Featured Reviews
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Stick brings Rapid Red Mustang 'Bob' to life

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Hyundai's use of LG Chem's advanced lithium-ion-polymer hybrid battery is a step toward full-electric.

High-tech Sonata adds higher-tech Hybrid

Striking design of Hyundai's 2020 Sonata, coupled with addition of a Hybrid model, boosts Sonata to the top of the midsize segment.

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Bright leaves no match for Lexus LC500

The new era of Toyota design and performance is nearly upon us, and the Lexus LC500 might be the best example as the pinnacle of Toyota's upscale line,

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The Jeep Gladiator strikes a mystical image against Lake Superior at dusk.

Gladiator opens new doors for Jeep

Jeep used to have a utility pickup, and for its long-awaited return as the 2020 Gladiator, it gives the company a full array of useful and fun attractions.

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Mercedes blends sports sedan, SUV in GLC43 Coupe

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'Hot' CT5-V gets sibling rival in CT5 Luxury

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In fierce SUV competition, Ford has an Edge

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Symbol of luxury, Avalon gets TRD spark

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Alfa gives Stelvio a little dose of Formula 1 spirit

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2020 Sonata: Sexy look, comfort, and 47 mpg!

August 10, 2020 by · Comments Off on 2020 Sonata: Sexy look, comfort, and 47 mpg!
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos, Uncategorized 


Redesigned grille gives Sonata a low, seductive look, befitting its new technology.

By John Gilbert

As someone who has been test-driving and reporting on new vehicles for something like 50 years, I have established a few techniques to prove my own objectivity to myself. And there’s always room for new tricks, which I learned by driving the totally redesigned and seductive 2020 Hyundai Sonata.

The precise moment when Hyundai lifted the South Korean auto industry from mediocrity to elite status was when the 2011 Sonata was introduced. It had been a mediocre midsize car with a great warranty, but, inspired by a stinging rejection of its new engine by prospective partners Chrysler and Mitsubishi, Hyundai went back to a clean sheet and focused on building an all new 2.4-liter 4 cylinder.

The engine was to be housed in a dramatically restyled car, and both partners were surprised how quickly Hyundai built such an impressive engine from scratch. Both Chrysler and Mitsubishi still use variations of that 2.4 engine in some of their vehicles.. For its own Sonata, Hyundai engineers also designed an intricate but impressive direct fuel-injection system, and, while they were at it, designed and built a lighter and more efficient 6- speed automatic transmission.

The total package, from exterior design to engine, transmission and suspension, put the car and the company on an entirely new plateau, from which it has never looked back from that 2011 model year breakthrough. Since then, Hyundai has developed and improved its array of impressive SUVs, compacts and even luxury cars, transforming its new-found technology through its entire engine line.

But the Sonata remains the heart and soul of the company. Which brings us to the 2020 Sonata, a car that is another complete surprise.

As the world turns to SUVs, Hyundai seems to believe SUV buyers may turn back to sedans, once their SUV is parked in the driveway. And without question, the 2020 Sonata could turn a lot of heads and desires back to the sedan world.

The first time I saw one, it was from the rear corner and I thought it was a new Mercedes 5-door-coupe model. Then I walked around to the front and was surprised to see the stylized Hyundai “H” badge on the grille.

Smooth roofline makes Sonata stand out, even with the BIR Trans-Am as a backdrop.

It took a while, but we finally got to spend a week with a 2020 Hyundai Sonata Limited a few weeks ago, and we enjoyed its looks and its agility and surprising power on the hills of Duluth, Minnesota. And when the idea hit us, we decided to drive the Sonata from Duluth over to Central Minnesota to watch the Trans-Am road race at Brainerd International Raceway, and drive back after the race. On that trip, the Sonata provoked a previously never-done move by me.

Often, when I think I haven’t given a car a fair test of highway driving, I’ll zero the odometer and get a fresh, highway-only calculation.

