Colorful leaves enhance 124 Spider image

September 29, 2017 by · Comments Off on Colorful leaves enhance 124 Spider image
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 


From the front corner, the new Fiat 124 Spider greatly resembles the 1960s model.

By John Gilbert

   Every time the calendar makes its way around to September, the recurring image of one of my favorite definitions of a sports car comes alive, with the sports car approaching on a curvy roadway, accompanied by an exhilarating exhaust note as it comes around the last curve, and its silhouette outlined by a wake of multicolored fallen leaves blowing up in a swirl.

   That iconic image has stayed with me for about 50 years, and it was most recently regenerated when I spent a week driving a new Fiat 124 Spider roadster along a curvy road, almost looking ahead to any early-fallen leaves that should have filled up the image in my rear-view mirror.

   There was further significance to link those indelible memories with the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider. The car, particularly from the front corner, bears a striking resemblance to the original Fiat 124 Spider that was the object of considerable lust by a much-younger me back in the 1960s.

   Fifty years ago, when the first Fiat 124 first came to the U.S., the auto business was vastly different. There were big sedans, a few pickup trucks, and a scant few primitive imported sedans, leaving plenty of margin for .an impressive array of sports cars. They came mostly from European countries, most notably MGs and Triumphs that came from Great Britain in large and smaller sizes, amid a few German and Italian roadsters.

   Fiat, in fact, was best known in those days for its 124 Spider roadster, and its companion 124 Coupe 2-plus-2. The 50 years since it first showed up saw Fiat quit selling cars in the U.S., missing our veering trends to station wagons, pickup trucks, minivans, large and small sedans, and then have SUVs take over the marketplace, all but squeezing the pure-pleasure sports cars out of the picture.


Before colorful leaves swirl, Lake Superior’s North Shore nicely frames the Fiat 124 Spider.

You can’t find an MG or Triumph anywhere, and we can can only thank Mazda for making and keeping up with the inexpensive joy of  the Miata sports car. With Fiat coming back into the U.S. both on its own and as owner of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Fiat is also celebrating Mazda’s latest Miata. Far more than merely inspiration for Fiat to recreate its 124 Spider; it is the basis physically and spiritually for the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider.

   Our neighbors, who always wanted to add a sports car to their pickup and SUV world, bought a Miata a year ago, and they look for every opportunity to put the top down and go off on drives together, or fight over which of them gets to drive it to work before the Minnesota chill shortens the roadster season. Another good friend celebrated starting a successful business by buying a new Fiat 124 Spider.


Fiat left Mazda’s better-idea controls intact while converting the Miata platform to Fiat style and power.

When I had the Fiat 124 Spider for a week’s test drive, our neighbors with the Miata remarked about how the control knobs and interior features are identical to their Miata. That makes sense, because the 124 Spider began life as a Miata.

   But Fiat did far more than just take a Miata, change the grille and put a Fiat emblem on the nose. When Fiat first decided it wanted to work with Mazda, the thought was to rebadge it as an Alfa Romeo, which is another Fiat-owned nameplate. But then Fiat realized that a rebirth of the 124 Spider was the most-appropriate way to go.

    Fiat first replaced the exceptional Mazda Skyactiv powertrain, with its 155-horsepower 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine, and replaced it with Fiat’s own 1.4-liter MultiAir 4 from the 500’s Abarth-powered pocket rocket, reinforced with the turbocharger to 160 horsepower, with 184 foot-pounds of torque. It is the first application of that engine in a front-engine/rear-drive layout.

Combining Mazda technology with Italian style makes the Fiat 124 Spider extra appealing.

   Leaving pertinent features as Mazda built them, Fiat stretched the body a bit from the Miata’s silhouette, styling the extended nose to be longer and more gracefully slender, and also styling the rear bodywork, both to more resemble the 50-year-old Fiat 124 Spider. Fiat did its own thing with suspension, too, tuning double-wishbone front and multilink rear. Without driving the two back to back, I would venture that the Miata might be a bit more abrupt in quickness of steering and handling, while the 124 Spider might be a bit more compliant as a boulevardier. Both are supremely fun to drive.

    The 124 I test-drove was the Spider Lusso model, which is positioned between the base Classica and the higher-powered Abarth models. With a few luxury amenities, the Lusso raises the base price of the 124 Spider from $25,000 to $27,495, and with several classy options the test-fleet car carried a sticker of $29,985.

