RS gives U.S. buyers new Focus on fun

August 17, 2017 by · Comments Off on RS gives U.S. buyers new Focus on fun
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

The long-awaited European Focus finally brings turbo and AWD RS version to U.S.

By John Gilbert

   What’s in a name, especially a car name? Maybe it’s all in the eye of the beholder. If you ask a long-time car owner what he or she thinks of the Ford Focus, chances are you will elicit a frown, maybe a muttering that ranges from OK and adequate to boring, or mundane.

  Ah, but a car’s name also demands that you add the initials. For example, RS after the word Focus. All the years we’ve been buying or settling for a Ford Focus because it’s inexpensive to buy and operate, in a world where fitting into a budget is more important than seeking something exotic, we have also heard about how lucky Europeans are, because they get a top-end Focus that remained only a rumor in the U.S. Still reasonably priced, they said, but equipped with power and potential to compete with the true hot small cars. Think GTI R, or WRX STi.

   Now we can redirect the question: What do you think about the Ford Focus RS?

   If you ask someone who has been to Europe, or knows something about cars, their eyes will light up and a smile will crease their faces.

   At long last, Ford has brought the Focus RS to the United States, and it lives up to all you’ve ever heard about it. I got my hands on one for a week, and one word of advice: When you get your hands on a Focus RS, hang on!

Four doors and a hatchback, plus a rear spoiler make the RS a versatile daily driver.

   The car stood out because it was painted “Nitrous Blue Quad-Coat,” a color remindful of the electric-blue that Richard Petty’s NASCAR race cars used to be. Only this one is highly metallic, as you can see when you get up close and let the sun reflect off its bright skin.

  The Focus RS looks as menacing as a Focus can look, but that doesn’t cover the territory. A Focus is a compact, front-wheel drive 4-cylinder with 120-some horsepower, aimed at fuel economy more than sprightly performance.

  The RS has a turbocharged direct-injected 2.3-liter 4 with all-wheel drive and a 6-speed stick shift, with — get this — 350 horsepower and another 350 foot-piunds of torque.

  Push the button and start up. Maybe it’s been a while since you drove a hot 6-speed stick, so be careful. Oops! Killed the engine. It takes some adjustment on the driver’s part. You figure if you let the clutch out too soon, you kill the engine, so let it out more easily, and it simply hurls you across the intersection. You get the distinct feeling that if you timed it just right, you could probably throw the Focus RS into an endless whirl of burnout spins until the tires melted.

  As a matter of fact, there are four settings for the drive characteristics: Normal, Sport, Track, and Drift. Now, “Drift” is something I can’t wrap my brain around. I know there are actual competitions where drivers roar around race tracks and the winner is the one who can throw his car out of line, nearly out of control, and then control it through the turns by cracking the steering wheel to somewhat control the skidding, drifting, sliding tendencies. The Focus RS has an actual setting to enhance that practice.

Sporty interior of the RS is complete with Recaro road-racing style bucket seats.

   But if you can control the urge to get as close to out-of-control as possible without losing it, you might have to accept that the AWD Focus RS simply handles every “normal” driving challenge with superb handling. Tight curves, cloverleafs, abrupt emergency-handling swerves — all of them become easily conquered.

   The Focus RS is a 4-door sedan, and there is room to fit two occupants in the back seat. They, in fact, might not mind being squeezed a little, just because the car looks so enticing.

   With surprisingly good cargo space under the rear hatch, the roominess is an asset. The styled alloy wheels cover body-color Brembo disc brake units, but let’s get back inside.

  Driver and front passenger sit in Recaro bucket seats, and I do emphasize the word “in.” Most car seats you sit on, but in form-fitting Recaros, you sink down into them, with side bolsters sealing you in to hold you in position no matter how aggressively you might swerve. Or, as they say, drift.

   Some people don’t like Recaros, finding the severe side support wears on your thighs over the long haul. Personally, I like them. If you’re sitting on a normal seat, you might prefer to move around and adjust your sitting angle, but I think your driving focus improves when you have not choice but to sit in a full-focused position.

   The 6-speed stick is smooth and easy to shift, and once you get disciplined to launching somewhere between kill-the-engine and hurl-across-the-intersection, sending the Focus RS around on your intended vectors is sheer pleasure.

   Handling is aided by firm suspension and that all-wheel drive system, and the low-profile, high-performance Michelin Cup-2 track tires on 19-inch forged alloy wheels keep everything planted even more.  

Driver’s view displays proper controls, 6-speed stick and navigation screen.

Having to wait a few styling generations to get our American hands on the RS has its benefits. The many safety and driver-assist systems that have been invented and become prevalent since it was introduced in Europe now makes the U.S. issue RS a much more refined car.

  Along with the obvious things like the spoiler high on the rear roof and the badging, along with the unique color, the items under the skin include bi-xenon headlights with cornering capability, blind-spot warning LED lights on the side mirrors, dynamic torque vectoring on the AWD system, launch control, advance trac stability control, voice-activated navigation, SYNC connectivity, and perimeter alarm.  

