Monday, December 28, 2009

2010 hybrid promotes Escape to 'Greenland'

Sacramento, California – Somehow, Ford removed the sound of distant sirens from its Ford Escape Hybrid sport-utility vehicle.

OK, let me explain.

When I reviewed the 2007 Ford Escape Hybrid, I complained that, at slow speeds, the electric motor emitted a sound that was a spot-on imitation of a siren approaching from perhaps a quarter-mile away. Needless to say, on city streets, this kept my heart rate at fairly lofty levels.

After a week in the 2010 Escape Hybrid, the limited edition with front-wheel drive, there were no sounds of sirens. And frankly, I liked this green Escape much more than I did the 2007 version. Call it progress.

My ride all but shouted green, not only in the environmental sense but in the literal sense; a “Kiwi Green” metallic paint job backed by a special leafy hybrid badge did the trick.

My Escape Hybrid, the third most-expensive of four trim levels starting at $32,260, was only slightly juiced up with options (the biggest being a $2,395 voice-activated navigation system) to bring the bottom line to $35,775. But for my money, which hasn’t been going too far in this sagging economy, that’s a fairly hefty bottom line for most consumers looking for a small SUV.

Again, with the Escape, it helps to do the math. You’re paying more than 30-grand for hybrid technology that’s going to save you at the gas pump. In the tester, that equated to 34 miles per gallon in the city and 31 mpg on the highway. If you plan to keep the vehicle for a long time, the extra money you paid for the vehicle is going to come back to you a piece at a time. Over the long haul, you’ll likely do OK. And if your priority is protecting the planet, you’re probably not real worried about such fiscal matters.

But keep in mind that a gas-powered 2010 Ford Escape XLS with front-wheel drive starts at a mere $20,550, with fuel mileage ratings of 22 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the open road. Like I said, get out your calculator and do the math if the budget is your top priority.

If you opt for the Escape Hybrid, you'll get that moment of concern when you turn the ignition key and nothing happens. Just make sure you look down at the message center behind the steering wheel, where you’ll see a digital readout telling you the vehicle is indeed ready to drive.

From there, the 2010 Escape Hybrid is a breeze, a willing and fuel-efficient SUV capable of taking on all road conditions, while hauling five passengers in relative comfort, or hauling a fair amount of cargo if you wish.

It’s a hybrid, but it’s no wimp. The tester displayed plenty of zip in the merge lane and snapped up to 70 miles per hour with no problem. Cruising at 70 mph felt silky smooth, and quiet.

Even climbing hills, you’re not going to find yourself screaming at the vehicle, “C’mon and get going already!” … Well, you might get antsy at the top of a very steep climb, but you’re going to get that in a gas-fueled four-banger anyway, so lighten up.

Serious highlight: Terrific 360-degree vision from the cockpit seat. And there’s a bonus: A new “integrated spotter mirror” on the outer corner of the exterior mirror. This supplement gives you a convex view that all but takes away the customary “blind spot.” In truth, I can’t remember the last time I drove a vehicle where I spent less time turning my head.

A generously equipped, easily understood interior adds to the total package, along with a similarly generous safety and security package. This Escape Hybrid stacks up as an ideal second family car to do some heavy grocery hauling and kid transporting. Young families should like it as well as a primary vehicle.

It’s not a big, horsepower-laden SUV, so don’t even go there. While the bottom line is somewhat pricey, this Escape Hybrid is precisely the kind of vehicle Ford should be producing for the increasingly economical masses. Maybe that’s why the company’s bottom line has been doing so well of late.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Happy holidays to all who stay in motion

Christmas preparations, family and friends are taking up much of my time right now, but I'm already looking forward to reviewing more new motor vehicles and offering my two cents on motor sports and the auto industry after Christmas and throughout 2010.

It occurs to me that I have much to be grateful for, not the least of which is the opportunity to share my words and thoughts with people who share my love of all things automotive. To you and yours, happy holidays, and here's hoping your 2010 is happy, prosperous and safe.

Thanks for taking the time to tune in. I'm sure there will plenty to keep us all busy in 2010.

With warmest regards.....MARK GLOVER

Thursday, December 10, 2009

New for 2010: Danica and the NASCAR boys

Sacramento, California – After IndyCar Series driver Danica Patrick announced this week that she was making a part-time jump into NASCAR’s second-tier Nationwide Series, JR Motorsports General Manager Kelley Earnhardt offered up this assessment: “I expect her to be eaten up by the wolves.”

He quickly said he was only kidding, but one wonders just how much.

I, too, fear the worst for Patrick, but it has nothing to do with her driving ability. On that score, she has the goods. Unfortunately, she’s going to be playing in an arena that tends to chew up IndyCar talent. Secondarily, the fact that she is a female will likely make her an even more inviting target in that culture.

