Winter storm? You need a Defender

February 1, 2021 by · Comments Off on Winter storm? You need a Defender
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Reborn for 2021, the Land Rover Defender is extremely capable in all weather.

By John Gilbert
It was completely appropriate that when a newly reborn 2021 Land Rover Defender was delivered to our home just outside Duluth, Minnesota, just as we were hit by a heavy snowstorm. It has been a weird winter on the North Shore of Lake Superior, with few storms, but most of them nasty, often with high winds followed by thermometer plunges.

To take on this particular storm we needed something to defend ourselves with, and what could be better than something named “Defender?”

The Defender has a rich history in the annals of Land Rover, although its role became obsolete when the company came out with all sorts of new models. So for its return, after a 23-year absence, Defender gets a very classy, contemporary restyling. Gone are the squarish corners that immediately identify Land Rovers and Range Rovers.  Smoothly rounded corners make the new Defender look less rugged and more sophisticated. But I was reluctant to go driving off into the unplowed roadways because I didn’t want to mess it up, particularly after the car-wash reopened and took care of all the road glop to display a subtle, almost-pastel green color called Panges Green.

Defender has an all-new form to carry out all familiar Land Rover functions.

Then I realized that the Defender had been gone for all those years, without ever losing its familiarity — or its reputation. As a Land Rover, and not a Range Rover, the Defender was always aimed at adventurers who intended to use it to go anywhere, over and through any obstacles. It is the personification of the reason I first described Land Rovers as the vehicle you would choose if you had to drive to Hudson Bay — without using any roads.

The price is way up there — a base of $63,000 for the Defender SE model, and an as-tested sticker of $72,180. That is a lot, but it is less than loaded versions of, for example, a Cadillac Escalade, a GMC Yukon, a Ford Expedition, Lincoln Navigator and other luxury SUVs I’ve recently tested. And while it’s out of my price range, driving it for a week in “all terrain” Northern Minnesota roadways, I must say it has the substance to justify its price tag.

Two of the most prestigious names in sport-utility vehicles — dating back to well-before the trendy “SUV” catch-phrase came along — are Range Rover, and Land Rover. And both of them are from the same company, a proud British manufacturer that over-engineered its vehicles for use in wartime or peace, for work or pleasure, and only belatedly for being the classic luxury family hauler of the wealthy.

Real leather, real wood and real aluminum adorn the interior of the Defender.

The company is Land Rover, and it makes a fleet of different Range Rovers, which meet all sorts of different objectives of class and luxury. The over-engineered trait is well-documented. The first Range Rover I ever drove was a few decades ago, and I learned that while it was shaped in a sort of squarish motif, it housed a remarkable living space of rich leather, with real wood and real metal trim. Just sitting in a Range Rover meant you found immediate strength and luxury.

It wasn’t until later that I learned the structure underneath Range Rovers was over-built for ruggedness, with frame rails that resembled structural girders. The least-qualified Range Rovers were still substantially built, and the equation also went the other way — the most hardy Land Rovers built to challenge the roughest terrain were also awash in luxury features.

British motor companies have fallen on difficult times, but Land Rover, and its British cousin, Jaguar, survived by finding benefactors who could finance their stubborn determination to build their vehicles to their own demands. Those first Land Rovers and Range Rovers I drove had aluminum V6 engines bought from Buick. Now, after the pair were jointly purchased and fionanced by Tata Motors in India, Jaguar makes outstanding sedans and sports cars and engines, and Land Rover makes its uncompromising SUVs and they’ve gained the high-tech engines from Jaguar.

The Defender is offered with either a high-output 2.0-liter 4 cylinder or, in the case of my test vehicle, a 3.0-liter in-line 6, that is turbocharged for high-end power, and awarded fantastic low-end torque via an electric supercharger that gets you up into the turbo’s range. In the Defender, I had the 3.0 in-line 6, and it produces 395 horsepower and 406 foot-pounds of torque in a range from 2,000 to 5,000 RPMs.

The engine is also equipped with a 48-volt motor-generator that brings the slick engine up to contemporary standards of the newest hybrid concepts of bolstering engine output instead of only improving fuel economy.

Simple layout for shift lever for 8-speed, easy features.

The Defender’s 8-speed ZF transmission worked smoothly and sent the 5,700-pound vehicle on its way swiftly. We got about 18.7 miles per gallon mostly in town or scaling the steep snowbound avenues of Duluth. I didn’t have to use the low-range transfer case, but a simple knob can easily switch you to full lock-up, or for whatever type of terrain you are hoping to conquer.

