NSX, Special Tribute Highlight MAMA Rally

June 1, 2019 by · Comments Off on NSX, Special Tribute Highlight MAMA Rally
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Acura’s second version of the NSX combines mid-engine V6 with three electric motors for the ultimate hybrid. (Photos — Jack Gilbert.)

By John Gilbert

Elkhart Lake, Wis.

Driving the newest cars around Road America’s road-racing course at Elkhart Lake, Wis., is one of the highlights every year in the auto writing business. It’s called the MAMA Spring Rally, and it lures nearly all manufacturers to bring their newest offerings and allow nearly 100 Midwest Auto Media Association journalists to drive them one lap around the classic 4-mile layout.

The event lived up to all expectations on a couple days in mid-May, including two nights at the Osthoff Resort in Elkhart Lake and some fantastic meals in addition to the cars. This year included a couple of special highlights for me, on a course where I once took a race driving school and competed in a Showroom Stock race nearly 50 years ago. I’ll explain my highlights in reverse order. First, the finish.

Mercedes C63s AMG is a factory-modified high-performance sedan.

Two cars I had hoped to get into provided my last two thrills. I had been told that there were 37 drivers on a waiting list for the Acura NSX, the amazingly low-slung, mid-engine two-seater sitting there in gleaming Casino White Pearl. If I could come back just before the end of the final track session at 4 p.m., they would get me into it for my lap.

At about 3:45, the Mercedes C63 S AMG became available. You get one lap, out of the pits on signal, and all the way aroul14 turns and up and down hils before coming back into the pits. No passing. With this car, a co-driver sat in the passenger seat, filling me in on the complexities, and making sure I didn’t sail off into the next dimension.

This car, tuned and prepared by the crack AMG performance arm of Mercedes, is beyond just a slick-handling powerhouse. It has a 4.0-liter V8 and is called “Bi-Turbo” because it has twin turbochargers. These are not what you’d call mass-produced. The engine is build by hand, by one engineer, whose signature adorns the engine. This one had 503 horsepower and 516 foot-pounds of torque, which is more than enough. I would say I drove at about 40 percent of the car’s capacity, and it was awesome. Of course, it should be, for $97,830.

Amazingly, you could get a version up to 630 horsepower and 554 foot-pounds of torque for another $60,000 or so. But with front engine and all-wheel drive, 503 seemed enough.

The NSX combines race-car power and performance with legendary Honda/Acura workmanship.

Finally, just a couple of minutes before 4, they called me back into my helmet for the NSX. Same deal, with a passenger as my guide. Without hesitation, I will say that in all the years I’ve done these test runs around Road America, the new NSX was the best car I’ve experienced on that track. It is a jewel, a very tight two-seat coupe, with the super-tuned 3.5-liter V6 in a mid-engine layout, and it’s augmented by three electric motors to total 573 horsepower and 476 foot-pounds of torque. How’a that for a hybrid?

It also has a 9-speed, dual clutch transmission, and because so much of the cart is carbon fiber — like the roof, deckled, spoiler — it is extremely light even though it feels completely planted because of the mid-engine balance and all-wheel drive. It’s remarkable that the engineers can coordinate the gas engine powering one axle’s wheels and the hybrid motors matching with the others. It was a genuine thrill to drive that car.

I thanked the guys with both the Mercedes and Acuras and said it worked out great to leave those two until last, because they were the two best, and driving them earlier in the day might have reduced sone excellent other cars to anticlimactic.

There were dozens of new vehicles, and many were limited to driving on the roads surrounding the track without being allowed on the track. The next day we drove an assortment of trucks off-road, and had the chance to try numerous cars on a short speed test around a short course laid out for go-karts.

Looking like a rugged Wrangler pickup, new Gladiator is strong on and off road.

Among the highlights: The just-introduced Jeep Gladiator, Jeep’s long-awaited pickup, is like a combined Wrangler and pickup with a 3.6-liter V6. The Ram 2500 Power Wagon, and the Durango SRT 392 with a 6.4-liter Hemi were other highlights, along with an overwhelming Challenger SRT Hellcat Redeye.

Compact and stylish crossover revives Blazer name.

The Lincoln Nautilus is a new SUV, very slick. The Kia Telluride is also a large SUV, sll new and filled with class. A pleasant surprise is the new Chevy Blazer, an old name restored on a compact crossover that should be a huge success, with a 3.6 liter V6.

Honda had a couple of its new Passports, another old name recirculated on an impressive new crossover that falls between the Pilot and CR-V and is aimed at more rugged duty than either of those siblings. Cadillac had a new XT4 available to drive. The Kia Soul is redone, with a 1.6-liter turbo that gives it more kick for under $30,000.

New version Mazda3 has more fluid style, Skyactiv-G power, AWD.

Another very impressive drive were a stunning pair of dark red sedans. First was the new and revised Mazda3 compact, this one with its Skyactiv-G 2.0-liter engine with an amazing amount of horsepower, enough to power all four wheels. It comes as a hatchback, which I prefer, or a sedan that looks like a downsized Mazda6.

