Ford Mustang GT Review

Okay, throw the old script away. You know, the one where Mustang invents the pony car, but after a couple of hot new kids named Challenger and Camaro come to town, rapidly loses its edge.

That was so 40 years ago. Literally.

One thing is immediately clear after an afternoon...much less a week...in the 2010 Mustang GT:

Ford is serious.

The new 'Stang ought to be just a mid-cycle refresher...but it goes a big step further...it's slightly smaller, a bit lighter, handles and rides a ton better than last year's...and the interior is now a much nicer place to do business. We're talking a jump of two or three grades of materials and workmanship. And it's lighter and airier than the Challenger and Camaro, both of which tend to sit you low and cloak you in darkness.

The GT comes with those big fog lamps in the grille, leather trim sports seats, a power 6-way driver's seat, air, ambient lighting, the Shaker 500 audio system, SYNC, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel standard.

Oh, yeah...and a 325 horsepower 4.6 liter V8, which logic says ought to be mincemeat for the V8 Challenger and Camaro, but ends up being very competitive...partly due to the weight and size savings I mentioned earlier.

All that for a base price of $30,995. Sure, a six-speed manual would be better than a five, but the five shifts smoother and easier than ever before.

The one I had for a week (up until this very morning, in fact) had the premier trim with color accent (see photo above) for $395, a Security Package (another $395), a Comfort Package with heated seats ($595), and the 3.73 rear axle ($495). With destination and delivery ($850), the total tab was $33,725...a couple grand less than the Challenger.

Gas mileage? 16 city/24 highway, according to the EPA. Again, a six-speed would be nice.

A lot of the goodness in the new Mustang GT comes from last year's Bullitt package, right down to the throaty exhaust note and the chrome cue-ball shifter. Here's hoping they're not done with that franchise and that there will be a new Bullitt to raise the bar further still.

I took it to the local cruise night this past weekend...the Ford guys were all over it...and the GM and Mopar guys expressed admiration too. They talked about the styling, the interior upgrades, the engine note.

But the thing everyone dug most?

Yep...gotta love the sequential turn signals. Tells the guys in lesser cars where to follow.

Write this down...if pony cars survive at all, Mustang's here to stay.

Mercury Milan Hybrid Review

Note: The Mercury Milan is gone, just like all of Mercury. However, the Ford Fusion Hybrid is virtually identical apart from some cosmetics. Until we get a Fusion Hybrid to review, we'll roll with the Milan.

I've said it before...the real game in hybrids isn't in small cars like the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight that are born economy machines...it's in the conversion of larger, more thirsty vehicles and getting great mileage from them.

So far, the best examples have been the Nissan Altima Hybrid , Ford Escape Hybrid and Toyota Camry Hybrid.

Here's a surprise (at least it was to me): The Mercury Milan Hybrid blows those three away.

The EPA mileage estimate (41 city/36 highway) is enough to pole-vault over that trio (as well as the Insight) for second place on the TireKicker Top Ten Fuel Savers (clickable list in the right column of this page, just below the TireKicker Top 20 Cars (So Far).

But EPA estimates...you know...even the new, improved ones...you can't really trust 'em....they're estimates...not Gospel.

For the Milan Hybrid, they're low.

Nothing on that sheet says that I should have been able to do a 40 mile roundtrip in town (one-third freeway, two-thirds surface streets) and get 45 miles per gallon. But I did. Or the Milan Hybrid did, anyway. And I wasn't playing the game...just trying to get a library book across town before the branch closed and I owed a fine. Which means if anything, I was driving a little less than eco-conciously.

Didn't seem to matter.

How do I know how I did on one trip? Well, that's the other cool thing (besides sheer mileage) aoout the Milan Hybrid...its new LCD instrument cluster looks more like something from a high-end laptop than a Dearborn dashboard...and it serves up interesting and useful information...including your mileage from the moment you turn the car on until you shut it down. Trip after trip. Want to know more? Watch this Ford-produced video:

I put 300 miles on the Milan Hybrid in a week's worth of driving. I handed it back to Ford with half a tank of gas and a distance to empty reading of another 300.

$27,500 gets you into a Milan Hybrid. My tester had a package including Moonroof, a 12-speaker Sony audio system, a driver's vision package, the "Moon & Tune" package (moonroof and audio), blind spot detection, a rear-view video camera and rear spoiler. Package price: $3,735, minus a $660 Rapid Spec discount. This one also had a nav system ($1,775).

