MONEY Autos

Buick’s New Encore Will Change Your Mind About Buick

The small SUV turns in a respectable performance.

Since its own corporate revival, GM has been working hard to reposition Buick as brand that we should take seriously. And not without reason: The company sells more than three times as many Buicks in China as it does here, so the badge is important globally. It’s just that car buyers here have long memories, and their memory of Buick is that it’s been all marketing and not very interesting metal.

Encore is one of the models out to reverse that notion, and it’s making headway. The small SUV’s sales were up 21% in May, making Encore Buick’s top model, accounting for 30% of sales. You can look at it as a gutsy decision, since Buick unleashed Encore into one of the most competitive segments of the auto markets. There’s Honda’s CR-V, Mazda’s CX-5, Ford’s Escape, Chevy’s own version, called Trax, and Nissan’s Rogue, to name a few.

Can Encore compete with this excellent group? In a word, yes. That is, it can compete but it can’t necessarily win. But that’s all right with Buick. It just wants a chance to be considered in such good company. And Encore has earned that right, courtesy of some nice styling. It’s a curvaceous little number with the classic Buick grill but frills such as blue halogen headlamps. Inside there’s a really great adjustable chair, the better to enjoy a ride that you have to admit is smoother and quieter than you’d thought it would be. One reason: The Encore has an active noise cancellation system. Our test model, a front-wheel drive Premium Group number, ($31,755; entry level models start at about $24,000) came with a good collection of safety systems: forward collision alert, lane departure warning, blind spot and rear cross traffic alert. The navigation system, though, was annoying, and the middle console, a jumble of buttons that were less than helpful. Intuitive, it’s not. There’s also an 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot available.

Where Encore comes up a little short is under the hood. It’s powered by a turbo-charged, Ecotec 1.4-liter engine. While that sounds like it has some oomph, it’s so wimpy at 138 horsepower that Buick doesn’t even bother to list it on the dealer’s invoice. Can’t say I blame them. You can measure the acceleration on this thing with a calendar, although it does get a thrifty 28 miles per gallon combined mileage, which is one of the only benefits of the smaller engine. To be fair, Encore is really designed to be a city/suburban getabout. And by that measure, it gets about its business fairly well.

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MONEY Autos

Meet the Dodge Hellcat, a Growling Piece of Fun

What reason could there be for a 4-door sedan that can go 200 mph?

Do you throw the kids in the back and go drag racing with them on the way to Grandma’s? Do you try to get out of the drive-through window at Starbucks in under half a second? I’m not really sure what Chrysler was thinking when it greenlighted the 707-horsepower Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat. And I’m really sure I don’t care—because this car is one growling piece of fun.

Yes, the Hellcat bolts off the line like a cheetah locked on an antelope, as in 0 to 60 mph in 3.5 secs. Your trip to 100 mph takes just a trice longer. Feeling the g-forces, which you can track on the instrument panel, just adds to these briefest of pleasure trips. Chalk it up to the 6.2-liter, supercharged V-8 Hemi engine. It’s the biggest power plant to wear the Hemi badge in a production car—by comparison, note that NASCAR is running at 725 hp this season. A few more horses and you and Dale Jr. are trading paint, right?

Not really. Let’s face it: You’re not going to spend most of your time driving over the speed limit, and certainly not at 200 mph. Even on a track, this beastie will spend most of its life under 150 mph.

The big surprise in this package—and a genius rationalization for buying one—is that the badass-looking Hellcat is an absolute pussycat at highway speeds. The car is relaxed, comfortable with its lower-speed self. Why? The tach is reading 1,200 rpm, meaning the engine isn’t breaking a sweat, even if you are getting twitchy to floor it. When you combine with the car’s racing suspension and powerful Brembo brakes, you actually get the ultimate cruise machine: a rock-solid and quiet ride. And those seats. MONEY’s test car, a don’t-mess-with-me shade of black, had tan leather seats that reminded me of a beautiful baseball glove. It was like sitting in the pocket of a classic leather Wilson or Spalding, but ready to be slung forward like a Nolan Ryan-Randy Johnson-Aroldis Chapman fastball.

Drawbacks? Sure. Feed the kitty with high-test gas and you’ll get maybe 20 mpg on the highway. We averaged in the mid-teens. And in addition to feeding those horses all that gasoline, you’ll pay close to $100 per horse for the Hellcat version, which in our test car included extras such as a power sunroof and a very good Uconnect 8.4-in. touchscreen infotainment system. But what the Hellcat—that’s the price of unstinting, unrestricted, and unusually plush power.

