Ascend lets Subaru ascend to big SUV realm

August 6, 2021 by · Comments Off on Ascend lets Subaru ascend to big SUV realm
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Stylishly aggressive nose signals Subaru Ascent arrival in woodsy green, near our woods, 

By John Gilbert

When Subaru made assorted small all-wheel-drive vehicles and everybody else made big ones, it seemed as though both sides competed with each other in lifestyle as well as vehicle choice. It was sort of like two knights in shining armor pulled their facemasks down, straightened their armor, lowered their lances, and charged! And both sides scored direct hits.

The companies making large, overpowered SUVs have downsized successfully, with a smaller model, or two, or six — while Subaru keeps trying to enlarge some models into bigger SUVs.

It may be that Subaru will never match the Suburban or Expedition or Land Cruiser, and surely it doesn’t want to. But Subarus keep growing, like the new Forester, and now, entering its second season for 2021, Subaru was its own large SUV, with the Ascent.

Interesting name, and obviously it is hoping to conjure up the name of something that will climb the highest mountain, or at least the steepest terrain — or the tallest avenues in a Duluth blizzard — without difficulty.

Presumably, if Subaru sells enough Ascents, it might bring out something still larger, and call it, maybe, the Descent, if it’s decent, because we all know that what goes up must come down, hopefully with style and grace in the process.

Three rows of seats with room to haul stuff.

The Ascent ranges in price from $35,000 to around $45,000, depending on how many added options you choose. But it does rise above the normal tradition of bargain-priced and compact-sized Subarus.

Subaru fans are amazingly loyal. They love the ruggedness, the dependability, the all-weather hardiness, the all-terrain capability, and if they never push their Subarus to the limits, they like the security of having those capabilities in reserve.

I guess of all the Subarus, my favorite three remain the WRX STi, which is an all-terrain race and rally hot-rod, the Crosstrek, a very tidy compact SUV that leads the company in style, in my opinion, and the now-extinct SVX, which was the sleekest and raciest Subaru ever but was discontinued in 1997. That was my all-time favorite, and I still see one around Duluth occasionally by an appreciative owner.

All Subaru lovers accept the odd, flat-opposed four and six cylinder engines that deliver good power but not great fuel-economy, and we can only wonder where that aging engine will fit if and when Subaru follows the leaders toward electric vehicle power. Or even advanced plug-in hybrids.

For now, we needn’t worry about all that. We have good-size vehicles like the Outback and Forester, and now we have the biggest Subaru with the Ascent, one that’s capable of hauling a family of seven or eight on its appointed rounds, or even off the beaten and appointed rounds.

Attractive and “bullet-proof” fabric covers the seats and dash of the Ascent.

After spending a week with an Ascent “X” — the sportiest version — we ran it through its paces. We used it for commuting, for running errands, and for cruising, as we ventured off on an assortment of short trips to destinations that took awhile. Our favorite was to drive from Duluth, up the North Shore to Grand Marais, which is quite nearer the Canadian border, and a very neat and trendy little artsy community with a scenic pleasure-boat harbor.

We even found a new place to eat up there, although it took awhile because road construction has found its way into the Lake Superior harbor area of downtown Grand Marais. We circled around to get downtown to check out a couple of outfitter’s stores, and we followed a similar route to get back to the west side and out of town. Then we circled back around to get to the eastern edge of Grand Marais, where our built-in GPS told us we would find a restaurant called My Sister’s Place. We had never visited it before and it has a surprisingly large menu and, we found, very good food that bridges the gap from comfort food to the more gourmet-type offerings. We need to go back to verify our first finding.

That gave us a target beyond the Angry Trout, and Sven and Ole’s Pizza, where you pretty much are drawn in by the name alone and lured back because it’s not only good pizza, but you get a large yellow sticker with blue script lettering to tell the world that you’ve been to Sven and Ole’s. Good to know that Swedes and Norwegians like pizza, too.

