Santa Fe is Hyundai’s Latest Leap Into Future

May 1, 2019 by · Comments Off on Santa Fe is Hyundai’s Latest Leap Into Future
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Stronger, stiffer platform underlines stylish new Hyundai Santa Fe and its bundle of technology.

By John Gilbert
Just when you think you have Hyundai all figured out, the South Korean car-maker-in-a-hurry turns your perceptions upside down. Again.

Hyundai made a corporate decision that after pretty well mastering the art of delivering small and medium cars that performed at about a class above while priced at about a class below expectations and market levels, the worldwide trend toward SUVs demanded attention. It was a logical progression for Hyundai, whose sales had jumped to 46 percent small SUVs.

To expand its fleet, about a year ago, Hyundai brought out the compact Kona, an amazing vehicle that won our award for New Car Pick of the Year for 2019. We are continuing an extended test of a Kona Ultimate, and we continue to be thoroughly impressed. Kona also won the International Utility of the Year at the Detroit Auto Show and has captured virtually every award within its grasp.

Author won’t give up the wheel, so No. 1 aide Jack Gilbert manned the camera. (Photo: Jack Gilbert.)

In its haste to fill every niche, Hyundai also completely redid its Santa Fe midsize SUV. The new Santa Fe is a totally different vehicle for 2019, made more compact than the outgoing Santa Fe but still leaving a nice space above the Tucson, which remains above the Kona. Nice, three-step size range, from Kona to Tucson to Santa Fe, each with its own personality and all three benefitting from Hyundai’s technology, safety and features, yet still aimed at economy and durability.

When they thought nobody was looking, Hyundai snuck out more new SUVs, a smaller one than the Kona, another mid-sizer, and a larger SUV bigger than the Santa Fe X.  But wait! We can’t keep up. And even Hyundai doesn’t seem able to keep up with its own design and marketing traffic jam, so to speak.

While the Kona was winning all those SUV-of-the-year awards, the Santa Fe was virtually ignored, even from the time of its own introduction. The Santa Fe I wrote about at its introduction in the Utah mountains near Park City was nearly perfect from the standpoint of power, efficiency and technology. If you thought the old Santa Fe or Santa Fe XL were too big, and that the Kona was a little bit tight, the new Santa Fe plugged in perfectly. And it is good enough that it deserved some consideration itself for SUV of the year.

Several months have passed, and now the Santa Fe has gotten beyond its introduction and can be found in showrooms nationwide. But up here in Northern Minnesota, late winter has been perfect timing. This has been the winter that never ended, with a new snowstorm threatening to show up on the first weekend in May. Kentucky Derby in Louisville, shoveling anew in Duluth. Why wouldn’t you want an SUV with all-wheel drive?

So before we expand out consciousness to incorporate the reality that Hyundai now has seven — count ’em, 7 — SUVs under its name, let’s give the Santa Fe its due.

Design-wise, Hyundai had used a signature six-sided grille for long enough that it became a corporate signature SUVs and similarly on sedans. But Hyundai is still young enough in the century-plus-old business that it’s allowed to make design and even concept changes. New designers have been hired, and the latest plan is to make different vehicles look different, from each other as well as from corporate sibling Kia.

Bigger brother Santa Fe, left, shares styling tendencies first used on smaller 2019 Kona, right. (Photo: Jack Gilbert.)

The subcompact Kona came out with a startling new look, especially to its front end, where it has a completely different headlight arrangement, styled into a completely different grille plan. It caught you off-guard at first, and looked unusual but not unpleasant, until I got a look at first renderings of the coming Santa Fe. Now it makes some sense.

Hyundai was going to give the new Santa Fe front and rear styling that would make it similar to the Kona. It was a brilliant move, because it not only shook off any semblance of stodginess from the old Santa Fe, but it also blunted the off-the-chart and possibly polarizing appearance of the Kona. They are brothers-in-arms, as you can see from the photo of the bigger brother Santa Fe alongside the littler brother Kona.

Strangely, to me, Hyundai did not totally redesign the in-between Tucson, choosing instead to give it what they call a “facelift,” which is corporate-speak for changes so slight that a slight refinement to the established grille, leaves it looking nothing like the new-breed Kona and Santa Fe. In my suspicious mind, I think that’s a hint that change will be coming, and maybe soon, to the Tucson.

Another clue is that the Tucson is powered by your choice of either the tried and true 2.0 or 2.4 four-cylinder engines — neither of which benefits by Hyundai’s new-found confidence in turbocharging. The smaller Kona has the naturally-aspirated 2.0, and also a high-tech 1.6-liter turbocharged four that kicks out over 190 foot-pounds of torque, and hauls the little Kona around with style and spunk.

Santa Fe, on the other hand, also offers a pair of engines. One is the 185-horsepower/178-foot-pounds-of-torque 2.4-liter engine, and the other is a distinct upgrade to the 2.0-liter with a turbocharged version that offers 235 horsepower and 260 foot-pounds of torque. Once again, Hyundai crosses up conventional thinking by giving the smaller-displacement 4 more power than the larger one, through the magic of turbocharging.

