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.

Ram 3500 Aids Surge to No. 2 Slot in U.S. Sales

August 7, 2019 by · Comments Off on Ram 3500 Aids Surge to No. 2 Slot in U.S. Sales
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Ram’s 3500, right, and the extended-build of the outgoing Ram, left, boost combined Ram sales past Silverado and second to F-Series.

By John Gilbert
Regular readers of have probably gathered over the years that I love cars of all kinds, and I also like trucks of a reasonably modest size. The difference between “love” and “like” is not insignificant. We also can reiterate that whether dealing with pickups or SUVs, my theory is that anything bigger than big enough is too big.

Cutting back on fossil fuels remains a key as we rumble down the street toward electrification of our vehicles. It never makes good sense to haul around a couple thousand extra pounds and several extra feet of length, and a ton of extra weight — unless you need it. We also bow to public preference, which has caused the top three vehicles in U.S. sales to be full-size pickup trucks, and the next two to be compact crossover SUVs, before we get to the best-selling cars.

The biggest surprise in over a decade is that the traditional 1-2 stature of the Ford F-Series and the Chevrolet Silverado has been disrupted, as the Ram has forcefully passed the Chevy with an extreme upsurge and is closer to challenging the Fords. Those sales figures include heavy-duty trucks above and beyond the full-size, so let’s examine two of the biggest, most potent, most capable, and perhaps the best monster.trucks available.

Long bed and 6.4 V8 means Ram 3500 can haul away most of Farmer’s Market products.

One is the Ram 3500, and not “just” the 3500. It’s the Ram 3500 Laramie Longhorn Crew Cab 4×4 Long Box, almost as long as the truck itself, which is about as huge as you can visualize a truck that is still legal to drive on city streets. Power is immense, from its 6.4-liter V8, which has 410 horsepower and 429 foot-pounds of torque, capable of towing 31,210 pounds of trailer, and that is if you don’t use the built-in fifth-wheel deal in the bed. The Ram, equipped with dual-rear wheels (dualies) comes in at $81,190.

Ford F250 Super-Duty lacks Dualies, but its 6.7-liter Diesel can tow mountainous cargo.

The other big boy in this week’s evaluation is the No. 1 target of all pickup makers — the Ford Super-Duty F250, SRW 4×4 Crew Cab Limited Style-Side, without the dual wheels or the longest bed, but with a 6.7-liter Power Stroke turbo-diesel that runs with almost alarming silence — compared to the diesels we know and love — but carries a big stick. Or several of them. How about 32,000 pounds of sticks, or cement blocks, or anything else you can imagine? This potent turbo-diesel puts out 450 horsepower and an unheard of 935 foot-pounds of torque.

It is the smallest of the Ford Super-Duty family, which rises above the F150 and also includes the F350 and F450. But if you give it enough power, the F250 is plenty. This one is priced at $84,105, with the base price of $80,240 including just about all the luxury stuff Ford could think of.

Always the trouper, I drove both of these monsters around downtown Duluth, Minnesota, where the steep avenues were no match for either of these power plants. Because of the construction that dominates downtown Duluth, I had to circle around a couple of one-way streets, and then I remembered that my prized little Panasonic Lumix pocket camera, with the fantastic Leica lens, had stopped working. It’s about eight years old, and I would estimate that I’ve had about 10,000 photos published out of that little gem’s digital heart. I pulled into a diagonal parking slot right in front of Duluth Camera, making sure to swing wide enough for  my dualies and the Kardashian-like rear wheel housings would clear, and fit tightly between the yellow stripe.

There were no parking meters in sight, so it looked like a free-parking area. I had parked adjacent to a year-old Ram 1500, so I shot a meaningful picture of the two of them together. I was in the store just long enough to find out they no longer do camera repairs, and walked back out to find a parking ticket wedged into may large driver’s door. Closer scrutiny of a small sign at the top of a pole said the block was set up for using a Smartphone to call in your license number and credit card to cover the required expense.  A stealthy and quick parking control monitor had given both Rams parking tickets.

The significance of the old-style Ram is that while the 2019 Ram 1500 won everybody’s Truck of the Year competition for its redesign and sophistication, the company would continue to build and sell the old-style Ram as a bargain truck. Both are selling beyond the most optimistic hopes.