Subaru has made a tradition of building durable little SUV-type vehicles, but with the Ascent, it is going after the big, 3-row trucksters.

Unusual curves and contours sets Ascent apart from normal Subarus.

My personal favorite stopping place is right near the outfitters store, hard by the harbor. In past columns I have mentioned how that place reminds me of the Jimmy Buffett song, “One Particular Harbor,” and it still does. This time was extra special, because after wandering around town, I heard the faint strains of an Eagles song, being sung outdoors. Following my ears, we walked over toward the water where there was a small stage set up and a fellow was playing the guitar and singing an assortment of Bob Dylan songs, interspersed with a few Gordon Lightfoot ballads. He had a couple of guys backing him up, and he was highly entertaining, both in his choice of songs and in his professional-quality delivery.

I walked up after they took a break and learned his name was Joe Paulik, and he said he plays up there on the beach every Saturday night, only venturing down as far as Duluth on rare occasions. I have mentioned him to a couple of Duluth promoters, who would do well to expand on what has become an all-too-familiar array of performers. I would pay a cover charge to go see Joe, and he would do well at one of the assorted “fests” at Bayfront Festival Park.

Anyway, we also had a good time driving up the Shore and back in the Ascent, stopping along any of dozens of favorite spots such as Iona’s Beach along the big lake, which is always a treat, even if it’s no particular harbor.

Second row seats fold and slide to ease Olympian squeeze into third row.

The 2.4-liter 4 handled all of our demands of the Ascent with ease, and while performance was adequate, comfort was at a high. I particularly liked the seat surface, which is some sort of new material that is a cut above the usual fake-leather-but-really-vinyl, and is not unpleasant to touch, and feels as though it might be bullet-proof for kids or pets. The material is repeated on the dashboard, which gives the interior of the Ascent a boost as well.

The size of the Ascent is big for a Subaru, but would be compact for other companies, although the key determination in my mind is the availability of a third row of seats. The Ascent has a third row, and it’s reachable by a second row that folds down and slides fore and aft, to ease the entry and exit to Row 3. Let’s face it, though, that third row is for small kids, and especially those who feel gymnastic urges after watching the Olympics.

We got about 24.4 miles per gallon as a normal, everyday average for fuel economy, and the Ascent drinks regular fuel, which is nice, because you are saving 20 or 30 cents per gallon over premium alternatives.

The interior has a sporty flair, something Subaru hasn’t always put on display. The colors and fabrics and trim levels were a step up — Ascending, we might say — over the Subaru norm. All of the connectivity and contemporary features are in place, and I like the thick feel of the steering wheel. Carbon-fiber trim on the dash and doors was a nice touch, too.

While the power was good enough, I was surprised that the handling was just so-so. It felt a little loose, for some reason, and it should have been firmer, based on the sporty styling, and the large wheels, which were shod with 245-45, 20-inch tires.

The big information screen was impressive, also, but there was almost too much. We wanted to find the exterior temperature, for example, because that’s important in this summer of 90-ish highs complemented by Canadian wildfire smoke channeled directly to us, but we couldn’t locate the temp gauge. After scrutinizing the instruments over and over, we finally spotted it, located in its own, separate binnacle up on top of the dashboard by the windshield. We almost needed a GPS to find it.

Spacious front buckets welcome occupants.

A definite sporty touch is the presence of steering wheel paddles, which give you the ability to instantly choose if you want a higher or lower gear range, which is particularly helpful if you are descending Duluth’s long and hilly avenues, where it might spend its brakes prematurely if you were to ride the brakes down those hills every day.

There you are, another reason that the Ascent with paddles should next be joined by a Descent model.

Erika, Outlander tour U.S. to change the world

July 29, 2021 by · Comments Off on Erika, Outlander tour U.S. to change the world
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Erika Gilsdorf visited Duluth with her Mitsubishi Outlander and her tiny trailer, getting “too much content” on U.S. tour.

