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.