Smooth and ventilated leather buckets and soft-touch materials make Santa Fe inviting.

The Santa Fe Ultimate 2.0T in the test vehicle also has Hyundai’s own 8-speed automatic that shifts smoothly and efficiently in all conditions. As an auto journalist, I am required — by me — to find any problems I can in the name of balance. I want the same transmission with steering-column paddles for manual override on specific shifting ideas. Same with the Kona, although I must add that both vehicles shift very efficiently on their own.

Santa Fe also contains the full suite of safety and driver-alert features for lane changing, blind-spot detection, front and rear warnings including pedestrian alerts, and it also has the capability to set driving mode for Normal, Comfort, Smart or Sport. They are self-explanatory, and they work to adjust the Santa Fe’s attitude. Shift points, along with steering and cornering suspension, are altered by your setting of choice.

Best of all, Santa Fe has the feature I first discovered in the mountains of Utah, and was pleased to rekindle the relationship when the terrain turned to the pothole-dotted and wintry conditions in the mountainous hills of Duluth and the North Shore of Lake Superior: Lane-assist, which also can be set to different applications.

You can set it to warning if you’re wandering across the dotted center line or the stripe on the right shoulder. You can turn it up a notch so that it warns and gently pressures the steering wheel to guide you back into your lane. And if you go most intense, it becomes lane-centering, and it does actually keep you aligned on a vector that help you stay at the center of your lane.

My wife, Joan, loves that feature she first experienced on the Kona — where it also adds to the surprising value of the smallest Hyundai SUV. She sometimes experiments, and has inspired me to do the same. Driving along a well-marked highway with no traffic, make sure the settings place the driving mode in Sport and the lane-assist to its most intense, then take your hands off the steering wheel at moderate speed. Keep your hands close, and remember, I don’t recommend this, but it makes for a fascinating experiment in this era of autonomous cars soon to come.

Spacious rear occupant room is up to midsize SUV level.  (Photos: Jack Gilbert.)

Generous storage space can expand by folding rear seat down, flat.

With your hands at the ready, you ease into a curve and  the Santa Fe will gently and smoothly follow a proper trajectory around an upcoming curve to the left, and then the next one back to the right, straightening where the road straightens. It doesn’t want you to get too comfortable, though, to the point of being complacent. So after a few seconds with your hands ready but not touching the steering wheel, the instrument pod comes alive to say “No grip detected on wheel!” If you don’t grip the wheel, it quickly advances the warning to a command: “Put your hands on the wheel!” Noncompliance causes it to suggest it will shut down the feature if you don’t putyour paws where they belong.

You can’t beat that. You could turn off the feature, but why would you? It gives you proper alert and then warning, and if you had a moment of inattentiveness, it could prevent a serious accident. It also will warn you and then slow you toward an intended stop if its computers, radar, sonar and what-all decide you are not planning on avoiding that problem in your path.

Anyone who says that’s taking control is saying that they would rather have an occasional fender-bender — or worse — in the name of maintaining your personal macho command, or lack of same.

The price of the Santa Fe ranges from the high $20,000 range to the upper reaches of the $30,000 range. Its amazing safety features are all wrapped up inside a leather and soft-touch fabrics everywhere in the interior, and the bucket seats are supportive and luxurious to the touch. The rear seat has a 60-40 fold-down arrangement, where you can flip the seat down and it goes down to make a flat elongation of the carpeted rear stowage area.

Technical advances to the 2.0 Turbo engine are subtle, including electronic rather than hydraulic valve actuation, a multi-plate torque converter, the 8-speed replacing the 6-speed automatic with improved low-end and high-end ratios, the H-Trac all-wheel drive system with an electric servo control, torque-vectoring front and rear to conspire with the driving mode and lane-centering to keep you in line and give you a tremendous sense of confidence in your cornering. Altogether, Hyundai says, the system moves from being reactive to predictive.

Improved steering and suspension geometry and components make for a smooth and insulation added to the fenders, transmission tunnel and various places on the floor, as well as thicker laminated glass and variable-density seats enhance comfort. Automatic LED headlights are bright and impressive, and auto-start is a great cold-climate item, as well as the automatic stop-start.

Kid safety increases with safe-exit assist on 2019 Santa Fe.  (Photo: Jack Gilbert.)

One unique feature is safe-exit assist, with the blind-spot assist on the side preventing the rear door on that side to be opened from the inside because the system has detected an approaching vehicle. Infinity premium audio, large 8-inch multimedia screen, Blue Link, and Clari-Fi music restoration, and a unique feature to prevent small kids or pets from being trapped inside. If the car is locked, any critter that moves enough to be detected causes you to get an alert on your smartphone, and will add honking its own horn if you don’t rectify the problem immediately.

That’s another good reason to prevent little Jimmy from leaving his pet snake under the back seat.