Land Rover did it right when it brought back the Defender, replacing the old truck-like body on frame platform for a new unibody design made mostly of aluminum, and they could do any tricks they wanted to with the suspension. The upscale SE model came with adaptive air suspension, the twin-speed transfer case for the all-wheel drive adds a terrain-response system with selectable driving and terrain modes, including off-road for whether you’re scaling boulders or making your way through ruts, controlling hill descent, or splashing through water up to 35.4 inches of depth.

The entire vehicle can be raised or lowered if you have nasty ruts ahead, and it has 11.5-inch clearance underneath. It also has a 38-degree approach angle and 40-degree departure angle without scraping those stylish body panels. All the latest safety features — lane recognition, lane-keep assist, electronic traction control, dynamic stability control and roll stability control, blind spot assist, driver condition monitor, emergency brake assist, adaptive cruise control with speed limiter, 400-watt Meridian audio system, and 360-degree monitor on the large navigation screen, are at your command.

Rounded off silhouette houses seating for seven.

The Defender drives smoothly on tires mounted on 20-inchalloy wheels, feeling like a boulevard cruiser without hinting that it would prefer to go charging off the road and tackle the boulders, woods and other terrain on either side.

My experience through the years with Land Rover includes some of the most fantastic introductory trips they could dream up. I attended a launch of the Discovery in Iceland, where we drove around the country on the one highway that circumnavigates the glaciers and volcanoes of that chilly paradise. They made sure we were warmly clad in special parkas made in Iceland for Iceland, and I hesitated to tell anyone that on that memorable week in January, it happened to be colder in Minnesota!

We also experienced a specific company made and company owned off-road course in Quebec. Another highlight remains unforgettable when we drove up into the Rocky Mountains to the Continental Divide, requiring some breathtaking trails best-suited for mountain goats or mules — but not humans, and certainly not motor vehicles.

Having experienced such ventures, I fully accept the intentions of all the details on the Defender’s price sticker as valid. The fact that the Defender would do all those things better than its Range Rover siblings is impressive, but now you add a third row of seats for kids and the ability to haul seven to the shopping center or on a trip — preferably after we get past the pandemic.

Foul weather is elementary to new Defender.

Firm comfort from the supportive seats and luxury that’s never ostentatious makes a welcoming interior, as expected from such a proud and demanding British manufacturer.

We can welcome back the Defender, because the new one not only will conquer every imaginable challenge, it also will be the Defender of Land Rover’s rich heritage. And you never know when you might want to take a trip to Hudson Bay without using any roads.

Stick brings Rapid Red Mustang ‘Bob’ to life

January 6, 2021 by · Comments Off on Stick brings Rapid Red Mustang ‘Bob’ to life
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

The new “base” Mustang has surprising pep from an EcoBoost 4 as a bargain sporty coupe.

By John Gilbert

It’s often disappointing when my test-drive week with a particularly neat car comes to an end, but I found a way to ease the pain a few weeks ago, after driving the new mid-engined Corvette Sting Ray. When it arrived at my Duluth home, the Sting Ray was not alone. Also delivered was a very neat new Ford Mustang, painted Rapid Red Metallic with a bright white racing stripe running nose to tail, over the roof, and down the middle.

As if to test my overload skills, I wondered how I would spend adequate time in both cars during the upcoming week, but then I got a message: There had been a mistake, and the Corvette, which was in pre-production short supply, would only be with me for three days. Problem solved. I drove the heck out of the Corvette for that Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday without even getting into the Mustang, knowing that as soon as the guys showed up to take away the Sting Ray Thursday morning, I could climb into the Mustang and drive off over the horizon.

I have driven different Mustang models in recent years, including the Shelby GT500, the Shelby GT350, the Mustang GT, and the Mustang Bullitt, and with the racing stripe and a 6-speed manual transmission, and that new-generation ferocious look, I figured this must be a GT, at least. The information sheet said it was a Mustang “Premium,” which only meant that it had some upscale features, like dual exhausts, a rear spoiler, and other trim things.

Most impressively, when I took off down the road, I noticed the Mustang had excellent acceleration, and it handled with precision. I went back to the information sheet and, to my surprise, noticed that for an engine, it had a 2.3-liter 4-cylinder, with Ford’s Ecoboost system of turbocharging.

I have always regarded the Shelby GT350 and the Bullitt as my two favorite current-generation Mustangs to drive, but I will have to find room to squeeze this one in among them.

