QX50, QX60, carry Nissan from here to Infiniti

March 3, 2020 by · Comments Off on QX50, QX60, carry Nissan from here to Infiniti
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Like waves of Lake Superior, Infiniti QX50 is wave of SUV future.

By John Gilbert

If Nissan decided to produce a book on its engineering, it might call it “From Here to Infiniti.” That would put Infiniti, Nissan’s upscale brand, front and center, which would be appropriate, because Infiniti seems to get first crack at all of Nissan’s considerable engine-building ventures.

For example, Infiniti has a whole posse of SUVs, identified by the letters “QX,” as opposed to its stable of cars, which are all designated by “G” and then a number. The SUVs range from the compact QX30, to the QX50, QX60 and QX80 at the excessively large end.

I recently had the chance to spend a week with the excessively sleek QX50, which might have lifted itself to my favorite status among all the Nissan/Infiniti SUVs. I’m not overlooking the smaller — some might say cramped — QX30, but the QX50 is roomier and armed with a couple of special assets I like a lot.

Striking design of QX50 adds to its sporty flair.

A month or so before my winter test week with the QX50, I also drove the QX60, which is larger and an excellent choice if you want or need a third row of seating for stowing kids or relatives or neighbors. At $48,150, the QX60 is only a couple thousand more expensive than the $46,100 QX50, until you load up with options. The sticker on the QX60 zoomed up to $61,930, although those options turned the interior from efficient to opulent in short order.

Comparatively, the QX50 topped out at $49,630 and wasn’t nearly as feature-filled as the QX60, but I wouldn’t need the third-row seat and I could think of a few options for the $1,200 difference. Both vehicles have LED lights and all the connectivity functions.

Both the QX50 and QX60 are sleekly styled and sporty, with the Infiniti corporate grille adorning both. The QX50 is lower, making it appear sleeker, and more sporty because of that stance. Read more

Ford ‘Escapes’ from mundane SUV compacts

February 28, 2020 by · Comments Off on Ford ‘Escapes’ from mundane SUV compacts
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Snow, cold, and the climate of Lake Superior’s North Shore can make you want to escape, and the new Escape is the right vehicle.

By John Gilbert

Sly move, Ford. I capitulate in my questioning of the logic of Ford to not only quit building almost all of its sedans, but to announce it, alerting consumers that maybe they don’t want to risk buying a car that’s going out of existence.

The main reason for my yielding is the 2020 Ford Escape, which is the latest version of the compact SUV that helped trigger our country’s sweeping upsurge to the preference of trucks and SUVs over sedans. While granting that most buyers of SUVs and compact SUVs will stress that they want to be seated a little higher to aid in traffic visibility — and clucking at the certainty that the sightline advantage is pretty well eliminated when you stop at a crowded intersection and notice that 29 out of 30 cars in your field of vision are also SUVs — the new Escape comes very close to merging the best assets of a car and SUV.

Slick redesign, decent interior space for legs and cargo, highlight Escape.

We’re all pretty accustomed to the slightly boxy Escape during its formative years and later development, but the new model is much sleeker, much more stylish, and nobody can utter the criticism of it being boxy. There is a definite movement toward sportier and more stylish compact SUVs, with Mercedes, Infiniti, Lexus, and BMW leading the way with lofty standards of styling and technology. The two standards of the segment are the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4, and even they have grown more rounded and stylish, although nowhere near the new Escape’s bold venture.

Comfortable seats of indestructible fabric, new instruments are highlights.

Ford also has taken an adventurous step in powertrains, leaving its U.S. competitors behind by being first to downsize its engines for fuel economy, and turbocharging them under the heading “EcoBoost” to jack up their power and performance. Others are following now, but Ford put the standard out there and keeps adding refinement.

The test vehicle was the Escape SE Sport AWD Hybrid, which encompasses a lot of technology under those rakish lines. The base Escape now is available with a 1.5-liter 3-cylinder turbo, an engine that is surprisingly capable with its 181 horsepower and 190 foot-pounds of torque, especially in the front-wheel-drive model. Next up, there is a 2.0-liter turbo that has 250 horsepower and 280 foot-pounds of torque that powers the Titanium all-wheel drive model from 0-60 in less than 7 seconds — nearly two seconds quicker than the others. Read more

Chicago Auto Show — best of vanishing breed?

February 13, 2020 by · Comments Off on Chicago Auto Show — best of vanishing breed?
Filed under: Equinox, Autos 

It may not look like a Mustang, but the new Mustang “mach e” is pure-electric.

