Saturday, November 20, 2010

Pocket Rockets

One of the classic philosophical questions car nuts ask themselves is, "Is it better to drive a fast car slow or a slow car fast?"

The answer to that question changes ever few years, but today the answer is "both".

Allow me to explain.

Today is the "good ol' days" of the internal combustion engine. At the far end of the spectrum you have supercars producing upwards of 700 horsepower. In the middle, V6 sedans and coupes produce around 300 horses and at the bottom, cars like Fiat 500 Abarth producing over 140 horses from an engine displacing less than 1.5 liters.

The choice then really comes down to personal preference. Either way you have fun.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Beater Challenge: $800 to $0

It's been awhile since I posted to this blog. It's not from the lack of ideas, but a lack of time. Occasionally, reality intrudes on my Walter Mitty escapism...

For now, I'll just post the results of the Beater Challenge. By this point, I would have paid $800 in car payments for the Honda. $800 is about half of what I paid for the Cutlass, which has cost me exactly $0, except for gas and an oil change.

That's not to say there aren't things I could fix on the Cutlass. But it's a question of spending money on minor annoyances. The door lock and power window on the driver's side occasionally stick. Like a toilet, you have to jiggle the handle until the door opens. It's probably just a loose electrical connection somewhere inside the door.

Then there's the stereo. The tape player stopped working, so I can no longer listen to my iPod in the car. Fortunately the stereo does have a CD player and I've burned a number of CDs to listen to. It doesn't have quite the nostalgia of cutting a mix tape, but it serves its purpose.

If I had either of these problems on a new car, I'd have them fixed under warranty. On a thirteen year old car, they are an annoyance but ones that can be tolerated. I suppose if the Cutlass were an MG or some other interesting old car, these issues would be part of the charm of the car. But on a beater, they are simply something to live with, like a scar or old wound which hasn't quite healed.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

How often should you change your oil?

How often should you change your oil? If you lived in the era of the shade tree mechanic or run a garage, your answer is probably "faithfully every 3,000 miles".

That answer may have been correct in the era of carburetors and bias-ply tires, but not today. Oil, like the cars that use it, has changed over the last thirty to forty years. Now you can go 5,000, 10,000, even 15,000 miles between oil changes. And if you use synthetic oil, that interval is even longer.

Some cars like most late model BMW, Honda and GM cars equipped with OnStar have onboard diagnostic tools to measure remaining oil life. All cars have the recommended service intervals published in their owner's manuals. And all manufacturers now recommend changing the oil between 5,000 and 10,000 miles depending on your driving conditions.

In my opinion, the only time you need to change the oil earlier than 5,000 miles is if you bought a brand new car and want to change the oil after the car's break in period. After that, just follow your owner's manual. Doing so will prevent you from voiding your warranty and save you money.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Beater Challenge Update for September

I've gotten to know the Cutlass pretty well in the last month and I've discovered there's things I like about the car and things I don't. It's not as refined as my old Infiniti and it lacks that car's performance. If you've ever driven a mid 1990s GM car back to back with a Toyota Camry from that era, you know what I'm talking about. The Cutlass came standard with features like keyless entry, ABS, and traction control but the design and execution of those features leaves you wondering if GM was even trying in those days. The fog lights are a prime example. On the Infiniti, they useful, adding visibility to the sides of the car and beneath the headlights. On the Cutlass they're afterthoughts that cast a feeble glow just bright enough to reveal their location which is buried deep inside the bumper.

There are other examples of shoddy work as well, but since I bought the car for less than I sold the Infiniti for, I'm reluctant to complain. Ultimately the Cutlass is a good, solid, reliable car. And except for some dents and scrapes which make it look a little like Mickey Rourke, there is nothing wrong with it. In the month that I've owned it, I've done nothing but fill it with gas and give it a good cleaning. If I owned the fictional Honda Accord in our challenge, I would have done all of that and written a check for $400 for the first payment.

So the score for the first month is Accord $400, Cutlass $0.