By John Gilbert

Erika Gilsdorf drove through Duluth and looked for the perfect parkings spot amid the downtown construction. It had to be big enough to house her 2021 Mitsubishi Outlander, and also the custom-built “tiny house” camping trailer she was pulling behind.

She found the perfect place, on 14th Av. E. and London Road, right near Leif Erickson Park. That meant after we were finished with our casual conversation, she had the opportunity to walk through and marvel at the magical array of hybrid roses unique to Duluth’s Rose Garden.

“I love Duluth,. and I’ve been coming here for a lot of years, but I’ve never seen this Rose Garden before,” Gilsdorf said. “I could stay in Duluth forever, but that’s my problem. Everywhere I go, I want to spend more time, but I always have to move on.”

Gilsdorf is on the third leg of her “What Fuels You” tour, a year-long solo adventure that has already taken her to the Pacific Northwest, down the West Coast from Seattle, through Oregon and California, then across Nevada, Arizona, Texas, the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, and Kansas. “That was Part 1,” she said. “Part 2 took me to Alabama, Florida and the Southeast. This is Part 3, the Midwest.”

Even on busy schedule, there’s time to stop and smell the roses.

Minnesotan Erika Gilsdorf is on solo video tour of U.S.

That’s the familiar part for the Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, native and resident, who has made a career out of being involved with creating video packages for various sponsoring corporations, and for clients such as National Geographic, and others. But this is a different project, because she is also her own producer. Read more

Kia Carnival assumes role of ultimate cruiser

July 21, 2021 by · Comments Off on Kia Carnival assumes role of ultimate cruiser
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Carnival is slinky, stylish 2022 replacement for Kia Sedona. Don’t call it a minivan!

By John Gilbert

After writing about the joys of cruising, and taking a new Forester from Duluth to Clowquiet to visit Gordy’s Hi-Hat, the greatest drive-in in the universe, I realize I could make a series of “cruising” columns and probably never run out of topics. This week, for example, we can discuss the virtues of the newer-than-new 2022 Kia Carnival, which is so new it ran out from under its previous name.

The previous Kia Sedona was named after a very neat and mystical city in Arizona where, right now the temperature is probably 120 degrees. Kia apparently figured that since people have finally figured out that the Sedona was a minivan, they would gamble that nobody would know that the Carnival is also a minivan, just a fancier and more stylish one..

When is a minivan not really a minivan? Apparently, when the manufacturer renames it in hopes that naive customers, who don’t yet realize that a good minivan is much more versatile and economical than a comparable SUV, might see the light.

We all know the story, about how station wagons became the mode of transportation when a car lacked adequate size for a family, then the minivan burst on the scene and took over the family-hauler work of station wagons. When people got tired of minivans with all their efficiency, they started buying SUVs, and have continued over the last 20 years to make SUVs the popular choice as the contemporary family truckster.

Room for seven or eight, new platform, new 3.5 V6 with 290 horsepower, 25 mpg.

But minivan makers, squeezed to near extinction, have held on, because there remains a smaller but still sizable segment of the market. Many knew well of the most popular Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Voyager, which pooled their talents and became the Pacifica as the top-end minivan from Dodge/Chrysler. Most people also know that Honda and Toyota, those fierce Japanese competitors, have battled with their minivans over the years, with the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna both waging duels for popularity. And both are very impressive, by the way.

Fewer people seem to be aware that from Korea, Kia has been producing a very solid alternative in the Sedona, and if they aren’t aware of it now, they can forget about it, because the new Sedona is now called the Carnival. The new Carnival comes as close as you can get to proving that a rename can fool people into thinking that you’ve built an all-new alternative to the standard minivan.

The Carnival will be a 2022 year model, but it will be available almost as we speak. It is filled with features, not the least of which is an appearance that blends the best features of a minivan and an SUV, which makes it king of its own segment, if you will, while satisfying itself that it may, well, be the king of all minivans, whether reluctant or not. Read more

New Forester — ideal way to cruise Gordy’s

July 14, 2021 by · Comments Off on New Forester — ideal way to cruise Gordy’s
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

The new 2021 Forester, larger but still comfortably Subaru.

