Featured Reviews
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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Styling is dramatic but subtle in feature-filled Passport.

Don't Go Off-Road Without Your Passport

Honda brought back the Passport name, but the new one is all-Honda, with a more rugged attitude and Pilot power for 2019.

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Newest Mazda3 pushes Civic, Corolla, Elantra GT, Jetta to compact challenge.

Mazda3 Gains Style, Luxury, Technology in 2019 Redesign

The Mazda3 has spent three generations becoming the standard of compact cars, and for 2019 it takes a giant step up in luxury and technology, even adding AWD.

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The lure of a home-made ice cream shop was incentive to .parallel park the Ram 3500.

Ram 3500 Aids Surge to No. 2 Slot in U.S. Sales

While Ford's F-Series remains No. 1 in U.S. sales, an amazing surge by Ram, including the huge 3500 HD, has boosted Ram into the No. 2 sales position.

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Dramatic wedge shape starts at aggressive nose, glittering with LED lights.

Upscale Prius Flashes Style, AWD, Great Economy

The Prius began life as Toyota's subcompact hybrid experiment; it has evolved to an upscale Limited with style, AWD and 70-mpg capability.

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Wrangler might be at the upper limits of sophistication, risking its rugged reputation.

Wrangler Keeps Changing, but Stays the Same

Car-makers are scrambling to build new SUVs, but FCA needs only to dip into its Jeep assortment, led by the rugged but refined Wrangler.

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Golf SE Can Avoid All the Potholes — Almost

July 23, 2019 by · Comments Off on Golf SE Can Avoid All the Potholes — Almost
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Features, Autos 

Golf SE nestled amid the late-blooming lupines before challenging potholes.

By John Gilbert

The annual complaints from Northern Tier U.S auto drivers  drivers about the horrible condition of streets and highways has reached a pinnacle this year. We can blame Climate Change, or Global Warming, but a particularly long and tough winter of alternating freezing and mild temperatures has caused countless chunks of pavement to break, buckle and otherwise abandon their intended resting places, leaving nasty traps waiting to ambush unsuspecting tires, wheels and suspensiuon parts.

My city, Duluth, Minnesota, is, I submit, deserving of a nomination for the worst, and who can deny or judge it? I enjoy driving and reporting on an assortment of new vehicles every week to report on them, and I seek out varied real-world roadways to check on the steering and suspension of all these vehicles. But I certainly did not want a close-up and personal validation of my opinions of road conditions.

Out of familiarity with the roads that I travel most frequently, and so it was as I drove a 2019 Volkswagen Golf SE 1.4-turbo for a week recently. I had driven various VW Golf models, including the GTI, Golf R, and reported on a Golf SE with a stick shift during a minus-35-actual stretch of Minnesota winter. And while not trying to overdo it with repetitious reviews, this is supposedly the final year that we will get the tried-and-true Golf  models in U.S. showrooms, which I have declared a sad thing; we’ll enjoy getting the GTI and Golf R, but the base car — the SE — is special on its own. It comes with VW’s newest engine, a 1.4-liter four-cylinder from a whole new engine family, bolstered by a turbocharger to extract surprising power from such a small engine.

Comfort and support, with sporty handling and great fuel economy are Golf highlights.

The test car has a base price of $25,245, and a sticker of $27,435 as equipped. With only 147 horsepower, its 1.4 lacks the power of the corporate 1.8 or 2.0, but it has abundant torque, which peaks at 184 foot-pounds at a mere 1,400 RPMs — more than the bigger engines. This test car, in a medium Silk Blue Metallic paint job with alloy wheels, had an 8-speed automatic with almost-hidden paddle shifters on the steering wheel. So you get beyond the lack of horsepower by downshifting, then running the revs up to the pleasant feeling as the torque comes through.

Golfs always ride well, with supple but moderately firm suspension, which allows even the base car to take turns in a sporty manner. With all the contemporary safety elements built in — electronic stability control, anti-slip regulation, anti-lock brakes with electronic brake assist — the 4-door hatchback Golf is a safe, solid luxury compact that can get more than 38 miles per gallon.

I was able to attain 38.2 mpg in combined city-highway driving, while EPA estimates show 37 highway, and I was over 36 in all-city operation. That’s up there in TDI country, where only the previous turbo-diesel could go.

The 225-45 17-inch Pirelli P7 tires obviously contribute to the excellent handling and smooth ride. So there I was, negotiating the pits and pitfalls of Duluth’s nastiest streets and roads through five days of the week.

Despite compact exterior, Golf SE holds fdour occupants, lots of luggage.

The rural highway we live on is a few miles out the North Shore, and as you drive south to join the freeway for the ride into Duluth, you leave the township, with its St. Louis County-maintenance, and enter Duluth’s city limits, where city crews take care of the surface. You don’t need the sign that says “Duluth,” because you can see the white surface, probably concrete, end where it meets the gray asphalt of the city segment.

Without question, the concrete stays amazingly smooth, and the asphalt chunks out in a harsh and irrgular manner. As I drive down on the 55-mph county segment,  and slow for the 30 mph residential city rules, I have a practiced routine. The familiar start to the asphalt has re has a couple of modest potholes seem to join hands just to the right of the middle of the road. Being able to see a couple blocks ahead, I generally swing into the oncoming lane until I get past that stretch, then swing back into the right lane.

