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

Colorful leaves enhance 124 Spider image

Instead of simply rebadging the excellent Mazda MX-5 Miata, Fiat's arrangement to recreate the iconic 124 Spider required considerable alteration. And it works to create a stylis

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Thor's Hammer light design, familiar grille denote new-breed Volvos.

Always-safe Volvos add style, technology for 2018

Volvo has never wavered from its all-consuming focus on safety, but Geely ownership has led to new style and performance for the full line of sedans and SUVs.

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High-poiwered 
dodge Hellcat  powrtrain finds spectacular home in Jeep Grand Cherokee for 2018.

Potent Trackhawk becomes ultimate Jeep

Jeep's Grand Cherokee is popular both on-road and off-road, but when it becomes the 707-horsepower Trackhawk for 2018, it adds racetracks to its domain.

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

Ioniq aims at top hybrid, electric status

Hyundai's new Ioniq has style and surprising interior room, yet a compact exterior, with hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or pure electric powertrains, all of which rank at the top of the

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

Sport means SUV compacting has gone Rogue

SUVs gave way to crossovers, and the trend now is to compact crossovers. Nissan has come out with the Rogue Sport, a better way of reducing the size of the larger Rogue.

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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.

Picking new vehicle now has expanded scope

Consumers are trying to decide among compact crossover SUVs these days, but why limit the choices? Sporty coupes and even hot hatchbacks are better than ever and eminently availa

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

RS gives U.S. buyers new Focus on fun

Ford has always given Europe a hot Focus compact, but never brought it into the U.S. until finally letting us see what all the fuss was about with the Focus RS.

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

Alfa Romeo Stelvio is SUV for S-curves

Alfa Romeo has built a glorious reputation on passionate sporty cars, and it has adapted its heritage to building the Stelvio, and SUV for S-Curves.

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

Corolla moves on, ahead of new engine

Toyota is in the process of revising and updating its engines, but the Corolla couldn't wait. The 2017 model celebrates the compact's 50th anniversary and it performs well enough

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

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

Some might say the Mazda CX-3 is too cramped in the rear seat, but even with AWD, its high-pep 2.0 Skyactiv engine can challenge 40 mpg.

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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

Alfa Romeo Stelvio is SUV for S-curves

August 10, 2017 by · Comments Off on Alfa Romeo Stelvio is SUV for S-curves
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.  Read more

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. Read more

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 2.5, 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. Read more

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