Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Open Road Car of the Year

This is the time of year Motor Trend and Car & Driver publish their Car of the Year or 10 Best Cars awards. But my pick for the Open Road is not on their list--it's the 2009 Dodge Challenger R/T.

Why did I pick the Challenger? It's the one new model I've seen that invokes a positive emotional response in just about everyone who sees it. But it also is practical, with room for five, a large trunk, and decent gas mileage. Finally, it is at home cruising down Main Street or out on the open road. Simply put, it is the one car this year that has the total package and makes a statement about the joy of motoring.

The Dodge Challenger is this year's "it" car. The "gotta have it" factor hasn't worn off and the car is still selling at sticker price. Chrysler's marketing team has also done a clever job of discretely placing a black Challenger in several TV shows like "Deep Blue" and "NCIS".

After being blasted for poor quality products, a lack of product offerings, accepting bailout money, and going through a messy divorce with Daimler that makes Jon and Kate's look equanimous, Chrysler deserves a hit. They knocked this one out of the park.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

When I Grow Up I Want to Be Walter Rohrl

When I grow up, I want to be Walter Rohrl. A former rally car driver, he currently tests Porsches at the Nurburgring in Germany and plans to race a stock Porsche 911 GT3 at the 24 Hours of Nurburgring next year.

The GT3 is the closest thing you can buy to a road going racecar. The Nurburgring is the ultimate racetrack, with 14 miles of blind, off camber corners and elevation changes that will make your ears pop. Car companies like GM, Nissan, Porsche and BMW test their cars there to shake out the handling. Saying your car will do a lap in under eight minutes is the red badge of courage.

Spending a day with a car like the GT3 at the ring is at the top of my bucket list. If I could test cars like Herr Rohrl, or race professionally, it would be heaven.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Winter Driving for Idiots

Winter blanked much of the Midwest this week. For those drivers who have never seen the white stuff we call snow, or who have forgotten how to drive in it since last year, here's a quick guide.

1. Four wheel drive does not make you invincible. At best it helps keep you from getting stuck, but the same laws of physics apply to SUVs as do any other car on the road. More so if you're dumb enough to drive a heavier vehicle faster than you have any right to. Anyone who drives 75 mph in a Chevy Suburban or Ford Expedition on a snow covered road deserves to be permanently taken out of the gene pool.

2. If you own a rear wheel drive car and try to drive without snow tires or weight in the back, you will get stuck. The only thing worse than a rear wheel drive car is a rear wheel drive SUV. People who drive rear wheel drive SUVs do so because they were too cheap to buy one with four wheel drive. These same people are also too cheap to buy sand or something else to put weight in the back of their cars. They deserve to have you thumb your noses at them while they sit there spinning their wheels.

3. Anti-lock brakes and traction control will only do so much on snow and ice. The purpose of anti-lock brakes are to help keep you from skidding out of control. They will not help you stop faster. The same goes for traction control. Like four wheel drive, both devices help, but they don't make you invincible.

4. Talking on the cell phone while driving is bad enough, but it's deadly stupid when there is snow and ice on the road. If you're texting you must be brain dead. I honestly would prefer people to drive drunk than text--it's that dangerous. And if you do either, or both at the same time, I hope you win a Darwin award someday.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

What the Head Wants

My 1997 Infiniti has started showing its age. A few months ago the starter went out. This month, I'm dealing with a heater/blower fan problem, a vibrating/rubbing sound from the right rear wheel at highway speed, and problems with my stereo. For sometime I've also noticed oil spots on the driveway, where I park.

None of these problems are fatal. They are the flaws of a twelve year old car with 130K miles on the clock. Cars age in dog years. My Infiniti is a black lab with a graying muzzle and arthritis.

Like the lab, my car has lots of life left. It still likes to run. The 3.0 Nissan V6 is smooth and loves to rev. It uses regular gas and routinely gets 22-24 mpg. The transmission still snaps off
crisp shifts. The ride is not floaty or jarring--pot holes don't feel like hammer blows and yet it will corner nicely. It has room for five, even with two car seats, and a generous trunk. It also has features I like, including a sunroof, Bose stereo and leather seats. In short, it fulfills all my needs and most of my wants.

But it is 12 years old and has 130K miles...

I'm often guilty of shopping for cars online. I have a running internal debate over what kind of car I'd like to own next. Should it be something practical and reliable like a Nissan Altima, Hyundai Sonata or Ford Fusion? Or, for the same money, should I buy a used BMW M3 or Mercedes Benz AMG? Another Infiniti or Nissan Maxima is usually in my top five. So is a Mini Cooper, Mustang or Dodge Challenger.

I think the dilemma with older cars is when to stop maintaining them. The tipping point usually comes when the repair bills are more painful than car payments. For me that point is still outside my event horizon. As much as I like to dream, I usually wind up making the most practical choice, or at least a compromise. The head usually gets what it wants over the heart and in my case, I'm not ready to part with my car.

But I did see a nice Mercury Milan with 33K miles for $12K at a local dealer recently. And there is a Black 2001 Mercedes Benz E55 AMG in Texas on eBay for the same money...

Friday, December 4, 2009

GM on the Fritz

In a surprising move this week, GM dismissed CEO Fritz Henderson and granted Saab a stay of execution. Henderson, who took over GM after Rick Waggoner was forced out earlier this year, had been with GM for 25 years.

I suspect Henderson was asked to resign because he was too much of a company man, too much of the "old way" of doing business that has plagued GM since before his arrival. GM's board of directors are probably envious of what Ford has accomplished when they hired Alan Mulally, whose last stop was at a little aircraft firm known as Boeing. Mulally put Ford in a position where it didn't require a bailout, and is now launching a revamped line of products that are winning awards from the automotive press. GM is still struggling to sell Saab and Hummer, a process which has taken twice as long as their bankruptcy proceedings. Apparently the drawn out process of selling GM's non-core brands has caused deals for Saab and Saturn to fall through and put Hummer at risk.

Friday, November 27, 2009

A Saab Story

Saab has just been taken off life support and is expected to die in the next week. Koenigsegg pulled out of the deal earlier this week and today the Swedish government announced they will not bail out the company if GM chooses to liquidate it.