This time, with my wife, Joan, and older son, Jack, riding with me to meet up with our younger son, Jeff, at the Trampled By Turtles concert at Bayfront Festival Park, I saw a car or two coming toward us. I had to abandon my normal plan, so I chose to straddle the rough patch or go wide right. I chose to go wide right.

Darkened asphalt can conceal all sorts of nasty potholes ahead.

Ka-Chonk! My right front absorbed a rugged hit. Turns out, when I swung wide right to miss the moderate but annoying potholes I was aware of, my right front struck a fourth pothole 10 yards ahead that I was not aware of. It was a long and deep pit. As the blow reverberated, I continued driving, feeling nothing out of sorts, and it was with great relief that no serious damage could be detected.

I pulled onto the freeway and got up to the 65 mph speed limit without any hesitation or vibration, but after about a mile, a little warning sign came on the instrument panel: “Air loss detected in right front tire.” I slowed down immediately, cursing the bad luck, but I couldn’t pull off immediately because of a narrow shoulder. By the time I could, I felt the pull of the deflated tire. Sure enough, the impact of the tire striking what amounted to the far cliff of the Grand Canyon not only blasted a hole in the tire’s sidewall, it scratched up the flashy alloy wheel a bit, too,

Waiting in ambush was the Grand Canyon of Duluth potholes.

It was impressive that the Pirelli P7 took the blow and held its integrity for a mile or so, and it was more impressive that the tire-sensor relayed such quick and accurate information.

With Jack as lead pit-crew guy, we changed it for the space-saver spare, and I drove gingerly the rest of the night and on to Sunday. The timing of my test-drive, though, was to end when the Chicago fleet delivery guys would pick up the Golf SE at 11 a.m. Monday and drive back to Chicago.

Pirelli P7 tires are excellent, but in this battle the score was: Pothole 1, Pirelli 0.

We didn’t want them driving that far on the space-saver, so I called Volkswagen of Duluth early Monday morning, explained what had happened, and inquired about their supply of P7s. They had four in stock, they said. When I got there, however, we realized that they were from a year-old supply and the new one was an inch larger, at 17. We talked it over, and I asked if they might have exactly the same SE model on their lot, and they did. Service manager Calvin Edel summoned the unsold car and his service crew did a quick remounting job.

Just to make sure there would be no imbalance, they put the new tire on the right rear and rotated the right rear to right front. Good move. I made it home about an hour before the drivers showed up, and they appreciated the quick and efficient work of Volkswagen of Duluth.

Refining without redesigning has kept Golf styling contemporary.

That VW dealership, by the way, is primarily responsible for recalibrating and legalizing almost all the many recalled Golf, Jetta and Passat TDI models to bring their turbo-diesel engines into full compliance, before being sent to dealers throughout the Upper Midwest, where they represented one of the great car values of our time. That’s impressive, especially if they do as thorough a job as they did changing and remounting that tire for the Golf SE.

The caution with which we take on the Pothole Obstacle Course driving through Duluth has been amplified. We’ve got some potholes this year that, to be fair, should register on the nav screen’s GPS.

Spacious Palisade Gives Hyundai Luxury SUV

July 5, 2019 by · Comments Off on Spacious Palisade Gives Hyundai Luxury SUV
Filed under: New car introductions, Autos 

The 2020 Hyundai Palisade made easy work of a trip through the mountains from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, to Bellingham, Wash.

By John Gilbert

Hyundai’s SUVs are selling at a fantastic rate, but the company also has heard from consumers with three or more kids: “We want more room.” Even the most loyal Hyundai buyers have to turn to Toyota, Ford or General Motors if they want a larger, three-row SUV, because Hyundai’s fleet consists of midsize and smaller.

Hyundai has swiftly addressed those concerns with its largest SUV, called the Palisade.

A few years ago, I couldn’t have guessed what a Palisade actually is, but living on Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior, you get used to the large, substantial, rock cliffs that rise straight up from the scenic shoreline in a spectacular ridge that runs from Duluth to beyond the Canada border. One of the neatest North Shore tourist sites is the comparatively unknown turnoff to “Palisade Head.” The view from atop Palisade Head is fantastic, and some adventurers bring rock-climbing gear and conduct rappelling exercises over the edge and 200 feet straight down.

“Our vehicle names generally are taken from Southwest or Western locations,” said Mike O’Brien, Hyundai’s vice president of product planning. “This time, we wanted to match the character of a fortress, something substantial. Palisade represents a slice of a cliff, and symbolizes strength.”

Stylish rear houses actual full-size adult comfort in the third row of seats.

O’Brien has never been to Palisade Head, but he was addressing automotive media types summoned in several waves to Coeur d’Alene, a jewel of a mountain resort spot located right in the narrow northern part of Idaho, for the first driving impressions of the 2020 Palisade.

The Palisade replaces the Santa Fe XL as the largest SUV from the South Korean company, and while its bold grille doesn’t resemble anything seen on the Santa Fe, Tucson or Kona, it breaks new styling ground while accumulating all of the almost futuristic features of those smaller siblings, while aiming higher. Hyundai’s history of building safe, strong vehicles that over-achieve is commendable, but now there is a vehicle for those wanting more luxury, and room.

The Palisade could alter Hyundai’s image because of its remarkable luxury fittings. “We’ve focused on premium design and materials,” said O’Brien. “It’s a new image for us.”

