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2018 Nissan Rogue SL AWD

New Rogue comfortable, roomy …2018 Nissan Rogue

Rogue is Nissan’s top-selling vehicle, has been around awhile and proved itself reliable, and if you’re a Star Wars geek, its name appeals like none other on the market.

What it has going for it in the small sport-utility/crossover market is that it’s not too small. It has good interior space for four adults and generous cargo room behind the rear seat. It’s comfortable, has supportive seats and is priced competitively. Last year its styling was updated and Rogue remains a handsome SUV.

But it has its limitations. Some of its competitors perform better, for instance the Subaru Outback, which is of similar size. Both have AWD to make them appealing in our sometimes snowy climate, and all the utes in this class offer that feature.

While the Rogue’s interior is comfy and refined, the cabin relatively quiet and all, I found the ute’s main driving characteristics solidly middle of the road. Nothing stood out.2018 Nissan Rogue

For instance Rogue’s power is modest with its 2.5-liter I4 kicking out 170 horsepower. Mated with a smooth, but uninspiring automatic CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission), its acceleration is mild. Rogue doesn’t feel terribly heavy, which is good, but if you want or need quick acceleration you won’t find it here.

In fact, if you press the accelerator to the floor demanding more power you’ll get some, but the engine noise grows substantially, the growl often disturbing to riders. Rogue sounds like it’s working hard to get up to highway speeds if you tromp it. There is a Sport mode button that once engaged will give the Nissan more torque, but again, engine noise becomes an issue.

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2018 Chicago Auto Show: New vehicles big and small

It’s the largest show in North America

Mark and I love this show and have been making the trip down south from Milwaukee for a long time. Besides seeing the latest from the auto manufacturers, we spend time catching up with our fellow reporters. And we got some exercise walking two miles in the one million square foot exhibit area at McCormick Place.

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2018 Audi Q5 2.0T quattro w/Prestige

New Audi Q5 remains smooth, luxurious …2018 Audi Q5

Evidently once a smooth operator, always a smooth operator.

Audi’s new Q5 compact luxury crossover/sport-ute carries on its tradition of smooth, sporty performance with luxury ladled on for good measure. It’s a bit larger than its predecessor and slightly more fuel efficient too. This is an all-around winner. No wonder the Q5 is Audi’s best-selling vehicle.

For 2018 the wheelbase is increased slightly, less than an inch, and interior space grows a bit. In addition, there is no turbo-diesel engine available anymore. We all know of Volkswagen’s diesel woes, and Audi is VW’s luxury brand.

The Q5 comes in three trim levels, Premium, Premium Plus and Prestige. This was the Prestige, but that comes as a package and takes the Premium from its attractive $42,475 starting price up to $51,775, including delivery fee. This added a few more options to top out at $56,100. So it’s loaded with goodies.2018 Audi Q5

But let’s start at the basics where even with the entry-level Premium model you get the same silky, yet powerful, 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 that produces 252 horsepower, but more sportingly this engine boasts 273 lb.-ft. of torque. The Q5 darn near literally jumps away from stoplights. Jumps is probably a bit misleading as the Audi is more thoroughbred race horse than kangaroo.

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Amazon Prime: Paradise for car enthusiasts

A benefit I didn’t even know about in the beginning

All Photos: Amazon unless noted

Like the millions of other families all over the world we became Amazon Prime subscribers because of the special deals and many times free shipping. But it wasn’t until my wife and I gave each other a brand new 65 inch smart TV for Christmas which just happened to be an Amazon Prime Fire Edition. I was just excited about getting the TV because it is UHD and would be great for watching football games but after setting it up found motorhead city, all for just $99 a year. I now do a lot of binge watching.

My favorite show, The Grand Tour

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2017.5 Mazda6 Grand Touring

Mazda6 GT stylish and loaded with goodies … 2017.5 Mazda6

While theaters are bulging with “Star Wars,” auto dealer showrooms are embroiled in car wars as top-selling mid-size sedans butt heads with their latest models.

Top of the sales heap are the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, both of which have been revamped for 2018. But one of the sedans each of those has set its sights on is the already snazzy Mazda6. Mazda isn’t sitting still though, it will launch a new Mazda6 this spring, but its most updated model, the 2017.5 version is well worth a look now.

I visited family in the Las Vegas area last week and slipped behind the wheel of a Soul Red ($300 extra, and worth it) Mazda6, a muscular, sporty sedan that still is among this segment’s styling leaders. The sparkling metallic red test car was the top-level Grand Touring edition, so it was loaded.2017.5 Mazda6

But before you pooh-pooh it for fear its price is out of reach, consider that the GT starts at $31,570, including delivery, and even with options this one clocked in at $34,695. That’s below the average selling price for a new car and well below a crossover or sport-utility equipped this well.

First consider that all Mazda6 models come with what Mazda calls SkyActiv-G technology that delivers good power and excellent fuel economy. SkyActive-G is applied to Mazda’s 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine and include a smooth-shifting 6-speed automatic transmission. This one came with paddle shifters too.

Weight remains moderate at 3,305 lbs. and the engine’s 184 horsepower is plenty perky when you tromp the accelerator to get on the highway. But, as with many cars today, Mazda includes a sport mode, this one activated by a toggle on the console. Boom! The tranny holds the lower gears longer to boost power and in this mode the Mazda races to highway speeds.

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2018 Honda Accord Touring 2.0T

Honda Accord styling catches up with its competence … 2018 Honda Accord

Finally Honda has come out of its conservative styling funk to make its always solid Accord sedan look like more than a very reliable box.

The 2018 Accord is wider and lower than its predecessor and looks more muscular and exciting with a larger grille, snazzy taillights and a fastback profile that is more like a coupe. This isn’t your uncle Ed’s Accord anymore.

That alone makes the latest Accord worth a look, but as always, the car is solid from stem to stern. It has plenty of power, handles well and delivers a smooth sedan ride that will please any family of five or fewer.

