Wild Mustang GT still around, eager to be tamed

July 19, 2018 by · Comments Off on Wild Mustang GT still around, eager to be tamed
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Still familiar from 50 years ago, new Mustang GT is easily the best so far.

By John Gilbert

   Back about 1970, the Trans-American series, or Trans-Am, was a premier road-racing series, for the suddenly popular “ponycars” like Mustang, Camaro, Challenger, Barracuda, Firebird and later the AMC Javelin.

   Mark Donohue in the Roger Penske Camaro was hard to beat, but the most colorful team was the Bud Moore Mustangs led by the inimitable Parnelli Jones. Driving the No. 15 Mustang painted a uniquely bright yellow-orange, Jones won the 1970 championship and always ran up front, referring to his own race car as being “school-bus orange.” Even though it was more yellow-orange, the nickname was as good as the fact.

   While the other ponycars disappeared in a changing society gravitating toward larger and smaller cars, the Mustang ensued, coming out in various shapes and sizes, some of which now seem odd in retrospect, as Ford has recreated the Mustang in the image of those 1970-era cars. So has Dodge, with Challenger, and Chevrolet, with Camaro.

   They are all captivating, in a future-retro sort of a way, but to me, the Mustang is the most refined, maybe even near perfect for recapturing that era.

   A few months ago, Ford announced that it may eliminate production of nearly all its cars in favor of the newly popular and various SUVs. People throughout the country and industry were shocked, and Ford followed by announcing the only cars it would keep producing were the Mustang and the Focus. No more Taurus or Fusion, or Fiesta, which seems startling.

   But as long as the the Mustang continues, all is OK.

Familiar look, rock-firm platform, and 460-horsepower V8 with a 6-speed stick is Mustang GT identification.

   I’ve driven some model of every Mustang ever made, and I owned a 1970 Boss 302 for over 20 years, which I believe was the best road-racing-ready production car ever. It had gone through various modifications and alterations before I sold it to a guy who wanted to restore it to original form. Among the reasons I relinquished it was because the newest generation Mustangs had become so high-tech they could compete, in my mind, with all that was great about the Boss 302.

   Right after the Fourth of July, a new 2018 Ford Mustang GT arrived inmy driveway in
Duluth, Minnesota,  and it showed upfor me to live with for a week. It practically glowed in an amazing metallic yellow-orange that immediately struck me as a close proximity to “school-bus orange.”

   It was thoroughly enjoyable to drive, if not to ride in as a passenger. My wife, Joan, put up with it for about 5 miles of Duluth-area, obstacle-course passenger-seat riding before she announced she was less than anxious to ride in it any more — Recaro bucket seats or not.

   The finely-tuned suspension has toggle-switch dash settings to adjust from normal to sport, to track, to dragstrip, to special competition, and each alteration goes from firm to firmer, and the steering stiffens noticeably. As a driver, you love it; as a passenger, it gets pretty tiresome.

Bike-riding cousins relived Duluth college days by revisiting Hwy. 61 and cruised by for a closer look along the North Shore.

   The thrill that conquers all such nitpicks, however, is the unbelievable sound that goes right from your shoe soles to your body’s soul in about one-tenth of a second. It is a spine-tingling rumble, reverberating through the neighborhood. Not really that obtrusive to your neighbors, but absolute music to your ears.

   Climb in, adjust the seat, and the steering wheel, put the clutch to the floor and hit the starter button. Give it a second to let that great sound engulf you and the interior of the car, and blip the throttle a couple times if it’s not up to your standards.

   Let out the clutch, gently, and try to do it smoothly enough to launch without a neck-snapping jerk or two. The big, wide rear tires grip like race tires — on dry pavement, at least — and they stick with precision in the tightest cornering, while the hyper-tuned suspension holds the car’s attitude in place.

   Again, though, we go back to that engine, a 5.0-liter V8 which smoothes out from raw to low-rev power to a smoother roar as the RPMs built. Shift the slick 6-speed stick into second, then third, and you have swiftly attained any legal speed limit on any road in the country. With three gears to go.

   The 5.0-liter V8 has been tweaked and refined to deliver 460 horsepower and 420 foot-pounds of torque, perfectly regulated with that 6-speed and judicioius throttle control.

