift into reverse thinking it’s in park, then jump out and slam the door. Might be an unpleasant surprise to realize it is not shut off, just idle-stopped, and that you are not in park, but reverse. As your Passport drives away, backwards, over the hillside, you will notice you need more training.

Maybe that’s ridiculous, but it came close to happening to me. I started to get out to add fuel and I had one foot out before it started to roll backwards, and with great relief I reached back, switched it into park, and hit the push-button start-stop to firmly engage stop.

Styling is dramatic but subtle in feature-filled Passport.

All of these modern items would become routine after you owned the Passport for a few weeks. You will immediately appreciate the brightness of your LED headlights and foglights.

You might even make a bad pun or two if you have occasion to cross the border into Canada, for example. When the border patrol person asks where your passport is, you can say “I’m driving it.” On second thought, don’t do that. Border patrol agents probably have developed a good sense of humor, but you might get one at the end of a long day. And if they realize you’re driving a Passport, you’ll realize that it’s not their first Rodeo.

Mazda3 Gains Style, Luxury, Technology in 2019 Redesign

August 14, 2019 by · Comments Off on Mazda3 Gains Style, Luxury, Technology in 2019 Redesign
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 


More aggressive styling tips off the 2019 Mazda3, but not the surprises inside.

By John Gilbert

Ever since Mazda decided to revise its entire line and change the compact Protege’s name to Mazda3, it has been among my favorite cars in the world. Smooth and well-proportioned lines, great handling balance, and the legendary “zoom-zoom” Mazda engine technology that provided more content than its price would indicate.

For three generations, the Mazda3 has set a new standard among compacts, even including the stalwarts, Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. The third generation definitely lifted the car to prominence among engineering snobs, adding the incredible technology of Skyactiv engineering, so for 2019, it didn’t seem that Mazda needed to come out with another new generation quite yet.

But the little company from Hiroshima wanted to round up all its recent advances in technology and it was impatient for a new model to properly house it, so the fourth generation hit the showrooms for 2019. You can’t disagree with the decision, because the new sedan looks like a sleek and sportier downsized Mazda6, and the new hatchback is a different car with a different personality, and it is my new favorite. It has a sort of elongated occupant compartment and from the rear corner, it looks like it might be a compromise between a car and an SUV.

It is, of course, too low-slung and sporty to be an SUV, but the cargo room under the hatch is remarkable, and you can flip down the rear seat backrest and expand it more. Plus, among the notable additions such as a clean and efficient interior is a unique, in-house designed all-wheel drive, which lifts the Mazda3 up above its prime competitors like the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and the revised Hyundai Elantra GT.

Here’s the only downside is that Mazda3 always has been a bargain in the compact segment, boasting sophisticated features unexpected in a compact, but for 2019, it might be departing the “bargain” status, because the the advanced technology forces it upscale enough to warrant a rise in sticker price.

Hatchback forms a unique look, more cargo space, and adds utility with AWD.

The loaded test car, in Polymetal Gray Mica, reached $31,000, which is still reasonable if you examine and appreciate the engineering.

I just drove a 2019 Mazda3 Hatchback in Polymetal Gray Mica, with the Premium Package goodies, most of which are very impressive. Hand-to-hand combat with the radio controls took us most of the week, and nobody can convince me there was a need to make it so needlessly complex in the name of luxury. Gone are the good-ol’ days when a Mazda radio featured three buttons on either side of a large knob. Without taking your eye off the road you could push the knob and the radio came on, turn it and you increase or decrease the volume, while the six buttons on either side are presets. What a concept! Once on, it never seemed to keep our memorized settings the next time we started up. The new Bose 12-speaker audio is very good once on, unless you try something as outlandish as changing the station, or switching from AM to FM or satellite. Coordinating your smartphone with the car also is more complex just as most other cars have figured out simplifying it. But if you owned it, you’d set it and never change it. I think.

Red leather interior hints at numerous luxury upgrades, especially surprising in a compact.

Climb into the comfortable and supportive driver’s seat, and you’re immediately impressed by the very feel of more luxury, from the steering wheel, and the gauges on the instrument panel, to the console, which is classy in gloss “piano” black, although I question the use of any gloss black surfaces because they reflect glare, and if they don’t, it’s because they comfortably house every fingerprint in the vicinity. The shift lever for the 6-speed automatic is easy to operate — no CVT for the Mazda3; these guys are zoom-zoom to the soul. I also appreciate the openness of the dashboard, which seems far away from the passenger, because it is, in a clever design to add to the spaciousness. The padded shelf is sloped, undoubtedly to eliminate motivation for stashing stuff on it. because you risk getting it in your lap at an unscheduled moment.

