2019 Mercedes-Benz G550 Review: Daimler’s Retro-Looking SUV Status Symbol Goes Modern

Take note, everyone reading this: The 2019 Mercedes-Benz G-Class, née Geländewagen, sets a record that will surely never be broken among modern automobiles. This famously right-angled SUV replaces a model whose basic parts trace back 40 years. Even a Corvette, at its complacent peak, only went 14 years between full redesigns (1968-1982). Design studies for the G-Wagen go back even further, to wooden (rather than clay) models in 1973 that envisioned a militaristic off-roader that adventurous civilians might also favor.

Officially, the U.S. didn’t see its first G-Wagen until 2002. But gray market sales at six-figure price tags and that pillbox-on-wheels style had already made it a favorite among Americans who happily overpay for handmade designer goods with a great backstory. As The Drive contributor Brett Berk aptly noted, a G-Class is like a vintage Macintosh tube amp or a Purdey shotgun (I’ll add Patek Philippe watches to that list): It’s something you buy because of what that product says about you, or the way its authentic design and analog function speaks to you.

Of course, you also buy it because you can: For too many people, a G-Wagen is purely about badge status or spending a ton of cash, as evidenced by super-frivolous versions, including an all-new AMG G63 (starting from $148,495) that supplies 577 horsepower through a 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8, good for a 4.4-second assault from 0-60 mph. Unsurprisingly, more than half of G-Glass buyers have opted for mega-dollar AMG ones—a higher percentage than for any other Mercedes car or SUV.

She'll be comin' round the mountain...

But enough ancient history. Say hello to the 2019 G550—an SUV whose armor-like body fans will instantly recognize, but whose driving experience they won’t recognize at all. I realize the old model set a low bar for performance on pavement, but still, it’s incredible to bend a G-Class into a turn and feel like it’s not going to tip over. It’s also amazing to go over big bumps in a G-Class, and not have the steering wiggle and jiggle and threaten to redirect you into the next lane. (The old G had a archaic recirculating-ball design, invented in 1939 at GM’s Saginaw Steering Division.) This Mercedes basically skips four decades in terms of its ride, handling and comfort. Consider it Mercedes-Benz's in-house resto-mod, with a nostalgic body over a modern chassis and technology, delivering the best of both worlds.

G550 in its natural element. No, not Beverly Hills

And though I didn’t get a chance to go four-wheeling during my week with the Benz, the G-Class hasn’t sacrificed any off-road chops; it still offers a steel ladder frame, low-range four-wheel-drive, three locking differentials, and soaring suspension travel at all four corners. Ground clearance actually rises, including 10.6 inches beneath the lifted, newly independent front axle; approach, departure and breakover angles are improved; and the 4x4 crawling mode gets an even-lower gear ratio. A new “G-Mode” setting activates when you select low range or lock any differential via the familiar metal dash buttons, and adjusts the steering, throttle, adaptive dampers and transmission accordingly.

As brutally tested on the Schöckl—the local mountain near the G-Glass factory in Graz, Austria—the G-Wagen can easily climb or descend a 50-degree incline, or a more gut-wrenching (to me) 35-degree sideways slope. It can ford 27.6 inches of water—perfect for the day South Beach finally goes under—by automatically diverting air intake to a secondary channel mounted behind headlamps. Like a Rubicon-rated Jeep, the Mercedes flaunts those bona fides with a Schöckl badge, mountd below the B-pillar.

G550, harborside in Brooklyn

For city slickers who favor the G-Glass, the real breakthroughs include modern, variable-ratio rack-and-pinion steering, an independent double-wishbone front suspension (replacing the old solid axle), and a roomier interior whose luxury finally befits the six-figure price. (At $125,495, the G550’s base price actually outstrips Mercedes’s equivalent flagship sedan, the S560, by about $24,000.)

Since the New York area is lousy with G-Classes, it was easy for me to find a departing version at the curb for a little compare-and-contrast. The fresh model is nearly five inches wider, about two inches longer, and rides a 1.6-inch longer wheelbase. Mercedes has reworked the grille and its three-point star, smoothed out some sheetmetal, including the formerly rippled hood, and panel gaps are tighter. Round headlamps remain, but they’re now full LED units, including an attractive ring of daytime diodes that fades out simultaneously whenever headlamps glow to life. But signature elements remain, including the protective bull bar up front, the charming, bus-like turn indicators atop flat fenders, and the exposed spare tire out back. Naturally, Mercedes didn’t touch the old-school, pushbutton-and-latch doors, lest it face a torch-wielding mob of G-Wagen fans. And those doors close with the satisfying ka-chunk—think of an industrial walk-in fridge—of the original.

New cabin definitely says

Expanded dimensions and a reworked chassis pay off with a more-livable cabin. The rear seat is (finally) habitable for adults, with 5.9 inches more legroom. There’s appreciably more elbow and shoulder room front and rear. You even get two actual cupholders in front, rather than the former sad little Nerf-basketball-hoop for the passenger’s beverage. A largely hand-built cabin also makes room for a boatload of Benz luxury, including the lovely Widescreen Cockpit—for some reason, an $850 option—which sandwiches a pair of 12.3-inch displays under bonded glass. Striking, turbine-style metal air vents mimic the headlamps’ shape.

My G-Unit kicked things up a notch with a $12,200 Exclusive Interior package, including one of several available Designo treatments; mine contrasted diamond-pattern “Macchiato Beige” leather with natural walnut, a fine match for the eggplant-colored exterior. The Exclusive package’s multi-adjustable seats featured some of the most robust, magic-fingered massagers in the industry. That package also gift-wraps the short, shelf-like dashboard in a beautifully fitted layer of Nappa leather. The passenger grab handle looks fit for a pricey attaché, faced with wood veneer and trimmed in more leather.

Gotta love those handles

A downside is that, like a Jeep Wrangler, the G550 still isn’t an especially practical SUV. (An upside is that the Mercedes is shorter than it first appears, making it easy to park). Even with the expanded rear seat, lanky types may be asking front occupants to slide up a few inches. I drove to dinner with my girlfriend and her elderly parents, and I cringed a bit as they gamely helped each other climb into the Benz and back out again. Rear seats are set higher than the cargo area, so there’s no semblance of a flat cargo floor when they’re folded. Fuel economy is still terrible, as you’d expect from this aerodynamic brick with permanent four-wheel-drive: The EPA rates it at 13/17 mpg in city and highway, and I saw 14 mpg overall.

Raised second row means no flat load floor with seats folded

Of course, those practical demerits are the price you pay for having a hardcore 4x4. And for the first time, the G-Class’s Olympian off-road abilities don’t utterly compromise the experience on-road, where most owners will be spending 99 percent of their time. The G-Class and its stellar powertrain now feel like they’re on speaking terms, rather than fighting each other. The 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 brings 416 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque, and it’s exactly right for this application, delivering a confident 5.6-second charge to 60 mph, accompanied by an exhaust blat that’s forceful without being excessive. The old seven-speed transmission makes way for Benz’s nine-speed paddle-shifted automatic that brings smoother gear changes and a wider ratio spread.

Widescreen Cockpit brings tag team of 12.3-inch screens

As noted, a major leap in steering and chassis control turn this former oaf into a credible performer. The rack-and-pinion steering banishes the obnoxious dead spot on center, and can be adjusted through Comfort, Sport and Off-Road modes. The stovepipe-tall body still leans into corners, but this SUV now takes a firm line and corners without disconcerting bobbles or course corrections. The effect isn’t sporty—a Chevy Traverse handles better, along with every car-based SUV in the Mercedes lineup—but the G-Wagen can finally stay out of its own 5,500-pound way. (That weight is actually down by about 375 pounds, thanks to more high-strength steel and aluminum in the structure.)

Bull bar and fender-topping turn indicators are signature elements; LED headlamps are new

With about $14,500 in options aboard, my G550 reached $140,105. Yeah, that’s a lot. But where the Mesozoic-era model was indefensibly overpriced, especially in AMG trim, the new G550—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—seems almost fair by the standards of high-zoot SUVs. Look, a short-wheelbase Range Rover V-8 starts at $106,000, just $19,000 below this G-Class. The Rover represents a better value overall—as does Mercedes’s three-row GLS-Class, but both (and the GLS in particular) are as staid and suburban. Then you’ve got a Bentley Bentayga V-8 from $165,000 (or $200,000 in W-12 guise), a Lamborghini Urus for $200,000, or a Rolls-Royce Cullinan for $325,000. Those are all base prices, mind you—a far cry from what these ultra-luxury SUV's really cost with bespoke options. The Bentley, Rolls, and Lamborghini SUVs all have outstanding qualities, but their uninspired, hard-to-ID exterior styling isn’t among them. In contrast, people can recognize a G-Glass from a sniper's distance; it's a classic, inimitable design statement. Pull up to a valet stand alongside the Bentayga, Cullinan, and Urus, and it's the G-Wagen that will draw the most attention.

Fashion play or otherwise, modernized G-Class seems certain to lure buyers

This G550 reminds me of the Jeep Wagoneers and International Harvesters my late father used to drive, only with interior luxury on par with any Range Rover, and not far off the Bentley’s mark. Price aside, if you love old-school trucks, it's impossible to drive this thing and not come away charmed. (The Kardashians will take three, but don't blame Benz for that). And one thing's certain: With the success of its 2.5-ton cash cow seemingly assured, Mercedes won't be waiting another 40 years for the next redesign.

Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at Lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com.

2019 BMW M850i xDrive Review: As the Brand’s New Halo Car, This Sexy GT Does Right By Bimmer

It’s been 20 years since the original, exotically-styled 8 Series cast its 12-cylinder spell on us. Times have changed. This type of pricey “personal reward” car, whether coupe or convertible, can seem even more out-of-fashion than a sedan. BMW sold fewer than 3,800 6 Series cars last year, compared with nearly 10,000 Americans who forked over big bucks for a 6 Series back in 2013. Bring pitchforks of cash for this new M850i xDrive, a big, blazing GT with a rorty 523 horsepower and 553 pound-feet of torque from a twin-turbo, 4.4-liter V-8. (That engine is lavishly upgraded from its application in the M550i sedan, where it makes "only" 456 horses and 480 pound-feet.)

BMW is quick to correct anyone who calls the 8 Series a “replacement” for the 6er, but it might feel that way in showrooms. The 6 Series coupe and convertible have bid “Auf Wiedersehen” (lame-duck GT and Gran Coupe models waddle into 2019), while the 8 Series builds a penthouse in the clouds of the BMW lineup where halo cars belong. It costs $112,895 to start, which is about $30,000 more than the lowest-price 2019 640i Gran Coupe, and nearly $16,000 above a 650i Gran Coupe with a V-8 and xDrive AWD. This 8 Series coupe, initially offered in America only with a V-8 and AWD, also sits roughly $12,000 above a 750i xDrive sedan.