Ford has discontinued most of its cars, but the Mustang stays strong as an annual tribute to the pony car Ford brought out in 1965 to revolutionize American driving habits. Here was a 2-plus-2 coupe, very sporty looking and handling, for a bargain price. Everybody wanted one, and every other manufacturer hustled to come out with a competitor.

As power has risen higher and higher on the scope of sporty cars, it has become more and more apparent that we don’t need as much power as can be produced, but we could really have a lot of fun if the car handled as well as a sports car and could parlay adequate power into impressive fuel-economy numbers, especially with that 6-speed, right out of a GT350.

Ford recently announced that it is discontinuing the Shelby GT350, much to my disappointment, brecause the GT350 with 527 horsepower out of its 5.2-liter V8 is a lot of fun, if not as neck-snapping as the GT500 with its supercharged version of the 5.2 developing 760 horsepower.

I am here to suggest that the car I test-drove bridges the gap. The venerable 2.3-liter 4, when turbocharged, produces 310 horsepower at 5,500 RPMs and 350 foot-pounds of torque at 3,000 RPMs. Even with the Mustang having grown to 4,000 pounds these days, that’s enough power to make you not miss the V8’s extra oomph.

Ford has wisely dropped the V6, the previous base engine, and now uses the 2.3 as its base engine. But a look at the accompanying photos will make you realize that if it looks the part, goes with the force that the look promises, and handles great, we can save a lot of money by buying the Ecoboost 4. We liked the little toggle switches at the base of the center stack, controlling various functions including driving modes, from normal to sport. Read more

High-tech Sonata adds higher-tech Hybrid

November 28, 2020 by · Comments Off on High-tech Sonata adds higher-tech Hybrid
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Tiny word “Hybrid” on rear is only indication the new Sonata has 60-mpg capabilities.

By John Gilbert
As Yogi Berra might have said, if he looked out my kitchen window at the shiny new Hyundai Sonata awaiting me: “It’s deja vu all over again.”

It’s OK to quote Yogi, because faithful readers will note that I only recently had written about the newly redesigned 2020 Sonata, which gave us amazing fuel economy in the 40s on a trip across Minnesota, from Duluth to Brainerd and back. I loved the car, so I wasn’t upset when another one — a beautiful dark blue instead of the silver first one — was delivered. I was, however, curious to get a second Sonata so quickly. As I walked a full circle around the car, I got to the rear deckled, finally, and noticed one extra word on the right side: “Hybrid.”

Suddenly I understood, and looked forward to every second I could spend behind the wheel of that Sonata Limited Hybrid. Hyundai always likes to prove it can punch above its class, and the Sonata Hybrid might set new standards for bargain production. The base Sonata Hybrid starts at $35,300, and you have to add all sorts of options, like the Bose audio upgrade, the solar roof, and the inside ambient lighting, to get that sticker up over $40,000.That makes the non-hybrid Sonata a distinct bargain, but the Hybrid shares its dramatic lines and offers the highest of high-tech.

The startling appeal of the redesigned Hyundai Sonata are shared by the Hybrid model.

For the sticker price, you get the kind of gas mileage you want to write home about. The EPA estimates start with a city figure of 45 miles per gallon, with 51 in highway driving, for an overall average of 47. I am here to tell you that you can meet those figures if you drive the car hard, and if you drive judiciously you can easily surpass them. We found that, like most hybrids, you get better fuel economy in city driving, where you exploit every bit of electric energy. On the freeway, holding a steady 70 or 75, the gas engine will be working steadily, which uses more fuel.

We got 46.7 mpg on a trip from Duluth to Minneapolis and back, and the next day, driving up and down the hills of Duluth, I got it up to 62.1 mpg, a figure I found hard to believe. Read more

Bright leaves no match for Lexus LC500

October 5, 2020 by · Comments Off on Bright leaves no match for Lexus LC500
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Even dusk over Lake Superior can’t dim the Flare Yellow of the Lexus LC500.

By John Gilbert

The timing was perfect, although it’s difficult to think of a bad time for a week-long test drive of the 2020 Lexus LC500 Coupe. The LC500 is one of the most strikingly beautiful car designs on the market, but the perfect timing was explained because we beat any threat of early snow around our Duluth location on Lake Superior’s North Shore.

The LC500 comes with rear-while drive, and while the latest traction-control gizmos all work impressively, I would rather drive it in dry or wet conditions, and I prefer front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive when the roadways get icy. Besides, the timing included catching the foliage throughout Northern Minnesota at nearly peak change of colors, with the bright golds, reds and oranges replacing the summertime’s green leaves.

