Featured Reviews

Mini tradition endures, even in Maxi form

For a decade, our family Mini Cooper has been our weather-beating family friend, and its weird key fob got us a brief road test of a 2020 Mini Countryman.

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No fiddling while Niro electrifies driving

Kia tends to get a corresponding model of all things Hyundai, but the Niro is Kia's alone, and it can come as pure-electric with a 268-mile range.

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October blew the colorful foliage away.Range Rover Sport in estoril blue stood out before the gales of

Range Rover Sport offers 575-HP kick

Range Rover tradition is for over-engineered off-road vehicles filled with strength and luxury, and the Range Rover Sport adds 575 supercharged horsepower.

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Palisade grille will be a new signature look for Hyundai.

Safety focus required for drivers and vehicles

Since Hyundai adopted Kia, the South Korean partners have risen to the top of approval ratings, and the Palisade and Telluride give them both large, luxury SUV siblings.

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Track driving can't beat night freeway downpour test

Fewer new cars, more new SUVs highlighted the MAMA Fall Rally in Joliet, Ill., and the new generation Ford Escape showed a winning style.

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When AMG works over any Mercedes, it rises to new heights, and the CLS might be the best.

Letters, numbers make AMG CLS53 Coupe stand out

Mercedes continues to refine and perfect model after model, and its AMG branch turns the CLS into a high-performance luxury cruiser.

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New Raptor takes pickups to new width for all-terrain performance.

Raptor Flight impressive on, or off, firm ground

Ford continues to lead the pickup competition, and as it gets tougher, Ford responds with the 2019 Raptor version, widened and strengthened to be king of the road, and off-road.

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Blue of 2020 Corolla Hybrid blends with Lake Superior blue.

New Corolla Adds Hybrid, Global Platform

The Corolla has been such a staple of Toyota durability that it needed a shake-up, and the tighter, stronger 2020 Corolla Hybrid is more than just a Prius with a trunk.

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Stelvio Is the SUV That Thinks It's a Race Car

Alfa Romeo cut a corner to build its first SUV off the Giulia platform, and that's a good thing -- if you like an SUV that thinks it's a race car!

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Menacing grille, LED lighgts and 526 horsepower enliven the Mustang Shelby GT350.

How Much is Too Much? GT350 Just Right

When Ford stops building all cars but the Mustang amid its many SUVs, at least there will be specialty versions like the Shelby GT350, with audible, visible and visceral thrills.

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Letters, numbers make AMG CLS53 Coupe stand out

October 1, 2019 by · Comments Off on Letters, numbers make AMG CLS53 Coupe stand out
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 


When AMG works over any Mercedes, it rises to new heights, and the CLS might be the best.

By John Gilbert
There are Mercedes fans who like the E-Class best of all the German sedans, and there are luxury car buyers who insist the S-Class is best. The masses might prefer the obtainability of the more compact C-Class. You don’t have to be an auto researcher to figure out what Mercedes is doing, but it wouldn’t hurt.

All I know is that I recently had a Mercedes CLS for a week — but it wasn’t “just” a CLS. It was an “AMG CLS53 Coupe,” which isn’t a true coupe at all, and it adds the sizzle of that AMG prefix. It came in Cardinal Red Metallic paint, and the AMG guys have built a special new engine for it — a 3.0-liter in-line 6-cylinder engine with hybrid electrical energy boost to 429 horsepower and 384 foot-pounds of torque.

A basic C-Class sedan starts at $41,500, with a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder that is quick and can get you over 30 miles per gallon all the time. Add CLS to the mix and you’re up to a $70,000 base price. And when you put AMG into the picture along with the CLS, and the impact of hybrid complementary power and 4Motion all-wheel drive, the sticker price on my test car was a cool $106,980.

The car has the look of some hot-rod styling upgrades, German style, and it goes like the proverbial bullet, on upgraded tires, wheels, suspension, chassis and drivetrain components, making it rise toward actually being worth such a lofty price. People seem to have money, and after they buy a fancy house with way-more bedrooms and bathrooms than they need, buying a couple of cars makes some sort of sense. And buying a car like the high-end AMG CLS53 Coupe seems somewhat logical.

Back for some remedial Mercedes research, here’s a brief overview:

The most impressive thing about the ongoing path of Mercedes Benz automobiles is that every time the company brings out a new model of any of its vehicles, they invariably stand up as the best of the batch. The C-Class was the base size and price, the E-Class midsize, ad the S-Class large and luxurious.

Giving the roofline a symmetric slope turns a 4-door sedan into something worthy of the “Coupe” nickname.

Then at one model change, the designers gave the C-Class a neat slope, making a continuous roofline that looked almost coupe-like. They called it, in fact, a “Four-door Coupe.” The have added to the stable, with the new A-Class and CLA-Class, and the sportier versions, designated with SL or SLC. Then, of course, Mercedes leaped into the SUV battle and expanded to a whole fleet of different sized SUVs.

My favorite remained the C-Class, because it was sleek, a bit smaller, roomy enough, quick enough, and had that great and sporty roofline. It branched off to add the CLS-Class, which is a sportier version of the C-Class, and while the basis C-Class was changed a year ago, 2019 is the year of major modifications to the CLS-Class.

So many models, so many variations, so many engines. And then there’s AMG. Back in 1967, a couple of Mercedes mechanics who had tried to push for more high-performance models broke off and started up their own engine shop. Hans-Werner Aufrect, born in Grobaspach, Germany, was joined bay Erhard Melcher, and the two started building engines on their own. They picked the acronym AMG to stand for Aufrect, Melcher, and Aufrect’s birthplace.