    A 6-speed stick guarantees that there is no shortage of sporty flair with the 124 Spider Lusso, and the arrangement between Italian designers and Japanese engineers worked. The 124 is assembled in Hiroshima, Japan, and the test car was finished in Grigio Moda Meteor Grey metallic, with Nero black leather interior.

    A carryover feature from the Miata is that when you’re driving along — preferably blowing those fallen leaves up behind — and you realize it’s warm enough out that you should have the top down, you can reach up with your right hand, unlatch the top, pop it upward, and guide it back and down, latching it securely under a hard cover. No need to stop and pull over. You can do it in a few seconds, even at 15 or 20 mph.

   Same if sundown, or a sudden rainstorm interrupts your solitude: Slow down, reach back to unlatch, then pull the top up and over and lock it in place. Tight, precise fit, water tight with an acoustically lined headliner on the underside of that soft top.

   Driving pleasure is enhanced by some of the contemporary auto features, such as blind-spot detection, cross-park detection, rear parking camera and parking assist, plus rain-sensing wipers and LED head and tail lights.

   The 124 Spider is also easy on gas, making its 35-mpg highway fuel economy reachable and staying above 26 in town even if you like to run up the revs to hear that exhaust note. You can get an upgraded Bose audio system with nine speakers, although I still can’t comprehend where there is room for nine speakers.

    Emergency handling is obviously excellent, and pleasurable handling is precise and exciting. Under Fiat’s direction, the 124 makes some pertinent changes, including adding just a touch more power, but a buyer who is determined to get a thoroughly enjoyable sporty roadster that has more than enough punch for real-world driving, and can turn a cloverleaf into a thrill without breaking any speed limits, my advice would be to try both the Mazda MX-5 Miata and the Fiat 124 Spider. You can make your decision based on appearance or any other element, and you won’t be making a mistake. 

With a flick of your wrist, the watertight and insulated soft top goes up, or down, in seconds.

   One last note for those who are reluctant to get a sporty, rear-drive roadster in snow country: My experience is that folks in colder climates enjoy and appreciate top-down driving more than those all across the South, where you’ll see more roadsters with the top up because it’s too hot!. Up north, we appreciate sun and warmth, and capitalize on every possible moment to put the top down and go. While we continue searching for snow tires to extend the length of our driving season.


Ioniq aims at top hybrid, electric status

September 7, 2017 by · Comments Off on Ioniq aims at top hybrid, electric status
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Hyundai cut every corner to create the Ioniq, a stylish compact with all forms of hybrid/electric power.

By John Gilbert

   If there were no such thing as hybrid or electric cars, and buying a car meant nothing more than the size of vehicle we want and any of various  degrees of efficient gasoline engines, you might select a Hyundai Ioniq as a stylish, attractively-styled car that somehow fits the spaciousness of a larger car into the low, sleek exterior of a compact.

   Such a car might get 30 miles per gallon, because of the aerodynamics and the efficiency of contemporary gas engines. But, of course, we are well along into the era of hybrid cars, which combine gas engines and electric motors, as we roll merrily toward pure electric propulsion, and when I got the Ioniq out on an extended highway trip, its calculator displayed 52.1 miles per gallon for 400 miles.

   The Ioniq is Hyundai’s well-conceived weapon of choice in the corporate warfare aimed at hybrid and electric superiority — a realm that has been the almost-private domain of Toyota with its hugely popular Prius. I was impressed when I drove the various models at the Ioniq Midwestern introduction near Ann Arbor, Mich., and I am more impressed since a glossy “black noir” Ioniq Limited pulled up in my driveway just outside Duluth, Minn., for a week-long hands-on test.

Ioniq has short engine room and high-tech hybrid battery under rear seat leaving elongated interior.

     Hyundai has spared nothing in working with fellow-South Korean electronics giant LG Chem to come up with what we might refer to as a “better mousetrap.” Only the Ioniq is not attempting to trap mice; it would settle for bypassing something known as Prius.

   The Toyota Prius has been the standard of hybrid sales for over a decade, and superb marketing and efficiency have outdistanced competitors from Honda, and virtually all other manufacturers. The Toyota Synergy Drive is quite simple, with a nickel-metal-hydride battery pack taking in energy from the gas engine that accompanies it, allowing the Prius to run on either pure electric, or a combination of gas-engine and electric motor.

   Not many drawbacks, but if any, they would be a lack of storage room in the trunk, a lack of sporty feel in the performance and handling, and such a consistency in operation that a smarter populace might wonder why the advancement in hybrid technology seems stalled a bit. Toyota has expanded the Prius line with a longer version and a shorter plug-in model.