MONEY Autos

Test Drive the Fun and Affordable Mustang GT

The new Mustang GT is big fun in a small—and, at 36K for racetrack-worthy performance—reasonably priced package.

When Carroll Shelby was asked by Ford in 1964 to build a GT version of its new Mustang, the race car builder didn’t hide his derision. “I don’t know. It’s a secretary’s car,” he told Lee Iacocca, according to Go Like Hell, a very readable history of Henry Ford II’s obsession with beating Ferrari on the track. Shelby was right in that Ford created Mustang as much for young women—a schoolteacher bought the very first one—as for hot rodders. Still, The Deuce paid Shelby’s bills, so Ford got what it wanted.

And what Ford got was epic: the Mustang GT350. Shelby would also build the equally famous Cobra Mustang, early versions of which now trade for north of $1 million. Although Mustang has had its ups and downs (say, the 1980s), Shelby’s racing heart still beats today in the 2015 version of the GT, the latest in the 50th anniversary year of the Mustang.

What Shelby first created was nothing pretentious, just a stunning amount of engine jammed in that puny Pony body. The first GT350 used a modified 289 (about 4.8 liters) small-block V-8 that pushed out 305 horsepower. The current GT lives up to the legend, putting forth 435 hp out of a 5.0-liter V-8. Unlike the original GT, this one has a back seat, although it’s quite useless.

What I’ve liked about the last couple of GTs is that toeing the gas pedal on one of these things is like kicking the dragon. The GT is a firebreather. No, it’s not quite as fast as a Corvette, but at half the price it has more than enough fury in it to make you giddy as the speedometer jumps toward 100 miles per hour.

Likes its tamer six- and four-cylinder versions, the GT has been redesigned to be a global automobile. All earlier Mustangs were made in the U.S. and exported. Ford now wants to be able to build the Pony Car around the world. That necessitated some changes, and a challenge. As Mark Fields, who is now CEO, told me during the design process, the biggest challenge his team got from Ford chairman Bill Ford was, “Don’t f–k it up.”

They didn’t. The 2015 Mustang is lower and wider than the fifth generation, with that distinctive Mustang fastback rear deck. But a couple of thing had to change. For one, the new model has independent rear suspension in place of the stiffer, solid axle in the back that racers favored. But after making that switch, Ford then realized that the front-end had to be changed too. It was. The result seems to be much better handling in the curves and, certainly in the 3.2-liter version, a much smoother ride—although it’s never going to be buttery in a Mustang GT. It’s just not made for that.

As is typical of Mustang, you can get in the car at fairly low price—$36,000 in the V-8 GT with a six-speed automatic—and then decide how much racier you want to get, in both style and performance. For instance, there’s a limited-slip rear axle option and a bigger brake package that real racers favor. You can add Recaro racing chairs for an extra $1,700. That helped pushed our test GT up to $46,000. The car also comes with toggle-switch operated steering and driving modes: normal, sport, track, and rain/snow. The gauges also allow you to track your acceleration and race performance.

Not going to take it on the track? That’s okay. Most Mustang owners won’t, but driving down the road, everyone will certainly think you are.

 

MONEY Autos

For About $78,000, You Can Buy an ‘Entry Level’ Maserati

The new entry-level Maserati is powerful but occasionally disappointing. Here's what it's like to take one for a drive.

You don’t have to explain to anyone what Maserati is. The brand is known worldwide, and it stands for Italian style and speed. But as Maserati’s North American boss Christian Gobber explains it, the brand is better known than the products, because only a select number of people, some 200,000 worldwide, actually own a Maserati.

The goal behind Maserati’s latest vehicle, the Ghibli, is to help expand ownership to as many as a million customers worldwide. Ghibli is Maserati’s entry-level vehicle — entry level in this case being north of $75,000. “It starts with design,” says Gobber. “It gets your attention. But it has a muscular yet elegant duality.”

It sure does. There is no mistaking this beauty for a mere luxury sedan. The front end practically preens.

Then you start the motor in sport mode, with its ferociously tuned exhaust, and you are speaking Italian. Because in the Q4 model, which we tested, you have 404 Ferrari-built horses — an entire palio— under your hood. You’ll race to 60 miles per hour in 4.5 seconds, and to 100 mph in a few ticks more. This is real power, delivered impeccably through the popular 8-speed ZF automatic transmission. And in our black-on-black model, you do this wrapped in a cockpit outfitted in exquisite, hand-stitched Italian leather and a plush chair. The car has a sound system that Verdi would envy.