By John Gilbert

As February speeds past, car fanciers have until Monday, February 17th to catch a flight or drive to Chicago to get to McCormick Place for the final weekend of the Chicago Auto Show. It remains something of a prize in the diminishing role auto shows are having around the world and in this country.

Those of us in the also-diminishing world of automotive journalists got a chance to attend the preliminary media days last week — two days of previews of what is to come in the public part of the show, last Wednesday and Thursday.

There is not an overwhelming number of new and flashy cars, but certainly enough to keep any car enthusiast on the move for several hours. For highlights, I found the new Ford Mustang Mach E fascinating. Ford has made major headlines about not building cars, eliminating the Taurus, Fusion, Focus and Escort, and continuing on with only the Mustang, and its ever-expanding fleet of trucks and SUVs.

Is it a sports car, or a 4-.door sedan, or an all-electric car? The answer is “Yes,” for the new Porsche Taycan  (Photo: Jack Gilbert.)

The Mach E is a pure electric car, and it may hint at how Ford will handle things. Eliminate all those slow-selling cars, and if you want to make an all-new car, go ahead; we’ll just call it a model of the Mustang. The familiar hot-rod pony car remains, of course, in various levels of performance, but the Mach E will be a pure electric car that will run without pistons or valves, using electric rechargeable motors to move on out.

That sets the stage for assorted hybrid and electric models, which even include an all-new Porsche Taycan that blends sports-car, sedan and electric vehicle.

General Motors has pinned its hopes on the flashy new Corvette, with its mid-engine layout, and it has used its considerable promotion and marketing clout to persuade virtually every U.S. entity to name the new Vette as Car of the Year for 2021, despite it being powered by an aging 6.2-liter pushrod V8. Production is just starting on the new Corvette, and it might find its way to showrooms by summertime.

The Ford GT is upgraded to Liquid Carbon style, and only 12 per year will be built.

Ford is not resting on its considerable laurels, upgrading the Ford GT, which has  It has been around for a decade, and it’s a low-slung, mid-engine, 2-seat sports car, with new power and build-quality called “Liquid Carbon” that will restrict it to only 12 vehicles built per year. Wonder what Henry Ford I would have thought of such elitism. Makes it easy to see what Chevrolet’s real target was for going mid-engine with the Corvette.

We can’t even guess at the car-end of GM’s arsenal, but the SUVs keep on coming. There’s a new Escalade from Cadillac, and midsize Equinox from Chevrolet.

Pacifica becomes more than “just” a minivan, adding hybrid, and all-wheel-drive models.

Chrysler, or rather FCA, which is Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, and which has just merged with Renault, to make it a huge and varied conglomerate also goes back to an old familiar nameplate — the Pacifica, which used to be the Caravan. The 2021 Pacifica is coming out in various new forms, including a hybrid, and an all-wheel-drive model that seems made just for us in the Great White North.

Hyundai and Kia are adding to the impressive cars and SUVs they’ve developed, and while the new Sonata gets a hybrid, the Genesis luxury arm of the Hyundai-Kia arrangement adds an all-new luxury SUV, the GV-80.

That will be more than competitive with the newest vehicles from Japan, and from Europe, and all of them are on display at Chicago. The easiest way to tell you what’s there is to show your. My son, Jack, is my trusty photo assistant, and he and I got to just about everything in some way, shape or form, after driving from Minnesota into a blizzard in the Windy City.

So the best way to describe the newest hits of the show is to show them off in photos.

Cadillac shows off its new CT4-V. (Photo: Jack Gilbert.)

Highlander gets upscale
XSE for 2021.

The world of auto shows is undergoing every bit as much upheaval as the auto business this year. Which is plenty. Cars are driving themselves, running silently with electric power, advancing hybrid causes, adding every-more power and handling, and fitting into fewer and fewer cars and more and more trucks and SUVs. And the world’s biggest auto shows — Frankfurt, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, and New York, if you follow the industry closely — are changing just as much.


Genesis, Hyundai’s upscale brand, adds the GV-80 luxury SUV.  (Photo: Jack Gilbert.)

Meanwhile, the biggest show in the world always has been Frankfurt, and despite having a dozen buildings to house the extravaganza every other year, it will now move to either Berlin or Munich. The Frankfurt show is so impressive it made the world appreciate Frankfurt as something more than a somewhat dreary industrial city. There will be no need to try to promote either Berlin or Munich, two of the world’s most impressive cities.