   Hyundai, meanwhile, has emerged in less than a decade to challenge the top Japanese companies in style and efficiency, and while going after sportiness, Hyundai has scaled various technology challenges to battle for the top rung. The company has tried a couple of hybrid models, all the while mobilizing for the 2017 model year and the introduction of the three-pronged Ioniq strategy.

   For 2017, Hyundai refreshed the styling of its successful Elantra compact into a much-improved conventional vehicle, and in the process, it designed that platform to house the Ioniq.


Well-styled rear aids Ioniq aerodynamics, and hatch covers spacious cargo area.

Hyundai also executed several impressive ideas. First, it noted that many hybrid sedans and SUVs were designed to house V6 engines, leaving considerable wasted space under the hood once a smaller 4-cylinder and hybrid system was installed, so it shortened the under-hood space. Moving the A pillars forward nearly a foot did the job, and Hyundai’s high-tech 1.6-liter engine — modified for Atkinson-cycle valve timing and hybrid connection — fit nicely.

   Next, Hyundai bypassed the proven but possibly outdated nickel-metal hydride battery pack system in favor of not only the more-advanced lithium-ion system, but an advanced specially-for-Hyundai LG lithium-ion-polymer battery system that would not only charge faster, hold a charge longer, and turn out more power, but would also fit under the back seat of the compact sedan.


Variable-screen instruments showed 52 mpg after a 400-mile Ioniq highway trip.

  While much more pragmatic than sleight-of-hand, the two moves allow for a large and deep trunk, since the battery pack is no longer a heavy, tail-wagging device that raises the trunk floor. And moving those pillars forward created enough room to expand on the legroom front and rear of the 176-inch-long sedan.

   The initial appeal of the Ioniq in black was amplified by the bright chrome waterfall grille, and the neatly arranged LED daytime driving lights flanking the headlights on both sides. The contours and silhouette of the Ioniq make their own statement for style.

   Using special Michelin tires helps handling considerably, and the performance is tremendously enhanced by using Hyundai’s in-house 6-speed dual-clutch transmission rather than the stodgy CVT most hybrid vehicles use.


Ioniq Limited has rows of LED runnibng lights flanking the front end.

  I remain unconvinced that Hyundai engineers planned for a handling benefit that results from specially designed Michelin tires and revised suspension pieces. True, the Ionic steers and handles very well, but I think part of the whole package is that the mid-vehicle placement of the battery pack trades some of that rear weight for the kind of benefit a mid-engine car enjoys in handling. Whatever, the Ioniq Hybrid definitely has a sportier flair to its handling composure around tight turns.

   The little 1.6 engine is among my favorites when turbocharged for use in other sedans and such SUVs as the Tucson, but without the turbo it loses a fair amount of its performance punch. It has direct injection, but its aim is fuel efficiency more than 0-60 sprints. The Atkinson cycle revises valve timing so the expansion stroke is longer than the compression stroke, improving thermal efficiency and enabling Hyundai engineers to use a higher 13-to-1 compression ratio.

   The engine itself has 104 horsepower and 109 foot-pounds of torque, awaiting the complementary electric motor power of 43 horsepower and 125 foot-pounds of torque. Combined, the Ioniq has an adequate 139 horsepower and a potent 195 foot-pounds of torque. Zero-to-60 times under 9 seconds make the Ioniq about a second quicker than a Prius.

   More important, Hyundai wanted to beat the Prius in fuel economy, and while tests show it does, my week of driving underscored it. The EPA estimates for the Ioniq Hybrid Limited show 55 city and 54 highway, because, like the Prius, the powertrain is more efficient in congested driving than sustained highway cruising. I had noticed a couple of 54-56 mpg during the week in town; on my trip, I stayed with traffic as about 75 miles per hour — not the best for a hybrid — and still got 52.1.


Seating four comfortably, the Ioniq design allows deep storage area at rear.

  That, of course, leads us into a couple other distinct advantages created by the Ioniq. First, the base price for the fairly loaded test car was $27,500, and adding in the Ultimate Package with navigation, smart cruise, lane departure warning, active headlights, rear parking sensors, and an audio upgrade, boosts it to $31,460. Still under the comparable Prius models.

   But the Ioniq story doesn’t end with the Hybrid. Coming along next is the plug-in Hybrid, which uses different electrical components, allows you to get a full charge with a plug, and increases fuel economy. On top of that, I’ve driven the top-end Ioniq — the pure electric. That one is amazingly quick, has a range of about 125 miles before needing a recharge, and can recover 85 percent of its charge in 20 minutes with the high-voltage converter.