However, Hyundai won’t exactly be departing from its reputation of providing high-value, bargain vehicles because of its surprisingly modest price. SUVs with the size and features of the Palisade are often up to twice Palisade’s price, which starts at $31,580 for the base SE. At $33,500, the SEL upgrades to accept all sorts of feature packages that can add another $10,000. The top Palisade Limited model starts at $44,700, and it, too, can add price with some amazing option packages. The Limited I road-tested hit a total of $47,605, but at that its equipment made it pretty special. AWD is standard on the Limited but can be ordered on any model.

Materials and fit of dash includes 10.3-inch adjustable nav screen.

“We have strong loyalty to our sedans, like the Sonata, Elantra and Accent, but subcompact SUVs have become the largest segment with midsize SUVs a close second,” said O’Brien. “Sixty-five percent of our total sales come from SUVs.”

With 10 new or substantially redesigned models introduced in the last year, Hyundai has had 10 consecutive months of increased sales over the previous year, and CEO Brian Smith said that while the industry is down 5 percent, Hyundai is up 5 percent.

Our press test-drive included stunning scenery, going more than 100 miles south, to Moscow, Idaho, where we had lunch at the Lodgepole Restaurant — the fish and chips featured Alaskan halibut! — and back, along some scenic, twisty mountain roadways. It was a well-devised route, but I was able to set up a way to get an extended test, after our wave ended at the fabulous Coeur d’Alene Resort.

A Palisade Limited AWD joined me for a memorable daylong drive from Coeur d’Alene westward, past Spokane and then away from the freeway up Hwy. 2 to the Grand Coulee Dam, then to the Chief Joseph Dam, and northward to Winthrop, a neat tourist-intense little Central Washington town, and finally onward, to Bellingham, Wash., and the Pacific Ocean, where I spent a few days visiting our younger son, Jeff. In all, that trip covered 495.5 miles — all on the same tankful of regular gas. I calculated over-EPA 28.1 miles per gallon despite the terrain up, down and through the Cascade Mountains.

Signal to change lanes, and the speedometer or tach switches to a rear-view camera view of the lane you’re headed for.

Some of the features are refined versions of those Hyundai does very well on such SUVs as the Santa Fe, Tucson and Kona, such as the lane departure warning, lane-keep assist, and lane-centering, plus the excellent radar adaptable cruise control. A new trick is the Palisade’s ultra-helpful instrument panel. If you’re in the middle lane of a 3-lane freeway, and you flick the turn signal to get three blinks to signal a lane change, for example, the large tachometer on the right changes instantly, to a large, round image from a rear/side camera that immediately shows you that the lane is clear. Or not.

Fantastic for entering freeways, too. Otherwise, you can stick with the three-panel navigation screen, which can be adjusted from a panoramic map to a smaller map, with driver information in the adjacent segments.

Another unique feature is the intercom, which lets the driver speak uninterrupted to kids in the back two rows who may have become mesmerized by their audio options. The need for space on the console led to drive-by-wire shift switches instead of the usual shift lever, to save considerable room on the center console. The mode switch allows you to switch from Smart, to Sport, to Comfort, to Eco, or to Snow, and to AWD lock, fitting whatever your driving requires.

Less apparent is the built-in anti-skid control that uses over 50 inputs to predict the conditions for slippage before you actually slip, making it a predictive instead of reactive system. Along with the auto-leveling rear suspension, driving involvement has steering-wheel paddles to control the 8-speed automatic with manual control.

Reflecting the strength and structure of its namesake, Palisade exudes class and luxury.

Chief designer Chris Chapman drew a sketch of how the Palisade came to life, to what he calls “personalization” of incorporating a concept into the actual design. As his drawing developed, the key features of the Palisade showed through: balanced on all four wheels, the “C” pillars sloped rearward to the top of the rear wheel-well; the side contours veering away from each other and then meeting again in harmony; the headlights, foglights, driving lights and tail-lights all with an artful design and piercing LED potency; the “shoulders” of the upper sides of the occupant compartment have a minimizing slope to lower the side-window “biceps” just a bit — to put the muscle closer to the wheels, Chapman explained.

“Early on and throughout, that piercing quality became something like an emerging predator, coming up out of the water,” said Chapman.

When a designer gets on a roll, you learn to not interrupt him with needless questions. You simply look for and appreciate the subtle touches, like the three scallops in the rear fascia of the skid plate, with the dual exhaust pipes nestled asymmetrically into the right one.

New Palisade perched above Grand Coulee Dam in Central Washington.

“It’s a different design,” Chapman acknowledged. “But we’re not doing Russian dolls here, where each one fits inside the other and they all look the same. We wanted to differentiate from the Kona and Santa Fe, and we stressed ergonomics, fit and finish.”

With that, he clicked the projector to replace the Russian dolls pictured with an image of chess pieces, each a different shape and form. The king, of course, is the Palisade.

For structural strength, O’Brien pointed out that the Santa Fe XL graded out to 27.8 in torsional rigidity, and while the all-new Ford Explorer — one of Palisade’s top targets — came in at 27.1, the new Palisade is up to 34.4. To be fair, the 2020 Explorer has 25 percent high-grade steel, but it is aluminum intensive. Hyundai always has featured substantial amounts of high-grade steel, and the Palisade is made up of 59 percent high-strength steel, from Hyundai’s own steel plant. The engineers have found a way to hot-stamp the high-strength steel to improve its rigidity even more.