Civic Type R raises performance level.

The result of all this is that the annual February Chicago Auto Show now becomes enhanced as  the biggest, from the standpoint of spectators, who will keep clicking the through Monday

Kia deepens its Soul with GT turbo flair

February 5, 2020 by · Comments Off on Kia deepens its Soul with GT turbo flair
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Third generation Kia Soul rides on a whole new platform, but retains its distinctive look.

By John Gilbert

The 2020 KIA Soul introduces the third generation of the squarish compact sedan, and it is no longer just for fun. It is still plenty enjoyable to drive, and amazingly useful to store stuff in, but after starting life as a bit of a departure, it now has become a staple for the South Korean manufacturer.

When I got the chance to test-drive a 2020 KIA Soul, I was happy to see it was a GT-Line model, in stunning Inferno Red, which is pretty red-orange, and comes pretty well loaded with all the sportiest equipment KIA can put on it. The company logo, by the way, shows “KIA” spelled out in all capital letters, but most folks spell it “Kia,” so we ca sort of alternate, and feel safe.

To new Soul leaves less question. It rides on an all-new platform, something the first two generations never enjoyed, and the GT-Line comes with the standard 2.0-liter 4-cylinder replaced by the smaller but more potent 1.6-liter turbocharged 4. The base Soul has the corporate 2.0-liter 4, without a turbo, and has a fully adequate 147 horsepower and 132 foot-pounds of torque, but taking the smaller 1.6 with a turbocharger, the Soul has 201 horsepower and 195 foot-pounds of torque.

The much of an increase in torque is a huge launch benefit, but beyond the numbers, the peak of 195 foot-pounds comes in at a mere 1,500 RPMs, barely above idle speed, compared to the 4,500 revs it takes the normally aspirated 2.0 to reach torque peak.

The GT model of the Soul gets sporty blacked-out grille, turbo engine and tighter suspension.

The front-wheel-drive compact has a new exterior, too, with a businesslike slacked out grille and LED-underlined headlights, while the rear’s flat facade is highlighted by center-mounted exhaust pipes.

You are surprised that the new Soul has such quickness, with its 7-speed dual-clutch automatic handling the power, and giving you steering wheel paddles if you want to control the shifts manually. Also, that it handles and corners with such firm suspension, but you are more impressed with the interior amenities. For example, the steering wheel lives up to the “GT” phrase, with a comfortably padded leather wrap also getting a flat-bottomed design that gives you a bit more thigh room when entering or exiting. It also has all sorts of remote switches to control audio, cell phone remote, and cruise control.

Welcoming interior completes Soul GT evolution from novelty car to sporty.

The seats are supportive buckets, with contrasting red stitching, and the large and wide navigation screen gives you all pertinent information. The floor shifter is joined by a console, and assorted other switches for driving mode and other assets.

All the safety elements are included, too, such as front collision warning and assist, lane keeping assist, adjustable driving mode, and all the connectivity you could want on a contemporary car. I’m not sure if the lesser Soul models have all the same features, and if not, it would be a logical reason the price rises from the low-$20,000 range to $28,710 — the tester’s sticker tally.

Kia, and its corporate partner Hyundai, have made a meteoric rise in quality and design over the past decade, but after joining up with its powerful and successful partner Hyundai, it pretty well paralleled Hyundai, model for model. The Soul was a departure then, because while both companies have neat compacts, Kia got its Soul and there was no parallel version with a Hyundai logo.

Squared rear shows off dual exhaust and air diffuser among assorted vents.

American drivers and car-buyers used to be a lot more square, apparently. Remember when Nissan came out with a little square car called the Cube, just about the same time Kia came out with a little square car called the Soul? Even Toyota came out with a square subcompact under its Scion sub-brand, designated by an easily-forgotten combination of large and small letters, while Ford created the Flex, a considerably larger but square vehicle, in keeping with the tradition of U.S. cars being bigger.

The Flex is almost a station wagon/van trucklet, the whole Scion group disappeared, and while the quirky little Cube went away, the Soul remained. The irony of the whole thing is that Kia designed the Soul almost as a novelty, a fun car for younger buyers as a departure from a group of stylish sedans and SUVs. My opinion is that the Soul, too, might have disappeared from the automotive landscape if it weren’t for the hamsters.

Yes, the hamsters. Remember them?