Yes, you can get a comparably equipped Mercedes or Audi that can claim a smoother ride than the Ghibli, and a little bit better execution on the small things, which is certainly no small thing. For instance, the car is lacking in some safety features, such as blind spot warning lights and adaptive cruise control, that are standard on many Fords. I guess Maserati feels that a blind spot indicator isn’t necessary if nobody is going to pass you.

Next up for Maserati is an SUV, the Levante, due next year. That will further democratize the brand, as if that were even possible.

MONEY Autos

New Ram ProMaster Puts Chrysler Muscle in a Fiat Eurotruck

This combination cargo vehicle and passenger van is a welcome hybrid of American power and European design.

In the narrow, congested city block where I live, traffic gets blocked every day by some boxy truck making a delivery. Horns honk, as do drivers, and general unpleasantness ensues. Life in the big city would be so much calmer if trucks were smaller, like they are in Europe, where the streets are even narrower and more congested.

That’s now happening. As car companies globalize their products, vehicles such as Ram’s new ProMaster City are making headway, joining the likes of Ford’s Transit, Chevy’s City Express and Nissan’s NV200. The ProMaster City is a Eurotruck through and through, because it’s a Fiat Doblò that’s made in Turkey and rebadged for the U.S. market. It comes in both a passenger and cargo version, and Chrysler has a customizing operation so you can trick out the cargo version to fit your business needs.

One reason Fiat bought Chrysler is that Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne realized that the two companies had offsetting strengths and weaknesses. Fiat does small really well; Chrysler is Detroit muscle all the way, and its big-ass Ram pickups are gobbling up market share.

In the ProMaster City, both companies’ strengths are brought to bear. When you build small cars and trucks as Fiat does, you think inside out — that is, using design not only to maximize interior space, but also to create visual space. Look out the ProMaster City’s windshield and you would think you are in a much bigger truck, a feeling that’s exaggerated by the short nose and narrow A pillars. At the same time, there are nooks in unexpected places — for instance, a shelf at the roofline so you don’t have to jam all kinds of stuff behind the sun visor.

Where’s the Chrysler in this thing? That’s under the hood. The ProMaster City is powered by one of Chrysler’s go-to engines, the 2.4 liter Tigershark, an inline four-cylinder number that puts out 178 h.p., tops in its class. The Tigershark also powers the Chrysler 200, the Jeep Renegade, and the Dodge Dart, and it’s attached to a sophisticated nine-speed automatic transmission. But even here there’s a touch of Fiat: The Tigershark uses the Italians’ MultiAir variable valve timing technology that helps to push the mileage to 21 miles per gallon in the city and 29 mpg on the highway. And there’s more than ample power.

Where this corporate combination goes astray is in the dashboard, for some reason. The speedometer and information panels are not easy to see, the fog lamp is in the wrong place and the navigation system is a bit silly. The screen is iPhone-sized but with about a third of the resolution. You half expect to see Pac-Man start playing.

Still, the ride is comfortable, in part because of seating and in part because of the rear independent suspension. It’s surprisingly quiet and car-like at speeds below 60 miles per hour. It also claims a very maneuverable 32-ft. turning radius. The fold-and-tumble rear seats maintain the same comfort level, and easily convert into a vertical position in a two-latch process that maximizes the cargo space. You’ll get 131.7 cubic feet of space in the cargo version, and you can deliver nearly 1,900 lbs. of payload. The asymmetrical rear doors are designed to be opened to a full 180° for easier access.

The ProMaster City isn’t the cheapest of these Eurotrucks. Our City Wagon SLT model had a base price of $25,655, and options such as a rear window wiper, rear view camera, and some of the fancier accessories push it up a couple of thousand. But the combination of Italian styling and American power in a well-thought-out package is attractive. And maybe it will help bring a little peace and quiet to my neighborhood.

MONEY Autos

Mini Cooper 4-Door Is a Fun Car With a Serious Price

This elongated version of the classic car is in a tug-of-war between cute little touches and a not-so-cute price tag.

Well look at you, Mini Cooper S 4-door, you’re not so mini anymore.

We have to expect that. After all, in the U.S., Mini is now a teenager, and you know what means: a growth spurt. Indeed, the Mini 4-door has added nearly more than six inches to the car’s length, in part by extending the wheelbase. This squareback has become more rectangular and with more room in the back seat. A teenager might like that.

The Mini 4-door also comes with a more grownup price. It starts at $21,700 for the base model, while the one we drove, the Mini Cooper S, weighs in at a less-than-mini $25,100.

