Track driving can’t beat night freeway downpour test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Explorer is roomier and sportier in ST trim.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spacious Palisade Gives Hyundai Luxury SUV

July 5, 2019 by · Comments Off on Spacious Palisade Gives Hyundai Luxury SUV
Filed under: New car introductions, Autos 

The 2020 Hyundai Palisade made easy work of a trip through the mountains from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, to Bellingham, Wash.

By John Gilbert

Hyundai’s SUVs are selling at a fantastic rate, but the company also has heard from consumers with three or more kids: “We want more room.” Even the most loyal Hyundai buyers have to turn to Toyota, Ford or General Motors if they want a larger, three-row SUV, because Hyundai’s fleet consists of midsize and smaller.

Hyundai has swiftly addressed those concerns with its largest SUV, called the Palisade.

A few years ago, I couldn’t have guessed what a Palisade actually is, but living on Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior, you get used to the large, substantial, rock cliffs that rise straight up from the scenic shoreline in a spectacular ridge that runs from Duluth to beyond the Canada border. One of the neatest North Shore tourist sites is the comparatively unknown turnoff to “Palisade Head.” The view from atop Palisade Head is fantastic, and some adventurers bring rock-climbing gear and conduct rappelling exercises over the edge and 200 feet straight down.

“Our vehicle names generally are taken from Southwest or Western locations,” said Mike O’Brien, Hyundai’s vice president of product planning. “This time, we wanted to match the character of a fortress, something substantial. Palisade represents a slice of a cliff, and symbolizes strength.”

Stylish rear houses actual full-size adult comfort in the third row of seats.

O’Brien has never been to Palisade Head, but he was addressing automotive media types summoned in several waves to Coeur d’Alene, a jewel of a mountain resort spot located right in the narrow northern part of Idaho, for the first driving impressions of the 2020 Palisade.

The Palisade replaces the Santa Fe XL as the largest SUV from the South Korean company, and while its bold grille doesn’t resemble anything seen on the Santa Fe, Tucson or Kona, it breaks new styling ground while accumulating all of the almost futuristic features of those smaller siblings, while aiming higher. Hyundai’s history of building safe, strong vehicles that over-achieve is commendable, but now there is a vehicle for those wanting more luxury, and room.

The Palisade could alter Hyundai’s image because of its remarkable luxury fittings. “We’ve focused on premium design and materials,” said O’Brien. “It’s a new image for us.”

However, Hyundai won’t exactly be departing from its reputation of providing high-value, bargain vehicles because of its surprisingly modest price. SUVs with the size and features of the Palisade are often up to twice Palisade’s price, which starts at $31,580 for the base SE. At $33,500, the SEL upgrades to accept all sorts of feature packages that can add another $10,000. The top Palisade Limited model starts at $44,700, and it, too, can add price with some amazing option packages. The Limited I road-tested hit a total of $47,605, but at that its equipment made it pretty special. AWD is standard on the Limited but can be ordered on any model.

Materials and fit of dash includes 10.3-inch adjustable nav screen.

“We have strong loyalty to our sedans, like the Sonata, Elantra and Accent, but subcompact SUVs have become the largest segment with midsize SUVs a close second,” said O’Brien. “Sixty-five percent of our total sales come from SUVs.”

With 10 new or substantially redesigned models introduced in the last year, Hyundai has had 10 consecutive months of increased sales over the previous year, and CEO Brian Smith said that while the industry is down 5 percent, Hyundai is up 5 percent.

Our press test-drive included stunning scenery, going more than 100 miles south, to Moscow, Idaho, where we had lunch at the Lodgepole Restaurant — the fish and chips featured Alaskan halibut! — and back, along some scenic, twisty mountain roadways. It was a well-devised route, but I was able to set up a way to get an extended test, after our wave ended at the fabulous Coeur d’Alene Resort.