First a few basics. Accord comes in five trim levels ranging from the LX at $24,460 to $36,690 for the Touring model that I tested. There are two new engines for 2018, a 1.5-liter turbocharged I4 that creates 192 horsepower and a 2.0-liter I4 turbo that cranks 252 horses. The smaller engine makes 7 hp more than the previous I4, while the 2.0-liter is down 26 horses from the earlier 3.5-liter V6.2018 Honda Accord

A key reason for the change is gas mileage and the smaller engine tops the mid-size class with a combined 33 mpg rating. That’s 30 mpg city and 38 mpg highway. The tested 2.0-liter is rated 22 mpg city and 32 mpg highway. I tested the car during a frigid week with morning temps starting below zero, so I managed just 21.0 mpg.

Yet for those with sportier leanings the 2.0-liter turbo will be the winner. It’s a strong engine that actually spins the front tires on our salty streets when you hit the gas pedal with any muscle. Harnessing that power is a 10-speed automatic transmission. Amazing that we’ve gone from 6- to 8- and now 10-speed transmissions in less than 10 years.

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2018 Kia Stinger GT2 AWD

Kia’s Stinger GT2 a world-class sport sedan … 2018 Kia Stinger GT2

Like Porsche when it launched the unlikely Macan, its first sport-utility vehicle, Kia has crushed expectations by creating a premium level sports sedan with its 2018 Stinger.

Some folks likely were still stuck on the notion that the South Korean car firm only churned out econoboxes and low-cost mainstream vehicles. But they are living in the past.

Kia has broadened its lineup in the past decade and has been hitting home runs on initial quality, beating the competition on content and price and destroying it with styling that leads the industry. Its Optima is still the best-looking mainstream sedan on the market, and has been for going on 8 years.

But Stinger (a great name) takes Kia in a new direction, mainly into a head-to-head battle with German luxury sport sedan makers. It’s being compared with the Audi A5 Sportback and BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe. That’s good company, and it’s winning those comparisons.

2018 Kia Stinger GT2

Robby DeGraff photo

 

First, this is a luxury car to be sure, but one that pumps up the fun with distinctive sporty looks. Stinger comes in five trim levels too, and I tested the top-line GT2 with all-wheel-drive. It’s not inexpensive, but then neither are its competitors.

The base Stinger 2.0T packs a 255-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, but the tested GT2 blows away the competition with a 3.3-liter turbo V6 that pumps an aggressive 365 horses.

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Die-cast: Ixo’s 1958, 1960 Ferrari 250, Le Mans winners

Racy Ferrari 250s, when Ferrari was dominant … Ferrari 250 Le Mans winners

Part of the fun of any die-cast or model car collection is in comparing the differences of similar cars made a couple years apart.

So when American-Excellence sent us the Le Mans-winning Ferraris from 1958 and 1960, both made by Ixo, the fun began. These are from the classic sports car era when road cars were lightly modified to race and when drivers like America’s Phil Hill were braving it with little more than an open-face helmet and racing gloves for protection.

The two 1/43 scale red racers are the Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa, No. 14, that Hill and Olivier Gendebien drove to a Le Mans victory in 1958 and the similar TR60, No. 11, that Gendebien and Paul Frere won with at Le Mans in 1960.

The History

Phil Hill was America’s primo sports car racer in the late 1950s into the 1960s and the first U.S. driver to win the F1 World Championship, which he did with Ferrari in 1961. He and Belgian Gendebien frequently teamed up for endurance races and both were highly successful, witness Gendebien’s second Le Mans win in 1960 with Frere, another Belgian racer.Ferrari 250 Le Mans winner

Hill would win Le Mans again in 1961 and 1962 with Gendebien as Ferrari was a dominant entrant at Le Mans. It posted overall wins from 1958 through 1965, with the exception of 1959 when Aston Martin won.

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2018 Kia Rio EX hatch

Cute Rio hatchback a sporty low-cost option …2018 Kia Rio hatchback

I liked the high-value Hyundai Accent sedan a week ago, so it stands to reason I’d like its cousin, the sportier looking Kia Rio hatchback this week.

Accent no longer comes in a hatch, so if you prefer this body style, which I do, the Rio is your low-cost, high-value option for this lineup. Although it should be noted that Rio also comes in a sedan, like the Accent.

I drove a metallic gray Rio EX hatchback, the top level as opposed to the entry-level Accent SE I tested last week. The price difference is minor, but significant if you’re looking for low cost transportation. Yet the EX comes with more comfort and safety features than the base Accent did.

Let’s start with what’s in the Rio for a still low price of $20,225.2018 Kia Rio hatchback

First, the car is a bit longer, lower and wider than its predecessor. That translates to a bit roomier and a handsome, yet sporty look.

Rio has the same engine as Accent, a 1.6-liter direct-injected I4 that creates 130 horsepower. No pocket rocket, the Rio still gets up to highway speeds fairly easily and much more readily when the Sport mode button is depressed on the console, just in front of the shift lever.

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Die-cast: Ixo’s 1937 Bugatti Type 57G Le Mans winner

Bugatti was racy from the get-go at Le Mans … 1937 Bugatti Le Mans winner

In the early years, a lot of competitors, and winners, in the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race were from France. Many of those makes are legendary, but many also are gone.

One that remains is Bugatti, now known as a super car maker of impeccable quality, speed and styling. Its pedigree is long and distinguished. That pedigree includes two Le Mans wins, one of only 11 car makers to score more than one win and one of just 24 brands to win at Le Mans. Porsche and Audi have each won more than a dozen times, but who’s counting?

Ixo now delivers a sharp 1/43 scale die-cast model of Bugatti’s 1937 Le Mans-winning Type 57G. Bugatti won with a similar car in 1939.

