Monday, November 23, 2009

Fun run in Ford's Fusion ... and a surprise inside

Sacramento, California – The Ford Fusion is not the type of car that inspires dragstrip dreams.

But that changed when I recently tested a Ford Fusion SEL – normally equipped with a 175-horsepower four-banger – with a surprise inside. The $1,610 addition was a 3-liter, 24-valve V-6 Duratec engine with 240 horsepower.

In human terms, this changed the car from Pee-wee Herman to LeBron James.

The Fusion went from being basic transportation to a certified freeway terror, made all the more interesting because no one expects to be dusted off by a Fusion.

This was fun.

Ripping the Fusion’s 3,300 pounds around local city/suburban streets and highways was a blast. This is not a put-down of Fusion drivers who like the in-line 4 engine and the excellent fuel mileage it gets (22 miles per gallon in the city and 31 mpg on the open road). But it is nice to know that you can get a Fusion with a little more oomph, especially when you spend your weekdays dicing in big-city commute traffic.

And hey, the fuel mileage on the six-cylinder power plant is pretty good, too. The advertised numbers are 18 miles per gallon in the city and 27 mpg on the highway.

Getting back to basics, it’s not hard to see why the Fusion is popular among consumers and part of the reason Ford just put up a near billion-dollar quarterly profit. It looks nice, aerodynamic in profile and saucy on the front with a three-tier grin of chrome.

What a concept: An affordable passenger car that doesn’t look cheap.

Inside, Fusion is a study in basic comfort and nicely thought-out simplicity. Front seats are comfortable, and they can be put forward to provide ample room in the back for three. And when you’re making room for those three in the back, the two folks in the front seats are not pressed against the dashboard. There are scores of cars that can’t make that claim.

The layout of interior controls can be mastered by a fifth-grader in quick order.

Interior/exterior standard goodies are generous. On the tester, that included 17-inch aluminum wheels, chromed exhaust tips, power heated mirrors, eight-way power driver’s seat with lumbar support, dual-zone climate control, heated front seats, leather-trimmed seats and steering wheel, tire pressure monitoring system and Ford’s SYNC audio/communication system.

The starting fare on the 2010 tester was $23,975, but that did not include the V-6 and an optional package that included a power moonroof, a 12-speaker sound system and a rearview video camera. All that added up to a bottom line of $28,105 on the sticker.

If you want a basic Fusion with four cylinders and fewer perks, the starting price is $19,620. And of course, you can get a hybrid version of the Fusion starting at $27,625. You can also get an even hotter-performing version of the Fusion, the V-6 Sport AWD, which is loaded with a 263 horsepower V-6. That one starts at $28,030.

Overall, the Fusion is a veritable variety shop capable of pleasing multiple desires. I kind of liked the version that looks meek but packs a heavyweight punch.

Now, where is that Corvette I just blew off?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

It's Ford's time to crow ... at least for now

Sacramento, California – With the Los Angeles Auto Show’s Dec. 4-13 run just days away from commencing, I’m recalling a little history from auto shows past.

Three years ago, General Motors chief Rick Wagoner mesmerized me and hundreds of other automotive journalists in attendance at the L.A. show’s Media Days. He looked strong and confident, laying out a bold GM future that would include cars fueled with gas-ethanol blends, advance gas-electric hybrid systems, plug-in hybrids and a mainstream electric car.

Just one year later, it was Ford Chief Executive Alan Mulally’s turn to address media gathered for the L.A. show. He seemed marginally confident. And when he said the struggling automaker was on target to return to consistent profitability by 2009, there were audible chuckles from the throng of assembled motor media.

In short, it seemed two years ago that GM was doing things right, and Ford was trying to put a good face on a hobbled ship.

Before the first eggs-and-bacon media breakfast has been served this year at the Los Angeles Convention Center, this much is apparent: Ford is looking really good, and GM is the one looking hobbled … or perhaps crippled, depending on your perspective.

Wagoner is gone, although I suppose there’s some good karma in essentially being fired by the president of the United States.

As for Mulally, he was justifiably beaming when Ford Motor Co. recently announced quarterly earnings of nearly a billion bucks.

GM has been taking heat for raising prices and shedding brands, all the while taking a big public relations hit for taking government bailout money … while archrival Ford put up its big quarter sans bailout dough.

Welcome to the cyclical nature of the car business. A decade back, when GM was holding off Toyota as the world’s top automaker and making promising investments in the growing auto industry in China, the future seemed paved with gold. Now, the future seems paved with money to pay back.

