Tech features, price make Kona 2019 Car of the Year

January 17, 2019 by · Comments Off on Tech features, price make Kona 2019 Car of the Year
Filed under: Features, Autos 

The Kona is Hyundai’s compact SUV, but it’s loaded with all the features of costlier vehicles and earns 2019 New Car Pick of the Year.

By John Gilbert

   The Hyundai Kona has earned the unprecedented honor of being named the 2019 “Newcarpick of the Year,” satisfying both the nation’s insatiable appetite for SUVs with restraint provided by the rational input from those of us at the website newcarpicks.com.

   Among the numerous impressive and worthy vehicles filling every automotive segment these days, there are a number of worthy attractions for car buyers. But U.S. consumers have turned away from the lengthy list of outstanding new sedans and choosing to go with SUVs, the contemporary version of what we used to know as station wagons. Decades ago, we moved on to minivans, then to large SUVs, before falling back a bit to more reasonably sized sport-utility vehicles.

   Hyundai, the South Korean conglomerate that has spent less than a decade vaulting from a mediocre bit player in the economy car business to a sensational company that learned the secrets of high technology, styling, and mechanical wizardry and has combined them all into attractive and appealing vehicles.

   With the larger Santa Fe and Tucson SUVs finding success above a battery of fine cars from subcompact to luxury, the Kona is in a unique position to blend advanced styling and safe structure into a compact SUV — called CUV, for Compact Utility Vehicle. It is the perfect combination of all-weather all-wheel drive in a compact package large enough to carry some people, some luggage and equipment and yet small enough to be maneuverable — dare we say sporty? — in traffic congestion or twisty road regions. All of it comes in at a price that is remarkably reasonable, from $20,000-$30,000, which is just about half of what slightly larger SUVs try to command, even though they don’t have nearly the technical features that virtually fill the Kona.

 

Attractive contours highlight contemporary Kona, defying under-$30,000 price.

  This selection has no connection with the North American Car, Truck and Utility of the Year named this week at the Detroit International Auto Show. I was a member of that august jury for about a decade and a half, starting back when I spent 30 years writing about sports and cars at the Minneapolis Tribune. The North American Car of the Year jury decided to expand from a car of the year to add a companion truck of the year, and three years ago it added a separate SUV category, further diluting its choices.

    For the record, that group also named the Kona its Utility of the Year, joining the Ram 1500 as Truck of the Year, and the Hyundai G70 sedan as Car of the Year. It is nice timing that Hyundai just recently decided to branch its largest sedans off under the name of its Genesis sedan, so those who might discriminate may not even realize that Hyundai, from South Korea, just claimed two of the three biggest prizes at Detroit.

    Those three winners had been predicted in this column a couple of months ago, although we at newcarpicks.com remained undeterred about naming just one vehicle Car of the Year and taking it on as a project for the coming year to verify the choice. While test-driving every new vehicle that I can get my hands on, we will have our own Kona to run through long-term testing, with my wife, Joan, keeping track of every expense and describing little tidbits of pleasure or nitpicks we can find from driving and living with the vehicle. Occasionally our sons, Jack and Jeff, will provide further input.

 

Array of lights include LED headlights, with foglights, driving lights and foglights separated stylishly on Kona’s front end.

  The trend to go from cars to large SUVs never connected with us. My theory is “anything bigger than big enough is too big,” which was first aimed at gas-guzzling giant SUVs capable of hauling lots of large objects, even when you were commuting alone to work with no load.

    Coming down to midsize SUVs made a lot more sense, and the recent surge of compact or crossover SUVs, built on efficient and economical car platforms, started proving to be viable alternatives to cars. The fact that the reduced price of regular gas reaching down to under $2.15 per gallon, was mere coincidence, although some companies were able to capitalize doubly because they were building much more efficient powertrains to take on the costlier fuel prices.

   Now a fleet of compact SUVs or CUVs have captured the hearts of consumers, leading the way to the astounding fact that something like 72 percent of all the vehicles sold in 2018 were SUVs. No wonder Ford, General Motors and FCA are reducing the number of cars they build in favor of SUVs and pickups. When oil companies again find a way to raise prices, those who thought it was OK to buy larger and less efficient SUVs will unload them in a hurry for compact SUVs, which are almost as inexpensive to operate as compact cars. Of all of these, we think the Kona is the best new one, and a technological breakthrough besides.

   The Kona comes in a variety of models, from the base SE, which starts with front-wheel drive, and a highly efficient 2.0-liter engine that delays valve opening by Atkinson cycle to give optimum economy with its 147 horsepower and 132 foot-pounds of torque. A 6-speed automatic and all-season tires on 16-inch alloy wheels make the SE look almost identical to the upscale models, and stability management and traction control, plus hill start assist and downhill braking control and all necessary connectivity makes it a bargain, bolstered by 33 mpg highway EPA estimates.

   Moving up to the SEL, Kona adds 17-inch alloy wheels and a host of high-tech things, such as anti-theft immobilizer, blind-spot alert, lane-change assist, cross-traffic and side collision warning, push-button start, leather wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, heated front seats, HD and satellite radio and a hidden cargo area at the rear.

 

Clean, intuitive instrumentrs and controls highlight Kona Ultimate interior.

  Move still higher and you get to the Limited, which accumulates all the SE and SEL features and adds the option of my favorite Hyundai engine — the 1.6-liter direct-injection 4-cylinder with a turbocharger, good for 175 horsepower and 195 foot-pounds of torque, operating through a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission.

   The top-level Ultimate has all the attributes of the Limited, plus 18-inch alloy wheels, power tilt and slide sunroof, LED headlights and taillights, foglights, leather seats and automatic temperature control. Also standard on Ultim

All-wheel-drive platform with 1.6 Turbo and 7-speed dual-clutch are all Kona assets.

