Range Rover Sport offers 575-HP kick

November 1, 2019 by · Comments Off on Range Rover Sport offers 575-HP kick
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Range Rover Sport in estoril blue stood out against the autum,n leavers, before the gales of October blew the colorful foliage away.

By John Gilbert
Dating back to when Land Rover’s Range Rover was a British brand of over-built SUVs from back before “SUV” became a working name, back when it was powered by a fun but less durable ‘Buick V6, it was hard to test-drive any Range Rover without being thoroughly impressed. The company’s staff of off-road adventurers could set up challenging off-road courses ir send you around Iceland or up to the Rocky Mountain continental divides to impress you with the vehicles’ prowess.

Over the last 20 years or so, I’ve been favorably impressed with all of them. Some more than others, of course. But now I’ve got a favorite — the Range Rover Sport SVR.

The Land Rover Discovery Sport, Land Rover Discovery, Land Rover Range Rover, Land Rover Range Rover Evoque, Land Rover Range Rover Velar, and the Land Rover Range Rover Sport all work together to make up the current exceptional stable of road-worthy — and off-road-worthy — SUVs. Different engines, different capabilities and different price ranges separate them from each other. The range goes from $39,000 for the compact Discovery Sport to a whopping $209,000 for the Land Rover Range Rover — which deserves both names, and then some.

The Range Rover Sport, however, stands tallest among the breed for those who love  more sportiness than luxury while charging off the road to make their tracks where neighbors and others can be impressed  but may not be able to keep up with your adventurousness. For those onlookiers, the Range Rover Sport stands out  in plain sight, on the road.

You can buy a Range Rover Sport for $67,000 if you select the 2.0-liter turbo four with its hybrid boost, or a bit more for the 3.0-liter turbo-diesel. or you could step up to either of a pair of 3.0-liter supercharged V6es. But the pick of the litter is one of the two 5.0-liter V8 engines, with your choice of power. The first is a 518 horsepower, 461 foot-pound engine, which would be more than satisfying, if only the monster version didn’t exist.

Comfort and luxury inside are tipped off to 575 horsepower by the four exhaust tips.

That’s the one that came in my stunning Estoril Blue Range Rover Sport — the 5.0 supercharged V8 SVR, tuned by the corporate Special Vehicle Ops to 575 horses and 516 foot-pounds of torque. That, plus the load of unique equipment, take the $114,500 base price for the Range Rover Sport, and lift it to $131,520.

That’s a lot, but don’t dismiss it until you evaluate what you’re getting. Special Vehicle Ops is a performance oriented group that performs customizing on all things Jaguar or Range Rover. The two are jointly owned by Tata Motors in India, which admires the two British companies and has managed to extract the best from both. After sputtering, so to speak, on their own after being cut adrift by Ford Motor Company, the two were purchased by Tata, which gave Jaguar exactly what it needed — an enormous outlay of engineering money so they could build engines up to the standards promised by their beautiful sports cars and sedans. It only made sense to allow Range Rover to use the precious engines, instead of buying something from BMW, or Ford, or anyone else.

Special Vehicle Ops does a total custom job on the Range Rover Sport, installing perforated leather on the seats, special suspensions, aerodynamic tricks, until it rises above rivals to challenge the best from BMW X5, Mercedes AMG GLE after they get the M treatment, and even the Porsche Cayenne Turbo. An d then they install that magnificent engine, with its power raised from 518 to 575, and torque boosted from 461 to 516.

Range Rover always has impressed the hardiest of off-roading experts around the world, and if the nameplate came a bit late to the U.S., it started gaining popularity after broadening its scope as the vehicle of choice for the wealths Beverly Hills set. Many were sold to people who only drove them to their country club function, or to the studio, and never considered exercising that fabulous suspension.

People learned that Range Rovers could go anywhere, and their cult following grew. Fast, strong, go-anywhere, and do it in comfort and luxury. Electronic air suspension and all-terrain progressive control, and all the contemporary safety concepts are packing into the Range Rover Sport. So lane departure warning, emergency collision notification, plus roll stability control and dynamic stability control keep everybody safe and secure in their Range Rover cocoon.

Even the fallen leaves seem to pay tribute to the Range Rover Sport.

As for sportiness, the Range Rover Sport looks the part, with that stunning blue color set off by black-spoked 22-inch alloy wheels, and the four rectangular exhaust tubes peeking out meaningfully at the rear. This is a 5,500-pound vehicle, but it takes off with all that thrust like a sports car. Its weight makes it lean a bit in cornering, because it is purposely tall both for ground clearance and for interior room. It leans, but it maintains its course and there’s never a thought that it might be too softly sprung. Even if you’re gazing from the passenger seats, up through the panbornic sunroof.

The engine is hooked up to an 8-speed automatic with steering wheel paddles if you want to impart manual control. The feel of the steering is a bit heavy for a luxury SUV, but that’s became Range Rover wants to make sure you know you can drive it off-road, which is to say through woods, up mountain sides, through gullies, and, if you so choose, to scale mountain tops and any manner of wilderness.

The iconic blue of Lake Superior is outshone by Range Rover Sport’s estoril blue.

There are six selectable modes for driving, most of them covered by automatic, or the sportier dynamic. But you can specialize for rock climbing, running through sand or mud, or for snow.

