TIME Soccer

Soccer’s Brightest American Star Chases a Title

Los Angeles Galaxy v Seattle Sounders - Western Conference Final - Leg 2
Landon Donovan of the Los Angeles Galaxy looks on during the match against the Seattle Sounders FC during the Western Conference Final at CenturyLink Field on Nov. 30, 2014 in Seattle. Otto Greule Jr—Getty Images

Closing time for Landon Donovan

Major League Soccer will get half of its dream matchup in the final of the MLS Cup on Sunday in Los Angeles. In a fitting sendoff, the most important American soccer player in history, Landon Donovan, will play his last game as a professional when his Los Angeles Galaxy team takes on the New England Revolution.

It’s not a stretch to say MLS wouldn’t be the success it is today without Donovan. Now 32, he became the first American soccer star, and the fact that he actually played most of his career in the U.S. was critical. MLS Commissioner Don Garber credits him with making the league a respectable option for pros. “He was the first guy who said: This is a league I want to get behind,” Garber says.

It would have been fitting if the best European player to ever play in MLS, Thierry Henry, was also in the final, but Henry’s New York Red Bulls got eliminated by the dogged Revs in the semi-final by a 4-3 aggregate score. You don’t get to the final because the script says it would a be nice script. Henry has won everywhere everything else—World Cup, European Cup, Champions League, English, French and Spanish championships—but he leaves U.S. empty handed. C’est la vie, Henry.

But there’s still a good European-American story, here. That would be Jermaine Jones, the driving force behind the resurgent Revs, who at one point posted an eight-game losing streak. Until Jones arrived. This son of an American father and a German mother was born and raised in Germany. After the bulk of his career in Germany’s Bundesliga, Jones, 33, was parceled out to New England this summer. “He is so smart tactically,” Revs coach Jay Heaps says. “He can see the game. There are times when we want him to be a little more aggressive attack wise, or times we need him to close a gap defensively. He understands that better than most.”

Jones’ brand of Teutonic tackling and never-say-die American attitude was one of the great stories of the U.S. National team’s World Cup run. This guy could play middle linebacker for Patriots and there are times on the pitch when he seems to confuse the two. But he is relentless, and a guy who will be critical if New England pulls this one off.

So will Lee Nguyen, the Revs attacking midfielder. A Texan who has played in Holland, Denmark, and Viet Nam, he’s become a fixture in New England. If Nguyen scores or gets an assist, the Revs have a good shot at winning.

That’s going to be difficult because L.A. is just reeking with class. Donovan is a proven pressure player, his last gasp goal against Algeria in the 2006 World Cup being one of the great ones in U.S. history. “We’ve done this before,” Donovan said of the MLS Cup. “We have experienced players and great leadership on the team. We know what it’s all about.”

One of Donovan’s strike partners is the2014 MLS MVP Robbie Keane. The Irishman has a wealth of big club experience (Liverpool, Leeds, Celtic, Tottenham), and is exactly the kind of striker made for games like this: Give him an inch and he’ll kill you. He’s scored more than 250 goals in a career that began in 1997. Unlike Donovan, the 34-year old Keane has no plans to hang up his boots, but he’ll probably miss Donovan. “It’s been one of the best partnerships I’ve had,” said Keane. “If anyone deserves to go out on a high note, it’s him.”

The big winner of the day will be MLS itself. This year, its 19th, the league made certain it would have a 20th and beyond with a $720 million television deal with Fox Sports, ESPN and Univision. Its television ratings took a big jump this season, no doubt helped by the exposure given the game by the World Cup. Franchise values have skyrocketed and two new teams, in New York City and Orlando, will join the league next year. Attendance is up to 19,000 a game on average and sellouts are not uncommon.

That’s a far cry from when Donovan started in MLS. “I could have never in a million years imagined playing against Thierry Henry in brand new stadiums,” he said. Or playing with stars like Keane, or David Beckham. “If you had said those things in 2001, I would have said ‘you’re absolutely crazy.’”

