Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The $15,000 Question: Chevy Malibu

Most of the cars I've mentioned as part of the $15,000 Question series have had some semblance of practicality, but were geared more towards the enthusiast on a budget.  The Chevy Malibu is not one of those cars.  It falls on the practical side of the equation without any real sporting pretense.

90% of the car buying public are not car enthusiasts, or at least not rabid fanboys that squawk about things like the virtues of Porsche's PDK vs. BMW's SMG from the comfort of their mother's basements.  No, the average person thinks about what they need for the drive to work and to haul kids around on weekends.  They think about cup holders and bun warmers more than engine displacement and 0-60 times.  And at the end of a long day at work, full of emails, meetings, bad coffee, and eating at their desks, the average person wants a little serenity on their drive home.

It's the reason why Lexus has sold so well and why the Malibu makes perfect sense.

I'm not saying the Malibu is as good as a Lexus.  But it is very, very good at its intended mission.  It's very quiet, comfortable, loaded with features and has the best balance of ride and handling of any car in its class.  It's quieter than a Nissan Altima and doesn't float like a Toyota Camry.  It's also well made.  The doors close with a solid thunk and the interior is as nice as anything in its class.  Some might find the stereo and HVAC controls simplistic, but they are uncluttered, unlike the myriad of buttons on the Honda Accord's center stack.

Ten years ago, the thought of owning a Chevy Malibu, or any GM car, was laughable to anyone who had a Camry or Accord at the time.  Now it's not.  There was a time when Chevrolet made good family cars, when owning a Bel Air, Impala, or Malibu was something you could take pride in.  Some would argue that Chevy has not made a car like that since we landed a man on the Moon.  But I would argue Chevy has in the form of the 2008 and newer Malibu.            

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Ford Probe

ford probe lx

This car was supposed to be the 1989 Ford Mustang.  But when word got out that the Mustang would move to a front wheel drive Mazda platform, the public freaked.  The backlash was so severe Ford hastily updated the Mustang and instead launched this car as the Probe.

File:1993 Ford Probe GT.jpg

The second generation car was introduced in 1993 and built on the model's success.  After Ford ditched the 3.0 liter Vulcan V6 for an early version of the 24 valve Duratec V6, performance improved as well.  As a result of these changes, the Probe won a number of accolades from the automotive press, including Motor Trend's Car of the Year.    

I've driven a number of Ford Probes over the years, from the base GL model to the turbo and V6 GT models.  They were all remarkable cars with a good mix of handling, power, and economy.  I'd have taken a Probe over just about any car in that segment, except for maybe the Acura Integra or Mitsubishi Eclipse.


Ironically, the launch of the 1994 Mustang was the death knell for the Probe.  Sales dwindled from 120,000 sold in 1993 to just 16,000 by 1997.  Overall, I think it was a good car with a bad name.  Style wise it's held up better than MC Hammer and a lot of other things from the early 1990's, including parachute pants and mullets.      

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

$15,000 Question: Mercedes W126 S-Class

Sheila E sang about a girl with "big thoughts, big dreams, and a big, brown Mercedes sedan" in the "Glamorous Life".  Given the mid-80's time period, that car had to be the Mercedes W126 S-Class.

File:500 SEL W126 2.jpg

Built from 1980 to 1991, the W126 was the status symbol you had to drive if you were wealthy.  It didn't matter if you were nouveau riche or old money, this was the car you owned.  But it was not just a hollow icon.  The W126 pioneered many safety and technological features we take for granted today, like anti-lock brakes, traction control, and air bags.  For comfort, you could also order an automated climate control and heated seats.

In the U.S. the Mercedes W126 cemented Mercedes' reputation as a builder of some of the safest, most durable cars.  Even 20 years later, many of these cars are still on the road and can be purchased for under $15,000 in pristine condition.  Like any old car, repairs can be expensive.  But unlike many old cars, Mercedes parts a usually readily available and can be ordered from the factory.

Either way, it's still the car to own, if you want to impersonate a Beverly Hills dentist or drug dealer.

Friday, October 18, 2013

When to Say Goodbye to a Car

I've owned cars that I couldn't get rid of fast enough.  There was the 1973 VW Thing which had the speed and weather protection of a Conestoga wagon; a Porsche 924 with a failing clutch; and a tan 1997 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme...  Just because it was a tan Oldsmobile.  Each time, I had some regret selling the car for sentimental reasons.  But in all those cases, I knew it was time to say goodbye for practical reasons or because I had a more favorable option.  Usually both.  

Now it seems I'm again reaching the time to make that choice.  My 1999 Nissan Pathfinder, a truck that my wife and I have owned for over 11 years, is starting to break down in ways that make me question its reliability.  Normally I would just keep driving it until it died and then take the plates off it.  However, since my wife uses it to commute to the airport twice a month, where it sits for 4-5 days, I need a reliable car.