The M850i convertible naturally starts higher, from $122,395. Upcoming full-blown M8 coupe, convertible, and Gran Coupe models will charge more, and supply more than 600 horsepower. Mum's the word at BMW, but we’re hoping it will eventually offer a (somewhat) more-attainable 8 Series with a six-cylinder powertrain, rear-wheel-drive, or both. Not everyone wants or needs 523 fuel-sucking horses or AWD; plenty of owners would happily slow down to be seen in this most fashionable of Bimmers.

Glory in that Barcelona Blue paint

If you’re going to sell people a $113,000 grand tourer and call it an 8 Series, it had damn well better look good. Well, hubba hubba, Hans bubbie: The reborn 8 Series brings the requisite star quality. It’s a frankly pretty car from a brand that’s only rarely been associated with “pretty.”

M850i gets 523 horsepower, runs 0-60 mph in 3.6 seconds

BMW granted The Drive a full-day test of the 8 Series prior to its recent annual Test Fest in Palm Springs, California. The groaning smorgasbord of cars we sampled at The Thermal Club’s track included the new Z4 convertible, the brilliant 2020 M340i sedan (direct from our Portugal media drive, and still in camouflage), the 625-horsepower M5 Competition, M4 CS coupe, M2 Competition, all-new X3 M and X4 M, the 205-mph B7 Alpina, and more. (Check back soon for the full story on BMW Test Fest). The nearly overwhelming assemblage of butt-kicking, track-worthy cars underlined how BMW is rapidly restoring order to its Ultimate Driving universe. Considering the brand’s recent winning streak, I wasn’t overly surprised that the 8 Series is fun and engaging to drive.

AWD and four-wheel-steering help keep the big Bimmer on course

What did surprise me was the M850i’s bizarrely capable performance on track, a place where only the most eccentric 8 Series owner will ever set his Gucci-soled feet. In the pits, when I jumped from a track-tuned ninja like the M4 CS straight into the 8 Series’s swanky driver's seat, I reminded myself to limit expectations for such a big, street-focused GT. Yet the 8 Series easily held its own on Thermal’s South Course, thanks to natural, smartly-tuned steering—none of that fake BMW heft or detachment here—and a taste for tail-happy antics. All-wheel-drive and four-wheel-steering—the new killer app of large, high-performance cars and SUVs—help the BMW drive, quite magically, like a smaller car than a 4,476-pound curb weight might suggest. (The new 600-mph M5 sedan, which weighs 100 fewer pounds, employs similar tricks to great effect.)

Interior mostly brings the goods, including excellent seats and the latest tech

Turn-in is crisp, aided by BMW’s newly-transparent variable-ratio steering. Body roll is finely controlled. The rear-biased AWD system boots up to 50 percent of power forward when required. Rear wheels that counter-steer at up to 2.5 degrees (and then turn in-phase at higher speeds) do their part to keep the 8 Series clawing through curves, even when the back end is dancing wide. Oh, and the speed: With that monumental 553 pound-feet of torque and sparkling changes from an eight-speed, paddle-shifted Steptronic automatic transmission, the M850i clocks a smoking 3.6-second run from 0-60 mph—faster than any M2, M3, or M4 model, and just 0.4-seconds behind the 600-hp M5. The biggest tease is the 155-mph top speed, in a slippery car that would easily top 190 mph without an electronic limiter. Expect the M8 version to correct that oversight.

M850i coupe starts from just under $113,000

The coupe looks better than the convertible, as coupes often do, thanks to its sleek fastback roof that melts into big, buttery hips. Yes, the current Mustang is also a fastback, and the Ford is a sweet-looking car in its own right. But the only people who will ever mistake this BMW for a ‘Stang are drunk or blind. If anything, the BMW’s rear- and three-quarter views whisper “Aston Martin,” with that slender, raked greenhouse atop widebody flanks. Compared with the 6 Series, the rear quarter windows’ signature Hofmeister kink tightens its angle. Up front, the bristling double-kidney grille is like the porn ‘stache of this louche coupe, dyed in black Shadowline trim. That fronts a hood with creases as sharp as meringue peaks. LED headlamps, the brand's slimmest yet, add BMW’s Laserlight technology to their arsenal, while LED taillamps light with a distinctive L-shape. The Bimmer looks the modern GT part: dynamic, elegant, and damn-right-it’s-expensive.

8 Series takes a breather at The Thermal Club

Prior to that instructive track day, I spent six hours driving the 8 Series in a place that’s bound to see its share of them: Palm Springs, where wealthy silver foxes and gilded cougars retire or winter from other locales, bringing hot cars with them. My test car turned heads with a lovely new color called Barcelona Blue Metallic, paired with black 20-inch M wheels and a $3,000 carbon-fiber roof that lowers center-of-gravity and plays up the roof’s double-bubble shape. Here in the newly-hip Palm Springs, the BMW played the role that most owners will cast it in: burbling, cruising, and schmoozing. A castle-solid structure and serene cabin put me in a chill mood as well, with brutal passes of other cars just a squeeze of the throttle away. Adaptive dampers keep the world at bay, then firm up nicely in Sport or Sport Plus modes. And the sound is prime V-8 beef, but not so obnoxious as to flout covenant laws in a posh subdivision. Sport Plus mode does open the dual-flap exhaust, eliciting amusing trills of backfires, in case there’s one stuffy neighbor you’d love to piss off.

Two-plus-two cockpit gets shapely dash, waterfall center stack

Multi-function seats, clad in a handsome mix of saddle-and-black Merino leather, were as well-planned as the rest of the car: virtual Barcaloungers for all-day drives, but with enough bolstering and adjustments to fix me in place during track-time workouts. The cabin look isn’t radically different—this is BMW, whose interior designs change more slowly than Alpine glaciers—but the 8 Series still feels new and special inside.

New

A waterfall center stack flows from a low, slim dashboard. Subtle, kinky Hofmeister motifs play over the angled metal door pulls and other cabin elements. Sparkly cut glass for the gear lever (with an illuminated “8” set within) and other controls added $650; a knurled-metal controller for the iDrive 7.0 system replaces the previous plastic. A leather-faced, slim-circumference M Sport steering wheel is another tactile gain. The clamshell center console is newly deep and roomy. And BMW’s new Live Cockpit, first seen in the new X5 SUV, combines a 12.3-inch digital instrument display with a 10.3-inch center touchscreen. The views aren’t as flashy and configurable as Audi’s Virtual Cockpit, but it’s a handsome, legible presentation nonetheless.

Convertible version puts heads in the clouds

The BMW’s biggest digital failing remains its lame, laggy navigation system that shows your route on a low-contrast strip of white on roads and streets—the least-intuitive color possible, akin to drawing a treasure map on white parchment in white ink. Consolation comes via BMW’s industry-best head-up display, which lets you follow directional arrows in your field-of-view. I also climbed into the back seat just to make sure I’d never need to do it again. Like any two-plus-two, the rear quarters are handy for luggage, shopping, munchkins or emergencies. Cargo space fares better, with a narrow-yet-deep trunk and rear seats that fold 50/50 to fit more stuff inside.

Cut-glass controls are a $650 option

A word about the brakes, those unsung heroes: The BMW’s brake-by-wire system must be the world’s first that doesn’t feel like brake-by-wire; many owners will have no clue that there’s no physical link between the pedal and the binders themselves. That transparent action—even in AARP-heavy Palm Springs traffic—stands in sharp contrast to models like the Alfa Romeo Giulia, whose touchy, hard-to-modulate electronic brakes are by far the biggest demerit in an otherwise spectacular car. Those sophisticated brakes also shined at Thermal, where this 4,500-pound bullet lasted all day with no brake fade or smoke; and on my epic blasts on Highway 74, the famed "Palms to Pines" run into the stark, tumbled Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains. Twice, I ran Highway 74’s plunging descent into the blue-misted Palm Valley, attacking dozens of cliff-hung switchbacks, and the BMW’s brakes never succumbed. (Here, the steering could have transmitted more feedback, but I’ll say that about nearly any new car with electric steering).

It was the kind of barnstorming that 99 percent of owners will never attempt, yet the BMW stayed fast and composed throughout. While the BMW gobbled up those miles with elan, the serpentine road did reveal some understeer near the handling limit. Physics can be fooled but not denied: This is still a hefty machine, not a quicksilver sports car like a Porsche Cayman. But between its AWD, electronic rear diff, and other tech tricks, I couldn’t break the BMW’s tires loose on public roads. Pushed harder on track, those Bridgestone Potenza S007A summer tires broke away with an almost eerie lack of noise, as I’ve experienced before with these latest, sticky Bridgestones.

M850i storms on the road, surprises on track

As America marches lockstep into SUVs, it’s become tough out there for gentlemanly GTs, cars expressly designed to thumb their long noses at practicality and family values. With the Jaguar XK long gone, the excellent (but lesser-performing) Lexus LC 500 V-8 coupe is really the BMW’s only direct rival—and happens to cost less, at $93,000 to start. Audi doesn’t play in the six-figure coupe space. For all its glories, a Mercedes-Benz S-Class coupe is comparatively massive, and not at all sporting. Mercedes-Benz's smaller E-Class coupe is a stylish boulevardier, but it’s a full class below the Bimmer in power and performance. The knee-wobbling Aston Martin DB11 V-8 is a similar GT in terms of size and layout, with its 503-hp Mercedes-AMG V-8—though the BMW has more horsepower and torque, accelerates a touch faster, and handles as well or better. That Aston also starts at $202,000, versus my BMW that chalked up a pricetag of $119,295 including options. A Bentley Continental GT is a 626-hp, 12-cylinder fantasy, but it weighs 5,000 pounds and will set you back $250,000 with options, double the Bimmer's price.

Sure, the BMW doesn’t directly compete with Aston or Bentley, those British holies of design and prestige. My point is that the M850i definitely competes, or even wins, against any current player in terms of overall GT performance, even with loopy-powered M8 versions still to come. And the BMW looks beautiful and desirable in its own, more-modest way. It all looks like a smart move by BMW: If you can only sell a few thousand grand tourers each year, anyway, you may as well sneak upmarket and bank significantly more profit on each one. With the groundbreaking, electric BMW i8 fading into obsolescence, the 8 Series now wears the BMW halo—and wears it well.

Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at Lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com.

2019 BMW M2 Competition Review: The Fun Little Sports Coupe Borrows a Cup of Power from the M3

How agile and effective was the BMW M2 Coupe? Well, it almost manage to quiet the cliche-pushers and choir-preachers of the automotive press, for whom every BMW story must begin with a lazy reverie for the brand’s Good Old Days—larded with shopworn words like “iconic,” “seminal” and “E36”— followed by the shocking observation that BMW also makes SUVs now, some quite popular. Considering the satisfaction the M2 supplied auto scribes and enthusiasts in 2017, you might think BMW wouldn’t touch a thing, at least for a few years. Instead, the 2019 BMW M2 Competition is an ultimate hedge against complacency, via a Jeffersonian strategy of status improvement—referring to the sitcom family, not the founding father—that some automakers have avoided lest they muddy their own showroom waters.