You’ve got to applaud Donovan for playing his part in that. The next task is to make the quality of the play world class, beyond a couple of marquee players. There’s still a lot of work to do on that count. But given the class of the players who will be on the field Sunday, expect a match that lives up to a title game.


Toyota Tries to Nudge the Camry Upscale

A test-drive of the new 2015 Camry shows how Toyota is using fancy trim and gadgetry in a bid to make a thoroughbred out of its workhorse.

Living in New York City, I am always amazed to see how many beat-up old Camrys prowl the streets.

A lot of them are missing fenders or sporting that two-tone, quarter-panel-from–the-junkyard look. Nobody here seems to buy a Camry to style around town. It’s a car you buy because you can beat the crap out of it, and 100,000 miles later you can let your kid beat the crap out of it or sell it to someone else who will do likewise.

Toyota redesigned the 2015 Camry to give its prized midsized mule a little bit more thoroughbred swagger and sheen — making it look like something you’d want to take care of, so that maybe when you’re backing into a tight parking spot you’ll be less inclined to tap bumpers. It’s got a rear backup camera, which will help. But this newest version is also sharper-elbowed and sharper-shouldered in its styling, and on some trims there’s a new front grill that‘s really trying to look angry. “Demands respect at every corner,” barks Toyota’s marketing department.

We hear you, Toyota, but in the wheelhouse there’s not much that’s new. The Camry’s engine choices haven’t changed. Long a paragon of four-pot pragmatism, Camry offers its standard four-cylinder, 2.5 liter engine on the 2015 models, which gets you to 178 horsepower and a combined 28 miles per gallon. The XSE model, which we drove, also offers a 3.5 liter, 236-hp V-6 engine to do the loud talking, with fuel economy at 25 mpg combined. There’s also a 200-hp (combined) hybrid electric engine available that gets about 40 mpg.

Things were going well in the XSE, with its blue-tinted entry lights on the bottom door sill, the broad moon roof bathing the car in light, the phone charging wirelessly on the clever Qi pad on the center console. The XSE also had $1,200 worth of safety options such as a blind-spot monitor, lane monitor, and pre-collision braking system — options that should become standard.

I was beginning to buy into the whole bold new Camry idea when the voice from the passenger seat T-boned into the sentences forming in my head. “This feels like a rental,” my wife said.

How brutal! No, no, no, she responded, as if the Camry might hear her; it wasn’t a putdown, just an observation. The Camry is a fine car indeed, she said.

I agree: Nice ride, decent noise and vibration levels. Pretty comfortable. Nothing too fussy on the dash despite its Entune premium audio/navigation technology. But nothing to raise the pulse rate too much, either, and we were driving a jazzed-up version that weighed in at $35,000, not some fleet meat from the Hertz lot. Ours had 18-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights, and dual chrome tipped exhaust. The leather-trim seats seemed a little underwhelming given the rest of the package, but how much higher can you drive the price of this car anyway before drivers start balking?

That’s the point, isn’t it? You can drive out of a Toyota dealership with a perfectly nice Camry for $25,000 without having second thoughts. When you start pushing $35,000 for a midsized nice car, your thoughts start to wander to Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata, the new Chrysler 200, maybe even an Audi A3 — smaller but more luxurious.

It isn’t easy being popular, so all credit to Toyota for trying to raise Camry’s game and hold off the mid-sized hordes. But maybe there’s a better way to do this than add chrome and glitz and a higher sticker price. I’m sure Toyota will figure that out.

In the meantime, I expect that in 10 years someone will still be driving that XSE in my neighborhood. And there will be some big dings in that restyled grill.

TIME Travel

How to Keep Your Cool Traveling With 41 Million People

If you have to travel this Thanksgiving

There are going to be some 41 million people in motion before and after Thanksgiving, unless they are stopped cold by the weather gods. Looking at the National Weather Service’s color-coded alert map, the glob of warning colors running from Washington D.C. to Maine might be described as Cancelation Red rather than a winter storm warning. It’s gonna be ugly, folks. And inside the crowded airports, lots of passengers who really don’t fly all that much—this is a weekend for amateurs—will be cluelessly waiting in line for the airlines that just canceled their flights to reroute them.

