Mini tradition endures, even in “Maxi” form

November 12, 2019 by · Comments Off on Mini tradition endures, even in “Maxi” form
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

The 2020 Mini Countryman is larger and more powerful but proved its kinship with our 2007 model during an impromptu road-test.

By John Gilbert
Ever since I was a little kid, our family gave our cars nicknames. Betsy is the one I remember best, for a sturdy old 1946 Dodge . Since then, I’ve always had relationships with cars I’ve owned, some great, some not so great. For the last 10 years, however, the most memorable car we’ve had has been a little red 2007 Mini Cooper.

It has been so loyal, trustworthy, and dependable, it could earn a Boy Scout endorsement. I last wrote about how it carried my wife, Joan, my older son, Jack, and me home from the Twin Cities airport through the worst overnight blizzard of the winter, to the safely and securrity of the Gilbert Compound, up on the hill just up the North Shore of Lake Superior from Duluth. The joke was on us, to a point, because I couldn’t readily see the tiny switch on the other side of the floor shift lever and was unaware the switch indicated that the traction control was off. I just thought the icy undercoat of all the snow made our trek extremely slippery and hazardous. All the way from the Twin Cities, slithering around on the freeway in whiteout conditions, my adrenaline on red-alert, and we made it! Imagine how easy it would have been had the traction control been turned on!

I’ve test-driven a couple of Mini Coopers in the decade since we bought that Mini with only a few miles on it, and I’ve been impressed. The 2007 model came out a year after BMW had taken ownership of the proud marque and smoved its production to Europe, with a BMW 4-cylinder.My wife, Joan, has pampered that car, hand-washing it to be put  back in the garage. Next time I see it, she’ll be hand-washing it again. It took a lot of convincing to get her to allow regular or mid-grade gas into it, instead of the premium she prefers.

Our 2007 Mini Cooper has been a loyal friend for a decade of winters — odd key fob and all.

As it turned out, our 2007 Mini secured for us a few days in a 2020 “Mini Cooper S Countryman, ALL4,” courtesy of Motorwerks BMW in the Minneapolis suburb of Golden Valley. There is no dealership in Duluth, so we make periodic trips to Motorwerks when we need to give our Mini factory scrutiny, if it can’t be handled by Foreign Affairs in Duluth. We didn’t want to leave our Mini with a babysitter, even a factory-supported babysitter, but we agreed to swap it for a 2020 test-drive for a few days. Here’s why:

The Mini has the weird little electronic ignition switch and door key. You hit the tiny edge of the key fob to unlock or lock the two doors, and then you insert the fob into a little slot on the dash, next to the push-button to start the car. Or shut it off. Our key fob has taken a beating over the decade, and we only had one.

Joan, who does most of the Mini driving because I’m usually in test-drive vehicles, also likes to do work around outside our rural hilltop home, and she was digging around one day in July and got some honest dirt on her jacket. When she came in, she tossed the jacket into the washing machine with the next load. Came out clean as a whistle. And so did the Mini key fob, which happened to still be in the pocket of her jacket.

We agreed that going through the washing cycle was probably not on the list of accepted maintenance tricks for that key fob. Joan carefully dried it out, opening it and using a hair dryer, and bought it a new tiny battery, and we tried it. Hitting the little switch made a meaningful click, but would not unlock the doors or the hatch. it would, however, start the car. Strange. When we hit the lock part of the switch it worked. Too well. We stood there, marooned, with the key fob in hand and the Mini parked in the garage in its well-scrubbed red paint, and its doors and hatch locked. We had no choice but to ultimately call AAA. Impressively, they had a fellow at our garage door within minutes, and he pried his way to slightly open the window and reach a long rod inside the Mini to unlock the door.

Then we found a quirk in the Mini’s personality, fortunately when it was still warm enough outside that we had the driver’s window open. If you very carefully left the doors unlocked, when you walked away it might lock itself. We left the driver’s door window open 4 inches so we could reach inside without calling AAA again. You might even hear it click from 30 feet away, and feel thankful the window was slightly open.

Roomy interior, AWD lift Countryman above normal Mini Cooper coupe.

We also knew we would have to get set up with a reconfigured or new switch, so we tried everywhere, but everyone told us it could only be done at a Mini dealership. We made an appointment at Motorwerks, which I had to cancel, and they said not to worry, we could just drive up and have it taken care of.