This M2 Competition moves up in BMW Welt, knocks on the door of its luxurious neighbors, the larger M3 sedan and M4 Coupe, and borrows some mechanical sugar—their rollicking twin-turbo inline-six dubbed the S55, which replaces the “old” M2’s single-turbo, N55 inline-six—for a freak-out rush. The M Division engine’s output is nominally detuned to 405 horsepower for this competitive-minded M2 (down from 425 in the M3/M4), but torque is unchanged at 406 pound-feet. Compared with the M2 Coupe that the M2 Competition flat-out replaces, those are hefty gains of 40 horsepower and 37 pound-feet. And it’s not like the M2 Coupe was ever slow; it was capable of spanking out a 4.1-second 0-60 mph run, with a 155-mph top speed.

M2 Competition is a real brute, though not as affordable as before

This 2019 M2 is fast, effing fast, with an even more rev-happy nature and a delightfully raw sound. My test version of this pocket Hercules was clad in a lovely paint, exclusive to the M2 (at a $550 upcharge), that BMW calls Hockenheim Silver Metallic; in spite of the name, it hews closer to the white-with blue-gray-undertones that’s a hot color trend in performance cars these days, from the Chevrolet Corvette to the Mazda MX-5 Miata to the Lamborghini Huracan. The M2’s chesty six-cylinder rumble immediately grabbed my Brooklyn neighbors’ attention, thanks to an all-new, dual-branch exhaust system with two electric flaps and four black-chrome tailpipes. Admitting more airflow are a new front skirt and enlarged kidney grilles—the latter trimmed in black “Shadow Line” paint, as are the gill openings on front fenders.

Brakes aren’t just enlarged, they’re practically engorged: Rotors are bigger at all four corners than on a Corvette Grand Sport Z07, including six-piston, 15.7-inch rotors up front and four-piston, 15-inchers out back. Beautiful new 19-inch forged wheels sit wrapped in the M2's flared fenders. Fortunately, with the recent polar vortex rolling in, my car came dressed for the weather, its wheels wrapped in Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires (in staggered sizes of 245/35ZR19 front and 265/35ZR19 rear) instead of the factory-supplied Michelin Pilot Super Sports. Popping the hood, it's hard not to admire the ultra-stiff carbon-fiber shock-tower strut in the engine bay, another generous bequest from the M3 and M4.

The hand-me-downs continue with the cooling system from the M4 Competition Package, with three radiators, an engine-oil cooler, and, for my test car with its seven-speed, M dual-clutch transmission (DCT), a transmission-oil cooler. Yes, a trusty six-speed manual transmission remains standard, and that old-school choice also saves you $2,900 on this M2. As is the style nowadays, the automatic version is a tad quicker in a straight line, with BMW citing a 4.0-second blast from 0-60 mph versus 4.2 seconds for the manual model. Those numbers seem highly conservative: My seat-of-pants suggests this explosive M2 will run the 0-60 mph dash in as little as 3.7 or 3.8 seconds.

Big engine for the little M2: Twin-turbo inline six makes 405 hp

Inside the cabin, M Sport buckets take their deep-welled shape from BMW Motorsport seats, with handsomely integrated headrests. Red-and-blue stitching traces the steering wheel and seat belts, with a choice of blue or orange perforation in the seat cushion and backrest. The M2 is a driver’s car first and a luxury car second, yet it could really use a set of seatbelt “presenters,” as in some luxury coupes, to slide the unbuckled belts forward for an easier reach. (Of course, such a motorized system would add extra weight, and the M2 is already relatively stout for its size, at a touch over 3,500 pounds.) As for the coolest style addition? Check out those illuminated M2 logos on the seat backrests, the kind of fun design flourish that grouchy journalists will profess to hate, but that owners will love. Once, when I walked up to the BMW, a couple on a Manhattan street spotted the glowing logos and said, “Wow, that’s really cool.” Why yes, it is.

BMW’s familiar chiclet switches on the console let you adjust the reactivity of the engine, steering, and transmission (for M DCT automatic versions). As ever, BMW’s Sport Plus setting is great for tweaking the powerplant or gearbox, but it makes the steering feel thicker than Dinty Moore beef stew; the wheel feels lighter and more natural in Sport. Fortunately, this Competition model lets you save two separate individual performance settings on a pair of steering-wheel buttons, as on other M Division models like the M5.

Enveloping M Sport seats are inspired by BMW Motorsports

Setting off north from New York underlined why someone might choose a vastly more affordable, 335-hp M240i—itself a formidable performance car—over this M2. On the war-torn streets of cities like NYC, the M2 can feel brittle, the kind of car that’s fated to sacrifice a wheel or two to the pothole gods, especially if you drive it through the winter. The dual-clutch transmission reveals its own minor weakness in urban settings, with an occasional slip or lurch during parallel parking or other crawling-speed maneuvers.

But once warmed up and clear of the city, the newly muscled M2 felt nearly unhinged—a stubby, slavering Tasmanian Devil, one that might well spin like a cartoon tornado if you're not mindful of the available grip. The engine is a hard-yanking marvel of turbo technology, with peak torque gushing anywhere between 2,350 and 5,230 rpm, and horsepower that plateaus between 5,230 and 7,000 rpm. Yet this motor still has more to give from there, with a snarling 7,600-rpm redline that owners are sure to become intimately acquainted with.

With rubber compounds that stay soft even in sub-freezing temperatures, my M2’s winter Bridgestone Blizzaks provided more sure-footed grip than the standard summer Michelins, which would have been disastrously ill-suited to the task. But there’s still less ultimate traction with these tires in these temperatures, as I learned when I started matting the throttle on mountainous curves; the M2 has enough grunt to get the back end squirrely even at speeds above 80 mph. (Cue sweaty palms). I can’t wait to try the BMW on track in warm weather—hopefully at Monticello Motor Club, whose M2 Racing School is one of the nation’s best driving experiences.

Yes, Virginia, there is a manual transmission

Oh, but there’s fun to be had even on salt-crusted backroads with snowy shoulders. Those Blizzaks make it child’s play—if that child had a learner’s permit—to drift the M2 on bare pavement, highlighting its brilliant chassis balance. On my own personal skidpad, deep in a northern forest, I spun a few easy circles in second gear, the BMW sliding wide or tucking neatly back in with subtle adjustments of throttle position or steering angle. That exercise also highlighted one niggle with the M2: a shortage of sensation through the steering wheel, especially as the car approaches and broaches its handling limits. Owners will have to use other sensory cues, such as shrieking tires and lateral g-forces, to judge and adjust forward progress.

As any urban apartment dweller will affirm, one downside to moving on up is the higher monthly payments. At $59,895 to start, the M2 Competition costs $4,400 more than its short-lived predecessor. That blunts the relative affordability that was part of the M2’s appeal, and makes the M240i seem a relative bargain at $46,795—more than $13,000 less than the M2. On the glass-half-full side, a larger, slightly heavier M4 Coupe starts from $70,145—$10,240 above the M2— and the more-practical M3 sedan is priced from $67,475.

Yet more than ever, this M2 is my go-to in the BMW lineup, a hardcore, track-scorching, stick-shift-available coupe that’s more capable than an Audi RS 3 or any other compact competitor. (I'll be testing the BMW Z4 and 8 Series at a track in Palm Springs soon, so my opinion may change in the near future). And I’d take this M2 Competition in a heartbeat over the roomier but far-pricier M3 or M4. If my back seat passengers started whining, I’d politely mention that they could always walk instead.

Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him atLawrence.ulrich@gmail.com.

2019 BMW M2 Competition Review: A Fun Little Sports Coupe Borrows a Cup of Power From the M3

How agile and effective was the BMW M2 Coupe? Well, it almost managed to quiet the choir-preachers of the automotive press, for whom every BMW story must begin with a lazy reverie for the brand’s Good Old Days—larded with shopworn words like “iconic,” “seminal” and “E36”— followed by the shocking observation that BMW also makes SUVs now, some quite popular. Considering the satisfaction the M2 supplied auto scribes and enthusiasts in 2017, you might think BMW wouldn’t touch a thing, at least for a few years. Instead, the 2019 BMW M2 Competition is an ultimate hedge against complacency, via a Jeffersonian strategy of status improvement—referring to the sitcom family, not the founding father—that some automakers have avoided lest they muddy their own showroom waters.

This M2 Competition moves up in BMW Welt, knocks on the door of its luxurious neighbors, the larger M3 sedan and M4 Coupe, and borrows some mechanical sugar—their rollicking twin-turbo inline-six dubbed the S55, which replaces the “old” M2’s single-turbo, N55 inline-six—for a freak-out rush. The M Division engine’s output is nominally detuned to 405 horsepower for this competitive-minded M2 (down from 425 in the M3/M4), but torque is unchanged at 406 pound-feet. Compared with the M2 Coupe that the M2 Competition flat-out replaces, those are hefty gains of 40 horsepower and 37 pound-feet. And it’s not like the M2 Coupe was ever slow; it was capable of spanking out a 4.1-second 0-60 mph run, with a 155-mph top speed.

M2 Competition is a real brute, though not as affordable as before

This 2019 M2 is fast, effing fast, with an even more rev-happy nature and a delightfully raw sound. My test version of this pocket Hercules was clad in a lovely paint, exclusive to the M2 (at a $550 upcharge), that BMW calls Hockenheim Silver Metallic; in spite of the name, it hews closer to the white-with blue-gray-undertones that’s a hot color trend in performance cars these days, from the Chevrolet Corvette to the Mazda MX-5 Miata to the Lamborghini Huracan. The M2’s chesty six-cylinder rumble immediately grabbed my Brooklyn neighbors’ attention, thanks to an all-new, dual-branch exhaust system with two electric flaps and four black-chrome tailpipes. Admitting more airflow are a new front skirt and enlarged kidney grilles—the latter trimmed in black “Shadow Line” paint, as are the gill openings on front fenders.

Brakes aren’t just enlarged, they’re practically engorged: Rotors are bigger at all four corners than on a Corvette Grand Sport Z07, including six-piston, 15.7-inch rotors up front and four-piston, 15-inchers out back. Beautiful new 19-inch forged wheels sit wrapped in the M2's flared fenders. Fortunately, with the recent polar vortex rolling in, my car came dressed for the weather, its wheels wrapped in Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires (in staggered sizes of 245/35ZR19 front and 265/35ZR19 rear) instead of the factory-supplied Michelin Pilot Super Sports. Popping the hood, it's hard not to admire the ultra-stiff carbon-fiber shock-tower strut in the engine bay, another generous bequest from the M3 and M4.