But the trip odometer on the Sonata had shown a figure I thought was absurdly high, so for the first time, I zeroed it to bring it back to reality. After all, it had the exceptional but small 1.6-liter Turbo engine, and the Sonata is a big, Accord-Camry-Mazda6-sized car to haul around. My mistake. After zeroing it, we drove east along Hwy. 210 and my wife, Joan, took a long turn behind the wheel. That let me relax in the passenger bucket and examine all the features of the redesigned dash, with its long, horizontal information screen in the middle of the dash. My newly reset trip-odometer now read: 46.7 miles per gallon!

I guess my earlier assumption was not just wrong, but I reset it twice to recalculate, and our highest figure attained was 47.1 mpg. Astonishing! That’s hybrid, or diesel, territory, and many of them can’t get that much.

Neat gauge-work transposes rear-facing video to replace either the tach, for left, or speedometer, for right turns,. Note the 44.1 mpg, too.

There were other neat things to notice. For one, the instrument cluster has a large tachometer on the left and an equally large speedometer on the right, and you can switch to all sorts of other information to be injected within them. But one surprise is something Hyundai borrowed from its exceptional Palisade SUV. When you hit the left turn signal, the tach is replaced by a rear-facing video of all there is to see behind you on your left; turn right and the speedometer disappears for a moment to show you any oncoming vehicles on your right. It’s also handy when you’re maneuvering in your own driveway, just to bolster the rear-view camera view that shows both what’s behind you and a 360-degree top-down video of all surroundings.

When we had to give the Sonata back for its return to the press fleet in Chicago, we were sorry to see it go. A few weeks later, I asked wife and co-driver Joan where she thought the Sonata fit in among the doses of fantastic vehicles we had test-driven in the past year.
Without hesitation, she said she would rank it among the best, just because it looked so sleek and stylish, and because it was extremely comfortable, and it also was surprisingly peppy to match its agility.

When I reminded Joan about coming down the big hill into West Duluth after our trip and watched the Sonata fuel computer hit a high of 47.1 miles per gallon, she said: “Oh yeah. That too.”

The fuel economy might have been the single more amazing feature of the new Sonata, but there are so many things to be impressed by, it had completely slipped her mind. I understood, because the low and seductive look of the Sonata looked even more dramatic amid the sea of large pickups and SUVs we found in traffic and parking lots everywhere.

Vastly upgraded materials, fit and finish of the new interior, with a master-control array of switches on the console, and the long horizontal navigation screen is cut into a quite-elegant and simple padded upper dashboard. You can adjust the driving mode for optimum comfort, and while we found it comfortable, after our trip we realized we were in “Sport” mode rather than economy or c,omfort but the car was so smooth and comfortable we didn’t think of adjusting.

Hyundai has revised its excellent 6-speed automatic transmission, which is now an 8-speed that is smooth as silk shifting. Hyundai also has given in to those who enjoy driving by installing steering wheel paddles to allow manual up and down shifting of that dual-clutch automatic.

A line of LED lights outline the headlights and fade as they follow the seam of the hood, further enhancing the new look.

All of the recently developed features and safety elements also were included on the Limited, including a surprising switch from the previous Harmon Kardon audio system to Bose. The audio system in the car was always a strong point, and I would have to say the Sonata has gone from excellent to still-excellent, maybe with better separation.

Hyundai was at the leading edge when blind-spot and lane departure alerts came into vogue, and I considered Hyundai ahead of the pack because its lane-centering control could actually keep your car or SUV in its proper lane, and in the center of that lane. The Sonata has that.

The test car was just an eyelash under $30,000, which is a considerable bargain for all that’s offered. It starts at a base price around $25,000. That balance and coordination of all its assets is nothing short of outstanding, especially in a car that looks so sporty and slick.

Also, instead of mundane daytime running lights, a sharp line veers in from the headlight pods and rises in a thin line along the seam between the hood and front fenders. Look closely and you see that there is a little LED strip that fades as it runs toward the windshield.

Such features are not necessary, or in great demand, presumably, but in the hotly contested marketplace, little things that make you feel your purchase is special, could be a deal-maker.

The silhouette is enhanced with contour lines and the flowing roofline.