High-performance tires and distinctive alloy wheels set the RS apart from normal Focus.

    You might find an ordinary garden-variety Focus for under $20,000, and you could be happy with normal driving routines and decent fuel economy. But you know you’re going to pay extra for the hot Focus RS. Base price of the RS is $35,900 for the turbo, AWD, and interior and handling amenities. As tested, the model I drove was $41,370.

   But when somebody asks you what you drive, you wouldn’t have to say you got the “$40,000 Focus,” you can just say the Focus RS and see if they light up. If they do, you know they appreciate what you’ve got. If they don’t…well, they probably wouldn’t have asked what you drive in the first place.  

Alfa Romeo Stelvio is properly exotic SUV

August 10, 2017 by · Comments Off on Alfa Romeo Stelvio is properly exotic SUV
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Alfa’s new Stelvio Ti flashes familiar face, but it is a high-tech SUV for 2018.

By John Gilbert

   You may have never seen an Alfa Romeo Giulia sedan in the flesh. And you probably have never even heard of the Alfa Romeo Stelvio, an all-new and surprising crossover SUV built by Alfa Romeo and based on the Giulia.

  For more than six months, I’ve been focused on relaying the wonders of the Giulia, once I get one for a week-long test drive, and a brief test drive in two of them at the Midwest Auto Media Spring Rally at Elkhart Lake, Wis., only caused my anticipation to rise higher. Because it’s still baseball season, we can go for the next best thing, accepting the Stelvio as a worthy pinch-hitter.

   The 2018 Stelvio arrived, a glistening Trofeo White Tri-Coat vehicle. and it was intriguing enough that I tried to spend as much of the week as possible driving around the Duluth, Mn., and Western Lake Superior region.

    Close to seductive in its overall demeanor, the Stelvio offers further evidence that somehow, every time Italians design a car we can guarantee it will exude emotion, and now we must expand that to include SUVs, especially the Stelvio, which Alfa calls “the SUV for S-Curves.”


Stelvio Ti Lusso fit easily amid normal vehicles at the Big Top Chautauqua parking lot.

  My wife, Joan, and I drove the Stelvio Ti to the Spirit Valley Days car show in West Duluth, where I parked just beyond the lines of over 150 classic and restored vintage cars and hot rods, creating an unfair attraction of its own. Next, we drove down to Glensheen Mansion, where the midweek free summer concerts on the shoreline of Lake Superior are a highlight. And we capped the week by driving from Duluth to Bayfield, Wis., where we attended the Ricky Skaggs concert at Big Top Chautauqua, one of the classic tent-show venues in the country.

   We knew Ricky Skaggs was an outstanding musician, but we were not prepared for the tremendous showmanship he and his group put on for a couple of hours under the Big Top. We also got the chance to meet him, and when he said he had played for a time with Emmylou Harris and her original “Hot Band,” I was able to solve a 30-year mystery about the identity of the fabulous guitar player on original masterpieces such as “Luxury Liner.” He said it was Albert Lea, a brilliant guitarist from England.

   With a half-tank of premium still on board, we drove the 100 miles back to Duluth afterward and were pleasantly surprised to find we still had a quarter of a tank remaining. With EPA estimates of 22 city and 28 highway, we obviously exceeded the highway number on the trip. although I could not solve the mysterious computer to find any gas-mileage numbers. Another Italian thing, I figure.


Dramatic but unmistakable Alfa Romeo face sets Stelvio apart from crowded SUV world.

I had seen the Stelvio at the Chicago Auto Show, and I came away figuring it was a Giulia on steroids, because it shared the same oval signature grille and slick lines and contours sweeping back over the passenger compartment. Turns out, the Stelvio is far different — a very interesting experiment in Alfa building something beyond its previous expertise in sporty sedans and sports cars.

   It is filled with features,  jammed into the Stelvio’s sleek outer shell, and none of which interrupt the constant emphasis on emotion and passion, assets that always identify anything wearing the Alfa Romeo name.

   The name “Stelvio” comes from the Stelvio Pass, a legendary drive route high in the Italian Alps that some say is the best driving road in the wrold. I’ve driven over the Italian Alps a couple of times, and while I don’t recall the Stelvio Pass. I do vividly recall the wonderfully intricate turns and curves up and down those high-altitude regions. All of them were designed as though everybody who would drive on those roads would be driving a sports car. Or should be.


Sporty, flat-bottomed steering wheel is adorned with Alfa logo, push-button starter.

If they’d had a Stelvio in those days they could have saved a lot of investment on roadways and just sent folks hurtling up and down the Sound-of-Music-like meadows of an Alp or two. The Stelvio Ti we drove for a week was, undoubtedly, the first one in the state of Minnesota, just introduced as a 2018 model, and passers-by gawked at it everywhere we drove or parked.