The hand-me-downs continue with the cooling system from the M4 Competition Package, with three radiators, an engine-oil cooler, and, for my test car with its seven-speed, M dual-clutch transmission (DCT), a transmission-oil cooler. Yes, a trusty six-speed manual transmission remains standard, and that old-school choice also saves you $2,900 on this M2. As is the style nowadays, the automatic version is a tad quicker in a straight line, with BMW citing a 4.0-second blast from 0-60 mph versus 4.2 seconds for the manual model. Those numbers seem highly conservative: My seat-of-pants suggests this explosive M2 will run the 0-60 mph dash in as little as 3.7 or 3.8 seconds.

Big engine for the little M2: Twin-turbo inline six makes 405 hp

Inside the cabin, M Sport buckets take their deep-welled shape from BMW Motorsport seats, with handsomely integrated headrests. Red-and-blue stitching traces the steering wheel and seat belts, with a choice of blue or orange perforation in the seat cushion and backrest. The M2 is a driver’s car first and a luxury car second, yet it could really use a set of seatbelt “presenters,” as in some luxury coupes, to slide the unbuckled belts forward for an easier reach. (Of course, such a motorized system would add extra weight, and the M2 is already relatively stout for its size, at a touch over 3,500 pounds.) As for the coolest style addition? Check out those illuminated M2 logos on the seat backrests, the kind of fun design flourish that grouchy journalists will profess to hate, but that owners will love. Once, when I walked up to the BMW, a couple on a Manhattan street spotted the glowing logos and said, “Wow, that’s really cool.” Why yes, it is.

BMW’s familiar chiclet switches on the console let you adjust the reactivity of the engine, steering, and transmission (for M DCT automatic versions). As ever, BMW’s Sport Plus setting is great for tweaking the powerplant or gearbox, but it makes the steering feel thicker than Dinty Moore beef stew; the wheel feels lighter and more natural in Sport. Fortunately, this Competition model lets you save two separate individual performance settings on a pair of steering-wheel buttons, as on other M Division models like the M5.

Enveloping M Sport seats are inspired by BMW Motorsports

Setting off north from New York underlined why someone might choose a vastly more affordable, 335-hp M240i—itself a formidable performance car—over this M2. On the war-torn streets of cities like NYC, the M2 can feel brittle, the kind of car that’s fated to sacrifice a wheel or two to the pothole gods, especially if you drive it through the winter. The dual-clutch transmission reveals its own minor weakness in urban settings, with an occasional slip or lurch during parallel parking or other crawling-speed maneuvers.

But once warmed up and clear of the city, the newly muscled M2 felt nearly unhinged—a stubby, slavering Tasmanian Devil, one that might well spin like a cartoon tornado if you're not mindful of the available grip. The engine is a hard-yanking marvel of turbo technology, with peak torque gushing anywhere between 2,350 and 5,230 rpm, and horsepower that plateaus between 5,230 and 7,000 rpm. Yet this motor still has more to give from there, with a snarling 7,600-rpm redline that owners are sure to become intimately acquainted with.

With rubber compounds that stay soft even in sub-freezing temperatures, my M2’s winter Bridgestone Blizzaks provided more sure-footed grip than the standard summer Michelins, which would have been disastrously ill-suited to the task. But there’s still less ultimate traction with these tires in these temperatures, as I learned when I started matting the throttle on mountainous curves; the M2 has enough grunt to get the back end squirrely even at speeds above 80 mph. (Cue sweaty palms). I can’t wait to try the BMW on track in warm weather—hopefully at Monticello Motor Club, whose M2 Racing School is one of the nation’s best driving experiences.

Yes, Virginia, there is a manual transmission

Oh, but there’s fun to be had even on salt-crusted backroads with snowy shoulders. Those Blizzaks make it child’s play—if that child had a learner’s permit—to drift the M2 on bare pavement, highlighting its brilliant chassis balance. On my own personal skidpad, deep in a northern forest, I spun a few easy circles in second gear, the BMW sliding wide or tucking neatly back in with subtle adjustments of throttle position or steering angle. That exercise also highlighted one niggle with the M2: a shortage of sensation through the steering wheel, especially as the car approaches and broaches its handling limits. Owners will have to use other sensory cues, such as shrieking tires and lateral g-forces, to judge and adjust forward progress.

As any urban apartment dweller will affirm, one downside to moving on up is the higher monthly payments. At $59,895 to start, the M2 Competition costs $4,400 more than its short-lived predecessor. That blunts the relative affordability that was part of the M2’s appeal, and makes the M240i seem a relative bargain at $46,795—more than $13,000 less than the M2. On the glass-half-full side, a larger, slightly heavier M4 Coupe starts from $70,145—$10,240 above the M2— and the more-practical M3 sedan is priced from $67,475.

Yet more than ever, this M2 is my go-to in the BMW lineup, a hardcore, track-scorching, stick-shift-available coupe that’s more capable than an Audi RS 3 or any other compact competitor. (I'll be testing the BMW Z4 and 8 Series at a track in Palm Springs soon, so my opinion may change in the near future). And I’d take this M2 Competition in a heartbeat over the roomier but far-pricier M3 or M4. If my back seat passengers started whining, I’d politely mention that they could always walk instead.

Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him atLawrence.ulrich@gmail.com.

Americans Don’t Want Sedans, Right? Then Why Have Lexus LS Sales More Than Doubled?

The sedan is dead, goes the conventional wisdom. If it’s not an SUV, you might as well write the eulogy—alas, Chevrolet Impala, we knew ye well—and fill the grave in with a backhoe. But not so fast, says Lexus: The LS, the flagship of Toyota’s luxury brand, is proving a bona-fide hit in the United States, defying the idea that Americans want nothing to do with traditional four-doors.

Apparently, more consumers are cool with Lexus’s “spindle grille” than we ever imagined. Despite the brand’s controversial, hourglass-shaped face—and in Lexus’s view, partly because of it—the all-new LS saw its sales skyrocket 127 percent in 2018 in the United States, to 9,302 buyers. Among flagship luxury sedans, that was second only to the perennial champ, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, which delivered 14,978 sales. That robust showroom reception makes the LS a real outlier: Sales of most sedans in America are withering in the face of an SUV onslaught. Ford and Fiat Chrysler view the trend as so irreversible that they plan to stop building sedans entirely.

LS sales are booming, second only to the Mercedes S-Class among top-tier sedans

But not so at Toyota and Lexus, which continue to invest heavily in new sedans, seeing them as a strategic hedge in an often-volatile marketplace, including against a potential fuel-price spike that historically finds buyers fleeing SUVs for smaller and more fuel-efficient cars.

“It’s a much stronger position to have cars in your lineup, even if sales volumes are smaller today,” Lexus spokesman Ed Hellwig said. Even in a shrinking segment, “some people find the sedan experience superior,” he said, including buyers in multi-car households who see sedan pluses in smaller size, energy efficiency, or maneuverability.

“People may realize, ‘I don’t need two SUVs,’ or they just don’t want to drive one every day,” he said.

For some perspective: the new LS replaced an especially staid and aging version, so some sales bump was to be expected. And this sedan will likely never match the phenomenon of the original LS 400, the groundbreaking model that launched the Lexus brand in 1989. That 1990 LS brazenly mimicked a Mercedes S-Class, aside from a $35,000 base price that undercut the Benz by tens of thousands of dollars. Nearly 43,000 Americans snapped up an LS in 1990, by far its best year in history.

Still, for today’s LS to more than double its sales over last year's version speaks to something more than plucking low-hanging fruit. In the current anti-car climate, most all-new sedans are failing to budge the sales needle. The ever-popular Audi A4 was redesigned for 2017, yet its sales have been down slightly for two straight years versus 2016, the final year of the previous-gen version. Most shockingly, Honda’s blue-chip Accord, despite a tsunami of critical acclaim, saw its sales plunge 9.7 percent last year, to just over 291,000 units.

Lexus is too polite to say “I told you so.” But the success of the LS, along with its origami-creased RX SUV and striking 2019 ES sedan, appears to be vindicating the “no more boring cars” strategy of Akio Toyoda, the global head of Toyota Motor Corporation—a pledge that struck some observers as PR fluff when Toyoda first made it. Love the look or hate it, let’s give Lexus—so often condescended to by driving enthusiasts and Europhiles—its due. From its lean, chiseled fuselage to a dramatic new interior, the LS’s audacious design has clearly been a factor in its comeback. Like it or not, the spindle grille literally fronts that design.

Lexus won't bar the grille: Brand remains committed to its spindle-shaped design

The chin-scraping, honeycombed design element sparks less outrage overall than it did in 2012, when, as The New York Times auto critic, I first coined the “Predator face” reference that’s stuck to these cars’ savage mandibles ever since. Newer, clean-sheet Lexus models—especially the inarguably lovely LC Coupe, but also the LS—are doing a smoother job of integrating the grille, including its complex, spider-webbed geometries. In the interest of peacemaking, it’s helpful to recall that myriad cars and design elements have outraged traditionalists at first, only to be steadily accepted (and even loved) by owners, or emulated by other automakers. A short list would include the notorious “flame surfacing” BMWs of former chief designer Chris Bangle, the oversized freight-train grille of Audis, and pretty much any update to the Corvette or Mustang. Wait a few years, and one hardly knows what the fuss was all about.

Lexus seems to subscribe to the idea that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. “If people are talking about it, that’s good,” Hellwig says of the infamous grille. “They’re at least recognizing at as something unique to the brand. The whole point was to make the cars stand out, and now it’s already blending in.”

Of course, there’s more to the LS’s robust sales than styling, or dramatic interior design. The LS continues to beat its Teutonic rivals on price: The $80,735 base fare undercuts a BMW 740i or Audi A8 by roughly $4,000, and a Mercedes S450 by $11,500. With its lusty 416-horsepower, twin-turbo V-6, the LS 500 is faster, and has decisively more power, than any of those V-6-powered German rivals. (Now, if Lexus could only fix its dysfunctional trackpad infotainment interface). And while European brands convey status through pedigree, design, and performance, there’s continued power in the Lexus name as well: The brand’s lofty reputation for reliability, resale value, and hassle-free dealer service could prove compelling to a dwindling set of sedan buyers, making it easier to retain loyalists or lure customers from other brands. Among such highly expensive sedans, buyers will never lose sleep over choosing the Lexus.

LS's athletic exterior greatly improves on its potato-bland predecessor

So is the LS’s success an anomaly in the moribund four-door market, or something more? The all-new Lexus ES sedan, which went on sale in September, should help answer that. Like the LS, the aggressively styled ES replaces a version that was as beige and boring as sedans come. Again defying the SUV zeitgeist, Lexus confidently predicts that the ES will find 50,000 annual buyers. That would be an increase of more than 20 percent, and a solid, profitable showing for an entry-luxury sedan in any era. For comparison: In 2018, Cadillac’s four sedan models, the ATS, CTS, CT6, and XTS, sold just under 50,000 units—combined.