Automotive News, which compiles statistical evidence of everything automotive, shows there were 2,992,382 new cars sold in the first six months of 2019, which is a 9 percent drop from last year’s first half; compared to 6,841,952 light trucks, which includes pickups and SUVs, which represents a 2.1 percent rise — a total of more than twice the number of trucks to cars sold!

Ford’s F-Series retains its No. 1 status with 448,398 sales in the first six months of this year, but that is a tiny decrease of 0.6 percent from a year ago. The Silverado sold 255,463, a 12.1 percent drop, just when the new Ram — with came out about the same time as the renewed Silverado — sold 299,480 units, a whopping 28.2 percent increase.

By vaulting past the Silverado, the Ram moves into a strong, challenging second place to the F-Series. For the last month, F-Series sold 79,426, a slight increase of 0.3 percent  over July of 2018, while the Ram sold 68,098 — representing a quite-astonishing 56.4 percent increase from the same month in 2018. The new Silverado sold 45,455, a decrease of 15 percent from the same month in 2018.

The lure of a home-made ice cream shop was incentive to .parallel park the Ram 3500,k long box, dualies, and all.

For those interested, the top 10 in U.S. vehicle sales are: 1. F-Series, 2. Ram, 3. Silverado, 4. Toyota RAV4, 5. Honda CR-V, 6. Honda Civic, 7. Toyota Camry, 8. Nissan Rogue, 9. Chevrolet Equinox, and 10. Toyota Corolla. The only three cars among the top 10 for the year are the Civic, the Camry and the Corolla. The Rogue, which stood fourth a year ago, ahead of prime rivals RAV4 and CR-V, has dropped 22.5 percent, but still holds fifth.

Truck-folks rule, and if you doubt it, I stopped to get some gas in the Ram, which took some serious maneuvering to avoid knocking over the gas pumps or the building itself, and as I opened the door and stepped with perfect timing to land on the instantly-appearing running board before descending the rest of the way to Earth, a pleasant female voice said, “Nice truck!” A woman refilling her Silverado pickup on the other side of the pumps, has a big truck, but she truly admired that I had a BIG truck.

For those hauling a heavy trailer, or a trailer house, it would seem logical to go up to the huge (huger?) turbo-diesel, a 6.7-liter inline six that climbs to 900 foot-pounds of torque, but there definitely is something to the sound of the 6.4 normally-aspirated V8 that sounds almost Viper-like with its throaty roar. And it takes off and hits 60 in about 6.2 seconds, if you believe Motor Trend. Stability and road-holding are exemplary in the big Ram, which, as they say, drives smaller than it is. The spacious room in the rear seat, with all the leather flaps and trim items that make it almost limousine-like, reinforces the image established by the front bucket seats.

The big Ram 3500’s surprising agility helped when I had to negotiate about 80 miles of single-lane orange-cone maneuvering for Interstate 35 resurfacing while driving to Minneapolis and back. And I showed 16.5 miles per gallon, which, as they say, is not bad for such a large truck.

It is a full crew cab with all of the luxury features that have made the Ram the darling of the pickup segment for 2019, with Laramie’s embossed leather interior, and that iPad-size 12-inch center screen that allows more connectivity functions than you and I could have imagined a couple of years ago. And it has the longest bed in the pickup world, fully sprayed with grippy stuff. The combination of the longest occupant compartment and the longest bed make something like its ParkSense front and rear parking assistance electronics seem somehow mandatory but inadequate. Parking is simple: Just find two parking places end to end and use ‘em both.

The Ram was painted Walnut Brown Metallic, with light mountain brown interior on its premium leather bucket seats.

Ford Super-Duty becomes a light show with LED brightness in all directions.

The Ford Super-Duty is similar in utility and versatility, and helps keep Ford atop the segment for now, because along with the “normal” sized F150, the 250 joins the 350 and 450 among the heavyweights, and also has a new baby brother in the Ranger, which is a modest, medium-size pickup we will be reporting on in a few weeks.

The impressive thing about the 6.7 Turbo-diesel is that Ford is making its own diesel these days, and figured out a way to put the new clean-diesel fuel to good use and make the thing run strong and without the mind-numbing thrum of every other diesel in the truck biz. It has a 6-speed automatic, compared to the Ram 3500’s 8-speed, but the overflowing torque doesn’t seem to betray any shortcomings.