   I got an early chance with the car because of a weird chain of coincidences. In over four decades of reviewing the newest cars, I have never awaited a car as enthusiastically as  the 2017 Alfa Romeo Giulia, the mainstream luxury-sports sedan that would lead Alfa Romeo back into the American market. A chance to go to Milano, Italy, for the unveiling further whetted my appetite. 

   But after the Giulia had been driven from Chicago to Duluth for me, glitch with the check-engine light led to flat-bedding it back to Chicago without me even seeing it! Because of all the Midwestern journalists awaiting the Giulia, I was relegated to the end of the list, and I literally counted the weeks for two or three months until its scheduled date of July 23. Three days before delivery, I learned Fiat-Chrysler had recalled the Giulias from press fleets for a software fix on the pre-production models.

   Fortunately, a little sympathy from a couple of good people at Fiat-Chrysler help get me assigned to a first chance at the new Stelvio just sent to the press fleet headquarters.


Real grain of light walnut blends with supportive leather seats in the Stelvio interior.

 The Stelvio comes in three forms, with the top being the Quadrifoglio, with an extremely potent twin-turbo V6 engine. My test drive was the mid-range Stelvio Ti Lusso, equipped with the responsive new 2.0-liter direct-injected and turbocharged 4-cylinder, which also powers the base Stelvio. It has 280 horsepower at 5,200 RPMs and 306 foot-pounds of torque at a peak that stays in a flattened arc from 2,000 to 4,500 RPMs.

   The 8-speed ZF automatic transmission shifts smoothly up and down in milliseconds. A knob on the light walnut console has three settings — “a” for best economy, “n” for firmer suspension and tighter steering, and “d” for dynamic, which heightens steering control, suspension firmness and engine power. I remain unsure of how “a” and “n” translate, but “d” for dynamic not only makes sense, but I found that the engine, transmission, all-wheel drive, suspension, big wheels, and body were best coordinated when it was in d. Another Alfa tradition.


Smoothly sleek lines identify the 0.32 aero drag of Alfa Romeo’s first try at an SUV.

Built at Alfa’s Cassino plant in Frosinone, Italy, the Stelvio engines are both right out of the Giulia.Fiat, now Fiat-Chrysler, owns Alfa Romeo, as well as Ferrari, and Lancia. Each retains its own style and personality, and all wear their emotion on their fenders. Fiat dispatched Ferrari engineers to create the specific high-tech engines for the Giulia/Stelvio venture, and among the corporate high-tech features, the engines also use Fiat’s MultiAir2 system ofhydraulic intake valve actuation off the exhaust valves. So in a way Stelvio is a Giulia on steroids.

   Double-wishbone suspension  up front and rear “Alfa link” with a vertical stabilizing bar make the Stelvio Ti handle superbly on curvy roads and stay flat and stable in all conditions.

    The preponderance for light walnut with raised grain on the console, dash and doors, blended with black leather seats and trim, makes the inside of the Stelvio Ti an easy place to appreciate the “mechanics of emotion.” Supportive bucket seats are adjustable every which way via power switches, and room for three more in the back, on fold-down seats that expand the large cargo area under the hatch, make the Stelvio meet all the requirements of an SUV. 

   Every manufacturer wants to build an SUV and capitalize on what has now become a world-wide craze. A luxury car company such as Jaguar has Land Rover as a partner to share engines and SUV tricks, but unless Alfa Romeo consulted with Jeep engineers, it had to go it alone to build its first SUV. The result worked.

   From a base price of $46,495, some options carry stiff prices, such as the paint job, the oversized 8.8-inch display screen, the huge sunroof, the Harmon Kardon audio upgrade to 900 watts through 12 channels to 14 speakers, among others. And yet the splendid leather and wood interior is standard equipment on the Ti.


Stelvio was a distraction at West Duluth’s annual Spirit Valley Days car show.

As tested, the Stelvio Ti comes in at $56,000. That includes 235/55 Continental M+S tires on 19 inch wheels, adding to the handling stability. With the turbo 4, the Stelvio Ti goes 0-60 in just under 6 seconds, reportedly about two seconds slower than the twin-turbo V6 model.

   We aren’t kidding anyone by comparing the new Stelvio Ti Lusso with the lower, lighter and sleeker Giulia sedan’s handling, but it’s a lot more fair to compare the Stelvio with any and all luxury-sport SUVs, which would lead to the inescapable conclusion that Alfa has indeed made the Stelvio the SUV for S-Curves.

Corolla moves on, ahead of new engine

August 2, 2017 by · Comments Off on Corolla moves on, ahead of new engine
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Corolla celebrates 50th anniversary with style, handling, slick CVT.