In reality, the Santa Fe replaces the former Santa Fe, while the Santa Fe XL continues unchanged for those who have to have a third row seat. That one has the old-style but still neat Tucson-like grille, but as it sells out, don’t be surprised if the Santa Fe XL goes away to be replaced by Hyundai’s newest larger SUV. Whatever, consumers are left with only the very capable, very sporty, and very high-tech Santa Fe.

Tiguan Grows Longer, Adds Third Seat Option

April 24, 2019 by · Comments Off on Tiguan Grows Longer, Adds Third Seat Option
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Longer Tiguan has optional third-row seat but retains style, solid feel for 2019.

By John Gilbert
As an SUV-buying society, we haven’t properly appreciated the Volkswagen Tiguan all through its existence. Now that it’s 2019, it’s still not too late, but the boundaries have changed.

For years, the Tiguan, Volkswagen’s compact crossover, was the company’s SUV, even when it wasn’t so much an SUV as a tall station wagon. It was always convenient for hauling a family and gear on trips, across the country or to the mall, or to hockey, soccer, baseball or basketball practice. It was solid, substantial, and performed well for both power, agility and gas mileage.

When the SUV craze not only hit but escalated rapidly out of control, companies that built cars soon realized that if they didn’t also build SUVs, they might soon be marketed right out of existence. I recall when Porsche built its first Cayenne, those of us in the invited automotive media assembled to drive the vehicles on and off a race track and off-road. The question on everybody’s mind finally got asked.

“Why would Porsche, a company that builds the best sports cars on the planet, bother building an SUV?”

The Porsche executive answered without hesitation: “So that we can continue to build the best sports cars on the planet.”

Lengthened rear houses fold-down third seat or more storage space.

Those words ring true for every manufacture now, and not just because Porsche comes under the Volkswagen corporate umbrella. The other reason is that Porsche buyers also wanted SUVs, and they wanted high-end SUVs and were willing to pay a lot of money for them. The Cayenne gave Porsche buyer/owner types the chance to buy an SUV and stay within the Porsche family.

For Volkswagen itself, Beetles, Golfs, Jettas and Passats remained as good cars, great cars, maybe, but sales were shrinking as buyers were going elsewhere to find and buy SUVs. The Sport-Wagen worked well enough, but more size was wanted, if not needed. So the Tiguan continued as an SUV, and Volkswagen added a couple larger SUVs, including the Atlas.

But a year ago, Volkswagen decided to lengthen the Tiguan. Buyers who liked it also wanted a third-row seat, and to meet the demand, or at least the request, VW lengthened the Tiguan and added a third row seat, which could fold down for added cargo space.

For 2018, Volkswagen sold two Tiguans, the remainder of the shorter model, and the highly promoted longer one. For 2019, the longer one is the only one still being produced. To meet all desires, VW makes the two versions different.

The difference comes with a choice of VW’s 4Motion all-wheel drive or front-wheel drive, and the choice of two rows of seats, seating five, or three rows, seating seven. Typical of German companies, VW tells us which choice we must buy.

If you want all-wheel drive, you can get either two or three rows; if you choose front-wheel drive — for better fuel economy or because of no need for AWD — you can only get three rows of seats. If you want two rows and FWD, you’re out of luck.

Bright inserts on leather buckets are evidence of R-Line trim in Tiguan spacious interior.

It may not be a big issue, because the test vehicle we had came with the colorful R-Line trim that included bright “Saffron” insets in the black leather seats, and we folded the third row down to carry some larger items, and promptly forgot it was even there. So folding it down flat behind the roomy second row is a viable option, and if you wind up as the car-pooling driver, you can pop it up in a flash and use the third row seats.

Plenty of leg and head space in rear seat.

Tilt second row to reach third row, which folds flat.

The Tiguan SEL Premium R-Line test vehicle, with 4Motion, carried a list price of $40,485, including a $595 tag for the third-row seat.

It came with Volkswagen’s tried and trusty 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine, a jewel of performance that has dual overhead camshafts, direct fuel injection and a turbocharger, produces 184 horsepower and 221 foot-pounds of torque, running through all four wheels with 4Motion, and regulated by an 8-speed automatic transmission.

That is the only powertrain offered in any Tiguan. The vehicle has a towing capacity of 1,500 pounds, which isn’t a lot, but is pretty good for a vehicle that is calculated to be just a bit smaller than what qualifies as a midsize SUV.

Smoothly efficient in the dry, the 4Motion Tiguan also can handle snowstorms.

With its tall seating position and well-supported comfort, the Tiguan is always pleasant to drive, or to ride in, and just to make my North Shore home on Lake Superior more viable as the perfect road-testing venue, we got a quick and surprising snowstorm that covered and surrounded the Tiguan, but it simply breezed through every challenge.

Well, almost. The greatest challenge was another Volkswagen/German decision made for its owners and drivers. There is a neat little rotating mode switch on the console, and you can turn it to engage different settings for Eco, Normal, Sport, or Custom. Eco gave us front-wheel drive, for most normal driving. After the snowstorm, we simply turned the switch to the setting that incorporated snow driving, as opposed to highway, hills, mud, rocks and off-road, and it went fine.