The Palisade platform is solid enough to feel stiff but not harsh in driving, and rising from that floor is a hoop structure surrounding the passenger compartment, which has been strengthened too. Focus on strengthening the structure included even models with sunroofs, which normally weaken the rigidity. The body was designed to incorporate sound-deadening foam panels under the floor and foam injections into the roof pillars, successful in nearly eliminating wind and road noise.

The low stance and firm structure are coupled with MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspensions to handle road fluctuations for the stiff body.

The interior of the Palisade seems closer to full-size than mid-size, but performance of a big SUV is as important as interior space. Hyundai engineering takes care of that, too, with the corporate 3.8-liter V6 delivering 291 horsepower at a peak of 6,800 RPMs, and 262 foot-pounds of torque at 5,200. The price sheet shows it achieves 19 city and 24 highway in EPA fuel economy estimates, but I was able to get it up to 28.1 mpg on my personal trip, up and down mountainsides.

O’Brien explained that the familiar engine has been refined and now combines Atkinson Cycle and Otto Cycle operation, which are opposites in how they adjust valve opening and closing schemes, and they work seamlessly together. “That allows us to get both economy and power,” he said.

Speaker faceplates on Harmon Kardon audio were specially designed.

The 4,400-pound Palisade AWD also can tow 5,000 pounds in all forms, competing well with the Highlander, Pilot, CX-9, and Explorer. The Explorer is a rear-drive platform, the Palisade front, so when you switch the drive mode to “eco,” you have the efficiency and traction of a front-wheel-drive vehicle. As usual, Hyundai likes to carry its “fight above its weight class” theme, which, because of its interior space, could challenge Yukon, Tahoe, Cadillac SRX and even the Volvo XC-60 and XC-90.

To me, the Palisade drives more like a smaller SUV than one that has so much interior room, and more agility is always a good thing. A unique push-button system makes the second row slide, recline, or flip its backrest forward for ease of entry to the third row, and that third row will surprise adults with how comfortably appointed and roomy it is. It comes with a second-row bench seat, or two captain’s chairs to seat eight or seven. Palisade offers 18 square feet of storage space behind the third row, and it expands greatly when you lower the third, and maybe second, rows.

Driving modes, auto-leveling suspension and stiff platform let Palisade smooth out any terrain.

Many manufacturers are going to assorted artificial leather seat surfaces, and a lot of them are very nice. But the Palisade goes with real Nappa leather, complementing the attention to detail on the doors, dashboard, and even the speaker faceplates is.

With everything folded down, I’m guessing 6-footers could unroll a pad and sleep back there on a long trip. I prefer a resort, but turning the Palisade into a compact mini-motorhome only enhances the pleasure of a trip that could go through the rugged mountains of Idaho and Washington. Or even the North Shore of Minnesota.

Golf R Could Be Named ‘Golf RRRRRR’

June 26, 2019 by · Comments Off on Golf R Could Be Named ‘Golf RRRRRR’
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Features, Autos 

New Golf R in “slate gray” handles the curves of Hwy. 61 on Lake Superior’s North Shore.

By John Gilbert
Volkswagen is a difficult target to follow these days, coming out with new vehicles and new engines that give the German automaker a definite step up from most competitors. One seemingly dizzying move is the announcement that Volkswagen will keep selling the Jetta compact, and the Passat, its new Arteon luxury midsize sedan, as well as its wagons and SUVs, but it will stop sending its iconic Golf hatchback to the United States.

Well, almost. The spectacular Golf R that I recently tested for a week along the North Shore of Lake Superior is unquestionably based on the Golf, and thankfully, it will keep coming to U.S. showrooms, along with the GTI. But the base Golfs will be made for sale elsewhere only.

To Volkswagen, it’s not a puzzle. The Golf outsells the Jetta in every country of the world where both are sold, except the U.S. Our buyers became convinced they didn’t want small hatchbacks anymore, and we buy many more Jettas than Golfs, so the Golf is simply being eliminated from our future.

Distinctive black alloys set off the unique color of the high-output, AWD Golf R.

The asterisk is that Volkswagen has allowed it will bring in two specialty Golf models, the GTI and the Golf R. That, too, makes economic sense because the high-performance GTI and the even higher-performance Golf R account for something like 46 percent of all Golf sales in the U.S.

Despite the opportunity to be blown away by my week-long road test of a new 2019 Golf R in a new slate-grey color, I am disappointed to hear of the decision on the other Golfs. The GTI is, of course, the icon of all “hot hatches” and outruns the standard Golf with ease, but the basic Golf now comes with VW’s 1.4-liter turbo four-cylinder engine that is part of a new and different engine family than the 2.0 or 1.8 fours.

The 1.4 turbo powers the Jetta, and it only recently has migrated into the base Golf as well. I wrote about testing a base 1.4-turbo Golf in minus-30-degree January weather this past winter. It has plenty of power with the turbo and can push out amazing amounts of torque, and despite what the big-time magazines such as Motor Trend or Car & Driver say about needing more power and faster acceleration from everything they test, the 1.4 has at least adequate in performance, and is a fun way to achieve 40-plus miles per gallon.

But I digress.

Firmly supportive R-specific buckets, flat-bottom steering wheel, 6-speed stick await.