Their favorite cars to upgrade were, not surprisingly, Mercedes models. They started to hang on with the factory production of cars, and were soon brought in as a very close subsidiary. It got to the point where each line that added an AMG model would get the same upgrade, starting with an engine built to lofty standards by one engineer. Then they strengthened the frame, and the suspension parts, and the transmission, as well as the interior.

The new turbo 3.0-liter inline 6 has magic numbers of 429 and 384 for horsepower and torque.

In the revised CLS, there are two engines available — both of them 3.0-liter in-line 6es, one with a turbo and electric hybrid boost to 362 horsepower and 369 foot-pounds of torque, for the $70,000 range, and the upgrade to more power and more boost to 429/384.

When you drive the garden-variety Mercedes, you can’t imagine anything pushing out the boundaries more than that. Then you climb into the AMG version, and you understand immediately why people spend great quantities of money to get those three little letters.

The 9-speed AMG automatic Speedshift TCT is smoothly precise, and if you choose to not use the steering wheel paddles with their fun quotient of 10, on a scale of 1-10, it seems to shift up or down even harder and with the same precision.

Other AMG items are the Dynamic Select mode switch, Performance 4Matic all-wheel drive, Sport Suspension with air body-control, and the sport steering wheel with its flat bottom, to clear your thighs easily in hard cornering. Also, more AMG items include the twin-spoke black wheels, the AMG Performance Exhaust, the AMG Track-Pace Application, AMG exterior carbon-fiber mirror covers and rear spoiler.

Inside, the black and titanium grey pearl Nappa leather seats and trim set off the natural grain grey ash wood on the dashboard and door panels. The active bucket seats are active because they will swing into motion to give you an energizing massage at various levels, and locations in your backrest. When you’re sitting in the bucket front seat and you drive hard into a curve or corner, the outside seat bolster inflates and firms up to prevent you from — what? — falling out, maybe.

Massaging seats fill a cockpit loaded with leather and real wood.

The dashboard and headliner and door panels are also in that “Titanium Grey Pearl” Nappa leather.

A Burmester 3D Surround Sound audio system is complemented by increased cabin insulation, acoustic and heat-absorbing membrane on the windshield and side windows for better sound insulation. Air-balance cabin air purification and fragrance systems take care of air filtration on the inside.

All of this is pretty lofty stuff, and the more universally common elements are also present, things like route-based speed adaptation, which we think of as cruise control, rear-end collision protection, active blind-spot assist, lane keeping assist, steering assist, brake assist with cross traffic function, active lane change assist, and Distronics, the first-out Mercedes safety element that can stop your AMG CLS53 Coupe without hitting an object in the road ahead if you somehow don’t seem to see it, while the car’s radar and camera system do.

Keyless entry and ignition, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are on board, and the navigation system displays its maps on a 12.3-inch wide-screen screen. Things like the heads-up display and satellite radio are great features, but almost seem inconsequential next to the laundry list of features I’ve tried to cover, here.

Unmistakable nose emblem flanked by amazing headlights sets off sleeker CLS design.

After evaluating all of the parts of the Mercedes AMBG CLS53 Coupe, you place it in a different perspective. Yes it goes like a race car, handles better than some race cars, will see and help you see obstacles and avoid them, and it’s extremely comfortable and fulfilling to drive every mile on your way. It performs like a performance car, coddles you like a luxury car, sound like a race car with its mellow but adjustable exhaust that goes from rumble to roar, and it can handle a family of four with ease, grace, luxury and sportiness.

Does that make it worth $107,000? Maybe. But obviously, it makes it worth something quite a way over what you might expect to pay for a 4-door sedan that gets you 27 miles per gallon — this car’s easily reached EPA highway estimate.

You can spend a few bucks over $100,000 to get a luxury car, or to get a high-performance car, or a stunning prestige looker. But to get all of them in one vehicle, the AMG CLS53 will put its pedigree up against any competitor.

Raptor Flight impressive on, or off, firm ground

September 24, 2019 by · Comments Off on Raptor Flight impressive on, or off, firm ground
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

New Raptor takes pickups to new width for all-terrain performance, and pothole-proof skidplates..

By John Gilbert

It’s a special time of the year when late September rolls into Duluth, Minnesota, because tourists, visitors and all manner of folks drive up on the mini-mountain above the East End and follow the gravel road about a mile to its peak, which is called Hawk Ridge. It is there, when the weather and wind is right, that thousands of migrating hawks of all species fly along that ridge in breathtaking numbers.

The phenomenon is that all of the hawks and other raptors are smart enough to not want to be caught over Lake Superior, so they fly to the Westernmost tip of the big lake, then they turn south and migrate to warmer areas, sometimes as far as the Gulf of Mexico. From mid-August until the end of November, the hawks start out with the smallest accipiters and gain in size to the biggest red tails and eagles. The DNR and Audubon Society are stationed there, and have a banding station, while hundreds of spectators bring their binoculars, cameras and folding chairs to view exhibits and gaze out over the blue water, hoping to spot a big raptor.

It is also the perfect time of year to road-test a Ford Raptor — the biggest bird in the species of Ford F150 pickup trucks. The F150 remains the top-selling vehicle in the country, while the Ram is making an unprecedented bid to catch up, and the new General Motors twins of Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra try to rebound, with new competition from Toyota and Honda.