Limited production Acura TLX PMC is built at the same plant as the NSX.

The other among many red-is-the-magic-color cars was the Acura TLX, which is a specialty version of the sedan Acura made by combining the TSX and the TL, but this one is so special it doesn’t have a price yet assigned. It will be lots. The car is shipped from Honda’s Marysville, Ohio, plant to the PMC — Performance Manufacturing Center — plant, where the NSX is so meticulously built. One of the colors you can order on the NSX is a fantastic red that is so special it is a $6,000 option, and takes a five-day process to complete. Meanwhile, there are only going to be 360 hand-built TLX PMC sedans, and the decision was made to limit it to one color — that same special red. So at least there’s no option fee for it.

New Honda Passport fits between CRV and Pilot.

The first day started, in a misty fog and chilly 40-something gloom, so we gave the track some time to dry out. When it was ready, my son, and assistant, Jack Gilbert, and I hopped into a light and bright blue Hyundai Veloster N, a letter designation which sets apart specialty high-performing Hyundai models from now on, to carry out a special task.

In my early days at Elkhart Lake, a great friend from college days, Tony Swan, also reported on races and later raced on that track as a writer at Car & Driver. As I wrote about late last year, Tony finally gave out after a nasty battle with cancer, but he drove and reported until the end. I wished I could have attended services near his home near Ann Arbor, Mich., but his wife, Mary, drove Tony’s GTI to Mound, Minnesota, where Tony grew up on Lake Minnetonka, and set up a small ceremony there for Tony for friends and relatives.

That one included a couple of guys who attended the University of Minnesota with Tony and me. Mary also brought a few envelopes with some of Tony’s ashes enclosed, because he had some selected places he hoped to have them scattered, including Lake Minnetonka, and at a race track or two.

I knew Tony loved Road America, so I requested one of the envelopes, which I carried down in my jacket pocket. I asked Jack to drive while I sat in the passenger seat, and we picked the Veloster N as being appropriately spory. We went around the track semi-fast, and nearing the end we went through a low

The Veloster N worked the autocross track, after our secret mission.

part called Thunder Valley, then made a hard right turn through Canada Corner. I had told Jack my plan, and I readied the envelope. As he started up the hill, into a fierce wind, I opened the window, and let Tony fly.

It was, indeed, Tony’s final ride. Afterward, I notified the MAMA board of what I had done. They all knew Tony, and one of them said how appropriate it was and that forevermore, driving around that corner and starting up that hill will rekindle Tony’s memory.

He’d have loved the high-potency Veloster N, too.

Unbroken 4Runner Keeps On Keepin’ On

May 15, 2019 by · Comments Off on Unbroken 4Runner Keeps On Keepin’ On
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Stylishly rugged, the 2019 Toyota 4Runner offers familiarity instead of surprises.

By John Gilbert

Generally when you review a new vehicle you can hardly contain yourself from gushing about all the fantastic new high-tech features and gadgets contained in it. And then there’s the 2019 Toyota 4Runner.

The 4Runner is solid, steady, consistent, free of surprises, and…completely familiar. Even if it looks a little bit different from the one we’ve known for a decade.

Toyota is an amazing company, and nobody can quarrel with its overwhelming sales success, which has been largely achieved by ignoring the styling trends and gimmicks in an automotive world that is seemingly passing it by. By ignoring the guidelines it helped create, Toyota has continued to build the same-old same old of some of its most popular vehicles, such as the Corolla, Camry, Tacoma, Tundra — and the 4Runner.

The RAV4 is different, having been restyled a few times to stay at the top of its popularity game, as Toyota’s top-selling vehicle as a compact SUV.

But go up one step to the 4Runner, the midsize stalwart of the line, and go back to when the fifth generation was brought out, almost a decade ago, Toyota’s reputation for durability and consistency won out over the trends toward latest-tech and gimmickry. Basically, if you are familiar with the 2010 4Runner, you are pretty much familiar with the new 4Runner. The company did make some styling changes for 2018, but the ongoing refinement is primarily under the skin, and is what makes the 4Runner keep 4Running.

Abundant storage room means 4Runner’s midsize is big enough.

Cynics have been accusing Toyota for years about building boring cars, because the emphasis on running forever through a trouble-free existence can cause observers to equate that to boring, compared to so many competitive cars. But overlooked amid the criticism is that people seem to find it comfortable to walk into showrooms and find something so familiar, and they seem to feel comfortable getting the newest version of something they trust.

The trucks and SUVs are the best examples of standing out primarily because they are unchanged. The best comparison might be made to link the Tacoma mid-size pickup and the 4Runner midsize SUV. There is some merit there, because basically, the tried and true Tacoma pickup underpins the 4Runner. You could say the 4Runner is a Tacoma with a body, or that a Tacoma is a 4Runner with a bed carved out of the rear.