The GTI set the standard for fun and high-performance handling and power and has maintained that stature since the 1970s. Volkswagen kept making subtle refinements without ever losing the flat handling and solid performance in the tweaked front-wheel-drive GTI hatchback. It was distinctive in autocross competition and road-racing for hoisting its inside rear wheel in a tight turn, evidence of how stiff the platform was.

Suggesting improvements for the GTI seemed like heresy, but VW has done it, with an under-publicized, under-rated and mostly under-appreciated Golf R. The 2019 Golf R shares the 2.0-liter dual-overhead cam four with the GTI, but it gets a power tweak in the R, up to 292 horsepower and 280 foot -pounds of torque.

That power is distributed to all four wheels in VW’s 4-Motion concept, and a 6-speed stick helps make the 4-door (only) hatchback stick. There will be no rear-wheel lifting in this one. It is too well-planted with the power going to all four wheels, and it is not likely you will ever screech the tires taking off, even if you try to. And why would you?

The test vehicle comes in at a bit over $43,000, and if that seems like a lot for a Golf, consider that it will go through anything, and handle with the same agile stability as the GTI, only better. And it should make the hillside-scaling in Duluth winters a joy rather than treacherous.

Surprising room to haul can be expanded with fold-down rear seats.

The 4-door form does nothing to lessen the sportiness of the R from the traditional 2-door coupe. and it adds convenience to rear occupants. First impression was stunning, because the color is a unique slate gray, which is flat compared to the various high-metallic shades of grey everybody seems to favor. Various other companies including Toyota and Honda also have recently tried a flat grey and it’s always eye-catching.

This one stands out because its distinctive color was set off by a set of black, 19-inch alloy wheels, making the high-performance Continental ContiSport Contact tires look like part of the wheels, and the all-black tire-wheel combination contrasts sharply and amplifies the car color. A tiny silver “R” adorns the grille, and any other special package indications are scarce, except for the four exhaust tailpipes that at least let you know that something special just blew by you.

I was able to get up and over 30-miles per gallon with the R when driving it conservatively, but it is a chore to resist running the revs up in second and third gears, which put you right up there in risk territory for any speed limit. Those revs rise steadily and smoothly, which also describes the way the Golf R handles the tightest turns, turning cloverleafs into highlights and making you wish for a chicane or two on your nearest interstate system.

Golf seats are good, but the R-specific bucket seats engulf you in comfort and support.

The highlight of the auto industry ad business these days is the compelling new prime-time Volkswagen commercial, set to the “Sound of Silence” classic by Simon and Garfunkel. Great song, and a fantastic ad, because it shows an engineer getting up in the dark of night to walk through the darkened house to his design bench, where he’s drawing up a stunning new version of the Microbus — VW’s stodgy but lovable Woodstock-era van from the 1960s.

Only there’s nothing stodgy about the new van, with its dramatic snub-nosed styling, only hinted at in the commercial. Reviewers have claimed that the ad shows that Volkswagen is still trying to apologize for the diesel scandal of the past decade, whereby software in Volkswagen diesels ingeniously restricted emissions when being tested, but violated standards when running free.

We must always add the footnote that virtually every other company on the face of the earth that builds a diesel engine also has had similar problems, although they have been kept much quieter, suspiciously allowing General Motors, Ford, FCA, Mercedes and others to stay safely below the “scandal” threshold stamped on Volkswagen. Most of those are larger trucks, and the high-mileage Golf TDIs were so plentiful that the company has pretty much stopped building diesels — at least for the U.S.

There have been enough apologies, and hefty fines, and VW has proven capable of building a whole new fleet of exceptional cars with small, turbocharged gas engines. To criticize the critics, there are other reasons that ad is a clever look into the future. The opening line, “Hello darkness, my old friend,” fits the nighttime theme, and the closing line, which reiterates the phrase “…the sound, of silence,” as we are shown an outline of the new VW “bus” head-on. Hmmm…let’s see now. What is silent while running, but shines brightly in the night? How about an all-electric vehicle?

Car folks might know far better than ad critics that the new version of the Microbus shown at all the major car shows for two years now, and coming soon, will be all-electric. And thus it becomes an old friend reborning, and running silently.

Golf R turns normal highway drive into autocross-type thrills at every turn.

Meantime, Volkswagen is putting the finishing touches on its all-electric Golf, called the e-Golf, which will definitely prove that VW is headed down the cleanest of clean-air paths. It will be silent, it won’t require any gasoline, and it may lead the way, along with the Microbus, for an entire new direction for VW.

But pardon me if I engage in a little pre-nostalgia: Give us your best electric-motor technology, give us that Microbus, but please, don’t take away our Golf R!

Pacifica Leads Minivan Resurgence with Hybrid Tech

June 12, 2019 by · Comments Off on Pacifica Leads Minivan Resurgence with Hybrid Tech
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Parked on the North Shore, the 2019 Pacifica Hybrid shows off the style of its contours.

By John Gilbert
Picture yourself driving along any scenic and winding highway. In my case, it’s revisiting Highway 61 on the North Shore of Lake Superior. The drive is effortless, allowing you to enjoy a beautiful day while sitting in a comfortably supportive bucket seat, gripping a nice handful of steering wheel. You enter smoothly and then accelerate, just as smoothly, coming out of the curve. The almost silent response of high-tech power is amplified by the stable, well-planted feel of the suspension, and the precise agility of the steering is more imnpressive when you push it a little.