The base engine in the Sonata is a newly enlarged 2.5-liter 4 with 191 horsepower and 181 foot-pounds of torque. The upgrade is the smaller 1.6 Turbo, with 180 horsepower but with 195 foot-pounds of torque. In the process of focusing on more-mainstream consumer cars and letting affiliate Kia go after the performance-minded, Hyundai is not ignoring the hot-rodders. It has come out with an entire line of higher-performance vehicles, designated by a simple “N.” And the Sonata will add turbocharging to the 2.5, plus all sorts of aero touches to create a Sonata N-Line — it will have 290 horses and 310 foot-pounds of torque.

Me? I would stick with the1.6 Turbo version. Let the N-Line buyers drag-race each other, I’ll take an extra second to reach 60, while I keep resetting the trip computer to see if I can top 47 miles per gallon.

Seltos takes Kia on its own compact-SUV road

July 30, 2020 by · Comments Off on Seltos takes Kia on its own compact-SUV road
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Seltos SX Turbo AWD is the feature-filled upgrade of Kia’s new compact SUV line.

By John Gilbert
The relationship between South Korean partners Kia and Hyundai has been interesting, if a bit confusing in the decade or so they’ve been united in a move by which Hyundai took in the struggling Kia operation. For awhile, it seemed that Kia simply got its own version of various Hyundai vehicles, but in recent years, Kia has boldly stepped out onto its own path.

There is no better example than the new Kia Seltos, a compact SUV that seems to be about the same size as Hyundai’s award-winning Kona. The Kona was named 2019 New Car Pick of the Year by newcarpicks.com, as well as numerous other evaluating sources. We are still evaluating our long-term Kona, which made it handy when a Neptune Blue 2021 Kia Seltos S Turbo showed up at our Duluth area home for a week’s test.

The Seltos is about 5 inches longer than the Hyundai Kona (left) and has more ground clearance, aimed for more rugged use.

Side-by-side, there are distinct differences, an objective the companies made a few years ago to use styling to differentiate, rather than copy. The Seltos is about 5 inches longer and about 2.5 inches taller, with those 2.5 inches used up by giving the Seltos about 7 inches of ground clearance, 2 more than the Kona.

The Seltos also has the unique Kia grille, under which is a very noticeable skid-plate, offering protection if you decide to do a little light off-roading.KWe were both impressed and puzzled by the Seltos S. Impressive was the sticker price, $26,740 with all options included, and also impressive was the Seltos S had a lot of punch from its 1.6-liter turbocharged 4 — the same engine that we got in the Kona. It has 175 horsepower at 6,000 RPMs, and a whopping 195 foot-pounds of torque at only 1,500 RPMs —a very good balance between the torque’s low-end punch and the horsepower’s cruising credits.

The all-wheel-drive system has a mode knob on the console, right next to the shift lever that governs the 7-speed dual-clutch automatic, and you can set it for normal, sport or eco. Enormously impressive is a switch that engages a downhill control, causing the engine to stay in a lower gear and aid you when descending hills without using only your brakes. In Duluth, where every avenue is a mile-high hill climb, meaning also a mile-down grade, that switch was eminently useful. The full array of safety gizmos are there, including a lane-departure system that includes lane-following, which keeps you centered in your lane, although not obtrusively.


For $26,000, Seltos S has a lot of high-tech features to meet small-SUV standards.

With gadgetry like that, it seemed curious that the Seltos S did not have keyless entry, or keyless ignition, which mostly proves how spoiled we’ve become with all those push-button start systems. Still, for $26,000, the Seltos S seemed quite the bargain.

A few weeks later, we got a surprise visit from another Seltos, this one an SX Turbo, also with all-wheel drive, and also with the upgraded luxury features lacking on the Seltos S. It was Starbright Yellow, with black molding and trim, and it was striking. Different grille, departing from the Kia signature style, and LED lights all around. It also had the smart key, for entry and push-button start, and the interior upgrades were befitting the top line Seltos, priced at $29,485. Other additions were remote start, smart cruise control with automatic stop-start, a color instrument cluster, and 18-inch wheels, which were an option in the “S.” Read more

Mazda fits CX-30 between CX-3 and CX-5

July 28, 2020 by · Comments Off on Mazda fits CX-30 between CX-3 and CX-5
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Mazda’s new CX-30 resembles the smaller CX-3 and larger CX-5, but fits right in between.

