Rally driving is fun, but freeway rain a true test

John Gilbert

 

Ford's 2020 Escape. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Ford's 2020 Escape. Photo credit: John Gilbert
BMW X2 in M35 trim.   Photo credit: Jack Gilbert.
BMW X2 in M35 trim.   Photo credit: Jack Gilbert.
BMW X2 interior wins. Photo credit: John Gilbert
BMW X2 interior wins. Photo credit: John Gilbert

 

Joliet, Ill.
After our breakfast meeting, we poured out of the meeting room to look
over the rows of new cars we were about to test drive on the private
road-racing course at the Autobahn Country Club. That’s when I first
spotted the pair of compact SUVs, parked only a few feet apart, and
clearly unrelated.

As it turned out, they were the most impressive two vehicles, in my
opinion, of the annual MAMA Fall Rally, held last week, on October 2,
2019. The first one was a low and sleek vehicle, parked next to a
flashy Ford Explorer, redesigned as a 2020 SUV. But the low, sleek
little black one was the new Escape — looking nothing like any Escape
we’ve seen in the two decades of its life.

For further evidence, we drove the Escape and found it quick, agile
and a treat to drive, around the side-roads surrounding the Autobahn
Country Club. I drove it back in, and parked it in exactly the same
spot it was, and when I climbed out, I spotted a gleaming white
compact SUV — the new BMW X2, which, as a fool could guess, is smaller
than an X7, X5, X4, and X3, and larger than the X1. This X2 also was
an M35, meaning BMW’s high-performance treatment had imbued it with
more power, special suspension, special interior, and everything you
might want, if you can afford it.

Driving the X2 was also a treat, and would have been our No. 1 pick,
except that the Escape was a much more user-friendly price, and you
could undoubtedly buy two of them for the price of the X2. So in our
ranking, the star of the show was the Escape, and the BMW X2 a close
second. We vote on a “family vehicle of the year” through MAMA, which
seeks real-world family virtues in a vehicle.

The Midwest Auto Media Association (MAMA) puts on two fantastic shows
for its members every year, a Spring Rally at Elkhart Lake, Wis., on
the Road America road course, and a Fall Rally at the Autobahn Country
Club. That facility, with two complete road courses, is laid out with
high-tech maintenance garages adjacent, and it’s just like a golf
country club, only instead of playing golf, you come out, work on your
favorite car, and go out and drive in on the track. Within reason, of
course. The only downside was that the Chicago region was hit by
pretty steady rain all day, so we either drove on the nearby roadways,
or took it very easy on the race track.

 

Pair of Supras. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Pair of Supras. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Ford's new Explorer ST.  Photo credit: Jack Gilbert.
Ford's new Explorer ST.  Photo credit: Jack Gilbert.
 Lincoln Aviator, new for 2020.  Photo credit: Jack Gilbert.
Lincoln Aviator, new for 2020.  Photo credit: Jack Gilbert.

 

Reporting about cars — and sports, too, for that matter — are a family
affair in the Gilbert Household, and Jack, our older son, always
accompanies me to the rallies, and was my co-driver down and back from
Duluth to Chicago. He also takes photos and gives us four eyes instead
of two to scrutinize the new stuff. He agreed with me that the Escape
and X2 were the two show-stoppers, although he would put the BMW
first.

The field of vehicles was somewhat restricted this year, with one
reason being the arrival of the threats by General Motors and Ford to
cut back on cars, in favor of trucks. Also, there seemed to be fewer
all-new vehicles among the cars of the world, and we did our best to
scare them up.

We drove down in the Lexus ES300h hybrid luxury sedan, and I mentioned
in last week’s report that we’d be able to more fully discuss that one
after driving it 422 miles from Duluth to Joliet. I had said for most
of the week, I had averaged about 22 miles per gallon, and, sure
enough, on our trip — watching speed limits and the narrow lanes of
road construction closely — we tallied 46.9 miles per gallon for the
trip.

Toyota was the sponsor for the breakfast, and showed off its greatly
ballyhooed and heavily promoted Supra. Very impressive, and a slick
2-seater that returns the brand to the high-performance sports car
scene it seemed to have abandoned. The secret of the Supra is that
Toyota collaborated with BMW to build it. BMW, we were told, still
makes an in-line 6, which was the engine of heritage in the previous
Supra. There is tremendous power in that inline 6, with 335 horsepower
and a torque rating of 365, which peaks at 1,600 RPMs and holds it up
through 4,500 RPMs. Not bad for a 3,397-pound car, with 50-50 weight
distribution. It starts at $49,995 in base form.

