LeMons and the Guinness Book

13 Nov


The 24 Hours of LeMons—the racing series for $500 cars—recently observed its 10th anniversary, the weekend of October 22-23 at GingerMan Raceway in western Michigan.

It was not a weekend that provoked many hosannahs on the part of Team Hell Kitty, ex-officio Car and Driver. Our ancient Honda Prelude Si (vintage 1988), though willing, emerged from the anniversary race much the worse for wear.

On the other hand, given the Prelude’s maladies during the race—persistent overheating, epic oil consumption, a fried wheel bearing, plus a significant rearrangement of the right front bumper—we regarded merely finishing as an achievement, and finishing 41st of 107 starters to be worthy of a modest celebration.

One of our drivers ensured the modesty of the celebration by obtaining the cheapest champagne he could find. Hey, was 10 a.m. a good year?

But in the meantime, while we applaud the 10-year series persistence, there is one achievement that merits its own separate mention, to wit: the 24 Hours of LeMons has a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records, for most starters in a 24-hour race.

Does 107 starters on a 2.14-mile track sound like a challenge? That would be the number of cars that started at GingerMan, and it was indeed busy. But the LeMons record involves a bigger number. Much bigger.

The record was set at Thunderhill Raceway Park, in northern California, near the town of Willows. It’s a lovely circuit, with lots of elevation changes. And it’s also considerably longer than GingerMan, 4.8 miles with all sections of the track in play.

The Guinness Book—which is now owned by a Russian group, and has nothing to do with the Irish brewery—has some odd rules concerning who is and isn’t a starter in a round-the-clock race. To be counted as a starter, a car has to run for at least 10 minutes after the green flag flies, and in a LeMons race attrition starts early.

LeMons puts on one actual 24-hour race each year, and this record-setter ran in 2014. A total of 242 teams registered and paid entry fees for the race; 238 showed up for tech; and 214 ran long enough to be counted as starters.

That makes for a very busy track, folks, even though Thunderhill’s max length makes it the longest road course in North America. And with the zany vehicles that show up for LeMons, it’s not only busy, it’s bizarre. Not to mention fun.

We hope to run the Hell Kitty Prelude at Thunderhill in May. The biggest starting field I’ve ever seen there was 155 cars. But more is merrier. Right? Right. Stay tuned.


Zany car prep rules at LeMons, and this Cadillac Eldorado was the zaniest at GingerMan, with two big ol’ V8 engines–one at each end. It ran briefly until the front engine expired. The crew spent the rest of Saturday and most of Sunday moving the rear engine to the front.

I Learned About Driving from That: The Nash Pursuit

17 Sep

In 1957 I considered myself to be a pretty hot driver. My role models in the day were “The Wild One,” the biker gang leader played by Marlon Brando, and a character in the Dick Tracy comic strip who characterized himself as “a wheelman.”

My ride at the time was a 1946 Ford two-door, the round-back sedan. It was in good shape, ran well, and could lay a pretty good patch of second gear rubber. Of course, the Chevy small block V8 had long since upstaged Ford’s immortal flathead, but I still thought my ride was quick enough. And anyway, going fast involves more than just horsepower. There’s also the willingness to go fast. I had plenty of that. More than enough. Too much, in fact, according to some. Particularly certain humorless law enforcement types.

So one warm summer day we decided to make a run out to Watertown, a small rural community about 10 miles west of my Minnesota hometown, Mound. Watertown was small and rural, but it did have a big Green Giant cannery, which hired lots of high school kids around harvest time. (Mound, for its part, was also a small community, but its location, at the western end of Lake Minnetonka, saved it from being truly rural. No one could tease us about being farmers.)

The “we” in this saga refers to a neighbor, Bob, who was a year younger, but also interested in a little summer employment.

Highly Invisible

Watertown in those days retained a 19th-century look, with sidewalks that were several feet above street level. And in the course of cruising the main drag after filing our Green Giant applications, I failed to notice a stop sign at the end of one block, because it was perched up on that lofty sidewalk. There was almost no traffic, so when I rolled through the intersection—at a very low and law-abiding speed, I might add—there was nothing to suggest I was in violation of anything.

Once clear of town, I picked up my pace. The road was clear, as were the skies. And my conscience. But it wasn’t long before I noticed a car coming up from behind. Gaining. Rapidly. What?

As it got closer, I was able to discern the make. A Nash, vintage 1949 – ’51. The Nash generation that was referred to as the Bathtub. The reference had to do with the shape. And it wasn’t intended as flattery.

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Really? Some farmer thinks he’s faster than me? I knew there were quicker rides than my flathead Ford. After all, the age of the overhead valve V8 was well underway, and the small block Chevy V8 was already on its way to ruling the street.

But the Nash lineup was still propelled by inline sixes, and no ol’ six-cylinder bathtub Nash was gonna outrun my V8 Ford. I toed the gas pedal, and the speedo crept up to 75. But the Nash sped up and closed even more.

The I’ll-Show-You Syndrome

What’s going on with this guy? You wanna race, buddy? Okay, watch this!

I put the pedal on the floor—80, 85, 90. But the Nash hung with me, and crept closer. And it looked like he was trying to pass!

Right about then Bob, who’d been craning his neck for a better look at our pursuer, spoke up.