The lesson, it appears, is that success is not necessarily about having a showroom full of sedans (or depleted of them). It’s about having the right sedans. I'll continue to argue that several sedans that were showroom duds—including the Chrysler 200, Dodge Dart, and Jaguar XE—should be chalked up as failures of execution, rather than evidence that all sedans are doomed. The LS has staged an impressive comeback among flagships, but the brand's smaller IS and GS sedans continue to struggle. And let's not forget that America's best-selling luxury model of any type is now a sedan, the electric Tesla Model 3, which topped Lexus's RX for the overall title and the BMW 3 Series among cars. That speedy, California-built Tesla suggests that electrification could provide a market jolt for other sedans, whose relatively modest size, weight, and favorable aerodynamics make them ideal candidates for battery propulsion. Lexus itself continues to hybridize its sedan models, including the LS, and now BMW, Mercedes, and Audi are racing to electrify their own four-door car lineups.

The real canary in the coal mine may be that BMW 3 Series. The once-unchallenged king of sport sedans has suffered a bruising fall in showrooms. It’s been supplanted in popularity by not one but two BMW SUVs, the X3 and X5. A new and markedly improved 3 Series arrives in spring, including a kickass M340i that I drove in Portugal. If that 3er can recapture some of its sales mojo, it’s a good omen for the four-door cars that once dominated the driveways of America.

“For a long time, getting an SUV was ‘different,’” Hellwig says. “But it wouldn’t be surprising if people started to grow tired of them, and gravitated back to sedans.”

It’s only a theory, of course. But four-door fans can always dream.

2019 Audi A8 Review: Tech-Packed Flagship Delivers Almost Everything, Except Level 3 Autonomy

The new 2019 Audi A8 takes risks. The 2019 Audi A8 also plays it safe. That sounds like a dichotomy, but it's more a market reality: This A8 pushes technological boundaries like no Audi flagship sedan before, even as the company is bound by conflicting consumer desires and regulations in China, Europe, and America.

One element seems both safe and a risk, depending on your vantage point. That’s the exterior design, where Audi doubles down on the conservative-to-a-fault philosophy that’s never done the A8 any favors in the image-conscious U.S. market. In the best of times, the A8 has been the fourth choice in flagship sedans, behind the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, BMW 7-Series, and Lexus LS. The retiring A8 found just 1,599 fans here last year, a 49-percent plunge. Meanwhile, Lexus’s new, imposingly styled LS is defying the conventional wisdom that Americans are through with sedans: The LS’s 9,302 sales in 2018 represent a remarkable 127-percent jump, and place it second only to the S-Class with its 14,978.

With its 335-hp turbo V-6, Audi eases from 0 to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds

In Los Angeles’s Venice Beach, where I parked the car formally known as the 2019 Audi A8 55 (3.0T) TFSI Quattro Tiptronic at an AirBnb, I expected the stretched, tuxedo-formal Audi to draw some stink-eye from the dreadlocked, faux-homeless hippies who frequent the area. But the Audi passed unnoticed and unremarked upon, a scene that repeated itself over three days in LA and Palm Springs. To the iconoclasts who’ve always preferred the A8, this unadorned, German-airport-limo may seem the perfect stealth sedan. But when it comes to winning recruits from other luxury brands? Your guess as to whether this strategy works is as good as mine.

There are fine details here, as on any Audi, but you’ve got to look twice. Unlock the doors, and LED and OLED elements trigger a cascading light show in the headlamps and taillamps, along with a blue-diode burst from the optional, $2,300 Night Vision system. A tasteful band of brightwork ribbons the lower door sills and rear fascia, with chrome humps that look like exhaust outlets but aren’t. Even the ribbed, hexagonal Audi grille appears more formal than forceful on this nearly-209-inch-long sedan.

A8 is V-6 only for now, but a V-8 model arrives later this year

As for potential market risks, Audi might take heart from the Lexus’s warm reception: Like that LS (which also offers a hybrid version), the 2019 A8 is offered only with a gasoline V-6 in America, at least for now—the brand’s familiar 3.0-liter, turbocharged, direct-injected V-6. It’s worth mentioning, though, that Lexus’ 3.5-liter twin-turbo V-6 performs a convincing imitation of a V-8, pumping out 416 horsepower and 442 pound-feet of torque. Audi’s is a wonderful V-6, but with a comparatively slight 335 horsepower and 369 pound-feet, you’ll never fool yourself that it’s anything but a V-6—especially in an A8, whose Volkswagen MLB platform is lighter, but whose lavish equipment bumps curb weight to 4,751 pounds, 250 more than before. Americans who insist on eight cylinders in their country-clubbing sedan must wait ‘til later in 2019, when a V-8 model arrives—likely the brand’s 4.0-liter biturbo—followed by high-performance variants including a new S8. Those will cost much more than this A8, which starts from a reasonable $84,795, and rose to $123,045 with the addition of nearly every option in Audi’s leather-lined playbook.

Still, this is a sedan born for blissful cruising, so the need for a V-8 is debatable. (Fuel economy may be another story, considering the AWD Audi’s so-so 19/27 mpg rating in city and highway barely beats V-8 rivals from Mercedes and BMW and sits virtually atop the 18/27 mpg of the Lexus LS 500 AWD that boasts 81 more horsepower and 73 extra pound-feet.) I rarely found myself wishing for more power, aside from the odd pass on two-laners where the Audi might have shown a skosh more urgency. Audi cites a useful 5.6-second run from 0-60 mph, aided by an eight-speed, paddle-shifted ZF automatic transmission; there's also a mild-hybrid 48-volt electrical system to recoup some energy and power accessories and driver assistance systems.

A8 is low-key on the outside, high-design inside

Under Hockney-blue skies in California, the midnight-blue Audi felt magisterial, supremely relaxing. Double-pane windows heighten the sense of isolation. A honeyed, adaptive air suspension turns mountainous bumps into molehills. In the Drive Select system’s full Dynamic mode, the steering effort turns needlessly heavy, unsuited to the car’s personality. But with its powertrain and suspension set to “Dynamic” and the steering in “Auto,” the Audi dispatched coastal roads and freeway on-ramps with pleasing grip and grace.

On a car this expensive, the dynamic four-wheel-steering system seems an easy add at $1,950: By counter-steering the rear wheels by up to 5 degrees at parking-lot speeds, the system trims 3.3 feet from the A8’s turning circle, making it shorter than a compact A4’s. (It can even automatically dial in extra front steering when required.) The system further keeps things planted a high speeds by turning rear wheels in phase with the fronts. Later this year, we expect to see an optional new electromechanical suspension, akin to Mercedes-Benz's Magic Ride Control, that can scan the road ahead and adjust individual wheels to further tame the ride.

On the subject of tardy (or outright missing) technology, I never let General Motors get away with it, so Audi should be no different: As early as 2017, promised its all-new A8 would be the closest thing yet to a self-driving showroom car; allowing so-called “Level 3” autonomy that would allow drivers to safely turn things over to a robo-pilot and actually turn attention to non-driving tasks. I’m deeply skeptical that that was ever the case—we at The Drive consider Level 3 autonomy the greatest fairy tale in autodom, masking potential mortal danger under an illusion of fail-safe security—but I’ll be tackling that in another story. As it stands, Audi has shelved plans to offer its “Traffic Jam Pilot” in America and Europe, but only after eliciting more than a year of fawning and buzz from the click-hungry tech and auto media. The little button that purportedly would have let the Audi “drive itself” in a tight set of conditions—below 37 mph, on divided highways and in heavy traffic—has disappeared from the console of the production A8. Explaining the decision, Audi spokesman Mark Dahncke pointed to everything from inconsistent road markers in America to a crazy quilt of laws and regulations to irresponsible drivers who may use the system improperly. And Audi's decision may be wise. But when Audi or any automaker talks a big game on technology, basks in the resulting hype, and then suddenly says, "Never mind," it deserves a kick in that corporate grille.

Screen star: Latest MMI system relies on a stacked pair of center screens

Yes, the A8s being shipped here are still stuffed with pricey driver-assistance hardware, including multiple 360-degree cameras, mid- and long-range radar, 12 ultrasonic sensors, even a LIDAR scanner (a production-car first) to deliver a more-accurate picture of the road ahead. The onboard gear we do get allows the Audi do some cool things, but there’s little we haven’t seen before, such as warning and preventing occupants from flinging open a door into the path of an oncoming cyclist or car. (One interesting feature: A new predictive capability lifts the Audi’s chassis by 3.1 inches, in less than a half-second, to better protect occupants in side impacts.)

But as far as self-driving impressions, this A8 is literally behind the curve of GM’s Super Cruise, or any Tesla with Autopilot. In practical highway terms, the A8 is largely limited to stuff you expect on any Honda or Subaru: adaptive cruise control with blind-spot monitors and automated braking. There’s a lane-keeping function with mild automated steering assist, but it’s designed as a strictly hands-on affair. As on other Audis, the lane keeping works okay when road markers are ideally set up, but badly when they’re not: My A8 ping-ponged between even clearly-painted markers, veering too close to the edge for my comfort. At other times, the A8 threatened to leave its lane entirely, forcing me to assert control. The adaptive speed function is at least reliable, smoothly regulating the A8's pace in surrounding traffic.

Fortunately, if you’re not obsessed with the latest in robotic chauffeurs, the rest of the A8’s technology is often spectacular. It's showcased in a cabin that takes Audi's ethos of minimal design, advanced tech, and impeccable materials to a new level. If it's not a baroque-beautiful stunner like the S-Class, the Audi's quarters offer more discreet pleasures. Compared to the departing model, this A8 eliminates 35 hard buttons and switches—including its familiar go-to, the rotary console MMI knob—in favor of an incredibly minimalist layout dominated by a stacked pair of black-panel screens (10.3 inches for the upper, 8.6 for the lower). Discreet, flush-mounted electronic sliders on the dash face control the air vents, including wood-veneered panels that drop down to discreetly hide the vent faces. The horizontal dash recalls the counter of a bespoke jeweler; if a tray of Van Cleef & Arpels diamonds slid out from it, I wouldn't be shocked.

The smartphone-style “MMI Touch Response” lets you reposition tiles on the screen, and save one-keystroke shortcuts for just about anything, from radio presets to navigation destinations. Those haptic screens adjust for three levels of pressure sensitivity, as well as one with no feedback “click” at all. Those big screens do attract equally sizable smudges, perhaps the reason my press car included a soft cloth in the console to wipe away fingerprints. (Is this where I cop to enjoying an amazing, LA taco-truck lunch inside the A8?)