But hot as that competition is, if one big pickup can fly up as the most capable, it would have to be the Ford Raptor.


Just to make sure nobody forgets the Raptor is, after all, a Ford. Or a F-O-R-D!

The Raptor is more than just a tarted up F150. It is an over-the-top attempt to modify the popular F150 into the most serious off-roader in the market. When one pulls up behind you, in whatever you’re driving, a glance in the rear-view mirror shows a large, blacked-out grille, with huge letters spelling out “F-O-R-D” — unique refresher course exclusive to Raptor. If it seems much wider — like the old movie days when normal screens were replaced by wall-to-wall Cinemascope.

The striping and graphics are neat, and the test-vehicle’s Velocity Blue paint job made those graphics a bit more subtle, but the appearance is broadened — literally — by a full-size pickup that goes beyond full-size by its sheer width. Naturally it gives you more interior room, but it also gives you cornering stability as well as amazing stability for the most serious, rock-climbing adventures you can think of.

Blue suede Recaro bucket seats look good and put you in a cocoon.

You climb up on the light, plastic running board to hop inside, before realizing they are rugged plastic-coated cast aluminum, and sit in the blue-suede Recaro bucket seats, which hold you, cocoon-like, in place for swerves, dips, unscheduled hops into thin air, and whatever challenges you can come up with, on-road or off.

To get to the capabilities, we start with the 3.5-liter V6 EcoBoost engine, worth 450 horsepower and 510 foot-pounds of torque in Raptor trim, with a 10-speed transmission. The length goes from 220 to 231.9 inches, and the width is stretched to 86.3 inches. Height is a mere 78.5 inches, so when you see it against other full-size trucks, it looks low and sleek.

Underneath, the Raptor is equipped so you could, I’m convinced, hop in the amazingly widened Raptor, switch the control button to whatever suits you best, and drive to the Arctic Circle — without setting a wheel down on a road.

Unique, co-developed Fox Shockes keep Raptor stable, even in flight.

It has a special frame, special suspension, unique shock-absorbers, the special high-output engine, a beefed-up transmission, and a fantastic interior to set it all off. For all it has, it costs you, of course, with a base price of $55,840, and adds $17,520 in options. It wasn’t all that long ago that you could buy a pickup truck for $17,520, and now that’s just the tab for the options — sending the total sticker price to $74,955.

OK, nobody who is sane will recommend you should buy a $75,000 pickup truck, but if you have the budget for it, my recommendation is don’t take one for a test-drive unless you have your checkbook with you.

With all that power, it will go 0-60 in a mere 5.2 seconds, and while its EPA fuel estimates are 15 miles per gallon city and 18 highway, we found both of those reachable, clocking mostly 16-17 mpg in city driving and occasionally getting it up to 20-22 on freeway trips.

Driving in Minnesota this summer means that if you don’t get the chance to go off-roading, negotiating the pothole-filled Duluth streets, or doing the orange-barrel slalom from Duluth to Minneapolis, can at least approximate the need for an off-road vehicle.

The exterior’s headlights include a neat outline of LEDs, night and day, with distinctly sharp LED headlights and foglights, and those little lights atop the cab that resemble those that adorn heavy-duty work trucks.

But when you put it all together, go foraging where the off-road rock-climbers like to play, and you learn immediately that the suspension is in another world. When Ford was building this version of the Raptor, it went to Fox, the competition shock and suspension experts, and worked with them to perfect and install Fox Live-Valve, electronic-control shocks that are so high-tech they can go from soft to stiff in 40 milliseconds.

When you’re bouncing along over rocky terrain, if the computer senses that you are airborne, the shocks use their oil-flow insides to stiffen, so that when you come down from wherever it is you are airborne, the Raptor won’t bottom out as you crash to Earth, the way softer shocks would.

Think about that. These shocks, unique to the Raptor, are so advanced they can sense miniscule alterations in your venture and adjust almost as if anticipating what’s going to happen.

Driver’s eye view gives full command of all Raptor controls.

You also can set the Trail control for crawl speed. People who are either sane, or haven’t ventured into serious off-roading, may not be aware of how important it is to be able to crawl slowly up and over the biggest boulders, or ruts or ridges, and then keep your speed in check when you descend. The computer-activated Fox Shocks in the Raptor will crawl up, over, and down, so you can focus on steering and missing the largest and most treacherous chunks and boulders.

To me, though, the most impressive thing is how the Raptor behaves when you come off the trail, out of the wilderness or mountains, and get the Raptor out on the highway or on city streets, where behavior is necessary. Driving on Duluth’s Swiss-cheese-like streets and suburban roadways, you would accept and forgive the Raptor if it jolted and jarred your bones, because it is so firm off the road, you anticipate harshness and rigidity on the road. Yet the Raptor suspension is surprisingly compliant on the road, and it seems to almost float over the corrugated roads.

I might be wrong, but I found the Raptor was smoother-riding and more comfortable than the standard, garden-variety F150, or other full-size pickup competitors. If that’s all because of the Fox shocks, then we all should have them.