By John Gilbert

A couple of friends and I were reminiscing the other day about the sheer pleasure of “cruising,” back in the old days, when it was almost an artistic endeavor — particularly in beautiful downtown Duluth, Minnesota, where we happened to be at the time, and where we used to do our cruising.

That really doesn’t have that much to do with this week’s vehicle review, of the 2021 Subaru Forester Sport, although modern-day cruising 50 or 60 years later, can still be achieved.

But we’ll get to that, and how the new Forester, with its beautiful dark blue paint job accented by orange pinstriping, can do the job.

We’d have treasured that Forester back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when we were eager to jump into a 1951 Studebaker, or a 1952 Mercury coupe, or a 1955 Chevrolet, or a 1960 Volkswagen Beetle. You name it, we’d cruise in it.  Every teenager who could get his hands on a car did so, filling it with several buddies to drive through downtown Duluth on warm summer evenings.

The main street is Superior Street, and it is on a long, flat, horizontal plane just a couple blocks up from Lake Superior’s North Shore, at the bottom of a mile-high hillside. After circling down to Canal Park — which wasn’t Canal Park in those days, but a seedy 1st Avenue East that passed several junkyards to reach the canal area, where somebody had built a drive-in restaurant named King Leo’s. It didn’t have great food, except for the onion rings, which were legendary, but it showed up to try to compete with the primary stop for food and socializing, which was the London Inn, a neat, tidy place on London Road, between 16th and 17th Avenues East.

In redesigned shape, Subaru Forester retains unmistakable family form.

There was a Dairy Queen on the corner of 17th, but the traffic flow turned into the London Inn, circled up on the right side of the building, curled around, and came back down the left side. You looked hard for a parking spot to back into, and if you found one, you might be there for two or three hours, walking up front to get one of the very tasty 19-cent hamburgers, 24-cent cheeseburgers, 15-cent french fries, and maybe a 19-cent milkshake — chocolate, vanilla or strawberry. It was amazing how long you could make those provisions last, while you basically hung out, trying to look cool, in a James Dean sort of way, while watching for friends in the city’s version of teenage socializing.

If you didn’t find a parking slot, you drove out the exit, tjurned right, and made the run back downtown, circling King Leo’s before heading back to the London Inn to seek better luck. We usually rode in Alvin’s old, red Studebaker, which had a green door from a previous repair, and the green door had a ring of apparent corrosion that looked a lot like a wreath, a symbol of future repairs, but we didn’t care, and we knew it made more sense at Christmastime.

We also rode in Halsey’s old Mercury coupe, before he traded it in for a new Mercury coupe, or we borrowed my mom’s 1955 Chevy, when I first got my license, and before she traded it in for a 1960 Volkswagen Beetle, which was a classic cruiser. With a sunroof and a gas heater — both of which were vital pieces, with the sunroof giving some of our gang the chance to stand up as though operating from the conning tower of a submarine, and the ability to stay warm when the air-cooled engine proved its “heater” was an exaggerated term.

Yes, the new Forester would have been the perfect cruiser back then, with its symmetrical all-wheel-drive scaling the steepest avenues, and that orange pin-stripe standing out.

Our reliance on cruising continued during our first two years at UMD, but ended when a couple of us moved away to attend the University of Minnesota. Coming home for weekends just didn’t leave cruising as a prime attraction for our precious time, even though by then I had obtained a 1956 Studebaker Hawk that was a fabulous commuter for the trip home from “the Cities,” and which I have often wished I still owned.

The London Inn was sold to somebody else, and is long since gone, having been somehow rebuilt into a Chinese restaurant, although its memory will return to provide a surprise ending for this review, which puts it one-up on the Dairy Queen, which is now a smoke shop. A smoke shop! Hard to imagine, because not smoking was cool in our group.