   All four models offer the option of all-wheel drive over the standard front-wheel drive. The small but potent turbo 1.6 has Hyundai’s own 7-speed dual-clutch transmission, in which two internal clutches alternate which one is engaged, with one handling first, third, fifth and seventh and the other shifting into second, fourth and sixth. You can do it manually, by moving the floor shift lever into the manual side, or you can let it shift for itself, precisely and swiftly.

    We will devote our Car of the Year evaluations to the Ultimate model with AWD. We selected the Kona despite the obvious situation that the rear seat room is tight, compared to larger midsize SUVs. Son Jack climbed back there, and at 5-foot-10, he declared it to be a bit tight climbing in, but once inside, it was adequate for head and legroom and surprisingly comfortable. We could say the same, for certain, about the leather front bucket seats, very supportive and comfortable.

   Within the overall length of 164 inches, the Kona has 39.6 inches of front headroom dropping to 38 inches with the power sunroof, with rear headroom of 37.8, and front legroom of 41.5 inches with 34.6 inches in the rear. Cargo capacity is a modest 19.2 cubic feet with all seats in place, expanding to 45.8 with the rear seats folded down.

    Among the Star-Wars-y features is the Blue Link, which allows us to program the car’s connectivity with our iPhones. You of course can use the key fob to lock and unlock the doors or pop the rear hatch, but you’ll want to download the free Hyundai app. Summon it, and you can lock, unlock, open the hatch, and also activate the auto-start by clicking the proper icon and executing by Wi-Fi!

   In Duluth, Minnesota, where the all-wheel drive works wondrously on all the hills, being able to fire up the car for a warm-up of up to 10 minutes is greatly appreciated when the temperature occasionally dips below zero. There are stories such as the woman leaving her key fob in the console and realizing it as she headed out into the cold. She called her husband, who was out of town on business and explained her predicament. No worries. He used his iPhone to lock the doors and remotely start the car, a couple hundred miles away, and set the interior temperature to 71 degrees. She walked to the car and called him again, and he unlocked the car from long-distance and she got in and drove away.

   There are other manufacturers that build such features into their vehicles, but generally they cost at least twice as much as the Kona. Being a person who loves high-tech gadgetry but also is always looking for a bargain, finding the Kona with all those features for under $30,000 made it the overwhelming choice as our Newcarpick of the Year.

    

   

Holiday gifts range from cars to tires to starters

December 24, 2018 by · Comments Off on Holiday gifts range from cars to tires to starters
Filed under: New car introductions, Features, Autos 

Two of the best inexpensive but high-tech compact SUVs are the Mazda CX-3, left, and the Hyundai Kona.

    The model year changeover is extra intriguing this year because of the numerous and impressive bits of technology that have made their way into the automotive world. Here at Newcarpicks, we have whittled down the list of possible candidates for our Car of the Year down to the core, and the final decision will reflect the nation’s never-ending hunger for SUVs but will refuse to also recognize the seeming indifference to poor fuel economy that accompanies the quest for larer SUVs.

   No, two of our finalists are more similar than different, and the second of those just arrived for a week-long examinaton in the Great White North. It is the Mazda CX-3 for 2019, which changes subtly from 2018 as a transitional vehicle in Mazda’s always-enticing lineup.

   Gazing out at it in the early morning light at the Gilbert Compound on the North Shore of Lake Superior, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It fairly glowed, like a large ruby, luring me to get out there and drive it. Somebody asked me what color it was, and I said I couldn’t remember the precise name, but it is a deep, lustrous red that goes right to your soul. Or at least my soul.

   Then I examined the sticker to see if I could find the color.. There it was: “Soul Red Crystal” it said. Not bad. Maybe the fact I suggested the color went right through me to my soul was a tip. That color came out two years ago as a different and exclusive red on the CX-5, the midsize member of Mazda’s three SUVs. Last year it migrated to other models, where it will continue to be offered.

   It turns out that Soul Red Crystal is a $595 option. I mentioned that to my inquisitive friend with the added note that it was a very expensive color, and probably worth it!

   Swwms outrageous, perhaps, but I have never seen another color on any car, regardless of price, that affected me the same as Soul Red. So how much is it worth to have a distinctive color that lifted you up every time you approached the vehicle.

   The CX-3 is a small SUV, too small by many contemporary standards, but the reason it is one of our finalists is that is loaded up with technology to match or surpass any other SUV, and it has some tricks that are beyond all the others.

   As one of our two award leaders coming around the final turn and heading down the homestretch, the CX-3 is opposed by the Hyundai Kona, the smallest SUV offering from that South Korean company, and it, too, comes loaded with technology that other low-priced SUVs can’t hope to challenge.

   That, too, looks good in its vast array of colors, but the red one stands out. Together, the two look like later Christmas tree ornaments.

    Ah, Christmas is drawing close, and those of us who have family members or close-enough friends deserving of a holiday gift — which includes about all of us! — might leave us baffled about what we could get them that would be really different. Unique, even.

    Buying a new vehicle for someone isn’t always possible, but if you need a new vehicle right about now, the CX-3 and the Kona are both available for right around $25,000, which is a modest price, especially when you examine the technology.

    There are, of course, other wonderful Christmas gift ideas for a lot less than $25,000.

   One is a set of winter or all-season tires, and the idea of the newest Nokian tires was appealing enough that I drove up to Ninth Street and Seventh Avenue East on the Duluth Hillside to talk to Jeff Hofstedt, propriator of “Foreign Affairs,” a cleverly named service outlet for all cars foreign or domestic, and also the nation’s leading seller of Nokian tires.