Ford knows its got a winner on its hands, but I think it is guilty of under-promoting the on-road sophistication of the Raptor. It might encourage a flow of truck-fanatics who would be willing to spend a lot of money for such a cool truck that also works as a family truckster. Consider the creature features: automatic on-off high beams, power tailgate lock, trailer sway control, fold-up rear bench seat, dynamic hitch assist, electric shift-on-the-fly 4×4, pre-collision warning and assist, reverse sensing and rear view cameras, skid plates, terrain management system, perimeter alarm, power sliding rear window, 360-degree camera, trailer back-up assist, voice-activated navigation and an excellent Bang and Olufsen sound system.

Screen shows where you’re backing up, and full surround view.

Going to the Raptor option list, the high-output 3.5 EcoBoost engine, technology package, tailgate step, bedliner and wheels and graphics are added. The connectivity stuff is all there, too.

You have this Trail control knob that can be set for whatever terrain you are engaging, including gravel, sand, snow, normal roadways…whatever. We never got it out of rear-wheel drive, alas, during our brief week treating it like our everyday vehicle. I would love to have it for another week in the most blizzard-filled week of Duluth winter to try out the other switches.


I felt I had accomplished something when I made it through the narrowed freeway lanes without conking an orange barrel or two, and I felt even more in command when I drove into a parking ramp that required a couple of sharp corners. As I pulled in, my wife, Joan, let out a bit of a shriek because she was sure I had scraped the ceiling of the ramp entrance, and when I circulated up a level, we heard the scraping again.

Rigged for the most-rugged duty, Raptor also could be testosterone-rich family vehicle.

Turns out, it was the little antenna poking up and touching the roof of the ramp. Ford thinks of everything — even a curb-feeler for your roof.

Without a doubt, the pickup battles will continue to rage, and the specialty versions that command top dollar from every manufacturer can bring in more profit. But the Raptor is the rare specialty truck that blends its on-road smoothness to make it no-contest for absolute king of the road.

New Corolla Adds Hybrid, Global Platform

September 11, 2019 by · Comments Off on New Corolla Adds Hybrid, Global Platform
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Toyota Corolla may have become “green” with Hybrid model, but the blue of 2020 Corolla Hybrid blends with Lake Superior blue.

By John Gilbert
We get hardened to criticism of certain cars by the public, or media, until it almost becomes traditional. Toyota, which sells enormous quantities of all manner of cars and trucks all around the world, might be the biggest victim, because critics became cynics in declaring cars like the Camry and Corolla as dull, boring “appliances,” rather than fun and enjoyable cars.

I understand the criticism, and even engaged in some of it, because once it had reached a certain point of consistency, Toyota seemed more interested in maintaining the status quo than striving for a higher plateau. More recently, I didn’t anticipate that the Prius, Toyota’s standard-bearer of hybrid vehicles, had come under similar criticism, because while I never thought of the Prius as boring, I also gave it room because it was always pushing the barriers of gasoline-electric powertrains. I learned of the cynicism while driving a beautiful dark blue 3030 Toyota Corolla, and we parked at an available parking space in West Duluth. We locked the Corolla with the key fob, and saw a fellow we know, and who knew I evaluated new cars. He nodded toward the Corolla and said, “If that your new test drive?”

I said yes, it was, and added that it was a 2020 Corolla, which is, shall we say, cautiously restyled, and that this particular one was a Hybrid.

“A Hybrid?” he responded, with obvious surprise.

I explained that for 2020 Toyota’s revamped Corolla compact line has a new global platform and a new body with stylish contours carved in. Corollas always have tried to look stylish-on-a-budget, but they haven’t been hybrids. And they haven’t been adorned with this impressive new “Blueprint” exterior paint.

“This one,” I said, “has the same drivetrain as the Prius I had reported on a month or so earlier.”

“Well then,” he shot back, “why would anyone buy a Prius?:”

Corolla Hybrid instruments are adjustable, but prove differences to Prius.

Apparently, the masses might consider the Prius commonplace, even dull and uninteresting. Particularly if they haven’t driven a new one recently, such as the quick and impressive all-wheel-drive Prius from my recent Newcarpicks.com review. I have driven the various Prius models all the way through their existence, and I can appreciate the evolutionary changes to more efficient methods of linking the electric motors to the gasoline engine, which recharges the electric motors as they drive the car.

My acquaintance wouldn’t let up. “If it’s the same drivetrain, then why would you buy the Prius?” he asked. “The Corolla is much more car.”

There you have it. The masses may not be influenced by the latest improvements in technology, but they know what they like. I like the new Prius, particularly the all-wheel-drive model with its new edgy shape and 50-plus miles per gallon.

However, I also had to go back to my notes for comparison sake. The Prius, fixed with its instruments on the center of the dashboard, and its hatchback design, cost a base price of $28,810, and the AWD model I drove was $32,508. Well, I figured, technology costs money, ao that’s not so bad.

Sharper exterior lines add to Toyota attempts to make the Corolla sportier.

Then I looked at the Corolla Hybrid I had in my possession for that late-August week. It had a base price, in LE (middle) trim, of $22,950, and with only a couple of molding and floor mat options, the Hybrid LE sticker read $24,467.

Both the Corolla Hybrid and the Prius were powered by Toyota’s 1.8-liter, 4-cylinder, dual-overhead-cam, engine, with variable valve timing, coupled with the Toyota Synergy Drive nickel-metal-hydride battery pack and electric motors. Both the front-wheel-drive Corolla and the all-wheel-drive Prius, run their 121 combined horsepower and continuously variable transmissions with programmed stepped shift-points that can be manually driven to resemble a 9-speed automatic, if you choose.