There is a high, centered 8.8-inch navigation screen that can show all the connectivity stuff, including the audio, cell-phones and the vehicle’s operation details. The car is equipped with radar cruise as well as all the lane-detection, back-up camera, head-up display on the windshield, blind-spot detection, and cross-traffic alert at the rear, among its all safety items. Much improved sound insulation also stifles road noises and aids the luxury movement.

Fittingly for the Mazda3 being worth every penny of the sticker — base $28,900, as-tested $32,460 — is the fully evidence that it was engineered, designed and built by car guys, with purpose. This wasn’t put together by social-climbing preppies or someone trying to win soft-and-cushy awards.

Mazda3 side-view shows entirely different silhouette from its sedan sibling.

The prime ingredients will impress hard-core car people, while possibly inducing a yawn from those who just want transportation without details, including media types, who might rather not be bothered with details of the various features, let alone the combination of all of them. But we will check them off.

First, Skyactiv is not new anymore, but is the product of a clean-sheet idea to change the way Mazda was making engines, with an eye to the future. All the high-efficiency tricks were put together in both the 2.5 and the increasingly scarce 2.0, such as Atkinson-cycle valve-train timing, which can increase or decrease the time the valves open and shut, for more complete burning of all the fuel in the cylinder, which has been metered precisely by direct injection.

Putting all together means the standard 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine in the Mazda3 has a 13-to-1 compression ratio, but still calls for regular fuel, while producing 186 horsepower, a lot for a compact, and a matching 186 foot-pounds of torque, which is the primary benefit to its pulling power. The horsepower peaks at 6,000 RPMs and the torque at 4,000. The EPA estimate for the test vehicle shows 24 city and 32 highway, but we had trouble getting it over 22 miles per gallon, no matter how we drove it, including shifting by the steering wheel paddles, and trying the mode switch toggled to “sport.” That switch can summon up tightened suspension, heavier steering feel, and a more aggressive shift mapping, and it defaults back to normal every time you switch the ignition off.

The best-kept secret might be Mazda’s G-Vectoring magic, which is the product of 10 years of engineering and trial-and-error refinement. A computerized control system governs the front wheels. When you turn sharply into a curve or a corner, you use your instincts and experience for when to turn. The “turn-in,” as it’s called, is as precise as you make it, and if it isn’t perfect, you correct by counter-steering, to find your trajectory. If you correct too severely, you need to correct again. Actually, that can be fun on a road-racing course, because you induce a little tail-wagging that enhances your feeling of speed.

Newest Mazda3 pushes Civic, Corolla, Elantra GT, Jetta to compact challenge.

But on the streets and highways, it gets serious. A less-skilled or inattentive driver might make a bad turning moment, and then need to correct and possibly correct again. That’s a good way to lose control. The best-handling cars are those that turn precisely as you aim them, or are easily corrected with one adjustment when you miss.

Mazda’s engineers worked many tests until they ascertained that when a driver starts to turn in, the car should respond precisely, and while it seems counter to instincts, the G-Vectoring system does two things at the first millisecond’s recognition that you’re making a turn. First, it softens the shock absorber on the outside front wheel for a millisecond — while instinct says you might want to stiffen it. Second, the computer reduces the torque to the outside front wheel, again, for just a couple milliseconds, then returns to normal. By doing those two things, the car’s outside front tends to bob down ever so slightly, and you certainly don’t feel it, but it does convince you that you’ve chosen the right turn-in.

While driving, you feel none of that technology at work. The only thing you notice is that after zooming around turns and corners, you haven’t ever needed to correct. You just keep going, with no skidmacks or screeching of tires, and all you felt was that this might be the most precise cornering car you’ve ever driven. It is the perfect definition of the cliche about feeling like riding on rails.