The History

This car, and its drivers, make for a unique tale. Only three Type 57G Tanks were built and this one won Le Mans in 1937. It was driven by Jean-Pierre Wimille and Robert Benoist (more on them in a moment) and completed 243 laps, 7 more than the second place Delahaye 135CS. The Bugatti ran a 3.3-liter straight 8 while the Delahaye was powered by a 3.6-liter straight 6.1937 Bugatti Le Mans winner

 

The team was owned by Roger Labric, making this an all French team. In fact, the top four finishers were all French, with a British Aston Martin coming home fifth to be the top finisher among non-French entries. Only 17 of the 48 entries were running at the end of 24 hours.

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Die-cast: Replicarz’s 1959 Scarab Mk. II racer

Purple Nickey Nouse Scarab a slick winner …Replicarz 1959 Scarab Mk. II

A few years back at Road America, the Midwest’s finest road racing facility, I ran into racer Augie Pabst and his beautiful metallic blue Scarab Mk. II racer.

Pabst, an heir to the brewing fortune, had been a succesful sports car racer in the late 1950s and early 1960s and was running his Meister Brauser Scarab in vintage races.

I’m a racing nut, but I’d never seen a Scarab before, so I was intrigued by the long-nosed front-engine car that looks part futuristic racer and part late 1950s roadster. Now, Replicarz has gone and produced a superb 1/18-scale resin die-cast of one of three Scarab Mk. IIs that were made and raced. This one was driven by another Midwestern sports car expert, Jim Jeffords, and features Nickey Nouse, the Chicago-based Nickey Chevrolet mascot.

 

The History

Lance Reventlow, son of Woolworth heiress Betty Hutton, was a California-based racer who owned Reventlow Automobiles Inc. He had cash! But had seen how the European automakers only sold year-old racers to outsiders, so decided to have the Scarabs designed and specially built for his team. He was looking for an advantage.Replicarz 1959 Scarab Mk. II

Scarab’s designers were Tom Barnes and Dick Troutman, both well-known race car builders. They created a space-frame chassis weighing 127 lbs. and plopped in a special-built Chevrolet 283 V8 built by Traco Engineering. Its 365 horsepower made the Scarab a beast that was hard to catch. Its first victory came at the 1958 Riverside International Grand Prix in California with noted sports car driver Chuck Daigh at the wheel. Reventlow also raced his Scarab.

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2018 Hyundai Santa Fe Limited Ultimate AWD

2018 Hyundai Santa Fe Limited

Robby DeGraff photo

New Santa Fe a luxury sleigh ride …

Leading up to Christmas I spent a week luxuriating in Santa’s sleigh.

Say what? It was Hyundai’s Santa Fe? Well then, never mind!

Yet then again Hyundai’s mid-size SUV is certainly big enough to haul a lot of goodies to good girls and boys all over southeast Wisconsin. The Santa Fe is a luxurious ute that if it had sliding side doors could pass for a minivan. In the tested Limited Ultimate AWD trim it would haul six adults with its two second-row captain’s seats and twin fold-down third row seats.

If you opt for a bench seat in the second row, Santa Fe will seat seven, which matches most minivans. And the cargo space behind the second row for gear, suitcases and such is sizeable. Even with the third row in place there’s plenty of room for grocery bags and odds and ends.

2018 Hyundai Santa Fe Limited

Robby DeGraff photo

The AWD makes the Santa Fe a champ in sloppy weather too, giving it even better footing than say a heard of reindeer.

Hyundai revamped this ute for 2017 and drastically improved its looks, moving it away from boxy minivan and old ute styling to a fresher, more muscular stance that gives it a bit of a BMW’s swagger.

Handling is among the best for mid-size crossovers and utes too. Santa Fe feels responsive and corners well with just a slight lean in fast tight turns. Steering feedback is on the heavy side in Normal drive mode, of which there are three, including Eco and Dynamic.

Punch the Drive Mode button for Dynamic and the wheel firms up even more, maybe more than most drivers would want to deal with. But it also allows the 6-speed automatic transmission to hold the lower gears longer in order to boost acceleration. So in this mode the Santa Fe jumps, not up onto house tops, but onto the freeway like an aggressive sport sedan.

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Die-cast: CMC’s 1954-55 Lancia D50

CMC’s latest F1 car a stunning Lancia D50 … CMC Lancia D50

Lancia was a late-comer to Formula 1 racing after World War II, but it had the genius of engineer  Vitorrio Jano as its secret weapon. He had created the successful Alfa Romeo 8C pre-war.

So in late 1954 Lancia’s beautiful and unusual D50 joined the F1 circuit for the last race of the season, the Spanish Grand Prix where 2-time world driving champ Alberto Ascari put it on the pole with the fastest time.

While setting a fast pace with a record lap, it wasn’t reliable and lasted only 9 laps. But what had captured the racing public’s interest and other designers’ attention was its design with two outrigged pannier gas tanks, its off-center engine mount and low seating position to better distribute weight.

Now CMC nails the design in 1/18 scale with another hand-built metal die-cast model consisting of 1,598 parts, and no, I didn’t count them all.

The History

Gianni Lancia wanted to be a part of the F1 racing world so had Vano design the radical D50. Unfortunately it basically bankrupted his car manufacturing company by mid-1955 and he handed over the team to Enzo Ferrari.

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2018 Volvo XC60 T6 AWD Inscription

Volvo XC60 a sweet ride – fun, luxurious, nimble …2018 Volvo XC60

Sometimes the hardest reviews to write are those for vehicles I’ve really enjoyed, the ones that stand out among the 50+ vehicles I test in a year.

This week’s tester, the Volvo XC60 with the Inscription package shouldn’t be hard to ladle syrupy praise on. It’s just that great, comfortable and sporty just don’t seem thick enough.

I’ve driven plenty of Volvos through the years and many were fine, just often overpriced and not as comfortable or fun to drive as other makes. Well, the XC60 is fun, luxurious, nimble, exceedingly quiet and comfortable, and as stylish as any SUV or crossover today.

Price, well, that still is an issue to me, but more on that in a bit.