Executive Package perks include a foot-massaging pad and tablet-equipped console

I honestly missed the trusty MMI knob at times, but the new system’s learning curve is fairly painless. Redundant steering wheel controls or usefully natural voice commands can also call the controlling shots. Audi’s underrated handwriting pad, once located atop the MMI knob, becomes a selectable function of the much-larger climate-control screen. More annoying was the way the Audi—despite storing some 700 personalization functions for up to seven users—wouldn’t let me (or a passenger!) perform some duties while in motion, including connecting a phone. Another head-scratcher is the interior door handles, which are set upside-down from the traditional position, forcing you to grab the underside of the handle to pop the doors.

A well-cocooned run from Palm Springs to Los Angeles showed the A8 at its best. My backseat passenger settled into a vigorous reclining massage, serving as guinea pig—actually, more like a chinchilla—for the Audi’s optional, $7,550 Executive Package. That two-bucket Executive layout adds a toboggan-shaped, ambient-lit rear console and a detachable digital tablet, allowing control freaks to direct everything from window shades and the dual sunroof to seating, audio, video and wifi. The right-rear Executive seat even adds a foot rub: The front shotgun seat slides fully forward, and a footpad drops from the deep-welled seat back to soothe CEO tootsies. For another $5,900, an optional Bang & Olufsen system rocked through 23 speakers, with 1,920 watts. Between my head-up display and Google-mapping, 12.3-inch Virtual Cockpit, the new double-decker screens and rear digital tablet, and two silvery, wifi-connected iPads mounted behind the front headrests for another $3,250, this A8 had seven controllable displays for a maximum four occupants. Drop that Exec package, and three adults in the rear will share a vast 44.1 inches of rear legroom...and fight for control of the two iPads.

Have I left anything out? Because Audi sure hasn’t. Well, aside from the self-driving A8 the carmaker promised.

Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him atLawrence.ulrich@gmail.com

2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF Review: Which Is Best, Classic Convertible or Sexy Retractible Hardtop?

A debate continues to rage in Miataland, that Hobbit-sized shire in which every driver is carefree and happy, whether or not hair sprouts atop their accelerator foot: Should you choose the traditional soft top Mazda MX-5 Miata, or the hardtop RF?

That debate has consumed The Drive’s office as well, with Will Sabel Courtney casting a recent vote for classicism and canvas. (I’m not sure why it matters, because lanky Will barely fits in a Miata anyway). The soft top’s key advantages are less weight—the RF’s hardtop adds 113 pounds—and less mechanical complexity: In a one-handed maneuver, a driver whips the roof open as insouciantly as a nudist flings off a Speedo.

My personal vote hinges largely on geography: If I’m living in Laguna Beach, and there’s no downside to four-season Miata driving, then sure, give me a soft top. But maybe because I grew up in Detroit, where I once owned a second-generation Miata—and because I live in Brooklyn today—my frigid northern heart leans toward the hardtop. Its pros and cons became clear when I drove a 2019 Miata RF Grand Touring (shod with Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires) to the Skip Barber Winter Driving Clinic in northern Connecticut on a miserably rainy, foggy day in early January.

RF, here with its hand-painted black roof, brings fresh, coupe-like style to the familiar Miata

First, a sad disclaimer: After more than 25 years of driving Miatas, this was my first-ever test car with an automatic transmission. I took my first sight of that PRNDL console lever as a personal affront—I had assumed the Mazda would be a manual model—and the Miata’s plastic, wafer-thin paddle shifters weren’t much consolation. But I realized that this particular Miata take was about choosing a favorite topper, not a favorite transmission. (Any Miata fan knows the correct choice there). And my first woodsy run in the Miata reminded me that this is a momentum car, anyway—an ultimate training machine for rookies who think they’ve got track driving all figured out, but actually don’t know shit about how to go fast. I see them all the time, the ones who show up to club tracks in their freshly-purchased 911s, and can’t understand why drivers in, yes, Miatas, are dusting their superior Porsches. So while I dearly missed having a clutch pedal in the wilds of Connecticut, I also realize that I can run just about everything in third gear, with a little bit of second in slower corners; if you’re preserving momentum right, there’s really not much shifting involved.

That’s even more true with the Mazda’s new-for-2019 engine, which has improved punch that lets you run in lower gears more often through the twisty stuff, while requiring fewer downshifts on the highway. I drove a fancy, leather-wrapped RF Grand Touring edition, which starts from $34,320 and hit $35,900 with extras. For 2019, every Mazda adds a standard rear-view camera, and the telescoping steering wheel (in addition to tilt) that fans have begged for since the car’s debut 30 years ago. Those stick-shift loyalists will definitely want the new GT-S pack—offered only with manuals—which adds the Mazda’s most critical performance bits—Bilstein dampers, a limited-slip differential and a front shock tower brace—for just $750. The RF GT-S adds a hand-painted black roof as well (and it looks great).

Even grimed up in Brooklyn, RF still looks good

But the new 2.0-liter inline four is the real draw for 2019, with 181 horsepower versus 155 for the old engine. A 26-hp gain may not sound huge, but in a roughly 2,332-pound car (in manual soft top trim), a 17-percent power bump is significant. Pistons and connecting rods are lightened, the crankshaft stiffened; a reworked exhaust manifold cuts engine pumping losses by 30 percent, while new fuel injectors and intake ports heighten combustion, and a dual-mass flywheel aids smoothness and response. By the imperfect metric of stoplight acceleration runs, the Mazda isn’t markedly faster: You’re looking at a roadster that can spool out a 0-60 mile-per-hour run in about 5.7 seconds, one or two tenths quicker than before. The heavier hardtop is about 0.2 seconds slower than the soft top to 60 mph. But it’s the way the Mazda makes its newfound power that makes the difference: Where the old engine felt pretty gutless below 3,500 rpm, and turned laggy and thin as it approached redline, the new engine has real mid-range punch. The Mazda now pulls eagerly to its 7,500-rpm rev limiter, 700 rpm higher than before, with no sense of strain. It sounds better, too, with a new exhaust system bringing a rowdier four-cylinder bark.

Call me superficial, but the visual transformation brought by the hardtop can’t be denied; it’s not quite caterpillar-to-butterfly, but it’s close. With its body-colored roof and flying-buttress rear, the RF just looks sexy. The soft top Miata has been called many things—cute, adorable, or more-sexist jibes—but never “sexy.” As happens every time I drive an RF, people came to drool all over it—including Danny, my Mini-driving neighbor—yet expressed total surprise that this was a Miata, or even a Mazda. The RF looks like a car that Alfa Romeo or Jaguar might have conjured, especially in flattering colors like my tester’s candy-apple Soul Red Metallic, a $595 upcharge.

Miata soft top makes an argument for simplicity, lower price

In cooler climates especially, even convertible fanatics would acknowledge that the majority of driving is done with the top raised: at night, in uncooperative weather, or even when the midday sun would fry you and a passenger. During those uncountable hours, the hardtop is easily the better Miata, because it’s nearly as quiet and vibration-free as a conventional coupe. Long drives and urban commutes are relaxing instead of wearying, and you can hold a conversation without raising your voice. With rain and sleet pelting my RF, I was grateful to have the hardtop roof over my head. The RF’s pretty C-pillars do create blind spots, but the raised soft top is no better.

I’ll absolutely concur with Will that the soft top Miata stakes its claim on top-down driving, with the beautifully minimalist simplicity of its fabric roof. The RF’s targa-style arrangement doesn’t offer the full al fresco exposure of the soft top. A bit annoyingly, its complex roof won’t open or close at speeds above six mph, because Mazda was worried that some passenger’s long, windblown hair might get snagged in the machinery. But the RF’s biggest demerit is how its exposed C-pillars act as giant wind collectors: Picture an open catcher’s mitt, with just a bit of webbing in the form of a small rear backlight to let air through. Above 70 mph especially, the turbulence can get heavy, though some owners swear that certain side-window elevations will alleviate the issue.

Natty tan leather graces this Grand Touring edition

Fortunately, whichever model one chooses, the Mazda is a star among reasonably priced cars. The shifter-clutch combo rises to Porsche heights of perfection. The chassis balance is that of a 95-pound Olympic gymnast, twirling and flying, yet fully in control. Body roll is surprisingly ample, but that’s part of the old-school charm. And the Miata seems to take up barely more lane space than a motorcycle, so there’s always more room to go faster and push harder.

Having spent most of a day drifting and slaloming at Skip Barber’s school, I departed the track with my confidence high and this balanced, forgiving Miata at my disposal. I immediately realized, first, how easy it is to slide the Miata on moistened pavement, and second, how I should probably stop sliding, before some Connecticut cop with no sense of adventure spotted me.

Now, some reviewers insist on citing a $6,600 upcharge for the RF—but that’s BS, because they’re comparing a base soft top to an RF that’s only offered in up-level Club or Grand Touring models. On that apples-to-apples basis, the RF Club (at $33,240) and RF Grand Sport (at $34,230) add an average $2,650 to the soft top’s price. Are the RF’s arresting style, quieter cabin, and all-season advantages worth the extra $2,650? Only your heart—and perhaps your zip code—can answer that.

Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at Lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com

2019 Lexus ES 350 F Sport Review: A Front-Wheel-Drive Lexus That Banishes the Beige

Pick a sedan, any sedan—even such holies as the Honda Accord or BMW 3 Series—and you’ll find a car that’s been bloodied in the marketplace by those bully-boy SUVs. The saddest part is that their own brothers are administering the showroom beatdowns (typical, right?), as with the Honda CR-V and BMW X3 crossovers that have become, by far, their brands’ best-selling models. And as a result, when we auto journalists chart the shocking downfall of sedan sales—or witness Ford’s and Fiat Chrysler’s craven, short-sighted retreat from that market—it begins to sound like there’s something inherently wrong with the modern sedan.

But there’s not, as a four-door like the 2019 Lexus ES 350 F Sport makes abundantly clear. This smartly retuned version of the more-sedate ES 350 ranks as a happy surprise among all-new 2019 models I’ve driven. This isn’t a flinty-riding, leash-straining Mercedes-AMG or BMW M car, nor is it trying to be. But to me, this Lexus delivers the luxury experience that a solid majority of sedan buyers—or even just the ones who are left—would dream about. It’s roomy, comfortable as hell, beautifully finished inside, and exudes power and elegance from the curb. It makes driving feel like second nature, with a chassis and steering that precisely balance the scales between buttoned-down control and relaxation.

Lexus’s early “F Sport” treatments sparked some eye rolls. But as with the underrated GS F Sport, it’s time to give Lexus its due. Yeah, I get it, this ES is front-drive. But don’t scoff until you try it: Led by engineer Yasuhiro Sakakibara, the ES team has delivered an ES F Sport that’s not racy per se, but that will take anything you throw at it and ask (nicely) for more.

A desirable shelter starts with a strong foundation. The seventh-generation ES (for “Executive Sedan”) adopts Toyota’s front-drive “Global Architecture—K” platform, shared with the all-new Toyota Avalon and Camry. That includes laser screw welds, a 65-foot skein of structural adhesive, and toughened-up suspension mounting points. Lexus claims the structure is nearly as rigid as its rear-drive flagships, the LS sedan and LC coupe. The front bumper and hood are aluminum. Sound-absorption material masks 93 percent of the floorpan.