And that makes up for a lot. Even the fog lights.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Curse of the Jaguar

I have to confess that I get weak kneed at the sight of a Jaguar. Like malaria, a fever comes over me long years after the bite of the mosquito.

Only my mosquito was a late-seventies Jaguar XJ-S, a sleek coupe adorned with sail panels framing the rear window like flying buttresses adorn a Gothic church. I saw my first one on the way home from forth grade. It was parked behind a chain link fence at a local import garage. For two weeks I'd rush to the fence, gazing at its captured majesty.

Two weeks at a garage. That illustrates the problem with most Jaguars and all Jaguars made in those days.

In my opinion, Jaguar never made a bad looking car... or a reliable one. Most, like the early XK, Mark II sedan, XJ-6, and XJ-S are stunningly gorgeous and prone to more bad behavior than Jesse James at a topless tattoo parlor.

But I still want one. A late-eighties XJ-S with Dayton wire wheels calls to me with its twelve cylinder siren song, tempting me towards the rocks or at least to the side of the road, overheating and on fire from a gas leak or electrical short. Jaguar owners will admit they're cursed. The smoldering ruin of their last car will have hardly cooled before they seek out the soft leather, burled walnut, and lambswool carpet of another.

But there is hope. Most of the Jaguars built after Ford acquired the company in 1989 are somewhat reliable, or at least don't overheat and catch fire. Not counting the 1988-1994 XJ sedan with its homely squared off front end, Jaguar still has not made a car that is less than beautiful. And because of their reputation for bad behavior, you can pick up a good used one for about the price of a Kia Soul.

But to be safe, just make sure you're on a first name basis with a good mechanic.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Edmunds' Long Term Miata Project

In March, Edmunds' Inside Line added a 1994 Mazda Miata project car to their long term fleet. They paid $1,750 for a white one with over 170K miles, in need of a tune up and a thorough cleaning. The Edmunds' blog is a good source for information on new cars as well as projects and cars of the recent past. The posts on the Miata are no exception.

But the blog also reveals some other things about the Miata; that even with 170K miles on the car, it's reliable and extremely fun to drive. How else can you explain why after owning the car for six months, they've done little more than upgrade the suspension and drive it?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Great Beater Experiment

Which costs less money, driving an old beater or buying a 2-3 year old used car? Having driven older cars for a while, I think I know the answer--it's always cheaper to drive an older, paid for car than making car payments. But I've never kept track of exactly how much I saved.

So now I'm going to perform an experiment.

I am buying my Grandma Ruby's 1997 Cutlass. After driving it for two months, I've found it to be a solid, reliable car. It only has 78,000 miles on it and everything works. And I can buy it for the about the same amount as a down payment on a 2-3 year old Honda Accord. I'm picking the Honda because many people consider it the benchmark four door family sedan and it has one of the lowest total ownership costs based on insurance, repairs and depreciation.

To compare cost, I'll weigh the monthly car payment against any repair bills incurred on the Cutlass. The payment on the Honda will be set at $400, which is on the low side of what you would pay if you financed a $15-$16K car for 36 months. To keep it simple, I will not figure in taxes, insurance, or depreciation. I will also not count oil changes or tires in the equation, since you would expect to incur those costs on both cars.

Using those calculations, I estimate it cost me $7500 to drive my Infiniti for three years, which is about half of what it would have cost to drive the benchmark Honda. I'm curious to see if I can do better with the Cutlass.

Saturday, July 31, 2010


Jeremy Clarkson, the lead presenter for BBC's "Top Gear" television show, is famous for shouting POWER! His yawp is usually reserved for cars by Mercedes and Lamborghini with massive power. But I think even he would agree that the power made by the latest four and six cylinder engines is astonishing.

When I was a kid, 200 horsepower was a lot. Most V8s of the early 1980s struggled to reach that number. The Corvette put out between 230-250 horsepower. Same with the Porsche 928, which for a time was the fastest car you could buy in the US. Now you have four cylinder engines that make that amount reliably thanks to turbocharging, and multi-valve direct injection. Six cylinder engines producing 300+ horsepower are not uncommon. Cars like the Chevy Camaro, Ford Mustang, and various Hyundais and Nissans put out that level of power and offer the same level of performance as V8s from just a few years ago.