The Super-Duty Ford was painted Silver Spruce, which was a modest silvery-green that was very attractive, and harmonized with the Camelback leather interior. Like the Ram, it had running boards that slide out electrically from the body to meet your feet and at least go halfway toward reducing the pole-vault requirementt otherwise necessary to enter the vehicle.

I must confess that I didn’t get enough miles on the Super-Duty to require refueling, although when it was full it showed 700-some miles available before running out.

Sprayed-on bedliner gives Ford Super-Duty grippy surface, large capacity.

In spacious rear, Ford F250 console has multiple plug-ins.

Both trucks had the gooseneck trailer towing device, surround-view rear camera, keyless entry, and all the connectivity and audio gadgets. If you’re real tall, you could sleep more comfortably in the extra-long Ram bed. If you want to go seriously off the road, you might prefer the Ford Super-Duty, which seems to have more skid-plate protection on the underside. If you like fancy interiors, you’ll have to choose for yourself. If you like powerful audio, both have premium units, with the Ram installing a 17-speaker Harmon Kardon upgrade and a power sunroof, while the F250 Super-Duty has a twin-

Electric running board eases pole-vault-height entry into Ford F250.

panel moonroof, and a 4G WiFi hotspot. Both of them had heated and cooling ventilated seats, and it had a massage feature on the front buckets.

My wife, Joan, found the Ford controls for the seat massagers. I never looked for them on the Ram. It probably had them too. Tough choice, but the Ram is on a sales rampage and could close the gap more as 2019 progresses. I haven’t yet become convinced that a gigantic truck that gets southward of 20 miles per gallon is the ideal vehicle, unless you really need it.

If you’re hauling a house trailer or a large RV, then get into the same mindset you had when choosing a house. Just be aware that your first house may not have had the amount of room of either the Ram 3500 or the Ford Super-Duty.

Upscale Prius Flashes Style, AWD, Great Economy

August 1, 2019 by · Comments Off on Upscale Prius Flashes Style, AWD, Great Economy
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Prius has combined edgy styling and all-wheel-drive to improve its hybrid-leading stature.

By John Gilbert

When Toyota and Honda led the way into hybrid engineering, I was impressed to track their different techniques to combine electric motors with gasoline engines. Some resisted, and I realized I was risking my status as a card-carrying purist, but it was immediately apparent that hybrids were the stepping stone to what is surely a coming era of electric cars.

While Honda wavered a bit along the way, and other competitors from South Korea and Germany have emerged, the Toyota Prius has remained the vanguard. Toyota’s “Hybrid Synergy Drive” has powered the subcompact Prius to such popular status that some feel it has become the new icon for Toyota’s worldwide success, even replacing the Camry and Corolla as the company’s signature vehicle.

Consistency is Toyota’s hallmark, and it is the reason for the everlasting success of the midsize Camry and compact Corolla, but the Prius has countered that reputation, taking some chances with edgy styling and staying at the top of the technology game being played at the highest level of automotives.

Prius now has expanded to a diversified portfolio with different models and styles, and the standard front-wheel-drive models continue to show increasing fuel economy. Their consistency may have left some cynics behind, but amid competitive hybrid models from Honda, Hyundai and German competitors and assorted all-electric cars, there are reasons to take a new look at the Prius.

Toyota never worried about making the Prius mainstream, and it’s become iconic on its own.

I have just had the opportunity to test a 2019 Prius Limited, the top of the line hatchback 4-door sedan with all-wheel drive. Interesting. The electric-motor-powered front-drive Priuses have perfected the ability to turn gas-engine power and regenerative braking into keeping the battery-pack electric motors going, but all-wheel drive seems a stretch.

Turns out, the 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine is not tuned for highest power but to be efficiently coordinated with the electric motors, so its listed 121 horsepower doesn’t mean much. The test vehicle had performance-vehicle takeoff and swift highway operation.

The car was Supersonic Red, one of two new colors exclusive to Prius, and it practically glowed with brightness. It also has the wedge, fast-sloping arrow shape in silhouette, rising from a low nose and fitting well into the various contours that end up at the well-sculptured rear. The hatch has a huge window, which extends below the rear deck spoiler wing, which aids rear visibility greatly.

Front visibility for the driver is enhanced by the now-familiar positioning of the instruments and information screens on a centrally located region of the dashboard. That means without the speedometer binnacle, the driver looks straight down at the road ahead, with a head-up display.