   After that, who knows? Maybe Hyundai will try building a new mousetrap, too.




Sport means SUV compacting has gone Rogue

September 7, 2017 by · Comments Off on Sport means SUV compacting has gone Rogue
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

The Nissan Rogue is such a popular SUV it has expanded into a new and more compact vehicle, the Rogue Sport.

By John Gilbert

   Funny how your perspective can change when assessing vehicles. Two or three years ago, my favorite SUVs were compact crossovers, and a perfect example was the Nissan Rogue.

    With so many compact SUVs — or CUVs, if you prefer Crossover Utility Vehicles — available, the Rogue seemed to stand out, one of those tight, sporty, good-handling, and efficient vehicles that almost seemed to be custom made for my wife, Joan, and me.

    Obviously, a few other people shared our view, because Nissan sold 360,000 of them, claiming the No. 1 spot in the crossover segment, and would be the largest selling “truck” if you eliminated the three big pickup trucks from Ford, Chevy and Dodge.

   But suddenly, the Rogue seems too big! No, it hasn’t grown all that much. But there is now a Rogue Sport, which looks a lot like the Rogue from the front end, the front corner, and even the side and rear, until you look closely.

Nissan magically retained the style and nearly the same interior room although the Rogue Sport is a foot shorter than the popular Rogue.

    The Rogue Sport is a foot shorter, and 6 inches lower, but it also is a lot more than just a miniturized Rogue. Honda, Toyota, Mazda, Ford, Chevrolet — nearly everyone — has come out with a reduced size SUV based on their smallest SUV.

    The strategy was probably what you and I might have done if we had the design scalpal in our hands, which is simply to reduce dimensions from front to rear. But Nissan was a lot smarter than that. Most, if not all, of the competitors are left with a sprightly, sporty compact crossover, still with adequate room in the front buckets and adequate cargo space, but with tightly squeezed rear seat legroom.

    But Nissan decided to reduce the one foot of length by carving into the cargo space, behind the second seat. It was an ingenious move, because the Rogue Sport has virtually the same front seat and second row room as the big Rogue, it just has less cargo space.

Smaller, lighter, and with a 2.0-liter 4, the Rogue Sport has a sporty interior, too.

   For those who might not need a third row seat, and might not have the need to haul as much cargo as the bigger Rogue, giving up a little cargo space is far preferable to cutting rear seat living room to near nothing.

   The Rogue Sport is 172.4 inches long, with a 104.2-inch wheelbase. It has 42.8 inches of front legroom, and 33.4 inches of rear legroom. It also has surprisingly adequate cargo space of 33.3 cubic feet with the second row seat up, or 62.3 with it folded down.

   The bigger Rogue has a strong 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine, delivering 170 horsepower and 174 foot-pounds of torque in all-wheel-drive form, via a continuously variable transmission. The shorter and lighter Rogue doesn’t get the 2.5, but gets Nissan’s neat 2.0-liter 4, with 142 horsepower peaking at 6,000 RPMs and 147 foot-pounds of torque at 4,400 revs.

Close inspection reveals shorter rear section, the only hint that the Rogue Sport is a foot shorter.

    Driving both of them, you don’t realize the Sport has a smaller engine, because its size and weight makes it feel quicker responding and generally quicker. Compact crossovers from companies like Nissan or Mazda energize the whole industry by proving even SUVs can be fun to drive and have sporty personalities.

    Perhaps the biggest asset, after its size and visual appeal, is the price of the Rogue. The base S Rogue starts at $21,420; moving up to the SV gains larger 17-inch wheels and some other amenities, and starts at $23,020; the top SL, which I drove, starts at $26,070.

    The SL moves up to 19-inch wheels, and all the top-line features, including leather interior, surround view, lane-departure detection and prevention, as well as the full suite of safety and connectivity items from the S and SV models.   


By taking the size reduction out of the cargo area, legroom remains adequate.

The fact that I had the chance to spend a week with the Rogue SL a short time before the Rogue Sport SL showed up gave me the unique perspective of a better comparison. As mentioned, the Rogue has always been a family favorite, and we were doubly impressed by the Rogue Sport.

   Open the door and climb into the front bucket, and you might be in the Rogue. Same with the back seat. But after driving the Rogue, and then the Rogue Sport, the next time I got into the “regular” Rogue the Rogue Sport never seemed too small, but the regular Rogue suddenly seemed, maybe, too big!