Amazingly, there aren’t many directions Range Rover can go to restyle its vehicles, and that’s just fine. They all share the classy British corners and curves with each other, so you might be tempted to select a more inexpensive and more economical model and bank the rest, but with the Range Rover Sport, you already have promised a lot, whether from the little “SVR” badge on the tail, or the tight styling of the way the headlights are wrapped into the fascia.

You can take off like a rocket in the Range Rover Sport, and you probably will find the need to use that power and blast off. Besides, when it’s warm enough, you will want to open your windows so you can hear the meaningful exhaust note when you do hit it.

While the components under the Sport are overbuilt, the capabilities are enhanced. So you can tow 7,716 pounds of trailer, and weighing 5,500 pounds itself, you can still battle through weeds and woods until you find perpendicular facades for you to test the break-over ratio and other clearance concerns.

As for other creature comforts, you also have the Meridian Signature audio system that is as impressive as any sound system you can find. I guess 1,700 Watts can do that to you.

Smooth, aerodynamic nose tips off extraordinary capabilities.

You can also find one of those 5.0-liter Special Vehicle Ops V8s with 575 horsepower in the largest Land Rover Range Rover, and Jaguar uses it in its F-Pace and F-Type SUVs. That’s right, while Jaguar still makes fantastic and exotic sports cars and luxury sedans, it has also been dabbling in SUVs and these two are gems.

And it’s only fair. If the state of the art in luxury SUVs is the Range Rover and it gets to use the Jaguar-designed engines to create the high-performing and sporty Range Rover Sport, it’s only fair for Jaguar to borrow some off-roading tricks from the masters of the art.

Safety focus required for drivers and vehicles

October 21, 2019 by · Comments Off on Safety focus required for drivers and vehicles
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Style, performance and built-in safety are features of the 2020 Hyundai Palisade.

By John Gilbert

Driving in the rain, and the snow, and in other dangerous conditions, are topics worth frequent discussion, and so is the ability to focus on driving, even when conditions are perfect. Safety technology in modern vehicles is truly remarkable, and the technical capabilities built into new vehicles can be a tremendous ally to any driver. But those features cannot insulate us from the potential of tragedies that always lurk out there.

During our last visit, we discussed the numerous vehicles available for the Midwest Auto Media Association (MAMA) members to drive at the annual Fall Rally at Autobahn Country Club in Joliet, Ill., and the ensuing voting procedures for Family Car of the Year. Two things led me to follow up this week. One was the explanation I noted about driving home from Chicago to Duluth, in extraordinary circumstances. The other was a personal family tragedy we were stricken with on a Minnesota highway.

Driving home from Chicago, we had the opportunity to drive a new 2020 Hyundai Palisade, that South Korean company’s first venture in building a large, roomy, 3-row SUV, and Hyundai’s partner, Kia, offers a sister ship with the Kia Telluride. Hyundai has been making a series of fantastic vehicles accompanying a decade of remarkable technical breakthroughs, since about 2010, shortly after taking over the struggling Kia brand. Kia was able to adapt to Hyundai’s technical mastery and the two now operate separate but equal vehicles at all levels, leaving the styling to differentiate your choice.

When it comes to the new Palisade — and Telluride — I must say it is challenging, if not impossible, to pick one over the other.

Palisade grille, and light-show, may become new Hyundai signature.

Kia Telluride has different grille, different light show.

I had driven the Palisade at its introduction, in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and the surrounding mountains, and on a very interesting journey across the state of Washington, after that introduction. I also recently had a week to live with a Telluride, home on Lake Superior’s North Shore, just outside Duluth, Minnesota. So this would be my chance to drive the Palisade home for a week’s use, and potential comparison. Getting there was more than half the fun, and education, of the Palisade’s assets.

Rear view of Kia Telluride.

Palisade from the rear sports different taillights.

The Telluride had all of those same assets — a fantastic new platform, longer than the outgoing Sante Fe, with Hyundai’s engine magic applied to its 3.8-liter V6, with direct injection, an 8-speed house-built automatic transmission that is up there with the top transmissions in  the industry, a secure safety structure making generous use of high-grade steel from Hyundai’s own steel manufacturing plant, and a firm but supple suspension system to accommodate the active, on-demand all-wheel-drive system.

Coupled with all the highest of high-tech stability features such as blind-spot detection, parking assist, forward collision-avoidance assist, etc., the Palisade adds a thoughtful item that alerts and won’t allow rear occupants to open the door when parked if another vehicle is approaching from behind. All of this in a structure that is much more spacious on the inside than its modest and well-shaped exterior might indicate, with a sliding second row of captain’s chairs making the livable third-row seats accessible. You could load up seven occupants in Palisade-style luxury and safety.

Interior luxury of Palisade features leather, wood and aluminum.

The hidden asset in the entire Hyundai/Kia scheme is something not promoted enough, in my opinion. Its highway driving assist has lane-departure warning, and you can adjust that with a switch. Believe it or not, some consumers have convinced themselves they don’t want to be notified if they are wandering out of their lanes! Enhancing it means you can move up to lane-keeping assist, to gently push you back into your lane, or go all out and have lane-centering assist, which keeps you in the center of your lane, where we should all want to be. It is gentle and unobtrusive while keeping you centered, and I’ve been thoroughly impressed with it in the Santa Fe, Tucson and even the compact Kona, which we’ve named New Car Pick of the Year for 2019.