It truly is exciting times for internal combustion. With smaller, more efficient and more powerful engines coming to market each year, I can't wait to see what's next.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Alfa, Miata or MG?

Car enthusiasts always face tough choices. You’d think it would be the opposite--anyone with motor oil in their veins know more about cars should be more informed, enabling them to make better decisions. But in most cases, more information just leads to more choices.

Case in point: Let’s say you have about ten grand in your pocket and an extra space in your garage. You want a roadster, something with two seats and a top that can be dropped faster than Miley Cyrus’ wholesome image. For most people, that means a Miata. Problem solved.

But not for me.

I know a Miata is a great choice. It’s comfortable, somewhat practical, with decent weather protection and has all the amenities you would find a Honda Accord. It’s also dead reliable and pure fun.

But I would hesitate to pull the trigger on one if I knew there was an Alfa Romeo Spider or late 1960s MGB lurking for the same money. Both cars had an impact on my childhood and partly explain some of my faulty wiring.

MGs are as reliable as Lindsey Lohan and leak almost as much oil as a well dug by British Petroleum. The inside joke among its owners is that MG stands for "Might Go." But when they do go, they are like flying in an open cockpit biplane.

Alfa Romeos are slightly more reliable than MGs and much more refined. A Spider is a four wheeled bottle of Pinot Grigio. It’s a Vivaldi string quartet mixed with the raspy exhaust snarl you only get from Italian cars.

But I wouldn’t count the Miata out. Unlike the other two, you can drive it until you run out of road and it won’t break down. It's easy to hop in it for a quick trip to the store and it’s carefree. With the other two, you have to plan each outing like you’re Kate Gosselin without the hired help. Just making it out of the garage can be an ordeal.

When you do drive an Alfa or MG, it’s an adventure. Getting to where you’re going is an event. And when you park your car outside the local ice cream store or coffee shop, it draws admiring glances.

Simply put, you own an Alfa or MG to admire and care for. You own a Miata to drive.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Tale of Two Cutlasses

I had to say goodbye to the Infiniti last week. There was too much wrong with it and I couldn't justify spending more to fix it than the car was worth. So I sold it and began a furious week of car shopping.

I spent Friday and Saturday looking at used cars in the $8-$12,000 range. It used to be you could find a decent five year old sedan with around 60K miles in that price range. Not anymore. Everything out there was either pushing 100K miles, a subcompact the size of a phone booth, or abused worse than Mel Gibson's girlfriend.

My wife and I upped our price range and began looking at minivans and crossovers. Maybe we could find something for her to drive and I'd drive our venerable Nissan Pathfinder. I was happy with this idea because I like the Pathfinder. It's a good, capable vehicle that's comfortable to drive. An honest SUV with a mechanical 4WD transfer-case and legit off-road chops, it's been dead reliable for the eight years we've owned it.

But the more we looked, the more we realized there was nothing in our price range we wanted. Eventually we upped our price range again and looked at a Saturn Outlook, which is the twin of the GMC Acadia. In 2007 GM got out of the minivan market and began building the Acadia and Outlook crossovers. Both vehicles have been homeruns for GM and it's easy to see why. The Outlook is like Goldilocks--it's neither too big or too small, but just right for our family. We almost took it home that night.

Then fate intervened in the form of a Cutlass Supreme.

Just before we went back to buy the Outlook, my grandmother offered to loan us her car, a 1997 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme four door sedan with 76K miles. I drove it home and we took it the kids out to dinner in it that night. Over margaritas and Espinaca dip we decided borrowing the car would be a good stopgap while we saved up some more money.

The car has a few bumps and bruises from parking lot mishaps, but is otherwise solid and in good condition. So good in fact, I'm thinking of buying it. It appeals to my cheapskate side and I also have a soft spot for Cutlasses, having driven one in high school. My philosophical side wonders if the two Cutlasses are a a metaphor for my life. The 1968 coupe I drove in high school was more cool while the 1997 sedan is more practical and family oriented.