“Tony, I think this guy may be a cop.”

Bob had a slightly better angle than I did, especially when the Nash edged toward the oncoming lane.

“C’mon, Bob, it’s just some farmer.”

I should add that Bob didn’t appear to be entirely happy with this adventure as our speed increased, so I considered his credibility to be suspect. But he became insistent.

“Really,” he said. “There’s something on the hood of the car. Some kind of light.”

By then, we were on a long straight stretch, no other cars around, and the Nash pulled up into my left rear quarter.

Bob was right. There on the hood was one of those fin-like, longitudinal signs that light up and say “STOP!” And it was in fact illuminated. And it said “STOP.” In red letters. Uh-oh.

I slowed down and stopped. I got out of the car. The cop got out of the Nash. He was wearing bib overalls, with a badge pinned on the bib. No gun. But he was big. And he was not amused. No.

But Officer…

The conversation that followed was pretty unpleasant. I tried to explain that (a) I never had any idea I’d run a stop sign back in Watertown and (b) I had no idea I was being pursued by a police officer. (I carefully avoided the word “cop.”) I was polite. I was contrite.

To no avail. I can’t remember the speed he wrote on the ticket, but it was a lot, and looking back I’m still amazed that he didn’t arrest me on the spot. But he didn’t.

When I showed up for my day in court about a week later, the local magistrate was not amused, either. I’d been told to bring a parent with me, in this case my long-suffering stepfather, which was pretty much standard procedure for a juvenile in those days. And it turned out to be good that he was present because the judge wasted little time in snatching my license right there on the spot.

I don’t recall the amount of the fine, but I do recall that for a 17-year-old part-time summer dishwasher it was substantial. But the license suspension—30 days—looked like a bigger hassle, threatening to interfere with my social life as well as my employment. So I figured I’d ignore it.

This proved to be challenging, because my stepfather, a law-abiding man, tried to make sure I respected the suspension. He knew me well. His method was to render my Ford inoperable by removing the rotor from the distributor. It was a trick he’d learned in the Army during WWII—kept other guys from driving away with your Jeep.

That worked for about a day, but he’d forgotten that he’d revealed the distributor trick in an earlier conversation. A replacement was easy enough to find, and I was mobile again—though I had to be careful about when I drove, and precise about parking in exactly the same spot. Also I made sure I was appreciative when the distributor part was returned to me when my license came home in the mail.

What did I learn? Well, a small town cop may not be driving a typical cop car. Or be wearing a uniform. Also, if your old Ford doesn’t start, and your dad was in the military during WWII, check the distributor.

2017 Cadillac CT6

1 Feb


Remember when the word Cadillac was synonymous with best of? The Cadillac of lawn mowers? Toasters? When Cadillac was the aspirational automotive brand? When a showing up in a Caddy inspired envy, and told the world you’d really made it?

Cadillac boss Johan de Nysschen wants his company to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear, and every new vehicle that emerges on his watch is aimed to that objective.

The CT6 sedan is the latest. Some impressions follow.

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Eyes Only: Cadillac has developed and evolved its bold Art and Science design language since 1999, when the Evoq concept car made its debut. The CT6, is its latest interpretation. It’s not quite as edgy as some of its predecessors, but it’s unmistakably Cadillac with those cascading LED running lights adorning the front fenders and that big egg crate grille. The wide track suggests that this is a car that means business, the wheels fill the wheel wells, giving the car a hunkered-down look, and the whole package looks tightly wrapped. But the most compelling element of this big sedan, at least to me, is its proportions. The long hood suggests power, and the short front overhang—not much Cadillac extending beyond the front axle—conveys a sense of athleticism. BMW has made a religion out of this design approach, particularly with its 3-series cars, and it works well here. I see the CT6 as a valet front-row car, no matter where you go.

The Inside Job: A few of my colleagues think the inner CT6 isn’t quite as luxurious as it should be to compete in this high end sedan game. I disagree. The materials are posh, the décor is subdued, the instruments are exemplary in terms of legibility, the central touch screen is big (10.2 inches), and Cadillac has made its CUE telematic control system a little more user-friendly. The CT6 isn’t a long-wheelbase 7-series BMW, but there’s plenty of room in the back seat. The rear seatbacks recline, the cushions adjust fore and aft, and there’s a massage function. There’s a camera integrated into the inside rear view mirror that enhances vision, and there’s a triggered video function that can record up to 32 hours of driving. Probably pretty boring video, but still. And of course there’s that celestial Panaray audio system. What’s not to like? Okay, the little touch pad control in the center, just ahead of the armrest, isn’t very useful—gotta be careful dangling your fingers—especially with the onset of gesture controls. And the bucket seats could deliver a little more lateral support when the g-loads start coming at odd angles. Still, this is an interior that’s both posh and functional. Looks like luxury to me. Maybe I need to drive more Bentleys.