There’s a lesson to be learned here.

Back when GM and Toyota were battling hard to claim the No. 1 automaker in the world label, serious auto people on the sidelines were wondering just what GM was doing. Did it really matter if Toyota passed GM? Did GM really need to preserve a large fleet of large sport-utility vehicles getting lousy gas mileage? Did GM really need to save some of its poor-performing divisions, just for the sake of boosting annual sales numbers?

Or to sum it up in one question: Didn’t GM realize it was sinking deeper into the money pit?

The company must have known the train was coming, with all its destructive force. The massive sums GM was paying out from past “what-were-you-thinking” contracts signed with the United Auto Workers were sobering enough. And when auto sales tanked, GM’s fortunes plunged like a bowling ball through whipped cream.

Ford seems to have it figured out now: V-6 engines, practical-size SUVs (see Ford Escape) and passenger cars (see Fusion and Focus, and the upcoming Fiesta) and the occasional attention-grabber (Mustang derivatives and the hot-performing Taurus SHO).

And yet, it could all turn around again within a few years. Maybe GM’s upcoming Volt will take off among gas pump-weary Americans looking for a daily no-gas commute. China’s auto market likely will rebound, if for no other reason than the Chinese economy is a force of nature. GM could benefit from that alone.

Ford mortgaged a lot assets to set its financial feet firmly on concrete. Will enough U.S. buyers stay away from those fuel-sipping Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Hyundai brands to enable Ford to keep up its pace? Time will tell.

For now, Ford has the bragging rights among America’s Big Three automakers. And given the numbers, you have to admit that it’s more like the Big Two, with Chrysler lagging far behind and swamped with a sea of troubles.

It’s Ford’s time to crow. Three years from now, who knows?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Lancer pocket rocket reviewed in Cruisin' News

Sacramento, California – My review of the 2010 Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback Ralliart appears in the latest edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin’ News, published out of Folsom, California, by John Sweeney and Evonne Sotelo.

The “Hot Laps” reviews appear monthly in the publication.

To subscribe to the Cruisin’ News, visit, call (916) 933-0949 or send an e-mail request to Mailed requests for information should be sent to Cruisin’ News, P.O. Box 1096, Folsom, CA 95763-1096.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Lincoln MKT is a luxurious, smooth highway cruiser

Sacramento, California – When I first saw the all-new 2010 Lincoln MKT for the first time, I thought it was a hearse.

Wait, that’s not a bad thing. It’s just that my tester was painted serious black, had plenty of chrome and a long wheelbase (118 inches). The configuration looked like, well, it wouldn’t be too difficult to fit a body in the back.

This is where you have to get over that whole first impressions hang-up. It’s a good thing, too, because after a week in the MKT, I was impressed with its standing as an excellent long-road-trip vehicle. I was likewise impressed that it enhances Lincoln’s long-standing reputation for luxury and class.

Alas, I had to wonder why Lincoln chose now to introduce a 4,500-pound SUV with fuel-mileage ratings of 17 miles per gallon in the city and 23 mpg on the highway. And keep in mind that my front-driving MKT was the cheapest of three trim levels at a hefty starting price of $44,200.

Those aren’t exactly recession-buster numbers.

I came to the conclusion that it boiled down to the simple fact that this was a Lincoln – the undeniable luxury line of Ford. Lincoln has been producing pricey luxury models through boom and bust times. No reason to stop now. And according to Ford Motor Co.’s third quarter profits of nearly a billion bucks, who am I to argue?

Back on point: The MKT is big, and it feels big when you’re driving it. It’s a challenge to wheel around a tight parking lot, and you want to make sure you have clearance when you’re whipping the MKT around in crowded city traffic.

The good news is that the MKT has a rock-solid feel on the open road. It was as smooth as butter on the interstates. Seventy miles per hour felt like about 50 mph in the MKT, with nary a wiggle. The interior cabin was bank vault-quiet even on rough road surfaces. Kudos to Lincoln engineers on this vehicle’s highway capabilities.

With seating for up to seven, plenty of cargo room and plentiful in-vehicle entertainment features, the MKT is the prototype vehicle for the family road trip. Where was the MKT when I was a young father, for crying out loud?

From the driver’s cockpit, the MKT oozes class and expensive-looking materials. And yet the center stack of controls is not a confusing jumble of knobs and buttons. It’s easily managed by driver or front passenger. Interior seating room is decidedly generous.