Picking new vehicle now has expanded scope

September 1, 2017 by · Comments Off on Picking new vehicle now has expanded scope
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Sporty SUV is Infiniti QX-30 in foreground; sleek sports coupe is Lexus RC350 left rear; latest version of hot hatchback is Volkswagen Golf R, upper right.

By John Gilbert

    A Volkswagen Golf showed up for a test-drive, but not just a Golf. In fact, not just a GTI. It was the Golf R, a Golf bristling with high-performance stuff that makes it the most dynamic and impressive member of the Golf family. At the same time, our driveway was graced by the presence of one of my favorite compact crossover SUVs — an Infiniti QX30 Sport.

   Also, there was a Lexus, but not just a Lexus. It was a Lexus RC350. If you’re not up on the alphabet-soup of car-talk, this is a beautiful coupe, that could easily pass for an exotic sports car costing twice as much.

   The biggest challenge I had for the week was deciding which car to be driving at any particular moment. I drove one up to the Duluth Farmer’s Market on 14th Ave. East and 3rd Street. A good friend and I were talking, and he knows I’m road-testing new cars every week, so he said: “If you had $50,000 to spend on a car right now, what would you buy?”

   The question caught me off-guard, and I found it really difficult to answer, simply because there are so many fantastic vehicles available right now. Many, in fact, are well under his $50,000 price ceiling. So I rattled off a list of a half-dozen cars I really like, and a half-dozen compact SUVs that I wouldn’t hesitate to buy, and then a handful of impressive sporty coupes that I’d love to have.


Infiniti’s smallest and sleekest SUV is the QX-30, with a potent but economical 2.0-liter 4 cylinder and paddle shifters.

But I couldn’t get the question out of my mind as I returned home. Then I glanced out of my window toward our little turnaround area at the end of our driveway. By sheer chance, two auto distribution agencies had delivered to me three different vehicles for a week, and it was my challenge to hop back and forth to get into all of them adequately in order to give them fair evaluations.

   What was interesting is all three of them were distinctly different, in distinctly different segments of the auto market, and all just happened to fall into the $40,000 to just under-$50,000 price range. Exactly what my friend was asking about.

   So while it’s fun to compare several small SUVs, or large SUVs, or sporty coupes, or sedans, against each other, for a timely change of pace, here are three vehicles that all might be worthy of consideration, even though their objectives are worlds apart.

   If you want a small crossover SUV, the Infiniti QX30 is among my favorites. It is low and sporty, with curves and contours built into the side styling, and it looks both distinctive and sporty and almost lets you overlook that it’s actually an SUV.


You can choose from basic to plush leather interiors in the QX-30.

The QX-30 is both mild and hot with its 2.0-liter turbocharged 4, depending on how you drive it. Just be prepared to feel as though you’re driving a sports car the way it deftly handles any turn or quick reacting situation. This one had a list price of $38,500, but with the Sport package and other options it listed at $43,660.

   This was a 2018 model, and the Sport technology package includes blind-spot detection, lane-departure warning, forward emergency braking, and a panoramic sunroof, which Nissan — or at least its Infiniti upgrade arm — prefers to call a moonroof.

    The QX30 Sport comes with the intriguing new 2.0-liter 4-cylinder turbocharged engine that was designed by Mercedes Benz and built for both companies by Nissan. In the QX30, it develops 208 horsepower and 258 foot-pounds of torque, running through a 7-speed dual-clutch transmisison with steering wheel paddles.

    You can click a console control knob to Eco, Normal, or Sport modes and immediately feel the difference in how firm the suspension is and how crisp or softened the steering becomes. Fuel figures from the EPA are 24 city and 33 highway, but there is one thing about this particular model: It is front-wheel drive. With the sport suspension and steering, you feel as though it could conquer any challenge, but when winter hits on the Duluth hillside, AWD is a welcome addition. But at least with the QX30, the 2-wheel drive is front-wheel drive, so it should scamper up the hills if you put the right tires on it.

    One thing I didn’t like about the car was that as precise as the 7-speed automatic was, the console shift lever could be pushed forward to go past neutral to reverse…but that’s it. In a hurry, you might start to jump out and not realize you’ve left the gear in reverse until it rolls backwards. Perhaps into the bay. There is a small push button on the face of the console, and you must push it down to engage park. And then you’d better check the instrument panel to make sure it’s engaged. That’s a very German trick, but why must we be issued fantastic new cars with ambiguous and counter-intuitive trick settings just to find park? Read more

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. Read more

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