Money Talks: That’s not exactly news. But what does money say? It’s not always the same thing. Cadillac boss Johan de Nysschen says you can’t discount your way to a prestige image, and the division’s vehicles sport window stickers with bottom lines similar to those of their opposite numbers from other shops. The strategy is that this will be a tough discipline for awhile, but the excellence of the cars will keep winning hearts and minds, lease car residuals will close the gap, and Cadillac will regain its place in the sun. However, the CT6 hedges that bet a little bit. Size-wise it slots between the mid-size and full-size entries from Audi, BMW, and Mercedes, so it’s perceived as a competitor for the Audi A8, BMW 7-series, and Mercedes S-Class. As such, it enjoys an enviable price position, ranging from $54,490 to $88,460 all-in, across four trim levels. The rival Germans start at a little over $82,000, and two of them range well over $100,000. It’s hard to apply the word bargain in this sector of the market, but this new Caddy’s got a case.

Zero to Whatever: Okay, this biggest of current Caddy sedans is not a rocket. But it’s no somnambulist, either, particularly with its new 404-horsepower twin-turbo V6 providing propulsion. That’s the boss engine in a three-engine lineup, which starts with a 265-hp 2.0-liter turbo four. There’s a 335-hp 3.6-liter V6 in the middle. The four-cylinder is rear-drive only, while the two V6s are all-wheel drive. All three engines send power to the drive wheels via a whipped-cream-smooth eight-speed automatic transmission. This is an all-new chassis, very solid structure, the fundamental prerequisite for all dynamics. The design team has done a great job of paring weight from the structure—lots of aluminum—and with Cadillac’s brilliant magnetic ride control, plus a new rear steering feature, this big sedan can dance with the best. The steering is very precise, ride quality is refined Euro firm, and it’s quiet at any speed on any surface, the better to hear the orchestral soaring of the Bose Panaray audio system—34 speakers, sound that’s visceral as well as audible: $3700. If you’re an audiophile, you gotta have it. Anyway, if none of these engines deliver enough punch for you—the twin turbo will deliver 0-to-60 in about 5 seconds—a 4.2-liter turbo V8 is expected, probably in the vicinity of 500 hp. A plug-in hybrid is in the works as well.

Space does not permit me to do lengthy reports here. For more detailed reviews check caranddriver.com and/or newcartestdrive.com.

The Show Goes On. Again.

23 Jan

Welcome to 2016, and welcome to the first manifestation of my New Year’s resolutions, to wit, the revival of this irregular collection of activity reports, back-in-the-day musings, and irreverent observations. I confess that Swan Drives languished during 2015, which was a very good year for me (and the industry) in terms of new car introductions, major auto shows attended (5 of them), North American Car of the Year, and extra-curricular automotive events (read: 24 Hours of LeMons racing).

Extra-curricular also applies to my ongoing dance with the Devil, better known as squamous cell cancer. The short version: after a third round of pruning by the redoubtable Dr. Yoo—a BMW owner, BTW—a follow-up CT scan last week did not set off any new alarm bells. While this isn’t exactly a cause for hosannahs, it does inspire cautious—very cautious—optimism. And it allows me to focus more fully on resuscitating this column. So this year I vow to do better on all of the fronts.


Detroit’s 2016 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) is just about in the books, and aside from the puzzling absence of Jaguar-Land Rover, Bentley, and Mini it was once again an exposition chock-a-block with world premieres, which is how we assess the merit of big-time shows. World premieres and concept vehicles.

I’ll confine myself to a couple of my show favorites, both very sexy, one a concept, the other a production car.

Lexus LC 500

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It’s no secret that Lexus has be working to put some adrenaline in its corporate image. It’s not something that happens overnight. Images are easily acquired, but when they’re undesirable they’re very difficult to alter. Lexus is a powerful case in point. Created as a Japanese rival to German luxury sedans, Lexus drifted into a series of beautifully boring offerings—meticulously assembled, beautifully finished, handsomely furnished, quiet as midnight in a cathedral … and as exciting as tofu. Toyota’s luxury division has been trying to alter this perception with its performance-oriented F models, as well as the LF-A supercar.

And now, closer to the economic realities to at least some of the rest of us (the very limited production LF-A carried a $375,000 pricetag), here’s the LC 500 coupe. Chassis with granitic rigidity, lots of carbon fiber, magnesium, and aluminum. A 467-horsepower V8 feeds power to the rear axle via a 10-speed automatic transmission. And there’s nothing conservative about the styling. It almost makes the trademark spindle grille treatment acceptable. Almost. Look for an MSRP in the vicinity of $100,000, Can’t wait to drive this one.

Buick Avista

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It’s fair to say that Buick has successfully hoisted itself out of near-obscurity with a line of vehicles that appeal to buyers well outside of geriatric ranks. So now the challenge is coming up with designs that go beyond merely attractive to compelling. Buick has had a few of these over the decades—the 1939 Y Job, the 1953 Wildcat, the 1973 Riviera, and now the Avista. I am not alone in thinking this was the hottest concept at the show; it took the EyesOn Design award for design excellence. The Avista is a real car, with a 400-horsepower twin-turbo V6 engine under that long hood. But whether it will get a green light for production is unknown; coupes don’t sell in the kind of volume General Motors marketing people like to see. Maybe if it had four doors…?

As noted, there were many more newbies at Detroit’s Cobo Arena over the show’s two press preview days, 35 of them at least, far too many for me to catalogue here. For a comprehensive rundown, check www.caranddriver.com, where you’ll find all of them in glorious color with detailed info.