Telluride fold-down seats housed a dozen 2×4 boards, but it’s no lumber wagon.

It is also amazing in the larger Palisade — or Telluride — which are designed to compete with large 3-row competitors such as the Ford Explorer and actually might compare in room and comfort to still-larger vehicles such as the Tahoe. I didn’t know how good it was until that drive from Chicago to Duluth, after considering all aspects of every car we test-drove at Autobahn Speedway, for handling, room, comfort, performance and safety, to denote our votes for Family Car of the Year there. Maybe I put an inordinate emphasis on safety, but if so, I make no apologies.

Driving home, after dark, on a Wisconsin stretch of Interstate 94 and 90 north of Madison, cones and markings had narrowed the two lanes, using the shoulder for part of the driving lanes occasionally, and that scene was altered as night brought us darkness, and we ran into a monsoon-like downpour that was strong enough that I considered taking the next exit and waiting out the rain squall. Which might have lasted for days. We were accompanied on that stretch by a virtual caravan of semi trailer trucks that outnumbered the cars. I was attempting to ease past two nose-to-tail semis in the right lane, when we came up on a third semi, prompting  the first semi to pull into my left lane for a pass.

Palisade features push-button shifter on console.

Telluride has conventional shift lever, terrain switch on console.

No problem, except heightened adrenaline, as I was safely behind that semi and we were nearly past the two slower semis in the right lane. Remember, though, it was raining hard enough to tax the wipers on full, it was dark, and we were on incredibly narrow lanes. About halfway past the two semis on our right, a fourth semi approached from behind, going faster than all of us as he pulled up on my tail. Our cluster, at 70 miles per hour , included us in the left lane, behind one semi, just ahead of another, and beside two more, which had sealed us in the left lane as they cruised along nose-to-tail.

It was harrowing, and I remained calm with my heart-rate on red-alert high, as my older son, Jack, stept peacefully in the front passenger seat. Our lane curved even closer to the left edge on the shoulder following the temporary lane markings, and I suddenly realized my Palisade was handling perfectly, truly “driving smaller” than its size, but also that the lane-centering device was working calmly to keep us squarely in the center of our fluctuating, narrow lane.

Palisade drives smaller than a large SUV should..

That realization gave me a fantastic boost of confidence from the assurance that  I was in complete control, and no doubt my Palisade was helping. I have driven lane-keeping devices from virtually every manufacturer, and I have never driven one more impressive than the Hyundai — and Kia — system.

We turned off the interstate at Eau Claire to head north on Wisconsin Hwy. 53 to Duluth, but after refilling with fuel, we averaged 30.1 miles per gallon, quite amazing, off an EPA estimate of 24 for the powerful V6. It was closer to 25 the rest of the week, in town, if we kept our foot off the responsive gas pedal.

Black wheels set sportier image for Kia Telluride.

Perhaps an even bigger surprise was to find the sticker price on the test vehicle was $48,000 for one notch below the top-of-the-line and pricier Palisade Ultimate.

You can choose which of two fantastic interiors in the Palisade (and Kia Telluride), and maybe you’ll prefer the look of the grille or rear end, or dashboard of one over the other. But they both register high on my new-SUV outlook, and even higher when you consider the performance, with power, balanced and adjustable handling, and the structural safety, topped by the extreme safety asset of the lane-centering system.

 

SAD GOODBYE, JUDIE

 

Judie Wilhelmy, at age 80, on Lester River hiking trail. Photo by Joan Gilbert.

When it comes to safety and security while driving, there are other factors involved, and luck and timing are among them. My wife, Joan, is the youngest of three children in her family, who spent part of their growing up years in Duluth. Her brother, Jerry, played football at Duluth Cathedral and Duluth Teacher’s College, way back when, and he died a few years ago after several debilitating ailments, following a career as head of sociology at Miami Date Community College.

I always thought of Joan’s older sister, Judie, as something of a fragile creature, sometimes timid, but always pleasant to me. She attended Stanbrook Hall, in Duluth, and after the family moved to the Twin Cities, she married Jim Wilhelmy. Judie became the rudder that steered her husband and their three kids, Joe, Lynne and Tommy, through a wandering course of life that included homes in North St. Paul, Cloquet, Tower, Elk River, and finally in a nice home in Fergus Falls. Northland folks in Cloquet will probably best remember the kids, who were active in youth sports there.

Jim had some issues with chemical dependency, and ironically became a couinselor to help others fight it. He insists that Judie helped turn his life around, where his only remaining vice seems to be fishing — whenever possible. He went off to meet his brother, Gus, in Tofte in mid-October for some late-season fishing in the Boundary Waters.

Their son, Joe, thought it would be a perfect time to give his mom a treat after some recent medical issues so he wanted to drive her from Fergus Falls to Duluth to visit Joan and me. We were to meet them for dinner at a restaurant of my choosing, on that Tuesday at 5 p.m.,  and have them to our house for dinner Wednesday night, even though Joan was working full time, and Tuesday is the day I have three columns due for the Duluth Reader. I was writing to finish one or more of my obligations before meeting them. They never made it.