You don’t want to be one of these people. If you are standing on a line, it’s probably already too late to get re-accommodated quickly.

MORE: Inside the strange world of airline cancellations

No matter the forecast, you should always have a Plan B in mind when you travel. Even if you’re not a frequent flier, download the app for the airline you are taking so it can text you with updates. There are also apps such as Flight Aware that will send you alerts—and you can also see how well the entire system is performing. Increasingly, the airlines will rebook you automatically if you give them the opportunity. This happened to me last year while reporting on a story about cancelations—although that 3 a.m. phone call could have waited. Nevertheless, this automatic “reaccomm” as the carriers call it, can be really helpful.

But if the situation goes south when you’re at the airport, you need to figure out your options in advance. Flights are so full that in the event of a cancelation, rebooking the next direct flight might not be possible. Look for connections. Consider the mid-country hubs that might help get you where you are going: Houston, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Chicago, one of them is bound to have decent weather.

MORE: Holiday travelers rejoice! Thanksgiving gas prices will be the lowest in years

You need to be proactive. When my flight from Tokyo to New York was canceled by a big, disruptive East Coast hurricane a couple of years ago, the carrier offered to fly me to Los Angeles—where I would be stuck for three days waiting for an available flight. I started to look to build unscheduled connections that could get me farther east. By going hub to hub to hub (LAX-ORD-DCA), I got close enough to home so that I could drive or take a train.

MORE: Download these 7 holiday travel apps to get home in time for turkey

Having lots of experience with airline calamity has taught me the scramble drill. You need to be armed with enough knowledge so that in the event you actually do have to deal with an airline agent, you can get what you want, not what they are offering. Be firm and insistent to make your point but don’t scream at airline employees; you can communicate your ire in a civil tone and get better results.

Here are a few other tips for peak travel weeks:

No, you can’t bring that on board

If you don’t travel much, go to TSA’s website to figure out exactly what you can or can’t bring through the security checkpoint. Hint: weapons are a no-no.

Know your rights ahead of time

Every carrier posts a Contract of Carriage (here’s Delta’s, for instance) that explains terms and obligations pertaining to your ticket. Pay particular attention to Rule 240 or its equivalent, which covers delays and cancelations. All the carriers have a Contingency Plan for Lengthy Tarmac Delays, too.

Consider checking a bag

It’s amazing to watch people trying to lug so much stuff onto chock full jets. You hate paying $25 to check a bag, as you should. But the fewer points of friction you create for yourself, the calmer you are going to be on board. And the more space you’ll have under your feet. Keep in mind that very few bags are mishandled.

Consider travel insurance, which can sometimes be purchased last minute

The airlines have now dumped all the travel risk on you: Your airfare is non-refundable, and if weather scratches your flight, you’re on your own if you need to find food and lodging. Travel insurance offsets those risks, but at a price, typically about 5% of the trip cost. The higher the cost, the better the case for insurance, which will pay off from everything from flight delays to emergency cancelations on your part. Seek independent, third party insurers rather than airlines or travel agencies.

Try to roll with it. Easier said than done, yes. People—both adults and kids—tend to lose it more quickly in airports, because we’re not in control of anything. It’s beyond frustrating. If you are traveling without kids, you might make some new friends at the bar—or at the increasing number of “private” lounges open to the public for a $35 fee. (Which includes drinks.) If you are traveling with kids, you might not. Just remember, somewhere in that airport somebody else’s kids are behaving worse than yours.

So if you are one of the 41 million, bon voyage.

As for me, I’m staying put. You have to be crazy to travel on Thanksgiving.

Read next: 5 Ways to Be an Airplane Aggravation


Audi A3 is Made for Millennials

The new entry-level Audi is elegant and understated. Plus, it will read incoming text messages out loud for you.

A number of years ago I met with Audi executives, who wanted to deliver a message: keep an eye on us. They told me that Audi is going to get better and better and then challenge Mercedes and BMW.