When the first Soul was introduced, the public relations staff showed the assembled media videos of a new ad campaign, showing a couple of cartoon hamsters bopping along in a Solo, heads nodding to the music from the potent sound system. There were two or three different ones, and we all loved them. They became a staple on television commercials for the Soul. The large stuffed hamsters were a cult hit, maybe more than the car itself, but at auto shows and on commercials, the two were interwoven.

Kia public relations folks apologized for using the hamsters, which always puzzled me. Why not flaunt them? But after a couple of years, the hamsters went away, but they had provided the Soul itself with enough marketing traction to go onward and upward, selling much better than even the most optimistic Kia official could have imagined.

I had been invited to attend the introduction of the first Soul, down in Miami. We happened to stay at a neat hotel just off the most populous areas, When I went up to my room on a higher floor of the hotel, I walked along the corridor with a couple of security guards, and we exchanged small talk until I got to my door. When I went to leave a short time later, I was surprised to see the same two security guards two doors down, sitting on folding chairs. Again, we exchanged comments, and I left. At lunch, someone mentioned to me that there was heightened security all around the hotel to prevent photographers from bothering Britney Spears, who was also staying at that hotel, hoping to be secluded while performing a couple of concerts in Miami.

It hit me then that she must be staying next door to me, which was the reason for the guards. The next day we went for our introductory drives in the new Soul, and when we returned in late afternoon, security was more heightened. Nobody was allowed in or out, but I was allowed to go up the elevator to my room to change. Returning to the lobby, I spotted Britney Spears, reclining on a lounge chair by the pool with her infant son and a couple of attendants. I only had a few seconds to snap a couple of photos with my trusty pocket camera, and then we went off for dinner.

Bright red catches the winter sun on Lake Superior’s North Shore.

Such adventures can leave a lasting impression, and if KIA was not about to incorporate Britney Spears into the Soul’s promotion, it at least could have kept the hamsters. The original Soul was well-suited to any driving requirements in the Miami area, and the new one has advanced enough to be only a small adjustment away from taking care of the challenges of a Northern Minnesota winter.

About the only criticism you might have is that the boxy shape does an effective job of catching the wind, and crosswinds makes you appreciate the vehicle’s stability even while you can hear some wind buffeting. And, I would recommend some top-flight winter tires if you were going to try to make it through a snow-belt winter. The stock, low-profile tires on the test-car’s 18-inch alloy wheels were eager to spin on any icy incline, and a set of Nokians would allow you to frolic through any winter situation.

Explorer ST goes to new lengths for 2020

January 31, 2020 by · Comments Off on Explorer ST goes to new lengths for 2020
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

New look, new platform, new roominess — 2020 Explorer checks all the boxes.

By John Gilbert
The SUV craze may come and go — although as we head into 2020 it looks like it has come to stay — but as names and shapes and sizes fluctuate, there will always be an Explorer.

Ford sells Explorers the way other companies can only dream about, and for 2020, the Explorer takes a large leap forward.

There are various Explorer models in the 2020 lineup, including a hybrid, and a so-called base 4-cylinder model, with all sorts of trim options up to the loaded Platinum maximum. The one that caught my eye at first, however, is the sporty ST model, and by good fortune, that is the one I got for my fkirst road test of the new Explorer.

If theres was a perfect time for examining how the new Explorer might cope with wintertime on the North Shore of Lake Superior, this has been the year for it. One report said that snowfall through mid-January is normally 30 inches, and this winter it was 70 inches.

To handle such challenges all the Explorers for 2020 ride on a new platform that is significantly different from the 2019 face-lifted version of the popular midsize SUV. Foremost is that the Explorer now rides on a platform that is rear-drive oriented, while all previous Explorers were on a front-wheel-drive platform. The new platform is long enough to house three rows of seats inside its 199.3-inch overall length, and it has a wider stance of 78.9 inches to better plant the vehicle, with the clear benefit to the spacious interior.

Rich leather seats are supportive, and nav-info screen is iPad-sized in the new Explorer.

The ST has assorted sporty touches, such as the twin chrome exhaust tips on either side of the rear end, and four pipes should be enough to extract all the exhaust from the 3.0-liter V6, which is twin-turbocharged to run away from the very swift standard-issue Explorers, such as the XLT with its potent 300-horsepower/310-foot-pound 2.3-liter Ecoboost 4. The ST’s new 3.0 has a whopping 400 horsepower and 415 foot-pounds of torque.