Until it was assimilated by the Borg-like GM, Saab was known for making quirky, performance oriented hatchbacks. Afterwards they churned out re-skinned Chevy Malibus and Trailblazers. The result was predictably bad. The Muselix and Birkenstock crowd who bought Saabs departed for Subaru. Before long, Saab's only customers were a handful of Minnesota farmers named Olsen who were trying to get back in touch with the old country. "Traded the Tahoe on a new 9-5 did ya?" "Oh yah, you betcha! It goes through the sno' like a hot knife through tapioca..."

I hate to see Saab leave the automotive landscape. But the company has become yesterday's lutefisk.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Cars I'm Thankful For

With Thanksgiving in four days, I thought I'd share a few car related things I'm thankful for.

I'm thankful Route 66 lives. Someday I will drive the entire stretch from Chicago to LA--hopefully before it's over restored like a Corvette at a Barrett-Jackson auction. But it's good to see people taking an interest in a road that has added as much to our nation's history as the Santa Fe Trail and Lewis & Clark.

I'm thankful Chrysler, Ford, and GM live on and are finally building better cars. I'm also thankful for cars like the Challenger, Mustang and Camaro, which bigger cojones than Sarah Palin.

Likewise, I'm thankful for any car that isn't styled like a jellybean or a carton of milk. Cars like the Corvette, Mini, Audi TT and most Jaguars, which are pleasing to look at, if not achingly beautiful.

I'm thankful for the two Nissans my family owns--both have been reliable and cheap to own. Even with over 100K on the clock they still have plenty of life left in them.

Finally though I'm thankful for friends, family and a place to call home. They are the reasons for making the journey and the reward at the end of the road.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Buick Regal, Sports Sedan

I'm having a hard time saying Buick Regal and sports sedan in the same sentence with a straight face. It's an oxymoron, but that's what GM is positioning the Regal as for its relaunch next year.

To be fair the new Regal will be based on the Opel Insignia, which has won accolades in Europe. Buick is also undertaking a huge effort to remake itself, much like Cadillac did ten years ago. And the new LaCrosse makes me think they're on to something.

Still, to position the car to compete with Acura, BMW and Infiniti, and use a stodgy nameplate like the Regal, is like Country musician Taylor Swift changing her name to Blanche or Patsy. Yes, there's a history there, but the connotation is not attractive. Buick has better names for a sports sedan like the Wildcat or Gran Sport. The Regal hasn't been cool since the Grand National came out 25 years ago, and people who own those cars don't call them Regals.

I hope Buick is successful. But to be successful, I think they need an attitude car, or halo car as it's known in the industry. Something like the Grand National that will draw Acura customers into the showroom and leave with a new Regal or LaCrosse.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Mr. Automatic

There was a time when I'd only buy a car with a manual transmission. Slushboxes, as automatics are sometimes called, were boring to my way of reckoning and they robbed power from the engine. I liked revving the engine, snapping off crisp up-shifts, and listening to the exhaust crackle as I downshifted. It was a way to satisfy my inner Walter Mitty as I pretended to race at Watkins Glen or Monaco.

Somewhere along the line of marrying and having kids, I began buying cars with automatics. I didn't mind the car shifting itself in stop and go traffic, or when I needed to retrieve the lost binky from the backseat. But somewhere along the march of time, I realized I now would prefer to own an automatic over a manual transmission. This truth became self evident recently when I looked at the new Dodge Challenger and realized I'd rather own the auto instead of the six-speed manual with pistol-grip shifter. In fact most of the cars I've been dreaming about lately have automatics, from Jaguars, AMG powered Mercedes Benzes, and the Challenger. In fact, there are only a handful of modern cars I'd own today with a manual transmission.

To be fair, slushboxes have come a long way in the last ten years. Most of them are much tighter, more efficient and some of them offer a choice to let you do the shifting yourself. Ironically, we have Porsche and Ferrari to thank for this. Porsche began offering a Tiptronic transmission in the early 1990s. Licensed versions of this gearbox even made their way into cars like my Hyundai Sonata and it worked surprisingly well. Ferrari pioneered the "flappy paddle" gearbox, an automatic with two paddles mounted on the steering wheel to shift gears. Six time F1 champion Michael Shumacher once boasted he was faster in a car with this setup than with a conventional manual.

As I approach middle age I've learned several bits of wisdom. I can't eat or drink as much as I like and not somehow be punished for it. There is such thing as a "recovery period." And a compromise is not a draw but a positive, "win-win" outcome. It is in the spirit of win-win that I view auto-manual gearboxes. With one, I can better endure the stop and go traffic on my commute, retrieve lost toys for my kids, and pretend I'm Michael Schumacher charging the field in Formula One.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Scary Halloween Cars

In the spirit of Halloween, here are some thoughts on scary cars.

Cars can be scary looking. Some of the chrome laden grills from the 1950s look frightening, like the era's Packards, Buick, and thanks to Stephen King's Christine, the 1958 Plymouth Fury.

Cars can also have scary names, like Fury, Demon, or Tempest. Or they can be scary to drive because they are extremely fast, tempermental or unsafe like the early Porsche 930 turbos or 1960s muscle cars.

But if I had to pick a car most suited for Halloween, it would be the AMC Gremlin.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Top Gear Withdrawl

I'm going through "Top Gear" withdrawl and it's worse than the Swine Flu. "Top Gear" is a show produced by the BBC about cars, with Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May as presenters. But it's more than a car show. Imagine the dry "Motorweek" combined with equal parts of "Monty Python" and "Jackass" and you get the picture.

The show also features epic journeys, like driving across salt plains in Africa or riding motorbikes through Vietnam. The cinematography and production values are astonishing and the humor, sidesplitting. I spend half the show with my mouth agape and the scenery and the other half on the floor rolling in hysterics.

My only complaint is the access to this show. It's on BBC America and they show reruns, six months to a year after the original air date. A few weeks ago, my DVR recorded a "new" show, but it was from 2006.