That kind of statement sticks with you, but the Audi guys made good on their promise. Audi has now racked up 45 consecutive months of record sales in the U.S. because it can offer a full lineup of elegantly engineered automobiles, from the wondrous R8 sports car to the latest new model, the entry-level A3. The company is banking on winning conquests from Asian makers — maybe Lexus or Acura drivers who want a little more panache — and clearly it wants to take on its German rivals head-to-head.

And in the A3, which starts at around $30,000, Audi has a good case. Let’s be clear, though: If you’re looking for whistles and bells, for over-the-top (as in Italian) styling, or for lots of ornaments on your auto, you probably should go elsewhere. The A3 is luxury defined as restrained elegance, with quality if quiet materials, and a ride that is powerful enough without calling too much attention to itself. You may buy an A3 to announce that you’ve moved up into the 90th percentile, but you’re not going to shout about it.

That was true even with the color of the car we tested. Yes, the Scuba Blue hue was an extra $550. But unlike, say, the cornflower blue of the BMW M3 we drove a couple of weeks before, which was screaming, “I’m TOH-tally cool blue,” this color projected strength. And so did the engine, where it really counts. We were running the bigger of the two power plants that Audi offers in the A3, a turbocharged, 2.0 liter, 220-horsepower, 4–cylinder engine and all-wheel drive that brings the price to $32,900. The 1.8 liter, 170-hp front-wheel drive version gets you in at $30,795, which means you’re giving up a lot of power and torque for two thou. Both versions are equipped with a six-speed, dual-clutch automatic transmission, and that’s not a small thing. It’s a lot of fun looking at the tachometer as you rev through the gears; although the needle races left to right and back again, the smooth transition up and down the gearbox is very impressive.

As for the ride, you can be comfortably aggressive however you like to drive, but the Audi, like lots of refined autos, offers you a couple of modes to tune your wheels. Choose the sport mode, and the electronic steering digs in a little harder and the pedal gets more jumpy, yet the feeling is calm and the interior is quiet enough to enjoy the sound system.

Inside, the A3 dashboard is like a German winter — cool and dark — with a couple of round aluminum AC ports to interrupt the rich leather panel. But it can be brightened by the MMI navigation package, which features a pop-up screen that rises out of the dash like a submarine periscope: Drive! Drive!

The center console is the control room with the commands dished out by a center dial and a four-corner touch panel to handle navigation, audio, and communication. The top of the dial also serves as a touchpad that allows you to write in the destination you want the navigation system to find. It all sounds a bit complex, but after two days I had a really good feel for it — something I can’t say for other vehicles with similar systems.

The only drawback to the interior is the back seat, which can hold three passengers, but only if you really don’t like the one stuck in the middle. Some reviewers have found it downright cramped, but this is what entry-level luxury means in a small sedan. Same thing with the trunk, which I found to be adequate, if just barely.

How can you make a German luxury car that sells for $30,000? Don’t build it in Germany. The A3 is assembled in Gyor, Hungary, and 35% of the parts are Hungarian-made. It’s actually a good deal: Hungary’s wages are lower than Germany’s, which helps keep the price down, yet at the same time it has a very skilled labor force.

But also keep in mind that $30,000 is bare and spare, with no rear-view camera or blind-spot mirrors. The nav and communications system adds $2,600, and the A3 Premium Plus model tacked on $2,550 for heated power front seats and mirrors and other goodies. Paddle shifter? That will be $600. The price for the total package we drove was $40,000 and change. So while the entry-level price is reasonable, the finishing price could boost the bill depending on your choices. That said, if you do choose the A3, you have chosen well.

TIME Autos

Everything You Need to Know About Takata’s Air-Bag Recall

So far, 7.8 million cars have been recalled from 10 manufacturers over explosive airbags

Even the normal deployment of an airbag is a violent event. It is initiated by a controlled explosion inside an inflator setting off a chemical reaction that forms nitrogen gas that rapidly expands the airbag, propelling it toward your head at speeds up to 200 mph, all within 20 to 30 milliseconds. That’s the kind of violence needed to dissipate the energy being created by a car involved in a crash. But this explosion shouldn’t hurl shards of metal toward the driver’s face and neck, which has happened in some cars with airbags designed by Takata, a major safety system supplier to the auto industry. Here’s everything you need to know about the widespread recall:

How severe is this problem?
There have been five fatalities linked to Takata’s airbags and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has already issued a recall of 7.8 million cars from 10 manufacturers that have the suspect airbags installed. All are relatively old cars, from model years 2000 to 2008.