A Palisade Limited AWD joined me for a memorable daylong drive from Coeur d’Alene westward, past Spokane and then away from the freeway up Hwy. 2 to the Grand Coulee Dam, then to the Chief Joseph Dam, and northward to Winthrop, a neat tourist-intense little Central Washington town, and finally onward, to Bellingham, Wash., and the Pacific Ocean, where I spent a few days visiting our younger son, Jeff. In all, that trip covered 495.5 miles — all on the same tankful of regular gas. I calculated over-EPA 28.1 miles per gallon despite the terrain up, down and through the Cascade Mountains.

Signal to change lanes, and the speedometer or tach switches to a rear-view camera view of the lane you’re headed for.

Some of the features are refined versions of those Hyundai does very well on such SUVs as the Santa Fe, Tucson and Kona, such as the lane departure warning, lane-keep assist, and lane-centering, plus the excellent radar adaptable cruise control. A new trick is the Palisade’s ultra-helpful instrument panel. If you’re in the middle lane of a 3-lane freeway, and you flick the turn signal to get three blinks to signal a lane change, for example, the large tachometer on the right changes instantly, to a large, round image from a rear/side camera that immediately shows you that the lane is clear. Or not.

Fantastic for entering freeways, too. Otherwise, you can stick with the three-panel navigation screen, which can be adjusted from a panoramic map to a smaller map, with driver information in the adjacent segments.

Another unique feature is the intercom, which lets the driver speak uninterrupted to kids in the back two rows who may have become mesmerized by their audio options. The need for space on the console led to drive-by-wire shift switches instead of the usual shift lever, to save considerable room on the center console. The mode switch allows you to switch from Smart, to Sport, to Comfort, to Eco, or to Snow, and to AWD lock, fitting whatever your driving requires.

Less apparent is the built-in anti-skid control that uses over 50 inputs to predict the conditions for slippage before you actually slip, making it a predictive instead of reactive system. Along with the auto-leveling rear suspension, driving involvement has steering-wheel paddles to control the 8-speed automatic with manual control.

Reflecting the strength and structure of its namesake, Palisade exudes class and luxury.

Chief designer Chris Chapman drew a sketch of how the Palisade came to life, to what he calls “personalization” of incorporating a concept into the actual design. As his drawing developed, the key features of the Palisade showed through: balanced on all four wheels, the “C” pillars sloped rearward to the top of the rear wheel-well; the side contours veering away from each other and then meeting again in harmony; the headlights, foglights, driving lights and tail-lights all with an artful design and piercing LED potency; the “shoulders” of the upper sides of the occupant compartment have a minimizing slope to lower the side-window “biceps” just a bit — to put the muscle closer to the wheels, Chapman explained.

“Early on and throughout, that piercing quality became something like an emerging predator, coming up out of the water,” said Chapman.

When a designer gets on a roll, you learn to not interrupt him with needless questions. You simply look for and appreciate the subtle touches, like the three scallops in the rear fascia of the skid plate, with the dual exhaust pipes nestled asymmetrically into the right one.

New Palisade perched above Grand Coulee Dam in Central Washington.

“It’s a different design,” Chapman acknowledged. “But we’re not doing Russian dolls here, where each one fits inside the other and they all look the same. We wanted to differentiate from the Kona and Santa Fe, and we stressed ergonomics, fit and finish.”

With that, he clicked the projector to replace the Russian dolls pictured with an image of chess pieces, each a different shape and form. The king, of course, is the Palisade.

For structural strength, O’Brien pointed out that the Santa Fe XL graded out to 27.8 in torsional rigidity, and while the all-new Ford Explorer — one of Palisade’s top targets — came in at 27.1, the new Palisade is up to 34.4. To be fair, the 2020 Explorer has 25 percent high-grade steel, but it is aluminum intensive. Hyundai always has featured substantial amounts of high-grade steel, and the Palisade is made up of 59 percent high-strength steel, from Hyundai’s own steel plant. The engineers have found a way to hot-stamp the high-strength steel to improve its rigidity even more.

The Palisade platform is solid enough to feel stiff but not harsh in driving, and rising from that floor is a hoop structure surrounding the passenger compartment, which has been strengthened too. Focus on strengthening the structure included even models with sunroofs, which normally weaken the rigidity. The body was designed to incorporate sound-deadening foam panels under the floor and foam injections into the roof pillars, successful in nearly eliminating wind and road noise.