The Corolla is not a hatchback. It has a trunk. American buyers have recently indicated that we don’t like hatchbacks, even though I find them often more flexible and useful than cars with trunks. But maybe that’s the secret behind putting the hybrid drivetrain out of the Prius into the Corolla. If you like a hatchback, buy the Prius; if you’d rather have a trunk, buy the Corolla Hybrid.

But I have just enough Scottish ancestry to add another part fo the equation: If you’d rather have $8,000 than commit it to your new car price, buy the Corolla!

The new Corolla looks a little more like a sporty compact than like an appliance. The Camry and the Corolla have looked good for about a decade, but they do have something of a soap-carving-project look to them, when compared to cars like the Mazda3 and the Honda Civic — Corolla’s top two rivals — and emerging challengers like Hyundai Elantra and Nissan Sentra.

The new Corolla shakes that image somewhat, but still seems bound by stylists who are more worried about losing existing owners than making a move to become more stylish.

Inside, the driving position is improved, with better seats, more contemporary instruments and gauges, changeable at the touch of a button, or two, on the Swiss-Army-belt-like steering wheel.

The exterior has stylish 15-inch alloy wheels with all-season tires, and they support a whole range of contemporary safety and driver-aid features that hoist the Corolla up among the more accomplished models.

Black mesh grille, LED headlights and driving lights are subtle upgrades for C”orolla Hybrid.

Start with a black mesh grille in front, a high-handed move for the usually conservative company, and the new grille spreads out to house LED headlights and daytime running lights, while at the rear, LED lights also brighten the tail and brake lights.

More significantly, the Toyota Safety Sense includes pre-collision aid with pedestrian warning, radar cruise control with full-range speed function, lane departure alert and assist, lane-tracing assist, automatic high beams with road-sign remote, stability control, traction control, electronic brake-force assist, and emergency stop assist.

That accumulation of safety features is impressive enough even if you take them separately, and they are considerably more impressive when all combined into the Corolla package. New for 2019 is the inclusion of Apple CarPlay and a large touch-screen with assorted USB connectivity is all there.

The instrument panel is configurable, so if you don’t see the need for a tachometer in the left binnacle from the speedometer, you can change it over to trip statistics or other car function readouts. Same with the right side. The center touch-screen is particularly useful because you can change that with a touch of a button, or the screen itself, to get things such as the power flow from the gas engine, the electric motor or the combination of both.

We also should avoid talking too much about the fold-down rear seats, because if you fold them down, elongating the trunk’s roomy storage area, you’re getting dangerously close to what hatchback-lovers like and hatchback-haters hate. I will add that at one point, we needed to take our gas can to pick up a couple gallons of lawn-mower fuel, and putting it in a trunk instead of under a hatch precluded any gasoline fumes from taking over the cabin.

We do still have the gauge package, which is directly through the steering wheel and in front of the driver, which I prefer to the Prius and its central location, atop the dashboard. That might be part of the feeling in the Prius that you’re helping carry out a long-term experiment. In that regard, the Corolla being “just a car” might be an asset.

When it’s time to refuel, the similarities with the Prius override the differences. The Corolla, which looks like a nice, contemporary compact, can get 50 miles per gallon, off an EPA estimated high of 53 miles per gallon in city driving and 52 on the highway. We got a pretty consistent mid-40s around town, with a couple spikes to 50, and it didn’t change much when we went on a highway trip.

You’d have to be living in a cave up in the mountains to be unaware that we’re heading rather swiftly toward a society driving electric cars, and we’re probably going to get to that point just about the time full-electric vehicles are ready to meet us with high-mileage batteries. In the meantime, you can shop around for some early-adopter electric vehicles, or choose a highly efficient gas-engine cars, or you can compromise from an ever-expanding list of hybrid cars — which now include the Corolla.

Some buyers might prefer Corolla reputation and trunk to Prius, and Hybrid combines assets.

Some other hybrids compete well, and even favorably, with Toyota hybrids, but we also must acknowledge that Toyota has led the way with almost every step of hybrid growth. The Corolla Hybrid uses nickel-metal-hydride in its battery pack, while many competitors have gone to lithium-ion battery packs, claiming they charge faster, hold a charge longer, and deliver more power than the nickel-metal-hydride.

Toyota has some models that use lithium-ion, but when asked which is better, their engineers simply shrug, and put out the next generation of Priuses, and now Corollas. It’s still something of a secret that the Corolla has a Hybrid model, but for $24,000, it won’t be a secret for long.

Stelvio Is the SUV That Thinks It’s a Race Car

September 4, 2019 by · Comments Off on Stelvio Is the SUV That Thinks It’s a Race Car
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Stelvio Quadrifogliop poised to cruise up Lake Superior’s North Shore drive. .

By John Gilbert
Discussing driving characteristics of new cars is the major part of any car review. Then along comes the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio, and reasonable discussion goes right out the window.

Alfa Romeo always deserves a gold star for building cars that capture your senses, in ways that can be flat-out fun, even without going flat-out, literally. When Alfa Romeo decided to re-enter the U.S. market a few years ago, its designers set out to build a fantastic flagship sedan, and it was the Giulia. I’ve driven it both in rear-wheel drive and in all-wheel drive, and with both the 2.0-liter 4-cylinder and the 2.9-liter V6. As I wrote at the time, it is the best-handling sedan I’ve ever driven.

Inspired to drive in the rain? Stelvio has AWD and handles curves with multi-mode settings.

