Ready for Battle

By Derek Price

If there was any doubt in my mind that the Jeep Gladiator is the most exciting pickup truck to hit the market in years, a one-day drive dispelled it.
There’s no question.
As a natural-born skeptic, I went into my drive with some suspicion about whether the inherent tradeoffs in the automotive world — power vs. fuel efficiency, style vs. practicality, everyday comfort vs. high-performance handling — meant Jeep could get both the truck side and the off-roading side correct in this wild mashup of a vehicle.
Somehow, the Gladiator nails both parts.
On the trails, this pickup benefits from its close ties to the Jeep Wrangler, one of the best off-roading platforms ever conceived by man. Compared to the two-door Wrangler, the Gladiator’s longer wheelbase and extra weight are liabilities in extreme conditions, but its limits are still stratospheric compared to most trucks.
Hardcore Wrangler fans will find a lot to love about the pickup-truck cousin, including its ability to ford 30 inches of water, an approach angle of 43.6 degrees and 11 inches of ground clearance.
Just as importantly, it offers the Wrangler’s famous open-air driving experience. You can remove the doors and the top — and even fold the windshield forward, if you want — to be at one with the world around you. If you need a better 360-degree sensory experience, you’ll have to get a dirt bike.

The Gladiator is the first Jeep pickup truck since the Comanche disappeared in 1992. It mixes the off-road prowess of the Wrangler with the towing and payload capability of a pickup.

The bigger question, though, is whether the Gladiator can satisfy truck buyers in the same way it pleases Jeep enthusiasts. To do that, it needs to be more than a Wrangler with a small bed tacked onto the back end.
With a stout steel frame and a specially designed five-link coil suspension in back, the Gladiator wins best-in-class bragging rights with the ability to tow 7,650 pounds. That bests the Toyota Tacoma’s 6,800-pound max and the Chevrolet Colorado’s 7,000-pound limit.
And it does so without making the ride too bouncy or harsh, a common problem in both off-road vehicles and machines designed for towing. I found the highway ride surprisingly quiet and livable for daily commutes, making this truck more useful than a weekend toy.
Its Achilles heel is its relatively short five-foot box length with wheel arches that protrude into the cargo bed, but some smart features make it more usable than you’d imagine at first glance. The tailgate can be locked in three positions, for example, to allow for supporting flat cargo such as plywood over the wheel arches.
Strong tie-downs, under-rail lighting, and optional features including a power outlet and Jeep’s Trail Rail tie-down system make the bed versatile and durable.

Based heavily on the new-generation Wrangler, the Gladiator’s interior draws in styling cues from classic Jeeps, including round bezels on a horizontal dash. The doors and top can be removed for open-air driving.

Inside, I like the mix of smart storage ideas — including locking bins behind the back seat — with classic Jeep styling cues. Round gauges and vent bezels on a very simple, horizontal dash evoke the idea of iconic American off-roaders, despite the plethora of digital screens and high-tech features befitting a freshly designed vehicle.
Power comes from a 3.6-liter V6 engine, which felt more than competent with its 285-horsepower output routed through an eight-speed automatic transmission in my tester. Purists will also be glad to see a six-speed manual available in the Gladiator.
A 3.0-liter diesel engine is on its way in the near future, Jeep says. Hopefully it will deliver better fuel economy than the gasoline engine, rated at 17 mpg in the city and 22 on the highway with the automatic transmission.
Pricing starts at $33,545 for the base Sport model with a manual transmission. An automatic adds $2,000, and the destination charge tacks on another $1,495.
Other grades are the Sport S for $36,745, the luxury-oriented Overland for $40,395 and the built-for-trail-climbing Rubicon for $43,545.
At that price, will it be a sales hit? Considering Jeep sold out of its 4,190 Launch Edition Gladiators in less than a day, priced around $61,000 apiece, the odds are in its favor.