By John Gilbert

     This is a great summer for festivals, with something going on every week, if not every day, in Duluth and other community celebrations at virtually every Northeastern Minnesota town. One of our favorites is the annual Blueberry Festival in Ely, a colorful little outfitters’ town on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness. That was all the incentive we needed for a Saturday road test of a 2017 Toyota Corolla XSE

   The Corolla was loaded, from its sloping and racy looking nose to the XSE emblem emblazoned on the rear panel, where it glistened in bright silver against the car’s deep blue — “Blue Crush” they call it.

    With the 2018 Camry about to hit showrooms, it can be easy to overlook the 2017s. But 2017 happens to be the 50th anniversary of the Corolla, which continues to battle heads-up against the Honda Civic, Mazda3, Nissan Sentra, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Focus.

   At a price range of just under $20,000 to $25,000, that competition is ferocious; the top-line XSE model ranges from $22,000 to as-tested at $24,410. The Corolla was revised a year ago and looks the part of a swift, sleek, sporty compact. But we apparently will have to wait another year for a newly revised powertrain to catch up to the appearance and chassis.


Sporty and supportive bucket seats adorn the XSE version of the Corolla.

The standard 1.8-liter 4-cylinder is the familiar, if aging, Toyota unit with 4-valves-per-cylinder and variable valve-timing. It’s been around for a lot of years, and its dependable 140 horsepower and 126 foot-pounds of torque easily sustains freeway speeds anywhere. But it doesn’t match up to the fun quotient of the newest engines from Mazda or Honda in the under-2-liter level 

     Especially for the 50th anniversary of the car, I would have liked to see maybe a direct-injected 4 with a turbocharged version for those who are seeking a more exciting ride. Under the eye of Akia Toyoda as new CEO, Toyota is in the process of redoing its arsenal of engines.

With sleek lines and low-profile tires, the 2017 Corolla looks the part of a sporty compact.

   The 2017 version is what it is. My wife, Joan, enjoyed driving the Corolla, and I agreed with her that it has a taut handling feel and good, responsive steering, it cornered with stability, and the power is OK, too, if you accept that it will be a bit shy of enthusiastic.

    One of the best assets of the car is one of the best CVT (continuously variable transmission) units I’ve ever driven. CVTs often are a letdown for someone who enjoys driving as much as I. But this one had “Sport Drive mode” and it includes paddles affixed to the steering wheel. Even though the transmission operates by a flexible belt that transfers ratios between two pulleys, using the paddles altered the tension and made a convincing case for itself.

    To get to Ely from Duluth requires a short drive up the North Shore of Lake Superior, and then you head North using a combination of Hwys. 1, 2, and/or 3. You keep your focus on driving because of the wonderful curves through the thick trees, and you also know that if you’re lucky and alert, you might spot a deer, or maybe even a wolf.

    Ely has a wolf center where you can view wolves close up and study their habits in what is their comfort zone. It also puts on this Blueberry Festival in late July. I drove moderately, and watched the fuel-economy gauge rise to 30, and then 32 and 34. When we pulled into Ely, we turned left and drove past the crowd and parked cars of the festival to drive through town. Our destination was Henry’s Shoe Repair, a tiny shop adjacent to Piragi’s Outlet and the Chocolate Moose restaurant.


Businesslike instruments show choice of information.

My intention was to get both our sons, Jack and Jeff, hand-made belts made by Florencia Held, a wonderful Mexican woman who had married Henry years ago. Henry died in a tragic surfing accident in the Pacific years ago off the Mexican Coast, but Florencia had found a home up in Ely running the shop, and she makes the finest leather belts, custom fitted while you wait, plus choppers and other leather items.

   We were disappointed to find the shop closed early in the afternoon, but a small sign notified us we could find Florencia at the festival, in one of over a hundred booths dispensing everything from hobby creations to clothing to things to consume. Someone said they sold about 500 blueberry pies.

   Florencia custom made me the two belts, to my order. These are lifetime belts, and I expect the three belts I’ve accumulated from there will outlive me. Joan found a unique down pullover jacket at another booth, with all sorts of zippers that assured prevention of any Northern Minnesota winter cold.


The XSE comes fully loaded with features, but still under $25,000.

And, I found a little “Chiqui’s” stand where Catalina Berg and her husband operated. She makes all sorts of chocolates at their house in beautiful downtown Pengilly, 50 miles to the West. and at the festival, you could get various flavors — including the requisite blueberry caramels. I spotted the last small vat of caramel sauce, and bought it, because our neighbors, who just celebrated an anniversary, share assorted dessert findings with us, and I knew it would be the perfect gift.

    When we left, we hit the Chocolate Moose, then headed for home in our Corolla. We had smooth sailing back down to the North Shore on a perfect evening and our leisurely gas mileage reached 35.5 for a high segment.

    Like other compacts, the Corolla is now nearly midsize size. It can be bought with a 6-speed stick shift or the surprising  CVT for the shiftless among us, which allowed upshifts through seven different settings on the way up, and decelerate back down.