   There are three or four different models of Nokians these days. I remain loyal to the all-season tires, stopping short of the all-out winter tire, the Hakkapeliitta. Without question, the Hakkapeliittas are the best winter tire on the market, matching the legendary Bridgestone Blizzak in glare-ice tracton, and outlasting even that stalwart for long wear in all conditions. I’ve found the WRG, and its newest derivative, the WRG-3, to be outstanding year-round, and still with exceptional snow and ice traction characteristics to get you through the harshest winter.

   Both Car and Driver and Motor Trend finally got past the Tire Rack tradeout arrangement for using that company’s test track with the gentleman’s agreement deal that their annual winter tire test would only use winter tires sold at Tire Rack’s mail-order business. Nokian, a company in Finland which, Hoffstedt said, “invented the snow tire,” prefers to sell to smaller dealers and doesn’t go through Tire Rack, meaning Car and Driver and Motor Trend spent all those years comparing winter tires and declaring a winner while exclusing the best — the Nokian. The Hakkapeliitta won the top award by both magazines when they went to the company’s Finland home and tested above the Arctic Circle. I was hoping they’d include the WRG-3, because as an all-season tire, its unique tread compound sticks better than the snowtires of many competitors.

    A set of Nokians might cost $500, but we have them on our car and our older son has them on his car in the Twin Cities. There is no better security for a parent than to know your spouse or child of any age is riding on tires that can conquer any winter weather without flinching. Or slipping.

    The reason new tires came into my scope of consideration was that a friendly fellow who struck up a conversation with me asked when I might get back on KDAL radio, because he liked my show. I told him new management had other ideas, and he said he especially liked how I would explain things, after researching them, and added, “Now where can we go to find someone who will even tell us what kind of tires to buy?”

   There. I’ve done that.

   Another interesting new trend in gift ideas, especially in winter driving areas, is an intriguing idea  Called AdventureStart by MyCharge, it is a device that is beyond handy and costs under $50. The company contacted me to see if I’d like to test one, and I assured them I would. They sent me a unit, and it comes with a plug-in pack that you charge up, then you stick it in your glove compartment, or trunk, and it has neat little pincer-like clamps that you can attach to the terminals of your dead battery. Give it a minute, hit the starter, and you are rescued.

   My problem was that our car was in top shape and we never were threatened by a dead or dying battery at the end of last winter, so I was unable to give it a valid test. A good friend and his wife from Maryland bought a huge, used motorhome and headed west to visit relatives. He stopped by in Duluth, and parked his monster unit in our driveway. Somehow, a power switch got left on for 24 hours, and he found the vehicle’s battery too dead to start the engine.
“Wait!” I yelled. Then I ran to find the AdventureStart. We hooked it up, and after reconnecting, it allowed the big engine to fire up. If it could start thats thing, a normal car would be a cinch. Again, it’s an item that is a great piece of security for anyone living in an area that might be conducive to dead batteries.

    Meanwhile, back to the Car of the Year candidates. In all the years I voted on the North American Car of the Year jury, I tended to apportion out my votes to favor styling, performance, and technology, with technology ranking highest, and performance including both speed and handling as well as fuel economy.

   So doing the award separately for Newcarpicks.com, my opinions of what makes a car great haven’t changed. There are a lot of trucks and SUVs that are spacious and roomy and will tow heavy things, but falter when it comes to gas mileage. Gasoline prices are the lowest we’ve seen in a decade, but that doesn’t mean we should have a cavalier attitude and buy cars that get under 20 mile per gallon.

   Similarly, we all are attracted to the gigantic service station signs that boas $2.45, meaning that’s the price of a gallon. But people buying and driving cars that require premium fuel are attracted to those signs, too, apparently without realizing they are giving the price of regular. Next time you buy gasoline, compare the price of regular and prmium. Last time I did it, regular was $2.45 in Duluth, and premium at the same pump was $3.29. That’s a difference of 84 cents per gallon — and it doesn’t take much driving and tankfuls to realize how much worse youre expenses are if yoiu need premium.

   

    Both our finalists — the Mazda CX-3 and the Hyundai Kona — have small but over-achieving engines. I reached mid-30 miles per gallon with both regularly, and topped 40 with the Kona and 42 with the CX-3.

   The Kona has Hyundai’s 1.6-liter 4-cylinder with a turbocharger making it act like a bigger, stronger engine. The direct-sequential 7-speed transmission also extracted maximum efficiency.

   The CX-3 had Mazda’s fantastic SkyActiv 2.0-liter 4-cylinder, although the 2.5-liter is also available. The test car I had happened to have the larger 2.5, while I greatly prefer the 2.0. The SkyActiv technology summons up all sorts of modern engine technology and has an extremely high 13-to-1 compression ratio, yet calls for regular fuel.

   But here’s an interesting twist for 2019: Mazda is coming out with the SkyActiv-Plus version of the 2.0, and it will have 15-20 percent greater power, and greater fuel efficiency. It will be introduced on the Mazda3 compact sedan first, and while that car is getting totally redesigned for 2019, it also will offer all-wheel drive. That will plug in nicely to the CX-3.

    But there’s more to the technology story than engine performance and fuel economy. The CX-3 has Mazda’s unique G-Vectoring control, which is truly amazing. It gives the car’s computer the authority to sense the first impulse that the driver is going to make a turn, and it instantly cuts the power to the outside front wheel and softens the suspension to the outside front, also for a millisecond. Together, those two things cause you as the driver to turn in at that moment, rather than possibly guessing and missing the apex even slightly. So instead of having to correct the steering, which is no big deal, but then running the risk of possibly over-correcting, which can be a big deal.