By John Gilbert
As purchasers of a vast array of automobiles, we in the U.S. have lost track of what passes for new technology. Some manufacturers spend more on advertising campaigns than on building better cars, because they are so addicted to bottom-line profits that they’re content to try to convince a naive public that the low-tech equipment they’ve restyled is actually the high-tech cars we seek.

Then there’s Mazda, a comparatively tiny manufacturer based in Hiroshima, Japan, but is loaded with brilliant engineers who not only stay on the cutting edge of technology but push the limits of what is possible to do with an automobile engine, while keeping its prices within reach of the average consumer, and also insisting that its cars maintain the simple belief that driving should be fun — embodied in the catch-phrase “Zoom-Zoom.”.

I recently got a chance to test-drive a Mazda CX-30 compact SUV, and it had so many advanced technical goodies built into it that I wasn’t sure what all it had.

If CX-3 is too small and CX-5 a bit bigger than you need, the new CX-30 may be just right.

Mazda already has an award-winning string of SUVs, from the compact CX-3, to the CX-5, and on up to the largest CX-9, and all of them over-achieve their targets. It didn’t seem that there wasn’t much of a gap between the smallest CX-3 and the CX-5 to squeeze another SUV between them, but Mazda thought differently. The CX-30 is right there, and sure enough, Mazda knew best, because the CX-30 relieves the concern that the CX-3 is almost but not quite big enough and that the CX-5 offers more room than a small family might need. The CX-5 is 179 inches long and the CX-3 measures 168 inches long, while the new CX-30 measures 173 inches in length — 5 inches longer than the CX-3 and 6 inches shorter than the CX-5.. The CX-30 wheelbase is 104.5 inches, 2.1 inches less than the CX-5.

I’m quite certain that anyone who considered either the CX-3 or CX-5 would find the CX-30 just right. Same with its pricer. It starts at the bargain rate of $21,900, although the test car was loaded up with what Mazda calls its Premium Package, which zooms the sticker up to $28,200 — still a bargain, particularly when you hear its ingredients.

It is fun to drive, quick and agile, and would probably be even quicker with only front-wheel drive. The test car had Mazda’s exceptional all-wheel drive, which may aid handling in the dry and certainly will in the wet or snow.

A couple years ago, Mazda engineers completed a decade of plotting, planning and developing to make its Zoom-Zoom go around corners even better than its standard of excellence in handling. To over-simplify, the idea of turning abruptly to go around a left turn, for example, common sense tells us we want to stiffen the outside wheel’s suspension and maybe give it an extra dose of power. Nay nay, says Mazda. Its engineers found exactly the opposite — if you start to turn in to the left and the power is reduced to the outside right front while its suspension is also softened just a bit, both for just a millisecond or two, you as the driver are emboldened that you’ve made the right choice to turn in at that spot. Read more

Lexus ES300h goes its own way — smoothly

July 23, 2020 by · Comments Off on Lexus ES300h goes its own way — smoothly
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Triple-beam LED headlights flank the upscale signature Lexus 300h grille.

By John Gilbert
It’s become ingrained among auto critics to call cars built by Toyota “boring” and likening them to appliances,” which meant the Lexus luxury line models were probably “stylish appliances.” It’s going to take some adjusting, but those days have passed. When you examine the technical upswing of the 2020 models, it’s obvious those long-suffering cocoons have released a whole range of  butterflies.

Toyota is such a huge company, with factories all around the world, building vehicles that were so trouble-free, the company reached the point of satisfaction. Everything Toyota built was basically bullet-proof as far as breakdowns were concerned, with strong, durable engines that would easily top 200,000 miles while housed in solid, safe vehicles.

Years slipped by, and competitors kept improving, but finally, a young man named Akio Toyoda became president of Toyota Motor Company. He is the grandson of Kiichiro Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Motors, but Akio is different. At age 64, he enjoyed sports and racing high-performance vehicles. And he determined that the boring title would be rendered to the scrap-heap, even if his company’s cars never seemed to suffer that fate.