That’s enough to send the Explorer ST from 0-60 miles per hour in a mere 5.3 seconds, and it can reach 100 in a quarter-mile dash in about 14 seconds. The base four-cylinder reaches 60 in a very respectable sub-7-second run, which is good for a vehicle of this size, but is left behind when the ST, despite 4,860 pounds, makes its run.

Roomy enough for optional third-row seats,  and added storage, the Explorer also features 4-pipe exhaust on sporty ST model.

The ST is not just for show and sportiness. It does not shirk its work capability with a 5,000-pound towing weight, or its people-hauling requirements..

Part of the enjoyment of evaluating new vehicles is trying to guess at the reasoning behind the changes, or what might be coming next. I figure the Explorer has grown in size to take care of those folks who want a third-row seat, and also to make room for an all-new Escape, just out for 2020, and if moving the Explorer up a bit closer to the Expedition, it leaves more room for the Escape — and for the return of the Bronco to Ford’s stable. as an all-new SUV with an old name.

The Explorer has the refined compromise of being bigger and roomier but not handling bigger. It has a performance suspension package that lets it corner sharply and you can play with the settings with a knob on the console that goes from economy to normal to sport, and the sport setting works to tighten steering and firm up the suspension.

On the outside, short overhangs front and rear make for an interesting design and enhances any off-roading you might want or need to do. And the 21-inch alloy wheels — black on the ST — respond well to the urgings of the 10-speed automatic transmission, which shifts often and smoothly, but which also can hold its shifts if you’re in sport.

The Explorer ranges in price from $37,000 up to the ST test vehicle’s stiff tag of $59,520, and while you can find numerous midsize SUVs for that or less, you have to experience the new Explorer to realize it feels like it can compete with larger and costlier SUVs. And, without question, the bulk of that money’s-worth is on the inside, where creature comforts surround you in every way in ST trim.

Large screen has room for two guidance views, including overhead 360-degree look.

The leather bucket seats, with contrast stitching, are firm and comfortable, with buckets in the front and second rows that are heated. Rumor has it that the fronts are also cooled, although in January in Northern Minnesota, that’s one of those features you don’t bother testing. The spaciousness of the front seats becomes remarkable in the second row, where the seats have plenty of legroom.

The neat part is that at the push of a button, you can make the seat slide fore and aft, and the backrest folds down at another touch. The height of the second row buckets gives them room to fold out of the way for entry to the third row bench seat, which works, although might be reserved for kids or small adults. Of course that third row seat folds down, and enlarges the storage space under the hatch.

Back up front, the driver gets both serviced and entertained from the cockpit-style layout. A large, horizontal instrument cluster greets you as you enter with a beautiful and artistic vision of mountains and billowing clouds in the sky, and, if it’s late enough, a gigantic moon is rising from out of the mist. Of course it changes over to serious business when you start the car with the push-button located on the horizontal space between the console and the dashboard.

At start-up, driver is welcomed by a panorama scene on instrument panel.

Then you check the navigation screen for information, and be prepared: At 10.3 inches, that vertical screen is about the size of an iPad, and it loaded itself up with information, including the normal audio or climate control settings. When you shift into reverse, you not only get the direct rear-facing camera shot of where you’re heading, but you also get the overhead 360-degree view of the vehicle — complete with a darkened area that indicates you have the ST package’s double-size sunroof, which Ford calls a moonroof.

The high-tech B&O audio system is also something special, sending lots of sounds to 14 speakers in the ST, and the separation of sounds from those speakers puts this whole system up with the highest level of vehicle audio.

Living in the snow belt gives you some special needs, and the Explorer ST handles them all with safety features including park assist, automatic LED headlights that cut through the snowflakes in a storm and turn night into virtual day. A small feature is the capless gas filler. When it’s below zero, and you’re at the gas pump, you plug in your credit card, grab the nozzle, flip the filler door open, and just stick in the nozzle without taking off your other glove to unscrew a cap.

Let the snowflakes fly, the 2020 Explorer ST proved unstoppable in all conditions.

My wife, Joan, liked everything about the Explorer ST, but if she had to pick a favorite item, it might be that while standing in the kitchen, looking out at the Explorer parked 100 feet away, under the result of an overnight snowstorm, you just hit the key fob to watch its lights blink and the remote starter firing up that engine. Take a few minutes to bundle up for the short walk, and the Explorer is warmed up, seat-heater and defroster already warm, and you’re all set to go to work, to the mall, or to go…Exploring.

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