But at what point do I say goodbye to the Pathfinder?  It's a question that nags at me for two reasons:  First, it's an honest, capable SUV that's been a solid, reliable workhorse.  It has a real 4x4 transfer case with a mechanical linkage connected to both hi and lo drive ranges.  I've used it for camping, hauling lumber and tile, the occasional lawnmower, and even stuff to the dump or the Salvation Army.  Not that I really need all of the Pathfinder's capabilities, but it's nice having an old truck around when you need to just throw some stuff in the back of it and go.

The other reason is sentimental.  It's the first car my wife and I bought together.  Our son was two months old at the time and we were looking for more reliable transportation to replace Nicole's old Bronco II.  (Yes, there seems to be a pattern here...)  Over the years since then, we've taken the Pathfinder on trips to Iowa and all over Kansas and Missouri, racking up 140K miles in the process.  Through all that time it's been a reliable, faithful companion requiring nothing more than gas and occasional maintenance.

Until about three months ago...

The first sign of trouble was when the Pathfinder refused to start in my driveway.  It was towed to a local repair shop which discovered that the electronic ignition had failed.  Now lately it's been sputtering and losing power on the highway.  And in addition to whatever is causing that problem, I know I'm due for another round of tires, bakes, a transmission fluid service, and possibly new struts.  Added up, I have a nice down payment on a newer car.

To me, the time to say goodbye to a car is when the cost of repairs, other than routine maintenance, adds up to more than the value of the car.  Or when you know that the next $800 repair bill won't be your last and that you're about to spend more over the next year at the mechanic than you would making car payments.

I don't think I'm there yet--close--but not yet.  Besides, I'm doing yard work this weekend and have some home improvement project coming up, so I'll need an old truck to haul mulch/rock/lumber and miscellaneous supplies.      

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The $15,000 Question: Fiat 500

There used to be a running joke that Fiat stood for "Fix It Again, Tony".  While the joke would certainly apply to Fiats imported to the US during the 1970's, the new 500 appears to be relatively trouble free.  Now if you're looking for a healthy dose of Italian style in an affordable small package, the 500 may be hard to beat.

The original 500 was the four wheel equivalent of a moka pot--small, simple, well packaged with lots of style.  And there are similarities between the "neuvo" Fiat 500 and the moka pot as well.  Besides the style, the new 500 goes from 0-60 in about the same time it takes to brew a cup of espresso.  But while the 500 is hardly fast, it is cheerful and driving one can perk you up like a good cappuccino.  

Inside the car is simple, but nicely styled.  It's also retro like a Vespa scooter.  Unlike the Mini Cooper, the dashboard seems to flow better and is more functional.  Also unlike the Mini, the back seat is actually habitable for full sized adults.  It's not much better than sitting in coach on an airplane, but you don't have your knees in your face.

Perhaps the biggest problem for the Fiat 500 is that it seems to be trying to hard.  It's likable, somewhat fun to drive, and gets good gas mileage, but it comes across like the Volkswagen New Beetle.  In a few years it will look dated and be largely overlooked.

I wish they would of done a modern interpretation of the 500, made it look more 21st Century than a throwback to the 1950's.  But if you like classic Italian style and have $15,000 to spend, then the Fiat 500 might be your idea of a Roman Holiday.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Beware of Cyclists

It was a normal Saturday and I was running errands.  Coming to a four way stop that I'd encountered hundreds of times, I stopped,  pulled forward, and almost hit a person on a bicycle.  He skidded and swerved around me and once past my bumper, he turned and yelled, "Watch out, f---ing asshole!"

I am an asshole at times.  I may even be a f---ing asshole at times.  But in this case, the asshole was wearing a bright green jersey and coasting downhill on a Trek road bike.  He was immune to all traffic laws or at least determined that none would ruin his built up kinetic energy.

To be clear, I'm a fan of cycling.  I used to own a Bianchi road bike and follow professional cycling.  As a kid, I spent countless hours on a ten-speed, pedaling around Kansas City.  I still get out on my bike 2-3 times a week to hit the trail near my house and have even considered buying a bike to commute to work.

Just like motorcycles, bicycles belong on the road.  But they must follow the rules.  I know from experience that a lot of motorists don't see cyclists, or crowd and try to intimidate them.  The problem is that cyclists also play their intimidation games or do things that are just plain stupid.  I've seen them weave in and out of stopped traffic, ride between two cars, blow through stop signs and traffic lights, and even grab hold of bumpers to get a free ride.

What it comes down to is this:  If you are driving a car, look out for cyclists.  Give them room and treat them like you would any other vehicle on the road.  And if you are a cyclist, assume you're invisible, ride smart and be on the defensive.  And above all else, follow the rules like you were driving a car and don't be an ass.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

the $15,000 Question: Saab 9-3 and 9-5

"Quirky." "Weird."  "Odd but likeable."  Those descriptions seem to follow me, but they also apply to Saab.  Up until its 2012 demise, Saab was  known for building cars that were decidedly different.  How different?  They used two stroke engines up until the 1970's and the original 900 had its engine installed backwards. 