   The CX-3 test vehicle didn’t explain any of that or give you that sort of complex feedback. All it did was track around corners with great precision, and you might not even notice that you never have to correct — or over-correct. I also has lane-departure warning, which tips you off if you have wandered to the lane line dividers left or right.

   On the Kona, meanwhile, Hyundai has installed its lane-departure alert, and warningl, and goes beyond that to a lane-centering system that works so well you’ll think it’s voodoo. If you have it turned on to that extent, you go hard around a curve and the Kona will stay not only in its lane, but in the center of its lane.

   So while both the CX-3 and Kona have such electronic gadgetry, both are aimed at driving ease but also safety that most drivers of car-buyers haven’t even comprehended yet.

   You may need an SUV but not need a third-row seat. You may want, or need, an SUV for the security of its all-wheel drive. But if you don’t need the enormity of the large-SUV room, and you don’t need to carry five or six passengers over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house, then a compact crossover SUV might be the perfect vehicle.

   And both the CX-3 and Kona will give you the added bonus of precise steering, stay-in-your-lane stability, and mid-30s in miles per gallon.

   Now, one of those vehicles, with Nokians mounted on all four corners and a portable charging device in the glove compartment, and your Christmas family trips will be a treat. 

Ford conducts intramural Car-SUV duel

December 18, 2018 by · Comments Off on Ford conducts intramural Car-SUV duel
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Newest Edge takes 2019 center stage for Ford, which is moving toward the Mustang vs. all-truck-SUV lineup.

   If it’s time for a new family car, and your budget is sorted out, and now comes the ultimate decision. Do you buy the car of your dreams, or do you give in to the overwhelming trendiness but expansive versatility of a sports-utility vehicle?

     If you happen to favor Ford Motor Company, you can face the decision in the same showroom:Like a major prize-fight, we have, in one corner, the flashy Mustang GT, with its swept-back roofline and spectacular color, and in that corner, we have the all-newly redesigned Edge midsize SUV. Both have their proper measures of appeal.

    It might depend on your family. With the Edge you can haul the family anywhere, vacation trips, hockey practices, or to the shopping center, with all the comforts of home. With the Mustang GT, you will attract attention every time you start the engine, or cruise the neighborhood, resembling a slightly aging hot-rodder.

 

The Mustang GT Coupe Premium with 460 horsepower and precise handling is the best example of Ford’s car offerings.

There are benefits to both extremes, one of which lures your logical, family-oriented self, and the other which genuinely stirs all those primal juices of emotion. Pragmatic or passionate? You get to choose.

    Maybe we really have gone over the edge in our society — I mean in car selection, not in politics — and maybe we really do prefer trucks and SUVs to cars. Or maybe we don’t, but are victims of auto manufacturers who are eager to build us SUVs and trucks rather than cars because they can push them out the dealership doors for three or four times the profit.

   Whatever, we keep hurtling down that highway to changing the family car for the family truckster, and a perfect example of the whole societal shift is Ford Motor Company.

   Ford can be excused for being truck-crazy, because it builds the F-150, which has become the most popular vehicle in the country, in fact the world, and continues to dominate the hotly competitive pickup segment.

   Where it gets curious is that Ford executives announced several months ago that it will stop building several popular models of cars, and devote more attention to trucks and SUVs. The first word was that Ford would eliminate all but the Mustang and the compact Focus, then we heard only the Mustang will continue, in Ford’s drive to truck nirvana.

 

Sequential taillights, quad exhaust tubes set off GT Coupe among Mustangs.

  We know the Mustang is alive and well as it continues its amazing story of survival that started with its stunning introduction in 1964. The new one came out all new for 2018, so we don’t expect anything major when the 2019 model arrives. Just as well. It’s hard to imagine many improvements that could be made on the 2018 — especially the Lightning Blue GT model that arrived just before winter’s first blast.

    Good thing, because with its 5.0-liter, dual-overhead-camshaft V8 spewing 460 horsepower and 420 foot-pounds of torque to the huge rear tires, your chances of avoiding slippage on a slippery roadway are slim, taking the heart-in-your-throat quotient sky-high in an instant. The 10-speed automatic can harness all that power, but only with judicious use of the gas pedal.

 

Supportive bucket seadts and high-tech controls adorn the Mustang GT interior.

The GT Coupe Premium came in at $52,765 in aptly named Lightning Blue Metallic, and that included $10,000 in optional equipment to enhance performance, handling, sound enjoyment, and connectivity aids with the latest SYNC system. Ford also makes upgrades such as the Bullitt replica of the old Steve McQueen movie that started the craze toward wild car chases in Hollywood, and the Shelby GT.

But the basic Mustang GT is just right for my tastes, and I think from the standpoint of style, steering and handling tightness, and power, this is the best Mustang in over 60 years of trying.

   When it was picked up, the Chicago new-car delivery agency dropped off a new Edge, the loaded-up Platinum model.

  

Midsize Edge comes with adequate 2.0 4-cylinder or potent 2.7 V6, but go for the AWD.

Hopping out of one and into the other made for an interesting comparison, because we already know the front-engine, rear-drive Mustang will remain the icon of Ford’s car fleet now and in the future, and the Edge comes down right smack in the middle of Ford’s SUV herd, which includes the Expedition at the top, then the Explorer above  the Edge, and the more compact Escape and the subcompact EcoSport below the Edge. There are others, such as the squarish Flex and the coming rebirth of the Bronco.

    The Edge wears a stunning new look, which can fool most of the people most of the time, but is really a partial renovation with only the newly restyled front and nicely tapered rear and a redone interior carrying the model into its latest iteration. It wasn’t bad as it was, of course, and the new styling assures the Edge of staying hot.

