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. 

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.

Car-show kids: ‘Let’s play trucks!’

March 21, 2018 by · Comments Off on Car-show kids: ‘Let’s play trucks!’
Filed under: Features, Autos 

A young boy implored his family to stop and watch the Jeeps master the Camp Jeep obstacles at the Minneapolis Auto Show.

  “Hey dad! Look!  Look!  LOOK,” the little voice grew bigger as the young lad yelled. His urgency demanded to interrupt his dad’s intention of casually wandering around the Minneapolis Convention Center to take in the Greater Minneapolis Auto Show.

   The dad probably wanted to move along, but they weren’t going anywhere, for a while. The young boy had stopped, transfixed, next to Camp Jeep, which has got to be the best marketing ploy at this or any auto show. People can actually drive — ride with experts — in an assortment of new Jeep vehicles, including the Wrangler, Renegade, Compass, Cherokee and Grand Cherokee. But not just a ride. They follow the carefully built track that twists around and goes up and down at side angles, heading toward an amazingly steep hill, right there in the middle of Camp Jeep.

   As the various Jeeps surged up the rise, we all stopped to see if it would make it. Of course they all did, up and over, disappearing over the other side. I have seen many Camp Jeeps, at many large auto shows, but it seems extra special right here in Minnesota, downtown Minneapolis. I was able to walk on, but the young dad and his little kid were still there — and might have remained right on through the March 18 final day of the show.

    Kids love to play with cars and trucks, and it seems like the smaller the little boy, the more excited he is to watch every move a truck, or a Jeep, can make. In the grownup world, we are too confused to appreciate such simple pleasures.

   For example, as I visited the Minneapolis show, I was road-testing two vehicles that were at the show. One was the all-new Toyota C-HR, the other a new Cadillac CT6 3.0 TT sedan. 

CT6 3.0TT looks like a Cadillac luxury car, but it has high-power turbo V6 and AWD too.

   Both are interesting. The CT6 is a beautifully designed sedan that seems traditionally Cadillac — long and low and shapely, with seriously engaging grille and headlights, and all the comfort and safety features you can imagine, along with a few that maybe you can’t. The C-HR is Toyota’s bid to try to capture some of the small-SUV fans who may be tempted to veer off course and buy a small Honda, or Mazda, or maybe even one of those somewhat odd Hyundai Velosters or Nissan Jukes.

    The Veloster and Juke look like they might be related, with odd bulges and contours that are way out beyond the norm. Walk around the Veloster and you’d be impressed that it looks like a 4-door from the passenger side, but a 2-door from the driver’s side. It is, of course a 3-door, and Hyundai has just redesigned it to round off the bulgiest bulges for 2018.

If a vehicle looks like an SUV and has SUV utility, is it an SUV — or a Toyota C-HR?

    If Toyota is taking on those outliers — as opposed to Outlanders — it has done the design part, because the C-HR looks like a prototype for all the new subcompact SUVs, and the price was right, at $24,000. However, up in the Great White North of Northern Minnesota, a lot of us think it’s borderline criminal to build an SUV-ish vehicle that is not an SUV. All-wheel drive is not available on the C-HR!

    So it is an SUV-looking thing that is front-wheel-drive only, making it sporty in acceleration and lightweight, powered by its 2.0-liter with 144 horsepower and 139 foot-pounds of torque, but if you encounter a 12-inch snowfall in your driveway after driving home from the auto show, you might curse Toyota’s trendy maneuver.

The Cadillac CT6, on the other hand, has the potent new direct-injected dual-overhead-cam 3.0-liter V6 with cylinder deactivation — and, it does have all-wheel drive. In other words, we are confused enough that we now are looking at a full sail luxury sedan from Cadillac that can do the job of an SUV because it has got AWD, and an SUV-like compact from Toyota that can’t even pretend to be an SUV, because is hasn’t.

    Meanwhile, the young lad doesn’t care about any of that stuff because he’s still transfixed by the Jeeps, which continue proving what you see is what you get, scrambling up those hills.

 

Hyundai’s new Kona isn’t in showrooms yet, but is a mini-SUV with a turbo and AWD.

  Camp Jeep now has spun off rivals. Mitsubishi, for example, also has a driving experience, promoting its comeback attempt with the Outlander, Outlander Sport, and its new Eclipse Cross. The Outlander PHEV is the first electric crossover SUV with all-wheel drive, and the Eclipse Cross has an available 1.5-liter turbo. Hyundai, meanwhile, is showing off its new Kona, a slick styling exercise that is more compact than the Tucson, and should go some, with a 1.6-liter turbo and Hyundai’s excellent dual-clutch 6-speed.

Mustang updates its icon with a salute to the movie “Bullitt.”

Ford is showing off its new Mustang Bullitt, a model to take advantage of the still-memorable movie “Bullitt” with Steve McQueen at the helm of a dark green Mustang. We’ve seen the new Bullitt before but both the Outlander PHEV and Eclipse Cross are making their public debuts at the Minneapolis show. That’s impressive for a show that is not one of the nation’s super shows, such as Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles or New York. It’s put together by dealers in the Twin Cities, but it is the 15th largest show in the country, and they have caught on, employing a slick PR outfit, Nemer-Fieger, with an energetic young representative named Molly Steinke who has been doing her best to reach the media and entice them to visit the show. They also have a very neat program, with capsules on all the new cars you might be interested in, rather than just an ad-carrying sheet.