This Swedish-made crossover starts with a powerplant that boggles the mind, an engine, if you will, that seems outlandish in its design. First, it’s a 2.0-liter I4 much like you’d find in many small to mid-size utes and crossovers. Yes, it’s turbocharged to give it more power and keep its gas consumption at reasonable levels too.2018 Volvo XC60

Ah, but here’s the funky part, Volvo also supercharges its tiny 2.0-liter. What? Yes, it turbocharges and supercharges the four-banger to give this more kick than most crossovers, even the pricey luxury ones. The engine packs 316 horsepower and 295 ft.-lbs. of torque. If you consider this, because it has all-wheel-drive, a sport-utility vehicle, then by golly it delivers on the sport side.

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2018 Hyundai Sonata Limited 2.0T

Hyundai’s Sonata just keeps getting better … 2018 Hyundai Sonata Limited

Hyundai’s Sonata is back on track to being a major challenger to the likes of Toyota’s Camry and others in the crowded mid-size sedan market.

Hyundai’s last generation Sonata wasn’t nearly as attractive as its predecessor. This one is a sharp looker with a distinctive nose and improved profile. That will snag buyers attention, but its new 8-speed automatic transmission and improved ride should seal the deal, along with price.

Always a high-value car, the 2018 Sonata has a lot going for it. Admittedly I tested the top-level Limited 2.0T that is heavy on sporty performance, and all the bells and whistles. But wait until you get a load of the price.2018 Hyundai Sonata Limited

But first, the “Machine Gray” (metallic gray) Limited touts Hyundai’s strongest engine, a 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 that delivers a peppy 245 horsepower and a 260 torque rating. As with many cars and crossovers today there are a number of drive modes for the driver to select.

There’s Eco, which garners the highest gas mileage at the cost of power, Comfort, which is the middle ground of handling, power and ride, and Sport, which firms the steering and pumps up the power. That was great for accelerating onto the highway or away from a crowded traffic light when a lane change was in order.

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2018 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk

Jeep Trackhawk boasts 707 hp, too … 2018 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk

There is now a 707 horsepower Jeep.

You read that right, and the first question most folks ask is, Why would Jeep do this?

The answer: Because they can.

There’s no reasonable or logical reason, except that Fiat/Chrysler, which is the overindulgent parent of Jeep and Dodge, has been playing up its youthful exuberance via high-powered vehicles for several years now. Yes, this has a Hemi in it!

First it was the Hellcat, both as a Dodge Challenger and Charger, using the same 6.2-liter supercharged Hemi V8 that powers this Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk. Then there’s the Demon, another Challenger with even more power and aimed directly at the drag strip crowd. But there’s little chance many folks will be buying a Jeep to race at the local drag strip, especially when the tested Trackhawk’s price tag nudged $91 grand.2018 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk

Yet a few folks, and you know who they are, always need to have the biggest, well, engine on the block. They are the buyers that previously have snapped up the top-end sports cars and muscle cars of the past. Think Corvette envy.

The Hellcats, Demons and Trackhawks are shoving that with both hands to a new level, and doing so with in-your-face marketing.

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Die-cast: Automodello’s 1981 AAR Gurney Eagles

Automodello’s Gurney Eagles are beauties …

1981 AAR Gurney Eagle

The 1981 Pepsi Challenge (No. 48) driven by Mike Mosley and the blue White Castle entry driven by Chip Mead at the Indy 500.

Dan Gurney stopped racing at the enf 1970, but his influence on open-wheel racing continued for decades afterward. Yet the 1970s and early 1980s were the zenith for his All-American Racers (AAR) Eagles.

Gurney’s Santa Ana, Calif.-based shop turned out highly competitive Eagle chassis for the Indy Car series. Eagles were consistent winners. Even the ultra-successful Team Penske used them for a while as they were outperforming Penske’s own chassis.

Yet in 1981 AAR went a whole new route with its design, making virtually everything behind the driver’s cockpit into a wing that created terrific downforce to increase cornering speeds.

Now, Automodello joins Replicarz in creating high-quality 1/43 scale resin historic Indy racers with its model of the AAR 1981 Eagle that sat on the front row for the Indy 500 and won a race in Milwaukee. It also makes a second Eagle that was entered in the 1981 race.

The History1981 AAR Gurney Eagle

The radical Eagle design with its broad, flat rear side pods and extension behind the rear wheels, plus a small wing atop what was essentially a lower wing, caught everyone at the 500 by surprise. Mike Mosley, a speedy Indy veteran with tough luck, was the driver of Gurney’s famous No. 48.

In addition to its design, including two large air scoops hanging off the engine cover to feed air to its fragile Chevrolet V8, the Eagle was painted a bright yellow and white and labeled the Pepsi Challenger.

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2017 Dodge Durango GT Blacktop AWD

Outlier Durango delivers function and style …2017 Dodge Durango GT Blacktop

Dodge’s Durango is an outlier of sorts. It features function and style while many of the better selling large SUVs maintain a staid look, favoring square exteriors and overly manly interiors with oversized gauges, knobs and air vents.

Durango though likes to spiff itself up, like it’s saying it wants to be formal, but likes to party too.

This week’s case in point, the large Durango GT Blacktop AWD. While not as racy, or gas thirsty as the R/T version I tested a couple years back, this one still has plenty of muscle, while maintaining a sporty look, at least as sporty as SUVs go.2017 Dodge Durango GT Blacktop

Under the hood is a 3.6-liter V6 with variable valve timing and boasting 293 horsepower. Torque is rated at 260 lb.-ft. The engine is strong and the Durango, while not nimble, feels substantial and quick enough to outrun traffic as you pull onto the freeway. I had this on a roundtrip to Toledo and it cruised the toll roads with ease and was quick to pull out and pass slow semis and dawdlers.

Dodge uses an 8-speed automatic transmission with the V6 and the tranny shifts smoothly and efficiently. While not in the league with hybrids, the Durango managed 22.0 mpg on the trip, including some city driving along with long stretches of highway. The Dodge drinks regular and the EPA rates it at 18 mpg city and 25 highway. I had a fairly heavy load of luggage in the back and one passenger.

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2017 Lexus IS350 F Sport

Stylish Lexus IS350 remains true to its calling …2017 Lexus IS350

 

When we are lucky, good things don’t change, much!