As my wife would say, I'm probably over analyzing things again. In reality the two Cutlasses are as different from each other as Jimmie Johnson the football coach and Jimmie Johnson the race car driver. Both have the same name, but are totally different.

Monday, when I drove the Cutlass to work, "Roll With It" by Steve Winwood came on the radio just as I hit the highway. The song was popular in 1988 when I had the first Cutlass. And it felt good driving and listening to it in this Cutlass. Maybe the two are not so different.

But either way, sometimes you just roll with it, baby.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Don't Call It a Chevy

There's a rumor going around that the GM corporate brass doesn't want employees referring to Chevrolet as Chevy. It supposedly cheapens the image and dilutes the Chevrolet brand.

Seems crazy to me, but not any more than Ed Whitacre, a former AT&T executive and current GM CEO, appointing himself head of product planning.

Chevrolet makes cars. The company was founded by Louis Chevrolet almost a hundred years ago. But Chevy is an icon. For a time, people were proud to own a Chevy. In the 1960s, a Chevrolet Impala was the family vehicle of choice. Eric Clapton sang about a '57 Chevy. Bob Seger reminisced about his '60 Chevy. And Don McLean sang about how he drove a Chevy to the levy, but the levy was dry.

Then Chevrolet, like the rest of GM, lost it's way. Chevy became a car you didn't want to own, unless you had to. They were cheap, GM's answer to Kia. In high school, my Ford friends referred to a Chevrolet as a "piece of Chevy" as in a piece of crap. And it could be argued they were.

Over the last five or six years, Chevrolet has begun building good cars again. Their trucks were always good--I've always like the Chevy Silverado--but now they have a solid lineup, the likes of which we haven't seen in twenty five years. And people are proud to own them again. If I were in the market today, I'd take a hard look at the Malibu and the Equinox.

But the whole, "Don't call it a Chevy" nonsense bothers me. It's the kind of thing an AT&T executive, the one who brought us those Carrot-Top 1-800-CALL-ATT commercials, would come up with. Now I worry Whitacre will bring back Carrot-Top to star in adds for the On-Star system.

If Carrot-Top were in a car crash, would anybody come?

Likewise, if Ed Whitacre starts designing cars, will anybody buy them? Just when I thought it was safe to wade in and buy a Chevy, I'm worried I might find the brand dried up like Don McLean's levy.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Deepwater Wake Up Call

I've been following the news on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico with a lot of interest. The whole mess is like watching a bad disaster film from the 1970s. But instead of Paul Newman and Steve McQueen battling to put out a blaze in a high rise, you have a bunch of petroleum executives running around, pointing fingers while trying anything with a 50-50 chance for success.

Now entering its second month, the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon and subsequent oil spill is no longer front page news. It's been eclipsed by the latest Lindsey Lohan drama, the deaths of Gary Coleman and Dennis Hopper, and various political infighting the Obama Administration.

Further muddying the message like a failed "junk shot" are the talking heads that call this crisis a "black swan" event. They cite examples of how the safety and technology of today's oil industry makes drilling safe. They claim this disaster was a one in a million shot. A rare event that isn't that bad, since it's only spilling "5,000 barrels of oil a day." I'm sure we'll eventually learn that the disaster was entirely preventable if the correct procedures had been followed, just as we've learned that the well is spilling more than the original 5,000 barrel a day estimate.

If there is a lesson to be learned in all of this, it's that our nation's oil strategy needs to change. I don't know what the solution is, but in the short term we can drive more efficient cars and drive fewer miles. Long term there are a lot of promising technologies--fuel cells, bio-fuels, and improvements in batteries and electric motors mean we could have any number of choices in the next twenty five years.

Rather than government mandates and more half-measure public policy, I hope we see the birth of a new Silicon Valley for alternative energy. Companies like Microsoft, Apple and Google were started by kids with ideas that led to personal computers and the internet revolution. I'd like to see what a new generation of kids could do for the auto industry, when given a similar opportunity.