 At A Glance

What was tested? 2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon ($43,545). Options: Eight-speed automatic transmission ($2,000). Price as tested (including $1,495 destination charge): $47,040
Wheelbase: 137.3 in.
Length: 218 in.
Width: 73.8 in.
Height: 75 in.
Engine: 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 (285 hp, 260 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 17 city, 22 highway

Style: 10
Performance: 10
Price: 5
Handling: 5
Ride: 6
Comfort: 7
Quality: 8
Overall: 9

Why buy it? 
It mixes the incredible off-road capability of the Jeep Wrangler with with practicality of a truck. It’s the most capable mid-size truck on the market today.

Posted in Jeep

Emotional Appeal

By Derek Price
Ford Motor Co. announced last year that it will be dropping all but two car models from its lineup, choosing to focus more on hot-selling trucks and SUVs.
One of the survivors is the Mustang, which begs a question: Why?
I spent a week driving the current iteration of America’s iconic muscle car, a bright yellow Mustang GT with a manual transmission, which gave me a lot of time to think about it. Why will this car will be a part of Ford’s future while others — including the competent Fusion, Taurus and Fiesta — will not?
To be sure, the Mustang has famously had several brushes with death in the past, including the gas crisis of the 1970s and the onslaught of sporty, high-quality imports in the 1980s and ‘90s. Just like it survived those, there’s a good chance it will outlast its current existential threat, America’s crossover-vehicle craze.
I think I understand why.

The unmistakable style of the Ford Mustang is a major part of its enduring appeal. This car looks like no other, something that stands out even more in a market awash with lookalike sedans and coupes.

It has nothing to do with the movement toward greener cars, something the self-righteous among us like to envision as the battery-powered, clean-burning future of motoring. If the future is green, the snarling V8 in my Mustang tester won’t fit in at all.
As I see things, it has more to do with the failure of modern car designers to inject even the least bit of excitement into their products.

With nostalgic styling inspired by its roots in the 1960s, the Mustang’s cabin has roomy front seats and wraps passengers in a warm, rich, rumbling sound under acceleration.

The Mustang is nothing if not exciting, something I experienced every time I turned the key. This is a car that wakes up both the soul and the neighborhood, which is one reason Ford added the Quiet Start feature this year for drivers who want to stay on good terms with their homeowners’ associations. With the push of a button, the V8 temporarily goes from adrenaline rush to serotonin hush.
Outside that silent mode, though, the Mustang delights the senses. It looks thrilling. It sounds thrilling. And when you mash the gas pedal, its thrills cross the threshold from frightening to dangerous in a matter of seconds.
It’s the antidote to the argument geezers across America have been making for years.
You’ve probably heard them. “Back in my day, you could tell a Ford was a Ford. You could tell a Cadillac was a Cadillac. Cars had tail fins, chrome, wild design and totally unique bodies. But these days, all cars look the same. I can hardly tell a Chevy from a Toyota.”
Today’s Mustang is surviving because the geezers are spot-on correct.
If I blame car designers for the bland, cookie-cutter sedans they’re foisting on us, I should give them credit for the Mustang coupe’s spectacular individuality.
The current Mustang looks like nothing but a Mustang, not only because it dips liberally from the well of nostalgia. It incorporates its history in a way that’s both tasteful and contemporary, a nearly impossibly thin wire on which to balance.
More than that, it gets the emotions right.
Even if no one had any sense of this car’s history — its 1960s swagger, its legendary performance and its iconic pony-car look — I think this is a car that would be an instant hit if it suddenly appeared out of the ether with no back story. Its appeal is absolutely timeless.
A century from now, if we hand Person of the Future the keys to this machine and a few miles of open pavement, that person is going to have a huge grin on their face.
And as long as the Mustang can keep hearts racing, it’s going to be a part of the American automotive scene. Its future is as simple as that.