How can I find out if my car is affected?
You can call the NHTSA’s hotline : 1-888-327-4236. Or you can go to its website. You will need your vehicle’s identification number (VIN), which can usually be found on the front left of the dashboard near the window.

Why are the cars being recalled?
The propellant Takata used to set off the airbag’s inflator—ammonium nitrate—apparently becomes unstable in humid climates and degrades. The explosion triggering the airbag becomes less controllable, even fatally so. That’s why the original recall focused on cars operating in humid areas of the country including Florida, Puerto Rico, and parts of Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana near the Gulf of Mexico. But now the Department of Transportation and NHTSA have called on Takata to issue a national recall for all cars that have the suspect airbag inflators. NHTSA has also demanded more information from Takata about whether and when it knew about the design and manufacturing flaws, with a due date of Dec. 5. The company said it will comply.

Are these the only dangerous airbags?
Three companies supply most of the world’s airbags; Takata, TRW and Autoliv. Only Takata’s airbags are in question, though, because only Takata used ammonium nitrate as a propellant (and it no longer does).

Why did they use ammonium nitrate in their airbags?
Ammonium nitrate provides more bang in a smaller volume than other propellants, which allows the company to offer a more compact device to manufacturers. That’s a potential competitive advantage. In a story in the New York Times outlining Takata’s switch to ammonium nitrate in 2000, the company denied using ammonium nitrate to save costs.

What is Congress doing about the recalls?
At a hearing in Washington D.C. on Thursday, Takata officials were eviscerated by members of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee over the faulty airbags and the company’s failure to notify NHTSA about them. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida demanded that automakers provide loaner cars or rentals to consumers who were waiting to get replacement airbags in their own cars “by virtue of the fear that has already gripped the public,” he said. Honda is already doing that.

Nelson also displayed a large photo of the damage done to the face of one woman, former Air Force Lt. Stephanie Erdman. She was severely injured in one eye by the flying shrapnel produced by an exploding Takata airbag after the 2002 Honda Civic she was driving was involved in a fender bender. “What happened to me was gruesome,” she testified, and called out Honda for allowing her to drive a defective car. “They did nothing to warn me,” she said.

Does Takata acknowledge its responsibility for injuries and deaths?
That’s exactly what Nevada Sen. Dean Heller asked during the Senate hearing. But Takata executives were both evasive and tongue-tied by language issues. Takata’s Hiroshi Shimizu, senior vice president for global quality assurance said via an interpreter that the company recognized three victims’ cases were linked to the Takata airbags but said two others were being investigated. So let’s take the three, said Heller. Does Takata take full responsibility for those three deaths? “My understanding is our products in these accidents worked abnormally,” said Shimizu, before stipulating, “From that sense, yes.”

Do regulators also deserve some blame?
The Senate committee member faulted the NHTSA for not being able to stay ahead of defects. Heller, a car enthusiast, chafed about the length of time the agency waits from when a defect is found and until a recall is ordered. “NHTSA is not recognizing the defects fast enough, he said. To help the agency speed up a bit, Heller and several other members of the committee are proposing a Motor Vehicle Safety Whistleblower Act that would encourage auto industry employees to identify defects to NHTSA with the prospect of collecting a share of any fines of more than $1 million.


Jaguar F-Type R Coupe: This Beast Eats Up the Road

Don't let this Jag's understated British heritage fool you. The car goes from zero to 60 in four seconds, and can hit 186 miles per hour.

“So how fast were you going?” a friend asked when I told him I’d taken a Jaguar F-Type R coupe out on a race track.

The answer is that I’m not quite certain, because when the speedometer goes north of 100 miles per hour, the last thing you should be doing is looking at it, especially with a sharp left turn coming up.