But if you like different, and have $15,000 to spend, a Saab is not a bad choice.  Saab frequently marketed its cars as "born from jets," a reference to Saab Aerospace and the interiors of Saab cars reflect some of that lineage.  The instrument panel is no-nonsense functional and features a switch to turn off all of the interior lights but the speedometer.

Even under GM's staid corporate umbrella, Saab produced some wild cars like the 9-3 Viggen which came standard with scads of torque-steer and a top speed of 160 MPH.  It's no BMW M3 but it is different and fun to drive.


Think of Saab as the Christopher Walken of cars and you wouldn't be far off. 

Friday, October 4, 2013

A Tale of Two F Bodies

When the Chevrolet Camaro was launched in direct response to the Ford Mustang in 1967, the Pontiac Firebird was its "Me Too" tag-along brother.  But a decade later, as kid brothers often do, The Firebird outgrew the Camaro's shadow.    

By 1977, the Pontiac Firebird/Trans Am was the hot car, partly because of the optional 6.6 liter engine, which was bigger than the motor in the Camaro.  But I suspect the big reason why the Firebird was so popular was because it was featured in "The Rockford Files" and "Smokey and the Bandit".  Burt Reynolds drove a black 1977 Trans Am as the Bandit and the car became legendary.  As a result, just about every Trans AM made after the movie was black with honeycomb wheels and featured the "Flaming Chicken" on the hood.

When the 3rd Generation Camaro and Firebird rolled around, both cars were very successful in the marketplace.  However, Pontiac again won the publicity battle, when a modified Trans Am played the part of K.I.T.T. on "Knight Rider".

After all, does anyone remember AJ's Camaro in "Simon and Simon"?

Eventually the Camaro regained the sales lead, with the debut of the 4th Generation model.  But by 1998, sales had dwindled, so being the sales leader was akin to boasting you were the more handsome of the Menendez brothers.  Eventually both cars were killed off in 2002.

The Camaro returned nine years later, on a new platform and with a vague resemblance to the 1969 model.  Pontiac would have returned with the Trans Am in some form, had GM not shuttered the brand as part of its bankruptcy.

Picking a favorite between the Camaro and Firebird is a matter of personal preference.  Both cars are a good value, offering good looks and performance for a bargain price.  The 1st generation cars have long been considered classics and the 2nd and 3rd generation cars are now becoming collectible as well.

My personal favorites are the 3rd generation cars.  Given the chance, I'd love to own an IROC Camaro or a Trans Am.  But between the two, I have to give the nod to the Trans Am, only because the Bandit and K.I.T.T. captured my imagination as a boy.    

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

$15,000 Question: Ford Mustang

Back in junior high, my friends and I used to hang out at the local QuickTrip and play video games.  We'd save our lunch money or pool nickles and dimes and exchange them for quarters just to play Joust or Dragon's Quest.  Occasionally there was enough money left over for a pack of Now & Laters to split before walking home.  Usually there were one of two managers who worked afternoons at QT.  One was middle aged, sporting a wicked comb-over and generally grumpy towards us kids.  The other was in his early 20's, and to our 13 year old way of thinking, really cool.    

Part of what made him cool was he drove a Mustang, a maroon 1983 GT.

Few cars offer the combination of performance, heritage, and value of the Ford Mustang.  Now entering its 50th model year, the Mustang has been everywhere and owned by a larger cross section of people than just about any car in America.  It is an icon, one you can buy in just about any flavor for $15,000.

File:86 SVO engine bay.jpg

Mustangs come in many varieties--coupes or convertibles, 4 or 6 cylinder economy specials, V8 powered GTs, or performance versions like the Shelby and Mustang SVT Cobra.  There are even several tuner versions of the Mustang built by Saleen and Rousch, which include everything from body kits to fire breathing engines producing 700 horsepower or more.  Ford also built a Mustang SVO in the 1980's, which offered the same level of performance as the 5.0 V8 from a 2.3 liter turbocharged 4 cylinder engine.  The SVO was only made for 2-3 years, but paved the way for other specially tuned, factory Mustangs.

About the only misstep in the Mustang's history was the 1974-78 Mustang II.  Built on a Pinto chassis, the Mustang II was arguably the right car during the OPEC Oil Crisis and sold in record numbers.  But it's largely overlooked today by Mustang enthusiasts and panned by contemporary automobile publications.

My personal favorite Mustang is the Bullitt, a tribute car to the 1968 Steve McQueen movie of the same name.  To me, there's just something right about the understated car in Dark Highland Green paint with Torq Thrust wheels and a rumbling V8.