This week’s luxurious example is the Lexus IS350 F Sport, a certified BWM 3 Series fighter, and a near identical luxury sport sedan to one I drove two years ago, right down to the Atomic silver color.

Not much has changed, which is mostly good. If you were to look back at my previous review you’d see the same pluses and minuses, so the only downside is that the negatives have not been addressed. Still, they aren’t deal breakers.

2017 Lexus IS350Essentially the IS350 and BWM 325i are dimensional clones, just one reflecting the more luxurious leanings of its Japanese maker, while the German make stresses performance. Lexus began challenging the iconic BMW in 2005 as it tried to lure more young executives away from the German make with its new IS sedan.

The current model though draws a distinct line in the styling sands by delivering an edgy style that BWM would, apparently, never attempt. The Lexus boasts a big in-your-face grille and crisply creased body. As I said before the IS looks quick even as it lazes at the end of the driveway.

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2017 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road 4×4 Double Cab, long bed

Toyota’s Tacoma TRD a big mid-size pickup for off-roading …  2017 Toyota Tacoma TRD

            There was a day, not all that long ago, when Toyota’s Tacoma, along with the likes of Ford’s Ranger and Chevy’s S-10, was a small, personal-sized pickup.

These were young guy “first cars” because they were inexpensive wheels, macho enough to get the young girls to pay some attention, plus useful enough to help other young friends move into their first apartments, houses, whatever.

Today the Tacoma, along with other compact pickups, have grown up into bigger mid-sized models that some could almost mistake for full-size trucks. Certainly when you add a double cab (a full back seat and second set of doors), and a long bed (6 feet in the Tacoma’s case), and 4-wheel-drive, you’ve got a vehicle that’s big, long and tall.2017 Toyota Tacoma TRD

Then make it a TRD version, which stands for Toyota Racing Development, and you’ve pretty much “machoed” the thing out to the max.

This week’s test truck though went with what Toyota calls a Quicksand color, which is a tan that screams utility service truck. Not a great color for a personal truck. But then the test truck did feature the TRD 4×4 Off-Road decals on the bed’s rear side panels. Tough!

How big has the long-bed Tacoma double-cab become? Well, it rides on a 140.6-inch wheelbase and is 225.5 inches long. Weight is 4,425 lbs. Compare that with a comparable Nissan Frontier SL 4WD Crew Cab, which has a 139.9-inch wheelbase, is 219.4 inches long and weighs about 170 lbs. more.

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2017 Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio

Alfa Romeo’s Giulia makes us giggle it’s so much fun …2017 Alfa Romeo Giulia

            Rare is the sports sedan, or any car, that makes you giggle when you tromp on its gas pedal. Rare too is a car that makes your friends envious.

Corvettes have become too common, Jaguars too mainstream, BMWs too numerous. No, for something special you want an Italian sports car, preferably in red and preferably with a sexy sounding name. You want something not everyone of a certain economic standing has.

Today, that car is an Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio. That’s Giulia, as in the woman’s name, Julia. And the Quadrifoglio? Well, that means four-leaf clover, which is emblazoned on the car’s front quarter panels. More on that in a bit.

Alfa Romeo embodies Italian car history, especially its racing history. It’s who Enzo Ferrari worked for, or with, before Ferrari became Ferrari. Despite its long history the Italian make pulled out of the U.S. market in 1995 and only recently, along with its parent, Fiat, has come back.2017 Alfa Romeo Giulia

Giulia is the car it needs to regain a foothold in the American market and from a performance standpoint it is an absolute home run. Or in the sporting vernacular of its homeland, GOOOOOOOAL!

With any sports car, or sports sedan, one must start with the power plant. Alfa snags a 2.9-liter bi-turbo V6 created by Ferrari and it is magnifico! It’s strong and sings like one of the Three Tenors, a thing of beauty.

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2018 Subaru WRX

Subaru’s WRX makes you faster, more interesting …2018 Subaru WRX

Mention the Subaru WRX in front of young adult males and you’re likely to become the most interesting man, or woman, in the world.

Subaru devotees are a, well, devoted lot and WRX fans are darn near rabid. Face it, some folks, especially young males, love speed and yet their wallets aren’t fat enough to go Corvette or BMW shopping and their egos or tastes may not desire a Mustang, Camaro or Challenger. So it comes down to two cars really, the race-ready Ford Focus RS I drove a month or so back, and Subie’s WRX.

Lucky for Subie followers, the WRX just happens to be revamped for 2018 already. But to my way of thinking it blends in too much, not a problem with the winged Focus. WRX needs a more muscular look than just its shallow lower body cladding, splitter on the lower nose and gaping air scoop on the hood. It really doesn’t look fast at all. And don’t get me started on the rear spoiler. It’s virtually non-existent on the tested Premium model.2018 Subaru WRX

Several co-workers asked if I had a new Corolla to test drive for the week – really!

Yet the tested bright blue WRX still has the guts that its young, mostly male, audience desires.

Subaru’s well-tested 2.0-liter, direct-injected, turbo, Boxer 4-cylinder pumps an awesome 268 horsepower and 258 ft.-lbs. of torque. It flat out flies after second gear. There’s some turbo lag to be sure, but even if you ease into the throttle from second to third gear it’ll slam you back in the seat and take off like an F-16.

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11
Feb

2018 Nissan Rogue SL AWD

New Rogue comfortable, roomy …2018 Nissan Rogue

Rogue is Nissan’s top-selling vehicle, has been around awhile and proved itself reliable, and if you’re a Star Wars geek, its name appeals like none other on the market.

What it has going for it in the small sport-utility/crossover market is that it’s not too small. It has good interior space for four adults and generous cargo room behind the rear seat. It’s comfortable, has supportive seats and is priced competitively. Last year its styling was updated and Rogue remains a handsome SUV.

But it has its limitations. Some of its competitors perform better, for instance the Subaru Outback, which is of similar size. Both have AWD to make them appealing in our sometimes snowy climate, and all the utes in this class offer that feature.