At about 3 p.m., I got a call from Joan. She had just received a call at work informing her that there had been an accident on Hwy. 210, where it intersects with Hwy. 71.  Joe stopped, waiting as a north-bound semi went by, partially obscured by a bridge. When  he started up, Joe’s Toyota Scion and an Audi A6 collided. Judie was killed instantly. Joe was airlifted to a hospital in St. Cloud where he has undergone several surgeries for multiple broken bones, and he faces months of rehabilitation. Fortunately, the woman and child in the Audi were not seriously injured.

Judie’s entire immediate family is devastated, and so are weth, of course. My sons, Jack and Jeff, joined Joan and me to drive to Fergus Falls for the funeral service. Judie’s grand-daughter, Trina, told us that of all the things Judie did, she always told her that the thing she most looked forward to was whenever she could see Joan. They were the last remaining members of their immediate Sicard family.

On the most recent visit, Joan had taken Judie for a walk along the beautiful wooded trails adjacent to Lester River, and Joan snapped a photo that we both think is the best photo we’ve seen of her in recent years. The hollow feeling is particularly haunting for us, because they were coming to see us when the tragedy occurred.

The shock hasn’t worn off yet, and it will take awhile. In my business of evaluating cars, it’s evident that the newest cars are loaded with safety elements, from stronger build-quality to high-tech electronics. But you still have to be constantly aware and focused on everybody around you when you’re on the road. And even if you are, you need the good luck to not be in the wrong place at the wrong moment.

Rest in peace, Judie. We’ll never forget you.

Track driving can’t beat night freeway downpour test

October 21, 2019 by · Comments Off on Track driving can’t beat night freeway downpour test
Filed under: New car introductions, Weekly test drives, Autos 

Total redesign of Ford Escape was best in the show at MAMA Fall Rally.

By John Gilbert
Joliet, Ill.—We poured out of the meeting room after breakfast to look over the rows of new cars we were about to test drive on the private road-racing course at the Autobahn Country Club. That’s when I first spotted the pair of compact SUVs, parked only a few feet apart, and clearly unrelated.

As it turned out, they were two of the most impressive vehicles, in my opinion, of the annual MAMA Fall Rally, held on October 2, 2019. The first one was a low and sleek vehicle, parked next to a flashy Ford Explorer, which itself has been redesigned as a 2020 SUV. But the low, sleek little black one was the new Escape — looking nothing like any Escape we’ve seen in the two decades of its life.

BMW X2 is smaller than X7, X6, X5, X4, and X3, and adds “M” treatment.

For further evidence, we drove the Escape and found it quick, agile and a treat to drive, around the side-roads surrounding the Autobahn Country Club. I drove it back in, and parked it in exactly the same spot it was, and when I climbed out, I spotted a gleaming white compact SUV — the new BMW X2, which, as a fool could guess, is smaller than an X7, X5, X4, and X3, and larger than the X1. This X2 also was an M35, meaning BMW’s high-performance treatment had imbued it with more power, special suspension, special interior, and everything you might want, if you can afford it, to update it from 2019 to 2020.

Stunning interior of X2 was also extremely comfortable. Photo by Jack Gilbert.

Driving the X2 was also a treat, and it would have been our No. 1 pick, except that the Escape was a much more user-friendly price, and you could undoubtedly buy two of them for the price of the X2. So in our ranking, the star of the show was the Escape, and the BMW X2 second. We vote on a “family vehicle of the year” through MAMA, which seeks real-world family virtues in a vehicle, which must also be a 4-door, to preclude racey coupes.

The Midwest Auto Media Association (MAMA) puts on two fantastic shows for its members every year, a Spring Rally at Elkhart Lake, Wis., on the Road America road course, and a Fall Rally at the Autobahn Country Club. That facility, with two complete road courses, is laid out with high-tech maintenance garages adjacent, and it’s just like a golf country club, only instead of playing golf, you come out, work on your favorite car, and go out and drive in on the track. Within reason, of course. The only downside was that the Chicago region was hit by pretty steady rain all day, so we either drove on the nearby roadways, or took it very easy on the race track.

Reporting about cars — and sports, too, for that matter — is a family affair in the Gilbert Household, and Jack, our older son, always accompanies me to the rallies, and was my co-driver down and back from Duluth to Chicago. He also takes photos and gives us two rear ends in the drivers seats and four eyes instead of two to scrutinize the new stuff. He agreed with me that the Escape and X2 were the two show-stoppers, although he would put the BMW first.

The field of vehicles was somewhat restricted this year, with one reason being the arrival of the threats by General Motors and Ford to cut back on cars, in favor of trucks. Also, there seemed to be fewer all-new vehicles among the cars of the world, and we did our best to scare them up.

We drove down in the Lexus ES300h hybrid luxury sedan, and I mentioned in last week’s report that we’d be able to more fully discuss that one after driving it 422 miles from Duluth to Joliet. I had said for most of the week, I had averaged about 32 miles per gallon, and, sure enough, on our trip — watching speed limits and the narrow lanes of road construction closely — we tallied 46.9 miles per gallon for the trip.

A pair of new Toyota Supra sports cars, with BMW inline-6 power, showed up well.