The tags start there, but it is unlikely that any buyer could ever get away with those entry prices. The company boasts that you can get your MINI in any of eight million combinations. Eight million! As if that were a good thing.

For instance, you can choose the Cooper S sport package ($1,250), the premium package ($1,750), the media package ($750), the wired package ($1,750), the wired upgrade ($850), the loaded package ($2,250), the fully loaded ($4,500), or the flash package (a mere $400). You want rear fog lights? That’s $100. How am I supposed to know if I want rear fog lights? Apparently, no one in this company ever heard of the tyranny of choice. Why not make the most useful and popular stuff—a rear camera, say—standard and give consumers a real base price so they don’t need a spreadsheet to figure out the final cost?

Then again, that’s part of the issue with Mini, at least for me. This brand has never screamed value; it’s more about you and the unrelenting cuteness that BMW tries to impart in Mini. And it has done so brilliantly. You can personalize your Mini to the nth degree and give it a name. But this means that our test car had a sticker that neared $36,000, what with its moon roof, heated seats, and the $4,500 fully loaded package, which included everything from bonnet stripes to Xenon headlamps with cornering lights to a navigation system—but no rear camera.

At that price you are inviting competition, and there’s plenty of it. You want cute? There’s the Kia Soul, with the same hipster demeanor and a slightly lower sticker, at $21,000 all tricked out. There’s the new Fiat 500L, starting at $20,900, plus Honda’s Fit. And don’t forget the Ford Fiesta, which despite the Detroit nameplate is a true Eurohatch and starts at around $21,400. (The ST version of the Fiesta, with its 197-horsepower engine, gets admiring nods from the likes of Car and Driver, among others.) Less edgy but ever so practical is Volkswagen’s new Golf, the SE version at about $25,000 being just about everything you’d want in a Mini, but with more room and just as much vroom.

Certainly the 4-door Cooper S is a clever little devil and it may be the first color-coded car in the industry. The dash is dominated by oval designs, from the vents to the temperature controls to the giant information hub that rules the center. It’s an automotive mood ring with an 8-inch screen. The Cooper S has three driving modes—green, standard, and sport—and the ring is there to guide you, in case you’re not used to driving, I guess.

In green, or efficiency mode, the ring is of course green—unless you adjust the heat, upon which the ring goes red, white, and blue, the length of each color moving to match your temperature adjustment. If you have the nav system on—and it BMW’s clumsy version—the ring lights up in white as you approach a turn and gradually recedes around the circle as you get closer and closer to turning. Accent lighting finishes off the show: You can adjust the colors, in case you’re in a purple driving mood. Little kids are going to love this thing, and maybe drive you crazy: “Make it go orange, Mommy.” If you have difficulty distinguishing colors, alas, this isn’t your machine.

The disco dashboard has some sophisticated touches, too, including a clever adjustable steering wheel that’s integrated with the speedometer/tachometer so that the whole unit shifts; because of that, the steering wheel should never get in your sightline. At the top and bottom of the center column is a series of toggle switches, including the red on/off switch, that are reminiscent of WWII vintage aircraft. It’s a nice touch, although one toggle operates a pop-up, heads-up display that defines useless. The windshield falls away at a steep angle, giving you a wide open sensation, and the optional moonroof only adds to it. The Mini doesn’t feel as mini as it is, even in the stretched version. But it is still a Mini. Despite what the company has done to enlarge the rear seating area, including scooping out the backs of the front seats to create a knee nook, the back seats aren’t going to be anyone’s ideal of spacious,

Stretching the Mini hasn’t hurt its driving characteristics. The company still touts its go-kart steering, made possible by the car’s wide-set wheels. The basic Mini 4-door is powered by a 1.5 liter, turbo three-cylinder, 134-hp engine, which doesn’t promise to be a thrill ride. The cornering and parking ease, however, makes it a true city car. The Mini Cooper S we tested ups the ante, to a four-cylinder, twin-turboed 228-hp engine that can reach 60 miles per hour in 6.6 seconds. Perfectly adequate on the highway (and you’ll be well north of 30 miles per gallon). And when you switch to Sport mode, the difference in the 6-speed automatic transmission ($1,250, or $1,500 with paddle shifters) is noticeable.

It’s a fun ride in a fun car, but at a fairly serious price. Alas, the nimble steering of the Mini couldn’t help us evade a pothole on dark and rainy I-95 in Connecticut, which would reveal another benefit of the Cooper S model: runflat tires.