BBC has been shopping a "Top Gear America" show featuring Adam Carolla and I hope it finds a home. I realize an American version wouldn't be the same, but as Clarkson would say, "How bad can it be?" It would certainly be better than Jay Leno's new show.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

I Miss Pop-Up Lights

Although the 1980s are not considered a high watermark of automotive design there was one element from that era that is missing today. Pop-up headlights.

Pop-up and hidden lights originated in the 1930s with cars like the Cord 810 and the Buick Y-Job concept car. They reappeared in the 1960s on the Corvette, Buick Rivera, Pontiac GTO and Dodge Charger. Before long they spread to Italian makes like Lamborghini, Ferrari and Alfa Romeo. But they were the most prevalent in the 1980s, appearing on everything from exotic cars to Hondas and Toyotas. They came in all styles and shapes, from ones that flipped up, like on the Honda Prelude, to ones that rotated 180 degrees like on the Corvette C4. There were also exposed pop-up lights like the ones on the Porsche 928 and the 1982 Toyota Celica that I owned in college.

Fifteen years later, pop-up lights have all but vanished. The last new car with pop-ups was either the 1997-2004 Corvette or Lotus Esprit. I know a big reason they went away is cost. Fixed lights are cheaper to produce and less expensive to repair. They also weigh less and take up less space. And like most styling trends, they were a bit of a fad as well, like tail fins, digital instruments and talking cars. But like most fads, it's only a matter of time before they reappear. If the Chevrolet Camaro, Ford Mustang, and Dodge Challenger are any indicator, I suspect we'll see pop-up lights again in the near future.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Green Mileage Myth

I like the concept of hybrid vehicles and realize driving a hybrid can be fun. Not like autocrossing or flogging a sports car along a winding road, but it does have entertainment value. Hybrid technology is also interesting to me, even if it's not new. The Germans started using hybrids almost a century ago. They called them U-boats.

Where I have a problem with hybrids, is when they are labeled a “green” technology. There is nothing green about manufacturing batteries, a process which requires mining metals and the use of toxic chemicals, all of which give off the same greenhouse gasses you’re trying to reduce by getting better gas mileage. Disposing of the batteries presents another problem. You can’t throw them in the trash or dump them. They’ll leak toxic chemicals and contaminate groundwater. You can’t put them in your recycling bin either. I doubt battery disposal is something a hybrid owner would attempt on their own, but you see my point. Whatever environmental gains made by driving a hybrid are at least party negated by the manufacturing and disposal of the technology that makes them possible.

It is also a myth that hybrids get better gas mileage than normal cars. That point was conclusively driven home in a recent issue of Car & Driver, where the editors tested the Honda Insight against the Toyota Prius and a ten year old Geo Metro. I won’t keep you in suspense, the Metro lost. It wasn’t as fast or as comfortable as the Insight or the Prius. Certainly it wasn’t as safe and if Car & Driver had rated the exhaust emissions from all three vehicles they probably would have found the Metro pollutes more than the other two cars combined. But the one place the Prius and the Insight could not beat the Metro is the one place they had to—fuel economy. Yes, the Metro beat the Insight, which got 38 m.p.g. in the test and tied the Prius at 42 m.p.g. The fuel economy numbers are based on Car & Driver’s real world driving and if you think the numbers are biased, the EPA’s mileage ratings put the Metro in striking distance of the Prius as well.

I think people by hybrids as a status symbol. In this way Prius owners are no different than Porsche or Hummer owners. But if you're on a crusade to save the environment, buy a Metro or another cheap, highly efficient car or use public transportation. The money you save would cover the cost of adding solar panels to your roof or installing a geothermal heat pump, and you'd have enough change left over to buy florescent lights. These things would easily double your green factor over driving a mere hybrid.

Friday, October 16, 2009

24 Hours of Lemons

A new budget racing event is taking the auto world by storm. Known as the 24 Hours of Lemons, it is a two day race held in events around the country. To enter, all you need is a $500 jalopy and a sense of humor.

For more information, and to check and see if there is an event near you, check out http://www.24hoursoflemons.com

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

White Sands and Blue Corvettes

In the early 1990s, a movie came out that left an indelible footprint on my brain. It was called "White Sands" and starred Willem Dafoe, Mickey Rourke, with a then unknown Samuel L. Jackson.

The movie was forgettable, except for about five minutes when Willem Dafoe's character blasted along a desert highway in a vintage Corvette Sting Ray. The Nassau blue Vette, set against the barren, rust colored desert at sunset, with lightning flashes and clouds from a thunderstorm, stood out like a turquoise jewel set in adobe. The rumbling echo of exhaust harmonized with distant thunder and Patrick O'Hearn's haunting movie soundtrack.

I have dreamed of taking a drive across New Mexico in a Corvette since that movie came out. Just about any Vette would do, except for the Sunkist orange Dirk Diggler edition with gold rims. But since I am dreaming, I would want to drive a 1965 Nassau blue roadster, with a 327 small-block V8 and four-speed transmission.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

R.I.P. Saturn

Saturn is dead, but in truth the lineup has been in God's waiting room for quite some time because of its lousy lineup of warmed over Opels and other GM vehicles.

The concept was good, just poorly executed. Saturn sold cars at a fixed price and provided a superior ownership experience. The company was constantly rated at the top in consumer satisfaction and brand loyalty. But loyalty will only get you so far if you're not profitable or can't offer a consistently good product. Just ask Saab.

When Roger Penske stepped in, I hoped he would find a way to turn the company around. But it was not to be. In what was perhaps his most savvy display of business acumen, Penske pulled the plug on the deal this week. Both on and off the racetrack, Penske has proven to be a shrewd business operator. Knowing a deal is sour and walking away takes more guts than standing pat or pushing a bad position.

Sadly this lack of guts sealed the fate of Saturn. GM could never seem to find a way to consistently position the brand. Or follow through on the execution. Saturn started out a niche brand but GM wanted to morph it into a replacement for Oldsmobile. I never understood why Saturn didn't offer the Vibe instead of Pontiac, or even the Geo lineup before it was killed off a few years back. Both the Vibe and the Prizm were made in a joint venture between Toyota and GM at their NUMMI plant in California and were good cars.