Toyota was the sponsor for the breakfast, and showed off its greatly ballyhooed and heavily promoted Supra. Very impressive, and a slick 2-seater that returns the brand to the high-performance sports car scene it seemed to have abandoned. The secret of the Supra is that Toyota collaborated with BMW to build it. BMW still makes an in-line 6, which was the engine of heritage in the previous Supra. There is tremendous power in that inline 6, with 335 horsepower and a torque rating of 365, which peaks at 1,600 RPMs and holds it up through 4,500 RPMs. Not bad for a 3,397-pound car, with 50-50 weight distribution. It starts at $49,995 in base form, but escalates almost as fast as its acceleration with options.

Explorer is roomier and sportier in ST trim.

Among our other favorites was the distinctive blue Ford Explorer, in ST trim, tight and comfortable and another hit for Ford as the venerable SUV seems closer to full size nowadays, in its new shape and set-up. If Ford is dropping the Taurus, Fusion, Focus and Fiesta, it does have an army of SUVs to fill in.

At GM, things seem a bit shakier because of the ongoing strike, and the sudden demise of the Silverado pickup, which has dropped to third behind Ford and Ram in pickup sales. The midsize Colorado looks good, and the Silverado’s companion GMC Sierra looks good. Also, the new Blazer should sell as a compact crossover, and the redesigned Traverse are attractive entries in the crossover segment. Cadillac fills out its SUV array with the new XT4.

Chevy Traverse, Blazer and sporty model of the Silverado. Photo by Jack Gilbert.

Honda put on the lunch break for the gathered hundred media types, and showed off the 2020 CR-V, its venerable compact crossover that goes into a new generation with a 1.5-liter Turbo and some restyling. There wasn’t one to drive, though. The upscale Acura division had an MDX available, and while it is a bit older than its more compact RDX sibling, it comes complete with every high-tech item imaginable, including the latest ELS Panasonic surround audio system. That actually was the first vehicle I drove, and as I followed a tight map around the suburban Autobahn neighborhood, sure enough we got stopped by a slow-moving freight train. It crept, slowly, for about 15 minutes, then stopped. We made a U-turn and found an alternate route. Good thing we had the ELS package.

Among other new vehicles, Ford’s expanding stable adds the new Lincoln Aviator, resurrecting that old name in an all-new form, with a 3.0-liter V6 and a hybrid power complement.

Aviator brings back old name to all-new SUV from Lincoln. –Photo by Jack Gilbert.

Another new vehicle was the Nissan Versa, redone for the new year with mild styling tweaks. Volkswagen had its new Arteon, and also the high-performing sibling GTI and GLI. Nissan had the latest version of the sizzling GTR sports coupe, with blinding fast acceleration and busy but meaningful styling.

Two driver-pleasing compacts were there, the Mazda3 in its new all-wheel-drive form both in sedan and hatchback, and Kia had its big, powerful Stinger sedan available, and also a new Soul, with its “upgrade” to the 1.6-liter Turbo, which has more dash than the 2.0-liter normally aspirated 4.

We will get into deeper analysis of all these cars as they become available for week-long test-fleet drives, and getting a head start on those is the South Korean Hyundai Palisade. I attended the introduction of the Palisade in the territory around Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and wrote about it several months ago, and after recently driving the new Kia Telluride sister ship, it was nice to get a Palisade to drive home from Chicago to Duluth.

Or, it would have been nice had it not been for early October’s version of monsoon season. We always make an adventure out of getting to Joliet by circling the costly expenditure of tollways that help maintain the Chicago area’s beautifully kept tollways. Joliet is on the southeast corner of the Chicago metropolitan area, and to circumnavigate, we follow the freeway across Wisconsin and into Illinois at Rockford, then branch off straight south on Interstate 39. This time we cut off to the East on State Hwy. 30, and followed it all the way into Joliet, through some neat little towns.

Pretty against fall foliage, Hyundai’s 3-row Palisade SUV proved a source of security in torrential nightime rainstorm on the interstate.

Coming back, we drove south out of Joliet, then cut West, hoping to outflank rush-hour traffic and find our way far enough to then cut North to that same Hwy. 30. Truth be told, we had spotted a homemade ice cream store in one of the little towns, and if there’s one thing Jack and I enjoy evaluating as much as cars, it’s ice cream. Now we try to compare to our new Duluth benchmark — Love Creamery — for imaginative flavors and quality. We seemed entangled in a never-ending network of small roads, however, and by the time we got to Hwy. 30, we were too far west to find ice cream. We did manage to beat the arriving low, grey clouds coming out of the west as we hastened up I-39 to get out of Illinois.

Our trusty Palisade had carried us northward until just past Madison, as we merged in with Interstates 90 and 94, the rain hit, hard. It seemed as though nine of every 10 vehicles on the freeway were semis, as darkness engulfed us and the rhythm of our wipers kept time. I learned new respect for the exceptional lane-centering electronics Hyundai loads into its vehicles when I was trying to edge past two semis running nose to tail on the construction-narrowed two freeway lanes, and came upon another semi, up ahead.

Holding our speed with the wipers flashing as fast as they’d go against the downpour, yet another semi closed in behind us. It was a tight little 5-vehicle mambo, and we were in the middle of it. But the Palisade tracked with amazing precision, keeping us centered in our lane until we could ease through the congestion and seek out more congestion up ahead. The rain kept up until we got to Eau Claire and never let up when we turned northward on state Hwy. 53, and followed up our journey to Duluth. My new motto for car-testing tempered my enjoyment for driving around the track:

When you’re voting for “family car of the year,” there is no better test for real-world survival features than a torrential downpour for 200 miles amid semis.