What’s more interesting about the F-Type R coupe is how quickly you can get to 100 mph, which is to say bang-your-head-against-the-headrest quick, thanks to a 5.0-liter, 550-horsepower, 32-valve, V-8 engine eager to do your bidding. This works very nicely on a race course, of course — as it did at the Monticello Motor Club, a track where we tested the car, about 100 miles northwest of New York City. But it’s also a deliriously happy experience when entering the FDR Drive on Manhattan’s East Side from an on-ramp that’s about 10 feet long. Put the car in launch mode — from dead stop to heart stop, from 0 to 60 mph in four seconds. Then let that taxi get a just a little closer and then — WHRROOOM — you’re halfway to Harlem in a giddy symphony of exhaust noise. The newest Corvette is actually faster, but the Jag has a top speed of 186 mph, in case you’re trying to make a flight. The F-Type is low, wide and ferociously handsome as it gobbles up curves. Beast.

The V-8 is the biggest power plant offered in the F Series, and the reason that the price tag crests over $100,000 for the R coupe. Those 550 horses don’t work for peanuts. You can chose a V-6 coupe with a 340-hp engine beginning at $65,000, or the coupe Type S for $77,000 that gets you 380 hp. You probably won’t be needing the $8,000 carbon ceramic brake package that our test Jag had. You will, however, be making use of the rear spoiler that pops up when the car hits 70 mph, (pleasingly observable from the rearview mirror), and then retreats below 50 mph. The panoramic glass roof enhances the fighter jet feel.

The F-Type even has a trick in its bag when you’re doing zero: An Intelligent Stop/Start feature shuts the motor off at a traffic light, but touch the gas pedal and the car jumps back to life. It’s quite unexpected, and it helps keeps the fuel consumption in the 20 mpg range. To manage all that muscle, there’s a very smooth eight-speed, paddle-shift automatic transmission.

Much of Jaguar’s history has been caught up in its Britishness, its motorcar-ness. There’s always been a certain amount of understatement to British sports cars, exemplified by bespoke interiors — walnut trim and all that — combined with something quietly aggressive under the hood. The British influence in race engines is unimpeachable when you think of outfits such as Cosworth, which, with Ford’s backing, dominated F1 for years. And Jag’s V-12 was similarly a legend on the LeMans circuit. But by the late 1970s, Jaguar was already floundering, and when Ford bought it in 1989, the company was long on heritage and low on quality.

Ford would fix most of Jag’s problems, eventually producing the outstanding XJ8, a 4.0-liter, 290-hp, 32-valve V-8 jewel that a colleague described as a cross between an F-16 fighter jet and an English manor house. A gorgeous creature, that XJ8.

The F-Type R coupe is a chip off the old XJ8 block, not to mention the classic E-Type, albeit with a new owner. In 2008, Ford dumped just about everything not named Ford, and then borrowed $22 billion to try to save the company — successfully, it turned out — from the financial crisis. The buyer of Jaguar, as well as Range Rover, was Tata Group, the big Indian conglomerate, which added not a little historic irony to the deal: The former colonials were buying two of their former British masters’ most cherished automobile badges.

And in the F-Type, Tata has shown that it has more than respected these brands; indeed, it has upgraded them. The F-Type’s interior is now a combination English manor and rocket ship: luxurious leather reminiscent of the bespoke Jag ancestry; a roof-to-floor racing seat with a 14-way controller and side baffles that get you oh-so-snug for liftoff; dash dials that mean business; and AC that blows in from clever pop-up vents.

Then there’s the switch resting at your right hand, a toggle that allows access to the car’s Dynamic Mode. According to the company, the switch remaps the F-Type’s software to “sharpen the throttle response, increase steering weighting, stiffen suspension and perform gear shifts more quickly at higher engine speeds.” It puts this cat in pounce mode, in other words. I kept looking for a Mini to eat for a snack.