Among our other favorites was a distinctive blue Ford Explorer, in ST
trim, tight and comfortable and another hit for Ford as the venerable
SUV seems closer to full size nowadays, in its new shape and set-up.
If Ford is dropping the Taurus, Fusion, Focus and Fiesta, it does have
an army of SUVs to fill in.

Chevy trio:  Transverse, Blazer, Silverado. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Chevy trio:  Transverse, Blazer, Silverado. Photo credit: John Gilbert
New generation Honda CRV. Photo credit: John Gilbert
New generation Honda CRV. Photo credit: John Gilbert

At GM, things seem a bit shakier because of the ongoing strike, and
the sudden demise of the Silverado pickup, which has dropped to third
behind Ford and Ram in pickup sales. The midsize Colorado looks good,
and the Silverado’s companion GMC Sierra looks good. Also, the new
Blazer should sell as a compact crossover, and the redesigned Traverse
are attractive entries in the crossover segment. Cadillac fills out
its SUV array with the new XT4.

Honda put on the lunch break for the gathered hundred media types, and
showed off the 2020 CR-V, its venerable compact crossover that goes
into a new generation with a 1.5-liter Turbo and some restyling. There
wasn’t one to drive, though. The upscale Acura division had an MDX
available, and while it is a bit older than its more compact RDX
sibling, it comes complete with every high-tech item imaginable,
including the latest ELS Panasonic surround audio system. That
actually was the first vehicle I drove, and as I followed a tight map
around the Autobahn neighborhood, sure enough we got stopped by a
slow-moving freight train. It crept, slowly, for about 15 minutes,
then stopped. We made a U-turn and found an alternate route. Good
thing we had the ELS package.

Among other new vehicles, Ford’s expanding stable adds the new Lincoln
Aviator, resurrecting that old name in an all-new form, with a
3.0-liter V6 and a hybrid power complement.

Kia Soul hot rod.  Photo credit: Jack Gilbert.
Kia Soul hot rod.  Photo credit: Jack Gilbert.
Hyundai Palisade. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Hyundai Palisade. Photo credit: John Gilbert

Another  new vehicle was the Nissan Versa, redone for the new year
with mild styling tweaks. Volkswagen had its new Arteon, and also the
high-performing sibling GTI and GLI. Nissan had the latest version of
the sizzling GTR sports coupe, with blinding fast acceleration and
busy but meaningful styling.

Two driver-pleasing compacts were there, the Mazda3 in its new
all-wheel-drive form both in sedan and hatchback, and Kia had its big,
powerful Stinger sedan available, and also a new Soul, with its
“upgrade” to the 1.6-liter Turbo, which has more dash than the
2.0-liter normally aspirated 4.

We will get into deeper analysis of all these cars as they become
available for week-long test-fleet drives, and getting a head start on
those is the South Korean Hyundai Palisade. I attended the
introduction of the Palisade in the territory around Coeur d’Alene,
Idaho, and wrote about it several months ago, and after recently
driving the new Kia Tulleride sister ship, it was nice to get a
Pallisade to drive home from Chicago to Duluth.

Or, it would have been nice had it not been monsoon season. We always
make an adventure out of getting to Joliet without making the costly
expenditure of paying the tolls on the Chicago area’s beautifully
maintained tollways. Joliet is on the southeast corner of the Chicago
metropolitan area, and when we follow the freeway across Wisconsin and
into Illinois at Rockford, we branch off and drive straight south on
Interstate 39. This time we cut off to the East on State Hwy. 30, and
followed it all the way into Joliet, through some neat little towns.

Coming back, we drove south out of Joliet, then cut West, hoping to
outflank rush-hour traffic and find our way far enough to then cut
North to Hwy. 30. Truth be told, we had spotted a homemade ice cream
store in one of the little towns, and if there’s one thing Jack and I
enjoy evaluating as much as cars, it’s ice cream. We seemed entangled
in a never-ending network of small roads, but we finally beat the
arriving low, grey clouds out of Illinois.

However, just past Madison, the rain hit, hard. It seems as though
nine of every 10 vehicles on the freeway were semis, and I learned new
respect for the exceptional lane-centering electronics Hyundai loads
into its vehicles when I was trying to edge past two semis running
nose to tail on the construction-narrowed two freeway lanes, and came
upon another semi, up ahead. Holding our speed with the wipers
flashing as fast as they’d go against the downpour, yet another semi
closed in behind us. It was a tight little 5-vehicle mambo, and we
were in the middle of it. But the Palisade tracked with amazing
precision, keeping us centered in our lane until we could ease through
the congestion and find more congestion up ahead.

When you’re voting for “family car of the year,” such real-world
survival features are memorable.