Big, sleek Cadillac has turbo V6 — and AWD.

   The Cadillac CT6 was a pleasure to drive from Duluth to the Twin Cities for the state high school hockey tournament, which, as usual, featured some games that could be put away in a time capsule to show all that’s good about living in Minnesota. It was a tough squeeze to fit in a Saturday morning at the auto show on press introduction day, and it was a shame to waste all that rear-seat room, which could easily accommodate two large adults in glorious luxury. With a turbocharger blowing through the 3.0 V6, the CT6 develops 404 horsepower and 300 foot-pounds of torque — more than the traditional top 3.6-liter V6.

   Suspension and handling, to say nothing of the enormous trunk space, are exemplary in the Cadillac, although I would need about a month to get comfortable with its elaborate “CUE” system. You can, for example, figure out how to tune the radio without getting too many fingerprints on the big touchscreen, but while you’re figuring out what Cadillac was thinking with the complexity of controls that once were far easier with a round knob, be careful — if you sweep your finger across the dial, too close to the screen, you will make the volume go way up, or down, depending on which way you sweep.

C-HR shaped like SUV, but no AWD exists.

The C-HR has plenty of pep from its 4-cylinder, and, after you fiddle with the adjustments enough, you learn that it has a control to allow you to be in normal, eco, or sport, and sport firms up the suspension and gives a dose more power to a touch of your toe, even though the CVT transmission will do its best to quell any sporting thoughts. Just as well, because the lack of AWD meets the drone of the CVT about halfway.

   Meanwhile, back at the auto show, Chevrolet, Ford, Toyota, Mazda, Jaguar, Land Rover and Volkswagen are all offering brief test drives in assorted models. 

Volkswagen showed its new Arteon sedan, which will replace the stylish CC.

  Volkswagen has Jettas and Passats for test-drives. No, you can’t drive the new Alteon, but there is one on display, an impressive looking sedan that owes its sleek silhouette to being the replacement for the sleek but discontinued CC. The Alteon is pre-production and stays locked on the pedestal, while Volks is pushing test drives of its new Atlas, Alltrack, and Tiguan — VW’s posse of SUVs.

Yes, Volkswagen, perhaps the world’s most traditional maker of compact and subcompact cars with the Beetle, Rabbit and Golf, is now up to its headliner in SUVs.

   And the little boy at Camp Jeep remains the only one not confused by it all.

Chicago Show: Cars, stars…and deep-dish pizza

February 15, 2018 by · Comments Off on Chicago Show: Cars, stars…and deep-dish pizza
Filed under: New car introductions, Features, Autos 

Jim Belushi, left, and Ford VP Mark LaNeve gave Transit Connect Blues Brothers treatment.

CHICAGO, IL.

      There was a lot of talk about electric cars, hybrids, and autonomous (self-driving) vehicles, but the Chicago Auto Show best told the story of what car life in the U.S. is all about — trucks, SUVs…and more SUVs. One of the most impressive groups of new vehicles are the many midsize and compact crossovers.

    After Toyota got things going with a display of high-performing off-road “TRD” models of its Tacoma and Tundra pickups, and its 4Runner SUV, Ford introduced the new generation of its Transit Connect, a compact, work-oriented mini-truck that fits and maneuvers in tight spaces and can be outfitted however a company or individual may choose.

    To kick it off, Ford pulled a coup by having vice president Mark LaNeve call Jim Belushi to the stage, and Belushi walked out playing a harmonica and leading everyone in a spirited version of “Sweet Home, Chicago.” He intereviewed some in the audience, joked around with LaNeve, then enlisted him to join him in donning sunglasses to do a little Blues Brothers routine.

    The versatility of the Transit Connect is that it could be everything from a foot truck, to a construction workers van, to a mini fun wagon, and while it doesn’t come in all-wheel drive, it does have a couple of new engines, including a 2.0-liter direct-injected 4 and a 1.5 -liter EcoBlue diesel engine with a new 8-speed automatic.   

     The Chicago Auto Show is the largest and longest-running auto show in the country, and in the opinion of everyone who attends, it also is by far the most fun of the major domestice shows. The lively nightlife scene and legendary restaurants help that reputation. The 110th Chicago Auto Show opened with media days in a nasty blizzard that lasted a day and a half and cancelled 600 flights into and out of O’Hare Airport — and it was still fun. It opened to the public on February 10 and anyone looking for a new car can spend hours examining everything offered in showrooms across the country on the 1,000-square-foot halls in McCormick Place, as it runs through Monday, Feb. 19.

Ford never stopped building the Ranger, but this year will reintroduce it to the U.S.

   Because it is definitely a consumer-driven show, Chicago provides an ample number of vehicles that appeal to mainstream, grassroots buyers. Its media survey to pick the Family Car of the Year came in with the Honda Odyssey, the latest generation of the popular and feature-filled minivan, which beat out other valid contenders including the Volvo XC-60 SUV, a midsize version of its SUV-of-the-Year XC-90.

   There were not a lot of new introductions, after most of the debuts were spent on the Los Angeles show in November, and at Detroit in January. But there were definitely still some standouts, for the show, which got a rejuvenated restart in 1950 after the auto industry got rolling again following World War II.

   With special attractions virtually every day, the Chicago show undoubtedly will be the best-attended show, again.

   Consumers, of course, care less about the show-biz schemes than about sitting in and scrutinizing the cars. Read more

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