 

Convenient size aids the Edge in traffic congestion, despite over-sized wheels.

  The test Edge in Stone Gray Metallic had the 2.0-liter Ford Ecoboost 4-cylinder engine, with a twin-scroll turbocharger helping the transition from low RPMs to higher revs, and the Ecoboost scheme delivering 250 horsepower and 275 foot-pounds of torque. That’s a lot, out of a 2.0, and it is sufficient power for a midsize SUV, although if you want more, the ST model offers a larger 2.7-V6 Ecoboost. The 8-speed automatic handled it all well. I was, however, disappointed by the fuel economy, because we registered 24 mpg in mostly city-rural driving, and there are a number of competitors that can reach 30.

   Furthermore, the test Edge came with Titanium trim materials, but with front-wheel drive. No all-wheel drive, unless you opt up, which makes sense, I guess, but makes the meager fuel economy of th FWD model more disappointing.

   I thought the leather seats were luxurious, and the switch work was well done with the latest SYNC plan. The rear seat is also nicely appointed, with a big sunroof overhead and electrical plug-ins, including a household electric receptacle, in between the rear seats.

   One more criticism is the tendency to follow the norm and put bigger and bigger tires and wheels on SUVs. The test Edge had 20-inch wheels and it felt abnormally tall on those wheels, especially with  only front-wheel drive supressing any urge for even mile off-road ventures. It handled well, but I couldn’t escape the idea that 18-inch wheels would provide a lower stance and the feeling of more stability and better handling.

    At about $45,000 — the sticker diplomatically avoided providing the price — the Edge had pre-collision warning and assist, rear camera, lane-keeping assist, and LED headlights, with hands-free tailgate and rain-sensing wipers and blind-spot assist.

    If you want big-time handling, of course, the Mustang is waiting in the wings. New Car Picks reported on the Mustang GT a short while ago, and that one was fun, with a 6-speed stick. The second trial is the very neat blue with all the hot-rod equipment you might want, and the same 5.0-liter V8 with 450 horsepower shifting smoothly among the 10-speed automatic’s impulses.

 

Black-painted alloy wheels accent the sleek Mustang GT’s Lightning Blue paint.

  With the automatic, you can go to a sportier mode that makes for noisier and sportier running, with firmer suspension and heightened shift points, eliminating a couple overdrive gears to give you more punch at any rev range. The sport setting adds a thrill to the exhaust sound, as well. You can get over 20 miles per gallon, and even up to the mid-20s, but you’d want to resist the urge to hammer the gas pedal to do it.

   Comfortable bucket seats, trimmed in leather, and adaptive cruise control, cross traffic alert in the rear, a high-performance package that includes an upgraded audio, LED headlights, and a neat ambient lighting trick that displays a galloping mustang on the street or parking place you’ve chosen, just below the door. A lot of slick electronic choices from the changeable instrument panel add to driving enjoyment.

    There is, however, precious little room in the rear seat, so the Mustang would work if you have no small children, or if your kids are small enough to bring their legs with them.

   The Mustang with touchscreen navigation, costs a bit more than the Edge, but you are choosing between a great disparity in motoring enjoyment. The Edge handles and performs pretty well, but without all-wheel drive or impressive fuel economy; the Mustang handles like a race car on the street, and is built for fun, with potent acceleration and handling, but also without great fuel economy or foul-weather traction.

   Both vehicles strike a pleasing stance, with the Edge sporting its new sheet metal, while the Mustang is obviously equipped to fight for its position in the product line as the only car soon to be left in the corporate jungle of SUVs.

Lexus RX350-L proper way to test new vehicles

November 20, 2018 by · Comments Off on Lexus RX350-L proper way to test new vehicles
Filed under: New car introductions, Autos 

More stylish for 2019, the Lexus RX350-L is elongated for a third row of seats.

JOLIET, Illinois

   A long trip is the perfect way to scrutinize a new vehicle, and the new 2019 Lexus RX350-L passed its test on a drive from Duluth, Minnesota, to Joliet, Illinois.

    It was also an enjoyable way to get the opportunity to drive all sorts of other new vehicles on the private road-racing course called the Autobahn Country Club, and on the neighboring streets and roadways.

   My older son, Jack, who assists me with facts and photos of new cars, joined me for the annual trek, and enjoyed everything about the smooth performance and easy cruise-ability of the RX350-L — right up until we got into Illinois and tried to rely on the dash-mounted navigation system to circumnavigate Chicago to reach Joliet, which is located on the southeastern end of Chicago.

   The Midwest Auto Media Association (MAMA) conducts  annual Spring and Fall Rallies for member journalists and this year’s crop of  about 70 new 2019 vehicles was worthy for at least that many journalists to sample.

   We don’t race on the track, but drive in single-file order behind a track pace-setter so that we stay in line without passing, keep the gaps close, and get a good feel for a vehicle’s performance and handling in short doses. In some ways, the surrounding roadways in the truck-farm-loaded region can be just about as effective. The point is, manufacturers bring their top new vehicles all to that one place, and we in the media converge on it.

 

Maserati might be late to the battle, but the new Levante is ready to challenge in SUV tests.

  Some of the most impressive new vehicles include the Maserati Levante, a true Italian SUV with an in-house designed pair of engines, put together meticulously in Maranello by cousin Ferrari’s engineers. The 3.8-liter V6 model starts in the $70,000 range with a 424-horsepower twin-turbo 3.0-liter V6, or in the well-over-$100,000 class that includes a 550-horsepower/538 foot-pounds of torque twin-turbo V8 for power.

 

Mercedes will give you an AMG-GT for a little over $100,000, even in lime green.