Leather seating? Standard.

Anyway, with $725 destination and delivery charges, this bottom-lined at $33,075. Ditch the moonroof and nav system and you're under $30K. Buy the Ford Fusion Hybrid (essentially the same car) and the base price is $230 less.

Comparably equipped, the Camry and Altima Hybrids still cost a bit less...but the story of hybrids thus far has largely been about people paying a premium for the highest gas mileage. If you're looking for an excuse to go green and buy American, it's just arrived.


Why You Should Want To Review Cars

For 26 years, my favorite piece of automotive journalism has been Brock Yates' "Escape From Baja" in the July 1983 Car and Driver (you can download it as a full-color .pdf here...and you really should...scroll to the bottom of the linked page and click on the image).

I mean, really...what could be more fun than 9 frequently inebriated American writers and a photographer driving 8 midsize sedans through inhospitable territory, Biblical weather and (in the case of one of the cars) halfway through a cow before abandoning the trip...and more than $100,000 worth of loaned press vehicles...south of the border (where current press loan documents specifically forbid taking testers)?

Well, it's been a heck of a run, but Brock and the gang (including David E. Davis, Jr, Don Sherman, Jean Lindamood (Jennings),  Rich Ceppos, Larry Griffin, Csaba Csere and P.J. O'Rourke) have slipped to #2.

Not having BBC America, I missed Jeremy Clarkson's Top Gear review of the Ford Fiesta until Jalopnik posted it today. If you haven't seen it, trust me...it's worth the 11 minutes it will take to watch it...and the hour you'll spend watching it again with friends. It's epic automotive journalism and great TV.


Pontiac G8 GXP Review

Finish big.

Always leave them wanting more.

83 years making cars, and it turns out Pontiac learned the rules of show business instead.

All those years of building cheap knock-offs of Chevrolets clothed in ludicrous plastic body cladding, they should have been building this.

Of course, Pontiac doesn't really build the G8 GXP...it comes to them from GM's Australian division, Holden. But it looks, feels and goes like what Pontiacs from the glory days (1961-1970) spoiled us into expecting.

It's too late now...GM having announced that Pontiac's a dead division. The only 2010 Pontiac will be the Vibe...not because they'll just make that, but because it was an early 2010 model and has been on sale for months.

And GM's new boss (for now, anyway) Fritz Henderson, has repeatedly swatted down proposals from inside and outside GM that the G8 live on as a Chevrolet.

Let's just cut to the chase: This is the best car General Motors sells. It may be the best car GM has ever sold. It certainly is in the top 3.

Quality materials and assembly, an all-business 6.2 liter V8 with a six-speed automatic...it's a four-door GTO. It's the car domestic car buyers would buy instead of a BMW 5-series if there were such a thing as domestic car buyers who wouldn't dream of buying an import.

It's $37,610...and if you stopped right there and didn't order a single option, you'd still probably have the best car in town.

In fact, the tester I had for a week had only one option...a $900 moonroof that had I been playing with my own money would never have made it onto the car. It would have kept the sticker price under 40 grand ($1700 for the gas guzzler tax and $685 in destination charges add to that otherwise reasonable base price).

And yes, it guzzles gas...at least by modern standards. 13 city/20 highway is what the EPA says and they're probably right and it took a six-speed transmission to make it that good.

But folks, what we're talking about here is probably the last true American big muscle sedan. And after decades of disappointments, it needs to be noted that on the way out the door, Pontiac got it absolutely right.

Chrysler Town & Country Review

Chrysler, which watched its domestic competition (now-defunct minivans from General Motors and Ford) wither away and die, still has competition in that arena...from itself.

You see, the Chrysler Town & Country is really just a loaded Dodge Grand Caravan. And that means it's also a slightly different-looking, differently outfitted Volkswagen Routan (and tragically for Chrysler, VW got the looks and the materials).

This doesn't even begin to address the threat from the Honda Odyssey, the Toyota Sienna, the Kia Sedona and the Hyundai Entourage (discontinued after this was written).

And given that the Town & Country Limited starts about nine grand higher than the Grand Caravan, the sell gets real tough real fast.

Loaded with what I hope was everything, the T&C I tested for a week bottom-lined at $44,205. If it's not everything, then Chrysler's way too close to 50 large for comfort.