Obviously, you’re driving a sports sedan or maybe even a sports car, with capabilities that reach beyond your demands, particularly with the speed limit in mind.

But no. You are driving a minivan. Come on, minivans are boring, aren’t they?

Well we’re not talking about “just” a minivan. This is the 2019 Chrysler Pacifica, which is the contemporary standard among ultimate family haulers. And this one is one giant step beyond, being the Hybrid Limited model, which detunes the 3.6-liter V6 from its standard duty, and then bolsters that tuning by the potent punch of a hybrid electric system, with a plug-in adaptor.

The result gives the Pacifica Hybrid 260 horsepower of roadworthiness, and until you try one yourself you’ll have to trust me on this: The Pacifica Hybrid takes off with startling acceleration from a stoplight or from the need to pass from normal speed.

The design of the front end and lights of the Pacifica resembles a sporty sedan.

The beauty of the Pacifica Hybrid is that if you bought one and didn’t know it was a hybrid, you would simply think you got a more powerful engine than you intended to. The flip side of the usual equation — more power less fuel economy — is that the Pacifica Hybrid can readily attain 30 miles per gallon in combined city-highway driving, with combined gas-electric power.

In my week-long test, where the winding road most covered was Highway 61 along the North Shore Drive of Lake Superior, my recharging consisted entirely of what I could generate from the engine and the regenerative braking energy capture from braking. The test vehicle had two features that I was unable to fully exploit — numerous storage bins in virtually every panel and under the seats for one, and locating the special plug-in adaptor that I could use for the plug-in feature of the hybrid.

When driving a fully charged hybrid, you can drive moderately for a few miles, usually enough to get to work and home again, as well as using the power to augment the gas engine power. When you do plug in the adaptor, you can go from the gas-only mileage estimate of 30 mpg to a whopping 82 miles per gallon using the electric power and gas power. The best part is that if you have 240-volt plug-in, you can get a full charge in two hours.

My inability to find the charging cable no matter how many of the umpteen cubicles and storage bins I searched, was that apparently the last previous journalist who test-drove this vehicle must have kept the cord, because it wasn’t reunited with the Pacifica until the agents from the press-fleet operation in Chicago came to retrieve it. The cable fits into a neat pouch provided for that, and in a bin just inside the hatch on the left wall.

So I got my high of 32 miles per gallon without a fully charged battery pack. My net trick is to coax FCA to send the Pacifica Hybrid for a return engagement so I can see how high I can coax that fuel economy.

As I’ve written many times, in the next few years we will all be changing over to some form of electrified vehicles, ranging from basic hybrids up to plug-ins and on to full electric. There is no need to fight it, or even be reluctant to make the move, because I can only see benefits, with no minus sides.

Firm platform and feature-filled body house seven and lots of gear.

The test Pacifica was equipped with all the elements that boosted the Pacifica to the highest echelon of the industry, far beyond the grasp of the old Dodge Caravan or Plymouth Voyager, or the upscale Chrysler Town and Country. Those were legendary for their utility and durability, and we probably all know people who put 200,000 miles on a Caravan, then gave it to an offspring or relative who put another 100,000 on it.

The new Pacifica shares those attributes, but with a new and stiff platform it starts out with a stylish exterior, with flowing creases and lines, coming off a stunning and contemporary grille with its headlight enclosures streaming gracefully off that grille. It also has all the current safety and connectivity stuff, like remote start, blindspot and cross-path detection, auto-dimming lights, and such things as stow-and-go second-row seats that fold down and can be tucked into those floor-located storage bins for a flat floor and more storage space.

Also, the option list includes a 760-watt amplifier on the 20-speaker Harmon Kardon audio system, a 360-degree overhead camera view, plus forward collision warning, lane-departure warning, adaptive cruise with stop-and-go shutoff at stoplights, and an amazing parking assist device for both parallel and perpendicular parking — with a stop feature. Some of the first parking assists would park your car without you touching the steering wheel, but after getting you into the parallel parking spot, it wouldn’t brake and would allow your car to cave in the grille of the car parked behind you.

There are other impressive vans out there for competition, mainly the Honda Odyssey and the Toyota Sienna, but none can match the brilliant planning and execution of the Pacifica.

A button on the key fob, or a wave of your toe, operates sliding doors and hatch.

For example, it has a built-in vacuum cleaner, which followed Honda’s lead, but the Pacifica’s device is stashed right near the sliding driver-side door, where it might be most-used. Those sliding doors, and the rear hatch, will operate at the touch on the handle, or by the key-fob, or, with the fob in your pocket, by reaching your foot under the vehicle, which is great for when you’re carrying parcels and especially in foul weather.

The stability of the front-wheel-drive Pacifica is also complemented by keeping your kids, or other passengers, happy and entertained inside. You can haul seven or eight, depending on whether you choose the taller captain’s chairs or the three-seat bench for the second row. First, you slide the door open, flip a switch to tilt the seat forward or tumble it, which allows for easy and even graceful entry to the third row, which will house occupants of any size.

Fit, finish and features fill Pacifica Hybrid interior.

Foldable, stowable seats and headrest video screens assure pleasant trips.