  If that was among the more impressive vehicles, there were a lot of familiar-looking vehicles with significant upgrades on hand. The Mercedes AMG-GT Coupe, for example, in a lime-green color called Green Hell, comes with a 577-horsepower twin-turbo V8 or a meager version of the 4.0-liter V8 with only 469 horses, giving the car a price range from $115,000 to $160,000.

Mazda has spread its unique Soul Red Crystal Metallic throughout its models, including the CX-3 and Mazda6, for a mere $595.

    Back in the real world, a couple of my favorites earn accolades from New Car Picks, with the renewed pair from Mazda, the CX3 small SUV and the Mazda3 compact sedan. Both have some mechanical surprises coming, but they also were runaway winners of the best paint job award from us with their Soul Red Metallic color. That paint job came out exclusively on the CX5 when it was redesigned a year ago. Now it’s a stunning upgrade from the other very nice red choices in Mazda’s palette, as it has migrated through all the other models, Mazda6, MX5 Miata, and CX9. It has depth and distinctiveness that is worth a few hundred bucks as an option check-off.

  

No matter what the redone Acura RDX costs, it’s a bargain with the ELS audio.

The Acura RDX is also all new, getting the exclusivity of a new Acura-only platform and a new alteration of its good looks. It also has only one engine, a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder with turbocharging to reach 272 horsepower and 280 foot-pounds of torque through front- or SH-AWD. It is quick, handles in a sporty fashion, and the A-Spec model has further sporty upticks. All of those are worthy, but the best feature might be that Jack and I stayed in the RDX when we returned to the parking area to experiment with the new and revised ELS audio system to hear sounds we had never heard before from familiar songs. We ranked it as the best audio available.

    When it first came out, I thought the Panasonic ELS system was the most sensitive and best audio I’d ever heard. Panasonic has made sure this one is better. It had stored a selection of demonstration musical pieces, ranging back through Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Eagles, The Grateful Dead, Joni Mitchell, and several more recent heavier-metal groups that Jack knew well and I couldn’t identify. We scrolled through parts of one song at a time, and in every single one there were notes and instruments we had never realized existed in those songs, translated with incredible clarity. The loaded RDX ranges up to the mid-$40,000 level, and if the new 9.5 ELS surround audio is included, it’s a bargain.

Nissan’s new Altima has high-tech features, AWD, and a thorough and stylish redesign.

   One of the other vehicles I found intriguing is the new 2019 Nissan Altima. Redesigned to retain the company’s familiar grill and overall look, the new Altima has two fantastic items available. One is all-wheel-drive, and I drove the basic 2.0-liter 4 with AWD, and the other is the revolutionary new variable-compression-ratio 2.0-liter turbo 4. With automatic adjusting from 8-1 to 13-1 compression ratio, that engine came out in the Infiniti Q50 and gave me a thoroughly good impression, and I can’t wait until Nissan can find a way to put such a high-tech engine in all its vehicle.

   There were more, including the new Ram pickup with what I figure is the best interior in the truck biz, and not only cylinder deactivation but a hybrid booster that gives an electric-motor assist when you need maximum power.

   Other new vehicles I’m still getting acquainted with are the Hyundai Kona compact SUV, the new Mustang Bullitt and GT, the Lexus LC Coupe with either 5.0 V8 with 471 horsepower or 3.5-liter V6 with electric boost to 354 horsepower, all in the sleekest exotic coupe shape imaginable. in the just-under-$100,000 category. That is the flagship, although there is a whole fleet of LS, GS, ES and IS models, with all sorts of hybrid configurations.

    And that brings us back to the Lexus RX350-L, which has been elongated to allow a third-row seat despite its compact normal size. The seats are exceptional for support and comfort, but we have to get back to grappling with the nav system.

 

Comfort and classy features made the Lexus RX350-L a great long-distance ride, but beware of a stubborn nav system.

  When you drive to Chicago, you generally put up with the inevitable toll roads into town. You can pay up to $1.90 at every stop, and if you hit 10 of them, you’ve spent dinner. So we’ve found that you can drive south on I-94 from Madison and hook up with I-39, staying straight south from Rockport down to I-80, then take I-80 east and bypass Chicago on the south side and taking you right on into Indiana.

   We coded our Joliet destination into the nav system and selected the “non-toll” choice, which I thought was neat. It then gave us three alternative ways to get to Joliet — none of which was what we knew we wanted, and all three were toll-roads. I couldn’t remember which city would signal our turn eastward, but when I guessed it was Normal, the nav refused to give us our straight-ahead intention. So we ignored it, and drove south on 39 until we hit 80, then turned east.

   When we got to Joliet, it gave us a strangely convoluted way of going through town, so we consulted the trusty iPhone navigation, which gave us entirely different directions. Once we hit Joliet, we found that the entire city has its streets torn up, with a few bridges out. It took us an hour and 20 minutes to make it what should have been 20 minutes, because neither nav system could anticipate all the torn-up streets. The Lexus system, however, continued to direct us to the same location, where we were met with a bridge that was closed. Back to the iPhone, and we finally made it, guessing on how to negotiate roadblocks and construction that went right up to a block from our hotel.

   All it meant was that we were an hour late for dinner at the hotel steakhouse, although Jack and I are pretty good at finding a way to improvise. All the entrees had been put away at the MAMA hotel restaurant, but our starving look inspired the head waiter to allow that he had “only” two pieces of salmon to offer us. We took it, and it was quite possibly the largest and tastiest slab of salmon I ever ate. Plus we each got three or four side dishes, of lightly cooked carrots, an endless supply o asparagus, and a huge bowl of spinach — my favorite. By being late, apparently the chef took advantage of us by using up all the remaining veggies.