Letters, numbers make AMG CLS53 Coupe stand out

October 1, 2019 by · Comments Off on Letters, numbers make AMG CLS53 Coupe stand out
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

 

When AMG works over any Mercedes, it rises to new heights, and the CLS might be the best.

By John Gilbert
There are Mercedes fans who like the E-Class best of all the German sedans, and there are luxury car buyers who insist the S-Class is best. The masses might prefer the obtainability of the more compact C-Class. You don’t have to be an auto researcher to figure out what Mercedes is doing, but it wouldn’t hurt.

All I know is that I recently had a Mercedes CLS for a week — but it wasn’t “just” a CLS. It was an “AMG CLS53 Coupe,” which isn’t a true coupe at all, and it adds the sizzle of that AMG prefix. It came in Cardinal Red Metallic paint, and the AMG guys have built a special new engine for it — a 3.0-liter in-line 6-cylinder engine with hybrid electrical energy boost to 429 horsepower and 384 foot-pounds of torque.

A basic C-Class sedan starts at $41,500, with a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder that is quick and can get you over 30 miles per gallon all the time. Add CLS to the mix and you’re up to a $70,000 base price. And when you put AMG into the picture along with the CLS, and the impact of hybrid complementary power and 4Motion all-wheel drive, the sticker price on my test car was a cool $106,980.

The car has the look of some hot-rod styling upgrades, German style, and it goes like the proverbial bullet, on upgraded tires, wheels, suspension, chassis and drivetrain components, making it rise toward actually being worth such a lofty price. People seem to have money, and after they buy a fancy house with way-more bedrooms and bathrooms than they need, buying a couple of cars makes some sort of sense. And buying a car like the high-end AMG CLS53 Coupe seems somewhat logical.

Back for some remedial Mercedes research, here’s a brief overview:

The most impressive thing about the ongoing path of Mercedes Benz automobiles is that every time the company brings out a new model of any of its vehicles, they invariably stand up as the best of the batch. The C-Class was the base size and price, the E-Class midsize, ad the S-Class large and luxurious.

Giving the roofline a symmetric slope turns a 4-door sedan into something worthy of the “Coupe” nickname.

Then at one model change, the designers gave the C-Class a neat slope, making a continuous roofline that looked almost coupe-like. They called it, in fact, a “Four-door Coupe.” The have added to the stable, with the new A-Class and CLA-Class, and the sportier versions, designated with SL or SLC. Then, of course, Mercedes leaped into the SUV battle and expanded to a whole fleet of different sized SUVs.

My favorite remained the C-Class, because it was sleek, a bit smaller, roomy enough, quick enough, and had that great and sporty roofline. It branched off to add the CLS-Class, which is a sportier version of the C-Class, and while the basis C-Class was changed a year ago, 2019 is the year of major modifications to the CLS-Class.

So many models, so many variations, so many engines. And then there’s AMG. Back in 1967, a couple of Mercedes mechanics who had tried to push for more high-performance models broke off and started up their own engine shop. Hans-Werner Aufrect, born in Grobaspach, Germany, was joined bay Erhard Melcher, and the two started building engines on their own. They picked the acronym AMG to stand for Aufrect, Melcher, and Aufrect’s birthplace.

Their favorite cars to upgrade were, not surprisingly, Mercedes models. They started to hang on with the factory production of cars, and were soon brought in as a very close subsidiary. It got to the point where each line that added an AMG model would get the same upgrade, starting with an engine built to lofty standards by one engineer. Then they strengthened the frame, and the suspension parts, and the transmission, as well as the interior.

The new turbo 3.0-liter inline 6 has magic numbers of 429 and 384 for horsepower and torque.

In the revised CLS, there are two engines available — both of them 3.0-liter in-line 6es, one with a turbo and electric hybrid boost to 362 horsepower and 369 foot-pounds of torque, for the $70,000 range, and the upgrade to more power and more boost to 429/384.

When you drive the garden-variety Mercedes, you can’t imagine anything pushing out the boundaries more than that. Then you climb into the AMG version, and you understand immediately why people spend great quantities of money to get those three little letters.

The 9-speed AMG automatic Speedshift TCT is smoothly precise, and if you choose to not use the steering wheel paddles with their fun quotient of 10, on a scale of 1-10, it seems to shift up or down even harder and with the same precision.

Other AMG items are the Dynamic Select mode switch, Performance 4Matic all-wheel drive, Sport Suspension with air body-control, and the sport steering wheel with its flat bottom, to clear your thighs easily in hard cornering. Also, more AMG items include the twin-spoke black wheels, the AMG Performance Exhaust, the AMG Track-Pace Application, AMG exterior carbon-fiber mirror covers and rear spoiler.

Inside, the black and titanium grey pearl Nappa leather seats and trim set off the natural grain grey ash wood on the dashboard and door panels. The active bucket seats are active because they will swing into motion to give you an energizing massage at various levels, and locations in your backrest. When you’re sitting in the bucket front seat and you drive hard into a curve or corner, the outside seat bolster inflates and firms up to prevent you from — what? — falling out, maybe.