The low stance and firm structure are coupled with MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspensions to handle road fluctuations for the stiff body.

The interior of the Palisade seems closer to full-size than mid-size, but performance of a big SUV is as important as interior space. Hyundai engineering takes care of that, too, with the corporate 3.8-liter V6 delivering 291 horsepower at a peak of 6,800 RPMs, and 262 foot-pounds of torque at 5,200. The price sheet shows it achieves 19 city and 24 highway in EPA fuel economy estimates, but I was able to get it up to 28.1 mpg on my personal trip, up and down mountainsides.

O’Brien explained that the familiar engine has been refined and now combines Atkinson Cycle and Otto Cycle operation, which are opposites in how they adjust valve opening and closing schemes, and they work seamlessly together. “That allows us to get both economy and power,” he said.

Speaker faceplates on Harmon Kardon audio were specially designed.

The 4,400-pound Palisade AWD also can tow 5,000 pounds in all forms, competing well with the Highlander, Pilot, CX-9, and Explorer. The Explorer is a rear-drive platform, the Palisade front, so when you switch the drive mode to “eco,” you have the efficiency and traction of a front-wheel-drive vehicle. As usual, Hyundai likes to carry its “fight above its weight class” theme, which, because of its interior space, could challenge Yukon, Tahoe, Cadillac SRX and even the Volvo XC-60 and XC-90.

To me, the Palisade drives more like a smaller SUV than one that has so much interior room, and more agility is always a good thing. A unique push-button system makes the second row slide, recline, or flip its backrest forward for ease of entry to the third row, and that third row will surprise adults with how comfortably appointed and roomy it is. It comes with a second-row bench seat, or two captain’s chairs to seat eight or seven. Palisade offers 18 square feet of storage space behind the third row, and it expands greatly when you lower the third, and maybe second, rows.

Driving modes, auto-leveling suspension and stiff platform let Palisade smooth out any terrain.

Many manufacturers are going to assorted artificial leather seat surfaces, and a lot of them are very nice. But the Palisade goes with real Nappa leather, complementing the attention to detail on the doors, dashboard, and even the speaker faceplates is.

With everything folded down, I’m guessing 6-footers could unroll a pad and sleep back there on a long trip. I prefer a resort, but turning the Palisade into a compact mini-motorhome only enhances the pleasure of a trip that could go through the rugged mountains of Idaho and Washington. Or even the North Shore of Minnesota.

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. Read more

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. (Jack Gilbert photo)

  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. Read more

All-new Santa Fe part SUV and part slot car

September 3, 2018 by · Comments Off on All-new Santa Fe part SUV and part slot car
Filed under: New car introductions, Autos 

The 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe, all new from the ground up, at the Stein Eriksen Resort in Park City, Utah.

By John Gilbert


    Hyundai displayed its latest concepts of all-wheel drive, all-new suspension fore and aft, variable driving modes, and computer-perfected lane-keeping assistance — all at the same time — which I discovered quite unintentionally while pushing a 2019 Santa Fe around some tight curves at nearly 10,000 feet of altitude.

    I say unintentional, because I’ve driven many vehicles with all-wheel drive, many with adjustable driving modes, and nearly everything nowadays with some form of lane-guidance or assist, and they have been mostly impressive. But firmly encapsulated in the driver’s seat of a 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe that I was pushing toward its limits on a high mountain 2-lane in Utah was not where I expected to find all those features operating in concert.

  When the Santa Fe came out as the most prominent member of Hyundai’s array of SUVs in 2000, it was the South Korean company’s first serious attempt at participating in the newly expanding interest in building a crossover utility vehicle to haul more stuff than just a family of four.

   Nobody, including Hyundai, could have foreseen the incredible popularity of SUVs, although the company kept pace very well. It just introduced an impressive small SUV called the Kona, to join the about-to-be-reintroduced compact Tucson, and the larger pair of the Santa Fe and the smaller Santa Fe Sport.

High-altitude road tests led Santa Fe drivers to meet for driver changes.

