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.