The St. Louis River was a perfect backdrop for our “cruise” to Gordy’s Hi-Hat in Cloquet.

If we wanted to relive the cruising days in contemporary times, the only logical destination would be Gordy’s Hi-Hat in Cloquet, which is, without question, the best drive-in restaurant on the planet. There were some good ones in the Twin Cities, such as Porky’s, or Jerry’s, but they disappear into the past once you’ve been to Gordy’s, which has been featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives on two different occasions. For my wife, Joan, and me making the jaunt to Cloquet is mandatory about once a week, to help stretch out the too-short summer months.

Open only from late spring to early fall, Gordy’s burgers, coneys, fish and chips, onion rings, and fantastic milk shakes — real ice cream, with blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, butterscotch, hot fudge, pineapple, and several others I can’t remember — are to be treasured by everyone in the area, or driving up or down Hwy. 33 to or from the Iron Range.

We had the perfect vehicle for the jaunt, with a week’s test drive of a 2021 Subaru Forester, which is both familiar enough to seem retro and new enough to bridge the generation gap. The trip seemed more appropriate with our older son, Jack, filling the gap in the spacious back seat.

Indestructible fabric on the seats and dashboard accent the interior.

Climbing into the driver’s seat of a Forester — or any Subaru, for that matter — has a familiar and comfortable feeling, as comfortable as climbing into a favorite pair of Levi’s, or shaking up your teenage memories to recall when you first went “cruising” for an evening’s adventure.

The Forester grew up from being a compact all-wheel-drive station wagon to becoming what “sophistication” led Subaru to start calling an SUV — overlooking the small fact that Subaru made AWD Subarus long before the trendy wheels of culture turned up the nickname SUV.

The new Forester is a little different, changing over to a new size and appearance a year ago, even if it retains that comfortable old feeling. For our Forester cruise, we wound our way out through West Duluth, past Morgan Park, Gary, and New Duluth to Fond du Lac, where we turned up for the always-satisfying drive through Jay Cooke State Park. The winding road traces the St. Louis River as it rushes from Carlton to pour into the St. Louis Bay on the westernmost tip of Lake Superior. Once in Carlton, we had manipulated our way for the short drive into Cloquet.

The Forester Sport still has its usual near-9-inch ground-clearance all around, in case you want to do light off-roading, and the body, which is refined for 2021 as if to be the perfect cruiser.

The test vehicle came with Subaru’s ageless 2.5-liter, flat-opposed 4-cylinder engine, which powers a variety of Subaru models, and turns out a respectable 182 horsepower and 176 foot-pounds of torque. It’s possible to get a turbocharged engine of about the same dimensions with almost 100 more horses, but the existing powerplant is plenty adequate for the Forester’s size and weight. And with the standard symmetrical all-wheel-drive, it never felt underpowered, as long as you didn’t try to get too racy.

The power might be adequate, but it suffers a downgrade because of the CVT — continuously variable transmission — which tended to drone when you’d like it to shift. Shift paddles save the day, allowing you to manually shift what is actually a shiftless or always-shifting transmission. Got that?

Forester driver’s view includes comfortably thick steering wheel.

Subaru owners are extremely loyal, and the cars have gotten better as if to stay ahead of those who cherish them enough to buy another one. They are durable, dependable, outstanding in Northern Minnesota winters, and safe and solid. They don’t always get sensational fuel economy, my personal peeve with the engine design, although our achievable 28.5 miles per gallon was pretty good with the EPA estimates at 26 city, 33 highway. I think you’d have to stay under 65 to reach 33.

All the connectivity features are on board, and the car was comfortably compliant, even on rough, winter-ravaged streets. With a few options, the sticker was $32,090, including an interior that features a leathery-rubbery substance on the bucket seats and dashboard, which appears to be a combination of contemporary class and extremely hardy against normal wear.