He sent some new model designs back to the drawing board, demanding sportier exteriors to accompany the resurgence back to the cutting edge of technology it had seemed to abandon, while Honda, Mazda, Nissan, and South Korean newcomers Hyundai and Kia went right on by. Without a doubt, the new Camry, Corolla, RAV-4, and other models, and their accompanying ad campaigns, indicate new recipes are boiling up on the menu.

The 2020 Lexus ES 300, for example, had always been a stretched Camry with bling, but the new car I got for a test drive was not just any ES 300. It was an ES 300h Ultra Luxury, where the “h” stands for hybrid, and which shows that the Japanese may still need to bring their naming concepts up to the car’s new edge. This 300h is a long, low, slinky luxury liner, so “Ultra Luxury” is not inappropriate, if comparatively trite.

Houdini could have used a 300h grille in his act to hypnotize the audience.

As you approach the car, the bold, sporty-car grille, sporting a new Lexus signature look, and blends into 6-headlight LED beams, and then that long, sensuous body. The grille itself, with its intricate fanning out of metal struts could probably hypnotize you if you stared at it long enough. It was placed on a new platform of its own one year ago, meaning the 2019 model got a head start on other Toyota and Lexus models making their way upward to new levels of stiffness and sophistication.

And while Toyota rules the world of hybrids with its ever-expanding Prius models, Toyota’s “Hybrid Synergy Drive” has spent a decade using nickel-metal-hydride battery packs, but the test car has “Lexus Hybrid Drive” includes a slick Lithium Ion battery pack that sits low and flat under the rear seat to leave extra room in the rear seat and the trunk.

With a new platform and an appealing body, the ES 300 gets a new powertrain, with a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder gasoline engine coupled to that electric system. Together, they provide 215 horsepower, a commendable blend of power and fuel economy. It’s one of those perception things — drive it, and use the paddle shifters on the beautifully designed steering wheel, and you will declare that the power is easily adequate for hauling your family around. Read more

Atlas Cross Sport fills VW’s SUV niche

July 12, 2020 by · Comments Off on Atlas Cross Sport fills VW’s SUV niche
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

New Volkswagen Atlas takes on newer sporty roofline as Cross Sport.

By John Gilbert
We were only a couple of days into our weeklong road test of the new 2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport when I turned south on 60th Avenue East from Superior Street toward London Road, and the Duluth gateway to the North Shore Drive. I was impressed by the Atlas, because pretty much everything is impressive with the SEL Premium model, and I hadn’t yet closely examined what makes the Cross Sport different from the garden-variety Atlas.

There is a hiking/biking trail that crosses 60th, just about 10 feet before you cross a set of railroad tracks. I was going about 20 miles per hour, no hurry, and not fast enough to give us any jolts from the railroad tracks.

Suddenly, there was a terrible noise and the Atlas Cross Sport lurched to a stop. Very sudden. Fortunately, I had experienced the same jolt in previous road tests, so I recovered my decorum right away. What it was, was what the VW information refers to as “forward collision detection and assist,” and this was definitely in the “assist” category. The finely discerning VW system with its radar, sonar, camera and computer system all coordinated, spotted the railroad tracks as a nasty enough hazard to help me decide that I shouldn’t just sail over it. It helped me decide by deciding for me, that I should be stopped, and then maybe creep over the hazard.

Pretty impressive safety item, particularly for objects you might not see in the road ahead, and it could prevent you from hitting somerhing you and your VW would be better off not hitting.

Sloping rear pillar denotes Cross Sport, which is a 2-row SUV.

There are a lot of other neat features in the new Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport, which is an intriguing look at what VW is thinking these days, but none of them makes a more abrupt impression.

Volkswagen came out with the Atlas a couple years ago, as a vehicle that sits taller than the Jetta or Passat, and is up there amid the segment already populated by VW’s two SUVs — the Tiguan and the Touareg — but which defies accurate description. Is it a wagon, or a bulky sedan, or a sleek SUV? The answer is: All of the above. Read more

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