Friday, May 7, 2010

V8 Lullabies

At the end of Thomas Harris’ book, The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling falls asleep leaning against a washing machine. Harris writes that the washing machine comforted Clarice because its sound was the closest thing to what we hear in the womb.

In my own experience as a father, I’ve learned that repetitive songs and sounds at bedtime have a soothing affect and help lull children to sleep. Those sounds carry with us into adulthood, and years later, have the same effect. To this day, the sound of a slow idling V8 engine is a lullaby for me.

In my youth, my dad had a 1968 Oldsmobile Cutlass. It carried me home from the hospital after I was born. Years later it was my car in high school. It was a dilapidated old beast by the time I was sixteen, rusty, musty, and worn. It wasn't a 442 or Hurst like the one in the picture, just a common coupe with the 350 Rocket motor. But I didn't care. The beating of that V8 heart was magic to me and I'd drive around for hours, just listening to it.

As I write this, gas prices are creeping skyward towards three dollars a gallon. Car companies, including Ford and BMW, are building automobiles like the Mustang and M Series with smaller V6 engines. Most of these engines are fantastic. Advances in internal combustion are creating small displacement four and six cylinder engines which produce even greater horsepower than some of the recent V8s.

But something is lost in the translation, like watching a great foreign film with subtitles. You get the gist of it, but you miss some of the nuances.

V8s have been part of the automotive landscape since Ford rolled out their Flathead in 1932. Like Coke, rock 'n roll and apple pile, they are a staple of American culture. I doubt they'll ever go completely away, but the days of V8 powered sedans and SUVs may be coming to an end.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

More thoughts on NASA

I've been harping about the demise of the shuttle program and NASA's lack of direction lately. I really think we are missing a grand opportunity--not just to explore space, but the opportunity to enrich our lives here on Earth.

Many of our advances in microchips, lighter metal alloys, fuel cells, and other technological, medical, and scientific achievements have come about from the space program. By and large those breakthroughs have seeped into our daily lives and are now commonplace in devices we use and take for granted.

But the space program also gives us a chance to imagine and wonder. It gives us something to reach for. It gives us real heroes worth emulating, unlike shallow "reality" stars who want more than fifteen minutes of fame or pro-athletes who run afoul of the law and their marriages.

Aaron Robinson, a columnist for Car & Driver recently wrote a column on this very subject. And he puts things more succinctly than I can. You can read Aaron Robinson's column by clicking here.

I agree with what Robinson writes. We need imagination. We need to work hard and achieve great things, not focus on material wealth and instant gratification. We need to inspire our kids to be come scientists and engineers. We also need something that lifts our collective spirits, which is why we love movies like "The Blind Side" or get teary eyed when communities come together to help trapped miners or send aid to places like Haiti.

As Americans, and as people on Earth, we need reminding that we are a part of something bigger. During the financial crisis last year, governments threw money around, bailing out just about any institution that qualified as some sort of bank. It is time now to bail out our imaginations and the human spirit. Returning to the Moon, or a similarly ambitious journey, is the first step.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Alan Shepherd's Corvette

If you were a boy growing up in the 1960s you may have idolized NFL quarterbacks like Johnny Unitas or Joe Namath, or baseball players like Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. But the true superstars of that era, and the heroes everyone admired, were astronauts.

Much has been said about the 1960s. Vietnam. Hippies. Woodstock. But to my eyes, one of the most remarkable achievements of human kind was landing a man on the moon. As Neil Armstrong said, it "was one small step for man, one giant step for mankind."

You'd have to go back to 1492 to find a similar achievement, when Columbus discovered the New World.

In that day, astronauts were larger than life but they were also true American heroes. They were looking up to. And they all drove Corvettes, which were also larger than life. I was reminded of that, when I saw Alan Shepherd's Corvette in the Apollo Exhibit at Kennedy Space Center. The simple fact is, I cannot look at a mid 1960s Stingray, or a 1968 model like Alan Shepherd's without thinking of the Apollo Program and the moon landings.