The transmission is the much-loathed CVT, the continuously variable transmission that tends to drone without the shift-points we mostly know and love. Some companies program in hesitations to make a CVT feel like a normal geared transmission. But in the test car, I never even thought of it being a CVT, maybe because of the drive modes, which were fun to play with.

Centered instruments, stack-mounted shifter make Prius interior unique.

Roomy interior is high-tech, modern and comfortable.

The shift lever is short, located on the center stack, and you pull it to the left and up for reverse, down for drive. Park is on a separate button on the dash, just to the left of the shift lever. You get used to it right away, sooner, for example, than you learn the importance of making sure to hit the push-button to turn off the drivetrain. Remember, the Prius charges itself up and then will shut down the gas engine to allow electric-only driving, which also means silent running.

Toyota has programmed in a notification system to alert pedestrians and other drivers or bike-riders that there is a car there, for safety reasons.

The mode button clicks you from normal to eco, or to power. In power mode, the Prius takes off with aggressive force, more than I anticipated from years of driving various Prius models. It was quick enough that I didn’t think about the CVT, focusing instead on handling around the next curve.

Those of us driving in cold-weather territory appreciate all-wheel drive because it assures us of better traction in snow or ice conditions. But as I’ve always suggested, there are only a few days, or nights, or storms, where it is truly critical, and a well-balanced front-wheel-drive vehicle with the right winter tires can get you through snowstorms with ease.

But when we do need AWD, we need it for starting up from a stop, or when you might be accelerating at moderate speed and hit a patch of ice. Toyota has a brilliant system: With no center differential or front-rear torque-shifting driveshaft, the Prius front and rear are connected by an electric oversight to coordinate the front engine and constant front-wheel drive to the rear electric motor, which drives the rear wheels. It only works, though, from 0-6 mph — right when you need it to start up smoothly, and then also kicks in for rear-wheel contributions whenever commanded by the computer, up to 43 mph. Again, it works as a safeguard when you might need it for traction. Otherwise, you’re in front-wheel drive and AWD is not engaged.

Dramatic wedge shape starts at aggressive nose, glittering with Prius Limited LED lights.

Another interesting feature of the Prius Limited, which is atop a list that goes down to XLE, LE, and to base Eco, is that the Limited battery pack is Nickel-Metal-Hydride, because, Toyota says, that old standard battery has been improved to be most resilient against severe cold drainage. Toyota used to make only Nickel-Metal-Hydride systems while competitors branched off to Lithium-Ion, which seemed to have more power, charge more quickly, and retain power better. Toyota switched to Lithium-Ion for its plug-in Prius Hybrid, and now uses Lithium-Ion battery packs for all its other Prius systems, but retains Nickel-Metal-Hydride for the Limited with all-wheel drive.

The new body design is based on Toyota’s new structural sedan architecture, with a high-strength steel body made lighter by aluminum hood and specific trim items, and its multi-link rear suspension helps give the Prius Limited a definite sporty feel.

As battery packs evolve for more power and smaller size, the Prius has enlarged its under-hatch storage capacity, and now has 62.7 cubic feet, if you lower the rear seats. Bright and crisply focused headlights and foglights, and taillights, are LED, as are the tiny but effective foglights.

Toyota also has installed its top connectivity features and safety items, including all the necessary connectivity fittings and Toyota Safety Sense, which has radar and a monocular camera to detect cars, pedestrians, lane markers and oncoming headlights. It includes pre-collision and lane-marker warning, along with lane-departure assist, brake assist, automatic high-beams, climate control, and radar cruise control.

Putting the driver in “hybrid mode,” we registered 69.3 mpg.

The sticker price for the Prius Limited is $28,810, and the as-tested sticker for the test car was $32,508, with options such as the advanced technology package. That sticker also includes the information that the EPA estimate for fuel economy is 52 miles per gallon city, 48 highway, and a combined figure of 50 miles per gallon. In our driving, we were over 50 in all cases. My wife, Joan, got 56 mpg on one trip, and was actually a tad disappointed when I came home from going up and down the hills of Duluth, rural and city roads and streets, and shut it off, it showed 69.3 mpg for that venture. I always accept the challenge of switching into personal “hybrid” style driving, when driving a hybrid, coasting and using light braking going downhill or up to a stop, and limiting the attempts at quick starts. As if to reinforce our effort, the Prius indicated that since our last fill of gasoline, we had averaged 56.5 mpg.