To the right of the gearshift is another button that engages the F-Type’s tuned exhaust system. If you know Mustangs or Harleys, you’re familiar with the distinct sound they make — a sound that is as carefully engineered as a Steinway grand. Jaguar is trying to establish a new note in its pipes, one we might label Get the F-Type Out of My Way. It’s an almost malevolent roar that lets anyone near you know that they soon won’t be. Combine that with the spoiler and the dynamic mode, and it’s a 550-hp drivable video game with a soundtrack from Harley by way of Fender. There’s no stiff upper lip here. This is Cool Britannia, even if it isn’t owned by the Brits.


New Lincoln MKC: Comfort With a Dash of Audacity

The entry-level luxury crossover SUV, which sits atop a Ford Escape chassis, dares to compete with foreign rivals. It's up to the challenge.

You’ve got to give Lincoln Motor a little credit just for the sheer audacity of its marketing posture for the MKC, its new entry-level luxury crossover SUV. No, I’m not talking about the endlessly parodied commercials featuring stud actor Matthew McConaughey. I’m talking about Lincoln inviting direct comparison with foreign rivals such as the Audi Q5, the BMW X3, the Mercedes GLK, and the Acura RDX — and basically saying, “Bring it on.”

What gives Lincoln this kind of chrome chops? In truth, a little desperation helps. When Alan Mulally reorganized Ford a couple of years ago, he sold off the company’s upscale badges — Jaguar, Range Rover, and Volvo — and junked its pointless Mercury brand. Lincoln lived because it could offer something unique: American luxury.

And if Lincoln wants to be relevant, it has to play ball in the upscale urban crossover sport utility vehicle (a.k.a. CUV) market. The MKC has got some game. At a base price of about $34,000, the MKC dares to be different in a very American way. Where the Germans offer Teutonic toughness, the MKC offers a comfy ride. You are, after all, driving the kids to soccer practice, not taking laps at Nürburgring. Do you really need to feel the road that much?

The revelation for me occurred in the first 10 seconds of my test drive: This ride feels nice. And that’s a good thing. Start with the chair. Every car evaluation has to begin here. The MKC’s is a beauty: a 10-way power, heated driver’s seat with lumbar controls. You will find your sweet spot; you will be sitting pretty. Then there’s the lack of road noise, courtesy of an active noise control system. You can also add continuously controlled damping ($650 extra) — all those sensors working to keep road vibrations from reaching you.

But don’t think this is an old-fashioned American couch drive. The MKC has electronic steering control, so it’s responsive enough. And thanks to its tunable suspension — with settings for comfort, normal, and sport — you can get a stiffer ride if you want one. Still, there’s no confusing the MKC for an Audi. You can decide if you like that or not.

There’s also a gimmick: a push-button gear selector located on the dash. How high-tech is that? Not very. It’s actually a throwback to the 1950s and 1960s. The indestructible, used, mid-60s vintage Plymouth station wagon (the original CUV) that my parents hauled their four offspring in had this very same feature, as did any number of models of the time. Lincoln has revived the push-button transmission for the MKC — only this time around it adds some unexpected elegance to the car and also frees up room in the center console.

There’s some real innovation at the back of the CUV: an optional motion sensor that lets you wave a foot underneath the wraparound tail gate to open it. Quite useful.

The MKC is offered in three flavors, Premiere ($34,000 to $36,000), Select ($37,225 to $40,860) and Reserve ($40,930 to $44,565). One of Lincoln’s selling points is that its competitors start at around $40,000 for a very basic model, and the price moves up quickly with options. The Premiere MKC model is powered by Ford’s 2.0 liter, 240-hp EcoBoost I-4, which has plenty of pop. With the other two trims, you have the option of the 2.3 L, 285-hp version. All-wheel drive is available on all three.

I drove the bigger power plant with AWD, and there’s nothing lacking there; it delivers 305 lb-ft of torque, and churns plenty of power. The EcoBoost engine is a Ford mainstay, and totally fitting for the MKC. With the Reserve trim you can also opt for a technology package that includes adaptive cruise control, collision warning with brake support, active park assist, forward sensing, lane-keeping, and driver alert systems. This is a really good safety grouping; let’s hope it’s standard on all cars some day.