MONEY Autos

At $137,000, the New BMW i8 Is a Steal

This amazing gas-electric hybrid will stop traffic — then leave it in the dust.

The commotion started before I even got to the car. People were taking pictures. The BMW i8 did indeed stop traffic; a guy in a delivery truck braked in the middle of 50th Street to ask permission to take a picture — as if truck drivers in New York City are always asking permission to do things.

When you get to test drive a lot of cars you try to be blasé about them. Bentleys, Benzes, Mustangs, Corvettes, Jags. Next.

Not this time. The BMW i8, a hybrid-electric sportscar machine, is unlike anything else I’ve ever driven. Yes, maybe the lowercase ‘i’ in i8 is a deliberate reference to Apple’s elegant gadgetry, but it’s not by any means a stretch. If you married an iPhone to SpaceX and put the thing on wheels, this is what you might get. The shape is exotic, a curvaceous wedge that is screaming aerodynamics. Its winged doors could make Agent 007 envious. They open skyward, but on the practical side they require only a foot and a half of clearance.

The i8 is priced from about $137,000 to $140,000, although I’m sure you could get one for $130,000 if you negotiate hard. Take it. A steal. Why do I write this way? Wasn’t the Jaguar F-Type and its 550-horsepower power plant a cushy blast? Yes indeed. Is the 2015 ‘Vette not an All-American power avenger going from 0 to 60 miles per hour in a heartbeat? Yes and yes. Love it.

The i8 is a different animal. It has two engines, a battery-powered variety fore and a gasoline-powered one aft. And the latter is a 1.5-liter, three-cylinder number borrowed from the MINI Cooper. How could that putt-putt possibly provide any punch? It does, thanks to some clever German tinkering. The MINI engine is a mini-monster, with an attached turbo booster that raises the output to 228 hp. No big deal, right? Hitch that threebee to the battery-powered, 128-hp traction machine in the front and you get a hybrid 330 horses in a car that weighs 3350 lbs. That’s some 500 lbs. lighter than a Volt. We’re talking about a thrust-to-weight ratio out of a 757.

One of the keys here is the electric engine. As with all electrics — whether you’re driving a Volt, Tesla, or Lionel model train — you get instant torque, because the power reaches the wheels at close to lightspeed. You aren’t actually going to be traveling that fast, although when you punch the i8 in Sport mode, it sure does feel that way. The two large circular indicators that dominate the dashboard change color from cool blue to hot orange. You are in rocket mode, and the i8 starts ripping up pavement at a hellacious clip as you click through the paddle shifters. It’s an elevator ride to 60 mph in four seconds and change. Am I being a tad hyperbolic here? I fear not.

Yet even in the battery-only eDrive mode the ride is special. You drift along as if you are driving a submarine in an urban aquarium, motoring in near silence as spectators gawk. Put on Miles or Mozart or Maroon 5 or whatever you like and you get the sensation that you are seated inside your iPhone listing to iTunes. Try not to notice the people noticing the car. The battery-priority modes you can choose from include Comfort, which imparts much of a sedan feel to the ride, and Eco Pro, which maximizes the fuel savings.

Fuel savings. It’s sort of ironic in a car that clocks in at $136,650 that fuel efficiency is part of the conversation — especially with gas prices under $2 — but BMW is taking the view that energy efficiency is relevant at every price point. And it certainly is. Toyota’s Prius became a status symbol in California for exactly that reason — at least until Tesla got going. The i8 has an electric-only range of about 30 miles, which stinks, before the conventional motor kicks in to charge it. There’s also a portable charger that plugs into a standard 110-volt socket. Combined, the i8 touts a 76 mpg efficiency rating. That gives it a combined range of about 300 miles considering its smallish fuel tank. But as is the case with the Volt, the gas-electric combo eliminates range anxiety from the equation.

Drawbacks? Of course. The i8’s light weight derives from the carbon fiber tub that forms the body, which creates a large lip at the doorway. To say it’s awkward getting in and out of the i8 would be an understatement. The two nominal back seats are very comfortable…for a couple of bags of groceries. There’s a sort of trunk, too, that holds the charger and not much else. On the other hand, the interior is nothing short of cool and elegant, with blue seatbelts and accent lighting offsetting the light gray leather.

So maybe only rich tree-huggers will want to buy an i8, which is a shame. Not that people shouldn’t buy gas guzzling Viper SRTs if that’s what they want in a sports car. To me, it’s all about the ride, and the i8 is just ridiculously fun to drive.

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