Recaro bucket seats, toggle-switch controls, racing steering wheel, and high-tech connectivity fill the Mustang GT interior.

   There are still even more potent Mustang models available for more money, with superchargers and all, but the GT stands out as a true bargain in the industry, with a base GT price of $35,190. Of course, you can start adding on satellite radio, navigation and all kinds of options, and run the price easily over $40,000, but the base car is well-equipped as is.

   The neat and efficient interior of the test car had all the latest electronic-gizmo features of the contemporary car world, and that includes the taught suspension-tire combination and the quick steering. It also adds traction control, and a much appreciated hill-start feature that isn’t new in the industry anymore, but is great on a steep incline when you have to make sure of your touch on the clutch as you launch. The car sits motionless as you release the clutch, a welcome aid.

    I found the width of the front tires was such that you need to pay extra attention on tight turns because the width and grip almost cause the car to jerk free of your hold on the wheel, as if it wants to steer itself. Like a wild horse of its own name, it wants to take the bit in its mouth. So be ready to manhandle the steering wheel just a bit to maintain your authority.

   While the driving is an exciting venture at any and all speeds, and in any and every gear, the sound, and the almost-glow-in-the-dark color make the Mustang GT a cinch attention-grabber, for passers-by, pedestrians, and, yes, officers of the law.

Refined grille of the 2018 Mustang GT has a low, curb-scraping form.

   The front end of the Mustang GT has a ferocious look to it, with the spoiler hanging down so low you’ll also want to be extra careful how close you get to parking lot divider curbs. The large mouth of the grille is impressive, especially when flanked by the slick, and sleek, LED headlights and their enclosure.

   The silhouette is pure Mustang, and not the blocky 1966 original, but the sleek fastback of the 1969 and 70 road-racing Mustangs. It looks aerodynamically slippery, and you are surprised that there is something close to adequate rear-seat headroom under the steeply sloping roof. Even more surprising is the trunk, which opens to a large-capacity cavern that will house a lot of stuff when you hit the road. And hitting the road will be a temptation you will find difficult to resist with the Mustang GT.

   Ford engineers have done great work with their engines in recent years, from the EcoBoost V6 and 4s which can mimic larger engines with their turbocharged efficiency. But they have not overlooked the 5.0 V8, obvioiusly. This engine is the mainstay of the F150 pickup line, unless you go for the EcoBoost, but it feels as it belongs to the Mustang.

   With all the new, high-tech vehicles coming out, in sedans, compacts, SUVs and pickup trucks, there is so much to evaluate and test that I must admit I was not desperate to get my hands on the new, 2018 Mustang, even though I knew it had been redone with revised styling, and that the old and tired standard V6 had been dropped.

Distinctive charcoal wheels, Brembo brakes set off intricate LED light enclosure.

Galloping Mustang emblem stands alone on GT’s blackened grille.

Once it showed up, with its charcoal-grey spokey wheels on the low-profile tires, and that stunning paint job — which shows off its millions of metallic grains only when you get close and check it in bright sunlight — only then did I realize how glad I was that I had been chosen to spend a week with the new Mustang GT.

Then I started the engine, blipped the throttle, and considered what might happen if I headed deeper into the North woods just to see how long it would take Ford to find me. 

Regal sedan remains, as stunning GS hatch

July 4, 2018 by · Comments Off on Regal sedan remains, as stunning GS hatch
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Showing off lines no Buick has ever shown, new Regal GS should spur sales.

By John Gilbert

   When I had the chance to road-test a new Buick Regal Tour-X a few months ago, I was impressed that the stately old General Motors icon had the audacity to build a station wagon, let alone a long and slinky European-style, all-wheel-drive wagon, powered by a turbocharged 4-cylinder engine.

   The traditional Regal sedan, we were told, was no more, and the wagon would carry on. Well, not so fast.

   I have now had the chance to spend a week with the new Buick Regal GS, which doesn’t look anything like the current Regal midsize sedan, but then, it doesn’t look anything like the Tour-X wagon, either.

If a hatchback allows for sleeker styling, it’s a worthy tradeout in the Regal GS.

   Personally, hatchbacks usually make a lot of sense, and I don’t subscribe to the trend of separating hatchbacks from sedans, any more than I don’t criticize others for failing to point out that all SUVs must also be identified as hatchbacks. Regardless, I would have to say that the new Regal GS is the best-looking car from Buick since…well…maybe ever!