Shortly after the Giulia’s introduction, Alfa Romeo decided that to be fully competitive, it also needed an SUV, and we can all thank the powers that be that Alfa decided to take a shortcut, basically building an SUV body atop the Giulia sedan platform and drivetrain.

Spending a week with a 2019 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio, identifiable as the top model by the neat little white cloverleaf on either side of the body, went beyond fun. That cloverleaf stands out especially on the accompanying paint job, which is “Rosso Competizione Tri-Coat.” In the best interests of Italian car-painting passion, I think it means red, or more accurately competition red.

What sets the Stelvio Quadrifoglio test vehicle above the normal Stelvio is that it has all-wheel drive, and it s powered by the optional upgrade to the 2.9-liter V6. The story of that engine is worth retelling. When Fiat bought out Chrysler, forming FCA for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, we learned a lot about the size and scope of Fiat, which owns Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, and Lancia, along with Chrysler, Dodge, Ram and Jeep. Sergio Marchionne, who was chief executive of Fiat, FCA and all the affiliates, was the one who guided the Giulia through to completion.

Once it was finished, a beautiful sedan from every angle, he called upon the Formula 1 racing engineers from Ferrari and gave them the assignment of designing from the ground up a new and high-tech engine that would match the high standards of design and handling the Giulia had already attained. The chief engineer selected certain engineers and they hand-built the engines for the Giulia.

Clover icon on flank tells you it’s the top-line Quadrifoglio model, watching canoe glide by..

When the Stelvio came along, sharing the distinctive styling and the platform of the Giuglia, the very good 2.0-liter 4-cylinder was joined by the Ferrari F1 designed 2.9 liter V6, turbocharged, to deliver 505 horsepower and 443 foot-pounds of torque. From 2.9 liters! That 2.9 turbo engine causes the price of either the Stelvio or Giulia to jump $25,000 – $30,000, putting the Stelvio test vehicle up into the $90,000 range. But then, all things being equal, if you were a car fancier, having your engine built by a Formula 1 race engineer would be worth anything they ask.

Formula 1 race engineers from cousin Ferrari built 505 horsepower into 2.9 liters.

For what it’s worth, the Grand Prix of Belgium was held Saturday morning, and I got up at dawn to watch it. Charles Leclerc, a Frenchman, won the race at Spa-Francorchamps in a Ferrari in an impressive performance that made me realize that when we talk about the Stelvio engine being built by Formula 1 engineers, it’s not just Formula 1 engineers, but possibly the best race engineers in the world. The Stelvio is not a race car, but you realize it’s an SUV that acts like a race car.

The starter button requires a search at first, because it’s located at the lower left corner of the steering wheel, causing you to grope around on the right for a couple minutes before you spot that large, red round button. Push it and the engine snarls to life. Engage the 8-speed automatic and the Stelvio springs to life. But you can’t settle for just that. You need to experiment with the little puck-shaped switch on the console, with which you can click to normal, eco, comfort and sport, on up to the top button, which is spring loaded, so when you click it you get the race setting.

Then you also can push down on the suspension button in the center of the mode switch and get comfort or firm, on up to race. There remains a little switch with an icon of tailpipes, and when you click that, you get the absolutely heavenly tone from that engine as it goes to full quad, which sends a major chill through the seat of your bucket-seated extreme.

Now you hit the gas and the Stelvio leaps ahead, capable of reaching 60 in a 3.3-second burst, and if you wisely selected the manual side of the shifter gate, you can upshift by clicking the long aluminum shift paddles affixed to either side of the steering column. Run the revs up and click the right one, and you get the next gear, with just a hint of the burble you want from the exhaust.

The Stelvio shifts just fine by itself, in automatic setting, but it’s just so much fun to hand shift it with the paddles, either up or down. Coming down a fairly steep hill from Duluth’s Skyline Drive to the city far below, down-shifting a couple of times holds your speed in control, and also raises the pitch and the note of that splendid exhaust.

Stylish rear contours incorporate quad tailpipes, which are for more than show.

The bucket seats are firm and well-bolstered, and the rear seat is roomy and comfortable for adults, leaving a generous storage area for luggage behind the second row seats. The luggage area has helpful little strips for adjustable tie-down locations to help secure your worldlies as you head off on a cross-country venture.

And believe me, the Stelvio will provoke you into making cross-country trips as often as possible, and you may look for as many curvy roads all along the way.

Leather seats and accents add luxury feel, shift paddles sportiness to Stelvio interior.

The word “Stelvio” is named after a village and mountain pass in South Tyrol in the Italian Alps, known for its tightly twisting highway. Appropriate, I’d say, because the Stelvio not only would flash through that pass with grace and speed, but it would sound other-worldly doing it.

The Stelvio can’t match the all-out race-car handling of the Giulia, because nothing can — including some race cars — but the Stelvio comes close, giving you an upper-class riding position on those electronically firmed-up dampers and the “race” settings on your exhaust, power delivery and shift points.

I’m not sure how the Italians do it, but the steering and the suspension in the Stelvio are so precise that, like the Giulia, the car seems always poised to react in an instant to your steering inputs

The wide, low profile Pirellis ride on 20-inch black alloy wheels that are artistic themselves, and the huge red calipers for the Brembo brakes carry the “Alfa Romeo” script. The 2019 Stelvio adds Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connections for 2019, and boasts all the newest safety electronics, such as remote start, stop-start at stoplights, full speed forward collision warning and rear back up camera for blind-spot and cross-path detection, park assist, and there is a hill-descent control and heated wipers, mirrors and headlight washers.