When you’ve filled the van with people, they have the panoramic sunroof to improve their domain, and it has a third pane for the way-back riders, beyond the oversized front sunroof. In the back of the front bucket headrests there are a pair of fold-up video screens, and in the backrest pouch you have wireless headphones. Separate controls allow rear-seat riders two alternatives for videos, DVDs or video games via the Blu-Ray player, which should take care of most of the disagreements kids might have fighting over control or choice of video. As well as putting to rest the “Are we there yet?” questions.

The whole minivan thing seemed to go out of our consciousness a couple decades ago, when families that sought them out to replace the family station wagon from an earlier era, suddenly tired of them and declared them boring and unexciting. That led to the move toward giant SUVs, and I can’t even count the number of times people asked men for advice about what to buy to haul their family with three or four kids, and when I’d suggest a minivan they’d have the same answer: “Oh, I’d never buy a minivan.”

Instead, they would choose an oversized, overpowered, and under-economied SUV and settle for 8 mpg to prove they were “with it.” Through those years, some minivans went out of production, but Chrysler and now FCA have soldiered on, continuing to build the minivans that were bought with an almost embarrassed attitude.

The Pacifica changed all that, and the Odyssey kept pace. Now the new Pacifica, with its hybrid version, sets a new pinnacle. In fact, a month ago, Motor Trend decided to do a novel “head-to-head” competition for best family vehicle. It chose an array of sedans, midsize and compact SUVs, and compared them in tournament-style competition. The Pacifica beat out the Odyssey, and advanced to the “semifinals,” outpointing every other candidate to win the entire thing.

Gas engine can hit 30 mpg, and plug-in hybrid power can reach 80 mpg.

It was probably the most politically correct method for obscuring the upcoming choice, while still selecting the best family-hauling vehicle.

I couldn’t agree more, and the margin of victory grows when you add in the fun-to-drive quotient along with the spirited performance, steering, versatility and the ability to not only take a family trip to visit relatives, but volunteering to take the whole gang out for adventure.

All-new Q8 Surprises as More-compact Audi SUV

June 5, 2019 by · Comments Off on All-new Q8 Surprises as More-compact Audi SUV
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

The new Audi Q8 reverses the trend and is lower and a bit shorter than the Q7.

By John Gilbert
Last week, I wrote about the fun and education offered by the Midwest Auto Media Association’s annual rite of spring — the MAMA Spring Rally — where about a hundred new vehicles are brought to Elkhart Lake, Wis., by manufacturers to be driven by 80-100 auto journalists, who learn how they handle along with experiencing the sheer joy of driving on the best road-racing course in the country.

But getting there was half the fun. My older son, Jack, who assists me with testing and photos, drove up from the Twin Cities so we could leave from Duluth, early on Tuesday, May 21st, for the six-plus-hour drive, zig-zagging diagonally from Duluth, Mn., and down through Wisconsin to Elkhart Lake, in the southeast region just north of Milwaukee.

We drove down there and back in an Audi Q8, which is Audi’s latest and perhaps best SUV. In Audi’s lexicon, cars are designated by “A” as in A3, A4, A5, A6, A7 and A8, and the SUVs by “Q” with the smallest the Q3, then the Q5 midsize and the Q7 as the largest. I am a big fan of vehicles that are as small as they can be while still being big enough, so I assumed the A8 would probably be the biggest, and I would have to subvert my personal feelings into the scope of someone with a need for a huge SUV.

Smoothly blended Q8 lines spell luxury, even when parked in the Road America paddock.

To my pleasant surprise, the Q8 is not only less than huge, it is lower and shorter than the Q7. It shares the design cues, although its familiar grille has been altered to contain much wider gaps in its cross-hatch design. So large, in fact, that I suggested it could let in a lot of air, but might also let in insects as large as sparrows, which could clutter up your radiator.

Next from Audi is the e-tron, a pure-electric SUV with quattro all-wheel-drive and all, and we await a chance to test its driving range. It looks sleek and compact, with the same style grille as the Q8, which for now, is plenty high-tech. It comes in hybrid fashion, which Motor Trend claimed is the only available engine, but our test vehicle came with an alternative — the high-tech turbocharged 3.0-liter V6, which delivers 354 horsepower and 369 foot-pounds of torque in other Audi utility vehicles. It runs through an 8-speed Tiptronic automatic.

I was surprised that the Q8 was not included in the Rally, where we also vote on the Family Car of the Year, and now, with prices rising, a Luxury Family Car of the Year. The MAMA board decrees that only cars made available to be driven at the spring and fall rallies can be considered, whatever the reason for Audi’s exclusion, it’s unfortunate, because the Q8 would have been a definite favorite. Selfishly, though, it didn’t matter, because I got to experience it in real-world conditions and it came through regally.

Open grille will let air in, but won’t stop many insects from hitting the radiator.

Listed at a $67,400, which is moderate for a luxury-level SUV, the test Q8 totaled $79,340 once you added on option packages such as Premium Plus, Driver Assistance, the Year One, and Towing. That meant the jump up to 22-inch alloy wheels, plus virtually every driver-assist gadget you’ve ever heard of, to alert drivers to obstacles moving or stationary, ahead, behind or on either side. It will stop short of an obstruction or slow-moving vehicle, and its superb handling from adaptive suspension dampers makes it handle with great, sporty stability.

The test Q8, in its optional Daytona Gray Pearl Effect paint, justifies its luxury price with interior features you appreciate as soon as you see them, such as fine-grain ash inlays on the dashboard, tastefully blended in with aluminum and leather to engulf you in plush comfort, but always with solid support.