    Because it is time to adjust the group, for 2019, the Santa Fe is again motoring ahead into prominence. Technically, the new Santa Fe replaces the current Santa Fe Sport as a compact, with two rows of seats capable of housing five, while the larger sibling remains midsize as the unchanged Santa Fe XL, with three rows of seats.

    There are enough high-tech features to keep the assembled auto media engaged, but during the pre-drive seminar at the Stein Eriksen Lodge we also learned about the less obvious upgrades that are most important. The re-engineered Santa Fe is increased in torsional stiffness from 27.2 to 31.5 in resistance to twisting with a body structure altered from 58 percent to 67 percent high-grade steel. Advanced aerospace adhesives do their part to help lower Santa Fe’s weight by 52 pounds, stronger but lighter.

    New suspension front and rear feature restructured angles and revised configuration. The new H-Trac all-wheel drive system is located between the axles with electric servo operation of a torque-vectoring system to coordinate the front and rear axles in their perfect swath around curves.

    Greatly reduced friction in the new Hyundai-designed 8-speed automatic makes it work more efficiently, with ratios reaching below first and above sixth compared to the current Hyundai-built 6-speed transmission.

    Switching the modes from “normal” to “smart” and then into “sport” provides noticeable alteration in steering, suspension, and shift-points to an immediately sportier feeling of control. But that’s just part of the picture.

    With H-Trac as a base, the stiffer body with firmer steering mechanism and torque-vectoring makes the system react so promptly it feels as though it is anticipating the need to turn before you turn the wheel — more predictive than reactive, Hyundai says. Simply put, having quicker-steering response while the suspension holds the vehicle flat makes for a more comfortably stable ride.


We paused in our test Santa Fe to observe a fly fisherman on a mountain stream.

Meanwhile, the lane-departure settings are aimed for safety, with four different settings. The first is pretty mild and warns you when you touch the lane markings on either side, Two other settings help assist you in staying off or easing away from the side line, and when you get to the fourth level — that’s the prize. It actually uses four ultrasonic sensors, two high-frequency sensors and four other cameras monitoring the vehicle to gently but surely keep you equidistant from the inside and outside lane boundaries. It wants you to be centered in the lane, and it offers definite assist to see that you do.

    We hadn’t played much with all of that until we had climbed high up into the spectacular scenery of the mountains, past the occasional road-side deer, and the frequent herds of sheep, with and without sheep-herders on horseback.

    When we did engage the most aggressive lane-centering system with the upgraded and coordinated handling modes set to sport, the Santa Fe changed personalities completely. I could drive quite hard around serious curves, and while it reacts instantly to your steering touch and stays flat, it also keeps you centered in your lane even as you push harder and harder.

    It reminded me of years ago, when we got our son a Hot Wheels slot-car race track where you could hurl the little cars around long, flexible orange tracks which had side edges high enough sides to keep the car on track.

    We had an odd number of drivers on our wave, so, by luck, I was driving with Miles Johnson, a Hyundai official who knows pretty much about every model. Not only was that good for me to learn the Santa Fe’s nuances, it also meant that — oh darn! — I would get to drive the entire 176 miles. He, on the other hand, kept me tuned in on some of those amazing handling features that I might have overlooked

   My only manipulation is that I wanted to be sure to be driving the all-wheel-drive Santa Fe both morning and afternoon, because in Duluth, Minnesota, choosing an SUV without AWD is not wise. That  meant we were in a gorgeous grey Santa Fe Ultimate, the top-of-the-line model with 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, churning out 235 horsepower and 260 foot-pounds of torque that rise to that peak at a mere 1,450 RPMs. The base engine is the tried and true 2.4-liter. Larger in displacement but without a turbo, it has 185 horsepower and 178 foot-pounds of torque.

    When Miles urged me to push the Santa Fe harder around those curves, I remarked that the sport steering combined with lane-centering controls gave it such amazing precision that it took awhile to gain the proper trust in its handling.

Well-sculpted contours make the Santa Fe a stylish way to tour the Utah mountains.