I’m pleased that the 27-year-old DP will be dicing in the IndyCar Series in the immediate future, driving for Andretti Autosport. Needless to say, she has been good for the series, arguably becoming the face of it.

Getting the lion’s share of attention has its drawbacks, however. When she announced her deal with JR Motorsports, the online message boards quickly filled up with anger-fueled postings that she is overrated and over-hyped. Some suggested that she’s done nothing compared with her Andretti Autosport teammates. She has only one IndyCar win the past two years -- in Japan in 2008 – the critics whined.

Frankly, these claims are misinformed and flat wrong. You have to wonder if these gripers even follow motorsports.

Here’s the evidence: Patrick indeed has 1 win in 81 IndyCar races, but she’s had 16 top-five finishes – a pretty good batting average. She had five top-five finishes this year alone, finishing fifth in the IndyCar Series standings.

By comparison, Marco Andretti has one win in 65 starts, and that one victory came in 2006. Tony Kanaan has won precisely one race the past two seasons. Hideki Mutoh has not a single race win in two seasons with Andretti Autosport. Why isn’t anyone complaining about his lack of victories?

Because he’s not Danica Patrick, that’s why. By the way, Patrick’s fifth in the IndyCar series standings this year topped all three of her teammates.

The simple fact is that DP can drive an Indy car. She’s proven that. Her third-place drive in a less-than-top-tier car at this year’s Indianapolis 500 was masterful. She’s not A.J. Foyt or Mario Andretti, but then nobody else in IndyCar right now is in that galaxy.

What I worry about with Patrick in NASCAR is the same fate that was suffered by Dario Franchitti with his ill-advised jump to NASCAR in 2008. It was an experience steeped in massive frustration and broken bones. All Franchitti did in 2009 is come back and win the IndyCar Series title he won in 2007.

And while 2006 Indy 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr. has shown some improvement after two full seasons in NASCAR, he’s never really been in late-race contention for a win. That’s a tough go for a guy who was a consistent champion in the Indy cars.

One of the things that crushes the spirit of IndyCar Series competitors going to NASCAR is that so much depends on cooperation among drivers on the track. That’s tough to swallow when you’ve spent years getting to the top of open-wheel competition by driving your guts out. If you don’t have cooperation among drivers at many of NASCAR’s tracks – or if you don’t have an exceptionally prepared car – you’re not going to prosper.

And woe unto him/her who angers fellow NASCAR competitors. That not only kills all possibility of cooperation, it typically gets you punted into the wall.

Would a young NASCAR up-and-comer or a longtime NASCAR veteran push Patrick into the fence just because she’s a woman who has received massive amounts of media attention for the past five years? Puh-leeze, it’s almost a given.

And this really bites if you’re a race driver. Danica will have to exercise extreme patience on the track, and getting in the face of an offending driver after the race, with TV cameras rolling, won’t play well with the NASCAR crowd. Given Patrick’s typically furious competitive approach, turning the other cheek will not come easy.

The best thing that can happen for DP is to absorb her NASCAR race team’s wisdom, notch some high finishes early and stay clean on the track. Just finishing races will enhance her NASCAR cred.

Who knows? Maybe she’ll take the Nationwide Series by storm. That would be cool, but I sense a rough road ahead.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

GMC Terrain reviewed in latest Cruisin' News

Sacramento, California – My review of the 2010 GMC Terrain FWD SLT-2 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.

Ralliart looks the part of the pocket rocket

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

Sacramento, California -- Mitsubishi, which routinely jolts us to attention with a glorious sporty vehicle, has another head-turner in the all-new-for-2010 Lancer Sportback Ralliart.

Here’s a five-passenger car that really should not be called a wagon or a hatchback. Call it a pocket rocket, because that’s the soul of this ride, a blaster that recalls the early Volkswagen GTI efforts.

My black tester was menacing enough with a massive grille opening that looked like its design prototype was a great white shark. Aerodynamic lines roll to the back, where one finds an integrated roof wing. Just when you’re admiring the back end’s airflow advantages, you open up the sloping rear door to discover a wide space capable of swallowing large, oddly-shaped cargo (52.7 cubic feet of capacity).

Very nice. But this car is built to haul something other than cargo.

The Lancer Sportback Ralliart comes with a turbocharged 2-liter in-line 4 with 237 horsepower and 253 foot-pounds of torque. Let me tell you how that worked in heavy highway traffic: Fantastic.

Man, it felt good to blow off a Mercedes or two in my black beauty tester. Throttle blips dusted off most every other vehicle within reach. Engine response was instant, and the Ralliart handled with delightful agility. This is a car you can get aggressive with, and one that might lead you to have a roadside conversation with a highway patrolman. Buyer beware.