The acronym stands for North American Car and Truck of the Year, and by now I’m sure you’re aware that the Honda Civic and Volvo XC90 have been named North American Car and Truck of the Year for 2016.

I was privileged to announce the Honda Civic as 2016 North American Car of the Year.

I was privileged to announce the Honda Civic as 2016 North American Car of the Year.

What you may not know is that both vehicles have won in the past, the Civic in 2006, the XC90 in 2003. But for both winners, those predecessors are ancient history. The state of the art keeps evolving and advancing, and the pace seems to keep accelerating; last year’s wundercar is this year’s old news.

To someone who’s been making a living in connection with wheels for over four decades (hint: that would be me), contemporary vehicles are incredibly sophisticated. My notion of infotainment, for example, dates to cars like my 1954 Mercury, a time when AM radio was as good as it got. KDWB, Minneapolis, Channel 63.

But I digress. The thing that impresses me about the new Civic is not only that it’s the best compact sedan going for model year 2016. It’s that Honda has sustained that nameplate ever since the first Civic made its U.S. debut for 1973. Not all generations were best-in-class, but unlike many domestic nameplates, Honda never gave up on Civic. (The same can be said for Toyota and the Corolla.)

One other Honda note: the sedan is only the first chapter in the new Civic story. Next we’ll see a new coupe—I’ll file a report in early February—followed by a four-door hatchback, a high performance Si, and an even higher performance R version.

I Learned About Driving from That: Love and Addiction

7 Apr

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to begin at the beginning. My beginning, that is. Be calm, I’m not going back as far as biological origins, which may (or may not) have occurred in Duluth, Minnesota. We’re talking about the origins of my all-American love affair with the automobile. Typical, for the day, albeit it not so much now. (More on that phenomenon in another post).

I was about seven, living in sub-suburban Minneapolis, near Lake Minnetonka. I should add that this was before I got behind a steering wheel (sitting on an adult driver’s lap doesn’t count). But it wasn’t all that much before.

As a kid, I tried to drive everything. And I mean everything!

As a kid, I tried to drive everything. And I mean everything!

The first manifestation of impending automania was when my Mom got me a scrapbook. Her idea, very traditional, was for me to fill the book with snapshots, family memorabilia, and similar bric-a-brac. So she exhibited a certain amount of dismay when I immediately began filling the book with photos of contemporary cars, clipped from magazines. This was long before ads displaying only the Cadillac V and crest, interpreted in diamonds by Cartier. Ford ads still promised “there’s a Ford in your future.” (Which in my case turned out to be true. But that’s another story.)

Anyway, I found all those shapes enchanting. The low-slung Hudsons. The bathtub Nash. Kaisers and Frasers and double-ended Studebakers. I was destined to become better acquainted with the latter than anyone liked. But of course they’re all gone now. So now it can be told.

“You’re not going to just fill that up with cars, are you?” It was more command than it was interrogative. But in fact, yes I was. And did.

An Inconvenient Tree

The scrapbook wasn’t even filled when I had my first unassisted experience at the wheel of an automobile. It was pretty brief.

The car was a 1947 Studebaker coupe. In case you’ve forgotten—or, possibly, never knew—this car’s starter button was on the floor, under the clutch pedal. When you wanted to start the car, you stepped on the clutch. The arrangement made sense, and the designers though it was foolproof. Right.

My stepfather had showed me how the system worked, and allowed me to start the car from time to time. However, he didn’t know that I’d modified the starting procedure, reaching under the clutch pedal to get at the starter. I wasn’t all that tall at age seven, and somehow this was easier, hanging my right haunch on the forward edge of the bench seat and reaching down with my left leg to get my toe on that button.

This worked fine—provided the car was in neutral. I wasn’t quite dialed in on the gearshift, so on this one fateful occasion when I stretched my toe down there for the starter] the Studey happened to be in reverse. Naturally, ignition occurred, as I expected, and so did motion, which I hadn’t. The Studebaker’s wheel was cocked to the left, and the car accelerated backward. Vigorously. I never even touched the gas pedal.

So my first drive was even shorter than the Wright Brothers’ first flight, maybe all of about two seconds, culminating with a loud whump against a big ol’ Maple tree that happened to be just behind and to the right of the car. Hey, how’d that get there? Could it have been there all along? Yes. So before I could say uh-oh, there I was, with the Studebaker wedeged up against that tree, and the right side door stove in. Fortunately, the impact was enough to kill the engine, because at that point I was strictly a passenger.

The tree didn’t seem to mind. But my stepfather did. He was unhappy. Who can blame him? But can you imagine a starting system like that today? Every liability lawyer in the country would be licking his (or her) chops.

I wish I had that Studebaker today, for a couple reasons: first, presuming reasonable condition (and repair from my first drive), that car would be worth a lot more now than it was in 1947; second, I’d show everyone that you can get away with putting your toe directly on that starter button. Although I confess that what I learned was that it was more prudent to operate the system as designed, rather than using a shortcut.

As adventures go, that one was brief but exhilarating, albeit unhappy. It was the first chapter in a lifetime of expanding my driving experience and acumen. There were many more, and I plan to share more of them in future chapters. Stay tuned.

