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.