Also beware that the Sportback Ralliart is not a car that enjoys anything below 30 miles per hour. In fact, it bucks and snorts in protest at slow speeds. Also understand that the degree of sport tuning is so elevated that engine power dramatically drops down the instant you take your foot off the gas. It’s so pronounced that you’ll get a little shove forward in the cockpit. This will be no surprise, however, to veteran performance car pilots.

Front seats are molded in the style of contemporary race cars, which is to say there are pronounced, rounded vertical edges holding you in place. If you’re the husky type, those edges are going to be a pain in the back, literally.

Back-seat space is tight, with two being the recommended max; I wouldn’t try to fit three folks back there. The one in the middle is likely going to suffer.

Interior controls are nicely arranged, and the creature comforts are fine. I think the Sportback Ralliart is a car best enjoyed by two – two who don’t mind a little G-force as they unwind the Ralliart on the open road.

The starting price is a somewhat hefty $27,590, but gas mileage for this turbo-fired hot hatch is a fairly nice 17 miles per gallon in the city and 25 mpg on the highway. Not surprisingly, most of the standard goodies apply to looks and performance: traction control, hill-start assist, stability control, 18-inch alloy wheels, side sill extensions, aluminum pedals and an aluminum hood with a heat-extractor vent to name just a few.

Standard safety features include an advanced dual front air bag supplemental restraint system with occupant sensors, front seat-mounted side-impact air bags and side curtain air bags, plus a driver's knee air bag. The Sportback Ralliart has a built-in anti-theft system with immobilizer key. High-intensity headlamps are available.

Customizers could have a ball with this Ralliart. Lots of sexy angles to work with, and you could hide a Mini Cooper in that front grille. The turbo engine gets pretty noisy at full song, so you might want to deflect some of that engine noise if you’re wanting an audio system upgrade.

All in all, this is a nice offering from Mitsubishi, a company that has been taking its lumps of late. Think of the Ralliart as a nice addition from an automaker that won over a lot of hearts with its Eclipse model.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Got hot? Audi A5 droptop has a plentiful supply

Sacramento, California – Audi has this thing about making its cars look racetrack-ready.

Seriously, the automaker could take a crate of oranges and make it look like it’s ready to take the green flag at Daytona. My latest test model is a case in point.

Technically, the model is a (big breath now) 2010 Audi A5 2.0T Quattro Tiptronic Cabriolet. Translation: It’s a hot-looking Audi convertible with a kickin’ turbo power source and a state-of-the-art transmission system.

My Deep Sea Blue-colored tester looked ready to rip just sitting in its parking space. ”You’ll like this car,” said the man who delivered it. Turns out he was a wise prophet indeed.

On the roll, the A5 made me feel as secure as a toddler’s favorite blanket. Rock-solid on the road and agile when asked, the A5 cruised smoothly through crowded interstate traffic and on tight city streets. Climbs were a breeze and twisty roads seemed to straighten out with slight flicks on the steering wheel.

The turbo four-cylinder power plant was rated at 211 horsepower, and yet it did not dish up its juice like a brute. Accelerations were firm, steady and righteous, still delivering the desired result of quickly moving the A5 out of harm’s way when my right foot pressed the accelerator. The six-speed Tiptronic transmission was the smoothest performer in recent memory.

The A5 posted straight-A grades in all rolling conditions.

One minor gripe: I couldn’t see around even medium-size sport-utility vehicles riding in front of me. But I wouldn’t change the A5’s sleek, low-slung look just to solve that problem. A big-mouthed grille gives way to wind-slicing bodywork, with a nice wide stance in the back. Paint a number on it, and let’s go racing.

Interior comforts on the tester were numerous, even at the $44,100 starting price. My tester was dressed up with nearly obscene extras to bring the bottom line to $61,800. Suffice it to say that the interior cabin provided luxury accommodations as I blazed along the local roadways.

The A5’s security factor goes beyond its excellent handling. Safety and security systems ran the gamut, from knee airbags to energy-absorbing zones to active rollover protection. I’m pretty sure you’d have to really try to hurt yourself in this droptop.

By the way, the ultra-light, cloth acoustic roof on this cabrio folds in a mere 15 seconds, and it can be done on the fly at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour.

Fuel mileage estimates are 20 miles per gallon in the city and 26 mpg on the highway.

There are seating surfaces behind the two front seats, but I’m not sure I know too many people above 10 years of age who would be comfortable in that cramped setting. In my heart, the A5 is a comfortable ride for two.

I know this is not everyone’s car. Putting down $45,000 or so on a performance convertible is not within everyone’s reach.

But for those who can afford the fare, it’s a treat. And I salute you.