The midsize ES is 2.8 inches longer and 1.8 wider than its predecessor, with a 2.0-inch wheelbase stretch, and about 78 pounds heavier. Among midsize luxury sedans—including the Mercedes E-Class, BMW 5 Series, and Audi A6—it’s the Lexus that now boasts class-leading rear legroom: At one point, I had three adults in back, and they weren’t at all squashed.

Yes, Lexus's overweening “Spindle Grille” remains the face only a mother could love, and mother Lexus continues to hope that we all coo and pinch its widdle cheeks. But the F Sport’s blacked-out mesh grille at least recalls the sweetest sibling yet, the gorgeous LC Coupe. Family schnoz aside, this ES has genuine curb presence, including a nautical, smartly-creased shoulder line. The Lexus is also two whole inches lower, a big chop for a sedan of this type; yet headroom remains ample front and rear, thanks in part to a redesigned headliner. Throw in that fast roofline, and the ES looks crouched, stretched, and perennially in motion.

For the F Sport, 19-inch, split five-spoke alloy wheels recall those on the richer LC and LS models, while a trunklid spoiler arches over slender taillamps. If the message wasn’t clear that Lexus is sick of beige-and-boring, my test car's Ultrasonic Blue Mica paint—one of two exclusive F Sport shades—was so electrifying, I started checking for its battery cables.

In both aesthetics and athletics, the F Sport provides more reasons to choose it over the standard ES, or that unleaded sippy-cup called the ES hybrid with a CVT transmission. Body-flattering sport seats are a dead ringer for those in the LC—and that’s a $92,000 car, more than double the F Sport’s $45,060 base freight. The leather-wrapped steering wheel is straight from the flagship LS. Aluminum pedals and red stitching add another dash of sporty spice. (No, not that one). Going full habanero, my test car brought bewinged, bordello-red leather seats that recall an Audi RS6. Pretty good company, that.

For a car that, on paper and sticker, ranks as the buck private of the Lexus four-door lineup, the ES 350’s interior is majorly convincing. Materials and switches are high-class all around, including the F Sport’s wave-patterned “Hadori” aluminum trim, a Lexus first that’s inspired by Japanese swordmaking. Driver’s gauges feature a striking, analog chronograph-like dial in the center that motors and pivots to clear room for a digital readout of vehicle functions, all controlled by steering-wheel switches.

I’m finally making peace, however uneasily, with Lexus’ trackpad-based infotainment system, after dealing with a learning curve as rewarding as six months in the prison library. But the ginormous 12.3-inch center screen, set deep into the rich instrument panel like some futuristic Magnavox, flashed its displays and apps with pride. The 17-speaker, 1,800-watt Mark Levinson audio system kicked out the jams and soothed with Erik Satie. The ES is the first Lexus with Apple CarPlay (still no Android Auto), and it’s Alexa-enabled. Verizon-powered wi-fi is standard, and there’s Siri Eyes-Free voice control. That cabin also feels impervious and graveyard quiet. A huge list of passive and active safety features are standard.

The ES soldiers on with its naturally aspirated, 3.5-liter V-6. But a port- and direct-injected system lifts power to 302 horses and 267 pound-feet of torque, jumps of 34 hp and 19 pound-feet. (Unlike so many luxury models, the Lexus makes those 302 horses on regular unleaded.) A fresh eight-speed automatic transmission, with a wider ratio spread, replaces the aged, unhurried six-speed; paddle shifters come with the F Sport. That gearbox links through a decidedly old-school, red-stitched manual console lever, rather than the electronic fussbudgets found in so many luxury makes. Lexus pegs the 0-60 mph run at 6.6 seconds, but that’s way too self-effacing: I saw six seconds flat in an unscientific stopwatch run, and I’d bet that the ES would break under six seconds with a solid launch.

In every ES, a more-sensitive, rack-mounted electric steering unit replaces the old column-mounted design. The multi-link rear suspension is also all-new, as is a stiffening V-brace behind rear seats. But the F Sport’s calling card is the Adaptive Variable Suspension, a direct and welcome inheritance from the LC Coupe. These driver-adjustable, road-sensing shocks cover a wide spectrum of damping force. The F Sport also adds a Sport + plus mode to the usual Eco, Normal and Sport settings, for more-aggressive engine, transmission and suspension responses. That’s controlled via the mildly weird Frankenstein bolt that protrudes from the driver’s binnacle.

The changes bring an ES with unexpectedly responsive steering and reassuring control, without sacrificing the spooned-cream ride that’s a brand signature. The Lexus won me over, steadily and stealthily, on a post-Christmas drive from Brooklyn to Boston. On the notoriously coiling Merritt Parkway in New York and Connecticut, I bent the ES into curves at near-autobahn speeds, and it wasn’t at all flustered. Now, we're not talking the passionate, romantic driver connection of an Alfa Romeo Giulia; it’s more a date for high tea at the Plaza. But that kind of date has its own pleasures, its own form of sophistication. And oui, garcon, the bill isn’t so bad: Starting from $45,060, my ES 350 F Sport reached $52,780 with all the trimmings.

While some brands back away from sedans, Lexus (and Toyota) are smartly staying put, hedging their bets, and realizing that nothing lasts forever—whether that’s giveaway gas prices or the assumption that every American will be happy in a two-ton lump of an SUV. Where other automakers wouldn’t predict sedan sales under threat of torture, Lexus confidently expects to move 50,000 ES cars in America each year, about 25 percent in F Sport trim. That’s not world-beating, but still worthwhile—and profitable. For the record, BMW found barely 44,000 buyers for its 3 Series in 2018, a 25-percent drop in a single year. (The all-new 2019 3 Series will surely help reverse such a vertigo-inducing fall).

Point being, the smart money in automaking isn’t about to give up on sedans. Count me among drivers who’d choose this Lexus ES 350 F Sport in a heartbeat over one of the company's ubiquitous SUVs. Life is more than a popularity contest, right?

Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at Lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com

Self-Driving Cars Won’t Save Your Life, But the Skip Barber Racing School Just Might

Ask any rally driver, professional drifter, or just some kid pulling doughnuts in a snowy parking lot: There are few things more fun than fishtailing a car on a slick surface, as I rediscovered at the Skip Barber Winter Driving Clinic at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut. But this rare opportunity for socially sanctioned hooning has a serious side, when you consider how rarely drivers get to explore the limits of their cars or safely practice emergency maneuvers that might save their lives—or the lives of their occupants.

In my perfect world—as well as in Alex Roy’s, since he's the author of the Human Driving Manifesto—a driving school like Skip Barber would be driver’s ed: A required curriculum for all licensed drivers, taught by real professionals, that teaches actual car-control skills. Even one day of this stuff would beat any knowledge that young drivers absorb from trembling parents, slumming gym teachers, or multiple-choice quizzes at the DMV.

“Even professional drivers will practice on a skidpad to hone their skills,” says pro instructor Ben Haymann, who got his own start in racing by driving his father’s rally car on frozen lakes at age 15. “You’ve got a safe environment where you can push a car past the limit, and then learn to keep it below that limit. For the average driver on the street, it’s the best thing you could ever do.”

That may go double for American teenagers, for whom vehicle crashes remain the leading—and so often preventable— cause of death. Drivers between ages 16 and 19 are three times as likely to die in a car crash than drivers 20 or older. Blame a fatal mix of inexperience and overconfidence, sure—but also this nation’s indifferent, irresponsible approach to training and licensing standards. For any age group, the driving skills of the average American might fairly be called a national disgrace.

If crash statistics are a handy guide, things may be getting worse: U.S. traffic fatalities plunged for four decades, but they’ve now spiked dramatically, despite a fleet that includes the safest, most-crashworthy cars in history. Traffic deaths peaked at 54,589 in 1972, and plunged to a record low of 32,744 by 2014, even with tens of millions more cars and drivers on the road, logging billions more miles. But over the next two years, traffic fatalities jumped a shocking 14 percent, to 37,461 in 2016. The number dipped slightly to 37,133 in 2017, but that’s still nearly 4,400 more dead Americans—including troubling increases in motorcyclist and pedestrian deaths—than in 2014. And fatalities are only part of the story: In a landmark study of 2010 crash data, released in 2014, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration pegged a direct economic cost of $242 billion—or $784 for every man, woman and child in the U.S.—for that year’s tens of thousands of crash deaths, 3.9 million injuries, and 24 million damaged vehicles.

Skip Barber instructors would love to put even a small dent in those statistics. The school also offers a Teen Safety and Survival program and a one-day driving school that instills their time-tested methods. Haymann is one of several top-flight Winter Clinic instructors whose experience includes everything from rally and road racing to stunt driving and training for the military and law enforcement. But there’s no snow or ice at Lime Rock when I arrive. (Damn you, climate change!) Instead, fog and a cold drizzle greet the assembled students as I drive a Mazda Miata RF press car into the historic circuit.

I’m thinking the day is a literal washout, until I see the “drift rings” on the school cars: thermoplastic hoops that encase conventional rear wheels and tires, sharply reducing their coefficient of grip to allow easy breakaways from as little as 10 or 15 mph. The black rings—think a higher-tech version of plastic cafeteria trays— prove ideal for teaching drivers to initiate and recover from a skid at relatively low speeds. You don’t need to drive especially fast to learn car control, as any pro driver will tell you.

“The same thing happens in a car at 20 mph as it does at 120 mph,” says instructor Paul Balich.

Best of all, the rings work even on bone-dry pavement, so trainers and students don’t have to worry about the weather cooperating. We’re soon slip-sliding in a Ford Fusion and an Escape, with this winter school preferring a blend of sedans and crossovers like those students might be driving in the earl world. Instructors sit shotgun to work on our counter-steer recoveries, hand and throttle positions, and the criminally overlooked skill of visual tracking.

The instructors’ expert, good-humored approach brings back memories of my great experiences in Skip Barber open-wheel racing schools. So I’m gladdened to see this seminal school reborn at five U.S. racetracks, under new and committed ownership, after a bankruptcy in 2017. Founded by Skip Barber in 1975—“Skippy” sold the school in 1999, but still owns the Lime Rock circuit—the school’s racing alumni include Jeff Gordon, Juan Pablo-Montoya, Michael Andretti, Kyle Petty, Bill Elliot, and dozens more. Barber's Miatas are no more, replaced by a fleet of Mustangs and other Fords, helpfully provided by Northeast Ford in nearby Millerton, New York.