    The cornering quickness was fine, but on some surfaces we felt annoying little mini-jolts, perhaps because the stylishly attractive alloy wheels were 17 inches, mounted with 215/45-R17 tires that were low profile and built for cornering rather than compliance. My thought is that 15 or 16 inch wheels with thicker tire sidewalls would provide more cushioning and less harshness over road irregularities.

Raised rear gives Corolla XSE adequate rear seat room and a large trunk.

   Toyota has loaded up the top Corolla with all the safety stuff. Pre-collision warning, pedestrian detection, radar cruise control, lane departure alert, automatic high beams, stability control, TRAC, ABS, EBD, Smartstop, and some convenience items, such as a moonroof, power adjustable front buckets, and LED headlights.

   It also had Entune Audio, a Toyota thing. I had no trouble connecting my iPhone to the system and getting or making calls hands-free, and it wasn’t until I decided to forego the satellite radio for some specific songs Joan and I had been discussing that I encountered some stubbornness going to an iPod.

    When the brilliant Texas songwriter Guy Clark died a year ago, we found so many unknown but incisive songs that we’re still discovering them. I mentioned one called “The Cape,” which is subtly inspirational, and I wanted to play it for Joan. I plugged it in, then clicked the audio to bluetooth, and a Guy Clark song came up and I couldn’t change it. The only music it would play was what was on my iPhone.

   Apparently, Toyota is fighting both iPod and Android and is developing its own system, so it won’t allow anyone to use other sources. Also, there is no CD player, so we went back to satellite radio until we got out of the woods.

    Still, I enjoyed driving the Corolla, and I appreciated the look of the car. If I  bought one, I would not forget upgrading the audio or navigation system until Toyota lets buyers plug in their choice of after-market players, and I wouldn’t opt for the too-large wheels until I at least tried smaller ones for better compliance. Or until Toyota gives us that coming new engine with enough power to better appreciate all-out handling potential.

I-35W bridge anniversary

    Ten years ago onTuesday, August 1, 2007, we were splitting time between our home in Duluth and an apartment we had in Roseville to accommodate Joan’s job at a physical therapy facility in the western Minneapolis suburb of Golden Valley. She drove every day down a short stretch south on Interstate 35W, crossing the Mississippi River in Minneapolis before peeling off to the West. In late afternoon, she reversed her course and returned to Roseville, via the same I-35W bridge.

    I was at the apartment when Joan called and said she was getting off early, so maybe we should go to a nearby restaurant. I called our older son, Jack, to meet us. Joan got to the apartment about an hour earlier than usual, and we waited outside for Jack while waiting for a table.

   When Jack arrived, he said, “Did you hear about the bridge?” We hadn’t. Jack heard it on WCCO on his car radio as he drove to meet us that the I-35W bridge had collapsed and plunged into the river below.Thirteen people died, and over a hundred more were injured. The bridge was undergoing repair and several heavy-duty trucks were parked on it. The weight, and faulty construction, caused the collapse. It was an incredible stroke of luck that Joan had driven across that bridge an hour early that day, because it went down at about exactly the time of her normal daily crossing.


Quick, agile CX-3 swaps room for 38+ mpg

July 27, 2017 by · Comments Off on Quick, agile CX-3 swaps room for 38+ mpg
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

If being small is what gives the Mazda CX-3 improved handling and 38 mpg — I’ll take small!

By John Gilbert

   Our younger son, Jeff, sent us a carefully selected gift combining a birthday (that would be my wife, Joan) and father’s day (that’d be me). It was a pair of well-positioned seats for the Bruce Hornsby concert at Big Top Chautauqua in mid-July.

   Located just a few miles south of Bayfield, Wis., we’ve always enjoyed spending a summer evening at a Big Top concert after an afternoon strolling around the shops and waterfront of Bayfield.

   It would be more memorable this time, because we’d never seen Bruce Hornsby. Jeff insisted he has rounded up a high-skilled backup band and he knew we had never seen them, plus he knew we’d enjoy the show. On top of that, it was the perfect opportunity to test my long-standing theory about how small SUVs can often outdo larger vehicles, because my test-vehicle of the week was a glistening metallic-white Mazda CX-3.

   With Mazda selling a large CX-9 for those who need to carry three rows-worth of seats-full, and a slick CX-5 for those compact crossover types who are shopping Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Nissan Rogue, and Hyundai Tucson SUVs, the CX-3 is aimed at the new, still more compact, crossovers.

A pleasing blend of lines and large — too large? — wheels make the CX-3 stand out.

   With technology at the forefront of the newest vehicles, Mazda has that covered. Mazda builds a potent 2.5-liter 4-cylinder that works well in the CX-9 with a turbocharger, or normally-aspirated in the CX-5 and large-sedan Mazda6. The same Skyactiv technology works even more impressively on the 2.0-liter 4-cylinder — which has become my favorite Mazda engine in either the Mazda3 or the CX-3.