Like everything else, GM pushed volume over profitability. Saturn was treated as an afterthought, a factory outlet store built outside city limits to peddle imperfect merchandise or last year's fashions. Rumor has it the late Roger Smith championed Saturn to "get even" with the UAW, Japan and just about everyone else. The rumor is plausible. Smith was vindictive on a level that makes Richard Nixon look like Will Smith.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Hummer, the Moral Choice

In a recent survey, Hummer owners said their purchase was a "moral choice." While I'm not exactly sure what that means, I do think the Hummer backlash has gone too far. I would never own a Hummer, and find them largely repugnant. But I do admire their off-road capabilities and can appreciate why people own them.

A Hummer is a status symbol, just like a Toyota Prius. I know, the two vehicles are apples and oranges, but people buy them both to make a statement. You may argue the validity of that statement's content, but must accept that everyone has the right to choose what to drive. Otherwise, Prius owners will continue to egg Hummers and Hummer owners will continue to drive over Priuses.

To paraphrase Voltare, "I defend not what you drive, only your right to drive it."

Friday, September 25, 2009

A Solution for Commuter Hell

When I was in England last spring for a wedding, I couldn't help notice how easy it was to get around without a car. We stayed with family in Chiswick, on the west side of Greater London. By train, it was 30 minutes to Central London or an hour to Brighton on the English coast.

I am a certified car nut. I have motor oil in my veins. But I would gladly commute on a train if I could avoid the gridlocked hell known as the daily commute. The idea of walking to a train station, picking up a cup of coffee on the way, and then working on my laptop or reading while someone else delivers me to work sounds like heaven compared to a sea of brake lights.

This is not me trying to be green or environmental, just practical. I'd love to save my driving for when I could actually enjoy it.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Civic Duty

My car was in the shop this week, thanks to a bad starter, so I had the chance to borrow a 2002 Honda Civic.

Driving a Civic is like dating an aerobics instructor. It's lean, well toned and light on it's feet. But it's also noisy and bounces around a lot.

It's still a nice car, but I'm looking forward to getting my Infiniti back.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

10 Cars for $10K - 80s Collectibles

The average car nut is usually forced to make a choice. Buy a reliable daily driver and a toy or one car to fit both requirements. The second route is straightforward. Instead of opting for a Camry, like most normal people, the car nut picks something like a Mini Cooper, Dodge Challenger, or BMW M3--all of which have a degree of practicality but can also induce face splitting grins on demand.

The other route is more difficult, requiring a balancing act and a very understanding spouse. Spend too much on the toy and you're likely to own a daily driver that will have you taking the bus. Spend too much on the daily driver and you're the owner of a toy that sits on blocks or lurks in boxes.

However, there are cars out there that make this balancing act easier and can be had for less than ten grand in good, if not excellent, condition. The following is a list of ten cars from the 1980s, a decade enthusiasts only recently began scavenging for collector cars. While this is by no means a complete list, each of these cars should appreciate in value and are fun to drive.

1. Alfa Romeo Spider - The car Dustin Hoffman drove in The Graduate was still in production when he did Rain Man. The 1980s version may lack the clean lines of the original but is less temperamental. The Pininfarina styling holds up well today and the driving experience is light and crisp, like a Pinot Grigio.

2. Audi Quattro - Before Audi became synonymous with unintended acceleration, it made a name for itself in the rally racing world with the Quattro. The turbo-charged all-wheel drive sports coupes were almost as fast as pure sports cars of that era and set the standard for cars like the Subaru WRX and Mitsubishi Lancer Evo.

3. Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z - Think Camaro and the brain conjurs up an image of the mullet wearing high school bully who prowls the streets in a primer and Bondo Z-28 with Poison blaring from his Pioneer cassette deck. But the IROC, named for the International Race of Champions, offers Corvette like performance in a 2+2 coupe or convertible.

4. Chevrolet Corvette - Love or hate the Tron inspired digital gauges, the C4 Corvette offers clean looks and world class performance. Convertibles may be out of the $10 grand price range, but you can still pick up a well maintained coupe. Avoid the 1984-85 models which had the Crossfire fuel injection and rattle trap suspensions.

5. Ford Mustang - I couldn't put the Camaro on this list and leave off the Mustang. While I'm not crazy about the 1987-92 GT with its junky add-ons, you can't go wrong with any of the 5.0 liter cars or the turbocharged SVO.

6. Honda CRX - This car is a favorite of autocrossers everywhere. Light, quick and cheap, with bulletproof Civic drivetrains, this car is pure fun to drive. The only downside is that so many of them have been bastardized by the import tuner crowd.

7. Jaguar XJ-S - The Jag is a classic grand touring car with a smooth V12 engine and a cockpit like an olde English study. You can find good examples under $10K because the car has a reputation for being more temperamental and unreliable than Lindsey Lohan. Some of that reputation is deserved, but for my money, nothing in this price range touches it for looks and style.

8. Mazda RX-7 - Like the CRX, the RX-7 is light, quick, cheap to run and a blast to drive. It's also the only car on the planet powered by the turbine like Wankel rotary engine. Collectors prefer the looks of the first generation car, but the 1986-1992 models offer better performance and the lineup includes a roadster.

9. Porsche 944 - The 944 is brilliance masked by subtlety. You can have a mild mannered base model, or the outrageously quick Turbo or S2. All versions are equally competent as a track cars or daily drivers.

10. VW Rabbit GTI - The original hot hatch. Think Quattro-lite without the all-wheel drive and at a fraction of the price.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Dead Head Sticker on a Benz

With apologies to Don Henly: Out on the road today, I saw a Dead Head sticker on a Mercedes Benz. It wasn't a Cadillac like the song, but a new Bluetec Diesel.

Summer is almost out of reach. Days are cooler. The kids are back in school and football season is starting. Soon the leaves will change and the crisp fall air of mornings will be greeted with frost.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

A Blow to the Head

Composer Rob Dougan's lyrics, "Love, like a blow to the head's got me reeling," apply to my car obsession. It's hard to describe to someone who doesn't have 30-weight oil in their veins. But most gearheads fall somewhere between functioning heroin addicts and serial monogamists, unless they are collectors like Jay Leno, who practice auto-bigamy on the same scale Roman Grant collects plural wives.