It became our ritual to leave the driver’s side window down those 4 inches — just enough to fit my forearm through to reach in and unlock the door with the inside latch. We figured we would have the switch reconfigured, but it wasn’t that easy. To reconfigure the key,  we had t0 go to a dealership, and have your title, driver’s license, credit card, and all the meaningful information required to, I suppose, change citizenship or travel to Canada and return some day. We had a section of old carpeting we carried on the floor of the back seat, so that if it rained, I could drape the grippy bottom of the carpet piece on the roof and let it hang over the open part of the window to keep it dry inside. You could drive it anywhere, but if you closed the window, you realized the importance of reopening it before exiting. So we fixed a little steick-on note onto the door as a reminder.

If car-buyers are turning to trucks and SUVs, BMW-owned Mini Countryman meets the test.

When it got cold enough to not leave the window open, Joan and I informed Motorwerks we were coming, and drove down from Duluth to the Twin Cities. When we pulled in, they carefully examined the key fob and were very puzzled. Why would the key operate the ignition, lock the doors, but not unlock them?

Then we learned that Mini key fobs cannot be reconfigured. Jake, our service writer, was very patient and accommodating as he fetched the service manager to discuss it with this unhappy customer. They explained that when the car is new, you plug the key fob into the ignition for the first time, and it is electronically configured for life. Matched to that car. We had no choice but to get a new one, which was really available — in Chicago, for a mere $284!

It would take a day or two to get it to Motorwerks, and they generously offered us the option of taking a “loaner” car until ours was ready, so we could drive home and then drive back down in a few days to get our Mini.

We also found out that there was never the need to bring the car to Motorwerks! They could have mailed the new key to us in Duluth, because the first time we plugged it in, it would configure itself. But if it didn’t work…well, we didn’t want to risk it. It was more than impressive when Jake rolled out our loaner — a brand new 2020 Mini Countryman — equipped with a supercharged 2.0-liter engine and all-wheel drive. We didn’t need the extra room, but it was very nice to have the quite enormous second seat and storage area, and the Mini Countryman performed very well for the four days we drove it like our own.

Comfortable leather bucket seats and modern connectivity are new Mini assets.

There are some significant design differences. One is that the old Mini has the oddity of a giant speedometer in the center of the dashboard; the driver gets a tachometer in front of his line of vision. The new car has the speedometer in the customary location, straight ahead, and a large navigation screen in the middle. Excellent comfort, good, responsive power, nice balance, and I had to think that AWD would be fantastic when snow and ice reach the North Shore.

Jake called, our car was ready, and everything seemed to work well. I drove down, dodging cones and barrels on the freeway-construction maze to get there. I was able to register 28.9 miles per gallon for the time I had the Countryman, curtailed as it was, under the circumstances. The new Mini Countryman would be fun to own, and a worthy Minnesota vehicle in the Great White North — although our much lighter, if older, Mini delivers over 36 miles per gallon on the freeway.

Modernized instruments on 2020 Mini show nav and back-up screens where speedometer used to be.

Motorwerks did a comprehensive job of going over everything in our trusty Mini, and we appreciated the recommendation for noticing the need for a little exhaust work, a reminder that our Nokian all-season tires are showing wear — down to 5/32 of remaining tread, and the engine air cleaner and the cabin microfilter needed changing. We had them replace the filters, and climbing in, the Mini felt like coming home. No satellite radio, but a CD player, and I had brought along a dozen of my best CDs to play on the way home.

When we got to November, the daily absurdity of being 25 degrees below normal because of our Arctic air mass meant it was a relief to no longer need to keep the driver’s window open a fourth of the way, because hypothermia is not on my most-wanted list. And the new key fob is really new-looking and gives us functions that have never been used. Also, the key fob is so clean,  there’ll be no need to run it through the washing machine.

No fiddling while Niro electrifies driving

November 5, 2019 by · Comments Off on No fiddling while Niro electrifies driving
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Kia’s Niro EV looks like a normal compact SUV, but is an all-electric view of the future.

By John Gilbert
If you have an odd sense of humor, you can use it to fool and confuse your friends when you’re driving a Kia Niro EV. Park it in a parking lot and ask if anyone can help locate the gas filler. They can walk around the car, several times, but they won’t find one. There isn’t one.

Then ask if any of them hear anything unusual as you drive away. Hit the gas pedal and Zap! You have accelerated away. When you come back, they will tell you they didn’t hear anything odd, because they didn’t hear anything at all. There is no sound, because there is no gasoline engine. The Niro EV is pure-electric, going beyond the hybrid Niro and plug-in hybrid Niro.

The Niro is Kia’s newly introduced compact SUV, sort of. It looks like a crossover SUV, it has the room of a compact crossover SUV, which it resembles far more than any rank-and-file car. The major hint is the terminology “EV.” That stands for Electric Vehicle. So there is no place for a gas filler, because there is no gasoline engine under the hood.