The Corvette lost its way for a time, but is back better than ever. Recently Jeremy Clarkson, who hosts "Top Gear" rated it as one of his favorite cars. High praise for someone who regards Americans as fat, stupid sheep.

NASA and the space program has also lost its way recently, with the end of the shuttle program and the demise of Project Orion. I can only hope they too return better than ever someday. And again, larger than life.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Shuttle Launch

Last Monday, I had the opportunity to watch the Space Shuttle Discovery takeoff from the Kennedy Space Center, with my son and father-in-law. It was a special treat. Words cannot describe the thunder of the rockets, a sound that can be heard from as far away as Orlando. From just a few miles, it was like being pushed back by a wall of sound. Amazing.

Discovery lifted off at6:21 AM and created an artificial sunrise. Unfortunately this is one of the last times we'll see this sight and hear the tremendous sound, because come October, the shuttle program will be history.

As a fifth grader, I watched the first shuttle, Columbia, launch and return to earth. Back then it was a nationwide event. Twenty nine years have passed since that time and the launches have become routine. People regard the shuttle as little more than a truck service into outer space.

It's unfortunate the program is ending with nothing to replace it. There was a similar lull after the Apollo program ended in the 1970s. Like that lull, I hope this one is temporary and more exciting things are yet to come.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Top 10 Signs You Might Be a Car Nut

David Letterman's ratings took a beating last week when Jay Leno has bullied his way back into the late night battle. So in Dave's honor, I thought I'd come up with my own Top 10--Signs You Might Be a Car Nut:

10. When your doctor asks your blood type you reply, "30 weight non-synthetic".
9. You name one of your kids Porsche.
8. You have owned more than one car a year.
7. You suffered through the winter driving a convertible with a missing back window and no heat because you thought spring was just around the corner.
6. You can quote whole passages of you car's Chilton or Haynes shop manual from memory.
5. The sound of a V8 or V12 does the same thing to you as Viagra.
4. You are annoyed with the pretty girls at the auto show because they are blocking the view.
3. You know the differences between a Series I and Series II Jaguar E-Type because they are so obvious.
2. If you weren't married you would have a garage with a house attached, instead of the other way around.
1. You own or want a t-shirt that says, "I am the Stig."

Friday, March 5, 2010

Miata Mania

Yesterday was the first day above fifty degrees in three months. As a result, Miatas were out in full force.

I've never been a huge fan of Miatas, but this year they really appeal to me. In the spring, I get an itch to buy a convertible, like an old MGB. But there's a lot to be said for the Miata, which is a modern interpretation. And unlike the MG, the Miata is dead reliable and cheaper to own. You can find a good used one for less than five grand--about half the price of a nice MG.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Tale of Two Porsches

The Porsche 911 is an icon. There is no debate, it is the Mona Lisa of cars. Far from perfect, it has stood the test of time, much in the same way as Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather movies. But there is always some debate about it being the best sports car ever.

I would even argue it's not the best Porsche.

Thirty years before Porsche committed blasphemy by introducing the Cayenne, a V8 powered SUV, they introduced the world to the 928, a front engined, water cooled, V8 powered GT. Then they had the audacity to call it the replacement for the 911. The motor press and Porsche purists called it an abomination, saying it was Germany's answer to the Corvette.

If you look at cars developed in the 1970s you will realize the conventional wisdom of the time was to move away from pure sports cars towards GTs. Jaguar had already done this, replacing the E-Type with the XJ-S. The Chevrolet Corvette became longer and more cushy during this era and the Datsun Z even grew back seats. The venerable 911 was thirteen years old when the 928 was introduced and it seemed obvious that it was nearing the end of the road.

If you look at the 928 through this prism, you will see it makes perfect sense. Porsche didn't just create a vehicle to fill a need, they engineered a masterpiece. The 928 is a technical marvel, far ahead of its time. Name me another car from that era with supercar performance, all day comfort and practicality, and room for four average size people in a pinch.