From a driving standpoint, you’ll appreciate the active suspension and the torque-vectoring differential, and you may be impressed to know it has a carbon-fiber driveshaft, and carbon-fiber also is used for interior trim on the dashboard and console.

An 8.8-inch screen on the dash relays navigation and audio controls, and a 7.0-inch color cluster display augments that. The audio system is Harmon Kardon and fills the cabin with sound, although changing frequencies remained a challenge for us as the week went along. We didn’t really care, because unless there was a good ballgame on, our top alternative was to shut it off, and open the windows to hear those two-stage quad pipes bark.

Easily adjusted modes and settings are within reach.

High-performance bi-Xenon headlights and LED taillights and accent lights give you a light show whenever you turn on the lights, or leave the automatic setting for high and low beams. The driver assistance package adds lane-departure warning and adaptive cruise control with adaptive following.

The Stelvio options lifted the price from $80,245 to $96,540 with all the Quadrifoglio trim and features — a staggering amount if you’re used to normal midsize SUVs, but another one of those vehicles that performs better and quicker than any other SUV you might be interested in. Maybe you can find one that handles as well, although I’m doubtful.

And I am sure you won’t find another SUV that produces the exhaust sound thrills of the Stelvio Quadrifoglio.

Anyone who has been able to experience an assortment of the current breed of SUVs can attest to the fact that there are countless new models that exceed your highest hopes. But not all of them are fun. Some are roomier, but no more comfortable. Some can tow more than the 3,000 pounds listed for the Stelvio, but I don’t know if I’d want to tow anything with it, let alone more.

Logo adorns steering wheel, aluminum shift paddles are fixed to the column.

If you could line up a half-dozen of your final candidates, all in a row, for a final examination, just don’t make your choice without starting the Stelvio and clicking the exhaust to make use of the “dual” part of the dual-mode quad exhaust. Heck, if you were wealthy enough you might want to buy a Stelvio and set it up on a treadmill outside your screen window so that you can start it up and hear that heavenly sound remotely.

Storage space is generous, adjustable tie-down strips are ingenious.

Tragically, Sergio Marchionne died from complications of surgery about a year ago. I’ve met him and talked to him several times at car introductions. And I would love to ask him if he believes the Ferrari Formula 1 engineers met their assigned task to build an engine as good as the rest of the Stevio. I’m also pretty sure I know the answer.

How Much is Too Much? GT350 Just Right

September 1, 2019 by · Comments Off on How Much is Too Much? GT350 Just Right
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Menacing grille, LED lights, 526 horsepower enliven the Mustang Shelby GT350.

By John Gilbert

Car-buyers have made a dedicated swing to trucks and SUVs, but there remains a market for cars, and within that segment is a stubborn sub-market for hot cars. High-performance cars. Fun cars.

For a week, I had the chance to live with one — a 2019 Mustang GT350, in “race red,” which is a slightly more subtle name than “arrest-me red,” but the same implied warning accompanies this sleek, fastback descendent of the original Mustang-inspired ponycar craze of the 1960s and ’70s. The shape of all those is roughly the same, whether you preferred the Mustang, Camaro, Challenger, or the old-breed Firebird Trans-Am, Barracuda, or Javelin. All shared a long hood, short rear deck, fast-sloping roofline, and room for two in the front buckets and only those who will put up with the pain of limited legroom in the rear for the thrill of going for a drive.

Driving the Shelby GT350 is thrilling, starting just by starting. Make sure the clutch is in on the 6-speed stick shift, then hit the push-button starter and the crackling roar of the engine gives you a bit of a chil. Rev it and it sounds better, and flip the little toggle switch at the far right of the lower center-stack panel, the one with the little icon of dual exhaust pipes, from normal to “sport,” and the sound changes from light, grey-cloud thunder to dark, almost black, severe-weather thunderclaps of ground-shaking roar.

Rear wing, quad piped, sequential turn-signals rise above the basic Mustang.

Having fiddled with various other switches to get to sport — but maybe not race or track-day — you take off, with the acceleration pushing you back into those form-fitting Recaro bucket seats, which encapsulate you in all manner of turns and twists. Those thrills are there, included and waiting for you, in every Shelby GT350. And still, I was able to coax it up from the normal 16-miles-per-gallon in city driving to a peak of 22 mpg on a freeway trip from Duluth to Minneapolis and back to Duluth, including a few slaloms around construction barrels.

The GT350 gets its startling power from a 5.2-liter, dual-overhead-camshaft V8, normally aspirated, with the flat-plane-crankshaft engine turning out 526 horsepower at 7,000 RPMs, and 429 foot-pounds of torque. That is an impressive amount of power, regardless of your intentions, even if you realize you can get a supercharged version of the same engine in the still newer Shelby GT500 — with a ludicrous 750 horsepower and 700 foot-pounds of torque.

As it is, the GT350 takes the sticker price up to $64,860. Such is the cost of precise engineering refinement these days. Almost as much as a loaded pickup truck!

Just like in the Muscle-car days of yore, the “Big Three” are in hot competition. Ford has clearly been influenced by Dodge, which shocked hot-car buyers with a Challenger Hellcat, then upgraded to a Demon, and then a still-hotter Redeye, with a monster supercharged 6.2-liter, 797 horsepower, 707 foot-pound screamer. Chevrolet was scurrying to build a hotter Camaro with the Corvette engine, and now a new mid-engined Corvette, so Dodge kept upping the ante to keep its spot atop the power tests.