It’s not a Tesla, or any of those exotic, $100,000-plus luxury vehicles. It is an under-$50,000 wagon that looks like a compact SUV, which aims to show us where our cars of the future are heading. It’s “fuel economy” figure on the sticker shows 123 miles per gallon city, 102 highway, or 112 MPGe combined. The lower-case “e” after MPG stands for “electric.” It is a symbol of a changing world, which is fast approaching.

Stylish front of the Niro EV conceals outlet for plugging in electric plug.

The Niro is silent-running, and when you switch it on, don’t wait for an engine sound, just look for the little sign on the instrument panel that says “ready to drive.” Switch the rotary knob on the console to “D” and you’re off. There is also an “R” indicator to the right, and an “N” for neutral, and the little round circle with a “P” on it in the middle of the shift knob is for park. When you stop, or park, make sure you hit the P, and you might want to make sure it is shown on the instrument panel, or the silent-running Niro might go home without you!

The Niro is very comfortable for four or five, and it is both quick and good-handling both in city driving or cruising on a freeway, where you are amazed at how quick it is, and pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to hear conversations, or the fine audio system, because there is no engine noise.

The Niro seems to be facing its own identity crisis, possibly trying to decide if it is a luxury car, a sporty car, or an SUV. Think I’m exaggerating? Motor Trend runs an annual issue with capsules showing all the new cars, and a different issue showing all the new SUVs. I checked it out for the Niro among the small SUVs, but it wasn’t there. Then I pulled out the car issue, and, sure enough, Motor Trend showed the Niro among the cars. There are other compact crossovers without all-wheel-drive that don’t get insulted by being placed with cars, but the Niro seems OK with it.

Self-contained charge cable has a locking plug that can install electricity for 260 miles.

My appreciation of hybrid vehicles has been increasing at about the same rate that coordinated gas-electric hybrids have been moving into increasingly prominent roles in the auto industry. Knowing that the gas engine will recharge the electric motor is comforting, but I have had trouble getting my hands on anything from one elusive segment, up on the great North Shore of Lake Superior, and that is an EV — a pure electric vehicle.

Brief drives in vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf, left a strong impression, although its earliest models had a modest range of 20-something miles. There were others, too, but the manufacturers who build pure electric vehicles, with real-world driving range capabilities, pretty much ignore what we endearingly call “flyover land.” The reason is obvious on a couple of counts.

One, the expense of installing rapid charging stations naturally placed them in high-population areas like Los Angeles, or San Francisco, or the New York-Boston area of the East Coast. Maybe Florida. Second, it gets cold in the Great White North, really cold, and that can knock the starch out of the driving range of battery packs.

But EV-makers shouldn’t overlook the Upper Midwest. I keep writing that we’re all headed toward a world of electric-powered cars, and we’ve done well with hybrids and plug-in hybrids. Not only that, but we have a few EV charging stations in Minnesota — mostly in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, but a few in Duluth, right up here on the often-freezing tip of Lake Superior.

When I was notified that a vehicle would be delivered from a press fleet operation in Chicago, and it would be the Kia Niro EV, they informed me that it would be delivered to my house up the hill from the North Shore in rural Duluth, in an enclosed trailer.

Simple rotating shifter leaves room on console for needed switchwork.

Sure enough, the vehicle was a 2019 Kia Niro EV, in EX Premium trim. That’s a lot of suffixes, but the EX and Premium tags just denote various creature comfort packages on the particular vehicle coming my way. The car is Kia’s version of a similar drivetrain in the Hyundai Ionic, and more recently the Hyundai Kona compact SUV.

The Niro resembles a compact SUV, but it really is an example of how the South Korean partners are now differentiating their models. The Ionic is a slick compact sedan with large-car interior space, while the Kia designers took the same platform and built it up into an SUV-style vehicle using the same powertrain.

That powertrain is a 64 kilowatt-hour Lithium-Ion Polymer battery pack, built low and streamlined by LG Chem, a South Korean electronics innovator, and it produces 150 kilowatt-hours — or 201 horsepower — through an AC synchronous motor. It also has a 7.2 kilowatt on-board charger, and a DC fast-charge port for 480 volts in the front grille. It is concealed behind a small horizontal trap door on the end of what looks like a trim bar. Pop it open, pull the charge cable out from its receptacle under the hatch, and you can plug it into a normal household outlet, or a high-voltage outlet, or a special quick-charge outlet if you can locate one.

Though silent, Niro has sporty performance and controls to match.