A prime example of my affliction: I'm wandering the classifieds and stumble across a Mercedes Benz CLK55 AMG, a small coupe with Thor's hammer for an engine. The car I'm looking at is silver and listed for $12K. I didn't want it until I saw it, but immediately I start thinking of excuses to drive by for a look.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Poke-Mazda and Acura's Madam Guillotine

Mazda has a history of building affordable, fun to drive cars--most of which are beautifully styled as well. The RX-7, RX-8 and Miata stand out, as do many of their sedans like the Millenia and Mazda 6. The Mazda 3 used to be in that group until recently, when they stuck a Pokemon character on the front end.

To be fair, I was caught off guard. I approached the new Mazda 3 from the rear. From that angle it looks taught, with some lines that could have been penned from an Italian design studio. Then I got to the front. The suprise almost made me yelp and drop my coffee.

The ugly front end treatment doesn't just apply to the Mazda 3. It's spread to the new Miata, which looks only slightly less cartoonish. I'm surprised the company doesn't offer an Anime edition to replace the old M edition.

There are other makes that have come out with similarly repugnant visages. Acura's new grille looks like someone welded on a guillotine or a giant cheese slicer. It sticks out like the Rolls Royce style grills you used see on the old VW Beetle.

The term "coyote ugly" comes to mind for most of these cars. Only instead of my arm, I'd chew my leg off to keep from driving one.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Same Old GM

This week GM trotted out the Chevy Volt again. This time to announce the car gets a stunning 239 mpg as estimated by the EPA. Whether the Volt gets 239 mpg or just half that number, it’s a major achievement. But there is one problem with the Volt. It’s made by GM.

Forty years ago, GM made cars that were aspirations. In the days they controlled 50% of the market, their cars were beautifully styled and well made. People were proud to own a Chevrolet. Pontiacs were bad boys in muscle shirts. A Buick or Oldsmobile in the driveway indicated you were squarely middle class. With a Cadillac, you were someone to be reckoned with.

GM lost its way in the 1970s. With the oil embargo, strict emission standards, and labor strikes it stopped dictating the market and began second guessing itself. Innovation was stifled by a heavy handed corporate culture that made the Soviet Politburo look like Google. Lately GM has started to recover some of its edge. Cadillac and Chevrolet are making good vehicles again and even Buick is showing signs of life.

But the product gestation period is too long. It takes GM at least five years to launch a new vehicle, twice as long as most other companies. And GM flaunts their cars years before they are ready. Cars like the Camaro and Volt are old news before they are finally launched. I get that the drive train technology for the Volt needs time to be developed, but five years for a Camaro that looks like a cartooned evil twin of the 1969 model?

C'mon GM.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Motorbike Mania

Recently, I stumbled across this motorbike. I’m not sure who makes it but I was struck by its rugged, simplistic beauty and filled with the desire to own one. In college I owned a Honda 50cc motorbike and I used to cruise the city in the pre-dawn hours of morning, after I got off work. I had the streets to myself, riding with the company of my thoughts and the buzz of a two stroke engine.

For Americans, motorcycles are Rock and Roll. They are a symbol of youth and rebellion. Ride one and you are a young Marlon Brando or Peter Fonda. And in addition to the image they project, motorcycles are just plain fun to ride. All those reasons are why you see middle aged people on Harleys. The person who pulls up next to you on a Road King, decked out in leather chaps, could just as easily be your dentist.

Recently more people have also taken up riding scooters and motorbikes. Vespas are more popular now than when Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn rode one in "My Roman Holiday." People are restoring Honda Cubs, the Model T of motorcycles, with the same zeal as vintage hot rods. I doubt anyone will make a sequel to "Easy Rider" featuring a Honda Rukus or Yamaha Vino, but the Top Gear hosts recently rode three motorbikes across Vietnam in one of their most epic adventures to date.

Getting somewhere on a motorbike is an accomplishment. A trip is a throwback to a time before the internet, on demand everything and jet travel. You ride at a leisury pace, a mere crawl in todays frentic society. I like to think this is why motorbikes have caught on recently--but whatever reason, it's good to see.

Friday, August 7, 2009

More Cash for Clunkers

The Senate voted yesterday to extend the Cash for Clunkers by approving an additional $2 billion for funding. I still think it’s a waste of money, but it is a popular program and at $3 billion total, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the bank bailouts or the real pork in the stimulus package.

I stated in a previous post that my car, a 1997 Infiniti I30 does not qualify for the program. Not that I’m in the market. I happen to really like my car, which is based on the Nissan Maxima. Even with 127,000 miles on the clock, it’s a nice car to drive and everything works. My wife’s 1999 Nissan Pathfinder looks nice and shiny, and everything works on it too. Both cars are also paid for, which makes it even harder to part with them.

There are two reasons both cars have held up well. First, they are very well made. The second reason is my obsession with maintaining them. The oil is changed every five thousand miles and I still follow the manufacturer’s recommended service intervals.

If your car doesn’t qualify for the program either, or you’re looking for the cheapest solution, invest some money in what you already drive. I’m not suggesting springing for a total restoration like you see on “Pimp My Ride” but if the car is mechanically sound, there’s nothing wrong with getting it serviced and updating a few things. You might find at a new set of rims, or a stereo, or even just getting the car completely detailed will make you happy.

Friday, July 31, 2009

What would Darth Vader Drive?

My seven year old son is into Star Wars in a big way. Last week he got a new Darth Vader action figure, which I noticed is sporting a silver chain around his neck. I don’t remember the Dark Lord of the Sith wearing a chain before, but I may have missed it because it’s actually a pretty tasteful, contrasting silver. Times change. I guess anyone who wears a cape these days needs some bling. Who knows, maybe Superman will be sporting a Mr. T starter set and a gold tooth in his next outing.