To use the Coppola analogy, the 928 is the Apocalypse Now of cars. Comparing it to the 911 would be like comparing Apocalypse to the Godfather. It's just not possible. But if you compare the 928 against its contemporary rivals, you will see it was simply the best GT of its time.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Cheap Supercars - Ferrari Testarossa

Today I was browsing Ebay, looking at some of my favorite cars, when I stumbled across a handful of Ferrari Testarossas and saw this fact:


Fifty grand. For less than the price of a new Porsche Boxster or even a Corvette, you can buy the ultimate 1980s supercar. Sonny Crockett could afford to buy his undercover car on his cop's salary, providing he was still living rent free on his boat.

If I had $60 grand to spend on a car, and could chose between a new BMW M3, Jaguar XF, or Kia Rio, I'd take the Kia and use the leftover money for the Testarossa. I'd gladly drive the Kia every day for the rest of my driving life, if I had a Ferrari lurking in my garage for occasional weekend use.

My other favorite Ferrari, the 1968-74 365GTB Daytona, sells for six times the market price of a Testarossa. I don't get it. The Testarossa is twice the car. It's faster, handles better, and is equally iconic.

In college, I worked for Mario's Italian restaurant. One quiet Sunday, a customer showed up in a red Testarossa. To a non-car person, a Daytona or many of today's Ferrari's might have only received a second glance. The Testarossa was like a UFO that landed at a strip mall in suburban Kansas. And in an instant, it transformed a quiet, warm Sunday in June into a rare moment.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Toyota - Then Again Maybe Not

Looks like I spoke too soon on Toyota. It appears the fix to their problems may require more than a metal shim. There may be problems with the drive by wire and braking software, which is a lot more complicated than a piece of metal.

Still, I have to question the driving skill of people who experience the issue. Why can't they just put the car in neutral? Or as a very last resort, turn off the car and use the emergency brake? What other distractions are going on in the car when the issue occurs?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Toyota Gets It

Yesterday, Toyota announced it had a fix for the sudden acceleration problem that affected most of the cars in its lineup. The fix, adding a shim to the pedal assembly, is simple but effective and was quickly approved and implemented.

Yet Toyota is still being blasted in the media for not responding quick enough to the problem. I disagree. The problems began occurring less than a year ago and it took a while to determine if they were related to driver error or an actual defect. When the defect was identified, Toyota was very forthcoming about it and moved quickly to implement changes. They did not try to cover the problem up, ala Ford with their exploding Pintos. Instead they announced they were shutting down their assembly lines, implementing changes and moving forward. Everything happened very quickly, considering the number of cars potentially effected.

Kudos to Toyota for getting it right.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Best Snow Car I Ever Owned

The best snow car I ever owned was a 1990 VW Fox. I don't know if it was the narrow 155 x 75R 13 inch tires, light weight, or ground clearance but it would power through a foot of snow with no trouble.

That's not to say it was the best car I ever owned. The car was made out of leftover parts from a mid 80s Audi and the reliability was suspect. It had more personality quirks than Woody Allen.

To it's credit, it did fit me, three of my friends, and camping gear for a spring break trip to Florida. I learned about its snow prowess on that trip, when we got snowed in just north of the Georgia border. Overall it was a good car--cheap, simple and fun to drive.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Colin's First Pinewood Derby

My son Colin had his first pinewood derby today and won the award for Most Artistic Car. Colin designed the car himself and did most of the work. His car was competitive and got faster as the day went on.

Colin was disappointed he didn't win, but I couldn't be more proud.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Who Killed the Diesel Car?

In 2006, an independent film called “Who Killed the Electric Car?” explored the demise of the electric car industry in the United States. Just over three years later, it appears the electric car has more lives than a cat. Not only is there a thriving cottage industry for electric cars and electric car conversions, but several major car companies plan to roll out electric cars in the next three years as well.