2015 Chevrolet Suburban

17 Mar

Still the Boss Hauler.

When you run your mental list of American automotive icons, does it include this big boy? If it doesn’t, I score it as incomplete.

Sure, a Suburban doesn’t pack the kind of cachet that goes with, say, a Boss 302 Mustang, or a split window Corvette, or a ’57 Cadillac Seville Eldorado. But it predates all those post-War II glamour rides, and it’s been America’s pre-eminent pack mule for a long time.

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The saga began with the Suburban Carryall, in 1935. And this is chapter 12, in a continuing story that adds to the Suburban’s status as the oldest continuously sustained nameplate in the industry.

So just how new is the new Suburban? Let’s say selectively new. As with Chevy’s full-size Silverado pickup, the foundation is an updated version of the GM 900 chassis, a big wagon body on a truck-style sturdy ladder frame. It was solid goods going in, and didn’t need a major makeover, just some judicious stiffening.

Thus the chassis and body dimensions are unchanged from the 11th generation Suburban. But there is much that is new—skin, interior, and motivation, plus a small reduction in mass, about 100 pounds, depending on equipment.

Let’s start under the hood. Propulsion is supplied by a 5.3-liter V8, sending thrust to the rear wheels (or, optionally, all four) via a six-speed automatic transmission. At a glance, this engine looks very much like the previous 5.3-liter eight—same displacement, same bore centers (mandated as engineering gospel at GM ever since the small block Chevy V8 of 1955). But almost everything else—oil pan, cylinder block, crankshaft, pistons, rods, intake, exhaust—is new.

Including direct fuel injection. All that, and increased compression, add up to increased output—355 horsepower versus 320. Even better, improved engine efficiency plus a function that automatically shuts off half the cylinders at steady cruising speeds—adds up to improved EPA fuel economy ratings: 15 mpg city, 22 highway with 4-wheel drive. Towing capability: 8000 pounds

Muscle is always a plus in an 8-passenger family hauler, but so is refinement, and the latest Suburban raises the ante in this respect. Improved materials, sexier instrumentation, more sound insulation and of course the all-important connectivity, with a platoon of USB ports and the optional Chevy MyLink system. From a more practical point of view, the second- and third-row seatbacks fold flat for swallowing cargo (just over 121 cubic feet at max)—in previous Suburbans, you had to remove the rearmost seat. The seatbacks have an optional power folding feature. And there’s a power rear liftgate option. All very handy.

And safety features, as you’d expect, are contemporary and comprehensive, although Chevy would get higher marks in this scoring category if more of these features were standard—the blind spot, lane departure, and rear cross traffic warnings, for example.

Maneuverable Mass

Nimble is a word that’s never popped into my mind in connection with any Suburban, an experience log that dates to generation eight. But for a vehicle in this size/mass category, the latest Suburban comports itself with surprising agility. It’s not like anyone’s going to put this big hauler through its paces on a twisty back road or at an autocross, but what you want from any vehicle, especially one that’s likely to be packing a load of kids, is prompt and predictable responses in emergency maneuvers.

Within the constraints of its size, the latest Suburban delivers on that score. Body roll is minimal, and transient responses—the quick directional changes you’d make avoiding a hazardous situation—are brisk. Rapid maneuvers could be a bit more precise if the new electric power steering provided a little more tactile information, but that’s a trait an owner learns to live with.

Power will likely score as more than satisfactory for most, and the operation of the cylinder deactivation features is absolutely seamless. The only clue that it’s working is a little indicator light at the bottom of the instrument binnacle.

The Suburban’s comfort quotient measures up well with its enhanced dynamics. Ride quality is excellent—smooth without being squishy—and the investment GM made in controlling NVH (noise vibration harshness) pays dividends in terms of quiet operation. Chevy says “whisper quiet,” which may be overstating the case. But I can attest to a conversation in living room voice levels at a steady 75 mph. Which should be quiet enough for just about anyone.

Demerits? A few. In an era of 8-, 9-, and even 10-speed transmissions, GM’s 6-speed, though smooth, seems a little behind the times. One of the newer units would probably contribute to fuel efficiency.

And while the 5.3-liter V8 does a good job, GM has an equally new (and considerably more potent) 6.2-liter V8 in its inventory that’s not available to Suburban buyers. If you want that one, you have to shops at a GMC store, where it’s available in the more expensive Yukon XL Denali. GM doesn’t impose this distinction on its full-size pickup trucks, Silverado and GMC Sierra. Similarly, the fancy High Country trim package newly available in the Silverado doesn’t extend to the Suburban. You can get leather and other goodies, but if you want the really posh interior GM wants you to sign up for a Yukon Denali.

As you’d expect, the Denali treatment is expensive, but the Suburban is far from inexpensive, and not the sort of purchase that falls into impulse buy territory. The base price for my 4-wheel drive test truck was $65,695, including the $995 destination/delivery charge. There were also $6190 in options, including a $3305 package with sunroof, navigation, and Chevy MyLink and $1695 for adaptive cruise control.

Cruise controls from some carmakers now include a defeat feature for the adaptive element, which makes them infinitely more desirable in my view. This one, however, does not, and I’d stick with the basic cruise control, which is standard equipment.In any case, $71,385 is a sobering sum. Nevertheless, if the desire is ownership of a refined 9-passenger family wagon capable of pretty heavy duty towing, the new Suburban is better than ever—and still the gold standard in this class.