   Maybe we should have coded in “salmon” as the “point of interest” on the RX350-L nav system.

    

   

   

Prominent Minnesota auto writer leaves too soon

October 7, 2018 by · Comments Off on Prominent Minnesota auto writer leaves too soon
Filed under: Features, Autos 

By John Gilbert

    Those of us who have spent a lot of years writing about new cars lost a star out of our galaxy. just as the September of 2018 was yielding to the changing foliage of October, when Tony Swan died at age 78 after a long and intense battle with cancer,

Tony Swan, looking like he enjoyed the high-tech tools of being an auto journalist, was spotted in the San Antonio airport in April of 2017.

     Weakened to a point of unwilling fragility after trying every potential method of fighting the insidious disease, Tony spent most of his final week in a gentle hospice facility near his home in Ypsilanti, Michigan. After final farewells to his devoted wife and partner, Mary, and insisting his gathered kids from an earlier marriage talk about seeing each other soon, rather than saying goodbye, Tony allowed himself to relax and slip away overnight.

    For most of four decades, Tony Swan and I were the only two automotive writers from Minnesota. Times have changed, with a new generation of social-media types have blogged their way into the business, not always with proper responsibility in our estimation. We always discussed such matters because even though we had taken widely divergent paths to whatever status we attained, we remained close friends for something like 55 years, ever since we attended the University of Minnesota journalism school together back in the 1960s.

   Those divergent paths were because Tony and I shared a love of cars, which led him on an upward spiral from AutoWeek to Popular Mechanics, Motor Trend and Car and Driver. My journalistic drive, so to peak, was split between hockey and sports writing on one hand and auto writing and motorsports on the other, a form of writing ambidexterity that made me determine to stay in Minnesota. In an odd way, we always had each other’s back, regardless of how scarce out time together was during my 30 years at the Minneapolis Tribune and later return home to Duluth for a couple of opportunities and more recent freelancing.

     We always seemed to agree on things of true importance, but even the disagreements were noteworthy. You could debate or even argue with him for a while, remaining respectful and cordial, then suddenly Tony would look you in the eye and say: “Well, you’re wrong!”

    End of discussion.

   Tony lived his life by his own rules, and that carried over to friendships and arguments. Our mutual passion for motorsports led us both to pass road-racing schools at Sports Car Club of America venues when Showroom Stock Sedan racing started in the early 1970s. I did it for a year or two, and to this day employ some of the smart-driving techniques we learned there, while Tony continued racing a little, most recently in the low-budget “24 Hours of Lemons” series for cars with a $500 maximum value. 

    Tony mostly enjoyed keeping things simple behind the wheel. He was an excellent driver, and except for a few speeding tickets now and then, he didn’t overdo it on the streets. His personal car of choice? A Volkswagen GTI, the no-compromise performance model of the Golf. Inexpensive, comparatively speaking, and with a six-speed stick shift because it was most fun that way and, as a simple pleasure, it gave him total control.

    Tony and Mary lived in Ypsilanti, Michigan, close enough to Detroit, the nation’s automotive nerve-center. At age 78, Tony had eased back from his writing at Car and Driver magazine; I was never sure it was his own call, because a new generation was taking over, and he kept free-lancing wherever he could.

    Writers rarely talk or write about other writers, but I will. Anyone who read about cars for the last few decades has read something by Tony, in one of those “buff” magazines. Others will write about what a great guy he was, a warm human behind that curmudgeon-like demeanor. I will simply say that he was that, but he also was the most skillful writer for every publication he worked for.

   Tony grew up in the western suburbs of Minneapolis, near Lake Minnetonka.  He was a couple years older than I, and we hit it off because we both had cynical senses of humor, and we could crack each other up anytime we got together. I left for a two-year experience writing at the Duluth News Tribune, then accepted an offer from the prestigious sports department of the Minneapolis Tribune about the time Tony got a job writing sports at the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

    The papers were bitter rivals, but Tony and I stay friends while competing in print, both covering hockey all winter and motorsports all summer. We never told our papers, but when we were sent off to cover Glen Sonmor’s University of Minnesota hockey team for a heated series with Badger Bob Johnson’s Wisconsin outfit, Tony and I would share a drive from Minneapolis to Madison. We kept each other awake, and in stitches, when we drove home through the night after the Saturday game. We’d make a stop for soup, a sandwich, or a piece of pie at Grandma Smrekar’s all-night cafe at Millston, Wis., and invariably we’d end up laughing like fools over something that a normal human might find inconsequential.

   Tony left the Pioneer Press to join an attempt by a suburban paper into a special-edition sports scheme. It didn’t work and was disbanded, leaving Tony out of writing while I was on an upward trajectory writing sports and an automotive column for the Tribune. I was flattered that management, advertising, and, most importantly, readers enjoyed my take on both subjects..

   I was more flattered when Better Homes & Gardens, the huge, slick and world famous magazine, produced in Des Moines, wanted to interview me to take over their monthly auto column. They flew me to Des Moines and made me a very solid offer. I paused, because at the time I was free to cover the best hockey games at every level in Minnesota every all winter, and auto racing all summer, with my auto column year-round. I couldn’t see moving from the Twin Cities to Des Moines and giving up sports and cars for just cars

   So I turned them down, but I suggested that I knew an exceptional writer who might be perfect for their job, and how to reach Tony Swan. He jumped at it, and stayed with it, moving to the West Coast as it morphed into a travel feature, the perfect launching pad to join AutoWeek, then Cycle World, then Motor Trend and Popular Mechanics, before relocating back in the Midwest in Detroit to write for Car and Driver.