Rotate  mode switch to engage AWD for snow, but it defaults to FWD when you shut it off.

I noticed my wife, Joan, pulling out one morning and the front wheels spun a bit as she got going in our driveway . I sent her a text message for later reading to say I thought somehow she had switched into front-wheel drive. She responded that I was correct and that she realized quickly that the Tiguan would go to default every time you shut it off, so when you start up again, you’re in FWD, not AWD.

I’m not sure that’s a major issue, but it would make more sense, in Northern Minnesota, for every VW to have AWD as its “Default” setting from November to May. If you start up after a blizzard that is deep enough and on a slippery base, you could get into more trouble than you deserve if you think you’re in AWD but have only FWD.

Because they have made the Tiguan rock-solid for years, driving the new Tiguan gives you a secure feeling of confidence, and the car also handles our other two premier test-driving attractions: Steep hills and enough potholes to meet the requirements of any obstacle course.

Along with the safe build quality, the Tiguan SEL Premium houses adaptive cruise control, park distance control front and rear, remote start, and keyless access, for convenience. Once underway, you also benefit from forward collision warning and autonomous emergency braking and pedestrian detection, active blind spot and rear traffic alerts, lane keeping system with lane assist, high beam control, touchscreen navigation, anti-theft alarm with engine immobilizer, voice-control with touchscreen navigation, all the USB and connectivity receptacles, and a special feature — the Digital Cockpit borrowed from affiliate Audi that can be adjusted to get all sorts of information within the gauges.

Handsome grille styling now reflects Volkswagen’s Jetta, Passat siblings.

The Tiguan has gotten more attractive since being stretched, with a Passat/Jetta style grille and front styling, and its proportions seem to fit the lengthier body style. The longer Tiguan makes the previous one look short and stubby by comparison, and not as elegant.

For the sake of full disclosure, however, I have to say now that the shorter Tiguan is out of production, I really miss that vehicle. Long live the new Tiguan, but thanks to the used car market, the older, shorter Tiguan will still be findable.

Mustang Bullitt Blows Away All but Icy Driveway

April 23, 2019 by · Comments Off on Mustang Bullitt Blows Away All but Icy Driveway
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

The 50th Anniversary Mustang Bullitt packs 480 horsepower, GT handling, special look, even in the face of impending storm.

By John Gilbert
When you review new cars, there’s never a good time to bid adieu to the really fun vehicles in which a week-long term goes by too fast. But when a mid-April, 8-inch snowfall hit Duluth, Minnesota, it’s probably best that my week-long test drive of a 2019 Mustang Bullitt ended prematurely.

Actually, I ended it three days before it would be picked up at my house, even though my term ended on the very day that the 50th anniversary of the movie “Bullitt” was released — the movie with the legendary chase scene that ultimately made Steve McQueen a superstar and the 1968 Mustang he drove an icon that has prompted Ford to make copies for two model years, 2019 and 2020.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s never a good time for a week-long test drive of a truly fun car to end. But this one arrived with the admonition that the Bullitt was shod with Michelin Pilot Sport high-performance tires on those classy 19-inch alloy wheels, so if it snows — park it.

Available only for 2019 and 2010, the Bullitt comes in dark green or black.

It snowed, and I parked it. Knowing that those smooth, track-worthy tires are fantastic on a race track or high-speed freeway, but they have pretty much no traction if anything slippery is between the car and the pavement, I compressed as much driving as I could into the first four days it was in my control. It’s not unusual for snow to hit Minnesota in April, but after getting into the 50s, the nasty long-range forecast seemed especially mean.

For those old enough to remember the wonderful action-filled Steve McQueen movie from 50 years ago, it is a brilliant bit of strategy for Ford to bring out a replica bristling with modern technology as a reminder of the spectacular chase scenes filmed on the hilly streets of San Francisco, with McQueen, the late actor who thrived on hot cars and exciting chases. McQueen drove a hot, dark green 1968 Mustang with a tricked up V8 that allowed him to bound and bounc through wild street scenes while being chased by bad guys in a menacing Dodge Charger.

The 50th Anniversary Bullitt Mustang is the amalgamation of all that has been good about Mustangs through the ensuing decades, tempered by the latest engineering marvels such as a 5.0-liter dual-overhead-camshaft V8, juiced up to 480 horsepower and 420 foot-pounds of torque, regulated by a 6-speed stick shift that changes gears smoothly and keeps you in the power band, maxed between the torque peak of 4,000 RPMs and the power peak at 7,000 RPMs.

The kick you get from 0-60 capabilities of 4.5 seconds, and — according to Car & Driver magazine — 0-150 in 23.1 seconds(!) is enough to cause you to remember those hot cars of the late 1960s and 1970s, or to recall a weekend at a drag strip watching the top racers compete.

Simple driving controls all at hand.

White shift ball, toggles and nav screen coexist.