A reliable source I know well in the business says it best: “With Toyota, the cars aren’t cool, but the trucks are.”

I’ve always thought it was interesting that the huge rivalry between Japanese giants Toyota and Nissan was best described by the battle between the 4Runner from Toyota and the Pathfinder from Nissan. Both came out about the same size, both about the same shape, both had strong engines and both were the springboards to vastly expanding SUV arsenals.

I personally preferred the Pathfinder, for a couple of peculiar reasons. When I would test a 4Runner, I liked everything about it, but it seemed I would bump my head on the roof as I entered, and again as I exited, and it also seemed that a lot of the switchgear location always required a few days for me to learn. The Pathfinder, on the other hand, felt custom made for me — good clearance for my head in and out, comfortable driving position. with everything right where my instincts and fingertips figured it should be.

That was a long time ago, but it continued to be a factor in my analyses year after year, even though I always accepted and acknowledged that it was me that was peculiar and not the vehicle.

Simplicity without being overly fancy or glitzy is 4Runner hallmark.

Now that the 4Runner has been redone a bit for 2018, the new 2019 version is designed and arranged in a way that seems pretty near perfect. That means, it’s pretty close to the same as ever.

The test 4Runner I had for a week on the North Shore of Lake Superior came loaded with all the right stuff. It was the TRD (for Toyota Racing Division) Off-Road Premium model. It starts out with the stiffest platform Toyota engineers can build — as if the company has an unspoken intention to prove it can “out-Jeep” Jeep. Dedicated off-roaders are certain that only Jeeps can take on the most rugged off-road challenges, but those loyalists might be surprised to learn that the 4Runner can be ordered for comfort or in a form that can go anywhere off-road but with a bit more comfort. Read more

A7 Upgrades for 2019 Both Subtle, Substantial

May 8, 2019 by · Comments Off on A7 Upgrades for 2019 Both Subtle, Substantial
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Two ways to get where you’re going — Audi A7 quattro or skateboard leg power.

By John Gilbert
There I sat, in my own driveway, checking and cross-checking (well, it was still hockey season!) all the features in the 2019 Audi A7 quattro. My obsession was one thing in particular: the very neat little sunscreen that fits up in front of the long, sloping hatchback rear window.

It worked great for filtering out a lot of the sun and heat, but it was getting on toward evening now, and I wanted to locate the power switch that would drop the screen down flush to improve nighttime visibility out the rear.

There are so many switches and gadgets on the A7, as on most high-end cars these days, that it isn’t always easy to figure out what the heck the little icon is for on the various switches. And sometimes you have to get on the expansive information screen, which is a lot like a computer or iPad, and you find an indication that you can tap an electronic switch and get whatever job you want done.

I knew I would find it, but right then I was a half-hour into perusing all the switchwork and gadgetry in what was becoming a more and more futile exercise.

When an automaker is near perfection, sometimes its evolutionary changes feel a lot like no change at all. That’s a good thing, if the car they’re changing is already at the top of the scale. Audi is that way. The German company builds a full slate of cars nowadays, from compact to sporty to luxury, with a fleet of highly regarded SUVs of all sizes alongside.

Shelter from harsh Lake Superior wind was eash on A7 North Shore test drive.

But Audi is at its best when it comes to making luxury freeway cruisers, which handle and feel more like sporty sedans but are safe, beautiful and highly efficient. At the top is the A8, and the midsize is the A6, but now they have wedged a sporty, fastback version of the A6 in between and called it the A7.

When you line up all three, it’s very difficult to pick a favorite. The A6 and A8 look different because the A8 is longer, particularly the one that comes to the U.S., which is the A8-L — the elongated version only. Of course, the A7 looks markedly different than both of the others, because of the sleeker, fastback roofline and hatch under it. Personally, I think the A7 is the best looking of the batch, and I did review it as a 2018.

But it has undergone significant changes for 2019, so when a 2019 Audi A7 arrived for me to test drive and evaluate for a week, I studied it carefully to denote all the changes. Different platform underneath it, and a change in 3.0-liter V6 engines, from the supercharged hot one to a turbocharged hot one, still 2.0, and from impressive to…impressive. The interesting thing is that all three cars at the top of Audi’s luxury chain — the A6, A7 and A8-L — all use the same engine with the same power.

And it is so good, smooth and powerful, that nobody is going to complain, especially when you can get right about at 30 miles per gallon on a freeway trip. Of course, the A7 has quattro, Audi’s brilliant all-wheel-drive system, although it is changed considerably from the quattro of years past, which had itself been altered and revised repeatedly. Interesting, quattro put Audi ahead of Mercedes and BMW for those of us who drive in snow part of the year, but now that Mercedes and BMW have realized the inherent advantages of AWD and installed it or made it available on many models, Audi keeps refining its quattro to come at compromise from the opposite direction. Read more

Santa Fe is Hyundai’s Latest Leap Into Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tiguan Grows Longer, Adds Third Seat Option

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

« Previous PageNext Page »