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.