On the other hand, diesel powered cars are being killed. Nissan, Toyota, GM, Ford, and Chrysler have all scaled back their plans to produce diesel versions of several popular cars and trucks, or canceled them outright. Only ze Germans—BMW, Mercedes and Volkswagen plan to expand their diesel lineups in the coming months. Germany, if you recall, perfected diesel technology almost a hundred years ago and had diesel-electric hybrids as early as 1915. They were called u-boats.

Diesel is popular in Europe, and I don’t know why it hasn’t caught on in a truck crazy country like the US. The latest batch of diesels offer good performance and get 30-50% better mileage than their gasoline powered counterparts. Diesel versions of the Ford Fiesta and VW Polo routinely get 60-70 mpg in Europe, which is the kind of mileage makes hyper-milers giddy and turns already green Prius owners black with envy.

There is an urban legend about a man who tried to commit suicide by running his new diesel while sitting in the garage. According to the myth, he woke up after a couple of hours feeling refreshed because the tailpipe emissions from his car were actually cleaner than the outside air. I doubt this story is true, but the latest diesels do even meet California’s tough emissions standards.

In “Who Killed the Electric Car,” the demise of GM’s EV1 electric car program was partly blamed on the ignorance of consumers who were largely unaware such a vehicle existed. I suspect the same is also becoming true of the diesel.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Best Cars for Snow

My friend Jody, who writes a blog called the AgrOpinion, likes to challenge me with car questions. Recently she asked me what I thought was the best snow car.

In most cases, it would have to be something with all wheel drive or AWD. All wheel drive is different than traditional four wheel drive because all four wheels are always connected to the drivetrain by a fluid-filled center differential. Traditional four wheel drive is a part-time system with a mechanical differential. In two wheel drive mode, only two wheels, typically the rear ones, are connected to the drivetrain. When you encounter slippery conditions, like snow, mud or sand, you can shift into four wheel drive and all four wheels will receive power. The traditional four wheel drive vehicle has more capability for traveling off road, or through deep snow, and are useful for people who live in places called Beaver Camp . But for people who live in suburbia, whose offroad excursions are limited to a snowdrift at the local shopping mall, AWD is the better choice.

Why? The reason is simple--four wheel drive can only be used in slippery conditions. AWD can be driven in any condition and is especially useful for roads that alternate from dry, to wet, to snow packed and back to dry. These conditions describe most of the road conditions in the Midwest this week, even with the record snow and cold temperatures.

There are a number of AWD vehicles on the market. Some are SUVs like the Honda CRV or Ford Flex. Some are normal looking cars made by everyone from Ford and Toyota to premium cars like Audi or Mercedes Benz. There are even high performance sports cars like the Porsche 911 and Lamborghini Gallardo which offer AWD. But my favorite AWD cars are made by a pair of quirky, offbeat car makers called Subaru and Suzuki. It used to be Subarus were only driven by Vermont college professors and Maine housewives who shopped at LL Bean, but anyone who has spent time in a Honda will feel at home in a new Legacy or Outback. Mention Suzuki, and people think "motorcycle" or "that jeep-thingy that flips over" but they make a great small wagon called the SX4, which you can buy new for under $18K.

My personal choice would be the Subaru Legacy GT, with either the 2.5 liter turbocharged engine or the 3.0 V6. It offers AWD with enough performance and creature comfort to make a BMW jealous, and looks that won't make you cringe.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Toyota in Trouble

Last fall Toyota issued a recall to fix issues related to unintended acceleration on a majority of their cars and light trucks. The problem could have ballooned into the one that almost destroyed Audi twenty years ago. But instead of mechanical problems, faulty engineering, or demonic possession, the fault was attributed to floormats.

At about the same time, it was announced that Toyota is losing market share and posted quarterly losses--not to the level of GM, which Toyota eclipsed last year as the world's largest car manufacturer, but surprising all the same. More recently Toyota has announced they will begin cutting costs by lowering product content and using cheaper suppliers.

Uh oh.

We've seen this before with GM, Ford and Chrysler. And if Toyota follows the Big Three's model for making cheap cars and offering generous rebates, they too will be in trouble.