At A Glance

What was tested? 2018 Ford Mustang GT Coupe Premium ($39,095). Options: Equipment group 401A ($2,200), premium paint ($495), enhanced security package ($395), active value performance exhaust ($895), GT Performance Package ($3,995), Magne-Ride damping system ($1,695). Price as tested (including $900 destination charge): $49,670
Wheelbase: 107.1 in.
Length: 188.5 in.
Width: 75.4 in.
Height: 54.3 in.
Engine: 5.0-liter V8 (460 hp, 420 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel economy: 15 city, 25 highway

Style: 10
Performance: 9
Price: 8
Handling: 9
Ride: 8
Comfort: 7
Quality: 6
Overall: 8

Why buy it? 
It’s a spectacularly fun car to drive, particularly in GT form with its 460-horsepower V8 engine. It’s built for excitement from the inside out.

Posted in Ford

An Unusual Mix

By Derek Price

For drivers who want an odd-duck mixture of sporty handling and off-pavement capability, Audi offers an odd-duck vehicle: the A4 allroad.
Based loosely on the A4, the allroad inherits some of the sleek, oh-so-contemporary styling, flashy in-cabin technology and sparkling handling that make the regular A4 a compelling sports sedan.
From there, it does things that would make sports-sedan purists cringe: raise the ride height, add plastic wheel well trim to protect the paint and plop on a crossover-like rear end.
It also gets adaptive dampers to control the ride and Audi’s excellent quattro all-wheel-drive system, which gets even better with the ability to split torque output between front and rear now.
If the A4 sedan impresses at the concert hall, the A4 allroad does so at the campsite. It’s designed to do light off-roading, complete with undercarriage protection to guard against rocks and stumps, yet still carries the status of a German luxury car.

Lower and sleeker than a crossover vehicle, the Audi A4 allroad offers some of the advantages of a family friendly SUV with an added twist of sports-sedan-like responsiveness.

While it’s similar in execution to today’s super-popular crossover vehicles, it doesn’t drive quite like them. Most crossovers have a soft — or, if you’re less generous, boring — feel from the driver’s seat. The A4 allroad, much like the sedan, delivers a firmer, more connected feeling and lower center of gravity thanks to its sports-sedan roots.
It also comes with a seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic transmission, a very unusual choice in this type of vehicle. The lightning-fast shifts add to its sporty feeling.
It also looks sleek and trim, with a more wagon-like silhouette compared to the bulbous, rounded, lumbering look of most crossovers and SUVs. I love that about it, but not everyone will.
After its trendsetting body styling, the one thing Audi is doing best these days is creating a theatrical experience when you step into the cabin.

Audi remains masterful at cabin design, both in the carefully chosen shapes and materials and in the sense of drama its multimedia system creates on its crystal-clear screens.

Part of the drama starts with the design and materials, mixing minimalist shapes and horizontal lines with the contrasting textures of carefully chosen metal, wood and leather. The textures seem more purposeful and thoughtful than most cars, with some portions of the dash that would fit in a modern art installation as well as a car.
For the most part, controls are all logically arranged, including a rotary knob to access the digital interface from the center console, right where the driver’s hand can comfortably rest.
At startup and shutdown, the A4’s digital screens and sound system work together to add to the drama. Flashy graphics on the crystal-clear displays catch your attention and set the mood even before you start playing with its features and customization settings, which are extensive.
Pricing starts at $45,700 for the 2019 model, or a bit less for the similar 2018 model, which I tested. That’s nearly $13,000 more than Audi’s entry-level crossover, the Q3, and around $3,000 more than the base price of a mid-size Q5.

At A Glance

What was tested? 2018 Audi A4 allroad 2.0T quattro S tronic ($44,500). Options: Green metallic paint ($575), prestige package ($8,500), warm weather package ($1,450), cold weather package ($850). Price as tested (including $975 destination charge): $56,650
Wheelbase: 110.9 in.
Length: 187 in.
Width: 79.6 in.
Height: 58.8 in.
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder (252 hp, 273 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic
Fuel economy: 22 city, 30 highway

Style: 9
Performance: 9
Price: 6
Handling: 9
Ride: 8
Comfort: 7
Quality: 8
Overall: 9

Why buy it? 
It can do light off-roading and still look classy. Its sleeker, lower profile is more attractive than bulbous crossovers, and its sports-sedan roots mean it handles spectacularly in corners.

Posted in Audi