High-tech goodies on the tested MKT included adaptive cruise control, collision warning system, braking enhancement system, active park-assist and Ford’s Blind Spot Information System (BLIS for short). BLIS comes in handy with the MKT, because cars on either side of the vehicle can disappear into that long wheelbase. The BLIS system includes warning lights in the exterior mirrors to let you know you have company on your flanks. It’s a nice security blanket to have during a heavy commute.

The tester’s 3.7-liter V-6 with 268 horsepower does a good job of driving the MKT, but it’s not a road-burner on hard acceleration. Likewise, it whines a bit on uphill climbs. If you can afford it, you might opt for the turbocharged 3.5-liter V-6 EcoBoost engine that puts out 355 horses. That should be able to handle about anything.

Just so you know, an all-wheel drive MKT with the EcoBoost power plant starts at $49,200.

I noticed that Lincoln bills its new MKT as a full-size luxury crossover vehicle, but I think that stretches the point. For my money, it’s a luxury SUV … a nice one, to be sure.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Camaro's return even pleases a Mustang guy

This review originally published in the October edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin' News published out of Folsom, California--mg

Sacramento, California -- My car-obsessed friend asked if I had a couple hours to spend unwinding his new 2010 Chevrolet Camaro.

He didn’t have to ask twice.

I’ve been waiting for the Camaro to come back almost from the minute General Motors pulled the plug on it in 2002. Like nearly everyone else, I didn’t believe for a second that the Camaro would disappear from the ranks of American pony car-dom. It was just a matter of waiting for the sequel.

Now that it’s here, I doubt that even the most die-hard Camaro purist hanging on to the memory of the 1967 Camaro has any reason to be upset. The new Camaro is a blast, literally and figuratively.

I don’t admit this lightly. I’m a longtime Mustang guy who earned his first driving license at the wheel of a 1965 Mustang, sans air pollution-control devices. I drove Mustangs regularly for the next 20 years, sniffing at Camaro owners.

But when the Camaro was gone in 2002, I missed it. Now that it’s back, I love it.

The reasons are simple: It looks great, feels great and scoots like scalded cat.

My short-term tester was the LT2 coupe, literally the middle ground car in the Camaro lineup. The sticker started at around $26,500 but the tester was juiced up with extras that put the bottom line at around $30,000.

For the price, the performance was superb. The Camaro moved smartly off the line from a standing start and proved remarkably nimble in all conditions. It took to slalom maneuvers like a world-champ skier. Keep in mind that my tester had the comparatively humble 3.6-liter V-6 with “only” 304 horsepower. I can only imagine what the big-daddy 6.2-liter V-8 with 426 ponies feels like. You might want to consider a neck brace to keep your head on with that power plant.

Walking up to the Camaro gives you the impression that it might be a sluggish beast on twisty roads. Yet the wide-stance visual is only that. My tester hugged the road lines with monorail-like smoothness even as I pressed the tires to lose their grip. Very impressive work on the suspension, even though it was somewhat stiff and transferred some road imperfections up my spine.

The interior cockpit combines jet-fighter ambiance with urban-commuter simplicity. Everything was within easy reach and easy to use, and veteran Camaro drivers will notice that the gauges are a style throwback to Camaros past. The gas gauge did not plunge despite my best efforts. The Camaro coupe with the V-6 lives up to its federal estimates of 17 miles per gallon in the city and 29 mpg on the highway.

I was surprised how much exterior noise reached my ears in the Camaro’s cabin, especially given the degree of top-tier engineering put into this car. Perhaps the biggest drawback for me, however, was the lack of 360-degree visibility I had from the cockpit. In putting Camaro’s super-sexy lines together, the design gang left little window space to help the human eye. I found myself relying heavily on the interior/exterior mirrors.

The most-noteworthy thing about the new Camaro is how much attention you get driving it. Stopping at a light or in a parking spot is an open invitation to any interested party. I felt like I was running a one-man car show every time I stopped the vehicle. People leaned out of neighboring car windows or walked right up to the car on the street, calling out, “Is that the new Camaro?”

Well, yes, it is, and would you please get out of my way so I can drive now?

Alas, this is a minor inconvenience that goes with owning the 2010 Camaro. And sure, I’m sure it must feel good deep down to know that your ride has passed the coolness test among random passersby.

Customizers will find their mouths watering over the prospects offered by this ride. The Camaro is already seriously angled, giving it a stealth-fighter appearance even when it is standing still. Dropping more heat under the hood or molding that beautiful body into something seriously special is tempting, but for now, I’d just enjoy the car as it is.

Welcome back Camaro. Even the Mustang crowd salutes you.