   That comes from someone who was never a dedicated Buick fanatic, but who also thought that the current Regal was an outstanding car and the first Buick I can recall that could ignite buyer’s temptation in me. When I learned that previous Regal was a U.S. branded model of a new German Opel Vectra, its progressive leap upward made more sense. It was even made in Europe for a while, while Buick geared up to build it in North America.

   Now we find out that if the newest model of the Buick Regal germinated (Germanated?) from the new model Opel Insignia, a longer and classier car than the Vectra/Regal, but one with smoothly aerodynamic lines that exude grace and streamlined speed. General Motors has sold off Opel, which made me curious what Buick would do without its trusty German models, but now we find out that in their separation, Opel promised to keep building cars for Buick, and the Regal GS is a version of the new model, stretched and fitted with a hatchback over its generous cargo area. That allows for a sleek, fastback silhouette.

  

Comfortable, supportive and adjustable front buckets add luxury to Regal GS.

Parked downtown in Duluth or Minneapolis, we were surprised at how much attention the new Regal GS generated. People would stop on the sidewalk and wait until we returned to the car to quiz us about it. Generally, they would leave, shaking their heads in a real-life version of those inane “Real people, not actors” GM commercials, and mutter things like, “That can’t be a Buick,” or “Sure doesn’t look like a Buick.”

   Buick should take note of the accolades, because they are uncommon these days, and comparatively unprecedented for Buick. But valuable.

   The bright red Regal GS test car has a neat grille, and the swept-back lines come together in a well-styled rear end, as well. As a 4-door, it’s actually a 5-door with the hatch, but we don’t care, despite the reluctance U.S. buyers have for hatchback cars, as though the word itself is objectionable.

    Not that the Regal GS is small. It is 192.9 inches long, sitting on a 114.4-inch wheelbase, and it weighs a comparatively hefty 4,270 pounds. Much of that can be attributed to the all-wheel drive.

   The Regal GS has a base price of $39,990, which is rather stiff, and the test car was loaded enough to show $44,115 as the bottom line.

   I’m an advocate of choosing a turbo 4-cylinder rather than a larger V6 if it will do sufficiently, because of obvious advantages in fuel economy, but a lot of U.S. buyers want their V6es, so the Rebel GS comes armed and dangerous with GM’s corporate workhorse 3.6-liter V6, which easily powers all four wheels, and perhaps can tow just about anything.

 

Stylish alloy wheels on the Regal GS display the red Brembo brakes that provide safe stops.

  The 3.6 churns out 310 horsepower at 6,800 RPMs, and 282 foot-pounds of torque at 5,700 revs. The 9-speed automatic transmission shifts surely and efficiently, and is explained as an “active twin-clutch” transmission. In a Buick? No kidding?

   There is a mode switch, and we drove almost exclusively in the sport setting, which wasn’t harsh, and helped stability with much-appreciated tighter steering and firmer suspension.

   It wouldn’t be a Buick without considerable doses of comfort, and the Regal GS has very comfortable and supportive front bucket seats, and also comfortable rear seats. The rear seats deserve extra merit, because they are set into a space that is, in a word, huge. With the front buckets set back as far as I would set them as a 6-foot driver, there is a lot of headroom and enormous leg and foot-room in the rear.

   The car came equipped with Continental tires mounted on 19-inch alloy wheels, and the size of those tires may have helped the Regal GS handle to near-sporty-sedan standards, although they did seem to cause more than a little noise from Duluth’s minefield-like street irregularities.

   Changing from the Regal wagon’s turbo 4 to the Regal GS’s only-choice V6 takes a hit in fuel economy, although an EPA estimate of 19 city and 27 highway is obtainable and isn’t bad for a big, heavy, all-wheel-drive car. But if the turbo 2.0-liter 4-cylinder gives up some drag-racing potential to the 3.6 V6, its performance is certainly adequate, while its fuel economy would be at least 5 more mpg on the highway.

 

Regal GS in motion shows distinctive new look, personality German design heritage.

  With all its styling grooves and contours, I had trouble deciding which angle of the Regal GS I liked best, and it turned out to be pretty much a tie. Pick an angle, any angle, and you’ll appreciate the car’s appearance.