Geneva 2014

10 Mar

The 84th Salon de l’Auto Geneve is in progress through mid-March, and as always, it brings back memories, as well as a striking contrast with my first visit to this terrific annual show (see “Geneva Then”).

Though two days are devoted to press preview before the show opens its doors to the public, pretty much all of the formal presentations are crammed into the first of those days, basically 8 hours.

It’s basically a sort of organized madhouse, with at least two press presentations in progress at any given point during the day, each of them kicked off by musical fanfare at decibel levels that would shame a heavy metal rock concert. This is standard practice at auto shows everywhere, apparently rooted in an unshakeable conviction that a musical crescendo heightens the anticipation.

Yeah, right. Anticipation of hearing loss. I really should bring noise cancelling headphones.

Another peculiarity of many of these conferences—press conferences, that is, presented so the world will be informed about each dazzling new vehicle—is that the carmaker commonly reserves the front row of seats for assorted executives. Sometimes the first two rows. Very few if any of these execs have anything to do with the presentation. And meanwhile, journalists are standing around on tiptoe at the periphery.

German carmakers do this regularly. So do many of the Japanese. And the Koreans. I have to say I don’t get it. Don’t your execs know about the product already? Are we preaching to the choir?

Anyway, a press conference pace like Geneva makes it impossible for a journalist operating alone to cover the show. It even strains the manpower resources of media operations that are able to dispatch several staffers to attend the various press conferences. There are literally dozens of them—53 this year, according to my count, which does not include presentations by aftermarket companies. And there were at least two in progress at any time during the day, 15 minutes each, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Accordingly, I’ve culled out a few cars that caught my eye. To see all the new hardware unveiled at Geneva, visit Car and Driver. You’ll find reports on every Geneva debut, including a few by your humble narrator. My observations follow.

Bugatti Veyron Legend Rembrandt

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Geneva is always awash with high-end exotica, but this Bugatti creation topped the 2014 charts. It’s one in a six-part series of Veyron 16.4 Grand Sport Vitesse special editions, three cars per edition, each named for a prominent figure from Bugatti history. The Rembrandt edition is number four in the series, named for Rembrandt Bugatti, brother of Bugatti founder Ettore. Rembrandt was a prominent sculptor, known for his bronze animal creations, which included the dancing elephant figure that adorned the hoods of the six Type 41 Royales created by Bugatti between 1929 and 1933. Essentially an ultra elegant and exclusive trim package, the Legend treatment adds nothing to the Veyron roadster’s performance, though with 1184 horsepower from its 8.0-liter W-16 engine, how much does it need. But it does add to the bottom line. The pricetag is a non-negotiable 2.18 million euros—roughly $3 million, and about a half-million more than the regular production version. Exclusivity does not come cheap at Bugatti. But that makes it all the more desirable, and as of this writing two of the three Rembrandts have been sold, as have all nine of the previous Legend editions.

Audi TT

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Styling home runs are both a blessing and a curse for designers. When you hit one over the fence, as Audi did with the original TT in 1995, expectations are high next time you step up to the plate. So here’s the third generation TT—mechanically sophisticated, and bristling with electronic wizardry. But does it have the same curbside wattage as the Bauhaus original? Maybe not. The proportions are athletic, but angularity has supplanted the uniquely rounded profile. Then again, the original TT defied evolutionary change. Anyway, as you’d expect, the new TT is cutting edge in terms of technology, highlighted by its so-called virtual cockpit, with nav system, climate, and other secondary controls displayed in the instrument nacelle, eliminating a big and potentially distracting display screen in the center dash. And if the exterior’s one-of-a-kind zaftig curves have given way to edges, the dynamics—lighter body shell, stiffer chassis, more power—figure to be exceptional. Look for pricing to start at a little over $40k when the TT hits showrooms later this year.

Jeep Renegade

2015 Jeep Renegade Latitude and Trailhawk Models

This was the coolest Jeep in the show. Now, that may sound like an excessively narrow category. But there were other Jeeps on the Jeep stand, as well as a number of Jeepish knockoffs presented by other manufacturers. The Renegade is, in fact, a response to knockoffs like the Kia Soul and Nissan Juke, considerably smaller than the Jeep Patriot and Compass models it will replace. Consistent with Jeep tradition, the little Renegade will have real off-road chops, in sharp contrast to its Korean rivals. But it also represents a sharp departure for this all-American brand. The foundations come from Fiat, shared with the 500L, the 1.4-liter turbocharged base engine is shared with the 500 Abarth, assembly will take place in Europe, and corporate execs expect European sales to exceed those in the U.S. Never mind. The Renegade is a timely and well conceived addition to the Jeep line, one that will quickly eclipse the disappointing Patriot and Compass. Look for Renegades to begin reaching U.S. showrooms late this year.