The biggest thrill of the Bullitt comes when you climb into the bucket seat, hook up the safety belt, step on the clutch, and push the starter button. The explosion of finely tuned power rumbles out through four exhaust tubes and, unless you find it annoying, is worth the chill that runs up your spine and back down. Let the clutch out — gently now — and zap! You’re off.

The Mustang GT has similar power and features, but Ford added punch to the Bullitt and assures it of being an instant classic during its two-year run, in Dark Highland Green or black only. I’m surprised Ford’s market wizards didn’t make it in that dark green or silver, which would allow non-movie buffs to buy a Silver Bullitt.

The base Bullitt is just under $50,000, while the test car was just a tad over $52,000. Those crafty folks at Ford know that Mustang zealots won’t pay ridiculous prices for just any Mustang these days, so there are specialty versions like the GT, the Shelby 350 and the newer Shelby 500, which has even more power. But every Mustang zealot who knows a door from a steering while will pay a lot for something that conjures up the image of the most famous Mustang in cinematic history,

You don’t have to recall the Steve McQueen movie to appreciate the Bullitt’s dashing style.

The front end of the Bullitt has been pinched down for style and aerodynamics, with a narrowed horizontal grille and small slits to house the LED headlights, and there are a couple of active hood vents to eliminate some of the hot air that can build up in the engine compartment.

The wonders of modern auto technology mean that unlike the original, which could shake and rattle in short order, but was fast enough and handled well enough that you didn’t care, this one handles with near flawless race-car precision. Sure it’s a little stiff as you bounce across potholes, but it stays firm and flat around the tightest curves, with responsive steering and startlingly efficient braking from the big red Brembo brakes.

In the never-ending battle against Camaros and Challengers, Mustang has gone high-tech with the DOHC engine. Having overhead cams instead of pushrods means the Mustang will rev easily to the 7,500 red line, but as fun as that is, the Bullitt is also an every day driver. The fantastic exhaust note might get tiresome to some, although I fall into that group who would find it only and always exhilarating. The DOHC, the 5.0 V8 cruises effortlessly at freeway speed. I noted at 70 mph it was registering only 2,000 RPMs on the big tachometer, which isn’t much higher than idle speed. A pushrod engine would be working harder for that speed, and not delivering as much efficiency.

I got 24 miles per gallon except in only city driving, where — and Duluth’s hills are a lot like San Francisco’s, now that I think of it — the mpg dropped down to around 18. I confess, though, that I was unable to suppress the urge to blip the throttle going up, for bursts of street-legal acceleration, and on the way down, where it held speed descending those hills at moderated speed.

Actually, the Bullitt blips itself, so to speak, on every downshift, where you hit the clutch, and as you drop the shift lever down a gear, the engine automatically revs to matching engine speed. That may prevent an unsophisticated driver from a jagged downshift that might pitch hit wife toward the windshield, and it also supplies the perfect alert signal that you are driving one of the hottest but also most manageable sporty cars on the planet.

The console has the shift lever, with a giant white ball for a hand grip, and on the center stack, below the navigation screen there is a row of horizontal toggle switches, which are a neat way to control various features. The Bullitt Electronics feature everything from cross-traffic alert to the premium audio system and all the connectivity. Suspension adds MagnaRide dampers for precise handling through the independent rear suspension, and the usual safety features, such as stability control and controllable modes for comfortable ride up to track stiffness are there.

As my week seemed to hurry by, the forecasted storm that was supposed to hit all of Minnesota and all of Wisconsin did hit, with southern reaches of Minnesota getting up to 15 inches of snow. It was delayed in hitting Duluth, which, located on the pointy westernmost tip of Lake Superior, we sometimes get hit hard and sometimes find storm fronts diverted. This time, the wind was blowing in hard out of the east, at an estimated 35-50 mph in a straight line, and the next day we learned that it hit a measured maximum of 71 mph. That pushed the front a bit to the west, for a while at least, and gave me another day to drive, driving rainstorm or not.

Crashing waves couldn’t prevent the fantastic exhaust note from adding to Bullitt thrills.

I couldn’t resist driving down by the Aerial Bridge at Canal Park to shoot some photos of the giant waves rolling in, higher than the piers that reach out into the lake. Then I drove up the North Shore a ways, to shoot the spectacle of the waves crashing off the shoreline rocks, just for background for the Mustang Bullitt. By Thursday night, the storm was about to change from rain to snow, so I drove up our rural highway, pulled into our driveway, and backed the Bullitt up against the garage.

Sure enough, we got hammered by 8-plus inches of the wettest, heaviest snow of the entire winter. Shoveling was a weight-lifting project. I left the Bullitt under its snow blanket and drove other vehicles through the weekend. The fellows from the Chicago car-distribution site were arriving Monday morning to retrieve the car, and my plan for the snow cover on our driveway to melt by then didn’t quite work out. The snow had melted off the car, but the driveway was still under several inches of hard-packed snow, which greatly resembles ice.