   It revs quickly, packs a punch beyond what its 146-horsepower/146-foot-pounds of torque might imply, and gets fantastic fuel economy. I was alerted that the newest CX-5 with G-Vectoring and the larger engine, would be a better choice because it is only 1 mpg off the 2.0. The EPA estimates may not be duplicated in real-world tests, however, a fact I realized after the 2.0 showed more like 10-12 mpg better than the 2.5. Maybe it helps to stay off long-haul, high-speed freeways.

   We had earlier taken a drive up the North Shore of Lake Superior to Grand Marais, the little artsy Minnesota town that just won the award as the best small town in the U.S. The CX-3 handled that daytrip with ease, and it was more of the same heading for Bayfield.

  Big Top Chautauqua is always a nice trip from Duluth, Mn., being just under 100 miles, at an estimated time of just under 2 hours. You travel through lightly populated areas on good highways whether you take Wisconsin 13 close to the South Shore of Lake Superior or the more mainline Hwy. 2 to Washburn and then drive North on 13. The huge blue and white tent at Big Top Chautauqua sits at the bottom of a ski hill and houses amazing acoustics and a schedule filled with impressive performers. We usually take Hwy. 2, but this time we took Hwy. 13 and came into Bayfield from the North.

   With a full tank of gasoline, and some snackable mixed nuts and cans of Perrier, our Mazda Touring CX-3 was ready to renew my personal philosophy: Anything bigger than big enough is too big. Aside from being cumbersome to maneuver and no fun to drive, large SUVs are just waiting for fuel prices to climb.

CX-3 instruments show more than 37 mpg on its way to 38.4 for a 200-mile trip.

   Mazdas, meanwhile are always fun to drive, whether sports car, small sedan, large sedan, or SUV. The CX5 handles like a sports sedan and has the added power of the 1.5, but I can’t  imagine anyone accusing the CX3 of being anything but peppy. Unless it is to compliment it on being an incredible over-achiever when it comes to fuel economy.

   I’ve often found that the numbers don’t matter to validate Mazda vehicles, and they often don’t add up in assessing its engines. We were not flying at 75 or 80, but stayed comfortably within the 60 or 65 mph speed limit all the way down and back. We clicked the house-built 6-speed automatic into “normal” setting or “sport” mode, which stiffens the suspension, firms up the steering, holds the revs higher in each gear, and blocks out the overdrive and super-overdrive fifth and sixth gears.

   As we drove, I watched the computerized fuel device climb, up to 30 miles per gallon, and then higher, and higher. When we pulled into the trendy little town of Bayfield, that gauge said 38.4 miles per gallon! Thirty-eight point four? Compact or not, this is an all-wheel-drive SUV that could turn hillside climbs up snowy and icy hills a simple and even joyful procedure. And it delivered 38.4.

   The CX-5 with the 2.5 got about 27, which is good for an AWD SUV, but we found the CX-3 compromise on space was a small price for the exchange. The front bucket seats are supportive and comfortable, and the driver’s instrument cluster is concise and easy to read, with a large speedometer in the middle, and other instruments in the two smaller enclosures, the left one encircled by a tachometer. An easily operated switch racks over the information that appears inside the speedometer, ranging from tire pressure, to remaining fuel range, to current fuel economy.

    Even in normal setting, the CX-3 has handling stability and quick-reacting response to steering input. At one point, I spotted a young deer running through a field parallel to Hwy. 13, and I was ready to take evasive action if it decided to veer onto the road. It didn’t, and we cruised on.

   We had plenty of room under the rear hatch to stow all the stuff we brought along, and I must say that we were pleasantly surprised earlier in the week when our older son, Jack, who is 5-11, climbed into the rear seat and declared that he had adequate headroom, and the leg and foot room was fine, as long as we didn’t slide the seats back all the way.

   The move to Skyactiv has been criticized by some, and ignored by others, who simply don’t understand the complexities. It was a move made by Mazda to counteract the obvious technological breakthrough Hyundai had made in South Korea back in 2010, designing a superb new engine to win joint-venture engine-building competition with Fiat-Chrysler and Mitsubishi, and adding unprecedented features such as direct-injection. It caught the Japanese manufacturers trapped possibly by their own complacency, and Mazda was first to break out, with an entirely new way to build engines.

Parked on the streets of Bayfield, Wis., the CX-3 drew considerable attention.

Carefully redesigning every facet of the engine, Mazda ended up with a gem, combining the sort of high-performance pistons, connecting rods, crankshaft, the best features of Miller-cycle and Atkinson cycle to alter intake and exhaust valves to more thoroughly burn fuel, via computerized efficiency and a unique 4-into-2-into-1 exhaust system. In total, the engine operates at an extremely high 14-to-1 compression ratio — unprecedented for a production engine — to assure top power production and maximum fuel efficiency.

    The 6-speed automatic transmission works in harmony, as does the suspension and stiff chassis, all of which are coordinated to fit into the Skyactiv concept of unifying all elements of building a vehicle. All Mazda engines are Skyactiv, and such over-the-top technical advances make its price seem equally outrageous. In base form, a CX-3 can be obtained in the under-$25,000 region, and loading up with all-wheel drive and all the prized options can boost it up to $30,000.