Honda Civic Type R

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I confess to a weakness for pocket rockets, and this little Honda is a prime example. Presented as a concept, a “racing car for the road,” the little three-door sports the usual aero bits, a racy rear wing, 20-inch wheels backed by oversize brakes, and propelled by a new 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine capable of generating upwards of 275 horsepower. That would make it a serious rival for U.S. market hot hatchbacks like the Ford Focus ST and Volkswagen GTI. But don’t get your hopes up. High-performance seems to have been back-burnered at Honda North America, and the likelihood of a the Civic Type R becoming a production reality for U.S. Honda dealers is pretty close to nil.

Mercedes S-Class Coupe

Mercedes-Benz S 500 4MATIC CoupŽ Edition 1 (C 217) 2013

In a market segment where opulence, technical sophistication, dynamic superiority, and prestige are all on a pretty even footing, styling is often the tie-breaker. And considered on that basis, this big Benz two-door emerges as a star. The S-Class Coupe replaces the Mercedes CL-Class, and is in my estimation the sexiest thing issued by Mercedes since the first CLS (the so-called four-door coupe), back in 2004. That takes in a lot of territory, because the Mercedes design team hasn’t exactly been sitting on its hands since then. As you’d expect, the new coupe will embrace several techno innovations and deliver plenty of power. But assessed as eye candy alone, it goes to the top of the chart versus rivals from Audi and BMW, the other major players in this rarefied realm.

Mini Clubman Concept

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Mini’s auto show concepts are invariably previews of production cars, and this Geneva Clubman update is no exception. From a practical point of view, this version of the Clubman makes plenty of sense—four real doors, instead of the two and a half doors of the current model. This is a bigger Clubman, too—just over 10 inches longer, and almost 7 inches wider, making the rear seat area more useful. It retains the vertical rear cargo doors, which you may or may not appreciate—I don’t like what they do to rearward sightlines. But be that as it may, this expansion makes me wonder yet again how much elasticity there can possibly be in the word Mini. Webster’s defines the word as “miniature, very small.” Like the Countryman and Paceman, which are neither miniature nor small, this Mini is another example of the English language in transition. Look for this concept to become production reality by the end of the year.

Geneva Then

10 Mar

Of the major European auto shows, Geneva has always been my favorite, for several reasons. First, it’s in Geneva. Amazing coincidence, that. Second, it’s held in early March, so there’s some hope that the earth will once again tilt toward spring in the northern hemisphere. And third, the show brings back memories. (Fast forward to today at “Geneva 2014“)

My first Geneva show was in 1980, and three of its elements are still bright in the otherwise murky landscape of my memory.

Number One: Paper

Reams of paper. Brochures. Booklets. Photos. The Internet was only a concept in 1980, and journalists used typewriters. There was no World Wide Web, so of course there were no web sites. Press information was doled out as printed matter, and there was lots of it. I must have accumulated about 25 pounds of press kits, which included a lot photography, mostly black and white.

The challenge of covering the show today is posed by the sheer volume of press presentations, but the Web and press kits on USB drives have eliminated the stevedore element—no more lugging mass quantities of printed material.

Number Two: Ferrari

Geneva has long been a favored forum for Ferrari, and in 1980 its major introduction was the Mondial 8. This was my first Ferrari intro, and it’s composed of two chapters in my memory. Chapter one was the show car, a handsome mid-engined 2+2 styled by Pininfarina. I was impressed.

photo credit: SpeedHunter XxX via photopin cc

photo credit: SpeedHunter XxX via photopin cc

But that positive impression was tempered by chapter two, when I drove a Mondial across the country, from New Jersey to Sunset and La Cienega Boulevards, in Hollywood, where I was employed by Motor Trend magazine. The Mondial turned heads, but it didn’t turn them quickly. There was a 3.0-liter twin cam V-8 engine mounted behind the cabin, driving the rear wheels. It was nourished by Bosch K-Jetronic mechanical fuel injection—the same engine was fed by carbs in the GT4, the Mondial’s predecessor—but at 205 horsepower, propelling some 3500 pounds of car, acceleration was distinctly ho-hum, and not at all what I expected from a machine bearing the logo of Enzo Ferrari.

Number Three: De Lorean

Perhaps this should have been number one, because it’s certainly my most incandescent memory from that 1980 show.

photo credit: SpeedHunter XxX via photopin cc

photo credit: SpeedHunter XxX via photopin cc

You’ll recall that John Zachary De Lorean was the General Motors renegade who left GM to establish his own company around a mid-engined two-seat sports car with gullwing doors and stainless steel skin.

The set designers for the De Lorean presentation must have been theater professionals, because the stand was beautifully set up, with soft lighting that dramatized the car’s silvery skin as well as the man’s thatch of salt-and-pepper hair. He wore his hair fashionably long, and the team that prepped the set may have spent as much time on that coiffure as the car. De Lorean was a handsome man with a strong presence, a compelling presenter, and a very good speaking voice—qualities that served him well as a fund-raiser, as they had when he rose to leadership of GM’s number one sales division.

I can’t recall specifically what De Lorean had to say in his Geneva pitch. It was generally predictable—the bold independent casting off the shackles of convention to create something memorable. But just about everyone crowded around the stand seemed mesmerized by De Lorean’s delivery.

It was a great moment, and proved to be the zenith of the entire DMC (De Lorean Motor Company) saga. I suppose it glimmers in my memory as it does because what followed entailed so many disappointments and so much disillusion.