It also has Audi’s newest navigation system, and we found it to be both good news and bad news. On the way down it was fantastic, taking us on all sorts of back roads, but always excellent highways. As a Minnesotan, I have to wonder why every Wisconsin road we drove on was smooth and maintained, compared to the pothole-dotted endurance tests of Minnesota highways.

The nav screen can be duplicated on the adaptable instrument panel of the Q8.

The simplest way from Duluth to Elkhart Lake might be to go straight south on Hwy. 53, then take Interstate 94 east until finding a likely connecting road, or to cut straight east on state roads running above 94. But the quickest way is also the most enjoyable and most fun driving, and it was exactly the way the Audi nav lady directed us. We made it from Duluth into the north end of Elkhart Lake, all 350 miles on one tankful of premium gas, getting about 24 miles per gallon, off an EPA maximum estimate of 22.

It was less perfect two days later on our return trip Thursday afternoon. I anticipated it might vary its guidance because I was going to drop off Jack at his residence just north of St. Paul, but I still wanted to drive on most of the same roads we had come down on. To assure the nav lady wasn’t tempted to guide us quite a distance southwesterly to connect to I-94, we drove off in a northerly direction for 30 miles and then put in our navigation desires.

The luxury of leather, real ash wood and aluminum makes the Q8 an inviting environment.

We made a stop of two, and when we got into our trip, we drove for a solid half-hour before I realized we were being directed by gentle voice commands almost straight south. We wasted an hour getting turned around and trying to figure out how to get back on our preferred route, and about every mile or so the nav lady demanded we make a u-turn and head south. Of course, for safety reasons, even the passenger cannot reset the nav while the car is moving, which it reminded us about whenever we tried to cancel out of it. After four or five stops and resets, we ignored the nav lady and drove northward, until we finally coaxed the system to concede and  reconfigure the directions.

Pondering the fun of driving Lexus sports cars, BMWs like the new 3-Series, Mercedes products, hot Mustangs and Shelby GTs, and everything else from Miatas to Hyundai Veloster N, and Challenger Hellcats, the enjoyment was plentiful. But it won’t be diminished with more electrification. I have reached the point of experience where I want to learn about the many high-tech drivability features as to simply go fast.

Off the actual race track, we had off-road and the timed autocross sessions, where more than a dozen vehicles could be hurled around one lap of the tight little paved go-kart track inside the big circuit. We lined up like grade-school kids fighting for position at an ice cream parlor, and when you got up to be first in line, you could defer if you were waiting for a certain car. I did that a couple times, because I wanted to experience everything, including the handling of the comparatively large Maserati Lamonte Trofeo SUV with its surprisingly solid suspension and Ferrari-built powertrain.

Lexus UX200 crossover.

BMW M2 Coupe.

I finally got to all of the autocross cars except an elusive dark red BMW M2 coupe that seemed to always be on the course, driven by somebody else. I did get to drive the just-introduced Veloster N, a Mazda3 hatchback, a Miata, a Nissan 370Z, the GTI, GLI, BMW Z4, Durango SRT, Gladiator, Blazer, and about 50 others either on the big track, the surrounding roadways and the autocross, where times were electronically registered and prizes awarded for the quickest laps.

While a few of us wanted to try everything, some picked out what they thought would be the quickest car and drove it repeatedly. The guy who won actually placed first, second and third — and it turned out, all in that same M2. Everyone thought that was a novelty; I thought he missed a lot of other neat cars. And no wonder I couldn’t get even one lap in the M2!

The auto industry is hurtling into the future, and I couldn’t help but wonder how the Rally will be when it becomes mostly populated with electric cars. Assuredly, we will all be driving electrified vehicles before another decade passes. Maybe it will be pure electric, or maybe some form of plug-in hybrid, or straight hybrid, but the free efficiency of electric power that can be self-generated by an engine and offers lightning-quick performance is advancing rapidly.

Last week I named the Acura NSX as the unequivocal best I had ever experienced on the track. That low-slung sports car has three electric motors that work seamlessly with a specially-built 3.5-liter V6, located transversely behind the two seats and ahead of the rear axle, which makes it “mid-engine.” That pays off with handling balance unattainable with front, rear, or all-wheel drive.

The NSX V6 powers the rear wheels, which supply the main thrust in forward acceleration, because of the natural shift of a car’s center of gravity from front to rear during hard acceleration. But while one of the electric motors coordinates everything, the other two each operate one front wheel. You would never know it, because operation is so smooth, but the combined horsepower to all four wheels is 573 from the gas-electric combination.

The advancement of cars has been matched by advances in connectivity, and navigation systems, which are pretty fool-proof these days. The nav on my

What is as graceful as the styling harmony of the Audi Q8’s rear corner, at a high school baseball tournament game?

iPhone works better than most car systems. But looking back at the almost humorous stubbornness of the Audi Q8’s navigation, it was good to find something to complain about, because otherwise the Q8 was close to perfect.

Lots of power, good fuel economy, comfortable ride, luxurious interior, all housed within an agile, low-slung and attractive SUV that belies its high numerical designation and, hopefully, will be Audi’s guide to a sporty crossover future. If the nav lady fouls up your directions and your trip takes longer, well, that’s just a little more time to enjoy the driving.

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