The Town & Country is by no means a bad ride (you can read my review of the Grand Caravan for details...the vehicles are so similar), and if you prefer it to the competition, both within and without the Chrysler/VW alliance, then you should get one.

But do yourself and your bank account a favor and shop around...see if you can find one that came in from a newly disenfranchised Chrysler dealer at a fire sale price. Under $40,000, the T&C starts to look a lot better.

EPA estimates: 17 city/25 highway. Five-star crash ratings for all passengers, front and side impact. Four-star rollover rating.


Pontiac Solstice GXP Review

GM built a reputation over the years (especially the bad years) of introducing cars that weren't quite ready and then refining them during the production run so that the final few years of a model were pretty close to perfect.

Well, this wasn't supposed to be the end of the Solstice (or Pontiac, for that matter), but events have overtaken the once-mighty GM and this is in fact the end of the line for Pontiac.

And, wouldn't you know it...the last Solstice is way better than the first. Part of it certainly has to do with the fact that the Solstice I just drove for a week was the GXP...the one with the 260 horsepower turbocharged engine. Yep, it's quick.

Plus, there's been some attention to niggling little details...the reverse-hinged trunk actually shuts on the first try now...ending the frustration of jumping out of the car, closing it again, getting back in and finding the "trunk ajar" light still illuminating on start-up.

Base price is $28,460...quite a bit more than a Miata, but again, more powerful, too. The tester was loaded up with a Premium Package (leather, steering wheel audio cotrols and Bluetooth), air conditioning (yep, it's an option), 18-inch chrome wheels, the Monsoon audio system and a rear spoiler.

Bottom line: $32,125. Not a bargain, but not bad.

And...this is a huge surprise...I beat the EPA mileage estimates by a large margin. They say 19 city/28 highway and in my mix of city street and freeway driving I saw 32.5 for the week. I've beaten the government numbers before, but not by so much. I wonder what it would've done if a six-speed manual were available instead of the five-speed.

It's not my first choice for a 2-seat roadster (the Miata wins that one based on handling, build quality and sheer fun), but if you've never driven the Mazda and love the look of the Solstice (and a lot of people do), now's the time.


You Own GM; Will You Drive GM?

David Lazarus of the Los Angeles Times asks the question: Now that we (U.S. taxpayers) now own 60% of General Motors, shouldn't we be driving GM cars? What message does it send if we don't? His column and the answers he gets from Southern California drivers, here.


Nissan Rogue Review

As other automakers pack their compact SUVs with so much stuff that they flirt with the $30,000 price point, Nissan has done what it did years ago with the original XTerra...boiled the recipe back down to its essentials.

The Nissan Rogue is a no-frills, no-excuses small SUV (actually, small crossover, since it's built on a car platform). 170 horsepower from a 4-cylinder engine connected to a CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission...Nissan's the one automaker who's absolutely nailed how these are supposed to work). 16-inch wheels, a decent audio system, manually-adjusted cloth seats, power windows, power doorlocks and remote keyless entry.

The EPA says it gets 22 in the city, 27 on the highway, which is very, very good.

And then there's the price. Base for the Rogue S 2-wheel drive: $20,220. Which put our tester (having only splash guards, floor mats and a cargo mat for options, plus $745 delivery charge) on the sweet side of $21,500.

The Rogue gives a lot of value for a little money, and by keeping it simple, Nissan sends the subliminal message that nothing's likely to break...that this little machine will last a long time. That's a terrific market position in an economy like this.

UPDATE: Recently did a week in the uplevel Rogue SL AWD...which adds 17 inch aluminum wheels, roof rails, body-color outside power mirrors, a six-way adjustable manual driver's seat, rear privacy glass and a polished exhaust tip.

It takes the base price up to $23,010, which is fine as far as it goes. But five clicks in the option boxes (moonroof, floormats, cross bars, a premium package that upgrades the audio to a Bose system and adds Bluetooth and fog lights, and a portable Garmin Nuvi nav system with dashboard mount) ran the price of the one I drove to $27,850.

It's every bit the solid small SUV described above, but at that price, not the solid value. Also, the AWD (as opposed to the 2-wheel drive) knocks the EPA estimates down to 21 city/26 highway.


Honda Insight EX Review

Let's skip right to the central questions here. Should Toyota be worried? Is the new Honda Insight a Prius-killer?

Yes and no.

Yes to the first question because Honda has come through with a hybrid for a couple thousand dollars less than the Prius sells for (Insight EX base price: $21,300. With destination charges, $21,970). And in tough economic times, the car payment (if you can afford one at all) matters big.