After lunch, our group heads out for panic braking, slalom, and emergency lane-change exercises. As I stomp the brakes of a Mini Countryman and feel the throb of its ABS, the instructor reminds me how critical early initiation and maximum brake pressure are to save-your-ass stops. Many drivers, of course, will never press the pedal hard enough to even engage ABS in a critical situation, with some assuming that standing on the brake will somehow “break” the car. (As though they’d prefer the “breaking” that comes with a rear-end collision). Rather than address the educational shortfall, companies like Lexus invented “brake assist” technology to recognize when drivers actually wanted ABS, and simply engage it automatically.

That brings up everyone’s favorite trendy car topic: the rise of autonomous technology that has pro instructors as ambivalent as everyone else. Our coaches are quick to praise the tech revolution in everything from air bags and ABS to stability control. But more than ever, auto technology seems to be wielding a double-edged sword. Semi-autonomous and (eventually) autonomous technology may well be a key to dramatic reductions in highway fatalities and injuries. One element of it, automatic emergency braking (AEB), is already demonstrating statistically significant reductions in front-to-rear collisions. Yet distracted driving, led by compulsive smartphone use and enabled by auto touchscreens, is a prime suspect in the sudden surge in auto fatalities. And self-driving tech, if it’s poorly implemented, misused, or misunderstood, may lull drivers into a false sense of security—or cause already-shaky skills to atrophy further.

Skip Barber’s people stress that, even if autonomous cars become reality, they’ll still be sharing the roads—for years if not decades—with conventional cars and sentient drivers. Knowing how to drive, safely and well, will still be a worthwhile human endeavor.

“I can’t even fathom being totally reliant on technology to get where I’m going,” says Colin Chambers, Skip Barber’s vice president of marketing and business strategy. “I think there will always be room to drive in this country, and racetracks as well. And we still see young people who just as eager to drive and compete as we were when we were kids.”

That brigade includes Will Lambros, 15, and his brother Dino, 13, both of whom have been running Skip Barber racing events. And our winter clinic has brought a good half-dozen teen drivers—young men and women alike. With darkness falling on Lime Rock, the day wraps with a cool surprise: A timed autocross in a 2019 Ford Mustang GT and a Mini Countryman, with students split into teams for relay-style laps. If you didn't think driving was fun before, a trip in the bellowing V-8 'Stang might convince the coldest soul. Some of the fastest laps are posted by 19-year-old Philip Weymouth and his 17-year-old brother Carte. The Manhattan residents are huge car fans—Audis and Aston Martins are some favorites—and these new-gen drivers give the old-school Skip Barber a big thumbs-up.

“This would make anyone a better driver, absolutely,” Philip says. “It’s very situational, with opportunities to practice that you’d never get otherwise.”

Skip Barber Racing School’s Winter Driving Clinic is being held on select Saturdays at Lime Rock Park. It’s open to any licensed driver, or holders of a learner’s permit with at least 20 hours of driving experience. For information, contact skipbarber.com, or at (866) 932-1949.

Meet the All-New, RWD-Based 2020 Ford Explorer, Packing New Engines and New Tech

Ford already revived its Explorer franchise earlier this decade. Now, FoMoCo seeks to shore it up for the next one, with the all-new, decisively redesigned 2020 Explorer. The carmaker physically unveiled the 2020 Explorer this evening at Ford Field in Detroit—home of another moribund franchise, the NFL's Detroit Lions—in the run-up to next week’s North American International Auto Show. But Ford graciously gave journalists a hands-on preview here in New York, several hours before the official unveiling.

(I can’t help taking that as another sign that the Motown show itself is in perhaps-irreversible decline. Looking to stave off that irrelevance, including mass automaker defections and the competitive threat of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Detroit will move the show from its traditional dead-of-January spot to June, beginning in 2020.)

The 2020 Explorer goes on sale this June. And it couldn’t have picked a better time to seek the warm embrace of Americans who insist on a three-row, six- or seven-passenger SUV, whether they really need one or not. Ford, smartly or not, is snuffing out cars like the Fusion, Focus and Fiesta in favor of a full-time truck-and-SUV party. Perhaps more than any other model, its original Explorer converted great swaths of America’s middle class to SUV ownership at its debut in 1990. But by the post-recession apocalypse of 2009, Ford could find barely 50,000 buyers for its archaic, truck-based Explorer.

Despite lukewarm critical reviews, today’s front-drive-based, unibody model brought those loyalists storming back. In its opening year of 2011, the current Explorer tripled those recession-era sales to better than 135,000 units. Sales steadily doubled again, reaching 271,000 in 2017, before slipping a tad to 261,000 last year.

2020 Ford Explorer is ready to take the fight to its foes

Smartly restyled, roomier, and stuffed with tech, this 2020 Explorer will look to defend those sales against stalwarts including the Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, and Chevrolet Traverse, and newbies such as the Subaru Ascent and the intriguing new Kia Telluride. And one of the Ford’s most critical gains is one that a casual SUV shopper might never appreciate, even as they enjoy its benefits: This Explorer adopts an all-new, rear-wheel-drive architecture, shared with the new Lincoln Aviator, that also spins off an all-wheel-traction version.

Ford expects about 70 percent of buyers to choose optional four-wheel-drive, with the RWD model accounting for the remainder of sales, largely in Sun Belt states. The Explorer will continue to be built at the lavishly upgraded Chicago Assembly, Ford’s oldest continuously operating plant in North America, which built its first Model T in 1924.

New EcoBoost engines, hybrid option for a new Explorer

Ford says the new Explorer sheds about 200 pounds, with expanded use of high-strength steel and aluminum, including the latter for the hood. A 2.3-liter EcoBoost turbo four base engine, familiar from the Mustang and Lincoln MKC, delivers 300 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque. The next step us is a hybrid Explorer with a 3.3-liter V-6—standard for the Police Interceptor model that dominates law enforcement fleet sales—with roughly 318 horses and 285 pound-feet, and the promise of significant fuel savings and CO2 emissions reductions. Power users can have the Platinum edition's 3.0-liter EcoBoost twin-turbo V-6 packing a muscular 365 horsepower and 385 pound-feet of torque. That powertrain will also be the potent basis of an Explorer ST, its chassis tuned by Ford Performance, that could be an affordable sleeper in the high-powered SUV class when it arrives in 2020. Ford is expected to release more details on the Explorer Hybrid and ST in Detroit next week.

“It’s our fastest Explorer ever,” said Michael O’Brien, product manager for Ford’s large SUVs, of the 3.0-liter Ecoboost versions.

Every Explorer adopts the company’s 10-speed automatic transmission, co-developed with General Motors, as a replacement for the aged six-speed unit of the current model. A rotary transmission knob replaces the space-hogging shift lever of the current model, opening up space for a media bin with a 12-volt outlet, USB and USB-C ports.

The new SUV is just 0.1 inches longer than before, at 198.9 inches, and identical in width. But the new platform brings a significant six-inch wheelbase stretch, allowing much easier ingress and egress to rear rows—a major handicap of the current model.

Photos don't fully reveal how much better and more-modern this Explorer looks: The rear-driven architecture does wonders for the Ford’s stance and proportions, bring along a better dash-to-axle ratio, wheels moved toward the corners, and an attenuated front overhang. With its clean lines, gently scalloped doors, blacked-out roof pillars (aside from the body-colored C-pillar) and subtly sloping roofline, this is a handsome, contemporary SUV—a fine stylistic rival to the Traverse or Jeep Grand Cherokee, and decidedly more attractive than a Pilot, Highlander, or Ascent. (The production version of Kia’s Telluride, if it looks anything like the streamlined concept version, may trump them all).

The Explorer’s interior may be even more striking—especially in the deluxe Platinum version I climbed around in, with its swirled-grain ash wood and stitched-leather instrument panel and door trim. The busy-ness and control-confusion of some Ford cabins has been done away with, in favor of a cleanly-sculpted, straightforward affair. The Platinum, and other uplevel Explorers, pairs a 10.1-inch tablet-style touchscreen with an equally sharp 12.3-inch digital driver’s display. That portrait-oriented tablet seems perfectly located for an easy reach: pulled toward the driver and front passenger, set high enough to easily scan while driving, yet low enough to avoid blocking even a sliver of view through the windshield. Nice.

Plenty of tech to be found in this Ford

More-basic Explorers get an 8.0-inch, landscape-oriented center screen, which is still double the size of the current model’s. Hard switches are minimal, aside from (thankfully) analog controls for climate, audio volume/tuning, and program selection. Wireless phone charging is an option, along with a huge dual-pane sunroof and a 980-watt, 14-speaker Bang and Olufsen audio system.

The Explorer offers a quieter interior, expanded passenger and cargo space, and improved outward views due to a lower hood and slimmed-down dashboard. Ford claims class-leading hiproom in the first and second rows, and class-best headroom in the second and third rows. Whether you choose a three-passenger bench or bucket seats in the middle row, tilting and sliding the seats for easy access to the way-back is a one-touch operation. Up-level models get a powered button to slide the seats.

Generous standard features include a power liftgate, 100-percent LED lighting inside and out, the 8.0-inch touchscreen, and a “FordPass” mobile app which features remote vehicle tracking, starting, unlocking, and other controls. Also standard is the Ford “Co-Pilot 360” suite of driver assistance systems, including automated emergency braking with pedestrian detection, blind-spot monitor, lane-departure warning and assist. An optional adaptive cruise control system will allow hands-off driving for roughly six to eight seconds, along with active lane centering. The Explorer Platinum brings standard 20-inch wheels (there are 18s on starter models), or optional, seven-spoke 21-inch wheels with Pirelli Scorpion tires.

Most of today’s self-parking systems, including Ford’s, simply handle the steering, requiring the driver to operate the throttle, brake, and transmission. But the Explorer’s new Active Park Assist 2.0 does it all, for both parallel or perpendicular moves: Find an open spot and hold down a console button, and the Explorer will manage its own steering, throttle and brakes, even shifting itself into Drive to complete the maneuver.

O’Brien acknowledged that most Explorer owners “aren’t into rock crawling.” Yet the new model still brings a Terrain Management System with seven selectable driving modes, including “Slippery,” “Trail,” and “Deep Snow/Sand,” all managed via a Land Rover-style console knob. Those modes are reflected in attractive animated displays in the driver's screen. Explorer ground clearance rises by 0.8 inches, and towing capacity jumps to 5,600 pounds, up from 5,000.

The Explorer also holds the line on price, at least for the base model; we’ll have to see how high a loaded Platinum model will soar. But the 2020 Explorer will start at $33,860, about $400 more than the 2019 model, despite its major upgrades in design, performance, comfort, and standard content.

The Explorer's fortunes have boomed and busted since its arrival nearly 30 years ago. But Ford has sold more than eight million Explorers in that time, and the SUV climate seems more ripe than ever. Considering America’s insatiable appetite for tall-riding utilities, and the ongoing exodus—among both automakers and consumers—from traditional cars, this 2020 Explorer seems guaranteed to kick historic sales over the nine million mark sometime in the next four years.

“If someone has the money in America, they’re going to choose a utility,” O’Brien said.