When the drivers arrived, I suggested that while they are expert drivers, I know the odd little rise in my driveway, and the delicacy with which a car with high-performance tires needed to attack it. I got it moving, and tried to maintain speed as I got to the last part of the driveway, then only spun. Three or four more times I tried, backing up and trying to build enough speed to make the little rise at the end. Finally I backed up to a bare asphalt patch for some rear traction, figuring that might work. But as soon as I tried to give it a tiny dose of gas, the Mustang’s rear end shot to the left. I counter-steered, but both left side tires were immediately over the lip and off the road, and the car was hung up on the hard-packed snow.

Prompt rescue by AAA extricated my slick-tired Bullitt from an attempt at off-roading.

We tried shoveling, putting de-icer and gravel down, but any attempt to engage the clutch caused the tendency to go farther off the road. We gave up, and I called Triple-A. A young fellow showed up with a gigantic wrecker in a half-hour, and with his modern devices was able to quickly pull the Bullitt out of danger, and out to our road. When he unhooked it, he asked if we could wait a second while he shot a few photos of the car, and he called his grandpa to notify him of the prize he just rescued.

“It’s not every day we get to tow a Bullitt,” he said, grinning broadly.

We gave him a ride in the car, and it blew his mind. He is ordering a special Mustang with a gigantic crater engine, but now he’s thinking maybe the Bullitt’s 480 horsepower are enough. I assured him this was a better prospect, from the standpoint of all-around driving and handling. And you can’t duplicate the sound of the Bullitt engine.

So the car left town and headed toward Chicago, because once out of our driveway, the snow had pretty much been cleared or melted. While I pondered what the 50th Anniversary Mustang Bullitt might be like with Nokian Hakkapelliita tires mounted instead of Michelin Pilot Sport summer tires, that thought was over-ridden by my hope that I might get another crack at that car anytime from May through November.

Mazda CX-9 Technology Makes You a Better Driver

April 12, 2019 by · Comments Off on Mazda CX-9 Technology Makes You a Better Driver
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

For 2019, Mazda CX-9 hauls seven in a spacious SUV loaded with technology.

By John Gilbert

If you were going to vote on the international auto company that ranks the highest in design, engineering, and advanced technology, top candidates might be BMW, Mercedes, Audi, Volvo, Honda (via Acura), Toyota (via Lexus), Nissan (via Infiniti), Hyundai…and how about Mazda?

In sheer size, Mazda is a small company, based in Hiroshima, Japan, from where it has continually confounded larger manufacturers with engineering breakthrough technology, such as the rotary engine, and SkyActiv engine-transmission-platform design to create performance beyond what is expected. All its vehicles are fun to drive — which the company has captured with the catch-phrase “Zoom-zoom” — with handling excellence that rises upward from the iconic Miata sports car. Being small has allowed Mazda to keep up with larger companies and also branch out in surprising and impressive ways.

With beautifully designed sedans and small SUVs making a slick portfolio for 2019, Mazda also has created and refined its largest mainstream family vehicle, the CX-9. Mazda switched over to alpha-numeric designations a few years ago, and now has the compact crossover CX-3, the constant comparison-winning midsize CX-5, and the often overlooked CX-9.

But as the design and technology rose, it seemed to catch up to the roominess of the CX-9, and instead of being overlooked by a lot of comparison shoppers, it now is considered by some the best total package among a field of more acclaimed — and more expensive — competitors.

Large grille now stylishly fits in between LED headlights, sets iconic standard.

The lines of the CX-9 are indisputably attractive, looking both forceful and classy at the same time, from the large grille opening and on rearward in a continuing harmonious flow. Inside, the CX-9 answers all the questions that might be asked by those who feel they need a three-row SUV to carry their usual load of family and friends and carpools.

The CX-9’s surprising interior room means there is storage room behind the third row, and folding it down makes a flat surface to carry more stuff than people, when the need arises. With more room comes the requirement of more power, and Mazda solved that issue by finding a new way to boost the amazingly efficient SkyActiv 4-cylinder engines that do such an excellent job of power and fuel economy in Mazda’s cars and smaller SUVs. The answer is turbocharging.

Mazda has the 2.0 and 2.5 engines, and taking the 2.5 and adding the turbocharger transforms the CX-9 to 250 horsepower and 310 foot-pounds of torque. That’s enough to make a front-wheel-drive CX-9 run like a sporty sedan, and it can make the all-wheel-drive version potent enough to bet compared to the larger V6es of competitors.

Classy and sporty with ergonomic operation, the CX-9 interior is inviting.

Turbocharging the 2.5 also arms Mazda with higher level competitors in other vehicles, such as the Mazda6 sedan, which gets to use the same powertrain.

But back to the interior of the CX-9, the test vehicle that came in gleaming Snowflake White Pearl, with a reddish leather interior identified as Auburn that makes an inviting environment for driver and passenger alike. The straightforward instrumentation and attention to detail of the dashboard, console and instrumentation is another attraction. It’s always impressive to start with a plush seating arrangement, front and rear, and the second row has now added video screens on the rear of the front buckets to keep second-row passengers — mainly kids — entertained on trips.