Many of us were rooting for De Lorean and his dream—naively, it seems. Because even as we listened to John Z’s oratory, the dream was already coming apart at the seams. The car may have looked dramatic, but assembly quality was abysmal, power was tepid, and at about $25,000 it was overpriced. Though not as exotic, a new Corvette delivered much more performance, as well as readily accessible factory service, for about $9000 less.

Beyond that, the British government, which had heavily subsidized the startup, to create jobs in Northern Ireland, was already asking hard questions about where its loans were going. De Lorean, for his part, was simultaneously asking for more financing.

So in retrospect that great beginning at the Geneva show was actually the beginning of the end for De Lorean. Though there was a memorable press preview driving event in Northern Ireland. But that’s another story.

Requiescat en pace, John Z.

2015 Kia K900

27 Feb

An elegant example of the difference between luxury and prestige.

The new car market is awash with mouth-watering vehicles conceived to pamper your person, enhance perceptions of your status, and make you happy every time you settle in behind the wheel. Maybe make you happy even when you merely look out the window, and see that seductive ride of yours sitting there, poised, waiting, provoking covetous stares from passersby.

There are two factors at play here: luxury and prestige. Luxury is readily achievable in an automobile, given sufficient financial resources and a competent design team. Prestige, however, is far more elusive.

Which brings me to the K900, a new rear-drive sedan designed to elevate Kia to previously uncharted territory: the realm of luxury, in fact. It’s big, it’s roomy, it’s posh, it’s handsome. And like other Kias, in the template established by parent company Hyundai.

That’s where it gets tricky. The K900 certainly has essentially all the attributes that make for luxurious motoring. But it lacks the pedigree that distinguishes the luxo establishment. So what will that mean? Let’s come back to that question a little later.

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The Car

Like other Kia vehicles, the K900 shares a lot of its structure and drivetrain with a corresponding Hyundai, in this case the Hyundai Genesis, as well elements from the bigger Equus, Hyundai’s big executive sedan.

The exterior design comes across as cautiously contemporary, a slippery shape with raked back windshield and fast rear window. Its most distinctive element, at least to my eye, is Kia’s so-called Tiger Nose grille (squint as I might, I can’t see anything feline in this design) and the 16-element LED lighting array at the front. LEDs have become pretty common as design enhancements, thanks to Audi, but the K900’s lamps look spiffy, particularly at night. And the headlamps angle up to 12 degrees in the direction of a turn.

Inside, the K900 has everything you’d expect in a $65,000 luxury car—17-speaker orchestral audio; attractive instrumentation; a vase parnoramic moon roof; a very cool color head up display that includes speedometer, nav info, cruise setting, and blind spot warning; high quality materials including heated and cooled Nappa leather seats (power reclinable in the rear, as well as up front); up to the minute telematics including navigation with a 9.2-inch screen.

On the Road

In the luxury tournament, where Kia hopes the K900 will become a player, the dynamic standards are defined by cars developed on and for the toughest crucible on earth—the German autobahn system. On superhighways that still include stretches where top speed is at the discretion of the driver, the car must possess the reflexes of a world class boxer, surgically precise steering, ample power, and potent brakes.

Those qualities still distinguish the big sedans of Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz, but assessed by those standards I have to say the K900 measures up as a pleasant surprise. The suspension tuning hits the sweet spot where firm and smooth co-exist comfortably, and the combination of solid chassis and decisive roll stiffness keep body motions to a minimum during quick transitions.

The K900 executes rapid direction changes with very little reluctance and minimal rock ’n roll. Quick maneuvers—accident avoidance, for example—would be even more decisive if the electric power steering was capable of providing a little more information about where the front wheels are pointing. The driver will likely be making little adjustments after the initial turn.

But that lament applies to many of the new electric steering systems in varying degrees, and in any case the K900’s tiller is a little more tactile than the system in the Hyundai Equus, its mechanical cousin, and the same can be said for its dynamics.

Power, delivered in the test car by a 5.0-liter V8 (a V6 model will be offered later), rates as abundant: 420 horsepower is far from unusual in this class of car—all the Germans offer much more potent engine options. But it propels the K900 with gratifying vigor, and I’d bet it’ll be more than sufficient for most owners. Makes stimulating power noises at full throttle, too. The eight-speed automatic transmission is smooth, and EPA fuel economy ratings competitive at 15 mpg city, 23 highway, though not what anyone would call outstanding.

I mentioned power noises, which brings me to a K900 dynamic virtue that may be best-in-class: noise. As in absence of. This is an exceptionally quiet car, as befits a luxury sedan.

The Bottom Line

I mentioned a $65,500 pricetag for the K900 V8. That’s not exactly inexpensive, even by the standards of some of the Germans Kia hopes to rival. But that’s the price for the car I drove at Kia’s intro event, V8 VIP, the K900 model that will be the first to appear in Kia showrooms. The basic K900, which will be available a in a few months, will be priced from about $50,000.

The V8 VIP is the top of the line, loaded with just about every feature in the order book, and as such rates as a very tempting value.

Tempting, that is, unless you want the intangible that goes with one of the Teutonic lords of the autobahn: Prestige.

That takes time, and while the K900 has everything that makes luxury luxurious, prestige will have to be patient.

—Tony Swan

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