That leads to my question and the topic of this blog--what would Darth Vader drive? I’m sure it would be black. Something sinister like a Dodge Challenger or Cadillac Escalade. Would he put 20 inch rims on it? Pimp it out with a 1200 watt stereo and a set of flat screen TVs? Would he roll old school with a black ’69 Charger or Camaro? Or would a luxury sled like a boat tailed ’72 Buick Rivera work? Knowing the Death Star had tons of hangar space, he’d probably have all of the above and own something like a Nissan GT-R, Aston Martin DBS or Maserati GT on the high end.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Get Smart

To be honest, I never “got” the Smart car. I dismissed it as a cute, compact, efficient but highly impractical runabout. For less money you can buy a Toyota Yaris hatchback, which is about the same size but holds four people.

Last weekend my kids and I stumbled on the Kansas City Smart Car Club picnic at a local park. After talking with one of the owners, I realized I’d missed the point. Owning a Smart car isn’t just about practicality. It’s about driving something different, fun and interesting. In this way, Smart owners are no different than people who buy Mini Coopers, Miatas and VW Bugs. They know they could drive something cheaper and more practical, but life is short.

I get it now.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Cash for Clunkers

Cash for Clunkers didn’t start out as a bad idea. It took Congress to make it one. Originally intended to provide an incentive for replacing old, less efficient cars with newer, cleaner, more efficient ones, the program now reeks of bacon and is no different than any other pork laden half-measure enacted by Congress over the years.

Known as C.A.R.S., for Consumer Assistance to Recycle and Save, the program provides vouchers towards the purchase of a new vehicle. To get the money, you have to trade in a car that gets less than 18 miles per gallon and is between eight and 24 years old. You also have to buy a new vehicle. Used vehicles, including program or certified ones are excluded.

My family owns both a car and SUV. Both vehicles are old enough for the program but get better mileage than the 18 mpg required for the vouchers. This problem is typical for most cars and small SUVs made in the last twenty-five years. The only way to really qualify is to own a large truck or SUV. If the program encouraged people to trade out of a large truck or SUV and into a smaller one, it would make sense. But it doesn’t. To get the voucher, all people have to do is trade their large truck or SUV for a new, similar vehicle that gets 1-2 more mpg. This is an irresponsible waste of taxpayer money. With last year’s high gas prices fading from memory, it encourages people to buy large SUVs, artificially driving up demand and encouraging GM and Chrysler to continue building the same vehicles that landed them in bankruptcy court.

There is another solution. Consumers can donate their clunkers to charity and buy used vehicles. More and more charities are turning to car donations as a way to raise money and the donations are tax deductible. Used vehicles no longer carry the stigma they once did and can be purchased from any individual or dealer, including former new car dealers struggling in the wake of the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies. Finally, consumers would save more money with this approach than with Cash for Clunkers and there are no restrictions. It provides a way to recycle and save without the clumsy, half-baked government approach.

Friday, July 17, 2009

In Praise of the Beater

Henry David Thoreau wrote about the futility of acquiring material wealth. If he were alive today, his argument would apply to cars as well. Thoreau would be appalled with our car culture, shunning it for public transportation. But if he had to drive, I’m sure he would own a beater.

A beater is the car equivalent of a horse at a glue factory. Its value fluctuates depending on how much gas is in the tank. Usually people who drive beaters are a flat tire away from permanent bus ridership. But not always. Sometimes a person drives a beater because they like the car too much to part with it. Or a person may view car payments with the same disdain Thoreau had for paying taxes. Aspiring race car drivers or people restoring a car drive beaters so they can spend money on their other car. Celebrities sometimes drive beaters to blend in anonymously. Sometimes the person driving the car in front of you, with a bumper sticker that says “My other car is a Porsche,” really does own a Porsche.

Most of the cars I owned were beaters. My hand-me-down Olds Cutlass and the VW Thing qualify. I also had a Buick Century which was an especially good beater; one I took for granted until I sold it. The Buick was roomy, comfortable, the air conditioning worked and it got great gas mileage. It wore peeling paint, a GM factory option at the time, and no hubcaps. When I drove it, traffic parted for me like I was Moses at the Red Sea.

A few years ago, the Buick began ringing up large repair bills. I decided I’d had enough and bought a brand new Hyundai Sonata. The Sonata was a great car. I liked the styling, which was criticized for looking like a funky Korean Jaguar, and liked rowing the Porsche licensed Tiptronic gearbox. Compared to the Buick, the Sonata was a joy to drive and in two years of ownership, nothing ever went wrong.

After a while, driving a new car began to wear on me. At work, I parked on the street downtown and mysterious scuffs would appear. My kids spilled milk and Teddy Grahams in the backseat. I realized I was leading a life of quiet desperation and car payments, so I put the Sonata up for sale and began looking for another beater.

I looked at Hondas and Toyotas, but the ones in my price range were shot to hell or looked like rejects from “The Fast and the Furious”. I looked at GM cars, but couldn’t bring myself to own another wobbly land yacht. One day I stumbled across a ten year-old Infiniti I30 with less than a hundred thousand miles on it. I remembered it was the same basic car as the Nissan Maxima but better looking. Curious to why it was in my price range, I called the owner who informed me it had slight hail damage. Two hours later, I brought it home.

The Infiniti is too nice to be described as a beater. Everything works and I wouldn’t hesitate to drive it on a two thousand mile road trip. It’s more rewarding to drive than the Sonata and has leather seats and a sunroof. I don’t mind parking on the streets or in the sun. I don’t cringe anymore when I hear, “Uh oh, Daddy! I spilled!”. And even though it’s black, I don’t feel the insatiable need to keep it washed. But it does clean up well and I’m not ashamed to take my wife out in public in it.

For me the Infiniti is the best of both worlds. Thoreau would not approve. But he might appreciate it, if he knew it saved me from the quiet desperation of car payments.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The New GM

GM reemerged from bankruptcy yesterday and it was the biggest story since Michael Jackson’s funeral. All of the media outlets are talking about the new GM. GM is leaner and meaner! GM is reinventing itself! GM is the New Coke!

But what about GM really changed? They still have the same management, the same brands and the same cars. The company is like your irresponsible sibling that runs up card debt, takes out a second mortgage, goes to a credit counselor, and then continues with his or her free spending ways.