    We stayed connected at auto shows and other places. Covering a race at Donnybrooke Speedway stands out, because Tony was doing a lengthy report on a Peugeot diesel, which he drove from Detroit, timing his trip so he could visit his family on Lake Minnetonka and cover the road race. Those of us who regularly made that trek from the Twin Cities to what became BIR took the smaller but faster and less-congested Hwy. 25 north off Interstate 94 and straight into Brainerd. The Peugeot Diesel was a great long-running car but not fast, being before turbocharging came into fashion. So when Tony stepped on the gas, there was no evidence the pedal had any connection to the engine for a mile.

    The only car on the road with him was just ahead, some guy who didn’t want his big American car to be passed by that foreign thing. Whenever Tony pulled out to pass him, the other car would accelerate just enough to stay ahead, then slow down until Tony would try again. It was maddening to Tony, so he plotted ahead, where he knew of one particular 4-way stop in an otherwise deserted rural area. Approaching that intersection, you could see for a mile ahead and both ways on the crossroad. So Tony backed off a bit,  and when the other driver started to slowed down for the stop, Tony had stayed hard on the gas and pulled out, flying through the four-way stop and passing him at 75 just as his tormentor came to a complete stop, settling that issue.

    Swan was one of the founders of the North American Car of the Year award, given out every year since 1993 by a panel of selected journalists. In its second year, Tony called me and invited me to join the jury. It wasn’t out of friendship, but because he respected all I had done as the only person writing about cars in Minnesota. I enjoyed my 13 years on that jury, contributing several suggestions that I thought helped streamline the selection process and gaining publicity for the award. Years later, a fellow decided to cut me from the group, for his own reasons, and Tony fought the move and led a group that argued in my favor. I’m forever indebted to him for his attempts to aid my cause in what had become a hotly political group.

    I was flown to San Antonio for a new vehicle introduction in April of  2017, and as I left my plane and entered the gate area, I spotted Tony sitting in a chair, writing something on his computer while he operated his cell phone, which was plugged in recharging at the same time. I couldn’t resist shooting a photo of it, because Tony didn’t see me, and while he looked like Mr. High Tech at the time, I knew he hated all these new-fangled devices.

   By then, Tony had been diagnosed with cancer, and had explained it to me in considerable detail. He was optimistic about beating it, and continued testing cars, writing about them, and racing in his vintage class as he tried some new procedure. He fought it, and won a few rounds, but it was sinister and kept coming back or worsening. He’d pursue the every suggested treatment, but the dreaded disease would circle back and strike somewhere else.

   All the while, his weight, and his strength, were being diminished, but not his spirit. I tried to cheer him up to keep fighting, knowing well that he would, by phone calls, e-mails, or phone voice-messages.

   In early September, after reading an intriguing article on immunotherapy and its potential to fight cancer, I summoned Tony’s phone number but I didn’t want to disturb him with a call, so I sent him an email and follow-up text message asking if he’d ever tried it. He responded brusquely: “I’ve had experience with two different immunotherapy drugs, with very little luck…Who is this?”

   I apologized and told him who I was, saying maybe my phone wasn’t coded into his, and I had sent a text message because I wasn’t sure the e-mail had gone through. He responded to thank me for the thought and explained he was doing daily radiation for a month, “…to shrink a series of surface tumors marching down my chest…I’m pretty close to out of options. If I’m lucky with these treatments, maybe I’ll see another birthday. (May.)”

    Later, I attended another introduction where he had canceled. So I explained some neat technical features on the new vehicle to keep him updated, and I used text messaging again — the rest of my family’s favorite method of communication. Tony responded and talked about other models that had been engineered impressively.

   The he abruptly finished with a comment: “Where did you get this numbered e-mail? Not a good idea, in my estimation.”

   I sent him a gentle response, trying to avoid sounding condescending, and saying: “…this is text-messaging, a seemingly more efficient, if trendy, contact method.”

   Then I realized, here was this master auto reviewer who can understand the finer engineering points of a new car, and he still didn’t like things that were fancier than need be, and he had never heard of text messaging, or willingly engaged in it. Numbered e-mail? I loved it.

   Tony and Mary drove to the Twin Cities to see family member again in late September, and Mary helped him attend a Gopher football game by wheelchair. It was perhaps too much for him. On their drive home, they decided to drive south, which was fortunate, because Tony had some serious issues that caused them to make a side-trip to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. They get him patched together for the rest of the long drive, and Mary noted on his Caring Bridge page that he finally agreed to go right into hospice care upon their return.

   She also alerted us that the end was near a few days later, in midweek. Joan and I talked about it, both knowing that our attempts to send thoughts, prayers, inspiration, and maybe even cosmic energy had become futile. I sent him a final note — by e-mail, this time — recounting Grandma Smrekar’s and other good times from our past. I told him we would keep hoping for a miracle, but if he had gotten weary of the fight, we hoped he could find some pain-free and peacefulway to relax and rest. I closed with: “We love you, man.”

   I went to bed and slept hard, but I woke up four or five times, and each time I was surprised that my thoughts were focused on Tony Swan. When it was time to get up, as the first sunlight ventured across Lake Superior, I noted the trees in our yard blowing back and forth with great force from the persistent wind gusts. Then I spotted the Caring Bridge notification from Mary that said Tony had peacefully ended his battle overnight.

   It called for one final message to Mary, where I offered our sincere condolences, and described the oddity of waking up repeatedly through the night, focused on Tony each time, and then spotting the trees being blown back and forth. I submitted to her that Tony will always be with us, and maybe the wind-blown trees meant it was Tony’s spirit, making one more lap around his beloved Minnesota. 

    Rest easy, Tony.

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