I plugged the Niro into an outdoor plug-in and recharged it over night. But the most astounding thing about the whole week came when I clicked onto Google with my iPhone and asked for “EV car-charging stations in Duluth, Minnesota,” and it came back with several. The one that most interested me was at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, in the lot near the administration building, where two charging stations were located at the end of a long row of parking meters. Charge-Point, the company that makes the charging units, worked out an arrangement with UMD to install the two chargers, one normal and one fast-charge, and for its part of the bargain, UMD offers free usage of the charging stations for up to 4 hours at a time. That’s for students, faculty, visitors, and any residents who might come and plug in.

A small horizontal spring-loaded trap door in the grille reveals the covered connector, and you simply plug in the cable in the trunk floor, or the connector from a charge station, and as simply as you might use a credit card to plug a coin meter you’re set for as long as you want to charge. The connector locks in, and can’t be removed without the coded card from ChargePoint, to prevent the bad guys from stealing your car.

Heated and cooled leather seats add to the luxury interior featires.

When the Niro was delivered, it showed a workable range of 268 miles. That’s a lot. If yuo drive it precisely, you could get more, or less, if you want to hot-rod around. I charged mine at home, overnight, on a normal outlet. It showed I had reached 54 percent of capacity. I was disappointed I didn’t get more, but then I read that the most efficient way to insure long life for your battery pack is to charge it up to about halfway, then drive it.

The price of the Niro is $44,000, and if you add the numerous features of the test vehicle, such as the sunroof, Harmon Kardon audio upgrade, navigation and perforated leather seats, it rises to $47,155.

Friends mostly said, “I don’t want an electric car.” So I asked how much they pay a week for gasoline, and the norm was about $20 a week, to to work and back. I pointed out that 268 miles of range would get me through a whole week easily, and on the weekend, I could go to a UMD football or volleyball game, plug in the car at the free charge station, and recharge it enough to make it through the next week. If you did that, you would switch from paying $20 per week for gasoline, to paying $0 per week, for the year. That’s right — absolutely nothing for fuel for your car if you use the free-charge device. If you don’t, you can always go to one of the available credit card pay-recharge stations.

It’s common to drive from Duluth to Minneapolis and back in a day for business, or for a weekend, and it’s about 140 miles away. So you make it one way with ease, and if you don’t recharge in Minneapolis, you could head back home and stop for a little dinner along the way, getting enough of a charge while you’re eating to make it the rest of the way.

The Niro handles remarkably well, because the mostly flat, horizontal battery pack runs longitudinally, up the middle under the rear seat, sort of like a spine. It also locates a large portion of the car’s weight between the axles, giving the Niro the same benefit a mid-engine sports car gets from such placement.

Along with the expected safety features and electronic convenience and security items, the test Niro EV has a cold weather package that includes a battery heater and a heat pump that forces heated liquid to the battery pack to greatly reduce the normal power loss severe cold can do to battery packs. Warming up the battery pack makes it easier to operate in cold, as well.

Kia’s owner’s manual states that using normal AC charging ensures optimal battery life and is preferable to DC charging. Also, charging for the amount of range you need is better than fully charging, it says here, and you can set the Niro to shut off charging when the optimum charge is reached. Among other of its numerous safety fittings, such as lane-change, lane-departure, lane-following, collision-avoidance, etc., there are also fun features such as a mode switch that lets you instantly click to sport for improved acceleration.

From the side, Niro displays its capabilities for interior roominess alongside Lake Superior.

Kia also resisted the urge to install a continuously variable transmission, and instead uses the superb in-house 7-speed dual-clutch automatic that adds to the sporty feel. Shift paddles on the steering wheel enhance that feel even more.

My favorite Kia contact says the Niro has been selling on the West Coast for almost six months, and they are selling so fast that Kia has held off introducing its Soul-E, its next electric vehicle. I think the fact that the charging stations are already showing up in such outposts as Duluth, the logical move to sell more pure-electric cars in the Upper Midwest has got to be coming. We’re all going to be driving electric, sooner or later, so we might as well get on with it.

Range Rover Sport offers 575-HP kick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smooth, aerodynamic nose tips off extraordinary capabilities.

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

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

Safety focus required for drivers and vehicles

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

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

By John Gilbert

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

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

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

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

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

Kia Telluride has different grille, different light show.

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

Rear view of Kia Telluride.

Palisade from the rear sports different taillights.

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

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

Interior luxury of Palisade features leather, wood and aluminum.

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

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

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

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

Palisade features push-button shifter on console.

Telluride has conventional shift lever, terrain switch on console.

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

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

Palisade drives smaller than a large SUV should..

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

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

Black wheels set sportier image for Kia Telluride.

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Track driving can’t beat night freeway downpour test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Explorer is roomier and sportier in ST trim.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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