The Forester is tall, as tall as the Chrysler Pacifica we recently test-drove, so it’s no longer comfortable in the compact-wagon category, which it has  outgrown.

It was comfortable for adult cruising, and we pulled off at a roadside stop to gaze at the St. Louis River, and to climb the stairs to examine an ancient cemetery with headstones dating back to the 1800s.

We continued on our special trip to Gordy’s, because we had just heard the sad news that Gordy, he of the high hat, died at the Florida home he shared with his wife, Marilyn, and the two were together when he died just short of his 94th birthday, from the worsening effects of cancer.

We paid our respects to current owner, Dan Lundquist, Gordy’s son, and to Sever, Dan’s son and Gordy’s grandson, who works the counter alongside his dad.

A few years ago, we had stopped at Gordy’s for lunch, and I told Dan that I knew Gordy had insisted the ground beef they buy, fresh and never frozen, from a private ranch in Southern Minnesota, was an element of how he insisted that  everything they sell is made from the best ingredients.

The stories of humanitarian generosity Gordy and Marilyn have done for people in Cloquet and the surrounding area are legendary, and you will never hear anybody say a bad word about Gordy. But I told Sever that all the nice tributes written about Gordy after he died don’t say anything about how great the food is! The personal tributes to the man, who worked the counter up until two years ago, are all deserved, but when reporters never mention anything about how good the burgers, or fish, or milkshakes are, you know they have never actually eaten at the place.

Gordy’s closes each winter, from October until May, and when the annual reopening occurs, business booms. With the pandemic, they stayed closed until they came up with the idea of moving the entrance south a hundred yards, so two lanes of cars could enter and inch forward until they got up to the front, from where they were directed to the next opening for a parking place surrounding the restaurant. Very promptly, car-hops would appear at your car-window and take your order, which was delivered in record time. It worked so smoothly, I wondered if they might keep it up, but they have reopened inside for the rest of summer.

New on the menu a couple weeks ago is an orange-cream milkshake, and an orange-cream root beer float. Sever said that Gordy had become very fond of the orange-cream floats, so as a tribute, I added an orange-cream shake to my order.

Modern switchgear and controls are all at arm’s reach.

My favorite Gordy’s story was the day a couple of years ago when I was praising Dan Lundquist for the food and service at the place. I told Dan that Gordy’s is the best drive-in I have ever gone to, and that the only one that ever approached it for quality food and efficient service was 50 or 60 years ago — a place called the London Inn, in Duluth.

And Dan said: “That was my dad’s place, too.”

I was astonished. Sure enough, Gordy and Marilyn built and ran the London Inn in 1955, until 1960, when they sold my first favorite drive-in restaurant, and  built Gordy’s, my new favorite drive-in, closer to home in Cloquet.

Rest in peace, Gordy; your family is making sure your legacy is secure, and we’ll keep cruising out to Cloquet to make sure all is in order.

Lane-changing Escalade splurges atop SUV list

July 8, 2021 by · Comments Off on Lane-changing Escalade splurges atop SUV list
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

With the subtlety of a sledgehammer, the new Escalade asserts style with front grille, lights.

By John Gilbert
The debate has been long-standing. Which manufacturer makes the best vehicle in the world? And, which manufacturer makes the all-out most luxurious vehicle in the world? Cadillac figures you can use the same answer to solve both questions.

And with as much restraint as Cadillac can summon, it presents its entry — the 2021 Cadillac Escalade Platinum.

There is no such thing as a common, garden-variety Escalade. The most basic Escalade is spectacular, loaded with luxury features and creature comforts for every occupant. But if the competition is for the top rung on the luxury ladder, no feature can be left out, and a few that you’ve never imagined must be incorporated.

For example, all of the top General Motors gadgets are in place, with the 6.2-liter V8 under the hood and s smooth-shifting 10-speed automatic transmission distributing the power to all four wheels, which, by the way, are 22-inch, polished 10-spoke alloys Read more

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