From the side, various lines and contours enhance Prius’s style.

Steep rear window adds visibility above and below wing.

Toyota has projected that when everything is tallied, fully 25 percent of all Prius sales might be for the all-wheel-drive models. When you tick off the assets, such as the potential for high mileage, swift power, appealing — if polarizing — appearance, drive-mode alteration that can make you overlook the CVT, why should we be surprised? And if you still want more, you can go upscale to the plug-in hybrid. Electric cars may be getting closer to reality, but until they prove themselves, the best hybrids are excellent transition vehicles.

Wrangler Keeps Changing, but Stays the Same

July 25, 2019 by · Comments Off on Wrangler Keeps Changing, but Stays the Same
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Same familiar look, but the new Jeep Wrangler has considerable refinement beneath the stunning blue paint.

By John Gilbert
It’s been quite a model year for FCA already. FCA, of course, stands for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, and it encompasses the Italian parent Fiat, along with what used to be Chrysler Corporation — Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram — blended into Fiat and its impressive holdings, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Lancia, and, of course, Fiat.

Thanks to Ram and Jeep, FCA has seemed to have withstood the current woes plaguing the global auto industry, in which cars are in the downward stroke of the vehicle-buying pendulum, headed for what many executives at General Motors and Ford see as oblivion, displaced by the upsurge of trucks — all manner of trucks and SUVs, which have zoomed past cars in popularity and profitability.

Ford has declared it will stop building almost all cars — Taurus, Fusion, Focus, Escort, you name it — to make room for building more trucks. GM says the same thing, planning to eliminate all sorts of historically significant vehicle nameplates in order to convert plants from cars to trucks, trucks and more trucks.

It’s the same with Toyota, which is even now changing over a plant that builds Corolla compacts to accommodated building more RAV4 crossover SUVs — now the top nameplate at Toyota, even outselling Camry and Corolla.

FCA has not ignored the trend, and is eliminating a few cars, although it has fewer cars than Ford or GM. It sounds as though the Charger and Challenger will remain, but parent and dutiful owner Fiat is watching closely and pulling the strings. Ram trucks, and the amazing Jeep line of utility vehicles have carried the corporation’s stabilization.

The Ford F150 pickup remains the top-selling vehicle in the U.S., but has leveled off, and the traditional runner-up, the Chevrolet Silverado,  has fallen off even more in their annual duel of full-size trucks. Despite the tiresome late-night and sports-event ad campaign coming at you with alleged “real people, not actors” who rave about how much more they love the Chevy truck — including one that  says, “I traded my Ram for a Silverado” — one of the more startling bits of information is the current marketplace results.

With a classy redesign and an amazingly attractive interior, word out of Detroit was that the Ram outsold the Silverado almost 2-to-1 in the month of June, something I found hard to believe, based on habitual U.S. buyers and their knee-jerk habits.

All of which brings us to today’s topic, which is: Jeep.

Soft-top for sport, and family-hauling ride makes Wrangler on-road-worthy.

While the auto industry has struggled for most of this model year, FCA has improved its total foothold, thanks to the Ram and the Jeeps. The Challenger and Charger remain high-performance muscle-car throwbacks, and the Pacifica minivans, improved though they are with their latest hybrid models, have dropped off a bit and FCA is thinking about adding a renewed Caravan or Voyager base minivan that could sell for less than the high-tech Pacifica.

Jeep, meanwhile, stands alone as one of the most interesting and curious brands. It has some very impressive new family models, such as the Grand Cherokee, the Cherokee, the Compass and the compact Renegade, but the backbone of the whole Jeep line is the Wrangler — the basic, off-road specialist that has been refined thoroughly and repeatedly to become more “civilized” but without losing any of its quite-amazing off-road capability. And you can’t get more civilized than the flashy blue paint on my test Wrangler.

The Wrangler proved it is refined to the point where, amid dozens of compact SUVs taking over the marketplace, Motor Trend tested 20 or more and named the new Wrangler as its “SUV of the Year” for 2019. Incidentally, Motor Trend recently decided to add a third candidate evaluation with SUVs added to the traditional car and truck of the year listings, and the Ram was named Truck of the Year, giving FCA two of the exalted three awards.

Gears and 4X4 selector levers are joined by a navigation screen inside.