While the Rogue’s interior is comfy and refined, the cabin relatively quiet and all, I found the ute’s main driving characteristics solidly middle of the road. Nothing stood out.2018 Nissan Rogue

For instance Rogue’s power is modest with its 2.5-liter I4 kicking out 170 horsepower. Mated with a smooth, but uninspiring automatic CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission), its acceleration is mild. Rogue doesn’t feel terribly heavy, which is good, but if you want or need quick acceleration you won’t find it here.

In fact, if you press the accelerator to the floor demanding more power you’ll get some, but the engine noise grows substantially, the growl often disturbing to riders. Rogue sounds like it’s working hard to get up to highway speeds if you tromp it. There is a Sport mode button that once engaged will give the Nissan more torque, but again, engine noise becomes an issue. Read more

9
Feb

2018 Chicago Auto Show: New vehicles big and small

It’s the largest show in North America

Mark and I love this show and have been making the trip down south from Milwaukee for a long time. Besides seeing the latest from the auto manufacturers, we spend time catching up with our fellow reporters. And we got some exercise walking two miles in the one million square foot exhibit area at McCormick Place. Read more

8
Feb

2018 Audi Q5 2.0T quattro w/Prestige

New Audi Q5 remains smooth, luxurious …2018 Audi Q5

Evidently once a smooth operator, always a smooth operator.

Audi’s new Q5 compact luxury crossover/sport-ute carries on its tradition of smooth, sporty performance with luxury ladled on for good measure. It’s a bit larger than its predecessor and slightly more fuel efficient too. This is an all-around winner. No wonder the Q5 is Audi’s best-selling vehicle.

For 2018 the wheelbase is increased slightly, less than an inch, and interior space grows a bit. In addition, there is no turbo-diesel engine available anymore. We all know of Volkswagen’s diesel woes, and Audi is VW’s luxury brand.

The Q5 comes in three trim levels, Premium, Premium Plus and Prestige. This was the Prestige, but that comes as a package and takes the Premium from its attractive $42,475 starting price up to $51,775, including delivery fee. This added a few more options to top out at $56,100. So it’s loaded with goodies.2018 Audi Q5

But let’s start at the basics where even with the entry-level Premium model you get the same silky, yet powerful, 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 that produces 252 horsepower, but more sportingly this engine boasts 273 lb.-ft. of torque. The Q5 darn near literally jumps away from stoplights. Jumps is probably a bit misleading as the Audi is more thoroughbred race horse than kangaroo. Read more

7
Feb

Amazon Prime: Paradise for car enthusiasts

A benefit I didn’t even know about in the beginning

All Photos: Amazon unless noted

Like the millions of other families all over the world we became Amazon Prime subscribers because of the special deals and many times free shipping. But it wasn’t until my wife and I gave each other a brand new 65 inch smart TV for Christmas which just happened to be an Amazon Prime Fire Edition. I was just excited about getting the TV because it is UHD and would be great for watching football games but after setting it up found motorhead city, all for just $99 a year. I now do a lot of binge watching.

My favorite show, The Grand Tour

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3
Feb

2017.5 Mazda6 Grand Touring

Mazda6 GT stylish and loaded with goodies … 2017.5 Mazda6

While theaters are bulging with “Star Wars,” auto dealer showrooms are embroiled in car wars as top-selling mid-size sedans butt heads with their latest models.

Top of the sales heap are the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, both of which have been revamped for 2018. But one of the sedans each of those has set its sights on is the already snazzy Mazda6. Mazda isn’t sitting still though, it will launch a new Mazda6 this spring, but its most updated model, the 2017.5 version is well worth a look now.

I visited family in the Las Vegas area last week and slipped behind the wheel of a Soul Red ($300 extra, and worth it) Mazda6, a muscular, sporty sedan that still is among this segment’s styling leaders. The sparkling metallic red test car was the top-level Grand Touring edition, so it was loaded.2017.5 Mazda6

But before you pooh-pooh it for fear its price is out of reach, consider that the GT starts at $31,570, including delivery, and even with options this one clocked in at $34,695. That’s below the average selling price for a new car and well below a crossover or sport-utility equipped this well.

First consider that all Mazda6 models come with what Mazda calls SkyActiv-G technology that delivers good power and excellent fuel economy. SkyActive-G is applied to Mazda’s 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine and include a smooth-shifting 6-speed automatic transmission. This one came with paddle shifters too.

Weight remains moderate at 3,305 lbs. and the engine’s 184 horsepower is plenty perky when you tromp the accelerator to get on the highway. But, as with many cars today, Mazda includes a sport mode, this one activated by a toggle on the console. Boom! The tranny holds the lower gears longer to boost power and in this mode the Mazda races to highway speeds. Read more

25
Jan

2018 Honda Accord Touring 2.0T

Honda Accord styling catches up with its competence … 2018 Honda Accord

Finally Honda has come out of its conservative styling funk to make its always solid Accord sedan look like more than a very reliable box.

The 2018 Accord is wider and lower than its predecessor and looks more muscular and exciting with a larger grille, snazzy taillights and a fastback profile that is more like a coupe. This isn’t your uncle Ed’s Accord anymore.

That alone makes the latest Accord worth a look, but as always, the car is solid from stem to stern. It has plenty of power, handles well and delivers a smooth sedan ride that will please any family of five or fewer.

First a few basics. Accord comes in five trim levels ranging from the LX at $24,460 to $36,690 for the Touring model that I tested. There are two new engines for 2018, a 1.5-liter turbocharged I4 that creates 192 horsepower and a 2.0-liter I4 turbo that cranks 252 horses. The smaller engine makes 7 hp more than the previous I4, while the 2.0-liter is down 26 horses from the earlier 3.5-liter V6.2018 Honda Accord

A key reason for the change is gas mileage and the smaller engine tops the mid-size class with a combined 33 mpg rating. That’s 30 mpg city and 38 mpg highway. The tested 2.0-liter is rated 22 mpg city and 32 mpg highway. I tested the car during a frigid week with morning temps starting below zero, so I managed just 21.0 mpg.