The fact that Ford has piled so many nice touches into the Lincoln MKC is a bit confounding in auto circles, since the car is built on the same platform as the Ford Escape. It evokes memories of earlier times, when the Big Three created really bad luxury cars this way, Lincoln among them. But in modern practice, wherein manufactures try to minimize the number of platforms across a global product line, it works just fine. If Audis can sit on VW beds, there’s no reason Lincolns can’t sit on Fords. It’s all about execution. And with the MKC, Lincoln has pulled it off.


Cheap Gas Puts the Squeeze on Hybrids and EVs

Electric cars suffer when it’s easy to fill the tank

Earlier this year, Fiat Chrysler boss Sergio Marchionne joked that he hoped consumers wouldn’t buy the Fiat 500e (e for electric), because the company loses $14,000 on each one, given the cost of the technology inside. That shows the bind carmakers find themselves in these days: Americans have been buying more green cars of all types, but as gas prices plummet, companies have resorted to steep discounts to keep sales from stalling.

Automakers sold about 90,000 hybrid electrics, plug-in hybrid electrics and battery-powered electrics through September, a 30% increase over 2013 in what will likely be a record year. Sales of plug-ins–which can be recharged overnight–are up nearly 85%, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association (EDTA).

But sales are sensitive to the price of gas. Last month green-car sales flagged by some 30% as average prices at the pump in the U.S. dropped to near $3 a gallon, the lowest since 2010. With oil at $80 a barrel and falling, cheap gas could be with us for a while.

The efficiency of old-line internal-combustion engines is also making green-car dealers’ lives harder. The passenger car’s fuel-economy average is now 36.5 m.p.g. (6.4 L/100 km), according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, and on its way to 54.5 m.p.g. (4.3 L/100 km) as a result of regulations implemented by the Obama Administration in 2012. That, along with gas prices, is making electrics less compelling. “When gas is $3 a gallon, people are saying, ‘Why do I need to?'” says Patrick Olsen, editor of Cars.com. “People are not willing to put up with the slight inconvenience of having to charge their car.”

Plug-ins like Marchionne’s Fiat 500e are still more cost-effective to drive. Owners pay the equivalent of $1.29 a gallon to run their cars, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. But so far, consumers aren’t doing the math. The differences among electric models also make it hard for the average consumer to make sense of the wider array of new, high-tech models.

To broaden plug-ins’ appeal beyond early adopters, car companies have been narrowing the premium usually paid over gas-powered cars. Ford lowered its Focus Electric price by $6,000, to $29,995, following a $4,000 cut last year. Throw in a maximum $7,500 federal tax credit and the price is less than $23,000. That’s on par with the higher-end gas-powered model. The 2014 and 2015 Chevy Volt are $5,000 cheaper than the 2013 model. Tesla, the California luxury electric manufacturer, is making its leases 25% cheaper and offering a 90-day return policy with a new lease.

The larger problem with plug-ins and battery-powered cars is that they tend to come in two varieties: very pricey statement cars, like the BMW i8 ($135,700), or small cars packed with expensive battery technology that pushes the price up. Both have proved to be a tough sell, even though cars like the Nissan Leaf (pictured) and the Chevy Volt are great drives. At a recent automotive tech conference, a Ford executive said the industry needs to produce more affordable mid- and full-size cars to truly make plug-ins popular.

The industry has also yet to mollify consumer anxiety over battery life, especially in the Northern states, where cold winters can cut range short. Most electrics can’t go beyond 100 miles (160 km) before recharging in normal conditions. Inevitably, battery life will improve as costs decline. That’s the way of technology. “It’s still more of a long-term play,” says Ford sales guru Erich Merkle. “Battery, ranges, speed of charge, infrastructure–a lot of things that are yet to be developed.”

Automakers plan to introduce some 20 new models by 2016, according to the EDTA. That includes a next-gen Volt with an extended-range propulsion system.

American car buyers can be a shortsighted group. Up through the early 2000s, they opted for big SUVs as gas prices stayed low. Then prices spiked, and consumers scrambled to find more-efficient rides. “We are going to get back to $5 gasoline for some reason at some point. Then people will be screaming,” says Olsen. Maybe by then they’ll even be screaming for electrics.

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