Center console houses switches for screen readouts, connectivity, USB jacks and CX-3 suspension firmness.

   Because there is no longer a Mazda dealer in the Duluth area, the dramatic confluence of contours and accent lines that come together on the CX-3’s striking appearance, back of the large grill opening. Parking on the main street in downtown Bayfield allowed us to wander among the shops and occasionally see other pedestrians pause to examine the vehicle.

    Bruce Hornsby, by the way, put on a superb show, with his own brilliance on piano augmented by spectacular lead guitar, drums, bass, violin and electronic keyboard. His biggest hit, “The Way It Is,” was the show’s highlight as the band started deceptively then erupted into the familiar refrain, and carried on through elongated solos by each band member. I want that version on a CD. And I don’t know when I’ve ever seen a band that was having as much outright fun on stage.

    Afterward, the drive home took us until after midnight, but it was smooth and comfortable all the way. The optional 18-inch wheels, by the way, may have added to the higher-speed handling, but I had to think 17s or 16s might have softened the ride more, and let us use the toggle switch to firm things.

    The idea of making the shape and the size of a car or SUV work together with the powertrain and interior features, such as connectivity, cubicles and comfy seats, is not new. It just seems new because nobody seems to pull it off with the coordinated effort Mazda puts into all its vehicles.

The CX-3 helped us weather an impending rainstorm in the North Shore town of Grand Marais, Mn.

When you drive away, or make a sharp turn, or relax on a long drive, you realize that bringing together the advanced engine-transmission with the suspension and solidly built body and frame, is something special.

   And when the fuel economy gauge clicks up to “38.4,” you wonder what the reaction would be of all those people who discount the importance of fuel economy because of low gas prices. I count it toward engineering credit, and realiz Mazda’s “zoom-zoom” mantra is more than just throwing a Miata around a tight curve.   


QX30 and Q60 both spell winners

July 26, 2017 by · Comments Off on QX30 and Q60 both spell winners
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Infiniti QX30 is AWD SUV with Mercedes sports car tendencies.

By John Gilbert

   Sometimes it gets annoying when you sit down to read your favorite monthly auto magazine, and find out that for the umpteenth consecutive issue, they’ve lumped six vehicles together for what seems like a quite convoluted and possibly biased comparison.

   Here at New Car Picks, we don’t sink to such a trick…Except sometimes. This week, I would really rather devote a full column to the Infiniti QX30 Premium crossover SUV, and another full column to the Infiniti Q60, a super-sleek luxury sports coupe.

Infiniti Q60 is dramatically sleek, high-powered twin-turbo sports coupe.

   Separately, they are two of my favorite cars on the planet. But together, they could satisfy any family’s demands for having a sporty coupe and an SUV. And two versions of those gems arrived for me to drive for a week’s test drive in fairly close-order. Separating the two into separate road-tests is still my preference, but their close proximity in coming to me made it a natural to combine them into one elongated road test.

   The two are joined at the hip — or maybe the transaxle — by sharing the extremely impressive 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine that has excellent power and even more impressive fuel economy. That 2.0 direct-injected 4 began life as a joint venture with Mercedes, which needed someone to produce just such a 4-cylinder for use in the C-Class sedans, and the smallest Mercedes SUVs, the GLA. Contracting with Nissan made a joint venture that gives a version of that engine to both companies.


Q60 is modern version of the time when Nissan gave its sports car to Infiniti.

Those who understand the heritage of the Q60 Coupe might recall that when Nissan spun off Infiniti into its own premium brand, the enlarged and much refined sports car that began life as the 240-Z and moved up to 260 and 280 on its way to 3.0, found a new home at Infiniti. The Infiniti Coupe always needed, or wanted, a high-powered upgrade, so the new Q60 offers a pair of 3.0-liter V6 engines, twin-turbocharged for kicks.

   So while both vehicles have all-wheel drive, the dynamic QX30 Premium AWD is a remarkable over-achiever with the 2.0 direct-injected turbo, and the Q60 3.0t Premium AWD coupe moves up a weight class by using the 3.0 twin-turbo V6.

    If I had to choose and pick just one, it would be a dilemma. The Q60 is a stunningly smooth coupe that attracts a lot of attention and would not be out of place in any car show; the QX30 is a uniquely designed vehicle, even for an SUV, because it is low and wears numerous contours that all seem to blend into a moving work of art.

   So which would you choose? It might come down to whether you would really rather have a sports coupe or an SUV. On the other hand, the QX30 SUV is so quick and agile that it handles curves like a sports car, while the Q60 sports coupe blows your mind by offering all-wheel drive, and also has surprising and livable room in the back seat.

QX30 proves nobody needs more than 2-liters to combine fun and economy.