Yet for those with sportier leanings the 2.0-liter turbo will be the winner. It’s a strong engine that actually spins the front tires on our salty streets when you hit the gas pedal with any muscle. Harnessing that power is a 10-speed automatic transmission. Amazing that we’ve gone from 6- to 8- and now 10-speed transmissions in less than 10 years. Read more

19
Jan

2018 Kia Stinger GT2 AWD

Kia’s Stinger GT2 a world-class sport sedan … 2018 Kia Stinger GT2

Like Porsche when it launched the unlikely Macan, its first sport-utility vehicle, Kia has crushed expectations by creating a premium level sports sedan with its 2018 Stinger.

Some folks likely were still stuck on the notion that the South Korean car firm only churned out econoboxes and low-cost mainstream vehicles. But they are living in the past.

Kia has broadened its lineup in the past decade and has been hitting home runs on initial quality, beating the competition on content and price and destroying it with styling that leads the industry. Its Optima is still the best-looking mainstream sedan on the market, and has been for going on 8 years.

But Stinger (a great name) takes Kia in a new direction, mainly into a head-to-head battle with German luxury sport sedan makers. It’s being compared with the Audi A5 Sportback and BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe. That’s good company, and it’s winning those comparisons.

2018 Kia Stinger GT2

Robby DeGraff photo

 

First, this is a luxury car to be sure, but one that pumps up the fun with distinctive sporty looks. Stinger comes in five trim levels too, and I tested the top-line GT2 with all-wheel-drive. It’s not inexpensive, but then neither are its competitors.

The base Stinger 2.0T packs a 255-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, but the tested GT2 blows away the competition with a 3.3-liter turbo V6 that pumps an aggressive 365 horses. Read more

17
Jan

Die-cast: Ixo’s 1958, 1960 Ferrari 250, Le Mans winners

Racy Ferrari 250s, when Ferrari was dominant … Ferrari 250 Le Mans winners

Part of the fun of any die-cast or model car collection is in comparing the differences of similar cars made a couple years apart.

So when American-Excellence sent us the Le Mans-winning Ferraris from 1958 and 1960, both made by Ixo, the fun began. These are from the classic sports car era when road cars were lightly modified to race and when drivers like America’s Phil Hill were braving it with little more than an open-face helmet and racing gloves for protection.

The two 1/43 scale red racers are the Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa, No. 14, that Hill and Olivier Gendebien drove to a Le Mans victory in 1958 and the similar TR60, No. 11, that Gendebien and Paul Frere won with at Le Mans in 1960.

The History

Phil Hill was America’s primo sports car racer in the late 1950s into the 1960s and the first U.S. driver to win the F1 World Championship, which he did with Ferrari in 1961. He and Belgian Gendebien frequently teamed up for endurance races and both were highly successful, witness Gendebien’s second Le Mans win in 1960 with Frere, another Belgian racer.Ferrari 250 Le Mans winner

Hill would win Le Mans again in 1961 and 1962 with Gendebien as Ferrari was a dominant entrant at Le Mans. It posted overall wins from 1958 through 1965, with the exception of 1959 when Aston Martin won. Read more

12
Jan

2018 Kia Rio EX hatch

Cute Rio hatchback a sporty low-cost option …2018 Kia Rio hatchback

I liked the high-value Hyundai Accent sedan a week ago, so it stands to reason I’d like its cousin, the sportier looking Kia Rio hatchback this week.

Accent no longer comes in a hatch, so if you prefer this body style, which I do, the Rio is your low-cost, high-value option for this lineup. Although it should be noted that Rio also comes in a sedan, like the Accent.

I drove a metallic gray Rio EX hatchback, the top level as opposed to the entry-level Accent SE I tested last week. The price difference is minor, but significant if you’re looking for low cost transportation. Yet the EX comes with more comfort and safety features than the base Accent did.

Let’s start with what’s in the Rio for a still low price of $20,225.2018 Kia Rio hatchback

First, the car is a bit longer, lower and wider than its predecessor. That translates to a bit roomier and a handsome, yet sporty look.

Rio has the same engine as Accent, a 1.6-liter direct-injected I4 that creates 130 horsepower. No pocket rocket, the Rio still gets up to highway speeds fairly easily and much more readily when the Sport mode button is depressed on the console, just in front of the shift lever. Read more

10
Jan

Die-cast: Ixo’s 1970 Saviem JM 21/240 Michelin truck

Michelin tire truck a big win for Bib … Ixo Michelin truck

Who doesn’t recognize, and like, the Michelin Man? He’s probably even more famous than the Pillsbury Dough Boy, although I’ve never heard Bibendum (Bib for short) giggle.

Well, IXO loves him too and has come up with an unusual Michelin tire truck, especially for the North American market. This is a French Saviem truck from 1970, something you’d see delivering tires to the local Michelin tire store, or maybe backed up to the garage area at a European racetrack.

In 1/43 scale it’s a showcase stopper in its yellow and blue trim and runs roughly 7.5 inches long. Our review copy was provided by American-Excellence, which handles IXO, BOS Models and NEO, among other brands.

The History

Saviem’s history is interesting, and to be honest, it’s a truck maker I had never heard of until the sample arrived. Turns out that Saviem  existed from 1955 to 1978 in France and the name is a mash-up of its original truck firms that were all merged at that point, by Renault after it has abandoned the commercial truck and bus business following World War II.Ixo Michelin truck

Read more »

7
Jan

2018 Hyundai Accent SE A/T

Accent an impressive low-cost sedan …2018 Hyundai Accent

Need new wheels at a low price, but don’t want to look like you’re driving an econobox that could tip over in a heavy wind or snag a trophy at the ugliest car on the block contest?

Hyundai has an impressive answer for just such a buyer, it’s redesigned 2018 Accent sedan. This week I tested a “rental-car white” SE, the base model, with an automatic transmission. And get this, with delivery fee, the Accent was $16,985. That’s right, just under $17 grand and you have a new car with a 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty.