Leather-covered rear seats now have individual video monitors for entertainment.

But here is an easily overlooked feature of the CX-9. With virtually any three-row SUVs, it helps if you’re a gymnast if you want to get into that third row. Open the back door, fold the seat down, and then try to fit gingerly into that tight V-shaped opening. Once in, you may or may not find comfort. With the CX-9, however, notice the wider-than-expected rear door. Open it, and you have a lot more room to maneuver, and when you fold the seat forward, you can tip it far enough that it is comparatively easy to hop into the third row area. Imagine, seating for six or seven where everybody is comfortable.

Wide-opening rear doors allow easier access to second and third row seats.

Third row seats are accessible and comfortable.

Even loaded with people and luggage, the CX-9 never forgets its Zoom-zoom. Handling is crisp and precise, with tight steering feel and a stability that belies such a large vehicle. Part of that is Mazda engineering, which is responsible for the new and brilliantly devised G-vectoring that has been engineered into all Mazda vehicles. It is a trick to not necessarily fool the driver, but to encourage the driver to make the best and most precise moves in cornering.

As a driver makes a tight turn, he is pretty well guessing at the proper “line” to take for both turn-in, and trajectory. After years of zooming, Mazda engineers devised a unique system that seems counter to common sense, but — trust me on this — it works better than you can imagine. You might be fooled into thinking that you are just that good a driver, but Mazda’s G-vectoring makes you a better driver. Logic might make you think you should give more power to the outside wheels, the way Audi did in its first and enduring quatro all-wheel-drive system. But Mazda’s system actually decreases the power to the front outside wheel in a tight turn, while it also softens the damping to that same wheel — only for a millisecond, but at the precise moment you’re starting to turn-in for the corner.

The result is to convince you that you chose the right moment to turn in, and while you make the turn at the moment you and the vehicle agree is optimum, you will soon realize that the car corners so well you never seem to need to correct. My often-relayed theory is that many accidents are caused by a driver making a turn with a lack of precision, and having to correct, he or she perhaps over-corrects. With the G-vectoring, you make the turn and don’t correct because you are headed exactly where you want to go. When there’s no correction, there’s no over-correction. While you’re feeling proud of what a great driver you’ve become in the Mazda, you, your vehicle and all your passengers are simply safer.

With the house-built 6-speed automatic in Sport mode, you get the full power and torque, and you also get all-wheel steering, which further adds to the precision of going around a curve or corner.

The CX-9 also has the full complement of the latest driver aids, even though we’ve been focusing on things beyond the norm. The heated and ventilated front buckets and full sunroof, rain-sensing wipers, roof rails, power rear liftgate and windshield wiper de-icers are nice. So is that genuine aluminum interior trim, and the second row window sunshades, and tire pressure monitoring system.

Stylish rear end houses roomy stowage area under hatchback.

For safe performance, the CX-9 also has dynamic stability control, traction control, front and rear parking sensors, LED headlights and foglights, automatic high beam control, radar cruise control with blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, 360-degree surround monitoring on the nav screen, lane departure warning, lane keep assist, with smart brake support and smart city brake support.

Sporty handling, roomy interior makes CX-9 perfect way to haul seven for burgers.

That’s pretty much all the goodies you can order on any top-line luxury SUV, like the Acura RDX, several top Lexus models, or those from the German manufacturers or top U.S. candidates. But this Mazda CX-9 adds its unique performance and creature features, and comes in at $45,365. Adding the rear entertainment system and the white pearl mica paint and other options boosts it to $49,230.

True, there are other SUVs in that price range, but not with the combination of all those features. The CX-9 also will deliver 26 miles per gallon highway, while holding the road with precision that takes some getting used to. And that is without even considering how it goes around corners so precisely that it convinces you you’re a better driver than you might be in another vehicle.

Optima Style and Flair Counter Industry Slump

April 5, 2019 by · Comments Off on Optima Style and Flair Counter Industry Slump
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

By John Gilbert

Sleek lines make the Kia Optima SX Turbo stand out from the midsize sedan crowd.

One of the more intriguing things about the contemporary auto business is the styling duel going on between South Korean partners Kia and its parent company, Hyundai.

It started in 2011, a few years after Hyundai agreed to take Kia under its expansive corporate wing, and it was the watershed year when Hyundai came out with a new Sonata that had a new frame, a new and contoured body, new suspension, and was powered by new engine technology, with new, house-built 6-speed stick and automatic transmissions. Shortly after the Sonata’s introduction, Kia brought out its sister ship, a new Optima.

Without the Sonata’s contours in the body, the Optima was sleeker and to some, more stylish. I thought it resembled the luxury Jaguar sedans more than the closely related Sonata. With Kia able to share Hyundai technology, the two companies also built parallel smaller sedans and SUVs, as well.

Sporty but businesslike driver view.