GM is in the same position British Leyland was thirty years ago. Only GM makes cars that run. Like British Leyland they will continue to get government handouts, and if they continue with the same corporate culture, making the same cars, they will be back in bankruptcy court within five years.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Revenge of the Metro

In the July edition of Car & Driver, the editors compared the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight hybrids to a 1998 Geo Metro. Guess which got the best mileage?

Okay, it was a trick question—the Metro tied the Prius in Car & Driver’s test. I’ll admit I’m fascinated by hybrid technology, but I think people drive hybrids to make a statement. The Prius is a status symbol, just like a Porsche or a Hummer.

If you really want to save the environment, buy a Metro or a diesel that runs on veggie oil. Then spend the $20K you saved over the Prius on new windows and a geo-thermal heat pump for your house.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Of Friends and Road Trips

Last week I took a road trip to an old friend’s wedding. It was four hours across Missouri to St. Charles, but twenty years down memory lane. I have driven I-70 close to a hundred times in at least a dozen different cars. Most of the trips, all of the early ones, were made with my group of friends in college. Trips home for the holidays in my drafty, heater-less VW Thing. Driving all night in a dilapidated Cutlass to Florida for Spring Break. Top down, summer night runs to St. Louis in my LeBaron convertible to watch the Cardinals at old Busch Stadium or raid White Castle.

A road trip in a car that offers the speed and weather protection of a Conestoga wagon is a good test of friendship. When the sun dipped behind the clouds, taking ambient heat with it, we envied the Donner Party. Fortunately our friendships survived those days. Over time, my cars evolved, to a Toyota with roll up windows and a working heater, the aforementioned LeBaron, and currently a well worn Infiniti I30.

Change along the highway evolves in a lower gear than life. You aren’t aware of the change until you happen back on the past. Then the contrast between what is, and what was, becomes largely immediate. It’s like running into a grown up Lloyd from “Say Anything,” finding out he never married Diane, and gave up kickboxing for a career in IT.

Like my version of Lloyd, my friends have changed. Steve is now a research professor at a major children’s hospital. His wife Keri, is a fitness educator and personal trainer. Brian, my long suffering roommate and partner in crime, runs a pool cleaning business. And J.B. who was getting married, does play-by-play broadcasting for a local college.

It was never clear to me if these friendships were shaped by the road trips or the road trips were shaped by the friendships. Probably both. If I still owned the Thing, I doubt anyone would take me up on another January road trip. But I’m grateful for the experience and thankful to have my good friends to share it with. Everyone was happy to reminisce about the Thing, laughing at the sheer, stupid absurdity from the comfort of a warm July evening.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Drama of Formula One

Americans don't get Formula One. It's not because of any deficiency on our part, or because the cars don't always turn left or run in circles. It's not because of CART or the Indy league which has cars that sort of look like F1 cars. And it's not because there are a lack of Americans in it. The problem, it's boring to watch. The only drama comes from behind the scenes, not in the race itself.

That's not to say F1 doesn't have its moments, if you're paying attention. Who can forget the brilliance of Michael Schumacher at the top of his game or Kimi Raikkonen pushing his car past its limits, willing it to hold together as he charges the field? Then there's last year's championship, which was decided practically in the last turn, on the last lap of the last race in Brazil. Felipe Massa's good sportsmanship after the he won the race, but lost the championship certainly ranks up there. The grace and humility he displayed are all but missing in pro sports here in the United States. I certainly can't imagine LeBron James displaying anything like it.

But LeBron's tantrum is mild in comparison to what goes on behind the scenes in F1. Inside motor racing's most technologically advanced sport is a leviathan set of egos displaying mankind's most primitive emotions. There are perpetual spy accusations, teams threatening to pull out under protest, calls for people to resign, and stories of teammates who hate each other. Sometimes it's more "As the World Turns" than
Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile.

The latest call for FIA President Max Mosely's head is just more of the same. Mosely is under fire this time for proposing a budget cap on F1, and idea considered so vehmenent by the top contenders like Ferrari and this year's Cinderella, Team Brawn, that they threatened to pull out of F1 and start their own league. Mosely's resignation/forced retirement/reinstatement reads like a bad karaoke version of The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" and was widely covered in Europe. Here in America, it got as much press as a prep school cricket match.

F1 has a lot to offer a country as motor crazy as we are. The 225,000 spectators that attended the first Grand Prix at Indy in 2001 support this. We love iconic figures and team sports. F1 has both. But for some reason, both F1 and the US just haven't consistently mixed
. Americans consider it the automotive equivalent of soccer and the FIA would rather concentrate on building up races like Turkey and Bahrain which are passionate about the sport. But there is hope--the FIA is working to make F1 more accessible and exciting. There is even talk of returning to the US if they can find the right venue. If they are successful, F1 will find the right audience and finally hold our attention longer than David Beckham did.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Big Three Win J.D. Power Awards

For a time in the 1990s, all my friends and I drove Hondas. I'm not exactly sure why but maybe it was a combination of herd mentality in twenty-something adults, who yearn to be different, coupled with an evolving sensibility that let us escape our teen years largely intact. Hondas looked nice and were quality made automobiles that rarely broke. By comparison, nearly everyone I knew was skeptical of cars made by GM, Ford, and Chrysler because we perceived they lacked those same qualities.

Styling and quality are subjective. We all have our own notions of what looks good and our own standards of quality. I owned a 1996 Accord and have always thought it was one of the best looking, highest quality cars Honda ever made. You may agree with my opinion or might think I was dropped as a baby.

Like most people, my opinions are based on my experience, the opinions of people I respect, and the facts as I choose to interpret them. Part of my opinion of Hondas, and my perception about the quality of any car, is based on the findings of J.D. Power and Associates. Like the old E.F. Hutton saying, when J.D. Power talks, I listen.

This week J.D. Power came out with the results of their Initial Quality Study for 2009. This study measures the problems new car owners experience within the first 90 days of ownership. The results for 2009 showed many of the top ranked cars were made by the Big Three. Cars like the Chevy Malibu, Pontiac G6, Ford Mustang, Mercury Sable and Chrysler PT Cruiser scored as well or higher in this survey than similar cars made by Honda, Toyota and Lexus.