   That brings us back to the old cliche from decades-past ad campaigns: “Wouldn’t you really rather have a Buick?” For the first time in a long time, maybe ever, I can say the answer could be a decisive “Yes!”

   

Varied compression makes QX50 constant

June 20, 2018 by · Comments Off on Varied compression makes QX50 constant
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

In the ever-expanding Infiniti SUTV stable, the 2019 QX50 is something special — with variable compression power.

By John Gilbert

    In the long list of Nissan and Infiniti cars, crossovers and SUVs, the new Infiniti QX50 is one of the neatest, best-designed and best-performing of all.

   And that’s before even getting into the amazing technology deployed under the hood.As the driver, you do nothing to make it work except step on the gas. Moderately, please.

    It is called “variable compression” and it actively alters the engine’s compression ratio into a mind-blowing range from the low 8-to-1 figure common to older car buyers who seek high gas mileage, to more than a 14-to-1 ratio that best exemplifies the most high-tech performers. 

    Automotive engineers always have been striving to improve efficiency of internal combustion engines, seeking ways to achieve the magic trio of increased power, increased fuel economy, and decreased emissions. Direct fuel injection and computerized engine operation have helped, and variable valve timing has been a brilliant breakthrough in the last decade, including such tricks as Atkinson Cycle and Miller Cycle to alter valve timing and coax the air-fuel mixture to spend more time combusting.

The engine shroud doesn’t tip off that the 2.0-liter turbo 4 has 268 horsepower and 280 foot-pounds of torque.

   In the four cycles — intake, compression, combustion and exhaust — an engine’s ability to streamline the process and increase the ability to most-thoroughly burn the air-fuel mixture for maximum power and efficiency has included Honda’s stratified-charge engines and decades of refining it, and more recently is Mazda’s Skyactive concept combining all its technology into a clean-sheet, holistic new way to build modern engines.

   All are worthy, as are any and all the other top world car-makers’ efforts, most of which are aimed at taking best advantage of whatever a car’s compression ratio might be.

   Nissan, however, has a bunch of impatient perfectionist types wearing white smocks who probably would prefer to pass up the chance to take the family to the lake in favor of building their own lake in the back yard. These engineers started 20 years ago to seek a newer and better idea, and make it happen.

   So many of Nissan’s newest cars and engines are impressive to drive, that I always look forward to trying another one. As for this technique, I knew it was coming, I just wasn’t sure when it would find its way to real-world applications. The better idea of varying valve-timing to help combustion instead becomes the best idea of building an engine capable of altering its own compression ratio to take optimum advantage of any valve operation. Read more

Platform, engine, design turn page on Jetta

June 13, 2018 by · Comments Off on Platform, engine, design turn page on Jetta
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Luxury-look grille sets off all-new 2019 Jetta.

By John Gilbert

   For decades, I’ve been a loyal fan of Volkswagen. It dates back to when I was a kid and my mom bought a 1960 Volkswagen Beetle, equipped to survive Northern Minnesota winters with an add-on gas heater, which was an amazing device that could transform 20-below winter nights — at the pull of a switch to activate the 747-like roar of the under-dash device —  to 90 above tropical temperature in about  minute, after which you could choose 20 below or 90 above, with no intermediary stops.

   Following along through the era of Rabbits, then Golfs, GTIs, Jettas, Passats, with side-trips to a Scirocco or Corrado here or there, our family, and particularly our two sons, got exceptional service from such VWs.

   So it was with considerable distress that I followed along with the incredible world-wide scandal of the alteration of VW’s 40-plus miles-per-gallon turbo-diesels, which were configured to disable the emission-control stuff except when being tested by the EPA. It turns out, there have been various other companies caught in the same scandal — including virtually all turbo-diesel pickups from the U.S. — but because of the mountain of publicity, it is VW’s to own, and be fined for.

    Most impressive, though, is that Volkswagen didn’t just pull out of the U.S., it made an enormous corporate changeover to rally and stay in the market as a solid performer. Adding SUVs, such as the Tiguan, and the Atlas, helped immeasurably. But with the 2019 Jetta compact sedan, we get to experience the best in German engineering, from a high-tech plant in the U.S., at an amazing bargain price.