Time has evolved since 2011, and the Optima and Sonata continue to be the most recognizable vehicles for comparison. The corporation had hired Peter Schreyer away from Audi to design the Kia models, and he was so successful some Hyundai executives thought they should share his design expertise, so Schreyer was given the chore of being chief designer of both brands. A wise choice was that he was charged with making the similar models distinctly different, while still sharing drivetrains and platforms.

Jump ahead a couple styling generations and the 2019 Sonata is a very nice, refined sedan, which seems to have found a sweet spot after it was first smoothed out and then contoured again when sales slipped. The 2019 Optima — which I recently test-drove for a week — is a perfect example of how effective the two companies’ strategy has worked out, with its smoother and sleeker lines refined into a unique appearance.

Hyundai has jumped ahead with advance displays of its 2020 Sonata, which takes on an entirely new and bold appearance that could be a definite jump into a new generation. Meanwhile, the 2019 models of both cars are selling well right now. With the auto industry suffering a downturn in recent months, sales of the 2019 Sonata was up slightly, but the Optima has risen 10 percent for the first quarter of 2019, amid negative figures from almost all non-truck rivals.

One thing Kia shares happily with Hyundai is a now-traditional ability over-achieve, building cars and SUVs that seem to be worth more than their selling prices — a particular asset in this era of over-priced vehicles in virtually every showroom.

All the lines that flow along the Optima’s body come to a favorable meeting at the rear.

The 2019 Kia Optima SX Turbo I test drove certainly lived up to that reputation. To start with, it was powered by a well-suited displacement compromise as the middle unit of the corporation’s most identifiable 4-cylinder engines, the 2.0-liter, which is between the 1.6 Turbo below and the 2.4 above. The 2.0 is a solid engine, and when equipped with the turbocharger, as the test car was, it is hot.

The 2.0 turbo turns out 245 horsepower, a lot for a modest-sized 4, thanks to direct injection and the turbocharger, and it also provides 260 foot-pounds of torque, the thrust that launches you from a stop or whenever you need an immediate surge.

The 6-speed automatic transmission built by the company remains a standard of the industry for being light, efficient and smooth-shifting. It now has a has evolved also, and along with the 6-speed automatic, which came in the test car, or you can opt for the 7-speed dual-clutch automatic.

The front-engine, front-wheel-drive Optima also has gained a suspension refinement that is perfectly matched to the stronger and more-rigid platform that has taken on increased use of high-strength steel, from the steel plant that makes Hyundai the only manufacturer that owns its own steel making capability.

Two-tone leather seats and an array of efficient controls enhance Optima’s interior.

The SX Optima, loaded, has a base price of $31,900, and as-tested it’s $32,920, indicating its bright ideas are not limited to all those automatic LED headlights, as well as LED foglights, taillights, and daytime running lights.

The Hyundai-Kia partnership has done its homework and keeps passing its final exams with top grades, having moved up near the top of initial quality figures. The Optima, like the Sonata, has had the proper elements for creating handling superiority, but it’s sort of like building a Formula 1 race car — you can supply all the right pieces, but it takes a highly skilled engineer to coordinate them into the proper arrangement.

After several tries, the new Optima seems to have taken full advantage of the technology and engineering knowhow to handle very well. What is a more subtle but very effective addition is the electronic expertise is the inclusion of such safety elements as lane departure alert and warning. Taking it one step farther, the Optima benefits by the electronic adjustment to the lane-keep assist and to the upgrade to sporty handling-steering-stability. Together, they make the good-handling Optima take corners and ride with smooth comfort but also sporty precision.

There have been a few ways Kia has branched away from Hyundai. Both have compact and subcompact sedans and hatchbacks, and both have larger and more luxurious sedans, as well as an array of SUVs that ranges from compact crossovers to midsize and full size, with both venturing upward to what we might have to call oversize.

Kia drew rave reviews when it came out with a high-performance sedan — the Stinger — that competes right well with more expensive German standard-bearers from BMW and Mercedes. Kia also has the Soul, the squarish econobox that surprised even the company with its success. Hyundai counties with the Ioniq, a technical marvel that has hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or all electric powertrains. And with Hyundai’s new Kona compact SUV coming out in all-electric form, it is obvious what direction the corporation is going.

Sleek, iuninterrupted lines differentiate FWD Optima SX from its Sonata cousin.

For now, however, the Optima displays all the right stuff. with fuel economy that can top 30 on the highway, if you keep your foot out of the turbo’s upper reaches, and the added luxury of the red quilted two-tone leather bucket seats, along with the touch-screen for connectivity features, and an enormous sunroof that is so large it has its own shade that can be power-maneuvered.

Traction control, stability control and a stability management system, augmented by hill-start assist, means the Optima does a good job on snow and ice, although the “D” shaped steering wheel serves notice of the sporty intent of the car.

Nav screen, console controls easy to operate.

Kia’s signature grille leads the Optima.

Maybe both extremes work, because in the week after I drove the car, temperatures along the North Shore shot up to the 50-degree range, which was enough to bring a few black bears — as well as residents of Duluth — out after a long winter of hibernation. Sportiness, luxury, and the ability to change seasons. Not bad.

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