No to the second because there will be a large group of people (especially existing Prius owners) who will choose the Prius for reasons that the Honda (at least at present) can't touch.

The Insight is shaped like the Prius (apparently the best shape for reducing wind resistance), has four doors and is powered by a gasoline-electric hybrid engine. But that's pretty much where the similarities end.

Honda got to the price advantage by making a smaller, less powerful, less comfortable, less refined car that actually gets fewer miles per gallon than the Prius.

If you've never driven a Prius, you might not notice. If you have, you most certainly will. The Prius interior is almost like being in a Camry. The Insight makes a Civic (one size class smaller) feel a bit roomier.

If you stomp on the gas pedal of a Prius, you're surprised by what it can do. The same move in an Insight produces a lot of noise from the 98 horsepower four-cylinder gasoline engine and the continuously variable transmission, but frustratingly little speed.

Each evolution of the Prius reminds us that Toyota also makes Lexus...refinement is definitely on the agenda. The Insight was built to hit a price target and it shows.

And even with all those things, the Prius wins the fuel economy contest with an EPA estimated 48 city/45 highway to the Insight's 40 city/43 highway.

That't the objective stuff. The subjective, like Honda's overly complicated, overly cute instrument panel and dashboard layout are strictly matters of opinion and taste. But for me, I gotta ask...is this the same company that built my '84 Civic Sedan, a model of simplicity and ergonomics that got 46 miles per gallon on the highway for the 14 years and 140,000 miles I owned it?

Think I'm being harsh? Read what Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson wrote about the Insight in a Times of London piece.

Volkswagen Jetta Review

Some cars become so familiar that they also become somewhat invisible. That's the great thing about a test drive...it can put you back in touch with the car itself instead of the blurred image in your brain.

The Volkswagen Jetta is now (with the Golf having been re-named Rabbit a couple of years ago, but on its way back to Golf for 2010) the longest-running nameplate in the VW lineup...and the basic concept is so strong that redesigns end up looking like minor facelifts.

Get behind the wheel and you find that the Jetta is an exceptionally well-thought out sedan. The German engineering is obvious every time you touch a surface, move a lever or turn the wheel. The structural integrity is evident in the tightness and quietness of the body. Unlike most cars (especially in this price class), the details are given careful attention...right down to double-hinged doors...capable of holding the weight of an adult male.

Consider this your reminder...VW makes a competitor to the Civic, Corolla, Focus and Cobalt. It's worth a look...and a test drive.

UPDATE: Just finished a week in a new Jetta SE and all the above still stands. This tester had a six-speed automatic transmission with Tiptronic, Bluetooth, rubber floormats and an iPod connector...bringing the price to just over $22,000 with destination charges. A bargain for the quality you get.

EPA estimates: 20 city/29 highway.

P.J. O'Rourke Is A Great Writer. As A Re-Writer, Not So Much

P.J. O'Rourke is a former National Lampoon editor and writer who branched out into automotive journalism at Car And Driver (another example of why David E. Davis Jr. is the father of modern automotive journalism) in 1977, following NatLamp's publication of his hysterical (if vulgar, sexist and, in those days, borderline obscene) piece "How To Drive Fast On Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed And Not Spill Your Drink".

Over the years, that particular gem has been reprinted in at least one of O'Rourke's books...but with a few of the words changed. Now, P.J. has put out a compilation of his car pieces for Car and Driver, Automobile and other magazines, Driving Like Crazy. And once again, he's editing himself. Jean Jennings mentions it gently in her column in the July Automobile.

O'Rourke himself cops to it in the book...arguing that he's now a better writer, so changing is improving. I disagree. P.J.'s pieces are better the first time (so much so that I think I'd like to read the first drafts).

Evidence of how good P.J. is when he's not overthinking it is found in this past Saturday's Wall Street Journal, where he gives us "The End of Our Love Affair With Cars". It's classic, yet mature P.J. Go read. Then hit your local used bookstore and see if you can find the original back issues of Car and Driver and Automobile to see P.J.'s work the way it was originally written.

Autoextremist Turns Ten

I remember when my friend Mike Conlee came to me and said "You've gotta see this new website about the auto industry." Incredibly, that was 10 years ago, and I haven't missed a week. Peter DeLorenzo recaps the decade...along with the surprise that this was intended to be the last Autoextremist.com post.