Quick, agile Jetta is still roomy family bargain.

   Volkswagen, which owns Audi, has worked with them to develop and perfect a couple of 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engines, with and without turbochargers, depending upon the application. VW also reduced the displacement of the 2.0 to 1.8 and got almost as much performance with even better fuel efficiency. In the process, Volkswagen created an all-new platform, called the MQB, which, after translation, stands for Modular Transverse Matrix.

   An all-new platform can be significant, allowing a vehicle’s unerpinnings to be designed for stiffness from which high-tech suspension and steering geometry can be engineered to be firmed up, balanced, and safer.

  

SEL Premium Jetta has angled cockpit dash, excellent leather buckets.

With that MQB basis, the new Jetta adds a striking design. The sixth generation served VW well, outselling the popular Golf in the U.S., but its styling was unobtrusively boring, at best. It looked like a child’s soap-carving — and I liked the car! The new Jetta, hitting showrooms by the end of June, 2018 as a 2019 model, has a neater shape, and a very stylish front end and grille. Read more

MAMA Spring Rally springs best new vehicles

June 5, 2018 by · Comments Off on MAMA Spring Rally springs best new vehicles
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Acura made an official debut of the 2019 RDX at the MAMA Spring Rally, raising technology and performance of the midsize SUV.

By John Gilbert

    The opportunity to test drive a car or two every week adds unquestionable zest to the life of an auto journalist. And then there is the MAMA Spring Rally, which sets new standards every spring for members of the Midwest Auto Media Association. True, I’m prejudiced, but I believe the MAMA spring and fall rallies are the best functions any auto membership outfit offers.

   This year’s Spring Rally was conducted on the week leading up to Memorial Day. Over the course of the two days, I drove 17 different vehicles, on the Road America race course, on surrounding rural roads, and on a very challenging autocross circuit. And I still left almost that many more I wanted to get into, but ran out of time. I will be reporting on almost all the new vehicles that were provided for the Rally when they get to the press fleet, but it was good to get a taste of some of the more enticing cars.

   MAMA also has its members vote for Family Car of the Year, and to qualify a car must cost less than $50,000 and have four doors and be aimed at hauling a family. This year, they added a Luxury Family Car of the Year. It won’t be announced until next February at the Chicago Auto Show, but the candidates this year are many.

   Starting in reverse order here, the top vote-getters for Family Car of the Year established the early top candidates: the Hyundai Kona compact SUV, the Ram 1500 full size pickup truck, the new-for-2019 Volkswagen Jetta, the renovated Mazda6 sedan, the Buick Regal Tour-X station wagon, and the Ford Expedition large SUV. In the companion Luxury Car of the Year category, the early favorites are the Volvo XC40 compact crossover SUV, the Acura RDX midsize SUV, the Kia Stinger large performance sedan, and the Range Rover Velar SUV. These are not in order of votes, but make a preliminary list of favorites for the two categories, awaiting final vote-offs at the MAMA fall rally. 

   My personal picks were the Kona, the Ram 1500 the Jetta and Mazda6. Among luxury vehicles, the Volvo XC40, the RDX, and the Jaguar E-Pace were my anticipated favorites, but the vehicle that stole the show for me was the new BMW X2, a low and flashy new compact SUV with a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine. Maybe it’s too new, but it somehow escaped the scrutiny of most voters.

BMW showed up with its new M5 sedan, left, and newly created X2 compact crossover.

   What we do is gather at the Osthoff Resort in the tiny southeastern Wisconsin town of Elkhart Lake, which includes the legendary 4-mile road-racing circuit in the rolling hillside just outside of town. Our esteemed group’s board of directors stays in running contact with all the auto manufacturers, and they work out agreements to bring their newest vehicles to the track, where close to a hundred media types get to take turns driving nearly a hundred vehicles for one-lap circuits around the track.

 

Cadillac’s ATS-4 is a coupe version of its hot new turbo-4 sedan.

  Driving all these new cars on the nation’s most legendary road-racing track would be highlight enough for us, but we also get to make some real-world road tests around the winding roads outside the track, and, for good measure, some hot laps around a special autocross track located within the track’s borders. In addition, the folks from Range Rover have set up a special inside off-road track amid the hills and trees of the far side of the track property to test off-road vehicles. Read more

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