  We also spent some time on rough gravel roads, and finally got to a rugged hill-climb area where we had the chance to try to make it up a lengthy, steep, uphill gravel road, rutted and rough mostly, and muddy in other parts. Such challenges require the same instincts as  trying to make it up an icy avenue in Duluth on a January morning. We left it in drive, shifted the terrain setting to lock in the all-wheel-drive system on 4×4, and hit it. No problem. 

   The face of Hyundai SUVs evolved to what they called a “cascading” grille, with horizontal rows of silver bars that made that concept readily identifiable and attractive, as if a waterfall might cascade from rail to rail. The new Kona was a surprising change, and it led the way to the entire field of Hyundai SUVs adopting the new signature face. While mostly a pattern of black openings gathered within the familiar outline shape, Hyundai is still identifying it as cascading.

    Our introductory test drive of the 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe was held at the luxurious but rustic Stein Eriksen Lodge in the mountains near Park City, Utah, which is just to the east of Salt Lake City. From there we drove skyward, around curvy highways up to an altitude of 9,753 feet. We descended back down similar roadways for a lunch stop at Robert Redford’s Sundance resort, which has made its own name for indie film competitions. Word is that Redford built his mountain enclave in the area where he could also offer its spectacular scenery and terrain for such classics as Jeremiah Johnson.

Santa Fe for 2019 shares the new look of Hyundai’s signature “cascade” grille at Robert Redford’s Sundance Lodge.

    When our drive started, the first thing I noticed along with the precise steering was the near silence of our interior. Insulation in the fenders and padding on various parts of the floor are augmented by thicker laminated glass.

   Hyundai officials stressed the safety inherent in every Santa Fe, from the least-expensive $25,300 SE, to the $27,680 SEL, to the $29,800 SEL Plus with leather, to the $32,600 Limited, and to the $35,450 Ultimate.

   Standard features are forward collision avoidance assist; blind-spot avoidance assist; lane-keeping assist; cross-traffic avoidance; safe exit assistance; high-beam assist; smart cruise with stop-and-go at traffic lights; and driver attention warning.

    As you move up in models, avoiding the multiple-choice plan of adding options piecemeal, you get refinements that set the Santa Fe apart. For example, along with back-up warning, you get a rear exit assist, which prevents a rear-seat occupant from opening the rear door if the Santa Fe notes that a car is approaching on that side to pass. Same if a child or pet is in the rear seat and the driver locks the vehicle and runs inside a store. Any movement by the child or pet will caust an alert to sound on your smartphone, and the horn honks.

The Santa Fe Ultimate is loaded with luxurious soft-touch fabrics and leather seats.

    If that’s all futuristic over an above the now-familiar heads-up display, wireless charger, heated and ventilated front seats, surround view when parking, rain-sensing wipers, panoramic sun roof, rear sunshades, music restoration on the Infinity sound system with music restoration, that’s what you have available on the new Santa Fe.

   After we had returned to our Stein Eriksen home base for dinner, I couldn’t help bringing up the amazement I registered with the combined lane-keep centering and the sport handling, but in different conversations, several of my fellow journalists cut me off and said, “Oh, I switched the lane-keep off.”

   We car-testing journalists love to act like we’re better drivers than the norm, and in many cases we might be. But in our arrogance we can insist we don’t want any car assisting us. I said with the Santa Fe, that was a mistake for two reasons. First, you don’t get to evaluate a valuable safety feature. And maybe, I said, “you just didn’t want the car pointing out how often you veer across the white lines.


Venturing off Utah highways led to a confrontation with the odd herd of sheep.

  A professional road-racer, better than any of us, might drive hard in a new Santa Fe with all the devices engaged and say, “I’ve been trying to do this my whole career, and this SUV does it automatically!”

    Clad in all-new sheet metal on the outside and with a completely redesigned interior with all soft facings, plus a much more rigid platform and all the driving-assist stuff, the new Santa Fe is the perfect example of how a high-tech company can build a safe, solid, cutting-edge vehicle. It may be the perfect compromise of a smooth and comfortable family hauler that is ready, willing and able to go off-roading with Jeep-like performance, head for the shopping mall, and, when pushed, handle like a slot-car.


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