It has been a while since I tested an entry-level model and boy, was I pleasantly surprised. The Accent doesn’t feel cheap or look it. This is not bare bones by any means. Hyundai gave the Accent crisp body styling and a large grille to reflect the rest of the sharp-looking Hyundai lineup. Most entry-level cars appear squished, too narrow, and top-heavy. Or they simply are truncated and look out of proportion.2018 Hyundai Accent

So, right off the bat, the Accent makes you feel you’re driving something a notch up from the price point where it starts. Read more »

5
Jan

Die-cast: Ixo’s 1937 Bugatti Type 57G Le Mans winner

Bugatti was racy from the get-go at Le Mans … 1937 Bugatti Le Mans winner

In the early years, a lot of competitors, and winners, in the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race were from France. Many of those makes are legendary, but many also are gone.

One that remains is Bugatti, now known as a super car maker of impeccable quality, speed and styling. Its pedigree is long and distinguished. That pedigree includes two Le Mans wins, one of only 11 car makers to score more than one win and one of just 24 brands to win at Le Mans. Porsche and Audi have each won more than a dozen times, but who’s counting?

Ixo now delivers a sharp 1/43 scale die-cast model of Bugatti’s 1937 Le Mans-winning Type 57G. Bugatti won with a similar car in 1939.

The History

This car, and its drivers, make for a unique tale. Only three Type 57G Tanks were built and this one won Le Mans in 1937. It was driven by Jean-Pierre Wimille and Robert Benoist (more on them in a moment) and completed 243 laps, 7 more than the second place Delahaye 135CS. The Bugatti ran a 3.3-liter straight 8 while the Delahaye was powered by a 3.6-liter straight 6.1937 Bugatti Le Mans winner

 

The team was owned by Roger Labric, making this an all French team. In fact, the top four finishers were all French, with a British Aston Martin coming home fifth to be the top finisher among non-French entries. Only 17 of the 48 entries were running at the end of 24 hours. Read more

2
Jan

Lego crash test

You can build anything from Legos

I love building things with Lego’s larger Technic line because it lets me feel like a real engineer. With this line I can build things that move, like cars. I’d run crash tests, view the results on the video, maybe move some blocks around and try it again. It was fun but never as elaborate as what Germany’s Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil-Club, their version of our AAA, did with their large-scale Porsche 911 GT3 RS.

 

30
Dec

Die-cast: Replicarz’s 1959 Scarab Mk. II racer

Purple Nickey Nouse Scarab a slick winner …Replicarz 1959 Scarab Mk. II

A few years back at Road America, the Midwest’s finest road racing facility, I ran into racer Augie Pabst and his beautiful metallic blue Scarab Mk. II racer.

Pabst, an heir to the brewing fortune, had been a succesful sports car racer in the late 1950s and early 1960s and was running his Meister Brauser Scarab in vintage races.

I’m a racing nut, but I’d never seen a Scarab before, so I was intrigued by the long-nosed front-engine car that looks part futuristic racer and part late 1950s roadster. Now, Replicarz has gone and produced a superb 1/18-scale resin die-cast of one of three Scarab Mk. IIs that were made and raced. This one was driven by another Midwestern sports car expert, Jim Jeffords, and features Nickey Nouse, the Chicago-based Nickey Chevrolet mascot.

 

The History

Lance Reventlow, son of Woolworth heiress Betty Hutton, was a California-based racer who owned Reventlow Automobiles Inc. He had cash! But had seen how the European automakers only sold year-old racers to outsiders, so decided to have the Scarabs designed and specially built for his team. He was looking for an advantage.Replicarz 1959 Scarab Mk. II

Scarab’s designers were Tom Barnes and Dick Troutman, both well-known race car builders. They created a space-frame chassis weighing 127 lbs. and plopped in a special-built Chevrolet 283 V8 built by Traco Engineering. Its 365 horsepower made the Scarab a beast that was hard to catch. Its first victory came at the 1958 Riverside International Grand Prix in California with noted sports car driver Chuck Daigh at the wheel. Reventlow also raced his Scarab. Read more

27
Dec

2018 Hyundai Santa Fe Limited Ultimate AWD

2018 Hyundai Santa Fe Limited

Robby DeGraff photo

New Santa Fe a luxury sleigh ride …

Leading up to Christmas I spent a week luxuriating in Santa’s sleigh.

Say what? It was Hyundai’s Santa Fe? Well then, never mind!

Yet then again Hyundai’s mid-size SUV is certainly big enough to haul a lot of goodies to good girls and boys all over southeast Wisconsin. The Santa Fe is a luxurious ute that if it had sliding side doors could pass for a minivan. In the tested Limited Ultimate AWD trim it would haul six adults with its two second-row captain’s seats and twin fold-down third row seats.

If you opt for a bench seat in the second row, Santa Fe will seat seven, which matches most minivans. And the cargo space behind the second row for gear, suitcases and such is sizeable. Even with the third row in place there’s plenty of room for grocery bags and odds and ends.

2018 Hyundai Santa Fe Limited

Robby DeGraff photo

The AWD makes the Santa Fe a champ in sloppy weather too, giving it even better footing than say a heard of reindeer.

Hyundai revamped this ute for 2017 and drastically improved its looks, moving it away from boxy minivan and old ute styling to a fresher, more muscular stance that gives it a bit of a BMW’s swagger.

Handling is among the best for mid-size crossovers and utes too. Santa Fe feels responsive and corners well with just a slight lean in fast tight turns. Steering feedback is on the heavy side in Normal drive mode, of which there are three, including Eco and Dynamic.

Punch the Drive Mode button for Dynamic and the wheel firms up even more, maybe more than most drivers would want to deal with. But it also allows the 6-speed automatic transmission to hold the lower gears longer in order to boost acceleration. So in this mode the Santa Fe jumps, not up onto house tops, but onto the freeway like an aggressive sport sedan. Read more

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