This news surprised a lot of people, but it shouldn't. Detroit has always made some very good cars. Bob Lutz has been saying this for years, and as the ultimate car guy, he should know. Lutz has worked for BMW, Ford, Chrysler and in 2002 he became GM's self appointed car czar. At the launch of the Pontiac G6, he stated that the quality of GM cars was as good as the imports. GM just needed to do a better job of getting the word out.

The word is now out. If I were in the market today, I would be hard pressed not to consider buying something from the Big Three. The cars on J.D. Power's list are quality vehicles offering a tremendous value in price and content. Many of them carry huge rebates or financing incentives. And to my eye, they offer good stying as well.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Chrysler's Italian Americans

There is a misconception that Fiat now owns Chrysler. That is not entirely true. Fiat bought a 20% stake in Chrysler with the option to own as much as 49%. Sergio Marchionne, Fiat's chief executive does not seem intent on assimilating Chrysler like Daimler did, leaving it an empty shell that churned out unreliable products made from obsolete Mercedes parts. Instead, Marchionne seems to want to use Chrysler as a channel to return Fiat to the US market. For years Fiat has teased us with rumors of a return to our shores. But except for the unattainable, $265,000 Alfa Romeo 8c, and high end exotics from Ferrari and Maserati, all of which fall under the corporate umbrella, Fiat been as successful cracking the US market as a reality-show contestant at finding true love.

All that may change. If Fiat is able to use Chrysler's scaled down dealer network to introduce the Fiat 500, Punto, and Bravo pictured above, they would find a receptive market. Certainly they could do no worse than Chrysler's current lineup of duds. Fiat could slap Dodge Ram badges on the Bravo, fit it with a crosshair grille, and as long as they didn't call it the Avenger, it would be a hit.

The Panda, which includes a 4x4 version, would make a far better small Jeep than the Compass. Marchionne has expressed a desire to better
position the Jeep brand in the global market. Jeeps have a solid image in many parts of the world. If they were able to take the beaches at Normandy, a frontal assault on markets in Asia and South America could prove winnable as well. With the world looking at America more favorably these days, a global branding strategy could relaunch Jeep in the same spectacular fashion Iron Man revived the career of Robert Downey Jr.

More importantly, Fiat seems intent on not just utilizing Chrysler's dealer network, but their factories as well. That means more jobs in the US. Even the most ardent red-stater, who drives a pickup truck complete with a gun-rack and U.A.W. bumper sticker, has to give that idea a thumbs up. Speaking of trucks, if the distribution pipeline goes both ways, I'm sure more than a few Italians would buy the Dodge Ram SRT-10. In a country rife with exotic cars, there would be something uniquely absurd about owning a truck that can haul a half ton payload and haul ass like a Lamborghini.

If it seems like I'm rooting for the Fiat-Chrysler merger, I am. My family has owned a number of Chryslers. My grandfather owned nothing but Plymouth Furies and big Dodges the last twenty-five years of his life. My parents drove a Valiant on their honeymoon and owned a Dodge Demon of all things. I drove a Dodge Coronet in high school and owned a LeBaron convertible. Most of these cars were a bit rough around the edges but were generally honest, reliable vehicles. In the last few years, I've driven the Chrysler 300 and the Dodge Caliber. The 300 was one of the few cars that is comfortable, a joy to drive, turns heads, and can haul a weeks worth of luggage for a family of four. The Caliber with its silly name, was well thought out but poorly executed. It just wasn't of the same... err... caliber as the other small cars in it's class.

The idea of Fiat bailing out Chrysler isn't as preposterous as it first seems. This isn't your Uncle Tony's Fiat from twenty-five years ago. Marchionne, who has a dual Canadian-Italian citizenship, knows something about turning around companies. In 2005 he took over a hemorrhaging Fiat and won a nice divorce settlement from GM. In short order he made the company profitable with a top-down overhaul and introduced new products people wanted to buy. In a sense, it's history repeating itself. Thirty years ago another Italian took over Chrysler. He too quickly made the company profitable with a top-down overhaul and introduced new products people wanted to buy. Only then, the chairman was an Italian-American named Lee Iaccoca.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


I have always been a car nut. There should be a support group for head cases like me, but instead I rely on the compassion and common sense of my beautiful wife. Ever since I can remember I’ve been fascinated by cars. I learned my colors from the cars I saw, only instead of red car, blue car, it was red Pontiac, blue Dodge. When I was nine, I saw my first Jaguar E-Type. The experience was like running into Cindy Crawford at the supermarket.

Jaguar was owned by British-Leyland then and its demise was all but guaranteed by bureaucrats who couldn’t run a fast food franchise let alone a car company. (Sort of like GM today, but we’ll get to that another time.) In spite of the Mr. Bean like bungling, they still managed to launch the XJ-S. In my fourth-grade opinion, it was no less spellbinding than the E-Type. I was so impressed by both cars, I gave a presentation on Jaguars to my class, complete with a foot-noted outline and hand-drawn visuals.

In high school I was a walking encyclopedia of car knowledge. I subscribed to all the US car magazines and knew everything about every car sold since 1950. For obvious reasons, I didn’t go on many dates in that period of my life. But I knew a guy who owned both an Alfa Romeo Spider Veloce, a Porsche 356A, and was married. I had hope. By that time, I wanted to be an automotive journalist, combining my car obsession and love of writing while letting me earn a living. After I learned that automotive journalists are mechanical engineers who can write prose, instead of liberal art majors with C+ grade point averages, I decided to look for another line of work that would support my addiction.

Now it’s 16 years later and I’m starting this blog. I’m not sure of all the reasons but mainly it's because of the kid inside me who never went away. He trolls the depths of eBay and Hemming's Motor News looking at whatever cars tickle his fancy–lately, unshakably, they are Jaguars again. Whatever the reason, this blog is about cars. Anything and everything car related is fair game. If it’s sloshing around in my brain, I will try to organize it in print. I hope you enjoy the results.