The LC500 arrived wearing “Flare Yellow,” a new Lexus color this year, with a highly metallic base and a brilliant yellow that made even the brightest trees look a little less bright. I often admire yellow cars when other people buy them, but it’s not my personal favorite. I might, however, have to re-evaluate to make an exception with the LC500, because of the constantly positive reactions we got while driving around. We became a regional attraction without intending to be, just because of that car in that color.

The inviting interior of the LC500 is firmly comfortable, from seats to electronic controls.

It is loaded with all the latest electronic gadgets and features, and as the top of the Lexus line — which is altogether at the top of the Toyota line — the LC500 is the pinnacle. Base price is $92,950, which seems reasonable after all the options on the test car raised the ante to $106,440.

On the bright Saturday morning of our Lexus week, my wife, Joan, and I wanted to hit our area Farmer’s Market for the peak of the delectable harvest. Then we’d make a stop at Target, and then take some less-busy highways north for a scenic drive to the Iron Range. Joan went into Duluth’s Target store, as I parked in an obvious spot near the entrance, to listen as the Minnesota Twins battled through one of the final games of their abbreviated regular season. I noticed that nearly everybody walking past gazed at the car so regularly that I had to affect a nonchalant demeanor.

A young guy walking back to his car angled diagonally to approach my open window, and said, “Sorry to bother you, but — great pick! That is an absolutely beautiful car.” I smiled and thanked him, without time to explain that it wasn’t my car.

We started toward the highway, and as another car passed us, a kid in the passenger seat yelled, “I like your car, man!”

That became a pattern of admiring comments attracted by the LC500, and its Flare Yellow paint job. Read more

Ram vs. Ram in pickup battle

October 5, 2020 by · Comments Off on Ram vs. Ram in pickup battle
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

The Ram 1500 Laramie Crew Cab has a luxury interior and 5.7 V8 with mild hybrid.

By John Gilbert
One of the biggest success stories of the 2019 model year was the amazing upsurge in sales of Ram pickup trucks, which sailed right past the enigmatic Chevrolet Silverado to displace it the No. 2 spot behind the almighty Ford F-150.

Engineers and designers at Dodge had been doing a commendable job on the Ram before Fiat took over to create Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and establish Ram as its own division, but since then, Ram has established new heights for pickup style and sophistication.

Ram buyers have been quick to boast of their perceived superiority. Such elements as coil spring suspension in the rear, which makes the Ram by far the most comfortable to ride in on roads and highways, and constantly upgraded interiors, which set new standards for attractiveness as well as function.

It may be that Ram has no illusions about overtaking the Ford, but its array of models, loaded with impressive features, puts Ram on a high plateau that deserves evaluation by anyone looking to buy a big truck — a full-size pickup — for hauling stuff, towing stuff and carrying the family in comfort as well as safety and efficiency.

If auto sales followed election-year protocol, we could all vote by November 3 with our loan or lease budgets on which pickup truck is the best. As it is, the preference hinges greatly on family tradition. Whatever the process, the Ford F-150 traditionally wins the popular vote, over the Chevrolet Silverado, the Ram, Toyota Tundra, Honda Ridgeline, Nissan Titan, and midsize gems such as the Toyota Tacoma, Chevy Colorado and its GMC twin, Ford Ranger, and, if you can find one, a Nissan Frontier — plus, the newcomer on the scene, the Jeep Gladiator.

But Ram has upset the form chart to become top challenger for the F-150, and might be looking for more. For 2020, there is stiff competition within the Ram garage. It’s sort of like holding a national intramural tournament, while the varsity is on Coronavirus hiatus.

The Ram Rebel shares Crew Cab style but adds 3.0-liter EcoDiesel with even more power.

For example, the Ram 1500 Laramie Crew Cab 4X4 is the company icon, but what about the Ram Rebel?

The Laramie has a potent Hemi 5.7-liter V8 that delivers 395 horsepower and 410 foot-pounds of torque. The horsepower peaks at 5,600 RPMs, and the torque hits its peak at 3,950 RPMs.

The ride and interior accommodations are luxury-car-like — no other way to put it. The technology in this huge, Flame-red Ram is mostly unseen, such as the 5.7 V8 getting variable valve-timing and an electric boost from its E-Torque engine, using a mild hybrid input to help keep all the electrics charged. It also has an enormous, dual-pane sunroof that covers the front and rear seats. Along with the classy leather upholstery, the front is dominated by a large console and an enormous, iPad-size 12-inch center stack screen. Read more

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