The third special element is the all-wheel drive system. Mazda has had an impressive all-wheel drive system for its CX-3, CX-5 and CX-9 SUV fleet, but it chose not to use the same system for the Mazda3. Instead, its computer calculates the vertical load on each wheel, combined with the vehicle’s speed, your steering tendency, and input from an accelerometer and a yaw-sensor, to calculate if a potential spin is threatened. When it senses slippage, the system seamlessly puts all four wheels to work for optimum traction. If it senses no potential slippage, it sends more torque to the rear wheels, aiming for better traction when you accelerate in normal weather.

The six-speed automatic is geared for cruising, and it doesn’t have the neck-snapping off-the-line power some rivals might have, earning complaints from drivers who don’t like driving all that much. But it’s set up to run efficiently at highway speeds. The shift paddles allow you to downshift for more revs if you need instant power, or to upshift manually if you choose. So downshift and step on the gas and the power is easily adequate.

Some of those features can surprise you. For instance, I was driving along on some city streets and it started raining. Not heavy, just a sprinkle, and while I was thinking about whether I should reach for the wiper switch, the wipers came on! Almost as if I caused the activation with my thought process. The rain-sensing kept up a pretty good pace until the sprinkles ended. Handy.

By coincidence, the new Mazda3 also played a role in what now is a departure from this review. After studying and testing cars for a lot of years, the rise of a new breed of car media types are pushing some legitimate and long-standing auto writers off the manufacturers’ lists for invitations to the introductions of new cars, putting more value on social media hits. I’m among those affected, and it bothers me because I always have enjoyed seeking out the inside stories of engines and design features, which I relay to readers. Much new-age coverage seems to focus more on how soft the dashboard is than new engine or suspension technology.

With that as a preface, I submit as Exhibit A, the August, 2019 issue of Car and Driver magazine. Always in a monthly duel with Motor Trend to be the trusted source of auto news, C and D has always had a chippy, irreverent edge to covering cars that I’ve enjoyed, although in its last regime, that seemed to be changing. For August, there is a comparison test of the manual transmission versions of the top compacts. After describing pluses and minuses of each, the magazine ranked the Toyota Corolla fifth and last earning 157 points on the various criteria; the Volkswagen Golf SE fourth with 189; the Hyundai Elantra GT third with 192; the Mazda3 second with 194; narrowly edged by the winner, the Honda Civic with 196.

Reasonable, because all five compacts are impressive on their own, and 196-194 is certainly close for the win. But look at the evaluation, the Mazda3 won the vehicle section, and the powertrain segment. In the next segment, Car and Driver gave the Civic a 2-point edge in steering feel, and brake feel, and a 3-point edge in handling, while Mazda had a 1-point edge in ride. They call that segment “chassis” and I consider it subjective, and while it showed the Civic with a best 55 points and the Mazda3 second-worst at 48, that still left the Mazda3 as the overall winner. But, as it always does in its comparisons, the magazine adds a most-subjective item, “fun to drive,” where the Civic scored 23 and the Mazda3 only 16 — a 7-point margin that lifted the Civic above the Mazda3 by 2 points. You can form your own opinions or suspicions.

That in no way diminishes the Honda Civic, which is an outstanding car, and it might have won straight up, but my suspicions blossomed by reading the overview by Annie White, who was assigned to put it all together for my trusted hard-core car enthusiast magazine. She wrote numerous reasons why the Mazda3 fell short, starting with it “isn’t that fun to drive anymore,” and that it “isn’t the great driving car it used to be,” and her conclusion was that “It doesn’t stand up to hard driving quite the same way,” and she quoted a fellow writer saying, “This is a car that reels worse the harder you drive it.”

Skyactiv engineering, G-Vectoring, and unique AWD boost Mazda3 to elite compact status.

OK, opinions can vary. I totally disagree with the statement that it doesn’t handle, and handles worse in hard driving, or that its steering lacks feel. And while my test car had all-wheel drive, I have driven the front-wheel-drive stick version. My surprise is that never was there any mention of the unique G-Vectoring, and the criticism means that this group of hard-charging, macho-sporty drivers never mentioned — and possibly never noticed — the benefit of never needing to correct the steering wheel in hard cornering.

Mazda only offers the stick shifts in the top of the line Mazda3 models, and I’ve driven the front-wheel drive Mazda3 that these folks tested for their comparison, and found it might handle a little sportier than the AWD model because its a little lighter. My bigger question is whether the C and D staff members, writing for intense car fanatics, have shifted their objectives to join the purveyors of padded dashboards and can no longer be trusted to notice, comprehend, and explain major technical advancements.

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