   Infiniti makes a number of SUVs, all of them branded with QX-something. But the QX30 still caught me by surprise. Available with front-wheel drive only in base form, the Sport sits 0.6-inches lower, while the test vehicle was the AWD model that is 1.2 inches taller.

    That 4-cylinder makes 208 horsepower with 258 foot-pounds of torque, and has a 7-speed dual clutch automatic with paddle shifters and three modes — Economy, Sport and Manual. The AWD system sends 100 percent of its power to the front until it detects that you might have a slippery surface, and any hint of spinning alters the power to 50-50 front and rear.

   When you come to a complete stop at a stoplight, the engine shuts off, and restarts immediately when you take your foot off the brake to engage the gas pedal. My test-drive QX30 had the Cafe Teak package, with brown Nappa leather seats and dash, with genuine wood trim on the center stack and doors.

   You sit low in the QX30, and your senses won’t tire of the asymmetric instrument panel. Nissan also reflects how advanced it is in safety stuff, with the 360-degree Around-View monitor with moving object detection. Infiniti was first to have that overhead-view device, probably a decade ago, and it’s still the best.


Rich leather seats complete the sporty-luxury feel of the QX30.

Blind-spot warning, intelligent cruise control with full-speed range and forward emergency braking, plus lane-departure warning, which also began with Infiniti years ago, and intelligent park assist, plus high-beam assist, which has become the favorite feature of my wife, Joan, especially with th eLED headlights on the test QX30.

   Sitting low and snaking around curves in the QX30 feeds your quest for a sports car, but it also can snap you back in focus when its foul weather, including Minnesota snowstorms, and you are reminded that this is an SUV, after all.

   A panoramic sunroof, which Infiniti calls a moonroof, is also included, along with the usual vehicle dynamic control and brake force distribution on the antilock brakes, and an upgraded audio and navigation system. All of that runs the test-vehicle price up from its $37,700 sticker price to a final $46,035, but that’s with all the performance and safety equipment loaded up. The test car’s silver-grey Graphite-Shadow paint sets it off as a technology center, too.

   I like SUVs, and I most like compact SUVs, but a compact SUV that has an identity crisis because it thinks it’s a sports car is something I hadn’t considered.

   Then last week, the Q60 rolled up to my door. I know about the letter and number designations, but I was surprised to see a sporty, racy coupe. The 3.0t Premium coupe would have looked good in any color, but this happened to be Iridium Blue, which is a dark, penetrating metallic color, contrasted by white leather on the seats.


Hot V6 with all-wheel drive boosts price of Q60, but 2.0 turbo would work, too.

  All-new for 2017, the Q60 3.0t Premium AWD Technology brings back the iconic Infiniti coupe in a technical tour de force. While you could start with the same 208-horsepower/258 foot-pounds of torque as the QX30, the move up to the twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V6 offers 300 horsepower and 295 foot-pounds of torque. There is another, top version that hits 400 horsepower. Trust me, the 300/295 powerplant is more than adequate, but then I’d be happy with that over-achieving little 4 as well.

   The sticker on the Q60 is $46,300 before you start adding the technology package, the direct adaptive steering, the leather seats, and the driver assistance package, which gather together the bline-spot assist, predictive forward collision warning, pedestria detecting forward braking, moving object detection anywhere in a 360-degree radius, back-up cross-traffic alert with collision intervention, and rain-sensing wipers. All that lifts the price tag to $57,255.

    Naturally it has all the safety and proximity alert equipment as the QX30, and the sports coupe adds a killer Bose center-point surround audio system with 13 speakers.

   More technology is available via a small toggle switch on the console, allowing you to switch from standard to eco to sport, sport-plus, or personal. Sport switches the car to heavier steering and quicker response,  and firmer suspension. Sport-plus is more of the same, while eco backs you down to an easier ride and steering. The personal setting lets you mix and match to get the exact steering, ride and shift-point response.

   Direct adaptive steering lets you control the tire angle and steering inputs to the wheels faster than a mechanical system could, and active trace control using light braking and engine output to the wheels to make the car handle even quicker and more precisely.

   If the lane departure warning and blind spot warnings aren’t enough, you can set the Q60 for active lane control and blind spot intervention. Maybe you didn’t react quickly enough to the lane-departure warning, then the car can be instructed to push you back into your proper lane. These devices can be turned off, too.


Stunning white leather brings Q60 4-seat interior to life.

During my week, I never did really hammer the Q60, because moderate throttle on takeoff or for passing pushed you prominently to where you wanted to be. Anything more, I figured, would have given me the means to test the extra police holiday patrolling.

   The predictive forward collision warning measures your velocity as well as the car ahead, and the car ahead of that one, and warns if you are closing too fast.

   If you’re just taking it easy, you might be in eco mode, which eases the sportiness of your steering and suspension, and — get this — signals you that you’re not driving in optimum economy mode by an indicator light, and by pushing back on your gas pedal pressure.

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