I wouldn’t have named the Wrangler SUV of the year in the face of some overwhelming and impressive competition, although when competition gets so tough, it’s understandable why Motor Trend every once in a while clears the air by naming something like the off-roading specialty Wrangler. I am completely impressed with the Wrangler, and those who spend any recreational time off-roading will celebrate the award.

Recently, I had the chance to revisit the 2019 Wrangler, and a mid-summer test week verified my earlier findings that the 2019 Wrangler has made that giant step up to become a worthy family vehicle, with the elimination of the pogo-stick bounciness that I thought was standard equipment on Wranglers.

You could safely say that the Wrangler has made a positive change in -road onrefinement without giving up any of its traditional and historic capabilities off-road. Besides, it’s absolutely cool.

My test vehicle’s biggest obstacle was its name. It was the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, and indication that it is equipped for heavy-duty use. It was the Unlimited’s elite Sahara model, which means fancier features that shouldn’t prevent it from bounding over the Sahara Desert’s sand dunes like the old television series “Rat Patrol,” which made World War II Jeeps its central figures. And it was “Trail Rated,” which means it is built to go anywhere, whether there are roads or not.

All names lead to Wrangler, along with WWII-style door hinges.

That’s it: The 2019 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara 4X4, Trail Rated.” But when you want to bring all those subtitles into the spotlight, so the guy parked next to you at the ballgame won’t think you have just an ordinary Jeep, you get silver badges that say “Jeep” in familiar bold type, and above that a smaller “Sahara,” and above that a round emblem that denotes the “Trail Rated” capability.

Fortunately, there was no available room to add to the price tag, either: $52,210. That’s up from the base price of $38,395, and reflects the addition of all sorts of modern conveniences, such as the back-up camera, the third generation Dana rear axle over the heavy-duty suspension with its gas-charged shocks, skid plates and shields protecting the fuel tank, the transmission and the transfer case, a trailer-sway damping feature, electronic stability control and roll mitigation, security device, and, it says here, universal garage door opener.

Those are standard on this model, and there are options added on, including: leather trimmed seats with “Sahara” embossed, cold weather package with heated seats and steering wheel, remote start, LED reflector headlights, foglights, taillights and daytime running lights, a premium audio system, rear park-assist, blind-spot detection, hill-descent control, and full frontal collision avoidance. Oh yeah, and there’s satellite radio, push-button start, and a GPS that plays out on a center stack screen.

You think those Rat Patrol ruffians might have enjoyed those features?

LED lights and high-tech Chrysler-built 2.0 Turbo make Wrangler current.

It was blue, but hardly a garden-variety blue. Named “Ocean Blue Metallic Clearcoat,” that moniker falls short of defining the stunningly deep blue that penetrates your senses like a laser-beam.

Among the selections you are required to make is with the engine. There is, you should know, still another upgrade, to the “Rubicon” model, which includes the 3.6-liter V6 engine, although I am convinced the way to buy the Wrangler is with the new 2.0-liter 4-cylinder I had in the tester.

Consider these facts: The 3.6 V6 has 285 horsepower to the 2.0’s 270; but the V6’s healthy 260 foot-pounds of torque can’t beat the 2.0’s 295 foot-pounds. The V6 has a 6-speed automatic, the 2.0 gets the new 8-speed.

The lighter 4-cylinder also aids the Wrangler’s agility, with improved balance, although both, of course, have part-time 4-wheel drive that can be locked into your choice of settings. When on the road, you probably would choose the rear-wheel-drive only setting to aid fuel economy, and be impressed with something approaching sporty car handling.

Those who have driven or ridden in Wranglers from a decade or two ago might still recall how potent it is in clamoring over rocks and hilly terrain, seemingly without regard to how steep the challenge might be. If your experience with Jeeps is more contemporary, as in the luxurious Grand Cherokee, then you might look on the Wrangler with scorn, assuming it to be primitive.

Wrangler might be at the upper limits of sophistication, risking its rugged reputation.

Never, however, assume. The new Wrangler Whatsitsname will still do everything the old off-road-beating, rugged rock climber will do, but now it cleans up to transport you and your family to the country club. It even has a partial soft-top to turn it into a virtual convertible. We won’t get into removing the doors and leaving the rollbar -quality support structure exposed as you bound off-road.

I still don’t know that I would name it SUV of the Year, but I’m pretty sure that if and when you choose an alternative vehicle for that honor, the Wrangler will beat it off the road, and maybe on the road, too.

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