Massaging seats fill a cockpit loaded with leather and real wood.

The dashboard and headliner and door panels are also in that “Titanium Grey Pearl” Nappa leather.

A Burmester 3D Surround Sound audio system is complemented by increased cabin insulation, acoustic and heat-absorbing membrane on the windshield and side windows for better sound insulation. Air-balance cabin air purification and fragrance systems take care of air filtration on the inside.

All of this is pretty lofty stuff, and the more universally common elements are also present, things like route-based speed adaptation, which we think of as cruise control, rear-end collision protection, active blind-spot assist, lane keeping assist, steering assist, brake assist with cross traffic function, active lane change assist, and Distronics, the first-out Mercedes safety element that can stop your AMG CLS53 Coupe without hitting an object in the road ahead if you somehow don’t seem to see it, while the car’s radar and camera system do.

Keyless entry and ignition, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are on board, and the navigation system displays its maps on a 12.3-inch wide-screen screen. Things like the heads-up display and satellite radio are great features, but almost seem inconsequential next to the laundry list of features I’ve tried to cover, here.

Unmistakable nose emblem flanked by amazing headlights sets off sleeker CLS design.

After evaluating all of the parts of the Mercedes AMBG CLS53 Coupe, you place it in a different perspective. Yes it goes like a race car, handles better than some race cars, will see and help you see obstacles and avoid them, and it’s extremely comfortable and fulfilling to drive every mile on your way. It performs like a performance car, coddles you like a luxury car, sound like a race car with its mellow but adjustable exhaust that goes from rumble to roar, and it can handle a family of four with ease, grace, luxury and sportiness.

Does that make it worth $107,000? Maybe. But obviously, it makes it worth something quite a way over what you might expect to pay for a 4-door sedan that gets you 27 miles per gallon — this car’s easily reached EPA highway estimate.

You can spend a few bucks over $100,000 to get a luxury car, or to get a high-performance car, or a stunning prestige looker. But to get all of them in one vehicle, the AMG CLS53 will put its pedigree up against any competitor.

Raptor Flight impressive on, or off, firm ground

September 24, 2019 by · Comments Off on Raptor Flight impressive on, or off, firm ground
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

New Raptor takes pickups to new width for all-terrain performance, and pothole-proof skidplates..

By John Gilbert

It’s a special time of the year when late September rolls into Duluth, Minnesota, because tourists, visitors and all manner of folks drive up on the mini-mountain above the East End and follow the gravel road about a mile to its peak, which is called Hawk Ridge. It is there, when the weather and wind is right, that thousands of migrating hawks of all species fly along that ridge in breathtaking numbers.

The phenomenon is that all of the hawks and other raptors are smart enough to not want to be caught over Lake Superior, so they fly to the Westernmost tip of the big lake, then they turn south and migrate to warmer areas, sometimes as far as the Gulf of Mexico. From mid-August until the end of November, the hawks start out with the smallest accipiters and gain in size to the biggest red tails and eagles. The DNR and Audubon Society are stationed there, and have a banding station, while hundreds of spectators bring their binoculars, cameras and folding chairs to view exhibits and gaze out over the blue water, hoping to spot a big raptor.

It is also the perfect time of year to road-test a Ford Raptor — the biggest bird in the species of Ford F150 pickup trucks. The F150 remains the top-selling vehicle in the country, while the Ram is making an unprecedented bid to catch up, and the new General Motors twins of Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra try to rebound, with new competition from Toyota and Honda.

But hot as that competition is, if one big pickup can fly up as the most capable, it would have to be the Ford Raptor.

 

Just to make sure nobody forgets the Raptor is, after all, a Ford. Or a F-O-R-D!

The Raptor is more than just a tarted up F150. It is an over-the-top attempt to modify the popular F150 into the most serious off-roader in the market. When one pulls up behind you, in whatever you’re driving, a glance in the rear-view mirror shows a large, blacked-out grille, with huge letters spelling out “F-O-R-D” — unique refresher course exclusive to Raptor. If it seems much wider — like the old movie days when normal screens were replaced by wall-to-wall Cinemascope.

The striping and graphics are neat, and the test-vehicle’s Velocity Blue paint job made those graphics a bit more subtle, but the appearance is broadened — literally — by a full-size pickup that goes beyond full-size by its sheer width. Naturally it gives you more interior room, but it also gives you cornering stability as well as amazing stability for the most serious, rock-climbing adventures you can think of.

Blue suede Recaro bucket seats look good and put you in a cocoon.

You climb up on the light, plastic running board to hop inside, before realizing they are rugged plastic-coated cast aluminum, and sit in the blue-suede Recaro bucket seats, which hold you, cocoon-like, in place for swerves, dips, unscheduled hops into thin air, and whatever challenges you can come up with, on-road or off.

To get to the capabilities, we start with the 3.5-liter V6 EcoBoost engine, worth 450 horsepower and 510 foot-pounds of torque in Raptor trim, with a 10-speed transmission. The length goes from 220 to 231.9 inches, and the width is stretched to 86.3 inches. Height is a mere 78.5 inches, so when you see it against other full-size trucks, it looks low and sleek.