Basic 6-speed shifter joins high-tech switchwork.

Ford, naturally, was not about to concede anything, so it brought out the new Shelby models.

There is a little nostalgia involved, whenever I drive a Mustang Shelby GT350, and my most recent occasion was a gorgeous week in mid-August, where the blue of Lake Superior’s water and the sky rising up from the Wisconsin horizon harmonized, just as the newest GT350 seemed properly frisky for harmonized with the curves of the North Shore Drive.

The nostalgia dates back to the mid-1970s, when my wife, Joan, and I, decided between buying a Shelby Mustang GT350, or a new 1970 Boss 302 Mustang. Tough decision, until I drove a Boss 302 and it won out as a “family car” for our young family. We drove it hard, but not abusively hard. We put a lot of miles on it in a few short years, and I had gotten it repainted into the Dodge hot color of the day, a dark purple called “Plum Crazy.” The Vikings would have loved it.

LED lights carve darkness the way the GT350 carves curvy roads.

Writing at the Minneapolis Tribune at the time, I was driving out to Fairmont to do a late-summer feature on the thriving dirt-track stock car racing facility there. I stopped for a flagman at a road-construction site, and was rear-ended by a large truck, whose driver had neglected to pay attention, or to hit his brakes, after he belatedly realized the car ahead of him was stopped. I let out the clutch like a drag-racer and lurched forward in a 20-foot burnout before the impact, which probably saved my life. Saved most of the car, too, although the left rear corner was turned to shrapnel. Amazingly, a shop in Blue Earth was able to pry and bend the metal to clear the spare tire by enough so I was could limp back to the Twin Cities.

The insurance company declared the car totaled, and my feelings were soothed when I found a 1969 Shelby GT350 that had not been treated well. The engine was a 351 V8, not the “hot” Cleveland engine, but the mundane Windsor 351, dressed up with flashy valve covers. We were able to buy the Shelby GT350 and hire Bill Schifsky — who raced a Funny Car out of White Bear Lake — to do the transplant in his high-performance shot, all out of the insurance settlement.

We had a custom paint job on the car: four coats of white over four coats of black, and then eight coats of cobalt blue over the whole thing. If you could get that paint job today, it would cost $10,000, at least. Anyhow, no Shelby GT350 ever had an engine like that sizzling Boss 302, and the performance clutch and suspension improved with Kona shocks, all under the sleek fiberglass Shelby body.

Control center of GT350 includes Recaro seats, flat-bottom steering wheel.

Through the years, I’ve driven and written about every Shelby model that has come along, and we didn’t sell our “Boss/Shelby” until Ford had vaulted into the modern era by leaving the pushrod-engine-powered competition behind and engineering a dual-overhead-camshaft V8 that made the Mustang sing. It wasn’t quite as swift as the Boss 302, but it was technically advanced enough that we could part with our beloved car, even though it was like selling the third son Joan and I never had.

The new fleet of Mustangs are of particular interest, because Ford has said it was going to stop producing most of its cars, turning those plants into SUV-makers. The Taurus, the Fusion, and even the Focus and Fiesta are all headed for closeout status, and the only car Ford will continue making will be the Mustang.

Styling pushes the GT350 to the edge of exotic super-car look.

At least that consists of a pretty thorough array. You can get a base Mustang with a 2.3-liter turbo 4-cylinder that has 320 horsepower, move up the high-performance steps to the Ford GT, with beefed up suspension and a 5.0-liter DOHC V8 with 460 horsepower and 420 foot-pounds of torque. Next up is the Bullitt, a well-balanced and fun machine with the same 5.0-liter V8 up to 480 horsepower and 420 foot-pounds. Then comes the GT350, switching to the hotter, more high-tech flat-plane-crank 5.2-liter V8, also with dual overhead cams, and 526 horsepower with 429 foot-pounds of torque. Up on top is the GT500, with the same 5.2 V8 engine but supercharged up to 760 horses and 700 foot-pounds.

I have not yet driven the GT500, but impressive as its numbers are, the figures attained with a normally aspirated 5.2 is an engineering gem. Car and Driver magazine did a recent comparison in performance between the Camaro SS1LE and the Mustang GT, and it gave the nod to the Camaro. Interesting. The Camaro had a 6.2-liter pushrod V8 with 455 horsepower at 6,000 RPMs, while the Mustang had the 5.0-liter V8 with 460 horsepower at 7,000 RPMs. Nowhere do they point out that with dual-overhead cams, the Mustang can give up more than a full liter of displacement and still produce more horsepower at higher revs.

In addition, they could have moved up to the Bullitt for 20 more horses, or to Ford’s flat-plane-crank 5.2 V8 in the GT350 for still more. I will eagerly await the chance to drive the GT500, although the runaway power fight at the top of the rejuvenated muscle-car battle has gotten out of control, I’d say.

Silhouette resembles normal Mustang, but Shelby GT350 is giant step above.

But except for that muscle escalation, I would say the GT350 has just about the right combination of stay-alert power and performance handling, while the GT500 seems to be over-the-top for power. The feel, refinement, and comfort of the seats — front, at least — and the steering/handling, exhilarating sound, plus the look, make the GT350 the perfect car for Ford fanatics, muscle-car fanatics, and one-upmanship gambits.

And did I mention nostalgia?

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