Underneath, the Raptor is equipped so you could, I’m convinced, hop in the amazingly widened Raptor, switch the control button to whatever suits you best, and drive to the Arctic Circle — without setting a wheel down on a road.

Unique, co-developed Fox Shockes keep Raptor stable, even in flight.

It has a special frame, special suspension, unique shock-absorbers, the special high-output engine, a beefed-up transmission, and a fantastic interior to set it all off. For all it has, it costs you, of course, with a base price of $55,840, and adds $17,520 in options. It wasn’t all that long ago that you could buy a pickup truck for $17,520, and now that’s just the tab for the options — sending the total sticker price to $74,955.

OK, nobody who is sane will recommend you should buy a $75,000 pickup truck, but if you have the budget for it, my recommendation is don’t take one for a test-drive unless you have your checkbook with you.

With all that power, it will go 0-60 in a mere 5.2 seconds, and while its EPA fuel estimates are 15 miles per gallon city and 18 highway, we found both of those reachable, clocking mostly 16-17 mpg in city driving and occasionally getting it up to 20-22 on freeway trips.

Driving in Minnesota this summer means that if you don’t get the chance to go off-roading, negotiating the pothole-filled Duluth streets, or doing the orange-barrel slalom from Duluth to Minneapolis, can at least approximate the need for an off-road vehicle.

The exterior’s headlights include a neat outline of LEDs, night and day, with distinctly sharp LED headlights and foglights, and those little lights atop the cab that resemble those that adorn heavy-duty work trucks.

But when you put it all together, go foraging where the off-road rock-climbers like to play, and you learn immediately that the suspension is in another world. When Ford was building this version of the Raptor, it went to Fox, the competition shock and suspension experts, and worked with them to perfect and install Fox Live-Valve, electronic-control shocks that are so high-tech they can go from soft to stiff in 40 milliseconds.

When you’re bouncing along over rocky terrain, if the computer senses that you are airborne, the shocks use their oil-flow insides to stiffen, so that when you come down from wherever it is you are airborne, the Raptor won’t bottom out as you crash to Earth, the way softer shocks would.

Think about that. These shocks, unique to the Raptor, are so advanced they can sense miniscule alterations in your venture and adjust almost as if anticipating what’s going to happen.

Driver’s eye view gives full command of all Raptor controls.

You also can set the Trail control for crawl speed. People who are either sane, or haven’t ventured into serious off-roading, may not be aware of how important it is to be able to crawl slowly up and over the biggest boulders, or ruts or ridges, and then keep your speed in check when you descend. The computer-activated Fox Shocks in the Raptor will crawl up, over, and down, so you can focus on steering and missing the largest and most treacherous chunks and boulders.

To me, though, the most impressive thing is how the Raptor behaves when you come off the trail, out of the wilderness or mountains, and get the Raptor out on the highway or on city streets, where behavior is necessary. Driving on Duluth’s Swiss-cheese-like streets and suburban roadways, you would accept and forgive the Raptor if it jolted and jarred your bones, because it is so firm off the road, you anticipate harshness and rigidity on the road. Yet the Raptor suspension is surprisingly compliant on the road, and it seems to almost float over the corrugated roads.

I might be wrong, but I found the Raptor was smoother-riding and more comfortable than the standard, garden-variety F150, or other full-size pickup competitors. If that’s all because of the Fox shocks, then we all should have them.

Ford knows its got a winner on its hands, but I think it is guilty of under-promoting the on-road sophistication of the Raptor. It might encourage a flow of truck-fanatics who would be willing to spend a lot of money for such a cool truck that also works as a family truckster. Consider the creature features: automatic on-off high beams, power tailgate lock, trailer sway control, fold-up rear bench seat, dynamic hitch assist, electric shift-on-the-fly 4×4, pre-collision warning and assist, reverse sensing and rear view cameras, skid plates, terrain management system, perimeter alarm, power sliding rear window, 360-degree camera, trailer back-up assist, voice-activated navigation and an excellent Bang and Olufsen sound system.

Screen shows where you’re backing up, and full surround view.

Going to the Raptor option list, the high-output 3.5 EcoBoost engine, technology package, tailgate step, bedliner and wheels and graphics are added. The connectivity stuff is all there, too.

You have this Trail control knob that can be set for whatever terrain you are engaging, including gravel, sand, snow, normal roadways…whatever. We never got it out of rear-wheel drive, alas, during our brief week treating it like our everyday vehicle. I would love to have it for another week in the most blizzard-filled week of Duluth winter to try out the other switches.

 

I felt I had accomplished something when I made it through the narrowed freeway lanes without conking an orange barrel or two, and I felt even more in command when I drove into a parking ramp that required a couple of sharp corners. As I pulled in, my wife, Joan, let out a bit of a shriek because she was sure I had scraped the ceiling of the ramp entrance, and when I circulated up a level, we heard the scraping again.

Rigged for the most-rugged duty, Raptor also could be testosterone-rich family vehicle.

Turns out, it was the little antenna poking up and touching the roof of the ramp. Ford thinks of everything — even a curb-feeler for your roof.

Without a doubt, the pickup battles will continue to rage, and the specialty versions that command top dollar from every manufacturer can bring in more profit. But the Raptor is the rare specialty truck that blends its on-road smoothness to make it no-contest for absolute king of the road.

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